Monday, 19 April 2010

Getting the contemporary details right

I managed to write about 2,000 words last Wednesday - mostly in the past tense thanks to DragonTamer's feedback. I too am beginning to think that it could be a bit much to write the whole novel in the present tense but I might keep experimenting. Originally I had thought that I might write the majority of the book in the present tense with flashbacks in the past tense but instead, I now seem to be writing the main narrative in the past tense with a secondary layer of narrative in the present tense. It's still going to be complicated structurally but I think it might work.

Another issue that I'm facing at the moment is one which all Young Adult authors have to contend with - how to make the voices and the worlds of their characters authentic. Although I work a lot with young people, it's still a long time since I was a teenager and it's hard to get the details right. This is particularly true when I'm writing about Tag's world. He's a homeless, drug user and the kind of language he would use probably changes year by year. Originally I tried to write Tag's story in the first person but I hit some obstacles with this approach, firstly because he has limited literacy skills which means that the vocabulary he uses needs to be somewhat restricted and also because there's a big issue with slang. To make his voice authentic, I would probably use a lot of dialect and slang but then the book might be difficult for readers who don't share his background. I'm now writing in the third person which frees me up a lot. I want to be able to use all of my writing skills to express the reality of homelessness and Tag's lifestyle which I didn't feel I could do in the first person.

In smaller ways, I still have similar issues when writing about Lorna. Lorna is much more like my teenage self but still, the world has moved on since I was eighteen. When trying to set the scene regarding Lorna's character and world, I found myself writing about her revising for her A Levels. Instantly I'm stuck because, first, I have to think in more detail about which subjects she would have chosen (I'm thinking English, history, maybe philosophy or a language) and then I have to think about the curriculum. Good writing comes to life by being specific so it's no good glossing over one of these details. Then there's the dates of exams. When I was doing my A levels, there was no coursework and all the exams took place in June. Now, I get the feeling that exams start earlier, but I'm not sure.

If anyone out there would like to donate a particularly dull bit of A Level revision for the following paragraphs, I'd be grateful. It would also be good to know when A level exams begin.

My aim with any feedback I get from young people, is to keep a log of names and then, if I manage to publish the book, I'd like to credit you in the finished product. If not, I'll credit you online and maybe I can come up with some other incentives along the way. For those of you who look at groupthing, there are quite a few giveaways and competitions available on a regular basis.

Most of my writing the other day was about Tag but here's the bit I wrote about Lorna before I got stuck on her revision:

Lorna was supposed to be revising. She had just eight weeks to go until her first exam but she was finding it hard to get motivated. Instead she was mastering the fine art of procrastination.

First she’d tidied her desk. Everyone knew that a messy desk was a reflection of a messy mind, and a messy mind was no good when dealing with the intricacies of ....................(what?) Next, she’d reinvented her revision schedule. It was a masterpiece of colour-coding, neat blocks of shaded orange, green, pink and a particularly satisfying shade of turquoise signifying what she should be doing for each hour of every day.

It was now two o’clock on Wednesday, a time designated for...............(what?) but instead of .............................(what?), Lorna was chatting to her friend Lyndsey on Facebook.

It's simply a case of filling in the blanks, like some kind of English comprehension exercise - if you still do those at school!

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Getting started

Today is the first day that I've dedicated to writing since before Christmas and, typically, I can't get started. I've tidied the house, written a few emails and tinkered about with previous blog posts but I haven't yet opened the file which contains the actual novel I'm supposed to be working on. Now I'm writing this blog as a form of procrastination that feels at least a little bit literary. I'm hoping that putting some words on a page will get me in the mood.

Two of my favourite authors on writing are Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) Julia Cameron (The Artist's Way) Both are advocates of splurging words onto the page as a way of bypassing the inner critic - the nagging voice that tends to get in the way of us achieving our goals. The problem with applying the technique to blogging is that it's a bit like washing dirty laundry in public. No-one really wants to know that I've had an ear infection that's left me temporarily deaf in one ear and that the sunshine is making me want to go outside to play instead of sitting in my office.

So, what's really stopping me from getting started? Largely, I suppose it's fear. I've spent so long working on this book that I can't face the thought of not getting it 'right' this time and yet I'm not entirely sure that I know how to begin. I want to just start at the opening page of the book and then bash away at my keyboard until, 60,000 words later, I've written a fantastic novel that publishers are scrambling to buy. In reality, I don't write like that, and nor do most of the writers I know. Books emerge gradually from snippets and snapshots, images and paragraphs which eventually string together to form some kind of map. There's usually a point for me, when I've written enough of these fragments that I find a place to start and then I can be more chronological. This is a happy moment for me as ultimately, I prefer a more logical approach.

The process of redrafting this book is very different from anything else I've done because the plot and characters are fully formed in my head but the way of telling the story remains a bit mysterious. I know that the book will be written in the alternating voices of my two protagonists (Tag and Lorna) but I'm not sure at which point in their journeys I'll join them. I'm also still not sure whether to write to the book in the past or the present tense. I really like the experiments with the present tense that I've done but I'm not sure whether it might get wearing for a reader to read a whole novel in this tense. On the other hand, my friend, Bryony Doran did it really effectively in her novel, The China Bird (, and readers voted her book the winner of the Hookline competition so it must have been okay for them. I wonder if young people (and publishers of young adult fiction) would be so tolerant as it's so commonplace for books to be written in the past tense?

The other issue is to do with the opening. We all know that books need to grab their readers (publishers and agents are no exception) from the first page, usually throwing us straight into the action and providing us with hooks and questions that make us want to read on. With two protagonists though, there's the question of who I give the opening page to and also, if I decide to use the present tense, it limits my options. I wrote what I thought was a great opening/prologue and then realised that I couldn't easily start with the ending and then go back to the beginning when I'm writing in the present tense.

I've posed these as questions for my first post on where I've published one of my possible beginnings that is in the present tense. The post should be up there in the next few days. In the meantime, I'm going to have to do what any writing guru would suggest and just start putting one word after another and see where it leads me. It's got to be better than doing more housework.