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Posts from the ‘Novel Writing’ Category

What to do when you know it’s not working

So about a month ago I got some very welcome news that I’ve been shortlisted for the Richard & Judy Search for a Bestseller competition with my psychological thriller Rip Her To Shreds.

I’d been working away on another novel called ‘A Pale Imitation’ – the story of an affair (well, more than one over the different timelines) and its repercussions told in increments of seven years. It jumped around all over the place from depression-era New York to 1980s suburbia. I had three narrators, one of whom was a real life person, one of whom was a child, and had got myself into a complete mess with it. I worried at night about what the descendants of this person might make of it (although none of it was derogatory). I couldn’t make the timeline work. I spent hours looking at the most obscure archive footage of Central Park in 1920 to see what animals they had in the zoo. But I couldn’t get the story right.

I was getting some encouragement. The opening chapter was shortlisted for Best Opening Chapter at York Festival of Writing, an agent said they wanted to see it when it was finished, and then my pitch was favourited by an agent at Curtis Brown on their monthly Pitch CB and I submitted the first three chapters accordingly and the synopsis. They said they liked it but it didn’t go in the direction they were expecting and so rejected it. I could not see what else I could do with it – it had got into an intractable knot. I knew deep down it had some good elements but overall it had no clear direction – no real impetus to keep a reader reading.

But I couldn’t get this one voice out of my head.

Back at the end of May, I saw the deadline was almost up for the Richard and Judy competition but it was against the rules to submit anything you had previously sent to an agent. So I started writing – using this one clear (slightly disturbing!) voice. A whole different story, a whole new setting, whole new characters (although the theatre background still features). It was extremely hard, queasy-making, to junk those previous 60,000 ish words – all that research, all those hours. But this one came quickly – I could see the story stretching out before me. I got in a day before the deadline and a month later was told I had been shortlisted.

Not all that previous work has gone to waste – I see bits of it creeping in. Maybe I will suddenly get a blinding flash of inspiration as to how A Pale Imitation should tie together later. I know a lot about Chagall now anyway.

Now I have a fixed deadline of early December to completely finish the 80,000 manuscript of Rip Her To Shreds and then we’ll see.

Have you ever completely started again on a project? A novel or something else? Junked a lot of words? What do you do when you know something’s not working?


A Q&A with Laura Barnett – Author of The Versions of Us

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Laura Barnett is a journalist and theatre critic. Perhaps you read her touching piece in last weekend’s The Guardian about people finding love in their later years. You may not have noticed the byline. But now her debut novel –The Versions of Us – is garnering rave reviews. The book is one of those novels with universal appeal because it taps into your feelings about your life no matter at what stage you are. Everyone at some point wonders what might have been, if they had done things differently, taken another path. said yes instead of no or vice versa. It might not necessarily relate to a love affair, it might have been a quirk of fate that made you miss something or put you somewhere at a certain point in time.

In this novel, it is a random thing that sets everything off: Eva, a student in Cambridge, is cycling on her way to a tutorial, when a rusty nail in the road causes her to swerve. The story splits off into three different versions – does she meet Jim who stops to help or not, does she leave her actor boyfriend David for Jim or not? We travel from 1950s Cambridge up to almost the present day, taking in New York, Greece, Suffolk, Cornwall, and London along the way. None of the three stories pan out in the way you would have expected or maybe they do, because your view of how things work out for them is coloured by your own views of love, happiness, marriage, compromise, ambition, adultery to name a few.

I am delighted that Laura answered some of my questions

I understand that you wrote the book chronologically – plaiting the three parts together rather than attempting to ‘lift’ each timeline out. I think this very much shows as no narrative strand is dominant and I was equally invested in all three versions. Did you ever try it another way or did you always know this was the way to go?

You’re absolutely right – I did write the book chronologically, plaiting the three parts together as I went. This approach just seemed natural to me from the start. It never even occurred to me to, say, write the whole of version one before tackling versions two and three. I was aware from the beginning of the need to pace the novel carefully – of, to borrow a filmic term, the need to jump-cut from one version to the next, while at the same time holding the whole narrative in view. Throughout, I was trying to conceive of the novel as an organic whole, rather as the sum of three disparate parts.

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I love the fact it is a completely random quirk of fate that – a rusty nail in the road that punctures a bicycle tyre forcing Eva to swerve to avoid the dog and meet Jim. Do you have your own ‘what if’ moment that you can share?

I’m so glad you related to that. It was important to me from the start that we got the sense of how the course of our lives can turn on a dime; of how easily, even randomly, we find ourselves choosing one path over another. As for my own “what if” moment – well, my mum often jokes about the fact that, aged 21, she very nearly married a biochemist and moved to New Mexico, so I could very easily never have been born…

I really enjoyed reading some of your short stories (read them here) particularly ‘You’. What were the specific challenges you found when moving away from the short story format to the novel?

Thank you – I’m so happy to hear that. I do love writing short stories – it’s a chance to conjure a whole world in miniature – but I was actually drawn to the novel first. As a child, I’d get my mum to sew pieces of paper into little books, and I’d write the title of my next magnum opus on the cover – usually, as I recall, a highly derivative sequel to Narnia or the Famous Five. I rarely got past the first few chapters, but I seem to have always had the novel in mind as a format. Later, as an adult, I began writing novels as well as short stories, so my interest in both really evolved in tandem.

My favourite kind of fiction is also the kind that, as you say, “takes the world we know, and our own familiar, everyday lives and renders them rich and strange.’ citing Anne Tyler and Tessa Hadley as great examples. Is there one novel that you constantly go back to or wish you’d written?

Ah, there are many! I do adore both Anne Tyler and Tessa Hadley, among others, but a book that had a particular impact on me at a young age, and which is often in my thoughts, is Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. I studied it for GCSE English. It was my first encounter with Atwood’s luminous prose, and it opened my mind to the wonderful imaginative possibilities contained within lives that, on the surface, could seem humdrum, even dull. I remember a particularly wonderful image about memory being not linear, but a deep and multi-layered thing, like a pool of water into which we can dive to retrieve the elements of our past. That has stayed with me ever since.

Thanks very much to Laura. The Versions of Us is out now, published by Orion. The clever marketing campaign is asking readers to share their ‘what if’ moment.. Tweet or Instagram your moment using the hashtag #what if.

A very modern mystery: Q&A with the author of What She Left

what she left coverWhat She Left by T R Richmond is, in many ways, a classic mystery.A young woman, 25 year old trainee journalist Alice Salmon, is found dead in a river. Did she slip in and drown after a drunken night out with friends? Did she kill herself? Or was she murdered? However, the way the story is told feels new and brilliantly executed. An elderly academic becomes obsessed with the case and compiles his own evidence – but what are his reasons for doing so? Using a mixture of blog posts, police transcripts, tweets, forum message board and diary entries, the reader has to piece together the clues. If you’ve ever spent any time reading the comments below the line after someone has disappeared or been murdered (never advisable) Richmond has managed to capture the tone perfectly, complete with those well meant but oh so casual RIP’s. With no linear structure, I did sometimes find it hard to see how everything was going to add up but it does mimic the way these cases unfold in real life: things are messy, everyone interprets things differently.

It was in fact a tweet that sparked the idea for the book. Someone was talking about what song they would like played at their funeral – an oddly intimate thing to share. Richmond began to wonder what else you could piece together about someone purely from their online life. We all, whether we like it or not, leave our own ‘digital footprints’. With this in mind, I set about to see what I could find out about him. Within a few minutes I discovered that he has been a journalist for over twenty years, and had read some of his award winning features online. I found out that he has had two other novels published under a different name. Delving a bit deeper, I found out the name of his wife, saw pictures of his cats, that he once set fire to a bin, and that he owns a set of Blue Denby pottery.

Being much in demand, I was pleased when he agreed to answer some questions.

I read that you got up every day at 5am to write for two hours before going to your day job as a journalist. I imagine things have changed dramatically since publication a few short weeks ago or perhaps not. What’s been the best thing so far about having a book on your hands that everyone is talking about?

Everything’s changed but actually nothing’s changed. I still have my day-job. I still get up early. I still like writing at that time of day (I’m working on a new novel). The whole experience has been amazing and there have been so many unforgettable moments but ultimately for me the buzz is the writing itself and that’s like an itch you can’t scratch. One of the best aspects of having a book published is suddenly being part of a team, For years it felt like I was working in a vacuum without any real guidance or support. Now I’ve got an agent and an editor who are a constant source of ideas, encouragement and, when it’s needed (as it often is!), constructive criticism. Knowing that you’ve got talented people looking out for you and fighting your corner is the best feeling in the world.

The onslaught of 24 hour rolling news sometimes feels that the news will eat itself. With the explosion of social media, it seems everyone is a journalist but with none of the legal training. Suspects are being named on social media despite warnings from the police and the press are often playing catch up. You’ve written about this here and as a journalist myself it worries me too. How do you think it will continue?

I’ve heard it said that the internet and social media will sound the death knell for journalists, because they no longer have a monopoly on providing information. Actually, the opposite is true. There’s so much information out there that the need for accurate, timely news that can be trusted is greater now than ever. There’s still a lot of brilliant journalism happening – the problem is that there is so much space to fill, whether it’s on the internet or on 24-hour rolling broadcast news, that a lot of what is served up is, frankly, tosh. It’s recycled, speculation, gossip and padding.

In terms of the public, I think we’re in an interim phase where people are going to realise they have a responsibility in terms of the information they share. If you have, for example, a well-read blog, you might not consider yourself to be a journalist, but you are in a position of responsibility and are governed by the same laws regarding defamation and contempt of court as those working in the media.

What do you think of the apps that will tweet for you after your death or the services that will keep your Facebook page going for your loved ones? Have you thought about what will happen to your online legacy?

Writing What She Left has made me think more carefully about my online presence. On a practical level, it’s made me aware of the dangers of, for example, tweeting holiday photos because it’s an invitation to burglars to target your home. In terns of how I’m perceived after you die, I’m not desperately concerned about that. I’ll de dead, after all.

The marketing campaign for What She Left is very clever as it really serves to enhance the book. There is a Facebook page for Alice (which I actually found desperately sad) and a tumblr page ‘written’ by the Professor. Can you tell us more about how these evolved?

We wanted the story to be as realistic as possible and it just felt inconceivable that Alice, as a contemporary 25 year old, wouldn’t have a Facebook page. Similarly, as Professor Cooke took shape, it became clear that he would inevitably want to continue gathering information about Alice even after the point at which the novel finishes. Hopefully the Facebook and tumblr pages are true to the spirit of the book – it’s partly about the online environment so it feels natural that it also has a digital incarnation. Hopefully they give the book a life beyond the page and allows readers to engage with the characters in additional ways.

The cover is very strong – it reminds me of Twin Peaks. Who designed it and did it go through many stages?

I’m delighted with the cover – the image and the title work together to make it really impactful. Sadly, I can’t take any credit for it as I have no artistic sense whatsoever so resisted putting in my two penneth. I’m a great believer in letting people get on with doing what they do best and Penguin’s designers know far more about book covers than I ever will.

I love the fact the audio version (available here) was narrated by Emilia Clarke and Charles Dance (amongst others) – a real Game of Thrones reunion. Did you go to the recording sessions and what was it like hearing your words come to life?

I went to one with Charles Dance. It’s a strange experience to hear someone else speak the words you’ve written but I loved it. It brought a freshness to the story and made me feel as if I was hearing it for the first time. I tried to play it cool but as a huge Game of Thrones fan, I was massively excited to meet him and probably totally star struck.

Many thanks to T R Richmond. What She Left is out now, published by Penguin.

What I learnt on a 10 week writing course

I’ve just finished a ten week writing course at The Writers Room in Brighton.

I signed up as a Christmas present to myself. For ages I’d been looking longingly at Arvon Courses, retreats, masterclasses etc, but at this point in time, I needed something local, something that I could fit in around my job and family. The fact it was being run by two authors, Araminta Hall and Lizzie Enfield, whose work I had already read and admired or seen speaking at events, was a factor. The idea of sitting in a wooden shed at the bottom of a garden with a cosy woodburner, eating cake, clinched it.

Personally, I wanted to go because I have been working on the same idea for a long time now and could no longer see where I’m going with it. I’m used to working by myself and generating ideas and thinking about angles (I’ve been freelance for over a decade) but I had showed hardly anyone at all this particular story. I had been writing in a vacuum and whilst my friends are clamouring to read it, it was other writers I needed to talk to.

As soon as we started, I knew I’d picked the right course. It was small. It was not in any way intimidating. I hadn’t really thought about whether we were going to be asked to actually write stuff on the spot to a prompt so when they asked us to, I doubted whether I could. Writing from the viewpoint of an object in the room, or making up dialogue from something we’d done that day, doing an exercise about show versus tell, was actually quite freeing rather than frightening. I was impressed that the tutors did the exercises too – I thought it might just be the class. Another thing that was good was that they didn’t doggedly stick to a rigid programme; if we were all asking questions about structure or dialogue, the following week’s class would address that. Over the ten weeks, we covered research, dialogue, plot versus structure, show don’t tell, characterisation, openings, and lots more.

The feedback I received on my WIP was invaluable. They immediately picked up on the way I was using plot devices and that the beginning was totally in the wrong place. They taught me the value of withholding information, and that if you know something isn’t right and are hoping the reader won’t notice, that they will. They helped me with the (dreaded) synopsis. We took it in turns to circulate extracts of what we were working on and received feedback from the group which was really useful. Above all, I think it was so helpful being able to talk to other people who ‘got it.’

What I have come out with is some new friends. The rest of the group were lovely and we have already been out socially and have lots of plans for more.  I have a much clearer direction of where I am going. I have learnt the importance of carving out time.

The course is suitable for all types of writers – novelists, non-fiction writers, short story writers, bloggers, people who have just always wanted to write and are starting out to those who are already immersed in something but would like to learn more.








On Endings and Event TV

How’s it going to end? What’s going to happen? Did you see it? Oh my God. OH MY GOD! NO!!!!!!!!

If you’re like me, you’re on tenterhooks waiting for the very last episode of Breaking Bad. Although I’m a bit behind so I’m going to have to have a marathon back to back this weekend. Even so, it’s hard to dodge spoilers and I’ve seen arguments breaking out ; personally, I tend to side with actor Dean Norris (Hank) who tweeted:

For last time. Social media = watercooler. Part of experience of BB is sharing at watercooler. If NOT up to date, avoid fucking watercooler.

Although I think tweeting during a show means you’re probably not that engrossed in it, (and I don’t mean things like X Factor and Great British Bake Off where Twitter definitely adds to the fun) I love going online straight after the credits have rolled and seeing everyone’s reactions. There were howls of derision and outrage at the end of What Remains, The Fall and The Returned. For different reasons, but everyone seemed to be collectively shouting at the screen or saying Huh?! I’ve been on the Robert McKee screenwriting course, I know my inciting incidents and my five act structures, but all that goes out the window, when you’re immersed in the fictional world they’ve so expertly built up.

I suppose what I’m looking for is some satisfaction – that the protagonist(s) has acted in keeping with the character that has been so painstakingly built up, that it was believable and grew out of what had gone before, no nonsensical turnarounds, that there were no plot holes left so gaping wide they could swallow you whole. That it was worth all that time and investment – especially for a long running series. I knew I didn’t want to commit to Lost but I stayed with ER for all 15 seasons. The ending of that was, I think, perfectly judged. I’m hooked on Game of Thrones but worry that it won’t, in fact, ever end.

Sometimes you can almost see SECOND SERIES COMMISSIONED flashing on screen. I hate it when you look at your watch and you think – how the hell are they going to wrap this up in ten minutes? because that means they invariably won’t. Fade to black is often a cop out.

I’ve just started the book Difficult Men : Behind The Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin which covers Mad Men, The Wire, The Sopranos (surely one of the most hotly contested endings ever) and Breaking Bad; there was an extract in The Guardian at the weekend which gave a fascinating insight into how the team of writers work with story boards and brainstorming and Post it notes. Even so, imagine the pressure on Gilligan who said,

” I would be very unprepared for people to hate the ending. That would throw me. I’d probably have to go into hiding or be hospitalised.”

I grew up with Who Shot JR – if you hadn’t seen it you were practically frozen out of playground conversation. But what else recently? Sherlock I suppose. Broadchurch – I went into town the morning after the final episode and every single conversation I overheard was about it – in Marks & Spencer, in the street, in the queue in the supermarket, at school pick up. How amazing to have that effect on the nation’s consciousness.

Have you ever screamed at the telly as the credits roll? What’s the worst ending to something you’ve ever seen? Or the best?

Guest Author Post and Signed Copy giveaway- Peggy Riley – Amity & Sorrow

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I’m delighted to welcome author Peggy Riley today who is on a whistlestop blog tour to mark the publication of her debut novel Amity & Sorrow, published this week in the US by Little Brown (and already out in the UK published by Tinder Press).

Amity and Sorrow tells the story of a mother, Amaranth, and her two daughters, who are fleeing for their lives during the chaos of a raging, apocalyptic fire at the fundamentalist, polygamous cult led by her husband. Amity and Sorrow, the daughters of the title, know nothing of the outside world. Amaranth is terrified her tyrannical husband is coming after them. Amity slowly blossoms and sees that there are other ways of living, but Sorrow will stop at nothing to get back to the only thing she knows as home. What happened to the other wives and children they left behind?

Peggy graciously answered some questions I put to her:

I read that you saw two unconnected photographs of a house on fire and two women in prairie dresses which acted as the trigger for the idea of the book. Did the characters emerge fully formed? How did it take shape from that initial idea?

 The two girls did emerge fully formed, yes, for which I am very grateful.  I had their voices quite quickly and I knew, from the first moment, that they would begin tied together.  I knew that their story would be about their push and pull, away and back towards one another.  The character of Amaranth took much longer to emerge as a whole person.  For a long time I could only see her filtered through her daughters’ perceptions and it was many drafts before I felt as secure with her as with Amity and Sorrow.  I had to do a lot of writing from her point of view to get under her skin, but I knew I needed her voice in the book.  It would be a very different story if we only saw things from Amity’s point of view.    

What really struck me was the sense of place – the novel is ripe with details of nature, the changing seasons, the plants and flowers particular to rural Oklahoma. How did you go about researching this?

I know absolutely nothing about farming, but I do love to read about it.  I love books that are yoked to the land.  ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is an exploration of Oklahoma, and I was familiar with the terrain of the southwest from my LA childhood and years spent in the desert.  But really, my education came from The Oklahoma Farm News Report, which blogs and tweets issues of interest to Oklahoma farmers.  I followed it for years until I finally began to feel a part of it, until their weather and drought and insurance worries felt familiar to me.  I would make a rotten farmer, but I’ll probably never forget when the winter wheat needs to be drilled.

I read on your blog that during your pre-sale book tour in the States, there was little love shown for the character of Sorrow, and yet I think she was perhaps the most damaged of all through no fault of her own. Widening out from Amity & Sorrow in particular, do you think a character has to be likeable for the reader to identify with them?

I don’t think a character has to be likeable, but I am surprised at how unlikeable Sorrow is perceived to be.  She has been terribly damaged, but she receives little sympathy, due to her lack of compassion or awareness for others.  I really like unpleasant characters, ones who are prickly and selfish and distracted.    Sorrow is vain and spoiled and stuck.  She has huge desire and a thirst for autonomy that women are not allowed in her faith.  I like her a lot, though her methods are ugly.  She has no self-control.  I don’t think anyone will especially identify with Sorrow, but I hope readers can come to understand her point of view, how her world has made her into who and what she is. 

You have a led a fascinating and varied life as a festival producer and a writer in residence at a young offender’s prison to name but two strands to your career. Did you always harbour a desire to write a novel? What made you decide to in the end?

I had no idea I would ever write a novel, though I have been a writer for as long as I can remember.  I did handwrite and staple little books together in kindergarten and can remember being reprimanded for what I had written.  I trained as a playwright and expected to go on writing plays, but when I moved from London to Kent, I found my writing changed.  My sense of self changed.  I had the story of Amity & Sorrow in my head and I couldn’t find a way to put it on stage, to set what I saw in my head.  So, the story made me change how I wrote, to tell it.  Stories are often much smarter than their writers! 

What did you find most challenging in making the departure from writing prose to fiction?

Two things.  First, the simple logistics.  How did you get a character in and out of a chapter?  Scenes in a play can be lightning fast – it’s lights up, begin speaking.  In fiction, readers only get confused.  My brilliant agent was instrumental in reminding me to “place things” before I began, to give readers time to get their bearings.  Maybe this is because we pick up and put down books, in a way that you don’t as an audience, captive in a theatre.  The second was an intense fear of wallpaper.  In plays, you describe as little as possible.  Scene directions are only cues to directors and clues for designers, but they are usually ignored.  In a play, you want to describe characters as little as possible, so that every actor can find herself there.  I vacillated between describing nothing and moving round each room in centimeters, looking at every speck and stain.  Ultimately, I had to find my own way in and out of chapters, as well as what to describe and how and when. 

What is the last book you read that you wish you’d written yourself?

Anything by Louise Erdrich.  Her writing is so rich and deft.  I admire how her books build on each other, drawing from and creating a history of generations of Ojibwe and German families, how their fates are intertwined, on and off the reservations of North Dakota, book after book.  Her language is lyrical – phrases can stop you dead in your tracks – but she also has a wicked sense of humour.  She can handle that balance of dark and light in a story and a character better than anyone.  I always find inspiration in her writing, but really, I’m just happy to read them.  I’m more than happy to let her keep writing them!       

If you would like to win a signed hardback copy of this wonderful book (and a god sex farming badge!) just leave a comment below. The draw is open to international readers. amity_roundal (2)

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When do you show others your work?

Last night, I went to see the novelist Maggie O’Farrell in conversation at Waterstones Piccadilly in London. She was witty and fun, observant and gracious. I shall probably talk about things that arose from the conversation for a good few posts yet.

One of the things she said last night, and in this interview in The Observer, was how her husband, who is the novelist William Sutcliffe, is her first reader. She doesn’t tell him anything about what she’s working on and she has no idea what he is working away on either. But it reaches a point when they read each other’s work.

She keeps a plastercast of his teeth (!) on her shelf where she works and said that, looking at them reminds her to keep her more ‘flowery overblown tendencies’ at bay, just thinking of what he’ll say. She said he was ‘brutal’ and ‘mean’ but who wants someone who will just say, ‘that’s nice, dear.’ He tells her what’s working and what isn’t and she trusts his judgement implicitly. The novelist Esther Freud, who I saw speak last year, said something similar about showing her husband (the actor David Morrissey) her novel Lucky Break and he said she had been too hard on the acting profession and she had gone back and rewritten parts.

I am very secretive in the way I work and my husband has yet to read a single word of my novel The Make Up Girl. When I first started writing it, way back when, I kept asking him random things – what happens exactly when an airline loses your luggage, how much would a brand new, top of the range mountain bike cost, but after a while I gave up.

I’ve been thinking about why I don’t want him to. I think he wants to – at least he joked to a friend who asked if he’d read it that I hadn’t let him. We talk about most things but my interest in books and writing is one he doesn’t particularly share. It’s my thing, just as he has his. He did have a chance not long ago when I needed a copy and our printer wasn’t working (and still isn’t). He very neatly printed out the whole thing – 80,000 words – at work and brought it home in a transparent wallet, the chapters neatly pegged together with bulldog clips. But as far as I know, he didn’t read a word. It’s different from alpha and beta readers and critique groups somehow. Scarier in some ways. Frightened that he’ll think it’s shit and that all those hours I’ve spent on it have been wasted. Or that he just won’t get it. And yet by not letting him read it, I’m cutting him out from a major part of my life. I like this post by fellow writer Suzy Norman about the support she gets from her writer husband.

And now when I need another extract printed, or the odd three chapters, (I try not to to save paper but sometimes you just have to) I take it on a memory stick to my local printers. The guy knows me by now and gives me a wry smile.

This post by author Nathan Bransford has lots of interesting comments about at what point you let other people see your work – not necessarily writing but photography, music, and art etc. It can be confusing if you let other people have their say on it as you’re going along, like writing by committee, and yet we all need feedback otherwise you’re writing in a vacuum.

At what point do you let your husband/wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/partner/mother/father/friend read something you’ve written or created? If you keep a blog, do they read that?