Call Myself a Writer?

October 1, 2010

My Protagonize Interview

I started writing two and a half years ago on the wonderful Protagonize.com. I’m Tasha_Noble there, for which there’s an explanation in the interview)  In early September, SeeThomasHowl (aka Jason) interviewed me. This is the result.  (Source).

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Tasha_Noble is one of the site’s most popular and beloved authors, as well as one of its moderators. This interview was conducted in early September, 2010.

Where does the name Tasha_Noble come from?

It’s just a play on my first name, Patricia, which means ‘of noble birth’. The ‘noble’ part is self explanatory, so I needed a name for the ‘birth’ bit. The closest is ‘Natalie’, but when I was thinking about a handle or pen name, Natalie Noble just seemed a little too cheesy, but the Russian form, ‘Natasha’ can be shortened to ‘Tasha’, and besides, it’s not that far from ‘Tricia’. My intention was to use Tasha Noble as a ‘proper’ pen name if I ever got published, but in the end I went with my real name, as it’s far less complicated that way. I may hang on to Tasha if, for example, I ever try to get a children’s book published.

What are some of the jobs you’ve held over the years? Has any of your work experience made its way into your writing?

My background is in nursing. Apart from the odd bit of medical knowledge that creeps into a story occasionally, I can’t say I’ve used that at all. I’ve never written a character who’s a nurse, for instance. I also, while I was still nursing, started direct-selling for a well-known UK children’s publisher, selling their books by party-plan, and at fetes and fairs and so on, and I’m not aware that I’ve used that, either. The only thing that has crept in is my observations of people, but that’s the same with any writer, isn’t it? Probably the most important ‘occupational’ influence is parenthood, which is most definitely an occupation in its own right.

If we lifted the cushions of your sofa, what would we be likely to find?

Hang on, I’ll look. Empty crisp packets left by Lucy. Lucy’s socks. One of Lucy’s teen mags.

If you could change one aspect of your personality, what would you change?

I’d like not to have to always be right. (Though I usually am) 😉

What sorts of activities occupy your time when you’re not writing?

I read a lot and watch too much TV and play computer games for hours when I should be writing. I go for a daily walk.  I have to force myself to do that but I enjoy it once I’m out! Oh, and looking after a thirteen and a sixteen year old takes up some time, too.

Whose personal diary would you want to read?

Simon Cowell’s. He’s a strange, strange man. But I like him.

How’s the reality TV addiction coming along?

Well, UK Big Brother’s been axed and came to an end last night, after eleven series, so I’ll have my summers back from next year. (They used to run thirteen weeks, from June to September). I’m not ashamed to say I’ll miss it. There’s still ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here,’ and a few other things, but actually, I much prefer the non-Celeb shows, and BB was the one that spawned all the others. My love of reality TV shows and talent shows has inspired at least two of my Protag pieces: CelebReality and Sally and John Grow Up .

How would you describe your writing style?

I don’t actually know if I can describe it! I’m not sure I have any one style. It’s been described as whimsical and empathetic, and there’s usually some humour, somewhere, even if it’s a sad story.

What has your experience with Protagonize.com meant to you? How has it impacted your writing?

Protagonize was the thing that actually started me writing! I hadn’t written anything, apart from keeping a diary on and off in my teens and twenties, since secondary school. I’d said for years that I would try to write a novel some day, but I never did a thing about it. Then, in January 2008 I decided I should, but I had no idea how to start. I had a few Amazon vouchers built up, so I invested in some how-to books, and started reading them. I’d started planning a young adult novel – just in my head – when I stumbled across Protagonize, but I didn’t join – just read some of the stuff. I think there were only a couple of hundred members at the time, by the way. The first thing I did was to tell my friend Jonty about it, as I knew he enjoyed writing. Then the next time I saw him, I discovered he’d joined and had already posted lots of chapters and I thought, ‘I’m not having that!’ So I joined myself and that was that; I was off and running, adding chapters and poems in the unlikeliest places. I had a go at lots of different things – poetry, science fiction, chick lit, horror. It was such a novelty, especially when people started praising what I wrote. Suddenly, I couldn’t get enough of writing. I suppose, on a average day, I posted five or six things. I was the second person on the site ever to reach Mercenary (100 posts)  (seldom was the first) and the first to Adventurer (250 posts).

Can you talk a little about yourself as a reader? What authors or books influenced you or meant a lot to you growing up?

People are usually surprised when I say that my favourite author, and my idol, is Stephen King. They don’t expect me to be into horror. Actually, I’m not, particularly. I like SK despite the fact he’s a horror writer, not because he is. He’s just a good writer. He gets inside the heads of his characters and makes you care about them, even the ones you don’t like. And he makes me laugh, which is something people often don’t mention about Stephen King, the fact that his writing is full of humour. I have eclectic tastes, from lighter commercial genre fiction, like crime novels by Kathy Reichs, Jonathan Kellerman, Karin Slaughter, and chick-lit by Sophie Kinsella or Lisa Jewell, and more literary fiction. I love John Irving, because his novels are full of ordinary people having extraordinary experiences, like all of us.

The two authors who influenced me most as a child were Noel Streatfeild and Eleanor Farjeon. Noel Streatfeild wrote ‘Ballet Shoes’, and the ‘Gemma’ series, and lots of other stories featuring talented children I longed to be exactly like. I especially wanted to be Gemma, the eleven year old only daughter of a famous actress mother, who went from a privileged life to an ‘ordinary’ one, with her three talented ‘poor-relation’ cousins, when her mother farmed her out to go and live in Hollywood. I watched Gemma’s three year journey to maturity (and stardom in her own right) and wished Noel Streatfeild hadn’t stopped the story when Gemma was fourteen, because she was like my best friend by the time I got to the end!

I loved Eleanor Farjeon’s collection of short stories, ‘The Little Bookroom‘, and had it out on loan from the school library almost permanently. About five years ago, I discovered it had been republished, after being out of print for years. It even had the original front cover, and I now have my very own copy, and I love it just as much as I did when I was twelve or so. My favourite story from that is ‘The Glass Peacock’, which is about a child’s generosity and self-sacrifice, and made me cry the first and the last time I read it. That little story has stayed with me for years. My own ‘Jed Dolphus Interactive Action Figure‘ (my entry for the Winter Challenge last year) is based on it.

What makes a good story?

If it makes me turn the pages quickly, while wanting to slow down so I won’t finish it too soon, that’s a good story. If it makes me laugh, or cry, or want to punch a character in the face, or take another character and shake them, that’s a good story, too. If it does all of those things, that’s a brilliant story.

Can you describe an “Ah ha!” moment you’ve had with regard to writing?

I had lots when I was writing Paddytum. The first was when I realised he’d been leaving clues to who was from the very first chapter. I didn’t find that out myself until Chapter Six.

Can you give us a brief synopsis of your novel?

I can tell you a little about it, but I can’t tell you too much as it’s basically a mystery. And I know that the majority of people who will be receiving it in their mail in a few days from now won’t appreciate spoilers.

It’s about a guy called Rob, who is a bit of a loser, a lazy, overweight slob, and has spent the last twenty-three years of his life (since he was eighteen) mainly sitting around in his bedroom watching daytime TV and playing computer games, and, of late, talking to women in chatrooms (and kids himself that it counts as having girlfriends). One day, shortly after his forty-first birthday, he hears a voice. A very stern, disapproving voice (which sounds like an amalgam of George Sanders, Jeremy Irons and Alan Rickman) telling him it’s time he pulled himself together. He soon realises that this voice is emanating from the teddy bear he’s had since he was three, who he knows by the name of Paddytum (which is the way he’s pronounced it all those years – you can guess what it’s ‘supposed’ to be).

Paddytum announces that he will be Rob’s mentor, and proceeds to help him lose weight, get fit, find a job, and finally, gain some confidence. During the course of the story, we find out what caused Rob, a highly intelligent and talented guy, to withdraw from the world in the first place, we see him conquer his demons, and, of course, we discover who Paddytum ‘really’ is. We also, I hope, have a few laughs and the odd tear along the way. At least, I did. I hope the readers will, too.

Of the inhabitants of Paddytum you’ve written: “I absolutely love the story and my characters to bits. Especially Rob, my main character… I think I might have fallen a little bit in love with him.” Can you talk more about the concept of loving your characters?

I haven’t really thought about it, but I suppose if you write characters you like, the chances are the reader will like them too. And if you’re spending a long period of time in their company, it helps if you like them.

In “Bear With Me“, your contribution to the Protagonize Blog, you state: “There’s nothing like a deadline for focusing the mind,”. What do you think the fate of Paddytum would have been had your publisher not gotten involved when it did?

It’s funny, I’ve just been chatting to a writer friend who’s having the opposite problem, and his deadline is giving him a bad case of writers’ block, so I think I’m lucky in that respect. I know what would have happened to Paddytum, because it lay fallow until it was accepted for publication, and I only finished it once I knew I had to. Subconsciously, I may have stopped writing it on Protagonize because its popularity made me aware that it was the very story I really ought to be working on, and not posting it on the internet. I also wonder if all the enthusiasm from people made me scared in case the next chapter was the one all the Paddytum fans would hate. It was eight chapters long when I removed it from the site. What if Chapter Nine was complete pants and people said, ‘Sorry, you’re not actually very good, after all. We were mistaken.’? I’m still half-expecting that to happen, as it is! Nobody has read Paddytum yet, except my publisher, the copy-editor, and me, so I’m expecting rejection. It’s my natural frame of mind (even though I’m generally an optimist in other areas of my life).

Your husband Glyn designed the cover (it’s great), how did this come about?Paddytum Cover Image

Well, the cover concept was mine, but I knew he could execute it, because he’s really good at that sort of thing. He’s a CAD designer, in civil engineering and works with Corel Draw all day long. He enjoys doing the graphics stuff as a hobby. So, you could say it was a joint effort. In fact, it was a family effort. My thirteen year old daughter took the photograph which Glyn turned into the cover picture. We deliberately hid his face behind the laptop screen, because I wanted the readers to have their own mental picture of Rob’s face (which was not Glyn’s face).  That was important to me, too. Although Glyn is around the same age as Rob is in the story, he is nothing like Rob. For one thing, he’s a lot shorter than Rob, and slimmer, too. So if Glyn’s face had been on the cover, that would have seemed completely wrong. We also swapped his hair. Yes, Rob now has hair which was blatantly stolen from a photograph of David Tennant. My publisher has a few Doctor Who-related titles, and Paddytum is being launched at a DW Convention in Swansea (which, coincidentally, is also where my female lead comes from) so with the David Tennant hair, I now have a Doctor Who connection.

Can you speak a bit about your process? How do you begin a work? How do you tend to progress through one? Do you write from an outline? And how do you know when you’re done?

That varies a great deal. When I started, I only wrote on Protagonize, and I was mainly adding to stories someone else had started, and very often the chapter or whatever developed organically as I wrote it. When I did my first NaNoWriMo, I spent the first half of the month writing that kids’ novel I’d had in my head when I’d been diverted by Protagonize. I did a very sketchy outline for that, which help to keep me on track, but I finished it (51,000 words) in 16 days and decided to start a second novel, but I did that without any outline. I finished it, but it had a muddled middle and just fizzled out at the end. I used an outline for the remainder of Paddytum, and that definitely helped, but I added quite a few extra scenes – and cut even more – during the editing process. When I write short stories I have a rough idea when I begin, of the beginning and the end, and just tend to let the story pick up the ‘middle’ as I write it.

Being a full-time writer can be tough on family members in a number of ways. What has your experience been with regard to balancing family life and a literary career?

I can’t get around to thinking of myself as a full-time writer, really. I still just feel like someone who writes as a hobby, and I ought to get a proper job, because I know writing is never going to pay the bills unless I get really lucky, or get picked up by a bigger publisher, or someone buys the film rights to Paddytum, or something. I think my next plan should be to work on getting some short stories written and sent out to magazines. One day, I hope, we might be able to afford to live somewhere I can have my own writing space, which I don’t have at the moment. I don’t even have a desk. I do most of my writing sitting on the sofa or on the bed, with my netbook. I think I might feel more like a proper writer if I at least had a desk. As for balancing family life and writing, I think it would be more difficult if the kids were younger. At 16 and 13 they don’t require so much attention these days, but I seem to be able to work quite well with interruptions. If I really need some quiet, to concentrate on something, I just take myself off to the bedroom, or wait until everyone’s in bed.

When browsing through the work of others on Protagonize, what are you looking for as a reader?

I look for things which are not necessarily well-written, though too many spelling and grammatical errors put me off. I like things which are a bit quirky and surprising. I enjoy humour above anything else, but anything that provokes strong emotions is fine with me. I’m turned off by pretentiousness in writing. Literary is fine, but I want it to read as if the writer hasn’t swallowed a thesaurus. The two things guaranteed to make me stop reading are a high adverb-saturation rate, and Tom Swifty dialogue tags, with the author doing everything possible to avoid using the word ‘said’.

Where can we pick up a copy of Paddytum?

The best place is direct from my publisher. You’ll get a signed copy, with a personal message from me.

Any words for your fellow Protagonizers?

Read a lot. Write every day, even if you write gobbledegook. Eventually, the good stuff will surface. A good way to improve your writing is to copy out, in longhand, passages of prose from your favourite authors. You learn all sorts of things that way. Be gracious when you receive critiques, even if you don’t agree with what they’re saying. It means someone has taken the trouble to read your work. And I’d like to thank everyone who’s encouraged me over the past couple of years. It means so much.

September 26, 2009

Successes: Part One

Filed under: Competitions,Poetry,Writing — trishtash @ 5:22 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Every so often I enter competitions. I don’t usually attempt those with high entry fees, though I did enter one of the short story competitions linked to the Winchester Writers’ Conference, and that had a highish entry fee, of £7, which is a lot when you have to watch the pennies like I do.

I do, however, like to enter the ones run by Writing Magazine and Writers’ News, to which I subscribe. The entry fees for these are only £2 – £3, or occasionally even lower for flash fiction or short poetry with non-cash prizes.

In the spring, Writing Magazine ran a Sonnet Competition. The brief was to write a Shakespearean Sonnet, with the ababcdcdefefgg rhyme scheme, in iambic pentameter, but with a modern theme, and using modern syntax and language.

I played around with a few subjects, including Reality TV and a recipe for my favourite chicken curry (which I may get around to posting some time – if anyone can cope with an iambic pentametric recipe).

I eventually went for the subject of Social Networking. So, I wrote it, fiddled with it until I thought it was just right, and sent it off, not expecting much. And then I forgot all about it…until an email arrived at the end of July, from Richard Bell at Writing Magazine, telling me that my sonnet, Internet Addict, had won first prize. I squealed. Then I read the email again and squealed again, because I hadn’t misread it. Then I did a little dance around the room, and then I showed my children, and my husband, during which time I must have reread the email again a few more times.

The cheque for £100 arrived at the beginning of the month, followed by my copy of the magazine the following day. I didn’t pay the cheque into my account for several days; just kept taking it out and looking at it. And I’d reread the email again about another ten times by the time I got the cheque, just to try and recapture the feeling of excitement I’d had when I first read it. Okay, so call me sad.

Anyway, here’s my winning sonnet, and the adjudication by the Writing Magazine poetry judge, Alison Chisholm.

Internet Addict

My cyber-social life is looking sweet;
My inbox pings with new e-mails all day.
I’m Facebooked up and MySpaced out, I Tweet
on Twitter. I have lots of things to say
to friends on every networking website;
I have so many, I just can’t keep track
of them. I poked a new one just last night
who messaged me, then super-poked me back.
My best mate, Sharon, chats to me from work;
we end each silent sentence LOL,
(though much we say’s not worthy of a smirk).
Oh dear, her boss is lurking. Just as well –
I need to log out too, and walk the dog.
You’ll read about it shortly, in my blog.

Adjudication:

“The first prize goes to a current and colloquial poem, Internet Addict, by Tricia Heighway. The narrator is the addict of the title, and relishes her cyber-social life in a a way that would make any reality-party animal shudder.

We are presented with a list of the heroine’s contact devices, and just as we are about to scream ‘Why not switch it off and talk to someone?’ the sonnet reaches its twelfth line, in readiness for the turn. Here is the saving grace. It’s a relief to know the narrator is at last about to interact with another creature as she has to log out and walk the dog. So the punchline at the end is doubly frustrating and doubly poignant: ‘You’ll read about it shortly, in my blog.’

The subject matter is unforced and never rushed, yet we reach the natural conclusion just as we hit the fourteenth line. The content and balance of the poem are, then, just right, and the control of the final couplet is masterly.

This is only half of the achievement.The other half lies in the quality of crafting to bring the form to life. Here, too, Internet Addict stands out as a winner, for it demonstrates perfectly applied rhyme and metre, and beautifully selected vocabulary.

In any good rhymed poem, the rhyming seems incidental. The more carefully it has been applied, the more spontaneous it seems. Sometimes you even have to look back at the line ends, and check each pair of rhymes individually to make sure that the sounds were correct. Such was the case here. Similarly, the language of the poem falls naturally into the iambic pentameter pattern, with the tiniest hint of syncopation to provide a whisper of variety, but never losing hold of the true form.

The character of the narrator shows through in some lovely little glimpses. Her use of ‘Facebooked up’ and ‘MySpaced out’ implies a touch of humour. The expression, ‘my best mate’ and the appropriate choice of the mate’s name telegraph information about the two. Cyber-vocabulary is included with such ease and fluency that even the biggest webphobe will get the message. Most importantly there is a sense of vulnerability about the character which is shown to the reader through her character.”
Alison Chisholm, Writing Magazine

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