How I became a novelist – the journey so far

Like most writers, I started young, with a pen and any paper I could find to scribble on. I wrote my name on the kitchen walls when I was two and had a slap for my efforts. I penned poems on empty Corn Flakes boxes. I filled jotters with an assortment of stories. In my spare time, I composed some shocking song lyrics on the back of scraps of paper.

My teachers, the nice ones anyway, said they expected to read my work in print some day and I thought I’d achieved it when I had a non-fiction book published about Drama teaching.

Once I’d made the decision to write full-time, however, I concentrated on being published anywhere I could. Niche is good. I made money from having all sorts of short stories included in all sorts of publications. I wrote articles for magazines and newspapers. I entered competitions, being placed in a few, including a second prize for a story about a hedgehog cake and a second place at The Winchester Festival for a piece about a woman searching for the same man throughout time. I liked the idea so much I wrote it into a 90,000 word novel last summer: it’s the only serious one I have ever written and I think it is both tragic and uplifting.

A year ago, I was a hopeful writer, with an ambition to be published. I had written my first novel, found a great agent and believed I could actually do what I had dreamed of for so long: I would see a work of fiction with my name on it for sale in a book shop.

It didn’t take long for my agent to find me a two-book deal with HarperCollins Avon, and I was on my way, hardly believing my luck. I had always intended to do it and I suppose I always believed that I would.

Being published has taught me so much. I didn’t realise how my thinking had changed until other writers handed me their work and asked for an opinion. I suddenly started hearing the voice of my editor and suggesting important details which would upgrade the readers’ enjoyment. There is much more to writing than interesting words and characters. I now think much more visually about what the readers will see in their imaginations. I’ve always been a bit of a cimematic writer  but now I focus totally on what images the reader will experience.

The same goes for feelings. I’d assumed if a character sighed, for example, every  empathic reader would automatically know how she felt and be able to understand her plight. Now I focus much more on inner dialogue and thoughts, what has led to emotions and how they manifest themselves.

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The most interesting part of the journey in many ways has been to do with my character’s impact on the reader. Evie Gallagher, the 75 year old role-model in ‘A Grand Old Time,’ is inspirational, as she takes off on a road trip in a camper van, having adventures. She learns a lot about the world and even more about herself, and develops her capacity for enjoying life independently.

Interviews and questions are part of writing a book. I have loved the opportunity to go on the radio, talk to newspaper reporters, complete questionnaires, write articles and guest blogs.

The question I’m asked the most is ‘why did you write about a 75 year old woman?’ This makes me smile. I wonder if Thomas Hardy was asked why he wrote about 16 year old Tess, or if Vladimir Nabokov ever explained about why he invented 12 year old ‘Lolita’? Age is a number. It defines my character less than traits like a sense of humour, altruism or a positive attitude. Yet repeatedly, people are fascinated by a 75 year old protagonist who defies stereotypes and has a tendency to behave badly.

I couldn’t be more delighted by the responses to my 75 year old role model as she takes off in a camper van and has crazy adventures. Reviews have said things like ‘I want to be Evie’ and ‘I want to go travelling with Evie.’ Someone else said they ‘laughed and cried in equal measure’ and, honestly, there can’t be better praise than that.

One woman wrote that her mother is 75 and has recently embarked on a jaunt to Amsterdam, just to behave like Evie. Another person said that her mother was delighted to read a book about an older person living life to the full and now had a role model.

However, I believe readers who will enjoy the novel won’t just belong to the category of women in their seventies and beyond, although I’m delighted that older people have a trail blazer in Evie. There aren’t enough stories about brilliant people enjoying their golden years.

I have farmed early versions of the novel out to friends, including  young men in their twenties, who’ve found Evie hilarious and upliftingly iconoclastic. They decided that the scene where she pretends to be a porn star is hilarious and, equally, when she sings karaoke, gets drunk and lies to the police officer, they loved her sense of mischief.

But there are tender and poignant moments in ‘A Grand Old Time.’ Evie finds love where she least expects it. As a widow, she’d had no thoughts of meeting her soul mate, but when she does, this part of the novel is both comic and touching.

Now I am a full-time writer, and published, with a real novel I can hold in my hands, I can reflect on the past year, going from aspiration to publication. Yet I’m still aspiring. That’s the point of a journey: you never get there. There is always so much to find out, to learn, to reconsider, to aim for and to try again.

‘A Grand Old Time’ is out in paperback on 3rd May. It’s already an ebook and an audio book, read gorgeously by the talented Aoife McMahon. I’ve written several other novels and the second one is currently at the editing stage, scheduled for publication at the beginning of 2019. I’m living a dream.

Like any journey, any dream, I have no idea where it is going, but as long as I’m in the driving seat with the wind in my hair I know it will be a blast. I have many people to thank for this first year: my agent, publisher, publicist, reviewers, all the loveliest of people. Kind and encouraging friends, the very best family. It is good to feel blessed and it is great to get up every day to do something you love doing. There may be many more novels out there. I hope so.

Here’s looking forward to the next chapter.

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Is there a novel in all of us?

A friend of mine sent me a lovely piece of writing this week and asked my opinion on its worth. By coincidence, I’d just read a bestselling novel by someone I worked with a few years ago. I was pulled in by the intrigue and the characters of both stories straight away.  Although the styles and genre were very different, I enjoyed both pieces of writing on their own merit and not because the writers are people I like.

Another talented woman I know has just had a novel turned down by an agent – refused very politely and with encouragement, but it was her life’s work, her magnum opus, so I hope she perseveres.

I belonged to a vibrant writers’ group for over a year and I collaborated with talented wordsmiths in my master’s group. I’m surrounded by some inspirational novelists and poets and I read all the time, so I’ve a good idea of what works, up to a point. So after my friend, a novice writer, offered me this wonderful story to read, she asked me the question ‘Am I good enough to be a writer?’ I said yes, of course. She has energy, enthusiasm, talent in bucket loads. But that started me thinking about the old saying that everyone has a novel in them and I wondered: is it true? Can anyone be a novelist?

It depends what the question means. If it means can anyone physically sit at a computer and bash out 90,000 coherent words, then yes, that’s just endurance and editing. If it means can anyone get published, that’s a question of resilience, luck and the good fortune to create a saleable product. Does the question ask if all writers have talent? Subjectivity is an issue here up to a point – one person’s favourite book is another’s bin liner, although readability is an important factor.

There is so much talent waiting in the wings, ready to dive into the spotlight. I know two brilliant poets who are yet unpublished although I believe they both have the potential to rock the world. I know three novelists who could easily take the bookselling charts by storm. I’ve also read my share of really disastrous writing by people who believe that bashing out a sequence of random pretentious words makes them Gerard Manley Hopkins or Virginia Woolf. Not at all. But they can learn. We all learn as we go.

After some thought, I’ve reconsidered the answer to the question about whether anyone can write a novel. The answer is no.

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So many people don’t have the time. Full-time jobs, responsibilities, hobbies, tiredness, commitments all get in the way of being a writer. Many people don’t have the desire, the patience, the resilience, the inclination to sit for hours bashing away at a computer. It may be that some people don’t have the spare thinking time to come up with and develop a novel idea, or the opportunity to find quiet time or space to write. Some people don’t have a computer or a pen. Some people are not interested – they’d never make a novelist. Why would they even want to? They have a life.

That aside, writing is not an exclusive profession. A writer’s talent isn’t measured or assessed against other writers’ work; it’s not even equal to the success or enjoyability of the novel. It may not even be a hugely important factor in the novel’s popularity, although it does help to have a love of words and the ability to tell a story. There are some useful rules to be aware of as a writer – the show don’t tell, the avoid using too many adverbs, or clichés, the vary pace and sentence length, the create characters you are interested in and a novel you’d like to read yourself advice. But all these things are teachable and learnable with experience, and all writers have to continue to develop their skills.

My friend wanted to know if the short story was good enough. What on earth does good enough mean? There isn’t a sliding scale which suggests that the better writers (whoever they are) will have more enthusiastic readers and sell more books. I can think of competent writers who have sold millions of novels and they are hardly James Joyce. But these writers satisfy what many readers want – a good story, a gripping journey swathed in interesting words. We have help at our fingertips – spellcheck, Google research, writers’ groups, buddies, editors. There’s no reason why someone shouldn’t be able to write a novel which stands up well. Anyone who wants to should go ahead and do it and believe in themselves. Without self-belief, the going will be a lot tougher.

So I’ve come to a conclusion and the answer is, to people who want to write – yes, start now. You can do it.

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Books are brilliant. Hard copies, kindle, audio books, books which could become a TV series, a stage play, a film. Books which thrill, which entertain, which intrigue. There are all sorts of readers, even people who don’t know they are readers yet. There can never be enough books so it follows that there can never be enough writers. If someone wants to write a novel, they should be sure about the commitment involved – a writer needs to spend a lot of time, energy, emotion. But it’s a whole lot of fun – a privilege to step into another world, to stay there for a while and to be responsible for how it shapes up.

I’ve found the writing industry fascinating and wonderful. Agents, publishers, publicity managers – they are a breed of guardian angels and each of them is a brilliant companion on the journey to completing a saleable novel. Such people with experience and ability are to be cherished for their skills and advice. The chance to sit and write is a blessing and it’s an opportunity I would so gladly share with and recommend to anyone else. I’m 25,000 words into a fifth novel and my first is published next year, pre-orderable on Amazon. I love writing and I love books. What could be better?

So, back to my friend who asks me if her work is good enough, I want to scream YES. Her writing is entertaining, thoughtful, it has strong legs and I believe it can sprout wings and fly. I’ve heard all the warnings about how writing is an isolated profession, how it’s steeped in anxiety; how there wil be problems with writer’s block, patience, focus, crushing deadlines. But I’m shaking my head as I type. It’s a chance to work with ideas, with words, with imagination, to share something exciting with others.

There are many people who wouldn’t want to write. That’s fair enough. I can’t build houses, grow wheat, perform open heart surgery. But to those people who sniff the hint of a desire to create that novel, there’s only one answer. You are good enough. Don’t hold back. Don’t deliberate and don’t doubt yourself. Just do it.

Novels are like good friends

There’s something heart-rendingly sad about my statement, that novels are like good friends. It begs the question: but what about real friends, real people, not ones who are imagined and made up? The life of a writer is essentially solitary, so the idea has developed that we are a lonely  bunch of individuals who have no-one to turn to in the long silent hours while we’re typing away. We are friendless, forced to seek solace in fabricated characters. The only excitement in our lives is found at in a new placid character we control ourselves; happiness is at the bottom of a plot. Or a glass. Such is the stereotypical image of a writer’s existence, a singular single person, focused entirely on the process and then the product we are desperate to complete before we begin the next novel.

There is some truth in the idea. There is not a great deal of instant cameraderie when you write alone at the desk each day; there’s  no office culture, no management structure, (thank goodness!) no banter. No one to share lunch breaks and jokes with at coffee time. In that sense, writers are solitary people who must seek their social lives away from the computer screen.

But when I suggest that our novels become our good friends, I am talking about the warm fuzzy feeling felt through constant interaction, through increasing familiarity. We go through a lot together, we writers and our novels. It is sometimes love at first sight, but we know pretty quickly whether we will get on together, whether we have a future, or whether early separation is inevitable. I’ve started novel number five twice, after delaying it as long as possible. The first time, I liked the new idea. I threw it away. It wasn’t good enough. The second idea clicked, started to rev like a formula 1 engine and I’m now up to 12,000 words, which is the point where I know I will write it all.

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Our novels are our friends because we get to know them slowly but we will eventually know them completely. We know their flaws and their strong points. We know where the relationship will lead but we don’t know every twist and turn. That’s an exciting part of the journey, discovering the bits we don’t know yet but we know they’ll fall into place in time and surprise us.

We know we will have disagreements with our novels, but we’ll work it out. Our friendship will survive. We will cut and paste and delete chunks, chapters, whole characters. The novel will keep us up at night, arguing with us whle we scratch our heads for a pact, a solution which won’t pop in until dawn, just before we fall asleep smiling. It will cause us headaches, researching, changing, editing, aiming for the perfect phrase, the exciting plot moment, the thrilling and unexpected dénouement.

In all my novels, the main characters are people I like. I meet them in my imagination and I respect and admire them; I know their flaws, I believe in the honesty of their thoughts and actions. It’s indulgent, because I have written them, created them. But it’s also about finding out bout who they are, growing together, bonding, love: I am often at their mercy, as I have no choice but to follow their impetus. They make me laugh out loud. They make me cry. I feel sorry for their  sadnesses and I cheer when things go right for them. I root for their triumphs and I fear for their safety from page one until the end of the novel. And that’s what friends do.

But I don’t want to keep them to myself. It’s not a secret relationship, forged between brain, keyboard and blank screen. It doesn’t exist without a ménage à trois. The third person. The reader. In fact, I’m aiming for the biggest friendship group I can muster. I want lots of people to love my protagonists, and to enjoy their journey within the pages of a novel.

The important thing is that, although I write chartacters from imagination and don’t base them on real people, I’d love them if I met them. They’d be good friends. They are plucky, feisty, mischievous, women who deserve the good things which happen to them in the novel. And they don’t deserve the tragedies. I love them because of their stories, their backstories, for what happens to them and how they survive and are resilient, quirky, funny, strong.

But it’s not just the characters who are my friends. It’s the novels themselves. It is as if each one has forged itself into my subconscious, metamorphosed into a being, become real and I feel loyal. I owe each novel thanks for existing, for allowing me to work it so hard and dsipte my constant nagging, it still comes out the other end valid and credible and worthwhile.

Perhaps then, going back to my opening statement, we writers are a sorry solitary lot with only flying fingers, whirling words and made up people for comfort.

But that is only during working hours. The rest of the time, we’re all scintillating social creatures. Party animals. Table dancers. Exciting conversationalists. Midnight movers. Our lives are full, fecund, fruitful and our friends are real people we value, trust and hold close to our hearts. Writers are just like every one else.

Of course, the problem would arise if the world we created and then inhabited became more tantalising than the real world. What if our characters, our imaginary literary friends, became more important and vital to our existence than our real friends? Then what would we do?

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At this point I go back to the stereotype, the lonely writer focused on the screen. She’s  blocked, frustrated, waiting for inspiration, seeking solace at the bottom of a bottle, alone and tortured and friendless. Perhaps that’s what makes a genius. Or maybe that’s just a myth…

Who do writers really write for?

I recently read an interchange on social media, a discussion by writers about who they believe they write their novels for. A gifted writer who I’ve met, for whom I have much respect, said he always wrote for the reader. That’s another reason why I respect him. Someone else disagreed strongly. This person wrote for himself. If he was happy with his writing, then so would his readers be. He suggested that it follows that people who liked his writing would be like him, sharing his tastes, and anyway his enthusiasm would shine through in his novel. He has a point. I  went away and thought about this one. It’s not the first time I’ve comnsidered this dilemma, nor will it be the last, but I have a strong idea where I stand in the discussion.

I’ve read many books. I used to read each one to the end, even if it was a challenge, mainly because I always thought I could perhaps change my mind: I mightn’t like the book at first, but I might like it later. I’ve stopped doing that, especially now I write so much myself. I don’t expect my reader to persevere beyond chapter three if he or she isn’t engaged with the story. If I want my own writing to leap off the page, then I’d like to be at least interested in what someone else writes. If I’m inwardly groaning or, more likely, bored by the fifth chapter, I put the book down and read something else. In fairness, that doesn’t happen often. But I live and read by the principle that there are so many more books out there to be read.

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I don’t like indulgent writing. Writers who write purely for themselves in an egocentric, self- pleasing way. I don’t mean ridiculously intelligent writers, novelists who are genius word-spinners and weavers of incredible ideas, the Martin Amises of this world. I’m referring to writers who create characters who are themselves but in another parallel universe. A vicarious creation of heroes. Characters who resemble the writer a little bit too much but are perfect, or flawed in admirable ways and then invariably have greatness thrust upon them. Usually, writing is weighed down with so much cumbersome and overblown description that nothing is left to the reader’s imagination. As I read, I feel controlled and  force-fed by someone indulging their own ego. I can sniff it out at any distance and it’s pungent and not pleasing. It stinks of self-satisfaction.

I now pick up books from genres I don’t usually naturally gravitate towards. It keeps me open minded. There was a time I read books by writers I liked, choosing subject matter I knew would suit my tastes. But it’s humbling to read YA novels, graphic novels, non-fiction, historical or crime stories and think Whew! How well written was that! I want to be aware of good writing, whatever form it takes. I can still return loyally to my favourite writers at any point.

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I also read books that are recommended to me. I have friends who read a lot and one friend in particular, who is erudite, critical and a skilful wordsmith herself, will say ‘Have you read…?’ and I know that whatever she recommends will be brilliant. I have another friend, a crazy ex-dancer  who is completely opposite to me in terms of literary experience and taste, and without her, I’d never have read Neil Gaiman or Robin Hobb.

I write for the reader first. There. I’ve said it. I remember an incident in the second novel where I wrote something and burst out laughing. I had entertained myself – I thought I was hilariously funny. But, seconds later,  I reminded myself that my sense of humour isn’t everyone’s and I made a mental note to check it with my reading group. If faces remained straight or perplexed when I read it back, it would be edited out without a second thought. It wasn’t, but I was ready to raze it for ever if it didn’t work for others.

Working with good editors is so beneficial. When I write, I try to be cinematic, to create something visual, so that my reader can imagine what I’m trying to evoke really clearly without telling them everything, leaving them space to make it their own picture. I also try to focus on detail, emotions, moments of impact. But when an editor says ‘tell the reader more at this point…’ ‘explain…’ ‘The reader needs to understand…’ then I know there are gaps to fill and I’m only too happy to embellish. Working with an astute editor is an education in itself and, as writers, that’s part of how we develop our craft. We continue to learn, to reconsider, to improve.

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I treat my readers with respect. First of all, I know some of them won’t like what I write. They won’t like the genre, the subject matter, the characters. That’s fine. Subjectivity and variety of taste are a reader’s prerogative. But what I do expect of myself at the first hurdle is to write well, to be lucid, accurate and to offer an interesting journey. If nothing more, my writing should be clear and readable.

I know there are readers who won’t think as I do. Readers who might not understand why I write about characters who are quirky, eccentric, mischievous. Readers who want flailing heroines and masterful heroes who snatch them from the jaws of danger probably won’t like my feisty independent women and responsive sensitive men. But that’s ok; there are plenty of other novels out there which those readers will enjoy. And, even if my whacky lively characters are not for them, then at least they might read the book and enjoy it for the langauge, the wit or the descriptions.

I write for readers who want to come on a journey: a physical journey or a journey of self- discovery. Sometimes both. Readers who like strong characters who are properly flawed, real, funny and eventually resilient. My readers want to believe in a character, an interesting place, powerful action. They want words that jump off the page, a story that intrigues. They want surprises along the way. They want well-written, evocative language. They want to smile, to be entertained, to be sad sometimes, to be asked to think a little about life, love, luck. They want to put the book down on the final page, after not wanting to put it down on the previous pages, and then breathe out and smile.

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Someone who read my first novel in an earlier stage said it made them laugh and cry. Can I ask for better engagement with a reader? A reader of my second novel liked a male protagnist so much she said ‘I could do with meeting a man like that.’ I was happy that I’d created someone with traits she could fall in love with. A reader of my third novel said ‘I admire the main character. I like her. I feel like she is a close friend.’ I’m delighted. My character is credible, likeable, empathic, warm and funny. A reader of the fourth novel said ‘I was totally shocked when… happened.’ As a writer, I am so pleased that I can create twists and turns which my reader won’t see coming and then I can generate a powerful, emotional reaction. That’s what I’m after.

My quest is to continue to learn what readers want and then to provide it for them in an entartaining and innovative form, if I can. I’m a conduit to others’ enjoyment, not simply a reveller in my own craft. To some extent, I do believe if I write what I like, with enthusiasm and relish and it entertains me, then it’s possible my reader will be entertained too. But that, by itself, isn’t nearly enough. As I write, I have to be aware of a perpetually moving periscope which swivels to view my readers’ thoughts, tastes, needs. I have to consider their reactions to each sentence that I write and to continue to find new and exciting ways to supply more thrills and spills. That’s all.

But each novel is another chance to provide something which will come closer to what I aim to achieve. After all, who doesn’t relish a challenge and the opportunity to progress?

Music to write a novel to…

On a recent Radio 4 programme, Marlon James was asked if he’d listened to reggae as he wrote A Brief History of Seven Killings. He suggested that reggae was the last music he’d have listened to: the novel was set mostly in Jamaica around the ‘Bob Marley era’ and of course he didn’t listen to reggae: his head was probably full of it already. As if Agatha Christie would have listened to the Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives and Douglas Adams had The Planet Suite set to replay.

Of course, the most fascinating aspect is what writers choose to listen to while they are writing that brilliant novel, not what they don’t listen to, and even more interestingly, why do they choose to listen to a particular type of music? Do writers need serene music, to clear their minds of all other thoughts, or do they want something fast and energetic to get the fingers typing fast?

Then there’s the question of what is intrusive. When you’re working on that precise edit, do you really need AC/DC belting out Girls Got Rhythm or Aerosmith’s Dude (Looks Like a Lady)? Do you need anything at all, or is silence worse, that incessant emptiness which offers no pace or energy, no distraction, no clarity or inspiration?

A friend of mine has just published a fabulous book of poems called Pillars of a Dateable Man. I guessed he’d been listening to Leonard Cohen’s Thin Green Candle, as his writing is deeply sensitive, often iconoclastic, sometimes morose and always insightful. But no. He listens to jazz, always music without lyrics. It makes sense – jazz epitomises the jangling of powerful emotions but each note has the precision of poetry. He adds his own clever words to the abstract canvas, using the motivating musical energy of jazz as inspiration.

Of course, each author will have a personal preference. Impressively, Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin, listens to a Canadian Band called Arrogant Worms. J. K. Rowling listens to The Beatles. When Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita, he insisted on a sound proof flat, his rationale being that he had ‘no ear for music… I am perfectly aware of the many parallels between the art forms of music and those of literature, especially in matters of structure, but what can I do if ear and brain refuse to cooperate?’

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Most of us choose to listen to music when we write. Whether it inspires us or promotes a feeling of wellbeing and calm is debatable. Lyrics can be important, inspiring writers to achieve their best subliminally, by channeling the feeling that success is possible and achievable. Best to avoid the wonderful songs of The Smiths  then when writing a lively bestseller. I Know It’s Over, with lyrics like ‘Oh, Mother / I can feel / the soil falling over my head,’ are not going to inspire a greatly needed feeling of increased fluency, positivity and power flowing from the brain to the fingers to the keyboard.

Writers constantly peer into others’ heads and reach out to empathise with characters’ emotions in order to write successfully. Mozart’s Lacrymosa would be perfect to help someone write a tragic scene and Pink Floyd’s Breathe in the Air might inspire pages of pastoral beauty. But many writers suggest that they can’t concentrate when music is playing. Some are even irritated by the purr of the cat or the hum of the fridge.

This leads me to wonder whether Creative Writing courses ever use music to support and improve writing. Certainly, during my MA, there was no delving into the use of music to promote better outcomes and no investigation of the psychology or rationale between using music  compared to the need for silence to promote concentration. (At the moment of writing, I’m listening to Planet Rock playing Black Sabbath’s War Pigs, and I’m perfectly capable of erasing Ozzy from my ears completely if I need to.)

But it’s an interesting and perhaps under-investigated subject. Do writers write better with music or not, and why do some choose background noise and others shun it? As I finish my fourth novel and complete the edit of my first, I have to admit that I’m better off with Spotify than without it. My moods dictate which playlist to select, as does the type of writing I’m doing. The beginning of a novel demands something very different from the final chapters; focusing on the rigour of an edit would suggest a totally different choice to the music I’d pick when I’m on a roll and smashing out 2500 words in a sitting.

It’s at this point that I’ll invite others’ opinions. Who’s a writer who needs background music and who isn’t, and why? I wonder whether it affects outcome – what we write, how we write and how we feel as we do it? Fascinating. I hope someone will think about it, take it further and let me know. At the moment, I’m too busy writing and listening.

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Fourth Novel Challenge

I’ve been busy writing. My third novel is finished and I’m editing it, making a lot of  changes, before I step away for a while, go back, later and  decide if it still feels fresh and readable. Then I’ll edit some more.

I’m becoming better at editing.  I have an incredible two-book deal and a fantastic agent, so I’m really enjoying upgrading the first two novels. In truth, I’ve only just started to edit them: I have a lot of work to do later with an editor at HarperCollins and I am really looking forward to it. I love the experience of developing another voice in my head which says ‘Have you thought about…?’ ‘Did you check…?’ ‘Can you find a better way…?’or simply ‘Do you really mean that?’

More about all that later.

When I wrote the first novel, Never Too Old To Dream, it made me laugh out loud as I was typing. I was confident in the characters and the action as the words hit the page, but it isn’t as perfect as it will become. I wrote the second and third after discussing women’s commercial fiction novels with experienced agents at a writers’ festival and nailing the genre down, then reading other books in the genre, so I was really sure what women’s fiction felt like. Only then could I bring my own twist to it. So I’m happy with both of these novels, which are similar in shape but very different in content.

My heroines are all older women because they are ‘woefully under-represented, as a clever publisher once said. Evie, the first protagonist, is seventy-five. The second, Susy, is fifty -five and the third, Dee, is forty-nine. These women are, in turn, feisty, wildly determined and fiercely single, but have their own roads to travel before they discover what they really want. They are not conventional woman in conventional situations and they all demand a life for themselves which goes beyond a job, a kitchen sink and a man. More about them another time.

For my fourth novel, I wanted to try something different and challenge myself to create a character and settings I hadn’t tried before. A short story I wrote at a writing group went down particularly well, and I chewed the idea over and decided to extend it, to see if it had potential to become a novel. Without giving away the story the protagonist, Helena, is an eighty year old woman who is seeking something she believes to be true, and it is her quest which makes the novel leap from past to present. I have never wanted particularly to write an historical novel but this journey has taken me from Wallachia to County Mayo via Paris and the Black Hills of Dakota so far, and I’m just halfway through.

The Wallachia section is inspired by a brilliant book I read, The Pariah Syndrome by Dr Ian Hancock. Wallachia constitutes only a short section of my novel, but this part of history is seldom told and it needs to be. The County Mayo episode I know a lot about already, but a writer can never be complacent, so I checked as I wrote. The rest is all research.

Like most things I write, I know exactly where I’m going but not how I’m going to get there. There will be a shock at the end, maybe more than one. I know I’ll need to research big things and small things. I’ve written to experts, interviewed them for their knowledge and Google is my new best friend as I pore over maps and ask questions about history and remind myself about culture, or bring up pictures so that I can describe something accurately.

The fourth novel is currently called, The Seventh Time, and it’s written mainly in the first person, as Helena is the protagonist and it’s her story. But flitting into the past has enabled me to try out ideas with voice and character, perspective, even tense, and I’m enjoying the challenge of creating a range of settings. At the moment, I’m writing it all down furiously, and then going back for a first edit each day. It will need much tougher editing later.

Interestingly, content- wise,  especially for the kind people who read my stuff for me, this novel is dark in places. The first three novels are, in different ways, amusing and the characters are charming and playful. Helena is not an amusing character: her situation is difficult, and her life stories are often full of tragedy and pathos. My aim is to be emotionally focused while I’m writing and, certainly, when I read it back I want to be moved. I want others to read it. and comment on the shocks, twists and turns and the emotions inherent in character, action and language. Then I know it is on it’s way to being effective.

I usually arrive at 40,000 words before I know if a novel will work. By that point, I ‘love’ my protagonist.  I like and fully understand the motivation of the characters and I am comfortable with the action and the journey. Novel four is different. I will write it to the end to check that it works because the idea is more complex. Writing this one is about the pleasure and excitement of a challenging theme before I start to justify the effectiveness of the product. But I think it will work.

My usual practice of  ‘write  during the cold weather and have fun in the sun’ is not so easy now we are enjoying the warm June days. Once a writer is ‘in the zone’, it’s hard to stop, so I’m writing in the cool evening and waking early to edit.

I am very lucky doing what I do. What could be more exciting than running with an idea and watching it take shape on the page? Equally exciting,  I guess, is finding out that other people want to share my ideas, read my novels and find my writing entertaining and enjoyable. An interested reader is a writer’s blessing.

Being a writer is about being on a wonderful journey. I take great inspiration from the writers whose novels I read every day, even from the ones I don’t like. Taste is subjective. Meeting other novelists and  hearing them speak about the craft of writing helps me think about how I’m developing and how I can improve.

The blog is taking a back seat at the moment. I’ve failed to mention some fairly major political events recently and I’ve missed opportunities to comment on smaller things such as theatre, music events, books and sport. But I have a novel to finish and it fills my days, morning and evening. I am grateful that life has given me such an opportunity.

As Ray Bradbury said, ‘I don’t need an alarm clock. My ideas wake me.’

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A novel, hours of editing and me.

My third novel is almost finished and editing it is my next focus. What could be better? It’s time to see if I would choose to read my own novel and, if so,  how I can make it more readable.

I am learning all the time. My first novel is out there with a really experienced agent, although I know it might lie in between two genres.

My next two novels are almost finished and edited. I know, thanks to smart advice by an intelligent agent, that these two fall bang in the middle of the genre I have chosen. They belong where they are.

I have researched the genre extensively, reading books I have liked and hated. The ones I liked had plausible and interesting characters who had some impact on me as a reader as they embarked on their journey. These characters have some depth. I know now who the writers are who have readers who will love my work.

I know which writers I have found laborious to read. Too many protagonists are bland middle class passive women. I understand that readers may want an accessible heroine, but my protagonists, while being hugely flawed and with a lot to learn and  experience, have determination, guts and resilience, and are not afraid to make up their own mind.

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I’ve read novels by a woman whose audience I’ve been told will enjoy my novels, according to an experienced agent and, I have to say, that writer has been pivotal in my learning journey. I will never create characters like hers. They simper, fret and seldom make a decision -and that is both male and female central characters. By the end of these novels, I know the characters no better than I did on the first page and, what’s worse, I don’t like them. I have nothing in common with them because they are weak, flaccid and incapable of change.

Worse, the pace is slow and the writing indulgent. I have learned to give up on a book. Like some relationships, sometimes there is nothing to be gained from ploughing on uphill.

 

My female protagonists are always strong characters. The same can be said for the men. In one novel, a male ‘co-star’ was a really nice guy, which would balance the female character’s personality and action well. Women who read my novel said they would like to meet him, would benefit from knowing such a man, so I let him stay where he is.

But in the last novel, I wanted to create  male characters who are unpredictable and perhaps a little unusual. I also wanted to reflect the world we live in: hence a character who is not mono-dimensional, but has tendencies to behave in ways the reader might not expect. I also wanted my reader to smile.

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Reading others’ novels and reading widely is vital, not just to see what I like and don’t like. In a way, my own opinion of others’ novels  is not hugely important. Someone must like them – they’ve been published and are popular. I have to read analytically and go beyond the choice of characters and action.

It’s important to look at how writers signpost events. It is vital that I map the reader’s journey, as a reader myself. It is interesting to see how writers use conversation, how they show that time is passing or places change.

It is interesting to note how they weave plot and develop the action. I analyse roaming protagonists, flashbacks, tropes which work and others which scream  cliché from a mile away. It is fascinating to consider the use of language and to ask myself what appears to make for satisfying reading and why.

I am in awe of some authors’ beautiful writing and their ability to create thrilling characters and plots. Some novels leave me cold and some make me wonder how the book came to be published at all. The important thing is that I continue to think and I continue to learn.

I then need to edit my own writing and apply what I have learned. I have already decided to rewrite a chapter completely. I know where some of the editing will take me, but not all decisions are made at the outset. Some changes will emerge slowly and will change again after several edits.

I like to have days where I just think. Thoughts come during exercise, conversation, sleep.  I can alter ideas, adapt action, conjure a new device. Editing doesn’t always happen at the computer. I can wake at five in the morning and think ‘I know what I need to change.’

I work best when I have left the novel for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes and a rested mind. If it works then, it is pleasing and it can stay. If not, it is ripped out and edited.

I cannot underestimate the value of having good readers: not just friends, people who like the genre and people who have taken the same MA as I have, but people whose experience, age, background, gender is different to mine. I consider what they all have to say very seriously.

Then of course there is the weather, which is a really major influence. My central rule. Edit inside when the weather is cold or wet outside. If it’s sunny, go to the beach and think. The beach and the sunshine give me my best ideas for the novel I’m editing and more inspiration for later novels to come.

Who said a writer’s life isn’t perfect?

 

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When should writers sit down and write and when should they stop writing and seek inspiration? The answer is easy.

I’ve finished editing my second novel, for now. Of course it’s impossible to finish editing, ever: there’s always more to upgrade and revise and rethink, but I wrote this one, currently titled The Matter with Men, from August to November. It was an exercise to see if I could write within the CWF genre. I read a few commercial women’s fiction novels to start me off and, once I’d created a character who was a little feisty and I’d given her some problems to resolve, I was away. I really enjoyed it.

Many writers make helpful suggestions  about when and how one should write, and routine seems to be all-important. Write after breakfast, write before breakfast, write all morning, all night. I have a guaranteed way of making sure I can write a lot, and in a disciplined way – at least I can do this as long as I live in the UK. I write when the weather is bad and go out and find inspiration when the weather is good.

I set my second novel in the South West and researching a setting is really good fun. Driving to Cornwall, across Devon, to Bristol, having lunch on a barge because my main character does, checking out a pub in East Devon, a beach in Barnstaple… is this hard work?

There’s a supermoon tonight, so I’ll be out there, maybe climbing Haytor rock at sunset and taking some photos so that I can internalise it all and use the mood later. I am not naturally good at writing romance but I can do pantheism, then merge the two in my head and later use the moment in my novel.

I recently wrote a scene where my protagonist goes horse riding without the benefit of appropriate sports underwear. Research is essential if I’m to understand the emotions and sensations  behind the experience.Now that has to be a good example of suffering for one’s art.

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My protagonists are never me. They may occasionally be composites of different people but mostly they are made up and I can always project experiences and ideas or work empathically.  It’s easy to bring a thought or an experience back to the computer and then subvert it, apply it or change it and turn it into something entertaining, moving or poignant.

I’ve just started my third novel, which will be set in two cities I know well and that I visit regularly. However, I’ve been walking on Dartmoor this weekend, so I have a scene in mind which will take place on Grimspound.

Based on the experience of trying to invent an acceptable male protagonist in the second novel, I have decided to change my methods completely and create a new and unusual protagonist in the third- (no title yet) – who is completely different, annoying and hugely flawed. I will enjoy working with him and I hope the fun will rub off on my readers.

November has been great so far, both in terms of writing and in terms of good weather,  so I have been on the road while the sun shines and making hay, or at least chapters, in the rain. I am lucky to be in touch with a great group of helpful readers who read what I write and who let me know if it  works the way I want it to. I have two particular readers whose reading experience is completely diverse: one has an MA in writing, the other seldom reads fiction, so I combine their responses to help me gauge how effective my novel might be to a wider audience.

I belong to a brilliant writing group, which is so mutually helpful: we try out new ideas and it keeps the writing spirit crazy, feisty and humble. All the support and input is invaluable and inspirational and the mischief we create is as volatile as any coven.

Today the weather is good, but I am expecting the weather to turn wintery very soon, so I’ll be out in the fog and the slush and the storms. Then during the cold and the rain, after a quick bowl of soup, I’ll be back  on the keyboard while Pushkin the cat snoozes in front of the screen, right in my line of vision. Love it…

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Dartmoor painting by Cait Hill

Writer’s insomnia? Tell me about it.

I’ve never had writer’s block.Smashing out three thousand words in a morning isn’t difficult. I started my second novel towards the end of the summer and I’m now on over 65 thousand words. Writing is like plastering a wall: slosh it out and then sand it down and paint it later. Or like making a cake: whack in the basics and go for the decoration when it’s baked and cooled.And, of course, editing can be a bigger job than the initial draft. But for me, it’s not about having a block and wondering what to write. That’s because I get writer’s insomnia.

Don’t all writers have the same experience? It’s not a problem, in the way that insomnia implies that we can’t go to sleep and we desperately want to because we’re exhausted. The opposite: there’s energy to spare. There’s no counting sheep or knocking back tablets to help us doze off. It’s a buzz. My novel wakes me up with questions such as what are my characters like deep down? What is their backstory? What are they striving for? I work out what will happen in the narrative in chapters to follow; I  plan conflicts and denouements and plot twists.I love what I do, however many hours it takes, day or night.

Writer’s insomnia usually kicks in about two o’clock in the morning and I finally fall asleep about half five or six. It’s a really productive time and I think, because I can spend active brain time working out details (without having to get up, move even,) the daytime writing is easier. I remember being told on different occasions by two prolific novelists that decisions about character and action can be challenging problems to resolve for all writers.The advice was to keep trying out ideas until the right fit happens. By sheep-worrying the alternatives during the night, the dawn often brings clear solutions.

Many of the characters in my second novel are interwoven within the story and, by the end, even some of the minor ones will reappear. I’ve worked out how. My main protagonists need to be complex, flawed, yet they need to be likeable, empathic and plausible. I have to have a strong rapport with them myself in order to enjoy creating them, so I need to invest nocturnal hours in getting to know them really well. It is really beneficial to writing another chapter when you know how your characters will behave, however irrational or impetuous they are.

I need to crack a pace in this second novel. It’s women’s commercial fiction through and through, and the reader needs live wires of tension to be fizzing all the time . It’s important to move forward, to find new settings and to swing between humour and action. Writer’s insomnia asks new questions  of the text and gives me a chance to try out solutions. At night time the imagination is a bubbling cauldron and the darkness somehow brings with it vivid pictures and sharply focused ideas. I love it.

I even had an idea for my third novel while I was fleshing out a particular character and looking for ways to show the personality traits and idiosyncrasies. A new character appeared, completely different and offering the chance for some credible mischief. I then put a jigsaw puzzle of characters and plots around this new character, again giving space for humour and pathos or tension. Like magic, an idea for novel number three popped up. It will need more thinking, more working, a bit of refining, but that’s for another night.

Writer’s insomnia seems to occur later into writing a novel, I think. Early on, when characters are forming and the narrative is developing, there’s a sense of being tentative, then cheekily bold with an idea, pushing boundaries to check that it will work. I always try to let the narrative surprise me as a writer. If an idea sneaks up or shocks me, I’ll use it because it will have a similar impact on my reader.

Later on in the novel, however, I need to make sure I have the depth of character in my protagonists and a commitment to the plot and action which will make for a gripping read. Insomnia is the solution. It is not to be avoided, feared or persuaded to stay away. It gives my brain space and time to puzzle, to plot and then to stir an idea to perfection.

After a bad night’s sleep, the writer needs to be really disciplined and write the whole lot down during the next day. After all, by nightfall the cauldron of ideas is bubbling again  and there’s another night’s sleep to lose.

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Words to stem the storm or at least hold the tide back for a moment.

So the world is imploding. All sorts of worms are crawling out of the opened can.The negative feelings of the disenfranchised are manifesting themselves as widespread disagreement and arguments and dissatisfaction and we’re seeing Facebook memes of Pooh Bear and Piglet healing rifts between polarised friends. Everyone has a strong opinion – thank goodness for Free Speech, but now we live in a world where the Emperor’s new clothes are off and no-one will acknowledge the nakedness. Lies are legitimate political currency now, and so are double crossing and hatred, all coming fresh from the mouths of the political right this week. Before the vote, the unhappiness and untruths were an undercurrent, now we have a tsunami: Gove spitting vituperative statements of Johnson’s ineptitude, the Tory leadership oven hotting up to explosion point and Jeremy Corbyn, though many still love him, lugging a Labour party which might snuff itself out in the next General Election. And Farage, the most ineffectual and dangerous of stand-up comedians, humiliating himself with his pathetic hubris at the European Parliament.

This week was all too much. It’s time to rise above the stench of the detritus. Thank goodness for the solidarity of a writing group.

Most writers agree that a good writing group is what makes a difference between basic writing and honing our skills. A regular writers’ group is essential, using the balance between astute critiquing and positive praise if we are to improve and develop style. I’m fortunate to still be in touch with many talented writers from my MA group and I have a number of trusted readers, who are writers and poets, who will always give me a straight opinion.

Then there is our local writers’ group, a group of some ten or twelve people who write short stories and poems and memoirs. I joined the group in September last year so that I could keep myself on my toes, finish my first novel, start a second and dabble in creating  different characters and perspectives and genres.

Our tutor is a real enabler, a poet and always full of ideas, offering great stimuli and weekly feedback on our work. Then there is the group itself with so many clever writers. One talented woman may well now embark on completing an exciting children’s book. A woman whose memoirs of life in London in the fifties and sixties thrill her listeners each week. An ex-policeman’s writing is invariably warm and measured and dry and witty. An artist/ musician’s stories of local life are genuinely moving, funny, clever and hugely entertaining. An actress/ performance poet, professional and iconoclastic is always uniquely surprising whether she writes comic or poignant pieces. Each week, local writers deliver smooth stories, witty and lively responses and ideas which leap off the page. Even better, it’s great to see creative people flourish and become even more confident and articulate.

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Tutor and writer listen to others read. Photos by Julie Mullen.

Last night we celebrated with  a writers’ party, a local reading in a cafe where several of us came together to stand in front of a microphone in turn and humbly offer our poems and stories to an audience. It was a great way to end our summer course, and an opportunity to revel in how far everyone had progressed. There were stories about a gifted magical girl, drunken bets on racehorses, childhood mischief in Paris, sex and washing machines, a nasty uncle who raced greyhounds.Every tale was a gem and truly entertaining.

Politically, it’s a changing world and a pivotal time for us all now. We’re expected to accept lies as truths whether they are promises on buses or vows not to stand for PM. The Bullingdon boys and the Etonians and Gove now have it their way and they have become reckless, their mayhem is all around us and many of the disenfranchised people have voted with their emotions and their misplaced trust. We will live with the consequences as best as we can.

Thank goodness for friendship; thank goodness there is talent, that we can share creativity and meet with thinking people. This is, of course, not to ignore or stop the fight against xenophobia and dishonesty and corruption and political  duplicity and ongoing perfidious betrayal of the ordinary person. But it is important to remember that there is much in our world to love, to enjoy and to celebrate. There are so many people to say thanks to, for friendship and support, whatever their views, however they voted. This blog is for them all, to remember that the way forward is to be joyous and mindful and that we are bigger than any divisions; we will change what we can when we can and, meanwhile, we’ll celebrate the present. After all, it is just that, the present, and the present is a gift, isn’t it?

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 Our MC for the night. Photos by Julie Mullen