Tag Archives: novel

Across the cultural divide

I have wanted to write this post for a while, but as I’ve worked on drafts in my head I have kept finding myself stumbling over clumsy expressions about an issue I really don’t want to get ‘wrong’. I find myself coming face to face with assumptions I have made in the past which make me question whether I really understand the area I am tip-toeing around at all. The reality is that I am an outsider in this territory, and the urge to turn away and run is strong. But that is not really how I do things, so I won’t.

The issue I have been grappling with is, essentially, the authenticity of my first novel. And when I say authenticity, I am talking about the thorny area of cultural appropriation: my protagonist is of mixed heritage, Bengali and British. The folk tales of Bangladesh are woven into the fabric of the plot as it unfolds, and the challenges facing Bengali people carving out their lives in Britain are integral to the journeys of several characters.

Now I lived and breathed that story and those characters for the several years it took me to write a first draft. My protagonist, Lili, borrowed much from the young women I taught at a school in Tower Hamlets. And in fact the first tentative steps from plan to prose were made at an Arvon writing retreat that I attended with a small group of those young women: I discussed my ideas with them, asked their advice on elements of language, listened as they told me their stories.

As the draft developed further, I read copious research files on the experiences of different generations of immigrants from Bangladesh on settling in East London. I devoured Bengali recipe books, and tales of the mythology that reached back into Bangladeshi culture.

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And eventually I had a novel of which I was proud: the culture that I was borrowing from was part of it, but by no means all, and I had worked hard to avoid stereotypes. Lili was complex and engaging, and the London that I knew and loved was intrinsic to every page.

I got an agent on board, we made a few tweaks, and then went out to publishers. And then things sort of stalled: almost all of the feedback we got was positive, particularly around the multicultural elements, but there were no takers. For a while I wondered whether this was in part a response to the monocultural bias that is clearly evident in the publishing industry, particularly when it comes to books for children and young adults. I latched on to a campaign that had been established to encourage more diverse books, and wrote about it to try to explain why diversity was so important to me. But the people I reached out to appeared to have no desire to engage with me: sure, my book was diverse. But I wasn’t.

Nothing overt was said, but my enthusiasm for that first novel dwindled. I still loved the characters and their story, but thinking about them made me feel guilty. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the source of that guilt, but in a creative landscape where the smallest excuse is enough to give the self-doubt demons all the strength they need to inflict silence I decided it was time to focus on something else.

Fast forward two years, and I found myself reading Lionel Shriver’s address to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival about cultural appropriation. And whilst there were elements of what she said that I couldn’t help but agree with, I was embarrassed by the crassness of her refusal to engage with the very real concerns of those whose culture had been exploited. And I began to wonder whether maybe the book I’d written was part of that entitled, white exploitation that can only come from a position of privilege.

I began to wonder whether Lili’s story was actually mine to tell at all, whether in trying to push out my interpretation of the challenges facing a mixed heritage family in East London I was standing in the way of more authentic voices that might be trying to do the same.

But then once I’d started off down that rabbit hole any claim to integrity began to dissolve entirely.

Because it’s not just Bengali culture I could be accused of appropriating. There’s a question of class too, one which is perhaps much more central to the novel that I wrote. Am I not, as a comfortably-off graduate from a middle-class background appropriating the struggle of working class families? And there’s an important theme about the status of elderly people in society – and teenagers for that matter. Are their stories mine to tell?

These are not exact parallels, but they are still examples of where I am using someone else’s truth to build a narrative. And all of these groups of society lack the privilege that is inherent in my existence as a thirty-something, white, university-educated woman.

Except it is here that I grudgingly accept some of Shriver’s points: without stealing other people’s stories there is very little left for the novelist to do. Interestingly the protagonists of the two novels I’ve written since are much closer to me in terms of social and cultural background. That wasn’t a conscious choice I don’t think – and whilst I’ve enjoyed exploring a world that is closer to my own I can’t guarantee that my ideas in the future will not be influenced by a more global outlook. As a writer I am drawn to the outsider – and culture is often a big part of that.

There is also the argument that if we want more diversity in our literature then that needs to come from all quarters – not just from those writers who are themselves ‘diverse’.

And so on balance, despite my reservations about Lili Badger, I am still proud of what I’ve written. And I don’t want to shy away from giving voice to people from different cultures in my writing in the future.

I will continue to endeavour to be respectful and avoid stereotypes – a courtesy I would hope I extend to all of my characters, not just those whose culture is different from my own. But the bigger the gap, the more work there is to be done to find authenticity and integrity – and the more difficult the challenge of convincing others that this really is a story that you can tell.

 

Writing Bubble

All change

At the start of the summer, I thought I knew where my writing life was going. I was certain in fact: I had discovered Mslexia’s brilliant guide to Indie Presses, and I had resolved to find a home for my writing through one of those.

And then…

I picked up the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook Guide to Getting Published, and my resolve weakened. The approach it advocated was much more traditional. It didn’t reject independent publishers entirely, but it cautioned against them as a way of launching a career.

My personal jury is still out on the pros and cons of the various routes into getting my words in print, but I was forced to acknowledge that there was a third book, waiting on my hard-drive in its unpolished state, that might still hold the key to the prized arrival on the literary scene that resided in the enclave of the bigwigs in the publishing world.

So I read it.

And I really enjoyed what I read.

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From what I could see at first glance, there were none of the obvious roadblocks that my first two novels contained within their pages: the question over cultural integrity in my young adult novel exploring my experiences as a teacher; the doubts over a generic home for my slightly obscure hybrid between psychoactive thriller and mental-health steeped realism. In fact this third novel reflects much more of where I’m at now, of my life by the sea with its echoes of the city. The characters are ones which resonate with my own experience rather than one I’ve observed, and though the path they choose is unconventional it is not unbelievable.

So I decided to give it a chance.

Having read through my words in print – a much more satisfying print, incidentally, having tried to approximate an actual novel in the way I presented the words on the page rather than just the standard sheets of A4 – I returned to Scrivener to tweak the narrative to one that rang true.

And then today I sent it to my agent.

Who knows whether her optimism will match mine, but right now I’m feeling pretty positive about our prospects.

This change of heart has been made all the more possible by a change in my circumstances that I’m just starting to get my head around. Leigh has finished his medical school training, and launched into his career as a junior doctor. This might have spelled the end of any time to myself, but we decided as a family that the next phase of his training would be better carried out part time.

So suddenly I have two whole days a week when he is taking the lead in parenting. Two whole days a week where I can focus on my council and freelance work, and on my writing.

It’s amazing how much you can get done when you don’t have a three year old to entertain at the same time.

Now, having submitted that first draft, I am looking forwards. I haven’t yet written a synopsis of novel number three, so that is top of the list. And then there’s a short story competition which perfectly resonates with my love of outdoor swimming, and a children’s novel competition that I am going to bite the bullet and submit my first manuscript to.

I’m feeling pretty positive about it all, despite the fact that my agenda has undergone such a major u-turn. It’s a writer’s prerogative, right? To follow the thing that feels true?

It’s hard to know for now how that might change again in the future, but finally I have the time to really work out the best way forward for me – and for my writing.

 

Writing Bubble

The perfect fit

So I have finally this week managed to begin the process of getting my head around this whole getting published malarky.

It hasn’t been easy: my to-do list seems to be expanding almost as enthusiastically as my veg patch, and I am still finding the political car crash so horrifically compelling that it is taking almost all my energy to secure the headspace to think about anything else.

But part of my post-Brexit survival plan was to be just a little bit selfish, and with that in mind I sat down in the garden one sunny afternoon with the two books that have sat forlorn and unopened since they arrived in those innocent pre-referendum days and took a look at what they had to offer.

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A lot, is the answer.

I started with the Mslexia guide to Indie Presses (thank you Teika for the recommendation). The world of independent publishers is fairly new to me, so I was keen to see what was out there. I scoured each description, marking any that seemed a good fit for either of my completed novels to come back to later.

Once I was sat at my computer, I started a spreadsheet. I wouldn’t normally be quite so rigidly organised about something like this, but the careful structure of the columns and rows helped to still my chaotic mind, and made me believe that I might just possibly be able to do this.

For each publisher, I noted down their web address, the relevant genres they were interested in, submission guidelines, and whether they were in fact currently accepting unsolicited submissions. That last column narrowed things down a bit, but of the ones that were left I explored their websites a little further, deciding which of my novels I would approach them with before adding that to the table. The final columns, yet to be filled, are for the date I submit, the date I intend to follow up, and what feedback, if any, I receive.

Its funny, but even just going over that process here has calmed and focused me again. If feels like a big thing, to be preparing to submit my work to people who might be able to help me get it out into the world. There is still lots to be done before I actually get to the point of submitting – honing and re-honing those crucial first chapters, reworking my synopses, crafting an elegant and engaging covering letter. The more I think about it, though, and the more I discover about independent publishers and why they are there, the more I believe it is the right route for me.

My writing is not mainstream. It is not easy to fit into a box. I can completely see why the ‘Big Five’ publishers might not think that my novels are worth the punt.

But I do.

And I’m sure, with time and effort and plenty of willpower, I will eventually find a publisher who is the perfect fit.

 

Writing Bubble

And relax… (sort of)

On Thursday evening, I wrote until my brain could take no more and went to bed frustrated.

On Friday morning, I got up in time to shower and feed and dress Arthur and I before we had to leave the house just after half past eight, managing to squeeze a couple more hundred words in between it all: but still it wasn’t enough.

Once Arthur had been safely delivered to his gymnastics class, I sat myself down with my laptop. I was surrounded by screaming kids and chatting mums, and had just under an hour to bring my story to its conclusion. And with seconds to spare before I wrapped Arthur up in a cuddle and we continued with our day, this happened:

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Having set myself a somewhat cursory target of 90,000 words, and broken it down way less rigidly than with my first two novels, I was a little intrigued to discover that as I approached that magic number the story did appear to naturally be coming to a close. I had been all prepared, after the two ‘deadline extensions’ I already given myself, to move the goalposts yet again even after that progress bar had turned its satisfying deep green. But, as it turned out, only 784 additional words were needed before I could safely say that the first draft was done.

It’s a good feeling, coming to the end of a first draft. Even now that I understand just how much work goes on after that point – way more, actually, in terms of both hours and mental exertion – it still feels good to get all of the raw material out of my head and onto (virtual) paper.

And so, to an extent, I can now relax. Except, of course, I can’t.

Along with all of the other endless jobs on my to-do list, I have set myself a bit of an epic mission for this summer. It’s the mission that, if I’m successful, will take me beyond the realm of ‘someone who writes’ into the heady heights of ‘professional writer’.

It is the mission to get published.

I’m keeping an open mind at the moment about how that will happen and with whose help, but it really is time I started to take things to the next level. I haven’t had the confidence before now to really push it, and even now I’m quaking in my boots a little.

But I’ve written three whole books.

And whilst they all still need a bit more work, I have reached a point where I don’t think I can justify turning my attention to another before the ones I’ve written are given a real opportunity to shine.

So there won’t be much relaxing here. There will be lots of research, and investigation, and soul-searching, and letter-writing, and self-promotion. But hopefully by the end of it, once this latest first draft has sat for a while and is ready for me to turn my attention to it once again, I will have a much clearer idea of where it’s all going.

That’s the plan, anyway…

 

Writing Bubble

Stolen moments

I had such a lovely writing day today.

I don’t take any of my writing time for granted: it took years for me to pluck up the courage to put pen to paper at all, and when I was teaching full time I rarely had the headspace to write anything longer than flash fiction, or sometimes a bad poem.

Getting stuff written has moved much higher up my list of priorities since I became a mum, but between entertaining a three year old and a growing smorgasbord of employment it can still be hard to find the time. I’m still working on making mornings work, and otherwise guiltily catching up during Arthur’s afternoon nap when I should really be focusing on the rest of my to-do list.

Today, though, was different.

I dropped Arthur off at forest school at 9.15. That may seem like an innocuous statement, but it was actually the first time we’d left him with anyone other than my folks, and the first time he’d been in an ‘educational setting’ for longer than the hour his gym class lasts. I wasn’t worried: the couple of sessions I’ve been to with him convinced me that it was exactly the sort of environment I wanted him to be spending his time in. Still, though, his wobbling lip and wide eyes almost weakened my resolve.

But I have a deadline to keep. And I’ve already put it back twice.

I wandered off through the little village of Stoke Gabriel, heading for a cafe by the waterfront. It was such a beautiful morning that I decided to start off outside, pitching myself up with my laptop on a bench overlooking the weir. There’s definitely a lot to be said for not being tied to my desk.

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After the first few hundred words, I decided I needed a coffee. So inside, for a flat white and a glass of water and a few more hundred words.

Then when I hit a wall again, I went for another meander. I didn’t really know where I was going, but I figured it would be difficult to get lost. I found a bench, up above the road with a view down towards the river, just at the point when the next flash of inspiration hit, so I stayed there for a while.

My last port of call was a pub, for a pint of lime and soda and a little burst of internet. Despite being connected to the world I still managed to get something written, ending my morning’s mobile session at 2,669 words.

What was especially wonderful was that I hadn’t had to rush. I had almost four hours of writing time in total, broken up by walks to kick my brain into gear again. And in that time I could let my mind wander too, and find new ideas in my daydreams.

I’m not sure how often I will have days like today – in the time I was gifted or the headspace to use it well – but I am grateful for this one I had.

And, at the end of it, I am that little bit closer to achieving my goal…

 

Writing Bubble

Writing in transit

Up until recently, I have been very much tied to my desktop when it comes to working on my novel. My trusty Scrivener is not available on the iPad, and besides there is something about this space that focuses me. Both of my first two novels were written here in their entirety, and there is an energy and an association of success that makes it (relatively) easy to get the words on the page.

Except…

Lately it has got harder and harder to find the time to write. Even with getting up early, my progress towards my word count target has slowed, and various excursions to London and further afield have meant my desk has been a very long way away just when I needed it most. So I have finally got round to dusting off my old laptop, dredging the (limited) depths of my technical expertise to get it working again, and setting up the Scrivener and Dropbox combo that means my novel can be with me wherever I am.

It’s taking a bit of getting used to, but it seems to be working. I’ve had a couple of writing stints, one on a train, the other on a plane, where I have found the words pouring out – so much so that arriving at my destination has ended up being quite frustrating!

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It seems there is something about being on the move that is quite conducive to writing. I have always found the ambient noise of trains and planes quite hypnotic, and in this instance it seems to have shaken me out of my comfort zone and help me see things differently. It is as if the physical shift in time and place has helped me get over the initial stumbling blocks that the changing landscape of my story had presented.

Whatever, now that I am back on solid ground I am very much closing in on my end goal. Even the tricksy issues of structure are beginning to find some sort of resolution in my mind, and I have some ideas that I’m really looking forward to exploring when this first draft is done.

Most of all, though, I’m looking forward to the potential freedom in my future writing life – one where the inability to be at my desk does not translate into an inability to write, where I can use my environment to my advantage as I develop different aspects of my stories.

I have always envisaged a life as a writer where I can be free to travel, and work wherever the mood takes me. Suddenly that possibility seems closer than it ever has before.

 

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Keeping focused

For once, this isn’t actually a blog post about the struggle to focus on the novel in the midst of everything else that’s going on in my world. That is still (and will ever be) a challenge, though the early mornings are definitely keeping things ticking over.

My latest issue, though, is keeping my focus where it should be within the novel writing process itself. Since I’ve jumped almost twenty years into the future, picking up with my teenage protagonist as she navigates her way through adult life, I’m finding my mind increasingly drifting towards structure.

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I think it’s partly because, 75,000 words in, I can begin to taste what the novel might be like in its finished form. It is still a long way off that – far more than either of my first two novels I have really let myself be liberated by the first draft, and I know what I’ve ended up with is much rougher around the edges. Still, though, I’m finding it hard not to project a response onto future readers, trying to imagine how satisfied they will be with how I’ve told the story, how much they will empathise with my protagonist both now and in her past.

And actually, ultimately, what is seeping in at the corners of my mind are those questions about how exactly am I going to tell this story.

I’ve written it chronologically, starting when my main character was ten and peeking into every summer until she was sixteen, and everything began to come tumbling down. There’s loads I’ve left out – some I’ve alluded to in dialogue, some that is there in an exchange of letters. And then of course there’s a whole seventeen years that’s missing between the two different phases of life the novel covers. The bulk of the story happens – and is told – in the past, but the ‘present’ is vital to understanding its significance.

I always imagined that I would structure the final narrative in a way which travelled between those two phases, and that is still my goal. I told myself just to get the story down first, and to worry about that particular (albeit major) detail later. And that is ultimately still what I’m trying to do. But it’s so odd writing something when you’re not entirely sure what your reader already knows at that point – or what they don’t. So hard to think about building suspense when you know that you might already – intentionally – have given the game away.

I’m not expecting any answers here. It’s an interesting process, and one which I think I just need to hold my course on if I’m going to be able to find out whether it will work. There are a handful of key scenes that remain to be written, and once I’ve done that the solutions may well emerge all by themselves. Even if they don’t, I’m quite looking forward to the jigsaw puzzle challenge that the next phase of this novel looks likely to present.

I just need to make sure that I have all of the pieces on the table first before I try to see the bigger picture.

 

Writing Bubble