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 2018

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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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The past – so floppy and unsubstantial

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As part of that essential decluttering I had planned, I turned up a box full of old floppy discs. I hadn’t actually forgotten about them, but they haven’t crossed my mind for several years. As an archive, they are not very satisfying; I don’t think we have a device in the house that will actually run them, so their contents are locked away. Plus, I know that they only contain early versions of work that is either saved elsewhere or has been edited and rewritten, nothing lost or forgotten. If I were able to read any of it, I would probably cringe over the quality And yet they represent such productive period of my writing that I am struggling to get rid of them along with the rest of the clutter. After all, I still have all the old notebooks that I also used for writing, and I wouldn’t dream of throwing them away. And at the time, these discs were really important to me. The labelling hints at that – multiple back-ups, chapter lists, dates. After all the years of handwritten or typed work, I loved writing on a computer, but I was paranoid about losing work. Writing on a computer was so much more productive than handwritten work, but at the same time, it had the potential for bigger losses, either by human error, or the dreaded loss of a computer by theft or fire. I once even gave my fiancée a back-up disc to keep at his house in case of the worst case scenario! I am much more relaxed about it these days – or should that be complacent? All my work is now stored in the virtual cloud, available through multiple devices, and some of it openly accessible on the internet, thanks to KDP and this website. But how safe is that? There are still worst case scenarios that could extinguish all my words that are so terrifying that I don’t like to think about them. (Have you read The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell? He writes a vision of the future that is both nightmarish and believable.) All I will have left then are the notebooks and the few hard copies I ever printed out. The Most Beloved Boy has never been printed out ever; it could disappear completely, only existing in my head. But I suppose that will be the least of my problems if that ever happens. And the floppy discs will still be useless. All the same, I don’t think I will bin them yet. Maybe they can go back into the loft for another ten years.

End of term, beginning of summer

As of this week, I am a free woman. The college course I started last September is over. Two days ago, I attended the last session and handed in my portfolio. Most of it has been marked already, so barring any minor rewrites in the last unit, the work is done. And it has been a lot of work – I don’t think I did this much work for my degree! The completed portfolio, fat and chunky with all my writing, was very satisfying, and I have enjoyed putting my words to another subject I love. But now my words are my own again. I can use them how I choose and write only what I want write. What shall I do first?

Well, obviously, I am writing this blog first. Writing the blogs has been the one thing I have kept up, and I am very glad that I did. It provided a little recreation for my brain, a chance to play and explore away from the world of supporting leaching and learning. When the complications of school policies and the horrors of safeguarding got too much, there was always a blog to write. At a time when only one portfolio was important, it reminded me that I have another portfolio, a collection of work in its varying finished and unfinished states, and no-one can take that away from me. Whatever happens next in my future career, I will always be a writer, because I have written novels and have ideas for more. And now I can write my blog without feeling guilty or anxious – like now, sitting up in bed on a Saturday morning.

But what next? Well, there are still all the usual jobs to do. The house needs a good clean, the ironing pile is horrendous, there are berries growing in the garden that need turning into jam, the kids need new clothes for the summer, and old clothes must be cleared from drawers to make room for new clothes. That’s fine, I have plenty of time for those things now. I would even enjoy a marathon ironing session, with a DVD boxset, and the only thing I need to worry about is choosing between a Lord of the Rings film or working my way through Firefly again. That’s not a chore, that’s a privilege!

And of course, there are quite a few books I want to read. I usually have one or two books on the go, or three or four; even this year, I have not been able to resist. I read Portrait of a Lady to the end for the first time since I bought it when I was a student, and was very glad I did. I heard something by Matt Haig on the radio and just had to buy the book and read it for myself. And despite my good intentions of saving David Mitchell for the summer, I just couldn’t say no to Black Swan Green – but as a perfect rendition of how awful education was in the eighties, that counted as research! The last few weeks, I have been confining myself to The Famous Five, quick and easy escapism which wouldn’t distract me too much. But now I can think about the growing pile of books that I have been dutifully ignoring. After all, writers need to read just as much as they need to write.

And then? Will there still be time for writing? Yes of course, because the summer holidays are just two weeks away. Six whole weeks of freedom. It’s not just for children. Not only is it a break from work but it’s a break from the washing and ironing of school uniform, and making the packed lunches every morning, and having to nag the kids to do homework/get dressed for school/pack school bags etc. My kids are old enough now to entertain themselves during the holidays – in fact, they actually prefer it and moan when I suggest alternatives that drag them away from their devices. So this summer, I intend to let them have as much screen time as they want, so I can spend time at my laptop. I already have a plan. I need to do another edit on The Most Beloved Boy; I am aware of some mistakes in the edition on Kindle, and as I’m going to have to go through the whole novel to correct them, I will probably end up polishing up other bits as I go along. Not a rewrite, just a re-edit. I’m looking forward to it.

And if after all the ironing, reading, rewriting, there’s still any time left, I might just start writing a new novel. There is an idea that has been taking hold, another old idea that has been quietly waiting, dormant but not forgotten. Now its turn has come. I’ve been making notes, adding new plot lines, and falling in love with old characters again. Oh yes, I shall definitely find time to start writing again. It’s time to turn this little laptop back to its original purpose…

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No Such Cold Thing

In my last blog, I wrote about doing Nano Wrimo and writing a novel in thirty days. I started that thirty day challenge knowing that I was writing a novel called No Such Cold Thing, which is important because, like my earlier novel Have You Got That Book? this was another novel that started with the title. Coming up with a title for a novel that is already in progress can be quite hard, but coming up with titles for novels that are never going to be written is a speciality of mine. If I had kept a record of all those titles, it would read like a library of novels, all with such fantastic names that you would wish they had actually been written. If only there was some way of selling them to other writers – how much would you pay for a great title and the bones of a plot? Any takers?

This particular title comes from a poem. If I tell you that it is a poem called The Flower by the metaphysical poet George Herbert and was written in the early part of the 17th Century, I’m going to sound much more highbrow and learned than I have any claim to. In truth, I never really liked the metaphysical poets when they came up on my English Literature degree. I only came across the poem much later when the choir I sing with learnt a song which set the words of it to music. At one rehearsal while we were learning the song, I looked at the line “Grief melts away like snow in May, as if there were no such cold thing.” And I thought, hmm, that would make a great title for a novel.

What happened next was one of those wonderful thunderclap moments, when two ideas and one glorious coincidence all came together in perfect harmony. As I said in my previous blog, this was a time when I had finished a first draft of The Most Beloved Boy and wanted a new project. I had in mind that it would be nice to write a novel that my children could read. My eldest daughter was eleven and she loved to read, so I would write a children’s novel for her. I even had a good story to work on, an old idea gathered from my trick of turning every day events into narrative. This came from picking raspberries in the garden of my childhood home, which had inspired a story about a girl living in a big mansion, who makes friends with the gypsies who live in the grounds, and how she tries to help them stay on the land when her evil uncle wants to evict them. It was another of those old ideas that had wormed its way into my memory and clung on, getting itself written down in a notebook in 1997. It was the perfect idea for my next project, a historical novel for children.

Then came the glorious coincidence. As the choir practiced The Flower, I daydreamed about a novel called No Such Cold Thing, wondering what it might be about, and if it might fit with a historical children’s novel. I knew nothing about George Herbert, but I thought it might be nice to use the poem if I could. So I looked George Herbert up on Wikipedia and discovered that as well as having a fairly successful career as a poet, he had been a clergy man in the early decades of the 17th Century. He had been the vicar of a parish near Salisbury, and his tomb is still in the church there. It wasn’t very inspiring, except for the location. One of the key features of my story was a rural mansion, where my heroine was going to come and live following the death of her parents. If you’re thinking that sounds a bit like The Secret Garden, you’re right, it is exactly like that. But instead of Yorkshire, I saw how I could set my story in Wiltshire. It was going to be about a fictional family, but with marital connections to the Herbert family, descended from none other than George Herbert. (I made all this up too, by the way, there was minimal research involved – apologies to anyone who might actually be descended from George Herbert!) And that detail was the spark that lit this novel up. It was unbelievably perfect. The poem is about trusting in God to heal pain and grief, like the flowers that disappear in the winter but return in spring, no worse off for their sojourn underground. My fictional family, the Levinsons, are locked in grief and mourning, not able to move on from a tragedy of several decades ago. My heroine, Kitty, comes from a branch of the family that migrated to America. I decided to not make her an orphan after all, but have her come to live with her English family when her father has to go and work in Alaska. She is a plucky, intelligent girl, who loves poetry and is thrilled to discover that she is related to a famous poet. She is not so thrilled with the Levinsons; she doesn’t understand them and they don’t understand her. She is very pleased to make friends with a young gypsy boy, and takes their side in the debate about their forthcoming eviction. As heir to the house and estate, she wants them to be able to stay but knows that by the time she inherits, they will have been evicted by her uncle. Somehow, it is up to her to change her uncle’s mind.

These were the bones of plot that I began with in November 2014. The only planning I had in place were the characters. I had worked out the family tree and Kitty’s place in the chain of inheritance. I had made some slight changes to the Levinson family, establishing them as a sick great-grandfather, a stern great-aunt who had very fixed ideas about children staying seen but not heard, and I had replaced the a evil uncle with a kind but weak great-uncle. The connection to George Herbert was through the great-grandfather’s late wife. The other characters were the gypsies, a boy called Tam who Kitty befriends, and his great-grandfather, who was promised the right to camp on the land for the term of his life but now he is old and frail and the agreement ends when he dies. For Kitty, helping the gypsies seems to be linked to the mystery of what happened to the Levinson family that caused so much grief, and if she can solve that, she might just find a way to save the gypsy camp. But that was as much as I knew when I started. I honestly had no idea what the mystery was going to be, or how a twelve year-old girl was going to convince her family to change their minds and let the gypsies stay. Well, I had some ideas, but they were flimsy, like translucent ghosts, nothing more than suggestions lurking in the shadows, only glimpsed in the corner of an eye. The thing about Nana Wrimo is that you don’t have time to stop and plan. But as I wrote, the characters began to grow, and some ideas began to gain strength, naturally developing by themselves. The character of Toby, the pathetic great-uncle, took shape in ways I had never expected. I developed a back story for him that was so tragic that Kitty, and myself, couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. But then it is his grief that has caused the stagnation in the family and it his attitude that causes Kitty the most problems. He was a very interesting character to write, and creating him drove the narrative forward, as he was sometimes nice to Kitty and sometimes frustrating. His tragedy was the mystery, a simple tale of loss, not such a mystery after all. And through it all, the poem weaved its beautiful words, echoing with the themes of love and death that were emerging in the story. I even managed to combine it with Hiawatha, which American Kitty tries to teach to her new English friends. In the end, it is the poetry that guides Kitty when things seem most bleak. The pressure of writing 1666 words a day took me to a climax that could not have been more perfect if I had planned it for months. Not only did I finish Nano Wrimo with 50,000 words and a complete children’s novel, but also a novel I was extremely proud of.

And I’m happy to say that my daughter did read it, and liked it very much. At least, she said she did. Of course, it’s perfectly possible that was just being kind to her old mum, but her word was enough for me. Once she had read it, I wanted it to be available for anyone to read; even though I wrote it for children, I think it’s an interesting enough story for adults to enjoy too. It’s for sale on Kindle alongside my two adult novels. You could decide for yourself – was she just humouring me?

No Such Cold Thing – Taster

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