Tag Archives: story writing

The Writing Journal

Writing in my journal by a Norwegian lake

I have been keeping writing journals for over ten years now and recently I spent many happy hours reviewing them. The result is a list of ideas and kernels of pieces of writing which should keep me going for the next ten years!

I’ve been writing since I was 19, so I’ve had the habit of writing regularly for over thirty years. oftentimes in notebooks and/or in diaries. I didn’t commit to the idea of a writing journal until I returned to the UK after a spell working abroad for an anti-poverty non-profit. In many ways, I can see the commitment to my writing journal as also a commitment to accepting myself as a writer – rather than waiting for some kind of external ratification of me as a writer. I began to say (when asked) ‘I am a writer’. I dedicated time and space to writing and further developing my craft, even though there was little endorsement from the publishing industry.

During the last ten years I have taught creative writing (for the University of Hull) and run numerous workshops. The first thing I always encourage people to do is to start keeping a writing journal. For me, this is a special notebook. It is 15 by 21 cms, so relatively portable. It has no lines to cramp my writing into going in a particular direction or being of a particular size. The paper is relatively thick (the notebooks I use are sold as sketch books) which means I can sketch if I like, use watercolour pencils and oil pastels and stick things in without spoiling the page surfaces for writing. I date every entry. Entries might include: very personal reflections on how I am feeling or what I’ve been doing; musings on being a writer; scrappy thoughts on writing pieces to be developed; beginnings, middles, ends (in no particular order); observations on the world around me; quotes; poetry (written by others and me); images such as postcards; cuttings from newspapers and magazines; bits of information gleaned from the TV, the internet, radio, other people….

I am wedded to a writing journal and hand-writing. It works for me. I do believe there is something exceptional about ‘free writing’ – which I have written about elsewhere eg writing the therapeutic journey – done with a pen. I think it is a way of unearthing what is below the surface of conscious thought and of circumventing the many ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ which a lot of us carry around.

However, I could see for other people a writing journal might be, for example, a folder on the computer; a box file; or a filing cabinet drawer. The main thing is that it should only be used for gathering inspirations for writing, it should be added to regularly and that it should be away from prying/judging eyes.

Over time the writing journal will become a treasure trove to be mined, especially, but not only, when a writer is feeling depleted and de-motivated.

I am currently reading Deborah Levy’s essay Things I don’t Want to Know. I was charmed to find her mentioning her writing journal. She notes how descriptions she had written of the cabin crew on a LOT fight to Poland in the late 1980s ‘morphed into nurses from Odessa’ in a novel she was to write a decade later.

Nothing written in a writing journal is ever lost, it will always pop up somewhere or become a scaffold for some piece of creative work.

Which is why, whenever I am asked by someone about where to start with writing I suggest a journal. If a person can commit to writing in one of those habitually, then there is a chance they will realise their ambition of writing stories or poetry or a novel or a non-fiction book or even a series of blog posts.

What is your experiences of keeping a writing journal?

Memoir

This is not where it starts….
I have always enjoyed reading biographies and allowing life to inspire my fiction writing, but recently I have begun to explore more deeply what might loosely be termed life-writing.

Biography, autobiography and memoir are all developing forms which intersect and interweave. Here are some of the aspects I’ve noticed in my recent reading. Firstly, the biographer coming more prominently into the biography. There is often an explanation about why the subject of the biography was chosen and about the connections between the lives of biographer and subject. It is probable, in my opinion, that knowingly or unknowingly a biographer chooses a subject which holds up some kind of mirror to the biographer’s own experiences.

Technically a memoir focuses onto a contained aspect/theme within (rather than the whole of) a life, and the autobiography does the opposite. It’s occurred to me at this moment that I don’t actually read a lot of autobiographies. This genre appears cluttered by those from celebrities which can err on the sycophantic and name-dropping. Memoir on the other hand seems to be more open to the quirky and the off-beat. It also strides hand in hand with nature writing, travelogues and books about walks and journeys, which feeds into other interests of mine (see posts: https://bit.ly/2sEHamp & https://bit.ly/2JGfZyD).

A recent article in The Guardian by Alex Clark (23rd June 2018) suggests there is a new genre of autofiction. This purports to do two things:

  • bring the writer’s life into a novel.
  • Disrupt the idea of narrative and realism in the novel form. For example, by playing around with the narrative voice and the timeline and by speaking directly to the reader (thus making obvious the artifice of the novel).

I’m not convinced either of these are new, but perhaps putting them together is. Clark mentions in particular Crudo by Olivia Laing and Rachel Cusk’s Kudos. Clark suggests this ‘new’ approach to novel writing is trying to ‘find a new way to describe reality at a time when, as Kathy says in Crudo, it is “hard to talk about truth” and perhaps even harder to write it.’ As well as attempting to echo the ‘now’ of social media and also its propensity to encourage its users to ‘present’ an image of themselves.

Clark also suggests autofiction ‘speaks to the idea that to capture 21st-century experience writers must breach borders – blend fiction, memoir, history, poetry, the visual and performing arts.’

This is where it starts….
I’ve recently read Charlotte by David Foenkinos, a novel based on the life of the artist Charlotte Salomon. It is written in narrative verse, quite terse and without the descriptive passages which punctuate most novels. It took a while to get used to, but in the end I found it very moving. Charlotte herself created her own autobiography, Life? Or Theatre?, an artwork of over seven hundred scenes mixing images and text. It finishes with the words, ‘I was all the characters in my play. I learned to walk all the paths. And in that way I became myself.’

As she knew she was about to be picked up by the Nazis, Charlotte handed over her artwork in a suitcase to a doctor who had helped her. As she did so, she said, ‘It is my whole life.’ The suitcase was not opened until after the Second World War ended. Charlotte was killed in 1943 aged twenty-six within an hour of arriving at Auschwitz.

I think maybe Salomon knew about autofiction before the rest of us.

Or maybe it starts here….
A sculpted pair of arms made of bronze in a glass case in an art gallery in a small seaside town and the accompanying explanatory label. This led me to read A Great Task of Happiness. The life of Kathleen Scott by Louisa Young. Or a painting in another provincial art gallery of a woman of Asian origin, who was both goddaughter to Queen Victoria and a suffragette. This led me to read Sophia: princess, suffragette, revolutionary by Anita Anand.

Maybe this is where all writing starts…. curiosity.

Meanwhile here is a memoir by a fifty-three year old woman:

 

Exploring Creative Non-fiction

For various reasons, these several weeks I am not focusing on my novels. So I have been playing around with ideas which lie more in the ‘creative non-fiction’ category. I’ve always written (and had published) non-fiction pieces and have even strayed into academic non-fiction with various research articles and my book Pathways through writing blocks in the academic environment (https://bit.ly/2HC5xvd).

This time I’ve been doing a lot of meandering around topics such as: walking, nature and writing; the body and writing; and women’s biography. The result is many notes, but nothing entirely nailed down.

‘Walking is not the action by which one arrives at knowledge, it is itself the means of knowing.’ Thus wrote Robert MacFarlane in his book The Old Ways (Penguin Books, 2012, p.27). I feel the same about writing. If I write freely enough, allowing the pen to scrawl (and usually I do need to handwrite for this type of writing) I will discover what I did not know I knew. But sometimes in the writing I become stuck and then I will walk. Walking attentively, walking mindfully (open to myself, the nature around me, and myself in the world) will shake free the words and notions which have become snared.

This was written during one of my explorations:

Biography, body, map, walking, writing

My biography is written into my body, a map of past delights, of past misdemeanours, of past wrongs, of forgotten memories. I forgive my body for its inconveniences. I am journeying each day along my life’s path – partly unmapped, the end uncertain. Walking is putting one foot in front of another. Writing is putting one word in front of another. Neither can be done in theory. Both bring understanding in the doing.

Are you interested in creative non-fiction? What would be your writing tips?

 

Author Interview: Christopher Lloyd King

Good morning this rainy Easter Monday. Around this time last year, I completed the Curtis Brown Creative novel writing course. One of my colleagues on that course was Christopher Lloyd King. He has just published his first novel, Black Sun (available from Amazon: goo.gl/ApwVn9). I am delighted to have an interview with him on my blog.

Christopher Lloyd King came to writing fiction after a career in television. He directed single plays and series over a thirty-five period. Credits include BBC’s ‘Forgive our Foolish Ways’ for which Kate Nelligan received a BAFTA nomination as best actress, ITV’s ‘The Thing About Vince’ starring Timothy Spall, which won a Silver Rose at the Montreux TV festival. He directed two series of Channel 4’s ‘The Manageress’, starring Cherie Lunghi, and many popular series, including ‘The Professionals’, ‘Minder’, ‘Soldier, Soldier’, ‘The Bill’, ‘Casualty’, ‘Holby City’.

He was educated at St. Peter’s College Oxford and L’Université d’Aix/Marseille, with an M.A. in film directing at The National Film and Television School.

Please say something about your writing journey to the present day.
During my directing career, I wrote screenplays (with a view to directing them myself), so have always been interested in telling stories, placing characters in a landscape. My scripts have tended towards historical settings, ranging from post-World War 1 rural Ireland to the Welsh mountains of the interwar years. Subjects have included sexual intrigue within a ménage à trois, the social ostracism faced by a gay pacifist during the build-up to war. A common thread in these scripts is an interest in the ways political events on the global scale affect the everyday life of ordinary people.

It was this preoccupation that led me to the story of Black Sun. I read Ian Knight’s Zulu Rising, an account of the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879-83, and was struck by the similarities between those events and the Blair/Bush invasion of Iraq in 2003. There was the same slender pretext for declaring war, the same impulse from British politicians to control the natural resources of a ‘third world’ country, the same demonisation of a tyrant. and the same outcome: huge loss of life and the creation of a power vacuum leading to devastating civil war.

Zulu Rising led to my reading more widely. I became fascinated with the story of Mehlokazulu, whose impetuous action to punish his adulterous mother became the justification used by the British. I wondered how this young warrior could bring himself to garrotte his own mother. Without any ambition to start writing a book, I set out to examine his motives. It was like unravelling a mystery; one thing led to another and eventually the architecture of a novel was revealed.

How did you do the research for Black Sun, and  how you feel about writing about another country/culture?
I was, and am, sensitive about describing historical characters from another culture. In the case of Black Sun, cultural appropriation is far from my purpose. Black Sun is written objectively in third person, which I hope helps maintain a detachment and avoids any blurring between author’s attitude and the value system of the characters described.

One difficulty I had to overcome is that most histories of the period are Euro-centric, written from a European perspective by British or South African writers. Zulu history is essentially oral, word-of-mouth stories passed down from father to son, mother to daughter. Two exceptions are Bertram Milford’s Through the Zulu Country and Paulina Dlamini’s Servant of Two Kings. Milford travelled through Zululand soon after the Zulu defeat, interviewing the Zulu participants – including Mehlokazulu and his father Sihayo. He took down verbatim their testimony, thus presenting Zulu eye-witness accounts of the battles.

My most important source was Paulina Dlamini’s book. A short, eighty page, monograph, this is a direct account of the war through the eyes of a thirteen-year old Swazi princess sent to work in the Zulu King Cetshwayo’s household. Nomguqo (her pre-baptismal name) was therefore witness to conversations at the highest level in the royal court and remembered them in detail. After the fall of the kingdom and ensuing civil war, she converted to Christianity and became an evangelist. Her fellow missionary, the German Lutheran Heinrich Filter, transcribed her stories and published them in 1911 (the English edition wasn’t published until 1986). Paulina’s memories are fresh and in exquisite detail. Consequently, she became the second principal character in the book.

Available on Amazon: https://goo.gl/ApwVn9

As a boy growing up in the North-East of England, I was aware of the history of the Zulus from reading Henry Rider Haggard’s romances set in Zululand, specifically Nada the Lily. The writing was so vivid I wanted to visit Zululand and see for myself where the story was set. The opportunity came after leaving school. Before starting university, I spent nine months in newly independent Zambia, as a volunteer teacher. During the Easter break I travelled down to Durban and went inland to kwaZulu, where I spent some time in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. It was exactly as I imagined it, a vast landscape with traditional ‘kraals’ (which I know now are called iMizi in isiZulu) dotted over it.

Then in 2016, my eldest son and I made a trip to kwaZulu on a trek through the uKhahlamba mountains. We made a trip to iSandlwana and had the good fortune to meet Lindizwe Ngobese, a local historian. Lindizwe is the great great grandson of Meholokazulu, the hero of Black Sun. We have kept in touch ever since and I am waiting, with my heart in my mouth, for his reaction to my evocation of and tribute to his ancestor.

What is your ‘writing process’?
The research and writing of the book went hand in hand. I discovered the characters, and therefore the story, as I read about the history. I wrote narrative ‘sign-post’, scenes which I knew I had to describe, like the ‘battle of the first fruits’ in Book 1. These provided guides to direct the story, but at no time did I follow a prescribed plan. It’s fair to say that the novel wrote itself – serendipitously. There was a good deal of back-tracking and re-writing. In retrospect, it would have been more economical and practical to have written a story plan, but since I had no idea of what I wanted to write, I allowed myself to be guided by the characters.

Five years in the writing, the manuscript ended up at an unwieldy one hundred and fifty thousand words. I had no immediate plan to seek a publisher, content with the reaction of my wife, who cried at the ending. Job done, I thought.

However, pure chance led to the manuscript being read by Simon Clegg, MD of PiqWiq, a small independent publishing house. He showed it first to Rob Dinsdale, an agent with A.P. Watt. Rob’s notes were invaluable and produced a quantum shift in how I considered the book. He reminded me that I was writing character based fiction and not history. He made me realise that characters are not aware they’re living through ‘history’; they’re living each day as it comes. ‘History’ is how we interpret events from the perspective of time having passed, where we have the advantage of seeing patterns and knowing the ‘ending’. I wrote a whole new draft with this injunction in mind.

Simon Clegg then showed this draft to Sadie Mayne, a freelance editor, who deemed it worthy of publication. Then came the time-consuming task of turning the clumsy manuscript into a book. Sadie was very helpful in shaping the narrative, cutting sections that were overwritten and redundant and encouraging me to expand areas that were underdeveloped. There was considerable to-ing and fro-ing.

The title Black Sun suggested itself very early on. One of the most dramatic features of the battle of iSandlwana, the first encounter between the British invasion force and the Zulu army, was the partial solar eclipse. According to contemporary Zulu accounts, the ‘sun went black’. The image provides a particularly apt metaphor for the eclipse in fortunes of the Zulu nation.

PiqWiq suggested that the novel might provide material for two books. Various dividing points were offered, and eventually it was decided that the themes of Book One, dealing with the build-up of hostilities, would be neatly rounded off with the Zulu armies marching to confront the British invaders, with Book 2 starting at the battle of iSandlwana and ending with the annihilation of the Zulus as a fighting force.

Have you any writing tips?
It would be invidious of me, as a beginner, to suggest writing tips to other novelists, but I myself have been helped by my previous experience of directing for television.

I know, for instance, that characterisation is all. Story is the consequence of the interaction of characters, what they say and do to each other. I am interested in the ambiguities in behaviour, inconsistencies which lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. This is the essence of conflict. So, finding those ambivalences is key to plotting, determining what the key objectives are for each character and deciding how these intersect or contradict each other.

Also from editing television programmes, I’m aware of the unwritten rule to start a scene/chapter late and leave it early. Rely on the audience/reader to fill in the missing information. As readers, we all construct in our mind’s eye the rest of the narrative as we make our way through each stage in a novel. This is the key to understanding how to maintain suspense, keep the reader’s attention.

Brevity and concision are also lessons learned from TV. This applies to description and scene setting. It’s important that the reader has a sense of where and when an action is set, but this works most effectively when it is integrated into the action. It should not appear as imposed, or arbitrary

What motivates you to write?
I write as I read, to be taken into another world, the imagination of the author. I’m always surprised by what my imagination throws up. There’s a strange alchemy that transmutes half-buried ideas and half-remembered thoughts into concrete images, and from there into a coherent narrative.

Future plans?
I have another historical novel on the stocks, set in the same period of history. The 1870s threw up conflict across the world, where indigenous people fought to protect their lands against the incursion of greedy, land grabbing settlers of European origin. For some years, I’ve been reading histories of the American Wild West (childhood fascination with ‘Cowboys and Indians’, I suppose). I chanced upon Empire of the Summer Sun by S.G. Gwynne, winner of a Pulitzer prize. This tells the story of Quanah Parker, the last of the Comanche war-chiefs. Quanah’s understanding of his people’s need to adapt to new circumstances is poignant. The friendship that developed between him, leader of a nomadic nation, fighting to preserve an unsustainable way of life and R.S.Mackenzie, colonel of the 4th Cavalry, who defeated him in battle, is the basis of the new book Blue Norther.

‘Which question did I wish you’d asked?’: which book would I like to have written? Sebastian Barry’s Days without End. The first-person narrative of the seventeen-year old Irish volunteer, in love with his brother-in-arms through the horrors of the American Civil War, is a masterpiece of characterisation.

Talks, Ideas, Inspirations

Vanessa Bell’s cover for Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘To the Lighthouse’ British Library collection.

A Book By Its Cover

Do we make judgements about what book we want to read from what’s on its cover? I love books. I love reading them. I love writing them. I love the feel of them. I love the smell of them. I love book covers. I became more interested in book covers when I volunteered in the library here in Scarborough and picked for clients of the home library. I became more aware of how the book cover influenced my decision over whether a certain book would be suitable for a certain reader. My interest was further developed when I became involved in designing covers for my own novels.

the idea of having an illustrated cover came slowly. Right through the 19th century books were sold with ‘dust jackets’ but these were merely to keep the book clean, were usually made of stiff brown paper and were thrown away once the book was taken home. It would be into the 20th century before this dust jacket would be routinely illustrated. By 1911 a writer was complaining of a new commercial turn, publishers being “convinced that a book, like a woman, is none the worse, but rather the better, for having a good dressmaker”

What to learn more? Come to my talk on Book Cover Art which I will be presenting at various venues in April:

Saturday, 7th April, Scarborough Library, Vernon Road, 1045-midday for Friends of the Library (all welcome).
Tuesday, 17th April, Woodend Creative, The Crescent, Scarborough, 1-2pm. Ticketed event. Please call: 01723 384500.
Monday, 23rd April, Filey Library, part of World Book Night. 6pm-715pm. Please call: 01609 53 6608

The Human History of Walking

Women walked in protest to get the vote.

People have walked because they had to, to get from one place to another, to explore, to go on pilgrimage. And they have walked as protest. If we look back at a revolutionary time in the UK’s history, the 17th century, when we beheaded a king and, for a brief time, had a republic, pilgrimage and protest became intertwined. 

It’s 1655, two women are walking the muddy bye-ways towards Salisbury. They are wearing plain dresses and bonnets, stout boots, a warm cloak. They are the itinerant Quaker preachers Katharine Evans (my namesake) and Sarah Chevers. They believe – as preached by George Fox – that God’s light is within them, as it is within everyone. It is a type of pilgrimage, but it is also a protest. A protest against a church where the power rested in the hands of a few rich men. A protest against a religion which said God’s words had to be mediated through a male priest. A protest against a church which gives divine authority to unjust wars and injustice in society.

….

Some 18 years ago, I was in the grip of a severe depression. I had always enjoyed walking, but during that time, it became a necessity, it became a way for me to untangle some of the mess that was in my head. Since then, I have become more interested in how walking is essential to wellbeing and to creativity – which is, in itself, nourishing of wellbeing. 

I am a writer and walking has become an intrinsic part of my writing process. In September 2015 I walked St Cuthbert’s Way with my sister, a 100km route from Melrose in the borders of Scotland, to Lindisfarne in Northumberland. This long-distance walk also gave me an opportunity to experience the intertwining of walking and writing.

Want to learn more? Come to my talk on Tuesday 24th April, Woodend Creative, The Crescent, Scarborough, 1-2pm. Ticketed event. Please call: 01723 384500.

 

 

The Joy of Re-writing

For this New Year, my project is to re-write my crime novel Drowning Not Waving. Re-writing is often a real struggle, especially for novice writers. Where to start? What to do? Here are some pointers.

Firstly take some distance. I finished the first draft of this novel over six months ago. That’s a good length of time to leave before attempting a re-write. It should mean that when you re-read your work you can do so more as a disinterested reader than as the involved writer. Six months ago I thought I had done a pretty good job on my novel. However, when I re-engaged with it in January, I could immediately see problems with the pacing, with when and how clues are revealed and with keeping the tension going. Being a crime novel, these aspects are important. What’s paramount in making your novel work will depend a bit on what genre it is. Though issues around pacing, reveals and tension are probably worth considering whatever the type of story it is.

Secondly get some feedback. I got some following a writing course I did with Curtis Brown Creatives and this has helped me to focus. I started by tightening up the character profiles. I usually discover a character by writing about it, but at some point I pin down a profile with everything I now know. I had done this last year. I re-visited them and ironed out inconsistencies, worked on back-story and refined motivations.

I then pulled apart the time-line, creating more space for characterisation and creating jeopardy. This has also meant moving chapters around which does get a bit hairy, as I then find things happening in an earlier section which can’t until something in a later one occurs.

When I am writing my first draft, I generally find I am carrying all my characters around in my head. At this stage, I have them and my narrative arc which – as a friend helpfully put it – is currently a partly unravelled piece of knitting. It feels like a delicate balancing act, so excuse me if I appear distracted….

Thirdly ensure your feedback is from someone who understands the concept of re-writing. This is not the moment to show your writing to someone who is pernickety about grammar or spelling. What you want is a fellow writer or a reader who is able to take in the narrative as a whole and see where the kinks are or the patches where it limps along. Who is able to meet the characters as real people and suggest where they become too thin to be believed. Who can hear your dialogue and root out where it clangs or where it is unnecessary. It is not an easy task, nor one for the faint-hearted.

I am about two-thirds through this re-write, with all the unpicking and re-stitching I have done, I have no idea whether it will work as a whole. But for the moment I feel confident and energised, so I hope this will carry me through.

What are your tips for re-writing?

Keeping Motivated

For most people, the festive season is a break with routine, which will probably mean a break from writing. Then January dawns dark and cold, possibly accompanied by a hangover caused by too much indulgence, too little sleep, or too little peace and quiet (or all three). How to get writing again?

I love to write. I love the act of creating something which will communicate to another, crafting an idea in a way so that it can be shared and understood. I like to tease over words and sentence construction until I have that well-turned phrase or that evocative description. I love to create and enter into imaginary worlds. I also feel better when I’m writing. The act of expression – even if it is only between me and the page – can bring pleasure and relief.

Even so, it is sometimes hard to get going again. Making space and giving permission to myself to write are key. This year, I made some physical space. I spent two days re-organising shelves and filing drawers along with sorting and shredding documents. There’s space there now for new works and that is exciting.

As those of you who have read this blog over some time will know, I have indie published three crime novels based in Scarborough. I still have a couple of boxes of these books and I have decided to run down my stock. The best way I have found of selling books is to get out there and give talks. I now have five set up – see my events page. And I have been enjoying developing a new talk about book cover art. It is a fascinating subject which I will bring more of to these blog pages in due course.

I am also re-writing a fourth crime novel based in Scarborough which is tentatively entitled Drowning Not Waving. Where to start with re-writing? Here are some suggestions: (1) Get feedback from trusted sources. (2) Leave several months before going back to it. (3) Re-visit character outlines and time lines to ensure they are coherent and characters are well-rounded with a decent back-story. (4) Re-read with a reader’s head on, with as much distance from your work as you can muster. (5) Make guidance notes for yourself. (6) Use your notes to start re-writing from page 1 and keep going, one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time….

I feel energised with these projects on the go. I hope whatever creative projects you have this year, they prove to be satisfying and full-filling for you.

Any tips for keeping motivated when writing?