Category Archives: Process

Writing – Point of View

When you’re writing a story, you have to ask yourself two questions, says Geraldine Mills, the Irish writer who ran a workshop on point of view (POV) for the Singapore Writers’ Group. ‘Whose story do you want to tell? And who do you want to tell it?’

For those who haven’t previously heard of POV in writing, basically, it’s the decision of whether to write in the first person or the third person along with which character’s POV you’re taking in the telling of your story. So you need to decide who your main character is and the narrative voice.

I know from personal experience that when you first start writing, you can find yourself ‘head-hopping’ from one POV to another, making it difficult for the reader to really engage and sympathise with any one character. This is because you’re preoccupied with the story. It’s only later that you think about who is telling it.

Geraldine says that the character dictates the decision. Sometimes the POV is obvious because a character will talk to you and will have a distinctive voice. In Geraldine’s short story ‘The Weight of Feathers’ in her short story collection of the same title, she said the first line just came to her. ‘A man fell out of the sky and into my garden.’

And she knew she had to tell the story in that voice, in the first person. ‘I found the slump of his body by the pomegranate trees when I went out to water the terraces. The evening burned itself into the mountain. There were feathers all around me, some stuck to his arms, some to his legs, a golden syrup of wax melted on his face. I thought he was dead until I touched some part of his shoulder and a low groan came from his cracked lips.’

I wish characters talked to me like that!

Other times, like in the YA novel Geraldine is currently writing, it is more difficult to decide and she’s experimenting, telling the story from each of her three characters POVs to see which is strongest. She’s finding each of them limiting because there are aspects of the story that can’t be told as a result. It is a comfort that established, published writers wrestle with this stuff too.

Geraldine says you have to look for the conflict and ask yourself, ‘which is the most pressing story? Who has the most to lose? And who has the most to gain from the telling?’ Once you’ve decided, you then have to remain consistent.

So what are the different POVs? We all know the first person, the third person and, more rarely, the second person – ‘you’. But it turns out there are different options among those. Let me summarise Geraldine’s low-down on these.

 

First Person

Writing in the first person can lend an immediacy to the writing. When using ‘I’, it’s usually the main character telling the story from their POV and it’s what they see or hear and you can’t go into anyone else’s head. This can be powerful at one level and limiting at another.

There is also the first person witness / peripheral, where the narrator is not the protagonist. The Great Gatsby could have been told from Gatsby’s POV, but F Scott Fitzgerald chose to tell it from Nick Caraway’s POV, who witnesses what happens. So we only know what Nick sees or what Gatsby or another character tells him. But the reader gets Nicks relationship with Jordan and the Buchanans and an eye on their world that Gatsby doesn’t have.

It is more rare to read the first person omniscient, who is all-knowing, as in The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, where the main character has been killed and is telling the story from the other side.

And one that had never even crossed my mind before is the first person plural, ‘we’. Geraldine gives the example of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story The Treatment of Bibi Haldar. A collective, in this case the local people in a community, tell of how they treat a woman who has fits.

In efforts to cure her, concerned members of our town brought her holy water from seven holy rivers. When we heard her screams and throes in the night, when her wrists were bound with ropes and stinging poultices pressed upon her, we named her in our prayers.

It would be difficult to sustain in a novel. It only really works when the collective witnesses something and the conflict has to be outside the ‘we’. While in Lahiri’s story the community are helping Bibi Haldar, the first person plural can have a creepy effect, with people clubbing together, a mob.

You can write in the first person from more than one character’s POV (first person multiple) but you have to be careful to make each of the voices distinctive so the reader knows which character is speaking / whose view we’re getting. You also have to be sure of who the protagonist is and give weight to that character. And make it easier for the reader by using section breaks or chapter breaks when you swap POV.

Second Person

‘You’. Again, this could be hard to sustain over a novel and might grate. It can bring you closer to the narrator if they are talking directly to the reader but it can also be used to distance the narrator from the protagonist.

I thought Mohsin Hamid used it to brilliant effect in ‘How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’, a novel in the style of a self-help book.

This book is a self-help book. Its objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia. And to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been thrown away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since you’ve never in your life seen any of these things.

Third Person

There’s more freedom writing in the third person and it can be easier to create tone and atmosphere. With the third person limited, the narrator hones in on one character and can get inside his or her head and is privy to their thoughts and feelings. J.K Rowling does this in Harry Potter. We can see and hear all the other characters but we see and understand the action from Harry’s POV, following him like a camera is on his shoulder.

More old-fashioned, is the third person omniscient, as Charles Dickens or Jane Austen would use, where the narrator can take a wide-angle view of events or close in on one character or another and can even draw moral thoughts or judgments.

There’s also the objective narrator, relating what he sees or hears, which Raymond Carver uses skilfully in Little Things.

You can have multiple narrators in the third person. In Capital by John Lanchester, you get the POVs of 15 to 20 characters. Geraldine says that while the writing is superb and humorous, ‘there was no one character I could have sympathy with. I’d just get into one person’s story and it would move on to another POV.’

During the workshop we did an exercise writing from a particular POV. As we read them out, it was interesting hearing the different effects gained by simply replacing ‘I’ with ‘she’ or ‘you’. Geraldine suggests playing with different POVs and to move out of our comfort zones in order to grow as writers. And it’s important to know the rules before bending them. You can use POV to create an effect structurally across a book. For instance, Alice Clark-Platts, in her debut novel Bitter Fruits, due out on July 2, deliberately swaps between the third person for the police investigation and the first person for a particular character and you don’t know who that person is until the end.

 

So take Geraldine’s advice and play with POV. Challenge yourself with new narrative voices. Happy writing.

 

 

The call of the wild

At a meeting of The Singapore Writer’s Group this week, I was reminded of the importance of playing and experimenting with language. When you’re busy learning the craft of writing a novel, as I am, there’s a tendency to focus on the mechanics – character development, dialogue, structuring a plot.

I think carefully about the words I use because I want to achieve an economy of language and capture exactly the right metaphor and so on. Mastering all this brings great satisfaction, but in this pursuit of writing a well-crafted book that will sell, have I forgotten to play? I mean really revel in words and let the imagination run wild.

Authors do play with language but then they tame it, discipline it, strap it down and, after a while, it comes out walking to heel. This is part of learning your craft. You learn to use language effectively to create story, suspense, subtext and to make your reader fully believe in your world.

Then a song-writer called Parijat Mishra read a short piece to our writers’ group that was like a wolf howl to my urban fox brain. He had wanted to write something like a dream, a piece of art, a painting with words. And so he read us Tough Syrup, (it’s the second story in his blog) which we decided was a ‘prose poem’. Me included. The automatic reflex to put it in a box. We loved it, were confused and impressed by it in equal measure and called for story, discipline. And that is what his work needs if his intention is to write a short story or a novel. But I don’t think this is his aim. Not with that piece, anyway. He’s an artist at play. He achieved what he wanted and created a piece of art. His imagery was disturbing, surreal and extraordinary. It was an outpouring of imagination, a dreamscape painted with words.

One writer saw it as a comment on the emasculated male in a female world, I saw it as a comment on living in Singapore where everything is made safe and how suffocating that can be. It provoked thought and we brought our own interpretations to it. And that, I think, makes it art. We recognised that it was raw and wild and ugly and beautiful.

I hope Parijat does develop and apply discipline to his writing because his work reminded me of Kurt Vonnegurt and that kind of talent should be recognised. And at the same time, I like that it’s wild. I like that it roams the boundaries. So thank you, Parijat, and thank you to The Singapore Writers’ Group and all who shared their work, for the inspiration.

Where do ideas come from?

The idea of this blog was to bring you on the journey with me as I wrote a book. And after about 20 posts about writer’s block and procrastination, I finally got writing but stopped blogging. So I feel I owe you a couple of retrospective posts.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start . When you read you begin with ABC, when you sing you begin with … Excuse me, no idea why I was suddenly chanelling Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Actually, I do know. It started with the words: ‘Let’s start at the very beginning’ and the tune came into my head. It started with the WORDS…

So many ideas come as you write. It’s the magic, the very essence of creativity. So don’t sit there waiting for a great idea. Write and the ideas will follow and then you can shape them.

One idea I had stemmed from an image in Vogue magazine of a model on the Mongolian steppes with an eagle. Woman and bird were in profile, gazing into the distance. It was beautiful, striking. I decided to do an exercise with her as a character. I’d been playing around with a parallel world idea but as I started to write, the photo gave me a new beginning, actually a a whole new incarnation of the book, starting in the parallel world and having the character from our world fall into it.

The book I’m currently working on started because of news articles and TV programmes about the pressures on girls to be skinny, pretty and sexy. I was horrified that girls as  young as seven were worrying about their body image! In one programme girls were shown photos of themselves along with images photoshopped so they looked skinnier and fatter. In almost every case, the girls picked the skinniest version of themselves as being the best. I’d also read about teenagers aspiring to be models or wives of footballers, or just to be on the latest reality TV programme.

Then I heard the crime author PD James talking on Radio 4. She’s in her nineties and that got me thinking about what she must have seen and experienced in her lifetime and how it couldn’t have been easy for a female crime writer early in her career, then, BAM, suffragettes popped into my head. What would the suffragettes make of the world today? What if a modern day teenager met one? That was the genesis of my book.

So the media seems to be a big source of inspiration for me. Looking at the obituaries might seem morbid but they feature interesting lives and that gets you thinking. Or a crime report might give you a plot idea. Overheard snippets of conversation on a bus can spark an idea or a character’s voice, people-watching in cafes is endlessly fascinating, making up lives for them. Putting down your phone so that you’re not picking up emails and posting on twitter but actually observing the world helps a lot. Just asking the question: What if…? Your dreams could give you an idea. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight came from a dream. According to wikipedia, it led to Meyer writing a draft of what became chapter 13 of the book.

Travelling is good. Anything that makes you an outsider, that gets you looking at the world differently can trigger creativity. I recently went to an amazing hot spring in Malaysia with a big pool of geothermic water  surrounded by towering verdant limestone karsts with caves beneath. I felt humbled and inspired by those great architects, nature and time. It could have been another world. It could have been Eden.

The magnificent cavern with stalagtites and stalagmites that had been turned into a wine bar, was quite spectacular. A brilliant setting for a book. Something gothic, perhaps. If Stephanie Meyer had been to this place, Edward Cullen would have taken Bella on a date there.

Your own lives and experiences will give you ideas  – you may not write about them directly but they will certainly inform your writing. And once you’re writing, you start to think like a writer and notice things that you didn’t before. I will hear someone’s name and I’ll think, that’s a great name for a character and off I go. In short, ideas are all around you and you shouldn’t worry about the idea, just the sitting on your bum to write.

Whether it’s a commercial idea is another matter. What publishers are looking for is a good concept that will sell. This often comes from two ideas coming together. Vampirates, for example. Suzanne Collins is reported to have got the idea for the Hunger Games  while channel surfing. On one station was a reality TV show and on another was the invasion of Iraq and the two began to blur in her mind and she ended up with the idea of a dysptopian world where there’s an annual, televised, gladiatorial fight to the death.

I find thinking too much about commerciality blocks my writing, so I’m not going to put too much emphasis on this. The most important thing is to have something that you are compelled to write. If you have something special you can bring to it, you are an immigrant writing about the immigrant experience for example, all the better. You become commercial. The publisher can market you and you will sell your book. My friend Liz Trenow wrote The Last Telegram, which is set in the second world war – always popular– but she had a unique selling point. She comes from a family of silk weavers and she set her novel in a silk factory making parachutes for the RAF with her heroine running the factory.  As well as going to book fairs she goes to textile fairs to give readings. She knows her stuff and the sensuality the silk weaves through her story made it something that no one else could have written.

Write for yourself first but have your reader in mind. Be aware of trends but don’t try to follow them or predict them. You can help a publisher if you can give them a way to market it, something to peg it on. But underneath all that, they need a strong voice, a brilliantly evoked world, great characters and a cracking story.

How to chip away at the block

I know, it’s been ages. My apologies. You see, I’ve actually started writing. Yay! hang out the bunting, do a happy dance and eat cake (not necessarily in that order). The thing is, my writer’s block had taken such a hold that even when I started writing, I thought it may be another false start. I didn’t want to blog about it for fear of jinxing it.

The problem was I had two ideas and kept swinging from one to the other. I’d have a crisis of confidence about whether one was a good, marketable idea and then,  like a sailing boat adrift, bang! An ill wind would catch the mainsail and go swinging across my boat, often knocking me overboard in the process, before I got going on the other idea.

Somewhere in all this, I figured out that both were good ideas, it was more a matter of which to write first? I plumped for the one with the more developed plot. It was also more time sensitive because I could peg it on the anniversary of the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison who threw herself under the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby.

However, with all my prevaricating, I have missed that deadline by a mile. I should have been submitting it to agents last year. But on a positive note, the suffragette movement carried on well after that so I reckon it’s still marketable. Plus, I think the book will appeal to teenage girls because it’s about all kinds of issues affecting them. The pressures that they come under to be academic, pretty, sexy, skinny and, above all, to fit in, when hormones are raging and your mind is on boys and the whole world should be opening up for you but actually, the expectations are overwhelming and in some cases crippling.

My  ‘lift pitch’ – in case I meet an agent in a lift and I have 10 seconds to pitch it – is: Modern-day girl meets a suffragette. A contemporary story with an historical twist.

Wordism: It’s important you can summarise your book in a couple of sentences. It means it has a strong concept and publishers are looking for ‘high concept’ books.

Anyway, while I’m hoping that I can sell my book, the most important thing is I’m back writing and seven chapters in.

So, advice on how to break writer’s block? Actually, there wasn’t a big breakthrough moment, the muse didn’t show up one day and suddenly I could write. No, I just kept chipping away at it. I got to the point of nearly giving up, which I found frightening. Writing is such a big part of my identity that it felt like giving up on myself. And then what became important was just writing. Not selling it, not the vagaries of the market, just the act of writing. A little bit here, a little bit there until you’re writing everyday, which develops into a compulsion to write rather than procrastinate, at which point, you start living your characters, inhabiting their world, thinking about it all the time.

Wordism: Don’t give up, keep going. Just a few words is better than nothing. Write a journal if the book isn’t coming. Don’t judge what you write. Just write. Observations, what you’re feeling… Write in a stream of consciousness. Read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron – it’s a bit spiritual, which isn’t for everyone, but it’s also practical.

I explored my main character by letting her vent what was on her mind without worrying about story or plot. Her character developed around her voice, a plot emerged from her character. And also from thinking about the suffragette and what part she would play. I have to be careful that Emily plays at least an equal part to the romance in the novel. Feminists may not approve of what I do with the romance but then they’re not my audience. Teenage girls are my readers. And if I can get one teenage girl to google ‘suffragette’ or ‘Emily Wilding Davison’, I’ll be happy with that.

Something to try: If you have a character in mind, allow them to vent on the page. Write whatever’s on their mind in the first person. If you’re not working on a project right now but want to get the creative juices flowing, find a picture of a person in a magazine, a newspaper or in a work of art (as Tracy Chevalier did in Girl with a Pearl Earring) and imagine what they are thinking. What is their world like? Then give them a voice. Who knows where it will lead.

Hope shimmers on the horizon

The new year has started with a glimmer of hope. I sent the first three chapters of The Smuggler’s Daughter  to a small independent press in Dublin after I heard the managing editor speak at a SCBWI retreat at the end of 2011. I received a lovely email back saying she was ‘impressed’ by my work and I had ‘real talent’ and she wanted to see the rest. Woohoo!

This was tempered by her preparing me for the ‘not right for our list’ rejection as they are a small press and only have one historical title which is also set in Napoleonic times. But she still wanted to read it and she was interested to hear my ideas for my next project. Hope shimmers on the horizon. I’m praying it’s not a mirage.

Are the stars are aligning, at last? Or maybe it’s just taking a positive step like going to a writing retreat that is continuing to reverberate in opportunity and  possibility. I needed the encouragement and support of fellow writers. They understand about the process, about dealing with rejection, about picking yourself up, about persevering. Steve Hartley, who wrote the children’s series Danny Baker Record Breaker, spoke about how it took him 15 years to get published and was afraid that might discourage us. But as someone who has spent 12 years writing (well 10 years writing and two years sulking), it gave me hope. I wasn’t alone.

I’m happy putting the time and effort in to learn the craft. With each of my three books, I’ve got better and got closer, getting shortlisted for competitions and having agents ask to see the rest of my book after years of standard rejection letters. Then, with Smugglers, which I wrote for my MA in Creative Writing (another of those positive steps), I found my voice and got lots of agent interest and a couple wanting to represent me. And then came the barrage of publishers’ rejections and two years of writer’s block.

It’s  harder to pick yourself up when you’ve got so close. But it’s what you have to do and my fellow writers encouraged me not to lose faith in the book. Children’s author Patricia Forde (Hedgehogs do Not Like Heights) gave me the nudge I needed to talk to the editor about Smuggler’s and it worked. It’s being considered again.

Wordism: Take positive steps to achieving your goal of finishing your book or getting it published. Take courses, go on retreats, join a writer’s group, network all you can, develop an online presence.

Just after the retreat, I discovered that my MA friend Liz Trenow had got a two-book deal with Harper Collins’ Avon imprint for her book The Last Telegram. Again, it gives me hope that it can and does happen. The following day, I saw a familiar name on the SCBWI Facebook page. Tina Orr-Munro – a former colleague from my days as a journalist. She had a book cover as her Facebook photo, Ellie Foster’s English Courseworkand sure enough, when I got in touch, I discovered that she too had got published. Not only that, but she’d been through the same journey as me. She’d got an agent only to be knocked back by the big publishers. She gave up writing for two years then decided to try some small independent presses and, hey presto, Rickshaw jumped at it.

The right book has to land on the right desk at the right time. You can have the talent. You can have the craft. But what you really need is luck. I wish you lots of it!

Singapore Slung

I know, I know… I haven’t blogged in nine months and a whole baby could have been born in that time. You see, initially, this blog was supposed to chart the course of my next novel and I was going to bring you along with me for the journey. Or, to continue the metaphor, the gestation. Except the book never got past the embryonic and so it seemed pointless writing the blog about the book that never was.

This is my excuse: I moved house in March and that was followed by decorating and floors being sanded and bookcases being built and generally refurbing top to bottom and, half way through all that, I found out we were moving to Singapore for a couple of years, which kind of filled my head so I didn’t have the time, space or even inclination to write. I was Singapore slung.

Rob has made the move already. I am visiting to help find us an apartment and I move here properly in January. I see it as a creative opportunity and am generally looking forward to it. However, I am dreading leaving Harry, my dog and constant companion who patiently listens to excerpts of my writing without judgment. He’s not coming with us because the journey would stress him out, he’d hate the heat, and he’s nine years old and set in his ways. I couldn’t do it to him. Thankfully, Mike, a writing friend from the USA , is coming to London for two years in January and will house and dog-sit for us. Mike is also looking for a chance to get creative again so it works for both of us. And Harry will get to hear his drafts instead.

I am blogging in the hotel. A tropical storm is raging outside and shaking the windows. It sounds like the heavens are being ripped open, such is the crashing and roaring. This is good. Being abroad provides not only a change of scenery, but a change of perspective. You don’t tend to think of the weather as violent in the UK. It’s a mild, wishy-washy thing. Here it is extreme and, at the moment, violent, primal, and potentially inspirational. I can understand why people might take it personally and think the gods are angry. I know they can’t be angry because I’m actually writing for once so, obviously, the gods are celebrating raucously.

I’m hoping the move will bring inspiration. Also it means I’ll have two years of clear writing time. There’s nothing else to do. Not even dog-walking. Well, apart from lounging by the pool, travelling around Asia, loafing and procrastinating. Apart from that, I have the time and, I hope, the head-space so lacking this past year in order to write. So I must seize the opportunity, focus and use the experience to get creative.

Procrastination and the muse

There must be something in the stars at the moment that involves huge life changes. I seem to be compelled to throw everything up in the air to see where it lands. Sometimes it’s good to do that. Ending old ways opens up new paths.

I’m moving house and when I’m at the new place, I’m hoping I’ll be able to settle to writing. Strangely, I seem to move house whenever I start a new book. Maybe moving is part of the process. Or perhaps it’s just coincidence as it wasn’t even my idea.

However, there are other life changing opportunities in the offing, which may mean that I can’t settle to writing just yet. Living abroad is one possibility. It’s exciting, it’s daunting, I worry whether my dog will be happy in a hot climate, and, as I write this, I wonder, is it all just an excuse for procrastination on a massive scale?

Life is carrying on, presenting opportunities, throwing the odd curve ball and somehow I need to learn to fit the writing in. But maybe the time’s not right.  I always have a period of feeling unsettled between books. I call it ‘floundering’. But this has gone on for longer than usual, so I’m worrying whether I’m really a writer at all. And anyway, is there ever a right time?

The other problem is that there are two ideas I’m exploring. I start on one, then stall and start on the other. I’m excited about both of them at different times but can’t seem to get going on either. They’re both mulling away in my head. Perhaps I don’t have writer’s block but am writing two books at once. Really slowly. Or is that double writer’s block?

All I know is that my mind is like a monkey swinging from tree to tree. I need a quiet space to still my mind. To eat a banana and contemplate the jungle rather than the trees.

Is there ever a right time? I know what Stephen King would say. Turn up to the desk each day. Don’t wait for the muse to turn up first. He’ll come in his own good time, chomping on his cigar, feet on the desk, proffering insight and inspiration. That’s his muse, not mine.

Panic! Do I need to visualise a muse? I have no idea what he or she looks like. I’m not sure I care what they look like, but I’d rather they didn’t smoke. Terrible habit.

I think my muse would be more Holly Golightly. No, she’d lead me astray and I’d end up at all kinds of wild parties. Fun as that would be, I don’t deal with hangovers the way I used to. They can write off a whole day. A whole writing day. Except I’m not writing so I may as well be hungover. They didn’t do Hemingway any harm.

Perhaps a Noel Coward figure swanning round in a smoking jacket and offering me a glass of sherry with a dash of inspiration. Or Bogart as Rick in Casablanca.

Renault: ‘What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: ‘My health. I came for the waters?’
Renault: ‘Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert?’
Rick: ‘I was misinformed.’

I’ve just realised that all my potential muses smoke.

Oh my God. Am I looking for perfection in a muse? (Head in hands.) Who wants a puritan for a muse? What a yawn of a story that would be. I have to let go of the perfectionist, searching for the perfect first chapter and the perfect bloody muse, I have to stop over-thinking everything and just write. Anything.

Here’s the deal. I’ll do my bit and turn up at my desk. Muse, you can turn up in whatever form you like. I’ll even provide the brandy and the smokes. Just turn up. Go on. Please. After all, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Books, creeks and paddles

I haven’t posted recently about the process of writing my book, (which was supposed to be the point of this blog) or even about the process of not writing. This is because I’ve been in a strop.

I had started on the Suffragette idea and had some joyful moments of ‘flow’ before losing my paddle. Not only that but I started to question whether I was writing the right book. Up the creek. Again.

I got to the same place with the last idea – my Inca adventure / romance – and bailed out because it just wasn’t coming to me. I lost faith in it. And here I was in the same situation.

But then Lee Weatherly, a writer friend and mentor, got me thinking about what I wanted to write rather than what I thought would sell. I loved writing my last book, The Smuggler’s Daughter, but I’d not got a book deal. So this time I’d been focusing on getting the right idea. A marketable idea. But perhaps I was focusing too much on the goal of getting published.

Wordism: Focus on the process of writing and the joy of that rather than on the end product.

So, I thought, what do I want to write? What do I enjoy? I like writing YA fiction. I enjoy adventure stories. And love stories. I like strong female characters. This led me back to my Inca idea. Is that my paddle over there?

I made a foray into a possible first chapter and had some fun, before getting stuck. But this time, rather than feeling blocked, I recognised that the idea needed work.

I hold on to the paddle, I don’t jump ship (or canoe), I think about how to find my way out. I stop thinking and notice the creek is pretty, even if it doesn’t go anywhere. Ideas begin to rain. I could develop the fantasy element. Maybe it’s set in the future. Or an alternative present. I can feel the boat shifting. Pretty soon I’ll be off the mud flats and into the stream of a first chapter and, I hope, swept into the exhilarating white waters of a novel.

The Bear Awakes

Like a bear in hibernation, my creativity awakes, stretches and peeks out of its hidey hole. Last summer was a long, dark winter as far as my creativity was concerned and it’s only just now that the snows are beginning to melt. Did I just catch a delicious whiff of inspiration? Time to shake off my winter sloth and munch on the green shoots of an idea. ‘The bees are buzzing in the tree to make some honey just for me.’

Wordism: ‘Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities, forget about your worries and your strife,’ as a famous bear once said. (There’s so much wisdom in that song, don’t you think?)

I am taking the first tentative steps into writing the new book and doing my happy bear dance.

What got me writing again? Writing, got me writing again. But these things can’t be rushed. I’m not someone for whom inspiration strikes like a thunderbolt. It is more a slow dawning. I’ve only written a few hundred words but it is a start and it’s helping to crystallise the story in my mind. I’ll take you through the process so far.

I started with the idea. Modern day girl meets suffragette. That appealed. That, I could work with. That, I could pitch to a publisher. I began researching suffragettes on the web and came across one who interested me in particular. But this isn’t an historical novel. It’s a contemporary story with an historical twist. So I set to thinking about my modern day girl and her story, while letting my initial research mulch down.

I knew her parents were divorcing, I knew she was obsessed with being skinny, I knew she had no idea what to do with her life. I didn’t yet know what she was passionate about.

I started writing in the first person, letting my character vent all her problems, hopes and dreams. This can be quite useful as a way to get to know your characters and their voices.

With this book, for some reason, I can’t launch straight into it. So after letting her vent, I wrote random scenes, which may or may not find their way into the book. Jasmine (Jazz), at home with her parents, Jazz with her friend Crystal, Jazz being told that her mum and dad are divorcing etc. And I’ve also been playing with the third person and the first person and thinking about how I’m going to tell my story.

As is often the case with me, the character I’m thinking about, Jazz, is a struggle and the one I haven’t thought about, Crystal, comes fully formed. In previous books, sometimes people have found my secondary characters more real or likeable. So perhaps there’s a clue there.

Wordism: Don’t over-think it. A character often comes to you as you write.

Anyway, I decided to borrow a bit from Crystal as hers seemed a better story and, in doing that, Jazz has come on in her own way. But still the plot wasn’t coming.

It was at this point I started blogging as well as doing my morning pages, which involves writing down everything on my mind when I wake up. Both have helped me pick myself up from last year’s rejections, formulate my thoughts and ideas, and find a way forward.

Lately, I’ve been putting my mind to plot but didn’t get beyond a series of events, which is not the same. And so I went back to my character. I hadn’t yet had Jazz meet the suffragette. And that was supposed to be the point of the book.

So that’s what I’ve been writing over the past couple of days and though I’ve not written reams, I did get into the flow. I was absorbed by it. I lost track of time. I was enjoying the process of writing again, it was triggering plot ideas. Woohoo! A major breakthrough.

Wordism: Forget the end product, enjoy the process.

It’s early days but the idea is awake, living and breathing. Soon I’ll be able to write that elusive first chapter.

And just because it’s fun and it’s in my head and because I think there’s some relevance to the state of mind you have to be in to write – relaxed, going with the flow, letting it come to you, here’s the song:

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
Old Mother Nature’s recipes
That brings the bare necessities of life

Wherever I wander, wherever I roam
I couldn’t be fonder of my big home
The bees are buzzin’ in the tree
To make some honey just for me
When you look under the rocks and plants
And take a glance at the fancy ants
Then maybe try a few

The bare necessities of life will come to you
They’ll come to you!

I don’t have writer’s block, I’m incubating.

To write, I need to have all chores done so there’s nothing nagging at me. My optimum time is late afternoon and into the evening. And I write in silence. Just my thoughts, my characters, and the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard.

At least, it’s always worked before. I would start writing and carry on (over a couple of years) till the book was finished. But, this time, I’m struggling to get started. To help me focus I’ve been trying to develop a way to signal to my brain that I’m leaving my everyday world and entering the realm of my imagination. Writer at Work. Do Not Disturb.

So yesterday, back from holiday, raring to go with New Year zeal, I sat at my desk and thought about a little writerly ritual to get me in the zone. Perhaps I should try music, I thought, and put on Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin’s ‘Sisters are Doing it for Themselves’ (my book involves a suffragette). But it just made me dance round the room, which was fun but it wasn’t helping me to write. Scrap music. Silence is golden.

I lit a candle. Took some calming deep breaths. Waited. Nothing. A book of children’s poems was next to me. I bought it after I found myself playing with words in my head one night, which I took as a sign that my creative mind was limbering up. Typical! Just as I’m falling asleep. I woke the next day singing Spike Milligan’s poem.

On the Ning Nang Nong where the cows go bong and the monkey’s all say boo, there’s a Nong Nang Ning where the trees go ping and the teapots jibber jabber joo.

I had actions and everything. My husband, Rob, is used to this sort of thing by now. I was enjoying the musicality, the fun and the nonsense of the language and thought this should be fostered. I also needed to know the rest of the poem. So I bought a book called ‘Read Me and Laugh. A Funny Poem for Every Day of the Year’.

I read my poem for the day. Still nothing. I read over some preliminary scenes I’d written to explore my character. That would surely trigger me into writing. Nothing. Nada. It wasn’t happening.  In desperation, I picked up my Mslexia diary, which has top writing tips for the year.  I can’t tell you the relief of reading that psychologists have identified a stage in creativity known as ‘incubation’, the period between the moment of inspiration and starting to realise the idea in a piece of work.

‘Many writers experience incubation as writer’s block. Instead of welcoming it as part of the creative process, they (we) often panic and may end up abandoning the idea they’re working on.’

That’s me. I did exactly that in the summer. Ditched an idea I was working on because it wasn’t coming and I concluded I was writing the wrong thing. When it started happening with my new idea, I thought something was wrong with me. I wasn’t trying hard enough.

I do not have writer’s block, my idea is incubating. That sounds much more active, something is happening, even if it’s just in my head. The idea is baking like the proverbial bun. I am incubating my creative baby and it will come when it’s good and ready.

Feeling better, I decided to dip into ‘Writing Fiction. A guide to Narrative Craft’ by Janet Burroway and opened it at the section headed Keep Going. Surely a sign. In it, she tells us that W.H. Auden observed that the hardest part of writing is not knowing whether you are procrastinating or you must wait for the words to come.

That’s where I’m at. But if Mr Auden has been there too, then I’m in good company.