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 – the ‘ups’

I often talk about the ups and downs of the writing life, and I’m guilty sometimes of lingering on the ‘downs’, especially after a horrible period of real, full-on ‘writers block’ in the first half of last year.

But being an author is a mix of highs and lows, and while the lows can be very low, the highs can be very high. And I’m lucky enough to be going through a pretty high phase at the moment.

My new book, The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, is being published in hardback next week. I was nervous about this book because while it is the book I’ve always wanted to write, it tackles some difficult subject areas, and I worried that it might be too much of a risk. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I am over the moon with the pre-publication reviews.

Out 21st February 2019

Of course I want the book to sell well – I make my living through writing and teaching, so I’d be lying if I said the money didn’t matter. But this book in particular goes a good way to saying something I really wanted to say about new motherhood, so it’s even more important to me that it strikes the right note with readers.

So far, the response has been incredible. The reviews have been amazing, and that’s always going to put an author up on cloud nine. But what has really blown me away this time is the empathy reviewers have shown for Cornelia, and the positive way in which they’ve responded to the difficult subject matter.

At this point, I’d like to say a huge thank you to the book bloggers who take the time to read the books and write the reviews. They don’t get paid for this, and I know from personal experience how long it can take to craft a book review, so thank you, lovely book bloggers!

You can read some of those reviews here:

With just a week to go now until publication, I’m feeling very excited about my fourth ‘baby’ going out into the world. I’m loving these reviews and I’m absolutely thrilled that the book seems to be sparking some discussion.

It out in hardback in exactly a week – 21st February – then in paperback later in the year. On 28th of February, there will be a launch event at Waterstone’s, Orchard Square, where I’ll be ‘in conversation’ with my good friend and fellow tutor, the crime writer Russ Thomas, so if you’re in or near Sheffield, do come along, have a glass of wine, and say hello – all welcome!

If you can’t make the launch, you can still come and say hello on Saturday 2nd March when I’ll be signing books in Waterstone’s Meadowhall. (No wine, though!) I’ll be there from 11 AM for a couple of hours, I should think.

If you’re writing a book yourself, even if it’s only at the ideas stage at the moment, it’s not too late to sign up for our all-day Planning and Plotting workshop on Saturday 23rd of February – Hop over to the workshops page for full details. http://susanelliotwright.co.uk/workshops-critiques-mentoring/

Hope you can make it!

Susan x

THE WRITING LIFE – when writers can’t write, part four

In this installment, I’m going to talk about how, after the wonderful experience of writing The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, I developed what I think may be true writers’ block. (Click the links on the right to catch up with the first three posts in this mini-series)

After delivering the final version of the MS, I gave myself two weeks off, then started work on a plan for the next novel. This is how I’ve always worked – finish a book, deliver it, start a new book. I had an idea based on my own family, a story going back to the 1920s, of infidelity, illegitimacy, and true, long lasting love. But a novel can only be ‘based’ on a true story – you still need a plot.

After weeks of approaching the idea from different angles, I couldn’t seem to make it work, so I abandoned it and returned to an idea I’d been thinking about a couple of years ago, where a woman raises her sister’s child as her own. Long story short, I remembered why I abandoned it before, and it was the same reason I gave up on the family story – I couldn’t find a strong enough plot.

Another idea started to take shape, and I even had a rough idea of how it might progress. I began to feel excited, I had the atmosphere of the novel, the feel of it; I started to hear that wonderful ‘hum’ in the back of my head…

But there were two problems: 1. My agent thought an aspect of the idea was too similar to my previous novels – a fair point, which had occurred to me but which I’d willfully ignored, and 2. I couldn’t find a way into the past story from the present.

I spent weeks trying to make a plan, to repeat the experience I’d had with Cornelia Blackwood. But I couldn’t find a way of telling the story without giving too much away too soon. Unable to move forward and anxious about not writing at all, I made a start anyway, telling the present day strand from the POV of a supporting character and hoping a solution might reveal itself.

I enjoyed discovering the characters and exploring scenes in which tensions developed and backstory emerged. But 30,000 words in, I still hadn’t found a suitable way in to the past story. I had a chat with my agent who came up with some brilliant suggestions. I dived in again, quite excited by the new approach. But then I realised it had changed the focus so much that my original idea had all but disappeared.

So I put that one aside, too.  Initially undeterred, I began toying with two more ideas, but again, I couldn’t seem to pin down an actual plot. I had interesting situations and ideas for characters, but every time I tried to develop those ideas, to make some notes, or sketch out how things my progress, I felt an almost physical barrier.

Over the course of a few weeks, sitting down to work became harder and harder. The barrier grew bigger and stronger. It was like a massive iron plate in my chest that sent out weird impulses to my brain, making it impossible for me to pick up a pen or open a document on my computer. When I thought about trying to work through a new idea, I felt sick with fear and physically and mentally paralysed. When anyone asked me how the writing was going, my eyes filled with tears and I became too choked to speak.

I decided to stop trying to work out a new idea and just write a scene instead – I’ve always found this useful in the past when I’ve been stuck. The point is to ‘play’ with fiction, to rediscover the fun of creativity rather than get hung up on whether it’s going anywhere. But as I tried to do this, I once more found myself assailed by that same feeling of paralysis. When I did manage to force myself to write something, the writing was flat and toneless, dead on the page. The more words I added the more painful the process became. It was like trying to reanimate a corpse.

And I’ve included this image because I keep thinking of a line from an old Smiths song: ‘I can smile about it now, but at the time it was terrible’.

In the fifth and final part of this blog post, I’ll tell you what steps I’ve taken, what helped and what didn’t, and how I’m gradually, tentatively, emerging from the fog.

THE WRITING LIFE – when writers can’t write, part three

In the previous two posts, (scroll down the page to read them) I talked about getting stuck with each of my first three books and how I managed to get myself out of it. I started a fourth, but ended up putting it aside – my agent has since named that one ‘book three and half’. I’ll come back to it at some point, but I need to think it through a bit more, so it was the right decision. That decided, I started thinking of ideas for a new book four.

Making a plan
I’ve never planned a novel in such detail before. As I said in the previous posts, I’ve always known where I was going, but my usual method is to plan a little, write a little, plan a little write a little and so on. But my agent, who’s always been an advocate of planning, had seen the horrible time I’d had with books three and three and a half and wanted to spare me the same pain again, so she advised me (very strongly!) to plan this one in detail before I started writing.

I’d been wrangling with a new idea that had a fairly dramatic storyline, but I wasn’t clear about my protagonist’s motivation. And what was I trying to say? Each day I sat down and forced the outline a little further forward, a paragraph at a time, and I managed to develop a reasonable outline for the present day story. But I needed to explain why my character reacted that way, why she felt like that. Then one day, I remembered a short story I’d written years ago about a woman called Cornelia Blackwood and the crows she kept seeing and dreaming about. Quite suddenly, I knew that this was who I was writing about now; it was Cornelia’s story.

So although a great deal changed in the actual wriiting of the novel  – there were still plenty of surprises – I knew my protagonist’s backstory. So, not only did I know where I was going (the ending of the novel would be based on the end of the short story) but I also knew the big thing that had happened in the past, and it explained a lot about who my character was now.

Six weeks to write the plan
I’m not saying it was easy. The 3000 word story formed the basis for half a novel, so clearly there was a lot more work to do,  but knowing Cornelia’s history was key. Writing a detailed outline is like writing a novel in microcosm –  you have to let some areas breathe and develop on their own before you know what’s going to happen next. It took a while – six weeks – but  I ended up with a five-page the outline which I used as a guide.

A joyful experience
Writing the first draft took four months, and it was an absolute joy.  I had never found writing a first draft joyful before, but this time was different because I didn’t get stuck – yay! This must mean that finally, after four and a half books, I’d cracked it; I knew how to write a novel!

As it turns out, I hadn’t cracked it after all, but we’ll come back to that.

The flight of Cornelia Blackwood

The flight of Cornelia Blackwood

The editing and redrafting process took several more months, but I delivered the final version in the summer of 2017 to an incredibly positive reception. I was on a high – I’d written a book in a year from start to finish, my agent and editor loved it, and I was very happy with it myself – it was the book I’d always wanted to write, and it said what I wanted to say. But it’s a hugely emotional story, and when the euphoria of finishing it wore off, I was feeling quite drained.

I gave myself a couple of weeks off, but then I started trying to plan out a new idea. if I could repeat the experience I’d had with this book, I’d have a first draft of a new one by Christmas.

I’ll let you know how that went in part 4 tomorrow.