I’m doing NaNoWriMo!

Last year I attempted to do National Novel Writing Month properly for the first time. I cleared my schedule, I did some preliminary work on plotting. I told my friends and family and any bugger who wanted to hear about it on Facebook. As November approached, I was ready.

NaNo-2015-Participant-Badge-Large-SquareThen on 31st October my little boy got ill. And we were in hospital for three weeks. It was a terrifying, horrible time which involved sleeping on a camp bed next to his cot, listening to machines beeping. Some people would find it helpful to have something else – a novel – to focus on. I found it impossible. I just couldn’t concentrate – all the emotional highs and lows has been drained out of me by the time he’d gone to sleep. A few times I stayed up using the glow of my screen as the only source of light and I wrote. But I can’t say I produced anything amazing. By the end of the month I’d written about 3,000 words.

This year I had no intention of doing it. I had too much on. Money to earn, commissions to chase. What if the nipper got sick again? Let’s face it, producing 50,000 words in a month wasn’t realistic.

And then on the afternoon of 1st November I got a message from a friend to say she was doing it and I thought, sod it. Life is always going to be busy. There’s always going to be money to earn, commissions to chase (I hope) and kids are always going to get poorly – although hopefully never that sick again.

I thought, sod it. Life is always going to be busy

I had made no preparations, my characters were floundering, the storyline petered out. I had lost the plot. In fact I wasn’t even sure I wanted to finish the book. It felt like a meal that I’d been pushing around on the plate so long that it was no longer appetising.

Still, I sent my friend a message to say I was in. I set myself a new goal – 1,000 words a day should be quite enough for a YA novel as I was already 26,000 words in anyway.

Now I’m seven days in and results are mixed. On the minus side, I’m waaay short of my target. Because guess what, the little dude was ill for one of those days and a massive handful for two more of them. But on the other hand I’ve found a missing link which I think will give one of my characters the storyline she needs. And I feel like I’m back into it. I’m doing good things.

So I’m going to check in every week throughout the month, let you know how I’m doing. But only quickly, because I’m writing.

In which I get a short story in print!

At the beginning of this year I nearly gave up writing fiction for good, and here’s the reason why: I wasn’t actually writing any fiction.

I spent a lot of time writing about writing fiction. On Twitter and Facebook. To fellow aspiring-author friends, on the NaNoWriMo forums, even on this blog but it had started to feel fake. And every time I sat back down in front of my work in progress it took me longer and longer to get my head around what I was doing.

I’d add in whole paragraphs of exposition and then realise that I’d already written the exact same thing half a page later, but two years ago. I’d obsess over weaknesses in my characterisation which possibly weren’t there, or try to impose a new sub-plot wholesale. I was writing for half an hour, once every few weeks and that just wasn’t enough.

Publishers don’t care which particular dog ate your homework

There are, of course, lots of excuses. Freelance work, poverty, pregnancy and a little boy who spent a lot of time in hospital when he arrived. Not to mention the huge existential who-the-hell-am-I-now crisis of motherhood. But publishers don’t care which particular dog ate your homework. They’re probably not even going to bother reading your homework unless you make it really, really good.

So I got to the point where I became embarrassed every time someone asked me how my book was going. I didn’t feel like I could write any more. I should just throw in the towel. But writing fiction is something I’ve really wanted to do pretty much since I first learned to write. I really, really didn’t want to quit.

And that’s when I saw BBC Radio 4’s Opening Lines competition online. The deadline was in a week’s time so I set myself a challenge, write or die. Finish a short story or shut up about fiction forever.

So I did it – and I also really enjoyed it. The story was, of course, not a winner (winners here: all awesome.) But I finished it, and it read OK. A bit breathless, a bit too much action for a short story, but I wasn’t completely ashamed. And as I wrote I felt more and more certain that this was what I wanted to do with my life.

I’d ignored short story competitions before, thinking that any time spent writing something that wasn’t my novel was time wasted. But that experience made me realise my mistake. Time spent writing is time spent learning, practising and weeding out any bad habits and weaknesses. One of the most common bits of advice bandied around by published authors is: write every day. I think I’d add: write thoughtfully. Twitter and Facebook or anything else throwaway don’t count.

Write every day. Write thoughtfully

But the timing did suck a bit when I first heard about the Kindred Agency’s We Need To Talk project. It was a short story competition open to media types only, with the theme of difficult conversations. Problem was, the deadline was two days after my wedding.

It was crazy, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I carved a few hours out of my hectic flower-choosing, waxing and fake tanning schedule and spent it tinkering around with a very worthy domestic violence story I’d had cooking in my head for a while.

The result was godawful. Two days before my wedding, I ditched it.

Then I started writing about what was on my mind. An insane bride so obsessed with having the perfect wedding and the perfect life that she’s driven her best friends away. I even named some of the long-suffering characters after my friends – until they developed some pretty serious flaws (not related to my real friends) and I had to rename them all.

The result was 2,000 words of pure silliness but I had done it. I submitted the story and, to my huge excitement, it was selected.We need to talk

So in September this year, my first ever fiction story appeared in print. (Buy it here! Buy it, buy it!!) After years of reworking and moulding other people’s words and stories with every paragraph overseen and edited, I’d written something that came straight out of my brain and with a few tweaks it appeared in print. My actual name is actually searchable on Amazon! It was such a joyful feeling.

And no, I’m still not making any progress on my novel. But is my writing progressing? Yes. And that can only be good.

The importance of being tenacious

Two years ago, when I set up this blog all bright eyed and full of enthusiasm, I wrote about the Arvon course I attended and how great it was to meet like-minded writers, discuss our characters, plot and story arcs etc. But while we were having all these lovely big chats there was one guy who ducked out of most of our sessions, who didn’t want to join in with our dialogue workshops and storyline exercises. You’d stumble on him tucked in one or other cosy corner of the beautiful Lumb Bank Centre, hunched over his laptop hammering the keys. “Can’t talk now, I’m writing…”

Unlike most of us he was near the end of his project and you could almost see the waves of determination coming off him. I wasn’t surprised to hear that he’d landed one of the top agents in the biz, that there had been a bidding war for his first manuscript. The guy was called James Law and last week I went to the launch of his first novel, Tenacity. The name really couldn’t have been more appropriate.

you could almost see the waves of determination coming off him

It’s a dark, claustrophobic crime novel set on a submarine – James spent years on subs, so there’s lots of naval detail. It follows the story of a lone female investigator trapped with a hostile all-male crew, one of whom might just be a killer…

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At Arvon James waxed lyrical about the addictive action of the Millennium trilogy. And while I’m not a fan of Stieg Larsson’s waffly prose and the graphic violence against women James has dodged both of those Larsson traits while piling on the tension, suspense and secrets. I’m only about half way through so I don’t know the end yet, but as Tenacity is the first in a series I’m guessing that naval investigator Danielle “Dan” Lewis makes it through.

Unsurprisingly, the wine flowed

The launch was fabulously nautical – at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport. There were speeches, readings and a genuine vintage sub to explore. I went crazy taking close-up pictures of pipes, taps and dials – it was like some kind of steampunk nightmare, hard to imagine that dozens of sailors lived amidst all this for months at a time. And you know what? Even though it was decommissioned years ago it was still a bit whiffy. The crowd was an interesting mix of writers, journalists and James’ naval buddies. Unsurprisingly, the wine flowed.

I came away with a signed copy, which I hope will be the first in my collection of Arvon alumni publications. I also felt fired up for the first time in ages. James finished his book, which is achievement enough, but then he had enough confidence in it to shout about it and grab the publishing world’s attention. Instead of emailing his MS off into the abyss and crossing his fingers he created a military-style plan of attack with the clear objective of getting the publishing deal he wanted – and it worked.

This business is all about talent and hard work but without confidence it all just sits there mouldering away on your Dropbox.

Time to start shouting, I think.

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Writers need people too!

Writing a novel is a solitary business, especially when you are unpublished and there is no agent or editor screaming for the manuscript; when you have no idea whether that genius plot twist you’re so proud of is actually agonisingly contrived and when there is no guarantee anyone will actually ever read this thing that you’re pouring your heart and soul into at every spare moment.

After a few years, and three drafts, my first novel had warped into something like an old magic-eye image. I’d stared at it so long I could see the outlines of the plot but not the original detail, or the point I was going for originally. Was each new draft making it better or was I actually making it worse? I couldn’t actually stand to look at it any more.

For years I thought to be a proper novelist you had to work in a secret garret somewhere…

Then I met Diana Bretherick, who won Good Housekeeping’s Novel Competition in 2012, and whose wonderfully dark crime novel, City of Devils, is out this summer. Diana had done a Masters and PhD in Creative Writing and, while the skills she’d learned on the course were useful, the real strength she’d found was sharing her problems with her classmates. That support network had kept her going – thanks to them she’d finished two books, one of which had won the competition.

That’s when I realised I needed to go on an Arvon course. I’d first heard about them years ago and they sounded amazing – residential courses in stunning countryside locations. No internet, no contact with the outside world. Just you and a bunch of like-minded people, plus two established authors who would look at your work and give you individual feedback.

My course was at the Lumb Bank centre in gorgeous Yorkshire, and my tutors were Patrick Gale and Stella Duffy – two fabulous writers who turned out to be great teachers too. There were workshops on plot, character and a slightly toe curling one on sex scenes, which were all hugely helpful.

But best of all was the chance to sit around with a dozen or so other writers and ask questions like “Is my dialogue convincing?” or “I like my character too much to kill him off” without feeling like a pretentious fool. By the end of the week all of us – even those who hated the idea of speaking in public – had read some of our writing out to the others. The criticism wasn’t half as painful as our nerves beforehand!

For years I thought that to be a proper novelist you had to work in a secret garret for years and emerge with your Completed Work – perfectly formed and beautiful. But I know better now. Writing is a messy, emotional, playful, agonising business and, like most of the fun things in life, is best done with like-minded friends.