Meet the Writer: Fiona Mitchell

So enjoyed being interviewed by Grab the Lapels this week:

Grab the Lapels

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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.

How NOT to write a synopsis

Writing a synopsis is variously described as ‘synopsis hell’ and ‘the most difficult 500 words you’ll ever write’ – in my case, the most difficult 800.

I’ve just written a new synopsis for my first novel, so thought I’d share my pain, ahem, I mean pointers.

Is a synopsis going to land you an literary agent?

Most submissions require a covering letter, the first three chapters of your book and a synopsis. An agent will read your covering letter, take a look at the first few pages of your novel and if they like what they see, they’ll want to know where the story is going; does it have enough meat on it; will it sell? Move over chapters; make way for the synopsis.

What is a synopsis?

It’s not the blurb on the back of the book; it’s the nuts and bolts of your story. What happens; what’s at stake and how does the jeopardy rise? Is the ending a satisfying one?

Here are some other essential ingredients:

  • Hit the highlights – the bones of the story – beginning, middle and end.
  • Make sure the plot has a true arc – are the conflicts of the main characters clear, and the resolutions to those conflicts?
  • Mention the genre of your book – commercial, YA, book group fiction etc.
  • Include setting – what country, what year?
  • Highlight the main characters. Put their names in capital letters or embolden them when you first introduce them.
  • Include the unique selling point of your book.
  • Make the synopsis 500 to 800 words, and when you get an agent who wants a synopsis of 300 words instead, put your head into your hands and blub loudly. Then dab yourself down. You can do this! Chop, chop – take out another subplot or two and get rid of superfluous spiel.
  • Spoilers – Do include the final plot twist.

What shouldn’t you include?

  • A detailed account of the characters’ personalities. A quick character sketch is enough. Disillusioned science teacher Walter White. The unmarried Frances with an interesting past etc.
  • A blow-by-blow account of every single subplot. Be lean; you don’t have the space for this.

Finally, let other people read your synopsis because if Great Aunt Iris can’t make sense of it, you can bet your life a literary agent will chuck it into the bin faster than you can say Trash.

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.

New Novel Resolutions: Things I’ll never do again

What did I learn about writing a novel last year? Well, quite a few things actually. How to have a normal conversation after writing for eight hours with no human contact whatsoever. A whole heap of responses to rejection letters that didn’t involve screaming expletives. (Deeper frown line accrued.)

But here are the three biggies, things I’m going to try hard not to repeat. I’d already been told these were no-nos, it’s just I chose to ignore the advice. Well not any more.

I’m turning myself into an advice sponge. I’m going to lap it up like a ladyfinger.

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1 Burn the Patois

God, I love Trainspotting. Brought up on a diet of Ayes and Help my Bobs, via The Broons and Oor Wullie, I throw in the old colloquials whenever I can. Well, that’s alright in dialogue, but the whole narrative? An editor from a major publishing company who gave me some fantastic advice a fortnight ago expressed a preference for bog standard English. Okay, so I know some writers do experimental narrative well, but it’s not working for my book. ‘The patois creates a distance between the character and reader,’ one literary agent told me. So adios, patois. Laters. Kapitche.

2. Make sure your characters have an arc

My characters are distinct – that’s one thing that all the agents who’ve read my book have agreed on. It’s just one of my characters has no internal arc. In my head, she was a put-upon angry young thing who’d eventually transform into a formidable business woman. On my computer screen, however, this character was as flat as a chapati with breeze blocks piled on top. Your characters need to change. They need a turning point in which they start to act differently. List the changes. Write them down, pin them to your wall. Your characters need to grow.

3. Start in the right place

My central character, the one that has the sharpest edges and spikiest tongue, her story doesn’t really get going until page 70. Cue major edit. Your character’s story needs to start on page one. There has to be an inciting incident to tip your reader into the narrative. It needs to be powerful enough to keep your reader turning the pages. Magnetize them. Draw them in. To do this, create conflict straightaway, things that are at stake.

So this is it. I’m going in. Here comes my first edit of 2016. And this time my novel’s going to be patois-free, bursting with provocative beginnings. No flatlining allowed.

The number one mistake NOT to make when submitting to literary agents

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So I finish the novel (for the *ahem* fourth time) and send it back to the agent who read the book once and told me that the concept was brilliant and that she loved my writing, but that changes were needed.

She replies. And there it is, that sting, ‘another agent might feel differently.’ Cue re-reading the email four more times (ok, let’s be honest, it was 10 times, analysing it word by word like Jacques flipping Derrida). It’s definitely a no then….

But this time I was so sure it was ready. The characters had sharp edges and bulgy bits. They smiled; they did the whole dramatic thing better than Sofia Helin. (Okay, so no one does it quite like her.) But they’re good people and I blooming love them, and so do my friends.

I pull off the Kleenex that I’ve Sellotaped to my cheekbones to mop up the tears, and get on with the day job. Besides it’s not that bad; other agents have requested the full novel too. Surely one of those will be The One.

Each of them replies and gives detailed feedback. (One sends me a standard rejection letter, but that’s a small detail.) All of them agree – I need to streamline the narrative; it needs more pace.

One of them suggests an editor. But hang on a minute, I had it edited two years ago, 700 quids worth of edits, I can’t keep throwing money at a project that might never see the light of day, can I?

Something persuades me, some deep belief that this book is beginning to be more than half-decent. Perhaps it just needs a little bit of help. After all, it’s a very different book to the one it was two years ago when it was shortlisted in a competition run by literary consultancy Cornerstones. I contact the agent who’s suggested an edit and she puts me in touch with a trusted editor – a specialist in narrative structure.

The editor reads the book in two days and hacks away at the narrative like it was one of those overgrown lavender bushes in my neglected back garden. Right there in the centre is the bones of the thing, all tangled up in subplot. The pace has been slowed by it, the main drive has been strangled.

Then something magical happens. The editor invites me to meet up. She tells me she likes the book really quite a lot. She agrees to be my mentor while I finish it.

Writing a book is a massive investment – your time, your sanity (occasionally) – but if you really believe you have something that could be good, it’s worth shelling out for an editor. It’s a false economy not to, I reckon. I’d become so embroiled in my novel that I just couldn’t see its faults.

So I may not be finishing the year with a literary agent, but I’m not on my own anymore. I’ve found a mentor who’s in my corner. And, this wannabe debut novelist is back in the ring.

 

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The Weekend Read – A Short Story

 

In the first week of December 2015, my story The Colour of Mud was featured as The Weekend Read on the For Books’ Sake website which champions women’s writing. It was originally published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 7. Lots of people got in touch to say how much they enjoyed reading it online – and that’s always an energy boost.

Read the opening paragraphs below. The rest of the story is available for 99p on Kindle for a limited time only. Buy it here.

Submit your short stories to For Books’ Sake here.

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The Colour of Mud

I am never gonna be clean, even though I wipe myself down seventeen times a night. It’s the mud, see.

I pull my scarf around my face and jump puddles alongside the wall of trucks, grey ones, black ones, all blanketed by the dirt.

There are three men playing poker at a table they’ve set up in the middle of the drag. A standing man, his leg bent up on a chair, blows a tuneless harmonica. A jar on a table beside him is scabbed with ash.

I step forward and the mud sucks my leg down knee-deep. I grunt and slurp it out.

The lights of a bar flash on and off: The Good Times Saloon, the scaffolding on the roof a kind of skeleton. An open kitchen fogs oil and fried plantain. Further up the drag, the cooking mixes with the night stench. Petrol, tobacco, skin slicked in sweat.

There are echoes of laughter and the underfoot beat from a song on the radio.

I pass an island of scorched grass and stare down searching for remarkable signs of green. There’s no such thing as colour in this non-existent town. It’s not on no map, but the truckers know just where it is, halfway along the Western stretch of the Nakuru-Eldoret highway.

What NOT to Do When A Literary Agent asks for your Whole Novel

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Who wouldn’t be excited when a literary agent asks for a full manuscript? It’s likely to send you into a proof-reading frenzy (comma overdose,,,,,) your fingers wobbling over the keyboard as you finally hit Send. Then just after you do, you’ll spot a typo.

Things go oh-so-quiet after all that frenetic activity. And you wait, your imagination looping UPthe next time the phone rings, it’ll be her – and then whoosh – DOWNIf she rejects me, I’m never going to get another chance like this, never.

It’s going to be a nail-chewing, neck-tensing, grumpy-mood-inducing time, so here’s some tips:

1. Don’t start monitoring the literary agent.

Googling her name, looking up other people who she’s offered representation to. Sound familiar? Force yourself to look away from the screen, and stop logging onto Twitter every five minutes to see if she’s posted. Put your energy into starting something new. A short story. A new novel. Read or collect ideas for future work.

2. Don’t bombard the agent with emails.

Coo-ee, just wondering how you’re getting on with The Masterpiece? Then two days later: Me again. And, don’t phone. That’s the equivalent of repeatedly ding-donging someone’s doorbell when all the lights are on, but no one’s opening up. Reading a full takes time. Some agents take about three months to reply to an initial submission of three chapters and a synopsis, so how long is it going to take to read your 90,000 words? A few weeks ago I read an account by a published author that went something like this. I wrote to a literary agent and 24 hours later she offered me representation. Two days after that, she negotiated me a three book deal with Penguin. I lay my head on the desk and almost muttered the words, I’m unworthy. I ate a scone instead. Thing is, it doesn’t happen like that for most writers. Exercise patience, distract yourself, keep writing. Agents who’ve requested a full can take anything from one month to six to reply.

3. If an agent who requested a full hasn’t replied after three months, do email and say you’d welcome some feedback.

Sometimes when an agent requests a full they don’t reply at all. Yep, this happened to me with an early version of my first book. It’s happened to other writers I know too. Try not to take it personally, it’s more of a reflection on the agent than on your writing. So there!

4.When the agent turns your book down with feedback, don’t do anything apart from flaring your nostrils and swearing.

Don’t bash out an instant reply. ‘Thanks for your patronising comments, but…’ Step away. Go for a run. Punch that pillow. A rejection usually comes with pointers. ‘The narrative wasn’t taut enough,’ for instance. ‘The plot lost direction halfway through.’ File the email somewhere other than in your inbox, so it’s not staring out at you for the next few miserable mornings as your damp cornflakes slap onto your keyboard. When you’ve calmed down, read the email again, process it and adjust your manuscript accordingly. Send it to an editor too – you might think that’s a waste of money, but the fact that anyone has requested your full means that there’s some magic to it. An editor could be just the genie you need.

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5. When the reply doesn’t contain any feedback, write back saying you’d welcome some.

Most agents will be more than happy to give you their thoughts. Don’t expect compliments. Do expect constructive criticism.

6. When an agent reads a full, and asks for a second read once you’ve made changes, definitely send it back to her.

Once you’ve made changes, you could send out more submissions too – to up to eight agents at a time – after all, by the time your MS has risen to the top of the slush pile, your almost-agent might have signed or rejected you anyway. Alternatively, you could stop sending your book out. But remember, this is limbo land – an exciting yet anxiety-ridden place. Do whatever feels right for you. But whatever you do, eat scones, don’t cyber- stalk, and keep writing.

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.

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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/

What it’s like to Win a Writing Competition

I started the year with a writing wish list. There were just two things on it: Win a writing competition and find a literary agent to represent my work.

The year’s gone pretty well so far; I’ve had several requests for the full manuscript of my first book, but still no offer. Yet. (I am manically rewriting.)

And then Frome happened – the Frome Short Story Competition. This year, lauded author Samantha Harvey was judging. Oh my, imagine that. I went into full-on dream mode. After much rejigging and rewriting, I entered my story about a migrant worker in Singapore called Plenty More Where You Came From.

Then I carried on redrafting my first novel. Weeks later, an email arrived saying I was in the Frome shortlist. I hadn’t even realised I was in the longlist. Fantastic – something else to say in a query letter to a literary agent.

On Sunday, I headed down the motorway to Frome. Then there it was, the library where the awards ceremony for the competition was going to take place. Other writers, other shortlisted entrants – there were 13 of us – would be there. Samantha Harvey would be there too, and the organisers Brenda Bannister and Alison Clink. There was a fair going on in the car park. A bloke in a mask was poking a rod at a metal head spouting fire, its ears belching steam. I wasn’t sure what that was all about, but my head felt furnace-hot too. God, I wanted to win.

Inside the library, the ceremony kicked off with Samantha Harvey talking about how much she’d enjoyed this year’s shortlist. Choosing first, second and third place hadn’t been easy at all, she said, the stories were that strong. She talked about how writing competitions have become increasingly important in publishing, but that really just writing is the most important thing. Don’t be distracted by not making a shortlist, by not winning, or even by winning – just write.  

Liz Gwinnell took third place with Under the Mango Tree. It was great to put a face to the name – I’d read Liz’s story, Where Hummingbirds Fly, which won third place in Frome back in 2013. That story helped to inspire me to enter Frome this year. I so loved its rich, distinct, voice. Kath Grimshaw won second place with Hotel Room.

Then Samantha described the winning story. An ugly story written with such beauty. Could it be mine? Set in Singapore. Hell, it was mine. Not knowing the names of any of the entrants – the whole thing is judged anonymously – Samantha said the title of my story.

‘It’s me!’ I squeaked and stood up.

I shook hands with Samantha and she handed me my 300 pound prize. And then I read my story out, all 15 minutes of it. And people clapped (thanks for that, people). I walked back to my seat and Samantha’s mum, who was sitting behind me, pumped her fists and said, ‘Well done.’

Frome Short Story Competition, Fiona Mitchell, writer, judge Samantha Harvey

Frome Short Story Competition. 2015 winner Fiona Mitchell and judge author Samantha Harvey

I’d done it, finally a winner.

We spent the next hour in an art gallery next door to the library where many chocolate brownies were chomped and much talk about writing was had. What happens to you when you write? When do you write? Have you written a book? And thanks Liz Gwinnell for wrapping me another brownie for the journey home. I got lost, so that brownie ended up being my tea.

So on winning: Well, it feels brilliant, it really does because someone who’s rated reckons I wrote something beautiful. And now back to the business of writing.

http://www.fromeshortstorycompetition.co.uk/plenty-more-where-you-came-from/