Writing authentically

You know when parts of your brain fire off each other, as connections from things you’ve read, seen, done spark together?  Well, authenticity has been my food for thought this week.  I start from the premise of a person liking to ‘get things right’ (tendencies towards perfectionism, not always a very helpful thing), so hold that in context.

One of the events I attended at The Port Eliot Festival was a talk given by Kurt Jackson.  At the Q&A at the end, a girl in the audience asked him how he painted the sea – she just couldn’t emulate it no matter how she tried to glean techniques from studying his texts.  “You have to observe the sea, truly know it” he said, almost telling her that she was looking the wrong way.  He told her to experiment with paint, rubbing off, adding, highlighting until you have it.  Or that was the gist of the technique.  He then talked about understanding how something ‘works’ in order to re-create it, and how in working with kids from the city, who don’t know the sea, that it translates so clearly in what they create on paper.  “You know they don’t know the sea,” he said. It’s not authentic is where my mind goes.

I’ve had that experience with writers too.  Someone wants to toss in a scene about sailing, and it shows that they’ve never experienced it.  Also about the world of business, how organisations work.  Not everything runs like a school (where some people’s experience of large functioning organisations end).  It makes me think about my own attempts in raking up the past in my WIP – and why I’ve spent hours pouring over reference books.  I have a good sense of how people lived, what they wore, what they ate, what the houses were like, how they farmed, and how they seemed to a relatively sophisticated 18th Century Scottish adventurer (fairly rustic, it has to be said).  But I’ve some work to do in understanding the religious dogma that was around – hence a  parallel process on searching for sermons, and investigating the Spanish Inquisition.  I’m not aiming for text-book quality, but I want my reader to believe that this is 18th Century Lanzarote. I’m also revelling in studying about volcanoes, and representing the eruption accurately will be an aim of mine.  There won’t be any ash clouds, although it’s tempting to write about it as there’s so much footage/writing after the 2010 explosion of Eyjafjallajokulll.  It wasn’t that kind of volcano.

The nature of authenticity also had me thinking about writing about sailing (the other book I want to write).  The whole language about it when I first started set my head into spins.  I had a similar experience the other day, as I’ve started a ‘learn to row’ (a gig) course – when in Cornwall and all that.  There is a whole new language, and I’m right at the start, AGAIN!  In the 90 minutes of the lesson my mind was completely fused, and I am completely at the “Consciously Incompetent” end of the learning curve, beyond “unconsciously incompetent”. In less polite terms, this means “ignorant” – which is the quality that betrays some writing.  I’ve been reading Tim Winton short stories this last week (what an amazing writer), and noticing the authenticity and authority in his writing.  I could never convey what he does about Australian society, culture or surfing.  Stereotypes don’t create authenticity.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, I don’t believe in ‘write about what we know’, as we’d never have the opportunity to grow as writers. Certainly write about what interests you, but please do it authentically.

A great week!


I just can't resist these smiles!
I just can’t resist these smiles!


Why has it been so?  I feel energised, happy and productive.  These things matter to me, and when I look back on the last week, I can really say that I’ve had a ‘great week’.  Let’s take each of those in turn.

I feel energised. I’ve taken my wellbeing more seriously this week – now that the distraction of family visitors is gone.  I’ve been running, done circuits in the garden (channelling my inner-Kate), done some pilates and in the last few days, I’ve walked miles (19 and the day isn’t yet done).  I’ve eaten better; loads of home-cooked food.  Quality ingredients, simply cooked.  I always feel better about myself when I take better care of myself.  I am energised by it.

I feel happy.  A very good friend has been visiting from London for 48 hours, and it’s been like being wrapped in big squishy hug.  She is fun, warm and we have put the world to right.  She is just lovely to be around, and I feel like I’ve been on a break with her.   She’s the one I’ve walked miles with, and there’s just something so freeing in walking.  The Cornish coastline provides a beautiful backdrop, but in walking, well, I think it clears my process.  I need to store that away as a technique for when I feel stuck/blocked.  An hour walking could make a heck of a difference to my productivity.

I feel productive.  I have been motivated by the Literary Adventure (I fly out four weeks today! Agh!), and this has made my desk-time focussed.  I’m pleased with myself, and even though the work may not be of the highest quality (how can it be in a first draft/dump), it’s been flowing.  My character story lines are filling, and I’m imagining scenes as well as spotting gaps and flaws.  I am eager when I walk up the stairs to my garret to continue writing, which thrills me.  Long may this continue.  I’m toying with the idea of enrolling for NaNoWriMo – as I think this will push me along a little more – and I work well to deadlines.  No doubt I could do it without it, but there’s something motivating, for me, about shared agendas and goals.

Next week has the potential to be as ‘great’, with the company of a good friend replaced by the Falmouth Tall Ships.  Peter and I are volunteering with our RIB, so we will be in the midst of one of the highlight’s in Falmouth’s calendar.. with plenty of space for writing.

The well-worn path of progress


I think that I’ve been in a wormhole in time, as I can’t believe it’s a month since I sat down for my last blog.  I haven’t been slacking, and I’m happy to report that I’m making steady progress on my WIP.  The path feels familiar, and I’m impressed at myself in staying with the process of just putting one foot ahead of the other.

There are times when I flounder, and in picking up my notes about Lancerota, I found the print out of the Snowflake Method that I mentioned some months back.  Since coming back, I’ve been working on the characters.  I have a really good feel for four of them, and this week I realised that I needed a couple more ‘gritty’ characters to create some tension, so I’m enjoying raising quite a dark character.  So, the first few steps of the snowflake are done, and I’m now moving on towards an outline for a novel (step four), and then the detailed character portraits, character synopses (step five).  I think then I’ll really feel like I have the skeleton of the novel.  This method, so far, is working for me.  As you may have noticed, I’ve also been writing the book reviews (I still have a couple more to go), which I’m convinced is sharpening my writer’s mind.  It’s a good discipline, and I hope that I’ll keep it up…

Meantime, in all of this, I’m continuing to do writing practice.  Rather like a musician doing scales, I’ve been doing writing exercises and my daily writing journal.  As an example, in Donald Maass’s book, he talks about writing passionately, about things that matter.  Last week I surprised myself in my writing practice in writing out an essay on things that ‘get my goat’ (the title for the exercise), and looking back at it, you can certainly say the writing is passionate, even if it isn’t very well crafted.  Some of those aspects I am sure will wean their way into my characters voices.

On another matter, I decided that I wanted to go on a writing course.  Somewhere that would allow me to ‘go deep’ and focus on the craft of writing for a week, so I’ve signed up with The Literary Consultancy for A Literary Adventure – in Spain, in September.  I need to arrive there with a bit more than my notebook and scribblings, so I have a self-imposed deadline to work through steps four and five as listed above.  I’m really excited about this opportunity, but I’m sure will be quite terrified nearer the time.  But until then, I’d better get writing!


Book Review: We Are Called To Rise, Laura McBride


We Are Called to Rise tells the stories of four people – a woman in a crumbling marriage, a soldier waking up knowing he’s done something dreadful, a kindly social worker and a boy from an immigrant family.  These lives collide in one miserable incident, and it is ultimately a story about the boy’s fate.

This is an outstanding novel – a debut novel.  McBride gives an emotional tour de force, with tension on every page.  She gives us characters we care about, and captures their individual voices and actions to great skill.  It is the character of the boy, Bashkim, that moved me the most.  The simplicity and innocence of his view on life and his world is incredible writing.

We Are Called to Rise is loosely based on a real incident that took place in Las Vegas, where the book is set, and where Mc Bride is proud to call home.  The book is written in the first person, with multiple narratives as each of the characters takes a scene (it is very much imaginable as a film script).  These people are isolated from each other, and you wonder how their lives are going to be connected – and then you wish they weren’t.  The central point focuses on Las Vegas, as one by one the layers emerge as a spider’s web of threads form around the boy, Bashkim.

It is a book of many themes – loss, marriage, immigration, war, PTSD (with two veterans featured), families (the ones we have and the ones we make), domestic abuse, violence and sacrifice – in doing the right thing.  Despite this list of rather gritty themes, there are some joyous comic moments, like Avis’ (the woman who’s marriage is hitting the rocks) attempts to spice up her sex life.

I almost read the book in one sitting, one Saturday evening, but did not want to rush the end in the small hours.  That night I dreamt of Bashkim, and how I might rescue him and of Luis, the soldier, and how he might turn out.  The ending of We Are Called To Rise was powerful.  It made me cry – and very few books do this to me.

I highly recommend this book – above all others reviewed recently!

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling


Barry Fairbrother dies creating a vacancy in the Parish Council.  It is not a harmonious time in local matters, with issues between the idyllic village of Pagford and its District Council Town of Yarvill over the area known as The Fields (a council estate).  As Barry Fairbrother lies in his grave, the candidates emerge.  Rowling’s character call is extensive, involving six families.  Each is given time and space to reveal themselves as a complex web of relationships emerges.

This is a quietly written novel that needs its length in order to allow for these characters to develop, and for me, it took a while to grapple with some of them.  That’s not to say it felt slow, or cumbersome; on the contrary.  There are parallels in life, and the ordinariness of events, lives and people is one of its strength – at the risk of comparing to her infamous HP series – a stark contrast to the magical worlds she created there.  The Casual Vacancy is beautifully observed, with characters that seem so real.  There are two generations within most families (three in the case of the Weedons and the Mollisons), with more sympathy elicited towards the younger generations.  The adults are unlikeable characters on the whole, as Rowling reveals some of the worst of human behaviours, at the same time, revealing somethings in all of us.  Within the murky stories are some huge issues – addiction, rape, mental health issues (OCD and depression), domestic abuse, self-harming, adultery, and a great deal of loss.

There are many levels of conflict in The Casual Vacancy, beyond the issue of who will fill the shoes of Barry Fairbrother (the only likeable adult, but as he’s dead, that’s probably a rose-tinted view, as his widow points out.).  There are tensions between friends, and the awful behaviour of self-centred Fats, tensions between parents and their children – in all families – and between the residents of Pagford without the issue of the vacancy.

Ultimately the filling of the casual vacancy doesn’t become the centre of the book, and when this comes, it’s like an after thought, and as a reader, I’d gone beyond that, because I’d become caught up in what mattered in the book, for me.  This was Krystal Weedon, and the fate of her half-brother, Robbie.

At the beginning, I hadn’t really expected for The Casual Vacancy to grip me, but it was a ‘just one more chapter’ book.  It quietly grew on me, not for any affinity for the people in it (except Krystal Weedon who I did want to rescue), but because I was caring what happened to them – and what the comeuppance might be!  It is the young people in the book that ‘steal’ it, as they are far more likeable, with far more hope, than their rather shallow, unlikeable parents.

There is a dark, tragic end to the book, and at the risk of giving too much away, where the self-centred behaviours of the self-obsessed adults contributes to its denouement.  This left me reeling, and ultimately reflecting why my reaction was so intense.  Few books bring me to tears, but this one did.

An immensely enjoyable read, and if you like character driven novels, this one is for you.

Book review: The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt



The Goldfinch is a painting by Fabritis, and on loan to MoMA in New York.  In a tragic set of events, 13 year-old Theo Decker acquires this valuable painting, losing his mother at the same time.  The Goldfinch follows Theo’s life, into his mid-twenties, as he struggles with this loss, and the dilemma of what to do with this piece of art.  He meets more tragedy, and makes friends with an eccentric Russian, Boris, who is somewhat of a salvation – an angel with black wings – and who eventually helps Theo in more ways than he was expecting.

The Goldfinch is an incredible novel, a completely bumpy ride.  It is told in the first person narrative, which allows us to get under the skin of Theo, the protagonist.  At times this is painful, because whilst initially I felt pity for Theo, he soon grew on my nerves.  Theo’s life takes him through several dramatic events, which ultimately shape him, but he has a wont for self-destruction that is disturbing – and frustrating.  At times you want to shake him to his senses, or for someone else to, but Theo is adept at keeping just enough of a distance.  Boris, with an appetite for drink and drugs, sums it up when he tells Theo that he, himself, is a happy drunk, but that Theo is more dangerous.

Boris is the most brilliant character, for me.  He is shallow, drug-taking, drug-trading, a thief, and yet he is absolutely engaging, and evidently cares for Theo, providing an ally when everyone else seems to let him down.  The Las Vegas years had me gripped, and in a different way, the denouement of the book in Amsterdam – this is a period that well-earns the word ‘crazy’, as Theo descends into the underworld and a drug-fuelled binge to try to escape the realities of the situation.

Tartt does sprinkle the book with sympathetic characters, none more so than Hobie, the man who eventually comes to be Theo’s almost-guardian and teacher – giving him a trade, antiques and restoration, which will both save him, and cost him.

The Goldfinch is a book with pace, and is a complete page-turner.  It is separated into five ‘acts’, with chapters and sub-chapters within it.  Tartt’s writing is exquisite in places, with the slowing of time in some phases (like the MoMa) so much that it almost stops, and you find you haven’t taken a breath.  Other phases, time has whooshed by, and you have dropped a couple of years.  This didn’t matter to me, but may annoy some readers (like my husband).

The climax of the book, the crazy period, is incredibly fast paced, followed by this period where Theo is holed up in Amsterdam, and the ending in itself is a long soliloquy, with a reflective Theo.  This is an indulgent ending, I think, and ties everything up in a ‘psycho-babble’ way (as my husband puts it).  It really annoyed him, and it didn’t sit well with me, in the context of the rest of the book, where a grittier ending might have been better given that Theo is in his mid-twenties when the book ends, and not in the later years of his life when such reflections might be more realistic.  He just didn’t feel like he ‘grew’ that much as a person in the book.

Overall a book that is well worth a read, and one which keeps the reader gasping through to the end.