Why This Writer needs Company (Sometimes)

I’ve been working on my own for years now. When you’re writing a book, you have to be alone much of the time – poring over the screen for hours, hoping some magic might descend.

As a freelance journalist, there was a lot of just me, the computer and the telephone. But over the past few months, it’s started to get to me.

I missed my days of working in magazine publishing where, stood beside the kettle, we’d mull over what we did at the weekend, all while trying to find a mug with an inside free of thick brown rings.

I missed the office banter – ‘Did you see Line of Duty last night?’ The birthday cake serenades. The ‘I’ve just bought these inedible toffees back from my holiday. Want one?’

Working on my tod was becoming too quiet. Sure, quiet has its benefits: the telephone didn’t ring all that much, and no one ever asked me to read yet another proof. And sometimes I even wrote some pretty good scenes.

But an emotion had started to chisel away at me. I tried to swallow it down, but it wouldn’t disappear. God, I was lonely.

I’d begun to drag myself through the day, lethargic and easily distracted.

A friend of mine, who’s doing a PhD, told me that she works a lot in the university library, so that she can be around other people. She finds it stimulating and as a result is able to focus more; she produces better work.

I tried working in a cafe for a while. Okay, so it worked for JK Rowling, but let me tell you, when you’re sat next to a man with a perma-tan and bleach white teeth who shares his travel itinerary at full volume, it’s pretty hard to tune out. (He was a regular.)

Then another friend made a suggestion. She invited me to take a desk in her office. She runs her own business and her office is at the end of her garden. Surely though, I’d be more productive if I just carried on sitting in silence and typed. I kept on going it alone, and I kept on getting through the day as if I was wading through glue. Something had to change, so I took that desk in my friend’s office for one day last week. It’s a grand desk too – tidy, with a glass top and a pot of pens perched in the corner. It’s set in front of a window that’s surrounded by trees.

It was difficult to concentrate for the first half hour, but then I was off, typing, squinting at the screen, muttering to myself. We had a natter over tea, not a stained mug in sight. We ate our lunch together, and my friend made lots of phone calls in the background.

It worked, I wasn’t distracted. I wasn’t lethargic, and best of all, I didn’t feel lonely. I was more focused and did some decent work.

So I’m going back to that lovely desk this week. Going it alone is okay some days, but I need my fix of people.

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.

Why This Writer Needs Other Writers

I spent the first half of last year being cross at my writing. It had taken me away from people and I was beginning to feel quite isolated.

Then something started to change – my writing began to bring connection, people who I could really hear, people who energised me.

It started when an agent put me in touch with an editor. Yeah, yeah – I know lots of us have been through this, and I was cynical but decided to take a leap of faith and pay for my novel to be edited. It was a wise choice. Editor, Sara Sarre, got my book, was enthusiastic about it. Her wisdom gave me a new spark. Suddenly I felt as if I wasn’t in this alone.

And it was a magical moment in June when literary agent Rowan Lawton signed me. My face hurt, my smile was that wide.

Writing has brought me new friends too. In November, I met up with a group of writers who I knew only through Twitter. I stood outside a restaurant in Covent Garden feeling nervous before I opened the door and sat down to lunch with seven complete strangers. It was one of the highlights of my year. Forget nothing conversations about the weather; here we talked openly about our fears, our hopes, our children. And oh how we laughed.

For a long time, I’d wanted to meet gifted writer Joanna Campbell whose work I admire. In December, I got my chance at the launch of her short story collection When Planets Slip Their Tracks. Her nuggets of wisdom have stayed with me. As has her book – it is so well observed and funny and I am enjoying it immensely.

I’m ending the year feeling grateful to my writing. It’s brought me some special personalities, people who have made my life better with their thoughts and funny asides. I’ll be holed up in the writer’s cave again throughout 2017, but I intend to make regular escapes to talk about it all.

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How to Start Writing a Novel – The First Steps to a First Draft

I’m three weeks into writing my new novel. It had been so long since I wrote a first draft that I’d forgotten just how difficult it is.

For starters, there was blank page syndrome. That sickly feeling when you see your computer lurking on your desk, and all those things you do to avoid sitting in front of it. Gardening in sub-zero temperatures anyone?

My first few paragraphs didn’t have an easy birth, beset by distractions. Copious cups of tea were made. Toast was burnt. And oh, what the hell, just one more look at my emails.

Then, falteringly, somehow I hit 31,000 words. 31,000 rough words that I wouldn’t want anyone to read just yet. But still….

For me – starting is the hardest part. And in starting, it all came back to me. So here are three steps that have kept me on the straight and narrow and stopped me staring aimlessly into space.

Step One: Make a Plan then Make Another One

I scribbled a rough plan of the whole book before I started to write. Once I’d started, the story began to take its own shape, so I tore up my plan and wrote a new one, detailing the dramatic peaks of the story and the development of my characters. If I was an organised kind of person, I’d pin this new plan to the wall, but every time I start writing again, there’s a snowstorm of papers as I riffle through the mounds to find it. (Note to self – buy some Blu Tack.

Step Two: Research then Research Some More

I did a lot of research before I started to write -newspaper cuttings, lectures, speaking to an in-the-know friend. And I’ve punctuated my writing with doing yet more research. Reading about the subject at the centre  of my novel is helping to make the writing more authentic. It informs character development and sets off new ideas too.

Step Three: Write one Character at a Time then Rewrite and Repeat

My novel has two points of view, so I’ve started by writing one character in her entirety. That way, I might get more of a handle on her essence, on how she reacts to things, the way she speaks. She started off as a Victoria, transformed into a Kate and now she’s someone else entirely. Once I’ve finished writing her, I’ll rewrite her all over again hopefully turning her into a really strong character. Next it’ll be over to my second character. After that, I’ll start piecing their narratives together and work on pace.

Right, I’m going back in…..

 

5 Things to Know about Writing your First Draft

‘You’re an old hand.’

‘You must know what you’re doing by now.’

These are just two of the things my friends have cajoled me with this week while I’ve done everything in my power (and some things that were beyond my power – let’s not mention unscrewing the U-bend of that blocked sink) to avoid starting the first draft of my next novel.

You see, it’s been a while since I faced the dreaded blank page. Back in December 2010, I started typing my first novel only to get lost in a crowd of superfluous characters. Then there was that literary flirtation with the love story in 2014 (the one with the unmentionably pretentious title – breaks off here to delete all blog post references to it). And last year I began the first draft of my third book, The Maid’s Room, which, aided by a detailed plan, flowed well.

This next manuscript will be my fourth novel and I have to confess I’m a bit scared. To quell my concerns I’m reverting to what works best for me, writing a detailed plan on a piece of A3 paper. At the top of it, I’ve scrawled DRIVE and INTRIGUE and CHARACTER ARCS inside helpful squiggly clouds to urge me to stay on course. And yesterday was a good day, I finished with 3,074 words.

Whether you’re taking part in National Novel Writing Month or going it alone, here are some first draft nuggets to remind you (and me) how it’s done.

  1. Don’t stress about the future. If you’ve done this novel writing malarkey before, chances are you’re inhibited by what lies ahead. The agent rejections. Will this ever get published? It all comes tumbling in, so that you might end up shutting down your blank page and looking at Facebook instead. Well, don’t. Stop thinking big. Just plonk yourself in front of the computer and type. I’m aiming for 1,000 words a day. But if you’re taking part in National Novel Writing Month, you’ll be going 1,000 better than me. 2,000, ladies and gentlemen.
  2. Do write rubbish. The first draft can’t be anything else, can it? You don’t know your cast of characters yet. They’ll probably be acting in a way that will end up contrary to their later, more fully-formed selves. And the voices might be clunky. Just keep on tapping those keys though and the characters should eventually start to take shape.
  3. Don’t go back and edit. Not too much anyway. Let me just mention my pretentious novel again here. I ended up with 70,000 words that might have been coiffured and polished to the max, but that didn’t stop them causing a catatonic state in one of my liveliest friends. I’d wasted so much time titivating along the way that I hadn’t seen the glaringly obvious; the book was drivel. This time I’m going to leave the editing to the end. This draft isn’t about perfection after all; it’s about making it up the mountain.
  4. Do turn up. Tidy your desk. Pop a couple of inspirational books on top of it, so you can read some pages to spur you on. My chosen one is Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey. I’m not writing a love story, but reading Grey’s flowing and immersive narrative puts me in the right mood. Make a deal with yourself not to get distracted. I try to write for an hour before I allow myself to get up and make a cup of tea. I became absorbed in writing The Maid’s Room – I’d get up early and write late into the night. The more you write, the more you want to write, and the better the writing gets.
  5. Don’t isolate yourself completely. Because a) you’ll develop twitchy eye syndrome, and b) you’ll stop writing well. Go to the party. Attend that book launch. Listen to your friends talk their hearts out. Seeing people will energise you and make your characters sing. You might even find a new subplot.

Right, I’m going in again. Are you?

Word-ometer: (as of Thursday 17th November) 28,267.

6 Reasons Why I Stop Reading Novels

I give up on books if they’re too hardgoing. There was a time when I’d persevere. I did an English Literature degree and wouldn’t have got through Tristram Shandy or Ulysses without a bucketload of stoicism. But now I’m done with difficult.

My most recent read is a bestseller; copies of it are piled on tables all over Waterstones, and this is the worst part, someone recommended it to me – always a guilt inducer that, but 150 pages into it, I’m bailing out.

I have a short attention span. I’m easily bored. If a television series doesn’t suck me in from the get-go, I switch off. Conversations about the weather make me zone out, and as for books – there’s a pile of them that I’m taking to the local charity bookshop because they just didn’t do it for me. Page 150 is my benchmark. If nothing’s happened by then, count me gone.

Reading is an intensely personal thing, of course. One of my favourite authors, for instance, five-starred my latest abandoned read on Goodreads. And a close author friend of mine couldn’t stand one of my favourite books. But as I start writing another novel, I wanted to figure out why I give up reading certain books.

So here they are – six reasons why I end up a quitter

1 Lack of action

I need something to happen. Don’t get me wrong, I love patient books like Stoner, but if the book meanders without any sense of purpose, to me it’s the equivalent of downing a couple of diazepam – except that’d probably be slightly more enjoyable. Slow books make me grumpy. They make me say things like, ‘Christ, why won’t somebody die or something?’ If there’s no action, for the sake of my sanity, I just have to give up.

2 Dull characters

The most memorable books are ones with emotionally deep characters. I’m name dropping Olive Kitteridge all over the place at the moment. What a woman. I want to connect with a character. I don’t necessarily need to like her, but I do need to understand her. And if she or he makes me groan with boredom, well, it’s time to call it a day.

3 Outlandish plot

Weird shit happens, doesn’t it? Life is full of coincidences/ gifts from the gods – and I do like to stretch my imagination, but ask me to stretch it too far and my elastic tends to break. That’s probably why I’m not a massive fan of psychological thrillers, but then that’s just me. I like a fantastic story with a hint of truth to it.

4 Too many characters

When there’s a cast of characters so big that I have to jot them all down on a piece of paper, they quite often get diluted and dull because of it. A smaller cast with more emotional depth and I’m one happy page-turner.

5 Lacklustre voice

Sometimes I just don’t connect with the voice. Perhaps I find it a bit old-fashioned or riddled with cliche or maybe it’s trying to be too clever for its own good. Sometimes it’s chemistry – a voice just doesn’t jive with me.

6 Tension vacuum

I like a book with mood, a beautiful bit of description so we are know where we’re at (but not too much description or I’ll Zzzzzzz). Simplicity is key to begin with, a steady thickening of the plot. Oh, and make sure I know that the stakes are high, give me the sense that something’s at risk and I’ll stick around.

So 4,000 words into writing my new novel and I’m remembering just what a huge ask all of this is. But I’m up for the challenge. (Gets out INTO the Woods – How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them by John Yorke and furrows brow……

(Image courtesy of Unsplash)

4 Tips to Create Powerful Voices for your Characters

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, a short or a full-length novel, voice is the lifeblood of your work. You might have all the elements of a great story – a dazzling twist, an arc to rival a rainbow – but if you haven’t got a voice that mesmerises, your story will be drowned out by dull.

I’m reading  Glorious Heresies at the moment – and the riotous voice is fair shaking me up and demanding I listen. It’s pushed me right into the mess that’s Maureen clobbering some bloke over the head with a holy stone and killing him.

A week ago, I polished off Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. The voice of the flawed yet deeply loveable Olive is so believable, so sturdy that my race to read was slowed only by me underlining far too many sentences.

Mind you, just thinking about books like these can be really daunting while your characters-in-the-making are as quiet as the tele with the sound turned down.

Voice is hugely important, says writer Joanna Campbell. ‘If the theme is the hinge and the plot is the oil keeping it in smooth motion, it is the “voice” which opens the door.’

When writing, Joanna lets the character call the shots and write the story for her. ‘I never plan ahead anymore or work out a plot. On the occasions I have tried to do so, the story has rarely succeeded.’

But how the heck do you find your character’s voice? Here are four tips to jumpstart your search.

1. Scribble some character details

Get yourself started by writing stream of consciousness details about your character. Is she a good sleeper? How does she take her tea? What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to her? Whose calls does she ignore? What gets on her nerves most? You’re getting closer…. Now off that mute button and have a stab at making her speak.

2. Do some research

That voice is playing silly devils and isn’t arriving on the page? Do some research around your story. So it’s about a woman who finds out she was snatched from her birth mother while still a baby -assemble some comparable real-life stories. Reading them might just coax your character into conversation.

3. Start typing and see what happens

Does the voice sound real and right to you? If not, regroup and try again. Words aren’t wasted, they just bring you closer to the characters waiting in the wings of your mind. Writing’s full of false starts after all. When I wrote my Bristol Prize story Black Lines about a Honduran boy crossing the US/Mexico border, I originally wrote my first page as a gay male teenager. 500 words in, it became apparent to me, the lad needed to be a lot younger. I started writing again and this time he spoke right into my typing fingers.

4. Shift the perspective

I’d been having a love affair with first person for years. Working as a writer for women’s weekly mags, I’d interview people with all manner of stories and write them up in first person. God, how I loved it. What I didn’t love so much was reading it back to the interviewees. The woman who’d answered yes and no to most of my questions read like Homerton’s answer to Barbara blooming Cartland. But still, first person and me, we prevailed. It’s always my first port of call with short stories. And then my novel happened. First person was trapping me in the characters’ heads; I’d ended up using their thoughts to steer the reader instead of showing action and writing dialogue. Rewriting the whole thing in third person has made the novel punchier and more powerful.

I’ve been playing a long game of hide and seek with the voices of the characters in my novel, but at last I’ve found them. And now it’s time to start creating another cast for my new novel; back to step 3 then…..

 

 

Trying to Write Like Your Favourite Author? Just DON’T do it

I tried quite hard to be Evie Wyld for a while. Instead of becoming a contender for the Betty Trask Award, what I ended up with was the sleepy novel equivalent of downing half a bottle of whisky with your Nytol. In a word, it was crap.

The husband falling asleep with an early draft of it on top of his face, and a successful novelist friend of mine saying, ‘The thing is, I really preferred your other book,’ failed to convince me that something was wrong. I carried on buffeting my female protagonist with dramatic gale-force winds and filling my hero’s mouth with histrionic piffle.

But finally I realised why, when I spoke about that book, all my friends tried to change the subject, and I went back to book one – the one set in motion by reading a Maggie O’Farrell book. The one that had ground to a halt because it wasn’t quite Maggie O’Farrell enough.

I ripped the whole thing up and started again and this time my head didn’t scream. ‘For God’s sake, it’s a lesser Anita Shreve.’ The words, ‘You’re not good enough to be the next Kate Atkinson’ didn’t repeat like a CD with a scratch down its centre. No, I just wrote.

Somewhere along the line, I’d shaken off the need to try and be a writer other than myself, and I ended up writing my heart across 330 pages. I think I might just have found my own writing style now. It can take years to find it, but let’s be honest, even when you do find it, it’s a slippery thing. Sometimes it turns up to do the hours; other times it slides through your fingers.

My short story collection this year is a case in point. It’s been a neglected thing – what with trying to find an agent and all – but I did complete two shorts. One didn’t work out – I loved the concept and the twist, but the voice was too weak, too damn depressing. And my other story did work out, I guess. Sea Gift is a contender in this year’s Bristol Prize.

But the point is, writing without constraint, without thinking ‘I need to be as good as ……..[insert name of favourite author here], well, it’s full of possibilities and sometimes gleans grand results.

So as I stare at the blank page again – I’m about to start writing another book – I’m going to remind myself of this and take another gamble.

From Rejection to Representation – 6 Steps to Landing a Literary Agent

Well, I have to admit my head is spinning. After more than three years of trying to hook a literary agent, Rowan Lawton is now representing me, and I am beyond delighted.

If you’re looking for representation, or smarting from yet another rejection letter, please don’t switch off. I’ve had some major disappointments since my first rejection letter in January 2013, but somehow I just kept writing.

I’ve kept most of my rejections in a folder called Novel. (It should really be called Novels, since I’ve written three of the things.) There have been highs – being shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize in 2014, for example, when writers and publishing bods including organiser Joe Melia said some lovely things about my work. (I tucked these away for dark days.) And there have been lows. At one point, five agents were reading a full manuscript, but all of them turned me down.

When I look back though, the extreme lows, the moments that hit me hardest were the turning points – not that I knew that then. My ego was battered purple, and just a tiny frazzle of hope remained – but I kept going and at the moment, I am so thankful that I did.

Here are my six wobbly steps to getting representation (I fell over several times):

Step 1: Write the Damn Book

I didn’t do a creative writing course; I got five books out of the library about how to write a novel, and started reading them. A shame then that I didn’t take enough notice of them. I scribbled down a theme and two flagpole events then started typing. I wrote 1,000 words a day. And two years later, in 2012, I had a book. It was riddled with telling instead of showing, and it had more tangents than the human circulatory system.

Step 2: Enter a Competition

I entered my novel, Out of the Cupboard, into a debut novel competition. And fist pumps and high pitched ‘yessing’ – it was longlisted. It went on to be shortlisted and read by a panel of literary agent judges including Rowan. I didn’t win, but to my amazement, Rowan wanted to meet me. A few months later in September 2013, we met up and Rowan gave me her editorial thoughts on my book. She read the book again after I’d made changes, and boom – she rejected me. I was never going to get another chance like this, never, I told myself. I buried the book on my computer and decided to write a second one.

Step 3: Write a Second Book

Clearly upmarket women’s commercial fiction wasn’t my genre, I thought. Inspired by Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, I began writing a dark and moody literary love story. Meanwhile I was shortlisted in the 2014 Bristol Short Story Prize with a panel of judges, including Rowan. My story was entered anonymously and although it didn’t win, it was published in the anthology. I went down to the prize ceremony in Bristol where I pitched my second novel to Rowan who said she’d love to take a look.

However I then decided that this book didn’t make the grade. I excavated book one and started working on it all over again. Things began to look up when another agent requested the full, using words like ‘brilliant’ and ‘wonderful.’ Then two other agents requested the full. This is it, I thought. Trouble was all of them turned it down. One added that, for her, it was too bleak and one of the characters was too wet. Goddamn it, I’d failed again. Even my eternally optimistic husband was lost for words. However, this was a turning point.

Step 4: Write a Third Book

There was nowhere else to go with this book. I spent three days thinking about how unfair life was. And then, you know how it goes, an idea dripped in, followed by another and another. I got out a blank sheet of A3 paper and started plotting. There were columns and thought bubbles, and notes in the margin. I met up with my journalist friend, Lucy, for lunch, pulled out my A3 sheet and subjected her to the equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation while she chomped on her quinoa. She dabbed her mouth with a serviette and when she pulled it away, she was smiling. ‘I like it,’ she said.

I wrote The Maid’s Room, in a matter of months. To my delight, I was shortlisted again in the 2015 Bristol Short Story Prize and several literary agents contacted me through Twitter to request a look at my third book. One in particular seemed extremely interested in it. I contacted Rowan once again and was really surprised when she asked to see the full manuscript. There were five agents now reading it. One by one the rejections arrived. They all said much the same thing. They enjoyed my book, but the narrative wasn’t quite taut enough, the pacing wasn’t right. I was lost, and low, the lowest I’d ever been about my writing. (This was another turning point.)

Step 5: Find a Fantastic Editor

I was sitting on the floor with my back against the radiator writing a freelance health piece when I decided to open one of the rejection letters and read it again. There’s nothing like torturing yourself, right? In it, the agent said she could recommend an editor to me. I’d had my first and second book edited though and it still hadn’t got me an agent. Oh, what the hell?! I replied, saying that yes, I’d love a recommendation. And that’s when I met Sara Sarre. She read my book in two days, and said that she thought it was really strong then cut to the chase – I’d only started the story halfway through the book and two of my main characters had no arc. I wrote, and rewrote while Sara mentored me – going well beyond the call of duty. Sara read my book three times in all, and finally said the magic words. ‘You’ve nailed it and I think it’s brilliant.’

Step 6: Submit Only when the Book is Ready

I sent the full book to Rowan and initial submissions to three other agents. Two of them requested a full. Ten days later, an email from Rowan arrived. I read the last line first, but there was no brush off. Rowan wanted to meet me and talk about representation. My hands were shaking, and I said, ‘Oh my God!’ quite a lot. It was a blurry-headed moment. A few days later in a cafe close to the Furniss Lawton offices in central London, I met up with Rowan. She gave me some more editorial suggestions for my book then talked about her high hopes for it.

I’m realistic; I know this is just the beginning, but all those late nights and early mornings, all that rejection, well, it was worth it. Because finally I’ve found an agent who believes in me and my work. So please keep writing – because those dreadful down days really can lead to something good.

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.