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  • The importance of sketching

    Because my mother was an artist, sketches were something I became accustomed to seeing around the house, as a child, in the same way you might see shopping lists, to do lists, receipts or bills.

    Of course, I saw those things as well.  Often they were mixed up with the sketches, and sometimes they were on the same piece of paper.

    My mother had finished pieces of work, some mounted on the walls, more stacked up in the boxroom waiting to be mounted or framed, and I was used to seeing the designs she had completed in her paid work as a graphic designer, but it was the sketches I was always fascinated with.  It was often in the sketches, I found, that a particular stroke of the charcoal or the pen had captured an expression, a movement, in a person or an object that it seemed to me told a story much larger than its mere physical space would suggest.

    To me these sketches often held more power, were more dynamic, than the finished pieces.  They represented the moment when my mother had become interested enough in something to want to interpret it, and that interest told a story of my mother’s relationship with the object, or the person.

    And it was through a form of sketching that I first discovered writing.  I was fascinated with the patterns of words and the way they linked together to create meaning beyond meaning.   Two well chosen words can create a picture in our minds.  A simple gesture can describe a person.  A line of dialogue reveals a character, a relationship, a whole story.

    Many of the new writers I have taught on creative writing courses have been very concerned with structure.  I know how to write, they may say, but I don’t know how to structure a story.  I don’t know how to structure a novel.  This is reinforced by the dependence of the publishing industry, the film industry, on the power of story structure to stimulate and guide us from one end of the book or film to the other in a satisfying, predictable, and hopefully profitable manner.  I myself remember feeling exceptionally guilty when after years of writing I seemed to have nothing to show for it but fragments of stories, unpolished, unstructured.

    I learned, to some degree, to take my sketches and to work them into finished pieces, to polish them with metaphorical linseed and lacquer and work them into the kind of thing that is expected of a story.

    But sometimes, looking back at those early word sketches, I see a rawness that if we are not careful, as writers, we are in danger of losing.  Every so often we need to take some time, to go out with our notebook, or sketchbook, and write without structure in mind.   Short descriptions of people and places, sections of dialogue, a character drawn from head to toe in coloured words.  We don’t know in advance what we’ll choose, but afterwards we see that each sketch has its own story to tell, and to my mind, that’s how the best stories begin.

  • Finding Your Authority

    In my mind, the idea of a retreat has always conjured up an image of excessively thin and slightly hysterical, hypochondriacal women attempting to nurture their spiritual wellbeing while doing yoga and debating issues such as the essence of self.  Since the essence of myself, or so I thought, has disappointingly never been much of a mystery, it’s something I would have traditionally assumed was not for me.

    However, having accidentally discovered a love of teaching through teaching creative writing, this year I decided to do a teacher training course.  I never intended to stop writing, but I was aware that the training would take over for a couple of years.  To justify this, I started telling myself that teaching was a more worthwhile profession than writing, less egotistical, less about telling the world how I see things and more about helping others discover how they see things.

    This may be true, but the transition had brought about some soul searching, as I wondered whether embarking on my third career before the age of 40 said something about my staying power, and whether in taking on yet another steep learning curve I was going to undo all the work I had done in improving as a writer, whether I would find the will to continue.  On top of all this, I had just finished my fourth novel in as many years, and was exhausted.  All leading to me not writing a sentence for three months, something which I felt extremely guilty about.  I convinced myself that having a properly labelled stacking system in the upstairs cupboard was an infinitely more practical and important matter than writing a fifth novel, or even a short story.

    I decided, then, to give a writing retreat a stab, and booked myself on a course at Moniack Mhor.  There was no yoga in sight (although the possibility of clandestine yoga having taken place can’t be excluded), and no hysteria, besides my own.  There were lots of writers, enthusiastic about reading and writing and their own writing styles and tastes.  There was amazing food and wine and beautiful surroundings.  And most importantly, I came back with a body of work, and the knowledge that whatever else I do in life, writing will always come foremost.

    Among the many stimulating discussions that we had about writing, writers, and the future of publishing, two comments by resident tutors, Susie Maguire and Julian Gough, stuck in my head.  Susie likened the word author to the word authority.  Being an author is about finding your voice, the authority to be yourself, unashamedly.  And when that kind of authority exists in writing, when we recognise the confident, natural voice, we recognise the author.

    Be fearless, said Julian Gough, giving us the not at all intimidating task of writing the best story in the world ever that we could possibly hope to write, where we see ourselves in ten years time.  I’m not sure I’ve achieved that yet (sorry Julian), but I now say to myself, each time I approach the screen, be fearless.

    And then there was the inspiring presence of one of my favourite authors, Bernard McClaverty, a writer with no trace of ego, but fearless in his writing, with the natural authority of someone who has been there and done it and knows exactly why, knows that nothing is wasted.

    So for what it’s worth, as I enter a new era of my writing life, here’s my advice for future authors.  You might make a living out of writing.  You might not.  You should want to improve not for the sake of your own ego but because of the story you want to tell the world.  Secure an alternative source of income, or enjoy being poor.  Find your authority.  Be fearless.   Take your time.  You have all the time in the world.

     

    For more info on Moniack Mhor retreats and courses visit http://www.moniackmhor.org.uk/

  • Grammar – to whom may it concern

    I have to be honest.  I got through nigh on twelve years of my life with virtually no understanding of grammatical terms, due to an unsettled period of teacher absence in my late primary school years.

    That’s not to say that I had no understanding of grammar, of course.  Understanding the language of grammar, and understanding grammar, are two entirely different things.

    As an avid reader, I had absorbed, as opposed to learned, the structure of the English language.  I couldn’t have told you what an adverb was, but I certainly knew where to place it in a sentence.

    Despite these shortcomings, I managed to go on to pursue a successful career in communications, followed by a career as an author.  And it was only then, at the age of 30, that I began to gain a real understanding of the grammar of my own language, not, as you might expect, through my writing, but through learning another language, Italian.

    In one year I managed to pick up more understanding of the structure of the Italian language than I ever had in four years of school French.  Part of this was due to the increased confidence that comes with age, and part due to the excellent teaching methods of the Michel Thomas series of language CDs, where he seems to manage to convey a sense of structure without ever really using a grammatical term.  But the point is that not only did I gain a better understanding of Italian, but I also gained a better understanding of English as a result.

    Evidence is piling up now about the advantages of bilingualism, leading to calls for children to be taught another language from an early age.  But still we have Scottish conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith suggesting that P1 pupils can’t start learning a language until they have a good enough grasp of English grammar.

    It seems to me that our experience of the so called ‘rigorous’ teaching of grammar in bygone ages didn’t do anything to improve foreign language skills in the UK.  In addition, the example of bilingualism from around the world pretty comprehensively demonstrates that it is possible for people who can’t even read and write, let alone possess knowledge of the grammar of their language, to speak three or four languages and more.  The reason?  Lack of fear, practice, and starting young.

    No doubt there are many primary school teachers who are anxious about teaching languages due to their own lack of language training.  But take it from me, you can learn a language at any age.  Nobody is expecting P1 pupils to come out at the end of the year being fluent in French or Italian or Spanish or Chinese.  The aim of starting young is to remove the fear that often goes with learning another language.  Only by removing that fear, by allowing children to play with words, even (I’ll say this quietly – as I fear it may cause uproar amongst fans of ‘rigour’) to make up their own, can we truly improve children’s language skills, and their understanding of the purpose of grammar.

     

  • What does your notebook say about you?

    If I die tomorrow, I will leave a pile of notebooks that could fill a small office.  Why I keep them, I have no idea.  Perhaps I’m under some misconception that in them might lie the secret to the greatest novel of the 21st century, or some poetry of undiscovered genius.  In fact, it’s more likely, if anyone ever manages to decipher them, that they will learn more about my eating, exercising and listing habits than my writing.

    Recently I discovered a stash of notebooks that date back to when I was about fifteen.  Once I’d got over the embarrassment of bringing myself to look at some of the teenage drivel that was in them, something struck me, something that was very different in these notebooks to the ones I keep today.  In fact, there is an interesting progression in ‘notebooks of my life’ which would almost make a novel in itself.

    Early notebooks contain largely poetry, or collections of words I like. There are snippets of poems that have struck me, song lyrics, some interesting and some appalling attempts of my own.  It’s pretty clear that at that stage in my life I was writing for the enjoyment of words (my enjoyment anyway – if not others’!).  And the handwriting is very, very neat.

    As time goes on the poetry notebooks begin to be infiltrated by a little bit of journal type writing, about places I have been to, relationships of the moment, and so on.  But what’s interesting now, as the notebooks enter my twenties, is that the listing begins.  Little lists of things to do nestling incognito amongst the pure wordery.   The handwriting is getting worse.

    By the time you get to my thirties the listing has become endemic.  There are shopping lists, things to do lists, things to eat lists, things not to eat and do lists, places to go lists, places not to go lists, things to read lists.  There are some plans for how to write more and write better.  There are lots of references to things to read.  The actual writing, however, is few and far between.  And the handwriting is appalling.

    Part of the reason for this is technological.  Most of my actual writing notes go onto my computer these days.  And increasingly I find it difficult to read my own handwriting.  But I still love the idea of notebooks.  Consequently, as I enter the latter half of my thirties, there has been a new development.  First, the notebooks have become a lot prettier and a lot more expensive.  Secondly, they have categories.  There are large A4 ones and pocket ones, ones for writing and ones for drawing.  I have notebooks for recording places to eat, places to go, things to do, poetry, fiction, books I’ve enjoyed.  They’ve been organised.  A misguided observer might even be nudged towards the conclusion that I, myself, have become organised.

    But if you want a real picture of the state of my brain, you need to look at the only notebook that really matters, the one I carry in my handbag, the one I use for the random thoughts that pop into my head at any time, the one that combines my plans for writing with my plans for shopping and housework, that shows, for any given period in time, where the priorities really lie.  Do other people’s notebooks look like this?  Or is it just a female thing, our supposed talent for multitasking at work, or rather our attempts to do everything at once recorded in black and white.  As I get older, will my handwriting improve?  Will the proportion of writing increase and the proportion of listing decrease?  Or perhaps this kind of disjointed thinking is a good thing, part of the creative process.  Who knows.  In the meantime, the handbag notebook is staying where it is, for my eyes only, and thank goodness my handwriting has now become a language all of its own.

  • Why the Short Form Should be Here for the Long Term

    Writers often talk about the merits of short stories over novels.  They say the form is more demanding, it forces us to be more economical and to focus on the sizzling significance of each and every word.  There’s no room for backstory – to suggest a character you have to use every device available to you.

    But to me the reason short stories work is that when it comes down to it, short stories are a far more accurate representation of life than a novel can ever be.  By its very nature, life is a series of moments, of connections, and each of those moments has meaning that can transfer far beyond the actual events.

    Publishers will have us believe that readers don’t want short stories.  Apparently, they are not good value for money.  I can only suppose that the same reasoning has been applied to the ever expanding girth of much of the novel length fiction we buy today.  While I’m never one to argue that girth can be a good thing, I’m not sure it applies to literature!

    Maybe it’s just my media background, but while I’m clearly a fan of words, I’m not a fan of too many words.  Why say something in 600 pages when it can probably be said more clearly, and eloquently, in 400, or 300, or 200, or 20.  My approach to language has always been fairly brutal, to cut and slash, to get down to the bones of the thing, to reveal it.  Perhaps because of this, I’ve always been drawn to the short story as my preferred choice of reading.

    To me, a novel, simply because of its length, must have a very clear thread, no, more like a rope, of story running through it.  I can admire beautiful words, the way I can admire a beautiful painting, but I can no more read beauty alone for 400 pages than I can spend the night in an art gallery staring at one painting.  It’s too exhausting.

    A short story, on the other hand, is a glimpse of life.  A tantalising glimpse at that, because it is so short.  But what would be the good of it if you didn’t want more.  It seems to me that the best art, the best of everything in life should be like that, it should leave you wanting more.

    If you were to ask me who my favourite, and most read authors are, they would all be short story writers.  Alice Munro, Bernard Mclaverty, Grace Paley, these are all authors that I have read not one, but several books by.  With novels, however, I can’t name a favourite author.  I tend to read whatever is current and then move on to the next current thing.  As does the publishing world, it seems.  Many people complain that a lauded new writer’s second novel hasn’t delivered the way the first has.  But perhaps there’s a reason for this.  If writers had the time and opportunity to write more short stories, perhaps the quality of their novel writing would also be given a chance to develop.

    I think short stories are important for readers because they create better writers.   As someone who has just written three novels and a children’s book over the last five years, I would say that creatively, it is very hard to sustain the passion for writing unless you have the freedom to mix up your genres a little, to experiment with ideas in shorter form, to rediscover new characters, and a love of words for their own sake, rather than going straight from one year long project to the next with little or no break in between.

    So with this in mind, I’m giving myself a break, a short story holiday, and the month of May will be short story month in this author’s house.  During May I will be reading and writing only short stories.  So far I am reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Linda Cracknell, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, and Bernard McLaverty, and I’m on the lookout for more, so please feel free to suggest.

  • My Dream Bookshop

    Last week I had lunch in the Watermill bookshop in Aberfeldy.  If I have a favourite bookshop, I think this might come close.  Sitting in the cafe by the woodburning stove, eating home made soup and ciabattas and cake, looking at travel books and maps.  The bookshop upstairs is nicely divided into rooms, with separate areas for fiction, gardening and cooking, and beautiful stationery, and a separate little room for children’s books.

    Nowadays, I tend to regard paperbacks as a bit of a consumable.  I prefer to order them on my Kindle as my bookshelves are already full to overflowing and I just don’t need any more stuff.  Given that, a trip to a bookshop is no longer a functional thing for me.  It has to be an experience in itself.

    The bookshop of my dreams is a beautiful place.  A modern bookshop has to be about more than the written word, it has to be a visual experience too.  We are not there to read the whole book, we’re there to browse, to look at covers, to absorb words, and for that reason alone it seems to be that book covers are going to become more important than ever before, with booksellers knowing that part of the appeal of their bookshop is based on how the books look on the shelf.

    More than ever before, I find myself drawn to books that look different, that are something worth owning not only for the words, but for the look of them, for the feel of them.  I find myself drawn to hardbacks, to special editions, to attractive illustrations and books with illustrative inserts.  Most paperbacks I’ll read once and rarely look at again.  These books I will pick up again and again, and I’ll probably pay more for them because of it.

    Good advice, too, is at the heart of the bookshop of my dreams.  I want the bookseller to have read many of their books, to be informed.  I want to be able to talk about books I’ve enjoyed, and to receive recommendations beyond ‘other people who bought this book bought these books so therefore you must like them too’.

    Coffee, cake, soup and sandwiches seems to me to be an essential part of a bookshop visit.  Visiting a bookshop is not a functional experience.  It’s a pleasurable way to spend an afternoon.  We want to spend time browsing the shelves, and afterwards we want to sit, relax and absorb our purchases.

    As a parent, I would like to see a member of staff every bit as informed about children’s books as others are about adult books.  The Watermill’s separate room, with chairs for the children to sit in and sample books for them to handle, is ideal.  My own experience from my own children is that kids still prefer real books to the Kindle forms, and these will continue to sell for bookshops.

    But my dream bookshop in the clouds would do more.   Author events and readings, certainly, but also creative writing workshops, live music, live poetry, children’s book events, the possibilities are endless.  My dream bookshop would be a hub of creativity.  It would provide an experience that no functional online marketplace can ever live up to.  People would travel for miles to visit my dream bookshop, it would be a place of pilgrimage for all those of creative sensibilities….

    OK, maybe I’m getting a bit carried away now,  but the point remains, bookshops now need to be so much more than bookshops, they need to be a day out, a voyage of discovery.

    Do you have a favourite bookshop?  What does your dream bookshop look like?  Comment here and maybe I’ll do a best bookshops in the UK blog before the end of the year.

  • Finding Your Inner Child

    This blog was originally published on the Scottish Book Trust website.

     

    When I was a child I started a lot of stories. I don’t think I ever finished one. By the time I was an adult I had built up a database of about 50 first lines of short stories, most of which were never completed.

    As a novelist, however, I’ve found that publishers are usually keen for you to finish the story. So now the creative phase is relatively short, a couple of months of wild, ideas-based writing, followed by several months of editing. As novelists we have to learn the art of self discipline, but in doing so, are we stifling the child in ourselves, or in other words, our creativity?

    Last month I was fortunate to be offered a place on the Scottish Book Trust’s CBBC lab, as a novelist interested in writing for children’s TV. I found the experience of coming up with ideas for TV shows completely different from novel writing. Instead of slogging away at one precious idea, we had one week to come up with ten (yes, ten!) original ideas for TV shows. But we only had two lines to write for each. It sounds daunting, but in practice it took away much of the fear that usually goes with coming up with ideas. And I had my own kids to help me, who, not having my fear of actually having to finish a story, had no problem with beginning them, even if most of them involved bottoms.

    With 10 ideas for roughly 10 participants, that meant 100 ideas being shared in one session. What was surprising was how a situation which could have been competitive (ten writers, used to writing in isolation, potentially competing for the best idea) was actually intensely collaborative. Learning to lose ownership of your work is one of the first lessons we learn as published authors.  But too often authors still cling on to their babies. It’s a bit like watching your child leave home, we need to learn to set our art free, to appreciate that it’s not about us, but about the value of the work itself.

    There’s something incredibly refreshing for a writer about the sense that ideas are disposable. If one doesn’t work, it’ll probably spark off another, better idea. From wayward fairies to ghosts, kids’ radio stations and rapping dogs, by pooling our creative resources, we could refine our ideas into something much greater than the sum of its parts, with potential for both screen and print.

    What the CBBC lab showed was that whether or not we end up getting work commissioned for TV, writers, especially those of us who work in isolation, should break out of our comfort zone more often. Better collaboration really can mean more creativity, and taking away the pressure to finish can help us remember why started in the first place.