If you’ve read last week’s post, you’ll know that my aim this week is for time spent on the novel rather than a word count, because there’s lots of editing/rewriting to do now.
Tuesday 5th August
Spent Tuesday wandering round York, could it be a setting? It’s great if you can make a place really work for your novel in terms of theme or plot, but what’s more important is that the reader can visualise or even, if it’s a real place, recognise it. It’s important to remember that what we as writers notice about a place may be different to what the characters notice. If my characters have lived in York all their lives, they’re unlikely to notice the minster in detail and they probably won’t go on the ghost walk. One of my characters might notice a particular street name, though. Or she might notice her surroundings as she sits quietly looking at the river. I make a mental note to notice sounds and smells, because these can really help to create a sense of place. Time spent: I don’t think today really counts!
Wednesday 6th August
Back from York so lots of emails to catch up on. Published the blog today (usually Tuesdays, but trip to York made it a day late). So, what with that, the Tweeting and Facebooking, then babysitting at 3.30, there wasn’t time to really get stuck in. But I did manage to print out what I’m now preferring to as the ‘Zero draft’. It’s not quite complete in that I haven’t decided on the ending, but this is the basic outline of the story. It’ll need a lot of rewriting because it’s taken me most of this draft to get to know the characters properly and to learn what the story is actually about. Now I know the characters and I’m in story, I’m going to write it properly. Started reading through it tonight. Oh dear, a lot of work, I think… Time spent: one hour
Thursday 7th August
Had some admin stuff to do today, also hairdressers (believe me, not something that can wait any longer!) But have been itching to get on with the rewrites. This is my absolute favourite part of writing a novel, because I know that the redrafting I’m doing now is going to start making the whole thing come together, even if it still needs a lot more work at the end of this draft. Started off with a session in Costa this morning – a Sicilian lemon muffin and a large Americano to get me in the mood. Then home later for a bit of Tweeting and admin, then solid rewriting. Time spent: 4.5 hours
Friday 8th August
Finished rewriting one scene and started completely reworking another. Allowed myself 30 min on Twitter first thing, then emails, then worked on the novel from 10.45 – 12.45, then lunch, then worked from 1.30 – 6.30 pretty solidly. Time spent: 7 hours 
Saturday 9th August
Still rewriting the scene I started working on yesterday – it’s almost become a completely a new scene and is taking me ages. I mention a real event in this scene, so I’m constantly popping back and forth to Google to make sure I’ve got the facts right. Using this real event needs to do more in the story than just help to show the period I’m writing in, so I need to make sure it’s relevant to what the character is going through at the time. Worked all morning, but then knocked off at lunchtime for boozy lunch with a friend. Time spent: 3 hours
 Sunday 10th  August
STILL working on that same scene. Think I’ve got it licked now, though. So I’m moving onto the next scene, which is massively affected by the previous one, and so again, is more or less a complete rewrite. This is hard work, but it’s the bit I most enjoy about writing – I know my characters and I know the story, so the rewriting is much more coherent than the original stuff that I spewed out without really knowing where I was going. As I’m writing this, there is torrential rain outside and howling winds. There is every chance that this weather will make it into the next scene! This being Sunday, I decided to start late (10am) to allow myself a little more reading time – I’m finally reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Then a break at 11.30 to go out with my other half for coffee and cake. Back at my desk at 1pm, but only worked for another couple of hours.
Time spent: 4.5 hours, which includes an hour working on the synopsis – a constantly changing document!
Monday 11th August
 Fairly straightforward day – half an hour on Twitter in the morning and another half an hour at lunchtime, but apart from that, steadily working my way through rewriting these scenes. Working on a scene that needs a fairly substantial rewrite, but really struggling to get it to do what I want it to do, so in the end, I decided to move on and come back to this tricky one later. Time spent today: 7.5 hours

I’ve changed my aim for the week from a word count target to a ‘time spent on the novel’ target. My aim, I can see, was a fairly modest 15 hours, but I’ve actually worked for almost double that amount of time – a total of 27.5 hours, mainly spent redrafting. I’m happy with that.

Nice things this week:
Lots of very lovely things happened this week, but nothing specifically writing-related. Ooh, except, perhaps, that The Secrets We Left Behind is on a Kindle monthly deal at £1.99, so that might bring in a few new readers, which is always nice.

The coming week:
Let’s up the anti-a bit – I aim to spend 30 hours on the novel this week.

New Amazon reviews:
The Secrets We Left Behind: Three new ones – one 3-star, one 4-star, one 5-star
The Things We Never Said: Also three new ones – two 4-star, one 5-star

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Writing a first draft

29 June 2012
Hemingway once said, ‘All first drafts are shit’.  Ernest, me old mate,  that is an understatement! I am referring, of course, to  my own current first-draft which at the moment is a steaming pile of merde if ever there was one.  I have to keep reminding myself that there were times when I felt the same about my first novel, but after a great deal of rewriting, I now think it’s rather good, and so do Simon & Schuster, who are publishing it in May 2013.
A novel has to start somewhere; it doesn’t just appear in the right order with the storylines perfectly developed, the characters rounded and convincing, the themes consistent, relevant and thought-provoking.   You have to craft and hone and polish.  And most writers agree that most of the crafting and honing and polishing comes later – after you’ve written the first draft.
But it ain’t easy, folks, so although I hope this post will encourage other authors who are currently wading through the mires of their own first drafts, it’s also a bit of a pep talk to myself, because at the moment, I’m going through a very sticky patch. I’m changing things  –  I’ve changed the  period  the novel is set in and the occupation of the main character, I’ve changed the age of a supporting character, and I’ve introduced a new viewpoint. No doubt there will be a lot more changes. I’m also plagued by doubts – is the plot too thin? Will it be believable? Are my characters convincing? Will the whole thing work? Will anybody give a flying feck?
The thing is, I know from past experience and from talking to other writers that it would be unusual not to be thinking like this at this stage. So I’m ploughing on and I hope to have a rough – very rough – first draft completed by mid-August. There! I’ve stated it publicly, so now I’ll have to do it! Some people write a first draft in a few weeks, and I envy them. I take considerably longer. I started working seriously on this idea in December, so if I hit my August deadline, it will have taken me eight to nine months – and at least the same again for rewriting.
 A couple of years ago, I attended a novel masterclass by award winning author Jill Dawson. Jill keeps a journal-type notebook for every novel, in which she records her thoughts about the novel and the writing process – she uses the notebook almost as a silent writing buddy, having ‘conversations ‘ with it about the work as it progresses.  With her most recent novel, she confided, she’d got to the 40,000 word point and had decided it wasn’t working, and what’s more, couldn’t be made to work. At the point of despair and on the verge of giving up, she decided to have a flick through notebooks from previous novels. She found that she had experienced the same excruciating doubts with every novel she’d ever written – including the orange-shortlisted ones – and very often at the 40,000 word point!
So what we need to do is to really get it into out heads that a first draft is little more than a rough sketch, and we fill in the colour and texture later. At this stage, even if you’ve done plenty of planning,  things will change along the way, so to a certain extent, you’re still telling yourself the story. There will be inconsistencies, plot threads that lead nowhere, one-dimensional characters, rubbish dialogue, important scenes that are skimmed over, lengthy scenes that will end up being cut completely. There will probably be superfluous back story,  lots of ‘telling’ and info-dumping, and no real sign of a decent theme. Stephen King tells us not to even think about themes in the first draft, and I think that’s good advice. The real themes may turn out to be different to what you expected, because your unconscious will have been working away on your behalf.
So no matter how dreadful your first draft seems now, just plough on.  Keep moving your story onwards, even if it feels mundane and clumsy, even if it goes off in directions you hadn’t planned. Remember that it isn’t set in stone  – a half-realised scene can be added to later; a digression that doesn’t work can be cut. Just keep putting the words down! Some writers like to check their word counts each day; others prefer to write for a timed period, or to write to a particular point in the story. I’m a word-count person, and I like to have some sort of visual encouragement, something that shows my progress. I reckon my first draft should be about 90,000 words, so I took two jars, and counted out 90 glass pebbles into one of them and stood them on my desk. For every thousand words I write, I move a pebble from the ‘to write’ jar to the ‘written’ jar.  
I’m happy to say that the jar on the right is the ‘written’ jar! It’s a little bit of nonsense, of course, because many of these words will end up being cut, but I find it helps to spur me on.
When you get to the end of a first draft, it’s time to celebrate – even if it’s pretty poor – because now you have something to work on. Rewriting and editing will turn a poor first draft into an okay one, and an okay draft into a good one. From there, you’re talking very good or even excellent. But if you don’t have a draft, you have nothing.
Do you struggle with your first drafts, or do you find that the easy part? Are you able to ignore the flaws and keep writing, or do you edit as you go along? How long do your first drafts take, or does it vary?  I’d love to hear your experiences – perhaps we could cheer each other on?   
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Review of Tideline by Penny Hancock

When I saw that Tideline by Penny Hancock was set in Greenwich in south east London, I knew I had to read it because it was set very near to where I grew up. I was not disappointed! The story follows Sonia, a woman in her 40s who invites Jez, her friend’s 15 year-old nephew, into her house to borrow a CD, then gets him so drunk that he has to stay the night. It soon becomes clear that she has no intention of letting him go, at least not for a while.
Sonia is clearly unhappy and lonely, but she is also psychologically damaged. The narrative flips back and forth between past and present. Sonia’s present day life involves a cantankerous elderly mother, widowed after Sonia’s father took his own life; a less than happy marriage to a frequently absent husband, and bittersweet memories of an intense and slightly masochistic adolescent relationship with the beautiful and exciting Seb, who Sonia loved and lost. As the narrative unfolds, we see the impact that the past has had on the present, and we begin to understand why Sonia finds it so difficult to give Jez up.
Sonia is the central character, but we also hear from her friend Helen, Jez’s aunt. Helen’s troubled marriage, her difficult and competitive relationship with her sister, and her increasing dependence on alcohol are well drawn and engaging. Jez is staying with Helen when he disappears, and it is his disappearance that exposes the many cracks in Helen’s life. Her relationship with her sister, Maria, is particularly well-drawn, with each sister criticising the other’s parenting, and each blaming the other for Jez’s disappearance.
Sonia lives in the River House, so close to the Thames that she can smell the river’s smells and hear its swirling waters beneath her windows. Penny Hancock creates a wonderful sense of place in this novel, and the river in particular is described vividly, especially in the flashback sections. I grew up not far from Greenwich, and spent quite a lot of time hanging around these areas as a teenager in the seventies – I can vouch for the accuracy of the descriptions of the filthy, chemical soup that was the Thames in those days, the brownish colour, the oiliness, the frothy yellow scum that floated on its surface, the rubbish it carried and deposited on its shores. The river is itself a beautifully evoked character in this novel, and its treachery and danger reflects the treachery and danger in the relationships of the characters.
This is a wonderfully dark and suspenseful novel with engaging characters, a page-turning plot and a couple of unexpected and satisfying twists at the end. One reviewer observed, ‘There are hints of a young Daphne du Maurier in Hancock’s cool, evocative prose’. I usually scoff at such claims, but for once I wholeheartedly agree. The writing is assured and the story atmospheric and haunting. I suspect Tideline will stay with me for a long time!

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Review of God’s Own Country, by Ross Raisin

I’ve had Ross Raisin’s 2008 novel God’s Own Country on my shelves for some time, and it was only after hearing a little of a discussion about it on Radio 4’s Bookclub that I finally got around to reading it. I can’t think why it took me so long. This is an original, beautifully written and utterly compelling novel.
The story is told first person by Sam Marsdyke, a distinctly odd and lonely 19-year-old living in rural north Yorkshire with his farming parents.  Sam’s heavy dialect feels thoroughly authentic, even though some of the words, as Raisin admitted on Bookclub, are made up. I say, who cares?  When ‘the girl’ gazes across the moors with a ‘look of yonderment’, we know exactly what that means; and what better word for the clutter of ornamental bits and bobs adorning the walls of the village pub than ‘trunklements’?
The beauty of the area is skilfully evoked. The descriptions of the weather, the wildlife and the rolling moorland are remarkably vivid, and the wild landscape is as present and significant here as it was in Wuthering Heights. Sam spends his free time tramping the moors with his beloved dog, Sal, and initially, the way he torments the ‘towns’ – ramblers for whom he has utter contempt – by throwing a small stone at them from behind a wall, seems little more than mischievous, but soon, things take a much darker turn.

Sam’s internal monologue provides little snippets of information about his past, which, when we put them together, paint a disturbing picture. We learn early on that he was kicked out of school because of an assault on another pupil, and that his mother cried a lot at the time and still needs reassurance that she shouldn’t blame herself, rather that he ‘must’ve come out backward’. Sam imagines that when people look at him, they see the word ‘rapist’ on his forehead, and he’s convinced that everyone hates or is afraid of him. But he’s comfortable with animals and often holds imaginary conversations with them, as well as with the sun and moon, and even with everyday objects. He takes a liking to the new neighbours’ 15-year-old daughter, but he can’t think what to say to her.  ‘Talk to her, you doylem,’ her hair slide tells him. ‘She’ll bugger off if you don’t’.
At first, he considers her feelings; when she wants to watch the lambing, he’s conscious of how she might be affected by a stillbirth and he guesses she’d be upset if she knew that the dead lamb would normally be skinned, so he buries it instead. But as he becomes more obsessed with ‘the girl’ as he refers to her, it becomes clear that this can’t end well. One day, as he’s watching a ram servicing the ewes, his thoughts become confused, giving us the most chilling glimpse yet of what he is capable of: ‘The ewe just let him, not a sound, not a sign she was liking it or not.  I knew she was, mind – no matter she was sore from his clobbers, or that he was bruising on top her neck. She’d have tried to move off if she didn’t like it, she’d have struggled at least –  she didn’t do anything, though, except one point she gave out a small noise, quiet, but enough, and I knew she was liking it because her hand tightened into a fist, not gripping anything, just closing tight on itself so as to flesh went white rounds the knuckles and there was a chain of half moons across her palm when he’d finished and the hand went limp.’ I had to read this twice because I thought I missed something – then I realised that in fact, the sight of the animals mating had dredged up a memory of the assault.
Although Sam is in many ways a frightening character – sinister, disturbed and disturbing, and clearly capable of cruel and violent behaviour – I found myself feeling increasingly sorry for him as the novel progressed.  He presents his upbringing as harsh and his father as something of a brute, but we must bear in mind that Sam is a far from reliable narrator, and though we see that his father is certainly gruff, we note that he still uses the mug that Sam bought him when he was little. But whether or not Sam misreads the people around him,  what is certain is that he is unable to connect with them and is desperately lonely.
In the final scenes, where, without giving too much away, the extent of Sam ‘s, shall we say, ‘antisocial’ tendencies are revealed, I still felt sorry for him, because apart from anything else, he seemed completely oblivious to the distress he was causing, and almost bewildered by how things turned out.
Sam is a complex and fascinating character; he does bad things, but he got so under my skin that I’ve found my thoughts returning to him and his world again and again since I finished the novel.  God’s Own Country is occasionally funny, but mostly it’s dark and disturbing; it’s also tragic and with a sort of rough, weathered beauty. This is a novel that I’m pretty sure I’ll read a second time.
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7 ways to justify procrastination

Okay, we’ve all done it.  It may be that there’s a deadline looming; it may be that you’ve hit a problem with your work-in-progress, or it may simply be that you need to be getting on with your novel. You’ve spent days clearing outstanding work and emails and now you finally have some time. Do you go straight to your desk and make a start? No, you clean out the fridge, de-scale the kettle or de-flea the cat. In the spirit of understanding and support of my fellow writers, I’d like  to share my seven top displacement activities – in no particular order – and offer suggestions as to how you can turn them into justifiable writerly endeavor:
1.  Watching TV – the trick here is to be selective.  Watch things that can feed your storytelling skills or give you ideas for characters.  Watching films or TV dramas can not only give you ideas for stories, but can really help you learn how to show rather than tell.  Note how characters’ actions, dialogue, and facial expressions show the audience what the characters are feeling.  And some ‘reality’ shows –  the ones that show ‘real’ reality  rather than ‘Big Brother’ reality – are great for giving you character details.  I favour ‘come dine with me’ for this purpose.
2.  Looking on Rightmove – or is this just me?  I love looking at houses we might be able to afford, and some that we definitely can’t.  Or houses out in the country, or little tea shops, or B&Bs.  The way to make this a legitimate activity is to turn it into research.  Your characters live in houses, yes?  And now and again you need to put in a bit of description so the reader can picture your character at home.  Rightmove ( is great because not only can you see the outside of the house, you can have a virtual poke around inside too, so simply find a photograph of a suitable room or garden and describe what you see.  You can even describe the street your character lives in – simply click on ‘street view’.
3.  Looking round the shops – use this to decide what sort of clothes your characters wear, what sort of food they buy, and maybe even what furniture or carpets they choose.  Or you can try mooching around the charity shops – sometimes a used handbag or a worn pair of shoes can suggest things about a character that you’d never have thought of on your own.  The bric-a-brac and books can be interesting too.
4.  Going to your favourite coffee shop – well this is an obvious one, isn’t it?  Take a notebook with you and people-watch!  Notice what’s unusual about the people around you; there may be one tiny detail that snags your interest and forms the basis for a whole new character.  I once developed a short story around a woman who wore slightly old fashioned clothes for her age, and whose child had a rather loud voice.  The story became Day Tripper, which was broadcast on radio four.
5.  Phoning a friend – I don’t mean just phone any old mate to catch up on the gossip; I mean phone a writing friend and use the call to discuss your work-in-progress.  It’s a great way to resolve sticky problems in your writing.  Sometimes, your friend may come up with a solution you hadn’t thought of, but often it’s simply that talking it through and bouncing ideas off another writer does the trick. You can then offer to be a sounding board for your writing friend, and once you’ve both got ideas about where to go next, then, and only then, you can catch up on the gossip.
6.  Going for a walk  – there’s something about the action of putting one foot in front of the other that seems to stimulate ideas. I often find that the solution to a problem with my work will just jump into my head while I’m walking, usually when I’m thinking about something completely different.  I read about one writer who said that when she hits a problem, she goes walking and will not allow herself to return home until she’s solved that problem; she’s made it home before dark on all but one occasion! Even if you don’t have a problem to solve, a walk can still be productive. Try noticing things you don’t normally notice; look up at the tops of trees and the upper stories of buildings; look at the ground, notice the puddles, the weeds, the debris in the gutter. If you’ve ever taken a very young child for a walk, you’ll know how things we take utterly for granted – a snail, a dandelion clock, a broken umbrella shoved into a public bin – can be sources of wonder. Try to see things with a child’s eye for a change – it could bring a whole new dimension to your writing.
7.  Flicking through a magazine – firstly, they’re good for stories, especially the ‘real life’ mags. Some people’s lives are absolutely packed with drama. The only downside is that some of these true stories are so bizarre that if you tried to fictionalise them, you ‘d struggle to make them believable! There are also great stories to be found in the letters pages, and especially the ‘problem page’. The other thing I sometimes use magazines for is to help me picture a character or a setting.. Having a picture in front of you can really help you describe someone’s hairstyle, tattoo or facial expression. Again ‘real’ people, rather than models or celebs are better for this, and I find the Sunday supplements particularly useful.

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A real Character (or in this case, me!)

This week’s post is in response to, and pays homage to a wonderful blog  by fellow writer Isabel Costello  In the post, Isabel makes the point that characters develop as a result of a combination of different factors, and that just like real people, they are influenced by their genes, environment, experiences, friends, personality, likes and dislikes, and so on.  When we learn a little about those influences, we learn more about the person, too. 
Isabel has generously shared a few scraps of information about herself under the title Real Character, and although I have never met her, I now feel I know a lot more about her.  She has indeed “come to life” as  a real person (which of course, she is!) Like most writers, I am exceptionally nosey about, and fascinated by people and their lives, so I thought it would be a great idea to encourage other writers/bloggers to do the same – to write a Real Character piece, then publicise it on Twitter using the hashtag #realcharacter.
As Isabel says, fictional characters have to be that little bit more interesting than real people; but we often take little details from people we’ve met and exaggerate them to flesh out our characters. If lots of writers join in with this project and write their own #realcharacter piece, not only will it make fascinating reading, but we’ll all know each other a little better and we’ll have a marvellous resource – a treasure trove of character details.
To get us started, here’s mine:
I’m short and dark, not particularly overweight but with a tendency to gain weight easily.  In that respect, I take after my mother, whereas my sister is tall and lean like our father.  My great great grandmother was  Spanish, and apparently I look just like her, although the photograph that suggests this is sadly lost.
I was born in London, grew up there and raised my children there.  For years the idea of living in the country horrified me – all that mud!  But as I get older, I find I am more and more drawn to trees, fields, country lanes and fresh air.  We currently live in Sheffield, a 20-minute drive from the beautiful Peak District, and a 20-minute walk from the city centre.  I love Sheffield, except that we’re a  long way from the sea;  I dream of one day living by the sea.
Mainly bad.  I love drinking wine, and really struggle to take the recommended two days off each week. Wine is just so nice.  I adore food and if I didn’t restrain myself, I’d be the size of the house.  I smoked for a long time, but haven’t now for more than ten years, thank goodness. I also like to swear. Not in anger, or for no reason, but I think ‘colourful language’ (as my grandma used to call it) can be very funny and is great when used for adding emphasis. 
I do have a few good habits: I read a great deal and always have a book on the go. I start every morning with two pieces of fruit and I walk the dog every day, rain or shine.
I’m fairly outgoing and friendly. I love people but am equally happy in my own company and sometimes even prefer to spend time alone. Or with the dog – I’m more of a dog person than a cat person, but I like all animals.  I talk to the dog – he thinks I’m wise, witty, and erudite.
I wear a lot of black. I’m too old to be a goth, but would have enjoyed wearing a black tutu and DMs.
Humour and laughter are important to me, and like Isabel, I’m drawn to funny people. I particularly enjoy verbal wit.  My favourite sitcom ever is Frasier, a wonderful mix of wit, farce, and pathos.
I love life and I’m hugely motivated by the quest for self-fulfilment. I like to achieve things and to be striving for something, and as soon as one project is complete I’m looking for a new one. 
My favourite time of year is autumn, and I like dramatic weather, especially heavy rain, thunderstorms and high winds.
Sometimes, I can be a bit of a know-all, and I like to be right – but I’m working on this! 
Skills (or otherwise)
I’m a good cook, and can even make and decorate a wedding cake – I used to do this for a living.  I’m also quite good at home decorating and transforming grotty houses. But I’m a rubbish gardener and can kill plants that are supposed to be un-killable. My attempts at growing vegetables – well, don’t ask!
I’m not musical, although I would dearly love to be.  I always fancied myself as a rock guitarist, but my attempts to learn the guitar all failed dismally.  I am quoted as saying, (with no sense of irony) ‘I’d give my right arm to be able to play the guitar.’  Hmm…
And one more thing…
If you’ve read Isabel’s blogpost, this really is going to appear spooky, but I too believe in love at first  sight.  I met my husband in October 1994, and within a couple of weeks we’d decided to marry.  We initially set the date for21st December – my birthday. But although I’d recently gone through a divorce, I realised I hadn’t actually applied for my Decree Absolute – I was never going to marry again, you see.  We didn’t get around to the wedding until 1997, but have now been together happily for over 17 years.
So, if you’d like to take part, simply write your Real Character piece, post it on your blog and publicise it with the Twitter hashtag #realcharacter. I look forward to reading them!
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When your characters speak

The Writing Bit
How do you make your dialogue convincing ?  It has to be realistic enough to be believable , but  your characters shouldn’t speak exactly like real people, and you only have to eavesdrop on a few conversations to see why.  Real people  say ‘um’ and ‘er’; we waffle; we go off the point; we don’t finish our sentences; we use the wrong word; we can’t remember why we started telling you this in the first place. Characters can’t get away with that (well, once, maybe, to make a point about the character).
But by and large, what your characters say should be more interesting, meaningful and to the point than what real people say, and they should say it in more interesting ways.  If you catch your character wittering on about something that really isn’t relevant to his/her character, the scene, or the overall story, it’s time to shut them up!
Dialogue is a wonderful way of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’, but we do need to ‘tell’ sometimes, such as when showing would clearly bore the pants off our readers. So for example, it’s ok to summarise:
‘How was work,’ he asked.
She sat heavily on the sofa and sighed. ‘You don’t want to know,’ she said, and then proceeded to give him a blow-by-blow account of her day.
In terms of the characters and their relationship, maybe we do need to know that they had this discussion, but we don’t need to hear the blow-by-blow account of her day, so summarising in this way is fine.
Speech attribution
He said/she said. That’s it; it’s all you need.  Anything else is an authorial intrusion, because the reader is likely to notice it, and when a reader notices the writing, it means that he or she has stopped reading, albeit briefly.  Ok, we can probably get away with ‘he whispered’ (or muttered/yelled/shouted); and I don’t think the reader is likely to trip up over ‘she asked’ (or replied/added/continued) but please, oh please, avoid speech tags that are unnecessary or inappropriate at best, and at worst pompous, overblown or archaic. I have seen all of the following used as speech tags in contemporary fiction:  opined; interjected; retorted; exclaimed; remonstrated; expostulated; and (I kid you not) ejaculated.
The simplest tag of all, ‘said’, is virtually invisible on the page. If you feel you’re using it too much, can you show who’s speaking by their actions, or just by what they’re saying? For example:
‘Hey, at last!’ He stood up, smiling, his arms outstretched.
 She hurried towards him, dropped her bags at his feet. ‘I’m so, so sorry!’ She leaned in and kissed him. ‘First I couldn’t get a taxi, then the traffic was horrendous and the stupid man kept going on about what was wrong with the transport system in this country, and …oh sorry, I’m rambling. But I mean really, do I look like the sort of person who would be interested in – ‘
‘No, darling, you don’t. Anyway, you’re here now.’ He leaned over and pulled out the chair opposite. ‘Sit down. Drink?’
‘Oh lovely. G and T please.’
He looked around for a waiter. ‘Gin and tonic for my companion, please.’
She giggled. ‘Ooh, get you. “my companion” indeed.’
He leaned back in his chair, a smile spreading slowly over his face. ‘So how would you describe yourself?’
‘Let me see…girlfriend is too young; ladyfriend  is too old. Mistress? No, then people would think you were married. Shame; I quite like the idea of being a mistress.’ She leaned towards him and lowered her voice. ‘How about lover?’
Ok, it’s not the most riveting piece of dialogue I’ve ever written, but I think you’ll agree it’s fairly easy to tell who’s speaking, and not a speech attribution in sight. I’m not a fan of qualifying ‘said’ with adverbs, either (she said, angrily) But that’s probably a whole different blog post. 

So to sum up: he said, she said – fine. That is all.
The Food Bit
If you don’t went to spend too long faffing around in the kitchen, this  garlicky mushroom pasta is  dead easy and quite delish.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and pop in enough pasta (egg-free if you’re vegan) for two. Meanwhile, slice about 300g of mushrooms. I use a mixture of portobello, chestnut and ordinary closed cap mushrooms.  Put in a pan with some olive oil and cook over a medium heat. Crush two big fat cloves of garlic and chuck that in with the mushrooms. Add a good grind of black pepper, a teaspoon of wholegrain mustard and a slosh of white wine. Cook for a couple of minutes – they should be more or less cooked by now – then add about 100ml of string vegetable stock and a squeeze of lemon juice.  When the liquid has more or less evaporated, taste, and add salt and more pepper if necessary, and chuck in a handful of chopped flat leaf parsley.  Mix with the cooked pasta, adding more olive oil if liked, and serve. 
This goes well with most types of pasta.  For even more flavour, add a few dried porcini  (wild mushrooms). Soak in a little boiling water first, then add to the fresh mushrooms. You can use the remaining water as a base for your veggie stock, but make sure you strain it first because the mushrooms are sometimes a bit gritty. Suitable for vegans if you use vegan wine (or use more stock instead of wine).

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I have a book deal!

The Writing Bit

This week, I have some rather wonderful news: I’m delighted to announce that my debut novel, The Things You Didn’t Know, is to be published by Simon & Schuster in 2013 as part of a two-book deal. I am thrilled to bits about this, as I’m sure you can imagine!  So my message this week is, don’t give up! This novel has had long journey, and as the publishing climate has become more and more difficult, I began to wonder if my beloved characters would ever see the light of day.

So I thought it might be interesting if I were to outline this novel’s journey:

After completing the novel, then titled Footsteps, to the best of my ability, I began to seek representation. I was lucky enough to receive an offer very quickly, although I was unable to take it up because the agent concerned was about to go on maternity leave. However, this gave me the confidence to keep approaching agents. I then received a number of rejections and began to wonder if the first offer had been a fluke. But then I received two offers of representation in the same week!

I met both agents, and chose Kate Shaw (then of Alexander Aitken, but now of The Viney Agency)  because she had ideas for the book and suggested revisions – including a major structural change – that I just knew were good.

So, I spent around seven or eight months doing these revisions, and after a bit more tinkering, we felt the novel was ready to go, and it was sent out to several major publishers. It didn’t sell on that occasion, but came very close indeed, with three of the editors saying that they’d been very tempted, four wanting to see my next novel and one – oh joy – actually taking my agent and me out to lunch. This particular editor had reservations about one of the characters, and so I set to work on more revisions, more subtle this time, perhaps rather too subtle, as it would later transpire, because Kate felt I hadn’t quite gone far enough with the changes. We talked about sending the book out with the new title to the smaller publishers, but then decided to put it aside for a while and concentrate on a second book.

I put the manuscript away for a whole year, during which time I wrote a radio play (currently under consideration with the BBC) and played around with a few different ideas for my second novel.  When I looked at The Things You Didn’t Know again, I saw things I hadn’t seen before, and did yet more rewriting. I was still unsure about a particular section, so I sent that section to a freelance editor for some professional feedback. Getting a fresh pair of eyes on your ms can be invaluable – you become far too close to it after a while. The editor made a brilliant observation about the order of events – by rearranging things slightly, that character’s story would be much clearer and more logical. Hurrah! I knew this was the right thing to do, and I spent the whole weekend busily re-ordering and rewriting, then rereading for ‘continuity’ errors.

The novel went out again, and bingo, a two-book deal with the wonderful Simon & Schuster! I couldn’t be more thrilled and excited!

So, if you’re trying to get your novel published, my advice is: don’t be in too much of a hurry – if a major revision will improve your novel, take the time and do it. Consider putting your work aside for several months so you can view it more objectively. Consider obtaining professional  feedback on your work and be open to suggestions, (only if they chime with you, though) even if it means a lot of work, and finally, don’t give up!

The Reading Bit

No reading bit, this week, I’m afraid. We’ve been busy and preoccupied with a family bereavement – my father-in-law died rather suddenly earlier in the week following a fall just a week before. This has obviously had a huge impact on the family, and things are in a state of flux at the moment.  It’s very strange to have had the good news about the book deal in the same week as this very sad news about my father-in-law.  

Next week’s blog will appear a little earlier than usual – hopefully midweek – with The Reading Bit covering  my ‘Top Reads of 2011’.

The Food Bit

No food bit either for the same reason (see above). However, watch this space for some gorgeous, vegan-friendly Christmas recipes in the next few days – it’ll be a bumper crop: a wonderful nut roast, some apricot and walnut stuffing and the nicest and most festive red cabbage with apple you have ever tasted!  Trust me!

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NaNoNonsense – the aftermath!

The Writing Bit

This is the last post that will mention NaNoWriMo (until next year!) So, it’s over! You have 50,000 words of story and a hangover from the champagne you’ve been knocking back in justified celebration. What do you mean, you haven’t had any champagne? As I pointed out in last week’s blog, NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty advised us to purchase champagne at the start of week 4 so it could be chilled and ready for when we crossed the finish line. If you haven’t had champagne yet, buy some now. It’s THE LAW!

For me, it’s been an enjoyable but intense month. It’s been pretty time-consuming; the house is a tip, the laundry’s piled up and I’ve been neglecting friends and family. (I really must phone my mother.) And apart from the less-than-riveting prospect of catching up with the housework and laundry, I’m aware of a very slight ‘down’ feeling, too, a bit of a sense of anti-climax. All that writerly camaraderie is over, and instead of the buzz and excitement that goes with the daily challenge of hitting the word count, we’re left with the reality – a very, very veryrough draft.

I don’t know about you, but mine’s a bit of a hotch-potch, a Frankenstein’s monster of a draft with lots of bits that might work in themselves but don’t necessarily go together. Between page 1 and page 109, I’ve changed the ages of the two main characters; I’ve changed their parents’ personalities; I’ve turned a nice experience one of them has in the early pages into an unpleasant episode later on, and on page 100, or thereabouts, I decided it might work better if my characters were sisters rather than friends – a change that will alter at least the first few chapters.

So basically, it’s all over the place, and the ideas are still coming – and changing. But I’m not going to be too disheartened by the problems with my manuscript. The process of writing a novel involves a massive amount of rethinking, reshaping and rewriting, and the great thing about having taken part in NaNoWriMo is that I feel I’ve taken a bit of a shortcut – I was always going to write thousands of words that would end up being changed or cut; I’ve just done it much more quickly. 

My plan now is to print it out, read it through and see what I’ve created. I’ll use a highlighter pen to mark the bits I want to keep, then I’ll try to put them in some sort of order, even if it’s only ‘beginning, middle and end’. And then I’ll start the long, slow process of redrafting.

Did you take part in NaNoWriMo? How did you find the experience? And if you didn’t do it this year, are you tempted for 2012?

The Reading Bit

I heard M J Hyland speak recently at a writing Masterclass; she was incredibly generous with her insights into the writing process, and she was also enormously entertaining and good fun, so  I bought her most recent novel, This Is How – I often buy books largely because I like the author!

This Is How is written in the first person, present tense, from the point of view of Patrick, a young man who arrives to start a new life in a seaside town after a broken engagement. Patrick is a loner, at odds with the world. Clearly much brighter than the rest of his family, he studied psychology at university, but dropped out after a year in order to become a car mechanic, something at which he excels. Patrick knows where he is with engines – they’re less complex than people. Although Patrick would like to have friends, he finds it difficult to engage with people and to express his feelings. Throughout the novel, he says one thing while feeling something completely different. Often what he feels is intense and even violent anger, but it’s a repressed anger. Repressed, that is, until one day when he commits a single, violent act, apparently not realising the magnitude of what he’s doing until afterwards.

The novel then follows Patrick as the consequences of this spur-of-the-moment act unfold. The prose is spare and there’s a lot of dialogue. Patrick’s observations are brief and straightforward. The complexity of his thoughts and feelings is shown by what he says and does, rather than by us being privy to his thoughts. I can’t say a lot more about the plot without giving too much away, but suffice to say that the closeness with which we follow Patrick has the effect of making him a hugely sympathetic character, even though he often seems strangely detached and emotionless. Despite his sometimes violent feelings, he is usually polite and courteous to everyone, and when he acts on his violent impulse, his regret and guilt are almost palpable. Hyland writes Patrick so vividly that we feel almost part of him; we feel the physical sensations he experiences, seemingly in place of emotions. We even feel the unexplained pains in his neck and shoulders that plague him throughout the novel – a subtle touch suggesting a character who is contantly burdened.

This is not a thriller or a ‘secret-to-be-revealed’ type novel, and yet I still found it an absolute page turner. Patrick is a powerful, heartbreakingly sad and brilliantly evoked character, and he will stay with me for a very long time.

The Food Bit

This section is where I tell you how I’ve managed to feed Vegan Husband in a reasonably interesting way over the past week. I occasionally still eat fish and dairy products, so I’ll talk about non-vegan food now and again.
Father-in-law coming for Saturday lunch, so we’re going to start with a spicy butternut squash soup, then veggie sausages and mash with red wine onion gravy, followed by baked peaches and vegan ice-cream.
For the soup: peel and dice a butternut squash, put in a roasting dish with a quartered onion, a couple of cloves of crushed garlic, some fresh thyme and a sprinkling of chilli powder and salt. Pour over some olive oil and mix so that everything’s coated. Roast until the squash and onion are soft, then add about a pint of vegetable stock and whizz until smooth. Add more stock for a thinner consistency, check seasoning and serve.

For the sausage and mash: we love the Linda Mc Cartney veggie sausages. The trick is to make sure you don’t overcook them. For the mash: when the potatoes are cooked, add some unsweetened soya milk, a dollop of vegan sunflower spread, (or just some olive oil), and about a tablespoon of wholegrain mustard. Season to taste. For the gravy: slice an onion and fry gently in olive oil until soft. Stir in a little flour and cook for a minute or two, then add some strong vegetable stock, some red wine, a bay leaf, a good pinch of dried sage and a dessertspoon of dijon mustard. We’ll probably have some broccoli and carrots with this, or whatever veg is knocking about in the fridge.

For pud: cut a peach in half, remove the stone and fill the hole with chopped pistachios, hazelnuts or almonds (or all three). Sprinkle on some  muscovado sugar and bake in the oven until soft. Serve with ice-cream or non-dairy ice-cream – Swedish Glace is very good.


NaNoWriMo Week 3

The Writing Bit

After my decision last week to swap what I’d written so far with something I wrote some years ago, I’m convinced that I made the right decision. (see my public confession in last week’s post!) I won’t say the words have been flowing easily – I’ve rarely had that pleasure – but I’m making steady progress, and I do feel more engaged with this novel, in spite of the fact that I know that much of what I’m writing now will end up being deleted.

I’ve been lucky this week in that I’ve been away on holiday, and am writing this in a tiny cottage in the Peak District. The village is so quiet that most of the time it seems deserted. Very occasionally, a car or a tractor goes down the street. Today, I’ve seen no-one but dog walkers and two women on horses, and yesterday afternoon, to my delight, a pig came trotting down the road. An anxious-looking man was in hot pursuit, and I wondered if the pig had come from the smallholding up the road that has a sign outside saying ‘fresh sausages’.
I found myself hoping the pig escaped; maybe it made friends with the golden retriever that was coming the other way. Or perhaps it found its way to another village where a widow and her lonely daughter took it in and kept it as a house pig, feeding it with apples from their orchard and lavishing it with affection for the rest of its life.

I digress. But allowing myself to invent a story for the pig reminded me that NaNoWriMo isn’t about agonising over whether that character would really do those things or whether that scene has any real relevance to the plot; it’s about being free to go where you imagination takes you, even if you don’t think what you’re writing is any good at the time. At the moment, my novel is ‘thin’, to say the least. But I’m allowing myself to go off at tangents, because sometimes that’s where you find themes, sub-plots and even new and interesting characters and storylines.

This week, I’ve tried to get ahead because I know that on my return, there will be emails to answer, phone calls to make, students’ work to read and comment on, and all the other things that make up ‘real’ life. So I’ve been having three writing sessions a day, aiming for a minimum of 700-800 words a time, and I’m roughly a day ahead now. Little and often is the trick!
Apart from that, my husband and I are relaxing in peaceful and beautiful surroundings, and doing nothing but reading, eating, drinking and walking the dog. But it’s back to the real world soon.
The Reading Bit

Sister by Rosamund Lipton is a clever, fast-paced psychological thriller.  Beatrice, the first person narrator, has abandoned her English life and family for an exciting, designer-label life in New York. She remains close – she thinks – to her younger sister, Tess, but when Tess goes missing, Beatrice flies home, determined to find out what has happened. During her search for the truth, Beatrice discovers some uncomfortable truths about herself as she realises just how little she really knows about her sister’s life.

The plot is intriguing and the storytelling is accomplished, keeping the suspense and tension at just the right levels. Unlike some thrillers, the book has some emotional depth, and I felt the musings on grief were particularly poignant. However, I didn’t find myself engaging with the characters as much as I’d hoped, and I struggled to sympathise with Beatrice. I found her frequent references to the closeness between her and Tess rather irritating – at one point I said aloud, ‘ok, I’ve got it!’ and her equally frequent declarations of love for her sister were cloying rather than touching.

There is a twist at the end that works very well (I guessed it before it was revealed, but that was ok) and I finally found myself sympathising with Beatrice in the last few pages. To sum up, a damn good thriller, but the characters lacked emotional credibility.

The Food Bit

As explained previously, throughout NaNoWriMo, I’m posting meal ideas (mainly vegan) rather than recipes . Even if you’re not vegan, believe it or not, these meals are actually very nice!

This week, we had:

Saturday: Sausages, sweet potato mash, onion and red wine gravy, broccoli.

Sunday: Soya mince with peppers, mushrooms and new potatoes, cooked in a sauce made from tomatoes, red wine, garlic and herbs.
Monday: Vegan ‘meatballs’ with spaghetti and spicy tomato sauce.
Tuesday: Mixed bean cassoulet.
Wednesday: Creamy mushroom tagliatelle.
Thursday: Curry night: aubergine and chick pea, sag aloo, aloo gobi, chapatis.
Friday: Tapas: (I’m quite proud of this one!) vegan ‘paella’,  patatas bravas, garlic mushrooms, aubergines with garlic and herbs.