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Learning the Craft of Writing

There’s a quote attributed to the American writer, David Gerrold, that resonates with me on many levels: “Life is hard. Then you die. Then they throw dirt in your face. Then the worms eat you. Be grateful it happens in that order.”

My life, in brief, before the worms eat me.

Act One

Life as a Foster Child: The Formative Years, Abandoned among Strangers, and Early Stories.

Act Two

The Struggle to Grow Up: Battling Fear and Insecurity. Finding Love and Learning to Write Short Stories.

Act Three

The Age of Maturity: Discovering Stability, Linking to Mentors Foreign and Domestic, Learning the Craft of Writing and Experiencing Moments of Unconfined Joy.

That’s all the backstory a reader needs to learn about me before he or she starts glazing over. Quite right, too. The above is just to illustrate one of the lessons I’ve learnt, this past year, about writing a novel. You don’t need to know every detail of my life to be able to understand what follows. I’ve added a few snippets to illuminate a point, but that’s all.

I started writing my current WIP (and all short stories before) as a pantser – because I didn’t know there was another way. I would sit and type until I ran out of words, or my husband would ask plaintively if he should get himself something to eat. Bursts of writing interspersed with long non-productive spells meant that I wasn’t so much writing a novel as creating a huge, incoherent, untamed beast that was getting the better of me.

While I was thrashing about with this unwieldy monster and casting around for anything that might help me get the wretched story out of my head and onto a computer-generated page, I came across a website called Helping Writers Become Authors. K.M.Weiland, whose site it is, became one of my mentors from that moment. That was about a year ago.

At first, I was daunted by just how much I had to learn about the craft of writing a novel (added to which I’ve always learnt slowly, and I’m no longer a youngling). Fortunately, K.M.Weiland has written several best-selling books on this very subject. I have them all; they’re my constant companions.

Something surprising happened when I started studying these books and completing the exercises therein. I had forgotten how much I loved learning. The last time my cognitive and language functions were so rigorously put to the test, was when I learnt British Sign Language so I could work within the Deaf community. I have clear memories of just how difficult it was, and just how rewarding. These new daily studies were and are mentally and emotionally invigorating. At the end of each day, I’ve learnt a little more.

I’m applying everything I’m learning to my WIP, a crime fiction novel. Using “How To” books on this fledgling “Who Dunnit”.

Needless to say, the untamed beast along with the pantser who created it are no more. They were quietly put out of their misery.

Brainstormed Idea, Characters, Premise, Outline, Plot, Structure, First Draft…these are my main watchwords now. I’ve learnt that creating character arcs interwoven with the story structure is helping me to write a more powerful, cohesive outline and this in turn will lead to a better first draft.

Where do you get your ideas from? asked a friend a couple of days ago. Oh, they’ve been cooking for a while now, I replied vaguely, but honestly. The expression in her eyes told me she didn’t really want to know, she was just making conversation. The ideas have, indeed, been cooking for a while. All my life. Everything I’ve experienced, all the people I’ve met – good, bad, and indifferent – have been cognitively processed, filtered, distilled and transformed by the decades I’ve existed on this planet.

None of the characters in my novel are life drawings of the real people who have drifted (and continue to drift) in and out of my life. But the impact of their presence, their behaviours, the casual, unthinking cruelties I experienced as a child, the indifference of those I met through my confused, socially dysfunctional young adult years, the extraordinary tolerance and love from those who have surrounded and sustained me in my adult years – all these personalities inform my fictional characters in one way or another.

My dream for the immediate future is not for some five star publishing house to beat at my door and beg me to allow them the inestimable honour of publishing my novel – and insisting I accept a gazillion dollars for the privilege. I’m not sure if that would even happen in a fairy tale. My dream is more modest and more challenging than that.

My dream is to finish the first of what I’m sure will be many drafts of this, my very first novel. Before the worms eat me.

K.M.Weiland’s website: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com

Where’s my pen?

Where in this green and pleasant land is my favourite, can’t-write-without White Lamy Medium Nib FOUNTAIN PEN???

The trouble with de-cluttering one’s house is that there are no hiding places. That didn’t stop me, though, did it? Oh no. I searched everywhere. The whole house from top to bottom; every item of clothing with pockets; I even took the sitting room sofas and armchair to pieces. Interestingly – give me a break; the most interesting thing in my life today is the whereabouts of a pen – I found four 20ps. One in the three seater, one in the armchair, and two in the two seater. No pen. 

Now I had the furniture in bits I had to clean it. Out came the G-tech hand-held, blessedly cordless, vacuum cleaner, and I went all Snow White on their asses. Cursing rather than whistling.

Now, here I sit. Fuming and Penless. Little does it realise that have called its bluff. I’ve ordered another one. I’ve paid extra for it to be delivered tomorrow. I might have to explain that when the CC statement comes in. The point is, my pen done wrong. I’ll teach it to go off on an adventure without me.

Breaking Bread Blog 4

Even though it is the weekend, and I had physiotherapy yesterday (so disturbed sleep last night!) I was up at the same time as yesterday, and followed the same breakfast, chores, ready to write by 10am. Actually started at 9.45am and and hour later I had my 1000+ words written.
This is what I did: yesterday I dashed out fresher more energetic outline for the novel – concentrating on the main character, but touching on other important characters on the way. I kept my mind open and the critic turned off. Today, using those 1000 words, I took the first idea and expanded it using Kipling’s Six Serving Men. Each day, I shall continue to do this with the rest of the outline. I shan’t allow the critic in until I tidy up the result of this effort. And use it only to tidy up – not to stamp all over my seedlings. Then I plan to continue to ask the story questions in the same way, and so have the story grow exponentially.
This concentrated effort today yielded a surprise. Because my office chair is not comfortable, and my back is still sore, I had to move my writing space from study to sitting room: lots of potential distractions there. Not only was I able to plough through and keep focused, but also when my husband returned home from an errand, he came into the sitting room, started to speak, saw I was working, and left me alone to get on. Now that’s what I call support.
My first two days keeping to a writing schedule have been good! Bring on tomorrow.

Breaking Bread Blog 3

I joined a writing group, yesterday, via OneRoom. I’m also paying a monthly fee (one of two birthday presents from my husband – the other is a pair of ear rings) to receive coaching from a writer/teacher.

It’s been many years since I had an educator in my corner. We have a scheduled chat at 7.30 pm GMT, this evening. I’m strangely anxious. But then I’ve been anxious ever since I started writing down ideas, and creating characters, for Breaking Bread. The story has a dark underbelly that scares me. Whenever I try to lighten it up, another dark idea flaps its wings and squawks raven-like at me.

Being a wife, mother, and grandmother, I have very little time to think about dark, dastardly deeds let alone carry them out. Honestly, the events in the story are antithetic to the housewifely activities with which my ordinary life is strewn. But still, when I start to write, up it all comes – shadowy and ghoulish to scare the bejesus out of me.

I hope I can go wherever these strange ideas are taking  the novel and me. Perhaps the writer/teacher will have some advice as to how to get out of the way of my inner fears and allow the true heart of the story to reveal itself.

If it does, I shall step out of my customary  writing pyjamas, don a ‘back in the world of real people’ outfit, push the rods of the new ear rings through my pierced lobes and go out for a meal with my husband.

Breaking Bread WIP

I’m writing my first novel. It’s called Breaking Bread, and has nothing to do with that popular TV programme.

The short story is my default format. A comfort zone where I know what I’m doing.

Novel writing is a whole new ball of wax. Or maybe a large bowl of mercury. It shimmers seductively and dares me to understand its complexities. It knows that I’m afraid, and reminds me, from time to time, that too much exposure to its elusive essence (especially when it keeps me awake at night, and makes me forget to eat and exercise) could kill me.

Writing a novel, with the idea of a stranger’s eyes scanning it, feels like (I imagine) getting naked in public.  People are going to see bits of me that they’d really rather not – but I’m going to do it anyway.

Writing this blog, which will probably be read by as many people who might read the finished novel, is also a first attempt (actually, a second. I wrote one an hour or so ago, on an unrelated subject) to expose myself through writing and publishing to The Web – maybe foisting is a better word.

When I hear back from a mentor who has her own website, and whose permission I have sought to include her details on my blog, I shall do just that.

In the meantime, I shall endeavour to knock out a few thousand words for Breaking Bread –  that might, possibly, be read by someone other than myself.

Happy writing.

July 21 2016

A conversation with a visitor this week, encouraged me to think about those who are driven to heal others. I’m talking not only about those in the medical profession, but also spiritual healers like my visitor. This, in turn, led me to revisiting an memory when I’d wished I had healing powers.

I’m a ’cause and effect’ thinker, myself. This happens and then because of that something else happens. And yet I have to admit I have found myself wishing that I had healing powers from time to time: when my husband had to have a biopsy after a scan showed something abnormal in his left lung, and when my daughter fell ill and it looked as though she might have had a stroke. They have both since recovered, but for a while there I felt utterly powerless.

My mind did that terrifying thing of launching itself over the present to the bleak future of life without the two people I love most in the world. My spirit felt again those historical fractures that occurred when I was abandoned as a small child and left to the mercies of those who did not, unless it suited them, have my best interests at heart. But I was an adult now; surely I could draw on my own resources? I found I had none.

I prayed in garbled, incoherent way. I sobbed and pleaded. I went, uninvited, to a kind neighbour’s house and sobbed at her kitchen table while she, a retired doctor, patiently listened and spoke words of comfort. Then I apologised – as one tends to do, after showing naked emotion – said goodbye, and walked the few yards back home where my husband was waiting. He was embarrassed and wanted to know what I had said.

It was my husband’s embarrassment that tipped me over into anger. We were both shaken by the force of it. Past and present terror, rage and bitterness tangled and crushed themselves together in a crucible that had been waiting patiently all these years for such an opportunity to find expression. Boiling mad. I finally know what that means.

It was strangely cathartic for both of us. My husband, who doesn’t like confrontation, was relieved, I think, that one of us had found a way to sick up what we were both feeling. We both remembered the wife of a friend of ours who had developed cancer a few years back. She had been in pieces. All the love and attention was directed towards her ailing husband, while she was told: ‘You’re so brave.’ Bravery, I now know, had nothing to do with it. She was hanging on by a thread, caring for his every need, getting little sleep and having to be nice to well-meaning visitors. My husband said to me: ‘People forget that the partner suffers, too.’ The world began to steady after he said that. He’s a kind man.

I went for a walk. I prayed again. This time I had something practical for which to pray. I can do practical.

‘Give me the strength to be there for him. To be there for everything he needs for as long as he needs it. Let me be his rock. Let me do everything with love.’

That became my mantra during the weeks and months that followed. It kept me steady while I washed the blood out of the pillowcases and accompanied my husband to his appointments with various medical professionals, and lunched with family members who didn’t know (my husband didn’t want anyone to be informed) about that abnormality inside his left lung.

I know I shall never be a healer in either the medical or spiritual sense.  And that’s fine. All I can do is pray for the strength to be here, in the present, and do whatever is needed – in my limited way – for those that I love.