Wordstruck – Claire Scobie's blog
Hello everyone, I’ve been quiet for a while. After working on my novel for two years, I’m excited to announce that it’s nearly ready for publication. The Pagoda Tree will be published on 26th June 2013 by Penguin.
As I needed to create space for the new, I’ve been having a good sort and chuck out of old paperwork.
When I was rifling through my notes for Last Seen in Lhasa I came across my shortlist of book titles. As you can see ‘Last Seen in Lhasa’ was by no means number one on my list.
When I first pitched my Tibet book idea to publishers it was called ‘Ani and I’. The title was only revised once I had completed the manuscript. So here’s some tips on how I found …
A Winning Title for My Book
I brainstormed lots of ideas.
Then I canvassed friends, writers and people involved in the Tibet cause.
I still wasn’t happy so I resorted to bribery: a bottle of champagne to any member of my family who came up with the best title.
Over a family dinner, my sister Jane came up with Last Seen in Lhasa
It went into the mix. The title stuck because it was catchy and memorable.
And the publishers loved it….
But every book requires a different approach. The title for my novel, The Pagoda Tree, grew out of the story itself. More on that later.
It’s been a steep learning curve to switch from non-fiction to fiction. To celebrate my new blog Wordstruck will reflect this change in direction.
The Launch of Wordstruck – Claire Scobie’s blog
From now on Wordstruck will cover:
- travel writing
- travel memoir
- academic writing
- persuasive business writing
Aside from my regular blog, I’ll also be having occasional guest posts from other writers to find out how they’ve succeeded in getting their books published. And, the odd book review.
It’s wonderful to get feedback and hear your thoughts. Please send me any writing issues or problems directly and I will address them.
I’ve written briefly about the writing program Scrivener before. Designed by the Cornwall-based software company, Literature and Latte, it is specificially for long writing projects.
Once only available for Mac, it now works with Windows. Doubtless, it has made the practical side of writing my current book much easier.
10 Reasons Why I Love Srivener
You can have your entire book, research drafts & re-drafts all in ONE project, making it simpler when working with lots of text.
All the titles of your documents are visible at any one time (although not open). So much better than clunky ol' Microsoft Word where you have to shuffle back and forth between folders.
The virtual corkboard is fantastic for storyboarding your project. You can look at each scene or chapter as if it were an index card. You can label them, give them colours, mark them as Draft or Final… whatever you want. This provides an instant overview of what you are writing.
It’s designed to make planning and outlining your writing project more straightforward.
The split screen option allows you to be looking at a photo or a mindmap or a video and write about it at the same time. You can also have the virtual corkboard open as you write an individual scene, allowing you to see the overview of your story simultaneously as the close-up.
You can fade out the background screen when writing to reduce distraction.
It has a function called Edit Srivenings. This allows you to compile a group of scenes together in one instant document – rather than cutting and pasting. You can then see the final word count.
If you are editing a large chunk, Edit Srivenings is also a quick way to restructure smaller sections. I use it all the time now I’m in the editing phase of the book.
The program is straightforward to use – and I’m not technosavvy. If you do get stuck a wonderful guy called Keith will answer your queries. (You know he’s a real person because there’s a photo of him as a boy dressed in a tank-top!)
It has templates for all sorts of writing projects, from a novel to a screenplay.
It costs less than $50 and you can trial it free for a month.
For those who want to become pros, there is now a mini Scrivener self-help industry. Best-selling crime author David Hewson (who’s reworked the TV series The Killing into a novel) has an e-book Writing a Novel With Srivener. Scrivener for Dummies is about to be published and the author, Gwen Hernandez, also offers online classes… I reckon I should sign up for my next book.
Would love to know if any of you have used it…
P.S I haven’t been commissioned by Scrivener to write this post :)
This week I went with my husband to watch the Transit of Venus from the Sydney Observatory. I bought tickets on a whim a few months ago when I was reading about how unique the transit is and its astronomical and astrological significance. A quick rundown for those who aren’t stargazers…
Venus Transits happen in pairs, eight years apart. The last was in 2004 and the next won’t be until 2117. It has particular relevance to Australia’s history as James Cook’s expedition to chart the 1769 transit led to him being the first known European to land on the east coast.
Venus is associated with beauty, artistic endeavours, love (obviously), harmony, nature, the divine feminine and a whole host of other extraordinary attributes such as the golden mean, and the Fibonacci sequence. There are lots of fascinating mystic theories out there for those interested….
Anyway, as many of you will know, in southeast and coastal Australia, we’ve had some very wild weather this week. The night before the transit was stormy and I woke several times wondering if our roof would survive… or if we would get flooded (again).
And then, would we actually see the transit?
On 6th June, the weather was inclement, but not raining. We went along to the Observatory, bought our orange eclipse glasses and then stood in line with everyone else, waiting for the clouds to pass so we could view the sun. We were lucky. We saw the transit through several telescopes, including the largest instrument in the domed roof of the Observatory, which was built especially for the 1874 transit. Venus appeared like a small black dot moving across the face of the sun. It was thrilling to see.
So how does all this relate to writing?
I often reflect on how long creative endeavours can take to complete. How long you have to keep your original intention alive—and nurture it, and cherish it. How much patience and persistence is needed. How you have to weather the storms to see that single shaft of sunlight. How good it feels when you are rewarded for your patience.
Often you have to take a huge leap of faith. Then, along the way, keep reminding yourself that you are a creative being and do whatever it takes to hold on to your original vision. Pray, dance, meditate, walk in nature, do yoga, bake cakes, weed the garden, listen to music, have coffee with friends… Whatever you need to believe in yourself and stoke your own creative spark.
Again, I revert back to one of my favourite quotes by Ben Okri (Birds of Heaven). It helped complete my last book and is still as potent with my current project. I hope it ignites something in you!
‘A true story-teller suffers the chaos and the madness, the nightmare—resolves it all, sees clearly, and guides you surely through the fragmentation and shifting world…. Creativity is a form of prayer, and the expression of a profound gratitude for being alive.’
Travel writing is often seen as a soft option. Yet it’s actually surprisingly difficult to do well. Especially in travel memoir, rather than straight travel journalism. But both require the weaving together of different strands.
Some of the strands include, but aren’t limited to, the following:
- The essence of the place (s)
- Character and potentially a character arc
- Plot (in some cases)
- Narrative arc
- Inner journey
You might also have several themes you want to cover:
- Family history
- Shopping etc.
That’s a lot going on!
And pulsing through this, pulling the reader through, is your storyline or narrative thread.
Even with shorter pieces, it can be hard to juggle the competing needs of a story. You need to have enough setting that the reader can identify with the place and enough history to anchor the story. Yet too much and the story gets bogged down with description or loaded with backstory.
Travel articles tend to be very heavy on description and light on story. A 600-word piece still requires a beginning, middle and end, not just lots of puff. Also a travelogue or a simple recounting of events is not a travel story. That’s a diary.
So how to make the weaving happen?
Writing, like any craft, improves with practice. The more you do it, the more you know what works and what doesn’t. It’s also about balancing all the different aspects of story together with one coherent, and hopefully compelling, voice.
It can also be the result of several drafts. While in the first draft you have heavy clumps of description, by your last attempt, it’s lightly done.
You know when it’s working when a 3-D affect is created for the reader. They can actually imagine you in the place, see through your eyes and experience what you experienced. This is when travel writing takes on the best techniques of fiction. This is when you, as a character, become utterly believable for the reader. (I should add here, that this doesn’t happen as much in travel journalism where the ‘I’ is kept to the background.)
Years ago, when I started off my career as a journalist at the Saturday Telegraph Magazine in London, I was lucky enough to work alongside the brilliant and prolific British journalist and author, Mick Brown.
Aside from his countless features and profiles (Martin Amis, John Updike, Christopher Hitchens, Meryl Streep…) he’s written a stack of books including the wonderful travel memoir, A Spiritual Tourist: A Personal Odyssey through the Outer Reaches of Belief.
Mick always gave me this advice, ‘Take the reader by the hand.’ It’s advice I’ve never forgotten.
So how do you weave your stories together?
I only made it to one panel at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, with English writer, Geoff Dyer, and American composer Joshua Cody, whose debut memoir sic chronicles his frenetic journey through cancer.
I’ve blogged about Geoff Dyer before, particularly about his latest novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. But I wanted to relay more of what he said for those who didn’t make it to the session.
Dyer describes himself as ‘a pluralist’. He’s written four novels, several essays and travelogues, and six non-fiction books. According to his website, five of these are ‘genre-defying titles’.
I’m always struck by how he changes his voice depending on what he’s writing. In last week’s session, he described how it’s ‘the tone or voice of the writer’ that interests him, rather than the narrative story. He added, that he’s always been, ‘hamstrung by the inability to think of stories and plots.’
In Jeff in Venice… he wrote two very different narratives. The first, from the third person point-of-view (pov), is about a man having an affair at the Venice Biennale. Part two, from the first person pov reads like a travel memoir set in Varanasi. It’s never clear if it is the same man.
Dyer said he wanted to call it a diptych—that is, a work of two matching parts—but his publishers dissuaded him from the idea for fear all the reviews would label it ‘Dipstick’. Rather than try and link the two halves, with a ‘thick narrative rope’, he decided to ‘exacerbate’ their differences. Only some ‘echoes’ resonant between part one and two.
Some reviewers loved the result. Others described it as ‘two half books’. But this isn’t the place to discuss how Dyer deals with the critics.
I think it was a bold move on his part. There are lots of rules in writing and one is not to change point-of-view halfway through a narrative. Of course, those rules are there to be broken.
Last year The Guardian published a useful supplement on How to Write Fiction. It opens with Dyer advising writers to ‘stop worrying about what you can’t do and focus on what you’re good at.’ Such simple advice, yet so rarely heeded.
He writes, ‘Writers are defined, in large measure, by what they can’t do.’
Description might not be your forte, or perhaps you struggle with authentic dialogue. Dyer admits he can’t do plots and nor does he want to. This hasn’t stopped him and nor should it stop you.
One of my worst habits is comparing myself to other writers—and then feeling down on myself for not being as good / funny / add your own here. So I took to heart what Geoff Dyer said, and hope you do too:
‘I haven’t got it all. I make do with what I have.’
What about you?
© Claire Scobie
I keep getting asked how to use dialogue effectively. Recently one author told me that until she’d worked out how to use dialogue, she couldn’t get to grips with her memoir—nor her style.
Then yesterday, at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, another writer was bemoaning the fact that despite keeping a regular journal, she rarely wrote about the people she met, nor kept a record of any of the conversations. Now she finds her writing doesn’t sing and is too bogged down with description.
When I was writing Last Seen in Lhasa, an agent advised me to have dialogue on every page. I didn’t realise how important it was in the early drafts. By the end, I pretty much had done just that.
So why is dialogue so important?
It helps create character.
It is the best way to ‘show not tell’. Through dialogue you ‘show’ your characters—who they are, how they act and react.
It humanises a story.
When you combine dialogue with ‘stage directions’—how a person talks and moves—the
reader can visualise the person or people.
Dialogue immediately creates a scene by externalising the action.
It breaks up the writing and changes the pace.
It also advances the narrative.
It adds authenticity to your writing and shows you have actually met people on your journeys.
It provides other voices to the narrative—the reader doesn’t just hear you.
How to Master the Art
When you are travelling make notes of what people say, as well as who says it. This includes yourself.
If you are quoting someone directly, and want to use the person’s real name, ask permission first.
Learn how to condense an exchange. Change as little as possible of the quote, unless to clarify.
A direct quote repeats exactly what the interviewee said. If you don’t have a person’s exact words, you can paraphrase, but you cannot change the meaning of a person’s words. When you paraphrase, don’t use quotation marks.
Drop in a few foreign words to add authenticity—but keep the meaning clear. If necessary, translate.
Dialect can be useful but don’t overplay it. Use subtly.
If you’d like to learn more about the craft of travel writing, my next five-week travel memoir course starts on 23 May.
This Monday, hot off the plane from London, I attended the launch of travel memoir Growing Old Outrageously. Held in Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre it was launched by comedienne and journalist, Wendy Harmer.
Both the authors, Hilary Linstead and Elisabeth Davies, are now in their seventies and the book hilariously chronicles their friendship and journeys post-retirement. Known as Hil and Liz, the pair went to school together in England and re-met after 35 years. As Liz so aptly says, their book could herald the launch of another sub-genre of travel writing—'old bird lit'.
In many ways the pair couldn’t be more different. Hil is outgoing, loves food and shopping; Liz is solitary, prefers a museum over a fancy meal and always travels light. While Hil left England aged 21 and emigrated to Australia, becoming the first theatrical agent for directors such as Baz Luhrman and Gillian Amstrrong, Liz stayed in grey London working as a civil servant.
I was especially excited to be at the launch because I mentored Hilary when she was writing her part of the memoir. She came to one of my travel workshops in 2009, told me the gist of the book, and asked if I’d take her on. I could instantly see the attraction of the story—and believed that her exuberant personality could carry it through.
At that time she was struggling with how to weave together their disparate journeys over a sixteen-year period and their two different writing styles. It’s hard enough writing your own book, but co-writing it with someone who lives thousands of miles away is really tricky.
Initially Hil and Liz tried to write a chapter each, but that didn’t work. So straight away we worked on finding ways to seamlessly link their journeys. Sometimes this meant focusing on one trip over another, and leaving some places out altogether. We also looked at how to smooth out the voice, to create a single coherent narrative.
On and off, over nine months, I worked with Hil as she wrestled with her sprawling manuscript. In between, she negotiated with Liz and together they wrote and re-wrote their memoir. Much of Liz’s contribution was the imagination, skilful editing and a strong narrative line, needed to knit the book together. The result is a humorous, rambling and inspirational globe-trotting account, which shows the development of a friendship—and their staunch differences.
At the book launch, Liz thanked Hil for all her efforts. She said, if it wasn’t for Hil’s ‘vision, hard work and persistence’, the book would never have been finished.
I thought that really nailed what is required to write—and most importantly—complete a book.
Vision — you need that in the beginning when you are just starting out. But you need to hold on to it during the writing. It will inspire you to carry on, even on those dark days.
Hard work — you don’t necessarily have to be a trained writer to tell a story. You do need to be prepared to do drafts and re-drafts to make the story the best it can be.
Persistence — it’s one thing to bang away at the computer, it’s another to grit your teeth to the end. So many writers, many of them very good and talented, don’t make it that last mile to see the manuscript through.
But when you do succeed, and you are lucky enough to get a book deal, it’s all worthwhile. There’s nothing like holding your first book and celebrating it amongst your friends, family and peers.
If you are in Sydney and want to see Hil and Liz, they are speaking about Writing in the 70s at the Sydney Writer’s Festival on 17 May, at 4pm.
My next five-week travel memoir course starts on 23 May.
This week I’m writing to you from the grand institution of the British Library in London. I’ve done much of the research here for my novel, trawling through records from eighteenth-century India held in the India Office Records. Now I am in the editing stages and I hope, on the homeward stretch…
The BL is home to some of the world’s most famous books. The original Magna Carta, some of Leona Da Vinci’s sketches, the Gutenberg Bible, Mozart’s hand-written musical diary and over 14 millions books. Some rare books are only on display during exhibitions; others can be read and looked at in its many reading rooms. My favourite place to write and read is in the cavernous Rare Books Room.
Amazingly (and rather disappointingly) I haven’t had to wear white gloves to look at some of the works I’ve requested. Many have thick yellowing pages and are written in faded ink, still visible 250 years after they were written. It’s always a thrill to read an original diary and imagine the person who wrote it. It makes history real and brings the past streaming into the present.
What I love most about the Library is the atmosphere of furious study. Everyone is focused, everyone is busy. It’s like when you enter an ancient church and the air is thick with the sacred. As soon as you enter the Library, a stone’s throw from King’s Cross station, and walk up the marble steps, you know you are going to get a serious day’s work done.
On every available seat, people are working and the places fill as soon as the doors open. Today, I saw one woman breast-feeding with one hand, typing with the other. Inside the reading rooms, the atmosphere is hushed. You can’t dawdle or daydream here. You can only get down to the task in hand, only stopping for a quick tea and homemade cake in the café on the second floor.
Sitting here makes me realise how important it is to break out of our ordinary writing routines. I’m guilty of if myself. Back in Sydney I go to my office, day in and day out. I rarely make a trip to the beautiful old New South Wales Library or take my work to a café.
But it’s like when you go to a yoga class and push yourself much harder than if you practise at home on your own. Writing around other people makes you squeeze that extra bit out of yourself. Far from it being a distraction, a change of environment can boost your output.
Just as long as you don’t spend too long eating cake…
Writing is often about fixing: fixing big things like structure and small points like punctuation. Once you know how to fix something—and this comes through trial and error—then you know why some pieces work and some don’t.
It also helps to know what sort of writer you are. At a recent workshop one woman described how she likes to write the bare bones of a story and then flesh it out. As a result her writing is pared back and minimalist. In some places, just enough was said. In others, she skated over the surface and more depth was needed.
This writer is likely to spend longer doing the actual writing, and less time editing.
Another participant was the type of writer who piles in the detail. Her forte was description and colour and sensory stimulation. In some places it worked, in other parts it was over-written. As I count myself in that camp, I know that as much time is spent editing and re-writing, than actual writing.
For me, it’s important to get the words down on the page. This is the raw clay that I will fashion into my glazed pot.
In the workshop we then discussed whether those who like to pile in the words are hoarders. I’m not enough of a psychologist to know the answer, but for sure, writing does reflect deeper aspects of ourselves. And while I’d say I’m more of a hoarder than a minimalist, there are times in writing when I love to chuck things out…
There’s actually nothing more satisfying than getting a red pen and taking a piece of writing and cutting it, fashioning it, sculpting it into the shape you want the narrative to be.
Louise Dougherty (A Novel in A Year) has a saying that goes something like this. Never read your own work without striking extra words out.
When I get to the stage of cutting a story, I know I’m on the homeward stretch. That’s when I really polish the piece of prose and clarify exactly what I want to say.
I should add here that whichever camp you’re in, the more you write in a particular way, the quicker you become. When I was first working as a feature journalist, a 3,000-word profile could take several weeks. Now, if I have to, I can do it in three days.
But as for fiction, I’m learning the hard way. I’ve been piling it all in and am now ready to have a ruthless edit.
Wish me luck!
For the next two weeks I’m away. My next blog will be after Easter.
This week I’m delighted to share the news with you all that my travel memoir Last Seen in Lhasa is being launched as an e-book on Kindle on 31st March. (I will make the link live as soon as I can for instant download!) Not only does this mean another outing for the work, it also makes it accessible to a new audience.
These days many books go out of print within a couple of years, so the fact that mine is still selling six years later is exciting news.
People still ask whether I always intended to write a book and why I did it. The first few times I went to Tibet, I did as a journalist. I’d always dreamed of writing a book—who doesn’t? But it took quite a few years before I committed to the project.
During all this time I made copious notes and have a shelf-ful of journals. I also became very active in the Tibet cause and my perspective shifted from a journalist, to someone raising awareness about it.
The decision to commit
Five years after my first trip, in 2002, I saw this extraordinary documentary called Yogis of Tibet.
For those of you who haven’t read my book, it centres around my friendship with a wandering Tibetan nun who I call Ani. While I knew she was a yogini (a female yogi), I didn’t know how few women practitioners like her were left.
After watching this documentary I realised that Ani is the last of a generation. That clinched my decision to write my book about her, our friendship and my seven journeys to Tibet.
Prior to this, she’d given me permission to write in general about her. I then went to Tibet again and told her what I intended to do. She generously shared many stories with me about her life, her spiritual tradition and her family.
Once I knew I was writing a book, I was worried it would change my relationship with Ani. I didn’t want my later journeys with her to become ‘research’. Thankfully, nothing changed. I think that was because we had a strong foundation: we were friends first and foremost.
Every month I still receive emails from readers asking after Ani. Her story has touched over 20,000 people, probably many more. For me, that’s deeply humbling. I only wish she could know all of that.
The situation in Tibet is appalling right now. Over the past year, 29 Tibetans have self-immolated. That’s right, they’ve set themselves on fire as a protest to Chinese rule. This isn’t the place to have a political rant, but for those who care, there are some amazing Tibet organisations—Australian Tibet Council, International Campaign for Tibet and Free Tibet—who are working hard for the plight of the Tibetan people.
I worked on my book for nine years. I now know it has captured a snapshot in time. Every ounce of effort was worth it.
So for all of you writing a book, the road may be long, but the rewards are great—and often unexpected.
Keep on trucking!