I have a manuscript… almost

Four obstacles to writing by Tom Gauld

I’ve overcome two of Tom Gauld’s four obstacles to writing (thankfully, I’ve not encountered the other two*) and the next novel is nearly complete.

I have only the final scene of the last chapter to write, and the celebratory table is booked for fizz and red meat on Saturday night at Tarantella, our favourite Cockermouth restaurant.

The story of Grace and Jamie that has been rattling around in my head for so long is out on paper, more or less as I imagined it. The phase of getting as many words down as possible is almost over.

But this is just the beginning for Pressmennan – and the next part will be far harder, as it means taking a huge step back from my baby and thinking about quality rather than quantity.

Once those final paragraphs are written, I have to go back to the beginning and start editing with a highly critical eye. I need to straighten out my facts, tighten up the dialogue, fill in the missing thoughts and descriptions, and tidy up every last detail of spelling, punctuation, grammar – and story.

It’s never easy to do this to your own work, but it’s an essential part of the process of making it publishable. I’ve done it before with Tandem, so I know I can do it again – and if I can share any tips along the way, I will.

* Anyone who knows me may be able to work out which ones I’m referring to. Clue: I’ve never kept a pram in the hall.

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Take that, William Wordsworth!

Painting of William Wordsworth

My very frivolous novel Tandem has dealt a knockout blow to William Wordsworth’s highly serious poetic output.

The shop at Wordsworth House and Garden in Cockermouth, the poet’s National Trust-owned birthplace, and my workplace, reports that Tandem is number five in its list of top-selling items for this year.

That makes it the best-selling book, after the house’s guidebook, and puts it ahead of Wordsworth’s Selected Poems and The Golden Store, an illustrated anthology of his work, which are the next most popular titles.*

Maybe William Wordsworth should have written more poems about penguins and bicycles?

My second piece of news is that I’m up to 75,000 words on my new novel Pressmennan. The main character, Grace, has just had a disturbing encounter on the 16th floor of a Glasgow tower block – and I now have just four more chapters to write.

Finally, this blog is entered in two categories in the UK Blog Awards, where my other blog – Fletch the Perchcrow – was shortlisted in the Most Innovative Category last year.

Click here to vote for me in Arts and Culture. And here to vote for me in the Most Innovative category.

Thank you!

* The other items in the top five were a garden plant of some kind, a picnic rug and a Wordsworth tea towel!

When more is definitely better

never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width

Crack open the merlot and break out the tortilla chips… I’ve made it to 70,000 words. 70,092, to be precise.

I’m on target to have a complete first draft of Pressmennan by the end of November and – provided I work hard on fixing it up in December – a manuscript that I can send out by the end of the year.

As someone who was brought up in the garment business (we lived above the shop) I’m delighted to echo the sentiment above. Fine tuning will come later. For now, I’m just very chuffed.

Time for some serious plot wrestling

Cumbrian wrestlers

The end is nigh, and I’m excited and worried in equal measure. I’ve written 65,000 words of my new novel, Pressmennan, and reckon I have, at most, 20,000 more to go.

This is good because I’m keen to get finished so I can find out what the world thinks, but it’s also bad because I’m nearing the point of finding out what the world thinks.

So far, I’ve been focused on getting as many words as possible down on paper, preferably in a reasonably sensible and interesting order.

Now, with the various characters and their story threads well established, I’m moving into a new phase: bringing it all together. And that means some nimble footwork to ensure I don’t trip up as I wrestle a complex plot into submission.

Basically, everything depends on everything else. A passing comment made by a minor character 150 pages ago needs adjustment in light of something happening now. What someone else did or didn’t say in chapter one has to be clarified as it’s crucial to a scene I’m about to write.

And, if such and such is going to occur in a couple of chapters, I need to revise the groundwork laid when the characters involved first appeared.

In other words, each little detail, each conversation, each thought needs to be choreographed into a seamless whole. No loose footwork, no missteps. It’s making my brain hurt, but it must be done – and it must be done well.

Wish me luck!

PS: I’ve been named Oxford University’s Alumni Author of the Month for my novel Tandem. How nice is that?

Nail your story to the wall

The pinboard novelist Alex Morgan created to help her write Pressmennan

Today, I am officially two-thirds of the way through the first draft of my new novel, Pressmennan. I’m celebrating by killing off one of the characters – and posting a picture of my office pinboard.

When I began writing Pressmennan, other than a few scribbles in my notebook, the only thing I had to help me keep track of my characters and their actions was the Excel spreadsheet I mentioned in a previous post.

As the manuscript has grown, it’s become harder to keep hold of everything, and I decided to create a pinboard so I could see it all at a glance.

I put up a list of characters and a summary of the action still to come. There are sticky yellow notes to remind me of things I might forget to sort out or add in, pictures representing my central characters, and postcards and other keepsakes that illustrate key elements of their story.

It’s a complete visual representation of my novel and has made a huge difference. If you’re working on a major writing project, why not make one too? I just hope I’ve made the resolution low enough on mine so it doesn’t turn into one gigantic spoiler.

And the death? I’m saying no more about it.

Take the ten book challenge

Six of my top ten books

Have you come across the Facebook ten book challenge? The idea is to list the ten volumes that have stayed with you over the years. They don’t have to be great literature, just ones that have affected you in some way.

My friend Suzi posted her top ten the other day and challenged me to share mine. As I compiled my list, I realised that whether they were novels or autobiographies, all the books I’d chosen were about wonderful characters involved in amazing stories.

What more could any writer offer? It’s certainly what I want to do. So what are your ten most memorable books? I’d love to know. Here, in no particular order, are mine:

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger Holden Caulfield has stayed with me since my teenage years and there are echoes of him in Sanders, one of the central characters in my novel Tandem.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen Another one from my teens. Sadly, the novel that cemented my love of Austen’s unparalleled powers of characterisation has long since vanished from my bookshelves.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin I read and adored this series in my 20s. Mary Ann Singleton and Michael “Mouse” Tolliver are two of my favourite characters. Great storytelling too. Unfortunately, I lent the whole lot to a friend years ago and never got them back.

Growing up in the Gorbals by Ralph Glasser The omnibus edition tells the story of Glasser’s childhood spent in desperate poverty and his escape, against the odds, to Oxford University. Truly inspiring. Not sure where it went, but it’s no longer on my shelves either.

The Shipping News by Annie E Proulx I’ve loved this book for two decades. Again, characters are key, reinforcing a powerful lesson that I’ve tried to apply to my own writing.

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg Another one that has stayed with me since I first read it 20 years ago. More wonderful storytelling woven around a great central character.

Toast by Nigel Slater My favourite autobiography. I can identify very strongly with many of the food memories that provide the framework for this deeply affecting story. I’m hoping whoever I leant it to will read this and let me have it back soon – it’s the second copy of this book I’ve lost!

This is Not About Me by Janice Galloway Another stonking autobiography that – along with its sequel All Made Up – contains some unforgettable characters.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel My favourite book of all time. Thomas Cromwell? What’s not to love – there is no greater character, real or imagined.

Tandem by Alex Morgan I’ve included my own first book not because it’s great literature, but because it contains the characters and story that launched my career as a novelist – and, for that, it will be with me forever.

Do you see what I see?

Typewriter illustration by Chris Madden

I realised long ago that dialogue is my thing. Unfortunately, you can’t write a novel with nothing but dialogue.* That would be a play – and I don’t want to write plays.

So I struggle on with the descriptive bits that go between the conversations. They provide a necessary variation in the pace and delivery method of information, but I have to fight the urge to bang out a scant paragraph and return to the reams of dialogue that flow far more easily from by brain, through my fingers, and onto the page.

I did read something helpful recently, though, and am trying to keep it in mind. It was an Oliver Burkeman column in The Guardian magazine. He was talking about a forthcoming book by the psychologist Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style.

He quotes Pinker as saying: “When you write, you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, and that you’re directing the attention of your reader to that thing.”

Sound advice – the only problem is that what I tend to see, and be interested in, is people talking!

*Actually, Nicholson Baker did back in the early 90s. It’s called Vox, is about phone sex and, perhaps surprisingly for someone who has such trouble writing sex scenes (see my novel Tandem), I seem to remember enjoying it.

PS: The illustration is from Oliver Burkeman’s column and is by Chris Madden.

Do you know what this is?

Mystery device

Do you recognise the mystery device? Please don’t give the game away if you do! It’s one of the items I’ve been learning about in the course of research for my next novel.

It and several similar gadgets feature in one of Pressmennan’s central strands. They’re linked to a world I understand a little about but, to make sure I get every last detail right, I’ve called in a favour from a couple of experts.

I took page after page of notes as they very generously talked me through everything I needed to know. Now the challenge is to judge exactly how much of what I’ve discovered to share.

Too little and several key scenes won’t be believable. And if I give in to the natural urge to show off my new knowledge and throw everything at them, that’s exactly how it’ll come across – as if I’m showing off – and that’ll spoil the believability of the story too.

So that’s today’s dilemma. The title of the chapter I’m working on is “A problem shared”. My problem now is that I’m no longer sure it’s true!

The best place in the world to write

Porthdinllaen, on Wales's Llyn Peninsula, is the perfect writer's hideaway

Perfect writer’s hideaway: Porthdinllaen, on Wales’s Llyn Peninsula

Writing a novel is all about balance, and I found more than one kind last week. My husband and I were staying in a little beach-side cottage in Porthdinllaen, on the Llyn Peninsula, in North Wales. He went cycling and I wrote.

Pressmennan, my new novel, grew by almost 6,000 words in a matter of days. For me, with two additional part-time jobs and an otherwise busy life, it was a huge achievement. Especially since there was still time to run and swim, sit on the terrace watching the fishermen, and keep up to date with the Tour de France.

That’s one kind of balance – producing enough words to feel like I’m really making progress without it turning into an all-consuming chore – but there’s another type, which is even more important.

To make any novel a page-turning experience – in other words, publishable – in addition to being well-written, it must be well structured. It needs a satisfying rhythm of dramatic, cliff-hanging episodes and calmer, more reflective passages. And that can only be created with the right balance of action and description, dialogue and flashback.

I think I’m achieving that. Will readers agree? We’ll have to wait and see.

How many writers can fit in a caravan?

Caravan

The answer is 31, if they’re taking part in a collaborative novel writing project like the one I’ve just been involved with.

New Writing Cumbria set local writers the following challenge: “One person writes the opening chapter of a novel, with a limited prompt – in this case: a couple are on their honeymoon, travelling around Cumbria in a caravan.

“They then email this to the next person, who writes their own chapter, carrying on from where the first left off. Collaboratively, we write a novel. What follows is anyone’s guess!”

Like 30 others, I thought it was a brilliant idea, so I applied. We were each allowed a maximum of 2,000 words and given a deadline of 72 hours after receiving the preceding chapters.

I was assigned the final one, so had the fun of pulling the strands together and wrapping them all up. Find out how it turned out here.

Or why not get together with some writing colleagues and create your own collaborative novel? It’s much quicker and easier than writing one alone!

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