Yesterday I was reminded, via a twitter conversation with the very awesome Joanna Cannon, of an exercise from a Julie Cohen writing course Joanna and I attended years ago. The exercise was simply this: ‘Tell me what your novel is about in one word.’ To which the response is inevitably, ‘Well, er, there’s sort of this woman.. and she meets this… well actually, no, but sort of and then….’ And which point Julie makes her special displeased face and repeats, ‘In one word.’ And the student goes, ‘Errrr…’ which is at least one word, but isn’t terribly descriptive of what the book is about.
But it’s a lesson that’s stayed with me. I still try to think about what the book I’m working on is about IN ONE WORD, and I generally manage to work it out. The Christmas Kisses series are all about Identity in one way or another. Sweet Nothing is about Romance, which might sound obvious because it’s a romantic-comedy, but I don’t just mean that the book is a romance; I mean that’s it actually about Romance. It’s about whether romance is the same as love, and whether you can have one without the other, and what romance actually is or should be. Midsummer Dreams is about Fear. It’s about fear of being alone, fear of letting people down, fear of taking a risk, fear of trying to be a better person, and the way that all of those fears can paralyze people and whether/how they can be overcome.
And I think that knowing that is really useful. It’s invaluable when you come to edit and revise a book. Knowing what your story’s theme is, gives you a point around which to focus your character arcs and plots and sub-plots. If you have a thread that feels disjointed from the whole you can ask yourself how it relates to that theme, and if it doesn’t, you might well have discovered the source of your problem.
But for me, a theme isn’t something that I consciously choose. It’s something that emerges from the process of writing the book. My current novel-in-progress has been my current novel-in-progress for about three years. There are reasons that it’s taken so long, and they are twofold. Firstly, the book isn’t a rom-com, and I’d just started writing it just before I signed my first contract with Choc Lit. Having signed a contract for a rom-com the onus was on me to write something else in the same genre, and so over the three years that this book has been on the go, I’ve also written another full-length novel and three novellas. That’s really bound to slow your progress a little bit.
The second reason the novel-in-progress has been in progress for so long was that I did a stupid stupid thing. I decided what it was about (in one word) before I started. And I got it wrong. Cue two and a half years of trying to bend a story to a theme that wasn’t right. When I eventually stepped back and realised, ‘Oh this isn’t about loss. It’s about parenthood’ I also realised that I now knew how to finish the book. I ssuddenly saw the point of a character that my heart was telling me to keep, but had nothing to do with the theme I thought was writing about. I saw how the sub-plots could be strengthened and linked back to my main character’s arc. The novel that’s been about two months off being finished for about a year and a half, might now genuinely be about two months off being finished.
And there you go – those are my thoughts on ‘theme.’ It’s definitely helpful to know what yours is, but I think it’s something you discover rather than something you consciously invent.
So here endeth the lesson. If you like me wittering about about How To Do Writing then you might be interested in the workshops I have coming up where I will be helping people sort out their novels-in-progress in all manner of interesting and creative ways.
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.
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.
Ahoy dear blog readers and welcome. I say welcome. What I actually mean this week is more along the lines of ‘The key’s under the mat. Let yourself in,’ because despite appearances to the contrary I am not here. I am actually writing this three days ago, because this week (by which I mean the week you are currently really in as you read this, which from my time-travelling blogger point of view is actually next week) I am officially a hermit.
There are reasons for the hermitage, and happily they don’t involve the concealment of any sort of embarrassing facial growth. Indeed, if I were possessed of a facial growth I would probably be posting pictures of it and asking for your best internet-informed medical opinions on how to proceed. Actually going to the doctor is so terribly time-consuming don’t you find? Anyway, the hermitage is for reasons of writerlyness. Not reasons that involve a deep yearning in my soul to retreat into a quiet and reflective artistic space and commune with my muse. That would not be practical. That last time I saw my muse he was sitting on the kitchen floor weeping and eating Philadelphia with his finger directly from the tub. He’s a terrible muse. I’m thinking of returning him to the seller – that is, I suppose, just what you get for buying a secondhand muse on ebay.
Anyway, the writerly hermitage is being undertaken for reasons of simple pressing need to just get the next book written already. There is a point in the gestation of most books where the writer decides the idea is awful, the writing completed so far is unmitigatedly terrible, the plot is unbelievable, and there is no imaginable way to fix these problems. Generally speaking, at this point, the writer will also believe that this is absolutely the first time that they’ve felt like this, and that it is definitely not ‘just a phase.’ I am in that ‘phase’ (well I say phase, it’s really really not a phase this time…) at the moment.
When I talk to other writers who are in that phase (because, obviously, when it happens to other people it is just a phase), I tell them, quite bossily, to stop being a moaning-minny and jolly well buck up and carry on writing. This is harsh but entirely good advice. I know it’s good advice because it’s been given to me by other much wiser and cleverer writers. And this week (also known from my current point of view as next week) is when I put that into practice. I’ve created myself a little writing retreat at home. Engineer Boy has been banished.* Groceries have been pre-ordered. All the good telly has been set to record. This blog post was written some time in the past. I have absolutely no excuse not to get my bum on my chair, my fingers on my keyboard and bang out some words. My target is 25,000 words in 5 days, which is ambitious but doable. That will get me to well over 60,000 words of novel which is probably about two-thirds of the whole. Hopefully that will be enough to get me past this hump and onto the home straight. Wish me luck.
* Not actually banished. Just on a course to learn to be a Better Engineer Boy.
Well, you can wait for months for a writing-related blog post around here, and then two come along at once. So after getting all researchy for my novel in progress last week (thanks to everyone who offered their own memories of being a 1960s teenager in the comments), today I’m thinking about writing shorter stuff.
I used, way back in the mists of time when I was fresh-faced young creative writing student, to write quite a lot of shorter pieces. I dabbled with both poetry and short stories, with fairly limited success. When I decided, back in 2009, that I wanted to Do Novels, I pretty much stopped writing short things. More recently I’ve started again, mainly with short stories – I am so definitely not a poet – and I’m trying to work out the best approach.
There are gazillions of places that writers can submit or showcase short stories and poetry. There are big competitions, little competitions, print magazines (although sections of that market are shrinking rapidly), e-zines, writing blogs and spoken word events. So what’s the best line of attack? Should one just write stuff that you think is good and interesting and then look for a outlet for the piece? Or is it best to target specific competitions or publications?
One story that I did have success with, winning a lovely shiny little cup, was written specifically for that competition, but that was a competition with a specified theme. Others are more open, so perhaps have less requirement for the writer to write something specifically for that competition.
Another big potential outlet for short pieces of writing is Spoken Word events. These seem to have got more and more popular over the last couple of years, to the point where I, at least, can barely leave the house without someone shouting their poetic offering at me. I find spoken word events tricky though. For me, there’s a big difference between a piece of writing that works well for an individual reading it off the page, and a piece that works as a verbal performance.
Attending Spoken Word evenings I’ve sat through plenty of pieces that might have been just fine to read quietly to oneself, but which all but died on their author’s poor tired feet in performance. So, for me, Spoken Word events are something that, if I choose to do them, I have to write something particular for.
So, how best to target one’s writing resources? Is it better to keep one’s eyes on a single goal – for me that would be novel writing – and exclusively focus on that? Or is it better to pick out and target specific short story competitions to build experience and profile (and if you’re lucky get some prize money)? Or should writing be a purely creative endeavour where we write what we love and look for somewhere to submit/publish it later? What do you think world?
I am now 18000 words into novel number 2. This is particularly exciting because about half of those words have been bashed out in the last ten days or so, marking an stratospheric increase in the pace of progress. It also means that I’m having to get my head around the new challenges of book 2, as compared to book 1.
Book 1 was set between 2002 and 2013, and occurred entirely in places where I have actually lived. There was a tiny bit of research involved in making one character, a mathematician, sound like he knew what he was talking about, but that came down to getting a couple of books from the library and reading them. Not too onerous, even for a naturally workshy animal like myself.
With book 2, however, I’ve set a whole section of the story in 1967. Now 1967 isn’t like 1867 or 1267. We’re not into massively unrecognisable “past is another country” territory, but we are ten years before I was born. I’ve shifted into writing about stuff that I don’t remember, and I didn’t live through.
Even though it’s only 46 years in the past, there’s a surprising amount that I don’t know. I need to find out about homes for unmarried mothers, and the Abortion Act, both of which require in-depth research. But it’s not just the big things that form stumbling blocks. In many ways it’s the smaller details that are trickier to make authentic. What did 17 year olds who wanted to look cool drink in 1967? Has the legal driving age changed since the 1960s? What did a pharmacist’s shop look like in a provincial town in 1967?
I’ve tried to make it a little bit easier for myself by setting this part of the story in a place I know really well – the town where I grew up. That’s tricky, in its own way, too. I have to keep checking when certain buildings were built, when they started being used for a particular function, whether it was possible to walk directly from a to b via that route in 1967, as it was in 1987 when I was growing up. Now you might say that that doesn’t matter, that you can fiddle with those details in the name of fiction. And I would say you were right, but, as the writer, I feel like I need to know which details I’m altering and which are absolutely right.
So be warned, any of you who were bright young things in the mid-late 1960s, expect to get badgered with lots of inane questions about your youth when next we meet. And please accept my apologies in advance for how completely annoying that is likely to become.
The other writing challenge I’m working on at the moment, is trying to get better at talking about my work. Writing a novel is such an unbelievably solitary experience. You find yourself living in your own head with only made-up people for company for big hunks of time. Those made up people are often delicate, and prone to damage if brought out and exposed to critical gaze too early or too often. (More thoughts on that quandary here.)
And when you’ve written the thing you have to go out and try to sell it. You have to be able to explain what it’s about in as few, and as interesting, words as is possible. You also have to be able to talk to friends at dinner parties, and in bars, without running back to your husband and hiding when they ask about your writing. Not that I do that. At all. Ever. Very often.
I do find the ‘talking about it’ part of writing incredibly difficult though, simply because you spend so long writing and creating a world, that then discussing it with other people feels like stepping out of the writing bubble into a dark and jagged place where people might tell you that it sounds crap. And that is a wee bit scary. So I’m going to try to offer you a very occasional blog about what I’m writing as a sort of gateway process into actually talking about it to real physical human people. This was the first one. I hope you enjoyed.