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.

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.

Every novel needs a spreadsheet

Recommended reading

I’ve just spent a very productive week on the lovely Galloway House Estate in south-west Scotland working on my new novel – and I’ve learned three things I think are worth sharing.

1) Excel is the novelist’s friend. It wasn’t until I was deep in the process of revising my first novel, Tandem, that I realised how useful it would have been to have a plan listing the main events of each chapter, who was involved and where to find it in the manuscript. One of the first things I did this week was to create just such a spreadsheet for Pressmennan – and it’s already proving invaluable.

2) My reading brain is easily fooled. When I’m immersed in writing my own fiction, I don’t like to fill my head with other people’s. Not because I think it’ll somehow “influence” me, but because I’ve only got so much space for stories and I need to focus on creating my own. I want to read something for a change of scene, but I find a lot of non-fiction heavy going. I’ve discovered the answer: autobiography. I get the satisfaction of reading something really interesting, and my brain’s happy because it isn’t fiction. My top choice this week was Liza Campbell’s Title Deeds, the riveting story of her dysfunctional upbringing in a Scottish castle.

3) Every book needs at least one dog. My other reading matter was Terry Darlington’s Narrow Dog to Carcassonne, the wonderful tale of his travels by narrow boat through England, Belgium and France accompanied by his wife Monica and Jim, their pork-scratching-loving whippet. Jim is a star. As Terry says, he is “cowardly, thieving and disrespectful and hates boating” – and the book wouldn’t be half so much fun without him. There are several dogs in Title Deeds, and Tandem features a greyhound called Bovis. Pressmennan, although only five chapters long so far, already has its quota of dogs – dachshunds Oscar and Peterson, aka the Wee Buggers. I think Jim would like them!

Into the dustbin of literature

Tom Gauld cartoon

This cartoon by Tom Gauld made me smile. I’m only on chapter three of my new novel, Pressmennan, and already one of the characters – a Swedish film star called Bibi – has been consigned to the dustbin.

When it comes to editing your own work, it’s not indecisive to make changes – it’s essential. Knowing when to hit delete is a skill every writer must learn if they want to be successful. And the parts to look hardest at are often the ones you’re most proud of.

As Arthur Quiller-Couch advised in On the Art of Writing: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

Sometimes the bravest and best course of action is to dispose of a character, scene or even a whole plotline. Occasionally, the wastebasket, electronic or actual, is the right place for an entire manuscript.

It’s where my first two went. It took me a while to realise I needed to let go of them, but once I did, I was able to move on and put everything I’d learned into writing Tandem.

Decisive use of the red pen is what made it publishable and turned it into the winner of the Hookline Novel Competition.

Journeys with strangers

Bookshelf


There are only two basic novel plots. This is something I remember reading years ago, and it has floated to the front of my mind over the past few days as I’ve started thinking seriously about my new novel.

It was the American novelist John Gardner who said it all boiled down to this: the central character goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.

It may seem simplistic but I think it’s true. All novels are about change. Something must happen to the main character, otherwise there is no story. And that change must be prompted by something they do themselves – a physical or emotional journey of discovery – or by someone else – the stranger – who does something to affect their life.

Think about the books you love and see which category they fall into. Pride and Prejudice, one of my favourites, revolves around the arrival of several (male) strangers. Wolf Hall is about Thomas Cromwell’s journey from poverty to power.

My first novel, Tandem, is actually about both. The Amazon blurb says: “Paula abandons her London life and travels through the night to a Scottish village where she once spent a childhood holiday. Desperate to avoid a painful loss, she tries to hide away. However, the locals are keen to know more about their unhappy visitor and she is soon tangled in the life of 12-year-old Sanders. Can Paula help her new friend? Can we ever run away from the past?”

So Paula embarks on what turns out to be both a physical and an emotional journey, while for the villagers of Craskferry, particularly Sanders, she is the stranger who comes to town and changes lives.

My new novel, Pressmennan, has just one plot theme: it’s all about strangers. What will your novel be about?

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