Category Archives: writing

Writing East Midlands conference

I spent Saturday in Loughborough. Not words I’m usually happy to utter but this was different – I attended Writing East Midlands’ Writers’ Conference at Loughborough University.

It was a cold grey morning as we arrived and troughed down the refreshments, all clutching our cream and blue goody bags and piling into the auditorium. I had no idea what to expect really, though I’d picked seminars to attend and things to find out about. I had thought about coming along last year but felt fraudulent without a completed manuscript so I didn’t. This year I felt more like a writer with a finished, albeit unpublished, product.

Author Judith Allnatt welcomed us to the conference and then Mike Gayle gave the first keynote address. I worked in a branch of Waterstone’s when Gayle’s first few books came out and I remember their distinctive bright covers and how they got put second place to the unfathomable phenomenon that was Tony Parsons’ early novels. Having now seen both men speak, I can only fervently wish that Gayle continues to do great things – he was very funny, self-deprecating and gave good advice. (Incidentally, MG told us that reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles was one of the seminal experiences that encouraged him to be a writer. Sometimes you read those hand-wringing articles about boys not reading and how they need different books, and then you hear something like that. How amazing.) Anyway, his advice was: read a lot. And as well as the classics, read terrible books for confidence that you can do better. Finish your first draft! Don’t edit when you hit the 30,000 word mark – “Some authors aren’t the best writers n the world but they’re the people who finished the thing they were writing.” And be steely. It’s the last one I need help with the most.

I stayed in the theatre for the next two sessions – the writer at work, and the authentic voice. These were panel sessions with authors discussing a certain topic – The Writer at Work: What Happens to the Day Job? touched on the topical subject of how much you do for free to gain exposure. All the panel urged us to do something for free to build a bod of work but on the whole the subject is a massive grey area that I feel deserves a conference all its own. The Authentic Voice, and the panel session I took after lunch – Research for Writers – felt linked and I enjoyed both of them but will blog separately about my reactions and thoughts about the subjects.

Following coffee I had my agent one-to-one. A series of slots were available to delegates for one to ones with agents and with authors – depending on how far you were with your writing. You had to apply by sending in a few chapters and a synopsis, which were judged by two readers and then awarded a slot according to what they thought. The agent read what you wrote and gave you feedback. I spotted the agent I was seeing having tea during the coffee break and inexplicably had a panic attack. DO NOT DO THIS (see above note for steeliness). These are not meant to be intimidating, they are an opportunity for useful feedback. I had a friend send helpful tweets until I got it together. In the event, the session was useful. There was one point of clarity I should fix in the opening chapters, he said, but otherwise it was well written. He gave some pointers as to who I could try, we discussed the term “commercial women’s fiction” as opposed to “commercial fiction” and the term “saga.” I was slightly distracted spotting some of my university textbooks on a shelf above his head but in general it went well.

And then I popped back to catch much of Carole Blake’s talk. Carole is a legend in literary agent circles and her frank, funny advice was shot through with experience and straight talking. She passed on tips for authors in finding and maintaining a relationship with an agent as well as with a publicist and publisher which were useful, and she took questions. Interestingly, in the “should you work for free” debate she advised at least finding out how much magazines charge for a page advert and trying to get at least that much from them. Like I said, a topic worthy of further discussion.

The final keynote speech was from Sophie Hannah, who passed on advice that you shouldn’t take, or not take in the spirit that it was intended. She too was very funny, and in her line “I’d been through childbirth (5 days!) and now felt I had a harrowing life experience to write crime fiction.” Respect.

So what did I learn? That I’m still rubbish at networking, that I need to stop panicking about my writing, that other people are impressed about those of us who write with jobs and small children, and that sometimes you are going to need to drop your agent. This last piece of advice came across several times throughout the day and may have been concerning to those of us agent-less authors. But we’ll get there. I also learned that I felt more like a writer than I had previously. It’s a state of mind, and the fact that there are so many ‘inspirational’ quotes telling you about being a writer suggests that no one feels completely clear on it. But listening to others talking, I started to think about my own ‘writing journey’ and realised that I knew about these things too.

I should end by thanking Writing East Midlands for putting on the conference, which I did enjoy very much, and for granting me an agent one to one. And now I need to go and polish that manuscript and research my agents…

National Libraries Day

It’s late, I know. My blogging has fallen off in recent weeks  and I can only blame the day job workload and a stinking cold. But a quick few words because it’s National Libraries Day.

My first library was a bus. A mobile library that came to the close where I lived. I on’t remember it well, though it may have been an odd blue colour and I do remember wondering how the books stayed on the shelves, as you do.

But then they built a new library, brand spanking new, down the road from my house. I went to the opening with my mum, got out loads of books and refused to talk to local radio about how glad I was that the library was there.

From that day I went a lot. After school, on Saturday mornings while my dad watched Football Focus, after school again, after school and Saturday mornings. For years. I must have read so many books there. I remember one, a YA dystopian fable called The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Robert Cormier, I forget what it was about except that I was hooked and I got so cross at my dad who laughed at the title, thinking it wasn’t tackling enormous issues of life-threatening import. I remember being the latest in a long line of teenage girls asking for their copy of Forever by Judy Blume, just as the librarians had taken it out the back to try and mend its crumbling spine and loose pages from so much reading and re-reading.

My school had a library too. More books to read. And then there were university libraries. I found them impossible to study in, instead always looking around, taking in the titles and the grafitti on the tables. Photocopy and borrow the books to read elsewhere, that was my strategy. This is as true today as it was then – I can’t work well in libraries. When I was studying for my post-graduate diploma I had a visitor’s pass to Nottingham Trent University’s library. They only let you have access for a few days per year; you were essentially a non-paying student using their resources, and you couldn’t borrow anything. I had to get my research done in those few days. It was incredibly difficult and I only managed it by constantly playing The cave Singers two albums over and over again on my ipod.

Nowadays my library visits are mainly with my daughter who, at three, is already a big fan of the library. It was one of the first places to make us feel welcome as a mother and daughter combo, offering tots time singing sessions and signing her up for a library card before she was six months old.

I am incredibly lucky in living somewhere that the local Council recognises the importance of libraries, has been funding them and is working hard to improve literacy rates in children. Not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone realises what they are losing. Fight to keep them. They are a lifeline to so many.

Slashing… and mortifying realisations

I’ve been tackling draft three of the book. This is the slasher one. I added about 7,000 to the word count with the second draft, filling in gaps, adding scenes and so on. I knew I would add to the word count – for one thing a character who was pivotal to the plot only turned up on the page when I was writing the penultimate scene so he needed to be threaded in the rest of the book.

So to cut. I read through it methodically and chopped as I went. It was enormously satisfying. After I while I noticed these things about my writing.

I start a lot of sentences with ‘and’, ‘but’ and ‘so’. Less frowned on these days than it was but there were still far too many of them to read well.

I cut the same words time and time again from the manuscript. They were:

  • Just
  • Really
  • A little
  • For a while
  • Quite
  • All
  • Rather

Aren’t they awful? Such woolly non-precise terms. I cut as many as I could. I got to the end of the manuscript and then did a ‘find’ search on each of them and cut some more. 4,000 words gone.

I may go through it all again and see what else can go, what else can be changed, where further refinements are needed. And then I feel like I need to start pestering other people with it. Wish me luck.

The broken pushchair by the back door or… writing with a family

I don’t know if it’s a current trend or coincidence but I seem to have seen quite a bit of chat about mothers who write recently. Some pieces have advice about finding writing time, others are just describing what it’s like and more still, ponder that it’s not the same for men. Practically all of them seem to be negative. (I’m not going to link to any, but this subject is easy to find so forgive my laziness.)

Here’s what I think:

  • I only started writing fiction after I became a mum.
  • I only realised that a lot of other things I did in the intervening years were writing of a kind, and that I was learning a craft and finding my voice, after I became a mum (those long hours breastfeeding give you a lot of thinking time.)
  • Of course there’s not much time. In order to write with a full time job and a child I rarely watch TV, have given up my guitar playing, don’t sew as much as I used to and no longer have a gym membership.
  • Five years ago, I had no child, no novel, no publication credits and was flirting with depression. That situation is now very different and much more positive.

So what happened?

E is definitely a factor here. I wouldn’t want to be as cheesy as saying having her gives me the ambition to do something more with my life, to be more meaningful, but her presence does produce some kind of drive.

The fact that I have limited time merely drives this more. If I don’t write, I feel bad. The need to have time to myself is exacerbated by having her in the house. So I make time. At the end of the day, when I’ve spent the day staring at a screen at work but there it is.

And she’s getting to the age where she understands, a bit. She asks about who wrote the books we read together, she understands the concept of an author. She understands dialogue and rhyme. In the summer I grabbed a notebook and pen and ran to the backyard where I could capture a thought before it flew away. She came out to find me, saw me scribbling and asked what I was doing. So I explained I was writing and as soon as I was finished we could do something together. She waited. (These days she is of the age where she would ask if I was done yet every two seconds but that day she didn’t.)

We didn’t get to go away for Christmas, didn’t have a week of being looked after by grandparents, didn’t get our time where she would be watched so we had more time. But I found I’ve picked up the skills I need to make this work. On a day to day basis I sit in an open plan office in a building of nearly 2,000 people and have to try and drown out noise. It’s good practice for writing in a small house (where you have no office or writing room) and share it with a small child. She had books to look at, sticker activities to complete, Lego to play with and all sorts of other things. Sometimes, just sometimes she wanted to sit on my knee and join in the typing. You deal with this bit (open her up a new document or give her a spare keyboard or a different computer) and you carry on.

There are days when this is hard and you want to crawl into a heap on the floor. But that’s where E helps too. A hug and a few moments talking about our days, or having a bath, reading a book or making something out of a cereal packet is enough to restore me and keep me going.

So don’t diss ‘the pram in the hall’ or, as I mention in the title, our version is the broken pushchair by the back door, use it as a source of strength and love. Your writing can flourish.

A writer’s Christmas list

gifts-for-writersStuck for what to get the writer in your life for Christmas? Need a few stocking fillers? There are loads of literature-inspired gifts out there but for practical useful gifts, here are my recommendations:

Coffee. All the major chains do gift cards, or you can get beans delivered. Being a Nottingham-based lass, I recommend you try Roasting House, a local company who do a coffee club and, if you’re from round here, will deliver by bicycle. (The rest of you it’s the postman.)

Snacks. Every year Santa puts a packet of digestives and a jar of Nutella in my stocking. Make your writing snack of choice known to him and he may do the same for you.

Notebooks. I can NEVER have too many of these. But  if your writer friend is like me and will feel nervous about ruining a beautifully bound notebook with their scribbles, perhaps consider getting some that they will actually use. Waterstone’s do packs of three paperback covers for around a tenner. They also do lovely journals with literary quotes on the front – I love the Little Women and Anne of Green Gables ones.

Printing options. Printing a draft can be a fraught process. It’s only when you’ve unjammed the printer for the fourth time, prayed that the ink cartridge will last the whole thing and the pages are all over the floor that you realise that you’ve forgotten to put page numbers on them. So why not try a voucher for your local print shop? Mine printed 300 pages from a USB stick in five minutes and boxed it all up for just under £20. As cheap as a printer cartridge and much less hassle.

Writing maps. We all need a spot of inspiration once in a while. Writing Maps do a series of writing prompts on beautiful illustrated foldout maps that are just the right size to carry around with you. And this week they have a sale on (till Thursday).

Babysitting. Finally, the greatest gift you can give a writer is a spot of quiet writing time. Why not offer a voucher for a day’s babysitting services?

That’s it. I’d be happy to see any of these this year. Happy shopping!

Unthank Books – How to Write a Novel

Having had a case of the wobbles mid-way through rewriting my book, I did what I often do when I’m panicked about something, I enrolled on a course. Unthank Books, based over in Norfolk, publish fiction and teach creative writing. A three month online course on something called How to Write a Novel looked just the thing for me. I applied.

First up, an email arrived from the tutor, Stephen Carver, telling me a little more about the course. It was friendly and welcoming, and reinforced my thought that this was a good idea. This particular course was billed as ‘intermediate’ and could apply to anyone, at any stage of writing a novel.

The action for each course takes place through the discussion board – a forum post for each exercise as we worked through the modules. It started off with some basics, drilling into everyone the importance of writing every day, and the modules delved into character, plot, place, dialogue, followed by pacing and point of view. The final module was about publicity and publishing – including feedback on agent letters and synopses. Each module featured a series of exercises to complete, some of these were posting up scenes from your work in progress, some were looking at structure and breaking down what kind of a writer we all were. We could experiment with point of view, try to break down our books to their bare bones and talk about setting – all in a  supportive way. And finally we had an assignment – the opening 10,000 words of our novel – which was critiqued for improvements.

There weren’t many of us on the course which enabled us to connect nicely on the forum discussion boards. (We have subsequently set up a secret Facebook group to continue discussions.) Feedback from anyone is always good, if you’re prone to self-deprecation as I am, and a bunch of supportive fellow writers who are wrestling with a whole range of other literary endeavours was really helpful. But of course, these courses are all about the quality of the teaching and to have a professional reader and editor to critique parts of the novel was the best thing about it and a real boost to my writing confidence.

Steve’s points were constructive, pinpointed the issues or stumbling blocks that I needed to think through but did all this with so much encouragement that I started to believe that I could do it. And more than that, that this might not be a vanity project. I know the story is good, but was worrying about my capacity to do it justice. This course has made things much better.

You sit at your desk, before or after work, you have scraps of paper, notebooks and index cards. You pin up research to inspire you and you get stuck in. And then you read something by another writer and the doubt creeps in. By the time you’ve gone back and forth on a scene you have no idea any more what’s good and what’s not. My writing group is helpful and supportive but they’re all incredibly busy. This course has given me a better idea of what I still need to do and told me that I can feel proud of what I’ve managed so far.

Rewrite number two is well on its way now. Thanks Steve!

Unthank School of Writing runs a number of courses – you can find out all the details here.

World building

During a feedback session the other day, (I’m currently taking Unthank Book’s How to Write a Novel online course. More on that to come) someone suggested that the world building in my novel was strong.

My what?

I don’t do world building. World building is for fantasy writers. World building is for science fiction writers. I’m writing historical books.

I understand I’m splitting hairs here. I understand the point he was trying to make. Few people know much about 1930s variety theatre. But I’m not building it, I’m recreating it. I have problems with world building or what I call ‘twiddly knob syndrome.’

I’ve just read Ursula le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness for my reading group. I was looking forward to it because of her reputation, and because this year we’ve tried to read more sci fi and I’ve enjoyed it, much to my surprise. I’m afraid Le Guin reminded me of everything I dislike about sci fi and fantasy genres. (I’m being really broad with these as descriptions for this post – just humour me.)

I hate world building. I hate endless descriptions of new languages, new worlds, new systems, new bloody spaceships. I hate all the twiddly knob descriptions. I just want to know about the characters. This is not a reflection on the writing of those authors who do this – le Guin, clearly, someone suggested Tolkein (never finished one of his books – are you seeing a pattern) and another reading group choice springs to mind – Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. These are all clearly great authors. It’s not them, it’s me.

There are loads of readers who love this stuff, who get right into it and the slow pace while they immerse themselves in this world is exactly what they want. But it’s too much for me. It’s a hard slog. But it does make me wonder about the books I do like that stray into fantasy – how did they do it? How did they get my interest and still explain their new world? I have to do some re-reading to investigate.

The Year of Publishing Women

Kamila Shamsie, author and judge of this year’s Bailey’s prize for women’s fiction, came out with one of those things that is supposed to be controversial yesterday but isn’t really. I’ll let you read the article if you want but in short, she asked for a year of only publishing women writers as an idea to combat the imbalance in the publishing industry.

I have a problem with quotas to address an historical imbalance in general but I rather like this as an experiment. Why the hell not? No-one is questioning the quality of male writing but nevertheless, the statistics suggest the system is weighted in their favour. The latest issue of Mslexia contains a study looking at the increasingly male presence in publishing positions of power. When you also look at the recent study that found books about women are less likely to win literary prizes, not forgetting that one of the reasons the Bailey’s prize was established in the first place was because female writers themselves won fewer awards, and the campaign to get the London Review of Books to occasionally think about using a woman to review something, you do wonder what a different system might look like. It’s only for a year, after all.

The idea behind initiatives such the Year of Reading Women was partly to discover books that you might not otherwise have read – because they weren’t reviewed in the LRB, for example. All this idea is asking is an extension of the same. It’s not knocking male writers, it’s just asking that we all look around a bit more.

And, if they decide to go ahead (hahahahahaha) then I have a new manuscript that I can send through for consideration…

Opening the toolbox

I said I would write a little about the tools I used to finish my first draft. In case you’re interested in such things or were looking for some advice from tried and tested tools.

Scrivener

Scrivener is a software package that helps you to plan a novel – and is really useful for early drafts. I found especially helpful when structuring and placing scenes, and then restructuring, which I did halfway through writing. The thing with a Word document, as you may have found, is that if you want to get to a scene and move it or refer to it, you have to either find and replace or do a lot of scrolling. With Scrivener, you can insert scenes, chapters, notes or research (colour coded) into a draft and as you add one, it creates a little index card for you. You can then view this on the right hand side of your manuscript, or on a cork board. Locating them is easy, moving them around is easy and marking them as to do, first draft, redraft or final draft is also easy. It’s the organisational aspect I liked of it.

It does a whole range of other things, including a fabulous name generator tool which I tried out one evening for fun (good if you’re writing a spoof country house fantasy thriller, not sure of its use in anything else) and probably some other features that I didn’t use. When you’re finished, you compile and export the whole thing (or as much or little you want) into another format.

Scrivener costs a bit but I thought the price was reasonable for the amount of time and worry it saved me.

Write Track

Write Track is a relatively new website community for writers where you can set yourself writing goals and track your progress. I have not used it for its full potential yet, including the community forum or finding out about other writers using it. Now I’ve got my first goal out the way, I may do that. I found it useful purely for the mental boost I got each time I posted an amount in (my goal was to “Let’s finish this bloody thing”) It kept momentum going, as well as showing me how much is normal for me to write each night. Finally the thought that other people were liking my progress kept me going back to the keyboard as I wanted to them to see I was serious.

Dropbox

I have copies of the draft on a USB, an external hard drive and on Dropbox. Mostly I updated the one on Dropbox, knowing it would still up there in the sky if anything happened. Do this. Back up every time. I used to do it in different formats as well, in case one didn’t download one night or the file was corrupted. Thank God I write now and not in the days of carbon paper.

Twitter

For encouragement, advice and occasional writing sprints, find some writers on Twitter. Chat about their work, like their achievements and read their work! Then see how much they will support you.

Caffe Nero

Sometimes only a good strong coffee in a comforting atmosphere will do.

First draft – be gone!

This blog has been neglected recently while I finished the first draft of my novel.

Yes, I’ll say that again. I finished the first draft of my novel.

I have writer friends who can get these things knocked out fairly quickly. I am not one of those people.

I’ve had the idea for this book floating around for ages. And when I was on maternity leave in 2012 (!) I sat down and wrote 12,000 words during my daughter’s fifth and sixth month, when she had a morning nap routine. And then I binned them all and started again. And then I procrastinated, did some research and got stuck.

It’s nice and easy to get stuck when you have a full time job and a small child for the simple reason that you have an excuse not to write. And for a while I concentrated on my small part in a collaborative novel that was published last November. So it’s really been the last eight months or so that I’ve been working on this manuscript seriously.

I work full time hours, five days into four, and the other three days I look after my daughter – a three-year old toddler. So my writing pattern is: Monday – Thursday up at 6.30, get us both dressed and out the door, work for 9 1/2 hours, come home, faff doing domestic things and then sit and write. I usually manage just over 1,000 words a day in this way. Friday and the weekends depend very much on the weather, what my husband is doing and how much stuff I can’t get away with doing. Even then, I only write in the evenings.

This has got me through most of the manuscript, including a major structural rewrite about halfway through when I realised it was suffering from “saggy middle syndrome”. Still, I’d wrestled with this way of working and come terms with it and then we went on holiday where there weren’t any domestic arrangements to worry about for a week and I got 18,000 words done a night. Such bliss.

Apart from time, staring at a screen and writing all day for work, being tired and having an aching back, the other major impediment to writing tie is not having an office. In a house with a child this is useful. IN a house where you write when the toddler is asleep and your husband is slightly deaf and likes to watch loud TV programmes in the evening, it’s essential. Except that somehow I have a manuscript without it. But my dreams consist of a door I can close and soundproofed walls.

So I’ve tried to excuse my absence. In the next blog post, I’ll be taking a look at some of the tools I’ve used to help me through my first draft.