Sunday, 28 February 2010

WINNER

The winner of a signed copy of Susan Tepper's book is Old Kitty!

Well done - please e-mail me at gfmcdade (at) hotmail. com.

Thanks to all those who left comments

Friday, 26 February 2010

What a Character


Earlier this week, I was doing an interview to promote my third book, Dishonour - this feels strange in itself because I completed that book this time last year and edited it before the end of July. I'm now in the zone with my WIP and Dishonour feels like a lifetime ago.
Weirder still, though lovely of course, are the emails I've been receiving from Germany where my first book was recently published.
Dear Ms Black (very formal the europeans), please excuse my poor English (cue several paragraphs of perfect English), but I would like to congratulate you on Schweigepflicht (which is, ever more confusingly, a translation of the origianl title of book one and not a translation of the title it was published under in the UK)...
Sometimes I feel like a juggler.
Anyhow, back to the interview. One of the first questions was how I had managed to create a memorable character like Lilly Valentine. Now I've learned that in these situations a full explanation is NOT desired...a twenty minute muse on character arcs and their place in story structure will bore the pants off your average, normal person. So I gave the punchier version that I've honed. Lilly is a woman I conjured up as someone I would want to know. Someone I would like if I met. Someone who embodies some of the virtues that I admire.
Now, whilst that answer isn't false, I'm the first to admit that there's much more to it than that. A wonderful main character is at the heart of any great story. Think Poirot, think Inspector Morse. Or what about Harry Potter. For me, these MCs are almost alive, the story in which they are set, scondary.
Indeed, however ingenius or strong a plot line, it will always fall short without that special character to root for.
But how to create one? How-to books, I'm sure, wax lyrical, as no doubt do teachers on creative writing courses.
I too, have been giving it much thought of late. As I say, I'm deep into book four in my series and am increasingly aware that at the very centre of my books is Lilly V. She is the driving force, what makes readers keep coming back. She is the reason a TV production company has optioned my books, not my groovy sub-plots.
More than ever, I feel the pressure to keep her fresh, attractive and exciting.
So what have I discovered?
First, I know a lot about Lilly. Her back story is as familiar to me as my own. The childhood in poverty, the absent Father. I know where she went to law school and how she met her first husband. None of these details may ever come up, but I know them all the same.
Second, I understand Lilly's world inside and out. I used to do the same job as her so I can feel it and smell it.
Third, I know how Lilly will react in a given situation. This won't, however, always be predictable to anyone but me...which leads me to
Four, Lilly is complex. She says one thing and does another. Not because she is some ditzy chick, but because, like so many of us, her subconscious desires fly in the face of comon sense. I place her in situations where difficulties and complications abound but it is her inner conflicts that make her into someone with which a reader can identify.
As always, I don't set myself up as an expert, but I pass this on in the hope that it might help you find your own special someone.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

COMMERCE, CRAZINESS AND THE MAKING (AND TAKING) OF ART

"I've taken horrible liberties with folklore and mythology, but I'm quite unashamed about that, because British folklore and British mythology is a totally bastard mythology. You know, we've been invaded by people, we've appropriated their gods, we've taken their mythical creatures, and we've soldered them all together to make, what I would say, is one of the richest folklores in the world, because it's so varied. So I feel no compunction about borrowing from that freely, but adding a few things of my own."
J.K. Rowling

“To be honest, after our persistent ‘collaborations’ with Goya, we’re the last people on earth to claim the sanctity of authorship.”
Jake Chapman

The debate about the alleged plagiarism by J.K. Rowling continues to rage. I’m no expert on copyright, but I have an interest in the matter. My creative drive, you see, is in taking work that already exists and making something new out of it.

I make collages. I take images that other people have made or photographed or published and I tear them out of magazines and put them together with other images and words to create new images. Each picture has its own individual atmosphere and narrative. Is this breaching copyright?

I also ‘steal’ great works of art – those of Picasso, for instance – and copy parts of them, then paint a self-portrait into the picture. The dynamic instantly changes. Is this plagiarism?

And then there’s the writing. In my present novel, one of the dominant voices is that of a character I first read in a little-known novel from the seventies. Her name, occupation and age are different, but the voice definitely belongs to that first character. Have I plagiarised? Should my novel ever be published (hah!) might that author rise up in a cloud of lawyers and try to sue me?

I remember reading a book by an extremely well-known writer and being struck that several passages were taken – word for word – from H.E. Bates’s A Breath of French Air. It surprised me at the time, but I don’t think this was conscious plagiarism. I believe that the writer loved Bates so much that these sentences had soaked into her consciousness like an insistent lyric.

Perhaps Jung – like Rowling - would argue that we are all dipping into the soup of the collective unconscious when we write, or make art; that the ingredients are all already there for our appropriation. If every writer in the world were given five hundred words, or if every artist were given five hundred images, how often would a duplicate story/poem/picture be created? There would be similar elements, but each piece would have been channelled through the unique energy of the individual who created it and would emerge as a unique piece. To take the argument to the extreme, every writer has access to the same words as every other writer. It’s what each does with them that counts. And I think that plagiarism and copyright infringement only arises when commercial interests come into the picture.

On the subject of commercialism, I went to see the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy. Along with probably three hundred others, I shuffled from painting to painting, from letter to letter, aware of the person before me breathing down my neck (no wonder I caught a cold) while I, in turn, breathed down the neck of the person in front of me. The exhibition was moving and infuriating by turn. Here was a man who painted with a single-minded passion, yet who was unable to sell more than a single painting in his lifetime. A man whose work no-one – apart from his brother – supported or rated, a man who struggled to pay his rent and buy his food. And now? Now the world pays millions to see, and own, his work. He is lauded as a Master. We queue to catch a glimpse of the letter he was carrying with him on the day he shot himself. The one stained with paint, or blood.

Which is crazier? The man who strove to express himself as honestly and fully as he was able to and ended up in an asylum, or the institutions and individuals who squeeze every last ounce of value from his work after his death? Or those of us who buy the Van Gogh fridge magnets and the Harry Potter wands? Vast amounts of money are being made from Vincent Van Gogh’s work. Vast amounts are also being made from the work of J.K. Rowling. Fortunately for J.K., acknowledgement came in her lifetime, allowing her to move out of her run-down flat and away from her café table desk. If only Vincent had been offered the same blessing.

Forgive these ramblings: I’m suffering from Writer’s Block in every sense, due to the above mentioned Very Bad Cold.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Characters in Fiction: Where do they come from? Guest blog by US author Susan Tepper + Prize Giveaway


Characters can come from anywhere. They can be earthlings or moon people, half-man half-beast, they can be folks the writer knows well, or slightly, or perhaps someone glimpsed briefly on a crowded subway platform never to be seen again.

Characters can also come out of pure imagination, as a compilation of people and events that create a fire in the writer’s mind, something that can’t be put out with a hose or by beating it down with a rug. It can be a seed that irritates the writer’s brain, a type of fantasy, much like the fantasy of sand that irritates the oyster to form a pearl. Then over time this seed (pearl) connects to an egg that makes an embryo into a fully formed character. A birth!

But in keeping with nature, a moment, please remember that all parents do not love all their offspring. Some may be fabulous children while others are mean, miserable and generally bothersome brats. For me, as well as many other writers, it’s the bothersome ones that come begging to be born. They want to play with us on the page, inhabit our dreams, become alive, immortal — that dark seamy side of humanity brought into the light by means of a story or book. Most memorable characters in great literature are quirky at the very least, and evil, corrupt, narcissistic monsters at their worst. They act out all the stuff that’s repressed by civilized society. Which makes them such fun to write! Nabokov gave us creepy Humbert Humbert in his novel “Lolita.” Philip Roth created the sex-crazed Portnoy in “Portnoy’s Complaint.” For Salinger, it was a young, quirky Holden Caulfield who captured our hearts and minds in “The Catcher in the Rye.”

Of course lots of women authors have written incredibly outrageous characters, too, but at the moment these three come to mind. The list of memorable literary characters is long. And that is due to the courage of writers who let down their hair, don’t give a damn, let these characters out of the box, allow them to run wild and free on the page, so that readers may experience new and provocative realities. The life of the mind — not to be taken lightly. So, I say to all you writers out there — make characters that cry out to you, be true to your vision, and don’t worry about what others may be doing. Courage! (now say it the French way).

Susan Tepper is the author of the fiction collection Deer & Other Stories (Wilderness House Press, 2009) and the poetry chapbook Blue Edge. Over 100 of her stories and poems have been published in journals and anthologies worldwide. Susan has received five nominations for the Pushcart Prize. She is Assistant Editor of Istanbul Literary Review and hosts the reading series FIZZ at KGB Bar in NYC.

* We have one SIGNED copy of Susan's "Deer and Other Stories" (Wilderness House Press) to give away. Simply leave a comment below by Friday, February 26 and we will pick one winner. The winner will be announced on Sunday, so tune in then to Strictly Writing.

www.susantepper.com

Monday, 22 February 2010

Guest Blog by Claire Moss - (Not so) Guilty Pleasures



The first bit of advice new writers get is usually 'read a lot'. Like we weren't already.

But when I first started writing, I often read or heard advice that urged me to only read 'quality' fiction. By which the adviser usually meant 'literary' or 'classic' fiction.

I'm sure I can't be the only writer whose heart sinks when a question on Great Literature comes up in the office Christmas quiz. 'Oh, Claire'll know this one,' everyone on my team says excitedly. 'She's a writer,'. Only I usually don't.

I didn't do English at university – didn't even do English 'A'-level. I've never read Thomas Hardy. I've never read Iris Murdoch or Martin Amis. I've never even read Lord of the Flies.

I am neither proud nor ashamed of this. I don't think it makes me a better or a worse writer. But I do think it makes me the writer I am – a writer who reads the same sort of books as her readers do, i.e. popular, commercial fiction. And when I'm reading a book – whether it be a thriller, romance or Harry Potter – that I can't put down, I'm always struck by the immense skill involved in creating something so grippingly easy to read. Because 'easy to read' does not necessarily (or, probably, ever) equal 'easy to write'.

I don't enjoy 'difficult' books any more than I would enjoy a meal that was difficult to eat. I have never believed that the only purpose of reading is to challenge, or even to educate, oneself. It is mainly a pleasure, one of life's greatest.

Because of this, when I started to write a novel, it never occurred to me to try and create the next Booker winner. (I've never read a Booker winner either). I wanted to write the sort of stuff that I like reading – and suddenly all the pleasurable reading that I'd been doing all these years became 'research', and therefore something I could neglect the housework for without feeling guilty.

If your writing is literary, and so are your tastes, then I think the advice to only read literary stuff is sound. But everybody would tell an aspiring Mills & Boon writer to read lots of Mills & Boon, and the same goes for other genres like sci-fi. So if what you want to write is commercial, contemporary fiction which is never going to become an 'A'-level set text, then it makes sense that you ignore the classics and the prize winners and immerse yourself in the WHSmiths travel Top Twenty.




Claire Moss was born in Darlington, North East England, and now lives in North Yorkshire with her husband and young family.
Northern Soul Revival, her first novel is out now with Snowbooks (
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Northern-Soul-Revival-Claire-Moss/dp/1906727406/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1248467874&sr=8-1 )

About Northern Soul Revival
Carl has always carried a vague torch for his old friend Joss, one that has burned brighter as the rest of his life continues to disappoint him. The night before he skips the country to find himself a future he decides to live out his fantasy. Being with Joss is everything he imagined. Joss can't forget that night for a very different reason. A funny coming-of-age story for fans of Katie Fforde and Jill Mansell.

'Superb: 4 stars' The Sun
'Alive with people and places so real you could touch.' Rosy Thornton

Friday, 19 February 2010

Guest post by Kirsty McLachlan - Step out of the slush pile and into the hands of an agent


For a few weeks now, I’ve been raising the issue of the slush pile in our agency meetings on Monday mornings (when we discuss new authors, deals and Other Business). SAE’s seem so last decade and isn’t it time we geared ourselves up towards the digital decade? And just how many people have we found in the slush pile anyway? For the past few years, many of our clients have come to us through the ‘back door routes’ – those routes that ensure a manuscript lands firmly with a loud plop and a bit of glitter on the desk instead of the floor. Those authors haven’t asked for their work to be returned – either they are too cool for that or they assume – quite rightly – that we will agree to represent them.

So what are these ‘back door routes’? Let me name a few:

1/Friends of friends of friends – or just-who-do-you-know? Think about six degrees of separation – someone in your circle of friends, your family, your work colleagues will know someone in an agency or in publishing – it’s just inevitable. It might take a bit of working out – a bit of detective work but I reckon 50% of writers, will be able to locate a name with more than just a whiff of publishing about them.

2/Get noticed – start platform building - start a facebook page, start blogging, start twittering. I’m meeting an author this week who I found via twitter. Get your readers following you now, even as you write your book – get them involved in the writing process. Ask them questions. By making a name for yourself, you might just get an agent approach you.

3/Rules are for fools – start breaking them. I work in a busy but small agency. We have guidelines but there are times when people duck under these and aim straight for David Godwin, the agent, they email him and grab his attention. He’ll respond straight away if you ‘seduce’ him with your email – I’ve known him to read a synopsis that day and respond. So don’t feel you have to always tow the line. Be a bit daring.

4/Do your homework – target each and every agent you send your work to. Look for hungry agents – those with small lists and who have just moved agencies or have just been made an agent. They will be the ones who will read your work quickly and get back to you with a response.

5/Stalk your favourite agent – get to know them – who do they agent? Look for author events where the agent might be present. Learn what their likes and dislikes are. I’m obsessed with books set in snowy locations – so when a book came to me set in a cabin north of the Arctic circle, I leapt on it. It’s a personal business, so get personal – each agent will have their own little quirks and patterns so you need to find out what they are.

6/Get involved in a writers’ community – writing is no longer an isolated occupation. We’ve found at London Writers’ Club that writers love to network, chat, compare notes and use each others experiences to take their writing to the next level.

7/Get on your soap-box – start talking – shouting – about your book. Someone, somewhere just might overhear the conversation and will help you get your manuscript to the desk of an agent.



So it’s time to be a bit canny, a bit bold and a bit tricky. Look for the gaps and you might just bypass the slush pile completely. Be passionate and that passion will take you places, I promise.

Kirsty McLachlan is an agent with David Godwin Associates and co runs The London Writers' Club with agent Jacqueline Burns.

The next LWC Live which is on Tuesday, 23rd Feb. (next Tuesday) details here: www.londonwritersclub.com

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Guest Blog by Katerina Burton - On the Road to Inspiration



After eight months of living and travelling in a motorhome, I’m back in good old England and living in Devon.

As someone who’s never even camped in a tent before, the whole notion was a bit scary, but I coped surprisingly well.

With my husband, I toured France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, as well as parts of Britain that I hadn’t seen before – right from Land’s End , all the way up to John o Groats, and Dunnets head.

It was the most interesting eight months of my life. We saw some amazing scenery: the snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada; the world’s biggest and longest sand dune, where I climbed over 200 feet up, even though I’m terrified of heights; the endless vineyards of the Mosel Valley in Germany. I gained plenty of inspiration for stories and travel articles. We visited some places that had great names I can use for characters – I’ve made a list for my next book!

I kept a journal for the whole eight months and wrote it up daily – well almost. I sometimes left it for a few days, but caught up when I had some free time, usually sitting in the sun with a glass of chilled white wine!

We saw some bizarre things too. Once, when driving through a part of Portugal where there were no trees - it was quite barren and desert like – we saw stork/crane nests on top of the electricity pylons, or along the gantry of the bridges across the roads. There weren’t just one or two, there were dozens of them. I guess because they need to build their nests in the highest places possible for protection, and there are no trees, the pylons are the next best thing!

The downside to the whole trip was that we often didn’t have an internet connection. Some campsites had wifi – at an extortionate cost I might add. Others didn’t have anything.
However, we knew this would happen, so we coped. It just meant that when we did get a connection, we had loads of emails to download. McDonalds came in very useful I can tell you!
The other downside was the insect bites. It was horrendous, especially in Spain and Portugal. I reacted very badly to the bites and swelled up. Even though I plastered myself in insect repellent and wore a hat, the little blighters still got me and wherever they bit, it reacted – at one point, my feet were so bad, I could hardly walk for three days!

Towards the end of the tour, I wanted to come home, which is why we only did eight months. Originally, It was meant to be a year, but I’d had enough of living in such a confined space, the weather had turned colder, and the evenings got dark earlier. We could have headed to the south of Spain where at least it would have been warmer, but we decided to call it a day. I’d lasted longer than I – or anyone else for that matter - thought I would, so I’m quite proud of myself. And every downside has an up – those dark nights in the motor home, with no internet or TV, meant I had plenty of time to finish my first novel.

So, now I‘m home and halfway through editing that novel. I have some ideas for another three books, one of which I want to turn into a script, and after that, I’ll write up the articles from the travel journal. Then it’s back to the short stories. A writer’s work is never done!




Katerina is primarily a short story and non-fiction article writer, but also writes the odd Haiku and recently finished her first novel. Previous writing jobs included being a regular website columnist and occasionally copywriting for The Anthony Nolan Trust.

She's sold to various women's magazines as well as several twist in the tale stories to The Weekly News and a short story to Australia's That's Life. "I think inspiration for writing is all around us," says, Katerina. "We just need to open our eyes and really look."

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The privilege of learning about literature


I have a longing to go back to university and start from where I left off. It's been creeping up and gnawing at me for the past year now, and it's made me realise how relaxing it was to sit among friends in the courtyards, enjoying the sunshine and some literary greats. Fun, fun, fun.

Those glorious university days ended in 1997 and I remember the last day sitting around sobbing like a loon, wondering if the future world of work and all manner of things grown-up would ever live up to it (I later learned it didn't even come close!) Now 12 years on, I've decided I want to once again become a student at some stage in the future. Nothing comes close to the enjoyment and personal satisfaction of academic research. And I remember so well being immersed in dissertation heaven. Mine was based on Samuel Beckett, one of the great Irish avant-garde writers of the twentieth century. And in true Gillian fashion (making stuff over-complicated!) I tried to dig myself deeper and deeper into a dissertation hole by linking his work to Freud. (It was successful though!)

He was one literary great I was truly fascinated with. Born in 1906 in Dublin he was raised as part of a Protestant middle-class family. Later in life he claimed to have memories of being in his mother's womb. Beckett studied for his degree at Trinity College, Dublin, and during a stint in Paris, he was introduced to James Joyce, who by this time was widely known as the author of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Beckett soon became very much part of Joyce's life, joining his inner circle. For a short time, Beckett taught languages, but the appeal didn't last. His pupils at Campbell College, Belfast, were deemed 'rich and thick.'

One fascinating work of Beckett's is Waiting for Godot, which first appeared at Théâtre de Babylone in Paris in 1953. Act I begins on a country road with Estragon, an old man, trying to remove his boot. Vladimir, another old man, joins him. They begin to chat and while they wait on Godot, they engage in conversation. Two more men, Pozzo and Lucky, arrive, then a boy comes on the scene indicating that Godot will not be there today. (I can tell you're confused!)

When I had the opportunity to see several of Beckett's works dramatised, it was definitely one of the most bizarre theatrical experiences ever. Cue a darkened room filled with about 20 people, and heads appearing in boxes. It was all very accomplished, and for the Beckett devotee, perfectly sane.

If it hadn't been for my time at university, I probably wouldn't have had the opportunity to get to know literary greats like Beckett and Joyce, which has made me appreciate the value of education. Malcolm X said education is our passport to the future. And education in the arts and humanities is no less important than science or technology.

Photo: James Joyce, Dublin.

Monday, 15 February 2010

What's In A Name?

Do you remember the early books you read? Or the first films you saw? In my case my favourite early childhood book was Enid Blyton’s ‘Five On A Treasure Island’ and one of my first film memories is 'Broken Arrow' starring James Stewart. Two very different stories, a treasure hunt off Kirrin Island with Julian, Dick, Anne, George and dog Timmy, versus cowboys and injuns in the broken wild west.
As a young girl, I sometimes wanted to be George, Blyton’s tomboy female character. I was fascinated with her character and the fact that she insisted on Georgina being abbreviated to George, a boy’s name. Other days, I wanted to be Sonseeahray, the apache girl who was Jimmy Stewart’s love interest. If I’m honest, most days it was Sonseeahray (meaning ‘Morning Star’). I even named my special Christmas doll after her. A blonde doll, whose hair had to be given a makeover with my father’s shoe polish in order to make her more authentic. I was six years old.
See, for me, the story began with the name of the character – and still does. Give me a name and I’ll write you a story. Each and every time I start to write, I begin with the character’s name. I roll it around my tongue - imagining where that person lives, what they look like, what their favourite colour is, who they live with, who they love, what they do for a living, what their struggle in life may be. All of it, all of it stems from that first thought – what’s their name? And for me, it’s always instant. I know immediately what they’re called and I rarely change it, because they become that person straight away. It’s like the word – the name – makes them flesh.
Looking back on my most recent novel ‘Plumb Crazy’ the antagonist is named Paul Chadwick. In fact, I rarely refer to him as ‘Paul’. Is this because the use of his full name implies straight away he may be a bit of a cad? Or maybe a more complex Mr Rochester type? My main character Samantha is a female plumber known as Sam (Hmmm...shades of Miss Blyton’s gender subtleties here?)
So, I thought I’d pose a little name game and challenge you readers to come up with instant characteristics with just a name offered. My current WIP features a main female character Libby Bowen. Other characters are married couple Cal and Chrissie Neames. All three have specific characteristics, jobs etc as created by my head. But what would YOU make them? What does Libby Bowen say to you? And what exactly do Cal and Chrissie Neames do that might be eh, misunderstood in today’s society?
Have fun!

Friday, 12 February 2010

Postman Pat and Plotting

British 1980s children's TV is the focus of much drunken nostalgia among my generation, but I have to say that when I saw an old episode of Postman Pat recently, it was pretty boring. Pat did sod all except drive around the countryside and chat to Mrs Goggins.

My son is nearly three and, although we don't have a telly, he watches DVDs of the all-new
Postman Pat: Special Delivery Service series on my laptop. Pat's 21st-century incarnation is brilliant – each episode is action-packed, with a race against time, a heart-warmingly positive message, and a catchy soundtrack.

For those unfamiliar with
Postman Pat: SDS, a quick description of the average episode might be in order. Pat is talking to his son Julian, when his mobile phone rings and poor Julian faces the potentially life-scarring knowledge that his dad's job is more important than he is. The caller is always Pat's boss, Ben, asking him to do a Special Delivery – and this one's urgent! All deliveries are somewhere within a one-mile radius of the mail centre, so Pat and his black and white cat, Jess (still sprightly after nearly 30 years), set off in one of their vehicles – van, motorbike or even helicopter. A variety of mishaps conspires to stop Pat reaching his destination (more often than not, involving a certain amount of incompetence on his part) but the Special Delivery Service ALWAYS gets through. Pat delivers the parcel with seconds to spare, and is everybody's hero.

So what does this have to do with writing?

The episodes aren't realistic – as far as I know, small Cumbrian towns don't have Flying Machine competitions involving a rocket that can be accidentally launched by a sheep, and if real postmen got into half the scrapes Pat lands in, they'd get the sack – but the stories work within their own logic. The plots are well thought out and even the unrealistic events are believable because they are set up well in advance – something I believe is vitally important in a novel.

When Pat needs a fishing rod to rescue a lost teddy bear from the river, you can be sure that a few scenes earlier we'll have seen Ted Glen fishing further along the bank. When a magpie needs to be tempted with food, there will already have been a character munching on a sandwich. Such tiny details appear insignificant while they're happening – but then they suddenly have a bearing on the plot. When they're needed, they are in place – we don't get jolted out of the story by Pat announcing that he just conveniently happens to have a fishing line in the van.

The world of a novel doesn't have to be realistic either, and it could be argued that it
shouldn't be. Real life, after all, doesn't have a plot – it's just one damn thing after another. Fiction is different. It needs a greater intricacy, and part of that intricacy involves making the reader look back and think – 'of course! That's the parcel that was on the sideboard in the first chapter!'

I find even unexpected events more satisfying if they evolve from what has gone before and aren't just parachuted in from nowhere. A surprise can be even more of a surprise if the reader is given a clue but doesn't pick up on it at the time. Children's TV writers know this, and there's a lot we can learn from them.



.


With thanks to RottenLittlePony on Flickr for the image, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

The formula for success


Shh, or however you spell that sibilant sound: it always looks wrong on the page, or the screen for that matter. Like tsk tsk. That never looks right, does it? But now I’ve wandered off track. What I want to say is, hush! I’ve finally cracked it. Snuffling away in my bookshelves, I happened upon the secret formula for success in writing. Simple and easy to use. Oh, joy!

I’m only going to share it with you, nobody else, so please promise to keep it strictly secret.

The main criterion for enjoyment of the books I love is a unique and memorable main character. That means the original formula has to be:

E = mc2

Does anyone know how to do a superscript in html?

E is entertainment value and mc is the main character.

That's why I love Madame Bovary, Ulysses, Steppenwolf, Auto da Fe, Herzog, and lots of stories with wonderful, eternal characters. They become part of your world, more lifelike than most of the people you meet in that hazy unreal place outside books.

But I suppose there are other rewards a good novel should provide. We need a formula that squeezes out Murphy by Sam Beckett as the best book ever written. The characters are marvellous, it’s true: the tortured Neary, fawning Tinklepenny, endlessly desirable Celia and, of course, poor old Murphy himself. But there’s more, there's the language and, most of all, Murphy is funny.

That gives us l for the use of language, to my taste the next most important factor after the characters. Since my favourite books are usually funny, h is for humour and gets a double weighting too. I suppose we have to include the story, don't we? I’m told agents and publishers like there to be one. Reluctantly, p is for plot. Next, let’s not forget that some people like to lose themselves in exotic parts (s is setting). Grahame Greene’s, The Heart of the Matter, or A Burnt Out Case, or The Power and the Glory, all delight partly for their evocation of far-away. Oh, and Gormenghast has to have a mention here too.

For some people, the chance to learn stuff is what draws them into the bookshop. So, f is for facts. After dredging my head for five minutes I can’t think of a single example of a book where learning new information has been important to my enjoyment. Help me out here, perhaps it features more prominently in your bastardisation of the formula. For me, f is going to have a tiny part to play.

To summarise where we’ve got to, it looks as if E = 3l + 2h + mc2 + p + s + (f/2)

What else? Well, the block that stands before me all day long is the terrifying requirement for a big idea. I keep starting on my third novel and then can’t build up the momentum to finish. I’ve hooked onto the notion that, in today’s non-reading, non-book-buying, “we just can’t see enough of a market for this,” publishing world, what I need is a BIG IDEA. Something truly original. That’s frightening enough to silt up anyone’s pen. In other words O is for original. It gets a capital letter because it’s an open mouth waiting to swallow all my inspiration. Examples of books that score high on O are Luke Reinhart’s, The Dice Man, or The Curious Incident, or . . . God knows, I’m stumped.

I’ve already said I don’t read to learn facts, but I do like a novel full of big themes or insights into the human condition, a book that opens my eyes. That means we have to have i for ideas (the novel of ideas).

So the final formula is E = (3l + 2h +mc2 + p + s + (f/2))Oi

Simple – just apply that to your writing and you have a guaranteed blockbuster, classic, best-selling, masterpiece. All you have to do now is write it.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Give it a rest

As a person of northern, working class pedigree, I simply
cannot abide whingers. My DNA includes the immortal response to any query as to my well being.
'Not so bad.'
Remember the scene in The Full Monty with the MC balancing on the roof of a car which is slowly sinking into the canal. When a passing friend asks him how's been...you get the picture.


This wasn't made up for a film. Towards the end of my Dad's life when he was attached to an oxygen tank ( replacing as it did, his habitual Embo Regal), whenever anyone expressed sympathy for his condition he'd remind them that, 'There are plenty in the grave yard that wished they felt half as good.'

So you can imagine my annoyance when at a recent coffee morning of well heeled Yummy Mummies, the complaints started to crank up.

I admit here, that my envy of their cashmere clad, pert little buns may have hampered my objectivity, but come on ladies, in what universe does a late Ocado delivery constitute something to even mention. Ditto finding a cleaner. Ditto gaining half a pound.

I spent most of the morning humphing in a way that only emphasised my unbotoxed crows feet.

Later I met a writer friend and told her exactly what I thought about these graceless lovelies, before moving on to a discussion of the publishing industry at present. And here, I'm ashamed to say, I joined the fray. I whinged and whined like a good 'un, only with untoned arms.

Advances are down.
Discounts are up.
The Supermarkets have too much power.
Publicity budgets are being slashed.

Blah, blah,blah.

To anyone listening in we must have sounded like a right pair of numpties. For we have both had an enormous amount of luck. We are both published several times over. We both make a living from our work.
When ever I'm tempted to moan, I remind myself of something Elizabeth Gilbert of Eats, Prays, Loves fame, has on her web site, and which she says, she too tries to remember when this mad business starts getting her down.

'It's not the world's fault that you want to be an artist...now get back to work.'

That's fine for someone who has sold a squillion copies in every country in the world, I hear you shout. Pragmatism is easy when you're on the up and up.
And still I'm drawn to accentuate the positive.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating that we writers ought to be eternally grateful for any scrap that falls from the publishing table, rolling over, baring our arses and preparing to be shafted. Far from it. My advice to any writer would be to get a good agent and never sign anything unless you are absolutely sure you understand it.
Nor am I saying that we shouldn't be allowed to have a scream when things go wrong. Getting a disappointment off your chest is often just what the doctor ordered to avoid festering bitterness.

But I do think it's worth reminding ourselves regularly that despite rejections, bad reviews, poor sales, we remain ridiculously lucky.
We have a strange, yet wonderful gift. We are the teller of tales. We live to entertain and thrill. We conjure laughter and shine lights in remote corners of humanity. We should thank our lucky stars every day.

When I pointed out my unattractive inconsistency to my friend, she in turn pointed out that discontent is in fact the writer's best trait. It's this that forces us to work and re-work a sentence, to return to themes again and again.
She thinks we should embrace it. If being dissatisfied with things makes us better artists then so be it.

Maybe she's right. But I remain unconvinced. I hear writers endlessly rehearse the problems in this business. The stiff competition. The lack of imagination on the part of publishers. And I've never seen any sign that this hones their creativity, rather it just uses up energy.

So I for one intend to quit whining. When something makes me unhappy, I will try to change it, and where I cannot change it I shall try to accept it. And on those days when the literary world seems against me and my work, I shall at least keep it to myself.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Guest Blog by Sarah Fox - Exorcising the Ghost


When I started to write my first novel, I was entirely seduced. It was like being caught in a spell – seeing real words appear on the screen, the story unfolding before my eyes. And, never knowing what twists and turns the plot might happen to take – well, that only added to the thrill of creating an entirely new world of my own.

But then, perhaps I was too selfish. The Diamond was all about me, the sort of novel I wanted to read, with no thought of maintaining a consistent genre and no concept of sales and marketing teams and, despite securing an agent, my story was only published in Russia. Not that I’m ungrateful for that, and I think the cover is ‘Brilliant’ which by chance is the name in translation! But, to write a whole book and then be unable to read a word unless I do a crash course in Cyrillic – well, that’s quite a cruel irony, don’t you agree?

It was set in a sinister Victorian world of dark circles and amoral tricksters. It had a maharajah, a cursed diamond displayed in a golden cage, and...Oh, there I go again. But, it’s been so hard to let go of that book when I didn’t just write it, I lived it. I peered into every dingy room, and smelled the acrid candle smoke, and walked every gas-lit cobbled street as if I’d become my heroine: that naive crinolined narrator beset by ghosts and dissolute cads.

And now, I wonder if I was possessed during one of my séance scenes, because all of my characters seem too real. I still muse on what fate had in store for them next – where they went, what they did when I wrote THE END. They’re the dead who still walk, who refuse to rest, who keep drawing me back into their world – so much so that, over the past few months I’ve rewritten the start and added more scenes. I’ve tossed and turned in the depths of night with their voices hissing around me like snakes. It’s been almost enough to drive me mad, except – and might this be too much to hope? – I may have recently stumbled upon a way to throw the spirits off.

I’m going to reclaim my own destiny. I’m going to kill my antagonist – the glamorous and cunning fiend who, despite all of his villainous deeds, I just couldn’t bear to leave behind. It’s painful, but it has to be done. He’s been having his wicked way for too long, seducing and then almost ruining me with his unfulfilled promises and dreams.

I must take a deep breath and prepare to be strong. This time there will be no going back, and I know exactly what to do. He’s going to burn in a terrible fire when a candlestick is knocked to the floor. I can already hear the crackling roar as the flames take a hold of his bed sheets. Oh, but how will I bear his agonised screams? I know – he’ll be drugged and senseless. That way, I won’t hear him call my name and be tempted to save his life again. He’ll die, and my soul will be exorcised.

And, in case that doesn’t work, if I weaken and fail to carry it through – has anyone got a crucifix – or some holy water – or a wooden stake? Desperate times require desperate measures!


As a form of diversion therapy, Sarah has recently started a blog: THE VIRTUAL VICTORIAN – FACTS, FANCIES AND FABRICATIONS. She would love to see you there. http://virtualvictorian.blogspot.com/

Monday, 8 February 2010

Writing as play


We’re drinking tea and chatting, my sister and I, at the kitchen table. It’s been ages since we’ve seen each other. We’re talking about my six-year-old son, who, earlier, marched us all into his bedroom to watch his ‘Animal Olympics’. The competitors were a series of toys, including a stuffed dog, a dinosaur and a Ninja turtle who were hurled across the room or over a series of obstacles for the glory of their designated countries. [I think the dog - who has the rather prosaic name ‘Doggy’ - was Team GB]. Later, there was a lengthy award ceremony and heaven help anyone who wasn’t giving the proceedings their full attention.
So my sis was marveling at the little chap’s total focus and how absorbed he was in the minutiae of his carefully crafted game.
‘He reminds me of you when you were little,’ she said. ‘You’d play for hours with your dollies. It was like you had a whole world going on in your head that no one else could see…’
I remember this well. I sometimes used to sneakily play with my toys with one eye on the door, long after the time when I was meant to have outgrown them. What does all this have to do with writing, I hear you ask? Well, quite a lot. Because when my sister said it, I realised things haven’t changed all that much. Except now I’m all grown up with children of my own, I no longer play those complicated games with my Barbies and Sindies. I make people up and put them on paper instead.
I bet if I could take a straw poll of all the writers who visit Strictly Writing, the vast majority of you will have played highly imaginative games as children. But maybe all children play this way, and writers are just the ones who never quite grow out of it?
It’s important to remember the playfulness that exists within writing because we all know there are enough hard bits to test us. The rejection letters, writer’s block, RSI and writer’s bum are nothing to smile about. It can sometimes feel as though you’re banging your head against a brick wall, and, sniff, nobody loves you. But when a character starts to take on a life of their own, or you write a scene that makes you giggle out loud, that’s when you’re playing again, just like the child you once were.
So if you’re starting to feel as though this writing business is all about drudgery and pain, try to remember that none of us, even those with the undoubted pressure of a three book deal, has a gun to their head to make them write. Remember how it felt when your imagination could turn a laundry basket into a space rocket, or the end of the garden into a pirate ship and allow yourself to make believe.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

And The Winner Is...










Thanks, everyone, for commenting on Sally Nicholls' thought-provoking guest post, 'The Trouble With Goblins'.






The lucky winner of a copy of her latest book, 'Season of Secrets' is.... Emma Darwin!


Emma, if you email me your address, a copy will soon be winging its way to your daughter!


Thanks again to Sally and good luck with the book.








Why not order yourself a copy of Sally's fab-sounding new book from here.








Friday, 5 February 2010

Guest Blog by Rosy Thornton - The Rights and Responsibilities of the Writer


Writers around the world have always been in the forefront of the fight for freedom of expression. Here in the UK, of course, we have that right, enshrined in the Human Rights Act and article 10 of the European Convention. Which means that as a novelist I can write whatever I want. Can’t I?

The thing is, though, that with rights come responsibilities. I was brought up on the feminist writings of the 1980s (Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings and others) which critiqued the traditional, liberal, rights-based ethics with which we are all so familiar, proposing that the moral regulation of human conduct should be founded less on individual rights and more on a recognition of community, of interrelationality, of responsibility: a so-called ‘ethics of care’.

Oops, slid into lecture mode there for a moment. I can hear you muttering: what on earth has this stuff got to do with writing commercial women’s fiction?

Well, freedom of expression means that an author is free to write about whatever characters she chooses, and to endow them with whatever views and attitudes she wishes. Besides which, we have to be true to our characters, don’t we? We have to reflect the world as it exists. A novel is not a soapbox.

But my personal version of the ‘ethics of care’ tells me that the flipside of freedom of expression is responsibility for what we choose to express; that as writers we have a duty to think about the potential impact of our work on those who read it. Societal attitudes are influenced not only by upbringing, family, friends and workmates, and by the news media, but also by the ambient culture: by film and television, and by the books we read.

It is for this reason that, speaking personally, I would never write a character who held views which were intolerant (racist, sexist, homophobic…) and who did not have those views challenged before the end of the book.

Even though much of my work is romantically themed, I would never write a story in which a female character relied for her self-worth, her entire happiness, her 'redemption', upon finding a man. I would not write a moody 'alpha' hero who is mean and even cruel but whose meanness is portrayed in a sexy light – even though there are whole swathes of genre fiction pedalled to young women which are based on precisely this scenario. I would only ever write female characters who are strong and independent and follow their own ends, and are in control of their sexuality.

These decisions are entirely personal – just my own individual choices. I'm not saying other writers 'ought' to make the same decisions. But we are all responsible for the stories we elect to write. They do not arise in a vacuum. And for me, although the way I write about the characters, interactions and relationships I portray is dictated (I hope) by being truthful to my characters, my choice of story is to some extent prescribed by my personal moral politics.

Does that make me peculiar? Very probably. But this is me trying to be honest about a difficult subject.
Rosy Thornton is a successful, talented writer of Women's Fiction. Do visit her website here.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

This Girl Is Doing It For Herself


One of the downfalls of being an aspiring author and blogger is that you constantly read interviews with other writers, but no one ever, ever, ever asks you to do one! And we at Strictly are just as guilty of this. Regardless of talent or experience, we have only ever invited published writers to answer our Quickfire Questions. I don’t know why – gifted yet unpublished authors have provided us with great guest blog posts.

So, you know what? Today I am going to interview myself. It’s very exciting for me, and I am going to relish it as it may be the one and only time I get asked! Yes, it’s rather self-indulgent, but I reckon I deserve it after all these years of sweat and tears.

So please, published, but especially unpublished writers out there – if you comment on this post, do choose one question and answer it for yourself; I would love to see some other responses.


Three famous authors, dead or alive, you would invite to dinner.
Enid Blyton, Stephanie Meyer, Sophie Kinsella

Email or phone?
Email – far less nerve-wracking.

Top three dream agents?
Anyone who likes my work will do – that’s how it seems sometimes. But, on a good day, when I’m feeling choosy? Ooh, difficult – so many lovely (in my experience), highly qualified agents out there. If pushed, Darley Anderson, Broo Doherty or the Ampersand Agency.

And publisher?
The Little Black Dress imprint. They sum up what my writing is about – fun, entertaining (I hope) and my novels always come in at under 80,000 words.

Favourite desktop snack?
Chocolate, of course! Although in a moment of madness, I recently agreed, with my family, to give it up (watch this space). So, instead, a glass of Soave and huge bowl of cheesy nibbles.

Favourite writing outfit?
Anything with an elasticated waist. I know, sexy NOT – but see previous response.

In the face of rejection…
Never give up. Get mad. Get high on caffeine. Get drunk. Just don’t stop writing, rewriting and submitting. Imagine yourself like an onion and each rejection letter is another layer of peel. By the time you're in double numbers, it takes a lot more to get through to, and wound, the core. And I should know, i've just had a full rejected. I'm still standing. Here's to the next one...

My biggest technical tip would be…
Don’t be afraid. With my first novels I followed all sort of rules I thought were necessary to produce quality work. It was that bad at one point, I hardly dare write 'I’d' instead of 'I had'. Loosen up. Follow your gut. And then get some of it professionally edited to see what really matters and what doesn’t.

Hacker or Adder?
Hacker. To my disgust I always lose several thousand words on the edit.

If my favourite hobby wasn’t writing it would be…
Swimming. Although since my despairing hairdresser has forced me to don a cap in the pool, I might give it up. Yes, I’m still just about young enough for vanity to override good sense.

Epitaph?
She was what she was.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Guest Blog and Prize Giveaway by Sally Nicholls - The Trouble with Goblins


I like reality. I like real people, real emotions. Real people are interesting. A book about a realistic person dealing with the tricky problem of being a human being is so much more interesting to write than a book about a realistic person dealing with the tricky problem of a vampire and some fairies. When it comes to reading, I like fantasy books, and I loved science fiction as a child, but as a writer ... realism all the way.

Which is why I struggled so much writing ‘Season of Secrets’, my second novel, which is based on the pagan myth of the Oak King and the Holly King. I fell in love with the Oak King, a damaged summer god forced into a cycle of death and rebirth every year in order to make the summer come, and knew he’d work in a children’s book. I even thought I’d solved the real-people problem by adding a child called Molly, with enough real-life problems (cunningly linked to the Oak King’s story) to fill half a series worth of novels.

But, my God, fantasy is difficult to write! Villains, for example. What do they do when they’re not being villainous? Where do they live? Why don’t they just crush your puny nine-year-old heroine to a pulp, instead of allowing her to run off and plot against them?

And what do gods do all day? In the myths, the Oak King just sort of exists and spring and summer happens around him, but how does this work in real life? When he’s reborn, does he get clothes, or is he naked? Would he bother with clothes, just to satisfy the sensibilities of pagans and primary school librarians? And how does he feed himself? Does he need to? Does he have friends, besides the trees and the flowers? And when pagan mythology says ‘god of summer’, do they mean god of summer for everywhere? Or just the Northern hemisphere? Just Britain? Just his little section of Northumberland?

‘Ways to Live Forever’ was a lot easier. I knew how things worked in ‘Ways to Live Forever’. In ‘Season of Secrets’ I had to deal with all this world-building, which really wasn’t important to my main story, which was about a child coping with the death of her mother. And I knew right from the start that Molly had to tell other people about her man - I never believed in those children’s books where kids find secret passageways or magical creatures and never mention them to their parents. If I’d found anything that cool, I’d want to tell everyone about it, and I knew Molly would too. But if the others can see him, how does he belong to her?

In the end, I took inspiration from writers like David Almond, who let the reader know only as much as the main character does. Molly doesn’t know if her man is real or not - so neither does the reader. She doesn’t know much about his life - so neither do we. She wonders about it - she asks the sort of questions that I hope the reader asks - but she doesn’t get an answer.
I believe in allowing children to engage with a novel - to ask their own questions and come up with their own answers. I believe half of the fun of reading a book is working the tricky bits out for yourself, and I hope I let my readers do this. And I hope it doesn’t come across as merely lazy writing.

I tell you what, though. I’m not doing fantasy again. My next book is going to be realistic, modern-day and totally simple to write.

Except it seems to be set in medieval England.

Help!

Sally Nicholls is the author of Ways to Live Forever and Season of Secrets. Her novels have won numerous awards, including the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize, the Glen Dimplex New Writer of the Year and the Luch Prize for the best novel published in Germany 2008. Her website is www.sallynicholls.com.


For a free copy of Sally's book, do comment below and one of you will be picked from the Strictly Writing hat! The winner will be announced on Sunday, 7th February! Please comment by 5pm on Friday the 5th, if you want a chance to win the book!

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Gone Fishing

So...is it okay to admit I’m taking a break on here? I don’t mean a Kit Kat munch or the Magazine bearing the name, I mean a break from writing. Just a small one, tiny really, just long enough to fill my lungs with some inspiring breath and my brain with some emotional stamina.


There, I’ve said it on Strictly Writing. That’s the equivalent of standing up in an AA meeting room, and announcing yourself as a fellow drinker. There’s no going back once something has been admitted out loud for fellow peers to hear. For I am a ‘write-aholic’ and sometimes, even I have to admit that it doesn’t always make me feel good...In fact, sometimes it’s responsible for me feeling bloody awful. Sometimes, like an hour ago as I debated hurling my manuscript out the window, it even makes me look like Mr Bean. And gurning doesn't suit me.

I didn’t plan on outing this particular feeling today but as I typed, these words appeared before me of their own accord. I was wary of them seeming negative but as I thought about it, I know most of you go through similar temporary gloom and felt you wouldn’t mind my honesty. My pared back frankness can now reveal:

I’m tired. Much as I love the craft and feel privileged to be able to write when I want, I’m finding the constant rejection and therefore constant reinvention of my work exhausting. I’m feeling frustrated at my failure to produce something commercial. I realise that I’ve become so hung up on trying to figure out what other people want from me, that I can’t even remember what it is I want myself. And I need to re-claim that.

During this writing process, I've learned many skills but the ability to know when to step back is vital. Knowing when to leave the words alone is ironically one of the most important things to me. Strangely, it enables me to carry on.

So, although today, devoid of any inspiration, I’m admitting defeat - as Arnie says - I’ll be back. A few days off, thinking time, is what my brain needs. I've decided between now and next Monday, I’m not going to write a word. I’m going to watch crappy television and read some of the books on my ‘To Read’ pile. I’m going to try meditation, or my version of it, that involves closing my eyes, forming my thumbs and forefingers into a circle reciting ‘Om, Om’ whilst eating chocolate. When my eyes are closed, I’ll imagine somewhere exotic and restful and fill myself with new and shiny thoughts. And in amongst them will lie a gem of an idea, which will excite me and make me want to write again. Time to stop wallowing in last manuscript gore and move on.

So I'm stepping away from words, just until Monday. On Monday, I will get over myself, embrace the craft I adore once more and move on.

Monday, 1 February 2010

My empire state of mind


Who or what inspires you? Is it a specific writer from yesteryear, perhaps buried in childhood, or is it a person or place you truly love?

Apart from being inspired by the great Irish writers like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, I also cite New York as a great source of inspiration - as Jay Z and Alicia Keys rightly point out in their song Empire State Of Mind

Walking down the avenues, many tales are hidden behind each tiny window - from entire families who live in small spaces to immigrants who have brought their lives and problems with them from Ireland, the Caribbean and Europe - those who have fled other lives in search of better futures. And it's no co-incidence that in books two and three I've set chapters in New York, firstly in the 70s, then the present day because I feel I know it so well and I'm confident writing about it.

That's why I've come to love Colum McCann's 'Let the Great World Spin' (see previous blog post. Coincidentally he stole my idea for a future novel which was to be a group of characters each with a story which is woven into the others at the end. I had plans to focus on five Irish characters in Manhattan with one incident as the centrepiece, but now I'm reworking for a future novel! Thanks, Colum!

As a child I was inspired by Enid Blyton, of whom the teacher strongly disapproved, Laura Ingalls Wilder for the pure escapism, and Roald Dahl because he had such a weird and wonderful imagination and some great one-liners in his books which I could recite off by heart. As a child when you're young you can freely enter this other world of characters, all of whom want to be your best friend.

And as a teenager I remember being inspired by SE Hinton's book The Outsiders. It's about Ponyboy Curtis and his brothers who belong to a gang of youths called Greasers in Oklahoma. It's a fantastic teenage novel and one that everyone should read.

Lynne Reid Banks' novel One More River also had a huge influence on me growing up (I'm about to start reading it again). I first read this book as a nine-year-old. In the novel spoiled teen Lesley moves with her parents from Canada to an Israeli kibbutz because her father feels that the family has lost any sense of what it means to be Jewish. Much of the novel is set before, during and immediately after the Six-Day War period and follows Lesley's efforts to adjust, as well as addressing her growing friendship with an Arab boy.

Then there was Nancy Drew who every girl wanted to be, and it was at the age of 11, I decided to write my own Nancy Drew novel. And I did - it spanned a file block, lacked continuity, plot and POV.

Having said that I'm inspired by these writers, not influenced. I have my own style and I'm comfortable with that. I like to admire from afar but at the same time recognise that there are some great writers out there.

What are you inspired by?

Pic: That's me inspired by the view from the top of the Empire State building