Thursday, December 31, 2009

Big Shout-Out

A friend of mine, who sadly doesn't have a blog that I can link to, just finished writing his fantasy trilogy.

So I'm taking a moment out from regular blog topics to yell "GO ADAM!" really loudly.

I was there when this book was started. It was in a cafe in Dublin with wrought-iron chairs and tiles on the table-tops. It was dark outside, and we sat beside the floor-to-ceiling windows and stared at the painted mirrors and drank fruit tea and ate muffins and talked about the books we wanted to write. I think the idea had been in his head for a while - I was there when it got refined.

And yesterday afternoon, I was having tea with friends when my phone rang, and it was Adam.
"I wanted you to be the first to know - it's finished! And as soon as I hang up, I'm off to tell my parents."

It's been a privilege to be there from Day One, and it was such a privilege to be the first person to hear that it was finished. It's been such fun hearing about the characters. And it's been painful knowing that my friend, who is supposed to like me and want what is best for me, won't tell me the bloody ending! :D

I'm kidding about that last one - I asked not to be spoiled. So I have no idea how the story ends! But I can't wait to find out.

I'm very happy as a writer, and I'm happy as a writer's friend. But most of all, I'm happy was a reader.

All together now: GO ADAM!!!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Little Miss Sunshine Strikes Again

WRITING UPDATE: See below. Overall good!

There is a Little Miss Sunshine moment in this post, but it may not be the Little Miss Sunshine moment you think :)

On Boxing Day (yes, most Irish people do call it St. Stephen's Day. Fear not, Wikipedia has not lied, I am just weird) I finished up a huuuuge section of my novel. Note the extra u's in that word. They are supposed to denote the hugeness.

Sometimes, when I get to a difficult bit in my novel, that I'm not sure how to finish, I *ahem* skip it.

I know I shouldn't, but it often seems like a better idea than staying, blocked and stuck, on the difficult bit for weeks on end. Instead, I write what comes next, and that gives me a better idea of where I need to go with the unfinished bit.

In this case, a marriage between two characters had been suggested by their parents, the girl was opposed to the idea, she hit on a fairly ingenious way of making sure the marriage would not go ahead, and I got stuck. I wasn't sure how to resolve it. Her parents had to cave in. Then we fade out for six years.

So I skipped it. I resumed the story six years on, which gave me a good idea how this event fitted into the lives of the characters, and how much narrative weight I should give it. And when I finished that aforementioned huge section on Boxing Night, there was just one piece of unfinished business - the unresolved non-engagement. I was on a roll - I wanted to write more, but I had run out of plot. So I went looking for that part of the novel, among several files on my laptop.

No sign.

I hadn't typed it up.

At the time I wrote that bit, I was writing by hand. I don't do this much anymore - only if I have an especially fabulous, evocative or atmospheric notebook. But when I started writing this novel after a long writing hiatus, I started again by hand, and I clung superstitiously to writing by hand for quite a while - about six months. And I thought I had transcribed the whole lot.

Turns out no.

The moment when I realised this would be the Little Miss Sunshine Moment - the moment when her older brother realises he's colour-blind and speaks for the first time in months.

I'm now on a quest to find this notebook. I'm not missing very much of the novel - the equivalent of a chapter or two - and I know what notebook it's in, and I never throw out old notebooks so I know I have it somewhere. And I'm moving house soon, so the packing process will probably yield it.

Still. Very bloody annoying!

You'll be glad to hear that I channeled my desire to write more, though. I finished a short story (and managed to work Simon Cowell into it - I doubt he'll survive an edit but I was chuffed with myself and my irony) and I started transcribing something else I had handwritten (due to fabulous, atmospheric and evocative notebook), editing it as I went.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Firstly, I hope everyone reading had a lovely Christmas! I certainly did and was thankful for every second of it.

Secondly, I just found two very inspiring posts - useful as we come to the close of a year and a decade. Christine has a post about the work she managed to get done over the holidays, and strikes a great balance between the writing life and the non-writing life, as usual. Go read :)

And while I was poking around some other blogs, I found JA Konrath's blog, which I now follow, because it's great. His post about New Year's Resolutions for Writers is essential reading - I know a few blogging agents who may disagree with his assertion that Print is King, but for now I agree with him that giving up on print completely is a bad plan for a new writer.

So what are my writing resolutions? Eep, that's a scary question. Here's Joe Konrath's suggested list:

Newbie Writer Resolutions
  • I will start/finish the damn book
  • I will always have at least three stories on submission, while working on a fourth
  • I will attend at least one writer's conference, and introduce myself to agents, editors, and other writers
  • I will subscribe to the magazines I submit to
  • I will join a critique group. If one doesn't exist, I will start one at the local bookstore or library
  • I will finish every story I start
  • I will listen to criticism
  • I will create/update my website
  • I will master the query process and search for an agent
  • I'll quit procrastinating in the form of research, outlines, synopses, taking classes, reading how-to books, talking about writing, and actually write something
  • I will refuse to get discouraged, because I know JA Konrath wrote 9 novels, received almost 500 rejections, and penned over 1 million words before he sold a thing--and I'm a lot more talented than that guy
The last one made me smile :)

I'm not sure how feasible this list is for someone who works full-time, but that's the kind of commitment I'm shooting for.

I would like to close by saying 'Anyway, back to the book. . . .'

But I can't, because my mother just popped on a DVD I'd quite like to watch. So I won't be getting back to the book for an hour or so yet. But lots of stuff has made me think over the last few days and I have lots of interesting stuff to bring to the page - so I can't wait to be writing again.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Writing spaces

Christi Corbett is guest posting on Pimp My Novel today. Her post is about ideal writing spaces versus actual ones and it's a fun read, and it got me thinking about writing habits. I find other writers' writing habits interesting so I think I'll post about my own (or, as my grandmother used to say, 'Enough about you, now back to me.')

I once shared her vision of the ideal writing space along with her beliefs about what it would do to my writing ability. Once I stepped into the magic writing space, everything would be, as William Goldman might say, even better than magic.

Not so. Anyone surprised? :)

Good writing happens in the strangest of places. On my current WIP, the best piece of writing that I think I've done so far (I bet the two people who've read it probably disagree) was done when I was on a temp placement in a very quiet office the week before Christmas. The phone wasn't ringing. I had no internet connection. There was only one staff member in the office and she was busy being important. I was busy being the 24 year old temp receptionist, bored beyond belief. There were no magazines to flick through, and I bite my nails down to stumps so I couldn't even file them desultorily.

Woe was me.

Eventually - after several hours, I'd like to point out - I remembered that I occasionally write things and had been working on a novel for ten months. I didn't have the file with me to work on (and couldn't have uploaded it to the work computer even if I had) so I picked a scene that I hadn't written yet but that I knew had to happen, and I wrote it.

I left the office that day beaming, skipping, singing and full of Christmas cheer.

Writing spaces, indeed.

In fact, if I didn't have a full-time job now, I'd probably be begging for placements at that company again.

My usual writing space is on the couch at home. I tend to sit with my feet curled under me like a question mark and my laptop balanced on the side of one thigh. My laptop is an almost 4-year old iBook (one of the nice white ones) and it 500MB of free space on the hard drive. It's an old friend and I love it, but it does tend to go on strike, cry, and rent its garments every time I hit 'Save'. Far from perfect, but it works for me.

I also write in cafes, during breaks at work, or with people when I can find spare time and another person.

When I'm blocked, I use Write or Die. That got me through the hardest portion of my WIP. You choose a word count goal and a duration, and then you have to keep typing until your time is up. If you stop, your computer will play a very annoying sound. I sometimes cheat and just keep typing and erasing full stops to stop the sound going off while I think about what to write next (I lack honour). I haven't been brave enough to try Kamikaze mode yet - that deletes what you've already written if you pause for too long.

It's the game element of Write or Die that I like. Can I manage four hundred words in ten minutes? Oh, I did, brilliant! Let's try 500 this time. . . I can keep that up for hours. I usually have to scrap at least half of what I write but it is good for getting myself warmed up.

What techniques and tricks do you use? Where do you do your best writing? Does it matter? :)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


The Independent tells us that the classic 1980s bonkbuster is enjoying a revival (that's the British Indie, not the Irish Indo, just to make sure that everyone has their slang correct).

The article expresses some surprise that money-heavy bonkbusters are doing well in a recession, but the aspect that interested me most was this:

Where the books differ most from chick-lit is with heroines that are far more extreme and often not very nice. But, insists [author Anna] Maxted, you can like a heroine you wouldn't want for a friend. "Scarlett O'Hara isn't nice but you much prefer her to Melanie Wilkes who is just so nice you want to slap her!" Few, if any, Gone with the Wind fans dream of being Melanie. Scarlett is probably a more enduring heroine than Bridget Jones will ever be. It's not just the recession and the need for escapism that drives this love of blockbuster fiction; these heroines express a side of themselves women often feel too constrained to be.

And [Jessica] Ruston agrees with Maxted – heroines don't have to be likeable for readers to want to live in their world: "Remember how addictive Dynasty was? You wouldn't want to be friends with many of the characters but my God did you want to see what scandalous things they were going to get up to next!"

I think about character likeability a lot. Jessica Faust has a great post about it over here (which is how I encountered the very interesting Ghost Folk who drops by here sometimes, and also it makes exactly the same point about Scarlett O'Hara) but I don't have any helpful insights on it right now. Come back and ask me when I've managed to sort out my current WIP problem.

I do, however, have some thoughts on bonkbuster heroines and chicklit heroines (sorry, you
thought you were going to escape with just a short post, didn't you? No such luck). If you'd like to read a tongue-in-cheek take on heroines, there's a very good one over at Christine's blog.

"A bonkbuster would never show a heroine treading in dog muck on her way to the shops. Whereas chick-lit would," adds Maxted.

I tend to create heroines who step in dog muck (although now that I think of it, I've never actually written that), although I don't write chick-lit. I find it hard to write characters that are too confident. I can't write the sort of people who storm into boardrooms and deliver ultimatums (ultimata?), perhaps because overconfident people annoy me enormously in life. Strangely, I have no problem reading about hyper-confident ball-breakers. Some of my favourite literary characters are overconfident. But I find it hard to write them, because I can't identify with them as easily as I do with people who have trouble with making tea and walking down staircases, and thus I can't get into their heads as effectively.

Which type of heroine I like better, and the implications of both kinds, is a post for another day. Right now, I'm just concerned with the character-creation side of the issue. Is it lazy to create characters who are likeable because they're underdogs/ clumsy/ prone to stepping in dog muck/ overweight/ obsessed with the size of their bum? Is it a just a cop-out (like randomly giving everyone a best friend or dropping in a scene with a death-defying high-altitude puppy rescue)? Or is it just an effective technique?

Books and Places

RITING UPDATE: Oooh, look! A cloud!

As you might have gathered from This Post, I tend to associate certain books rather strongly with certain places.

I love London. This may be reasonably clear. And when I go to London (as often as I can manage), I like reading books set in London to really underscore the whole Londony-ness of it. I like to see the same world when I look up from the book as when I look down at it. Also, when you're stacked over Heathrow, it's nice to have something to read that reminds you that being stacked over Heathrow is worth it.

My primary London books are 84 Charing Cross Road and Forever Amber. Helene Hanff and Amber St Clare are almost as fond of London as I am. I also like I Capture The Castle, my ultimate comfort read, because of Cassandra's two trips to London - she doesn't have as much fun as I aspire to while I'm there, but I love the book so much that I can deal with it's questionable London-ness.

I was in Prague last month. The only thing I can say in Czech is 'Mluvite anglicky?' ('Do you speak English?') and to my immense shame, I discovered I'd been pronouncing it wrongly all week after I came home. I'm tempted to fly back and apologise. For the last day and a half of the trip, I was there alone, and not speaking the language, I couldn't even have the briefest of conversations. It was a nice day and an interesting experience, but it did drive me back to the Big Ben Bookshop, an English bookshop behind the Tyn Church.

I picked up a copy of 'Me, Myself and Prague' by Racheal Weiss, with the intention of starting it over dinner that night and reading it for the trip home. This is from the back cover copy:

I tripped across the Charles Bridge just before first light, all alone apart from a sleepy pickpocket just clocking on for the morning shift, my heels clacking on the cobblestones, the early morning sky a beautiful deep blue.

Armed only with a romantic soul and a pressing need to escape her overbearing family, Rachael Weiss heads for Prague in search of her Bohemian roots, with vague plans to write the next great Australian novel and perhaps, just perhaps, fall madly in love with an exotic Czech man with high cheekbones.

They make it seem so easy, those other women who write of uprooting themselves from everything they know, crossing the world and forming effortless friendships with strangers, despite not understanding a word they say, while reinventing themselves in beautiful European cities. So it's not surprising that Rachael is completely unprepared for the realities that confront her in her strange new world. Initially starry-eyed, she quickly has to grapple with perplexing plumbing, extraordinarily rude checkout chicks, and the near-incomprehensible Czech language.

In this warm and witty tale of life in a foreign land, Rachael, somewhat to her own surprise, finds herself gradually creating a second home in Prague, complete with an eccentric and unlikely tribe of extended family and friends; and realises along the way that while she's been striving so hard to become someone else, she has inadvertently grown to rather like the person she has always been. Me, Myself & Prague is a sweet and surprising memoir of discovering hope, self, family and friendship, Czech-style.

I love travelling but am slightly terrified by it, and I think this is one of those books that I was desperate to read but just hadn't found yet.

But I didn't start it, and it sounds like it should have been the perfect trip-book.

The reason was that, after a week in the city, I was starting to get to know it. I had a favourite cafe. I had shops that I wanted to go back to, and could reliably find. I felt I was nearing a breakthrough in my quest to figure out what they say at every tram stop. But I wasn't quite comfortable enough there to be able to read about the city from the point of view of a total outsider.

It's a good excuse for a return trip to Prague, though. I have a book I feel I must read there.

My New York books are easy. Anything by Dorothy Parker - although any time, any place and any mood is perfect for Dorothy Parker. And the next time I go - although it could be a while - I have my books picked out. August by Judith Rossner (about psychoanalysis in New York in the 1970s) and Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments trilogy.

Here's a curiosity, though - I don't have any Dublin books. They would be very useful for softening the coming-home blow. Now that I think about it, my favourite Dublin book is probably The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle, but it's bloody depressing for arriving back from a holiday.

Anyone have any other books that are best read in particular places?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Observe my new link, and show it fear

WRITING UPDATE: Sometimes I feel the entire universe lacks tact.

I added a new link to the 'Other Book Stuff' tab today. I am unfeasibly proud of myself for this.

When I started a link section called 'Other Book Stuff', I was afraid that it might take over the world. I read about books a lot. Surely everything I love in the whole world - and that's a lot of things - would somehow ultimately end up there.

I added one link, to the NaNoWriMo site. Then my mind went blank.

It turns out that almost every website about books that I visit with any regularity is either a writer's blog or a publishing blog.

Now it feels like a little victory every time I add a new link :)

My latest two links have involved lists of nice bookshops. The Guardian's list of the best second-hand bookshops in Britain is untested - I've only been to one of them, and although it was good, it was unmemorable. Still, it's definitely got the most boring entry of all the shops on that list, so I still have great hopes for the others. Once I have a driving licence, I may rent a van, sell an internal organ and go on the world's nerdiest road trip.

Okay, now I'm even making myself cringe.

The list of good bookshops in Dublin is one I can comment on with a little more authority, wisdom and gravitas. Anyone reading this who plans to visit Dublin, heed ye this: GO TO CHAPTERS!! GO TO CHAPTERS!! GO TO CHAPTERS!! GO TO CHAPTERS!! GO TO CHAPTERS!! My cousin once described in as Amazon Marketplace in shop form, which is about right.


I am also incredibly fond of The Secret Book and Record Store, because such strange things turn up there, things that you could never get anywhere else. If I needed a George Saunders fix this is where I would go.

One bookshop that doesn't make the cut on that post, but which I feel should, is Raven Books in Blackrock. Slightly off the beaten track but very nice, and with a rather interesting Twitter page.

So, does anyone out there have any bookshops I might like to know about? And I don't care how far away from Dublin they are - bookshops can sit on my 'To Visit' list longer than anything except ice cream parlours.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Misery Loves Company

WRITING UPDATE: Was writing with Zoe last night and managed to move a scene forward. Today's outlook is less good - busy day and evening ahead. . .

Last night, I met up with Zoe to write. I've tried this before with other friends, with varying degrees of success. At the moment, it seems to be going well for us - we're very disciplined about Not Talking During Writing Time, we have a flexible approach to breaks (if one of us is on a roll, we work through them) and I switched off WiFi on my laptop to enable me to be even gooder. I'm sure that Zoe would eventually notice the difference in my typing pattern when I'm writing versus when I'm chatting on Gmail (I tend to punch the 'enter' key quite decisively when I'm chatting. Wonder what that says about my personality. . .? Someone should write a book about that). I'm happy with the progress I made anyway, and looking forward to doing it again.

I did want to post about the experience of writing with someone else. I've done it quite a lot and have nothing but good things to say about it. As I said in Christine's meme, when I was in college I was involved with a group of absurdly talented writers (the Rooney Prize-winning novelist Kevin Power and the poet Ailbhe Darcy were among them, and in the corner was me, writing short pieces about the fertiliser factory in the town where I grew up. Luckily, everyone was nice). The group met once a week and followed an open workshop format, where everyone wrote on a given topic for a fixed length of time and afterwards, anyone was welcome to read what they had written. This was great fun, and I still remember some of those pieces. But the format wasn't conducive to encouraging people to work on longer projects like novels - that wasn't the intention, nor should it have been - and it was inevitably the funniest writers who got the best reactions. Poems went down very well too, because they're short, self-contained and can stand alone. There was a risk, though, that some people would turn up week after week and write for their audience rather than for themselves.

That being said, I still think it was a great experience for a young writer (I was seventeen when I started attending). It was the first time I had ever been in a space where writing was foregrounded. And although certain types of pieces 'played' better, there was an unconditional acceptance of everything that was shared with the group. Every piece was met with the same response. It could be dissected in the pub afterwards, but I don't remember a single incident of open criticism, except when someone asked for feedback directly, and even then, it was always constructive.

It's difficult to explain how showing up in a draughty classroom and writing about random topics made me a better novelist. But it did.

That was it for me and writing groups until I left college several years later (I won't say how many!) and I was unemployed, bored and trying to figure out what lies I could tell people at parties when they asked me what I did.

In the midst of all this, I had a similarly dissatisfied (but employed) friend who lived within walking distance, and together we would sit in cafes and pluck random writing exercises from a cute little book I owned called The Writer's Block. We were both 'trying to get back into writing', and it was a slow, funny and incredibly valuable process. We weren't as strict as we should have been - we did often meet up and just chat instead of writing, but we were still marking off space on our calendars for writing and declaring that it was important.

This period lasted about a year. I never said I was fast.

Then one day, long after I'd found a job, when free time was precious again, I was sitting in a cafe nursing a very bizarre intermittant headache and wondering idly if it would kill me. I had nothing to read, so I started to write a novel.

And now I'm helping to put together a new writing group with some friends, because I think that even the hours that I spent not writing, sitting with my friend in coffee shops in South Dublin and giggling across our closed notebooks, contributed to that moment when I decided 'Feck this, novel time.' It was time marked for writing, and it allowed me to prove to myself that writing was important to me. The presence of another person, even if it is just one other person, also implies a level of respect for the process, and it means that you can't just chicken out.

So my essential point today is yay for writing groups! Even writing groups of two that sometimes forget to write.

But don't forget to turn off WiFi.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Most Cuddled Book in the World

WRITING UPDATE: Ahem. My mother asked me to edit something she wrote so I'm working on that at the moment. I have a long, blissful, empty afternoon ahead which may see my main character actually leave the maternity ward. Once that's done, she's out of the novel, and it's bye-bye Rosie til the next draft, leaving me alone with Hannah. A fate worse than just sitting here drinking tea and ignoring my novel :)

The title for this post comes from Thud! by Terry Pratchett. The most cuddled book in the world was Where's My Cow? which Sam Vimes read to Young Sam every night.

I don't cuddle books myself (I have been known to wake up with a book on the pillow next to me if I fall asleep reading, though) but I do get attached to them. And I don't mean to the story or the characters - I mean to the actual, physical object.

It was a discussion about e-books that put this into my head. I should be a great candidate for an e-book reader - I like gadgets, I read a lot, I re-read books, and I comfort read. Even if I'm halfway through a brilliant new novel, I may wake up one morning and think 'No. Not today. Today I need Cold Comfort Farm.' (Everyone needs Cold Comfort Farm. Imagine Flann O'Brien was an English woman).

And when e-book readers get cheaper, and when there are more books available for them, I probably will buy one. They are very cool. But you'll have to prise my paper books out of my cold, dead hands (which made knowing how to vote on Nathan Bransford's poll this year very difficult).

Part of the reason why I am so attached to paper books is that I have noticed that I consider the 'trappings' of a book to be integral to the book itself. The cover, the typeface, the size of the print are all part of the story for me.

A few years ago, I found a copy of I Capture the Castle in a Women's Aid charity shop in Dundrum, on sale for one euro (or a mere 79 old p). I had never read it, but India Knight said it was her ultimate comfort read, and I am a big fan of the comfort read (on which, no doubt, more anon).

I Capture The Castle is a strange book. I'd classify it as YA rather than children's literature, as the protagonist is 17, and if the book has a central message, it may be summarised as Life's Not Fair and Love Equals Suffering. Also, to quote Yapping About YA, it is a coming of age novel and does involve a character dealing with issues beyond her maturity level (I swear, in spite of all this, it's a great comfort read. Don't take my word for it, read it!). The edition of it that I bought in the charity shop has an illustrated cover, which I think makes the book look far more childish than its contents actually are. I've trawled the net and can't find a photo of that cover - suffice it to say, I think it's a poor reflection of the contents, although Cassandra is drawn the way I imagine her.

Last year, I bought my aunt a copy of I Capture The Castle for Christmas. She's a voracious reader and a big proponent of the comfort read, and I thought it would be perfect for her. I was right. She loved it. And it occurred to me that I should buy a new copy for myself - Dodie Smith may no longer be with us, but her estate is, and since the book has given me so much joy it seems only fair that Ms. Smith (or her estate) should get something in return.

The edition I bought for my aunt had the cover that you see above, which I think is perfect. The model's arms are just plump enough to suggest how young the protagonist is (no offence, Cover Model, should you happen to read this - hi! - I mean 'plump' in the 'youthful, unlined and full of collagen' sense). Her pose suggests a level of abandon that often goes with first love (it looks like an unrealised swoon to me, actually), and the bluebells she's holding play a huge part in the story. I can probably guess the scene this cover is supposed to be taken from and it's quite a pivotal one. All in all, I approve. Damned good cover.

I hate it.

The right cover is the cover of the first edition of it that I ever owned. When I curl up with I Capture The Castle, I want the blue pencil-drawing. I want Cassandra pouting over her journal. I want the grey tower in the background. It is that simple. I want the font to be exactly as I remember it. I want the end of the lines and the pages to fall at the same points. If I had to turn the page when Stephen said 'Cassandra' by the fire on my first reading, then I bloody well want to turn a page there on my fiftieth reading. I can buy a new edition to support the author, no problem, but I want my old edition for reading, because that edition is The Book.

Well, until last night when I noticed there was mould on the old copy, so I have to buy a new one and read it. Hmph.

My point is (and many thanks to anyone who's still with me at this stage) that as a reader, I feel a lot more goes into the creation of a book than just the words. As a writer - as a writer who reads a lot about publishing, at any rate - I know that the author has no control over the cover, or the font, or any of the little things that matter to me so much. I'm okay with that as a writer, but as a reader, these things are important to me. And publishing houses spend a lot of money hiring people who are good at them, to make sure that every aspect of the experience complements what the writer has done. A great example of this is the font that was used for the UK edition of Sarah Rees Brennan's book, The Demon's Lexicon. The font is small, dark, and has little irregular-seeming angular serifs, which suggest darkness and spiders and ravens and secrets and old manuscripts and all manner of things that combine to enhance the darkness of the book's atmosphere.

I know that e-books come with cover designs, and I know that the fonts can be changed, but ultimately every reading experience will involve the same streamlined electronic object. Personally, I'm far more attached to my mp3 player than I am to any individual album or song on it, and I feel that if I ever own an e-book reader, I will still come back to paper books for the first reading of most novels, just to allow the novel a chance to create a full experience in my head using all of those elements that normal people probably don't obsess over in such a fashion. Essentially, I see e-book readers as an incredibly valuable and innovative back-up solution, and I know that when e-book readers take off, I will be one of those people who buys every book they love twice.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Verbal frugality

I was just browsing the Wikipedia page for Doctor Who (yes, it is all go here in the fast lane, thanks for asking) and I found this quotation.

First, have some context - in 1972, the BBC found that, by its own definition of violence, Doctor Who was the most violent programme that they produced. Further, 3% of people surveyed considered it unsuitable family viewing.

From Wikipedia:
However, responding to the findings of the survey in The Times newspaper, journalist Philip Howard maintained that: "to compare the violence of Dr Who, sired by a horse-laugh out of a nightmare, with the more realistic violence of other television series, where actors who look like human beings bleed paint that looks like blood, is like comparing Monopoly with the property market in London: both are fantasies, but one is meant to be taken seriously."

Mr. Howard managed to air at least three different grievances in one sentence. As a writer, I admire anyone who can use language so economically :) I can only aspire to such levels of snark.


Christine has tagged me in a meme so I've decided to play :) I don't have enough blog contacts to tag anyone, though, so consider this an open invite to play if you happen to stop by!

So this game of 26-question “meme” goes like this: answer the 26 questions then tag those who have to do it too…
1. What’s the last thing you wrote? What’s the first thing you wrote that you still have?
The last thing I wrote was a scene in my current work-in-progress. The scene took place in a maternity ward. It was very short.
I think that my mother may still have my old stories that I had to write for school - if she does, then that's the first thing I wrote that I still have. If not, then it's the last page of my first novel, which I wrote when I was 12. It was about drug addicts in Liverpool. Yes, really.

2. Write poetry?
Not any more, I'm terrible at it. I was a member of a writing group in college and there were some amazing poets in the group so I wrote poetry for a while to try and emulate them. Also, the 'meet up, write and read what you've written' format of the workshops worked a lot better for short pieces like poems than for novel excerpts. So I wrote bad poetry for a while, and then when I stopped being as active in that group, I found myself going back to prose.

3. Angsty poetry?
Only a few times. No one's perfect!

4. Favorite genre of writing?
Don't have one, will read anything. Probably literary fiction and good women's fiction.

5. Most annoying character you’ve ever created?
Seemingly it's the point-of-view character in the present timeline of my current book. I don't think she's quite that bad. I do dislike her mother, though, but she's fun to write.

6. Best plot you’ve ever created?
No idea, I hope the best one is still to come.

7. Coolest plot twist you’ve ever created?
I don't do twists - not big intake-of-breath twists anyway. Ask me this again in five years.

8. How often do you get writer’s block?
Rarely but intensely.

9. Write fan fiction?

10. Do you type or write by hand?

Both. Mostly I type, but I do carry a notebook and if I get bored, I will work on scenes out of continuity to pass the time. Some of my best writing has been done that way. I also started my current work in progress writing by hand but it was just too slow, given that I'm a slow writer anyway.

11. Do you save everything you write?
Not deliberately, but I've never deliberately deleted anything either, so I suppose so.

12. Do you ever go back to an idea after you’ve abandoned it?
Yes. I have separation issues.

13. What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written?
Like most writers, my favourite thing is something I haven't written yet.

14. What’s everyone else’s favorite story that you’ve written?
Most people have read so little of my work that I can't answer that question properly yet!

15. Ever written romance or angsty teen drama?
Romance - no, but I actually would like to. A part of me still believes in happily ever after.
Angsty teen drama - yep. Wrote plenty as a teen, would write more of it now if I wasn't constantly paralysed by terror of patronising teenagers, who are among my favourite demographics. They have so much to face.

16. What’s your favorite setting for your characters?
Ooh, that's tough. The current book is set in Ireland because the plot demands it, but I know Dublin too well to write about it properly. My next book may be set here, but more than likely it will be in London or Edinburgh.

17. How many writing projects are you working on right now?
Current work in progress, this blog, and making notes for what will probably be the next project.

18. Have you ever won an award for your writing?
No. Not yet, if you want to be all positive about it :) I did win a prize for English in school.

19. What are your five favorite words?
Tea, holiday, chocolate, book, internet :)

20. What character have you created that is most like yourself?
Probably that point-of-view character in the present timeline that I mentioned before. Superficially, she's very like me.

21. Where do you get ideas for your characters?
Everywhere. And once they're in my head, they grow.

22. Do you ever write based on your dreams?
I have done, yep. I have an ongoing very silly WIP that I don't talk about, which started as a dream.

23. Do you favor happy endings?
I prefer slightly ambiguous when I'm writing. I do like happy endings when I read, but an ambiguous ending done well is probably my all-time favourite. And in life, I think I still believe in them :)

24. Are you concerned with spelling and grammar as you write?
Yes. It annoys me when I re-read bits if it's wrong.

25. Does music help you write?
I don't tend to listen to music when I write, but listening to music often helps me think about characters and plots. I iron out a lot of book problems on the bus to work with my headphones in.

26. Quote something you’ve written. Whatever pops into your head.
"Rosie barely slept that night. For the rest of her life, she would consider the night after Stephen's second letter arrived the closest she ever came to going mad."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Christmas and Inspiration, Part II

WRITING UPDATE: I actually forgot my write-every-day pledge yesterday. And I do mean 'forgot'. I was meeting a friend and totally forgot that I'd have to write before I left because I'd be home late. I may get my pledge tattooed on myself somewhere. Inside my eyelids, perhaps.

Okay, you thought I was sappy yesterday? Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy post.

The other thing that my family do at Christmas is visit our extended family. This follows a familiar pattern - show up. Talk. Eat food. Talk more. Drink tea. Talk more. Leave.

A fairly standard extended-family Christmas experience, then.

Most of the talking involves telling stories. Like most families, these vary little from year to year. We all know the fake Rolex story, and the coal man story, and the rolled-up chewing-gun wrapper story, and the Kimberly biscuits story. They're all good, but we've heard them all before.

Somehow, though, it doesn't matter. There is something different about listening to them at Christmas. The twinkly lights, the fire, the piles of wrapping paper in the corner. The room grows oppressively warm as the day wears on and Some Like It Hot plays in the background with the sound low, and everyone pauses for the good lines and trots out conflicting points of view regarding what Tony Curtis did or didn't think about Marilyn Monroe. And they tell stories.

And every year in the car on the way home, I look out the window and think 'This is going to be the year. When I get home, I'll dig out a notebook and I'll write all these stories down, before they're lost.'

I never do, of course.

And this probably won't be the year, as quite a few of the family are away at Christmas and I may not see them all. But there's always next year. And there's the fact that between us, my mother and I probably know the stories by heart so if our DVD player breaks on Christmas Day, we can always amuse ourselves by transcribing them all.

That's the other reason I find Christmas inspiring. I get to spend part of it with people who revere stories. Yes, we revere them to a fault sometimes. Yes, otherwise fit, healthy, sober people have dozed off during them. Yes, if some Martians landed they would wonder why the hell we spend time doing this voluntarily. But the strange alchemy of Christmas family yarns has always done something to my imagination that I can't explain, and that annual car journey home is probably the most creative period of my entire year.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Christmas and Inspiration, Part I

WRITING UPDATE: Wrote a short linky-scene last night. I'm not sure if it's necessary but I'm trying to set up a small info dump. I suspect it may get moved to earlier in the book when I edit.

My friend Zoe posted on her blog today about inspiration. She asks how to keep up the magic and momentum of writing when the initial bliss of breaking through writer's block has passed, and how to create the mental space to be creative when balancing writing with work and life.

If anyone reading this has any useful suggestions, please wander over and post them - for my benefit as well as Zoe's, because I'll read all of them eventually too :)

Anyway, she's gotten me thinking about inspiration and how it works. We're just coming up to what I find the most inspiring time of year for writing - Christmas.

Before you start, I'm actually not a big fan of Christmas in general. I have a small family and was raised as an only child, so we were never huge Christmas people. None of us was religiously observant except my father (who was observant but not too religious), and our extended family are quite scattered. Once I was too old for Santa Claus, Christmas Day was spent reading the books we'd bought each other and watching the films we'd bought each other. Our Christmas presents always focused on 'things-to-amuse-us-on-the-day', so it was usually the day of the year when we all talked to each other the least :)

Things haven't changed. Christmas in our house involves books, DVDs and occasional bouts of conversation. Essentially, we spend two days cloistered with the creative arts.

It's fantastic for writing. I don't often write on those days, but it's part of what Natalie Goldberg calls 'composting' - letting things build and build until something can grow out of them.

As Zoe says, it's rare in everyday life for us to be able to fully immerse ourselves in writing (or reading, or film, or making model cathedrals out of matchsticks or whatever your passion is). Because of my family circumstances, Christmas gives me that chance, and it's great.

Last year, just before Christmas, I realised I had very little to watch when my eyes got tired reading (it does happen). I was temping in the city centre every day that wasn't a bank holiday, and I sprinted to HMV on my lunch hour and braved the hideous queue snaking around the shop to grab a few DVDs of a TV series that a few friends had been quoting incessantly for months (I get a little paranoid when people make pop-culture references I don't get). I curled up at home on Christmas Eve and started watching.

I've had an irrational liking for that show ever since. It reminds me of settling down on the couch with no obligations beyond texting some people happy Christmas and making more tea as needed. Just me and the stories, total immersion. I find I get much more involved with the things I read and watch at Christmas than I do at any other time of year. I internalise them in a way I haven't done since I was a kid - no analysis, no oh-I-totally-see-what-the-writer-did-there-the-sneaky-bastard, no this-guy-got-a-book-deal-are-you-serious-I-could-do-so-much-better. In spite of all the things I don't like about Christmas, I love that and I look forward to it.

And I panic slightly if I don't have enough things stockpiled to watch and read. I think I'm sorted for this year though. Hopefully it will translate into lots of writing!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Christmas Writing Goals

Thanks to Rachelle Gardner, I have formulated some Christmas Goals.

I'm not very good at goals. They make me rebellious, even if I set them for myself. Sometimes I set wildly unrealistic writing deadlines to motivate myself, and they paralyse me. Other times, I set deadlines that are too easily attainable and I think 'Oh, I have ages' and then the deadline creeps up on me and I think 'God, I am such a failure, I couldn't accomplish something in two months that would take most people two weeks. . .'

That being said, goal-setting is something I have to get better at. And Christmas seems like a good time to start - I have quite a bit of time off work in December so I'll have long empty days to catch up.

So here we go (deep breath):

My big goal is to finish my novel if at all possible, and if not, to fully immerse myself in the last few chapters. I still have a lot to learn about the characters in those last few chapters, and that could take me longer than I anticipate, so I don't want to be too prescriptive about that. I want to spend a lot of time just writing about those characters, getting to know them, finding stuff out, without thinking too much of what might make it into a final draft.

My Christmas Plan is:
1. Write something every day, even just a paragraph or two.

2. Get to know the characters for my last few chapters better, and write as much on this as possible.

3. Do some final reading for more detailed research into the period I'm writing about. This shouldn't take too long as it's very specific research and I have one short book that's all about this era. I just need to do another read-through for detail.

4. I'm also going to keep blogging over Christmas. Turns out I rather like this blogging-regularly malarky and anything that keeps me using language, thinking about langauge and structuring sentences for easy readabilty has to be a good thing, as it reduces the likelihood of me writing more sentences as terrible as this one.

I have to do something to prove I deserve that netbook I'm just about to order.

Monday, December 7, 2009

And in other news. . .

Can't believe I forgot this. My first annual award (my inaugural award, if you will) for Best Blog Post Title goes to Eric at Pimp My Novel, for his 'You Can't Spell MWA HA HAAA Without MWA.' - a post dealing with the news that the Mystery Writers of America have de-listed Harlequin for the whole DellArte Press debacle.

Now that's an interesting way to avoid writing - I could spend my evening designing silly little jpegs for blog awards that no one could possibly care to win. Best Blog Post Title will naturally be the Best Picture Oscar of the Pink Tea and Paper Awards, but with some creativity, the possibilities are endless :)

Words Move Me

I probably shouldn't mention this, as it will only increase the competition, but Rachelle Gardner is running a contest over at her blog. The prize is a Sony e-reader and to enter, you have to register on and enter a quote or a thought about a book that moved you. Tag it as outlined on Rachelle's blog and pop back to Rachelle's blog to leave a comment.

Simple enough, right?

Turns out no. I am suffering from an embarrassment of choice. I've submitted one, but since I can submit up to three, I'm not out of the woods yet.

The problem is that there are so many. Paul Monette on the phone in Borrowed Time, in the early years of the AIDS epidemic in America, trying to find healthcare for his dying lover through an underground network because so few doctors would treat people with AIDS. Amber St. Clare in Forever Amber, nursing Bruce Carlton through the plague. Dunstan Thorn telling his son Tristran a strange love story in Stardust. Siddalee Walker returning the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood to her mother. Lily in Fall On Your Knees, when her sister claimed to be the Devil, hugging her and telling her not to scared.

I foresee an evening at home raiding the bookshelves for ideas.

Oh, darn. However will I cope?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

More With The Sunshine And Lollipops

According to an article on, a happy writer is a bad writer.

It's a good headline-grabber, but the actual article states that a low-level bad mood has a positive effect on people's ability to detect lies, see past stereotyping and think clearly. The kind of bad mood that lasts for a short while, not that proper bone-deep misery that makes it difficult to put the kettle on.

I think this makes sense. I find it very hard to write from the very hardest and darkest times on my life (I do keep trying though, because I suspect the really rich material is there. Next time you see me crying, say 'rich material, though' and watch me cheer up. Or swear at you. It's the uncertainty that makes me fun, honest). The little bad moods are easier to play with - mild jealousies can be filtered through a character and become life-changing, for instance.

The stereotype of the unhappy artist bothers me, though, largely because I've never met one. I've met unhappy people who happen to be artists, but I've never met an artist who wasn't happier as a result of being an artist. Even in the darkest of times, most artists I know can think 'well, at least I can write/paint/sing/do interpretive dance.' The stereotype is that the type of person who becomes an artist is also drawn to misery, and I'm not convinced. Artists seem to be drawn to experiences, sometimes extreme experiences, but they do spend most of their lives following a light, which makes a difference.

That said, it is comforting to know that being a low-level grumpy cow might pay off for me. So far, all I have to show for it is a premature frown line :)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Processes - Planning and Winging It

Jessica Faust's post about writing processes couldn't have come at a better time for me. I was planning to do a few posts about my own writing, which I've mentioned here quite a bit without ever quite explaining much about it.

My own process, if you'll forgive the overstatement, changes a lot. Usually an idea has to percolate in my head for a long time. The setting and characters grow from a shady outline into something more detailed. I do sit down to write very early, though - at best, I might have one or two characters, a setting and the start of a plot. Then I hope for the best.

For my current novel, I did very little advance plotting. I knew that I had two timelines, one in the present and one in the 1940s, and I had two main settings, one urban and one rural. I knew the main turning point in the book was section that took place in neither of my settings, and I knew that it was critically important to get as much of the historical stuff right as possible because it's just about within living memory and it's a senstive topic, especially in Ireland. I also knew thematically what I was going for (although I hate the word 'thematically'). What I mean is, I knew the feeling I wanted my story to have. It was to be about the stories that aren't told.

I started by writing about the present. It appealed to me more and seemed easier - the present-heroine belonged to the same city and time as I did, so the writing flowed more freely. I didn't need to research anything about her.

Then I switched to the past. And when I did, something strange happened. Rosie Martin, the best friend of my eight year old past-heroine, suddenly became the most interesting thing on the page. She took over my book until I liked the past sections more than the present. She became my point of view character for almost all of the chapters in the past. I even started to refer to the book as 'Rosie' when I spoke about it (as we have seen, I am crap at titles).

Writers often talk about when characters start doing things of their own accord. Yes, it is strange, but it is wonderful and great fun. Whatever happens to this novel, I'll like Rosie forever.

Once Rosie came alive and started doing her thang (and if I have ever created a character who could do thangs, it's Rosie), I started to try and impose control. An outline suggested itself. This isn't how I usually work, but Rosie's story had to span about sixty years so it helped to know how old she was and what she was doing when I faded in and out. I do feel it paralysed me a little bit, though, and it's a lesson I'll take with me into the next book - as Natalie Goldberg would say, I do better with a big field to wander in. I can see the next scenes, or the next chapters, in vivid detail, too vivid for any real discoveries to happen (like my discovery that Rosie was more interesting than her best friend). And I can see the rest of the book as an outline.

I have come up with a cure for this, though. I think writing faster will solve a lot of it. I joke here about being a slow writer (Sherry Thomas is a slow writer and she jokes about it, so that means it's OK) but as I'm still working on my first book, it has more to do with the fact that I'm easily intimidated and easily derailed (I also have difficulty saying 'no' when invited to things I want to go to, but that's another story). I often take breaks from writing for a week or more, but I don't take breaks from thinking or talking about the book, so it takes shape in my head and the words remain stubbornly unwritten. If I could write faster than I ponder, I think that would help a lot.

I'm working hard at the moment on finishing this book. I'm a member of a new writing group starting in January and I want a shiny new project to start then. I'll be sure to keep posting progress reports to shame myself into achievement :)

An Interesting Morning in Blogland

Note: I dislike the term 'blogosphere' so I'm pioneering a change to 'blogland.' Who's with me?

I had quite a bit to read this morning. Apologies to anyone whose follow list is exactly the same as mine. Firstly, guest blogger Kathi Lipp over at Rachelle Gardner's blog has an interesting post about her non-fiction book being optioned as a movie (aside: I'm quite bored of authors talking about how their book being optioned for a movie is surprisingly unglamourous. I'm glad authors keep saying it, because if it's true and involves books then I want to know about it, but Kathi's post was a bit fresher and had more detail so I was very happy to see it).

Next, Christine over at Digging out of Distraction has a lovely post about her real life, involving cleaning bathrooms and a senior citizen who requested some sweet Christmas gifts. I won't spoil it, have a read of it here if you want to smile.

Kristin Nelson's newfound taste for Schadenfreude marches on, as she posts a little more of her bad fortune to make rejected writers feel better - and to reassure us that publishers are still buying stuff and loving stuff. If I had saleable stuff, it would have made me feel great :)

Nathan Bransford is forcing me to think about ebooks again. I do wish he'd stop doing that. I'm trying to pretend they aren't real. Maybe they'll go away if I hide under some dust jackets.

And finally, Victoria Strauss examines the difference between self-publishing and vanity publishing, which everyone in blogland has been tiptoeing around since Harlequin made their announcement.

Laziest blog post ever for the win!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Here Come The Girls. Seemingly.

I just added a section with links to writers' blogs to the blog homepage.

It seemed like a good idea. I already had a selection of publishing blog links and I didn't want my blog to imply that I'm the sort of person who is very passionate about Getting Published and Having My Name In Print and asking the publishers if My Best Friend Could Please Design The Cover, and Planning My Phantom Book Tour, and is not at all passionate about Reading Books and Trying To Write The Sodding Things Well In The First Place.

In fact, if someone told me today I'd never be published, I'd still write. Just slower ('Dear God, how?!' I hear you shriek. No one likes a smartarse). And as Scout Finch said about Jem, no system devised by man could stop me getting at books, so I'd still read. Possibly faster, since I was writing slower.

Anyway, I just finished assembling my list of writers' blog links and I realised that all of the writers I listed are female. This isn't deliberate at all (I am something of a feminist, but a book is a book is a book), but I thought it was interesting.

I did find quite a few of those writers through Kristin Nelson, who reps a lot of women and seems to have a strong female-focus on her list [I almost typed 'lust' instead of 'list'. Would that have made my blog traffic shoot through the roof as aspiring writers everywhere flocked to see me make groundless pronouncements about Kristin Nelson's personal life? I can only guess], so it stands to reason that I follow a few female bloggers through Pub Rants. I've been obsessed with Sarra Manning since I was the right age to read her teen fiction (God be with the days. . . ), which accounts for her presence.

Yet the strange thing is that my list of favourite writers is fairly evenly balanced between male and female. A partial, off-the-top-of-my-head list would have to include Joseph Heller, JD Salinger, Sylvia Plath, Rebecca Wells, Ann-Marie McDonald, Ian Rankin, Terry Pratchett, David Nobbs, Kathleen Winsor, Alexander McCall Smith, Alice Hoffman and Jodi Picoult. I made an effort to keep the list reasonably contemporary, but if I expanded it, it would probably include slightly more male writers, simply because historically there are more of them.

I don't believe I've ever met a man whose favourite writer was a woman, although lots of the women I know would name a man as their favourite writer (not me, because I can never name just one). It could be because a lot of my female friends studied English with me, and the canon is pretty male-centric - a sample of the general population might be different. But I am definitely right that not a single man I know would name a female writer as his favourite [and if any men I know crop up in the comments section swearing blind that they just adore Cecelia Ahern, they're just doing it to embarrass me, so please ignore them].

Do we still have the perception that women speak for women and men speak for everyone? Has any PhD candidate ever tracked links to writers' blogs by gender? How many men link to men, and women to women?

I have refused to lend books to guys I know if I don't think they'll like them because they're too 'girly'. This makes me part of the problem, I guess, if there is indeed still a problem.

One thing that does amuse me, though, is that I'm about to trawl the internet for interesting blogs by male writers to try and redress the balance. And if I was trawling for female bloggers to redress the balance, I'd be accused of tokenism. It probably is tokenism, but I'm choosing to believe that I'm widening my selection of blogs in order to move outside my web-comfort-zone. So there.