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Why I Write: David Sanger

When speaking about writing, I find that I get embarrassed; worrying with each word that I’m treading in clichés. So I’ll steal from someone else. One of my favourite directors, Michael Powell, once said, ‘I am the teller of the tale, not the creator of the story.’ I like to think he was talking about the pre-existing wonder of life that he drew into his films. He filmed otherworldly romances and scenes of fantasy, but each time he made them from the basic components of life. Things we all have at our disposal in our memories and experiences.

I write because I feel there’s a tale to be told. I feel an excitement from something, be it an event or a character, that needs to be put down. When I started writing what will be my first novel, I didn’t know when or where it would be set. It just started as an image of a girl sat with her uncle, looking out over a canyon. The story grew from there and other characters joined the fray and then finally, and perhaps unconventionally, it gained a setting and a time.

Working in publishing only made me want to write more. At Faber I was lucky enough to meet authors who I had read and admired hugely; even written my dissertation on. It wasn’t that they raved about writing or how it was the best job in the world. It was the worlds they created. The tales they told. It was equally intimidating and inspiring, which is perhaps why I only began writing when I left.

I started writing properly when I lived in Germany. I was holed up (voluntarily) in a spare room, looking out on the woods. As it approached winter, the never-ending German snow started. Despite sounding like the start of The Shining, it was perfect. I would wake up and return to New Georgetown, where the book takes place. I felt like (and here comes one of those clichés) I was returning to a place I belonged. I loved walking into town to witness what the characters were doing. I occasionally went for a cold run to ward off scurvy and in Babelsberg Park there were long stretches of snowy paths before these strange castle-like buildings perched on the hills. Soon, the story had a woods and an ominous building, and the book had an ending.

When I started writing I would find any excuse to give up. I would blame the computer or having to do the washing or the shopping. A month later, I would struggle to stop. Subject matter swelled my brain. It was true hunger and something that hasn’t left me since. There are days when I don’t fancy it, but writing is the only thing that can get me to the library for two hours after a long day at work.

As much as I wrote about a different part of the world in a different time, a lot of the tale I told came from my own life. When I began writing this book, a decent chunk of what I went through at the time found a home in it. People left my life as well as came into it, or rather I left and came into theirs. It’s a tribute to those people and things said or unsaid; both as potent as one another. At one point in the book, my main character stands atop a hill and asks himself, ‘What now?’ I had asked myself that plenty and still do. I guess without sending him down first, I wouldn’t have been able to follow.

Writing, like everything, comes in good and bad swells, but there’s not a better job in the world. Stories exist everywhere and have been told countless times. I write to tell a tale and hope people enjoy listening to it.

In a film of Michael Powell’s – The Red Shoes (my favourite) – Lermontov asks ballet dancer Victoria Page why she dances. ‘Why do you want to live?’ she responds. Surprised, Lermontov muses, ‘Well I don’t know exactly why, but I must.’ ‘That’s my answer too,’ replies Page. And so it goes with writing.

David Sanger

David Sanger is a children’s book publicist who lives and writes in London. Rights to his debut novel has just been sold to a major UK publisher. Say hi to him on Twitter.

Kazuo Ishiguro and the Art of Narration

This piece, by Richard Skinner, was originally published on The Thought Fox

Kazuo Ishiguro | Faber Academy writing coursesIn December 2010, Kazuo Ishiguro accepted an invitation from myself and my co-tutor to speak to the students on the Writing a Novel course at the Faber Academy. It was a riveting two hours for the students and us tutors alike. During his talk, he offered access-all-areas to his thoughts on writing and his work practices, which was inspirational and which provoked a lot of discussion for weeks afterwards.

One of the key points dealt with is his use of the ‘unreliable narrator’ – the literary trope for which he is perhaps best-known. The point he made was that unreliable narrators are often a result of people reassessing their lives and the disappointment of it and, if the feeling of disappointment was too great, narrators might choose to leaven it in order to make it manageable. He went on to say that he auditions all his characters before deciding which one to offer the role of narrator. Imagine the Sherlock Holmes stories with Holmes himself as the narrator, he said – they just wouldn’t have worked. The point of the Holmes stories is that we are in the same boat as Watson with regard to the amount of information we have. Like Watson, we are in the dark most of the time. With regard to his own work, think of The Remains of the Day and how different it would have been had Miss Kenton narrated the story. Her self-awareness and emotional articulacy, which Stevens so obviously lacks, would have meant that the pleasure of the text would have to have come from some other place entirely. So, adopting different characters as narrators produces different kinds of books.

The other key point he made is that he feels each of his novels has grown out of its predecessor. He feels that writers have to learn ‘on the job’, but that they should treat every book as their masterpiece. There are a finite number of books in a writer, he said, so they need to pay attention to the shape and single impact of each narrative. Ishiguro clearly practises what he preaches: He has won the Booker Prize once – with The Remains of the Day – and no less than four of his six published novels have been shortlisted for Booker Prize. Four. No one (with the possible exception of Peter Carey) has had a greater hit rate at that particular prize and he is one of the most highly-regarded writers in the world. His advice and insight was so inspiring that my class and I decided to go away, revisit his work and have a mini-conference on it at the end of the course. To prepare for that, I thought it would be interesting to read his novels in the order he wrote them, which took me three months and which is one of the most rewarding reading experiences I’ve ever had.

The narrators of Ishiguro’s first three novels – A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World and The Remains of the Day – all share a very profound unreliability. Etsuko, Ono and Stevens are all ordinary figures living in extraordinary times and places and, although the stories they tell are complex, the stories themselves feel curiously incomplete and their conclusions are highly ambiguous. These three narratives, all set just before or after the Second World War, are deeply embedded in their historical moments but their narrators chose, for whatever reason, to tell the story at a tangent to those moments in history. The impression is that Etsuko, Ono and Stevens are traumatized, and their sense of self as narrators is paralysed. Indeed, the sense is even stronger than that – it is as though these characters are ‘haunted’. It is almost as if, as individuals, they are not proper, rounded subjects but merely ghostly actors and performers inhabiting roles that are allocated to them by the context in which they find themselves. And yet, whatever was the cause of their original trauma remains absent from their account, either because it is beyond their ability to describe or because they cannot recall precisely. They are ghostly presences telling a story that is uncertain in its source, detail or outcome. The effects for the reader of this careful attention to how a story is narrated are stunning.

Among those ‘And Now For Something Completely Different’ moments in an author’s career, perhaps none has been more dramatic than The Unconsoled, about which Ishiguro said: ‘The Unconsoled received a hail of abuse, but it was what I needed. I was ready to embrace controversy. I’d just had a bestselling novel [The Remains of the Day], won the Booker Prize and the film of it had just been nominated for eight Oscars. I could easily have continued producing well-shaped novels that would get kind reviews, but I felt if I was going to do something different and difficult, now was the time.’

What can one say about this novel? It is delightful yet frustrating. It doesn’t obey the laws of Euclidean geometry. Its forebear is clearly Kafka, and it shares certain similarities with Murakami’s wild-goose-chase novels, yet it is a one-off. I think the key to reading this novel is not to ask too many questions of it because, if you do, you can only expect to get the wrong answers. It is a Derrida-esque story of endless delay and deferral and is highly ‘overdetermined’ in the sense that its plot possesses a multiplicity of causes and suggests a plurality of meanings. Rather than searching for answers to questions that an implied reader imagines are being asked, it is perhaps more useful here to accept that there might simply be nothing to say. Avoiding such over-interpretation may hopefully lead to an ‘excess of wonder’, a position vis-á-vis the text that leads to an exciting awareness of our role in finding and joining in the play of meaning. Not least of these is an amusing running joke whereby certain places and many of the minor characters are named after footballers who have appeared in World Cup finals or who have appeared in Josef von Sternberg’s film, Der Blaue Engel.

When We Were Orphans is my particular favourite of the novels. As a result of his thoughts on the Sherlock Holmes stories, perhaps Ishiguro was keen to attempt a novel narrated from the detective’s POV, but we remain in the dark as ever regarding how Christopher Banks actually solves any crimes. Indeed, in place of being aligned with a narrator who can never quite grasp the reasoning process of the great detective (e.g. Watson), our perspective is shifted to a detective-narrator whose subjectivity and emotion often overwhelm the rational aspects of his role as detective. Banks’s narrative has all the trappings of the detective story, but none of the internal logic. He is another ghostly, haunted narrator, an actor who wrongly interprets the reality around him. Like Stevens, Banks is unable to grasp the political complexity of Britain’s position in the 1930s. Banks and Stevens are both confronted by the slow realisation that their social roles impose a restricted perspective on reality, one which limits their worldview and contributes to the lack of self-awareness in themselves and the sense of puzzlement they instil in others.

Along with The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s sixth novel – Never Let Me Go – is his most commercially successful and it was also made into a well-liked film. Both novels also share a similar mode of narration in that both stories are narrated as though being spoken rather than written. There are no lines in either book that would not sound out of place if recited. There is no ‘artfulness’ in the narration (indeed, Ishiguro told us that he goes to great lengths to make sure that every word in his books can be easily translated). However, the narrator of Never Let Me Go – Kathy H – is not so much an unreliable narrator, as an inadequate narrator. Unlike Stevens, she does not keep her feelings hidden but she is instead openly puzzling about feelings that have not been made clear to her. The reader feels this narratorial flatness very keenly and it was interesting to hear Ishiguro himself tell us that he had, in fact, abandoned Never Let Me Go not once, but twice. In the novel’s first manifestation, the young people in the novel were students and it wasn’t until, many years later, he heard a radio piece on cloning that he hit upon the idea of turning the students into clones. The novel then miraculously came to life.

For me, however, it’s the least interesting of his novels, precisely because the narrator is less unreliable than usual. My favourite novels of his are those that are set in the far east. They are the ones that play with unreliable narration to the most startling, dazzling effect. After moving through the upper echelons of pre-war English society; the strange, dislocated vistas of an unnamed Eastern European state and a dystopian vision of the near future, and even after having spent most of his life in the UK, one senses that a greater part of his narrative heart still beats somewhere in the orient.

Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s long-anticipated seventh novel, The Buried Giant, will be published by Faber in March. 

Richard Skinner

Richard Skinner is Director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy. The next Writing a Novel course starts in January. 

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Why I Write: Emma Carroll

I wouldn’t say I was born writing, but I do have an early memory of being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and saying: ‘A WRITER!’  (NB: I also said ‘ AN AIR HOSTESS!’ which is another article entirely).

As a kid I was forever writing stories – at weekends, in the school holidays – but always for pleasure. Yet by my late teens, I’d given up. I’d studied enough literature to know bad writing when I saw it, which equipped me well for the profession I did join: teaching.

Though I loved being an English teacher, it always felt like the safer option. I’d often drive to work with the fantasy of being a writer playing out in my head. And when students asked if I’d always wanted to be a teacher, I’d say ‘Umm…not exactly’ – though by now I was too knackered or too busy to even try to write.

What finally got me back into writing many years later was luck. Not good luck, but a big fat slice of the bad stuff.

Aged 34, I was a Head of English in a secondary school, newly married and about to start a family. Life was going to plan. Then, just three weeks after the wedding, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. The experience turned everything on its head. After chemo, I couldn’t have children. I didn’t have the energy or commitment to be a Head of English. There were no guarantees I’d even survive.

Fast forward four years. My cancer treatment was over. Yet the life I’d had before cancer wasn’t there anymore; I wasn’t the same person, either. What I wanted was fulfilment. Experience. Something to fill me up with all that cancer had taken away. Luck, as it happens, played a part in this too.

In the summer of 2009 I took a group of students on an Arvon residential course. I started writing. And writing. When I came home six days later, I couldn’t stop crying. Or writing. It felt like something inside me had shifted or opened up.

22948.books.origjpg I was ready.

At Arvon, I’d met Steve Voake, tutor on the Bath Spa MA in Writing for Young People. If I was serious about writing, I decided, then I needed support and encouragement. And at this point I’d no idea if I was actually any good. At the eleventh hour, I applied for the MA course and got a place.

What started out as a dream grew quickly into something far bigger. By doing the MA, I felt I’d validated my writing, given myself ‘permission’ to take it seriously. I tapped into something long hidden inside of me, and brought it out again, fresh and new. This wasn’t just writing for pleasure now; this was writing to be skilful, to be recognized, to feel satisfied that even under a prolific reader’s gaze my books might hold their own.

I learned that the spark of an idea is just the beginning, that writing takes discipline, time, commitment, energy. It can be awful. Terrifying. Heart-thumpingly painful. Often, it keeps you awake at night. Yet awful is better than having never tried.

22697.books.origjpgSo far, the writing experience has differed with each book. Frost Hollow Hall took two leisurely years to write, The Girl Who Walked On Air ten months, In Darkling Wood about six. I’m not a fast writer so working to shorter and shorter deadlines has been tough. What I love is that I’m still learning my craft, still learning about the industry, and this is all part of the thrill.

Deadlines don’t take away the magic, either. That feeling when the rest of the world disappears and it’s just you and your words is extraordinary. So too is when the story takes control; when you find yourself veering off the path and whole new plotlines reveal themselves like treasure. And that moment when you read what you’ve written as a reader, no longer seeing the mechanisms but the whole.

This is why I write.

Emma Carroll

Emma Carroll is the author of Frost Hollow Hall, The Girl Who Walked on Air, and the forthcoming In Darkling Wood. You can find her here, or say hi on Twitter

The Ghost and the Machine: Ghostwriting a Novel

Ghostwriting is nothing new | Faber Academy writing coursesAs someone who has worked as a ghostwriter for a number of years, I have followed the media storm about the ‘help’ Zoella received in penning her bestselling debut novel with a mixture of interest, world-weariness and just a hint of ‘There but for the Grace of God…’

When you think about, it can’t be a huge surprise that Girl Online was in fact written by a ghostwriter. Zoella, who rose to fame through a series of vlogs on YouTube, has never pretended to be a writer or gained celebrity through her writing. So for her to knock out a debut novel from a standing start at such a tender age would have been, to put it mildly, a remarkable achievement.

So why the opprobrium heaped on Zoella’s virtual doorstep? If the book had been a memoir or a book of beauty tips instead, then no-one would have batted an eyelid at the fact that a ghostwriter had been used. Indeed, it would almost have been a surprise for a non-fiction book by a celebrity not to be ghosted. Back in the day, it even used to be the case that ghostwriters got a sort of ‘best supporting actor’ billing. So for example, George Michael’s 1990 autobiography Bare had the fact that Tony Parsons wrote it clearly written on the front. Somewhere along the line, both publishers and the public decided that they preferred the charade that the celebrity had written the book themselves. So these days, unless the ghost is a well-known name (such as Roddy Doyle writing Roy Keane’s recent autobiography), then the book is commonly credited to the celeb alone.

Ghostwriting is nothing new

The criticisms about Zoella’s book differ because it’s a novel she has purported to have penned. The complaint seems to be that because she hasn’t written it herself, it therefore isn’t ‘real’ and she has hoodwinked her fans. Yet Zoella is far from the first celebrity to have ‘written’ a ghosted novel: Katie Price, Kerry Katona and Naomi Campbell are just three examples of ‘authors’ who came up with the ideas for their novels and then let someone else do the writing. The same is also true of many of those SAS-type thrillers ‘written’ by ex-military types. In these cases, the ghosted novel works because the reader reads it assuming that the plot draws on the subject’s insight and experiences. That’s what gives these books the authenticity their readership craves.

The suggestion, then, that Zoella has somehow ‘tricked’ the public into thinking she has written a book feels a bit mean-spirited to me. She’s not doing anything different to a number of other ‘writers’ out there. I suspect Zoella’s main crime is to have sold a lot of copies of her book, at which point the press start circling for a reason to do her down. In many ways, the vitriol feels little different to that aimed towards E L James when she had similarly spectacular levels of overnight success.

Publishers aren’t charities. They’re there to make money and turning a vlogger into a bestselling author is good business. There have been suggestions that the ghostwriter has been hard done by, receiving a flat fee and no share of the royalties. As a ghostwriter myself, I can only say that such a deal is not unusual. A publisher comes to you with an offer and you decide whether to accept it or not. Sometimes there are royalties involved, sometimes there aren’t: thems the breaks and it depends how good your agent is at negotiating. In this instance, the ghost had to weigh up whether it was worth her while to accept (supposedly) eight grand for (reportedly) six weeks’ work. Certainly, I’ve known publishers to offer smaller sums for projects involving much more work. In this case, given the publicity the ghost has got from the book, I don’t suppose she’ll do too badly out of it in the long run.

What I think is a shame is that, in all this media hullabaloo, the fact that 80,000 people went out and bought a novel in its debut week has been overlooked. In an age when we’re told that books are in decline and nobody is reading any more, a novel that bucks the trend so marvellously should be something to be celebrated. If Zoella is reaching out to people who don’t normally buy books, and some of them get into the habit as a result of reading Girl Online, then we should be thanking her – not hanging her out to dry.

Tom Bromley

Tom Bromley is an author, editor and ghostwriter, as well as the tutor of our Writing a Novel online course. You can find him here, or say hello on Twitter

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Why I Write: Natalie Hart

I write for many reasons. I write because when I’m at work I live with my colleagues. I write because the security situation here means I can’t wander around the city when I need to clear my head. I write because I can’t call up one of my friends and pop out for a glass of wine to unwind in the evening. I write because I live in Iraq.

When I am in Iraq, writing provides me with space.  It offers a mental separation from my job and surroundings when a physical one is not possible. It keeps me sane and it keeps me healthy. Personal wellbeing is important in such an intense environment. While I workout in the evening as a physical outlet for stress, writing in the morning is my creative outlet. I get up most days at six o’clock and write for an hour or two before heading to the office.

Of course, being in Iraq is not my only reason for writing. I caught that bug long before I made acquaintance with the Middle East. Between the ages of fourteen and nineteen I worked part-time in a small bookshop in my village (which I maintain is the best job I have ever had). I promised the owner of the shop that I would have a book of my own on his shelves before he retired. I write because I would hate to break that promise.Natalie Hart | Why I Write | Faber Academy writing courses

It is perhaps because of that bookshop that writing has always been my retreat. During my teenage years, life at home was difficult. The bookshop was a haven of calm and I spent many afternoons drinking tea and chatting to customers about what they were reading, under the auspices of ‘work’. Literature was my safe place, as it is now. The bookshop owner became somewhat of a mentor for me and I ended up following in his footsteps by pursuing a languages degree at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Studying Arabic and Spanish opened up entirely new worlds for me, with each trip abroad providing further inspiration for my writing.

Much of my writing is set in foreign climes. I love to include splashes of different languages in my stories and to evoke different locations through scents and tastes. Bizarrely though, I rarely write about such locations when I’m in them, which I think is due to my need for space and separation. When I’m in Iraq, I don’t want to write about Iraq. I want to write about street children in Mexico or life as a military girlfriend in Germany or cold winters sat in the libraries of Cambridge. As soon as I leave Iraq, my writing will veer back to stories about the Middle East. My mind and body tend to enjoy being in disparate places!

I also have a new reason to write at the moment: I have deadlines. After enjoying online writing courses so much, I decided to take the plunge and start a distance learning Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster. I have reduced my stints working in Iraq and now balance my time equally between work in Erbil and writing from my home in Stuttgart. Knowing that I have set submission dates really helps get words down on the page and beat the procrastination monster.

Are those all of the reasons I write? Probably not! I’d like to echo the sentiment of Alexia’s post from last week: I write because it makes me happy.

Natalie Hart

Natalie Hart was a student on one of our Writing a Novel online courses. She works in public opinion research and strategic communications in Erbil, and writes a blog here.

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Why I Write: Alexia Casale

Like most authors, there are lots of answers to this question, but the one that sustains me through the love-hate process of writing and editing and more editing and still more editing is the fact that it makes me happy in a way that nothing else does. When students (I teach Creative Writing) talk to me about their ambitions, I’m always struck by how rarely they mention happiness. Some talk about fame, some about money, and some about ‘the lifestyle’, but mostly there’s little money, less fame and a lifestyle that rarely involves leisurely days sipping wine until the muse strikes, at which points words flow pristine and perfect from the fingertips.

There are other things I could do to make a living, but none of them make me as happy as writing does. The fact that knowing this about myself is among my earliest memories has been a mixed blessing – especially given that I’m dyslexic/dyspraxic and didn’t even read properly until I was ten. The upside was that I always knew what would fulfil me and make me happy. The downside was that I knew that if I didn’t get there – if I didn’t have the right combination of talent, hard work and luck – I’d never be as happy as I could be. That’s pretty powerful motivation.

But now I’m here and I’m even happier than I dreamt I would be. I love writing even when I hate it and that’s the key.

‘Why does it make me happy?’ is a harder question. My love of writing started with my grandparents: a childhood of stories. But above all I have a greedy type of curiosity about life; I want to know everything, do everything, beeverything. I hate that I have only one life and even that is limited. There isn’t enough time. But in my imagination I can live many lives. I can pursue many careers, many possibilities. I can live myself into the past, the future, even worlds that don’t exist.

How I write

It varies for each novel but for me the key is to create a mental movie of the book. I start with 2-4 points of high emotion and work out a plot that leads to and between them: the trick is making sure that the plot squeezes the maximum emotion from these key scenes by wringing it from the characters.

As I start fleshing out the story, I also start mentally filming it. I bring in an imaginary wardrobe department to costume my characters, casting to get the right people in the right roles, props to sort out the sets and make sure there’s stuff for the characters to interact with, and cinematography to capture the sets, to set the mood and make sure the world of the story is magical and emotive. I’m the director: I ‘run’ each scene, calling “cut” when something doesn’t work, then giving out new lines, getting the various departments to make changes before I run the scene again. I inch forwards, developing the perfect cut of each scene until I have a whole movie.

The Bone Dragon by Alexia Casale | Faber Academy writing courses

And then I write up enough information to capture the important things, including key words to describe the sets, the people, phrases to use in dialogue. Finally, I set to work converting it all into prose. All of that lets me focus on creating a voice for the book and making sure that the prose doesn’t just tell the story: that it has layers and subtext.

The Bone Dragon is a mix of things I learnt while working in mental health charities and human rights editing, plus the experience of having one of my own ribs put in a pot. My second book is about intelligence and loneliness: it’s set in Cambridge, where I did my first two degrees and also worked as a researcher studying dyslexia and intelligence. An upcoming book is loosely based on my grandparents’ lives during WWII. Another started as a dream. Another grew out of reading a bad book and watching a terrible TV programme then thinking ‘That idea from X was great, and that idea from Y: I could have done so much more with those ideas.’ I also collect newspaper stories and photos and music… You never know how little things may suddenly connect: that’s the alchemy of writing. Putting things together – ideas, words – to create something that is so much bigger than the sum of its parts.

Alexia Casale

Alexia is the author of The Bone Dragon and House Of Windows. You can find her here and on Twitter.