Plot, Character and Me

By Sue Cook

In May I bit the bullet and parted with $40 for a course called The First 50 Pages with “The Editor Devil” Christine Fairchild. This was offered through Sisters In Crime, an association for women who write crime fiction, and had a class of 60.

Christine knows her stuff. The feedback she gave us was priceless. However, it highlighted some of the many things I find challenging about writing: creating story and character arcs, identifying core values and beliefs, and more. These are all intangibles that make my head hurt. I’m a very visual person: and if I can ‘see’ something, I struggle to understand it. If I struggle for long enough, I get a headache.

I’d love to be able to sit down with a plotting template such as The Hero’s Journey or the W-plot in front of me and fill in everything little detail of what will happen and how this affects the hero before opening that blank document.

But I can’t.

I’m a pantser. 

I’m a doer who thinks with my fingers.

I have to start writing with a vague idea of who and what and see where it takes me. Or, as James Scott Bell puts it in Plot and Structure, I’m one of the happy folk who “love to frolic in the daisies of their imaginations as they write.” More of him later.

I’m not likely to change now I’m nearing retirement age. I wish I could because I would have fewer novels stuck at the halfway mark.

However, having to plan stuff in public on ‘The First 50’ course forum made me go back and check a few things in my books on writing. I’ve bought lots over the years, but the only ones that survived my ducklings-pooping-everywhere period are three romance books and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

Not one of the romance guides addresses the character arc which agents will ask about in your 1-1. And as Christine pointed out, being unable to untangle that from the plot of your book will mark you out as an amateur.

Ding. “Move along, Cook. Next please…”

In May, the Oldham Writing Group held a Zoom meeting to discuss our current main characters and so get to know them better. Due to technological numptiness, I missed the second half of the meeting and hence my chance to introduce Kev, the bumbling biology teacher.

Now I’m glad I missed out on that because I realise I haven’t mapped out his character arc. I know what he looks like, his interests, the twists and turns of his romantic life and his major realisation.

But what is that false core belief? What does he actually want? Ouch, my head hurts again.

The section on character arc in Plot and Structure was like paracetamol for a throbbing temple. What a wonderful book this is. No nonsense, no waffle, but clear, simple examples any old idiot can understand. Like me.

So, it being the warmest day of the year and me having nowhere to go, again, I sat down with a sunhat and a cold drink and turned to page 1.

Boom.

There it was, in 12pt black and white –– the author’s story, his character-arc rise to publication. 

  • Bell always wanted to be a writer. 
  • He believed this could not happen because he was repeatedly told writing it was a natural gift and could not be taught. Besides, his efforts were nothing compared to the greats.
  • Then he encountered a published author who had learned to write after a life-changing accident. Bell looked at books on writing and realised you could teach someone to be an author. So he taught himself and got published.

It’s simplistic but includes the all-important LIE – the firm belief that is not true: in his case that writing cannot be taught.

I wish it were as simple as Bell makes it appear. Christine, The Devil Editor, seemed to want a ‘why’ for everything. Why do I want to be a published novelist? I don’t know, I just do. Nope, go deeper. (That wasn’t an actual example, by the way, before Christine emails in.)

Oh, and that ‘want’ is, of course, not what your character ‘needs’.

The psychologists reading this are probably thinking, “What’s the problem with that?” But to me, you might as well try to explain in Swahili how to stop a nuclear reactor going ‘phut’. It’s baffling. Or it was until yesterday when I went to a supermarket for the first time since March 14th. Why, I wondered, was I there and not panicking? What had changed? And the character arc for Cook Towers: The Lockdown Months hit me.

  • I entered lockdown wanting to stay alive (still do, to be honest)
  • But I believed I’d die if I went to the supermarket: 
    • because I’m a worrit 
    • because shoppers would touch things I might touch, some of them might touch me, and 2% of them were seething with the killer bug
    • because on my last pre-lockdown shop, a woman coughed at me without covering her mouth (because her hands were weighed down by bulging grocery bags) 
    • because I catch every virus going 
    • because the death rate for covid-19 in my age group is 2.8% 
    • because my luck in recent years has been terrible, so when I contract the virus in Tesco, I will inevitably become one of the 2.8%. 
  • So I became a hermit and swabbed everything that came through the door.
  • What changed? Have I developed a death wish? No. I’ve done what I needed to do at the start – I got a grip!

It’s that simple. Hallelujah.

Now all I’ve got to do is write that out for Kev, the bumbling biology teacher, and his complicated relationships with Katie and Liz.

After that, it’s on to story structure, something else I’ve been avoiding for the last ten years.

That $40 has created a lot of work.

suecookwrites.wordpress.com – the pessimist’s guide to writing cheerfully

Twitter – @popsytops

The New Normal

By Bonne Meekums

By the time you read this (from June 1st 2020), people living in England can, unless shielding, meet with up to five other people, provided we socially distance, are in an outdoor space, and if we have to nip in to use the loo wipe everything down afterwards. Yay! Too bad if your family live in Wales or Scotland, and you are just across the border. You’ll have to wait a bit longer.

I have heard many people talk about ‘the new normal’, since lockdown began here in the UK on 23.3.20 – as if it is a thing we can see, and touch, and pull off the supermarket shelf. Yes, I’ll have one of those, thank you. But the new normal is an elusive thing, ever-changing – like the British weather. Although, the strange thing is, that even the good old bad British weather hasn’t been normal, has it? Spring 2020 has been unusually warm and sunny, almost as if there actually is a God up there controlling it all, taking pity on us poor stay-at-homes. 

I didn’t write a word, for several weeks into lockdown; I was too anxious. I had just got to the point where I was beginning the rewrites on my second novel, when I went to New Zealand at the start of this year. Whilst there seeing family, I was also promoting my first novel, A Kind of Family, released the day I landed (7.1.20) by Between the Lines Publishing. My rewrites went on the back burner. I returned mid-February and got part-way through them, but abandoned them once lockdown hit.

It’s only in the past week I have started sleeping anywhere near normal, for me – which is to say, in bursts of two to five hours, get up to go to the loo, go back to sleep for another two to five hours. For about nine weeks, it was a case of: fall asleep immediately due to sheer exhaustion, then sleep for anything from half an hour to an hour, after which, sit bolt upright like a toddler in summer time, ready to join the Wide Awake Club. I did all sorts of things in the middle of the night, when I couldn’t sleep: make a hot drink, answer emails, read a novel, clear stuff out. It was during this time, that my study began to look like somewhere I might actually want to spend some time. I got rid of old bits of paper and cobwebs, with equal zeal.

I am one of those people who has got fitter during lockdown. Once I was over the dreaded virus (or whatever it was I had – at that stage, tests were unavailable to ordinary folk like me), I slowly but surely increased my hill walking distances. It became an obsession. Must. Walk. Every. Day. At first, most people seemed to get the idea of social distancing on the paths near me. People for whom the idea of walking was previously tantamount to torture seemed to discover the joys of tramping along the bridleway. Others got on the bike that had been hiding in their shed or garage, covered up and ignored. Dog owners who previously had let their pooches do their business in the back yard suddenly discovered the mutt provided a great excuse to get out for that all-important one daily exercise. And then there were the runners, often two abreast as the more experienced of the two selflessly set a deliberately contained pace. 

But then, I started to notice that some people, increasing in number daily, seemed to have a death wish. A runner would fly past my shoulder, almost touching me. A cyclist would whizz past, without warning. A couple would steadfastly hold hands, spreading out across the path. My anxiety went through the roof, as I rushed out each morning to beat the crowds, heading for remote moorland. 

When I wasn’t walking, I was overwhelmed by the explosion in online opportunities. Webinars, MOOCs, zoom yoga classes, video chats, streamed concerts. I had a massive attack of FOMO, so I signed up for everything – and missed most of it. 

Eventually, I realised something wasn’t quite right. About a month in, around the time my study began to look like it might actually be a good place to be, I worked out that I didn’t need all these zoom opportunities, and what’s more, much as I love and need to walk in the hills, I was perhaps being a teeny bit OCD about donning my boots. What I needed, was a bit of alone time with my words. And so, dear reader, I wrote. I needed to get back on the rewrites, and finish the job. Once the lightbulb went on, I ring fenced time for writing. 

The change in my anxiety levels was immediate. It was such a joy to be back in my protagonist’s life. Finally, I had an epiphany about her voice, which led to a sense of ‘fit’, and a hope that this might be something I could pitch to agents. And so, I have very recently begun the querying process. This will, I have no doubt, result in a staggering string of rejections (one so far and counting), but at least I am back in the saddle. I have also submitted a couple of flash fictions, one of which has been accepted and published, by Reflex Press. That provided a much-needed confidence boost.

So, maybe there is a new normal, after all. A kind of I-Ching version, in which the only certainty is change. Writing might not be your thing. Walking might not be your thing. But one thing’s for sure; you don’t have to join in everything, just because it’s there. Sometimes, just waking up and breathing is the best feeling in the world. It’s an experience that has been denied to almost forty thousand people in the past few months. Maybe the new normal needs to be simply living, and living simply. I’ll sign up for that one.

Link to Bonnie’s published novel:

Link to Bonnie’s recently published Flash Fiction: 

After I Do by Bonnie Meekums

Find her on twitter: @bonniemeekums

And Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Bonnie-Meekums-PhD-Author-447854116059081/

WordPress blog: https://mamabonnie.wordpress.com/

Joyous Isolation

by Joy Mutter

I feel guilty about how little the coronavirus pandemic has been affecting my everyday life compared to so many other people. As a sixty-five-year-old full-time indie author living alone nursing a chronic back problem, I rarely leave my house or socialise. Before you feel sorry for me, I’m fine with solitude because it allows me to write. I have a pars defect which means nerves are trapped between slipped vertebrae. Specialists tell me they would only operate on me if I can’t walk at all as it’d be too dangerous and could make the problem worse. Many people have far worse ailments and I’m resigned to the fact the condition will remain the same or worsen as my GP cheerfully told me it will. It restricts my mobility, but my overactive imagination helps me live a full and interesting life where I can imagine myself wherever I want to be. After spending decades unhampered by pain, I now live most of my life vicariously, existing within the different worlds inhabited by my book’s characters.

There’s been more online interaction than usual between me, my friends, and family since the outbreak began. I’ve particularly enjoyed my fun and instructive Zoom meetings with my fellow authors in the Oldham Writing Group. Using Zoom saved me a taxi ride to and from Oldham Library and gave us all a chance to snoop on each other’s natural habitats. Even my mother in Jersey clicked the video button on Facebook Messenger for the first time so we could see each other as we chatted. It was also the last time we used the video function because we looked awful. Our voices sounded croaky due to our rarely used vocal cords. Since moving to Oldham eight years ago, I regularly go for days, sometimes weeks, without talking to anyone except online. When people do phone me, I’ve noticed they usually all call at the same time, often when I’m on the toilet, thanks to the Law of Sod.

 Shortly before lockdown, Mum and I enjoyed a wonderful week together at a luxury beachside Jersey hotel with a large group of relatives and friends to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. She set the dancefloor alight while I sat and watched in admiration. 

I flew back to Manchester airport on 12th March and have rarely set foot outside my front door, even for Government-prescribed exercise, except on the 27th April when I was forced out of my sanctuary to walk to a letterbox to post an urgent form. As soon as I left the house, I had closer contact than was safe or pleasant with a man a few doors down from me. He was trying to retrieve his runaway dog who hurtled towards me barking like a maniac. ‘Don’t want to get too close to you,’ I said to the man, wishing I hadn’t put extra emphasis on the word, ‘you’. I thought it might have sounded rude, so shouted over my shoulder as I continued to puff and wheeze towards the post box, ‘Nothing personal.’ He didn’t look impressed.

I have been stepping outside for the 8 pm clap each Thursday with neighbours. Although I’ve lived in this leafy avenue for years, we don’t know each other, so wave and smile from afar. My next-door neighbours, who I know well, have never emerged to clap on Thursdays. I sometimes wonder why. I know they’re alive because I sometimes hear the mother bellowing at her screaming brood. Her husband, Lee, knocked on my door during the third week of lockdown. He looked shifty and I wondered what the problem was. He furtively produced a bag of groceries for me as though it was a consignment of cocaine and placed it on my front path. 

‘I thought you might need some provisions,’ said Lee, backing away. 

I thanked Lee profusely before he scuttled back into his house. Bless him. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Tesco was delivering me a ton of groceries the next day. 

I only shop online as physical shopping is impossible due to my back problem and lack of transport or help. Window shopping is a distant memory. My doctor didn’t designate me as one of the vulnerable people who require privileged deliveries, so I’ve scanned the Tesco online site daily for delivery slots. Although they’re as rare as hen’s teeth, I’ve occasionally struck lucky and nabbed a precious slot. I started lockdown with 16 toilet rolls. Like my mother, I’ve always been a hoarder of provisions. Now that toilet rolls have reappeared on supermarket shelves after people stockpiled them at the beginning of the crisis, I’ve added a pack of toilet rolls whenever Tesco deliver. I now have 51 rolls. My mother informs me that they should last me my lifetime, but I plan to live longer than that.

I haven’t lost an ounce of weight over the past two months. Quite the reverse. I used to be almost six feet tall and skinny but have shrunk four inches in height over the years. Physical exercise is painful and can cause flare-ups, so I avoid it, which is why I’ve gained a scary number of inches in circumference. Writing, editing, designing, and publishing my books means most of my exercise takes place in my brain these days. Nothing gives me more pleasure than living with all my WIP’s diverse characters each day. Nothing. I’m never alone with a demented serial killer or troubled teen running around in my head demanding my attention.

Watering my garden has been my main source of physical exercise as I can’t stand for more than a few minutes without severe back pain kicking in. Because of this, cooking and washing dishes is a daily challenge and vacuuming rarely happens. Mowing the lawn is impossible. A month into lockdown, I was surprised and delighted when my gardener unexpectedly appeared and mowed my lawn for the first time this year. As an indie author, I’m far from rich, but I’m happy to pay for others to mow it. I thought gardeners wouldn’t be working during the lockdown and had resigned myself to my lawn becoming a weed-strewn meadow, but my monosyllabic gardener soon restored my back garden to its former glory. My side of the hedge in the front now looks perfect, but my neighbour hasn’t trimmed his side yet, so it looks a bit daft. My magnolia tree looked cruelly glorious for a couple of weeks before spoiling things by shedding its white blossoms everywhere. Lawn Mower Man soon removed the debris in his leaf sucker. I noticed he’d strimmed off far too much from one of my ornamental bushes. He’s probably putting his life at risk cutting clients’ lawns, so I didn’t complain.

As if to taunt those isolating with no outdoor space, the sun has shone throughout much of this strange, tragic yet often inspirational time. Thirty-two million cheers for Colonel Tom! Hip, hip, hooray! I’ve enjoyed sunbathing ever since childhood when I lived opposite a beach on the east coast of Jersey. Books have always been my addiction. Devouring countless authors’ books while sunbathing on ‘my’ beach as a pre-teen is to blame for me becoming a published author. As I lay on my towel reading Agatha Christie, Ray Bradbury, and countless other books, I wished I could be an author, too. I thought it was a pipedream, but fifty or so years later and, hey presto, I discover I am one. My fourteen books are on Amazon and two more books will follow shortly. Another two thrillers are partway written. Nine books have audiobook editions on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.

I’ve spent happy hours during lockdown sunbathing in my back garden listening to audiobooks of The Journey by Conrad Jones and The Cruel, Cruel Sea by Linda Huber. I’m now listening to a gruesome John Nicholls audiobook. With nine audiobooks of my own, it’s interesting to discover how well a narrator does. I’m full of admiration for narrators’ hard work after having narrated and sound-edited two of my audiobooks. Sound-editing is a killer and I won’t be repeating the experience. From now on, I’m leaving it to the professionals. Paying narrators has been my only publishing expense, so whatever I earn from my books is profit. Audiobooks have been more profitable than my Kindles and paperbacks.

I’d pay to advertise my books if I was wealthier. Word of mouth, Twitter, Goodreads, or Facebook book group pages are how I promote my work. Spending a modest amount of money on promotional postcards has been worth it. When someone asks what sort of books I write, I hand them a postcard to save me having to waffle. It would’ve been simpler, and I might have been more successful if I’d only written one genre of book. As I get bored easily, I’ve written three third-person autobiographies, a non-fiction illustrated book about old postcards, one psychological, three erotic, one crime, and four paranormal thrillers, a short story collection and a novel since 2015. I’ll probably continue to publish thrillers of all kinds as that’s the genre I most enjoy writing. Readers seem to like my thrillers more than my other books, especially The Hostile series. 

After publishing my first four books on Amazon in 2015, I admit I became a book bore for two or three years. These days, I try to be less intense when talking about my books and writing. It’s sometimes hard to hide my passion from taxi drivers, Tesco deliverymen or anyone who’ll listen. I try my best to hold back these days because I’d hate to be identified as The Scary Book Lady. 

During the lockdown, I published an explicit erotic thriller called The Trouble With Trouble. It can easiest be described as Line of Duty but with sex. I’m currently working each day on the final edits of the next two books in The Trouble series. The weeks under the quarantine cosh have passed swiftly as I’ve also been catching up on television programmes of all kinds and turning deepening shades of brown in my garden. Subscribing to Netflix and putting a second Sky box in my bedroom last year stopped me reading in bed. I’m trying to wean myself off watching television before sleep because there are so many books I want to read and I’m not getting any younger.

After selling my house in Kent in 2012 when my back problem changed my life, I bought a cheaper house I love in Oldham, then cashed in my private pension rather than receive disability benefits. The state pension is coming my way in November 2020. It’ll hopefully make life easier as I’ve been self-supporting all my life despite my physical challenges. Nothing will change for me once we’re no longer in danger from the Plague, whenever that may be. In my joyous self-imposed isolation, I hope to continue producing books readers love to read until the day I die. Finally, I wish us all a huge dollop of luck in these crazy, worrying, challenging, and tragic times.

Following Gandalf’s Advice

by Jo Harthan

Never doubt that the fiction you write can have a profound effect on your reader. Books are powerful and can be a medium for subtle indoctrination. 

So begins my blog during these strange times. The present lockdown, because of coronavirus, has given me lots of time for self-reflection—not that I’ve had a shortage of time for doing that over the years. But this is different. This is forced isolation. 

Until March I was sure I had my relationship psychology sussed. It was on the lines of Freud’s theory that women like me are attracted to men who don’t reciprocate love because that’s how my father was; they’re painful attachments that are familiar and comfortable. Despite knowing that, I’m still attracted to the Mr. Wrongs. 

But hold on a minute. Maybe Freud was Mr. Wrong. I say this because three weeks into my self-isolation, I woke with a startling revelation. It’s not my father that’s the problem. It’s the publishing industry!

Publishers decide what fictional world we will escape into. Our daydreams are very powerful. I was a child of the 50s and, until John Lennon came along, the epitome of my desirable man was James Bond. Ian Fleming sexually objectified women by giving his characters such names as Pussy Galore, Plenty O’Toole, Xenia Onatopp or Holly Goodhead. It seems quite shocking today. I remember an older sister catching me reading Dr. No and admonishing me for it. She said I wasn’t old enough to be reading ‘racy stuff like that’. I was fourteen. Perhaps she was right but for the wrong reasons. 

The right reason would have been that I was being indoctrinated into a fairytale where women were powerless and men were heros. I truly believed that when my prince came, he would be a Sean Connery clone. This sort of propaganda was still being pedalled in 1982 when Richard Gere threw Debra Winger over his shoulder and carried her off to eternal bliss in the nauseatingly romantic movie, An Officer and a Gentleman.

So are things any different today? With Indie publishing you would think so. Anyone can now publish anything they like, any genre, any theme. The trouble is, publishers still have the edge because they know how to operate the marketing network. Getting your work ‘out there’ is the main stumbling block of any self-published author. Your work may be brilliant but if the world doesn’t know it exists, it will never be read. So how can we get our name out there? 

Well, not by giving your book away as a free kindle download that’s for sure! A lesson I’ve only recently learned. Following forty, free downloads of my latest book, Vital Organs, Amazon KDP in their wisdom decided there was ‘unusual reviewing behaviour’ and blocked reviews from anyone other than ‘verified purchasers’ i.e. those readers who had paid for the book. I had run the free promotion in the hope of getting reviews—why else would I give my work away? I tried for over a week to get answers from Amazon, making my questions as simple as possible—only a yes/no answer required:

1. Are free promotion downloads treated as ‘un-verified purchases’ even though, on download, the message says ‘thank you for your purchase’?

2. Was it too many reviews from ‘un-verified purchases’ that triggered the ban?

3. Was it just one review that triggered the ban? If so, was it one of the free downloads?

4. Will this ban on reviews be lifted soon?

5. Is there a limit on the number of reviews accepted following a free promotion?

I still haven’t received an answer to any of those questions. I find that rather worrying. Either KDP staff don’t know what algorithms are operating on their website or they are imposing clandestine marketing censorship.

However, back to coronavirus.

Until Covid-19 made an appearance, I had been wishing I had more time to write. Guitar playing and drinking beer at open mics had taken over my life. In addition, I had my ukulele club, workshops and talks to prepare, holidays, conferences and residential courses booked. Remember the cliché ‘be careful what you wish for’? Obviously, I’m not suggesting that this virus was my doing. As an Indie author, I don’t have that much power. Though I do, it seems, have the power of prophecy.

This week, author copies of Vital Organs landed on my doorstep and I saw, as if for the first time, what I had written for the back-cover text—penned in January. 

“A story demanding to be told condemns the writer to servitude in solitary confinement for an indefinite period of time.”

Amazing! When I wrote those words, I had no idea that a much longer period of forced incarceration was fast approaching. 

The moment we went into lockdown, I was reminded of Gandalf’s words in Tolkien’s, ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’. 

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” 

So, that’s what I did. And my decision was to devote all my time to writing. 

I formatted and published Vital Organs a week into lockdown—a novel I had started during NaNoWriMo 2017. It’s a story of how one woman tries to come to terms with the new ‘opt-out’ system of organ donation after the death of her only son. I had to make last minute changes to accommodate Covid-19, though it’s now apparent that I may not have gone far enough. The ‘opt-out’ was due to come into force this month (May) but appears to have been put on a back-burner. In addition, my novel assumes that by November 2020 the lockdown is nothing more than a bad memory. As Jennifer Joyce said in her blog, this is the world of fiction, so does it matter? I’m hoping not.

I’ve just finished another novel—the one written during NaNoWriMo 2019 titled The Daisy Grave, and am now busy with the next one, Reaper of Souls, started during NaNoWriMo 2018. There are another three, half-written books waiting patiently in the wings, hoping to be completed before I commit to NaNoWriMo 2020. 

I must confess, I am rather happy in my solitude, safe inside my little writing bubble, un-fettered by Mr. Wrongs. I don’t watch the News anymore—it makes me cry to see other people’s pain. But never a day goes by that I don’t give thanks for the life I have, warts and all.

And it’s been wonderful to keep in touch with writing colleagues without the need to get dressed, wash hair or wear make-up. I’m bra-less and totally liberated. We have regular Zoom meetings and workshops that make the time fly by even faster than it was before. I no longer have time to wash my hair.

Regardless of what BoJo announces in the future, I think I may continue my lockdown until I come to the end of my ‘To Do List’. I may even go in search of a cave.

The Coronavirus in Fiction Dilemma

by Jennifer Joyce

My new book is due for publication in October. It’s a festive time-travel romantic comedy, with the present-day set in the last couple of months of 2020. There wasn’t a murmur of Coronavirus when I was writing the first draft, and we hadn’t yet been hit with lockdown when I was editing the book, but now I’m faced with a dilemma: Coronavirus has happened and we don’t know when social distancing will end, but my characters are blithely hugging, sitting in the pub and shopping with friends in their version of November 2020. They’re having Sunday lunches with family, popping out to work and jumping on flights to attend their friend’s wedding. There is absolutely no mention of the pandemic that has left us isolated in our houses or at least two feet away from other human beings when we have to dash out for essentials. It could take months for these restrictions to be fully lifted, and I’m sure we’ll still be feeling the effects for a long time, so should this be reflected in my book?

Putting aside the headache-inducing task of re-editing the book to reflect the current situation, I’ve realised I’m happy for my characters to live in a world without ever having heard the term ‘Covid-19’ or experience the gut-wrenching anxiety as the daily death toll rises. They’re living in ignorant bliss and I envy them. In a world that I control, why would I choose to inflict the one we currently inhabit? Besides, I write romantic comedies. They’re escapism, with happy endings, and this one – being a time-travel rom com – isn’t rooted too heavily in reality.

So I’m going to leave the book as it is. My characters will continue to live in a world where they can hug their loved ones and get fall-over-drunk in the pub on a Friday night. They’ll gather for school musicals and they’ll celebrate their friend’s wedding with unadulterated joy. When they hear ‘Happy Birthday’ being sung, they won’t associate it with washing hands. It’ll simply mean cake, being shared with friends and family in the same room and not over Zoom (they don’t even know what Zoom is). To them, Corona is just a brand of beer or a Eurodance band from the 90s. Their supermarkets have never run of out toilet roll or pasta, and they’ve never had to queue up along the perimeter of the car park to get inside.

Who wouldn’t want to escape into the pages of that world, just for a little while?

Lockdown and rearranging my writersphere…

by Jacqueline Ward

I’m writing at the end of the fourth week of the COVID-19 lockdown – this is the longest I haven’t gone out to work, even when I had my children. I have always been a freelance as well as employed which means that I am equipped to work antisocial hours anywhere.

When I became a writer this was a brilliant transferrable skill. The ideas that float around my own writersphere, a place I set aside for creativity, can pop up anytime and two o’clock in the morning has often found me sitting in a hotel lobby typing. 

So lockdown has lent itself to an exaggerated version of this. Many people on Twitter have said that their creativity has been drained with the Coronavirus changes, and it’s no wondering that with the landslide of negativity, we are in survival mode. Our sympathetic nervous systems are reacting to fight or flight for, possibly, one of the few times in our lifetimes that it is firing anxiety correctly

The parasympathetic system is kicking in trying to settle and calm us and we are finding it difficult to focus with our minds and bodies in constant turmoil. Part of this settling exercise for me was a re-evaluation. I am a risk taker and I often push outside my comfort zone. It isn’t always a pleasant exercise and can be excruciating, especially at times like these, when stress overlays each day anyway. But does it have to be that way?

I have been making decisions about what I want to do post-Coronavirus lockdown rather than what I have to do. Writing has grown into something that I did not expect that is sometimes uncomfortable. This period of evaluation is a great opportunity to mould and shape it into something better. Here’s what I’ve done:

Got the advice of experts: I bought Masterclass on a BOGOF offer. Listening to experts’ experience is a great way of learning in any field.
Brainstorm what you really, really want: Do I still love writing, or am I doing it for money or fame? Think back to the beginning. Am I where I thought I would be? Am I happy where I am?
Where does it hurt? Which areas make me feel uncomfortable? Is it because I feel I have to do something, or is it fear of choosing to move out of my comfort zone?

So what have I decided? Well. I still love writing. Phew! Neil Gaiman’s been in bed with me telling me about stories so, you know. And what I really, really want is to walk with my characters through this awful time. For me, storytelling is therapy.

Where does it hurt? This is the interesting one. After a lot of thinking I realised that there are certain conditions I have put on myself that are holding me slightly away from my best creative self – like travel, going to meet-ups, feeling like I have to watch webinars and podcasts – my writersphere is too crowded. 

So I am raking through the ‘should and musts’, arranging them in a formation that suits me more and are gentle on my mind. These terrible times will have silver linings which are very hard to see but hopefully I will come out of this a better writer and a better person as well as 10lb heaver with grey roots! 

I’ve started a new novel and the stories behind the links in this article will give you some clues as to what it is about, my writing process and where I got the idea from… 

Hot off the Press From Crossley Towers

Well, what an act I have to follow, I fear there will be nothing thought provoking in this blog post. On Saturday, 21st of March 2020, although I am not over 70 I decided because of my comororbidities it would be wise for me to embark on a lockdown for 12 weeks. I had done as big an Asda shop as I could get home in a taxi and my cat food for Rio and Molly was ordered and coming the next week. 

As I live alone except for my feline companions I had not thought or planned further than that. The first people to offer me help with my shopping were my Latvian neighbours Ilse and Pëteris. This was followed by Suzanne, another neighbour and Viv and Eddy Hardaker who I know from the Royal British Legion (RBL), Royton and Veterans’ Breakfast Club. Between them they have kept me supplied with all manner of groceries/toiletries and even cat food when my normal delivery from the firm I have used for years only delivered cat litter and 3 x bags of cat treats! 

I have learned that I have a lot of friends out there who do not find it an imposition to do my shopping whilst doing their own. I have also learned how much I miss people, as I live on my own I did not think this would be any different than my normal life but it is. I find the restrictions irksome and so I decided I would have to learn how to host and participate on Zoom. They say you are never too old but at 65 it was a bit of a stretch getting my head around it. However, I am pleased to report at the second attempt I was able to hold my Poetry Workshop, “How to write a Nonet.” It was a success, everyone mangaged to write a Nonet or two. 

Flushed with my favourable outcome, I was asked to host a Zoom meeting for the Veterans Breakfast Club, I fared well there as they were all used to taking orders in the forces so I just gave them No 1 orders and a few managed to make it. I can only think some of the others were too shy to come on video, heaven only knows why. I also like being a participant at Zoom meetings and really enjoyed the first one in this group and I am looking forward to the second. 

For some reason, my poetry mojo has returned and I am on Day 21 of National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) and still going strong. I have set it up in a new blog on WordPress, called Back from the Darkness to the Light – A Survivor’s Path to Poetry, I also share it on my facebook page called The Vixen of Verse. It has been quite a challenge and is interspersed with Haiku. I have been posting on The Daily Haiku also on Facebook. When I talk about poetry one of my writer friends says I may as well be talking Serbo-Croat, so if this is the same for you, skip this paragraph. Hmmm, I think I should have put that at the beginning of this paragraph. Never mind, you have read it now. 

Finally, I have been a beta-reader for Jo Harthan’s fabulous new book, Organ Doner which you can get on Amazon for a very reasonable price. I am up to Chapter 7 Proof/beta reading my veteran friend’s first novel which is really interesting, quite sexy in places! Anyway this is all procrastination for not editing my first novel, but I have set myself a deadline to start it on 1st of May, come what may. 

© Carolyn Crossley, 2020

A Moveable Room of One’s Own

by Catherine Murphy

Last Thursday, the Oldham Writing Group had its first online meeting.  After some initial technical issues and a delayed start so that we could go outside and clap for the NHS, eight of us logged onto Zoom.  Bonnie’s face was startlingly large, Jacqui was clothed in mysterious gloom, Wendy spoke from behind a black square.  We managed to master the tech and talked for over an hour before we ran out of steam.  The group discussed the impact of these strange times on our writing and earnings.  I’m not an earner (yet!) but have found my attitudes to living and writing much changed over the past few weeks.

I dream more and pay my dreams more attention.  Images, art and music mesmerise me.  I ponder on poetry and see connections everywhere. Now that I’m not physically in an office surrounded by people, I’ve slowed down my thinking, taking time to investigate and shape ideas and opinions rather than being expected to be verbose and insightful on demand.  I’ve established stronger contact with my thoughts and feelings.

This morning, I woke up with these lines in my head:

Far, and somewhere more

Here, and sometimes sure

I have no idea what those lines mean but they feel true and have struck a note inside that I feel I have to explore and interpret.   I feel like I’m slowly waking up.

What resonates with me now isn’t what resonated a few weeks ago.  I turn off the TV and go outside into the garden to sow seeds, smell the earth or listen to the birds.  I recall thoughts and ideas from books I haven’t read in years and dig them out to revisit and rethink.  I’ve picked up A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, and A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.  They’re helping me repurpose my attitudes to space and writing. 

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind. A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.

My usual ‘Room of my Own’ has turned into a home office where I spend most of my waking hours working on a laptop, so it’s no longer the sanctuary it once was.  That threw me for a while.  I couldn’t bear being in there a second longer than necessary or having to hunch over yet another laptop at the end of the working day.  I stopped writing, but Hemingway wrote anywhere, and he did it with the tools he had to hand.

“You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

The whole of my house equates to Heminway’s ‘Paris’.  I have a jar of pencils and a notebook and have taken to writing in whatever nook or on what garden bench I fancy. It doesn’t really matter where I am, the scratch of graphite on paper is what transports me into Woolf’s ‘Room’ and shuts the door.  I’ve picked up the plot of the ghost story I was writing and begun scribbling again.  But has it changed?

I’ve not said the ‘C’ word once in this blog, but you know it’s there – that deep rumble from under our feet fuelled by the daily death count.  It says the same thing to each of us, but we interpret and react to it in different ways.  Some people defy government advice and host BBQs; some hunker down with hoards of stockpiled dry goods like survivalists; others take to social media or work or their families or baking or exercise or their pets.  As writers, we’re writing about it whether we intend to or not.  How can we not?  Even if our work in progress doesn’t relate directly to the pandemic, who we are and how we view the world has changed so our writing must too.  The words we select, the ideas we dream into chapters or verses, the plot points we find important will all contain a hint of this time, because that’s where we are and that’s what we do.  We draw on our experience and we translate. 

It’ll be interesting to see how these weekly blogs reflect our reactions to the impact of COVID-19.  Each member of the group will take a turn at writing one.  It’ll also be fascinating in the future to look back on the work we produce during this period to see whether we can detect where the virus has touched our work. 

The next Zoom meeting is on Thursday 23 April at 7pm.  For more information, email samuel.thornley@oldham.gov.uk, and follow us on Twitter at @WritingOldham for latest updates.

NaNoWriMo – Life After Addictionary

by Dan Forrester

It’s a funny time of year NaNoWriMo, just before the indulgence of December and the abstinence of January. There are stresses and distractions to come, there will be credit card bills and resolutions, but for that one month you can focus and invest yourself fully in your writing. The family will understand, your friends will forgive. For this is November: leave me alone, I’m writing.

2019 was my second time taking part in NaNoWriMo. I had heard of it before testing the water in 2018, but only in whispers around the darker corners of libraries and social media where people don’t dare tread alone. I knew vaguely what it was, but what’s the point of putting pressure on yourself to reach a ridiculous target? I already had my first novel underway, and it was going great guns. It had only taken me over two years to write half of it; at that rate I was hoping to finish most of it before the universe eventually collapsed in on itself.

But when I learned a new NaNo group was meeting at the library, I thought I would call in and see what the fuss was about. What the heck, I needed to go to Sainsburys, anyway. That meeting changed my writing life.

An admission at this point: I didn’t ‘win’ NaNo in 2018; I didn’t hit that golden 50,000 words. But I finished my novel (let’s not get too carried away, I finished the first draft). After two years, it took me less than six weeks to type ‘The End’.

And it wasn’t pressure that kept me writing that November. It wasn’t competition with other writers. It was an addiction. Every evening I would visit the NaNo website and update my word count. 1000, 750, 1200; however many words I’d written that day I could see the total creep up and it was compulsive. It was a thrill. I was no longer wading through treacle; I was riding the crest of a wave (clichés in blogs are allowed, right?).

After a few months editing my first novel, a comedy fantasy and future bestseller called Havock, it was finished, and I was itching to start my next, just in time for November 2019 and my next NaNo.

You know what? I didn’t win NaNo in 2019 either. But it doesn’t matter, NaNo gave me the momentum to get a considerable way in and the rest is up to me. Those credit card bills are now paid, the resolutions are already broken, and my goal for finishing CRABS, my second novel, scrolls across my laptop whenever I stop typing for long enough. It will be written, edited and out in the Agent-sphere before November 2020 comes around.

A novel a year; I never dreamed it before NaNoWriMo.

And the best of it? I made new friends along the way. They are writers, though; they’re a bit odd.