What it means to be an amateur

Sometimes, if you’re listening and being open to the world around you, messages and lessons will be delivered just when you need them most.  For example, a couple of weeks ago I read an interview with singer-songwriter Banks, where she said, ‘I don’t know what chords I play, but that’s liberating.  I don’t have boundaries.’  And then a few days later I saw Justin Timberlake talking on Oprah Winfrey’s Master Class series.  He said ‘I like that moment when I can look at everybody and say, I have no idea how to do this.’

This approach of not quite knowing what you’re doing hit home with me.  Recently I’ve moved away from novel writing and have started experimenting with its polar opposite, flash fiction, and even more recently writing journalistic opinion pieces on the arts and creative industries.  Now, while I admit this isn’t entirely new because it’s building on what I’ve already learned from writing this blog, it’s still an unknown market, with its own structure, style and methodology that I know nothing about (let’s be honest I make these things up as I go along in my blog posts).  This is why I’ve been telling myself that I can’t do it, the self-doubt burrowing away until I’m convinced the safest way is to stick with what I know, less risk, less potential for failure.

When self-doubt is at its destructive height, a well-timed message from any source, a friend, a colleague, a celebrity, has the potential to become a game changer.  When Timberlake was talking about his approach to both his stage and screen performances, he said, ‘I like being a beginner… To always be the novice is exciting to me.  To continue to learn from all the things that I’ve been lucky enough to do.’

This reminded me that feeling out of my depth is a good thing.  Being an amateur at something means I can experiment, I can discover my own boundaries.  As Banks said this is liberating, a kind of developmental stabbing-around-in-the-dark along with eureka moments of progress that are nourishment for the creative spirit .  This for me is just as important (if not more so) than finding a market or audience, and hopefully will lead to honest and original work that I can be proud of.

And so to finish, here are more wise words from Mr Timberlake: ‘To be a master at something it takes a long time at a high level… and for me the way to do that is to always be a beginner.  If I’m not learning from something that I’m doing, then that means I’ve done it before.  Do something different… try new things, that makes more sense to me.’


Café Culture for Creatives

I was sitting in a well-known coffee chain this week (the one that sells red velvet cake), DSCF0626drinking an americano and trying to write, but the inevitable happened and I was distracted by the conversations going on around me.  This is an occupational hazard for anyone with a caffeine addiction and fascination for other people’s lives (or just plain nosy), and much as I tried to concentrate I ended up listening in (while pretending to work).

There were a couple on my left discussing the contents of an arts newsletter and covering a range of topics including theatre and film; to my right was a woman tapping away on her laptop, pausing occasionally to think and compose; and at 2 o’clock across the way were a couple of shambling blokes deep in conversation over a book one had given the other.  The book was A Cassandra at Westminster by Donald McIntosh Johnson, which I’ve since discovered is an obscure political memoir.

As you can gather I was so interested in these conversations that I didn’t get my own work done, but regardless I still love it when these distractions happen.  As a writer I’m used to hiding away in a room, closing myself off to focus on what I can draw from my subconscious.  But when you surface and take the time to look around, listen and explore, magical things can happen.  Ok, so this time the only thing it prompted was a rather whimsical blog post, but I’m also thinking there’s intrigue in those two blokes and their book, ripe for a radio play maybe, and what was the subtext of the couple having their arty meeting?

Whether you actually get your work done or end up getting inspired by the things going on around you, cafés and restaurants can be rich places for creativity.  They are full of people after all, a mishmash of past lives and motivations with potential for simmering conflict that can spark a multitude of ideas.  But being creative in cafés isn’t all plain sailing, so here’s some practical advice:—

1. Busy is best.  This might seem counter-intuitive but if you really want to get work done the general hubbub and clatter will wash over you.  If there’s only one couple in the corner talking about the operation Mr Harrington the cat needs to remove a septic claw, that’s all you’ll be able to think about.
2. Choose your seating with care.  If you’re anything like me you easily become abandoned in the act of creation and won’t notice how long you’ve been sitting there.  Wooden chairs are the devil’s seating.
3. Don’t overdo the coffee.  Or the bacon sandwiches.  Or the red velvet cake.  It becomes expensive and bad for your health.  You also don’t want to be one of those annoying customers that can make a latte last two hours.  The staff have a business to run, so respect their space.  Peppermint tea is a cheaper and healthier alternative once you’ve jacked up on the caffeine.
4. Be selective about who you trust.  All these liquids will mean the inevitable trip to the loo, so what do you do about your laptop and/or other working materials?  I have variously asked other trustworthy-looking customers to keep an eye on my things (particularly if they have their own laptop, they understand the dilemma), or ask one of the serving staff.  Both pose obvious dangers but the alternative is packing up all your stuff and taking it with you.  Sometimes the alternative is the safest.
5. Consider alfresco.  In this beautiful hot weather, look for a café with a courtyard, a canopy and a cool breeze.  A little honeysuckle trailing up the walls is good too.

And finally, enjoy the feeling of wellbeing when you leave.  You’ve contributed to the local economy and come away with something new, whether it’s a piece of writing, a selection of sketches, or even just the kernel of a new idea.  Two blokes bonding (or falling out) over a book maybe…

Small Book, Big Idea.

UnknownI was walking past Hunting Raven Books in Frome last weekend, with no intention of stopping to buy anything, when this book caught my eye, sitting up perkily in the window display.

A bold title with a strap line interesting enough to drag me into the shop to have a look — 10 ways to share your creativity and get discovered.  Surely that’s what any artistic person wants, although to be honest it’s the share your creativity that attracted me, rather than the unrealistic promise of getting discovered.  I have a deep-seated fear/dislike/ambivalence of self-promotion, but by the time I’d read the back cover I thought maybe this was a new guide for me, a way to get my work out there without the feeling that I’m selling my soul.

And I was right.

The general philosophy is to share your work.  Not giving away your finished product like it’s not worth anything, but sharing the way you work, the process of getting from that initial spark of an idea to the finished product that deserves to be paid for.  In this way the people you’re connected to, whether in person or on the internet, have a greater understanding of what you are trying to achieve, and how you achieve it, and therefore are much more likely to pay the good bucks for your work when it’s completed.

The book includes chapters such as Don’t Turn into Human Spam, Share Something Small Every Day and Stick Around.  And he puts his money where his mouth is by sharing his work within its pages, dotting his advice with his newspaper poems which are such a clever and interesting idea that I’m dying to give it a try myself, as well as being a great exercise for students (right there is a practical demonstration on how this philosophy has the potential to grow and connect with other people).

It’s worth taking a look at Kleon’s website too, where you can see him talk about his work together with examples of his poems.  He is clearly passionate about sharing what he does and how he does it, and he has that generosity of spirit that never expects anything in return.  He just has the wisdom to know it will reap its own rewards.

A good philosophy for life in general, I think.  Happy sharing.

TV Addiction — Food for the Creative Mind

One of the joys of the box set age of televisual viewing is that services such as Lovefilm and Netflix enable dedicated story lovers to acquire a new obsession at the touch of a button.  Searching for the next spare hour when I can watch another episode makes the addiction almost drug-like, but has the benefit of being altogether more healthy (in theory).

true-detective__140415184301Past obsessions have included Breaking Bad (surely the seminal series obsession), Girls and The Bridge.  But my new love is True Detective.  Matthew McConaughey.  Woody Harrelson.  What’s not to like right there?  To summarise, it’s a dark detective drama with the murder of a woman at its heart with both detectives troubled and unpredictable.  But that’s where the cliches end.  The old-school quality of the film gives a graininess to the texture, all dirty colours and moody skies, the music is haunting and the characters have a depth that makes them utterly convincing (I suspect McConaughey will never look at a script like Sahara ever again).

But what has really interested me in this series is the way the narrative structure is handled.  It’s told in flashback, or flash forward, whichever way you want to look at it, with the two detectives separately giving their accounts of the case to police officers, years after the events themselves.  I didn’t question this device too much, it added to my understanding about the characters’ development and gave intriguing titbits of information about the case.  But midway through the series a pivotal episode suddenly gives this structure a heft of purpose that raises the level to Breaking Bad proportions (yes, really).

I’m not going to give any details here because I consider story spoilers to be the eighth deadly sin, but it did make me realise the value of the box set to anyone with creative interests.  Being able to watch back-to-back episodes means we can see plot and character development, methods of direction, camera work, etc, in a way we never could with the drip-feed of weekly episodes.  The continuity makes it easier to see the connections, the subtle nuances that bind the story as a whole, whether it’s the way colour is used in Breaking Bad to denote character allegiances, or the structure of True Detective that becomes the linchpin leading to a nerve-shredding climax.

I have to confess to always being behind the times in engaging with technology and new ways of getting my media delivered (I still haven’t got to grips with streaming), but creatively the opportunity for binge-viewing has been a revelation.  Incidentally, it’s worth taking a look at the extras too as they often include fascinating insights into the filmmaking process.

So if you’re looking for a new obsession I’d recommend all of the series mentioned above.  I can also add Fargo, House of Cards and Happy Valley (we Brits can do it too occasionally). This does come with a health warning though as you’ll be spending the summer pale, wide-eyed and coffee-fuelled, desperate for your next fix.

The Writer’s Retreat… with Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn

Photo courtesy of Emma London
Photo courtesy of Emma London

Here is the scenario: You have one month alone on a remote Scottish Island.  You have a comfortable cabin and enough food to last the duration.  The only contact you have with the outside world is a radio.  There is no television, internet access or mobile phone signal.

This month’s Writer’s Retreat Resident is novelist Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn.

What will you be working on while you are there?
I’m looking forward to working on my third novel, provisionally titled ‘Phoenix’. I started a version of this book over eighteen months ago and ploughed on through the first draft until last summer, I stalled. From June until September I couldn’t write a thing. I had other exciting things happening, including the launch of my second novel ‘The Piano Player’s Son’ in October, and my flash fiction ‘Dexter’s Lover’ successful in the Fish Publishing competition (which involved a trip to the West Cork Literary Festival for the launch of the anthology!), but the novel refused to budge.

I went on a course called Stuck in the Middle, where it was suggested I might actually have two novels which I was trying to jam into one. Deep down I had a feeling this might be right, but I persevered until January this year when I finally accepted – I had to unpick the two narratives!

I’ve been doing that – as well as vacillating between the two as to which to write first – and I’ve now got started on one of the narratives. I’m enjoying being able to develop the characters and the plot in a way I couldn’t do while they were fighting for space with the other narrative. This retreat will be a wonderful opportunity to make progress.

How will you structure your days?
I imagine I will write in the mornings, walk, explore (possibly have a sleep) in the afternoons, and in the evenings, I’ll listen to the radio, reread the morning’s work and plan the next day’s. Years ago, when my children were small, I rented a tiny cottage just outside Bath for two weeks in order to make progress with a novel. I missed my family – they came to visit the middle weekend – but overall, I found the solitude made me highly productive. My days followed the pattern I’ve outlined above: it worked for me then, and I’m hoping it will again.

How do you feel about being cut off from human contact as well as the social network?
It will be very strange to have no contact with my husband for a month. Is there a postal service, so that we can write to each other? I imagine I will be lonely at times, especially after the first week or so, with no human contact. But that should force me to interact with my characters more. If I’m lonely, I can chat to them! I’m glad there will be a radio, as I think not hearing the human voice for a month would be hard. As for social media, I think the absence of that will be beneficial. When I’ve been on holiday and haven’t had access to the internet, I have a wonderful sense of freedom. It will also prevent me checking emails and Facebook, while I’m supposed to be writing, something I can’t seem to stop myself doing, although it really annoys me.

(Sally: No postal service I’m afraid, this is complete seclusion.)

What reading will you bring with you?
This is a difficult one. I will probably bring a Kindle, but I much prefer print books, so I’ll be lugging an enormously heavy bag. I think my first choice will be a poetry book, something like ‘Being Human’, an anthology from Bloodaxe. If I’m stuck with my prose, I often find some time spent reading poetry will release my stuckness in the way another novel can’t.

It’s hard to decide between modern novels. There are so many, and once I decide on one or two, I’m sure I’d change my mind. A book I read a year or so ago might be interesting to take: ‘The Solitude of Thomas Cave’ by Georgina Harding. It tell the story of a whaler in the 1600s who decides to spend the winter in the Arctic when his ship sails away. It would be fascinating to read it again experiencing my own little bit of solitude. Other than that, it’s going to have to be a fat classic such as ‘War and Peace’. It’s years since I’ve read it, and I’d be interested to see what I think of it now. For a similar reason, I might take the novels of Rosamond Lehmann – oh, and I’ll want a history of the island … no, I must stop!

What essential items will you be packing?
I’d need an anorak, walking boots and a hat for exploring, although I don’t know what season I’m going in. Do I have a choice, Sally? I’d definitely want a powerful torch with lots of batteries. My laptop would be essential. A printer would be nice as well, as I have to read hard copy to edit work, and I’m paranoid about losing it even if it’s backed up. But I’d need someone to carry that lot and I guess I’m not allowed! I’ll take Darjeeling teabags with me, as I drink that all day. If it’s likely to be cold, I’ll need lots of thick jumpers. I hate being cold, and sitting at the computer shivering won’t be much fun. Just had a thought – I’ll take a pair of binoculars. As well as watching the birds and any other wildlife, I’d be able to see anyone approaching, and that would make me feel safer. Or maybe more anxious, depending who it was.

(Sally:  Considering the remoteness of the Scottish islands Lindsay, I think you need to be prepared for all weathers regardless of the season!)

If you could bring a fictional companion with you as a companion, who would it be and why?
Mm! Very difficult. How ‘alive’ would this proposed fictional character be? Would they be there all the time, or could I conjure them up when I wanted a chat? They might get on my nerves after the first day, and it would also break the isolation I’m looking forward to trying out.

It definitely wouldn’t be a man, as that might bring too many complications. But I’m stuck even if it’s a female companion. Do I want someone such as Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest or George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, so that I can discuss ideas? Or would characters such as Emma Bovary, or Anna Karenina – victims of romantic love – make more interesting companions? I think I’m going to cheat and take Vanessa from my own novel ‘Unravelling’. Some readers have called her a bad mother; others have wondered how she could have been so besotted with the self-centred Gerald. She usually provokes a lot of reaction! I think I know why she behaves as she does in the novel, but I’d love to ask her how she  thinks and feels about her behaviour and the response of readers to it.

There are some fascinating questions here, Sally, and answering some of them has been a challenge. But I’ve really enjoyed it and thanks for giving me the opportunity.

1654957_615824668499102_182762366_nAfter a career teaching English in further and higher education, Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn, now works as a writer and creative writing tutor. Her second novel The Piano Player’s Son was published in 2013 by Cinnamon Press after winning their novel writing award. Her first novel, Unravelling, published in 2010, has won several prizes. Lindsay is working on her next novel, Phoenix. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University.
Lindsay also writes short stories and flash fiction which have been published and successful in competitions.

Links to Lindsay’s work:  http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Piano-Players-Lindsay-Stanberry-Flynn/dp/1907090932/ref=pd_sim_sbs_b_2 / http://www.amazon.co.uk/Unravelling-Lindsay-Stanberry-Flynn/dp/1848763514/ref=pd_sim_sbs_b_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=0H76DFWVM89RD15WT78T / http://lindsaystanberryflynn.co.uk/

‘The Writing Process’ Blog Tour

Ever since I started the journey to becoming an independent writer, I’ve been reading about various marketing strategies and ways to be a part of the digital writing age (writing a blog is a really good start, apparently).  I’d heard about blog tours without really knowing what they were about or how to get involved in one, so this week it was great to be invited onto ‘The Writing Process’ Blog Tour and dip my toes into uncharted territory.

For my part in this ever expanding tour I’ve taken up the baton from another writer by answering four questions about my writing process.  I’lI then pass the baton onto two other writers who will do the same (it should have been three but it seems writers are busy multi-tasking people.  Who knew?).  What appeals to me about this process is the idea that these links between writers create a thread of knowledge and advice, something I still pursue myself even after twenty years of writing.

In fact, one of the side-effects of being handed the baton is going back to read the previous writer’s post, and then the writer before that, and the writer before that and so on and so on until I realised it was the middle of the day and I hadn’t even thought about my post yet, but I did have an awful lot of new writing advice, and I’d discovered some writers I wasn’t aware of before.  So, if you want to know about the vast array of ways to engage in the creative process there are worse ways to spend an afternoon, but make yourself a bucket full of coffee first and switch off your phone because it could become your new addiction.

I was invited on the tour by Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn, a writer I met while we were on the Creative Writing MA together.  She writes beautifully fluid and insightful prose with a focus on family relationships, and you can read more about her work on her website.  Her latest novel is called ‘The Piano Player’s Son’, a title I wish I’d had the forethought to bag for myself.

So, with all the pre-amble done, here are my answers to the four magic questions:—

1.  What am I working on?

I’ve just started reworking a novel for teenagers that I finished (or thought I had) about five years ago.  It has a dystopian setting and I can see now why it didn’t work, as I hadn’t figured out the world in enough convincing detail.  That’s what I’m spending time on now, asking the question What If?, as well as researching such random things as bushcraft and knives, and going back to read other dystopian novels for YA such as the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness, and Numbers by Rachel Ward.  I am quite desperate to start the writing now, but I’m trying to stop myself!

2.  How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Now this is a tough one.  The question suggests I’ve thought about how to make myself different and my work reflects this, but that’s just not the case.  Creatively I’m selfish.  I write about what interests me and what I’m passionate about because I think if I’m not passionate about it, my readers won’t be either.  I will, however, try to cobble together an answer that might even be true.

I have a tendency to ask difficult questions in my fiction.  I’m interested in the dark side of human experience and as I write for young adults this can become very dark.  For example, in my last novel, The Big Deep, I was asking the question How do you know if your thought processes are normal?  As the question suggests, my main character is dealing with the uncertainty of mental health and how she can understand how her mind works, as well as the concept of what is ‘normal’.  This is a fairly unsexy subject matter as far as mainstream publishers are concerned, which is why I decided not to go down that route and publish myself on Kindle instead.

Is it this willingness to deal with difficult subjects that makes me different?  I’m not sure, as there are plenty of other writers out there doing the same thing (Malorie Blackman, Patrick Ness), but I suppose as human beings we all have a unique and original perspective of the world, so maybe…

3.  Why do I write what I do?

I’ve written for adults and teenagers, including novels, short stories and radio plays. I like writing in different forms and for different age groups as it keeps me fresh, helping me to look at things from a different angle each time, and I think that’s why people read, to try and see something form a character’s point of view.  As for subject matter I’m really interested in the motivation of my characters.  What drives them to behave the way they do, what makes them do good things, but more importantly, what makes them do the bad things.  It’s this struggle that I find endlessly fascinating.

4.  How does my writing process work?

I try to do some thinking and planning before I begin.  The temptation is to launch straight in when I have a good idea, but experience has taught me that developing the characters, plot and theme, and making sure they interconnect and are interdependent is crucial in giving the story the necessary depth.

Once I’ve done this and I can’t hold myself back anymore I’ll begin, and try to keep going (aiming for about 1,000 words a day) until I’ve finished a first draft.  I’ll do some rudimentary editing as I go but on the whole I try to be constantly moving forwards.  Then comes the tough editing process.  I see the first draft as the equivalent to tipping the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle onto the floor, and the editing process is seeing how all those pieces fit together, occasionally having to throw pieces out if they don’t belong there.

When things are working out I’ll only need a couple of rewrites, but The Big Deep took nine drafts and there were times when I thought about giving up.  My main character had other ideas though and wouldn’t leave me alone, so I had to find a way of uncovering her story.

Of course I make it sound really straightforward, but in reality this process is constantly interrupted and/or encouraged by my teaching at Bath Spa University.  I get to surround myself with writers and talk about writing as much as I like, which is a great environment to be in, but it does have an impact on the whole sitting in a room alone and just writing scenario.

Okay, that’s it, questions answered and a big thank you Lindsay for inviting me onto the tour.  Here are the two writers I’ve passed the baton to:—

Crysse Morrison
crysse march 2014I started my writing career with short stories and articles before publishing two novels with Hodder & Stoughton and then moving on to explore poetry for performance. I’ve been lucky enough to lead creative writing groups in beautiful locations across the world as well as participating in various Spoken Word activities in Frome. My current passion is drama ~ reviewing theatre, and writing scripts for stage.
Crysse Morrison, writer: drama, fiction, reviews
http://www.cryssemorrison.co.uk ~ http://crysse.blogspot.co.uk

Michelle Newell
1980747_10152248673811071_327277184_nMichelle’s adventures in writing have seen her act as a tourist for the Londonist, peek into pretty homes for onefinestay, and interview writers at their desks for the SCBWI ‘Words and Pics’ blogzine. She also co-ordinates the new AusNZ literature festival. Michelle can’t quite believe she’s been working on her debut YA novel – a time travel affair featuring lots of vintage objects – for four years! She is rep’ed by Jenny Savill at ANA and recently re-launched her blog as loststoryfound.
The links in case you want them are – Londonist – http://londonist.com/ onefinestay – http://www.onefinestay.com/ Words & Pics – http://www.wordsandpics.org/ AusNZ festival- http://ausnzfestival.com/ ANA – http://www.andrewnurnberg.com/ and finally – phew! lost story found – http://loststoryfound.com/

Writing with Stanislavski.

This week while planning my new novel and thinking about my main character, I stumbled across the Stanislavski Method.  This is actually a way for actors to inhabit their characters  and give a more authentic performance, but it applies to writing equally as well (not to be confused with ‘The Method slash De Niro’ way of doing things which seems to involve actually being the character night and day and driving everyone around you and yourself quite bonkers).

This is the thing I like about research and thinking time.  You sometimes end up going off on tangents that you never expected or planned, but they give you a whole new perspective on how to work.  The Stanislavski Method is particularly challenging for me because it goes against my usual approach, but hey, no-one ever said you’re done learning how to write.

So firstly, here’s the method:

1. For each scene, for each line in fact, the character’s objectives, obstacles and method have to be identified.  So in other words, the objective is what the character whats, the obstacle is what she has to overcome to get it, and the method is the way she gets it.  This is easy within an overall story arc, it boils down to the components of conflict, and even within every scene you still need this narrative drive.  But every line is where the challenge really lies.

2.  ‘The Magic If’ — This is where the actor asks themselves ‘What would I do if I was in this situation?’  This doesn’t ask the actor to become the character (see De Niro), it’s more a case of searching the resources of the actor’s own experience to make a connection, bring some personal understanding about the character’s dilemma.

3. The Internal Monologue.  Once the first two are in place the actor has enough understanding of the character to know how she thinks, that stream-of-consciousness that makes her who she is finally coming into play.

And then, my dear audience, the drama begins.

As a writer, I particularly like the simplicity of the objective, obstacle, method process of thinking about a character.  To me the method is the key.  How a character deals with a situation (does she hide away and pretend it’s not happening, does she look for clever ways to skirt around the problem, does she plunge headlong into her objective regardless of the consequences?), this is what makes us care about her, want to know what she’s going to do next and root for her as she finds her own haphazard way of overcoming those obstacles.  Even if she is unpredictable and full of contradictions (and most of the best characters are), how she acts and reacts also makes the reader think, What would I do in this situation?

As a reader, I ask myself this question all the time.  With someone else’s character it seems easy, I suppose because I recognise the difference between the reality of myself and the fiction of a character.  But to ask the question of my own characters is a different matter.  I always think of them as separate to myself, even though I know each and every one of them is an aspect of my sub-conscious.  But this method seems to ask me to seek out those aspects and recognise them, use them as part of the process.  Perhaps I shy away from this because I don’t want to acknowledge certain aspects of my own personality, or maybe I just lack the necessary imagination (that will be the writer’s insecurity kicking in now).  Whatever the reason, I have a fascination with the creative process, so my objective over the coming weeks is to try this new approach.  My obstacle is myself.  The method?  Well, we shall see…

If you don’t know the answer, still ask the question.

This week has seen a hiatus in my own writing while I mark my students’ work.  This is for the Teaching Writing module, and the work they’ve produced is in the form of a blog, charting their progress over the past few months and reflecting on how the theories and ideas about teaching have fed into the kind of teacher they want to be themselves.

Many of these blogs are fascinating to read.  They are insights into personal histories, specific memories of wonderful or terrible teachers, reflections on the practicalities of standing up in front of a classroom of people, and big philosophical questions that get to heart of what learning should be about, not just for children but for adults too.

One thing that does stand out is the destructive nature of the education system as it stands at the moment.  The prescriptiveness of testing, the narrow focus of the curriculum that implies there are only certain facts children need to know, the gradual eroding of creative thinking and natural curiosity, all combine to produce teenagers that are exhausted and disillusioned.

By the time they get to university, I often have the sense that I’m not only teaching creative writing, but also how to think.  It may sound ridiculous that anyone doesn’t know how to think, but if people are fed information, processed through tests and exams, discouraged from thinking differently because they won’t fit into the correct box to be ticked, that ability to think in a wide-ranging and exploratory way is gradually eroded.

In a creative subject one of the most important things for the students to learn, even more important than technique, or the great writers they can learn from, or how to respond to feedback, more important than all of this is understanding that your mind has to be free. Freedom of thought is about trusting in your own sub-conscious, having the ability to consider beyond the obvious, to build and make things in your own mind that become tangible and real.  This is what creates original work that connects people together and makes a difference to their lives, and this is why we need an education system that allows for this from an early age.

One thing I do find encouraging is that while reading these blogs written by third-year students, I can see they are thinking for themselves.  Those big philosophical questions have been raised, and it heartens me to think some of these students will go on to be really great teachers, and maybe, at some point, they’ll be amongst the band of new educators that will find the answers.

Google Histories and Survival Strategies

This week I had a whole day — yes, a whole day — to spend on research for the next book.  I did some walking around town, mooning around the garden, lounging on the sofa making notes on my main character, but what took up the bulk of my time was looking up information on knives.  These are the times when a writer’s life can be slightly random with a sprinkling of alarming if anyone was to check their Google history, but in my case they’d also see Survival Skills and Bushcraft come high on the list, so hopefully the writer-turned-psychopath alarm bells won’t be ringing too long.

Moors landscape 3For some reason the ability to survive in a bleak landscape with just a few bits of twine, a mirror and a packet of condoms (great for water storage apparently) has always fascinated me.  Possibly it goes back to a book I read as a teenager, about a couple of boys who become stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash.  I can’t remember much about the story, and frustratingly I can’t remember the title or the writer, but I vividly remember asking myself what I’d do if I found myself in that situation.  Would I be resourceful enough to find clean water, make a sturdy shelter, or fashion a blanket from leaves and bark?  Would I have the where-with-all to distinguish the nutritious from the poisonous berries?  And most crucially would I have the ability to start a fire after the sudden cloudburst that struck in the night which provided much needed drinking water (filling up all the condoms) but made my matches damp and useless.

This is one of the things I do when I read stories.  I put myself in the position of the main character and wonder what I would do.  Would I have stolen food for Magwitch and let Estella push me around?  How much personal history would I give Hannibal Lecter in exchange for his co-operation?  And recently, while reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, would I have taken the painting, and if so, would I have found a way to give it back without incriminating myself or the saintly Hobie?

Stories enable us to put ourselves in the place of others, to try to see their lives with all the complications and complexities of their experience, making us feel their rage or unhappiness or love or compassion.  Ultimately, by seeing a situation through someone else’s perspective and feeling empathy for that character, it throws light on our own experience and helps us to understand ourselves.

I like to think I’d be great at surviving in the wild, just like those boys scavenging for food, building a tree house and skinning rabbits, but for now I’m going to have to be happy with throwing my main character out of her house to see how she deals with it instead.

Imagining a Brave New World

I am currently at that very exciting but very daunting stage of planning a new novel.  I’m using the word ‘new’ in the loosest sense, because it’s actually going to be based on a novel I wrote about five years ago.  It was rejected by publishers at the time and of course with the benefit of some distance I can now see why it was rejected (so annoying when that happens).  The novel is set in a dystopian world, and while the idea at the heart of my alternative society is strong, my imagining of the full implications of how this would work is sketchy at best.  Somehow this makes the exciting/daunting planning stage more important than usual as I know that this new version of the story will pass or fail on the believability of the world itself.

So, with this in mind, here is my three-step guide for re-imagining a dystopian novel that you previously didn’t think through well enough but are convinced the basic idea is strong enough to give it another shot:—

UnknownFirstly, go back to the young adult novels you love that have a dystopian setting.  Books like Noughts and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman (a world where the power of race is turned on its head), The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness (the characters can hear each other’s thoughts so keeping secrets is almost impossible), and How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff (the country is at war, civilisation is in chaos and the children are alone).

Notice that one of the things these books have in common is how the changed world can be summed up in one concise sentence.  This simplicity of idea is at the core of each story, so mull this over and make sure that your vision is equally one-sentence-worthy.

Secondly, just because your idea has the pithy precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, it doesn’t mean the world itself should be equally pared back.  In fact, this is where the work really lies and dipping into a couple of the world building websites will show you just how much there is to think about.  But beware, while these websites are a valuable resource for writers (not only those writing sci-fi or fantasy), they are also a potential minefield. There is just so much information, so many possibilities, so many things to consider when creating a new or re-imagined world, that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task.  Only a couple of sentences into the first point of this article and my mind was buzzing with ideas from which I wrote over a page of notes.  Basically, if you’re one of those people easily drawn in by Facebook/Twitter etc, be afraid… be very afraid.  The key here is discipline and focus, so keep an eye on that one-sentence idea that brought you there in the first place, and leave as soon as you can.

And thirdly, once you’re satisfied the world itself is fully developed (or you’re so deep into it you’re convinced the world has actually changed and you’re scared to leave the house), you can now let your characters loose to run around in this world, making sure none of this hard work shows in the writing itself.  Of course it will be there, a kind of undercurrent that bubbles to the surface of the tension, prodding and bothering your characters, but you’ll be working hard to make sure it’s the characters and their situation that drive the story, not those long lists of ‘what if?’ questions you’ve got pinned to the wall.

Incidentally, if you find those notes and spider diagrams and mind maps spread to an entire wall or even an entire room (I’m thinking Carrie’s room in Homeland here), it’s probably time to go out and have a coffee, maybe meet up with a friend or go to the cinema, just to remind yourself that there is still a real world out there, honest.