“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” wrote F. Scott. Fitzgerald closing The Great Gatsby. The depiction of the past and the processing of memory appears to be catnip to writers. The topic drew a full house to the Tea House Theatre recently to discuss, All Is Not What It Seems: How Memory and the Past Drive a Narrative, with the short story writer and novelist, Claire Fuller.
Claire has a background as an artist and also worked for many years as a co-director of a marketing agency. Her career in fiction began at the age of forty and she holds masters degree in Creative Writing from the University of Winchester. She’s published many award winning short stories in addition to three novels. Her debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, won the 2015 Desmond Elliot Prize. This was followed swiftly by Swimming Lessons in 2017 and her third novel, Bitter Orange, was published recently.
Claire’s ideas for novels are not planned. She begins with a person in a place and lets them do stuff. She might write four or five thousand words trying out all sorts of things. The structure evolves as she writes. This can get complicated as she discovered when writing her first novel - a dual narrative of interspersed chapters comprising of a ‘then’ and a ‘now’ (see Claire’s link below: writing dual narratives). Transitions between ‘the now’ and the memories (‘the then’) have to be done carefully - something in ‘the now’ must prompt them. Use transitions to ramp up the tension in the narrative: foreshadow, seed teasers, hints and clues to help with suspense. Make transitions using tense. While writing Bitter Orange, Clare had to split up a big section about a major character (Cara), and weave it through the narrative as plot points, back story and in flashback. Make the beginning of your switch interesting. Don’t irritate the reader!
We talked about how setting interacts with memory. For Claire, setting and location are tied up in her imagination. All her settings look back to places in her memory that she can’t get back to. Location brings back those places and the people associated with them. In terms of writing fiction this can be useful: memories can be tinged with all sorts of emotion as well as play tricks with you. Memories can be fixed, fluid or subject to change. It’s fun to play with that.
Claire writes quite short first drafts at 60-70,000 words and may add another 10-20,000 words later. She edits as she goes along. Revision is a physical process. She likes to leave gaps and create ambiguity. “It’s important to leave space for the reader and keep them engaged.” Claire is her own first reader and says, “write the book that you might like to read.”. Employ unreliable narrators, leave threads hanging, keep endings open. Readers like to have a rhythm. Expectation will help the reader move on and keep the pages turning. Claire finds new writing really difficult, (cue much nodding and murmurs of agreement from the audience). She likes the feeling of having done it! For first drafts she doesn't think too deeply. She concentrates on getting the story out. She allows herself a little editing of the previous day’s work but she must then write forward. She might comment on her work in brackets, (“this is really shit!”), in order to silence her inner critic and allow herself to write badly. She suggests tapping into your subconscious. Take a memory of your own and expand on it. Surprise yourself. She’s the type of person who always finishes something! Remember making creative stuff is also about failing.
There was so much to talk about and I’ve only touched on the major themes here. With thanks to to Claire for sharing her process with us and giving us lots to think about and experiment with in our own writing.
We have a fascinating salon coming up on Monday, 12th November at Words Away, There Will Be Blood: Writing Violence, with crime and historical fiction writer, William Ryan. He’s recently published a novel, A House of Ghosts. William is currently a Teaching Fellow on the Crime Writing programme at the University of East Anglia. Like writing sex, writing scenes of violence and conflict can be a difficult challenge for any writer. How much is too much? What do you leave in, what do you take out? We’ll be exploring ways the topic might work to enrich plot, suspense, setting and characterisation. Come along, join in the discussion and find new ideas for your writing.
Hope to see you soon,
References & Links:
Claire Fuller: Writing dual narratives
Claire got the writing bug doing these art projects: Learning To Love You More by Miranda July
Develop & flex your writing muscles, like Claire did, by writing Flash Fiction, then enter a short story slam.
The Prime Writers: writers who’ve published over the age of 40
When is the right time to write about failure?: A blog by Antonia Honeywell