Tuesday 30 December 2014

How (not) To PLan A Novel

Whatever we write, be it short story, play, novel or poem, we all go through the same initial process: Planning. There are more ways of planning a piece of writing than there are pieces of writing - please read on quickly as I'm not sure this analogy works.

It is said you are either a ''planner'' or a ''pantster''. As the world's weirdest combination of the two (more anon) I don't think I am in the slightest degree qualified to lay down the law on the Hows and How Nots. Nevertheless, given that my lack of expertise has never stopped me piling in and sharing my ignorance, and several people who've read my two Victorian crime novels  have asked me how I went about it, here's what I do:

Thinking: Every book I've ever written has started in the same place. Inside my head. I spend an inordinate amount of time before starting, and during the writing process just mulling over ideas for story development, or characters. Many of them will be discarded. Sometimes I do this lying on my bed, sometimes I go for a walk, sometimes I carry the story around whatever I'm doing. But however it happens, nothing begins without a lot of thinking taking place. No notes are made at this stage. The thinking will recur regularly right throughout the writing process.

After a lot of cogitation, I progress on to:

Sketching: This is where I might make a few notes on paper. More likely I will write up small sections of the book, or small pieces of dialogue that I quite like. I know the names of the main characters (secondary ones get named as they appear). At this stage I usually have a couple of ''pages'' at the end of a file named ''new book'' with phrases or descriptions that I think I might incorporate.

When I think I know, very roughly, what I might want to say, I progress to

Researching: For Diamonds & Dust, Honour & Obey and now Death & Dominion I visited London and took pictures of the areas I thought I wanted to use. I went online and searched for original documents (there are loads on various Victorian sites). I transferred the entire contents of 3 local libraries' Victorian history section to my TBR pile (rotating as necessary). And I read every novel written in the period that I could -- frequently skimming to get a sense of it.

At this stage, I have a couple of random pages of notes, some online, a pile of downloaded articles, and books with bits of paper and bus tickets poking out of them. Again, researching is not a finite process and will change as I write and need to find out different things.

And now, I start:

Writing: I always do this the same way. I write the end. Then I write the opening section. Then I write a bit more of the opening ... a bit more of the end. Then I kind of join them up. Yup. Weird. And AT NO STAGE do I ever have a clear idea of the overall structure of the book or what is going to happen next. It's like fast downhill skiing in the dark.

No serious pre-plotting is ever done. None. No story arcs. No narrative graphs. No cards files. Nothing. The story evolves as I write it. And I write in short episodic sections, rather than chapters, tracking the story through a host of different characters. It's a spirally way of doing it rather than a linear one. I think it makes the story far more pacy and exciting - certainly for me as the writer, although it is sometimes like herding cats as bits of plot wonder off into the long grass and have to be rescued.

As I write, I also revise in the light of the direction the story is taking. The whole thing takes about a year. And then I have to go back and edit. So that's me. Chaos and madness.
How do you plan ....?

Sunday 21 December 2014

Follow Me: A Cautionary Christmas Tale

'You know what? You can stick this stupid job!'

And with that, my career as a medical secretary came to an abrupt end. I marched out of the office, head high, my heels clicking on the polished wooden floor. No more being ordered about by underbright oversexed Registrars. No more ticking off for wearing too much lipstick or bright red nail polish in front of patients. Finish. End. Gone.

Over the next few days, I revelled in the freedom and the absence of wage-slaving. I shopped for clothes. I bought lovely underwear at Agent Provocateur. And I thought a lot. About my life, my future. I was nearly 32, unattached though with several loose connections. I was bright, witty, and a total charmer. When it suited me.

I spent some time staring at my reflection in my mirror. My russet curls, my emerald eyes, the sprinkle of rusty freckles across my cheekbones. I thought about my ability to turn men's heads as I strolled by in the street, carrying my takeaway latte.

It seemed a shame that so much talent should go to waste on another boring job. I knew I was too old to become a model, and with the best will in the world, I had no intention of entering that dubious exploitative ''alternative'' world of modelling.

I was lying in bed one night, when the idea came to me. Belle de Jour. If Brooke Magnanti, an academic could pose as a call girl and make a shedload of money writing about it afterwards, why couldn't I do something on similar lines? Maybe I could even make money on the way.

And that's how @DoctorDiva was created. Early next morning, I went on Twitter and set up a fake account. I spent some time writing my bio, carefully selecting all the things that I knew would attract a certain type of male to my site. The professional ones with good incomes. I put that I liked Opera ... and also jazz ... I liked theatre and art exhibitions ... I liked Romcom films and fine dining. I added a bit about writing a novel: the thing about a good lie is that it always has to contain a modicum of truth.

I uploaded a couple of selfies - me smiling to myself, my red hair half-covering my face like falling autumn. Me staring at the camera with my head on one side. Cute. The classic poses. Then I went live. After five minutes, I had two followers. Both male. And that's when the fun began. In the months before the run-up to Christmas, I posted lots of tempting pics: me in the driver's seat of an Alfa Romeo. Me wearing a black beret. Me in a cocktail dress with spiky high heels.

I'd watch and see when the men who followed me came on line, then respond to one of their tweets. I had a good degree, I was very bright and I knew enough about politics and the media to sound convincing ... and of course there was always the doctor thing to give me credibility.

 It didn't take long before I had all my followers eating out of my little red nail polished hand. Every time a man sent me a flirty or suggestive tweet, telling me I was gorgeous and stunning and they'd like to meet me, or similar stuff, I cut and pasted it into a folder.

Soon it was time to move to Phase 2. I opened an Instagram account. I got a friend to take a lot of, let us call them 'artistic' pics. I suggested my followers might like to check me out on my new site. Most of them sent me a request at once. One click and there they were.

It is said that everybody leaves digital footprints all over the internet. You just need to know how to find them. My speciality was in IT - yes, my talents were completely wasted as a medical secretary. But I was very good at tracking people down online. Before long, I had the addresses and mobile phone numbers of most of my followers.

Then it was merely a matter of contacting them, and suggesting a 'reasonable compromise' to stop me forwarding their flirty tweets and my naked pics to their girlfriends or wives. Meanwhile, the novel was coming on in leaps and bounds. I quickly found a publisher, and several newspapers were already interested in doing interviews with me.

And now it is Christmas Eve. I sit at my brand new laptop, a glass of vintage champagne at my elbow, wrapped in the beautiful cashmere shawl I could never afford before @DoctorDiva was created. I go on line. Oh look - your partner has just followed me. Mmm ... nice. I like his avi: blue eyes that crinkle at the edges, finely chiselled jawline, the face with just a hint of stubble. I think I'll follow him back.


Wednesday 17 December 2014

Cancer Clear and Very Grateful

As some of you know, this time last year, I was diagnosed with DCIS ( ductile cancer). It was picked up at a routine screening and meant I spent either side of Christmas as a patient on the cancer unit at the Luton and Dunstable University Hospital - I cannot praise the staff and my consultant enough.

At the time, I was told I should have further follow up treatment: 3 weeks of radiotherapy. I was reluctant: I don't believe in unnecessary medical intervention, and I trusted my surgeon when he said he had removed all the cancerous cells.

Friends piled in on either side of the argument. I listened, but made the decision not to go forward, even though the consultant told me there was a 70% chance of the cancer recurring. My daughter was about to give birth; it was important that I should be there for her, not wiped out by some treatment.

I also prayed. Some of you also know I am a Messianic Jew. I don't ram my faith nor my personal beliefs down anybody's throat, nor go on about it. But I am. And I felt strongly that I was being told to trust and go ahead with my decision despite the facts.

Yesterday I went back to the hospital for the first of 5 annual checkups. Given the dichotomy of my decision and those ''facts'', you can guess how the days before the appointment felt. So many conflicting emotions: I now have a little granddaughter. My writing career seems to be having a late bloom. Was all this about to come crashing down around my rash ears?

No, it wasn't. At the end of a scan and an ultrasound, I have been declared free from cancer for another 12 months. The news is slowly seeping into my subconscious which has been overthinking and catastrophizing for the past week.

The chances of being 'free' from cancer, given the odd were so stacked against me are not only an amazing relief, but a witness to ''other'' things than can come into play. Sometimes, I think we have to go with our ...instincts, gut feelings, God-breathed advice. Call it whatever suits you. I know what I'd call it. And I am grateful.

Friday 12 December 2014

THE PINK SOFA meets Teagan Kearney

The PINK SOFA is proud to welcome Teagan Kearney as its last guest before Christmas and is very grateful for her popping in early to help decorate the Writer's Attic. The Sofa would like to take this opportunity to thank ALL its lovely guests over the past year, wish you all A HAPPY CHRISTMAS and remind you that there is still a bicycle, two non-matching gloves, a cracked iPad and a packet of crisps in the Lost Property box on the landing. Over to you, Teagan:

''Thank you, Carol, for the invitation to have a seat on your scrumptious pink sofa. It is an honour, and yes, thank you I shall certainly partake of the delicious fare provided. Mmm ... these chocolate brownies are irresistible. I’ve known Carol since I ventured onto Twitter, and I always enjoy her posts. Carol writes a clever, humorous blog full of sharp witticisms about life, growing older, her grandchild and her writing, so I’m delighted to be here.

Okay, well I’m here to talk about my writing, and myself - as you requested a bit of bio. So if you’re sitting comfortably, let’s begin.
Once upon a time, (no numbers, I’m allergic) I was born in Highgate, north London, and when I was seven we moved to south London.  My parents were Irish, (mother from Dublin, father from Donegal) and I was one of three with an older brother and a younger sister.

            And I’ve always been an avid reader. An early memory connected with reading is from when I was around 8, and my sister 6. We were walking to the local public library by ourselves for the first time; naturally I was in charge. I remember a sunny day with a clear blue sky, and it must have been springtime as we were wearing the new red and white striped hats my mother had knitted for Easter.

Two plaited pieces of wool hung from the crown of each hat; the plaits were of different lengths and each sported a red and white bobble at the end. These bobbles swung as we turned our heads. As we walked, we would look ahead and turn quickly towards each other, laughing in delight at the swing and thump of the bobbles as they hit our heads. We giggled and relished the sense of adventure at being out by ourselves.

The back roads we took were fairly empty, and as we passed a piece of rubble strewn waste ground we looked up. And there, flashing through the sky we saw a shooting star. In the middle of the afternoon. We were stunned into stillness.

‘Quick,’ I whispered. ‘Make a wish.’ For that instant the world was silent as we prayed for our secret desires to be fulfilled.
Fast forward a few years, and at around thirteen, I read through the local library’s shelf of fairy tales from around the world; Egyptian, French, Russian – from every nation. By fifteen this morphed into an early foray into Dennis Wheatley (a huge spider stayed in my memory long before Shelob appeared). In later years, French and Russian writers captured my attention, as did science-fiction (books passed on by my brother), and fantasy. I fell in love with Lord of the Rings, and re-read it three times.
          I blissfully misspent my teenage years and early twenties, and I’ve lived in several countries over the years. As an adult I studied for a degree with the Open University, (in my opinion it’s a brilliant institution) majoring in modern and post colonial literature and film studies. I’ve had several careers and ended up teaching English Literature, an excellent way to study the works of great writers, especially as I enjoy critical analysis.
            What drew me to writing? At 11years old I won a prize for my age group in an all London junior schools poetry competition. During the first English lesson at my new secondary school, the English teacher called out my name and awarded me the prize. This teacher had great hopes for me; sad to say, I sorely disappointed her during my school years. But the fact that someone had noticed my writing when I was young, made an impression on me.
                 Years later out of nowhere a story jumped into my head, and I just had to write it down. Life took over and nothing came of the writing, until a decade later when I had an idea for a black comedy, and decided to write a screenplay. Which I did, and it horrified my middle class writing group. And then I wrote a fantasy novel, and blithely sent the first draft off. The reply that sticks in my mind is the one that said - What? No map? When I look back at these early efforts, I shake my head and have to laugh at my ignorance.  
                    I came to a point where I took writing more seriously, and returned to studying with the Open University. After two and half years of writing courses I gained a Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and made some great friends along the way. I love studying, and contemplated doing a masters in something literature or writing related, (sometimes think I’d be an eternal student if I could) but I had to decide whether to continue studying or have a serious attempt at writing. And as all life has an end point, I plumped for the writing thing.
            And now here I am. I’ve somehow completed and published two novels, which continues to astound me. I wrote the first chapter of One Summer in Montmartre, my debut novel, as a writing assignment, and returned to finish it after several years as the story stayed with me. My second novel, just published, Tatya’s Return, is the first in a trilogy and is a paranormal thriller/romance.
            I’ve always had itchy feet, and my travels have taken me to many interesting places, but I’m now happily living in the scenic county of Aberdeenshire. I don’t know if it’s the writing which satisfies me so much or not, but I’ve put down roots and seem to have come to a full stop. Of course, it may just be the pull of the granite holding me here!
            Well, thank you, Carol. I’m stuffed with cake and cookies (can you ever have enough cake and cookies?) and it’s time to take my leave. Thank you for having me – it’s been a pleasure to visit.''

Saturday 6 December 2014

The Day I Became An Alien

Imagine the scene:

I'm hanging at the bus stop with my crew: Jo, Mo, Flo* and Allan**. We are the Freedom Bus Pass Gang; twice a week we gather at 9.35am to wait for the 657 bus to take us into town. (It used to be the 620 but Uno, the bus company, recently changed it to the 657 and now it comes 8 minutes later. No don't ask, because we don't know either.)

The crew are OK about the fact that I write letters to the local paper as they all know I am the co-founder of Harpenden Independent Partnership and chair of a community action group trying to stop the local town council from selling our urban green space to a developer. Thus I fire off a lot of what I like to think of as wry, witty, urbanely Swiftian epistles which always get published in our local paper.

This is because the editor knows my stuff will generate rude responses from people with humorectomies and irony bypasses who live in the posh bits of town, and see no reason why our urban green space shouldn't be covered in tarmac and Tesco School of Architecture housing because hey, it isn't their urban green space. Over the years I've developed quite a following, and am apparently referred to colloquially and locally as 'the redhead who writes those letters'.

But the crew also know that there is a darker, more perplexing side to what I do, known as 'The Writing', words usually uttered in the same cautious tone of voice that one might use for other words like 'shark' or 'cockroach'. Thus it is that Jo eventually plucks up courage and asks, 'How's The Writing going then, Carol?'

And that's when it happens. Without even thinking, I sigh deeply, roll my eyes and say: 'Had to cancel my Facebook launch as I lost my Wifi. And then Google spammed my blog so I had to go into a chat room and talk to a techie, and I had to download an app to sort it out.'

There follows a long silence that hangs around in the air in the way that bricks don't. The crew study the ground carefully. Then Flo murmurs, 'Didn't understand a word of that, sorry.' And Allan agrees. And Jo and Mo step away from me as if I might infect them with whatever I've got. And then thankfully for all concerned, the bus arrives. We scramble on board, showing our passes to the cheerful Polish lady bus driver.

Nobody sits next to me all the way into town.

*   Names changed to protect their identity.
** This is his real name.