Monday, 26 May 2014

Week Five: A Sense of Place

Is there a link between where we are when we write, and what we write?

The Romans believed in the 'genius loci' - the god or spirit of a place. But does it exist for writers too?

We are all instinctively creatures of place, we say 'Home is where the heart is,' and feel touched at some deep level by the leafy shadows within a forest or the breathtaking view from a hill or clifftop. We may no longer believe that spirits dwell in trees - the 'dryads' of classical myth - or that the ghosts of those who died there walk restlessly about our attics or along old battle sites. But the superstition is there, and it does not take much to rouse it, even in the most hardened sceptic. A whisper of cold air, and the hairs rise on the back of our necks ...

So do we, as writers, tap into this wellspring of emotion and superstition often enough?

We are often asked by editors to skimp on description of place and fill our books with dialogue instead. This makes sense, not least because the novel in the age of television cannot go back to being Hardyesque, opening on vast sweeping paragraphs of beautiful descriptive prose that beg a reader's indulgence. Page after page of dialogue instead is a technique that makes our books faster to read, slicker, more people and relationship-centred, and also reflects big screen narratives where the landscape is a visual backdrop that colours a story without words.

Yet in a book, the setting is still central to our emotional response as readers and we ignore it at our peril.

Setting is hugely important for fantasy and historical writers in particular. World-building is as much about locating a sense of place in a narrative as it is about telling us what these people believed or wore: we want to see the cloud-capped palaces above the bleak wasteland, or a still yellow ocean reflecting two moons. This is because where we are in a novel works hand in hand with who we are. A character cannot be a carefree hedonist in a harsh physical environment - or if she is, it reveals something interesting about her personality. And if we throw someone into a world where they are out of place, a 'stranger in a strange land', we create a powerful dynamic indeed and one which conjures up many striking novels.

Most writers understand the importance of place instinctively and weave it into their narratives with an easy hand. It becomes an inextricable part of their stories, so when we think of their novels, 'place' may be what comes to us first, enmeshed with the characters that inhabit it. The writer has told us who these people are by showing us so completely where they are.

'I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.'
 The opening line of I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

On the other hand, the setting of a story can be so powerful that it threatens to overwhelm the characters. The vast, ancient and impersonal landscape of Salisbury Plain in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles is indisputably larger than the humans who struggle to survive there, rather like the relentless sands of the planet Arrakis in Frank Herbert's Dune. By using such settings, we are saying something about the human condition, we are stripping people down to a level of starkness where truth can begin to emerge.

And it does not have to be about landscape, the age-old pitting of man against nature. Urban settings can isolate a character too, make them struggle for personal identity or power in a place where millions of others are involved in the same conflict. And this struggle for identity can be quirky and ironic rather than merely tragic, as here, when young Kim is dictating his letter to the letter-writer from the bazaar:

'They send me to a school and beat me. I do not like the air and water here. Come then and help me, Mahbub Ali, or send me some money, for I have not sufficient to pay the writer who writes this ... '

 Kim, Rudyard Kipling

So, being creatures of place ourselves, are we affected by our own surroundings when we write? Does our personal 'setting' as writers inform what we put down on the page? Some writers turn their writing desks to face a blank wall, ostensibly to avoid distraction but perhaps also to prevent outside circumstances feeding into internal narrative. We visit the houses of famous writers in order to ogle their likely surroundings during the writing of famous novels, and survey the view from their desks or garden seat, imagining what it must have been like ...

Personally I am more likely to write stories set in wintry places during the darker months of the year, and would find it hard to think myself into a frozen landscape in mid-August when the sun's blazing through my study window or I'm sunbathing on a beach. (I often think it must be hard for people who write only one book a year, or over several years, to deal with the seasonal shift. But maybe I'm alone in that affectation!)

Writing being a portable art, where we can scribble down a scene on the back of an envelope during the hassle of a daily commute to work, or tap away at a keyboard in a busy coffee shop, writers need to be able to block out surroundings and plunge deep into imaginary worlds without regard for what's happening around them.

But is that always possible? Or even useful, when some writers are able to soak up their surroundings like sponges and regurgitate them to great effect in their novels?

I can flick through novels I've written, and remember exactly where I was when I wrote a particular scene. Is this a common experience for writers, and if so, does it suggest a link between surroundings or circumstances and what we produce on paper?

There's a scene in His Dark Lady where Goodluck is injured, lying near to death on a barge on the Thames. I know precisely where I was was when I wrote those words: in a dark and gloomy farmhouse in Normandy, a converted mill, sitting late at night at a bench table, writing longhand with one of those storm lantern-style lights hanging above me.

Did my surroundings affect what I wrote? Yes, I think so. The scene might have been less dark and lugubrious if I'd been sitting on a hot beach at the time, or in the sunny town centre office I used to rent in the Midlands. Is this an important question? Possibly not, but it could be. It could indicate something interesting about the creative process. For instance, about the link between mind and body, between the eyes and the creative brain.

Question to writers: where do you write and does it ever influence what you write?

Answers below, and thanks for joining the debate.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Week Four: Rowan Coleman's 'Letter To A New Writer'

This week, I'm handing over my thoughts on novel writing to an excellent, prolific and very popular novelist, Rowan Coleman.

Rowan is writing a series of 'old-fashioned' letters this year - 52 letters, in fact, by eerie coincidence!! - and has agreed to team up with me this week by writing a letter to a new writer. Her letter will be posted simultaneously on both our blogs, through the magic of writerly synchronicity.

This week's letter is addressed to Sarah Callejo, a writer known to both of us through the marvellous Romantic Novelists Association, where Sarah is a member of their much-coveted New Writers Scheme.

Rowan Coleman, who is writing 52 Letters: One Letter, Every Week, For A Year.

Rowan Coleman grew up secretly longing to be a writer despite battling with dyslexia. After graduating from university she worked in bookselling and publishing for seven years before winning Company Magazine Young Writer of the Year in 2001. Her first novel Growing Up Twice was published in 2002.

Rowan has gone on to write eight novels for women including the bestseller The Accidental Mother, The Baby Group and The Accidental Wife, and eight novels for children and teens including the paranormal adventure novels Nearly Departed and Immortal Remains under the name Rook Hasting.

You can peruse Rowan's many novels on her website or here on Amazon UK and US.

Rowan Coleman's letter to Sarah Callejo - and any new writer - on how to approach writing a novel.

Thank you, Rowan!

This week's question is on the art of procrastination mentioned by Rowan in her letter: what excuses do you make when you put off writing your novel? (Or are you the dedicated type who never flags?)

Answers in the comment box below, please. Any comments for Rowan also very welcome!

Monday, 12 May 2014

Week Three: The Impossible Idea

Novelists heading for the Pick 'n' Mix Ideas Counter at Woolies. 
(Photo credit: SecretLondon)

'Where do you get your ideas from?'

This is one of the most common questions writers get asked. Non-writers are constantly intrigued by the mysterious - to them, and sometimes to us - process that is novel-writing. My prolific mother, who in her lifetime published over 150 novels, was asked on a regular basis where she got her many ideas from. Deadpan, she would look people in the eye and say, 'Woolworths.'

But on a serious note, where do we get our ideas from as novelists?

Novelists work in many different ways, so there are multiple answers to this question: historical accounts, snippets of conversation overheard on a bus, a clipping from the newspaper or something seen on a documentary, a real-life experience, a close friend's story, an unusual anecdote told in the pub or office, meandering thoughts jotted down in a notebook, then perhaps forgotten about for months or even years, until something else comes along to light the blue touchpaper ...

The word 'novel' means 'new', of course. It always reminds me of the old wedding day rhyme:

Something new
Something borrowed
Something blue

There is something in this simple piece of traditional advice we can take away as novelists and re-use for our own purposes. Something borrowed, in particular.

Novelists are the ultimate Borrowers. (Thank you, Mary Norton.) Writers were recycling and re-using long before it become an important and necessary habit to save the planet. Chaucer lifted his impressive 'Canterbury Tales' structure from Boccaccio's Decameron, and Shakespeare kept a much-thumbed copy of Holinshed's Chronicles under his straw mattress. (Or so I like to imagine.) But don't get me wrong; I don't consider these to be instances of lazy writing. Borrowing is as much about the way our brains work, leaping at a tangent from idea to idea, as it is about needing impetus for a new story. We can all agree, I'm sure, that Shakespeare was no slouch in the imagination department. Yet he constantly borrowed - a far nicer word than 'stole' - story ideas from history or other writers so he could keep writing at what must have felt like an insane pace, feeding the insatiable monster that was the Tudor taste for theatrical extravaganza.

Shakespeare's imagination was caught by the fantastical suggestion, noted in Holinshed's Chronicles, that Macbeth was influenced by witches. "Ching!" Into his basket it went.

So borrowing an idea or two that's already been done can provide a shortcut to your own story idea, and even a shortcut to your own brain and the way it tells stories.

That's why we like some writers better than others. Some writers - however popular with others - may leave us cold. Others fire us with excitement. That's because we recognize something of ourselves in their work: the way they write, the way they see the world and tell their stories, connects to our own beliefs and identity on a deep level. We say, 'Yes!' when we read them, and feel they are speaking directly to our own experience. That mental click is what we reach for as writers when we begin to scratch about for a new novel plot.

This is not plagiarism, of course, which is something no self-respecting writer would do. You do not take work wholesale from other people. That would be theft and is against the law. Just saying.

 Death by Stickies ...

Instead, you might keep an 'ideas' notebook on the go, plaster a wall with Stickies, scribble on a whiteboard in the kitchen, or pack your own 'teeming brain', as John Keats put it, with possibilities. Then, when you're ready to write a new story, you cherry-pick from this chaotic jumble of ideas and images, and put them together in a brand-new way: that pub conversation about the successful businessman who jumped to his death - and no one knows why - may fit neatly with that drama you saw on television the other night where the wife accidentally intercepted a blackmail letter, and maybe your own loose floorboard may give you the hiding-place for those incriminating photos.

So we cobble things together. Our own ideas, our own lives, a mishmash of things we've seen or heard or read or experienced. We tear things up in our mind and stick them together again in a new order. We recreate Dr. Frankenstein's monster each time we plan a new book. We may take something that existed in another form or universe, and breathe fresh life into it, make it new.

There's room for everyone's novel: even yours.

And an idea may feel new to us. Flushed with the triumph of imagination over torpor, we tell ourselves a plot has come straight out of the ether, that it came clean and true and unrelated to anything else, that it owes nothing to anyone. But really? 

At the heart of it, there is something a little bit shady about the idea-generating business. The novel idea. Because 'novel' does actually mean 'new', remember? And we have been told since antiquity - Ecclesiastes - that there is 'nothing new under the sun.' So finally we have to turn and face the dreaded word we have been trying to avoid all along.


As novelists, we are always told to make it new, to be original. Agents clamour for it - to avoid selling the same old stories to jaded editors. Publishers demand it - to avoid being sued. Readers hope for it - to avoid being bored. And we ourselves - to avoid professional embarrassment, if for no other reason - hunt for originality like the Holy Grail, even when writing in a self-limiting field like series fiction. In fact, novelists being grandiose types, we want our latest idea to be the most original idea in the history of novel-writing. (And if we can't quite stretch to that, then we will reluctantly settle for the best idea we've come up with so far.)

But here's the thing. The truly novel idea is impossible. So just do what you can, and don't sweat it too much if another writer - or indeed several other writers - have books out the same month that echo yours. (This happens uncannily often.) Novel-writing has a lengthy and respectable tradition, and your novel is adding to that, like one of those chain poems where everyone contributes a line. You cannot be read out of context and so should not feel you need to write out of context.

What can be original and new in all this borrowing and cobbling is you. Your narrative voice. Your treatment. Your unique way of seeing things and putting them together. You are the magic ingredient that makes it new. So when you're stirring the pot, don't lose confidence because there are thousands of other blackmailed husband and betrayed wife stories out there. None of those stories are like yours because they were not written by you. (Hopefully! I'll deal with writers who repeat themselves or have 'favourite' themes in a later post.)

Question: where do you get your ideas from? Answers in the comment box, please. Join the debate!

So yes, the idea for a novel is always impossible, because it is never simple, never original, and almost never turns out exactly as you intended at the planning stage. But just remember that your idea cannot be seen out of its context in the grand parade of novels that came before - and will come after - and that you yourself are the magic ingredient that makes your hotchpotch of characters and ideas into something novel, something new.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Week Two: Fake It Till You Make It

When I was young, my mother was a writer, my father a Fleet Street journalist. My older sister started publishing Mills and Boon romances when she was about twenty-one. There was never any spoken expectation that I would write too, nor any overt encouragement - frequently the opposite - but writing was always there in my head as the default profession, in much the same way that the sons of miners once inevitably followed their fathers down the pit and became miners too. (A fate my own father escaped by taking a job at fourteen as 'tea boy' on the Folkestone Herald.)

Newbies, always discreetly check the credentials of people offering you writing advice. (See My Novels, in case you're wondering.) People who have never published a book, or only published one, or whose entire oeuvre is digital erotica, may not be best placed to help you.

However, feeling 'born to be a writer' does not make you a writer - or so conventional wisdom tells us. Most people would agree you have to write something and get it published to be a writer. Vast swathes of dewy-eyed attendees at Creative Writing courses would argue the opposite, of course, insisting that you can be a writer without ever being published. After all, a staggering number of Creative Writing students have tutors who are new, unpublished or obscure writers, so it is probably a doctrine they learn early on. That you should fake it till you make it.

Evangelical mission strategists have a catchphrase for this progression from outsider to insider: 'Belong. Believe. Behave.' That is, the important thing is not for you to be a brilliant writer from the outset, but to join other writers and learn to self-identify with the group. This very act of belonging, of membership, rapidly leads new members to believe in what the group represents as a whole, and consequently to behave the same way as all the rest.

In other words, if you tell yourself you are a writer, socialise with other writers, and most importantly join writers' groups and organisations, then apart from all the insider knowledge you are soaking up, you will be better placed to believe that you are a writer, and produce something of publishable quality.

And so we're back to publishing. I apologise, but you really can't get away from it as a writer. Whatever those lovely CW teachers may have told you.

To publish means to make one's work public, for your novel to be read beyond your little circle of intimates or the other students in your class. In most cases, the very act of being read changes the way a writer sees themselves, and that's a big step towards becoming a professional novelist.

I'll come back to that issue in a future post.

It is my personal view that you need to publish a novel in order to be considered a novelist - whether traditionally or digitally is less important, so long as it is for sale - and therein lies the rub. Because publication is not easy.

It's not easy to be a novelist. But at least you're not a poet. They have it REALLY hard.

It's not easy to write a novel, but if you manage it, that's just the start of your journey. It's not easy to get an agent. It's not easy to get a publisher. It's not easy to persuade a retailer to stock your book (bizarrely, this can be the case whether you're with a big five publisher or a small press). It's not easy to get signings and publicity. It's not easy to write a second book after the first. It's not easy to keep writing novels and settle into a strong mid-list position as most novelists have to if they are to continue paying the bills. It's not easy to keep publishers interested if one of your books - the last one - sells poorly, even if those poor sales had nothing to do with you but were the result of marketing or promotional choices, or other external factors.

It's not easy to be a novelist. You're getting that, right?

But if it's still easier than everything else in your life, if you still sit down to your latest manuscript with steely-eyed determination and the occasional flash of excitement, despite all the setbacks and disappointments, then it's probably what you're meant to be doing.

For some lucky souls, becoming a novelist happens magically. They write a novel, find an agent like falling off a log and garner a huge advance after a bidding war for their debut novel. All of which is followed by media interest, mega-sales, film deals, with yet more contracts to follow. Some have the Midas touch, it seems.

And here's another question for you. You can leave your answer below, if moved to join the debate.

QUESTION: does belonging to a writers' group or professional body - such as the Romantic Novelists Association, pictured here at conference - make success in publishing more likely, for published and unpublished alike?

So to add to the complicated business of writing a novel, if you lack the Midas touch, you must possess certain qualities instead to make it as a novelist: speed, competence, stamina, grim determination, flexibility, a bombproof disposition, more than usual cunning - and of course charm.

Never underestimate charm. It will serve you far better in the publishing world than haughty reproof or a hissy fit, even when faced with the most startling incompetence. After all, we have all been guilty of that on occasion.

And those huge advances? (I know you're still thinking about them.) If you don't sell enough copies to earn out what they gave you up front, my starry-eyed friend, I hope you have a nice alternative career lined up. Something with a pension plan. Because you're going to need it. There's only one prospect harder to sell than an unknown would-be author, and that's an author who didn't earn out their advance.