Saturday, 27 February 2010

TMA03 off and 44,000 words!

What a busy, and productive week! Having spent literally seven months studying poetry and working towards the TMA, in the end one poem was written a week ago and another one reworked from months ago. I'm hugely enjoying writing poetry but it's so time consuming! In the time it would take to write 20 poems to reasonable standard I could have got the first draft and probably the first rewrite of a whole novel. Scary amounts of work. I only had to hand in 40 lines, I started out with over 90 and they edited down to exactly 40 - so much thrown away. The freewrites they came from were even more, thousands of words, and I ended up with hundreds. A fiction rewrite is a bit of a trim, maybe a new style, re-working and re-phrasing, maybe a few cuts and a few new scenes. Poetry rewrites are shaving down to the skin. Maybe a small tattoo, but you know you'll remove that at the end. Just bare skin, naked, revealed. Maybe a scratch or too. Ouch.

I managed to put loads in the commentary because I learned loads. I actually understood why I did things, rather than fiction when you just sort of KNOW because you've read so much, written so many words. I must have written literally several millions of fiction words. And read many many times more.

However, things are changing. I have a pile of enjoyable but not-very-well-written books by the bed - and bad writing grates on my nerves. Poetry books also get read at night, although they are intense, you can't just run through them quickly, you have to savour them, read them out loud, maybe read them again. This course has changed me as a writer, and it certainly helped me kick off the shackles of doubt. If I spend an hour or two or three hours a day writing novel which NEVER get published, so be it. I'm enjoying it, and that's important. And writing more and reading better stuff is just improving my work.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Up to 40,430 words

Forty thousand words and coming on nicely. My problem has always been that I write short, intense books and this one is going that way too. On the plus side, I think it will get to seventy five thousand and I can probably rewrite to around that length. Short, but I'm not expecting to publish it. It will make a good screenplay.

The alternate project, on the other hand, is cruising along and only needs to be about 50-60k. I'm not specifically aiming to write a commercial genre novel but this is a good fantasy / young adult tale, with a good 'world' and room for sequels (important if you're going into YA novels). It was inspired by the facebook ramblings of my niece, who like so many kids, is unfocused and more involved with her friends than the bigger world outside. I've made a start, written the first seven thousand words, more as a speculation than anything. There are two first chapter(s) competitions coming up - one the prize is publication, the other is a weeks residential writing retreat with help. I can't resist entering although it has to be said, I have A215's TMA03 to hand in and it's not quite finished. If I have an hour I can work on it, but Chancel Hall comes first after the assignments.

I have had loads of help from my OCA tutor on a short story I handed in - bags of positive feedback as well but loads of criticism of the structure. Very helpful.

I am presently writing four - six hours a day and about 2-3000 words. Bit manic, but I don't want to stop. Once I'm in a writing habit I do get on with it, and the quality, for first draft, is getting better because I'm doing it more. They say the best way to get better at writing is - write! So I am...

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Up to 32,000 and Emma and Lily are becoming cousins

The book is coming on gently. I'm up early to make sure I meet my word deadline as we have family staying. I'm waking up having dreamed of plot points and characters. I'm very conscious of the connections between the two characters and my own life, and the importance of keeping that light rather than being crushed by it. Lily and I have both lost a child, and I need to walk parallel to her rather than dip too much into my own feelings. Lily is different to me. While I don't think any of the characters are autobiographical, I empathise with them all and of course, they all came out of my head. But they are constantly surprising me. Last year I read two books side by side, Stephen King's 'On Writing' and 'Plot and Structure' by James Scott Bell. While I found both useful, the King book is the way I write. I come up with a vague idea and a strong character evolves, then I sit down to write to see where it goes. So my first drafts are inconsistent, as my characters grow and change, and I find out stuff about them. I enjoyed the Bell book enormously, but it was better at highlighting what was wrong with 'Silent Obsession' (previous novel) rather than helping me fix it. So, I just need to keep plugging away. Having read the Bell book, though, I'm more aware of structure as I go though. I do have a three act story, well, stories really, interlaced. But I'm still enjoying the process! New sample, from Chapter 6, for anyone who's interested.

Emma sat back, looking up, squinting into the May sunshine. She looked younger against the soft greens of the field and the cornflower blue sky, with a man’s shirt over old trousers. ‘Nearly finished.’ Lily smiled at the economy of Emma’s communications, and as she turned to go around to the porch, she was surprised by a spontaneous comment. ‘I got your letter.’
Lily stopped. ‘I hoped you did. What did you think?’
‘Can you find out more about the Chancels? I mean, going back? The internet and all that.’
‘I can. I think so, anyway.’
‘I got a load of old pictures, medals, that kind of thing. I’ll finish the garden and I’ll come in and show you.’
‘Thank you.’ Lily smiled, turning to look over the field, the lambs half the size of their mothers now. Her belly was bigger now, pushing her centre of gravity forward, forcing her into flat shoes and stretchy fabrics. Two months and she would have to confront the stranger who had hitched a lift. The pregnancy seemed alien at home, the house packed up to sell it, half their stuff in storage. It all seemed part of the change from the bloodstained past to the unknown, exotic future.
The room was more familiar than the echoing, impersonal shell of the house in Kent. The mantelpiece of the iron fireplace had an ornate picture frame on, a severe looking older woman with an impossibly tiny waist seated with a child leaning against her. She didn’t remember seeing it before, and picked it up to examine it more closely. The child had a mass of light sepia curls, probably the same tawny colour as her own, and the eyes were arresting, vivid, light eyes, staring straight at Lily. She would recognise those eyes anywhere, they were Grace’s eyes, the same arrogance, confidence in her own worth. She was more heavily built, the jaw had the strong squareness that Emma had, but the eyes sent shivers down her back, even in the bright warmth of the tall windows.
She turned at Emma’s footfall. ‘Who is this?’
‘I thought you might like to have that. My mother said that was Sukie Delaney, Marcus Delaney’s youngest child. My great grandfather’s daughter.’
Lily stroked the cold glass of the frame. ‘And my great grandfather’s sister.’ She put it back, leaning over her bags. ‘Look.’ Packed, as usual, on top of her clothes was the photograph album she took everywhere. ‘This was my daughter Grace. My daughter who died.’
Emma took the album reluctantly, touching it her fingertips. She bent over to examine it more closely. ‘The eyes, they’s the same.’
Lily sat heavily on the bed, smiling. ‘I was surprised. I mean, you expect your children to look like your parents, maybe, but not distant ancestors, that’s a bit – strange.’
Emma put the album down carefully as if she would break it. ‘Come with me.’
She led the way to the stairs at the end of the landing, tighter turns, narrower, probably servant’s stairs, thought Lily. Bypassing the first landing, she trod carefully up uncarpeted steps. She pushed open the farthest door, and Lily followed her in, overwhelmed.
The room had two small dormer windows, painted shut, one showing drip marks where the glass was cracked across the corner. The plaster was crumbling on the low walls, the horsehair struggling to keep it together. The bare boards smelled of mildewed carpet and the bare pine planks, but it was the stacked up furniture that caught Lily’s attention. Emma had clearly pulled out one chest earlier, dark marks in the carpet of dust. She opened the top drawer and pulled out an album, a second, a wooden box, more albums, old packets of photographs. Another drawer yielded more books, some newish, some leather bound. ‘Here, you carry the small ones.’ Emma pulled some albums into her waiting arms, and balanced the rest on the box, hefting it with a little effort. ‘You be careful on them stairs.’
‘Where are we going?’ Lily carefully manoeuvred down the plain stairs and onto the first landing.
‘Door on the left will do.’
Lily freed a hand from the albums and slowly turned the tarnished door knob, cold and oval in her hand. The room was a sitting room, not big, the windows less dramatic than Lily’s, and the ceiling much lower, but it was a lovely room. The wallpaper was old, originally probably blue and white flowers, but fading and yellowing, mellowing into a pastel blur. One wall was almost taken up with a vast desk, probably oak, Lily thought, with a brass telescope overlooking the sea.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

At the 30,000 word mark and still no poetry

OK, now I'm really having fun. My characters are much clearer now - and the Emma I wrote in the first two chapters is going to have to be substantially rewritten at the editing stage but she's really unfurling now. I'm enjoying the genealogy bit as well, though I now have a huge family tree open on the desk and have to keep adding dates and names to it. I'm working to 1000 words a day first draft or 600 words rewrite, but in reality I'm nailing 2000 words of first draft a day. My husband has already commissioned the screenplay and cast the major roles. Colin Firth is my first choice for any role, of course, including Emma. If he wants to dive into a pond at any point that would also be possible.

Meanwhile, the poetry is coming in fits and starts. I'm frozen with indecision at the final editing phase. I don't have problems getting good initial material, nor now forming reasonable poems but pruning it is still a challenge. Who knows if I've cut out the only interesting bits? I'm drawn to Sharon Olds poetry, but my tutor wants very sparse stuff. I love Douglas Dunn's Elegy, Kathy France, loads of new people. My husband treated me to the anthology of women poets by Bloodaxe - wow! I feel a bit like a small child with a crayon at this point. I feel like a fraud, in fact. I've been studying this for six months now, which I realise is ludicrously too short a time to develop a whole new art form! I think I'm going to have to let go of any preconceptions, write three poems all a bit different, and hope for the best.

I'm a novelist, really, long fiction is my thing! Maybe the odd short story... People think you're being so pretentious when you write novels but haven't had any published. You know it's just you (and maybe the odd doting relative or lover or child), who has any faith in the protracted process. But the only way to get published is to write a finished, polished book, so I just have to keep them coming. On the plus side, they are getting better paced (always a problem, if I have a dull day the book suffers). I have a good solid beginning, reasonable ending and vague map of how to get from one to the other (at least for the principals). This is progress!

Monday, 15 February 2010

27,000 words plus and still poetry!

Well, it's still growing, and Emma is becoming clearer (she's the woman who runs the B&B). Emma's intense connection with her identical twin has left her aware of atmospheres, shadows, all the ghosts of her family home. In a way, the man who she is starting to see as a friend is fitting into her world of the past as she starts to go into his world.

On the poetry front, I have been playing around with the two freewrites I did on the day school, which I will put up once I have had them marked. One was so intensely personal, painful, the days and weeks we spent on a children's ward waiting for Leonie to be diagnosed/treated. I think the poetry is creeping into the fiction, which is very satisfying. It's starting to read better, even in its primitive first draft. What has become clear to me is the energy in Emma, what happens when she not in front of the guests, folded in on herself, just performing the basic tasks, the cooking etc. I'm liking her more and more!

While I'm playing with book 1 I'm plotting book 2. I don't plot - but this is a more complex book aimed at young adults so I need more research, especially into the minds of teenagers for the background. I don't want it to date too much, so I'm looking for the right language. I've been picking the brains of my 15 year old niece (thanks, Ash!) and will continue to do so. I must admit, she's kind of influenced the heroine a bit! Gradually, I'm picking up threads that will form the book.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Twenty thousand, five hundred words and counting

The book is flowing well and the odd character of Emma is being stretched like an elastic band. I have to go back and read chapters one and two, because Lily and Emma have developed and I need to make sure they are still consistent. But this is only first draft so it's still all about the pacing and the story.

I can't draft something from a plan, the characters kind of write the story and then I loop back to the beginning and rewrite from the end, as if I were looking back, to make sure I set up the later chapters with the right foundations. Poetry wise, I have started looking at a series of autobiographical poems about the impact of losing a child for TMA 04. Hopefully the feedback from TMA03 will help, but I'm not expecting high marks. Just thinking about Leonie is hard, it's easier to write poetry about her than prose. She died so long ago, but it stays with you, like a scar. It's that scar I want to write about, how your life grows around this grief until you make it into something else. The novel is about losing a child, too, and about coming back from that long winter, and I think that's probably therapeutic anyway. It's sparking ideas for the life writing, anyway.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

16,000 words and counting

The book is growing day by day. I've set myself the target of at least 1000 words a day and so far I've exceeded that each day. I need a sharp target because I have a low attention span (see how quickly I put the poetry down!) and my back, quite frankly, isn't up to long times at the computer. back to the life writing in the BRB and to the poetry, I'm just hoping my back stands up to the day school on Saturday.

I've worked out, poetry wise I can now generate useful phrases (well, I could do that before!). Now I can pick the good ones out from the other ones (trying not to call them crap, here) and can arrange them in some sort of order. I can get a sort of easy read rhythm out of them. Then my efforts to edit sort of fall apart. I don't know if the new edit is any better than any of the other drafts. I suspect I have to read more poetry, to use existing poems to see if I can hone my ear, which is the problem. I hate reading poems out loud!

Life writing is going to be hard. In fact, I think I may be better generating poetry for life writing, it might be easier than trying to write prose. As a scientist I can't let go of what is true and what is constructed but ultimately fictional. I think that sticks me with autobio which seems so self indulgent. Who wants to know about my life, for goodness sake? This is one of the problems I have with poetry! Who needs to listen to my rambles? The BRB isn't really helping much, and it's all new so I'm crawling through it and not retaining much. This may be the marks low point for this course.

The book is charging along. Lily has come back to Devon a couple of times, this time finding her strength in being single, of not having to carry James. We find out what's been happening to James in this chapter (4). James hasn't been having an easy time of it, and it's the first anniversary of Grace's death so he has that to deal with too, as well as his foundering relationship with mistress Leanne. Emma has found she doesn't want to lose regular customer Thurston, now that he's house hunting in the area. He makes her feel ... something. Emma's not used to feeling anything outside of the family. All interesting stuff!

Sunday, 7 February 2010

9635 words and counting

Well, the book is growing in jumps and chunks. I want to know what happens to the lead character, who I have a feeling will have to be entirely rewritten from her POV. She's lovely, warm and quirky and emotional, and I think seeing her is more fun than knowing what's going on under the surface. But over time, it might be nice to see things from Lily's POV more. The geeky character is already warming up, even though he's distant and cool, and the landlady is coming into view through all the interactions with other characters, and gossip from the locals. It's all set in Ilfracombe - how did that happen? The house is much bigger and grander than ours so that's OK. Here's a sample:

A wooden sign had been painted grey, and in black curly writing, the words ‘Chancel Hall’ had been inscribed. From the late October afternoon, the house loomed over the road on a high terrace, its stone matching that of the retaining wall. The drive was badly worn tarmac, opening onto a gravelled area in front of the house itself.
‘It looks like a Victorian asylum or something.’ Lily was out of breath from the steep drive, but stood staring as the late sun reddened the blank windows on three floors. ‘It’s like something out of a book.’
‘Well, they called it quirky.’ the front door was behind an imposing porch, also built of stone. Three pairs of wellies were ranged along one side of the porch, the other was stacked waist high with cut logs. The whole lot was misted with spiders’ webs.
There was no doorbell. James put down the bags and rapped on the wooden door, then on the small glazed windows at the top of the door. Finally, Lily noticed a bell pull.
‘Christ, it’s hardly welcoming, is it?’ Just as James spoke the word welcoming, the door opened.
The woman who stood there was weather-beaten, without makeup, her hair wiry, escaping from a loose bun. ‘We didn’t expect you until later.’ Although her voice was matter of fact, James felt he ought to apologise.
She took one of the bags from the porch and hefted it into the hallway, dimly visible behind her. ‘Come in, out of the cold. I’ll put the kettle on, if you like.’
‘Her voice was neutral, but Lily was more enthusiastic. ‘That would be lovely, we’ve been driving for ages…’ Then she looked around and her voice died.
The hall was tall, the ceiling probably twelve feet over their heads, the area behind the door filled with coats, an umbrella stand, hat stand covered with hats, all dusty. The door to a dining room had drawn Lily as if by magnetism, ignoring the dark browns and greens of the hall to walk towards door that led onto a grey sky. And the sea, crashing on the rocks below the cliff on which the house stood.
‘Oh, wow.’ Lily stopped in the doorway. ‘Can I go in?’
‘If you like. It’s the dining room.’ The woman wasn’t unencouraging, but James felt awkward following Lily into the room and straight to the bay window.
The illusion that the house was balanced along the edge of the cliff faded as he realised a strip of fairly level garden led onto a slope covered with short grass and gorse, dotted with stoic sheep. The sea was huge, dark grey in the fading light, textured like tweed, flecks of hundreds of feet below rising and falling as far away as Wales, in the distance.
‘I’ll take you up to your room, now.’ The woman was back, her feet in old slippers, her floral overall faded but clean. The house smelled nothing like James and Lily’s modern four bedroom eighties house, close to the motorway for work, close to schools… It smelled like old pipe tobacco and pure wool blankets and bonfires. James realised, as his eyes adjusted to the dim light in the hall, that what he had thought were pictures were mostly stuffed and mounted animal heads from some historical safari. A display of British finches, under a large glass dome, sat on the huge hall table, the feathers faded to beiges and greys.
Picking up the bigger of the two cases, he followed her up to the room, along broad wooden stairs with a patterned runner.
‘This is your room. I’m Emma Chancel. If you wants me, ring the bell in your room. I’m mostly around. That’s your bathroom, there. I’ll get the tea, then.’

This is first draft, just the starting point. I write without much editorial interference for the first draft. I'm lean ring to re-write the big stuff, the structure and the plot, then put my critical hat on and faff about wit the actual words.

Getting back into genealogy has made me think about the BRB's section on lifewriting, which I am trawling through. I'm writing masses of material for poetry for the TMA, which is 40 lines of poetry, but until the day school I can't really get stuck in. It's all good at the moment, I'm working consistently and somehow getting it all done. Of course, I'm not getting anything else done, and the kids are toiling over the path and husband is doing the garden, leaving me huddled over the PC with a sore neck... frightened I'll put my back out and won't be able to write at all. But the story demands to be written...

Feedback welcome!

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Novelling again!

It's a new year so I have to start a new novel. I hesitated mostly because I thought doing A215 was enough with the OCA course, but I've realised that the more I write, the more I can write, so I've pledged myself to write 1000 words a day for 100 days and put a first draft together (even if I have to get up in the night to do it). Interestingly, I have a beginning, middle and an end, for a change, up front. I've noticed a difference already in my writing, my first drafts are better, and I'm more confident doing massive edits, sweeping the story around, sorting it out.

My story is set in a bed and breakfast establishment, run by the last of a family living in an old house (a bit like our house), trying to make a living. The owner of the house is slowly revealed by the people who stay there, whose stories wind through the book. That's the present story anyway, but knowing how much the last one changed it may not be anything like the final draft!

I've also been wrestling with whether to do an MA. I know someone who did one, and frankly, although her work is polished and cleverly written, I couldn't imagine it going further. So I found an old copy of her MA groups anthology, which is wonderful, very varied. Even her piece in it is rich and warm and full of promise. I would like to end up writing at that standard, which, objectively I know is better than mine but not unreachably so. I want to push my writing, not because I must be published, but because I want to take it as far as it will go. Ultimately, an MA will help me teach - I enjoy building people's confidence and skills almost as much as I enjoy honing mine.

One thing I have realised in the last few weeks. It's impossible to have a written voice amongst the noisy voices of my children. Taking time away from them has been incredibly helpful. Going away for a few months would let me concentrate. It's not as if they need me to listen to them 24/7, just that their words become a blanket of sound over my head. With kids away at college and university and work, I can start to find the silence I need to work.

Oh, and we bought a new printer, and a lovely hifi for the study! Investing in the time I spend in there, in the work that I do. I feel like a grown up writer now.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Creative spell

I'm in the middle of a good spell, and slightly worried it will dry up! I'm working on a poem at the moment that's about getting my Mslexia magazine, and reading it in the garden, using notes from one of the two warm days we had last year. I've written several short stories, including one for an assignment. I also wrote a poem from a tutorial that came up with some good ideas.

Four hundred children were sacrificed in the mountains of the Andes

Ghosts visit
tap tap the silence
each breath crushing
her chest, utter dark
sounds trailing
and fading, ears
following every heartbeat.

No-one comes.

Dawn greys the condors,
crows breath mists
child remains, licking off the tears.

This isn't the way I normally write so I was surprised to find a poem emerging. It has encouraged me to use language more freely.

The short stories are evolving too, I've found I can stretch words into different shapes but, bloody hell, how many drafts does it take? Poems take more time than short stories with thirty times as many words.

Today, I felt I couldn't concentrate on any one thing so I spent a day focusing on starting points, just being creative and putting a few plots/poem ideas down on paper. I feel like I've got a few good ideas to develop for competitions.

I entered the debut dagger competition with the novel I've been working on. It's quite expensive, but I felt I could do with another go round even if I'm just recycling material that needs a new angle. So, I started the story in a better place and revamped the material. Giving the synopsis a new ending has really helped. I've now put a long list of comps on the whiteboard and am trying a few. I'm aiming for one a week. I've already written a ghost story for writing magazine for March and I'm working on a 200 word poem for Ambit (how do you write a 200 word poem!).

Long may this productive streak continue!