Self-isolation – a good time to write a novel

Back in 1996, I had an idea for a pandemic love story. It was set in a house shared by four young twenty-somethings, struggling to survive through an epidemic that was bringing the country to a stand-still. One of the women would be ill, while two of her friends try to keep her alive at the same time as scavenging for food and medical supplies. The fourth member of the house was a ghost, only seen in the imagination of the sick woman, her ex-boyfriend who has already died from the virus. It might sound quirky, but it was meant to be dystopian, with the sick woman using her feverish dreams to escape the horrors of a future world with little hope.

Obviously, this has been on my mind quite a bit recently. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched, and not at all futuristic. The covid-19 pandemic would work really well as the background for my story, providing the perfect conditions for the plot. Does that make it spookily prophetic? Not really – devastating plagues and end-of-the world outbreaks have always made good material for novels. I imagine that in 12-18 months time, there will be another epidemic, of novels about pandemics and quarantines and isolations. All over the world, budding writers will be using their lock-down to write the novels they always planned to write, and I suspect a good amount of them will reflect the current situation. If it really is just the lack of time that stops people getting their novels written, we can expect there to be a boom in the book trade in the next year or so. Even if we discount all the half-hearted attempts that go no further than the first chapter, I think we can still expect the publishers’ and agents’ slush piles to be heaped staggeringly high this time next year.

Of course, I include myself in this. Two weeks ago, the school I work at was closed to all but the children of key-workers, and the teaching assistants were told to stand down until further notice. If I wasn’t so worried about the effect the virus was having on the world, I would have been pleased to have all this paid time off work. Actually, I can’t lie, I am pleased, because just a few weeks before all this began to get serious, work on my new novel actually started to take off. After a year of planning and sketching and developing, I started writing proper chapters and the beginnings of a first draft. I don’t know why it started now – it just did. Somehow, the sparks got hotter, the kindling began to burn instead of fizzling out and the flames finally took hold. I am writing a new novel and with all this free time, it is making much better progress than I anticipated.

It isn’t, I hasten to add, my pandemic love story. I can’t write that now, even if I wanted to – it would be far too clichéd. That story never did go any further than the idea jotted in a notebook. But it came with a plan to match it with two other stories with a linking theme of love. One was set in the past, one was set in the present and this would be the one with a futuristic setting. I imagined them each as short novella, maybe exploring the idea that love doesn’t change, no matter where or when the setting. And then, like so many ideas, it went no further. Well, not as a whole. As I said, the futuristic story stayed in the notebook. But the other two took on a life of their own.

The story set in the present day was about an indie band, whose members were exploited by a greedy and manipulative manager. I had some great characters there, including a really sexy guitar player called Wayne (yes, really) who gives up his playboy ways when he falls in love with the female lead singer, even though the evil manager doesn’t approve of them being together and blackmails the whole band to make them split up. I enjoyed it so much that I actually wrote quite a lot of it, and would really like to see it completed one day. The trouble is, I don’t know enough about the hedonistic life-style of modern rock stars; I wanted it to be gritty and realistic but I was always worried that my idea of hedonism would be too tame. Also, I have gravitated towards writing historical fiction rather than contemporary, and rural rather than urban, so this just doesn’t fit with my style.

However, the third story in that collection, the one set in the past, did fit my style perfectly: 19th Century, small country village, the rituals of courting and finding a spouse – it ticks all the boxes of my genre. And I can now announce that this is the story that I have been developing for the last year. (I wrote about it in https://mjschofieldauthor.com/2019/02/25/a-writing-experiment/ and https://mjschofieldauthor.com/2019/03/31/a-writing-experiment-the-results/) It is still the same story, but has grown from a novella to a novel in its own right. I won’t say anything else about it, except to say that it is called The Hawthorn Bride. I have now written four chapters. It is not my pandemic story, but it is my Lock-down Novel.  

Powerful Gods

One of my favourite DVD box-sets is the HBO series Rome. Originally broadcast between 2005 and 2007, it was a retelling of the story of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and the end of the Roman democracy. Many of the characters were the big names well known from history, but alongside it, the scriptwriters had created some fictional characters of a more ordinary nature. Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are soldiers in Caesar’s army who, through a mixture of fortune and misadventure, happen to find themselves shaping history. When the two soldiers once again find themselves before the great leaders, not only saved from certain death but responsible for an act of mercy with political ramifications, Caesar comments that the men must have powerful gods. Powerful gods indeed, for two ordinary men who are unexpectedly responsible for the Caesar’s rise to dictatorship, and then his subsequent murder.

Powerful gods, or skilled scriptwriters, who want to weave the lives of fictional characters into the bigger story and therefore need to place their heroes at key points in history, and keep them alive against the odds until the end of the series. But this is what all writers do; they become the gods, picking and choosing the fortunes and misfortunes of the characters they create. Charlotte Bronte always intended Jane Eyre to marry Rochester, but not at the first attempt. Victor Frankenstein is never going to escape from his monstrous creation. Lizzie Bennett has to fall in love with a man she despises. Writers, powerful gods with their characters’ lives in their hands; there is only ever one plot device between happiness and despair.

I wonder what kind of god I am. So far my endings have been mostly happy, with redemptions, satisfying conclusions and just rewards. But I have made my characters work hard for their happy endings. Take Marianne in After the Rain. My power over her was to trap her in a marriage that made her miserable, then steer her course to a deserted wilderness where her path could cross with that of another lost soul; it is a chance meeting that saves them both, but not before it has caused more anguish. And then there is Arris, the main character of my unwritten fantasy novel; all he wants in life is independence and an opportunity to prove himself, but I set him on a course that means he can only achieve his goals by rescuing the girl he loves after a hideous and life-changing assault and by killing his hero and mentor in order to save his own life. A more benevolent god would have found an easier ending for him, but I sacrificed his happiness for the more interesting plot line. It is a dark power.  

Like I said, it is what writers do. The pragmatism of it is inevitable. I’m not really a god, just a writer, trying to come up with the most exciting story. And yet at times, it feels like I have no control over it. Take my worst victim of this dark power – David Waltham, in The Most Beloved Boy. His death is not just a plot device to achieve an end, it IS the plot. It hadn’t ever been my original intention. I had planned for David to return to his home town ill and weakened but surviving, even if it was a life with less potential than previously expected. But in the new format, without the fantasy element and the previous episodes, that wasn’t strong enough to work on its own. The anger and hatred directed at Dan for bringing his friend home in such a state wasn’t justified. And there was no reason for Dan to stay and face his demons. It was only enough to be part of a story. But if David died, it became the whole story. A promise to his dying friend gave Dan a bittersweet reason to stay at the same time as making the hostility against him even worse. With this change, the story had a plot, a bloody good one. It was the only thing to do. And so the hand of god reached in and cut short the life of a character I loved. I played the cruel and powerful god, but it wasn’t easy reconciling myself to that decision. I had created him to be loving and kind and courageous and honourable, so l could hardly bear the thought of killing him off. His death is a great source of pain and grief to the other characters in the novel, a senseless and devastating outcome for a life that deserves a happy ending. But that was the point. His whole life was sacrificed for the sake of a novel. It still makes me sad, but as god of this world, I would not change it.

And now I am attempting the play god again, with a new set of characters. The novel that I have been trying to get going for the last two years has gained a bit more momentum recently, thanks to a tragic deus ex machina – tragic for the characters but much more exciting for me to write. My main character will suffer before he finds his resolution, but it is the only way his story will ever get written. In order to give life, I must destroy it. I am powerful god indeed.

New Year, New Look

Thanks to Elise Jenkins for the graphic – my very talented daughter

Happy New Year! Ok, I know it’s already February, but this is my first blog of the year so I still get to say this. I hope your Christmas was a good one. Looking at the figures from my website, I can see that twenty-five of my Advent Stories were downloaded; more than half of them were actually downloaded in December, which surprised me, but I’m happy for my stories to be used in different ways. I would love to hear from anyone who used the stories – any feedback would be respectfully received. Obviously I would be thrilled to read some glowing testimonials, but working on my own as I do, I would still be grateful for constructive criticism, or even suggestions for future stories.

But now that Christmas is done and dusted, it is time to move on to new things. I decided that my website needed refreshing. I launched it in 2017 and haven’t really altered anything since then, so the time for change had definitely come. Last weekend, I thought I would experiment with a new look, thinking I could try out some different presentations in draft, at the same time as brushing up my very rusty IT skills. Back in 2017, I was at home during the day while my children were at school and I had plenty of time to work slowly through the online tutorials that come with WordPress. Come forward in time to 2020, with just a couple of hours spare between the housework and laundry and cooking the tea, as I was last Saturday, I didn’t anticipate getting much done but at least it would be a start. Then, to my horror, I realised that I had published my initial tinkerings and replaced my personal website with one full of filler text and stock photographs. With much swearing and shouting (apologies to my husband), I had to face the fact that I had lost the original and so needed to complete the new as quickly as possible, relearning forgotten skills as I went along. It was, in short, a complete nightmare.

However, it turns out that I am not such a Luddite after all, and so, lo and behold, my new look website. There are some parts that I’m really pleased with, like the slide show of my novels on the Home Page. There are also some niggly mistakes that I just can’t quite fix, and I know that makes it look less than professional, but hey, I’m not a professional. I’ve done my best for now, and it does the job I was aiming for.

Now all I need is a new novel to go with it…

A Shepherd’s Tale

The Oxen, by Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.

“Now they are all on their knees,”

An elder said as we sat in a flock

By the embers in hearthside ease.

 

We pictured the meek mild creatures where

They dwelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

To doubt they were kneeling then.

 

So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years! Yet, I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

“Come; see the oxen kneel,

 

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

Our childhood used to know,”

I should go with him in the gloom,

Hoping it might be so.”

 

This poem, written in 1915, is full of nostalgia for an older version of Christmas, with mysteries and legends that were already being dismissed and forgotten. 1915 was a time of war for British people, and it seems to me that Hardy’s poem carries a sense of longing for a simple, more innocent time. Add another hundred years that, and it seems even more removed from the Christmas we have now, where legends are based around must-see television adverts and the top-selling items in the shops. Walking past a well-known High street chemists today, I saw they were selling an Advent calendar that costs £40! Since when was this what Advent was about? Gifts are for Christmas Day, not the 24 days before it. When I was young, Advent calendars didn’t even have chocolates. Now they have become the norm, and it isn’t easy to find a traditional one with just pictures. Does this make me like the nostalgic narrator in Hardy’s poem, longing for some overlooked tradition, misremembering something that wasn’t quite as magical as it seemed. Where will we be in another hundred years? Will my children tell stories of Advent calendars that only had chocolates in them?

I could make some claim that my Advent stories are a way of fulfilling Hardy’s longing; a way of reliving a Christmas that used to be about sharing stories and didn’t come with an exorbitant price-tag. My stories are still free to download, and are a simple way to fill a reusable Advent calendar that I hope is more exciting and rewarding than any confectionary. I certainly think that when my children are adults, they will remember the stories and appreciate them more than long-forgotten chocolates. They may even carry on the tradition with their own families. If they did, my heart would burst with pride. A fair fancy indeed.

My Advent story this year was inspired by the poem. It too draws on the traditions of story telling, passed from generation to generation. The main character is a shepherd boy, hearing the legend for the first time, and ends with him vowing to tell the story to his own children, adding in his own experience of that magical night. It is my tribute to Thomas Hardy, but with a happy ending. If you can manage a west country accent whilst reading it out loud, all the better.

A Shepherd’s Tale

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Henry Ossawa Tanner – Angels Appearing before the Shepherds, 1910

 

Revisiting Forgotten Worlds

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My Easter treat to myself – along with all the chocolate – has been reading a George R R Martin book that I have been saving since Christmas. I am a massive fan of the Game of Thrones books. When the TV series first started, I was quite attracted to it but we don’t have Sky TV, so I did what comes naturally to me and started to read the books. I was very quickly addicted. The vastness of the stories – the landscapes, the histories, the characters, the family sagas, the mysteries both fantastical and mundane – it all worked its magic on me. Yes, the writing is sometimes hackneyed and clichéd, but the ideas are not and the complexity and depth of the plots is extremely satisfying. All too soon I had read every book in the series and am now waiting impatiently for George R R Martin to get on and finish the last book. It was a bit frustrating that he chose to publish a prequel rather than the final book in the series, but addict that I am, I snapped up Fire and Blood; A History of the Targaryen Kings from Aegon the Conqueror to Aegon III and am now using my Easter holiday to plough my way through it. It’s great fun.

It is somewhat of a distraction from rural Victorian England, which is supposed to be my project of choice. The world of Westeros couldn’t be more different to the village life that I create; my work is more George Elliot than George R R Martin. But it wasn’t always this way for me. I started out writing fantasy and still remember all my characters and ideas, locked away but not forgotten. And while I’m reading Fire and Blood, it seems that the dragon fire is breathing new life into old ideas and making them smoulder again.

I would still love to write my fantasy stories. I wrote so much of Arris that part of me thinks it would be a waste not to finish it. But there are others. Back when I was still a fantasy fan, there were many other ideas that I once had plans for. Some were no more than characters, travelling around fantasy worlds getting into scrapes with no plot what-so-ever to guide them. Others were too obviously “inspired” by other fantasy writers, like David Eddings and Mervyn Peake. I still entertain myself with these patchwork pieces of ideas, enjoying the characters without any compulsion to develop them further. I don’t mind that they will go no further than this. I do regret leaving Arris behind, but I have to be realistic about it and have accepted its unfinished state. But there are two other stories that I do still think about a lot, ideas that I never even started but still tempt me.

The first one is about a prince, who is in love with a witch who is married to his father, who has been sent by an evil master to destroy the dynasty that protects the realm. It is a story steeped with magic that can be used for both evil and good, but in the end, it is love that holds the power to defeat wickedness. This idea particularly has come back to mind now because it has a lot of similarities with the Game of Thrones world, but the idea came to me in a dream, a very long time before I read the books. Sometime around the year 2000, I was developing a set of characters and plot lines and writing some scenes; Prince Tiyanne, Prince Ennis, Almeida the witch woman, the ancient city of Tallis with its castle full of protective magic. It was good stuff, and it would make a good novel, if it wasn’t for the fact that I will probably never write it.

And even if I was writing fantasy again, I would have to choose between this story and the other idea that I still think of as equally as good. Again, the idea came to me in a dream – I have some great dreams. This is a story about a world with warring gods, and the effects of those wars on the ordinary people who get pulled into the fight. The hero of this story is a woman, a warrior, fighting on the losing side. The victorious god punishes those who fought against him by taking away their loved ones, to live in a beautiful world with no knowledge of their previous lives. The punished ones must live in hardship until the god deems them to have paid off their crimes. The only person who knows the truth about everything is the woman; this is her punishment, to know the full extent of what she has lost and why. And yet this is also a gift to her, from the god himself, who cannot just destroy her or abandon her, no matter what she says against him. I developed the beginning of this story, but I never worked out how it ended, or why the woman had so much power over the god, or why the god was so drawn to the woman. I would love to find out, and I’m sure the answer is there somewhere, just waiting to be discovered, if only I started writing it.

Remembering it all, I am yearning to start writing fantasy again. There is no reason why fantasy fiction can’t be as good as any other fiction. Regardless of magic and gods and legends, it is still driven by people, governed by real emotions, making real mistakes and learning real lessons. That’s what I like best about the Game of Thrones books, and what I like best about my stories. But any fiction about people needs a framework for the people to live in, and in fantasy, it all needs to be created from scratch. There needs to be history behind the living characters, along with beliefs and faith that shape human consciences and values. At the very least, there must be geography to create places for the characters to live. This is what George R R Martin does best. His world is so immense that he can write prequels and histories. But as much as I love reading them, I have no desire to create my own. Maybe I’m intimidated by it, because it is a huge task and very difficult to get right. But maybe I just prefer writing about my characters without the distractions and digressions of creating a world for them to live in.

That’s why I’m sticking to Victorian England. It is a framework that already exists, and it is easily identified and understood. I can get on with writing about my characters. Or at least, that is the plan, though I must admit that it’s still not going anywhere. And it’s not George R R Martin’s fault. Going back to fantasy and revisiting my old ideas has made me realise something. Those stories move me in a way that my current novel doesn’t. They have passion and action and torment, all the things that are missing in the current novel. It might be set in a sleepy 19th Century village, but it still needs passion and pain. I know it can be done – there was plenty in The Most Beloved Boy, and After the Rain, both with very similar settings. But so far, my current story fails to evoke any strong feelings, and I think that is the cause of my writer’s block.

Coming to this conclusion has been a bit of an epiphany; hurrah for fantasy, not a waste of time after all. However, it doesn’t actually provide the solutions. That’s going to take time and even more thought. And even though my novel needs fire and blood, at this moment there is only one Fire and Blood I want to finish, along with some more research on Victorian rural life. What a combination! Happy Easter to me.

 

A Writing Experiment – the Results

writing experiment results.jpgToday is the last day of March, so it’s time to review the ‘experiment’. Have I met the targets I set myself? Has it had the desired results? Well, let’s see.

Firstly, I have been writing. Not every day, but more days than not. Sometimes, it really was just a few hundred words, no more than two or three paragraphs. Other days, I was on a roll and wrote over a thousand. I had two bonus writing sessions at work when I was asked to invigilate in a mock GCSE exam, which involved watching over a single student in a private room; I like to think I was providing moral support by scribbling alongside her. In total, I’ve written over 15,000 words. It’s nowhere near the 50,000 I have managed to write in the same period during Nano Wrimo, but it’s 15,000 words that didn’t exist at the start of this experiment. If I’m judging this by word count, that’s got to be a good thing.

Of course, word count is irrelevant if the words are no good. Of those 15,000 words, I would expect less than a half to make it into a first draft, and even less into a final draft. But that doesn’t matter. I need written words before I can start improving and editing. And some of what I have written this month was purely for myself with no intention of it being included the novel. Something I like to do is write a scene from a different character’s viewpoint. It is a good way to get an insight into their personality, and helps me judge if what they say is really what they are thinking. I also use this technique to develop backstory. The more I know about my characters, the more depth they have. I have written about my main character’s families and things that happened before they were born because these are the things that shaped the way they turn out. These details may only make a single sentence in the novel, but knowing them helps me know my main characters better. I enjoy this type of writing, and it never feels like a waste of time. As part of the experiment, it has been the biggest achievement. My characters have become more solid, more established. I discovered things about them that I had never considered before. I even discovered a completely new character. I realised that what I thought was an old-fashioned romantic love story actually has a feminist agenda and that’s definitely a good thing.

However, there was one other goal that this experiment was aiming for, and that was to stoke the fire and get it burning so hot and bright that it couldn’t be extinguished. And I’m just not there yet. There are still no chapters, only extracts with nothing holding them together. For me, a novel is only on its way when it is carried along by chronological chapters. They drive the narrative forward and they give purpose and structure. Without them, I am still only making notes, not writing a novel. So that part of the experiment has not worked. I’m still not inspired to start writing the first chapter. I don’t know why. I suppose I could, if I really pushed myself, but this was supposed to be the push. So I guess that the inspiration is still not strong enough. And without it, it’s hard to ignore all the other distractions that life throws at us, like work, family, homes, Twitter! I have an almost full-time job, so the time for writing has been drastically cut. And in the rest of my time, I have three children to look after. They might be old enough to entertain themselves these days, but the washing and ironing that they produce can take up many hours of my free time. I abide by the J K Rowling principle that writing comes before housework, so my house is never tidy, but even so, there are too many things that just have to be done and seemingly no-one else to do them. If I was really inspired, I know I would find the time. But getting to that stage is proving difficult at the moment, even when I’m really trying.

So has this experiment been a success or a failure? I think I’m going to have to admit to mixed results. But I’m not going to be too gloomy about it. The positive results have been extremely useful. And maybe I was being unrealistic in my ultimate goal. I might not have achieved what I set out for, but I am definitely much closer than I was before I started. Maybe it just needs a bit more time. And maybe also a bit more research. My historical setting could do with some concrete facts, and I have bought some books to help with that. Maybe it’s time to take a break from the writing and do some reading instead.

 

 

A Writing Experiment

I have a confession to make. I didn’t write anything new last year. Despite all my intentions, chronicled here in this blog, I do not have a new project. I am not currently writing a novel, and haven’t been for some time. I’ve been working – editing, rewriting, bogging, etc – but I haven’t written anything new for over two years.

Life gets in the way. I have a long list of legitimate excuses, but it doesn’t make me feel any better to repeat them. A writer is someone who writes, and if I’m not doing that, am I still a writer? Ideas and intentions are just not enough.

I do have ideas. There is one in particular, that has been brewing for a few years. Twenty-three years to be precise. I started writing it once, and had big plans for it, but abandoned it in favour of other things. But it was still a good idea and never really went away. Recently, I’ve been jotting down notes on characters and themes. It has a basic story arc and two or three scenes. It has characters that I am interested in getting to know better. The story and setting fit well with my genre preference. In my head, it is my next novel. But it hasn’t gone any further than that. To use an analogy I have described before, it has created a few sparks, but the fire hasn’t caught yet.

Of course, this could be because it’s just not a very exciting story. Maybe I should take this as a message that it’s not worth writing – if it’s boring to write, then it would be boring to read. But I don’t think it is. I’ve heard people refer to a “book hangover”, where a reader can’t start a new novel because they are still too obsessed with the novel they’ve just finished. That is me. I get terrible book hangovers. I’ve never read very much Dickens because I started with Bleak House and liked it so much that all the others are just not the same. And it makes sense that the same applies to writing a novel too. I have been in this situation before; after finishing The Most Beloved Boy, I really struggled to let go and move onto the next project. That was when I used Nano Wrimo to drive me forward and managed to write No Such Cold Thing. But this is the wrong time of year for Nano Wrimo, and I doubt I could fit it in with my new work schedule. However, it has given me an idea, for a new experiment.

To get this new novel going, I need to give fuel to the fire. Notes are not enough. I need to start writing – creating scenes, building back-story, putting words into my characters’ mouths. So I am setting myself a challenge. I will write something every day. Even if it is only a paragraph or two. Even if I’m not in the mood for writing. Even if I need to spend time at the weekends sitting at my desk in front of this lap-top with the Wi-Fi disconnected. Even if I have to use my lunch-breaks to scribble in note-pads. It’s not that difficult; I think it is actually easier to fill a spare thirty minutes with writing than it is to get immersed in reading a novel. And here’s the thing – it won’t matter what I write. It can be absolute rubbish but it will still make excellent kindling, which is what this novel needs. The hope is that if I keep going at this, the fire will take hold and begin to burn properly.

That’s the theory anyway. And here’s the other thing I have learnt about writing – it helps if other people know that you’re doing it, because it provides an incentive to keep going. That’s why I’m writing about it here, making it public; the hope of having a novel in progress is the carrot, but the fear of having to admit defeat is the really big stick. So let’s see, it is now the end of February; I will come back at the end of March and report on the results. Can I force myself to start writing a new novel? We’ll find out in next month.

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Advent Stories

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Yes, it’s that time of year again, when I start banging on – sorry, reminding you, how easy it is to download a 24-part story to print out, cut up and put into your reusable Advent Calendars. There are eight to choose from, including a brand new one for this. I had a lot of fun writing Chorister Rock, a story about a bunch of cathedral choristers who decide to experiment with a brand new sound. It was inspired by my children’s increasingly maturing music taste and their talent playing in various rock bands.

Their taste in music is not the only thing that is maturing. They are now aged 15, 12 and 10, and as you can imagine, Christmas isn’t the same as it was when they were little. However, when I suggested that they might be getting too old for an Advent story this year, I was very firmly informed that this was a tradition they definitely wanted to keep. So I have another story to write, there’s no getting out of it. Luckily I had an idea this morning and there’s still ten days to go.

But as I’ve said before, it’s much easier for you. Just follow the link and choose your story, and you’re ready to go.

Index of Stories

Me vs the Editor

In the summer, I embarked upon the project of editing of my novel The Most Beloved Boy. I was aware of some mistakes, and knew that I would only find them all by completely rereading the text, correcting as I went. But I also knew that if I did that, I would want to change other things and make improvements; nothing major, no big plot changes or character assassinations, just tightening the narrative, removing as much waffle as possible and putting a tighter rein on the melodrama. I thought it would be a quick job for the summer, but somewhere around chapter 30 I ran into such a lot of waffle and melodrama that it was like getting stuck in a quagmire, and my “quick edit” became a more significant rewrite. But still there were no actual plot changes, not really, nothing that changed the overall story arc. It’s taken me all summer and beyond, but I am pleased with the results. I’m very nearly done and thought I was ready to upload the new draft to Kindle very soon.

But here’s the problem. I am a writer, but I am also an editor. And just last week, the editor in me started having this argument with the author. It goes a bit like this…

Author: So I think you’re really going to like this new draft. Look what I did in this chapter.

Editor: Yes, good, that section really needed cutting.

Author: And here, in this chapter, I sorted out all this waffle.

Editor: Oh yes, that’s much better.

Author: And look what I did to this chapter – a bit of a change, but less melodramatic, and it doesn’t affect the plot.

Editor: That was a brave step. Well done, I didn’t think you’d have the courage to do that, but it is much better for it.

Author: Thank you, I’m glad you like it. I’m really pleased with the results. I think the novel is pretty brilliant now. Don’t you agree?

Editor: Well…

Author: What? Don’t you like the changes?

Editor: No, I do, I really like the changes. In fact, I think you could have gone further.

Author: Oh, really? In what way?

Editor: Well, I really like the changes to Part Two. But what I think is, and bear with me on this because this might shock you, I think you should bring Part Two to an end at this chapter.

Author: What, that chapter there?

Editor: Yes. Cut all of this, and jump straight to Part Three at this point here.

Author: But, that would mean cutting two whole chapters.

Editor: Yep, that’s right.

Author: But, two whole chapters? I can’t do without those chapters.

Editor: Well, yes you can. All of this is really only showing what the reader already knows is going to happen. The structure format you chose for your narrative means that there is no mystery here. So you can without it. In fact, if you cut to Part Three here, you are adding some extra tension.

Author: I suppose so. But I was really proud of those chapters. What about the heartfelt emotions I have painstakingly developed? Those chapters have some of my most heart breaking scenes in them.

Editor: But it doesn’t move the plot on. No matter how beautiful the heartbreak is, it’s pointless if it doesn’t add to the plot. You know that. You’ve got so much better at reducing that sort of material.

Author: Yes, ok. But, if I removed those chapters, I would lose that big plot twist here. Now don’t tell me that that isn’t significant.

Editor: Well, I do like the twist, but the plot works without it. You have to admit that.

Author: Yes but…

Editor: And if the plot works without it, then it doesn’t really need to be there.

Author: But what about all the character depth it adds, and the intrigue to the original story? I’ve built it all up so carefully.

Editor: It won’t hurt your characters. The depth is still there, they won’t lose that.

Author: But … but …

Editor: And I’ve always been a bit worried that such a major twist coming in at the end seems a bit rushed over, almost like an afterthought.

Author: But it was such a good afterthought!

Editor: Not every thought needs to be in the novel. There is such a thing as too much.

Author: But I need that twist for the sequel. That’s when it does become central to the plot. If I add it later, it would just look like I was making up new facts to suit my new story.

Editor: Well, if you think you really need it, put it in somewhere else. It could fit into an earlier chapter. Make it more central rather than a twist. Hmm, yes, I quite like that idea.

Author: But that would mean rewriting a significant chunk of Part Two. It would be a major change. Surely you don’t want me to do that, do you? Not now, after all the work I’ve done? That would be crazy!

Editor: Hey, don’t get angry with me. I’m just a fictional editor – who you created, by the way. Whatever I say comes from you. You’re even making up this argument.

Author: (curling up into the foetal position) No, no, make it stop, it hurts.

Editor: Stop making such a fuss. Anyway, about this new character, the Editor – got any good story lines for her?

 

And that’s where I am at the moment, stuck in a real quandary. Sometime the editor in me is the voice of reason, telling me that this is one of those ideas that just can’t be ignored. Other times, the author in me just wants to finish this project and move on; after all, it is November, and my intention of starting a new novel this year has not come to fruition. If only there was a real editor who could tell me what to do.

And as I’m no closer to making a decision, I guess I’ll have to leave this blog on a cliff-hanger

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Reading as a Writer

Writers need to read. When successful authors give advice to aspiring authors, one thing that comes up again and again is the need to keep reading.

Fortunately for me, this is not a problem. Reading is second nature to me. I will read anything, and have, in the past, done just that. At work in the bookshop, I would read proofs of books I would never dream of buying, and I learnt how to skim read a novel out on the shop floor without anyone noticing. Even a rubbish book is better than no book.

However, between the demands of family, work and writing my own fiction, I don’t actually read that much these days. So when I do, I try to only read books that I know are well written. I don’t just want a decent story and interesting characters, I want beautifully crafted writing, with cliché-free combinations of words that give as much pleasure as the plot. I know enough about the literary fiction market to know which authors I am going to enjoy and admire. Sometimes the only surprise is that it took me so long to get around to reading some authors, such as William Boyd, Ian McEwan, Matthew Kneale, Colm Toibin and Anthony Trollope. It is a joy to finish a novel and know that that are other by that author to be enjoyed another day. There are some authors that I admire so much that it is almost painful to read them, knowing that their writing is so perfect and brilliant that I can never hope to put words together in the way they do. David Mitchell, Sarah Waters, Hilary Mantell, how I devour their books, rereading them over and over again, hoping to soak up their genius, but all I get is a uncomfortable reminder of how pedestrian my own writing is compared to theirs. A novel like Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End is a kind of exquisite torture; it is a miracle of a book but every page, every sentence is an example of the best kind of writing that I could never dream of achieving. And maybe I could console myself that these are experienced writers who have crafted their art over years of writing. But then I read Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, and Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, authors new to fiction, and it depresses me that they are so good, so perfect. They have already jumped into the game way ahead of what I can achieve. I’m not being modest; I know what I am capable of, and how my writing compares to theirs. It is a double-edged sword, to be able to recognise and appreciate outstanding writing. I wouldn’t want to live without good fiction, but oh my god, I wish more than anything that it was mine.

So it has been quite refreshing to recently read something that wasn’t so brilliant. I did something I never do anymore – I bought a novel in a bookshop by an author I’d never heard of, simply because it was recommended. I won’t say what it was, because that’s not important. The point is, it wasn’t that good. It wasn’t bad – it had an intriguing plot and I raced through it to find out how it ended – but it wasn’t especially well-written. It was rather clichéd, and as I went along, I was noting all the phrases that I wouldn’t have written, the kind of writing that I am trying to strip out of own work. And instead of despair, I was reassured that my writing is better. Of course that’s just my opinion and I could be wrong, but it’s given me a new perspective on my writing – I might not know how to be a brilliant writer, but I do know how to not be a bad writer. If I have any confidence in my work, it is that I am not a bad writer. So surely there must be a place for me in the fiction market.

And here is my advice to aspiring authors (including myself) – read good fiction, but also read bad fiction! Only by learning to recognise what you don’t like will you know what to avoid in your own writing.

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