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 – 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!

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THE WRITING LIFE – why do writers find it so hard to take a break?

A five-minute walk to the beach

I love writing, and I feel privileged to be a full-time author, but it’s still a job. This year, for the first time in 12 years, I went on holiday and didn’t take my laptop! And do you know what? The sky didn’t fall in!

holiday selfie

Odd, isn’t it, that we complain about writers not being taken seriously, about people thinking it’s easy, it’s self-indulgent, it’s not ‘real work’, and then we find ourselves not treating it as real work, not taking a break from our working lives like any normal person would.  This may of course be different for writers who also have a day job, but I now have a working life that is entirely focused on writing, whether it’s my own work, or whether it’s through teaching or mentoring.

And I love it, and I know I’m lucky to be doing a job that I love. But it’s only just dawning on me that I still need to occasionally take a complete break. I think I’ve been so immersed in writing for so long, that I am forgetting to look around at the world and see the things I want to write about.

blue sea, blue skies

So myself and himself went to Aberystwyth for a week (our holidays are always fairly modest – being a full-time writer means cutting back on stuff like holidays, new clothes, meals out etc). We usually go out of season, but this time, we went at the end of June, which happened to be the hottest week of the year! And oh my, but it was gorgeous – blue skies, blue sea, and a quiet, unspoiled beach.  We could see the sea from our apartment, and the sunsets each evening were stunning.

I spent a good part of the week either just watching the sun go down, or staring at the sea. Apart from that, it was just eating nice food, drinking nice wine (or prosecco) and reading. Every now and again, I kept getting a little twitch of guilt  – I should be writing! But then I reminded myself that I’m in the midst of attempting to fill the creative well again. if you follow this blog, you’ll know that I’ve just come through a rather horrible period of writers’ block, so in a way, I’ve had an enforced break, but it’s really made me think about my own creativity and how it works.  As writers of fiction, we should be observing the world around us and the people in it, but it’s also important to relax sometimes, and observe in perhaps a more passive way, so that we’re watching the setting of the sun and the changing of the tides without necessarily thinking about the words we’d use to describe these things.

…and another one

Anyway, we had a fabulous week, and at the end of it, I really did feel relaxed and refreshed – I can’t remember the last time that happened! We both felt genuinely sad to be coming home.

last night of the holiday

So now we’re back, and I’ve got over my sulking that we’re not still on holiday. I won’t say the creative well is bubbling to the brim with ideas, but I do feel in more of a relaxed state about the whole thing, and at least I’m now thinking about new ideas without getting my knickers in a twist. I’m not saying I’ll never take my laptop on holiday with me again, but I am definitely going to make sure I occasionally take a complete break from writing, even if it’s just for a couple of days.

Enjoy this gorgeous weather while it lasts!  If you’d like to be notified when I post in this blog, click the subscribe button to the right of the screen, and if you’d like to sign up for occasional updates on my books, events, and workshops, you can do that via the contact page. In the meantime, I hope you’ll catch up with me on Twitter or Facebook 

THE WRITING LIFE – a room of one’s own

Virginia Wolfe famously told us, ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ Well, the money bit is tricky – most of us have other jobs or at least rely on teaching and critiquing to keep the lights on. And I know that for many writers, men as well as women, having a room that’s exclusively for writing is a luxury they can only dream of. I know that I’m extremely lucky to have a lovely study-cum- office at the top of the house.

I have an ergonomically designed desk and chair, two monitors, a comfy sofa, a coffee table, lots of books around me – it should be the perfect environment for writing a novel. But what do I do at that desk? I do admin, then I faff around on Facebook. Then perhaps a bit more admin, before taking to Twitter. Next I’ll probably check my Amazon sales ratings and see if there are any new reviews. Then I’ll check my email again and if there’s nothing that needs answering, perhaps it’s time for a quick look on eBay. I probably need more ink, or a lightbulb, or something.  Then I’ll just have one more look on Twitter before I make a start. Chances are I’ll find a link to some fascinating  blog post and that’ll be another 15 minutes gone. You know how it goes.

A designated place for fiction
One of the articles I read recently was one of those ‘top tips for writing your book’ pieces. Now, I know as well as any other writer that the top tip for writing your book is just sit down and bloody well write it. But one of the tips was, don’t write your novel in the same place as you do your admin and social media – have a space that’s exclusively for writing. This made  sense. I can see how having a special  ‘writing place‘ and going to that place regularly to write helps to automatically switch your brain into writing mode. It’s probably one of the reasons so many of us like writing in coffee shops, as well as the fact that we can’t be distracted by domestic chores and we’re less likely to be distracted by admin and social media.

I love writing in coffee shops – I wrote most of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood in the coffee shop across the road – and as long as they ‘re not busy, many places don’t mind you sitting there with one drink all morning. But even one coffee a day has become unaffordable for me at the moment, though I still try to  go once a week. So I needed an alternative. After spending last Saturday doing a tour of the secondhand furniture shops, I found this little fold-away table for a fiver.

I’ve tried writing at the kitchen table, or in the sitting room, but there’s always something The House wants me to do. Fortunately my ‘room at the top’ is divided into two with a plasterboard wall so that guests can stay overnight without feeling as though they’re sleeping in an office. It’s a small space, not big enough for a proper desk, but perfect for this little fold-up.

Trick your brain into focusing on fiction
So I can still be tucked away at the top of the house, but I can close the door to my study (when the dog isn’t demanding it be left open so he can be near the radiator and see me at the same time!) and I can focus entirely on the novel instead of being constantly tempted to check Facebook or Twitter.  It was also a conscious decision to work facing a blank wall – an attempt to trick my brain into thinking the most interesting things are happening on the screen.

As for whether that’s true, I can’t say at the moment because I’m in the very early stages of a new novel. That point where the confidence I had about it at first has disappeared, and The Fear has arrived. A quote from Iris Murdoch springs to mind – “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.” Ain’t that the truth!

Ah well, for me this is a normal state of affairs. I just need to put myself in that chair every day, switch on my laptop and step into my fictional world. It may work, it may not, but one thing’s for sure, nothing’s going to happen if I don’t try, and I’m pretty sure that reducing the distractions will help.

What do you think? Should we write fiction at the same desk where we pay the bills?

TTFN!

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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 – 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 – 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 – MORE REDRAFTING

Oh dear, I thought it was three weeks since my last confession – I mean blog post – but it appears to be four. Health issues have held me up a bit, including a bout of debilitating back pain from which I still haven’t fully recovered. Back pain is an issue for many writers, so it’s possibly worth talking about for a moment before I move on to my writing progress. We all know we’re supposed to get up and move around every 20 to 30 minutes, but how many of us do? It can take me an hour to get myself into ‘the zone’, so the last thing on my mind once I’m there is getting up and breaking the spell.

My son set up a clever little system on my PC where reminders to take a break flash up on my screen. It worked for the first day or two, then it got on my nerves and I turned it off. I always thought I was doing the right thing by ‘sitting up straight’, but my physiotherapist told me that was part of the problem – I was sitting up so straight all day that I was going to bed with my back locked. He recommended a good exercise for this: sit deliberately slumped, then with your right hand on your left shoulder and left hand on your right shoulder, rotate from the waist as far as you can go in each direction. Repeat a few times.

I do ‘core stability’ exercises too, but as soon as my back improves, I forget to do the exercises and it gets bad again. I clearly need to change the way I work. I’ve been looking into the idea of standing desks. At the moment, I’m improvising and have my laptop wedged on a high-ish, wide windowsill. I can’t to do much typing like this, because I have RSI in both arms, but I use voice recognition software so I can dictate and use the keyboard occasionally while standing rather than sitting. So far, so good. You forget you’re standing after a few minutes, and I certainly feel it’s better for my back.

And so to the novel. Regular readers will know I’m having terrible problems with this one, particularly in terms of structure. Over the last few weeks, I have spent many hours staring at the screen until my eyes hurt, trying to figure out a way to put the whole thing together.

Rearranging slips of paper always helps!

It’s one particular character’s story, that of the mother, that’s causing me the most problems. We need to see her past story from her viewpoint, but her present from the point of view of her daughter, who is the central character and whose own stories, both past and present, are told from her viewpoint.

In the end, I was feeling so despondent about finding a way to do this that I decided to temporarily abandon the mother’s story and just concentrate on how I was going to structure the daughters past/present stories. So I wrote a list of scenes, using a different colour for the scenes set in the past, then I cut them up and spent ages rearranging them into what I hoped would be a workable structure. Only then did I go back to the mother’s past story. I typed out the scenes I wanted to include – there are fewer of these than of the other two strands – changed them to a third colour, then cut them up and tried to intersperse them among the daughter’s past and present scenes.

I found I was feeling mildly less stressed simply by being able to see those scenes laid out roughly where I want them to be in terms of how I want the story to unfold. The problem I have now is finding a way of weaving them smoothly into the other narrative. I think I’ve come up with a way of doing that, but don’t really want to reveal it here. If it works, hopefully you’ll read it in the finished novel; if it doesn’t, I’ll be moaning on here and telling you all about it over the next few weeks!

I’m really struggling at the moment with lack of time, even though I’m virtually a full-time novelist. I  teach as well, but it’s very part-time – one evening class a week and some one-to-one sessions with MA students, so it shouldn’t dominate my time. Nevertheless, I seem to need a 36-hour day and a nine-day week, and I suspect my days would be quite full even without the teaching. Non-writers often imagine that authors sit at their desks for seven or eight hours a day just churning out words, but there are lots of other things we have to do. (I must blog specifically about this one day!)

Today, I’ve spent quite a while on emails, for example, and I often find answering an email will simply bring forth another email which will also need to be answered. Today, I’ve dealt with a query about an author event, questions on pronunciation from the American narrator of the audiobook version of The Secrets We Left Behind, an email from my accountant, and emails from three different writer friends (all on writing matters!) I regard Tweeting and Facebook-ing (can Facebook be a verb?) as part of my job, too, though I’ve been woefully inadequate in that area over the last few weeks.

Although it seems a rather bizarre thing to say, I’m looking forward to going on holiday for a week in May so that I can spend a bit more time on this novel!

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

MY WRITING WEEK – WEEK NINE OF 10

I said at the end of last week’s post that I knew this would be a fairly light week work-wise, because my son has been up from London for a few days so obviously I wanted to spend time with him. However, that’s my excuse for the first part of the week – he went home on Thursday evening, so…
Tuesday 20th, Wednesday 21st, Thursday 22nd August
As above, not much work done on the novel during these three days, although I have been thinking about it a lot, particularly in terms of structure. At the moment, the story is told chronologically from two third person viewpoints, but with quite big jumps in time. I’m now wondering whether the time jumps might be better handled by a slightly different form of narrative, and I’m considering incorporating the diary of one character to cover part of the story. Obviously this would mean part of the narrative would be first person, which would allow me to get right into the character’s head. I can think of novels that have been written entirely in diary form, or in letter and diary form, but I couldn’t think of any in the form I’m thinking of.
When I’m considering a particular structure for the novel, the first thing I do is to try and find out if anyone else has tried it, how they did it and how well it works. So I got onto Twitter and asked the wonderfully supportive and generous network of writers (who regularly keep me from my writing because they’re all being so witty and interesting) if they could help.  I love twitter! My request was retweeted 30+ times and I ended up with a few suggestions, although many of them turned out to be straight first person narratives. There were one or two that might be helpful though, so I’ve ordered those. Interestingly, three other authors were in the process of writing their own novels in a similar form – all were finding it rather challenging! Anyway, no decisions yet.
Time spent on the novel over these three days: Not much, but I am going to allow myself to count some of the time I spent online in pursuit of helpful titles: two hours
Friday 23rd August
First proper day back at my desk since Monday. Got up early, raring to go, determined to get stuck in again. Failed. First, I dealt with emails. I always have this idea that I should get emails ‘out of the way’, but the reality is that my replies often generate yet more emails, so this ends up taking most of the morning. Why, I ask myself, do I do this first thing in the morning when I know full well what’ll happen? Does anyone else have a pathological need to sabotage their writing day like this? Honestly, I do my head in sometimes, I really do. Pause while I kick myself sharply on the shin. Anyway, then I opened up the document with the full intention of being pleasantly drawn into it again by rereading the most recent scene while eating cake and drinking coffee. During this cake-eating and coffee-drinking phase I came down with a terrible bout of procrastination so faffed about on Twitter and Facebook for most of the morning. While having lunch, I read a few blog posts, and that took me neatly up to the time I had to leave the house in order to meet a friend for tea and, um, more cake. Time spent: 0
Saturday 24th August
Late start today – heating engineer here this morning installing a bigger radiator in my study. This unseasonably chilly weather has reminded me how bone-achingly cold it can get up here in the winter, so I thought I’d sort that out now or, knowing me, come January I’ll be whinging about the cold and using it as an excuse for not writing. Up until now I’ve been using a little halogen heater, but the dog manages to soak up most of the heat from that.
Not sure I’ve moved forward today, but I spent some time reading parts of the novel to get myself back into it. Ended up doing a little editing, too, although I’m trying to avoid doing too much at this stage, because I don’t even know if those scenes will end up staying in the final version. Also divided up the two characters’ narratives and put them into separate documents then printed them out. This will be useful for me to look at in the context of a possible new structure. So, while I’m not exactly thrilled with my afternoon’s work, I’m not too unhappy.  Time spent: three hours.
Sunday 25th August
Okay, I’m not going to go into the excuses, but suffice to say the day ran away with me. Time spent: 0
Monday 26th August
Determined to make up for yesterday, so at my desk for 9.30. As someone on Twitter said, ‘Bank Holiday Monday, or, as we freelancers call it, Monday…’ I’m still very aware that I need to take apart what I’ve written so far and put it back together in a different order, and I’m also aware that I’m putting that off! Not indefinitely, you understand, but we’re going away for a week soon, and I’m planning to tackle it then. At the moment, with the distractions and responsibilities of domestic life, I’m finding it really had to dive into what could be a mammoth task. On holiday, away from the pressures of home, I might find myself actually enjoying the challenge! Anyway, used today to rewrite couple of scenes and I’m fairly happy with what I’ve got done. Time spent: 6.5 hours
Tuesday 27th of August

I don’t usually include Tuesday, but as I’m going on holiday on Friday, next week’s post is going to be at least three days late, so I’m extending this week a little. And it’s just as well, because today was a good day. I met a writing friend for coffee and wrote a complete new scene. What still isn’t clear to me, though, is why, when I’m sure we both spent an equal amount of time looking out of the window, he managed 4000 words in the time it took me to write 2000 words! Ah well. Maybe my words are better. (Fat chance!) Time spent: 3.5 hours
Overall
Just realised that having said last week I would set a modest target, I didn’t actually set one at all. It’s been a short working week, But even taking that into account, I still didn’t do very well with a grand total of 15 hours. Having said that, this is time, actually spent at my desk, whereas I’m thinking about the novel most of the time. In fact, as I write this, I’m nodding with tiredness having been awake half the night because the novel was buzzing around in my head.

Nice things this week
Lovely email from a reader who grew up in the same area as me and who said very nice things about both books.
The coming week
I’m going on holiday for a week on Friday to sunny Scarborough – it’s all glamour here, you know! Actually, sunny or otherwise, I don’t care as long as I can see the sea. Although it’s a holiday, I’ll be working on the novel most days and I hope to at least make a start on trying out a possible new structure. Because of the holiday, next week’s post will be three or four days late and will cover a longer period. It’ll be the final post in the series of 10 (in this particular form, anyway – I intend to continue charting this novel’s progress in shorter posts right up to publication) and will contain a summing up of the 10 weeks. I’m not going to set a target for the coming week, but I’ll report my progress faithfully when I post, either on Friday 5th or Monday 8th September.
New Amazon reviews:
The Secrets We Left Behind: Three new ones – one 5-star, two 4-star
The Things We Never Said: Only one new one this week – a 5-star

To find out more about me and my work, visit my website Or you can ‘like’ my Facebook page  or you can follow me on Twitter, @sewelliot