Circ – An author’s reflections – William Thirsk-Gaskill

We at Pigeon Park Press are very excited about the upcoming novel, Circ, written by ten different authors as part of the Ten To One project. You can get your own tickets for the launch (and claim a free e-book on the night!) by going to http://www.birmingham-box.co.uk/event/circ-can-ten-people-write-one-novel/ 

Between now and the launch on 28th November, we will be blogging interviews with all the authors plus some additional guest blogs and bonus material from the novel.

Today, William Thirsk-Gaskill reflects on the experience of being an author in the Ten To One project…

Before I heard about the Ten To One project, my only knowledge of the literary scene in Birmingham had been via Claire Jones, a member of Birmingham Writers’ Group, and a former colleague at the Open University.  I had written a list of writing objectives at the start of 2013, which did not include Ten To One, because I had yet to hear of it.  I applied because I was particularly interested in being involved in a novel-writing venture, and in a collaborative project. 

 

I had taken part in one collaborative project, previously.  That had been while I was studying creative writing with the OU.  The results of that were not encouraging.  I ended up by hating some of the other people in the project, in spite of the fact that I felt I had learnt from it.

 

I consider that my own writing style is contemporary: pared-down, with no surplus words.  I also believe that dialogue is for conveying subtext, and nothing else.  My preferred narrative mode is first person unreliable and in the present tense.  I like to experiment with narrative, and to find ways of varying the standard modes.  One of the first instructions I received was to write with an orthodox, third person, limited omniscience narrator, and in the past tense.  This is one of the most technically difficult of the standard narrative modes, and one that I would hardly ever use. 

 

My prose writing is driven by characterisation.  I think of a character, and then try to learn everything I can about that character, to the point where I can immediately answer any hypothetical question about the character’s opinions or behaviour.  Once I know about the character’s wants, obsessions, and secrets, then all I have to do to start a story is to get the character to visit a coffee shop.

 

I decided that I wanted to create the character of a teenager.  I often write about teenagers, even though I do not consider myself to be any sort of YA writer.  If you think that this is because my own teenage years were very difficult, then you are right. 

 

I then decided that I would make the character more complex by making him a teenager who is trying to pretend to be older than he actually is, and is also caring for a dysfunctional parent.  A great deal of my work is concerned with mental illness.  I decided in this case to write about a character who is himself sane, but has to deal with mental illness on a daily basis.  I also decided to make him self-educated and highly intelligent.  I like intelligent characters, because you can get them to do clever things and, equally, you can get them to do stupid things.  Intelligent people also have a tendency to over-reach themselves, which is conducive to dramatic tension.  The result is a character called Tim.

 

As regards the setting for the novel, I relish the fact that it is based on a place that is real, in the UK, and not affluent.  Being able to work out routes from one place to another by using a real map, and being able to refer to real street names is a creative stimulus.  The combination of made-up characters and made-up businesses with real streets is, in my opinion, the best combination of all. 

 

I started writing about Tim in the same way I would have written him into a short story.  I worked out his back story, and his situation, and started writing.  I was content with Tim’s first chapter.  It had plenty of detail and dramatic tension.  Tim got through the first round of voting, but only just.  The editor asked me how I thought we could make Tim more empathetic.  I surmised that the thing the readers least liked about Tim was the thing I most liked about him, which was his independence of mind.  The best thing to do with a character who is independent is to make him vulnerable.  The writers of the TV programme Sherlock have done this.  Sherlock is a detecting genius, but he needs Watson, and Molly, to protect him from himself.  I suggested giving similar treatment to Tim by introducing what was known during my school days as, “an amorous mad-woman”.  The editor agreed with this, and told me that the amorous mad-woman would be called Laura.  I would have gone for a more outré name, but I did as I was told. 

 

Laura herself turned out to be quite a dislikeable character, but that is just the way it is.    The idea of giving Tim something else to think about was a good one.  Laura turned out to be the wrong person for the job, but I like her all the more for that.  Laura is a pastiche of various people I have known, mostly girls at high school, and a writer I know who lives in Calderdale. 

 

Kurt Vonnegut said a writer should be a sadist to his/her characters, so that he/she can find out what they are made of.  I was certainly a sadist to Tim. 

 

A certain amount of what I wrote about Tim and Laura has been cut out.  It included what the Open University calls, “sensitive material”, to do with mental illness and sexually inappropriate and under-age behaviour.  It felt right when I wrote it.  The characters were both in a desperate situation  at the point when this part of the narrative began.  But the editor said that it didn’t work.  My preferred response to the injunction to, “Make it work” was to cut it out.  “Make it work,” means, “Make it work in the context of the whole novel,” and that is not an easy thing to do.  I had read several of the contributions about the other characters, and it began to dawn on me that I might have a different readership in mind from the other writers. 

 

The essence of a novel is structure.  I confess that I never fully understood the structure of this novel.  I was too concerned with my own characters, who are quite peripheral to the main story.  I think that is one reason why my character was voted out.  In hindsight, I wish I had done more to enmesh Tim in the rest of the story.  The character that Tim had the strongest involvement with was Flic, who was the first one to be voted out.  That was bound to weaken Tim’s position, and I now see that I did not do enough to counter that. 

 

Something else I feel I did not manage effectively was the mustering of votes.  A year ago, I thought I was an internet-savvy writer.  I have a personal blog, and I am active on Facebook and Twitter.  But I have lost two social media-based ballots since then (the other one being the Saboteur award for best novella, which was won by Nikesh Shukla).  This is something that I need to improve.  I would go so far as to say that the future of my writing career depends upon it.

 

For me, the most interesting and potentially educational part of the Ten To One project is still to come.  That is the marketing effort.  Including Circ, my work has now appeared in six printed books or pamphlets, and three e-books.  Not one of those projects has provided me with any substantial information about sales and marketing.  I hope there will be promotional events beyond the launch in Birmingham, and I hope I manage to attend some of them.  Most of the art of spoken word performance is concerned with brevity.  For that reason, I think Circ will lend itself very well to readings, because the chapters are short.  This gives the finished product more of a contemporary feel.  At the risk of repeating myself, I can say that this may be one reason why I failed to enmesh Tim more deeply in the story and got voted out: because my chapters, certainly before they were edited, originated as a series of Raymond Carver-style, ‘get out quickly’, short stories, rather than fully-developed chapters of a novel.  This difference is something I certainly intend to work on in my future writing. 

 

I have had a collection of poetry accepted by Stairwell Books.  The working title of this is Throwing Mother In The Skip, and should appear in 2015.  I am also working on a collection of short fiction.  Once I have found a publisher for that, I will make another attempt at writing a full-length novel.  I am sure my experience of the Ten To One project will make that easier. 

Tim, in spite of having been voted out fairly early in the competition, still has stories to tell, probably in the present tense and the first person. 

 

 

The Ten To One launch event is on 28th November 2014 (7pm – 8:30pm) at the Library of Birmingham. Tickets are available from their website: http://www.birmingham-box.co.uk/event/circ-can-ten-people-write-one-novel/?tab=6#unit-production-dates . Keep up to date with Ten To One by liking the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TenToOneNovel

 
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