Contemporary Women Writers – Oxford Alumni Weekend 2009

In this, the third and final post to feature an event at the Oxford Alumni Weekend, I would like to share with you the notes I made at the Contemporary Women Writers session with Joanna Trollope, Francesca Kay and Clare Morgan.

Q: Do you show early drafts of your work to other people?

JT: I’m no good at sharing work in progress with anyone. My editor will see the 4th or 5th version. Usually my editor, sometimes one of my daughters, will see the novel first.

FK: The very first person that read my work was my daughter because she typed it for me. You’ve just got to grit your teeth and your nerve and get through the writing process by yourself. It’s not a community activity.

CM: Some people benefit hugely at certain stages of their writing career by sharing their work with other people. I tend to get it right to a certain extent before I want to show it to other people. I show it to someone close to me so that I don’t make a complete fool of myself.

Q: What is the role of an editor?

JT: The role of an editor is absolutely enormous. I learned a great deal from my first editor 35 years ago about presenting characters, varying tension and the presentation of dialogue. I don’t think there is a single writer on this earth whose work would not improve by editing.

FK: My agent put in commas and removed words and I knew he was right. This paring down by someone you trust is a creative process, not a destructive one.

CM: Acute editing is a) marvellous and a relatively rare skill; b) to be valued by any writer.

Q: What would you say to someone at the start of their writing career who wants to get published?

FK: It’s a gruelling process. One needs a huge amount of luck. Publishers can’t read everything or give everything the attention it deserves. My only advice would be keep trying if you’ve got the confidence to do it and you can bear to do it.

JT: When you want to be published very much, don’t despise any form of being published. Whether it’s a piece in a church newsletter or in a magazine, every bit of writing contributes to your accomplishment as an author. Never despise the details.

Q: Would you be happy if you were not published?

FK: Writing is an act of communication. It gave me a great deal of satisfaction to be published. It meant I was communicating what I wanted to say to somebody. Not being published would be like singing into an empty room: you’ve not got the purpose an audience would give you.

JT: If I knew I was writing into a void I’m not sure I could do it. I see the reader as an integral part of what I am writing. Without you, what is the point?

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

JT: Always have a notebook with you. Listen to people on buses and in the checkout queue. Fill that notebook with photos and lines of poetry. You are making a patchwork which is training that acute observation of human relationships.

FK: Practice and practice and practice. Writing is, after all, a craft. Even if that writing is the most perfectly crafted shopping list or e-mail, keep those writing tools sharp.

CM: You need the ability to listen to the voice in your head, the intonation and rhythm and pacing of that inner voice that speaks the words of what you are writing to you. Often the authentic voice can be quashed by notions of what’s fashionable or, worse, literary. Try and find that true voice.

Joanna Trollope is the author of fourteen contemporary novels and has also written several historical novels under the pseudonym Caroline Harvey. Her most recent novel, Friday Nights, explores the nature of female friendships.

Francesca Kay’s debut novel, An Equal Stillness, is written in the style of a biography of a fictional artist, Jennet Mallow.

Clare Morgan is director of the Master of Studies in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford.


Val McDermid – Oxford Alumni Weekend 2009

I’ve just returned from the most fantastic weekend in Oxford where I attended talks, readings and discussion panels with writers as part of the university’s Alumni Weekend. The next three posts will focus on highlights from the event. First up, here’s what Val McDermid had to say on crime fiction:

“The crime novel relies on the suspension of disbelief. One of the ways we do this is with a vivid sense of place. If the reader recognises streets and buildings they are more likely to believe other stuff that the author says.”

“I am a great believer that if you have three facts in your possession you can plot for half an hour on any subject.”

“When I started writing, I didn’t know a lot about police procedure. I didn’t realise at that point how much was just makey-uppy.”

Ideas generally start as something small. They’re tangents; something where I think ‘I didn’t know that. That’s really interesting!’”

“With the first couple of books it’s about developing a writing process that works for you. I used to work out the story, write it out on filing cards – I had different coloured filing cards for different plot strands – and jiggle them around till it made narrative sense. That worked really well for me for about 15 books, then it stopped working. Now I write the first 60 pages, put the book to one side to let it percolate, then I take six to eight weeks to finish the first draft.”

“I think writers have always taken revenge on people that have annoyed us over the years. You draw on your whole database of human experience when you draw your characters. Readers never recognise themselves in the unpleasant characters!”

Val McDermid’s most recent novel, Fever of the Bone, is available to buy from Amazon.

Ian Rankin and Neil Gaiman – Edinburgh Book Festival 2009

Last week I went to see Ian Rankin and Neil Gaiman in the Edinburgh Book Festival, where they discussed the differences between writing prose and graphic novels. The event coincided with the launch of Ian Rankin’s first graphic novel, Dark Entries. I’ve been considering taking a course in shorthand for a while now but what really convinced me to go for it was trying to make notes while Ian Rankin was talking. He speaks very, very quickly. I can’t promise that the notes below are exactly word for word, but they are a pretty close approximation of what was said during the session.

Q: What are the differences between writing prose and writing graphic novels?

IR: They are hugely different. I found the collaborating thing hard [when writing Dark Entries]. I’m used to playing god in my novels, working alone with my computer. After so many years of being a consumer, reading graphic novels and thinking, “Oh, that’s easy,” it turns out it’s not.

NG: Prose is a machine: I give people a code, they compile it into a program. In comics you are writing a script for an artist.

Q: What are the advantages of graphic novels?

IR: Freedom. Scenes can show weird things happening in people’s heads, you can see fantasy lives being acted out. Those are things that you can’t do in these supposed realistic Edinburgh novels.

NG: When you see something in a picture you believe it. I used to read American comics as a child and I believed that superheroes really existed in America. Fire hydrants, skyscrapers and superheroes were all on the same plane of reality for me.

IR: The thing that I find really interesting in writing graphic novels is moving to a different time, place and perspective with every couple of inches. You’re writing and directing a mini-movie with almost every scene.

NG: When I write prose the thing I miss the most is the silent panel. (A) it gives you a beat and a rhythm and (B) it forces the reader to think about what’s going on in the characters’ heads. In a graphic novel you can have a panel where a character says something, then in the following panel he thinks about it. You can’t do that in a novel. By the very act of writing “he thinks about it,” you have spoiled the silent moment.

Q: What are the advantages of prose?

NG: Prose has a totally different set of strengths and weaknesses. In Anansi Boys one of the things I took great pleasure in was challenging the race assumptions people make. Characters are default white unless you say otherwise. In Anansi Boys I only assigned race to white people. It made the readers stop and think. People have to reassess what they thought. You can’t do that in a comic book because you can see everybody.

IR: Yes, in prose you can pull the rug out from under someone. In a picture there’s no rug to be pulled away.

Q: What do you think of your cult status as writers of graphic novels?

NG: Fans care deeply about what we do. We like that. I honestly liked it when I was even more of a cult figure and had a smaller fan base because I really enjoyed when only a few people recognised me. Now people have heard of me even if they haven’t read me and they think they know what I do and they don’t. I preferred it when I was a little more of a secret.

Q: What do you think of the idea that genre writing is regarded as less mainstream and less valid?

NG: I’m always more comfortable in the gutter. I liked it better when comics were comics and they weren’t graphic novels. And I liked it better when adults didn’t go into bookshops to buy Diana Wynne Jones books, when you had to creep into the back of Waterstone’s to find fantasy novels and further back to find crime – where all the Western novels used to be. We [writers of graphic novels] have more influence now that we are in the strange magical world where we are in the mainstream. It’s actually more fun being under the radar.

IR: I’m slightly at odds with that because my teenage son has been introduced to literature through comic books. I bought him Manga Shakespeare and now he wants to see Shakespeare in the theatre. Graphic novels keep your fantasy life active through your teenage years when the whole world is trying to knock it out of you.

Q: What about graphic novels on the web?

NG: The most fascinating think about the web is that it has completely removed the gatekeeper. Before you would have to find a publisher or an editor – a gatekeeper – who would say, yes, this is fit to be published. The glory of the web is that there are no gatekeepers. You are playing on the same field as the Guardian or the New Yorker.  The downside is the half a billion other people out there with no gatekeepers. There are web comics that I find and wind up following. There are wonderful things out there.

Q: Have you ever considered doing your own art work for your graphic novels?

NG: I once tried drawing my own comic in 24 hours. I wound up with an amazing respect for artists. They have to figure out how alligator’s teeth work and stuff. It’s incredibly time consuming and there are people out there who are so much better at drawing than I am. One of the reasons I keep coming back to graphic novels is the artists, because they are completely different. I love that I have all these people that will bring things to what I’m doing and inspire me to up my game.