The Novelry is an online writing school which provides creative writing courses for aspiring novelists to guide them through to successful submission to agents and publishers. The founder of The Novelry is Man Booker longlisted award-winning author Louise Dean. The online creative writing courses include the famous Ninety Day Novel Course.
Once upon a time, you told yourself you couldn't write a novel. "I’m too old, too young, too stupid, too clever, too reclusive, too sociable, too lazy, too busy... I’m nervous.”
That's the first thing a writer says to me when they take the plunge and commit to writing a novel. But a whole raft of other unkind self-doubts above lurk right behind that word 'nervous'.
When you open the door and come into The Novelry, it's all rather jolly, warm, unpretentious and friendly and so very do-able. The work you have to do is bite-sized daily.
"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." (Emma Lazarus.)
The recipe for confidence at The Novelry is fast-acting. We salute you from the moment you arrive. You are welcomed with warmth by our members, because they know full well it's a big step, and that you're nervous on arrival, but we all know you've come home too.
Once you understand you're not expected to write a work of genius at first draft, you can get on with writing a work of genius (over several drafts). Let me explain.
Writing a novel to a high standard starts as PLAY, becomes CRAFT and then ART.
Brilliance is a word which means shining, by polishing and polishing, and that is what we do with your work. I do not accept that writers are born writers with an inherent genius. I will never accept that; it’s not the case for me. My own first draft is superficial, messy and quite unfit for consumption. I don’t mind. I'm just glad I've got the material to work with. Knowing it's not right is most liberating.
This is not brilliant ... but it will be better.
I explain to my readers that the first part of that phrase - this is not brilliant - is forged in the fire of your judgement and ambition. Hoorah. If you don't think it's not right at first draft, we're in trouble. You won't get published. The second part of that statement is the joy of becoming a craftsman which we not only teach but support through the good days and the difficult days.
First Draft: PLAY
My writers are surprised by the gaiety of the welcome they receive at The Novelry. Gifs fly at our closed group on Facebook when you turn up. Yes, these are professional people, published and aspiring writers, at play. This is our playground.
We celebrate what we know to be true, something other writers are perhaps a little confused about. Writing is not miserable, it's wonderful. This is why I conclude my messages to each of my writers with the words 'Happy Writing.' I don't wish my writers luck, they don't need it. (In celebration of our clan slogan, there is a new spring collection at our store - Writer Shop.)
The focus at first draft is on joy. God knows you need it to help manage the self-doubt. Those who have gone before cheer and applaud your progress. Before you start to write, you're held back from writing while we establish some principles of joy - finding the place and time for that precious one hour for you, ensuring you've got an idea with energy packed into it, and that you know how and where to get support when you need it.
We do a lot of initial work on the idea itself so you can proceed with confidence. If you're short of an idea for your novel, you will find some tips here. You come to me for a good old chat before you write and invariably there is a lot of laughter as we explore possibilities for your idea. When you start to write your under starters orders NOT to write too much. I ask you to write very little in the early days when you're putting the vital organs of the novel in place. I will say - just the opening line or 250 words today, please. You'll hit every target and within a couple of weeks - with the joy still firmly in place - you'll be on target to complete the first draft in 90 days. Daily you're in contact, working to the plan.
At this stage, it's about vision and passion; the idea, your emotional attachment to it, and being supported by our handrails until you're flying. An engrossment happens within a couple of weeks of joining us. Most of our writers describe the process as life-changing, like falling in love. In fact, you are just honouring your life's value, at long last, in just one hour a day for you. Surely that's not too much to ask? And about time too! Ah, but imagine if you'd worked this way since your twenties and had a body of work behind you, and paid the bills...come on, there's no time to lose!
With hundreds of writers now through the course, I have a good handle on what can set a writer back and we check these settings before take off:
The character is you or too close to you therefore a distaste emerges. (We pre-plan to ensure there is a good 'figurative' distance built in from the outset.)
The character's flaw is clear from the outset
You're not going to write hell for leather and burn yourself out but learn peace and plenty pacing of your progress, a writing habit for life
You understand the ups and downs of writing are to be accepted, and eventually welcomed - they are driven by growing ambition moderated by increasingly better judgement. You need both the exuberance and the reserve to produce fine work.
You won't share your precious but vulnerable first draft work with anyone but your coach - who knows how a first draft looks!
The completion of your first draft is celebrated at The Novelry. You've done it. You have material! Now take some time off and catch up on all those things you elbowed aside for the last 90 days of your life.
A first draft is typically over-written and thin character-wise.
But just as a new mother believes her baby to be beautiful, you'll be blind to this for a while. This is one reason we leave the first draft in a drawer for at least a month before proceeding to the second draft. You'll want to read some great books now to give your judgement another boost before moving on to craft a story readers will find satisfying.
Second Draft: CRAFT
Start with the effective tonic which is the Editing Course. This will get you on track for the most exciting phase of all - crafting your story. You've got the material, now you discover how to structure it virtuously. You get to roll your sleeves up and throw the material about. Many new ideas will emerge but now you're getting a much clearer handle on the hidden theme of your book and this may surprise and delight you. So that's what I think, that's how I feel... so that's who I am, what my life means.
Theme now becomes the hidden engine and driving force of the work. (Hidden, I repeat.)
What's the story here really about? You'll be asking yourself.
Now, this is the end of embellishment! Enough! Stop. Choose your finest gems, and use them sparingly. Choose a maximum of three points, phrases or short and meaningful sentences to describe the setting, atmosphere, feelings. Short and meaningful, and unique. The reader has the point. Thank you, and goodnight.
A strange thing happens, you start to eye your manuscript suspiciously and think - Gosh what if someone found this? QUICK! Hurry! Work. You are starting to see it as a reader would. You need to go through all the important elements in turn starting with the title, but before you do that - ask yourself again and again - what's this story about?
The Editing Course will have help you nail the story in a sentence so you can pin it the wall and keep it in sight to judge the purpose of every chapter and verse from here on out. Does this serve the story or detract from it? You will be slashing prose and curing your work of its overwriting. You'll be looking at the logic flow of the entire piece then working down to the paragraph level - evidence, evidence, conclusion.
Are you telling it the right way? Now is the time to change tense and perspective if you need to. Once you know what the story's about and whether it's being told fondly, retrospectively or with immediacy you can make the big decisions.
Oh, the wretched beginning! Read and re-read the opening of Catcher in the Rye to try to keep it warm and calm, but it must, of course, be right. I will spend 3 months at second draft trying to settle this. Philip Roth described spending six months from first putting pen to paper to find the right way to start the novel. It's very hard, which is why we race you over it at first draft. No point in dawdling there, you've got to create a book and you'll revise it many times after you know how the story ends and what it's about.
But now you've got to crack the opening. I got mine sorted only after six months from time of starting the novel. A couple of months into my second draft. Once you have it, and the ending, you can use our FIVE F's story structure to revise your chaptered outline to get you from Once Upon a Time to The End. The new chaptered outline becomes the clock of your second draft. You can now reasonably judge how long it takes you to revise a chapter and set yourself a new deadline. You'll find yourself in good company at The Novelry and can throw questions, your new 'hook' for the book, and opening sentences and work out there for a point of view at our members working forum 'The Novelry Lodge'.
You'll be finding true feeling for your characters now. They'll become much more sympathetic as you run your pen around them a few more times and see the complexity of their lives. They will become real to you. Kindness as a writer enters into it now. Cheap jokes and easy characterisations can go. Compassion comes into it now.
The end game of the book - its purpose - becomes more and more gravitational.
You'll be checking that the story is gripping, that you're using cliffhangers and that there has been a development in every chapter and that the chapter ends either overtly or covertly with something that makes it harder for the main character or protagonist to go backwards. You'll be checking that the prose which delivers this is lucid and luminous, that you are saying what he or she sees, and not over-egging what they feel. Check that it's precise and exacting and there are elements of curious dissonance which make the reader pay attention.
Wow, this really is the craft of writing! You'll be referring back to lessons from the Ninety Day Novel course - the lesson in ornamentation for instance - bringing to your work the things you love in life to increase your passion for it, using the 'leitmotif' and repetition or recurrence to develop the reader's attachment to the book. The book is layered and compact and becoming something hard and shiny.
You'll get a surge of joy and confidence with every decision you make, you'll laugh at the overwritten prose of the first draft, and delete it with pleasure at your progress as a writer.
You will have made your manuscript presentable using the tools we share at the Editing Course. It must look formal for your own sense of pride and to get ready for presentation to others in a way that does not distract from their enjoyment. No typos, grammar issues etc.
Now you can start to show your work to your fellow writers at The Novelry and even book a feedback call with me, Louise, to assess how it's going at the level of the writing itself.
But you know now, that this is a book, and a good book in the making. You just know it. All you need now is the third draft.
Third Draft: Art.
A cool-eyed read through with your notebook open at your side.
You'll be checking these now to deliver your reader an experience which rings true. My first editor, the wonderful Ben Ball, told me - it doesn't have to be true, but it has to ring true.
continuity - dates, times, events places, does it all add up?
consistency of voice - for all characters, does what they say ring true to their voice? A little more realism and dissonance perhaps?
comparison - you'll play my favourite game now which is to pick any given page of your work and compare it to any randomly picked page of your hero book (chosen at first draft) and the writers you admire to see how it stacks up
colour - you'll be looking at the DNA of your verbal coding to ensure your writing shines bright - light and shade, colour, the items and objects
subtlety - you'll make sure the theme is underground, not exposed too openly aggressively or repeatedly, that it's not too 'on the nose'
space - you'll want to leave space for your reader's thoughts in the way Raymond Carver or Elizabeth Strout does. This means some mystery in the interaction between people not being entirely tidy especially in the first half of the novel; things left unsaid and so on.
Reading out loud - you'll read your opening lines out loud to check the opening is warm and honest.
How will you know when you're done?
"You've exhausted all the possibilities for this book." Philip Roth.
“I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.” Oscar Wilde.
As I approach the end of the third draft, I'll have a sense that it's not bad. I mean this straight up. There's nothing bad here. I'll have reined in the hammy parts, cheap or mean laughs, silly jokes, excesses and exaggerations in favour of verisimilitude. I'll be able to say to myself, no one's going to think this is bad.
Whether it's good or not, I can't say since the magic has been achieved with so many layers and I see the mechanics, not the effect. I will feel or intuit the parts that move me and honestly in second draft there will be many places I've intuited what the reader wants to read next rather than stick to the letter of my chaptered outline. I'll have said - what would I love as a reader to happen now. I'll have felt the need for changes of tempo. That's how I have a degree of confidence at the end that the work has movement and music and life.
Once, I wept to quit my characters - when I finished This Human Season at six one morning in Italy - I knew I had to let them go. You will know that there is no more you can do. That's all.
Next? When you've run the first three chapters past our members' eyes, you come to me, and we make a plan to share your wonderful work with literary agents and publishers. I am able to sing your praises when I pitch on your behalf, and have a fair idea of which agent will love your work. You keep your phone close at hand...
After that, you can look forward to all those lovely drafts you'll be doing alongside your agent and publishing editor!
With the sad news of the death of the orginal Firestarter himself, it is to Keith Flint we dedicate these offerings.
We have had a bumper crop of first chapter entries to this year’s competition, a great turnout at the polling station, and here are some sneak previews of the range of writing currently on fire at The Novelry.
A hapless estate agent is unwittingly touched by the beauty of nature in the first chapter of Alex Ireson’s ripe and robust comedic novel 'Above & Beyond.' 'And then the magic happens. The orange light of the dying sun hits the cottage.’ One misadventure leads to another in this rollicking darkly comedic tale.
A big-hearted period novel from Romla Ryan, in which loyal Lyle provides support to 'The Antics of Atticus Ashworth' for a fast-paced, ribald romp. Atticus Ashworth loves women and his gentle appreciation brings warmth to the first chapter which opens on ‘dying embers from the coal fire, of rose talcum and of sweat’. Described by one of our members as ‘funny, original, saucy.'
The abiding affection of a boy who grew up in post-war Blackpool for his mother is evoked with great humour by David Hogarth in 'Great Expectations' and the grandmother has a cameo role of blanket disapproval with sweetly turned phrases such as '"Navy blue?! In July?! … horrible woman."' This is an England we miss.
Vimla Dalamal presents us with a little prince who lives in a world of mystical enchantment in 'The Magician and the Pool of Illusion' wrought in sumptuous prose. Eleven-year-old Rahula is about to embark on an epic adventure to save his grandfather’s realm. His allies are the animals. 'Rahula dived into ice-clear waters and swam with the perch, trout and silver carp; they were forever in a hurry. He floated with the turtles that were calm and wise; they had all the time in the world. “Time,” said a turtle. “You create Time and only you. Think over it and you will see."'
In Martine Corin’s ‘Something Red’, a woman comes back from her travels to the East to take up a new adventure, and find her missing piece as she tries to lay to rest the curse that’s seen off all of those she loves. 'She told them she was clearing out the house, maybe wanted to move to the city. In secret she was listening to those who came before her, getting ready to write, to carve herself and her twin out of history. For many seasons she did not write, she drank. And when the words finally came, they came in fits.'
The canals of England provide a quirky setting for Lisa Machin’s cosy mystery ‘A Windlass for a Weapon’. 'After the last lock, they were almost there. They had left the open countryside behind. Steep wooded slopes came right down to the canal on both sides now, and the boat slid along in a sort of green valley of beech trees, silvery wet roots tangled along the edge of the water. The towpath was cut right into the sandstone, and ferns had rooted along the edge of the water. The silence was only broken by the pop of Nancy’s engine. ‘It’s like being underwater.’'
A missing person provides inspiration for Gabrielle Osrin’s novel ‘The Face of the Earth’ when a young girl, smitten with the face of a stranger on the news in 1976, falls in love with a ‘missing’ country. 'Many maps left it blank or filled end to end with ink, a black sliver in the middle of a crowded continent. Over the years, meticulous cartographers took its smudged existence to be the result of misalignment, a printing error. In subsequent maps, it was simply wiped off the face of the Earth.' Written with comic flair, the novel is haunting and affecting.
In Sara Bailey’s new novel ‘The Incomers’, a woman seeks purposely to go missing and heads off to Orkney to lose herself but finds herself quickly embroiled in a misadventure when her neighbour turns to her for help one night. “‘Gregor Svarson and I were on fellowship together in Stockholm, marvellous doctor, wasted in general practice of course.’ He coughed and shuffled the papers. ‘Anyway, that’s by the by. You take this time out and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet for a bit. I envy you, I really do." The alternative wasn’t even mentioned. Dismissed? Struck off for ‘conduct unbecoming?’ Caitlin had been lucky, and she knew it. Scotland it was.'
“The Gregarious Recluse’ of Kirstine McDermid’s novel takes up residence in her grandmother’s house, only to continue to receive threatening letters in the post. 'But there was something about that last letter in particular that stood out to Alex from its previous counterparts. It was stark and economical with words - most of the page gaped whiteness. The other letters had been much more graphic, and the more gratuitous and brutal the words were, the more they seemed to have neutered themselves, becoming almost laughable to Alex.'
We are plunged into the lively prose of Kate Tregaskis’ novel 'How About I Be Me and You Be You’ with this opening. “‘Maybe we should get married?’ I say.' Richard is apparently non-plussed. Having fallen headily in love, almost at first sight, they have taken their time to get here, having been together 15 years, and parents to a daughter, but Richards’s mysterious reaction sends Nora into ‘free fall’.
‘The Ghost Swan’ by Anita Salemink unravels a nineteenth-century crime whose clues are deciphered by a young girl living in a convent in Ireland in the late 1970s. Anita’s writing evokes both periods and is reminiscent of Donna Tartt's 'The Secret History'. 'The girl with the pimple lowers her voice and says, ‘You are sick.’ And the others echo, ‘You are sick.’ She says, ‘You are really sick.’ They echo, ‘You are really sick.’ ‘You are dying… dying… dying.’The others join in the chant.'
Set in a modern day Ireland, Linda Fennelly’s 'Moon Frolic’ describes the relationship of an Irish woman and her father with affection offering both the chance of redemption. 'When she was little he would put out his fist with a Murray Mint trapped inside and she’d wrestle him to try open his hand, swinging out of his arm. Then she'd bend back one finger at a time with all her childish strength and bodyweight. Each time she released a finger, another would clamp back down, and he’d never give up until she got thick and stomped away saying ‘that’s not fair, you never play fair.’'
We head back to ancient Celtic times with 'The Apprentice Tattoo’ from David Eastwood in which a young boy is guided by his spirit messenger. Imaginative, magical and warm-hearted, this novel has shades of Philip Pullman. 'The Messenger turned to Col, nodding, and they sat down opposite. Albyn placed a hand on the ground beside him and a large brown rat appeared from behind him, scurrying up his arm to perch on his left shoulder. He gave a shrill whistle, then turned his head to the right as a wren alighted on the other side.'
A middle-grade Children’s novel from Emily Grice is full of fun. A school trip to a factory becomes the dream outing when the children take over the chocolate factory in ‘The Great Chocolate Heist’. “‘Am I free to commence with operation chocolate drop?’ Lenny got back to the job in hand, reeling at his wily sister. ‘Yep.’ ‘Say roger or affirmative. Do it right – this is a serious gig.’ Lenny heard a growl. ‘Say it.’”
What happens to the celebrity impersonators when their idol dies? In Sarah Jones’ novel, ‘Goodbye Emma-Jane’ we meet a fading star of the ilk of Blanche Dubois. ‘But whatever she was faced with, she knew just what to do: what to highlight and what to conceal; how to lift her cheekbones and brighten her skin; how to revive her tired eyes. She had learnt all the secrets; she knew all the tricks. It would take a little longer on those days; so she might, on occasion, be a little late; but her audience – whether one man, or a crowd of hundreds – were never disappointed; she would always be worth waiting for.'
Louise Tucker’s novel ‘The Last Field’ was longlisted for The Stockholm First Pages Award and with good reason. She wastes not a moment in this dark comedy which opens 'On the first day of his retirement, George’s wife had a stroke.' Told with wit and compassion, this is an enjoyable coming of age story at an advanced age.
“‘They’ll be okay," Holda said, nodding her head with certainty. "When Vati was here last, he said that they will only take the bad ones."' The innocence of a moment of time is captured in Jane Tingle’s wonderful and subtly written ‘The Wild Hunt’ which opens in Hitler’s Germany on Kristallnacht in 1938. 'In the street below, slivers of broken glass glittered on the ground. The frames of shop windows were jaws of jagged teeth where they held on to pieces which had not been smashed out. Inside each shop, all was still and dark. It must have been the time for people to be setting off to work in bakeries or factories, or stretching to open up their shop fronts.'
Set in Wales, Layla Reeves’ heartwarming novel ‘Drawn to Destiny’ gives us a lovestruck Rhiannon eager to win the favour of young Wynn. “‘They are beautiful hands, they are delicate yet sturdy. Feminine yet they show a life of hard work. That shows integrity Rihannon." Wynn had said one day while they were holding hands. He was gently massaging the inside of her palm with his thumb.’
Setting a different tone is the noir fairy tale for adults from Anna Verena Brandt ‘And Then I Saw the Beast.' In cool, lucid prose, Anna presents a formidable version of sexual power play. 'Sometimes he pretends that he wants to talk. He should know better than that; there's no need to play that game with her. "Do you ever want more?" she asked him once. "No," is what he said. "Not with you," is what he meant. It's an efficient relationship.' When two sisters are reluctantly reunited, their fascination with the same man seems as if it may prove fatal.
'Sweden needed a prince, not this French soldier’s son…' So begins Kelly Scarborough’s historical novel set in 1811 drawing upon the story of a young woman who becomes central to the nation’s story - Jacquette Gyldenstolpe - with whom the King of Sweden has a child. '“Is that what you nobles call your indiscreet affairs and misbehaviours? The Butterfly Game?” She saw no warrant for insults. “It’s always been that way at court—I had imagined that we learned it from you French. And it is not my game.”'
“‘Every weekday, my father bore the drudgery of standing with ghosts at the railway station so we could all have a better life. He held fast to this dream, ensuring he did not succumb to any illusion buried in the earth of the City. He was always gone before I woke up, leaving Mum and me to have breakfast together in the tiny warm kitchen. After everything had been cleared away and I had been dressed and bounced into my thick ribbed tights mum would play.” A talented child pianist, whose home is a refuge and whose mother her heroine, grows up in a provincial town aware of the sacrifices her patents make. Her happy young life is dealt a cruel blow. Viv Frances tells the story of Cess in her novel ‘The Silence in My Music.’
'That was the year she learned the difference between a fairy tale and a lie. And that some stories have no ending, because they are still being told.' Cate Guthleben’s masterful historical novel ‘Mother Country’ is set in Australia in the early 1900s and is a bildungsroman with Matilda, born on the same day as the nation is declared, navigating her way between the two peoples who live uneasily side by side. Affecting and ambitious in scale, this is a big, beautiful novel.
Katie Khan’s new novel ‘The Curfew’ is another high-wire concept from the author of ‘Hold Back the Stars’. 'In the park, a woman lies in a hammock gazing at the night sky. She takes it in: the bright twinkle of newborn stars, the haze of their elders slipping away into the darkness. Constellations spelling out fortunes for the unimaginative. Like many others tonight, her fortune is vastly improved.' 'The Curfew' imagines a world in which regulations restrict the hours of males, and women seem to be perfectly free.
Offering us a feminine triptych of a tale, ‘The Nature of Silence’ by Charlotte Purchas tells a tender story of innocence and experience through three women at three different life stages. 'She is transfixed by the monumental shades and shadows of her mother, the line of her neck and shoulders, the luminescence of her skin in the receding evening light. Turning quietly, she finally steps away without being seen. It is as if she has just observed some sort of farewell.'
‘I am an old man, lying on a sofa-bed, dying. Beyond that, everything is up for grabs.’ So begins ‘Forest Gate’ by Babar Javed a novel that is both mystical and humorous. ‘A girl arrives in the morning and feeds me mush. Then she turns me to face the window. I can enjoy the sunlight that way. Then a boy comes in the evening. He also feeds me mush, and turns me away from the window, towards the stairs. Then I see the dark.’ At the end of his life, a man tended to by two very different carers, reflects on how the strange loss of individual items from his home sets him free to travel in his mind back to celebrate the important moments of his life’s journey.
'Just then, Chike leaned towards me. I felt his warm breath in my ear just before he said: ‘They’ll shave off your hair and offer it to the gods.’” To Nigeria via Wales, in ‘The Return’ by Ngozi Amadi. A young girl, full of life, full of her own promise, is forced to find her place in a closeted academic environment at a university in Lagos, much to the disappointment of her and her mother, whose fancies and ambitions are more cinematic. 'That's the one thing I knew I wouldn’t miss, my disgusting cousin. ‘Stop that, Chike,’ Mum said mildly. ‘But its true, isn’t it? Dad told me.’ ‘Don't mind him,’ Mum said to me, ‘He’s just jealous.’ Yes he was. They all were, they were all jealous of me.'
Anna Pye’s young adult fantasy series ‘The Turning’ creates an alternate world around the four seasons which have been suborned by dark forces, and Cara Walstone is the reluctant saviour of this rustic world and its enchanted forest from the ‘creeping darkness.’ ‘I still remember my first Barter Day. Dell had been going for ages and gloated about it every single time. Because he was a boy, Rod got to go when he was twelve and that first time, he came back wide-eyed with gossip about everyone. He always did get into the thick of things, even as a child. It had felt like forever to wait for fourteen Turnings but finally, the day came.'
An inventive novel from Debbie (Lily) Jones ‘Visitors' Book’ tells a story through multiple narrators and their experiences. As Jack explains in the opening chapter 'The collection was first transcribed, in cursive handwriting inky and loopy and beautiful as her hair, by Sorcha August. It resulted in a novel, with all essential ingredients, and tells the story of how Sorcha, Francesca and me, Jack, got to know each other, and what happened next. It's called Visitors' Book and you, dear readers, are its visitors.'
A veritable smorgasbord of entries to The Firestarter 2019. I commend to you our talented authors. This is just the start of the blaze to come.
All of these works are either full manuscripts or almost complete and will be ready soon for submission to our agency partners.
To experience the full excitement of the reveal of the winner's name, press play on the video above.
The winner of The Firestarter 2019 has been decided by members votes. One member one vote and this year’s winner will receive £150 and their work will be submitted to our literary agency partners for their priority consideration when ready.
This year's winner is undoubtedly a worthy winner - Cate Guthleben. I am delighted to be able to congratulate her as I know well the dedication and work put into 'Mother Country' and have no doubts at all that this will be received with praise by publishers and readers and soon. I love this novel and confess I have wept when reading it, and laughed plenty too (in all the right places). The characters are lively and true. It's impossible not to be immersed in the wrenching dilemma of the novel. Hats off to you, Cate.
This year, I am going to mention the runners up as they did so well and garnered many votes.
Runner up, in second place; Anna Verena Brandt.
Third place; Romla Ryan.
Honourable mentions to Gabrielle Osrin, Katie Khan, Sara Bailey and Alex Ireson.
Well done, all of you.
Such great work! I'll be working with you too from here on out to make a plan for submission to agents.
I'll be offering a full debriefing to my writers at our closed member's area today and working with all of my writers to continue the journey towards publishing contracts and a place in readers' hearts.
Part of our method at The Novelry is to encourage working novelists to read and re-read a 'hero book' during the course of writing their first draft. First for the story, then for the technique and to abide with this one book during the writing of a first draft as a training frame. The act of faith, abiding with it, is good discipline in itself for sticking with the novel, but when you read a masterful novel, it reveals itself to you in layers which you will only perceive after many readings.
This week's blog post comes from our member, Viv Rich, who inspired by our recent writer's retreat has taken an old-school approach to taking a fresh look at her work in progress. Her chosen hero book is The Great Gatsby. You can find our suggested hero books listed here, there's one for every genre and they are chosen for the virtuous story structure which teaches novelists as they read.
Hunter S. Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby and A Call to Arms as a method for learning how to write. While I cannot compare myself to Fitzgerald or to Thompson, my love of Gatsby and a recent awakening of my need to elevate my writing style and form, has led me not to type out the book but to copy it by hand. I have chosen this form because I believe there to be a more intimate, more physical connection to the words. And it is how Fitzgerald wrote the book.
My method is methodical. I have obtained a 340 page lined journal, several purple Frixion pens (yes, the colour of pen is absolutely crucial) and a new un-scribbled on, non-highlighted, ready to be a dog-eared copy of The Great Gatsby (Penguin English Library edition.)
On the first page of my journal, I have copied the lines of Thomas Parke D’Invilliers. Why? Because it sets the tone of the novel and I want to try to get into Fitzgerald’s mindset. The next page has a dedication to Zelda. On the third right-hand page, I begin with Chapter One. The left page is there for my notes, ideas, witterings, musings and burblings about Fitzgerald’s writing and ideas about my own book. I read each sentence, then read it again as I copy it out. In this way, I hope to gain an understanding of the artistry and work that lies behind the book. On the left page, as I copy more, there are more ideas, more notes, more arrows and more phrases and words that conjure the magic and glamour. I can only assume that this will increase as I progress through the book to the point where I have amassed post-it notes and have a colour coding system to match that of Joseph’s Technicolor Dream Coat!
This process is teaching me about structure, character and the art of a good chapter. I have gained a wealth of ideas and have intimately seen how Fitzgerald draws us into Gatsby’s world. It is a world where repetition is used to perfection as it keeps us safe, secure and engaged. This is exactly where Fitzgerald wants us and we are happy to oblige him because we are drawn in by ‘The Pledge’*. We are being shown the ordinary – we see Daisy’s whiteness and implicit innocence, Tom’s strength (monetary and physical) and desire to be ‘profound’, Miss Baker’s balancing acts and how trustworthy and ‘ordinary’ our narrator, Nick Carraway, is.
As a nearly-writer, I am driven by some unknown force to use the English language in its most extravagant forms – to search for a better word to use, to express intelligence through my choice of words. Fitzgerald uses no such tricks. What he does so eruditely is to fix on a description that is clear, precise and unusual. We all understand what he has created and even when that ‘murmur’ or ‘murmuring’ is used by another character, it fails to dilute the original meaning. We see a connection instead.
I am now on page ten and I have realised how Fitzgerald plays with us when it comes to Daisy Buchanan…
We have in our mind an innocent, perhaps naive individual, married to money but missing something real. It came as a surprise to me that Fitzgerald uses the following words instead of ‘said’ when Daisy is talking:-
These create quite a different character to the one I had earlier perceived which is more in keeping with the following that Fitzgerald also uses:-
This is food for thought indeed.
If you don’t fancy doing the same as me with Gatsby then use your own hero book and copy out the first page. The entire physicality of the exercise brings you closer to the words, closer to the structure and draws you closer to your own writing ambitions because “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning –”
This week's Member's Story comes from Walter Smith from Alabama.
'Props' to him - a new word he has taught me. See story for details...
There is a silver bowl in a box around here somewhere that I received in eighth grade for winning a fiction award. I keep it in case I become strapped for funds and need to melt it, though I suspect it may be silver-plated, not sterling. The award bore the name of a writer named Conrad Richter, and the presenters were thoughtful enough to include a copy of one of his books inscribed by his daughter offering best wishes and prosperity, the usual pap. To be truthful, I thought little of the book. It involved American Indians and frontiersmen as I recall, something they erroneously thought might intrigue a pubescent male. Sort of Hawthorne-lite, but lacking wonderful names like Natty Bumppo and the imprimatur of countless freshman English syllabi.
One story published in a regional magazine. It told the inspirational tale of my seventeen-year-old cousin’s marriage to a fifteen-year-old girl he met at church camp six weeks before the nuptials. Town & Country declined to cover it, which I thought was a great disservice to their readers. Her father drove a coal truck. There was a sawmill nearby. A paint-by-numbers of Da Vinci’s Last Supper hung on the kitchen wall. Unfortunately, the marriage failed despite the pledges of fealty and the till death do us part, though I was to later understand that death might have come calling sooner than anyone imagined if the blessed union continued. Still, it was a shock to us all, as one might imagine. The bride later pursued a career as an exotic dancer; the groom fell in with the Mormons out west. I envision him today somewhere in Utah wearing magic underwear and reading Wallace Stegner aloud to the progeny begotten by his sister wives.
Otherwise, no fiction other than writing a children’s story for a godchild, job applications, love letters, thank-you notes for worthless gifts, and late night drunken typings that began as streams of consciousness and evanesced into stuporous sleep—the usual suspects.
So why am I here, a southern man taking a writing course based in England? The internet tubes led me here. The name popped up and I thought, that’s clever, so I clicked the link. Now this looks interesting, I thought, so I mulled it over a few days and signed up. England intrigues me. I have never visited, but my ancestors came from there. What records there are show them crossing the pond around 1640. I suspect those early émigrés might not have left on the best of terms, though I have no proof. They arrived in Virginia, then as now considered a tonier destination than Georgia, the déclassé malaria-ridden penal colony to the east of my current location, and gradually worked their way southwest to become the first settlers of Tennessee. Whether this was to escape debtor’s prison or pending charges is unclear, but they were the first, the Beans of Bean Station. Their first child was a loathsome individual banished to Memphis where he was appointed sheriff and promptly murdered for what were undoubtedly justifiable reasons, likely related to inappropriate affections for another man’s wife. It appears to run in the blood.
This course also provides me with privacy. No one in these parts knows I am doing this, which suits me. No distractions. So be it if the locals consider me aloof in the interim. In fact, being perceived so creates an air of mystery and may prove advantageous. It certainly avoids noisome questions from hoi polloi concerning the effort. My intent is to get this completed this year. This is possible. It is not like my life is one continuous debutante ball anyway.
So why haven’t I done this before now? A reasonable question. I suspect I am not the only person plagued by fear of the effort. What will others think? Will I fail? What if others are better writers? Evasions, explanations, excuses—anything to avoid the effort. But I have learned that fear is a chimaera. The worst things in my life never occurred.
Drunkenness was a hindrance. I first drank when I was twelve though I remained a social drinker until I was thirteen. That was an awkward time, adolescence, particularly when it resists receding. Let me correct the misguided romantic notion about writers and drinking. There is nothing romantic about pissing yourself. Now, others pissing themselves, that is different. That holds dramatic potential. Not that drinking might not someday appear in something I write. There is one evening with a green-haired Olympic gymnast from Poland, a Rottweiler, and Billy Squier that comes to mind. January marked thirty-one years without a drink.
Money issues were troublesome too. Divorce left me homeless and sleeping on friends’ couches for several months, struggling to not drink, and working at a menial job because I was almost unemployable. At two years sober I considered ending it all because I was about to be homeless again and had twenty-three cents in the bank. I called my friend Tim instead. Tim made bad life choices, so there was a kinship there. When he was in college Tim turned down his friend Tom’s offer to manage a band named The Heartbreakers. I rest my case. We met for coffee. I asked him to lend me five dollars for food; he gave me ten. Tim assured me that if I ever needed work, they were always hiring chicken eviscerators at the local poultry processing plant. Thanks for the advice. He saved my life. Life improved. I grew a ponytail, got an earring, talked my way into graduate school, ran a marathon, worked six days a week as a house parent for delinquent boys and as a yardman, received payback for my infidelities, drove a three hundred dollar Volvo for two years, and eventually got back most of what I had lost. Except for the drunk. I let him go.
Of course, there were the women. Looking for relationships to complete me rather than bringing a complete me to a relationship might have had an effect. Just maybe. There was a wife who deserved better and decided to not support me in the style I desired and a sojourn as a modelizer that was thankfully brief and uneventful. One thing I have learned is that who you are in a relationship with says as much about you as it does about them. There is a guy here in Birmingham we call Marrying Sam. Nine marriages. I asked him one time if he knew what the common denominator was in all those failed marriages. I asked myself the same question about relationships and did not like the answer. There comes a day when you must understand who you are and either accept that or change things. I worked on the latter.
And then I nearly died in 2005 from botched appendicitis surgery. Walking the floor at 3:00 AM in the infectious disease wing of an Atlanta hospital, temperature 40.3 C, dragging the IV rack behind me, knowing I was going to die if nothing changed—that was a strange night. It was also the calmest moment of my life. Absolutely no fear. They cut me open the next morning while I was still in my hospital bed. Alien is not my favourite film.
Distractions remained. Family occupied my time. When my mom turned seventy-eight I realized that I could not change her. I could, though, change how I felt about her and not have any regrets when she died. I cared for her the decade before her death two years ago. She still pissed me off, but that was because we were so alike. She was a troublemaker like me. Did I mention her move to Paris when she was sixty? She pulled me lifeless out of the bottom of a pool when I was thirteen months old, taught me to read, took care of me when I was sick, told me she loved me when I was unlovable, and changed my diapers. Props (all proper respect due) to Mom on the last one. No regrets. None.
No more excuses. Not getting any younger. I may look young, but the truth is I have had a little work done. My best friend is a celebrity plastic surgeon whose nickname in medical school was “God.” Do you really think I would not take advantage of that? My novel may not change the world, but is that the point? It will change my world. That much I know. But how? There are many answers, explanations that I could offer, but I suspect that the true answer will appear only after the effort, if then.
We grow up in the American South with a sense of place, though we understand that our history is a troubled one. We look back to understand where we came from and to guide us forward. Sit down and tell me where you are from, where you have lived—that is what we ask, how we understand. The line blurs between the person and the land. The South. This is my home, where my story lies, wherever I go, even if I stray. It is cliché to say you cannot go home again. The truth is that I cannot leave. It is in the blood.
One of our writers is on the longlist for the Stockholm Festival First Pages Award! We're rooting for the wonderful Louise Tucker with her fabulous novel 'The Last Field.'
Last week, we were on our annual residential writing course 'The Full English' in Dorset. The value of revision became manifestly abundant over the course of a very intense week taking prose through rounds of work towards a shining, tight truth by the end of our seven days together.
I began the week with a lesson on 'Glamour' - and how what is concealed up front in your novel will of necessity be revealed. We begin our story by showing that to all appearances all's well but the veneer conceals a lie. It's the nature of THE LIE which is at the heart of your story, and it's the chipping away at it, the revelatory process which drives the plot. If you're a writer in search of an idea, start with a big lie.
We looked at how with The Great Gatsby it was Scott Fitzgerald's intention from the start to establish a veneer of glamour in his prose and story. He had his eyes on the big lie - the American Dream - which he foresaw as doomed.
I told my writers how Hunter S Thompson typed out pages from The Great Gatsby just to get the feeling, he said, of what it was like to write that way. If I were twenty-five again and starting to write, I think I'd probably start by copying out the book. Since our return one of my writers is doing that very thing.
Gatsby is an awe-inspiring achievement. But I want to add a few words of consolation and remind you that every writer builds a work of accomplishment and magic in layers.
We may draw great comfort from the drafts thrown away over the two-year process in which Fitzgerald repeated the drafting process a number of times. Like we do at The Novelry, he created his first draft fast, then went through rounds of revision.
It is good to remind ourselves of this so that we don't lose heart. We should expect to sit with our work in patience and faith that what is concealed to us as a writer will also be revealed in time.
Summer 1922 Scott Fitzgerald writes to Max Perkins his initial thoughts on his next book. "Its locale will be the middle west and New York of 1885 I think. It will concern less superlative beauties than I run to usually and will be centred on a smaller period of time. It will have a catholic element."
On 13th September 1922, Scott Fitzgerald wired his agent to promise the short story he was working on would be with the agency the next week. It was called 'Winter Dreams' and he would late describe it as a 'sort of 1st draft of the Gatsby idea.'
Summer 1923 Scott begins drafting the book that would become The Great Gatsby.
April 1924 Scott tells Perkins 'much of what I wrote last summer was good but it was so interrupted that it was ragged & in approaching it from a new angle I've had to discard a lot of it.'
May 1924 the Fitzgeralds sail for France and Scott starts writing his novel in earnest. Most of the early drafts have been lost and Scott didn't date later ones, but it appears the novel was composed in sequence.
That summer, he writes to a friend 'My novel grows more and more extraordinary. I feel absolutely self-sufficient & I have a perfect hollow craving for loneliness...'
September 1924 Scott writes in his ledger 'The novel finished. Trouble passing away.' (The writing had coincided with a marital upset.)
27 October 1924, after some revisions, Scott sends the novel to Perkins.
In November Max Perkins wrote to Scott to say he thought the novel a wonder. "It has vitality to an extraordinary degree, and glamour...'
December 1924, revisions continued. 'With the aid you’ve given me,' Scott wrote Maxwell Perkins in December, 1924, 'I can make Gatsby perfect.'
April 1925 The Great Gatsby is published.
The pencil draft and the much-revised galley proofs at Princeton library show how thoroughly and expertly Fitzgerald practised the craft of revision.
'Among the many lessons Fitzgerald applied between the rough draft and the finished novel was that of cutting and setting his diamonds so that they caught up and cast back a multitude of lights. In so doing, he found it unnecessary to have an authorial voice gloss a scene. The brilliance floods in upon the reader; there is no necessity for Nick Carraway to say, as he did at one point in the pencil draft: “I told myself that I was studying it all like a philosopher, a sociologist, that there was a unity here that I could grasp after or would be able to grasp in a minute, a new facet, elemental and profound.” The distance Fitzgerald travelled from This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned to The Great Gatsby is in the rewriting of the novel.' Kenneth Eble.
'What I cut out of it both physically and emotionally,' Scott Fitzgerald wrote later, 'would make another novel!'
This is how it works.
At The Novelry you get your skills with the course which feeds you master strokes from the greats. You pick up a new good habit - the way of the working writer - and you reach out for support and feedback to help you revise to meet your ambition and newly-muscled judgement and to a bar that is set so high by all of our writers.
You stick with it. You make it better.
You will revise. We won’t get bored. Suddenly it will click. We will whoop.
That was a week!
Tracey Emerson's Writing Week...
The Full English Experience: What can I say? I arrived depleted and a little defeated after several months of winter, an unexpected illness that wiped out my writing schedule at the end of last year and a loss of confidence in my novel idea and my writing. I left with renewed confidence, energy and enthusiasm and with a firm direction for my novel.
This is a unique writing retreat. Firstly, the setting of Marshwood Manor and the welcome you get from owner Romla Ryan are superb. The accommodation is gorgeous and to have your dinner cooked every night is a treat in itself! You really can switch off from daily life there and shed your responsibilities. Secondly, the intense attention to the writing process brought breakthroughs for everyone. We were lucky to have Time Lott as our guest tutor, and his sessions on storytelling and story structure were so insightful that he made principles I had been reading about for years come alive. He promised he would drill story structure into us by the end of his four sessions and he did! His approach to teaching character was profound and thought-provoking. Also, my one-to-one session with Louise Dean, who has seen my story develop over the past year, was so personal and focused that I was able to make the choices I needed to make to move the story forward. Louise was also available any time for follow-up chats, and I think this generous, creative midwifery was a real feature of the week. As was the support of the other writers. Everyone there had come ready to work and explore and share, and I am beyond grateful for the encouragement and feedback I received. Oh, and we laughed. A lot. Oh, and we happened to have a mind-blowing two-hour session with world-renowned dream expert Ian Wallace thrown in as well. I would say we more than got our money’s worth!
One unexpected discovery I made during the week was that I could be more flexible in my writing routine. As a morning person, I prefer to get my words down in the morning, and I’ve always told myself that I couldn’t write in the afternoon, that my brain doesn’t function well then. Yet on the fourth day, after a three-hour session with Tim in the morning, I found myself cosied up on the sofa in a blanket, typing away with drooping eyes and having a huge writing breakthrough. I think I’d reached a sweet spot of mental exhaustion that forced my ego and all my doubts and niggles to leave the building. I managed to nail a first chapter that captured a voice I can work with.
That was the thread I was looking for when I came on The Full English, and the experience totally delivered.
The Novelry Report: Tracey is published author of the intelligent psychological thriller She Chose Me with a stack of five-star reviews on Amazon. She is writing her second novel with The Novelry. She is planning the storyline beautifully and showing flashes of brilliance in her understanding of the shadowy line of unreliability. Some of her turns of phrase make you tingle with their promise and foreboding. In the vein of Patricia Highsmith, this novel will be a great ride for the reader.
Ngozi Amadi Silver's Writing Week...
I almost didn't make it to The English Writer’s Retreat this February. When I finally arrived at my cosy cottage in the Marshwood Manor, I was two days behind, worried and agitated, and trying very hard not to show it.
That evening I sat with my fellow retreaters round a blazing log fire and listened to a very talented writer read her first few chapters. I knew from that day I will never be able to write anything remotely close to what I had heard. Every evening the bar went higher; the level of talent displayed at the evening readings was extraordinary. Every day the writers at the retreat, including The Novelry’s lovely and super talented founder Louise Dean, encouraged me to share my work, and I smiled and said I’ll try, but I knew I could never do it. I had taken The Novelry’s Ninety Day Novel course, had written fifty thousand odd words of a first draft, but still, I wasn’t convinced I had the talent to write or that my story was even worth sharing. As I often say to my friends: never underestimate the crippling power of the imposter syndrome.
I attended every remaining session with the award-winning guest author Tim Lott. I talked about my story and listened to others talk about theirs. There is nothing more refreshing than being able to talk about your work among like minds. I always felt like everyone in the room wanted the best for each other. Gradually I started seeing ‘the forest for the trees’, and my story started to evolve into something I felt wasn't half bad.
By the second to last evening, I knew I had to share something. Even if the words were total rubbish, it would be better rubbish than what I’d written in the two years since I’d started writing. I spent all of that night and the morning after writing my opening page. That afternoon I shared it with Louise and her warm and enthusiastic response gave me the confidence I needed to share with the rest of the group.
I will never forget that last evening. I kept forcing myself to smile and laugh with everyone, but all I could feel was my heart thumping in my chest. My whole body was shaking and only I knew it wasn’t from the cold. Suddenly it was time for me to read. The silence that fell on the room was unnerving and I didn't dare look up.
At the room erupted in applause. I looked up then and all I saw were beautiful smiles. I was almost giddy with relief. I kept bobbing my head like a bouncy toy as each writer said what she loved about what I’d read. They were so excited for me, it was contagious and I started feeling excited too. The euphoria stayed with me all night and lingered through the next day. On the last day of the retreat, one of the ladies held me close and said, ‘you’re a writer, never forget that.’ I mumbled something back, I don't even remember what, it was all I could do not to burst into tears.
Now I have an opening page, a clearly mapped out structure, and the confidence to write to the end, and this is all thanks to The Novelry and its amazing founder Louise. I would recommend anyone writing a novel, at whatever stage you are in the process to be part of The Novelry family and attend one of these retreats. Believe me when I say you would never regret it.
The Novelry Report: Nogzi's touching writing and unpretentious knack of nuance and setting give the reader a truly immersive reading experience. The dissonance she introduces with a culture clash piques interest and she has a firm grip on the story from the outset. She makes it plain to the reader that the quite loveable narrator has a flaw which could prove her undoing. This is a writer to watch. I'm very excited about her potential. If she can continue the book in the same voice and style, work with patience to unravel a story that's got such a universal appeal and such an interesting setup, she'll be courted by literary agents and soon.
Cate Guthleben's Writing Week...
Last night I dreamed I went to Marshwood Manor again… Actually, it has been my waking dream every day since I left last Sunday. All I want to do is go back – to Romla’s cakes, the peace and quiet, the dark starry nights, the readings around the fire, the cakes…
The week of the Full English Retreat was what dreams are made of – days spent talking about our books and how to make them better and nights spent sharing them. Each day began with a tutored session. On the first day, we had Louise on ‘Glamour’, and a brand new octopus Moleskine to write all our thoughts in. For the next four mornings, we had Tim Lott, who began with the psychology of writing, and how to be true to ourselves. He then took us through the basics of storytelling, and structure and plot and character. All things I’ve heard before, all things we all know, but how different it is to think about these things with your own story in your head, and with the time and the space to apply them to it.
The afternoons were our own – to write or read or walk or sleep. Or to drive to the coast and let the wind clear your head. I had to prepare a submission for a competition – 50 pages to edit and a 5-page synopsis to write. Having Louise on site was invaluable. Apart from our scheduled one-to-one, we talked my plot over on a dog walk and met again to settle my synopsis.
The evenings began with a G&T in Louise’s cottage, followed by one of Romla’s delicious meals. Then we gathered around the fire to read our stories aloud. It’s such a human trait, to tell a story around the fire. I could have happily listened for longer to every one of them. It was so satisfying to meet the books that people had talked about in our morning sessions, and to hear how they had chosen to tell their tale. I can’t wait to read them when they are published. Yes, they were that good. Everyone who came on this retreat was absolutely committed to the craft of writing. The standard was exceptional.
And then there was a final treat – Ian Wallace, our actual Dream Man. It was a perfect way to end a dream-like week.
I left with my Moleskine already half-filled. I made notes of what Louise and Tim said on the right-hand page, and put my thoughts on how to apply them to my book on the left. So much to think about. So much work to do to make it the best book I can write.
I got lost on the way home. It was deliberate – I didn’t want the week to end.
The Novelry Report: Cate's novel 'Mother Country' is close to finished and what a work it is. Breathtaking in its canvas - Australia in the early 1900's - and far-reaching in its stakes and moral reach. One of the most evocative and sweet opening's imaginable, this is what big novels are made of. It's not a question of if it will get published, but when and who will be the lucky agent. Keep an eye out for this one.
Viv Rich's Writing Week...
A treat of a retreat! With our first lesson from 'Miss' (Louise Dean) about ‘Glamour’, the tone of the week was set. Our novels grew with the inspiration we gained from each other and our daily lessons. Each evening readings sparkled with fascination, love, intelligence and wit. Our conversations helped us to consider our own novels, inspired us to achieve and learn more. Our one to one’s with Miss channelled those thoughts into productive review, structuring and editing.
The week was wrapped up in style with the exceptional Ian Wallace, fabulous cocktails, a wonderful last supper and a few glamourous shampoo-and-sets courtesy of Chantelle’s in Bridport.
The Novelry Report: Viv brings a gifted musician's ear to prose, seeking to create imagery that works like music She's got her eye on storyline now and that's the vital element to pursue now in second draft. This week, she and I enjoyed a mutual breakthrough as we laughed together about our common need to pare back our prose to get to the heart of the matter. Viv's determination, appetite and flair will deliver a novel in 2019 which I will be proud to recommend to our literary agency partners.
The Full English is available to writers for February 2020 here. Book your place now as it sells out quickly and early instalment payment plans are available. We will have some well-known, best-loved authors joining us as guest tutors. To get the most from the intensive week you will have taken our Ninety Day Novel course and be at work on your novel, at any stage.
This week's story comes from Bec Davidson who joined us this month to writer her novel at last.
A Stranger to Myself
A decade ago, a dark cloak of loneliness settled over me with an effortless familiarity. I was adjusting to a new life living as an expatriate in Hong Kong. My unwanted solitude became an ‘enabler’ to my long-standing reading addiction. Closeness to the equator meant short days and long nights. My darkened hours became punctuated with Austen, McGregor, Fitzgerald, Ballard, Orwell, Huxley, Greene and many more of the literary greats. The characters became my friends and I became immersed in my new companions’ lives.
I read until the starlight faded, and the first smudges of light darted through my bedroom window. Only in the singular beat, before the milky dawn eclipsed the neon-lighted sky, would sleep pull me away.
Gruelling rounds of infertility treatment led me down a depressive pathway. A sadness quickly planted itself stubbornly down within me. The fertility drugs I injected made me sleepy and my dreams adopted a lucid like quality; what if there was another ‘me’, in another place, holding a baby in my arms? What would I be singing to my baby in this ‘other earth’? These ‘what ifs’ haunted my reality.
Fate was on my side, and in 2011 the universe gracefully handed me my perfect son. A complicated pregnancy dictated bed rest, and there I gorged myself on dim sum and dumplings. During the time of the ‘great gorge', I vowed to write a book. I would, of course, do this when my angel baby slept, ha! How utterly naive I was, babies don’t sleep long enough to write a comma, never mind a novel!
My reading took a different direction after the birth of my son. I became an excellent narrator when reading, “that’s not my puppy its nose is too fluffy!” And the closest I came to writing a book of my own, came in the prose of, “that's not my mummy her eyes are too wide awake”! As you can see fellow writers, I was creatively ON FIRE!
The hazy sleep-deprived years passed, and I adored the exquisite early years with my gorgeous little boy. However, I had unconsciously adopted the role of a ‘stay at home wife’. With filtered photos and lies I curated my #perfectlife on social media. I sculpted, carved and starved myself into the wife and mother Hong Kong expatriate society expected me to be.
I had a sense of invisibleness and nothingness in certain social and intellectual circles. Over the course of five years, I’d allowed my sense of personal identity to burn away like the fiery paper lanterns that lit up the inky China sea during the lunar festivals. To borrow a concept from Miss Louise Dean, I’d become a ‘stranger to myself’, and felt a crucial element was missing from ‘me’.
We returned to the UK after I endured several failed rounds of IVF. I was done with Hong Kong. My empty womb became a dangerous obsession, and for my own sanity, I stopped pursuing my dream of another child. But, in my grief, I found my old familiar intimacy with my literary friends. With my little boy at school, I had more time to become reacquainted with my love of reading.
This Christmas, I received both books by the author Sally Rooney. Connell says in ‘Normal People’ that ‘literature moves him’ and his Professor calls it ‘the pleasure of being touched by art’. Every single artful word Rooney writes touches my soul. Her prose with its elegance and aching beauty inspires me to write my first novel.
My interest was piqued when Louise’ Dean's online novel course spoke to me as I scrolled through Instagram. ‘THIS IS THE ONE’, I shouted to my husband with a mouthful of boxing day heroes & prosecco simultaneously wedged in my mouth. The structure, timing and cadence of the course suited my lifestyle perfectly. I signed up immediately after the trial. The Novelry's visual images, music and prose move me every day, inspiring me to crack on and write.
I am so excited to be part of this creative adventure! My novel’s title is perhaps, ‘The Childless Mother’ and the beating heart of the book will be a ‘love story’ (thank you, Plato & Aristophanes.) The idea of ‘yearning for a child’ will drive the plot of my novel, together with the main character. The themes will include, domestic abuse within marriage, feminism, infertility, obsession, hidden miscarriage, social media and capitalism; all set against the backdrop of the 2014 Hong Kong ‘umbrella revolution’.
There will potentially be a dash of (digestible) science fiction in the form of an alternative reality where the characters have taken different paths. My inspiration comes from my own musings of the ‘what ifs’ when I lived in Hong Kong, and Laura Barnett’s novel, ‘The Versions of Us’, helped me conceptualise the idea of an alternate reality, wrapped within a love story genre.
On a final note, I am curious as to where the next decade will take me! I now have my new cloak of creativity and camaraderie courtesy of The Novelry around my shoulders, so perhaps, anything is possible!
This week ten of our writers have been on our Full English Retreat in Dorset for seven days of all-inclusive intensive writing. The atmosphere has been very jolly.
It's been a story-telling boot camp! The course kicked off with a lesson by me (Louise) on the importance of glamour - ie light and shade in your story from its theme to its prose. This was followed with morning sessions with author Tim Lott to check structure, character, plot and help our writers get to the heart of the matter.
Writers have been treading the path to my cottage for one to one sessions and we've been working side by side, line by line, to push, pull, tease and coax the prose. We've slaughtered any excess of finery, gone for the laughs, preferred story over digression and switched the writing up a few notches by working this way. The evening's drinks gatherings followed by dinner and writers' readings by the fire have been so restorative.
The readings are vital to the way the week works. The week is a complete crammer and a game changer for our stories. During those readings, we all get to see the difference a new round of work can make. We see how and when and where a manuscript moves up a level and the difference between a working document and a book worth reading. We know each other's stories. We've seen each other's writings in a few rounds at the Members Lodge and from The Firestarter competition (closing date for entries March 1st).
So we all know THE TRUTH ABOUT WRITING - it's work! Some stunning progress has taken place here and greeted with rounds of applause, laughter and tears of joy.
I love my role as your coach, but in a sense you all share the satisfaction. We all get to see writers become authors. It's a Cinderella moment. Wonderful!
The feeling here is that the standard of work at The Novelry is something to be proud of. We will always set the bar high and keep it there. You can come to us as scruffy as you like, nervous too. That's good. My favourite kind of writer turns up at The Novelry and says "I don't think I'm a good writer." Hey, neither do I. Neither does any half-decent writer. We have everything you need here to take your writing to a very high standard, just hold the handrail of the course with one hand and reach out to your writing comrades with the other. You'll love the view from the top!
This week I was able to give news to one of my beloved writers that I have a great agent for her work. To hear her happiness, knowing how hard she has worked was one of the most lovely experiences imaginable. This writer created her idea using the Classic course, then wrote it using the Ninety Day course, but all-importantly she went to her teammates at The Novelry many times at our Members Lodge to ask for feedback and she drove that novel hard all the way home, with her running mates thoroughly invested in her work.
When one of us scores a success, we all cheer. We are a team, and we know by experience that working together this way makes the work many, many times better. Which is why the logo is an octopus, folks. One big beautiful collective brain powered by many writing tentacles.
PS. Don't forget to enter your first chapter to our Firestarter Competition this month sooner rather than later as you'll get more feedback from other writers that way. The feedback is so constructive you'd be mad to move ahead without it! (The competition in which everyone's a winner!) All entries of merit will be shown to literary agents, with your permission, of course. To enter sign up for a course which includes membership or add membership to your course package. There's no better way to get developmental advice that turning to the octopus!
I love a good edit. I love how close that word is to tidy.
Here's how my novel seems to me to be after the first draft.
Here's how I like to think of it turning out after the big edit, the second draft:
The second draft is light years ahead of the first - it is organized as a story.
The story has drama! Light and shade. A villain with a purpose and a stumbling heroine or hero. A theme - as in something I am going to damn well prove to be true. This should be there at first draft, and it was, but it was crummy. Now it's looking like I mean business. The layering of rewriting fattens the chapters and their content should hit the reader with impact, images and ideas, forthright pronouncements, deceit, conflict, lies, desires are regulated in the second draft to propel the heroine towards facing her mortal condition, and working out how to use the time she has here on this earth.
Thanks to a dose of Sophocles' Theban Plays and Shakespeare's Hamlet last week I raised the stakes in terms of drama in my novel, but this week I've buddied up spiritually with the diminutive obsessive Marie Kondo to school myself in the art of tidying.
I'm not alone!
“Everyone ... is either Kondoing or getting Kondoed this weekend,” the writer Elizabeth Harper observed on Twitter.
The side effects have proven beneficial to my editing process.
I've worked on the manuscript in the morning in my secluded distraction-free lair, attended to my writers in the afternoon and evening and in between I've been mimicking tidying at home.
'Our goal is to help more people tidy their spaces by choosing joy, and we are committed to developing the simplest and most effective tools to help you get there.' Marie Kondo.
Our goal at The Novelry is to help writers find the joy of writing by using our process and tools to write to publishing standard.
The parallels between the method are pleasing especially when you're editing the first draft you created on the Ninety Day Novel course.
Marie Kondo tells us that only two skills are necessary for tidying your home:
"The ability to keep what sparks joy and chuck the rest, and the ability to decide where to keep each thing you choose and always put it back in its place."
You will need these abilities to sort through the material you created at first draft and find it's perfect place according to the new and improved story outline you create in our Editing course.
Tidying, Marie Kondo tells us, is the act of 'confronting yourself.'
This is so true for writing too, at first draft but even more so at second and deciding what stays and goes and where it goes asks probing questions of the story and the author. You discover all sorts of unwholesome and very useful truths. Assign these discoveries to the characters of your hero and villain and drive conflict to recharge your story. You'll soon find the two halves of yourself in flagrant bare-knuckle confrontation in your work.
Pick the top three items in the pile that give you joy, she says about discarding material.
Ok. Go on. When you're about to rewrite, pick the top three items in your plot that give you joy. Three you go. Revise that novel around them!
Keep the things you wear close to your heart in prime position, she advises.
"I encourage you to treat your bras like royalty."
It's the same with a novel. A novel's story can from a single idea which touches my heart. You keep that initial cherished idea sacrosanct.
Choose the writing that "Sparks Joy".
'Keep only those things that speak to the heart, and discard items that no longer spark joy. Thank them for their service – then let them go.' Marie Kondo.
Marie Kondo recommends that people only keep items that “spark joy” (an English rendering of the Japanese “tokimeki,” a word for excitement or palpitation).
Does this sentence spark joy? Yes, then it's a keeper. Does it feel like I've outgrown it? Yes, bin it. That's how it should it be with your paragraphs. One striking thought or visual.
I've enjoyed the instructions on ordering your items of joy, from light at the front of a drawer to dark at the rear. From heavy at the foot of your shelves to light at the top. Now it seems to me that if you're writing a thriller you will want to order your chapters from light to dark in terms of mood. The opposite if you're writing comedy or feel-good fiction. This makes structuring chapters pretty simple.
Folding Your Work.
I have been folding my chapters in threes. Admittedly I decided to apply this structure before I began to 'kondo'.
I find that I have to shoehorn the first draft into a new structure at second draft and this gives me new control over the material. A harmonous façade is the result of a stringent underpinning of structure. I'll give myself a format for the chapters, and a word count. You don't have too! (Tools NOT rules at The Novelry) But it helps me enormously, and unleashes a new level of creativity and imaginative prose.
I've been folding my prose into neat sentences too and turning them around to make sure they're easy for the reader to access. Let the reader dive into the meaning, then pull her or him up short by having them hold the words in their hands. Sentences of a manageable size. At The Novelry I show you that the majority of writers keep them at an average of under 20 words a sentence. A long sentence depresses you the moment you look at it, and the reader too. So fold it neatly.
'Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long.' Kurt Vonnegut.
First Chapter Average Word Counts: The Sun Also Rises - Hemingway 15.16 words per sentence Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn - 14.03 Disgrace - JM Coetzee 12.87 Slaughterhouse-5 - Kurt Vonnegut 12.94 Harry Potter and The Sorceror's Stone - JK Rowling 11.43 Fat - Raymond Carver 9.25 A Man Called Ove - Frederik Backman 7.33
I have always worked intuitively, at every stage, and if I have felt a scene just wasn't doing it for me, I've either cut it, added a rogue element of mischief, had someone behave unexpectedly or say something true, thrown in something touching or beautiful, or lost it entirely. Now I can say it's about sparking joy. This doesn't mean making the work lighter, not at all. But we all know as writers when an idea, a visual or a conversation captured in prose sparks joy, and I think joy is such a universally commonly understood thing - rather more common than taste - that it's a good rule of thumb. The point is not to be clever but cunning, to spark joy. To create a smile, wink, nod, or raise the reader's heartbeat. If it ain't doing any of that, cut it.
In the courses I ask my writers to consider 'passing sentence' this way:
1.Is it necessary? 2.Is it accurate and true? 3.Is it scintillating? 4.Has it never been said this way before? 5.Can I say it shorter?
Now I think we may agree that 'scintillating' means that it sparks joy in you the writer, and here I place my palms together and thank Marie Kondo.
As you tidy your novel as you go along, passing through the midpoint and heading towards a showdown ('fury' we call it) then acceptance ('facing it' in The Novelry's Five F's of plot), you can fully expect to experience what Ms Kondo calls "steadily rising joy."
This is why I don't wish you luck when I sign off in my emails to you. You don't need it. You need method and joy. It makes me gasp that so many writers find writing miserable! It's not. It's great, or it should be if you're doing it right! So I always sign off - happy writing.
How To Become A Published Writer.
The process we offer writers at The Novelry is designed to shorten the odds of getting a publishing deal, dramatically. Here's how.
1. You take our Ninety Day Novel to write the novel or you begin with the Classic course if you have world-building ambitions for your book. (That way, I know and our fellow members will know you have got the basics covered and gone way beyond. That level of proficiency is crucial. Many of my writers say the course has developed their writing more than taking an MA and one has told me it's been more helpful than her PhD. But the point is the courses are not textbook, they are intensely practical. You become 'a writer' from day one and the course has you walk the talk by writing like a writer on a daily basis for 90 days until a habit is set.)
2. You finish your first draft. YIPPEE ... but wait, soft, what noise is that? It's is the marching band of the second draft, coming over yonder hill. Sit back and relax for a month or so to get some perspective and become your first reader. Read good books.
3. Now you can look for the story in your book. Take the Editing Course to find yours and nail the plot and write a second draft.
4. When that's done, pop your synopsis and first three chapters - which constitutes the regular submissions package sent to agents - into our live 24/7 Members Lodge. Await kindly feedback. You will get feedback from a large body of experience and wisdom.
5. Got feedback? Applied feedback? Great. Send an email to me, Louise Dean, at email@example.com and say 'Hey, I have a cracking submissions package, can you help?' I'll take a look. I will either say - how about a tweak here and there - and give you more constructive feedback and/or I will work with you and can submit for you to our agent friends. Vouched for this way, your work will be fast-tracked. The literary agents who work with us promise to VIP pass our members' work and reply within 1 - 2 weeks.
This is how we shorten the odds of you getting published and enjoying literary success sooner rather than later.
You gotta have a process when you're serious about joy. Ask Marie Kondo.
Happy writing x
The Firestarter is now open
Our annual competition for the most sizzling start to a novel.
Warm yourselves on first chapters hot off the press at our Members Lodge!
You have until 1st March to get your first chapter or first 1500 words into smouldering shape.
All members will be sent an electronic vote and the winner will be announced March 10th at our blog, get £150 to use against any retreat or course and will be sent pronto to agents for their fast response.
A FEEDBACK FRENZY, you'll find out what's rocking the writers who are readers when you submit your work to The Lodge. So crack on!
Write, revise, rewrite. Rinse and repeat! And enjoy reading The Firestarters. Can you spot a winner?
(To enter the competition and qualify for a vote, you need to be a member of The Novelry. Join us at just £14.99 a month here.)
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 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 strangely. 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 as I often feel - butchering and braising and fouling things up before they were in any way edible.
The first occasion I looked at the time and 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 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 it 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 sublimely at peace. 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.
Reading Off Grid.
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.
Get a shot in your writer's arm when you follow us on Instagram @thenovelry. Here's a selection of this week's top tips which might help you create your novel outline.
Your story (courtesy of Tolstoy) "All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”
Your plot (thanks to Epictetus) "Difficulties are things that show a person what they are."
Your material (cheers Miranda July!) "There's no law against asking strangers about their lives and feelings, although sometimes it really feels like there is."
In January, our regular intake of writers is boosted by novelists who have decided that this will be their year. They're welcomed by our members at our online forum and our closed group online, and gradually they take off their gloves and balaclavas when they figure out it's warm inside at The Novelry.
Our novelists are writing across most genres - Literary, sci-fi, speculative, thrillers, historical, romance, comedy, for adults, young adults and children's - so a writer will quickly find a like-minded author to reach out to for company on their big write.
I've invited some of our new recruits to share the story so far; what's compelling them to write their novel, their influences and their ambitions. This week's blog post comes to you from Adam Langley who has just joined us.
We can be heroes.
My name is Adam Langley and I have written twelve novels in the past three years.
Or, more accurately, I have tried to write twelve novels in the past three years. I’ve written out a plan, created character sheets, and made a promise to myself that this time whatever I write will last for more than three chapters before dissolving under the weight of meandering prose, poor pacing, and my own admittedly unpredictable moods. A few weeks later, I would sit at my computer, stare at what I had written, and decide to give it all up as a bad job. Then I would start the whole process again. (My all-time record is nine chapters before giving up, in case you were wondering.)
At the beginning of the year, I was gripped with the same manic energy that consumes us all in the first week of January. This is going to be the year, I thought to myself as I sat down in front of my computer, this is when I’m going to write that novel. And stop eating so much meat, and maybe try to recycle more as well. Yeah. Livin’ my best life!
Two hours later, as I sat eating leftover cocktail sausages from a container that went straight into the bin, the Google Doc in front of me was empty save for the words “I wish there were more Sausages.” Frustrated at my lack of progress and more than a little sure that I was a talentless hack, I got out my phone and started playing around on Instagram.
It was then that my Mum entered the room and asked how my writing was going. Rather than say “okay, thanks for asking” like a reasonable person, I told her all about my latest failed attempt at writing, that nothing ever worked and that maybe I should give up trying to be a writer because it wasn’t meant for me. Mum recommended that I try a creative writing course. If I were serious about this, she argued, then surely it would make sense to find a way to focus, hone my skills, and get the support I need to bloody finish something.
Reasoning that at least Mum actually had an idea that wasn’t sausage-related, I went online and started looking around for courses. It was then that I stumbled upon The Novelry. The Ninety Day Novel and Classics Courses appealed to me, and I liked the idea that this was a community, not just a series of lectures. I thought that if I really wanted to do this, and do it right, then The Novelry seemed to be offering everything I needed. I signed up on the spot. I’m only a few days in as of this blog. So far I am writing every day and have managed to avoid posting anything offensive on the Facebook page, so it’s going fairly well.
Something I have quite enjoyed with my lessons so far is that they have offered me the chance to reflect on the stories that shaped me as a writer. But if I'm completely honest, this was something I was not looking forward to doing. If my English Degree taught me nothing else, it was that compared to other aspiring writers I am rather uncultured. I have clear memories of sitting in my very first seminar surrounded by people who claimed to have spent their childhoods reading Gulliver’s Travels, Wuthering Heights, Alice in Wonderland and other classics. They would sit there for what seemed like hours, talking about the beautiful imagery and how they fell in love with reading, and I knew that at any moment I would kill the conversation stone dead by talking about the Animorphs series.
That was my biggest fear when I joined this course. That I wouldn’t be smart enough to do it. I still remember my Seminar Tutor’s face falling as I attempted to explain why I preferred Xavier’s School for the Gifted to Hogwarts after my classmate gave this big, wonderful speech about the Romantic Poets and how important they were to her. Yes, these stories shaped me as a child. But was that the right foundation on which to build a career as a writer? Or at the very least would they accept me onto the course after they found out about my ComiXology account?
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so embarrassed or worried. I loved Animorphs when I was a child. I still love the X-Men and Spider-Man. I’m kind of ambivalent about Batman, but I think that the rest of the Justice League are pretty cool. I liked stories where people were given a gift, and they did something to help the world. I, the quintessential awkward chubby kid, liked the idea that one day my weirdness might be celebrated. That there might be a place for me to be myself. That anyone had the potential to be brave and, if they ever strayed from the path, would be given a chance to redeem themselves. What’s embarrassing about learning to see the best in people?
It wasn’t all Superheroes. I read Philip Pullman and JK Rowling. I devoured The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Dark Tower series. I read Malorie Blackman’ Noughts and Crosses saga and had a good long think about my privilege and how I affected the world around me. But through it all, I realise now, I read books and consumed media that dealt with the idea of ordinary people being given the opportunity to do extraordinary things. Who rose above the bullies and the bad guys and their inadequacies. Who showed me that the circumstances of your birth or who you were as a child doesn’t have to define you. Who showed me that given the time and opportunity, anyone could be a hero.
My quest to be a hero, or at least to live up to the somewhat toxic and damaging idea I had of what a real hero (read: man) should be is a story for another blog post. Suffice to say that while I have accepted I will never be an action hero, I still believe that people are capable of being better than what they are. I believe that redemption is possible and that anyone, given the opportunity, will stand up and do the right thing. This is something I hope to incorporate into my novel-forgiving others, forgiving yourself, and working hard to make sure the person coming after you has a better life than you did.
So what’s next?
I’m working my way slowly but surely through the Ninety Day Novel course. Slowly, because I am also working on the Classics Course and would rather do both at a steady, plodding pace than to rush and to fail to get either right. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still writing every day, and plan to get the first draft of my novel done in a reasonable time frame. I just realise that I have made a commitment to both courses and may need to slow down in order to get the most out of them.
In a way, I think this will be my biggest challenge. My goal for as long as I’ve been writing is to be a published author by the time I’m thirty. I wanted to be like Stephen King or Ford Maddox Ford-published at a young age with a lifetime to just keep writing and get better at it. In the immortal words of the Pokemon Pokerap, I wanna be a master. But that might be difficult if I keep rushing and tearing up every idea I have. And, considering I’m almost twenty-nine and just starting my novel, maybe getting published by Thirty is not a realistic goal. The trick, then, is to follow the course trajectory, don’t get impatient or dejected, and remember to ask for help when I need it. That’s probably anyone can do, right?
I will keep you posted. Whether you want me to or not.
Outside of The Novelry, I’m reading my hero book, making a playlist for my characters-one song each that best represents them individually-and am tidying up a short story I intend to enter in a couple of competitions.
I am still a neurotic, deeply confused mess whose Imposter Syndrome flares up at the worst possible time, but it seems that was the case for the authors featured in the course and they turned out okay. Ish. Sort of. Maybe.
I guess now that I should go and write the bloody thing.
And if it turns out I can’t do it, I’ll blame my Mum. Just like a real hero would.
Who's Your Writer Superhero?
We all take apprenticeships, formally or informally. Writing my first novel I mainlined Chekhov, Raymond Carver and JM Coetzee. You have to walk in the footsteps of the masters to find yourself as a writer, to train yourself in the craft. We make that process much simpler at The Novelry by juicing the fruits of the undeniable greats and showing you what, how and why they wrote as they did and then you can pick and choose from the array of techniques, tools and inspiration available to fast-forward your journey to becoming a published author.
So who's your all-time writing hero? If you had to pick one?
Pick that book up again and read it over and over again until you see beyond the magic and into the sleight of hand. Read it frame by frame. We advise our writers to choose one hero book for the writing of their first draft as it helps focus and faithfulness to the novel in hand. You can find a list of the hero books we recommend at The Novelry any one of which could train you in the ways of the perfect novel here.