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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.

 

 

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The new feminists

I’ve finished the book! (Cue happy dance with triumphant knee-slide across the living room floor). Yes! I’m taking the time to savour the moment and not entertaining the thought of agent and publisher rejections. No I will not think about that. Bugger, I’m thinking about that. But I’m also celebrating the achievement. It’s only when you reach the end of a book (well the draft that you’re going to send out) that you wonder how on earth you did it.

So here is Soul Sister. I’ve uploaded it on this site, if you want to check it out. It’s about a modern day teenager that meets the woman she was in a past life – the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison. It’s about souls clashing in one life and meeting in another to make peace. It’s about first love. It’s about being happy in your own skin, standing up for yourself and having a voice.

In my book, I’m exploring what it is to be a girl today. Girls pick up on society’s expectations of them to be pretty, skinny and sexy. It was what, in part, set me off writing this book because it can lead to body image problems, eating disorders, and low self-esteem and I think it’s terrible that we’re doing that to our daughters.  You only have to look at the Protein World advert of the bikini clad woman and the slogan Are you Beach Body Ready? to get some idea of how blatant that pressure is.

Protein World's beach body ad on the London underground

There’s been a huge backlash in London, with women answering the advert’s question by writing their thoughts on the posters on the tube. This is a watershed moment, I think. The moment when women said: ‘Enough! I’m not interested in how you think I should look on the beach. Or anywhere else. I am proud of the body I have and I will take it anywhere I please.’ The suffragettes would be proud.

Girls and women are kicking, quite literally, against limiting definitions and expectations of who they should be and what they should look like and turning stereotypes upside down. imagesLike the nine-year-old girl on Britain’s Got Talent, Jesse McParland, cute as you like, and launches into an amazing, acrobatic martial arts routine to rival The Karate Kid, Zorro and the Three Musketeers put together. Fierce! And totally expressing who she is. She tried ballet and Irish dancing, she said, but she didn’t like it.

And yesterday I read about Danielle Taylor whose Prom theme was ‘Sweet Dreams’, presumably based on the 80s romance books, but anyway likely to be iUnknownnterpreted in pink with hearts. Yes, a school, basically saying, ‘we’ve given you an education but what is really important is being pretty enough to get a boyfriend’. Deciding the prom theme was a giant let-down, Danielle designed her own spectacular outfit based on the hooded DC Comics super-hero, Green Arrow, which, let’s face it, rocks.

I’m seeing a new wave of feminism and strong female role-models. Since I started writing Soul Sister three years ago, Emma Watson has launched the HeforShe campaign to engage men in the movement for gender equality and 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai has won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as an activist for education. She was shot by the Taliban on her way to school because she believed girls had a right to an education and was writing a blog about it. The Taliban tried to silence her, but her voice is now being heard world-wide and she’s speaking for oppressed girls everywhere.

Teenagers are blogging about feminism and there are fabulous magazines for young women like The Feminist Times and Vagenda, set up by two students in 2012 because they were in fits of laughter after reading out loud excerpts from a weekly women’s magazine whose articles were ridiculous and irrelevant. They decided to set up an online magazine to ‘call the bullshit’ on the mainstream women’s press.

Twenty years ago my friend and I had a similar conversation, lamenting all the ‘how to catch your man’ articles and talked about setting up a women’s magazine for real women with interesting news and features but we did nothing about it.

I’m glad someone has. I love the dynamism and self-assured spirit of young women today. Respect.

Three cheers for Emma Watson

I am furious, as a woman and on behalf of Emma Watson, actor and UN Goodwill Ambassador, at the threat to publish nude pictures of her and trolls posting under the hashtag RIP Emma Watson, following her impassioned speech on gender equality. It turns out that the threat was empty, but that makes it no less hateful. Seriously, dudes, where are your brains?

She gave a wonderful, heartfelt speech to the UN at the launch of the HeForShe campaign. I honestly don’t understand how anyone can listen to that speech and not agree with it. She’s right that gender inequality has an adverse effect on men too. And for the sakes of our sons, our brothers and our husbands, as well as our daughters, we should all be pulling towards the goal of equal rights for men and women.

Emma Watson totally reflected my views on feminism. I don’t get why some men fear or ridicule it  or why some women want to distance themselves from it. For me, the question ‘Are you a feminist?’ is the same as, ‘Do you value yourself as a woman?’ It’s not about man-hating. It’s not about having a high-flying career. It is about having the opportunity to go for that career, if you want to. A woman who chooses to be a housewife or a stay-at-home mum is still a feminist if she believes in having the choice, the opportunity, the right to live her life as she sees fit.

Both sexes should have the right to an education, to have equal pay for equal work, to have a say in the policies of their country, to be able to parent their children without that impacting adversely on their career, to express the full range of emotions and for that not to be considered feminine and, therefore, ‘weak’.

I agree with Emma Watson that ‘It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum instead of two opposing sets of ideals.’

I see it every day. Men who have lost touch with their feelings, who have been brought up not to cry and who therefore suppress feelings of sadness, fear, inadequacy or vulnerability and consider it ‘being strong’. The feelings, of course, come out somehow, usually as anger or withdrawal. It can kill marriages. I see fathers that want to be around more for their children but, like working mothers, find it tricky in the office to convince people that they still take their careers seriously. I, too, know men who have been made fragile because ‘of a distorted sense of what constitutes male success’.

I know many feminist men that want strong, confident daughters and want equality of opportunity for them. I know men that are stay-at-home dads. I know men that have moved country to support their wife’s career. I know women that are breadwinners and their partners are ok with that. And it is good that these people have been able to make the choices they want. But as Emma Watson said: ‘No country in the world can yet say they have achieved gender equality.’

I am writing a Young Adult book about a teenage girl who meets a former incarnation of herself. In a past life she was the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who was killed under the King’s Horse in the 1913 Derby, trying to pin the suffragette colours to the bridle. It’s about a sexual awakening and a feminist awakening.

And so I was interested to hear about Emma Watson’s feminist awakening. She says: ‘When I was eight, I was confused at being called ‘bossy’ because I wanted to direct the plays we would put of for our parents, but the boys were not. When at 14 I started to be sexualised by certain elements of the press. When at 15 my girlfriends started dropping out of their beloved sports teams because they didn’t want to appear ‘muscly’. When at 18 my male friends were unable to express their feelings. I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me.’

It is the pressures I see on girls and young women today, to be pretty, skinny, sexy, to be good, to be perfect, that inspired me to write my book. There’s also the pressure to have a great career, to have children, to have it all, and then, goddammit, to look ever youthful. Because it is youth and beauty that is valued in women and the women’s magazines, perversely, promote that. Where is the space to just be yourself? Because it is in that space that you achieve your full potential.

It distressed me to see Emma Watson, who I saw grow up on screen as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, being attacked for launching this inclusive campaign. Harry Potter was written by another wonderful woman, JK Rowling, who was advised not to go by the name Joanne because publishers thought that boys wouldn’t read a fantasy book written by a woman.

But this gender-stereotyping shouldn’t surprise us. After all, we live in a world where a campaign to put a Jane Austen on the British ten pound note, saw Caroline Criado-Perez subjected to rape and death threats on twitter. Why should the thought of a female literary icon on a ten pound note provoke violence?

And so we come full circle and Emma Watson grows up and makes a speech that expresses nothing but love, respect and affection for men, a speech that is all about freedom and humanity, that asks men to join the campaign and these idiots, these online thugs try to tear her down.

It is great to see men as well as women coming out in support of HeFor She and rallying around Emma Watson. I am heartened there has been a tremendous backlash against the online trolls.

I applaud Emma Watson and rise to her call of ‘ If not me, who? If not now, when?’

Aung San Suu Kyi and the hero in us all

I’ve seen a real, live heroine. Aung San Suu Kyi was speaking at the the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay and I was there. Unfortunately, I only listened to her on the video screen because of the huge crush to get in the room in which she was speaking. But, by luck, I saw her through the open window of her car as she left, looking serene with a red flower in her hair. Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson for the National League for Democracy and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Now that is a woman with story. And man, is it epic?

Her father, the de facto Prime Minister who negotiated independence from Britain, was assassinated when she was two. Her mother was Ambassador to India in 1960. After a childhood spent in Burma and India, Suu Kyi went to Oxford University.

At the literary festival, in conversation with Dame Joan Bakewell, she said: ‘I had never voted in a free election and would explain to Oxford intellectuals how precious that is. If you don’t vote, you start to lose your democratic right. Rights entail responsibilities.’

I imagine any apathetic students, cynical about politics and politicians, would have taken note. I can’t imagine anyone not paying attention to Suu Kyi, such is her poise, grace and intellect.

She graduated from Oxford University in 1969 and married fellow student Michael Aris three years later. Before she married, she told her husband-to-be that if her people ever needed her, she would return to Burma. He was, she said, ‘a remarkable man’, because he accepted that. They had two children and the family spent the 70s and 80s in the UK, India and the USA.

In 1988, she went back to Burma to look after her dying mother and found that protestors against the dictator U We Nin were being killed. She started speaking out against him and began a peaceful movement for democratic reform. She spent 15 of the next 21 years under house arrest.

She said that, during those times, she kept up a discipline of rising at 4.30am to ‘meditate then listen to the BBC news’. She spent time brushing up on languages, reading philosophy, politics and biographies, and playing the piano. ‘I was conscious of not wanting to waste time,’ she said.

Between being placed under house arrest in 1989 and the death of her husband in 1999, she only saw him five times. When he was diagnosed with cancer, the government denied him a visa. She was free to go and see him but feared she would not be allowed to return to Burma. She said the decision not to see her husband one last time was made easier because it ‘had already been decided’ before they were married. He knew she wouldn’t go back to see him.

Suu Kyi, now 68, has been free from house arrest since 2010. She won a by-election in 2012 in a landslide and became a member of parliament for the NLD. There is a general election next year but the junta added a clause to Myanmar’s constitution in 2008, which says that the presidency can’t be held by anyone whose spouse or children are foreign nationals, deliberately thwarting Suu Kyi. Her story continues.

I suppose what sets her story apart is that she followed a higher calling to lead a pro-democracy movement and dedicated herself to it. She put her sense of duty to her nation above that of her family. That’s hard!

She said she has ‘personal regrets’ at not being able to be with her family and would have liked to see her children grow up but, at the same time, she ‘had no doubts’ that she had to stay with the Burmese people.

So, given her own epic story, I was interested to hear, in a session about literary heroes,  that her literary heroine was Elizabeth Bennett from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Suu Kyi said: ‘Elizabeth was courageous, wouldn’t stand any nonsense and was not intimidated by rank or money.’ She was not held back by what other people think, ‘that was part of her courage,’ she said.

Ok, so Suu Kyi’s favourite book is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. No surprise there. But Elizabeth Bennett? Don’t get me wrong, I love the book and I love the character but somehow Elizabeth Bennett’s courage seems nothing compared to that of Suu Kyi.

Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, did point out that ‘we have a heroine in our midst’ and paid tribute to Suu Kyi’s ‘courage and dedication’. Her own literary hero was the little boy in Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes who, while everyone else played along pretending the emperor was dressed, said ‘but he isn’t wearing anything at all’. For Chang, the person who states the truth when others won’t is heroic.

Chang has lived through hard times. Another of her literary heroines is Madame Bovary, a copy of which she had when they were burning books during the cultural revolution in China. ‘I felt so much for her. I shared her sense of frustration and claustrophobia.’ It wasn’t the frustration of a bourgeois life, she said, but life under a totalitarian regime.

That is the power of a book, to reach down the ages and for the human truth in it to touch someone in a different time and place.

Louis De Berniere, of Captain Corelli fame, said his favourite hero was D’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers, although at the end of the books it was Porthos who was the real hero as he gives his life for the others.

So Aung San Suu Kyi picked her hero for courage, Jung Chang for being truthful and Louis de Berniere for self-sacrifice.

De Berniere mentioned, in a separate session, that his father was always quoting poetry at the dinner table, usually Shakespeare, and Hamlet’s ‘To thine own self be true’ speech was a particular favourite. And it occurred to me that perhaps it is Elizabeth Bennett’s courage to be herself and defy the conventions of her time that resonates with Suu Kyi.

It does take great courage to listen to the inner voice, to reach for the truth and to be our own true selves. Sometimes you have to go against the grain, defy convention and sacrifice an ordinary life to do that. But it’s in living as our own true selves, and answering our calling that we become heroic.

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.

Kipling’s If… For Writers

So the green nail varnish has chipped and the birthday optimism is dissipating. Of course I want to be a great writer but first I have to summon the energy to write a sentence. And another and keep going. I’ve written three books. None are published. But I get better each time. My failures are improving, I am getting closer to publication with every book I write. So rationally I know that I have to keep going and I will get there. But emotionally, it ain’t so easy. I have to suppress doubts and fend off the feeling of futility. I get moments of flow and flashes of joy and I hope that can keep me going. And so, with the help of Mr Kipling, (the poet rather than cakes, although cake is darn good idea) I’m giving myself and any other struggling writer a little pep talk.

If you can keep your head when Fifty Shades of Grey

Gets published and your story does not,

If you believe in your writing, come what may,

When no one else cares a jot;

If you can be rejected by publishers and not tire of rejection,

But instead scour the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book

And laugh despite dejection,

And in good spirits begin another book;

If you can ignore market trends and write from the heart,

And bare your soul to the page every day

Not knowing if you’ll win through, yet commit to your art

Your characters and your plot for no pay;

If you can dream of being published – and not make publication your master,

If you can kick those imposters fame and fortune up the arse

And write for the joy of it, despite the disaster

Of the doormat thump of a manuscript come home, and laugh at the farce;

If you can beat the neuroticism, procrastination and despair

And know, beyond all doubt, the word is mightier;

Then what the world thinks, you’ll not care

And what’s more, my friend, you’ll be a writer.

Apologies to Rudyard Kipling for riding roughshod over his great and inspirational poem. Apologies also to E.L. James for the cheap shot at Fifty Shades. No one can deny the supreme success of her books.

Green nail polish, new horizons.

Today I am 43. It’s the beginning of the rest of my life. It starts with green nail polish. Then I’m going to become the greatest writer of my time.

In small steps, of course. A word at a time, a book at a time. But the new reinvented 43-year-old me is thinking big. Somebody’s going to be remembered as a great 21st century writer. Why the heck shouldn’t it be me?

The green nail polish is a celebration of my quirkiness; it’s saying it’s ok to buck trends, to wade against the flow, to take risks. I am letting out my inner fabulousness.

Here’s how this surge of energy and statement of ambition came about:

Yesterday, I went to a creative part of town. I know Singapore is not the most creative place in the world, but there are pockets of creativity and new ideas. Tiong Bharu is one of them. I was in a cafe with my laptop, slowly and painfully writing. Starting a book is the most difficult bit. I have not yet hit ‘flow’, that magical point when the characters come alive and start doing unexpected things and you’re living the story with them. Anyway, in the scene I was writing I referred to Alice in Wonderland.

After I was done, I went to my favourite indie bookstore Books Actually. In the window was a copy of Alice in Wonderland, with artwork by the brilliantly bonkers Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. I bought it as a birthday treat to myself.

At the cash till, I flicked through a little book It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be by the advertising guru Paul Arden (click for inspirational quotes). I read it first thing this morning and it was the perfect hit of positivity. It’s about thinking big, having vision and laughing in the face of failure along the way. It’s about thinking differently, turning things on their head, taking risks, thinking beyond what’s fashionable or acceptable and making things happen. It’s about putting a new spin on things.

So I will no longer worry about the market or concern myself with whether it’s what agents or publishers are interested in. I will be the best writer I can in aiming to be the greatest. Past failures are my path to success.

As Winston Churchill said: ‘Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.’

Although, I admit, I did have a wobble on the enthusiasm front. To the extent that I gave up, threw my toys out of the pram and decided to do a course to teach English as a Foreign Language. (Turned out to be the creative equivalent of joining the Foreign Legion.) This was a good thing because it so clearly wasn’t me, it reaffirmed my belief in myself as a writer.

When I write, I am most myself. So I’m not so much reinventing myself, as my ambitions. Paul Arden says: ‘You need to aim beyond what you are capable of.’ At first, that seems like a contradiction. But, giving it more thought, it makes perfect sense. How else do we grow?

Then you have to make the vision of yourself reality. You learn to do this through experience and mistakes. Excellent. I’m on the right track then. Talent helps, of course, but it’s the desire to be the best that counts, he says. ‘Everybody wants to be good, but not many are prepared to make the sacrifices it takes to be great.’ (See YouTube link of Yayoi Kusama showing what it takes.)

He also talks about promoting yourself, putting yourself out there. This is more difficult for me. We, girls especially and English girls possibly more so, are taught not to show-off, gloat, crow, or otherwise talk ourselves up. We can quietly know we’re great, but it is not demure, lady like, or appropriate to sing about it. This attitude gets you absolutely nowhere. It may get you liked but it does not bring you success or wealth. So I need to cultivate this along with my writing. Ego. It’s not a bad thing.

Sparkly green nails

Green nails look great flashing across my keyboard.

So I’m here, me with the sparkly green nail polish that is part Wicked Witch of the East, part Absinthe fairy and a lot Cabaret. Me, failing extravagantly and learning from mistakes on the path to success. No more Mrs Nice Girl. This time I am, to coin Justine Musk’s  phrase, bad-ass. And I’m on my way to becoming the greatest writer of my time. (How am I doing on the ego front?)

Going for gold.

What a change to have role models like Jessica Ennis for the next generation of young women. What a change to see triumph born of hard work, grit and determination rather than talentless celebrity born of reality TV shows. What a change to see that beauty is  strength of spirit and a radiant smile rather than an inch of make-up and a pair of fake boobs. Perhaps now girls will aspire to be sportswomen rather than WAGs?

The likes of Jess Ennis and the female rowing team have certainly been an inspiration to me. They have rolled with life’s knocks and gone on to win gold. Jess Ennis suffered a setback in 2008 because of stress fractures to her right foot and missed the Beijing Olympics as a result. This meant switching her take-off leg in the long jump from her right to her left, retraining the neurological pathways until her weaker, less favoured leg was of Olympic gold standard. That takes guts.

Rower Katherine Grainger is an inspiration for keeping her eye on the prize and pursuing gold at the age of 36. Having won silver three times, and at an age when many would have considered it less likely she could do it, she won through.

And Helen Glover, whom with Captain Heather Stanning, won Team GB’s first gold medal in the women’s pairs, having started rowing only four years ago. Glover said: ‘If I can do it so can you. Take the chance to do something, do anything. Work hard and do your best and you can achieve anything.’

My something is writing. And I will work hard to write a brilliant novel and get it published. The world owes me nothing. It’s no use licking my wounds and sulking. I can do better than my last book. And I will. I am taking on this Olympic spirit.

I’ve highlighted three women at the Games but all the athletes put in time and effort day after day with relentless focus. Many medal winners talked of picturing or planning their race in their heads, of not thinking about others in the race because it would divert them from their goal. It was about the vision, deciding that the gold medal would be theirs.

I am focusing on writing, I am envisioning my idea coming together, of achieving flow and working day after day to finish my novel. I will write word after word, paragraph after paragraph, scene after scene and keep going until my book is finished. Then I will get the best agent to help me get it published, I will do whatever redrafts are necessary to make it perfect, I will roll with the knocks and I will not give up. I am not in control of the reviews or the sales. All I can do is write the best book I can, although I’m also envisioning rave reviews and high sales, and dammit, why not go the whole hog and envision the film too. I am going for gold.

How about you?

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.