Thursday, 19 October 2017

After Great Pain: The Power of Words -- Lucy Coats

"After great pain," says Emily Dickinson, "a formal feeling comes...". It is a poem I go back and back to, to try and make sense of painful episodes in my own life. I have always felt emotional pain in a very visceral way, in my solar plexus, and the way I try to deal with it is, like Dickinson, to externalise it, to write it down, and get the pain onto paper. Mostly I do this by writing poetry. As anyone who follows my Instagram feed will know, sometimes I post these publicly -- especially if they are about my ongoing struggles with depression. I choose to do this because I know (from the messages and comments which come to me afterwards) that it helps others to feel that they are not alone.

Words, as all who read this blog know, are powerful things. They can wound and hurt when used carelessly -- but they can also provide succour and healing. Another thing that words can do is to bring a group of people, who would never otherwise know about each other, together. In the last week, we have seen many distressing revelations from Hollywood. Many women are coming forward with stories about sexual abuse and harassment in the acting profession, and talking openly about the hurt, fear and mental damage which are caused by a powerful person in the industry abusing that power. It has also had another effect. After an actress called Rose McGowan was (I and many others think unjustly and unnecessarily) suspended from Twitter for reasons which are linked to the story I have just mentioned, another actress decided to do something about it. (McGowan, incidentally, also tweeted the entirety of William Blake's 'A Poison Tree' -- which made me understand that poem in a whole other way). Alyssa Milano tweeted a hashtag with just two small words: #metoo and asked women to tweet it if they too had suffered sexual abuse or harassment ( it should be noted that the #metoo movement was originally started in 2006 by Tarana Burke, to spread awareness and understanding of sexual assault in underprivileged communities of colour).  What I have seen grow in the last few days under the umbrella of those two small words has been extraordinary. Women all over the world have brought forth a tsunami of stories, all linked by what we (and yes, I do include myself) have suffered in this way. Seeing friends, relatives, those I know well and not so well, complete strangers, share their stories in this way has been a powerful experience. It has made me weep. It has made me angry. It has made me realise yet again that far far too many of us have been subjected to stuff that is not now and never was acceptable, and also that even now, many of us will be too scared to speak out at all, because of the culture of shame and silence which has always been a part of the hidden story of abuse.

A few years ago, as some here may remember, I wrote about the first instance of my own abuse. It was probably the hardest thing I've ever written (that particular incident happened when I was 8), but getting the words onto paper and sharing them was, in its own way, a path to freedom from those memories that I'd suppressed and ignored for so long. Many women have suffered far worse than I did. But that doesn't matter. Whatever story you have, whatever abuse or harassment you have suffered, feels very very real at the time. The judgement of degrees, of thinking 'oh, my story is not worthy to be told because it's not bad enough' is not a thing anyone should be feeling. I have already described these stories as a tsunami, because that is how overwhelming it has felt to me. But maybe I should also describe them as a great tapestry, with every woman putting in a stitch for every instance of sexual abuse or harassment she has suffered (and yes, I know others suffer this too). Our stories matter, and it is only by sharing them on this kind of scale that the realisation of just how widespread this problem is can be measured, and I hope this time, finally addressed in a meaningful way, though there is a very very long way to go before that happens. It might, perhaps, begin, with a much larger two word tsunami of #IDid from men.

Words, as I said, are powerful tools -- even the small ones. #metooas Suzanne Moore puts it so eloquently, "is showing the ubiquity of sexual assault". And that is not a small thing at all.

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review
Lucy's Website Twitter - Facebook - Instagram
Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at The Sophie Hicks Agency

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Sea Monsters by Lu Hersey

Sea monsters are part of our psyche, and we’ve been fascinated by them for millennia. No amount of diving with sharks or watching Blue Planet can take away the potential terror of being seized and swallowed by a monster from the deep – which makes them ideal fodder for fiction.

Something no sailor wants to encounter

Sea monsters have featured high on the list of fabulous beasts we love to fear, for as long as we’ve been telling stories. From the Greek Cetea (nasty scaly, fanged sea creatures that ate people) and probably long before that, they've have lurked on the edges of our reality. Even the bible has the story of Jonah in the stomach of a giant whale (always slightly confused in my mind with  Monstro swallowing Pinocchio, an image which has haunted me since I was three years old!)

Disney can give you a lifetime of nightmares

In the medieval world, sea monsters fill all corners of the oceans. Illuminated manuscripts and ancient sea charts are filled with them. Vast, tentacled beasts drag down sailing ships, and all manner of half human, half monster creatures appear in the waves, waiting to lure sailors to their doom.

An early map of Iceland, featuring some wonderful sea monsters

But these sea monsters images may not be as far fetched as we think. Many are based on real encounters with sea animals and have simply become part of our folklore. Take the Kraken. First mentioned in the Örvar-Oddr, a 13th century Icelandic saga, the original was said to be a mile long, and big enough to be mistaken for an island.

The Kraken, big enough to have an island on its back

Okay, so that's highly unlikely. But in the more rational 18th century, the Kraken was more seriously classified as a giant cephalopod – very likely the giant squid, which living at great depths was rarely seen. Recent footage of the giant squid, with its shimmering golden body and amazingly intelligent looking eyes, makes it a creature truly worthy of any myth.

I still shudder at the idea of going down in a bathysphere (or even a deep sea explorer submarine) having read John Wyndham’s Kraken Wakes as a teenager. And in non-fiction, who can forget the thousands of squid eyes, lit up with phosphoresence, staring at the Kon-tiki from the waves in the dark? Or the mysterious luminous living creature, as big as the raft, the crew saw down in the depths?

As for whales – the most amazing and intelligent creatures you’ll ever see – how much do we really know about their lives? How does it feel to dive to the depths for up to an hour and battle with Kraken the way sperm whales do - and how did they ever evolve to know those things were down there?

Even if you think sea monsters are part of our ignorant, non-scientific past, it’s hard to swim out to sea without an image from Jaws pushing up from your subconscious, or hear that theme music echoing in some part of your brain before you quosh it. I love the sea, but all my life I’ve been haunted by sea monsters – and yet a the same time, I can’t get enough of them. Blue Planet is my all time favourite documentary series (and there’s a new series starting this week!!)

It’s also why, after a gap of time writing land based stories, I need to go back under water. There are whole worlds down there, just waiting for me to write about them...

Lu Hersey
twitter: @LuWrites
book: Deep Water

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Evolving Writing Spaces by Chitra Soundar

 My writing space has evolved over the last fifteen years of my writing life. I always had a desk (which was really for my computer) and used to write there. For me going to that desk meant I had changed roles from executive or sister or daughter to writer.

While I write in notebooks by longhand a lot, especially the first drafts of my picture books, I still like to do revisions and the edits on my computer. I almost never write more than the first chapter of a longer story in my notebook. My typing is definitely faster than my longhand writing and I want to get the words down before they slip away from my brain.

The other thing I used to do a lot especially when I was working full time at the day job, was writing in coffee shops, libraries, on trains and parks. But nowadays I realise, as I have gotten older, I prefer to write at home than anywhere else. While I can block out all noise and write in a coffee shop or a library, the sheer effort of going from one quiet place (which is my flat) to another not-so-quiet place with travel and standing in the queue to buy an espresso behind someone who’s buying a skinny latte decaf with almond milk and chocolate on top, feels counter-productive.

The fact that I write from five in the morning till eleven also means writing at home is far more convenient. I don’t have to change out of my pyjamas until my writing is done and I can have as many coffees I want (although I do only one), without a queue or a foamy flower on top.

My writing space preferences have also changed since I’ve been travelling a lot more and relying on my laptop than desktop. I’ve hardly used my desktop Mac in a year or two and I like the convenience of my laptop. That also has freed me from the desk. I write on the sofa, or on my bed propped up by pillows. Even when I do write at the desk, I stand up write as my table can rise higher when I want to do that.

I used to dream about writing sheds and comfy sofas, a bookshelf on the side, a fire in the corner and such. But I realise I’m most comfortable in my living space – especially because I live alone and I am always near a power point for my phone and laptop and the Wi-Fi is of good strength. And of course setting up a shed inside a London flat might not be a good idea anyway. Unless of course, I can build a tiny one and I can shrink myself to enter a new world full of imaginary people.

Because I’ve changed from desk to bed/sofa writer, I’ve been looking at ergonomic ideas that could help me. Just a word of caution – I’m not recommending or endorsing any of the below. I just want to share some of the research I’m doing to improve my writing space.

Here are a couple of examples of a prop-up pillow or wedges as they are called – for reading or writing.

And here are some tables that go up or down and help you write sitting down or standing up. 

I also checked out some famous people to see where they write. Here is a wonderful selection of American writers and poets and their writing spaces.

So has your writing space evolved? If so why? Are you still comfortable at the kitchen table or the sofa or do you prefer a white noise environment like a coffee shop or library? Tell us all about it. 

Monday, 16 October 2017

To Plan or Not to Plan – Heather Dyer

I spent a lovely weekend actually having a break, for once. I stayed with a friend (we’re both freelancers) and all we did was:

1. Talk.
2. Laugh.
3. Eat.
4. Drink espresso martinis.
5. Plant a tray of beans.
6. Watch the birds and insects going about their business in the garden. (It’s always nice watching others work.)

As freelancers, it's difficult to allow ourselves to take time off, and we never seem to stop worrying about our goals.

Ellen asked me what I was reading and I told her: Trying Not to Try: The Ancient Art of Effortless and the Surprising Power of Spontaneity.

Ellen then showed me her bedtime reading: a slim self-help book all about using goal-setting and planning to get everything you ever wanted.

Hmm. How can both of these books be right?

Ellen’s book was full of good advice about listing your goals, breaking them down into steps, and scheduling your time. But there were a few things I took issue with (one being the implication that self-discipline (or was it hard work?) explains why 90% of the people earn 10% of the money). But I found one of the questions particularly interesting:

“If you could realize one of your goals in the next 24 hours, which one of them would make the greatest difference to your life, if you had it now?” 

By imagining how you’d feel if your most important goal had already been achieved, you come right down to this moment, and get a glimpse of how life (and you) might be changed. The right goal is the one that would make the most difference to your life now. (When I tried this I was quite surprised and wondered if I’d been getting my priorities right.)

Unlike Ellen's book, my own book seemed to advocate prioritizing the present moment over distant goals. Worrying about the future is exhausting – and often misguided. The present moment is really all we have, and all potential resides only here and now, so we must pay attention to the situation and our feelings now.

"If what happens now does influence what happens next," says Jon Kabat-Zinn, in Wherever You Go, There You Are, "then doesn’t it make sense to look around a bit from time to time so that you are more in touch with what is happening now, so that you can take your inner and outer bearings and perceive with clarity the path that you are actually on and the direction in which you are going? If you do so, maybe you will be in a better position to chart a course for yourself that is truer to your inner being – a soul path, a path with heart, your path…"

And a book's path too, perhaps?

When I got home, I went for a walk on the beach and was minding my own business taking notes in the sand dunes (as a writer does) when I was surprised by a drone.

It hovered above me, looking straight at me, then flew away again. When I walked back along the beach I discovered that the drone belonged to a group of soldiers from the local base.

The drone got me thinking: sometimes we need to see the terrain ahead, to get an idea of where we’re going and where we are in the landscape. But in writing, as in life, we are foot soldiers.When we're on foot it’s the immediacy of our surroundings that takes precedence. You need to be able to respond to what presents itself. To live and write you need to be in the thick of things, not strategizing remotely.

But can a whole novel really be put together without planning? Can a whole life be lived in the present? If we don’t know where we’re headed, won’t we wander aimlessly, ending up nowhere?

I suppose the answer is balance. As Eckhart Tolle explains in Practicing the Power of Now: "It’s dangerous when we become more motivated by the end goal than by the present moment. When psychological time [thinking about the future] takes over, our attention has been stolen by the future. The Now is no longer honored and becomes reduced to a mere stepping-stone to the future, with no intrinsic value." Then, says Tolle, "Your life’s journey is no longer an adventure, just an obsessive need to arrive, to attain, to 'make it.'"

Concentrating on the moment allows us to dig deeper. In writing, digging deep can feel like tapping into the underground river that will carry the narrative along.

So, planning has its uses. Every now and then we might need an aerial perspective to see how far we’ve wandered from the main route. But creative insight happens when we’re paying close attention to the situation now - and letting that take precedence.

Heather Dyer, Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow

Sunday, 15 October 2017

“Place” in stories: where reality & our characters collide – by Rowena House

Years ago, I was lucky enough to interview David Almond for the SCBWI’s Words & Pictures online magazine, and asked him about the philosophical themes in his books. His answer gave me a great insight into the importance of the concrete realities of place.

He said, “The danger of talking about transcendence or spirituality is that they can’t exist without reality. The important thing about my work is the realism in it … The language that I use is very ordinary. It isn’t abstract. It’s very solid, I think. There are lots of nouns and verbs.  You can’t write abstractions. You have to write reality. You have to write stories about dust and dirt.”

Dust and dirt: the stuff of place.

His words were a great relief to me as place is pretty much where I have to start a story. In the intervening years I’ve built up a body of notes as to why this might be so, the gist of which I’ll share with you here.

        Realism (even in fantasy) makes characters believable;

        Realistic characters exist in time and space;

        Place therefore grounds characters.

        Also, every scene needs a setting. Physical, sensory descriptions ease us into thinking about the most important story questions: why is my character here (motivation) and what is s/he going to do next (intent)?

Whatever the genre, place is never accidental. It is the unique setting that shapes how our characters experience the events of this story, and where they create its outcomes.

Place also establishes genre. If we’re on a space ship, we’re likely to be in SciFi territory, a battlefield denotes action, a wizard’s castle fantasy etc.

But “place” as a writing tool is far more than a rounded description of the physical setting –the sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes etc. It includes the fluidity of things, their states of flux in time and space, foreshadowing or echoing the changes and conflicts of the story.

If our word choices create a particular tone and mood, then we’re talking about “voice” as well, which instantly moulds reader expectations. No one who’s read Thomas Hardy’s opening description of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native could possibly expect a romantic comedy to follow.

When I began writing I allowed place to dictate my stories. Travelling the world as a journalist, then on a gap year, I let places inspire me, and followed ideas wherever they led. I’d love to have the luxury of time (and money!) to travel in this way again, and write “found” stories, but instead, I’ve consciously adopted a character-centred approach to place.

By this I mean that I try my hardest to forget that I’m telling a story. Once I’ve researched a place, I live it through my main character. It exists exclusively as their subjective experience of it. I see it only through their eyes and feels it through their skin.

This approach helps no end when deciding what details a character would notice about this place at this particular point in time. They certainly won’t notice or describe anything familiar, for example.

It also forces me to decide early on how a character’s perceptions are coloured by their state of mind. Are they in some kind of emotion turmoil or struggling with inner conflicts, repressed or acknowledged? Are they grieving or in shock, guilt-ridden or in denial, facing a complex life decision or experiencing a sense of foreboding. How does their physical wellbeing or lack of it impact on the way they interact with this setting at this point in the story?

A cocky young policeman won’t see a dark alleyway in the same way as the wily old criminal he’s chasing, for example, or in the same way as a bond trader with cocaine in his pocket, or the terrified trafficked girl with a gang master hot on her heels and the battery signal on her phone flashing empty.

Whatever the viewpoint character’s state of mind, if they react to a significant setting with apt and original language, the depth and realism of their stories will inevitably be enriched.

A year or so after that interview with David Almond, I discussed using place at the openings of stories with a local adult writing group I occasionally teach, using these four examples:

            Hilary Mantel’s opening to Bring up the Bodies


        Wiltshire, September 1535

        His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air.

            Three early sentences from Annie Enright’s The Gathering

        You cannot libel the dead, I think, you can only console them.

        So I offer Liam this picture: my two daughters running on the sandy rim of a stony beach, under a slow, turbulent sky, the shoulders of their coats shrugging behind them. Then I erase it.

Lee Child’s The Affair

        The Pentagon is the world’s largest office building, six and a half million square feet, thirty thousand people, more than seventeen miles of corridors, but it was built with just three street doors, each one of them opening into a guarded pedestrian lobby. I chose the south east option, the main concourse entrance, the one nearest the metro and the bus station, because I wanted plenty of civilian workers around, preferably a whole long unending stream of them, for insurance purposes, mostly against getting shot on sight. Arrests go bad all the time, some accidentally, sometimes on purpose, so I wanted witnesses.

Joanna’s Trollope’s A Village Affair

On the day contracts were exchanged on the house, Alice Jordan put all three children in the car and went to visit it. Natasha made her usual seven-year-old fuss about her seat-belt, and James was crying because he had lost the toy man who rode his toy stunt motorbike, but the baby lay peaceably in his carrycot and was pleased to be joggling gently along while a fascinating pattern of bare branches flickered through the slanting back window of the car onto his round upturned face.

For me, each opening is extraordinarily rich.

Mantel’s is at once vividly English yet also deeply anti-religious, with the lightness of sight and movement shot through with that visceral ‘blood-filled gaze’ of the falcons, who are also Cromwell’s dead children. With intense economy, Mantel creates an overwhelming mental landscape that is, at the same time, utterly in the moment and also symbolic, poignant and beautiful. We are inside a mind transcending loss by a conscious act of will: he is freeing the souls of his dead women-folk not just from human existence but from God. No purgatory for them; no judgement or guilt, just lightness and air and the hunt. And by freeing them, he frees himself. Perhaps.

Movement is also inherent in Enright’s running, turbulent sky. Her place is roughly textured (sandy, stony) but her narrator’s mental landscape is detached, a ‘picture’ offered to a dead man. ‘Then I erase it.’

Child’s analytical narrator explains as he observes. His movement – the unending stream of witnesses – is part of the plan; nothing is left to chance. These are the rational words of a dangerous man with a tactical plan. How different from Trollope’s mother, boxed in with her noisy children, with only the baby enviably free to experience the flickering images outside. The make and model of the car don’t matter to the mother, whereas Lee Child’s Jack Reacher would have noted them both.

In each case the author has, by marrying the simple, observable realities of place – David Almond’s dust and dirt – with their character’s subjective perceptions and purposes, drawn the reader into that mysterious state where imagined stories are both believable and meaningful.