Monday, 23 March 2015

Standpoint - when characters come to life


The first time I thought my Brit thriller, Standpoint, might have legs was when I had an argument with the main character in a car. Yes, I know how ridiculous that looks on a screen, but it's what happened. It was during a novel writing summer school tutored by Jane Pollard at University College Falmouth.

On the very first day two important things happened that had a profound influence on my writing. The first was that Jane told us we'd never write our books the same way again - this, was me, was absolutely true. The second occurred when each of the class outlined their book's plot and themes. When it came to my turn - a tale of a 20-something who leaves London to start a new life in the USA* - she asked who the antagonist was and I said 'life'. She suggested that idea might not be suitable for this course and that I'd be better coming up with a completely new idea.

My first response was one of panic. However, the day's exercises were really useful and when she asked those of us without a clear storyline to think about it overnight I went away confidently. One of the techniques I've used to write short fiction is to listen for 'the voice'. It's a little like meditation, except you have a different expectation when you start and a different focus during each session. It doesn't always work, but I have had good results from time to time. When there's simply no voice present at all, I sometimes used my mind's eye to focus in on an imaginary person, or an object.

There was no voice, only a character reluctant to speak with me. Why? He was busy! So began my introduction to Thomas Bladen. He was taking photographs and keeping records, and it was his job; this gave me a starting point. Once we'd got into some sort of dialogue he told me he was from Yorkshire, which I'd only been to once, as well as his age and the important relationships in his life.

By the next morning, on the drive over to Falmouth, Thomas and I were discussing aspects of this new book. The fact that his character arrived largely fully formed made the process of developing the book more like a voyage of discovery (or investigation!) than one of invention. Of course, not everything played out on the page exactly like the early discussions, but still remember his voice in my head as I parked up on day two of the course, insisting that he wanted a helicopter! Did he get it? You'll have to read Standpoint to find out.

What's your process or technique for creating new fiction from scratch?

Standpoint is published by Joffe Books.

You can find it on Amazon, here for the UK and here for the US
Can one good man hold the line without crossing it?

* Scars & Stripes is now a completed standalone comedy drama, in need of an agent or publisher - I'm just saying... 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Partial eclipse of the heart

The important thing about today's partial eclipse (let's face it - an almost total eclipse, percentage-wise) is that it doesn't happen very often. Anne and I headed to a little-used beach on the north coast and breathed in the sea salt, up on the headland. 

The only person on the beach below was a woman with her dog. She climbed up the path and spoke with us a few minutes before the 'big moment'. She said that she took her dog to the beach every day before work and I thought what a lovely way it was to start your day.

Lacking a quality camera (you may recall that I smashed the last one trying to take pictures of bright green seaweed at Lamorna), we relied on an iPad screen. The image above doesn't really capture the moment pictorially but I like it anyway because it captures a moment. There's a burst of sunlight in the centre and a teeny image of the eclipse, partway through, to the left. I think it's some kind of reflection, but I'll leave that one to the photographers to explain.

Like I said, it's a moment - the two of us peering at the sun on a screen, my hands becoming colder and colder, the still earth at our feet and the breeze bringing in the scent of the sea. Earth, water, fire and air - it has all the elements of all the elements!

I couldn't help thinking that - just like the sequence of near identical images I'd captured on the Pad - we exist in a series of moments, each one slightly different or dramatically different. We like to think that we have autonomy and self-determination, and sometimes that's true, but often we can only choose to be fully present. That was about the time I put the screen away and just breathed in the moment with Anne. That's the point at which, further down the line, stories are created.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

The Yoga of Writing

Go with the flow?
Writers seem to occupy that curious hinterland between the potential and the actual. We create characters and give them life on the page, and worlds to roam, in the hope that someday other people will visit them to read about their adventures and dilemmas. It's not a given though and for every book that's out there - whether or not it's doing well - you can get your last sixpence that a whole shelf's worth of books never saw the light of day for one reason or another. 

It's arguably a huge leap of faith to start that first sentence and then progress to the end. And that's before the baying hounds of commercial reality and the critics come a-calling. 

There is also a deeper, dare I say it, spiritual side to writing. 

I was in a yoga class for the last couple of weeks (don't too impressed - I have the hip and shoulder flexibility of hardened asphalt) and our teacher, Indra, said something that really struck a chord. He talked about what yoga is and that the physical postures were only an aspect of good practice, to be combined with the breath and awareness. Otherwise, he said, you're just making shapes.

Later, at home with a hot chocolate and biscuits (what better reward for a yogic workout?) I thought about how that approach might apply to writing. Like yoga, writing can be a process of development - and by that I mean development for life. Writers can create good prose, craft  cunning plot lines and sculpt characters that live on long after the book is closed. That's all great and worthy of a book sale. However, the deeper side of writing, extolled and examined in books like The Artist's Way, is that we get to grips with ourselves. 

Some of that introspection and reflection will find its way on to the page, but whether it does or not we grow as a consequence. Now, I know that self-actualisation and the cult of the self is often frowned upon as navel gazing. (My brother used to say I wanted to find myself and maybe I should try one of the cupboards.) 

Writing's all about the words, isn't it? I'm not so sure. 

In yoga, the breakthroughs I've had have been small insights or tiny physical adjustments that teach me something about myself (and not always something good!). Writing offers the same rewards. It can be therapeutic, challenging and bring out our insecurities, competitiveness, focus and compassion. 

When you strip back all the tools and techniques, all the clever strategies and the yardsticks that we measure ourselves by - and beat ourselves up with - we are simply in a class of one. We don't even have to learn if we don't want to. But if we dig deep, beyond the stories that are easiest and safest to tell, we may just find some treasure to share with our readers.