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!