Monthly Archives: May 2013

Crouching Tiger Hidden Darkness – An Interview with Julia Crouch Part 1

Julia Crouch

Candice:  Phil and I saw Julia Crouch at last year’s Stratford Literary Festival.  We liked her unassuming style and have gone on to read a couple of her books between us (reviews to follow). So, we thought she’s been an ideal person for our next interview.

A bit of background: Ex Theatre director and writer, Julia Crouch took a step away from the stress of the theatre to become a graphic designer.  However, still harbouring writing plans she took an Open University course in creative writing. Through this she discovered NaNoWriMo and novel writing, and after that, there was no looking back.

CUCKOO came out in hardback in the UK in March 2011. Every Vow You Break, in March 2012, and  TARNISHED,  in March 2013. She is currently working on her fourth book.

Why did writing in NaNoWriMo inspire you?  Do you need a deadline?

I have to have deadlines – I set myself daily and weekly wordcounts, and if I fail to meet them, I work the weekend. While NaNoWriMo introduced me to this concept for writing, it was inherent in my former lives as a theatre director (the opening night!) and graphic design (the print date).

More importantly, though, I needed a way to get past the part of me that had always previously lost hope around the third chapter. The speed of the NaNoWriMo process precludes going over what you have already written – you have to keep moving forward, accepting that you will have mistakes to clear up at the end of the process.

 Why did you feel the need to edit your first book for so long? (7 months after initial draft)

I had many mistakes to clear up! But seriously, after just a month writing a first draft, seven months isn’t such a long time to edit. What you emerge with after NaNoWriMo will have a high pants-to-pearls ratio – in fact I always call it my draft zero, because it is really a pre first draft. In order to put it into a state where I felt happy to show it to someone else, I had to work hard at it. Cuckoo (the novel in question) also more than doubled in length from 50,000 words to 120,000. I must then add that after that edit, it went through another four before publication. For me the draft zero is just setting the parameters of the story, so that I have something to work with.

Where do you work?  What is your typical day?

I work mostly in my shed – a comfortable insulated room at the bottom of our garden in Brighton. It’s my favourite place because it is removed from the house, but I am close to hand for when the kids get home, etc. I usually have at least one cat in here with me, snoozing in the warm spot behind my monitor. My best working days start with a run, then I get my son off to school (my other two kids are grown up now and live in London), then I get into the shed for about 9am, do a bit of admin, then switch on MacFreedom and some helpful music (favourites are Philip Glass Metamorphosis, Brian Eno’s Music for Airports or Glenn Gould playing Bach). and work in 90 minute batches, interspersed with a bit of internetting and/or domestic tasks to loosen me up. I work until about five or six. I rarely work in the evening unless I am really late with something.

Sometimes I take myself off for a day or two and I just wake up early, pull my laptop into bed and work for a good six or so hours before going for a walk or run then carrying on until the evening. This is the most productive way for me, but not compatible with having a family or any sort of real life!

Do you recommend writing courses?  We notice you went on a few.  Would you say this is a good way to move from amateur to professional?

I didn’t write prose from when I was at school until I did the OU introduction to Creative Writing about seven years ago. I just always thought I’d like to, but had never got around to it. The OU courses were essential for me to give me confidence and practice, but I also learned the craft side of writing – like how to use punctuation and grammar properly and creatively, what commonly constitutes good writing, how to read like a writer. I also became used to sharing my work, and therefore to writing for readers. I would thoroughly recommend doing a course, or, at least, joining a writing group.

Continue to Part Two of this interview

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Writing a book is like doing a jigsaw, you have to make the bits fit.

Jigsaw-ingPhil: OK, so I’m working away on The Book. On the “to do” list we want to explain one of the minor mysteries in the story – one that used to be worked through at the start of the book but has now been turned into a running question.

Anyway, I find the perfect spot to put the scene in. It fits the mood. It brings our characters together. There’s even a slight pun in the actions which makes me happy and I think the result will make the reader smile.

The only trouble is that where I need to put the words, there is another scene that is essential to sow seeds of doubt into a characters mind and lay the ground for the next book.

All I have been able to do is displace the old scene and try to work out where we weave it back into the story. Fortunately, the timing isn’t particularly essential, a little earlier won’t be an issue. Our character can stew on it a little. She can act in spite of herself while her mind has a nagging doubt.

It’s a bit like doing a jigsaw. You have a picture to build and lots of bits that make it up. All you need to do is fit them all together. At the moment I’m doing the sky and two pieces looks like they should fit in the same hole. I’ve finished enough jigsaws to know that they go in different places and it’s only at the moment that I can’t spot the other gap.

Candice is back this week. Perhaps over some cake we can figure it out.

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Fire Season by Philip Connors

Fire SeasonI’ve seen lunar eclipses and desert sandstorms, and lightening that made my hair stand on end.

I’ve seen fires burn so hot, they made their own weather.

I’ve watched deer and elk frolic in the meadow below me, and pine trees explode in a blue ball of smoke.

If there’s a better job on the planet, I’d like to know what it.

Phil: Philip Connors has what must be the best job for a serious writer. For half the year he is alone in the Gila National Forest as a fire watcher. During the day, he sits high up in a tower looking out for forest fires. Should he spot one, it’s location is triangulated with other watch towers and then passed to the authorities to decide what to do with it.

You might think that every fire is extinguished but as we learn in the text, thinking has moved on from this and fire is now seen as a natural phenomenon which contributes to the health of the forest. If the conflagration threatens lives or looks like it will get out of control then various measures can be taken including deploying smoke jumpers who parachute into the area as an advance party to take on the fire. All this is watched by the lookouts.

Most of the time though, there is no fire and Connors has the opportunity to study and enjoy the natural world around him. His cabin and tower being a two-hour hike from the nearest road, this is isolation in a way that many of us will never experience. One story in the book tells of introducing a rookie watcher who lasts 2 days and is never seen again.

For a writer such as the author, this is great. A vast amount of uninterrupted time to work with no telephone or Internet. The only contact with humans being via the radio or occasional visitors and breaks back in town. Who couldn’t write under those conditions? Let’s face it, it’s probably one of the few things you have to do!

The book is both a reflection of a season as a fire watcher as well as a potted history explaining how Americas national wildernesses came to be. Just long enough to my mind, we see the forest change through the seasons, something that could be a little plodding and worthy on its own, but this is interspersed beautifully with the background explaining how the author came to be where he is in both a personal and professional sense.

I’ll be honest though, the best thing about this book it it’s cover. Looking at Amazon, several wrappers have been used but surely you can’t beat this metallic bronze and black number? Tilt the book and the light changes the appearance representing the all-important fire as well as the trees. Stunning work by designer Mary Austin Speaker.

If you love books or design, this is simply the most attractive cover I have ever seen. While I doubt I’ll be re-reading the content, I think this will gain a long-term place on the shelf along with those other volumes I possess because owning them is a pleasure.

If I have a complaint about this book it is that there aren’t any pictures. Head over to the authors website and you can see the cabin and tower that are his home for 6 months. I struggled to form a mental picture of them. On the other hand, this is a book where the pictures are painted with words and not the pretty “coffee table” book that it could so easily have become. The writer aspires to serious literary status, no bad thing, rather than taking the easy way out with a few captions on images.

Worth a read, by the end of it you will understand what solitude really feels like. Think of it as a road trip where you never actually go anywhere but enjoy the journey.

Philip Connors website

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What’s the story of this?

Flint Arrow HeadPhil: The photo shows a flint arrow head that I was presented with recently.

It dates from 3000BC.

This makes it 5000 year old. Five Thousand!

As I handle it, I can’t begin the grasp this. It’s an unimaginable time. This tiny item 3.5cm long, has survived pretty much everything we know in history. Civilisations have risen and fallen while this carefully shaped bit of stone has been buried in the ground.

I feel I want to tell its story, but I don’t know where to start.

If I tried, I’m sure the result would involve a stereotype cave man, probably called Ug because as far as I know. cavemen didn’t give themselves names. He (I’m assuming he but don’t see why this must be the case) would spend the days carefully chipping away at bits of flint to make weapons. Looking at the workmanship, he must have been highly skilled. The point would probably still pierce skin if fired on an arrow at close quarters.

What else would the story involve? How did cavemen live? What did they do day-to-day?

I realise as I handle the arrowhead that while it might provide a physical link through history, it’s far too big a story for me to tell. Sometimes you just have to sit and wonder.

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The words I must not type.

bubbleshooterPhil: You will notice that it’s double Phil this week. The other half of team nolanparker is performing some important research beside a pool in Italy. Apparently writers need to read a lot of novels and somehow this can be done best while topping up the tan and eating gelato.

I’ve been left some homework too, although how this works is unclear. When I was at school, the people going off got homework not the ones stuck at home. Anyway, my job is to stick all the bits of The Book back together into a single manuscript. We’ve been writing little inserts here and there and every so often they must be swept up and glued together or we’ll lose them. Apparently, this week is the best time to do this. And only one of us has access to a computer.

All this is fine. Once I get started writing I can sit here with my iPod on in a little world of my own writing story to my heart’s content. Time passes and when I look up, it will be a lot later then it was when I began. All I have to do is get started.

What I must never do is type the following words into the Google search box on my browser home page:

Flash Bubbleshooter

If I do, within a couple of clicks, I will end up at this site.

Do NOT click on that link or you too will find yourself mindlessly shooting coloured bubbles at each other in an effort to clear the screen.

I’m not big on computer games. Years ago I worked in an IT department that went through a phase of playing a networked 1st person shooter. I had a go but my character just wandered around bumping into things and being killed off by my colleagues. It was all a bit difficult and to be honest, I didn’t have the interest to practise enough to become average at it.

Simple to play games, what the industry calls “casual games”, are much more my cup of tea. Bubbleshooter is simple. Tetris is simple. That snooker game I had for a while on my phone was simple. The trick is not aspiring to anything above novice level. By doing that, you don’t lose quickly and it all becomes a bit addictive. At least I could un-install the snooker. Google is always waiting for me.

Which is bad news for getting things done.

To be fair, I’ve given up Tetris. I managed to clear 100 lines which in my head counted as success. I beat it and as long as I never play again, I’ll be fine. It’s a bit like packets of biscuits. If I don’t open them I’m fine. Once opened, they get eaten.

All writers procrastinate. Some chose to use computers without web access as there is nothing like the interweb for wasting time. I just feel I’m missing out. I get jittery and start checking e-mail on my phone. At least with it running in the background, an occasional quick look satisfies me.

Anyway, I’ve had my one game this evening. Now I better get to work or Candice will shout at me.

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Plotting and planning the novel

Sky Post-itsPhil: No one tells you when you start writing a book that it’s all going descend into the sort of project management hell that you thought you’d escaped from at work. Surely the process involves our author hero sitting down before a freshly opened notebook, licking the end of the pen and starting to write?

Nope. It seems that everyone is planning these days. There’s this interesting post over at Novelicious.com for example. Or perhaps you feel inspired by seeing how Emylia Hall works out her next novel. JK Rowling produced a paper spreadsheet for Harry Potter.

Writing a novel it seems, should be approached as a “project” as much as an artistic endeavor. That’s certainly what Candice and I felt as we sat in the sunshine outside a Stratford-upon-Avon pub a few weeks ago. We knew the story we wanted to tell. We know our characters. We just weren’t happy with the structure.

Since we’ve both worked on proper work projects and have some clue about how all this works, the concept of book as project isn’t alien to us. Maybe if we’d been the sort of arty-farty floaty types who are supposed to do this sort of thing we’d not think this way, but we aren’t, so we do. In fact we both said the phrase, “We need a whiteboard” at the same time.

If you work in an office this sort of kit is readily available but not many have it at home. You can do just as well with Post-It notes and a couple of days later, that’s what we did. I summarised each chapter while Candice wrote notes on each bit of sticky paper. The glass walls of the conservatory were soon covered with our story in yellow paper form.

All this enabled us to track the plot strands. There is a fairly important plot element that appears in the first few pages and then not for about half the book. That’s fixable.

Likewise, the relationship between our two main characters  needs an extra turning point and we are looking where this should take place. As it happens, we’ll be using some plot set-up that used to be clogging up the beginning of the manuscript and is now to be dragged through the book being hinted at along the way and becoming the resolution to a mystery the reader will hopefully be puzzling over as we go.

What we had done is expose ourselves to “the big picture” instead of concentrating on details on the page. By juggling a few Post-Its we have spotted holes in the plot and explored better sequences for some scenes.

Is this an unromantic way of working?

Undoubtedly. If you are writing just for fun then forget whiteboards and spreadsheets. Just start to scribble and enjoy the process. We though, see ourselves as (one day) commercial authors and that’s going to require a different approach. This starts with doing the absolute best we can with the story. After that we’ll work hard on the marketing of our “product”. The payoff will hopefully be that people buy the story and thoroughly enjoy it. A smile on a face, or a good review is our aim.

Basically, what we’ve found is that succesful writers are like swans. On the surface it all looks so easy. Under the water, there’s all sort of stuff going on that you, the reader, don’t need to see.

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I don’t know what a gerund is. And I don’t care.

Luke as punctuationA gerund is a noun made from a verb by adding “-ing”.

Phil: A new test has been introduced this week for children. It examines the more ‘technical’ aspects of English – such as grammar, punctuation and spelling and is assessed via an externally marked test.

According to the Department for Education, the introduction of this new test reflects the Government’s beliefs that children should have mastered these important aspects of English by the time they leave primary school, and that appropriate recognition should be given to good use of English throughout their schooling.

Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove is frothing with excitement at this, but then he believes that Queen Victoria is still on the throne and that geography lessons need to remind everyone that the most countries on the globe should be coloured in pink.

Several arty types like Michael Rosen think he is wrong.

I think I’m inclined to agree with them. Most of my work involves writing, the pinnacle of my education career was an O Level grade B in English and yet I still only managed to score 5/10 in the BBC Grammar Quiz.

Does knowing the full technical aspect of the language make it easier to write clearly? I suspect not. The title of this post involves starting a sentence with a conjunction – a crime that would see my work marked with a big red circle and the words, “See me” appended to the bottom in teachers sternest handwriting.  Did you understand it? Almost certainly.

This isn’t to say that I feel you can completely throw out the rule book. I still get annoyed when sub-editing letters were the writer uses a lower-case “i” when they should use “I” or doesn’t understand that commas and apostrophes are not the same thing. Mostly I’m angry because the writers come from an era when teaching involved the same type of tests that are now being introduced. My suspicion is that they are the same people bashing youngsters for not being able to write.

Language should not get in the way of reading so I’d argue that the subject, or story, is more important than the correct technical English. Let’s encourage children to read widely and fire their creativity thinking. The best-selling authors out there aren’t known for the greatest quality writing but they grab the reader with the story which is a far more impressive skill.

How many people finish a book and say, “Well, the story was dull, the characters one-dimensional but the author really knows how to work a semi-colon.” ?

More to the point, IF we must drill the full set of technical rules into children, please can we lock all the people who claim to care passionately about the subject in a room and only start testing when they have all agreed on all the rules. That should keep them out of our hair for a while!

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