Tag Archives: Creative nonfiction

My Year in Books

I got the idea for this post from one of the books I read this year, Samantha Ellis How to be a Heroine. Or what I’ve learned from reading too much. She goes back through the books she read throughout her life, I’m merely proposing to explore the books I read in 2017, and only some of them.

I want to concentrate on the books I feel the most positive about. Last year I read fifty-four books (full list below). Two I didn’t finish. Some were indie published, some traditionally published. What I have discovered is that there is good, bad and mediocre published by both camps. What do I mean by bad writing? (1) Use of cliché. There’s lots of them out there, sometimes they are difficult to avoid, but as with (2), careful copyediting can weed them out. (2) Lazy use of vocabulary. As writers we all have words or phrases we over-use. And sometimes a word suddenly begins to appear suddenly in every sentence suddenly. By being aware of this, we can work on it when we edit. But having a good copy editor also helps a lot. (3) Plots which don’t add up. Readers are required to suspend their belief to a certain extent in order to enjoy fiction, after-all they are being asked to enter a 3-D world created by flat symbols on a page. However, I don’t want my belief to have to take a vacation. (4) One dimensional characters. Give me complex and tortured any day. (5) I know this is controversial, but over-use of direct speech doesn’t work for me. Good use of reported speech can lift a piece and be used to change pace.

I write crime so a read a lot of crime. I think it is important for a writer to read what they are writing. One thing I really appreciate in novels, including crime ones, is a good use of landscape: rich descriptions and metaphorical layers. Dobyns drew on the landscape to good effect. Two things I do not like in crime novels are when perpetrators confess what they’ve done for no reason. Nor do I want it to be the ‘crazy one what dunnit’. However, (spoiler alert) Dobyns managed to have a seriously unhinged perpetrator who I could believe in. As did Kate Ellis in High Mortality of Doves, though having a similar resolution in Plague Maiden took the shine off. In spite not strictly being a crime novel, Sheers had an excellent twist – where two characters knew something about the other stopping them from telling the truth – for a mystery narrative. In November, I went to Hull Noir, the crime festival which was part of the City of Culture programme. I had a great day and saw some very interesting panels, Rachel Rhys was on one of these and I am very glad I shelled out for her Dangerous Crossings.

I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna in a second hand bookshop. I’ve enjoyed Kingsolver since I read Pigs in Heaven and Bean Trees in the 1990s. The Lacuna was a satisfyingly wide sweeping story with true life characters and events mixed in with the made-up. Re-discovering Helen Dunmore was also a real pleasure, though A Spell of Winter was a truly twisted tale. Liane Moriarty Truly, Madly, Guilty was a surprise finding, kept me guessing with entertaining and rounded characters.

I like to be taken to other worlds in my reading, so thank you to Tan Twan Eng The Gift of Rain and Abir Mukherjee A Rising Man. One of my characters in my crime novels has Nigerian heritage and in 2016 I read Nigeria by Richard Bourne. This year I turned to fiction: Sefi Atta A Bit of Difference and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim Season of Crimson Blossoms (thanks to Anne Goodwin for alerting me to them: http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/). I was particularly taken by Crimson Blossoms, set in the Islamic region of Nigeria, the main character is a widow who starts an affair with a younger man, a leader of a gang of street criminals. The woman, Hajiya, is not desperately likeable and something of a hypocrite when it comes down to it, but boy did she come off the page and feel like a real person.

Of the fiction I’ve not already spoken about, the following should have an honourable mention for keeping me hooked with interesting characters and plot lines: Messud; Billingham; Doughty.

I am very fond of a bit of creative non-fiction & biography. Hence Samantha Ellis, Stempel, Downing, Kelly, Solnit, Kassabova and Whitaker are on the list and were captivating in their own way. But it was Horatio Clare Down to the Sea in Ships which gripped me. Clare spent time as a writer in residence on container ships and his book charts the madness of capitalism which sees cargo loads of useless items going across oceans. Plus he explores the desperate inequalities between the officers and the crew on the ships, the former being mainly European, the latter from Asian countries. I didn’t immediately take to Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk, however, I was struck by her honesty, particularly in her phrase: ‘The narcissism of the bereaved is great.’

Tara Bergin’s The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx was the only poetry collection I read this year. On the other hand, I heard more at a regular local Open Mic and poetry salon and I had a feast of verse at the Bridlington Poetry Festival. I am beginning to wonder whether I prefer to listen to poetry than to read it, or I’d prefer to do both at the same time.

What were your favourite books in 2017? What would you say are the features of bad or good writing?

January
Arnaldur Indridason Arctic Chill
Barbara Kingsolver The Lacuna
Orhan Pamuk My Name is Red

February
Nadine Matheson The Sisters
Ann Cleeves Cold Earth
Janet Ellis The Butcher’s Hook

March
Claire Messud The Last Life
Daphne Glazer By the Tide of the Humber
Margaret Drabble The Pure Gold Baby
Samantha Ellis How to be a Heroine. Or what I’ve learned from reading too much
Arnaldur Indridason Outrage
Abir Mukherjee A Rising Man
Orhan Pamuk Snow (unfinished)

April
Peter Robinson Friend of the Devil
Owen Sheers I Saw a Man
Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk
Colm Tóbín Nora Webster
Val McDermid Out of Bounds

May
PD James Talking about Detective Fiction
Patrick Gale A Perfectly Good Man
Mark Billingham Die of Shame
Helen Dunmore A Spell of Winter
Louise Doughty Black Water

June
John Lewis Stempel The Running Hare. And Secret Life of Farmland (unfinished)
Sefi Atta A Bit of Difference
Taylor Downing Breakdown, the crisis of shell shock on the Somme 1916
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim Season of Crimson Blossoms

July
Ann Cleeves The Seagull (advance copy)
Kate Summerscale The Wicked Boy
Helena Kelly Jane Austin, the secret radical

August
Stef Penney Under a Pole Star
Helen Dunmore Exposure
Elly Griffiths The Woman in Blue
Kate Ellis A High Mortality of Doves

September
Sarah Waters The Little Stranger
Kate Ellis The Plague Maiden
Horatio Clare Down to the Sea in Ships
Leila Aboulela The Kindness of Enemies
Rebecca Solnit Wanderlust. A history of walking

October
Samantha Ellis Take Courage. Anne Bronte and the Art of Life
Tara Bergin The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx
Sophie Hannah Did You See Melody? And A Game for All the Family
Tan Twan Eng The Gift of Rain
Liane Moriarty Truly, Madly, Guilty

November
Robert Whitaker The Mapmaker’s Wife
Donna Leon By Its Cover
David Young Stasi Child

December
Stephen Dobyns Boy in the Water
Alison Baillie Sewing the Shadows Together
Kapka Kassabova Border, a journey to the edge of Europe
Rachel Rhys Dangerous Crossings
Helen Dunmore The Lie

Nourishing the Creative Soul

As a writer I find that I must take time to nourish my creative spirit. Julia Cameron in her excellent book The Artist’s Way talks about this too. She suggests ‘artist’s dates’ which we take by ourselves to top up our creativity, visits to, for instance, art galleries, the theatre, festivals…

This weekend I went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (https://ysp.org.uk/) What a wonderful place this is. This was my third visit and I sometimes feel I could move in there! As I wandered around, I discussed with my companion (OK I didn’t follow Cameron’s stricture of going alone) the sculptural beauty of the nature around us as opposed to the sculpture created by humans. The trees in particular were looking especially wondrous. I often think this with my writing, why should I try to capture in my paltry words what mother earth creates with truly staggering and startling abundance? In the end, I came up with the suggestion that what we artists and writers are trying to do is add a layer of meaning or story-telling beyond the realism.

We also deliberated over why artists feel the need to share their work, especially when, frequently, the expression is so personal. I have often thought that my need to publish is narcissistic, egotistically and possibly pathological. However, on Saturday, I realised that to share is a human trait; it forms bonds, societal boundaries, empathy. Sharing is (at its best) the glue which sticks us all together. It gave me a modicum of relief from my worries over the balance of my wits.

I am very lucky because next Sunday I will also be gaining food for thought and, hopefully, soul by attending Hull Noir https://www.hullnoir.com/ I am only able to go on that one day – the festival runs over the weekend of the 18th/19th November, and there are events in the preceding week as well – but the panels look as if they will stimulating. The subjects being ranged over include: the golden age Vs digital age; freedom, oppression & control; unusual settings; and unlikeable protagonists.

Hope to see you there!

 

Photos copyright Mark Vesey 2017

The Strange Case of the Disappearing Twin Part Two

The Strange Case of the Disappearing Twin.
What crafting a crime novel told me about myself.

Back with the final part… If you missed the first part, click here: https://goo.gl/Fu8BYR

In 2012, circumstances allowed me to think about fulfilling a long-held ambition, to publish a novel. I suddenly had the time and some financial security, and I gave myself permission to be ‘the monster’ Tóibín has so accurately described.

I knew my 2004 novel was un-publishable, it had a scanty plot and less structure. But it was a starting point. I then took a very pragmatic decision. In the re-crafting, I would use the crime mystery genre. This genre gave me a structure to work towards, it is one I know well as I have loved reading crime fiction since I was in my teens. Plus crime fiction is a fast-selling genre and framing my novel within it would make it more straight forward to market.

I was off, and worked relatively quickly as I already had the setting, most of the characters and bits of the story. I was able to publish The Art of the Imperfect at the end of 2014. It took me a while to notice Clare was missing and that this has meaning for me and my writing doppelgänger.

In the ten years between 2004 and 2014, I was also coming to an understanding of how the therapeutic impact of creative writing goes far beyond the catharsis of free writing. Pennebaker had identified three aspects which, when present, would increase the efficacy of his expressive writing. These are: if a feeling was named and expressed; if there was an alteration of perspective, especially a movement away from using ‘I’ to using ‘you’ or ‘she’ or ‘he’ or ‘they’; and if a narrative, a coherent story, begins to emerge.

Even in the writing of my 2004 novel, I had begun to use my skills as a creative writer to embark on this process. Hannah’s (my) story of depression was told in the third person; I was giving Hannah’s (my) experience a name; and I made an almost lucid narrative from something which, at the time, had felt like pure madness. Now I wanted to offer the story to a readership, I knew crafting would be even more essential.

I am not the only author to have understood the therapy in sculpting a novel. When Jackie Kay was asked how she got through her difficult encounter with her birth father (as described in her novel Red Dust Road, Picador, 2011) she replied, ‘By writing. … By finding some way of crafting an experience, constructing a structure to create a door to let other people in so they can walk into your experience and call it theirs and in the business of doing this in itself gives you somewhere to go with it. It’s almost like telling a story back to yourself. Often the more traumatised we are, the more we’ll tell the story or else we’ll be completely silent. Writing is one of the ways of expressing the inexpressible.’ (Kay, 2016.)

Tóibín explains his task in writing his recent novel Nora Webster (Penguin, 2015), of working out the truth of what had happened when his father died. ‘You’re pulling this out of yourself. This is sometimes very difficult material.’ But ‘it’s an anchor, in a way, all this pleasure [I experience] would mean nothing if this pain, if this working out the pain wasn’t there and I wasn’t writing and I wasn’t doing it.’ (Tóibín, 2016.)

I was attempting to work through my own pain and find my own truth by fashioning a novel I thought others might want to read. And I was doing it in the crime genre. Which could seem an odd choice, if it were not for Val McDermid suggesting it is the best for exploring current issues. She has described how she has, ‘Walked the fine line between making things up and staying real.’ And, for her, ‘The very act of imagining has been a powerful way of accessing the truth.’ (McDermid, 2016.)

In the re-writing, the crafting, the working through, Hannah lost her twin. I didn’t deliberately expel her, she just wasn’t there anymore. Hannah remains a fragmented character, but the spectral disallowed side of her no longer has to be embodied by a twin which exists beyond Hannah’s every-day consciousness. Hannah has become more integrated.

* * *

‘Integration’ could be seen to be a therapeutic, a healing, intention (Erskine et al., 1999; DeYoung, 2003; Finlay, 2016). This can describe many processes, but the one I am leaning towards here, is the bringing together and acceptance of the many sides of who we are. This could include exploring: past experiences which we would choose to ignore or forget; emotions or thoughts which have been long designated as undesirable; how we interact with others and how we fit within societal mores; the extent to which we can find meaning within our lives. The intention of this effort would be to ‘facilitate a sense of wholeness in a person’s being and functioning, at intrapsychic, mind-body, relational, societal and transpersonal levels. We strive to enable our clients to gain insight into their experience and to have a sense of feeling “at home” with self, at peace with others. There are of course limits to the extent to which any of us can be deemed “whole”, but integration remains the driving spirit of our project – particularly with longer-term work.’ (Finlay, 2016, p120.)

My copyeditor noted that in my novel I cycled between using herself and her self/selves. It made perfect sense to me. Our view of the ‘self’ has depended on what era we live in and what part of the world. In Western philosophy, in the seventeenth century, René Descartes gave a ‘self’ centrality. He stressed the autonomy of a first person which was essentially – philosophically and psychologically – a single entity. This notion that there is an authentic core self runs through some therapeutic traditions, for example the classic person-centred approach of American psychologist Carl Rogers. However, there are other concepts of self which allow, for instance, for different selves to be available depending on social context, or for the self to be in a constant process of creation and becoming (Finlay, 2016, p7). I favour this latter view and this is palpable in my writing.

I came to realise, the disappearance of Clare was not only due to me choosing (unconsciously) to craft Hannah as a more integrated character. It was also a sign that I was moving towards a personal integration, what I experience as my many selves were fitting more comfortably together. Furthermore, the writer in me, the double which had previously been shy, and vague, was increasingly formed, increasingly integral to me. This was a process powered by the work of writing and crafting. By doing, I am becoming. And by reflecting back, noticing what is changing in my writing, I am learning more about myself.

* * *

It was not enough for me to write a novel, I also wanted to seek a readership. I decided to publish. It seems to me that there is a merry dance between writer and reader, which, in the best of circumstances, is nourishing for both. As a reader, I know the pleasure and, sometimes, the very profound effect, of having found a story or a poem which touches me and pushes me to think or grasp at a new perspective. As a writer, the connection with the reader could be seen as the final act in a very long and laborious play. Tóibín says that the completion of his novel Nora Webster, which took ten years, allowed him to, at last, find some kind of closure on the death of his father. ‘One Saturday in September 2013 I finished the book. I knew that while I had perhaps opened up this world for readers, I had closed it for myself. I would, I imagined, not come back to it again.’ (Tóibín, 2016b.)

The reader plays a role of witness. Having our story, our experiences, our selves witnessed can in itself be transformative (Finlay, 2016, p37). Psychologist, John Bowlby stated that, in order for us to grow into well-adjusted adults, we need to have a secure base set down in childhood. This is achieved through a loving care-giver effectively communicating to the child that their emotions are acknowledged and understood and it is safe to feel what they are feeling (Bowlby, 1988.). Any deficit in the secure base can be replenished (though often with difficulty) by later empathic relationships. Publishing is a poor substitute for a loving early care-giver’s acceptance. It is not the business of publishers, literary agents and readers to shore-up a crumbling secure base. However, I recognise it is, at least partly, what I am seeking from publication. And I do not believe I am the only writer to do so.

I have noticed within me the tension between wanting to be seen and wanting to hide. Pride competes with shame at each publication date. I want the recognition and yet I fear it. ‘Exposure now means exposure of one’s inherent defectiveness as a human being. To be seen is to be seen as irreparably and unspeakably bad.’ (Kaufman, 1992, p75.)

After the novel launch, I feel sapped, worn-down, de-motivated. As Alan Garner describes it: ‘I had to be totally incapacitated in order to build the energy, to fill the reservoir, that would be needed. The analogy with an enforced hibernation fitted. If I could live with this self-loathing, and see it as a signal to let the waters rise, it could remain a necessary, though unpleasant, part of a positive and creative process. As long as that thought stayed, I could endure. (Garner, 1997, p. 212.)

Like Garner, I walk a lot, out in the rugged landscape of North Yorkshire, feeling the arctic blast into my face. Unlike Garner, I am still writing, though I am back to free writing, ploughing up what’s lurking underneath the now of the mind. And the cycle begins again.

* * *

The assembly, which had formed the perfect tableau of a country house party set in the 1920s, is becoming restless. They had gathered together for a resolution. The detectives have failed to give them one. There is a disconsolate voice calling for chilled champagne. Another suggesting the phonograph be cranked up to play some dance music. Yet another proposes a game of cribbage. The gale can be heard howling outside. Its lament grows stronger, the door of the room crashes open, and a woman enters, apparently delivered on the tip of the storm’s tongue.

It is Harriet Vane (NB*). She is wearing a cloche hat the colour of a good port wine. Her dark eyes under its rim reflect the embers of the fire. She has on a tweed coat threaded with scarlet and gold, her legs are clad in peacock-blue stockings, her feet shod in sturdy brown brogues. Her shoes show evidence of the walk she has taken along the muddy drive. ‘I tried to phone,’ she says crossly. Though, of course, the telephone lines were the first victim of the inclement weather, rendering the isolated estate more cut-off.

Wimsey rushes forward saying Harriet must change into dry clothes, have something to eat, to be given a warming drink. She waves him away, accepting only a glass of whisky which she takes down in one gulp. She moderates her tone (it doesn’t do to alienate your audience at the moment of denouement): ‘I can solve the mystery of the disappearing twin.’

‘Can you Miss?’ mocks the wag supposedly from high society in London, whose accent is as appropriated as his dinner suit.

‘How can you, when these renown detectives can’t?’ asks the dowager. The jewellery flashing on her clawed fingers and sagging neck is glass and paste, bought secretly to replace the family heirlooms long gone to the auction.

‘I can,’ says Harriet firmly. ‘Because I am a writer.’

* creation of Dorothy L Sayers.

References

Atwood, M. (2003.) Negotiating with the Dead, a writer on writing. Virago.

Bowlby, J. (1988.) A Secure Base. New York: Basic Books.

DeYoung, P.A. (2003.) Relational Psychotherapy: a primer. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Erskine, R.G., Moursund, J.P. & Trautmann, R.L. (1999.) Beyond Empathy: a therapy of contact-in-relationship. London: Taylor & Francis.

Evans, K. (2011). ‘The Chrysalis and the Butterfly: A phenomenological study of one person’s writing journey.’ Journal of Applied Arts & Health 2:2, 173-186.

Finlay, L. (2016.) Relational Integrative Psychotherapy: engaging process and theory in practice. Wiley Blackwell.

Garner, A. (1997.) The Voice That Thunders. Harvill Press.

Goldberg, N. (1986.) Writing Down the Bones. Freeing the Writer Within. Shambhala, Boston and London.

Kaufman, G. (1992.) Shame. The Power of Caring. Rochester, Vermont: Schenkman Books Inc.

Kay, J. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 28th October. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Cathy Drysdale.

Mazza, N. (2003). Poetry Therapy. Theory & Practice. Routledge, New York & London.

McDermid, V. (2016.) Artsnight, BBC 2, 22nd July. Editor: Janet Lee. Producer/Director: Jon Morrice.

Nicholls, S. (2009). ‘Beyond Expressive Writing: evolving models of developmental creative writing.’ Journal of Health Psychology 14(2), 171-180.

Pennebaker, J.W., & Beall, S.K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274-281.

Smyth, J.M., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2008). Exploring the boundary conditions of expressive writing: In search of the right recipe. British Journal of Health Psychology 13, 1-7.

Pennebaker, J.W. (1997) Opening Up. The healing power of expressing emotions. The Guilford Press: New York.

Sexton, A. (1974.) ‘The Other’ in The Book of Folly. Houghton Mifflin.

Tóibín, C. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 8th January. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Christine Pawlowsky

Tóibín, C. (2016b.) ‘How I wrote Nora Webster’, The Guardian, 22nd January.

 

Author Interview: Maggie James

This week I am delighted to invite fellow writer, Maggie James to my blog. Living in Bristol, she writes psychological suspense novels. Her first book, His Kidnapper’s Shoes, was completed in 2011 and self-published in 2013. It has now been republished under a contract with Lake Union. Maggie’s next three books, Sister, Psychopath, Guilty Innocence and The Second Captive followed, along with a free novella, Blackwater Lake. She has also written a non-fiction book aimed at would-be authors, called Write Your Novel! From Getting Started to First Draft. She recently signed a two-book deal with Bloodhound Books for Guilty Innocence and The Second Captive. They will be republished later in 2017. 

Her latest novel is After She’s Gone, published by Lake Union on March 16, 2017 (http://smarturl.it/aftershesgone).

Before turning her hand to writing, Maggie worked mainly as an accountant, with a diversion into practising as a nutritional therapist. Diet and health remain high on her list of interests, along with travel. Accountancy does not, but then it never did. The urge to pack a bag and go off travelling is always lurking in the background. When not writing, going to the gym, practising yoga or travelling, Maggie can be found seeking new four-legged friends to pet; animals are a lifelong love.

What are you currently working on?
I have two writing projects on the go at present. One is plotting my sixth novel, title as yet unknown, which will examine the theme of betrayal. I got the idea from a TV documentary centred on con artists and the suffering they wreak on their victims. The concept is still in the early stages, but I’m keen to start writing. The other book I’m working on is a revised version of my second novel, Sister Psychopath.

What has inspired your most recent novel/writing?
My latest novel is After She’s Gone, released on March 16, 2017. I’d been drawn to the theme of arson for a while, as well as examining how a family copes with murder. Somehow the two ideas became interwoven and ended up as After She’s Gone. In the book, the dead body of a teenage girl is found in a burning building, and as her grief-stricken relatives struggle with the fallout, the fires move ever closer to their home. Who is setting them, and why are they targeting the Goldens?

How much do you think fiction intertwines with real life?
Very much so in some cases, as I’ve found out. After I finished the first draft of His Kidnapper’s Shoes, a case came to light in America of a young child who was snatched as a baby and brought up by her abductor. A similar situation, also in the USA, emerged recently. My book wasn’t inspired by such events – I got the idea after a casual conversation – but the similarity was spooky. Sister, Psychopath was also inspired by a real-life murder. As for Blackwater Lake, I suspect that somewhere buried deep in someone’s compulsive hoarding may indeed be the solution to a crime, as happens in my novella.

Many novels have intertwined fiction with real life, of course. Take Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho, based on the killer Ed Gein. Or Lionel Shiver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, inspired by the 1999 Colombine shootings. Real life can provide fertile materials for novelists, and that won’t stop anytime soon.

Could you give five tips on how to tackle either characterisation or plotting or dialogue or descriptive passages?
I think I’ll go with dialogue on this one. Here are my five tips:

  1. This one gets mentioned a lot by authors and editors, but it’s important: don’t overuse speech tags. For the most part it should be clear who’s speaking, so you don’t need to add ‘he said/she said’ to every sentence. It’s unnecessary and clogs the flow of the discourse. Less is more.
  2. For dialogue that does require a speech tag, keep it simple. ‘Said’ is often the most effective one. You don’t need verbs like ‘averred’, ‘theorised’, ‘opined’, etc. The brain tends to skip over short, familiar words like ‘said’, whereas ‘expostulated’ will cause it to do a double take. You don’t want to write something that will jar the reader’s attention away from your story.
  3. Make it sound natural, but without all the ‘ums’, ‘ers’, ‘likes’ and ‘you-knows’ that clog most people’s speech. Contractions such as don’t, shouldn’t, won’t are good, though, because we all use them.
  4. Dialect is a difficult one to get right. Don’t attempt to convey regional speech by changing the spelling of words, as it irritates many readers. It’s best to use speech patterns and colloquialisms instead.
  5. Read your dialogue aloud. What better way to discover if your written conversations sound authentic? Or try text to speech software.

 How would you describe your writing process?
I’m a planner by nature; I couldn’t write a novel without a road map to get my story to where it needs to go. I use the Snowflake method of plotting, whereby I take an idea, and expand it until it’s a fully-fledged outline, complete with character notes, timeline, etc.  For writing software, I use Scrivener, and I love it; it’s excellent and worth every penny of the paltry purchase price. It’s customisable, flexible, and enables me to keep everything I need – research, notes, etc. – all in one place. Then it compiles my document into a formatted e-book in a couple of clicks. Magic!

After I’ve done the basic plotting, it takes me about two months to write the first draft. The next part, editing and revising, takes me much longer. I can spend forever tweaking my narrative, so when I can’t stand the sight of it any longer, I know it’s time to release it to the world.

What helps you to write/what gets in the way?
As I’ve mentioned, I couldn’t write without a structured outline. I could just about make do without Scrivener – after all, my first novel was written using Microsoft Word – but I wouldn’t want to. I need silence to write as well, although white noise such as traffic is fine. Definitely no music, though. As for what gets in the way, sometimes my motivation isn’t as high as I’d like, and I procrastinate. If I’ve had a great writing session one day, completing lots of words, I often need to take it easy the day after. It’s all about balance, I guess.

What kind of research do you do & how do you go about it?
It depends on what the novel requires. I’m not keen on doing lots of research, as I’d rather be writing, but at the same time I don’t want inaccuracies in my books. For police procedural matters, I use Michael O’Byrne’s The Crime Writer’s Guide to Police Practice and Procedure, along with picking the brains of a couple of friends who are retired police officers.

Google is my friend when it comes to research. Like many novelists, I often joke that the police would have a field day should they ever inspect my browsing history. I’ve used Google to check out topics such as identity theft, computer hacking, body decomposition rates, etc.

I also often visit the locations involved in my books. They’re all based in my home city of Bristol, so I can easily check whatever I need. For example, The Second Captive involved a very pleasant afternoon wandering round Siston, taking notes and photographs.

If you are indie published, why did you choose this route? What are your five tips for would-be indie authors? What are the pros & cons to indie publishing?
I’m a hybrid author, meaning that some of my books are with publishing houses and others are self-published. I’d recommend anyone to try self-publishing, even if they hanker after a traditional contract. More and more publishers are keeping an eye on who’s doing well in the self-published world and signing them up. It’s happened to me, as well as to other author friends.

My five tips for indie authors? Here they are:

  1. Don’t skimp on editing. Hire the best you can afford, and listen carefully to his/her suggestions. My editor, Gillian Holmes, has been invaluable in helping me polish my books. Please don’t be like some authors who think correct spelling, punctuation and grammar don’t matter. Self-publishing equates to low standards in the minds of many readers, and it’s a perception with some basis in truth, given a few of the books I’ve read.
  2. Get the best cover you can afford. I often see real howlers on Amazon that look as though I’ve created them; they’re that bad! (There are websites devoted to poking fun at these gems, but I digress.) People do judge books by their covers, and a sloppy one with amateurish fonts might well sink your novel.
  3. Build your author platform as you write your book, so that it’s ready for when you launch. I didn’t, and regretted it later. Set up a website and start cultivating readers, book bloggers and other writers on social media as soon as possible.
  4. Develop a thick skin if you intend to read your reviews. Many authors choose not to; the Internet can be a brutal place and some readers can be unnecessarily vicious.
  5. Learn as much as you can about book marketing. Check out successful authors on social media and find out how they operate. A good start is Joanna Penn’s blog The Creative Penn. It’s packed with advice for indie authors, and Joanna’s written several useful books about marketing.

Pros of self-publishing? In my view this option holds most of the cards. You can set the pace for your writing career, writing as little or as much as you want, and pocketing 70% royalties from Amazon. You’ll need to work hard on your marketing, and put in a lot of hours, but big rewards are possible. A con of self-publishing can be the lack of support and the feeling that you’re going it alone, although that can be mitigated by forming strong support networks with other writers.

If you are traditionally published, could you say something of your journey and your experience?
Until last year, I was entirely self-published, and happy to be so. Having been offered a traditional contract a while back, and rejecting it, I was clear I wanted to remain self-published. My reasons? Higher royalties along with total control over every step of the publication process. That was until I got a phone call one afternoon.

I found myself talking with an acquisitions editor from Lake Union, one of Amazon’s publishing imprints. She enthused over His Kidnapper’s Shoes, and we chatted, with her saying she’d like to explore ways to work with me. More phone calls and emails followed, the end result being the offer of a publishing contract for His Kidnapper’s Shoes and my latest novel, After She’s Gone. Lake Union, being a digital publisher, can offer a far more attractive deal than the traditional publishing firms, and after a lot of thought I accepted, thus becoming a hybrid author.

Since then, I’ve signed a two-book deal with Bloodhound Books, who will re-release my novels Guilty Innocence and The Second Captive later this year. At this stage I’m unsure what will happen with future books, but I suspect I may retain my hybrid status. It seems to offer the best of both worlds.

The question you wished I’d asked you.
I think I’ll go with, ‘Have you always wanted to be a novelist?’ I chose that question thanks to my delight at being able to write fulltime, as it’s the culmination of a lifelong ambition. As a child, I devoured books (nothing has changed!) and never doubted I’d become a novelist when I grew up. Instead, when I reached adulthood, I went into accountancy, where I stayed for the next twenty-eight years. The urge to write never left me, even though I did nothing about it. In my forties, I started penning some short pieces, which were well received online, but I found the idea of a novel daunting. Then I ran into issues at work, which I used as a wake-up call. I booked flights to Asia, Australia and South America and travelled for a year, with the aim of writing the first draft of a novel while away. And that’s what happened, with me finishing His Kidnapper’s Shoes while enjoying the splendours of Bolivia.

How can readers find you and learn more about your writing?
My website and blog can be found at http://www.maggiejamesfiction.com. You can find links to all my books, including my non-fiction offering, Write Your Novel! From Getting Started to First Draft. You can also download my free novella, Blackwater Lake. I blog weekly on all matters book-related, including reviews, discussion topics and author interviews. You can also sign up for my newsletter and receive free books.

Here are my social media links:
Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/MJamesFiction/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/mjamesfiction

LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/maggie-james/64/381/727

Google+ : https://plus.google.com/101511690389687930651

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/828751.Maggie_James

Pinterest:  http://www.pinterest.com/maggiejamesfict/

Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Maggie-James/e/B00BS9LVMI

BookBub: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/maggie-james

 

 

7 prompts for writers #3: characterisation

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Another Place, sculpture by Anthony Gormley

I find the idea for a character in a story can come from anywhere. It might be someone glimpsed on the street or a snatch of conversation overheard or from a piece in the newspaper. Even if the character is inspired by someone I ‘know’, then I will still only be aware of the part of themselves they choose to share, perhaps only the surface.

Characters in stories, especially novels, have to have layers, they have to have conflicts, they have to have textures, and it is the writer’s task to add them. To literally add flesh, bone, blood, soul and mind to a notion of a person.

I live with depression, I have had therapy over a number of years and I trained as a counsellor. I have, therefore, spent some time considering the human condition. I do think this assists in creating characters which live and breathe off the page.

On any creative writing course, we are told ‘show don’t tell’. In other words, if a character is sad, show what this looks like rather than tell the reader, Frank is sad. I would also add, the showing should really be more about inviting the reader to feel the sadness. And to do this, the writer has to get inside the body – their own as well as their character’s.

Our bodies feel our emotions before we can name them. Yet we cannot use this knowledge of the body in our writing unless we allow ourselves to inhabit our own bodies fully. As writers, the danger is we will spend too much time in our heads. As people in contemporary society, we might spend too much time distracted by the whirl of life: phones, adverts, noise, chatter…. In either case, we will miss the vital understandings brought to us by our bodies.

My way into my body is mindful walking (I have written about this: https://mslexia.co.uk/long-distance-writer-3-meandering/). Though yoga comes a close second and I am sure you will findboots your own way towards body awareness. Notice and take notes in your writing journal of how your body reacts to emotions and environments.

However, while you are creating and layering your characters, take this a step further. Imagine yourself into your character’s body. Walk as they would. Ask yourself, how would they feel afraid? Or sad? Or love? Notice and make notes in your writing journal.

Finally, you could also interview others. Ask them how they experience their body? What happens in their body when they feel a particular emotion? You may be surprised, and inspired.

What is your tip for creating layered characters?

Author Interview: Clare O’Dea

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Clare O’Dea

I am thrilled to welcome this week to my blog Clare O’Dea.

She is an Irish author, journalist and translator living and working in Switzerland. Her first book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths (Bergli Books, 2016), is a non-fiction examination of the most prevalent clichés about her adopted country.

Originally from Dublin, Clare has lived in Switzerland for the past thirteen years, ten of which she spent working for the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. Clare also writes fiction, long and short. She has translated non-fiction books from French and German into English, most recently the biography of a Swiss banker.

What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a children’s novel for the upper middle grade age group (10-12). It is an adventure story featuring a brother and sister who are on the run in a country controlled by a sinister, all-powerful company. I started writing this book three years ago, but had to set it aside several times when other more pressing writing projects took precedence. I have been sharing chapters from the book with my writing critique group here in Switzerland since last summer, and getting very helpful feedback. Next, I’d like to hear from the target audience, so I am preparing to send the manuscript to several children in the right age group along with a questionnaire.  After that I will be ready to submit to agents.

Could you give five tips on how to tackle plotting?
These tips are not meant to be binding. They are just things that worked for me.

Don’t start writing until you are convinced you have an idea that is big and strong enough to carry you and the story to the finish line. The main idea, or concept, should be something that is both unique and universal, something that captures the imagination and emotions.

The plot should also be describable. If you cannot describe the story neatly, there may be something at fault. Time spent distilling the story in advance will pay off.

Subplots are good and necessary but there’s no need to go overboard. If the reader loses sight of the main storyline, it’s time for some trimming.

Always ask yourself why you are including a particular scene. It can’t just be because you like it. What does it contribute to building character or advancing the story?

After your first draft, write down a simple scene-by-scene breakdown of the novel, if you haven’t done so already. You can break it down into columns that are relevant for your story, for example character(s), action, setting. This is a useful exercise to get an overview, and to identify possible lulls or repetition.

How would you describe your writing process?
With novel writing, once I start something, I usually plunge straight into a flow phase. Because of work and family commitments, I have to squeeze writing into small pockets of time, and may have interruptions and delays. After mulling over the story in advance, I sketch out a simple one-page outline of the plot. I write in chronological order starting at the beginning. From then on, the story has a momentum of its own. In the gaps between writing, the ideas build up so that when I sit down, scenes unfold and characters appear almost of their own accord. I usually write one chapter per sitting. The second, third and subsequent drafts take longer to complete. On my first novel (unpublished), I had to discard an awful lot of material in the rewriting phase. The second novel (children’s) has been a much more economical writing experience.

If you are traditionally published, could you say something of your journey and your experience?
The submission and publication process for my first published book, The Naked Swiss, wasnakedswiss_cover surprisingly pain-free. I left my job covering news for the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation in 2015 because I felt I had come as far as I could as a part-time working mother. When I went freelance, one of the things on my to-do list was to submit a non-fiction proposal to a publishing company in Basel that specialised in English-language books about Switzerland. I had ten years of reporting to draw on, as well my personal experience of living in the country. The editor answered within days and asked to meet me to discuss the project. It took a few months of back and forth to rework the concept and write more sample chapters before he was ready to offer me a contract. I wrote the book in six months (part-time) up to May 2016 and it was published in October 2016.

Fiction took a back seat during this time but I have an event coming up this month in Geneva that could be promising – a meet-the-agent/publisher weekend organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. I will have a one-to-one session with a publisher, and get professional feedback on my first novel.  As you can gather, I still have my sights set on the traditional publishing route, although I don’t rule out self-publishing in the future.

Do you find it difficult to switch between writing fiction and non-fiction?
I find it manageable because I am so used to it at this stage. With my job as a journalist, it has never been a case of one or the other. After many years of false-starts, I finally began writing fiction in earnest five years ago, and it has made my life more interesting, as well as helping me cope with the isolation of being an immigrant. With writing, I am never alone and never bored. I have made wonderful like-minded friends, and the joy that I experience creating my own worlds, in short and long-form fiction, has become an essential part of my life.

How can readers find you and learn more about your writing?
The about page on my writing blog is a good place to start. For a sample of my writing, check out my short story, The Favour, which was shortlisted in the Hennessy New Irish Writing competition last year.

I have an author page on Facebook, concentrating on The Naked Swiss for the moment, and you can follow me on Twitter @clareodeaz or connect on Goodreads.

7 Prompts for Writers #2

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This week we went to Whitley Bay. On a grey, blustery morning we scrambled our way to St Mary’s Lighthouse. The causeway was open, so we walked over. The place appeared deserted. My first thought: what a great setting for a novel, especially a murder mystery.

A place can be a great starting point for writing. I am fan of Julia Cameron The Artist’s Way. In it she suggests taking regular ‘artist’s dates’. These are day trips to places to gain inspiration. I would echo Cameron in saying these should be dates with yourself – don’t take anyone else, unless they are also writers and/or know how to be quiet. Endless chatter will get in the way of imagination.

Places abound in stories. When was a place established? By whom? Who were the designers? Who the builders? Who lived there? Are there any connections with historical events? Who lives thereabouts now? How do present conditions compare with those of the past? What about the future? What wildlife is around? What is the landscape like? How has this all changed over time? And so on, I am sure you can supply other pertinent questions to get you going.

Try making notes in situ and remember to evoke all the senses – smell, sight, sound, touch and taste.

What is your favourite place to visit as a writer? Have you been inspired to write a story by visiting somewhere?