Big Word of the Day: Autoethnographic

Letter A

In honour of Carrie Rubin’s post today about use of Big Words, may I present to you, my Big Word of the Day:

Autoethnographic

Self-reflective writing that explores the writer/researcher’s personal experience and connects this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings.

I readily confess, as I don’t believe it will betray me as an ignoramus, that today is the first time I have ever encountered this magnificent word. It has, I believe, rather more to do with research than writing, but I have fallen in love with it anyway.

So I just  had to share it.

Too much information

If you have ambitions to be a novelist, you need every shred of advice and information you can possibly lay your sticky mitts on, don’t you?

book-2869_1280When you’re trying to figure out about structure and plotting, or how to write a killer opening paragraph or a compelling protagonist, there are myriad sources to go to for help – on the internet, in paperbacks, pdf’s and e-books and of course, all those training courses and seminars I wrote about here.

Ready to launch your manuscript on an unsuspecting literary world, you might want to know how to hook an agent. If you’re a detail person, like me, you’ll want to know what font-size and margins you should choose for your sample, exactly how many paragraphs your query letter should have, what pushes agents’ buttons and what pips them off. There are seminars, dozens of websites and a gazillion blog posts from writers who have hooked their agent and writers who haven’t, and jaded agents who have tired of their expectations not being met. You’ll need to know how to pen the perfect synopsis too; precisely how many words should it have, what you should leave in and what you must take out – and here again there are courses and seminars and a whole slew of paper and web-based pointers to plough through.

Then, when like me, you finally acknowledge that ‘it could be you’ is a lottery slogan, not a promise of literary recognition and riches, you’ll be ready to learn about self-publishing. And here, the volume of advice and information surges skyward like the Himalayas.

It’s fantastic to have so much help and information to draw from, isn’t it? It’s brilliant!

But then again…

Last weekend, embarking on the latest leg of my writer’s journey, I read no less than three e-books on self-publishing, multiple pages on Amazon’s website and in their downloads about e-publishing on Kindle, and an e-book on turning your writing into a business (I have mixed feelings about this incidentally – for another time).

At the end of my marathon, my bum had created a sink-hole in the sofa and my brain was… fried. I had to go and lie down in a dark room with some wind chimes. And a brandy.

I read once that a person alive in the Middle Ages would, in their entire lifetime, need to process about as much information as is found today in an average daily newspaper. I processed twenty times that amount in one weekend. And I’m dazed and confused.

I went into this writing lark because… I wanted to write. I’ve learned some important skills over recent years and now I want to use what I’ve learned to write some more. But in the meantime, unless I simply want to fill my bottom-drawer with unseen manuscripts, I know I need to get a handle on the business of writing.

Over coming weeks, I’ll go back through what I read with a notepad at my side. I’ll filter what I need, and extract useful take-aways from the glut of information and advice.

I don’t want to be negative, because it’s great that we can so readily access so many remarkable sources of help, enabling us to expand our skillset, get a head-start or avoid pitfalls. The writing community is a particularly encouraging and supportive one and that’s part of the joy of writing. And great deal of advice and learning is coherent, wise and worthwhile. And I want to take it, make use of it and be a better and more successful writer as a result. But sometimes it all just feels like…. too much brain-fodder.

I wonder, does the glut of helpful advice and information make you feel like a kid in a candy factory, or, like me, does it sometimes make you feel just a little bit overwhelmed?

What will they think of me?

Do you ever worry what people close to you might think of you if you write certain things into your novel? I do.

eye-catcher-74182-pixabayA few months ago I circulated Singled Out to a small group of Beta Readers. On returning with his feedback, one reader said, with a wry smile, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at you the same way again, Julie.’

I don’t think he meant anything by it – in his case it was more tongue-in-cheek. It’s just that Singled Out does contain a few shall we say, edgy moments and a bit of shall we say, earthy language, and I think they took him by… surprise. But that’s because I’ve chosen to write psychological rather than chick lit or aga saga; deadly nightshade, not sunbeams and butterflies.

His reaction though begged the question, will others who read this feel the same way and if they do, how do I feel about that? Readers who don’t know me will take it all at face value, since writers write about all sorts of things and readers buy what they enjoy. But what about friends and family? And for me, wearing a businesswoman’s hat as well as a writer’s hat, what about my professional marketing clients? Should I be concerned what they will make of it?

So yes, if not a worry, it is certainly a concern.

Pale faced, my Beta Reader went on to ask, in a way which suggested he might not actually want to know the answer, if I was writing from experience. I told him, I’d been on one or two singles holidays so, yes, I was writing from experience. ‘Not that’, he said. ‘The— oh, you know what I mean’.

Ah. Yes. But no. What he’s talking about, those edgier plot moments, it’s a No. I wasn’t writing from experience. It was all from imagination – well, almost all. Mostly. Anyway, I thanked him for his concern and told him he could stop worrying.

Of course one doesn’t have to experience things in order to write them into a story. I can describe a dead body without ever having seen one; a cocaine hit without ever having been near a gram of the stuff; a deviant sexual activity without ever having so deviated; or a grizzly crime without ever having been a victim of it – or a perpetrator for that matter. There are always people who know people who can help with credible detail and failing that, there’s a world of Googleknowledge to draw on. If writers couldn’t do this, there’d be far more dull and insipid novels around and far fewer murder mysteries, heart-stopping thrillers and psycho-dramas.

But whether I’m writing wholly or partially or not at all from experience, I chose to write a gritty psychological story where bad stuff happens and the mood is at times raw and unsettling. Apart from anything else, I confess it’s weirdly fun to get out of my workaday existence and alter-ego this kind of material.

So if any clients, close friends or family are reading this – or in future if any clients, close friends or family read this novice writer’s first attempt at an unsettling psychological story – I hope you will all forgive the fact that I’ve taken a big step away from my comfortably suburban private life and my conscientiously professional business life and gone somewhere very different for my new writing life…

I just hope it doesn’t offend you, or disturb you, or make you look askance at me.

We need to talk about… Sex

Note on a tree in a forestBlogging is generally good fun, but with so many blogs seeking an audience it can, even on a good day, be likened to pinning a note to a tree in a forest.  And if that’s the case, then posting on a Friday afternoon is like writing that note in invisible ink. Whatever the world at large was getting up to on Friday afternoon (and the sunny Saturday and Sunday that followed for that matter), you weren’t reading blog posts, were you?

Yes, I committed a social media faux pas when I posted my latest blog last Friday afternoon.  It was the one headed Precision detail in a novel – not just any place but this place about how I used notes and photographs to help me recall places and senses and inject precision detail into my writing.  I’ve been trying different days and times for posting and last week I plumbed the depths – a Friday afternoon ahead of a weekend that teased (the UK at least) with the promise of a little sunshine. Not only that, but I might allow that it wasn’t the most compelling of posts – interesting for some, but hardly challenging, contentious or amusing in the way a properly engaging blog post needs to be.   A double-whammy, for sure. I’m sorry, ok. Mea culpa and all that.

So last Friday afternoon it hit the water with a barely perceptible splash, before sinking without trace over the weekend, with hits in numbingly modest numbers and just one kind soul commenting; a dead body of a post, leaden and dull. Yesterday’s thoughts already half a mile down your blog reader, never to surface.

A few weeks ago, I penned a post on the challenges of writing sex into stories (Marmite Moments: Writing good sex). Strangely (who knew?), it was my most read and commented post of the last year. To be fair, a substantial dose of the credit for that is due to WordPress for offering me a second slot on Freshly Pressed – thanks, Ben! But it did get a few people going and it garnered some great comments and a whole host of new bloggers to connect with – and after all, that’s what makes blogging fun, isn’t it?

So clearly, I need to go back to writing about Marmite.

Or maybe… Sex.

That’s it. Not Marmite. Sex.

So I’ll see what I can do over the next few days, and I’ll be back soon with something to get properly hot around the collar, as it were, about.  Don’t get too excited though – this is still a blog about writing, not a blog about sex. But with the creative juices flowing, I imagine I can find a way to slip in a few sneakily salacious musings.

All in the best possible taste, of course.

Precision detail in a novel – not just any place, but this place

I’ve been asked to share how I capture a sense of place in my novel. For example, what research do I do, how do I take notes, are photographs involved, and so on. So here goes…

SINGLED OUT is set on a singles holiday on Turkey’s beautiful Lycian Coast. I’ve visited this area many times over the last 20 years and I love its striking landscape and laid-back, exotic atmosphere. Whilst my story is essentially a dark psychological one, I wanted the sense of place to be very strong; my intention is for the reader to feel as if they’re on the holiday with my characters.

This writer's notepad - illegible scrawl from Turkey, May 2013
This writer’s notepad: illegible scrawl, Turkey, May 2013

Last year after a gap of 6 years I returned to Turkey specifically to gather that sensory detail for my novel. Memories fade over the years, especially the minuscule details of sight, sound and smell which are essential to anchoring the setting or a scene in a novel precisely and bringing it to life for readers. I wanted to fill a notepad with images and sensory detail to inject into my story. I got more than I could possibly have expected from the experience, as I first wrote about in my post It Makes Sense:

I realised as I filled its pages, how inert ones memories of a place can become. It’s easy enough to pick up an old photograph and see what a raggedy coastline looks like, or a market, or an ancient ruin. But when you’re there, you smell the pine and the citrus, the sweat and cigarettes; you see the gnarly knuckles and the stained aprons; you hear the wail of the muezzin’s prayer and watch the sun radiate from the golden dome of a mosque; you feel the sting of perspiration as it trickles into your eye and savour sweet green peppers and succulent tomatoes under a canopy of twisted vines. Oh, I could go on… and on…

I don’t want you imagining my story is awash with descriptive detail at the expense of plot and character. But there are one or two places where I’ve gone to town a bit on the setting, using my photographs and notes to develop a strong sense of place. Of course these may all go, if and when a real editor gets to work on the draft. But for the time being, I’m getting away with it.

Ephesus

My characters take a trip to Ephesus, so I did too. I’d last been there 20 years ago and I imagined that whilst two thousand year old ruins are two thousand year old ruins, the tourist business of Ephesus and its surroundings must have changed over the years – and I was right.

I was fortunate to have a guide all to myself for the day and I explained to her the main purpose of my visit. I was able to wander at will, ask endless questions and take dozens of photographs. Knowing why I was there, she didn’t question that I photographed odd things; the stalls outside the entrance, the entrance barriers, other groups of tourists, odd rocks and stones, cats and trees, pavements and signposts, as well as those breathtaking ancient ruins.

Stalls at the entrance to Ephesus
Stalls at the entrance to Ephesus
The only shade there is at Ephesus
The only shade at Ephesus
Warm bodies and a cloudless sky at Ephesus
Warm bodies and a cloudless sky at Ephesus

I couldn’t easily take notes as we walked around the site, but I caught up as soon as we stopped for lunch; a combination of my guide’s historical knowledge, my sense of the place and how I’d felt as I walked its streets.  You think you’ll remember these things, but let me tell you, you won’t.  Notepads are a vital tool – however illegible (as mine often are), their pages will take you right back to a precise place or moment, months or even years later.

But I had to keep reminding myself, SINGLED OUT is a novel not a travel book. An earlier draft contained far too much historical detail from that Ephesus trip and much of it has since come out. It’s enough to have done the research and deployed elements of detail where they’re needed to enrich; but there’s no need to show off how much you know.

So you can see how it worked for me, here’s a paragraph from that fictional trip to Ephesus:

Around them tour guides spoke in English, French, German, Swedish and Japanese to visitors unbalanced by loaded backpacks, while others brandished sticks to aid their movement or umbrellas to shield them from the sun. They stopped randomly and without warning for photographs. At every point where Fatima drew the group close, James and Veronica listened with rapt attention – and Brenda rummaged in her bag for water, a fan, a facial spritz or a wad of tissues. All the while, the heat came at them not only from above, but from beneath their feet and all around. It rose in waves from the flagstone avenues and radiated off the columns and walls. Brenda was slow-roasting in the Ephesus noonday oven.

Market Day

Two of my characters browse a local market together one day. I’d gone to markets in Turkey before and had some lovely old photographs (from the days before digital). Then I went to the market in Fethiye on my trip last year, armed with my trusty notepad – and my eyes and nose. Here’s an excerpt which uses my recollections and notes from all those Turkish markets combined.

The area where the weekly market took place lay behind the shopping street and away from the beach. It would be generous to call it a marketplace, since for six days a week this area of gravel and clay lay fallow; carved here and there by tyre tracks from the few trucks that needed somewhere to turn around before speeding away.

On the seventh day, it teemed with life from before dawn until late afternoon. Farmers came from the villages and hamlets in the hills, their pick-ups laden with fresh produce of all shapes and mis-shapes, a riot of colour and a testament to the industry and enterprise out of sight of the tourist coastline. Traders moved from town to town, market day to market day, bringing truckloads of goods to sell; t-shirts and trousers, bags and belts, pashminas and pendants, sandals and sunhats all manufactured in anonymous factories far away from the coast or most likely in China. Packets of candy, nuts and aromatic spices sat alongside jars of glistening local honey and blocks of cheese; everything was available to buy from dusty trestle tables and rails, all under cover of flapping white awnings – giving the impression the whole market was a trading ship about to set sail.

The two women passed an enjoyable couple of hours wandering the length and breadth of the market. They flirted with the crusty, moustachioed farmers behind their piles of wooden boxes laden with curly runner beans, torpedo aubergines, red and white onions, peppers and courgettes, oranges, lemons, strawberries and giant watermelons; they breathed in the aromas of citronella and cinnamon, fruit teas and fresh herbs, beaten leather, crushed straw, workaday sweat and cigarettes; they bartered with stall-holders over beaded necklaces, embroidered purses and gaudily embellished flip-flops; they cooed over a pile of crates crammed with baby chicks, their fluffy down every shade from creamy gold-top through honey roast to dark chocolate brown, and they sympathised with a brace of rabbits whose fate was obvious and more immediate. Brenda stocked up on candied fruits and sugared almonds and Siobhan found a fake henna kit she couldn’t live without. Then, with carrier bags brimming with tourist trinkets, they made for the line of beachfront bars and the yellow awning, for lunch.

The Gulet Trip

Turkish Gulet - a fine sight, even without its sails
Turkish Gulet

My characters take an overnight trip on one of Turkey’s ubiquitous gulets. I’ve spent weeks at a time on gulets before – it’s a blissful experience, to bob about on the ocean for a few days with no shoes on and nothing to do but sunbathe and read books. This time I took a day trip to refresh my memories of the sights, sounds and odours. I took photographs of the coastline and odd corners of the boat. I noted the way the motion affected my balance, the sounds of the boat and the water, the smells coming up from the sea – and the kitchen; I registered what the sunlight did to the chrome, the woodwork and the sails. Here’s a snapshot of my impressions which made it into the story:

The deck-hands unrolled the jib over the bow and the sail on the second mast and high above them squally gusts took hold. The trio of sails ballooned with the strengthening wind of open water; they fought and whipped about, tugging at their fastenings, lifting and plunging the boat forward, cutting into the water and venting fine salty spray into the air and across the deck. The restaurant on the beach became a speck against a panorama of grey-green scrub and rocky slopes, the bay zoomed away into the distance. The industrial grinding of the diesel engine was replaced by a sublime, organic symphony; a blustery flapping of sails, the steady swish-swash of waves, the metallic pounding of the rigging and the cawing of a seabird. Breathless and eyes wide, Henry lay on his back staring up towards the tip of the mast and beyond into the cloudless sky. Surely life couldn’t get better than this.

Most of the detail from my scruffy notepads made it into the story one way or another – a few words here, a sentence there – which is mostly all you need. It’s only when you want to anchor the reader more specifically in a given place or moment, that it’s perhaps permissible to layer the detail a little more. But that’s just my feeling, and, as a novice and yet-to-be-published writer, I may find my layers of sights, sounds and smells are pared down in the final edit. So please don’t take my word for it that this is the right approach. It’s just the thing I did – whether it adds substance to my story, or gets in the way of the plot, someone with more experience than I may yet be the judge of this.

I just can’t find the words

2014-02-04 11.06.23I write blog posts for my marketing clients. Taking one client as an example, I keep a schedule going forward about 2 months, identifying topics for two posts a week.  I keep a few gaps in the schedule for more up-to-the-minute items, but in general I know several weeks in advance what I’m writing about, and when.  This means I can get ahead of myself if I’m going to be away or expect to be extra-busy on other matters.

Each post takes on average up to one hour to get written, re-written, checked and posted.  Some are longer, some shorter. Sometimes there’s a little research involved, such as when I’m writing about an industry related topic about which I need to mug-up in a hurry. For some I need to chase up background from the company or interview staff – usually by phone or Skype. But that’s about as tricky as it gets.

So I keep on top of it, posts on Mondays and Thursdays, unless there’s a good reason to shift days.  This week’s Monday post for example, went out today, as it was a promotion for the company’s Facebook page and it seemed worth tying this into Facebook’s 10th birthday celebrations.

It’s not just about getting paid for my work. Cliché I know, but I value my clients – they enable me to live like I do, with enough time to write for pleasure alongside earning my living.  So it matters to me that they think I’m doing a good job for them.  I work hard at being interesting, relevant, varied, witty and informative in the blogs I write for them.  I want my clients to receive positive feedback on my posts from their clients and associates.

But here’s my dilemma: Why doesn’t it work the same way when it’s personal? Why can’t I bang out my own personal ‘A Writer’s Notepad’ blog posts as efficiently, professionally and dependably as I can manage my clients’ posts?

Why is it easier to write for someone else, than to write for me?  What makes it different? Why do I agonise for days over one post or another?  Why do I start writing on one topic, then abandon it for another, then go back to the first, then … go and make a cup of coffee? I can’t seem to settle. I write and write, and I just can’t get it right.

My own from-the-heart, writerly missives cause me endless frustration.  What topic to pick? What to say? How to make it interesting? Should it be humorous or deep-and-meaningful? How personal or intimate should I be – or not? Then I need to get the words right – I am a writer, after all, and so the last thing I need is to bsha ou psots flilled wit miscakes.

So I’ve hit on an idea – just for this week.  I have a few (admittedly cryptic) blog post headlines for you to choose from.  These are all partially written – some more partially than others. Whichever gets the most votes, come what may, I will post next.

You get to choose, and here’s the choice:

 

The poll is open for one week from today. Meanwhile, just in case, I’m going to try and pull every one of these partial posts into some kind of shape.

PS:  Just by accident this morning I found out that if I press the Ctrl key whilst scrolling the wheel on my mouse, it zooms the text on my page in and out. How cool is that? And how come I never knew this before?

It makes sense

Roses - Ece on Sovalye Fethiye TurkeyI’ve just returned from a trip to Turkey’s stunningly beautiful Lycian Coast. Whilst it was most definitely a holiday, I went, notebook in hand, to refresh my memory and inspire my senses. ‘My first novel’ – its working title, by the way, is Singled Out – is set in Turkey, along this same coastline and I was looking for fine detail.

I carry my writer’s notepad around with me whenever I go out. I occasionally jot odd things down – a few notes whilst I’m sitting in a coffee shop perhaps. It still feels a bit writerly and pretentious, but I expect it may feel more natural in time. Last week in Turkey things took a big leap forward. My notepad, smeared with suntan oil, became a sponge, soaking up my sensory experience, absorbing everything.

I realised as I filled its pages, how inert ones memories of a place can become. It’s easy enough to pick up an old photograph and see what a raggedy coastline looks like, or a market, or an ancient ruin. But when you’re there, you smell the pine and the citrus, the sweat and cigarettes; you see the gnarly knuckles and the stained aprons; you hear the wail of the muezzin’s prayer and watch the sun radiate from the golden dome of a mosque; you feel the sting of perspiration as it trickles into your eye and savour sweet green peppers and succulent tomatoes under a canopy of twisted vines. Oh, I could go on… and on…

I saw and smelled, tasted and touched, listened to and noticed . . . everything; from sea breezes and sunsets to frogs in a pond and fields of pomegranates; from breakfast buffets to sizzling sea bass; from buzzing mopeds to hissing sprinklers and barking dogs.

But here was the surprise. I’d expected this to be something of a chore, interrupting my lazy sunshine holiday like homework you have to finish before you go back to school after the summer break. But this conscious, purposeful sensory exposure enriched my vacation in a thousand ways I hadn’t expected. It heightened every sense, turned up the volume and sharpened the dazzling, vibrant panorama that is contemporary Turkey – a country I’ve grown to love over many years.