THE WRITING LIFE – NaNoWriMo V #100daysofwriting

I thought I’d give NaNoWriMo ( National Novel Writing Month. ) If you’ve not heard of this, it’s where you write 50,000 words during November – 1667 a day, which is quite a challenge. You can sign up to the website, track your progress, get little prompts and pep talks, and join the NaNo community for moral support. It’s a great thing to do, and I highly recommend it. But sometimes life gets in the way, big time. I started enthusiastically on 1st November, aiming to generate 50,000 words of material towards my new novel. I hoped that by simply pushing on to get the words down, I’d start to understand more about my characters and their story, and hopefully, some scenes would suggest themselves – material I could work on later.

Early days of NaNo, and it was going well…

But then my  daughter got a date for the operation she’s been waiting for. She’ll be out of action for a few weeks, So I’m on extended granny duties, plus extra cooking and driving. Oh well, I thought, it’ll be tough, but possibly still doable. Then some other family stuff happened,  and suffice it to say I found myself feeling too physically and emotionally drained to be able to produce that challenging number of words every day for a month.

I’d kept up  for the first eight days  but as I sat at my desk on the ninth, I could feel the pressure mounting, and as I thought about everything I had to do that day, I started to feel sick with dread. Then, scrolling through my Twitter feed, I stumbled on a tweet from author Clare King @ckingwriter  about writing challenges. Claire suggested that if NaNoWriMo  proved too much, a gentler option might be #100daysofwriting   The hashtag was started by  Jenn Ashworth who’d become mired in a horrible period of writers block following a bereavement. The commitment to #100daysofwriting was her way of gently easing herself back into her novel, and ‘falling in love’ with it again.  I worked out that if I made that day ‘day one’, then ‘day 100’ would be three days before The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood is published. I took that as a sign!

By the way, Cornelia Blackwood is now coming out in hardback in February – paperback will be out towards the end of the year. Check out this gorgeous hardback jacket!

Out on 21 February 2019 in hardback

The only commitment you make to #100daysofwriting Is to ‘turn up’ to the novel every day. Whether you write a thousand words or 50 words, whether you edit a chapter or tinker with a paragraph, or whether it’s just doing some planning or making a note. What counts is that it’s contributing to the novel. I’m now on day 27 and I’ve turned up every day, writing at home, in the library, in coffee shops, even on the train. It’s mostly rubbish, but maybe it’ll slowly lead me to the Good Stuff. I’m doing what I’d hoped to do through NaNoWriMo – I’m generating material. And if all I do one day is tinker, I’m not beating myself up over it.

I love writing in coffee shops with friends

One revelation has been that I have started writing by hand again. Initially, this was because I had to make a train journey and couldn’t carry my laptop, but I’ve discovered that I can write faster by hand, because it actually looks like crap (my handwriting is appalling and there are loads of crossings out) so I don’t agonise over It and get tempted to edit along the way. I just allow myself to write crap because it looks like crap, whereas I sort of expect nice, neatly typed stuff to be better.

Writing by hand on a train – a notebook is so much lighter than a laptop!

So, I’m definitely recommending #100daysofwriting as a way of generating material, and/or keeping your characters, setting, and story in your head from day-to-day. It means you don’t have that long break and have to spend the first half of the next writing session reminding yourself where you are. Give it a go!

if you’d like to follow this blog, scroll up the page and click on the ‘subscribe’ often on the right. To find out more about me, or if you’re interested in attending a workshop, please have a look around  my website . You can sign up to the mailing list to receive workshop dates and occasional book news, just go to the Sign-up page  You can also follow me on Facebook  and Twitter 

How much should you talk about your work in progress?

In a recent piece for The Author (the Society of Author’s quarterly magazine) Terence Blacker asked ‘what makes an author?’ and then listed what he sees as the criteria for ‘authorliness’. While I agree  with a great deal of what he said  (it’s a great piece – read it here: Terenceblacker.com ) I wasn’t sure how I felt about this item in the list:
– You never, if you write fiction, talk about your work in progress. You learn quite early that, once the steam is let out of a story through talk, it can never be recovered. When a would-be writer tells you every turn of the novel they are planning, you know they will never write it.
Is this absolutely true, I wonder? Over the years, I have found talking about my work to be quite useful. In fact, I encourage my students to talk about their work, too, and one of the most popular sessions, both with undergrads and with community evening class students, is the one where everyone outlines their plot (it may be a short story or a novel) to the group and we brainstorm the possibilities for development.  This works particularly well with short stories where the student may have come up with a striking image or an interesting character but is unsure where to go next. The very act of talking through the ideas with other writers often sparks possibilities that person may not have thought of if s/he had been all alone with a blank screen or notebook.   
I have one friend in particular who I thrash out ideas with. She and I use each other as sounding boards and we both find it helps enormously to discuss any problems we encounter in our novels.  It’s not necessarily that either of us will come up with a solution – although that does sometimes happen – it’s more that by discussing the work in detail, we’re often able to help each other to pin down and develop the ghost of an idea that’s been swirling around in our heads along with hundreds of others.
We authors are often so close to our own work that we may not see a solution that’s staring us in the face, whereas another writer can spot it instantly.  Also, someone who is used to the exploring the world of fiction themselves may be able to help us to see aspects of our own stories that we’re too close to notice, and this can help us to see the whole thing in a different light. 
My friend and I recently said that instead of just phoning each other to talk through difficulties with our work as they arise, perhaps we should plan a regular fortnightly session where we can chat about our novels on a regular basis, a sort of therapy session in which we can pour out our frustrations as well as possibly finding new directions for our work.
What I’m not sure about, is whether it’s a good idea to discuss your work-in-progress with non-writing friends. This is not because I’m worried that by outlining the story I’m going to somehow ‘let the steam out’, but because non-writers are less likely to understand what you’re trying to do with a particular piece and may come up with suggestions that are so far removed from what you had in mind that you end up saying, ‘no, I don’t think that’ll work’ so many times that your friend gets upset and stalks off in a huff.
On further reflection, I suppose Terence Blacker’s comment: ‘When a would-be writer tells you every turn of the novel they are planning, you know they will never write it.’ May carry some weight. First, he’s talking about a ‘would-be writer’ rather than a writer, and as we all know, there are many would-be writers who never get around to actually writing anything at all. Also, maybe talking about ‘every turn’ of a novel is not such a good idea – maybe that wouldmake it lose its steam. Although I’m not sure it’s even possible to discuss ‘every turn’ of a novel.
So for me, discussing my work-in-progress is not a problem – I’ve never had that experience of losing steam, of having ‘talked it out’.  Showing it to anyone else when it’s still at an early stage can be a problem, but that’s a whole different blog post!
So I’m really interested to know what you think. Has it ever happened to you that you’ve talked about your story in such depth that you no longer felt able to write it? Or do you find discussing your work in progress a useful part of your writing life? 
 For more about me and my work, visit www.susanelliotwright.co.uk

And to access a list of recipes and book reviews on this blog, go to: recipes and book reviews and scroll down the page (past the writing bits)

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

Creative Writing classes – worth doing? (this post applies mainly to FE courses – I’m saving MAs for a future blog)

 The Writing Bit

There’s much debate about whether creative writing can be taught, but does anyone question a musician  for talking piano lessons? A vocalist for having a voice coach? A painter for studying art?

Even a modicum of talent can be nurtured.  A good course can turn not-very-good writers into competent ones, competent writers into better ones and good writers into exceptional ones.  Every writer, no matter how inexperienced, can learn to sharpen their observational skills, develop their descriptive powers and generally improve and hone their craft.

How should you choose a class?

I’ve often heard potential writing students advised to find a class where the tutor is well-known or at least published.  It’s certainly something you should consider, but it’s not the only thing.  Being published doesn’t automatically make someone a good teacher. The line between publication and non-publication is often a fine one, which means there are a lot of good and even exceptional writers who are as yet unpublished, some of them incredibly skilled and inspirational teachers.  There are also a lot of published novels that really aren’t very well -written, and I don’t think it’s right that one tutor be considered better than another solely on the grounds that he/she is published.

As a student and as a tutor, I’ve met a number of CW tutors over the years. Many were and are excellent at what they do, incredibly generous with their time and knowledge. But I can think of at least three, all well-published, two quite well-known, who were appalling. They shall remain nameless! One was lazy,  only giving students’ work the briefest of glances, often in class while another student was reading;  another  halved the class in a few weeks by shredding the students’ confidence, and the other, on advising a mutual colleague about running a course said, ‘just tell them they’re wonderful and take the money.’!!

 So, here are a few questions that might help you decide:

  • Can you sit in on a couple of classes before joining? If so, you can see the tutor’s style and how the session works as well as chatting to the group about their experience of this tutor.
  • Is there a good mix of writing exercises, reading and feedback?
  • If the class only involves workshopping, might a writers’ group be more appropriate for you than a structured class?
  • Does everyone get a chance to read their work?
  • Is the feedback sensitive and constructive?
  • How inspiring is the teacher?
  • Does he/she address the various aspects of the craft of writing, or is the feedback too general?

A creative writing class will provide contact with other writers, as well as precious time and space in which to write.  A well-run class should also motivate and inspire, and can often lift your work to a whole new level.  Good luck!

The Reading Bit

After the mixed reviews of A Visit from the Goon Squad, I approached it with some trepidation, but I have to report, it’s brilliant!  The characters leap off the page, a disparate bunch with assorted flaws,  all of whom are connected by two key characters, kleptomaniac Sasha and her record-producer boss, Bennie, and all of whom we instantly care about, even when they’re less than sympathetic. The narrative doesn’t stay with Sasha or Bennie; it zooms off into other viewpoints, skips back and forth in time between past, present and future, and in one chapter, even takes the form of Powerpoint slides, a technique I thought I’d hate, but I loved it. The unusual structure emphasises the book’s main theme of time and what it does to the characters – the ravages of ageing, how life doesn’t pan out the way you’d planned it, and how sometimes, it’s cut tragically short. Have you read it? What did you think?

The Food Bit

Whether it’s the weather, (if you see what I mean) I don’t know, but I was gripped by an overwhelming desire to make cakes this week. Given that my husband is now a vegan, knocking up a few cakes isn’t quite as easy as it used to be, but there are a few decent recipes around, and this one for banana cupcakes is a favourite: Stir together 120g flour, 100g sugar, one tsp baking powder and a pinch of salt. Set aside. Whizz together one ripe banana, 80g vegan margarine (Pure make a good sunflower spread) 60g peanut butter & 80ml soya milk.  Mix the wet and dry ingredients together and spoon into paper cake cases.  Sprinkle dark chocolate chips or shavings on top (some dark chocolate contains milk, so check first) and bake at gas 5/190C for about 15 minutes or until golden. I like these best the next day, but Vegan Husband eats them warm. Instead of topping with chocolate chips, you can decorate with buttercream by whisking together some vegan sunflower spread and sieved icing sugar, then piping a pretty swirl on top.  Back to main courses next week.

What to do with a novel that’s ‘almost there’

 If you know your book’s good, if you’ve come pretty damn close to selling it but the deal is still elusive, you have four choices:  
  1. Keep trying — there are lots of small presses as well as mainstream publishers. Maybe the next editor it goes to will be the one who falls in love with it.
  2. Self-publish — a respectable option these days. Many authors self-publish very successfully. Not to be confused with vanity publishing.
  3. Put it aside and start a new book — good option if you’ve another idea that excites you. Many authors have actually published earlier novels after their debut.
  4. Put it aside for a substantial amount of time so you can really get some distance — at least six months is good, 9-12 months is better.

The fourth option is the one I chose a year ago. Most writers put work away for a couple of weeks as a matter of course, and even this little bit of distance helps show up things like typos, repeated words, clumsy sentences, unnecessary words/phrases, and tense slips  etc. I’ve just hauled my novel out of its virtual drawer after a year. I’ve read it again with fresh eyes, which sounds a bit like something you’d buy at a cheap butcher’s but you know what I mean, and I asked myself the following questions:

·         Does the narrative drag in places?

·         Are there areas where the pace is a little hectic?

·         Have I been telling when I should be showing?

·         Have I over-explained?  

·         Will my reader care about my characters as much as I do?

These are the questions I feel are appropriate to my novel – you may have others, e.g. does the story start in the right place? Whose story is it? Is there enough tension? Is the ending satisfying?  I’m not saying every writer needs to put every book away for a year – with a bit of luck, you’ll get that publishing deal on the first round of submissions! But if you’ve come very near to a deal but not quite made it and you know that you, your writer friends and even your agent are way too close to see the problems, putting the novel away for a big chunk of time might be the answer.

So, this week, I’ve been going through my manuscript with highlighter pens in various colours, marking out areas that need attention. I’m happy to say that overall, I enjoyed my novel, and there are bits that still make me cry. But there are areas that need improving, and I plan to tackle these over the next few weeks. Watch this space!

The food bit

This week, I’m only going to introduce the food bit, because the writing bit is slightly longer than I’d planned and I don’t want anyone dozing off.  I am passionate about food, and still occasionally work as a chef. My cooking life has become more interesting of late because of my husband’s interest in veganism.  Now, vegetarianism is easy-peasy; you can even do fine dining for veggies. But I’m finding veganism a little more challenging. I’m on a quest, people. I won’t be cooking vegan every day, I won’t even be cooking vegetarian every day – I still eat fish, and very occasionally, chicken – but I’m massively reducing my consumption of these and of dairy produce. So, I’m on a mission to produce delicious vegan meals, as well as the odd non-vegan meal. Again, watch this space!