The Twelve Days of Writing

My year of writing, set to the popular song, and what I learned from it.

On the first day of writing, my true love gave to me (No he didn’t! I did it all myself. Although he was my first reader and could thus have stamped on the whole darn dream. Instead he said, it’s good, carry on, and went back to playing on his Iphone). That’s what got me started.

12 critique workshops… my first foray into taught creative writing, being one of those saddos who hasn’t got an MA. Learnt it all out of books, me. I found it really expanded my writing world to sit in a room with others and discuss the things I think about all day by myself. Also, I gained some fun drinking buddies for when we need to drown our writing sorrows.

11 books on writing….at least. I’m obsessed with reading about writing and writing about reading and…so on. I learned that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear (on Play.com for £5.99).

10 incidents of stalking…(agents, celebs, publishers….I may be shy and it may have been my first year of writing but I jumped in with both proverbial feet (you can’t very well jump in with one. Would lead to much ligament damage) and no one told me to go away. I learnt it’s not networking when you’re passionate about what you’re doing and love every second).

9 blogs subscribed to….the internet is an amazing place for writing. I’ve already found dozens of invaluable blogs explaining everything from the process and craft to the nitty-gritty of publishing. Like a whole world of friends you haven’t met yet, and maybe never will.

8 Tweets a – trending…..Twitter is a revelation to me. The point, which eluded me before, is of course that you can cosy up to your idols in an illusion of intimacy, and no one gets a restraining order! Your favourite writers may even tweet back, and you can also subtly stalk agents and publishers. Result!

7 MAs offered….God, everywhere does an MA, don’t they? I haven’t got one and I can’t decide if I need it or not. I know it would be lovely to spend all that time studying and learning, but is it worth 7 grand? Still to be decided. However I did learn how much value certain lit establishment figures place on one. Right or wrong? Discuss.

6 competitions entered….I learned there’s a wealth of competitions out there, from short stories to full-length novels (not so many, yes, but they do exist). I can’t stress how much it’s worth keeping an eye out. I nearly missed the one I was shortlisted for, and found out with about 10 minutes to spare before the deadline. I’ve entered a few short story competitions too. It isn’t really my thing but it’s useful practice, discipline – sticking to the word count etc – and feedback. Plus, you might win….

…5 gold rings….Or maybe not, but I did win £500 so far from my writing. Not too shabby! And that teaches me there is a bit of money to be made from the hobby, if you’re lucky. You can also win fun prizes (like an Ereader). In fact it’s just like my childhood quizzing career, which kept me in book tokens and schoolbags for many years.

4 agents calling….You know how getting an agent is the alpha and omega, the moon you reach for when the sun of getting published is so big you can’t look directly at it? And you send out stuff and then…they say no? Well, if you get shortlisted in a big competition, agents may well come and find you. See what I mean about how useful competitions are?

3 Synopses finished….Future books, unwritten, largely unplanned, summarised on one sheet of A4 for what may be very important purposes! It still gives me palpitations to think about it. I haven’t written the books yet, but I have to say what happens. This is more terrifying than The Descent 2.

2 Novels finished…..and onto the third. Number one was sweated and wept out over 18 months and I still feel I don’t quite know how to write something so ambitious , or rather I don’t know how to fix the vague problems I perceive. But number two was really a breeze to write. This fills me full of fear now I’ve started on the next – what if I can’t do it again?

….and a lovely fat publishing deeeeeeal……Could it be? There’s a massive 10 days left of the year still, so watch this space. You never know.

Mary, 45, likes cheese, had childhood encounter with jar so afraid of pickles (and so on)

Even more exciting things are afoot out there in publishing world; meanwhile I still have to earn my crust reading reports with sentences like ….’Describe: to describe an action means you write a written overview of the action including references to any supporting material….’ Er, as in, I drank my tea, here’s a report, see picture of me drinking it? I’m not sure what the rest said because I fell asleep. I shouldn’t complain too much though. My crust is very much an all-butter brioche rather than a Tesco’s economy loaf.

Meanwhile in my real job (as opposed to the one I actually, you know, get paid for), I’m about 7,000 words into my new book. It’s an exciting time, especially if like me you can’t work by writing long outlines and character definitions beforehand. I know some people do this, scribbling down long lists of the character’s eye colour, weight, starsign, views on pickled onions etc. Eg ‘Margaret is 5’6 with blonde hair, highlighted and prone to static. Uses Dove Colour Care shampoo. Had unfortunate incident with Guinea pig, now afraid of all small rodents except chinchillas’. It clearly works for some, and many writing books recommend that you do this. In fact some say you should work out all your plot and characters in advance, putting in appropriate highs and lows, tension points, cliffhangers etc, and then the writing is like filling in the dots. I think that’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.

It wouldn’t work for me. I’ll probably make some notes as they occur to me (‘Good swimmer – school champion. Comes in handy to escape mad lakeshore killer?’ etc) but to write long detailed CVs seems to be the most unutterable yawnfest. I’d worry it would push the writing too far down the showing-not-telling route. I hope readers will realise for themselves that my new character is stubborn and doesn’t trust easily, and as for the rest, do you really need to know if she has a freckle on the back of one hand? I’d miss those moments when you see how the disparate ideas of your lot fit together and you’re mentally screaming, Yes! Yes! It does work! (Plus, I can’t be bothered. Me=lazy writer.)

Instead I just start writing with a vague idea of some people, some scenes, some things that happen. (Note to self – really must sort out that elevator pitch). It’s the most exciting part of the whole thing for me, like walking into a room of people you don’t know and finding out all about them (also scary like that, what if they’re deadly dull and/or smell like eggs?) I was surprised to get comments on the last opus along the lines of ‘you seem to know your characters so well’, because I didn’t do the whole ‘Patricia enjoys golf and eats Spam on Tuesdays’ approach. But maybe I know them in a different way, in the way you can feel connected to someone very quickly without an intimate understanding of their childhood and their allergy to mustard. I imagine the people who do make all the notes are also the kind to write up notes on the guests so dinner-party guests are forced to NETWORK. Yuck.

For my next trick….another book!

“Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, and doctors don’t get doctor’s block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it?”

Oscar Wilde said there was no such thing as writer’s block. Frederick Forsyth, who sounds a bit scary, says it’s ‘whimpery’. There is writer’s laziness and writer’s lack of confidence though. Writing a book – and I’ve done it twice now, somehow – involves so much time and effort and RSI and panic and feels like trudging your way through thick mud. But somehow it gets done, the disparate plot comes together, you think of enough things for the characters to say and do, you didn’t accidentally bring back in someone who died or change name halfway through, and you come to the end. Great! Jubilation, all easy from now on, career as writer opens up, practice witty banter for going on Late Review, crack open cava (too soon for champagne) etc.

Then you have a little break reading books, vaguely doing ‘research’, and sometimes scribbling little notes like ‘Maybe next heroine’s father eats beetroot?’ ‘Amusing scene with dog?’ etc.

But at some time you have to actually start writing The Next One. That’s when the panic sets in. You’ve no idea how you did it last time or the time before, like someone spinning plates or executing an accidental skateboard jump. The empty page looms.

But maybe it’s just laziness? I’m afraid of laziness, some combination of Catholic guilt and Protestant work ethic perhaps (I was taught by nuns). So I’ve decided to put myself on a monthly regime of 1,500 words (10 pages) a day. I should done this in November with everyone else, but December will be good, if I can write over the holidays and not sit in a stupour of chocolate and TV and other people’s books (OPB?) http://www.nanowrimo.org/ The idea is to write 50,000 words in a month. I have to say this doesn’t faze me too much. That’s about 1,500 a day, roughly, right? I have a helpful three-hour commute each day that should be enough time. Right? (Watch me fail).

As long as I don’t give it to laziness, lovely Christmas TV, chocs, cups of tea, paperbacks, sales shopping… Because as every reluctant typing student knows, the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. Or as the Daily Mail might have it, quick brown (immigrant?) fox jumped over the honest British dog to steal all the jobs and housing.

And news just in, my train home has had delays of up to 70 minutes all afternoon. Not even snowing. Kind of them to give me extra writing time, isn’t it?

Not a damn tedious waste of an evening

Some exciting things that happened at the Dylan Thomas/Sony Reader Awards in Swansea:

Andrew Davies bought me a gin and tonic and said how much he liked my book. I then quoted P & P at him – Damn tedious waste of an evening! Etc. And my mum took pictures.

Cerys Matthews did a lovely reading from Dylan Thomas and asked what my next book was about and I said something like ‘Er…there’s a woman…and she has a father….and spying! It’s sort of about spying. But it’s not a spy novel….’ Note to self, prepare ‘elevator’ pitch for future use. And my mum took pictures.

We met the lovely writers on the Dylan Thomas Prize, with their fashion-forward hair.  Note to self – don’t wear a strapless dress to a book event. Everyone cool is wearing a cardy and sensible tights. Caroline Bird and Eleanor Catton gave me advice on titles. And my mum took pictures.

Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach had a big chat with my mum about theology. She was too involved to take pictures that time.

Ceri Thomas of the Today programme said my book kept him up at night reading.

I was interviewed by MsLexia.

I had so many pictures taken my face was frozen into a rictus of fake jollity.

The nice people at Sony gave us Ereaders and some not-to-be-sneezed at prize money, coincidentally almost exactly the same amount as we had to pay out the day before to fix the steering wheel. Funnily enough, when I was a little girl I dreamed that when I earned some money from writing I’d spend it on a new steering system. That Mulberry bag will have to wait for now.

I drank too much both nights and had hangovers.

I had a bath in the middle of the day in huge bathtub while the rest of you were at work (clearly the main reason to write in the first place).

Leaving the contest and driving to Sheffield we nearly crashed three times, which has nothing to do with writing but was pretty darn scary. I have no wish to be posthumously famous. Did I mention I hate snow?

Oh and there were goody bags! And they showed a video of me looking shiny and sounding like a five-year-old. If I ever get invited to an awards ceremony again I’m calling in Gok to give me a makeover.