In which I am writerly for the 2nd week in a row

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?

In which I think about research and try to get better at talking about the book

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.

In which I post about The Next Big Thing and am both a day early and a day late

Hello. Apologies for being a day late in blogging. Yesterday just sort of got away from me a bit. Apologies also for being a day early – today I’m a blogging in response to Nikki Goodman‘s Next Big Thing post, which I’m really supposed to post on Wednesday. But I figured that if I was both a day early and a day late, that would average to being precisely and perfectly on time.

So the idea of The Next Big Thing is that we blog about our writerly works in progress. Now I don’t normally blog about writing, because repeated blogposts about how today I mainly sat on my bottom and peered at a screen aren’t desperately interesting. I also don’t usually do chain blogposts, but Nikki asked so nicely, and provided questions to answer, thus minimizing the thinking involved. How could I refuse?

So here are some answers to questions about my current novel-in-progress.


Q. What is the working title of your next book?

Ghost Stories. And it always has been. Normally I’m terrible at titles and the drift and evolve over time, but this one dropped into my head fully formed, and I can’t imagine it changing.

Q. From where did the idea come?

From the main character – I was taken with the idea of a protagonist who is a stage medium, but my first attempt to write her as a young funny chick lit heroine didn’t work. I’d given that character a mother who was an old-time stage performer, and eventually (I’m not always the sharpest tool in the box) it dawned on me that the mum was much more interesting than the daughter and should be the main character. The rest flowed from there.


Q. Under which genre does your book fall?

This one (which is my second novel) is quite literary, which was a bit unexpected. My first novel is a rom-com.

Q: Which actors would you choose to play the part of your characters for a movie?

My main characters are Pat, who’s the medium, and Louise, a mum whose teenage son has been stabbed. Pat’s in her 60s by the time most of the action takes place. There are loads of fantastic British actresses who could play her. Maybe Pauline Collins – she has a mixture of warmth and grit that would work really well.

Pat also appears as a teenager. I don’t know who could play the young Pat – I’d probably go for someone new and completely unfamiliar.

In my imagination Louise just is Anne-Marie Duff, so that’s an easy one.

Q. What is a one sentence synopsis of your book?

It’s about a mother of a murdered son and a woman who says she can talk to the dead.

Q. Will you self-publish or be represented by an agent?

Too soon to say. Ideally traditionally published with an agent. I’ve talked about why I’m not mad keen on self-publishing at the moment here, but never say never.


Q. How long did it take to write the first draft?

I’ll tell you when I’ve written it. For my first novel the first draft took a neat 8 weeks, writing 2000 words a day 5 days a week. This one’s going much much slower, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m hoping it’ll make for a slightly less crappy first draft than I managed last time.

Q: With which books within your genre would your story compare?

I hope it’s unique, but structurally it definitely owes something to Margaret Attwood – I love inventive narrative structure. There’s also a hint of Kate Morton about it. I do like a bit of a timeslip.

Q: Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’m not sure. I’m not a great fan of doing x-factor type emotional dedications. I’m not writing it for my dead kitten or wonderous great aunt. I’m writing it because I’m a writer, who wants to be a published writer, so writing books is kind of what I do.

Q: What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Well it’s going to be bloody marvellous  obviously. And there’s a  rock band in it and a deceased Pekingese and a Somme veteran called Stanley (also deceased). What more could you want?

As always, please do commenting and following/subscribing if you feel so led. Bye-bye.

In which I offer musings on what it means to “finish” writing a book

My first ever attempt at writing a novel is nearing completion. And let me be clear, by “completion” I don’t actually mean “completion” in the sense that any sane and normal person would understand it.

The non-writers amongst you will probably be open to two potential definitions of when a book is complete. It could be when the writer has typed their way all the way from “Once upon a time…” to “happily ever after” and stepped away from the keyboard. It could also be when the book gets handed over to a publisher and winds up in actual bookshops. Well, I’m not at either of those stages. The first passed some months (years?) ago, and the second may never happen at all.

So what have I been messing about at for the last two years, since I completed my first draft of this novel? Well, various things. There have been periods of having to leave the house and earn some actual money. Although he is astonishingly supportive of my whole penniless writer thing, much beloved husband does also remain fond of more mundane stuff, like eating and paying the mortgage.

There have also been periods of watching my life inexorably ebb away through the medium of my twitter and facebook news feeds. There has been a brain-mushing amount of watching old episodes of Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model on youtube, and falling ever so slightly in love with both Heidi and Tyra. Turns out my ideal woman is a German version of Tyra Banks. Who knew?

There have been periods of sitting staring at my novel-in-progress on the screen and rocking gently before flicking back over to youtube where it’s safe. But mainly there has been editing and rewriting and editing again, because starting at “Once upon a time..” and typing through to “happily ever after” doesn’t get you a book. It gets you a draft, and within that draft there will be plot holes that you could drive a truck through. I mean, YOU could drive a truck through them. I couldn’t obviously. I have driving-terror. The draft will also include characters who change their personality for no reason partway through, and, in my case, one character who changed their name for no reason partway through. That first draft was like a route map for the whole – it was only after I’d written it, that I could really start navigating through the novel.

There have been periods of very bravely allowing other people to read bits of my work for feedback, occasionally leading to periods of weeping and periods of defensiveness (usually followed by a much longer period of acceptance). Feedback on work in progress is interesting. The main thing I’ve learnt is that it’s wise to be careful who you ask. The best writers aren’t always the best critiquers. Twitter and facebook are brilliant for chatting to other writers, but the best feedback can come from intelligent readers outside of the little “writer bubble” we sometimes occupy. (Although I have had top feedback from some v talented writers – Huzzah for Holly Magill,  Lisa Bodenham-Mason and the RNA New Writers Scheme.)

I am now very nearly done with the editing and rewriting. I’ve (I think) beaten my insubordinate opening chapter into submission. There’s one more chapter to rewrite and then a few bits and bobs of line edits and then, and then… Well, and then, it’s time to send baby out into the world. I’ve made my list of potential agents, and prioritised within that list. I’ve identified publishers who accept unagented submissions. It’s pretty much all over bar the posting.

And after that, I start back at “Once upon a time…” and do it all over again, with a whole new set of problems and anxieties trying to get in the way. I “finished” one novel, but was it a fluke? Can I do it again? The rejections for novel no. 1 will be flowing by then too, trying to distract me with their depressing hints at my inate lack of ability. And that’s not even the worst thing – the worst thing is that I’ve now watched ALL the episodes of Top Model on youtube, even Canada’s Next Top Model. Can I write at all without a Top Model based word count incentive? I’ll let you know…