Lessons in Novel Writing: Sat Nav or breadcrumbs?

When I was at school, pretty much my favourite thing was creative writing. Back then I wrote dark stories with plenty of ghosts, fairies, wicked stepmothers, vampires, monsters and ordinary kids like me being caught up in fantastical situations. Only my protagonist’s use of a magic amulet/sword/potion (supplied by a mysterious stranger, of course) or their own untapped abilities would win the day.

Many of those stories finished along the lines of

And they were never heard of again…

My endings have (hopefully) improved, but otherwise I pretty much write about the same things. Love a ghost story, would write vampires but they’re a bit ‘done’ and though I might not employ magic potions, I still recognise that my heroes and heroines – even if they aren’t a magical Chosen One – should find qualities within themselves to achieve their goals.

One major thing that has changed is my ability to plan.

When I wrote those childhood stories, and even when I began writing novels, my enthusiasm for an idea would have me rushing to my exercise book/keyboard, hammering out scenes in the order they appeared in my head, plucking characters from the air, smushing the whole thing together like play dough, hoping it would stick together.

That worked when I was a kid. Or at least I was happy enough with the results. As an adult? Not so much.

With my first book (my first three in fact, all unpublished) I returned to the same, tried and tested method of sitting in front of a screen and emptying my brains. The result had some pleasing moments… and flat, aimless characters, meandering plots and an end product as loose as Nana’s knitting.

Then I began to write for a women’s magazine and funnily enough, the editors required rather more than

Well, there’s this girl and I’m thinking maybe she falls in love and does some other stuff – probably to do with horses or goats – then she argues with the guy cos he does something stupid, but then he kisses her…

No. Editors want the first part of a proposed serial, they want character bios. Most of all, they want a synopsis.

Now, if you’re like me, just the mention of the S word will have you scuttling into the corner with a blanket over your head.

But once I’d dragged my inner writer kicking and weeping to the task, I actually found something interesting. A synopsis makes me focus on the shape of the story, its highs, its lows, the start, the resolution. It helps me know whether the idea is going to hang together and whether I can tell the story I want in the required word count.

It’s a cliche, but a synopsis is like having a Sat Nav in your car. You might take a different turning here and there, but if you have one – a good one – it makes it a heck of a lot harder to get lost.

So on my current journey through the realms of Novel (fifth go and yes, still unpublished), I’m taking a Sat Nav with me and not just relying on a trail of breadcrumbs to get me home.

How about you? Do you plan before you write or just go boldly where your creativity takes you?

Writing opportunity: Calling all Wyrd Sisters … and Brothers

 

Now, I know many of you out there are weird*.

I don’t mean that in a bad way, because you’re like me – you’re drawn to reading and writing on subjects from the darker realms of your imagination and that’s great, right?

When you close your eyes or put pen to paper/ fingers to keyboard, you’re mind is not teeming with big-eyed Disneyfied, fluffy bunny fiction, spilling over with love and flowers and happy endings.

That’s not to say everyone your write is a sociopath with a taste for human flesh, but if your characters are good people who rescue small children and help old ladies cross the road, they are made that way so you can do horrible things to them.

Preferably with pits of magma.

And ghouls.

And horned beasts.

Given that you are a fellow twisted soul who needs a creative outlet (and let’s face it, we’d all be very afraid if you didn’t have an outlet), you might be interested in this writing opportunity at The Wyrd magazine.

So if you’re an author or artist who has

a fondness for weird and slipstream themes

Pop along here. Closing date is the end of this month and good luck, siblings.

 

*Of course, if you’re genuinely weird, you’ll spell this WYRD

Terrifying photograph and author interview : The People’s Friend

 

This is week sees the final instalment of my serial The Mermaid of Mortling Hall in The People’s Friend magazine and what a lovely experience it’s been, from the writing and drafting of the story under Alan Spink’s steady tutelage, to kind comments of support from family, colleagues and blogging friends.

As a finale, Alan emailed me and asked if I’d like to give an author interview on the magazine’s blog, so if you’d like to learn a little more about the story, about my writing habits – and see a terrifying extreme close-up of my toothy mug – then pop along here.

Many thanks go especially to all bloggers who left encouraging comments and to all those who bought the magazine – your support has been amazing.

 

Author Interview : The Writing District

 

Lingerie mannequin

Image : Pixabay

 

Earlier this year, I was delighted to win The Writing District’s August competition with my story, Waiting for Angie. (Read about the story’s long road to publication here.)

Now, the very lovely Olive O’Brien (children’s author, publisher and founder of The Writing District) recently asked if I’d like to take part in an author interview for the site. Well, who’s ego could resist that little massage?

So, if you’d like to read about what inspired me to write the story, who some of my favourite authors are, and who was better, Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet, do pop along and read here.

If you’d like to read the story before the interview, here it is.

Thank you Olive, it was a pleasure.

 

 

 

 

Older writer? Smile, your time may yet come

 

When I read those author interviews, you know the ones,

the ones where the successful writer claims they ‘always knew they were going to write’, that they wrote their first word before they were out of nappies, their first short story before their first spoken word, their first novel before leaving junior school – those interviews – I read them with a mixture of resentment and admiration.

Admiration because anyone who is together enough to have a life plan at a young age is truly blessed and resentment because I … didn’t.

I drifted through school, got kicked out of college, fell into retail (hairdressing, measuring old ladies for corsets, selling extra strong cider in an off licence, waiting tables in a cafe that closed a week after I started) … I was hopeless.

When asked what I wanted to do when I grew up I shrugged. Drift, drift, drift …

Floristry came along and was a reliable way to earn a little money, but it was only after I put myself through a degree and the studying was over that a hole opened in my life that needed to be filled.

And I filled it with an old love – writing. And I realised – I had found it. I’d found my one, true love. 

Nine years and a LOT of writing later, I’m starting to feel vaguely competent. I’m not sure if I’ve completed Malcolm Gladwell’s fabled 10,000 hours yet, but I don’t think I’m that far off and there are days when I feel I’m at a publishable standard.

But at 48, have I left it too late for a career in writing?

If you’re an older writer like me take heart from this article in Author’s Publish Magazine.

There maybe some hope for us yet.

 

 

Why an unused imagination is like a flabby abdominal

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

Husband and I were chatting yesterday (we’ve been together for twenty five years – you’d think we’d be over that kind of thing by now) on our way back from a rare couple’s lunch (In case you’re concerned we released our son on Dartmoor to run with the ponies so we could have some grown-up time, fear not. He was with a very responsible adult, watching suped-up cars speed round a racetrack – each to their own).

Husband and I were discussing how my life experience has prepared me to be a writer (well, a hopeful amateur writer anyway).

First off, there’s life experience. Unless you’re a true prodigy and understand the human condition from the moment you spring from the womb, most of us need to have had some dodgy jobs, some good jobs, travelled a bit and generally mixed with other human beings (loved, lost, loved and lost again – rinse and repeat) for a few decades before we feel qualified to write about life.

Secondly, I’ve had a very understanding and supportive partner. Someone who’s prepared to field a young child, go shopping, or just leave you in peace to write and who doesn’t become resentful and obstructive after years of doing so and STILL no sight of a giant publishing deal … Not to be underestimated.

The third biggest thing that’s prepared me to write was studying with the O.U. Allow me to explain.

As regulars will know, I’ve had an array of often-not-very-exciting-or-fulfilling-in-fact-kinda-eye-skeweringly-boring retail jobs over the years. These jobs  left me stale, frustrated and unfulfilled. I had grown so used to floristry and all its doings, I could’ve made a wedding bouquet standing on my head. In fact, I suspect some brides over the years have thought I did make their bouquets standing on my head. Or maybe with my eyes shut. Anyway, I was fed up.

Then the dreams started. Well, pretty much the same dream, over and over, night after night, week after week.

I was late for an exam. I’d missed the bus to get to college. I hadn’t revised for another exam and I’d missed the bus and I was going to be late, and every permutation you can make from those elements. Now usually, I think reading dreams is an inherently bad idea as they’re just the brain’s way of digesting all the random codswollop we’ve absorbed during the day.

But this was different. My brain was telling me something – it was saying

‘Get off your backside and do something useful with me before I calcify or make you dress up as a fried egg and talk to sausages.’

So I did as my brain told me. I registered for a foundation course with the *Open University. I was terrified I wouldn’t cope, petrified of failure, but I completed the introductory exercises … And loved it. There followed six (mainly) enjoyable years of Art history, Roman history, and Renaissance history. I studied fossils, prehistoric technology, the English Civil War, more Art History and all while I was working full-time and part-time, giving birth (**well, I tried to get my text books out in the delivery room, but the midewife said it was unhygienic). I studied sleep deprived, while breastfeeding and over three house moves – writing essays and studying for exams early in the morning and late at night.

Studying taught me to grab any available minute. And it got me in the habit of ‘switching on’ in an instant, writing to order when and wherever I had to.

You see, it’s a habit, writing.

Your imagination is like a muscle. When you first begin to exercise it, it’s like a flabby abdominal, unused to being put under pressure – at first you might even have trouble isolating where it is. But with more practice – preferably daily practice – it will become taut, reliable … A thing of beauty.

It’s a strangled metaphor, but you know what I mean.

Once my brain was used to HAVING to work when I told it to, it was an easy switch from academic writing to creative writing. It didn’t mean I was any good at fiction at the start, but it did mean I wasn’t hanging around, waiting for the Muse to strike. I could summon her where and when I needed.

My advice, then is to be older, marry my husband and if you feel that you can only scribble when you’re in the right mood?

Write every day and that mood will become part of you.


How do you write? Daily? Weekly? Or only when there’s a full moon and the wind is in the East? What life experiences have prepared you to be a writer?

Let me know.

*As a very biased Open alumni, may I recommend my old alma mater? They provide long and short courses and quite a lot of free bits and pieces on a wide range of subjects. And they make a lot of good TV programmes too.

http://www.open.ac.uk/

**This is, in fact untrue. Though, if a big essay had been due …