On Monday morning, I asked Siri what the weather was like. Minus Four, Siri told me.
Waving bye-bye to Wifi I went off into the woods to sit in a shed down the track from my mother's house. The heater required assembly. Communicating between woollen-hatted brows and muffled chins, fumbling with our fingerless gloves on, mother and I failed. I plugged it in anyway, it tried its best but it was a poor excuse for a heater.
My little dog admired the ice on the inside of the windows, enjoyed a tryst with an old pair of shoes my mother had thoughtfully left for him, then curled up in an old wicker armchair, nose in tail.
It's a remote and secluded place, no traffic noise at all. My mother doesn't have the internet and her house is at a little distance. She left me the bell she used as a child to tell her father to come in from the nursery gardens for his tea. I was to ring it if I needed her. We were both rather excited about the whole enterprise.
My writing chair was an old institutional office type chair from the 60's, vinyl and iron, which my other had got from her favourite shopping outlet - the skip at the side of the road. It was quite comfortable.
My fingers were so cold, it slowed my writing. At first, I felt conspicuous. Then I felt a sense of peace quite alien to me and wanted to go to sleep like a fairytale princess finding a cottage in a frozen forest. I could have slept for years. But I set about the task I'd been avoiding - really getting into the thick of the novel.
I could do as I did most days and dawdle through the opening chapters or I could plunge into it like a cack-handed chef - butchering and braising and fouling things up before they are in any way edible.
When I first looked at the time an hour and a half had passed! How? Where? It was like being in a parallel universe.
The dog slept unusually for a whole three hours and the chapter was done at 4000 words and I rang the bell. But mother didn't hear me so I walked towards the house and we set her dog barking, then took a turn around the fields together. The only way I could describe the experience to her was as if one had been very constipated for a long time and...
The dog leapt for joy amongst the iced fronds of the meadows and I realized my toes were aching with cold. I'd been sitting there completely engrossed with my extremities freezing on me.
I felt sublime. So that's how it feels to write without beep, ping, ding-dong, brrring brring, knock knock, woof or "Mu-um".
So I have found my most humble little writing heaven.
Highly recommended, going off grid is the new sex drugs and rock and roll for writers.
I'm deep into draft two of my novel and doing the heavy lifting to find the story after a month away from the first draft which was, as Hemingway consoles us, like all first drafts - shit. But I wouldn't be here without it!
I like to take vitamin shots with my reading when I'm raising my game and D2 is such a major step up from D1 it can be daunting; you set yourself a much higher ambition for story. You can have perfectly lovely prose in D1 by the way and D2, but you get brutal about the way the story works in D2. I work to a tight plan. I want robust drama at this point so I read it.
This week I have been reading Sophocles' Theban Plays and gone from there to Shakespeare's Hamlet. It's quite stunning to me how the forthright addressing of the audience with the dilemma uppermost is the same in both. From Oedipus to Hamlet we have story driven by dilemma, and the dilemma is both domestic and political. No shame there, as it's proposed in these works that our behaviour on the world stage is formed by our closest relationships, our blood and kin.
There's no more than a hop, skip and a jump in storytelling method (bring on the bad news!) between Sophocles writing in 403BC and Shakespeare's Hamlet published in 1603. Beautiful turns of phrase are at the service of story packed with plot twists and humour serves tragedy in many lines. How extraordinary this mode of address which endures for 2000 years is then overtaken by the novel form (emerging with Miguel De Cervantes Don Quixote in 1603) which is more singularly immersive, a solo engagement.
At the same time, we have the notion of a personal relationship with God spreading via Protestantism (thanks to Martin Luther in the 16th Century) and with the spreading of the printing press. The doctrine of Sola Fide or justification by faith alone - belief is everything and not works or show - emerges and thereafter we have the development of liberalism- a society is composed of individuals with their inner beliefs and desires to be free and the addressing of the masses in story form is flanked by the addressing of the inner being in the novel form.
Remember, as a writer, I address you - either solo or en masse, though when I write novels I am considering the former. Yet if I consider the latter then I am more certain in my storytelling that something must happen and this helps me with the plot.
Yes, your novel should be immersive, that is the prime mover, but it must also have drama. Story first. The difference is - I am making you believe it, not just hear it, but I need you to be moved by the rising water of the dilemma.
Do not sweat this at first draft, simply write the story for you. At second draft, address me, her, him and the masses. You have something to say. Even if - as with last year's big hit, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - it is apparently humble, on the matter of loneliness. At D2 you will need to think - what shall I tell them? The Editing Course will help you nail this from the big theme all the way through to the sentence flow.
(For the potted version of these posts, follow us on Insta @thenovelry.)
Our members' stories continue this week with a piece from Kirstine McDermid who joined us this January to write her novel.
Before I could read I danced around the house and roamed the garden conjuring people, places, events. Mam once said that I spent the majority of my childhood “somewhere else”, playing out adventures inside worlds only I could see. The story with which I was so engrossed in would end, but new stories would immediately start to grow around me. I wasn’t one of those kids who had the same imaginary friend for ten years – they were fleeting. And they weren’t really talking to me. I was just watching them talk to each other, clarifying to myself what was going on.
When I could read, it was like having my own ready-made portal to someplace sacred. Somewhere I didn’t need to travel to by hopping and skipping around the house and garden, talking to myself. (Although I don’t think that reading entirely cured me of this affliction for a good few more years of childhood).
When it was time to go to bed, Mam tucked me in and left the light on, dimmed low. I’d get up, haul my duvet off the bed and arrange it neatly on the floor. I’d lug a brick of a book of fairy tales down from my pine bookshelf and climb into a sleeping bag, repurposing the duvet as a sort of mattress. I used to lie there, on my front, in the low light and the silence. The carpet was green, and I imagined I was lying down in a meadow a long way away.
The book contained fairy tales from all around the world. I remember the words coiling around the illustrations. One of the tales I recall was “The Maiden Wiser Than the Tsar”. It’s a Russian folk tale about a Tsar who feels threatened by an intelligent poor girl. The Tsar assigns the girl impossible tasks, such as asking her to empty the sea using only a wine glass. If she fails to solve his idiotic riddles, she and her father face the threat of torture. She negotiates his absurd requests by making equally ludicrous duties he must complete for her to be able to execute her assignments. For example, she insists that to be able to empty the sea with a glass, he must first build dams across all the rivers, for if the sea were empty, then the rivers would only replenish it. I remember feeling sick when the Tsar proposes marriage – and she accepts. (He threatens to torture her and her father!) But the story isn’t about love; it's about something else. Something about people in power not always being right. Something about injustice and women being underestimated.
I wasn’t the girl who wanted a fairy tale ending, dressing up and playing princess. Fairy tales were warnings to me. There were many dark tales in that tome – even some of the lighter ones presented something that kept me up late, checking myself for answers. No way was I ever going to end up a Princess or a Tsarina!
When I was older, I dabbled in a bit of magic with Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway books and the anarchistic Peter Pan. I turned to Roald Dahl; his wonderfully horrific books affirmed my childhood wasn’t all bad. I would never complain about my parents or school again! Well, not until I became a teenager at least. I think I read my first ‘proper’ book – as I proudly categorised it at the time – when I was about ten or eleven: Jane Eyre. From then on, I went on to read the works of Charlotte Bronte and her sisters and fell in love with Wuthering Heights. In my teens I admired (and still do) Kazuo Ishiguro, Sylvia Plath, James Joyce. I loved reading plays: William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller and Tennesee Williams.
As a kid, I wrote here and there. I once wrote a weekly newspaper called “The Moon” which I created with felt tip and biro; Dad would photocopy it at work and bring home copies for me to distribute to my brothers. I think they might still owe me money for their subscriptions. I wrote short scribbles of stories, poems. This continued into adulthood, although the scribbles became more drawn out. Fuller, yet more unwieldy and incoherent. I completed a few short stories and poems. Many novels were started but ran out of steam. There was no consistency to my work. I’d go weeks, months, without writing. University didn’t help. I did my degree in English Literature. Studying books. Great! I thought. But it wasn’t. It was as though I was performing autopsies on books the class had over-analysed and talked to death. I loved reading books, not dissecting them piece by piece, stripping their pages away until there was nothing. After University, reading became pure again. I read a lot of American modern and postmodern fiction: DeLillio, Ellis, Kesey, Fitzgerald, Burroughs, Coupland, Pynchon, Auster, Vonnegut. My relationship with books was healed, and I was lucky enough to land a job in a library. Unfortunately, you don’t get to read books all day if you are a librarian. Though every time I carried an arm full of books to shelves, I felt like I was some sort of guardian of knowledge. I still work in a library. Though the job I have now is less about books and more about finding information for academics and helping them to disseminate their research. I’ve co-authored a few scholarly papers, and conduct freelance research about clinical trials, and write blog posts, but I’ve never thought of myself as a writer.
Since starting this course with The Novelry, I’ve learned that there are different styles and mediums to hold our words - it’s still writing. Our different experiences of writing, whether published or unpublished, can guide us to write a novel. And that’s what I’m here to do. Write a novel. There, I’ve said it. No more excuses. I am committed.
The other day I caught up with a friend who has lost a commendable amount of weight. She told me about how she achieved dropping three dress sizes. She said that she started to think of herself as a slender person. That didn’t mean that she simply sat around on the sofa, munching Pringles believing she was thin! She adopted the habits of a slender person: eating healthy, not snacking, exercising. All the time, even at the start of her journey when she was large, she still thought of herself as a slender woman. And guess what, now she is! So, I’m following suit. I added “writer” to occupations on my Linkedin profile. I set my alarm every day for 6 am and turn into a writing Ninja, so I don’t wake everyone up. I eavesdrop on conversations in coffee shops. I’m writing down any ‘gold’ observations or anecdotes straight away - when no one I’m homing in on is looking, of course. I do try not to sit at someone’s table, poking notes into my Moleskine in front of them.
I find the guidance and support at The Novelry remarkable. I am thrilled to be writing. I feel as though I’m that girl again, dancing through the lives of others. I only hope I can clarify the story on the page and make it come alive for readers. I suppose it’s a little like my day job – trying to deliver the right information so that what people get what it is they need. Let’s wait and see if I can deliver the goods my way, like the Maiden who took on the Tsar.
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