Category Archives: A Writing Life

Solstice Reflections

We are at another fulcrum point in the year: after the 21st/22nd of December the days will get (infinitesimally) longer. In many traditions, light is brought into the darkest part of the year and it is a time for reflection. Personally, about the only aspect I do enjoy of the modern frenetic/consumerist Christmas, is the lights which twinkle out even as the day dissolves into evening around mid-afternoon.

2021 has not been an easy year for any of us – and much tougher for some than for me, certainly. However, it is perhaps worth considering some of the things which have kept me going: love, friendship, swimming, yoga, walking, reading and, of course, creativity.

2021 saw the publication of my first novel brought out by a traditional publisher: A Wake of Crows (A Wake of Crows by Kate Evans | Hachette UK (littlebrown.co.uk). Literally a life-long ambition. This is grounds for great joy and satisfaction. And things roll on from this: an audio book (which I still haven’t been brave enough to listen to); a large print; copies in libraries; my appearance at a literature festival; the paperback appearing next April. Sweet.

My second novel in the series, Drowning Not Waving, has been accepted by editorial and is now going through the process of copy editing, proof reading and production. It should be out next June.

The making of Drowning Not Waving has not been exactly smooth. It was a story I wrote when I did a course with Curtis Brown in 2017. It has been re-written several times since. And at the beginning of 2021 I started on the final re-construction: changing the main protagonist to Donna Morris; changing the other point of view character to help with plot issues; and strengthening the environmental theme.

Perhaps it is because of the amount of re-writing and re-configuring which has gone on that I have found getting feedback from editorial and the copy editor more sticky than usual. Still, deep breath, I think I have ended up with a good novel, despite it being a bit of a messy ‘breech birth.’

As a member of the Poetry Books Society (The book club for poetry lovers. (poetrybooks.co.uk), I have enjoyed discovering new poets this year. And with many literary events and workshops going on-line, I have been able to participate in them more than usual.

The most recent has been Radio 4’s ‘Bookclub’ discussion of Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, (due for transmission on 2nd of January 2022). Who knows if I will make the final edit, but it was great fun being involved. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to tell the presenter, Jim Naughtie, that I was there at his debut on radio. I was the production assistant for the ‘Week in Westminster’, where he first got on air. I doubt he would have remembered me: the typer of the script and the bringer of tea.

This year, I have also once again kept up with my monthly collages. Some technically better than others, but all a pleasure to realise.

As the year ‘turns’ and we move into a new year, I send warmest wishes to my readers. I hope 2022 will be easier for everyone and a creative year for all.

The Writing Process: Turning Up

I am not the first person to say that one of the most essential things for becoming/being a writer is to turn up. Of course, there are other factors like: reading; cultivating the creative process; finding support; getting feedback. But in the end, unless we are there with pen in hand or fingertip to keyboard, we won’t be writing. It is not something which can be done in theory.

In general, I would suggest what gets in the way of ‘turning up’ can be separated into two categories:

(1) External pressures.
(2) Internal scripts.

I have been lucky not to fall prey to (1) too often. When I did paid work full-time, I wrote in the evening and at the weekend. I have (selfishly, some might say) never felt responsible for feeding/clothing/entertaining another nor for cleaning the house/tidying the garden. I have never had to negotiate a ‘room of my own’ and time and space to write. However, if you want to write, then this negotiation – with self or others – has to take place.

On the other hand, my internal scripts can pull me up short. They are often along the lines of ‘I am not good enough’ and ‘this is a waste of time’. Ten years of therapy has helped and the support of writing friends. Plus writing around these internal scripts, playing with them, having a dialogue with them can also be beneficial. I would be amazed if there was a writer alive who did not have to wrestle with some internal scripts, so acceptance that it is part of the process can also be useful.

Stepping Away
As well as turning up, I have found stepping away valuable. My creative process works best with bursts of writing (60 to 90 minutes) followed by some kind of exercise. I walk, swim (pool or sea), do yoga or cycle. And then come back to the writing with renewed vigour and fresh ideas.

I think, perhaps, some writers find themselves blocked because they haven’t worked out when they need to step away. However, it is also important to recognise when the ‘stepping away’ is an avoidance or a distraction rather than a refuelling. The clue will be that you are not getting any writing done at all.

What is it about movement and the creative process? Over centuries, a division has occurred between what has been designated ‘the mind’ and ‘the body’. This wrong step is slowly being re-examined with research around holistic medical approaches, and around thoughts/feelings originating in the body to be interpreted by the mind.

It becomes complex exploring this without falling into the dualistic trap. But basically, we are one organism. When we are writing, it might feel as if the creativity is coming from our head and our body is merely the mechanism by which the words reach paper or screen. However, I (and others) do not believe this to be true.

Our head and body work as one system – complementing and informing each other. The creativity swishes around like blood circulating. If we become too static, sat at a desk or scrunched in a chair, only our hands shifting, then the dissemination gets blocked. It is only in getting up and moving that we can release it again.

Creative Process
We all have our own creative rhythms. Be sensitive to them. Notice them. Encourage them. Working out what they might be and working with them will aid us to be the writer we want to be.

Sea Swimming by Kate Evans (mix media/collage: acrylics; felt tip; paper) November 2021

The Art of Remembering

On Saturday the 16th of October, I will be appearing on a panel at the East Riding Festival of Words – East Coast Crime (festivalofwords.co.uk). My first public outing with my novel A Wake of Crows, published by Constable/Little Brown.

A Wake of Crows has a back story which dips into the history of the former GDR (East Germany). I have wanted to write about the GDR for some time because of a long term friendship I have with a woman from Dresden and because of visits to that city and Berlin in the 1980s and after. One thing I noticed soon after the Berlin Wall came down was that the years of communism were being glazed over. Especially in Dresden where it was like the history of the city jumped from Baroque glory to the present day. This is changing somewhat particularly in Berlin. When I was last there, a park was being built up around remnants of the wall and oral histories of the communist period.

However, I do think as humans we are good at forgetting.

Recently I have been reading various books exploring racism to help me examine my part in it. The one I am currently on with is Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch. She brings into sharp focus how racism is experienced by Black people in the UK and how white people in the UK have not even attempted to understand our history of slavery, prejudice and denigrating those who have been ‘othered’ and exploited because of the colour of their skin. We white people want to forget, because it is easier to do so. As Hirsch writes: ‘We want to be post-racial, without having ever admitted how racial a society we have been.’ (P125.)

Non-remembering is easier, but it means nothing changes.

There is a danger that the true visceral horror of the pandemic is being lost in the sprint to ‘get back to normal’. Plus, that the trauma and mistakes are not going to be springboards for a better way of doing things. We lurch, it seems to me, from one crises to another without any real vision. And we fall into the trap of silo-ing issues. An item on the news about climate change is quickly followed by another on ‘growth’ or holiday flights or problems with fuel deliveries. No link is made. No pause is taken to say, well maybe, because of climate change, we should be looking at things differently.

I certainly do not have any answers. But as a writer, I do think I have a role in keeping the collective memory alive. I have a role in pointing and saying, ‘There look’, even when it’s uncomfortable and upsetting. This is what I attempt to do, in a very small way, in my writing in general as well as in my novels.

Strange Meeting

I am sometimes asked: where do you get your ideas from? My response is: everywhere. To be creative, all we have to do is open up our bodies and our minds. Feast our eyes, our ears, our nose on the world around us, stick out our tongues to taste the day, be curious, reach and touch the varied textures (Covid restrictions may apply).

I was very happy to learn, therefore, that one of Britain’s greatest dead poets, Wilfred Owen, was also stirred by his environment, the town I now call home.

When I moved to Scarborough eighteen years ago, I found out that Wilfred Owen had been here just before he was sent back to the front near the end of World War One. In late 1917/early 1918 he was billeted at the Clarence Gardens Hotel, now the Clifton Hotel, on North Bay. Several years ago, I heard a talk by Dr Paul Elsam and John Oxley MBE FSA in which they discussed how this sojourn had fed into Owen’s poetry. I was overjoyed to find this talk expanded into six podcasts for the recent Big Ideas By the Sea festival. Each podcast takes a poem and explores the links with Scarborough. The series is accompanied by an art installation at the railway station.

https://bigideasbythesea.com/festival/index.php/wilfredowen

Art installation at Scarborough railway station by Kane Cunningham, Ben Cunningham & Dr Paul Elsam.
Window based on the poem, The Calls. Photo by Mark Vesey. July 2021.

I have always said graveyards are a great resource for writers. Half told stories adorn every grave, demanding: ‘What happened here?’ And ‘What if?’ In the current novel I am working on, Drowning Not Waving, DC Donna Morris walks through Dean Road cemetery, the dedications to fisherman giving her a new perspective on her investigation. The paths she walks, I have walked dozens of times. And, according to the podcast on the poem Strange Meeting, so did Wilfred Owen. He stood in front of a memorial which has always intrigued me and, perhaps, like me, it got him wondering.

Photo by Kate Evans, July 2021

I was very glad the podcast on the poem The Calls explained the background to it, as, at first, I was not taken by it. However, as I sit overlooking the South Bay, it comes back to me and I write.

The Calls, 25th July 2021
The drone of the speed boat.
The excited prattling of the children paddling.
A man arguing into his mobile phone.
The (not quite) silent beat of the wing of a seagull gliding in to grab.

A winter visitor in 1918,
he would not have noted these.
Yet, a hundred or so years apart,
we can share the shush-shus-shush-shoosh —
the inexorably incoming tide.

Both Wilfred Owen and I have been inspired by Scarborough. Now his words have stimulated mine. That’s how writers roll, moved by our surroundings, but further stirred by the language of others who have also been inspired in this way. A never ending process, whirling on and on.

Now I invite you, dear reader, to use this blog post as a portal to the Wilfred Owen in Scarborough podcasts:

https://bigideasbythesea.com/festival/index.php/wilfredowen/

If you love reading or writing poetry or stories, I can guarantee you will find them fascinating.

A Writer’s Life: Publication Day

When I was nineteen, I completed writing my first novel (on a typewriter – not even an electric one). As I started to send it out to agents, I knew exactly what my book launch would be like. It would be in a crowded bookstore. I would confidently do my reading before answering questions and signing the many books I was going to sell.

As time passed, I had some pieces published and writing sometimes came into my work, however, I did not secure the dreamed-of contract for my novels which I was searching for. I can’t say publication became less important, it is just that the writing became more important. Through the years, writing has developed into a passion; a support; a way to understand myself and the world better; and a friend.

Scroll forwards thirty-seven years, and I finally have a contract with a traditional publisher, Constable/Little Brown, to write three crime novels based in Scarborough. The first, A Wake of Crows, was published on the 3rd of June 2021. And the question I kept being asked was, what about a launch?

My editor explained that the main promotion would be done around the paperback coming out next year. Plus, well, we live in a Covid-world, so the idea of organising anything seems complex. Yet, I did not want this landmark in what I could loosely call my writing career pass without celebration. So I positioned myself in one of Scarborough’s many green spaces (one which helpfully has a refreshments van that serves vegan hot chocolate) and invited friends to pass by if they could. Some did and many others sent lovely supportive messages. It was very special.

There is a mix of emotions with any ‘birth’ of a creative piece. I remain excited and proud. Though I have not been able to actually open my book (in case my eye falls on a sentence I could have written better) I enjoy holding it, feeling the weight of it and admiring the cover.

The other week I spent several days camping by Coniston Water.

I visited the Ruskin Museum (a treasure trove of stories for any writer): Ruskin Museum – Telling the Story of Coniston Since 1901 It has a section on Donald Campbell. He appears to have been a driven man (no pun intended). Once he achieved one speed record, he was onto the next (even though he had no rivals snapping at his heels). I did wonder if publication by a traditional publisher would somehow be ‘not enough’ after all these years of pushing for it. The good news is that I feel content at reaching this particular milestone. I may not have had the launch I envisaged in my teens – all red carpet (tiaras optional) – but it has very much lived up to, and survived, my expectations.

A Wake of Crows is available as an ebook, as an audiobook and as a hardback from all the usual outlets (online or terrestrial). The paperback will be out in 2022. As will the second in the series, currently entitled Drowning Not Waving.

Writer’s toolkit: editing

This last weekend, here in this small corner of the North Yorkshire coast we were experiencing wintery snow flurries and spring sunshine. Occasionally at the same time. As the plants and trees begin to unfurl, so we are stretching out of the most recent Covid pandemic lockdown. I greet this with a mix of excitement and anxiety. If I can remember back to the me of thirteen months ago, I think I pretty much knew and could accept the uncertainties and concerns I lived with. Now there is a skip-load more to contend with. But there is no doubt I want to take off, be with people, see new places. As with the weather, it is a duality I imagine many are experiencing.

Meanwhile, I am getting closer to the publication of my first novel for Constable/Little Brown, A Wake of Crows, due out on the 3rd of June. Once again there is eagerness mixed with nerves.

Quoted in the Daily Record, author of Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh, talked about when he has a new book coming out and ‘That horrible fear of social embarrassment that my mum’s going to read it, my friends are going to read it, my girlfriend’s going to read it. I think you have to have that sense that you’re going to be humiliated and dragged through the streets on stocks with rotten tomatoes being thrown at me. If you don’t have that it’s not going to work. You have to be incredibly uncomfortable and feel you’re going to die of social embarrassment when you put a book out otherwise it’s not going to work.’ (Online article 11th April 2021.)

It’s not entirely clear what the ‘it’ is in ‘it’s not going to work’. However, I have taken the meaning to be that unless you feel uncomfortable about your work going out there, you have not pushed it to the edge, you have not taken risks, you are not revealing something important about yourself or society (or both). I am, therefore, welcoming in the trepidation. I am sticking my head up like the crocuses and daffodils and, I guess, there is the possibility of being trampled on.

However, one of the things which is keeping me giddy is that this bookshop: Home | Goldsboro Books has asked for 50 signed copies!

Meanwhile, I am also editing my second novel in the DC Donna Morris series, Drowning Not Waving. All writers are different. I love the blank page and the first draft when it feels like anything goes. I know others dread it. I find the next stage of re-drafting and editing more difficult, whereas others relish it. For me, what makes it troublesome is that the reader comes into the picture.

Editing a piece of work is another step in the creative process and here are some interesting pointers: How to edit a novel – working on the big picture … – Curtis Brown Creative

However, some of Anna Davis’s advice does not entirely fit with me. It might be semantics, but it feels more like the drafting rather than the editing stage. I am quite happy to work non-sequentially in the drafting process, but when it comes to this editing stage, the main thing I need to know is that it works sequentially. It is in the drafting process that I am experimental and trying things out. Once I am editing, it is about the totality, it is about the audience.

writer at work june 15 001

Here is what I do. I put away what I have written for at least two weeks. I then attempt to come back to it with new eyes, with a reader’s eyes. I re-read the work (printed out) over several days. It has to be slowly enough for me to really pay attention. It has to be quickly enough for me to keep the whole narrative clearly in mind. I am making sure that it makes sense, of course, that the shape succeeds in terms of it sustaining pace and suspense. I know what my weaknesses in writing are, and I keep a check-list of them to ensure I am always alert to them. I am also reminding myself (as per my previous blog post on dialogue: Writer’s toolkit: dialogue | Scarborough Mysteries) I will want to read my novel out loud at some point.

Though I can read fiction while writing the first draft, at this point, I have to keep to non-fiction or I get too confused.

Drowning Not Waving has quite a history. First devised for a course I took with Curtis Brown 2016-2017, I got it to a point where I was able to send it to agents and publishers. When Constable/Little Brown took it on, we agreed I would introduce my DC Donna Morris character with a different story, A Wake of Crows. Drowning Not Waving would become the second in the series. This has already meant substantial re-writing, including changing both point-of-view characters, even to get it to this stage.

I am now at the point when I need some reaction to what I am writing. I could spend a lot of time re-writing and editing without actually being certain whether what I am creating is communicating at all. There’s a ‘golden’ moment for garnering critiques. It has to be far enough along for your embryonic notions to be sufficiently robust to stand up to what others might say; but not too far into the writing that you have invested too much to change anything. Once I am through this re-read and re-write, I will send it to my editor and her assistant for comments. Whatever we are writing, feedback from trusted others, is a crucial part of the creative process.

Writer’s toolkit: dialogue

The other week I received an email from Constable/Little Brown, who are publishing my series of crime novels based in Scarborough. The first one, A Wake of Crows, is due out on the 3rd of June this year. A Wake of Crows by Kate Evans | Hachette UK (littlebrown.co.uk) The email was to tell me that my novel will also be available as an audiobook. I am giddy with excitement.

With the email came extracts of my novel being read by two actors, so I could give my opinion. I have to say, it was unnerving to hear my words – so long only in my head – being spoken by someone else. Some of the characters sounded exactly as I had imagined them, others not so much. It was a bizarre experience.

Having my characters given ‘voice’ by someone else, brought me to thinking about writing dialogue.

Conversations with a barnacled man (Another Place by Antony Gormley, photo by Mark Vesey 2015)

In recent times, I have noticed a penchant amongst writers for direct speech in novels. Being a bit of a fan of indirect (or reported) speech in stories, I thought I might test the waters. In a completely unscientific poll on Facebook, I asked what other writers/readers thought. The overwhelming majority who responded said direct speech is the best. The main reasons given were it helps build the character voice and it gives pace.

The problem is, I still find pages and pages of direct speech dull. I think it actually slows down the pace because of this. Therefore, my first nugget of advice is get to love writing a mix of direct and indirect speech. Reported speech can still capture a character’s syntax and dropping in a phrase or two of direct speech can really focus the reader’s mind in on what is crucial. Useful in a crime novel, where the rule is ‘clues in plain sight’.

All writers should have big ears. Listen, listen, listen. Have a notebook at the ready to capture how people around you speak. Not only the words they use, but the rhythm and the pauses. Characters who come from a particular place and/or background, how would they speak? Research using the internet, if you can’t find a real person to ask. Don’t go for the cliché, but try and find the little something which distinguishes their turn of phrase.

Conversation Piece by Juan Munoz, South Shields. Photo by Mark Vesey.

When writing a dialogue, dive straight into it. In drafts, you may have to write about how the characters get together, about their initial small talk, but in later drafts, ask yourself, do I need all this? Edit, edit until you get to the bones of what the two people have to say to each other.

In real life, conversation has lots of purposes, one is to build relationships and help us to feel that we belong. This is why much of what we say is relatively superfluous to the action of our lives. In a novel, dialogue is a driver – for character building, for tension, for plot. If it’s not serving this function, then cut it or summarise it. Yes, when characters are getting to know each other, they may talk about all sorts of things, but the reader doesn’t need to know the detail.

We rarely speak in sentences. Dialogue should reflect this. The more taut the situation, the more jagged the dialogue. Short, unfinished phrases. Jumping from one speaker to the other. And don’t forget that body language forms part of human communication. It needs to be in the ‘dialogue’ too.

These are some of my thoughts. Here are some more:

Ten tips for writing dialogue | Viola Hayden | Discoveries – Curtis Brown Creative

I have to admit, hearing my characters on the extracts sent through for the audiobook, did make me wish I had followed the ‘rule’: speak you dialogue (or your writing in general) out loud). I will be doing more of that in the future.

Have you got thoughts you would like to share?

Writer’s Toolkit: Plot

When I was teaching creative writing for Hull University’s BA degree, I would suggest visualising plots as a washing line to hang scenes on. This might work for some. However, several years later on and into my second novel for Constable/Little Brown, I am revising my ideas.

With my hysterectomy in 2019, and the restrictions of lockdown since March 2020, jigsaw puzzles have come back into my life. I have discovered my husband hates doing them, and I have a knack for them. I am able to see the shape and content of a piece and how it fits into the whole, in a way that he can’t. Only goes to show, all our brains work differently.

Every jigsaw puzzle-ist has their own method. Mine is to do the outside edge first. Then I choose something substantial in the picture and pick out the pieces which appear to belong there. I put them together and work outwards.

As I was doing this one day, it occurred to me that creating a plot has parallels. Rather than working linearly, I create the borders for the story, then I focus on the important incidents, before working out how they link. This concept is helping me wrangle my current plot into some sort of shape, so I thought I would share it, in case it is useful to others.

Just as I was happily working this blog post into being, my dear friend, Jane Poulton, artist and writer Home (janepoulton.co.uk) sent me an email. She knows I enjoy doing collage, she also knew I was wrestling with the plot of my novel. She recommended a free workshop on collage and then said, ‘Writing is a bit like collage, isn’t it? A moveable feast until things fall into place and the whole feels settled, complete and “just right”.’

I realised this is an even more valuable insight than my one about jigsaw puzzles. Jigsaws have only one way in which they can fit together, they have the image on the lid which must be copied. A collage, however, has the same idea of pieces coming together – some large, some small, some (apparently) insignificant – into a whole which is likely to be only moderately pre-destined.

We all find our own ways of writing and thinking about our writing. We will be challenged by some aspects more than others. Sometimes the guidance of others can be supportive. Maybe, if you are finding plotting a trial, these musings on jigsaw puzzles and collages might begin an opening up. Go for what feels like the most substantial aspect and worry about the rest later. With perseverance and a fair wind, we end with the sense of ‘just right’-ness Jane envisages.

Collage by Kate Evans, February 2021, created during an online workshop with Rosie Vohra Rosie Vohra (@rosievohra) • Instagram photos and videos

Janus Perspectives #4

The word January comes from the Roman god Janus who had two faces looking in different directions – behind and in front. In my December blog post I asked for responses to this. Today I am delighted to feature an image by artist Ruth Collett (Ruth Collett Artist), plus, below it, some of her reflections on her work. Thank you Ruth.

Comply 2. Ruth Collett. 2020.

Before the Covid 19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown I had a ceramics studio and was teaching practical arts and art history to adult learners, then suddenly I was alone in my flat 24/7 self-isolating.

Making daily ipad drawings came about as a way of exploring my reactions to the complete and sudden change of life patterns as I had been living them. This daily practise has been a major factor in maintaining my mental health, and feeling that I am still working, communicating & sharing ideas.

I have always created self-portraits as a means of understanding my evolving relationship with gender, sexuality, mental health and disability, so continuing this work on the ipad feels a natural progression.

What was surprising was my compulsion to create pattern, shape and colour to express my daily state, and to work mindfully but not critically. Using my finger rather than a stylus on the screen adds to the commitment and energy of the mark-making. I created images I would not have done in another medium – it freed me to be immediate and responsive to what was going on and how I felt about it.

Janus Perspectives #3

In my December blog, I posted this invitation: the word January comes from the Roman god Janus who had two faces looking in different directions – behind and in front. Do you have an image or a short piece of prose (up to 250 words) or a small stone (an ‘in the moment’ short poem (up to six lines), rough and ready) which either represents the year just gone or your hopes for the year to come? If you would like me to feature it on my blog in January 2020, then please send it to me.

I was delighted to receive a diverse bag of responses which I am happy to share with you over the next few weeks. Here is the offering from Suzie Millar. Thank you Suzie!

The time is NOW, not someday,
to work upon my dreams;
raise them up in real-time;
make them solid;
let them breathe.

Phot by Kate Evans. From a series of photos of gateposts which have lost their original function.