Although a lot of exciting things have been happening over the last month, I’ll save those for another time. This is a blog on request. Poet Steve Ely, a fellow graduate of the Yorkshire Art Circus Writer Development Programme, asked me to be part of a relay of writers contributing to a blog tour in which writers talk about their own work. It is a pleasure to take the baton from such a unique and intelligent poet whose work is so rich in history and language. You can read Steve’s fascinating insight into his work here and then you can read mine, which is somewhat different, below!
What am I working on at the moment?
I am a writer, performer and creative writing facilitator. Aside from the day job facilitating workshops, my two big projects at the moment are my first collection of poetry, working title Empires of Clay and my magical realist novel Skybound.
Last week, I finished proof-reading Skybound, a bildungsroman set in a country somewhat but not quite like our own. This is my novel in a nutshell:
All her life, nineteen year old Maya has been plagued by noises of people’s souls passing, but, after the sounds bring her face-to-face with Robert, a psychopath who sees others’ pain as colours and draws pleasure from them, she must face her calling.
For me, magical realism is an antidote to conventional ways of seeing, the perfect vehicle for exploring the different ways in which people who are often labelled outsiders perceive the universe. In our world, the sounds the protagonist Maya hears would be defined as auditory hallucinations. In Skybound they both reveal hidden truths about reality and help her discover who she is. The book is aimed at a wide readership but should appeal particularly to intelligent young readers between the ages of 16 and 25 and to those interested in the magical realist genre and other forms of speculative fiction. It has been nine and a half years since the idea first sparked in me and the book is finished, pending partnership with an agent. It is in the hands of one agent at the moment and, if it is not for him, I will send it out to five more and go from there. Meanwhile, I will start gathering ideas for the next one!
In December, I was lucky enough to be awarded a bursary by Cinnamon Press to work with poet Caroline Davies on my poetry manuscript Empires of Clay. The poems have been written over the last eight years and, with Caroline’s help, I’m currently shaping them into a collection.
The title is a phrase from my poem The First Emperor that in turn alludes to Oscar Wilde’s poem, Theoretikos. The collection draws from a range of inspirations, most significantly the visual arts, history, mythologies, injustice and human relationships. It is aimed at adult readers of poetry, particularly those with eclectic cultural interests. Empires of Clay is interested in presenting the subjective experiences of life, in representing a range of voices, particularly those of the unheard – the oppressed, the introvert and the pariah. The roles of women feature strongly in the collection and, although the narratives are spoken from first, second and third person perspectives respectively, many of the poems see the world through a woman’s eye. Setting is also central. Intimate relationships unfold in public spaces, people interact viscerally with the landscapes, and in return the landscapes are vivified: they bleed and shed and breathe.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I attend a lot of poetry readings and performances and read a lot of contemporary poetry as well as reams of magical realism but this is still not an easy question to answer. Ultimately how my work differs is down to my readers to decide. I don’t write to be different. I write what I have to write and try to make sure my ideas are as original as possible.
I have been told that my fiction and poems are ‘like puzzles to be solved’. My magical realism is poetic and my poetry usually has a strong narrative slant, whilst being, very clearly, a female voice from the north of England. People say that my poems have a ‘strong musicality’ and ‘brilliant phrases’ but that they are also ‘fully-formed’.
This is what one audience member said about one of my poetry performances. ‘Becky has an unusual stage presence. It made me feel as if I was alone with her in a room while surrounded by many people. This odd intense intimacy in a public place lent her words a surreal quality; like being sung to in a dream.’
I am a chameleon when it comes to appearance and people often don’t recognize me by sight but, as soon as they hear my voice, they always know me. I hope that my writing voice is just as distinctive.
During the first half-term of my GCSEs, I was told that I was getting B+ grades in English. When my mother asked what I could do to attain an A, my teacher said, ‘I’m not sure she can. Her writing just doesn’t fit into the marking scheme.’ I am glad of that now.
Why do I write what I do?
I am not a person who can write to order. Even when I am given commissions, I have to find my own way in, my own personal connection with the subject. I write intuitively, and am drawn to my topics, whatever the form in which I choose to explore them. I write because things anger or upset or delight or excite me, whether that be because they have affected me directly or because I see their impact on others or on the future.
Some writers believe you should choose one form and put all your energy into that one form. I see the logic in this but it doesn’t work for me. I have tried to give up poetry for novels and failed. If something is ‘there’ and continues to be ‘there’, it calls to me until it’s completed. It is a compulsion.
Poetry and novel writing serve different functions for me and I genuinely feel as though working in one form enhances my work in the other, even if working in tandem does mean that things take longer. In a practical sense, when writing a poem, there is always an end in sight so poetry is great when I am too busy with workshops and family life to keep hold of something voluminous like a novel. But, of course, why I write has nothing to do with practicalities; creating a poem is pleasurable and can be intensely and immediately satisfying. Writing a novel is much more frustrating. It requires a lot more time and problem solving and tedious everyday turning-up-to-the-page stuff. But, as with children, there are frequent moments of delight, especially when you write a great scene or solve a big plot dilemma, and the moment you read back what you’ve written and you know you have a novel with a heartbeat – wow!
How does my writing process work?
The first draft of everything is shit, Hemingway famously said and, when it comes to my own writing, I concur, mostly anyway. This is not universal. As a creative writing facilitator, I’m always amazed at how people can come up with something almost-there in a workshop.
Getting down a draft of a poem takes me 10-30 minutes and the writing may happen in a workshop, on a bus, in bed, in a cafe or library – anywhere I have space to write. If I feel I might be onto something, I type it up soon afterwards and determinedly gnaw at it until the bone is clearly visible. This usually involves bringing in at least one more idea or central image to inspirit the poem. This works best when done as soon as possible after the first draft. Three month old bones are not as edible, I suppose. Often this stage, which takes three or four sittings of several hours in duration, involves online research – I have a bad memory for facts and ideas often need checking, excavating or discovering before they can be brought into a poem.
The next step is to record myself reading the poem and play it back to listen for elements that don’t work musically. When I think I have the majority of the content, I email it to my poor patient husband (he met me at one of my poetry gigs so he knew what he was letting himself in for) and, if I know I’m onto something but I’m struggling with something central to the poem, I ask for feedback from poet friends whose perspective can help identify a remedy.
Form is important, even for poets who primarily work in free verse, but usually for me the form comes after the majority of the content and is suggested by it. There is something of the truth to materials approach in here for me. I don’t force my work into a form but I am prepared to carve along the grain to find it.
Over a period of months, or sometimes years, I return to the poem to tweak it. Sometimes reading or performing to audiences will give me a different take on a piece and I’ll change it as a result. I have been known to spend up to ten hours looking for the exact word or phrase for a part of the poem that doesn’t quite work.
I wrote Skybound on my laptop at my desk in the place I prefer to call my writing room, rather than my office – even though most of my time here is spent planning workshops or responding to work emails. This is much better than the old days when the only place I had to write was a shared living/dining room complete with X-box backdrop or my bed – very bad for the back. I have a view over my little garden of rooftops, trees and an inspiration of birds – as I am typing this, two herons are flying over. This room was my selfish reason for buying this particular house – luckily it was the rest of the family’s first choice too. I am desperately happy to have it and write as often and for as long as other commitments allow.
The process for both of my novels – the first a gritty realist, novel – now under the bed – has been similar. First the ideas come and they can come from anywhere – people I meet or situations I encounter, philosophical ideas or scientific discoveries. I jot them down. Then I start to create characters and write scenes that seem disparate at first. I don’t worry about this. Connections can always be found and the more unpredictable, the better. The challenge is to make them believable within the context of the novel. When these connections start to happen, I acquire an overall idea of what the novel will be and start to outline a plot. There are always lots of gaps at this point so I write the scenes I think are needed and find out from what I write what else is required. I edit as I write and read the previous session’s work the following day. This helps to jog my memory and also allows me to reflect on whether the scene needs a drastic rewrite there and then or just a few tweaks. Far too many of my writing sessions require these rewrites, particularly if they are cut short or interrupted by work or family commitments. I try my best to avoid interruptions and have become excellent at managing my work load to maximize writing time but I often have to work to other people’s schedules, which can be somewhat less organised than mine and, in a busy life, there are always unexpected events to deal with!
When working on novels, I need a minimum of two to five hours in a session, although I can work for much longer when I’m having a slow writing day and if I’m really in the flow. Momentum is helpful too so I write as regularly as possible – if a whole week goes by without a session on the novel, it can take me hours to pick up where I left off.
At different stages of the process, I ask for feedback from novelists I respect and from my husband. As well as reading two versions of Skybound, I read aloud to him whilst working. He is the perfect reader to motivate but also good for pointing out what doesn’t work, enabling me to make well-informed session-after changes. Other readers I turn to can be enthusiastic, helpful and ruthless. Most importantly, they are honest. Around 80-90% of the time, I agree with the feedback and respond to it in my next draft.
Whilst reading over a draft, as well as changing dodgy punctuation and bad writing, I note down questions. ‘How does this link to this event? Does this structure work? Would this character do this? What if…?’ I come up with ideas for further links and identify what is missing. Then I write another draft in which I answer these questions and fill in any of the gaps. With Skybound, this process was repeated nine times.
I’m now handing over to NJ Ramsden, another Art Circus graduate and King of the Edit. He is a writer of short stories and longer fiction. His novel Nothing’s Oblong is available now for Kindle, and some of his short works can be found online and in print if you look hard enough.
He taught creative writing for several years, and is currently indulging in the study of medieval literature, particularly Arthurian legend, and working on a novel of Victorian engineering, a new re-telling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (a 14th-century epic poem), and a collection of classically-inspired short stories.
Visit http://njramsden.wordpress.com from 31.2.14 onwards for the next stage of the blog tour.