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.