Have You Got More Than One Story in You? #writing

Suffering from a major book hangover after reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, I started a new book in a grouchy, this’ll-never-match-up kind of mood. My Name is Lucy Barton didn’t disappoint in the end, but it’s this line that has made a dent in me.

‘“You will have only one story,” she had said. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

Do you have only one story? I think I might be guilty…

All my short stories, my debut novel, The Maid’s Room, and my second novel have things in common. Overseas settings. Tick. Writing about outsiders. Tick. And something else – all of them are an examination of the relationship between mothers and their children. I don’t just mean between the woman who gives birth and her offspring; I write about women who can’t give birth, the women who don’t want to, the connections they forge with other people which are just as deep and unbreakable as the ones they might have had with sons and daughters. I write about absent mothers, about father figures, about any parental set-up that isn’t 2.4 kids.

I’ve got an idea for a third book and it will be extremely difficult to pull off. Indeed I’ve told a couple of friends about it, and they’ve advised me to steer clear. Yet it’s an idea that I can’t stop thinking about, so perhaps it’s the one to go with. And yes – that too is about a mother and child.

For me, Elizabeth Strout is dead on – I am writing my story in many different configurations.

I once wrote a novel (I can’t even bring myself to say the title now, it was that pretentious) about an oil rig worker. I spent about a year on it, reworking it, and telling myself that this was the one that was going to get me an agent. It didn’t. It did have it’s moments, but it was the most deluded piece of writing I’ve ever produced. It was also the only time in the six and a half years that I’ve been writing fiction that I veered off my parental obsession. When I gave it to my husband to read, he fell asleep on the sofa with the pages fanned over his face. That will be the last time I write about oil rig workers.

So I’m going to stop berating myself about having a single story now. I feel like the brilliant Elizabeth Strout has given me permission.

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Digging Deep for the Second Draft #novel #writing

This next bit’s going to be painful, but it’s my favourite part. I’ve written the first draft of my novel, and am about to embark on my second.

This is when the characters will take shape, but for that to happen, I’m going to have to get into their heads and feel what they’re feeling. Flinging yourself over a six-foot-high wall to save someone’s life? I’m in. Finding out your husband’s told you a huge lie? Yep – here I come.

Switch on FaceTime by mistake in the middle of this draft and I’ll see my own brow knitted, or my lip curled into a snarl. It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s essential.

This is method acting for writers. I’m going to be a 43-year-old woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, an Italian man who’s a cross between Benicio del Toro and my friend’s husband, and an elderly man paralysed down his left side.

I’m going to have to dig deep. Imagination, yes; a bad mood, most probably; yet another frown line, you bet. And masses of research.

This time around I’ll be rewriting and editing with this word on replay: Emotion. Emotion. Emotion.

10 Tips to Nail your First Chapter #writing

First chapters count for a lot. Bookshop browsers may start by reading the blurb, but the chances are they’ll dip into the first chapter to see whether they like the writing style. And with book openers available to read on Amazon, your first chapter really needs to impress. That goes for unagented authors too – the submissions package usually involves sending in the first three chapters, so a stunning opener is vital. Here are 10 ideas to make your first chapter sing.

1. Start in the Right Place

Don’t start too early into your story – we don’t want ten meandering chapters of description. Draw your reader in from the beginning with a powerful tipping incident, some terrible dilemma or temptation. If you have a suspicion your novel isn’t quite working, ask yourself this: are you starting in the right place?

2. Introduce Conflict

Conflict can be exciting, and it’s always engaging. Inject conflict into your first chapter and readers won’t be able to resist your work. Joanna Barnard’s Precocious had than effect on me – a married young woman bumps into the teacher she had an affair with when she was a school girl. The same goes for Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. The mother of a gangster accidentally kills an intruder with a religious ornament. Let me at it!

3. Add Mystery

Throw in some question marks and you’ll get your reader turning the pages to find out what the hell is going on. After all, everyone loves a mystery. Why is your character lying to her husband about where she’s going tonight for instance? What is in that letter marked to be opened only in the event of my death. (The Husband’s Secret) by Liane Moriarty). Mystery rocks however subtle it is.

4. Make the Reader Care about your Characters

Does your character go around killing drug dealers? Does she rescue refugees from overcrowded camps? Is she battling anxiety, but climbs on to stage most nights to do her stand up comedian routine anyway? Make your reader root for your character. Make her quest a major one, invite your reader in for the ride and make her stay for the long haul.

5. Treat it Like a Writing Competition Entry

Edit and then edit some more. Get rid of all your saggy bits. This chapter mustn’t go on for a beat too long, so get busy red-penning. Come back to it at intervals and reread. Kill some more darlings if you have too. Perfect it until you reckon it’s good enough to win a writing competition.

6. Make Your Writing Brilliant

Your writing should pack several punches here. Make it confident, avoid cliche and beautify. Don’t freak out if it’s hitting a few bum notes to start with – go over it, tighten it, change it up.

7. Include Dialogue

Give your characters a voice. Making them speak tells your reader a lot about their personalities, and dialogue is super easy to read. Reams of prose on a page can be off-putting, but put some dialogue in, and the text looks as if it’s going to give you space to breathe.

8. Banish Backstory

Don’t give us 1,000 words on how your character was brought up in the suburbs of London and was bullied at school. Zzzzzzzzz. We want immediacy. Back story comes later in your book.

9. Show your Theme

Your theme should be evident somewhere in this first chapter: grief; a haunting; motherhood; the pursuit of joy. And don’t forget mood either. What do you want your reader to feel – is it a funny book with a huge moral centre? Is it glossy and feel-good? What kind of writer are you? Let your reader know.

10. Write a Killer First Line

For a reader, a killer first line is like an itch; you can’t ignore it. It might be an odd idea, a question or a weird situation.

The first line of Claire Fuller’s forthcoming Swimming Lessons, ‘Gil Coleman looked down from the window and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below,’ makes me want to buy it as soon as it’s published in January 2017. And I just knew I was going to love The Other Me by Saskia Sarginson when I read the opening line, ‘I have no experience of killing anything.’ Sometimes it’s simpler though: a quiet line of beauty which gives such a strong sense of mood, it makes me want to keep reading.

I wrote this post after spending a lot of time re-editing the first chapter of my novel. It had got a bit loose around the edges, so the action took too long to start. I’ve tidied and titivated and slashed out superfluous words. My first chapter has gone under the knife more than any other part of my book. #KeepWriting.

Should You Write the Synopsis BEFORE You Write the Book?

I’m about to start writing book two. The characters are churning in my subconscious and I’m storing up real-life personalities and moments to be regurgitated later.

My story’s come from sticking two ideas together – one, taken from a newspaper cutting, the other, something that a friend is going through. The subjects fascinate me and have the potential to keep me gripped for the year it’s going to take to write the book.

A year?!  Who am I kidding, right? My first novel, The Maid’s Room, has taken me five years to finish – (it was abandoned on the laptop for a lot of that time, mind you). Three weeks ago, I started submitting it again. (Fingers, toes and other relevant parts of anatomy are well and truly crossed.)

One of the reasons my first novel took so long to write is that I was a greenhorn – I had no idea what my writing style was. And when a helpful literary agent met up with me and said, ‘You need to show not tell,’ I replied, ‘Oh, of course!’ a disguise of a smile wiped across my face; I hadn’t the foggiest what she was talking about.

I’m no expert now, but I do know more.

And one mistake I’m not going to repeat is leaving the synopsis to the end. I’ve already written it for my second novel. I know I’ll veer off it, that I’ll change my mind about things. But setting the story within the framework of a synopsis is a reassurance that this new book might just work.

It contains the following three features that are essential for any book:

1 The story starts in the right place.

Put your characters in an inciting incident in your opening scenes. That way, you’ll reduce the chances of a literary agent telling you, ‘I didn’t fall into your narrative.’ Writer: Take hold of the agent’s ear and drag her over the story’s precipice.

2 Characters have arcs.

By the end of your novel, your main characters should have gone through a change. They should be different at the end to the way they were at the beginning.

3 Characters are at risk.

How are your characters in jeopardy? Show how great the risks are. Don’t let the tension and drive go slack.

15 Surefire Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

You know those days – the ones when you’ve set aside a stretch of time to write, but the words won’t come. You type The, then press the delete button and start riffling through your cupboard for a biscuit to dunk in your tea. The muse isn’t striking and no amount of Googling your own name or scrolling through Twitter is going to urge it in your direction.

Sweep away the crumbs from your keyboard and stop listening to that deranged voice inside your head saying I JUST CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE!!!! because here’s how to reboot your creative streak.

 

1 Write Crap

Everything’s a bit rubbish to start with isn’t it? It’s the editing that polishes it up and turns it into a thing of beauty. Even if you’ve spent three hours on something that reads like a legal contract, hunker down because magic could be about to fly your way. Take it from Maya Angelou. ‘What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks “the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.” And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, “Okay. Okay. I’ll come.”’

2 Stop Worrying

Okay, so it’s awful, but chill, no one apart from you is ever going to see this first attempt. ‘All writing problems are psychological problems,’ says novelist Erica Jong. ‘Blocks usually stem from the fear of being judged. If you imagine the world listening, you’ll never write a line.’ So write your first draft as if no one will ever see it.

3 Start in the Middle

Don’t fret over an opening paragraph, start in the middle instead. Write any scene or moment that comes to you. Keep doing that and the beginning and end will arrive. The same goes with plans. Start typing down ideas and plot lines will start sewing together on that previously-blank page.

4 Put Pen to Paper

So the bright, white Word document looks deadlier than a black hole? So get your old notebook out, or even better, a new one. ‘Writing on a computer can be terribly distracting,’ says Zadie Smith. ‘So sometimes I like to use a pencil and paper to jot down ideas.’

5 Create a Space

Nope, it’s still not happening for you. So step away from the screen. ‘Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise,’ says Hilary Mantel. ‘Whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.’ Go refresh that cold cup of tea and dunk another biscuit.

6 Be Inspired by Photographs

Take a look at Pinterest and Unsplash for beautiful imagery that might just spark off an idea. Try creating a mood board for your story or novel on Pinterest. Then write a small descriptive piece about one of the photographs as a way into your story.

7 Go on a Journey

That’s what travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux did when he ran out of ideas for novels. ‘I recommend to people, if you’re out of ideas, go away. Go somewhere. Go look for a story.’ Walk, get on a train, go for a bike ride.

8 Get some Cafe Culture

Get away from your desk, and take up residence in your local cafe. Novelist Elizabeth Day loves going to cafes to write fiction. ‘I find it really helpful to be surrounded by the buzz of other people,’ she told Mslexia.

9 Watch a Documentary

If you’re trudge to the high street hasn’t inspired you, switch on the television and watch something factual. Even if you don’t find a subject you want to write about, you might spot something in the margins of that programme – a person, a feeling, something unexplored.

10 Work on an Ideas File

Read news and features. If a story resonates with you, rip it out and push it into an ideas file. Note down interesting situations or conversations and pop them in there too. Then whenever you’re floundering, you’ll have ideas on tap.

11 Match Ideas

So you want to write about a Chilean fire brigade, but can’t think of where to go with it. Get reading and searching for a second idea and combine the two. That’s what writer Tania Hershman does. ‘What I actively do now is collide two ideas together, very often a scientific one with something else I have been thinking about, and see what results,’ she says.

‘I have been known to read two things at the same time—say, a New Scientist article and an article on something entirely different in another magazine—just to mess with my head and produce something new. Messing with my own head is an intrinsic part of my process!’

12 Read an Excerpt from your Favourite Book

Open a beloved book on a random page and read. Read the opening chapters of a handful of other books too. I keep seven favourite books beside my computer, so I can dip in when I’m stuck.

13 Do Fake Research

For inspiration, Evie Wyld reads up on something that interests her like ghosts. ‘I love real life ghost stories,’ she told Mslexia. ‘I suppose I am trying to understand something primal, what makes us afraid, fall in love, unkind; what makes us human.’

14 Read obituaries

A history of someone’s incredible life? Let it absorb you. Sadly, there’s been all too many of those this year. 2016 has not been kind…..

15 Google

(But not your own name. OBVI) If you have a vague idea turn it into an informed one by reading as much as you can about the subject. Immerse yourself in it then give writing another go.

 

Writers: Why rejection is good for you

A rejection letter ruins my day. And the closer I seem to get to finding an agent, the more those letters sting.

But rejection has an unexpected edge. It makes your work better.

Every time I get a rejection from a literary agent, I’m crumpled. The words, It’s not fair! kick through my head in a silent, red-faced tantrum. I find it hard to lift a smile. Everything seems heavy.

But my mope always sends me back to the screen. How can I make this thing sing? I try again.

Rejection shakes your work up; it fine-tunes it. It reimagines and reshapes things. It helps you create something a hundred times better than what’s been given the big thumbs down.

But God does it hurt.

There’s a world of difference between the amateur book that I first submitted three years ago. The story is different, the title too. Many darlings have been murdered, but not forgotten. All that telling rather than showing has been rooted out and shoved onto the slag heap.

But it was only by going back to that really rather rubbish book and sending it out again, that it got a new life.

A rejection letter from a literary agent has led me to a brilliant editor and mentor who’s helped me write a book with all the things that were missing from that first attempt. Pace, tension, character arcs – things I’d hadn’t even realised weren’t there. It was only by sending out my book again and getting rejected over and over that I found her.

She (and me) thinks my book is just about ready – one more scene to write, two more proofreads and then ping – I’m hoping that this book might earn itself a new R word. Representation.

Writing Competitions – Why Bother?

It’s there in black and white, the longlist and your name’s not on it. The disappointment sinks you. That voice starts nagging at your ear. ‘You’re fooling yourself about this writing malarkey; you must be, else you’d be up there too.’

Somehow you manage to scrape your fried-egg-ego off the floor and force yourself to start typing something new.

Unknown

Why do we do it, eh? Why do we waste 8 quid, 10 quid, sometimes 25 quid when, with more and more people entering writing competitions, we stand such a miniscule chance of being one of the chosen few.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence – what writer hasn’t? – but getting placed in this year’s Writers’ and Artists’ Short Story Competition was just the way to do it, I reckon. Enter the story then completely forget about the date that the results are revealed. I found out that my story Antelope had made the final 19 when another writer Tweeted me to tell me.

That’s so rarely the way it happens, right? I mean, how can you score through a date that’s so firmly etched into your brain?

So when the big day arrives and you discover your name’s not on the longlist, resist the urge to whack yourself over the head with a saucepan for not being quite good enough. Maybe you are, but if your work doesn’t strike a chord with the early readers in competitions, you’re out. Maybe you almost got through – who knows? – or maybe you just don’t have the same writing tastes as the judges.

Case in point – last year I was lucky enough to be in the Bristol Short Story Prize shortlist. Here’s a confession – I entered the same story, albeit a much shorter version, into the Yeovil Prize, and it wasn’t even placed. Even though, I like that story so much better than the one which Yeovil commended me for back in 2013.

BRISTOL PRIZE PIC

It’s all about your audience. So this year, right back at you, Yeovil; I’m hitting you with something new.

In fact, I’ve got that many short stories up my sleeve now, I’ve got one for every UK competition that’s going. Only I’m not going to enter everything – there’s only so much disappointment a girl can take.

So why bother entering anything at all – because being placed occasionally really does help to silence your own self-doubt, for a while at least. And it’s a small voice of encouragement that you might just be doing something right.

Eat.WriteOneWord.MakeTea.Repeat.

Writer’s block. Here’s how it goes:

1) I’ve got five hours free and I’m sat in front of the computer with the compulsion to write a short story. There are colourful characters brewing, but no plot, no twist, no spark.

Make cup of tea number two.

2) Google writer’s block and find these quotes:

‘Writer’s block, I just drove around it four times. All my favorite writers live there.’ Jarod Kintz

‘I don’t get writer’s block. I get writer has too many ideas and doesn’t know which one to start next, block.’ Tyler Hojberg.

Yep, Tyler, now you come to mention it, I have got ideas for short stories – one fully formed with a twist and everything – and other vague ideas.

Make cup of tea number three. Clean bathroom sink.

3) Read two stories on the Costa Short Story Award website, both of them stunning, but The Glassblower’s Daughter felt so deft and complete that I’m now feeling the pressure just a little bit more.

Watch five minutes of a documentary I’ve already seen in the hope it might send ideas fireworking my way. It doesn’t. Drum fingers.

4) Oh what the hell, I try and cover two jobs at once by writing a short story using the unformed character of my unwritten third novel. I write 1,800 words and some of them are really quite good. But it’s not the blooming Glassblower’s Daughter, is it?

Make cup of tea number four. Take all the utensils out of a kitchen drawer and vacuum the accumulated crumbs. Wipe down. And breath……

5) Google writer’s block AGAIN and find this:

‘I don’t think that writer’s block exists really. I think that when you’re trying to do something prematurely, it just won’t come. Certain subjects just need time. You’ve got to wait before you write about them.’ Joyce Carol Oates.

Right, that’s it then, Joyce, I’m off for another cup of tea and some more cleaning.

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Asking your husband to read your work – the literary equivalent of ‘Does my bum look big in this?’

Ding! Ding! It’s round two of the second novel. With the whole thing written, it’s time for an initial read by someone other than me. As ever, my first reader is my husband. He reads everything I’ve written – from short story to novel – all 92,000 words of the first book, not once, not twice, but three times.

I have just passed him the first seven chapters of the second novel. I know, I know, every book about How to Write a Novel tells you not to go there. ‘Don’t, under any circumstances, get your husband/wife/girlfriend/boyfriend to read your work.’ Because, duty bound, they’ll tell you what you want to hear. Right? Well, that’s all very well. But if you’re not part of a writing group, who can you ask?

I’ve exhausted all of my go-to people with the first book. And I mean exhausted. Each of them gave it their all: Coffee cups shook in hands, red wine moustaches were painted on upper lips as verdicts were delivered and notes were made. I felt for them, I really did. It was a big ask.

So while it might not be the done thing – my husband is now sitting on the floor surrounded by a fan of paper that has a shot of being my first published book. My voice has become unusually high-pitched and my eyebrow is arched in a question mark. I’m saying a silent prayer: Please husband, reader and chief book critic – like the damn book – will you? 

Because here’s the thing – he will tell me if he’s dubious about what I’ve written. Short stories have been frowned at, floors have been paced and things have been said such as, ‘It’s just a bit crap, isn’t it?’

What’s the point of delusion, after all?

Yes, he’s feeling the pressure. Yes, there is no right answer. And yes, I’m going to be a bit peeved if he doesn’t like it. But you’ve got to start somewhere. And this is only the start. Next comes a massive edit by a professional editor. And then, ping, off the book will go to an agent or two or twenty two or….. Nope, don’t even think it! This is just the beginning.

Can someone please turn my MS into a real book?

Can someone please turn my MS into a real book?

What it’s like to attend an Awards Ceremony for Writers

Full Crew BSSP

Bristol Prize writers, judges, speakers and co-ordinator Joe Melia

I had no idea what I’d let myself in for when I accepted my invitation to the Bristol Prize Awards Ceremony. What would the atmosphere be like? Would we have to stand on a stage with shining spotlights turned off one by one until the winner was announced?

Inside the vast space of Bristol’s Spike Island gallery last night, the air was fat with nerves – or maybe that was just me. I picked up a glass of wine from the table and hand aquiver, I just about baptized myself with Sauvignon Blanc.

Sip. Slurp. Gulp.

Bristol Prize co-ordinator Joe Melia talked us writers through what was about to happen.

‘This is all about celebrating your writing,’ he said. Some of the tension fell away.

Here was a bunch of writers at different stages in their careers – a published novelist, a creative writing tutor and others who, like me, are just at the beginning.

So much to talk about. Do you ask friends to read your work? Have you got an agent? And, and, and….

And then it was time for the show.

Images of the stunning designs submitted for the anthology cover flashed onto the wall. The Mayor of Bristol stood up to speak, followed by novelist Patricia Ferguson.

And then came the moment of judgement. Would my name be in the winning three? Hands white-tight on the side of the chair, breath held, the names of the runners up were read out. Three, four, five. I heard my name. I hadn’t won. Was I upset? Disappointed? No way – at last I could breathe again, high on my prize – my first ever piece of published fiction – The Colour of Mud.

Big congratulations to winner Mahsuda Snaith and to all the other writers in the anthology. Didn’t we have some party?!

The evening was a highlight of my year – inspiring chats with authors, an agent, and all the lovely people at the Bristol Prize.