A whole month of the New Year has gone by already and where am I? Happy to say that, so far, things are going to plan.
And I’ve had a couple of sessions of spring cleaning. Not the mop and duster variety, I hasten to add. More of the I remember writing that years ago, never knew I still had it variety. But it was an incident in the kitchen that got me going. I was baking a cake and was trying to find that little bottle of vanilla essence I knew I had in the cupboard, somewhere. To get to it, I had to empty one complete shelf and I started noticing the sell-by dates! To cut a long story and two hours’ worth of clearing short, I got rid of every bottle, jar and packet that was past its date, one even going back to 2008 🙂 After that, I felt quite virtuous and my mind turned to other ways of spring cleaning, starting with writing.
I never advocate deleting old stories. But I do recommend taking a look at what you have got, squirrelled or filed away, used or unused. Some, you may well consign to the “Learning the craft” file, recognising all sorts of errors. But you may be pleasantly surprised at some of your past writing.
I have just read a captivating psychological thriller called Believe Me. It is the second book by JP Delaney whose first, The Girl Before, was a best seller. Talking about that book, Delaney says: “I started this book over fifteen years ago, but for one reason and another I just couldn’t make it work. So I put it aside and wrote another book instead. That book led to another, and another – but each time I finished a book, I’d come back and have another go at this one. I knew the central idea was too good to discard, but the plotting – and the narrative structure I’d chosen – was so daunting I kept abandoning it. It was only in 2015 that I decided I’d have another, more determined go. So I ditched around 40,000 words – half a book, in other words – and that was the key to unlocking the rest of it.”
The lesson? You may well have a gem hidden in the cupboard or deep in your computer filing system. It might take a bit of work, but if you never dig it out and have a go, you’ll never know!
Also this month:
My article about Censorship and the Stage
Writing Prompts & Exercises, Recommended Websites, and Competitions
Welcome to my first blog of 2019. A Happy New Writing Year to you all.
You’ll notice a slightly new-look to my website – different style and some pages are missing! I’m thinking of producing a book of articles and prompts from my blogs over the past two years, so I’ve decided to “start over” with 2019. I shall blog each month on something to do with writing; occasionally there’ll be an additional article too; new prompts will appear each month, and there’ll be updates on my own writing on the About page. Recommended books, competitions and websites, plus Q and As will all appear together on the prompts page.
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I recently spent a most enjoyable Sunday afternoon listening to one of my favourite authors – crime writer Ian Rankin. He is a most engaging speaker, very relaxed, mixing amusing anecdotes with writerly advice, thoughts on crime writing to his struggle to become a writer. He was speaking at the British Library, under the aegis of the Royal Society of Literature. I thought I would share some of his words of wisdom here but, if you have the opportunity, please do go and hear him speak.
Against his parents’ wishes, Rankin took English Literature at university (What sort of job will you get with that degree? his father asked him) and went on to start a PhD on Muriel Spark. The PhD was never completed, as the money for the course kept Rankin going while he wrote his first three novels, the third of which was Knots and Crosses– the first Rebus book.
This year marks the publication of Rankin’s 22nd Rebus book, starring his well-known detective John Rebus, In a House of Lies. Available here:
On that evidence, you might think that Rebus was an instant success. But no! Rankin’s first half dozen books didn’t sell well at all, apparently. So much so, that he and his wife decided to move from London to rural France. Without email in those days and not speaking French, he says he got a lot of writing done. That was where Black and Blue was crafted which won the Crime Writers’ top award, the Gold Dagger. Amazingly, that book was still not an immediate success, but the award gave his publishers more confidence (having considered dropping him) and Rankin himself a new lease of life.
It wasn’t until his tenth Rebus book that Rankin hit the number one bestseller spot.
When he first looked for his books in the shops, Rankin was horrified to find them in the crime section. He would surreptitiously move them, only to find them back in the crime section the next day. Now, he’s happy with the genre, saying he wanted to recreate Jekyll and Hyde in modern-day Edinburgh. He says that in crime fiction, an author gets to address contemporary issues like drugs, corruption and people trafficking.
For quite a while, crime books were not taken that seriously, Rankin says. And it was years before he was invited to LITERARY festivals. In the meantime, British crime writers became a community, often meeting up at Murder One – the crime bookshop, now closed, in Charing Cross Road, London.
Ian Rankin has never watched any of the Rebus series on television because he doesn’t want to have a particular actor’s face in his head as he writes. But he has been to see the new stage play Rebus: Long Shadowsin which Coronation Street star Charles Lawson (Jim McDonald) plays the part of Rebus.
Ian Rankin lives in Edinburgh, on the same street as JK Rowling and where Alexander McCall Smith once lived too. The locals call it The Writers’ Block!
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Finally, a big thank you to my lovely friends who bought me notebooks, fiction and non-fiction books for Christmas. A writer can never have too many!
I was giving our oven its usual pre-Christmas clean – one of the messiest jobs I’ve ever come across. And I had a light-bulb moment. Nothing whatsoever to do with ovens or cleaning, but the answer to a pressing writing problem I’d had for weeks. I threw off the marigolds (remember them?) and dashed to my study to make a note of my Eureka moment. And then, once I’d done enough on the oven for one morning, I went back to my study, and, for the first time in many weeks, was able to carry on writing.
I’d been mulling over this particular plot point for some time but had never come up with anything like a suitable answer. I knew where my heroine was going; I knew what would happen once she got there, but quite how she knew where to go had been preying on my mind. Why the answer should appear while I was oven cleaning, I have no idea! Maybe my mind was wandering as far as possible from the matter in hand!
I’ve had similar experiences before, several times whilst walking on lovely beaches, either in south-western Ireland or, more recently, up in Northumberland. Just a bit different from a greasy oven.
So, although I’m a big fan of sitting down and writing every day, I recognise that just sometimes, you DO need that vital flash of inspiration, wherever and whenever it comes from. But waiting for inspiration is NOT an excuse for not writing.
More to come in the New Year
I hope you’ll forgive me when I say I am not able to write any more this month, due to family commitments. I do have some new suggestions on the prompts page and there are competitions still open. In the New Year, I’ll come back to the subject of Censorship and the British Theatre which I promised last month.
In the meantime, I hope you all have a really enjoyable holiday time.
with best wishes and Happy Writing.
This month I’m hoping to go to an exhibition at the V&A Museum, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the abolition of censorship on the British stage. I’ve read some fascinating articles about how far we have come in those past 50 years and, for some, how much further we still have to go. I’ll write about it next month and give you some links to others’ opinions.
One topic that comes up again and again amongst writers is when should I start editing?
It’s said that the first chapter of a novel is the one that is rewritten the most. You want to get it right, you want to hook the reader (or first, an agent), you want the opening to be the best it can be. Absolutely – it should be. But constant tinkering with the first chapter before the rest is written is almost a waste of time. Only by the end of your story, will you be in a much better position to know who your main character is and what needs to be included on that opening page – clues, signs, leitmotifs, hints of personality traits and the conflict.
When you start a project – novel or short story – you don’t really know your characters until they need to DO something, until they are put in a difficult situation, until they have to make a decision.
First chapters can be rewritten. They are not set in stone. They can be changed or, yes really, cut altogether. Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? But again, sometimes you don’t know where your story actually begins until it’s written. And then it may be far better to start in media res, rather than with description, setting, backstory and character details.
I like this quote from Raymond Obstfeld in his book Fiction first aid:
“Sometimes you have to write long in order to explore all the aspects of the story, so everything is fully developed. Don’t edit yourself too much while you’re writing. That’s what a draft is all about. But editing is where the amateur and the professional differ. The pro always looks to do what’s best for the novel, not what shows off the author’s writing ability.”
Some authors say they re-read yesterday’s writing before starting a new day’s work. It helps them pick up the flow and often highlights any obvious mistakes – typos, misspellings, factual and plot errors. Others will re-read when they finish a chapter or two, again looking only for the most obvious of edits.
Some writers I know say they can only do a proper edit by printing their work out on paper – not relying on any sort of accuracy by reading on the screen. A red pen is always useful in this case, easily seen when transferring the corrections to the computer.
Me? I was given some advice many years ago now that I have always found to be the best – the best for me that is (everyone’s different). At the end of a section, usually between 1000 and 1800 words, I read it out aloud. It’s quite amazing how this identifies obvious mistakes –repetition of a word or phrase, too many adverbs, the wrong adjective, sentences of similar length, no change of pace, no dialogue differentiation. I tend to correct them immediately before going on to write the next section. Only when I have completed the novel do I read it all through, several times: firstly, to see if the story I wanted to write is there on the page; then again, making notes as to what plot points need looking at, facts that need checking (are her eyes blue or green all the way through?); and then, copy editing, often with the aid of a computer programme, to check grammar, spelling and punctuation.
Finally, of course, there’s always the adage that we can’t edit our own writing because we only see what we think we wrote and the cliché that we can’t see the wood for the trees. Quite true. So, an extra pair of eyes is always advisable – friend, a tutor, paid editor: the choice is yours.
But get it written first. No-one can edit a blank page.
Just to update you on the Wilbur Smith prize. I was one of five writers shortlisted for the Unpublished Adventure Novel of the Year, from an entry of more than 250 from 60 different countries. I attended an amazing awards ceremony at the Stationers Hall in London where Bill Swiggs from Australia was named the winner with his novel Blood on the Wattle. I was only slightly disappointed not to win as I was astounded to have been chosen in the first place: I entered the competition for an Adventure novel never having considered that genre for my particular story. I was the only woman on the shortlist, and my protagonist was also a woman – perhaps I shall start a trend for more female adventurers!
However, through the competition, I now have a literary agent, Charlotte Colwill of BravoBlue whom I met at the awards ceremony. She’s young, very enthusiastic, and I’m sure she’ll do the very best she can for Pathway of the Gods. I also met Wilbur Smith’s agent, Kevin Conroy Scott, who will be working with Charlotte. So I feel I am in very good hands.
Several people asked me before the awards evening if I had prepared a winner’s speech. Of course I had thought about it. And because I didn’t get to give it then, I’d like to share with you something of what I was going to say – and that’s all to do with writing buddies. We all need them.
Getting down to writing can be a lonely business. We don’t want constant interruptions: emails, telephone calls, offers of cups of tea. So a huge part of being a writer is, by the very nature of the work, being on your own. I’m actually writing this blog in a fantastic cottage up in Northumberland where I’ve come for a week’s peace, quiet, castle-visiting and writing – all on my own! (The photo above is of Warkworth castle)
But interaction with people who know and can empathise with what you’re going through is absolutely vital. They are the ones who keep you going when you get Writer’s Block; they are the ones who sympathise when you get a rejection, and another, and …… They are the ones who suggest competitions to enter, agents to approach, events to go to. They are the ones who believe in your writing but also give good, honest feedback and advice.
In my case, four of us on Brunel University’s Novel Writing MA decided we would form a support group when our course finished, sending round two chapters of our book to each other every month and then meeting, over lunch, to discuss them. I really don’t think I would have finished my novel, let alone reached this stage, if it hadn’t been for them. So, a huge thank you to Claudia, Cathy and Stephanie. And to all my other writing friends who have offered their support over the years.
There, non-acceptance speech over!
At the awards evening, those who had been shortlisted were invited to read a short extract from their novels. If you’d like to read mine, please click here.
And here’s what Bill’s book Blood on the Wattle is about:
It is the year 1853 in colonial Australia and 19-year-old Toby O’Rourke’s world changed forever when his parents are brutally murdered and he and his brother Patrick are cast out of the only home they have ever known. On the goldfields of Ballarat, Toby finds a little peace for his tormented soul in the form of Annie Hocking, a woman to stand by his side through the lawlessness of the diggings and the killing ground of the Eureka Stockade. Toby is given a chance to return to the life he once knew, but to do so, he must hunt down and kill the man who murdered his parents.
Bill already has a publisher for his novel and I’m looking forward to reading it, wishing him the very best of luck.
Also this month: the extract from Pathway of the Gods; writing prompts; a book recommendation and competitions to enter.
This month I thought you might like to know how my historical/adventure novel Pathway To The Gods came into being. A question many authors are asked is: “Where do you get your ideas?” With me, it’s either from a place I’ve visited or from a picture that sparks my interest. In my case, it was this one – an Arab man holding a falcon. I think this picture came from a magazine advertisement, but I cannot, for the life of me, remember what it was advertising! I use lots of pictures in my creative writing classes, and this was one that caught my attention. It was pinned to the noticeboard above my writing desk for months before I finally got down to thinking more about a story.
I love birds of prey: I’ve been on three different courses, one at a hotel in Dumfries where it was just me, the falconer and twelve different birds of prey on each of two days! And another where we learned how to make jesses (the leather straps to tether the birds) and how to fly the birds in a public demonstration. (You can read more about that here).
So, when I started my research into falconry in Saudi Arabia, I was happy to think I was about to write a story about birds of prey in the desert. How wrong that turned out to be!
As I was researching, I came across the mention of the frankincense trail – the route that camel caravans would take from the southern coast of Arabia, up the eastern coast of the Red Sea, to Petra and from there to the Roman Empire and beyond. We all know that the three wise men brought the infant Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. But that was really the extent of my knowledge of frankincense at that time. At some point, I asked myself: What, exactly, is frankincense? Once I started researching that, I was totally hooked. Frankincense took over from falcons.
I found out as much as I possibly could about frankincense – the resin from trees that only grow in southern Arabia and north-eastern Africa and that was worth as much as gold in the first century. This lovely book by Juliet Highet was invaluable in my research and was responsible for my subsequent trips to Oman!
Of course, I also had to research all aspects of life at that time – social, political, religious, familial and commercial. As I did, I started building up a picture of the lives of the frankincense growers, the workers and the traders. Gradually, ideas for distinct characters came to mind and that involved more research into the morals and mores of the time.
My protagonist, initially, was a young man, the son of a frankincense trader, who was also training to be a priest. But where was the conflict? Once again my story went off onto another track, and I settled on the young priest’s sister as my main character.
Nashwa al Jamal would provide all the conflict, charisma and character I needed.
Next month, I’ll tell you how I went about actually writing the book and the ever-continuing journey once the writing was finished.
If you’d like to read the story of another of the Wilbur Smith Unpublished Novel shortlisted authors, have a look at the Book and Website page.
Also this month: more writing prompts and three new competitions to keep you motivated.