Diving In…

After a glorious August, where the only downside of the freakishly hot weather was that it grew some of the biggest spiders I have ever seen in my life, I’m back at my desk and ready to dive into novel number four…

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…because my legs really are that that slim and smooth.

At the end of the summer term I sent my finished manuscript, Lucy’s Locket, off in various directions, and while I waited for feedback, I took the month of August off from writing to catch up on cuddles with my growing boys before they got too big for that sort of thing. (Although I can confirm five foot ten is still open to such frivolous behaviour.) We spent two weeks camping in a field in Dorset, and it was a time for family, lots of swimming in the sea, eating too much, getting to grips with the TBR pile and generally escaping the modern world. We had no electricity and no wifi and I oddly rather enjoying being temporarily out of the social media loop.

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Jenni reread her manuscript and realised she really was an undiscovered genius and master of comedy.

Interestingly though, after months of snatching every spare moment at the keyboard to complete novel number three, I missed the creative process. There truly is nothing quite like the tappity-tap of your fingers on the keyboard, the satisfaction of a well-written piece of dialogue or a plot twist that presents itself unexpectedly. I was still mulling ideas around, even as I snorkeled for hermit crabs and toasted marshmallows over an open campfire. So by the time September arrived and I gleefully waved my little and not-so-little darlings off to school, I couldn’t wait to start the research and planning for novel number four.

The outline for my new novel is very nearly a fully formed thing. This time my story lends itself to a dual timeline, and has so far involved some fascinating research into the Arts and Crafts architecture of the 1890s. The story centres on two identical houses built in that period and the lives of the people who lived in them then, and who live in them now. As always, there is a hint of magic thrown in for good measure and, because there are two love stories, I get to write about two orgasm-inducing heros, who at the time of writing this are Percy (an up and coming architect in 1890 who is given the opportunity to design a house for a young married couple) and Rory (a burnt out city trader who has shut himself off from the world).

I would tell you more but I’m afraid I would then have to end your life in a most unpleasant manner. As interesting as this might be for possible future plotlines (and I have been rereading some sterling Agatha Christies of late so am not short of clever ways to dispatch you) I am not a fan of housework and can’t be bothered with the whole bin bag and bleach routine.

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So it’s a deep breath and a graceful dive into the world I so love and cherish. I will be head down and feet kicking madly for the next few months. And in the meantime, should anyone snap up Lucy’s Locket you will, of course, be the first to know.

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News, Booze and the Need to Snooze.

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Hello lovely people. I’ve been heads down with the novel, trying to get it finished in good time for my New Writers’ Scheme deadline, and feel I might have neglected you all rather. And that simply won’t do. So I thought I’d pop by and update you on the fun stuff I’ve been doing since My Tricky Middle, and in between the hours of dedication at my keyboard.

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The tricky middle is now a distant memory. I’m pushing the 100,000 mark and some of the sentences even make sense. It’s a case of editing and filling in a few research gaps, and I can see a glowing candelabra at the end of the tunnel. But I can assure you, while all this tippety-tapping of keys has been going on, Jack has not been a dull boy…

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I’ve been to some sparkly and spangly events since my last blog, and wine might have played a teeny part in some of them. (If only the glasses had been that big and my waist really was that small.)

In March I attended the RoNAs. Wow – what an event. Iona Grey won The Goldsboro Books Romantic Novel of the Year with Letters to the Lost – which I have subsequently read and would highly recommend. Anita Burgh and Claire Lorrimer, both winners of the Outstanding Achievement Awards, gave inspirational speeches. And, because she did write the funniest line ever in a book, I was thrilled that Milly Johnson not only chatted with me, but gave me a big, blue sparkly hug as well.

I started to attend the Norwich Chapter of the RNA, already being a member of the Chelmsford Chapter, and made some new friends. One of whom, Heidi Swain, travelled down to London with me for the RNA Summer Party – where a quantity of alcohol was accidentally consumed…

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I decided to rock the big, red blob look with wibbly,wobbly high heels a size too big. I kept accidentally finding myself with a glass of wine in my hand and a charming chap from Simon and Schuster was most understanding when I pinged my chips over him. (Well they were threaded onto a cocktail stick, for goodness sake. How do you deal with those one handed?) Claire Harvey won the Joan Hessayon Award for The Gunner Girl – but there were some fabulous books shortlisted, including Heidi’s The Cherry Tree Cafe.

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Launch of Summer at Skylark Farm.

In June I was invited to attend the Launch of Heidi’s second book; Summer at Skylark Farm – another smashing read, and a fab party to boot.

I finally met the gorgeous Mary Anne Lewis in real life, having been chatting away for months on social media. She is another NWS member, and Heidi had dedicated the book to her, so it was an emotional day for all.

And then something rather sad happened; my beautiful feline writing buddy, Seymour, got attacked in our garden by another cat. He is our partially-sighted rescue cat, only four years old, but a most affectionate boy and excellent companion during the solitary hours I spend at the keyboard. A claw went across his mostly functioning eye and the damage was too bad to save the eye. Life really sucks sometimes, doesn’t it?

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Eye say, eye say, eye say, have you heard the one about the blind cat?

But cats are ever resourceful. With a miniscule amount of vision in the remaining eye, a naturally outgoing personality, and the curiosity that cats are renowned for – he’s doing absolutely fine. I’m not sure he’ll be much help spotting typos any more, but he’s great at discussing plot development and characterisation.

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To bring you up to date, this weekend I attended the RNA Conference in Lancaster. I was a first time conference attender and was blown away by how friendly everyone was. I did know shedloads of people from attending RNA events over the past three years, but I got to make a whole summerhouse of new friends – bonus!

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Lisa Hill, moi and Susannah Branson

There were many highlights of this event, some mentioned on my Facebook posts, but an agent asking to see my full manuscript has to be the frosting on my cupcake. So whatever comes of this, I do feel I am a little bit further down the bumpy old road to my dream.

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Because this is EXACTLY what I look like when I work…

There will now be an intensive couple of weeks where I try to knock the manuscript into shape and my boys will have to learn to fend for themselves. (This evening’s dinner was interesting; salmon, vegetables and, erm… NO potatoes. Sorry Mum, I knew I’d forgotten something. Ah well, it helps the waistline and he tried his best.)

So when I finally press send, and Lucy’s Locket lands in the laps of the NWS reader and a literary agent, I think I will sleep for about a fortnight.

Budge up, Seymour. That’s my spot…

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My Tricky Middle

I’ll make the obvious joke about the bit of me that keeps growing the older I get. The bit that flops over the waistband of my jeans instead of laying flat.The bit that wobbles when I run and concertinas when I sit down. Yes, that’s quite a tricky middle but I think it goes hand in hand with the wine and the cake, so I guess I’ll have to live with it.

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However, as a writer, the REALLY tricky middle is the troubled waters I have to sail myself through in order to get to the magical island of The Finished Novel. Having been on this journey a few times now, I always seem to have trouble halfway through my journey. So this blog is my thoughts on why, and what I need to do to get back on course.

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This will be easy peasy.

Like me, I suspect many writers happily whizz through the first few thousand words. Hoist the sails and off we go, to continue the analogy. The waters are calm and the wind is behind me. And if I look through my telescope, I can see the magical island in the distance. I have had The Big Idea, roughly plotted where the story needs to go, assembled the necessary cast of characters and am keen to write the story that will have publishers everywhere in a bidding war to publish the Most Amazing Book Ever.

But even though I know where I’m going with my story, inevitably hitting about the 40,000 word mark problems arise. I can’t see land anymore, I’m isolated, my sails are blowing all over the place and I’m struggling to plot a straight course.

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Hmm… Getting a bit choppy out there…

 

SO where am I going wrong?

  1. The characters won’t do what they are told (rather like my children) but even though I shout at them they and threaten to impose an array of sanctions, they stubbornly do what they think they will and to hell with the consequences (unlike my children – who wouldn’t dare).
  2. It’s become a gargantuan task; plot threads are everywhere, questions have popped up that I don’t know the answers to, and some of my brilliant ideas just aren’t working. (What do you mean, you can’t quote song lyrics? But that’s what he does!)
  3. Self doubt starts to set in. Things I thought were funny/clever/attention grabbing don’t seem as powerful now that I read the story back. It’s not working. It’s not good enough. It’s rubbish. What am I doing? And who am I kidding?
  4. There is a very excitable New Idea jumping up and down next to me, poking me and demanding attention. Perhaps THIS is the story I should be writing?

boats3But as I sit there, adding to the word count at an embarrassingly slow pace, I realise I have been here before and managed to come out the other side. So what did I do? Because deep inside, I know I can do this…

  1. Write something – write anything – even if you think it’s total pants. Sometimes it can lead to a great idea, sometimes you delete the lot the next day, but it does get your floundering backside (and your tricky middle) moving.
  2. Stick something in there that takes you by surprise. Hopefully it will do the same to your characters and it might make them get up of that sofa, pop on some metaphorical running shoes, and stir them into action.
  3. Write sections that you want to write. Don’t worry about it being in chronological order. I was listening to an emotional song on my iPod and suddenly decided to write a weepy section near the end of the book. The whole scene wrote itself in my head so I quickly got it on the page. Some details may need to be changed when I reach that point, but it was 2,000 words that got me writing again.
  4. Try not to obsess over the number of words you have actually produced. It’s also productive to reread and edit (although don’t get bogged down in this either). When I’m writing I leave rows of “xxx”s if I need to research something or the scene isn’t coming to me. The tricky middle is a good point to go back and fill in some of those gaps. It adds to the words and it has sometimes given me other (truly brilliant) ideas for later in the story.
  5. If you are really struggling, give yourself some space… or some wine… or both. Walk away. Write something else. DO something else. Live life. Have an experience. Then write about it. It’s a bit like being married. Spend a few days apart and then when you get back together you have LOADS to talk about. (Although let’s skip over the initial conversation “How did the house get in this state? I was only away for the weekend!”.)
  6. Print your story off, sit crossed-legged on the floor, grab a Big Red Pen and analyse what you’ve written so far. Are there bits that can be cut? Do you really need a scene where all they do is drink coffee and talk about things the reader already knows? As brutal as it seems to take words away when you are trying to ADD to the word count, it is often necessary. Follow each character’s journey and see if it makes sense. Are there too many characters? Is there a strong hook? Basically have a good old spring clean.

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And before you can say, ‘How will I ever get through this disheartening and soul-destroying tricky middle bit?’ the little row of numbers at the bottom of the page that has been taunting you for the last couple of weeks says 60,000.

Yay!

You are more than halfway through, so by definition, OVER THE TRICKY MIDDLE.

It will be plain sailing from here on in… right?

 

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The Underwire Bra of my Writing Life.

No, not some piece of faded, lucky underwear I’ve had since 1989 that I don every time I sit down to my keyboard…

What I’m talking about here is support; the kind that only an underwire bra can give.

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(Quick aside – how cool is my bra bunting? I KNOW – RIGHT? It’s not what you know but who you live up the road from…)

As a writer, I get support from all sorts of groups and individuals, both online and in the real world. These people make me smile when I want to sob silently into my half drunk glass of Pinot Grigio, point me in the right direction when I’m wandering around aimlessly in the dark, and I’m sure will be the first to pop the champagne cork when things are going my way.

Of course, I can only comment on this from an unpublished point of view, as there is a whole other platform of support when you are published; from agents and editors, to retailers and most importantly readers. But as someone still on the bumpy road to publication I want to talk to you about the support I receive in my writing life.

Creative Writing Courses

Five years ago when the I suddenly knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, there weren’t many people I could turn to for guidance. (A few special people have been there for me from the start but they know who they are.) So I searched for a local group or course in order to connect with like-minded souls and to point me in the right direction. A creative writing course eventually came up at an Arts Centre nearby and it was the first time I met writerly people like myself in the flesh. We had an excellent tutor who covered everything from mechanics of writing – like grammar, to the abstract – like inspiration. A lot of it I knew but some topics had me scribbling down her every word, steam coming from the pen, as I soaked up her superior wisdom. Our tutor was a journalist, so a master at cutting excess wordage, and her red pen taught me many things.

But there comes a point when the best way to learn something is to get on and do it. You can read a car manual a hundred times over, but until you get behind the wheel you will never be a competent driver. Plus, there was the odd person in the group who I wanted to slap around the face. Repeatedly. (These groups really aren’t the place to air your political views and/or turn it into a let’s-talk-about-me session.) If the tutor is not on the ball, certain personalities can dominate, and it’s easy feel uncomfortable about sharing in front of the class. But for me it was a fantastic place to start and my tutor’s support gave me confidence.

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Writing Groups

I belong to the Scribblers; an informal group of people who met through the creative writing classes, decided we didn’t want to slap each other, and now meet regularly to support and to share. Our meetings have gone from a couple of hours, with no real direction but copious amount of coffee, to a whole day (including a homemade lunch) with a definite structure. We take it in turns to chair the meetings and set the agenda. It is an environment where I feel safe and I trust all the members of the group implicitly. We’re a mixed bag of ages, genders and writing genres – but that makes for a  rich mix. We critique each other’s work and, using various online resources, discuss topics such as dialogue, structure and viewpoint. (We even had a fascinating session on writing Haikus.) There are plenty of laughs and I always come away feeling motivated – but it is rather the case of the blind leading the partially-sighted and there have been occasions when we have all sat around the table, scratching our heads, trying to get to grips with the slippery eel that is third-person objective narration.

If you don’t belong to a writing group, either a formal one run by a professional, or an informal one like ours, I would recommend you find one. Or start your own. It is the underwire in my bra.

Family and Friends

These are my number one fans – and rightly so. They want to support me and want me to succeed, but here’s the problem – they aren’t objective. So while my ego might be boosted by their praise, my inner author suspects the short story  I showed to my mum might not be my best work. I’m sure some of my fellow writers will agree, this group of people don’t always have the courage to tell you when something stinks, or the knowledge to point out that you’ve written a whole novel with a passive heroine. (*Cough* – not that this has ever happened to me.)

As much as we don’t like constructive criticism, we do need to hear it. It makes us better writers. Everyone has room for improvement. A writing group or a beta reader can gently nudge you in the right direction. But do go to your best bud or your mum on the days when you receive the rejection email or the one star review on Amazon. Your mum, after all, was the one who took out a three page ad in the local paper the day you took two tiny steps across the living room without clinging on to the sofa, farted, gurgled and fell on your bottom. Rest assured – she’ll LOVE anything you do.

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Virtual Support

By this I mean the online writers  I am connected with via Twitter, Facebook and other social media. They support me in so many ways. From the wonderful published authors who have been kind enough to befriend me, pass on their sage advice and answer my naive questions, to the struggling, unpublished friends who have sympathised with my trials and kindly shared the nuggets of information they have gleaned on their quest. And best of all, this online group is amazing when it comes to help with research. All you have to do is post a question regarding ritual virginal sacrifices in 13th century Paraguay, and you can bet your bottom Euro, someone will have an aunt who has written a thesis on this topic and they will happily put you in touch with her.

Virtual write-ins, where participants set aside a particular time slot to write and then feedback their progress, help to motivate me when I’m struggling and feeling isolated – which as writing basically involves me sitting in a room with a cat and a computer – I am. And of course author events, hot off the press book releases and industry news is shared via social media, which keeps me up to date with the writing world.

I’ve made some amazing friends online, some of the very best are people I have yet to meet in real life, but I would be lost without them. We exchange private messages of support (thanks for all the motivational pandas and naked Poldarks in my darkest moments Liz) and share information and resources through online writers groups (thanks Paula). And sometimes it’s merely a private joke connects me to another person (Mary and I sign off to a chinese “Siam Son” after autocorrect misinterpreted “speak soon”) and even though we live a hundred miles apart, it is another person who I am connected to, who understands me, and who is there for me. Bikini bunting

 

So talk to me, lovely people, and tell me who is your underwire bra? Who supports you when everything on your writing journey is heading south?

(Or jock-strap of your writing life for all the fellas out there.)

Search For a Star…

… but may need to work on my twinkle.

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Way back when the daffodils were in bloom… oh, hold on, I have freaky winter daffodils out at the moment. Way back when daffodils are supposed to bloom, my first novel Dead Gorgeous was shortlisted in the Choclit Search For a Star competition.

Six hopefuls were shortlisted on Valentine’s Day last year and the lovely Jan Brigden was announced as the winner in March 2015 with her debut As Weekends Go. To be shortlisted was a wonderful moment – making me believe perhaps I could master this writing malarkey after all.

As an optimistic, half-full kinda girl not winning wasn’t a big deal – being shortlisted was. You can’t over analyse these things – I just needed to work on my twinkle. I quickly wrapped up novel number two, decided it was a huge pile of pants that needed to go through the washing machine on a boil wash (but that’s a blog for another day) and embarked on novel number three.

Dead Gorgeous will always have a special place in my heart, and who knows? It may yet make it into print. Robert John Whitton was gorgeous and, interestingly, although he was over two hundred years old, he wasn’t dead.

So when is a ghost not a ghost?