On finding the beginning

Standard

When reading a book, it is easy to start in the right place. You open the book to the first page and start from there (unless you’re one of those people who reads the last page first – naughty, naughty!) But for the writer, finding that beginning may have taken several attempts.

I have just started writing the first draft of a book I have been ‘cooking’ for a couple of years. I have it all plotted out, which is unusual for me, I usually develop a character or two and see where they take me. This book, however, has been difficult from the start. I couldn’t find the right structure for it, although I knew it had to be in the first person point of view. Then the question was, set it in the past or the present? I decided on the present.

I wrote a few sentences – the beginning of the book, or so I thought. They were, if I say so myself, brilliant sentences – descriptive, poetic, intriguing. And wrong. They weren’t in my character’s voice and they weren’t the right way to start the book.

I tried again. Some more sentences. This time the voice sounded more like the character I had in mind, but only if she lived at the turn of the nineteenth century. Again, a voice issue. I sat and thought about my protagonist and all she was going to go through in this book. I thought about the character profile I had written for her (six pages long) and built a stronger picture of her in my mind.

I started again. And this time, I had nailed her voice. I kept going, feeling, if I’m honest, a little smug. I’m on my way, I thought. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Ten thousand words on, I had introduced more characters and set the scene, my protagonist was struggling with her inner turmoil nicely and being misunderstood by those around her. All good stuff.

Then I decided to read from the beginning for flow and continuity. And I was hit between the eyes by the fact that I still had the wrong beginning! I had started the story too far back and taken too long to get to the point. I don’t think a book has to start with a big action scene, but it does have to start at its logical beginning, not in some beautifully written back story. That can come in later if necessary, but the protagonist needs to find herself in the thick of the rising tension, not trudging towards it in the hope that at some stage in the not too distant future, she’ll get there!

So, I’m back to the drawing board.

Onward!

More Out Takes: Dom’s Reply

Standard

Last time I posted a letter from Winsome to her friend, Dom back in the UK. Here is his first one to her, to give a flavour of their relationship. The letters were a way of keeping the reader up to date with both of their lives when they were apart, but I’ve always thought there’s something romantic about writing actual letters; real letters on paper written with a pen. I don’t do it nearly enough in my life, so I enjoyed letting Winsome and Dom deepen their relationship this way. Here it is…

Winsome,

I got your letter today. It only took a week – much quicker than I thought it would be.

I’m sorry to hear that your father isn’t well. Do you think that now you are home, he’ll improve? And your mother? You always made me feel better when you were around, so I imagine you have that effect on them too.

I try very hard to imagine you in Uganda, but it isn’t easy. I am looking at the photo you left for me – the one of you and your family outside the house the day Moses left for University. It conjures the languid feeling of heat and flies, of long hot days and longer hotter nights, punctuated by the buzz of a thousand mosquitoes intent on drinking everyone dry.! I look at you – what were you then – 13? and I think of the woman you have become, of all that you’ve been through, and I find myself wishing that I could put the clock back and stop it all from happening. But then, I would never have met you, and that would be my loss.

My god – what’s happening to me? This letter writing business is making me all maudlin. I promised myself that my letters would be upbeat and funny, full of little anecdotes to keep you amused, perhaps an antidote to what’s going on for you over there.

So… Mum is well but missing you. She loved having you staying with her. I think she thrives on company and finds being on her own lonely. She’s talking about getting a dog! Not much of a replacement for you, but better than nothing, or so she says. I took her out to dinner last night. We went to that little Indian on the High street, you know, the one where they say that the korma is mild, and it takes the back of your throat off. One day if I’m feeling suicidal, I’ll try the vindaloo!

Work’s OK. My boss actually praised me the other day for coming up with the design that won the tender for the hotel in Devon. As if Torquay needs any more hotels. Still, it’s work for us, and it’ll mean trips to Devon. In the school holidays I might take Mum with me if she wants to come for a breath of sea air.

So, that’s about it for now. I need to improve my letter writing skills; I have veered from melancholy to inane in this one. I was going to apologise for it not being very long, but I suspect that you’re quite glad you don’t have to read more.

I must say, though, that I miss you and our long chats. London seems rather boring these days, without you here. Please write again soon.

Dom xx

 

So, that was Dom’s first letter. Interested to read more?

Next time.

 

An out take from Never Laugh at Shadows

Standard

In keeping with my last post, I have decided to put up some out takes from my novels. When I was writing Never Laugh at Shadows, the protagonist, Winsome, went home to Uganda, having fallen in love with an English man. I included several letters between them as a way of keeping the story moving forward and the reader knowing what both were up to. Having written these letters, I decided that it didn’t work after all, so I took them out. 16,000 words! So here are some of them…

Winsome put her pen down and supported her chin in her hands as she looked out the window over the coffee plants to the rolling hills beyond. She’d been home three months and had not found either her father or her brothers. Her mother was living with the spirits, hardly aware of what was going on around her, and often went out at night to sit in the graveyard and talk to her friends, the dead, whom she swore were better company than anyone else she knew. Winsome was exhausted from the search, from not knowing what to do next, from having to look after her mother and not shout at her to take some responsibility. Never had she felt so alone. Absolom and Martha were still there, living in their hut out the back, but they had aged in the time she’d been away, and spent their evenings quietly under the mango tree listening to their radio, occasionally sharing a thought or their response to some news item, but mainly just sitting. She saw them now, gazing into the distance in their companionable silence, and wished she could share their contentment.

She took up her pen again.
‘Things are not so good here. Ma continues to roam, and no-one can get through to her. I think if she were in your country, she would have been confined to a Psychiatric hospital and given medication, but that is not he way of things in Uganda. Here, were keep our family at home when they are unwell, and we try to look after them as best we can. I think that this is a good idea because when they are ill, people should be with the people who love them.’
She stopped again. Would Dominic take offence at that? He had to put Angela in a hospital when she was ill – if he didn’t, the Police did, so surely it was kinder for him to do it than for her to be manhandled by strangers? But did she really think that he should stay at home and look after her? She wasn’t sure; she’d have to give it more thought, but in the meantime, she carried on.
‘But unfortunately, sometimes those very loving family members can feel quite unloving, angry, even, and then perhaps it would be good for everyone concerned if there was a hospital nearby. Perhaps if she was given medicine she would stop talking to ghosts, stay in at night, keep safe; but she likes talking to the spirits of her dead friends, so would it not be cruel to stop it? There is no answer, and no alternative anyway, as the hospitals have hardly any staff and no medicines these days. Mangeni, who works in our local hospital as a nurse, says that so many people are dying of AIDS – which we here call Slim because that is what it does to you – and there is nothing to give them. It is easy to hate a government that has turned its back on its own people.’
She stopped writing again and read back through what she’d written. If paper wasn’t so scarce she’d tear it up and start again. She didn’t mean to depress Dominic. His letters were always full of funny stories and local news. It was just unfortunate that her local news was of war and despair. And absence.
‘I think I may have a new lead on where Abraham and Solomon might be,’ she wrote. ‘A few days ago, some resistance fighters came through here, an one of them told me he’d heard of twins fighting in one of the coys further north. Of course, there are probably many twins fighting, but each time I hear of some, I hope it is them, and it gives me hope that they are still alive, because no-one would bother saying there are twins fighting if there was only one, would they?’
Once again, Winsome laid down her pen and sighed. It seemed her whole family was playing some sort of hideous disappearing act.

 

If you have read the book, you may recognise the characters. If not, why not zip over to Amazon and get yourself a copy and see if you prefer the way it is now or whether you would have preferred the letters!

Onward

Where does time go?

Standard

It’s been five months since my last post. I have been away for three months, and busy with other things, but they’re not really excuses. I was in Europe, not the Sumatran jungle – the internet was freely available. And the ‘other things’ I’ve been busy with? Procrastinations, distractions.

So I ask myself, why, when I have a reminder in my phone that alerts me every Thursday that today is the day to write a blog post, do I still not write one? The little message that comes up on my screen…Write a blog post…sets off a series of emotions from exasperation to guilt.

But most of all, it begs the question, What shall I write about? Why would anyone be interested in me and my ramblings? Have I got anything to add to the mounds of information out there on writing? (Just in case you’re interested in my advice, it can be summed up in one word: read. It hardly makes for a riveting post).

Then I thought, I write. It’s what I love doing. I make up characters and put them in situations and things happen. Sometimes I know what they’ll do and sometimes they surprise me, but they always do something, and those somethings add up to a story, (eventually, hopefully). When I’m developing a character, I often spend quite a bit of time writing their story, bits of dialogue, loves and hates and so on. Jottings that never get into the book, but are important to me to draw on as I write. So, for example, if a character suddenly says she loves men with back hair, and I know that her love interest suffers from Alopecia Totalis, I can correct her. Or rewrite her love interest to include chest wigs and such.

So, post-atrophy may be solved. I will share with you some of these character backgrounds.

Next time…

 

On Feedback

Standard

I belong to a fantastic Writers Group. It grew slowly, from small beginnings (two of us used to sit in a tiny room at the New South Wales Writer’s Centre every week for three hours, critiquing each other’s work and talking about writing). Over the years, people have come and gone, either because of their other commitments, or because they weren’t the right ‘fit’ for the group, or us for them.

Now we are nine, and have a level of trust and respect for each other and the work that we share that allows us to be honest without being unkind, and celebrate each others’ successes without envy. It is a rare thing.

I often come away from the group with plenty to work on. In fact, the days I come away with little in the form of feedback to work with, I feel cheated! I know that my Writers group makes me a better writer, and my books a better read.

And then there are the unknown critics. I recently sent one of my manuscripts in to an agent. They way this agency works is that they send a MS out to a panel of Readers for feedback. They ask them a series of questions to consider while they read, from whether it’s even worth reading, to marketablilty and everything in between.

I waited with bated breath for six weeks (which, I have to say, isn’t long in this industry!) and then came the phone call. I had pen and paper at the ready, and wrote copious notes. Much of the feedback was positive, which was nice to hear, but I was more interested, as always, in what they thought needed changing, tightening, removing. I agreed with most of it immediately, and will think about the rest of it over the next few days.

But what humbled me was the fact that these people had taken the time to read my book paying attention to tiny detail as well as story arc and character development, and then spent even more time writing notes for me. Helpful comments. Suggestions. Questions. I don’t know who any of these people are, but I thank them a thousand times over.

And so to the next edit.

Onward

On Writing Prizes

Standard

It’s not the Stella or the Miles Franklin, the Man Booker or the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I have just won my first prize for writing, and I am very proud.

A friend alerted me to the Hunter Writers Centre Grieve Project a few months ago. Launched in August, as part of National Grief and Loss Month, the centre publishes a book of poems and short stories about grief. Any sort of grief. Writers are invited to send in their pieces, and one hundred and twenty are chosen to be included in the anthology.

My story was chosen. But even better than that, I received an email to say that mine was one of twenty that had been chosen to be read out at the launch. I decided to go and hear it. It’s a rare thing for a writer to hear someone else read their work to an audience, and I was interested to experience it.

The twenty stories and poems that were read couldn’t have been more different, but that is hardly surprising, given the range of feelings grief throws up, and the styles of writing  and ‘voices’ developed by the authors. What I wasn’t prepared for was the impact that hearing my own story read out loud would have on me.

It was harrowing writing it. It was about a deeply emotional subject, it was read beautifully by a woman who had obviously read it a number of times and was moved my it. But I found myself listening not for the emotion, but for the way the story was constructed, whether it ‘worked’ as a piece.

Was this because I didn’t want to get emotional in a room full of strangers? Or because I knew the content so well, it was time to focus on structure (although I had, of course, done this before I submitted it, it wasn’t just a stream of consciousness dump)? Or was it that in being aware of all the other people around me, I was viewing it as performance, something separate from me? I don’t know. Possibly it was all of these things. I certainly felt emotional, but not in response to the story. It was more about how I might be judged by the other people in the room. Other writers in the room. Instead of grief, I felt anxiety.

After all the pieces had been read, we were invited to stay for the awards. It turned out that the woman who read my story was from the Hunter Institute for Mental Health, and that she had awarded their prize to me! My legs shook as they carried me to the stage to receive my prize, and I wanted to give her a great bug hug, this woman I’d never met before, for liking my work, for deeming it worthy of mention. But I reined myself in and shook her hand, thanked her for reading the work so beautifully, and tottered back to my seat, the proud recipient of a writing prize.

In the foyer afterwards, over drinks and nibbles, several people came up to me and told me that my story had touched them, and congratulated me. I felt like a rock star, and decided that maybe next time, I would try not to get so anxious.

So, thank you, Hunter Writers Centre and the Hunter Institute of Mental Health.

 

On Beginnings

Standard

Writing is a funny way to spend your time. At times it is totally engrossing as the words flow and the ideas speed along, word count growing by the minute. At other times it is like trying to paint your finger nails with gloves on!

I have the plan of a book sitting in my computer. It’s been there for over a year. I have a title, a plot outline, character profiles and pages of research on the theme, but I haven’t been able to find my way in to the story. I’ve written several beginnings, a few scenes from later in the book, and even the ending, but none of the beginnings feel right. I don’t want to abandon the idea, because I think it’s a good one, but it is extremely frustrating.

So, imagine my excitement when I was talking to one of my writerly friends and he suggested a way into the story. It seemed perfect. It would hook the reader, give a glimpse of the protagonist’s character and, more importantly at this stage, get me started! I could hardly wait to get home and start writing.

I sat at my computer and the words started coming. I saw a scene in my head and got it all down. I was rather surprised at where it was going, but it was fun and at least I was writing. After a few hundred words I had to stop – real life interrupted. A day or two later, I went back to it and added some more. I was enjoying myself, but a little voice was telling me that this was not the beginning I was seeking after all.

I was disappointed that what had seemed so promising wasn’t, after all, the way into my novel. I began to worry that I would never be able to write anything again. This was my one idea for a new book, and I couldn’t write it. Imagine my relief when this morning, as I was having coffee with a friend, and told her about it, I realised that it may not be the start of one book but it is the opening of another, totally different, but equally interesting.

So…the book I can’t write will sit a bit longer in the dim, dusty wasteland of my documents folder, and I’ll start fleshing out the new idea, build characters, set scenes, create a story arc, see where it all takes me.

At least I have a beginning.

Onward.