Contemporary fiction … and risk

And one from the archive today to celebrate risk-taking in contemporary fiction

Britfic

Contemporary fiction is all about the values of the day, if you take one of the definitions (for more on various definitions of contemporary fiction, see my post here). But that often comes with a need to shy away from the ‘usual’ and ‘conventional’, and instead push boundaries. This is risky business. Why? Because readers like what they like, don’t they?

cloud-atlas

I, for one, do not subscribe to the school of thought. If that were the case, ‘different’ books like Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and, yes, even Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn would not have made the ripples they had in their audiences if readers weren’t interested in reading something fresh and different. Trying to find a multi-point-of-view narrative that didn’t pass the baton (and failing) was what prompted the writing of my own novel, which…

View original post 281 more words

FINDING YOUR WHY – first steps

Since my book was published last year, lots of people have asked me why I wrote it. I suppose there are many answers to that question ranging from, “Because I wanted to see if I could write at length.” to “Because I wanted to think through how I felt about the topic.” In order to write this article I have spent some time thinking hard about the answer to this question and I think that the most honest answer I can give is that I wrote ‘Isolation Junction’ because I believe I have a contribution to make to the whole current debate about domestic violence and coercive control. In writing my book as a narrative rather than as an academic discussion paper I was hoping that it would appeal to a new and possibly different audience. Those who perhaps enjoy relaxing, reading a novel as part of their busy lives and who in reading the novel will relate to and recognise aspects of unacceptable behaviour.

It is my belief that often books which deliver the most powerful message are those where the message is hidden within the story. Why else would some of these stories hit the headlines as Hollywood blockbusters if their message was not compelling and powerful?

It is often said that everyone has a book in them and I believe this to be true. So, how do you go about recognising this and beginning your journey?

Here’s a good place to start discovering your message/what to write about:

1. First list topics you’re interested in, love or feel passionate about – this could be anything from a hobby to a taboo subject to an interest in fairytales- it could be anything.

2. Do an old fashioned spider diagram of aspects of the topic and include any thoughts for writing material.

EG. For me it was the taboo subject of domestic abuse so I wrote my passionate feelings on it : awareness, show abuse for what it can be like, focus on the emotional abuse and coercive control side as it needs to be uncovered, my fears, my sacrifice, women need to know about unhealthy relationships, what does a healthy relationship look like. A life changing message, education through entertainment. And so on.

3. Which of your topics has the most depth? Which one are you drawn to? Which one is screaming out the be wrote about? Which one has a message?
——> The message doesn’t have to be a life changing but it could bring someone an escapism, it could be that you want to help people through a self help book (how does it help?), it could be that you want to feed those who love fantasy (how does your idea bring something new to the genre). One of the common questions is why did you write your book? so its great to find that why before you put pen to paper, fingers to keys.

4. Keep all the spider diagrams in case you come back to them at a later day. Focus on the topic and spider gram you have chosen to write about and test it out, get some ideas together. Continue to build on the spider diagram and think about the basic wireframe of a book.

5. Write a short story, blog or even your thoughts about the topic and post it out to the world, ask followers, friends and family to give you feedback. If you don’t already have a social media page and website then begin growing this right away. You can let people know that you’re working on and gain feedback. Take on the feedback and rethink or build your idea. Making your why a powerful one.

Not only will this help the beginning of your writing journey but it will help your marketing because you can tell people why you wrote your book, blog post, short story etc.

Let me tell you a little more about my why that I touched on earlier and where the inspiration came from.

I was on an awareness course about Domestic Abuse. Alongside me were about 8 other women who had been in abusive relationships. As the day progressed, I found that I simply couldn’t believe that some of what the other women were saying was exactly what I had gone through but just in a different format. Domestic Abuse tends to go in a cycle and whichever way it begins, the behaviour spirals again and again. At first it could be months between incidents but for me, as time went on there were many instances within one day. It is quite normal to try to prevent the cycle from starting again by changing your behaviour as much as possible. By the end of the course I had come to understand that we were all subjected to the same behaviour and that no one knew before that this could even happen to someone i.e. that a relationship can be so unhealthy and soul destroying. I realised that others simply needed to know more about this unacceptable behaviour; they needed to see the warning signs before the relationship goes further or the behaviour gets even more serious. On the other hand I needed others to see the behaviour for what it is. If people are in a relationship and the behaviour within it is not acceptable and is not their fault, it can’t simply be changed by changing yourself.

I knew I had a story to tell and with my previous unfinished written work I realised my first novel had to be more than a book but that all important message – a way for others to be able to pass a book on to help victims and to get the penny to drop and bring about realisation of what is happening sooner. This means that when the relationship ends victims and survivors realise they are not the only ones out there and its ok to talk about the abuse. But also uniquely in an ‘entertaining’ way and using a form of media and the work of fiction to bring it to light.

It didn’t take long to get going as I had written a lot of notes about my own feelings as a way of releasing my emotions, I found the process therapeutic and as I started the journey I also brought my friends and family and followers on it with me. I set up social media FB page and Twitter feed early on to start sharing thoughts, updates, quotes, memes and links relating to writing, the progress of my journey and domestic abuse. It certainly made an impact and unfortunately a lot of messages from fellow victims and survivors of their own struggles and the feeling of not being able to talk about it until seeing my posts and messaging me.

The novel was funded by a Kickstarter campaign which received 110% from those who followed my journey of this idea over a period of 12-18 months.

Isolation Junction was released to the world in October 2016 (domestic abuse awareness month). My book follows the story of Rose who is stuck in an abusive and coercive relationship referred to as Isolation Junction. After years of emotional abuse, the self doubt about her future and the erosion of her confidence, Rose takes a stand. Finding herself alone, penniless and frightened Rose wonders how she will ever escape from the situation to provide a better life for herself and her children. With 100 reasons to leave and 1000 reasons why she perceives she can’t – will she have the courage to do it? And will she find the support to regain control and confidence?

The novel has received a fantastic amount of local press coverage and those who have read it have expressed their feelings towards the taboo subject and the novel:
“Jennifer Gilmour has taken a taboo subject and turned it into a book of hope … she has shown we do not have to be victims of domestic abuse …. but survivors”
“Isolation Junction shows that there can be life after abuse, that a woman finding herself in a similar situation deserves to be valued.”
”This book I was not able to put down”
“A hugely important book!”
“A very gripping and interesting read”
“Thank you Jennifer for highlighting this issue and hopefully inspiring women to break free from emotional abuse”
“A fictional account of an everyday, unacceptable issue”

What’s your message? Whats your why? What makes your work a value to the reader?

I look forward to hearing your responses.

I am also working on another project that involves other survivors and victims of domestic abuse, if you feel able to talk about an experience involving domestic abuse then please get in touch with me jljarratt@hotmail.com

 

This post is brought to you by Jennifer Gilmour.

What I know now…

I had my first book published in 2013, and since then a further five books have made it into the world with my name on the cover. Despite this I still feel like a ‘new’ author – though looking back at what I thought then, and what I know now, I have learnt a few things.

What I thought before I was published – and what I know now.

1) Published authors make a living from their writing

There are many who do, but there are so many more who don’t. So many authors who write books in between their day jobs. The image I had of writing books by my poolside has been sadly shattered. Jackie Collins managed it. Kathryn Freeman sits in her study and squeezes her romance writing in between her medical writing. At least I have Jenson Button for company. [insert photo]

2) Writing is a solitary existence

It’s true the only way to get words onto paper is to ignore everyone and everything around you for a while and just write. For those who miss face to face interactions though, there are plenty of conferences and local writer group meetings that provide opportunities to chat with other writers. People who understand when you mention sagging middles (of the book variety) and head bopping points of view. Then there are the virtual interactions on social media. Comment on a blog, reply to a tweet – the writing community (authors, bloggers, readers) is hugely supportive. You don’t have to do it alone.

IMG_1329

3) Editing is about correcting plot inconsistencies, spelling and grammar

Editing does feature all of those – but by heck it’s about a whole lot more. My editorial reports are often split into sections: plot, characters, pace, romance, timing and style. All of these are looked at in the first edits – well before the spelling and grammar. I’ve had to add chapters, delete thousands of words, combine two characters into one, soften my heroine. All far more complex – and challenging – edits than my naïve unpublished self had thought. Then again, my unpublished self believed the book I’d written and submitted was as good as it could be. I had no idea what a huge difference an editor can make.

4) I’ll run out of plot ideas

I’ve found that having the ideas isn’t the problem – it’s knowing which of them to run with that’s the hard part. As is keeping focus on the book you’re writing, while in your head you’ve just had the most brilliant idea for another book…

5) Writing is easy

Yes, that was the most stupid of them all. When I started out, I was writing around 4,000 words a day. I thought it was a doddle. Funnily enough, that first book never did get published. I’ve recently revisited it, and was horrified by how terrible it was. In hindsight, writing it again would be have quicker. So writing is easy – it’s writing something that people will want to read that’s bloody difficult.

 

This post is brought to you by Kathryn Freeman.

How many drafts before I can call myself a writer? #amwriting

Writing a novel is easy. You just need a bit of time, a good idea and considerable curiosity. Re-writing a novel, now that’s the hard part. And it’s where I am right now, working on the second draft of a new novel. By ‘working on’, I mean agonising over each and every one of 80,000 words, wondering why I ever thought this was a good story to tell, or why I thought that these characters could carry it.

I started writing fiction because I wanted to write freely, and at length. My professional life has always contained a huge amount of writing, and people have always very kindly said that I do it well. But I had always written for someone else – an organisation, a manager, a publication – and to a brief defined for me, not by me.

Writing fiction provides the space in which to write without constraint, to think about the audience only once the first draft is nailed onto the page; only then do I have to think as if someone else is in the room, trimming the long florid passages about food and landscape to serve the needs of plot and character: my study floor is littered with the remains of darlings that have been killed.

Well that’s the idea, anyhow. It is perhaps the most cited piece of writing advice of the last hundred years: kill your darlings. But its glibness belies its brutality in action. A phrase, an image, a scene of which you are immensely proud does not advance the pipeline of narrative or character: no matter how fondly it is held, it must be put to the sword. You can kid yourself that you’ll store it away for future use, but unless your filing system allows for remarkable cross-referencing, it will in fact go the way of countless beloved words from my current manuscript: forgotten and lost forever.

I work according to three maxims: writing is laying pipe; don’t get it right, get it written; and be ruthless in the rewriting. The first two are easier to pull off than the last, and that is why the process of turning a first draft into a second is so much less joyful than the initial outpouring. In part, this is because it is the first time that the ‘Reader’ has been in the room, judging my attempts to make a world. But there is something more: I am in no way as heartless in the face of a well-turned phrase as I like to pretend.

I love words: it’s why I do what I do. I can play with their concatenation for hours, turning over their sound and savour like wine in my mouth. One of the characters in my second book, The Cursing Stone, is largely as he is because I wanted to use the word muculent. And when I stumble on a beautiful combination of them, I am a little too pleased with myself to let them slip away unused. I have to work hard to resist the temptation to break the pipework of my plot to jemmy in a beloved, fleeting phrase.

I have been here twice before. Perhaps this stage of the process is why I still find it hard to describe myself as a writer. This is where the work lies, beyond the fun, and I’m still not very good at it. To pronounce myself a Writer seems too much of a claim. I doubt dentists have the same engulfing sense of charlatanism when asked at parties what do they do for a living; I doubt they mumble something about teeth and pain while staring at their shoes.

But this will pass. I will eventually pull these 80,000 words into something that is fit to be seen by other eyes and then I will share them with the lovely people who tell me what works and what doesn’t, and then I’ll agonise again for a while, but for less time and in less agony. And maybe, maybe, these words will become a book that will stumble into the light and I will feel able to say, without embarrassment, that I write.

 

This post is brought to you by Adrian Harvey.

Just write…

Writing a novel can be a daunting experience, which is why a large number of people’s debut novels did not originally start out as novels. They started out as ideas for a story that needed to be told. But writing can itself be therapeutic. It can help the writer deal with anger, aggression, guilt, and pain, among other things. And that is why writing ANYTHING is A Good Thing.

While on my second maternity leave, my husband snapped, and sat me down for ‘a talk’.

“Enough of looking after everyone else but yourself. Do something for you,” he said.

And so I took him at his word. It started with (excuse the pun) baby steps, enrolling on an online fiction-writing course, which kickstarted the long-buried urge to write. I rediscovered my love for words, for structure, for playing with perspective. And, somewhere along the line, I realized that my few thousand word story was just the beginning.

I sat and plotted. I knew what I wanted to do (interpret the same events differently depending on protagonist), so I sketched out events that would bring my characters to the boil (excuse the mixing of metaphors). I dreamed up situations and wrote them down from various angles, blurring the narratives or pulling them apart as I saw fit. Real life seemed very distant as I wrote.

But real life did creep into my narrative. Not my life which, at the time of writing, was caked in baby slobber and toddler snot, but the life I wished I could relive: the carefree years of youth. And so the choice of setting my book at university became the obvious one for yet another reason.

It was difficult to write. My brain, addled as it was by trying to juggle multiple roles with lack of sleep, was struggling to cope with four distinct voices. Spreadsheets littered my writing space, noting everything from each character’s preferred phrases to their timetables and interests. I had lists of major events at the time the book is set (early noughties), major sporting matches and games, and even hit songs.

It was this last list that I compiled into a playlist that lifted me out of my muddy-brained zombie routine back into some semblance of humanity. Music returned to a dwelling that had, for what seemed like years, been dominated by screaming babies.

At the same time, the writing took on a life of its own, waking me up instead of my children in the middle of the night with a flash of an idea or a thought that I knew I had to write down or forget forever, or pushing me through the exhaustion barrier back to sanity.

And then, suddenly, it was done – a finished manuscript of Lost in Static, just as maternity leave came to an end. And the best part? That was only the beginning…

 

This post is brought to you by Christina Philippou.

 

Interview with The Sender

My novel, The Sender, follows the journey of a mysterious and inspiring unsigned card, interconnecting the lives of four women from different backgrounds and cities who are all facing unique adversities. The card instructs each woman to hold it in their possession for six months before choosing another woman in need to send it to, and invites them to meet in Edinburgh two years from the date of its inception.

The card seems to hold an extraordinary quality that helps the women face their challenges head-on, though none of them can imagine who the anonymous sender is or why they were the chosen ones.

This interview is with the instigator – The Sender.

 

Toni: First of all, it’s a pleasure to meet you and I’d like to say I wish there were more people like you in the world. What was the reason behind your decision to send the card?

The Sender: I watched my friend going through a terrible time in her life and I felt helpless. She was devastated by what was happening to her and I knew she felt scared and vulnerable. I just wanted her to know she was strong enough to get through it and that she had someone looking over her.

Toni: Why did you decide the card should be anonymous?

The Sender: I thought it would be more meaningful that way. I think there’s something special about receiving a gift from someone who doesn’t want to be thanked for it. It has an air of mystery about it and that means the thought lingers longer.

Toni: Did you have the idea of ‘paying it forward’ in mind when you decided to send the card? Is that why it was to be sent on again and again?

The Sender: That’s right. Not only would those receiving it experience the feeling of being in someone’s thoughts, they would also get to pass that gift on to someone else. That’s a win-win situation and I hoped the message would spread.

Toni: Was there any significance in having four women meet two years after the card was first sent?

The Sender: Firstly, the card has a four leaf clover inside and each woman is asked to take a leaf from the clover before they send it on. It was symbolic of the good fortune I hoped they’d be experiencing since receiving the card. And secondly, I thought that having the card for a six month period might be long enough to help their healing process take hold. I then wanted them to meet to celebrate the good deed they’d done for each other and to let them share their stories. That worked out to be a two year timeframe.

Toni: Why did you instruct them to choose another woman to send it to and not include men? Surely anyone would be touched to receive this card?

The Sender: I did ponder that one for a while. I settled on women because I wasn’t sure the card would necessarily be sent on as I intended. I thought it was more likely that women would do it. Next time I’ll include men. It would be interesting to see if that works.

Toni: Does that mean you intend to do this again?

The Sender: That’s the plan. I think small acts of kindness can have disproportionately large effects on people and the more of that we have in the world, the better.

Toni: Thanks for your time. It’s been great to chat with you.

The Sender: My pleasure. I’m only too happy to spread this message.

 

This post is brought to you by Toni Jenkins.

Autism Awareness and the Power of Stories

I’m passionate about the power of stories to transform attitudes. That’s why they’re used by politicians, religious leaders and advertising moguls when trying to influence our choices. But a good book goes much deeper than this. It allows us to immerse ourselves in another person’s reality, inhabiting their mind and their world for a few treasured hours with no intermediary but a piece of paper.

Novels stimulate our imaginations. They show us the lives of others and enable us to enter into the sufferings and joys of a stranger. Whether you are a writer or a reader, fiction offers the possibility of going inside the Other to experience vicariously a little of the strange and wonderful and terrible thing it is to be human. That’s the power of story.

27 March – 2 April 2017 is World Autism Awareness Week. According to the National Autistic Society, there are more than 700,000 people in the UK on the autistic spectrum. People don’t grow out of autism. Autistic children become autistic adults. At one end of the spectrum, there are those with severe learning and communication difficulties. At the other end, people with Asperger’s Syndrome suffer from high anxiety and sensory overload triggered by social situations.

It’s encouraging that autism is more widely understood than it used to be. One sign of this is that writers and programme makers are recognising the unique outlook and experiences of autistic people and think these are worth portraying and celebrating.

A few examples:

  • The A Word, a family drama with autism at its heart, was aired on the BBC last year.
  • The Undateables on Channel 4 often features singletons with Asperger’s or autism.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock highlights the autistic traits of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s detective, and then there’s Saga Noren, the autistic detective from The Bridge.
  • Something of a literary sub-genre is developing, instigated in the public’s mind by the excellent Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon.
  • The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, depicts the experiences of a 13 year old autistic boy from Japan. The book includes an introduction by the novelist David Mitchell who has an autistic son himself.
  • Romantic comedies such as The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion introduce a man with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome into the world of commercial fiction.
  • My personal favourite at the moment is Schtum by Jem Lester. It’s the heart-breaking account of the struggles of a father and grandfather to obtain the right school placement for ten-year-old, non-verbal, Jonah.

These stories depict in varying ways the lives of autistic people, giving a voice to those who find communication with others fraught with pitfalls and failures.

And that’s why I wrote my debut novel, The Girl at the End of the Road. I wanted to give a voice to those who find it difficult to tell share their experiences. Ironically I prefer to hear disabled voices directly, rather than having others speak for them, so it was with some trepidation that I introduced a woman with Asperger’s into my novel. My only justification is that most of the stories portraying autism depict men on the spectrum rather than women. Thus in literature, as in life, autistic women are doubly overlooked.

Autism is a hidden disability. You can’t tell by looking at someone whether or not they are autistic. This in itself can fuel misunderstanding and a lack of compassion. Far more boys than girls are diagnosed, possibly because girls are better at masking their difficulties. They also present differently from boys, and professionals don’t always adjust their diagnostic criteria accordingly. As a result autistic women and girls have a higher mountain to climb to receive a correct diagnosis and support, and often end up with mental health issues as well.

So, how might a woman make the most of her life while living with Asperger’s?

Reluctant to narrate the story as if I were an autist myself, the novel unfolds through the eyes of high-flying financier, Vincent Stevens. He has lost everything in the economic crash – smart London flat, trophy girlfriend and champagne lifestyle. Humiliated and depressed, he returns to the backwater Suffolk village of his birth to live with his parents. He wants his old life back at any cost, but when he meets Sarah, an enigmatic girl from his past, everything he believes and values is thrown into question.

I’ve worked with autistic teenagers and have had direct experience of the condition with a family member. I know it’s easier to remain fixed within one’s own limitations and expect the autist to change their behaviour rather than to enter into their world and change yourself as a result. But autistic people can’t enter the neurotypical world without help, and to help them we have to connect on their terms. It’s another step of imagination. It’s no accident that parents and professional use social stories to help teach autistic children the social skills they need to survive the neurotypical world.

Autism is a horrible disability, but autistic people themselves shouldn’t be demonised or viewed in a negative light. Each one should be recognised as an individual, not lumped together as a collection of deficits. Without their unique take on life, their creativity, personal integrity, focus and intellectual abilities, our world would be a poorer place. Although evidence is inconclusive, certain character traits suggest that Amadeus Mozart, Sir Isaac Newton, Michelangelo, Charles Darwin, Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein and Andy Warhol might have been on the spectrum.

‘Autism’ literally means ‘selfism’. We live in a culture that values success, appearance, achievements and possessions above all things, a world where the drive for personal fulfilment and individual self-expression can sometimes end up imprisoning us in a self-centred community of one. Let’s not judge those who are socially isolated through no fault of their own. It’s only by opening our minds and our hearts, making ourselves vulnerable to each another and using our imaginations, that we can truly grow in our relationships and develop truly inclusive communities.

 

This post is brought to you by K A Hitchins.