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.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

The Writer's Apprentice

I've just got back from my first two-week stint of my apprenticeship with language consultancy firm The Writer.

They took me out for coffee and let me ask lots of questions. They also asked me lots in return. After all, fair's fair.

I loved the buzz in the office. Oh, and the cake. They're all rather fond of cake. Which can only be a good thing as far as I'm concerned. I met clients, sat in on a tone of voice workshop and participated in a couple of naming brainstorms.

And then they put me to work.

Time to put theory into practice. I worked with several people in the team, helping out with projects for major clients. This gave me an insight into the type of work they do and the process from initial brief to finished copy.

I enjoyed having my own briefs to work on. It's quite a different experience working on a live brief, rather than an assignment. For one thing, you don't have the luxury of time. No procrastination. (I might have made tea a couple of times, but that's just fulfilling the requirements of any work experience assignment).

Then came the feedback. Seeing my creative efforts covered with red pen was a new experience. At school, generally I just got a tick at the bottom of my work. But the last few months of critiquing have shown me that you need to use whatever you can to help improve what you write. You can't be precious about your writing.

Everyone gets someone else to look at their copy. Often, there are things you can't see yourself because you're too close to it. Another pair of eyes always helps. Sometimes I was called on to be that extra pair of eyes - and they were interested in what I had to say. Perhaps for the first time, I felt like a writer, not a student.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

A meeting with a literary legend

I've just met Audrey Niffenegger.

When I heard she was speaking at a conference in Falmouth (about illustration, rather than writing), I jumped at the chance to meet the author of one of my all-time favourite books.

The Time Traveller's Wife had me spellbound. When I mentioned it to someone recently, he said, "That's the book that makes men cry." I haven't actually met any lachrymose men, but I'm sure they're out there. And I have to confess I did have a few misty-eyed moments of my own while reading it. A tear might even have been shed at one point.

Niffenegger was vivacious, opinionated and engaging. Despite having participated in a day long conference, she made time to speak to the fans who gathered for a chance to speak to her. I spoke to her about her experiences of becoming a publishing sensation - news has just broken about her multi-million dollar deal for her second novel. You can read the full interview here.

When you're starting out as a writer, the more people you can speak to about the industry, the better. Some of the visiting speakers we've had have portrayed a bleak picture of the publishing industry, so it's nice to meet someone who's actually made it.

That said, there's also a huge element of chance involved. No-one could have anticipated the huge success of The Time Traveller's Wife. Audrey Niffenegger originally thought the novel would sell around 5,000 copies. "I wanted to write a novel and be published. My expectations really ended there." The Today show in the US and Richard and Judy were what catapulted it into the stratosphere.

It's not easy to get published. But that's no reason to give up - you'll never know until you try. As Niffenegger says: "If you think you want to write novels, just get on with it." Wise words.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

An unexpected twist in the plot

Sometimes it's strange how things turn out. You think you know where you're going, but then the landscape changes and you're left wondering where to go.

Or that's how I've been feeling lately. But it does make me wonder about all the choices I've made. So I sit here, at my laptop, staring into the void and wondering. The truth of the matter is that you can't ever really know - all you can do is make a choice and see where it leads you.

Because you have to make a choice. The worst thing is sitting on the fence, not choosing.

I've chosen to go back to my fantasy novel.

It's a like meeting an old friend, or perhaps an former flame whom you're still on good terms with. There's a kind of comforting familiarity mixed with the excitement that you feel when you haven't seen someone you're fond for some time.

I've found myself gripped by the story once more. I know there are things that need to be worked on - it's far from perfect - but it inspires me. I feel I now have the distance and the confidence to be ruthless with it, cutting scenes and tightening the prose. Like the early stages of a relationship, it's almost at the point where I can't bear to leave it.

And I guess that's the point of it all. There are countless other things we could be doing that would be easier - or more lucrative than writing for a living. Would any of us want to write at all if not for the passion it stirs within us?

Sunday, 1 March 2009

The Experience of Reading

Reading your own work out in front of an audience is an totally different experience to simply giving it to someone else to read.

Publicity is a key part of being an writer, according to all the authors who have visited Falmouth as part of our guest lecture programme. Reading your work - at book signings, lectures and various literary festivals - is part of this. Recently, Patrick Gale told us that he sees his career as having two sides - as a writer, and as an author. As a writer, you spend most of your time locked away with your laptop or notebook. An author's role is much more public.

While we've had to get used to reading and commenting on each others' work over the last few months, and yes, even reading out loud in front of the group, it's totally different to think about reading to members of the public who don't know me, or my work.

In a way, it's liberating.

I've started reading my work at Telltales, a monthly storytelling evening. In the comfortable intimate surroundings of Babahogs arts cafe, stories unfold by candlelight.

The first time I read, there were very few people there I knew, and strangely this made me less nervous. Reading a story that I hadn't shown to anyone before, it was interesting to see people's reactions, and hear their comments afterwards. There was no agenda: I knew that any feedback was a reflection of the story and the telling alone.

Reading aloud helps you find the rhythm of the story: where it flows and where it falters. It helps you understand how to pace a story so that you keep the listener (or reader) with you. A good story should have you almost on the edge of your seat, eager to find out what happens next.

I'll be reading all my stories out loud from now on - even if it's just to myself.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Beginnings, Middles and Ends

A story should always have a beginning, a middle and and end.

Or so we were all told at primary school. Actually, it's a lot more complicated than that in real life (or on the MA Professional Writing course), but that will do for starters.

I love beginnings. It probably says a lot about me (and my inner thrill-seeking tendencies). I'm addicted to the buzz of starting something new. A fresh idea always gets me excited, and this is the reason I often find myself burning both ends of the candle.

Alongside Waiting for Spring, the novel I'm writing for part of my course, I've also decided to resurrect my teenage fantasy novel Earthwitch, which has been sadly languishing untouched for several months.

Although this may seem like utter madness, there are perfectly logical reasons for this:
1. I'm stuck on Waiting for Spring. Having planned it all out in detail, I can't seem to get anything else down on paper. It will come, but in the meantime, perhaps writing something else will help.
2.While lying awake in the middle of the night going over plot outlines (doesn't everyone do this?), I came across the solution to the problem I'd had with Earthwitch. I'd been trying to figure that one out for months, and then BAM - inspiration strikes when you least expect it.

The middle part of any project is always the toughest. There's nothing else for it but to keep on going. It's a little like walking up a mountain - worth it when you get to the top for the amazing views and the sense of achievement of how far you've come - but a bloody hard slog getting there.

With that in mind, I'm going to plod on. Perhaps I'll try out some visualisation techniques. Athletes use them all the time. It's been scientifically proven that by imagining not just winning the race, but the entire process athletes can actually increase their performance.

I wonder if it works for novelists?


Thursday, 19 February 2009

Eternal Light

The Rambert Dance Company's Eternal Light Tour came to Truro's Hall for Cornwall earlier this week.

The title piece, Eternal Light: A Requiem sent a shiver down my spine; it has left a lasting impression upon me. The combination of the choreography, dramatic lighting and live choral music came together to create an experience that was elegiac, poignant and utterly mesmerising.

A requiem is usually based on the Mass for the Dead, which dates back to medieval times, and is made up of a series of movements sung in Latin. Eternal Light echoes that structure. Composer Howard Goodall has used the traditional requiem as a starting point to create something which acknowledges the past but is also fitting for the 21st century. The focus of the requiem has also shifted to providing solace for the living that mourn, evoking the theme that life goes on. Goodall has kept some of the choral accompaniment in Latin, but has also woven in English poetry.

Each movement had a very different feel to it, but every piece was an enchantment woven through movement. A range of emotions unfolded upon stage, enhanced by the careful use of lighting and costume. I loved the intense green light of the first piece, Requiem - Kyrie, performed by the whole company in what appeared to be effortless, organic symmetry. The dark red glow which lit the stage during the sixth piece, Dies Irae, combined with John McCrae's poetry of the poppy fields in Flanders conjured up the image of fierce avenging angels.

As I was watching the performance, I began thinking about my novel, Waiting for Spring and how to develop the central theme of life and death. Towards the end of the story, one of the main characters encounters an angel. After seeing the different movements unfold on the stage, it occurred to me that I needed to create something which would echo the fluidity of the dance, and the interplay between light and darkness.

I got home and started to write.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

The Great American Novel

There are certain books that stay with you long after reading. The power of a compelling, well written story is haunting.

Sometimes you come across one of these books quite by accident. A serendipitous meeting of story and reader in the right place, at the right time. It's interesting how some novels have a greater or lesser effect on you, depending on the age or stage of life you are at during the time of reading. Rereading Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar recently, I was disappointed to find that it didn't have nearly the same impact as it did when I read it initially in my teens. I'd outgrown it.

I'd recently be given not just one but two recommendations to read The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I'd been toying with the idea of writing a post-apocalyptic teen novel. I also have a slightly strange fascination with the idea of the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it. This may have started after reading The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, which remains one of my all time favourite novels.

McCarthy's bleak future is perfectly captured in sparse prose and minimal, often repetitive dialogue. It's a perfect example of the power of what is left unsaid. Interestingly, McCarthy leaves the reader to speculate about what has happened. The land is charred and essentially lifeless, forcing the few survivors to plunder the remnants of civilisation for sustenance - or resort to cannibalism.

Incredibly sad, yet beautiful, it encapsulates themes of love, self-sacrifice - and hope. The relationship between the father and son is tender; reading The Road you find yourself hoping against all the odds that they will find a way out.

The Road is due for cinema release later this year, starring Viggo 'Aragorn' Mortensen as 'The Man.' It will be interesting to see how the poignant minimalism of the novel translates to the big screen.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Snow day

The world has gone slightly crazy, myself included.

There's something about the sight of snow falling that brings out the child in most people. The others just whinge about it being a nuisance, and dash our igloo-building dreams by telling us that actually there's only 3 inches of snow or that it will rain by lunchtime. Perhaps we should feel sorry for them, because they probably lead rather sad and unfulfilled lives.

There's something almost magical about being the first one to walk across an untouched area of snow. It's thrilling when you're six, no less so when you're twenty-six (and then some). The pristine whiteness is just so inviting.....

Today at campus, students living in the halls of residence were building snowmen and sliding down the hills on any materials to hand. This being Cornwall, there were a fair number of body boards being pressed into service, plus the inspired use of a canoe.

At Truro railway station, a snowman had made his way up onto the platform. He may just have been a trainspotter, as he seemed content to sit and watch the world go by. I tried to strike up a conversation, but he didn't seem to be in a particularly talkative frame of mind. Or perhaps it was my rendition of Frosty the Snowman that put him off.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

New year, new post

2009 crept up on me like a stealth ninja and took me out while I wasn't looking. But in a good way.

While I've long since given up making New Year's resolutions, I am wondering what this year is going to bring. What I'm sure of is that it's going to be all about chasing dreams. 2008 was pretty eventful - I gave up my job and moved to Cornwall to start my MA in Professional Writing. It was great to go home for Christmas and catch up with family and friends, but now I'm back I've realised how much I missed Falmouth. I love the atmosphere down here. Watching the fireworks on the beach last night was the perfect way to celebrate the New Year.

The last few months have been pretty intense. I don't think that's about to change any time soon, although the focus is probably going to shift as we start our optional modules. I still haven't decided what I'm going to focus on for my novel. I've got a few ideas I'm playing around with which are all pretty different. Perhaps that's where the problem lies. Right now I'm torn between a teen post-apocalyptic novel and developing Waiting for Spring, a short story I wrote for one of my seminars which focuses on a father-daughter relationship, dealing with the cycle of life.

I've been reading a lot over Christmas, revisiting old favourites and discovering new delights. Everything from (good) chick lit to teen fantasy, literary fiction and Shakespeare. I figure if I keep feeding my subconscious something useful will come out (it's not procrastination it's called research). I'm also starting to read in a different way. I'm delighted by unusual phrases; I notice techniques and their effects - both when they work and when they don't, and how the plot shapes the structure.

It's all starting to come together.