Sunday, 31 August 2014

Dear Author, Where do you get your ideas from?

One of my young readers contacted me this week. She had lived in foster care for several years and had ended up in a school like High Fell Hall, the school in Where Bluebirds Fly. She was very open about her own troubled life and said my book had made her feel that good things do come out of bad. She wanted to thank me, but she also wanted to know where I got the idea. 

People often ask me this difficult question. Since I write realistic contemporary fiction, my answer is usually ‘real life’. This is a quite a broad subject.

Inspiration is not a single light bulb moment,
but that moment repeated hundreds of times.
To be succinct, I told my reader how inspiration had come while I was working at a school similar to High Fell Hall. This was my initial inspiration for Where Bluebirds Fly, but it’s not the complete answer.Writers don’t just get one inspiration for one story and that’s it; we get a whole truckload of inspirations dropping on us constantly while we write, and that’s what makes it such a difficult question to answer.

The original idea was to write a story about a girl (Ruby) who carried a bag of rocks with her everywhere she went. It was supposed to be a story about how the weight of these rocks got in the way of everything she did and stopped her living the wonderful life she was born to live. The rocks were a metaphor for all the emotional baggage she carried around with her, and the story was supposed to be about how Ruby learned to let go and find her true and precious self.

My background in therapy and teaching informed me about school life and the play therapy sessions Ruby attended. The first draft was fairly faithful to the metaphor and my personal experiences, but not enough to sustain a whole book.

Subsequent drafts (of which there were many) drew inspiration from …
  • a newspaper story about two girls who grew up not knowing they shared a father
  • a theatre trip to see Wicked
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • the  dozens of bird statues and art works on Morecambe promenade
  • a conversation with a friend who told me how she had trained a robin to come to her kitchen windowsill for food
  • seeing a Kingfisher flying upstream, while I was out walking my dog
  • my own lovely grandma, who used to call me Ducky
  • my dad and his garden full of wonderful things
  • a multi coloured cloak once used in a school play but relegated to the dressing up box
  • me, when I too was a messed up kid, struggling with identity
  • the little moments -- like waking up in clean sheets and remembering the feel of a good night’s sleep, an overheard conversation on a bus, a fossil found on a beach ...
... and a hundred other things buried deep in my unconscious mind that I don’t even remember.

Because stories, just like people, are complex; they are influenced and inspired by all sorts of things you can’t put a name or a date to. In the case of a book, you reach a final definitive draft, and when people ask you “Where do you get your ideas from?” you supply them with a definitive answer.

But of course, there really isn’t one. 

Saturday, 9 August 2014

A Day in the Life of a Writer

Writing a book ? Pah, can't undertand what all the fuss is about.
I entered a competition last month over at the Rave Reviews Book Club. I didn't win, but then again I didn't do it to win ... all right, all right, I did. But hey, it was fun. The aim was to write a short story entitled A Day in the Life of a Writer and subsequently win amazing prizes which money can't even buy ... all right all right, it can. But hey, I'm poor.
My little effort would probably never have seen the light of day, but then I saw one of the other contestants, PS Barltett, author of Fireflies, had blogged her losing entry and I decided to follow suit. 
So here it is, my little work of fiction ... all right all right, it's not entirely fiction. But hey, it is #MyLife and I hope you enjoy it.
Her brain is dead. She can’t write a thing. Being a writer is the worst job in the world. Staring at the blank screen, hoping to find the missing plot point, (and failing) she contemplates other employment. I used to earn a living wage, and make important decisions . . . I used to be able to string a sentence together, she thinks. What’s happening to me?
A restless night of tossing and turning and sweaty tangled hair has only added to the problem. You can’t think straight when you’re tired, and hungry, and a mess.
            She scans the jobs pages instead. Recent experience essential. Really? Because her only recent experience is experience of staring at a blank screen; unless you count reading, reviewing and time spent on social media of course.
After breakfast, she sits down with her manuscript. That plot point will come, she tells herself. Today is a day for positivity. Deliberate optimism. She read about that somewhere so it must be true.
She drinks coffee and eats cake.
            But two hours later there’s still nothing to show for her labours, except a handful of retweets, a bunch of entertaining but distracting blog posts and a couple of status updates. #AmWriting, she lies, and gives up; the dog needs a walk; the carpet needs a vacuum; the washing needs a helping hand if it’s ever going to make it into the machine . . . and yes, she needs a shower. Or maybe she could skip that today? She sniffs. Probably not.
The great thing about the dog is that she has to get out of the house – rain or shine. If it wasn’t for Gnasher, she never would; she’d probably never even get out of her pyjamas. She tells other dog walkers this. "A day in the life of a writer," she laughs.
And they laugh too. They think it’s a joke. They think writing is glamorous. They think she’s rich, like JK, or EL James. They talk about film deals and Booker Prizes and declare how wonderful it must be to be creative. They tell her they will look out for a copy of her book, and ask who her publisher is . . .
“I’m an Indie writer,” she declares.
“Indie? As in independent? As in self-published?”
“I am my own publisher, which is really rewarding because . . .” But Gnasher has fouled the path and she needs to pick it up. #MyLife
Back at home she returns to her desk and reads the story so far. This time, I’m going to get it right. She is poised to continue . . . but the words aren’t there and the page remains blank. So she has that shower, vacuums the carpet and even makes a lasagne for dinner later. The story calls her, but she cannot hear it over the noise of the washing machine and her own inner spin cycle of despair. Those other stories were just flukes. This one is never going to work. It just doesn’t add up. Round and round and round. #AmProcrastinating.
And then, finally, all out of excuses, she returns to her desk, and Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads. She engages with other writers who, like her, are having an off day; a why-do-I-bother day; a my-writing-life-is-over day. “Aww, don’t give up,” twitter friends tells her. “Your books are awesome. You’re a brilliant writer.” They go ahead and tweet for her, comment on her blog, cheer her from the sidelines.
Reasons to be thankful, she thinks . . . the wonderful support of other writers out there . . . the family you never meet . . . the marvellous community of generous, caring, souls.
She makes more coffee, eats more cake, stares at the blank page and knows she can’t put it off any longer. This is the moment. This is the point at which it all can change. And she will make something of this novel if it’s the last thing she does . . .  
One hundred words later, she smiles. It needs some work, but this is just the first draft after all.
Two hundred, three hundred, four hundred, five . . .  
The words are coming thick and fast. And that missing plot point? Suddenly and without warning, it flies in – inspiration out of nowhere, and lands slap bang in the middle of her page, just at the exact right moment.

Hallelujah! She’s on fire. Being a writer is the best job in the world.