Category Archives: Learning

Chasing Perfection as I edit my First Draft

I’m still revising my novel, moving from a first draft to something I could get an opinion on from another writer. Writing is a solitary activity for so many of us. Perhaps that is why we like to hear and read about the travails of other writers. Recently I have been thinking a great deal about the wise words of two writers.

The first is Clive James, chronically ill, but still writing in the Guardian Weekend Magazine in a series called Reports of My Death. The second is Neil Gaiman who is passionate about the value of the written word to people’s development and wellbeing, and especially for the young. He has been trenchant in his criticism of library closures, for example in his lecture for The Reading Agency in 2012. It’s worth reading.

Pencils from tree trunks.

Pencils from tree trunks.

Clive James’s Misprint

In April this year, Clive James’s column caught my eye because we were about to look at his poems in my reading group. He described the arrival of the finished copies of his Collected Poems after weeks checking proofs ‘until I was finally sure that it was free of misprints throughout its hefty length’.

Delighted with the way the book looked I sat down to read it. There was a misprint, and it was plausible enough to derail the meaning of an entire poem. … It made me feel that I was contemplating the ruins of 60 years of work.

Was this an over-reaction?

By nightfall I was ready to face the sad but consoling truth. If the upside of being old and tired is that a little thing like a finch’s call sounds like heaven, the inevitable downside is that a little thing like a misprint looks like death. Getting things out of proportion is an occupational hazard for anyone whose occupation is over. [Guardian Weekend 23.4.16]

153 tick

Those of us who pour over manuscripts, looking for that last mistake can understand Clive James’s reaction. We want our work to go out into the world on the wings of perfection.

Neil Gaiman’s wise words

What an impossible dream! I do not know the source of my next quotation, although it is included in the Guardian’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction (February 2010). Neil Gaiman’s words leapt out at me from a handout I was given at the Festival of Writing, seizing my attention much as Clive James’s dismay had.

Fix it. Remember that sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

Brilliant image! Chasing the horizon. Out on Dartmoor on a beautiful October Sunday, I found myself chasing the horizon up beyond Trowelsworthy Tor. Our landmark, the cairn on Hen Tor, had disappeared as we approached. We had descended into a dip before climbing again. The horizon is a changeable phenomenon, always further away. Its defining feature is its unattainableness.

Trowelsworthy Tor, October 2016

Trowelsworthy Tor, October 2016

Chasing the horizon on Dartmoor is a lot more fun and more beautiful than chasing perfection in writing. Neil Gaiman is right. You need to keep moving.

Knowing when to move on

To write is to try to approximate what we have in our head with some words and punctuation on the page/screen. Before we commit to marking the page, we have an idea to be captured. But as I spool out those words, what I write communicates less and less accurately the image, the story, the ideas in my head. I rewrite, review, revise and rewrite in order to get it closer to perfection. But, like the horizon I cannot reach it. I can get closer, but I never arrive.

294-crashed-typewriter

This is not a justification for avoiding revision. Not at all. Just an acknowledgement that I need to take account of the possible delusion that this novel of mine could ever be perfect. It will always only be an approximation of what is in my head. That’s how writing is. Writers need to judge the moment when it’s right to stop, when it’s time to move on, to write the next thing.

Related posts

This is the 9th in a series on revising my novel, following an on-line course back in 2015. Previous posts

My purposes for the on-line course #1 January 2015

Progress On-line course: my learning #2 January 2015

Progress On-line course: post course plans #3 February 2015

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot March 2015

On-Line Writing Course #5 Deadlines August 2015

What I write about when I am not writing fiction #6 April 2016

Revising the novel again (and again) #7 July 2016

Festival of Writing #8 September 2016

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Learning, My novel, Writing

Writer’s Treats

Treats for writers? What can they be and why do writers need treats? The answer is quite simple really. Writers spend so much time on their own, involved in their own worlds and preoccupations that they need to replenish their energies with enjoyment from time to time. When I am in need my solution is a writer’s treat. Let me explain.

292-artists-way

You have heard of Morning Pages, I am sure. Morning Pages were popularised by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. Many writers and other artists use Morning Pages to begin their day. It’s a form of free writing and is known to help people get the splurging over with, generate ideas, think through problems, record ideas and passing thoughts, and, for writers, it oils the pen for the day.

Less well known is the companion activity of the Artist Date. My version of this is the Writer’s Treat.

The Artist Date (aka Writer’s Treat)

Like Morning Pages the Artist Date is a ‘basic tool,’ of creativity, according to Julia Cameron – although she warns that you might think it is a nontool or a diversion, a distraction from the artistic endeavour. So what is it, this artist date?

An artist date is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers. You do not take anyone on this artist date but you, and your inner artist aka your creative child. That means no lovers, friends, spouses, children, – no taggers-on of any stripe. (18)

And the purpose and form of the date?

Your artist needs to be taken out, pampered, and listened to. … A visit to a great junk store, a solo trip to the beach, an old movie, seen alone together, a visit to an aquarium or art gallery. (19)

More examples: a long country walk, a solitary expedition to the beach for a sunrise or sunset, a sortie out to a strange church to hear gospel music, to an ethnic neighbourhood to taste foreign sights and sounds.

Writing and the Artist Date

Like many people I have read The Artist’s Way, and continue with a form of Morning Pages. I have also adopted the Artist Date, but over the years I have left behind the rules and I call it Writer’s Treats.

The rules for Julia Cameron were

  • Set aside time
  • Set aside time every week
  • Plan
  • Keep it to yourself: no lovers etc.
  • Commit to the date

I don’t have any rules for my writer’s treats. I just do them.

I do them when I feel like it, and especially when my writing is getting a little cramped, rusty, wayward.

292-walk-signpost

I don’t always plan my treat. If something is bothering me I’ll change my shoes and set out on my favourite short walk, up through the woods on the local common, and out to a bench, where I can sit and look at Dartmoor and the weather. Sometimes I take my notebook. Sometimes my camera. Sometimes I just sits and thinks and …

Some treats I do plan, especially as I no longer live in easy reach of museums and art galleries. In London I could more easily go to a concert or the opera, or drop in on an exhibition, and just look at one picture or object. For example, I am always moved by the display in the British Museum of two people’s diet of tablets throughout their lives (see photo).

British Museum, tablet display

British Museum, tablet display

I am usually alone. Since my teenage years I have gone to the cinema, concerts, theatre, travelling abroad on my own. Not always, but often. A creative focus can do without social distractions, but I also enjoy social interactions like any one else.

Examples of Writer’s Treats

Treats can be small, like a coffee in a local café, with my notebook out and ears open. A short walk by the sea. They can be large, like a trip to Amsterdam, spending a whole day in the Rijksmuseum. Here’s a model that inspired a short story.

Rijksmuseum, March 2014

Rijksmuseum, March 2014

Nowadays they are often associated with visits to London, like the weekend during which I went to the Freedom From Torture Write to Life Group’s production of Lost and Found at the Roundhouse. I spent a morning at Cornelia Parker’s Found exhibition at The Foundling Museum. I used to sing in a community choir at the Foundling Museum, so I also enjoyed some nostalgia amongst the Hogarth paintings. And Georgia O’Keeffe’s show at the Tate Modern. And as I was away from home and on my own I was reading, reading, reading.

Gari Melchers Woman Reading by a Window 1895

Gari Melchers Woman Reading by a Window 1895

Concerts are always a treat, and this year the Dartington Summer School in August featured some talks as well: Jo Shapcott reading her poems, Alfred Brendel talking about Beethoven’s last three sonatas. I noted at the time that I was entranced by the combination of his accent, his intellectualism and how he used words to unpick music.

In September I had a treat with my grandson, a trip out of Plymouth Royal William Dock in a boat to demonstrate marine biology hydrophonic equipment on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning.

I have heard people call this feeding the soul, and they’ve got a point. It also, I reflect as I write, looks like the most enormous self-indulgence. Perhaps it is both. But it is about not getting rusty, enjoying the creativity of others, being exposed to new things. As a result of my treats I often see things in new ways, see and hear things I haven’t experienced before. I can react without worrying about my companions, or any task, such as writing a review. It rests my mind from struggles with writing.

The Artist’s Way: a spiritual path to higher creativity by Julia Cameron, published in the UK by Pan books: first published in 1993.

Related posts

I wrote about Morning Pages on this blog in April 2013 in a post called Do writers really need a routine?

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, My novel, Writing

Festival of Writing

What do you get if you put 400 writers, agents, editors and creative writing teachers together? Lots of talk, lots of notebooks, lots of focused people. This was my experience of the Festival of Writing at York University this September.

What can a festival of writing give to a writer? I don’t mean a literature festival, but a writing festival? The Writers’ Workshop, who organised the Festival of Writing 2016 in York in September say they aimed to do three things given that writing is hard and solitary.

  1. help improve your writing
  2. help you meet the industry
  3. give you an amazing time

I went along mostly to finds ways to improve my writing, but it was also interesting and useful to meet others engaged in the business of book production and of writing fiction.

284-fow-logo

What did I learn?

I learned a great deal more about the publishing industry, how the fiction landscape is changing as ebooks and self-publishing have grown. It can sometimes feel that the industry is in opposition to the writer, but of course agents and publishers need good writers, and we heard about plenty of good relationship. Most writers, I suspect, still feel we are somehow on the outside, looking for the magic formula that will allow us entry. Or if not some magic, some helpful guidance and tools that give us the chance of entry.

With a strapline from here to publication, the event went some way to demystifying a process which otherwise can seem like the quest of romantic medieval fiction: an epic journey with riddles and tests, ensnarements, false directions and yet no promise of attaining the goal.

Experiment, Learn, Bounce!

Experiment, Learn, Bounce! was CL Taylor’s message to us and it has merit. She described her very successful career as a fiction writer and extracted these points for us.

  • Experiment and be bold within and across different genres.
  • Learn from it all, learn from feedback, critiques, how-to books and from other published books.
  • And don’t give up, bounce back from rejection, you would miss out if you crumpled.

More than once writers were congratulated on completing the first draft of their novel, not many people in the world have done it. Perhaps they people know something that we don’t?

And perhaps we should be adding Celebrate! to CL Taylor’s imperatives. Celebrate every achievement, because writing is so hard.

284-uof-york

Workshops

There were 40 workshops on offer; everything from ‘First 100 Word Challenge’ to ‘How to Attract an Agent’. My own choices reflected my intentions to improve the first draft of my novel. I went to workshops that focused on specific aspects of the craft of fiction. All six workshops were interesting and useful, and I brought away some ideas and notes for action. Some were better learning experiences than others. It seems a misnomer to refer to a one-hour monologue as a workshop, for example.

The Writers’ Workshop is able to call upon some very experienced people in the business of helping people improve their writing. It seemed that most people attending the workshop were stimulated and challenged by their workshop experiences.

My mistake

I made a major mistake by not preparing well enough for this conference – distracted by the publication of The New Age of Ageing and other activities. I missed the information about booking one-to-one sessions and sending in my work-in-progress for feedback from an agent and an editor. Silly me! For many people present this was a really important part of attending. I know this because they were slack-jawed if I admitted that I had missed out.

Some specific things

Did you know that there is a genre called Reading Group Fiction? New to me.

It seems that post-it notes and coloured pens might be the best aid to rewriting for some of us. This does not just apply to the stationery junkies amongst us. As they are small, cheap and moveable, everything a first draft is not, post-its are a good way of visualising aspects of the novel, such as plot threads, and being able to see where rewrites are needed. Thanks Julie Cohen for the workshop on that: we did some post-it activities.

I enjoyed the generosity of the publishing community and the wannabe published writers. People were friendly, exchanged contact details, recommended books, noted successes, and bought each other drinks. Back in my writing attic I am aware of how hard it is for writers in their everyday lives to maintain the sense of community.

284-fow

But …

Half way through the weekend I lost my confidence and it all became a bit of a nightmare. I was confronted, like the hill walker who reaches the brow of the hill only to find there another one beyond, the further you go the more you can see there is to do. The consequence of knowing more about what needs revision is understanding there is more and more to do than I ever imagined. I am not convinced I can do it. I find that Neil Gaiman has expressed this rather more succinctly: ‘chasing the horizon’.

Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

[From the workshop Writing Tips: Rules are made to be broken by Laura Williams.]

I am hoping that this nightmare of lost confidence will soon pass, and that the practical suggestions together with the understanding I gained about different aspects of the writer’s craft, will help me through.

But here’s another useful piece of advice from Carl Sandburg which can apply to life as well as writing:

Beware of advice – even this.

Related posts and websites

During the weekend I tweeted the connection to a post I wrote in July, the 7th in a series on revising my novel. It was called Revising the novel again (and again). A few people read the post, one saying she was glad to find she was not alone.

Here’s the link to the website of The Writers’ Workshop, organisers of the Festival.

This is the 8th in the series on revising my novel, following an on-line course back in 2015, also run by The Writers’ Workshop. Previous posts were:

My purposes for the on-line course #1 January 2015

Progress On-line course: my learning #2 January 2015

Progress On-line course: post course plans #3 February 2015

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot March 2015

On-Line Writing Course #5 Deadlines August 2015

What I write about when I am not writing fiction April 2016

 

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, My novel, Writing

Learning to be old

There are three authors of New Age of Ageing. I am one. I asked the other two to reflect on what writing the book meant to each of them. This month, on her return from holiday, Eileen writes about three important contradictions, conundrums and challenges about ageing.

  1. Performing old
  2. Covering the signs of ageing
  3. Not heading for the scrap heap.
Eileen on air at the BBC

Eileen on air at the BBC

This is what Eileen Carnell wrote for Bookword blog:

It has been an absolute joy to work with Caroline and Marianne over the last two years writing our new book The New Age of Ageing: How society needs to change. We interviewed fascinating people and carried out numerous searches. The most stimulating part of the process was the dialogue we had together creating new ways of understanding the issues and then finally creating our vision to conclude the book. The whole process was extremely challenging, fun and inspiring.

Reflecting now, just over a month before publication date, has been useful in highlighting some contradictions, conundrums and challenges about ageing that I have found particularly striking.

Performing old?

I was excited when I came across the idea that we learn to ‘perform’ or act old. As a feminist researcher I was aware of the concept of performing gender. Relating the idea to ageing was incredibly useful. I was amused by what Ruth said: ‘I am aware of changes, hearing myself making sitting down and standing up noises like an old person’. There are clear rules in our society about what old people should and shouldn’t do and wear and behave, just as there are clear expectations for women in our society.

Jenny’s remarks nicely illustrate the idea that we learn to perform old:

Me and my partner are experimenting with being old for a few days … he’s had a hernia repair, I pulled a muscle in my hip. … S’interesting the sorts of things that one might need to get ‘a young person’ in for eventually … changing the bed linen for starters.

I like the ironic tone of this message. Jenny knows the situation is temporary – a rehearsal. But beneath the message speaks truth – an agreed cultural understanding of performing ‘old’ and how relationships with family, friends and younger people change as a result. Those who fail to conform are criticised or ridiculed. When Mike was preparing for a triathlon, aged 70, friends said ‘You must be mad at your age, you crazy man of excess. Why don’t you just put your feet up?’ The dominant image of older people is of decline – take that road sign of bent old people with sticks for example.

230 road sign

A contradiction emerges. There is a powerful message in our society that it is our duty to age well and healthily. That means being super fit and active for as long as possible, regardless of social background, economic status or level of physical ability. A blame issue develops: ‘they should have looked after themselves’.

Reading the work of Lorna Warren and Amanda Clarke helped me make sense of this conundrum. They draw attention to the idea that in attempting to counterbalance the ubiquitous images of decline it is important not to create new unachievable oppressions of physically fit, creative, active, adventurous ageing (see note 1). When writing I recognised the temptation to overdo the positive aspects which gives weight to this new tyranny.

Covering signs of age?

Part of the tyranny is to hide signs of ageing – age denial. My sister Sheila, who was the prettiest of us three siblings, sent me a picture of her new face following Botox treatments. I was shocked and saddened, but in her 60s she was entitled to make this decision, although I felt it spoilt her looks, making her face looked ironed and her smile forced. But when I saw the headline: ‘Pageant Mom Gives Botox to 8-Year-Old’ that revealed the story of a mother administering Botox to hide her daughter’s wrinkles I was horrified (note 2). We three authors spent a long time considering our own attitudes towards the cover up. We agreed that this example of seeking perfection was an extreme form of cultural oppression. But where do you draw the line? Opinion is divided. Some see the use of cosmetics and treatments as empowering. It is clear that beauty ideals dominate many women’s lives and there is a growing belief that ageing is like a disease that can be cured. Subsequently the cosmetic business exploits women’s fears. I have come to the conclusion that if we persist as a society in hiding age then we will never re-educate ourselves to see beauty in the faces and spirits of older people.

Heading for the scrap heap?

Society does something strange to us as we age. We are no longer valued participants but seen as a burden, a problem or redundant. While many older people want to contribute they find it difficult to find ways to share their skills. Ray expressed his frustration after he retired from his role as a surgeon in a teaching hospital:

It’s such a waste. I could be a mentor or use my wisdom in other ways in an advisory capacity. I have so many transferable skills and it’s as if nothing I did in my professional life has any value any more. I feel I am on the scrap heap.

This is so sad. The challenge is to create structures and forums so that older people can share their wisdom and experience rather than leave it to chance.

I met an inspiring retiree, called Mo, who moved to a village in South Africa to set up a school. She said:

For me the way forward is clear – to tap into the global wisdom of so many who have reached retirement. There is immeasurable wisdom which could have a huge impact on so many in the world today.

I like the clear statement that old people need to be recognised as ‘assets rather than burdens … active contributors, not passive recipients’ (note 3).

Many older people, like Mo, do find ways to benefit society. We came across many who are still active in local, national or international politics and are vociferous in campaigning for a better world and in fighting ageism. The penultimate chapter of the book celebrates their contributions demonstrating there is no shortage of older radicals.

 

References

(1) Warren, L. and Clarke, A. (2009) ‘“Woo-hoo, what a ride!” Older people, life stories and active ageing’, in R. Edmondson and H.J. von Kondratowitz (eds) Valuing older people: A humanist approach to ageing, Bristol: Policy Press, p 244.

(2) ABC News (2011) Pageant Mom Gives Botox to 8-Year-Old Daughter: How Young Is Too Young? May 12, 2011. By Hagan, K., Kunin, S. & Ghebremmedhin. S. via GoodMorning America. (Accessed 23.06.15).

243 New Age cover(3) Roberts, Y. (2012) One Hundred Not Out: resilience and active ageing. London: The Young Foundation.

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman. To be published by Policy Press on 7th September 2016.

Related posts

We are writing monthly posts about the stages from bright ideas to publishing our book. Earlier posts include

Ageing: it is not ‘them and us’, it is all ‘us’ by Marianne Coleman (June 2016)

Getting feedback to improve our writing (May)

First Catch Your Publisher (April)

One Book, Three Authors (March)

Writers’ Residential (February)

 

Please subscribe by entering your email address in the box. You will receive emails about future posts.

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, Publishing our book, Writing

Revising the novel again (and again)

Here I go again as the Hollies had it:

266 Hollies

Here I go again

I cant help it

Here I go again

Making the same mistakes

Heading for more heartaches

What can I do when there’s nothing I can do

I looked in your eyes and I knew that I was through

I’m gonna say now

Here I go again

Watch me now ’cause

Here I go again

Here I go again. It’s time to edit the first draft of my novel. Again!

Mistakes! Heartaches! Nothing I can do!

The mistakes

Believing I could work on two major projects and a blog at the same time was my biggest mistake. I’ve written about this before in a post called What I write about when I am not writing fiction in April.

243 New Age coverThe non-fiction book I have been involved in, The New Age of Ageing, will be published in September. We are still dealing with proofs, queries, index, testimonials, and other prepublication matters. It keeps my mind on the non-fiction.

The skills for revising a novel seem to need rebooting every time I sit down with a chapter. But it is now moving slowly, I am happy to report. And I have set myself a deadline (not for sharing yet) to help me move on.

Heartaches

Writing tog

Doubts, I have a few. Can I ever let this novel go? The issues and characters are very important to me. I like spending time with them.

Do I have another novel in me? Will I want to spend the time on it? If this one is to learn about writing a novel what would be the purposes of another novel?

What about another non-fiction book?

These are all dilemmas for which I have no answer, and I experience them as heartaches.

Nothing I can do!

With no current answer there is nothing I can do about those dilemmas at the moment. However, …

145 writing keyboardSomething I CAN do

Get on with it. In particular I need to get on with revealing more of the emotional inner states of my characters. In my notes I have identified four things to look at to do this:

  1. imagery
  2. descriptions
  3. dialogue
  4. closeness of narration to the characters (aka psychic distance)

And there is all the normal editing I need to do to sharpen up all the chapters.

It’s too late to worry about the risks involved, mostly the risk that it isn’t good enough. I need to rewrite, kill my darlings and nail those words.

145 Risk quote

Looking for advice

Any guidance, advice or tips for a would-be reviser?

Related posts

This is the 7th in a series on revising my novel, following an on-line course back in 2015. Previous posts

My purposes for the on-line course #1 January 2015

Progress On-line course: my learning #2 January 2015

Progress On-line course: post course plans #3 February 2015

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot March 2015

On-Line Writing Course #5 Deadlines August 2015

What I write about when I am not writing fiction April 2016

 To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

15 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, My novel, Writing

Ageing: it is not ‘them and us’, it is all ‘us’

There are three authors of New Age of Ageing. I am one. I asked the other two to reflect on what writing the book meant to each of them. Eileen has gone on holiday, so her reflections will appear in July. Marianne writes about three things:

  1. Her own learning, particularly how writing the book had clarified her thoughts about the ageing process and its implications for all of us.
  2. Writing the book also made her face up to her own attitudes, anxieties and concerns about ageing
  3. She also thought about the process of writing which was unusual as it involved collaboration between three of us and had to be fitted into everyone’s already busy schedules

This is what Marianne Coleman wrote for Bookword blog:

261 Marianne

  1. Clarifying my thoughts

What about the ageing process? Most importantly there are all the implications arising from longer life expectancy and also there are changing and more youthful attitudes amongst older people. Both of these mean the following:

We need to think differently about ourselves, recognise that the balance of age groups is changing and then do some adjusting.

We have to make sure that old people are properly provided for to live a dignified and useful life, but also see that they are the most tremendous resource and that life in older age can be fun and exciting.

We need to drop our stereotypes around ageing, most of which revolve around decline and the end of a useful life.

The change in attitudes means having more flexibility about employing people, and recognising that older people contribute massively as volunteers in the charity sector and in supporting each other and their families.

Above all we need to recognise that older people are not separate or different from the rest of the population. It is not ‘them and us’, it is all ‘us’.

It is not “them and us”, it is all “us”.

There are too many people who preach an opposite message of division between the generations even blaming older people for the economic and social problems of today. Constructive and clear sighted attitudes to older people, not blame, will help not only those who are old now, but those who will be old in 10, 20 or 50 years’ time. We need a new mind-set about ageing.

  1. My own attitudes to ageing

What about my own attitudes anxieties and concerns about ageing? I am the product of my time, belonging to a generation growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and our generation does not so willingly accept the stereotypes and expectations that are associated with ageing. Many of us see ageing differently now that we are those older people. Researching for and writing the book has given me even more of a perspective to stand back and see the changes relating to ageing in progress, and to recognise for example that beauty is not just in youth but also in maturity and decline. Dropping any lurking stereotypes about age, I have become less judgmental in the ways that I look at people of all ages. I can’t pretend that I have no anxieties about getting older. In common with the people we interviewed I am concerned about health issues and how they might impact on me and when.

One side benefit of researching and writing the book has been the opportunity to give some thought to death. Although we were interviewing older people about their attitudes to ageing it was surprising how little the topic of death came up. It seems that people avoid thinking about it and sometimes never discuss anything about it even near the very end of life. In one of the chapters I did write about death and what was said in interviews and in particular reading Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal made me realise how important it is to be more open about this final stage of life and to talk to your family and close friends about what might be important to you at the end.

  1. Writing together

What about the process of writing? The best thing was the times that the three of us worked together to construct the outline of the book and then to fine tune it and finally to comment on drafts of chapters. This process only worked because we know and trust each other and have respect for what each of us says. Working together was creative and it was exciting to take an idea and expand it or make links that I had not seen before. The feedback on individual chapters was invaluable. It is very reassuring to be able to try out ideas and test them on your fellow authors. I wrote in a previous blog about the importance of feedback on drafts.

Not one but two books

Overall I can honestly say that writing the book was an enjoyable experience. But I am glad to take a rest, particularly as circumstances meant that at the same time that I was collaborating on this book I was also collaborating on a book on a completely different topic. That book is called Leading for Equality: Making Schools Fairer where my co-author is Jacky Lumby. I managed the process of writing two books at the same time by some careful timetabling and taking one chapter (of whichever book) at a time and seeing each chapter as a separate project. There were also times when there was a lull in the progress of one book as fellow authors had to turn their attention to other projects too. Writing two at the same time was challenging but very rewarding. The books are very different but both have fairness and social justice at their heart so the move from one book to another did not jar.

One problem now is that all the administration associated with book production (editor’s queries, questions about marketing the books, proofs etc.) is all arriving together. Still just take one thing at a time …

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman. To be published by Policy Press on 7th September 2016.

243 New Age cover

Related posts:

We are writing monthly posts about the stages from bright ideas to publishing our book. Earlier posts include

Getting feedback to improve our writing (May 2016)

First Catch Your Publisher (April 2016)

One Book, Three Authors (March 2016)

Writers’ Residential (February 2016)

 

Please subscribe by entering your email address in the box. You will receive emails about future posts.

 

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, Publishing our book, Writing

Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein

Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, radical writers of the late 18th Century. She ran away with and later married a radical from her own generation, Percy Bysshe Shelley. She spent time in the company of Lord Byron, and wrote her most famous novel trapped by the rain in his Italian villa. These associations are significant, but Mary Shelley made her own contribution to cultural life, not least through the novel Frankenstein.

Mary’s Life

The tragedy of Mary’s childhood was the death of her mother from puerperal fever within days of her birth in 1797. Her father was devastated. Mary grew up motherless. Godwin remarried, partly to provide a mother for baby Mary and her half-sister Fanny Imlay (Mary Wollstonecraft’s older illegitimate child). Her stepmother provided her with stepsiblings, including Jane, later Claire, but very little affection.

250 Mary and Percy Shelley

Mary spent intellectually formative time in Dundee with friends of her father’s, but on meeting and falling for Shelley in 1814, ran away with him and Claire to France. Shelley was already married to Harriet who was pregnant and later committed suicide. Her half-sister Fanny Imlay also committed suicide at this time. Mary married Shelley on Harriet’s death. She and Shelley already had a son and were to go and have three more children. Only one survived.

In 1816 the Shelleys and Claire returned to Europe, staying in Geneva near Byron. Claire had already started a liaison with Byron, but he soon tired of her. It was here that Mary had her first ideas for Frankenstein.

Over the next few years the Shelleys lived and travelled in Europe, where three of Mary’s children and Claire’s daughter by Byron all died. Shelley was drowned in June 1822. It is not surprising that Mary suffered from depression with her life defined by the death of many of her most important people.

Mary supported herself and her remaining son until she died in February 1851 through her writing. She wrote travel books (as did her mother) as well as six more novels, at least 50 biographical essays for an encyclopaedia and edited her husband’s work for publication.

Of her works, only Frankenstein has remained well known.

1816 – The Year without a Summer.

In April 1816 Mount Tambora erupted in the Dutch East Indies – present-day Indonesia. It was the most violent eruption ever recorded. The effect of the huge volumes spewed from the volcano was to change weather patterns all over the world for at least 12 months. In Europe the dreadful, wet summer resulted in failed harvests, and the high prices of grain brought starvation and political unrest.

In Geneva it rained day after day and the Romantic poets’ party was confined to their houses. It was here that someone, Byron it seems, announced ‘we will each write a ghost story’.

Writing Frankenstein

250 Frankenstein text

Mary took time to find her inspiration, and it was the conversations that the party were having about life and its principles, and specifically about galvanism, that led Mary to form her ideas. After one such conversation she records

When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. (quoted in the Introduction xxi)

She began writing:

It was a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. (58)

In the revisions the sentence appears at the start of Chapter V of Book 1.

The novel reveals her extensive self-taught understanding of ‘natural philosophy’ as physics was called at the time. She also knew the classics, and read the new knowledge being revealed by enlightenment scholars. Mary’s most famous novel is not so much a ghost story as a gothic science fiction horror story.

250 Frankenstein Peng

Not surprisingly women cannot be forgiven for so much transgression nor allowed to achieve intellectual status. Some commentators have suggested that Frankenstein was actually Shelley’s work. Although he apparently provided some editorial assistance, this was Mary’s.

More on Frankenstein in the next post, looking at the Royal Ballet’s production of Frankenstein, by Liam Scarlett – a world premier.

Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House

Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House

Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter

Both women challenged conventional acceptable behaviour by women, refusing to accept that women should be treated differently. Both had unmarried sexual relationships with men, and both had illegitimate children.

Both wrote fiction and travel writing, but Mary Shelley did not publish polemic books such as the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Both women married radical men. Both suffered for their love, Mary Wollstonecraft was abandoned, more or less, by Imlay, despite their baby Fanny. Shelley seems to have indulged himself wherever he chose, including with Claire (Mary’s step-sister, who accompanied them on their travels). Claire is known to have had a child by Byron. It is not surprising that the group were known as the ‘league of incest’. The men of the circle seem to have behaved like those men of the 1970s who exploited women’s new sexual freedoms, whatever the cost to their partners.

Both women were ostracised for their sexual activities. Both spent time abroad, Mary Wollstonecraft in France during the revolution and Mary Shelley in Europe with Shelley until his death.

Despite the tragedies in both their lives and the attitudes of their times, both women pursued education, radical ideas and have influenced ideas for more than 200 years.

Romantic Outlaws: the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Marcy Shelley by Charlotte Gordon published by Corsair 2015. 652pp.

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. I used the Penguin Classics revised edition 1992, edited with an introduction by Maurice Hindle.

Related posts

Katacharin on Mary Shelley on sheroesofhistory.

Mary Wollstonecraft, a Romantic Outlaw from this blog in March, looking at Charlotte Gordon’s biography of the two Marys.

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Learning, Reading, Writing

Dear Diary, today I wrote …

Why are writers so often advised to keep a diary or journal? How can regular entries support your writing? I always wanted one of those 5-year diaries with a key, kept in a box or a slipcase, bound in padded faux leather, edged with gold. Instead, every Christmas I was given an adult’s one-year pocket diary, with rice-thin paper and four or five lines per day. They were often business gifts my father had received at work, so they bore the trademark of the company and details of relevant business organisations inside.

I diligently made entries for a few weeks: ‘went on a walk’, ‘snowed’, ‘went to see the Bennetts and played charades’, that kind of thing. Then around the time I went back to boarding school (mid-January) the entries would tail off. After all, every day was more or less the same. Got up, had breakfast, made my bed, did English/Maths/Geography and Games. Rained.’ and so forth. It became boring to write, it is boring to read. But I was learning a useful skill: recording in words.

Writers’ diaries.

249 Jrnl of a novel

On writing courses I have been recommended to read writers’ diaries, specifically John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel from the time he was writing East of Eden. In this collection of letters you learn that Steinbeck was a keen amateur woodworker. He wrote in pencil and really did have a pencil sharpening routine as a prelude to his writing. He planned a fixed amount to write everyday and which scenes. It was all mapped out in advance. Nothing I read in his diary has any relevance to my writing, except it was often very hard work for Steinbeck as well.

Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck, published by Penguin Classics. 192pp

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf kept diaries. They have been edited by her husband and published, with an eye to illuminating her writing practices. When I posted about To The Lighthouse as part of #Woolfalong recently I greatly enjoyed looking up the references to the novel in the diary. The entries cast light on her writing processes, what she saw as her innovations, how she felt she was dealing with the new approaches she was trying. Recommended!

A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf, first published in 1953. One edition was published by Persephone Books in 2012. 372pp.

Reasons to keep a diary

I mentioned my desire for the locked 5-year diary. Two features of my thwarted wishes indicate important reasons to keep a diary:

  1. To make a record over time. I grew up to read a history degree. Perhaps you can see the connection.
  2. To have a secret or at least a private place. An interesting piece in the New Yorker in March referred to the importance of diaries as secret places in a review of What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: Black Women Writers and the Secret Space of Diaries by Morgan Jenkins.

And I can think of a number of other reasons why I still do have a journal of sorts:

3. As I indicated above, it is a place to make sense of the world through words.

4. It’s a place to make sense of my writing through reflection, comments, experiments, notes, mistakes.

249 deardiary

I have a daily weekday routine of getting up, making coffee and writing two A4 pages by hand, intending to focus on my writing. But it often turns out to be a reflection on activities of the previous day: a play, an exhibition, a conversation, a walk, a book or a dilemma not connected to writing. How is it helping my writing? Perhaps it just gets my writing mojo going. A way to loosen the ligaments, to use Virginia Woolf’s phrase (April 20th 1919, p13).

The benefits according to others

Writing about traumatic experiences and the associated emotions for 20 minutes a day speeds up the healing of wounds, it is claimed. Research on this was reported by Oliver Burkeman in his Guardian Blog in July 2013.

Michael Palin has an instrumental reason for keeping his diaries: a record of his days, helping him remember things he would otherwise have forgotten. But he also has this to say

I’ve tried to approach each morning’s entry as a story of the day that’s just passed, without limits and without self-censorship. And composing a story a day is not a bad discipline for any would-be writer. (The Guardian, Do Something supplement, September 2015.)

Journaling to help learning

249 blank pages

I think the most useful aspect of my regular writing is that it is part of my reflective process. I record my successes – a story completed and entered for a competition; the MS of The New Age of Ageing sent to the publishers; a target number of words achieved and so on. I record my frustrations. Periodically I review the pages of my journal, focusing on what I did, and what I learned from my actions. And sometimes I plan what I will do in future in the light of this learning.

On my tbr pile

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Diary of a Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt

Journals of Sylvia Plath

Over to you

How does writing a journal help your writing? Are there any journals by writers that have influenced your writing?

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Learning, Reading, Virginia Woolf, Writing

First Catch Your Publisher

One of the most stressful parts of writing for publication is finding a publisher. We have had good experiences such as being invited to write a book on a particular topic; and stressful ones, like having a first draft but no publisher.

243 New Age cover

I’m delighted to say that Policy Press took on The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, early in the writing process. Because of the tricky process we had been through – as Eileen explains – we were careful to target a publisher who would be interested in the book. They will be publishing it in September. We are very pleased that they have just been named the Independent Academic and Professional Publisher of the Year 2016.

I asked my two co-writers, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman, to say something about the process of finding a publisher.

Eileen begins with a ballad called

The long and winding road*

We’ve walked the road before

243 Retiring Lives coverAs experienced authors we set out on a new collaborative expedition. We knew we had a book that was prescient. Reviews of Retiring Lives, our work with retirees, our membership of a retiring group, all revealed a demand for a more in-depth account of the long and complex process of retiring.

We were confident, we knew how to write and knew how to submit proposals. We knew the terrain, we had the map and compass. We were excited about approaching publishers – starting with those who had published our work before. We studied their checklists and adapted every proposal. We analysed the competition, re-wrote the synopsis, submitted draft chapters and waited.

Don’t leave me standing here

We sent proposals to eight publishers. One problem is that you can only approach one at a time. We left an interval of a month between sending material and chasing up a response. ‘A wonderful idea for a book,’ they all agreed, ‘but not the sort of thing for us’.

After all these rejections, friends suggested approaching an agent. We contacted six. Same story: ‘Great idea, but not our area’.

During this 18-month period of contacting publishers and agents, we completed the first draft of the book and polished and burnished chapters.

And many times we’ve cried

To say we experienced ups and downs would be a massive understatement. But the good thing about writing collaboratively is that the highs and lows hit one or other of us at different times. After a rejection we soon felt hopeful and excited again when we approached someone new. We were convinced every time that this was going to be the one. Throughout this period of misery and elation we refined our chapters, found further research articles and redrafted.

Dead-ends and roundabouts

Then we thought of self-publishing and attended courses and workshops to help us down this avenue. While fascinating we were not convinced about this route.

The seventh agent said:

This book is so nearly finished why not send it directly to a publisher. Look for a different sort of publisher, one who had a good, changing list that appeals to the sort of readers you want to attract.

So we approached Guardian Books.

Your destination is on the left

The editor liked the book very much but said it needed EDGE! It would be a ‘trade book’, intended for general readership. So we rewrote the whole book to address the reader directly, became more informal and modified our referencing system. This was a major change for us. We submitted – with the required EDGE. But it still wasn’t edgy enough and we had to do it all over again.

Retiring with Attitude was published by Guardian Books in the summer of 2014 and was top of their best-selling chart for ten weeks.

What did we learn?

Never give up

Get a contract before doing so much writing

* with apologies to Lennon and McCartney

Marianne and Eileen in Caroline's kitchen in January 2015

Marianne and Eileen in Caroline’s kitchen in January 2015

And Marianne wrote this about the proposal for The New Age of Ageing we made to Policy Press:

Writing the proposal is the most important single step in writing a book

The time we spent talking about and polishing the proposal was time well spent. As we have moved ahead with the writing process we have checked back to the proposal many times. Looking at it now that the book is finished I think we remained true to the initial vision, although there has been quite a lot of re-arranging of chapters and their content. As one of the three authors, I have only been involved in writing non-fiction so what I have to say may not apply to fiction, but in my view, writing the proposal is the single most important step in producing a book.

When I look back on the notes that I took from our first meeting, the first word I wrote down is ‘purpose’. The notes that followed sketch out not only purpose, but also some of the key themes that have continued to dominate our thinking as we worked our way through the writing. The first draft of the proposal emerged from those notes. Although the key themes and purpose stayed largely the same, I lost count of the number of times the whole proposal was revised. At one of the early meetings we actually read the draft out loud, which turned out to be an excellent way of picking up half finished thoughts and unfortunate wording.

What does a proposal cover?

The suggestions of what to include vary a bit from one publisher to another but the main headings are pretty similar for all. In the case of Policy Press they are:

  • Title and sub-title (we will come back to this thorny issue in another post)
  • Synopsis and aims (250 words, five key factors in bullet points and five key words)
  • Background information (e.g. why did you want to write this book?)
  • Target audience
  • Competition

Trying to make our ideas fit those headings sharpened up the thinking wonderfully!

In addition publishers need some practical details including the estimated word count, an idea of the timetable to completion, names of referees and author CVs. Policy Press were also keen to have a sample chapter to send out to referees with the proposal.

It was great to get feedback after the proposal and chapters had been read by the referees and the editor. We revised the proposal in light of the comments and it was then sent on for a final decision about whether or not we got that vital contract.

While it is important to have a good, well though through proposal it doesn’t mean you have to stick to it rigidly when writing as other ideas may occur to you and through writing you may come to understand things differently. For example, we added the final chapter, which includes our vision.

Related posts

In March we posted about collaborative writing: One Book, Three Authors. This was reported on Policy Press’s blog.

In February we posted about a residential writing retreat: Writer’s Residential

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change is available to pre-order on the Policy Press website for £14.99 here.

In May we plan to write about getting and using feedback.

Over to you

What strategies can you recommend to find a publisher?

 

Please subscribe by entering your email address in the box. You will receive emails about future posts.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, Publishing our book, Reading, Writing

One book, three authors

This post celebrates an important moment. Yesterday we sent the finished manuscript of our book to the publisher. It’s not the end of the process of course: we still have all the business of queries, proofs and other prepublication things to get through. And there will be some marketing activities. But the manuscript is as ready as we could get it. The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change will be published in September by Policy Press. It was written by three people: Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman. Most things are better together and writing a book is one of those.

The three of us

Writing a book is intense even before adding the dimension of three authors. Eileen and Caroline have written together for some time, books and articles for teachers, books and articles on retiring. We have familiarity with our ways of working and those things that really matter to us. The three of us are members of a Retiring Women’s Group. Marianne had been the reader for Retiring with Attitude, by Eileen and Caroline, and they wanted her skills and experiences to augment and complement theirs as they tackled the book on ageing. She has an established reputation from her research on women and leadership, for example Women at the Top.

236 WonTop coverWriting collaboratively intrigues people. ‘How do you actually do it?’ they ask. And indeed how do you align the different views of content, purpose, theme and style and how do you resolve conflicts? And then how does that translate into words?

Eileen and Caroline recorded a conversation about writing a previous book. Writing Together identified the four main ways we wrote together.

  • Side by side
  • Back and forth
  • Separate and coming together
  • Dolly mix of the above.

We did all these again, but less side-by-side, which was harder with three of us. Put another way: we talked, planned, wrote, reviewed, learned from each other through more talk and then planned and wrote again and talked and so on, and so on …

Meetings

Writing tog

You have to talk together if you are writing together. You have to talk a lot. You have to meet and discuss the issues, large and small, that are coming up in the writing. Early on we met to put together a proposal to a publisher, consider the interviews, and decide who would take the lead on what. A year in we looked at everything we had been doing and reshaped the book again.

Throughout we tried to align our three styles of writing and the content: some chapters have more edge, some have focussed more on information, some are more passionate, some more chatty. Latterly we talked to decide the order of the chapters, to take account of readers’ feedback.

I’ve lost count of the number of meetings we have had. We have had two residentials (a previous post described our final residential meeting in January) and many, many one day meetings. There is always lots of paper, and an agenda. We are organised and decide what to do before we break for lunch. We go on until we have finished. We have completed our work together more quickly as we went on. Always, the book is clearer in our heads after each meeting; always, our understandings of issues in ageing have moved forward through our talk.

Emails

In some ways writing together is like writing alone, but with emails: hundreds and hundreds of emails. Collaborative writing would be so much more difficult without electronic devices. We send drafts, feedback, queries, research papers, redrafts, more feedback, more queries and draw attention to likely books, TV and radio programmes. We move material from one writer to another, argue about who gets to include particular quotations, and who writes which bit. We discuss format (especially spacing), point out duplication and omissions, and cheer each other along. So far we have not sent any humorous clips of cats or photos of grandchildren. We said we send twenty in a week in the previous post, but Eileen suggested it might be as much as twenty a day at times.

The benefits

Marianne, Eileen and Caroline meeting at Kings Place in 2014

Marianne, Eileen and Caroline meeting at Kings Place in 2014

Two benefits stand out. Writing together improves our ideas and our writing. We share the stresses of writing to a deadline.

Dialogue leads to learning and better understanding of the material. It develops our understanding of our themes through discussion. It allows us to articulate our understandings in words to each other, then sharpen and refine them through talk. Feedback improves our writing as we learn from each other.

Our life experiences and different perspectives mean we have a rich combination of good stuff – our different sorts of families and lifestyles, ways of living, outlook on life, passions and prejudices, and our own very distinct experiences of others around us ageing and dying have meant that we can draw on those to illustrate particular issues about ageing.

In the two years we have been engaged on this book we have each had more or less productive periods. Some have been caused by holidays, writing other books, other activities and life events. We tend to divide up tasks: we all did interviewing; Caroline communicates with the publisher; Marianne and Eileen with our main readers. Having three of us means we can rely on the others to hold the process for a time and to be supportive. It also means the whole weight of the project and our commitment to the publisher does not fall on one person. Shared writing means sharing the burden of writing.

Yet again it affirms that writing is a social activity.

A celebratory haiku

Half my voice is you.

Some notes can only be reached

Singing together.

For Christmas 2012, Caroline commissioned this haiku from David Varela for Eileen. We were working on Retiring with Attitude, just the two of us at that time. Now we would have to amend it to ‘A third of my voice …’ which would unhaiku it. But the sentiment is the same.

Related posts

An earlier post focussed on our learning. Writing Together (part 2) – what have we learned? April 2013

In April we will write a post about the processes involved in taking a book from a good idea to its publication.

Please subscribe by entering your email address in the box. You will receive emails about future posts.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, Publishing our book, Writing