Is It Possible to Blog a Serialised Novel?

Image result for creative writing
Venturing forth without a map, can I blog a novel?

The answer is: probably not. Still, I’m going to give it a try, and here’s why:

  1. It’ll be fun.
  2. I can’t go back and edit things forever. What’s done is done.
  3. I might get a draft of something out of it, if not the finest piece of literary fiction known to man.
  4. Dickens did it. Conan Doyle did it. OK, not on a blog, but they wrote serialised stories, and they were pretty good.

So I’m going to give it a try. You don’t even have to pay for it. You’re free to read the trials and tribulations of this experiment, and since it might turn out terribly, I’m certainly not going to charge you any cash. I have no idea where this story will go. I want to be free of a master plan and just see what happens. I’m hoping that my intuition will give it some structure… but it might end up one big old mess. I’m OK with that.

The parts will be short. Super short, sometimes. I think that’s best for reading on a screen. Think of it as something you can dip into on your phone.

Also, I might learn something here. Leave me a comment if you’d like to help. Make suggestions for plot points or improving the prose – that’s fine with me.

It’s called Time For Some Serious DreamingYou can read Part One right here.

Writing Group

Image result for writing groupI feel full of energy today. It’s lunch time and I’ve already rattled off 1200 words of decent writing. Yesterday I met with my writing group and I shared my great master plan – the outline for the novel I’ve been dabbling with for four or five years.

Writing a book never feels like a real thing when it’s just a mess of Word documents on your Dropbox, only ever read by you. It feels like a pipedream. Just an indulgence, perhaps. Is it merely something I comfort myself with when I don’t feel interesting or clever enough? These are the doubts that can seep in.

Today, though, this novel feels much more solid. I encourage myself with the thought that all writers are just human beings, and every piece of literature starts life as a bunch of notes and scribbles. All writers write rubbish. Even F Scott Fitzgerald. Even Harper Lee. They’re just humans – but their genius came out because THEY KEPT GOING.

This was the main message I gained from writing group yesterday. I value this group of people so much… there are twelve or so of us, all alumni of the Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes. We’re a mixture of men and women, all ages, some with children, some with grandchildren – perhaps a rather disparate group of people, apart from our interests in literature. I’m not a fully fledged published writer, but many of them are. I’m talking deals with the big publishers, but also small presses, poetry magazines, and self publishing. Whatever our levels of experience, theirs an equality and supportive atmosphere in this group. My fellow writers’ advice is just as thoughtful, detailed and practical as the guidance our university lecturers gave us. They’re well trained. They’re experts, each of them. We all read different things, have different life experiences… and this is all so valuable.

Now, I’m conscious that not every writing group is quite as wonderful as mine. I’d suggest that if you’re serious about writing, and you want to surround yourself with others who are properly serious too, then something like an MA or an Arvon course is worth the money. This isn’t because of the ‘teaching’ – it’s because of the peers you’ll meet. If they’re paying for the experience, you know they value writing as much as you do.

I’ve never tried to sign up to a more casual writing group, but I’d be worried about doing so. What if the other writers are not up to the task of giving vigorous feedback? What if I spend most of my time correcting their grammar? I do enough of that in my day job. I wouldn’t have the patience to support newbie writers who were just dabbling… and maybe that’s selfish, but it’s true.

Still, paid writing courses are expensive, and not everyone can do it. Maybe it could be worth a shot. I’m intrigued by poetry and short story slams. There are artsy bars and pubs that do that around here, and I’ve heard of local libraries doing it too. Anything that makes you read out your work and feel it as something real has got to be of some value. I’ve read out my work in public a few times now, and it’s an amazing rush.

Hearing my fellow writers discuss my characters and themes like they’re in a real book felt a bit like magic, and I’m still going on that energy. I feel much more confident now that I have a bit more than a bunch of notes. I have a novel. I’ve had one for a while, I’ve just not had the confidence to crack on with it. Today, the process of writing felt different: I felt myself just getting on, without thinking too much.  I stopped second guessing myself. I just went with it.  I have a plan, I know roughly where I’m going… but there’s a freedom and joy to that too.

It’s back to school next week, which will make it harder to keep going… but I must. I’m going to find the discipline to write as often as I can, and I’m going to keep going to my writing group. Even when I’m tired, and I think I don’t have the energy… because stuff like this gives you the energy. It’s going to be so much fun.

Grandmother

Nanny Hitchens was a farmer’s wife with four children. I knew her as the kind old lady who had three wardrobes of fantastic jumble-sale clothes, painted for pleasure, joined in my make-believe games and made spider-shaped pancakes. She used to tell me how she saw faces in everything – the bark on a log on the fireplace, the texture of bricks. She wrote diaries when I was little, about me, about making honey, and all the comings and goings of the farm. She walked her collie dog Nell until she was nearly 80, only stopping when Nell pulled her over and she broke her arm. She and her almost blind gentleman friend would drive all the way to Wales for the day in a rattling old banger, just because they could. Because they liked to get out and see the world. She’d tell me to notice how every tree was different, and had its own character. She taught me to notice, full stop.

She let me make messes with paint and oil pastels in her front room, never complaining, even when I often made a poor job of tidying up.  She warned me that you reach a certain age when you stop having time to slop paint around. You’ll get your canvas marked out, start your first couple of washes, and then have to stop to cook dinner. You’ll get distracted, trying to do a load of laundry at the same time as watching your potatoes simmer. Then you eat, you wash up, and it’ll be three hours before you remember you squeezed half the aquamarine out of its tube, and now it’s dried up.

She sounded regretful when she said it. I’m sure she didn’t regret being a mother and a wife, but I often wonder what she could have become if she’d been born in a different time and place. Born in 1916, she came from a humble background, working as a maid before she was married. My grandfather’s family, having a little more money and status as a farming family, disapproved of Grandad marrying a maid. There are only two guests in the photo of their wedding, and while Nanny Hitchens looks so young beautiful in a silk, Deco-style gown, the image makes me feel sad. It’s a shock, really, to think that anyone could disapprove of anyone so kind and lovely as my Nanny.

She left school at 13 or 14, so it’s a surprise that she could write so well, and read so much. Nanny would read anything, but I particularly remember her collection of books about the royal family. I’d sit next to her under the ‘rug’ (her word for the thick brown blanket she kept on the sofa) and she’d talk me through photographs of the Queen Mother and Princess Diana like they were our relatives. She gave me a blow-by-blow account of Edward VIII’s abdication and the scandal of Mrs Simpson. Even though she was in her eighties, she recalled it all with such clarity, spinning a great yarn with gasps of surprise in all the right places – not a bad way to first encounter this event in history. Of course, it wasn’t history to her – it was something reported in the newspapers and the radio when she was twenty years old.

In the mornings, sometimes I would slip into Nanny’s bedroom and join her under the many blankets of her double bed. Getting ready for the day ahead was a leisurely affair – Nanny did her make-up and hair in bed with a mirror balanced on her lap, with GMTV gently chit-chatting to her in the corner. We’d have a good discussion – I loved talking with Nanny, because she never talked down to me. She could see that I was smart for my age. It was while we were wrapped up in bed that she told me about her brother that died as a POW in Italy in the Second World War. She always started these stories by saying, ‘I have to tell you these things, because I won’t always be here.’ Of course I hated hearing her say it, but she was right.

Plotting a Novel

On Fridays I teach Y13 English Language for four hours straight – two hours with one class, two hours with the other. It can be a gruelling feat of faux enthusiasm (especially when I’ve had a crap week and I’m planning to run home at eleven minutes past three). Equally, it can be my favourite part of the week, if I’m on top of my marking, and my lovely sixth formers are on their ‘A’ game. They’re all very sweet, all girls, and generally good company… unless I’m the only one who’s acting awake and interested.

Last week, both classes did exams for me, and I had a spare couple of hours to work while they wrote. I didn’t have access to a compute
r and I couldn’t concentrate on marking, so I ended up doing a spot of writing on the sly. I had my favourite LAMY pen, a fresh pad of WH Smith narrow-ruled, and peace and quiet. I ended up planning seventeen chapters of my novel. Considering I’ve been working on this thing for years, this was quite an achievement for a snatched hour or so on a Friday.

I don’t tend to plan my writing in this way normally, but lately I’ve hit a bit of a brick wall, so I thought it necessary to change my habits. Basically, I’m brilliant at writing first chapters, and this is all that I’ve achieved in the last few months. I draft first chapters over and over, trying out different voices, styles and perspectives, driving myself mad and never driving the narrative forward. It’s not productive. So I decided I needed to figure out what was going on in my story, and whether I even have one.

It turns out I do have a story. What worries me is at the moment it reads more like a series of episode synopses for Dawson’s Creek. Too angsty, too melodramatic. I remember one of my university teachers telling me that the best stories learn to dwell on the ‘smaller moments’ – it doesn’t all have to be funerals and fights. I don’t know if it’s possible to plan your character’s breakfasts and their choice of footwear – those little details that make stories real. I’ll have to figure out those bits along the way. Perhaps I need more character notes to work out the quirky little details.

I’m not the sort to plan out everything on Scrivener…

I don’t think I’m the sort of writer who will have a little digital sticky note for each chapter on Scrivener, or any other sort of novel-writing software. I might scribble bits into notebooks, or collate scraps of paper in folders, but it’s never going to be a very linear exercise for me. I don’t write plot-driven pot-boilers. I write character-driven quirky sagas. Perhaps, as so many writers claim, the characters will decide it all for me.

On my MA, I was lucky enough to hear from lots of successful writers about their habits and methods, and planning and plotting was a constant theme of discussion. It’s the sort of writing skill that can’t be taught in a two-hour seminar, because it can take a decade to do it. I remember Sarah Dunant telling us that she never planned rigorously – she described writing as like night driving – you can see a little way ahead, but not that far. Philip Pullman, on the other hand, talks of knowing the basic architecture of a novel, though not necessarily the blow-by-blow details of what will happen in each chapter. Nick Cohen, a journalist, said to have a flexible attitude to the structure of a text – the beginning will not always stay at the beginning.

With this in mind, I’m going to stop writing first chapters and get on with it, knowing I don’t have to stick to the plan… but I do need to stick to moving forward.

 

Remembering to be Creative

I was sixteen when I went on a Catholic retreat for five days with school, on a mission to go and ‘find myself’ (naturally said with teenage sarcasm and air quote marks). I think I believed in God then, not something I can claim to do now, and I was genuinely curious about how I’d react to such a long period of prayer and discussion of the deeper things in life.

I don’t remember much about the religious side of this experience. We watched the Truman show and discussed the apparent biblical resonance with a priest. We debated the idea of a just war, and role-played our own vicious conflict in which we built a chair barricade and a girl was carried over it as hostage (no-one wrote that into the risk assessment, I bet). There were nightly prayers before bed time – and as bed time was about two hours later than I was used to, I was mostly just trying to stay awake. It was the week I read Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason, lying on a bunk bed, pop punk mix tape on my walkman. On the day we were supposed to fast to sympathise with the plight of the poor, we all snook off to McDonalds.

This was all fifteen years ago and initially I didn’t know why it popped into my head today, except that I’ve been going through a bit of an identity crisis over the last few weeks, not sure of my next step. I remember doing rounds of cheesy icebreakers on that retreat – describe yourself in three adjectives, introduce yourself with two truths and a lie, that sort of thing. How nervous we were, giving a little piece of ourselves in front of our peers. One of the girls said her hobby was ‘shopping’ or described herself as ‘fun’ – the rest followed suit. I remember catching my teacher shaking his head in disappointment. I don’t remember what any of the boys said but I’m sure it was a bit more interesting and surely a lot more confident. It makes me cringe to think of it, actually. Anyway, I remember this vividly because I was quite happy to say that my hobby was in fact painting, not shopping. I described myself as ‘creative’, avoiding the generic answer ‘fun’. I like to think I showed a bit of maturity, a bit of confidence. At sixteen, I think I was a bit more self-aware and – dare I say it – a bit more interesting than a lot of the other girls showed themselves to be.

I was rarely bored as a teenager, happy be alone in my bedroom, to paint, write fanfiction and read. Of course I played computer games and watched hours and hours of Friends re-runs like everyone else, but I often had a pen or a paintbrush in my hand. It’s only recently that I’ve remembered how important this creative part of myself is. Drawing and painting is so therapeutic, and as an adult I’ve forgotten how I used to use it to deal with stress. I’d paint pages and pages of sketch books in watercolour washes, letting the colours drip into each other, throwing salt on them to create lovely feathery edges and cloud shapes. originalwater-colours-salt

It wasn’t taxing like close-observation sketching – it was very relaxing. Because I studied A Level Art, I could even classify it as homework, using the lovely rainbow washes as beautiful backgrounds for my notes. I had permission to chill out and be creative, and it was great.

Of course I can’t really compare the homework of a sixteen-year-old to all the stuff I have on my plate now. Working in a new school where behaviour is tough and Ofsted are due any second means that my workload is currently enormous, and I’m just not coping. My worrying about said workload is worse than the workload itself, and it’s really not good.

It’s a shame that my working life has had to get to breaking point for me to realise this.

At half term, I was looking for my latest creative writing files on my computer and it had been so long since I’d looked at them I couldn’t remember where I’d saved them: my ‘recent documents’ list was full of Jekyll and Hyde teaching resources and sixth formers’ coursework. I don’t think I’ve picked up a paintbrush once this year. I think I’d recategorised writing and painting as indulgences, distractions, things that don’t really matter. My creative self has been well and truly neglected.

A few years ago, I went part-time at work to do my MA in Creative Writing. I was finding teaching so hard and wasn’t even sure if it was the right career path for me. It was only by working fewer hours and allowing time for myself to be inspired again through the MA that I realised how crushing work can be. I felt like that last week – like work had crushed the happiness out of me, and I was mentally bruised. So anxious, and unable to sleep. I didn’t want to be a teacher any more – it was just too hard – but I didn’t know what else I was or what I was supposed to be. If asked to describe myself with an adjective, I wouldn’t have said ‘creative’ or ‘fun’. I’d have said ‘exhausted’, and that’s of no use to anyone.

So I think I need to be a bit more like my sixteen-year-old self again (though perhaps with better taste in books and music). I know painting and writing isn’t homework any more, but it’s what I need, and it isn’t an indulgence: it’s essential for staying happy and dealing with stress. I suppose it’s my own version of mindfulness. It makes me a bit more interesting than the book-marking, data-checking automaton I’m in danger of becoming (and nobody wants to spend any time with her, believe me). I know this won’t fix everything – my marking pile won’t magically *poof* away, no matter how hard I wish it away – but it’s worth trying.

Mindfulness-Colouring-Book-in-by-Emma-FarraronsWe all need to remember to be creative. It’s so good for us. This is why bookshops are currently lined with mindfulness colouring books, and the BBC is broadcasting every permutation of hobby competition it can think of (and I love it – especially The Great Pottery Throw Down this week). So here’s to watercolours dripping down a page, to writing in coffee shops, to blogging! All of these things are so good for us, so lets not stay an extra hour at work. Go home and make a pot, bake a cake, doodle, do some colouring. It really is so good for you.

Stationery Addicts Anonymous

FullSizeRender

My desk. It’s messy, even though it’s been recently tidied (honest). As you can see, it’s laden with marking. It’s hard to prioritise the crazy fictional worlds in my head when there are very real children who want to know what I think of theirs. Who said becoming an English teacher paves the way to being a writer? A crazy person. At this rate, my students will be published before I am.

I wonder if a desk tells you everything you need to know about me. Maybe it just tells you I buy more pens than I need.That I crowd myself with distractions. (There’s quite often a cat under that lamp, too: she thinks it’s her own personal arse heater). It tells you that Paperchase is basically my crack dealer: I’m addicted to Lamy pens and cutesy pen pots.

I’m moving house soon, and I shall miss this little hidey-hole, my perfect little home office. The new house is smaller, so I’ve been buying boxes for every last item of stationery. I have a post-it notes box. I have a delectable selection of teacher stickers. My Pilot pens are organised by colour. What can I say? They’re important to me. I’ve been obsessed with this stuff since Santa put Scotch tape and a mighty fine stapler in my Christmas stocking (so it’s my parents’ fault). Does stationery make me a better writer? A better teacher? Of course not. But life’s too short for economy paper and scratchy biros. You know that smooth, satisfying feeling of a new gel pen on high-GSM paper? That’s heaven to me.

Writer Friend

When I got married last year, four of my bridesmaids were my friends from high school. In fact, I had attended playgroup with two of them, and one of them had been to primary school with me, too. We grew up together in a little network of villages, sharing all of our significant milestones, whether it was our first horror movie, first boyfriend, first awkward experience in a nightclub. We did our exams together. We became especially close in the sixth form, discussing and analysing every aspect of our lives between learning our French verbs and writing another essay for English Lit. We grew up together.

Ten years have passed since leaving school, and I still love our social gatherings. They are certainly more sedate than they were in sixth form or uni: less vodka, fewer occasions for fancy-dress, but more quality chat and undoubtedly better food. There have now been hen parties, spa days, weekends away. It’s all very civilised and it’s like having a second family. I feel very lucky to have such loyal, kind and fun people in my life.

I do stop and wonder about the ‘friends’ we didn’t stay in touch with, though. Well, let’s not skirt around the issue… there’s only one particular girl I give much thought to. I first met this girl when I was a toddler. We lived within a mile of each other, which in the countryside meant we were practically neighbours. We went to primary and secondary school together, and I was always at her house for sleepovers, parties, or just hanging out, not doing much. As a young teenager she was vivacious and bubbly, keen to impress boys. I was quiet, self-conscious, more concerned with my school work. Still, we were a partnership, and I was fiercely loyal towards her, even through the usual ups and downs of female friendships at that age. She had a tendency to fall out with other girls, usually over boys. I took her side instinctively. We’d been through so much together that I felt I owed her that.

She’s the girl who I would have called my best friend when I was eleven, fourteen and seventeen, and certainly a prime candidate for the bridesmaid at the crazy fantasy wedding my teenage brain concocted. We used to talk about our future weddings, of course. We had some truly awful ideas – ostrich feather dresses, Burberry print bridesmaids – I shudder now at our teenage tastes! We basically liked anything baby pink or powder blue, preferably with a fur trim. What can I say? Our formative fashion years were circa 1997-2000. That’s right: the heyday of the Spice Girls. Think pigtails, crop tops, leopard print… oh, and lots of denim. We had matching patchwork jeans. We thought we looked like the girls from Irish pop sensation, B*Witched.

Clearly, that was an age ago. The dark days of dial-up internet, hair glitter and knee-high socks are far behind us all, but while I’ve stayed in close contact with most of the girls I knew then, I don’t so much as tweet my so-called ‘best friend’.

She doesn’t speak to any of us.

She was such an important part of our social group, and, well, damn it, my whole childhood. I still feel annoyed, sad, and a little hurt that we’re no longer close.

It feels worse because I know how much we had in common. She was a writer, too. Because of social media, I know she’s still writing. and I know we’d have so much to talk about, and yet there’s a terrible distance. It’s frustrating. I don’t send her messages on Twitter. She defriended all of us from Facebook years ago. Yet I can’t help but have a quick look at her Facebook profile picture. I read her blog. Is that pathetic? Perhaps even intrusive?

I couldn’t tell you specifically why we stopped being friends. I remember still speaking to her on MSN when I was at uni. I kept hoping she would visit, and I was hurt that she kept making excuses. I met up with her a couple of times in my home town when I visited my parents, but it was awkward. She didn’t want to hear about uni life, because she chose to stay at home. She talked so much about herself and how great her new job was, that I felt she was self-absorbed. I can see now that she was feeling insecure. She didn’t want sympathy for being the only one of us not to pursue a university education. Then she broke up with her long-term boyfriend, and she certainly didn’t want sympathy for that. I’m sure she was proud. So she isolated herself. I didn’t see it this way at the time, though: I thought she was ‘dumping’ me, and I was really hurt.

I’m sure she found me annoying. I can see now that even towards the end of our school days, we were drifting apart. I was so driven towards academic success. I suspect was becoming a bit of an intellectual snob. A bit of a prude, too. I pretended I wasn’t as interested in boys and getting drunk because it was easier than being vulnerable. I did it to protect myself, because I didn’t think I was as pretty as the other girls. I knew I wasn’t as charismatic as her. But I was finding that part of her annoying too – she was becoming so loud, so extroverted. She wanted to talk about sex all the time. I thought she was just trying to embarrass me. She got drunk a lot. At parties she ingested so much cheap wine that she couldn’t stand up, and I got tired of being the one to prop her up.

And yet, ten years on, I think we’d be friends. We’re doing the same sorts of things. We’re both still writing. I’ve studied the craft at university (twice over, in fact), and she’s taught herself. She’s a Mum now, and clearly loves children. I’m a teacher, so we’ve both taken on similarly caring, child-centred roles. How easy it would be, to slip back into that easy friendship, the one we had before exam stress and crazy hormones got in the way. I feel a sense of loss, you know? Like something actually died. Though it’s possible it’s just nostalgia. We have some things in common, but would we really feel like we knew each other if we met up now?

I shall count my blessings. I have my other high school friends. Their company is so easy and fun – so much doesn’t need to be said, because we know each other so well. I have my husband now, and we’re best friends. He’s my fellow writer, my first reader, my confidante. There’s isn’t a gap in my life that my former friend needs to fill, and maybe that’s the key thing here. We grew out of our friendship… we didn’t need each other any more.