Writing Process Blog Hop

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Historical Novelist Louise Turner, who wrote the excellent Fire and Sword, has tagged me in the latest (or almost the latest) writing blog hop. I have to answer some questions about my writing, and if you are reading this and you are a writer, I’d be happy to tag you to write your own version a week from now. So, here goes…

1) What am I working on?

Well, I’ve got quite a bit further with my first novel since I last mentioned it, and as usual, I’m writing poems all the time, which actually come a lot more naturally to me. The novel, under the working title The Crocus-Gatherers, has now got to the end of the first draft, but I know there’s more to do on the characterisation. I have to make the reader know and care about my lead character as much as I do, but I don’t think I have really got her on to paper sufficiently as yet.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

What genre is that? I suppose it is a kind of thriller. My husband says it’s not so much a “whodunnit” as a “whydunnit”. I’ve woven a kind of mystery story using a lot of what I learned about the workings of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. I think it is different because my lead characters who are scientists who are good at what they do but are actually ‘normal’ people – not ‘boffins’ or autistic-savants, just bright people trying to learn something about the way the world works as well as negotiate their way through the academic and office politics they find themselves in. They go to the pub, they fall in love, they watch TV and eat pizza, but they are also trying to bring new medicines into the world, which is both an intellectual puzzle and a great motivating factor in their lives.

The poems are really a response to living in the world, continually questioning what I find there and wondering about it. They come from a different part of my brain from the novel. Fiction is a cerebral pursuit, like writing an essay for a college course. It comes from the higher part of the brain. Poems are deeper-seated. Like many poets, I get a funny feeling when there’s the seed of a poem arriving in my head: a restless and melancholy feeling, like homesickness or nostalgia. If my poems are different from anyone else’s, I’d say that quirky subjects appeal to me, and I want readers to see the world slightly differently after reading one of my poems.

3) Why do I write what I do?

The novel – because I am a storyteller and I have a story to tell. Because I want to entertain and, to a lesser extent, to show readers a different world from the one they inhabit.

The poetry – who knows? I think it is because I am always questioning everything I see, and living “the examined life”, and therefore I think I have something to say.

4) How does my writing process work?

With the novel it involves procrastinating, flicking through facebook and twitter, and avoiding any actual writing as long as possible. I do a lot of research, mostly on line, and when I find a little fact that will add to my plot, I get very enthused. I write on a rather old-fashioned PC in our little study. Sometimes I stop and watch the birds in the neighbour’s garden, and the Red Kites wheeling overhead. I’m not somebody who works through the night; I think afternoons and early evenings are my best writing time, especially with tea – not any fancy Darjeeling or Earl Grey, just regular Builders’ Tea with milk. What I am finding at the moment is that I am pretty hopeless at editing.

With the poems, once I get that funny poemy feeling, a line often pops into my head. Or sometimes I start from a line scribbled in a notebook – I carry a notebook most of the time. It’s often the first line of a poem, sometimes a last line. More rarely it’s a bit in the middle. I then start scribbling – in pencil if possible – and within a few hours I’ve got the basic poem down and I type it up and tinker with it. Then it works on a sort of 80:20 basis; it can take a few days or a few months to edit it, tidy it up, look for rhymes and chimes, and fiddle with the line and stanza breaks. The poems that get on to the page the most quickly and easily are usually the best ones. I’m lucky to have a number of people to send my poem drafts to, who will give me good and constructive feedback.

So, I hope I’ve answered those questions adequately!

William Thirsk-Gaskill is hereby tagged to provide his answers to those same questions next week.

I’m very happy to tag two more writers who would like to say something about their own work-in-progress, and their writing process.

The Next (but one) Big Thing

There has been this meme going round lately – I’m told it is called a “blog-hop” in which writers answer ten questions about the book they are working on, and then tag their writer friends to do the same the following week.  Susanna Jones, one of our Creative Writing lecturers at Royal Holloway, has several published books already, and was kind enough to tag me for this week, so here goes:

1.       What is the working title of your next first book?

I was planning to call it ‘The Gift of Artemis’, which sounds a bit pompous, but ‘Artemis’ Gift’ has a tricky possessive apostrophe, and if I switched the goddess’ name to ‘Diana’, all the Daily Express readers would get over-excited. So, the short answer is, I’m not quite sure. What do you think?

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

People say ‘write what you know’ and I spent twenty years in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, so that seemed like a good place to start.  Also, I was incensed by John Le Carré’s portrayal of pharma companies as nasty, unethical exploiters of African patients in The Constant Gardener, so I wondered if I could redress the balance a little.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction? Cerebral thriller? Medical Mystery Tour?

4. What actors would you choose to play the characters in a movie rendition?

Well, the female protagonist, Sarah, is a researcher in Chemistry at Oxford University.  In my mind’s eye she looks like a woman I was an undergraduate with many years ago.  She has a few Bridget Jonesey qualities, so Renee Zellweger might be an obvious choice, or maybe Rosamund Pike or Jessica Hynes. Helping her is Ben, a rather flippant and cynical young man who works for a biotech start-up company. That’s a job for someone like James McEvoy or Matthew Macfadyen, perhaps.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Scientists uncover the story of a plant with healing properties, and go in search of it. But they find they are not the only people interested…

6. Is your book represented by an agency?

My agent is Anna Power at Johnson & Alcock.  She signed me up on the basis of my poetry, but I’ve shown Anna a draft of the first chapter and she said she would like to read some more.  So I had better write some more… (I’m writing this to shame myself into getting re-started)

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

You are asking that in the wrong tense.  I’m still working on the first draft.  I’ve had 15,000 words written since 2005. Corporate life and poetry have been in the way ever since. There’s nothing but Facebook, Twitter and housework stopping me now.

8. What other books would you compare this to within your genre?

I’m re-reading A.S.Byatt’s Possession at the moment, for inspiration.  I love the way she weaves in such a huge amount of detail, some fact, some fiction, to make a tale of literary research so intriguing. I also aspire to write like Robertson Davies’ Cornish Trilogy.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Mr Le Carré, as mentioned above.  Plus, I was snoozing in bed one morning and heard a report on the Today programme about the Pringle Archive, which is a real and mysterious collection of medical correspondence collected by an 18th Century Scottish physician. For many years this archive was kept unopened due to a provision in Pringle’s will, but a court case in 2004 overturned this wish, and the bequest was opened up to researchers. I wrote to the Royal College of Physicians of Scotland in Edinburgh, and they let me go and take a look at it. That’s where the trail starts.

10. What else about this book might pique the reader’s interest?

I’m putting in all sorts of detail about ancient medicine and magic, biblical arcana, botanically-based drugs, and the history of science in general from Paracelsus to the Patent Office.

I’ve tagged several writers to tell you about their Next big Thing next Wednesday:

Alexandra Clare is a novelist and short story writer who writes on her long commute by train. Her work is at www.twentysixwordstories.blogspot.co.uk

Sarah McEvoy is a writer of science fiction and fantasy.  Her facebook page is here.

Kate Noakes is an accomplished poet with three published collections and another one almost ready.  She is working on her first novel and you will find the details here.

Susie Campbell writes poetry and prose, and had just embarked on the MSt course in Oxford. Her blog is here.

Laura Johnson is a friend of Sarah McEvoy’s and asked to be tagged.  I’m looking forward to hearing about her book!