For a long time, I avoided embarking on a novel because I was frightened of failure. Afraid of not completing the novel. Afraid of creating something that was complete rubbish. Afraid of not getting the finished manuscript published. But most of all, afraid of wasting months or years of my life on something that no one else would ever read.
So, I stuck to short stories and articles. There was still the risk of time wasted on writing stuff that would be rejected. But these were much smaller blocks of time and the odds were, that with enough pieces ‘out there’, some pieces would be accepted by magazines for publication. Some were. And some weren’t.
The pull of wanting a novel with my name on the cover grew. I buried my fear and started trying. As expected, it was difficult. My first attempts didn’t get past chapter three or four. But, with persistence, I completed a novel. It went on to win a competition and was published through Amazon. And gave me the confidence to try writing another. The Book Guild thought this next one had commercial potential and that too was published. The third novel got me an agent but not a publisher. Just before Christmas I finished the second draft of novel number four. This novel is now ‘resting’ before I read it again with fresh eyes to spot what does and doesn’t work in the storyline.
I promised myself a treat during this resting period – some short story writing! I was looking forward to this because I’ve always loved the buzz of achievement on completing a story and sending it out into the big wide world. In novel writing that buzz is rare.
This treat is turning into wasted time. With short story writing there’s no continuity between writing sessions. New characters and situations have to be constantly created – and that’s hard work. It’s far easier to slip back into the familiar world of a part-finished novel and bash out a few more pages. My productivity has plummeted and I’m looking forward to returning to editing the novel.
Which is easier – short story or novel writing? Or is the grass always greener?
Park Runs are held all over the country at 9 am on Saturday mornings. They are free and anyone can take part. All standards of fitness are welcome and at Sutton Park there was a sign ‘Walking Group Meet Here’ – so there was no need to even run. The events are organised and marshalled by volunteers and there is a friendly atmosphere geared towards encouraging everyone to get outside and move more. The only preparation needed before joining a run is online registration. This is a one-off process which generates a unique barcode for each runner. This barcode must be printed, taken to the event and scanned once you’ve crossed the finish line in order to get a time for your run.
At Sutton Park there was a briefing just before the start for first-time runners. The course was described and I had second thoughts when ‘Hill of Doom’, ‘trip hazards’ and a ‘single file wooden bridge with a slat missing’ were mentioned. My aim became to get to the end without falling over.
With my eyes on the ground I successfully negotiated the hazards. The ‘Hill of Doom’ was short and very steep, so I have to admit to walking here. Everything became easier once the course hit tarmac and I became a lot more confident. It was downhill to the finish and to that lovely feeling of having accomplished something.
Park Run results hit the website later the same day. My time was 34:45 and my results emails says, “You finished in 272nd place and were the 78th female out of a field of 398 parkrunners and you came 5th in your age category”. I don’t know how many were in my age category but 5th will do me!
The similarity between writing and running has been pointed out many times before and my Park Run brought it home to me again. Writing and running are both hard work and we don’t always enjoy the actual process – but the ‘high’ produced by having run or having written can’t be beaten!
When I was young one of my ambitions was to own a secondhand bookshop. It was an ambition that was never fulfilled but I do still love to wander around shelves full of pre-loved books.
Shaun Bythell owns Scotland’s biggest secondhand bookshop and for a year he kept a diary of life in that shop. The diary was published in book form, The Diary of a Bookseller, a couple of years ago and it makes interesting reading for anyone who’s ever wondered what goes on behind the mountains of paperbacks and collectables.
There are comments on the customers (especially those who spend hours reading by the bookshop fire and then don’t buy anything), the staff (who have a tendency to the eccentric), the people who are selling their lifelong book collections and the way online ordering works in the secondhand industry. Sunny summer days are busy but in winter the takings are meagre.
Two particularly interesting points from the book are worth highlighting. Why not join the shop’s Random Book Club? For £59 a year you will be sent a surprise book every month. Might make a great present for someone who loves to try different genres?
And, if like me, you’ve ever wanted to run your own secondhand bookshop, here is the holiday for you:
Stay in the apartment above another secondhand bookshop, The Open Book, and you get to manage the bookshop (with help from volunteers) during your stay. But you need to plan ahead – the holiday is very popular and booked a couple of years into the future. Get on the waiting list via the Open Book Facebook page or book the apartment via AirBnb.
I’ve been on a writing retreat!
Unfortunately it wasn’t a week in a glamorous, sunny location but two nights in a Premier Inn on an industrial estate near Warwick. It was an experiment with a writer friend to see if 48 hours away from domestic distractions would enhance our productivity and propel us into the heart of our plots.
We worked in two and a half hour chunks before meeting up for tea and homemade cake or a 30 minute walk round the block or breakfast or dinner. This method kept us well fed and there was always a break to look forward to. I found that after two hours my concentration was waning and I was ready for some company and chat (and cake!)
Did it work?
My companion was doing NaNoWriMo. On arrival she was behind on her daily word count, when we left she was ahead, as well as having done some character sketches.
I was trying to pull together a very wobbly first draft. Prolonged writing time on the retreat enabled me to see the plot as a whole and get some editing done. In our breaks we did a lot of writing talk and my writer friend gave me a new idea to increase the tension within my story. I spent time working out how to weave this into my existing chapters.
Yes, the retreat worked and was worthwhile. But we both agreed that we couldn’t maintain that level of work/concentration beyond a weekend. So a whole week writing in the sun would probably be wasted on me (if it’s sunny I’d rather be in the pool or sightseeing!) but another weekend on an industrial estate is something I’d consider …
It’s often said that public speaking is people’s number one fear. Many of us would rather adopt a tarantula, stroke a python, walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon or be enclosed in the tiniest of spaces than speak in front of an audience. I know, I’ve been there.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. The fear of public speaking, or glossophobia, can be managed. The nerves will never completely go, but that’s a good thing. A little bit of anxiety ensures proper preparation beforehand and a dose of adrenaline improves the performance.
Writers who can face an audience (even if they are quavering inside!) are at a big advantage. Think of the growing number of literary festivals that take place throughout the year, up and down the country, showcasing authors and their books. Think of the opportunities offered by libraries for local authors to make themselves known to local readers. Think of the critique possibilities available at writing groups, classes and residential courses to those brave enough to read their work aloud.
Writers are often stereo-typed as introverted loners, hunched alone over a laptop. We can do a lot of networking and promotion online via Twitter, Facebook and all the other social media, but nothing beats getting out into the real world, meeting real people and sharing our work.
2019 is drawing to a close. Start preparing now to make 2020 the year you crack glossophobia and take your writing and author talk to the audience it deserves.
To help you on your way Public Speaking for Absolute Beginners on Kindle is reduced to 99p for the next seven days, until 4th December. For less than half the price of a coffee you can learn how to:
- Construct an interesting talk
- Manage nerves
- Build audience rapport
- Manage speaking engagements
- … and much more
If you prefer a ‘real’ book, the paperback of Public Speaking for Absolute Beginners is only £5.49.
Whichever version you prefer, I’d love to know how you get on!
Maria is a professional storyteller and excellent at drawing the audience into her imaginary world. She does this through the use of her voice, body language and, of course, her choice of words. Maria knows her imaginary world and the characters who inhabit it so well that the listener is soon a believer in that world too. And this was the point that Maria wanted to get across to us during the workshop:
It is essential to spend time thoroughly imagining the setting/world of your story AND the background/motivation of the characters who live in this world.
Maria got us practising this technique in a variety of ways. She began by telling us a captivating story from the Middle Ages about two green children from a green world who accidentally find themselves on Earth and the subsequent problems they have as outsiders who look different. We then:
- Did some role play. One pretending to be the green girl and the others asking her questions about how she felt.
- Did a piece of writing from the point of view of the green girl reflecting on becoming a mother on alien Earth.
- Worked together to create a huge map of the green world and then wrote about the landscape.
- Attempted to write a piece from the point of view of the cave which was the portal between Earth and the green world.
By the end of the day I felt fully immersed in the green world and the character of the green girl. The benefit of doing this for the novel I’m working on would be huge – so that’s my next challenge!
An unexpected bonus from the day was coming face to face with fellow writer and blogger Julia Thorley for the very first time. Julia and I have followed each other’s blogs for several years but never met before. So it was a strange sensation when we looked at each other across the workshop table, each thought the other looked familiar and as soon as we said our names, realisation dawned! It was lovely to get the chance to work together during the workshop – and have our photo taken to mark the occasion! Julia has also written about the day.
I’ve run a book group for several years and hearing several different opinions of the same book is always a fascinating experience. A book’s themes often lead to interesting conversations and we usually have a laugh too.
However, recently I’ve discovered an alternative type of group; Shared Reading.
Shared Reading is championed and supported by the charitable organisation The Reader. The charity “builds warm and lively communities by bringing people together and books to life”.
The groups are free to join and open to all. However many of the groups are located in places to help those living with conditions such as dementia, complex mental health issues and chronic pain, as well as those recovering from addiction or feeling lonely.
The groups meet on a weekly basis and all the reading is done out loud during the session, with both the group leader and the participants doing the reading. At appropriate points in the poem, short story or prose extract there will be a pause and the leader will start a conversation about the text. Group members might talk about the impact the words have on them, their interpretation of the text or simply whether they are enjoying it or not. No one is forced to contribute or to read aloud but it’s hoped that the groups’ inclusive atmosphere gives everyone’s voice and opinion a chance to be heard and appreciated.
This week I had the chance to shadow the leader of two Shared Reading groups in north Birmingham; one in a care home for the elderly and another in a community centre. I had a thoroughly enjoyable time.
The older people looked at two poems: New Every Morning by Susan Coolidge and Moon Compasses by Robert Frost. It was a lovely to hear the positive message they took from the first poem about each new day offering a new beginning. The second poem took more concentration but the description of love at the end pleased them all.
The community centre group were looking at the chapter, ‘Mother’, in Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. They had looked at the first half of the chapter the previous week but I was soon brought up to speed. We talked about the chaotic home over which Laurie’s mum presided and her constant hope that one day the husband who’d walked on her would return. The session finished with the poem My Heart Leaps Up by William Wordsworth and us agreeing that even though we are no longer children, it’s still lovely to see things in nature that bring us joy.
These groups are a million miles away from a school English Literature lesson. They are all about personal interpretations of the texts and how they make us feel.
All the Shared Reading group leaders are volunteers and have been specially trained for the task. I’m contemplating putting myself forward.
Posted in Writing on October 17, 2019
As everyone’s gearing up for NaNoWriMo next month I thought I’d give you an update as to where I’m at with my own writing.
Around this time last year I signed with the wonderful Juliet Mushens of the CaskieMushens literary agency. Juliet liked the concept behind my novel and could see how it needed re-writing to give the story a much better flow. She had some great ideas and, together, we greatly improved the manuscript through three rounds of editing.
In July of this year the book went out on submission to publishers. There were positive comments about the writing but unfortunately it didn’t find a buyer. Obviously, after all the work, this was disappointing but I’m not the only author to get so far down the line and then come away with nothing. I knew it could happen, which was the reason I didn’t shout about signing with Juliet at the time.
Juliet suggested putting that manuscript to one side and getting stuck into the next novel. So that’s what I’m doing. I have a head full of doubts about my ability to actually create another full-length manuscript which will be of interest to anyone except me and my mum. However, having come this far and with Juliet willing to at least read whatever I come up with, I feel have to give it another shot.
I won’t be doing NaNo because I’m not at the right stage of the book for that but I am aiming to work on the new novel every single day in November and beyond.
By the way, if you’re wondering about the illustration on this post, it’s something which features in that unsold manuscript.
Good Luck to all of you aiming for 1700 words per day next month!
Posted in Events on September 19, 2019
I had never heard of the specific skill of ‘Life Writing’ until I applied for a place on a day workshop run by Testimony in Practice at the Library of Birmingham and held last weekend. I came away much wiser and full of advice from Emilie Pine and Carmen-Francesca Banciu.
Emilie is the author of the award-winning collection of personal essays, ‘Notes to Self‘. She used writing exercises based on our own life experiences, relationships and memories to school us in the practice of adding emotion and detail to our writing. She had us switching tenses and view points to test their impact. She told us to delete our fist paragraphs and to take our opening line from somewhere in the middle in order drop the reader straight into the scene.
Carmen is a writer who has chosen to share her life experiences through memoiristic novels. She explained that writing directly about yourself and trauma can be too painful and it can be awkward for the friends and family you include in your work. Turning it into fiction can make it possible to record experiences more honestly. Carmen encouraged us to use our imagination about an object hidden in an envelope and, once revealed, to place that object in a fictional setting. She made us try writing with our left hand in order kick start other areas of the brain and see how that affected our writing.
Both women emphasised several common points, some of which we already know but sometimes fail to implement:
- Put writing at the top of your ‘to do’ list
- Free yourself from the necessity to be good in a first draft. Make it good through editing later.
- Write quickly in whatever pocket of time you have
- Fiction can be a form of testimony and gives the writer the necessary distance to tell a difficult story
- Authenticity in memoir is not always about absolute accuracy but about honesty of intent i.e. the essence of experience.
- A first draft may come up with contradictions, such as ‘I love him’ and ‘I hate him’. It is at the hinge of such contradictions that the real story starts.
- Passages of high emotion can be made manageable for writer and reader by including a less intense interlude of description.
- Slowing the pace and inserting detail can vastly improve a manuscript.
Now I’m raring to get back to my WIP and have the intention of adding increased emotion and fine detail to my work!