About Steven O'Connor

YA sci-fi and fantasy author. Follow me @StevenWriting and check out my website and blog.

At a writers’ retreat in Shropshire

long shot of Hurst

My post about the writers’ retreat in Shropshire has had to wait until I finally got over a nasty chest infection (well, almost over) — a hearty thanks to the UK’s National Health Service for their support in this.

So what, in a single sentence, did I get out of my near-week long retreat in a remote part of Shropshire? Easy. Two answers. I spent a week rebooting the writer in me (something I’ve come to realise I needed). And I made a whole host of brand new writer friends.

Pat

Sharing our work

There were sixteen of us — emerging writers — staying in the Georgian Manor pictured above. Plus, the two established authors, Mavis Cheek and Stephen May, who looked after our writerly interests for the week. Then of course there was also the onsite staff, including a poet laureate who helped with lunch meals in the day. Some like me brought their works in progress, others were there to kickstart new projects. There was so much diverse and energetic writing talent in one place, it was wonderful to be a part of it — hearing first hand about each other’s projects, and listening in as they shared their work. 

A typical day for me began with getting in some quick writing (with the aid of a plunger of coffee) before grabbing a small breakfast and gathering in the main tutorial room. In these morning sessions, all of us fresh and ready for the day, we would look closely at any number of aspects of writing, from enriching dialogue, to the eight-point structure, creating good place and setting, and research. While I was already familiar with many of these topics — as were others too — they came very candidly from the personal perspectives of the two established authors and so felt new and engaging.

garden group

Spending some time in the afternoon sun.

The afternoons were given over to our own writing time, informal chats about writing, walks about the grounds and on-on-one sessions.

In the evenings we had the cooking groups. This was my only stress of the week. Recipes were there to help us, and staff were on hand where possible. Yet it was still an ordeal given the number of us and the variety of dietary preferences. In the end, I was proud of the chocolate pudding I somehow created (I kept the recipe but I’m not sure I could ever manage it a second time), but I felt for my fellow writers Pat and Anne who took on most of the lasagne cooking tasks. Imagine making vegetarian lasagne for that many people — plus two smaller ones for other dietary requirements. I helped them where I could.

The evenings after dinner were devoted to presenting written works. We heard from the author tutors, a guest writer  Selma Dabbagh (who was very generous with sharing her personal writing experiences) and, of course, ourselves. 

Readings on the last night (the guitar came later)

Readings on the last night (the guitar came later, as did much jolly abandon)

Happily, much of the feedback for my draft of Beneath the Surface was of a fine tuning nature — or ‘grace notes’, as Mavis Cheek liked to call them. Significantly, however, I was compelled to revisit my opening lines. The opening lines of a novel are critical. No matter how exciting the rest of your story may be, if you have not engaged the reader’s interest from the start, they will not stick around to marvel at those gems waiting later in your book. It was good feedback which I have gladly taken.

So, enough chat, onto some more pictures….

First up, a shelfie. This is a shelf from one of the bookcases I noticed when I first wrote about this retreat some months ago (back in Australia). It now has a new home next to the author tutors’ rooms (and mine – clearly I’d been the first to book in).

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Here’s John Osborne’s (playwright and former owner of the estate) favourite view. I’m standing just beyond the back of the house…

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I had the room directly above me in this photo…

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A walkabout, one afternoon, as I was reflecting on exciting writing ideas, perhaps…

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Finally, I leave you with a short piece I wrote during one of the morning sessions. It’s about my visit back to the old house where I grew up. I’ve not reworked it since the session, besides fixing a typo.

The wide avenue of my memory

Last week I visited my childhood home for the first time in over 40 years. The road up was bendy and thin. Not the wide avenue of my memory.

The first thing I noticed was the red sold sign attached to the hedging. So the people here don’t want to be here anymore? I thought. What a silly thought. What did it matter?

The house, two-storey, semi-detached, leaned to one side and seemed the worst kept in the street. Its sad eyes looked out and passed me.

It was as if I was visiting something I’d once read about in a book.

I peered up at the upper bedroom window, knowing that was where I and my two brothers once slept.

How did a family of seven live in this place for so many years?

I wasn’t going to, but I tried the door knocker. A dog barked. No one was home. But I remembered the sound of the door knocker well. Deep, warm and woody. Want a funny, unexpected thing to remember.

When I walked on to top of the hill, the way I used to go to school as a child, I turned around and looked down. I saw a view I did not recall. I did not know was there. I saw the town stretch away across the valley. I saw where it ended, and there were open fields rising into hills. I saw jets in the distance, landing and taking off.

Shelfies

11 Cardiff Castle library

I have some shelfies to share with you from the UK.

While viewing on the internet the place of my forthcoming writers’ retreat — a mere few days away — I was struck by the bookshelves in the manor displayed in the background of one photo. I found myself wondering what could be in them. Possibly they will be filled with ‘stuffy books’, things put there more for their dignified appearance than their content, but we shall see.

Meanwhile, here are a few shelfies I’ve taken as I make way way about the UK. (Taking ‘shelfies’, by the way, according to a librarian relative of mine — is quite the thing with the librarian set. And here I was, thinking it was just me.)

London secondhand bookshop

Shelfie No.1: From a London secondhand bookshop

This first one is a shelfie through the window of a secondhand bookshop (Quinto Bookshop) near Covent Garden, London. They’re rather rare books, hence the protective coverings. ‘The Horrid mysteries’ — love that name. It could be worth a flick through. And the first book, a sci-fi with 50s-looking spaceships on its cover is selling for 75 pounds (US$116.00). It’s by EE ‘Doc’ Smith and was first published in 1948 (though written for the Amazing Stories magazine in 1934).

A tower of  British books

Shelfie No. 2: A tower of British books, British Library

This next one is from the British Library. Books preserved behind glass. Never to be read. Well, who would dare ask one of the librarians to fetch you one to thumb through? ‘That  one near the top, on the right, please. Many thanks.’

From Chapter Arts Centre,  Cardiff

Shelfie No. 3: From Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, Wales

Here’s a much simpler shelfie, from a vibrant local arts centre in Cardiff. An interesting selection of reading. I’m guessing people leave them for others to collect. The Good Beer Guide — very Cardiff, I’m told. I’ll let you look at the others for yourself.

From an artist's house in an inner suburb of Cardiff.

Shelfie No. 4: From an artist’s house in an inner suburb of Cardiff

Look at how neat and exact this is! It is in the room I am sitting in as I type this. It is so perfect, she has paid a lot of attention to visual presentation. There is another shelf beneath, where the books taper down. Here it is…

Another from the artist's house in Cardiff

Shelfie No. 5: Another from the artist’s house in Cardiff

It’s like installation art!

This next isn’t really a shelfie at all, and it is a little disturbing…

From Torre Coffee, Cardiff

Shelfie No. 6 (but not really a shelfie at all): From Torre Coffee, Cardiff

This is wallpaper. It’s from a cafe opposite the castle in Cardiff. The coffee was good, thankfully, and they had some nice pictures hanging elsewhere in the cafe. But this looks dead. If, for thousands of years, elderly Italian monks piled up the bones of their dead monk ancestors in a deep chamber of their monastery, it would look more jolly than this.

And so finally I end on a high note, bookshelves featured in a Dr Who episode, no less…

From the library at Cardiff Castle.

Shelfie No.7: From the library at Cardiff Castle.

There is a lot of Dr Who about Cardiff. BBC Wales produced Torchwood, the spin-off series situated in Cardiff, and a number of Dr Who episodes themselves, including, Journey to the Centre of the Tardis were filmed there. Plus, they have a big Dr Who Experience exhibition down by the bay. These very shelves feature in the background in Journey to the Centre of the Tardis. Exciting indeed.

I leave you with a close up of some of the shelves, the Dr Who director left the same books in when they filmed the episode…

From the library at Cardiff Castle

A closer look, from the library at Cardiff Castle

 

Happy Xmas!

Wishing you a big, happy Christmas and an excellent 2013.

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Okay, okay, this picture is rather mean-looking for Christmas. But I still love it.

His name is Gilbert and he’s a dragonbot. This is from my new book, MonuMental, and is the artist’s first go at a cover. It’s wonderful to see ideas coming to life in other ways!

Best wishes, everyone.

 

Ideas and story making at Fitzroy Community School

The school I visited

Last Wednesday, I was lucky enough to be invited to Fitzroy Community School to talk about EleMental: A first-person Shooter. This visit has to rate as my very favorite school presentation so far. I was made feel very welcome from the outset, given a quick tour of the school and then we all settled down to an hour’s chat (with some readings from me) in the school library. Here are some of the things we talked about …

Exploring words and ideas

Writers are often asked the question: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’. The best answer is: ‘From everywhere! The important thing is to be open to them.’

But are there some special ways? On the dedication page of her novel Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones describes how she got the idea for writing the book. A boy approached her after a school presentation and asked if she could write a book about a moving castle. That idea was a gift and she was very much open to it. Thankfully, because we now have that fabulous young adult fantasy. (Sadly, she says in the book, she put his name in such a safe place, she couldn’t find it when it came time to publish the book.)

We can’t always rely on wonderful ideas being presented to us so succinctly and directly from our audience. So another way to find interesting ideas, one that I came up with, is to think about words that interest you. Some we talked about on the day at Fitzroy Community School were droplet, sun, music and float. These are just words I quickly came up with while preparing the presentation. When I think about music, all sorts of images present themselves to me that could lead to a good story idea. So too any of those other words.

But there’s another step – and this is a truly magical one. Try putting two or three of these interesting words together. We can get things like: Floating music. Or even: Droplets of floating music. Wow! Lots of interesting images there.

When you have selected some interesting words, it’s always worth turning them into a what if sentence: What if there was a girl who floated every time she heard music? Or: What if man wrote a piece of music that made people float when they heard it? This what if sentence could act as the main idea behind your story, expressed as a question that your story will answer.

And, most importantly, as you you have selected words you’re interested in, remember to pour that interest into the story as you write. That’s the best way to ensure others will find your story interesting too.

Words I found interesting while writing EleMental: A First-person Shooter

We then looked at some of the words I found interesting and wanted to explore in my story: virtual and addiction. (I worked for years as a social worker in the addiction area, the part that most interests me is: when people keep doing something over and over too much and lose the control to stop even though its making them sick). Combining the words, I came up with the what if question: What if someone created a virtual game that was so addictive that when people played it too much they could no longer tell when they were in the real world … and when they were in a game?

I named this blurred state, gameblur. One moment, you could be sitting at your desk, the next you could be battling a creature that’s half-dinosaur, half-tank.

Pretty scary. But thankfully there’s humor in the book too!

Smaller ideas

We then talked about smaller ideas that can be related to your big idea. These smaller ideas are important as they can help you fill up your story with details. However it’s important that they don’t grow so big that your  reader starts to get confused about what is the main idea behind your story. A smaller idea in my story is how virtual games can start up and shut down. I loved finding different ways to describe those moments and they’re peppered throughout my book. I gave some readings to the school group to illustrate this smaller idea.

The photo

It all went so well, I almost forgot to take a photo until the last minute. Check it out, above, it was taken in the school library with a few of the remaining students. I forgot to get everyone’s names – but you know who you all are!

Some thank yous

A very big thank you to all I met at Fitzroy Community School for being such a great group. Thank you to Marlon (who had already read the book – both print book and ebook versions) for his informed comments to everyone (including me!) about my book. Thank you to Bridie (who happens to be my niece) and Freda for the tour of the school. Thank you to Myf, for organising it so beautifully and to Nick (the teacher) for his class help. And to everyone for their great questions during and after my presentation. I felt very welcome and I’d love to come back again sometime, if you’ll have me.

Back from Bali, Back to writing

The memorial for those who died in the first of the terrible Bali bombings.

I am back from my family holiday and am working hard to re-establish my writing rhythm. Family holidays are important, and this last one especially so as it’s likely to be the last with the whole family – my son and daughter are getting older!

As a writer, you’re never too far away from thoughts about your writing projects. I may have spent some time sitting on a banana lounge by a pool, but let me reassure you I was still very much engaged in chapter revising on my iPad.

And I also read my very first ebook novel. A copy of Hunger Games a friend gave me. Easy reading! But I was amazed at the number of typos. It was like an un-proofed copy. Perhaps it was? My daughter owns the print version and the typos weren’t there. So what’s that all about?

I also read about half of Catherine Ryan Howard’s ebook The Best of Catherine, Caffeinated: Caffeine-Infused Self-Publishing Advice (available here). Catherine Howard is an indie writer who very much wishes she was a traditionally-published writer. She’s from Cork, Ireland (where they say Cark  for Cork). As my parents and my eldest two siblings are all born in Ireland, I feel a sense of connection in a number of ways.

I recently began following her blog for her self-publishing advice and this ebook is essentially a collection of her website posts over the last few years on indie-publishing. It’s marvelous, honest stuff, full of big-picture as well as micro advice, and is engagingly written and super generous. I happily downloaded it as a part of her free launch back in May, but it’s well worth the tiny price tag attached to it, if you’re after self-pub advice.

Catherine Howard lays out her posts as chapters and you can easily dip into them in any order that takes your fancy, or follow through chronologically, as I am doing, as it gives more of a sense of story.

Her passion to be traditionally published is her life’s ambition (well a prominent one, she has a number) and the irony that she is not, and yet clearly can write, makes for an intriguing subtext. One can’t help wonder along with her why she isn’t (as she does dwell on it a few times). She feels – largely based on publishing house feedback – maybe it’s because her non-fiction writing is ‘too niche’. Certainly, travel writing doesn’t appeal to me (perhaps because I want to go there and do that too, but can’t!). Yet it’s interesting to see how many travel writers there are in the global indie writing community. It’s clearly popular.

The view from my window in Ubud, Bali. I kid you not.

Well, enough about Irish Catherine – this has turned into an unintentional review!  I’m confident she will achieve her ambition one day – all she needs is staying power, like the rest of us. But now you know a little about my Bali holiday. Not really. But you know about what I was reading by the pool and on the plane home, crammed in with everybody else (watching Hunger Games on airline iPads).Meanwhile, I am very happy to be back at my desk and ready to throw myself wholeheartedly into promoting EleMental: A First-person Shooter and preparing its follow up.

PS: Having spent some time on Catherine Ryan Howard, I should also link you to her website here, if you are interested in checking out more about what she has to offer.

One of my favourite books on writing

 

If you love writing like I do, then you’ll also love reading about writing. Surely? If I spot a book about the craft of writing in a bookshop, I can’t help myself, I have to buy it. I guess I feel about writing as I do about life. There is always something more I can learn. And as I do, I feel I’m growing as a person.

And in this post, I want to tell you about one of my favorites, an eighties book on writing with the intriguing title Writing Down the Bones. It’s by Natalie Goldberg.

Her book is both about both the craft of writing and the craft of living.  I have read other books that blend the themes know yourself with know how to write, but few, to my mind, succeed to the degree Goldberg has. She manages to perfectly balance a Zen-like reflective tone with hard-nosed advice on honing one’s writing skills, exploring the art of the creative writing process and identifying many important signs that might help others travelling a similar road.

She even has her very own Zen master – and she quotes his advice to her in the introduction: ‘Why do you come to sit meditation? Why don’t you make writing your practice? If you go deep enough in writing, it will take you everyplace.’

Throughout her book, you can easily see Goldberg has taken her Zen Master’s advice. Her book has a loose structure that permits you the reader to enter at any point, and find yourself anywhere. Everyplace. You can browse through her pages, reflecting, and treat her book like Lao Tse’s Tao De Ching (or pretty much anything by the Dalai Lama).

I read her short chapters (they average two pages and are interestingly titled – ‘Don’t Marry the Fly’ is my favorite) in an order more borne out of whim than anything.  And I found her many thoughtful messages – many feel more like that than hard-and-fast lessons or rules – apply no matter the context of your life.

But what’s with the book title? She does explain. ‘When I teach in class,’ she says, ‘I want the students to be “writing down the bones”, the essential.’ That’s the essence of a Zen approach, I understand: cutting back and searching for the essential, finding what is important. You can feel she’s doing just that in her elegant prose, and in the overall simplicity of the book itself.

She is also a fan of writing in cafes, often with a fellow writing friend. Something I can relate to.

Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a book once very cool to own and carry about in your bag, some people even read bits of it), praises her book and likens her style to a Zen archer ‘who looks like he’s not even aiming, yet sends arrow after arrow to the bull’s-eye time after time.’ I agree.

 

Not writing, reading

A character trying to get the reader’s attention

Sometimes one should allow oneself to take a break from one’s writing projects. That can be frowned upon in some quarters. A writer who isn’t writing isn’t a writer.

Tosh.

I guess if I never returned …

But, if I’m anything to go by, even away from writing (to enjoy more time with wife and family, for example) most writers’ minds are not far from their projects. Their most recent ones or ones in the wings.  I am looking forward to returning to my latest, hoping to find I still like my sentences and ideas. (So a little fearful too.)

But in the mean time I am reading. Often I like to read about writing, but at the moment I appear to be having a break from that too. Instead, I am reading a brick of a tome about the building of a cathedral in 12th century England. It’s Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. This historical drama is also a mini-series, which I’m looking forward to viewing one day ­­– but not until I’m through the book. It’s 1076 pages and I am a slow reader.

According to Jennifer Byrne, ABC presenter, Follett’s Pillars is one of the most successful international bestsellers of all time. It was sixteen weeks on the New York Times’ Bestseller List, number one in Canada, Great Britain and Italy, and, to top it all off, in Germany it was voted the third greatest book ever written.

Oh wow, who wouldn’t want to read it? Even if it equals the size of a cathedral corner stone.

The thing I am most enjoying about Follett’s writing, and why I believe his book is so popular (and no doubt his others), is his knack of seizing upon a marvellous action sequence and wringing it for all it’s worth. For example, the other day I read an engrossing scene where a bishop and some devious characters arrive at the monastery, ready to spoil the start of the cathedral building – only to have the tables turned on them. Does that sound boring? I reckon it does. Well, I’m telling you, it wasn’t. Why not? Well-paced action and good tension.

And now I’m reading about the engagement in battle of two evenly matched armies. Follett springs between two points of view, giving us close-ups from one character in the thick of the clash, and long shots from a priest watching from the cathedral roof. Do you know, this is probably my favorite scene of the whole book.

All writers reading books also have an analytical eye open. How could they not? For me, it doesn’t spoil the reading, it’s just another dimension. I am constantly looking out for what I can learn, what I can apply to my own writing. And I notice things I might do differently.

There are two such things in Pillars.

Ken Follett at times likes to communicate details several times over and in various ways, as if to make certain the reader will get it. I will never forget Mark Macleod, my mentor during a residency at Varuna Writers’ House, waving a page of my manuscript in my face and telling me: ‘Steven, it’s all right, we get it!’

To be honest, it’s one of the things I find most challenging about story writing: gauging when a reader gets it. Especially if the story idea or scene sequence is complex. It was very useful to have Mark point that out to me. Reassure me when I could stop. Now, once I’ve said something, I do my best to get out and not repeat it elsewhere, unless it’s for thematic deepening. If a reader misses an important point, that’s just how it is.

The second thing Ken Follett does that I know I would do differently, is include so much research. Perhaps this is a trait of historical dramas? Perhaps readers expect this genre to include highly specific details, for example on cathedral architecture, for a sense of accuracy and authenticity. I read little of this genre to know.  I do love including detail in my own story writing, especially for visual colour, but I also love the movement of a story. And, as a reader, there is a point I reach in reading research-based information where I begin to feel disengaged from the story.

We’re all different.

Overall, as a writer, when I read I become restless. Reading fills me with excitement and anticipation for when I return to my own writing projects. But for now I will keep that in check and return to Follett’s drama about the building of a cathedral a long time ago in Kingsbridge, England.

Writing and The Guardian

Steven O'Connor looks at The Guardian on Writing

Not everyone will have cottoned onto the wonderful writing series recently published across about ten days in UK’s The Guardian.

It was a little while ago now, but is still well worth checking out. It kicked off  with Geoff Dyer (Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi , 2009) on freedom. In it he quotes the controversial words of the playwright David Hare: ‘The two most depressing words in the English language are ‘literary fiction’”. Dyer himself goes on to say literary fiction isn’t a standard to be aspired to – and likens it to a comfy old sofa writers and readers can collapse into.

The rest of the series covers authors on such topics as point of viewdialoguesuspenseplot and that all important thing … redrafting.

 

Reading about writing

It is constantly recommended that, if you want to be on top of your writing you must read. I find it quite extraordinary that this obvious truth needs to be stated at all – let alone so often repeated as essential advice for those of us with writing ambitions – but it’s true! Examine advice from any great writer, and pretty soon you’ll come across this so-important advice. Want to be a writer? Then read, read, read. Only if you happen to be Madonna can you afford not to bother reading. And if you can’t be bothered reading, really, you have no right to write.

And then, on top of it all, remember also to read about writing.

So why not get stuck into these great articles? I recommend starting with Dyer’s article and working your way through by following The Guardian’s links on the right side column.

Here’s the link to Dyer’s article: The Guardian: How to write fiction.

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About Steven O’Connor

I’m currently working hard to get complete my second novel, A  young adult near-future thriller about virtual reality video games.