THE WRITING LIFE – A FEW STEPS FORWARD

As I write this, the sky outside my window is an unbroken blue and the sun is bouncing off rooftops and windowpanes. Snowdrops are out, and even daffodils are stretching their heads upwards. Everything is growing, everything is full of life. This is the perfect time to be ‘creating’, and I’m trying to harness all that wonderful creative energy so that I can pour it into my novel.

In last week’s post, I talked about the feedback I’d received and the massive amounts of work I now realise I have to do on novel number three. I said that undertaking a major re-draft is a bit like climbing a mountain. Last week, I was standing at the foot of that mountain looking up into the foggy distance and wondering where I would be now, a week later.

Well, the summit is still shrouded in mist, but I have taken a few steps up the mountainside. I’ve been working pretty hard this week, although it feels a bit frustrating, because I still haven’t done any actual rewriting. There’s been a great deal of thinking and planning, making new timelines, writing scene summaries and moving index cards around.

Finding a timeline that will work has been incredibly difficult. I thought I had it sorted until I realised that it made one of the characters much too young for what happens at the time. The timeline is a microcosm of the whole novel in that if you change one thing, everything else shifts as well. Anyway, I think I have a workable timeline now. I’ve written a list of the key scenes chronologically, including dates of birth and deaths, and now I just (ha! “just”!) have to work out the order in which these things are revealed to the reader. This is fairly complicated, because there are two viewpoints and the story happens both in real time, and over a number of years before the novel opens. One day, I’m going to make life easy (well, easier) for myself and write a novel that is set in real time and where the story happens as we go along!

The amount of work I have to do is daunting but I’m also feeling excited about it again now, because even though I can’t quite see the top of my writing mounting, I’ve started the trek, and that feels good.

If you’re at a similar stage with your work, it might help if I share this comforting advice from my lovely agent when we were discussing this recently. She told me to look after myself and be kind to myself, because this stage is the literary equivalent of the metaphorical ‘eating for two’ in pregnancy – not literally ‘eating’, of course, but nourishing and nurturing yourself in order to feed the baby (novel) you’re growing, and building up your strength in readiness for the massive output to come,

So I’ve been trying to do that. Yes, I’ve been working every day, but I’m also allowing myself time to read, time to think and the odd non-working trip to a coffee shop – maybe even featuring cake!

I’m going to leave it there for this week. I’ll post again in two weeks’ time when I come back from my retreat in the Forest of Dean. details here I’ll have four clear days where I don’t have to think about shopping, cooking, walking the dog or any other domestic responsibilities. I’m hoping I’ll have significant progress to report on 23rd of February.

Oh, and before I go, I should mention that I’m running a couple of one-day writing workshops in Sheffield soon, on 28th of February and 28th March. These days are always fun, always productive, and, people tell me, incredibly inspiring. If you know anyone who might be interested, the full details are here.

Happy ‘almost Spring’ everyone, and happy writing!

If you’d like to keep an eye on what I’m up to, please visit my website, ‘like’ my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter @sewelliot

No man (or woman) is an island

The Writing Bit
This week, I taught my first creative writing class of the new term.  Twelve lovely writers turned up, some I’ve taught before, some were new faces, but all were  fizzing with enthusiasm. They are writers at different levels of experience, from those just starting to experiment with their creative talents to those who’ve been writing for years and/or are working on novels.
What often strikes me with a newly-formed group is how, when reading back an exercise, the writer will often preface the reading with ‘it’s not very good’, or ‘I don’t think I’ve done it right’. They then usually go on to read something with a particularly vivid image, or a beautifully lyrical sentence, or a striking and memorable character, and they’re often genuinely surprised at the positive response they get from the  rest of the class.
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Gradually, over the weeks and months, confidence starts to improve and the apologies stop. Ok, it may be partly to do with the fact that the writer starts to notice the improvements in his or her own work, but it may have more to do with the positive reinforcement provided by the other writers. This is why I believe that one of the most important aspects of the writer’s life is to have contact with people who are doing the same thing you’re doing, whether it’s face-to-face, or by telephone, email or social networking.
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When my new group took a break for tea, there was an immediate buzz of conversation as existing members caught up with what they’d been writing (or not writing!) over the summer and new members joined in with their own experiences and quickly became part of the group. 
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Of course, it’s always going to happen that lasting friendships develop when a group of like-minded people  get together, but I’d love to know whether creative writing classes have a higher friendship rate than, say, art classes, or French cookery. Because it seems to me that writers face a unique set of challenges that only other writers can truly understand, and for that reason, we have the inclination and ability to ‘bond’  quite easily. Once we’ve bonded, we support one another to aid survival in the world of non-writers, where  people tend not to have their heads full of fictional  characters constantly  demanding  attention.
As well as simply ‘understanding’, writing chums are invaluable for helping you to solve plot and character problems. I have one friend in particular who is great at this. When either of us hits a tricky phase in our work, we meet up or chat on the phone. Sometimes, one of us makes a helpful suggestion about the other’s work, but often, it’s the very act of discussion that stimulates ideas and raises possible solutions.  ‘Talking it out’ seems to be the answer.
What do you think? Do you find contact with writing friends essential to your writing life? Or do you prefer to solve problems alone?
By the way, I met my friend on a writing course ten years ago!

 
The Reading Bit
This week, I am sad to report that I have given up on a book. I hate to do that, but let’s face it, life’s too short to stick with a novel that’s not gripping you when there are so many others to be read. I’ll always give a book fifty pages, and if I’m still unsure, I’ll go to a hundred. But by p50 of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I’d had enough. The story is told in two voices, one of which I quite liked, but not enough to really hold my attention, and one of which I found annoyingly pretentious (I know she was supposed to pretentious, but even so).  After making the decision to leave it, I read some Amazon reviews; some readers loved it some hated it, and quite a few said they didn’t like it at first but it was worth persevering with and they warmed to it over time. Maybe I should have stuck with it, but to be honest, I felt quite relieved to be able to start a new book. What do you think? If a book  hasn’t drawn you in after 50 pages, do you persevere?
 
The Food Bit
This cassoulet is great in chilly weather, but I’m happy to report that it goes equally well when eaten outside on a balmy Indian-Summer evening. I’m a cassoulet convert – I used to think beans were boring (well, on their own, they are) but this seems to hit the spot. I make enough for six portions and freeze what I don’t use. Heat some olive oil in a large pan, then add a large onion, sliced; one each of red, green and yellow peppers, diced; one sliced courgette and a few quartered mushrooms. Fry for a few minutes, then add 3-4 fat cloves of chopped, crushed garlic. Then tip in: two tins chopped tomatoes and one tin each (drained) of cannelini, haricot, borlotti and black eye beans (you can use other types of beans if you prefer). Add about half a pint of strong vegetable stock, a good slosh of red wine, a rounded teaspoon of dried mixed herbs (or a good handful of fresh herbs) and a dollop of tomato puree. Let this simmer away for about 30-40 minutes, then add seasoning to taste. Serve with a green vegetable, crusty bread and a full-bodied red wine. Note: oddly, this tastes better if it’s just hot rather than piping hot. Suitable for vegans, though check the wine.

For more about me and my work, check out my website: http://www.susanelliotwright.co.uk

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

 The Writing Bit

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

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

How should you choose a class?

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

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

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

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

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

The Reading Bit

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

The Food Bit

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