Monday, 28 November 2016

How I finished the first draft of my novel

Yup, I finally finished the first draft. Here it is, emerging from the printer yesterday.

Note that you can't actually see the pages, and that's no accident - they're not ready for anyone to read yet. Not even me: I'm finding it hard to resist, but I've sworn to myself to put the script aside until after Christmas. By January I hope I'll come to it with less love and understanding, and can be as brutal as I need to be for the second draft.

It feels like I started this book a long, long time ago - possibly because I started thinking about it years before I wrote a word.

Then, over a year or two, I wrote a whole load of words that I deleted straight away. I couldn't work out where my story was going or who would tell it.

So in September 2015, I booted myself into action on the 12-week online course at the Unthank School. This was intense - especially as I was working pretty flat out at the time - but I committed to writing something every day for those twelve weeks, and I did. Sometimes I only managed 20 minutes while the potatoes boiled for dinner, but I always wrote. I mapped out my plot, got to know my main characters, wrote 5,000 words, rewrote them completely, in a new voice and from a new point of view, and by the end of December I had over 15,000 words.

Maybe I'm a wimp, but after Christmas, I collapsed a little bit. I confess I didn't have the steam to keep on writing every day.

And I was beginning to find it hard to dive into the novel and clamber straight out again before my hair was even wet. (I promise I use better metaphors than that in the novel.)

But I did keep on writing in the nooks and crannies of my life and by the early summer I had almost 55,000 words. The end was in sight, but I really, really wanted to write the rest in one go, not in little bits and pieces.

I booked August off (I'm self-employed so that meant telling precious clients I wouldn't be around, and earning nothing for four weeks - no small deal). But I spent most of it sorting out care for a beloved aunt. To make myself feel a tiny bit better I skidaddled off to Hastings on my own for four days of nothing but writing, and was briefly very happy. Then I returned to my desk and wrote almost nothing of the novel for a couple of months.

I was deeply frustrated, and felt that my novel and I were in danger of falling out of love. I knew I had to immerse myself in it, but daily life (mine at least) just doesn't allow for immersion.

So I booked myself onto a writers' retreat - ten days in Spain, at Casa Ana - and told myself that I'd write and write while I was there, and that if it was humanly possible, I'd finish before I came home.

And I did. Casa Ana turned out to be perfect for me: high in the mountains of the Alpujarra, remote, silent, almost empty. My fellow writers were warm and generous, we were mollycoddled from dawn till dusk, and everyone was there to work: it was easy to write all day, from before breakfast till dinner in the evening. (And the food was wonderful!)

I'd been afraid I wouldn't be able to write for more than a couple of hours a day, because at home that's all I seem to have the stamina for. But Casa Ana proved that if I have no responsibility other than to writing, I can focus completely on it without feeling the need to run away. I didn't stick to my desk all that time - I walked every day, and I lay on my bed and thought about my characters and what was happening to them. But I didn't think about anything else. It was heaven. And I finished the first draft at five o'clock on my last day. The ending's a bit shonky but that's ok, it's a first draft and I know I can make it better.

So I'm happy. But I'm also feeling a bit flat - I'm missing being inside my story, and I'm sort of hesitating about celebrating because I know I haven't finished really. But I'll be back with the novel soon enough, and I'm pretty sure I've done the hard part. (Could be beginner's naivety, but I'm feeling positive so don't pop my balloon, please.)

And in the meantime, I'm celebrating a little bit. Here's the piece of jewellery by Kara that I bought this time last year. I promised myself I'd only wear it when I'd completed the first draft. It's heavy on my arm, and I love it. Now it's reminding me of the work I still have to do, and I can't wait.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

I win a weighty prize!

Yesterday I had coffee (and a rather nice cookie) with Elise Valmorbida and we talked translation, writing in another language and the joys of taking yourself away to write. And that was good enough for me, but the reason why we met yesterday was even more wonderful:

I won a prize!

The trophy is an amazing object in itself - the real piece of letterpress from which my certificate was printed. It weighs a ton, and I can't quite move my fingers yet from carrying it home yesterday. It's sitting on my desk right now, making my day feel extremely splendid.

Winning this award was pretty much a complete surprise. Over a year ago I wrote a poem about the matron's mallet at the Foundling Museum. (I blogged about it here.) I read my poem there last autumn, and it was a pleasure.

I didn't really think about the poem again until a couple of weeks ago when an email pinged into my inbox telling me I'd been shortlisted by 26 for their award for the best piece of writing on a 26 project. Could I come to the annual 26 shindig, Wordstock, in case I won?

Sadly I couldn't as I already had plans. A few days later, sworn to secrecy, another email arrived. Could I possibly make a short acceptance video?

Good lord - I'd won!

Now winning an award is wonderful - even if you've read your work aloud to a polite audience and your mum says it's jolly good, it's hard to believe it really is worth anything (or at least I found it hard to believe it) until a team of judges picks it out and says, yes, we really like this!

So thank you, 26, I'm thrilled.

And thank you Elise, for that other huge positive of winning an award - getting to meet a wonderful writer and spend a seriously civilised morning together over coffee.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

I need more time, or is that an excuse?

Last month I wrote about taking August off to write. It didn't go quite according to plan and I'm wondering if that's because I'm not dedicated enough to my writing. Maybe I'm not really a writer, deep inside? Do I need to be more single-minded, more disciplined? More obsessed?

A writer I respect once told me that writing must come first, always. It took me years to get over her dictum because I knew that a sad child or an ill partner would always come first for me, so I believed I couldn't be a proper writer.

The thing is, that life has a tendency of happening at you even if your main character is teetering on the brink and desperately needs you to write the next scene.

Real though my characters are to me, they don't die if I ignore them for a few weeks. They just get a bit pale and I get frustrated.

So here's what happened with my glorious month off. I spent the first two weeks of it sorting out family stuff that popped up the moment I cleared my desk. Very neat timing, very frustrating, but needs must.

Or must they? I'm willing to bet that Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and all those people I think of as serious writers didn't abandon their manuscripts for weeks while they drove around the country sorting out care packages, or interrogating GPs, or comforting someone whose life's about to change completely.  Or, come to that, buying the weekly shop and cooking the evening meals.

The thing is, these things I do are part of me, so they're also part of me as a writer. I don't write domestic dramas, but I do write stories with people in them and everything I do feeds my writing.

The problem is finding time and space to think about my story and put the resulting words on the page.

Not writing for those first two weeks of August was awful. I got angry. I felt bad about being angry but I'm just not going to write a novel when someone I love is struggling. In the third week of August though, things calmed down and I wrote and wrote.

Then I had one week left. Just one week - I'd hoped to finish my first draft over the summer and there was no way, absolutely no way I could do that. What's more my house would be full of people, and I'd never be able to concentrate - I wanted to be able to wander around talking to myself, lie on the floor to think, write at midnight or ten in the morning, whatever it took. So I took a deep breath, rented a flat in Hastings for four days, and caught the train with a bag holding my laptop and a swimming costume, and told my family that I was running away.

I think they understood. My family is a lovely family.

Hastings was heaven. I wrote, I thought, I wrote and I thought. I swam and walked up the cliffs. I slept after breakfast and dreamed of my characters and no one interrupted them. I talked to no one except some old friends with whom I had supper one night, and Deborah behind the bar of the Crown pub opposite, who made me excellent coffee each morning. That's all the human contact I needed.

I'm back now, and working again. But a month away from my desk - even if half of it wasn't spent writing - has given me a fresh determination to finish my novel. I took a couple of hours off yesterday to write and I'll do the same today.

That's a piece of chocolate and Guinness cake, by the way, and some of the best coffee Tunbridge Wells can provide. Thank you Black Dog café, top writing spot of yesterday.

The thing is, I suspect that writing slow suits me. I've only just understood my second main character's motivation. I began to see it last week while watching a bunch of people at a neighbouring breakfast table in a conference centre play power over their muesli. I spent the next few days driving up and down the country listening to old, old music, with that scene simmering in my mind. It's on the page now, transplanted and transformed and I know what's happening in my story far better. Sometimes a good story just takes time, and I'm ok with that.

Friday, 29 July 2016

How much space does a writer need?

I've been even quieter than usual here on the blog. Life's been busy, too busy for blogging, too busy for writing more than notes and fragments.

I tried writing in twenty minute bursts and it's taken me maybe half way through the first draft of my novel. But it wasn't enough in the end - I felt I was dipping in and out, never immersing myself in the cold water of the story long enough to let it warm my skin, to take a deep breath and make those long strokes that pull you deep beneath the surface.

So I'm doing something radical. I'm taking the whole of August off. I'm going to write.

I've never given myself this much time before. I may be a workaholic. I'm certainly afraid.

I believe it's normal to confess at this point, so here goes. Here's the story of a woman who almost forgot how to stop working.

After O levels I delivered newspapers so I could buy a new bike and some riding lessons. The dew and the dawns were lovely, and the secrecy of walking through gates and up paths while people slept above was magical. The bike was even better - it carried me round Ireland on my honeymoon many years later.

I worked Saturdays in a butcher's and then in a bookshop until my A levels, and then I worked on an archeological dig till I went to university.

There was no work in Leeds so I came home every summer and worked at my local sports centre, failing to save lives, selling tickets and scrubbing floors and urinals.

I graduated. I didn't want to teach so I became a trainee for a global paper manufacturer, moved into publishing, went freelance, had babies and kept on working all the way through. I took two weeks off when I had my first child because I hadn't dared tell a single client that I was pregnant. So I stood at my desk till the stitches fell out, and wrote letters to my authors apologising for not replying to their letters sooner. I'd been busy on another project, I said.

I slacked off when I had my second child three years later, and took three months away from the deadlines of publishing to drag myself from feed to nappy to feed. I had begun writing before her birth, but this was the beginning of a long, slow-lifting sea fog of exhaustion and I wrote nothing more for many years. It took a long time to learn that I wasn't just tired, but had ME. It took even longer to find out how to recover from it.

I emerged eventually and began to write again. But bills must be paid and I worked more than I wrote, and when I look at the stories I've written, the few words seem far too slim for so many years.

So this year, the babies now being taller than I am, and students themselves, I began a novel. And then life happened at me again and I gave the time I had to my work.

But I'm not going to let that happen again. So in fifteen minutes I'm going to set my autoresponder.

'Thank you for getting in touch,' it's going to say, 'I'm away from my desk this August. I'll be in touch as soon as I return at the start of September.'

It's scary, and exciting.

I'm going to find out what happens when there's space in my head.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Terry Pratchett and Marcel Proust - almost neighbours

This morning I emptied the bookshelves because we're redecorating. Here they are, stacked on my office floor like towers in a strange city, dark alleys weaving between them.

Moving books is a task I do alone because no one else in my family understands my absolute need for my books to be in strict alphabetical order.

You'll either understand this, or you won't.

If you don't, bear with me.

It means I can always find a book in minutes. It leads to happy and strange combinations of writers and titles side by side. And it represents my refusal to categorise my books beyond the fact that everything in the living room is prose fiction or drama - so I make happy discoveries every time I run my finger along the spines.

So Virginia Woolf and PG Wodehouse are chortling together on the bottom shelf.

Jane Austen is urging Paul Auster to lighten up a bit.

Leo Tolstoy's Anna and Colm Toibin's Eilis are having coffee, having met by accident on a street corner and recognised some glint of misery in each other's eyes.

Are you persuaded?

I don't care. I'm off to read a book off the floor.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Do creative writing courses work?

There's been a lot of bad press about creative writing courses recently, and I have to say that I sometimes agree: doing a course is no substitute for getting down to work and putting words on the page.

You don't need a course to be a great writer, obviously. Equally, just doing a creative writing course doesn't make you a decent writer.

But, but, but ... twenty years ago or so, I signed up for a creative writing BA at my local university, taught by Susan Wicks. I was a book editor and had never written more than teenage drivel before, and it was a transformative experience: among much else I wrote poems that weren't awful, comedy dialogue that was, and discovered that I wasn't at all bad at writing copy. I'd assumed everyone could do it if they tried, but it turns out they can't.

I dropped out of the course because I was about to have my second child and was working more or less full time, and simply couldn't pack in a weekly writing assignment.

A little while later, though, emboldened by what I'd learned, I gave up editing and became a copywriter.

I didn't write any more poems because I was rather busy, and not always very well and the copywriting took up all my creative juices. But another few years later, Sue asked if I'd like to join a small writing group that she was tutoring.

I wrote my first short story for that group. I'd written lots of opening lines before, but always lost my nerve before finishing them. Now I had a group demanding to know what happened, so I just had to plough on to that final line.

Now I might have written that story without the group - the bones of it had been inside me for ages, and I read widely and reasonably critically so I had an idea of how a story might go. But I would never have sent it out. It wouldn't have occurred to me that it might be good.

Sue told me to send it out, so I did because I trusted her judgement. It was rejected and she told me to try again, and The Warwick Review accepted it, and then Nick Royle asked to include it in that years' Best British Short Stories. I was stunned.

I stayed in the writing group for quite a while because it was a great place to try out new ideas on a supportive group of people, and the writing exercises taught me all sorts of skills and approaches it might have taken me years to unwrap on my own.

In the end, though, I decided to go it alone: I found I was writing for the group - neat little nuggets of fiction that would fit into the time allotted - and not for me.

I wrote more stories, a handful of poems, and a play. I learned to use my own judgement, to try new approaches, to take risks.

And I began to gather notes for a novel. I did research, I sketched characters, I wrote a trillion opening lines. And I never went further. Each time I started, I got scared and put it all back in the box and did something else. I wanted to get it right so much that I couldn't bear to get it wrong, and I needed to get it wrong to find out what was right.

So in September this year I signed up for the How to Write a Novel course with Stephen Carver at the Unthank School. It's an online course, just 12 weeks long, and it was exactly what I needed.

It's structured and demanding: we looked at openings, endings, character, voice, plot, themes,  perspective, pace, dialogue, descriptive writing, and more. We dived straight in: look at these openings, which work for you? Why? Choose a couple of books you like and examine their openings in detail. Now write five possible opening lines for your novel. What do the rest of the students reckon? Pick one and take it further ...

There was no time to draw breath, to allow doubt to creep in. I wrote lines, scenes, monologues, dialogues. I sketched out a plot, finally, and then drew it in more detail. I worked out why I wanted to write this story so much and threw a whole load of unnecessary stuff out.

And every single day I wrote a bit more of my novel. Up at the top of this entry is the current word count. As you can see, I'm a slow writer, but I've discovered that if I write about 500 words a day I make tangible progress. I can even write this many words on a day when I have no spare time - I can write them while the potatoes boil if it comes to it. I can always rewrite them. In fact I've already rewritten the whole thing, changing it from a third to a first person narrative. I've learned to play, make mistakes, not to worry. I've had huge fun.

I chose the Unthank School course for pragmatic reasons: it focussed on the novel, was online, flexible and short. It was amazingly good value. I didn't know Stephen but I learned long ago that having a big name tutor doesn't guarantee that a course will be good: how many famous writers can be bothered to create really great materials, week after week, and deliver them ego-free?

So thanks to all the tutors and fellow students I've worked with! I'm off to finish my novel now.