REMEMBERING HENRY – A DOG’S LIFE

Instead of THE WRITING LIFE, this is a long-ish one-off post about my dog, Henry, so if you’re not a dog person, it might not be your cup of tea. At just nine years old, Henry went to that great doggy kennel in the sky late on Monday night. He became ill suddenly on Friday morning and deteriorated rapidly. We’re devastated. Losing a pet is not the same as losing a human family member – of course it isn’t  – but if you’re one of those “it was only a dog” people, I’d suggest you move along.

Henry 2009-2018

I’m writing this partly because I can’t concentrate on anything else, but partly as a sort of obituary. We’ve loved every dog we’ve had, but this one was something else, and the absence of him in this house is almost palpable. I thought it would be nice to record some memories and share some photos, and perhaps work out why Henry – sometimes ‘Henners’, occasionally ‘The Henster’ – was so very special.

He’d been through so much in his short life. He came to us aged ten months as a private rehome and when my husband, who doesn’t drive, went to collect him on the train (I was at work) he was taken aback by how big Henry was – he looked ‘medium’ in the photos, and we’d agreed we wanted a medium-sized dog because our house was very small. My husband was a bit worried I’d think he was too big, but he was so well-behaved that when they took the three-hour train journey back home to Sheffield together, the other passengers couldn’t believe that they hadn’t been dog-and-owner for years

The moment I set eyes on Henry, I knew I loved him.  It’s true he was a big lad. He was half Lab, half Springer, but people often asked if there was ‘some Great Dane in there somewhere’, and maybe there was – his paws were huge! What I saw was an overgrown puppy with the shiniest coat I’d ever seen and the silkiest ears I’d ever stroked.

He settled in quickly and everyone who met him loved him for his gentle nature, his constant smile, and his ecstatic tail wagging (more on this in a moment). He was a beautiful animal to look at, too, and people would often stop us in the street to admire him. He was big, strong, and well-muscled, and by ‘eck if he trod on your toe, you’d know about it. He weighed 36kg – just over five and a half stones (more on this in a moment, too.)

He was virtually fully grown when he came to us, but he was very puppy-like. He liked soft toys, and I loved how excited he’d be when I came back with a carrier bag from a charity shop. He’d ram his nose into the bag , then sit and wait like a Good Boy for me to hand him the teddy bear, then he’d carry it carefully to his bed and disembowel it with relish, tail going like the clappers. He wasn’t a chewer as such, though, and he never destroyed anything other than his own toys. We were enchanted once to find he had put both my husband’s trainers in his bed – not chewed, just there for comfort. Not sure cuddling the other half’s trainers would do it for me, but still!

He loved his teddies, even after chewing their faces off…

So, back to that tail. We’d had him about three weeks when we noticed drops of blood spattered up the walls. At first, we couldn’t work out where it was coming from, then one day I stroked him to the end of his very long tail and found it was bleeding at the tip. The vet warned us that dogs with Happy Tail Syndrome – yes, it’s a Thing – often had to have their tails amputated because healing was so difficult. We were horrified and wanted to try healing it first.  He was fitted with one of those plastic cones so that he couldn’t chew at the dressing, but that didn’t stop him from wagging it off.  Every time the dressing was replaced, it would be off again in no time, and his tail would start bleeding again. One day, we noticed the dressing had gone but we couldn’t find it – it was three inches of plastic tube, covered in cotton wool and wrapped in stretchy blue bandage.

Wet dog

We searched high and low but no joy. On the walk  to the vet’s for re-dressing, Henry stopped for a poo. Yep, there it was, three inches long and an inch wide, and it had (thank God) passed right through his digestive system without doing any damage.  It soon became clear that the only real option was amputation. It was horrible, and we felt like monsters. He’d come to live with us and trusted us, and we’d let them chop his tail off.  I still shudder to think of it. But he recovered quickly, the little five -inch tail he was left with healed and all was well.

Very wet dog

 

 

We enjoyed life with Henry so much. He loved water and would go crashing into it whenever he could. He loved food, too, and would snaffle up bread meant for the ducks, bits of discarded burger and anything else that took his fancy, and he wasn’t fussy about whether it was actual food – he would eat any old shit. And I mean that quite literally. He was fond of sheep and rabbit poo, and on one holiday in the Yorkshire Dales, he gobbled up so much of the stuff that his teeth were green with it and his breath stank of it. The first time he had a bout of vomiting and diarrhoea, we assumed he’d just eaten something nasty. He was quite ill and had to be hospitalised for a couple of days. He lost a little weight, but we assumed he’d regain it when he was better.

We started to notice he was prone to diarrhoea, so we were careful with his diet, but very slowly, so that it was barely noticeable at first, he began to lose weight steadily and relentlessly. It wasn’t that he had no appetite – he would eat an entire bowl of dry food in less than 30 seconds (we timed it). And although he always strived to be a Good Boy, sometimes he couldn’t help himself, and if I left him and unattended food in the same room, well, I think he felt it would be worth the telling off. One day, I’d made some Haloumi burgers as part of a meal to serve to friends later. I think I’d made ten, but by the time I came back from the loo, there were four.

Trouble was, he was so tall, he could easily reach the kitchen counter. The best one was when I was preparing the food for my daughter’s wedding. I’d spent all morning making two biggish dishes of brandied chicken liver pate. I’d decorated them with bayleaves and cranberries and poured clarified butter over the top and everything – they looked really good. Henners was asleep in his bed and was actually snoring when I popped up to the loo. When I came back, he was standing on his hind legs, licking the bejesus out of the pate. He’d had about half of one dish and had licked it into the most perfect curve. I shouted at him and saw the whites of his eyes as he glanced at me, but then he speeded up the licking, clearly having calculated that there was time to get a bit more down his neck  before I could get across the room.

On holiday in the Yorkshire Dales, probably contemplating a meal of sheep dung…

Most dog owners will be familiar with the situation where you’re telling the dog off and laughing at the same time. Once I’d told him off, part of me just wanted to let him have the rest of the pate, because there was bugger all else I could do with it, but maybe that would have sent the wrong message…

We started to notice he was getting thinner – his collar was loose and he didn’t look as chunky. We took him to the vet and weighed him. He’s lost 6kg – a significant loss. There then followed a long period of examinations and blood tests and x-rays, but nothing showed up. Treatment, which consisted mainly of steroids, didn’t seem to be doing very much. We tried different diets – he still had a hearty appetite – but the vet said it looked like his body wasn’t absorbing proteins. The weight continued to fall off him. When he hit 25 kg, we were at our wits’ end. The vet was completely stumped. We tried all the different prescription diets but by this time, he looked like a Greyhound and we had to reduce his exercise so that he didn’t burn too many calories. The vet feared that his organs would start failing.

At the 11th hour, Royal Canin brought out a new hypoallergenic food that worked. It cost us £100 a month to feed him (we were lucky that we’d recently received a small inheritance, because I don’t know how we’d have managed otherwise) More worrying was one occasion when there was a problem with production and we couldn’t get any more food for two weeks. Fortunately, we managed to eke out what we had, but given it was the only thing keeping him alive, what if that happened again? It wasn’t as simple as using the right ingredients, it was that it had been processed in such a way that he was able to absorb the nutrients.

It was a struggle financially, but he regained most of the weight. We did this for a couple of years before moving to raw feeding, which was a revelation – less than half the cost, and he never looked back. He maintained a healthy weight and a gleaming coat from then on. It’s a tribute to our veterinary surgery that in spite of all the unpleasant treatments and investigations, he still loved going there. He’d charge in, run straight up to reception, stand on his hind legs and plonk his paws on the counter, ready for a treat.

Enjoying the view in the Yorkshire Dales

In the last few years, he’s given us so much joy. He was with one or other of us most of the time, often sleeping next to my desk while I worked, or stretched out in the living room with us in the evenings. We had some wonderful holidays with him – he seemed to know when we were going on holiday and wagged his little stump like mad every time we walked into a holiday cottage. His daily walks, while we sometimes thought of them as a bit of a chore, were always a pleasure the moment we were out walking rather than just anticipating the walk.

Before we had Henry, we had a lovely little border collie called Jasper, and during that time, I thought of us as a couple with a dog. Very soon after Henry came to us, I realised I was thinking of us as a family of three. If you’ve read this far down the post, you’re probably a dog person, so you’ll probably understand. It seems most dog owners have one ‘special’ dog in their lives, and Henry was definitely ours. I’m not sure I’ve still fully taken in that he’s gone for good, and I know the next days and weeks are going to be difficult. As I said before, it’s not like losing a beloved family member, but it is a bereavement. I have lost a dear friend and companion.

I miss the comforting weight of his head on my knee and his great big dry paw in my hand; I miss lying on the floor with him and cuddling his warm, solid body; I miss the strange basmati-rice smell of him first thing in the morning; I miss the funny noises he’d make when he was excited, the exaggerated sighs when he thought it was time I took him out, the sound of him snoring. I even miss the sound of him eating. I vacuumed the house yesterday, and it occurred to me that it would probably stay looking clean and newly-vacuumed for quite a while. But right now I’d give anything to have the place covered in dog hair and muddy pawprints.

Grief, as they say, is the price we pay for love. We’ll get another dog, for sure, but we need to fully grieve for Henry first. It’s been nice writing this post and reliving some of the memories. My eyes keep leaking, and they will do for a bit, I should think. If you’re still reading, you’re probably a pet-person so you’ll have been through this and will know this sadness. I hope you’ve enjoyed some of my memories and photos. I’ll wrap this up with one of my favourite pictures.  It was another Dales holiday, and in this one, the way the sun catches his shiny coat makes it look like he’s wearing a blond wig. But the best thing about it is, you can tell by his eyes that he’s smiling.  And I’ll never forget that smile.

Henry 10.7.09 – 27.8.18

I’ll be back in a week or two with writing-related stuff, but in the meantime, you can catch up with me on Twitter or Facebook See you soon!

 

THE WRITING LIFE – some thoughts on Arvon at 50

Most writers are familiar with the Arvon foundation,  that wonderful organization that runs five-day residential writing courses and retreats in its four ‘writing houses’ across the country. For those five days, you live and work alongside 15 other course members and two published writers who lead the course.

Arvon celebrates its 50th birthday this year, and I’ve been thinking about  my experience with them and how it’s changed since I first went on a course at Lumb Bank, near Hebden bridge, in 2002. I love Arvon SO much! I’ve been to two of the other Writing Houses (Devon and Shropshire) but Lumb Bank always feels like coming home – I’ve been there many times since.

This may be one of my favorite sights ever!

I felt very much a beginner back then, and although the course was apparently suitable for beginners, I was terrified that everyone else would be much more advanced, and that I’d end up feeling embarrassed and humiliated.  I remember saying to my husband the night before I went, ‘I’m just going to get my head down and get through it.’  I wanted to improve my writing, so I was determined to stick with the course, no matter how difficult it was.

Lumb Bank

That week changed my life. I arrived on the Monday as a nervous, aspiring writer, eager to learn all I could and to get through to the Saturday morning as quickly as possible. I left as a writer, not really wanting to go home at all. It had been wonderful. I’d made new friends, I had more confidence in what I was doing than I’d ever had before, and I’d had a ball. I knew on the first evening that my fears were unfounded. Everyone at the centre was friendly and welcoming. The  tutors were amazing and put us all at ease immediately – like me, almost all the other participants were worried that they would be the least experienced writer there!

For those five days, it’s all about you and your writing – complete immersion! The mornings are spent attending workshops with one or both tutors, then it’s lunch – all laid out for you in the kitchen so you just help yourself. The afternoons are free to write, read,  or get feedback on your work in one-to-one tutorials.

The table set for the evening meal

Everyone eats together in the evening, and a considerable amount of wine is consumed during dinner. And after dinner. And sometimes before dinner, too.

On the first night, the centre directors prepare the food, but on the other nights, it’s prepared by four of the course participants – you take it in turns, so everyone takes part in preparing the evening meal once. I love this, because I’ve always enjoyed cooking alongside other people. Trouble is, I can be a bit bossy in the kitchen because I like to take charge – I used to be a chef, so it’s instinctive. I always declare this in advance, though, and there are usually people who want to do the same night as me because they don’t feel confident cooking for so many people. Thing is, the recipes are very clear, and the centre directors guide you through everything anyway, so it’s virtually impossible to mess it up. (Don’t tell anyone it’s easy, though, or they won’t let me be in charge!)

Anyway back to my first ever Arvon in pre-smartphone 2002. One of the things that had such a profound impact on me was the feeling of being completely cut off from the outside world. There was a payphone in the house, but no TV, no Internet, no radio, and that particular week, no one brought a newspaper into the house, though sometimes, people do.

Imagine it! You’re not bored – you have your writing, or if that’s not going well, there’s a library so plenty of reading matter, and the houses are all in beautiful locations, so there’s always the option of going for a walk. You’re not lonely – there are 15 other writers to talk to, plus the two tutors, and the centre directors., and there’s a kitchen stuffed with goodies. So you really don’t need the outside world – those few days are all about you and your writing.

Heading back down the drive to the house after a late afternoon walk

I did not want to go home; none of us did. We joked about hiding in the house, squatters’ rights and all that. Coming back on the train was a strange experience as the ‘real world’ came crashing back in. I felt raw and exposed, and as though I had been living in a dream for the past five days, like I had emerged from a magical mist of creativity. The train was full of people talking about things other than writing, people reading newspapers, people looking miserable. It felt almost as though I was being stretched on an invisible cord away from the Arvon experience, an attachment I didn’t want to break. And when I got home, much as I wanted to tell my husband all about it, part of me wanted to stay in the dreamlike bubble I’d been in since the previous Monday.

I’ve been back to Arvon many times since then, these days, it’s on retreats. I still love being there – especially Lumb Bank – but now we all have smartphones it’s very hard to re-create that feeling of being in a wonderful creative bubble. Even if I left my own phone at home, or if I managed to stay off social media, I’m fairly sure someone else would be checking their phone, talking about Trump’s latest tweet or something.

The view from the top of the hill

So I don’t think it’ll ever be quite the same again (apart from at the Devon Writing house, Totleigh Barton, where I gather that Internet and phone connection is still very patchy) but I still love Arvon, and I’m off on a retreat again in October, this time at  the Clockhouse retreat at the Hurst  Even with the real world and social media ever-present, I’d still say you should go on an Arvon course or retreat if you possibly can – I’m fairly sure it will change your life!

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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 – when writers can’t write, part five

Thank you for bearing with me over these five posts! I can’t believe that I set out to write a quick little blog post about writers’ block and it ended up at over 4000 words. The irony is not lost on me!

 

So picking up from from yesterday,  I’d got to a point where I felt mentally and physically paralysed, and even the mention of writing would have me fighting tears. I concluded that I had writers’ block. I wasn’t stuck on an idea or a plot point, it was that I couldn’t write anything more challenging than a shopping list.

What did I do about it?
The time had come for me to fess up to my agent. I was worried she was going to call me and say, ‘How’s the book going?’, only for me to burst into tears and say, ‘It isn’t!’  So I emailed her to explain the situation, and received a lovely, sympathetic and understanding email in return. She suggested I that I take some time off,  a month, maybe – some time away from even thinking about writing.

At first, I struggled with that idea – I’ve never been very good at taking time off. But eventually I saw sense. Given that I teach writing and had workshops to deliver, I couldn’t avoid thinking about writing altogether, but I did give myself a break, spending most of my time reading, or  (and this may not have been the best idea) looking up solutions for writers’ block.

Advice from the Guru Google
Much of the advice I found – ‘go for walk’, ‘use a writing prompt’ or ‘try 15 minutes of freewriting’ – is good advice for someone who’s stuck, but it doesn’t really help a block. There is some good advice out there, but you have to trawl through a lot of confusion between being stuck and being blocked.

Some advice was useful though, especially when it focused on healing, or on appreciating creativity or nature rather than on forcing the writing. Things like: visit art galleries, listen to music, walk in the countryside, meditate, do yoga, spend all day reading, go dancing etc. Activities which in the past I’ve probably regarded as skiving. I’m sure I’m not the only writer who feels guilty for taking time off. It’s crazy really, because even when we’re not actually writing (or doing research, or marketing, or social media) we’re still thinking about our characters and their stories.

So I relaxed. A little. I could probably have relaxed a bit more, but it was a start. I was anxious to start some kind of writing, so I decided to go back to the good old ‘morning pages’ idea, as recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artists Way and Dorothea Brande in Becoming a Writer.

The latter is one of two books I recommend to every beginner writer, as well as to writers who are struggling to write (the other is Stephen King’s On Writing: a memoir of the craft). Becoming a Writer talks about the psychology of being a writer, about how the unconscious mind has a profound effect on the ability to write. Brande talks in particular about the voice of the inner critic, which, while it’s an essential part of the editing process, can be a confidence-destroying little fecker when we’re actually creating fiction. (Or in my case, even while we’re still at the thinking stage.)

One way of doing this is to train yourself to write to order and with no quality control. Brande suggests at least half an hour first thing in the morning, then another 15 minutes later in the day at a time you’ve chosen. It’s strict – if you say you’re going to write at 3pm, write at 3pm you must  – not 2.55 or 3.05.  You write anything as long as it’s not nonsense. It doesn’t have to be fiction, it doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t even have to be grammatically correct. You just write, and you don’t look back at what you’ve written for at least a few weeks (if ever).

I did this for three weeks, filling a reasonably thick A5 notebook. It was a challenge, especially as the RSI in my hands and arms had flared up again. (It’s worse when typing so I use dictation software but sometimes the pain is severe in spite of this – I’m sure it’s another contributory factor to the block.) But it got me physically writing again, and that in itself has made me feel more positive.

I’m still a long way from starting a new novel, but I’ve jotted down a few notes – only brief thoughts, images, random situations. And writing this post has been an important step, because I don’t think I’d have been able to write it even a few weeks ago. Next, I’m starting work on a feature I’m planning to pitch ahead of the publication of Cornelia Blackwood in February. I want to have a draft in place now, because by the time the book is published, I fully intend to be working on a new novel. Then I have a week’s holiday in Wales, and for the first time in 12 years, I’m not taking my laptop! When I come back, I’m going to start thinking through ideas again.

So, that’s the story – much longer than I’d anticipated – of my writers’ block how I’m slowly coming through it. I hope you’ve found this interesting and useful, and if you’re going through something similar, my heart goes out to you. One thing that helped me enormously was hearing other writers talk about their own experiences of writers block, and that’s another reason I wanted to write this post. My thanks to them – I hope they know who they are – and to you for sticking with this week-long post!

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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.

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

So, I’ve gone from not writing anything for months to splurging out a blog post that’s so long it needs to be split into parts!  In this second installment (read part one here) I’m going to talk about how I’ve previously managed to break through those horrible moments of  being stuck on a first draft.

The Things We Never Said
I was stuck on this for months. But it was my first novel and to a certain extent, I was stumbling in the dark. With (initially) three viewpoint characters whose stories had to intertwine, I’d written myself up a blind alley.  I sat in front of the screen every day thinking so hard that I thought my brain would explode, then one day,  it dawned on me that if I took one particular character and plotline out of the equation, it would solve a lot of problems. But I couldn’t get rid of that character because her very existence had a crucial effect on the plot. So what could I do? Then it occurred to me that I didn’t need to  take her right out of the book, I just needed to minimise her storyline. So her appearance is now brief but still hugely significant for the remaining viewpoint characters. Once I’d addressed that, I was able to move on.

Tip: Might something similar work for you? Would removing a character and/or one or more plotlines solve your problem without the rest of the novel collapsing? It’s worth thinking about this with reference to each character and plotline to see whether the novel would stand up without it. Something you thought was essential may not be, and this could free you up to move forward.

The Secrets We Left Behind
Here I was telling too much backstory. I made the mistake of trying to explain all that had happened to the characters between the end of the ‘past’ narrative and the beginning of the ‘present’ – a period of over 30 years! I stopped writing when I realised that the story was spiralling out of control. After weeks of trying to cut down the number of words it was taking for me to find my way from the 70s to the 2000s, it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t need to explain everything!  So I dumped 20,000 words, went back to where the past narrative concluded and just typed ‘December 2009’ on the next page.  I carried on from there, dropping in the relevant memories and flashbacks at appropriate points.

Tip: when you find yourself writing a scene in order to link other more important scenes, ask yourself whether you really need that ‘linking’ bit. Try leaping ahead to the next scene without filling in the gaps. Can you drop in the important information by using memories or flashbacks?

What She Lost
This one was slightly different in that I got stuck between first and second drafts. I’d always thought that once I’d completed a draft, even if it was a crappy one, I’d be able to redraft fairly easily.  I hadn’t anticipated how bad that draft would be! I knew the heart of the story, what I was trying to get at, but I’d gone horribly wrong on how to get there and I’d lost the focus – new characters and storylines had developed and they weren’t working.  So how did I get out of it? I worked my way back through the draft so that I could identify the point at which things started to go wrong. That was when it occurred to me that several characters a new storyline had arisen from one particular scene. It was a scene in which an important secret was revealed, so I couldn’t lose it, but I could have the secret revealed in a different way, by the actions of different characters. So I ended up rewriting that scene completely and also losing three characters by giving their ‘jobs’ to  another character. So I essentially combined three vague, minor characters to make one strong and significant one.

Tip: make a list of all your supporting characters and identify their ‘job’  in the novel. What is their purpose? Could you merge two or three minor characters, thus creating one more rounded and significant character?

Book ‘three and a half’
Well, I never did get the breakthrough with that one. At least, not yet – I love the characters I created and they’re in a fascinating situation, but I got stuck because I didn’t know where I was heading and I hadn’t a clue what would happen in the end. I was enjoying the writing and hoping I would discover the ending as the story unfolded. This can and does happen, but it didn’t happen for me with this book, so I put it aside because I think sometimes that is the only sensible solution. I fully intend to come back to it at some point, but I won’t to try to ‘unstick’ the existing draft. I’ll start again from scratch having thought the thing through so that even if I don’t know everything that happens, I’ll know where I’m headed.

I then started thinking about book four, which became The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood and has been my happiest writing experience so far. I didn’t get stuck!! I’ll talk about why I think that is tomorrow, and what happened after I delivered the book. Hope you’ll pop back!

THE WRITING LIFE: When Writers Can’t Write, part one

I just had to include this image of writers’ block, partly because it  sums up how long It seems to be taking me to come up with a new idea, but also because of the crow.

Some of you will know that crows feature quite heavily in my new novel, and you may remember me introducing ‘Crow’ (below – he’s not real, by the way, apart from his feathers). He was a rather unusual present from my husband, who only yesterday suggested (tongue firmly in cheek, I should add) that maybe my writing problems had started when Crow arrived in our house. I know crows are often thought to be harbingers of doom, but I’m convinced that Crow is my friend, and that he definitely isn’t putting the mockers on my writing. He definitely, definitely isn’t …

Anyhoo, I set out to write a blog post and it turned into a fecking essay, so I’m going to publish it  in five parts throughout this week. Here’s part one:

Is writers’ block even real?
If you Google ‘writers’ block’, you’ll find the majority of articles and posts fall into one of two categories:

1. Claims that writers’ block doesn’t exist
2. Advice on how to overcome writers’ block ‘with these simple tricks’ (or whatever)

I should lay my cards on the table right away and declare that I’ve concluded that it does exist, and also that I’m afraid I haven’t found a simple cure, but I think I now know the difference between being ‘stuck’,  for which I do have some advice – and proper, full-on, writers’ block, for which I don’t. This series of posts is about how I came to that conclusion and what I’m doing about it.

I’d hoped that by now, the mists would have cleared and I’d be writing a cheery little piece about how I dragged myself out of the worst period of not writing that I’ve ever experienced. Sadly, I’m not out of it yet, but I’m starting to feel more positive, and even writing this has been a big step forward. I hope it might help anyone else who’s going through something similar.

Is It normal to get ‘stuck’?
With the exception of The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood, there has been a point with each of my novels at which I’ve been stuck. I also got halfway through another book but got so stuck that I ended up putting it aside indefinitely. My agent calls that one ‘book three and a half’ because I wrote it between books  three and four.  But was that writers’ block? Or was it that I hadn’t thought the story through properly?

I’m not necessarily suggesting it should have been planned in detail – though that’s probably the best way of avoiding this problem – but it was the first book I’d set out to write without having the faintest idea how it might end,  and the experience taught me a lesson: If you know nothing else before you start, at least know roughly where you’re heading.  It’s a lesson I foolishly ignored this time. I won’t be doing that again!

A glitch, not a block
Being stuck on your work in progress is horrible, and if you’re not a natural planner  – and I’m not – I’d say getting stuck on the first draft is par for the course. I’ve posted before about how I’ve sometimes felt sick with trepidation when thinking about my WIP, but I still don’t think it was true writers’ block. Each time, I had a rough idea where I was going, and the problem was how to get there, either in terms of the story itself or in terms of the way I was approaching it. It was a case of finding a technical solution to a technical problem. Each problem was different, so each solution was different, too, and I’ll talk about these in part two tomorrow. 

In part three, I’ll explain why I  think I didn’t get stuck on the writing of Cornelia Blackwood – you can read more about the writing of what I call the ‘zero draft’ of that book here:   http://susanelliotwright.co.uk/2016/12/20/the-writing-life-hurrah-great-feedback-on-the-zero-draft/ I’ll also talk about what happened after I’d delivered the manuscript and started to think about the next book.

Hope you’ll pop back tomorrow!

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!

If you’d like to keep up with my writing life or just have a chat, pop over and ‘like’ my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter or Instagram

THE WRITING LIFE – end of year reflections

If I’m honest, I’m writing this post as a displacement activity – I’ve already spent so long on Twitter that my eyes are stinging.  I’ve filled the last couple of weeks with preparations for Christmas – shopping, cooking, decorating the house,  and fannying about making and decorating a vintage-style Christmas cake. (Made the Santa last year)

I’ve also been running some giveaways on my Facebook page, which involved some lovely interaction with readers. If you don’t already follow my Facebook page, you can do so here. It’s all been incredibly enjoyable – a perfect excuse to not think about my next novel.  It’s not that I don’t want to think about the new novel, but I’m struggling to pin down a workable plot, so I’m giving myself until 2nd January off, then I really need to sort it out. I will of course be blogging about how hard it all is…

In the meantime, it’s cold and snowy outside, so I’m allowing myself to snuggle up in front of the fire, watch some telly and read some books.

I’ve just started on Uncle Paul, by Celia Fremlin. It’s the fourth novel I’ve read by this author and I can highly recommend it if you like something a little dark but rooted in the domestic. Celia Fremlin was writing mainly in the 50s and 60s, although there are later novels, too. She’s often referred to as ‘the British Patricia Highsmith’ so that gives you an idea. I’m only a few pages into Uncle Paul,  but I can definitely recommend The Hours Before Dawn, The Long Shadow, and The Jealous One. So pleased to have discovered this author.

I’m sorry to report that I’ve yet again failed to reach my modest reading target of 50 novels, but I managed 41, not including those I’ve abandoned – maybe four or five? If a book hasn’t grabbed me by page 50, I move on. So many books, so little time!

Anyway, a few crackers worth mentioning: The Power, by Naomi Alderman, The Dry, by Jane Harper, Birdcage Walk, by the late and truly wonderful Helen Dunmore, and – my absolute top read of 2018 – Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett.  I was transfixed by this book, which spans five decades in the life of a sprawling extended family. Sharply observed and utterly compelling.

I know I’m going to have to get back to working on my own novel soon, but I’m giving myself the rest of Christmas off (I’m stretching ‘Christmas’ right up until 2nd January). I’m also wasting time on Twitter and Facebook,  eating too much leftover Christmas food, and washing it down with Christmas booze.  Ah well.

There we are then, I’ve done something mildly useful in writing this post, because I suppose any writing is better than none. Oh,  and one last thing – my first novel, The Things We Never Said, is on a special 99p Kindle deal at the moment. I’ve no idea how long this promotion will last, so grab it while you can! Click here to go to the deal.

I’ll be publishing more posts about my  writing process and progress (or lack of) over the coming weeks and months, but in the meantime, enjoy whatever you’re doing, reading,, or writing over the final days of 2017. Let’s hope 2018 will be happy, peaceful, creative and productive for us all. Happy new year!  Susan x