We need to talk about it.

First off, I suspect it’s down to how much dialogue says about your characters’ backgrounds . I am scared of consistently getting the register right – the best range of words for the character’s age, social class and period. I am nervous of expressing regional identity – how do I handle my own  dialect without coming across all clogs-and-shawls? I need lessons from David Almond. I’d also love to make my characters so distinct in the way they talk that the reader immediately knows who’s talking .

Secondly there’s the question of subtext. How much should the dialogue reveal what my characters feel? How do I do that without being trite or full of improbable psychobabble? On the other hand  I know it’s good when the underlying emotion is at variance with the spoken word. Then I worry about how to reveal the hidden feelings without confusing the reader. Complex stuff.

A third area of concern to me is the sheer logistics. How to orchestrate a duologue seems OK, though there can be status reversal, but including  more people gets tricky. It’s like maths with ‘perm any three’. Just how many lines of communication can I cope with?

Finally, though I doubt it’s the last word in anxiety, the technical stuff. I can get all in a tizzy about attributions: how much is too much? What about adverbs? They can be deadly – or revealing. Likewise with business – what do people really do when they’re talking?

In short the only way I’ve found is to write it. And then act it out. And the  cringe.

How about you?

Stringing it out…

As part of  my MA at West Dean College, I am writing episodic fragments of an original novel. Our tutor, Greg Mosse, has referred to them as ‘bricks’. Each one is a self-contained whole that can form part of the larger edifice.

I prefer to think of them as beads, or on a good day, jewels.

I have always liked jewellery. I even started studying jewellery design at Loughborough back in the Cretaceous. Words like ‘pendant’,’ talisman’ and ‘amulet’ are music to my ears – and I rather hoped I might find Firefrost or some other magical stone.

But I think I will stick to beads.

The holes line up allowing you to join them together. If I am to write a first book worth reading, it will have a single narrative thread. I know cleverer people than me can weave many strands into complex webs – but at least to start off with, I’ll go for one bit of band.

My episodes vary in length, colour and shape like faience or toho seeds. I can arrange them in groups to make a sequence that becomes steadily more dramatic – like a graduated row of pearls.

I need to work with all the right pieces and I need to believe I can create them one at a time.

I find I have to revise , to reorganise the pattern. Sometimes there are missing sections – like the  Murano chevron bead that rolled under the workbench. Sometimes a whole section has to be unstrung and redone. But always to an underlying structure.

And the structure has its rules. There are demands of genre – you don’t make short story earrings if your reader wants a an epic lariat. But rules can be played with. The mash-up of expectations can create wonderful things. Intersperse your Native American hair-pipe with your dichroic glass and see what happens. I am popping gargoyles into the world of Jane Austen and Celtic selkies in Heartbeat coastal Yorkshire. Why not?

It is through experiment bounded by a given form that new things can emerge – and its unique quality is the way the maker puts it together. This works as well with a novel as a necklace.

From the heart

Thursday 5th May 2011 I had the pleasure of attending a fundraiser for StonePillow , a local charity working with homeless people. I went to hear readings from three very local writers: Isabel Ashdown, Jane Rusbridge and Gabrielle Kimm. The quality of the extracts was excellent – and it gave me to thinking why.

The three main works were quite distinct – though all had an historical element. Both ‘Glasshopper’ by Isabel Ashdown  and ‘The Devil’s Music’ by Jane Rusbridge take place in England in the  recent past, whereas Gabrielle Kimm set  ‘His Last Duchess’ in 16th century Italy. But it wasn’t the vivid recreation of a previous era  that captvated: it was the emotion.

All three authors read with a clear sense of the emotion in their work. Speaking to them afterwards, it became clear that despite the distance between the reading and the publication, the feelings of their primary characters still animated the writers. And this in turn engaged their listeners.

This is critical to me as both reader and writer. I may have no idea how banquets were conducted at the Court of Alfonso d’Este – but I can connect with the tentative feelings of a young bride. Similarly, I can identify with  the experience of a frightened boy or an embarrassed  teenage girl in any time, location or culture because of their emotions. Emotions link us to all humans: and the single emotional thread was the first key concept Greg Mosse taught us on the Creative Writing MA.

These writers, and many more who engage with their readers, portray emotion with clarity and honesty. They use dialogue and action to reveal their characters’ emotional lives. Everyone experiences anger,  love and loss – and writers show these because they are inherent to the human experience. They don’t use emotions to draw the reader in – they experience the emotions of their characters and record them.

Therefore a creative writer shows anger, love and loss through distinct voices.  At this reading, I had the direct experience of hearing those voices and the physical emotion in them. As a reader, you ‘hear’ the voice of the characters in your head – and you also have a sense of the author’s voice. It is the intensity of feeling in the writer’s voice that draws us into their fictional world.

Chicken and Egg

Easter holidays; no bus trips to college and time to do some serious wordage. One thing I have learnt is you’ve got to have form ( no, not that sort). Think of a garden – it can be colourful, jam-packed with plants but it won’t impress the Yellow Book judges much if the hard landscaping’s all to pot. That’s certainly how I used to garden – and my writing is still a bit that’s good- bung-it-in-and-hope-for-the-best.

One antidote to splurging is looking how other people do it. I had a spot of ironing to do, so I popped on Radio 4 and listened to ‘On Mardle Fen’. I scribbled down notes on the structure in between pressing Gorgeous Hubby’s poplin shirts and the posh tea-towel. There were plenty of mini-dramas including finding the remote restaurant, kitchen disputes and a runaway daughter – but one overarching  familial drama. A big feature that holds it all together, like a wall round a vegetable garden, or a central fountain, definitely creates an effective structure.

An external event can be a good device – the count-down to a wedding, for example or that highlight of East Wittering’s year: the opening of the refurbished Co-op. It doesn’t take too much imagination to realise how many mini-stories are possible with so many people  involved. What about the reporter with the comedy cardboard scissors, the football coach holding the giant cheque, or one of the fitters looking down from the roof? And it wouldn’t have to be limited to the contemporary: think of the excitement of the first supermarkets arriving, or the fuss the Victorians made opening a shop.

But, of course, all these possibilities lead off in different directions. You can follow your protagonist and secondary characters wandering off along all sorts of paths. And where’s your planning, your pre-formed structure then? Back to the venerable Plotter v Pantser debate.

I’m trying Plot-the-Big-Stuff and Wing-the-Details at the moment. It feels like herding cats – or trying to control couch grass.

Any advice?

“It matters not what a person is born, but who they choose to be.” J.K. Rowling

As part of my MA at West Dean College, I gave a presentation about my work-in-progress. I used images and texts to evoke the period and place that my story was set in quite comfortably. I felt confident about portraying the 1960s without cloying nostalgia, and happy firmly locating it on the Yorkshire coast. I was able to outline the general social background: the underlying tension between the seal people and the fishermen of Scoresby Nab.

But then I reached the specific ‘who’- my central protagonist – and it all went a bit vague. Come the plenary and it was clear my audience had been left in some fuzzy hinterland they disliked.

I determined to do something about this.

I had no joy with writing a bog standard character description. It came out twee, stereotypical. If  I could sneak up on him sideways somehow, Mattie might become clearer. It occurred to me that in the best stories we learn a good deal about a character by the reactions of those around them. I hit upon the idea of ‘asking’  Mattie’s grandmother and others: I could see him through a matrix of other people’s views.

So now I am creating chunks of Grandma’s diary, newspaper cuttings, and  a doctor’s note. I wonder what else might inform.

Any suggestions?


The writers on the Creative Writing MA at West Dean College are reshaping their work in different forms. Some have chosen to explore screenplay; some poetry; others are working in the radio play format. I am tackling a theatre play – in much the same way that my first forays into gardening involved equal parts of enthusiasm and ignorance. My initial attempts have pruned a story set in Scoresby Nab right down to the bare stems – a very useful exercise. I’ve had to hack away all sorts of extraneous matter. But now it needs to grow.

It is abundantly clear to me that it needs a clear framework. Storytelling in any form is about how you choose to reveal the sequence of events – but you first must have a sequence. I am learning oh so slowly how to intertwine one story strand with another. It’s pruning rambler roses all over again: which to tie in, which to cut back hard, which diseased shoots must just go.

Add in to that the Head Gardener standing over me and my secateurs just come to a halt.

Self-consciousness must be like honey fungus. Its evil rhizomorphs lurk, waiting to spread into any crack . Then the mycellium of despair get in and you’re done for. According the RHS, the only prevention is a physical barrier – and I hope concentration will act like that for thought.

So my intent is to persist, following the Head Gardener’s patient instructions, doing just one bit at a time. It might be slow and painstaking but my ambition is to understand. I want to be able to do it for myself.

What’s inside?

This afternoon, I stood waiting for the bus from West Dean. I began to chat with a young woman studying metal conservation and we reached the inevitable conversation about books. What she liked, she said, was when the characters had “a life between the pages”. It kept me thinking on the way home.

I connected this to something Jean (a colleague on the West Dean Creative Writing MA) had elaborated upon. We were considering how much of yourself you might wish to reveal as an online author and Jean put forward a concept of layers- perhaps like a daffodil bulb, or the shells of an atom. Deepest and most concealed was an inner self that no-one is privy to. Then the private person that our friends and family see, followed by an outer professional self which we might post. The best characters, it seems to me, give the sense that all the layers are there.

If you trawl the internet looking for how to create characters, or read a fair few how-to books, you are often told about character description. It strikes me that this is only the outer layer – the appearance that the character gives. It’s down to authorial decision whether to show what they look like – but as in business, you only get one chance to make a first impression. You can only do it once.

Next comes the personal layer – likes and dislikes, musical taste, the sort of stuff you might post on your Facebook profile. It may inform their mannerisms, tics, the things they do when talking.  All well and good – but still fairly superficial. You’re not really giving much away.

Now we come to something much more intimate . This is where the conscious anxieties lie, where the dreams reside that the character might share with her closest friends and family. This is the stuff that makes a difference. It will be largely behind the scenes, suggested by action or hinted at in speech. But it is the very innermost core, full of secret desires and fears, that provides the character’s volition. It provides the unseen addiction, the desperate need that gives energy to the forward momentum of the plot.

When you have all these, then you have a character.

As my bus reached Chichester Cathedral, I made a further connection. Kate Mosse, writer of Labyrinth and Sepulchre, explains how her characters can seem at first to stand behind her, just out of view, hazy and indeterminate. Then they step forward, next to her and assume a solid form. She starts writing only as they move off on their own adventures – and she records what they do. For me, then , my characters can only have a life ‘between the pages’ , can only step out into their world when I have fully imagined what’s inside each layer.

Seven things in Seven Weeks

1. Coffee is necessary – or any substance that keeps me attentive enough to learn about semiotics, transitions and why the passive voice is A Bad Thing.

2. Sleep is not as necessary as I thought. Sheer delight and interest in this writing lark can keep you going – though sometimes it’s down to dogged persistence. (Why do I have images of the Fellowship leaping from falling pillar to falling pillar in Moria in Peter Jackson’s film of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ playing in my head as I write this?)

3. Everything that tells a story is worth thinking about – Foyle’s War, the songs of Noel Coward and Tom Lehrer, the opening of the children’s film ‘Robots’, even the Archers. It’s got to the point where I watch an advert and think, ‘Well they don’t waste their time on flashbacks and psychonarration much, do they?’

4. Many creative people are really generous – with their time, their knowledge and their encouragement. It’s amazing how supportive people can be: quotations to help my academic work from Bel Mooney and Susan Hill; lifts from Greg Mosse, Jean Levy and Kerry Edwards  – and so many people at West Dean College who have taken an interest.  The other writers on my course are a great bunch who put up with my interruptions, stupid questions and me bombarding them with half-formed piffle to read with good grace.  Thanks Abla, Anita, Carol, Dana, Davy, Helen,Kerry , Jean, Joe, John, Lucy, Olivia, Susie and Suzanne .

5. Weird has its place in the scheme of things – I don’t feel quite so out of place in a setting where making giant apples out of willow is encouraged, where the Principal Rob Pulley  scoots round on the wheelie chairs with as much enthusiasm as the rest of us in our long  gallery and where 20’s  Surrealism is a frontrunner for the Christmas Party theme.

6. Being properly edited hurtsbut it does you a power of good; which does make it sound rather like having your tonsils and adenoids out, admittedly. As yet I haven’t much idea of how my work is likely to be perceived by a reader, so seeing the error of my ways (useless gerunds, non sequiturs and editorialising) has been a salutary experience. Bring it on!

7. Writing well is a really emotional business – and the community at WDC is such a blessing. You would be amazed how a little wave from Kate Mosse, or a kind enquiry from Roger Bown, or a smile from  Stephen  & Martin the Security men can make such a difference.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Student

Bag packed the night before, I wake up early. I am up, dressed and ready on time. The open dishwasher displays its clean load – I’d better do my duty.  I empty it, dash out and hear the bus. I run down the road. The driver  waits a moment then pulls away when my throat and lungs have got to their full scraped soreness. Blast.

I want to cry. I want to tell teasing bus drivers what I think of them. I want to beg strangers to give me a lift.

Ho hum. I wait. Schoolkids turn up. I wonder if I could jump off at the Sports Centre, run round to the Bus Station and still catch the Midhurst bus. The next Wittering bus is late. I will stay chilled. I will not worry. I will not look at my watch as we pass every telegraph pole, hoping we still might make it.

No chance:  Stockbridge roundabout and then the gates are down on the railway crossing. Pah.

I high-tail it up towards the Cathedral. Maybe I could get to the bank?  Get the cheque in I’ve been carrying round since August? I check the clock on the Cross – I’d be pushing it and it’s not good to be late on your first day. I give in and wait beneath the gargoyle.

I wait. I look at the brown and white pigeon, the corbels, the hole in the centre of the rose window, the wonky bits of the Cathedral. Quarter to strikes. No bus. I talk to an expectant mum waiting for another bus after mine. It comes. She goes. The hour sounds across the precinct. A child cyclist wobbles past. The heroine of my work-in-progress climbs the parapet of her school and finds she is locked out. The bus does not come. Quarter past and then the rumble. Not my bus. This one stops at the same shelter.

Ah, but mine is behind it. I wave as if it is a long-lost friend. The driver must stop, must see me. I now do everything very quickly as though it will make any difference to my utter failure at time-keeping.

An hour late I clump into the Old Library. Walking boots are not quiet on parquet – no sneaking in for me. The only things I learn from the Introduction and Address is that West Dean offers a Phd and that there will be a Christmas Costume party.

Probably enough to begin with.

More moaning from Mrs Maungy

What do people want?

Last year’s SBWI conference, I submit my weird and wonderful work in progress for a one-to-one. I get a lovely agent: young, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. I have more butterflies in my stomach than Tropical World at Roundhay Park, Leeds. I almost run away. She is clearly a girl of taste: she says I can really, really write, but has some problems with the commercial saleability of the central idea. Okey dokey.

I read around. A lot. I learn lots more about ‘show not tell’, ‘killing my darlings’ and generally writing in, shall we say, a more conventional manner. My ‘voice’ is now not so thick with regionalism that you need translation.  I have a contemporary setting. I have a hero whose gender is very, very clear. I edit for consistent point of view, I cull my own adverbs and read every last one of the 30k+ words aloud.

Out with the fey and in with the action.

Off a sample goes. Hoorah. She wants to see the rest. My heart is a party balloon.

I push the hope down inside me, trying not to let it slip out, trying to keep calm and carry on. I tell myself whatever happens, I’ve learnt a lot and I’ve nothing to loose. I tell myself she’s bound to reject it and not to get too Tiggerish.

 She’ll probably ask me to come back after the MA – that would be something. The dreams, the hope persecute me.

It’s not for her. 

She was kind enough to say she really liked the  strangeness of the earlier piece – she  found that rather appealing. And thoughtful enough to say ‘The Thirteenth Pharaoh’ has lots of great action.

But what do I do now?

Write self indulgent bizarreness that I fear no modern kid/agent/publisher would ever like?

There’s no point writing something so strange it’ll never get published – but on the other hand, I am strange. In the Venn diagram of normal, I’m not in any subset.  I like ghost ships and sea witches and Vikings and hobs and dragons and selkies and pirates and smugglers and weird underwater creatures. I know far too many fairytales, remember too much  folklore and definitely know far too much about Middle Earth. I have to write peculiar and children appreciate it better than adults.

Or get over myself, learn to please, learn what kids/agents/publishers want and deliver the goods?

I try to fit in. Honest. But oddball is as oddball does. I can’t write what most normal children want any more than I could belong to the school hockey team. ( I was rather good at cutting up oranges, though.)

I feel as though I’m learning how to steer a narrowboat – veering from crashing into one bank to denting the other. In slow but inevitable motion.  I’m careering from the freakish to the  frankly dull.

Eventually I might learn enough to get somewhere?