There was something in the air at The Novelry last week, the 'sense of an ending' one might say, the changing of seasons, and we saw many of our writers slamming down the first draft of their novels in fine style. Congratulations to all of you.
You know the drill! At the end of the Ninety Day Novel course, we prepare you to raise your sights for second draft with a month off, reading good works, ready to return to your novel as a reader rather than a fond and indulgent parent. The Big Edit course is a big step up, as we set sights on publication. From creator, you become a professional author, driving the story hard, and get help with the heavy lifting from your tutor.
The month off between drafts allows for some gluttonous reading enabling the writer emerging from hibernation with their novel to blink at some bright new writing, catching up with what's hot and what's stood the test of time. I've been greedily reading through lockdown poring through Bukowski, Camus, David Sedaris and exploring the new humourous female canon; Taffy Brodessner-Akner, Sheila Heti, Miranda July, Melissa Broder and more to find some fabulous sparkling prose. In 'Fleishman is in Trouble' the interior world of Toby Fleishman is startlingly convincing.
I find it easier to write 'as a man' than a woman, possibly because we women have been schooled so long in ways to hide are faults or flaws as women and be on 'fleek', I struggle to find a natural candour on the page. In reading some of the novels above, it struck me how often by pantomime and parody we expose ourselves. Note the prevalence of private parts laid bare in the early chapters of Queenie, The Pisces and Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine in which we get intimate waxing scenes and the gynaecologist's view right up front and centre. It feels 'strong' and somehow self-punishing. Sometimes it's the genre itself which warps presentation. The trouble with Up Lit (for women) is that it asks for a camp style of quirky which can be a bit of a broad brush.
The interior worlds of women are wrought with dignity and fortitude by Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Strout, Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Proulx, and Sally Rooney and more; they're often crystal clear.
I think it's worth considering how, as women, we write women. In a writer's early drafts, I sometimes see repeated the details of the ageing physicality of older women, and in published works, we get the trope of the unlikeable perfect woman with her good hair and willowy figure as 'the other'.
A tip for writers as they sketch out their players is to defy type.
Look for the stereotypically masculine in their women, the typically feminine in their men, the benevolence in their bankers, the maturity of the children. It's a way to bring dimension to the novel quickly - as EM Forster put it 'only connect'. Bring us closer to understanding each other. Camus described the necessity for the balance between evidence and lyricism, common sense and understanding. Defy the conventions whether old or new. Tell it true. How we're all nervous as hell, whatever the gender, whatever the weather.
From time to time, as you will see in our back issues, we feature our member's own stories. This week's story is from Hemmie Martin. With our thanks.
From the Desk of Hemmie Martin.
I applied to undertake a writing course when I was working as a nurse in 1997, and my daughters were three and one years old, but the opportunity to study for a nursing degree came along, and there was only so much I could do if I were to stay sane. I reluctantly put writing on the back burner until I retired early from nursing and my daughters were at university. Finally, I have an office to write in where I have a notice board to pin notes and quotes to, and space to spread my work, study notes, and keep my umpteen books on writing. My desk is an old Victorian kitchen table, and my chair is the one my youngest daughter used at her desk before she left for university. Alfie, my white cat, has a bed in the room, which he uses when the mood takes him.
I was struggling to complete a novel, so I put it to one side and started another one, only to find the first one drawing me back to the characters I had bonded with. I started writing it from a different viewpoint, only to find I was stumbling halfway through yet again. My confidence as a writer was low; I was allowing the negative voices in my head to dampen my creativity. Every writer goes through this, I am not unique, but it hurts all the same. Not to be defeated, or drown my liver in alcohol, I decided to be proactive.
Having already completed a couple of online writing courses, with varying degrees of success, I decided to find a longer course which would offer me a deeper understanding of writing and creating a novel. When I stumbled upon The Novelry while searching on Google for writing courses, I was excited by A Book in a Year course which would see me complete my book and edit it thoroughly. I was even more convinced I had found the right course and environment for learning and writing once Louise Dean had emailed a response to my questions.
Becoming a member of The Novelry is more than learning the craft of writing. It is a haven to ask questions (we often feel we should know the answer to), to air concerns and doubts about our work, and to give and receive feedback on works in progress. It is a very encouraging, nurturing, and stimulating environment – and what writer doesn’t need that from time to time.
I didn’t think I was a writer unless I was toiling for hours, making my fingers bleed on the keyboard until I began The Book in a Year course, where I was permitted to write for only one hour a day, which shocked me at first. The rest of the time was dedicated to thinking about the plot, characters and their desires, as well as undertaking the lessons, which were often a springboard to where I was going next with the novel. Although I originally wrote between five and six in the morning, I soon discovered my creativity flowed better between seven and eight in the evening. My creativity is anti-social, but the dark shadows under my eyes are grateful. The course encouraged me to set me a writing routine which I did not have before, and it is something I will continue when writing my next novel.
The Classic course had me rereading novels such as Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ to dissect the story structure, which I found helpful when looking at the structure of my own work in progress.
The course encouraged me to read authors I had never read before, such as Jack Kerouac, Muriel Spark and Anton Chekhov. There is a list of ‘hero’ books, of which I had to choose one for my bedtime reading, so I end the day immersed in the genre I am writing. I chose ‘The Gathering’ by Anne Enright, then changed the genre of my novel from accessible literary to UpLit, so read ‘A Man Called Ove’ by Fredrik Backman as well. During the day, I read other novels, and I am currently reading one book by each of the tutors, to give me a flavour of their work.
I live in Suffolk, on the Norfolk border where, at long last, I have an office to write in. My two daughters have graduated, one as a vet and the other as a computer scientist – don’t ask me exactly what she does! I enjoy feeding the wildlife in my garden and have a hedgehog and hoglet living in a special house of their own. You will find me putting out their special food after dark, then listening to them feeding – it’s surprising how noisy they are.
Sylvia Plath honoured the diminutive, amiable and prickly Erinaceus europaeus which The Times once suggested should be our national emblem in the UK, or perhaps the emblem of writers writing...
“I hold my breath until you creak to life/ Balled hedgehog/ Small and cross.”
The novel I am writing is Up Lit, a genre I came to love after reading ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman. My writing is influenced by one of my favourite authors, Anita Brookner, whose books I devoured since the late eighties, and have reread several times. Another comfort read I turn to is Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’, which never fails to satisfy me, no matter how many times I read it, and I am also very fond of Anne Enright, Maggie O’Farrell, and Anne Tyler. I have just realised they are all female authors, but this has not been a deliberate choice.
Hemmingway said, ‘Write drunk, edit sober’, which can be interpreted in various ways. Hemmingway was perhaps intimating that a writer should write as though drunk, removing inhibitions and just letting the words flow for the first draft. However, when it comes to editing, the writer should be alert to every word and eliminate the ones which add nothing to what she or he is trying to say. Another way of taking the phrase is one I have tried, which is to write while drinking alcohol and see where the writing takes me. I am a lightweight when it comes to drinking, and I cannot say whether the experiment worked or not, as whatever I write, I edit hard, so probably undoing the dross I wrote while tipsy.
I am particularly fond of the live team meetings with the tutors on hand to answer questions and facilitate the session. Even if I have nothing to say, I like to attend as I always learn something from listening to other people’s questions and hearing the insightful answers from the tutors. They are at eight in the evening, so you will find me in my loungewear, with no make-up on, sipping soya milk or an alcoholic beverage, depending on my mood and whether I have a question to ask!
The live sessions include The Story Clinic and guest tutor classes such as Louise Doughty, author of ‘Apple Tree Yard’ and more recently, ‘Platform Seven’. I have a special notebook where I jot down the nuggets of information; otherwise, I would not remember it all – and that has nothing to do with the alcoholic drink I may or may not be sipping at the time!
I was in awe of ‘meeting’ Louise Doughty as I loved ‘Apple Tree Yard’ when I read it years ago. Now I have this free time; I will be reading ‘Platform Seven’ after I have finished Louise Dean’s novel, ‘Becoming Strangers’.
The community of writers are a vibrant, friendly, knowledgeable crowd. I feel honoured to be in their company and celebrate their milestones and successes. Many of their faces have become familiar thanks to the online meetings, which have been comforting during the lockdown.
Joining The Novelry has given me the tools (not rules -as Louise says!) and encouragement to complete my novel. But not only that, it has lifted my spirits immensely during the lockdown, giving me the drive and focus as the life I knew fell apart around me.
In three weeks, I will commence the Big Edit course, and hopefully, hone my novel into something beautiful to read. I already have the premise for my next book, so you will find me hanging around The Novelry for quite some time. Happy days!
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