Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Guest blogger- Heather Richardson, historical novelist.

Guest Blog- Heather Richardson, historical novelist and creative writing tutor

I’m looking forward hugely to reading Heather’s second novel Doubting Thomas which is appearing at the end of this month. Here is her very interesting account of the ‘experimental’ method that helped her decide how to treat the material and how best to tell the story.

Taking your story by surprise

When I decided to write an historical novel about the last man to be hanged for blasphemy in Britain, I faced a conundrum. How should I approach this real-life story? I had certain facts that were part of the historical record: Edinburgh student Thomas Aikenhead was arrested in 1696; his former friend Mungo Craig published a pamphlet condemning him; Thomas was tried, found guilty and hanged, but not before writing a speech accusing Mungo of being a blasphemer too; Mungo published another pamphlet, denying Thomas’s accusations. There was plenty to build into a story of betrayal and friendship gone sour. But how to go about that building? No matter how much material I had to work with there were lots of decisions to make. First person or third person? Or even – perish the thought! – second person? Who should the viewpoint character be? Thomas, Mungo or someone else? Or should I go for multiple viewpoints? How much of the text of Mungo’s pamphlets or Thomas’s speech should I include?
Thinking about these options is all very well, but, as the Irish proverb has it, no one ever ploughed a field by turning it over in their mind. At some stage I had to start writing. My approach with Thomas Aikenhead was to experiment with almost every element of his story, and to play around with writing styles. I wrote letters from dead Thomas to Mungo. I wrote deranged stream-of-consciousness extracts from Mungo’s diary. I wrote a flamboyantly wordy introduction to Edinburgh from an insouciant, irreverent omniscient narrator. In the course of my research I’d come across an incident involving Aikenhead’s apothecary father and some dodgy aphrodisiacs. That interested me – how could it not? -  so I decided to write a short story from the point of view of a doctor involved in the case. This short story, as it turned out, was my way into the novel. The doctor and his wife became the most important characters in the novel. In many ways it is now their story rather than Thomas’s.
The approach I’m describing here is certainly not a quick way to write a novel, but it’s an incredibly interesting process. I think it’s also good for me as a writer. Hazel Smith, in her book The Writing Experiment, warns ‘it is easy to write only in the way that seems to come most easily, and which does not require any extension of skills or outlook’. She goes on to say that the writer who does not experiment with new approaches ‘will soon reach a limit in their work, a point beyond which it is difficult to develop’. Doing the kind of writing-for-discovery I’ve described here stretched me as a writer, and allowed me to interrogate the ideas and themes of the Thomas Aikenhead story. As writers we can become overly protective of our own work, but it’s important to remember that fiction is not chiseled from a block of marble. It can be pulled apart, twisted and reshaped without being destroyed.
I’m still very fond of my flamboyant omniscient introduction to Edinburgh. Sadly, that was one darling that had to be murdered – it just didn’t fit with the overall feel of the novel. But maybe one day I’ll get to recycling it. Do you think there’s an audience for a world-weary, Oscar Wilde-meets-Flann O’Brien account of Early Modern Edinburgh?

Doubting Thomas is published by Vagabond Voices https://www.vagabondvoices.co.uk/shop-vagabonds/doubting-thomas

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Agent Hunting by Philippa

All it took was a trip to London and a Writers Workshop Masterclass

in May of this year to convince me that I needed to get an agent. 

The event was held, one early evening in May, at Waterstones in 

Piccadilly. Happily there was time for a day in the city to make the 

most of my railfare. First I made a long anticipated visit to the 

Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square – quite fascinating and a place 

where many poignant stories could begin. A quiet lunch was followed 

by a little browsing in Regent Street, before the heat of the 

streets drove me early into Waterstones.

    There can’t be many better places to use up time than in a 

bookshop. Over numerous floors, this huge, art deco building housed 

multiple layers of books. The enormous competition from so many 

published authors was evident. I always knew that publishing was a 

vast industry but on this day the extent of it was literally spread 

before me. I looked closely at the names, stored for posterity on 

the spines of books; some were famous, some unknown, some I’d read, 

others were on my to do list. I watched other people drift like me 

and wondered if they were writers too. Eventually about 45 of us 

found our way to the top floor, coming together over a glass of wine 

and polite conversation before the event began.
     What did we discover?
You need a good quality manuscript.
-   You need an agent.
     Well that seemed clear enough.

-  Longlist professional committed agents with an open door, who like your genre. Do research on agent search sites such as Agent Hunter, Agent Query.com or Writers Market.
-  Filter the list, looking for points of contact, similar tastes, common interests or a comment on a tweet that clicks.
- Approach a group of agents all at once (batches of 10 at a time).
-  Carefully check their submission requirements, as all seem to want something slightly different (eg.3 chapters, 10,000 words, 50,000 words, attached or pasted …). Make sure your manuscript is ready.
     This was starting to sound more complicated.

- Get name on query letter right, include title of book, word count, genre and just a short biography – the manuscript matters more than you do. Include one paragraph about your book, a hook, a USP.
- Get the synopsis right – what is the story? Make it clear and easy to navigate. Notation can be telegraphic. Include and highlight main characters, add a layer of emotion, maybe a sprinkle of spice. Is there an inciting incident?
- Allow at least 6-8 weeks for a reply. Be patient.
- Keep going with another batch. Keep trying.

     Three individual agents generously gave their time to answer our questions. All confirmed the huge numbers of submissions they receive and the low acceptance rate. It’s now taken me three months to prepare to send my first batch of submissions, requesting representation – okay, family illness, a bereavement and a much needed holiday got in the way, but having a little space and avoiding the temptation to rush was actually helpful. I now feel ready for the replies and potential rejections. I feel ready to keep trying.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Naïve Novelist

Eight months on from NaNoWriMo, and I’m proud to report I wrote every day, and I completed a novel. An un-edited, first-draft mess of a novel, but I did it. More of that later…
            At the time, I stated my main intention was to establish a daily writing habit. Habit being: a settled or regular tendency to practise, especially one that is hard to give up. I found daily writing hard, and that I did it best in the mornings. If I left it until later in the day, then there was a risk it wouldn’t happen. That pattern hasn’t changed and I confess I haven’t quite fixed daily writing as a habit. Life (and my brilliant ability at procrastination) sometimes gets in the way. But the best part about this definition is the last bit: hard to give up.
            That’s certainly true. If I write nothing for a day, I miss it. Two days and I’m positively edgy; any longer and I feel like I’ll burst if I don’t write something. (Although, irritatingly, the longer I leave it the harder it is to get started again!) I can only return myself to a state nearing physical and mental comfort by writing. NaNoWriMo finally freed me me to write anywhere – on trains, in public places, in front of my family – and allowed me to understand I didn’t need a dedicated space with a special chair and my favourite pen. (That would be still be very nice though, if any of my family are reading this…) I completed NaNoWriMo entirely on my laptop, but have since returned to the pleasure of a smooth-rolling pen, or pencil, and my favourite lined notebooks, for first drafts, at least.
            I’d promised myself I wouldn’t re-read my efforts for several months. After all, I’ve never written anything longer than a 5000 word story or 45 minute radio drama in the past. I couldn’t quite leave my NaNo characters alone, however and wrote a few short stories playing around with their lives prior to when my ‘novel’ started. Finally, I printed out my mountain of words and read them in three sessions. Mostly, I cringed at the awful writing and the telling not showing, but I also remembered things I’d forgotten, and loved being back with these people in my mind. I made some notes on the sheets, but realised the need for better structure, always a weakness in my writing.

            I read KM Weiland’s unlikely-sounding 5 Secrets of Story Structure – it’s great! I have now worked out a much stronger arc to my novel, and re-ordered some of the events and thought more about themes. It was as if I had to write it first, to see what it was going to be about, and now I know that, I can write it properly. So the rewriting proper will start in the Autumn, and in the meantime I’ll try to fix that daily writing habit good and proper!

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Hilary Mantel and Historical Fiction

I recently read with great interest Hilary Mantel’s first Reith Lecture reproduced in the Guardian Review https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/03/hilary-mantel-why-i-became-a-historical-novelist.

This is an engaging ‘justification’, if such a thing is necessary, thanks to Hilary Mantel’s literary triumphs, for the genre of historical fiction. Through her account of how she relates to the lives of her own forbears and how she works to create a sense of the living, breathing people of the past, she shows how the work of a writer who chooses to write fiction can present a legitimate interpretation of history.

Dealing with the contentious relationship between academic historians and novelists, she maintains that their work is in fact quite similar. An historical novelist is just as concerned as an historian in investigating the verifiable facts of past events and the actions of those who are dead, but the novelist adds an extra dimension, the imagined interior lives of characters. Some people are troubled, however, by the ‘misleading’ nature of ‘fictionalised’ history and are concerned about how ‘the truth’ is represented or perhaps misrepresented. As Hilary Mantel points out though, serious historical novelists research as fully as biographers and most historians present more than the bald facts and information. Both provide interpretations of the tangible records of the past as the only evidence available. As Mantel explains:

The novelist’s trade is never just about making things up. The historian’s trade is never simply about stockpiling facts.

Both ‘trades’ tell stories, although the reader in choosing to read a novel knows that she is encountering a subjective interpretation of a period and/or events from the past. For Hilary Mantel, the work of the novelist and the historian are complementary, rather than rival ways of looking at history. Interestingly, the words in French ‘histoire’ and the German ‘Geschichte’ mean both ‘story’ and ‘history’.

Another item about historical fiction caught my eye recently, a report of a talk by John Guy at the Hay Festival in which he expressed his concern that students were treating material in novels such as Wolf Hall as ‘fact’. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/31/students-take-hilary-mantels-tudor-novels-as-fact-hay-festival

It seems odd to me that anyone would seek to derive their ‘knowledge’ of historical events purely from fictionalised accounts. Students studying history as an academic pursuit and professional historians should surely be clear about the provenance of the material they are reading and treat all sources with the rigorous scrutiny applied in their fields.

I am one of the ‘cringing’ writers of historical fiction, referred to on another occasion by Hilary Mantel, who like to include a bibliography. I would defend this, as others have done: http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=cringing+historical+novelists.
My reason for including a bibliography is as an invitation to readers to explore their interests further and to seek out other interpretations of the period and events in the novel they have just read.

I look forward to listening to the Reith Lectures but think it likely that the controversies around history and historical fiction will continue to thrive!

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Writer's block and ways to overcome it by Sue Dawes

Wikipedia defines Writer's Block as: 'a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work, or experiences a creative slowdown. The condition ranges in difficulty from coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce a work for years.'
Most writers suffer from the condition at some point during their writing life, whether it be due to rejection or just the feeling of being overwhelmed by want you want to achieve versus what life throws at you.  This often ends up with a blank page, a half finished novel or a headache.
One way to get past Writer's Block is to complete some short exercises, particularly ones where the first sentence is provided. Prompts seem to help because they remove the responsibility for creating the initial idea and thus the pressure.
It doesn't matter if the pieces you write remain fragments of stories - the goal is to actually put words down. Everything else comes after.  You are just trying to kick start the creative process.
Here are some of my favourite exercises:

  • Go to your bookshelf and pick a book.  Open it anywhere.  Pick a sentence that appeals to you and use it as the prompt. You can make it harder by choosing the 7th book , the 7th page and the 7th sentence or any number that appeals to you.
  • Grab a magazine.  Choose two adverts and cut them out.  Use the words (and only those) to write a poem. Even better if you can use the originals and stick them down.  Making 'physical' contact when you write seems to change the way you create.
  • Take a newspaper article or a photocopied page from a novel and use the words on the page to create something new: a beginning or a poem.  Try and switch the original genre it was written in to something different.  This is a really interesting website if you get hooked on making new from old  http://www.tomphillips.co.uk/humument
  • Dig out your old stories.  Use a sentence from your own work to start something completely new.  I often have favourite sentences that don't quite fit where they are but are too good to throw away.  This is word recycling and it resuscitates them. 
  • Flash cricket.  Get ten friends to give you a word. The aim is to include all the words in a very short story. It's surprising what you can create with words that don't necessarily 'fit' together. This is a good basis for poetry too.
If your Writer's Block is associated with isolation, the best solution is likely to be a writer's group.   Hearing other people's work can act as an incentive, especially if during the group meeting, there are short exercises to complete.  Reading and editing both kick start creativity and writing in company can be a very productive.  There is a writing group in Colchester which offers this: https://twitter.com/ColWriteNight/status/856622375709941760
None of the exercises above will give you a finished piece of writing but sometimes the best ideas are found in writing that isn't planned.  You might create a place, an incident or a character that you can use again. More importantly, you have words on a page.

For more prompts, the following list will help. Some randomly generated dialogue and words, others have simple exercises to try:
10 minutes or less