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.

It’s all about pace – and weather

The Writing Bit

We’ve had a good bit of weather in Sheffield this week.  The wind’s been so strong that it tore a huge branch from an old horse chestnut tree in the park where I walk  the dog, blocking the path and scattering a carpet of twigs and conkers  all around.  I like weather you can’t ignore, weather that reminds you that you’re alive and that nature is a force to be reckoned with.  I love the excitement and intensity, the exhilaration of being caught in wind so strong that you have to hang on to a lamppost to avoid being swept into oncoming traffic, or rain so heavy that there’s no point  in sheltering because you know you can’t get any wetter.

But it’s also good when it stops. The calm and relative quiet when you finally shut the door against the pandemonium of high winds; the comfort of warm, dry clothes and a rough towel for your hair after you’ve been caught in a downpour and are soaked to the skin.

I’ve found this quite helpful in thinking about the pace of a narrative, which is what I’ve been addressing in my editing sessions this week. Yes, intensity and excitement is great, but too much of it can be wearisome. By the same token, calm and quiet can be soothing, but if things are too quiet for too long, we fall asleep. 

So we need to be aware of pace so that we can actively enhance it.For scenes where you need to increase the pace or tension,  use  more short sentences than long ones, and choose words with ‘hard’ sounds, such as:  c, k, p, t, d, g, b. For example, ‘He picked up the pace.  He could hear the killer  behind him as he cut across the path. He stopped and turned.’ 

For slower, more thoughtful or romantic scenes, use longer sentences with softer sounds, such as: m,n, l, w, v, f, h, s.  For example,  ‘As she lay sleepily in his muscular arms, he stroked her hair softly and whispered the words she’d been longing to hear since the moment they’d first met.’ 

 Sick bag, anyone? Dreadful clichés, I know, but you see what I mean? 

The Reading Bit

I’m currently re-reading The Road Home by the wonderful Rose Tremain. This novel is a masterclass in creating sympathetic and interesting characters. The main character is so likeable that even when he does something bad later in the novel, we forgive him.  We even care about the minor characters, all of whom have their own complete stories.  A fine example of how sympathetic character + hardship + motivation and goals + obstacles along the way = good novel.

The Food Bit

Vegan highlight this week was sausage and mash with onion and red wine gravy.  After trying various vegan sausages, I discovered the Linda McCartney ones – very acceptable indeed. The trick is not to overcook them.  Make the gravy by slicing onions (one onion per two people) and frying them slowly in olive oil until they begin to caramelise. Stir in enough flour to make a paste, adding a touch more oil if necessary,  and cook  for a couple of minutes. Add vegetable stock, a good slosh of red wine (not all wine is suitable for vegans) and a dollop of dijon mustard. I usually stick in a couple of bay leaves and a some chopped or dried sage as well, plus a few grinds of black pepper. Salt to taste. Cook for a few minutes until thick and gorgeous, then serve with the sausages, sweet potato mash and whatever vegetables you have knocking around. 

  •  It’s my belief that ‘some’,  ‘a good slosh’,  and ‘a dollop’  are perfectly reasonable units of measurement. I hope you agree! If in doubt, taste.