The downside of pneumonia is neglecting the blog and indeed, most other things. It was a dreadful illness I don’t want to even revisit in memory, so let that be enough of an explanation for the ridiculous amount of time since I last posted.
If I was forced to admit to any ‘upside’ to being ill, apart from entitlement to wear my PJs all day and not bother with anything much, it is that it gave me more time than usual to just ponder on the story of my next novel.
I have had elements of what I think is a potential book-length story floating around for a while. Potentially, I think it may be a good story of the sort I want to tell.
However, I am missing the ‘quest’ of the story. It isn’t an adventure type of story and doesn’t easily fit into the usual tropes of a quest. If I was pushed into a corner, I might say it follows the ‘odyssey’ type story in that there is a beginning and an end, adventures and challenges along the way and a satisfying conclusion. The protagonist is on a journey, though only in the sense that we all are to some extent. I cannot find the key element of the story and I am floundering trying to write my outline.
Thanks to Eileen Pan for the use of the image from Unsplash
As I pondered upon this, I wondered if it meant perhaps that the story should be let go of and I should move on to one of the hundreds of story ideas I have in my notebook instead, but it won’t disappear. It is nagging me to be told.
I guess I hoped the Muse might turn up and provide the answer. Indeed, she provided some. Thanks to the enforced time away from actual writing, I have well-formed characters in my head and some scenes only need transferring from my head to the page. Thinking time certainly helped flesh some of my ideas out, but I am still missing my ‘that’s it!’ key.
However, as Stephen King said in On Writing, we have to ‘go to work’—I understood this to mean show up and hunt the story down. So, rather than waiting for some ephemeral wordy alchemy, and using a pen and notebook rather than a keyboard (weird, yikes), I started to free write and I think I realised that my issue has not been about ‘finding the element’ so much as getting back into productive, creative thinking. The point is, I haven’t been ‘going to work’—I’ve been on a sickie and now I am not. I need to show up, go back to work and hunt that missing element down.
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the ‘unreliable narrator’.
I read Catriona Ward’s ‘Last House on Needless Street’ (Viper Press, 2021) which is listed as ‘gothic thriller’, ‘horror’, ‘psychological thriller’ depending on which blurb you read. I am mindful of not giving away any spoilers so I won’t go into too much detail about my response to the book, other than I loved it. It wasn’t what I expected at all. I did not see the ending coming and, upon ‘end of the book review’ I was seriously impressed with the cleverly woven drip and hide of information throughout the story. This is a very well-crafted book with love and kindness at its heart.
There are several POV characters – including a cat! Is everyone telling the truth? What is the truth of any story anyway? I have pondered this a lot because my Mother died on the day I finished Ward’s book.
People often say things about the aftermath of death being challenging and it is on so many levels. Managing the practicalities of death admin whilst experiencing grief which ebbs and floods and fogs is exhausting. In the context of such a challenging path to navigate it is so so easy to fall into preciousness about stories. Perhaps it was already obvious to everyone except me but my stories about Mam, are not the same stories that others share and similarly, theirs have, at times, appeared to be about someone I never even met.
It doesn’t mean they are wrong, or that some stories are more valid than others, though it was interesting to me that I felt solid ground as the ‘reliable narrator’ while considering other stories, somewhat ‘unreliable’ and of course, this is actually nonsense.
Mam was the person who first introduced me to books
She taught me to read before I started school and then stood up to the teacher who demanded I read Janet and John books while, thanks to Mam, I was already relishing The Chronicles of Narnia. She is still sending me lessons from her Heaven (a story she believed but I don’t).
Readers to a large (but not exclusive) extent, need a reliable narrator because that is all they have when they invest their precious time in a story crafted to entertain. But as an author, I am now more consciously mindful that there is no objective truth, everything is subjective and everyone is someone else to everyone else – including themselves. Facts do not speak for themselves and that is perfectly right and fine.
I now understand more clearly that every single story has unreliable narrators. As a writer, I am a better storyteller if I consider how characters in my stories understand and respond to their perception of the ‘truth’ of any other character’s point of view.
Thanks Mam, for everything. Xx
RIP Yvonne Frances Collinson 31st January 1940 – 3rd April 2022
Definition: denoting a trial impression of a page or printed work
Definition: evidence establishing a fact or the truth of a statement.
I received the proof copy of my novel. This established the fact that my novel is soon to be published.
I am stupidly proud of it and of course, there will be the fanfare of a proper launch and endless tweets/social media posts and yada yada yada when the time comes (there are some typesetting errors to correct which is frustrating but part of the process), but for now… just enjoying the feel of it.
My son bought me a copy of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as a Christmas present. He is working his way through a long list of classics (admirable) and said of those he had read so far, this was his favourite. I had to confess I had not read Virginia Woolf. As a feminist, this seemed like a particularly shameful confession because although Woolf was conflicted about labelling herself a feminist, so many women I admire hold her in near saintly esteem. When I started reading Mrs Dalloway I remembered (at least one of the reasons) why I had avoided her work. The semi-colons.
As most people interested in the written word will know, the story details Clarissa Dalloway’s day as she prepares to host a party. She muses and ponders as various characters are introduced. The writing style is a jumbled, poetic and wordy stream of consciousness slipping between different narrative points of view.
The interesting themes of the book are widely discussed, debated and deconstructed but the thing that stops me being able to make any tiny contribution to the discussion is the semicolon.
The semicolon litters the book like particularly invasive confetti – it germs the book to a point where I can’t get past the irritation of it to enable me to see the work in all its discussed glory.
I have never been a fan of the semicolon. A recent editor of some of my work invited me to add them to a particular paragraph. I had to re-write the whole thing because although I could see where she was going with it, why the suggestion had been made – and even how it might subtly add nuance to the paragraph – I just couldn’t litter my text with them.
As we all know, a semicolon is used to link two separate, equally positioned but closely related ideas in a single sentence.
I understand they have more about them than simple lists. I completely get that they can add a particular quality to a sentence. I am aware of many great authors who not only praise their utility but consider they add beauty to text. I am not one of them. I am in good company. Hemingway preferred short declarative sentences honed to acute sharpness.
However, one of the great things that often happens when I finally read an avoided or neglected classic work is that I am forced to consider why I haven’t read it earlier. In this case, to revisit my animosity towards the semicolon. Perhaps, maybe I am considering a softening towards considering the possibility of it being (as Abe Lincoln said) ‘A useful little chap’. I’m not sure. I need to ponder…
In any case, I will of course finish Mrs Dalloway – because I think I should and also because I will look forward to discussing with my son why he enjoyed it so much but whether it will nudge me towards more semicolon use remains to be seen.
In other news…
I submitted my novel to the publisher’s deadline. The wheels towards publication are in motion and after submission, I felt a little bit ‘what now?’. It is a strange space to be in and I had a peculiar gap of feeling I should be writing but despite lots of ideas not having any motivation. It lasted for most of January. I don’t recall reading about gap management in any ‘writers process’ type scripts. Stephen King and many others say they write word count every day – does this mean they don’t perceive ‘gaps’?
Anyway, fortunately, last week I suddenly got my AWOL mojo back and wrote and submitted three short stories to competitions, a trilogy of poems to an online anthology and started on my next novel. So far no semicolons have been used.
My novel – ‘Everyday Wendy’ is to be published in 2022 (more details to follow). To a required deadline, I’ve spent most of the past year editing my story into a publishable work. I’ve learned more from the process than I could ever have imagined.
I have notebooks full of ideas for stories. I have shelves of books on writing craft which I’ve studied and drawn upon in an effort to improve my writing. I read a broad range of genres. For a number of years, I’ve written every day and enjoyed creating playgrounds and characters. I’ve been lucky with having a few things published too – even won a couple of prizes for my writing.
The past year has taught me the difference between being a hobby writer and a career writer.
Turning my novel into a publishable draft has been work. Several hours a day, most weekdays, concentrated graft. Don’t get me wrong – it’s been an adventure and fun and through the process, I believe I have learned how better to write my next novel. I will write another novel (I have two more in the planning stage) but I’ve needed to ponder on whether I want to be ‘a writer’ and if I do, why (Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash).
I love creating worlds. Even more than this though are the many surprises I find in those worlds. Remembering those moments sat at my desk, tapping away on a keyboard when I’m taken to ‘oh, OK then – didn’t see that coming’, makes me smile. I love that. I love finding the essence of the thing – chewing over the right word to use, how best to show emotion or find the right hook to make a reader want to turn the page. When a story works, when it does what I had hoped it would do with the richest of words and the most crafted of forms, I am happy. Writing makes me happy. If, sometimes, my writing makes other people happy too, even better.
Writing for me is more than a hobby – I need to write
I don’t know who I am without it and a few days away from a keyboard has me twitchy. Even on beach sunbeds, I’m making notes on dialogue heard and possible settings.
Do I want it to be work though? I’m not looking for another career – I’ve had one of those and very fine it was too but life now takes a different pace. Indeed, it is a pace and with space that allows me the joy of writing. Making writing my job would suck the joy out of it I think. (Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash)
Hopefully, the novel will be successful, sold all over the world, goes into paperback, options taken, book tours. Yada yada (living the novelists dream for a moment there…. But if, as is more likely, this is not what happens I guess I will carry on joyfully writing anyway.
How can it be that I haven’t posted since February? No blog posts about writing but I have been writing – more than ever before.
I have finished the first draft of my current novel (120k words) and am now at ‘structural edit’ phase. I must admit this phase of novel construction has stymied me in earlier writing. When I wrote my doctoral thesis I presented what I confidently told my supervisors was my final, final draft. They had different ideas. I nearly exploded when they said it needed a ‘re-jig’ into more chapters. It was the hardest writing task ever – until I tried to do it for my last novel.
My last novel is a story I am proud of and am sure it has merit worthy of a second draft but I didn’t know how to do it. I tried but it was like wrangling cats and I gave up. It is sitting in a file waiting for attention.
Fortunately, I have learned a lot since then. The structural edit on my current work is difficult but exciting and I am confident I will be sending my next draft out to my beta readers at the end of July. Wish me luck.
I don’t usually have more than one WIP on the go at a time but I do try to write short pieces – stories, articles and blog posts – to help to take my mind to a different place. It helps broaden focus and give a breathing space for ideas.
In June I was astounded to win a prize for a short story.
The story had to be under 1k words, be based on a historical event and include content factually accurate. My story ‘Into the Depths’ is a fictionalised account of one of the rescuers of survivors of the Titanic.
The competition was run by The Scarborough Writing Circle who awarded me a marvellous plaque. Many thanks to the SWC for their generous feedback and the award. I am chuffed to bits to have won.
All writers should of course be readers too and I have been doing a lot of that. I have to take the opportunity to spread the word about poet Dean Wilson (@Poetdeanwilson6). I am not a huge fan of Twitter but I first became aware of his work through tweets of the films made by Director/Producer/Filmmaker Dave Lee (@davelee1968) of Dean reading his poetry. The poetry and films are glorious. Funny, poignant, clever and powerful.
Dean also has something of a twitter following for his ‘pebble of the day’ posts which, in partnership with Dr Karen Turner (@k_j_turner) a textile artist who has turned Dean’s pebble photo’s into a wonderfully crafted, detailed, hand stitched quilt, have become a most remarkable art exhibition of talent you could hardly imagine unless seen with your own eyes. The exhibition is currently on display at Withernsea Light House until October 2021 and is well worth a visit.
While I was there, I had the good fortune to be able to buy Dean’s latest book of poetry ‘Take Me Up the Lighthouse’
The poems in this small collection have a quality and integrity which puts them up there, with, in my opinion Roger McGough and Adrian Henri. The poems speak to contemporary experience in all its richness, lend to being read or spoken, are accessible and enjoyable, funny and warm, cheeky and poignant. His work takes poetry in a fresh and beguiling direction.
As far as running a blog goes, 2020 did not go according to plan. In 2019 I wrote two pieces every month and had every intention to achieve the same on my differently focussed blog for the following year. As I wrote in my first 2020 post, I planned to enter a writing competition every month. The competitions had to take me into unfamiliar writing arenas. I aimed to write a piece about my writing process and, depending on the outcomes, post the submitted pieces on my blog. Up to July, it was going well. Enthusiasm was high and I had done OK in the competitions – a win and a couple of commendations. And then… we all know what happened then. Lockdown.
Lockdown coincided with a family funeral, selling my house and moving 300 miles away. Throw in our house purchase falling through leaving us homeless and I had a perfect storm of ‘stressful situation’. Fortunately, homelessness was seen off by belongings going into storage and my partner and I moving into a caravan on a lovely peaceful site while we looked for a new house to buy. We had a bit of an extended summer holiday and it was lovely. Then the government decreed that the site had to close. We were fortunate to be able to find a fully furnished rental which allowed pets but again… ‘stress’ doesn’t cover how challenging the period was. For the record, a word of advice: don’t sell a house in a pandemic or try to move 300 miles in a lockdown.
Thanks to Georgy Rudakov Via Unsplash for the image
I stopped writing. From the end of June 2020 until mid-January 2021 I did not write as much as a shopping list. It wasn’t apathy, fugue or procrastination. With hindsight I think it was process-related – I simply got out of my ‘groove’ which included elements of physical space (my lost office and only having my laptop to work on) and different measurements of time in a lockdown.
What kickstarted me back into a groove was the astounding news from Pen to Print that I am one of their ten Book Challenge Competition winners. Way back at the beginning of 2020 I submitted a synopsis and first chapter of a novel. Submissions are filtered down to ten winners and I was one of the ten. The winners all get mentoring support to get the book to publication. The prize is worth £5k. Next year, the ten completed books will also go into a final competition and the ultimate winner will be chosen.
I am beyond thrilled to win such a valuable prize which is packed with opportunity. Pen to Print has a great deal of book industry respect and support and I am so lucky to be joining their stable of writers. I have already (virtually) ‘met’ my fellow writers and the mentor team and am at last writing again – with a curious wonder that I ever left something I love so much.
For those unfamiliar with Pen to Print do check out their website at https://pentoprint.org/ They run amazing competitions and fabulous courses.
I will not, mostly, be entering competitions in 2021 but I will be focussed on completing my novel. So, I am changing the name of the blog to reflect the different writing focus this year. I will continue to blog about my process as the year goes on.
PS Am delighted to have had a poem, ‘FUG’ (about lockdown) accepted for the annual on-line Febulous (sic) February blog. I have recorded a reading of the poem which is to be played on Medway Pride Radio sometime in February. I will add a link when I get it.
Longfellow’s poem ‘It Is Not Always May’ was meant as an encouragement to grasp the fleeting moments of life with a reminder that delights quickly pass. To be completely honest, with all the best intentions I struggled throughout the month to write or engage with anything other than novel reading (I read a lot of novels). Partly that was because my partner was on a fortnights leave and, in the context of lockdown, holidaying at home in what turned out the be the most glorious spring weather, had an easy appeal over sitting at my keyboard. That is not the full story though. Despite all good intentions discussed in my last post, I was still in a trough of being unable to write very much at all, and inspiration was thin.
Thanks to Chase Clark for Unsplash image
I did submit to one competition in May – the ‘Best’ magazine short crime story comp (up to 2.5k words and a prize, to be judged by Val McDermid). I enjoyed writing this story – it was fun. There are a great many excellent and arguably under-appreciated writers of short fiction for what are traditionally thought of as women’s mags. I would love to be one of them but it is more challenging than I imagined to get the narrative voice right and avoid the cliché’s such mags reject. Still… I got a submission in.
I got to the end of May feeling a little bit lost with my writing but fortunately, a pair of hero’s were waiting in the wings with a rescue! The fabulous women Sarah and Jo, who run Writers HQ emailed with an invitation to sign up for a free couch to 5k words writing challenge (C25K) course. I have attended a few of their writers retreats back in the days when we could discuss word count face to face and pass each other encouraging cake.
Like many businesses, theirs has been impacted by the damn virus but fortunately they have managed to navigate a safety rope (a very small funding grant) and are able now to offer this particular course for free. They encourage members of the writing community they set up to BE A WRITER. COMMIT. OWN IT. So that is exactly what I will be doing this June. I have signed on the dotted line and setting targets. I have a planner, I have a story, I have a goal, and I am going to get up unreasonably early every weekday morning to write because that is when I write best.
It is still not too late to join the C25K Words challenge – see the Writers HQ website.
I will mostly be working on my latest novel (currently at 36k words) but intend to enter at least one competition too this month.
In my last blog post ‘Writing (and not writing) in a time of Corvid-19’ I wrote about how despite the abundance of time given by lockdown I was still struggling to write. The deadline for a competition I had planned to enter for April was fast approaching, but my brain was sluggish, uninspired, floppy and dulled. Unless I could kick myself into gear somehow, I would miss the deadline.
Deadlines matter – right?
As it was only a self-imposed deadline, and there were no consequences to missing it – what did it matter? There are more important issues facing the world at the moment. Only as the deadline loomed ever closer I experienced anxiety about letting myself down. I chose my annual challenge mainly to be an actual challenge. Failing before just half of the year had gone was, even in the awareness-raising context of Maslow’s hierarchy, demoralising
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash
I recently read the book ‘Choose Yourself’ by James Altucher* (Lioncrest Publishing, 2013 – 99p on kindle). One of Altchuer’s central themes is that there are ways to become ‘an idea machine’. He proposes a method for generating ideas which involves concisely making a list of 10 ways to, for example, improve an item such as a frying pan. I don’t need writing ideas because I always have lots of them, but I did need a ‘kick start’ so I wrote a list of ten potential titles.
You can’t go far wrong with a list
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
According to research, ideas are constructed by our brains mixing and melding the symbols and images that collectively make up our human/social existence. I have no idea of the parts which created my list of titles, but there are certainly some which piqued my interest. I chose one with no real idea where it was going but the title – ‘The Garden Letters’ gave me a location and place to start.
Where it went – much to my surprise – was a Victorian LGBT love story. This is so far outside my usual writing arena it ended up being great fun to write. I had lovely little forays into the Victorian era – Christmas cards, important events of a particular year, the trial of Oscar Wilde for example. The most enjoyable part of the research was into the language used in love letters of the day – the ‘rose-leaf lips’, ‘the madness of kisses’. Re-creating accurate, believable letter-dialogue which also fit the story arc was fun and engaging.
I met the deadline for the competition (by just a few hours). I do not recommend working to a deadline to this extent. I could have used the dialogue to move the story arc along more tightly and engagingly but I ran out of time.
My competition challenge is about improving my writing craft. Professional writers tell us time and again that ‘turning up and putting words down’ is the most important part of writing. That is not a new story to me or anyone but in this case, when the Corvid crisis might have allowed me some slack, list creating gave me a way to achieve a word count and story I am happy with. Hopefully, I am back on track. I have another competition entry due in ten days. Wish me luck.
*There is a very good summary of this book at Nathan Lozeron’s excellent You tube channel.
Thanks to quarantine, many of us have been given the gift of more ‘free’ time than we have ever known.
When the lockdown was first announced, social media was awash with calls to see this ‘extra’ time as a bounty or opportunity. It was time to learn the ukulele or Japanese, develop those washboard abs, or write that book every single person in the world has within them – prevented only by the absence of time.
Lots of sites offering tutoring, support, ideas, editing and guidance to writers started generously offering loads of services for free. The world is in trouble and people wanted to help in the ways they could.
Indeed, initially, Twitter started glowing with word count achieved, five hundred words today, a thousand, five thousand this week. Over just a couple of weeks though, those Tweets celebrating word count achievement seemed to diminish in number. The voices of others started to appear much more frequently – people struggling to write, struggling to continue with WIP’s, to research or create new works. Writers on Twitter (in particular @WritingCommunity and @AcademicChatter) wrote of the absence of will, or ideas and the presence of fatigue, anxiety, fear and grief.
I have a writing plan for this year. I wrote about it on my first post this year’s blog. I intend to submit to a writing competition every month, and, post a writing process piece here on my blog. I have enjoyed it so far and been energised by some of the personal challenges I set myself (sonnet writing, for example) and the deadlines required by competition guidelines. It has been fun.
Competitions for April included one poetry competition which I submitted to very early in the month. I started two short stories – each with competition given themes, one with a target of 1500 words, the other of 3,000.
I love writing. As other writers know, it can feel like a delicious drug. I fall into the words I write about; I can see my characters, hear their words, smell their scent, know their flaws. I once saw it described as a writers playground, and this fits my own experience of creative writing.
One of my short story WIP’s (the 3k one) started strongly. I had to describe a tin box dug up in a garden and I could almost smell the soil and taste the leaf mould on my tongue. If I closed my eyes, I could feel the curved edges of the box under my fingers.
My second story had an unusual and bold first sentence. I had no idea where it was going – I had no plan, just the good opening line – so I was amused to see how it would pan out. I tend to plot a rough arc, but for this story, I would travel where it took me. It promised a bit of an adventure.
I feel lazy, sloppy, inadequate, frustrated, confused. All this time, when so many people are in much, much worse circumstances than I am, I am wasting this valuable ‘free’ time and proving that old ‘imposter syndrome’ is true – I am not a proper writer. Tweets evidence that I am certainly not alone. Some people are rocking their word count. I am full of respect and admiration for them, but there are many more (writers in particular – both academic and creative – I am not sure if this has resonance with other creative endeavours) who report feeling lost, with low energy, no motivation and significantly diminished creativity.
A few days ago, I saw a tweet from Thrive Manchester (@ThriveMcr – April 17 2020). Thrive Manchester is a charity established to facilitate positive mental and physical health in the people of Manchester.
“This is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Wherever we were on it a few months ago, everyone is now at the bottom – fundamental needs; physiological survival & emotional & physical safety. So we’re having difficulty with higher needs, feeling connected, motivated, fulfilled, positive”.
This was such a useful and helpful tweet. It reminded me that as a society, we are actually operating in survival mode (the two bottom-most levels).
News stories over the past few days have discussed ‘survival’. There was the terrible, heart breaking story of Rajesh Jaysaseelan who died after trying to hide his illness for fear of eviction. He literally had no access to, or means to get, shelter, food and healthcare support. It is clear he did his best to survive but for reasons of poverty and inequality, forcing him to exist at the bottom-most level of Maslow’s Hierarchy he had no access to resources to help him beat Corvid-19.
In other stories, the press has delighted in scoffing at celebrities and royals who live in mansions with pools, expansive gardens and the luxuries wealth affords. Walks around one’s estate or a live-in nanny quarantining with the family is hardly ‘survival’, they sneer.
I had not thought of myself as ‘surviving’. I am safe, I have food and shelter but what the tweet from @ThriveMcr made me think of is that whatever our situation we share the commonality of being concerned about survival – of society, of the people we love, of ourselves. Will we die? We are all in an actual existential threat of a greatness most of us could never conceive. We are experiencing multiple anxieties about the impact of Corvid-19 on the society we know. In the context of a global plague the familiar is becoming ever more unfamiliar. Uncertainty and fear may be soothed by physiological and safety needs being met, but they are not eradicated, and these feelings bubble and fizz just under the surface for all of us to some extent or other.
Similarly, status and esteem as goals or life achievements – often hidden-but-there parts of writing for publication – seem now to have little currency or merit.
Of course, most of us would wish to have ‘self actualisation’ as our ultimate aim. Who would not want to become the best version of ourselves we can be? For writers, this usually (always?) involves actual writing – and more than that perhaps, having readers.
Amid Covid-19, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a reminder that in the context of such a huge individual and societal survival threat. it is not surprising that many of us are feeling wobbly! The Hierarchy has an inbuilt series of solutions towards the peak of the pyramid – including the need for friendship, intimacy, family and connection. Those arenas give the comfort I can take from and offer, and from which my word count will one day re-emerge. I hope it is soon, but it may not be, and that is fine too.
Many thanks to Thrive Manchester for the thought-provoking tweet.