‘Once over lightly’?

At one of the first residential writing courses I went on, many years ago, the special guest one evening was a published author – one novel – who was invited to talk to us about his writing process. He seemed quite grumpy and I wondered if he’d been having a bad day. From what he told us, however, it sounded as if every day was a bad day. ‘Writing is hell’ was the main headline of his remarks. ‘I don’t why I do it. Once the first book was out they were badgering me for another one, and it’s like pulling teeth.’ This is not verbatim, but that was the gist. I wasn’t the only one who wished he had stpulling-teethayed at home.

This miserable bloke’s writing process was as follows. Every day he would write a sentence or two, struggling over every word until he was satisfied with it. Then he would stop, presumably exhausted. The next day he would read over what ever he’d written so far, agonise over it again, and write another sentence. And so on until he’d finished. Really? To this day I suspect he was making that up. But maybe that’s truly the way some people write: intensive and painfully slow, as if they were writing a poem.

On the sixth novel now, if I have a preferred writing process it has probably by now established itself. Needless to say, my process differs somewhat from that described above. The bloke appeared to have lost the will to live, unless that too was a wind up, and I would have felt the same if that was my daily routine.

I’ve talked before about the planning process, but let’s assume that I have a rough idea about each chapter, the key points and scenes, and what it contributes to the whole story. (By the way, if the chapter doesn’t contribute anything, then what’s the point of it?) With a few pointers to the shape and focus of the chapter I’ll start to write, quite fast. Sometimes I correct typos etc as I go along, sometimes I leave them and correct them all on the second reading. If the ideas are clear I can rattle along for quite a while, several hundred words. Something will halt the flow and I’ll stop and go back. This is the first edit, checking for continuity and consistency, improving poor phrasing, finding better words, correcting obvious errors.

At this point I often go back to the plan for the current chapter, or possibly previous ones, noting that something will need changing. Or I look at future chapters which are now taking a slightly different direction. If there are past pieces to change, I tend to do them straight away, before I lose the detailed focus. That done, on we go, more fast writing and then stop, go back, adjust, edit. A four thousand word chapter might be written in sections like this, one after the other, and pretty fast. When it’s going well I can write a chapter in a day.

There’s a very strong tendency to feel dissatisfied with the whole thing as you get beyond Act 1, when the setting is established and the story should be driving forward. I always ask myself at this point, is this story worth telling? If I wallow in this indecision for too long, or try to get feedback too early, the enterprise could quickly grind to a halt. It’s all about confidence: without confidence there’s no energy, and without energy there’s no progress. So I tell myself to stop worrying too much at this early stage and just keep going. The time for serious reflection, feedback and discussion with ones-self and others is when this first fast draft is finished. In terms of painting a picture it’s ‘once over lightly’ and then stand back and look hard at the emerging work.

The fine detail can be added, in what is now the third, or even fourth edit. If greater depth is needed for a character this can be provided with just a few more or different words or actions. A potentially confusing piece of plot can be fixed with a sentence or two. Once the whole work is ‘visible’ all sorts of extra touches, colour, fine tuning – call it what you will – can be added. Details of weather, prevailing atmosphere, smells, details, all of these can be added, so long as they don’t affect the storyline too much. When all that is done, the work is clearly an improvement on what you started with, and probably pretty close to the final version, although more polishing will continue until the set deadline is upon you. Without a deadline, you could polish for ever and drive yourself nuts, or at least I could. Part of the art of editing is knowing when to stop.

The contrast with the painstaking misery of our guest writer could hardly be greater. I wonder if he ever finished that novel?


When is the author not really the author?

Two things are on my mind about this question: both of them were prompted by recent encounters with writers.

The first example comes from an author explaining his/her writing process. This writer finishes the first draft and gives it to three ‘readers’ for comment. Their suggestions are incorporated into the next draft, which then goes to the ‘editor’ for further suggestions, and here again some at least of these are used to produce the third draft.


In this particular case, the text has now been developed by five people, but still it is considered to have been ‘authored’ by the original writer, who said –  in jest? –  that the names of all those who had contributed should perhaps be on the cover alongside the author’s name.

It may have been a throwaway remark, but it provoked my question about when the author’s apparent work is more, or less, than the author’s actual work.

In this particular case, the author is very well known and sells huge numbers of books all around the world. The first readers the author uses are people responsible for selling the author’s books in various countries. It is in their interests, therefore, for the book to be as attractive as possible, to increase the sales and their profits. They would not expect payment or acknowledgement for their work, as they are actually employed to maximise sales, and might even benefit financially from doing so.

The editor’s role is slightly different, one assumes, and concerned with the intrinsic quality of the book rather than only its commercial appeal. Prompted by the editor, more rewrites are undertaken by the author, and after some further discussion and polishing the text is sent for the final stages of editing and proof-reading. When it is printed and sold the author might/will acknowledge the role and assistance of all these people, but the reader will still believe that the author with their name on the cover actually wrote the book. In fact, it was most likely the author’s name, not the title, cover or subject matter, that made the reader buy the book. It has almost become a conspiracy of silence, to preserve the image of the author’s sole responsibility for the book’s final form.

The other nudge to my thinking about this issue was a recent journalistic fracas surrounding an article about a well-known British ‘celebrity’. This person had written a  new book and as part of the promotion was interviewed by a journalist. When the piece was complete, the celebrity and her agent leaned on the publishing editor of the magazine to change the article, to make it more favourable to the image they wanted to project and include more positive reference to the book. The journalist was outraged that this was agreed and her article was changed in this way, without her consent – so outraged that she insisted that her name be removed.

OK, these are different ‘genres’ of writing with different protocols. A key difference is that in the first case the author requests and welcomes amendments to her work, and in the second case the amendments were neither sought not agreed. But clearly the line between apparent and actual authorship is being blurred, and in each case the reader is probably unaware of what has happened behind the scenes.

Does it matter? Is the reader being duped?

Point of view and ‘peripheral vision’

I had an eye test this week. ‘Excellent peripheral vision’, said the optician after I looked for the flashing lights at the edges of the screen, pressing the button whenever I saw one. Have you done that test? It’s like a game.So, that means that I can see what’s happening away from the centre of my vision. Maybe that extends to my writing too.

As I carried on ‘plotting’ over the past few days, I wondered whether I am too interested in the ‘peripherals’, that is what’s happening away from the main action of my story, at the expense of the principal storyline. That was the problem with the first novel I ever wrote. What about ‘point of view’? said my ‘professional critic. And it was a fair question. In every scene, what caught my eye was someone at the edge of the action, watching, listening, thinking, reacting. That felt right to me as the writer, but I was persuaded that the reader might find it confusing. So I try now to decide at the beginning of each chapter, whose shoulder am I sitting on in this scene? Sometimes the POV might switch from one paragraph to the next within a single chapter, but that would be rare and deliberate, not continual and accidental as it had been in the first draft of ‘A Good Liar’. I think maintaining that discipline has probably been helpful, but I still yearn for the ‘triangulation’ you can get when the same events are witnessed and commented on by a range of people.

As I prepare to start writing the first full draft of Book 5, I wonder whether I can experiment a little this time: have my previous four books given me permission to push against the constraints of style without losing my readers? Life is complex: the same events can be perceived quite differently by different participants.

We’ll see. As the starting point of writing gets closer I find myself itching to get going, now that the planning and research is almost done. And you know where my cursed peripheral vision is taking me now? Even before I’ve started on writing Book 5, I’m thinking about Book 6.

Stop it, Ruth. Focus. Focus.




My first writing workshop, Jan 17th, Kendal Library

Well, actually, it’s not quite my first. That was at the Borderlines Festival in Carlisle in September – which was a great book festival, by the way – but it was only an hour and a half, not long enough to do anything substantial. Even so, I enjoyed it so much that I really want to have another go, for a few hours this time. I picked the middle of January to connect with people who feel that writing fiction is on their New Year’s resolution list, or whatever intellectual bucket list they carry in our heads and hearts. For me it was the approach of a big birthday that made me think that life is short: instead of just thinking about writing a novel it was definitely time to get started.

So Saturday January 17th was my pick for a date, when 2015 is beckoning. What about a venue? I’m not sure how many people may be interested, so I didn’t want to commit an expensive venue with the pressure of a deadline. Cumbria library service has been very supportive to my wring and publishing, and Kendal library has a good space and helpful people, so that was the decision. Despite all the uncertainties of an untried enterprise, I’m really clear what I want to do during those few hours. Looking back on my own choices, what has mattered to me most as a writer in the past five years has been balancing character, plot and setting and do justice to all three. I’m a good teacher, so with those goals in mind I can put together a learning experience that will – hopefully – motivate, inform and encourage people who like me feel they have a story to tell and need a place to start. And then there’s the business of getting published: I have plenty of advice to offer about that, from hard personal experience. The workshop is called ‘Writing and Publishing a Novel’, and I’ll be interested to see how much time participants will want to spend on each of these two aspects. For me, logic dictates that writing something of real quality has to come first: what’s the point in self-publishing something that isn’t as good as it can be?

So, Kendal Library it is, on Saturday January 17th, from 9.45 to 3.15 with a short break for lunch. Five or so hours is not much but it’s start, and we’ll see how it goes. When it came to a decision about a fee, I had some interesting choices to juggle. To get something similar in London would cost a lot, and with travel on top, but that would be led by a recognised ‘name’ in the business. My books sell well across Cumbria, but I couldn’t call myself a ‘name’ even here, so why would anyone want to come, and how much might they be prepared to pay? In the end I opted for £30, and bring your own lunch. Apart from the cost of a catered lunch you get into all sorts of paperwork about dietary needs and options, and it would be so much easier and more convenient to ask people to bring a sandwich, or a salad, or some leftovers for midday nourishment and let the real business of the day be about the writing, not the eating. Will anybody come? Some will, they’ve already signed up. The main problem will be letting people know that it’s on, and you can help if you read as far as this, if you know someone who lives within reach of Kendal and might enjoy the experience.

Which brings me to the thorny issue of marketing, the self-publishers hardest task. Some local bookshops will carry a poster but others will not. The libraries will advertise, but BBC Radio Cumbria can’t do so, except for local community events, and this workshop doesn’t qualify as that. The local papers might carry something, but if it’s too early it’ll get swallowed in the tide of Christmas stuff. So I think I need to wait until after Christmas, when people are beginning to think about the year ahead. Will it work? I don’t know. I know I can help adults learn something new, because that’s my life’s work, but the business of marketing is still a learning experience for me. I’ll have to be prepared to fail before I succeed – that’s how learning works. If you want to come, by the way, you can go to the ‘Events’ section of my website, sign up and pay online with Paypal. Or you can email me direct on ruth@ruthsutton.co.uk. Couldn’t be simpler, and it could be the first step on a road that will give you as much pleasure as it’s giving me.

Character, Complexity and Point of View

Weeks ago I thought the outline for Book 4 was almost finished: just the odd twist here. or an extra chapter there and it was done, waiting to be fleshed out in all its detail in the first draft. Then I had to step away for a while to focus on another project and when I returned to it, I lost confidence. Everything looked trite, predictable, and some of the characters felt wooden and two-dimensional.

So I controlled my impatience to get started, ready or not, and went back to basics, taking each of the characters and writing character studies: what does this person look and sound like, how do they dress, walk, eat? Where were they born and raised, what motivates them, what do they aspire to or fear? What will they do in certain situations, and ow will they relate to the other characters they encounter?

That’s a really useful exercise, but these deeper rounder characters are now so engaging that they demand many more pages to do them justice, and each wants their own voice, or ‘Point of View’.

I love the idea of multiple points of view, with even minor characters able to provide their individual perspective and version of events, but I’m wary of going down this road given the strict advice that accompanied the one – and only – professional critique of my writing, way back when the first novel was in its first iteration and I was floundering. ‘Keep it simple’ was the advice. Only two or three of your characters can be given a ‘Point of View’, so decide who they are and stick to it. To do otherwise runs the risk of confusing your readers and slowing down the plot.

Book 4 is my first attempt at a crime novel. I’ve taken the conventional stance – so far at least – of having two main characters on the side of ‘order and honesty’ but as time goes by I’m getting more interested in the ‘baddies’, without whom there is no tension, wrong-doing and resolution. If the ‘baddies ‘ are two-dimensional, the plot fails. Patricia Highsmith understood this: now I wonder whether I could take the risk of appearing amoral, as she can be described, by making the character of a central ‘baddy’ the driving force of the plot and its most engaging voice. I’d love to do that, but it could be a step too far for a first foray into a new genre. My readership so far trusts me not to shock or outrage them: they’re curious about my characters and want to like them. Would they feel betrayed by a detailed depiction of the despicable?

I think I’ll probably opt for safety this time, with two honest characters at the heart of the story, but I’ll also give depth and voice to at least one of the dishonest characters too, letting us see the complexities and ambivalence, and the flaws in our national life at the time when the story is set, which of course are still with us today. I want this book to be the start of a series, and that adds some pressures that I’ll explore in a future post. I’m still thinking about it.


Writing a novel: where to start?

I suppose I’ve learned quite a lot about writing a novel over the past few years. A long time before that I learned how to write sentences and string them together into paragraphs that followed each other and made sense. I can recall some quite good writing in my school years, and at university, but that was mainly explaining ideas, or recounting other people’s ideas. Writing a novel is different, as different as painting a full canvas is from doing a doodle in the corner of a page. I didn’t realise that at the beginning. I thought that writing full length fiction was not palpably different, just more of the same, and I was wrong.

Now I’m wondering if I can help others through some of the stages I have been through myself. Ideally, as many of the best writing courses do, you would take people through stage by stage, with time intervals in between for practice and reflection, watching the improvement as time goes by. But those courses are expensive, and require high levels of expertise and confidence from the ‘providers’ to reassure the clients they are not wasting their time or their money.

What would I have to offer, having written only three works of fiction so far, which I have published myself. The feedback has been good, and the sales tick along nicely, but do I really have something worth sharing? And given I’m a relative novice in this business, would anyone want to put themselves in my hands even for a little while, and pay for my help? The experience of writing may be slender, but there’s one thing in all this where my experience is deep and trustworthy: I know how to help adults learn. I’ve been in the adult learning business as a freelance education consultant for over twenty years, all round the world. Most of my clients have been educators, but very varied in style, age, nationality, motivation and potential. I’m pretty good at meeting these various needs, as I should be after all this time.

So, could the experience in adult learning make up for relative inexperience as a writer? I think it might just do so, and in a couple of months I’ll get the chance to find out. I’m planning a writing workshop, for a Saturday in January, at one of our local public libraries. ( For those of you who know Cumbria, it’s in Kendal.) I want to find twenty or so people and work with them for six hours, embarking on the very early stages of ‘Writing and Publishing a Novel.’ I’m not going to start with ‘how to write a good sentence’, heading instead straight for how to find a setting and some characters, give them life and write a story that readers will enjoy. Already ideas for useful activities that will meet this purpose are beginning to bubble up, drawing on many of the best activities I’ve experienced in my own learning so far. The starting points will be setting and characters: once we have those, things begin to take off. Tackling the thorny question of getting published may be a lot to take on in a shortish day, but I know it is of interest to most aspiring writers, and here again some practical advice may be helpful.

Now I need the publicity that will bring in enough people to make it work. We’re working on the website link, but it’s likely that most people will hear about the workshop through the local libraries and media. I do hope some people come: I really want to see whether the ideas in my head will stimulate potential writers to take the plunge as I did six years ago, and am so glad I did.

‘Writing a novel starter pack’ : what to include?

I love teaching, always have, and since 1982 I’ve been working with adults as learners rather than younger students. Having recently struggled myself to learn the basics of starting, finishing and publishing a novel, what I’d love to do now is ‘teach’ some of that to anyone who’s embarking on the same journey. It’s making me think: what would I put in my ‘writing a novel starter pack’?

I’m going back over all the courses I’ve been on in the past six years, to identify the most useful elements and processes and then knit those bits into a structure and time frame that would suit a beginner who might not want to embark on a long commitment, but wants to get a taste of what may be involved before they delve deeper.

From the very first Arvon course I went on in 2008 I learned how to expand the germ of an idea into the start of a story, capture a fragment of that story in a scene, write it as well as I could, read it to others, get feedback and see how that felt. We also learned about dialogue, and a bit about structure. We did the inevitable writing exercises, too, just to get us going and sharing. I could have done with more about structure and Point of View, and maybe fewer of the ‘exercises’ but it was still a wonderful week and I’m still drawing on it years later. Best bits? Dealing with dialogue, and writing a scene for reading out and critique.

At a Faber Academy course called ‘Stuck in the Middle’ I picked up the usefulness of capturing the essence of your story, expanding it into a short synopsis and then have others ask questions and make suggestions. When the people grilling you about your story are as skilled and insightful as Gill Slovo and Sarah Dunant, it’s both intimidating and exhilarating, and I learned not just about the elements of a good story but about myself too, and the confidence it takes to benefit from critique.

Some of the courses to do with publishing have been disappointing: my main memory of a Guardian event at Kings Place in London was of being lectured and feeling patronised by a prestigious agent who, as the New Zealanders say, was seriously up herself. If I had to deal with people like that to find a publisher, I said to myself, self-publishing may be the way to go. Another element of my ‘essentials’ package therefore would be something about the ‘costs and benefits’ of self-publishing, and some guidance about how to set about it if that’s your choice.

My own novels so far have used a strong sense of place, and in my head for this notional workshop is a Venn diagram of how ‘setting’, ‘characters’ and ‘events’ interconnect and overlap to create the basic structure of a story. Maybe I could use that simple idea as the start of an exercise to create an outline, share the ideas, refine them through discussion, build a character or a scene in greater detail and write, read and re-write to see how the editing process works. We could something on Point of View, dialogue, or the 3 act structure, or opening paragraphs, or just flag those up as areas to be worked on at the next stage. Then we could discuss the process of getting from manuscript into print or ebook and how to get people to buy it, if that’s what you want.

Sounds like a plan. Like most first drafts of a teaching plan, there’s probably too much in it, but much will depend on the size, composition and starting points of the group, and the length of time they will spend with you. That in turn is set against how much time and money people can spare for such an experience. I’m sure you could find workshops like this in London, or Manchester or Newcastle or Glasgow but in rural areas like Cumbria we can be frustrated by the time and money it takes to access the learning we want. Going to London by train from the west coast of Cumbria means travel to Carlisle or Lancaster and then a 3-4 hour train ride, too far to travel there and back in a day so the overnight costs are added to the cost of the workshop, taking it beyond reasonable outlay. Key criteria: accessible, practical, experiential, and with a tangible ‘product’ to take away and work on.

So, I shall keep working on my plan to offer a writing workshop in Cumbria with the basic ingredients I’ve found most useful, for a smallish group of people seriously interested in writing a novel, sometime over the next few months, just to see if I can do it and if it works. If I can and it does, I’ll learn how to make it better and do it again. In the meantime, if anyone who reads this would be interested, let me know.