I’m keeping my writing plans private

So, the week’s writing adventure at the Arvon centre in The Hurst, John Osborne’s house in Shropshire, is done. IMG_0992

Monday to Saturday, five days of thinking and writing and talking and sharing, and cooking and washing up. And very enjoyable it was too. Two well-prepared and interesting tutors – Chibundu Onuzo and Lucy Hughes-Hallett – and a great group of writers. Ages in the group ranged from early twenties to myself; three blokes, the rest women. I was impressed by the quality of what we produced in fast writing exercises, and the diversity of experience we brought. Really enjoyable, and only slightly marred by the responsibility of producing an evening meal for fifteen people on one of the nights. I was relieved when my turn was behind me. The food was delicious, and too much of it!

I wish I had copies of some of the short pieces we produced. Re-workings of the Cinderella story generated some great laughs, I remember, At one point, Lucy asked to write about a person from our childhoods, which turned out to be very emotional. And how many words could we find as an alternative to ‘nice’? What might the choice of word indicate about the character who would choose it? All sorts of activities reminded me of the basics of writing a great story.

For me, the purpose of the experience was to clear my head about whether, when and what I want to write in the future. And the main thing I came away with is that I should relax, slow down and not commit to anything until I’m ready. I’m leaving my options open, and not succumbing to pressure from myself or anyone else to a deadline forĀ  another book, if there’s going to be one.

So, there we are. For the time being my future plans are inside my head and not to be shared. Does that sound curmudgeonly? Perhaps, but never mind. At my time of life, I can do as I please. Watch this space.


Should I stop writing, or keep going?

Regular readers might have picked up from recent posts that I’m having a bit of a crisis about my writing and whether to continue. It’s not about whether I can write: I think I can, and have published some good stuff. Readers love my books and tell me so. No, it’s not about quality, it’s about commitment.

arizona asphalt beautiful blue sky

When I decided to write my first novel, about ten years ago, I seriously underestimated how long and how difficult it would be to finish and get it published. I thought I would find a publisher – wrong. I thought it would fly off the shelves – also wrong. Getting it into print, into bookshops and into readers’ hands was all more difficult than I anticipated.

I anticipated an easier ride the second time around, so I wrote another one, then another, and so on. Now my sixth novel ‘Burning Secrets’ is out, and although the process does indeed feel a little easier, that’s mainly because I’m no longer surprised by how much time it takes.BURNiNG_SECRETS_AW.indd

In the years since I started writing I’ve established a loving relationship, nested happily into my new community, and retired from my education consultancy. My life is happier and more settled than it was, but now I want to make sure that I’m pursuing more of my interests, without the writing becoming the cuckoo in the nest that pushes everything else out.

I’m probably thinking too much about it, so I’ve decided to stop deliberating for a while, enjoy the summer and then come to a proper decision. To help the process, I’ve booked myself into a four day writing course in September, away from home, with unfamiliar people, to let the right choice bubble up into my mind more clearly than it’s doing now.

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It’s an Arvon course, which is some guarantee of quality, although as I’ve learned before, you’re still dependent on the skills of the tutors and and the commitment of the rest of the group. I paid a lot for one Arvon course that was not well led, and distracted by group members who seemed to have come for the entertainment and late night drinking. I spent the whole time in my own room writing. My mood was reflected in what I wrote that week – the darkest passages of my first book ‘A Good Liar’.GoodLiar_COVER.indd

One of the tutors in September is the author of one of my favourite books – ‘The Pike’ by Lucy Hughes lucy-hughes-hallett-costa-book-awards-2013-in-london-k775c2Hallett. It’s non-fiction, but such a great read that I’m sure I’ll learn from her. I just hope she’s a good a tutor as she is a writer. The components of the course look useful too – plotting, narrative voice, dialogue, and more. And no doubt there’ll be discussion about publishing, promotion, and other aspects of the business of taking a book to market.

My hope is that by the end of that week my mind should have cleared, and a decision about whether to continue will have materialised out of the current fog. It could go either way.


What is a ‘crime novel’? A question of genre

I know I should understand this by now, but I don’t. I’ve asked various people ‘What is ‘genre’ and why do we need it?’ and the only answer that I remember, perhaps because of its absurdity – to me at least – is ‘So that the bookseller/librarian will know which shelf to put it on.’ When I went through the tedious and time-wasting process of submitting my work to an agent, I was informed that knowing your genre was crucially important, presumably so that you pestered the right agent, but that too seems to me like a post-facto rationalisation, a curious case of how the tail can wag the dog.

So here I am, trying to play the game, thinking of a move from one genre (‘regional historical women’s commercial fiction’) into another (‘regional historical crime fiction’). I’ve bought and read the Arvon book on writing crime fiction. I went on a course at Crimefest with Ryan and Hall and reviewed it favourably in an earlier post. Now I’m reading ‘The Crime Writer’s Guide to Police Practice and Procedure’ by Michael O’Byrne (published by Robert Hale in 2009). On the first page of Chapter 1 O’Byrne asks the question I’m asking myself: ‘Is it a crime novel or a novel in which a crime occurs?’ He also makes the assumption throughout that the protagonist of a crime novel must be a ‘detective’.

In the novel I’m now trying to plan, the protagonist is not going to be a ‘detective’, except in the sense that he/she is trying to find out ie. ‘detect’ what happened and why. So no Miss Marple, or Morse, or whatever the Nordic noir guys are called. Does that mean that this story is doomed to be ‘a novel in which a crime occurs’ that will leave the bookseller/librarian weeping with indecision? I stamp my foot. I’m the writer: I don’t want my main character to be in the police force, so there. The story will be what is, so get over it.

Most of the advice I have read and heard about writing good stories applies to any story. The 3 Act structure explained by Ryan and Hall works whether or not crime is involved. It’s about gripping the reader and pulling them into a book they can’t put down. You can perceive this structure in Hardy and Austen, who had the good fortune to write before the strictures of genre were so tight. Did Wilkie Collins know he was writing crime fiction? Of course I’m not comparing my own efforts with those greats, but the whole genre thing feels like a game for which everyone else except me knows the rules. As my kids in school used to say when their glaring ignorance came to light, ‘I must have been away that day.’