NaNoWriMo Week 4 – Champagne time!

The Writing Bit
So, we’re nearly there! I’ve found it helpful over the last three weeks to read No Plot, No Problem,  by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo. The book is full of useful tips and is designed to help you through this 30 days of madness.
At the beginning of the chapter that covers week 4, he says, ‘I’d like  you to put this book down, put on your shoes, grab your keys and go to the grocery store. Seriously. Go now.’ He then concedes that it’s ok to go later if you must, but the point is to buy a bottle of champagne ready to crack open when you cross the finish line (well, he says buy two, actually – he reckons your nearest and dearest deserve a bottle for putting up with your absence from family life, but I say, have a glass or two of mine and be grateful!)
Having done NaNoWriMo last year, I can tell you that you will be amazed at just how pleased with yourself you’ll feel, even if what you’ve written isn’t exactly great literature. I was childishly thrilled when, having uploaded my 50,000 words and been verified a ‘winner’, I got to watch a short video of the NaNoWriMo organisers outside their office clapping and cheering their congratulations. I know I’m sad, but Reader, I watched it twice.
Last year, I’d made sure I’d ordered a bottle of champers to be delivered with my grocery order, due to arrive between 3pm and 5pm on the 30th November. But then disaster struck; it snowed. Heavily. I got a text saying the delivery would be delayed by an hour or two. Ok, fine. Then another text warned that delivery was estimated for around 9pm. Ok, well, I was ready to celebrate earlier, but I’d survive. Then at 8.40, Customer Services phoned to say the van couldn’t even get out of the depot – there would be no delivery that night.  ‘But I’ve got champagne coming,’ I said. ‘I need to celebrate!’  ‘I’m very sorry,’ the nice man said, ‘but congratulations, anyway.’
Fortunately, my husband, who had cheered me on all the way through and did deserve some champagne of his own, to be fair, heroically donned coat, hat, scarf and gloves and set out to walk to Waitrose, which is a ten minute walk away in fine weather and closes at 9pm. People, it was a tense time. The snow was deep, the walking was tough; would he make it in time? And if not, would they take pity if he pounded on the door , perhaps thinking him in need of medicine for a sick child? Or even milk or bread? And if they then opened the doors, would he have the nerve to blithely pick up a bottle of pink fizz and declare it essential?
Happily, at 9.15, as snow-covered and red-nosed as Santa himself, my hero returned, and together, we celebrated my 50,000 words.
This year, I have to tell you, there is already a bottle in the cellar.
So, my fellow NaNoWrimers, get thee to the shops and be prepared! The last mile is, as they say, the hardest mile, so we need a considerable carrot, and I find a  good bottle of bubbly fits the bill rather splendidly.
Come December, we can have a look at those 50,000 words and see what we can do with them, but for now, keep calm and carry on!
The Reading Bit
Partial Eclipse by Lesley Glaister was published in the mid-90s, and I read it then for the first time.  Something made to go back to it this week and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s  only just over 200 pages long, but Glaister manages to get two complete stories into this short novel, as well as an interesting subplot. The first person narrator, Jenny, is in solitary confinement at the start of the novel, and with no mental stimulation whatsoever, she is forced to turn to her own memory and imagination and she takes us through two alternating stories. One  tells  of the events leading up to her crime, and the other is centred around Jenny’s ancestor Peggy, who was deported for stealing a peacock. This  vivid and gripping story is a product of Jenny’s starved imagination, and the parallels  with Jenny’s own story of forbidden love are gradually revealed.
I love many things  about Glaister’s writing, but in particular, the sensuality of it, the wealth of detail and the vivid and interesting characters.  Jenny’s naturist grandparents, for example, and her grandmother’s new friend Ursula, who turns out to be not quite what she seems.
As Jenny’s story unfolds, we see how she is drawn into a doomed love affair with a philandering older man, and we are able to see the things that Jenny cannot see. We know before long that this can’t end well, and indeed it doesn’t, but it’s not until very near the end that we learn the truth about Jenny’s terrible crime and it’s consequences.
If you like a dark tale and you haven’t discovered Lesley Glaister yet, you’re in for a treat!  
The Food Bit
This is the last week that I’ll be posting a list of what we’ve eaten during the week. Next week,  once NaNo madness is over, it’ll be back to a recipe or detailed look at one meal each week.
Saturday: Butternut squash and walnut risotto with rocket
Sunday: Pepper and mushroom fajitas with guacamole and spicy tomato salsa
Monday: Shop-bought nut cutlets for him and Quorn escalopes with cheese and leeks for me, both served with new potatoes and a salad made with carrot, orange, tomato, chilli and garlic.
Tuesday: Kidney bean dhal, sag aloo, basmati rice.
Wednesday: Peppers stuffed with risotto rice, vegan pesto, cherry tomatoes and pine nuts
Thursday: Vegan sausages with red wine onion gravy  and mash – we’ve had this a lot lately, but it really is the thing for a cold and blustery autumn night.
Friday: Oh dear – haven’t planned tonight’s yet. Probably a spicy tomato pasta bake with  mixed leaves.

Now entering the NaNoZone…

The Writing Bit

Ok, so everyone’s blogging about NaNoWriMo this week, and I’m not going to  try and be different  because frankly, that would be weird.  If you’ve never heard of NaNoWriMo, let me be the first  to welcome you to our planet.  NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, and it involves pledging to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days, the idea being that at the end of the 30 days, you have a rough draft or the bare bones of a novel. If you haven’t signed up yet, here’s the link http://www.nanowrimo.org/en/dashboardIt doesn’t cost anything, it’s great fun and it fosters a wonderful sense of camaraderie among the participants.

With only a few days to go, I’m frantically trying to prepare. Unlike many other seriously impressive NaNo-ers, I have singularly failed to write an outline for my novel, or even to come up with a title. I’m not sure where the story will start, and I only have a rough idea how it will end. I do know the characters though, because they’ve been milling around in the foyer of my brain for several months. I also know one or two of the themes, and I have at least three dramatic events lined up.  That’s it, though. What I’m not sure about is, whether A is still pregnant or she’s already had the baby; whether B is still alive; whether A & B are still in contact with C; whether C has ever forgiven B and whether any of them really understand the impact on them all of what happened to  D all those years ago…

So basically, I haven’t a clue. But when I start writing my 1700 or so words a day, I now something will come out of it. I hope it’ll be at the bare bones of my next novel, but even if it doesn’t turn out to be a workable draft, at the very least I’ll have something to work on. It may well be crap, but crap but be rewritten and rethought and reshaped, whereas a blank page is just a blank page.

And in order to prepare for this short bout of insanity,  I’m doing some practical preparation by cooking great vats of vegetable chilli, curries and cassoulets to put in the freezer; I’m doing a mega shop to so that I won’t have to faff around going to the supermarket too often; I’m cleaning the house (a bit – don’t want to take this thing too far) and I’m attempting to get all my lesson planning done in advance.  I’m having some physio to try and sort out my RSI (not a great way to start NaNoWriMo!) And  I also intend to tidy my desk and study before Tuesday, though realistically, that may not actually happen.

Finally,  I intend to spend a few hours immersing myself in what I do know about the novel by going through my most recent notebooks (the ones in which I’ve jotted down my thoughts about this novel) with a highlighter pen so I can mark anything I can use.  Then, in the last hours before it all kicks off, I will be having a jolly good think about where to start.  I’ve done it before, so I can do it again – and so can you! See you in the NaNozone!
The Reading Bit
Blackmoor by Edward Hogan is set against the backdrop of a close-knit community forced to abandon the Derbyshire mining village in which their parents  and grandparents grew up. The main characters are the Cartwright family,  George, his albino wife Beth, and their son Vincent.  In the first chapter, we learn that Beth Cartwright jumped to her death in Blackmoor when Vincent was a baby. It’s clear when we meet Vincent as a young teenager that he’s unaware of the circumstances of his mother’s death, largely because George seems unable to even speak of his late wife, and is barely able to speak to his son. As the story flips back and forth between Vincent’s toddlerhood and teenage years, the sad truth of his mother’s life and death in Blackmoor is gradually revealed.

There’s a lot to like about this novel: the prose is simple but elegant, the switches from past to present and from one viewpoint to another are smoothly executed, and there’s a wonderful sense of place. I felt the blurb on the back cover was slightly misleading (though that’s not the author’s fault). The blurb mentions ‘a series of bizarre happenings’ in the village’ and tells us that a decade later, Vincent ‘stumbles towards the buried secrets of his mother’s life and death in the abandoned village.’ I expected the story to centre more around Beth, whose neighbours believe she is ‘an ill omen’, and her connection with the ‘bizarre happenings’, but instead I felt slightly distanced from Beth, and indeed from her husband George, although I think we are meant to feel distanced from him, perhaps so that we can better understand how Vincent feels shut out by his father. Vincent is a well-drawn and convincing character, and I enjoyed his sections the most. I did enjoy this novel, but I didn’t engage as closely and consistently with some of the characters as I’d hoped to, and the plot never quite gripped me in the way that I thought it would.  Having said that, I’m glad I read it and I would certainly read more by Edward Hogan.

The Food Bit
Ratatouille crumble – this is a versatile meal that can be easily adapted to suit vegans and non-vegans, kids and adults. (Basically, just use margarine and real cheese if you don’t want the vegan version, and if you’re making it for kids, just cut the vegetables into much smaller pieces). First, make the posh ratatouille: you need an aubergine, 2 courgette, one each red, green and yellow pepper, one red onion, two cloves garlic and one and a half tins chopped tomatoes. Slice the garlic and set aside. Cut all veg into largish chunks, toss in olive oil, grind some sea salt and black pepper over the top and roast in a hot oven for about 20 mins, then add the sliced garlic and roast for another 10 minutes. When cooked, add the chopped tomatoes. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.

To make the topping: put about 50g vegan sunflower spread and about 50g flour into a blender, whizz for a few  seconds at a time until it resembles breadcrumbs. Set aside. Tear up a slice of bread and put into blender with some parsley if you have any, a handful of nuts (anything will do – I used pinenuts last night) and some grated vegan cheese. Add some salt and pepper, then whizz until the bread becomes crumbs and mix with the flour and fat. Spread the crumble topping over the ratatouille and cook in a medium oven for about 20 minutes or until nicely browned. Serve with mixed leaves if you’re feeling sophisticated, or baked beans if you want comfort food. This is enough for a family of four (or three big eaters).  I virtually guaranteethis will be a hit – let me know if you try it!

What makes a good query letter?

The Writing Bit

So, assuming your novel’s ready to go out into the world and you’ve identified the agents you want to approach,  (see last week’s Tips on finding an agent   you’ll need a query letter that’ll make them want to read your work. I’m not saying my way’s definitely the best way, but I had a response from every one of the fifteen agents I queried and three offers of representation,  so I must have done something right! For what it’s worth, here’s how I approached it:

Initially, I sent out five query letters by snail mail, asking if the agent would like to see the first three chapters and a synopsis. I didn’t send the chapters at this stage because I’d been advised that if the agent then said, yes, please send your work, it would no longer be ‘unsolicited’ and would be likely to  be read sooner than unsolicited submissions.  They all wanted to see the opening chapters, and all responded within five weeks of me sending the chapters – three ‘liked it but didn’t love it’ and two requested the whole novel. By the second round of queries, it was seeming like a bit off a faff, so I started sending the chapters with the query. The response was maybe a little slower, but not much.

So, the letter should be short, no more than a page. In that one page you’re selling your book and yourself.  Obviously you need to interest the agent in your story and characters, but you also need to demonstrate your professionalism and your writing ability.


Address the agent politely and formally, using both first and last names. Dear Jane Agent is more professional than ‘Hi Jane’, and it doesn’t run the risk of irritating her with it’s bezzy-mates assumption.  It shouldn’t need saying, but make sure you spell her name correctly.  

I started my queries by saying I’d  recently completed my novel as part of an MA. If I hadn’t only just completed the MA, I’d probably have simply included this information in my writing biography (see below). Then I let her know I’d done my homework by telling her I was approaching her because she represented an author I admired. So you could say something like, ‘I see that you represent Jane Author, a writer I admire enormously. I think my novel would appeal to a similar readership.’  Or if you’re lucky enough to have a recommendation, this is where you can say, ‘Jane Austen suggested I contact you.’

Say what genre your novel fits into. If it’s not as clear cut as ‘romance’, western’, ‘historical’, could it be ‘commercial literary fiction?’  Or ‘contemporary women’s fiction’? Then pitch your novel. You have a paragraph in which to do this, so you’re not looking at a full synopsis, but something similar to the blurb you read on the back cover of a book.  Ideally, you should say who the main characters are, what the main thread of the story is, and when and where the story is set.  If you’ve room, you could comment on the structure, e.g. ‘The two characters’ stories are intercut throughout the novel’.

Then comes your writing biography. If you have a writing MA or have done a few courses, say so. It doesn’t mean your novel will be brilliant, but it’ll tell the agent that you’re a serious writer. (That doesn’t mean  you’re not a serious writer if you don’t have an MA!) Include anything you’ve had published, and any competition placings. Even if your previously published work isn’t fiction, it shows that you can write, and it shows a level of professionalism.  If your publishing history takes up too much room in your query letter, put it on a separate sheet.  I’d written a number of non-fiction books and also had a few short story successes, so I listed these on a separate sheet and said on the letter, ‘I enclose a brief writing biography’ (brief being the important word!) 


I ended by asking if they’d like to see the opening section and a synopsis, (or ‘I enclose the first 50 pages’)and I told them the full novel was around 80,000 words.  You should always tell them if you’re approaching several agents at a time, something like,  ‘I am actively seeking representation and so am approaching a number of agents.’  Sign off with a simple  ‘yours sincerely’. Make sure you include full  contact details and a stamped, self-addressed envelope.  And then you wait…

This was my approach, and it seemed to work well  – what’s your experience?

 

The Reading Bit

I haven’t finished the book I’m reading this week yet, so will tell you instead about Amy Sackville’s The Still Point. Some weeks after finishing this novel, I’m still not sure. There are two stories here: a hundred years ago, Edward Mackley sets out for the North pole but then disappears, leaving his new bride Emily to wait in vain for his return. In the present day, Edward’s great-great niece, Julia, is archiving the family’s inherited belongings and in doing so, makes a discovery that shatters her somewhat idealistically romantic view of Edward and Emily’s relationship. The past story is engaging and beautifully written – exquisitely so in places. But I found the present day story of Julia and her husband Simon slow, ponderous and rather pointless. Julia and Simon’s marriage is fragile, though not quite broken. Not only were they distanced from each other, but I felt they were distanced from the reader as well, possibly because of the ubiquitous omniscient narrator, constantly reminding us that we are observing them from afar. I never felt close enough to Julia or Simon to care whether their marriage survived or failed. As I read, I kept waiting for something to happen, and I frequently considered abandoning the novel; and yet, somehow, I did keep picking it up, and when I finished it, I was glad that I’d read it. Also, I have found my thoughts returning to it even though I finished it weeks ago. A strange book, but I do recommend it – I think!

The Food Bit

This week, it’s going to be more of a vegan recommendation rather than a recipe. We recently had the fancies for ‘dirty food’ – you know, of the ‘burger and chips’ variety; the sort of thing you never admit to your friends. I should point out here that himself is a vegan mainly for  ethical reasons, not because he dislikes meat. Anyway, having found that most veggie burgers are either bean-based (not what we were after for this particular meal) or contain egg and are therefore not suitable for vegans, I discovered the Granose Burger Mix. You just mix it with water, leave for ten minutes, then form into burgers and fry for a minute or two each side.  I served them in wholemeal buns with a slice of soya cheese, dijon mustard (me) vegan mayo (him), plus sliced cucumber and tomatoes and some shredded lettuce.  I then whacked on a portion of oven chips and hey presto, guilt free ‘dirty food’. Just the thing on a weeknight when you’re trying not to drink wine! Even my son – and this is a young man who is no stranger to the Real Burger – said, ‘I’m quite impressed with those.’ Blimey!

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

Tips on finding an agent

The Writing Bit
Ok, so you’ve finished your novel, written ‘THE END’ in big letters and poured yourself a  large drink. Now you just need to find an agent…
First, don’t even think about trying to get an agent with a first draft.  I’ve heard writers say they know their novel isn’t really ready, but ‘the agent can tell me what else I need to do’. NO!! True, most agents will give you editorial advice , but you are the author, and it’s your job to make the novel as  near-perfect as you possibly can before approaching an agent.  If you’ve just completed a first draft, put it away for a few months and get on with something else, then  go back to it with fresh eyes (see earlier blog – What to do with a novel that’s ‘almost there’) and you’ll be amazed at how the flaws will leap out at you. You’ll almost certainly need to  do some significant editing and redrafting before it’s actually ready. When it’s as polished as can be, it’s the time to start looking for an agent.
First, identify agents who represent authors writing  for a similar market. Check out novels that would sit happily alongside yours and look at the acknowledgements page where authors usually thank their agents by name.  You can then look up those agents and send them a query letter (more about query letters in next week’s blog) saying, ‘I see that you represent Jane Bloggs, whose work I admire. I feel my novel will appeal to a similar readership.’ It’s better to send to a named agent if you can, otherwise, your   work may end up languishing for months in the ‘submissions department’.
When I was seeking representation, a successful writer friend advised me to send a query letter before sending the submission; the agent will hopefully write back saying, ‘yes, please do send me your three chapters’, and hey presto, your submission is no longer ‘unsolicited’!
So, here are a few more tips:
  • Make sure you’re sending to agents who are likely to be interested – no point in sending sci-fi to an agent who only represents romantic fiction, or a children’s novel to one who represents adult fiction.
  • Send to five at a time, and make clear that you’re approaching other agents. As each ‘no’ comes in – and there will be some ‘no’s – send out another query. Keep things moving.
  • Send only what they ask for, i.e. First three chapters, first 50 pages etc. (although if there’s a sensible break on p53, it’s probably ok to send 53 pages.)
  • Check whether it’s ok to send by email, or whether they want hard copy.
  • Make sure you include a synopsis, and again, send what they ask for. Check guidelines on the agency website. Some want one page; some want three.
  • Don’t pester! Give them at least a couple of weeks before you follow up a query letter, and at least four weeks before you follow up a submission.  Do so by email and be brief and polite. If you still get no response, it’s probably best to move on.
  • Be grateful for any feedback and consider carefully what they say.
  • Don’t be disheartened – lots of successful novelists were rejected many times before finding an agent!
See next week’s blog: how to write a query letter

The Reading Bit
I found The Devil’s Music by Jane Rusbridge immediately engaging for three main reasons: the subject matter (I’m a sucker for a tragedy that blows a family apart)  the coastal setting, which is strikingly evoked  in all its weather-beaten savagery, and the language, which is consistently assured and  precise. 
Andy’s story is narrated in the first person, both as a child and as an adult, and his mother’s story is told in the less common second person. I’ve only come across straight second person narration a few times before, and it hasn’t always worked, but here the  mother’s second person voice is haunting and incredibly affecting. I remember once hearing a woman being interviewed about her experience of domestic abuse. I was struck by the fact that she referred to herself constantly in the second person, and I wondered if it was because  she couldn’t bear to inhabit the ‘self’ that had experienced such trauma; I wondered the same about this character, who has also had her share of trauma. Whether it was the author’s intention to suggest this distancing from the traumatised self, I don’t know, but it worked for me! 
The story centres around Andy, who, following his father’s death, returns to the family’s seaside holiday home to prepare it for sale.  Andy has been living in Crete, working in a taverna and trying to erase the sad life he left behind in England. When he returns to the very beach where, as a young child, he’d been left in charge of his baby sister Elaine, he is forced to face the memories that he’s been trying to escape: memories of Elaine, labelled ‘Mentally Deficient’ soon after her birth, of his abusive father, Michael, and of his depressed and grief-stricken mother who abandoned him and his other sister Susie when they were children. There are happier memories of his rope-maker grandfather, who taught the young Andy how to make rope and tie knots, an activity in which Andy still finds comfort, as well as a means of artistic expression. As the story moves towards its climax, there’s a truly surprising revelation, followed by a postscript in which we learn more about Andy’s mother, this time from a third person viewpoint. I found the ending both satisfying and moving.
Jane Rusbridge’s writing is vivid and controlled, and her attention to detail is meticulous, particularly the period detail, which was so subtly done that it felt effortless.  I enjoyed this book immensely!
The Food Bit
This week, it’s a non-vegan suggestion (back to vegan/veggie next week). Recently, Woman’s Hour ran a feature on ‘the perfect fish pie’. Well, I’m sorry Woman’s Hour, no disrespect,  but this is the perfect fish pie!
Smoked haddock pie (serves two)
Place half a small onion, one clove, and a bay leaf into a pan with 150ml milk. Bring to the boil, then lower heat and add about 350g undyed smoked haddock. Poach for about 5 minutes or until the fish is just cooked. Remove the fish, strain the hot milk and use it to make a white sauce: melt about 15g of butter and stir in enough flour to make a roux. Cook for a minute or two, then gradually add the hot milk, stirring all time. Simmer for about 10 mins, stirring often. Add 50ml single cream and a splash or two of white wine, then taste and season. While the sauce is cooking, boil about 350g floury potatoes for the topping. Flake the fish into a pie dish, chop one hard-boiled egg and add to the fish along with a handful of peas. Pour the white sauce over the fish mixture. When the potatoes are cooked, mash with 50g strong cheddar cheese and a dollop of Dijon mustard. Season to taste. Spread topping over the fish base and make a nice pattern with a fork. Brush with melted butter and cook at gas mark 6 (440F/200C) for about 30-40 minutes. Serve with a green vegetable and some grilled or roasted tomatoes.

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

Creating believable characters

The Writing Bit

Have you ever been handed a sheet of paper with a list of questions, like: what is the colour of your character’s eyes /hair; where was s/he born; what did his/her parents do for a living; what sort of clothes does s/he wear? Who is his/ her best friend?  And so on.

I know some people find these ‘Character Generators’ genuinely helpful in creating characters, but I personally have a major problem with them, and I think they can sometimes set you off on the wrong track.

I believe that characters in fiction should develop organically; that fictional characters, like real people, are formed partly by where they come from and what their parents did, but also by the things that happen to them and the people they come into contact with. I tend to think about new characters almost as new babies; now if you’re a parent, you’ll know that a newborn baby, despite being the most precious, wonderful thing that ever happened to you, doesn’t appear to have much of a character when it’s first born. But gradually, over the weeks and months, as your child comes into contact with various people, goes to new places and has new experiences, he or she begins to develop a very definite and unique personality and character. If you decide before you start writing how your characters dress, who their friends are, what they eat and so forth, it’s like trying to impose a ready-made character on your newborn baby. Parents help to gently shape their child’s character over many years; they don’t dictate it at the moment (or even before!) of birth. 

So before you start writing, by all means decide that you want to write about a forty-something doctor living in a caravan in Aberdeen, or a twenty-something mother at Greenham Common in the eighties. But let the characters themselves tell you the finer details by putting them in situations and seeing how they react. If you send your character on a date or for a job interview, let us see her choosing what outfit she’ll wear; if a character has just had some news he needs to share with a friend, let us see who he calls and what he says.

Character should be slowly revealed;  don’t tell us she’s shy and lacks confidence; show  her trying to think up excuses to avoid a party, or rejecting a red dress  in favour of something less noticeable. Try to show, through thoughts, action and dialogue, not only how your character acts, but how s/he reacts. Obviously, you need to orchestrate your characters to a certain extent – you don’t want to give them a completely free hand, in the same way you don’t let your kids do exactly as they please. But if you put your characters in a situation and let them react, hopefully they’ll surprise you now and again and do things you didn’t expect – and that is the real joy of fiction!

 

The Reading Bit
I was immediately engaged by Isabel Ashdown’s Glasshopper. The narrative alternates between  thirteen-year-old Jake and his alcoholic mother, Mary.  When we first meet Mary, she’s recently separated from Jake’s father and she’s in a bad way. In the absence of a competent parent (Mary spends much of her time in bed, drunk) Jake does his best to hold things together, clearing up his mum’s sick, doing the household chores and looking after his younger brother, Andy.  Jake is a thoroughly likeable character but he’s not whiter-than-white, so he’s convincing. True, he steals from the kindly newsagent a couple of times , and sometimes he thumps his brother unnecessarily. But we forgive him, because he’s hard-working and intelligent and kind and vulnerable. 

The book opens in 1985 and goes back in time to Mary’s childhood. As we follow her life through her teens, twenties and thirties, we see the choices she’s made and the consequences of those choices, and we begin to understand what has led her to the depths she’s reached when we first meet her.  Both Jake’s and Mary’s voices are strong and convincing, and as the family’s history unfolds and the narratives move closer together, there are moments of both joy and heartbreak as a number of secrets are revealed.  I enjoyed the period detail, and I loved the minor characters. I felt Jake’s voice was slightly stronger than Mary’s, but maybe that actually emphasises the fact that Mary is in some ways a slightly diminished  character. I found her story convincing and tragic, and I felt hugely sympathetic to her; if anything, I wanted more of Mary. I found this an immensely engaging and satisfying read.

The Food Bit

Butternut squash and walnut risotto
Even though they can be a faff to make, I absolutely love a good risotto, so when my husband became vegan, I set about trying to find a decent vegan alternative. Now, I have to be honest, real butter and parmesan definitely give this a more gorgeous flavour and texture than the vegan alternative, but this version is really most acceptable, and still counts as comfort food (especially when served with a large glass of red!)

Take one small or half a large butternut squash, peel and dice into cubes a bit bigger than 1cm. Season, coat with olive oil then roast in the oven until soft and slightly caremelised. While the squash is cooking, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a pan, then add a finely chopped shallot (or half an onion). Fry for a couple of minutes. Make about 600ml of vegetable stock in a small saucepan and keep it on a low heat. Add 150g Arborio rice and a crushed clove of garlic to the onions. Stir so the rice is coated in oil. Pour in a slug of white wine (if you’re vegan, check that the wine is suitable) and when that has evaporated, add a ladleful of hot stock. Stir. When this has been absorbed, add another ladleful. Repeat until most of the stock has been absorbed and the rice is cooked, but still ‘al dente’. Stir the risotto every couple of minutes. When the risotto is cooked, add a heaped teaspoon of vegan sunflower spread, a good shake of vegan ‘parmesan’ – it’s called Parmezano and you find it in the ‘free from’ section of the supermarket. Taste to get the amount right. For non-vegans, add butter and grated parmesan at this stage instead. Add the roasted squash , a handful of chopped walnuts and a good grind of coarse black pepper. Serve in the centre of the plate, topped with rocket and drizzled with olive oil.

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.

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. 

What to do with a novel that’s ‘almost there’

 If you know your book’s good, if you’ve come pretty damn close to selling it but the deal is still elusive, you have four choices:  
  1. Keep trying — there are lots of small presses as well as mainstream publishers. Maybe the next editor it goes to will be the one who falls in love with it.
  2. Self-publish — a respectable option these days. Many authors self-publish very successfully. Not to be confused with vanity publishing.
  3. Put it aside and start a new book — good option if you’ve another idea that excites you. Many authors have actually published earlier novels after their debut.
  4. Put it aside for a substantial amount of time so you can really get some distance — at least six months is good, 9-12 months is better.

The fourth option is the one I chose a year ago. Most writers put work away for a couple of weeks as a matter of course, and even this little bit of distance helps show up things like typos, repeated words, clumsy sentences, unnecessary words/phrases, and tense slips  etc. I’ve just hauled my novel out of its virtual drawer after a year. I’ve read it again with fresh eyes, which sounds a bit like something you’d buy at a cheap butcher’s but you know what I mean, and I asked myself the following questions:

·         Does the narrative drag in places?

·         Are there areas where the pace is a little hectic?

·         Have I been telling when I should be showing?

·         Have I over-explained?  

·         Will my reader care about my characters as much as I do?

These are the questions I feel are appropriate to my novel – you may have others, e.g. does the story start in the right place? Whose story is it? Is there enough tension? Is the ending satisfying?  I’m not saying every writer needs to put every book away for a year – with a bit of luck, you’ll get that publishing deal on the first round of submissions! But if you’ve come very near to a deal but not quite made it and you know that you, your writer friends and even your agent are way too close to see the problems, putting the novel away for a big chunk of time might be the answer.

So, this week, I’ve been going through my manuscript with highlighter pens in various colours, marking out areas that need attention. I’m happy to say that overall, I enjoyed my novel, and there are bits that still make me cry. But there are areas that need improving, and I plan to tackle these over the next few weeks. Watch this space!

The food bit

This week, I’m only going to introduce the food bit, because the writing bit is slightly longer than I’d planned and I don’t want anyone dozing off.  I am passionate about food, and still occasionally work as a chef. My cooking life has become more interesting of late because of my husband’s interest in veganism.  Now, vegetarianism is easy-peasy; you can even do fine dining for veggies. But I’m finding veganism a little more challenging. I’m on a quest, people. I won’t be cooking vegan every day, I won’t even be cooking vegetarian every day – I still eat fish, and very occasionally, chicken – but I’m massively reducing my consumption of these and of dairy produce. So, I’m on a mission to produce delicious vegan meals, as well as the odd non-vegan meal. Again, watch this space!