Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A Wannabe E-Book Reader

My favourite blogger Stateside, the author and ex-agent Nathan Brandsford put up this post (one of his best so far?) this week. I urge you to check it out, and if you haven't already, to rent the films pronto. They are modern classics - improvised scripts, I seem to remember, which were then re-enacted on set. Beautiful.

On similar lines, I am blogging today about two twentieth century memoirs I've been giving a twenty-first century twist to reading this month; they were published within a year of each other, and were written by authors born within twenty years of each other. Marcel Pagnol's (born 1895) My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle (first published in 1960, sadly now OP) and Laurie Lee's (born 1915) Cider With Rosie (first published 1959).
Pagnol's recollections of Aubagne as a child are dim; he moved from there aged three to Saint-Loup, a 'fairly big village on the ouskirts of Marseilles'. Cider with Rosie is about Lee's childhood from age three onwards in the Gloucestershire village of Slad in England.

I don't own a Kindle; I remain on the fence, but I did read these books in a way which, I imagine, if I owned an interactive ebook, I might have done. 

Suggested ingredients for a Wannabe E-Book Reader:

1. Take one Cider with Rosie and one My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle
2. Hook up your laptop/computer
3. Hit up google maps and switch to satellite view
4. Type in Slad, or Saint-Loup
5. Zoom in, and re-imagine the Lee and Pagnol as infants tracing this territory in the south of France and the south west of England.

Does this undermine the magic? I don't think so. I found, on google, the building which once was the school in Lee's early twentieth century Slad. It was fascinating to imagine him there, and to add this new dimension to my re-reading of this classic. One day I might get to Slad in person and visit the lanes he so beautifully describes, that simple world - one innocent of oil and unchanged for a millenium - gone. I don't know if I'll ever make it back to Aix en Provence, but I might just get a Kindle...

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Künstlerroman - Who'd've thunk it?

Last week, we ran a cosy Machynlleth Writers' Group at my house with mulled wine, mince pies, a log fire and all the trimmings. Local professional harpist and blossoming poet, Harriet Earis, brought her harp and enchanted us all, including little M, who I woke up at 10pm for the performance, with her beautiful music.

I submitted my work to the group for the first time since we started the second generation Machynlleth Writers' Group last year. I had some fascinating feedback. One of the members, fellow writer and blogger, David Thorpe suggested I take a second look at Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. Looking it up on ubiquitous Wikipedia, I notice some enthusiastic Wikiwriter has referred to it as a Künstlerroman, meaning an "artist's novel." Who'd've thunk it. Maybe I shall jump on that literary band wagon? It sounds rather romantic.

I love the interview on the author's website, who says she has noticed that when female writers put themselves into their writing, it's called autobiography, and when male writers do the same, it's called meta-fiction. Too true.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Making Hay

We made Hay while the rain poured. Friday and Saturday last, the Hay Festival put on a Winter Weekend with two days of events; it was like the summer Hay Festival once used to be: small-scale, in the town centre, mostly locals in the crowds, the pubs and cafés have seating and don’t run out of ale on tap.

In October, I booked tickets for the whole family to see Peter and The Wolf, a one-man puppet show by the Sea Legs Puppet Theatre. I’d love to review it here, but unfortunately our 2-year-old, J, started hollering within the first two minutes of the performance and I had to extricate myself, somewhat ungracefully, from the tightly-packed rows of parish hall plastic seats that were jammed together.

One scoop of chocolate ice cream and four hankerchiefs was J’s preferred way to pass the hour in which his sister sat through the whole thing, entranced, apparently.

(An amusing side note is that the parish hall in which Peter and the Wolf was performed is the same one that I had run a charity café in six years previously with the Gaia Cooperative, and in which I was going to hold my own poetry reading. It was abandoned when there were only three people in the audience: my Mum, my Stepdad and my boyfriend. It is a memory I will somehow strangely cherish).

I had an ulterior motive, though, in getting the family to Hay en masse: to hear Horatio Clare speak about his latest work, The Prince’s Pen (Seren). And I was lucky enough to meet him beforehand to ask some questions about the process of retelling the myth of Lludd and Llevelys from the Mabinogion the results from which will feature in a forthcoming blog post on the Western Mail, so no spoilers here.

It was probably just as well that I did arrange to meet Horatio beforehand as it started hailing outside while I was snug in the Blue Boar interviewing him; my husband had charge of M, 4, and J, 2, who was in a pram with a broken hood and no rain cover. They came in bedraggled, and would have thrown in the towel, had they had one - and I suspect they would have benefited from one. Horatio excused me from attending the formal five o’clock Hay event and we left, having made Hay, and being glad of it.

What struck me most about my time with Horatio from my own writing perspective, was how much trust he was able to place in the narrator, Clip, and let the voice do the work. Now that I’m in writing mode, I’m looking forward to finding my voice again.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Notes from a Kitchen Table

This month, the novel project has started to take on a life of it’s own. 

Having finished the breakdown of what happens scene by scene in the first draft of my book in a spreadsheet (which felt intuitively wrong­ – I am not an accountant) I then extracted the scenes and fleshed them out into page by page scene sheets (in Word, I confess). From that basis, I then fleshed out the structure, moved scenes around and had a working plot document. From this 67-page monster, I wrote a six-page synopsis.

Then, I turned for advice.

I have only shown the work-in-progress to one close friend so far, and as a reader, she has an astute pair of eyes. I felt it was time to litmus test the plot again. I cannot work in solitary confinement. Like many writers, at times, I turn to (constructively) critical friends for help.

I sent the synopsis on to a friend who is a literary scout and got her reactions to it. She gave the same feedback as my reader had given in February this year - namely, to add a whole other layer and dimension to the book. Welcome feedback, in one sense. In another, it adds a lot more workload to the project.

Back to the drawing board.

Meanwhile, I have had my first piece of criticism published since my pre-kids days of reviewing poetry for the PN Review. I had the pleasure of reviewing COSTA shortlisted, and Man Booker Longlisted THE LAST HUNDRED DAYS by Patrick McGuinness for the current issue of the New Welsh Review. In this quarter's offering, I also read with interest an article by Rhian Jones on the state of publishing in the digital age, where she looks at how the publishing industry has learnt from the music industries mistakes and successes when dealing with digitisation of content.

Lastly, I have subscribed to the relatively new Cardiff-based literary magazine, The Raconteur. Anticipating my hot-off-the-press copy of AMERICA. Check it out!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Confessions of a Memoir-Eater

Since going on a Writing From Life course at Ty Newydd in North Wales this July, I have been reading my way through plenty of memoirs that came recommended on the course, plus some others that I have found, gathering dust, on my bookshelves. Here is a selection:

'Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight' by Alexandra Fuller is an account of the author’s childhood in Africa with her parents and siblings. It is vividly told, saturated in beautiful sequences and description. Indulge me, if you will, in quoting a short section from it recounting the author’s visit to the Cecil Hotel in Umtali in Zimbabwe:

‘The chairs were swallowingly soft, the colours were bubble-gold and shades of greeny-blue. A white lady with hair like a purple-rinsed haystack and long red nails frowned at us from behind the reception desk. I had never been anywhere so comfortable.” (Page 49 Picador, 2002 paperback edition).

In nearly every chapter a new dramatic twist detonates. It had me on the edge of my sofa.

I similarly enjoyed 'Running with Scissors' by Augusten Burroughs over the summer (see this blog post which critically appraises the opening section). I highly recommend it for those who are not feint hearted. It’s an account of a family that goes – or is made – crazy, mainly due to the absurd recommendations of the family mental health doctor, Doctor Finch. It’s high-paced, immediate, unbelievable.

At the moment, I’m reading Margaret Forster’s 'Hidden Lives: A Family Memoir' and I am sad to say – as I have been meaning to read this for many years – that I’m disappointed. I’m finding the writing to be poorly edited; (take, for example, this sentence “I said he was quite right, I was and I was glad I was.”) lacking in emotional depth and resonance, and flatly told. I have to admit that I have not read any of Forster’s fiction, but I feel I should, just to see if I respond more positively to work by her in another genre. It might take me another few years to get round to it.

Over the Ty Newydd course, I revisited an old favourite – the pint-sized 'Hideous Kinky' by Esther Freud. On the creative writing front, I can recommend this Guardian podcast with the author in which she examines the process of writing this memoir of her early childhood in Morocco. 'Hideous Kinky' is a lush, evocative, beautifully wrought account of Morocco expertly told from a child’s point of view.

What are your favourite memoirs? I’d love to hear your recommendations.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Novel Writing as an Iterative Process

This is my way of saying I am going backwards and forwards, taking - as my rather Victorian grandmother would say - one step forward and two steps back.

I have been written to distraction, literally. I have been re-writing a short story ready for entry into the BBC New Openings Competition (deadline 2 December, for anyone who is interested), reading memoirs like a voracious autobiography-eater and I can’t help myself from opening files with little poems in, and making little alterations to them, almost daily.

As far as the book itself goes, I have revised the plot, having inputted the data from my original draft into a Plot Overview spreadsheet (see this post) and have been re-jigging the order of scenes to make it flow, and ensure that loose ends are tied up by the end. I imagine the next stage will be to extract and expand each ‘line’ and flesh it out into a full scene. This will help me to realise if there is enough drama, and tension. Hopefully I will be all set to start writing by the end of November.

My seven top tips for being as efficient as you can at the stage of structuring a book:

  • Accept that you will feel you’re going backwards a lot, and that trust that invisible progress is being made.
  • Turn off your Wi-Fi.
  • Streamline your documents on your hard drive. File documents in separate folders. I use: admin; drafts; mechanics/research; character sketches, and setting sketches.
  • Print your main documents out that you will cross-reference when writing, so that you will minimise switching between online versions when you come to write; this will only lead to distraction.
  • When reading books, read slowly and carefully and notice the techniques that writers you admire are using to set up tension and narrative drive.
  • When reading books, read slowly and carefully and notice the techniques that writers you *don’t* admire are using and be encouraged that you at least imagine you would do better.
  • Seek advice from fellow writers. In the virtual realm, The Paris Review interviews, mostly all online, are indispensable.

Monday, 17 October 2011

A Poxy Week

The last few days have been pretty poxy.

Three weeks into my bursary period and M, 4, has come down with a much more severe case of chicken pox than her brother, J, underwent two weeks ago. Net result: gone through a whole roll of cotton wool; slept really really badly; watched too many episodes of the Mr Men than I care to remember, and feel more connected to my daughter than I have done for a long time, especially since she started school.

However, it does mean that I hadn't felt at all connected to my creative work - until last night, with the kids fast asleep, we happened upon a fascinating documentary on iPlayer about the reclusive author of To Kill a Mocking Bird, Harper Lee (only 13 hours left to watch, at time of posting this!).

What interested me in this documentary was how the presenter increasingly discovers that this novel was based heavily on the author's life, and on the events surrounding her Alabama hometown of Monroeville. I'm no scholar of the author's work, though like many teenagers now, I suspect, I studied the book for my GCSE. I've been digging through the dusty wine boxes of books in our spare room trying to find the heavily annotated copy that I once owned. It will be interesting to see what spoke to me then and what, in this classic text, will speak to me now...

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Car Crash Characterization

Sol Stein, in his book Solutions for Writers: Practical Craft Techniques for Fiction and Non Fiction (St Martin's Press, 1995), writes "we need to know the people in the car before we see the car crash." And so, in fleshing out (ha ha) my characters in my Scrivener binder, I am imagining them hurtling, head-long, into a brick wall and asking myself who these people are.

The added complexity for this project is that, in my first draft I mainly wrote from life so the key to this project is to amplify the story, and release it from real life events. But there are some elements of the characterization which I portrayed in this mainly autobiographical first draft which I can't bear to cut out. For example, my old head teacher - a mean and authoritarian man - had a scorpion suspended in a glass paperweight on his desk. I can remember fixating on it and wondering if I broke it, would it still sting? Somehow this fear of the paperweight translated into my fear of him, but, as this scorpion was suspended in glass I too felt that I was untouchable, and confronted him about a school rule which I, and others, objected to. I hope this small detail makes the final cut. The scorpion speaks loudly.

Many 'How To' books extol the virtues of getting to know your characters well before launching into writing. My first stab at a full-length novel ended in disaster when, on my way back from a daily commute to and from work through several fields, I lay on the grass and shouted to the heavens: 'WHERE ARE YOU?' There was no response. Not long after that episode, I binned the project; although I had researched the setting and themes thoroughly (New York, Venice and dyslexia, respectively) I had no idea who was going to inhabit that book, and those characters never arose from my subconscious, let alone crashed a car. This is not something I wish to repeat. And so, I am getting to know my characters; if I keep talking to myself, it is not necessary to reach for the straight jacket.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Scribbling on Scrivener

A few months ago I was told about an application you can download for writing books with, called Scrivener, available from an American website. 

I've just been trying it out on the 30-day free trial to see how intuitive it is. I admit that I'm nervous of losing my data. Somehow, writing in Word seems safer, more akin to carbon copying on a typewriter than saving your life's work on a wizardly and remote book-binding application, but I have to admit it is making life easier.

For example, I'm just compiling characters in the binder (the panel which collects and collates all your material) which is involving copying and pasting some of the work on characters that I'd already begun in Word and pasting it in a new format. The Scrivener application suggests a character sketch format (as well as others) to fill in, which you can update to suit your project. It then houses them all together and is at-a-glance when you're within your project so you don't have to go searching in your hard drive for separate character sheets.

Although some of the menu options are a bit puzzling, and I'm finding it tricky to navigate, I'm going to continue writing and planning the book in this application for now, and give it a chance. I guess there is always the option to cut and paste back to old-fashioned Word, isn't there? 

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Understanding Narrative

I am using the month of September while my son, J, is at nursery from 9 until 3.45pm and my daughter, M, is at school, to make sense of the drafts of my book written in 2004 and 2005, and the copious notes which accompany the dusty archive. So far, I have gone through both drafts (one of 40,000 words - part one of the novel, and one of 80,000 words, part one and two of the novel combined) and then put the scenes into a rather analytical spreadsheet, called plot overview. There is a column for: scene; characters; point of view; location; conflict; theme; time; what does it show? and finally, anything worth noting. Into this spreadsheet I have inputted important historical events that happened during the time period that might be referred to in the story.

My next task is to experiment with narrative and point of view so that I can decide what privileges I am going to give my narrator. At the moment, the first draft is told from the point of view of a child, but she is able to communicate using adult language, so this is not technically ‘correct’. If she is privileged with this insight, and vocabulary, then one option is to adjust it to the point of view of an adult looking back at her childhood.

This is done most memorably in L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between which seems to be enjoying a recent renaissance in the Review sections of the broadsheets as far as I can see. There are lots of good books on technique out there, the classic being Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction. For a digestable read on various writing techniques, turn to David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction, which is a collection of his articles that appeared in the Independent on Sunday.

Last night, by chance, I picked up a copy of the memoir or novel (depending on whose side you fall on - see wikipedia link) Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs and delved in, reading his first chapter very closely. This morning, as a writing warm up, I have gone back to it, and re-examined the first page of text to dissect his technique, and then appraised it. Below appears the text along with my ‘dissection’ notes.


Understanding Narrative

From Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

Chapter One – Something Isn’t Right

My mother is standing in front of the bathroom mirror smelling polished and ready; like Jean Naté, Dippity Do and the waxy sweetness of lipstick. Her white, handgun-shaped blow-dryer is lying on top of the wicker clothes hamper, ticking as it cools. She stands back and smoothes her hands down the front of her swirling, psychedelic Pucci dress, biting the inside of her cheek.

In this paragraph, Burroughs uses the first person present tense: it is immediate. However, we also have the benefit of an adult’s vocabulary (psychedelic, Pucci) so we can deduce that this is an adult looking back at child’s world. Notice that the objects he is describing would be at eye-level for a young boy (a blow-dryer on top of the wicker basket), and also how Burroughs employs the senses (smell – Jean Naté perfume and Dippity Do hair cream; sound – ticking of the blow-dryer; touch – biting her cheek; smoothing her hands; sight – mirror; handgun-shaped blow-dryer). Also, although I don’t know anything about this memoir, I’m betting that the handgun-shaped hairdryer is anticipating an event later on to do with a real gun, or at least, death. The psychedelic dress tells us something about the era. Looking up Dippity Do hair cream, I notice it was a product that came onto the market in 1973. This is certainly set in the 1970s. What does the scene tell us about the relationship between mother and son? Let’s read on.

“Damn it,” she says, “something isn’t right.”
            Yesterday she went to the fancy Chopping Block salon in Amherst with its bubble skylights and ficus trees in chrome planters. Sebastian gave her a shag.
            “That hateful Jane Fonda,” she says, fluffing her dark brown hair at the crown. “She makes it look so easy.” She pinches her sideburns into points that accentuate her cheekbones. People have always said she looks like a young Lauren Bacall, especially in the eyes.
            I can’t stop staring at her feet, which she has slipped into treacherously tall red patent-leather pumps. Because she normally lives in sandals, it’s like she’s borrowed some other lady’s feet. Maybe her friend Lydia’s feet. Lydia has teased black hair, boyfriends and an above-ground pool. She wears high heels all the time, even when she’s just sitting out back by the pool in her white bikini, smoking menthol cigarettes and talking on her olive-green Princess telephone. My mother only wears fancy shoes when she’s going out, so I’ve come to associate them with a feeling of abandonment and dread.

Again, we are privy to what the young Augusten is noticing – reflections, glimmering plant pots and, above head, bubble skylights. These details are innocent next to the abrupt sentence, ‘Sebastian gave her a shag.’ We imagine that this is something Augusten has overheard, and probably - we hope - as small child, does not understand. We are introduced to his mother’s friend Lydia via her feet, and fetish for high heels. Colours are starting to come through, and they are not complex – white (innocence), red (the colour of family), olive-green (naivety). As Burroughs was recalling when he was young, colours would have been a powerful resonator, triggering recollections of scenes. We are beginning to understand more about the mother and son relationship – that Augusten’s mother goes out occasionally, and when she does he feels abandoned. This makes us ask ourselves where his father is when she goes out, and why he dreads it. Does she come back late, drunk, with a different man every time?

            I don’t want her to go. My umbilical cord is still attached and she’s pulling at it. I feel panicky.
            I’m standing in the bathroom next to her because I need to be with her for as long as I can. Maybe she is going to Hartford, Conneticut. Or Bradley Field International Airport. I love the airport, the smell of jet fuel, flying south to visit my grandparents.
            I love to fly.
            When I grow up, I want to be the one who opens those cabinets above the seats, who gets to go into the small kitchen where everything fits together like a shiny silver puzzle. Plus, I like uniforms and I would get to wear one, along with a white shirt and a tie, even a tie-tack in the shape of airplane wings. I would get to serve peanuts in small foil packets and offer people small plastic cups of soda. “Would you like the whole can?” I would say. I love flying south to visit my grandparents and I’ve already memorized almost everything these flight attendants say.

We don’t yet know how old Augusten is at this point in the narrative (he is nine, we later learn), but we can sense that he’s still at a vulnerable age – he feels a metaphorical umbilical cord still exists between him and his mother. He can only conjecture where his mother is going; there is even the possibility she’ll fly somewhere. However, this fact doesn’t fill Augusten with dread; in fact this thought causes Augusten to think about the opportunity of flight, and of seeing his grandparents again. He obviously feels safe with his grandparents, and we ask ourselves, does he want to get away? The innocent appeal of being an air steward and being able to make everything ‘fit together’ tells us a lot about his home life, where we can assume things are disjointed and falling apart.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The challenge: write a novel in the space of one year two days a week between 9am and 3pm

I was lucky enough to be awarded a bursary from Literature Wales last year to facilitate finishing my semi-autobiographical novel. The bursary period commences in a month, and I have a four week's lead-in to break into my routine. Two days a week for six months, I will drop off my youngest son, J aged 2, at nursery at 8.45am, and my daughter, M aged 4, at 8.50am. The times are important, in case you are wondering. By the time I get home I have just under six hours at my desk - read kitchen table - to get back into writing, and maybe even finish a book by next year. Not something I have had the opportunity to do - or even think about - much with two kids at home for four years.

The book was started in 2004 officially, though I have never written about anything else, really, except my own childhood. I hope I can get it out of my system: it would be nice to populate a novel with characters purely imaginary, scenarios the product of daydreams for once.

I didn't expect to feel the sense of loss I have felt these past two days in dispatching M and J into the hands of others. Empty nest syndrome, I suppose, but labeling feelings don't soften them. And suddenly I can remember my own experiences as a four year old in getting ready for school: my own mother tugging at my hair while knotting it into plaits, demanding keep still!; the warm smell of sandwiches, having been parceled up for three hours in a hot classroom, as I open my lunch box; nice cold, ice cold milk at eleven o'clock.

Luckily, I wrote down most of the bare bones of my novel before I had children; I see, now, how we live and see through our own children once they are born. My school days feel distant in a way that they didn't when I was in my mid-20s, able to hot hoof it off to Paris for a week to write. No such luxury now. I write between nine and three.