Thursday, 29 March 2012

A Real Character: Me

After my last blog post exploring whether we consciously manufacture personalities for social media like Twitter, I was interested to read Isabel Costello’s piece about creating characters for fiction. She then (very bravely) set out to bring herself to life on the page by writing about various aspects of her own character and experiences. Susan Elliot Wright followed suit, and #realcharacter was born.
Here is my rendition of myself. If you’d like to take part in #realcharacter, just blog about yourself as we have, then tweet a link, using the #realcharacter hashtag. You’ll be found and retweeted.

Recommended reading for onlies
I’m an only child, born to parents who had experienced the agony of a stillbirth son a few years earlier. So feel free to throw all those usual adjectives – spoilt, over-protected, selfish – at me. I’m old enough now to acknowledge the (relative) truth of them, although this upbringing also means I’m a loyal friend, honest to a fault, and can spell really well.

My Mum’s family were well-off Dorset farmers whom she defied to marry a young army chef from Walsall. They relented the day before the wedding, and Dad was accepted, with reservations, into the fold. The upside was he could fuel his car from the farm's petrol pump. But in return he was expected to help out occasionally with the harvest and other tasks. I remember him coming home later than expected one evening from visiting an aged uncle. He was a little pale and dishevelled: he’d had to assist in a calf’s breech birth.
I have 21 cousins on my Dorset side, all but two female. Our last get-together was when our grandmother reached 90; the Reads are a gratifyingly long-lived bunch. This was some years ago, but it was obvious we had all inherited the pear-shape gene.
I escaped from the country as soon as I could, moving to London at 18 to work in Harrods and live in a hostel run by The Girls’ Friendly Society (yes, really). Back then London was fun, as long you had a job to pay for going out. I loved the theatre, the cinema, the shopping. In my twenties I was, I admit it, a Yuppie who (whisper it) did pretty well under Mrs Thatcher, buying and selling several flats for profit. But at 30, given the chance to move to Nottinghamshire with my job at Boots, I ended up living in a tiny village. My rural roots were dragging me back. Which is probably why I now live in the Scottish Borders, sharing my life with 19 chickens, 3 dogs and a geriatric cat. I’m also on my second husband, and as he’s Scottish we won’t be moving south any time soon.
As a typical only child I’m rubbish at team games and until a few years ago never found physical exercise at all tempting, except for walking and then only with a dog. But at 50 I joined a gym and discovered weight-training. I go two or three times a week, and although I’m not muscled up a la Madonna, my core fitness has improved to the extent that I now feel worse if I don’t work out. I can’t see the point of cigarettes, excessive alcohol or drugs, and have a pretty low tolerance of those who do. However, I love chocolate, smoked salmon and the occasional glass of champagne.

Monument Valley, Arizona

Despite hating to fly (it’s that rare combination of scary and boring) I love visiting America, especially the wide-open bits like Montana and Arizona. I also adore travelling by train and hope to take my husband to Paris one day.
Do I need to say that my favourite habit is reading?

Despite, or perhaps because of, my father suffering from depression all his adult life, I am infuriatingly cheerful most of the time. I enjoy my life and appreciate how lucky I am to be able to write every day. I’ve also realised I am an autodidact: I revel in teaching myself new things. Hence starting a degree course at Edinburgh when I was 40 and now completing it via the Open University. And of course writing is one long lesson . . .
I consider myself sociable but am sometimes intimidated by large groups of people and prefer to chat one-to-one. At a recent dinner party I was told by someone I had only just met that I am ‘aggressively nice’. She meant it as a compliment, so I have taken it as such.
Being childless, I am probably living proof of the alleged need we all have to ‘mother’ something. At one point I had 6 cats, now I indulge myself with chickens.
Skills (or otherwise)
Aside from the word-manipulation abilities I possess, I don’t shine at much, especially not physical skills. However, when my husband started working for himself as a stonemason, before he could afford an employee I used to restore the outside walls of houses with him. I was hardly gazelle-like climbing up the scaffold, but once there I showed a talent for chipping out the old mortar and repointing the joints. We both look back fondly on those days.

One of the walls I worked on, waiting to be repointed

And one more thing . . .
About ten years ago I met someone who had a profound influence on my ambition to be a professional writer. Her name was Sylvian Hamilton and she had three books, the Chronicles of the Bone Pedlar, published when she was in her 60s. She lived in a tiny cottage not far from here, with her husband and two Siamese cats.
We met when my husband did some work for her and mentioned I wanted to be a writer. ‘She must come for tea,’ Sylvian said, and I subsequently spent many happy visits talking about books and writing. She taught me that you can write at any age, and that dreams can come true even to those of us who lead humdrum lives in rural Scotland. Sadly, Sylvian died from breast cancer in 2005. She didn’t want a funeral so I planted a tree on our front lawn in her memory. She was in my life for far too short a time, but she inspired me so much I’ll always be grateful to her.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

I feel like I already know you

The title of this week’s blog is something Liverpool writer Cath Bore recently tweeted to me when we discovered we were both going to CrimeFest in May. It was a lovely thing to say and it got me thinking. How well is it possible to ‘know’ someone through Twitter?

I once had a line manager who, when conducting job interviews, would sit back and say to the interviewee, ‘Tell me about yourself’. He argued it was significant what aspects of their lives his victims chose to talk about, and in what order. Another friend, when given job applicants with virtually identical qualifications and experience, would call in for interview the ones who had the most interesting hobbies.

Solo: my first-born
Remembering these two individuals, I slaved over my Twitter profile until I felt it captured the essential Janet O’Kane. Or rather, the one I wished to present to the world. Given everything I could say, especially when restricted to 160 characters, did I want to share my age, my marital status, the fact I’m no one’s mum? As I joined Twitter to reach out to other writers, all that personal stuff seemed unnecessary. I put my writing life to the fore, but felt my (genuine) passion for poultry gave me a quirky side I’d be happy to exhibit. 
It’s apparent that not everyone gives their profile as much thought. And that’s fine by me. Just don’t expect me to follow you if you don’t volunteer at least a few nuggets of information about yourself. You may believe you’re being intriguing, I can’t help thinking you’ve got something to hide and/or something to sell.
Getting upset?

Nearly all the people I follow make the most of those 160 characters. I’m keen to make contact with those who write, read, like chickens, cats, dogs. Or I’ll follow someone whose profile makes me smile. For example, Dave Jackson, author of Pariah and The Helper, claims that despite the dark books he writes, ‘I’m actually a very nice guy’. Steve Mosby simply states that he’s been, ‘Upsetting people with fiction since 2003’.  However, I’m bemused by Piers Morgan’s unfunny profile: ‘One day you’re cock of the walk, the next a feather duster’. Then again, nothing could make me want to follow him. Ever.

I'm of the opinion that tweeting reveals more about the originator than they might expect. Over time – and I think time is the key here – you learn about their routines, lifestyles, sources of pride, annoyance and stress, hobbies, the arrival of new pets and departure of much-loved older ones. They sing the praises of books they’ve loved, recommend films they’ve enjoyed, slam the TV programmes they think should never have been made (anyone want to stand up for The Body Farm? No, thought not). You follow links to stuff they find interesting/appalling and to their own blogs, which offer up even more of their characters.

Is this like real life, or are our Twitter personalities pure artifice? Are we all just putting on an act? I suspect I’m not alone in not tweeting if I’m truly upset about something. Now my first novel is out on submission I can’t share the ups and downs of that process. And I don't really 'do' politics, except for commenting on the latest in the Scottish independence debate (I'm not for it, just in case you wondered). But in real life we often don’t reveal our innermost feelings to any but our nearest and dearest anyway.

During 2012 I’m going to meet a lot of my Twitter friends in real life. Next month I’m driving down to the launch of Mari Hannah’s first novel at Hexham Book Festival. In May, I’ll be in Bristol for CrimeFest, which is being attended by many tweeps who share my enthusiasm for crime fiction. June sees me and My Scotsman holidaying in Norfolk, when I’m meeting up with another Twitter friend for the first time. And September is the month when crime-writing types will be sweeping northward for the Bloody Scotland festival at Stirling.

As I've mentioned before, not being the most outgoing of women, I find it hard to walk into a roomful of strangers (unless I’m carrying a tray of drinks or canap├ęs). Now though, despite never having met most of them, the people I talk with on Twitter aren’t strangers. So I’ll be seeking them out, smiling, hugging them. That's when I’ll discover if Twitter accurately conveys people’s true natures. And whether Dave Jackson really is that nice guy he claims to be.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Hanging up my L-plates?

This writer's best friend

I’m now looking down into the abyss waiting to be filled with words which is planning Book 2. Writing it is a daunting prospect for many reasons, not least because I intermittently worked on Book 1, No Stranger to Death, over a long period. This time I’m giving myself a year to get Book 2 written, edited several times and polished to a shine.

Below are some of the things I learnt during the writing of Book 1 which I’m hoping will help me with its follow-up.

Plotting: There’s no telling what will work for you
Because I’m by nature a planner I started out imagining I could (or, rather, should) plan the entire novel before writing it. I wrestled with the enormity of that task, and felt worthless when I couldn’t do it. In desperation, with the idea of an opening that revolved around the discovery of a body in a Guy Fawkes bonfire, I just started writing. And soon the pages began to fill with characters and events. 

Every time I ran out of plot I grabbed one of my many ‘how to write’ books and read. If I struggled with making a character come to life I’d write a page or two in their voice telling me about their past. Eventually an outline for the next few chapters would reveal itself to me. And so it went on.

Several strands of the story, such as the resolution of the murder which kick‑started it, needed to be brought together towards the end of the novel. This required more detailed planning, although by then I had written the final chapter so I knew where I was heading. Long walks with the collie were great for working out particularly knotty problems. A bit like passing my driving test (on the 3rd attempt), I couldn't quite believe it when I completed the task.

I hope I haven’t made this sound easier than it was. Because it was staggeringly difficult. But by the time I got about two-thirds of the way in I felt able to relax. I’d travelled so far in this strange fashion, there was no reason why I couldn’t get to the end.

It turns out I’m more of a pantser than a planner. No one’s more surprised than me.

Editing: It is possible to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear
We’re all familiar with the saying that every first draft is shit (was it Graham Greene?). But it’s hard, when you’re starting out, to accept that means yours too. When I write copy for business clients I wouldn’t dream of showing them anything without editing it time and time again. This is especially true when I’m writing for the internet, which demands precision and brevity. So how could I possibly imagine being able to write 96,000 words and get them right first time?

Once I’d got that revelation out of the way I ploughed on with writing the first draft. I only reviewed what I’d written the day before. Any ideas which came to me about changes I should make were recorded in a separate file to look at later.

I actually enjoyed the editing process. However, it took much longer, and involved lots more reiteration than I’d expected. Reading out loud and using my Kindle have proved invaluable. And I’ve learnt to trust my instinct: if I’m the least bit unsure how good a phrase, sentence or paragraph is, I work on it.

Research: You don’t know what you don’t know
I’ve heard writers say they don’t do any research until after they’ve written the book, when they go back and fill in the gaps. This stops them wasting time by getting bogged down in superfluous information. I recognise this is sensible – there are already enough distractions (see Social Media below) conspiring to keep us away from writing. However, the ‘experts’ I’ve consulted have each done a lot more than just answer my questions.

For example, I asked a forensic pathologist for information about how extensively a body in a Guy Fawkes bonfire would burn up. His response, that this depended on different factors, wasn’t particularly helpful. Then he said, ‘But you could have the victim wrapped in a carpet, and that way she’d be more baked than burned.’ This was horrible – and irresistible. It also enabled me to add a further layer of complexity to what occurred before the body was put into the fire.

Most people are happy to talk about their job if you ask them nicely enough. I’ve only been rebuffed by one person – a genealogist – so far. I went on to find another professional in that field who said yes. She was lovely and gave me a lot more material than the first chap probably would have, as well as a brilliant one-liner I’ve used in the novel.

Social media: ‘Building a platform’ can be fun
In common with many writers I’m not a party animal. I enjoy the company of others, but in small groups or better still on a one-to-one basis. I was happy to have a website, blog a bit on it, but start talking, albeit via the internet, to complete strangers? Not for me! Or so I thought. Then, almost a year ago, I went on one of Nicola Morgan’s training events for aspiring writers. And came away having promised to give Twitter a try.

It was strange at first, talking to myself. But gradually I gained enough confidence to respond to others’ tweets, some of which developed into conversations. As at today I’ve tweeted over 4,500 times, am following 417 tweeps (I don’t like that word) and have 370 followers. I’m still not particularly gregarious, but I have made friends. And, I’m delighted to say, I’ll be meeting some of them in real life during 2012, mainly at book-related events. Entering a room full of strangers suddenly got a lot easier.

I’ve now dipped my toe into Facebook (but have a lot of catching up to do) and yesterday signed up to Pinterest. Will any of this make Book 2 easier to write and improve my chances of getting published? Hmm. Probably not. But I think that’s the best attitude for an unpublished writer to have. Enjoy social networking and look upon any other benefits as a bonus.

This isn’t, of course, everything I’ve learnt during my journey from ‘Chapter 1’ to ‘The End’. But, as I've already said, writing for the internet involves precision and brevity. So I’ll stop here. And anyway, I’ve got a novel to write.

If you’re a writer, what lessons have you learnt? I’d love to hear about them, so please leave a comment below.