Blueprint for a house…and a story

In May 2017 we bought a house in Somerset. It was originally built in the 1950s and for almost two years we’ve been renovating it. And it’s finished! I hesitate to do a huge cheer in case something else falls apart or starts leaking – but we are absolutely delighted. In fact, our house was shortlisted  for an award (LABC SouthWest Building Excellence)!

While we were working on the house (yup, it’s a stressful as everyone on Grand Designs tells you), it made me think about the similarities between building a house and writing a novel. Both kinds of projects require vision, creativity, tenacity, an eye for the big picture, being dogged about detail, technical skill, imaginative flair and fair amounts of sheer blood, sweat and tears. 

Here’s what I learned about the parallels between designing a house and plotting a novel:

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Vision: We had a clear idea of how we wanted our house to look – we sent a nine page brief to our architect. Julian Mills of Orme Architecture then drew a picture of what our house was going to look like, and I do believe, it’s come out as we’d all hoped it would! With a novel, you might have a vague idea of what’s going to be in it, a general feeling for its shape, a wisp of atmosphere, a hint of the kinds of characters that will people it. You might want to create an ideas board or a mood board, as we did on Pinterest (and I also do for whatever novel I’m working on). You can have a look at my previous mood boards here.

However, at some stage, you’re going to want to firm up this vision so that you can communicate your idea succinctly to publishers and agents to make them excited about your novel, as well as understanding what they’re going to get when it’s finished. There’s nothing so dispiriting as giving your novel to an editor who was expecting something totally different…

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Blueprint: Orme Architecture used the original design and our thoughts to create a blueprint. This enabled us, the client, to see what our house would be like, as well as showing the builders exactly what to do, from which wall to take out, to where the light switch should go in my office.

You wouldn’t start building a house without planning it first…why do the same with your novel?

Some of you may not like planning your novels. You may just want to start writing. And that’s fine, but my advice is, you may spend a long time writing your way into finding out what your novel is actually about, and even longer editing it if you haven’t created a blueprint. This is your outline for yourself, which you may wish to share with your writer’s group, your agent and your editor. It tells you how the plot will unfold and how you’re going to structure your novel. 

Creating a blueprint is the skeleton for the novel, upon which to hang your beautiful words and well-crafted sentences. Effectively, it’s going to tell you where the walls will be built (major twists) as well as where the light switches will be fitted (minor revelations). It’ll help keep your writing focused on  your theme: in our house it was minimalism, white walls and wooden floors, with a Swedish vibe; in a novel, it might be on identity, for instance, which was one of the themes in my thriller, The Stolen Child.

Adaptability: Life never goes according to plan. You can create the most watertight of design briefs and building specs, but there’s no predicting what can happen. One then needs to adapt, whilst still retaining the big picture in mind. For instance, we ordered a beautiful kitchen – the design looked stunning on paper, and the kitchen fitters, the architect and the builders shared the blueprint with each other. However, when the kitchen arrived, no one had told the fitters that we had a steel beam running through the middle of what should have been the dishwasher (the beam was put in to hold our house up when we took out all the walls downstairs).

Sticking rigidly to the outline of your novel will stifle your creativity. New ideas and inspiration will come to you; characters will ‘act’ in ways you hadn’t foreseen. Also, things will go wrong – you’ll realise your research was insufficient, you may be left with a plot hole, or what seemed to work on paper before you began writing, just doesn’t, or it’s too slow, or too obvious. Or your publisher hates it.

 

Compromise: Most of our compromises with our house were to do with money. We had a comparatively small and fixed budget. We compromised on major design features – for instance, we wanted to open up the attic space but discovered we had four species of endangered bat sharing our living space! We didn’t touch the roof, and the bats are still happily (noisily) living in our attic. We compromised in minor ways – the brand new ensuite bathroom has the original shower screen, which is old and doesn’t match. 

How far are you willing to compromise with your novel? If you want to finish your book in two years instead of ten, you might need to give up on going out in order to have the time to write; you might need to accept that you’re not going to be Margaret Atwood or James Patterson and be fine about your writing skills and renumeration; you might have to change the story or the characters to satisfy your publisher. 

What’s important is to hold on to your original vision, but remember that to achieve it, you will have to depart from it to some extent, and be willing to adapt and compromise. 

 

 

Our house is in an AONB – an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty; we have a large garden with stables requiring a little love and attention, and three acres of meadow and woodland. I veer from thinking I’m the luckiest person alive to despair at how we will manage with limited time, resources and skills. My vision is to manage our land for writers and for wildlife… I’d like to tell you our story, from inner city Bristol, to the wilds of Somerset, along the way sharing writing tips and experiences, as well as our attempts to get on top of the brambles and bracken!

 

Let me know what you’d like to know more of – and if you’re a writer, do you create a blueprint before you begin?

 

Letter to my younger self

What would you tell yourself if you could? The Royal Literary Fund recently gave me the opportunity to write and record a letter to my younger self.

I know your grammar is… idiosyncratic would be the kindest way to put it. But you can learn where commas go, you know!

Do have a listen and let me know what you think!

My most important advice to you is: please don’t be frightened of failing, of falling, of learning, & of acknowledging that you need help

 

Sanjida O’Connell

 

 

How I write

The Royal Literary Fund has recorded a mini -podcast with me on how I write – with a black coffee, and some dark chocolate and then I begin!

‘Writing a novel feels like being an ultra-marathon runner, it’s going to be a gruelling slog to reach 90,000 words and I will be unable to pause, to breathe properly, to take in the view until then.’

You can listen here:

Sanjida O’Connell

 

What do you think? Let me know how you write.

 

I’ll be your coach

 

I’ve just returned to working for charity, First Story, this month. First Story’s aim is to change young people’s lives through writing, particularly those who might be disadvantaged socio-economically, and/or suffer from a lack of confidence. I had my first creative writing workshop with the school I’ll be Writer in Residence for last week. Before I met the group of students I’ll be working with, I was wondering what to tell them. I want to inspire them to be writers, as well as to give them the confidence to flourish, but I’m not sure that I personally feel like a teacher, or even know that creative writing can be taught. In spite of having published twelve books, I don’t have any qualifications in teaching and I have none in English past the age of 15.

So what I said was:

I am your space: I am your space in which to think about and practise the craft of writing. 

I am your permission: I give you permission to be writers. 

I’m never going to say to a single one of these young people that they are rubbish, that they cannot do it, that they need to demonstrate proficiency in key aspects of the curriculum, pass an exam or sit a test. I hope that having the time, space and permission to ‘have a go’ will help them blossom, both now and in the future.

Finally, I said:

I am your coach. 

In most subjects taught in schools today, the educational model we follow is that you attend classes, practise, learn, graduate and then make your way on your own. But in sport, the model is that you are never, ever done. Everyone needs a coach. Even the greatest football player or Olympic athlete needs a coach. There isn’t a fool-proof path to become a premier league player, nor to win a gold medal at the Olympics. What players do is that they learn, they practice and they are coached. It is a never-ending process of attempting to improve under the guidance and tutelage of a person who has your back. The way to become a great cyclist, gymnast, football player or even a writer is with help. It is not, as someone tweeted at me recently, about reading a few articles online and doing it by yourself.

As Atul Gwande, surgeon and author of Checklist, says, ‘Coaches are on to something profoundly important…They build on your skills and address your weaknesses.’ Gwande, who is seen as being top of his field in general and endocrine surgery, hired a coach, thinking that this fellow surgeon, would have little to teach him. After the first session, the coach had made pages of notes on how Gwande could become a better surgeon. Two years later, Gwande’s techniques had indeed radically improved.

For me personally, I’ve benefitted greatly for the coaching I’ve received from my agent, Robert Dinsdale, my many editors over the years, and my writing buddies. In my role as a Royal Literary Fellow, I frequently receive training and coaching from other fellows. I still believe that I could benefit from more help and dedicated coaching for my thriller writing. (Any volunteers?!) As Gwande says, ‘It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you’re going to be that really matters.’

 

Diversity in Fiction

I’ve written as a Jesuit priest in Outer Mongolia, a nine-year-old in inner city Bristol, a child abductor, an angry teenager, a man in his twenties, a Victorian lady trapped on an island in the Southern states of America at the turn of the Civil War. I’ve written about slaves, Buddhist lamas, racketeers and drug addicts, accountants and artists, actors and academics. As a writer, I want to tell any story I’m moved to, from the perspective of any character I wish, regardless of their race, religion and culture – or perhaps because of it.

My own background is that I’m half Bangladeshi, half Irish and grew up in Africa, Ireland, England and Wales in a Protestant-Catholic household, only distantly knowing the Muslim-American side of my family. Yet I rarely, if ever, read about anyone from a culturally diverse background in British fiction. 

Many years ago, when Zadie Smith burst on the literary scene with White Teeth, and Salman Rushdie was still in vogue, I thought the situation was about to change. Cut to the present day. The long lists for most literary awards are still filled with white authors. The multi-culturalism this country is famous for is rarely represented in literature. You can buy a Dansak, raw sauerkraut, Thai green paste and a Za’tar rub in your local supermarket, but have you found a novel where the majority of characters represent the Nigerian-Welsh, the British Somali, the Ukrainian-Bristolian and the Russian-Irish kids in my (Asian-Irish-Scottish) daughter’s class?

In my own genre, crime, BAME (Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority) writers only make up 4% of all authors. Mixed race characters and authors are still few and far between. Worse, according to a report, Writing the Future, commissioned by Spread the Word and edited by Danuta Kean, which was published in 2015, BAME writers are often pressurised to produce characters and settings that conform to white middle-class stereotypes of racial minorities, and the places (‘exotic’, ‘gritty’) they believe them to live. Publishers tell me that my market, like that of the majority of writers in this country, is largely 35-55 year-old white women. Yet in a scant thirty years, it’s predicted that one in five people in this country will be from an ethnic minority.

For me the situation is a broader issue.  As Kean says, ‘The big elephant in the room is class and socio-economic background.’ Those in the publishing industry, including agents, editors and people running literary festivals, are overwhelmingly white, middle or upper class. They, unlike many BAME candidates, are often educated privately and attended Russell Group universities (at a time when only 7% of the UK population has been privately educated and only 1% attended an Oxbridge University). Furthermore, BAME would-be publishers are frequently from families who can’t afford to subsidise them for a year or so as an unpaid intern in London. Kean comments, ‘Change is cosmetic and has not been structural or institutional.’

In other words, it’s not simply that British and American literature is not ethnically diverse, but that the very people deciding what is to be published and how it should be edited are largely not from diverse backgrounds, either in terms of their culture or their class. In this country, the children that borrow most of the books from libraries are British Asian…and yet, and yet, as adults, Asians are not buying or reading books. I’ve rarely attended an event where I was not in the minority solely down to my skin colour. And I’m still not reading books or seeing screen plays where the main characters are British Asian, so maybe this sector of the population are giving up because they are so overwhelmingly underrepresented in British fiction.

I think it’s fantastic that there are now initiatives to encourage more BAME writers into fiction, but until the publishing industry itself becomes more representative of the population as a whole (and pays interns and junior staff  better), I fear these small shoots will not produce the multiplicity of multi-coloured blooms we crave.