Links round up

This great interview with Joan Didion:

“Writing fiction is for me a fraught business, an occasion of daily dread for at least the first half of the novel, and sometimes all the way through. The work process is totally different from writing nonfiction. You have to sit down every day and make it up. You have no notes—or sometimes you do, I made extensive notes for A Book of Common Prayer—but the notes give you only the background, not the novel itself. In nonfiction the notes give you the piece. Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.”

Open Culture has a handy summary of Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writers, extrapolated from his book On Writing:

“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”

I like the Guardian’s series of ‘Interviews with a Bookstore’: this one is with the smallest bookshop in Boston:

“If you had infinite space what would you add?

Kate: I hesitate to say more books – because I’m awfully overwhelmed with the knowledge that I’ll never be able to read all the books currently in my store and I’m aware that there are many things that I haven’t discovered. So if you really mean infinite I would want to add an outdoor garden with lots of reading nooks, a rooftop bar with a space observatory, tumbleweeds, a small stage with blue velvet curtains for live events, a recording studio to produce and podcast our events, oh and some more practical things that I don’t currently have would be nice, like office space, a receiving area, and a dog.”

The illustrator Michael Foreman on his notebooks.

Niamh Garvey has a perceptive piece about writing through rejection here.

A nice piece on why starting small works so well. Chimes with Meaghan Delahunt’s words here on writing ‘draftlets’ out of which a novel might grow.

And finally, submissions close on 1st June for Gladstone’s Library’s Writer in Residence programme – details here.

Interview Series #6: Ron Butlin

PHOTO - RON BUTLIN (1)

With an international reputation as a prize-winning novelist, Ron Butlin is a former Edinburgh Poet-Laureate. I think the first time I met him would be nearly 20 years ago now – I was Editor of Edinburgh Review and Ron had walked across the Meadows from his nearby flat to hand deliver a manuscript.

His work has been translated into over a dozen languages. His most recent novel, Ghost Moon, was nominated for the prestigious international IMPAC Award 2016. In addition to the novel At the Rich Man’s Table, next year will see the publication of FranDan and Steve (novella) and Troll Day! (verse for children). You can find out more about Ron on his website here.

This is the sixth interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with the beginner writers I work with:

[Sophy] When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?

[Ron] I started as a teenager. Advice: read as much as you can and keep writing. Also, trust your imagination.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

Stop worrying (not so easy), but also stop thinking. Thinking is over-rated. In fact, at the early stages of working on a creative piece it can be a real stumbling block. Just write . . . anything. Don’t think. Let it take you wherever. Even if you’re just describing the room you’re in, or the weather or anything. But try to avoid writing your thoughts and feelings at this stage. And don’t criticise yourself too soon. Trying to be creative while at the same time criticising every word you write as you write it, is like trying to drive with the brakes on. You’ll get nowhere. As I say,trust your imagination. Thinking can come later.

If you have another language, you could try translating some poems or stories. This can kick start you as well.

Do you write every day?

Yes. Every morning. If really pressed for time I make time – even if it’s just a few minutes to glance at what I’m working on. Keeps me in touch and keeps my imagination accessible.

Do you have any rituals around your writing practice? Do you prefer to write in a particular place or at a particular time of day?

I still write longhand, even novels. This allows me to sit in armchair with an A4 pad on my knee and to write outdoors (in the garden or wherever), weather permitting.

Have you ever kept a journal?

No.

Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?

No. I write to explore, to discover. I am as excited to sit down to work every morning as when I started to write all those years ago as a teenager. The same challenge and the same fun!

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Seaside Writing Workshop: Unlock Your Creativity

Come and spend a day writing by the sea in pretty North Berwick – more info here.

Interview Series #5 Alison Miller

Alison Miller

Orcadian novelist Alison Miller is published by Penguin. I first met her back when her novel Demo came out, when she was based in Glasgow, but these days she’s back in beautiful Orkney (and her photos of big skies and glorious sunsets are guaranteed to cheer me up as I scroll through my Facebook feed…). She is taking part at the moment in a ‘Between Islands’ writing commission, which also features Kevin MacNeil (representing the Western Isles) and Roseanne Watt (for Shetland) – you can find details of a workshop she and Kevin are running on Lewis in June here.

This is the fifth interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with the beginner writers I work with:

When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?

To keep at it, keep going, get into a habit of writing regularly. Finish things and move on. I think it’s easy, if you have a certain kind of personality or background to become discouraged, to think you’re no good, that you’re a fraud. When I look back at rejections I had when I started out – not many, because I rarely sent anything out to publications – I can see now that they were actually quite encouraging. At the time I thought, Oh well, I don’t really believe I’m any good, and here’s the proof.

I came across this video from the Atlantic recently – Ta-Nehisi Coates talking about writing:

http://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/280025/advice-on-writing-from-i-the-atlantic-i-s-ta-nehisi-coates/

I found it very persuasive. Perseverance, he says is vital. That I had heard before and agree with. But when he spoke about writing being hugely about failure, about never being able to realise 100% what is in your imagination, but about going back over it and back over it until you make it first of all ‘OK’ then ‘acceptable’, that struck a real chord. If, like me, especially when I was younger, you are afflicted with the kind of perfectionism that works as a deterrent to writing, rather than a spur, realising it’s ‘about failure’ could be really liberating.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

The short answer is Yes and the only thing that helps is writing. A longer answer might look at life stages and events and see in them reasons for fallow periods. For instance, I’ve recently moved back to Orkney, where I was born, into a house we built – or had built – beside the sea. My dream! The perfect place to write. But instead I’ve found it very hard to get into a routine with writing, or even reading. Too much on my mind – coming to terms with family stuff, trying to create a garden out of a field of dochans, getting to grips with the changes in an Orkney that hasn’t stood still while I’ve been away, feeling I have to negotiate a space in the writing community, realising how important it is to me that I should find my place in Orkney.

Of course, these can all be construed as excuses! When I think like that, the image of Stephen King sitting in a cramped space with a board over his knees springs into my head and I tell myself to get on with it! The other thing I’ve realised is that I do keep writing, but that I maybe don’t yet know the best form in which to say what I want to say.

Do you write every day?

No. Though I do believe that is what we have to do if we want to overcome all I’ve described above. I find I have to sneak up on my writing, take it by surprise. I aspire to becoming like George Mackay Brown who, after breakfast every morning, put the marmalade away, swept the crumbs from the table, sat down with a biro and pad and wrote till noon. I’d like to develop that habit…

Do you have any rituals around your writing practice? Do you prefer to write in a particular place or at a particular time of day?

Despite having a desk beside a big window looking out on the sea and the islands, I prefer hiding away in a corner. One downside of having a big window is that you are very visible. Another is that there are many distractions. And though my dream was always to be able to raise my eyes from my writing and let them rest on a view such as I now have, the truth is I find I get on better facing a blank wall. Plus there are such big skies in Orkney in the summer and so much light, that my eyes get sore looking at a screen for too long. I have in the past had to resort to a fedora and sunglasses to cut the glare and allow me to keep writing.

Have you ever kept a journal?

I have kept a journal, though annoyingly I find that at times of real stress or big events, I don’t write in it at all. And so what it tends to record is the dailiness of life at times when it’s fairly settled. That and a general existential angst. I don’t go back and read them unless I’m looking for a particular thing, but if I did I’m sure I’d find them utterly boring and tedious – and excruciatingly embarrassing.

Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?

The only book I ever outlined, I had no inclination to write. Once I knew the story there didn’t seem much point. I have to write as if I’m reading the material myself for the first time, discovering it as I go along. It’s quite a mysterious process. Sometimes it’s just an image that comes to you and you somehow know it’s key to the mood and tone of the piece, though you couldn’t articulate why until much later, if ever.

I was interested, though, to hear some of the writers on the BBC’s World Book Club talk about this. Two crime writers, Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo, both Scandinavian, said that if a writer tells you they don’t know the ending of their book until they’ve written it, they’re lying. Then along comes Per Petterson, Norwegian like Nesbo, and says that very thing. And when he describes his process, I recognise it very strongly. It’s worth a listen:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02042qc

Clearly they are talking about very different kinds of books and maybe crime writers are more likely to know exactly what happens in their stories, as they’re more plot-driven. It has its limitations though. For instance, I find I often guess the ending before I reach it in a crime novel and I think that’s because the writer knows and somehow communicates it without realising. But I also think it’s a function of personality: some folk like to know exactly where they are going and what they are going to do; others prefer to wander and see what comes up. I’m definitely in the latter camp. Its main disadvantage is that I start writing many things, but finish relatively few…

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Seaside Writing Workshop: Unlock Your Creativity

Come and spend a day writing by the sea in pretty North Berwick – more info here.

Interview series #4: Zoe Venditozzi

Zoe Venditozzi Pic

Zoe Venditozzi is a novelist based in Fife. She’s also a qualified teacher and is currently working as a palliative care writer in residence. Her novel Anywhere’s Better Than Here was the public vote winner of Not The Booker and she is a former Scottish Book Trust Reader in Residence. We first met several years ago when I mentored her via the Scottish Book Trust’s mentoring scheme. You can follow Zoe on Facebook here and on twitter @zoevenditozzi.

(photo by Bob McDevitt)

This is the fourth interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with the beginner writers I work with:

[Sophy]: When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?

[Zoe]: Hmmm… I think the best advice (which I still need to take, frankly) is to just write. I spent (spend?) far too long worrying about it and comparing my writing to other people’s. It sounds really obvious, but if you don’t actually write anything, you can’t improve it and become something close to the kind of writer you aspire to be.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

I’m not sure that I fully believe in writer’s block. Or rather, I fully believe that you can be sitting for a long, long time waiting for inspiration to strike to no avail. It’s probably better to try and write something – anything – with the hope/desire/compulsion that at some point the right words will arrive.

Do you write every day?

No. Hilary Mantel wrote that people are always asking her if she writes every day. She said she feels like saying, “Of course I write every day, what do you think I am, some kind of hobbyist?” which made me feel slightly sheepish.

Unfortunately, I don’t write every day, because paid work and my children and having coffee and doing the washing and reading books and being on Facebook all keep getting in the way.

However, Mantel went on to say, “I understand the question is really about the central mystery – what is inspiration? Eternal vigilance, in my opinion. Being on the watch for your material, day or night, asleep or awake” and I definitely agree with that.

I’m always thinking and reading and talking and taking it all in, hoping that it plays into my writing store so that when I do have more time, that it’s there, in my mind, ready to get to work.

Do you have any rituals around your writing practice? Do you prefer to write in a particular place or at a particular time of day?

I prefer to write out of the house otherwise I find excuses not to write. I like to have a coffee (because it make me feel like a “real” writer). I listen to particular music that helps me to get in to the right mood or headspace. For example, I listened to Mogwai’s soundtrack for Les Revenants for my last novel and I’ll be listening to a lot of Chopin for the next thing I’m doing. I spend a fair bit of time daydreaming and procrastinating first and then I write quite quickly and in quite a determined manner.

Have you ever kept a journal?

I’ve tried to, but what’s the point? I can hear all that in my head all the time.

Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?

Not really, which is probably quite apparent from my lack of plotting. I’m much more interested in characters rather than actions, so I spend time thinking of who the characters are and what they would do next. I quite like a doodled flow chart and sometimes while I’m writing I’ll do a very poor timeline. However, I suspect that’s just a part of the panoply of distraction techniques that my brain is constantly throwing at me.

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This is an opportunity to kick-start your writing with one-to-one support from an experienced mentor. For your chance to win, you just need to sign up to receive my monthly Inspiration Letters here.

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Seaside Writing Workshop: Unlock Your Creativity

Come and spend a day writing by the sea in pretty North Berwick – more info here.

 

Interview Series #3: Meaghan Delahunt

meaghan-delahunt-1

Meaghan Delahunt is a novelist and short story writer. Born in Melbourne, she has lived for many years in Edinburgh. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Stirling and is also a qualified yoga teacher. I was trying to work out when we first met and think it must have been around 15 years ago, when she won a Saltire First Book Award for her first novel, In The Blue House, which is centred on the extraordinary true life story of Frida Kahlo’s friendship with Leon Trotsky. Meaghan’s most recent book is Greta Garbo’s Feet & Other Stories – see here for details, or her own website here.

This is the third interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with the beginner writers I work with:

Sophy: When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?

Meaghan: When I first started writing creatively, I was a small child. Later, in my twenties, I started writing ‘with intent’.  There were no courses or university degrees, and even if there were, I wouldn’t have wanted to do them.  I just read and wrote and read and re-wrote. Lived and tried to pay attention to living.  I still think this is the only way, fundamentally, that you become a writer. The advice that would have been most helpful to me, if there had been someone to give me advice would have been this:  Persevere, learn to become resilient, try to learn and be positive in the face of set-backs. Often your ‘failures’ are the springboard for something new.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

I’m a little suspicious of  ‘writer’s block.’ It always seems so melodramatic and Hollywood and far too neat a term for something much more complex.  It seems to me that ‘writer’s block’ takes different forms depending on the writer. Mostly, I think it is depression, fear and anxiety in the face of writing.  A blank page will easily conjure up all of these feelings, at some point. Often in the middle of a long piece of work you wonder if you will ever make your way out, you feel overwhelmed. Or at the beginning. Or at the end of a long piece of work, you wonder if you will have the energy and stamina for another one. You feel emptied out.  You need to feel these things, and let them go.  For me, knowing that these states of mind are ‘normal’ and that they also pass is helpful. Yoga and meditation have always been helpful to me in this regard,  in coming to know the rhythms of my own mind.  Acknowledging and making peace with ‘negative’ states of mind is the most helpful thing.  Even writing down how you are feeling on  a piece of paper and throwing this away before you start writing can be helpful. And trusting that these states are transient and that you will find your way back, towards, into the work, in your own time.

Do you write every day?

I write something most days in my journal. When I’m working on a story or a novel I would definitely write most days. When you are in the flow of something, it’s delicious, you don’t want to be anywhere else!  But when I’m between projects, or lying fallow at the end of a long project, I give myself permission not to write. I know then that I need to read and rest and do other things.

Do you have any rituals around your writing practice? Do you prefer to write in a particular place or at a particular time of day?

I have so many rituals, it’s ridiculous.   I must have two cups of tea in order to even kick-start the process. I have to meditate and do yoga.  I have to light incense.  I have to wear an ear plug in my good right ear ( I’ve had complete nerve deafness in my left ear since childhood)  so that the only thing I can hear is my thoughts. I like to face a blank wall.  No matter how early I get up, and unless I am really in the flow of something, by the time I get all this done it always seems to be either 11am or 4pm in the afternoon. It’s a mystery.  I seem to work best late morning and then late afternoon or evening.  I tend to create first drafts  at my desk, or on trains, planes or buses.  But then I like to edit in cafes and other places to give me a different perspective on what I’ve done. Fortunately, apart from the blank wall, my rituals can be performed anywhere.

Have you ever kept a journal?

I kept a little exercise book as a child. My mother found this and presented it to me one day, years ago. It had all my 10-year old yearnings and poems and also some grandiose stuff from when I was 16.  I don’t know where that journal is now. But it was an eye-opener to me, that this thing had been going on a long time – the desire to write. Also, that my voice was pretty much there, from the beginning.  In my mid-20’s I decided to start writing  in a journal. I now have nearly three decades worth of journals. I never look at them, unless I need  something for a story or a novel, and can remember that I wrote something useful down. But it is a way of offloading my emotions, fears, thoughts, things overheard, scraps of dialogue, ideas and so on.  A way of processing thoughts and dreams. Especially dreams.

Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?

In life as in art, I am not a planner.  As a child I was always told that I was vague and dreamy.  I am not naturally organised or punctual – it takes a great deal of psychic effort for me to be either of those things.   I can’t  possibly outline a book in advance and am hopeless at writing a synopsis and I could never ‘pitch’ an idea – I don’t believe in that kind of process anyway.  When I am forced to ‘outline’ something in advance – for agents, publishers or funding bodies – I keep it as general as possible. I’m not at all interested in plot. I’m much more interested in interwoven stories, in layering, in patterns, digressions, in rhythm and counterpoint.  In the ‘mystery of personality’ as Flannery O’Connor put it.  I get an image, then some language coheres to the image, along with colours and a sense of place. It’s very visual. I start writing towards this and find out what I’m doing as I go along. I do a lot of drafts and start with what I call ‘draftlets.’  So, the first ‘draft’ of a novel, could be twenty pages or five pages.  And later those  pages could end up in the middle of the novel, or towards the end, or not at all. It’s a totally intuitive, organic process. It takes years for me to get a full first draft. I always start by handwriting, then transfer to the computer, then print everything out, read it, make handwritten comments, throw the pages on the floor,take scissors, sticky tape and post-it notes,  cut-and-paste, then back to the computer.  I do this over and over again. At each ‘draft’ I have to ‘see’ it all on the floor. It’s a very messy process, not at all efficient, but it’s my own process, worked through over decades, and there’s a comfort in that.

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Win a 3 Month Mini Mentorship!

This is an opportunity to kick-start your writing with one-to-one support from an experienced mentor. For your chance to win, you just need to sign up to receive my monthly Inspiration Letters here.

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Seaside Writing Workshop: Unlock Your Creativity

Come and spend a day writing by the sea in pretty North Berwick – more info here.

Interview Series #2 – Susie Maguire

susiemaguire

Susie Maguire is a writer best known for short stories. As well as two collections – The Short Hello and Furthermore – her stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and Radio Scotland. She is also an editor, mentor and experienced Arvon tutor, and her background is in acting, stand-up comedy and television presenting. I can’t really remember how I first met Susie – but I think it was about 15 years ago, and we’ve worked together off and on since then. You can find out more about her work here or follow her on twitter here.

This is the second interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with my clients:

Sophy: When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?

Susie: None, probably; I was writing secretly, without thinking about it, and in retrospect believe that was a very good way to start. The ability to let the unconscious out to play gets harder the more you (think you) know about what you’re doing and why, so it’s a nice stage, that playful time. Being surprised by what emerges when you’re just letting it flow, being enthusiastic about discovery.

But if someone has really decided ‘I Will Write’ and is actually seeking advice, then perhaps I’d say: don’t get hung up on formats and feedback and competitions right at the start, because that ‘end use’ stuff sometimes interferes with the process of listening to yourself and developing a trust deal with your subconscious. Another thing I’d suggest is to be careful how much generic ‘writing advice’ stuff you absorb and from what quarter. Lots of it is contradictory and you need to develop your own instinct and methods more than you need ‘how to do it right’ coming at you like a swarm of flies.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

That expression means different things to different people, doesn’t it? I’ve never been under contract for something that I then failed to complete, and I’ve never lacked ideas to pursue, but sometimes have lacked the courage to pursue them, or lost faith in my ability to do so to a level I deem good enough – i.e. fear has crept in, usually propelled by some other factor which then affects the writing-bit at a deep level.
What helps ‘block’? Realising that you’re over-thinking, that perfectionism has set up camp in your frontal lobes. Giving yourself permission to write badly but passionately, to get it out of your system, telling your critical self to make the tea and leave you to get on with it, tapping away at the keys ‘just for ten minutes, no pressure’, every day… some of those things help. Going for a walk. Movement of some kind. Doing other creative things, painting, drawing, even tidying a corner of a room, all those things can help short term block.
Sometimes the issue is finding or choosing the most viable idea for that point in your life (though usually your pressing theme is hitting you on the back of the head to get your attention, and is inescapable even if un-nameable).

For longer, nastier kinds of block, talking to someone you trust to find out where the fear is, and how to negotiate with it, might be necessary. Everyone has moments of doubt. If they become perpetual, then it’s time to consider the cause, and learn from that, and re-focus yourself appropriately, and with kindness. For that level of ghastliness, a mentor is highly useful; to be able to say, in confidence, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m lost’ and for someone further along their writing path to say ‘it’s okay, here’s the torch, let’s walk together for a bit’ – is wonderful.

Do you write every day?

Yes, but that might be less ‘Writing’, more just plain ‘writing’. Lots of uncapitalised writing goes on to maintain the dream-catching Writing person. Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork. Argh.
I am not by nature an organised type, except on the page, and timetables make me feel rebellious, but it’s reassuring if you can develop a rhythm. Because my first break (in radio) came with short stories, I became adept at sprint-writing…teasing a story out over maybe three or four days, then a break from it, then a couple of days editing, (deleting, improving the prose, the tempo, etc) and then (for a commission) letting it go; that shape and time-ratio feels good to me. But on a longer project it’s probably wise to have a schedule, even if it’s a movable sacred hour that fits round your duties as griller of fish fingers or whatever.
Do you have any rituals around your writing practice? Do you prefer to write in a particular place or at a particular time of day?
No, and no. But I probably should. Yes, now you ask… I know that if I start writing when I’m cold, tired, hungry, or physically not well, it affects my mood and affects the work’s direction. Maybe I need to develop some professional tics. A certain hat, lipstick, candle, breakfast, pair of polka-dot pyjamas… ? A supply of a special type of biscuit baked by nuns in a remote convent in the Pyrenees? That’s the one.
Have you ever kept a journal?
Only as a child, but it was full of inane comments and drawings of dogs, and scribbled in loopy handwriting at long intervals.  Looking at them makes me feel a bit sad. On the other hand, I have vast email archives which, if I could be bothered to work out how to retrieve them, would illustrate preoccupations over the past 12 years or so quite adequately. I admire those who can and do ‘journal’, but loathe it as a verb and eschew it as a task.
Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?
See above for admission of being terrible about organisation.. I’ve often started writing plans and lists and plot outlines and synopses and abandoned them out of boredom, or after getting stuck, or when I realised that it doesn’t work for me, or not for all projects. I did once write a 45 minute play in two weeks, having planned the scenes quite carefully, but in general I’m resistant to knowing too much before I begin writing. I like finding out. Also, I usually use Scrivener to write, so I can write scenes or parts of scenes or questions or lines of dialogue and shift them about to find out what they are for and where and why.  I try to write as if I (or the narrator, or the reader) am living the story in an uncomplicated way, and then complicate it later.. if necessary. I tend not to start at the beginning, because I know now that I can leap in to a point further in, rather than write all that preamble or scene-setting which I’ll only end up cutting later.
However, none of these things is a rule, or a habit. Every new thing is a new thing. I have to sniff and lick and chew for a while to find out what it is, how to carry it, what it’s got in its pockets.

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Win a 3 Month Mini Mentorship!

This is an opportunity to kick-start your writing with one-to-one support from an experienced mentor. For your chance to win, you just need to sign up to receive my monthly Inspiration Letters here.