Tag Archives: novel

A rather unusual writer’s retreat

27 Aug

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I’m writing this on my last night at a ‘study centre’, a sort of place for quiet reflection and that type of thing.  The reason I’ve ended up in a little place in the Midlands (Selly Oak, to be precise) is because I’ve been shocked at how easily I can come up with excuses to do anything but write.  I figured if I could send myself away with nothing but my laptop then I’d have to write.  So I started searching for writers retreats but most of the ones I found were far too expensive for my budget.  Also, I figured, I didn’t want to spend time around other writers, I just wanted to be quiet and get on with my own things. To be honest, I would have been happy with an all-inclusive in a shed but unfortunately those don’t exist. Really it didn’t matter where I was or with whom I was around as long as the atmosphere was conducive to creativity. 

Now here comes the weird bit.  The place I’m staying at is a Quaker study centre which is a very strange concept considering I’m an Atheist.  Firstly, I didn’t even know Quakers still existed; the only thing I knew about them was from brief mentions in old History lessons.  Apparently the Quakers aren’t so great at self promotion…But when I was able to research the place further, I realised it was perfect for my requirements. There’s a library, a desk in my room (there, I’ve taken a little photo of it, just because), ten acres of beautiful woodland and breakfast, lunch and dinner so I don’t have to worry about what to eat etc.  And that usually is a big worry for me, sadly… 

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But I have definitely managed to write a lot more although today (my last day here), I did suffer from some kind of writing burnout as my brain is not used to writing non-stop all day long.  It got to the point today where I would literally read over what I had written and genuinely not be able to tell whether it was OK or utter drivel.  I think three days away is a good time if you’re writing – any longer and I think my mind would have spontaneously combusted but perhaps it would be different if you just came out looking to meditate and gain a different perspective on things. 

I had concerns beforehand that I might slowly start scratching the walls but there are always people around so you never really feel like you’re completely alone.  In the canteen, I’ve met people I would never normally meet and had some really meaningful conversations.  Although it’s a ‘Quaker study centre’, the actual building is used to hold various conferences and it prides itself on being a good place for people to stay whether you are religious or not.  

The test will be when I go home and read over what I have written with a fresh mind… but I’ve definitely done something I wouldn’t normally do so I can tick ‘stay in a Quaker centre’ off my bucket list…

 

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General update on the adventures of an aspiring novelist

6 Aug

Again, I’m pretty sure these sorts of posts are more of a way to reassure myself than entertaining for others.

Recently, I hit a severe writer’s block.  I had got roughly halfway and I found myself at a complete standstill.  I would sit at my desk (or more likely, in my bed), willing myself to write anything but it was hopeless.  The few disjointed sentences I was able to produce were so appalling, they disheartened me more and frustrated, I pushed my laptop aside and stewed in my own melancholia.

I started doubting the storyline – was it actually convincing? interesting? worth reading? – and then I noticed all sorts of plotholes/ inconsistencies and felt unable to move on any further.  I started this draft back in January without a proper plan, just a rough idea of the protagonist, her dilemma and a general timeline of events.  And while I do think this organic approach has major benefits, mainly its spontaneity and the room it allows for characters to become fully alive, there is something to be said for a good plan.

I know some people are rather OCD on things like this and organise the notes of their notes etc.  But what has helped me immensely is a book by author and writing coach, Harry Bingham, ‘How to Write’.  I have read so many guides purporting to help you hone your writing skills but this is by far the best.  The title’s a little misleading insofar as it doesn’t tell you how to write – Bingham explicitly states that this isn’t a ‘creative writing’ book – but it gives you practical no-nonsense advice on what a good book (fiction or non-fiction) requires.  In fact, it’s so no-nonsense and matter of fact that I initially thought it was rather cynical.  However, Bingham obviously preempted that some readers may feel this and addressed his tone appropriately.  Plus, it was genuinely refreshing to read a book on writing that didn’t have the same old pieces of advice (buy a notebook, choose whether you want to write longhand or type it on a computer).. I learnt a lot.

One of the things I did learn actually helped to push me out of my weird I-hate-writing funk.  Bingham broke down Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ into chapters and described what happened in each chapter and how this moved the story forwards.  What was emphasised was the fact that MOTION (and not necessarily conflict) is KEY to writing a good novel.  He advises writers to summarise each chapter of their novel in two or three sentences and to test its soundness, you need to question whether it alters the protagonist’s relationship with their goal in any way?  If it does, great.  Your chapter is not simply drivel.  However, if it doesn’t, get rid of it.  Or hone it so it does reflect movement and a changing relationship between the protagonist and their objective.

Using Bingham’s advice, I was able to test the soundness of the chapters I had written already and create a structure for the second half of my book which has proved invaluable in eradicating my writer’s block.

An amazing book and I would recommend this, above all others, to be read by all aspiring writers everywhere.  For now I am pushing on and cannot wait until I finish my first draft.  My fingers are already itching to make edits and rewrite as appropriate…

Library days

18 Jun

So the last few days have been spent in the library, with me trying my best to be productive.  There is definitely something to be said for taking myself out of my bedroom that makes me stretch myself, determined to reach that target word count.  In a quiet environment where I can see that (mostly) everyone around me is working, a sort of restless competitiveness consumes me, spurring me on to continue writing one more word.  Then another.  And then it goes on.

However, not everyone  in the library works.  This guy was sat next to me, snoring ridiculously loudly.

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He kicked off his shoes so every time I moved a certain way, I was hit by this awful stench of foot odour which I can confirm is definitely not a source of inspiration.  Plus, he was sleeping upright so his head kept on bobbing about which got very annoying.  I tried everything to wake him up – I coughed loudly, I moved my chair around, I even tried bumping into him accidentally.  But alas, he really was that tired.

Being in a library also means that if I want a break from writing, I can browse the different books they have to offer and that usually offers me inspiration.  Recently, I’ve been devouring books about writing and publishing, some of which have been immensely useful to gaining a further insight into the whole process.  I’m also now a subscriber to a number of great writing magazines, including the brilliant publication for women writers, Mslexia which has some really handy hints and advice for aspiring writers.

So my main issue is to maintain this momentum.  Being back at work, I can already feel myself slipping into my default state of general apathy but I CAN’T LET THAT HAPPEN. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from all this reading I’ve done recently, it’s that no matter what, I should write a little every day.  It’s not good to write loads one day, then sit back and think I can relax and not write anything till the week after.  You lose your flow and this can lead to your writing becoming stilted and forced.  But probably the most important thing that I have gleaned from all this reading is that the important thing is: just finish the first draft!! It will undoubtedly be shite but at least you’ll have something to work with and you can edit it and edit again to make it better.

Novel progress update

13 Jun

This is more of a post for my own motivation purposes.  I was aware when deciding to undertake the immense project of writing a novel that this would be by no means easy and even though I am still in the beginning half of the process (I am currently about 20,000 words into my novel), I can confirm I was right in my initial assertion.

On the 1st January, I was refreshed, excited and raring to undertake this mammoth of a project but this enthusiasm gradually fizzled out a few months into the year.  Perhaps it is something to do with the inevitable apathy that affects all of us after a period, or it could be to do with the fact that I became jaded by the whole idea, sometimes dismissing my dream to write and publish a novel as a faraway dream.  I allowed myself to become lazy, making excuses to justify my procrastination, to the point where I would rather lie on my bed and stare at my ceiling than lift pen to paper or fire up my laptop.  The longer I left this, the more difficult it became to get started again.

What I find hardest of all is battling the self-doubt that constantly arises, especially when reading back over work and cringing at its general awfulness.  I am constantly struggling to push the destructive thoughts that so violently and viciously disparage my writing abilities to one side and continue with the main task at hand: actually writing.  I have found that one recurring justification I make to myself to not sit down and actually write is because I need to  ‘research.’  What I am researching is not always clear.  Of course, research to a certain extent is necessary – more so for some genres than others – but I ended up labelling literally everything I did as ‘research’ or a way to suddenly get inspired.  So in my mind, watching ridiculously adorable pugs rolling about on YouTube videos was ‘research’ and browsing shopping websites for dresses was part of my necessary routine to suddenly feel inspired.  Before long, I realised I had written embarrassingly little when compared with the goals I had set myself at the beginning of the year.

I think things can easily become stale when you feel dispirited and you don’t see any palpable results.  What was really inspiring was going to the Grazia event on publishing your first novel as this gave me an insight into the business of writing and selling a book.  Sure, it is difficult but it is not impossible.  What I realised was that I needed to have a far more professional attitude towards writing and treat it in some ways as a job, disciplining myself to write everyday.  This not only helps you progress your novel but it also allows you to improve your writing skills.  Writing a novel does, however, require hard work and determination and that was where I was going wrong.  I had simply become impatient and expected things to move a lot quicker than they did.

I am now setting myself achievable objectives that will help me achieve my ultimate goal: to finish my novel and self-edit it within the year.  The only way I can possibly accomplish this is by remaining focused to prevent my perfectionist tendencies from hindering any progress at all.  One step at a time.

What is also useful is to address your own preferences, what you like and what suits your best to maximise your productivity when writing.  For example, for me:

– I need to write on a computer or laptop, rather than by pen.  This is because I can type far quicker than I can write so it is much more productive.

– I like to punctuate one and a half hour writing sessions with half an hour breaks.

– I like to write in the library.

– Sometimes I like to listen to music when I write; however, it has to be purely instrumental (I find I work best to minimalist piano music).

– If I am focused and determined, I can push out around 2000 words (quality writing) in a solid day’s writing.

– I like to print out the first draft of each chapter and make amendments on a hard copy.

– Attending literary events such as informative lectures or book clubs increases my motivation to plod on with my novel and makes me feel less isolated when writing.

– Eight hours of sleep a night is a necessary requirement if I am expected to produce anything of above average quality.

– As much as I try to convince myself that writing in bed with my dog is a good idea, it really isn’t.  I either end up falling asleep or playing with my dog, both of which result in very little writing actually getting done.

As a little aside, here is a picture of my dog.  His cuteness distracts me from my work!:

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So, no excuses – I will push ahead and stick to my goal.  It’s hard but you get an amazing sense of satisfaction when you hit your desired word count for the day as you can see yourself moving closer to the finishing line.

Writer’s aid: ‘Becoming a Writer’ by Dorothea Brande

7 Jun

I purchased this book slightly reticently, having read thoroughly disappointing books in the same genre.  This, however, is something of a gem.  Originally written in 1934, Brande blasts so many of the typical writing tips out of the water, especially that writers possess some sort of secret and genius that we can only dream of attaining.

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The book is actually incredibly uplifting in addition to being informative.  The idea Brande consistently emphasises is that there are certain habits one needs to cultivate as a writer before any of the technical writing issues should be addressed.  She presents some really interesting and unusual ideas of how writers can combat their doubts and anxieties about writing, including adopting a sort of dual personality.  Not in the insane sense, of course.  It is more to nurture the unconscious which is when your imagination runs freely and to moderate it with the more disciplined side of yourself.  Practical advice she gives includes waking up half an hour earlier and making yourself write before reading anything or talking to anyone as this will reveal where your talent, i.e. which genre, needs to be developed.  If you wish to write short stories yet you find that your writing in these morning sessions tends to focus on drawn-out characterisation rather than more concise scenarios, you may find that you are demonstrating more traits akin to that of a novelist, rather than the short story writer.

I really enjoyed reading Brande’s book – it is elegantly written and her wit shines through.  It is infused with good advice that teaches you how to prepare yourself for the psychological challenges a writer faces, rather than the technical ones.  For me, self-doubt and apathy are two of my biggest challenges and I found that this book inspired me to leave my demons by the wayside and simply get on with writing.

Highly recommended.

Maths + writing?

3 Apr

I’ve been helping a friend with the maths parts of a professional exam, which got me contemplating the formula to writing a good book.  I’m by no means a mathmo but I studied Maths at A-Level, although wisely opted out of the masochistic ‘Further Maths’ course, plus studying Economics at the LSE was incredibly maths-heavy.  However, I had forgotten the innate satisfaction from solving one of those annoying maths problems that for the life of you, you can’t work out until suddenly… the penny drops and you manage to move beyond the struggle and see the solution.  This has been a surprising contrast with all the writing (or lack of it, in most cases) I’ve been attempting lately, where there is no ‘exact’ answer that you are working towards.  Of course, this is partly what adds to the beauty of the process but I can’t help but wish there were some more formulaic approach to be had.  I’ve researched the various writing methods authors use, including The Snowflake Method, to try and see what would work best for me and it seems that most of these ‘methods’ boil down to intense preparation and planning of a novel.  For some reason, though, I can’t quite seem to plan properly; I’ve always started writing and let the story develop that way, although most of the time I do have some general idea of the themes and the way in which I want the story to develop.

Anyway, rambling aside, I just wish I could make my writing process a lot more efficient and less trial and error.

Unfortunately, though, it looks like I’ll just have to try my best and persevere with this, remembering that ‘the path to success isn’t always a straight line.’  So, yeah, I guess that means I’ll have to put up with the frustrating scrapping of drafts and the sudden decisions to change a character completely but perhaps that is all part of the maddening(but hopefully ultimately rewarding) process.

I figure if there were a formula for writing a good novel, it would be something like: some function of all the books you’ve read in your life time and your love of literature plus a measure of your persistence plus a measure of self-belief minus a measure of your procrastination…(for me, the explanatory variable here would be shockingly high).

Writing a good novel = F(past books you have read, love of literature) + a*persistence + b*self-belief –c* procrastination 

Short stories and narrative viewpoint deliberations…

1 Feb

I’ve been exploring the short story lately.  As writers are often notoriously broke, short story competitions are one of the ways that writers can earn a bob or two, while honing their skills and getting ideas for other projects. 

Inspired by one of my fastidiously organised colleagues, I’ve been working on creating a spreadsheet (geek alert) to document upcoming deadlines for competitions.  I’m not being overly ambitious as I’m very new to this short story m’larky and am no doubt embarrassingly bad compared to many but I’ve already submitted one in a surprising flurry of enthusiasm (which I had at work, mind you).  My short story (and I mean short, I think it was something like 1300 words) has already got me thinking about ways to improve the novel I’m working on which can only be a good thing. 

So currently I’ve started writing my novel in third person.  I’m not very used to this style of writing but I chose it because I like its subtlety and with a protagonist as introspective as mine, I didn’t want it to turn into some long rambling stream of consciousness.  However, I wrote my short story in first person and things seemed to flow far more naturally so I’m a little torn at the moment.  I’m considering experimenting this weekend rewriting what I’ve written of my novel in first-person to see if it suits me more and if things seem to be working better.