At the end of 2018 I declared 2019 My Year of Writing. I was going to stop faffing about, stop ‘thinking’ about writing and get on with it.
I decided to write about what was helpful for me during my writing process in 2019 – also so that I can remember it. Often we are so focussed on looking to the future, that we forget all the different steps that it took to get there – wherever there is…
Thinking about writing and talking about writing is not actually, you know – writing. Time waits for no woman. The past few years I’ve had so many ideas for books and felt pulled in numerous directions. Just choose one I told myself repeatedly. For example, what could be more straightforward than writing a non-fiction book about the topics raised in my podcast ‘Unclassified Woman’ featuring inspiring childless and childfree women around the world. I feel passionately about the topic and have plenty to say. Easy right? But what if the book you think you should be writing is not the book that wants to be written by you? Bear with me.
January 2019 dawned. I felt extremely grown up buying a white board and magnets for the first time in my life.
I brainstormed chapter headings onto index cards (all serious writers use index cards you know) and committed to work with a writing coach for accountability in February. I even painted an old writing desk and created a ‘writing nook’ where I could gaze out the window at the sky when in need of inspiration. (Ironically, I’ve since realised that being at home is too distracting, so I’m more productive first thing in the morning at the my favourite coffee spots – Natural Food Store, Beacon Coffee or Good Vibes, all in Falmouth).
I downloaded a free trial of Scrivener after seeing it recommended by numerous writers. I wanted to try it out and see what it was like. I love it! I couldn’t envisage typing everything into a Word doc trying to scroll back and forth, even though I know some writers do. Just the thought of that seemed overwhelming. Many writers say they prefer working in Scrivener. After watching a couple of free tutorials, I could see its potential and I loved the way I could have a list of scenes or chapters all visible on the screen. The ability to write chapters and sections out of order and drag them around sold it to me. Hey finally it was happening. I had loads of material and I was taking action. No more excuses and procrastination for me. (full disclosure: I am an affiliate for Scrivener as it’s been life-changing).
This is where everything changed and the best laid plans went out the window. Kind of like life right?
I completed a short story exercise of around 800 words, inspired by a traumatic real-life event ….and kept going. Even though the springboard to start the story was based on my own experience of a miscarriage and marriage breakdown, the story took on a life of its own. All of a sudden, words were flowing out of me. It was cathartic and a revelation. I had no idea where this story was leading me. By the end of June 2019, I had around 90,000 words of a first draft. Yes really. Remember that a first draft is vomiting the words out onto the page for yourself and is not really for anyone else’s eyes. A first draft is not ‘a book’. Once you have a first draft, then you have something to work with and kick into shape. Everyone’s process is different as is the number of drafts a writer writes. How long is a piece of string?
Synchronicity after synchronicity unfolded in relation to these real-life locations where my story features and started to become, dare I say, commonplace. Marazion, St Michael’s Mount, the Scottish Highlands, Le Mont St Michel, St Mary’s in the Scilly Isles and more. I was dreaming about my characters and from the outset I could see which actors would play the roles in my dream film version. Those index cards for the non-fiction board came down off my white board (currently gathering dust in a drawer that I may go back to one day) and were replaced by images of my cast of characters and the timeline of the story.
I continued with my writing coaching over a few months but of course we’d switched tactics and now it was all fiction/novel writing related – quite different to non-fiction.
My childhood dream was to write fiction and I was an avid reader, from the minute I learnt to read and always had to read until the end (often with a torch under my bedclothes). Like millions of other children I was immersed in stories of Mallory Towers by Enid Blyton (set in Cornwall where I’m now living). I felt strongly about this writing goal until around my late teens, when I naturally became distracted, exploring the fabulous nightclubs of Manchester with my friends, boys and alcohol in the 80’s. Writing a novel fell by the wayside.
I revisited writing fiction again briefly when I moved to Sydney in the late 90’s. I even went so far as to start writing the first draft of a novel about a stalker called Pete (pervy Pete), who was obsessed with a local policewoman. Truly, it was awful so it’s just as well that it never saw the light of day. I found a few pages of it in a box last year and couldn’t stop laughing and cringing at how dreadful it was. However, I enjoyed my experience with The Writer’s Studio facilitated by Roland Fishman. I had an interesting weekend with them in Leura in the Blue Mountains where I didn’t get any sleep as the old priest’s cottage I was staying in was haunted. I could hear footsteps of someone walking up and down inside my room, next to my bed all night. I’m not kidding – but that’s another story and hey maybe I could explore that that one day… If you’re in Australia, check them out.
So here I am now up to my eyeballs doing the ‘gruntwork’ of sorting out structure after learning that I’ve been more of a ‘pantser’ rather than a ‘plotter’ or ‘planner’. There is no one right way. There’s only what works for you. However, it became increasingly clear that well-crafted novels have some form of structure and certain components that ensure the story ‘works’. Otherwise it’s not a ‘story’ and more of a stream of consciousness. Who knew it was sooo technical?
If writing a novel is something that you’re considering, check out these encouraging resources.
Writing is a solitary business. We’re all a bit strange, going into a world of our own creation and often preferring it to the one around us. It can be lonely and there are days (weeks and months) when it all seems overwhelming and we wonder ‘is this is the worst thing that’s ever been written?’. I made a conscious effort to connect online with like-minded people and signed up to a few fantastic 6 week short courses with Curtis Brown Creative, an international literary agency with their own creative writing school. It consists of instruction videos, downloadable sheets, recommended reading resources and specific task broken down each week, relating to the subject matter. It’s very engaging, clear and professionally taught by Anna Davis, full of invaluable tips of ‘what not to do’, as well as well as ‘how to’. Listening to the ‘what not to do’ is just as important and I laughed at some of the examples given by Literary Agents in the ‘Edit and Pitch Your Novel’ course of common mistakes. Invaluable information before you consider going down that long road of potential rejections.
One of the most enjoyable aspects was the online forum, where I shared responses to written tasks with the other participants (from around the world) and received constructive feedback. I also throughly enjoyed reading other writers work and offering positive input. It was so valuable to have objective suggestions when feeling stuck or uncertain whether a particular piece of writing works. The other participants are people who are on the same page, pun intended, who understand how you feel about your writing and the ups and downs it entails. I connected with some amazingly talented people, whose books I’m certain I will see on the bookshelves in the not-too-distant future.
Writerly Inspiration: Victor Hugo
I’m always fascinated by writers’ writing rituals and spaces. In August 2019 I was fortunate to be in Guernsey for a few days and visited Victor Hugo’s old home, Hauteville House, where he lived when he was in exile from France in the 1850’s. A prolific author, poet, playwright and visionary designer, the decoration of the house itself is a staggering work of genius. Yes this is the house where he wrote Les Misérables, amongst other fabulous creations. A true visionary, he intuitively knew that his manuscript of Les Mis was something special and would be one of the peaks of his career.
I already knew he was a Piscean chap and whilst at Hauteville I discovered that we share the same birthday, so I asked old Hugo, my birthday twinnie to help me out when I get stuck. Fingers crossed.
No surprise that he was a water baby when you look at his ‘writing nook’, a sun room with an outlook over the ocean, towards the French coastline, that he missed so much. He used to stand in the right hand corner by the window, gazing out the window and write in his note book.
Let’s not forget the other classic that he’s well known for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which attracted so many visitors to Notre Dame Cathedral, keen to see the source of his inspiration, that it raised huge amounts of money for much needed repairs.
The guide told us that after Hugo’s daughter tragically drowned when she was 19, he was so grief stricken that he didn’t write for many years. Yet when taking into account the volume of his work, despite having a substantial break, his output seems extraordinary. I’m always amazed when I consider how writers managed to produce so much work in ye olden days, without any of the technology that we are spoilt with today. On the flip side, I suppose they weren’t bombarded with as many distractions, or not the same type of distractions. They must have also had to be incredibly organised with time management, writing during daylight hours or struggle by candlelight with a quill and ink pot.
Writing Retreat: Isles of Scilly
In September 2019, I travelled to the Tresco at the Isles of Scilly for a short writing retreat, facilitated by the lovely Hannah Dennison, mystery writer and author of Honeychurch Hall and Vicky Hill mystery series. What a stunning location, only twenty eight miles off the coast of Cornwall. I realised how few people were familiar with one of the UK’s best kept secrets when each time I mentioned where I was going, I received the response ‘have a great time in Sicily.’
St Mary’s Island is one of the beautiful locations that features in my story and so I was pondering how it would be great to visit for a couple of days. I typed in the words ‘writing retreat’ and ‘Isles of Scillly’ into Google and Hannah’s retreat popped up and was taking place a few months later. I emailed her straight away. I took the short flight (twenty minutes) from Land’s End airport to St Mary’s Island. I spent a few nights in the Star Castle Hotel for research purposes, as it features in my story. A walk around the ramparts and a drink in the Dungeon Bar is a must.
I’ve never seen as much sea glass in my life as on Porthmellon beach. I then caught the ferry to Tresco island, another stunning island, that can’t fail to fire up the imagination and stayed at the fantastic New Inn, which I recommend. And how many readers or writers could resist staying in a place called Reading Room Cottage?
I believe that Hannah will be running another writing retreat on Tresco in September 2020, so if you are feeling the call – listen. You won’t regret it. Impossible not to feel inspired in such a place overflowing with natural beauty.
A voracious reader, one of my favourite pastimes is reading location-based fiction, whilst I’m in situ. For me, there’s nothing quite like reading a novel, immersing myself in a character’s world in the actual location the story is set. A travel lover and a book worm – well clearly I love escapism. Early one morning, as I was out exploring Tresco, I was happy to come across another terrible view, depicting the cover of the detective novel I was reading, one of Kate Rhodes’ series.
It was my first visit to the Isles of Scilly, but it won’t be my last. A writing retreat was the perfect reason to travel there, but no excuse is needed and I can understand why so many people I met there, return year after year. An intimate, international group of writers travelled from the UK, USA and Berlin to gather together and we had a very special time. Mornings were spent discussing various components and elements of writing a mystery story and our afternoons comprised of sight seeing or one-on-one sessions with Hannah. Elements of mystery and intrigue are important, regardless of what genre you may be writing. Again it was a great reminder of how important it is to feel supported by a writing community, during a a very solitary activity.
Self-doubt is part of the experience. To ensure that I’m consciously giving myself lots of positive reinforcement, especially on the days when I feel as though everything I write is a load of shit, these are some resources I’ve found helpful.
There are hundreds of ‘how to write a novel’ books. It’s so subjective that I won’t mention the ones that I couldn’t get through, even if they are ‘recommended’ and ‘popular’. A few books I found insightful are below. I use Book Depository because of FREE Worldwide postage.
On Writing by Stephen King – an amusing book that is partly auto-biographical and partly helpful tips for writers. Stephen has a very dry sense of humour. I also enjoyed this short video clip with some of Stephen’s writing tips.
Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody – This was the first book I read about structure that actually engaged me, instead of sending me to sleep. Jessica is very generous and gives plenty of examples from popular novels and movies to illustrate story ‘beats’. I enjoyed this book so much that I then enrolled in her online video course where she explains in more detail each of the steps. Loved it. Great to go back to when feeling stuck (regularly) or needing to revisit a draft with fresh eyes that you’ve already written.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott – a down-to-earth, no nonsense honest account of Anne’s experiences and wisdom from what she’s learnt over the years. Inspiring yet realistic in that she stresses there is no great ‘secret’ apart from sitting down and getting on with it. Very enjoyable.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron – a classic international best seller for good reason. It deals with creativity recovery and there are a gazillion meet-up groups worldwide who work through the book together. Thought provoking in also exploring our creative wounds, instilled in childhood and giving ourselves permission to be creative again. You can work through each chapter week-by-week as a self-study course, which is how I worked my way through it the first time I read it in 2000.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert – I’ve always enjoyed what Elizabeth Gilbert has to stay about writing and creativity. I’ve seen her speak a couple of times in Sydney and she’s always humorous and relatable. She also created a podcast of her own called Magic Lessons a few years ago that I enjoyed.
Twitter (Let’s connect at @MichelleMMcGr)
Love it or hate it, it seems that most writers (if they want to be published) need to build some sort of ‘platform’. (I know that sounds wanky). Twitter is a mine of information for all things writing and publishing related. Don’t forget it’s essentially a huge search engine – hence the trusty hashtag # that is used for specific themes and topics, including connecting with fellow writers. Have a look at #writingcommunity and #amwriting. If you’re seeking advice you can research writing festivals and creative writing courses. Further down the track you can find potential beta readers, editors, agents and publishers. Many agents have their own Twitter accounts and share their authors’ work and releases on there. Have a read of the acknowledgements page in your favourite novels as many authors thank their agents on there and you can get an idea of the sort of genres and stories that a particular agent is interested in. Check out some of who I’m following for ideas. There are some great Twitter threads and discussions that take place and it’s also a good way to find out about writing competitions. It’s handy for seeking out manuscript assessment services, which I will be looking at later in 2020. I’ll share my findings in a later post.
A favourite author on Twitter is Joanne Harris (see @joannechocolat) who generously shares writing tips regularly on topics such as #TenThingsAboutWritingFood or #TenThingsAboutAgents or #TenThingsAboutSubplots or #TenThingsAboutTheFear or #TenThingsAboutOpeningLines as examples.
Sam Missingham of The Empowered Author @EmpoweredAuthor shares lots of helpful resources, including information about self-publishing and marketing your book.
The Society of Authors @Soc_of_Authors are a UK based union for writers and illustrators sharing all sorts of constructive information, including courses and events.
Will Dean – Forest Author – British author, living in a Swedish forest. He generously sharing his experiences about writing, the publishing industry, getting an agent etc. If you love a good thriller and y0u’ve not yet read ‘Dark Pines’ and the rest of Tuva’s adventures, then I highly recommend.
Joanna Penn & James Scott Bell – A great conversation about how to write effective dialogue which is much more difficult than it seems! Joanna Penn is a fiction and non-fiction writer and a productivity machine. She shares so many great resources so it’s really a good idea to sign up to her newsletter too.
Jericho Writers – Constructive advice about all components of writing and publishing. They offer manuscript assessments and host ‘The Festival of Writing’ in York in September. They send out an informative newsletter with helpful advice about all aspects of writing.
Diana Gabaldon (creator of Outlander) on her writing process
Five Writing Tips from Margaret Atwood
Ted Talks about writing and creativity
Joanne Harris – Changing the world, one story at a time.
Anne Lamott – 12 truths I learnt from life and writing
Elizabeth Gilbert – Success, failure and the drive to keep creating
Writing related Podcasts I enjoy – particularly on days where I don’t feel motivated and I’m ready to give up.
The Secret Library with Caro Donohue
So I hope there are some helpful resources for you here, in amongst my rambling. I’d love to hear below in the comments what else you’ve found useful in successfully completing a novel?
What I’ve realised is that the most important tool of all is my own commitment and motivation. There aren’t any short cuts, I’m gutted to report. It’s hard work and time consuming and we all have the same number of hours in a day, but it’s how we choose to spend them. The truth is that I’ve let other distractions fall away in the past year as I realised that I’m too easily diverted and disciplined routines are not a strength of mine. I love these very wise words from Marian Keyes here. NB she says: there’s no wrong way to write a book.
I believe that one of the worst feelings in the world is – regret. Regret for the things we haven’t said or done, rather than what we HAVE said or done. I guess this post is a very long-winded way of saying that regardless of what we intend, much of the creative process is a mystery and it will always be unique to you. Who knows where we’ll end up, regardless of the starting point.
So if your dream is to write a novel, take a small step towards it now and I will be cheering you on!