Suspending disbelief

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

Dear reader – I know, poor, neglected blog. My writing process being the point of this thing (& I am writing, I promise) you’d think…

Book 4 is emerging & now being written in third person present which is interesting. Those of you who’ve followed me from the olden days will remember me referencing a story I called my RiverBook. It’s been set aside several times & almost drowned to be honest. I’m firmly of the belief that some stories aren’t meant to be written & ought to be allowed to pass peacefully. (TreeBook anyone? I think not…) RiverBook refuses to let go however – largely because the central protagonist is old[ish] & curmudgeonly. She keeps nagging. I’m acquiescing then & embracing Grace…

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The other thing – & why I really came here this morning – concerns a conversation I had last week with my writing group sister, Janey. We were discussing the nature of magic & how, in authentic magical realism, the author asks only that her reader suspend disbelief. I wondered if it was sometimes a lot to ask & perhaps, I write for a fairly niche audience.

Alongside my sisters, mothers & daughters, I write so-called ‘witchy’ characters: wise women with one foot in the ‘normal’ world, the other on the threshold between the veil. Ordinary women who happen to have that wee something that sets them apart. An affinity with the natural world & a heritage connecting them to the Old Ways.

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Janey made an astute & very smart observation. We live in a land steeped in magic, in myths & legends. Unlike almost anywhere else in the world, as a nation we Brits (Welsh, Irish, Scottish & English) have magic embedded in our history, our bloodlines & our collective psyche. We find it easy to believe in ghosts & spirits & the supernatural. We love a haunted house, a ghost story, a dragon & a faerie; we relish fantasy & myths brought to life in ways we can relate to. The huge success of the BBC drama series Merlin (2008-2012) is a terrific example.

Other, older ones, Janey pointed out, are numerous: from Mystery and Imagination (1966-1970) & Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers (1980s) to The Secret of Crickley Hall (2012) to the recent re-imagining of The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. Documentaries & dramas – we love them equally. And if we don’t, it’s more often than not because we’re too scared to watch them!

Yes – skeptics abound – but I’m less concerned than I was a week ago. I shall continue writing my ‘wise women’ characters, place them in their odd cottages, twisty houses & magical gardens. Set them baking good spells into bread, stitching protective ones into curtains; healing with herbs & kindness. I shall write them wrapped in mystery & concealing clothes, allow them to conjure what enchantments they will.

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The characters I conjure come from my own ancestral memory bank. Lili in Ghostbird & Mared, the grandmother in Snow Sisters. My own ‘disbelief’ is non-existent, frankly – I’ve been wandering between the veil since forever. Nothing to frighten the horses, but I know stuff & every now & then, it’s as real as breathing. And my characters know it too.

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Showing up … with a new notebook.

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“[I] am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles.” 

Virginia Woolf was talking about her diary. She could just as easily have been referring to her books. She often had a haphazard relationship with both. As do I. Although, unlike Mrs Woolf, I keep a sparse diary these days. More a daily, brief note frankly. My writing style is equally random. All over the shop to be honest – rarely linear but it works for me, so onward & sideways…

My third story is out on submission. It’s time to show up & write another. And so I bought myself a new notebook. Partly because I need one & also because the focus for #Book 4 has shifted hugely. It already exists in a complete first draft. The writing of it has happened over a period of several years. It’s been a thread, winding in & out of Ghostbird, Snow Sisters, a story about a fire-ruined house & #Book3. (Don’t ask – I’m terribly superstitious & until/if, too terrified to reveal the title.)

#Book 4 then kept getting eclipsed. I wondered at one point if it was one of those stories that wasn’t meant to be written at all. But I kept going back to it & to Grace, the central character. Grace is unlike anyone I’ve written before. She’s older for one thing. I’m very keen to write an older woman protagonist & I’ve been thinking about Grace a lot over the past week or so, wondering if I can finally write her & do her justice.

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There will be a selkie too, although not in the way most people imagine. Mine bears very little resemblance to the ‘conventional’ selkie myth & she’s never been near the sea…

The distance between my original vision for this story & being ready to write it properly means it was inevitable that aspects would change. And so it’s proved. This is the best time of year for me to write. Darker evenings, lush morning mists, nights drawing in… So yes, bought myself a new notebook…

All the stars… My book of the year

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There are certain books that, when you come to the end of them, you have no idea what you are supposed to read next. A Thousand Paper Birds by Tor Udall is such a book. On the morning I finished it, I sat in bed in a state of mesmerised shock because this is an utterly beautiful story & after two days, I still have no idea what to pick next.

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This book is elegant, eloquent & elegiac; profound, breathtaking, filled with the kind of prose that must surely have begun life in the author’s head as a poem. It shines with poetic moments & they stun, softly, like tiny birds beating against your rib-cage.

It’s a deceptively simple tale, one of love, loss & grief. Poor Jonah, lost without his dead wife Audrey, picks at your heart. Harry – an integral part of Kew Gardens, where the story is set – won me over from the beginning. Chloe & her paper skills, her delicate strength. Audrey with her secret… Everyone in this book is made from a version of love & each one is different: sweet, bittersweet, kind, capricious & as fragile as a paper bird on a lily pond.

Perhaps it’s because I write on the edges of magical realism that I found much in this book to enchant me. It’s certainly because I love rain & snow & write about them both, that I found this passage captivating.

My favourite character is ten-year-old Milly, who is explaining rain to Jonah:

‘It rains. Then the puddles evaporate and become clouds again. Round and round it goes. It got me thinking how nice it must be for a raindrop to become a snow-flake. For months you’re just rain and everyone hates you. But then one winter the weather gets chilly and you become a snowflake with its own shape and pattern. And you’re the only one of your kind of snowflake and everyone loves you. I reckon snow must be God’s gift to the raindrop.’

A Thousand Paper Birds is my book of the year.

Resting… or not, as the case may be…

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

Dear reader, how nice!
It’s been a while, but there’s a clue in the subtitle: ‘process…’  For a while, as I waited, there was none – not so’s you notice. Waiting is waiting & must be braved. The joy is in the outcome: a measure of progress within the process, so to speak.

Having untangled the minutiae of the structural edit, I dived in again. That’s the beauty of smart, intelligent, instinctual editing – it makes you want to do better. And as it turns out, I’ve been aided & abetted by an injury to the plantar ligament in my foot. (If you know it, you know it… There aren’t enough versions of ‘ouch’… And no need to commiserate. Cake will be fine…) The only treatment is rest.

Rest & write then. My brain, a thing of furious, focused energy, unpicking my story & stitching it together again; my body inert & aching from inactivity. The ridiculous irony is, in this rearranged version of my story (starting in the right place this time), I’m writing about a ballet dancer who injures her foot…

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Go figure…

Into the stream…

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I may not be blogging much for a while.

Structural edits are in. The End as I know it becomes redundant. One thing’s clear – I don’t always begin at the beginning either. Not the right beginning at any rate. Or end the way I’m meant to.

I’m off then, to wander – less aimlessly I can only hope. Re-assemble this story & say what I meant to, at the beginning, when I first had the idea.

Writers do a great deal of wandering off. What Virginia Woolf described as, ‘the line of thought [dipped] deep into the stream.’ The perfect metaphor for editing.

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See you, dear reader… I have to sharpen my pencils & grab my galoshes.

In love with blue

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

It’s a typically ‘island’ morning. Heavy mist brings a sense of isolation, perfect for a writer, pondering what to write on her neglected blog. It’s a month since my last post. It occurred to me just now that it’s three days shy of a year since I revealed the cover for my second book, Snow Sisters.

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Tenterhooks wasn’t in it. I’d spent weeks, watching the process of cover-creation unfold, silently screaming, ‘It’s too blue!!!’ The original image was a lot paler & it was partly why, when I was offered the image, I jumped at it. And then the designer came on board & the blue set in.

‘Trust the process,’ said my editor, when I voiced a small concern.
Too blue, I muttered to myself.

Oh, ye of little faith.

One of the things you learn, as you navigate the publishing world, is that the importance of a cover has little to do with what you, the author, imagines it to be. It isn’t about your vision or the pictures you’ve been hoarding ever since you thought up your first title. (Which, FYI, could well end up have nothing to do with your initial idea either.) It’s about marketing: shelf-appeal, genre-style & how customers (often subconsciously) react to covers, to colours & font. And getting all of this right is a skill. Like professional editing & diligent proofreading, cover design is down to someone else’s skill-set & rarely to yours.

Blue then – deep, subtle blue with hints of ice… Perfection. And apparently, popular.

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I love my book covers. On the shelf, my wee books are bobby-dazzlers.

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In a year (minus three days) of Sundays I doubt I could have come up with anything remotely as sweet. Brava Honno, (longest-standing independent women’s press in the UK, by the way) you do us proud.

Rereading books…

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

Theoretically, I need never buy another book. If I live to be a hundred (my plan) I won’t run out of books to read.

If you ask me to count how many books I’ve given away over the years, I can do so on the fingers of one hand. Every room in my small flat is lined with books. There’s a bookcase by the front door (it holds my ‘crime’ collection) & my bedroom is home to several TBR piles. There are books in the bathroom & the  kitchen; still more in my study. I’ve had some of my books since I was a little girl.

I buy books all the time; new & secondhand. Charity shops are great for when cash is short but new books are lush. The smell of them, the excitement of discovering them on the shelves of a bookshop. I like the sound of packages sliding through the letterbox too. Living in the sticks with a 50-mile round trip to the closest bookshop means sometimes, I order online. I look forward to the rap on the door, the smile on both our faces when my postman announces, ‘More books, love!’ I forgive him the endearment. He’s a nice guy & likes books too.

Since I’ve been published, I’ve met lots of writers – authors of brilliant books in a variety of genres & I’ve learned so much it makes my head spin. These people are my tribe & I buy their books. (Some of them buy mine too – who knew?!) New books keep me connected to fresh ideas & imaginative, inspiring writing.

It doesn’t mean I don’t still want to reread my old books. It’s a habit I’ve never outgrown. I read Jane Eyre every year & it makes my heart sing. Old books are depositories for stories that have lasted generations – thousands of years in some instances. They’re still around because of the quality of the writing. I have a fair number of these.

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I hang on to my books. Find space for them because they’re worth it. And as a writer, I’m worth it too. Reading, for me, is essential. And I agree with whoever it was who said, writers need to read widely – across genres & out of their comfort zone. Stephen King – that’s the chap. He talks about how trying to write like a particular (usually famous) author results in ‘pale imitation.’

The books on my shelves cover most genres. If we read only the kind of books we write, we’ll stall, learn nothing & our writing will be the worse for it. It’s tempting, I get that, but variety in reading is essential if we are to improve as writers, regardless of the genre we choose to write in ourselves.

I think the reason is, there are seams of connection to be found in the books we read which, on the face of it, are nothing like the ones we write. Small things in & of themselves which we may not even realise we’re picking up on. It is, as they say, grist to our writing mill. Reading a crime thriller always teaches me something about pace & structure. And every time I reread Charlotte Brontë’s wondrous offering, if nothing else, I try a bit harder.

The book I have lined up as my next read was published in 1932. It’s Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. (Many of you will be familiar with it.) As I’m currently planning on conjuring ‘something nasty in the [cellar]‘ for #Book4, I’m sure it will prove helpful.

Read widely, dear writer – read your old books – & prosper.

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In praise of publishers

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

Who knew, dear reader, that at an age when a good many women are settling into a version of retirement, I would be getting my first traditional publishing deal? Back in 2016, after what seemed like a lifetime, that is exactly what happened. And in 2017, I did it again.

There was – because there always is – an element of luck attached to both events. I was lucky to have access to the Meet the Editor scheme, hosted by the press that would eventually publish me. I was fortunate to be mentored by an editor with an astute mind & an eye for something on the quirky side. And finally, I found myself in the hands of a ridiculously small & hardworking team willing to take a chance on me.

In a world where getting a traditional publishing deal is as rare as a Kate Bush gig, I remain grateful. Genuinely so. I’m lucky to be published. Lucky to be so well looked after, to have my words treated with respect, my responses to editorial differences thoughtfully considered; to be involved at every stage of the publishing process. If the past few years have taught me anything it is this: those of us who are traditionally published by reputable presses are immensely privileged.

Since I was published, in many ways my life has changed beyond recognition. It’s still amazing to me & each day I count my blessings. I love it when people smile & say, ‘I read your book. Wow! Well done!’ Yes, I’ve worked hard but being published doesn’t make me special, it makes me fortunate. Makes me want to write more, be “full of work” & regardless of the future, remain indebted to my publisher.

This morning, as I often do, I opened A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf at a random page. This is what I read:

The dream is too often about myself. To correct this; and to forget one’s own sharp absurd little personality, reputation and the rest of it, one should read; see outsiders; think more, write more logically; above all be full of work; and practice anonymity…

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#TeamHonno

More than a fan

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

Every year on Christmas Eve, I enact a small ritual. I read, out loud, to myself, A Child’s Christmas In Wales by the poet Dylan Thomas. It’s a short book & takes me about fifteen minutes. My copy is old – I found it in a secondhand bookshop years ago. It bears a dedication: ‘Fondest Christmas Wishes, Ann‘ & the date, 1968. Every year I wonder who ‘Ann’ was, who gave her the book & how it ended up being given away again.

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In the same way I would never use the word ‘fan’ about my esteem for Virginia Woolf, I resist it with regard to Thomas too. Both are without equal in my view. I’m an admirer of both writers & try not to sound ridiculously pretentious by using words like ‘veneration’ & ‘homage’…

Yesterday, for the first time, I went to Laugharne & visited The Boathouse where Dylan Thomas lived for the last few years of his life. I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long. One of those things (like visiting Monks House where Mrs Woolf lived) I’ve always meant to do & somehow never got around to. Now I have & it was worth the wait. I went with my daughter, who is as much an admirer of Mr Thomas as I am of Mrs Woolf. (I can feel a ‘famous dead people’s dinner party’ coming on.)

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Thomas’s renowned writing shed is en route to The Boathouse. You can’t go inside & quite right too. It’s been preserved (& renovated) & nicely evokes a sense of what it must have looked like when Dylan Thomas worked there. You can peer (we did!) through the tiny window & take pictures.

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On a blisteringly hot day, I stepped inside the parlour at The Boathouse & the sense of place was immediate & quietly mesmerising. It was cool & peaceful. There were no echoes of voices: joyful or fiery; no hint of the explosive relationship Thomas had with Caitlin, his wife. Time, it seems, has softened the edges of the house. Which I like. The private lives of my & heroes & sheroes are best accessed through biographies. This close to home they are none of my business. I was content to be there & feel privileged.

Rest in peace Mr Thomas… Gently or otherwise…

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‘And changes into the most beautiful iridescent blue’ *

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Island life, Word birds & Process

In case new followers aren’t aware (my ramblings notwithstanding) this blog is my version of a writer’s diary. Its main function is to help me keep track of my writing process. In other words, it often consists of me thinking aloud – it’s highly likely I’ll make little sense to you, dear reader & if you’ve got this far, I’m impressed…

In my last entry I talked to myself about my next story: resurrect a previous one or start from scratch. It ended with me saying, I would wait & see which word birds ‘whispered the loudest.’

It seems the new one wins. Not because ‘going back’ is a bad thing. It can be & a story that isn’t working is a story that probably needs ditching. I know when I’m writing the wrong one. Riverbook isn’t wrong – it just isn’t the right time.

At writing group on Monday, I ran the outline of my new idea past my co-conspirator, Janey, & a week later, on the back of much slashing & brainstorming, I have it. Beginning. Middle. End. With the wrong whistles & bells relegated to the delete pile, the new ones glimmer. And I have a title! This early in the process it’s a bonus. (Book 3 has had almost as many titles as chapters. In the end I found it, hiding in plain sight within the narrative, but it took ages.)

This new story is as Gothic as I’ve gone thus far. I’m enjoying the trajectory of my books – from baby ghost to ‘presence’ via a tragic Victorian haunting. This one has sisters, another house (although not necessarily as we know it) & birds. (I am programmed to write birds into my stories.) And the colour blue… Also again, but it’s a lush colour & it works – in an entirely different context – so why not? A stroke of serendipity just now: as I thought blue, Kate Bush sang the title line above, which is, frankly, witchcraft & convinces me I’m on the right track.

I’m taking my time, making my notes & feeling my way. I have a new, magical writing frock (to go with the writing earrings.) All I need now is some discipline.

Chiharu Shiota
© Chiharu Shiota
* Kate Bush Sunset