Tag Archives: writing

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.

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.

The writer’s privilege

The conversation about privilege in the creative industries rumbles on. Like many writers, I work. Full time. I also have a small child. So I thought what I might do is make a diary of the time I get to spend writing this week, to see where, if I was from a more privileged background, things could be different.

Monday

I normally don’t work Mondays and spend the day with my daughter E but this week I’m on a training course so my husband S has taken the day off so I can attend day one. I put the washing on, get E some breakfast and am out of the door as a man comes to give us a quote on a new kitchen floor. I read on the bus into town, grab a coffee and get to the course just on time. At lunchtime, I sit with my notebooks and a few notes and try to work out the next stage in my novel. It’s sketched out but I feel I need more flesh on the bones of it before I write it properly. After the course ends, I pop into a shop to buy tights for E before going into the office and do a few bits and pieces of work. At home, after E is in bed, I do ironing, tidying and write a couple of blog posts before sitting down to the novel at 10.20pm. I go to bed at 11.30, with only 345 more words written.

Tuesday

E to nursery and then back home for breakfast before heading to town for the course. At lunchtime I write in my notebook again and make good progress on the scene I’m working on. If I hadn’t had to go back to the course I could easily have done a lot more. We finish early at 3pm, and the tutor says we’ve learned enough new things for the day. He looks horrified that I have to go to the office but I have a newsletter to send out, emails to answer and some catching up to do. At home, after E is in bed, I do the supermarket order, catch up on personal emails and have a chat with my mum. I can’t face typing some novel so decide to attempt the notebook from earlier. Don’t get too far.

Wednesday

While reading on the bus I overheard two people having a priceless conversation and decided to copy as much down as possible for a potential short story. It covered: death, nursing homes, prison, probation, One Born Every Minute, inheritance and car washes.

Fleshed it out a bit at lunch – so probably around 600 words or so. I’d need to sit and think what to do with it next but the main germ of the idea is there.

This evening I went out and met up with some friends I hadn’t seen for a long time. What was going to be a couple of drinks turned into a get home at midnight and feel ill kind of scenario.

Thursday

I spend the day awaiting the hangover which never comes. We have an early lunch on the course and I can’t face eating so I walk, therefore no writing. In the evening I do some admin-y stuff at home, tidying and emailing and such like. And have an early night – bed at 10.

Friday

A normal working day today but I decide to take on the good example of the last couple of days and go to a coffee shop after my dentist’s appointment in the afternoon to catch up on work emails and then scrawl out some more of the current scene I’m working on. Feeling happier with it. An evening at home with my man awaits.

Saturday

We have a lie in. E is 2 1/2 years old and as such, weekends are focussed on family time. We visit the library, the park and do a lot of reading together, the three of us. After dinner I scrawl down a couple of ideas for a competition that I might like to enter – I’m quite pleased with this and then watch TV because, dammit, I’m not a machine, I need to relax and Spiral is on.

Sunday

A similar day to yesterday. We go to a different park, read books, tidy up a bit and then I talk to my best friend on Skype in the evening. After that I type up the bus conversation and leave it for a bit to see where it needs improvement and to decide what to do with it and turn to the competition ideas I had yesterday. They are terrible. Delete.

So that’s my working week! It doesn’t look much like that, but it was exhausting enough, even leaving aside the very rare occasion where I actually went out in the evening! (Haven’t socialised in evening with others since… NYE (babysitter – my mum) and before that, I’m honestly not too sure.) This week will be slightly different as I have a couple of days travelling to Birmingham and a good opportunity to write on the train, as well as a day off on Friday in lieu of working Monday this week. It’s all snatched moments and nothing sustained. And that’s normal. I could, if I really tried, take some time at the weekend to write – but that would involve leaving the house (I don’t have any room here as an office) and I am reluctant to either go into town on a Saturday or leave my daughter for too long when I shunt her off to nursery for long days during the week anyway.

I am aware that I have privileges. I enjoy my job, I have a house, I have a lovely family and I choose to write. I also come from a generation and part of the country that had a good state education and no tuition fees. I don’t have student loans to pay off (my expenses were covered by grants, odd jobs and a chunk of life insurance from my dad – so if you can call a parent dead at 55 an example of privilege, there you go). And I like having to carve this time out to write. I like having to fight for it. Do I get some written in coffee shops each day? Yes. Do I get more done when I have a day alone at home? Yes. And it will get written, I am determined. But once in a while it is just too exhausting. You just want it to be a little easier. Some days I see people who have relatives nearby as being privileged.

I think we all seem to work much harder than anyone ever admits publicly. Why we’re committed to such labour is beyond me. But privilege isn’t about not having to work. It’s about not having the fear about what happens if you don’t. It’s about being able to avoid the demands of a full time job in order to pay the bills, so that you can come to creative work fresh and not exhausted. It’s about being able to buy time, childcare, extra tuition, whatever support you need, so that you have help in reaching your goal. And for many, it’s a privilege too far.

Dr Sketchy’s Nottingham

Work on the next book continues and I am struggling. For a book about variety theatre, it’s not very colourful. I decide a research trip is in order. While my two main characters are mainly dressed in suits for their acts – a boy impersonator and a comic – the rest of the acts are causing me concern. It’s one thing to think about costume, make up, acrobats, ostrich feathers and the like but I think I’m missing something. And so when I saw that Dr Sketchy’s was doing a Victorian vaudeville event, I bought my ticket.

Dr Sketchy’s is a speed sketching event – live models but with a dash of sauce. Many of the models are burlesque and in between poses there are performances. While Victorian vaudeville is slightly outside my era, it’s close enough to make this relevant and useful. I try to ignore the fact that I haven’t drawn anything for years and I’m not really that good.

The atmosphere is welcoming. We can bring drinks in from the bar (I stick to coffee – my drawing’s bad enough) I take a seat at the back and watch the rest of the audience – many are clearly proper artists and not novelist pretending for the day. It’s now I realise my first rookie mistake – I haven’t brought a pencil sharpener.

We start with a warm up session – a series of three five-minute sketches with a model in black, a corset, a fur stole, carrying a black lace parasol and with lovely auburn curls tumbling down her back. I start off going for the easy parts and realise I haven’t time to attempt her face. In my first sketch she is blank. The second one is better – she turns her back to us. By the time they introduce the other performers I am feeling a bit better about what to concentrate on, and the performance gives me a chance to scrawl notes.

The whole day is great – really fun atmosphere and I win a prize for one of my sketches. We also get treated to a burlesque performance from Queen Victoria who amazes me with her ability to twirl her nipple tassels in opposite directions.

But back to the task at hand. Not only did I get notes on the costumes – the lavish material, the detail in the sequins and embroidery, the accessories and the make up, but also things like the noises their shoes make on stage and the way the light catches the dust. And I watch them off stage – and try to capture how the person on stage, the poised graceful performer, relaxes and becomes a person again when they aren’t in character; I see how relaxed they are in their costumes, going out for a cigarette in the make up and shirt sleeves.

I’m really pleased with the day and go home to insert my notes into my plan, as well as to finish up my sketches. And there it is waiting for me when I get home – the plan and draft of the next novel, now with a little more colour.

Launching a novel…

An author panel sit stunned as their writing story gets projected above their heads....
An author panel sit stunned as their writing story gets projected above their heads….

I’ve sat in the audience for author events before, listening to someone rad their words aloud. I’ve also organised author events – I have been that person who takes your picture with the writer you admire, who always carries Sharpies, who makes small talk while they sign stock copies. But this week were my first events from the other side – from the side of the author.

There’s something gratifying about being recognised as you walk into the venue for your first author event. “Hi Sue! Glad you could make it!” said the voice. It was actually the publisher and editor, Iain Grant, talking, but for a man who met for about an hour two years ago this isn’t bad.

The authors for tonight’s event meet in the coffee shop, they are relaxed and poised about reading. I am nervous. We discover there will be at least 70-80 people present for Friday’s big launch – now that’s an audience. To mask more nervousness I ask what everyone’s wearing on Friday. They look surprised, clearly haven’t thought about it before, perhaps preoccupied with more worthy literary things. I mention I was going to wear something sparkly and heels. I have set the bar low. Oh dear.

In the event, our audience for this free drop in event is tiny. It’s a freezing cold night and we all understand. But we read anyway. The questions we get asked are excellent and the comments are positive. It’s lovely to meet everyone and I feel really encouraged.

Everyone else has author business cards. I don’t. I get some online on my way home. They should arrive in time for Friday. I decide it’s time to take myself seriously.

Reading is helped when you can mostly hide behind an enormous lecturn
Reading is helped when you can mostly hide behind an enormous lecturn

Friday is a ticketed event. We start off with a boozy reception in the library – to loosen the vocal chords for reading in a theatre (well that was what I told myself…) and then make our way to the theatre. The stage is set, a table for the seven of us, and a  complicated and engaging Powerpoint presentation about the writing process delivered by Iain and interspersed by readings from the authors. I manage not to embarrass myself by falling over in my heels as I walk across the stage. So far so good.

Finally, we sit and sign copies of the books as the audience come up and ask questions. I’ve got to improve my signature… I feel it’s not flamboyant enough.

And so there you go! I have a book out. An actual book. Here’s the link should you want to go and buy it. I think it would make a great Christmas present for everyone you know. Go on, get it. Books are easy to giftwrap too…

Circ – a Ten to One novel

I am attending my first ever author event tomorrow. My first ever where I’m the author, I mean. It is being held at the brand spanking new shiny Library of Birmingham, currently perched among the Frankfurt markets like a glorious Christmas cake on a table of  Lebkuchen.

The event is the first of a week-long programme to promote Circ, a novel written by ten authors, of which I am one. We are starting with a “Meet the author” panel event, lasting an hour, where four of us will read and then talk about ourselves and our writing. I can’t think of anything more terrifying except the event which takes place on Friday, where more of us will read and talk to an audience who have actually bought tickets in order to attend. At least tomorrow night’s is a free event for up to 20 people so I can always cling to the possibility that no one will turn up. Right up until the moment where I look out over the audience (which will obviously seem much more than 20 people…)

Enough of this quaking. Let me tell you about the book. Ten of us were chosen to write, we each created a character and devised a plot. The author group were from all over the world and so we collaborated by Dropbox. We all wrote our first chapter which was open to votes from the public and from a judging panel. Whoever got the fewest votes was written out until there was only one left.

I wrote three chapters. I think I was the least experienced writer in the pack so I figure that’s not too bad going for a first try at proper novel writing. And I learned a lot from the process. The most important lesson was to have some idea of what on earth your character is going to do in terms of the plot – a point that I failed spectacularly at. I also realised that I need to get a whole lot better at badgering people to support me in a public vote, or to buy a book, or to have any interest in anything I’m doing. Natural reticence doesn’t win you votes or readers.

Once we were all done writing, came the editing. I liked the beta reader process. I liked the feedback they gave. I tweaked, cut, and then washed my hands of it all. The result is a crime spree set in Skegness among Romanians, circus folk and one crazy seagull.

So now we’re onto the final stage – the promotion. Wish me luck. I’ll post a review of my performances over the weekend.

Circ is available to buy now in e book or physical format.

 

Review – NottWords workshop with Lara Elena Donnelly

There’s something decadent about knocking off work early to go to a writing workshop. And so it is with a light heart that I bid my work colleagues a good weekend and appear at the door to Nottingham Writers’ Studio on Friday afternoon for Lara Elena Donnelly’s workshop Who is your City?

Lara starts us with some inspiration from fiction and offers a way to find your city – real or imagined – before letting us loose describing our world. First, find your mood. Then map the geography. Finally look at the detail. Who is in your city? What do they do? Where do they do it? Most importantly, why do they do it?

Details aren’t always going to make it into your book (though I’ve read several authors who’ve never heard that piece of advice…) but help to cement your world in your mind and make it more convincing.

Listening to Lara speak, I apply her words to my half written novel. I like the idea of starting with the mood or atmosphere first, why do I want the book to be centered around this place? It’s the sense of space, the freedom of anonymity it gives, while being conveniently located. I remember the elation I felt when I sat in Dulwich Park a few months ago on a fact finding mission and I try to capture that – the place, the way I suddenly spotted my characters there, everyone slotted into a role, going about their fictional business but still pointing out all the blanks I hadn’t considered yet.

We are few but we are ambitious. World building seems to come easily to those in the room who read or write science fiction or fantasy novels, but the principles of the workshop apply to all writing and, while we started out with something based in reality, I’m not sure any of us ended up there.

The workshop can be found at Lara’s blog – give it a go, it’s really useful for world building of all kinds. You never know you might end up somewhere completely different…

Writing maps

In the endless stream of articles and posts about curing writers’ block, there’s lots of advice about writing anything, just anything, to get your shift on. Morning pages. Free writing. Notebooks. But what about maps?

Writing maps are a lovely little resource that come in handy handbag sized packets. Each map contains a series of prompts around a theme – art galleries, cafes, cities, characters and so on – complete with suggested reading around the topic and lovely illustrations. The maps fold out into a handy yet versatile companion to your everyday writing life. (Writing maps also produce matching notebooks – my fingers are itching to buy some to go with my map stash but I have about 19 unused notebooks in my cupboard that I justifiably need to make some dent into before I buy more.)

I have short sketches, flash fiction and musings all produced from the writing maps. I like the variety of subjects, the downright nosiness of the suggestions, and the space they afford you to sit and write down what the hell comes to mind.

But there’s more! You can now buy the A3 Review, a collection of flash fiction by a variety of authors. We responded to prompts for monthly competitions and here we are, in a folded journal for your reading pleasure. “We?” I hear you say? Why yes.

I have a modest contribution in the A3 Review – my piece was a re-examination of a favourite word. The word I chose was: Diphthong. Of course.

Writing Maps offer maps, writing courses and more – you can follow them on Twitter, Facebook or sign up for their newsletter. Go on, you know you want to. And don’t forget to buy the A3 Review…

September has come & I wake to questions about my favourite poem

September has come and one Twitter exchange this afternoon has made me consider poetry. Which I rarely do. Still, Megan from Writers’ Greenhouse posted a link to Autumn Journal by Louis Macneice today – my favourite poem.

Why is it my favourite? Well, I love it because I was born in September and my nature prefers trees without leaves and a fire in the fireplace. And pulling on jumpers and knee high boots and foraging for conkers and making jam and kicking leaves and eating plum crumble and custard. Autumn’s a lovely season. And I love it because the poem talks about a real woman, one with complications and contradictions who isn’t afraid to voice opinions and do what she wants. She feels real to me, the subject of the poem. I know nothing about MacNeice. I just love this.

So Megan (I use first names like we’re old friends – to be clear, I’ve bought some seed packets from her (review here) and we follow each other on Twitter. It’s a cyber relationship) tweeted that she was still trying to decide whether saying someone’s mind was like “the wind on a sea of wheat” was a compliment or not. Of course it is! I thought. How could it be otherwise?

It’s funny how one person’s understanding of a thing which is open to interpretation can make you start to question your own thinking. Should I take it as a compliment? Should I look for more?

I don’t read much poetry. I certainly haven’t seriously analysed any since A level English Lit. I skipped the poetry in AS Byatt’s Possession.  I find it hard to fit in – where do you read it? Why do you read it? I can’t see myself curling up with a book of poems on a quiet evening. And I’ll be honest, despite this being my favourite poem, I find it hard to get the rhythm going for the first few lines and tend to skip them too. Should you choose, you may want to dismiss my thoughts, I know I would.

Leaving aside the mixed metaphor (which someone else pointed out and with which I have no problem) what is it trying to say? I’ve always considered it to mean her thoughts were a breath of fresh air, a ruffling of what was otherwise a mass consensus. I like the visual, a ripple across a beige sea of wheat. I’d consider that a compliment. I suppose it’s debatable whether others consider stirring in that way to be a good thing. Having often ruffled people the wrong way, I have to say that it is or plunge myself into a pit of self-doubt and despair.

Of course that’s just if you think it’s a gentle breeze. It could be a harsher wind, a destructive wind, something contrary for the sake of it. Except that I don’t think that would fit with the rest of the poem. He admires her. He likes the way she thinks, despite being challenged by her sometimes. He can never shake her, her hair is twined in all his waterfalls. She’s blunt, she’s sometimes rude, she doesn’t necessarily think before she speaks, she’s ruled by the heart – “It is on the strength of knowing you/ I reckon generous feeling more important/ Than the mere deliberating what to do,” It’s essentially, to me at least, a hymn to blunt speaking. In a world that still tells women to shut up how great is that?

It’s not clear that the relationship is a positive ongoing one. “So that if now alone I must pursue this life,” says MacNeice, he will remember her. She has made his life more colourful. It’s the greatest compliment I could be paid. Whether my thinking is erratic, non original and occasionally blunt, it at least brightened someone’s life.

I welcome alternative views. No,  really, I do.