THE WRITING LIFE – hurrah! Great feedback on the zero draft!

I haven’t blogged since I finished the ‘zero draft’ of my 4th novel at the end of October because everything went a bit crazy (in a good way). Clare, my lovely editor at Simon & Schuster who I’ve worked with since 2012 told me she was leaving to go to Orion.  I was pleased to hear she was making such an exciting career move, but obviously gutted to lose her as an editor. Anyway, when she knew I’d finished this draft, she asked if there was any possibility it might be ready for her to read before she left Simon & Schuster – in five weeks!

My plan had been to do a leisurely re-draft over three or four months. After all, the zero draft was full of exposition, the voice was inconsistent, there were countless repetitions, slow scenes, scenes with no action etc. Could I possibly get this anywhere near decent shape in just five weeks? Clare had liked the original synopsis, so I really wanted her to see it, especially as it took me so long to write my third novel, What She Lost – out in March but now available for pre-order…
Out 9th of March – just over 11 weeks to go…
So I had one hell of a deadline! I set to work…

Fortunately, I had a five-day retreat booked where I’d planned to ‘make a start’ on the redraft. I threw myself into it and worked 9-10 hours most days. One night, I was so fired up and excited that, having made myself stop work at 9:30, I went to bed at 11, couldn’t sleep and ended up getting up and working again until just after one in the morning. 

I worked my arse off! I always get a lot done when I’m on a retreat, but this time, the amount of work I got through was astonishing. Partly because of the deadline, but also because I had enjoyed writing the zero draft (the very rough, pre-first draft) so much that I was bursting with excitement and couldn’t wait to start on the next draft, the one I would show to my editor, albeit a much earlier version than I would usually share.

For me, redrafting is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing a novel, and this time, it feels like I’ve written the whole thing on a high. The most brilliantly wonderful thing is, she loved it! She has loved my books before, but they’ve usually been through at least one more draft and are a lot more polished by the time she sees them. So you can imagine how thrilled I am, especially as I’ve actually enjoyed this early part of the process for a change.

Obviously there’s still work to do, and I’m looking forward to hearing my new editor’s thoughts towards the end of January, and to getting started on the next draft.

In the meantime, I’m wondering if I’ll ever be able to repeat what has been such an uncharacteristically enjoyable experience. Writing a detailed synopsis helped enormously, but I found it hard. It took me weeks! But writing the synopsis turned out to be a microcosm of writing a novel, with all the getting stuck, thinking the story won’t work, putting into much back story – at one point, I started to feel pleased with myself when I realised I’d written a page and a half, but then I realised that it was all back story! So I drew a line under that and started again. But then one paragraph began to suggest the next, and slowly, the story started to develop.

I’ll definitely try this again. It’s true that some stories may not work, but probably better to find that out after four or five weeks working on a synopsis than after four or five months (or longer) working on a novel, which is what I did earlier this year.

I’m now turning around ideas in my head for book five. Who knew how hard it would be to make up stories? 

Merry Christmas, everyone!

If you’d like to know more about me and my work, or if you’d like to sign up a ‘writing a novel’ workshop, please visit my website, or say hello on Facebook or Twitter

THE WRITING LIFE – book 4, zero draft – complete!

Newsflash! The Things We Never Said is on a Kindle Monthly deal at just 99p throughout November Buy it here

Well, I did it, I hit my deadline!  I have written a very rough, very basic draft of my fourth novel in a little under four months. To be honest, I could have finished this on Saturday, but I really wanted to put that last cross on the calendar today. Ok, so maybe there’s a touch of OCD involved…

If you’ve seen my recent blog posts or if you’ve been following my Facebook page, you’ll know that I’ve been using some incentives to help keep me going. First, there’s the calendar, an idea I adapted from one I saw in Mslexia magazine. Just print out a calendar, then for each day you hit your writing target (mine was an absolute minimum of 200 words but aiming for 1000) you put a cross in the squeare for that day. So here, a cross means I wrote at least 200 and if I got to 1000, I added a dot.

I also used a reward-based incentive. Assuming this draft would be around 90,000 words (it’s ended up as 81,500) I put 90 small coins in a glass, each coin representing 1000 words I had to write. Each time I wrote 1000 words, I took one of those coins out and chucked it back in my purse, but I also put a pound coin in another class. So I saw the number of words I had to write going down, and the amount of money I had to celebrate completing the draft going up. It’s a winner!

So there’s now £81 in that glass, and me and Himself will be having a night out on it this week. (I think I’m going to have to do something similar to the redraft – got to celebrate the end of that, too.)
Here’s the proof of my wordcount and a sneak peek at the first page:

Of course the other thing that helped was that this time, for the first time ever, I was working from a detailed five-page synopsis– thanks to my agent Kate Shaw for keeping on at me to do this! I found it very difficult – it took several weeks – but I will definitely try this approach again.

Inevitably, things have changed a little from the original synopsis, but the basic story is the same. I’ve changed some character details – occupation, for example. I’ve also got rid of one supporting character and introduced a new one. The other thing that’s different is that a few things I thought I could skim over in a paragraph as back story have turned out to demand full scenes of their own.

What I’ve learned is this: planning a novel out like this is difficult, and there were many points at which I felt sick, certain the idea wasn’t working and lying awake at night agonising over whether I would be able to make it work. But this is EXACTLY what I usually go through halfway through writing a novel anyway. Maybe sometimes an idea doesn’t work, but surely it’s better to abandon a synopsis after a few weeks of work than to abandon 70,000 words after several months, which is what I ended up doing back in June – you can read about it here

So, I feel exhilarated having completed this draft and very excited about embarking upon what I hope will be a decent first draft. I will, of course, keep you posted.

If you’d like to know more about me and my work, or if you’d like to sign up for one of the popular Novel Writing workshops I run with Russell Thomas, please visit my website, and you can follow me on Facebook and Twitter

THE WRITING LIFE – book 3 cover, book 4 progress

A quick-ish one today, because I’m under pressure from my self-imposed deadline of the end of this month to finish the ‘zero draft’ of book 4, working title When the Bough Breaks. More of this in a moment, but I’ve just realised I haven’t yet shared with you the cover of my new book, What She Lost, which is out on 9th March, so here it is:

Gorgeous, isn’t it? Well done Simon & Schuster – I absolutely love it! Here’s the blurb:

Eleanor and her mother Marjorie have always had a difficult relationship and although they’ve tried, they have somehow just failed to connect. 
    Now Marjorie has Alzheimer’s, and as her memory fades, her grip on what she has kept hidden begins to loosen. When she calls her daughter to say, ‘There’s something I have to tell you’, Eleanor hopes this will be the moment she learns the truth about the terrible secret that has cast a shadow over both their lives. 
    But Marjorie’s memory is failing fast and she can’t recall what she wanted to say. Eleanor knows time is running out, and as she tries to gently uncover the truth before it becomes lost inside her mother’s mind forever, she begins to discover what really happened when she was a child – and why… 

Very excited about this now, especially as it was such an absolute bugger to write. Those of you who follow this blog may remember the agonies I went through with this book. After a dreadful first draft, I completely rewrote around 80% of it. It was a mammoth task, but definitely worth the effort because it resulted in a much better book, and one I now feel proud of. 

So, moving on to book 4. I’m now at 69,000 words, thanks to my two visual incentives. First, there’s the calendar. I gave myself around four months to write this draft, with a target of 1000 words a day and an absolute minimum of 200 words. Every cross on the calendar means I wrote at the very least 200 words on that day, and where there is a dot as well as a cross, it means I hit my 1000 word target.  

As you can see, I now have just 20 days (including today) to finish the draft. I’m guessing I have about another 10 to 15,000 words to write, so it’s just about doable. Somehow, I’ve GOT to do it! My second incentive Works on a visual level, but also promises a tangible reward. I took two glasses and put 90 five pence pieces in one of them. Each coin represents 1000 words of this draft. (It’ll probably be slightly less than that, but who knows.) For each thousand words I write, I take a 5p out of the glass, but I put a one pound coin in the other glass. The idea is that when I finish this draft, there will be enough quids in the pot for myself and himself to celebrate with a nice meal out and a bottle of bubbly. 

Of course, once I’ve got to the end of a zero draft, I need to go back to the beginning and write what I hope will be decent ‘first’ draft, something which, once I’ve spent some time editing and tidying it, will be in a good enough shape to send to my agent.

Right, I’ll leave it there for now – must crack on!

PS A quick plug for the workshops – there’s one coming up on 22nd of October called Bringing Your Characters to Life. Details of that, and the other Writing a Novel workshops can be found on my website

THE WRITING LIFE – half a draft in eight weeks

Last time, I talked about the value of the visual stimulus in helping to get to the end of the first draft, or ‘zero’ draft as I prefer to call it – this is the draft where there are superfluous characters, scenes that simply tread water, plot holes as big as a house, and page upon page of tell-y back story which will eventually (hopefully) form the basis of some useful scenes.

The main visual aid that’s keeping me going is an idea I picked up from the Mslexia Facebook page. Their suggestion was that you print out a calendar and mark a cross in the box for every day you write some words, ‘no matter how many or how few’, with the aim that you never break the chain (cue Fleetwood Mac).

Now that ”no matter how few” could catch me out, because strictly speaking, that means ten words would count, or three! So I decided to set myself a target of 1000 words a day, but with an absolute minimum of 200 words. So if I write 195, no cross on the calendar! If I hit 200, I get a cross, and if I write 1000 words or more, I get across and a little dot. Here’s how I’m doing so far:

As you can see, things slowed down a little after the first few weeks, but in my defence, this summer has been quite busy with family visits, holidays and so on. Also, of course, the further on that you get with a story, the more complicated it becomes, because so many things have been established that there is more chance of problems arising. I’m resisting the temptation to deal with those at this stage, (unless of course the problem is so big it’s preventing me from moving forward) because that can all be dealt with in the next draft.

The other thing I’m using to coax myself to the end of this draft is partly visual, but part reward incentive. I’m assuming this draft will be around 90,000 words, So in the left-hand glass, I put 90 small coins – 1p & 5p. Every time I write another 1000 words, I take one of those small coins and put it back in my purse and I put a pound coin in the right-hand glass. so when I get to the end, I’ll have £90 with which to celebrate before I embark on a decent first draft. That should be a pretty good night out for myself and Mr EW!

Both these methods are working very well for me – I love seeing the level in that right-hand glass go up while the level in the left-hand glass goes down. And with the calendar, my desire to not break the chain has become so strong that I’m now finding myself getting twitchy each day until I’ve got at least 200 words down. The other night after a long and tiring day, it was gone 11.30 when I realised that I hadn’t ‘done my words’. I was so shattered that I almost just climbed into bed, but when I thought about that empty square on the calendar, I just couldn’t do it, so I picked up a pen (too tired to climb the stairs to my study) and managed to drag 230 words from somewhere.

As of today, I’m now at a total of 48,000 words, which, given my usual agonisingly slow pace, I feel is not too shabby.

In other news, What She Lost is progressing nicely and I will very soon be able to reveal the cover, so watch this space! In the meantime, I’m currently reading through the page proofs. This is a lovely stage to get to, because it’s the first time my words start to look like a real book. I’m still finding the odd error, even though the book has been read many, many times, thoroughly edited and copyedited. Still the odd thing creeps through.

That’s about it for this time. I’ll post again in a couple of weeks by which time I hope to be well on my way to 60,000 words. I’m also hoping to reveal the cover for What She Lost.

By the way, if you’re new to this blog, you might like to know that my writing doesn’t always go this smoothly. In fact, until now, it has NEVER gone smoothly. If you fancy trawling back through some of the old posts, you’ll see just what a struggle I had writing my third novel, What She Lost.  I mention this because if you’re struggling with a draft at the moment, it might help you to see how badly I went wrong, and how I managed to eventually turn it into something I’m quite proud of. I almost felt like giving up, but I knew I had a story to tell, so I kept at it. You can, too. No one said this writing lark was going to be easy…

If you’d like to know more about me and my work, or if you’d like to sign up for one of the 1-day Writing a Novel workshops (the next one, Planning and Plotting, is on 24th of September – £45 for the whole day, and it’s a cracking workshop, even though I say so myself information) visit my website You can also follow me on Twitter or Facebook

THE WRITING LIFE – how a visual stimulus can spur you on

My last post was about how I had finally managed to write a detailed outline for my fourth novel. Planning doesn’t come easily to me, in fact, I’ve tried several times in the past to plan my story and failed miserably. This time however, I promised my agent ,who’d been gently nagging me about the advantages of a detailed outline, that I’d try really, really hard. 

At first, I was convinced I couldn’t do it, then I had something of a breakthrough when I realised I should only be telling the story from one point of view, not two. My agent and editor both liked the outline, so I made a start, setting myself a target of 1000 words a day. I started this novel on 7th of July and For the first few days, I hit my target fairly easily.  Of course, many of these words will be shit words that will be cut or changed later, but my aim is to get a ‘zero’ draft down as quickly as possible.

A few days in, I stumbled on a post on the Mslexia Facebook page, suggesting you print out a calendar and put a big cross in the box for every day you get some words down, no matter how many or how few, the aim being that you don’t break the  chain.   here’s the page – the post is July 12 if you like to have a look.

This seemed like a great idea, but I know myself, and I know that the ‘no matter how few’ could get me into trouble – would 20 words count? Ten? Two? So I set myself a daily minimum of 200, while keeping my personal target of 1000.  This is working brilliantly for me so far. Of the 39 days that I’ve been doing this, I’ve achieved at least 1000 words day on 26 days, and I haven’t broken the chain. Here’s the photographic evidence: 

Every cross represents a minimum of 200 words, and where there is also a dot in the box, it means I hit my target of 1000 words.  It’s become such a point of honour now, that I get twitchy every morning until I’ve done my 200 words. Some days, I know that life will get in the way and that’ll be the only writing I do that day, but at least I will have engaged with the novel, kept the momentum.  

It’s all too easy to avoid work, especially when you hit a tricky point. It’s true that sometimes a few days away from it can be beneficial, but it can also make it even harder to get back into, so I’d definitely recommend setting yourself a low, achievable target. To be honest, even if you don’t actually write anything, just opening the document and thinking about your novel means you’re progressing.

I first realised how helpful a visual stimulus can be when I did  NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) a few years ago. If you’ve ever signed up for this, you’ll know that when you enter each day’s word count, you see a lovely blue bar getting longer and longer as you move towards the target 50,000 words.  I wanted to do something similar when I started my next book, so I came up with the idea of having two glasses, one of which contained 90 glass pebbles. For each thousand words written, I transferred a pebble from one glass to the other, so at a glance, I could see how much I’d done, and how much I still had to do. I blogged about it here

Anyway, now I’ve come up with an even better idea – you’ll like this one! It’s in a similar vein to the pebbles, but I’m using coins instead.  I’m aiming for around 90,000 words again. So, one glass contains 90 small coins – 5p and 1p. When I’ve written 1000 words, one of those small coins goes back in my purse and a pound goes into the other glass.  At the end of the zero draft, I’ll have £90 with which to celebrate before I embark on a decent first draft.

So far, I’ve written 34,000 words, and sticking a pound a day in the glass hasn’t bankrupted me, especially as it’s not every day. It’s no accident that I’ve used champagne glasses, because I reckon one of the first things I’ll buy out of that hundred quid is a bottle of champagne, then the OH and I will have a good night out on the rest.

So, next time I blog, I’m hoping the glass on the right will be a little fuller, and glass on the left a little emptier. I’ll keep you posted!

If you’d like to know more about me and my work, or if you’d like to sign up for a workshop or a ‘Space to Write’ day, please visit my website And it would be great if you would follow me  on Twitter and like my Facebook page

THE WRITING LIFE – attempting a detailed outline

In my last post, I talked about the huge decision to put the novel I was working on aside. I’ve recovered from the trauma now, although I’m still missing my lovely character whose company I’d been enjoying. I’ll go back to her, though, and in the meantime, I’m hoping the deepest parts of my subconscious will be playing around with ideas for her story.

In the meantime, I have a book to write. As I said last time, my agent has long been trying to persuade me to become more of a planner than a pantster. She suggested I write a detailed synopsis – not the one or two page selling synopsis you’d send to an agent, but a much longer document, possibly as much as six pages, showing how the plot develops, what the characters’ motivations are, where the dramatic events occur, and quite importantly, how it ends. I have tried several times to do this in the past and failed. But I promised I’d give it a go and so I settled down to the painful task of trying to wrench an entire story from somewhere deep within the creative part of my brain.

I won’t give away too much about the new book, but suffice to say there will be mention of crows, and this picture  really chimes with me in terms of the atmosphere, at least in the past strand of the novel

The first day yielded but a paragraph or two. It was vague, I didn’t know much about the characters, and nothing much was happening. By the time I forced myself to open the document again a few days later, I had a little more to go on. I’d started to feel pleased with myself when I’d written a whole page, until it dawned on me that everything I’d written up to that point was back story. Which is all well and good, because I do need to know the back story, but I was supposed to be writing about what happens in the book. I tried again over several days, adding little bits here and there, trying to work out what it was that motivated my two female characters.

What was nagging at me was that I was far more interested in one of these women than the other. And then I thought, so why am I not just telling her story from her point of view? Her story is so much stronger, and if I try to force a story on to the other character, it’ll show. Almost at the same point as I made the decision to stick to one viewpoint, I realised that Leah, in whom I’m the most interested, was in fact a character from a short story I wrote some years ago, but she had appeared to me in disguise and so I hadn’t recognised her. The moment I realised who she was and I remembered her tragic and rather frightening back story, everything seemed to fall into place.

I started to look forward to opening the document entitled Synopsis, book 4B, And within a couple of days I had written a 3000 word synopsis with all the major points in place and a possible ending  I read it, I liked it, it seemed to make sense. This has NEVER happened to me before, and so I naturally assumed that I was missing something. But then the OH read it, and he liked it. But he’s not a writer. So then I gave it to a couple of writing mates and they liked it too. And then, oh joy of joy, I sne it to my agent, and she liked it. My editor has yet to see it, but I’m feeling confident, and I’ve made a start, and given that I have the story mapped out, I’ve set myself a target of 1000 words a day which, so far, I’ve stuck to.

I’m so excited about this that I feel I have more to say, but I’ll leave it for another post.

Other things going on in my Writing Life at the moment:

  • Just finished the copy edits for What She Lost, which will be out in January, so that feels a step nearer. 
  • This coming Saturday, 23rd of July, is the last in the current series of How to Write a novel workshops. This one is called Steps to Publication – we’ll be looking at traditional, digital, and self-publishing, we’ll show you how to write a query letter and offer some one-to-one feedback, and we’ll also advise you on writing a synopsis. All for £40 for the day – it really is a bargain! Full details are on the workshops page of My website

That’s about it, I think, but please do follow me on Facebook or say hello on Twitter

THE WRITING LIFE – a great big scary decision!

So, major decision since my last post. After weeks of being stuck, hours upon hours upon hours of thinking so hard I thought my brain might explode, and more importantly, in-depth discussions with my agent, I have decided to put aside the novel I was working on (my fourth) and start something completely new. Arghhhhhhh!

I feel the need for a calming image here…

That’s better. Now, a few deep breaths…

Okay, so yes, that’s what I’ve decided. Altogether, I’d written about 70,000 words, 45,000 of which I really liked, although after chatting with my agent, I can see now that I’ve not quite shown my character on paper as she is in my head. That can be fixed. But what can’t be fixed without extensive rewriting and rethinking, is the story – or lack of it – which is why I’ve decided to put this one side, possibly for a couple of years.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that What She Lost, my third novel which is out in January, caused me some serious problems and it too, required extensive rewriting – I think I rewrote around 75% to 80%, and it’s now much nearer to the novel I had in my head when I started writing it.

Iris Murdoch said, ‘every book is the wreck of the perfect idea’ and that pretty much sums up my experience lately. It’s so frustrating to have an idea that is close to your heart, to have something to say that you feel is important and not be able to say it in a truthful and engaging way. I’m now pleased with What She Lost, but it did require an enormous amount of work, which I was only able to embark on after my editor and agent read the first draft and we had a long, creative meeting to thrash out some of the difficulties.

This time, my agent has read a sizeable chunk of my draft and confirmed my biggest fear – there wasn’t really enough to keep the reader turning the page. There are other problems too, of course, but I know how to fix those. The bigger issue is that my story just isn’t strong enough at the moment. This is partly to do with the structure, the order in which events occur, but I think I’ve maybe come at the whole thing from the wrong angle.

If I’m honest, what I have is interesting characters and an interesting situation – but that ain’t a story! So I need to do a lot more thinking in order to find a new way of approaching this novel. I’ve created a folder on my desktop into which I’ve put all my existing notes and drafts for that novel, and to which I will add whenever thoughts occur to me. In a couple of years from now, I hope to return to this character I love so much – I’ve called her Eunice Shaw – and create a story around her that I’ll be proud of.

In the meantime, I’m in the very early stages of exploring a new idea. This time, on the advice of my agent, I’m going to attempt to write a detailed synopsis before I start writing. It’s something I’ve tried (and failed) to do before, but now, having had the experience of going so massively wrong with two novels, I’m going to do my level best to find a more efficient approach.

I will, as always, keep you posted on my progress (or otherwise…).

In other news:

  • Both my existing novels, The Things We Never Said, and The Secrets We Left Behind, Are on special e-book promotion for the rest of this month (June 2016). The Things We Never Said is less than a bus fare at 99p, and The Secrets We Left Behind is 1.99 – less than a decent coffee! (Click links to buy) 
  • Workshops: the last in the current series of our How to Write a Novel workshops is on 23rd of July and there are still places available. It’s just £40 for the whole day. This workshop will focus on how to get published – writing a synopsis, approaching agents, etc. We’ll also look at traditional versus self-publishing. These workshops have been so popular that we’ve decided to run the whole programme again starting in September. Full details  here

Also, as I say from time to time, it’s great when a reader takes the trouble to leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads – it helps authors enormously, and it really doesn’t have to be very long. In fact, I’ve just received one of the nicest short reviews I’ve ever had:

This book captured the modern day and the 60s beautifully. It captured everything perfectly. I don’t remember many authors names, I will remember Susan Elliot Wright.

Isn’t that lovely? Thank you, dear reader.

The Writing Life – working hard but …

I have to start with a newsflash because both my books are on a special e-book promotion for the whole of June. The Things We Never Said Amazon UK  is just 99p, and
The Secrets We Left Behind Amazon UK is just 1.99. They’ll be back to full whack on 1st of July.

Right, that’s that out of the way. Now, I see that it’s over six weeks since I last blogged. This is because I’ve been thinking of the blog as being about my progress on the current novel (number four, as yet untitled), and as there has been no progress – none, zilch, nada – there has been no blog. But when I thought about it properly, the blog is called The Writing Life, and sometimes, part of the writing life is having to accept that you’re not making any progress, despite still putting in the hours.

So how can I be working hard and not making progress? This novel started well, in that I love my 1960s protagonist and her story and I couldn’t wait to explore her life and its difficulties. The problem came when I tried to write the contemporary strand that I’d originally planned. Every time I tried to explain it – to my agent, to my editor, or to writing friends – they got confused. And yes, I had worried that it was a little complicated. Ultimately, I realised that not only was that strand too complicated, but it didn’t really fit with the 1960s story in a satisfying enough way, so I was going to have to rethink the whole thing.

And that’s where the hard work comes in. My agent impressed upon me the value of planning – something I find very difficult, if not impossible. Usually, I plan a little, write a little, plan a little more, write a little more, and that’s how I discover the story. But this time, I seem to have written myself down a blind alley. I have spent several weeks now trying to plot a second strand that will fit with the first and offer a satisfying conclusion. But I seem to be getting nowhere fast.

My agent has been an amazing and spent almost two hours with me on the phone a couple of weeks ago, trying to get to the heart of it all. With her usual insight, she has, I think, identified the main problem, which is that I’ve been trying to mix two genres – the 1960s story, which is an exploration of an unconventional relationship and the traumas and joys that accompany it, and the contemporary strand, which I was trying to make a bit more ‘plotty’. I’m pleased with the 60s story and think it is perhaps some of my best writing, but then my agent asked the killer question: ‘what is going to make the reader turn the pages?’

And that made me realise that while I hoped that a sheer love of the character and interest in her life would be enough, given that my first three novels (the third, What She Lost, is out in January) have all had some buried secret driving the narrative, a ‘quieter’ book might not go down so well. And yes, I’d love to write a book that does both things – explores the relationship in depth and also has a mystery at its heart, which is why I was going for the dual narrative again. But the secret I’d been relying on turned out to be too complicated, so I’m almost back to square one, and I’ve been thinking and thinking and thinking until my brain hurts, but I keep hitting dead ends.

In the worst case scenario, I put this novel aside for another time and I start something new. The idea terrifies me – I’ve written almost 70,000 words, although 25,000 of those were the contemporary strand that I now know doesn’t work. I have around 45,000 words that I like so it seems a lot to give up on. But having said that, I abandoned my very first novel at around 40k words and went on instead to write The Things We Never Said. And regular readers might remember the struggle I had with What She Lost – I ended up rewriting almost 80 per cent. So it’s not something I’m ruling out entirely. (although it really will be ‘putting aside for another time’ rather than dumping altogether.)

So, I’m still in that horrible phase of uncertainty, still trying to find a way through with what I’ve already written while vaguely sketching out other ideas should I have no alternative but to start again. My agent has kindly agreed to read the 1960s strand so that we can discuss it again, and while I hate revealing what I’ve written at this early stage, I don’t want to carry on blindly if it’s clear that it’s just not going to work. We shall see.

Have you ever put a novel aside and written a new one? What do you do when you find you’ve written yourself to a dead end? (Apart from drink gin, obvs)

Ooh, by the way – if you’re in or near Sheffield, there are still a few spaces on the two redrafting workshops coming up on Saturday 11th & Saturday 18th of June. If you book for one, is £40, if you book for both, it’s £70. Have a look at the workshops page of my website for details.

THE WRITING LIFE – the dual narrative

Shock horror, I’ve just realised it’s over a month since my last post! This is probably because there hasn’t been much progress since last time. Up until a few weeks ago, book 4 was going well – now I’ve hit a wall.

This novel, like the first three, is set partly in the past, and so I have to work out a way of finding my way into that story from the present. After thinking hard enough to make my eyes bleed and my brain explode, and even after chatting with my lovely editor, I still don’t have an answer. the only reason I’m not physically tearing my hair out as we speak is that this is exactly how I felt with book three (What She Lost, due out in January) and I did eventually find a way through.

So, there’s not much to say about the situation at the moment except that I’m horribly stuck and I’m hoping I’ll become unstuck soon. I’m off on a writing retreat this weekend, so will be focusing entirely on the novel and trying not to spend the whole week gazing out of the window and chewing my pen. I’ll let you know how it goes!

In the meantime, I thought you might like to see a pieceI wrote on the art of the dual narrative just after my first novel was published. I wrote this as a guest post on  Isabel Costello’s blog, and had a great response from people who told me how helpful it was. I returned to it this week in the hope that it would help me find a way through my current impasse – it didn’t!

But who knows, it might be useful to someone reading this blog, so here it is, exactly as it appeared on Isabel’s blog in 2013:

I’ve always enjoyed reading dual narratives, possibly because I’m greedy – it’s a way of feeling like you’re reading two books at once. So I knew when I started The Things We Never Saidthat I wanted to interweave two stories, gradually revealing the link between them.

Writers choose dual narratives for various reasons. You may want to present two sides of the same story, to show the same events from two characters’ viewpoints in order to make the reader question the accuracy of each, as in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Or you may want to show the same character in a different time period, eg Great Expectations. Often, we use dual narratives to highlight perennial themes or to show parallels and differences across generations or cultures. A really great example is Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, which is told as four dual narratives – the viewpoints of four Chinese mothers contrasted with those of their Chinese-American daughters.

My own decision to use a dual narrative was based primarily on my desire to show how events in the past can impact on the present, but also because I wanted to introduce some variety for the reader – as well as the two different voices, I wanted to show a different time and place. Initially, I wrote the novel in three parts – Maggie’s story, then Jonathan’s story, and then a short section tying things together. What I hadn’t realised was that although this is almost certainly the best way of writing the first draft – you need to know both stories in full before you can interweave them – it wasn’t a good way of presenting the finished novel. If your reader has spent the last hundred and fifty or so pages engaging with a particular set of characters, it’s then difficult for her to move seamlessly into the company of another set of characters without it feeling like a wrench. I’ve had this reading experience myself, and even when I’ve finally managed to engage with the new section, it’s often only after a sense of needing to persevere. Although I wanted my reader to be reluctant to leave each thread, I didn’t want her to feel disappointed at having to move to the other strand, and I certainly didn’t want it to feel like hard work to continue reading my novel! So I decided that the best approach would be to interweave the two narratives from the start.

It was a daunting task, and at several points, as I sat on the floor of my study surrounded by pages of the novel, I felt it was an impossible one. But then the novelist Jane Rogers gave me some very good advice: ‘Don’t look for connections initially,’ she said. ‘Just look for clashes.’ So I did, and happily I didn’t find any, so although my first attempt weaving the stories together (a Maggie chapter then a Jonathan chapter and so on) didn’t work brilliantly, it didn’t not work, so I was able to feel more confident about trying again. That was the point at which I abandoned my original chapters and printed out scenes instead. I was then able to restructure the chapters and make them much shorter. This allowed me to make most of the connections I was beginning to notice. For example, after a chapter in 1963 ends with an emergency dash to hospital, I was able to start the next chapter with a similar emergency dash in the present day; although this one has a completely different outcome. There aren’t many such connections, but it’s extremely satisfying when it happens.

As well as similarities, you need differences, and changing the structure of your chapters in this way allows you to juxtapose lighter moments with darker ones so that your reader is able to experience a range of emotions.

It goes without saying that the voices in each narrative must be different and distinct. You can do this by making the characters speak in a completely different way, perhaps reflecting a different social or educational background, but this can be limiting, so you need other ways of showing difference. My novel has a male and a female protagonist and both narratives are third-person, so it’s immediately obvious whose story we’re hearing at any one time. I perhaps chose the easy(ish) option; but what if you have two 40-something female characters of similar background who appear in the same time period? This makes it even more important to really focus on your characters, on their emotions, on the way they think and feel, because these are the true differences between people who may appear similar on the surface. And after all, it’s the novelist’s job to get to the heart of his or her characters.

It’s worryingly easy to become confused when reading a novel that jumps from one narrative to another, so it’s really important to orientate the reader right at the start of each new chapter. Maggie O’Farrell’s first novel, After You’d Gone, jumps about all over the place in terms of who’s speaking and when; but she’s brilliant at establishing who, where and when at the beginning of each new section. I’ve re-read that book a couple of times just to observe how she does it!

The dual narrative can be tricky, but it’s definitely worth the effort. Here are my tips for making it work:
  • Write each narrative separately first.
  • Introduce both narratives quickly so that readers know they’ll be moving between the two.
  • Keep chapters short.
  • Look for clashes first, not connections.
  • Don’t be wedded to your original chapters – look at scenes and shuffle things around if necessary.
  • Make sure voices are distinctive and different – the voice should come from the heart of the character.
  • Orientate the reader quickly the start of each new section.
  • Be prepared to have several goes at getting the order right – you’ll get there in the end!

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The title is often the first thing the author writes – it goes at the top of the page, just before ‘Chapter One’. In my case, however, it’s almost the last thing, coming somewhere between ‘The End’ and ‘Aknowledgements’. I am so rubbish at titles, certainly where my own work is concerned, and I think that may be because I’m so focused on what happens in the story that I’m less able to look at it in terms of what’s going to make the reader pick the book up.

Anyway, after many lists of suggestions and emails back and forth between myself, my editor, and my agent, we are all pretty much agreed that WHAT SHE LOST is snappy, easy to remember, and alludes to the various losses (not necessarily deaths) experienced by the two central characters, Eleanor and Marjorie. The book is about a mother and daughter and how their relationship is affected by the misunderstandings and miscommunications that occur between them over the years.

The title isn’t absolutely, positively confirmed yet – my editor wants to run it by the rest of the team at Simon & Schuster, but I feel fairly confident that they’ll all agree. There’s now a blurb on all the bookselling sites, too, which is very exciting (although it needs a bit of a tweak).

So, that’s where I’m up to with book 3, or, as I now think of it, WHAT SHE LOST.

Book 4 is coming along. I’m at 45,000 words now, and I’m very happy with what I’ve written (which makes a nice change for me!) However, as expected, I have now hit a bit of a wall. I’m on the last few scenes of the 1960s thread, and now I have to think of a way to come into that story from the present. The original idea I had simply didn’t work once I started planning it out properly, so I’ll have to think of something else. I have a few ideas, but as fellow authors will know, you can’t really tell whether it will work or not until you actually start writing it. I’ll keep you posted!

Since my last post, my Writing Life has included co-tutoring an all-day character workshop with fellow Sheffield writer Russell Thomas. We had some lovely comments from all 12 participants on the feedback forms, and Russ and I thoroughly enjoyed it, too. We’re running a series of How to Write a Novel workshops, all of which can be taken separately. The next one is on 19 March, and at the time of writing, there are three places remaining. It’s only £40 for the whole day – grab a bargain! Details of all the workshops can be found here

If you saw my last blog post, you’ll know that a couple of health-related books I wrote a few years ago have recently been reissued in updated form. When Someone You Love Has Dementia and Overcoming Emotional Abuse are probably the ones I’m most proud of among my non-fiction work, and it was particularly lovely this week to receive an email from a reader of Overcoming Emotional Abuse telling me that the book had changed her life and helped her on the way to to recovery and healing following an abusive relationship. It’s always lovely to hear from a reader when your book has meant something to them, but it’s even more wonderful to know that it’s actually helped them!

If you’d like to know more about me and my work, or if you’d like to book on one of our courses, please visit my website. It would also be great if you could like my Facebook page and follow me on