One thing leads to another – unlocking creativity

Some people have known all their lives that they wanted to write fiction – I’m not one of them.

2014-05-03 08.15.48I’ve always been comfortable with the written word. It’s probably because I was lucky to benefit from a good education, acquiring a solid grasp of language and grammar at an early age. I was luckier still to be taught at senior school by an enthusiastic trio of English teachers who instilled in me a love of books and a passion for the theatre. Outside the demands of the classroom and homework, I even wrote for pleasure – but not fiction; I became part of the small team who edited and produced the school magazine. Throughout my adolescence I picked up pen-friends around the world and I loved receiving and sending rambling missives about all the things that challenge, delight and perturb teenage girls.

In my working life, I’ve written just about every kind of commercial material you can imagine – marketing letters and email campaigns, RFPs and proposals, fact sheets, newsletters and case studies, white papers and websites, blogs and brochures and much, much more. But, until the last 5 years or so – no fiction. (Okay, careful now, I know some people might regard some marketing material as drifting perilously close to fiction, but let’s not get into that one.)

2012 58 D002 Jan 12After decades of focus on work and commercial concerns, including pushing hard for career changes and then going freelance on the back of a redundancy, my creative brain – if it ever existed – was thoroughly submerged beneath layers of analytical and practical thinking.

But things began to change in 2007. A friend of mine had taken up paper-crafting and was finding it a relaxing and creatively satisfying hobby. At the time, I thought it all seemed a bit inconsequential, although to be fair, that’s probably the point of a hobby. But the cards she produced were mini works of art, utterly beautiful and such a pleasure to receive – I still have every one she has sent me. So one day, I took the plunge and bought myself a basic card kit and at Christmas 2007, I produced a very unremarkable collection of handmade Christmas cards.

I moved forward from my early attempts – licky-sticky card-making. I searched out You Tube videos and watched crafting telly; I bought magazines and strained to see the experts at work at crafting events. Gradually I began to get into the experimental and creative type of card-making my friend so much enjoyed – and I loved it.

C001 Xmas 09 MoiraFor me, it’s an enormous pleasure to design and create a card for someone I care about. I’m not focussed on any one kind of card-making; I enjoy trying different styles and learning new techniques. And I’m a sucker for a seemingly endless selection of supplies – things like paper, inks, tools, dies, paints, foils and miscellaneous accessories.

Until I started playing with inks and paper, I honestly believed I didn’t have a creative bone in my body. Card-making is where I realised I had a creative side to my brain and more than that, it was desperate to be liberated. And if I could apply it to making little works of art for my friends, why couldn’t I apply it to my long-favoured creative environment – the written word?

You don’t know until you try, so in Autumn 2009, I attended my first Arvon Foundation course – called ‘Starting to Write’, and I… started to write.

I began with three short stories, one of which amazingly won Writing Magazine’s monthly prize and was printed in the magazine. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Within a few months of typing my first few words of fiction, I’d received a cheque. Prize money or payment for publication – whatever you call it, I was elated.

And with that £200, the genie was out of the bottle.

A damp day out, a magnificent makeover – and a crisis of confidence

The Arvon Foundation’s study centre at The Hurst in Shropshire has had a makeover. Last week 100 members of the literary community – and one pretender – found their way there to see what a marvellous job they’ve made of it.

Arvon The Hurst view from my window May 11
From my window at The Hurst, May 11

Most people have no idea where Shropshire is. It’s sufficiently tucked away that you don’t pass through it on the way to anywhere, except perhaps a scattering of hamlets in mid-Wales.

To get to Shropshire, make your way to the left (ahem… west) of Birmingham, then wiggle along for an hour or so down meandering roads and through a dozen small towns and villages. When the undulations in the landscape become proper hills dotted with sheep; when a blanket of misty drizzle descends, diffusing the skyline to a grey-green froth – you’re in Shropshire.

I’ve always known where Shropshire is; it holds a special place in my heart despite the questionable climate. As a child I spent many happy half-term holidays there, in Church Stretton, perpetually soggy whatever the time of year, wrapped in anorak and scarf, clumping around a dank and earthy Carding Mill Valley in ill-fitting wellies. As the great-niece of a wonderful woman whom everyone in the town seemed to know, it always felt as if I belonged there.

Carding Mill Valley, Church Stretton in 1975
Carding Mill Valley, Church Stretton in 1975

Three years ago I was back in Shropshire on a writing course at The Arvon Foundation’s study centre at the former home of playwright John Osborne, The Hurst, near Clun. I was excited by the idea of flexing my creative muscles in an area that held so many memories. The course was excellent but The Hurst, whilst nestled in stunning surroundings, had several shortcomings. Activities were carried out across three buildings and the most striking of these – the main house – was largely boarded up and unused, due to its perilous state of repair. I had a study bedroom at the top of this house, accessed by a shabby rear staircase. I shared a bathroom with three or four other rooms. We all co-operated sensitively with one another, but it wasn’t an ideal arrangement for grown-ups.

The Hurst, May 2011
The Hurst, May 2011

But Arvon has been busy, and with a substantial grant from Arts Council England and donations from many other organisations and private individuals, the impressive renovation of The Hurst was officially unveiled last week.

It was a well-attended event; I confess I was surprised at how many people had come, given the remoteness of the location. No doubt a testimony to the esteem in which Arvon is held in the literary world. After having a good look at the newly refurbished main rooms and a snoop around one or two of the 19 en-suite (yes!!) study bedrooms, all I can say is that I’m looking for an excuse to return to The Hurst for another study week. All those shortcomings… have been addressed in a stylish and sympathetic updating of the big house. It’s lovely, without being overdone at all. It still bears all the Arvon hallmarks; a natural, organic style; simple, almost sparse furnishing; an emphasis on community and an atmosphere which respects and honours its heritage. Top marks, Arvon.

I was at this launch event under false pretences. I wasn’t a donor, or a published writer, just a former student with an unpublished manuscript in her back pocket and a dwindling reserve of self-belief. I was the plus one of an invited guest who, in the event, was unable to attend. I went anyway, glad of a reason to head to Shropshire and anticipating an opportunity to meet a few writers and… maybe… maybe… maybe… run across an agent or two.

I enjoyed the day – a good lunch, a poke around the old place, a few warmly received speeches and a short but exquisite poetry reading. I refused a slice of cake. A photographer took so many pictures of me that I began to wonder if he thought I was someone else – someone famous, a real writer maybe. I chatted to another former Arvon student, the partner of one half of a celebrated TV writing duo, a couple of National Trust stalwarts and several lovely Arvon team members; but if there were any authors or agents there, I didn’t stumble across them. If I had, I realise it would have been crass beyond words to attempt to interest them in my book, so it’s probably just as well.

As a freelance marketer, I’ve done business networking for years; I’m used to walking into rooms filled with strangers and starting conversations. I’m quite comfortable presenting my business proposition in 60 seconds and I know what’s expected. But in a literary context, it’s different – I don’t find it at all easy. It’s because I don’t (yet) belong in this world. I’m outside the window, tapping gently but persistently on the glass, hoping someone will notice me and invite me in. I’m just one of thousands of people who have written books, but not (yet) seen them published through the mainstream media.

One day, maybe, I’ll be able to show up at an event like this one, lay confident claim to a glass of champagne and when asked, say, ‘I’m a writer’ without feeling quite such an imposter.

From ChickLit to True Grit

Where did your writing begin? What type of story did you set out to write? Is that what emerged, or did you, as I did, end up somewhere completely different?

CactusI first fell into the grip of my fiction writing habit in 2010, a few months after my 50th birthday.  When I went on an Arvon Foundation writing course, I hadn’t a single word of fiction to my name, aside from a handful of playful Coffee Break Stories which I had penned for a client as part of their marketing.  I had an idea I might try something a little more adventurous.  I wanted to stretch myself, test my creativity and find out if I had an imagination.

I’d booked on the spur of the moment and I arrived with an unblemished notepad, a sharp pencil and an open mind. I thought the course (tellingly titled Starting to Write) might at least give me something to think about, or even (the clue’s in the name, I guess) help get me started. I had absolutely no idea what I would write about.

One of the tutors, the poet and writer Catherine Smith offered me some help in choosing my debut project.  I told her I felt drawn to writing light, humorous fiction, an escape from the serious business of copywriting.  We set off down the ‘write what you know’ road – it’s as good a place as any to begin, I guess.  During our conversations it dawned on me there was one thing about which I knew quite a bit, which offered the potential for light and humorous writing.

In my 30’s and 40’s, I’d been on a number of singles holidays to the Greek Islands and Turkey.  As I wrote in my post ‘A Singular Sort of Holiday’ I thought this might be fertile ground for an amusing, chick-litty angle – a wry commentary on the sort of people who go on singles holidays (ahem… myself included); the comic potential for mishap and misunderstanding, the awkwardness of strangers thrown together; that sort of thing. Think, Bridget Jones takes a Vacation, and you’d be on the sort of lines I contemplated.

The seed planted and back home again, I began to write.  First a couple of fluffyish short stories, and then the first few pages of what would become Singled Out.  I ploughed forward with little idea of what I was doing.  I was like one of those people who sets off for a mooch around the Outback with a half litre of water and no sunhat – no compass either.  Eventually around 40,000 words in, I realised I had blundered into nowhere-land.

The key problem, I discovered, was that it wasn’t enough to write in a light-hearted way about a collection of characters, even if some of them were curious or quirky.  Something had to happen.  Yes, that’s quite a breakthrough, isn’t it? I realised that for a story to be, well, a story that anyone might want to read, I had to make stuff happen.  And a bunch of people lazing about on sun loungers having a bit of a chat just didn’t cut it.

So one day I introduced a fox into my henhouse, just to see what sort of a stir I could create.  And that’s where everything changed.  Because I realised how much I enjoyed writing my dark, malevolent character.  I liked finding words for what was going on in their psyche. I enjoyed working my way into their disturbed, sociopathic mindset.  I found I loved engineering the scenarios in which this character conceals their true nature, causing others to stumble in, unawares.  I loved the idea of creating a story where the reader would know where the peril lay and would watch it playing out.

As I wrote forward the tone of my narrative changed, as it wrapped around this warped individual. It became a story, rather than a series of chirpy episodes.  Other characters acquired their own private pains, rages and challenges as the atmosphere darkened.  You may be the judge one day, but to me, Singled Out mutated from a pina colada into a whisky sour.

If I give the impression that this was a smooth linear progression, a seamless segue from ChickLit to Psycho-drama, I’m misleading you. I developed a split personality, bouncing back and forth between the two for a while and generating no small amount of frustration in my mentor.  This resulted in a certain loss of confidence in yours truly.  Eventually my mentor called me to account.  ‘You have to decide,’ she said, ‘what kind of a novel you’re writing.’  She was nice about it, but I felt the sting as the end of her tether snapped at me.  But it proved to be an important junction – a ‘pee or get off the pot’ moment.

So I decided, and I committed to grit and malevolence and a dark story where very bad stuff happens, even though all around is beautiful and languid and sultry.  And the more I applied myself, the more I enjoyed writing the pain and the peril into my narrative.  I found myself somewhere I didn’t expect to be, but it was an exciting landscape – for me as a writer at least.

The change of tempo and resultant overhaul across a series of edits has taken over 3 years, but I know what kind of a writer I am now, and I have my first novel – or at least the manuscript thereof – which is now in search of an agent.

Whatever it is, one thing is certain, it’s not ChickLit.  And I’ve discovered I do have an imagination, and it’s not bursting with sunbeams and sugar sprinkles.

A Singular Sort of Holiday

Turkish Gulet Singled OutSingles Holidays are a surreal experience, and I ought to know; I’ve been on one or two – actually around a dozen. Most of the vacations I took between the ages of 35 and 45 were singles holidays, either alone or with a female friend – a fellow singleton.  If you’re… um… single, singles holidays are a good way to get away for a bit of sun and relaxation, when co-ordinating diaries and budgets with friends has become too complicated.  My favourite destination was Turkey, where small coastal towns and villages and wooden twin-masted gulets can’t be beaten for warm hospitality, dependable sunshine and great food.

Whilst the atmosphere can be stilted at times, singles holidays are generally sociable and good-natured affairs where you can join in and make friends or slip away by yourself if you please, accountable to nobody but yourself.  Most such holidays are hosted or otherwise corralled, to encourage some mingling, usually around food and drink – which isn’t unreasonable when you consider that most people have come away on a singles holiday to be with other people. Otherwise you’d go away on your own, wouldn’t you?

But here’s how it can turn out: You’ll spend one or two weeks with between twenty and thirty strangers.  Some will be easy-going and friendly, some tiresome and irritating; still more will be decent but dull; and there will always be an oddball or two, unique personalities, not necessarily in a good way.  Invariably women will outnumber men by around 2:1, which isn’t great – if you’re a woman.  The faces of this motley crew will fill your photographs but dissolve from your memory.  Months later, you’ll struggle to recall the names of more than one or two.

It’s not all bad though.  I would never have travelled to Turkey on my own, yet over several singles holidays I developed a deep affection for its exotic, laid-back charms.  I met one of my now closest friends on a singles jaunt too.  And I’ve even entertained one or two holiday flings – which burned hot under the summer sun and fizzled to nothing once the chill of the English autumn got into their bones.  That’s the nature of holiday flings though, isn’t it?

When I first contemplated writing a novel, I took myself away on an Arvon Foundation writing course. Write what you know, the tutors said, and it seemed like practical advice. But most of what I could claim any familiarity with seemed dull and uninteresting.  With my imagination stirred by four years of creative writing, I would not say this today, but that’s how it appeared to me at the time.

One thing stood out – those singles holidays.  Most people I asked were fascinated by the singles holiday concept, the environment, the behaviours, the… potential.  Some saw it as adventurous or exotic, others as sad and desperate.  Many felt those people willing to embrace such an experience were either brave… or bonkers.  I’m not quite sure where they thought I fitted into that summation and I didn’t want to ask.

For a writer, a singles holiday is a self-contained scenario, like a locked room in some ways; one location, more or less – a sumptuous one at that; and an uncomplicated timescale.  For a novice like me, that’s encouragingly manageable. Plus I understood the scenario, the mentalities and motivations. Then you need characters, and that’s where it gets properly interesting; because you can dispatch a potent cocktail of personalities away on a fictional singles holiday.

Once I got to recalling my memories and formulating my characters and story, I found the singles holiday setting was fertile ground for fictional misadventure.  Now Singled Out is ready to be sent off on its own adventure – to agents, publishers and who knows where – I’m excited by the story that has evolved from that first germ of an idea. I only hope others will be too.

A girl can dream

Being mentored through my first draft is proving hugely beneficial. I’m learning faster than I expect I could through any other route I could follow whilst maintaining a full-time working life. I’m also convinced that my draft is already tighter and more compelling by a considerable margin, than I could ever make it without my mentor’s guidance.

The downside – and it’s not a downside as such – is the more I learn, the more I realise how much my earlier writing (perhaps the first third or more of the draft) will have to change. I have a good grasp of what I need to do. When I come to edit I’ll be discarding great chunks of that first third (including one or two of those hard-to-murder darlings), rewriting scenes, re-engineering characters, checking and double-checking the integrity of my POVs, verifying research, modifying language and probably crying myself to sleep every night. But even now, almost finished with my first draft and anticipating the rout, I’m excited about how it’s all coming together.

I wonder, am I optimistic or naive when I permit myself to think I may just have the makings of a good read on my hands? When I allow myself to dream that I can smell the freshly printed pages; that I can hear myself reading to a room full of people and answering questions on why I chose this or that setting, or what prompted me to bring such-and-such a character to the story; that I can feel the weight of the pen in my hand as I sign copies of my debut novel at a fashionable literary festival; that I can see my Facebook page packed with likes as I update fans on when my second novel is due; that I can feel the chill of the air-conditioned room, with fresh fruit and Danish pastries on the table, where I’m discussing my forthcoming TV mini-series with media executives… (OK, maybe that’s a bit far-fetched, but this is a dream, right?).

But for now it’s another day and another 1,000 words before breakfast. Oh yes, and it’s about time I set up that Facebook page.

Sneezy, Wheezy, Dopey, Sleepy, Sniffy, Grouchy and Grumpy

I’ve just returned from a five-day Writing Retreat at the Arvon Foundation’s centre at Totleigh Barton in Devon.  It’s a charmingly creaky, uneven, nooks-and-crannies sort of a place dating back to pre-Domesday times, which must have been designed originally for the Seven Dwarfs – anybody over 5’4” tall will develop a crick in their neck before the week is out.  Apart from the odd hot-spot in the car park (and then only if the clouds pull back), you don’t get mobile coverage, and as for email – out of the question.  That makes it a perfect spot for a bit of concentrated, focused scribbling.  That, plus the fact that it didn’t stop raining, not for one minute, in the whole five days.

That was the reason I managed 8,000 new words (yaaay!), before succumbing to a malicious virus of the medical kind, which by Thursday, had fogged up my brain-cells and clogged up my sleep-deprived body. On Friday I surrendered to it and stayed in bed all afternoon.  But all things considered, I call 8,000 words, and coming within spitting distance of the finish line (first draft only), a result.

When I can detach myself from the box of Kleenex and breathe again without the aid of Strepsils, here’s where I’ll be picking up from:

‘Why are you doing this?’ squeals posh-boy. ‘What have I ever done to you?’

He smiles. What kind of a question is that?

‘I just don’t like your face,’ he says.