When I started writing way back in the Middle Ages, there was basically only one way to do it; sit down at a typewriter and start bashing our your manuscript. Most people would handwrite something first as corrections were hard, so typing would be by way of a final draft. It was such a hassle correcting all your mistakes that you were allowed to submit a typescript to a publisher with some pencilled-in corrections, though too many of these were frowned upon. But in those days basically you sat down and just got on with it. Yes, there were one or two books you could read, one in the Teach Yourself series and one which I still have by Louise Doughtyon how to write a novel in a year. Other than that the preoccupation was all with getting published rather than with the act of writing itself.True, there were writers’ groups which offered support and criticism in varying proportions, but basically the method was to read as much as possible in your genre and then get to it. Sit at your desk and write.Bum on seat.
Fast forward forty years and what do we find? An entire industry devoted to making you a better writer. Barely a day goes by without me being invited to join a course or a webinar or a tutorial or to buy this or that book or to follow such-and-such a programme – and there’s such a huge lexicon associated with this, it’s like learning a new language. I never knew such things as beta readers existed (I’m still not sure what they are) and until recently I had no idea what Save the Cat beats were.And don’t get me started on the number of academic courses out there.In the end you get the impression that before you can set finger to keyboard you have to amass an entire forest of diplomas. However did Shakespeare manage?you wonder.
Now I’m not saying all this stuff is worthless. Many people have gone on to successful careers after taking an MA in Creative Writing. I have found the Save the Cat books interesting and useful. But in my humble opinion there’s nobody, no matter how successful or qualified, can teach me to listen to my own voice. So whatever anyone else says, for me it’s about the two Rs – reading and writing. First read, then write. I read whatever takes my fancy, I learn from it and I sit down at my desk to listen to what my voice is telling me. Then I write. There’s no course in the world can teach you how to do that.
The aim is always to be a unique voice, one who can be identified by just a few lines or a paragraph. The authorities are always coming up with new ways of identifying people: did you know that a lip print can be used as ID? I was able to use this in a story where the MC (Main Character) comes home to find lipstick on a wine glass which starts her off on some detective work. It’s also the case that a person can be identified from their unique voice print; that even if you try to disguise the voice something about it will come through. So you could say that’s my aim in writing – to be detected as utterly unique by seeing my voice in print.
So, as another week grinds towards its end, how is my work going? Good question. I have so many balls in the air I can barely keep track of them: aside from poems there are a slew of short stories, a radio play and of course the novel which I am in the process of editing. God, editing is hard! I’ve got first drafts sorted because I’ve got to the stage where I can I just let it rip; I don’t think about what I’m writing, just trust the process and tell the critical, analytical mind to take a flying leap. But when it comes to editing, my woes begin in earnest. My mind jumps all over the place, thinking where is this going? What sort of thing is it really? Where am I going to publish it? What is it actually about? I am tossed and buffeted by ten different winds until I hardly know which way is up, and unsurprisingly I can’t do it for very long; a couple of hours is about the limit. After that I’m exhausted.
I guess these are the questions all writers ask themselves. What kind of writer am I? Who are my readers? Where do I want to be published? to which my answers would be: no idea,anyone, and anywhere. Not helpful. Some days I’d give my eye teeth to be a writer firmly established in a genre, someone who knows her audience and what they want. Someone with a publisher and an agent. But I ain’t and I don’t.
So what is to be done? One thought I had yesterday, struggling through the choppy waters of a short story, was to be aware of these questions as they arise and record them with a view to analysing them later. This is difficult because they rush by at the speed of light, yelling something indiscernible as they go. They’re like players on a hockey field and I never got on with hockey because apart from being out in the cold and the mud trying to hit a tiny ball with a narrow strip of wood, people are rushing by you all the time shouting things like whazafalabeat! and gizzacobaball! and by the time I’d said, ‘Sorry, what was that again?’ they’d be down the other end.)
This is the story of my life. I didn’t fit anywhere so I became a writer. Then I discovered that I didn’t fit anywhere as a writer. So what’s next?
When Virginia Woolf wrote about women becoming authors, she prescribed an income of 50 guineas a year and a room of one’s own. I’m not sure what the modern-day equivalent is of 50 guineas, but I can tell you that a room of one’s own is a luxury I have rarely enjoyed.
The essential piece of equipment in a room of one’s own is of course a desk of one’s own; and this is something I have managed to acquire even if only in a corner of the bedroom. My first desk was a bureau in the hallway (I’ve blogged about this here) and my second, an ancient school desk with a sloping lid which I somehow acquired – maybe from a jumble sale? – and painted white. The lid sloped so steeply that I had to prop it up with fat books to make it level. On the top it had a niche for pens and a hole for an inkwell (at my first year at grammar school we had to use ink pens and I managed to get far more ink on myself than I ever did on the page; thankfully after this we were allowed biros.*)Then after I left home there were built-in desks in student rooms and finally, after years of desklessness, a magnificent one of my Dad’s which had sat in his study for years and was so old and creaky that it had to be held together with string. I seem to remember he bought it for 20 shillings from Timothy White’s. Then when that broke I was already in Madrid and had a tiny desk in the corner of my room and after that, once I was married with children, a table in the corner of the bedroom and then (joy!) for three years a proper desk in an actual study during which time I wrote a load of short stories. Around this period I also had a big dining table up at the chalet which, although a little creaky, was quite serviceable and looked out from a picture window onto the campsite and the trees beyond. But when we moved here I had to make do with a table in the library and a desk in a Friend’s house before I found a rickety old table on wheels and made some space for it in the bedroom.
I have written on trains, planes and buses. I have written in waiting-rooms and cafes, on beaches and in chalets in the woods. But the thing I long for most is a desk of one’s own – and a room of one’s own to put it in.
*I guess this could spawn another post; A Pen of One’s Own…
I know I’ve blogged about this before but the more time I spend on Facebook writers’ groups the more it strikes me that there’s an entire industry out there devoted to (supposedly) making you a better writer. Every week I come across more courses, workshops, talks, lectures, books and videos than I can count; every week I hear of programmes and apps and other things I don’t even know how to categorise which claim to help you to edit or plot or download a cover for your novel or publish or market it. Armies of readers both alpha and beta (and I’ve only just discovered the difference) wait to invade your text and pull it to pieces. And that’s not counting all the Nano-based gimmicks such as stars and certificates, crystals and word-count validations and I don’t know what else. Call me arrogant, but I don’t feel the need for a single one of them. It makes me wonder how the likes of Jane Austen or James Joyce managed to pen a single word without the help of Scrivener or the ever-incomprehensible Save the Cat Beats(OK having read that summary I understand what it is but why is it called that? What does it have to do with cats and why are they saved?
When I started writing I did everything by hand, including editing, and the final draft was then typed up. There was no choice of fonts, no way of putting things in bold or italics (just underlining for emphasis) and copies could only be made with carbon or by using a photocopier. And I never did any courses because I figured (again, call me arrogant if you will) that I was my own best teacher. I still maintain that if you want to write, you need to do two things: write as much as you can, and read as much as you can. Read whatever you like, read good writing and bad writing and try to figure out the difference.Take a notebook everywhere you go and work out how to describe what you see and hear; figure out how to transcribe dialogue and how to convey your own thoughts and feelings.
I’m not saying all these courses and apps are worthless. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never used them and even if I wanted to I can’t afford it. But it does make you wonder. Give me the traditional route any day and you can save your own cat…
I have blogged before about the moment on a German mountainside when I began to write again after years of being blocked. Back then my work consisted of ‘diary’ writing and I’d be happy if I wrote a page or two each day, doubly so if there were some good ideas in it. Back then I couldn’t even imagine writing something so coherent and structured as a short story, let alone a novel. This state of affairs continued for quite some while: I’d write fragments of description, dialogue or characterisation but no matter how I sweated and groaned and prayed, nothing hove into view which might remotely be said to resemble a Plot.
Gradually these fragments began to weave themselves together and eventually some sort of narrative emerged and I began to write short stories, a couple of which were even published. But I still couldn’t imagine writing anything as vast and complex as a novel. What would I write about? What would happen? But over time the stories wove themselves together and somehow out of nowhere I wrote my first novel. Then I discovered Nanowrimo and wrote three or four more but still I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to read, let alone publish them. Then I wrote another novel, sent it to a dozen friends to read and got some positive feedback. But still I couldn’t imagine having a publisher or an agent. Now I’m starting to imagine what it would be like to have a publisher and agent – but when I get there I’ll probably struggle to imagine being successful. And so it goes on.
But there’s another strand to this story, because it’s also a journey from prose to poetry and from the written to the oral tradition. When I started writing I assumed I would write novels. Short stories didn’t seem relevant and as for poetry, that was for another race of people entirely.I definitely, absolutely did not see myself as a poet, despite – or perhaps because of – having written comic verses as a child and love poems as a teenager. I just didn’t take them seriously as poetry.
Enter Word! I can’t remember what drew me to this (then) tiny group of poets in Leicester. Maybe it was that they met in a bar (always a plus), maybe it was that they seemed a refreshing antidote to the precious groups I’d hitherto encountered, one of which made a huge deal about me even attending, let alone reading. But going to Word! was like opening the doors and letting in the storm. It blew me away – and I came home thinking Yes! I can do this! The next time I took a poem I’d written and although the idea of reading in public terrified the pants off me, the group was so supportive that I never looked back.
In order to discover myself as a novelist I had to travel back in time to the beginnings of literature, to the sadly undervalued oral tradition.And that is where I found my voice.
It seems to be my destiny to write in a series of crumbling, cobbled-together environments. My first ‘desk’ was a bureau in the hall on which I wrote in an old notepad with a school biro; later I had an old-style school desk with a sloping lid, impossible to write on unless propped up by books; after that I had my Dad’s old office desk which was held together with bits of string until it wasn’t, and had to be junked. That was a sad day. I’ve written at tables in the corner of rooms and for three glorious years I had my own study with a proper desk and bookshelves, just like I’d been dreaming of. But it didn’t last and after a year of trying to work in the library and using a friend’s spare room, I cleared a tiny corner of my bedroom from which I am now speaking to you.
The ‘desk’ on which perches my laptop or notepad is really a hospital-style table on wheels, the sort which fits over a bed. I spied it in the outhouse and thought, aha!I could write on this during the day and wheel it into a corner at night. So, for the last two years, this is what I have done. It’s cramped and far from ideal but nevertheless on this wonky table in a corner of the room I have written two novels, a couple of dozen poems, numerous short stories and of course my many blog poststo you, dear reader.
So here’s the thing; if I’d waited for the right arrangement during those years I’d have got nothing done. The thing is to write, no matter where you find yourself; so long as you have pen and paper (or laptop) and a corner of peace you can write. I have written on railway platforms and trains, on buses, in pubs and cafes, in libraries and parks and even in the middle of the street when an idea seized me and I had to write it down. Want to be a writer? Write. Accept no excuses.
Aaaand today’s incomprehensible Nano phrases are: ‘my 4thewords referral code is *******. Use to get us both extra crystals on signup,’ and ‘the official Nano team offers a two-week extension as 4thewords is a sponsor and I’m going to include the code here.’ Wow. Extra crystals eh?
Words fail me. Well, they don’t but you know what I mean. What the hell is all this stuff about? I know people use it to motivate themselves but what would I want with a picture of a crystal (for I assume that’s what it is) or even extra crystals? What even is a crystal anyway? Probably some collection of pixels that sparkles in your inbox. I don’t need that.
*Sigh*. I guess I shouldn’t criticise these things if they help others,but sometimes you wonder how Virginia Woolf or Emily Bronte managed to string two words together without the aid of certificates and crystals and the ever-incomprehensible Save the Cat Beats. (I still can’t get my head around that one.) Sometimes I wonder whether hardship can actually be a spur to the determined writer; when I think about how some women wrote in cold rooms with zero encouragement – sometimes being positively discouraged from writing, that’s all the crystals I need. Crystals of frost on the window-pane perhaps…
But some people on the Nano group are doing this against incredible odds, staying up till the early hours, writing with children on their lap, battling discouragement from family and ‘friends’ – it never ceases to amaze me how many people there are who would never dream of doing Nano but have no hesitation in discouraging those who are. As the saying goes, ‘blowing your candle out does not make mine burn brighter.’
I am officially half-way through Nano in terms of words, at 25,000. Actually that’s not strictly true as I wrote 2,000 before the first of November so at 27,000 I’ll be half-way there. Or should that be 26,000 as I’ll be aiming for 52?
Well. How’s it going? I hear you cry. And why not? It is actually going a whole lot better than I thought it would; when I was writing ‘Tapestry’ I set myself a goal of 750 words a day and that was a struggle, but at the moment this stuff is flowing like the floodwater currently making so many people’s lives a misery (our daughter lives in Doncaster and I’ve been messaging her constantly but she assures us that they’re not in the danger zone.) It feels like one of those balls you can get made with rods and – hang on, I’ll find a video as I don’t know how to excribe it, as Holly used to say.
Yeah. One of these:
Whoa, that’s scary!
So yeah, it feels a little like that, pushing ever outwards to explore the natural limits of the form where everything’s stretched to the limit. But we’re nowhere near that yet.
Actually ‘excribe’ is not such a bad synonym for ‘describe’ at least in terms of written description. A born poet, that girl.And I wonder what The Maze will turn out to be like? If recent videos are anything to go by she’ll be talking before long.
Dishwasher is being plumbed in today. I look forward to no more complaints about the washing up: instead we’ll have moans about having to empty or stack the bloody thing…
In spite of all my snarky comments about Nano apps and tools, I have to confess to a predilection for buying new notebooks. We have a branch of The Works just down the road that does a mouthwatering selection of notepads in all sizes and colours and with a variety of inspiring covers (previously on this blog I have featured a few and one is on the cover photo.) Not only can you get spiral-bound, hardbacked A4 pads, you can get similar articles in A5 and A6.
My main notebook is the ‘diary’ – not so much a Pepys-like record of events as a place for random scatterings: thoughts, ideas, proto-poems and embryonic stories. You might find brief shopping lists there or simply random words. I keep the book by my bed at night and as well as writing a little before I go to sleep, I sometimes scribble thoughts in the middle of the night. I go through one of these diaries about every 3-4 months and I never throw them out. I’ve kept this sort of diary since 1981; since the day I decided to start writing again. Sadly I don’t have those early notebooks as I was re-reading them too often andthey had to go.
For poems I use an A5 notebook and for ‘roving thoughts’ – as I call them – a tiny little A6 notebook tucked in my bag.
So much for the everyday, now for the project books. Every new project, be it a novel, a collection of short stories or something else entirely, needs its own dedicated notebook. This helps the thought processes to gel and means that when I come to write whatever it is, my ideas are all in one place. They may not – nay, they will not – be organised or coherent but at least I’ll know where to find them.
In the summer I developed a bit of a notebook habit; it even got to the point where I was keeping notebooks for gardening and yoga. I’ve managed to dial down this addiction now and I’m back to just the usual half-dozen or so.
Speaking of diaries, I’ve recently borrowed Tony Benn’s (the ’77-’80 volume – interesting times) which are fascinating. What strikes me most of all is how appallingly the standards of behaviour have declined in recent years. People were much more polite and respectful then– and I don’t mean deferential; Benn was an outspoken opponent of privilege and no respecter of status.
So now that I’m writing ideas for my Nano project the question is, does it need its own notebook or shall I just stick with the one I’m using?
At this time of year all aspiring writers of fiction gear up for the first of November when Nanowrimo starts. Nanowrimo is short for National Novel-writing Month and has spawned a number of spin-offs such as National Poetry Writing Month (Napowrimo) and Nablopomo which sounds like a member of the Soviet Politburo but is to do with blog posting. With Nanowrimo the idea is to produce a novel of 50,000 words in a month. If this sounds a tall order, that’s because it is; if you write every day including weekends you’d have to produce over a thousand words (or three pages of A4) a day. If that doesn’t seem like much just sit down and try it – and if you don’t know what 50,000 words looks like, it’s a short novel or a longish novella (or a Russian short story.)
I had already decided not to do Nano this year, seeing as how I’ve just finished a novel, but now a brilliant idea has occurred to me. What about a short story collection! There are often competitions for themed short story collections and I usually struggle to fit my disparate stories under one umbrella, so what if I were to write a collection that was themed from the start? November 1st is (in theory) the first day of our brand new bright Brexit tomorrow, so what better theme than Brexit Britain?