How’s everyone else getting on with their New Year’s resolutions?

How’s everyone else getting on with their New Year’s resolutions? Even if you don’t call them ‘resolutions’, it counts if you made any sort of plan of action for the new year.  Last week, I publicly declared my intentions with regard to my plans for my working day in 2012, so how have I done so far? Hmm.
Write for at least two hours every morning: Well, including this one, there have been five mornings since I wrote that post. One was wiped out by a long dental appointment, and I’m taking a chunk out of this one to write the blog. (Really, I should use the afternoon for blog-writing, and I’ll attempt to do so from now on.) That leaves three, and although I hit my target on Thursday and Friday, I confess to spending Saturday morning browsing holiday cottages online. So, given that the only valid excuse was the dental appointment, I’ve had a 50% success rate (and also, of course, a 50% failure rate.)  Mark: C+ -you have made some effort, but not enough -must try harder.
Resume ‘Morning Pages’ – three pages of freewriting, preferably on waking: Oh dear. I have failed dismally here; haven’t done it even  once.  Crazy, because when I was doing this regularly, I found it very useful. Maybe I need to start getting up earlier so I can’t use lack of time as an excuse. Mark: F – dreadful! Appalling! Abominable! Must pull your socks up!
Do all teaching preparation, reading students’ work, writing reports etc in the afternoon: Yes!  Have restrained myself from trying to get these jobs ‘out of the way’ in the mornings and ending up allowing them to stretch into the whole day. This week, I’ve only had  reports to write for a couple of my Open College of the Arts students, and by leaving it until after my writing session to work on them, I’ve felt that I’ve achieved a lot more by the end of the day.  Mark A+ – good girl!
Restrict Twitter activity to two half-hour sessions during the working day: There have been four full days since this post,  I’ve managed to stick to this on three  days. On the other day, I realised that over an hour had passed with me just reading tweets and blogs, retweeting things and ‘chatting’. Twitter is a wonderful resource for writers, and the camaraderie and friendship is hugely supportive, but Twitter can gobble up a lot of time. I really intend to get to grips with this. Mark: B+ – a good effort.
Take one or two days off from writing activities each week. Use these to catch up with household stuff, and to do something nice as well: Well, I took yesterday off, did some laundry, went to the theatre to see a excellent production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company and had a Thai meal in the evening. So I think that counts. Mark: A- – good, but you didn’t do the shopping.  Don’t start relaxing too much; you have a novel to write!
The Reading Bit
Just a thought this week – have you noticed that when you’re reading a novel on a Kindle, it’s quite hard to remember the title of the novel and the name of the author? This is because you’re not looking at the cover every time you pick it up. Love my Kindle, but not sure I like this aspect.
The Food Bit
As promised last week, here is the recipe for Red Kidney Bean Dahl:
1 tin kidney beans
Half a tin chopped tomatoes
1 onion, sliced
4 cloves garlic
2 green chillies
1-2 tsp tomato puree
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
Oil for frying
Spices: 1/2 tsp each of cumin seeds and black mustard seeds, 1 tsp each of  tandoori masala, turmeric, and garam masala. If you like a bit of a kick, 1/2 -1 tsp chilli powder (I’d start with 1/2 tsp!)
Put the tomatoes, chillies and garlic in a blender and whizz into a paste. Heat oil in a pan, then add the cumin and mustard seeds and cook for a few seconds, then add the onion and fry for a couple of minutes. Add the blended paste and all ingredients except the beans. Cook for a minute or so, then add the beans and about half a pint of water. Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, and adding more water if needed.  I like mine quite saucy (if you see what I mean). Serve this with some boiled basmati rice and naan bread or chapatis.  There’s enough here for two if it’s the main dish, but we sometimes freeze it in smaller quantities and have it with, perhaps, a spinach and potato or green pepper and potato curry.

For more about me and my work, check out my website: http://www.susanelliotwright.co.uk

First post of 2012 – a writing plan!

Happy New Year! My apologies for late posting this week – I have a number of pretty top-quality excuses: a funeral, Christmas & New Year and the houseful of family that go with them, a vicious head cold, plus a couple of days of paid work.  I still have the cold but the other things are thankfully behind me now. I didn’t even get round to putting a tree up this year, and anyway, it didn’t seem appropriate to decorate the house while we were still so close to my father-in-law’s death in mid-December.
Without all the decorations and cards to take down, it should have made the ‘getting back to normal’ a bit easier, but I still seem to be struggling to get on course for 2012. Does anyone else feel like they’re trying to run up the ‘down’ escalator?
I haven’t even had time to make my New Year’s resolutions. Well, I don’t make resolutions as such, but I do usually start the year with some sort of plan of action with regards to my writing, and I’m usually ready to hit the ground running on the first of January (or the second, should the first be somewhat shortened by a hangover and a lie-in). But this year, we’ve somehow got to the third day of 2012 and I still don’t really have a plan, so I’m going to make one now, ‘live’ on the blog! If you don’t have your own plan yet, feel free to adapt mine. I really can’t faff about this year, because I have a two-book deal (hoorah!) and that means I actually have a deadline and need to deliver the second book on time.
Ok, so in 2012 I will:
  • Write for at least  two hours every morning, in two or three sessions. I find it’s better to have a time commitment rather than a word commitment, because there are some days when the words just won’t come, and I don’t see the point of beating yourself up every time you don’t hit a thousand words (or whatever). If I spend the two hours at my keyboard, thinking about my novel, I’m convinced something will happen. Won’t it?
  • Resume ‘morning pages’ as recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way  – three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing every morning, preferably on waking. This year, I might combine this with journal writing, so that the freewriting comes from what I’ve done, seen or thought about in the previous 24 hours.
  • Do all teaching admin, lesson preparation, reading students’ work, writing reports, student tutorials etc in the afternoons only, thus keeping the mornings clear for writing. I have a habit of thinking I’ll get teaching things ‘out of the way’ first, only to find they then stretch into the whole day.
  • Restrict daytime Twitter activity to two half-hour sessions a day – this will be difficult! There is so much on Twitter that is of interest to writers, not to mention the simple, pleasant chit-chat with other writers.  But Twitter can easily gobble up a morning.
  • Take one or two days off from writing each week. These days can be used mainly for boring but essential stuff such as shopping, housework, household admin etc, but should also contain something nice – coffee or lunch with a friend, a walk in the countryside, some time reading all the fabulous blogs that are around, or even a short train journey to somewhere new – anything to recharge the creative batteries and allow time for story and characters to develop. I’m particularly keen to take a few train journeys this year – going to new places always helps to sharpen my observational skills.
  • And finally, I’ve realised that by having three sections to this blog – the Writing Bit, the Reading Bit and the Food Bit, I’ve bitten off rather more than I can chew, so in 2012, there won’t be three sections every week, but there will always be  either something about writing, or a book review. And there will usually be something about food.
The Food Bit
This week, because of the excuses/reasons stated at the start of the writing bit, the food bit will be brief. It’ll be simply to tell you that as I type, Vegan Husband is downstairs knocking up Red Bean Dhal – does anyone know the definition of dhal? I always thought it meant ‘made with lentils’, but this is made with kidney beans. He’s made it before and it’s absolutely delicious, especially if you like your curries to have a bit of a kick – this should see off the last of my cold! He’s cooking some basmati rice to go with it, and we’re going to pop to the Indian restaurant down the road in a minute to get a sag bhuna and a garlic naan to have as side dishes.  I’ll get the recipe out of him later and will post it next week. The garlicky, spicy aroma is now wafting up the stairs, and there’s a glass of wine down there with my name on it!
For more about me and my work, check out my website: http://www.susanelliotwright.co.uk
  

When’s the right time to share your novel?

The Writing Bit
So, you’ve finished the first draft of your novel; you have a story, a world, and a beginning, middle, and – oh joy of joys – end. You’re probably bursting to show it to someone. You’ve written a book and you know that at least some of it is really very good indeed, so why not?

Although it’s natural to want to show your nearest and dearest how clever you are, there are a number of reasons why it’s best to wait. 

First, I should perhaps make the distinction between showing your work to writing friends for feedback and/or constructive criticism, and showing it to your partner/mum for a well-deserved pat on the back.

Showing it to writing friends:
Writing friends are useful for spotting sections that don’t work so well, repetitions, overwriting, lack of pace, inconsistency of tense, etcetera, etcetera. You may have shared individual chapters or scenes already, and if you haven’t, now is perhaps a good time to identify the parts of your novel that you’re not so happy with and get some feedback from people who know what they’re talking about.

Having said that, I’d still caution against showing the whole of your first draft to too many people at this early stage. You’ll need to ‘save’ readers for future drafts. We all get to the end of a first draft with the hope that it’ll just need a bit of tweaking and it’ll be ready to go, but in reality, it’s likely to go through significant redrafting that may include structural changes, adding and deleting scenes, even getting rid of entire characters. The problem is that once someone’s read your novel a couple of times, they too become too close to it to view it objectively; they may also be thrown by the changes you’ve made, because they remember the first version.

If you have writing friends who are kind enough to commit to reading your entire draft, use them wisely! Don’t give it to anyone until you’ve re-read it after leaving it for at least six weeks to ‘ripen’.  Then, when there’s no more you can do, give it to a writing friend whose judgement you trust – but only one at a time. There’s no point in giving it to four people (assuming you’re lucky enough to have four willing readers) only to find that the first one to finish spots something big that you know you need to change. If you use one reader at a time, you’ll have fresh eyes on every draft – much more useful than a jaded reader who’s almost as close to it as you are.

Showing it to your loved ones and non-writing friends:
This group of people tends to fall into two categories – those who’ll tell you what you’ve written is sheer genius, and those who’ll try to give you what you’ve asked for – honest feedback. The first group is of limited critical value for obvious reasons.

The second group can be useful, but I’d say don’t use them until you’re at or near publishable standard. The reason is that people who’ve never written a novel have no idea just how difficult it is and how much revision and redrafting is perfectly normal. When you tell a non-writing friend that you’ve written a novel, they may be happy to read it and give you feedback, but remember, the only terms of reference they have are published novels, and that’s the standard they’ll be judging you against.

Most people accept that writing a novel is difficult, but they often think that’s because of the sheer volume of words. When I started my first novel I had this idea that I’d start at page one, write through to the end, then do a bit of editing – even a lot of editing – and then it would be finished. I didn’t understand that this is something that only happens rarely for some lucky writers, and it’s the exception rather than the rule.

So your non-writing readers  may unwittingly knock your confidence because their expectations are just too high. The best advice is, I think, to wait. Use readers sparingly, one at a time, draft by draft. I wish I’d had this advice before ‘using up’ all my readers in drafts one and two!

The Reading Bit
No book review this week, but I thought I’d just mention how useful I’ve found the ‘reading journal’ a friend bought me for Christmas last year. I don’t know about you, but I can read a book, love it, but totally forget the story within a few weeks, so when I recommend it to friends and they ask what it’s about, I look blank. The journal allows me to keep a record of what I’ve read, who wrote it and what I thought of it – anything from a few details to a full review. So at a glance, I can tell you everything I’ve read this year with details of plot, characters and how the story’s told. There are also pages to record books I’ve leant to others, and a space to list books I want to read next. If no-one buys you one of these for Christmas, treat yourself!t
The Food Bit
This is the easiest, bestest Chocolate Pot recipe ever – and its vegan!
Simply melt 100g dark chocolate in the microwave or in a bowl over a pan of hot water (some dark chocolate contains milk, so check the ingredients first.) Then stir in 150ml Alpro soya cream and a tablespoon of brandy. When thoroughly mixed, pour into shot glasses and put in fridge to set. Serve garnished with a couple of physalis (those little orange fruits with a papery husk) just pull back the husk and set the fruit on top of the chocolate pots. Yum yum, piggy’s bum.  It’s very rich, so small servings are good.

For more about me and my work, check out my website: http://www.susanelliotwright.co.uk

NaNoNonsense – the aftermath!

The Writing Bit

This is the last post that will mention NaNoWriMo (until next year!) So, it’s over! You have 50,000 words of story and a hangover from the champagne you’ve been knocking back in justified celebration. What do you mean, you haven’t had any champagne? As I pointed out in last week’s blog, NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty advised us to purchase champagne at the start of week 4 so it could be chilled and ready for when we crossed the finish line. If you haven’t had champagne yet, buy some now. It’s THE LAW!

For me, it’s been an enjoyable but intense month. It’s been pretty time-consuming; the house is a tip, the laundry’s piled up and I’ve been neglecting friends and family. (I really must phone my mother.) And apart from the less-than-riveting prospect of catching up with the housework and laundry, I’m aware of a very slight ‘down’ feeling, too, a bit of a sense of anti-climax. All that writerly camaraderie is over, and instead of the buzz and excitement that goes with the daily challenge of hitting the word count, we’re left with the reality – a very, very veryrough draft.

I don’t know about you, but mine’s a bit of a hotch-potch, a Frankenstein’s monster of a draft with lots of bits that might work in themselves but don’t necessarily go together. Between page 1 and page 109, I’ve changed the ages of the two main characters; I’ve changed their parents’ personalities; I’ve turned a nice experience one of them has in the early pages into an unpleasant episode later on, and on page 100, or thereabouts, I decided it might work better if my characters were sisters rather than friends – a change that will alter at least the first few chapters.

So basically, it’s all over the place, and the ideas are still coming – and changing. But I’m not going to be too disheartened by the problems with my manuscript. The process of writing a novel involves a massive amount of rethinking, reshaping and rewriting, and the great thing about having taken part in NaNoWriMo is that I feel I’ve taken a bit of a shortcut – I was always going to write thousands of words that would end up being changed or cut; I’ve just done it much more quickly. 

My plan now is to print it out, read it through and see what I’ve created. I’ll use a highlighter pen to mark the bits I want to keep, then I’ll try to put them in some sort of order, even if it’s only ‘beginning, middle and end’. And then I’ll start the long, slow process of redrafting.

Did you take part in NaNoWriMo? How did you find the experience? And if you didn’t do it this year, are you tempted for 2012?

The Reading Bit

I heard M J Hyland speak recently at a writing Masterclass; she was incredibly generous with her insights into the writing process, and she was also enormously entertaining and good fun, so  I bought her most recent novel, This Is How – I often buy books largely because I like the author!

This Is How is written in the first person, present tense, from the point of view of Patrick, a young man who arrives to start a new life in a seaside town after a broken engagement. Patrick is a loner, at odds with the world. Clearly much brighter than the rest of his family, he studied psychology at university, but dropped out after a year in order to become a car mechanic, something at which he excels. Patrick knows where he is with engines – they’re less complex than people. Although Patrick would like to have friends, he finds it difficult to engage with people and to express his feelings. Throughout the novel, he says one thing while feeling something completely different. Often what he feels is intense and even violent anger, but it’s a repressed anger. Repressed, that is, until one day when he commits a single, violent act, apparently not realising the magnitude of what he’s doing until afterwards.

The novel then follows Patrick as the consequences of this spur-of-the-moment act unfold. The prose is spare and there’s a lot of dialogue. Patrick’s observations are brief and straightforward. The complexity of his thoughts and feelings is shown by what he says and does, rather than by us being privy to his thoughts. I can’t say a lot more about the plot without giving too much away, but suffice to say that the closeness with which we follow Patrick has the effect of making him a hugely sympathetic character, even though he often seems strangely detached and emotionless. Despite his sometimes violent feelings, he is usually polite and courteous to everyone, and when he acts on his violent impulse, his regret and guilt are almost palpable. Hyland writes Patrick so vividly that we feel almost part of him; we feel the physical sensations he experiences, seemingly in place of emotions. We even feel the unexplained pains in his neck and shoulders that plague him throughout the novel – a subtle touch suggesting a character who is contantly burdened.

This is not a thriller or a ‘secret-to-be-revealed’ type novel, and yet I still found it an absolute page turner. Patrick is a powerful, heartbreakingly sad and brilliantly evoked character, and he will stay with me for a very long time.

The Food Bit

This section is where I tell you how I’ve managed to feed Vegan Husband in a reasonably interesting way over the past week. I occasionally still eat fish and dairy products, so I’ll talk about non-vegan food now and again.
Father-in-law coming for Saturday lunch, so we’re going to start with a spicy butternut squash soup, then veggie sausages and mash with red wine onion gravy, followed by baked peaches and vegan ice-cream.
For the soup: peel and dice a butternut squash, put in a roasting dish with a quartered onion, a couple of cloves of crushed garlic, some fresh thyme and a sprinkling of chilli powder and salt. Pour over some olive oil and mix so that everything’s coated. Roast until the squash and onion are soft, then add about a pint of vegetable stock and whizz until smooth. Add more stock for a thinner consistency, check seasoning and serve.

For the sausage and mash: we love the Linda Mc Cartney veggie sausages. The trick is to make sure you don’t overcook them. For the mash: when the potatoes are cooked, add some unsweetened soya milk, a dollop of vegan sunflower spread, (or just some olive oil), and about a tablespoon of wholegrain mustard. Season to taste. For the gravy: slice an onion and fry gently in olive oil until soft. Stir in a little flour and cook for a minute or two, then add some strong vegetable stock, some red wine, a bay leaf, a good pinch of dried sage and a dessertspoon of dijon mustard. We’ll probably have some broccoli and carrots with this, or whatever veg is knocking about in the fridge.

For pud: cut a peach in half, remove the stone and fill the hole with chopped pistachios, hazelnuts or almonds (or all three). Sprinkle on some  muscovado sugar and bake in the oven until soft. Serve with ice-cream or non-dairy ice-cream – Swedish Glace is very good.

 

NaNoWriMo Week 4 – Champagne time!

The Writing Bit
So, we’re nearly there! I’ve found it helpful over the last three weeks to read No Plot, No Problem,  by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo. The book is full of useful tips and is designed to help you through this 30 days of madness.
At the beginning of the chapter that covers week 4, he says, ‘I’d like  you to put this book down, put on your shoes, grab your keys and go to the grocery store. Seriously. Go now.’ He then concedes that it’s ok to go later if you must, but the point is to buy a bottle of champagne ready to crack open when you cross the finish line (well, he says buy two, actually – he reckons your nearest and dearest deserve a bottle for putting up with your absence from family life, but I say, have a glass or two of mine and be grateful!)
Having done NaNoWriMo last year, I can tell you that you will be amazed at just how pleased with yourself you’ll feel, even if what you’ve written isn’t exactly great literature. I was childishly thrilled when, having uploaded my 50,000 words and been verified a ‘winner’, I got to watch a short video of the NaNoWriMo organisers outside their office clapping and cheering their congratulations. I know I’m sad, but Reader, I watched it twice.
Last year, I’d made sure I’d ordered a bottle of champers to be delivered with my grocery order, due to arrive between 3pm and 5pm on the 30th November. But then disaster struck; it snowed. Heavily. I got a text saying the delivery would be delayed by an hour or two. Ok, fine. Then another text warned that delivery was estimated for around 9pm. Ok, well, I was ready to celebrate earlier, but I’d survive. Then at 8.40, Customer Services phoned to say the van couldn’t even get out of the depot – there would be no delivery that night.  ‘But I’ve got champagne coming,’ I said. ‘I need to celebrate!’  ‘I’m very sorry,’ the nice man said, ‘but congratulations, anyway.’
Fortunately, my husband, who had cheered me on all the way through and did deserve some champagne of his own, to be fair, heroically donned coat, hat, scarf and gloves and set out to walk to Waitrose, which is a ten minute walk away in fine weather and closes at 9pm. People, it was a tense time. The snow was deep, the walking was tough; would he make it in time? And if not, would they take pity if he pounded on the door , perhaps thinking him in need of medicine for a sick child? Or even milk or bread? And if they then opened the doors, would he have the nerve to blithely pick up a bottle of pink fizz and declare it essential?
Happily, at 9.15, as snow-covered and red-nosed as Santa himself, my hero returned, and together, we celebrated my 50,000 words.
This year, I have to tell you, there is already a bottle in the cellar.
So, my fellow NaNoWrimers, get thee to the shops and be prepared! The last mile is, as they say, the hardest mile, so we need a considerable carrot, and I find a  good bottle of bubbly fits the bill rather splendidly.
Come December, we can have a look at those 50,000 words and see what we can do with them, but for now, keep calm and carry on!
The Reading Bit
Partial Eclipse by Lesley Glaister was published in the mid-90s, and I read it then for the first time.  Something made to go back to it this week and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s  only just over 200 pages long, but Glaister manages to get two complete stories into this short novel, as well as an interesting subplot. The first person narrator, Jenny, is in solitary confinement at the start of the novel, and with no mental stimulation whatsoever, she is forced to turn to her own memory and imagination and she takes us through two alternating stories. One  tells  of the events leading up to her crime, and the other is centred around Jenny’s ancestor Peggy, who was deported for stealing a peacock. This  vivid and gripping story is a product of Jenny’s starved imagination, and the parallels  with Jenny’s own story of forbidden love are gradually revealed.
I love many things  about Glaister’s writing, but in particular, the sensuality of it, the wealth of detail and the vivid and interesting characters.  Jenny’s naturist grandparents, for example, and her grandmother’s new friend Ursula, who turns out to be not quite what she seems.
As Jenny’s story unfolds, we see how she is drawn into a doomed love affair with a philandering older man, and we are able to see the things that Jenny cannot see. We know before long that this can’t end well, and indeed it doesn’t, but it’s not until very near the end that we learn the truth about Jenny’s terrible crime and it’s consequences.
If you like a dark tale and you haven’t discovered Lesley Glaister yet, you’re in for a treat!  
The Food Bit
This is the last week that I’ll be posting a list of what we’ve eaten during the week. Next week,  once NaNo madness is over, it’ll be back to a recipe or detailed look at one meal each week.
Saturday: Butternut squash and walnut risotto with rocket
Sunday: Pepper and mushroom fajitas with guacamole and spicy tomato salsa
Monday: Shop-bought nut cutlets for him and Quorn escalopes with cheese and leeks for me, both served with new potatoes and a salad made with carrot, orange, tomato, chilli and garlic.
Tuesday: Kidney bean dhal, sag aloo, basmati rice.
Wednesday: Peppers stuffed with risotto rice, vegan pesto, cherry tomatoes and pine nuts
Thursday: Vegan sausages with red wine onion gravy  and mash – we’ve had this a lot lately, but it really is the thing for a cold and blustery autumn night.
Friday: Oh dear – haven’t planned tonight’s yet. Probably a spicy tomato pasta bake with  mixed leaves.

NaNoWriMo Week 3

The Writing Bit

After my decision last week to swap what I’d written so far with something I wrote some years ago, I’m convinced that I made the right decision. (see my public confession in last week’s post!) I won’t say the words have been flowing easily – I’ve rarely had that pleasure – but I’m making steady progress, and I do feel more engaged with this novel, in spite of the fact that I know that much of what I’m writing now will end up being deleted.

I’ve been lucky this week in that I’ve been away on holiday, and am writing this in a tiny cottage in the Peak District. The village is so quiet that most of the time it seems deserted. Very occasionally, a car or a tractor goes down the street. Today, I’ve seen no-one but dog walkers and two women on horses, and yesterday afternoon, to my delight, a pig came trotting down the road. An anxious-looking man was in hot pursuit, and I wondered if the pig had come from the smallholding up the road that has a sign outside saying ‘fresh sausages’.
I found myself hoping the pig escaped; maybe it made friends with the golden retriever that was coming the other way. Or perhaps it found its way to another village where a widow and her lonely daughter took it in and kept it as a house pig, feeding it with apples from their orchard and lavishing it with affection for the rest of its life.

I digress. But allowing myself to invent a story for the pig reminded me that NaNoWriMo isn’t about agonising over whether that character would really do those things or whether that scene has any real relevance to the plot; it’s about being free to go where you imagination takes you, even if you don’t think what you’re writing is any good at the time. At the moment, my novel is ‘thin’, to say the least. But I’m allowing myself to go off at tangents, because sometimes that’s where you find themes, sub-plots and even new and interesting characters and storylines.

This week, I’ve tried to get ahead because I know that on my return, there will be emails to answer, phone calls to make, students’ work to read and comment on, and all the other things that make up ‘real’ life. So I’ve been having three writing sessions a day, aiming for a minimum of 700-800 words a time, and I’m roughly a day ahead now. Little and often is the trick!
Apart from that, my husband and I are relaxing in peaceful and beautiful surroundings, and doing nothing but reading, eating, drinking and walking the dog. But it’s back to the real world soon.
The Reading Bit

Sister by Rosamund Lipton is a clever, fast-paced psychological thriller.  Beatrice, the first person narrator, has abandoned her English life and family for an exciting, designer-label life in New York. She remains close – she thinks – to her younger sister, Tess, but when Tess goes missing, Beatrice flies home, determined to find out what has happened. During her search for the truth, Beatrice discovers some uncomfortable truths about herself as she realises just how little she really knows about her sister’s life.

The plot is intriguing and the storytelling is accomplished, keeping the suspense and tension at just the right levels. Unlike some thrillers, the book has some emotional depth, and I felt the musings on grief were particularly poignant. However, I didn’t find myself engaging with the characters as much as I’d hoped, and I struggled to sympathise with Beatrice. I found her frequent references to the closeness between her and Tess rather irritating – at one point I said aloud, ‘ok, I’ve got it!’ and her equally frequent declarations of love for her sister were cloying rather than touching.

There is a twist at the end that works very well (I guessed it before it was revealed, but that was ok) and I finally found myself sympathising with Beatrice in the last few pages. To sum up, a damn good thriller, but the characters lacked emotional credibility.

The Food Bit

As explained previously, throughout NaNoWriMo, I’m posting meal ideas (mainly vegan) rather than recipes . Even if you’re not vegan, believe it or not, these meals are actually very nice!

This week, we had:

Saturday: Sausages, sweet potato mash, onion and red wine gravy, broccoli.

Sunday: Soya mince with peppers, mushrooms and new potatoes, cooked in a sauce made from tomatoes, red wine, garlic and herbs.
Monday: Vegan ‘meatballs’ with spaghetti and spicy tomato sauce.
Tuesday: Mixed bean cassoulet.
Wednesday: Creamy mushroom tagliatelle.
Thursday: Curry night: aubergine and chick pea, sag aloo, aloo gobi, chapatis.
Friday: Tapas: (I’m quite proud of this one!) vegan ‘paella’,  patatas bravas, garlic mushrooms, aubergines with garlic and herbs.

NaNoWriMo week 2 – NaNoNaughty

12 November 2011

10:21

The Writing Bit

Oh dear. I considered doing a normal ‘keep-going-even-when-the-words-don’t-come-easy’  blog, but there’s a dark creature that lives in my brain called a conscience, and he (for he is definitely male) won’t let me get away with it, so here is my public confession: First of all, you should understand that I haven’t cheated as such, it’s just that the 15000 words I’ve actually written this month are now languishing in another document where I’ll pick them up at a later date, and the 15000 words that now reside in the document named NaNoNovel2011 are actually words I wrote in 2004. There, I’ve said it; I’ve imported words from a novel I started years ago. 

So how did I end up committing this NaNo sin? What happened was this: the second week of NaNoWriMo is notoriously difficult; this is the week when the first flush of excitement has worn off, and the words come more slowly. I was carrying on, though, trusting the process, allowing my fingers to be ready at the keyboard for when new ideas came through.

Then about halfway through the week, I’m walking through the woods with the dog, minding my own business and trying to plan my next scene (don’t think ‘whole novel’, just think about the next scene, and then the next…) when one of the two main characters from my abandoned 2004 novel suddenly comes jumping into my head, and what’s more, she’s done something bad; very bad. Then the other one arrives, and she has quite a lot to say about it all, too, and then a third character, who wasn’t very important in the 2004 version is also demanding attention and he’s turned out to be someone we really can’t ignore.

Well, I told them all to shut up, because I was busy with another group of characters, and that I would come back to them in due course. But that night, they all climbed out of the box in the back of my brain and started getting up to all sorts of things. In the morning, I went straight to my desk as usual (I find if I can write for an hour before breakfast it gives me a really good start on the day’s wordcount) but I just couldn’t get into what I was supposed to be doing. I tried again later, but those three characters had staged a sit-in and there was no way I could get past them.

So the upshot is, I’ve put aside what I’d already written for NaNoWriMo and pasted in a fair chunk of what I want to keep from the 2004 novel (it’ll need rewriting anyway) and I’m now writing on from there.  That’s my confession. Now I wait for the NaNoPolice. In my defence, I will have written 50,000 new words by the end of November, but it’ll be 15,000 of a new novel, and 35,000 of a novel already started. What do you think? Have I been very bad?

The Reading Bit

No proper book review this week, but I just want to urge you if you haven’t already done so, to read Stephen King’s On Writing. I’d say it’s a particularly useful book to read when you’re in the middle of NaNoWriMo. Not only are there great examples and tips on the actual craft of writing, but there’s some very encouraging stuff about the process of writing, and about the story being a ‘found thing’, something that the writer uncovers through the writing process . It’s a fabulously entertaining read, too.

The Food Bit

As explained last week, throughout NaNoWriMo, I’m just posting (mainly vegan) meal ideas. Even if you’re not vegan, most of these meals are actually really very nice, although I must admit, not all vegan grub is to my taste.
 
This week we had:
Saturday: went out to eat – Vegan Husband had the falafel burger with spicy potato wedges and salsa, I had a salad with cajun salmon & lemon goats cheese.
Sunday: vegan pizzas & salad (made these with ‘vegan mozzarella’, tomatoes, onion, garlic, olives, capers & artichokes)
Monday: my teaching night, so I had salmon and ricotta ravioli, VH had lentil dahl and rice (he eats a lot of dhal!)
Tuesday: vegan sausages and sweet potato mash with onion and red wine gravy.
Wednesday: vegetable pasta bake and salad
Thursday: burgers (made from Granose burger mix – v good!) in buns with soya cheese slice, served with chips and salad.
Friday: mushroom, pepper and cashew nut stir-fry with noodles and rice.

NaNoWriMo – the first week

During November, like many other writers, I’ll be blogging about NaNoWriMo because basically, I can think about little else at the moment. Normal blog activity will be resumed in December.

The first week is always exciting – you’ve decided you’re going to do it, you’ve told the world, and you’re now on the threshold of this wonderful achievement. You’ll have been thinking about your novel for a while, and some of you sensible people with have drawn up a plan or an outline. Others. like me, will have dived in with nothing more than a vague idea and a few characters. But with a bit of luck, the message ‘quantity, not quality’ will have got through and by now, you’ll have a substantial number of words nudging up that little blue line on your author page on the NaNoWriMo site.

 

This is how my week’s been so far:

Day 1:  Got up at 6.15, an hour earlier than usual, staggered to my study and switched on the computer. Resisted urge to check emails, twitter, blog stats etc. Looked at screen and wished I had a plot. Typed three sentences, deleted two. (This is what you’re NOT supposed to do – no deleting precious words until December!) Then I told myself that it really didn’t matter because whatever happens, I have nothing  to lose. Typed 730 words of rather poor prose in a very uncertain voice, then stopped for breakfast. Walked the dog, dealt with emails and stuff, then typed another 700 words. Broke off to move around and then typed a little bit more.  By the evening, I’d got to 1800 by typing little bits here and there. Voice not right; character not right; not sure I even need this scene!

Day 2: Sat at the computer and stared at it for a good ten minutes. Not knowing what to write can  be almost painful! Eventually, decided to write a scene showing one of my main characters having a conversation with her partner in which I attempt to reveal that he is controlling and that she’s in denial. This, and her thought and actions immediately afterwards, kept me going for the whole day’s word count!

Day 3: Slightly easier today. Getting into the dynamics of a relationship has proved fruitful and has suggested several new plot possibilities for the future. Started a new document named ‘nanonotes’  (seeing as how I still don’t have a title for my novel) which I now keep open all the time I’m writing so that I can make a note of things I might use later.

Today is day 4: Got up relatively late for me (7.40) wrote another 500 words before breakfast, this time from another character’s point of view.  Took the dog for a walk in torrential rain, which meant there were no other dog walkers around (lightweights!) but which also meant I was able to think about my novel. Came to the conclusion that this novel may be too ambitious – too many characters, too many stories. But because none of the stories is fully formed – and I know none of them will be until I actually start writing them – I’m not sure which of them to concentrate on. So, I will continue to do what I’m doing now, writing bits from difference viewpoints just to see what happens, what develops, and which of my four women ultimately pulls me into her world.

The Reading Bit

A brief review this week, because I’m still trying to keep my NaNoWriMo word count on track: My Perfect Silence by Penelope Evans starts with the powerful line ‘I was four when I killed my baby brother’. The story then goes on to show how this tragedy shaped the narrator’s life and  bonded her closely with her older brother Max, who becomes her protector.   Little more than a baby herself when the tragedy occurred, the narrator, Rose, doesn’t remember what happened and didn’t really grasp the magnitude of it until some years later, at which point she stops speaking.  Max continues to protect and speak for her, even when his bride-to-be is killed and Rose is considered the prime suspect. This certainly a page-turning read, and will probably appeal to Ruth Rendell and Lesley Glaister fans.

The Food Bit

I won’t be posting actual recipes during NaNoWriMo, but I thought it might be helpful for anyone stuck for veggie/vegan ideas to see what I’ve cooked for dinner each night. Some of these recipes will no doubt find their way onto this blog eventually – let me know if there’s anything in particular that appeals!

Saturday: Creamy mushroom tagliatelle with crusty bread

Sunday: Vegetable Chilli with rice and grated vegan cheese
Monday: My teaching night, so Vegan Husband cooked himself something with lentils while I had some prawn dumplings (reduced counter at Waitrose) and some stir-fried veg.
Tuesday: Spinach  and vegan cheese filo parcels, crushed new potatoes, tomato & onion salad
Wednesday: Olive and tomato penne, rocket, ciabatta rolls
Thursday: Soya mince with peppers, mushrooms, tomato, garlic, herbs and red wine, served with new potatoes and broccoli.
Friday: Friday night is usually either pasta night or curry night; tonight I think it’ll be curry – I have some aubergine, sweet potato  and chickpea curry in the freezer, so I’ll cook some basmati rice and knock up some sag aloo to go with it, then I’ll send VH down the road for some parathas or chapatis. Sorted!

Now entering the NaNoZone…

The Writing Bit

Ok, so everyone’s blogging about NaNoWriMo this week, and I’m not going to  try and be different  because frankly, that would be weird.  If you’ve never heard of NaNoWriMo, let me be the first  to welcome you to our planet.  NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, and it involves pledging to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days, the idea being that at the end of the 30 days, you have a rough draft or the bare bones of a novel. If you haven’t signed up yet, here’s the link http://www.nanowrimo.org/en/dashboardIt doesn’t cost anything, it’s great fun and it fosters a wonderful sense of camaraderie among the participants.

With only a few days to go, I’m frantically trying to prepare. Unlike many other seriously impressive NaNo-ers, I have singularly failed to write an outline for my novel, or even to come up with a title. I’m not sure where the story will start, and I only have a rough idea how it will end. I do know the characters though, because they’ve been milling around in the foyer of my brain for several months. I also know one or two of the themes, and I have at least three dramatic events lined up.  That’s it, though. What I’m not sure about is, whether A is still pregnant or she’s already had the baby; whether B is still alive; whether A & B are still in contact with C; whether C has ever forgiven B and whether any of them really understand the impact on them all of what happened to  D all those years ago…

So basically, I haven’t a clue. But when I start writing my 1700 or so words a day, I now something will come out of it. I hope it’ll be at the bare bones of my next novel, but even if it doesn’t turn out to be a workable draft, at the very least I’ll have something to work on. It may well be crap, but crap but be rewritten and rethought and reshaped, whereas a blank page is just a blank page.

And in order to prepare for this short bout of insanity,  I’m doing some practical preparation by cooking great vats of vegetable chilli, curries and cassoulets to put in the freezer; I’m doing a mega shop to so that I won’t have to faff around going to the supermarket too often; I’m cleaning the house (a bit – don’t want to take this thing too far) and I’m attempting to get all my lesson planning done in advance.  I’m having some physio to try and sort out my RSI (not a great way to start NaNoWriMo!) And  I also intend to tidy my desk and study before Tuesday, though realistically, that may not actually happen.

Finally,  I intend to spend a few hours immersing myself in what I do know about the novel by going through my most recent notebooks (the ones in which I’ve jotted down my thoughts about this novel) with a highlighter pen so I can mark anything I can use.  Then, in the last hours before it all kicks off, I will be having a jolly good think about where to start.  I’ve done it before, so I can do it again – and so can you! See you in the NaNozone!
The Reading Bit
Blackmoor by Edward Hogan is set against the backdrop of a close-knit community forced to abandon the Derbyshire mining village in which their parents  and grandparents grew up. The main characters are the Cartwright family,  George, his albino wife Beth, and their son Vincent.  In the first chapter, we learn that Beth Cartwright jumped to her death in Blackmoor when Vincent was a baby. It’s clear when we meet Vincent as a young teenager that he’s unaware of the circumstances of his mother’s death, largely because George seems unable to even speak of his late wife, and is barely able to speak to his son. As the story flips back and forth between Vincent’s toddlerhood and teenage years, the sad truth of his mother’s life and death in Blackmoor is gradually revealed.

There’s a lot to like about this novel: the prose is simple but elegant, the switches from past to present and from one viewpoint to another are smoothly executed, and there’s a wonderful sense of place. I felt the blurb on the back cover was slightly misleading (though that’s not the author’s fault). The blurb mentions ‘a series of bizarre happenings’ in the village’ and tells us that a decade later, Vincent ‘stumbles towards the buried secrets of his mother’s life and death in the abandoned village.’ I expected the story to centre more around Beth, whose neighbours believe she is ‘an ill omen’, and her connection with the ‘bizarre happenings’, but instead I felt slightly distanced from Beth, and indeed from her husband George, although I think we are meant to feel distanced from him, perhaps so that we can better understand how Vincent feels shut out by his father. Vincent is a well-drawn and convincing character, and I enjoyed his sections the most. I did enjoy this novel, but I didn’t engage as closely and consistently with some of the characters as I’d hoped to, and the plot never quite gripped me in the way that I thought it would.  Having said that, I’m glad I read it and I would certainly read more by Edward Hogan.

The Food Bit
Ratatouille crumble – this is a versatile meal that can be easily adapted to suit vegans and non-vegans, kids and adults. (Basically, just use margarine and real cheese if you don’t want the vegan version, and if you’re making it for kids, just cut the vegetables into much smaller pieces). First, make the posh ratatouille: you need an aubergine, 2 courgette, one each red, green and yellow pepper, one red onion, two cloves garlic and one and a half tins chopped tomatoes. Slice the garlic and set aside. Cut all veg into largish chunks, toss in olive oil, grind some sea salt and black pepper over the top and roast in a hot oven for about 20 mins, then add the sliced garlic and roast for another 10 minutes. When cooked, add the chopped tomatoes. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.

To make the topping: put about 50g vegan sunflower spread and about 50g flour into a blender, whizz for a few  seconds at a time until it resembles breadcrumbs. Set aside. Tear up a slice of bread and put into blender with some parsley if you have any, a handful of nuts (anything will do – I used pinenuts last night) and some grated vegan cheese. Add some salt and pepper, then whizz until the bread becomes crumbs and mix with the flour and fat. Spread the crumble topping over the ratatouille and cook in a medium oven for about 20 minutes or until nicely browned. Serve with mixed leaves if you’re feeling sophisticated, or baked beans if you want comfort food. This is enough for a family of four (or three big eaters).  I virtually guaranteethis will be a hit – let me know if you try it!

Tips on finding an agent

The Writing Bit
Ok, so you’ve finished your novel, written ‘THE END’ in big letters and poured yourself a  large drink. Now you just need to find an agent…
First, don’t even think about trying to get an agent with a first draft.  I’ve heard writers say they know their novel isn’t really ready, but ‘the agent can tell me what else I need to do’. NO!! True, most agents will give you editorial advice , but you are the author, and it’s your job to make the novel as  near-perfect as you possibly can before approaching an agent.  If you’ve just completed a first draft, put it away for a few months and get on with something else, then  go back to it with fresh eyes (see earlier blog – What to do with a novel that’s ‘almost there’) and you’ll be amazed at how the flaws will leap out at you. You’ll almost certainly need to  do some significant editing and redrafting before it’s actually ready. When it’s as polished as can be, it’s the time to start looking for an agent.
First, identify agents who represent authors writing  for a similar market. Check out novels that would sit happily alongside yours and look at the acknowledgements page where authors usually thank their agents by name.  You can then look up those agents and send them a query letter (more about query letters in next week’s blog) saying, ‘I see that you represent Jane Bloggs, whose work I admire. I feel my novel will appeal to a similar readership.’ It’s better to send to a named agent if you can, otherwise, your   work may end up languishing for months in the ‘submissions department’.
When I was seeking representation, a successful writer friend advised me to send a query letter before sending the submission; the agent will hopefully write back saying, ‘yes, please do send me your three chapters’, and hey presto, your submission is no longer ‘unsolicited’!
So, here are a few more tips:
  • Make sure you’re sending to agents who are likely to be interested – no point in sending sci-fi to an agent who only represents romantic fiction, or a children’s novel to one who represents adult fiction.
  • Send to five at a time, and make clear that you’re approaching other agents. As each ‘no’ comes in – and there will be some ‘no’s – send out another query. Keep things moving.
  • Send only what they ask for, i.e. First three chapters, first 50 pages etc. (although if there’s a sensible break on p53, it’s probably ok to send 53 pages.)
  • Check whether it’s ok to send by email, or whether they want hard copy.
  • Make sure you include a synopsis, and again, send what they ask for. Check guidelines on the agency website. Some want one page; some want three.
  • Don’t pester! Give them at least a couple of weeks before you follow up a query letter, and at least four weeks before you follow up a submission.  Do so by email and be brief and polite. If you still get no response, it’s probably best to move on.
  • Be grateful for any feedback and consider carefully what they say.
  • Don’t be disheartened – lots of successful novelists were rejected many times before finding an agent!
See next week’s blog: how to write a query letter

The Reading Bit
I found The Devil’s Music by Jane Rusbridge immediately engaging for three main reasons: the subject matter (I’m a sucker for a tragedy that blows a family apart)  the coastal setting, which is strikingly evoked  in all its weather-beaten savagery, and the language, which is consistently assured and  precise. 
Andy’s story is narrated in the first person, both as a child and as an adult, and his mother’s story is told in the less common second person. I’ve only come across straight second person narration a few times before, and it hasn’t always worked, but here the  mother’s second person voice is haunting and incredibly affecting. I remember once hearing a woman being interviewed about her experience of domestic abuse. I was struck by the fact that she referred to herself constantly in the second person, and I wondered if it was because  she couldn’t bear to inhabit the ‘self’ that had experienced such trauma; I wondered the same about this character, who has also had her share of trauma. Whether it was the author’s intention to suggest this distancing from the traumatised self, I don’t know, but it worked for me! 
The story centres around Andy, who, following his father’s death, returns to the family’s seaside holiday home to prepare it for sale.  Andy has been living in Crete, working in a taverna and trying to erase the sad life he left behind in England. When he returns to the very beach where, as a young child, he’d been left in charge of his baby sister Elaine, he is forced to face the memories that he’s been trying to escape: memories of Elaine, labelled ‘Mentally Deficient’ soon after her birth, of his abusive father, Michael, and of his depressed and grief-stricken mother who abandoned him and his other sister Susie when they were children. There are happier memories of his rope-maker grandfather, who taught the young Andy how to make rope and tie knots, an activity in which Andy still finds comfort, as well as a means of artistic expression. As the story moves towards its climax, there’s a truly surprising revelation, followed by a postscript in which we learn more about Andy’s mother, this time from a third person viewpoint. I found the ending both satisfying and moving.
Jane Rusbridge’s writing is vivid and controlled, and her attention to detail is meticulous, particularly the period detail, which was so subtly done that it felt effortless.  I enjoyed this book immensely!
The Food Bit
This week, it’s a non-vegan suggestion (back to vegan/veggie next week). Recently, Woman’s Hour ran a feature on ‘the perfect fish pie’. Well, I’m sorry Woman’s Hour, no disrespect,  but this is the perfect fish pie!
Smoked haddock pie (serves two)
Place half a small onion, one clove, and a bay leaf into a pan with 150ml milk. Bring to the boil, then lower heat and add about 350g undyed smoked haddock. Poach for about 5 minutes or until the fish is just cooked. Remove the fish, strain the hot milk and use it to make a white sauce: melt about 15g of butter and stir in enough flour to make a roux. Cook for a minute or two, then gradually add the hot milk, stirring all time. Simmer for about 10 mins, stirring often. Add 50ml single cream and a splash or two of white wine, then taste and season. While the sauce is cooking, boil about 350g floury potatoes for the topping. Flake the fish into a pie dish, chop one hard-boiled egg and add to the fish along with a handful of peas. Pour the white sauce over the fish mixture. When the potatoes are cooked, mash with 50g strong cheddar cheese and a dollop of Dijon mustard. Season to taste. Spread topping over the fish base and make a nice pattern with a fork. Brush with melted butter and cook at gas mark 6 (440F/200C) for about 30-40 minutes. Serve with a green vegetable and some grilled or roasted tomatoes.

For more about me and my work, check out my website: http://www.susanelliotwright.co.uk