December has just suddenly appeared and I know I’m late in posting this. My apologies. Life has just got in the way. This month my blog and writing article are combined – below; I’ve posted some writing prompts and new competition links, and I’ll try to add book recommendations and writing hints in the next few days.
Most people have family responsibilities this time of year so writing does tend to take a bit of a back seat. Don’t worry about it. Just set some resolutions – five is a good number – once everything quietens down and I’ll be back in January with a new-look website and more ideas for the new Year.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. That’s for my friends who give me notebooks at Christmas and birthdays. A writer can NEVER have too many notebooks. Really! I know I have a cupboardful already but the gift of a notebook, of any size, colour, design or style, ALWAYS makes me feel like writing.
There’s something so special about being given a writer’s notebook: that ever so tiny crack as the book is opened for the first time and the spine is released; the smell of the pristine pages – like going into an old-fashioned bookshop! And then the thought of what I can use this particular notebook for – idle jottings, planning my latest project, research notes, ideas for my classes, the start of a blog, character profiles, overheard conversations, zig-zag plot lines……..
I’m sure I’m not the only writer who finds it impossible to walk past any stationery counter – in supermarkets, department stores, pound shops and market stalls. I just can’t resist. I am drawn there “just to have a look” as I tell my shopping companion. But, inevitably, I end up with another notebook to take home, seduced by its stylish cover and empty pages.
Some notebooks just FEEL so good: ones with suede or leather covers; decorated with jewels and beads; embossed in gold. And ones that come from special places – from friends, writing buddies, holidays, days out.
Don’t worry, I am in no way decrying the standard spiral-bound reporter’s notebook – how many of those have I filled over the years? If I see a bargain-priced pack, then that’s another addition to my over-flowing cupboard.
There’s just one problem for me: writing something on the first page. I don’t want to spoil it. I know my handwriting’s deteriorated over the years and the first page is SO important. Do I use pencil, biro, fountain pen or roller-ball? What colour? Am I going to write sentences and paragraphs? Or will this be a book just for notes? And perhaps drawings?
If I go to a workshop, class or seminar, I usually take a new notebook with me. The first few pages get used and the book is put away, waiting weeks or months before I look at it again and try to decipher my scribble, the occasional hieroglyph of shorthand plus personal abbreviations.
I’ve tried other devices to make notes: different apps on my tablet and phone; and a whole variety of recording devices, from tiny palm-sized recorders to spy pens and watches. Most of the time I feel self-conscious. I was once stopped as I walked and talked in a car park outside a hospital by someone who thought I was a doctor. Good disguise, I thought, for a future story.
But nothing will ever replace the notebook for me. You may recognise some of the notebooks in the picture here, but please don’t think I have enough. Notebooks are just the best present ever for a writer.
Many famous writers are known for their use of their notebooks:
Welcome to my November blog. My article this month is about starting your stories more dramatically – with action. There’s a new variety of prompts to get you going. And I’m recommending two books this month, both page-turners.
As I mentioned in last month’s blog, autumn seems to be a good time for new resolutions and a big tidy-up. So I’m quite pleased with myself that I’ve finally managed to sort, tidy and de-clutter all the files in my study. And before you tell me, I KNOW it’s a displacement activity from actually getting down to writing! But, now that it’s done, I’m so much happier to sit down at my desk in the morning and write, knowing that when I want to refer to something – books and brochures collected on holidays, newspaper articles from five years ago, handwritten notes of story ideas jotted down on anything at hand – I know exactly where I can find it.
It was certainly a revelation going through all my writing files. There were three box files of pictures alone – I’m a big fan of images prompting writing ideas but it’s probably time I dispensed with the snooker-playing nun that I inevitably produce for my creative writing classes. (But if you think it might help, here it is!)
Then there was the box entitled Writing Ideas: everything from newspaper stories that could make a Jodi Piccoult-type novel to snippets of overheard conversations in the supermarket queue.
I am one of those people who just HAS to buy a guidebook whenever I visit any stately home, museum, castle etc etc. I have boxes of them. But I spent a happy afternoon sitting on the floor remembering all the places I’ve been to.
And, inevitably, I came across the manuscript of my very first novel: started in the early 1970s on a TYPEWRITER on paper that is now much more than coffee-coloured. It was there, in a ring binder, together with all my research notes, some written in pencil that have faded to illegibility. That novel will probably never see the light of day again. I read through some of it and was alternately pleased and horrified. Some bits were quite good, but I felt like red-penning my way through all the point-of-view mistakes, the adjectives and adverbs and, I will admit, the clichés.
But throw it away? No, I can’t.
That discovery led me to look at the very oldest files on my computer and again there was an abundance of short stories started but never finished, random paragraphs of ideas, exercises done on creative writing courses, some good, some not so good.
But I really believe that no writing is ever wasted. Some of those ideas might make it to a competition some time. That description could well find its way into my novel. And those exercises are definitely going to be recycled for my current classes.
The moral of this rambling – don’t throw any of your old writing away – it can be recycled.
A good writing friend has the perfect anecdote: she has just re-launched her first novel Girl in the Hat Shop. (Have a look at the Book recommendation page.) And this week on Facebook, she wrote: That scene that never found its way into the final draft? Who knew when I wrote those words (five years ago) that they’d become the first chapter of my next book? The message is don’t delete! Archive the best stuff. Nothing’s wasted.
ps Have you set up your own NaNoWriMo yet? You don’t have to join up to sign 1666 words a day! Set your own target, perhaps 250 words, for every day of November.
Setting targets is one of my themes this month: in the blog below and NaNoWriMo on the Articles about Writing page. There are plenty of prompts to get you going, plus competitions and an interesting website in Tips to help your editing.
New Year and Spring tend to be the times of the year when we make resolutions and have a jolly good clean-up and clear-out. But in the past few weeks, I’ve been talking to a surprising number of people who tell me that autumn is the time when they take a look at their house, their hobbies, their lifestyle, their finances.
Perhaps it’s the effect of having had a holiday; perhaps it’s the change in the weather – summer clothes packed away, winter clothes to the fore; or perhaps it’s the evening classes being advertised at local adult education centres.
Whatever the reason, it certainly doesn’t hurt to review different areas of our lives from time to time – and writing is one of those.
In one of my classes, we reviewed our New Year objectives just before the summer break and set ourselves mini targets for the next two months, like entering a writing competition. When we resume this month, we’re going to decide what the group wants to do in the next three to six months: perhaps produce another anthology of short stories and poems. For a group, this keeps everyone interested and, usually, makes sure everyone submits their contributions on time 🙂
On a personal level, I’ve found that writers definitely fall into two camps: those who set targets and those who don’t. I’m definitely in the former but I’m more than ready to admit it’s probably because I used to be a radio journalist with deadlines every hour that just couldn’t be missed!
Of course if you’ve been commissioned, for an article or a book, then your editor will be the one setting the deadlines. On your own, with no such target set in stone, it is much harder.
I TRY to write 500 words every day, 1000 a day on holiday. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. But I find regular writing, even when it’s hard to get going, really does help me. And yes, I do keep a chart, ticking off successful writing days: a whole column of ticks can be great motivation for carrying on.
If you are keen on writing every day, then NaNoWriMo is coming up next month. Don’t know what that is? I explain all in this month’s Writing Article.
My writing retreat to Ireland was excellent. I got as much writing done as I expected. I think I originally set myself too high a target (2000 words a day!). But Ireland, and the Kingdom of Kerry in particular, is just too beautiful not to spend a large part of every day walking! So a thousand words a day, sometimes more, was much more realistic. So I enjoyed the scenery, the food, the friendliness of the Irish and Americans, and I got on well with the next few chapters of my novel.
Last month I mentioned a writing friend who was trying out Arvon’s new writing retreat – The Clockhouse in Shropshire. She thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Here’s the link to her blog.
This month’s theme is SETTING. Where do you find it’s easiest for you to write? That’s the topic of my blog below. This month’s writing article is all about the importance of getting SETTING right in your stories; there are five prompts to develop that topic and have a look in the Hints and Tips too.
Many writers have their favourite place for writing and perhaps a favourite time too. But we just have to make sure that it’s not an excuse when we just can’t seem to get down to it if we’re not in that right place at the right time! I have a perfectly lovely office at home with everything I need at hand. But, and I’m sure I’m not alone, so often I get distracted by domestic issues: I really ought to put that laundry on, must go to the shops, I’ve started decorating the lounge so I really should finish it …… and on, and on.
I have a large picture window in my office – fatal! If I’m not looking longingly at the sunshine, then I’m thinking that flower-bed needs weeding, the lawn needs mowing and I frequently get up to shout at the squirrels and ducks (yes!) that are eating my plants.
So it’s probably no wonder that WRITING RETREATS are increasing in popularity and there are a whole variety on offer, from one-day sessions to weekends, weeks and longer. They vary considerably – some offering part of a room in which to write alongside others, to those that provide the full package with a room of your own, three meals a day, unlimited tea and coffee and the option of sharing your work with others at the evening get-togethers. Libraries, universities, offices, country houses, hotels at home and abroad – the settings are unlimited. You have just got to find what suits you.
Many famous writers are known for their own particular writing haunts: Sir Walter Scott composed on horseback; John Le Carre wrote his first novel when commuting by train from Buckinghamshire to London; DH Lawrence wrote outdoors, leaning against a tree, any tree; George Bernard Shaw had a revolving writing shed built in the grounds of his house; Maya Angelou hired a room at a hotel; Gertrude Stein wrote in her car – a Model T Ford; James Joyce wrote in bed; J K Rowling in a café.
Later this month I’m off to my favourite place of all – southern Ireland – for my own, personal annual writing retreat. I do meet people, I am sociable, I go sight-seeing but I go specifically to WRITE. And, like Gertrude Stein, I tend to write in my car. I drive to one of my favourite places – I have a list of them all within ten miles of where I am staying. If the weather’s good, I go for a walk, come back, get a chair out of the car and sit and write. If the weather’s not so fair, then I write in the car with a beautiful view in front of me.
Once or twice I have been disturbed. This was my view one day and the writing was going really well. Then a coachload of Americans turned up and for half-an-hour I had to answer why was I on my own, what exactly was I writing and was I famous? Another time, I was besieged by a group of geologists who had come to study the cliffs. I moved so they could get a better view and when they’d gone, I just had to go and look for fossils myself!
I’m hoping to hear soon from a writing friend who is currently on one of Arvon’s writing retreats. This organisation has run tutored retreats for some time but this year they opened The Clockhouse in Shropshire: four self-contained apartments specifically for writers on retreat. I’ve had one email from my friend: “Loving my retreat”. I’ll let you know her full story, and mine, later this month.
“I’ve been with Henry the Eighth longer than any of his wives.”
Just one of the light-hearted moments during Philippa Gregory’s entertaining, educational and most enjoyable talk in Chorleywood this month. And yes, she worked her magic again because I came home determined to carry on writing, after a bit of a blip, wondering where I was going and was it all worth it. But Philippa convinced me that writing historical fiction is what I want to do.
So much of what she said resonated with me. She said that wherever she goes, she always wants to know more about the place, its history, the people who lived there. Tick, definitely me.
As a historical novelist, she said she spends six months researching her character and only when she hears that character’s voice, does she start writing. And it’s the historical details that make it so fascinating, making the reader feel as though they are there.
She writes in the first person and present tense, saying that is now HER domaine! Tick, that’s me. I switched from third person past after reading three of her books one summer. As she explained, it narrows her gaze to the here and now and prevents her from knowing what’s going to happen in the future. She said it makes an extraordinary difference to her writing. Hopefully, mine too.
She’s incredibly passionate about her characters and she became quite agitated when quoting some of the source material on Margaret, Queen of Scotland. History hasn’t been kind to this lady but her corner is now being fought by Philippa Gregory.
Some of Philippa’s writing tips:
I won’t give too much away about her talk because I thoroughly recommend any writer going to see her. She’s a lively, funny, enthusiastic speaker, accompanied by a professional slide and video show. She neatly deflected the cries of a baby (Don’t go! I’m a new, besotted grandmother!) and happily signs hundreds of books at the end of the evening.
Well done to Chorleywood Bookshop for putting on another enjoyable author evening. Here’s the link to their website for details of more such evenings. Look at the Competitions page for the Chorleywood festival short story competition and at the Books page for details of Philippa Gregory’s new novel.
So, for me, back to researching and writing. And you too, I hope.
This month my writing article focuses on point of view – get it right and your writing will be so much easier to read. There are seven new writing prompts, two competitions for you to enter and a book recommendation. Hints and tips to come.
During the past month, I have met three people who claim to be “non-writers” but who each have what they think is a good idea for a book. One thought a ghost writer might be the way forward, others were just “going to have a go”.
I suggested to all three that they don’t know whether they are writers or not until they actually start writing. It may well be that they haven’t written anything since school essays. But that doesn’t mean you cannot write. Just as with starting any new activity – sport, hobby, craft – you have to have a go to see if you enjoy doing it and then you can learn how to do it. There is plenty of help for writers out there: on the Internet, books, classes, groups, workshops and this website 🙂
I really loved all three of the ideas explained to me: one was family memoir, another a children’s story and another a short story. Here’s what I would advise to all three and to any others who are just starting out.
Try to write or research on a regular basis. I don’t mean a thousand words a day! I mean ten minutes a day or an hour a week, finding a time and a space when you know you can concentrate on your project. A few minutes a day is better than half an hour once every one or two months.
I’d love to hear how you are getting on so please do email me (from the contacts page) and I’d also love to hear from writers who have any other tips and suggestions for those who are just starting out.
Writing Historical Fiction
a one-day course from the Writers’ and Artists’ organisation held at the offices of Bloombury Publishing in London
Taking time out to spend with fellow writers, authors, agents and books – that’s the sort of break I really enjoy. And this one-day course was educational, enlightening and enjoyable.
I commented last month that you are just as likely to pick up words of wisdom from fellow-writers at events such as this and that’s what happened within five minutes of my arrival. I learned of a small publishing house that I could send my mss to and I was told that Iran is a wonderful holiday destination! The sequel to my novel is set in ancient Iran but I had never really considered taking a holiday/research trip there. Now, thanks to Roger, I shall certainly investigate. All that over coffee before the day actually began.
The 30+ attendees were divided into groups according to their historical eras. The medieval and contemporary modern had the most, we in Ancient History numbered just three. And that meant we were given individual attention by Anthony Riches, author of the Empire series set in Roman times. He was first published in 2008 and is currently on number 9 in a series of 25! He really brought home to me the commitment of a writer: sometimes he can write up to 5,000 words in a day, his books taking between 3 and 7 months. He had a lot of anecdotes, advice, tips, insider stories and experiences to pass on to us, interspersed with three writing exercises that certainly made me consider my writing with new eyes. We looked in particular at beginnings of novels – your one chance to make an impression; dialogue – the most important skill throughout a book; and setting – you tell the reader what they can see, the characters tell the story. His main piece of advice: be persistent.
The afternoon began with a talk from best-selling author Suzannah Dunn and her agent Anthony Topping. Suzannah is a very animated, fluent and entertaining speaker who spoke of how she goes about her writing, what does and doesn’t work in historical fiction and how much detail should be included.
Because I’m at that stage of sending my mss out to agents, I was interested to hear Anthony Topping and then Heather Holden-Brown, head of her own literary agency. They both spoke about how you should go about approaching agents, what they want and don’t want in a submission and then, the vexing question of how long you should wait for a reply! Heather also spoke about the pros and cons of self-publishing, something I hadn’t expected. She said there’s no shame or embarrassment about it now, that editors do look at e-books and that it’s a worthwhile way to go even though the author has to do all the work.
I came away from the buzz of the end-of-day drinks party with renewed motivation and a plan: to re-read and perhaps re-write my opening page to make as much impact as I can, to target more agents and to keep writing my sequel. A good day out but now it’s back to real life!