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Into Deep Water

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Fri, June 09, 2017 17:22:48

Into Deep Water

I had a green-eyed moment recently.

I’m not too prone to these. I’ve abandoned the fantasy that writing is going to make me a lot of money and that I’ll be able to give up the day job. I do it because I love it and I have stories I want to tell and to be read. I’m very happy that I have had four novels commercially published and that these have won some acclaim in some prestigious national competitions.

But recently a very famous author – who is now well-off enough to give up work to write full-time, the holy grail for all of us – has had a lot of publicity over her new novel, which is also likely to become a million seller.

And here’s the thing that gave me my green-eyed moment: the plot sounds really similar to one of my novels.

In In Too Deep (2013), set in a small and small-minded Northumberland town, a woman is drowned in a manner very similar to the old tradition of witch-ducking. This happened because she was a troublesome woman, a journalist who’s about to expose some unwanted information about some local people. It’s down to another woman – her friend – to eventually reveal what happened to her.

I’m very proud of this story: it was my debut novel in terms of writing and of publishing. And I happen to think it was a strong and original concept.

Now let’s turn to a brand-new book you will almost certainly have heard of. Into the Water is the second novel by Paula Hawkins, who of course shot to fame with The Girl on the Train.

I hadn’t read it, though I enjoyed Hawkins’ first novel. I was aware of it, though: it’s been reviewed in every national newspaper and magazine I’ve seen lately, there are humongous posters for it in the railway stations and if you go into Waterstones, someone runs up and beats you around the head with it.

But it really came to my attention because someone I know read it and said, “It’s very similar to your novel.”

In what way? Well: it’s set in a small and small-minded Northumberland town. A woman is drowned in a manner very similar to the old tradition of witch-ducking. This happened because she was a troublesome woman, a writer who’s about to expose some unwanted information about some local people. It’s down to another woman to eventually reveal what happened to her.

Hmph. Sounded pretty familiar to me. I had a brief moment of jealousy – that was “my” story and not only is it likely to make Hawkins more millions, she’s already signed up for the film rights. You see, when others dream of winning the Lottery, I dreamed of the day a script editor would pick up In Too Deep in a charity shop and love it. Hawkins’ success means that’s now even more unlikely than it ever was.

When I posted this on Facebook, my friends rallied round and shared my outrage. One even kindly looked up the copyright laws. But actually: I just wanted a bit of a moan. I had no intention of doing anything about it – nor should I.

I honestly don’t believe this is a case of someone nicking my story. I don’t think for one second that Paula Hawkins has even heard of my novel, let alone read it. The similarities are genuinely coincidental. The fact is, there is no copyright on ideas. And nor should there be.

There’s a theory – you may even have read the book – that all stories are a variation on just seven general themes. Who’s to decide who told the very first version of star-crossed lovers, or of children with magic powers, or of a quest to defeat a monster? And who’s to rule that no one else can have a crack at telling their own version of any story at all? The world would be a lesser place if every story had to be 100% new. And of course, once you get past those plot points, there are more differences between In Too Deep and Into the Water than there are similarities. Because you can give any number of writers the same inspiration and they will all do something unique with it. That’s the wonder of storytelling.

So I wish Paula Hawkins all the very best of luck – genuinely. Any writer who gets to where she has in a tough environment deserves her success. And after all, it’s a really terrific storyline. Who wouldn’t want to read it?

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Sunsets and Humbugs

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sun, May 21, 2017 10:20:54
This blog post was originally published on the Author Allsorts site on 19th May 2017:

Perfect lives. Everyone has them but ourselves. Or at least, that’s how it seems when we view people’s Facebook or Instagram posts.

How come? Because we’re all being highly selective with the information we share. We only post the cute dog pictures, not the poop bags and hairy-drool trails. We only share the best sunsets, not the average grey and dusty days. We show off our best chocolate cakes, the Walton-esque family photos, our good hair days and five-star reviews.

The problem is this highly stylised version of semi-reality isn’t doing us any good. In a 2014 poll of around 1,500 social media users by the charity Scope, 62 per cent said these sites made them feel inadequate about their own life or achievements and 60 per cent said they make them feel jealous of other people’s lives. We all tut-tut about airbrushed models in magazines, but we constantly air-brush our own experiences – even though it’s likely to have the same inadequising (I may have made that word up!) effect on others. There’s a fine line between the social media post and the social media boast.

It’s not surprising that writers are particularly good at this ruthless editing to create the image of a perfect life. Many authors are also particularly skilled at that subtle but insidious interaction, the ‘humble-brag’ – as in: ‘I’m such a flake – just can’t decide between my two publishers!’ or ‘Eek! About to talk about my book on national TV! So nervous!!’ Grrr.

I’m not saying writers have to be perfect, model citizens, of course. But on social media some of us become a Mary Sue (or Marty Stu): defined as ‘a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting’. We as writers should know better than this – and yet on Facebook and twitter we turn ourselves into an impossibly sweet, relentlessly positive ideal of who we really are.

But writers, of all people, should be leading the charge against this kind of thing. Why? Because although our job is to make up stories, the purpose of making up those stories is actually to get at a kind of truth. We’re trying to make connections, to have a reader recognise themselves or relate to the characters we create. We write about dystopia in order to expose what’s wrong with society today. Characters who don’t tell the whole truth, in children’s fiction, usually get what’s coming to them. The golden, popular kid is never the interesting one and very rarely the hero.

I may have posted the odd sunset in my time. Guilty as charged. But anyone who follows me on social media knows that I am more likely to post my fails than my successes and that I am frequently given to grumpy comments. Because that’s what I’m really like. Hashtag:NotPollyanna.

So writers: let’s stop this sunsettery and humbugginess. Let’s become more honest and rounded on social media – and let’s confine our ruthless editing to our fiction. We’ll all feel better for it.

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Getting the Facts Right

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Tue, April 11, 2017 09:35:59
I'm over on the Author Allsorts blog talking about 'getting the facts' right in historical fiction:

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To new beginnings

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sat, December 31, 2016 14:54:19

There are days on the calendar that we like to imbue with some kind of unworldly power. Often, these are religious feasts such as Christmas and Easter. For the increasing numbers of us who don’t subscribe to a faith, these are days we join in for reasons of convention (or just for the chocolate).

But for me, there are days of the year that do have a special kind of magic. They are these nameless, quiet days in between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The lights and greenery still decorate the house, but the sense of anticipation is gone and the busy-ness has died away.

I know that some of us get wrenched straight back onto the work treadmill. But for many, these are strange days that feel somehow out of normal time. We forget what weekday it is. We sleep longer and we drop all rules about what we should eat and drink and when we should do it. There are often days when it barely gets light before it’s dark again – as I write, it’s just after two in the afternoon and it’s definitely dusk.

That closed-down quietness feels nurturing. Not having to read other people’s writing has cleared my mind and I have written more productively in the last week than I have for much of the year.

And there is the feeling that we’re all about to be somehow renewed. 2016 is shutting down. Our rational minds know that time and the calendar is an artificial construct, of course. Although those terrible events and losses were nothing to do with some sort of cursed year, when the clock ticks past midnight we will all feel that we can, in some sense, close them off. January the First is all about promises and possibilities.

Whatever we did or did not achieve in 2016 belongs to the past and we are on a clean, blank page. And for a writer – what could be more exciting?

May 2017 bring you everything you wish.

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Season's Greetings!

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sun, December 25, 2016 13:55:02
Have a fantastic time this festive season! Here's to a hopeful 2017. x

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Merry Christmas

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sun, December 18, 2016 20:12:17
Yes, I know. More months of radio silence. More weak apologies. What can I say?

Here come the excuses:

In September, I started a new job. This is full-time and teaching journalism at Leeds Beckett University. So far, I am loving every moment of it. The course is rated fourth in the whole of the country by The Guardian. So I am proud to be here. But like any new job, it's taken some settling in!

Here I am with some of the third year students on our last newsday - the festive dress code was to raise money for Save the Children.

And in October I started another new job (part-time!). I'm tutoring on the Open University's brand new creative writing MA course.

Add that to my other stuff (the OCA, the Penguin Random House Writers' Academy) and I hope you will forgive me for letting the blog slip (again). I will try to do better.

It's been a great year for me personally, in terms of the new jobs. The YA novel The Misper is to be published in 2017 - and if you think I am being vague about the detail, then you'd be right, as there are still some contract issues being sorted out (months after I thought we were home and dry!).

To be honest, though, what with Trump and Brexit and Syria and all of that shiz, I don't think I would count 2016 as one of the best years ever. This Stephen Collins cartoon sums it up - do check out his work, as he always makes me laugh.

Thanks to everyone who's supported me and my writing this year and for following my all-too-sporadic blog.

Have a lovely Christmas - try reading and writing. They always work for me!

I wish all of us the gift of hope in 2017.

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Feeding my brain at Berwick Literary Festival

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sat, October 22, 2016 19:05:48

Anyone who knows me is aware that I have several jobs at the moment and so finding the time to take a breath and think about books and writing has fallen, sadly, to the bottom of my ‘must’ list.

So it was wonderful to be forced into it – in the friendliest of ways – this weekend. Berwick Literary Festival in my home town is in its third year and I’ve been lucky enough to be part of it since its inception.

On Friday, I held a short story writing class. (I’ve been chewing over the term ‘masterclass’. It feels like a male term to me. Someone kindly told me that my masterclass ‘was indeed masterly’, which was a lovely compliment, but it did feel as if I was being complimented in a male-ish way, rather like being told I’m a good man. Am I wrong, anyone? And is there a gender-neutral way of saying ‘masterclass’?)

Anyway, the short story ‘expert tutorial’ – for want of a better phrase – attracted a very talented group of twelve aspiring writers, who – I hope – all went home with a good head start on a new story and some advice on how to structure and to complete it. Teaching writing is always an inspiring thing to do.

But Saturday was my day for enjoying other authors’ work. It was fascinating to be in conversation with the journalist and non-fiction writer Andrew Hankinson, hearing how he came to write the compelling You Could Do Something Wonderful With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat].

We discussed why he was drawn to this tragic story and the ethical considerations in using the reams of material collected after Moat’s death. It’s a gripping read – even if we all know the end of the story – and a deep insight into the mind of a man who’s just committed murder. If you want to know what could drive someone to that, then this is the book that examines it.

I went straight from there to hear Shelley Day in conversation with former Tyne Tees political editor Gerry Foley, who has the kind of resonant voice and Irish accent I could listen to all day. I knew a little about Shelley’s novel, The Confession of Stella Moon, in its making, but Gerry’s insightful questions and the author’s open and generous answers were truly enriching.

It reminded me why festivals like this are so important. As an author, connecting with readers is vital. As a reader, hearing the processes and the creative practice behind the writing of a novel gives extra depth and meaning to the act of reading.

I feel as if, for an afternoon, I stepped off the treadmill and fed my brain. Remind me to do this more often, won’t you?

Thanks to Shelley for sending me this pic of my books in the local bookstore window! Always nice to see!

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What happens next?

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sat, August 27, 2016 18:03:12
What happens after you sign a publishing contract?

I've been with three different publishers now and in every case, the process was the same.

Shy, introverted writer types, listen up: once you have signed the contract, the first thing publishers want to talk about is ...publicity.

Yes. That. Not the plan for editing, or indeed anything directly connected to how you write. But how the book's going to be marketed.

Every publisher I've worked with has sent me a very prompt form to fill in, asking for information like: my author bio, with any points of interest. What are my local news outlets? Who do I know who could help publicise my book? Would I undertake a blog tour? Which bloggers do I know? Would I object if they give out my number to the media and am I prepared to do interviews? And please would I send a pic?

I spent some time working through this form yesterday, with the input of my agent this time (a luxury I haven't had before). As a former journalist, this really doesn't daunt me and I am happy to be involved in this part of the process. But I am very aware that there are some writers who find this terrifying. To you, I can only say sorry, because you will need to get over yourself.

There are others who just think that somehow, the publisher should take care of all of this for you, without you having to worry your artistic little brain about it. Only... even if they do a lot of marketing, they'll still need information to work with, as they can't know all about you by osmosis. And actually - isn't it better to have a level of control and input into how you and your work are publicised?

Please don't say the words 'Elena Ferrante' at this point, unless you want me to put my head in my hands. Just as JK Rowling is the exception when it comes to author earnings, so Ferrante is the exception when it comes to being widely read without having any kind of public profile. The rest of us lesser mortals will not get away with this anonymity (and actually, as a journalist, I find it deeply annoying and up-your-own-a**e to expect it). Even if you think it's a wonderful approach, Ferrante's trick is only interesting once and now it's been done.

So, as a new writer, be ready for this: the post-contract marketing proforma. Have some thoughts to help your publisher along. Get a photo you are reasonably happy with. And be prepared to help muster up some interest. These days, publicity is part of the writer's role, along with the production of the content, so please don't berate your publisher. After all, they're trying to sell your books, not ruin your life. And actually - if you allow it - this part of the process can be great fun.

Trust me. I'm a journalist. And I've been there before.

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