The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer

Nicola Monaghan's news, events and general thoughts about life and writing.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner the play, 2012

Not the play of the blog (what would that be like, I wonder?) but the short story that inspired its title.

I went to see the latest version of the Alan Sillitoe classic from his first collection, which has recently been adapted for the stage and was on at the Nottingham Playhouse. The playwright, Roy Williams, has brought the story bang up to date. It's set in London and the main character is still Colin but this time, Co-lin (like Powell) is black. The play encapsulates the riots, soundbites from David Cameron, the crackdown on petty crime and brings the story bang up to date. As with so much of what Sillitoe wrote, the issues he explpres feel just as relevant today as they ever were.

The production was very ambitious. This is the second performance I've been to recently at the Playhouse and I'm impressed with the way they are using new technology, particularly projection, to enhance the action on stage. It works really well. The set was fantastic, with huge screen as the back drop, and a working treadmill. Actors worked like memories behind the screen then joined the foreground at key moments. The script too was incredibly well written, managing to remain true to the original and yet become its own thing.

One minor gripe was that an electrical fault caused problems with the sound of the treadmill from time to time, but this seemed to be sorted out later in the evening. There was also no interval, which made it a long time to sit and watch, although I could see the sense of that because of the nature of the story.

The acting was great throughout, so good that I found myself getting lost in the characters and forgetting they were not real, a feat I usually find very difficult in the contrived situation of a theatre. I was particularly impressed with the lead actor, though, Elliot Barnes-Worrell. Not only was his acting flawless but he had the added difficulty of spending half the play on the treadmill, properly running, as well as projecting his voice over the audience as he ran. It was a part that he would have needed to train for, as well as learn his lines and rehearse. He did brilliantly.

Overall, I really loved it. Alan Sillitoe mentioned more than once, when I saw him speak at events, that the long distance running was a metaphor for the life of a writer. (Which is another thing that inspired this blog.) I think I felt that more than ever at the end of this play and it felt very inspiring. Lots of good words about not letting other people carve out the path they want for you, going your own way. Sillitoe's story and themes were there throughout but, at the end, as Colin stood and told us to be sure to go our own way, and that you are the one person you can rely on, in the end, it was almost as if the man himself was back in the room with us.

There are more reviews online here  and here. And you can find out about the production at the Playhouse here.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Emma Shortt: A Book in a Week


Since my blog tour, I've been pretty blogged out, and I'm just finding time to do anything at all after the return of my students from the holiday. Meanwhile, I'm actually hosting a guest today. Emma Shortt, who writes romance of all kinds. Including the currently very hot erotic romance, in more ways than one...

Here, Emma writes about writing quickly, something you may remember I talked about here. It's a very interesting topic area, especially with November just around the corner. 

Emma's new book is called Paying her Debt, and is available on amazon here.  Over to Emma....








A Book in a Week


I wrote Paying her Debt, my erotic, contemporary romance, in a week. Yep, a week.

It came to me in a flash of inspiration and I knew I had to get the story down as soon as possible. So I sat at my computer and I just did not stop writing. Well, okay there were food and toilet breaks but other than that the family were ignored, the house fell apart around my ears and even whilst I slept the plot invaded my dreams.  

Now I’m quite a prolific writer, less than 25,000 words a week and I feel like I’ve slacked off, but this was something else altogether. If I could bottle the energy I felt in that week I’d be well...writing a book a week!

Paying her Debt has been described as an old fashioned romance with some pretty modern erotic elements and I hoped that it would be my first bestseller for Evernight (one of my two publishers). Up until then I’d had a few paranormal romances published but whilst they’d done okay they weren’t setting anything on fire. Paying her Debt did.

It sold more books than anything I’d published before combined and as I watched the sales figures tally up I couldn’t help but think that yes! I would write a book a week.  Goodbye evil day job, hello full time writing.

Only it doesn’t work like that.

I’ve never again been able to create an entire, fully edited book in such a short time. I’ve come close. On one very memorable day I wrote 15,763 words. Those words were the ending for my post-apocalyptic romance, Waking up Dead (coming late 2013 from Entangled Publishing), and I was ill for days afterwards. But a book in a week – nope it has never happened. I’ve thought about this a lot and tried to work out why I can’t recreate the energy I had in that week and I’ve come to two conclusions. Firstly at that point in my career I was so desperate for something to sell well that I was spurred on to the point of madness, secondly I had a storyline come to me from nowhere - fully formed - and I sort of wanted to write it so I could read it...does that make sense? Of course these reasons don’t help me to do the whole thing over again, but it is fun to wonder! I’d love to hear from anyone else who has managed to write a book in such a short space of time. Where did you get your energy? Can you recreate the process?

And if you’d like to read the product of my week of madness it is on sale right now for just 99 cents at Amazon.com. I’d be thrilled if you’d check it out. Just imagine if I made the Amazon best seller lists with it! It might even spur me on to try for a five day book...you never know!

Happy reading,

Emma x 

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Possessed on tour....

What goes on tour, stays on tour, lads often say when on stag weekends. Well, I'm not sure that I approve of that. And I thought I'd pop back, say hello, and keep you updated as to where I've been so far.

I had the pleasure of visiting the lovely Megan Taylor on Saturday, where I talked about what drew me to the supernatural. Then it was off to the Beleaguered Squirrel, who came up with some fantastic interview questions over on her blog. Finally, today I'm talking to Tania Hershman about places, and how they influence what I write about. I'd like to take a moment to thanks all these wonderful bloggers, and also to mention what good writers they are, and recommend their books!

The next stop is Cally Taylor, where I'll be giving a few tips on writing suspense. More to come next week so watch this space, or twitter/facebook for more...

Saturday, 14 July 2012

And we're off....

The blog tour for my soon to be released ebook Possessed has begun, with a stop at the blog of the lovely Megan Taylor. We've enjoyed discussing our spooky coincidences over the last couple of years. Megan moved to Nottingham after studying with one of my very best friends in the world on the remote MA at Manchester Metropolitan University. Then, last year, we found we were writing very different books with very similar themes. The Scottish Highlands, ghosts, lochs, and unreliable narrators. In fact, both books had the title 'The Loch House' cited for them at some point.

I talk a little about synchronicity in the post I've written for her. It seems to follow me around. In fact, I'd never get away with writing about the things that have happened to me if I tried to put them in a book! 

Megan's website is here, and my guest post is here. You can find out more about The Lives of Ghosts here

Monday, 9 July 2012

The best thing I've done in ages...

Okay, folks, here's an exclusive for you. You heard it here first. The guaranteed, 100% recipe to bring me close to tears. Works every time...


Take one group of year 6 children from my local primary school, have them do a load of stuff that they're really proud of, then make them stand up and sing (very proficiently) So Strong. I am choking up again as I think about it now.

The cruel people who did this to me last week were the staff at Rosslyn Park Primary School. They invited me to come and work with Year 6 on their Aspirations project. I was to work with a group of writers to produce a script. There would be other groups working on filming and directing it later in the week, a team of reporters to talk to members of staff, local people about their memories and thoughts about jobs and ambition. Every child would produce a poster about his or her aspiration and have their picture taken by the photography team. Everyone in the year would have a role and, at the end of the week, there would be a showcase of the work.

I spent two days working with the writing team on a script. In fact, they were so efficient that we had time for editing, for other students to research locations and a couple to start storyboarding the screenplay. I was so impressed. With their imagination. With their ambition. And with their literacy skills and some of the nuances of language and visual storytelling they understood.

On Friday afternoon, I was back in the school for the showcase. Roll singing children and me with a great big lump in my throat.

There's a lot of negativity towards kids, especially estate kids, in tracksuits and hoodies. There are loads of reasons for this and it's outside the scope of this blog post to explore but I'd strongly suggest to anyone wondering that they read this book. What I will say is that energy can be focused in the right direction by very gentle (if insistent) force.

And that this feels like the most important bit of work I've done in a very long time...

Saturday, 23 June 2012

22.11.63, time travel and paradoxes

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Stephen King. I think Carrie is a stunning debut novel and a fantastic concept, IT scared me so much I couldn't sleep and I believe The Shining is one of the best examples of storytelling in the English language. 22.11.63 is a total change of direction for the horror writer but then, so was the Shawshank Redemption and look how that turned out. A great storyteller should be able to turn his or her hand to any kind of story, I reckon. I devoured his time slip story and could hardly put it down.

I was thinking about 22.11.63 this morning and chatting to The Good Husband about time travel and paradoxes. King's clearly thought hard about this side of the story and come up with some clever counters. We've probably all heard of the Grandfather Paradox; ie the idea that, if you could travel back in time, you could kill your own Granddad, thereby erasing yourself from existence. Stephen Hawking took this a step further in his Into the Universe series, describing seeing yourself down a worm hole through time and shooting a gun... King's counter to this is pragmatic - Yes, you could kill your granddad but why would you? In a sense, this is the only place the logic of the book falls down for me because there would always be someone who would, just because they could, in order to set off the paradox and see what happened.

In fact, there's a wider problem with this solution to the paradox because the Grandfather Paradox and even Hawking's picture of the bullet down the wormhole, both are massive simplifications. Everything is causal. You go back and change anything at all, even stand on and kill an insect, you change the world completely. Here's an example. If I had a time machine and looked back at history, I might decide that the First World War was an abomination, which it no doubt was. Over 15 million deaths and 20 million casualties. A sickening example of the price of human conflict. So I might decide to go back and stop the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand or summat, and take out some of the aggressive European leaders, and stop the whole thing in its tracks.

In kicks The Grandfather paradox, see. The thing that I might not know (except that I do because of my sister's recent work on our family tree) is that, without the First World War, I would not exist. My Grandfather was the product of his mother's second marriage. My great grandma, Elizabeth Goodwin, was widowed when her husband, Frank Morton Boot (there's a good ode Nottinum name for yer), died in Flanders. So, whilst I wouldn't be killing my granddad by stopping the war, I would be effectively preventing his existence too, and hence my own. It's all a bit mindblowing if you think about it too hard. This flies in the face of King's solution in a number of ways. There are so many unlikely things that have to happen for any one of us to come into being that changing anything would change the population of the world completely. And hence, risk the chance of destroying our own conception. And, besides that, without the emotional punch of actually having to shoot our own Granddad, we might just decide that it's worth it to save all of those people. We might go ahead and risk the paradox anyway.

More compelling in King's world of time slip, is his invention of the 'obdurate past'. ie You can change history but history doesn't like it and will fight you. In King's story, in order to make any significant change, you pretty well almost die trying. I like this idea and it's one I could go for more. Like my husband suggested; if you did manage to kill your Granddad, you'd probably find out he wasn't there at your mum's or dad's conception after all... In fact, some of the issues with the consequences of changing the past do play out in King's novel but I won't say too much; no spoilers.

Whilst the logic of King's story didn't entirely hold for me, I was happy to suspend my disbelief. It got me to thinking about suspension of disbelief and where that comes from. Common wisdom is that it's to do with consistency of the world and it playing by its own rules but I'm not sure that entirely happens in this book. What I decided, in the end, was that it was because I was rooting for the characters and enjoying the story. I was prepared to leave the science behind me because I wanted to know what happened. So, I think it was about the power of the storytelling, in the end.

King says he'll never write another time slip novel because of the perils of trying to keep everything properly consistent between the timelines. I know this should put me off but it doesn't - it fires me up to have a crack at one myself! I'm not sure a writer has done anything that original with this concept for a while, although I'd be happy to be corrected on that, and to be pointed to books that have. I quite enjoy having my head twisted by these things.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Monique Roffey on Process

Orange Prize shortlisted Monique Roffey came to talk at Nottingham University yesterday, as part of the National Academy of Writing afternoon. As with all NAW patrons delivering talks, she was asked to focus on process. Her talk was fascinating, and I found myself nodding avidly in agreement with such a lot of what she said about the long distance process of writing a novel. She also used some very visceral images to illustrate her points, which was rather nice. You can imagine that this part of her nature is something that feeds into her talent as a writer.

I've taught workshops called 'Getting Started on your Novel' at the University for a number of years now. These tend to run in two parts, with an inspiration session first of all, to get everyone writing, and then some guidance on how to plan and shape from there. I know what works for me and I describe this in detail, but I try to make reference to what I've heard from the other writers I know. One thing I've learnt, chatting to writers of all shapes and mindsets, is that there isn't a 'one size fits all' answer about how to write a novel. Monique's talk reflected this too. At the same time as giving us a real sense about how she worked as a writer, she outlined alternative ways of working. As a writer also now working on her sixth full length novel, so much of what Monique was saying chimed with me.

Roffey started by outlining her own experience. She has written five books and published three, with a gap of seven years between her first published book and her second, not that unusual, I'd guess, for a literary writer in the current climate. She talked about two books in between that had been hell to write and which she said really didn't work. Given her exacting nature and skills as a writer, I suspect they were probably a whole lot better than the abandoned manuscripts sitting in the average writer's bottom drawer. She stressed how important it was that she had written these books. Even though they hadn't seen the light of day, the fact she'd been writing, and kept herself 'fit and limber' as a writer was important. A novelist friend and I sometimes refer to this state as being 'in the zone'. It's true, I think, that a good simile for writing skills is fitness, or fluency in a foreign language. The key, even when things are not going your way, is to 'keep on keeping on', as a certain writer once said in a story.

Monique went on to say that she had a lucky meeting with a specific writer who had a lot of influence over her process. This writer was Andrew Miller. She met him first at an Arvon Foundation course, at a time when she had started to write but didn't have anything resembling a novel. She asked him - how do I write a novel? He had a simple answer - write 2000 words a hundred times. This reminded me of Stephen King's response to this question and his comparison to eating an elephant (one bite at a time) or building the Great Wall of China (one brick at a time). It perhaps sounds a little glib, out of context, but this works. The trick is one word after another... (as long as you realise I don't mean this)

Later, by sheer coincidence, Monique decided to do the MA at Lancaster University. Andrew had been there previously, doing his PhD, which was focused on his first novel, the very lovely Ingenious Pain. His dissertation was in the library, where Monique found and read it. From this, she learned more about Andrew's process. This first novel had taken him ten years to complete, and the essay outlined why this was the case, and what he'd changed. One of the first quotes she read from the dissertation resonated very strongly for me. 'We learn from each other.' I'm sure that almost everyone who's ever done a Creative Writing MA or BA will agree with me that this particular nugget of truth is what one gains the most from these courses.

Monique then outlined three potential methods of writing a novel in possibly the clearest and most illuminating way I've seen it done. I'm sure there are probably more methods but, for the moment, I'll stick to the ones she talked about, as these are the main ways I've seen people working. There was 'puddling', which involved writing scenes, saving them, building fragments till you had a novel's worth, and then assembling them in the right order. Then there was what she called the 'man method', mostly, I think for its macho sense of struggle. This was the one that I think too many aspiring writers try. It's rather iterative.

1. Write first chapter
2. Edit first chapter
3. Edit first chapter
4. Edit first chapter
......
n. Edit first chapter
Repeat for second chapter
Repeat for third chapter
etc

As you can imagine, this is a rather tortured way to go about things. It has a romantic feel to it, though, as if one ought to struggle this way for one's art. However, it doesn't necessarily produce the best novels. As Monique said a few times, and I would stress 'Perfectionism is anti-creative.'

Monique then went on to describe what worked for her, which she called the 'drafting' method. I think this is how a lot of writers work. It's certainly similar to what I do myself, although most of my process happens on my laptop, which I take everywhere, rather than in notebooks or index cards or folders. Scrivener allows me to do the same things electronically that Monique described, although I'll admit, I did feel envious when she described her corkboard, index cards and ring binders. (I am a not so secret stationery freak.)

What follows here is the Roffey method, in so much as I interpreted what Monique said and paraphrased. (All mistakes are this author's etc etc.)  Or perhaps I should call it the Roffey-Miller method. Or even the Roffey-Miller-Mantel process, as Monique also explained that she'd been very influenced by Mantel's essay Growing a Tale in this book. All I can say is that if it's good enough for these three, it's good enough for the rest of us. That said, I defer, always, to the need of an individual to find her own way through.

This is the method. Don't look away or stop listening...

Roffey keeps a notebook with removable pages, or carries index cards around. When thoughts come to her that are important to the novel, she writes them down. She pins these to a cork board. She might then write a scene or two. These get pinned behind the cards where they belong. Similarly, she may pin cuttings, research, pictures and other relevant snippets behind the cards. Over time, the idea grows through the stationery. Some chapters get completely written, some characters very clearly sketched out, others less so. When it's at a certain stage, Roffey takes these cards, scenes, clippings and so on, and creates a ring binder. At this point, she will make a 'stick bridge plan', which highlights the important scenes and cards, and she will make all of her decisions about narrators, point of view, tense and so on. These are things that can be changed later if necessary. (We'll come to that.)

Finally, when the momentum has built for the project, she sits down to write it. This momentum is important. As Monique puts it 'most first drafts get abandoned' and she puts this down to two possible causes; a lack of energy for the project, or too much perfectionism early on. My experience, working with writers for years now, is that she's on the money with this assessment.

She writes chronologically then, as opposed to 'puddling', and writes a thousand words a day for about three months. I have talked about this magic number before. It seems to be quite a common one that works for most people. Her take on this first draft stage was not to rattle through it but to make it the best you can at the time without going back to edit. She did say that she might have a little tidy of the prose, in the afternoon, but avoided the 'man method' of editing herself into an early grave. So don't rattle through it but, on the other hand, don't worry if it's 'rubbishy', a word she takes directly, again, from Miller's dissertation. After this, the devil is in the drafting. This is the bit when you're allowed to get iterative, and picky, and perfectionist. In fact, I'd positively encourage it. As Monique put it: once it exists as a first draft, it's much less likely to be abandoned.

You might realise, somewhere along the way, that one of your big decisions was wrong. This narrator needs to be unreliable and therefore first person, for example. Or there might be too many voices. Or the present tense you've chosen might be just too tiring for the reader. Key here is to keep on keeping on. Switch, there and then, but don't go back and rewrite. NEVER rewrite until you've reached the end of the draft, NO MATTER WHAT.

I could write about Monique's talk all day, as she made so many valuable points, but this is supposed to be a  blog post and not a book length treatise. So I'll focus on three more of her gems of wisdom.

1. The notion of trying to embark on a big writing project, like a novel, without preparation, is as ridiculous as  planning a trip across the Sahara and not working out how much water you'll need, what camping gear, etc, then acquiring it.

2. Good ideas tend to come in two forms. The ones that rattle around and stay with you, growing and changing over months or years, or the 'rake in the grass' moment. This one is where it's like you stood on the end of a rake and its handle hit you in the face and knocked you for six. (See what I mean about the visceral images?)

3. Determination is irrelevant when trying to solve a creative problem. You need to trust yourself, and relax, and wait for the answer to come to you. If it doesn't, then you need to ask yourself - was that the right question?

Sometimes, when writers speak about their lives and work, you get the sense that it's all too hard and I've even heard them say they don't know why they bother, usually to comic, self effacing effect. I got none of this from Roffey's talk. She was an evident professional talking about a process she had refined and considered. I was most impressed. I hope that my approximation of what she talked about is of use to those who might come by this blog.