My friend Henry Hyde is kicking off a series on his blog called Writing Insights, and I’m honoured to be his first guinea pig. He asked me questions about my writing methods, publishing decisions and advice I would have given myself as a beginner, which led to discussions of separation anxiety, misfit books and novels that take their sweet long time to develop. Do come over.
‘So you don’t find the blank page worrying?’
Creative writing teacher Jane Jones was interviewing me as part of her women writers’ summit (watch this space). Actually, we recorded it multiple times because of tech catastrophes so a lot of our discussion never got saved. (Moral: don’t use untried software. Also, Zoom helpdesk are the embodiment of patience.)
Anyway, one of Jane’s topics was how we start writing. I said I’d always felt at home talking to the page. When I was a kid, I simply loved to write – letters, stories, reactions to books I’d read. At the age of 13 I discovered science fiction fanzines and sent them articles and reviews, which I really hope have fallen into landfill. Why science fiction fanzines? Chiefly because they accepted copy from teenagers writing in their bedrooms. I was shy and awkward in real life, but in manuscript I was a right chatterbox. I could think in ways I didn’t in verbal time; be inventive, confident. The page was a welcoming place.
Which is when Jane brought up the subject of the scary blank page.
The young me, typing to the world, never had a moment’s stage fright. Because I always started with a purpose in mind.
And this is where we pinned it down. The frightening thing is not the blank page. It’s the blank mind. And I find the blank mind as paralysing as anyone.
So what can you do about it? Here are some suggestions.
It’s quite hard to generate good ideas to order. I’ve had many of my best inspirations when I’m not consciously trying to work on them. While making dinner or a packed lunch for the next day, or at the gym, or walking to the station, or writing something else.
Always keep a writing task on low simmer in your mind. Perhaps look at your notes for the next scene or story you’re going to tackle, or reread a scene you’re going to edit, but don’t actually try to solve any problems. Just present it to your brain, shrug and go concentrate on something else. We all hate unsolved problems. That’s why we have the phrase ‘preying on your mind’. Before you know it you’ll be getting good ideas without even trying. (Thanks for the pic Leo Hartas. More of his work here)
First thing in the morning
Some people like to write first thing in the morning as an exercise. What if you arrive at the page without a thought in your head? Did you have a dream? Write that.
For a bonus point, write it so that another person can understand why it was significant to you. Dreams usually make wondrous sense to us and none at all to anyone else. Your task in this exercise is to write your dream so that it reveals its meaning and resonance to everyone, not just you. Add context and questions, or perhaps some answers.
Voila. You just wrote a personal essay.
Books and websites of writing prompts are a veritable industry in themselves. Here are a few ways to grow your own.
Look through your photos and do this.
Nose around Flickr for people’s private photos. Set a timer so you’re not browsing for ever. Find a picture of an interesting place and write about somebody who just ran away from it.
Use music – go to my companion site, where writers talk about using music. Read any of those pieces and they’re sure to get you in the mood. Or, if time is short (or you might end up getting pleasantly lost instead of writing), pick a song title at random and write about that.
It’s dead easy to think of writing prompts to help other people conquer their blank pages. Drumming them up for yourself isn’t. Such is the nature of blank mind.
Sometimes we get stuck in a small way. We don’t know what our novel’s characters should say or do, or how to solve a practical problem. If you haven’t got time for the ‘prey on your mind’ tactic, tackle it head on. Start writing any old nonsense – and sense will usually emerge. (In Nail Your Novel 1 I’ve got plenty of suggestions for that.)
The biggest blank of all – the next book
The scariest blank of all, for me, is when I’ve finished a book. As I edit and shape a manuscript I feel increasingly at home. Every change feels meaningful and rewarding. Even if I have ideas for the next book, I don’t want to leave the current one because I don’t have that sense of familiarity. It’s like leaving a much-loved job for a new one with too many unknowns.
The other night Husband Dave decided to discuss next books. I said, of course, that Ever Rest will be my next book after this one I’m working on. No, he said, I mean the book after that. He reeled off a few of the ideas I’ve discussed with him and said ‘I’m looking forward to those’. I took a gulp of wine because I was not. I felt panic. I’d got a sketchy synopsis or two, but no real engagement with them yet. That work still has to be done and it feels like a lot of blank, a vast Arctic of it. Here is Dave, in wife-frightening mode.
So blank mind can also be a relative thing. It can be the contrast between a work that’s so detailed you know it as well as your own life, and something that’s mostly untrodden. Blank mind doesn’t have to be 100% unknown. If you’re going from 80% known, then 80% unknown can be plenty scary enough.
But that’s just part of the job of writing. We manage somehow.
What am I working on at the moment? This thingy on the left.
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Give me your thoughts on the blank page, the blank mind … if that’s not a contradiction in terms.
I had a hard time this week picking just one pull-quote to represent my guest’s work. She’s a writer of two halves – historical romantic fiction and contemporary romance. And she’s now also venturing into biographical historical fiction as well. The common thread is always music. A song by Sting that evoked for her a sense of an untold angle for the Arthurian legend. Or a friend who recommended music by The Civil Wars that gave her the opening and closing lines of a modern romance. What could be more fitting for the week of Valentine’s day? Drop by the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of Nicole Evelina.
I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island and he describes a moment in an Edinburgh art gallery when he saw a father talking to his son about the difference between early and later Goya. Bryson says:
The man was describing the pictures with a fondness and familiarity that were truly heartwarming and the boy was raptly attentive to his every word. He wasn’t showing off, you understand; he was sharing.’
Showing off. Sharing.
It seems to me that this distinction could apply, not just to art appreciation or father-son conversations, but to art itself.
It’s hard to pin down what makes a piece of art effective, but one explanation could be this – an essential quality of transparency, of real communication. Whether it’s painting, dance, acting or writing, you forget it’s being accomplished through words on a page, or strokes of paint, or somebody dressing up and pretending, or performing a much rehearsed sequence of moves. It seems to be there completely without artifice or barrier or skin.
Where does this sense of naturalness come from? One answer might be in this post I wrote a while ago, inspired by an interview with Michael Caine. He was being asked about his relaxed performance manner, and how he made it look so effortless. he said ‘the rehearsal is the work, the performance is the relaxation.’ Put another way, to be effortless requires … hours of non-spontaneous effort.
It also means we have to get our ego out of the way. But this is a finely judged thing. We want our writing to hold the reader’s attention, so we have to be a bit bold. We need flair and panache. Characters who are memorable. Plot events that make us turn the page. For each of those qualities, we tread a fine line. A phrase might be startling and true, or it might strike a fake note. A character might be distinctive and unforgettable, or they might be unconvincing, or jar with the tone. Figuring out which is which is one of the eternal quests of honest self-editing.
Sometimes, we can get an answer by taking a long look at our motives. Often, deep down, we know if we’re keeping an image, line, simile, plot event or description that doesn’t belong. The reason is usually this – we’re pleased with them.
If that’s your conundrum, this question could be the clincher.
Was it showing off or sharing?
If you follow me on Facebook or get my newsletter, you might have seen this cryptic message:
Assuming you give two hoots, you’ll find more about it here. It all started with this.
Literary fiction is much more about individual visions and the people who don’t fit. And if you’re publishing literary fiction as an indie, you’re usually a tribe of one, squeaking your tiny squeak in a roaring wind. I have friends in mainstream publishing who give me furious pep-talks about how I’m on a hiding to nothing, which, of course, is excellent for morale. Thanks, guys. (Here’s where I thanked them more extensively.)
That’s why I wanted to make sure you didn’t miss this – a campaign that aims to represent the work of literary writers, small presses, independent bookshops and anyone who struggles to be heard or find their audiences. It’s called the Main Street Writers Movement and it’s the brainchild of Laura Stanfill, of litfic publisher Forest Avenue Press.
Laura’s vision is for a number of hubs around the US with live events and networking, but if you’re not one of her geographical neighbours, don’t be put off. Wherever your desk is (I’m waving to you from London), we can blog, tweet, share, meet IRL (heavens!). And support each other to do what we must do.
It could be a lifeline for literary.
Of course, by its very nature, the term literary spans a vast range of writing. Not everyone likes all of it, or even agrees what it is. Laura faces this head on. She says Main Street Writers is for ‘Writers who are tired of writing fluffy reviews about books they don’t particularly like due to a sense of obligation. Let’s replace that instinct with better, more genuine ways to support each other.’
I like this immensely. This is about honesty; making meaningful connections. If enough of us get involved, we’re all more likely to find the people we really do click with. Writers, publishers, agents, bloggers, reviewers, events organisers – and readers.
There’s a pledge (which, alas, you can only sign if you have 5-digit zip code), but you can register separately for the blog and the newsletter. There’s also a hashtag #mainstreetwriters so we can all get – and stay – in touch.
I think it looks exciting.
Today I’m at Michelle Dunton’s Youtube channel, talking about ideas, where they come from and how they end up as books. Michelle’s been reading my novels and decided to pick my brains for her podcast. One question of hers I particularly liked: she asked how a first-time fiction author should start writing a book. Should it be the characters, the plot, what? My answer: ‘start with something you can’t stop thinking about’. And from there, everything flows – as it does in this discussion. Do hop over.
My guest this week is a musician as much as a writer – she teaches piano, and she says that playing is the closest she ever gets to a state of mindfulness. Her debut novel was sparked by the uncanny conjunction of a magazine article and a piece of music. The former was a piece about a couple who had signed up to have their bodies cryonically preserved after their deaths, in the hope that they would be reawakened and reuinited. And the latter? A haunting, icy piece of music by Ennio Morricone that seemed to urge her to write a story about a couple who sign up for preservation, and the tragic situation that ensues. Drop by the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of Andrea Darby, and her novel The Husband Who Refused To Die.
I write a lot of posts about problems with book drafts. But isn’t it just as important to look at the positive? If we listed the qualities of a brilliant read, what would they be? (Plus, I think we need a feelgood post.)
So, as I sit here on Sunday morning in London with an hour to get this post out of my head and into the grey matter of the blogosphere, this is the list I’ve come up with. I hope you’ll storm your brains and join in at the end.
Deft use of details
A writer needs to give a lot of details to evoke the setting, time period (if it’s not contemporary), distinguishing features of the characters, points about the weather. A skilful storyteller will smuggle a lot of these in as part of the action. A historical period might be evoked by showing a character cleaning their teeth, or lifting their skirts away from the horse manure on the city roads. If we need to know a character is left handed, we might see them borrowing a friend’s PC and clearing the clutter off the desk to rearrange the mouse before they start to use it. Weather might be evoked by a character worrying that the rain will ruin their suede boots on a day when it’s important to look smart. We’ll never get the sense that the narrative is marking time in order to explain something.
Characters that are real
We hear this phrase a lot, but what does it mean? The characters will seem to have their own agendas, and good reasons for everything they do. They won’t seem like puppets for the plot. Their emotions will spur them to act so we feel everything they do is genuine and believable. They’ll have distinctive ways of thinking and expressing themselves. Even if they are conflicted or make bad choices and decisions, they’ll have ways of justifying what they do. They might have interesting blind spots about how the other characters feel.
Never a dull moment
Every scene will move the action on. There will be a sense of trouble building and escalating. The characters’ plans will never quite work out as they’re supposed to, and every scene will finish on a slightly unexpected note. Whenever the characters get something they want or need, it won’t be in the way anyone could predict.
Fresh until the end
The writer will know when to change to a different group of characters, which we’ll welcome. At the same time we’ll be eager to see those other characters again soon. They’ll know when to vary the mood with some humour or a more serious note. They’ll deploy some major turning points at just the point where we think you know where it’s going.
It all adds up
The story might begin by resembling an unraveled sweater with threads going everywhere, but slowly it will converge into a shape. The ending will seem to be inevitable, yet it will be a surprise. Or, if we can anticipate the ending’s events, we won’t be able to predict how we’ll feel about them.
Now you. Grab coffee or brain-stimulating accessory of choice, and … jump in!
This week’s guest first conceptualised his novel to the sound of the sea. Waves on rocks, rain against a hood. On a visit to a sea shanty festival, it took a firmer shape as he walked through the streets, hearing snatches of songs about love and loss. It became a novel about people struggling with grief and trying to make sense of it, catalysed by the spacey loops of ambient composers such as William Basinski, and the fragile otherworldliness of Ravel and Debussy. I listened to the entire set early one morning and it was like being pulled into a wild, melancholy dream. He is 2016 Man Booker nominee Wyl Menmuir and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.