Tag Archives: Leeds writer

Tripping the Light Fantastic

16 Oct

Image result for speculative fiction

I’ve always been drawn to fantasy and science fiction, to stories of other worlds and to other versions of this one. Although I do enjoy a bit of non-fiction (mainly sociogenetics or ancient history) I don’t often read novels set entirely in reality. The problem with reality is that it’s where I spend the majority of my time, and when I’m reading I’d rather be somewhere else. When it comes to writing I feel much the same, preferring to work under the umbrella of speculative fiction.

Someone said to me recently that immersing yourself in fantasy – whether you’re reading it or writing it – can be a coping strategy for dealing with a real world which is disappointing, difficult or dull. As a child and teenager I certainly experienced a fairly large amount of disappointment and difficulty. I ended up dealing with events that a mature and well-balanced adult would find extremely challenging. Perhaps as a result, I had no interest in spending my free time reading about the same sorts of events occurring within the world that was treating me so badly. Therefore to some extent I believe my friend’s comment is true: speculative fiction provides escapism.

However, it also offers an alternative lens through which the writer or reader can filter their experiences. A lens which, being one step removed from reality, allows you a little more space for processing the disappointing or difficult. You can explore cruelty, heartbreak, abuse and betrayal, and the characters and content are authentic within the context of their world. This authenticity allows the reader to feel a connection to the story through common experience, even if their experience is based in the everyday, rather than on a distant alien planet.

At a recent book reading I went to, a young adult author commented that dystopian fictions are so popular because of how closely they can be related to the reality of being a teenager. Negative events feel like the end of the world, your best friend suddenly becomes your mortal enemy, the adults are dictating exactly what you can and can’t do, and sometimes when you have a decision to make, there is no right or easy choice.

It’s important for speculative fiction to show that life is hard, to show that, even though the protagonist is living 4000 years in the future, they still struggle, are let down by people, experience misery. It’s important too that the characters find joy and triumph in spite of all that, at least some of the time. And if the horror of the fantasy world gets too much, it can be dismissed with the closing of the book, thus providing a safe space to explore the dangerous and unpleasant. This offers the reader so much more than simple escapism. Perhaps that’s why I’m such a fan of speculative fiction.

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The post-novel void.

6 Aug

I knew it was going to be odd, not having a novel to work on any more, I knew I was going to suddenly discover oodles of time that I’d previously spent editing, but one or two things did surprise me about my post-novel void.

It’s been three months since I finished my MA and three months since I looked at the book I wrote for it. In the initial days after hand-in, I mainly went to work, celebrated, and slept. I used my suddenly abundant spare time to patch up my social life, which had been somewhat neglected in the run-up to the deadline. I basked in the fact I’d actually finished the book, and encouraged my writing brain to chill out.

After a week or two came the sadness that I was expecting: sadness at the end of a three and a half year process of learning and fretting and learning to fret less, and getting to spend time with people who cared about writing as much as I did. I still miss all of that, very much, but I’m lucky to have some excellent writer friends – both from the course and otherwise – who have massively reduced my withdrawal symptoms.

One thing I wasn’t expecting was how much writing had become a habit for me. My brain soon started craving its laptop time again and I was surprised by how quickly ideas began dropping into my head. I thought I’d need a long fallow period to recover from such an extended stint of work, that I’d be out of action for a while, and rightly so. But that was the other thing that surprised me: almost as soon as I’d handed in my MA novel, I began to feel like I should be writing something else, a sort of “okay, you’ve finished that, but what are you doing now?”.

I have a habit of putting too much pressure on myself, so I resisted this persistent little voice for a while and stubbornly stuck to having some time off from writing. I read a lot, which was just lovely, and very much helped to fill the post-MA void. Then I came up with a plan. I like plans. I dislike floating about waiting to see what happens, and plans keep me occupied and positive. My plan was to re-read the majority of the short story books that I have – more than I’d realised as it turned out – then spend some time turning the ideas that appeared in my head into short stories and flash fiction pieces.

And for the past few weeks, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. I’m lucky, I get a month off in the summer, and aside from lie-ins and reading and plenty of tea and cake with friends, I’ve been reading and writing pretty much every day. I’m not working for as many hours per week as I was on the MA, but that’s just fine with me. I am meant to be on holiday, after all. But I’m very glad that writing is still a part of my life, and that I still enjoy it so much.

Once the summer is over, it’ll be time to get out the book for another edit, and actually, I’m really excited about getting reacquainted with it. I know I’ll do a better job on this edit having had a decent break and maybe that’s really what the post-novel void is for: to recharge. To rest and read and let your enthusiasm for your work return so you can make it better. I hope so anyway…

The End!

8 Oct

File:The End Book.png

So this is it folks; after a month between jobs where I got to write for four hours a day, and managed – somehow – to produce 27,000 words in that time, I finally got to type ‘The End’ at the end of the first draft of my book.

It was an odd experience. On the one hand I was elated; immensely relieved that I’d actually been able to write a whole book. And it wasn’t a completely awful mess of rubbish and nonsense, even if it will need mountains of editing to make it into something I can bear to be seen with in public. On the other hand, I was ready to weep into my keyboard. For me, there was an odd sense of loss that came from having the story completely written down, perhaps because my excitement at the potential of it had to end when that potential became actual. Or perhaps I’ve just enjoyed the writing process so much – occasional furies and hair-tearing frustrations notwithstanding – that I’m sorry to have reached the end of this phase of it.

In my final week of writing, I was impatient to finish. Not in a ‘I hate this book and want it to be over’ sort of way. It was more like the story was tumbling out of my head, and I had to try and hold it back a little to prevent burnout. I could easily have ended up typing into the night, bleary eyed and hunchbacked at my laptop, but I knew that if I did that, I’d be even more exhausted than I was anyway. I slept for almost the whole day after I’d finished, and had a lingering headache for a few days afterwards, which I think was my writing brain’s way of telling me in no uncertain terms that I needed a rest.

I did rest, and let myself enjoy a sense of achievement, basking in it for a day or two before printing the whole draft out and going through it with a variety of coloured pens (red for required changes to the plot, green for sentence and paragraph level amendments). This was mainly to sort out some glaring continuity errors and accidentally terrible grammar, and the resulting, slightly tidier draft was then emailed to my current tutor on the MA in Creative Writing that I’m studying for.

So now I await his feedback. I’m slightly nervous, and vacillate between gloomily preparing myself for a list of criticisms as long as my arm, ending in a request for a total re-write, and more cheerful reminders to myself that the whole point of doing an MA is to improve. The point of every single piece of feedback that I get from my tutor is to make me a better writer, and to make my work more publishable. I’ve found this useful to remember in the face of criticism, and I know how important resilience and tenacity are if I want to get anywhere with my writing.

So, I take another deep breath, remind myself how far I’ve come since the start of the course, and then check my emails for the 87th time today… because the end isn’t really then end, is it? It’s just the start of the editing process. I have friends with books who wrote seven or eight drafts of them. Bearing that in mind it’s probably time for me to put my basking to one side, take several steps back from my work, and sharpen my delete key. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Panic and pushy dads: how not to treat your imagination.

9 Aug

angry man 2

I don’t always get on with my imagination. That might surprise you, what with me being a writer in training and all, but it’s true.

What happens is this: I’m sitting at my laptop, happily typing away, thinking that my imagination is a wonderful thing and all is well with the world, when suddenly my fingers stop and I find that I’m muttering crossly to myself. This is because I’m stuck. I need to work something out; maybe how a particular aspect of a fantastical world is going to function, or how my characters can find out certain information in a way that doesn’t feel clunky to the reader. Or maybe I’ve got my protagonist into a tricky situation and I need to help them get out of it, but I’m not sure how to do it.

Now, you might be thinking, “Well, why don’t you just plan better before you start writing?” and yes, smarty-pants, that is a good point (and please see my previous post on the delight of plotting), but sometimes things just crop up when you’re mid-story, okay?

Where was I? Oh yes, stuck. Whatever the reason, when I get stuck like this I have a tendency to panic, and a very odd thing happens in my head. I turn into a pushy dad.

There’s my imagination, daydreaming happily in a corner of my mind, quite secure in the knowledge that it will come up with the writerly goods in its own time. But I go barging over to it in ‘pushy dad’ mode, demanding to know what it’s going to do about the problem I’ve come up against. My imagination shrugs, prompting the pushy dad part of myself to sit down next to it for a serious chat.
“Look,” pushy dad says. “I’m sure we can come up with a solution if we just think about this rationally for five minutes. Let’s do a flowchart.”
At this point my imagination rolls its eyes and gets up to leave.
Pushy dad shouts: “Where are you going?”
My imagination responds: “Out!” and slams the door.
Pushy dad retreats in a sulk, leaving me with a headache and a short temper, still stuck.

I know this is the wrong way to treat my imagination, that it hates pressure just as much as I do. I know that what it really needs is the time and freedom for it to do its stuff and magically present me with the answer when I’m least expecting it. My imagination likes long walks and poetry readings and watching random history programmes. It likes cake and snoozes and conversations about things that are totally unrelated to what I’m writing.

I think the pushy dad is the part of me that worries I’ll never get my book finished, that if I let myself be stuck and relax about it, the end of the world will be nigh. That part doesn’t want to wait for the imagination to ruminate on problems, it wants answers now. But actually, trying to force my imagination to perform (dance, monkey, dance!) doesn’t get me anywhere. I’ve tried writing on in spite of being stuck. What tends to happen is that a few days later I work out the best solution and have to re-write everything I’ve written.

So from now on, I’m going to be kinder to my much maligned creative brain and give it as many long walks as it likes. I’ll just have to distract my pushy dad. Maybe I’ll lock it in a cupboard with a book of Sudoku puzzles, that should work…

Emergency writing biscuits.

28 Jun

 

Chocolates

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with food. No, that’s not true. I’ve always loved food. Food has always been my ‘go to’ thing when I’m feeling down or bored or anxious. Food has always been there for me, when I really needed it. And when I really needed it, I generally wanted chocolate.

That hasn’t changed much over the years, although I don’t eat anywhere near as much chocolate as I used to (Honestly. I used to eat tubs of chocolate spread mixed with packets of M and M’s. In one go, with a spoon.). The main occasions now when treats call me are when I’m writing. Not every time I sit down at the laptop, but when I’m stuck or trying to edit something tricky. I think I ate my own body weight in biscuits the time my creative writing tutor asked for a chapter by chapter breakdown of my entire book; what happened to whom, where and why.

I learnt two things from that experience. One: writing a chapter by chapter breakdown when I’m only a fifth of the way through a book is – for me anyway – about as much fun as repeatedly poking myself in the eye with a breadstick.  Two: eating that many biscuits makes my head ache and my teeth feel like I’ve been chewing glue. Not good.

So now I’m looking for other ways to soothe my writing worries, rather than resorting to emergency biscuits. I’m also on my guard for ‘helpful’ writing advice which sends me scuttling to the goody cupboard. I’ve realised that, when you’re writing, if a particular technique or strategy doesn’t feel right to you, then perhaps it isn’t.

Have an apple and think about it.

Sometimes the voices are right

8 Sep

It may sound daft, but one of the most difficult things about studying for a creative writing master’s degree is the amount of feedback you get, or rather, the number of people who offer you completely contradictory opinions on your work. It’s enough to make you chuck your laptop out of a window.

I’ve seen people crumble under the weight of their own indecision when one tutor tells them that a certain bit of writing is fantastic and another tells them to delete it and start again. With much tugging of hair and gnashing of teeth they wail: “But what should I do? Who’s right?” And the answer is – you, the author, are right. When it comes to your own work, you have to learn to go with your instincts. That doesn’t mean sticking your fingers in your ears and refusing to listen to any of the advice that you’re offered. It just means learning to pay attention to the wise inner author voice (you do have one, honestly) that says: “actually, I don’t think that’s going to work”.

Now, just a note on recognising your wise inner author voice. This should not be confused with your unkind inner critic, your sulky inner toddler, or any other dubious inner voices, especially if they suggest something that could land you on Crimewatch. I reckon that the best way to get to know your wise inner author voice is to write as much as you can, and also to experiment.

By experiment I mean follow the suggestions that people make; try deleting that scene or re-writing that character and see what you think of the result. Save all the different versions of your work so that you can compare them. Reflect on the feedback that’s been most helpful. You’ll soon get a feel for whether the criticism you’re being offered rings true or not – and just because you know it’s right, that doesn’t mean you’re going to like it, especially if it means masses of editing.

If you get to know your inner author you’ll become less precious about your work – which is definitely a good thing – and more confident about your own opinions of what you write. You’ll also start to see the problem areas in your work before anyone else has to point them out. This is definitely starting to happen for me, although I’ve got a long way to go yet. I’m just happy to be gnashing my teeth far less often…

 

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This post was also published on Deborah Walker’s blog, here.

Why So Serious?

31 Mar

Sometimes I worry that I’m just not clever or serious enough to be a writer.

When I began my MA in creative writing I felt like this quite often, especially when listening to the other students. Some of them had just completed undergraduate literature degrees, a lot of them had read more widely than me, and a few of them spouted literary terms that had me putting on my ‘eh?’ face. Objective correlative, you say? Okay, what’s that then?

Thankfully I’ve never been shy about asking questions and I’m quite happy to admit my ignorance. This means that after a year and a half of feeling slightly intimidated by some of my classmates (I tend to be in awe of people who are confidently intelligent and knowledgeable, having never really been like that myself) I’ve picked up a few things. I’ve also stopped worrying that I’m going to be ‘found out’ and kicked off the course for failing to read Anna Karenina.

However, I don’t think I’m ever going to be a literary heavyweight. It doesn’t seem to be in my nature to write that way, and I’ve failed to read some of the more literary books that everyone else gets excited about. Does this mean I belong in the lightweight category? You might say yes if I told you that a recent plot tangle I got myself into was solved by a mechanical toad that talked like Stephen Fry. To be fair, I want to write for ldrenldren and young adults. Now, there is plenty of room in children’s literature for serious stuff, some of which I fully intend to engage with. But when I tell other writers that I want to write for kids, their eyes sometimes glaze over or they give me that ‘oh you’re just a children’s writer’ look.

What I’ve realised though, is that I don’t think I mind. Because writing stuff that’s aimed at kids and young people makes me very happy. I may never write anything mind-bogglingly brilliant, never be lauded as a literary genius, but hopefully I’m going to have a lot of fun.

And I might just squeeze in the time to read Anna Karenina.

 

10 books I haven’t read:

1) Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
2) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
3) Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (I did start this one but gave up)
4) The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
5) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
6) The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
7) Ulysses by James Joyce
8) Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
9) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
10) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky