Monday, 29 November 2010

Two Workshops in The Claygate and Esher Short Story Festival. Friday 26th -Sunday 28th November

Though notionally in London, and only half an hour from Waterloo, places like Claygate have a faux village atmosphere that resembles a war-time film set or a real-life recreation of Ambridge.You almost expect the village pub to be called The Bull, not The Foley Arms.

However, some chances are too rare to pass up, and knowing I'd be safely back in Lewisham by nightfall, I attended a couple of two-hour work - shops at in the Claygate & Esher Writing Festival. It was organised by Susannah Rickards, who also tutors a local writing group. The pub where it took place was only five minutes walk from the station.

The first workshop,'Storm in a Teacup: Writing for Women's Magazines' , was run by Geraldine Ryan. I've been trying to write womag stories for a while, with no success although I've analysed stories, looked at websites and even read how-to-write books. It's a demanding genre.

Geri's name crops up regularly in magazines like Woman's Weekly and Take A Break. She has two stories currently appearing in latter's the Christmas Fiction Feast. She shared her considerable knowlege and answered questions for the first hour of her session; in the second half we worked in groups to re-assemble a story of hers that she made copies of before cutting it up for reassembly.

Geri's 'advice' could be summed up as: 'know the market', and instructions included essentials like knowing the word-count for different magazines, keeping up-to-date with current editorial requirements through websites and of course studying the published stories. She gave us a hand-out which analysed stories from Woman's Weekly in terms of themes. A natural optimist, she said she didn't find it difficult to to be upbeat (essential) but thought it important that a writer should be 'true to herself' when it came to choosing topics. She didn't write animal stories for instance. As she has four children, I wasn't really surprised. Two of her many useful tips stood out for me: if a story could be summed up in a sentence it was probably a good one, and it was good to have a particular reader in mind when writing.

Although the world of the women's magazine story might be small, something must happen in it to bering about some kind of change; her advice about plotting was succinct : 'Get in. Get on. Get out.'

We enjoyed working in groups to reassemble copies of one of Geri's stories, with an ensuing discussion that underlined elements such as plot, dialogue, flashback, turning points and climax.

Susannah took a slightly different approach, eliciting resonses and sharing experience of acting as a competition judge as well as a prize-winner for her workshop on 'Writing for Competitions'. The group consisted mainly of her regular class, so she had more 'notional' time than Geri. At the the end she was able to set a 'homework' writing task based on the event, to be a mini-competiton with a prize!

Starting with the benefits of competition writing, i.e. receiving feedback, possiby attracting an agents and learning to work to deadlines, she went on to discuss the status or tiers of competitions, from the most prestigious (Fish; BBC; Bridport)to small local competitions. As an experienced competition judge she was well placed to give tips on a range of issues, from the importance of reading past winning entries, layout and the role of white spaces in the text, to tips on style.

A mini-exercise on how to treat a short story topic showed how to add the little extras to catch the judges attention. Titles, opening paragraphs and endings, were covered, as well as character and dialogue.

It was good to feel part of a group for even a short time. My only regret was that I wasn't able to attend other events in this weekend Festival. I'd have liked to hear Emma Darwin on writing for radio, for instance, and Vanessa Gebbie on writing Flash Fiction, but the timing was against me. Oh, well, maybe next year...

Friday, 26 November 2010

Write Away:One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life by Elizabeth George

I've had this book hanging about for a while, as the dog-eared state of the pages testifies. I'm surprised to discover it was published as recently as 2004.

'A perfect DIY guide' says a Sunday Times critic, and that about sums it up for me, too. It seems to be a 'does what it says on the tin' kind of book. I hope so, anyway.

I think it's the common-sense style as much as the topic coverage that makes me decide to read it in tandem with my 'construction ' book, Karen Wiesner's 30 Days to a Full Draft. I should say at this point that it seems to me that must be 30 days writing at top speed 18 hours a day. My lifestyle doesn't lend itself to that kind of pace or commitment. That said, I'm plodding along nicely, although I sometimes have to read the complicated instructions several times over.

Elizabeth George's handbook provides the perfect contrast. I feel as pleased as I did when I decided to Study Spanish as an antidote to Chinese.

For one thing, George is down-to-earth. You can tell she's open-minded but she's also very well-read, and illustrates the points she makes with lengthy passages from other writers' books, whether its point-of-view, dialogue or describing characters.

I like the way she says 'this is how I do things' but doesn't lay down the law or even claim her methods are superior. She's painstaking, and I like that. It sets me a good example.

She's generous, too, with sharing her methods and describing just how she personally goes about things. Each chapter of Write Away is headed up with an extract from a diary she kept while writing a recent novel. Apparently George writes a diary for every book, and that strikes me as a good way to encourage reflection. It's something my A-Level Communication students did for their media projects. They had to integrate Coms theory with decision making and then make revise and formulate as they went along.

She's written plenty of novels, too. I decided I should read one. Crime is her chosen genre, another reason I can relate to her approach. She invented a character called Inspector Lynley but he doesn't appear in the novel I came across in a charity shop. It's called What Came Before He Shot her, one of these very wordy titles I notice are popular of late. Succinctness was all, in the past, or at least something recognisable as a quotation. This was written in 2007 and comes in at 643 pages.

I was sceptical about an American writing novels set in England. How could that work?

Amazingly, it convinces. Set in north west London, the narrative centres around three London-born West Indian children who are left in the care of an Aunt, in a tough West London housing estate, when their grandmother follows her no-good lover back to Jamaica. Their mother is not fit to care for them, possibly because she's a drug addict, but I don't really know that because I'm only up to page 72. But it's very detailed, the characters eccentric but credible, the setting detailed and the dialogue, mainly dialect, as authentic as I can tell. Having taught in the West Ham and South London for a lot of years and priding myself on an ear for the spoken word, I'm really impressed.

All is explained when I look at the Acknowledgements and see the name of Courttia Newland, a black West London author whose short story collection Music for the Off-Key (2006)I reviewed a couple of years ago.

She's an ex school-teacher, too, another point in her favour. She's been teaching creative writing as well as writing novels for quite a few years .

'Indispensable!' says Mariella Frostrup. I'd certainly be upset if I left it on a train or in the cinema, which there's every chance of me doing.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Travelling Companions : audiobooks for car journeys

Why I thought driving to Preston and back could be done over five days staying in Travelodges I don't know. By the time we'd packed and unpacked, found places to eat, lost our way and tried to check in at the wrong ones it added hours to the total journey time.

Thank goodness I thought to go to the library and borrow a couple of audiobooks. It made the driving, especially the long two hours between Birmingham and London, almost pleasurable.

I've learned a bit about which tapes to choose. A long drive to Edinburgh last year was aptly enlivened by Ian Rankin's Exit Music. The latest one we tried was Ian McEwan's Black Dogs, and what with the careful build-up of characters and descriptions of landscape, it was all too leisurely. A drive to Worthing and back didn't allow sufficient time. We came back to London with one of the six tapes still to go, but lacked the will to finish when we were no longer a captive audience.

The two I chose thise time were abridged to two tapes each, which perhaps doesn't do justice to the stories but the fault's on the right side.Both were thrillers, so it didn't greatly detract to have them speeded up. The only loss was some confusion as to who exactly was who in the first one, but that's a risk anyway in a story where people were done in almost as soon as they appeared.

Abridgement lent an edge to the sensationalism of Sleeping Cruelty; baldly stated, the plot seems outlandish. A rich man, a closet gay, sponsors a rising Tory MP who apparently commits suicide because of an unhappy love affair. However, it may be murder and the sponsor becomes mixed up with a number of very unsavoury characters, especially an incestuous brother and sister who were victims of child abuse and should by rights be locked up. They commit a number of murders for gain by dint of having the woman seduce men (and women) and then bumping them off. There were a few steamy sex scenes (one literally so, in a sauna) which were well done.

Decider's hero was an architect/builder, a man with six young sons who learns he has a say-so in the fate of a race-course over which an upper-crust family are squabbling. Having read three or four of his novels, I see why Dick Francis's heroes remind me of Ian Fleming's James Bond: they are given to heroic feats that expose them to physical damage, giving the tales a masochistic edge as they are stretched to the limit of enduring pain. Roy suggested life as a steeplechase jockey must have given Francis a lot of injury experience. Francis's forte, like Flemings, lies with action scenes. In this case the main set piece was an exploding grandstand from which the hero has to rescue his son.

The reader is crucial to the enjoyment, I think, especially when it comes to imitiating voices of the the opposite gender. Bill Nighy read Sleeping Cruelty but for me the drawl he used for the main villainess made her sound comical, like a film-noir femme fatale. Robert Powell was much more successful with the Dick Francis, especially with a sharp-voiced dowager and an uppercrust bully. He's better able to change pace and accent to suit his characters. I can almost forgive him for the non-role he seems to play in Holby City on TV.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Resurrecting a Novel

I did my first my NaNo in 1987, before the 'official' one took off. I started writing a novel from scratch because I didn't know there were was any other way. Were there any 'how-to-write' books around? Nowadays you can't move for them, but I don't remember seeing one back then.

Ah Happy Days! Education was going through a shrinkage era so I wangled a year's sabbatical from teaching. My partner was selling BT's products in the IT boom so we didn't need my salary. I'd just finished a dissertation for a part-time MA, so I was into writing mode.

It took me a year to write the novel -or what I now know was a 'first draft'.

Not that it was the only writing I did. It was novel in the morning and short stories in the afternoon. I jogged round Greenwich Park in between.

Not all of it was writing - I had to do quite a bit of entirely pleasurable research. Towards the end of the time I printed off the completed manuscript and tied the pages together with something called a plastic tooth-binder. It wasn't good enough to try for publishing

Ten years later, when I'd finished a film dissertation for another MA, I decided to revive the novel again.

Sad to say, the floppy disks I'd written it on were completely redundant - no computer would take them. So I'd have to type it all up again. On the good side, it was only 40 thousand words. By this time I'd found out that a novel must be a minimum of 70 thousand words. Never mind, it would mean I'd get to know the book again. Especially as I was such a slow typist

Soon after, I was asked to write a proposal for a text book, based the dissertation. So that lasted until 2002, writing part time. I took 6 months off between FE jobs to finish it. Another blissful period divided between the BL and the BFI library, with a lunchtime walk through leafy Bloomsbury.

So, what with other distractions, (eg working for a publisher in China), early this year I still had 10k to type up. That's when I spotted the NaNo notice. A whole month of writing the novel - surely I'd finish the typing up at least, and have the word-countometer as an incentive as well as a 'community ' to egg me on.

I finished the typing-up within a week. It took about two hours a day, done in half-hour stints.

How to go about a redraft? Came the need, came the answer: I'd had this book on my how-to-write collection for a while but never got round to using it. It was hard to undertand. I carried it round for about a month before starting NaNo.

It's complicated, but it's not just about starting from scratch. Instead of starting at chapter one of the manual I start at chapter eight of ten:

Creating an Outline for a Project Already in Development or Re-Outlining a Stalled Project.

After printingit off, I've gone through the manuscript converting the 24 chapters into 62 'scenes', each with its heading. I've even cut them up and stapled the scenes together.

I made a copy of the whole text and I'm halfway through converting that back into scenes with headings. By this time I've got to know the novel again; I can see where extra scenes are needed, as well as some extra research. (A treat for the new year)

I'm using another book as well, but I'll write about that later.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

My cheating at NaNo writing journal

Not so much progress today because I spent the morning at my U3A Spanish class. But this afternoon I did manage to cut up the manuscript into the sections I'd marked out yesterday and staple them before reassembling into a pile. It took a couple of hours.

Now I need to read the instruction manual I'm following, but I should be able to make progress with the actual rewrite tomorrow.

I was lucky to be able to buy a stapler at the Trafalgar Square Post Office on the way to collect the theatre tickets, so I didn't have to go to the shop today. The PO is much improved; there's a ticket machine to tell you your turn and banks of comfy seats instead of the old cattle-pen queueing system.

I'd had some discussion with Roy about closing times. The counter assistant told me 6.30pm on weekdays. 'This used to be called the 24 hour post office' I said, and she seemed horror-struck at the idea, saying it must have been in the distant past. A bystander laughed and told her, 'Well, before you were born!'

Monday, 8 November 2010

My NaNoWriMo Journal

I was really pleased at my progress with the novel today.

Yesterday I had printed off all the chapters, which seemed to take hours, from about 4.00pm when I came back from lunch at Penge Wetherspoons, to 10.30pm. It took ages because I had to set up each chapter separately and tick a box to get 'best' quality print. Teach me to economise on print cartridges.

I kept running upstairs in the adverts during two episodes of Downton Abbey, one which Roy had recorded, to make sure the paper hadn't jammed. The printer's held together with gaffer tape but stood up to the judder. I told Roy I might use some superglue on it.

Today I went through the whole manuscript dividing the 26 chapters into 'scenes', as advised in the book I'm using as a template for the process. I summarised events in each 'scene' in a sentence written in red biro on the pages. I went swimming in Deptford in the middle so it wasn't too bad.

Tomorrow will be scary -I'm going to take the scissors to the script to divide up the scenes!

Tonight, time off to go and see 'An Ideal Husband.'
My 'Cheating at NaNoWriMo' Journal

So I broke the `10,00 word barrier today.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

My Cheating at NaNoWri Mo Diary

I did well today, considering I attended my U3A Spanish conversation class this morning, having got up at 6am to do some translation for the Bienvenidos short story discussion on Thursday. I managed to fit in half an hour before going to catch the bus, then three half hour sessions in the afternoon. I had a nap between the penultimate and the last session because my eyes were tired.

So now I'm up to 3,940 words and page 153 on my novel type-up. I can see what's wrong with it, too.

Monday, 1 November 2010

My 'Cheating at NaNoWriMo' Journal

1,617 words isn't bad, considering they were done by noon, when I went off to swim.

It was not a good day to start because first thing I drove my son David to Victoria Coach Station. 'You said you would, Mum', he claimed, when I raised my eyebrows last night. It meant, apparently, that he'd felt free to get heavy gifts for girl-friend Natalie, back in Belgium. She'll meet the Eurostar at the other end.

So what with that and a post-operative friend who rang for a chat about how get enough sustenance on a liquid diet at the same time as not upsetting the gut, the morning's output represents just three half-hour sessions, timed on my digital timer.

Wow! I can type 1,000 words in an hour -in theory. In practice, because of my arthritic leg I have to move around every half hour. And take breaks.

This wasn't from scratch, though. It's five pages typed up from an existing manuscript - printed on a dot-matrix printer c. 1987. What a wonderful year that was - I took a year off from that horrid school and wrote a novel! Well, a first draft.

That's why it's a cheat - but I'll just join in the action, not claim to be a winner when all's done.

Only thirty five more pages to type up and then I can go on to phase 2 of my plan.