Why do we keep writing?

Why are we doing this to ourselves? Why do we write?

These are questions often asked with a roll of eyes and a deranged laugh. Sometimes they’re a response to disappointment or routes blocked. And God knows, there are many of them when it comes to writing.

So just why are we doing this when there are other more worthwhile tasks or pastimes we could be undertaking? Like making a start on the dandelions colonising our lawns….

Gardening works for my mum – her back garden is awash with colour and shape, and in darker times when she hasn’t been able to get outside, it’s a thing of beauty that reaches through the glass and whispers, ‘This is something good.’ Pink roses thread their way over an archway in the corner. There’s an old butler sink crammed with purple hyacinths. Only friends and family get to see it, an occasional neighbour sticking their nose over the fence. It’s never been sent out into the world by way of competition or through Facebook snaps. My mum doesn’t need to show off her garden to enjoy it, she just does.

But that’s not the way I feel about writing. I write to be read. Yes, there’s a part of me that’s pleased when I’ve written a heart-tugging line or a sentence with some kind of rhythm. But really, I’m writing so that someone else can read my work, feel my words. I’m not talking compliments, I’m talking connection. Like a lock of eyes or a certain conversation. The way my mum once reached her hand out and touched the arm of a crying stranger in a hospital elevator. They looked at each other, the woman and my mum. No one spoke, but for a few brief seconds there was no one there but them.

If a friend or a stranger, reads one of my stories or longer works and says, ‘God, but that was good.’ or ‘That character’s really stayed with me,’ I’ve done what I set out to do.

Of course, as in life, we can’t always connect. Words can miss their mark. The reader and writer might clear their throats and cough some withering laughter into the rolling tumbleweed. There might be an honest, ‘I didn’t really get it,’ but more likely no one will mention it at all.  And that’s just fine.

When readers feel that place you drew with your words though – the orange that the prisoner refused to eat because it gave such colour to the blank cell; the way the grandmother with brittle bones picked up her granddaughter and swung her around and around; the moment when a stranger laid a hand on someone in deep grief – well, that’s why I keep on with this tangle of upset and joy we call writing.

Meet the Writer: Fiona Mitchell

So enjoyed being interviewed by Grab the Lapels this week:

Grab the Lapels

fiona1

Fiona Mitchell is an author and journalist. She is the winner of the 2015 Frome Short Story Competition and has work published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology for the second year running. She is the author of the blog Writing Mad. All links below take you to various posts on Writing Mad. You can also socialize with Fiona on Twitter and Facebook.

In one of your blog posts you mention writing many drafts—five, in fact—as the result of input from others. Do you ever get to the point when you feel like the novel isn’t even yours anymore?

Now I’ve gotten to the stage where I feel my book The Maid’s Room is the very best it can be. I recently opened up my first draft and took a look. There is a hell of a lot of waffle in it and the plot goes off on…

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Should you base your characters on real-life people?

‘If they’re based on somebody else, in a funny way it’s an infringement of a copyright. That person owns his life, has a patent on it. It shouldn’t be available for fiction,’ said author Toni Morrison in a recent interview with The Paris Review.

Which got me thinking, do I ever copy from life?

I use aspects of things – situations, people’s personality quirks, the way they look. I apply a heavy dose of imagination then write.

To put it the Maggie O’Farrell way: ‘I think all fiction is a patchwork of things you borrow, things you lift from real life and others you simply make up.’

To copy directly would be plagiarism, right? And a tad risky. I mean look what happened to novelist Gregoire Delacourt when a court ordered him to pay actress Scarlett Johansson 2,500 euros for his ‘demeaning’ depiction of a female lookalike in his book The First Thing We Look At.

And although few of these cases get as far as court, writing is a risk. Ablene Cooper, a housekeeper for the family of the brother of The Help author Kathryn Stockett filed a suit. Cooper claimed that her image and likeness had been used without permission for one of the main characters, Abileen Clark. The case was dismissed because the one-year statute of limitations had elapsed.

If my book ever makes it into print, I wonder who’ll be looking for themselves in the margins. My mum is convinced I’ve used her personality for my central character. ‘I haven’t,’ I said. ‘Ya wee devil,’ she replied. I might add that not once does my main woman say ya wee devil. Hailing as she does from the Philippines, it’d be completely out of character. She does however give everyone nicknames (like my mum). A work colleague of my mum’s whose wayward hair failed to stay in a daily chignon became Bird’s Nest. A neighbour became Margaret with the Dug, to distinguish her from the five other Margarets living on the street. Probably best not to mention The Space Cadet or Whhhhhhhy Me????? at this juncture, but the point is, my mum can see herself in my main character.

Some of the people who’ve read earlier versions of the book, reckon my other main character, Juliet, is me. But a couple of months ago, a literary agent, who was admittedly giving me positive feedback at the time, confessed, ‘Juliet’s too wet for me to really care about her.’ Ouch. Out came the drying-up cloth, and in went optimism and some classic lines delivered by one of my best friends. (She’s bound to recognise them). For the record though, Juliet isn’t my friend, neither is she me. I haven’t ever given anyone mouth to mouth resuscitation like Juliet although I did practise on a plastic model when St John Ambulance came to our school once. There was dribble involved.

The few times I’ve tried to write a character based entirely on a person I’ve known, it simply hasn’t worked. Writing like this is a dead end (for me). Copying people is like trying to copy another writer’s style – it just leads to bad writing – oh, and lawsuits.

So best stick to the tried and tested method. Let real events and people send your imagination into a spin, then invention will do the rest of work.

What it’s like to finish writing a novel

It’s almost time to send my first novel out into the world again. There’s nothing left to write on its pages.

There was the first draft. Then a literary agent met me and suggested changes. Next, came the second draft.

When the rejection came, I pushed the book into a drawer for a few months. Then somehow the book started niggling at me again. I found the will to push on with the third draft.

Another literary agent liked it, and what happened was this: a major rewrite and a new plot, resulting in draft number four. Cue good reactions from several literary agents, but still an all-round no.

Then one of the agents wrote back to me recommending an editor/mentor, and with her insights I’ve now completed the fifth draft. Let’s hope this draft is fabulous number five.

When Hannah Kent finished Burial Rites, she had a surprising reaction. (Admittedly this was her first draft, not her fifth).

‘I realised I no longer knew what to write. There was nothing more to write. I pushed my keyboard away from me, read the last line over and over, and then – unexpectedly – burst into tears. They weren’t tears of elation or disbelief. I was suddenly, profoundly sad.’

I can relate. Finishing feels like a loss. I’m glad that I’ve got this far, but all those obsessive late nights, all those burnt pieces of toast, all those half-listened to conversations, are gone.

I’m not sad. Neither am I elated; I just feel knackered. I’ve read my book that many times aloud that I sound like I have a forty-a-day habit. During warmer months, me speaking in my characters’ tongues has spilled through the open windows. ‘I don’t want this anymore.’ ‘It isn’t a marriage anyway!’ The neighbours must think I’ve got multiple personalities. Either that or I need a bit of marriage guidance counselling.

And I have to admit, I do feel slightly unhinged. A chapter of my life is now over. This book is just about as good as it ever will be; it’s do or die.

I’m stepping into some new place, some other writing project, something that might give me yet more oxygen. Because writing is like breathing to me: it’s the only way to live.

Do you finish books you hate?

When I read, I want a story to open up a space in my chest for someone to dance in. I want intensity. I want to feel, to believe. Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing and Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns both did the job.

But sometimes a book doesn’t slice my loaf – there are seven of those piled up beside my bed with an empty mug perched on top like an amateur art installation. ‘I’ll come back to you,’ I think. (I lie.)

It’s not like any of those books are rubbish, they’re just not doing it for me.

A couple of weeks ago, an editor asked me: ‘Do you read as reader or as a writer?’

And something has switched over the past year because I now read as a writer. I take notes, and analyse clues and complicated plots.

That’s turned me into even more of a quitter of books I don’t really like. I want to be inspired after all. Reading has become study. Rather than watching a magician do tricks, I’m leaning over to the side, having a good old nosey at where she’s stuffed her ace of clubs.

But I could learn something from my bedside pile. Just what is it that’s not working for me? Is the main character too much of a snooty toff to identify with? Or is it that the plot is too slow, the characters too passive?

Pressing on with a book that makes you groan for all the wrong reasons can pay dividends. I gave up with We Need to Talk About Kevin 100 pages in, but I returned to it a year later, and what a punch-to-the-gut read it was. Similarly, I toiled over the opening chapters of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but stuck with Dorrigo Evans to the bitter, beautiful end.

I had to exercise patience with both books, and boy was it worth it. I felt, I believed. Someone salsa-ed inside my ribcage.

So – oh go on then – I’m going back to my bedside pile.

What kind of reader are you – a quitter or a plough-on-until-the-ender?

How to start writing a novel

Do you plot or free-flow?

Some writers start off with a massive sheet of paper, scribbled with charts and graphs.  They jot down just what’s going to happen from the very first page to the turning point, right through to the climax and beyond.

If that sounds like you, you might be writing a plot-driven novel. And I envy you – your destination might be miles away, but you can see it there like a landmark in the tiny distance.

If you just scribble down rough ideas for characters that’ll leap into the murky situations you create for them, you might just find yourself in the territory of the character-led novel.

‘You have a character-driven novel,’ an editor recently told me. ‘So the plot depends on how each character evolves.’

When I started writing The Maid’s Room, I had three characters in mind. I jotted down a couple of key events, read a few text books about how to write a novel then blundered my way through. Even though the book got placed in a competition, that first draft was pretty amateurish. There were enough self-conscious phrases to leave you moaning in pain.

But I wasn’t giving up on it – I knew I had strong characters, so I tinkered, and edited, titivated and rewrote. Then finally a renowned literary agent gave me a good talking to. She loved so much about the book, but the plot was just so flipping depressing. Well, it certainly wasn’t going anywhere the way it was, so I decided to rewrite it.

That’s when I went down the graphs route. My friend, Lucy, thought she was taking me out for a birthday lunch. Instead, I unravelled my A3 sheet of paper complete with columns and arrows, capital letters and conclusions. Lucy managed to look interested. The characters would remain the same, the setting too, but there was a new plot for them all to fall into.

I started writing, knowing what was going to happen, and it did. It was just the characters got a bit distracted along the way. Next, another agent referred me to an editor who’s now keeping me on the straight and narrow.

So I started off a free-flower and have ended up a plotter.

With book two, I think I’d feel safer having a plan, but until you get to know your characters, how can you work out what they’re going to do? Which means I’ll probably head down the same route – create characters, put them into awkward situations then see how they react.

This piece was inspired by a post by author Claire Fuller.

Bristol Short Story Prize Awards Ceremony – The Lowdown

It was my second time at the Bristol Short Story Prize awards ceremony last night. I was hopeful; I was in with a chance after all, among 20 other writers chosen from almost 2,500 entries.

There they were, faces I recognized from last year, organiser Joe Melia, judges Sara Davies and Sanjida O’Connell, and wasn’t that 2013 winner Paul McMichael over there? He’d made the shortlist again. I made a beeline for him and we began laughing in a slightly hysterical, scared kind of way. Still the fear was nothing on last year when – gulp – I could barely speak my mouth was that dry.

Bristol Short Story Prize Writers and Judges

Bristol Short Story Prize Writers and Judges

Us shortlistees sat in the front row in the glass-topped Reading Room at Bristol Central Library. And judge Sara Davies read out the names of the runners-up. Mine was among them.

I hadn’t won.

But so what – my story is in a book again – words that I’ve fussed over, changed and rearranged. A story that the early readers and the judges must have connected with somehow. It gets a mention in Sara Davies’ foreword.

‘We all liked….the restrained and powerful exploration of an illegal immigrant’s emotional trauma at the heart of Black Lines,’ she writes.

It was a good feeling reading that. I hope other readers connect with my story too.

BSSP photo

Anthologies galore….

Massive congratulations to Brent van Staalduinen whose story A Week on the Water won first prize, and to the other prizewinners too.

After the ceremony, I spoke to the other shortlisted writers, smiles stretched across their faces, bags bulging with anthologies. (They make very good Christmas presents, let me tell you.) Wine was drunk, woes were shared and successes were well and truly celebrated. I even signed a few books.

It was great to bend Joe Melia’s ear again. His encouragement last year helped steer me through a bout of writing self-doubt. When that strikes again, all I need to do is open up my brand new anthology and remind myself of the rewards for not being a quitter.

Joe also told me that no one in the history of the Bristol Short Story Prize has ever managed a hat trick, so maybe, just maybe I’ll throw my hat into the ring again next year.

https://www.bristolprize.co.uk/shop/

Sending out to Agents – Three at a time or Scattergun?

When I ‘finished’ my first novel (I use the word ‘finished’ because it sure as hell isn’t – that’s all too clear to me now), I sent the book out to three agents at a time. Standard rejection letters came back. One competition shortlisting later, one agent liked it enough to meet me and talk through changes. She didn’t take me on, so I made further changes and scattergunned loads of other agents with it. One of them requested the whole book, but I didn’t hear from her again. Ouch!

Then more rejections piled up, this time with compliments thrown in. ‘It rose to the top of the pile.’ ‘You’re talented’, that kind of thing. But it was a bit like someone finishing with you. ‘I like you; it’s just I’m not in love with you.’ I emailed my friend and soon-to-be published author who’d read the first chapters of the book and loved them. (Believe me, she’s not a good liar). ‘Maybe it’s just a bit crap,’ I said. ‘Because I don’t get why no one’s taken it on.’

Then last week, came my answer. I emailed an agent who seemed to be looking for just my kind of book: a moral dilemma in an unusual setting. Fifteen minutes later, the agent requested the entire book then contacted me to say she was ‘really enjoying it.’ She hasn’t taken me on. However, she does want to read it again if I’m able to transform it.

Her email was a turning point because she was so honest, so detailed and so helpful. And boy am I grateful because there’s not that many people who’ll be honest about your book. ‘That’s lovely, darling.’ (Your parents.) ‘You want me to read it again?!’ (Your husband.) ‘Oh it’s brilliant, just brilliant.’ (Your friends, who’re actually thinking, Jesus, that was hardgoing.)

So why has no one taken my little book on yet? Because it’s too blooming bleak. But it does have ‘ENORMOUS POTENTIAL.’ Yes, ‘ENORMOUS POTENTIAL!’

literary-agent-commission-types

I’m mulling again, researching, thinking, planning, locating my funny bone. And then ding-ding, there will be a Round Four to this book. There’s just a small matter of fine-tuning my second book, shelving book three for now. Oh, and earning a living. And as for firing your manuscript off to loads of agents, I wouldn’t bother. Do a bit of careful research on what agents are looking for then send out to your chosen few, I reckon.

Writing Competitions – Why Bother?

It’s there in black and white, the longlist and your name’s not on it. The disappointment sinks you. That voice starts nagging at your ear. ‘You’re fooling yourself about this writing malarkey; you must be, else you’d be up there too.’

Somehow you manage to scrape your fried-egg-ego off the floor and force yourself to start typing something new.

Unknown

Why do we do it, eh? Why do we waste 8 quid, 10 quid, sometimes 25 quid when, with more and more people entering writing competitions, we stand such a miniscule chance of being one of the chosen few.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence – what writer hasn’t? – but getting placed in this year’s Writers’ and Artists’ Short Story Competition was just the way to do it, I reckon. Enter the story then completely forget about the date that the results are revealed. I found out that my story Antelope had made the final 19 when another writer Tweeted me to tell me.

That’s so rarely the way it happens, right? I mean, how can you score through a date that’s so firmly etched into your brain?

So when the big day arrives and you discover your name’s not on the longlist, resist the urge to whack yourself over the head with a saucepan for not being quite good enough. Maybe you are, but if your work doesn’t strike a chord with the early readers in competitions, you’re out. Maybe you almost got through – who knows? – or maybe you just don’t have the same writing tastes as the judges.

Case in point – last year I was lucky enough to be in the Bristol Short Story Prize shortlist. Here’s a confession – I entered the same story, albeit a much shorter version, into the Yeovil Prize, and it wasn’t even placed. Even though, I like that story so much better than the one which Yeovil commended me for back in 2013.

BRISTOL PRIZE PIC

It’s all about your audience. So this year, right back at you, Yeovil; I’m hitting you with something new.

In fact, I’ve got that many short stories up my sleeve now, I’ve got one for every UK competition that’s going. Only I’m not going to enter everything – there’s only so much disappointment a girl can take.

So why bother entering anything at all – because being placed occasionally really does help to silence your own self-doubt, for a while at least. And it’s a small voice of encouragement that you might just be doing something right.

When NOT to start Writing

Be patient. That’s what my soon-to-be-eighty dad told me last week.

I’d been chatting with my parents about writing, sharing my agitated ideas for my third novel with them.

‘Be patient,’ said my dad in his soft Irish lilt.

This from a bloke who has never kicked the cardboard on an Ikea flat-pack. This from a bloke who has hung doors without swearing. He goes on long walks on winter-thick days, my dad, and he’s the most patient person I know. Unknown

I’m pretending I’ve inherited the skill. I’ve forced myself to stop pacing; I’ve shut down my computer each night at nine. I’m still working on book three though, walking forwards with it: Listening, watching, waiting.

There are lots of ideas swilling around in my foggy head, it’s just I’m unsure they’re the right ones. There’s a story about a woman and a teenage girl. There’s a corrosive, white landscape. There’s a feisty little voice whispering at my ear.

Book three is gathering, percolating, but it’s a bit blurry still. I wrote 50,000 words of a book once which ended up in the trash can because I’d started without thinking it through properly. So for now, l’m doing like my dad and being patient. Because the best work comes from patience, don’t you think?