New Book About Writing, For Aspiring Writers

I’m currently working on a new book about writing, which has the working title of Perilous Path: a Writer’s Journey. The book contains 30 short pieces I’ve published online over the past 6 years, both on ezine articles and on this blog, all on the subject of writing a novel.APS on display on shelf in Warwick Books

Here’s a taster from the book. And below the article I’ve posted the current Contents List of the book. I’d love to know if, having read it, you feel you or an aspiring writer you know might be interested in such a book – and whether you would buy it as a paperback or would find it more appealing as an ebook. Over to you, my online audience, for your views and comments!

 Research for novel writing – use the internet

 

How big a part should the internet play in a novelist’s research? My mind is immediately drawn to a quote from Dan Brown’s novel The Lost Symbol. How often, muses Robert Langdon to himself, has he advised his students that “Google is not a synonym for research”. I couldn’t help laughing at the sly irony of that. For I defy anyone to read this novel without wondering how long the author spent on Google researching his subject matter; and how soon you will get onto Google yourself after reading it, to corroborate his facts – or to fall into the very trap Robert Langdon warns against!

I confess the internet has been a wonderful resource for me as a fiction writer in double-checking my remembered facts. But of course we should never assume whatever we read on the web is necessarily true. It’s important to at least triple-check. But when it comes to writing fiction, I believe most authors will have chosen their subject or theme out of passion – and therefore he or she will have spent a considerable portion of their life researching the subject through multifarious means – personal experience, observing and interacting with people, reading all sorts of printed material about it, visiting places, maybe (but not often) living out some of the things they depict their characters doing…

Therefore the internet is a valuable tool, but cannot serve as the sole source of material when researching a novel.

I may take as an example the Cotswolds location for my first published psychological thriller Mystical Circles. I was inspired by three places. Firstly Totleigh Barton at Sheepwash, near Beauworthy in Devon where I once attended a five day Arvon Foundation poetry course: it boasted a monk’s room, as does the farmhouse in my novel. Also the diverse group of students on the course inspired me for the group dynamics of my story. Secondly my imagination was fired by the Lygon Arms Hotel in Broadway in the Cotswolds, a wonderful setting for a psychological thriller. My favourite piece of research involved afternoon tea there. The manager took us for a tour of some of the historical rooms in the hotel including the Cromwell Room. The owners of the inn were neutral during the English Civil War and thus hosted guests on both sides of the conflict. I used some of the details of the interiors here in my descriptions of the sixteenth century farmhouse. And thirdly, for my setting, although I ultimately chose the Cotswolds as my favoured location, I was also inspired by a farmhouse near the Forest of Orleans in France owned by the eccentric uncle of my then boyfriend. We visited his uncle there several years ago. When I met him, he displayed a love of practical jokes, leaving plastic rats and spiders for me to find in odd corners. He also owned a parrot, which I came upon by surprise in his sitting room, exactly as I describe my main protagonist Julie coming upon the gold and blue macaw in Mystical Circles.

I hope all this will serve to illustrate how every aspect of your life can be regarded as research for your novel. Life itself is one long process of research. Bad experiences and good, failures and humiliations… nothing is wasted, or lost. Surely this is the ultimate recycling! – it is certainly one of the things I most love about fiction writing.

SC Skillman

Contents page of proposed new book: Perilous Path: a Writer’s Journey by SC Skillman

Introduction: The Writer’s Journey: Pursuing your Creative Passion

  1. Research for novel writing – use the internet
  2. What’s creative writing? – tips for new writers
  3. Elements that make up a good fiction story
  4. 3 tips for creative works of realistic fiction
  5. Research and fiction – how to research when something doesn’t exist
  6. Universal themes in fiction
  7. Strategies to develop creative and imaginative writing
  8. How to pick a topic to write creatively about
  9. How to know which point of view to use in a story
  10. 5 tips on how to make your fictional characters engaging
  11. How to create a novel that your readers won’t want to put down
  12. The writing process for creating a novel in less than a month
  13. How to start a novel
  14. How to fictionalise characters
  15. How to develop a character in a novel
  16. How to create layers within each of your characters
  17. How to develop villainous characteristic traits in your writing
  18. The importance of choosing words carefully – your audience’s interpretation matters
  19. Character creation – the most interesting fictional characters of all
  20. How to structure your writing to improve the flow of the story
  21. How to get over writer’s block when halfway through your novel
  22. Good things to do to improve your creative writing
  23. How to successfully write the plot of your novel in reverse
  24. How can Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes help you in your creative writing?
  25. How can Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity help you in your creative writing?
  26. How can Carl Jung’s theory of The Shadow help you in your creative writing?
  27. Inspiration for creative writers from art
  28. Inspiration for creative writers from music
  29. Suggestions for writing the end of a novel
  30. Learning from Hemingway

 

 

 

Great Time at the Sherlock Holmes Prom

Even lovers of Sherlock Holmes may have learned something new about the great man on Sunday 16 August at the Royal Albert Hall, London.

The Sherlock Holmes Prom, Royal Albert Hall, 16 Aug 2015
The Sherlock Holmes Prom, Royal Albert Hall, 16 Aug 2015

Matthew Sweet, BBC Radio 3 presenter, and Mark Gatiss, actor, and co-creator of the Sherlock TV drama series, together presented  a fantastic programme of music related to Sherlock Holmes.  Mark Gatiss read several passages from the original Conan Doyle stories alongside the music. I learned that the original Holmes was a lover of the opera and especially Wagner; and that Irene Adler, “the Woman” (the one person who outwitted Holmes) was an operatic contralto who had performed at La Scala Milan. In addition to this, although Conan Doyle himself was not much of a musical buff, nevertheless his creation Holmes had a very abstruse taste in and knowledge of music; he was an expert on the “polyphonic motets of Lassus.”

Additionally, Holmes’ gift for playing the violin was one aspect of the great detective which Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt chose to adhere to firmly when they re-created him as Sherlock for the twenty-first century. The deerstalker cap came much later; but the violin was a necessity from the very beginning.

Once again I wondered at and rejoiced in the fact that when we create fictional characters we may give them skills and abilities and awareness far beyond our own; and when they come to take on their own life in the minds of our readers, then who would ever guess the limitations of their creator?  An uplifting thought indeed for novelists!

Review of “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green

I’ve just finished reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

The Fault in Our Stars book cover
The Fault in Our Stars book cover

This story of two young cancer “survivors” is a story that eats into your marrow. And if you haven’t seen the film or read the book, and would like to, don’t read on, for my review contains plot spoilers!

Even though I had already seen the film, and knew what was going to happen, I found the book itself utterly compelling. Two young people facing death every day with no religious belief in a conventional sense, told through the honest, sharp, hard-hitting viewpoint of Hazel Grace, a 16-year-old girl living on borrowed time, is very strong.

To me the most interesting character, however, is Peter Van Houten, the ghastly novelist who’s written a fantastic book and won the admiration of millions, yet is destroying himself with alcohol, throwing away all the value of what he’s achieved.

And the message within that particular subplot: don’t expect an author to be like/worthy of the book he/she writes.

The Fault In Our Stars also makes me realise how profoundly annoying sentimental pious language can be to non-religious people, especially in the crises of life; and that leads me to reflect on the power of language itself, and how words can build bridges or destroy, or create wars – as we constantly see in the history and in the current state of our world.

How powerful it was for Hazel to receive Augustus’s letter at the end – and how critical it was that they were Augustus’s own words, and not Peter Van Houten’s. That at least was one decision Van Houten made that was right – even out of his alcoholic haze.

And the story also poses the question: how true is Hazel Grace’s outlook on the world, from the point of view of a young person living with imminent death every day? Her cynicism is a refuge for her, a way of dealing with the pain and the horror of her situation, when even saying things that are horrible, is comforting.

Another thought arising from the story: in our Western society, we all talk so much rubbish around death, it’s frightening. There seems to be a conspiracy of not saying what you really think and feel – especially at religious funerals for non-religious people.

One of the saddest moments for me in the book and in the film was at Augustus’s funeral when Hazel decides to say all the anodyne things she knows her audience will like to hear, instead of saying what she truly feels and thinks about Augustus and his death.

I really do think religious language used carelessly and thoughtlessly at the most critical times of our lives can be a tyranny – when we use it as a mask and a means of self-deception, instead of a way of communicating the truth.

At the end of the story, what is left is love: the love Hazel and Augustus felt for each other despite knowing they had no future. That must be the single most important message of the book – the one impossible fact of love in the face of death.

Do Novelists Have an Agenda or a Moral Purpose?

This morning on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week programme I listened to a fascinating panel discussion from  the Charleston FestivalTom Sutcliffe questioned four novelists: Tim Winton, Nicola Barker, Michael Schmidt and Karl Knausgaard.

Two of the questions Tom Sutcliffe asked were:
Do novelists have an agenda or a moral purpose?
Do you as a novelist have a moral obligation to your subject?

The answer seemed to be no.

Nicola Barker said that she felt writing a novel is about engaging with the text and the words, and the story is driven forward by “the energy of the moment”, not by any moral purpose whatsoever. She said she starts writing and “a spirit of mischief” overwhelms her.

The novelist embroiders reality to make it habitable; for a fiction writer it’s true to say, “I might not like the world of my story but it’s a world I own.”

I found this discussion interesting because I believe that in writing a novel it is fatal to the story to try and make the story comply with any conscious “moral purpose” on the part of the author.

This feeds interestingly into how one can write a novel that is issue-driven rather than character-driven. And also, how do creative writers write in despotic regimes? How do you create a fictional world, peopled by fictional characters, and ensure that what you say is in line with the agenda of that regime?

From my experience I find that the only imperative as a story develops is to follow where my principal characters lead, as their inner purpose becomes clearer and clearer to me.

My new novel, A Passionate Spirit (psycho-spiritual suspense) is now being considered by a publisher. The theme of the novel is conflict between good and evil. And as my characters revealed more of themselves, I realised that there were several ways I could end the novel, and whichever one I chose would be saying something different about the nature of evil.

In my first novel Mystical Circles, I now wish I could have followed John Fowles’ lead in A French Lieutenant’s Woman, and given three alternative endings.

I’ve learned through experience one of the snares a novelist should avoid: to write the ending you think your readers want to see, or expect to see, based upon the feedback of early readers.

A novelist’s only moral obligation is to the inner truth of the characters.

The Christmas List

Who else finds writing Christmas cards the cause not just of gladness but pain and sorrow? I put off “doing” my Christmas list until I’m in the mood – and light a candle and have a glass of sherry or wine to help create that mood. Why? Because each year I have to engage with the major change in people’s lives; the gap of a year between communications throws those changes – for good and for bad – into sharp relief.

There are those who must now be addressed The … Family, because a new baby has been born. You remember the mother as a tiny blonde cherub herself. Then there are the divorces, where you refer back to the previous year’s Christmas newsletter and gaze at the photo of the mother with her two tall sons, and remember when you rejoiced at her marriage, at the news of the arrival of their first baby… and now “he” has disappeared from their lives, and is no longer referred to. Then there’s the lady whose previous husband beat her up – a fact she communicated to you in a Christmas newsletter 5 years ago – and who sent you the news 3 years ago that she was marrying someone else she only referred to by his first name – and hasn’t been in touch since. You’d like to try and restore the lines of communication, but you only have the surname of the ex-husband. You presume she’s now living with the new man – unless that relationship too has broken up – but you’re not quite sure, and you have to address her  in such a way that takes account of different possible scenarios.

And there are the couples whose children have now grown up and left home and started their own families, so you can now revert to sending cards to the couple alone, without their children’s names… and that feels sad too, despite the fact that this has been in many ways a happy change.

Then there are the people who have died, and whose names have to be crossed off your Christmas list and out of your address book – a task that always feels callous to me, every time I do it. And the people you’re going to send a card to who may well have died, but nobody has told you, so you won’t know, unless your card is returned to you by some helpful relative in the New Year.

So much change for good or bad. Then it occurs to me that at least my own family unit is “the same as last year” and perhaps that fact alone is a cause for at least one small flare of gladness and relief in the hearts of those who receive our greetings.

But should it be? For those on our Christmas list often only communicate the stark facts that will affect the way we address our envelopes to them next year. Behind it all lies the complex reality of their lives. As a novelist I know what is in my characters’ hearts; but not in the hearts of everyone on my Christmas list –  the new parents, the newly-bereaved, the freshly-betrayed, the lonely, the divorced, even those who superficially appear to have everything in order, even those who claim success and triumph all round for every member of the family… their lives are far more complex than can ever be conveyed in the artificial confines of the Christmas card or newsletter.

Perhaps the candle flame is there  to remind me of that.

Do Creative Writers Ever Feel they’re On the Inside? Or are they Always On the Outside of Everything Looking In?

This morning I was listening to Howard Jacobson, comic novelist and Booker Prize winner, on Desert Island Discs, and among the many things he said which touched and amused me, the most striking was this, “I have always felt myself to be on the outside of everything, looking in.” He gave this reply to the interviewer’s question, “Now you’ve won the Booker, do you feel you’ve arrived? Do you now feel you’re on the inside?”

What a wonderful response she received to this question! And this seemed to me a true writer’s response. I identified with it absolutely. This is what I have spent my life doing. When I was researching for my newly-published novel Mystical Circles, I was an observer. I was on the outside looking in. I investigated many New Age spiritual groups and lifestyles and philosophies, and I always saw myself as being on the outside looking in – just as Juliet does in my novel. How anxious Juliet is not to get involved, not to be drawn in, to keep her objectivity as a journalist. It almost seems a personal threat to her to get involved. Yet as more than one character says to her,  “You have to come alongside us to truly understand.”

My character the Rev. Theo sees this clearly. “I’m all about people on spiritual journeys,” he says. “I’ll go anywhere, come in on anything.” It is no contradiction to him, a young clergyman, to enter a New Age spiritual group and to come alongside the members of the community and to live as one of them.

So you, my readers, will probably have spotted the apparent contradiction here. Do I believe in being an outsider looking in? Or do I believe in getting involved, coming alongside? The truth lies in paradox. And this is the paradox Howard Jacobson embodies. Of course he is on the inside! Of course he has arrived! And yet – he has the soul of a writer. And so he feels always on the outside looking in.

Do you identify with Howard Jacobson at all when he describes himself feeling like this, despite being successful in the eyes of the world?