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tulip

Song for a new manuscript: Little Shop of Horrors meets the author’s life

Grow For Me: the author’s version

(set to the music from Little Shop of Horrors: original film version below)

I’ve given you chocolate.

I’ve given you tea.

You’ve given me nothing,

But pure agony.

I’m begging you sweetly;

I’m down on my knees.

 

Oh, please, grow for me!

I’ve given you daydreams,

And Baileys to sip.

I’ve given you playlists:

You’ve given me zip.

Oh Muse, how I need you.

Oh book, how you tease.

Oh, please, grow for me!

 

I’ve given you endless Twitter-time to get you to thrive.

I’ve wandered for miles, like I’m supposed to, you’re barely alive.

I’ve sought out more feedback and workshops and fancy methods.

I’ve given you scene-cards and moleskines and book-fest trips,

What do you want from me, blood?

 

I’ve given you memories; I’ve given you pain.

Looks like you’re not happy ‘less I open a vein.

I’ll give you a few pints, if that’ll appease.

Now please… Oh-oh-oh, please,

Grow for me!

mountains and alpine meadows

World Building: Starting in the right place

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, but Hot Key’s question today on Twitter pushed me to get on with writing about it, not least because I’m determined to start blogging more regularly again.

What Hot Key wanted to know was how you build a world. It’s not something I’ve done in The Bone Dragon or in MoB (i.e. Book 2). But it is something I’m doing in several of my upcoming novels so it’s been on my mind a lot.

It’s so easy, when you think about building a world, to start with place. That’s what a world is, at base, after all. Isn’t your first image, when you think the word ‘world’, a planet or a map or something of that sort?

It’s a lot of fun to let your imagination conjure up mountains, deserts and seas… vast cities and picturesque villages. What a lovely afternoon you can spend peopling them with fantastic creatures from myth and fairytale or just from your own mind.

But none of this is going to help you write a really good book. A good book starts with a good story. And story is not place. The setting may be hugely important, but usually because it’s almost a character in its own right.

And there’s your answer about where to start: character.

Build your world about the characters you’re going to write about. What sort of world explains who they are? What sort of world will challenge them in interesting and exciting ways, giving you your plot?

Are you doing it again? Are you thinking of your world as a place that will challenge your characters? Do you really want to write a book about people climbing mountains or surviving in the desert? That’s not much of a plot, is it?

Remember, your world is a character.

‘But how does that help?’ you ask. And the answer is… it helps when you remember that it’s only one character. One among many.

There’s the real key: the true place to start. Your world is how all the characters fit together. How does wealth work? How does your setting influence that? How does gender (or the equivalent) work? What are the axes of inequality? What gives people power? What are the social and inter-personal rules? What are the values and beliefs, traditions and norms that underpin these rules?

Those things will grow out of and through ‘place’ – the physical world of your story – but the most important elements of any world-as-story are the people and the structures that dictate how they relate to each other.

Whatever they do, characters are always acting in accordance with the rules or against them: even when characters break the rules, the rules are still there. Which means that whatever characters do, they’re making a socially meaningful decision. They’re inviting consequences and… Hey, presto! We have conflict and tension, risks and rewards, goals and desires, obstacles and aids… We have all the ingredients for a great plot. A great story.

Some of the rules you need to work out to build your world will be relationship rules and some will be social rules… But there are always rules between people: big ones and small ones. Ones for whole societies and sub-rules even within families.

That is the true world you need to build: the world that grows out of who your characters are and the story you want to tell about how they relate to each other.

So don’t start with a map. Start with characters and build your world outwards from them. Don’t ignore your setting, just treat it as one of those characters. But only one of them. Otherwise you’ll end up with a setting to graft a story on, not a setting that is an integral part of your story.

bluebell wood light and shadow

Reading and writing as democracy: response to Anakana Schofield

There is much in Anakana Schofield’s recent Guardian article that I agree with; she makes three key points, and I’m with her (for the most part) on the first two. However, the third I disagree with entirely.

‘Third: why is there so much fuss in the media about how to write a novel – “everyone can become an author” – when the more important thing is how to read one?’

Is it really more important to learn how to read a novel than to write one? For those who want to write, it’s important to love to read (and, as Schofield says, read widely) but does reading always have to come first? Can’t the two go hand in hand, lessons from reading supporting writing development and lessons from writing supporting reading development?

Is it so very wrong that one of the things that readers want from writers is guidance on how they might become writers too? On the one hand, as writers, we know that there isn’t room for everyone to write. Or at least not to write and get paid. (Bear in mind here that one of Schofield’s key points, which I agree with, is that writers don’t get paid for a lot of their time and work: often people don’t even think this is unfair.) Be that as it may, shouldn’t writers still support and encourage readers who dream of writing too? Should we let self-interest dictate what we choose to give readers… especially if this isn’t what they want?

I think there’s something wonderful and truly democratic about people everywhere, with all sorts of backgrounds, wanting to write. For me, it says a lot about our society that we’re finally in a place where writing doesn’t have to come from money and privilege or even extensive formal education. I think that’s amazing. And I think people’s drive to write is to be applauded and encouraged.

What I don’t think is wonderful is when people want to write for all the wrong reasons and don’t want to spend any time trying to do it properly. But that’s a whole other matter. And, yes, there will be more people in that category as more people see themselves as both readers and writers (or at least potential writers). But it’s more important for building a progressive, liberal, open society that we encourage everyone to feel that they could write if they wanted to. That writing isn’t barred to them. That everyone with the right skills and the determination to do the best they can has a shot at success and reaching an audience.

As someone who specialises, alongside fiction, in editing human rights non-fiction, I find the third part of Schofield’s article disheartening. Yes, it’s difficult being a writer. Yes, there’s a lot you don’t get paid for. Yes, what people want is to learn how to become writers, potentially increasing the chances that you’ll get paid even less…

But should writers really feel that their audience can’t ask for what they want? That they should stand, solemn and silent, as writers impart their pearls of wisdom about how to read… including how to read their own work? I think this view appeals to a particular type of writer: one who feels they have authored a definitive text. One who feels in a unique position to explain how that text should be read.

I don’t feel that at all. I believe a text, when it is read, belongs to the reader and is created uniquely in that reading by the unique person reading it. Of course I’ve created the book that is being read, but I don’t own the reading itself: the process of transformation in which my words are turned into pictures and sounds and objects in the reader’s mind. That’s something that is jointly owned: that’s where my imagination and the reader’s imagination work together. That’s where who I am on the inside touches another person in the same way: at a level that human beings often struggle to connect on.

That’s why books are so wonderful: they mediate that process. And they do so across time, distance, language, culture… across all the trappings of society, finding a meeting point in what makes us most uniquely, individually human. (Which is not to say that books always appeal across time, distance, culture and language… but it is possible. And it’s truly is a form of magic when it happens.)

I guess the heart of the issue is that I don’t believe that there is (or should be) some hierarchy of quality as regards readings, with the authors at the top of the pile. Yes, some readings seem more interesting and/or detailed and/or knowledgeable and/or creative than others, but that doesn’t make them ‘superior’ is a general sense, partly because it’s all so subjective: what’s superior in a reading for one person is inferior for another. It’s subjectivity building on subjectivity, so feeling a need to put readings on a scale whereby some become ‘low culture’ and others ‘high culture’ defeats the beauty of imagination: that it can be truly democratic. Otherwise, that scrambling for position and authority makes a mockery of all the best that is human in reading and writing and imagining.

So I don’t think writers should tell readers that their job is to shut up about their own writing dreams and listen to the ‘masters’ (gender implications fully intended) declaim about proper readings and how readers might be better readers while still being passive listeners and receivers of literature. Not creators. And not a threat to writers’ income or position. Just a source of money and admiration.

I agree with Schofield that ‘contemplation of literature’ is vital, but why can’t space for it encompass the links between reading and writing? Why can’t those boundaries dissolve and with them the ‘politics’ of literature that separate people into writers, learned readers and ignorant readers? Why can’t we just talk about literature both as text and as process, open to everyone?

Which is not to diminish the fact that readers and writers do bring different levels of skill and knowledge and imagination to both activities… But skills and knowledge and imagination are processes too. If we say to people ‘these avenues are open to you: if you work hard and progress you too will have a chance at succeeding’, we’re not also saying everyone will become a writer: it’ll depend on both the work they put in and their innate ability. As it always does. But everyone’s work and innate ability will qualify them equally to try.

Ultimately, Schofield argues that

‘It’s a great deal more fulfilling to read and think about a fine book than to attempt to write one.

Is it? Is it really? It isn’t for me. I love reading. Of course, I do! It’s one of my favourite things. And I wouldn’t, couldn’t and shouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t do a lot of it and love it. But I like writing best of all. And that is why I am a writer first and foremost in my own mind. And why I think others should be free to strive for the same. Free and encouraged. Because a society in which all people feel they are allowed to write – to speak to the world in words fixed on paper – is a society that says anyone may work hard and talent may be found anywhere, and whoever they come together in should have the same chance of success.

Writing and Teaching Resources: Write like a Victorian by Emma Carroll

Huge thanks to the lovely Emma Carroll, author of the forthcoming Frost Hollow Hall (Faber & Faber, 3 October 2013), for providing the first entry in the collection of writing and teaching resources I’ll be creating here.

Remember, if you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch (via Twitter @AlexiaCasale or a comment on any part of the blog) if you’d be interested in doing a guest post. 

If you’re a teacher who regularly works with authors, I’d be also be very interested to hear from you: it would be great to gather some guest posts from the other side of the equation.

Readers: do let me know about your favourite existing resources! I’d love to collect some links.

And now, over to Emma…

*

Write like a Victorian

Right from the start, I swore I’d write what I knew. I’d been a secondary school teacher for fifteen years, so I’d be writing for teens, about teens, doing teenage things. End of.

Not quite.

My debut novel, Frost Hollow Hall, which will be published by Faber in October, is in fact a middle grade historical novel. Contrary to what my students think, I wasn’t alive in the C19th. This wasn’t ‘writing what I knew’ at all. And yet my teaching job did play a huge part in it.

In AS English Literature coursework, students can opt to write creatively in the style of a Victorian novel. In order to deliver the unit, I had to know how to write this way myself. Gulp.

Suffice to say, in teaching my students, I taught myself, which for me is part of the magic of being in the classroom

How did we do it? Here are a few of my own tried and tested considerations when writing historical fiction. I’m sure there are better/ different ways to do it; these worked for me.

  1. Pictures: Photos or painting from the relevant era often tell a thousand stories. Very helpful for visualising characters, settings and dress.
  2. Literature: My students worked closely with a set text, which they had to know inside out. For my own purposes, I read widely: any adult or childrens’ literature from or about the era, news reports, websites, journals, biographies, I could go on!
  3. Historical practicalities: Be mindful of what can and can’t be done. Characters can’t text each other or turn on a light. Information will often be conveyed through letters or diaries, night scenes taking place in candlelight or under a moon. Also travel: how long would it take to get from A to B? Would your character have the means to embark on long journeys? Consider too how much things cost, what was available and how people might purchase them. This list is not exhaustive.
  4. Class and Gender: In historical fiction these tend to be foregrounded concepts. A character’s class will impact on their work, their dreams, where they live, what they do, how they look, and, all importantly, their ‘voice’. Before 1870, there was no formal education system. If your character can’t read or write, it may impact on how they receive plot information. Likewise gender: this is particularly significant for female characters. Consider the norms and values of the era, and how these fit with your character’s motivations. In her YA historical novels, Marie Louise Jensen overcomes this ‘constraint’ wonderfully.
  5. Language: A very obvious way to tell a book is old is through its use of language. Jane Austen writes in very long, grammatically-complex sentences: the Brontes use domestic and natural symbolism. Brilliant contemporary ‘Victorian pastiche’ writers such as Sarah Waters and Essie Fox use words no longer in common usage such as ‘casement’, ‘visage’, or ‘gaze’. I create my own glossary of era-appropriate words. A good copy editor will pick up on anything you’ve used that isn’t quite right.
  6. And The Rest: Plotting, character tropes, style, focus on intense personal experience, gothic, I could go on…

The end result? My students got great grades: I got a two book deal. The rest is history. (Fingers crossed!)

Frost Hollow Hall book cover

A ghostly tale about love, loss and forgiveness with an instant classic feel.

Emma Carroll is a secondary school English teacher. She has also worked as a news reporter, an avocado picker and the person who punches holes into filofax paper. She recently graduated with distinction from Bath Spa University’s MA in Writing For Young People.

Frost Hollow Hall is Emma’s debut novel. Told in the distinctive voice of Tilly Higgins, it was inspired by a winter’s day from Emma’s childhood. Currently, Emma is working on her second novel, set in a Victorian circus. Emma lives in the Somerset hills with her husband and two terriers.

Writing and teaching: a series of resources

This post marks the start of a new project to create a collection of free online resources, involving a range of authors, about the links between writing and teaching. The initial focus will be on author visits to schools, but I’d like to expand eventually to include creative writing and teaching at university level, and also in more informal circumstances, like workshop series in libraries and so forth.

If you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch (via Twitter @AlexiaCasale or a comment on any part of this blog) if you’d be interested in doing a guest post (more info below).

If you’re a teacher who regularly works with authors, I’d be also be very interested to hear from you: it would be great to gather some guest posts from the other side of the equation.

So there did this all come from and why is it A Good Thing?

Last week I did my first ever school visit as an author. Huge thanks to Uxbridge College (my old school) for having me back to do an AS English Lang. & Lit. lecture!

When I frantically set about researching how author visits work, I quickly realised how little free material is available. There’s not very much for newbies trying to learn the basics: what do I do? What do authors usually do? How do I avoid the PANIC?! There’s also very little for authors who have done school visits but then think, ‘You know, a bit of professional development would be good: I’d like to learn about how other people do it to see if I can get some new ideas to refine my practice.’

There are seminars (NAWE recently had one that sounded brilliant). And there are resources (again, NAWE have a long list) BUT most you have to pay for, with no opportunity to ‘see inside’ to check whether the advice is going to be worth it. And most are written by a single author, so at best you know you’ll be buying one point of view. There are also some good individual posts on individual author websites.  

BTW, do let me know about your favourite existing resources! I’d love to collect some links.

What I have yet to find is a collection of free resources that explores different perspectives. I think this is a pity.

I find this lack particularly surprising as, having spent three years working part-time to qualify as a teacher (PGCHEP – the university-teaching equivalent of a PGCE) and Higher Education Academy Fellow, I was hugely impressed by the central role professional development is accorded in teaching programmes. These programmes aren’t just about qualifying but understanding that you can always improve – and should strive to do so. That’s very attractive to me as a writer as the same principles apply: there is no end point where a writer has perfect mastery of the craft, no matter how brilliant he or she may be.

Just because authors don’t have to be qualified to do school visits – or, indeed, to teach at university or in libraries or other circumstances – doesn’t mean they aren’t committed to doing a good job… and that they don’t need or want opportunities for professional development. And, at the very least, a decent selection of free resources to start with.

(BTW, I am not suggesting here that authors should have to get a qualification to do the sorts of teaching I’m referring to: it wouldn’t be feasible, though I’m sure many would love there to be more courses to go on both to meet others in the same boat and to learn teaching basics. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that most authors feel a responsibility to do their level best at events and it’s important for them to find some help and support without having to pay – at least for the basics.)

Anyway, the plan here is to try to create what I think is missing.

If you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch if you’d be interested in doing a guest post. I am particularly interested to hear from authors who are also school teachers or university tutors/lecturers. As I said above, I’d also love to explore the other side of the coin with some guest posts from the perspective of teachers who regularly work with authors.

Most of the post will fall broadly into the following four broad categories

  • ‘teaching’ events for authors: what authors should know about how books are taught
  • ‘teaching’ events for authors: good practice examples and pratical advice
  • authors who also teach: how your own writing inspires/advances your teaching skills and how your teaching inspires/advances your writing skills
  • authors who also teach: innovative approaches to using professional creative practice in teaching and learning

So that’s the plan and the reasoning behind it!

First post coming soon. The lovely Emma Carroll, author of forthcoming Frost Hollow Hall (Faber & Faber, 3 October 2013), offers a brilliant workshop outline for teaching an English Literature creative writing class on how to write like a Victorian. Fantastic fodder for discussing classics from the Victorian age versus modern historical fiction, as well as getting your students to start dabbling in their own creative historical projects.

 

The name of the Dragon?

Over on http://www.alexiacasale.com, I’ve been warbling about the importance of names, so I thought I might do a post here about the names I picked for The Bone Dragon… and use this as an opportunity to introduce some of the characters (well, a little bit anyway).

One thing I am bad about, as a writer, is that I tend to have too many named characters. It’s hard for people to keep track of them and it detracts from the reader’s focus on the characters who are important. I’m trying to remedy my natural inclination in this regard by naming some people by their role only (e.g. the policeman, Jenny’s mum, the lifeguard, etc.). This has worked fairly well in The Bone Dragon.

The main character has a rib in a pot that gets carved into a dragon. Given the parallels with Old Testament stories about Eve being made from Adam’s rib, I didn’t even have to think about my name character’s name. She was just Evie. Right from the start. There is also an Adam in the book.

Given how quirky the book is, it was really important to me not to strain the reader’s credulity more than necessary, so it made sense for the majority of the characters to have very ordinary names. As ordinary as possible while still being appealing: Amy, Paul, Ben, Fiona, Fred, Jenny, Mrs Poole, Ms Winters, Mrs Henderson…

Phee and Lynne are Evie’s two best friends. For them, I wanted names that weren’t particularly unusual, but weren’t too common. And I knew I wanted one to be a nickname. Phee is probably from Phoebe, but I’m not sure. Just as I’m not sure if Evie is from Evelyn or not. It doesn’t really matter. They think of themselves as Phee and Evie so that’s who they are in the book: it’s all anyone really needs to know for sure.

Who else? Well, there’s Sonny Rawlins. He just turned up, complete with name, so if there was a thought process behind his naming, then it’s not one I was conscious of.

There are a handful of other named characters, most of whom are named in a throwaway manner, so readers know they don’t have to remember these names.

And that’s about it for names. How abou the Dragon, you might ask? Well, things with the Dragon aren’t entirely straightforward. Things with dragons rarely are. You’ll just have to read and see…

tapestry rose close up

What’s in a name?

Names are important. Sometimes they just identify things and there’s a simple relationship between the signified (i.e. the thing being named) and the signifier (i.e. the name itself). Often, however, names do not merely identify things, telling us that A is different from B: often, names tell us something about the nature of the thing they’re naming.

In fiction, it’s rarely enough to name things in order to distinguish them. Names shouldn’t just help us tell characters and places (among other things) apart, but should also convey something further to us. Careful naming is an opportunity to give readers information without telling them anything beyond the name: it can be a great way to info-dump without anyone realising that’s what you’re doing.

Sometimes this can go too far: recently, there was a dreadful murder mystery episode on TV where a character took on a name meaning the same as the phrase he scribbled every time he committed a murder. The trouble with this is the ‘spelling it out bit’ necessary for the revelation of whodunit to work. Why is this a problem, you might ask? Well, in my mind, this approach to naming is by way of making an in joke. The minute you spell the joke out, it becomes both (a) not at all funny and (b) not very clever. A really clever in joke reveals itself, rather than requiring the author to step in.

If you’re writing parody or comedy, then silly names are de rigeur. Or they should be. Who doesn’t like good old PC Plod or (my ten-year old attempt) Detective Inga Vestiggatin. (You are allowed to groan here, but do remember I was only ten.)

Now, I’m not arguing that all names should have a ‘translation’ that tells you something about the character and/or their fate in the story, just that names need to fit: the key connotations should feel natural and appropriate. I would find it very hard to suspend disbelief if, in an action flick that took itself seriously (always a bad thing to begin with), the superhero were called Hubert. Similarly, I would take issue with a modern teenage beauty in a work of serious literary fiction being called Griselda. Each to their own, but I, as a reader, would find the name a terrible mismatch. The writer would have to do a lot of convincing before I imagined a pretty eighteen-year-old each time I saw the name.

Now, obviously books can make new ‘matches’, creating new connotation. But I think the Griselda one would be a real uphill battle. ‘Hermione’ as a nickname for someone clever but not stereotypically pretty makes sense on the basic snap-judgement level we tend to react to names on.

Finding the right name can be really hard. The Wordsworth Dictionary of First Names and the Wordsworth Dictionary of Surnames are both excellent places to start, but they are pretty Anglo-centric. Even if your character’s family has lived in the UK or the USA for generations, they may well have immigrated there at some stage and brought with them a tradition for, say, Italian names or Iranian ones. A little research will help identify some options (e.g. for Italian names), but it won’t necessarily tell you what connotations attach to those names in the language/culture they originated from. That isn’t always a problem if the vast majority of your readers are unlikely to know these connotations, but it is something to consider in terms of doing your research ‘due diligence’ for your own satisfaction.

Sometimes it is the sound of a name that is important. Often this is the case for names that are foreign to the writer and/or the majority of readers. Sometimes what matters is that major historical figures have carried the name: Elizabeth raises a wealth of connotations. Conversely, Benito was a very popular name among the completely apolitical farming communities of northern Italy until Mussolini came along. Sometimes the connotations are to do with other books or TV shows or movies… The key thing to think about is what most readers will associate with the name. Remember to distance yourself from purely personal associations if they are likely to be at odds with what most readers think and feel about a particular name. Unless it doesn’t matter if most readers don’t get the joke. It’s fine to leave in a few little things that you, your closest friends and family will spot, but no one else will bat any eye at.

So, the message is that names are important. Take the time to get it right. You’ll know when you’re there. Conversely, if a name makes you want to itch (I sometimes literally get the scritches when I can’t find the right name for a character), then stop and fix it. This doesn’t have to be during your first draft, but it should probably be by the time you’ve finished your second. If you don’t believe fully in your characters because they have the wrong names, then how will the reader manage?

This applies to everything in your story world that has a name. It’s one of the things that makes writing fantasy and sci-fi so hard. Conversely, it’s one of the few easy things about writing historical fiction.

My last words of advice: remember that other people may well be able to help with names. Just don’t be too proud to ask and to accept suggestions if they’re good. Also, if you’re really bad at names, it’s worth thinking about what genre is going to suit you best as a writer. Because names really do matter and, unlike with titles, your agent/editor is probably not going to offer to rewrite them all if your efforts stink.

All that said, I find names really, really hard to get right. I’m getting better at finding the right names – and finding them quicker – as I become more experienced, but it’s still one of the things I struggle with. Titles are a real issue for me. But more on that another time.

 

Any tips of books of names or how you find names for your characters/places?