Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Recycling words 2: Haymaking

After turning one poem into a story and having it accepted I delved into the poem file on my laptop to see what else could give me a ready-made character or plot. The obvious one actually had a name as a title – Cousin Hugh.

Originally written as my entry for the Edinburgh Writers’ Club’ poetry competition on the theme of Homecoming, the poem won the inaugural Stirling Book Festival Poetry Prize in 2010. I took it as a compliment when the judge expressed surprise on meeting me – she thought I’d be a man – and that she was disappointed when I told her that it was all made up and there was no such person as Cousin Hugh.

Cousin Hugh

His car was red. So was his hair,
the sandy crinkled mass of it
above brows bleached
by Californian sun.
The hair was his calling card:
there was no doubt he was one of us.
Yet when he smiled his Californian smile,
drawled, ‘So good to see ya,’
he was the familiar spun with adventure –
an authentic echo of the family genes.

We boys examined the car – hired,
but exciting compared to our truck
and old Massey-Ferguson;
we stared to see our stern father
throw his arms around his brother’s son.

Hugh proudly introduced his wife.
Shirley, tossing corn-coloured curls,
pronounced Scotland ‘quaint’, our house ‘cute’,
until she saw the bathroom:
‘No shower? Oh my.’
Later she refused Mother’s crowdie with a shudder.

Hugh hunkered down next morning,
for a handful of earth
his father might have walked on;
he rolled his sleeves to show the
family freckles; he told us
of soda fountains, Death Valley
and drive-in movies.
We showed him how to milk the cow
and stack sheaves.

Shirley pouted, painted her nails,
said cookies back home were the size of saucers.

As we waved them away down the track
Father passed his arm over his eyes –
‘Darn dust,’ – and went off to the field.

Mother said, ‘I doubt she’ll be back.’

I hope it is apparent in the poem that the place is a farm in the Scottish Highlands and the time is around the late fifties/early sixties. In the story version I was able to expand on that. The poem is written from the point of view of a young boy and I stuck with that for the prose version.

I realised though that, while I was brought up on a farm in that era, my ignorance of farming tasks is woeful. (I could occasionally be coerced to help gather sheep, open and shut gates, or take tea down to the harvest field but I preferred, up a tree in summer or hugging the Rayburn in winter, to sit and read.) My young male narrator, on a small family farm, would be put to work and I wanted the details to be authentic. Luckily there are lots of farmers in my family and, when appealed to, a cousin wrote me a lovely piece on how a haystack was made. I hope I have done him justice in my interpretation of it.

 (Many thanks to Anthony Barker and Kirkby Fleetham Parish Council for permission to use this lovely photograph.)
I enjoyed working on the back-story – finding out what took Cousin Hugh’s father to the US – and having more space to show Hugh’s fish-out-of-water American wife.
I finished 3000 words, edited them, sat on them, re-edited and then waved them off in the post for a competition as the deadline was upon me.

Then I submitted the story to the critique group that I belong to with three writing friends.

They all came separately to the conclusion that the theme was not clear. Whereas the poem, as its punchline shows, was about Hugh’s wife not sharing her new husband’s enthusiasm for his native land, the story focused more on the previous generation and how farms are inherited. However, I’d worked towards the same last line and so my critics thought that the story didn’t hang together as well as it might. They were right.

So it’s back to the writing desk. And I’m thinking now, hmm, maybe there are actually several stories, each with a different theme, to get out of the poem … and perhaps versions from the points of view of the other characters – Mother, Father, Shirley, Cousin Hugh himself ...

Gulp. It’s beginning to sound like a novel.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Meeting my Main Character blog hop

Thank you Rachael Thomas for tagging me in Meeting My Main Character blog hop. You can read about Rachael’s' leading lady here; and about Anne Stenhouse’s here.

What is the name of my main character? Is she real or fictitious?

She’s called Cathryn Fenton and she is fictitious – which is a shame because I think we’d get on.

When and where is the story set?

The story is contemporary and is set in the Highlands of Scotland, as far north-west as you can go.

What should we know about her?

She’s originally from Cornwall; she’s an archaeologist investigating a possible Viking settlement; she’s just split up from her boyfriend, Daniel.

What is the main conflict? What messes up her life?

Cathryn is upset about the break-up with Daniel but the Viking dig and her new surroundings are a distraction, as is Canadian documentary-maker Magnus Macaskill who is lodging with the same family as herself. When Daniel turns up in Farrshore she doesn’t know whether he genuinely wants to get back together with her or if he thinks Magnus can help his fledgling TV career.

What is Cathryn’s goal?

Cathryn is a modern leading lady – she wants to be successful in her career and happy in a relationship. And she’d like to learn to ceilidh dance …

What is the book’s title?

 It’s called The Family at Farrshore. It was originally published as a People’s Friend serial and is now a large-print book available in libraries – 581 people borrowed it last year. If you were one of them I hope you enjoyed it! Look out for my new serial coming later this year, if all goes according to plan.

 Soon to introduce their main characters are:

Celia J Anderson

Celia lives in Derbyshire where she is an acting assistant head teacher and writes for both adults and children. Her first novel Sweet Proposal was published by Piatkus last year and has just been short-listed for the Joan Hessayon Award. See her blog here and meet her main character.

Cara Cooper

Meet Cara's main character here. Cara writes short stories, serials and novellas for The People’s Friend and My Weekly and she also blogs at thepocketeers.blogspot.comhttp://thepocketeers.blogspot.co.uk/.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Recycling words 1: Online dating

 I don’t think it helps to save the planet … but I recycle/upcycle stories frequently. If they are rejected by one magazine, I send them to another, first making some alterations to the tone, and adding to /subtracting from the length if necessary.

Then there are the stories deep in the bowels of the laptop hanging their heads in shame having been rejected by everybody. They can be fished out, ripped to shreds, the usable bits saved and built up again.

Recently I have recycled in a different way, in that I’ve used words I put together in one form and reshaped them for another.

In an earlier post I published a poem of mine called Choosing a Man from the Lakeland Catalogue. It’s one of the poems I take along when asked to do a poetry reading and it struck me rather belatedly the other month that some of its phrases could be used in a story. So I came up with a character – Patsy, widowed, over 50 and looking for love, trying to fill in her requirements on an online dating questionnaire. It was published in The People’s Friend in January under the title Meet Your Match.

Result! So I had a look at other poems to see what else might re-emerge as prose. I came up with one and will relate how it turned out in a forthcoming post.

Given that all this has been on my mind I was very interested to read in Avril Joy’s recently published (and highly recommended) To Writers with Love that her Costa-Award-winning short story Millie and Bird began life as a poem.

Have you ever thought about turning a poem into a story? Or, now I come to think about it, vice versa?

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Eleanor Catton

Last week, 11 April, Eleanor Catton was a guest of Edinburgh University at an event in which she discussed her book The Luminaries with EU writer-in-residence Jennie Fagan. The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize last year and at twenty-eight Eleanor Catton is its youngest recipient. She was born in Canada and moved to New Zealand, where she still lives, when she was nine. So this was a rare opportunity to hear her speak and to buy a copy of the book and get it signed.

It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes.

Despite having achieved so much at such a tender age, Eleanor Catton was charming and modest. Her ambition for the book, in terms of how she would tell the story, was huge. She worked out the complicated structure in advance, determined to stick to it – plot and structure, she said, are sometimes uneasy bedfellows and plot usually wins.

Her structure includes using the signs of the Zodiac to delineate each character – she is fascinated by astrology which she came to through studying psychology.

She thinks of plot as ‘pass the poison’ – five people, a cup of poison, you have to keep track of who’s got it.

It seems to her that modern novels in the genre of ‘literary fiction’ tell what happened in the aftermath of a tragedy, or just before a tragedy –  and that it was ‘no fun’ being the ‘inert waters in between’.

She still loves reading children’s and YA fiction. Her mother was a children’s librarian and EC read her way through the library. (Willard Price, Hugh Lofting and Avi (pen-name of Edward Irving Wortis) were early favourites.)

In fiction for young readers, she said, the author puts the reader first and sets out to entertain them and, avoiding the ‘inert waters’, this is what she wanted to do for adults.

She also wanted to produce a big 19th-century-style novel for the 21st century. (The Luminaries is 832pp.) Nineteenth-century novels were never in the first person nor the present tense which seems to EC to be a double limitation writers put on themselves now (although she cited The Hunger Games as a successful exception).

Nineteenth-century authors were not afraid to ‘play God’ and use the omniscient, third-person point of view, rarely used today. However, these novels were aimed at the establishment – white, western/northern hemisphere and educated. They would, for example, have quotes in French and Italian in the expectation that the reader would have learned these languages. These novels did not take any account of young nor coloured nor antipodean readers.

Her novel has quotes in Maori and Cantonese. She has been criticised for not adding a glossary but, true to the style of the 19th century novelist, she didn’t want to do that.

She takes creative writing classes at home in New Zealand. She has no truck, she said, with ‘finding/not finding your voice’. A book will have its own urgency, its own voice.

At question time she was asked about creative writing courses, in particular the one she herself attended at the University of Iowa. She said that as in all teaching there were good and bad ways of doing it. She’d resisted a tutor’s attempt to get her to write more like Raymond Carver. 

The course’s main benefit for her, she concluded, was making friends – soul mates – other people who were happy to discuss eg the omniscient third point-of-view into the small hours.

I am looking forward to reading it.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Nine in March

I read nine books in March:

And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson. Read for book group. 672 pages. A political history of Scotland over the last fifty or so years – in the form of a novel. Let’s just say that didn’t work for me.

As a complete change from the above I re-read three of Jane Gardam’s YA novels in quick succession – A Long Way from Verona (published by Abacus), The Summer after the Funeral and (my favourite of the three) Bilgewater (both Peacock (Penguin) titles) – although the term YA had not been coined when the books were published in the 1970s. Even for this age group Jane Gardam’s writing takes no prisoners and you find yourself concentrating on reading every single word. Her heroines are either very beautiful or (in their own estimation) very plain but they are all eccentric, doughty and fiercely intelligent. Isn't this a gorgeous cover? I don't think the newer edition is so striking.

Who Was Sylvia? by Judy Gardiner. This is the last of the books I bought at the Christian Aid sale last year. I was intrigued by the title and then by the blurb on the back: Why did Sylvia Coryn suddenly leave home one weekend on the eve of World War II? The question obsesses her younger sister Kit … The story was originally published in Woman’s Realm magazine in 1982 – but if you think this means a cosy, predictable ending you’d be quite wrong. What Kit finds out about Sylvia is genuinely shocking. I see that there are copies for 0.1p on Amazon and the book is now available on Kindle.

ThankYou for the Music by Jennifer Young. A romance with a dark edge set in St Andrews and Majorca, published by Tirgearr Publishing. I interviewed Edinburgh-based Jennifer about the novel and about her writing here.

A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming. A page-turning spy story. Tom Kell is an agent on the trail of the newly appointed head of MI6, Amelia Levene,who has disappeared while on holiday.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. Poet and novelist Jackie Kay’s encounters with her birth parents in Milton Keynes and Nigeria. Funny, sad, thoughtful – and of course most beautifully written.

From Writing with Love by Avril Joy. By the winner of the first Costa Short Story Prize (chosen by public vote). She’s also a novelist and teacher. The book (available in paperback and Kindle), full of inspirational quotes as well as excellent practical advice for writers, includes her Costa-winning story Millie and Bird and has so far gained thirteen five-star reviews on Amazon.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Interview with Jennifer Young

Edinburgh-based writer Jennifer Youngs first novel Thank You for the Music was published as an e-book in February 2014 by Tirgearr Publishing. I asked Jennifer some questions about the novel and about her writing. STOP PRESS Thank you for the Music has just been short-listed for the Joan Hessayon Award.

Jennifer, congratulations on the publication of Thank You for the Music. Can you pitch the book to us – in 140 characters?

Jilted Abby’s off to Majorca to recover. Will she choose repentant Edward or charming pianist Rafa? And what’s Edward’s secret?

Tell us how the novel came about – and are you a plotter or a pantser?

I’ve always been very strongly influenced by place and most of my novels are inspired by either places or situations. We were on holiday and Majorca and I was able to spend some time sitting and people-watching, thinking about them, why were there and so on. Inevitably, a plot emerged.

As to plot or pants…it depends on my mood! Sometimes I plot and sometimes I just write. I haven’t found a foolproof method yet. Thank You For the Music was written from half a plot. I didn’t realise the twist in the tale (I wont give it away) myself until I got there — I was genuinely surprised at what Abby discovered about someone she thought she loved.

The novel is published by Tirgearr Publishing in Ireland. How did you find the publishing experience?

It was an absolute dream. I kept thinking things would go wrong or get complicated but nothing did. Everyone involved was terrific.

Did you listen to Abba while you were writing it?

I should have done but I didn’t! I did have a playlist for when I was writing it, though — one that included Lady GaGa’s Bad Romance. And actually the song which probably describes the plot best (though perhaps not its theme) is Christina Perri’s Jar of Hearts.

I love Feather Carmen Patersons name. How did you decide on that?

I didn’t quite steal it from someone I know, though I almost did. There is a real Feather out there in the world, though she bears no relation to the fictional Feather Carmen Paterson, who turned out to be one of those characters you can’t reign in. I began with the name but the character took off in a completely different direction.

Set in balmy Majorca, the book has a great sense of place. Is it somewhere you know well?

We’ve spent several family holidays there and it’s a place I really love. I find it relaxing and it’s when I’m relaxed that I have most of my ideas. So it’s somewhere I associate very strongly with writing and creativity. It seems natural to set a story there (and in fact I’m working on another set in the same area).

I think its true to say that traditionally romantic novels did not include a male point of view but it is a requirement of some publishers now. Did you know from the beginning that you were going to include Rafas pov?

To be honest, I can’t remember. I do know that the original version was mainly Abby’s point of view but at some point early on I must have thought that the plot needed something from Rafa to explain his background before they met. And I think you need a balance — 90% from one point of view and the rest from another feels wrong — so I consciously rewrote some scenes to take his PoV when they were originally from Abby’s. And yes, I was aware when I did it that some publishers like that. But it did work for me. I think the balance is about 2:1 in her favour.

What are you writing at the moment?

I usually have at least two on the go. I’m polishing up a romantic suspense book (for which I’m struggling with a title) also set in Majorca. I’ve never written in this genre before and it’s not easy trying to merge the romantic structure and the suspense structure, though I’m enjoying it. When that’s done I need to work on the other current novel, which is a romance but with a slightly darker theme – the heroine has a dangerously possessive ex-husband and the hero has a guilty secret. Oh, and I had another idea last week that I need to work up into something.

Where can we buy Thank You for the Music?

You can get it from Amazon and Smashwords and various other places - there are links to all outlets are on the Tirgearr website.

Thank you for answering my questions, Jennifer. Look forward to your next novel(s). Where can we find your website/blog/twitter?

I’m on Facebook and Twitter @JYnovelist and I blog, on Reading Writing and Wandering (just me) and on Novel Points of View (with four others).