I'm covered in flour - it would take too long to explain...

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Do you do it first, or while you're on the go?

Ian M Banks calls it the 'R word' and says his wife knows not to go near when he's stuck in the middle of it.
Hilary Mantel does a huge amount of it first.
Patricia Highsmith writes the book first and then goes back and finds out what she needs to know to make the book as close to reality as she can, though as ever realty is a relative term.

I'm probably with her when it comes to research, not that I would dare to disagree with the great Mantel on anything, but simply because my life is not that organized. If I had published several novels and were working on the third part of a trilogy, then I like to think I'd be doing the same as her, but I know I probably still wouldn't.

Right now I am working on my book set in 1940's Paris, and I've written about 75,000 words with the key scenes mapped out, and have spent all day worrying about Geography. I don't have the budget to actually go there and take a look around, so I've been using google earth and worrying about the balance between fact and fiction. I'm always painfully aware that my life experience is more cerebral than physical, in some senses, in that I have thought more widely than I have gone, but I want to create a world which has the illusion of reality. I've found this beautiful cinema in Paris, another of the city's hidden gems, and I want to base the theater in my book around it.

I find it, I love it, then I go through the usual thought processes. People who know it will know that it's not a cabaret theater, will that ruin their enjoyment of the book? How closely do I go into the why and wherefores, how close can I go before I am rumbled? I start trying to find who might own the shops either side of it, if they might have been similar in 1940, can I down load a floor plan and if I were to walk from there to a house on the other side of the Seine, how long would it take me, especially if I were a wounded American airman following a show girl home.
Then, I have to make myself stop and remember the advice given me by one of the lecturers at the writers Festival - "There will always be holes in your plot, the key is to make it so that the reader doesn't see them.'
 I also remind myself of string theory, which is that of the mulitverse -  that there are an infinite number of universes all co-existing and not existing at once, and at every single moment we travel between them unaware that we've moved from one to the other. This means that all eventualities are possible, it's just that we're only ever aware of one - but it's quite easy then to believe that in an alternate universe only a few clicks from ours, La Pagode in the Rue Babylone really was a cabaret theater, and that the star of it was an English woman who'd adopted French nationality and false papers and married the director of music to hide both her sexuality and her identity - which stops me from spending an hour trying to download the floor plan of the cafe next door. This is the main problem with research - there are times when it becomes distraction and gets in the way of the writing.

My advice?

1) Write about what you know, but don't under estimate what you do know.
2) Use google earth - sometimes just seeing the place will give you more information than you can get from an hours reading.
3) Remember this is not and exam but a theatrical production, if your characters are strong then they can work against the simplest of backgrounds, so try and stage crucial scenes with minimal description - three brush strokes can allow the reader to create the image in their mind easier than whole oil painting.
4) Remember the elephant - six blind men all asked to describe an elephant will give you six different answers, make your book true to it's self and the reader will believe your elephant.

That's all for now, except to say that I will be starting my 'Self editing' course on Monday 24th, with the wonderful Debbie Alper and Emma Darwin, and will be keeping a blog of how that goes.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The things that scared me...

Odd things frighten me. I’m not scared by the prospect of standing on a stage and removing my clothes in time to music, neither am I scared of standing on a street corner painted blue with an eight inch Perspex unicorn horn glued to my head, both things life has called upon me to do. Why not? We all have bodies, we can all be blue, these things are not unique, they are not mine alone to own; they are common.
            What does scare me, what has my heart beating at the cage of my ribs like a trapped canary, is the thought of sitting at a desk with a person who’s read my work and is going to talk to me about it. Not just talk about it; judge it, analyze it, shoot it down in flames or make it soar again with their appreciation of it and I am terrified.
            I create my physical persona to draw attention in the way the class clown makes himself an object of fun before the world decides to do it for him. Like all exhibitionists, I am a whirling morass of insecurity, paranoia and fear inside a gleaming, glittering carapace that screams ‘look at me, no, look at me!’ in the hope that ‘they’ won’t see me at all past all the glitter. Walking toward the table where the agent sat, the sample of my work in the stack under her hand and a warm, welcoming smile on her face, I felt each painful, sugar bright layer of artifice I’d constructed drop away, until I sit in front of her naked as I’ve ever been.
            ‘I like you’re hair,’ she says. ‘I’d love that colour but it just wouldn’t suit me, I haven’t got the right colouring.’
            Is this a ploy, I think? Yes, this must be a ploy, she’s softening me up – never mind chick – your book’s shit but your hair looks fierce.
            ‘Thanks,’ I say, trying to be all girls together, as if the camaraderie of the ladies room might save me. ‘I’m basically translucent, so, you know, fair and freckles and all, my Dad was a red- head–’ Shut up, I’m begging internally, shut up! She’s not here to talk about your hair dye; she doesn’t want to borrow your lipstick, shut up!
            ‘It’s a bit like speed dating this, isn’t it?’ she says, riffling through the papers at her side. I see them at once; I see my word babies blinking out from the bottom of the heap as if they looked to me for comfort.
It’s all right, children, mummy’s here, I want to scream, let me take you away from this nasty woman and her evil intentions. I love you, no matter what!
‘But there’s no wine,’ I say and sound as if I’m insinuating she’s drunk it all. ‘I mean, there would be wine, if this was a date, maybe we should ask for some…’ It’s not a date, oh god, does she think I want a date? Does she think I find her attractive? Do I find her attractive?
‘Yes,’ she says, ‘we should ask for some, it is a writers thing after all.’ Does she find me attractive? I’ve not been in the real world for so long I can’t remember how grown-up’s do this!
‘So,’ she puts her hand on my manuscript. ‘This one, yes, I really loved it.’
The sweat my back freezes. The roaring noise in my ears and the dry, painful yank of my heart misses its spot. What?
‘Yes, I read it again on the train, I just wanted to – the breakfast scene, I was there, I was sitting at the table and the family, I had them in my head at once. Oh, and I loved the girls together, how they were, the tension in the little detail, it’s great.’
‘So, what’s your idea for it?’

Silence. A void rips through the room; my feet rush away from me and I’m spinning into it. Pitch? Pitch! To fall, to drop, to tip headlong into disaster; pitch!
‘Yes…’ the last fragment of my self-preservation kicks me in the ass. ‘It’s Tipping the Velvet meets Charlotte Gray, it explores repression and how we create persona to hide from society’s censure, be that of ones sexual or national identity, what we do to survive, what we’ll give up and what we cannot. It’s about how when we escape, we become exposed, which is both frightening and liberating, and the cage we left can seem so comforting we seek to build another.’
‘Right,’ she said. ‘Gosh.’

That’s what I think I said; to be honest, I can’t remember. Whatever I did say, she wants to read it when it’s ready and as I shook her hand and said goodbye, I was dressed again; if it’s in the Emperors new clothes or not, remains to be seen.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

2 Line pitch

Ok- York is getting ever closer and I need to have my elevator pitch brushed up and ready. I have a one to one session booked with two agents, one for 'At Night, All Cat's Are Grey,' and one with 'And So We Left For Paris.'

The first is finished, the second is very much not finished but I've written what I've written so far in a very different voice than I've tried before, and I've been getting some very positive feedback on it, so I'm keen to see what a professional thinks - is it really original and exiting, or over worked and too stylized? Un-like other things I've done, it's oddly draining to write (oh, us poor artists!) so I want to make sure I'm not massively off key with it even though it's an early stage.

So - the pitch. How would one sell All Cats?? I've tried things like 'it's Lady Chatterly with the Russian Mafia in New York,' but that seems a bit of a wide conglomerate of words. So possibly -
It's a contemporary romantic thriller (that's the genre down, I think) set in New York (that's the location) about a Russian ex-con who falls in love with an artist but is forced to save her from a psychotic gangster who blames him for a murder he didn't commit. Hmmm - too pedestrian?

It's a romantic thriller set in New York, about a British artist who finds her creativity reborn when she falls in love with a Russian ex-con. She has to deal with the social 'fall out' of her choice - only for her and her child become the target of a psychotic gangster seeking revenge.


And as for 'And so we left for Paris' - well -

'It's a historical romance about an aristocrat turned show girl and a seamstress, who run away to Paris in 1939 seeking sexual freedom, but betray each other as war breaks out. One flees to New York with a man, while the other remains to dance in Paris with an assumed identity only for the same man who stole her lover to reappear and beg for her help when he's shot down over France.'

Gosh - it's like squeezing the proverbial pint into a teaspoon!