My third novel was languishing in a bottom-drawer file on my PC. I couldn’t see the way through it, even though I had all the characters, the plot and subplots, and the ending, firmly in my mind. I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Was I being too ambitious? It’s actually a good story; I’m very proud of it, but it had become a dense, tangled muddle. I had to figure out why it wasn’t working, why the damn thing wouldn’t progress. I decided a more forensic approach was needed if it was going to be resurrected. Continue reading
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
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
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
When I first moved up to Norfolk from London I worked in a fascinating archive, The History of Advertising Trust, which has its offices deep in the countryside where real estate is cheaper than the capital. (Archives only ever grow, they never shrink.) Anyway, it was my good luck to happen upon it, because over the years it provided me with a lot of stimulation, sparking my imagination when I was struggling for ideas.
Advertisements are still a favourite source of mine. I love the lateral thinking, the wit, the ingenuity, the nods to popular culture, to classical art and literature, but I have a soft spot for 1980s cigarette ads. In this decade, tobacco companies in the UK were no longer permitted to show actual cigarettes in their advertising, although they were still allowed to promote their products. I’ve never been a smoker, and I’m not endorsing smoking here, but the imaginative and surreal advertising campaigns that resulted from the efforts to circumvent the ban are as fantastic as they are bizarre. Remember the Benson & Hedges pyramids and the Silk Cut scissors? You can see them here: http://www.hatads.org.uk/catalogue/search.aspx?titleType=Print%20Advertising
But how could these curious images help drag my exhausted imagination out of the doldrums?
One particular series of ads was for Winston cigarettes and would have appeared on the London Underground. Because of the ban there are no images of lissom women enjoying cigarettes, no curls of smoke floating irresistibly upwards. The strapline reads simply, ‘We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s something to pass the time.’ But it’s the text that followed that catches the eye. Picture the scene…
You’re sitting on the train on your way home. You glance at the ad and read, ‘We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s something to pass the time.’ You read the rest of the text and an idea sparks. You take out your notebook, (because you always carry one, don’t you?) and let your imagination go. By the end of the journey you have a serviceable character study…
- Look at the person sitting opposite you.
- Just a quick glance. Try not to stare.
- What do you think they do for a living?
- How much do you think they earn?
- More than you?
- Could you do their job?
- Think of 5 possible Christian names for them.
- And one nickname.
- Are they married?
- Imagine their home. Their furniture.
- What do they keep on their mantelpiece?
- What colour bathroom do they have?
- Consider the ANY DISTINGUISHING MARKS section of their passports. What does it say? What should it say?
- Where are they heading now? And why?
- To meet somebody? Who? For what reason
- Do they look like they’re late?
- And if they suddenly leant forward and offered to buy you dinner, what would you do?
I’ve tried this as an exercise with my writing group and it always gets good results. It forces everyone to think a little outside the box and consider alternative character traits. It acts as a catalyst, igniting the imagination and sending it off in unusual directions.
Works every time, often with very interesting results.
Sorting out the vast amount of paper that regularly accumulates in my writing room can be a very time-consuming task, not least because I do like to re-read what I’m about to throw away (well, you never know, do you?) During one epic clearance I came across this little missive. Continue reading
After a rather bruising journey to the publication of my second novel, my writing mojo has gone temporarily AWOL, so I thought I’d step away from my current project for a while and look back on my writing odyssey instead. This is a rewrite of an old post but the advice is still relevant.
In my experience, writing isn’t a life choice like exercise, or dieting, or what colour your hair should be this week. We don’t decide to become writers any more than we decide to become a man or a woman (well, most of us, anyway). By the time we’re ready to make such a conscious decision, writing has already made the choice for us. It’s a compulsion: innate, instinctive and as inevitable as death and taxes.
Here’s what I’ve learned thus far. Continue reading