August is the cruellest month for writers. As it draws to a close, we salute all of you who have made it through the month with your manuscript a few words longer.
August is that 'jolly' month with the pitter-patter of Fitflops about the house, the teens and their friends rattling around your writing desk, presuming upon your goodwill, enjoining you to take part and have 'a good time'. It's a curse on the cardigan-clad novelist misanthrope trying to write pleasant things about humankind by dint of the contrivance known as fiction.
Lunch with a glass of wine in the sunshine with your loved ones? Again? Really? Must we?
We know you’d rather be writing. But how about writing when you’re not writing? Here’s how to get away with it and not be caught. (Followed by some September advice for getting back to work in earnest, Hemingway.)
Perhaps one of the defining characteristics of writers is that we like our own company; we value the quiet places, sitting with our thoughts, giving the interior mind the space to be heard. This isn’t altogether compatible with the company of small children – and oh boy we’ve had a lot of that lately. For anyone with school-age children here in the UK, the summer holidays came along after four months of home school. In this house, my husband and I breathed an immense sigh of relief at the start of the hols. Despite our dodgy phonics ('split digraph' - say what now?) and slippery grasp of ‘number sentences’, we’d made it through! It was finally time to tune out and kick back. Time to reapply myself to my novel. Quite why I equated ‘August’ and ‘productivity’ I don’t know: call it summer madness. And of course, the hours have turned to days have turned to weeks and the word count hasn’t mounted as hoped. So, I’ve had to resort to desperate measures to keep things ticking over. This summer I’ve been writing (not writing).
When my son was a baby, I found his company to be compatible with, if not always writing, at least thinking about my work. I’d take great looping walks across the city, pushing his buggy, turning ideas over in my head. As he finally dropped off I’d whip into the nearest café and take out my laptop. I’d write for an hour, fingers flying over the keyboard, tunes pumping in my headphones, coffee, cake, more coffee. And when he woke, I always felt extraordinarily grateful to little him for granting me that stolen time. I’d clap my laptop shut, ready to resume my duties. These are some of my happiest and most harmonious writing experiences, probably because my expectations were low. I knew I was writing on borrowed time, and I was glad for what I got.
In her wonderful essay This Strange New Life, poet Esther Morgan writes on creativity and motherhood: ‘What I am learning, what my daughter is teaching me, is that I need to try to find poems in the music as well as the silence. That by entering as wholly as I can her world of discovery, my writing might become a part of the rhythm of living rather than apart from it.’
My writing thrived in the first years of my son’s life. I carried a notebook in my baby bag, it was part of my rhythm of living, and I cherished my time at the page.
Fast forward to the present day and we’re living in – phrase du jour – unprecedented times. My baby is now a long-legged six-and-a-half-year-old and we’ve been living in each other’s pockets these last five and a half months. He wakes raring to go – and keeps it up all day. There’s no hope of setting an early alarm to write because we have one already and it’s him. An only child, we’re his playmates as well as his parents. He talks incessantly. Follows us like our shadow. On any given morning he’ll say ‘mummy’ a thousand times. Just writing this I feel awash with nostalgia, and a sense of betrayal too. Next week his school will reopen, and I know our house will be empty and all too quiet; that my longed-for quiet and space will feel, for a little while, like loss. But this blog doesn’t come from that place.
This blog comes from me hiding in the kitchen prolonging the washing up, telling myself that Agatha Christie said ‘the best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes’ and if it’s good enough for the Queen of Crime surely it’s good enough for me? It comes from me thanking my lucky stars when my boy’s reluctantly pinned to the toilet by a number two, and I turn down the invitation to stay in the bathroom and chat and instead have a few minutes – never enough, he’s irritatingly efficient in this area – to slip off and open the poetry collection I’ve been carrying around the house with me, feeling certain that the secret to my novel lies somewhere in those verses. It comes from me settling into an all-afternoon Lego session and, rather than take up his suggestion to fashion the Millennium Falcon I instead insist on a ‘free build’. So, kneeling on the floor of his bedroom I build, piece by piece, the setting of my novel - a Spanish finca that I can hold in the palm of my hand and if I stare at it for long enough I can almost, almost, hear the cicadas. It comes from me making pasta while sad music flies around the kitchen, feeding the spirit of my novel as well as my family, and meanwhile on the pad on the fridge – underneath olive oil and biscuits and go to post office – I jot down thoughts that make sense to no one and probably won't to me either tomorrow but in the moment might just prove instrumental to the whole damn thing.
To the child-free among you, this might smack of desperation or even lunacy. And it’s certainly a far cry from the ‘presence’ that we know can benefit our too-busy lives. But sometimes the only presence that I require is the company of my work-in-progress novel. It’s the stillness. And it’s about giving that novel a fighting chance of existing in my subconscious; the subconscious that we know can bring all kinds of magic when we let it. On the occasions that I do manage to shape a useful thought out of this stolen time I feel gleeful. It’s probably not the kind of pick-me-up that you’d go out of your way to order, but as a last resort it tastes pretty good; if it was a cocktail – or more likely a quick shot – it’d be called A Subtle Manoeuvre (after Kafka). In a letter to Felice Bauer in 1912, Kafka wrote ‘time is short, my strength is limited. The office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle manoeuvres.’
This summer, I have become accomplished in wriggling through.
My writing not writing method is to sneak writing by pretending I’m just browsing social media when I’m supposed to be watching a film with the kids. I’ve cheated on films for years. At first, when the kids were all very young, when we went to see Peter Pan 2, I went to sleep when the opening titles rolled, and woke at the end titles and told them how great it was. But over the years with the advent of technology I’ve been able to observe the protocol of family viewing and use the enforced leisure time better.
As soon as a movie starts I start thinking through the next chapters, browsing the names of the stars and putting them into new combinations for smaller characters, taking stand-out words and popping them into the Notes app on my phone. I’d be lost without the Notes app, and don’t know what I did before, as my phone is always with me. I come back from dog walks with cryptic notes which give me a map through the next chapter in the novel.
Because I regret and resent the time away from the novel to cook and so on, I play on loop a theme song from my novel to stay with the mood of it and let my mind wander. My new top tip is when you wake with a sentence in your head, consider it an instruction. Often, it makes sense of where I’m going that day with the writing and it’s the trigger to get me out of bed and to the desk before I lose it. I race downstairs and write a cryptic note on the open Moleskine for the day, make coffee, and hop to it.
Another ruse is to pretend to be under the weather. The kids stand baffled at the door to the bedroom, the dog slumbers beside me a willing conspirator and I look at them helplessly at them and shrug. Then I free-dream. I go into a near-sleep space, knowing the noise of the house won't allow me to properly fall asleep and I run with whatever happens. Crazy stuff. But it's how I wrote the final chapter to my current novel. I keep the iPad next to the bed and write verbatim what crossed my semi-conscious mind. Then, Mummy rises from her bed and walks, looking forward to my next sick-bed afternoon.
It’s great that it’s no longer considered rude to not really be present in social situations and I use my phone to pretend I have a busy life going on online, but it’s a bluff, I’m not snap chatting or tweeting, I’m writing not writing.
This week I’ve been listening to podcasts featuring Gloria Steinem who, as a journalist and activist, aligns with the background of my WIP’s main character. It’s fantastic because Steinem is an inspirational thinker who can turn a helluva soundbite, and listening to your research (podcasts, audiobooks and radio interviews) can make the dull process of any domestic task feel creative — I’ve done a wardrobe sort-out and cooked a few meals, and meanwhile found the ending to my WIP!
Another thing I love to do is to stretch the old writing muscles when watching films and TV drama. Pause it; what would you write in the next scene? What will the ending be, can you predict it? Which character is drawn too thinly, and why? This is your opportunity to hone your understanding of the mechanics of story, and pitch yourself against some of the best in the biz. If nothing else, you’ll impress (or annoy) your family as you frequently guess precisely whodunnit.
My final suggestion is not for the faint-hearted: my best ideas tend to walk fully-formed into my mind when I’m napping. But here’s the trick: you have to catch them in the split-second before you fall properly asleep. The minute you’ve fallen and are heading past REM it’s game over. Picking up a pen will interrupt the epiphany (and wake you up), so instead I like to repeat the line or idea in my head a few times as I fall, imagining I’m seeing it written down. Then I test myself upon waking to see if I can fully remember. A risky little game that often bears fruit — it’s incredible how the brain joins the dots differently when it’s on the cusp of perfect relaxation.
We'd love to know your writing not writing ruses, so do drop us a line on our page on Facebook here.
Rock on September. There's still plenty of time to complete a first draft of a novel from scratch with our Ninety Day Novel course and the full support of your tutor before you need to go back to 'writing not writing' this Christmas.
Your Back to School Notes.
Lost the plot?
If you have been and are still creating material at first draft stage of your novel, carry on regardless. Get it down, and continue with your steady writing regime, and well done!
If you have had to take time away from the novel, you should use this opportunity to look at your novel from a distance and be a little rude and rough on it. Take a helicopter view and look at the market and marry what the market is loving to your intentions for your novel. (You might as well get readers, right?)
This is where we begin work with all of our writers - what are your intentions and ambitions, how do we best align this to publishing success?
You are the author, you remain in the driving seat, either agreeing or rejecting the suggestions because fiction, like fortune, favours the brave and your novel is the only place in your life you get to exercise your own authority. But we will always give you our best advice for you to find a way to make a life writing books.
Many writers come to us with a novel that needs a major reboot. Many come with nothing, not even an idea. Either way, these things ought to be top of your list. (If your novel hasn't found an agent yet, the problem may be here.)
And a bonus tip: Conflict and Theme. A writer who is acquainted with the wonderful Tayari Jones who wrote An American Marriage (read it!) told me that one of Tayari's great skills is the way she deliberates over the selection of the conflict in her work, taking time to find it. Then she writes cool and clean. (Because you can, once you know it.) What's the conflict in yours? Why is it timely or important? How does it speak to the theme of your work?
The tutors of The Novelry invite all of our writers to come to our virtual desks in September for a re-boot session and to talk through, plot point by plot point, the story, story, story.
See you in class.
Now's The Time.
September Comes But Once a Year.
When you sign up to write your novel with us, we're here to take some of the heavy-lifting of writing your novel. We keep on track with your novel during your writing with our amazing system which tracks your progress and storyline alongside you as you go. Not only that we keep tabs on how you're feeling. So when you sag or lag we can intervene to give you a morale boost. The course is structured to build your confidence and word count daily with regular interventions with your tutor. Our method is to encourage and support even the faintest glimmer of an idea, to see what's great in it, to help you honour your ever-so-slightly mysterious intentions at outset and achieve your ambition. We urge you not to share your precious and naturally flawed work at first draft with anyone but your tutor, who believes 100% in you and your idea. Once we have a draft in the bag, it's all systems go at The Novelry to lift it to publishing standard. We need that draft in the bag. Once we've got it, we can start making it into a piece of art fit for publication. Your confidence and joy is top of our To Do list, and that's what makes The Novelry a very special place, a haven for many wonderful writers writing, so writing.
We live and breathe the magic of the white page and the craft of making marks on it, conjuring a spell that transports writer and reader to another time and place where anything could happen...
The Autumn Term Starts 7th September.
We will be kicking off with a week on plot, with some plot-busting tips, a worksheet and a special boot camp Monday 7th September with the author of Apple Tree Yard, the redoubtable Louise Doughty. Members can sign up at our class booking page here.
The immersive programme of events for this writing season at The Novelry includes live sessions with former Publishing Editor of Penguin's Doubleday imprint Marianne Velmans and guest tutors, bestselling authors, Louise Doughty, Harriet Tyce, Ruth Ware, Paula Hawkins, and Jessie Burton.
If you join us in the first week of September, you'll have 7 relaxed and inspiring days of lessons in the Ninety Day Novel course to consider and hone your idea, before your first tutor session.
At that first session, we sign off on together on the best idea to achieve your goal, and you start writing. You could be holding your novel manuscript in your hands on the 1st December. Sign up now and experience the joy of writing - so writing - your novel this year.
If you’re just starting out, you’d be wise to start with The Classic Course which will help you nail the big idea here. If you would like guidance all the way from an idea through to completing a book to publishing standard then our Book in a Year plan is best for you here. If you’d like to get stuck in and start writing an idea you have, then our Ninety Day Novel course would be the jumpstart for you here. You’ll be able to choose your own tutor from our award-winning and bestselling authors, and as a member you’ll have access to our regular writing classes. You’ll enjoy the worldwide community of writers like you in every time zone. It’s a happy place and you’ll find a warm welcome whether you're an old hand or a complete beginner. Discover why so many writers describe The Novelry as 'life-changing' (it's the phrase we hear most!) Happy writing starts here.