Meet the Circle: Patrick ten Brink

MTCPatrickPhotoThe members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters and bringers of silly bits and pieces, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations twice a week to share our scrawlings with one another.

In ‘Meet the Circle’, we introduce you to some of our members, hopefully providing an insight into who we are, what we do, and what we think about Greco-Roman wrestling. Well, maybe not that last bit.

This week we will hear from Patrick ten Brink, the co-chair of our Tuesday evening sessions and responsible for the BWC Anthology 2. Patrick is, I am told, a German with a Dutch name who grew up in Melbourne, Tokyo and London, and thought for ages that he was a Brit (but not any more). He has written a load of non-fiction and, coming home one day six years ago with a new book, was encouraged by his daughter to write something that everyone could read, not just those in offices. So he has written close to every day since, complementing the daily non-fiction, with early morning and late evening magic realism.

When did you join the group?

November 2015. I had just finished a draft of the first book of a three part novel I was working on – The Tides: Accidental Spring – and I had a growing niggle saying that I should find a writers group to get constructive feedback on what works well and what could work better with a bit (or even a lot!) of effort. So I googled it, wrote an exploratory email, got an impressively speedy reply, and within a week I was reading out the first chapter to a dozen writers of different background, age and origin.

What were your first impressions of the group?

Friendly but scary. There is a round of introductions, a concise two or three sentences each. Just enough. Not too much, communicating the purpose: we are here to read, listen and comment. This first time is a bit freaky. I hand out copies, and read three, four pages. Twelve faces watch as every word leaves my mouth. It is odd how you can see that they listen, like musicians, with a different part of their brain firing than painters. It is not the eyes that anchor them. There is a way the head cocks to the side to orientate the ear. The last word uttered, the twelve heads drop as one to focus on the copies in front of them, pens scribbling. No eye contact, no signal of delight or disdain, joy or boredom. Ten minutes of scratching paper.

These are the oddest minutes, each second stretching. I wonder whether it really is wise to volunteer my thoughts to this jury, await judgement and advice from people I didn’t know.

Then one by one the pens are laid down, the heads lift, eye contact re-made and the comments tumble out. Advice like sandwiches, a first layer of compliments (Oof, I sigh), a rich filling of constructive criticism (diverse, complimentary, sometimes contradictory, close to always useful), and some words of encouragement. You need the bread, but it is the filling you really came here for.

A round of thanks, another round of drinks and the next writer is on and now it is my turn to listen, underline the great, point out the potential that is not yet fully there, and the bits that inevitably could merit more attention. By the end of the first day I feel welcome in a community helping each other to learn the writer’s craft, encouraging each other to keep going. I am told that occasionally some don’t come back after the first reading. Most do, and they, as I, really do benefit from this wonderful mixed bag of people.

What are you currently working on?

Patrick doesn’t only draw with words…!

I am working on my three part fantasy novel – The Tides: Accidental Spring – and two books of illustrated travel poetry. I’ve completed the first two parts of the Tides (though these are in full edit-and-polish phase) and have started the third.

The books are about three children – Celeste, Newton and Clementine Wells – who start a new life in St. Estelle, a tidal town in France with miles of windswept beaches that get cloaked in mists. The children are drawn into helping two old eccentric beachcombers (Freya de L’Etoile and Georgiu de la Roche) deal with mysterious treasures and creatures swept up in spring tides. They discover that nothing is quite as it seems in this town and with the old couple.

MTCPatrickSquidFreya secretly sculpts animals out of words and brings them to life, but accidentally creates creatures that stalk the lands. The children soon become essential to protect St. Estelle from these Accidental Creations and, in the second book, from the return of St. Estelle’s prodigal son, Darius de Grey.

In the third book, Celeste gets trapped in the magical Land of the Black Sands and meets a pale ghost of a boy. She… Well I can’t say more as it hasn’t written itself yet.

 

You’re a busy man then! Who are your biggest literary influences? How have they influenced you?

MTCPatrickStarbookGabriel Garcia Marquez and Ben Okri gave me magic, myths and imagery, a joy of life and freedom to let the imagination run riot. MTCPatrickNerudaPablo Neruda gave the real poetry of reality and the art of seeing things how they are. Matsuo Basho gave me crystallised reality, taking a photo of the world with words and whispering them to others. Finally, and more recently, I’ve enjoyed Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which has not only been an immense pleasure, but showed that writing a philosophical novel can be a dream and hugely entertaining even if deep. In summary – it is okay to give one’s imagination free rein over one’s words, it is okay to be deep, but capture reality and whisper it to the reader in packaged, glinting crystal words. Then you can tell your story and maybe others will read it and smile.

MTCPatrickBasho

Do you have a memorable moment from the BWC that you could share?

The annual retreat in May 2016 was particularly memorable. In an exercise Hamed led, we sought the questions in the text, noted where the answers came and how it affected reading the text. We quickly saw that questions and answers drove the reader forward, some to the next sentence, others to the next paragraph, and a few larger questions were only answered at the end of the story. And one or two were left unanswered so that readers look forward to the next story. While obvious with hindsight, it was a really good exercise to do. When reviewing my own writing with these tools, I realised that I’d posited way too many questions in one of my chapters.

The other exercise that was fascinating was one where everyone wrote a bit of a story and someone else had to continue the story and then read it out. It was interesting to see how easy (and fun) it was to get into the style-skin of another writer and keep the story going. Even more eye-opening was what others did to one’s own story. In my case Mimi made my character do more in a paragraph than I had in a page, as if liberating her to race along the now fast evolving plot-line. That revealed another side of one of my novel-characters to me. So thank you for that!

What do you get out of the group?

I get constant encouragement to master all the tools in the writer’s tool kit, and insights on how to use them – not only through comments when I read, but seeing others’ work. Some have a great sense of voice, with characters instantly alive. Others have stories that grab you, pull you in and embark you on a high speed journey. Yet others offer poetic puzzles where every word is chosen with care and fits. The fascinating thing is that one can have ten people commenting, with complementary angles, all relevant – on voice, on plot, on characters, repetition, point of views, internal consistency, balance, readership and even marketability. Some evenings I am tempted to take on board all comments, on others to ignore them all. The key is to work out why people have said what they have said, what lies behind it, how relevant it is for the story one is writing and what solutions work, given the characters, the plot and one’s own narrative voice. Then the story stays one’s own, but more accessible and rewarding to others.

It is also great to meet both like-minded and differently-minded people with the same ambition of writing something that people would have fun reading.

 

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Works-in-Progress: Plums Taste Different Here

WIPSarahHPhotoThe Brussels Writers’ Circle features members who are hard at work chipping away at various monumental and epoch-making pieces of literature. Or so we would hope. In this new segment, we interview Sarah Harris about her current masterpiece-in-the-making.

First off, what is it, novel/short story/non-fiction and what is it called?

It’s a novel called ‘Plums Taste Different Here’. It is contemporary fiction, similar to ‘The Road Home’ by Rose Tremain. I got the title from an Afghan refugee I got to know in Petit Chateau (a reception centre in Brussels for asylum seekers, web site here in French or in Dutch) who told me that he missed the fruit from his country because it tasted so different here.

Where and when does the action take place?

It’s set in present day Aberdeen and is about Malcolm, a middle-aged forester, who takes in a young Afghan asylum seeker called Jawid. Alma, an enthusiastic community worker, has set up a scheme pairing asylum seekers with people who have a spare room in their house and Malcolm is the first unwitting candidate. Since the death of his mother, Malcolm has led a solitary life and is more at ease with trees than with people. The authorities have decided Jawid is over 18 and therefore has to leave the children’s home where he’s been staying and is no longer eligible to have his family brought over here. Over time an unusual friendship is forged between Malcolm and Jawid but, unknown to Malcolm, Jawid is being blackmailed by a previous contact from the children’s home. In desperation Jawid decides to leave the country, but Malcolm isn’t willing to abandon him to his fate …

Aberdeen on a typically sunny day (honest!)

Aberdeen on a typically sunny day (honest!)

You were obviously inspired by current events in coming up with the storyline of this novel, can you tell us more about that?

WIPSarahHRefugeesI run poetry workshops and teach English to refugees in Petit Chateau and this last year there has been a huge increase of asylum seekers. In particular young people, mostly from Afghanistan, who arrive here without their families, and attempt to build a new life here. I have recently undertaken a training course to become a guardian for young non-accompanied asylum seekers, so have learnt more about their situation and how refugee policy works in Belgium. This all inspired me to write this story.

Which, if any, of Christopher Booker’s ‘Seven Basic Plots’ are you following?

I guess you could say that there’s element of voyage and return and also rebirth in the story. Basically it’s about an encounter between two very different people with very little in common and how this encounter shapes and changes them. And hopefully there’s humour in it too.

How long have you been working on it?

I started it a while ago as a short story but have only been working on it as a novel these last few months.

A work of great length?

No – maybe around 75000 words.

And where are you at now? Where are you going with it?

I’ve just finished chapter five so I’ve a long way to go. The two main characters have only just met each other. I usually take a few years to write a novel, but I hope this one won’t take so long.

How did the BWC help you in the course of your work? What was the best feedback you got from the group?

The BWC is a great source of inspiration – reading out gives me a deadline to work to and the feedback is always really useful. The main feedback I have got so far is that people want to read on, so I need to carry on writing. It’s really important for me to have people believe in it.

Who will (the final version of) your novel definitely not be suitable for?

I think it’s suitable for everyone but not everyone will be interested. There’s a lot of negative press about migration and you almost never hear about the possibilities and enrichment it can offer. There’s a sense of us and them about the issue, when in fact we are all economic migrants. Hopefully this will turn into a funny and uplifting story about it.

We assume that it will one day be published to universal acclaim and that a Hollywood blockbuster will be made from it. Which actors will play the principal roles?

Two unknowns – an Afghan asylum seeker and an unemployed Scot – who will both become rich and famous by acting in it!

Thanks and good luck with the current draft!

WIPSarahHEinstein

Brussels Writers’ Circle Retreat May 2016

Continuing with what some may now dare call a tradition, members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle gathered for its annual retreat at the Siddartha Centre in Tremelo in the heart of Flemish wine country on 20-22 May.  Although the number of participants was lower than in previous outings, a spell of sunny weather and an engaging pallet of both practical and discussion-based workshops allowed participants to open their minds, and their notebooks, and reflect on essential questions about their writing methods and practices.

After settling in and sharing dinner on Friday evening, retreat participants sat around the fire and broke the ice in a mind-meld activity that involved staring into each other’s eyes and transmitting poems to the other person by telepathy!

EVERetreatMay16NickPThe first morning session on Saturday was devoted to Writing Discipline.  Nick Parrott led the group in an open discussion, firstly about the constraints and blockages that prevent us from writing with serenity and efficiency, and then about strategies to remain motivated and inspired throughout the writing process.  Among the solutions found by the group were finding pleasure in writing, realizing and accepting one’s limitations of space and time, turning off or away from the internet, and sharing one’s work with others (and we all agree that the Brussels Writers’ Circle is a great place for that!).

EVERetreatMay16KevinThe second morning session conducted by Kevin Dwyer was more practical in nature and dealt with Story Design and Structure.  After considering a number of ways that stories are traditionally constructed (in scenes, acts, movements, sequences) participants were then invited in a collaborative exercise to build a structured scene based on characters created by other members of the group.

EVERetreatMay16PatrickThe outdoor afternoon sessions on Saturday also combined discussion and practice.  In a workshop on Writer’s Craft, Patrick ten Brink led the group in a wide-ranging and eye-opening discussion about narrative voice, internal dialogue, and point of view.  Brainstorming around the table, the group shared their approaches and preferences on how closely they as authors stay to their characters and on how to develop personal style and voice.

To conclude the Saturday sessions, Hamed Mobasser guided a workshop on Building Suspense.  Hamed emphasized that suspense is necessary in any type of storytelling and is based on the judicious planting of questions in the reader’s mind and then gradually revealing the answers to those questions as the story moves along.  The group was then invited to put these ideas into practice, with many discovering hidden talents as mystery and horror writers.

EVERetreatMay16Ensemble

After pre-dinner walks and games, Saturday evening was devoted to meditation, discussion and a veritable orgy of wine and cheese by the fire.

A blurry shot of Hamed and Patrick, we assume not due to the amount of wine being drunk

A blurry shot of Hamed and Patrick, we assume not due to the amount of wine being drunk

The final session of the retreat on Sunday morning was devoted to a workshop by the tandem of Leda Papasokrati and Mimi Kunz on Writing Love in Fiction.  In a number of prompt-driven collective and individual exercises, participants brought love to the page, while Leda and Mimi tried to steer the group away from cliché and stereotype, despite the heart-shaped pink balloons.

During the Sunday afternoon feedback session, retreat participants expressed their unanimous appreciation for the mix of workshops and the overall convivial and challenging atmosphere of the weekend, none of which would have been possible without the devotion and care that Hamed put into the organization of the retreat.  Thank you Hamed!

Planning for next year’s retreat is already under way, so please check back here or on the Brussels Writers’ Circle Facebook page for further details as May 2017 approaches.