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‘I don’t have time to write’ and what this really means

Look, I’ve said it myself. And I’m still saying it (have you SEEN how long it’s been since I even blogged?)

The funny thing about ‘I don’t have time’ is that it’s more about the thing than the time. Rarely do we say ‘I don’t have time to scroll mindlessly through my former colleague’s holiday photos’ or ‘I don’t have time to browse the Outnet’ or ‘I don’t have time to press the snooze button six times’. In these cases we can make the time, because the thing is easy.  Mostly, it’s not a lack of time; it’s a lack of other things that prevents us doing the things we want to. Here are some I’ve experienced:

I don’t have energy: Honestly, this one is fair enough. Writing does take a lot of energy, especially in the early stages. I am, and remain, in awe of people who can come in from a full day’s work, put their kids to bed, load the dishwasher and then open their computer to write. I have never, and probably will never, be able to do this. To write my first book, I needed free time during the day – and not just a lunch break but a whole morning a week, just to get started. Not everyone is able to work part time (as I did) of course. You may have to give something up, like shopping or Netflix (I would be very interested to see a graph of productivity generally since the introduction of Netflix to our lives).

I don’t have headspace: again, fair enough. Some people are able to take refuge in writing while their lives are chaotic. That only happens for me when I’m 20,000 words into something which I find to be the threshold into the magic world where you’re really on a roll and obsessed. But prior to that, when I’m just trying to get into something, it’s like trying to scramble up onto a tall wall and thinking you’re going to fall back and get shin splints. To do that while the rest of my life felt chaotic, which has been the case for the past few years, was just too hard for me. Sometimes you just don’t have the bandwidth and writing has to wait.

I don’t have a dedicated time or place: this is really crucial. I think it helps to dedicate a time every week, ideally in the same place, where you can just try. Even if it’s just sitting at the keyboard writing a diary or notes or nothing at all. The key thing is not to open Net a Porter.

I don’t have a place to go: Some people swear by libraries but I don’t like writing in libraries – it’s too quiet, and every small isolated sound is an aggravation. Last time I worked in a library (the Dun Laoghaire lexicon, possibly the world’s most beautiful library or am I biased?) a man at a desk nearby made a long phone call about car insurance and I almost had to commit murder.  I like to write in cafes and always have – I like the background noise and chatter, and being surrounded by people which takes the edge off what can otherwise be a pretty lonely pursuit. There’s also the possibility that I am kidding myself that by being in the presence of people working hard that I am also working hard. It does get expensive of course, so if you can stay home and just shut the door and get on with it, good for you. I have to leave the house otherwise bad things happen (while stuck on an early draft once I found myself making granola).

I don’t know what to write: same tbh. Right now I feel guilty because I have SO much time (3 mornings a week ) but it gets eaten up by admin and housework, both avoidance activities because I don’t know what to write. In the past three years I’ve lost two parents, gained a daughter, been through various medical mills and been sent into a spin by political upheavals that are keeping us all awake. I don’t know where to start writing about these things or how. But there’s only one way to find out … Inspiration doesn’t come before sitting down to write; in my experience you sit down first, then get inspired.

I don’t have the confidence: This is a really good book on this – Elizabeth Gilbert says that fear is an invariable passenger on the creative journey; you just have to make sure it doesn’t take the driving seat. But there’s also the feeling we sometimes have of needing permission to write something. All I can say is everyone feels a fraud so you may as well just go for it.

I hope that’s been helpful! Do you have time to write?

*News: I am teaching a one-weekend course at London’s City Lit on 16 and 17 November 2019 for the bargain price of £99. I’d love to see you there! https://www.citylit.ac.uk/courses/writing-romance

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You Think It, I’ll Say It

Curtis Sittenfeld has a new book of short stories out. This is good news for me as she is the only author whose books I will buy in hardback, on publication; she is a brilliant writer and she never writes the same book twice, which is rarer than you might think. I loved all the stories but one has stayed with me, because it does something quite rare; it features a baby who is a fully rounded character, rather than just a plot point or object. This might sound bizarre but it just works beautifully on the page.

In ‘Off the Record’, journalist Nina flies to Los Angeles from Indianapolis with her six-month-old Zoe, to do a  celebrity interview. (Another writer would have let us wonder why on earth Nina, a single parent, didn’t arrange childcare. Sittenfeld supplies the mundane but realistic answer: Zoe won’t take a bottle.)

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Nina botches the interview partly because she is distracted by the babysitter texting her to tell her that Zoe is crying non-stop. The texts are great; just reading the one that said I have tried everything (in response to Nina’s hopeful Have you tried jar of pears?) made me shiver. But my favourite part was the ending. Nina arrives back at her hotel having irretrievably messed up her assignment, and there’s a swift flash-forward (a Sittenfeld specialty) revealing that this is the end of her career as a journalist, that she will go on to write grants for non-profits happily enough, but that she will, in the future, for various reasons, kick herself for the way she handled this job. However, there’s a consolation:

But cranky, suspicious, eczema-ridden Zoe – Nina loves her so much! She’s so happy to see her! Outside the hotel, perched on the sitter’s hip, wearing her undignified clothes, Zoe is very familiar and dear, and it occurs to Nina that this is the first time she’s had a chance to miss her daughter.

I love this passage for its serious, affectionate portrait of the baby as a real character, and how it shows Nina’s feelings for her and the turning point in their relationship. It also captures that feeling of extra love for a child even when – especially when – they’re being cranky or grubby or otherwise unappealing to the rest of the world. And the feeling of home being a refuge and a haven when work goes wrong. I’ve never seen that written about before, especially not by a female writer  – maybe because it’s unfashionable or unfeminist or just not something women can afford to admit to? – but as the title puts it: You think it, I’ll say it. I await the next Curtis Sittenfeld hardback.

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Mum

 

Have you been watching Mum? It is the most wonderful sitcom the BBC has done in ages. As well as being achingly funny it’s a really moving love story, as Cathy comes to terms with the death of her husband and her feelings for her old friend Michael. While battling their own shyness and fears they have to contend with constant toe-curling embarrassment in front of friends and family, such as the nightmarish Pauline who is a character that Jane Austen would have been proud of.  She’s played by Dorothy Atkinson who brings a really sublime megalomania to lines like ‘That was Vodafone … they’re desperate to keep me’.

There’s nothing sublime or aspirational about Michael and Cathy’s relationship – it revolves around trips to the dump or the purchase of new garden chairs. But the stakes feel sky-high, partly because this is an older couple, who have been through so much already. Bby the end you’re watching through your fingers, desperate to know that they will get together. Stefan Golasewski, who wrote Mum, is also responsible for the brilliant Him and Her, which is also about an ordinary couple, in a tiny flat. He is a master at one of the harder things to do: making gold from the ordinary and everyday. Another lesson from Jane Austen …

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A really simple tip for making any romance novel better

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It’s all too easy, in any relationship, to see everything from your own point of view. It’s only human to put your own needs and desires first and overlook what the other person might be thinking or feeling. Guess what? the same can happen when writing romance. It’s easy to identify with your hero/heroine to the extent that you start to treat the love interest like a cipher – just there to turn up at the appropriate moment bearing flowers or a grovelling apology.

So we overlook the fact that the love interest is a person in his/her own right, with his own agency, past, agenda, hangups. Surprise; this does not make for gripping stories. So now, once I’m stuck into the story I try writing it out, start to finish, from the hero/love interest’s point of view. It’s one of those blindingly obvious things that it’s really easy to overlook, and amazingly effective in showing me things I’ve overlooked, giving me new ideas or revealing possible plot holes.

I imagine this would work in other genres – no doubt crime writers write synopses from their villain’s point of view too. Simple, but very helpful once it occurred to me. And works quite well in real life also.

If anyone else has a blindingly obvious tip I would love to hear it!

Also: if you are interested in the art of writing a synopsis, check out my day-long course on just that at City Lit, on Saturday June 24th. 

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Jane Austen, rule breaker

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Breaking rules isn’t something we normally associate with Jane Austen. In her stories, characters who stray from the unwritten rules of society – like Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice – do not come out of things well. But one of the things I’ve noticed is how many so-called ‘rules’ of creative writing she breaks. Here are just a few:

  1. Show, don’t tell. A very good rule, generally speaking. Don’t tell the reader what your characters are like: show them in action. But here is Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, in full telling mode:

‘Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.’

  1. Don’t over-use back-story. Back-story is used to denote events that happened before the story proper begins; they’re relevant to the current action but not a part of it. Generally, the advice is to keep back-story to an absolute minimum, and especially not to overload the reader with it in early chapters. Yet, the beginning of Sense and Sensibility is nothing but backstory, as we hear about the death of Eleanor and Marianne’s father, and their subsequent treatment at the hands of his second wife. Similarly, Emma’s opening chapters delve into Emma’s childhood, the loss of her mother and the remarriage of her beloved guardian.

         3. Have a likeable heroine. In Emma, Jane Austen wrote ‘I am going to take a heroine whom nobody but myself will much like.’ Emma’s opening lines show why she thought this: ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence’ To present a character, a female character, who is doing very well and perfectly happy with herself, thank you very much – this is bold. Even the adjectives have a hard, almost masculine edge to them – ‘handsome, clever and rich’ strike a very different tone to ‘beautiful’ or ‘wise’. Few novelists today would use a female character like this as the protagonist of a romance: but Austen does.

How, and why, does she do it? In the first example, the reason it works is because the telling is expertly balanced with showing. The passage about the Bennett parents comes at the end of the first chapter, which is mainly dialogue, in which we see or rather hear exactly what these two people are like. The ‘telling’ rounds off the impression, and leaves us in no doubt as to the impression Austen wishes to give. More than that though, the narrative voice, with its crisp, merciless judgments, provides a relentless moral centre to the book, that is quite astonishing in its confidence. Austen is not just showing, but telling it like it is.

Regarding back-story: the first thing to note is that Austen doesn’t over-use it, and she lets us know why we’re reading about it. A common mistake new writers often make is that they launch into back-story without making it clear why it’s relevant to the matter at hand. In Austen, our interest is first piqued by these characters in their current situations which means we’re seduced into reading about how they got there. It’s also important to note that Austen is writing in a more leisurely age, when readers expected to take more time to settle in to a story. Nevertheless, she shows how, used effectively, backstory can be every bit as absorbing as, well, story.

As for the unlikeable heroine: what Emma shows is that you can certainly have a character who’s somewhat unlikeable, provided that they hold our interest, and to an extent our sympathy. And it’s important that female characters, in particular, are not forced to be ‘likeable’. I wrote more about this here.

Taken together all these examples show something that I think is often slightly misunderstood when people talk about creative writing. The craft of writing is not about hard and fast rules that are either followed or broken. It’s just a series of tools that can either be useful to you or not so useful, used well or not so well. The important thing is to understand when you are using them, and if they are working to your advantage or not.

If you’d like to know more … check out my forthcoming course on romantic fiction, ‘Beyond Elizabeth Bennet: writing the modern-day romance’ starting 23 May at City Lit.

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Courses courses courses

I always forget that March is colder than November. Every year this takes me by surprise and makes me feel, well, indignant. Because cold is all very well in November when there’s fireworks and bonfires and we’re heading towards Christmas, but March? That’s meant to be Spring. Not this year! It’s been horrible. I realise this makes me sound like the Oldest Inhabitant but this winter is honestly the longest I can remember. It’s been a Game of Thrones extended-style extra-long one, and I’ve spent almost all of it sick (since January anyway).

However. There are signs of spring now and I’m so excited to be teaching some courses at City Lit in the very near future. The first one will be on May 19th, and it’s called ‘Edit like an Expert’

https://www.citylit.ac.uk/courses/edit-like-an-expert

I was an editor before I was a writer, and I’m still an editor – repetition and meandering sentences drive me mad and sometimes I even find myself mentally editing books as I read them. In this course we’ll talk about how to make sure your manuscript is ‘clean’ in the industry phrase, whether you’re self-editing or working with a professional editor, and how to improve your work and your writing in general, by getting rid of dead wood. I hope we’ll also have time to discuss how to deal with criticism and whether or not you really should ‘kill your darlings’.

Then on 24 June, I’ll be teaching a class on how to write a synopsis: https://www.citylit.ac.uk/courses/how-to-write-a-novel-synopsis

I know that lots of people struggle with synopses – unfortunately, they are just one of those tools that are indispensable as most agents won’t look at your work without them. The good news is that they can also be a really good way of giving you a birds’-eye view of your work and can even illuminate plot problems that you might still have lurking (hopefully not, after you’ve edited like an expert!) We will also talk about the one crucial thing that people usually leave out of a synopsis …

Finally, I am teaching a 6-week course on romantic fiction starting 23 May. I COULD NOT be more excited about this. I have so many ideas about this and really can’t wait to share them with fellow authors and hear their ideas too:

https://www.citylit.ac.uk/courses/beyond-elizabeth-bennet-writing-the-modern-day-romance

See you there!

 

 

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News, news, news

Bless me Father for I have sinned. It has been ten months (oh God) since my last blog post.

The trouble isn’t no news. It’s that this year has contained too much news and I have let it all accumulate until, much like laundry or washing up or tax returns, I don’t know where to start. My new book? New course that I am teaching at City Lit? Or even (gulp) new baby?

The baby can be blamed for most of it, of course. I have only had one for 3 and a half months but I have already discovered that babies make the most marvellous excuse for just about anything. I need never go out again. She began as she meant to go on during my pregnancy when I was so exhausted from about 3 months that I could hardly lift my eyes off Netflix and the John Lewis website. I had grand plans of being one of those women who buzzes around doing Pilates, painting flats and climbing mountains at eight months pregnant, but most days I went no further than my local shop for Jaffa Cakes.

In any event, the new book came out in August and like many a younger sibling it’s been a tad neglected. But I have had nice feedback for it so that’s all good.  And so far they play well together.

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Most exciting now is that I am teaching a course on writing romantic fiction, starting 9 November in City Lit, central London. I COULD NOT be more excited about this. I have so many ideas about romantic fiction and now I get to talk about them with anyone who cares to join me for two hours a week, every Thursday from 2.45 pm, for 6 weeks. There are still places available for the ridiculously bargainous price of £109 (£44 concession). Sign up now!

More news soon I promise.