Crafting a light bulb: Are you writing a novel or a manifesto?

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A few years ago, I was talking to a friend and a light bulb landed in my lap. Not a real one – that would have been weird – but an idea I couldn’t ignore. It was, a premise for the book I’m writing, whole as a nut.

The idea didn’t magically appear. It came after years of unearthing what on the surface seemed to be nothing at all. Until one day I understood a situation I could not ignore, asking to be written.

Here’s a thing: Sitting with an idea is beautiful. Crafting it into a tale is something else.

At the time, I was passionate for people to know what I thought about my subject. So much so that having laboured for months on the first draft, I realised my book – all 60,000 words of it – was in fact a lecture.

It got me thinking: Was I writing a novel or a manifesto? How could I give the reader space to think for themselves?

I didn’t have an answer.

But as I worked on draft three, some principles became apparent. So I’ve put together my notes on toning down message and amping up story. In case you’re going through similar, (or curious!) here they are:

  • The reader is everything. When crafting a story, being like a courteous date and keeping their experience in mind shifts the focus to their journey (instead of the writer’s opinion).
  • When I wrote a manifesto for my beliefs (rather than a properly constructed story), feeding characters lofty speeches, I knew deep down that the part of my reader who was fired up to go on a journey would likely drift off…

Instead, I considered:

  • Asking questions. What if ones preferably. I just read a wonderful book (reviewed here) where the writer never answered her central question: Could anxiety actually be useful? Positive even? She generously left it up to the reader and her idea has remained with me ever since.

 

  • Investing in a brilliant book on plot (like the one in this post – here). Most writers need a map of some sort – to know where we’re leading you. Whatever your system, constructing a story which works will serve as a vehicle for your idea (and then you won’t have to lecture anyone!)

 

  • Your characters, after a while, may stop sitting on the page and instead fill your thoughts at the most inopportune moments. Let them. The more real they are, the more they will carry the story’s weight. There is an advantage in writing multiple drafts. You’ll really get to know the people in your story and they’ll start to work harder for you.

 

  • Research as much as you can. For me this involved travelling back to Madrid twice (here), note-taking verbally with a mobile phone at every location (feeling like Kermit the Frog in his reporting moments).

 

  • Readers like to travel without getting on a plane – if you can get them so immersed with the sights, sounds and smells of the story that they don’t notice your message until after they’ve put the book down, you’ve done it!

 

Storytelling – they say – is crucial to human survival. The strange thing that happened to me, might trouble you too. Or maybe you’re looking for a window into something you’ve never thought about before. Stories remind us who we are and were and want to be. They contain the type of glue that can stick whole lives back together.

So what are you waiting for? The manifesto in your mind, that premise you’re longing to explore, make a start. You never know whose life you might touch with your art.

 

I’d love to read your tips – writers – on how – if you’ve got a premise or a point to make –  not to lecture your reader in a novel!

Thank you to Quinn Dombrowski for the image, ‘Pontificating’ at the top of this post via creativecommons.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Anxiety’s cloak – Thoughts on ‘Love & Fame’

 

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In the 1980s, before fan-girling was a thing, YA author Judy Blume used to receive letters from her teen readers.

‘How did you know what we were thinking?’ they would ask, as though her novels had reached magically into their minds and located the things which mattered most.

Ever since I started reading Susie Boyt’s columns in the FT, the same thought has often popped up:

How does she know?

Her latest novel, Love & Fame opens with a theatrical monologue. No sentence is completed, thoughts are left hanging, each one linking to the next like an echoing voiceover. We hear the incessant worries of a person who feels everything.

Newly married actress Eve and her husband, Jim, who is writing a book about anxiety, are honeymooning in Chicago.  Soon we meet Beatrice (‘Beach’) a bereavement counselor and her sister Rebecca, a journalist. All are connected by the passing of Eve’s famous actor father, John Swift.

But it’s anxiety itself which gets the starring spot in Love & Fame. Eve’s new husband Jim writes about it but Eve, herself, is living it.

‘Is your conclusion that anxiety’s a bit of a dark hero in a cloak?’ she asks him, for beneath his research lies a premise: Could anxiety actually be useful? Positive even?

Eve thinks not. At dinner with Jim and his agent, Max, she allows her thoughts on the subject to overflow:

 ‘I would say anxiety has cost me some of the very best things in my life.’

Suddenly Jim’s earlier remarks about anxiety being like a helpful friend – the type who prods you when you’re straying from what you actually want – are re-cloaked. As readers, we are left to reflect on our own experiences.

Those who loved Susie Boyt’s famous FT column will enjoy the same detail and intensity in this novel. Like the ‘Legendary’ cheesecake which Eve passes on her nighttime walk, such delight is sometimes best savoured in small mouthfuls. And yet – as with the best confectionery – I found I could not put this down.

Its serious subject is lightened by a number of laugh-out-loud set pieces. Boyt is brilliant on middle class liberal do-gooding. Jean Swift, while deep in mourning for her husband continues to invite young ex-criminal mothers into her home to learn cookery. A couple of the mothers are described as ‘lovely ex-shoplifters’ – the book is peppered with surprising juxtapositions and one-liners. There is a warmth and love of human frailty in Max’s comment which could equally be true about Love & Fame itself:

‘Eve – this is really a book about kindness.’

Perhaps it is in kindness that the antidote to anxiety lives. In the forgiveness that Jim finds so easy, or in Beach’s endless listening. When grief is allowed to surface, anxiety beats a path to the back door.

Judy Blume used to answer her readers’ questions, saying that she wrote from the memories of her own childhood. “When I dream. I’ll frequently dream of the house where I grew up.” 

Nothing in fiction is truly invented; there’s a reservoir of joy and pain and memory which in reading this novel, shimmers translucent. These are the parts of Love & Fame which move for it is in the story’s mining of these personal depths that as readers we find our own worries normalised.

This is a book so brimming with heart, its dialogue so finely tuned and touching that it felt like the best kind of musical. A triumph of love over suffering that I did not want to end.

In the opening scene when thoughts are rushing around the character’s head, tailing off in anxious uncertainty, I realise what a gift we have in Boyt’s prose. In answer to the question, how does she know? It is her characters who show us.

In funny searing chapters we are reminded how hard it is to be alive sometimes but that a listening ear can change everything. Anxiety, in the end, may be neither hero nor antagonist but a sign that there is more left to grieve. Only after tears have been allowed to fall – on Beach’s couch perhaps – may we see anxiety slink away, or at least begin to speak in a softer tone.

 

Love & Fame is published by Virago, available to purchase November 2nd 2017. Pre-order here

All views expressed on this site are my own. If you would like me to review your book, please visit my contact page, here.

 

 

 

 

The little deaths – loss on social media

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How do we navigate the little deaths? The ones which creep behind and stop our breath.

I’m talking of the things we lose, the people, places we wouldn’t choose

under normal circumstances, to part with.

Looking at Twitter the other night, I noticed that a chap I follow hadn’t tweeted for a while. I used to love the quotes he chose, his gentle life-affirming prose. Scrolling down the page it looked as though he hadn’t been online for quite some time.

I tried to find some recent words, not a re-tweet but a post written by him, and this is what came up:

Love my friends. 🙂 Be good to each other. Peace. 🙂

Shall be away for a while in hospital… his previous tweet began. He’d not been well at all.

After this, his account is silent.

What happens when the string of tweets runs dry? Are we to cry, and mourn the passing of a friend we knew only from 140 characters ?

I sometimes ask myself how long it would take to notice the absence of another on social media. And what then? Virtual communities hold not the flesh of real life hellos and hugs and a person’s absence may equally be from boredom, busy-ness as something graver.

I have, for the past two years, been writing a mystery set in Madrid and as I wrote I became interested in loss and how we process grief. What happens when the pain’s pushed down, the masks we wear to hide the shame coat and cover the bewildered frown?

This week, I quit my job. I had been hoping to teach for at least a year in Oman but something came up which shook my confidence in the school. I spoke to the head but the compassion I expected did not materialize. The well of care ran dry. After a few days I did not return.

These little deaths in daily life inhabit the body. They form a kind of coating of our cells. And until we take the time to dwell in their sharp poignancy they grey our waking minds, restrict and bind.

The people of Madrid, at the outset of my novel, are mourning the death of a local celebrity. They hang banners with her initials from their apartment windows, talk of her with a single name, as though they knew her personally.

But grief is as much the mourning of our losses from every day, as the funeral carriage, the thousands at the graveside and their sway.

 

This blogpost is dedicated to TygerBurning, a person I never met but whose tweets illuminated my day. 

If you enjoyed this blog-post, feel free to get in touch via Twitter here . You can follow this blog by going here and clicking on ‘Follow Muscat Tales.’  That way you’ll be notified each time I post. 

 

 

 

Developing Voice: How a singing teacher coached me into writing

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Yesterday I clicked on a Twitter post without reading the intro. I saw ‘Writing’ and ‘Advice’ and thought: This one’s for me. I must have been two paragraphs in when I realised I’d read this writer’s work before.

I glanced at his name and yes, I was reading the Internet’s Chuck Wendig. Instantly recognisable, his style mixes zany metaphors with random phrases. Like some kind of surrealist stand-up, it all feels crazy and at the same time serious and to the point.  If you want to get a sense of Wendig’s work, you can read his writing advice here.

One of the reasons I think his prose is popular is that he has mastered Voice. And Voice is one of those elusive things like Grace or the joy of two drops of rain in Muscat that almost defies description.

One Cambridge winter, before I’d started to sit down regularly to write, I saw an advert for a small adult choir based in one of the colleges. I was excited, a little apprehensive and went to the audition to sing my piece.

My hands fluttered as I battled through my chosen tune, trying to project my voice, only having sung for fun, I felt unsure of what I was doing.

You sang quite nicely,’ said the choir director,  ‘But I could hardly hear you. Work with me and you’ll be fit for the choir in no time.’

For the following few weeks she gave me terrifying private lessons. She taught me like the opera singer that she was, correcting my posture, the shape of my mouth, my pronunciation, stopping the piano and starting again, giving me homeworks of repeated trills which I feared might alienate my housemates forever.

But by the end of the month something had shifted. I didn’t join the choir although I had learnt a few skills, and I didn’t continue with the teacher. What changed is that I no longer felt afraid to sing in front of others.

When I consider written Voice, I think, of this. The willingness to show who you are.

It comes through in the words we choose, how we order sentences, the topics we want to explore, our humour, the rhythm of our prose and like singing, we can only control the sound we make up to a point. Half of it is in the ear of the reader.

Even if I disagree with him and Stephen King about adverbs (another blog post entirely), I think people like to read Chuck Wendig because he is being who he is without apology and that comes through in his Voice.  Becoming acquainted with, practising, and enjoying, one’s own writing Voice fulfills an important function for the reader.

When I lived in Greece, I shared an apartment with a couple. One evening they invited a friend over. I sat with them but my limited Greek made conversation difficult. The friend had a beautiful speaking voice. The kind of voice you can sit and listen to and never get tired, like the rush of bird’s wings when they take off all at once. I kept thinking, I’ll go back to my part of the apartment soon but I kept stalling and it was 1am by the time I retired to my room.

A well-modulated voice is pleasing to the ear. It’s much easier to capture what a person is trying to say when the tone is regular, the diction coherent.

Most writers I speak to have something burning to convey in their work. When I first started writing my novel in 2015, I too had an idea for a story but my message was weak. It’s only as I figured out the themes behind the action -what mattered to me most -that I felt able to start working on a suitable Voice for my novel.

Voice grows as we use it, shedding the fear again and again that how we come across is somehow not okay. Too this, or not enough that.

And it’s vital in allowing us to convey the thing we want to say.

When I think of my favourite novels, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Disgrace by J.M Coetzee, they are filled with great stories and memorable characters but without a carrying Voice in each of these, I would not have got past page one.

Advice-givers often tell writers to ‘fake it till you make it’; ‘if you haven’t found your own voice, just copy another writer’. Reading widely is undoubtedly a good idea but if we look outside ourselves for who we are, we’re liable to focus so hard on another’s melody we end up writing out of tune.

That evening in Greece, the thing I enjoyed about the way my friend spoke is that it was unique. I had never heard another person sound like this. Speaking from our authentic selves is powerful because it gives everyone else permission to do the same. The writer who is centred in Voice is trusting us with who they are. Without copying or hiding or feigning.

Voice takes practice, reading aloud if that’s your thing, confidence that the energy coming from  inside is more real than what others think about it. This is the paradox, for the closer we get to expressing our truth, the more it resonates with others. And the beautiful thing about writing is that no one needs to hear it till you’re ready.

If we imagine a conversation with someone we know, how do we know when they’re being truthful, genuine, real? What are the ways in which they speak which make us want to listen?  Or ‘read on’? My guess is that the answer to all of these is when our friends or writers or any folk are being most themselves.

If we listen hard enough we will hear this unmistakably in their Voice.

Dear readers, I’m going to be giving this blog a rest for a few weeks while I do an editing job on draft two of my novel. In the meantime, feel free to get in touch via Twitter here , and you can follow this blog by going here and clicking on ‘Follow Muscat Tales.’  That way you’ll be notified when the blog’s up and running again 🙂

A tale from Colombia: the power of owning your story

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The Colombia of my imagination has tropical rhythms over middle eastern chords. Poetry. Impenetrable jungle, a generosity of smiles. Although I have never visited the country itself. All of this I learned from friends and songs and stories.

Last week I came across the real Colombia of the 1980s as experienced by a writer who spent her childhood there.

As a girl in England, my first school friend was from North America. Long ponytails, kind eyes, we met when we were four or five. I loved her because she wasn’t like the folk I knew. She spoke with vowels unknown and when she did a handstand, she called it by another name.

Like many in our university town, her family stayed a year. And then they moved to South America.

Last month I found a letter she sent me in 1981. When I looked online I discovered that thirty years on, my friend Shelley Hundley had written and published a book called A Cry for Justice.

I read it in two sittings.

There are few works of literature that have made  me reflect so. Examining her own history and faith, Shelley has managed to somehow hold,  ‘the mirror up to nature’.* 

Her book describes that when she was a child, living in Medellín, between the age of six and ten, a minister known to her family routinely abused her, then left her silenced by the burden of his crimes.

She lost her faith, the world became a place from which she hid. Later on, she planned to take her life thinking she was despised by the One who moves the tides.

Shelley’s is a book about trauma and the healing which she found through re-embracing her religious faith. Her story-telling is compelling. The book, both page-turner – for the prose flows effortlessly – and an uneasy read.

As if Shelley’s own pain were not enough, Medellín in the eighties was a dangerous place to be a child. Shelley describes herself as ‘a gringa-paisa, an American by blood but a Colombian by birth.’  At the hands of Pablo Escobar and his ilk,  Colombian cities in the 1980s were part war-zones where children did the normal things: play and learn and go to church but Shelley also saw shootings, robbery, casual violence, lockdowns.

Shelley’s descriptions of the society of her childhood reminded me of Denmark in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the sense of something once beautiful, decayed.

Later at a North American college, filled with the rage of a knowledge unspeakable, Shelley embodied the young prince’s quandary:  ‘To be or not to be’. But it was at this time that her life began to slowly turn, through therapy, scripture and prayer, from angry existence to a cathedral of love.

This book is, without a doubt, an invitation to the message of Jesus Christ and yet, I wonder whether whoever reads it, from whichever faith or background, may be strengthened by its integrity. Shelley rejects modern social ‘relativism’ in favour of God as unique Judge, liberator of the human from ego-based judgement, Opener of a space from which to love.

Filled with light, Shelley’s tale starts with survival which becomes thriving and culminates in complete transcendence of her past.

Sometimes a book is enough to throw open a window on a place we’ve never seen. Driving in Muscat last week with Shelley’s words still inside my head, I listened to an interview with Colombian author Laura Restrepo, award-winning writer of the novel, Delirio, also set in 1980s Medellín. 

When asked how Colombian young people might approach the act of writing she said:

You know people in Colombia… it seems like everyone is writing, poetry, essays, novels, it seems like a very intelligent and brave way of understanding what’s going on with us. There’s plenty of fine literature in Colombia, great writers all over the place. It’s like a process of healing that the country is going through by telling its own story once and again and again… Go on and write your stuff, whatever you want to write, write.

Owning our past, paragraph by paragraph is for some, the conscious taking back of what was always meant to be ours.  When Laura Restrepo and Shelley Hundley chose to write about their lives -the wounds of their society – they tapped into the power to heal themselves -and others – with their pen.

To tell one’s own story in whatever form is an act of courage. Writers who allow the sun to shine on the painful cracks in their personal histories are surely partaking in the communal work of letting in the light.

I’d like to visit Colombia some day. Thanks to Laura Restrepo  and my childhood friend, I picture a place where everybody’s writing their own story. I’m trying to imagine the magnificence of that.

Shelley Hundley’s book A Cry for Justice is available here

Laura Restrepo’s novel Delirium is available here 

I would love to know which countries you have been inspired to visit via literature. Please, as always, feel free to comment below.

*Prince Hamlet’s advice to the players in the play within the play (Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

Tokyo Taro at Al Falaj Hotel: restaurant review

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Forty years ago when Muscat was transitioning from rocky territory to modern city, a hotel was built in the East of the city – in Ruwi – the height of modernity in the early eighties.

Before the great chains dotted themselves around the city there was The Falaj Hotel. Named after the ancient canals which snake across the country, and the nearby Falaj Fortress, it had a grandeur seen only in far away lands and was thus the place of choice for business people and travellers at leisure.

Wander in to its lobby today and the ancient air of Oman comes wafting through. Dhow ships of wood sit below seventies style lighting, the lobby is large, its odour perfumed stones, the local luban (frankincense) burning like a signature.

The restaurant we are looking for is located on the 8th floor, in an unassuming room which has been there since the hotel began.

Its interior is simple: seventies-style structured lampshades overlook canteen style booths. Tables are divided by a noughts and crosses wooden lattice. Each setting is furnished with a tiny jug of soya sauce and condiments.

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Until very recently Tokyo Taro was frequented weekly by large groups from Muscat’s Japanese business community and it’s easy to see why.

Even eating gluten-free, there is plenty to choose from. The avocado maki rolls are soft, rice fluffy; biting into one is a dream. The teppan-yaki chef cooks exactly to order and I am left wondering how stir frying vegetables on a hot plate can produce a dish so tasty. The accompanying sesame and cashew sauce (instead of wheat- containing soy sauce) works well with it too.

Our waiter, Felrom, accommodates our many questions, serving my companions fresh, fluffy tempura along with a Spinach and vinegared cucumber salad. Sashimi, mixed sushi, grilled dishes are all prepared with the same high level of care. Portions are generous and for a mid-range restaurant (60 OMR for 4 people) we are left with a lovely choice of leftovers.

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While the city of Muscat has challenged olde world Hotels like The Falaj with a proliferation of world class places to stay (Muscat barely does mid range, let alone budget accommodation) Tokyo Taro remains, four decades on.

Yet the whole place feels like it’s already seen its golden age. Visiting the ladies, I leave the dining area and climb some back stairs. The walls and floor are painted institution blue, there are steel caps on each stair, a strange sparseness to the decor as though I have wandered via time-machine into a Victorian school. People with disabilities, wanting to access the facilities would not be well served by the lack of lift to the 9th floor.

The business folk who used to visit each week have long since stopped coming to Tokyo Taro, the waiters say. Though the food remains, apparently, as good as it always has, there is the sense that something needs to happen to reinstate the restaurant’s popularity. I, for one, would be pleased to return as regularly as required to help in this tasty diner’s comeback.

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Tokyo Taro at the Falaj Hotel, Ruwi, Muscat : Phone : (968)24702311  Email : reservation@alfalajhotel.com Website: http://www.alfalajhotel.com/muscat-restaurants/tokyo-taro-restaurant.html

All books, restaurants, events featured in this blog are chosen out of personal interest. No financial or other reimbursement is offered to me by the proprietors, authors or organisers.

Writing and resilience: how can we keep creating (and enjoy it)?

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A pulse of migrating birds is sewing the sky. The day is fresh and clear, trees moving conversationally. I know I should be writing but there are other things to do. Besides, I’m stuck. The last chapter I wrote left no way of moving forward. Can’t I just clean the oven?

For a seated activity, writing carries a lot of challenges. First off there is not writing.

It’s all well and good to say, ‘I’m not inspired, I’ll take a break for an hour or five,’ before you realise you have an imagination with nothing to tether itself to, crowds of words backed up in the brain like traffic on the Sultan Qaboos Road. And, as we know, the thing will not write itself.

But doing the writing is risky too.

You could offend a friend. Or reach for the truth and hit a cliché. Or the time you think up something so spot on, you even make yourself cry. Writing is a risk because it asks you to go inside and take a look around.

The perils of writing were far from my mind at a dance/exercise class I attended a few days ago. The music was loud and Latin, my companions Omani, Zanzibari women in their twenties, all plugged in to the often complicated moves.

But something was different this week. New faces? A different soundtrack? Actually a seven year old girl in the front row, following the routines along with the rest of us. She wore wraparound specs, sneakers she was clearly growing into and her face was a butterfly of unbridled joy. Undaunted by turning up to a class of adult women and joining in, the girl did more than follow the routines. She danced.

What made the class, for her, so simple? And how might it help with my writing challenges?

I could see the activity mattered more to her than the mirror of her peers. She was enjoying the sequences more than she feared any kind of ‘failure’ or embarrassment. Passion as artistic fuel becomes a pot of gold inside, where doing the thing itself is the ultimate reward.

The writer and entrepreneur Joanna Penn describes the early days of her writing as a time when she would frequently ‘self-censor.’ It’s easy to get caught up in worries about words which might offend, but what is lost when we remove the liveliness of our tone? Pairing down our writing to please an invisible critic is like trying to wear someone else’s clothes. I thought of the girl in the exercise class who moved so freely,  was so un-self-conscious. What if as adults we applied this attitude to our creative work?

In Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art he calls the unwillingness to engage with our own writing, Resistance. That feeling of ‘Do I have to?’ can be hard to overcome. Questions I ask myself when I’d suddenly rather be cleaning the oven:

  • What am I avoiding? Is it a difficult scene? Is there a skill I need to learn/information to research before I go back to it? Could I begin somewhere else?
  • How can I support my attention span when I find myself drifting onto Facebook or that holiday website? Rather than telling myself off (which will likely send my creativity into a corner), could I work with the Internet?

A trick that may sound strange but worked for me a few weeks back was: 10 minutes writing, 10 minutes online. Repeat ad infinitum. You’d be surprised how many words you’ll produce when time is limited. And how quickly 10 minutes writing becomes an hour once the idea has taken hold.

  • When I was working on Draft 1 of my novel I used to start the day by reading everything I had written so far before I continued. When your words have reached the thousands it can become quite time consuming so I stopped!

But these days I still look back at the work from the day before. This gets me into the world of the story.I become interested in the place. Care about what’s happening, the characters, their plans and before I know it, I want to add to it. It’s a kind of conscious seduction. The more we see a person, thing or place, the more invested we become. If I can get myself involved in the story’s world, I know the fire will ignite to light the fuel of my commitment.

‘How can I fall in love with what I’m doing?’ is probably the most important question I ask myself each day. It’s the easiest way to ensure I walk to my desk every morning, open the document and stay there till the work is done.

Writers how do you keep yourself writing regularly? Your comments, as always, are welcome below.