Alison May

In which I am writing a new book

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When I venture out from my lovely purple writing room and go into the big wide world to do authorly type events, it’s quite common to be asked how I approach writing a novel. It’s something other writers are often particularly interested in. We tend to view each other’s methods like a weirdly judgmental anthropologist meeting a new culture – we’re interested, fascinated even, but ultimately convinced that all these strange alien ways of doing things are Very Wrong. Anyway, here’s a snapshot of how I do the writing thing…

I’m currently around about 15000 words into the first draft of my new book. For those of you who don’t routinely count the words in every novel you read, a finished commercial fiction novel is likely to be somewhere in the 80-100,000 word region, so I’ve still got a long way to go.

And here’s something I very rarely hear writer-chums say about this early stage of a first draft: It’s truly horrible. I hate it.

There is no one right way to write a novel, but my approach goes something like this:

  1. Have an idea.
  2. Make lots of notes and convince self that idea is good.
  3. Start writing book (completely ignoring all those notes).
  4. Watch as idea slowly grows and develops in weird, unexpected and uncontrolled directions.
  5. Spend period from around 2000 words to around 70000 words hating the whole idea and deciding it’s too random and amorphous and will never form a nice coherent whole.
  6. Abandon whole idea.
  7. Cry.
  8. Reread idea so far, work out which bits are salvageable, write lots of new bits, edit all the bits with a viciousness that in any other context would be something of a worry.
  9. Submit book.

From stages 4 to 7 hating the book is normal – at least it is for me – but stages 4 to 7 are still essential because they’re the way that my brain gets to stage 8 where the book actually gets written. And I can’t do it the alternate way where you plan the whole book in detail before you start writing, and thus avoid the feeling that the story is an uncontrolled amorphous blob. If I do that then I basically have no interest in writing the book because I already know everything that happens.

So what I have to come up with are novel-writing coping strategies and plans to get myself, and my poor innocent unsuspecting book, through stages 4-7. The first of these coping strategies is nicked from the very wise and awesome Julie Cohen and is simply this:

write-crap

That’s the whiteboard next to my desk this very morning, and it’s a reminder that it’s fine for what I’m writing to be awful at the moment. In fact it’s essential. It’s part of how I write. The book will be bad before it’s good. And that’s ok.

The second thing I always tell myself is this: ‘If you’re at less than 65,000 words it should still be getting more complicated.’ This is because I tend to try to wrap things up too simply and write too neatly from A to B – that’s part of the reason planning too much doesn’t suit me; I end up writing the most direct and efficient route from plot point 1 to plot point 2 which isn’t necessarily great storytelling. The blob of the book should still be getting messier and more amorphous. However h0rrible that feels, it’s right and good and essential.

And finally, I remember that I always feel like this. I’m a writer who routinely ditches tens of thousands of words from draft manuscripts and adds new scenes at the final edit stage. That’s just how I work, and it’s always horrendous in the midst of the ‘writing crap’ phase. But if I keep going and write enough crap, then I get to edit, and, again unlike a lot of writers, I do very much like to edit. So, must get bad words down so that I can make them better later. You can’t edit a blank page.

So there you go, a little snapshot of this particular writer’s mind. Other writers will do it differently, probably more sensibly, and that’s fine. There is, after all, no one right way to write a novel.

If you are a writer and you’d like help finding your personal right way to write a novel, then take a look here for details of upcoming courses. There are still places on the Spring Writing Retreat where you get the benefit of not just one writing tutor’s approach but two, as I’ll be co-tutoring with the much more organised Janet Gover.

And if you’d like to get a book that’s in its shiny, polished, (hopefully) non-crap stage, then there are some here.

In which I think about teaching

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I’ve been a bit of a lax bloggificator of late. I had a good run back there in October/November of posting every week, but I think, if we’re honest, we all knew that wasn’t going to last didn’t we? At some point, it was really inevitable that I’d become distracted by cheese or an interesting stain on my pyjama top or something twitter reckoned and I’d forget to do blogging. So sorry about that. I’m back now though, and feeling like I’ve already missed the window for doing the traditional start of year resolution post. If you feel you’re missing out then just read last year’s or the year before.

I don’t want to diss the whole resolution notion, which I am generally a huge fan of, but my resolutions really are basically exactly the same – lose weight, get over the driving terror, read more, write more/better. So there we go – 2016; in terms of good intentions it’s really very much like 2015.

However, I do have one further more general resolution. In 2016 I shall do more stuff that makes me happy. It’s ridiculously easy to while away time in the modern world by automatically picking up one’s phone and scrolling through some random bits of internet. And sometimes a random bit of internet can be jolly. I very much hope that you’re enjoying this random bit of internet, for example, but overall trying to keep up with everything that is reckoned on the internet is a real time suck. So less of that in 2016 and more actually doing stuff, like making cake, or reading a proper book, or learning how to thread my sewing machine without swearing a lot.*

I’m also resolved to try really hard in 2016 to build up my creative writing tutoring. There are good and sensible reasons for doing this. It involves getting paid, which is a rare and beautiful thing in a writer’s life. It also involves making use of some bits of my ridiculously overlong education. But mainly I want to do more tutoring because I absolutely bloody love it.

There are very few activities more fun than talking to developing writers about writing and helping them work out what sort of writer they want to be. The moment where you see a student realise something, or understand an idea for the first time, is just ridiculously good fun. So I’m aiming to spend a fair amount of 2016 doing just that. I’ve got four courses in the schedule already, including two weekend retreats with my regular co-conspirator, Janet Gover, and I’m, as always, open to offers to come and run workshops with writing groups. All I need now are some students… Roll up! Roll up! I promise to send you home inspired, invigorated, and probably slightly knackered.

 

* This may not be possible. I suspect the swearing is actually an integral part of the process without which the little foot thingy won’t click down properly and the needle bit won’t bob.

In which I have to remember not to lick the books

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I’ve been a bit lax in the blog posting the last couple of weeks. This is largely because I’ve been mentally trying to compose a post about the Labour leadership campaign that isn’t just a series of video clips of me banging my head against a wall and then weeping gently, probably ending with a section where I jump up and down repeatedly on a picture of Tony Blair’s increasingly haunted face. I’m not sure that a post like that would really count as insightful or, indeed, interesting.

However, it’s so clear that generating a coherent opinion about Andy Burnham is basically my moral duty as a left-leaning bod with a blog and an interest in politics, that it’s hampered my attempts to blog about anything else. Fortunately today’s post brought something that absolutely, definitely has to be shared with the universe right now this very second.

 

Are you ready?

Ta dah!

Print copies

Actual print copies of my actual novel, Sweet Nothing. Actually printed out, so you can actually hold them, and cuddle them, and lick them.* There are lots of different novelist milestones – your first finished draft; your first finished draft that’s in a state where you could plausibly show it to another human being; your first rejection; your first non-standard rejection; your first contract; your first publication day; your first review; your first horrible review; the first time one of your books gets pirated etc. And in the modern world you can do all of those without ever having a printed book. So having a printed book shouldn’t logically make you feel like any more of a ‘proper writer’ than you were the day before. You’ve still written, edited and promoted the book – all that’s changed is that somebody quite unrelated to you has had the thing printed out and glued together. But still. It’s a book. An actual lickable** book. And it’s very very exciting indeed.

So there you go. A book. It’s out in paperback on August 7th, and by total coincidence the day before that is my birthday, so next week goes my birthday and then book birthday. If you check out my twitter feed (@MsAlisonMay) next Thursday (August 6th) there might even be a special #BirthdayGiveaway to win a signed copy, which would then be yours to keep, and, if you wanted, lick. Or just read. That’s probably a better idea really…

 

About Sweet Nothing

Would you risk everything for love?

Independent, straight-talking Trix Allen wouldn’t. She’s been in love once before and ended up with nothing. Now safely single, Trix is as far away from the saccharine-sweet world of hearts and flowers as it’s possible to be.

Ben Messina is the man who broke Trix’s heart. Now he’s successful the only thing rational Ben and free-spirited Trix see eye-to-eye on is the fact that falling in love isn’t part of the plan. But when Ben’s brother sets out to win the heart of Trix’s best friend, romance is very much in the air. Will Trix gamble everything on love and risk ending up with zero once again?

A modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. First novel in the 21st Century Bard series.

 

And you can pre-order the paperback or pick up the ebook for just 99 of your modern English pennies here.

 

*I haven’t been licking them. Honestly I haven’t.

** Still wrong. I’ll add ‘books’ to my list of Things I Must Not Lick.***

*** List also includes David Tennant, other people’s cake, and leading literary agents.

 

In which six is the magic number

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My publisher, Choc Lit, is six years old today, which is lovely. Well, it’s lovely up to a point. Beyond that, having a publisher who doesn’t want to discuss your edits because they had too much ice cream before they went on the swings and so now they feel sicky is less than ideal. Despite those reservations, a birthday is still a thing to be celebrated, so in the spirit of ‘sixiness’ here are six things I’m thinking about right this second…

1. Turning to crime

Not actual crime. That would be bad. Being bad is generally considered to be one of the defining characteristics of actual crime, but I am thinking about fictional crime. Yesterday I went to see a panel of frankly awesome crime writers talk at the Worcestershire LitFest. The panel was made up of CL Taylor, Sarah Hilary, Clare Mackintosh and Alex Marwood, all of whom are bestsellers and utterly brilliant writers. A couple of things really stood out – both CL Taylor and Alex Marwood started their writing careers writing books that were marketed as chick lit before turning to crime, and Clare Mackintosh actually turned down a potential offer to publish an earlier book before her astounding breakout debut hit, I Let You Go. All of which made me think a lot about writing and publishing as a career and how easy or difficult it is to switch genres or to write in multiple genres and hmmm… well… thoughts.

 

2. I bloody love teaching

I’ve been properly snowed under with work recently. I’m marking a lot at the moment, promoting one book, trying to finish writing another and I’ve recently joined the committee of the RNA, which is brilliant but also time-consuming. And then on Saturday afternoon I had an afternoon off. Well not actually ‘off’ – I had an afternoon standing at the front of a class with a flipchart talking about plot and character and trying to help five developing authors get to grips with their own works in progress, and it was immense fun, so much fun that, compared with the days and day of bum-on-seat time I’ve had recently, it almost felt like an afternoon off. Brilliant students, an excellent worked example of a character arc interacting with an external plot (courtesy of Terry Pratchett and Guards! Guards!) and a generally all round lovely afternoon.

 

3. My new book baby is out there in the world

Midsummer Dreams was published on Friday. You probably didn’t know that. I barely bang on about it at all. The early reviews have been lovely and positive though, which is always a huge relief. Until the first reviews appear there’s always a possibility that nobody else on the planet will understand what on earth you were trying to do with a novel, but fortunately at least some people seem to love this one. Happy dances all around! If you’d like to download a copy for yourself this is the place.

 

4. The Labour leadership contest is getting me down

So it’s fairly well documented that I’m a bit of a lefty, well ok, quite a lot of a lefty, so I should be following the Labour leadership contest with great interest. Unfortunately all I’ve been able to muster so far is great disillusionment. I can’t even bring myself to type a proper rant about how disappointing the candidates all are. That’s how disillusioning the whole thing is. *sigh*

 

5. Fatness and cake

I’m currently on attempt 728 to get my weight under control. My current system involves good old fashioned bribery as the incentive, as EngineerBoy has been persuaded to sponsor me £1 for every 1lb I lose. So far I’ve made £4. Yeah baby!

The current biggest downside of the weight loss plan is that it really curtails the amount of baking I can justify doing. I love baking – it’s like magic for people who don’t have sufficient attention span to actually learn how to cut a lady in half, or, if you prefer, it’s like science for people who only have eggs, butter and flour to experiment with. Baking is awesome, but it very often leads to cake, and cake, very often, leads to fatitude. Again *sigh*

 

6. And finally, I am thinking about Christmas

Because my current work-in-progress is the third (and possibly final, but never say never) Christmas Kisses book, so for the third year in a row May and June have been soundtracked by White Christmas and Band Aid. No spoilers about the book other than to say it will be Christmassy and there will probably be some kissing.

 

So there you go. There are six things that are on my mind right now. What’s everyone else thinking about?

In which I reread an old classic

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I’m currently rereading Emily Bronte’s masterpiece, Wuthering Heights. It’s probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve read the book – the first was when I was about 17, and the most recent was seven or eight years ago when I read it as part of my Creative Writing degree course. Having read it so many times and studied it at university I would have said, with confidence, that Wuthering Heights was a novel I knew pretty well, but here’s a newsflash from the current rereading: it’s absolutely nothing like I remember it. There are whole sections that I don’t remember at all, and some of the bits I thought I did remember are quite quite different from how I remembered them. This is odd, because it’s, obviously, still the same book. In fact, in this case, it’s physically, literally, actually the same book that I’ve read before, but the experience of reading it is completely different.

I think there are reasons for this, and I don’t think any of them are that aliens have come to earth and rewritten bits of Wuthering Heights, which is a shame, because that would have made an awesome blog post.

The non-alien related reasons are twofold:

1. I’ve changed

Well given that the book hasn’t changed, that leaves the reader as the only remaining variable, so if the thing I’m looking at isn’t different, but the experience of looking is, then that must be down to me. The things I’m picking up on during this reading are far more to do with the characters and far less to do with the brooding atmosphere and oppressive moor. This might be because I’ve moved on as a writer since I last read the book, and am currently fixated by character in terms of how I plot and revise my own writing. I’m noticing, for the first time, how complex, and essentially unpleasant, the minor characters are. Joseph, Nellie Dean, Mr Lockwood are all astonishingly self-involved in their own different ways.

I’m also noticing how dated the prose style is, and how slow the opening chapters are, which I don’t remember picking up on before. I’m actually quite impressed with my seventeen-year-old self for sticking with it. Again – that’s the writer in me coming through, and noticing deviations from the contemporary received wisdom about how to start and pace a novel.

It’s not the first time I’ve had a book change in front of me on rereading. I started Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day about eight times and couldn’t get past the first chapter, until one random day when I sat down and read about two-thirds of the book in one sitting. The book hadn’t changed, but something about my mood on that one given day married with the story and away we went together.

2. Some novels end up bigger than the novel itself

Wuthering Heights is the poster book for novels that exist in the public imagination in a completely different form from how the are on the page. Wuthering Heights has been adapted and retold in films, on TV, in musicals (thanks for that Cliff), and nearly all the retellings underplay the bleakness of the original novel. Somehow that perception of Wuthering Heights as a romantic story of star-crossed lovers on a windswept, but ultimately picturesque, moor, seeps into our consciousness, even if we’ve read the actual book and know it isn’t really like that. The idea of Heathcliff and Cathy as a slightly more consumptive Romeo and Juliet is stuck in our collective memories, even if none of us actually remember where it came from.

So there you go. Wuthering Heights – it’s not at all how you think you remember it. After this I shall be going to see Romeo and Juliet again with fingers crossed that I might have misremembered that ending. In the meantime, feel free to chat to me in the comments. What do you think of Wuthering Heights? Are there any books that have surprised you on rereading, or have turned out to be completely different from your expectations?

And finally, a quick reminder that my new Christmas Kisses novella, Cora’s Christmas Kiss, is out now for kindle.

In which I have a shiny new book out

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Waaah, and indeed, yippedee-do-daaa. It is beyond exciting to be able to confirm that my new novella, the second Christmas Kiss story, Cora’s Christmas Kiss, is now available for kindle pre-order. It’ll be live and properly available from 4th December.

Hurrah! Let the festive, romantic, joyousness be unrestrained.

And just for you lovely blog reading types, here’s what the cover looks like.

Cora's Christmas Kiss

Like all my covers, so far, it was designed by the awesome Berni Stevens. Thank you Berni for doing such a great job.

So there you go, that’s lovely Cora launched into the world. I hope people enjoy reading about her.

In which a year has passed and I muse on how it takes a village and all that guff

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So this time next week I shall be in Telford getting ready for my fourth RNA Conference. That realisation made me also realise that it is now 1 whole year since I signed my first ever publishing contract with Choc Lit to publish Sweet Nothing, followed later in the year with a second contact for Holly’s Christmas Kiss.

Sweet Nothing

Holly's Christmas Kiss

One year on from such great excitement seems like as good a time as any to get a bit melancholy, raise a glass of something suspiciously green-looking, and have a bit of a think about the process of getting from ‘Hey guys, I’m going to write a novel!’ to actually having a novel out there in the world, where unsuspecting strangers, some of whom aren’t even friends of your mum, might read it.

And the conclusion of that little think would be this: it takes a village to make a novel. Not an actual village. It’s not compulsory for budding novelists to move to Little Middlewitch and start helping out with the church flowers. I’m talking about one of those metaphorical villages that exist only for the purposes of slightly laboured and clichéd metaphor. The Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village takes in many helpful souls. There are the tutors and workshop leaders whose ideas I’ve cribbed and developed. There are the critique readers. There are the supportive wine-supplying friends who tolerate the fact that most of my gossip is about made up people. There’s the actual publisher who decided to invest their time and money in my work, and then there’s the editor, copy-editor, proofreader, cover designer and blurb writer. And then once the book is out there’s the audiobook people, and the pr dudes, and the book reviewers and bloggers who’ve featured me or my books on their site.

So it’s one whole year since I signed the contract with Choc Lit to publish Sweet Nothing. It’s six years since I first decided I wanted to write a romantic comedy, and decided that I wanted to base it on what I consider to be the ultimate rom-com from stage, book or screen. And the end result is a story that owes everything to my random set of pre-occupations: love and how it’s not the same as romance, how clever people can do stupid things, how knowing stuff is brilliant, tequila is dangerous, and M&S party food is the highest form of food. All of that stuff is part of me, but none of it would be out there in a vaguely readable form without the rest of the Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village.

So please all raise your glasses. Wait. I didn’t mention that you needed glasses, did I? Ok. Those of you who are already glass-ready, give everyone else a second to pour themselves a tiny drinkette. Right, so please raise your glasses and let’s make a toast, to everyone in the Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village. Cheers, and thank-you all.