Sunday, 25 May 2014

Creative Writing: Robert Olen Butler

Creative Writing: A Spectator Sport

I came across this video by Robert Olen Butler on youtube, published in Oct 2012, the first in a series. He is attempting to capture his creative process for an audience and it's fascinating viewing. He uses an old postcard as a prompt and we watch and listen as he tries to articulate the reasons for the choices he makes without becoming too analytical which would impede on the dreamlike state he needs to preserve. I found it interesting that he collects old postcards for the messages written on them, and how he tries to imagine the person who wrote that card.

I noted that he uses a dictionary which references the date the word came into use. When he checked the word 'shimmied' in relation to a horse, he found that it was first included in the dictionary in 1919, but, as he was writing a story set in 1913, he couldn't use that word.

I recommend watching these if you have quite a bit of spare time, but beware there are no action scenes (unless you count when he reaches for the dictionary), just a writer sitting and tapping the keyboard, then the backspace key, then stretching and re-reading what he's written.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Short stories: ‘The China Factory’ by Mary Costello

'The China Factory’ by Mary Costello

This collection of short stories, published by The Stinging Fly, really drew me in. The first story, The China Factory, and the last, The Sewing Room, are beautiful pieces. But there is plenty to recommend in between: The Patio Man, And who will pay Charon, and Little Disturbances being worthy of mention.

The China Factory features Gus, the main character's co-worker, who gives her a lift to work every day. He’s a quiet hero and she betrays him, but he understands that she’s young and desperate to fit in with the other women, even if she has nothing in common with them. 

'She was the kind of girl who wore flesh-coloured tights and pencil skirts but never jeans, and would grow into the kind of woman I never wanted to be.'

The Sewing Room is an elegant story, which fits perfectly with the main character’s comportment. It recounts the build-up to a schoolteacher's retirement party. While she accepts everyone's best wishes she is also considering her past mistakes. A slow-moving and evocative story.

I like that the first story is about a young girl starting in her first job and the last story is a woman retiring after many years of service.

In many of these stories there is a note of loneliness, especially within married couples: A husband reminiscing on an affair he had with a girl when he was school inspector; a wife, bored in her relationship, having an online affair; a husband waiting for the results of medical tests, unable to express his feelings. Quite a sad reflection on married life.

Although the characters are normal, almost banal, there is disease, rape, death lurking in the background. 

This collection is a treasure trove to be dipped into and savoured. Mary Costello has a light touch and an uncomplicated, understated way of telling a story.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Creative Process Blog Tour

The Creative Process Blog Tour

Thanks to Paula McGrath for nominating me to answer some questions on the creative process.

What am I working on?

Well-travelled - A short story collection: From the backpacker to the business traveller, from the child of diplomat parents to the retired couple touring in their campervan, I’ve been chipping away at about fifteen stories for the past six months and they’re currently reposing in a virtual drawer.

New novel: I’ve been plotting and planning and trying to gather inchoate notions of characters and settings for my nameless new novel. This is the creative stage of the writing process that I love. So these mornings I jump out of bed (something I’m not too well-known for) to get back to it. I hope to write the first draft (and give it a working title) over the summer.

I’m also working on all the little things writers have to do that take insane amounts of time - submitting my completed novel, Lost in Lourdes, to agents and editors, researching writing competitions and literary magazines, devouring all the information I can about the craft and business of writing (and not getting too distracted on Twitter.)

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I haven’t really figured out my genre. I guess every author’s voice is different though, and I have been told in my writers’ group that a certain turn of phrase is ‘typically Hilary’, so although I can’t define my voice I know others can hear it.

Why do I write what I do?

Although novels were my first love, I started writing short stories and flash fiction as a way of gaining some real critique on my writing. I soon came to love reading and writing short fiction.
I feel I have the freedom as an emerging writer to choose whatever form or style or subject-matter I want. I mostly write for myself, usually to just try to make sense of the world.

The books I’ve read and loved recently include Gone Girl, Apple Tree Yard, Transatlantic, The Luminaries, The Goldfinch and Frog Music. It’s difficult to say what these books have in common (apart from the fact that they’ve all been nominated for literary prizes) but I would like to write like that.
How does my writing process work?
Here’s a picture of my attempt to follow the subplots in my new novel. I began with normal-sized cards but I was adding too much detail, so I had to cut the cards to small pieces. I still managed to cram each with barely decipherable scrawl.

My writing process really consists of sitting down every day and trying to progress on one project or another depending on real and self-imposed deadlines. If my concentration is waning, I push myself to complete the task quickly (because a first draft is easier to revise than a blank sheet of paper) and then punish myself with forty lashes or some housework. 

Who I nominate next...

I’d like to ask the same questions of KM Elkes @mysmalltales and Geoff Holder @geoffholder58 (update: here it is) and look forward to reading how they work.