Archive for the ‘the beginning’ Category

the Writing Smithy

Saturday, January 22nd, 2011

Out to tea with a friend this week, and he said to me, ‘so, do you plan on having a holiday any time soon?’ and I shrugged sheepishly – which is my way of telling you that I’ve gone and started something else with a friend of mine, and this is a plug-post.

the Writing Smithy is me and Sarah Hymas, mentoring and editing and doing appraisals. She does poems, I do novels – and if you’re a short storyist or a flasher or a script-writer still get in touch because we can refer you on to people we know and like, are qualified to do what they do and will not fleece or flatter you.

We ‘soft-launched’ the website a couple of weeks ago – and already the recommendations and referrals are trickling in. I’m so excited about this. Since I stopped working in the library I’ve been trying out loads and loads of different kinds of work and finding a lot of tasks, environments (and yes, people) that I didn’t want to continue with. But since Sarah and I decided to do this, it has been Spot On.

The thing I like best about being in charge of my own working life is that I can make sure everything I do is honest and high-quality, is more about the writing than the selling of the writing*, involves working with people I find interesting and doing something that I like. And what I like, I’ve discovered, is working with other people who are interested in making their writing better, open to experimenting, reading and writing new things, talking and listening, practising and working hard.

Everything else about us and what we do and why we do it, how much it costs and how you can get in touch with us is on our website. We’re based in the North West, but we will work via email, phone or Skype if it is impossible for you to travel to us.

*there’s nothing wrong with selling writing. I like selling writing. But I am a writer and a teacher, not an agent or a publisher or a sales and marketing specialist. So I stick to the writing part. It’s only fair.

Guest-Tip #1: Tom Vowler

Saturday, November 27th, 2010

How I found writing. Or it me.

I’m always fascinated by how writers came to write, how they made that seemingly absurd leap from dabbling to full-timers. It’s only now, with a book out, that I feel able, without diffidence or apology, to pronounce myself a writer. I’ve written fiction for about eight years, but wasn’t comfortable with the label until recently. It felt akin to saying I was a mechanic without ever actually having fixed a car. A teacher with an empty classroom. A little harsh, perhaps; if most of your day is taken up by writing, you are, in the absence of any nocturnal activity of note, a writer.

But nobody wakes one morning, having never created a single fictive word, to declare themselves A Writer. And if they do, it seems reasonable and fair to expect a certain amount of derision and sniggering. There’s an apprenticeship to serve – of living, of reading – but also writing. Some will learn more quickly than others, yes, but hitting a few keys on your aunt’s Steinway doesn’t qualify you as a pianist. And so we must start, as amateurs, at the beginning, which will usually mean clumsy, over-written slightly autobiographical prose. At least it was in my case.

I came to books relatively late, in my mid-twenties. I still feel envy when people talk of parents’ shelves bursting with classics, of discovering literary delights as a child, a teenager, even as a graduate, as if I’ll always be playing catch up. I had a vague awareness that books existed; they just weren’t part of any world I occupied. It was during a prolonged bout of illness that a rather eccentric acupuncturist began giving me reading lists as part of the (holistic) treatment. And so came Kafka, Camus, Borges, Atwood, Márquez – perhaps the literary equivalent of being chucked in the deep end. Without armbands. My appetite whetted, I sought others, in what’s become, to date, a decade-long reading adventure.

A few years in, I pondered: How hard can this be? (Answer: no harder than any other really hard thing.) And so came the aforementioned clumsy, over-written slightly autobiographical novel. (It’s actually not that bad – I was almost on Richard & Judy with the first chapter – but it probably falls short of the required standard. Perhaps to write a good book, you have to write a bad one first.) I remember someone once saying: Write a bad short story, you’ve wasted two weeks; a bad novel, you’ve wasted two years. But the lessons learned in that time have, I believe, served me well since.

And so having dabbled as a barman, psychologist, journalist, gambler and children’s train driver, an MA in creative writing seemed the next logical career step. It was here I started to take my writing seriously. I’m not convinced you can teach people to be great writers, but you can learn aspects of craft, such as character development, creating dramatic tension and voice, experimenting with structure and viewpoint. Essentially you’re learning to be a critical reader, firstly of others’ work, then your own. For all their disparagement, I found the course, the exposure to great fiction, the visiting writers, to be the inspiration I needed.

By this time I was becoming increasingly drawn to the short form, discovering Carver, Cheever, Chekhov and those who start with other letters too. I was astonished at the effect, or perhaps more the affect, four- or five-thousand words could achieve. The short story’s intensity, its visceral and urgent nature, seduced me utterly and there is something transcendent about the best ones, which can leave the reader both exhilarated and shattered. For me they are the high-wire act of fiction. I became voracious, reading hundreds of stories a year: Updike, Lorrie Moore, William Trevor, Annie Proulx, James Salter, T.C. Boyle – all masterly exponents of this demanding form. Emerging voices also excited me: Kevin Barry, Clare Wigfall, Philip Ó Ceallaigh, Claire Keegan, Helen Oyeyemi.

My own stories began doing well in competitions, featuring in literary journals. In the year following my MA I doubled the length of the collection, eventually submitting it to the Scott Prize (an international award for debut collections), which it was fortunate enough to win.

Shortly after finishing the MA I received an Arts Council grant to research and write a (better) novel, which saw me move to Dartmoor, where the book is largely set. Wanting to share the process with new writers as much as possible, I blogged from that first empty page to the final draft, and now as I submit it.

Discovering books, great writers, and then a love for storytelling myself, feels like stumbling into a wondrous world, one that had been kept secret from me for so long. And all this from having some needles stuck in me.

Tom lives in south-west England where he writes and edits fiction. He’s just finished a novel and has recovered sufficiently to consider another. He blogs here. The Method and Other Stories won the inaugural Scott Prize and is published by Salt.

Guest-Tips is a new spin-off Tips series. If you’re a writer and you have a tip, you can contact me. I am especially interested in tips from poets, flashers (the joke that never gets old!) and short story writers although there’s always room for more opinionated novelists.


Sunday, October 31st, 2010

People who are interested in knowing a bit about the thinking that goes into planning a novel might want to read the post I wrote during the summer here, as well as the comments. This post is a kind of reply or sequel to that post.

Thinking more about NaNoWriMo. The very reasonable comment from Paul that slapping down a load of words is more stunt than craft. Me being determined to be more thoughtful. To make decisions, to be less trial and error about it all. To make lists and chapter plans. And then finding I am paralysed and might need the stunt of an arbitrary word count to get the engine turning over.

I do have a plan. And I am anticipating the problems. Here they are:

Writing more autobiographically than I have done before – none of the characters are me or anyone I know, but two or three of the scenes come from my life, and I’m writing about a topic very close to my own upbringing. There are worries associated with this. And it triggers interesting thoughts. How even-handed do I have to be? What are my motivations? People who want to find things out about any topic won’t turn to a novel for it, so factual accuracy is less of a priority than authenticity. Authentic is really, really difficult. Especially as most of the time I’m unsure of my own opinions about anything. Hence, I think, the narrative vehicle of lots of narrators.

Five first person narrators. Possibly six. Each of them very different. Wanting to capture their voices. Wondering if I am up to the job. Wondering if this kind of ventriloquism is a cheap trick (Martin Amis mentioned something like this in his Paris Review Interview and reading it stung me a little). It feels (impersonation, inventing narrators, first persons) like it’s something worthwhile to do for me because it involves me forcing myself to grow empathy and understanding for points of view I don’t agree with. Very difficult.

That is where I am up to so far. I am looking forward to giving myself the room to bang out a short first draft and see what it looks like at the end of November. Posting might be erratic during the next four weeks.


Monday, November 23rd, 2009

The reason I want to write a detective novel:

They are about finding things out. I try to avoid using words like epistemological on this blog, as I’m fairly unsure of the spelling and I wonder sometimes if words like that don’t mean exactly what I think they mean. You wouldn’t want to look like a wally, would you?

There are always a couple of stories. The event, which is the murder or the stealing or whathaveyou. Which is often not really there – sort of between the lines. And then the actual story, which is the uncovering.

Like unreliable narrators have two stories – what they think they mean, and what you think they mean. And the magic of how the other story gets in there, when you haven’t used words to write it at all.


And the way you can monkey about with the detective form. The not-finding out. The impossibility of finding things out. Of knowing things.

I think that’s a regular theme with me. The Annie book is really about the impossibility of knowing someone else, because we only have words to touch each other with, and they’re not very good for that. And Cold Light is, I realise now I’m reading through my almost final draft and cursing the typos and the awkward sentences and the non-nonsensical things I’ve made my characters say now and again, sort of about the same thing – I’ve been reading Elizabeth Loftus and there’s something coming out in this book that I already knew. Our memories aren’t the way that books with flashbacks in pretend they are at all. And still I like to write books with flashbacks in.

I don’t think it is possible to find things out. To know things. Not by interrogating other people, or ourselves, or the past. The evidence is unreliable.

So why not write a detective novel?

The New Leaf (if not new shoes)

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Thanks to the miracle of blog scheduling, when you read this, I’ll be in the process of signing paperwork and getting married!

<-- those aren't my shoes and it certainly isn't my dress. At the time I'm writing, I don't have shoes. The Mr has said so long as my novel is finished it doesn't matter what kind of shoes I wear (possibly because he hasn't got any shoes either - and Small Fry... nope, she's wearing plastic high-heels or Pepper Pig Wellies, depending on the weather). I may have swapped a shopping trip for a last minute edit of the final chapter. It's Whitby Goth Weekend. Maybe I can pick something fetching up while I'm there. I'll let you know how I get on. This blog has turned into a boring list of the promotional engagements I’ll be doing, or have done. After I get back from Whitby I promise to be more interesting, in deeply interesting ways. Or I will lie a bit more about the things I get up to. I’m hoping to spend November reading books, watching films, catching up on the hoovering, putting receipts in date order, sleeping, waiting for feedback on Cold Light, teaching some workshops, sleeping some more, worrying about Cold Light and helping the cat to forgive me after leaving her for a week… I’m sure there’ll be some interesting blog-fodder in amongst that lot.


Sunday, May 25th, 2008

Well done me. I have done a tatty first draft of my book. I can’t give you word count, because most of it is still in handwriting rather than Times New Roman, but I think it will be quite short compared to how I imagine it will be when it is done. So let’s say 50 – 60 thousand words.

I feel much better now it is done. I feel like I can start properly now. Most of my writing is editing, really. I get a bit scared by nothing – blank pages, new word files, notebooks with pages left to be filled. When I have lots of words I can roll my sleeves up and get stuck in. Which I will be doing (that is ‘real’ writing, I think) soon, but not right away.

I am going to write a bit about method and process now. This might not be interesting if you don’t like writing. Sorry.

1. The first novel I wrote was on a typewriter. I typed up the sheets onto a computer. It was rubbish but I still have it.
2. The second novel was written on a laptop. It got stolen (thank god). That was rubbish too, because there wasn’t actually a story to it. I liked doing it though.
3. The third novel was mainly written on a computer. Some parts of it were written on the back of printer paper that had been used to print out short stories I didn’t like anymore. That one was better. I still like that one a lot.
4. The fourth one was written on a computer. I wrote it very quickly because I was scared that I had finished number 3 and wasn’t working on anything else. It is shocking. Much worse than number 1. I don’t have it anymore. There wasn’t anything in it worth saving.
5. This one has been written mainly in A4 pads. This is different for me, as you can see. I tried to type it up when I had time at the weekends, but I started tinkering with it then, so I gave that up. I needed the paper and pen this time, because I was writing it in my car during my lunch break and in bed at night, or early in the morning.

Other things: I think I know what this one is going to be ‘about’ now. I think it will be a bit happier than number 3. It is going to have a happy ending, but it is a happy ending with a sort of shadow to it. I am still suspicious of happy endings. There are going to be less Deep Sea Fish in it than I thought, although there will still be a few. It is nothing like my plan. There are three deaths in it. I think three is the optimum number of corpses to have in a novel.

I am very happy.


Thursday, May 8th, 2008

I am nearly nearly nearly nearly done with my first draft.

I am very excited. Starting is not the hardest bit. I start lots of things. Two or three days after I start is the hardest thing. I have thought of something else to start. I have to do something else like washing up or ironing trousers. I read what I have done so far back to myself and feel discouraged.

That’s the hardest thing. When I get over that hardest thing part completely I will be a writing genius. I decided to take myself in hand while feeling the hardest thing and think some positive thoughts.

Here are some of them.

1. You stood on a bull-dog clip once in your bare feet and it really, really hurt, and that was worse than this.
2. It is all right to pack it in if you really hate it. It won’t make a difference to the world. But you might feel bad.
3. This is better than the hot air balloon one.
4. You like doing this really, it is just the hardest bit, and after a bit you will be on the middle bit and that bit is a better bit.
5. You have done childbirth and labour. There can be no complaining after that.
6. You are a real person and should get on with this.
7. You do want to know how this ends, don’t you?

Then I got onto the middle. The middle is quite a hard bit too. You think, this is not how I planned it. And I have come too far to stop now but there is still quite a long way to go. And this is stupid I could be sleeping or watching telly or ironing trousers instead. You say, aha! I will not be a novelist anymore, I will be something else. I will refuse to do this terrible thing. Then you sober up and get yourself together and feel a bit ridiculous for complaining about something that no-one actually asked you to do anyway.

Then you get onto the nearly there bit. This is another good bit. You have lots of ideas for improvements for the second draft. You write those kinds of ideas down in a blue notebook with a picture of a fish on the front of it, and carry on anyway. You know when you read it back it is going to be disappointing and still need a lot of work. Like seven more drafts, if the last one is anything to go by. You click word count and feel pleased. You double space it and you do a spell check. You are nearly there!
You think fast and type fast and feel like a million trillions.

I have to think of a present that I will give myself when I finish the first draft. Because then I am going to take a week off and think about something else and look over my notes for improvements the second time round and read some good books. This treat should be quite a good treat, but not an excellent treat. The excellent treat is for when the last draft is done.

Wishes + Writing Update

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

I would quite like to write a story about a hot-air balloon again. They creep into most of the things I write. It is like sitting next to a friend who has just met someone. She will keep ramming his name into the conversation, even if you have never met him. That is what I am like with hot air balloons. I found two in the chapter I have just written. I might leave them in until the end.

I would also like to write one of those Choose Your Own Adventure game books. I really liked those when I was younger. I still like them. I like participating with novels. I know there are more sophisticated ways of doing that than throwing dice but that was how I first got the idea that other people’s writing was something you could join in on, and that books were dead until someone picked them up. Also, they were very, very exciting.

I would like to figure out how to do proper endings, and happy endings sometimes. I am not sure how true that last sentence is. I think I’d like to know how to do it, even if I decided not to do it, most of the time.

If most novels are about 80k words or so, I am nearly 1/4 of the way through Underground Cave of Fish. I am not sick of it yet, which is good. I might throw away my plan though.

I have a sort of method where I am going to type it up in chronological order as quickly as I can and not read it back to myself. I will be paying most attention to plot and structure. Then afterwards I can look at it. It will be like a very long plan, a draft, a Skelly-wag. Then I will be able to see what I have got and do all the other interesting things about people and ideas and talking and unmanned deep-sea submersibles.

The Beginning

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

I wonder about how other writers do it – about how they start off. The beginning involves a new obsession or a voice ringing around in my head that belongs to a person that isn’t me, or isn’t only me. I write incoherently in expensive notebooks or on the back of things, or type what I am thinking.

Then I cut it up and beat it senseless – something – a form – sometimes appears – like digging something fragile and complicated out of slime. I like doing the writing better than I like having written something. Except when I don’t.

I talked to a friend who does Graphic Designing and he says, yes, you start off over here, but it wobbles over there a bit (demonstrating with beer-mats) and it might veer all over the place, somewhere else, by the time you’ve started, and I said yes, you just do it and then you sort it out afterwards, make it into something when you’ve got the stuff and all the time we are nodding furiously, not tipsy, but not articulate either.

The first, incoherent stuff is very interesting to me, because there’s a dark gap between that and what it ends up being – I can’t find the missing link in the drafts. Sometimes it evolves, and sometimes I wake up and it is there on the computer like a magic-eye picture I didn’t see before, or a burglar sitting in the best chair. I like that bit.

Here’s a bit of the writing before I have cleaned the slime off it. It will end up like a spider web but at the moment it is a lump. I can see my brain getting stuck, snagging on elastic and sausages, but I am going to make this into something.

Deep-sea fish, or that woman in her caravan, getting blacker and bigger. A black pudding sausage with a rubber band around the middle. Or someone (a woman who is older than anyone I’ve written about before) saying ‘what a disgusting thing to say,’ to a man who is her husband, but quite a bit younger than her. And she says it with the G all spiky – maybe she’s not from up here, because we say it with a C, don’t we? Discusting – like that. The regionally-challenged put the G in, but it is harder work to say it like that, the G cuts the word down the middle like a rubber band, a link in a chain of sausages. She’s saying it because he’s just told her about that wonderful thing with the angler fish, and he describes the boy one biting the girl one, growing a tube between his mouth and her womb, getting the sperms into her that way, becoming a parasite, and he says, ‘he just becomes a testicle’ and their little girl is there, fascinated, helping him make senchi discs, and mother says what a disGusting thing to say, and he’s a bit crushed and feels daft. I’d bloody love a caravan.

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