Posts Tagged literary fiction

Struggling to write your ending? Some pointers – guest post at Writers Helping Writers

This year I’ve been one of the guest tutors at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s site Writers Helping Writers. It’s my turn to take the lectern there again, and the subject they asked for is endings.

Are there any must-haves for an ending? Well, the answer isn’t simple, but there are some abiding principles that hold good no matter what you’re writing. You can read about them at Angela and Becca’s site … and if you want even more, there’s a chapter about them in my Nail Your Novel plot book. Have fun!

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Readers’ reasons; writers’ reasons – do they ever agree?

I recently had an email from a friend who has a literature PhD. He had read My Memories of a Future Life and wrote me a long, detailed response. Eleven pages, actually, which was quite daunting to open. Somewhat nervously, I read it. I needn’t have worried. It was kind and appreciative.

Indeed, it seemed to give me credit for a number of clever effects that were mainly accidental, not deliberate as he seems to have imagined. 

For instance, my decision to give Gene Winter a leather bomber jacket. My faithful chronicler unpicked this as ‘bombing, linked to war – a sign that he will be destructive character’.

My actual reasons for Gene’s outfit were far more practical. I needed him to appear hunched, as if he was keeping the world out. A bomber jacket gives that postural shape in the reader’s mind. I could have left the kind of leather jacket vague, but then it might have suggested a scruffy biker. A different kind of bearing. So Gene wore a bomber jacket.

My friend also observed that Andreq, Carol’s incarnation in the future, is like a geisha. Once he’d drawn that parallel, he found more layers, exploring how geisha inhabit a separate reality, as Andreq does, and Carol has a different reality when she performs, and ‘recreates the spiritual environment that a piece of music represents, just as would a geisha with her client’.

Again, this seemed to give me credit for a lot more calculation than I actually did. When I wrote, I had much simpler aims. I was thinking only of the resonances between my two characters, Carol and Andreq. Though I’m very relieved that this aspect of the book made wider cultural sense.

Reading this essay, I was seeing the book in a new register. There are writers’ reasons and then there are the reasons readers find. Are they necessarily in tune?

I posted about this on Facebook and a merry discussion ensued. Some were reminded of school essays where they’d had to dissect texts for hidden meanings, which they were sure the author hadn’t consciously planted. This is just a fireplace. Anything else you can see is your own problem.

Of course, this is not to say we don’t take care when we write. Every word, image and phrase in My Memories of a Future Life was deliberately placed – but for reasons that were more to do with plausibility and nuance. My priority was controlling the reader’s emotional experience. With Gene’s jacket I was trying not to give a wrong impression, but in my friend’s essay it became a standout signal of its own.

That doesn’t mean I dismiss my friend’s analysis – not in the slightest. His version of the book is just as valid as mine. I wonder if he’d be disappointed to know how those creative decisions were made – that some of the effects he appreciated seem to me to be lucky accidents.

Fundamentally, I think this is a difference between writers and certain kinds of reader. I’m sure many writers are working more on gut than on grey cells.

This recent post at the Literary Hub rounded up a clutch of authors who didn’t have a formal writing education. They learned principally from reading and from life. It wasn’t study; it was an emotional process, a state of eternal noticing, a response as natural as breathing.

One of those writers, Ray Bradbury, I featured in my Guardian masterclass on self-editing. I took the beginning of Fahrenheit 451 and used my beat sheet method to study its structure. I found contrasts and balances that I hadn’t been aware of, subtle ways in which Bradbury plays with our expectations that add to the book’s enthralling effect. The book is itself a masterclass in pacing, balance and contrast (I’ve talked about that here) . In reality, I suspect Bradbury did most of it by instinct rather than by conscious design, but if you put the book through that process, it’s there.

I’ve written before about what creative writing teachers teach.   Mostly we direct a sensitivity that is already innate, and awaken the blind areas. The other side of the coin – the learning – is about building habits: first consciously, then so that they become second nature (I’ve written about that here – the three ages of becoming a writer). An example: at first you might have to be told to prefigure a major reversal; after a while, it’s something you knit into the story by gut feeling.

Earlier in this post I talked about ‘controlling the reader’s experience’. You might have laughed in a hollow way because I seem to be proving precisely the opposite. We hope we’re directing the reader to notice the things we want, but actually they scoot off into the text like gerbils and chew random things.

In the end, readers bring themselves to a book. One friend drew a parallel with his work in IT – he said you never knew how a piece of software would work until the users told you. I suppose that’s what we’re doing. Our ‘product’ isn’t even a tangible thing like a theatre production or a picture or a sofa. It’s squiggles on a page or a screen that perform a transforming effect on the reader’s mind and emotions. A novel is code, and we can’t even definitively tell you how we assemble it or how it works.

So I guess that makes it magic too. Do give me your thoughts.

More about the beat sheet? You can find it in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence.

Thanks for the chicken pic Christian Bortes on Flickr and thanks Cat Muir for the dancing fireplace.

Oh and this little thing is less than a month to lift-off. Rather excited. Here’s my latest newsletter if you want to catch up, including a free preview.

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‘Things fall apart … hearts rip open’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Caroline Leavitt

My guest this week has earned plenty of praise for her first two novels and I’m thrilled to have her here as she launches her third. Her post is a thoughtful, intense journey through the backstage emotions of creating a book. The novel is set in 1969 and 1970, but interestingly she didn’t listen to the hits of the time. Instead she chose tracks that let the characters tell her what experiences they were living – a rich mix of The Smiths, The Beatles, Crowded House and Amy Winehouse. The book’s title – Cruel Beautiful World – dropped out of a lyric one day. She is NYT bestselling author Caroline Leavitt and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The end of exploration – on writing a book where you can’t make things up

If you get my newsletter or follow me on Facebook or Google+ you’ll have seen dancing and jubilation as Not Quite Lost is finally ready for general parading and pre-order.

It’s certainly been a new kind of writing experience, because, of course, I didn’t have the freedom to invent. (Why? It’s non-fiction. More here.) This set some interesting boundaries for revision.

The pieces that were easiest to edit were the amusing mishaps  – mostly involving idiotic use of cars. Also easy were the fragments about people and places that were intriguing and mysterious. But other pieces gave me more difficulty, refused to spring into shape for a long time. They fell flat for my wise and ruthless beta-readers. ‘You lost my attention here,’ said one of them. But… but….. but… I thought.  There’s something in that story.

When a piece in a novel isn’t working but my gut tells me I want it in the book, I change the circumstances, add pressures in the characters’ lives or give the event to another set of people. Clearly I couldn’t do that in Not Quite Lost. It must stick to the truth. You can change details of people to prevent them being identified, but you can’t change events. You’re stuck with them.

So what do you do?

I’ve edited memoirs and I recognised the situation. If an incident seemed to lack significance but the writer insisted on keeping it, we dug deeper. Why did it matter? There was a subsurface process, a thing that had to be uncovered and examined. These rewritten rejects often became the most surprising and beguiling parts of the story. In short-form memoir, they go by another name – the personal essay. I had failed to recognise that some of the pieces in Not Quite Lost were personal essays as well as travel tales.

Full circle

This week I heard Ann Patchett being interviewed on Radio 4’s Book Club about her novel Bel Canto. One of the points discussed is how each character is like an onion, losing a layer each day until they’re down to the core.

And in the good tradition of ending explorations and arriving where we started, knowing it for the first time, we come full circle to fiction.

My diversion into narrative non-fiction has, at times, felt like writing pieces of a novel. It’s also given me a sharper view of a quality I value in literary fiction. ‘Literary’ is a slippery thing to define, and I enjoy playing with fresh interpretations. So my current favourite definition is that a literary novel is, in some ways, like a personal essay for the characters, peeling away a skin at a time.

Anyway, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is now on pre-order. And it looks like this.

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‘Choices, mistakes, consequences and childhood’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Leonora Meriel

When I invited my latest guest to the Undercover Soundtrack, she told me we’d met before, IRL. At a writing conference, she’d asked my advice about working with editors. A few years on and she has a novel with a very respectable endorsement from Esther Freud and Kirkus reviews, so it seems everything went well. The novel is the story of three generations of women in a village in the Ukraine, and she developed a playlist of music that would create the rich landscape of place and emotion she hoped to put on the page. Some of the music also gave her a mindset – the patience and purpose to refine every word, which was probably where she was when we met at the writing conference. I’m so chuffed to see her persistence paid off and to introduce her properly here. She is Leonora Meriel and you can read her Undercover Soundtrack on the Red Blog.

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‘A dead soul, a journalist in a dystopian Scotland, and painful family memories’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Philip Miller

My guest this week has a novel of three complex threads – as you can probably guess from the above description. He says music was as much a part of the process as his notes, plotting and character building. Indeed, he found his way to a music style he’d never before warmed to – prog rock and, specifically, King Crimson. I’ve seen this before with contributors to the series – experiences and interests that you never took much notice of become suddenly essential. As you work on the book, it works on you. Other musical essentials for this author were Kate Bush, who I could never disapprove of, and he says the novel was so essentially ‘Bush’ that he began the edits by playing Hounds of Love on his iPod. He is Philip Miller and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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Literary writers, we are not alone – meet Main Street Writers

screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-12-34-34While I’d never claim that genre writers ‘have it easy’ in this publishing ecosystem, they have undeniable advantages – they plug into well established tribes.

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.

Back with a proper post this weekend.

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‘The lives and loves the sea has claimed’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Wyl Menmuir

redpianoupdate-3This 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.

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I wish I’d written… three books that challenge me to raise my game

Continuing my occasional series. These are novels that, although I finished them several months ago, still make my green eyes … greener.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

51bdxkezzol-_sx325_bo1204203200_I mentioned this in my post last week. A woman decides to turn vegetarian, a very unusual and subversive act in South Korea, where the story is set.  Her husband thinks she has lost her mind. At a business dinner he is humiliated when she refuses to eat. Worse still is the reaction of her own family, who see it as a deeply threatening act of rebellion, and resort to acts of such cruelty that she tries to commit suicide. Her brother-in-law, meanwhile, who witnesses this horrific scene, finds he feels a sudden and unexpected kinship with her. This slowly erodes his tolerance for his ordinary wife and ordinary life.

There are two things I admire about this slim novella. First is its elegance. It begins with such a simple act, but one that travels, sure as a laser, to the very core of the characters’ insecurities. All are deeply upset by her refusal to conform. Most react by bullying. Others are themselves transformed. I also admire is its handling. You can probably see from my description that this concept has the potential to be overwrought; melodramatic in the wrong hands. It might even be hard to believe. However, it is thoroughly beguiling because of its psychological truth and the simple, yet poetic prose (and credit must go to the translator’s fine and sensitive interpretation – I should probably seek out books by her too). My review is here

Requiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute

indexWounded soldier Alan Duncan reluctantly returns home to his parents’ farm in Australia to recuperate after the war. He discovers the family in turmoil because their young housekeeper, Jessie, has committed suicide. As he searches through her belongings, he realises that the woman was actually Janet Prentice, the former girlfriend of his brother, who died in action. And Alan, who is broken psychologically as well as physically, has spent a considerable amount of time trying to find her.

I’ve yet to read a Nevil Shute that didn’t seriously impress me. A slight criticism is that I find his set-up a little slow, but once his stories are running, they are beautifully paced and full of smart surprises. And his stories shine with humanity. He involves you in every emotion of his troubled characters. His settings are at once down to earth, yet ingeniously suggest something bigger and eternal. He’s deft with structure too – the storylines align into a tragic study of the impossible human burdens of war. If I need to be reminded of how character+setting+structure+pace = a darn good read, Shute is my motivator. My review is here.

The Crossing by Andrew Miller

51c3k6rdccl-_sx325_bo1204203200_This is a study of a woman, Maud Stamp, who is an independent and lone spirit. Others seek to connect with her, and are disturbed or fascinated – or both – when they cannot. One of its triumphs is the way Miller can inject you into Maud’s thought processes and emotions, painting her with such empathy and curiosity that you understand what it is like to have her peculiar wiring. Moreover, she is not presented with any easy or fashionable ‘explanations’ for her personality. You won’t find anything as pat as a reference to Asperger’s or even a past trauma. She is just Maud; a unique creature, created carefully, skilfully and truthfully. The arc of the story is her marriage and its dissolution; this forms the framework of beginning, middle and end. The crossing referred to in the title is a solo sea voyage she takes in the second half of the book, a rite of passage in both the literal and the symbolic sense.

Another great pleasure of this book is Miller’s immersive, persuasive prose. Every line is beautifully turned, but it never trips up the narrative. It’s plain when it needs to be, enchanting when that’s called for. You will find moments of delight and poetry, but the story will keep pulling you on.  Although I found the ending was rather unsatisfying, the journey more than compensated. I think it won’t be long before I take this crossing again.

My review is here.

Over to you. What books (fiction or non-fiction) have you recently read that challenge you to do better?

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How to find your author voice – interview with Joanna Penn

author voiceHello! I’m slightly late posting this week because I knew I had this waiting. Joanna Penn invited me back to her podcast to thrash out a thorny topic – how to find your author voice.

We discuss what voice is, how to develop it, how character dialogue differs from narrative voice, how authors might adapt their style for different kinds of book, voice considerations for non-fiction, the value of experimenting and – that perennial favourite – why literary fiction might take so darn long to write. Plus side helpings of Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater, so bring a picnic.

You can get it on video, audio download or written transcript – it’s all here.

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