A Novel Question



My novel question is this:  why admit to trying to write one?

Why confess to spending hours in a head all by yourself, obsessing over things that aren’t real and trying to write them down?

The vast majority of novels are barely read;  people who write them must be egotists. How else do they persuade themselves for thousands of words to keep writing; that their work is good enough to finish the thing?  There lies, perhaps, a barely distinguishable line between someone with confidence in their outstanding abilities (like JK Rowling), and someone sad, deluded and hopelessly over-committed (like me?).

Yes- that’s right.  Deluded!  I nearly fell off my unicorn at the thought.  Honestly though:  why admit to trying?  Who wants to publicly end up like the woman who wrote this?


In the beginning, I decided not to answer such pivotal questions.  Sidestepping is easy:

–   *surprised look*  – ‘But I’m not trying to write a novel

–  ‘You’re not?’

–   ‘No.  i’m just writing a story.  For fun.  Just for me.’

It’s a great line.  It re-frames the whole idea:  suddenly, I am not some desparado bent on creating a masterpiece, but someone who sits there for hours rearranging the structure of a few sentences because it gives them mental satisfaction.  Readers?  Smeaders.

Reputation intact then.  But is it true?

Who cares?  I used it anyway.  I used it when I started to ask my friends about stuff I didn’t understand.  If they smiled to themselves, I didn’t notice across cyberspace.  I just appreciated it that they helped me out.

In fact, I grew in confidence until I stuck a few of them in a Facebook group, and even sometimes picked up the phone.  I found myself having all sorts of hypothetical conversations with this generous expert gang.

So then I got brave and contacted Sheffield University.  I told them I was a writer doing research: technically true, because I write.  They invited me in and were nice to me and showed me their department.  I went out feeling as though I’d been right to go there and was a step closer to my goal.

Nearly a year later, I’ve finished the first draft of my 110,000 word ‘story.’   Unable to contain myself, I Face-booked that I’d just written a novel.

Then I read it back and gulped.  When had that happened?  Was ‘novel’ actually my word for it now?  It must have crept in steadily over the course of a year;  I’ve become one of those weird egotists after all.  A potential delusional being who likes to spend all evening with her lap-top.  I felt as though, in using the n-word, I had just laid myself bare.

I was still sitting blinking, when a strange thing happened:   ‘likes’ started pinging in.

In fact, people were saying positive things.  Quite a few who’d enjoyed the blog even asked to read it, which made me happy.  Then I thought:  ‘Not yet.  I’ve got to make it as good as I can get it, first.’

So I’ve nonchalantly sent it to a very few (well, two) trusted people, to try and flag up the story’s main problems.  Nonchalance is a must:  I’m obviously not on tenterhooks to learn whether my perception of the current draft’s problems is anywhere consistent with theirs.  I don’t want to put them under any pressure, other than to be honest and tell me every tiny bit that is shit; not to give it praise it doesn’t merit.  I know everyone says that, but it’s true.  I want to know how to make it better, after all.

Anyway, where was I?  Nonchalant.  Yes.  I nonched home from printing and posting out the snail-mail copy, then nonchalantly sat down.  Hubby looked over at me and said mildly, ‘So your sent it second class, I take it?’

Well, obviously – er – I mean, no.

But there’s no point in being ashamed, I suppose.  I’ve put more hours of my life into that than my career for the past year.  I am a person who has invested hours in hoping that I might write something that someone might want to read.  One day.  After some small improvements.  Possibly.  And then, I’ll let it loose on someone.  Somewhere.

So yes.  I am presumptuous.  I am weird.  I am possibly delusional.  I am, after all, an unpublished novelist.  And what’s really weird about it is that I am actually okay with that fact.

Only since I started using the N-word, I have realized that I am not as much as an out-lier as I thought.  Did you know that Sheffield has a novel-off, where people read out bits of their novels in a competition a bit like the X-factor?

In the library, I found out that there’s a group, with other people, all trying to write novels, too!  They are probably human, because they meet in a pub.  I might slink in there one day, and join in.

Before-hand, I’m going to do a recce though.  I’m only going in if there’s a ring on the wall outside, that I can tether my unicorn to.


Desert Island Discs


Go on (those of you who listen to Radio 4), admit it.

You have already planned your Desert Island Discs

( http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qnmr ).

Despite not being famous.

Or massively successful.

Oh, ok.

So it’s just me then, is it?

Never mind: I wasn’t going to share them with anyway.  I’m saving it all for Kirstie Lang.

Choosing my discs was hard though;  I’ve never had strong opinions about music, even though I grew up playing three instruments.  Mostly I just listened to whatever the people around me told me was good – and I don’t mean my peers.  So, I listened to Gilbert and Sullivan, the popular classics, brass band repetoire, songs from the shows and 70s folk-rock.  Friends and family looking to improve matters over the years bought me CDs, and a few of those – Billy Joel, Seth Lakeman, Bob Dylan, Bellowhead, The Cranberries – I still sing along to.

Well, I say sing along:  I can’t sing.  But I can remember all the lyrics.  I’ll be mouthing along to them in the BBC studio.

But you know the really sad thing?  Living with a few tracks on a desert island is supposed to be some sort of challenge.  Where as actually, there would be more music on said Desert Island than there is now in my normal life.  I barely listen to music now. It was brought home to me that my only surviving CD player is in the car when my daughter asked me to play her some music and I had to go to U-tube.  I really need to hurry up and get some MP3s together to subject my kids to.

Anyway.  When I was a teenager I had a crush on a singer.  That is, ‘crush’ in the way that patronising grown-ups used to use the word ‘crush.’  Nothing major.

That is, the all-consuming, daydreaming, fantasising, hero-worship sort of obsession that teenaged girls (and possibly boys) get on singers, that’s all.

So far so normal.  Except, my singer was a real bloke.  Someone I went down the pub with.  I’d never heard him sing.

Anyway.  Enough of that.  Move on a decade to the Facebook era, when I spot his profile picture online.  ‘Singer / songwriter,’ it says – and the inevitable happens.  That is, I’m on U-tube within minutes..

And it’s a bit of a shock, because – you know – he can actually sing.  I’d never suspected this.  I listen to something he’s recorded and there’s the familiar voice and it’s – Wow.  So when we get talking, I tell him I’m impressed.

The singer / songwriter calls me up on it.  He wants to know which songs.  Which lyrics.  So I go to his page and scroll back.

And then I realise.  The stuff that stopped me breathing – those songs were the covers.  The original stuff was cool, but not what stood out.  I felt a bit disappointed – in me, not him, because clearly I didn’t get it, did I.

The singer points out with all the patience of someone explaining to a 5-year-old, ‘Yeah. They’re better songs.  Those are the songs I wish I’d written.’


I go away and chew on this for a few days and come to the (slow) conclusion that the fact that I was automatically comparing his stuff to the massive international hits – the stuff you hear played all the time – is probably more signficiant than the fact that it’s the covers that first made me say ‘Wow.’  I conclude that he’s probably doing OK.

Now.  I suspect that my singer has been songwriting – successfully, too – for a few decades longer than I’ve been trying to write a story.  And he already knows he can sing.

But of course, I’m just discovering writing and when I first read chunks back I sometimes think:  ‘Listen to that!  Maybe I can write!’

But now that I have finished my first story, my general impression is this:  ‘I put five months work into this?  But it’s so ‘Meh!’

But wait! – the main other thing I read, apart from my own work and veterinary textbooks, are novels that are already extremely successful.  So what do I expect?

In fact, there will be a lot of that before I write something that is expected to end up in the same concert as an International Hit.  There will be a lot of ‘meh’ feedback.  A lot of ‘that bit didn’t work for me,’ I lot of ‘I got bored,’ before I ever write – which, with 2 children and the job, I probably won’t – something that’s going to take over any bookshelves.

Anyway, there is a happy outcome to all this gloomy thought.  About a week after my chat with the singer, something occured to me:  I could still hear his songs in my head.  Not just the hits, but his songs as well.  I could still write down a few of the words.  Maybe it’s in honour of my teenage self, but I went back and I listened again.

Two lessons learned here.  First, in asking for feedback on the novel I’ve just finished, I have to understand that people will always compare me to whatever decent, published thing they’ve read lately.  At least they’ll be able to tell me when I finally get it right.

And the other?  Yeah, you guessed.  Just when you think you’ve got it sorted, it will always turn out that you haven’t.  Because now I have to go back and rethink things.  I’ve found a cool new entry for my Desert Island Discs.

Thoughts on a First Draft


When I was about fourteen (which would make him about seventeen) my big brother set me a challenge.  He didn’t mean it as such.  He probably only said it to counter my whinging and has probably long forgotten:

‘If you think everything you write is so rubbish, why don’t you try and write a story you think is good?’

But I haven’t forgotten.  It has been bothering me even since.

You see, it would be impossible – or at least would require an ego even bigger than mine – to think your work is perfect.  But ‘Good?’  Well.  ‘Good’ should be acheivable, shouldn’t it?

Which is basically the reason I am still trying to write a story.

* * *

Actually, I have written a story.  Kind of.  I am sensible that it doesn’t work and wouldn’t call it ‘good.’

I’m not sure that it begins in the right place or ends in the right place, or that it is told in the right order.

In fact, I am sure that it is not told in the right order, but I can’t decide which the right order is.  Or even if I’ve told the right bits.  In the right voice.

Or even, to be honest, if I like the story any more.  You can suffer over-exposure to stories, you know. Even to good ones, like Frozen.

All I can say for sure is that the quality of the writing deteriorates from the place where I started to write to the place where I stopped.  That was my spirit flagging as I wrote.

And having written it, I am full of confusion as to what to do next.  So I save it as ‘First Draft’ and send it to one or two people who have never seen it, who I hope are going to give their different takes on why it doesn’t work.

Maybe, I think, I can put it right.

* * *

I am about to hit ‘send’ when a thought occurs:  what if my friends think these characters are ME?  Sure, there is a bit of me in every character.  A different bit of me:  people are so complex that you can take a bit of yourself and invent a whole new person around it.  But what if people assume I am writing about myself?  One of my characters actually commits suicide.  Bu you don’t need to worry, folks:  you don’t have to hammer my door down to check I’m still alright.

There’s conventional wording of course, that I could use:  This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is entirely coincidental.

But I hovver of the send button:  is that entirely true?

Then I think: some of the situations in this story are based on a small part of my own experience, but not beyond the first extremely basic idea and usually not really that.

Bit wordy, though.

Even wordier:  don’t worry I haven’t done a William Horwood.  I was half-way through his first memoir when i was struck by how similar his life was to my favourite of his characters, Jim Stonor.

Or how about:  I am an oversharer.  If my sex life or job or feelings were like the more extreme of those of my characters, you can guarentee I would already have written all about it in my blog.

It still sounds too much like denial.  I delete it.

These characters are not me or anyone I know.

I delete that, too.  Write it back in again.  Delete it.  Rewrite.  And eventually I get bored of this process and get round to pressing ‘send.’

* * *

Imagine you congratulate a runner on their time, then look at their face and realise that  they are disappointed.  Although, as a runner, I like to pretend that I am completely uncompetitive and think it’s better to run a race slowly than never having run at all.

I try to apply these scenarios to story feedback.  If people say my story is wonderful, it will be a bit embarrassing because I know it’s nowhere nearly ready yet.

If they think it’s rubbish….. I can pretend I’m not competing with anyone except myself.

In 2005 or thereabouts I showed a bit of writing to a guy.  At that time, I had never asked anyone except my school-teachers for feedback before (I don’t know what my long-suffering writer-friend Viv did with her spare time in those days) and neither had I been very critical of my work.  Anyway, the bloke (I happened to know) fancied me, so I sat down and waited for a complement.

Unfortunately he was studying film at uni.  He knew a bit more about storytelling than me.  He scanned the first page and said ‘Meh.  That character’s compeltely flat.’

My arrogant little head nearly rolled off my shoulders in shock, but it was the best thing he could have said.  I went away and started practising writing characters.  I’m still not sure they’re convincing yet.

* * *

Self-delusion is terrible.  I’m trying to write something I think is good so that I can share it with you all.  But honestly, this may take some time because I have to like it first:  I won’t be self-delolved (real word, that).  Meanwhile I tell people I write ‘stories’ or ‘am pretending to write a book.’

Gareth raises his eyebrows.  ‘Has it ever occured you to stop pretending and just write one?’

I probably pull a face, and don’t mention that he sounds a bit like my big brother sometimes.

How are my Stories Going?


I was in the middle of an in-depth discussion (read, ‘disagreement’) on Facebook last week, when suddenly I realised that the other person had been right all along.  I decided to say so, but buried it in lots of ‘but-I-was-sort-of-right-about this-tangent-because’ bullshit.

The reply I got started ‘WTF!’

I said something like, ‘I just agreed with you – but I probably used too many words.’

Now then.  To me, ‘using too many words’ is being verbose, excessive, indirect. Packing so much crap in that the point is not being made.  Bad writing.

I completely failed to notice that the way that the other ninety-nine point nine per cent of the population read it, I’d obviously just insulted her by calling her thick.

So you could say, I’m living on a different planet. that my writing’s not getting better, but worse.

But never-the-less, I think it might mean that I’m a writer.

I have this little gang of imaginary friends, or ‘characters.’  I spend quite a lot of time trying to make their voices speak to me.  I have their lives and personalities mapped out in arrow diagrams in notebooks and try to make them do things on paper.  They have a really unpleasant habit of rebelling and wanting to do something else.  When that happens, I have to end the scene, quickly.  My scenes tend to be quite short.

I think I’m taking it a little bit too seriously.  One story happened in a vets and I kept discovering things about veterinary science that I do not actually know.  Surely, if a vet isn’t sure on the exact accuracy of some minor detail, the rest of the population will probably be fine, but I keep finding myself messaging other vets for second opinions on imaginary cases.  Do I need to be worried about this?

My Google search list is getting to be amusing.  I Google-imaged ‘Real Middle-aged Ladies, UK’ tonight, to try to work out how a minor character might look.  Not like any of the pictures that appeared, that’s for sure:  they were of models, celebrities and David Cameron.  I was distracted for a couple of minutes to notice how many came from websites about women’s weight.  It was a shocking proportion.  I nearly made her a feminist campaigner and maniac google-imager in order to point this out.  (That’s something I have to do a lot, actually:  delete scenes in which characters discover things by google-image something.  Just because I suddenly do it all the time, doesn’t actually mean it’s a likely thing for a character to do…..).

Writing and google-imaging is all I want to do at night. I rarely even write this blog now, and you will see there has been no attempt to edit.  I keep forgetting to have a bath, and baths are my favourite thing.  Our TV has somehow got permanantly stuck on the CBeebies channel and i really do not care!  The kids are in bed, the computer goes on.  Sometimes I am still typing at two in the morning.  I once had to use a Frozen DVD for distraction the next morning while I have dozed off my ‘writing hangover’ under a duvet on the reading chair.  Luckily, the kids thought this was marvellous and ‘snuggled’ (read, sat on top of me) mesmerised, until Anna got frozen when I had to wake up to hold someone’s hand.  The bad news is that the big one now sings ‘For the First Time in Forever’ on loop (not the whole song, just that line) all day long.  And that I now stick to a bed-time to keep them safe and me sane.

Sometimes i put them in nursery so I can go for a run.  I am supposed to be training, but actually I am thinking.  About my novel.  And if you ever watch what happens to your feet when you walk or run while thinking hard, you will notice that they stop.  I keep finding myself stopping on my runs, staring up at a trees.  The trees don’t seem to know the answers.

It said in one of my ‘how to write a story’ books that you don’t have a story if you can’t pitch it to a friend and are not ready to start your first draft.  So I tried to tell a friend my story.  I’d been talking for an hour or so and not getting the words out, when the friend said, ‘What sort of book is this again?’ – but I keep telling myself that the ‘how to write a story’ book is actually probably wrong….

I would like to point out, also, that I am not writing a book.  I am writing stories.  The difference is that if I am not trying to write a book, then I can’t really fail at all.  They do say that every person has a book inside them and it might be true, but the truth is that most of us go completely crazy before we actually get the buggers out.