Writing Every Day

I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of writing every day. I go through spells where I do write every day, but that’s more coincidence, it’s never a religious kind of discipline so much as a bit of a productive spell.

When I read about Jack London, who had a mad and varied life, writing 1000 words every single day in order to hone his craft, I really admired that level of dedication. But I’ve never been able to stick with it. I’ve always written, I’ve always got one piece of writing or another on the go, but I’ve never made sure to sit down and get it done every single day.

I recently visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. There was a section featuring just his pencil drawings, and there was a quote on the wall from him that said “Drawing is the root of everything, and the time spent on that is actually all profit.” I loved that. The museum was full of the paintings that eventually made his name – but to him the root of it all was these drawings, just practising his craft, flexing his creative muscles to get better and better, even if those drawings didn’t amount to anything directly. It was all still profit for his creative bank account.

I decided that I didn’t need to divide all my writing into either poems or working on my next novel – that I should try writing regularly just to keep my internal writing machinery from getting rusty. Rather than 1000 words every day, I settled on 500. It seemed more attainable as a starting point.

But still, even with a lower word target, I knew it wouldn’t be easy. If I can find a way to get out of doing work, I will. I had to come up with a foolproof system. I’ll share it with you now just on the off chance that you, like me, have always wanted to try writing every day, but felt like you didn’t have the discipline. Or maybe you just find the pressure of working on your ‘proper novel’ every day too much pressure, especially if you’ve recently hit a big wall in terms of where you think it should go next.

So, this is my system: I made a big list of things I know inside and out. Events, places, people, things that have happened to me, things I have opinions on etc. For example, the top of my list was ‘going to Amsterdam, Manchester United, Tom Waits, meeting my girlfriend’ etc. Really basic. Really broad.

Each day, I sit down at the computer, look at the long list, and choose whichever one feels easiest at that time. Then I start typing. It doesn’t matter if I stay on topic, it doesn’t even really  matter if it makes sense, it just matters that I’m keeping the writing part of my brain active. I usually hit 500 words pretty quickly – and often fly past it without even thinking to check the word count. Granted, I’ve only been doing it for a couple of months now, but I keep thinking of things to add to the list of ideas, and so far it’s been my longest sustained run of writing every day. And as far as I’m concerned, as someone who wants to write for a long time, and wants to get better and better at it, that’s all profit.

 

This post is brought to you by Jared A Carnie.

Hanging At Hemingway’s

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Writing and particularly finishing a novel is never easy (not for me, anyway), and I’m always interested in any snippets of information or clues from the greats about how they did it, and that’s one of the reasons why I love a literary pilgrimage. As far as I’m concerned all holidays are improved by the inclusion of an excursion to an author’s house.

In the UK, there are many houses with literary connections open to the public such as: Jane Austen’s house near Alton, Dickens’ Portsmouth birthplace, the Brontés’ parsonage in Haworth, Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, Thomas Hardy’s Max Gate, Agatha Christie’s Devonshire hideaway and Dylan Thomas’ Boathouse and writing shed.

Last summer, however, a literary trip took me further afield. After the full on, money-draining, sensory overload that is Disney, Orlando, I headed south on a road trip to Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West.

This was the place he shared with his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer. It’s a beautiful French Colonial style mansion full of six-toed cats (descended from Hemingway’s own polydactyl cat, Snow White). The house was a wedding gift from Pauline’s uncle (nice uncle) and it came with a carriage house, the second floor of which became Hemingway’s writing room.

An exterior metal stairway takes you up to the somewhat gloomy writing room that now overlooks the pool. Originally, there was a boxing ring below and Pauline had the pool built at huge expense while Hemingway was away reporting on the Spanish Civil War.

So, what’s to gain from visiting such places? Does it help to see where Jane Austen or the Bronte’s lived? Yes, I think it does. Jane Austen worked at a tiny writing table squished by the window. She could watch the world go by, but was far enough from the creaky door that she would be warned of any imminent disruptions. And, similarly, it was fascinating to see where the Brontés workshopped together (perhaps the most successful workshop ever).

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However, these houses are usually preserved in a semi-realistic way. For instance, I doubt that Pauline Pfeiffer lined the walls with framed posters of all the film adaptations of Ernest’s books once he went off with Martha Gellhorn. And yet the house gives a sense of a writer’s life, the domestic set-up with kids and pets and the complications that arose from Hemingway’s appetite for wine, women and macho pursuits.

The Key West house was only a small part of his life and yet it offers insights into how he lived and more importantly it made me want to read more about him.

I visited at a time when I was struggling with the umpteenth rewrite of my latest novel, My Life as a Bench, and it helped to read about Hemingway’s perfectionism and his reluctance to give up his novel A Farewell to Arms until he was entirely happy. Apparently, he rewrote the ending as many as seventeen times. And reading this spurred me on to once again tackle the ending of My Life as a Bench. I don’t know why, but somehow it helps to know that even the greats have struggled with endings.

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Next stop, Hemingway’s house in Cuba … or more likely Dickens’ London residence.

 

This post is brought to you by Jaq Hazell.

 

When Fiction Hits The Spot

So this website is supposed to be devoted to contemporary fiction so I thought I’d write about a subject that seems to crop up in all types of contemporary fiction – sexuality. Okay, so sexuality is a BIG subject and I’ve only got a few minutes to type this before bed so let’s focus in on one aspect of sex that gets tongues wagging which is the G-spot. Now, in my (dubious) opinion, the G-spot would be more aptly named the Z-spot because I’ve heard on the grapevine that many women are prone to falling asleep or dying from boredom whilst their man is searching for it. (Especially if he’s also looking at the football results.)

Now I am not suggesting that all males are cack-handed at foreplay and finding the G-spot. On the contrary, I am sure there’s at least half a dozen men out there who know what they’re doing. And if any of you ladies know where they are please let the rest of us know and then we can all form an orderly queue.

To be fair to the male species, I admit it is well known that the G-spot is pretty elusive. Some say it doesn’t even exist. All I can say is that after having given birth to three strapping sons there’s more chance of me winning the lottery or losing half my body weight in a week than there is of finding my G-spot. My vagina is like a black hole. There’s probably a couple of lost spaceships up there. In fact, my gynaecologist once sent a search party up there to look for my cervix. Sadly, even though they were armed with flashlights and a week’s rations they didn’t find their way back for over a month.

You know, recently I’ve been wondering how I’m going to support myself in old age as writing books doesn’t pay and as I was a stay-at-home mum for years I’ve got zero pension. I’ve been trying to think creatively about how I can give my income a boost.

So far, all I’ve managed to come up with is hiring out my vagina as a backdrop for the next Star Wars movie.

I reckon if George Lucas filmed some really epic space battles in my vagina I could patent it and then make a pitch for the Star Trek movies as well. I could even set up my own stage production company. I’d probably call it Black Hole Productions.

Anyway, it’s time for me to hit the sack so to end this post on a positive note my advice is:

If you’re looking for your G-spot you might as well give up and eat a packet of chocolate chip cookies instead. It will be a lot more satisfying and you can put on your headphones whilst you’re eating them and block out the sound of your partner switching channels on the TV.

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“One more take and I think I’ve got it!”
This post is brought to you by Jane Turley.

Spoiler Alert

There’s a certain kind of novel where expectations are set up at the very beginning that are then subverted by the subsequent narrative. Sometimes, even, the relationship between the reader and their perception of what is going on can be as important to the novel as the story itself.

This kind of novel is very difficult to talk about without spoilers, and it applies in part to all of my books. No more so than with the current one, Her Husband’s Lover (out on 27 January 2017, published by Headline). It really is impossible to say much about it.

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What I can say is this: it starts with a horrific car crash in which the main character Louisa loses her husband Sam (who is the cause of the accident) and her two young children. She eventually recovers from her trauma and terrible injuries then sets about starting a new life, helped only by the fact that her widowhood leaves her more than comfortably off. The only problem is Sophie – the eponymous husband’s lover – who, pregnant with Sam’s child, is out to get what she believes Louisa owes her. It seems that Sophie will stop at nothing to achieve her aim.

I can also say that the central theme is how hard it is to erase the past. This is explored not only through the lives of the characters, but also the landscape they inhabit – a part of South-East London undergoing rapid, developer-led gentrification and social cleansing.

There is a lot more to it, but I cannot allow myself to say anything else.

I’ve read recently that some readers don’t like to be told that a novel is full of twists, that to do so mars their enjoyment, because they are always trying to second-guess what is going to turn around and hit them in the face. But I think with domestic noir – my sub-genre of crime fiction – a twist is almost taken as read, if you’ll excuse the pun. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if your definition of a plot twist is that it’s something that is entirely plausible within the confines of the plot, but which the reader doesn’t see coming, then all crime fiction relies to some extent on the device.

Therefore, it is with no apology that I say that Her Husband’s Lover is full of twists. Some are slow burning realisations, and some sudden. There’s even one that made Erin Kelly drop her advance copy. They were enormous fun to write, and I hope they will be fun to read, too.

The only downer is that it is impossible to say any more.

I’m tempted, but….

No, hush, now.

 

This post is brought to you by Julia Crouch.

Fact and fiction

I am in the final stages of writing my third novel. Set amongst the world of the silk industry in 18th century Italy, Amsterdam and London I am, once again, intermingling fact and fiction.

I am often asked where I get my ideas. My first novel, ‘The Girl with Emerald Eyes’, was set in the world of twelfth century Italy. It was inspired by a personal experience when my husband was taken ill while making a film about the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The second book: ‘Daughters of the Silk Road’ was a huge leap of faith from my publisher. ‘I have an idea about a Ming vase,’ I told her at our initial meeting. ‘Someone inherits a Ming vase and doesn’t understand what they have sitting in their hall. Of course, it turns out to be valuable. I’ll develop a historical storyline to intermingle with it – perhaps exploring how the vase arrived in Europe.’

‘I’ll have that,’ she said. ‘Wow!’ I thought. ‘That was easy.’ Not so easy perhaps, as I then had to write it. Fortunately for me, several weeks of research threw up the remarkable Italian merchant explorer Niccolo dei Conti who returned to Venice in 1444, following twenty-five years travelling in the Middle and Far East. He wrote a fascinating account of his time abroad in which he referred to a meeting with the legendary Admiral Zheng He – a favourite of the Chinese Emperor Xuande (1426 – 1435). This was the hook I needed. Could Niccolo have brought back with him a Ming vase that survived him and his descendants until the present day? It might stretch credibility a little… could such a vase survive the rough and tumble of everyday life for over six hundred years? And could someone inherit such a vase and not realise its true value?

I chose a particular Ming storage jar as ‘my vase’, and had it pinned to my notice-board throughout the time I was writing the story. Made in the time of Emperor Xuande, and now in a museum, the Dragon Jar was remarkable because the claws of the dragon (a favourite motif of Ming china) had only three claws, indicating that it was intended for a royal recipient. In my novel, this vase is inherited by my modern character – a young divorced mum of a teenage daughter – who doesn’t know its worth, and uses it as a mere receptacle for car keys and dried flowers.

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Amazingly, just two weeks after the book was published, an almost identical vase was sold at Christie’s in Hong Kong for $158 million [£16m]. This Dragon Jar – also made under the reign of Emperor Xuande – had been used by its owners as an umbrella stand! Coincidence? Or a case of life imitating art?

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What of my current novel, set in the 18th and 21st century silk industries? For me, it’s important that the setting provides more than a mere backdrop: it also has to allow me to immerse myself in a subject that will hold my interest for at least a year while I’m researching and writing. My first novel revolved around architecture – a subject that is close to my heart, as my parents were both architects. My second was about blue and white china – something I have loved since childhood. Where then did the passion to write about silk come from? It is a fabric that I love to wear. It’s used in everything from underwear to furnishings, and even to medical instruments. It’s as strong as steel. But these are merely rational arguments for writing about a subject, and the truth is that most novelists don’t employ logic when choosing a subject for a story. In my case, I simply woke up one morning with a powerful sensation that silk would be the setting for the next novel. Slowly, piece by piece, elements of the story came together. A friend took me to see an exhibition of the works of the botanical artist Maria Sybilla Merian. Born in 1647 in Frankfurt, Maria Sybilla was remarkable in many ways. Appreciated in her own life-time for her work as both an artist and an entomologist, her output was considerable. Her beautiful paintings of flowers, plants and insects were triggered by her initial fascination, as a thirteen-year old child, with silk moths. They were her first love, and she continued to record the process of the metamorphosis of butterflies and moths throughout her long career. Given that the silk moth is the starting point for the process of creating silk, I was keen to weave her story into my novel.

Interestingly she also divorced during her life – an unusual event in itself in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. I did some research on divorce in Italy and discovered a fascinating collection of court documents that revealed how many women sought divorces at that time, particularly in Venice, where the Patriarchal Courts held sway. I have never been divorced myself, but appreciate that although it can be a traumatic experience for many people, for a woman who is deeply unhappy – or forced into an arranged marriage – it can prove a liberation. Her release from an unhappy marriage can also be a kind of metamorphosis.

At about the same time, I discovered that the modern Italian silk industry is currently undergoing a revival in the Veneto region. Once the foremost silk producing region in Italy, it suffered a decline in the 1960s due to the overuse of pesticides in their mulberry orchards. With no indigenous silk for their mills, they started to import the raw material from the Far East. A local international businessman, whose own family had been involved in silk for generations, decided to reverse this trend and has begun to revive the industry that had once been the bedrock of the local economy. In the days of Palladio, the legendary Italian architect, it is calculated that over four thousand of his finest villas were built using wealth produced by the Veneto silk industry.

I have combined these elements in the novel, which will be published in late Spring 2017. Title yet to be decided.

 

This post is brought to you by Debbie Rix.

New Year, new writing

As the door closes on another year as always, I take a deep breath and stop for a moment to look back.  I think about holidays, special moments with friends and sometimes I can even recall one or two memorable day to day incidents that have cropped up during those 365 days (actually it was 366 days this year wasn’t it?). And of course I take stock of my writing journey.

The written word forms a big part of my life.  I read, review, blog…and I write.  To date I have written seven novels and that is six more than I thought I would ever be capable of. Because once that book is out there there’s this vacuum, not only about what comes next but whether, indeed, there is a next.  Reading Caroline Finnerty’s December post about that moment of doubt when you’re in the middle of writing a book, I realise that same moment is also very real before you’ve even seated yourself in front of the PC with an idea or a properly worked out plot.  With the best will in the world you can create this whole idea in your head, make extensive notes and even set it up on a wall trail of Post It notes, but when you eventually think about beginning to write it’s a whole different ball game.  There’s that moment when you begin to get an annoying little niggle.  First it’s about your story line. Will the first scene draw the reader in? Is the story believable? Have I done enough research? Of course the characters aren’t going to be left out, they too have their own questions. Was it such a good idea to have that red headed hero? Is your heroine really going to appeal to readers?

What I have discovered from past experience, however, is that just as Caroline overcame her doubts and continued writing, I too will eventually square my shoulders, gather up my characters and step up to the challenge.  I’ll write that first line, which will gradually become a page and then a chapter.  And once I am on my way I know there can be no turning back. That no matter how many problems I hit between start and finish my determination will tell me this is a story which can and will be written.  I know it won’t be perfect but it’s a beginning and something I can build on, turning this first draft ugly duckling into a perfect white swan as I head toward my eventual goal – publication.

Happy New Year to everyone and I hope 2017 brings you all you’ve hoped for.

 

This post is brought to you by Jo Lambert.

The Contemporary Fiction writer at Christmas

Sssh – whisper it. Christmas for contemporary fiction writers is much the same as for most other people, those whose problems can be put in the first world section of the global Venn diagram anyway. Sourcing such a cheap tree all the needles fall off in the car …considering whether to bother with sprouts… swearing at the solar powered outside lights because they’re just not up to the job in December.

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It’s possible however that most people don’t have to fit in writing a story for an Amazon competition. My agent passed on news of this one: subtext, why not have a go and earn us all our fortunes? This year they wanted a children’s story, specifically an update of “’Twas the Night before Christmas”, that surprisingly complex American ditty, most of which is untrue. We all know Santa doesn’t exist, but really! A house in London where not a mouse is stirring? Unlikely, very.

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They had an illustrator ready to go. They’d award the prize by early December, ready to be published a fortnight later for a five day free download and then the usual KDP royalties. And a £2000 gift card. And rights etc.

Not my thing, I said. You were a primary teacher, the agent said. You know the audience.

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And I did always like Dr Seuss (yes I know, he didn’t write “’Twas the Night before Christmas” but it’s a long narrative poem from the US and he did write those).
And I was – am – concerned by the number of children I used to teach every year, with over 20 different languages and several different religions between them, who were fed a diet of Christmas Christmas Christmas throughout December, in litressy, noomressy, art, colouring, music… and then more and more of it in the shops, buses, on the telly… A day of Diwali, a quick card for Eid, a month of Christmas. Happy Hanukah and back to the reindeer.

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I did – do – think it needs updating. Don’t get me wrong, there are some brilliantly diverse school Christmas performances out there, but the day to day diet, as we all know, both within and outside schools, is relentlessly Christmas focussed from late November onwards, and mostly white skinned, traditional and commercial rather than Christian. The families on the adverts are prosperous. They have to be, to afford the toys. The spectre of debt isn’t raised until New Year. The soup kitchens put in overtime, and although we collect at carol concerts, how much do we make the connection, for our children, with the Middle Eastern refugee family the story is about?

Plus the didact in me missed – misses – teaching and thought I could painlessly shove in a bit of Geography and Comparative Religion. So I reckoned I could spare a couple of hours.

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Two days later, I had a poem. It didn’t win, but someone at Amazon will be gnashing their teeth one day, because I think I’ll submit it next year to some children’s publishers and see what they think. I tried to keep the rhythm and spirit of the original, but to reflect UK society, now, and to be a bit funny, and a bit questioning, and a bit restful. I’m not going to copy it all out here in case some dastardly person Saint Nicks it. But here are some extracts, and if anyone would like to test run it with their children and grandchildren, please contact me for the full version. If you can read it with a map of the UK to hand and maybe some Santa toys as props, that would be even better. I would love your feedback.

Santa in the UK © Jessica Norrie 2016

On the night before Christmas our parents were busy
We children excited and jumping and dizzy,
(…..)
“Please tell them a story,” said Mum to her mother,
So Nana sat down with us, sister and brother.
“We’ll go on a journey,” she said, “all round Britain.
Get a scarf and a hat, and where’s that lost mitten?
We’ll give Father Christmas a hand on his sleigh,
He’ll tire us out so we’ll sleep till next day!”
(….)
We started in Cornwall, at the tip of Land’s End
Giving out surfboards and Fisherman’s Friends
The reindeer pranced and broke into a canter –
Father Christmas turned round saying “Just call me Santa.
(…..)
In London we slid down the big helter skelter
Delivered some gifts to the Hackney Night Shelter.
We feasted on vine leaves and rice and kebab
As Santa said that wouldn’t add to his flab.
(…..)
“Some children don’t celebrate Christmas,” he said
“I’ll still leave some gifts at the foot of their bed.
At Christmas we always help people in need,
Just as we do when we celebrate Eid.”
(…..)
We squeezed down the chimneys of rich and of poor
If Santa saw presents were few, he gave more.
(…..)
Then Santa got hungry again in Kirklees
He pulled up the sleigh and picked up a Chinese.
All tangled in noodles he feared we’d gone wrong
And checked on the Satnav. But we weren’t lost long
For look! There was Durham, all sparkling glory!
The cathedral was shining as bright as Diwali.
(…..)
Santa entered a pub. It was full of good cheer:
“Please offer a bed to this poor couple here.
(…..)
“You have only to ask,” said the landlord, “I’ve room!”
When sure they were settled, off Santa went – zoom!
(…..)
Then the Highlands and Islands, bleak fields and sheep
Shepherds snowed in on the hillsides so steep
And hardly a soul there to give presents to –
“Thank heavens for that!” Santa said, “’cos I’m through!
That last chimney was squeezing me closer and closer
I knew I should never have had that samosa.
(…..)
Exhausted but happy we slept until late
And woke up for Christmas Day well after eight!

“Santa in the UK” ©Jessica Norrie 2016

Anyway, that’s why this contemporary fiction writer’s Next Great Novel was on hold in December. That and designing some all age family entertainment with my own last blog post for the year, “The Writers Bored Game”, which you can find at https://jessicanorrie.wordpress.com

Have a lovely Christmas all, and see you in the New Year.

 

This post is brought to you by Jessica Norrie.