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.


Three Oxford Poets – Oxford Alumni Weekend 2009

The second highlight of the Oxford Alumni Weekend was hearing three prominent poets read a selection of their work. After the readings, poets Bernard O’Donoghue, Jenny Joseph and John Fuller answered questions from the audience.

Q: Can you tell us something about the writing process?

JF: Sometimes a chance word in your notebook suddenly flowers and you’re off, and then there are those poems that you are bound to write. They’ve always got to be created from something somehow. You have to work on them and you can’t rely on flashes of inspiration.

JJ: I’m trying to avoid saying ‘bloody battle’! The Torrent took over two years to write. I had stacks and stacks of notes. At one point I was worried I wouldn’t be able to finish it. You’ve got to sit with the bits you’ve got and go on with it. The battle shouldn’t show in the poem. If it does show then the poem isn’t finished yet.

B O’D: There are poems that write themselves quickly and ones you have to work on. The ones that write themselves quickly are often the most satisfying.

Q: Do poets have editors?

JF: I’ve published poems for 48 years and 95% of the time I’ve had no editorial feedback. I recently got a new editor who has made suggestions on the placement of poems in the book or told me that they don’t understand a poem.

JJ: A publisher will feel that a poem is made before it gets to them. If the poem is commissioned, they do feel like tailoring it more.

Q: What relevance do form and meaning have in your poetry?

JF: I’m fully concerned with form in every facet, but meaning has to be there, of course.

JJ: I can’t separate them at all. I can’t think of form as a piece of clothing that you can take on or off. Mostly it’s the form that comes first in that you hear the rhythm or the shape of the poem. The words are hovering and you’ve got to sort of dig them out.

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.