Tag Archives: writing inspiration

Why I Write: P. C. Dettman

Writing about writing, and in particular about why I do it, is the hardest topic of them all. It involves the kind of introversion which comes naturally to writers, but multiplied and distilled. It is turning the tool, or the weapon, on yourself. If I think back in time to why I originally wrote stories, I find it easier.

When I wrote my very first short story that was not part of some school assignment, it came from a simple place. I had some time, I had an idea for a story, and do not remember where it came from, but I enjoyed the thrill of developing a plot and some characters and seeing what happened to them. At the time, Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy series was all the rage with my classmates. It was a set of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books with a dice and some clever role play ideas. This was the mid 1980s and I was 9 or so. I enjoyed reading, yes, but the experience of making your own story was massively more satisfying. And the internet didn’t exist.

By the time I wrote my first novel during my second year at university, the internet had barely begun to exist. I still got a lot of fun from writing, but there was a new motive. It was a very clear one to a student in a grey northern city. The motive was money. Michael Ridpath had, unusually for a writer, made almost as much money writing books as he did as a trader in the City. Or a stockbroker, or whatever it was he did. He wrote a couple of thrillers about high finance, and they sold unbelievably well. He did the foreword to some Writer’s Digest books with titles like How To Write a Mi££ion.

Time passed. I graduated and got a real job. I moved to London. I moved back away from London. I moved jobs. But eventually I started writing again, and I feel like I have a healthier set of reasons to write, and a lot more experience of both life and the writing craft. I’m writing my first literary novel, which to me means it is not high concept, or plot-driven, or too unbelievable. It’s not about spies or space aliens. It’s about two people, professional musicians, following their dreams. I’m not writing for money any more. I learned the truth behind that pretty quickly. I feel like I’m doing it because I want to. The initial thrill is still there: to write captivating stories involving believable, realistic people. The more you do it, the better you get. And the better you get, you realise there is so much more to this than ever meets the eye to a reader, even an avid reader. Only the writer knows the terror emitted from a blank page.

I do it because it puts me in good company. Even if I’m just doing a diary each day, or a few days a week, I’m in there with Hemingway and Orwell and Greene. If I write a couple of letters (and apologies to the random assortment of strangers who have received one from me) then that’s even better. These things, this writing practice, helps me to understand the world and my place in it. No, really. I do a blog post here, a tweet there. Anything is easier than working on the current book. But the fascination is still there, the love of solitude, the freedom it gives you to think profoundly about almost any topic that draws your eye. The skill of making plain your ideas to a wide range of unseen readers. English, or any other language, is never as precise as your true internal thought.

And now that I’m back in London, or near enough, I have started rubbing shoulders with real writers. Ones with real publishers. And they’re not as different from me as my younger self ever imagined. They work hard, they worry, they see it for what it is, and still they persevere, but they’re only human. Almost nothing else offers you a chance of immortality as writing does. And as you approach middle age, mortality starts to become a topic to write about in a totally new way.

Paul DettmanP. C. Dettman

P. C. Dettman publishes speculative fiction as Paul Charles, and is currently writing a novel about a drug dealing pianist and the best tenor sax player in England. You can find his books here, or say hi to him on Twitter

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Why I Write: Joanna Cannon

I called them my Kodak Moments.

The snapshots of my day as a doctor, the patients who managed to creep across the brick wall which medical school had instructed us to build, between our profession and our emotions. The desperate, the alone. The children who would never know a future, the elderly who struggled to search for a past. One day, I stood by the bedside of a woman with metastatic breast cancer, a woman whose birth date was just a few days from my own. We had grown up with the same posters on our walls, we knew the lyrics to the same songs. I watched her for so long, searching for the difference between us, because I knew that if I couldn’t find it, I would never be able to turn away.

These Kodak Moments took over my life. I would pull into my drive at the end of a shift, and not remember how I got there, and I would lie in the dark each night, trying to make sense of what I’d seen that day. I decided I must be too absorbent for medicine, and if I didn’t find a way of dealing with these moments, perhaps I really wasn’t suited to this job after all.

So, I decided to do what I had always done, since I was very small, and I started to write about how I felt. Of course, I didn’t write about the patients themselves. Instead, I wrote about my reactions to the situations in which I found myself. I tried to make sense of them.

When I was a child, I lived for library day. I spent all my time with Meg and Mowgli and Aslan (some of my best friends lived within the pages of a book), because they allowed me to explore a very confusing world, without ever leaving the safety of my own chair. I think of writing in a similar way. I think, at least for me, this is what writing (and reading) is all about. It’s a way of understanding, a way of choosing a new perspective. Without writing, I know I would struggle to process everything around me, and finding the words to explain my experiences leaves me free to absorb a little more of the world.

As a teenager, I watched an Alan Bennett series on BBC1 called Talking Heads, and it felt as though someone had opened a door into another room. For the first time, it made me appreciate the power of words. The power to move, distract, and entertain. The power to shift a viewpoint. The power to explain. I decided then that this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to learn how to harness the power of words, and use them to make the world an easier place to understand.

For me, I think life will always require more than a little explaining, and as long as I need those explanations, I will continue to write.

Joanna Cannon graduated from Leicester Medical School and worked as a hospital doctor, before specialising in psychiatry. She was born and raised in the Peak District, where she continues to live with her family and her dog. THE PROBLEM WITH GOATS AND SHEEP is her first novel, and will be published by Borough Press (HarperCollins) in Spring 2016. Say hi to her on Twitter.

Jo was also a student on one of our online novel-writing courses. Writing a Novel Online: The First 15,000 is open for applications now. 

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Why I Write: Sophie Lovett

I write because I dare to.

It’s that simple, really.

For years I had stories burning away inside of me but I never gave them the oxygen they needed to burst into life: I was too afraid.

It seems silly to say that out loud when I live in a time and a place where there really should be nothing holding me back. I know there are people all over the world who genuinely risk their lives when they put pen to paper. That is not the kind of fear that I’ve had to face, but that doesn’t make the prison I constructed in my mind any less real.

The key to my release came in the smallest of packages.

It’s something of a cliché to say that having a child has given me the freedom to let go of the fear, to focus on what really matters rather than being paralysed by the anticipation of what other people might think. But it’s true.

Quite early on, staring at that tiny ball of potential through the haze of new motherhood, I realised I was going to have to stop being such a coward. How could I honestly claim that he could be anything he wanted to be, do anything he wanted to do, whilst at the same time nurturing inside of myself a growing shadow of regret at dreams unpursued?

I also knew I couldn’t leave him. I couldn’t go back to the career that had swallowed up so much of my time and energy: however much I loved teaching, I loved this baby more. I needed to find something to do that would also allow me to spend as much time with him as possible.

And so I wrote. I had the ideas – that had never been a problem. And in between the feeding and the nappies, whilst my baby slept in the sling or cooed in his bouncer, I finally got the words on to the page. By the time he was six months old I’d finished my first novel.

That was only the beginning, of course. I have yet to crack publication, but that doesn’t matter – yet – because I’m writing. I’ve proved to myself that the world won’t fall apart if I let myself do the one thing I’ve always longed to do. In fact quite the opposite.

Writing gives me a release, a sense of purpose. It stimulates my creativity just as it gives me an outlet for it. I write every day now: whether blog posts, redrafting notes or nascent character studies. It’s just what I do.

Because I dared. And daring made me stronger.

Sophie Lovett

Sophie Lovett is an author and blogger who lives in Devon.  You can find her talking about writing, parenthood and crafting here, or say hi on Twitter

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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.

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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