Why I write about maternal mental health in my novels – part 4

In Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, I’m re-posting the 4-part piece I wrote leading up to publication of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood   last year. It’s about my own mental health in the first days and weeks of motherhood, and why I frequently address this topic in my fiction. It’s too long for one post, so I’ve split it into four, and this is the fourth and final post . To read from the start, just scroll down for parts one, two and three.

Moving from psychosis to depression

After breaking down in front of the health visitor, I was diagnosed with PND, but I was still breastfeeding so I didn’t want to take anti-depressants, and by that time, the really scary symptoms had gone anyway. My GP was wonderful, and when I told her how frequently Emma was waking, she said, ‘The first thing we need to do is to get you a good night’s sleep.’ She prescribed something to help Emma sleep for longer. I’m sure this would be frowned upon today, but it was a turning point for me. That night, Emma slept for six hours, and when I woke I leapt out of bed and rushed to her room, convinced she must have died in the night!

When my son James was born two years later, I had a brief resurgence of the PND, and I became paranoid about nuclear war again, but I didn’t have those other symptoms that made me fear I was losing my mind. There are very few photographs of me as a new mother, and I can’t remember why – maybe I just didn’t want to be seen.

One of the very few photos of me as a new mum. This was James’ christening

Post-natal mental health issues are still not talked about enough, and back then they were barely talked about at all, which is probably why I’d never even heard of postpartum psychosis. I was vaguely aware of postnatal depression, but I knew little about it and felt slightly ashamed when I was diagnosed – other women had ‘baby blues‘ and got over it within a few days, so why was I so weak? I was embarrassed. I told no one except my sister and my husband, and ten years later, he tried to use it against me during our divorce, bringing it up as ‘evidence’ that the reason I’d taken the children and left him was that I was ‘mad’ (I left because of his controlling behavior and emotional abuse).

Trying to raise awareness

Much later still, I was happily remarried and making a new life. I trained as a magazine journalist, specialising in health and parenting and contributing regularly to women’s magazines, and the parenting and baby mags. I placed features on many different topics, but I couldn’t get anyone to take a piece on postnatal depression. It was important, I argued, to raise awareness. If new parents and their families recognised the symptoms of PND and the circumstances that might lead to it, there would be more chance of the mums receiving support and treatment.

A common response was, ‘we don’t want to frighten new mums’. I understood that, but it was my contention that if women were more prepared for the possibility that the first weeks of motherhood may not be as joyous as they’d been led to expect, they might actually feel less frightened by and ashamed of what was happening to them. I believed – still believe now – that the enormity of childbirth and the impact of new motherhood is massively underestimated. Not only does your body go through a major trauma, often resulting in minor or even serious injury, but there is also a major emotional upheaval and a dramatic change in lifestyle.

Too tired to smile

Back in the 80s when I gave birth, and even in the early 2000s when I was in magazine journalism, the baby books and magazines didn’t prepare women for any of this. The mum and baby shots you’d find in their pages were likely to make you feel inadequate and guilty. In those first weeks I barely had the energy to shower, let alone do my hair and makeup. The mums and babies in the photos were serene and smiling, but my baby seemed to cry all the time and I was way too tired to smile.

How different are things today?

I often wonder what would have happened if I’d given birth in the age of the Internet and social media. Maybe I would have Googled ‘hallucinations’ or ‘I can’t sleep because I’m scared my baby might die’ and found that I wasn’t the only one. Maybe things would have been easier if I could have chatted online with another mum at four in the morning when my baby wouldn’t stop crying and I was on my knees through lack of sleep. As it was, my best friend, who also had a young baby, lived too far away for me to get to easily. We’d talk on the phone, but during the day when things didn’t seem as bad anyway. Today, I’m guessing I would go on social media in the middle of the night to see who else was up, to compare notes and understand that I wasn’t alone.

Or maybe it would have been just as bad. Maybe Facebook would have shown me even more photos of perfect mothers and smiling babies than the magazines did. I’ve heard so many young mums today saying their friends seem to cope better than they do. Is it more likely to make you feel inadequate if the perfect mums in the photos are your friends? Maybe you’re even less likely to confide in them if they’re regularly posting photographic evidence of their maternal brilliance.

What if, behind those Facebook posts, some of those mums are really crying and desperate but afraid to say so because they think they’re the only ones?

Spread the word!

I truly think we can go some way towards improving the situation for new parents by talking more about the possibility that things won’t be as wonderful as they may have hoped, at least, not for the first few weeks. Both parents may struggle to cope with sleep deprivation and the change in lifestyle. New mothers may even develop a postnatal mental illness which could be mild, moderate, or even severe.

I still don’t understand why it’s such a taboo – talking about it doesn’t make it happen. It’s so important to recognise the possibility, and if you spot the symptoms, to get help, whether it’s for yourself, or for someone else.

I hope you’ve found these posts interesting and even helpful. I also hope you’ll read my latest novel, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood which, while inspired and informed by my own experience, is a fictional story about people who never existed. Maybe stories are one more way we can make it easier to talk about these issues.

The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood

The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood

To discover more about Postpartum Psychosis and how to get help, contact  Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP)  

To learn more about me and my books, please visit my website

THE WRITING LIFE – authors in lockdown

I’m shocked to see how long it’s been since my last post! What happens to the time? Anyway, the idea for this post came from something Northumberland libraries are doing to help promote reading and keep the connection with readers during lockdown. They asked authors what we’re reading and how we’re coping.  I’ve used my response as the basis for this post. 

 

Just because they’re pretty…

LET’S START WITH MY FAVORITE SUBJECT – BOOKS!

Some of my friends are struggling to read at the moment but I’m finding it easier to read than to write. It’s also the best possible activity to take my mind off what’s going on outside the front door. Since lockdown started, I’ve read six novels  and I’m halfway through another. I usually read roughly a book a week, so this is very slightly more than usual for me.

MY Lockdown reading

The Authenticity Project, by Clare Pooley. This has a clever premise (strangers getting to know each other through a notebook in which they’re encouraged to write their own truths). A light, easy read, and very charming.

My One True North, by Milly Johnson. I don’t read a lot of romance, but I fell in love with Milly’s writing a few years ago. Her books just get better and better, and this was an absolute delight, beautifully written and thoroughly uplifting – perfect lockdown reading. I loved it so much I felt genuinely sad when I finished it.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. This was our bookclub choice. We usually meet in pubs, but now it’s Skype with wine and crisps. Five of us loved it, the other two liked it, but it was a winner overall.

Heat stroke, by Hazel  Barkworth. This one’s out at the end of May. A heady, claustrophobic (in a good way) novel about the tensions between a mother and her teenage daughter when the daughters friend goes missing.

The Man on the Street, by Trevor Wood. I’m not a huge crime fan, but I really enjoyed this one. It had great character depth, and I loved the main character – an ex-military policeman who finds himself homeless and unwittingly witnesses a crime.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid.  This month’s book club read – I’d been meaning to read this for ages, and after I bought a new copy, I discovered I already had one on my shelves! This went down well – two of us liked it, the other five loved it.

The Covenant, by Thorne Moore.  I’m halfway through this historical drama, and I’m loving it so far. It’s a prequel to one of the author’s earlier novels, and it’s out this summer.. 

So that’s my lockdown reading so far. Next on my list is The Cazelet Chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I’ve been meaning to read these for ages, too – heard so many wonderful things about this author.  Hilary Mantel wrote an excellent piece about her recently in the Guardian. You can read it here: Elizabeth Jane Howard

How am I coping in general?

Well, it’s horrible this, isn’t it? I think we’re all a bit jittery. Like many others, I’m missing my friends and my family. Part of my writing life involves meeting other authors in coffee shops, either for writing sessions or just to chat about our writing projects. Although I quite like my own company, I also love being with others, so social distancing is hard. 

For the first few weeks, I was listening obsessively to news bulletins and press briefings, but I’ve slowed down on that now, and I’m careful what I read on social media. The outpourings of political rage, the horror stories and the tragic personal stories of loss and grief are quite a strain on my mental health, and there are days when I simply don’t feel strong enough. I’m allowing myself to admit that now.

In many ways I’m lucky – my kids are grown-up,  so no homeschooling or stir-crazy teens to deal with. My husband and I are used to working at home, and we quite like each other. We have a lab/collie cross called Norman, who keeps us company and joins us on our daily exercise.

Norman among the daffs

 

Norman nestling in the wild garlic

Writing

Workwise, it’s hard to concentrate. I’m in the process of working on an outline for my fifth novel, but one minute, I’m worried that it seems disrespectful to be making up stories while so many people are suffering, then the next minute, I’m thinking, we need stories now more than ever! Then there’s the financial aspect – we’re all suffering a massive drop in print sales at the moment, although hopefully, our e-book sales will do slightly better. Many of us supplement our income by running workshops or doing events, but of course, all of these have been cancelled.  I’m still mentoring, but it’s online or phone tutorials instead of the lovely face-to-face meetings. When I can’t concentrate on work at all, I bake, which is fine, but then I eat the stuff I baked, which is not.  And don’t even get me started on wine o’clock…

So, that’s how this author is coping. I’m a bit fed up, but I’m thankful to not be working on the front line, and I am profoundly grateful to those who are. 

How are you coping? Are you reading more or less than usual? If you’re an author,  how is this affecting your work?

*EDITED 2nd May  It seems the 99p deal has ended – sorry, peeps. I never know when these deals are going to start, or when they’re going to end. Ah well. It’s 3.99 now, so still half the price of a physical book (but obviously not as good as 99p!)

Let’s all try to find something to smile about,  and remember, there are always stories. Let’s take one day at a time, blow a big fat raspberry at Covid19, and settle down with a good book..On which topic, if I may be so bold, how about The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood?

Read some of the reviews here

Buy the e-book here

For more about me and my books, please visit  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 – 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 – I THINK WE HAVE A TITLE…

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
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THE WRITING LIFE – UPDATE ON NOVELS 3 & 4, REISSUE OF BOOKS ON EMOTIONAL ABUSE & DEMENTIA

I’m a little behind with blogging at the moment. There’s no good reason, no excuses, I just haven’t made myself sit down and get on with it. It’s certainly not that I don’t have anything to say, and when I leave it this long I end up having too much to say, so I’ll try not to waffle…

My ‘Writing Life’ since my last post has been quite good fun. I’ve given a talk to the Creative Writing MA students at Leeds Trinity, I ran a Planning and Plotting workshop with fellow writer Russell Thomas which, if the evaluation sheets are anything to go by, was a huge success, and I’ve had some very productive coffee shop writing days as well. I’m working on my fourth novel and really enjoying it, despite the fact that there are huge chunks of the story that I haven’t worked out yet. The current word count is 37,000. This hasn’t changed much since I last blogged, but that’s because I’ve done a lot of rethinking and cutting as well as new writing. I’m pushing on now, though, and hope to boast a more impressive word count in a couple of weeks.

As for book 3, which is due for publication in January 2017, I’m waiting for my editor’s final (I hope!) comments. I’m fairly sure there’s not much to do now, just some tweaking here and there. I hope to be able to announce the title very soon!

I focus exclusively on fiction now, but was previously a magazine journalist and in that capacity I wrote a number of books on health-related matters. I’m delighted to announce that new, updated editions of two of those books – the two that I’m most proud of for reasons I’ll come to in a moment – are being published today by Sheldon Press. These are  Overcoming Emotional Abuse and When Someone You Love Has Dementia

Overcoming Emotional Abuse has particular significance for me because I was in an emotionally abusive marriage for 12 years. I should make the point here (as I do in the book) that it’s not only women who suffer this type of abuse. It does seem to affect more women than men, though – or at least, more women have begun to recognise it.Writing the book was cathartic for me. I included some details of my own experience but was quite shocked at the level of response to my request for case studies. So many women who’d experienced this type of abuse came forward that I couldn’t include every story.

Anyone who is following the current Archers storyline will have some idea of what I mean by emotional abuse. Physical abuse is obvious to those being abused, if not to those around them. But emotional and psychological abuse is harder to acknowledge. The abuser wears down the victim by eroding confidence and self-esteem, isolating them from friends and family and controlling every aspect of their lives from where they go to who they see, how they spend their money, what they wear, what they eat and even when they sleep. People suffering this type of abuse will have become convinced that it’s their own fault, that if only they weren’t so stupid, clumsy, lazy, ugly, paranoid, tarty, sexually promiscuous/inhibited, everything would be all right.

When I escaped my abusive marriage in 1990, there was no law against stalking (my ex stalked me for three years after I left). It was good to see anti-stalking legislation introduced in 1997. When the first edition of the book was published in 2007, there was no law against emotional or psychological abuse. You had to wait for physical violence before the perpetrator could be prosecuted. (This type of abuse often progresses to physical violence, and all physical domestic abuse begins with emotional or psychological abuse.) I heartily welcome the new law against controlling and coercive behaviour which came into effect at the end of last year. It’s a shame it was too late for me.

When the book first came out, I received a handful of letters from women who had found it helpful. I hope it will continue to help anyone suffering this type of abuse, and I’m so glad that the new law and the Archers storyline are both helping to raise awareness of this subject.

I don’t have quite such a personal connection with When Someone You Love Has Dementia, although I’m proud of it because it was well reviewed and because it won a ‘highly commended’ in the BMA medical book awards 2010. In 2015, it was also chosen as part of the Reading Well Books on Prescription scheme.

So far, I’m happy to say that none of my loved ones has suffered from dementia, but I have a number of friends whose parents have this devastating disease. When writing the book, I interviewed people with dementia and their family members, and I was so affected by what I heard that I decided I wanted to further explore the subject in fiction. My third novel includes a dementia storyline.

Until quite recently, dementia was little talked-about and the research was massively underfunded. There is still a long way to go on both counts, but funding is improving, and we’re certainly talking about the subject more these days, thanks to high profile sufferers like the late Sir Terry Pratchett, and to some fantastic novels, such as Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey, Still Alice, by Lisa Genova, and The Memory Book, by Rowan Coleman.

Told you this might be long…

Final word: I’m running a series of 1-day How to Write a Novel workshops with Russ Thomas in Sheffield. The second one is this Saturday, 20th February – now full. But the others may be of interest! Only £40 for the day – bargain! Full details here

If you’d like to keep an eye on what I’m up to, visit my website, like my Facebook page or follow me on twitter

THE WRITING LIFE – FOUR WEEKS TO DEADLINE

Countdown to deadline: 4 weeks to go!

Regular readers will know that I’m blogging weekly now until my deadline on 31st of August. This is the deadline for submitting the current draft of my third novel (which I’m calling Draft 1.B because although i’s technically a second draft, so much has changed it’s more like a first draft) to my editor at Simon & Schuster, and my agent.

This book has been something of a challenge – it still is – but I think it’s coming together now, and although I know there will be a lot more redrafting when I have their feedback, I’m feeling a little more confident about it, in that it’s beginning to feel ‘do-able’ in a way it didn’t for a very long time.

So, I’ve just looked back at the goal I set for myself last week which was this:

My goal for this time next week is to made the tense changes and to have at least begun reading through from the start and making notes. I’ve started what I think will be the penultimate chapter, but I’m a bit stuck at the moment. l’ll keep going back to it over the next few days, but I’m not going to make that my focus just yet.

I’m still stuck on those last two chapters, but I’m not going to worry about that just now. I’ve finished making the tense changes, and I’ve read through the whole draft as it stands (minus the last two chapters and an epilogue) and made lots of notes on the manuscript, as well as a list of ‘jobs’ that need doing. I’ve also listed the chapters and put a little symbol beside each to show whether it’s in the present or the past, and I’ve noted the chapter length.

Here’s my editing table today. As you can see, I’m still, even at this late stage, unsure about one of the character’s names. I have a couple more ideas, so I’m going to do a ‘find and replace’ and see how the new choices feel as I’m working with them.

Looking at my list with the chapter length and symbol showing whether its past or present, I noticed that there’s a rather big clump of ‘present’ at the beginning of the book. It may be that it’s appropriate, or it may be that breaking that up would cause other structural problems, but at the moment, I’m looking for a way of bringing one or two earlier episodes up to the front, so that we start to dip back into the past a little sooner.

Although I’m working on Scrivener, which makes it relatively easy to move things around, I still prefer to separate the printed manuscript into chapters, which I’ve spent a good chunk of the morning doing. This makes it easier to see how the story will flow if I change the position of a chapter.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that some of my chapters are, in my opinion, anyway, overly long, so I’ve been reading through those to find appropriate points at which to split them.

All in all, I’m making progress.  I’m having to resist the temptation to start making the tiny, line-editing changes at this stage, because there are bigger things that I want to change first. Some of my chapters need quite a bit of trimming, so I want to do that before I start tweaking and twiddling with the sentences that remain.

My goal for next week is to have sorted out the order of the chapters and to have a draft, even if it’s rough, of the penultimate chapter. See you next week, when I’ll have just three weeks to go!

If you’d like to know more about me and my writing, or if you’re interested in attending my workshops, please visit my website, like my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter

THE WRITING LIFE – THE VALUE OF WASTING TIME

I was feeling a bit fed up the other day and absentmindedly picked these a few bits and pieces (some are weeds, I think!) from my teeny garden. Just looking at their prettiness cheers me up enormously.

Things are generally going much better with the novel now, and I’m up to 82,000 words of the new draft, and there are probably another 8,000-10,000 to write. Technically it’s a second draft, but if I’m honest, the rewriting has been so extensive that it’s more like a first draft. In fact, I worked out the other day that there are only about 15,000 words of the original version remaining, if that. Maybe we’ll call this one “Draft 1B”.

I’m struggling to get back into it at the moment having had an enforced few days away from my desk. One of the reasons for this was that I decided to change my workstation arrangement to make it easier for me to stand for part of the time while I’m working. I’ve read a great deal about ‘standing desks’ and thought I’d give it a go in an attempt to reduce my back pain.I wanted to set things up so I had the option to stand or sit. Re-arranging the monitors and keyboard meant unplugging and moving things around, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to sort out the electrics, which up until now have been a horribly jumbled mess of cables and extension leads.

So I arranged a couple of quotes, and now have proper office-type trunking and sockets along the wall at desk height. It looks much neater and tidier, and I can stand and type using the big monitor, or I can sit down, lower the keyboard and use the smaller screen. So far so good!

All this means I’ve lost some work time though, because apart from all the time spent disconnecting things, clearing space for the electrician, then rearranging everything and plugging it all in again, it seems my headset took exception to being unplugged and has decided to give up the ghost. As regular readers will know, I have severe RSI in both hands/arms, and if I type or am using the mouse for more than twenty or thirty minutes I suffer debilitating pain. Fortunately, I have a spare USB mike but then that decided to play silly buggers, too, so I had to wait until my son, who’s a technical whizz and without whom I would be tearing my hair out, had time to dial in to my computer and sort it out for me. He’s done that today – thank you James!

I’m writing this at 4.30 in the afternoon, so technically I could still get a couple of hours in on the novel, but you know what it’s like when you’ve slipped out of the ‘zone’. Instead of knuckling down, I’ve been faffing about, tidying my study and leafing through old notebooks. Interestingly, I found quite a few notes I made for the current novel that I’d completely forgotten about. Only scraps – a little bit of back story, perhaps, a character or location detail. These aren’t important plot points, but things that will hopefully add depth and texture.

To make sure I don’t forget about them again, I’ve copied them onto little pieces of card or scraps of paper and tossed them into a shoebox along with notes I’ve made more recently. When I embark on the Big Edit before submitting this draft, I’ll go through those scraps, discarding what’s no longer relevant, and working in the things I think will enrich the story. After my first novel was published, and to a lesser degree, after the second one, too, I kept coming across similar notes and thinking, ‘Ooh, that’ll be good for…’ And then I’d remember that it was too late!

So, it’s not been a complete waste of a day, and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in the novel again tomorrow. I have three, possibly four more chapters to write, then an extensive edit. Now the end is in sight (well, not the actual end, but you know what I mean) I’m really excited about getting those chapters drafted. One of the things I’m enjoying is changing the label on the Scrivener corkboard from ‘to do’ to ‘first draft’. I suppose I could just make a list and cross them off, which would undoubtedly be satisfying, but not quite as satisfying as this.

I plan to post it again in two weeks, by which time I hope to be working on the final chapter. Wish me luck!

To find out more about me and my work, visit my website, like my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter