In November, one of my longest-running writing groups likes to get together for a self-run retreat. As we are scattered from Forfar to Essex and usually only chat online, this is an excellent catch-up. We have workshops, communal meals, walks and anything else we fancy.
We look for large houses that are inexpensive to rent (usually not a problem in November). Last year we rented Darnlea near Melrose and enjoyed walks out to the abbey (where Robert the Bruce’s heart is apparently buried) and to Walter Scott’s home. Obviously, that can’t happen this year as most (possibly all) of us are under tier 2 or 3 type restrictions. So we’re meeting online instead.
As the aim is to get at least some writing done, I thought I’d post up a few competitions that are free to enter.
As a chocoholic, the chocolate bar library competition from Fortnum and Mason really caught my eye. There are four bars to inspire a story: Meltdown at Carnegie Hall, In Her Footprints, We Follow (a vegan bar!), Red Sky at Night, Ruby Delight and Beneath The Amber Moon. The winner gets a £500 hamper. Now, I’ve only been to F&M once (and bought a caddy of so-so coffee for £50) but suspect it won’t be the biggest hamper in the world. But it does include their chocolate collection. Closing date is Sunday 8th November.
Best also has a free short story competition running at the moment as advertised in this week’s issue. 1200 words, I believe, again with a £500 first prize. You’ll have to track the magazine down.
And finally, if you fancy aiming rather higher, you could try the commonwealth short story competition. You could win £5000, but you’d have to be quick as it closes on 1st November.
I promised another writer I would stop whining now after a very ratty 24 hours. I can’t face any more negative news so I decided to get proactive and finally tackle the preparation for NaNoWriMo.
I’ve been putting it off for ages because of the usual plot issues (i.e. I don’t have one). But NaNoWriMo starts in just over a week and I need to have some ideas down on paper.
So, I took the plunge and added my new project, The Affair at Marshall’s, to the website. The registration page invites you to link to the relevant Pinterest page and I didn’t have one yet. So off I went looking for images suitable for Marshall’s, the house and estate owned by Sir Henry Watson. This is to be sold off when he dies and the proceeds split between his three daughters.
I got the idea from reading about Sir William Paxton, a local landowner, businessman and politician who regenerated Tenby, a decayed seaport decimated by the plague and being on Parliament’s side in the English Civil War. At his death, Paxton ordered his estate sold to provide for all his children.
I had to find ideas for Julia, my heroine, Connie, her incurably romantic little sister, and Margaret, the bossy elder sister. Not to mention Morgan Cross, the land steward love interest, grasping Sir Arthur, Margaret’s husband, or Jenkins the meddling butler.
What a fun few hours I’ve had trawling for pictures. It’s actually not as easy as I’d hoped as I decided to set my story in 1834. The sailor king, William VI, was on the throne so it is neither the Georgian nor the Victorian era. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t realised we had a William VI until I started researching. He was an unexpected king, younger brother of George VI, and already retired from the navy with his mistress when it was rather thrust upon him. Still, he did a reasonable job. The story I like best about him is when he was advised by some official that a carriage could not be prepared in time for him to get to parliament to scupper the opposition fighting the reform bill (which got rid of rotten boroughs). He replied, “Then I will take a hackney cab!” His coach was, not surprisingly, hastily prepared.
Anyway, I digress. I have actually been doing a lot of background reading for my ‘worldbuilding’. I found a household encyclopedia from 1840 which described how to make bread at home (a subject close to my heart). But the quantities involved! For a week for a larger family, one starts with a bushel of flour. A bushel holds 8 gallons or 8 x 8 = 64 pints. A smaller family of say 3-4 would require only 20lb of flour for the week.
I know they ate more bread then, but that’s crazy.
Imagine hauling 20lb of flour home from the corner shop! That’s 6 x 1.5kg bags, or 5lb of flour per person per week (around 5 of these per person per week):
According to another source, in the early 1830s, wheat was less popular with high prices due to poor harvests. More potatoes (considered distinctly inferior) were eaten instead. I also came across a recipe for using potato flour which no poor person should be without. I can only say it sounded like instant mash.
Julia and Morgan will not be eating any of that!
I have at least the start of my Pinterest Page and a few scenes in my head. Now on to the planning pages. I quite like the idea of the Jot, Bin, Pants method which starts with a cup of coffee in bed…
It’s dispiriting when you don’t hear anything about the work you submitted. Of course, it can also be dispiriting when you hear things you don’t want to, such as ‘no thanks’. I’m in one of those dispiriting places right now. This is not helped by learning my home is in Tier 2 of the new covid restrictions: we’ve been under essentially the same restrictions for about 2 months already with no sign of an end. Numbers of cases are still going up and I am very very bored with not being able to meet my mates for a coffee. It’s like Andy Burnham said. We’re in hotel California – we can check in but never leave.
In the last year or so, I’ve only been submitting short stories to The People’s Friend as my WOMAG options are quite limited. I recently took stock of where I was up to with them.
Four stories submitted from October ’19 to January ’20 are, I suspect, stuck in the office as editors work from home. This means they are in limbo until who knows when. I know it’s counterintuitive, but it makes me less motivated to write any more stories for them even though I can now email instead.
Further, I emailed a Christmas story in April which my editor put forward for consideration. That’s six months ago. I know they’ve chosen the stories for their Christmas Special, but surely they must have chosen the others by now: December is only 7 weeks away.
So it’s easy to assume my story is in that huge reject pile which the support staff are slowly dealing with.
The problem is, it’s having a knock-on effect. I’ve stalled in my pocket novel writing, too. The feedback report from the New Writer Scheme detailed a lot of relatively small things that needed attention. There’s really nothing that can’t be fixed, it’s just the scale of the job that makes me think ‘meh’ every time I open the file.
So I close it again.
Now, NaNoWriMo approaches. I need to get my mojo back to attack the next project. But I’m struggling with that, too, even though writing should be an obvious go-to when I can’t get out for coffee with friends. So, how do writers rediscover their motivation?
Is this writer’s block? I don’t know. It’s not that I can’t write anything – I’m writing this now, but more that I can’t be bothered. Some days I think ‘what’s the point?’
Obviously, there is a point. My first pocket novel was published last week. I have another under consideration. I have lots more good ideas that would fit this market.
According to a number of articles I’ve read, it is a form of writer’s block. Penguin has a list of ten things which can help get through that. I’ve tried a few; going for a walk, getting some exercise, walking away from it for a while. But it’s not really helping. So I think the best bit of advice is that at the end: Don’t beat yourself up. Be kind. Give yourself a break, and have faith. It will come back.
And now I’ve read the new covid tier guidance, I can actually go for a walk with friends! Hurrah. There is light, and hope.
Like inspiration, normal life will return. Which reminds me: Christmas shopping… We can still do that, right?
This week, Alan Spink, one of the editors at The People’s Friend, wrote a blog about 3000-word stories. Some found it rather odd but to me, it made perfect sense. This might be because I’m not one of life’s natural storytellers and so I’ve had to learn from scratch exactly what he was talking about.
It took years to get published and a lot of not very good stories, many of which were ‘anecdotes’ in the interim. So here’s a simple explanation of what Alan was trying to say about the three-act structure. It’s basic advice for story writers.
The beginning should take up roughly the first quarter of your story.
The middle of your story should cover the next two quarters.
The end takes up the final quarter and resolves the main character’s problem.
That should be straightforward.
Now, you scatter events, or plot points, roughly evenly though the story to keep disturbing the equilibrium and propelling the story forward. This keeps the reader interested. You broadly need 3:
one a quarter of the way through to move from the beginning part to the middle part of your story.
one right in the middle of your story, i.e. half-way through and
one to set up the finale/resolution, so 3/4 of the way through.
Here’s my back of an envelope illustration:
The beginning of your story introduces your character and their problem. Then something happens which propels you into the main part of the story. This might be something major like a murder or something very simple like someone forgetting to send you a birthday card.
Let’s look at a well-known story – Snow White.
In the beginning, we meet the beautiful Princess Snow White and her evil stepmother, The Queen, who wishes to remain the fairest of them all. Snow White is in love with the prince, but The Queen is jealous of her beauty and banishes her from sight. Things could remain like this for years, with Snow White secretly meeting the prince of her dreams and The Queen living in blissful ignorance. But then we don’t have a story, do we?
Something must happen to disturb this equilibrium. It’s the mirror telling The Queen that Snow White is now the fairest of them all. This brings us to the first crease on my envelope.
The Queen responds by trying to kill Snow White. But Snow White survives to eventually settle happily in the woods with the dwarves. Life seems peaceful again. But we can’t have that…
The mirror triggers another assassination attempt (crease 2 on my envelope), this time with a poisoned comb. Fortunately Snow White survives this and life settles down again but…
Cue crease 3: the pesky mirror triggers a third assassination attempt and this time it succeeds.
Oh No! All is lost! How can this be resolved? This is the end part of the story where the prince rescues Snow White they live happily ever after.
So there you have it: three major plot points (all the same) which lead up to a thrilling back-from-the-dead finale!
Of course, that’s just your basic framework. It’s a bit like saying you need four wheels and an engine to make a motorcar. Making a beautiful, sleek, quiet, reliable car that everyone wants to buy requires a lot of skill, time and energy. But that’s a different story.
This week I received the brilliant news that I am eligible to join the Romantic Novelists’ Association as a full member. This means membership will cost less. However, I will no longer be eligible for feedback on a manuscript, which the New Writers’ Scheme sub included.
I submitted this year’s manuscript a few weeks ago, and am now awaiting my feedback report. Several New Writers’ Scheme members have been upset by their reports this year. That was me last year about a manuscript I really loved and which I felt might need just a tweak (as opposed to the previous year’s where even I as the author could see huge flaws).
I was talking about this last night with Maribeth MacMillan, author of The Viking’s Cursed Bride which was published by Tigearr after similarly going through the New Writer Scheme. Was my second report really that bad or was I seeing things through muck-tinted lenses?
So I dug out the two (anonymous) reader reports I’ve received through the New Writer Scheme.
The first report was lovely and read like it had been written by my best friend, or someone who wanted to be my best friend. It opened with ‘Dear Sue,’ and the whole of the first paragraph listed things the reader loved about my book, using words like happy, pleased and enjoyable. Thereafter came the ‘buts’. These were all constructive criticisms. They were, of course, deflating but accurate and sensitively conveyed. I felt empowered that I could sort out this manuscript.
The second report, however, dived in with a rather generic ‘congratulations on completing your [insert type of MSS here]’. The only positive words in the opening were ‘acceptable’ and ‘clearly’.
After that it deteriorated in a rather business-like fashion to this is wrong, that is wrong, go read this author and see how she does it, do you need this character? I received the odd glimmer of hope along the way, but it was rather like receiving a text to say ‘I’ve got the tea on’ when the bus has broken down in a hurricane, you’re five miles from home and walking in stilettos with a broken ankle.
To be fair, the second reader was, I think, more thorough and did offer copious suggestions as to how I might fix the blighted story. They finished with two huge positives, but by this time, I’d lost the will to write. Had the praise been inserted at the start, I would probably have seen the whole report in a much more positive light. It would also have helped, I think, if I hadn’t been referred to rather impersonally as ‘the author’.
What I’m saying is this: tone is as important when you’re feeding back to a writer as it is when you’re targeting a magazine or publisher. Probably more so, in fact, because the writer will take it personally whereas the editor will simply decide if what you’ve written is right for them or not.
Have you ever received criticism which left you wanting to cry, or conversely, which convinced you that yes, you can be successful? What did you do?