Thursday, 24 October 2013

Use your local library!

As local authorities throughout the country look to make financial savings library services are under greater threat than ever and to those of us who love our libraries that's a worrying prospect.

The first free public libraries were opened in Britain in the mid 19th century following the Public Libraries Act of 1850 that allowed councils to charge a halfpenny in the pound towards their building and upkeep - assuming a referendum showed that two thirds of tax-payers wanted a library. (Incidentally the movement was opposed in parliament by the Conservatives who feared the social implications of making literature widely available to the lower classes.) Even though this rate was soon increased to one penny it wasn't enough and growth of the public library system relied extensively on generous benefactors. 

It wasn't until the Public Libraries Act of 1919 that abolished the penny tax and the need for a referendum as well as moving responsibility away from local to county councils that the free library service that we all know and love became a national institution - and one of which we can rightly be proud.

I mean what's not to love about a huge room full of books that you can take away and read for free?! And, of course, music and films now too. Oh and computers. And upstairs in the Central library they have all the non-fiction and reference books, an invaluable aid to authors of many genres. And that's not to mention the reading groups, rhyme times, knitting club and book groups that gather there.

I haven't heard anything about library services in Swansea being cut - yet - but it was reported only last month that councillors in Neath & Port Talbot are reviewing services and considering the closure of 7 or 8 local libraries.

I know the pot is only so big and hard decisions have to be made but I would encourage everyone, especially writers - after all, without us libraries wouldn't exist - to make use of your local library as much as you can. Borrow books and use the library's facilities. Let the authorities see how many people use the library. Book rooms for meetings, give them an income. Hang on to overdue books so you have to pay a fine ... oh, wait, I already do that.

Yesterday evening a group of Swansea writers met in the Central Library. We have all signed up for NaNoWriMo and were keen to meet face to face - as opposed to via the internet - other crazy fools who've decided to dedicate a huge chunk of their lives in one of the busiest months of the year to writing 50,000 words of a novel. 
Here we are: (from left) me, Ann (arranger of the meet, sci-fi and local history writer), Jane (erotica), Izzy (first-time NaNoner) and Will (first timer and fantasy writer).

It was fantastic to be with other writers again; it's been a long time since my last course! Just to be reminded that there are others out there who write just because they love it.

It was also great - and annoying - to discover that Swansea library had that afternoon hosted a launch party for would-be NaNoNers. And that a meeting room is going to be made available every Wednesday 11.00 am - 3.00 pm during November for people to go and write, be inspired by the collection of How-to write books that will be displayed, and just to hang out with other writers. To encourage and be encouraged.

Use your local library! Before it's gone!

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The highs and the lows

It's a well proven fact that writers or creative artists of any sort are prone to depression and to more extreme highs and lows than the average human being. There are various theories for this but I think author and psychotherapist Philip Kenney sums it up well when he says, "I think Salinger said it took him an hour of writing to be honest with himself. To me that speaks to the resistance and anxiety we so often feel sitting down to write. That is, to delve into the deep unconscious and to bring it forth into the public world is threatening. Yes, it’s frightening. A host of unknown, and known but unwanted, feelings live there."

In other words we are exposing to public scrutiny thoughts and ideas that we may not even have realised we had, and in our insecurity we assume that they won't be good enough, that they'll open us to the mockery of others, including and especially our peers.
Yesterday's confidence that you can write a best-seller is today's certainty that every word you put on paper is a joke, that, even with your two left feet, you have more chance of becoming a successful ballroom dancer than of writing anything that anyone else would ever want to read.

I'm writing this post because I'm in precisely that position now. Having been refreshed and raring to go with my ideas for NaNo after my walk yesterday today I can only see the impossibility of it. Seriously? I think I can do this? I can create characters that people will warm up and a plot that will make them laugh? Who do I think I am?

Everything in me at this very moment is screaming, 'You're rubbish; that's what you are!'
But I will get through this. I know I will. As I said at the start of this post, writers experience more extreme lows - and highs. I'll be back up there.

I should now offer advice on how to break through the misery barrier - but I need to wallow a bit first. I'll go and do something 'more useful' - see how easy it is to slip into the writing is  waste of valuable time lie? The good thing is that I've been here before so I know I will be back up that mountain.

And if I'm still in the plough of despond this evening I will be relying on my fellow Swansea NaNo writers to lift me when we have our inaugural meeting at Swansea Central Library at 7.00 pm.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Looking for inspiration?

Looking for inspiration for your novel? Go for a walk.

That's what I did this windy wet morning. Took my dog and walked around the cliffs. It not only cleared my head, which had been a bit muggy and tired, but also planted an idea that sprouted quickly.

With NaNoWriMo rapidly approaching I wanted to have a firm idea in my head of what my novel would be about. I'd only had two thoughts so far: to write a sequel to last year's NaNo effort; or to make a novel out of the back story of one the characters from it. I was leaning towards the latter but not convinced so when inspiration struck when I was writing yesterday's post on monologues I wrote it on a post-it and stuck in on my forehead.

And the source of that inspiration? A bible story. Or at least the plot but rewritten in a modern day setting. 

The trouble was that the more I thought about it the more it seemed likely that it would end up as a bodice ripper a la Jackie Collins. (A new genre maybe? Bodice ripping bible yarns?) While there's nothing wrong with that I don't read them and I'm not sure I could adopt that style. So maybe, I thought, I could write it as a literary thriller in the PD James style. But again I don't read those books so I'd be at a disadvantage. I could try - but is it a good idea to attempt something completely out of my comfort zone when I'm participating in what is effectively a race against the clock?  

So, walking in the rain, I was thinking maybe I should abandon the bible story plot and return to my original ideas when kapow! 

I love to make people laugh. Is there anything sweeter than hearing your audience chuckle as they listen to you read and to know that they get the humour? (Making people cry is good too. In fact if your writing affects your reader/listener in anyway, it's good writing.) 

So the idea came to me for a romantic comedy thriller. Easy eh? Okay, maybe not that easy but it should at least be easier than the other options: I read a lot of comedy thrillers and I know what entertains me. Whether my take on it will entertain others is another question of course.

I returned home from my walk bursting with renewed enthusiasm and ideas. Fresh air and exercise worked for me, unclogged my brain, stimulated my creativity and set me on a path I hadn't even considered before. 

So if you're stuck for ideas, go for a walk. Even if you don't have wonderful salty sea air to inhale, walking will get blood pumping, flushing the dullness out of those little brain cells and replacing it with oxygen-fuelled energy. And who knows where that might lead you.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Writing a monologue

Monologue writing is one of my favourite exercises. Unfortunately, although they always get a positive response from readers/listeners, publishers tend not to be interested I've found - unless your name is Alan Bennett. But that's not a valid reason for not writing them.

If you're writing a novel, one way to get inside your character and find out what he's really about is to write a monologue for him. Putting your character into a situation and letting him/her work it out is a great way of getting to know their flaws and gifts and while the incident may not be specifically relevant to your story it will allow and help you to develop more fully the character.

For example, how does your character react when placed in a room full of strangers? What is going through her head? How does she behave? If there's someone she wants to make a good impression upon, how will she go about this? And remember you're writing from her viewpoint and her narrative may not be entirely factual. It will be true from her perspective but may not be accurate. But this is her view so it doesn't matter that it's not true but is useful as an insight into the way she views the world and her own place in it.

An alternative subject for a monologue is a well-known character from history or even a modern celebrity. The bible is also a rich source of inspiration. I like to find a lesser-known character, maybe one who only crops up once and may be nameless, and fill in some gaps. How the gaps are filled is up to the imagination. I find a traditional old Jewish woman suddenly sounds strangely like a Welsh mam ... But that's fine because this is my take on the story. 

I've been fascinated by reactions to monologues I've written and read. One story I thought was poignant was greeted with laughter - it was good laughter by the way and I played up to it in future readings; more recently I read a monologue for what I thought was a sympathetic character: at the end one listener said, 'What a cow!'

So maybe writing a monologue also gives us an insight into our own characters and understanding ...

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Hope is a writer's best friend ... and worst enemy

So you've written your novel, you've submitted it to an agent, and now you're sitting back waiting for the bidding war to begin. If you're like me, so convinced are you of the brilliance of your work that you've already chosen the leading man for the film version (Alan Rickman in my case). 

And you wait twiddling your fingers not understanding why it's taking so long for them to identify your genius and you start making excuses - they've an extraordinarily large slush pile at the moment, the person who reads through the pile is on holiday, the person who read through your work is so awestruck she's passed it on to the senior agent and so on.

Until finally the email arrives.

"Thank you for writing to us. I do apologise for the standard email; we have been so inundated with submissions recently that we are unable to give each one an individual reply. We have considered your proposal carefully, but I am sorry to say that we feel that it is not going to be one for us. Do not take this as criticism of your work. We are only able to take on a handful of new authors and we have to really fall in love with your work to be able to give it our best."

Or something along the lines of "Don't take it personally." Don't take it personally? I've sweated over that manuscript. I've had sleepless nights. I've poured out my soul. I've lived in my characters' shoes for months. I feel their pain. And you tell me not to take it personally?

When you've stopped crying you have two choices and sending a rude email to the agent is not one of them. 

You can take it personally, tell yourself you can't write and throw yourself into judo or macramé, or - and if you're a writer this is what you'll do - you'll consult your list of literary agents and send your manuscript off again. Maybe not straight away: a time of grieving is allowable as long as it's not too long and in the unlikely event that the agent offered some words of advice you may want to consider them.

And then you start again, you begin again to hope. This agent will appreciate your work. You know it's good; it's only a matter of time before someone else realises that and this could be the someone else.

Without hope you wouldn't even bother. It's the hope that makes you keep on trying, hanging on in there.

And it's the destroying of that hope that is so very painful.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

New prize for an unpublished novel

A new prize, worth £500, is on offer for an unpublished novel in the Exeter Novel Prize competition. It's for all authors whether published or not, the only condition being that the novel must not have been published in any form. Full details including rules and how to enter are available on the Creative Writing Matters site.

But hurry because the closing date is 31st October.

So all you 2012 NanNoWriMo winners, if you haven't yet done anything with the novel you wrote last year, now could be the time.

Or if it's a crime novel you might want to enter the Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing Competition for a publishing deal and £5,000. Deadline for entries - and you don't have to have completed the novel yet - is 30th November.

Which leads me on to the topic of entry fees.

Almost all writing competitions charge fees. In the case of the Telegraph it's £5, they say to cover admin costs; for the famous Bridport Prize for short stories, it's £8; and for the inaugural Exeter Prize it's £12.

Now in both the Telegraph and Bridport competitions you stand to win £5,000. Which makes the Exeter Prize of £500 look a bit stingy. And which causes me to ask, 'what exactly does the fee cover?'

I've always defended fees in the past saying the prize money has to come from somewhere but the organisers say that the prize has been donated by Exeter Writers so presumably the fee is for admin. But £12 per entry seems an awful lot of admin.

I'd be interested to know how it's spent. I've no doubt it's totally legitimate but I'm puzzled. Any ideas?

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

No, no, NOvember

Okay, this isn't about writing but as it's happening in November, it's a cause I believe in and I'm working it into NaNoWriMo, I'm mentioning it here.

"This November, join with Beyond the Streets in saying NO to violence and sexual exploitation against women. No should always mean no. NOvember is a new fundraising campaign to support the work of Beyond The Streets in enabling routes out of prostitution for exploited women."

The idea is that you say no to something like your daily chocolate bar and at the end of the month donate the money you've saved to beyond the streets. So what I'm going to do is say no to computer solitaire and freecell for the month of November. It won't actually save me money, of course, but it will save me time that I can spend writing my novel for NaNoWriMo.

And at the end I will donate some money - let me think what's realistic - say £5 for each 10,000 words I complete.

Could you say no to something for NOvember? And help women out of prostitution? 

Visit the Beyond the Streets website for more details.