Getting Ready For Nano2020

by Jennifer Joyce

I joined Oldham Writing Group a year ago, just as they were getting ready for Nanowrimo. I knew what Nano was. I’d even contemplated taking part year after year, but I was always in the middle of a draft or at the editing stage of a book. I’d already started the first draft of my latest project when I joined the group, but I decided to scrap the excuses and give Nano a go. By the time Nano2019 started, I was around 20,000 words into what would become my eleventh novel, The 12 Christmases of You & Me, so if I reached the 50,000 word goal during November, I’d be very close to The End. 

And I did reach the 50,000 word goal by the end of November. I still had a bit to go until I reached The End, but I’d managed to write a massive chunk in just 30 days. I was amazed and proud of myself, but I couldn’t have done it without the encouragement and support and the community spirit of Nanawrimo and my new writing group. I finished off that last part of the first draft and, in the new year, worked on it to make it the best I could before sending it off for a professional edit. The book will be published this month and I can’t wait to share the story I (mostly) wrote during my first Nano. 

At the moment, I’m getting ready for my second go at Nano. I feel more prepared this year, more confident in my ability to get the words down, and I’m looking forward to the camaraderie of working towards that goal with the other Nano writers. Our meetings will be different this year as they’ll all be taking place on Zoom rather that at the library due to Coronavirus, but I’m sure the support and encouragement will be just the same. I’ll be starting Nano2020 with a blank Word document as I’ll be diving into a brand new project this time, and I’m busy plotting the book and getting to know my characters as much as I can before 1st November.

Death of a Dream

by Miriam Islam

Nanowrimo Is upon us once more. ‘Tis the season to be  writing tra la la la’ 
It’s the time for  literary champions and ‘pants on fire’ humans to rise again. Twas The occasion to make merry ;down the ink laden wine, and join  the characters under metaphorical mistletoe….
Please excuse all my poor Christmas puns-I’m trying to make merry amongst the literary abyss but, where was I in all this? I was, in principle, a fellow nano writer – physically and virtually attended the meetings-but where had my soul gone? 

I wanted to be part of it all so much; the pep talks, the tips exchange, raw drafting and furious scrawling, but most of all the unification of hearts like mine; a writer’s heart.  Nano meant I could finally be propelled into literary presence…complete my purpose. But it didn’t. I didn’t write anything, couldn’t seem to, or even want to. I no longer wanted to…  Why? I asked. It’s not enough to ask why;I had to explore it. 
There had been many losses to me; apparent and hidden, and the effect of it had drained away anything I had tried to create. It bought about a mindset within me that I couldn’t shake. 

I can’t write because I can no longer feel. I can’t write because I cannot attain what I write about. I can’t write because I would have to once again experience what loss feels like. 
I cannot write because too many memories are tied up with what I had been trying to convey.

I have lost my muse. I have lost the hope I had in my tale. What could I possibly add to something  I could no longer believe in. Why? Because I yearn for that which seems to elude me. 

I didn’t have any real concrete goals or solutions.  I convinced myself it didnt matter; just write anything for the hell of it…but I stuttered and stalled, because there was no wish to write how I felt.  And That’s what it was: the book somehow became about me. Me going through the character’s lives and their pain ,irrespective of being pure fiction! 
I should never have made it about me. 

And so, finally, I mused that if I could just be objective, and insensitive against my own soul, then perhaps there’s hope,and hope is always a good starting point to climb mountains.

Better Late Than Never

By Carolyn Crossley

I am so sorry to be late with this blog post, but here we are on the 15th September 2020 and NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is looming on a lot of writers’ horizons we have only one and a half months to go until launch. 

If it wasn’t for NaNo I would never have finished my first novel which has taken me more years than I care to remember to do. 

Attending the Oldham Writing Group has led me to an epiphany. My mind was in a quandary. The questions I was asking myself were: 

1. Am I a novelist who writes poems? 

2. Am I a poet who has written a novel? 

I have come to the conclusion I am the latter. Now I have come to that conclusion, I have decided this year I am a poet who writes a novella. I am aiming to write 50,000 in November, which works out at 1,667 words a day. 

I think NaNo is probably best suited to the “pantster” method of writing. A word dump that you can re-write in the edit. So that is what I am doing this year, a new project. 

I have a vague storyline fermenting in my head, two main characters and a villain so what more do I need? 

Oh yes, just the wonderful schedule our NaNo leader, Jacqueline Ward has prepared and then it is poetry on the back burner and off we go, onwards and upwards!

Plan on Winning NaNoWriMo?

by Sue Cook

I joined Oldham Writing Group a year ago. I needed to find a local group with the same goals as me, and this fitted the bill.

The first Thursday I turned up to the meeting in the library I was shell-shocked. Some of the writers had agents and publishers. Others had self-published numerous books. All were utterly focused on getting their books to market and making sales.

The group formed for NaNoWriMo support. November was fast approaching. Already they were talking about their NaNo projects. Plot outlines needed firming up. Ongoing projects needed to be cleared.

Lord knows what I said about my plans (I had none). I was out of my depth and kept looking to the guys on the sofas, eating takeaways, drinking and sleeping. I’d have felt more at home there.

I’d never entered NaNoWriMo with any sort of plan. Probably that’s why I never finished. Thanks to the others, I discovered the NaNo website has planning pages.

Determined not to be the odd one out, I downloaded the worksheets and plodded through. After all, these guys were who I wanted to be. Taking my novel writing as seriously as they did must be the first step to publication.

For the first time, I entered November with a plan for 50,000 words. I’m not talking a scene by scene plan. I had the major plot points, the steps I needed to hop between.

After much hard work, Jacqui set up an Oldham group on the NaNoWriMo website, which encouraged us to write as much as we could to repay her efforts. For the first time, I did it. I wrote those 50,000 words. The group as a whole wrote well over half a million words!

It wasn’t easy. I hit walls. Sometimes I didn’t know what to write next. But I knew where I was going, so I wrote something just to get to that next place of certainty. It’s a bit like just heading north when you want to go to Glasgow but didn’t check the map before you set off. Eventually, you’ll see a sign that will put you on the right road.

‘Winning’ NaNo is a wonderful feeling. Of course, getting to 50K is just the beginning. It’s probably not even the end of that dreadful first draft. And when you do finish your first draft, the real hard work of editing begins. 

But you can’t edit what you haven’t written. So, start early. Plan your story out. Know where you want to be by the end of November. And ideally, join a group for added accountability.

It makes sense, it really does.


by Jacqueline Ward

November means Nanowrimo. National Novel Writing Month. The time when I write 50000 words in 30 days. Which isn’t novel length, and the length isn’t the only thing that’s different.

I really look forward to November. It’s just after my birthday, just before Christmas and it’s usually cold. So when I discovered Nano many of years ago (I go back to 2006!), I was delighted that I could be both competitive and fill up some almost winter days at the same time. Oh. And write. I tried to resist last year as I was also organising write ins for Oldham NaNoWriMo year, but at the last minute I gave in and opened a brand new Word document at midnight.

I fully expected to produce just over half a novel that first time, something that could be rapidly tied with a ribbon and placed in a lovely coloured envelope and sent off to a literary agent for immediate acceptance. How little I knew back then.

What I actually got was a download of my plot, a roughed-out stream of consciousness that was neither grammatically or structurally correct. But I liked it. I did the Artist’s Way around the same time, and loved the Morning Pages, which reminded me of my adolescent diary-writing, somewhere I could write about a person I didn’t quite know yet.

Nano gives me the space to get to know my characters, their hopes, their fears. The pace helps me to keep the action steady. Most of all, it makes me write every day for a month. I write every day anyway in some capacity, report writing, article writing, planning my diary. Shopping lists. But this is different. It’s a long project and it’s fiction. I can make it up and write it down – November is freedom to create. It’s like exercise time for my writer muscle.

There’s been some critique of Nano and I can understand how some people in the publishing world try to discourage writers from submitting 50k of hastily written prose on 1st December. I’m sure that some writers do this before they know the ‘rules’ of submitting to an agent. In reality, 1st December is when the hard work of the second draft begins. 

One of the main criticisms is that it pushes writers too hard and that those who write slowly get left behind. The target is too difficult. To which I say: change the target! It’s a guideline and I’m certain that longer and short pieces of work have been produced during NaNoWriMo – and that’s just in our writing group. Taking the 50k words too literally and not doing the writing just because ‘a novel isn’t 50k words’ is creating a barrier to creativity and why limit yourself? Use NaNoWriMo to get words down with others. Use the website to chat with other writers and find out more about different writing experiences. Access the resources. It’s all free. 

NaNoWriMo has a lot of good points. It helps to form good working habits, getting the words onto the page regularly, project management, time management. I’ve estimated that for every 90k I’m happy with, I’ve probably written four times that. I started my best-selling novel Random Acts of Unkindness in Nano, but it took six years and half of it rewritten before it was finally published, so I’m not getting over-excited about this year’s effort just yet!

This year I’m starting a new project. Inspired by a Facebook post, I reimagined it and thought about how it would fit into my current ‘uplit’ writing. I am determined not to over-plan or write anything at all, even character sketches, in advance. This is going to be a pure download of words that I can push and pull into a story. It’s exciting! 

So. Onwards and upwards, into another magical November and I know that by the end of the month I will have some more imaginary friends who have come just a little bit more real.

So I was a bit rusty…

by Dan Forrester

It was my birthday last week in lockdown. I spent a lot of the day writing, as I have done with most of my time throughout lockdown when not working. My birthday was an apt moment to reflect, though, on my writing journey so far.

It seems like I’ve been writing for ages, but when you’re in your forties looking back on anything feels like a lifetime. In reality, it must be around 6 or 7 years ago I first put digital pen to paper.

I used to love writing at school. I had a succession of English teachers who really encouraged creative thinking, letting the imagination run free whether it be a story or poem, and I was in my element. Words spewed out of me without effort, characters danced as I pulled their strings and fantastic worlds sprung up out of the ground. Looking back, I doubt Shakespeare would have laid claim to any of it, but it came to me so much more naturally than long division, periodic tables or cross-country running.

Speaking of Shakespeare, discovering him was a significant turning point in my writing journey. I wish I could say it was because I fell in love with his language, cried at his sonnets, laughed at his comedies. But I didn’t get it and in all honestly it still hasn’t clicked with me. I remember a moment in an art class when my teacher explained the thinking behind Picasso’s cubism, and suddenly it made sense to me. To use a tired cliché, it was like someone flicking a light switch.

That never happened with Shakespeare. We would spend hours in class reading Romeo & Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, each pupil reading a paragraph in a succession of bored, monotonous, enthusiasm-draining drones. Is this what I should have been writing? It seemed so irrelevant. And then the death knell, the last straw: Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. Yikes. Maybe literature wasn’t for me.

As I turned to ‘proper’ subjects, I forgot about writing altogether and got on with the serious business of real life.

It was many years later than my wife and I were reminiscing about our respective school days and I mentioned I used to enjoy creative writing. It was a throwaway comment, but she seized on it immediately. ‘Why don’t you take it up again?’ she suggested. I was dubious – I had absolutely no idea how to craft a proper story or what to do with it when I had. I didn’t want to waste my time writing something if no-one would ever read it. But she convinced me: just start writing and see what happens, one step at a time.

For the first time in over two decades I wrote a short story. It was a thriller, and it was far too long, confused and lacked somewhat in the thrills department. I wrote a horror story that had more clichés than scares and tried my hand at poetry that I still insist has to rhyme or it isn’t real poetry.

But in all these attempts I was rediscovering my passion and, crucially, finding my voice. It wasn’t conscious; I didn’t know what a voice was, but it wasn’t time yet to learn the dos and don’ts; I needed to spark my imagination after all those dormant years.

Things began to fall into place when a comedy fantasy story won a competition; they judged it better than all the other entries – I had made it: I was an award-winning writer.

That meant I was ready for my first novel, right? I set to it enthusiastically. I had a fantastic title, and I would write my entire tome around that. I quickly thought up some characters and had them interacting with each other from the first page, straight into the action, no messing about.

I made it to perhaps six thousand words before I began to panic. I was losing the threads; the story wasn’t strong enough; the characters were bland; I didn’t know what the heck to do. To say the task ahead was daunting was an understatement; every new page was like a monster lurking in the gloom.

It dawned on me that writing isn’t just a matter of stringing words together to make a story; it is a craft with rules, and it was about time I learned those rules; imagination alone would not get me through it. I needed help. I read how-to books and learned about story types and character arcs, plotting and structure, and attended author talks and workshops for their tips.

As with anything, not all the advice chimed with me, but occasionally there was something that changed my entire approach. A couple of authors in particular have had a big impact on my journey and I thank them regularly (silently to myself, I’m not creepy). For what it is worth, that is my own advice to aspiring writers (other than to write, of course): attend author signings, Q&As, workshops, whatever and whenever you can. Authors are a generous breed and wisdom dies if it isn’t passed on.

I discarded my first attempt at a novel and started again, better armed and more confident. Two years later I had the finished draft of a comedy fantasy called HAVOCK. It was shortlisted in a novel prize and I won an online editing course run by Curtis Brown Creative. The timing was perfect and less than six months later the novel was finished.

By now I had my heart set on being traditionally published and that meant getting an agent. I read up on how to put a pitch package together, got myself the latest copy of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook for a list of agencies and began my targeted campaign. I’m still pushing for that breakthrough, but I know how long the process can take.

During NaNoWriMo last year I started my second novel CRABS, a comedy spy thriller set in London’s seedy underbelly, and the first draft was complete within six months.

The change of pace was partly down to experience – this time I didn’t have the same paralysing fear of the task ahead that I had writing my first novel – but I also can’t ignore the part that lockdown has played.

No more time spent commuting to and from work. No more evenings mooching along the country lanes after work. No more trips to the cinema at the weekend, or being dragged around the shops. I closed one laptop, changed rooms, and opened another. Then I wrote, read, edited, cried and wrote again. The wife still talked at me, but I have long since learned to agree with her by judging her tone of voice and either nodding or shaking my head with a sympathetic tut.

But throughout it all, since the fateful day she nagged (I mean suggested) I write again, Angie has encouraged me through the difficult times, through the rejections and the brick walls, to keep going. To keep writing.

I have a lot of work ahead before CRABS is the finished article, and then it is out to the agent-sphere and onto novel number three which is impatiently knocking at the door. It never stops, this writing lark. I wish I had mentioned to my wife that day how much I love going to the pub.

Where it all began

by Miriam Islam

Let me start off this post by confessing that I won’t be sharing any writing tips, insights or anything about my writing journey during this period as I haven’t done anything. I haven’t written anything at all, new or old. I hang my head in shame, considering this is a post on a Writers group… but it’s true. 

I had been hoping time in Lockdown would change the way I use time, but unfortunately it seemed to have the reverse effects: I became mentally exhausted and sick of trying to achieve a writing goal. In fact, I developed the belief that its not worth writing my story – I don’t believe in my ability anymore – therefore I should just stop trying. However, something else surprising happened. I lost hope in my previous tale but I regained something else; a new idea to write about. A reason to write.

Taking several steps back to how I got to that, I need to relay my mindset during lockdown…  It was very different having the kids at home all day every day. Challenging and riddled with setbacks; losing my job, and my children all fell quite ill, and I had to deal with every one of their symptoms and emotions whilst suppressing my own fears and anxieties. It was a very uncertain new way of living

Eventually, we got through the worst of it, and that lonely feeling of being a ‘leper’ dissipated as I realised we were all fighting the same battle. Nothing else mattered, because my kids were now healthy and safe – with me – at home.  

Sure, I wasn’t the best teacher, and couldn’t develop a regimented timetable at first, but I loved reading fairy tales with my children and watching their favourite films with them.  We devised stories and theories of our own.  I tried commenting (constructively of course) on their work, and revisiting basic maths concepts, and failing miserably with ‘some’ shape names and metric conversions, much to their delight and my mortification.  Yes, I wasn’t the best artist or a crafts person, nor good at baking, but we muddled our way through making different Pies, wraps and desserts,  and decided upon a time to pursue  a long neglected  passion of mine: painting.  

Thus, we planned, discussed, sulked, disagreed on boundaries and tech times, but we, and they, became closer as siblings and thus, slowly, slowly my guilts as a parent eroded. So every night was Movie night, and every day I was a wannabe teacher, and a new chef trying out different dishes. I was also an ‘uncool’ embarrassing mum who spoke to their teachers, did silly dance moves and wrestled with them, ruffled their hair, and planted huge kisses on them, which they would wipe away with surprised smiles. 

 It was through Lockdown that we created ‘us‘ moments and significant memories. We came to an understanding about each other, and what the new reality was.  And, dare I say, that a quiet sense of peace and happiness descended upon me.  I was actually enjoying this new, slower pace of life as it provided the perspective and breather that I hadn’t realised that I needed.

As horrifying and painful it was to hear about the constant deaths I was too relieved about my own children pulling through to give too much thought about the thousands who had been directly affected by death, and I cocooned myself into my own happy bubble. But there was one thought that didn’t quite leave me: the moral injustice to society and our civil liberties being stripped by the very persons who advocated and violated them.

Many unjust atrocities occurred before and after the scandal of Dominic Cummings; people dying without their loved ones unable to be present, families torn apart, domestic violence, child abuse and divorce cases rising sharply, and last but not least the George Floyd murder and Black Lives matter movement. Many truths were emerging.  People were kind, people cared, people gave, and were willing to help the needy, but the people were enraged. People misbehaved and became like caged animals and reacted to every situation. Was it out of fear or anger? 

It got me thinking about a very fundamental concept: Power. The imbalance of unspoken rules passed from top to bottom. I can, you can’t. Why? Who said you could?  How was it granted? Who created the power? The powerful or the overpowered?  I’m trying to understand this:  What gives one more power over another? Surely it can’t be knowledge or status alone. Who or what gives one person more right to exert power over another if both are of same composition i.e. flesh n blood

The questions were driving me mad. Where did such concepts originate from? And so I had to break it down to the most individualistic, simplistic form: Childs play. 

‘I want your toy, and I am going to take it.’ ‘My doll is better than yours.’

Inner School politics. ‘I’ve got Nike trainers. I’ve got an iPhone… I’m not on school dinners…Well if you want to be like us…’  The exchange of looks; the narrowing of eyes, laced with disdain and contempt. The wounded looking downcast at their shoes, wishing they weren’t who they were. It’s a cruel tale of suffering to someone close to my heart.

So, where did this Us vs Them arise from? What enables or spurs on a young child to think that they should, and can take someone else’s toy just because they want to?  There is no acquiring of education or wealth here, is there?  It’s simply the feeling of entitlement. So where does that arise from? 
And that’s when my dormant literary light bulb burst into flames. I suddenly felt compelled to write a story – a children’s story – about the beginnings of power imbalances between people. I had even thought of a simple title: ‘I want your toy’ but… I don’t even know where to start, and how to write or what to write… * sigh* …but I honestly hope I can write it, one day.

Why I Write

by Wendy Burgess

Another week passes by and it’s my turn to write the blog post. Going off the posts that have gone before it’s a tough act to follow. I’ve spent quite a few hours this week trying to think about what I would write. Not easy, for me. I’d rather write volumes of made up stuff than something factual but that’s just the way my little brain cell works.

Thinking about my poor little brain cell and what to write made me think about why I started writing. To try and figure that out we have to go back into the dark and dusty shadows of the past, dodging the curtains of cobwebs along the way.

I’m a person that I think people would possibly describe as a reclusive introvert. My mother was very protective of me growing up, possibly because she and my stepfather owned a sub-post office and they saw lots of information that today would be classified as private with a big red stamp. 

Anyway, as a result I didn’t have the freedoms that other children my age had – no playing out dawn ‘til dusk, no sleepovers at a friend’s house or going anywhere, really. If I wasn’t at school I was either in the back room of the post office playing with my impressive collection of farm animals or I was in my bedroom reading. This lack of interaction with others led to me becoming a person happy to sit in the corner or on the edge of a group, an observer rather than a participant (unless there’s a dog involved but that’s another story).

For as long as I can remember I have been a bookworm. As addicted to the printed word as an addict is to their poison of choice. One of my earliest memories is being allowed a Mister Man book from Woolworths if I was good. Childhood favourites were Famous Five, Secret Seven, Five Go On An Adventure and the Black Stallion series. At Junior School, one favourite book that had to be taken from the library every year was Ivanhoe. Every time the film was on television I read the book and that was my graduation from kid books to adult ones.

I read tv books of my favourite shows, Airwolf, Knight Rider and the A-Team and discovered the love of reading about the Old West with Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey after watching John Wayne and Randolph Scott on television. 

By the time I left junior school to start senior school childhood books were just sitting on a shelf taking up space. Action and adventure called to me and I quickly tumbled down their trails. Robert E Howard introduced me to Conan the Barbarian and the realms of fantasy. Alexander Kent taught me about magnificent sailing ships when England ruled the waves. My mind soaked it all up but I wanted more.

One of the highlights of my childhood was our annual holiday to Morecambe (yes, Morecambe holiday mecca of the north west!). Morecambe may be Blackpool’s poor relation but they had lots of newsagents that sold books cheaper than bookshops and some were American. I discovered romance (which was okay) but also the bodice ripper with knights in shining armour, fast shooting gunfighters, ruthless pirates and savage Vikings. Dragons soared the skies whilst spaceships travelled the galaxies. Johanna Lindsey and Shirlee Busbee were my new best friends and I would disappear for hours in those new worlds.

The more my brain absorbed those printed words the more my mind imagined scenes played out in the locations introduced to me. When I was 11 I got my first typewriter and I was soon pounding the keys with two fingered enthusiasm as I typed out what my mind played in my head. I remember feeling rather pleased that I’d managed to write a 3000 word story back then.

Westerns, Pirate, Medieval or Fantasy. There was no set genre that I wrote about. The only raw ingredients were adventure, action and a happy ever after. My typing skills improved to two fingers on each hand instead of one and I built up quite a bit of speed. Story after story poured out until I was starting to reach the 10000 plus mark. Not bad considering I was still at school.

After leaving school I got a job and then got married. The urge to read and write faded away as other tasks filled my time but they never truly disappeared. Soon the shelves were filling with books, something my then husband could not understand as he liked to get his books from the library rather than buy and keep them. As my mind filled with their words my imagination fired to life and soon it was a computer screen recording my creations rather than pages and pages of typed print.

Using a computer also opened up new worlds to me – writing sites and online book stores. The former led me to wonderful sites like NaNoWriMo and writing groups such as Oldham Writing Café whilst the latter introduced me to new authors with new worlds to tempt me. Sherrilyn Kenyon, Christine Feehan, JR Ward, Rebecca Zanetti and Dianne Duvall introduced me to vampires, werewolves, demons and the magic of ancient mythology. New worlds to explore and create.

Going to writing groups encouraged me to look at sharing my work and pushing myself even further. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) was the perfect challenge for me – a 50000 word novel in 30 days. Bring it on!

Of course, it does help if your novel stays around the 50000 word mark so you can actually say that you have something finished to look into publishing. Mine just grew and grew until, after my tenth year of participating, I actually had one finished. I did it over two sessions of Nano rather than writing a new story and spent long hours staring at my computer screen as words filled page after page. Over 140000 of them, words that is not pages. Think I’d keel over in shock if it was pages. As it was, it was still a surprise to see that total when I typed The End.

Now the hard work starts as I try and learn the craft of editing. Writing the stories was so much more fun than editing but I found myself learning even more as I attempted to turn my rambling text into something that people might want to read, maybe. It also started the voices in my head as I really dug into my story. Those other characters who wanted a book of their own. That plot in the background that was spreading into book 2 and 3 and so on. But that’s for another day.

Why do I write? Initially I would have said it was to provide an outlet for the voices that sprung up when I read. However, writing creates more voices so it doesn’t really solve that problem. It does, however, give me a chance of creating my own worlds to explore and get lost in. To try out different character types, new environments or even made up words of some alien language. It allows me to escape my isolated existence and immerse myself for hours in worlds and periods that will never be experienced in real life. That’s why I write.

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.


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. – the pessimist’s guide to writing cheerfully

Twitter – @popsytops