Tag Archives: novel

The Friday Review No. 5: Practicing My Writing Practice

I’m writing this week’s review a day early, as we are about to take off on the annual canter around the country to visit relatives, which we seem to do every Easter and Christmas.  I’m usually feeling like screaming ‘Stop the world!  I want to get off!’ at this point, but perhaps I’ve finally accepted that RESISTANCE IS FUTILE, and its got to be done.

In response to the impending rupture in proceedings, I decided I was going to make the most of my last remaining free days for a while to get a bit more out of my writing practice.  I agreed with my writing coach, Heidi, that I would do it twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, because they were the days that I had most time and energy – because of my ME/CFS, I have to plan my activities to preserve my energy, and energy intensive activities like going to weekly health appointments have to take precedence over everything.  So I’ve been doing, or trying to do, two a week.

The thing is that when I do it, I find it so productive and enjoyable.  So I thought, why not take it seriously?  Why not try and do it every day?  Or rather, why not have yet more fun? (It’s a no-brainer when you put it like that, isn’t it?)

I’ve managed four consecutive days so far.  This is, I think, because I’m not putting pressure on myself.  I’m doing it to see what comes out.  And I’m discovering a lot.  For instance, the vicar in my novel has a sentimental attachment to a mangy old stuffed parrot which is kept on the table by the door in the Rectory.  The vicar’s wife, who I thought would be adversarial at most, and certainly peripheral, has turned into my heroine’s useful ally, and definitely cherishes a grief of her own.  And I’ve realised that I am deliberately avoiding getting into the mind of the heroine’s employer…. Now why would that be?

It’s all an intriguing puzzle, and I want to know more.  Like reading a detective story, and wanting to know the ending, I feel like this novel is hidden under my skin, entire, and all I have to do is uncover it.  And then the exciting denouement will be clear.

In another effort to entice my Muse out to play, I dragged out the writing notebook I’d started months ago.  It’s a nice notebook, lovely paper, but the cover is boring as hell, so it doesn’t seduce me into using it.  So I recovered it with some wrapping paper I had.  I think the transformation works quite well, don’t you?

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Before…

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…and after

So now I’m heading off into the wilds of No-easily-available-wifi-land, with my trusty notebook in hand, and a few half hours sketched into my schedule to do a bit of writing practice. Knowing Oxford, where I’m going, I shall snap a few pictures of sublime architecture and blossom-heavy trees along the way, so check out my Instagram account if such things amuse you.

Enjoy your Easter weekend, dear Reader, and may all your creating be fun,

EF

Reading Reboot Part 2: The ‘How To’ Bit

bookshelf instag

Some books here are waiting to be read.

In my last post about reading, I left you at the point of the story where I had resolved to start reading fiction again, but was at something of a loss as to how to re-establish the habit.

This is the good part.  The bit where I tell you what I did, so that you can do it too:

Choose a regular time of day

One of the tips I came across in starting my reading reboot was the idea that in establishing any habit, it helps to have a trigger, a specific time of day, perhaps, which you come to associate with that particular activity. I thought about my mother, who always sat down at 10.30am for a cup of coffee and the Telegraph crossword, and after her lunch at 12noon, she always had half an hour or so special ‘me time’ for reading.  It’s a routine she didn’t deviate from for more than 40 years, and in that time she must have read hundreds of books.

Most people read at night.  I find that helpful as, like many ME patients, I have a tendency to insomnia, so reading at bedtime helps me to wind down.  (NEVER read on your phone, tablet or laptop, however, since the LED display has been proven disrupt the melatonin levels in your brain, making you more awake, rather than less.

You can find the scientific proof, if you are sceptical, here.

Choose a time of day that you can set aside 15-30 minutes of pure reading time, in your lunch hour, on the bus, whenever that most suits your lifestyle, and do it every day.

Block out a chunk of time

I find I really enjoy getting totally immersed in a book, and often, if its one I’m completely absorbed in, I like a big chunk of time to really get to grips.  Sunday afternoons are great for this, but I don’t have kids, so this may not work for you.  Evenings are great, especially when your partner goes for a night out with their mates.  I make an occasion of it, indulgently laying in good chocolate, lighting candles, and maybe even playing soft music in the background.

Grab a moment

I always carry a book with me.  I hate to be bored, and any time of the day when I am on my own, perhaps waiting in a queue, on public transport, or grabbing lunch at a coffee shop, is perfect for packing in the next chapter.

Make a list

When I was at college, and, we were given reading lists.  A series of texts to wade through.  Doing my diploma, I wrote my reading list on a slip of card which I used as a book mark.  I drew a line through every book I finished on the list, and went on to the next one.  Every time I opened my book, I was presented with tangible evidence of what I had achieved, which spurred me on to read more.

This time around I generated my own list.  I happened to have a shelf full of books that I had bought but that remained unread.  You know, the ones you get when there is a ‘buy one- get one free’ on summer holiday books in Waterstones, and you read one when you are away, and the rest get forgotten.  I made a list of all the unread books I had lying around, and started on them.

Another way you could do it is to visit a bookshop with a notebook and wander round, noting down the books you fancy reading, the ones that attract and intrigue you.

Perhaps you’d like to read on a theme.  There are books which will help you with this, like ‘The Novel Cure’.

Many books on writing contain lists of recommended novels that you could work your way through – there is a fantastic one in Francine Prose’s wonderful ‘Reading Like a Writer’. (This is a book you really need to read, by the way.)

Or you could just wander around your local library, pick out a few novels from their displays, or ask a librarian or bookseller for their recommendations.  And charity shops are great for plucking out a few juicy reads at affordable prices to add to your stash.

Once you have your list, don’t forget to tick off each book as you finish it.  I like to score a line right through each title.  It gives me huge satisfaction, and gets me revved up for more.

Stay Faithful – Read to the end

I’m such a butterfly.  I have a very short attention span and I’m well-known for getting bored with a book a couple of chapters in, putting it down ‘for the moment’ and never finishing it.  I’ll end up with about 17 books on the go, and often have to restart books because I’ve forgotten the story so far.

I have found recently that I do have to resist this temptation.  If another title attracts me when I’m half way through my current novel, I now make myself plough on, with the reward of the new one in my sights.  My intention is to use my voracious butterfly instinct to flit onwards as a means to spur me on to completion.  I won’t let myself open the next title until I’ve finished the first.  Sometimes I hate it, but it always feels so great when I get to the end of a book that I don’t care.

Don’t be afraid to dump it

On the other hand … yes, I am about to contradict myself.  Sometimes there is a book that you start, and no matter how much you try, you just can’t get on with it.  Something, or everything, about it grates.

For years, people had been telling me to read ‘The Corrections’ by Jonathan Franzen.  It has been sitting on my shelf, staring at me balefully in reproach.  I’ve tried.  God knows, I’ve tried.  So many times.  But I just can’t like this book, and I just can’t read it.  So I have given myself permission to let it go.  I’m never going to finish it, so what is the point in keeping it.  It made its path to the charity shop, along with Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’, another book that made me want to spit bullets, and that I have tried to read half a dozen times without success.

Sometimes, it is best to know when you are beaten, and retreat gracefully.  Life is too short to waste precious reading time on books you downright hate.

Give up the Telly (At least some of the time)

Where am I going to get all this time, you may be asking?  I discovered, when I began to really get back into reading, that I had been watching a whole lot of television.  Reruns of old detective shows, documentaries I had seen before, pap that was not feeding my soul or my Muse.  It was just filling my time.  I discovered it was far more fun to switch off the gogglebox and dive into a book.  The pictures were better in my imagination, for starters!

Yes, I know it sounds impossible, but think about it.  How long do you spend staring at the TV or getting lost on the internet, looking that things that really are not exciting or entertaining you, but just occupying your eyeballs.  Just think how much more fun a good book could be.

Commitment not Discipline

Your reading list is NOT another stick to beat yourself with, another SHOULD to add to your already bulging list.  If you don’t get chance to read today, don’t tell yourself you lack discipline.  Frankly I think discipline is an evil word, used to oppress, manipulate and shame people everywhere.  Its not down to having enough discipline.  Its actually down to whether you want to do something enough or not.  And if you really want to do it, you will. So what if you didn’t have chance to read today because the baby was running a temperature, or the boiler broke down?  Commit to reading tomorrow.  Reading is for your pleasure, after all.

Congratulate Yourself

I have a list of ‘Books Read in 2017’ in my bullet journal.  When I finish a book, I write it down on my list there, as well as scoring it out on my bookmark.  It is a way of congratulating myself.  When I get to the end of the year, and look back at my list, I know I will be so proud of how much I’ve achieved, because I’ll have a concrete record of it.

There’s another thing I do.  Maybe its not so sensible, but when I finish a book, I like to treat myself.  I’ll take myself to the local café for a nice cake.  Buy myself a new lipstick or nail varnish.  A new notebook or a nice pen.  Nothing too big.  Just a little treat to say ‘well done.’  Because, let’s face it, you put a lot of hours and concentration into finishing a 300-page novel.  You deserve a pat on the back!

 

Of course, volume is not everything.  At the moment I am re-establishing the habit of reading, and the issue of what I read, and how it impacts on my writing is something for the future.  I may go back to keeping a reading notebook, as I have in previous years.  No doubt there will be future posts on the subject.  But in the meantime, I hope that something here will help you to get back into the habit of reading, if you have dropped out of it, and if not, that you can discover something new to enhance your enjoyment.

Happy Reading – and Creating,

Love EF

Confession Time: Female Characters

Romola Garai as Sugar in 'The Crimson Petal and the White'

Romola Garai as Sugar in ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’

There is going to be a certain amount of ‘coming out’ in this post.

My name is Rebecca and I am a writer who can’t write female characters.

Which is a bit weird, seeing as I am a 47-year-old woman, don’t you think?

A writer friend calls it creepy.  Maybe she is right.  I’ve tried, believe me.

My first novel (stopped counting at 250,000 words, but you get the picture) was centred on a young woman in Iron Age Britain.  Well, you’d think that.  She was the character on whom the story pivoted.  It was her point of view.  But that was the novel that gained me a certain reputation in my writing group. They banned me from using the words ‘massive chest’.  I think ‘muscular legs’ were also mentioned.  Needless to say, there were a lot of hunky Iron Age warriors running about, fighting for the right to have sex with my heroine.  Now I read back through the text, she seems like a structuring absence, an empty space at the heart of the novel.  She is a weakly drawn character.  She is two dimensional, a paper cut-out compared with the male characters.

I am considering resuming work on the book I’ve been wrestling with for a while, which is currently entitled ‘The Butler Did It’ – four years’ work, and I still haven’t come up with a better title!  This novel is centred around another young woman.  And I think that is the problem I’ve been having with it.  I just can’t get a handle on her.  I’m just not as interested in her as I am in the men who surround her.   They are the initiators of the action.  It is their requirements that force her into the situation which forms the centre of the story.

I can’t get excited about her.

I’m just not that into her.

Yesterday I was watching a TV adaptation of Michel Faber’s dazzling novel, ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’.  I hadn’t meant to, but it was on, so I thought I’d dip in, though I had seen it before, when it was first screened.

The central female character is Miss Sugar.

Wow.  If you needed a character that was a polar opposite to my ‘butlering’ heroine, you couldn’t come up with a better one.  Sugar is a dazzling, sinister, forceful, sympathetic, passionate creature.  She is a girl of 19, forced into prostitution by her mother.  She is a brilliant writer and voracious reader who crafts a novel of sexual retribution while her clients sleep off their hangovers in the bed beside her.  She is entrancingly beautiful, and yet she suffers with a horrible skin disease.  She longs to escape her profession, and yet she is the most sought-after whore in Victorian London.  She is transcendent, stealing every scene she is in, bonding all the other female characters together in a conspiracy against the male ones, who are either sinister and abusive, or weak and ineffeffectual.  For me, she is right up there with Jane Eyre, Becky Sharp and Elizabeth Bennett as one of the great female characters of literature.

The thing about Sugar is that she takes the situation that she has been forced into by predatory men, and turns it on its head, coming out triumphant.  That’s what my ‘butlering’ heroine is supposed to do, but frankly, she couldn’t triumph over the confines of a wet paper bag!

Conversely, my readers tell me that my male characters are psychologically complex, three-dimensional, tangible creatures.  I’m good at one gender, but not at the other.

Time to fix that.

Miss Sugar is my inspiration.  I’m settling down to rewrite my heroine.  To rewrite what I have written from her point of view.  To get inside her head.  Not exactly to copy Sugar, but to use her as inspiration.  To learn how to be sympathetic to my girl.  To admire her.  Which I don’t at the moment.

You have to like your characters (at least) in order to write them.  How can you propose to spend a minimum of two years with them, looking them in the metaphorical eye every day, if you don’t?

I#ll let you know how I get on.  And in the meantime, if you haven’t read ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’, you absolutely should.

Happy Creating,

EF

How Scrivener Kicked My Butt into Enlightenment

People have been raving about Scrivener to me for ages, and I’ve been saying yeah, yeah, eventually. And then wrestling with Word for my novels, and spreadsheets for my research data. Given that I am hopeless at spreadsheets, you can just imagine how time-consuming that can be. Anyway, recently, my fanfic pal Chasingriver demonstrated to me conclusively that this was a programme I couldn’t live without.

You know, I hate it when she’s right.

It was the corkboard function that really sold me. Mainly because I’d spent the previous week working out how I could attach all the little index cards (each indicating a scene) which I had accumulated for my current project to my study wall without damaging the plaster with blu-tak. Once I’d downloaded Scrivener, it was a case of YAY! No more blu-tak! No more holes in the paintwork!

With Scrivener, you can put all your little index cards on the screen, and move them about to change the order as you like, just as you would with the real thing. The good part, though, is that while you can’t carry your entire study wall along to the library with you when you want to work there, you can with Scrivener.

(Did I mention that I’m not getting paid to say this about Scrivener, just in case you were wondering?)

Anyway, yesterday I sat down in front of the offending, doomed wall, and started to copy out those little index cards into my Project folder. Away I went. I was having a lovely time. Type type, tap tap.

You’ve already guessed there is going to a BUT here, haven’t you?

Once I’d put in all my index-card scenes, I could see the plot I’d teased out as a whole. Or should I say HOLE. Because it was full of them. Holier than Righteous, as we used to say about my brother’s vests.

Now, of course this is a good thing. It is better to find out your plot is lacier than a wedding dress before you get down to churning out 80,000 words, rather than after. Of course it is.

Cue typical writers confidence wobble.

I crashed and burned.

Help! What have I got myself into? I thought I had a novel with a mostly sorted plot, and now I find there is mountains more work to do than I thought. Oh, oh, I am hopeless, my work is superficial, crap, lacking in psychological depth, etc. etc. You know the routine, because I’ll bet you’ve done it yourself at 3am enough times.

Don’t worry, I’ve got a grip on myself now. But it was a bit scary there for a while.

What the marvels of Scrivener have done is to make me see how I can get to grips with my project in a way I never have before. I have always been a ‘flying by the seat of my pants’ sort of writer, with plots that evolved organically as I went along. I’ve written to find the plots, rather than establishing them first. Much the same goes for character. I’ve done a bit of character work before on my novels, but most of the time, I’ve just sat down and written the damn thing, and kept writing till it felt done.

Which is why I could never get a handle on my books as whole, holistic entities, and why I always have such horrible trouble editing them.

You can’t break a stream-of-consciousness-written novel down into individual component parts in order to see if it makes logical sense, or to cut and paste bits around. Its too interwoven.

Cue HUGE AHA! moment.

Back in the dim and distant past, when I was studying systems analysis and design, I was taught that the way you design a system is to break it down into its individual constituent parts, each part serving a specific function and with a specified input, actors, outcome or output. But I never thought that you could view a novel this way, even though I was taught to look at every scene in my books, and ask what function it was there for, and whether it served that purpose. If it doesn’t, you have to cut it, say the gurus, with systems design and with novel editing.   Kill your darlings, they say, but I never could because I couldn’t see the whole, and I couldn’t see the individual functions.

What I think I am trying to say is that in two days, using Scrivener has revolutionised the way I conceptualise a writing project. It is scary, but it is also enormously liberating. I get it now, I really do. After years of struggling over how to plan, I now see it.

Thank you, Scrivener. (And Chasingriver, of course.)

Of course, I can also now see that I have a vast amount of work to do. But the nice thing about that is that I can also see how to break it down into little, manageable component tasks. Eating the elephant, as they say. I’ll let you know how I am getting on.

In the meantime, take a look at Scrivener, if you haven’t already.

Happy Creating,

EF

The Wild Donkeys: A Strategy for Choosing a Creative Project

donkey

‘So, how’s the writing going?’

This from a man who is one of the Blessed Few.  A writer whose work was picked up by an agent straight from the much garlanded MA in Creative Writing at the Unversity of East Anglia.  Alumni include Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain, Hanif Kureshi, Tracey Chevalier and, well, you get the picture.  He is in glittering company.

He is also a really lovely man and a dear friend who takes a genuine interest in my work, so I rein in the envy monster and give him the polite and honest answer.

‘Fine.  Well, actually, I’m a bit stuck.’

‘Creative block?’

‘No, too many ideas.  I don’t know where to start.’

‘You should be writing a novel, you know.  I read some of your Sherlock stuff the other day.  It’s really good.’

‘Thank you.  I’ve written seven novels so far.  Writing a novel isn’t the hard part.  Its choosing which one to write that’s difficult.’

‘Well, just pick one and start.’

I love men.  Everything seems so easy to them.  And they are so good at handing out really practical advice.  (You’ll also notice that I don’t ask him how his novel is going.  That’s because I know.  I recognise that pained look.  I’ve seen it in the mirror too many times.)

OK, I know its good advice.  The right advice.

As Leonie Dawson puts it, I need to choose a wild donkey and ride the shit out of it till its done.

Every writer has a place where they habitually get stuck.  A psychological Marianas Trench on the road to getting their work into the readers’ hands, one that they tumble into every time.  For some it is grinding the words out, which for them is like sweating blood.  For others, it is coming up with the idea in the first place.  Some worry when they get to the middle because that’s always where they get bogged down, and some will spend ten years writing the first page.  We all have our Achilles’ heel.

For me, its choosing which idea to stick with.

So I have decided to take September off.  Not from writing; quite the opposite, in fact.  No, I’m taking the month off from worrying which novel to concentrate on.  I’m in a physically stuck place right now, and I need to concentrate on my health, on getting my body moving again after a summer of boom and bust energy.  I’m looking to create a smooth, even flow in my life, in my health, and my art.  I have faith that if I can manage to attain a relative level of consistency in my body, the answer will come to me.  Yes, maybe that sounds mad, but its just how my creative process works.

And in the meantime, I’m refreshing my theory knowledge, reading, working on my notebooking, and bashing out some major fanfiction.  I’m easily distracted, and having short stories and novellas on the go is a great way to handle that.  But sooner or later, I want to create something major.  Something big.  Something that shows both me and you, dear Reader, what I can really do.

Happy creating,

EF