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Archive for the tag “writing”

Do you have a distracted writer in your life?

decisionsThere’s nothing worse than indecision. It is debilitating, frustrating and exhausting. All those ‘Should I/shouldn’t I’s, ‘But what if’s, ‘Which’s, ‘When’s and ‘How’s cause our little brains to work overtime, jumping from one option to another like demented fleas.

And those demented fleas are especially active at night, about 4 o’clock in the morning in my experience.

For any normal person that is bad enough, everyone has decisions to make, things to worry about. That is a fact of life. But it seems to me that writers have even more than most.

Not only do they have the usual day to day issues, like ‘Should I take Fido to the vet or will the bramble wound heal on its own?’, ‘Has Little Johnny got in with a bad set?’, ‘How can I get out of this awful job?’ or, (for the lucky few,) ‘Shall we join Mr and Mrs Moneybags on their yacht in Barbados at Christmas or would the Seychelles be nicer?’ Those are enough to keep anyone awake at night. But writers, especially novelists, also have another whole layer of decisions and anxieties to cope with, ranging from ‘Is this the right word?’, ‘Shouldn’t that be a semi colon?’, through ‘Is this scene (the one I’ve just spent two days writing) really necessary?’, ‘How much back story do I need?’ to ‘Oh no, I think I’ve lost track of the main theme,’ or ‘Should I just give up and get a job as a dog groomer?’ and so on and on and on …

Sometimes those decisions are easy to make and sometimes they niggle away for days (and nights) waiting for a flash of clarity, which normally comes just as you’re negotiating a contra-flow on the M4, or just as you are falling asleep with no pen or notebook on your bedside table.

And then, eventually, when all those decisions are made, new ones pop up, like what publisher, what cover, what promotion, what kind of launch party, will anyone buy it.

I’m not complaining. Far from it. Being a writer is a wonderful thing. But it’s not the stress free, soft option that some non-writers imagine.

All I can say is that if you are a writer then be sure to give yourself a complete break from time to time, and then go back and make those choices. Don’t give in to indecision. Work it out as best you can and press on. You can promise yourself time to improve it a few months later when you are doing your first edit. And don’t feel guilty for neglecting your friends and family – explain what’s going on, if necessary direct them to this article!

And if you are a non-writer with a writing friend, relation or partner, then be patient. Exhaustion, distraction, forgetfulness and grumpiness are normal, the writer in your life still loves you and they will rejoin you soon, but just now they have an awful lot on their mind.


Why do people write novels?

chicken motivationBy any standard writing a novel is a long hard grind. Despite popular opinion, very few novelists ever hit the real mega buck level (many don’t hit any buck level at all). But yet judging from the plethora of wannabe novelists on Twitter and Facebook, it appears that almost everyone nowadays is an aspiring author. So why do so many people do it?

I often ask the students on my writing courses what their motivation is. And here are some of the answers: ‘I want to make sense of the world, to explore my emotions, something awful happened to me and I want to write about it, because I love using language, it’s something to fill the time, I love books, I want to inform people about something, create another world, explore an issue, I’m bursting with a story to tell, my family is so funny I want to write about it, I see it as a kind of therapy, I want to share my knowledge, I want fame and fortune, I want to create something that lives on, a legacy,’ and so on.

These are all perfectly legitimate reasons for having a go at writing a novel. They do not, however form a good basis for writing a successful novel.

Let’s see what what the same students look for in a novel.

‘That feeling of getting completely immersed in a good story, I look for a clever plot, an escape, I love getting to know new characters, I want to laugh, I want to explore different worlds, to live other people’s lives, being be emotionally engaged, I want to be entertained.’

So I think we can see there is a bit of a mismatch. The word entertain, for example, rarely appears in the first list and yet always appears in the second list. This doesn’t matter at all if the writer realises that the hilarious exploits of their family are unlikely to bring them fame and fortune. But it does matter if that’s what they are aiming at. They are pretty much doomed to disappointment.

On the whole, people read books because they want to be entertained. Now, some people are entertained by dismal accounts of other people’s private misfortunes, some people even like being lectured to about obscure issues, but what most people really want is a book that grips them from beginning to end, about a subject that they find interesting and peopled with engaging and believable characters.

So if you are on the brink of starting to ‘write a novel’, stop for a moment and ask yourself what your motivation is. Then ask yourself what is the outcome you hope for. If you are going to aim for the fame and fortune option, then you are going to have to study your craft very carefully and prepare to write a lot of novels during the learning process. If, on the other hand, this is a one-off for your own pleasure or to amuse your family, then fine, just go for it.

In either case, knowing what you are up to will help you do it better. And I wish you the very best of luck with it!

Would you be happy if you’d won Wimbledon?

andy murraySo Andy Murray has won Wimbledon (and the Olympic gold and the US Open). He has even managed to improve his public profile, not just by playing well but by showing us that he is a quirky, public spirited, generous and mildly humorous young man and not, it seems, the surly, monosyllabic adolescent we all thought he was last year. He is a national hero. So we can safely assume he is happy that he has achieved his ambition.

Or can we? I have a sneaky feeling that he is already starting to think that it might be quite nice to win two consecutive grand slams, or to prove that his Wimbledon success wasn’t a one off and that he would have won even if Nadal and Federer had still been in the draw …

What I suspect is that since last week the goal post (or in his case the net cord) will have changed and he will now be aiming for something even bigger and better. Because these sportspersons don’t rest on their laurels, they are never happy with what they have achieved, they always want more.

It is just the same with writers and wannabe writers. ‘I’d be so happy if only I could get my book published …’ quickly becomes ‘I’d be happy if only I had more sales/more fan letters/more prizes/more acclaim/a film deal …’

I read a blog post today by a lady who felt brought down because she hadn’t found a publisher for her dog training book even though she had a zillion (or thereabouts) ‘likes’ on her pet blog. Another from someone disappointed by being runner-up in a novel writing competition. A third by a published writer peeved that he wasn’t getting enough Amazon reviews.

In contemporary life we are programmed to strive, to aim high, to set targets, to court success. But it seems we aren’t programmed to enjoy that success when it comes. When my first novel was picked up and published by Orion I should have felt absolute delight. In fact I felt a vague sense of dissatisfaction; somehow the reality of the moment didn’t live up to my expectations, the cover wasn’t quite as nice as I had hoped, I found the book signing sessions a teeny bit boring and my agent was already hassling me for the next in the series.

So what I’m saying is we need to try to take time enjoy the moments of triumph, however minor they are in our own mind, or in the big scheme of things. Ambition is fine, but there’s no point in it if we don’t relish the smaller successes it brings on the way.

Success comes in many guises, it’s not just about prizes, fame and healthy royalties. We can’t all win Wimbledon (I’m delighted if I get a few serves into the box). We can’t all be J. K. Rowling. But we can train ourselves to feel happy when we achieve something, even if it is only finishing a chapter, getting a nice review or successfully house training a new puppy.

Everyone loves editing, dont they?

Everyone loves editing, don’t they? No? I’m astonished. What could be more enjoyable than giving yourself the opportunity to reread your wonderful prose and to hone it into an even more compellingly readable piece of writing?

Well, a nice holiday obviously, or a trip to the shops perhaps, or sitting in the garden with a cup of tea, or doing the ironing, or even cleaning out the dog bowls.

Because the truth is that most people actually hate editing. I know this a) because people have told me, and b) because so many books are so badly edited.

There are two key components to successful editing. The first is the relatively easy one of correcting spelling errors, punctuation and typos. The second is the much more difficult one of deciding whether certain sentences, paragraphs, sections, even chapters, are really necessary and as good as they can be in their current form (or indeed in any form). Plus the related, opposite problem – is there something missing, a word, a sentence or an idea that would enhance the overall readability and sense of the piece if it was included?

Editing is not only about ironing out glitches in the language but about double checking the content and ideas, making sure that the article, story or novel is doing what you intend it to do, exploring the themes you want to explore, expressing the message, or telling the right story in the best possible way.

Yes, editing can feel like a chore, particularly after the creative delight of writing the piece, but surely it’s worth the effort to achieve a more readable, focussed and satisfyingly perfect result?

As well as honing your work it is useful to sharpen up your editing skills too. Practice makes perfect after all. As a light exercise, here are some examples of editing errors picked up from a selection of church newsletters (courtesy of my lovely mother-in-law). Enjoy!

Miss Charlene Mason sang ‘I will not pass this way again,’ giving obvious pleasure to the congregation.

This evening at 7pm there will be hymn singing in the park opposite the church. Bring a blanket and come prepared to sin.

Weight watchers will meet at 8pm at the First Presbyterian Church. Please use the large double doors at the side entrance.

Ladies, don’t forget the rummage sale. It’s a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house. Bring your husbands.

Pot-luck supper Sunday at 5pm – prayer and medication to follow.

The sermon this morning: ‘Jesus Walks on the Water.’ The sermon tonight: ‘Searching for Jesus.’

The pastor would appreciate it if ladies in the congregation would lend him their electric girdles for the pancake breakfast next Sunday.And my favourite:

The Low Self Esteem Support Group will meet Thursday at 6pm. Please use the back door.

No time to read?

time to readIt’s an odd phenomenon. Everyone is writing novels. It almost seems as if more people are writing them than reading them. Certainly that is the impression you get if you take a quick look at Twitter.

The problem is that having written them these new writers expect other people to read them. And they are bitterly disappointed when readers either don’t buy them or don’t enjoy them.

So why are so many people exposing themselves to almost inevitable disappointment?

In any other artistic endeavour aspiring wannabes generally feel they might need a bit of training – art school perhaps, or dance classes, or at the very least some singing or acting lessons; but with writing, of course, if you know how to hold a pen or navigate a keyboard, anyone can do it. Rustle up a story line, string 60,000+ words together and de da! you’ve written a novel!

And it’s so easy to publish now. You no longer have to wait months for an agent or publisher to deign to read your submission, your alluring approach letter, your agonisingly brief synopsis, your oh so manicured first three chapters, let alone wait another eternity for the remote possibility that they might condescend to see the rest. No, nowadays as soon as the last word is written you can hop onto KDP and by the next day your masterpiece is up on Amazon and ready to sell.

In the old days it was almost unheard of for a writer to get their first book published (most successful authors have several rejected manuscripts languishing in a bottom drawer somewhere). Now, (because they do it themselves,) it is the norm. And that’s fine, readers have a choice, they can sort out for themselves what they want to read and what to avoid. They can read the first few chapters before buying so they know what they are letting themselves in for.

But it does mean that many of the hopeful writers of those un-crafted, unpolished, sadly unstructured novels are going to be disappointed.

So what’s the solution? Well, not everyone can take an MA in Creative Writing, not everyone has access to good local writing courses. But there are lots of books about writing around. And of course, the biggest learning tool of them all, there are lots of excellent novels around too.

Reading is the key. And not just reading, analysing too, why a certain character comes alive on the page, why a particular scene seems so powerful, why you can’t stop turning the pages.

In the kind of market we have now it is even more important than ever to write a really good book. There is simply too much competition for anything less. So my advice to new writers is to read (and preferably in a range of genres and styles), to practice, hone your craft and not to publish until you are absolutely sure that you have created a well structured, readable, engaging, well edited novel that potential readers simply won’t be able to put down.

Story structure – the missing ingredient

meerkatSo how do you write a really great novel?

Well, you choose some interesting characters, a scenic setting, a fun plot and a suitable period of history, and then you start writing … simples (as the Meerkats say). Right?

No, actually not so right, nor so simple (or simples), and (in my view) not very effective either.

The missing ingredient here is ‘story structure’. Oh no, I can hear you groaning, she’s going to go all technical on us, and here we are, creatively charged, bursting with ideas, fingers poised, ready to pour forth our bestseller …

Ok, that’s great, but just hang on to that motivation a moment while we take a quick taste of the missing ingredient.

Story structure is a concept used widely in film making, in TV reality shows, and, yes, in bestsellers.

Think of ‘Masterchef’, ‘Strictly’ even ‘Total Wipeout’ (a personal favourite) – what is it that makes you keep watching, what makes you switch on again the following night, the following week? Yes, you engage with the characters, but you especially engage with them as the challenges they face become greater and more difficult.

Think of the Grand National or the Horse of the Year Show – neither would make great viewing if the jumps got smaller as the course went on, rather than bigger.

Now think of your novel. Think of your characters lined up at the start, all they can see is the first jump (or problem/emotional issue/hint of danger – depending on your genre). Ha, they think, it’s going to be easy. But when they are over that first hurdle they find it’s not the end, there are plenty more jumps ahead, not just higher ones either, but wider, deeper, and much more tricksy ones too, like water combinations and doubles.

And that’s what story structure is, a carefully arranged series of hurdles and obstacles that your characters have to negotiate to reach the end of the story. The nature of these hurdles will vary depending on the type of novel you are writing. The protagonist of a thriller will face hurdles masquerading in the form of baddies (and often a nagging family issue too), the heroine of a romance will find a range of emotional issues standing in her way (and almost certainly a beautiful rival for Mr Right’s affections), characters in more ‘literary’ novels will come up against issues that challenge their humanity, integrity or even their spirituality. The main characters in my novels soon discover that it is their courage (mental, physical and emotional) that is going to be tested, as well as their loyalty to their friends and family.

So take the time to prepare your course, select your jumps, ones that will really test your characters. Then line them up, check your aim (especially if you are writing a crime thriller) and fire the starting pistol.

That’s not all there is to say about story structure but it will get you (and your characters) off to a good start. Simples. smiling meerkat

Comme ci comme ça

I am off to France next week on a research trip for my next novel. And in order not to commit any faux pas I decided today that I should brush up on my French. Apropos the timing you may feel this is a bit late in the day, but au contraire, I am confident that with a little sang froid and a soupçon of je ne sais quoi I should be able to carry myself off with some panache. If I can just remember the difference between au naturel and eau naturelle, coup de grâce and cri de coeur, I should be able avoid any contretemps (and indeed any double entendres) during my research tête-à-têtes.

As you probably already already know from previous posts I love language, and particularly the French language, but vis-à-vis actually speaking it there is no doubt that we English generally have a very laissez-faire attitude. Most people I know either operate either in the ‘Allo ‘Allo, ‘Oh la la, zut alors, sacré bleu!’ mode or the more prosaic, ‘Parlez vous Anglais?’ mode. And, despite a multitude of evening classes and all the crème de la crème teach-yourself-language apps and CDs, plus ça change. The only French phrases that most of my friends can manage with confidence are ‘hors d’oeuvres, petits fours, vin rouge, nouveau riche, grand prix and papier maché’. Quelle horreur! But then en masse the English are known to be generally poor at foreign languages. C’ést la vie.

But the avant garde among us find this shaming, it is, in fact, one of my bêtes noirs. I believe it is de rigueur nowadays (you could almost say comme il faut) to at least have a go. Surely one of the raisons d’être of traveling is engaging with the locals. That’s certainly what I need to do on this trip. So next week I am going to give myself carte blanche to show not only some savoir faire but also some joie de vivre. I will use an aide-mémoire, I will seek out bon vivants and avoid ménages à trois (I have no desire to be a femme fatale) I will search diligently for the mot juste and chat away fluently to people in their pieds-à-terre about l’esprit du corps, cordons sanitaires, noms du guerre and agents provocateurs of the Second World War.

And will my trip be a success? Well, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a fait accompli.

Is romance getting harder?

Is romance getting harder? No, no, no, I’m not talking about 40 Shades or any other semi sado nonsense, that’s not romance, that’s just mindless titillation when compared with the enduring, gut wrenching, emotional tension of a well written love story.

Living in an open, tolerant (well, all things are relative) society is great, but it’s not so good for contemporary romance writers. Because powerful fictional romance isn’t about the protagonists being together, it’s much more about keeping them apart. The term ‘star-crossed lovers’ gives a clue. Love stories hinge on the concept of ‘what’s to stop them?’ and in our current ‘anything goes/who cares’ society, frankly, there’s not much to stop anybody doing anything.

Open-mindedness, ease of travel and (comparative) affluence has clearly made life much more difficult for contemporary romance writers. They now have to work much harder to create plausible constraints (emotional not physical) and friction (emotional not physical) to keep their lovers apart. But if they want to achieve the ‘tears on the pillow’ and ‘page-turning power’ of a real enduring love story that’s exactly what they have to do – they have to create two great, thoroughly believable characters who ultimately belong together but cannot actually get together for equally great, thoroughly believable reasons.

And finding those reasons isn’t easy. As a society we have moved on from those good (in the fictionally useful sense) old days of class conflict, xenophobia, faith incompatibility, virgin bride, anti divorce, homophobia, feuding families and so on. It’s certainly not always easy for couples nowadays, but these kind of ‘cross boundary’ liaisons rarely engender the stigma and taboo they once did.

A few prejudices do inevitably linger on, but on the whole they are more likely to generate a few raised eyebrows or even a giggle than ostracism, disinheritance or danger of death at the brother’s hand. When it comes down to it, there is very little now to stop him and her, or her and her, or him and him, getting together.

It’s so much easier in historical fiction where the writer can summon up chaperones, invading armies, fight to the death religions and brutal, all powerful fathers at the touch of the pen (or mouse).

Yes, of course there are still the conventional old chestnuts for contemporary romance writers to fall back on, the mistaken identities, the lost email, the huffy misunderstanding, even, in absolute desperation, the natural disaster, but it’s hard to string these along for 100,000 words without the reader flinging down their Kindle, turning to their foreign, cross-dressed, age-gapped lover and saying, ‘Oh for goodness sake, why don’t they just get on with it!’

The Next Big Thing

Last week I was tagged by Laurie Gilbert to take part in The Next Big Thing. This is a viral blog chain which apparently you ignore on pain of death!! So here I go answering the questions …

1 What is the working title of your next book?

2 Where did the idea come from for the book?
It follows on from my previous three Lavender Road novels – the original idea was suggested by Rosemary Cheetham at Orion who to publish a wartime series set in London. We had a brief wrangle about where it was to be set (she wanted it to be in the East End of London, but I managed to convince her that Clapham in South London was an equally (or perhaps even more) interesting area!) She then commissioned me to write the three book series, which was great.

3 What genre does your book fall under?

4 Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’d choose Dan Stevens (Mathew from Downton) for Ward Frazer, Dani Harmer (brilliant on Strictly) would make a great Molly Coogan, Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame) would be perfect for Helen de Burrel, and I think Ryan Gosling could play André Cabillard. Emma Thompson would be fab as Celia Rutherford, Jenna-Louise Coleman (from Dr Who) would make a wonderful Jen Carter and how about challenging Meryl Streep to play Jen’s mother, Joyce?! Any other suggestions gratefully received!

5 What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
As the war enters its fourth year the people of Lavender Road long for peace, but instead they find themselves right up against it, challenged by privation, love and unexpected danger.

6 Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’m not sure yet. Previously, for my physical books, I have been represented by an agent (A.M. Heath) and published by a big publisher (Orion). But when the digital revolution began I decided to set up a small publishing imprint (TSAP) to publish eBook versions of my novels myself. These have done so well I may well decide to go on down that route.

7 How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I haven’t finished it. It will probably take at least six months.

8 What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
William Boyd, Wendy Robertson, Freda Lightfoot, Sebastian Faulks and Jack Higgins have all written great Second World War novels / family sagas, they aren’t the same but if you like them you might like mine and vice versa!

9 Who or What inspired you to write this book?
When I was first thinking about writing the Lavender Road series I was living in South London and had got to know quite a few people who had lived through the war years there. I was fascinated by their stories of the courage and resilience that people showed during those difficult years and thought I could weave some of them into a wartime street saga. The success of the first three books in the series has encouraged me to write LONDON CALLING, set in 1943.

10 What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
My readers seem to love with my characters. I try to make them as ‘real’ as possible so the reader can engage with them and experience their highs and lows. Most of the old favourites will feature in this next novel – Jen Carter, Katy Parsons, Helen de Burrel, Joyce Carter (and of course the gorgeous Canadian Ward Frazer) – but I will also be taking up the story of the young nurse Molly Coogan who has only had a small role in the previous novels. Exhausted by her relentless wartime routine and compelled to live with an awful secret, she longs to get away, only to find when her wish is granted that she has jumped out of a very calm frying pan into a tumultuous and life threatening fire.

Thanks for reading! I am now passing The Next Big Thing baton onto my friend and up and coming writer Natalie Lloyd Evans … at http://www.wordyhood.com and her connected blog http://natmegevans.wordpress.com

Is your jam jar too full?

Do you feel time is running away with you? Are you frustrated that there are things you wanted/want to do that you never seem to have time for? A renovation project? A trip to Machu Picchu? Retraining as an acupuncturist? A puppy with your name on it at the rescue centre? A story waiting to be written?

If so I now have the answer!

Imagine you have an empty jam jar. Into it you put two or three largish stones, then some smaller pebbles. It now seems pretty full, but you can still add a handful of sand which will filter into the spaces, and there’s even room for you to top up the whole thing with water. Easy.

Now imagine filling the jar in a different way. Put the pebbles in first, then the sand and the water and … oh no… now there’s not enough room for the big stones to fit in.

Someone mentioned this jam jar concept to me at the weekend as a metaphor for life, or, rather, for living. The idea is that the jar holds the time available to us in our daily lives. The big stones represent our major aims/ ambitions /personal projects or, in my case, perhaps, my next (overdue) novel.

The pebbles are the other significant things we have (or want) to do – writing blog posts for example, teaching writing courses, other work commitments, giving talks, publicising previous books, caring for an elderly relative.

The sand represents ‘essential’ day to day tasks – email, FB, Twitter, designing an avatar, picking the kids up from school, shopping, paying bills, walking the dog, stocking up the Kindle, having friends to dinner, keeping fit, going to the latest James Bond film.

The water symbolises all those other insidious (sometimes even invidious) time consuming, unavoidable elements of life like cooking, eating, cleaning, laundry, TV, sleeping, being ill, being tired or mowing the lawn.

How you categorise the elements of your life is a matter of attitude and personal opinion, but the basic idea is that it is all too easy to fill up your jar with pebbles, sand and water, leaving no time/space for the big stones.

If you don’t have any pressing, ‘big stone’ projects then that’s fine, lucky you, but if you do then the moral of the jar is that you should install them into your life, protect their space and fill up the time around them, not instead of them.

Does it work? I don’t know, but it’s always good to acknowledge aims and ambitions and to visualise them working out. As mentioned in a previous post I am as guilty as the next person of falling back on displacement activity. So this afternoon I am going down to the beach to find a suitably large, ‘next novel’ stone, I’ll pop it into a jar, sprinkle in a few pebbles, add a modicum of sand and water and have it sitting on the kitchen table as a reminder of my priorities.

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