Sunday 27 September 2009

Creativity and the writer

I started a new job on Thursday, and I'm loving it. It's a writing gig with a crowd of creative people who are enthusiastic, talented and appreciative of what I bring to the mix. The place has a real buzz, not just busy but switched-on. My feet haven't touched the ground since I got there but it feels good, such a great move for me. I hadn't realised how much I needed to be working with other like-minded people, how much creativity breeds creativity. I'm being stretched, flexing new muscles in my brain, all to the good. Plus, at a very basic level, I'm quicker, smarter, lighter on my feet than I've been in years. The office is filled with natural light, there's a huge kitchen/living space with sofas and cupboards full of Alphabet Mugs. The bathrooms have Cowshed products to keep everyone's hands in great condition. I feel I'll be nurtured here, and pushed in new directions. I don't yet know how writing the novel will slot into the new schedule but I do know I'll make it slot in, and that the people I work with will be cheering me on every step of the way because they live and breathe and love creativity.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Right Hand Pointing

I'm very fond of this site, with its cool colours and graphics. So it makes me happy that they have published one of my favourite flashes, After a Long Illness, Quietly at Home. I wrote this for a challenge set by Tania Hershman (Hi, Tania!), who required consecutive sentences beginning with letters which would spell out FLASH. Instead of restricting my narrative flow, I found this challenge liberated a story which found a very special place in my heart. Thanks, Tania, for this and the opportunity yesterday to talk writing for three hours - bliss.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Bristol Review of Books

It's official, I've 'arrived' in my new home city. The editor of the Bristol Review of Books, on seeing this sample of my writing, called it a 'fabulous piece' and asked permission to publish it in his magazine which is distributed in its thousands to bookshops, museums, libraries and coffee shops in Bristol and beyond. I was fortunate enough to get the centre-spread in the magazine, plus a mention in the Editor's column and on the front cover. I'm truly pleased the story is getting more exposure and reaching a wider audience.

"Sarah Hilary throws light on forgotten barbarity at the end of World War II. Sarah weighs the human cost of propoganda in wartime and offers hope that human spirit, and morality, can overcome tyranny." Stephen Morris, Editor

You can view the piece as it appears in Bristol Review of Books by clicking on the link above and then choosing the option to download and open the document.

This piece of writing first appeared in Foto8 Magazine in Spring 09

Friday 11 September 2009

The Thumb Measure

I was looking forward to reading The Lovely Bones, after finishing Sebold's other novel, The Almost Moon. I admit I was expecting it to be a stronger novel than Moon, if only because of its stellar success as on the bookshelves. For my money, Moon is the better novel. And I think it's about structure, about the place where my thumb rested in the book as I was reading. I haven't considered the significance of this Thumb Measure before, but I thought about it all the way through Bones. I was partly judging the success of the story on how comfortable my thumb felt while I was reading. The Thumb measure is about whether what's happening on the page feels right in terms of how far I am into the book. Will I read on? How soon is it due to end and is there enough story left to satisfy my expectations as as reader?

Moon is told in real time over a day and a half, punctuated with flashbacks. The Thumb Measure felt exactly right, all the way through. When I reached the mid section of the book I felt that I was halfway through the story. The problem I found with Bones was that it could have ended a third of the way through and I wouldn't have felt cheated. The ending was absolutely implicit in the first three chapters of the book. We knew what had happened to the heroine and we knew who did it. The fact that the heroine was in heaven seemed somehow conclusive to me. She was happy there, if unresolved in her feelings towards those on earth. But the ending - her ending - had been reached. The heroine's journey was done. I could not shake that idea no matter how much deeper I ventured into the story.

The Thumb Measure continued to feel out of whack as I read on. And to complicate matters Sebold deployed an ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card: the supernatural. This wasn't a genre novel, her deployment of the supernatural was pragmatic, but she reached for it a little too often for my liking, as a way of avoiding any more complex reasoning or plotting. Let me give a couple of examples. The heroine's father suddenly starts to suspect a neighbour of being his daughter's murderer. This conviction comes from nowhere and arrives ready-made, absolute and unshakeable from the second it hits him. Sebold seemed to be implying that the ghost of his daughter made a gift of the knowledge, but for me it didn't ring true, not quite. I felt as if I'd watched a magician's trick and knew I'd been 'had' but the sleight of hand was to be accepted on all sides.

The ultimate denouement depends on this belief in the supernatural. The heroine's final adventure was like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which robbed it of the quiet dignity I was anticipating from Sebold's lead-in to the moment. And now for the big finale..! The impetus behind it seemed to come from a different genre, one where Love Conquers All and teenage girls have dreamy moments of wonderful fulfilment. Yeuch. The vengeance against her murderer was similarly affected by reference to the supernatural. I cringed when I read it, because it seemed such a pat answer, a sop to the reader's need for a tidy ending. And yet there were moments when Sebold seemed determined not to give us that, when I was certain her message was Life is Messy; Live it. The contrived neat endings felt all wrong to me.

(And what of poor Ruth, the girl used like a glove and cast aside with barely a word as to how her life panned out, and Buckley with his Drumkit that Resolved all Problems? These loose ends bothered me even more given how tidily Sebold finished off other strands in the story.)

One thing I will say is that the cinematic impact of the story was immense. It was full of scenes which will film astoundingly well. And perhaps that was always in the back (or front) of Sebold's mind as she wrote. For me, these set pieces served to highlight the holes elsewhere, as if we were expected to be so dazzled by the spectacle of what was in front of us at any given moment we wouldn't stop to question how it fitted into the overall arc of the story. Onscreen there's no doubt it will work well. In my hand, with my Thumb Measure judging the progress and pace of the story, it fell short of my high expectations.

Saturday 5 September 2009

Sheep are the new Penguins

It may be the Welsh in me but I love this new company, Herdy. They're making woolly rugs and throws and also has the best mugs, notebooks, keyrings and coasters. The Herdybanks are delightful. My Penguin mugs may have to move aside to make way for Herdy. Or maybe I'll mix them up, Penguin mugs on Herdy coasters, writing with a Penguin pencil in a Herdy journal. So many possibilities. What do you think? Is it time for Penguin to push off, or is Herdy a flash-in-the-pan rather than an instant classic? Or am I being woolly-headed and a bit bonkers?

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Confidence and the writer

If it seems I've been blowing my own trumpet a bit loudly of late, please let me explain. This has nothing to do with ego and everything to do with attempting to boost my confidence, a writer's most fragile asset. Mine took a serious drubbing recently and if I've resorted to roll-calling every small success it's only because I need to feel I'm making progress, no matter how minor it might seem to the rest of the world. The real success story has been my new routine of rising at 6am to write for two hours every morning. This has meant the new novel climbed to 22,000 words in two weeks with the result that it now feels like a novel and not a series of randomly related words under a title I keep changing. I'm not saying this first draft is great or even good. I'm under no illusions about the hard graft which lies ahead. But I've turned a corner, got stuck into something new, started over. Alongside this, the small successes themselves count for much in terms of my confidence; they validate my decision to pursue this craft. Perhaps they shouldn't. Perhaps the craft ought to be enough in itself. But I can only rely on my own judgement up to a point. After that point, I need other people's judgement. I am selective in how I respond to this. I don't ask friends or family to pat me on the back. Nor do I hold all editors in the same high esteem, but I am getting better at telling when a judgement is sound. This too is all about confidence.

I can recall more or less precisely the moment when I put aside the textbooks on how to write and learned to trust my instinct. I had listened to enough of the right people saying enough of the right things (and sometimes enough of the wrong things) for me to know when I was on the right track. I realised that I could trust my instinct rather than the opposite. But it doesn't take much to knock that confidence for six, even now. I try not to molly-coddle it too much. I make sure I expose it to knocks which will test it for soundness, the way an expert in fine china will ring a bell with a flick of her fingers to be sure it isn't hiding a hairline crack or three. I'd prefer it didn't get whacked by a hammer, but I don't hide it in bubble-wrap on the top shelf.

I have started to sub to big places, punching above my weight when I can, always raising the bar. But I also sub to venues I've come to trust and like. I hoard the small successes because they give me the confidence to keep punching higher up. Let me give you an example.

A week ago I was despondent about my writing. In a mood that was nine parts masochistic, I subbed a story in anticipation of a rejection. It hit. And another, which also hit. I took my courage in both hands and pitched an idea to the editor of a magazine. It was a cold pitch. I sent him a sample of my writing, the non-fiction piece about my mother's childhood in a prison camp. The editor loved it, asked permission to publish it. And now I'm going to have a headline feature in a respected print magazine with a wide readership in my new city where I'm trying to make my name as a writer. I won't say any more than that until it's published, and I do realise I've come full circle back to my own trumpet, but the point I'm trying to make is that confidence begets confidence. Hoard ye small successes while you may, if I can say that without sounding all hey nonny and a bit insane.

A last word to the lovely Jennifer Stakes, whose blog Writer in the Wilderness invited readers to nominate a collective noun for synopses. I suggested a SOD IT! of Synopses, and Jen was kind enough to award me a beautiful virtual espresso cup as my prize. Perfect for that first strong cup of coffee at 6am. Thanks, Jen!

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Burial of the Bells

I'm lucky enough to be Read of the Day over at Every Day Fiction today with my flash, Burial of the Bells, another story inspired by the Far Eastern prison camp where my family were interned during the Second World War. This started life as a story written for a quick challenge over at the Fiction Workhouse earlier in the year. A fellow Workhouser, Joel Willans, has a story at EDF later this week. The editors, Camille and Jordan, do a terrific job of choosing stories and encouraging writers. If you've not checked out the site recently, you should. And please pop across today to read Burial of the Bells. You can rate it out of five stars (point your cursor at the star you think it deserves, from 1 to 5, then click). Better still, please leave a comment. Thank you!