Plastic forks and breadcrumbs in non-fiction

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The biggest challenge when writing non-fiction on a serious subject is to keep the reader engaged. You have mountains of information but how to package it? My approach is to give the reader enough entertaining breadcrumbs to follow so that they don’t get bogged down in the statistics and analysis.

While researching the book I was constantly on the look-out for these breadcrumbs/nuggets. This quote, for example, from the Archbishop of Dublin talking about his diocese: “there are more members of the current cabinet under the age of 45 than there are priests of that age in the diocese.”

Apart from killer quotes, I also used photographs, anecdotes, memoir, reportage and, in one chapter of The Naked Irish, a piece of micro fiction. I also tried to keep a conversational style to avoid straying into textbook territory.

Another way the reader keeps his or her sense of direction is from the structure of the book. If it is strong enough, the reader should never wonder what a particular passage is doing there. It should always make sense.

When I was writing the chapter about whether the Irish want a united Ireland, I wanted to come up with a suitable allegory for the three-way relationship between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. It was no easy task.

At first I was leaning towards the broken home comparison, which works up to a point. The UK is the somewhat reluctant father who has custody of the troublesome child, and Ireland is the mother who lost custody but has been trying for years to get her baby back.

There was also the option of bringing romance into it. Ireland is the rejected suitor who is still holding a candle for the North, an incurable optimist who cannot and will not move on. Meanwhile the North is smitten with the dashing prince next door who is staring at the ceiling, wishing he was somewhere else instead. A double dose of unrequited love.

For an unreconstructed Irish nationalist interpretation, you cannot beat Tommy Makem’s best-known folk song, Four Green Fields, written in 1967. Ireland is the field-owning old woman lamenting that one of her four ‘jewels’ is ‘in bondage in stranger’s hands’, despite her sons’ best efforts.

‘But my sons had sons, as brave as were their fathers

My fourth green field will bloom once again said she.’

This old lady wouldn’t be into any new-fangled ideas such as agreed solutions, or the principle of consent or respecting different identities. A battle is what she is envisaging, one she expects her sons to win.

What none of these set pieces takes into account is that Northern Ireland is not a single entity that can be represented by a single role.

In the end I imagined something that combined economics and identity: Northern Ireland as a company. This is an excerpt from the opening of the chapter:

Imagine a small company that makes plastic forks. It has always lost money but has survived because it belongs to a big company that produces stainless steel forks. The big company has said more than once that it has no strategic or economic interest in holding onto the plastic fork company.

A few miles away, a medium-sized company that makes plastic knives is keeping a close eye. This company is looking to grow and believes a merger with the plastic fork company would be the best way forward. It hires a plane to fly over the plastic fork company pulling a banner that reads, ‘YOU COMPLETE ME’.

But the staff and management of the plastic fork company are split. A narrow majority of the board are firm believers in the fork business. Their fathers and grandfathers made forks and were part of a great fork tradition best represented by the big fork company. They don’t like change and they don’t trust knife-makers. The rest of the board, well disposed towards plastic knives, argue in vain for a brighter future of plastic forks and knives together under one roof. We’re all plastic at the end of the day, they say. No surrender, say the forkmen.

The plastic knife company settles down for a long wait.

The Naked Irish is two months old today! As good a time as any to give an update on the book and other work I’ve been doing.

There have been several highlights since I last wrote about the book. The first is the review that was published by the Irish Independent newspaper on November 16. I had no idea who had been commissioned to read the book or what they would make of it so of course I imagined the worst. But the review, by Darragh McManus, was very favourable, and fair in my opinion. Here’s a taste:

O’Dea is ideally placed to cast an eye – not cold, as per Yeats, but with the necessary coolness of the investigative journalist and/or social scientist – over our foibles and delusions. She brings the perspective of an outsider, leavened with a genuine grá [love] for, and understanding of, her homeland: a potent mix.

Another big day was October 28 when I went into the Radio Centre in RTE to be interviewed by Ella McSweeney on the Tubridy Show. The podcast of the 20-minute interview is available here.

Back in Switzerland, I was invited to Lausanne-based Books Books Books to have an author event at the shop. It became a sort of Swiss launch and there was a great atmosphere on the day. This was the first time my children got to see me in my public role as an author. Makes a nice change from seeing me hunched over the laptop, scowling at the screen.

On the journalism side, I’ve had two articles published on swissinfo.ch recently that might be of interest. One is about a group of tenants in Zurich who are being evicted from their apartments – owned by Credit Suisse Pension Fund. This is a story with lots of layers which reveals the tension between tenants’ needs and the investor’s prerogative, which is to make money.

The second article is a profile of Irish right-to-die campaigner Tom Curran, who comes to Switzerland often in the course of his work. Tom Curran is well known in Ireland as the partner of Marie Fleming whose 2013 case seeking the right to assisted suicide ended up in the Supreme Court in Ireland.

The last bit of work-related news is that I will be moderating a panel discussion on Brexit and direct democracy on Monday 2 December in St. Gallen University. More information on the event here. It’s free and open to the public but you do have to register.

Just one more thing. If you have read and enjoyed The Naked Irish, don’t forget to rate and review the book online. The book is listed on amazon.co.uk and on Goodreads. The more reviews, the merrier!

 

A guide to writing your first nonfiction book

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Since my first book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, was published last October, I’ve met several people who’ve mentioned their wish to write a nonfiction book. These tend to be people who already write as part of their work. They have strong ideas and expertise, but they feel uncertain about making the leap to a book.

Like all challenges, this one can be broken down. The first thing to say is that you don’t need anyone’s permission to write. You could start this weekend. No-one will know, and no-one will stop you.

As an unpublished writer, the first stage of writing is purely between you and the page. It is a process of self-expression. When it comes to the next stage of writing – entering the writing business – things get more complicated. But that should not prevent you from attempting stage one.

Test the idea

It is likely you will have carried the idea for your book around in your head for a while. This is a good thing. It means the idea is incubating, and should hatch at some point. But if you don’t test it, you might never find out if the concept is strong enough to stand up.

In terms of subject matter, the sky is the limit. The important thing is that this is a subject you feel passionate about. You have something to communicate.

The test is to answer this question: What is the book about? Write it down in one line. Here are some examples I made up:

  • A week-by-week guide to cultivating a successful vegetable patch, with blank pages for readers to track their progress.
  • A self-help book for people who want to convert to a vegetarian diet, offering a mix of psychology, politics and recipes.
  • A compilation of ten mini-biographies of leading women scientists – aimed at young girls.
  • This book tells the true story of the Swiss children sent to work as chimney sweeps in Italy in the 20th century.

Get organised

When the concept is clear in your mind, you can expand it to a one-page pitch. If yours is a long-held idea, chances are you will have already done some research, if not in a targeted way. You need to organise that material. How much do you have? Perhaps you already have your own written content that could be fed into the book, such as articles, blogposts, diary entries or essays. What fresh research do you need to do? Come up with a system to collate your material – folders, notebooks, cards, whatever works for you.

This is the point where the structure becomes important. You need to put some thought into how your content can be arranged. In some cases, for example the scientist biographies mentioned above, the chapter divisions will be obvious. In other cases, you will have to carefully work out how to present your ideas or story. Have a look at the content pages of the nonfiction books you like. Reading books similar to one you intend to write is part of the research process, and an indication of your passion.

Every book is written one chapter at a time. When you are ready, sit down and try to write a chapter. It is only by writing a sample chapter that you will bring forth the style of the book. Expect to have to work through many drafts.

If you are planning to self-publish, you carry on from here. If not, this is the moment to pause and research submitting targets.

Submitting

Unlike fiction, where authors approach an agent or publisher with a polished, completed manuscript, nonfiction is usually sold on proposal. Most publishers and agents ask for one sample chapter, and a cover letter explaining the concept, structure and target audience. They want to hear why you are right person to write the book, what platform you have, and they may ask how you would help promote the book. Submission requirements vary, so do make sure to follow them faithfully to show your professionalism. Expect each submission to take as much time as a job application.

As a first-time writer, you can expect go through this process umpteen times without success. You will receive either no response or standard rejections, and be happy if you get a few words of encouragement from one in twenty submissions. Here is a post I wrote about dealing with rejection as an author.

The reality of the market is that the world is not waiting for anyone’s book. There is an oversupply of authors eager to be published. It comes down to finding the right match. If you present the right kind of book to the right person at the right time, you may be lucky.

Make time

If you do get to the point of ploughing ahead with the book, you will need to allocate time to write regularly. Even if you have plenty of free time, it makes sense to set yourself writing hours, as this is a project that requires discipline. If you don’t have much free time, you will need to decide what can be sacrificed from your weekly activities – television, social media, family time, sport. Something has to give.

Ideally, you should have a writing partner or editor to review your work as you go along, as a form of quality control. But whatever happens, no book should be sent out into the world without some form of editing from another party or parties, as well as proofreading.

I hope you found this advice useful. Depending on the reaction to this post, I may make it the first in a series of how-to articles. Don’t forget to share the link with others through the social media buttons below, and feel free to comment if you have any questions.

Magpie at the Geneva Writers’ Conference

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I’ve just returned from an exhilarating weekend at the Geneva Writers Conference and I know I’ll be sifting through all those impressions and key pieces of information and advice for months to come. For now, I’d like to post this magpie-style round-up of some of the inspiring ideas and people from the workshops and panel discussions I attended.

The wonderful English novelist and short story writer Tessa Hadley gave a workshop on Beginnings. One of my favourite short story collections is Married Love by Hadley so I was particularly keen to hear her speak. I can only describe her teaching style as joyful. The students in her creative writing class at Bath Spa University College are very lucky.

On the subject of beginnings, Hadley said: “There’s probably no rule for beginning a book except one: it should begin with force.”

I was paying particularly close attention because I am currently working on the opening of my book about Switzerland. The challenge is to make the opening lines “intelligent, odd or interesting”, Hadley said, so that the reader will want to spend time with you and see how the puzzle unfolds.

With revising, Hadley said we have to be able to approach the text with fresh eyes, as if reading it for the first time. “One of the most important skills of being a writer is to learn to be your own reader.”

The non-fiction author Andrea Stuart made some observations that really struck a chord with me. She spoke about the sense of loss that comes with the end of a project when you realise it is not going to be the dream masterpiece that you imagined. This is what makes letting go difficult.

“We have to accept the limitations of what we can do gracefully,” she said. And learn from it, go on to do better.

“We all have passion and uncertainty we’re trying to work through, and we resent it but it is essential,” Stuart said.

The Barbadian-British writer described the confidence that she has drawn from her writing, which includes a biography of Josephine Bonaparte (The Rose of Martinique) and Showgirls, a collective biography of female performers throughout history to the present day. Her 2012 book Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire gave her a great sense of pride. “It bolstered me, made me feel I could intercede in debates about British life.”

Hearing directly from two inspirational writers in one weekend would have been amazing enough but there were many other excellent speakers. Publishing consultant Jane Friedman patiently and skilfully explained what authors need to know about their online presence. Her website provides a wealth of information on navigating the industry and making smart decisions in the digital age.

The final inspiring speaker I’d like to mention is JJ Marsh, a Zurich-based crime writer who co-founded a writers’ collective called Triskele Books. The five Triskele writers are based in three different countries but they pool their skills and energy to publish their books independently.

Among the challenges authors face, Marsh said, is the fact that writing is a solitary occupation. But there is great support to be found, even if you need to start a writers’ group yourself. Marsh mentioned various associations and groups and said it’s a question of figuring out where you belong. Her full talk on community, networking and resources, with lots of helpful links, is here.

There was an amazing friendly atmosphere at the conference, probably because everyone was so delighted to be let out to play at last. A big thank you to the organisers from the Geneva Writers’ Group whose hard work gave us all such a positive experience. Now for that forceful beginning …

(photo credit: cowboy54 @ freedigitalphotos.net)

 

 

 

Hot House Novel

© africa, freedigitalphotos.net
© africa, freedigitalphotos.net

Some manuscripts need the hot house treatment. My second novel is a prime candidate. I’ve taken the usual slowly-but-surely approach on this book but somewhere along the line the story stopped growing. Now I want to try writing fast.

Today I came across some great advice on writing fast from author Kelly Creighton. The advantage of rapidly firing the words onto the page is that the subconscious takes over, Creighton says. You are less likely to have plot holes because you are immersed in the story. I’ve experienced this flow in the past and now I’d like to try to tap into ‘the force’ again.

Creighton’s advice is prompted by the upcoming annual writing challenge NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – in which participants worldwide try to write a complete novel from scratch in the month of November, fueled by massive solidarity on social media.

I’ve set myself an October deadline, linked to a competition. I started the year with a modicum of competition success when my first novel was longlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize. That hasn’t translated into a breakthrough on the submissions front but I have had some encouraging responses. The latest news on that novel is that I have handed it over to a professional editing service. The book still raises too many questions for me and I’m hoping to get some answers from this edit.

In the meantime, the second novel can have its moment. I wrote the opening to the book two years ago during an extended visit to Dublin and the word count has crept up in increments since then. I’m happy with the ‘big idea’ behind this children’s novel, which grew from a rather sinister radio play I wrote. I believe it satisfies the “interesting, unique and universal” criteria, and I hope readers will one day feel the same.

Because I keep letting other writing commitments get in the way, I’ve come to the conclusion that forced productivity is the only way for this story. By hook or by crook I will finish the first draft this month. That means writing every day but I should be doing that anyway. I’m off to flying start and hope to be able to type THE END at the end of the month.

These kinds of against-the-clock challenges are only meant to help writers achieve a first draft, and anything written at speed is likely to need a lot of reworking. No matter. I’d rather be reworking a rough first draft than have an unfinished manuscript humming ‘you don’t send me flowers anymore’ in my head.

The final words of inspiration come from Kelly Creighton, debut author of the psychological thriller The Bones of It: “In writing, nothing is ever a waste of your time.”

Is anyone considering taking part in NaNoWriMo?

What was your most productive writing time?

The A to Z of rejection for writers

© Witthaya Phonsawata, freedigitalphotos.net
© Witthaya Phonsawat, freedigitalphotos.net

Hi, my name is Clare and I’m a submitting writer. It’s been one day since my last rejection. This post goes out to all those who are submitting their work to agents, competitions, journals or the man in the moon. Big hugs everyone.

Rejection ALWAYS comes when I least expect it. Thanks smartphone. The latest polite message came when I was walking aimlessly around a forest. Tip: rope parks are more fun for kids than for the accompanying adult on the ground.

Every rejection is a test of your BELIEF in yourself and your work.

Accept the CHALLENGE! One particular person at one particular point in time cannot or does not wish to take this specific piece of work. Change the person, the time and the piece and anything is possible.

DESPAIR will make an appearance with each rejection. Keep it brief. Just let the big D come and go again and you’ll be fine. Treat the two imposters just the same and all that.

In the old days writers waited for the postman. Now the poison dart is sent by EMAIL and you will hear a ding before you are struck. Assume the crash position and click!

You come to treasure the personalized rejections because they contain precious FEEDBACK. We will take these crumbs from the publishing table because, you know, starvation. Hearing that my story was “strongly crafted” gives me wings.

Submission GUIDELINES. They are serious about this S**T. Ignore at your peril.

HOWEVER. This word comes after something half positive like “I genuinely liked the work” or “I enjoyed reading your chapters”. It means no.

INSIDE job. Don’t get all bitter about other people getting published because of some perceived unfair advantage. Authors get dropped by publishing houses all the time. You still have your chance.

JUST be yourself. Authentic work is what counts. There is no point trying to mould your writing to fit a particular fashion. Anything that is popular now is likely to be old hat by the time you are submitting and your version won’t ring true.

KNOWLEDGE The publishing industry is just that, an industry. Don’t be a total ingénue. Do your homework and be preprared for a long apprenticeship.

You’ve got to LAUGH a little, cry a little, until the clouds roll by a little.

“Could you send me the full MS?” These words herald a good day. The great big hot air balloon of hope rises but you need to pull it back down quickly. At the very least it will lead to precious feedback.

NETWORK. I’m not talking about stalking agents, although twitter is good for building up a picture of someone. The best networking you can do is among peers who support each other and pass on valuable information.

ORGANISATION is a key part of perseverance. Do the research and keep a record of every submission and whatever progress it makes. Keep a note of what agents / journals are looking for. Could save you legwork the next time.

Nobody likes to be ignored but that doesn’t mean we can break the golden rule of submitting. Be POLITE. You don’t want to end up the star of the ‘crazy author’ anecdote at the annual agents’ bash.

QUITTING. Don’t even think about it. If Donal Ryan sent his second book out to 45 agents, I’m not giving up after 16 and neither are you. But don’t forget to write the next book or story. Helps take the sting out of things.

Be prepared for RADIO silence from time to time. It happens. Even after a request for a full manuscript. Some agents simply cannot keep up with their correspondence. Not to be taken personally.

STANDARD rejection. ‘Not right for my list.’ ‘Unable to offer representation at this time’. ‘He’s just not that into you,’ as Miranda would say. If you are getting annoyed by standard rejections, try drafting your own to see if you can do any better.

Submitting is a quest and should retain at least a modicum of enjoyment and optimisim. If it’s becoming a grim obsession give yourself some TIME OUT.

Don’t UNDERESTIMATE how long the process of submission is. Putting together a good submission takes time and effort. Multiply that by a large number and then add the waiting game. We are in this for the long haul or we might as well forget it.

VANITY. Actually this should be PRIDE but I’ve already used up my P. We all want recognition but don’t let pride become too central in this quest. Modesty is the best policy.

WORD count. The devil is in the detail. 10,000 words, the first three chapters, one-page synopsis, under 500 words, less than 3,000 words. Read the fine print.

The eXCEL sheet is where you keep track of all the rejections. Date sent, name, email, submissions policy, response. Mine is colour coded (I know). After each rejection I upate the file and I feel back in control. An important little ritual.

YES! One day you too will be asked to the ball and you will be able to smile and say YES!

ZEN is the only way. The writing is one thing and the business is the other. The hard truth is that not everyone can get picked for the team so let’s keep this in perspective. Life outside writing has to be more important.

On not knowing what your novel’s about

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On the blog today, it is my great pleasure to introduce the English writer Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails, whose journey to publication I have been following with great interest since we first connected through blogging two years ago. In this guest post, Anne shows it’s not always easy to distill the essence of your own story.

So, you’re lying on your deathbed (hopefully, many years from now) and an angel comes in with a shorthand notebook and retractable pencil. He’s been commissioned to write your obituary, but first he wants you to tell him what your life was about. Could you tell him? Would the sentence even make sense?

A novel isn’t the same as a life. A novel has structure. A novel has plot. But it can be just as difficult to reduce the essence of a novel to a single headline as it can be to sum up a life.

So I identified strongly with Clare’s post couple of years ago, What’s the book about? Yet some might imagine I should’ve known better. Unlike Clare, I wasn’t in the process of getting acquainted with my first novel. I was a few months into the submission circus, with some encouraging feedback from agents alongside the stack of rejections. Shouldn’t I have known what my book was about?

Of course I had my pitch. I had my carefully-crafted one-page synopsis. But these were summaries of what happened; what my novel was about lurked somewhere underneath.

In my initial attempts at synopsis writing, I’d finished off with a list of the themes. But somewhere along the line I was advised to drop the intangibles and focus on the fictional “facts”.

I’ll never know if my failure to snare an agent is attributable to my woolly pitch. It certainly didn’t prevent several requests for the full manuscript, but some of those who liked my novel might have been daunted by a perceived difficulty in representing it to publishers. Thankfully, there are lots of independent presses around who can take more of a risk (and the early reviews of my novel suggests they were right to do so).

But no-one’s going to want to publish a rambling novel without focus. When submitting to small publishers, I still did my best to present a coherent story. But this had a surprising downside, of which others should beware.

Sugar and Snails is a midlife coming-of-age story about a woman who’s kept her past identity a secret for thirty years. (An “about” sentence I’ve found only recently, partly through attending a media training day run by the Society of Authors.) The catalyst for change is her meeting with a man who takes a fancy to her at a dinner party and their on-off relationship provides the skeleton of the contemporary strand. Now, we all understand the romance genre; it’s hardwired with the fairytales we heard at our mothers’ knees. Somewhere along the line, without a conscious decision, boy-meets girl provided my novel a ready-made structure to contain the more amorphous story of a woman’s journey to self-acceptance.

Now, I knew Sugar and Snails wasn’t a romance. My publisher knew it wasn’t. My therapist certainly knew it wasn’t. Even friends and family who hadn’t yet read it but had listened patiently to me babbling about it knew Sugar and Snails wasn’t a romance. But when it came to writing the blurb to go on the back cover, that’s exactly how we framed it. In the emails shuttling back and forth in an attempt to perfect the words and punctuation, neither I nor my editor recognised we were stuck in the romance mode. It was as if we were engaged in a folie à deux.

Okay, we might have come to our senses without external intervention. The wider Inspired Quill team might have refused to give it the go-ahead. But, for me, it was only through the happenstance of consulting a few friends on a disagreement on some minutiae of the wording, that I recognised how close we’d come to mis-selling the book. Although a lucky escape, it was a painful moment to have this exposed. I was supposed to be the wordsmith, not my friends.

The romance element still gets a mention in the rewritten version, but it’s background to the larger story of a woman learning to live with herself:

The past lingers on, etched beneath our skin …
At fifteen, Diana Dodsworth took the opportunity to radically alter the trajectory of her life, and escape the constraints of her small-town existence. Thirty years on, she can’t help scratching at her teenage decision like a scabbed wound.

To safeguard her secret, she’s kept other people at a distance … until Simon Jenkins sweeps in on a cloud of promise and possibility. But his work is taking him to Cairo, and he expects Di to fly out for a visit. She daren’t return to the city that changed her life; nor can she tell Simon the reason why.

Sugar and Snails takes the reader on a poignant journey from Diana’s misfit childhood, through tortured adolescence to a triumphant mid-life coming-of-age that challenges preconceptions about bridging the gap between who we are and who we feel we ought to be.

Two weeks now since publication, I’m having fun playing around with what my novel is about. Writing guest posts and completing Q&A’s for my mammoth blog tour lets me explore my novel from different angles and the reader reviews reflect it back to me in interesting ways. I can’t begin to describe how wonderful, moving and humbling it is to have my novel not only read, but thought about, even discussed.

Yet there are still points at which I reach for that single-sentence summary. Print journalists and radio broadcasters need their soundbites and, grateful for the coverage, I try to give them just that. But I relish the opportunity to give a more discursive version of my story.

Thanks to Clare and her blog readers for indulging that need in me here.

Anne Goodwin writes fiction, short and long, and blogs about reading and writing, with a peppering of psychology. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last month by Inspired Quill. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.

Best of luck with the book Anne!
Best of luck with the book Anne!

Childbirth in fiction – delivering the goods

Birth of Adonis by Marcantonio Franceschini
Birth of Adonis by Marcantonio Franceschini

Births, marriages, deaths. These are the building blocks of stories. But what does it take to write a good childbirth scene? Is it even necessary to describe how a fictional baby comes into the world? Not always, I would say. But sometimes, as shown by the examples below, the birth is much more than a biological event. It is an important driver of the story which has an impact on how the characters behave later on. We have to be there with these women in their hour of need.

There is a short story in Annie Proulx’s 2008 collection Fine Just the Way It Is called Them Old Cowboy Songs which contains one of the most tragic birth scenes imaginable. The mother is a teenage girl living alone in a cabin in a remote part of Wyoming in 1885 (were there any non-remote parts of Wyoming at that time? I’m not sure). Her young husband Archie has gone off on his last cattle drive before the birth, hoping to be back in time, having asked a neighbour to check in occasionally on Rose.

The next morning was cold and sleety and her back ached; she wished for the heat of summer to return. She staggered when she walked and it didn’t seem worthwhile to make coffee. She drank water and stared at the icy spicules sliding down the window glass. Around midmorning the backache increased, working itself into a slow rhythm. It dawned on her very slowly that the baby was not waiting until September. By afternoon the backache was an encircling python and she could do nothing but pant and whimper, the steady rattle of rain dampening her moaning call for succor. She wriggled out of her heavy dress and put on her oldest nightgown. The pain increased to waves of cramping agony that left her gasping for breath, and on and on, the day fading into night, the rain torn away by wind, the dark choking hours eternal. Another dawn came sticky with the return of heat and still her raw loins could not deliver the child. On the fourth afternoon, voiceless from calling for Archie, her mother, Tom Ackler, Tom Ackler’s cat, from screaming imprecations at all of them, at god, any god, then at the river ducks and the weasel, to any entity that might hear, the python relaxed its grip and slid off the bloody bed, leaving her spiralling down in plum-colored mist.

There follows a heart-rending scene where Rose crawls out of the cabin with her stillborn baby wrapped in a dish towel and tries to dig a grave with a spoon. I won’t say any more.

At the risk of mentioning Lionel Shriver once too often in this blog, I have to include an extract from the birth chapter in We Need to Talk about Kevin because the savage eloquence of Eva, writing here to her husband Franklin, is so remarkable.

So I made an effort, at which point I had to recognize that I’d been resisting the birth. Whenever the enormous mass approached that tiny canal, I’d been sucking it back. Because it hurt. It hurt a whole lot. In the New School course, they drummed into you that the pain was good, you were supposed to go with it, push into the pain, and only on my back did I contemplate what retarded advice this was. Pain, good? I was overcome with contempt. In fact, I never told you this before, but the emotion on which I fastened in order to push beyond a critical threshold was loathing. I despised being spread out like some farm exhibit with strangers gawking between my canted knees. I detested Dr. Rhinestein’s pointed, ratlike little face and her brisk, censorious manner. I hated myself for ever having agreed to this humiliating theatre, when I was fine before and right at this moment I could have been in France.

In some countries, one in four babies is now being delivered by caesarian section and yet it’s not often you come across a description of a surgical birth. Maggie O’Farrell has one in her 2010 novel The Hand That First Held Mine. The birth is important in the book because things go drastically wrong just after this scene and the mother, Elina, spends most of the book recovering from the shock.

She could feel them, the two doctors, rummaging about inside her, like people who had lost something at the bottom of a suitcase. She knew it ought to hurt, it ought to hurt like hell, but it didn’t. The anaesthetic washed coolly down and then up her spine, breaking like a wave on the back of her head. There was a green canvas screen bisecting her body. She could hear the doctors murmuring to each other, could see the tops of their heads, could feel their hands in her innards. Ted was nearby, at her left, perched on a stool. And there was a great heave and suck and she almost cried out, what are you doing, before she realised, before she heard the sharp, angry cry, surprisingly loud in the hushed room, before she heard the anaesthetist, behind her, saying a boy. Elina repeated this word to herself as she stared ahead at the tiled ceiling. Boy. A boy. Then she spoke to Ted. Go with him, she said, go with the baby.

There are various other flashbacks of the birth as Elina tries to piece together what happened and come to terms with it. The other option is to skip the technicalities of the birth altogether, as Mary Costello does in Academy Street.

The pain struck at dawn. Willa came. In the hospital foyer her waters broke. She looked down at her drenched shoes and began to cry.

That evening when it was all over she thought she had scaled Everest, stood at its peak, exhilarated.

What, that’s it?
Actually there is a little more. Costello continues:

The next morning the enormity of it all hit her. She had brought forth life, rendered human something from almost nothing, and this power, this ability to create, overwhelmed her.

She did not take to the child. The light down on his skin resembled fur. She could not bear to touch the head, the unknitted bones of his crown. She thought of him as half-hatched, not quite finished. She was not in her right mind. Her body had been riven open, pummelled, her innards displaced. A disgust at her physical self took hold, at the engorged breasts, the bleeding. I am a cow, she thought. But cows are good mothers.

Nine and five years on I still remember the births of my own children in forensic detail and I remember feeling an urgent need in the early weeks and months to tell the story as often as I could (hopefully to a willing audience). Telling the story is a way of fully understanding and celebrating what has happened. It is too big an experience to fit into one day.

What about you? Do you think it’s desirable for authors to write detailed fictional accounts of labour? Have you ever written a childbirth scene or read one that stayed with you?

Five lessons to bring to your second novel

Winter talk © Karen Ramseier
Winter talk © Karen Ramseier

I’m not going to go into all the mistakes I made and then had to spend untold hours fixing on my first novel. I have covered all that at length on this blog over the past year, probably best summed up in this post: Breaking every rule in the book.

Now with my second novel under way and the first one in flight, I can sit back and see what I am doing differently this time. There are probably sub-conscious things too, but here are the lessons I am consciously applying to manuscript number two.

1. What’s the big idea?
Before the novel, comes the idea, and the stronger the idea, the better chance you have to write a good story. Victoria M. Johnson explains this succinctly in this excerpt from her book The Last Techniques I Learned Before Selling Fiction.

Johnson says you have to start with an interesting, unique and universal idea. Something that will carry you, and the story to the finish line. It has to be something that will resonate with a lot of people, tap into the readers’ instincts and emotions.

2. Where are you going with this?
Once you have your idea and have allowed it to incubate in your mind long enough, it’s time to invest in some concrete planning. On my first book I meandered so much I ended up with ox-bow lakes. Yes, I got there in the end but it would have been helpful to have a clearer idea of the destination from the start.

You can take it as a warning sign if you are not easily able to answer the question: What’s the book about? You can be hit with THE QUESTION anywhere, so it is worth taking the trouble to figure out the answer, preferably very early on in the writing process, or you’ll end up like me last year .

You can take this approach even further, as I discovered when I stumbled across a post on Twitter recently about the Snowflake method, developed by ‘America’s Mad Professor of Fiction Writing’, Randy Ingermanson. He’s also written a book about this and the gist of it is managing your creativity and getting it organized into a well-structured novel.

Ingermanson suggests that you take an hour to write a one-sentence summary of your novel – before you begin writing. Then write a one-paragraph summary, one-page summary, and so on, until the plot is all sketched out and ready to be written scene by scene. I wouldn’t be able to work in such a regimented way but it’s interesting to think about.

3. Think technical
Tense and point-of-view cannot be left to chance. The first piece of advice I received from Conor Kostick at the novel writing course I attended in the Irish Writers’ Centre was that the first person narrator was ideal for a debut writer as it covers a multitude of sins. “If there’s any way you can possibly switch your novel to the first person, do it,” he said.

4. Less is more
Dickens invented enough characters to populate a small town. This is not a feat that needs to be repeated. The better we know our main characters, the more we care about what happens to them, so concentrate on spending that time with them and making their struggle matter. The same goes for the sub plots. If the reader loses sight of the main storyline, it’s time for some trimming.

5. Be prepared for the long haul
I attended a talk by the Irish short story writer Claire Keegan last year in which she revealed that she writes up to thirty drafts before she is satisfied with her work. Gasp. Good writing does not spill out onto the page, it has to be crafted with skill and patience. Writing is rewriting, I now realise.

Keegan doesn’t show her work to anyone because she is so sure of her own writing barometer, and rightly so in her case. For most people input from the right readers is goldworth, to mimic a German word. But it is important not to be too easily swayed others’ opinions. Show the manuscript to the right people at the right time with the right expectations.

Just to add a little insight from another language culture about the secret ingredient publishers – and readers – are searching for. I read an interview today in my local Swiss paper with editor Daniela Koch of the Rotpunktverlag in Zurich. Only one in a hundred submitted manuscripts gets picked up by her company.

What keeps her reading a new submission? Emotion. “But it’s usually not the story itself that moves me, but something in the language. The way someone tells the story, how the atmosphere is created.”

For a first novel to work, she told the Freiburger Nachrichten newspaper, writers need more than linguistic prowess, they also need to have a feeling for what’s doable.

“The authors must have a sense for which themes they can handle and which ones they can’t.”

Some of this blog’s followers are on their second or subsequent novels. Others are avid readers. I’d love to hear what lessons you have picked up along the way.

So, have you finished the novel yet?

This question kills me, even though I know it’s the obvious one to ask. The short answer is no. More than once I thought I had finished but it turned out I had only reached milestones along the way. The first draft took almost twelve months to the day. I have now been writing my first novel for two years, five months and forever.

My heart sank today when I heard it took veteran BBC journalist Kirsty Wark ten years to write her novel The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle. Ten years! She gave a talk at the Dalkey Book Festival in Dublin yesterday and I sent my spies along to find out what she had to say.

I’m curious to read her book, despite reading this bad review a few weeks ago, which was breathtakingly spiteful. The Irish Times reviewer actually said: ‘don’t give up the day job’.

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/a-nice-fantasy-but-don-t-give-up-the-day-job-1.1777733

Wark started ten years ago but had to put the book to one side because of family commitments until her youngest started university. My youngest hasn’t started school yet. How long before I can find time?

Maeve Binchy addressed this issue in the first page of her book on writing, The Writers’ Club.

“Time doesn’t appear from nowhere. You have to make it, and that means giving up something else. Regularly. Like sleep, for example, or drinking or playing poker, or watching television, or window-shopping or just lounging about with your family.”

As it is I do regularly give things up for writing. But what if I’ve been giving up the wrong things?

The time has come to question where the writing blog fits in here. Would Maeve Binchy ever have finished Light a Penny Candle if she’d been blogging about it? I’ve published more than 70 posts over eighteen months, an average of 500 words per post. That’s a lot of words, half a novel in fact.

Without further ado, I hereby declare this blog temporarily suspended – normal service to be resumed when my novel is finished. I hope to connect again with fellow bloggers and followers of the site when the time is right.

Have a great summer folks!

ps. here is a link to Ashra’ Wish, a story I wrote for children which has just been published on a new children’s stories website.

http://www.shortkidstories.com/story/ashras-wish/

I'll be back.
I’ll be back.

“Too much statement and not enough suggestion”

Photo_6AEE6DB4-F527-CC2A-DF23-B7EF820BC320

This is what many writers are getting wrong, according to Irish short story writer Claire Keegan who passed through Bern this week. Keegan, a woman of strong convictions and deep thoughts, gave a talk and read from her award-winning story Foster.

I couldn’t believe my luck to hear that such a well-respected author was in town and that I could manage at the last minute to go along and listen to her. For Keegan, it is clear that writing is not something to be taken lightly. She spoke passionately about life, love and literature.

Foster is a story, about a poor young girl sent to live with more prosperous relatives for the summer. Written from the child’s point of view in the present tense, the story manages to convey that gulf that exists between children and adults and the disadvantage that children have in their inability to understand what’s going on in the adult world around them. It’s all the more poignant in Foster because the girl comes from a neglectful home and she is being looked after in a loving way for the first time.

As Keegan pointed out: “Love can come from anywhere, it doesn’t matter where.” The author sees herself as a critic of her society. Foster, set in 1970s rural Ireland, is in part a commentary on the plight of families forced, because of religious dictates on contraception, to have more children than they could love.

As I writer I was naturally curious to hear what Keegan, who has lectured in creative writing, had to say about the craft of writing.

The first thing that surprised me was that she goes through about thirty (!) drafts before she considers her stories finished. More proof that writing is rewriting!

During this process, Keegan does not give her work to anyone else for feedback, although she did admit she would like to have someone who would look at her manuscripts as closely as she does but from another perspective.

She explained that having spent decades reading attentively and developing her own taste, she trusts her own taste. A good place to be.

On the subject of what new writers are getting wrong, Keegan was very precise. In her view there isn’t enough priority given to the story, to the point that the story can be completely buried by the writing or even missing altogether.

Keegan is quite a purist when it comes to storytelling and confessed that she mostly preferred reading “dead authors”. For it to be a story something has to happen in a defined space of time, something irreversible that the character would take back if they could, she said.

Nowadays there is “too much statement and not enough suggestion”. Readers have to endure pages of analysis about the character before they even have a chance to go through something with them. In other words the analysis has not been earned.

Keegan is a great believer in “turning down the sound” and observing what people do with their hands and feet and eyes. That’s where the truth is, she said, and that is what she writes about. She won’t tell us someone is miserable and proceed to tell us why over many pages. She will show that misery and the context and let the reader reach their own conclusions.

Finally I liked what Keegan had to say about the elegance and efficiency going hand in hand in good writing. Not something that can be achieved in every blog post, but a good standard to aspire to in fiction.

The event was held under the auspices of the Swiss-British Society, Bern and SATE (the Swiss Association of Teachers of English).