Archive for category How to write a book
‘More life is lived in a service station than in a castle…’ – discussing the wonder of abandoned spaces with Krishan Coupland of The Liminal Residency
Where do you write? Somewhere quiet, non-distracting. But how about somewhere unusual, and divinely distracting? If you read my newsletter you’ll have seen my piece about the Liminal Residency, an alternative writers’ retreat that takes place in abandoned, in-between and otherwise overlooked spaces. So far they’ve explored Heathrow Airport, Peterborough Service Area and the Alton Towers amusement park, and then published their writings as limited-edition books. It’s run by Krishan Coupland and Eloise CC Shepherd, both writers of short fiction and poetry, and I’m so pleased that Krishan has agreed to chat with me today.
How did The Liminal Residency start?
Eloise and I share a fascination with derelict or awkward spaces. We find abandoned buildings, service stations, and other liminal spaces endlessly interesting.
So do I!
This is why we found it strange that most writers’ retreats take you away from these spaces, towards somewhere quiet, remote, and separate. The idea to start a retreat that did the opposite arose naturally from this.
We did the pilot by ourselves at Peterborough Service Area, and it was hugely inspiring. Since then TLR has grown steadily. We even managed to get Arts Council England funding for our latest project at Alton Towers.
Personally, I’m a fan of writing in limbo places. In a theatre audience before curtain-up; travelling on the Tube. There’s something inspiring about the sense of being in a between-time, displaced from your usual surroundings, adrift with just a notebook and your eager mind. They feel borrowed and somehow urgent because they won’t last long. When I discovered Liminal Residency, it made me think of that.
That’s a beautiful way of putting it. It reminds me of the Amtrak Residency – an American Residency based on a series of long-distance trains. I often make connections and untangle ideas while travelling. Something about moving through a landscape seems to lead to looser and wilder associations in my brain.
There’s something liberating about the sensation of being carried, being taken somewhere. Especially if you’re not having to drive, you’re in someone else’s hands. It’s a kind of trusting abandoned state, like sleep.
Do you write whilst on the Tube? When I lived in London I found it great for thinking… but often difficult to actually get any writing done!
I think about it. But the journeys I make aren’t long enough for a sustained write. And often, I can’t get a seat.
As means of transport go, it’s quite an intense and stressful one.
Liminal Residency is about overlooked places. Motorway service stations; Heathrow Airport; the theme park at Alton Towers. We’re probably not supposed to give much thought to them; for most people, they’re transit stops on the way to somewhere else. What are you aiming to do when you explore these places?
Part of it is simply recognising the importance of these places. However mundane or disposable they might be to most of the people who visit, they still have a history.
So much history! Think of the number of souls that pass through these places.
We think it’s as important to recognise and record and engage with this history. Why do only some places get to be historically significant? More life is lived in a service station than in a historic castle.
I love that.
We’re also hoping to find something different. Everything you write arises from everything you experience, and so by exploring different places and seeing different things we hope that something new – something which wouldn’t otherwise have arisen – might come to the surface.
You seem to pick urban places, and a particular kind of urban place – they’re sealed off, almost like kingdoms.
That’s a good way of putting it – for Alton Towers in particular, which feels to me like a small city; a place with different districts, different zones. A world comprised of several other smaller worlds. And definitely a kingdom. After all, it has a castle in the middle. Have you ever been to Alton Towers?
I’ve been several times. I first went as a kid, before the theme park was installed. There was a ruined house and a garden. My parents were interested in the gardens. I only had eyes for the soot-blackened walls, the empty window holes, the sense of collapsed grandeur. I was miffed that we didn’t explore that, but had to look at flowers and greenhouses. I wanted to see the traces of the life that were lived there, the fireplaces half-way up the walls, the panelling in the rooms, to imagine the people who walked on the floors that had now fallen in. I was very young but it made a powerful impression. Derelict country houses feature strongly in my work – in my novel Lifeform Three and my travel memoir Not Quite Lost.
I’m always fascinated by the different stories and experiences people have of it.
In your Alton Towers book, my favourite part was the Park Map Errata, where you listed features that had been forgotten. Some would have been handsome and noteworthy in their day, such as the Victorian bathing pool or the stately home ruins. Others were less so, such as the disused toilet block, but still would, when they were used, have seen heavy human traffic, stories, brief encounters. Their empty state seems so elegaic and resonant. I’m not sure I have a question about this, I simply liked that you documented them!
The derelict toilet block is almost mythic to me. I worked at the park for several seasons and thought that I knew it well. I imagine that guests who go to the park every year believe that they know Alton Towers well too – to discover that there are abandoned portions of it lurking just out of sight is as exciting as finding a sealed room or a forgotten city… even if it is just a toilet block in the end!
‘As exciting as a sealed room or forgotten city…’ That’s exactly how I feel. It’s the sense that everything can change. As if time is a curtain. Pull back ten years and a place is lively and thriving; an essential hub. Close those ten years and nothing is there but brambles.
I also feel as though things become invested with a kind of importance by being neglected. The gardens and the Towers are vital, if only because so few people care about them. They are, in a sense, an endangered species of place – something that to me makes them compelling and urgent.
Let’s talk practicalities. Do you run into problems with security on these premises or do you make special arrangements? I’m thinking particularly of Heathrow Airport, where you walked the perimeter and got lost in the internal transport network. How did you get access?
We always try to make arrangements and let the places we’ll be visiting know what we’re doing. This usually doesn’t work. Heathrow, for example, is such a vast place – a collection of a thousand different interlocking organisations. Unless you have exactly the right contact, a lot of money, or a lot of good will, it’s near enough impossible to get permission to do anything. Which isn’t, of course, a reason not to do something.
We had a little luck with Alton Towers – and hopefully as we grow people might start returning our emails. You never know; we’d love to be invited somewhere one day.
How does the residency work? Can any writer take part or do you choose participants with particular aims or attributes?
We try to be as open as possible, but having a limited budget means that we can only take along a few people to each Residency. We try to pick writers and artists who have a connection with the place… or whose work might lead to an interesting interpretation of it.
It’s also pretty important that someone is on board with the whole idea. Engaging with a place in this way is sometime uncomfortable, sometimes tiring, sometimes weird. You might not get much work done during the period of the Residency. You might end up skulking around an abandoned toilet block or going on a vision quest in a theme park. It requires, I guess, at least a bit of a sense of humour.
Or curiosity and wonder!
For each location, can you pick out a magical or unexpected highlight?
At Peterborough Service Area that would definitely be the tiny, hand-built church made of wood and corrugated metal in the field behind the service station. It was a surprise find, and strangely remote, utterly beautiful. I don’t know how many of the thousands of people who stop there each day have ever discovered it.
Alton Towers – we weren’t expecting to be able to get into the Towers themselves, but there’s a curtained off archway on the exit line from Hex, and through there we had access to the whole building. It’s gorgeous, empty and echoing, filled with balls of insulation fluff and piped-in music for the benefit of the (zero) guests who go there every day.
At Heathrow… probably the old pub on the boundary. It’s hundreds of years old, and has remained stubbornly in place despite numerous attempts to destroy it. It feels completely out of place, but it’s gorgeous; once upon a time it was a refuge from highwaymen and robbers.
I have a friend who used to work in border force at Heathrow. He’s fascinated by the echoes of ancient places and has a collection of news cuttings about the villages that pre-dated the airport. He’s also an author, more famously known for his alternate history novels, but one of his preoccupations is liminal spaces. He wrote a haunting short story about people lost in the no-man’s land at the edge of a motorway. (In case you’re interested, search for John Whitbourn’s Binscombe Tales.)
If practicalities were no object, what would your ideal residency location be?
We’d love to do something in an abandoned building, possibly even an abandoned theme park. There are a few in the UK, including Loudon Castle and the old Camelot amusement park. Practically, it’s tricky, but it’s something that would be wonderful if it came together.
How does the residency work feed back into your own art?
Each Residency has sparked off new interests – new things that I want to write about. It’s changed the way I feel about space as well. The number one positive thing that being involved with TLR has done for me is to enhance my ability to notice things – see stuff that I wouldn’t before. Once you start you can’t stop. I have an appreciation now for hidden detail that I didn’t have before – and I constantly see that coming through in my writing.
Thank you so much! I’ve loved this interview.
Meanwhile, in the dustiest corners of my mind, here’s what’s been brewing…
Finished Nanowrimo? 5 ways to use the holidays to keep your new writing habits… without revising too early
You aced Nanowrimo.
You have a satisfying file of fifty-k words, itching for further attention.
Your creative mojo is in motion. You got a writing habit, and you’re loath to let it slide.
And holiday times are coming when you might find the odd hour to sneak off, keep your hand in.
It’s too soon to revise the manuscript. You don’t have enough critical distance. So keep it locked away and do these things instead.
1 Fill your research holes
As you wrote, you probably found gaps that needed more research.
Locations you need to flesh out with visuals, smells, sounds, practical details. Is that tourist attraction open in February? Did people in Georgian England clean their teeth? Also seek details beyond the literal – to resonate with your themes or the inner lives of your viewpoint characters.
First drafts are often rough about details of characters’ lives. You might add surprising richness if you look at their professions or think about their daily routines. (For professions, I heartily recommend Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Occupation Thesaurus.)
2 MOT your title
Did you have a title? If you didn’t, start brainstorming. If you did have a title, is it still the best title?
3 Find comparison titles
At some point, you’ll need to identify which books are the closest to yours, which will be infinitely useful for introducing the book to the wide world. Literary agents, publishers, reviewers, readers, everyone needs to know what other books your book is like.
This is relatively easy if you’re writing in a genre or well defined tradition, but if you’re not, be tangential. Consider:
- human situations
- historical or geographical settings
- the nature of the story’s resolution
- the writing style
- the tone.
And … find unexpected comparisons
Just for kicks, take an aspect of your book and find a treatment of it that’s as different as possible from your own. Might it give you fresh and surprising ideas?
4 Write a summary from memory
This will do you good in many fab ways. You’ll need a summary when the book is eventually ready to meet the world. Writing this summary is a major undertaking (see here for how long it took me to write a summary of My Memories of a Future Life – the post is titled ‘I feared I’d never get the blurb finished in time for the launch’). Even if your revisions of the novel change a lot, it’s easier to update an existing summary than to write one from scratch under pressure. So start writing it early, when you have this downtime.
And do it from memory! Why? Two reasons – to stop you opening that text file and fiddling too soon. Also, the summary is in itself a reflective process of revision. When you tell the story to a new blank page, off the cuff, you’ll see anew how everything fits together. Or how it could with a tweak or several. You might see some completely new directions as well.
5 Or … divert your attention completely by starting another project!
But no peeking until January. Or even later.
Psst… My Nail Your Novel workbook has loads more activities for using this writing rest productively.
What your readers will never notice… a small point about reader belief and story logic (with a little help from Terrance Dicks, Rod Hull and Nina Conti)
In our house, we have a catchphrase: ‘Nobody will notice, Jon.’
We adopted it from Terrance Dicks, script editor of our favourite era of Doctor Who. He said it while discussing a cheeky plot bamboozle in The Sea Devils, for which I have great affection (excepting the cheeky plot bamboozle). During filming, it seems that Jon Pertwee (Who Himself) had concerns and Dicks reports the following conversation:
Pertwee: ‘But Terrance, how could the Master hypnotise the nurse, switch outfits with him and tie him up… all in 30 seconds?’
Dicks (valiant in the face of a scorching deadline): ‘Don’t worry, Jon. Nobody will notice.’
We did notice, and Pertwee noticed, and probably all of Whovania noticed. It’s now a house phrase, chez Morris.
What the reader will never notice
There are some things readers will never notice. Suppose your character has to take a train to Birmingham. Do you have to explain the minutiae? Do you have to prepare a description of slogging to the station with a wheelie bag that keeps capsizing, watching the fields pass with the roar and rat-tat of the wheels, find words to describe that precise train smell? Certainly you do if that scene contains anything that’s important. But if it doesn’t, the reader will never notice they weren’t on the train with the character. Just write ‘she took the train to Birmingham’.
But they will notice this
But here’s a thing they will notice. If you sneak a plot impossibility past them, or a character inconsistency… You might manage to conceal it at the time, especially if you distract the audience, perhaps with humour, or you cover it in the general mayhem of a fast-paced finale. They might not see it immediately (or they might). But at some point they’ll think…. ‘hang on… that just doesn’t make sense.’
Emu and Monk
Storytelling requires us to suspend disbelief. We will do it readily and eagerly, if all is aligned. We’ll even believe something as obviously artificial as Rod Hull and his puppet Emu – we may not like it, but we are in no doubt that Rod is truly worried about what Emu might do, even though it’s obvious that Emu is a giant glove on Rod’s arm. That’s the spell of characterisation.
Continuing with ventriloquism (don’t try saying that fast), Nina Conti readily breaks the fourth wall. Her dummies tell us she has her hand up their bottom, they grumble about the voices she gives them. It glories in artifice, but something makes us believe in it as a singular mad world of its own. Though it’s daft and not-real, it has a kind of logic. Consistency.
That logic – and consistency – is important. Every story has logic: it’s one of the agreements made with the audience.
Logic and consistency – of fact and emotion – make the reader comfortable to commit to our creation, to put their minds in our hands. The reader knows it’s all made up, every character, every word of dialogue, every action taken, every mark on the page. We have to teach them our story’s logic and then play fair by it. We can make them believe anything if we set it up (see my post about plot holes and endings).
If we break the agreement, for instance like the madly impossible Sea Devils reveal, I’m afraid they will notice, very much. Jon was right, Terrance. But bless you anyway. This was the first book I ever bought with my pocket money. It’s still on my shelves.
Stop sign pic by Alexander Kovalyov on Pexels
There’s loads more about plot and logic in my plot book!
Also, I’m honoured that this blog has been selected by the freelance marketplace Reedsy as one of their best writing websites.
And if you’re curious about the mischief I’ve been making in my own writing life, step this way.
Do you outline a novel before you write it or do you dive straight in? That’s the source of one of the great divides between writers, the ‘planners’ v the ‘pantsers’. To complicate matters, some pantsers are actually not as fancy-free as they appear.
And you might ask what counts as an outline. Is there a bare minimum an outline needs to do? Will an outline squash the creativity? Could you outline in a fresh way to give yourself more scope to be inventive? Does your outline even have to be in words? (Interpretive dancers, this is your chance to shine…’ I’m only half joking….)
Today I’m at the IngramSpark blog, because they asked me to talk about all the various and creative ways we can create outlines for our stories. There’s something for everyone. Do come over. There’s also a lot in my workbook, BTW.
And if you’re curious about what’s been going on in my own writerly lab, here’s the latest.
7 swift storytelling hacks for back story, description, dialogue, exposition, point of view and plot
I’ve just finished a developmental edit and, as always, I enjoyed how it refreshed my appreciation of storytelling essentials.
I thought I’d share them here in case they’re useful.
Don’t make back story about the past. Let back story tell us about the characters in the present. Their attitudes, aspirations, aversions, aptitudes… Also, remember back story is only half the equation. The other half is how it affected that individual.
Physical description does more than create a visual image of a character – this person is tall, this person has long hair. It also tells us about the experience of being in someone’s presence. For instance, a person might have an unsmiling aura that makes other people feel like they’ve said the wrong thing. Or a worried expression, as if they’re always expecting calamity.
Some writers always tell us about characters’ eyes, or the kind of shoes someone wears. That’s fine if they have one narrator or viewpoint character, but if they have several, it looks weird. Vary your descriptive tics!
Actions can help with description too. If characters are having a conversation and one of them pushes their hands through their hair, what is conveyed by that action? Is it a random fidget, a gesture of thinking? Is it a reaction so something the other person has said?
Which brings me to…
Dialogue is more than information. It is a way for characters to affect each other, and for the reader to witness it. Think beyond speech. Show how the characters maybe make each other uncomfortable, or amuse each other, or infuriate each other. Or how one is comfortable and one is not. So don’t miss out reactions in dialogue – they’re just as important as what characters are saying.
This usually works best if it has an emotional dimension – the character notices something because it illuminates something about their mood or feelings. So they might notice the décor because they are irritated by it, maybe because it reminds them of something they once hated; or they might feel cheered up by it.
There are two narrative steps to giving information (exposition). Step one is the information you want to give the reader. Step two is finding a way to give it that is as natural, interesting and intriguing as possible. Usually, you have to give it in a way that also serves another purpose – such as demonstrating something about the viewpoint character. It might show us they’re good at something, or afraid of something, or traumatised by something – or bad at something! Check you’ve done both steps – create the information (eg character background), then make it serve another narrative purpose as well.
Choosing point of view
When you have an event that could be described from a number of viewpoints, opt for the one that will experience most discomfort. This may not always be the person who is doing the most action – it might be someone who is observing, thinking ‘what on earth am I going to do about this?’
If you’re ever stuck for a plot idea, look for your characters’ interesting difficulties. Write your prose so that it highlights struggle, conflict, hard decisions. That way, you’ll keep the reader gripped.
And on the subject of writing, here’s what’s been happening in my creative world this month.
It’s been a long journey. Five years ago, I started my novel Ever Rest. Fifteen drafts, and I now have the manuscript in a state where it’s fit to show to another person.
For the first time ever.
A curious feeling.
Like unveiling a massive secret
I never talk much about a work in progress (I’ve got a post about that here). I have never workshopped this novel or discussed it with a critique group, though I did base it on a short story I workshopped many years ago.
When I began in 2014, I brainstormed the concept with Husband Dave, but the book is now as far from those original thoughts as a wineglass is from sand.
I have shared tiny morsels of the plot with experts for research. Thank you, pathologists, musicians, priests, media lawyers, artists, expeditioners and mountaineers who answered my questions.
But the whole thing, I have kept to myself, done entirely alone.
Words in, words out
To begin with, I worried it would never get big enough. I had to change from short-form to long-form thinking (here’s a post about that).
For a while, I was pleased any time the wordcount went up. In the late drafts, once I knew what it was, I was relieved to see it drop again.
Under a crazy spell
In these finishing months, I have been a diligent writer and a negligent author-publisher. I’ve kept up with news about ways to stay visible and leads to pursue. I’ve made to-do lists. And I have not done them. The book needed my undivided attention and I could not imagine doing that other stuff, or how I had ever done it before.
But now it’s like a craze is passing. A sense of other priorities is returning.
It’s been like beginner dating
In the beginning, I was eager for comparison titles. Who were the readers who might get it? I looked for comparisons, according to themes, locations, inciting incidents. They were most unsuitable. Very well, it would be a misfit, so I wrote in a state of defiance, like a bolshy teenager. Now it’s become a recognisable shape after all, different from my expectations. I know where it might find friends.
I can break my reading diet
A developing book is fly paper. Any idea, style, mood might stick to it, and particularly from other books. See here for my detailed post about what I read while I’m writing.
Now, I can choose books for pure interest.
More to come
It’s not finished. There will be much to refine. but compared with what I’ve already done, the remaining work will be small. Details will change. Technicalities, repetitions. unclarities. plot goofs, realities I need to make more real. Layers that need more sparkle – or less. emphases that need to be adjusted. But it is now what it is. All changes will help it do that better.
Making new humans
There are people who compare the writing of a book to motherhood. I’m not a mother so I won’t appropriate that comparison, but I find I relate to the singleminded purpose that develops through a pregnancy. In this way, making a novel seems like making a new human. except I have made at least seven with hearts to inhabit, and several more who will test them. No wonder it’s been intense.
I am missing those characters. They are not completely lost to me, of course. I may have to adjust them. Later, the production phases will require that I read and reread anyway. But I miss that I might have no more to discover about them, no more to give or take away from them, because that was one of the pleasures of knowing them. Perhaps it’s good that I am not a parent. (There’s more about how to parent your characters here.)
Heart in mouth
Now it’s ready to be tested. A tightrope moment. Best not to look down.
It’s not over yet.
But it feels like it is.
Thanks for the pic Gusaap on Pixabay
PS There’s loads about organising a rewrite (or several) in my workbook
PPS More on editing fast, editing slow… here’s what’s been happening in my creative world this month