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.
Grab your tote bag, and fill it with books then head off in pursuit of your literary dreamboats to salute them and get the book signed. One of our members, Anna Pye, gives us an account of her own adventures in stalking an author this week.
Here's a brief account of some of the festivals available to book-loving novelists.
(Join our Bridport writer's retreat and visit this event from your luxury Manor house accommodation.)
Members' Stories: When Anna Went to Winchester.
What Happened at Winchester
How to Fail at Stalking
by Anna Pye
The Winchester Writer’s Festival has been running for 39 years and prides itself on its specially tailored offering to would-be writers with 'unparalleled networking opportunities for creative writers working in all forms and genres, workshops, talks and one-to-one appointments with over 70 literary agents, commissioning editors, authors, poets and publishing experts.'
Katherine Rundell was to be the keynote speaker. She featured in The Bookseller in March and her books have won a couple of awards (The Children’s Costa, The Blue Peter, Waterstone’s Children’s Prize). My daughter was reading one of her books. Her topic, Why You Should Read Children’s Fiction, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, was particularly beguiling for me, as an adult who has never stopped reading children’s fiction.
The Novelry Members aside, I rarely get to speak to like-minded individuals. My other half is an engineering consultant who doesn’t read fiction. My kids witter on about many things and I am only required to nod and smile. I promised to make 2019 the year of full-on audience participation, reading aloud, workshopping, networking and all the other words that perturb those of us who just want to lock ourselves away with imaginary people.
I started gently this year by attending The Novelry’s very own Full English Residential Course in February. Ten writers in a remote Dorset Manor. Heavenly.
Then, I went to two one-day events closer to home; YA LitFest in Preston (and caught up with the Northern branch of The Novelry) and The New Writing North’s Conference in Newcastle. I met some cracking people, got to practice pitching, and spent a small fortune on books so I could get them signed by attending authors.
And so, to Winchester in June. Food and accommodation is usually included so I didn’t have to worry about that. After a fine and three points on my driving license incurred in the excitement of getting to The Novelry's Full English week, I decided to go by train. You can read, sleep, watch a film, and oh, yes, write. Choosing the courses was the hard part. Friday offered ten all-day workshops. You could attend four 1-hour talks on Saturday with a choice of six talks each session. Sunday was quieter – only five all-day workshops to choose from. The range was huge. There were sessions on the craft of writing: creating emotional conflict, character development, world-building, structuring; workshops on publishing: how the publishing world works, agents and how to hook them, self-publishing, building your own author platform; genre-specific workshops; poetry; screenplays… so much.
The festival, and many others, offer 1-2-1s. You pick from over 50 specialists who will offer constructive criticism on work-in-progress, discuss publishing/marketing possibilities and give advice on writing difficulties. They include authors, poets, playwrights, screenwriters, lecturers, and publishers, editors and agents. My advice:
Do not book to see an agent if you have not finished your novel. It appears to irritate them.
Make sure you read the agent criteria thoroughly and then look them up on Twitter because they may say they like one thing but their Twitter feed will clarify it (or show that actually they hate it now…)
Don’t tell an agent you have quit your job to write your novel because of your new-found confidence from a short story competition win. This unnerves them.
Even though the agent I chose to speak to ripped my cover letter to bits, I learned how not to do it. She told me that YA fantasy doesn’t sell but I think she meant that agents are struggling to sell it publishers. She said my novel doesn’t read like YA but wasn’t clear if that meant it would or wouldn’t sell. The session confirmed to me that agents are not gods or gatekeepers, and that one person’s view is just that. I'd only booked to see one agent, so mercifully, I didn’t run home crying after that feedback. The other 1-2-1s were with fantasy authors, both of whom I had workshops with over the weekend.
Now, it may have come up once or twice in Jasper Fforde’s Friday workshop on Fantasy Writing that I am from Yorkshire, because when I got to our 1-2-1, his first suggestions were to add more whippets and flat caps. And to throw in more viola-playing. The fantastic thing about having feedback on your work from another writer in your genre is all the things you don’t have to explain. There are traditional tropes, turns of phrase, and a hundred other tiny cues that jar a non-genre reader. Published authors are not agents. They are not there to snap up an author so their attitude is different. They know how you feel, they’ve been there, and they are keen to help. Jasper gave me some excellent advice and many compliments. I left buzzing with ideas and promised to buy his book as a thank you (but sorry no whippets will appear in my novel The Turning).
My other session was with Sarah Mussi who’s book Here be Dragons I'd read many years ago. We had an excellent session – a thorough line-by-line breakdown of the words I’d sent her. Our time flew and she seemed as disappointed as me when we parted so we are chatting via Twitter next week to see how her suggestions are panning out (very well).
1-2-1s can be mixed, so be sure to pack some resilience.
We go to these events knowing we have to speak to people, but it just isn’t that easy. The woman sitting next to me waiting for her 1-2-1 looked a little pale. We smiled. She saw me putting my purple pen and purple notebook away in my purple bag, took note of my purple t-shirt and asked if I was Anna Pye? She was a friend of another member of The Novelry. I found another member of The Novelry there too so I was spared the ordeal of eating alone.
I purchased Jasper’s book as promised with every intention of getting it signed but missed his signing. Frances on reception said he was in 1-2-1s and the timetable said he would be doing signings again at 3pm. I arrived a few minutes late and Frances told me he had gone into the city. I was supposed to be going Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them but it was sunny so I murmured that I might go too... She looked around, leant toward me and confided that she had it on good authority he had gone to the Cathedral to see Jane Austin. Maybe you’ll see him there and get your book signed, she hinted. I laughed. She laughed. Stalker, she mouthed, as I left the building.
I went to Winchester Cathedral, well I love cathedrals. Plus there was an exhibition on Alfred the Great, my favourite period of English history. And Jane Austin’s grave, of course. I should see that too, as I’d walked the Cob in February and been to the Tap Rooms at Bath. It would be 'An Accidental Austin Adventure'. I ran straight into the back of Mr Fforde in the queue. Mortified, I ran off and hid in the exhibition for over an hour.
Frances hooted at my uselessness at stalking. She said she'd text if he was going to dinner. Shaking my head, feeling squeamish, I left and headed to the bar. There he was! I walked across the quad and said, hi, I’ve bought your book. Please, will you sign it? And a tall, dark stranger replied, I’d be delighted but that is not my book. It was not Jasper Fforde. The very nice man and his companion offered to buy me a drink and we had a very lively discussion on the merits of crime writing and how I should read more to learn how to stalk properly.
After a while, I realised I would be late for dinner if I didn’t leave immediately so made my excuses. On my way home, I got another text from Frances to confirm Jasper would be there but by this time I didn’t care and I was late for dinner. When I arrived, the only spare seat was next to Jasper himself. He signed my book and we spent the meal discussing our favourite aspects of Winchester Cathedral, and whether Wales is better than Yorkshire (it isn’t).
The highlight of the festival for me was Katherine Rundell's talk. Not every author is a good public speaker but Rundell lectures as a Fellow at All Saints College, Oxford, where she specialises in John Donne. She spoke for an hour on the importance of children’s fiction in these times. Rundell says children’s books speak of hope. Through the medium of lions and wizards and talking spiders, they can tell us that the world we live in is a world of people who tell jokes and work and endure.
I went to the festival to challenge myself to leave my comfort zone and explore the writing world. I returned with excellent advice, new knowledge, honed skills, new connections and new friends. Better finish that second draft…
It's hard to know for sure when you've reached the end of a novel, insofar as you can take it, by which I mean you're sending it to your agent.
You're battle weary. You can't see the wood for the trees. It's the forty-fifth draft.
The story makes sense. But your worry may now be that the story makes too much sense at the expense of mystery. So you'll want to go back to a few key moments to make them accurate and translucent - shimmering - to create more space for the reader.
I like to perform these last checks while reading Raymond Carver on loop during the last week or so before I hit send.
He was the master when it came to making space for the reader.
"I forget who passed along a copy of Babel’s Collected Stories to me, but I do remember coming across a line from one of his greatest stories. I copied it into the little notebook I carried around with me everywhere in those days. The narrator, speaking about Maupassant and the writing of fiction, says: “No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.” When I first read this it came to me with the force of revelation. This is what I wanted to do with my own stories: line up the right words, the precise images, as well as the exact and correct punctuation so that the reader got pulled in and involved in the story and wouldn’t be able to turn away his eyes from the text unless the house caught fire."
Raymond Carver. Where I'm Calling From .
It's the key to the mystery of a story, that space. It's what makes it a living space. There's a haunted quality to the endings of Carver's short stories. A triple presence. Writer (or narrator), Reader and the sense of being watched by another external presence of such power that sometimes Carver's unfanciful characters fall to their knees. In the Classic Course, I show how this 'numinosity' is a vital ingredient in the big story with its elements of 'fascinans' and 'mysterium tremens'.
Carver writes to arrive at this mountain-top, a place of greater sight.
In A Student's Wife, the girl rises early:
...she had seen few sunrises in her life and those when she was little. She knew that none of them had been like this. Not in pictures she had seen nor in any book she had read had she learned a sunrise was so terrible as this. (...)
She wet her lips with a sticking sound and got down on her knees. She put her hands out on the bed.
“God,” she said. “God, will you help us, God?” she said.
So, at the end, I check through my work to ensure we get up close and personal, inside the main character or characters like this.
It seems to me there are two ways to push them so hard we know them intimately. One is through their own (horrified) realization of who they are and what they are. (The rocks you throw at them in plot are there for this purpose.) The other is grace. Insight comes to them as a mystery.
When I think about Carver, I tend to think of the imprecations and exhortations people make of each other in their couples in his stories, pithily expressed in even the title of the short story "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" (Note the double please.)
When I read Carver, I notice how often the characters are in the dark, literally, with their thoughts and how often they turn to face the wall. This may reflect the many unhappy years Carver spent drinking heavily, not nearly as productive as when he quit. They're trying hard to see something they can't see.
Just as he started to turn off the lamp, he thought he saw something in the hall. He kept staring and thought he saw it again, a pair of small eyes. His heart turned. He blinked and kept staring. He leaned over to look for something to throw. He picked up one of his shoes. He sat up straight and held the shoe with both hands. He heard her snoring and set his teeth. He waited. He waited for it to move once more, to make the slightest noise.
(Carver - What's in Alaska?)
It's the movement, the turning from the difficulty in the world, workplace, home life, to the wall and the dark for help, this tossing and turning one might say that characterises the complexity of existence as individuals. We try to get help, we don't know where to get help, we feel powerless. It seems important to me that the most apparently powerful characters, seem the most lost, off stage yet in the reader's sight.
The ending is a place of insight which affords our hero or heroine a sense of peace, a temporary stay against confusion one might call it.
I don't ask for more than that for them, as I don't ask for more than that for myself. I'll have asked lots of questions in my story about how to live, and what to live for, but finally, just a little space is cleared for the reader to consider their own answer. For me, that's how you want to leave it, like the room was prepared for them all along, and the covers are turned back, and they can rest now.
Probably their greatest initial problem or truest concern finds a moment's reprieve, but I try not to dare to suggest there is more than that. My stories are, perhaps sadly, for adults not children and maybe this is what defines them. The temporary peace and space.
I write my novels with people all around me, wanting this, wanting that, talking at me. It's called being a single working mother. I am surprised I don't have a hunched back from flinching away to try to get something down straight, in seconds sometimes. So the gift I give my heroine or hero is very valuable to me. Sure we dream of hours, days, time to work, but in reality we make do with the dark, the wall, the tossing and turning, the snatching of a few moments peace to see.
"Each of us has a private world, and the only difference between the reader and the writer is that the writer has the ability to describe and dramatize that private world. As a writer, I write to see. If I knew how it would end, I wouldn't write. It's a process of discovery." John McGahern.
Is it good? This book of mine? My fifth. I don’t know. I don't even know what that means, but if it means, how many and who will think it's good, I don't know that I care. Of course, I have cared, en route, very much, but not now. For this is mine, my way of seeing things. I have chosen to show these things. The moment when you have to put it down, you say to yourself that it's whole, and it say what you wanted to say in this season, but the season is ending.
If I meant for this phantom twin of mine - the heroine - to find tenderness or conviction did they find it? And are the others on the battlefield left as they should have been, either at the campfire or limping away? Did we fight the good fight?
Was there a moment of sense caused by sorrow? Did we pity the nasty piece of work? Did we embrace the dark to find the light?
Have I been honest where I needed to be and clean where I was able? Not completely clean - a story is a contrivance - but clean enough? If ever one of my children picks it up - will they know from it that I loved them? And that I was happy doing what I loved, and I didn't want more than what I needed... And will that encourage them to find their way through too? Finally, does it offer hope, does it say - we are more alike than we know?
Am I done? The ideas that come to you during your day, on the dog walk, in the shower, at the fridge door start to thin out, and you're even starting to rule some out. When I say - no, I don't think I'll use that, I know the tide has turned on the writing. When another voice or another idea starts coming to me, I think, yes the season of this novel has passed and a new one is beginning.
Then one morning, I wake with some crazy, bold, broad idea in my head, a whole new world, and I know it's time to say goodbye to the old novel spouse, and hello gorgeous!
On Ending Novels:
EM Forster said: “Ends always give me trouble. Characters run away with you and so won’t fit in to what is coming.”
In “Aspects of the Novel,” he wrote that nearly every novel’s ending is a letdown. “This is because the plot requires to be wound up. Why is this necessary? Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored? Alas, he has to round things off, and usually the characters go dead while he is at work.”
Graham Greene found beginning more unnerving than ending: “After living with a book for a year or two, he” – the author, and ideally the reader too – “has come to terms with his unconsciousness – the end will be imposed.” That surely is right. The end is imposed. It is no longer a matter of choice.
Famous Closing Lines.
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
The Great Gatsby, F.Scott Fitzgerald
"After all, tomorrow is another day."
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
"He turned out the light and went into Jem's room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning."
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
"The eyes and faces all turned themselves towards me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room."
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
"The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."
Animal Farm, George Orwell
"He loved Big Brother."
1984, George Orwell
"The old man was dreaming about the lions."
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
"O God, You've done enough, You've robbed me of enough, I'm too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone forever."
The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
"Up out of the lampshade, startled by the overhead light, flew a large nocturnal butterfly that began circling the room. The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below."
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
"But that is the beginning of a new story - the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life. That might be the subject of a new story, but our present story is ended."
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
"And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea."
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
"Are there any questions?"
The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
"Curley and Carlson looked after them. And Carlson said, 'Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin' them two guys?'"
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
"At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel."
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
"The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off."
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
"It begins like this: Barrabás came to us by sea…"
The House Of The Spirits, Isabel Allende
"He now has more patients than the devil himself could handle; the authorities treat him with deference and public opinion supports him. He has just been awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor."
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
"But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy."
A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
"He turned away to give them time to pull themselves together; and waited, allowing his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance."
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
"She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously."
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
"This stone is entirely blank. The only thought in cutting it was of the essentials of the grave, and there was no other care than to make this stone long enough and narrow enough to cover a man. No name can be read there."
Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
"Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead."
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
"One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, 'Poo-tee-weet?'"
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
"The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the utmost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky — seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness."
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
"But the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”"
A Passage to India, EM Forster
"Bearing him in his arms like a lamb, he re-enters the surgery. 'I thought you would save him for another week,' says Bev Shaw. 'Are you giving him up?' 'Yes. I am giving him up.'"
Adam Langley spent his youth reading books such as the “Animorphs” series by K.A. Applegate and wondering why so many people wanted to go to Hogwarts when they had the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters as an option. Adam has been published on several websites including SyFyWire and Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men.
He has attempted to write a fantasy novel five times. Then he found The Novelry and his fantasy became a reality. He took The Classic Course and wrote his novel using The Ninety Day Novel course.
The Blue Disks of Michaelmas is his first finished novel. It's 89,950 words long.
Here's Adam on the reality of writing his fantasy novel with a day job.
I think all writers, especially writers of science fiction and fantasy, like to plan. We like our extended universes. We like giving our characters more room to move and grow and do stuff that is interesting. The problem arises when we spend more time building a world than we do writing. Which is fine, if you know for a fact that the publisher wants at least seven books out of you and that a great number of people will want be interested in the backstories and lore that you have created. But if, like me, you have never had a single work of fiction published then you run the risk of hobbling your novel.
Before I had even begun my first draft, I knew how my story would end. Not just the novel, mind you: the whole story. I had a series of books planned out in my head - a world in which readers could immerse themselves. An epic saga! In order to create a world that could sustain my incredible tale, I planned. I planned and planned and planned. I filled a Moleskine notebook and a half with the history of the Hopeless Agency alone, just one element of my world, a group of treasure hunters and adventurers who turn my protagonist’s plans upside down. I filled more pages with everything from mind maps on mystical objects to my character’s Spotify playlists. I spent an insane amount of time deciding whether my world was at a point where downloading music was a thing. I was in pretty deep. I would probably still be there if not for the gentle prodding of the Ninety Day Novel course.
When finally, I did start writing, I found that the huge amount of lore I had created was more a hindrance than a help. I couldn't focus on the story in front of me; I was always looking ahead to the next book or beyond to the mound of notes I had cultivated, piling exposition on exposition, thinking that I was creating an intricate and detailed world when in reality I was probably writing the most boring Young Adult Novel in the history of humankind.
When I managed to finish my novel in ninety days (after a few false starts here and there), rather than feel proud or happy, I felt a little bit relieved it was over.
I learnt that the trick is to keep your eyes firmly on your basic premise. For example, mine is that in a parallel world, a young and self-centred clairvoyant tries to flee her doomed hometown but is drawn into an attempt to save it by a dysfunctional group of treasure hunters. Rather than write that story, I chose instead to write the story of everything around it. The result was a well-realised universe, but a rather weak narrative. What I should have done was to build the world around the premise, much like Suzanne Collins does in the Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is considered a masterclass in world-building, and it's easy to see why. Rather than having long, painstaking descriptions of the world of Panem and how it works, we receive information in small, manageable chunks and only when it is relevant to the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen.
Katniss’ world grows as she moves through it. In the beginning of the novel, we know of District Twelve and a basic history of Panem because we are given to believe that is all she really knows. As she leaves her home and is drawn into the Capital and the Arena itself, we find out more through a combination of Katniss’ knowledge and new information that is shared with the reader as it is shared with her.
Thus, we find out about the world in manageable segments which don't slow the story. Further, we keep learning more about Katniss as a survivor and we are focussed on what's keeping her alive and her sister and mother fed. As we get a better feel for the character, we also get a better feel for the world of the story. The two are intrinsically linked.
With this approach to world-building in mind, I have begun planning my second draft. The redemption of my protagonist, Jamie, is now at the front and centre of my narrative; the world will grow as she does. I will be a lot more sparing with what I use and will only do so when the information is relevant to Jamie and her journey. Hopefully, this will end with a second draft that is a lot tighter, a lot more evenly paced, and a hell of a lot more interesting than a draft where entire chapters are devoted to the history of a place or a person.
When it comes to world-building, sometimes less is more. We are all fans of franchises that have huge worlds to play around in, but unless you take that first step of telling a story and keeping the background relatively simple, you will never get the chance to use any of the notes you have so carefully accumulated.
A world should grow with its protagonist, so keep things relevant to their point of view; it feels more organic than pages and pages of exposition.
If a novel is one person's moral journey towards acceptance of their place in the universe, then the plot is contrived to give them a gift or gifts to help them on their way to which he or she is particularly ill-suited.
Nail those - the human flaw and the perfectly unsuitable circumstances - and you've got the essential irony that powers a novel.
A disaster story brings these into sharp dramatic relief. As one of my writers pointed out this week, the hero of the Jaws movie is afraid of water.
But there's more - it's not the flaw that's so important in the grand scheme of a disaster story, so much as the hero or heroine's gift.
The narrative path as outlined in The Five F's of story at The Novelry, finds its immaculately opposite form in a disaster story. The negative image. Perhaps that's not surprising, for is a novel is propelled by what the main character wants, in a disaster story it's all about what they don't want to happen.
The starting point is the hero's strong suit, his or her particular aptitude. This means he or she is particularly well-suited for what the plot's throwing at him. Yes, it's you visiting the disaster zone as an expert! Then where false hope obtains in the 'roman' or everyday novel, the potentially apocalyptic nature of the disaster story and its apparent hopelessness is revealed next. Instead of fleeing the situation, our hero digs in. The climax of the story is not a perfect storm of fury, but relief, a stay against Armageddon. And where the resolution of a novel bids the hero to face their place in things, in a disaster story the hero gets to turn away from it all.
These elements are perfectly turned in the brilliant series Chernobyl which is a masterclass in the Disaster genre.
The Classic Course outlines the ingredients of the big epic stories, allowing writers to pick and mix from the tried and tested.
Here are some of the ingredients of 'The Disaster Story' for you to play with:
economy of poignancy - achieved by the inclusion of one regular family whose humble ambition to raise children is thwarted. Noble, dead animals. (Just one or two, shown briskly, as tokens of a human-caused tragedy.)
physical revulsion, attempted expulsion of the ailment at large - an emetic response. Vomiting hits the spot. Once again, a highly economic way of depicting what Tolkien described as 'eucatastrophe' - the therapeutic benefits experienced by the reader or audience of passing through the abyss. (More on the eucatastrophe in the Classic Course.)
spot the idiot. In a Disaster movie, the members of your cast fall into one of two categories - selfless or selfish. The prize nutcase, our villain, is entirely selfish. He or she is the thoroughly rotten egg implicated in the scale of the disaster if not its genesis. No redeeming qualities or backstory necessary, thank you.
the deniers. The rotten egg is assisted by the disaster-denying set. These will be first on the bus out of the disaster zone.
disbelievers fall into two categories - hypocrites (see previous point) and innocents. The hypocrites will eventually will give up the promotion for that seat on the bus. The latter you will know by their care for animals.
the good cynic. A foil for the bad cynic above. War-weary and bad-assed, he or she nonetheless falls into the selfless category and is one of the chosen few who have seen worse.
exodus! While the selfless who are equipped to help stay, the rest of us in the cinema join those hot-footing out of there, and enjoy their relief.
the brotherhood of man. Two fixers who would normally be opposed ideologically find that a Disaster is what it takes for human beings to get along.
If the moral message of that great Liberal vehicle the novel is that despite the mess humankind has made of this world, an individual can effect change then this is translated via the Disaster trope as follows - one person can cock things up right royally, but the many can set it straight.
'Chernobyl', the mini-series, exemplifies this with its setting in Soviet Russia where the will of the people is religiously invoked, and the miners take their trousers off to show how to be one of the people, balls-out.
Excuse my whimsy. A disaster brings out a playful side in me, because it's such a blessed relief when it's over. Schadenfreude brings days of beatitudes after the experience of a brilliantly wrought tale of eucatastrophe.
The disaster story is pure suffering, the plot advances with edge-of-the-seat setbacks, but its gift to us is magnificent. As both Derrida and Levinas concurred, it is only when disaster affects all groups alike that they see their commonality and wholeness and let go of vision in favour of unity.
I commend this genre to you as the great art form of big society, it shows us how what we value regardless of caste or creed is commonly humble. We want our children to live. We don't want to see dead birds fall from the sky or to have to shoot the dogs.
Perhaps one or two of you will write something disastrous in the near future. Oh, let the eucatastrophe remain in story form only as a warning, and let us all hope that one day soon we will stop playing penny-pinching party politics while the planet bleeds.
Great Disaster stories for further reading for those interested in the moral unification of the species:
Blindness - José Saramago
The Plague - Albert Camus
The Road - Cormac McCarthy
1984 - George Orwell
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
The Drowned World - J.G. Ballard
The Handmaid's Tale, or Oryx and Crake, or The Year of the Flood - Margaret Atwood.
Congratulations to Romla Ryan who has been offered representation by PFD (Peters, Fraser & Dunlop) for her wondrous novel. Romla took The Classic Course, The Ninety Day Novel and the Editing Course with The Novelry and is one of our beloved writers. So the cheering continues this week at The Novelry. We'll keep you posted when her book hits the shelves. Beautifully written, fast-paced and sparkling with wit and affection for her roguish hero, it's sure to provide a much-needed tonic in these times.
Our writers have shared their photos of their writing spaces to help me create a gallery to show how we work worldwide, in solo and in unison.
Here's the gallery for those of our writers playing 'Whose Desk Is It Anyway?"
Simply assign a number to a name and post your answers onto our closed Facebook group page today!
You can have a nose around their sacred spaces and find out more about the items they consider essential to their creativity at this page. Simply scroll down that page to find the screen show which lets you into one space at a time.
As I labour or lumber through the drafts of my novel, from expansion to contraction and so on in alternating drafts, I find myself as an older writer with a far lower view of myself and my abilities. I hope the delusion that I am a noble person is so far blown down the alleyway of experience that I can inhabit a cast of characters ranging from the sublimely innocent to the wholly Machiavellian, on the upside. But the downside is there too. Please don't imagine that writing novels gets easier. It's the opposite.
I find writing harder as I get older. Every novel presents such new challenges, it seems one has never written a novel before. An irksome and bewildering amnesia. Yet again, your judgement and taste exceed your abilities and you're the duffer who won't repeat old ways any which way. But there is hope.
"I think it’s true that with each new book, you make new mistakes... .You start off with different possible tonalities and the right one only gradually comes into play.... As you get older, you understand time, you understand fictional time better, how to move in time, how to move through time in fiction.... Updike, in his later work, he got very good, and canny and clever about time. So we do learn some new tricks." Julian Barnes.
So, it may take longer, this new novel of yours, than the last. Let it.
I write, probably like you do, because life is a lonely path, but paradoxically we are all differently and diversely the same. Our most common, most tragic flaw as a species is perhaps our self-loathing. What we have in common is that we all quietly hate ourselves. You wonder why... and that's where writing fiction starts.
Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Less has been a boon companion as I try to make this draft of my novel more lurid, and more lucid. Greer nails the theme of his novel written by a man of his age about a man of his age - almost fifty - when he begins to unpick the flaw that's making him miserable - as is the modus operandi of the genre of 'Up Lit'. The hero - Arthur Less - comes to realize he is not hated and scorned. Not at all.
In fact, even the wife of his first lover, the poet Robert Brownburn he ‘stole’ from her, has no hard feelings towards him. The enlightenment begins when he runs into a former lover on Eighth Avenue, Manhatten.
"There’s the man who broke my heart; I thought I’d never recover, I’d never want to see his face again, or hear his name, and look! There he is, out of nowhere, and I have no rancor. How long has it been, six years, Arthur? No rancor at all.”
My wonderful writers have many things in common. Often, there's self-doubt verging on self-loathing and this can hinder the forward motion of the writer writing into the void, as that ghostly belligerent inner voice howls at them - stop, go back, you fool! But there’s me - and our crew - at the end of the line saying to them - Go on! Go on!
Go on in spite of the inner voice. You will find mischief aplenty ahead. Of course, the first draft is thin, but don’t look back, let it be a disgrace, no one is going to see it. You won’t let them. But go on. You're not hated or hateful to anyone but yourself. It is not a moral crime to write a book.
The first base for a writer playing this game is - nobody cares. Get there and you’re relatively safe. No one gives a crap about your novel. So when you wring your hands and tell your friends and family or other writers, you’ve written next to nothing of late and the novel’s stalled - nobody gives a hoot. Your novel will not save the world. No, not yet a while, will it even give cheer to another old writer labouring and lumbering over her fourth draft. So relax. You’re writing for you. Because you know more than you care to know and some of it’s got to leak out sideways.
Second base is raising your game, reading with envy and delight the work of other writers and finding with a sigh that is also oddly a fillip of joy that a new standard has been set. You’re going to have to get better. When you salute your confreres, as I salute Mr Greer, you’re in the game. You’re on the same team.
"“Do you think of yourself as a genius, Arthur?”
Apparently the Head takes that as a no. “You and me, we’ve met geniuses. And we know we’re not like them, don’t we? What is it like to go on, knowing you are not a genius, knowing you are a mediocrity? I think it’s the worst kind of hell.”
“Well,” Less said. “I think there’s something between genius and mediocrity—”
“That’s what Virgil never showed Dante. He showed him Plato and Aristotle in a pagan paradise. But what about the lesser minds? Are we consigned to the flames?”
“No, I guess,” Less offers, “just to conferences like this one.”
'We are liable to miss the best of life if we do not know how to tingle, if we do not learn to hoist ourselves just a little higher than we generally are in order to sample the rarest and ripest fruit of art which human thought has to offer.'
Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature.
Third base - is wicked self-indulgence, capitalizing on experience and the very worst of your character. You dig deep and tell the truth, your own version. Voice and purpose become one. A writer’s got to take a lot of punishment to get this kind of sense of humour, as Hemingway put it. You’ll have been rejected so many times, you will care only about the work because you’ll have had to make your mind up whether to stop or go on. You’ll cover off every aspect of the novel - the story, structure and prose - and bind them so tightly together you can’t get a fingernail between them. The thing will be hard and tight and spinning in the air, thanks to the wit and devil-may-care of a writer at the end of their rope. Backspin.
A home run is what happens when it occurs to you, as it does to Arthur Less in Greer’s novel, that the only one who didn’t wish you well, was you. The world wishes you well, and you can make a home here and find peace so long as you take your work seriously but don’t take the world seriously.
I believe in all my writers. I have writers from their late teens into their seventies. I see you. I know what you want to do. I am there in the gap between your ambition and taste and your self-loathing, and I’m going to keep cheering you on, and so will the writers in the stands, our members at the Novelry, because if you can overrule that voice of doubt, and hear us, and the world behind us, wishing you well, you’ll get there.
Congratulations to our Cate Guthleben who is now represented by one of our partner literary agencies United Agents. Cate took The Classic course, then wrote her novel last autumn with The Novelry and used all of our resources wisely, one-to-one calls and the support of our writers, has a fabulous writing buddy, used the Editing Course and she came on our Full English Retreat too. Poster girl! Cate discovered the story she was meant to write, she writes beautifully and has great reserves of willpower and determination. She was voted The Firestarter winner by our members in February this year. So it was only a question of time (two weeks) before her work was snapped up by an agent.
Her novel-in-waiting is a powerful and moving story, so stand by for more good news in the coming months!
Start that novel: The world's best creative writing holidays.
The Telegraph 10th June 2019.
"Marshwood Manor in the Vale of Marshwood, close to Bridport and Dorset’s Jurassic coast, is the venue for a series of writing retreats. A week-long novel-writing course includes an inspirational mix of morning lessons, one-to-one sessions and after-dinner readings, plus plenty of free time for personal reflection and composition. Guests are allocated their own private rooms in shared cottages, situated in the 13 acres of garden and woodland which surround the house. "
The Full English Novel Writing Course from £975 for seven nights half-board. Feb 2-9 2020. The Novelry (thenovelry.com).
"It really is a very odd business that all of us, to varying degrees, have music in our heads." Oliver Sacks.
In Musicophilia, Sacks tells some very moving stories about those with terrifyingly profound amnesia, or Alzheimer's disease, for whom music can "restore them to themselves". He claimed that music may be our best medicine.
I've often wondered about the connection between music and writing. Many of my writers use music, as do I , to enter the right mood for a piece of prose.
Oliver Sacks described as "amusic", those who do not seem to understand or feel music at all in his book Musicophilia. He considered with pity the case of Vladimir Nabokov, who famously said he experienced music merely as "an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds"; and he wondered about how little music is mentioned in Henry James's work.
What are the mysterious connections between the two arts?
If there's an order of merit, many writers would accord first place to music.
"After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." Aldous Huxley.
"Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent." Victor Hugo.
"Music is the art which is most nigh to tears and memory." Oscar Wilde.
"The only truth is music." Jack Kerouac.
"Without music, life would be a blank to me." Jane Austen.
"Music is the shorthand of emotion." Leo Tolstoy.
So many writers pine for the ineffability, the near-divine insight and affect of music which eludes us in words and speech. I have a chapter in my new novel where Shostakovich is playing. I played and replayed the piece of music, and grew sadder that I couldn't reach the intimacy and compassion of the Piano Concerto No 2. That piece has always been an enigma for me, and I use it often when I sit down to write to find proper tenderness for the people on the page.
Can words reveal our hidden places? I hope so, I think that is why I write. To send ink into veins to show those places. At least, one tries.
My musings on the connections between these arts were probably arbitrary than Nabokov says of his, then along came Elena.
You can see Elena playing in the video with this blog post above. She is playing the final movement of Benjamin Britten's First Suite for Solo Cello. (Elena visits his hometown, Aldeburgh, once a year as a cello tutor.)
It's extraordinary. I'd like to see her fingers on the computer keyboard and the virtuosity and the sheer willpower applied to the white page!
Here's what Elena has to say about writing and music:
"Classical music training tends to emphasize correctness, perfection, the idea that there is a Right Way to do things. It also seems to breed shame in people for being less than geniuses, and for making mistakes. That is the kind of thinking that kept me from ever getting beyond about a first draft simply because I thought, well, if it isn't fabulous by now, it never will be.
Writing was actually my first love, but I did have a very strict and highly regulated musical education as a child. From age 4, I practised every day for 3 hours. In my early 20s, I used to dream that I had a baby that was taken away by my mother and given back to me walking, talking, and smarter than me. That is still somewhat the feeling I have about my musical ability, that it's not mine. It was my mother's project that I happened to be good at. It has changed much over the years, but there is still the lasting sense that I don't really belong in the music world.
In music, you have one chance to get things right in the concert. It happens in time and you can't go back. That creates an extraordinary amount of pressure, and I know professional musicians who are dependent on beta blockers to get through their lives. I never wanted to go that route, so I analyzed what needed to happen to be able to play freely while under pressure. I had to be able to let myself relax physically as much as possible, and in order to do that I had to notice all the muscles I was holding up, trying to be perfect. I discovered that every area of tension was an attempt to prevent me from hearing my own mistakes, especially the way I used to hold up my shoulders and thrust my head forward ('brace, brace!'). I worked with myself (as I now work with my students) on letting myself hear my mistakes, admitting that what came out was not pretty, and then finding a more natural, organic, physically healthy way to achieve the artistic result I wanted. That kind of work is analogous to writing and definitely helped me to get the first draft out: I get to let the crap flow first and then fix it! What's great is that I don't have to make it come out perfectly the first time. It was a hard thing to admit that I kept myself from writing for so long because I didn't want to see my own shortcomings pouring out onto the page.
Discipline can easily become an obsession for me, so it was a very good thing to be limited to one hour of writing a day. I'm slightly concerned about the editing process, but we'll see when we get there... As for rhythm, I don't know. I do notice the rhythm of my words, but not necessarily of the writing process.
The main difference between music and literature for me is that I don't compose music, so I'm always playing other people's music. I am a re-creator, not a creator. Literature is a realm where ideas can take shape and be explored; music requires me to be in conversation with the composer (in my mind) and imagine the music into life. There are far more rules.
There is one sort of unresolvable paradox for me in the music/literature divide, and that is that music demands that one be an extrovert, at least on stage and at best offstage as well (if you want to keep getting work), and literature demands pretty much the opposite. I've always felt torn in these two directions, and I still do."
For some years she wanted to write a novel, and her ambition was to complete it before the end of this decade.
She came to The Novelry in 2019, began The Ninety Day Novel Course with us in February and finished her novel in May. She is now in the 'holding pen' (apologies for the pun) into which I put my writers between first and second draft; a month away from the novel to gain perspective.
She had kindly given me permission to quote her experience of writing with The Novelry, becoming a writer and how that fits with her work as a musician.
"Today was the first day I didn't get a lesson in my mailbox, although I've been finished with the first draft for 2 weeks now. It makes me appreciate just how much thought and love you put into those lessons and gets me thinking about how I can give myself the same as a graduate.
What has hit me the hardest about being in this literary limbo is the contrast between life as a self-proclaimed novelist and life as a musician. The irony is that I was performing more while I was writing the first draft than I am now in this in-between phase, but now, without the excuse of writerdom, I am putting myself under pressure to be a 'real musician' again, and that makes everything feel heavy. Letting myself be a writer who plays once in a while made everything beautiful and meaningful and, in fact, effortless. For the first time, I had found my place in the world. Playing the cello has always been my profession and often my passion, but life only makes sense when I'm writing.
Needless to say, I can't wait to get back to the novel, even if I'm also scared by the potentially destructive force of my own self-criticism. I have confidence that your editing course will see me through! I have many quiet weeks over the summer of not teaching and not even riding trains to sit and write in my Berlin hideaway. Some things are going to have to change to make my musical life more compatible with my literary life."
So how did The Novelry help Elena finish her novel?
"Reading Disgrace and your analysis of it was fantastic. The community makes it all feel real. I loved getting a new lesson every day; this is perhaps what made me feel like a 'real writer' the most. Quotes from other writers about writing were very helpful. The team chats also help to make it all real and keep it the most important thing on my mind.
It exceeded every expectation I had of an online writing course. It has taught me the discipline and the craft of writing and persevering, it has opened my eyes to writing techniques I was not conscious of, and it has made the whole process of writing with all its accompanying self-doubt less lonely and more bearable. I started on this course knowing that I had to do something, just anything, to kick-start my writing, and I never expected it to be this fabulous and life-changing."
This is the time of year to be writing your novel!
Get cracking! My writers are currently buzzing, and The Novelry is a hive of activity with writers finishing books they started this year, and we're awash with writers declaring lightbulb moments and having epiphanies for their next novel idea. It's a creatively fecund time of year. New life!
The hours of daylight are on your side and you can cheekily steal one for yourself. Don't waste them. When the kids are on holiday, you may feel you need that one-hour you-time more than ever. Up with a coffee at early light, creating your world, at play before real life kicks in! You're creating something that will last, and speak for you and your lifetime in one hour a day. Whatever stage you're at - whether you've got no idea for your novel or you've got a first draft sitting in a drawer - you'll have a manuscript in your hands by September. What a harvest!
Our one hour a day method for writing the first draft of your novel is not a gimmick or a sop to busy people as I explain in the video with this blog post above.
You need to do 23 times more back-of-mind cogitation than you do writing when you embark upon the hard work of formulating a novel at first draft.
The time between writing session is vital and will allow you to go to the page to write with refreshed and renewed purpose.
If you don't fly off and write yourself out of ideas (and hope) but keep a nice low steady word count in these demanding early days of putting the vital organs of the novel in place, your confidence and skills will build assuredly and you will pick up a nice steady pace and a great working habit.
I have seen many people write novels now. Those who do best are those who maintain continuity. Checking in with the novel daily means that even if the one hour is compromised or doesn't go well, they're still available for the mystery of the 23 hours.
Even if you're on holiday, you can find one hour a day for that novel. Get up and enjoy the different venue with a coffee and spend time in your happy place. Say you've got no laptop with you? Say you can't write with others around you? Get out your notebook, muse and mull, list any problems you have with the novel presently and consider some options to treat them. You won't crack the problem there and then but you'll have logged it and your subconscious will draw on all the new information and inspiration of the changed surroundings to make new connections and come up with the goods. The point is to water that novel daily, wherever you are, to keep it alive in your mind. Doodle, lament, journal, conspire, on the beach, on the loo, but keep that affair with your novel alive and kicking.
It is frightening yet wonderful how consistent the process of writing a novel is for all writers. Once you're past 10k, the idea is safe. At 30k you'll experience a sag, the course is structured to push you through. You'll be nervous on day one, elated by day ten. You'll experience a day of doubt, followed by a day of euphoria as judgement is superseded by appetite and ambition and so on. As a community, we share the learning to fast-track writers one by one.
Check in with that novel every day, even if it's only to make notes. Check into the group, and breathe a sigh of relief. It's not just you who suffers ups and downs, but you will have your eureka moment either in the shower or out walking the dog, possibly even at work. Creativity is combining two things that don't obviously go together to make something new, and when you've got a problem in the novel, you'll solve it more likely in the 23 hours than the one hour. And you'll bring 23 hours of thinking to every golden hour you write.
That hour is 24-carat gold.
What do our writers say?
I check up on my writers at various stages of their writing, and at the end of the course, writers are asked to choose the one thing they found most helpful out of many. Their answers were split pretty much equally between these top three factors:
Some of you may remember Walter Smith's blog written when he signed up with us in February this year. Walter finished his novel within the 90 days this week!
Hats off to Kirstine McDermid who finished her novel this week too.
Congratulations to both of them who join our long list of graduates of 2019.
Get that novel done this summer
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