Thursday, 29 July 2010

Planning a book

I'm currently editing a novel, which is a completely thankless and dispiriting task. It makes you wish you hadn't written the bloody thing, or at least had written it loads better. All my books suffer from having no bones at all. In fact, any short story over 1000 or so words or one scene suffers from poor structure.  Consequently, my novels and longer fiction tend to have a very simple linear structure and have to be written in the past tense. So, trying again - and I have tried many times before. Analysing my own writing is painful, I have scenes that have powerful hooks... but fade away, scenes that introduce bags of conflict... that doesn't get resolved or, even worse, mentioned again. So, I've devised a simple table with the three strands of my novel and broken it into scenes. Using an aide memoir I made last year as a checklist of scenes, I'm now having a go at writing all the scenes. I don't want it to be too confusing, hopping back and forward too much in time, but the two linear threads wind their way parallelish.
How do people plan books, anyway? Does anybody have a good book/article on the subject?

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The book I've been trying to write

Many years ago, I started writing a book. It was about the dilemmas that face people when they have a terminally ill child. That sounds a bit painful but it happens to hundreds if not thousands of people a year and it isn't something that is discussed. When I was in that position, people tended to say I was doing a wonderful job, they wouldn't be able to cope blah blah. What they didn't want to hear was the days when I hated it, didn't cope, struggled from crisis to crisis with insufficient support. When other hollow-eyed, exhausted mothers got together we talked about the forbidden questions: whether we would ever shorten our child's life, whether we can put their comfort over their safety. When you are doling out morphine every day, sitting in waiting rooms for endless appointments, sitting up at night listening to a crying child whose pain isn't relieved, these questions go through your mind. I don't want to write a misery-lit true story, I want to write a novel. Inevitably my characters would have something in common with me but I want the characters to be fictional. I worked with a dying child through my work who would be a good starting point for the child, and the mother is a character I have developed for another story.
I wonder how other people who were in my own story will interpret me writing a story that parallels mine - would they assume the characters reflect how I see them? Would they be hurt or offended? This is a form of life writing, and I haven't quite worked out where the boundaries are. Is it OK to describe family and friends? At least the child and father (in my story) are dead, but other people are still around, especially my other children.
I also don't want to preach. I don't have an answer for these questions myself, and I have spent some time wrestling with them. In 1996 or 1997 I did an Open University course called K260, Death and Dying (still going and still brilliant). Questions came up. Is it OK to turn off a ventilator when someone is brain dead? How about if they are severely brain damaged? Or seriously injured and have left a living will? What about a two year old, who makes the decision then? Parents have the option to abort a severely disabled child before birth. They are often given the chance to limit medical treatment and even food and liquids to very disabled babies. But once you go home with a baby, even if more information comes to light, you are under observation and expected to prolong that child's life at all cost to your family and self.
I don't know what the answer is, I know it crossed my mind during Léonie's last months. I chose to let nature take its course, mostly because I was afraid of losing my children if I did anything to speed up the painful process of her death from a brain tumour. But people did wonder if, with all that morphine around... even one of the district nurses had her doubts. Fortunately my GP and the consultant eased Léonie's final days as much as possible and she had a dignified and peaceful last few days, on the whole. I don't quite know how to do it, but I want to write a story that leads the reader through the questions rather than provide the answers, because I think it's easier to consider these questions from the outside rather than in the middle of the crisis. I don't think my character will have a clear idea of what to do, either.
I'm writing a few sketches while planning (yes, not my normal approach!) an outline to work on. One thing I'm using from A363 is writing a proper outline, so I'm starting with a table following the three strands. One is the mother and child's story, one is the last eleven days of her life, and the third strand is the consequences of suspicion that she may have hastened or attempted to hasten her daughter's death. Now all I have to do is write 1000 words a day for three months... like I have nothing else to do...

Friday, 23 July 2010

A363 activities 6.1 and 6.2

Working through chapter 6 I'm in new territory. I don't like plays (or radio plays, in fact) because they seem too slow to me. Reading a book you can slow down the action, read it again if you need to sort something out in your head or savour the moment. So I don't know much about how plays are staged, but chapter 6 is making me think about things like sets and theatres.

I had to start by creating a scene where the character does very little dialogue, and the action is given in stage directions.

WOMAN is in office clothes, shrugs on coat. WOMAN walks through double doors of office building to the outside. WOMAN fumbles in pocket for matches and cigarette packet. WOMAN takes a few goes to light cigarette in wind. WOMAN smokes, blowing away from main doors. PHONE rings.

WOMAN:     Hello?

Anyway, you get the idea. So, we have to develop the first idea. Her story progresses. It's bad news, even though we only hear her few words. Then she stands stunned outside. A co-worker walks past, calling her name. Finally she opens the phone again and calls someone.
WOMAN:     Hi, Sam...It's about Dad... (CURTAIN)

Anyway, it's an interesting exercise because it makes you visualise very intensely the scene you want to create. This is when I write best, when I can see it or hear it. I wonder, is this just me? Am the only one who needs to have a film or a scene playing in my head for it to feel real? By the time I've worked on a short story, I could probably pick my characters out of a line up in the dark, from behind.

I'm working on a short story idea at the moment, about a character who is represented but isn't actually present. He's the centre of the story, but he's revealed through other people. (I used this for a character sketch ages ago). This time, his estranged daughter is coming to find out about him, and his death, and she is a fresh pair of eyes, with her own agenda (blame him, blame his friends). I'm also enjoying writing the story of an old woman who wants to conceal from the world that she needs help, in case she loses her independence. She's stuck at the bottom of her stairs at the moment, but about to start her survival challenge.  

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Working on material for the ECA for A363 and MA

I know no-one ever takes advice but if I had one piece for students it would be, think ahead, don't just react to the course as it goes along. Treat assignments as if they were commissions. Find out as soon as you can what's involved and start thinking, planning, researching. So when the assignment comes around and you go blank, at least you made some notes when your brain was halfway normal. A363 has an ECA, so does the MA in the form of the dissertation. I know I will have the option of writing a substantial piece of fiction or a critical essay for the MA, I know I will take the fiction option. I know in advance I will take the beginning of a novel option for A363 too. So, even this far back in the process I am looking at what I can start writing for these important assignments. Unlike A215, when building my confidence was important, A363 just needs a good pass for my sanity, I can live without the 90+ marks I was going for before. I just want to do well on the MA, I don't need a distinction. I mostly want to create a good advanced draft of a novel.I've decided to look in detail at the YA novel I started, work on that.

I'm feeling strangely homeless as we wait to hear if we've passed our checks, if we can go to Winchester and rent a house there. The process has been so difficult. I'm wondering what it will be like to set up a separate home, to walk into a university full of people the same age as my children, and face a cliff face of learning how to write, how to read differently. I've asked my daughter to stay a couple of extra days, to help me pack the right things to make the house good for the boys, for me.

Meanwhile, the writing has stalled, in the practical difficulties. So, today, I get back on with writing new stuff. I've set myself the task of writing some new words, even a first draft of a short story or poem, that's actually new rather than redrafted old stuff. My magpie rescue is declining gently, and I have to make the decision to put him down, soon. All part of moving to Winchester, I suppose. I am going back to basics, and writing a freewrite about the bird.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Getting old and A363

For the first time in my life (so far), I have genuinely been treated as if I were old. A few days before my fiftieth birthday, this is particularly annoying. I have had estate agents talking very slowly, explaining things every carefully and refusing to comprehend that I am about to attend a university (again). The fact that son no.2 is about to go to uni for the first time is part of the confusion. So I just had to send off every tiny detail of our combined lives and an explanatory letter. Yes I am fifty. Yes, I am doing an MA. No, I'm not leaving my husband. No, really. Yes, we are broke but we can afford this. With a lot of financial juggling - I even have savings in the bank. (Everyone in the world who knows me will find this difficult to believe! But that's how serious we are about doing this.) How do people normally fund an MA? I imagine most of us create a financial crisis but do it anyway.

I am looking at the drama in Chapter 6 of the A363 coursebook (with my stated aim of trying to break the back of the course before October - which is now looking less possible). I've just worked out I have 10 weeks before the MA starts. I have nailed a first draft of the first two assignments but really need to be working on the ECA and a 2,500 word short story. I'm starting to panic at the workload, and living in Winchester looks scary. I suppose I ought to be using the stress as raw material. I'm getting more and more insecure about being able to do the MA. This is daft, they had a portfolio of my work, they can see what I can/can't do. But I'm having nightmares about school and failing things. I suppose, even if I didn't pass it, I would still have improved no end and have learned lots. And both boys would have got through their courses.

I feel bad that no.1 son's life was derailed so completely by an accident which was none of his - or the driver's - fault. A young man overtook into a corner, and we were around that corner. But it was crushing for all of us, on some level. My husband nearly died. His only injury from the accident was a fracture of a bone in his foot. Immobilising it caused a blood clot that travelled to his lungs and almost killed him,. If he didn't have a chest like a bear's and blood vessels like hosepipes he would have done. Kez seemed fine. He'd had two bangs on the head and a cut on his eyebrow which has given him a rakish scar. But he was fighting  PTSD from the start and depression eventually followed. My most mellow child became a raging, angry, self-destructive danger to himself. Two years on, he is trying to go back to his life and at 90% back to normal and a pocket full of Prozac he's going to be the other adult on the lease. So we're taking a fair amount of baggage with us down to Winchester. Maybe there's a piece of fiction asking to be written. Maybe it's for A363.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Strange coincidences in fiction and real life

I hate books where there are unexplained coincidences. Films, too, where the hero just manages to turn up at the one moment the heroine needs him or whatever. But, in real life, coincidence plays a major part of our lives. One very strange one is the peculiar case of my uncle Bob. I grew up not knowing that my father had a first cousin. This isn't surprising, because Dad didn't know about his existence either. In fact, he didn't know his own father had another sibling. So, while I was wrestling with our family tree, my daughter and I were researching and stretching our understanding of living in the past. It is like an alien planet, the past, it's much harder to get your head around what life was like, or what people's perspective was like. I put an early draft up on the Internet, on, and a year later, got a baffled email from someone who had found parallels between his family tree and mine. His great-great grandfather and my great-great-grandfather appeared to have the same name. Some of the family names appeared the same, especially the distinctive 'Lucius Carey Nolan'. But he had never heard of my grandfather, or my dad. To cut a long story into usable bites, we met up at my house, and we were completely blown away. He is a short, jolly version of my dad. Mannerisms, nerdy passions, enthusiasms, features, phrases, even the way he says my name. My dad had a passion for Caenozoic shark teeth from a particular strata. Uncle Bob is an expert on Victorian salt-water aquaria and is an expert on rock pools. He phoned this evening, I thought it was my dad. He's coming to see us tomorrow.

Now, I love my dad. Uncle Bob is enthusiastically jolly - in fact, he's a bit bubbly. But I can't believe how alike two people are who never met, didn't even know about each other's existence. Their childhoods had a similar pattern, in many ways, they have taken similar paths. I wonder how plausible such a coincidence would be if I wrote it in a short story.

I met my closest friend on a day I had heard some terrible news. Her dog ate my toddler's ice cream and I told her, a stranger, my problems while she apologised. I met my partner in spooky circumstances - when people ask, '...but when did you know' I know I can't tell them the truth. (It was the morgue but who would believe that?) Maybe coincidences do work: maybe if they work in real life I can somehow make the meeting of two characters in a story magical and coincidental. Or at least not break the illusion like some books do. You're just starting to understand the characters, beginning to predict what they might think or do, then something happens at the very moment that the most drama can be squeezed out and you sit back and think 'Oh, yes, that would really happen.' Sarcastically. The spell is broken.

Monday, 12 July 2010

New laptop and life writing

I am a writer (that still makes me feel weird, typing those words!) and I have created a proper 'study' (come animal rescue centre come laundry room) and now, I own a real laptop. With daughters 1 and 2, we bought laptops when they went to university. This year, we bought son no. 2 one, because he is off to the University of Gloucestershire. Now it's my turn, birthday coming up, university place sorted, and so we stretched our paper-thin finances another four hundred pounds and bought a laptop. I remember the first short stories I submitted were on our old typewriter (I really mean old, it was antiquated even in 1978). Typing was physically hard work, and because I am not a touch typist, it was full of mistakes. All had to be tippexed out and retyped, and on the worst pages, lots of neatish biro additions and corrections applied. I kept carbon copies, a messy business of lining up a sheet of carbon paper between two sheets of A4 in the typewriter and then trying to hit the keys evenly (too hard and they went through the paper, too lightlyy and they didn't register on either copy). My daughter was born and ill a lot of the time, so I mostly wrote newsletter articles. I didn't get an electronic word processor until 1991 - it had floppy discs to save work on - fantastic. I picked up an old PC (pre-windows 3.1) in the early nineties and then, finally, to study my psychology degree, a 'real' PC in 1994. Now I have a laptop. Mind you, I'm used to XP and was a bit intimidated by Windows 7. Still, I mastered all the others so this should be a doddle!

My creative writing has slowed down a lot. It worries me, though some part of me needs a break. And the autumn is going to bring a lot more challenges and a huge workload, so I feel the need to get on and at least break the back of the A363 assignments. I have completed a first draft of TMA 1 and 2 and need to look at the next piece of work I could be doing. Part of me wants to have a play with the poetry option for TMA05, but I know from experience it just takes so long to 'knock out' one poem, let alone 80-100 lines of something. Also, that TMA is heavily weighted, so I really ought to stick to something manageable and that I know I do well. On the other hand, I'm only doing it for the diploma so just need a pass. If only I wasn't so competitive with myself...

One source of inspiration is the process I'm putting myself through. I looked at my partner the other day when he was doing one of the mundane things that a parent has to do, and thought how much I will miss him. He hadn't noticed I was watching (or even that I was there) and I had time to think about the strands that hold us together. We share so many threads - obviously the children and pets and the house. Woven into that are all his family and my family, his friends, our friends, my friends. But beyond that is the big strand of emotion that we have for each other. Most of the time, it's submerged into everyday life of sock baskets, peeling potatoes, shopping, parenting, work, moaning about the kids, moaning to the kids, paying bills. But when we go out for a meal we have time to look at each other and wow. There he is. The person I fell in love with. As I happily stretch some of those strands very thin - I need a break from being a full time mum, housekeeper, cook, animal nurse -  that 'love' strand is going to be stretched too. Lots of people have struggled to understand why we are doing this, and even suspected that we are literally breaking up. I wonder how that will feel emotionally. Fortunately we are both fairly resourceful emotionally - you have to be to have survived a lot of losses. And I'm only four hours by car away, I'm not heading to Italy or the US. But holding onto that experience might be stressful so I thought I could write a personal journal about it that can be a source for other writing. I have just read Blackwater Rising by Attica Locke. Apart from being a cracking good story she added a rational for the book in the last pages. The experiences she has included reflect her parent's lives as well as her own. At the same time, I just saw a brilliant TV programme on BBC4 called To Kill a Mockingbird at 50. It was by Andrew Smith and evoked memories of how I felt when I first encountered Nelle Harper Lee's story. So much of the character of Atticus Finch came from her own experience. So perhaps writing more of our own experiences is the raw material for fiction, even if it seems self-indulgent to me at the time.

Anyway, to meander slowly to a point, the life writing option of TMA 5 and maybe the ECA, is available, might be fulfilled by writing from diary material from this adventure back into education at a late age. Other people think it's extraordinary, maybe I can see if I can find an interesting way to write it.

PS If you haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird, read it now. Go out, pick up a copy, read it straight away. Then watch the 1961 film with Gregory Peck. Think of it as part of your emotional, social and spiritual education. Then spend the rest of your life working towards writing a book that is that poweful, that evocative and that popular. You may not get there (few have), but aim high.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

On the way to Winchester

We went down to Winchester to look at some potential rentals. The first one was a three bedroomed house - but wildly out of our sensible price range. But it's lovely and would have room for us - and the children when they come to visit - and friends and family for the day or more if they wish. Better than that, I can see myself up to the table with a laptop tapping away looking over the enormous garden... Lovely. Two problems... it's going to cost so much we will have to borrow from some new source of income (maybe even one of the kids!). The other is it's spotless, completely renovated by the owners over a year - they will grieve over every tiny mark and no house has people in it without the odd bump and scratch and tea stain. Light beige carpets...who puts those down once they have kids? But so, so lovely... and parking... did I mention the en-suite? We made them an offer and they are getting back to us on Monday. Since we haven't heard after the other people's viewing, I assume the news is less likely to be good!

Then we had a reality check and looked at the other choice - good location and very good price. The rooms were so tiny and mouldy and I can't imagine where you would put a wet coat or a row of books. How spoilt am I? Anyway, the third 'bedroom' isn't big enough to get a bed in, so thankfully, we can't have it! Meanwhile, I've been so stressed out I haven't written more than a few notes. This is getting in the way of my creativity - which is the point of the exercise.

I shall get back to work tomorrow and I do have a germ of an idea.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

A363 TMA 1 and reading about writing.

I'm trying to get on top of the coursework for A363, the Open University's advanced creative writing. I've researched the last two years assignments and they follow a simple pattern:

TMA01 - Short story (1500) and commentary (350) or in 2008, there was a life writing option. (15%)
TMA02 - Stage, radio or film adaptation of TMA01, with a running time of 15 minutes and 500 word commentary. (25%)
TMA03 - 1000 word critique of a piece of work someone else has posted to the tutor group forum (this is difficult if the forum is a quiet one, and I can't really get ahead on that one!) (10%)
TMA04 - a proposal for the ECA of 500-750 words, it's compulsory and can be for any form taught on the course BUT it doesn't count towards your course mark.
TMA05 - write 2,500 words of either a short story or life writing OR 80-100 lines of poetry and 750 words of commentary. (40%)
TMA06 - either 1000 words of fiction OR 30 lines of poetry (in the forms in A363, sestina, sonnet, pantoum or villanelle) OR 5 minutes of drama of a section of your ECA. (10%)
ECA - A short story or the start of a novel or life writing (4000) OR 30 minutes of one of the forms of drama suggested OR  140-160 lines of poetry in an associated sequence and a 1000 word commentary.

I don't really understand the weighting of the TMA's but still! It does mean I can do TMA's 1 and 5 now and maybe have a go at TMA02. I don't have to do poetry unless I really want to (80-100 lines is a lot to commit to!) and since short fiction and long fiction are my strong points I can avoid life writing and poetry if I want to. All this assuming they don't change dramatically next year, I can get on and write two good chunks of fiction now and maybe the screenplay, then start work on the ECA. I reckon I can put together a first draft, get feedback, incorporate my combined learning and then get a reasonable ECA in.

I realise some people think I'm barking mad but I have already committed to 180 points at masters level next year, so while the courses are complementary, if I don't want to be overwhelmed I need some TMA's in draft at least, or better still, a bunch of fiction pieces that I can work on during both courses. I managed not to overlap my last two courses by submitting the same piece to both, in any form, but lots of the pieces have subsequently been sent off to magazines and competitions. So that's the ideal, some starting points. I suspect the MA will spark loads of original ideas and masses of new writing, but it would be reassuring not to have to polish more new work for A363!  The reason I have overwhelmed myself with too much work in the first place is that the diploma in literature and creative writing is being withdrawn at the end of 2011 so if I want that, I need to pass A363. All my marks for A215 were between 83 and 93 but I can't guarantee the same next year.

I'm reading books on writing again. I'm presently working on the interesting (and slim!) volume written by a lecturer on my MA. It's called Writing Fiction: Creative and Critical Approaches by Amanda Boulter. It looks at the two processes involved in creating fiction: the mad, freewriting, throw-it-on-the-page process and the thoughtful, informed process of critically revising and constructing the work.It seems (so far) to be offering an argument that creativity can be inportant in both parts of the process. But by understanding the critical process as well as the creative one, writing can be improved.
She quotes Hemingway who said: 'I think you should learn about writing from everybody who has ever written that has anything to teach you.' Anyway, I'm onto chapter 1 for a bit of light reading!

Creatively, I have a new short story on the go and it's from an unusual point of view. I really should be writing it!