An Interview with Cynan Jones

Catherine Day, catherineeday Dublin, Ireland, author, novelist, writer

Aspiring novelists are often told that every word in a novel must do a job. That’s great advice, but what does that kind of precision actually look like? Answer: it looks like any novel written by Cynan Jones. Jones writes the most evocative prose, without wasting a single word. His writing is so precise that fellow author, Jon Gower, described him as writing ‘with a scalpel, rather than a pen’.

Aspiring novelists are also told not to write reams of static description. This is a faux-pas that even established novelists struggle to avoid, but Jones skillfully and seamlessly interweaves descriptive language into the narrative. It is never cut adrift from the story itself. Something that is very difficult to achieve.

I recommend that aspiring authors read, at a very minimum, one of his novels. Not only will you enjoy it, but you might learn something about the two elements of the craft that I refer to above. Things that I’m very much still working on.

I met Cynan Jones at the West Cork Literary Festival (link to blog post on the festival). I very cheekily asked him for an interview and I’m very grateful to him for agreeing to it, and offering his insights and advice as a successful author for the benefit of my readers.

Your writing is vivid and evocative, but there is no superfluity in it. It’s clear that you are very efficient in how you approach the editing process. Most aspiring authors find editing be the most bewildering and daunting aspect of the process.

(a) How do you approach it? Mercilessly. You can’t fall for your own prose. You can’t let poetry seduce you. Are the words earning their place? If they’re not, what is their function? That’s how I approach editing.

(b) How do you know when to stop cutting words? Instinct. I put things under such pressure. Actually, I’ve found myself in situations when I’m cutting words for the sake of it, just to prove the words aren’t in control. So… the only thing you have is the instinct that put them there in the first place, and the intuition to keep them if they were the right ones.

(c) Do you have any editing tips for aspiring novelists? In most cases, the clearer you are about what you want to say, the fewer words you’ll need. If you’ve gotten wordy somewhere, it’s usually because you’re not clear yourself on the story. You need to spot that before someone else does.

You now have five novels under your belt. Is this pared-back style of writing now instinctive, or do you still have to edit heavily?

It’s different with every book. With every story, even. But in general, less unnecessary stuff hits the page now. The technical side of things is more competent, so I’m more free to concentrate on the effect beyond that – much like a sportsman gets to a point where they’re thinking about what to do with the ball, rather than ‘how’ to hit it.

In Cove, the protagonist suffers from amnesia after being struck by lightning whilst at sea in a kayak. He has a shard of a memory of his past. A wren’s feather is the anchor for that memory. Through this simple object, you manage to create a delicate poignancy without sentimentality. You ‘see’ your stories before you write them, but as emotion cannot be seen, how do you manage to ‘visualise’ emotion and what process do you go through to express it through the setting and the objects that surround your characters?

The things we see trigger emotions, so you show the reader something they react to, rather than try to deliver the emotion to them pre-packaged. You have to trust the reader to get it, and have the instinct and technique to write it right.

You are courageous enough to write the story that is meant to be written, and refuse to ‘write-by-numbers’. Many aspiring authors fear breaking with convention, despite the fact that their story may require it.

(a) How difficult did you find it to stay true to your story? — The key is to let the story speak louder than every other voice that wants to offer advice on it. The story knows itself better than anything else does, but you have to give it the time to be able to transmit that.

(b) What other risks have you taken with your writing that paid off? — At the risk of avoiding the question, there are so many. It was a risk from the start. I’ve ditched other opportunities to pursue it; I’ve stuck with what I believe I should be writing, not adjusted in order to be published; I’ve made massive calls with most of the books, on the grounds those books themselves demanded it. (See above note about the story knowing itself!) I cut 60,000 words from the precursor to The Dig, for example. In one stroke.

(c) What convinced you that the risks were worth taking in the first place? — The thrill of writing a strong story outweighs the risk of not being published. If ‘being published’ is your end game, you’ll always be compromised.

You set many of your novels beside the sea, or in Cove’s case, on the sea. Given that you live close to the sea, can you describe your own relationship with the ocean?

No different from my relationship with the solid ground around me. I’m a product of this place, and so are my stories. In essence, I populate the place around me, as I did as a kid. It’s make-believing.

 What I loved about Cove was the fact that the descriptive language used was woven carefully into the story itself, there was no static description. At the same time, in your interview with Cressida Leyshon for The New Yorker you stated that you wanted your readers to pick ‘their patch of ocean’. How do you balance a need to inform and guide the imagination of the reader with description, whilst also assisting the reader to maintain their autonomy over the picture painted in their head?

It’s just trust. As I mention above, regarding emotion. That sounds glib. But it’s trust in the reader.

Quick-fire Questions:

What is your favourite part of the writing process and why?

The spark of a story. That’s what makes you go to the desk, put the time into learning to write. To do justice to that. It’s the driver.

What one piece of advice that you would give to people that want to learn the craft of writing?

Read.

What do you think are the fundamental elements of a good story?

There’s no easy answer to that. A story has to have life. It can only be broken up into fundamental elements in the way a baby can be broken up into sets of arms and legs and so on.

What have you learned about yourself since you started writing novels?

I actually do like writing in the way I imagined I would if I made a fist of it.

Who is the writer you most admire?

Impossible. Gun to the head, one author. John Steinbeck.

What was favourite childhood book?

Childhood goes on for 16 years or so, and I read avidly for all of it. I guess the Narnia Chronicles were huge; Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Trilogy. But I also remember titles I could tell you only the broad strokes of: The Indian in the Cupboard. Young Legionary. The Sword in the Stone. Later on, Cussler, Conan Doyle, Alexander Cordell’s Rape of the Fair Country. The list is endless, and responsible for me writing in the first place.

If the writing ended tomorrow, and you could pick a dream job, what would it be?

If I don’t do the writing, it does end. Nothing is going to ‘stop it’ other than a collapse in the conviction it is my dream job.

You mentioned at the Cork Literary Festival that you like to paint. Who is your favourite artist?

Sounds like a cop out, but I just don’t do ‘favourites’. Sentimentally, I’ve had a print on the wall of John Singer Sargent’s The Black Brook since I was in Uni. That’s rich and evocative, fluid and detailed. I also have a lithograph by Viani. One simple, subtle line suggesting form. Two utterly different ends of the visual medium.

To read more about Cynan, visit his website here.

Best Writing Online Resources and Apps

Feeling uninspired when you want to get stuck into a new project is fairly fecken demoralising. Some people eschew writing prompts, but like everything, there are the good, the bad and the ugly.

There are many online/appy resources offering writing prompts, but my pet peeves are the auto-generated ones or the ones that consist of a single word. The entire point of a prompt is that it moves you in some way. A machine generating groups of unrelated words and spewing them out, or a person opening a dictionary, closing their eyes and picking a random word with their finger isn’t going to cut the mustard.

The best prompts are generated by human beings who have actually put some thought into the exercise. Human beings can find something intriguing in the composition of a sentence, or the appearance of an object, or a picture. AI is yet to develop that gift. And so auto-generated/ lazy-human generated prompts are going to be the less effective ones.

I know, I know, I know. Some nutters like silly prompts because they like to write for fun.  Not me. I like my writing like I like my coffee: potent, dark and utilitarian. No. I don’t want to write a story about a psychic ballerina whose arch-nemesis is a three-legged unicorn that works in Starbucks. No sirree. You might disagree with me on this, and if so you’re welcome to leave your comments below. Maybe you found a market for your romance novel about the lion-tamer that falls in love with the ghost of a near-sighted juggler until he receives a mysterious invitation to herd alpacas in Peru. I’d love to hear that silly prompts led to something good and publishable.

In terms of the benefits of using good prompts, when I first started writing this blog, I made it clear that I claim no expertise on anything but my own experiences. I find prompts great when I’m letting the novel rest and I want to work on other things. The idea of working on other things is great, but sometimes I can’t summon even the tiniest germ of an idea for a new project.

Thanks to the use of writing prompts I have the makings of five good short stories, two plays and a novel. I might go back to them after I’ve finished my novel, or I might not. ‘How can you afford to be so casual in your disposal of good ideas?’ you ask. Well, a happy side-effect of my success with writing prompts is that I’m confident that there’s no limit to the number of stories I can summon up from my imagination. If nothing comes naturally to me, I know that ideas can be lured out from their hidey-holes with the assistance of a writing prompt. There are loads of ideas knocking around up there, some of them are just a bit shyer than others.

Here are my favourite resources for fiction writing prompts. I’ve linked to them so that you can explore them at your leisure. As you’ve probably guessed the sites/ apps with silly/one-word prompts don’t feature.

Apps

There are about a thousand writing-prompt apps. Here are the best available on Android. Please recommend iPhone apps below:

  1. Writing Prompts Pro– I don’t usually promote apps that cost money, but this costs a bob. One piddling little bob. It’s worth it. It’s a good’un.
  2. Writing Prompts- Data Mixer
  3. Writing Prompts Short Stories- Invariant Labs

Twitter

#WritingPrompt is a hashtag that will lead you to many wonderful things on Twitter. The prompts are generated by multiple people, so the quality varies. If you scroll through you’ll find a prompt that sparks something. I guarantee it.

Writer’s Websites

Surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of great websites dedicated to prompts. Here are the best I’ve come across.

  1. Poets & Writers
  2. Think Written
  3. Creative Writing Prompts
  4. Gratis Graphy
  5. Think Written
  6. The Writer’s Digest

Tumblr

Tumblr has a load of really good member pages with great quality writing prompts. Check these out:

  1. Writer Prompts these are quite dark-leaning, which I like.
  2. I Dare You To Write
  3. Unblocking Writers Block
  4. The Writers Handbook
  5. Awesome Writing Prompts

Instagram

These are the best accounts I’ve found on Instagram:

  1. Writing Prompts
  2. Creative Prompt

Pinterest

Pinterest is awash with great visual and written prompts. These are just some of the good boards I found after a quick scan.

  1. Mandy Corine Writing Prompts 
  2. Fakerhead 47 Writing Prompts 
  3. PS Literary Writing Prompts
  4. Explore Daily Writing Prompts

Facebook

Most of the Facebook pages dedicated to prompts are, instead, a mix of inspirational quotes, memes, links to writing advice blog posts etc. I could only find one page dedicated solely to writing prompts, and it’s good: Writers Write

Google

Some interesting things pop up when you type ‘writing prompt’ into Google, and click on images.

Over to you: Do you use prompts? What are your favourite sources? Please leave links to any I’ve missed in the comments.

The Final Edit Fear

In Ireland, we have this thing called ‘The Fear’.

It’s not quite the same as the Hunter S Thomson ‘Fear’, but it’s similar. Drugs can be an aggravating factor in the Irish ‘Fear’. But mostly it is anxiety resulting from a night of drinking. Of course, it isn’t exclusive to Ireland. People experience it anywhere in the world that alcohol is consumed, except over here, we’ve given it a title.

The Fear tends to strike hardest on a Sunday afternoon, as the realisation dawns on you that you’re due in work the next day and will be required to do stuff. Stuff that requires actual thinking.

You lie in bed: mouth like the Sahara, head thumping, stomach lurching, sweat lepping from your pores. You attempt to piece your memories of the events of the previous night together. Try to fill in the gaps. The weight of a horrible, nameless shame bearing down upon you, cementing that awful certainty that you said or did or something terrible. Of course you did. And that many people witnessed your downfall. Most likely, they filmed it on their phones. Whatever you did, it’s definitely on YouTube. Probably going viral on Twitter right now.

Perhaps you split your skirt/trousers attempting an overambitious dance-move and had to slink off in shame, covering your arse with your handbag/jacket.

Perhaps you got over-amorous with a stranger in a public place.

Perhaps you said some shitty things to a person you care about.

Whatever it was, you know for a fact you went too far.

Way too far this time.

The Fear will convince you that you are a worthless human, you have a tendency to make terrible life choices, and it’s best that you remove yourself from normal society. That way you can’t do any more damage.

You only have three options:

  1. Fake your own death, move to Colombia and start a drug empire. You are such a complete degenerate, this should be no problem for you. Or,
  2. Find some spot in the wilderness and live on your wits and instincts, in total isolation. You’ve watched a couple of episodes of Bear Grylls: Born Survivor. You’ll be grand. Or,
  3. Find religion, join a religious order and live a cloistered life forevermore. Only Jesus can save you now.

I’m currently preparing a pros and cons list for each of the above options. The strange thing is, that The Fear that I’m feeling isn’t alcohol or drug induced. It’s writing-induced. Editing-induced, to be precise. I’m neck-deep in my final draft and I’m in a loop of negative thinking. I’ve missed two deadlines because I’m afraid of being finished.

I don’t think I’m alone in my thought processes. I’m sure you have felt the same way, or will at some point.

The fear that:

You’ve come too far to turn back.

You’ve invested too much time (ergo, money) in this novel.

You’ve TOLD people that you’re writing a book for fuck’s sake- and so you have to produce something. And you’re so close to the end. You can’t give up, walk away, can you?

But your book is terrible. Isn’t it? It’s awful! It should never see the light of day.

It is the worst book ever written in the history of books.

You should destroy it with fire immediately.

You begin to have nightmares that your book has been published and is being badly received.

You imagine that your readers’ reactions will range from: outrage that you could even consider publishing such a literary abomination, through to disgust, through to pity and amusement that you ever thought it might be a success.

These thoughts enter your head so you begin to shrink away from your book. You begin to fear it. It is like something that has crawled blackly from the deepest depths of your nightmares. Like that young-one in The Ring.

And it is part of you.

And that scares you the most.

That you will never be able to hide from it if you finish it. If you put it out there.

I read an excellent piece recently that said that it isn’t procrastination but perfectionism that is the writer’s biggest enemy. I’d love to link to it but I stupidly didn’t save it and I can’t find it anywhere. I think that this pretty much hits the nail on the head. Writers want to produce something beyond reproach. Something perfect. And the longer you delay, the longer you can put off the day you have to face the criticism, because there will be plenty.

I know that ‘perfect’ is an impossible standard to meet, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to get close. How can I know when my novel is as close to perfect as I can get it?

How will I get over this massive speedbump in my path?

I don’t know yet, but I’ll let you know as soon as I do.

Over to you: how do you deal with a sense of fear/paralysis when you are coming close to the end of your novel? How do you ready yourself for the criticism of others?

The Best YouTube Channels for Learning the Craft of Novel Writing

What do you do when you want to keep learning, but you’re totally done with reading about the craft of writing?

When the thoughts of reading even ONE MORE WORD makes you want to build a pyre of ‘how-to-write-a-novel’ books and watch them burn them while laughing maniacally.

How can you possibly learn anything, if your books are in flames and you’re refusing to read? Well, I have the answer right here, my friend. Burn your books safe in the knowledge that there’s help out there in the form of a little thing they call YouTube.

Yes, YouTube has its dark side. Yes, there are pranksters on there that light their own farts and taser their grannies because ‘bants’ and ‘lols’, but recently, I discovered that good people also make YouTube videos. Heroes without capes, here to save your manuscript.

Another benefit of listening to these videos is that you feel that yes, ‘there’s someone ooouuuut there’. They’re right in front of you. On your screen. You can see them and hear them and let’s face it, misery loves company. It’s satisfying to know that other writers are out there slogging away and suffering along with you.

So, I’ve had a gander, and a listen, and I’ve found what I believe to be the best ones. I’ll also link to some great videos from those particular channels.

Sit back, relax, watch, listen and learn.

Don’t forget to learn.

TED Talks on Writing

I love TED Talks. I trust them, because TED always manage to get the most amazing speakers onto their stages. The speakers are always polished and engaging, funny and informative. And most importantly, they know their stuff. There are talks on writing and story on the Ted Talks channel. Here is a great one on storytelling. Not specifically writing, but then, who the hell is going to read a novel with no story in it?

Andrew Stanton walks his way around the elements of a good story. He should know a thing or two about story, seen as he wrote Wal-E. A story with no words. A STORY WITH NO WORDS, PEOPLE. He talks about the importance of ‘making promises’ to your reader at the start, making them ‘care’ about the story you are telling, the roots of drama and character motivation.

The Creative Penn

Author and entrepreneur, Joanna Penn, has a great website, and this is her YouTube channel. She shares her own learnings here as well as advice from other authors in the form of author interviews.  You can subscribe to her channel, so that you don’t miss any new videos as they are released.

This is a good example of what’s on offer on Penn’s channel. A brilliant interview with James Scott Bell on dialogue. Bell offers advice on how to write authentic dialogue, maintaining a distinctive voice for each individual character, how to get information in through dialogue in a natural way, weaving subtext into dialogue.

Vivien Reis

Author, Vivien Reis, Reis produces short, engaging videos with great advice on how to improve and slim down your bloated writing, and how to shape its flabby ass up. This is a great video on identifying words to cut from your novel, and sharpening up your prose.

Katytastic

Kat O’Keeffe isn’t a published author (yet), but boy does this woman read. A lot! She focuses mainly on book reviews on her channel, but gives great writing advice in some of her older videos. Because the advice is old it can be hard to find on her channel, but it’s worth having a good rummage. The tips aren’t new, but they are communicated clearly, concisely and vividly. Not only did I enjoy watching the video, but I actually think the advice was communicated with so much energy that it might stick this time around. I highly recommend the video below.

Over to you: If you can suggest any other YouTube channels or specific videos that you feel help with the craft of writing, please suggest them/link in the comments below.

My Writing Soundtrack

I’m in the thick of final edits and I’m working to a deadline, so I don’t have time to write a long post this week. In the evenings, while I take a break from my novel, I’ve been curating my writing soundtrack on Spotify. I love listening to music when I drive, when I exercise, but particularly when I write. I find that being in close proximity to someone else’s creative output gets my creative juices flowing. Plus, it’s an elixir for the soul. And I need an elixir that doesn’t come in a glass now and again.

I like all kinds of music, so this playlist an eclectic mix from dark country to hip-hop to opera.  It’s comprised of music that makes me feel something, whether it be because the lyrics are inspirational/oddly beautiful/traditionally beautiful, and/or because the melodies/harmonies/beats are evocative/interesting/gorgeous. As I put them in, they’re naturally arranged in clumps in terms of genres, so I recommend you listen with ‘shuffle’ switched on.

I think I’ve managed to weed out the embarrassing stuff! If not, you’ll only have to tolerate it for a second as you skip through. Let me know for the craic if anything especially cringeworthy has slipped through the net. Click here to access my ‘Music to Write To’ Spotify Playlist.

I’m also in the process of putting together playlists for specific types of scenes. Those are a definite work in progress, except for the Suspense/Tension one, which is in pretty good shape. It’s made up primarily of pieces from some of my favourite movie scores. Click here to access my Suspense/Tension Playlist.

Over to you: Do you have a writing soundtrack? What are your favourite bands/ movie scores/ songs? What is the worst music to write to? What woefully poor music have I left on my writing soundtrack?

Literary Events: Dead in Dun Laoghaire

 

Paula Hawkins reading from her second novel, Into the Water

\Dead in Dun Laoghaire is a brand spanking new, one-day festival run by Penguin Randomhouse in partnership with The Irish Times. As you’ve probably guessed, the festival is held in Dun Laoghaire, which is a lively, seaside town. And in case you haven’t guessed, it’s a crime fiction festival. Nobody died at this event.

The festival took place in the lovely Pavillion Theatre and it was €40 for a full-day ticket. Dun Laoghaire is quite a drive from my house so I took advantage of the good value and attended all four events.

For a new festival they managed to assemble an incredibly impressive lineup of guests: Paula Hawkins, Kathy Reichs, John Banville, Stuart Neville, Liz Nugent and Karen Perry. All very commercially successful, as well as being extremely good at what they do, but then I suppose with backers as high-profile as they had, maybe it isn’t so surprising. The interviewers were all professional journalists, and so the questions asked were very interesting and incisive.

Overall the festival was very well-run. The venue is modern, clean and the auditorium is well-designed with great views of the stage. For two events I sat at the back and in the far corner, and at all times I could see and hear everything as though I was in the front. There were brilliant goodie-bags with BOOKS in them.

Goodie-bags with BOOKS!

The book-signings were well-organised and the staff were polite and helpful. The events started on time and were spaced nicely for breaks. I took advantage of the breaks to spend a fortune in the Dubrays’ bookstall outside the theatre. I can’t wait to get stuck into my purchases.

Paula Hawkins gave a fascinating and candid interview. She spoke about the ‘dreaded second novel’, and how difficult she found it in comparison to her first. She also spoke about how The Girl on the Train evolved from a different story and a character that kept hanging around in her head. Just to show that from small acorns big trees grow, and that if a character won’t quit, it’s usually for a reason.

I love hearing how writers start out their careers, it always reminds me that we come from all walks of life, all backgrounds, and for 90% of us, it wasn’t our first ‘proper job’. She started out as a journalist and was eventually commissioned to write a few romance novels under a pseudonym. These novels were fairly successful and sold well.  She spoke about how those novels began to slowly creep into thriller territory, and that each of them has ‘dark elements’ to them, which was an early indication of her true calling.

She is proud of those early novels, as she learned about the craft of novel writing through writing them. I found this a really interesting point, in that when we start out it is all trial and error as we find our voice, learn the craft, find out what works and what doesn’t. It is interesting that one of the most successful thriller writers of this decade started out writing romance.

John Banville and Stuart Neville spoke about their experiences of writing under pseudonyms. Neville, who writes under the pseudonym Haylen Beck, talked about how working-class children aren’t encouraged into the arts. I’d agree with him on that. He also spoke about his experience of writer’s block, and how the problem shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.

I was very interested to hear from Liz Nugent, having seen her MC at an event earlier in the year, where she spoke very little about herself. I’ve read Unravelling Oliver and really enjoyed it. It was nice to hear from a local writer, close enough to my age, and a woman. She has also broken America, which is very exciting, and she told us about the edits she had to make to make her novel understandable to the American audience.

Karen Perry and Liz Nugent

Karen Perry is actually a pseudonym. They are a team of two writers, Paul Perry, a poet, and Karen Gillece, an author, who write collaboratively. They detailed how they go about writing their novels together, and how they tackle the female and male characters separately. They each write a chapter of the book and pass it back to the other writer like a baton, so that they can progress the plot. I have to admit to having some envy at the way they work. It must be great to be constantly getting feedback on your work from someone you trust and who is as invested in the outcome as you are. I’ve just finished Girl Unknown, which had me on the edge of my seat, and I’m looking forward to reading their next novel.

Given that I’d bought the group ticket for the event, I stayed on for the final event, a chat with Kathy Reichs. I hadn’t read any of her work beforehand, but I knew she was very popular, so I thought I might learn something. The organisers gave us a free brandy cocktail before we went in. It blew the head off me, but it was exactly what I needed after a day’s active listening.

Popular is an understatement. Kathy Reichs spoke to a full house and it isn’t surprising. Wow, this woman is fascinating and very witty. I didn’t think I’d have the energy to be riveted so late in the evening, but she held my attention from the moment she opened her mouth. If you hadn’t guessed by my nickname, Cathy DayDream, my attention-span isn’t the best.

Reichs is a doctor in forensic anthropology, and explained exactly what that was and how she ended up writing fiction. While working in a university, a fellow professor confided that she was writing to supplement her income. Reichs decided to do the same. The rest, is history. She is now a prolific author of wildly successful crime fiction, and a screenwriter on Bones. This is on top of her work as a forensic anthropologist. She is a busy woman!

She spoke a lot about her work as an anthropologist, both as an academic, and someone whose expertise is called upon in practical ways. She is sometimes asked to assist in the identification of bodies, where alternative methods of identification won’t work. Everyone can draw inspiration from their workplace, no matter how mundane they might think it is. If you’re going to pick a job that gives you the material for novel-writing, I don’t think you can go far wrong with forensic anthropology, difficult as it would be to the majority of us.

She has co-authored young-adult novels with her son. Interestingly, her daughter is abandoning Law to become a writer- which makes me feel better about my decision! I bought Reich’s most recent book, and I’m really looking forward to reading it.

Overall, Dead in Dun Laoighre was a brilliant festival, and I’ll definitely be back next year.

Do you attend literary festivals? What is the best author interview you’ve seen? Whats the best tip you’ve cleaned from an author at a literary festivals? What is your favourite festival?

What can an Aspiring Novelist Learn From The Movies?

Do you ‘see’ your story before you write it? I know many writers do. For me writing a piece of fiction is like taking a movie that’s playing away in your head, and attempting to put it down in words. Trying to do so in a way that it can be understood and visualised by a reader.

Given that most novels/short stories start out as a movie in a writer’s head, I began to wonder if I could learn anything about writing a good novel from watching movies. I thought about the movies that I most enjoy, and I decided to watch them again, but actively, the way that I read now, and see what I could glean from them.  To try and uncover what made them so magical to me.

It sounds obvious, but actually a movie is probably the best way to study the craft of storytelling. The story structure jumps out at you much more clearly and cleanly than with a novel because you watch a movie in one sitting. On KM Weiland’s website Helping Writers Become Authors she includes a Story Structure Database . She is a novelist herself, and is an expert in story structure, but most of her focus in this database is on film. In this database you will find analyses of the structures of some of the most famous movies ever made. It is worth having a look before watching your next movie. You’ll start to see the structure emerge as you watch it.

On a micro-level I found that, you can a lot from movies about scene building, perspective and focus, point-of-view, shifting timelines, juxtaposition, pacing, settings, characterisation through clothing, gesture, communicating emotion through facial expressions, tone of voice, body-language and dialogue, creating suspense and tension, pacing, opening and closing a scene.

Here are the movies that I re-watched, and what I found to be the best lessons from each in terms of good storytelling:

1. The Talented Mr Ripley: The Flawed Protagonist and        Tension-Building

This is one of my favourite movies of all time, and I think it offers writers a lesson in subtle tension-building. The story starts out pleasantly enough and then slowly, slowly the tension begins to build. It simmers, and then it fizzes and then it crackles, and then explodes, before subsiding and slowly building again. In this movie, a look, a movement, a gesture can create ripples of unease.

In terms of points of view, it is very interesting. Ripley is the villain, but he is also the protagonist. It forces viewer into an awkward position. Though we feel a certain sympathy for Ripley, he also makes us feel uncomfortable. We dislike him, and yet we continue to root for him.  It goes to show, we will root for the protagonist no matter how flawed he is, as long as he inspires some sympathy and those around him are a little less likeable.

The scene below is just beautiful. It demonstrates how to make a villain sympathetic, and how beautiful dialogue can be.

2. Blue Valentine: Juxtaposition, Emotion and Characterisation

Love stories begin when the two people first meet. They chart their relationship as they start to develop feelings for one another. Then (oh no!) there’s an obstacle in the path of their love, and then (yes!) the obstacle is overcome and there’s some big romantic crescendo and they finally get it together. At the end it’s all ‘and they lived happily ever after’.

No normal relationship is ‘happily ever after’. Nope. ‘Happily most of the time after’ is the best you’re gonna get. Characters in romantic movies are pretty impulsive and liable to make very bad decisions, so let’s face it, happily ever after is most definitely not on the cards for these people.

This is the movie about what happens to those characters after the credits roll.

And it’s about the slow, painful demise of a romantic relationship and I love it. Like Dickens this movie uses juxtaposition very effectively. The best of times are powerfully juxtaposed with the worst of times. We witness the characters’ journey as a couple. Their naive hope at the beginning of their relationship and the moments building up to its heartbreaking conclusion.

In terms of characterisation, the two main characters are complex, and their emotions are incredibly raw. Their interactions with one another are worthy of study. Their body language, their facial expressions- how she folds into herself when he holds her. They say so much without saying a word. An important tool in the writer’s toolbox.

The clip below is an example of the use of juxtaposition in the telling of the story. The making of a promise alongside the breaking of it, tears of joy alongside tears of pain.

3. Pulp Fiction: Dialogue, Changing Points of View, Timelines, Characterisation

Pulp Fiction combines memorable dialogue, with bucket-loads of action, vibrating visuals and an unforgettable soundtrack. Subtle, it ain’t. It’s as subtle as a sledgehammer to the chops. Unlike Ripley or Blue Valentine, watching this movie won’t teach you anything about subtlety. What it can teach you is how to successfully tell a story using multiple points of view and shifting timelines. It can also teach you how to characterise using compelling dialogue, and through hairstyles, makeup and clothing.

So much is communicated in movies through facial expressions, body language or gestures, but in this film either the characters are speaking or they are doing pretty horrible things. The main characters have good poker-faces. Given that most of them are shady individuals, that makes a lot of sense. So we depend on dialogue and action to learn about the characters. Setting aside the action, Tarantino writes great dialogue. It’s witty and snappy and interesting and powerful and meandering and occasionally it appears superfluous, but it feels authentic. The authenticity of the dialogue lends credibility to the action going on around it.

I’ve linked to one of the most iconic scenes in movie history. Iconic for its use of powerful dialogue.

4. Boogie Nights: Dialogue, Story Structure and Character Arcs

I seem to have a dark penchant for stories where everything starts off nice and dandy, and everyone is loving life, and it’s all just grand and then everything goes to absolute shit. The Great Gatsby, The Talented Mr Ripley, Boogie Nights…it all goes to hell in a hand basket and I love it.

Boogie Nights focuses on the story of ‘Dirk Diggler’, but it also interweaves the narratives of porn director Jack Horner, and his other young proteges, as they seek to fulfil their various dreams. Dirk’s star in the industry quickly ascends due to his massive ‘talent’, and it is a happy time for him and the other characters. As Dirk becomes addicted to drugs and his star begins its steep descent, the rest of the characters go down with him (pun totally unintended).

After a number of harrowing scenes, where it is made clear that they will never be treated with respect by the hypocritical members of ‘normal society’ characters emerge battered, bruised, jaded. They are each forced to compromise as they come to the realisation that the most valuable thing that they have is their highly dysfunctional, porn ‘family’. In spite of the fact that it is a movie about the porn industry, there is a purity to the story that I find really endearing, because it is fundamentally a story about finding out where you belong, and the importance of family.

Of all of the movies I’ve picked, this one most clearly demonstrates the concept of  a story arc and character arcs. The director does a lot of fancy tricks with cinematography and the soundtrack is amazing, but the story structure is simple and powerful.

Another thing I love about this movie is the dialogue. The characters are mostly naive, delusional dreamers. Dirk in particular is hilarious, but with absolutely no sense of self-awareness and not a hint of irony. The result is equal parts funny and tragic. In the clip below Dirk and his best friend Reed, are trying to get out of porn by breaking into music business.

Over to you: Let me know in the comments below what movies inspire you to write? What movies do you think demonstrate best how to tell a good story?  What have you learned about good writing from watching movies? What is the best dialogue/your favourite scene from a movie?

Special Island Event, West Cork Literary Festival

Last week I started to get a longing to go to another literary festival. I don’t know where it came from. Actually, I lie. I do. I wanted to anything but edit my novel, but what better way distract myself? As I read through the the programme  for the West Cork Literary Festival I couldn’t believe my luck when I spotted A Special Island Event with Cynan Jones & Jon Gower to be held on Whiddy Island. These men tackle similar themes in their books that I do in mine. I felt it was an opportunity to learn from them and get a fresh perspective on my own novel.

I set aside my novel, told myself this was a ‘work trip’, booked accommodation and packed my bags.

Cynan Jones’s latest novel, Cove, is about a man who is struck by lightning whilst kayaking on the open the sea. Consequently, he loses his memory. It is a story of his struggle to remember and his struggle to survive.

The theme of memory is central to the novel. Memories lost, and memories found. It explores how memory shapes our present reality, how the past and the present relate to one another, how objects confirm and reaffirm the memories that we have and finally, how unreliable and fragile our memories are. The novel is beautifully written, and the prose tightly wrought and vivid. As you read you feel the overwhelming intensity of the man’s isolation and vulnerability. The image of the flimsy body of the kayak floating over the vast might and magnitude of the sea beneath him is a powerful one.

My novel deals with similar themes: isolation, memory and the fragility of the mind, but in a different way. Mine opens with young man washing up on the shore of the island, a stranger who has apparently lost his memory. Despite this. the main focus in terms of memories lost, is the slow erosion of memories, and our desperate efforts to anchor and preserve them: through passing them on to others, photographs or attaching memories to objects or places. The need to remember, so as to to prevent the second death of those loved ones that have passed.

An Island Called Smith is a book about an island off the American coast that is likely to disappear due to rising sea levels. The island (Smith Island) is an island with a unique history and culture and is an important habitat for birds and other wildlife. Smith island is in danger of sinking into the sea and being forgotten. Thankfully, that won’t happen because it is now immortalised in this book.

The book captures the colour and the heart and soul of the place. Jon does this through interviewing locals and through presenting the story through the filter of his own personal experience of the island.

We learn about the beginnings of this island community and how it has developed in its own unique way. What would be considered eccentricities have become part of the fabric of the island’s culture. Jon is careful to record facts and figures in his book, but they are not presented in a flat, static way. Anecdotes are woven through to add colour. Names of bird species are clustered together so that they read like poetry.

No two islands that I have visited over the past year have been the same, they really are unique, and that is why Jon’s work to preserve the memory of this place is so very important. We risk losing many more islands to the sea: breaking up tight-knit communities, destroying cultures and destroying habitats due to a lack of action on climate change.

Despite their differences, on all of the islands I’ve been to, the older people  share a fear of their community dying out and their culture and local history being forgotten. There is a natural desire in the older people there to prevent that.  A human need to be remembered. The excitement and opportunities offered by the mainland are luring young people away in their droves. Neither Smith Island, nor the island in my novel are any different.

Cynan and Jon read from their books. The parts they read out were gorgeous, but learning about the two men, how they write and how they came to writing, was just as interesting to me. Both men hail from Wales. They each spoke about their childhoods in Wales, discussed the influence that the musicality of the Welsh language has on their English prose and the place that the landscape of their native country has in their writing. They shared personal stories, which were in turns moving and funny, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to them.

After approaching them to sign books, I very cheekily, asked both men for an interview. Both agreed, so hopefully in the next few weeks I’ll have something up on my blog.

This was the only event I managed to get to at the West Cork Literary Festival this year, but it was well worth the trip. I’ll definitely be back in 2018. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to explore Whiddy Island before or after the event, but I did make a new friend. I named him Island Cat. Yes, he is a cat, and yes, I came up with the name all by my damn myself.

His body was sinewy, he had an angry little face on him and there were chunks taken out of both ears. He looked rough as a badger’s bum, but I was missing my own cat. I needed to get me some moggy love. But was petting him worth losing a finger? Island Cat looked like the kitty equivalent of Vinnie Jones. Despite fully expecting a clawing for my efforts, I tentatively petted him. To my surprise, I found that he was extremely friendly.

We managed to become temporary best buds as we basked in the sun outside The Bank House pub. He was a lovely little fella and I might even find a space for him in the final draft of my novel.

Lessons at the 12 Month Mark

Today, the 1st July 2017, is the one year mark since I went a bit mad, quit my nice, secure, well-paid job with paid holidays and a pension, and decided write a novel. It’s a good time to take stock and reflect on where I am, the big lessons I’ve learned, and where I want to go next.

Lesson 1: A year isn’t a long time when you’re writing a novel

I thought a year was loads of time. I thought I’d have a bit of spare time at the end to kick back and chill while waiting for the publishers to come-a-knocking. I’ve missed my twelve month deadline, but I’m not beating myself up about it. I’ve shifted it to my birthday, the 14th August, and on that date I am just stopping. Ready or not. I’m drawing a line and accept that ‘this is my novel’.

When I set my twelve month deadline I didn’t take into account the following:

  • Learning, learning and more learning
  • Trial and error
  • Reading, reading and more reading
  • Allowing the book to rest between edits
  • Cats demanding belly rubs
  • So much editing, oh sweet Jesus, the editing
  • Waiting
  • Life outside of writing
  • Instagram
  • Perfectionism
  • More editing
  • Cats lying on my keyboard
  • Avoiding
  • Twitter
  • Paralysing fear
  • Procrastination
  • Blogging
  • Amusing cat videos
  • Facebook
  • Did I mention editing?
  • YouTube
  • Cats

and FINALLY

  • That a year is a very short time to write a novel. Even seasoned novelists struggle with twelve month deadlines. Given that I had so much to learn, it was always going to be tight for me.

Lesson 2: Writing full-time is feckin’ lonely, man

Writing is lonely. There are aspects of office work that I definitely miss, and people are one of them. I’m not as much of an introverted misanthropist as I thought I was. I like humans. Most of them are grand. I miss my co-worker humans, not enough to leave writing behind, but just enough to make me think I need part-time work outside of writing, because I need people. No woman is an island.

Lesson 3: Writing is a craft, so I have to keep learning

I wrote about this in an earlier post, about the craft of writing. I thought that having a ‘big idea’ should be enough. What an arrogant prat I was. How naïve! Having said that, I don’t like the idea of writing-by-numbers. I definitely believe that rules are made to be tested and bent and broken, but that ultimately, you must know the rules you’re breaking. Rule-breaking must be conscious, so that you can weigh-up risk and benefit, so that you can go into it knowing that this is the right decision for YOUR book. I know now that nobody else can make that decision for you and you have to trust yourself. But that knowing the rules first is imperative.

Lesson 4. Writing is hard and letting go is the hardest part

I was lulled into a false sense of security when I started writing my novel. I remember the elation I felt when I finished my first draft. I thought

‘I have something great here. That’s the hard part over with. Time to do a little tidying up, and on to the next book!’

How wrong I was. I thought the rest of the writing process would be as easy, if not easier, than the first draft. It isn’t.

Writing is hard.

I’m on my final draft now, and this is the most difficult part of the writing process by far. It is when self-doubt begins to sneak in, when you begin to question every word you’ve written, when you find it hard to be objective about your work.

I’m going around in circles trying to decide what needs to be fixed, and how to go about it, and where to start. I’ve never been in such a death-spiral of confusion and indecision before and I’m not sure where it’s coming from. I had a think about it the other day, and I think it’s a mixture of two things, fear and perfectionism which is manifesting itself through procrastination. I’m a bit afraid of changing my novel and making it worse. I’m a bit afraid of not seeing its flaws, not changing it, and that it won’t be good. I’m a bit afraid of finishing up and letting go and putting my novel out there. And I’m definitely afraid of letting go if my novel isn’t absolutely perfect.

I know what I have to do. I have to fix plot-holes, rework the story, rewrite scenes, revise dialogue, do additional research blah, blah, blah. But I don’t know where to start. I’ve ignored all my own advice, and found myself in a rut.

I just need to remember to just approach everything in small chunks, and not become overwhelmed by the mammoth task ahead of me. I’m taking a mini-break from the novel to write a few other bits, and I hope that’ll press the ‘reset’ button, and get me over this massive hump.

Lesson 5: Walking is amazing for problem-solving and inspiration

Stephen King’s, On Writing was what got me started with walking every day. I have always been averse to moving my lower limbs, so I would never have tried it only for he suggested it and he gives pretty good advice. I now believe this is the best piece of advice he gives in his book. I wrote about this in an earlier blog-post, but walking takes your addled and foggy brain and gives it a good shake. All kinds of amazing things flutter down from secret compartments up there. Inspiration is found, problems solved, plot-holes filled, story structure repaired. Your brain just whirrs into life, like a machine, and starts spitting out all this good stuff. I can’t explain it. I just know it works.

Lesson 6: I love writing. I’m addicted to it. I can’t stop.

What is getting me through this final-draft process is that, at the finish line, there’s a shiny new novel waiting for me to start writing. The first draft process, which is just so pure and exciting and so much fun, will begin anew, because I love writing. I’m not stopping. I can’t stop. I have to write.

Lesson 7: I’m willing to have less money if I can keep writing

I have a lot less money this year, and yet I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’ve learned that I’m willing to be financially poorer in order to write. I don’t know if I can make a living, let alone a good living, as a writer. I’m aware that in most cases, writers can’t live on their writing income alone. Although I hope to be the exception, and that my writing will sustain me, I’m realistic about this.I know the in the near future I’ll have to return to office work as I look for a publisher or an agent. What I know for sure is that when I do, I’ll choose a job that won’t prevent me from writing: either because it leaves me with no time to write, or because it causes me so much stress that I find I can’t write.

Lesson 8: Writing can heal you

Writing reintroduced me to myself.  As a young child I loved my own company. I loved to write and read and paint and daydream. Time alone was really important to me. As I grew older I began to feel anxious in my own company. Being alone meant that I had to listen to my own thoughts. I had become prone to some dark moods, and I would go through phases where I couldn’t shut off the loops of negative thoughts. Other people were my panacea. They were a distraction.

I am now content to be alone again. I no longer have anything to fear from my own mind. Though I spend more time ‘in my head’, ironically, writing has forced me to reconnect with the world around me. I am seeking out sensation, beauty, emotion. Writing helps me to make sense of the world, put my thoughts in order and put life in perspective. Regardless of whether you’re planning on publishing your work or whether you’re just journaling for yourself, writing is cathartic, and healing.

Writing is a really good thing. So I write. And so should you.

Over to you: How long have you been writing your novel/ how long did it take you to write your first novel? What did you learn about yourself along the way? What are your plans for the future?

Mindfulness: Harvesting Stories and Descriptions from the Everyday

My teachers nicknamed me Cathy Daydream, because if I wasn’t looking around me, taking everything in, I was imagining what I was going to write or draw that day. I certainly wasn’t listening to the teacher, because I was excited about the world around me. I couldn’t wait to get all I had learned down on paper. I was like that for a long time, until I started working full-time and pretty much stopped writing.

I found that before I started writing again, my curiosity about the world around me had waned almost completely. I was walking around in a fog of indifference. If I was alone in a public place drinking a cup of coffee or waiting for someone, I was glued to my phone. My little barrier to human contact, safely ensconced in my bubble. I mean, if I were to look around what was there to see, only other people looking at their phones, in their own little phone-bubbles.

I had tunnel vision.

Something magical started to happen when I began my writing practice. My sense of curiosity reawakened within me, and I began to have more and more ‘lucid’ moments. I wasn’t mindful of being mindful when it first happened to me. The fuzziness of apathy simply dissipated and the clarity just came to me.

I found that there were two major benefits to mindfulness in  terms of my writing:

  1. Mindfulness for Inspiration

One day, I was at Victoria Street Station, after getting the Gatwick Express. I’d just left my job to write my novel and I was spending the weekend with my sister in London. I was hungry and trying to kill time, so I had lunch in Wetherspoons. As I tucked into my avocado salad (*to be read as hamburger and chips), I noticed this old West Indian man standing by the door. He was dressed in a fedora and an immaculately pressed grey suit. He stood with a large box in his hand, wrapped in bright pink paper. He stood there for a good ten minutes, and kept glancing at his watch. Shifting on his feet. I began to imagine the person he was waiting for and why, and I found that my mind was flooded with stories.

One was that he was widowed and lonely for a number of years and his granddaughter had shown great patience in showing him how to use the internet.  Unbeknownst to him, she created a profile for him on a dating website, and found him ‘the perfect date’. This was to be his first romantic encounter since his wife’s death. Would she arrive and bring him happiness, or would she stand him up and if so, what would the impact of that be? This man who was tentatively dipping his toe back in the waters of romance again? Was his story a happy one, or a sad one?

He will make his way into a short-story in time, I’m sure of it. But he and his story came from nowhere. A simple moment. A nothing moment.  It was only because I opened my eyes a little more, and looked closer. It was like my mind had been a faulty camera lens, and finally I was able to focus and zoom-in again.

2. Mindfulness for Writing Emotion and Creating Texture

As babies we look around and notice and appreciate the novelty of everything and everyone around us. We are curious, we seek out sensation, we immerse ourselves in our surroundings. We want to listen to, feel, taste, sniff and examine everything, whether it be a live plug socket, or the pretty looking tabs for the washing machine, babies want to get to know it. Get to understand it. Of course, this obsession with examining stuff has to subside, or we’d never get anything done, and I’d be busy gumming my Mac to see how it tastes, instead of writing on it.

By the time we reach adulthood, we know everything, don’t we? Why should we pay any heed to the ordinary, the everyday?

I’ve smelled freshly-cut grass a thousand times. So have you.

I’ve seen thousands of sunrises. So have you.

I’ve felt an insect crawl along my forearm. So have you.

I’ve heard birdsong. So have you.

I’ve tasted lemonade. So have you.

We don’t even notice how these things make us feel any more.

Speaking of feelings, they are banal too, aren’t they? I know what it feels like to be afraid, to cry, to feel elation. To see others experience those things.

So do you.

There’s no unchartered territory to be found. Nothing new to feel.

But there is. And especially with books. Because feeling, or seeing through reading has the potential to be new and fresh every time. In reading a novel, a reader is interpreting letters on a page and converting them into images, into feelings, experiences. Just by virtue of that process, even the ordinary is rendered extraordinary.

So the writer must become curious again. A writer can inject magic into anything just by virtue of the words they choose. That’s why it is important that we avoid cliched or ways of describing the everyday, because that blunts the impact of the reading experience in the same way that everyday life blunts our real-world experiences.

A writer must learn to see past the banality of the everyday, and find the magic in it. And to do that, they have to learn to care again. Mindfulness helps me to do this. I find that by focusing on what I’m experiencing, it not only feels new to me, I also uncover fresh descriptions that I can use in my work.

When I first started writing my novel I decided to go to the beach, because a number of scenes in my book take place near the sea. Like most people, I’ve been to the beach so often that I didn’t think I’d get anything out of my trip. But I saw it differently that day. I walked its length and breadth in a mindful way. Scanning the sand, the water, the rocks. I closed my eyes, so that I could focus on the sound of the gulls, or inhale the sea smell. I plunged my fingers into the damp sand, and searched for the words to describe it. The words trickled into my brain, because I cared enough to look properly.

Conclusion:

Maintaining mindfulness can be difficult. Life is full of distractions, but I’m grateful that it comes at all. I’m grateful that I’m aware of know how powerful it is in terms of improving my writing.

I’ve downloaded the Headspace app, which is an app which trains the brain in how to meditate and live more mindfully. I’m persevering with it and hoping that with practice I can make these moments of clarity last longer, and become more frequent. Already, I am seeing benefits.

I hope that in being ‘in the moment’ more often, I can harvest even more stories from the simple moments that would otherwise pass me by. I now know that if I just remember to look, there is magic everywhere, just waiting to be captured.

Over to you: Do you find yourself lacking in curiosity about the world around you? What simple moments inspire you? Do you practice mindfulness or do you meditate, and do you have any tips for a newbie?