Monday, 12 November 2012

NaNoWriMo and Distractions Galore

Edgar Allen Poe may have continued writing through joy, sorrow, hunger, thirst, sunshine and moonshine, but I know for sure he never had the distraction of deleting his entire iTunes library from a computer and then finding only half of it remained in the recycle bin. That was my big distraction on Sunday 11th November. I guess I could just sync to the iPod, but I only ever listen to the music on my laptop, so haven’t bothered to update it for two years and don’t want to lose anything I’ve added in the meantime.

He's going be a new character in my novel.
Anyway, them’s my computer woes, and they came after going to a family birthday on Friday night, staying up late imbibing too much and not writing on Saturday. So a grand total of 942 words ended up being written over the weekend, putting me 2K behind, which I should be able to catch up on this week (crosses fingers).

My other big distraction is research. This NaNo novel is a sequel to my first Tudor novel, so I know most of my characters very well and, having taught the Tudors for many years, I am fine with the period. But wouldn’t you know it – the characters are all going to new places, travelling by modes of travel they didn't use in the last book and even meeting people who don’t speak the Queen’s English, and all of that requires research.

So far I have researched accusations of witchcraft, symptoms and treatments for gout (oil of stag’s blood and poultices which cause dreadful blisters were two suggestions), the start of ‘tulipmania’ in the late 16th century, sea journeys and Dutch ports, the city of Haarlem, 16th century Dutch names and Dutch vocabulary. You can spot a theme building there, I’m sure.

I love the research. It’s all great fun. However, it does consume vast amounts of time and that is holding up my NaNo word count. Luckily, I am on my own in the house during the week and not due to hold down a proper job until January (fingers crossed again), so I will have the time to do this.

I am pleased with the way the story is developing, and I started this novel with a plan, unlike the first one, where the planning began somewhere after chapter four. I am resisting the urge to edit, which, I have to say, is helping the story flow, even if, when I do look back over the pages, I do wince a bit. This is advice I’ve read from many an author – get the story out there, edit later.
Dutch river scene
As part of NaNoWriMo, I have joined the local Cambridge writing community on the NaNo website and on Facebook. I even ventured along to a ‘write-in’ at the CB2 café in central Cambridge and met a lovely bunch of writers. However, I seem to be more productive writing at home, in my lonely garret, which is actually a lovely, refurbished study with views of the garden courtyard and its out of place palm tree (not my garden design, I hasten to add). Maybe I should try meeting the Wrimos (or is that winos?) at their Wednesday evening social meets? Oh no, that requires being brave again!
My garden view

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

A Newbie's View of NaNoWriMo

I'm really into fiction writing this month, having launched myself into NaNoWriMo, which, if you haven't heard of it, is National Novel Writing Month. I don't know who first came up with the crazy idea of writing 50,000 words in one month, but it's been going for a fair few years. I'm a nervous newbie to this. I see it as a way of giving me a kick up the rear in getting started on a sequel to my first novel, a Tudor adventure for teenagers. While I send out this first novel in batches to addresses on my well-researched list of agents, I can't just sit here and twiddle my thumbs. That way lies the path to madness - right? So, in a grand gesture of optimism, with visions of two-book deals and all, I am embarking on my sequel, with a target of 1700 words to be written daily, every day, during the month of November.

Another reason for taking part in NaNoWriMo is the hope that I'll hook up with some local writers. I've only been in this area for just over a year, and don't know that many people yet - not that I'm lonely - I'm pretty much fine with my own company, even with my husband working away from home during the week. NaNo has regional groups, you see, and they meet up for 'write-ins', wage 'word wars' against each other via an online chatroom and have social meets in the pub. It all sounds good doesn't it? But it's also a bit scary - putting yourself 'out there', meeting new people, doing different things, and for me there is the irrational fear that they'll all be younger than me. Now that shouldn't make a difference, I know, but somehow it does. I decided to avoid the first social as it was being held in a student pub on Hallowe'en - a sure fire guarantee to make me feel out of place, but today I am going to be brave and go to a ‘write in’ in a local café.

One excellent tool to come to my attention via NaNo so far is the ‘Write or Die’ app. On its website it states its aim is to ‘put the prod into productivity’. It certainly had that effect on me, since the first two paragraphs of today’s blog were written in ten minutes while trying out the site. The Write or Die website suggests that working with the Sword of Damocles swinging over your head will force you to write:

by providing consequences for distraction and procrastination. As long as you keep typing, you're fine, but if you become distracted, punishment will ensue. Everything is configurable, name your word goal, time goal and preferred punishment, then start writing. Once you're done, export your writing to Dropbox, Email, Clipboard or Text file.

So, if you don’t fancy the harshness of your words suddenly starting to disappear because you’ve stopped typing, you can always set it at a gentler method. If the general idea of any kind of punishment is all too much for you, there other, similar site, which work  solely on rewards – such as Written Kitten. At the very least this way of writing will add a little fun into what might otherwise become a repetitive process. I’m not sure how I’d fare on a longer timescale. I have only done it for ten minutes. Maybe I’ll ask some of the more experienced NaNo writers at my ‘write-in’ today.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Continued Object Writing and NaNoWriMo

I’m pleased to say that I’ve managed to keep up my daily stints of ten-minute object writes. I haven’t missed a word offered by the website Object Writing since I joined, even though some words gave me no immediate inspiration, power adapter and ladder being two of those. However, I managed to come up with something in the end, and have included both in a small selection of writing below.

Ladder                     Bandwagon                    Bonus
Power Adapter         Bicycle                          The Relatives

As we come up to November I am seriously thinking about taking part in this year’s NaNoWriMo which describes itself as ‘a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing’, and ‘an annual (November) novel writing project that brings together professional and amateur writers from all over the world with a goal of writing a 50,000 word novel by 11:59:59, November 30’. 

The NaNoWriMo organisers stress that the writing is more about output than quality, as the approach forces you to ‘lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly’. I think that might be good for me, as I have a tendency to let go of the flow as I become engrossed in researching some minor detail or editing a section endlessly only to end up chopping it out. Forcing myself to write intensely, leaving research to a later date, getting on with the story and just creating could be a good thing. I have no fear of writing complete rubbish. I’m pretty much used to that!

I’m also looking forward to meeting up with local writers and sharing ‘laughably awful yet lengthy prose’ over a glass of something. Though being new to it all, I will have to gird my loins and brave the getting out and meeting people part. I’m hoping that the fact that I keep misreading the face book page ‘Cambridge Wrimos’ as ‘Cambridge Winos’ could foretell good times to come. Watch this space!


Hop on the bandwagon, leave you own point of view on the step. You don’t need any baggage – the herd will tell you what to wear, who to vote for, when to laugh, how to love. See what’s trending, follow that. Savour the fifty shades of saccharine coated latest fads and never mind the sour underbelly or the rising stench of warmed-up bullshit.

Who cares if you sail blind for a thousand days through indifferent air? Who notices that it’s a bumpy ride, with your jellied spine continuously jostled and jolted by the whims of others? Just wallow in the forlorn knowledge that you are in with the in crowd. Your envy is the perfect shade of green and you can lay all individuality aside as you roll along with the circus parade.

Sunday, 14 October 2012


Stepping down from the raised dais of the cash desk she smoothed the skirt of her uniform, feeing a warm surge of pride. She stood a little taller, striking a pose of puff-chested responsibility. Only sixteen and promoted to supervisor for her Saturday job in Woolworths. It was a pity that the uniform upgrade was so unglamorous. She looked down at the Crimplene two-piece ensemble. It was hardly exquisite, and combined with American tan tights and sensible shoes it was positively frumpy. Still, it was worth it to earn her pocket money and tonight the small brown pay envelope would be thicker. Tonight the Christmas bonus would be there, plumping up the banknotes and coins like weights on the scale dragging her waistcoat pocket down as she signed for her money.

She took her pride for a walk around the shop floor, smiling generously at the girls on the make-up counter, their pancaked faces cracking in response. Over to the sweets next, you had to keep a close eye on those girls, and that’s where she saw him. Her heart sank as she sighed his name, “Grandad”. He had promised never to come here. Never to bring his uncontrollable urge to her place of work. He had sworn he would not. She could see that a certain look of excited pleasure was already suffusing his features, filling him with an exhilarating satisfaction triggered by the thrill of temptation. She was a supervisor. It was her duty to report shoplifting and failure to do so could lose her this job, but rigor mortis had hold of her, painfully locking her knees as she remembered that his name for this counter was Pick and Nix. She turned, and walked away. Stationery was bound to need a tidy.

Saturday, 13 October 2012


Swift my heart flies in a downhill chase, feet stuck out at the end of straightened legs and fingers curled round handles in tightened grip. Velocity picks up and an involuntary scream of terrified joy is torn from my lungs and dragged back, past my ears, by the blasting rush of the charging air.

Wheels spin, sizzling as they eat up tarmac, flying across the road surface with little resistance. Shapes speed past in a blur of green and brown. Hedges and trees passing by in a haze of spring scents, while time distorts, splintering into abandonment with the freewheeling exhilaration of my racing heart. Until at last resistance comes, the ground levels out and I slow to a pace where feet can once more find pedals.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Relatives

Red flocked wallpaper soaks up the atmosphere of steamy tea and whisky, and faded prints of pastel watercolours oversee the tearful laughter of the relatives, subdued and straight-backed, perched on chairs pushed to the outer edges of the room either side of her vacant armchair, its antimacassar still bearing a faint greasy imprint. Wrapped in their many shades of mourning they feast, like crows, upon the maggoty remnants of her life, and slip with the passing hours into indecorously singing their music-hall laments.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Power Adapter

Pull the velvet curtains and block the siren stars. No more distraction from purple dancing skies. Lie back on the bed. Let lavender from freshly laundered sheets wrap around and root you to the mattress where thoughts slide away in a slow melt towards nothingness. Taste silky dreams begin to grace the tip of your tongue.

You see, I prefer my darkness really black, perfect and uncompromising, so even the devilish glint of that one red eye staring at me from the corner has the power to disturb, to dismantle my calm and set up a frenzy of throwing, where sock follows sock in an arc towards the slim, white of the power adaptor. It sits, its gaping wounds, like tiny mouths, punctured in its plastic case by giant industrial teeth, in full understanding that I will not sleep until a well aimed item of clothing shutters me once more in welcome night.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Object Writing 17

Today’s word - ‘Genre’

The dame running the writing workshop sat on the desk, eyeing me up like she knew I’d be trouble, nose wrinkled in distaste at the stench of our collective wannabe desperation.

I stared at her hair, piled so loosely on top of her head that it threatened at any moment to tumble down. It put me in mind of a haystack after the rain.

“You are going to write a detective story in the genre of Mickey Spillane.” She lisped the last name, sending a fine spray of spittle over the front row.

I licked my lips. It was going to be a long, dry hour. My tongue already felt as if it had been baked on a rock somewhere in the Australian outback.

A ringing phone, way off in the distance, dragged my mind away from the blank page in front of me. It screamed at me, disrupting my thoughts like an irritating child in a supermarket queue.

The tutor dame began to tap the desk with her pen, sending staccato bursts of gunfire pelting my brain, creating a spiral of ragged holes through which all ideas fled like water through a colander.

Who the hell was Mickey Spillane?


I’m shorter than short – standing at exactly five foot nothing – so I put ‘small kitchen step stool’ on my Christmas list, to allow access to the highest reaches of my shelves. What he bought me was a vintage step-ladder, with a wobbly leg and a precarious list to the right that makes it unfit for purpose. I don’t know what panic sets in as he goes shopping for gifts, but he has a remarkable skill for choosing just the wrong thing with such care and love that I cannot do anything but show gratitude, and it is a beautiful ladder. A small metal label, tacked onto the warm oak, is embossed with the date of its hand-crafted birth, 1925, an age when someone cared about the smallest of design details. It cantilevers open with the complex grace of a greyhound rising from a sofa. I cannot use it. I have tried, but the stress as I listen for that creak of impending disaster is too much to bear, and so it languishes in the shed, dingy with stranded cobwebs, awaiting re-use as a shabby chic towel rail, or bedside bookshelves.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Object Writing 16

Today’s word –‘Method’

I’m a person of words, not numbers. A hundred creative ideas may, on a good day, flow from brain, down arm, through hand to be delivered, via pen, to my battered notebook, but ask me a maths question and the buzzing begins.

It starts with a click at the back of my head. It is the sound of the last light being switched off on the shop floor before the foreman goes home for the night, but instead of empty silence there is a hum, which increases in crescendo before zipping round with zigzag speed to plant that frisson of fear behind my eyes. My mouth does its impression of the Sahara, with my saliva dammed and diverted, to form a clammy film in the dead centre of both palms.

So today my thirteen year-old niece asks for help with linear equations. She smiles expectantly and has no doubt whatsoever that I’ll be there for her. So I am.

Rusty hinges squeal as a quick Google reintroduces me to long forgotten methods. Thirty-five years of dust makes quite a pile. Sweeping it aside is as strenuous as raking blown leaves from the lawn, but suddenly I am there, in that zone of flying where you can see the whole universe mapped out before you and all you need to do is reach out and pluck the answers, one by one, from silver branches.

An hour later the cinnamon scent of best auntie lingers at the desk and I smile. It is all so much more than maths.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Object Writing 15

Today’s word – ‘Smoke’

Subtitled - Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back for breakfast!

A thick wooden door, painted red, was set at head height in the chimney – a window into a blackened, soot encrusted world. The smokehouse keeper opened it and stepped back as smoke billowed out, puffing the scent of winter churchyards to softly shade the room in grey pencil.

Inside hung row upon row of twin bodies, nails hooked through their eyes, drizzled with minute beads of oil which threaded downwards over exposed spines to hang like crystals from fanned tails. Their amber flesh, caught up in beams of sunlight spilling into the chamber, glistened and shone like pebbles in a stream.

The smokehouse keeper tossed a handful of wood-chips onto the smouldering embers which lay glowing in the hearth, where they hissed and spat before settling down to send taste trapping tendrils of smoke curling and dancing around the dangling fish. 

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Object Writing 14

Today’s word – ‘Tube’

Down in the realm of the dead, a withered place of no return, a tunnel stretches into infinity. This feat of urban engineering, a gateway into the world beyond, is air-conditioned by the chill fear of unknowing and swept daily by the trailing rags of the dispossessed.

Standing on the platform’s hard edge, some ancient fear, buried deep, submerged beneath a surface of acceptable behaviour, screams out. Its echo, trapped in the tiled walls, cries “Do not ride this tube.”

Pulsating breezes, followed by vibrations which travel up my spine, turn me about as some invisible hand in the small of my back pushes me towards the escalator and I rise from the deep and step, blinking, into the world of cars, buses and scurrying workers. I breathe deep, inhaling the full life of fumes and dusty streets, and am glad.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Object Writing 13

Today’s word – ‘Band’

Some alchemy had transformed base metal into echoes of crystal raindrops and thousands of glittering bodies swayed to the exotic rhythm of a steel band, allowing the throbbing rumble to permeate their bones. The lime tang of the music quenched thirsty souls and sent them soaring, flying towards paradise on the pulsating Calypso beat. Light ricocheted from the city windows, sending its discharge out in a sequined rainbow, sewn over a hundred tired evenings by loving mothers, who now, with ample hips swaying, reflected the dance in their proud smiles.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Object Writing 12

Today’s word – ‘Fan’

She woke in terror, drenched and fully expecting to find herself outside on the darkened lawn, staring up at heavy clouds dousing her with a pattering of drizzle.

In fact she was in her own bed. She had become a searing fire, crackling and spitting, her skin liquefied in the smelting furnace as serial volcanic eruptions forced millions of tiny needles through her pores.

Trapped by the extreme weight of lightest goose down, she imagined she heard a faint squelching as if her own body’s moisture was being slowly siphoned off and pumped to pool in the folds of her nightgown. Throwing back the covers she made a grab for the fan on her bedside cabinet. As soon as the paper pleats clattered open she set to work with rapid wrist motion, creating a restoring draught that left her skin once more petal fresh and allowed her to sink back into sleep, no more in danger of melting before dawn.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Object Writing 11

Today's Word - 'Simulation'

Press pause. Hold the blurred images in their frozen motion. Reflect on the race run. Remember the feel of pistons pumping day after endless day as you pounded on, charging ahead with a lion’s roar, driving headlong into the fray. You were an efficient machine, agile and fast, a fearless warrior defending your patch, swerving through bureaucracy with silver grace until a screech of brakes saw you stopped in your tracks, blood poisoned by your adrenaline fuelled career path and dragged down beneath those fathomless depths of red tape.

Look back over the crumbled remains of a job well done and rake over the ashes. It’s there for all to see in the black molten tracks and the stench of burning rubber. You rose too fast, aimed too high and were scorched by the effort to steer your path to the top. If you could hit resume and re-run the simulation of your life what changes would you make?

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Guided Visualisation

Doing my writing warm-ups, in the form of ten minute object writes, reminded me of a workshop session I ran for a writing group a few years ago and have also used with classes of children to help them explore their use of the senses in creating writing.

We tried something called ‘guided visualisation’, following a series of exercises based around a tray of 15 random objects I had gathered together.

The exercises invited no-pressure, anything-goes writing and the value of them was that each writer brought unique experiences to the object.

Some writers love these prescribed types of exercises, and others hate them.  Whatever your feeling, it’s worth giving it a go once in a while, because sometimes the results can be exhilarating, sending your stream of consciousness into a completely unexpected direction. 

Exercise 1: "Object Tray Game" – Uncover the tray and give 1 minute to try and take in as much information as possible. Write down everything you can remember in as much detail as possible. This is not ‘Kim’s Game’ though, so don’t just try and memorise the objects – you are trying to write details about each object.

Exercise 2: Ten lines – Choose one item from the tray. Look at your item until you are certain you have memorised everything about it. Then put it back and start writing. Do not look at it again until you are certain you have described everything about it in the best detail you can manage.
If you've done a good job of paying attention to detail, you should have no trouble writing ten lines or more on the description of a simple item. If you're having trouble getting that far, take a help card and use the hints.

Help Card
Use these senses – sight, touch, smell – and write whatever occurs to you.
What do you notice about the shadows the object casts?
What does the surface feel like?
What colours is it and what colours/images  are reflected in it?
Are there any marks on the surface? Any signs of wear? Any scars? Any engraving?
If it has several parts, how is it put together?

Replace the object with another. Again, look at the object, hold it in your memory, and write every detail of your chosen object, no matter how minute. When you've finished check to see what you got right, what you got wrong, and what you overlooked entirely.

Exercise 3: Take a picture of a character. I just print some random pictures from a Google image search. Imagine that you're going to have to identify them in a police line-up, or better yet, describe them to a police artist. Take in as much about them as you can in one minute, then put the picture aside and write down as much as you can about the person.
Repeat with another picture.

Exercise 4: Choose an interesting setting that you know quite well – the shopping centre, the park, an old Victorian house. Try and really pay attention to the surroundings. Do your best to notice everything, not just with your sense of sight, but with all your senses.

Exercise 5: You should have a good idea of a person, a place and some objects by now, so put them together to create a scene in which you use everything you observed. Put some action in there. Put dialogue. But your main issue in this exercise is to create an absolutely over-the-top all-senses-engaged presentation of two people and the space they occupy.

Object Writing 10

Today's Word - 'Novice'

Eyes cast downwards, he feasts on the blank sheet, abandons a mumbled prayer to the scrivener’s god, and lets himself wander lost into the white blizzard of wordlessness.

His tapping nib sends a spray of obsidian blobs, footprints of a Lilliputian army, to mar the serene beauty. They must belong to the pacing monks who clutter up the quiet contemplation of his mind’s cloister.

With creative fervour now burning his cheeks, and mindful concentration fluttering his lashes, his hand begins to move. Soon tight grip cramping words give up a line, then two, before self-doubt snags his sleeve. The careful scaffolding is undermined and blocks crash down, thudding about him, scratching out his thoughts. Back and forth black lines scrape grooves. Back and forth rattles the shuttle as the loom weaves the one truth – there will always be days when you are a novice. 

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Object Writing 9

Today's Word - 'Prefix'

The acid swirling backwash leaves thin bitumen furred on the roof of my mouth as I stare blankly out of the window, phone bill in hand, listening bitterly to the slow rhythm inside my chest that gives no indication of a heart unbound from the chains of loving you.

How I wish I didn’t recognise that often dialled number, but the blindfold cannot be re-tied. No more will warm velvet ignorance keep me shackled. Why couldn’t you be clever in your cheating? Why not lie and say you misdialled by accident, or, better still, keep a special phone, secret, hidden away beneath that stash of car magazines that I will never bother to touch?

It is not to be. The reek of your descent into infidelity is upon the white sheet of paper, and even if the numbers fell from the page like ants scurrying from their doomed nest, I know they would leave indelible that prefix, the one that starts her number, dialled a dozen times.  

Friday, 14 September 2012

Object Writing 8

Today's Word - 'Danger'

In a deliberate act of spite, she throws a handful of ivory teardrops in my face. Smooth and shiny they scatter their danger all about me and within the space of a few blinks my body reacts. Violence begets violence from the seemingly innocent sesame seeds. My lips grow, plumped up on my body’s own chemicals, to encase my tongue with gripping numbness that slides down my throat to freeze my vocal chords. A thousand grains of sand tingle on the top of my head, sink through my skull and explode like space-dust on my brain. The sheath about my chest tightens and I begin to burn with a bright vermillion flame that licks my arms and neck. Short, sharp breaths become inadequate and my knees concertina. As I fall to the ground I hear scuffling. A hand rifles in my bag and finds my epipen.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Object Writing 7

Today's Word - 'Council'

Moon circle time again. That once monthly torture that is our family council, but today, for a change, I am safe. I have done nothing wrong. Annoyed no-one. Not taken one single step out of line.

Yet she sits opposite me with a smug set to the thin red thread of her lips. She is waiting. Waiting for her turn with the talking stick.

My stomach takes an elevator plunge. What does she know? What will she say once the smooth bone, encased in sky blue beads, is in her hands?

She points the stick like a gun to my head. A vicious shake of it rattles out my death knell, while the turquoise eye of the peacock feather tied to its end winks cheekily. I’m done for.

A fake smile shrouds her intention. Only I know that she intends to beat me with that stick until the cork explodes from my bottled-up problems and I confess the one truth – I don’t belong here.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Object Writing 6

Today's Word - 'Lid'

She licked the salty grit from her lips and placed both hands on the slab. Ten tons of rough hewn granite steadied her trembling fingers as they roamed over the furrowed inscriptions. Strong lines threaded deep and sharp, a tribute to the skill of some ancient stonemason who had once spent his day chink, chinking away with the cold metal of his chisel.

In the ten minutes it took to lift the sarcophagus lid she lived a lifetime, recalling her life’s study to the humming flow of blood washing clean her veins. Each squeal of the pulley, each thud of the counter weight, elongated her anticipation, stretching it taut and plucked in discordant strains. Finally, with a rush of stale air, it was off. Stepping forward she shone her torch down through the rising dust motes of past time.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

So what is 'Object Writing'?

For the last month I’ve been playing about with object writing. It’s a simple idea. Randomly choose an object, focus your senses on it then write about it for exactly ten minutes.
I’ve been trying to do it every morning over the summer holidays as a warm-up before whatever writing I’m doing that day. Now it’s term-time I’m still doing it, as I wait for the phone to ring with offers of teaching supply work (not that I really want the work, but I do have to earn enough money to be able to eat while I write).
I set a timer - Google will give you plenty of online choices – and write in one of the green hard-back journals I’ve grown to prefer over the last few years.
The aim of the writing is to remain as sense bound as possible, diving into your sense memory to show, not tell, as you let yourself write freely, following any associations that the object brings up.
I don’t expect to cover all the senses in every ten minute stint, but I’m finding some easier than others. For me, touch and sight are the obvious choices and I have to force myself to get in taste and sound. Smell is more problematic though, since I have an incredibly limited sense of smell, which seems to be plonked in the more disgusting end of the register – smoke and dog farts being things I tend to pick up on (why couldn’t it be flowers?).
I have, however, been using two additional senses:
·           organic sense – which is an awareness of inner bodily functions, like heartbeat, pulse, breathing, pain and muscle tension.
·           kinaesthetic sense – the sense of movement or motion in relation to the world around.
In theory anything goes. You just write about the object you’ve picked, keeping it sense-bound, and not worrying about complete sentences. It can take you to some interesting places as your mind drags up unexpected associations.
There’s no real need to stick with objects that you are familiar with though. As you develop confidence, you might want to broaden out to more abstract things. I’ve been using the website Object Writing , which posts a daily word, a random noun, and invites people to post whatever they come up with in their ten minutes. I edit my writing before I post it, but I know some people post exactly what they’ve written in their ten minutes.
If you fancy a go, try this exercise. Choose an object from this group:

Write freely. No rhythm, no rhyme. No need for complete sentences. Use all seven senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, organic, and kinesthetic. You don’t have to stick with the object – it’s just a starting point. If your senses take you somewhere else – so be it.
There are a few things to bear in mind though:
·         Object writing is meant to be a warm-up. That’s why it’s important to stick to the ten minutes. It should prepare you for whatever other writing you have planned. Try not to get carried away and let your ten minutes stretch to thirty and your warm-up become a substitute for finishing your novel, or in my case a draft letter to try and find an agent.
·         Object writing is about showing, not telling. It is an exercise, like a morning workout, that you use to sharpen your senses and improve your writing. It does happen to be fun, challenging and worth the effort.
Apparently, after six weeks of this daily workout you should notice a difference, or is that pilates? I’m on week three, so I’ll let you know how I get on. In the meantime I’m collecting all my ‘writes’ on a separate page on this blog.

Object Writing 5

Today's Word - 'Resort'

I stride through the hotel dining room, trying to ignore the invisible pungent force of decaying rat. A woman in sunglasses and large floppy hat nods a toothless smile in my direction. She wears a striped Bedouin tent and from one cavernous sleeve a withered arm extends to wave an egg smeared fork at me. At first I mistake her for the evening entertainment arrived early – drag-queen face caked in full war-paint, but no, she is just one more in a line of ghoulish residents in this resort for the elderly.

As I step onto the poolside terrace the full force of blaring horns from the too near road stretches my nerves on a blue-rinsed rack. The sound would undoubtedly menace the morning sunbathers if it weren’t for the fact that most of them have long since slid into a world of muffled silence, populated with the underwater noise of garbled whale song.

The wealthy remains of a once beautiful person are arranged on the lounger next to mine, bacon crisped skin spilling out between open slats in her red bikini to hang in low slung swags which threaten to drag her down into the afterlife. On one creased thigh sits an inked in butterfly, lying like a crumpled tissue left behind after her free spirit spread its wings and flew away. Suntan cream pools in congealed clumps in the pitted dimples of her stomach and trickles in slug trails to stain the blue cushion on which she slowly fries, slowly dies. Her bony fingers, overpowered by numerous rings, drape lifelessly over her book – Fifty Shades of Grey – an unlikely choice, unless she thought it was about hair styles.  

Monday, 10 September 2012

Four Early Object Writes 1 to 4


The reek of donkey jackets, damp lanolin overlaid with fish from the wharf-side, jostles me as I push through the warehouse crowd.

I edge to the front of the semi-circle of men and scan their faces, searching for the nod. Dampness creeps through the corduroy as I kneel, scraping the dice into my palm, and reach into my pocket for a coin. I throw a pound into the middle of the semi-circle of grey concrete and a waterfall of clinks follows as coins rain down, metal upon metal, from the players.

I fiddle nervously with the dice, rolling them through my fingers, feeling dark indentations on cold plastic surfaces. My heart begins to race and a faint trace of sweat forms on my upper lip. An odd mix of fear and hope surges through my veins.

Gripping the dice hard I take myself to the place. Blacking out the crowd I fly to the top of the hill and look down on the city spread out in a net of glittering lights over the darkened land. A gentle breeze ruffles the ends of my hair, calming nerves with the warm, earthy scent of damp soil.

It is time. I open my eyes and regard the shabby coats, the brick wall and the towering piles of wooden crates. Someone coughs – a harsh, racking from a work-ruined chest. I blow on the dice and let hot cider-laced fumes slow time and motion, allowing me to watch my own hand sweep forward through the treacle air.

The dice fly in a straight line, with no wobble. They bounce together, clattering, and glance lightly off the wall. They are cast and I can do no more.


I scramble amid the crush of locals to get my foot on the step of the dolmuş. Hauling myself onto this cross between a mini-bus, a taxi and a ramshackle delivery van I see that it lives up to its name and the whole spectrum of society is stuffed inside.

Ignoring the olfactory assault of ripe goat, fermenting raki and lemon cologne, I squeeze between the sticky, plastic upholstery and ram myself into a sweaty gap in the rear of the bus, grateful at least of obtaining a window seat.

I share the back bench with a family of four. Next to me sits father, plainly dressed in a black suit, with white shirt primly buttoned tight at the throat. Sun-aged skin hangs in leathery folds beneath sunken eyes hidden by caterpillar eyebrows. His nose twitches above a full moustache, sniffing out the lie of the land as we avoid eye-contact. His wife is suitably veiled in a vibrant clash of florals, topped with a home knitted cardigan, unsuitable, to my mind, in such heat. Small children, one of each, finish the group, in grubby blue school smocks, back buttoned, with sleeves outgrown to reveal bony wrists.

Something alerts me, cries ‘creep’, and I edge further into my corner, holding my legs away from his in calf-cramping torture. The pot-holed road allows him to bump closer until we press knees in fetid confinement. The heat of his hand passes through my linen trousers and I am frozen in surprise. Shock initially brings out the Brit in me and I ignore him, shake my leg, then tut with sharp teeth-sucking clicks. When his clammy palm lays claim to my inner thigh I am galvanised. “Shameful”, I shout, sending a skin tearing stamp down his shin, and leave his wife to finish him off.


I can find no foothold in virtue. It is smooth-faced and unclimbable. My body flattens on its polished marble surface as my fingers seek out a crevice which I can utilise in my desire to reach the holy summit.

Endless cold seeps into my bones igniting a small hope that the pride and anger and jealousy that holds me back will be frozen out, no longer to keep me immersed in my own milk-curdling odour of self-preservation.

Onwards, upwards, slow stealth wins out and virtue sits above, within my reach. Imagining her to be tall and beautiful, white robes flowing behind her and eyes shining like the constellations peeping through a veil of the blackest night, I am shocked by what is before me. With pale pinched flesh, adorned in rough squalor, she stoops to lend an aged hand. I let myself slide backwards, unsure now that the dizzying heights are what I really want if the cost is to be worn out from toil, residing shoeless and bedraggled on this barren pinnacle.


Another wave of smoked mackerel washes over me as I lean forward, wincing at the gritty pain in my knees, to rub linseed oil into the ochre and red triangles of floor tiles. With long, curved strokes I inch my way down the hall, bent over, crawling like a supplicant ready to prostrate myself before the altar of restoration.

The soft rustle of velvet passes close by and hurried footsteps intrude upon the silence, hussling down the hall. I gasp, sit back on my haunches and swing my head towards the diminishing sound. Nothing is there. I stare, cloth in hand, unable to rise.  A sense of dread, accompanied by the tingle of electric ice, assaults me. I am jolted by a silky caress on my cheek, both delicate and repulsive – the touch of spiders’ webs – which disappears in an instant to leave behind a faint scent of lavender leaking into the empty hall. 

Monday, 28 May 2012

Musings on Editing my Work in Progress

I’m trapped upstairs in a spare bedroom today, sitting with the dog curled up beside me and listening to hammering, sawing and a few expletives coming from the chap fitting my new flooring downstairs. It’s not conducive to writing. I can’t even get on with editing, since my master document is on the main computer, which has been dismantled and put away from all the work. Tip for other novices – back up to a memory stick every time you make any changes.

I could do some ironing - the pile is a teetering metre high, but the weather is too warm. Who wants to cloud themselves in steam on such a nice day? I’m not sure I’d even fancy the sauna on a spa retreat. Besides, ironing will always be one of many last choice activities – up there with bungee jumping, horse riding and queuing for theme park rides. I could sit and relax in the garden, or should that be ‘chillax’, a word in the news this week. No, I don’t think my skin would stand up to the heat and it feels wrong to be out there while the flooring guy sweats over his work.
The ironing pile
So I’ve decide to reflect on the whole process of writing and editing my novel. I began my work in progress (WIP) when the tutor of a creative writing evening class set the group homework – write the first chapter of a historical novel. I was teaching the Tudors to my primary class at the time, so decided on a setting in the late Elizabethan era and aimed it at my bright readers. I began with the stench of urine – ‘that’ll hook the boys’, I thought.

I took 20,000 words of my WIP to an Arvon course on fiction writing, and used it as the basis of a one-to-one tutoring session with Kathryn Heyman, where it became evident that I needed to focus on structure and develop more of a plan for the story.

I know everyone works in different ways. For me, ploughing straight in and getting a feel for the story was important, but eventually I needed a much clearer idea of where it was going. I had to get the foundation working. Kathryn advised me to think of it in scenes, which help me, and I set about producing a plan along the lines suggested by Jim Smith in The Writer’s LittleHelper.

In developing the story arc, the urine chapter moved to chapter four, and my main character developed goals to drive him through the story, with accompanying external barriers to drop in his path and trip him up along the way.

By this time I had given up my day job and was travelling around Europe in a small van with my husband and dog (Charlie Dog Came Too), spending time writing while my husband pursued healthily active pastimes.

For my whole year of travel Kathryn Heyman mentored me through the GoldDust programme. We concentrated on story and scene structure with the aim of making the writing as strong as possible, looking at:

  • Keeping tight to the main character’s point-of-view and ensuring that his motivation within each scene was relevant to his story goals.
  • Maintaining a good pace, with a balance of narrative, dialogue, and introspection.
  • Avoiding clichés of action and thought, and ‘ye olde English’ dialogue.
  • The old chestnut of showing rather than telling.
  • Making the emotions of the characters believable. 

    Through the whole of this writing process I was also editing, since I was producing 20,000 word blocks to send to my mentor. This was an ongoing process of refining the writing at paragraph, sentence and word level, trying to:
  • Vary my sentence length.
  • Avoid repetition of the same word or phrase – for me that involved removing quite a bit of winking and rolling of eyes.
  • Minimise passives and weak words. I’ve gone through for these common five words you’re told to edit out – very, really, just, quite, perhaps – but I’m still trawling through for ‘filter’ words such as to see, to touch, to think, to feel.

I am nearly there. I’ve been nearly there for two months. Once this flooring is down I will go all out to get right there – wherever there is.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Getting Published Today

No, I'm not actually getting published today - that's the title of an interesting event I went to a few weekends ago as part of Cambridge Wordfest.

Three experts were lined up to speak on the challenges facing aspiring authors:

Jill Dawson, acclaimed author of seven novels, and founder of Gold Dust, a mentoring scheme pairing new writers with established ones.

Nicola Morgan, author of many fiction books and the blog ‘Help I Need a Publisher’, which is crammed full of useful information, plus the odd bit of ‘crabbit’ advice.

Rebecca Swift, a former editor at Virago, now director of Arts Council-funded leading manuscript assessment service, The Literary Consultancy.

The three speakers knew their stuff, and the audience befitted from ten minute slots by each of them, followed by a question and answer session.

Much as you would expect, there were no miracle answers provided. Publishers will only takes books if they think they will sell. They are, after all, businesses and about making money. That’s not to say they don’t love books. They do, but sometimes they will take on the ‘right’ book, as opposed to a ‘good’ book, which is how all those celebs get their ghost written books out there. For more on that read this article by Danuta Kean about why those not so good books can become best-sellers (with some interesting comments).

Publishers dream of a book coming along which is both right for the market and good writing. We all know that great books do get published and the message from the three experts was to make your writing the best it can be, with the hook to convince the sales and marketing team at an acquisitions meeting that your sales will top the charts, or least make their advance back. Nicola Morgan has lots of this in her book 'Write to be Published'. Buy it, it makes enlightening reading for someone new to the game, as does this article on howpublishers make decisions.

I found it heartening that they all maintained that good writing is always going to be important and Jill Dawson said that rewriting is an essential part of getting there and should be looked forward to. Rebecca Swift advised writing from the heart, but all three speakers said that if you engage your head at the same time, there are things writers can do to improve their chances of finding an agent and getting published.

Knowing your genre was seen as vital. Knowing who is writing what for your target audience will make sure you don’t try to pitch your novel only to be met with publishers telling you they have exactly that out there already. It will also help you find the focussed insight that makes your book different from all the others in the genre, while walking along the fine tight rope of keeping it similar enough, since publishers apparently want same but different.

Linked to knowing your genre, was the advice to research who and what agents are representing before sending your manuscript to them. Nicola Morgan warned the assembled audience to ‘beware crappy agents’ and to find out about what clients they have, how successful they are and what experience they have of the publishing industry.

There was a great deal of advice about pitching, and since Wordfest I have spent time working on how to pitch my novel in 25 words, in a short paragraph and in a 2 page synopsis. Indeed, immediately after the event I purchased Nicola Morgan’s book and downloaded her ebook - 'Write a Great Synopsis'. Trying to showcase your writing in this way in not easy and needs to be given as much care as writing your novel. The aim is to achieve something functional enough to show what happens in the story, but with just the right amount about your characters, their flaws, motivations and goals, to make someone want to read about them.

A few words of warning were given to those tempted to self-publish via digital means. While no-one said ‘don’t do it’, they did say that careful preparation and sound editing were required. It was suggested that the time might come when publishers would look for an author having an ebook platform before they would consider them for mainstream publishing. Having the ‘right’ book out there in a digitally self-published form could improve your chances with mainstream publishers, but having something poorly produced, with lots of mistakes, could harm your potential success. Rebecca Swift, will be running a conference in early June about Writing in a Digital Age, which will cover the pitfalls of self-publishing ebooks.

All three speakers mentioned the dreaded rejection letters, saying it is going to happen and you just have to develop thicker skins to that and after, if you do strike gold and get published, to critical reviews.

So a big pat on the back to Cambridge Wordfest for organising such an interesting event. It’s proving to be a joy moving to an area of the country with so much going on for writers. All I need to do now is find the perfect writing group and the perfect critical partner. I’m sure they are out there somewhere round here.