Flash fiction: Rubbish

in-the-light

 

‘What is it?’ I said, standing on the lip.

‘Victorian.’ He jumped in, didn’t wait for me. ‘Rubbish pit.’

I lowered myself down. In an oven tray he had collected pieces of coloured pottery, a clear bottle with a marble in its neck, a broken ceramic pot stamped with ‘Bloater Paste’. I picked out the edge of a plate, licked my thumb and rubbed until the pink glaze on a dinner service appeared.

‘One man’s rubbish…’ I started.

‘On top.’ He rattled the tray. I looked again and saw a smooth brown stick, jagged at one end. ‘Human,’ he said.

***

This is a Friday Fictioneers story. 100 (or so) writers writing 100-words (or so) inspired by the picture above (supplied this week by G.L.MacMillan.) Join in or read some more stories.

***

My novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, has been longlisted for The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ prize. The next stage of the competition is a public vote. So, if you’ve read my book and liked it, it would be great if you could vote for it here. You need to choose two books from the longlist and write which two you’re voting for in the comments section, including a short review about one of them. Thank you in advance!

Top 10 Tips for Writing a Crappy First Draft

DSCF5643

All writers have little tricks for how to get the first draft of their novel down on paper. I don’t plan at all, but I do allow myself to go back each time I sit down to write and do a little bit of editing; perhaps just 20% of the writing time I have available. I tell myself it’s to get ‘in the zone,’ but really it’s because I worry that I might be run over by a bus and someone would see my crappy first draft. Another way I mitigate this possibility is by writing [THIS IS SHITE] (square brackets included) every so often. This technique (which I wouldn’t really recommend) also silences my inner critic for a little while which means I can carry on churning out words.

But what other tips and tricks do writers use? I asked a few author friends and below I have compiled the top ten ways of pushing your word count forward.

 

  1. Make notes as you go along. Kerry Drewery: I work with a notebook by my side and never ever look back until I get to the end. But if I decide something needs changing as I’m going along, for example, if character’s age or details need changing, I make a note of it. Then when I’ve finished the first draft I work through it with the notebook. Jo Bloom: I do the same thing using Scrivener.
  2. Allow yourself to write badly. Sarah Jasmon: Give yourself permission to sometimes write badly and not worry. It was such a relief when I realised I didn’t have to get it right all the time. Shelley Harris: I write a ‘Fuck-it’ draft – a dirty first draft where I push on and don’t look back.
  3. Give yourself a word count. Fionnuala Kearney: I bash out that first draft and I mean bash it out! I avoid too much editing as I go along by giving myself a daily word count target. Me: I keep a daily diary of what I’ve been writing and what my word count is – it’s very motivating to see it going up.
  4. Write something you’re interested in. Jon Teckman: Sometimes I stick in a scene about something I’m really interested in, just to keep writing. For example, if I get really stuck, I make up an excellent Chinese restaurant and take myself off for an imaginary pig-out! Me: Sometimes I skip to a scene further along in the novel that is more exciting to write.
  5. Read a few pages of someone else’s book. Me: If I know that I’m struggling to write new words because I can’t get the style correct, I’ll sometimes stop and re-read a few pages of a book that I really admire to get into the zone again. At the moment Richard Ford’s Wildlife seems to work quite well.
  6. Write a mini-first draft. Fleur Smithwick: I compromise on planning by bashing out a mini-first draft of about 20,000 words. It’s like a condensed book, split into around 70-80 scenes with a bit of dialogue. This way when I’m writing the full novel it flows, it’s fun to do and I don’t lose the momentum.
  7. Do a bit of editing and then move forward. Vanessa Lafaye: I can get caught in the trap of endlessly polishing and not moving on, so I try to limit myself to reading only the previous scene. I do some tinkering, but it doesn’t slow me down that much, and does put me in the ‘zone’ again.
  8. Write a chapter plan. Terry Stiastny: Sometimes bashing ahead with no plan can leave you with lots of words but no book. My approach is a compromise – a chapter-by-chapter outline, so I have an idea of what needs to happen next. Vanessa Lafaye: My chapter plan is literally one line with the main events. It shows me the shape of the book and whether it’s logical, and where the gaps are. And sometimes it reads, ‘Something happens here’ when I don’t know. Jo Bloom: I’ve realised that I’m a compromiser. I need to have one hand on a plan – and know the shape and skeleton of the story – but I leave a lot of room for the story to shape on the page. Kerry Drewery: I have a start, probable finish and key points along the way, but I need to give it room to develop a little and can’t plan much more than that. Sarah Vaughan: I do a chapter by chapter plan that changes between drafts.
  9. Don’t worry about what you might cut later. Sarah Vaughan: Whenever I get despondent about having to cut thousands of words, I remind myself that nothing is wasted. All writing is good practice.
  10. And the bottom line? Jo Bloom: SHUT THE VOICES UP and just keep writing.

Do you have any other tips on how to write a first draft? Please share them in the comments.

Flash fiction: Nadia

dijon

The first time I saw Nadia she was shouting on one the backstreets in the old quarter. A boy on a scooter had snatched her bag and she was begging passers-by for help. I didn’t stop; like everyone else I thought she was part of the scam. Two days later I saw her at the airport when I was leaving. She turned and smiled at something and her full lips, painted red, stretched to reveal the gap in her front teeth. I knew we would be seated next to each other, but what I didn’t know was that within a year Nadia would be dead.

***

This is a Friday Fictioneers story. 100 (or so) writers writing 100-words (or so) inspired by the picture above (supplied this week by Sandra Crook.)

***

It’s been a while since I’ve written a Friday Fictioneers story because I’ve been on holiday and life suddenly became very busy. On 1st July Our Endless Numbered Days won the Desmond Elliott Prize – an award for debut fiction, and I’ve been doing quite a bit of promotion including writing this article on being a debut author over 40, for The Guardian.

Other People’s Postcards

photo (53) - Copy

 

When my husband Tim and I got married two years ago yesterday, we provided our guests with old blank postcards and asked them to write us a message. We handed out envelopes with labels and told each guest to write on a date when we could open them. Then for added mailing authenticity got them drop the envelopes in a postbox we’d made. 20130713_210912

So far we’ve been able to open 26 envelopes and read our guest’s messages, and each time it’s been such a lovely little blast of wedding-day memory. My son (who was 18 when we got married) dated his ‘yesterday'; many people dated theirs for our first anniversary, and some (you know who you are) for their own birthdays – so we wouldn’t have an excuse for not remembering!

Yesterday we opened one from my friend’s daughter – G, who is friends with my daughter – R. She wrote:

Claire and Tim, I hope I’m still friends with you guys ‘cos you guys are BADASS. And I don’t say that lightly. R is very lucky to have you guys and your book tattoos and beautiful red hair. And your personalities as well, obviously. Have an amazing future. G

This message is very special, not least because it makes me think about the lovely G, and laugh at how Tim and I aren’t BADASS at all, but also because it is the last envelope we can open until 27th February 2017. There’s another envelope dated the same year, but after that things thin out considerably: there’s one each for 2018 and 2020, two in 2021, three in 2023, and then the next is 2033, and the final joker dated their envelope 2043 (when I will be 76). I just hope they wrote something worth waiting for.

Our Endless Numbered Days wins The Desmond Elliott Prize

I’m absolutely thrilled and delighted that my book, Our Endless Numbered Days has won The Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction. My husband Tim and I came back to London from our holiday in Sweden on the hottest 1st July ever recorded in the UK, 37.8 degrees.

The winner was announced by Louise Doughty at a ceremony held in the Drawing Room at Fortnum and Mason. Here are some pictures of the event, including me feeling very nervous beforehand.

There was quite a lot of media coverage, including a live interview with me on BBC Radio 4 Front Row (starts at 18 minutes 52 seconds), The BBC website, The Guardian, and The Telegraph.

If you’d like a signed copy of Our Endless Numbered Days, Foyles bookshop is running a competition to win one of three books. Click here to enter.

Reader, meet Writer; Writer meet Reader

Bellingham Book Club

When my book, Our Endless Numbered Days was published I didn’t think I was going to enjoy getting out there and talking to strangers. It was a frightening thought – having to answer questions, explain why I had made a character do something unpalatable, justify what I had written. The first event I attended as an author was a literature festival and I was terrified at the idea of even getting on stage. But when it was over I was pleased I had managed to talk about my book to an audience who stared back at me with what at least looked like interest. But it was the opportunity I was given to meet these people after the event that I discovered I enjoyed the most. They seemed so excited to be able to talk to an author and I too was excited to meet actual readers.156 June5

I’ve since realised that more than anything book related I’ve attended so far, I enjoy interacting with people who like reading. And the best events are book clubs.

As a writer it’s so energising to meet, talk, Skype or email with people who ‘get’ your book; to debate the real nitty-gritty detail, to discuss the breadcrumb trails I left and to hear who found them and who didn’t.

And for the readers, they get to hear the story behind the story, they get answers to all those questions that other book clubs wonder about: why did the author end it that way? Why did she include that character? Or even, I wonder what her writing process is?

“Having Claire’s answers to our questions was a real game changer,” says Dawn Landau, who is a member of a book club based in Winchester Book ClubBellingham, in the Pacific Northwest of America. “It was exciting to have concrete answers to things we had wondered about as we read the book. Claire gave us insights that really helped us flesh out questions we’d had when reading. Having Claire’s responses to our questions helped us all feel much more connected to the story and its characters.  A few of us said we were tempted to read it again, now knowing some of these details.”

Of course, nothing beats going to a book club meeting in person, but since I live in England and many of my readers are in the US, Skype is a good alternative. And if the time difference is too much to deal with I’m happy to answer questions by email.

“Initially, when I contacted Claire, we discussed doing a Skype meet and greet with her,” says Dawn. “However, it quickly became clearWinchester Book Club 3 that with the enormous time difference (we always meet in the evening, as several book club members work full time), this would be impossible, and Claire offered to answer questions by email instead. Admittedly, our group is not the most organised – our focus is on fun, with books as the thing that brings us together – so we didn’t get the questions to Claire until right before our meeting, but she still answered them all.”

Naturally, not everyone is going to like every book. And of course I’ve come across readers who didn’t get on with Our Endless Numbered Days, but if they can express in a constructive way what didn’t work for them, I’m still interested. It might even spark a bit of debate. Sylvia Conway-Jones is a member of a book club in Hampshire that I visited recently: “As a group we differed in which aspects touched us and Claire was extremely gracious in allowing us our individual interpretations and Winchester book club 2opinions.”

And it’s not just the story that can be a source of discussion: “Finding out about the writing and publishing process was fascinating and an added bonus,” says Syliva.

Whether the meeting happens face to face, via Skype or email, a little organisation will help it run smoothly: someone acting as the host (especially important if it is a Skype call or via email); some kind of structure to the evening rather than a free-for-all with questions; and since I won’t be expecting payment, it’s really appreciated if all the members leave a review on Amazon or another review site.Ohio book club

If you’re in a book club you’ve got nothing to lose by contacting an author and seeing whether they’ll be interested in answering some questions. Chances are they’ll be just as excited to meet you, as you will be to meet them.

 

 

If your book club is reading Our Endless Numbered Days and would like me to be involved, get in touch.

(Originally posted on the Tin House blog.)

The Girl in the Downstairs Flat

hyde-hall-light

Keith drilled the hole in the ceiling when the pretty girl in the downstairs flat was out. Or at least he hadn’t heard her for hours, maybe days come to think of it. He was sure she wouldn’t notice the small mound of sawdust in her bathroom because even though she had kept the door-chain on when he had introduced himself, over her shoulder he had seen how messy her flat was.

Keith pressed his eye to the hole. The girl lay in her bath, smiling, looking up at him. He drew back, shocked, excited. When he looked again she hadn’t moved.

***

This is a Friday Fictioneers story. 100 (or so) writers writing 100-words (or so) inspired by the picture above (supplied this week by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields.

***

Our Endless Numbered Days has been nominated for the Edinburgh First Book Award. This is a prize decided by public vote, so if you’d like to vote for my novel, click here – I’d really appreciate it. (Scroll to the bottom of the page, and I’m on the penultimate line.)

The Island: Giving Your Characters a Hard Time

grylls-island_2897801b

I’ve recently been completely hooked on the Channel 4 television series, The Island, where the adventurer, Bear Grylls drops one group of men and another of women on uninhabited Pacific islands and leaves them to fend for themselves for six weeks. How will they boil the water they find, what will they use to hack through the jungle, what are the essential tools that the groups couldn’t survive without? It’s had me shouting at the TV, ‘bring in the nets or the fish will rot!’ and, ‘don’t lie on the beach, go and get the water!’. It’s pretty compulsive viewing, and even more interesting for me in that I had to make some similar decisions for the characters in my novel, Our Endless Numbered Days.

Here’s a few of them.

Water: Peggy and James live for nine years in a remote European forest. James tells Peggy that the rest of world beyond what she can see has disappeared. But luckily one of their boundaries is a river; easy access to water you might think. I considered carefully about how many buckets they should have: too few and they would spend all their time going back and forth to the river; too many and it wouldn’t be enough of a challenge. With three they are able to have one tied by the river, and two to carry the water. (Later, even one of these is lost.) And to make it harder, the closest access point is a high ledge, so that buckets have to be lowered and lifted, and then carried up to the cabin.

Food: I needed my characters to be able to get through the severe winters and to find enough food, but novels (and reality TV programmes) are all about tension, so I didn’t want to make life too cosy. I wrote them an axe, a knife and a gun. And then I took the gun away (you can do that if you’re a writer.) I think I was quite generous – I gave them a bag of rice to get started, a fishing rod (Bear’s islanders get a few fish-hooks) and some seeds for when the spring comes. But then, since I also controlled the travel arrangements and the weather, I had them arrive at the cabin in late summer, and made their first winter almost impossible. Their food sources – the berries, mushrooms, squirrels, rabbits and fish – disappear. I let them have a month or so of preparations before the really bad weather hit, so they were able to chop some wood and dry some meat. But then, half way through that first winter I have James realise he has miscalculated the amount of food they will need, and they face starvation.

Shelter and warmth: Peggy and James live in a one-room cabin. They might not have to cope with sand flies and scorpions but they do need to keep warm. There is a stove which they use for cooking and for heat, but no blankets. Conveniently you could say, my characters arrive fully dressed in dungarees, coats and shoes, but I couldn’t let them have it quite that easy, so Peggy loses a shoe before she even makes it to the cabin. I love that when I’m writing, the consequences of one scene can be huge. What do you do if you only have three pieces of footwear between two people? Shoes can be shared, but then only one person at a time can go outside in winter, which makes it very difficult to catch large animals, which means you have to hunt or forage every day, and so getting enough food is a continual challenge.

Luxuries: I’m not sure Bear Grylls’ men and women would say they had anything that could count as a luxury, but although they weren’t able to take anything with them, they were able to forage. (Anyone interested in a used toothbrush washed up by the Pacific?) James takes toothpaste with them, but a couple of tubes were never going to last nine years (and the consequences of a lack of dental hygiene was paid for years later). James makes Peggy a comb (but eventually her hair has to be shaved off). Their candles are quickly used up (no head torches for Peggy and James) and so they begin to live their lives by the rising and the setting of the sun.

These are just a few of the decisions I made about how make the lives of my ‘islanders’ difficult; there were hundreds more.

If you’re a writer, how have you made the lives of your characters difficult, or if you’re a reader or viewer, what survival books or television shows have had you shouting at the page or screen? I’d love to know.

A version of this article was first published by Isabel Costello on her website. Image courtesy of Channel 4.

Flash fiction: The Choice

c-hase

In a hand-me-down swimming suit – sailor collar and bloomers – Alice sat atop the rock.  Charlie, Harry and Jack dived, their one-piece costumes sagging when they strode out of the water. Alice looked away. She watched them race each other on the sand and play tug-of-war with a chain. They demanded she select a winner, but there was nothing to choose between them: young, handsome men, full of life. She would have said yes to whoever asked first.

Two weeks later they were called up. Alice heard they didn’t even make it across the channel.

She should have kissed them all.

Swimming

This is a Friday Fictioneers story. 100 (or so) writers writing 100 words (or so) inspired by the top picture.

***

Vote for Our Endless Numbered Days! The Reading Agency is holding a fun poll to see who readers think should win The Desmond Elliott Prize. Click here to vote for one of the shortlisted novels, including mine.

Writing Dual Narratives

011

Gone Girl, How to be Both, Instructions for a Heatwave: everyone’s at it – using dual or multiple narratives to interweave two or more stories often from different time periods. Less common are books that use a dual narrative from the point of view of the same character.

In my novel Our Endless Numbered Days, the narrator, Peggy Hillcoat, starts telling her story in her present day – 1985 – and then goes back to 1976 to when she was eight. The chapters mostly alternate between one November day in 1985 and the time period from 1976 onwards, until the end of the novel when the two strands collide.

When I started writing I wasn’t looking for a clever structure, I didn’t even realise that the one I used wasn’t that common, I simply wanted to tell the story in the best way possible and like many first-time novelists I muddled my way through. I wrote each chapter consecutively, flipping back and forth between the years, but when I had finished the first draft, I wasn’t sure the 1985, single-day narrative hung together, so I lifted all of those chapters out and rewrote them. Then I put them back in, and revised them in-situ ensuring that they gave hints about what might be about to happen in the other time period, whilst not giving anything away. It was a challenge!

If you’re writing a dual or multiple narrative novel, here are some things you might want to think about:

  • Make each strand as interesting as the other(s). You don’t want readers to be skimming through one narrative because they enjoy the others more. Make sure they have emotional investment in all stories.
  • Break the action of each narrative at a critical point. The dual narrative structure is a perfect way to create cliff-hangers that will keep your readers turning pages. A cliff-hanger doesn’t always have to be something astounding; just make sure you leave a question in the readers’ minds.
  • Use each narrative to shine a light on the other. Have fun with your dual narratives – use them to bring out themes, to foreshadow events, to give hints and clues and as I said above, to set up questions. For example in my first chapter, in 1985, Peggy looks at a photograph of her father sitting at her mother’s piano: ‘I was surprised to see him sitting there. I have no recollection of him ever sitting at the piano or playing it, although of course, it was my father who taught me to play.’ How her father could have taught her to play without her recalling him doing it, hopefully sets up a question which is answered in the second narrative strand.
  • Find the way of writing that works for you. Some writers create the strands separately and then bring them together, some, as I did, write them at the same time. It doesn’t matter which way you do it, but when you do bring them together you have to work hard on the interweaving.
  • Make clear jumps between narratives. In Our Endless Numbered Days the jumps between the two strands are by chapter. This is probably the clearest way to sign-post to the reader that they are moving from one narrative to another, but even so, I decided to put a date and location at the heading of each 1985 chapter, so the reader was never lost. It can be done more subtly than this, and should be if the jumps are within chapters. You can use character, location, dialogue, or anything that will help the reader know which narrative they are moving into. This is especially important for the first jump you write.
  • Make a connection between the two narratives. The connection could be very subtle – a theme, an emotion, an object – or as in my case, very obvious – the narrator. But you do need to reveal a connection at some point, otherwise you might as well write two novels.
  • Don’t be too tricksy. Don’t decide on a dual narrative structure because you want your novel to be interesting or challenging; it has to be right for the story. Bear in mind that in a dual narrative you will probably have to withhold information at some point and you don’t want this to appear forced.
  • Remember to deal with aging. If your dual narratives use some of the same characters, you will have to make them age believably. My two strands are both about Peggy. She needed to have the same fundamental characteristics, but in one strand she is seventeen, whilst in the other we first meet her age eight. Similarly, you need to consider your characters’ physical characteristics and how those will change over time.
  • Remember the character arc. Writing theory often talks about the character arc – how will characters change over the course of the story; what will they learn? With a dual narrative from a single character’s point of view, this can be harder to manage. In the case of Our Endless Numbered Days, Peggy’s main arc happens in the 1976 and onwards chapters. But she also needs to change during the single day in 1985 in a way which matches the other character arc.

It’s a lot to think about, but the most important thing is, if you enjoy writing both narratives then most likely your readers will enjoy them too.

(This article was originally published on Writers & Artists.)

***

Our Endless Numbered Days has recently been shortlisted for The Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction. The Reading Agency is holding an unofficial vote for which book readers think should win. Click here to vote for your favourite.