Category Archives: My novel

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.

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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

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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.

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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?

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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

 

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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

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What I write about when I’m not writing fiction

My good news is that I’m getting back to revising my novel. Thank you, good friends, who have enquired about its progress over the last 12 months. My bad news is that the progress has been very slow, and was much delayed for about 9 months. In fact I put the novel back in its drawer again for a while. I just couldn’t work on it at the same time as on the book I have just finished with my two co-authors: The New Age of Ageing.

145 writing keyboard

Writing fiction and non-fiction

I have tried and failed on several occasions to keep two large writing projects on the go at the same time – one non-fiction and the other a novel or short story. It just doesn’t seem to work. I am wondering why. In part it is because they require conflicting skills.

The New Age of Ageing, and non-fiction writing generally, requires methodical and thorough research, solid arguments, a sequence of writing that reflects the ideas under discussion. Some skills needed are the same as for fiction, such as hooking interest early, clarity and presenting factual information that relates to people’s lives. What I don’t need is to go shooting off after a new narrative idea, or to leave the reader in suspense at the end of a chapter. No, every assumption and connection needs to be considered, verified, scrutinised. Flights of fancy must be followed by reasoned hypothesis.

Structural problems of the two genres are very different. For the novel I have a plot in 23 chapters. I have been challenged by the novel’s structure, deciding on advice to change to alternating chapters having originally written it in alternating pairs. The change resulted in an improved novel but hours of confusion as I had to re-label everything on my computer and on the hard copies. You need to be well organised about peripheral things when writing a novel. Well I do, being a planner rather than a pantser. Zadie Smith referred to micro managers and macro planners in an influential lecture at Columbia University in March 2008. I am happy to quote her descriptions, because I admire her work and recently wrote a post challenging a comment she made about writing and therapy.

You will recognise a Macro Planner from his Post-its, from those Moleskines he insists on buying. A Macro Planner makes notes, organises material, configures a plot and creates a structure—all before he writes the title page. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement. It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle.

I am a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels.

Structure for the book on ageing posed different challenges. Each chapter required a great deal of revision, recasting, editing, removal, filling gaps. It often seemed that I had all the right ideas but in the wrong order. I also had two co-authors to whom reference needed to be made for everything as they are also responsible for the content. Their feedback notes were invaluable, our talk was even better.

I can get very passionate about ageing and the issues and challenges that are not getting enough attention. I loved writing our manifesto for the book, getting clearer and clearer what it was we wanted to say. I loved the process of taking our combined ideas and moving them to a place I could not have gone on my own. So my involvement in writing that book was social as well as requiring some good research and communication skills.

243 New Age cover

Writing my novel is more isolating. To write the novel or the book on ageing I sit for hours in my writing room, looking out occasionally at Dartmoor and its changing weather patterns. Sitting. Tapping. Rearranging papers. An observer would not see the difference. But in the end, the novel has been a very isolated and individual activity.

So they require different skills, but that does not quite explain why I can’t do write fiction and non-fiction at the same time.

Working one project

About 9 months ago I decided to put the novel back in the drawer (yes again). After all we had a contract for our book on ageing and a deadline for completion. And I had two co-writers to answer to. And to be honest I had got to a sticky point in the revisions.

I had found that my fiction writing is not good enough at showing or even telling the reader about the emotional state of the protagonists. I tend to assume it’s obvious. In my best moments I think that is honouring the intelligence of the readers, allowing them to do some work. But when my intelligent readers said that I needed to work on this I can only agree. It has taken me some rumination, reading novels and some guidance from my on-line course to help me see what I must do. That’s what I am working on now.

Blogging

94 Blog on tablet

I can’t concentrate on fiction and non-fiction writing at the same time. However, one genre of writing has proved itself compatible with both fiction and non-fiction – blogging. The Book Word blog has been building slowly but steadily throughout this time, and I have posted every five or six days. In the posts I explore writing issues, review books, continue the series on older women in fiction and am able to look at all things connected with books and writing that take my fancy.

Perhaps I can combine blogging with both fiction and non-fiction because blogging requires some creativity, some research, some care over the communication of the content. And I am my own publisher for the blog. It’s not a commercial undertaking, so if a post bombs there is no consequence except to my pride. The deadlines are close, but I can (and do) alter them to suit my life.

It’s back to the novel

So … I am taking the chapters and looking at the emotional arcs of the characters and hoping that all the reading and writing and thinking I have done will help me see afresh how to communicate the emotional life of my characters.

And I am doing all the other things put on hold while we finished The New Age of Ageing. That’s another post in preparation! What I do when I’m not writing. Watch this space.

Related posts

This was the 6th 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

And here’s a post with some excellent ideas: 10 things to do while your MS is resting from Victoria Griffin Fiction blog in July last year.

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

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Missing Books

You run your fingers along the spines of your shelf where you book should be and find – the book has gone. It’s a gone book. Somewhere there is a library of lost books, perhaps in the same street as the laundrette for single socks; opposite the museum of lost contact lenses; and the newspaper reporting on people who lost their hearts.

All those books, where are all those books? How have they come to be gone?

Not on the shelves

221 Well of LThe Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. Writing a post about banned books I went to my shelves of novels, to look for the green spine of my copy of the Virago classic. I read the book I am sure in the ‘70s. But it was missing, although a friend was able to lay her hands on her copy when I mentioned this a few days later. Perhaps I only borrowed it. It’s a book I should have on my shelves, a classic. What else is not on my shelves?

Gone from the library

Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee. I wanted to read this book because of the title. I like the idea of a novel about a novelist, and especially of one as revolutionary as Virginia Woolf. I reserved it from my local branch of the county library. A week later I received this email.

Dear Ms Lodge,

I’m sorry but the copy of

Gee, M Virginia Woolf in Manhattan

Which you requested is missing. As this is the only copy on the catalogue I have had to delete your request.

Unforgiveable, a library user in Devon has failed to return the service’s only copy of Virginia Woolf in Manhattan. Check your shelves Devon readers!

Not in the shops

24 Sussex, Ottawa

24 Sussex, Ottawa

What are you Reading Mr Harper? by Yann Martel. I posted about this book a couple of weeks ago. I planned the post after reading of the fall of Mr Harper and his Conservative government in the Canadian General Election. But the book was not available from my usual sources. In the end I went to the subsidiaries of a well-known on-line company that sell second hand books. My copy arrived from Switzerland. An international affair. And what has happened to all the books that Yann Martel sent Mr Harper, more than a hundred of them. Have they gone back to Calgary with Mr Harper? Or are they in cardboard boxes in the cellars of 24 Sussex Drive, Ottawa?

Lent but not returned.

And then there is the category of books that go missing because they were lent to a person posing as a friend who never returned them. Is that what happened to The Well of Loneliness? Annecdotalist mused on this topic on her blog in November in a post called Never let me go: the dilemma of lending books. She lent Never Let Me Go and, yes, it has not returned. She writes movingly about the betrayal of trust, the damage to a relationship if the book is not returned. And has a word or two for those people who don’t ever buy books.

Not exactly given away

193 Bees coverThe Bees by Laline Paull. This is a new category, discovered when my book group was deciding what to read in 2016. My daughter revealed that she had my copy and overheard to say ‘it’s mine now.’ Not so much given away or lent as adopted, taken over. I need to check her shelves of course.

 

 

About missing

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. In this book it is people that are missing, a sister and a friend. And Maud is losing some of her marbles as dementia progresses. It’s a very successful debut novel, that treats an older woman with great respect. I reviewed it in the series on older women in fiction on this blog.

Not yet written

In my half century of writing I have imagined so many novels and written so few. I began a few. There was the as-yet-untitled saga of a large family who lived in a lighthouse in Brittany. And there was the adult feminist novel featuring Megan and her struggles in a life of discrimination against women. And not even started, the memoirs of a book obsessed reader.

Not yet finished

And then there is the novel I have drafted, but need to produce a second draft. And while I am not revising the first draft I am writing, with two others, a book on ageing. This book is scheduled to go to the publisher in March and then I can return to the novel.

With all these missing books, it’s fortunate that I have a tbr pile that extends for two feet along my shelves and continues as a file of scraps of paper waiting to be obtained from the shops or the library (or perhaps by underhand methods). On with the reading.

Explore the wonderful website: Library of Lost Books

Any books gone missing in your life?

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Filed under Books, Libraries, My novel, Publishing our book, Reading, Virginia Woolf

On the tricky topic of titles

Titles – they are very difficult to get right – for a short story, a blog post, our book, the chapters in our book, my draft novel, the writing group’s anthology. The title has to do so much work that it requires hours of discussion, days of rumination and much experimentation.

101 RWA coverEileen and I rejected many, many titles for our book on retirement: The Golden Hours, How to Retire with Dignity, Retiring Now, Not your usual Retirement Guide. Our working title up to the point where we were about to hand over the manuscript was The New Retiring Book. It was our editor and publisher that found the right title: Retiring with Attitude. It says exactly what’s in the tin.

So what is the work of the title?

  1. Announcing the genre and subject

212 Fl B coverThe title is assisted by the cover design in indicating the book’s genre to the purchaser/reader as well as what the book is about and whether it’s the kind of book they want to buy/read. It helps if it is memorable for recommendations, word of mouth and requests in bookstores. You know, that book about the butterflies: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. There is a whole book about this: Weird Things Customers say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. Check out Jen Campbell’s website here for more stories (such as ‘Have you got a signed copy of Shakespeare’s plays?’)

2. Invitation

The title can also entice or invite the reader. It might imply a question: The Aftermath (by Rhidian Brook) of what? The Secret of the Gorge (Malcolm Saville). So what is the secret? asks the title.

Or it might be intriguing like these examples: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor, The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker.

3. Directing the reader’s attention

Pride and Prejudice might have been called The Bennet Sisters or How to get your Husband. But that would have been to misdirect attention. Jane Austen knew a thing or two about what impedes good relationships. She originally had First Impressions in mind but when she revised the book the title went further.

Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller) is such a good title it has become a figure of speech. It directs the reader to the madness and illogicality of war that binds everyone.

4. Snagging the blog reader’s attention

There is particular art to getting the right title for a blog post. Like in a bookshop it needs to capture attention, but in a very brief time. Apparently 8 out of 10 users will read the title, only 2 out of 10 will read the content. Guidance for bloggers abounds and I will add to the advice in a post next month, but here’s a teaser: it’s about questions and numbers and dire warnings!

It’s hard getting the right title

Every book I have ever been involved in publishing (all non-fiction) has involved much agony and hours of discussion about the title, jokey titles, working titles, disparaging titles and anti-titles until the point where the right one arrives. Or perhaps that’s just one right one among several.

I recall a very creative lunch when Eileen and I brain stormed the most silly and excellent ideas for the chapter titles in Retiring with Attitude. We quickly found Retirement ain’t what it used to be and went on to This is your rainy day. It felt very creative in a way that endless chapter revisions did not.

Until a month ago the book I am currently involved in writing (there are three authors) was called Ageing Now. We persuaded the publisher that this was a working title when we negotiated the contract, and we have become increasingly aware of its limitations as we have engaged with the writing: it doesn’t say much about the book; it’s too vague about content, readership, and purpose. We have a better one now. WATCH THIS SPACE!

And not having a title says something too, gives the reader more work to do. One of the writers in my writing group recently read a poem with no title and we had a lively discussion about that: what it did to the listener to have no title, did it need one, what the title might be, why she had not given it one. Thanks to the group for the discussion.

And some that got away

212 1984 coverTrimalchio in West Egg by F. Scott Fitzgerald became The Great Gatsby.

Strangers from within by William Golding became Lord of the Flies.

The Mute by Carson McCullers became The Heart is a lonely Hunter.

The Last Man in Europe by George Orwell became 1984.

At This Point in Time by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward became All the president’s Men.

These come from a blog by Anne R. Allen in a post called 10 Tips for Choosing the Right Title in the E-Age.

Can you spot the Alternate Titles in the quiz on The Reading Room blog?

 

How do you go about finding or creating the titles for your writings?

 

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On-line Writing Course #5 Deadline approaching!

OK! So I said I was going to finish the second draft of my novel by the end of August. To put it another way I planned to complete revisions to the first draft by then. Here we are the beginning of August and – guess what – I’m not going to make it. And – guess what again – I don’t feel guilty.

Here are my reasons (others might call them excuses) for falling behind:

The Builders Were In:

The most compelling reason is one that anyone who has ever had building works done in their house will understand: my kitchen floor needed to be relaid and an external wall of my cottage waterproofed. Remember the great storms of December 2013? Yes, when the railway line between me and Exeter was washed away at Dawlish? Those storms? Well on 23rd December 2013 water came flowing through my kitchen and since that time I have been trying to get the damage fixed, and in June and for three weeks there was MAJOR DISRUPTION. In a good way. It’s all done.

153 tick

And I have been doing other things. Three of them are writing things:

  1. I’m co-authoring a new book on ageing. I had an outline plan for my sections, which I have revised in the light of not quite getting the writing done quickly enough. I do love the research, tracking down the right figures, looking through our interview material, thinking about how the issues of the topic fit our overall themes. Currently I’m working on a chapter about older workers. Should be a doddle. I’ve written about this before in Retiring with Attitude. Somehow re-writing material can take longer than starting from scratch. I don’t understand why, but I know this is true.
  2. I’m writing my blog. Yes I know. That’s what I am dong, now this minute. About every five or six days I write something about books: a review, some thoughts about writing, something else related. I love it. It’s not a burden, but it does take head space and writing time. 145 writing keyboard
  3. I’m writing a new short story to submit to an anthology that our writing group is getting together. I’ve done the first draft, but it needs close revision (not revising again!) to get it in shape and to meet the deadline.

And then there are more other things

Grandmother duties, picnics, trips to country parks, and summer in Devon; visits to London; a wet weekend in Cornwall attending a nephew’s camping wedding (of course it rained. It poured and blew a gale, except during the Saturday afternoon when we all put on our glad rags and waterproof footwear and enjoyed wedding things: champagne, cake, bunting, speeches, relatives, and weather reports); completing the visa form in preparation for a visit to Russia (people – it’s more complicated than doing income tax on line – although I haven’t done that yet, because of the visa thing).

So I am behind. And since I have been having such a good time there is no point in beating myself up. Some deadlines can be moved. One should never plan oneself into a corner with a deadlines if you can help it. Planning should not produce guilt.

86 Mind the Gap

I still love revising. I shall do it by Christmas, I hope. But finishing the manuscript of the non-fiction book and getting it to the publisher by/in March 2016 is an immovable deadline.

Watch this space if you want. Updates will appear.

Related posts

On-line writing course #3 Finished? in which I revealed my plan to complete the revisions by the end of August

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot in which I reported that the schedule was beginning to slip …

What keeps you from getting a writing task done? I hope it’s good things.

 

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On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot

I committed 6 weeks to following an on-line course on self-editing the first draft of my novel. I enjoyed it very much and learned a great deal, and when I finished I drew up a plan for the editing. You can read about my plan here. It involves six stages, each a focus for roughly a month on one aspect of the course. Phase one was structure and plot. Phase 2 is characters.

JG Ballard's edit of The Crash, tweeted by @johnnyGeller

JG Ballard’s edit of The Crash, tweeted by @johnnyGeller

It’s time to review how it’s going.

Here are the excuses, aka reasons

  1. All the things I had put to one side so that I could complete the course have claimed my attention since I finished.
  2. I have several writing projects –the blog, a co-authored book, writing groups – and these have also claimed my attention.
  3. I have had other time-consuming activities such as joining a panel at WOW The Truth about Ageing and the City Lit meet the authors event.
  4. All the other time-consuming activities such as walking, grandparenting, seeing friends, going to the opera, a day at the spa, all these have stolen away the days.
  5. Spring means that the desire to spend time in the garden has overwhelmed me, until …
  6. … I got this rotten cough and cold.

So it’s not surprising that my progress has not been as I hoped and envisaged.

What I have done

  1. I have decided on a new structure for the novel, which involves re-ordering half of the chapters, adding a new one and moving some scenes around. Not much re-writing there, but it feels like an important decision as well as the right one and I looked at it carefully before the physical task of renumbering consumed me.
  2. I have read lots of posts on writer Emma Darwin’s excellent blog: This Itch of Writing. I especially liked the one about the exercise where you go through the plot looking at fortunately/unfortunately. This reveals where the plot is engaging and moving forward. For example: ‘Fortunately Lorna’s niece came to stay. Unfortunately the nosey girl opened the box of letters.’
  3. 163 Into woods coverEmma Darwin recommends Into the Woods by John Yorke (Penguin), about story telling. It’s an interesting book about structure, and what keeps a story moving and why we tell stories this way. That’s stories of all kinds: novels, plays, tv series, films etc.
  4. I’ve been reading novels recommended during the course to help me look at structure and also psychic distance. I need to grapple with both of these during my revision.
  5. I’m learning that revision means asking questions, taking a longer view and lots of thinking and considering. At this moment, not so much rewriting. I am predicting that this will change as I move through The Great Plan.
  6. And now I’ve started on the second phase, revising aspects of the characters. I have already redrafted the arrival of the second main character. It’s not tight enough yet, doesn’t quite say enough about her yet, but I’ll get some feedback from a writing group this weekend.

    Pencils from tree trunks. Have I bitten off more than I can shew?

    Pencils from tree trunks. Have I bitten off more than I can shew?

Well I’m being systematic, which may not be a good thing. But at least I have a plan and I am following it. When I first tried to revise my first draft I had no real clue what to do. Now I feel a little more in charge. Will it last? Oh I do hope it will last.

Do you have any recommendations for books about revising a first draft?

 

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On-line writing course #3 Finished?

I signed up for a six-week on-line writing course to learn how to edit the first draft of my novel. Longstanding readers of this blog will be aware that my draft has been in a drawer for a long time. I have been busy in the meantime but I was aware I didn’t know how to proceed following the achievement of the first draft.

145 writing keyboardThe course was called Self-Editing Your Novel run by The Writers’ Workshop. It required a payment, joining a website community and a commitment for six weeks. I tried and largely succeeded in giving an hour a day, six days a week for the six weeks. During that time I composed my own questions on each of the six themes, watched the weekly introductory videos, read the tutor notes, composed and posted my homework, read other people’s homework, commented on them, read comments on mine, and paying particular attention to the tutors’ comments on my homework.

The tutors were Emma Darwin and Debi Alper. They demonstrated sensitivity, encouragement, critical commentary, suggestions, occasional ticking off, generosity, as well as deep knowledge and understanding of the processes of novel writing and editing. I am full of admiration for their skills in teaching these.

My aims have been achieved

These were my aims for the course (as reported on a previous post):

  • √ To acquire the skills I need to move my novel on to the next stage.
  • √ To practise these self-editing skills.
  • √ To begin to identify the tasks and approaches I need to attend to to move my novel on.
  • √ To identify specific tasks I need to undertake related to these aspects: plot, character, voice, point of view and prose.
  • √ To connect with other writers through the Cloud who are involved in the same processes.
  • √ To blog about the experiences at least once more.

153 tick153 tick153 tick

Learning

I have learned a lot, not all of it comfortable, about myself as a writer-learner (see my second post on progress). The on-line context became irrelevant once I found my way around.

I have learned a great deal about the process of editing, in each of the 5 categories:

  1. plot,
  2. character,
  3. voice, point of view,
  4. psychic distance and
  5. prose

I have ways of thinking about each of these now, and some activities that will help me see if large-scale revisions are required. I have a notebook full of things to attend to. We were advised not to try to revise our WIP during the course, so these had to be noted down for later. And here we are at ‘later’.

I learned about the power of the group, how encouragement, comments, reactions, questions from others can nudge, push and force writer-learners to see their WIP in new ways.

And I learned about the stimulating, inventive and creative ideas of my fellow novelists.

And while I’ve been learning…

… I have been getting on with blogging, meeting my fellow authors on our non-fiction book for a three day write-in, reading 9 novels, publishing some short fiction (see previous post on this), getting ready for two events to promote Retiring with Attitude, and attending a workshop where I learned how to make a red felt hat. This one!

153 Red hat

What next?

I have a plan. Better than any of Baldrick’s plans.

It includes completing the revision of my novel by the end of August when I am due to go on a trip abroad. I will revise it to the level where I feel a professional critique would be the best next step. So not finished then.

Many thanks

To Emma Darwin, Debi Alper, The Writers’ Workshop website and my fellow participants.

 

Previous posts about this course.

  1. An On-line Writing Course #1 Purposes
  2. On-line Writing Course #2 in-progress

 

What has been your best learning from writing courses? Can you say what helped make it a good learning experience? Would you recommend the course to others?

 

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