Monday, 19 October 2009


So this is it. Tomorrow, as part of the charmingly named 'exit tutorial', we get our MA results.

Although it's been over a month now since we finished the course, on some level, this is the moment we've all been waiting for. The fruition of months of work. For the last year, and more intensely over the summer, we've all being riding the rollercoaster of creatvity, chasing that often illusive spark of creativity as the deadlines loomed ever closer.

But for my fellow novelists and I, it's far from over. While it's possible to write a complete script in a few months, writing a novel is a much longer term project. The challenge now is to keep on working at it. But without a specific goal, it's much harder to find the motivation to keep going, to ignore the distractions of well, just about anything. As writers everywhere will testify, sometimes doing anything else is preferable to actually sitting down and writing.

So what I've decided is this: to set myself a goal of writing 1,000 words every day. Based purely on the maths, that would mean I'd finish my novel in under two months.

If only it were that easy...

But having a goal is something to work towards. If you don't know where you're aiming, you'll never score.

Wish me luck for tomorrow!

Friday, 19 June 2009

Thoughts on a writer's life: the art of procrastination

When my life is crammed full to bursting, and I feel as though I've got no time to sleep, or even to breathe, all I want to do is press pause. To slip away on my own and lose myself in the flow of writing.

After a manic couple of weeks in London on work experience, I came back to Falmouth. There's been a lot going on here too: saying goodbye to people leaving for the summer, course-related seminars and the inevitable random nights out that seem to just happen when you're living in a small town.

When I haven't written for a while, I find myself getting edgy. Ideas crowd my mind, keeping me awake at night or waking me up at 3am with the sudden urge to put pen to paper. I get frustrated with anything, and everything that's preventing me from writing.

But when I finally have the time I crave, I sometimes I find it hard to get started again. Procrastination takes over. Lately, this seems to be in the form of research: it feels like work, in reality, it's little different from all the other things I find to do that aren't actually writing.

I've met many other writers, including a number of successful published authors who admit that sometimes, they'll do almost anything except write.

Why, when it's the thing that we love the most, do we procrastinate?

But I've also heard that procrastination is an essential part of the writing process. While you're making the tenth cup of tea that day or checking your emails, your subconscious is actually hard at work, developing ideas, working through the problems with your plot, letting your characters develop. When you finally sit down to write, it seems as though the words flow as if channeled by divine inspiration.

However, I'm also aware that time marches on. The summer is fleeting: I have to make the most of my writing time now, because come the autumn, I know I'll be working.

I'll get back to work in a minute. Once I've checked my emails.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Old friends: the joy of rediscovery

Re-reading a book that you have loved is a little like meeting up with an old friend you haven't seen for some time.

Over time, we all change, and the way we relate to other people and things changes to reflect this. It's the same with books. I've just finished rereading The English Patient, which I last read when I was in my mid-teens. I loved the novel and the film, although the film was quite different from the book, as is often the case. Minghella managed to capture the essence of the novel: the beauty of Ondaatje's writing was translated into stunning cinematography.

Reading The English Patient, what struck me was the craft that went into the writing of it. I found myself reading much more slowly than normal, savoring the words to the point where I would read passages aloud to listen to the rhythm of the words. It's exquisite.

The way Ondaatje weaves the four narratives together, slipping between the past and the present is impressive. I found myself having to read passages more than once to appreciate the the technique; I'd got too caught up in the story to notice how they'd been constructed. The prose is sparse but achingly beautiful in places. Not a single word is wasted.

I love The English Patient now more than I did when I first read it at 17 because appreciate the work that has gone into it. The precision of the sentences, the scenes, the character development and the research that went into writing a novel set at the end of the Second World War.

Welcome back, old friend.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Beauty, truth, photography

Images have always had a strong influence on my writing.

Perhaps it's partly because I've been taking photographs for almost as long as I've been playing with words. There's a natural overlap: a blurring of the boundaries between words and pictures.

Everyone keeps telling us writers today have to be multi-talented. It's not enough just to be a writer: you also need to know your RSS from your CMS, how to promote yourself (on and offline) as well as bake the perfect souffle.*

So to help us on our quest to become Renaissance (wo)men, we've recently had a couple of seminars on photography. One of our assignments was the challenge to seek out the beauty in everyday objects. The truth is that most of us walk around with our eyes closed half the time. The familiar becomes invisible.

The act of looking through a viewfinder helped to change our focus; it helped us to see the world with 'new eyes.' The images everyone brought back were intriguing, sparking off a discussion of how we interpret the world - and the difference one small thing can make.

Inspiration often comes from unexpected sources. A remark overheard on a bus. The smell of freshly baked bread which conjures up a long forgotten memory of your childhood. The way the light streaming through the window highlights the features of the person you love.

It's the details that really bring a piece of writing to life. Of course, this goes beyond the purely visual. The other senses are just as important.

As writers, we translate our vision of the world into words on the page. The challenge is to make the worlds we create as vivid as we can.

* Just kidding about the souffle part. I hope.

Friday, 1 May 2009

The importance of place

Everyone has their special places.

Sometimes a place that gives you that comfortingly familiar feeling of belonging:a childhood haunt where the memories of your past float by like clouds across the sky. Sometimes it's a place you come across quite by accident. It might have a spectacular view, or perhaps it's just a little patch of quiet in the midst of a busy city.

Recently I've discovered a park at the top of my road. It's tiny: no more than a patch of grass surrounding a war memorial and a few benches. What really makes it is the view: the park looks out over the harbour. At dusk, I like to sit and watch the dying rays of the sun glinting on the water as it sinks towards the horizon. It's a perfect place to sit and write, or think.

As a writer, it's important to be aware of the world around you - and often that means getting out there. Leaving the cocoon of your bedroom, study, kitchen, or wherever it is that you usually write and setting out on a voyage of discovery.

While travelling to another country can be an incredible, inspirational experience, there's a lot to be said for rediscovering the familiar. Finding the exotic in the ordinary. As Proust says:

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

Thursday, 23 April 2009

All the fun of the fair

The London Book Fair wasn't entirely what I'd been expecting. Most of the exhibition space seemed to be full of people having meetings; the books themselves made up an attractive backdrop. Were they agents brokering deals? Authors pitching to publishers? It felt as though we'd wandered into a members only club; at any moment, someone might come along and kindly ask us to leave.

But the seminar sessions were what we'd really come from. With this year's focus on children's/teen writing, I was hoping I'd pick up a few tips from people at the heart of the industry.

Highlights of the Fair included meeting Patrick Ness and Meg Rosoff, two of my favourite writers of teenage fiction. I managed to get hold of a signed pre-release copy of Ness's much anticipated follow up to The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer. The temptation to find a quiet corner where I could curl up and start reading was difficult.

Interestingly, Ness said he never intended to write for teens - that was just how it turned out. He believes that you have to listen to the story and write the story 'as it's being told,' rather than setting out to write something for a specific market. Once he found the voice, he found the story, and to his surprise, it turned out to be a novel for teenagers.

We've spent a lot of time looking at plot and structure of the novel as part of the MA course. While the theory is fascinating - you can pinpoint why something works, or doesn't - almost all the authors we've met so far have said you just need to write what you want to write.

Meg Rosoff described the process of writing a novel as 'A voyage of discovery for the writer.' She doesn't plan her novels, but starts off with an idea and writes a 'sketchy' first draft, during which her ideas develop.

On one hand, this is appealing. It feels creative, authentic just to write whatever you feel compelled to write. But does this mean the work will suffer as a result?

To plot, or not to plot, that is the question...

Perhaps it's just that the most sucessful writers simply have an instinctive sense of structure. They may not consciously or specifically plan out their novels, but nevertheless, the structure is there.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Black Swan Green

Intially I was sceptical.  I'd read David Mitchell's much-celebrated Cloud Atlas some time ago, and I didn't think much of it.  Perhaps I would look at if differently now.  But I'd been given Black Swan Green  - with a glowing recommendation - so I thought I'd give it a try.  I loved it.

It's the narrative voice that makes this novel.     It's 1982, and Mitchell's narrator, Jason Taylor is thirteen.  Jason's voice is authentic and engaging.  The everyday details of his life become something more than the sum of their parts due to the strength of the narrative voice.  You're immediately drawn into his world all the issues surrounding growing up: making friends, discovering who you are - and trying to uncover the mysteries of the opposite sex.  The novel also deals with more difficult issues such as bullying, divorce, racism and the effects of the Falklands War upon a small community.

Mitchell's liberal use of italics for emphasis helps to bring Jason's voice to life.   The contrast between what Jason says and what he thinks is revealing, amusing and sometimes painfully poignant.  Jason has a secret - he writes poetry - and a stammer, both of which he's keen to keep under wraps.  Any weakness would be mercilessly exploited by the in-crowd.  Black Swan Green depicts the tyranny of the adolescent society in detail so vivid you feel it. 

It's the sign of a good novel that when you reach the last page you feel a certain sense of loss that here's no more.  It's like any other enjoyable, finite experience.  You want it to continue, although at the same time, there's a part of you that knows if you did carry on, it wouldn't be quite as pleasurable.

I turned the last page of Black Swan Green reluctantly.