Huge thanks to the lovely Lisa Goll, who invited me to take part in this blog tour. Lisa runs the London Writers' Cafe, a London-based writing group I'm a member of and which, if I'm honest, I would be quite lost without. It's a lively, friendly community with regular meet-ups, events, guest speakers, workshops, and if you are a writer who lives in (or near) London, it's definitely worth checking out. You can read what Lisa had tosay about her own writing here, and now it's my turn to answer the same questions.......
What am I working on?
I have a terrible tendency to flit between lots of projects at once, which means that nothing ever gets finished. So this year I'm trying to focus on just one of those things and am compiling a collection of short stories. (Of course that means I still get to flit between several different projects, just much shorter ones. Sneaky, isn't it?) I'm working from a short-list of about fourteen stories – some finished, others less so – but I'm not sure yet if they'll all make the final cut.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I think (or hope, at least) that I've started to find a distinct voice. The stories I have gathered together are all quite old fashioned in tone - they're generally written in the third person, with a very distant narrator, and although the settings are contemporary, the content is fairly old fashioned too. They are full of love triangles and plucky underdogs and people who are too proud or vain or selfish or so on getting exactly what they deserve. I'm a bit nervous about using the term, but one way to describe them would be as modern day 'morality tales'. They are set (for the most part) in the real world but it's a reality where slightly fantastical things sometimes happen. Not quite often enough to be classed as magical realism, probably, and I don't stray too far into the realms of the supernatural (there are no goblins or dwarves), but I think it's fair to say that there's a certain amount of suspension of disbelief needed sometimes.
Why do I write what I do?
It happened completely by accident. When I first started writing I formed a writing group with some friends I'd met through a creative writing class, and we would met once a month or so to share our responses to a particular writing prompt or task. The thing I struggle with the most is plot, so when it was my turn to set the prompt I cheated and suggested that we all try and write a modern version of a fairy tale. That way, I reasoned, I wouldn't have to worry too much about a plot because I could just pinch one.
The story I ended up with contains some shoes, but apart from that it bears very little resemblance to Cinderella, which it was going to be based on. I strayed completely away from the original plot, and eventually wrangled one of my own into submission instead. Writing a fairy tale didn't solve the problem it was supposed to, but it gave me so much more than that. I discovered I loved playing with the form and found myself trying to sound like a storyteller would, breaking away from the story every now and then to make a wry observation or share a joke with the reader. That same tone carried over into the next story I wrote (about a love triangle which is resolved with the help of a terrible cup of coffee) and it is something which has stuck with me ever since. It's a useful excuse for a multitude of sins – I can be a bit wordy, for instance and get away with telling instead of showing more often than I wouild otherwise. So I do have have to keep mysef in check occasionally and make sure I'm breaking the rules for effect, rather than just being lazy. It' a fine line, but one I really like trying to tread.
How does my writing process work?
Gosh. I've tried to write this down before – one of my stories was published by Arachne Press a couple of years ago in a collection called Stations, and I wrote this 2-part guest blog for their website, trying to capture the process I went through to write that particular story. I'm not sure how well I succeeded.
Usually, I start with a tiny idea. This might be a character or a place; a vauge concept, a snatch of dialogue, or a situation..... just about anything really. Those ideas can come from anywhere. I'm constantly eavesdropping on other people's conversations, and scribbling down things which grab my attention; I tear interesting looking articles from magazines and newspapers and I borrow from other sources quite a lot. I've written a story based on the classic 'Two Guards' puzzle (the one where one guard always lies, and one tells the truth) for example, and another where the main character's life is controlled entirely by Beatles songs.
Once I have a vauge topic or idea I often do some sort of research. The internet, of course, is great for this - I've learned all sorts of things, from how lighthouses work (it's quite complicated) to the best conditions for keeping jellyfish (curved tanks, otherwise they get stuck in the corners). This part is fun – I like finding things out, as a general rule, and I'm not really looking for answers to specific questions, so I can read the things I find interesting and ignore the things I don't. I also make lists, and ask odd questions on Twitter -any kind of information gathering which might help spark some ideas.
Then, at some point, I start to write things down. Getting started is hard. Really, really, REALLY hard. I have huge arguments with myself which go like this:
“But that's going to sound so STUPID!”
“Well, write it anyway!”
“But I can't!” “Yes you can. Just do five minutes.”
“Maybe I'll just clean the shower first......”
“....and there's this ridiculously complicated recipe I've been meaning to try.....”
“Really? You're going to cook that NOW?”
“....and now there's all this washing up.....”
“JUST START WRITING IT.”
“Fine. Oh, God, this is so awful I think I'm going to DIE!”
“No it's not. You'll be fine. Remember what Dave Eggers says.”
and so on.
I do start writing eventually though. And more often than not, it's that pesky Dave Eggers quote which does it. I keep it pinned above my desk, and what he says is this: “People can't read what's inside your head. They can only read the words you put down, with great love and care, on the page.” It's obvious, when you think about it, but it's painfully true.
I don't always start at the beginning, and what I write down tends to be a mix of the actual words which might eventually end up in the story, and notes about things which might happen, which I need to go back and write. At this stage, usually, I still don't know what the actual story is but there are all sorts of ideas and bits and pieces swirling around in my head, and those are what I'm trying to capture. So I just keep writing little bits of scenes which might fit here or there, or even nowhere, and moving them all around, and skipping over some bits while rewriting others. This can take place over the course of several days, or weeks, or even months and as I'm writing things I notice or read or think about slip in as well and suddenly, before I know it there are a few thousand words on the page.
Eventually, if I'm lucky, there is some sort of shift. It's hard to explain what I mean by this; it's sort of my 'Eureka' moment, except it's not quite as dramatic and it doesn't often happen in the bath. But something suddenly falls into place and I realise what it is I'm actually writing about. Once that happens I can filter through everything I've got on the page and start making decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of, and usually there are lots of gaps left to fill in. Then it's a case of editing and polishing and tinkering around until I'm happy(ish) with the result.
I write on a computer, usually, in boring old Word, but (and this is crucial) in a very specific font. I have no idea why - I guess it's the digital equivalent of always writing in green pen, or on a particular type of paper. I save as I go and if I've made major changes tend to save a new version, which means I end up with folders containing 20 or 30 'drafts'. That sounds like a lot, but those aren't full, finished versions – it's just whever I got to the day before, or the week before, or whenever I was last working.
So there's my process. Of course, that 'Eureka' moment doesn't always happen quickly. In fact, a lot of the time it doesn't happen at all, which means I can spend ages working on something which doesn't end up going anywhere. So it's not the most efficient process.....but it's the one which works for me. Sometimes.
And now it's time for me to pass on to two other writers, who will tell you what works for them. Yakinamac and Mr Phipps who are both regulars at London Writers' Cafe, have agreed to take up the challenge, and their posts will be online next week.