Outside looking in ... or inside looking out?

I've been deep in my cave these last few weeks, writing furiously -  our recent holiday has given me fresh energy and for the first time in ages, I'm enjoying the laying down of a story.

It's been a slog, this book. Unlike Tall Story which was one of those books that wrote itself, this one has taken a long time to reveal itself to me.

Yeah, I'm one of those authors who wait for the book to tell her what's going to happen. But this one wouldn't for a long time. I wrote a gazillion pages before it decided to have a life of its own.

But now that it's going well, what's this?

From Liz De Jager's blog

I've just written a scene in which one of the characters is standing on a dustbin, peering into a window. Outside looking in.

In Tall Story, there are two 'outside looking in' scenes ... the first when a witch peers into Bernardo's living room window. The second, when Bernardo himself peers into the witch's house.

After I finished the chapter, I had to stop and think.

My new novel may be telling a new story - but the themes in Tall Story - of being 'other', of being different, of being someone on the outside - continue to persist.

We were in a cafe in Edinburgh and this seagull kept watching us

I know I've said it before, but telling a story is not just about writing what you know, it's writing who you are.

I guess being an immigrant, this outside-looking-in theme is going to run and run in my writing ...

(Added to post later) Found this quote from Anton Checkhov:

Everything I learned about human nature I learned from me.

This is explained brilliantly by screen-writing guru Robert McKee in his seminal book Story:

Observation is our source of  characterizations, but understanding of deep character is found in another place. The root of all fine character writing is self-knowledge.

The write-who-you are thing came to mind the other day when I was lucky enough to attend a private screening of my friend Koutaiba Al-Janabi's award-winning first feature-length film, Leaving Bagdad.

Koutaiba included "found" footage he'd shot over the years, as well as chilling torture footage from Saddam Hussein's own archives.

Leaving Baghdad follows a man fleeing from pre-invasion Iraq, constantly waiting and searching for a way out. Despite many shots of open spaces and landscapes, the film has a claustrophobic feeling, a feeling of being trapped. The shocking reveal at the end tells us that for this man, there will never be an escape.

Koutaiba's father was murdered by Saddam Hussein's regime - which is the reason why he's lived in other countries for most of his life.

Write who you are. The truth may not set you free but it certainly will give power to your art. Leaving Baghdad will be screened at the Raindance Festival this October. Go watch.

This summer I read American Gods,  Neil Gaiman's most lauded title.

I was struck by this passage from the new introduction to celebrate its 10th anniversary:

I remember when it was all done in first draft telling Gene Wolfe, who is the wisest writer I know and has written more excellent novels than any man I've met, that I thought I had now learned how to write a novel. Gene looked at me and smiled kindly. 'You never learn how to write a novel,' he told me. 'You only learn to write the novel you're on.'

I would add: in learning to write the novel you're on, it is very possible that you will also find out who you are.

Does writing affect one's love of reading? I have to admit that writing novels has definitely spoiled some of the joy of reading for me ... have the mechanics of writing made me lose my ability to "live the book"? What a tragedy. My love for reading was what made me want to become a writer in the first place. But maybe there's an antidote ... read my latest post on Notes from the Slushpile

I also blog on the brand new DFB StoryBlog - which features authors and illustrators (some of them extremely famous) of my lovely publisher David Fickling Books. Check us out!


  1. Oh, I love this, Candy; the separateness, looking in through the window. Glad you're inside now!

  2. In a funny way, I think all authors do write the same novel over and over - drawing from the same fund of joy and pain, i guess.

  3. What a lovely insight. Echoes of the Hilary Mantel programme on TV recently too - she talked about recurring themes and them drawing from your past and inner self. You're in good company!

  4. This is a lovely and thought-provoking post, Candy. I was very struck when I read four of my favourite Noel Streatfeild novels to my children on holiday, by the way the same themes crop up again and again in her books, something I'd never noticed when I read them as a child. And those themes were probably why I loved the books so much, because the same themes were part of my childhood. Now I'm noticing some of the same themes coming up in my second book as are in my first - and I thought I was writing a competely different story!

  5. A very thoughtful and thought provoking post, Candy. Glad to hear the novel is emerging now. Writing often feels like a huge leap of faith, so the only way you can do it is to be honest, follow your instincts, and be patient.

    Have you got a publication date yet? I'm looking forward to reading it.

  6. Candy - that is great news!

    I hope our holiday does the same for me....Jade has pulled me back into her story and I've been writing (revising) like crazy.


  7. Nice post! I think we all have a need to fit in while being unique. Looking forward to the new book revealing itself to the world!

  8. Oh heck, you've made me worry that similar themes are coming up in my writing, whether for 7s-9s,8-12s, YA or adult. What am I saying about myself??

    I do think, though, that most of what we write in the emotional sense comes from within, even if events are sparked by observations outside. And since we construe our existence in a unique way, it follows that our novels will show some sign of that "take" whatever else is in them.

    Thought-provoking post, thanks, Candy.

  9. @Jan - my new book will reveal itself to the world once it finishes revealing itself to me!


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