All posts by Sarah

Absence makes the plot grow stronger

By Christina Prado

What makes a piece of writing successful?  The answer is less about the words than you might think. What will really make or break your literary efforts are the ideas that govern and shape your work. In this sense, the actual business of writing begins long before any marks at all land on the page. I refer, of course, to that woefully undervalued element of the writer’s working day — staring into space.

True, you may not be scribbling furiously, burning up the paper; you may not be hammering the keys or filling the screen; you may not, in the least, appear to be working, but you are. For, in that moment of seeming absence, in those invisible innermost regions of your brain, you are testing out your idea. You are nurturing it, working out its weaknesses and strengths, being honest about its potential to be a winner in a world that is challenging and competitive. You are deciding whether it is robust enough to take its first steps out onto the gleaming white page.

Once your idea is out there, be brave enough to let it make its own way for a while. One note of caution here; at this stage, it is advisable to keep a rein on. Ideally, the retractable kind. Why? Well, because this is where the words come out to play.

Beautiful, glorious, seductive, alluring, frisky words. More than a million of them in the English language. It’s a minefield out there. You certainly do not want unsuitable words to lead your idea from the path you have so carefully mapped out for it. A quick press on the button marked “Retract” will bring it back, just where you want it.

However, it is just possible that your idea might meet some words that are good for it; ones that make it stronger, more exciting, more at peace with itself than it would be without them. These new influences may require you to adjust your thinking, to develop your idea in a direction you did not anticipate.

At times like these, you would do well to cease your scribbling or hammering; to lay down your pen or close your laptop; to peer into the middle distance, an unseeing look in your eye. While you are doing this, remember; you are not simply staring into space.


James Hannah: Q&A

After Barbarians by Tim Glencross wowed the critics, we can’t wait to see what readers and reviewers think of the next of our group to be published; James Hannah with The A-Z of You and Me.

Read on to find out what he thinks drumming and writing have in common.

James, introduce yourself in 50 words.

I’m a novelist, and divide my time between Shropshire and London. I have an MA in Beckett Studies from the University of Reading and its Beckett International Foundation. My novel The A-Z of You and Me is due out in spring 2015 through Transworld Doubleday.

James Hannah | Claire Cousin Photography

Tell me about your journey to getting published. 

I’ve been writing myself to sleep at night since 1992. In my notebooks, the paragraphs always start out neat, but they flatline as I fall asleep. In spring 2011, a friend told me about the Curtis Brown course, and it happened to coincide with days I was down in London, anyway.

I leaned heavily on tips for submissions from the course, and they helped me sign with my agent, Sue Armstrong at Conville & Walsh. She helped me to refine the manuscript until it was watertight, and we managed to place it with a publisher shortly before Christmas 2013. I’m currently working with Jane Lawson at Transworld on making it somewhat more than watertight – with plush interiors and a grand staircase.

How much had you written before the course? How much has the story changed? 

The A-Z of You and Me was perhaps three-quarters finished in a linear sense. The story hasn’t changed at all; rather, it has been tested in a number of different ways. It’s become more robust, and the characters have had to justify themselves more. A certain amount of unnecessary “writerliness” has been removed. It’s not tolerated at the moment, like so much guitar soloing.

What are you working on right now? 

I’m shaping up one or two sections of The A-Z of You and Me that didn’t make it into the final novel. I’d like to see if I can place them as the equivalent of a non-album “singles” (Creation Records style).

Which book or author inspired you to get writing?

I often reflect on Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle, which came at an important time when my mind was very receptive to new work. I read it shortly after it won the Booker prize in 1993, and somehow it felt supernaturally good. I’d never read anything quite like it, and perhaps that’s a very personal response. It told me all sorts of stuff I already knew, but hadn’t recognised within myself. The idea that writing should ignite what’s already in the reader’s mind is very appealing to me; it seems almost magical when it works.

Tell us about how you write. 

I play drums in a band, and I approach writing in the same way I approach drumming. The A-Z of You and Me. It’s based on a very tight formal structure, but when I was writing it, I kept it loose and left as much room for improvisation as possible. I didn’t think about scenes before writing them, and tried to allow my subconscious to lead the way.

This all sounds awful, as I say it, but it does encourage unexpected connections. It’s the same with drumming: you can control a song by dropping a beat, adding a beat, stopping altogether – but you don’t actually think about those things. You just instinctively try them.

In drumming and writing, the moment I start thinking, I’m dead.

Find out more about The A-Z of You and Me here, or here to find out more about James.