Allsorts of Alchemy

Like a bag of Liquorice Allsorts, your writing will contain little tastes of the unexpected as well as some familiar elements. So, when you’re sitting there, scribbling or tapping away, do you ever wonder if your marvellous, utterly inspired plot has been written before? The unpalatable answer is: it probably has.

Does it matter? Probably not.

If you’re a writer, and also an avid reader like me, borrowing piles of books from the library each week, bingeing in bookshops and charity shops, or filling up your e-reader, it can be disconcerting to find that you’ve chosen several books with related themes. To the new and aspiring novelist, it can be gutting to read a summary of your entire storyline on the back of a newly published paperback. Dispiriting to think the plot you’ve been worrying at for years has already been done.  

Honestly, how many completely original stories have you read, ever?

In recent weeks I’ve picked up novels dealing with eerily similar subject matter. No spoilers, but plots have included: heroines who are morticians (but not in crime novels); husbands or wives who mysteriously disappear; recalcitrant teenage daughters who have problems and/or secrets; husbands who reveal a second family; and almost interchangeable crime scenes The choice has been completely unintentional, as the blurb doesn’t always betray all the details of the story.

Just last week, I read a new release with definite echoes of my own WIP, which I’ve been working on for the past two years. Great minds, eh?

Fiction is awash with adaptions and reinventions of familiar tales. They say there are only seven basic plots anyway, so good luck trying to invent one that hasn’t already been covered by someone, somewhere.  Besides, no one can read everything; life’s too short. Denying yourself the pleasure of exploring a delicious subplot because you’ve read something similar, and worrying that your readers will notice a resemblance, is to invite even more uncertainty and doubt into your writing life. And you’ve got enough of that already, right?

So what if the plot has been used before? Not by you, it hasn’t. 

There are always aspects that will be different. Imagine baking a chocolate cake. The recipe calls for certain ingredients in particular amounts. The result is a sort of alchemy. Change the method or the ingredients only slightly and the cake will be different: denser, lighter, more luscious, less calorific.

The same goes for writing. The love story you’re considering may have been told many times before – it’s the human condition, after all – but not in your voice, with your expertise in telling an old story in a new and distinctive way. Even in a familiar girl meets boy scenario, there’s lots of scope for originality. Unusual settings and exotic locations create interesting situations almost by themselves. A mental or physical problem could add a new dimension to an otherwise ordinary situation (make sure you do your research first). Consider the dynamics of the couple: how they respond to each other, to outside influences, things they can and can’t control – there’s a huge range of emotions, undercurrents and subtleties to be explored, in your own inimitable way.  

Try not to get too hung up worrying about plagiarising someone else’s work. There’s no copyright in ideas, just the way they are expressed. Avoid hackneyed phrases and clichés, which will mark your writing out as unoriginal. We are all unique and the stories we tell will be similarly individual. Approach familiar stories from a different perspective, introduce unexpected elements. Be inventive, unpredictable and ingenious.

There really is nothing new under the sun. Everyone’s recipe is different. We all have our own writing style and voice. The stories we tell, even those with similar themes, will always be different. 

Asking Myself Some Serious Questions

desert island

While on my desert island recently, I was thinking that it might be fun to bring a writerly perspective to some of the more random, even philosophical questions I’ve been asked over the years. Some are pretty run of the mill; some have personal resonance and most have nothing, specifically, to do with writing. But I think they’re interesting enough to run a series of author interviews in the future. See what you think. Continue reading

For the Love of Books

As a fledgling writer I was advised that my reading pleasure would be ruined for ever; that I would minutely study everything I read, dissecting the dialogue, the use of language and vocabulary, the narrative style, to determine how it worked. I would treat every novel as a lesson. And I did, up to a point. For a newbie, it was a great way to learn. But I’m getting over that now. I still read a lot of fiction but I’m not obsessed with dismembering every book so I can scrutinise its inner workings in forensic detail. And I still learn a lot from my reading, that’s one of its pleasures. Facts I was previously unaware of, a novel approach to an everyday plot, the crafting of a story arc, I absorb it all. Some books are instantly forgettable; others stay in my head for a long time. Some take up permanent residence, and it’s these that I’d like to share with you. Continue reading

Writing the Kinks Out

Are you the sort of person who listens to music that reflects your current mood and reads novels that imitate your life, or do you prefer your listening and reading choices to challenge the status quo? I’m certainly in the former camp: I want mournful music when I’m anxious or depressed; uplifting tunes when I’m happy. I don’t want to be cajoled out of my sulk; I want to wallow. My reading material has to mirror my current frame of mind and, if I’m going through a particularly blue period, it should suggest an escape, or a way forward.

Committing thoughts to diaries and journals is an established method of exorcising our demons. Writing negative feelings on a sheet of paper, wrapping it round a stone and throwing it into the sea or off a cliff is still a popular way of ridding ourselves of bad vibes, so could the same effect be gained from writing fiction? Just as we use reading novels and listening to music as therapy, can we use writing to ease the kinks out of our lives? Continue reading

Changing the Landscape

For a variety of reasons I’ve been having a funny old time, writing-wise, just lately. The old mojo seems to have packed its trunk and run away to the circus. I didn’t invite me along, though I think I’d be pretty good on the trapeze, so rather than sit around feeling sorry for myself, gazing gormlessly into space, I’ve been doing something worthwhile.

I’ve been writing in my head. Continue reading

Changing Lives

Fiction – is there a reason for it? A point to it? Most importantly for us novelists, why do we write it?

Speaking for myself, the main purpose of reading fiction has always been entertainment. Losing myself in a good book on a rainy afternoon is an enormous pleasure. I don’t usually expect a novel to be life-changing; that is not my primary reason for reading fiction. If it’s an historical novel it might inform and educate me; a comic novel will entertain or irritate me; science fiction might stretch my understanding with varying levels of success, but a novel tackling some kind of moral dilemma will always get my full attention. Continue reading

In Praise of the Written Word

bookshelf1Sometimes when the muse isn’t with me and wringing anything sensible from my frazzled brain is a real effort, I wonder why I’m doing this. Writing, I mean. Why do I write? Who is it for?

Jean Paul Sartre maintained that ‘Hell is other people’ and I have a certain sympathy with that sentiment, but if anyone were to ask me what form my particular hell would take, I would answer immediately, without any thought at all: Hell is having nothing to read. I would qualify this to include the inability to read.

If I couldn’t read, for whatever reason, I’d go nuts, simple as that; I may as well shoot myself. Continue reading

The Gift of Time

I’ve recently been given a gift.

We’ve managed to get my mother-in-law booked into day care for two days a week. Mum lives with us and suffers from acute Alzheimer’s but anyone who is responsible for an ageing relative will understand what this turn of events really means.  I have been presented with that most valuable of commodities – long, uninterrupted tracts of time. I can hardly believe it. Continue reading

Can we talk? Dialogue, and how to get it right.

ConversationWriting realistic dialogue is tricky. It’s a skill that  comes naturally to those lucky people who have an ear for convincing dialogue and can produce it effortlessly, but most of us have to practice, listen, then practice some more. This is a common problem for new writers (and some more experienced ones, too) who want to produce natural and lifelike exchanges between characters without sounding clunky, over-dramatic or plain wooden. I’ve talked about this before but some things bear repetition, so a revisit might be useful. Continue reading

Time to Retreat

Norfolk BroadsWe’ve all got our special writing places in our homes, rented office space, local cafés and libraries, but how often do we take ourselves completely out of our comfort zones and spend time in different places with no one but ourselves for company? How far are we willing to go, and for how long? And does it work?

My first experience of a writing retreat, though that wasn’t the original idea, happened many years ago, after a difficult and painful split with my then husband. A good friend offered me her family’s apartment in Puerto del Carmen on Lanzarote and I took off for a week by myself, intending to do nothing but eat, sleep and sunbath. Actually, I’m not much of a sun worshipper, and I’d sort of lost my appetite, so that left sleeping…. and I did an awful lot of that. Mental exhaustion or something.

During the long, solitary days, I started jotting down my thoughts, initially as a means of clearing my head. It didn’t take long to exorcise my demons and I was soon onto different subject matter. Stuff that was in my head, waiting impatiently to be released. Who knew? Anyway, I sat under a parasol for five days and wrote. And wrote. It just poured out of me. I didn’t even read much, which was most unlike me.

I was totally unprepared, and when I ran out of notebooks I had to search for writing paper, scouring local shops and supermarkets until I found some pads of cheap, lined paper. This enterprise took a long afternoon, on foot, in blazing heat, but I was not to be deterred. I had caught the bug; I was hooked.

I still have those desperate scribbles; it was painful and embarrassing to re-read them when I got home. They’re so bad, full of all the mistakes a novice writer makes. Let’s just say they are better left at the bottom of the cupboard. But I could see a story developing. Even better, it wasn’t my story; it was the product of my imagination. Fiction. Much easier to deal with than real life, and I can change the outcome to suit.

Since that holiday, I have taken myself off on occasional retreats and residential writing courses and would definitely say I’d benefitted from these periods away from the daily routine. It’s like looking at life from a different angle; you see things you hadn’t noticed before. The enforced absence from the daily grind gives me a new perspective on lots of things and I find I’m much more productive as a result.

I hadn’t realised there was so much junk in my head that needed to get out and without that week away with nothing but my own company, who knows if it might still be in there?