Sunday, 29 November 2009

Addicted to stories

As a psychologist I'm interested in why we do and like certain things. We clearly love TV, we watch hours a day. As a nation, we consume newspapers, books and magazines, we follow celebrity gossip and news scandals, we love film and TV. In the past, we were hooked on serial stories, radio dramas and storytelling in every form. I think my need for writing is a reflection of my need for stories. I have always told myself stories to get to sleep, and sometimes just need to write them down. So I've written short stories and much longer stories, but I was nervous about putting them out so I didn't get feedback. Now I'm getting the feedback and it's painful but I can't believe how much I have learned in this last couple of years! Working on short stories for my TMA, I'm distracted by the craft rather than the story itself. So I've decided to spend the weekend and early next week writing a short story for its story, then edit based on my new knowledge and the fiction chapters of the Big Red Book. I am feeling caught between 'good' writing and good stories.I've dipped into some 'good' stories and while the craft is beautiful the stories aren't always compelling. I've been reading some Bridport winning stories and runners up in their anthologies,and some of them are wonderful. Some are baffling to me, the stories take a back seat to the writing to such an extent I can't make head or tail of them. The characters are unlikeable so you don't care about them, so don't engage with the stories. So, as a novelist, I need to let up trying so hard to understand the short story thing and carry on doing what I do best - write long fiction with strong stories. So I thought I would take a bit of a plot in a novel and write it up as a short story, then edit as recommended in the BRB. I suppose I should stop talking about it and actually do it....

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Two approaches to creative writing

I'm struggling but starting to see a way through my confusion at feedback from my two tutors. One likes my work, offers lots of practical tips but is very encouraging along the lines of 'get on and work on your novel'; the other is much more strict. She is much less interested in the story, or even the characters, but she's encouraging me to describe my characters better, worry about every word (do I need that word or this word). Although I got a good score, I felt very deflated by her feedback. She was fussing about spacing and punctuation, even tiny issues like whether two words would be better reversed. But I'm learning loads and working on the process of becoming self-critical and knowing what is good and what is bad. Meanwhile I'm working on writing a Christmas present for other half, and more Chaucer.

So, here's a dilemma - how comfortable is anyone writing sex scenes? Because I have to write one for the book....

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Bigger Plot

I came up with a bigger plot! The problem is, it could easily become a novel. So, wrestling with my 'short' story, I thought I would help no.1 son with his A174 coursework, you know, stand and nod approvingly. His problem is keeping his very fluent writing down to a tiny plot and 500 words. So, talking to him has made me think again about mine. My character is going to be discovered doing something she shouldn't, and about 75% of the way in the first draft the husband finds out. Now I'm rearranging it so this is the opening line, then the rest builds up in the past. I suppose Kez could look at doing the same. Because we're doing the Chaucer project, he's in historical mode rather than his usually fantasy genre, so he's invented a character in a 14th century city.

Since my husband has given up his Saturday building me a tailored CD bookcase for all my classical CDs I have been rescuing music all day - and enjoying it. It fills a space in me, I can't explain why, but it also gets me writing. Since he is out at a music club this evening (Devon and their folk clubs!) I can settle down to some music I haven't heard in three years. And it makes me want to write different stories. I suppose some of the ancient sacred music makes me so melancholy I write about ghosts, empty rooms, lost loves, old age. Sammartini and Vivaldi make me want to sing, and all my prose is full of assonance and rhythm. 19th century music like Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky make me feel sentimental and later stuff takes me on a journey. At least I didn't have to chip away at the same old bits of music for days because it's such a fiddle getting new stuff out. I've been sorting and labelling all day - which is why my spelling isn't too bad!

The OCA assignment is hanging over me a bit. I must sit down and read my radio play tomorrow, see if it works at all. Then I can write the commentary. The commentary is the difficult bit for me!

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Using the course

I'm amazed at how much I'm using the course even with kids. 'Show not tell' is becoming the mantra for me when writing with them. I'm using the poetry all the time: not only did I write about 50 lines of full rhyming iambic pentameter for one of the plays but I'm working on lyrics for a song in dactyls. (That's Tum ta ta, Tum ta ta for anyone who hasn't done the Fry book!) Meanwhile, I've written about six or seven short stories but none of them are suitable for TMA02. So I analysed them and found - because I've been writing to 1200-1500 words for so long, I'm stuck with what to do with the extra words. They start to look like padding when I take my plot and stretch it to 2,200 words. Basically, 1200 or 1500 words isn't enough to go beyond one story arc (although I squeezed one into 750 words for TMA01) and 2,200 seems a bit short for subplots. So I need bigger plots in the first place - big juicy three handers, perhaps, rather than two handers, or two or three scenes. So, I'm looking at drawing on a draft of a plot I sketched out as an exercise for plotting novels (I really don't plot; I find characters and they lead me into a story). Basically, the first chapter of a novel, but taking out the big story arc and leave the subplot that starts in chapter one. Then somehow finding a resolution for it.

Two years ago I wrote a novel about a woman coming back from a life threatening assault, trying to find herself in the story of the attack, which had become bigger than she was, just when she had felt diminished by being ill and weak for a time. I could have some fun with this perhaps, reconnecting her with her own autonomy, which tends to drift away in hospital. Perhaps her defiance can be her resolution, as she works on her own agenda, not the therapist's. I like to see clients starting to disagree with you, as a therapist, finding their feet again.

The OCA assignment is due in the end of November, so I need to get on with that. The idea from my TMA01 would make a great radio play, and that's where my tutor and I were going. Today, we discussed filming (and me writing a screenplay) in the Chaucer, so working on dramatic media is very timely. I have the A363 book to work from as well, and my colleague and I will have to storyboard the thing. Fortunately, she is very visual and kinetic with her imagination, I'm wordy and practical, so hopefully, we will work it out! All this hard work feels like the NaNoWriMo that I didn't think I had time for - and which would have been less words! I wrote 8000 words in the last three days... Oh, and I did I mention, if you are considering doing A215, that Stephen Fry's book is a brilliant start to debunk all the scary structures, rhyming and metred poetry? An Ode Less Followed. Seriously builds confidence in non-poets. Section 3 on the course is great for creativity, but leaves you a bit unsure about where to go next... Fry makes you listen to the music of poems. If you still resist the book (and yes, there's not a lot of contemporary poets in it), take one piece of advice from it: read out loud, really slowly. If you can't hear any kind of rhythm or sense - read it again, out loud, even slower. It works. For those people who are addicted to new poetry, look again - lots of poets write in metres of some sort, even if not completely. And as for archaic forms: villanelles are everywhere.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Motivation returned!

Well, after a week of crying into my beer (metaphorically - I hate beer) I am back writing again. That's the longest dry spell I've had in several months. partly I have had to look at writing for the Chaucer project (see my home grown Chaucer blog). One of the kids has a story about a fish she wants to tell in a puppet play form, so I'm writing words even in simple ones. Then I wrote the beginning of a short story which I feel would become a novel if I let it. the theme is really about how babies transform our lives. Not a literary theme maybe, but I was transformed by pregnancy and grew up very smartly when Léonie was born. I think we evolved from self-centred people, who were learning to make ourselves happy, to people who were focused on making Léonie, and each other, happy. Anyway, it's fun writing about people who are somewhat like the ones I actually know.

Going back to Chapter 5 with much more understanding I am creating characters for stories that are starting to speak to me. The O'Connor reading spoke to me (from chapter 11) so clearly I wish I had read it first. I realised this is how I write fiction - I start with a character and a ghost of a story and as the character coalesces in my mind, so the plot starts to form. This main character is clear as day to me, I can see her in black wool jacket, blue jeans, dark, short hair, blue eyes. She's standing in the doorway of the bookshop, bag wrapped around her purchase, waiting for the downpour to easy so she can head to the cafe. She's got the resilience of youth but the first lines of age and responsibility beginning to crease the skin around her eyes. I like her, but she wouldn't have much patience with me, not someone her mother's generation. Anyway, she's driving and living this story and I get to type it. She's eyeing up this older man, at the moment, I didn't expect that. I think her life is so routine, so tiring and public, that she craves a secret of her own, even if just a fantasy about a married man.

I'm playing with the prospectuses again. I have looked at Winchester but to be honest, this divide between writing led and story led fiction is starting to seem bigger than I thought. I know there are a few fantastic stories that do both, but I don't always choose them. I am a complete story junkie. I think that's what draws me to writing, all these tales running in my head all the time. Portsmouth seems slightly more story driven and the emphasis is on producing a book at the end rather than lots of literary reviews or poetry. I'll contact them and see where it goes.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Lost my motivation

Well, I'm struggling with my motivation at the moment. I have three drafts for short stories for TMA02, all well developed but not finished, but I can't help thinking they are stronger stories than elegant writing. I feel as if this uneasy balance between 'genre' and 'literary' is the elephant in the OU room. I was happy with the short story I wrote for TMA01 and it got good marks. Nothing I've written since is as reflective or unusual. The time lines are linear, the characters expressed in the third person form a single POV, the tension builds predictably, there are twists at the end. Nothing like the 'literary' short stories that I am reading. Given all the stresses and business of a crowded week, I suppose I'm doing all right, but I want my enthusiasm back. The TMA squashed that a bit (even though I did well). I just don't want to hand my baby over to be dissected, though the comments were extremely helpful. Perhaps I just need to get on and make the changes my tutor suggested and have a look at where that lands me. Meanwhile, I'm blue, playing with chapter 5 and working with my drafts. I just want to wallop out 1500 or 2000 words in a rush of first draft enthusiasm, not get stalled with 'Oh, what's the point, it's not good enough' fears. I might work on my poetry again just to get going.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

TMA01 back

I don't know whether to laugh or cry, but I have my first TMA back for A215. I did really well, by my usual standards, but there isn't a score that I can easily cope with, I have so much emotional baggage about writing. So I shall just have to be my own therapist, and let the year be all about improving my craft and developing my writing.

When I was a very unhappy schoolchild (most years I was miserable) my English teachers were very encouraging, and told me I could develop my writing. I didn't, because I was busy learning science, but I still wrote. I found I could write short stories and articles and sell them - though for fairly small sums of money. I couldn't see how I would ever make a living out of it, so I followed a more practical path. Submitting my work for criticism and rejection was heartbreaking, because I had only had one 'B' in five years of school. I saw the B as a failure.That may seem arrogant but in every other respect I was a failure. I didn't fit in with other children, my home life was chaotic and cramped, I couldn't do maths or french and was bored by most subjects, and my English books were reliable validation, full of A-, A or even A+. That B haunted me, because for that one homework, other people wrote better than me.

So, here I am, being marked out of 100 compared to a group of people, many of whom will be better that me. So my task now is to put the past aside and remember that I am working on the craft of writing (my own writing style, not necessarily the best literary style)), and the people who are doing better than me on my course, are a selected group of bright, creative people.

My tutor was very encouraging and liked the imagery in my description. She liked the short story, but made some suggestions. Once my wounded feelings are soothed, I'm sure I will be happier with her suggestions. She also wanted me to look at punctuation around speech, which would be useful anyway. I have a feeling that this first mark, no matter what it was, would be painful. This is an exercise in growing a thicker skin and letting go of the marks, instead, learning new skills and working on improving my work overall. And recalling that getting the diploma is the main aim from the marks, and the real benefit is my tutor's ideas and feedback.

So, slightly shattered by our Samhain celebrations and only slightly downcast (once the panic, crying and sobbing stopped - only joking) I am ready to take on the rest of the course with, really, a very satisfactory mark.