Category Archives: A Writing Life

Writing Tips: Voice

I have previously blogged on ‘voice’, so some of this may be a repeat for some of my readers. However, I am adding to my previous thoughts.

I think there are two aspects to voice for a writer. Firstly there is the writer’s voice. This might include (among other aspects) choices as to plot or point of view or language, structural quirks, an outlook on the world and/or future. In some ways this is like the voice of an actor. There are different types of actors. I watch a film with Michael Cain in and I know I am watching Michael Cain. On the other hand, one year I saw three films starring Daniel Day-Lewis and it could have been a completely different actor in each, so effectively did he morph into the characters. I think writers are the same. For me, Colm Tóibín is more of a Michael Cain, while Louise Doughty is more of a Daniel Day-Lewis.

Then, if a writer is creating fiction, there are the voices of the characters. Here I do believe a writer should strive for diversity, which must mean going beyond their own experiences.

One of the narrative characters in my Scarborough Mysteries novels is Theo Akande – young, black, gay, male. What is a fifty-five year old white woman doing writing in a young, black, gay, male voice? There has been some suggestion that this disjunction is one reason why it has not been picked up by literary agents. Perhaps it smacks of appropriation or colonisation. There is a good point here, there are not enough young, black, gay voices out there and publishers should be focusing on promoting them rather than a voice created by me. I do get that. And sometimes I do feel nervous that I’m not getting Theo ‘right’ in some way.

I was cheered slightly by an interview with Bonnie Greer which I heard on the excellent podcast: https://www.thelastbohemians.co.uk/. Greer said we are, after all, from the same species. She also said don’t be an artist if you want to be safe.

Theo evolved over several novels (unpublished & published). Initially he was the ‘sane’ counterweight to Hannah’s descent into depression. He has faced prejudiced and bullying and has many reasons to feel aggrieved, but he maintains his more balanced view of the world because of the ‘secure base’ (à la Bowlby) of his upbringing. I believe Theo is more unlike me because of this than because of his other attributes. I have a very bleak view on life. I also wanted him to be different from the many ‘cops with hang-ups’ which are out there in contemporary fiction, while also having his vulnerabilities. He is more a Peter Wimsey (DL Sayers) than a Rebus (Ian Rankin).

Whether readers will be content with my depiction of Theo is up to them. However, as writers, it is worth considering how we come to characters who are very different from ourselves. I have several suggestions. Firstly, writers need big ears for listening. We also need curiosity. When we meet someone, we need to be asking questions and listening to the answers. The ‘overheard’ is also a great source. Secondly, we research through reading, TV, radio, internet, social media, interviewing… Thirdly, I come back to what Greer said about us all being the same species. At a very basic level, we all have the same impulses to want to be loved and respected and have a sense of purpose. How we might try and gain love, respect and a sense of purpose will vary, more, I believe, by nurture than by nature, though genes must play its part. I only have to look at me and my siblings to understand that. Fourthly, characters develop if we writers allow them to. Planning is often useful, but not if it gets in the way of characters bouncing off each other and off what is happening to them. As with real life, characters behave differently, and are changed, because of what is going on around them.

Finally, as a writer, it is important to believe that all human behaviour is possible. For me, I want all my characters’ behaviours/feelings to stretch back to those fundamental needs of love, respect and sense of purpose. I suspect I would not be able to do great violence to another person, I am far too squeamish and fearful. But I wanted to write from the point of view of someone who could and created Max in my short story Adrift (still available on Amazon somewhere). I feel I managed to capture a mindset which could allow extreme violence and rationalise it. That’s not saying I believe what Max did was right, only that he thought it was right.

What is your experience of creating character and voice? Have you deliberately set out to write a character very different from you?

The Changing Seasons

Autumn has well and truly landed in my part of the country, with cold winds and rain. The Rowan is turning a beautiful ruby colour. The sea is roaring as it pounds in on a high tide smelling of ice. The sanderlings have returned, running in and out of the waves as if they are playing a game of tag.

I enjoy the change in seasons. After a summer mostly recovering from a major operation, I am feeling my energy and creative spirit returning. This morning I spent re-working one of my short stories and, for now, I am pleased with the results. I have decided to represent parts of it as if they were exhibits in a museum (thank you to Susannah Walker’s The Life of Stuff for the idea):

Fragment, diary of Jane Anne Hughes (née Moulsdale)
10th December 1859
Ink on paper
Donated, Helena Moulsdale, 1st July, 2019, 2009.

The first of the exhumations and re-burials. I thought I could hardly bear it, but I must for Stephen’s sake. He torments himself so. Should he have buried the unidentified four to a grave, only to have to bring them up again when one is claimed by a relative? I can merely say, it was the only course to take, we did not have the strength to do it any other way. I hope His God is telling him the same when he prays. Stephen holds his belief in His God like a cherished glass globe. Mine has become like a wrung out dishcloth to me. Yet, I will stay by Stephen’s side, even as the words of the Bible, His Words, taste like ash gone cold in the hearth.

When I look beyond my patch, I find it harder to be so sanguine. The UK political situation, the environmental crisis, the endless wars, so many of examples of crass, ignorant or cruel actions one human on another. The seasons change, it seems we humans are incapable of it. It all leaves me feeling stunned and helpless.

Recently I went to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art near Norwich, a wonderful place to lose oneself in. Currently they have an exhibition about Doris Lessing. I have to admit, Lessing is one of those writers I have held in esteem without really knowing why and who I have not read enough of. The exhibition took me through her life: her political activism; the development of her writing; her personal relationships. She had donated all her papers to the University of East Anglia, even so I felt a little uncomfortable reading some of her love letters. Had she really wanted that?

Lessing never stopped working or supporting the causes she believed in. She had a vibrancy which shone into old age. I was inspired by a part of her acceptance speech when she was given the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 at the age of 88 and six years before her death:

The storyteller is deep inside every one of us … Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise…. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

As a writer, I have never believed my work is all about publication (and a good thing too, given my record!) My work has, first and foremost been about saving me, about my own healing. But I hope maybe in that process I may offer some healing, some hand held out, to others. And yes, perhaps even, a modicum of healing to a wounded world.

Sense of Place

Recently the film and the sit com both called Scarborough have had their UK release. I have some issues with both movie and TV series, but the town I have chosen as home certainly comes out as visually stunning. At its UK premier, Barnaby Southcombe, the director of Scarborough the film, explained how the location had informed the final version. The plot contains two interweaving narratives and Southcombe said the two were filmed at separate times of year, aiding the feeling of a shifting time frame. Though in many ways both film and sit com are not really rooted in Scarborough, they could have been set in any (at times faded) seaside town.

In my series of crime novels Scarborough and especially the sea are more than mere backdrops. I want them to become almost like another character interacting with the stories being told. I am currently working on Scarborough Mysteries number 5, No Justice, and seas and oceans from various parts of the globe flow through the narrative.

* * *

Extracts from No Justice:

She lets her gaze travel across the sea to where it meets the sky. It had been a blue day, tolerably warm given such a late Spring. Now the darkness is sifting through the scrapes of cloud to reach down to the flat sea. It is like molten silver alloy. The sun is setting and tinting the hills behind Hannah. It is the brushwork of the moon which is painting the water. A misshapen orb is nudging above the castle which stands on its headland to Hannah’s left, above the harbour, between the two bays.

She continues down the cliff path, through the gardens to the beach. Below her is the meringue-white curve of the sun court attached to the Victorian Gothic spa buildings. At the base of the cliffs, she sits on the sea wall. The waves are easing themselves up the tawny sand, she can smell the salt on them and the Bladder Wrack which garlands the rocks. She’s taken this walk many, many times since moving to Scarborough, five years ago. Temporarily as she thought at the time, to finish her training as a counsellor, moving back in with her parents, into the house she now owns. It hadn’t really been her choice, she had felt she had to finish something, succeed at something, but now she relishes her life here. Especially her walks by the sea. Though more recently, Kelsey’s story has given Hannah pause for thought. She’s more likely to start at movements, which are usually a bird or squirrel rootling about in the bushes. She gives men more than a second look – though the vast majority are obviously dog walkers and many are elderly. She looks out across the water, she won’t give this up, she needs this breathing through her.

Where Blessing and Marianne live, all their windows are nailed shut and the watchers insist the curtains are kept drawn. Only the bathroom has a narrow louvred opening. Through it Blessing can smell the cool salty air. She’d caught the scent of it the early morning of their arrival and had a glimpse of the expanse of dark water, like a tank of oil, a fire lit at its rim. The ocean. Only here it is the sea.

She has memories of holidays by the ocean, with her family, when she was young. For several years they had owned an apartment on the beach. She and her husband had visited the ocean, during the early years, before things became difficult. She had swum in that ocean, strong, steady strokes. She had sailed along the coast of that ocean. She had thought a sea, an enclosed sea, where, in places, one shore is clearly visible from another, she had thought such a sea could hold little danger. How wrong she’d been.

* * *

I am also collecting together some short stories I have been writing over several years. In these the sense of place is more germane. As every writer knows, stories can start from anything – an idea, a person, an overheard conversation, a walk through the countryside, a visit to a museum….. I found that every time I went away somewhere new, a short story began to emerge and I would take down notes. Once back home, I would work on these stories which are very much rooted in a place. The place itself birthed the story.

Extract White Night

The white nights will send you crazy. I walk the hills between Fløyen and Ulriken. I keep to the route, mostly, and there are plenty of others out there being sent crazy by the daylight at midnight. The grey granite rises steeply. There’s rowan, beech and birch on the lower slopes. These soon give way to the spruce and red pine under which the soft fronds of the ferns unfurl and bilberries ripen. Blackbird and coal tit chitter in the branches. Terns swoop silently over the still waters of the Blåmansvannet. A crow caws abrasively. Soon after the trees peter out leaving the naked rock scarred with lichen and moss. I have found my own paths which are safe to stray down, leading to the sheer drops; down, down to the fjord, a black mirror rippled with silver wire. I know the spots they choose, those sent crazy by the white nights. I know where they saunter too close and I am there waiting.

The fjord has its moods. Its surface turns from charcoal, to ivy, to forget-me-not, concealing its glacier-torn depth with a pleasing cloth. An uncareful step, a slip, and a body is gone. A body turns to bone before it is discovered. I am little more than a skeleton now, since you left me here. No flesh. Unremembered, unspoken of, the flesh loses its corpulence.

Since it is unlikely you will return to save me, I have my existence and I follow those who have misplaced the path, envious, let it be understood, of their lustrous flesh. I am made crazy by these white nights.

* * *

I am now reworking the story drafts following comments from various first readers. During my recovery from my hysterectomy I have done a lot of listening to the radio especially to stories being read. It has made me wonder whether I should produce these stories as audios rather than in print. There is something magical, I find, in being read to and I think my collection would lend itself to this approach.

Has anyone else made a podcast of their stories? Any advice?

Cautious Creativity

A continuing discussion between writers, would-be writers and non-writers is whether you wait for inspiration to strike before picking up a pen or sitting down at a keyboard.

My approach has always been to think of creativity as a muscle and that it grows stronger with use. Just as preparing for a marathon starts with walking for five minutes on a treadmill, writing a novel, a story, a poem, starts with putting a word on a page and then several more and so on. I develop my creativity by ‘flexing’ it again and again. I mainly do this through various means:

I was, therefore, chuffed to hear the poet, the late Mary Oliver, say much the same but in a very different way. I was directed by a friend to the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett when she interviews Mary Oliver (https://onbeing.org/series/podcast/). In it Oliver talks about creativity being cautious and that a writer has to regularly turn up to meet their own until they gain creativity’s trust. It is only then that our creativity will blossom.

I have often written about giving permission, giving time, for creativity.

Even if you have no desire to write for an audience, there is a myriad of evidence which suggests creativity is good for us, for our well being (Lapidus). So there are many reasons for turning up regularly and gaining the trust of our creativity. Why not start with pledging an hour a week? Take a 20 minute walk, preferably somewhere in nature. On returning sit down with a large piece of plain paper and play with words, colours and putting marks on the paper for 30 minutes.

See where it takes you!

*** Those of a sensitive disposition may want to stop reading here ***

On a personal note, I have recently had a long awaited hysterectomy, necessary because of years of heavy bleeding, fibroids and anaemia in the run up to my menopause. My husband, who loves a fact, told me over 56,000 hysterectomies are carried out in the UK every year. I was wondering aloud to a friend, Ruth (ceramicist and artist: http://ruthcollett.co.uk/), what happens to all these wombs and (in my case) ovaries? She suggested they ended up in catawombs. Which got us laughing and me thinking. Below is the resultant collage of my very own catawomb. The stapling is significant. Farewell my womb.

One small step….

What with the anniversary of the first moon landing, we have all been reminded of the oft-quoted ‘One small step… one giant leap…’ It fits with the idea of the slightly cliched: every journey starts with the first step.

And every piece of writing starts with writing the first word (even if later that first word will be discarded or become the 10th or the 100th or the last). In recent weeks I have been in conversation with several people who are struggling with the next steps in their writing. When drilling into what is going on for them, it appears to boil down to two issues:

  • What will people think?
  • Being too fixated on the product and not enjoying the process.

These may be dressed up in any numbers of ways including thoughts such as: I’m not good enough; what’s the point of this; I haven’t enough time; I’m not a writer; I should be doing the cleaning (or any other soul-destroying job you can think of). Or perhaps actions which means that any writing/thinking time gets squeezed out by trying to meet the (supposed?) needs of others.

Once some literacy skills have been gained, writing isn’t hard. I mean it’s not hard in the way going down a mine is hard or trying to eek food from an unforgiving soil or climate. What more often than not gets in the way of our writing hand is our heads. I am not immune. I can get mired in fears of being found wanting or in trying to find a point to spending time writing (beyond the simple fact that I enjoy it).

And there are parts to writing which I enjoy less. Such as currently I am re-reading Drowning Not Waving, in preparation for getting ready for (self) publishing. This novel, the fourth in my Scarborough Mysteries series, has not had an easy gestation. Picked up and then unceremoniously dropped by an agent, there are parts of it which I feel I wrote to please her and do not entirely please me. However, I have a strong urge to get it finished and out there, so I can move on. Plus, I am very aware that I see every sinew in magnified detail while the majority of readers will barely skim the skin.

So my challenge is not to take the first step, but to keep going though the terrain may be getting uncomfortable. My method (should you choose to adopt it) is to break things down into palatable chunks, write them on a list and tick them off as I do them. I am half way through my ‘re-read and take notes on Drowning Not Waving.’ I am doing it an hour at a time with breaks in between for walking, swimming, eating, reading, seeing friends, yoga, playing tennis….

It is perhaps a harsh reality that most of what most of us write – most of what we tear from the cavities of our hearts and commit to paper – will not be read in any great detail (if at all) nor appreciated much. Shed a tear for this and then think, wow what freedom this gives me. I can write to please myself! How joyous is that?

I have just spent a week in Swanage. One of the things I most enjoyed was swimming in the bay, especially in the morning in the flat sun-rimed water, in sight of the Isle of Wight and Old Harry’s Rocks. It wasn’t easy to get in. The sea was chilly, there were sharp pebbles to be negotiated, but once I stopped hyperventilating and just let myself go, relaxing into the waves, it was glorious. Another metaphor, if you want one, for my writing method.

 

 

Guest post: Poetry film: a way of bearing witness by Janet Lees

Both as a poet and a writing for wellbeing workshop facilitator, it’s my personal belief that all writing is in some way therapeutic. I believe this because of my own experience and the experiences of others that I’ve witnessed. Poetry has been there for me most of my life – as a young child discovering words and the world, as a teenager filled with feelings that felt only expressible through poetry (toe-curlingly bad though a lot of it was), as a recovering addict rediscovering words and the world, and most recently as a deeply grieving sibling following the sudden death of my youngest sister Carole.

A long time ago I did an arts degree, ultimately specialising in poetry and photography. When I went back to university in 2011, my chosen masters subject was creative writing, and in the years that followed poetry was my sole obsession. In the last few years I’ve widened my creative focus to include art photography and poetry film. I have discovered the same total absorption, the same ‘flow state’, when working with visual and digital art that I’ve always found in poetry.

Ingmar Bergman said, “No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” With its emotionally potent mix of words, moving image, music and sound, poetry film can be an incredibly powerful creative and therapeutic medium. Finding exactly the right footage to go with exactly the right words, then selecting exactly the right music to capture the overall feeling of the film is a fully absorbing, necessarily mindful creative process. Words are powerful, of course, but we have all felt the power of music to move us and of film to instantly evoke atmosphere without a word being uttered.

Making my own lyrical short films has given me a way to explore and express my feelings about the times we live in without turning away from the devastation that’s all around us. A recent film, ‘Huntress’, centres on a poem I wrote on a canal boat journey. I was struck by how, travelling at four miles an hour, you are made to see everything you pass through – to really see it, to feel it – whether it’s rural idyll or post-industrial wasteland. Inexorably, the boat takes you from one to the other, from one to the other with a sense of dogged inevitability.

Huntress: https://vimeo.com/330339203

On the cut, as the canal is colloquially known, I’ve been struck more forcibly than ever before by the realities of the world we live in. As a poet and a human being I need to bear witness to all of it. Not just the carefully curated version of it that we get from nature programmes and holiday companies, or the ‘It’s all bad news’ version of it that we get from the media, but the whole fatally flawed reality of now that stirs up such despair and dark wonder in me.

Another recent film, ‘A boat for sorrow’, features a found poem created from words and phrases taken from W.B. Yeats’ ‘Selected Poems’. I often use found text as a way in to writing poems – it has a way of getting the thinking mind out of the way and allowing the unconscious to say what it needs to say. This was a case in point. I had no idea what I wanted to write about, but my unconscious did. It unerringly selected, from a vast store of source material, the precise words and phrases that would allow me to express the particular kind of loneliness that poets experience. This was not something I’d particularly thought about before, but when the poem was written, I understood and felt the truth of it.

 

A boat for sorrow: https://vimeo.com/329649460

Poetry film has also given me a way to explore and express deeply personal feelings of loss and love, in a deeply personal and simultaneously universal way. Many years ago my dad created a ninety-minute DVD compilation of his old cine films from when my two sisters and I were young – mostly on holidays in Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man, where my mum’s family is from. I had not been able to watch the DVD since Carole died. Earlier this year, as the fifth anniversary of her death approached, I felt compelled to create something using extracts from it.

Making a three-minute film out of ninety minutes of film required not only watching the old footage, but going right into every moment of it in order to find the clips for the film poem. This was instant, deep, sustained grieving. I worked in a frenzy of sorrow, crying almost continuously over the course of a day. When the film was finished, I felt some of the things I feel after a sea swim: emptied, cleaned, changed by the contact with something uncontainable. I also felt glad that I had been able in some way to honour the feisty, creative, offbeat, hilarious, gentle, generous, rebellious, huge-hearted, completely one-of-a-kind spirit that is my sister.

This was the most intimate of collaborations. My dad was the filmmaker, our five-strong family were the subjects, I was the poet and editor. The only ‘outsider’ was Moby, who made the beautiful music (he offers his music free to independent filmmakers via mobygratis.com), but he didn’t feel like an outsider because Carole introduced me to his music, and we used to listen to it together, over and over.

It is said: https://vimeo.com/311504800

I’m currently working on a series of films with a range of different bands and musicians. This is deeply rewarding work. I love collaborating with other artists, not only because this is immensely creatively enriching, but also because it’s a real solace in the ‘interesting times’ we live in.

Janet Lees is an artist, poet, poetry filmmaker and writing for wellbeing workshop facilitator. Her book ‘House of water’, which combines art photographs and poems, is published this month with the support of Culture Vannin. Her first poetry collection, ‘A bag of sky’, will be published in the autumn as the winning poetry pamphlet in the Frosted Fire Firsts prize, judged by Angela France and Neil Richards, and administered by the Cheltenham Poetry Festival.

https://janetlees.weebly.com/

https://vimeo.com/janetlees

Instagram: @janetlees2001

 

Guest Post: Delighting in Notebooks by Glynis Charlton

How many notebooks do you have? Not the irresistible ones you’ve stroked in arty places and found yourself buying, only to leave them untouched because they were ‘too nice.’ No, I’m talking about the partially filled, slightly dog-eared variety, with random notes tucked inside, the ones you’ve promised yourself you’ll go back to?

 

I can’t tell you how many I have. Not because I’m being super-secretive, but because I stopped counting a long time ago. The answer would be embarrassing.

For a time, they lived in a big blue plastic box, then they began to nudge the lid open, so the others got piled up on top, until the pile was so precarious I was in danger of needing to invest in box number two. But would that be an investment? Surely it would be akin to procrastination and, as I know only too well, I don’t need to hone my skills in that department.

What needed to be done, I decided, was to attack each notebook in turn. Type stuff up, put it into orderly digital categories, use some kind of code or sticker in the notebook to show what had been dealt with. This would then allow me – ooh, two or three months down the line – to select various drafts from the orderly files on my laptop, refine pieces that particularly called to me, and submit them to appropriate places from an impeccable spreadsheet based on focussed research. That was three years ago.

Don’t get me wrong – I did make a start (thanks to a boring tale involving medication that gives me a bonus half hour before breakfast). But it was just taking too long. I was, as my mother always loved to tell me, ‘at the back of the queue when they were handing out patience.’ I grew dispirited, annoyed with myself. At this rate, it could take me years to type everything up before I even began to develop or edit any of it. There was an amalgamation of pieces drafted in cafés, on trains, planes, at Lapidus days, workshops, masterclasses, and yes – for goodness’ sake – even during residential weeks at Arvon. All just sitting there.

I don’t help myself by being fickle. Poetry? Ooh yes, I’ll take that piece I started at Simon Armitage’s masterclass, craft it until it’s as good as I can get. Or maybe I could try my hand at a radio script? I did go on that workshop run by Rachel Joyce, two or three years ago, I wrote that thing about someone in an accident … or maybe it was a hospital?

Inevitably, I reached the point, over porridge one morning, where I decided this bonus half hour would probably be much better spent working on The Novel (two, to be exact, but the first one makes me cringe). So, the notebooks were shelved for a while – literally – and out came the novel again. But that took so long to get my head back into it that I ended up doing neither. Instead, I reassured myself, oh so easily, that half an hour’s reading before breakfast would ‘inform’ my own writing, which of course was true up to a point. But actually, the real informing to be done was from Procrastinating Me to Writer Me. Now here’s a radical idea, I told myself, have you noticed there are actually another 23.5 hours in each day? I know, I know, said the other one, but take Leonardo da Vinci … I mean, he had treatise after treatise he never got round to writing up, all those fountains and statues never built. But he was Leonardo, Glynis: look what he did do. OK, fair point.

Plan B – or C or D or whatever it is by now – is to go through each notebook as originally planned, but this time just type up the pieces that really pull me. The ones where I’ve put a big tick by the side or scrawled ‘do something with this.’

Meanwhile, I’ve discovered Tim Clare’s online Couch to 80K Bootcamp, so I make sure I do at least one of his short exercises every day. Why do we find it so much easier when it’s someone other than ourselves urging us to spend just ten minutes to do something that, let’s be honest, we actually enjoy doing once we get down to it?

I find setting a timer works. So too does shutting the rest of the notebooks out of site and being systematic. OK, so you’re not a great Renaissance genius, but you might just find a tiny nugget in that wobbling pile of notebooks that’s worth sharing.

 

Glynis Charlton [www.glynischarlton.com] is a poet and fiction writer whose work has been published in several anthologies. Her poetry was Highly Commended for the Bridport Prize 2016 and she is currently working on two novels. Glynis has also scripted a film short, screened at Leeds International Film Festival, and another screened on BBC1. She works freelance and has been running workshops in Yorkshire for many years and also runs an autumn writing retreat on a tiny Italian island [www.italianwritingretreat.org]