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

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.

 

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!