Tag Archives: writing a novel

My New Writing Partner


He’s very serious and very good.

“Get back here, Nina. We’ve got work to do….”

See what I mean?


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6 Things I Learned Writing My Last Novel

I have just finished a novel that took me almost three years to write. Granted a lot of other things were going on in my life; houses burning down, mother passing away, moving to the other side of the planet. As I sent the manuscript off to my agent, I realized that during this novel I learned a thing or two about writing. I thought I’d share them with you.

1. Learn to enter into the journey. I think I’ve often approached a novel as a task. To be done. By such and such time. For a particular reward. And so I skimmed instead of dove. I scooted along the surface, looking left and right for anything that would contribute to my cause. Almost like a trip to the supermarket, picking ingredients for a recipe. Instead I learned that I should be diving. Diving deep, exploring the dark murky waters of my subject. Not everything is going to be useful. That strange looking rock I pulled up from the underbelly of a bottom feeder will probably not make it into the manuscript. But it’s there in the atmosphere I create. I don’t think we understand what we’re trying to say unless we live with the ideas for a while. So give up that time frame and learn to dive.

2. Don’t give into negative thoughts. OK this is my personal bugbear. My mind is constantly streaming what Anne Lamott calls Radio KFKD. So all I can say is: Zap those suckers before they take hold.  They are mosquitoes of the brain. Spray yourself with a good dose of determination and resilience. Put on headphones if you have to. As you fiddle about with your personal work, the world around you will be on fire with others accomplishments and triumphs. Not to mention the demise of the publishing world as we know it. Buzz buzz buzz. All the noise. Ignore it. Splat ’em and finish your work. Finish the damn thing. You learn nothing until you finish. It’s my new mantra. I give it to you. Finish the F@%ker.

3. Let your main characters laugh. Often my main characters are flat. The other characters are bouncing off the walls with personality but the leads are about as fun as a stick.( To quote the great Bill Murray.) They are very serious because I have laid all the weight of the book on them. I need to lighten up on the poor fellows and fellas. When I finish the first draft I’ve learned to go back and tickle them. In fact, I could probably do it one more time.

4. It’s OK to take a break. When life was too chaotic and I couldn’t concentrate on my novel, or I was too down on it to be of any help, I would go away and paint bad art and write some short stories. The art hangs on my walls (to my family’s patient credit) and one of my short stories ended up in a beautiful anthology called STILL by Negative Press before being chosen to be included in Best British Short Stories 2013. But the main point is: I came back and finished. When I really was without confidence I would say to myself: Finish. Just Finish. It might suck but you have to finish. Or as my sister said when I was yet again complaining: “Well, you can always call it A Really Bad Novel.” Made me laugh so hard I got back to work.

5. Eventually things do start connecting. Like brain cells, ideas start wiggling out and tapping other elements in the book and making connections. Connections I didn’t even know existed but look so obvious now when I see them.

6. The novel is in you. You just have to get out of the way. Remember the Michelangelo quote? ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’ Rather than in a block of marble the novel is in your soul. Open your soul a bit everyday and write what you see and feel. Your novel will appear as if by magic.

Good luck. I can’t wait to read your magic.

Photo by SébastienWiertz (flickr)



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House Renovating for Writers

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We bought a house. We plunked down a fortune and signed an IOU in blood to our local bank. We received keys and a pile of bricks. We are wildly happy.

But today I stand in the hallway overwhelmed. Renovation, even the mildest, most superficial, is not for sissies.

The first couple of days I was so excited. I sat, pleased as purple punch, deciding paint colors. I obsessively poured over magazine pictures which had no bearing on my house but which I had turned to as a template for my future home. I was determined to create something beautiful, awe-inspiring, Zowie-invoking.

But after a week I have hit a wall. The hallway has taken the life out of me. Two coats primer. Two coats white paint. Endless painting of the molding around the ceiling edge and the two roses above the hanging lights. My excitement has turned to a slight depression.

Will this ever get finished.? Paint drips down the walls and splatters all over the floor. Cans of sticky paint and even sticker brushes lie underfoot. I am now realizing why painters get the big bucks: They deserve every penny.

I am also struck by how much renovating is like writing a novel.

You get an idea. You are so excited. You jump in, words flying here and there, until about a week into it you grind to a halt, words dripping down the page, surrounded by sticky platitudes. And you realize why the professional story tellers get the big bucks….

I smile as I reach out and return to painting. The key, of course, is to paint one wall after the other. Write one sentence after the other. Until you reach the end. And then you get to look back and say Ooooh! Or, as with most feats of creativity, see how different your feat is from what you had envisioned. But still you have done it. And you’ve done it the best you can.

Take a bow.

Take a shower.

Start again.




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It’s Snowing!

A quick little post today.

Because I’m busy. Very busy. Can you hear that clickety click? No? It’s because I’m on yet another coffee break. But believe me, I’m a busy busy bee. I’m trying to nail down this first draft.

But I wanted to tell you about my new toy. It was passed onto me by a friend (thank you, Meike) and I checked it out and it has been so helpful in organizing my thoughts as I work through this first draft.

It’s called the Snowflake Method. You might have already heard of it.

I spend a lot of time writing. I have reams and reams of writing. But this method has made me think a bit more about the structure of my story. I’m using it to retweek and make stronger my character’s motivations as I go through the novel.

So I leave it with you. Tell me what you think.

Slurp. Ah. Good coffee. (Not.) Now back to work….

photo by Brookeduckart (flickr)


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What do you mean, you didn’t write an international bestseller today?

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” – Ernest Hemingway

When is enough?

That’s the hard thing about being a writer. Rarely are we ever completely finished. In drafting, in editing, in revising.

There is always something more to be done.

Tell me, at the end of the day, do you find yourself thinking: “Funny, I didn’t write an international bestseller today.”

Or more explicitly: “Man, am I a failure.”

It’s a low grade fever. That Didn’t Do Enough Today feeling.

As a writer, you can have very long periods between any closure or sense of accomplishment.

So sometimes I have to tell myself. Well, you did do an outline and two loads of laundry. Or well, you wrote 500 words and listened to your son’s rather long opaque story about his creation on Minecraft. Or well, you read half a book for research and bought your daughter that face scrub she wanted. Or well, you revised three chapters and didn’t snarl at your husband.

And maybe, just maybe if I’m very lucky I’ll be able to say, Well, I wrote one sentence of that international bestseller.

And that is enough.

Writers tend to think in whole pieces. In the image of the whole book or story or play or screenplay. In symphonies.

But as symphonies are made up of notes, books are made up of sentences. And you have to write each one down and that takes time.

And yes, I know—bleeding obvious—but what we know intellectually is very often forgotten emotionally.

Novels take time. They take focus. And they take compassion for yourself when things are going slow.

So if you wrote one good sentence–a true one, as Hemingway would say–and smiled at a stranger today. Well, I for one, would call that a very productive day indeed.

NB: I do realize I’m being slightly disingenuous. Your average sentence probably runs 7, 8 words. Your average book, say, 70 – 80,000 words.  So that’s going to take a while. So I suggest one good paragraph. A long one. 😉

photo by jugbo (flickr)


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What Would Jane Austen Do?

The other day I was typing in what I have been writing in long hand and was worrying about how my characters didn’t seem very fleshed out and how very much I was letting my book down and that if I didn’t immediately go and retrain as a plumber my life will have been in vain.

You know. One of those days.

But then I came upon an essay about Jane Austen.

It is by Judith Lee from Rutgers University about Virginia Woolf and her thoughts about Jane Austen.

This is Virginia Woolf describing Jane Austen’s process of revision:

“To begin with, the stiffness and the barreness of the first chapters prove that she was one of those writers who lay their facts out rather badly in the first version and then go back and back and back and cover them with flesh and atmosphere. How it would have been done we cannot say – by what suppressions and insertions and artful devices … [W]hat pages of preliminary drudgery Jane Austen forced her pen to go through. Here we perceive that she was no conjurer after all. Like other writers, she had to create the atmosphere in which her own peculiar genius could bear fruit. Here she fumbles; here she keeps us waiting. Suddenly she has done it; now things can happen as she likes things to happen.”


So firsts drafts are hard for even the likes of Jane Austen? So good to know. Now excuse me while I get back to mine.

Oh, word count 5500 ish.

But hey, even Jane had off weeks.

photo by Johnsoax (flickr)


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The Sirens Are Calling

Well, it’s that time. That time when I start asking myself. Do I really want to do this story? Is it interesting enough? Do I like it enough? Would anybody be give a hoot?

Maybe I should start something else.

Or go back to an old idea that I once abandoned.

Or give up all together and eat some chocolate cake.

Yup, it’s that time.

But I’m trying to power through. I have promised myself to continue to write this story until July 1st. And I will continue. By just writing one word after the other. And trying not to think too much.

It’s hard. Because the song of the sirens is so strong. So beautiful. They say, Stop, and come over here. We’ve got a MUCH better idea. Really. Leave that silly old story and come to us. We will show you the way.

But I have lashed myself to this story until July 1. And I must stay with this ship. I must keep writing and not give up.I need to give this story a chance. The story is still trying to make itself clear to me and I need to give it time.

Not that I’ve been churning it out, mind you. This weeks count: 6404 to be exact. (It was Sports Day today and so I got no writing done but had a great time urging on running and jumping children.)

So for this next and last week I’m going to concentrate very hard and not wriggle my wrists free and jump out of the boat.

How are the Sirens treating you?

photo by betsythedevine


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Ok, I’ll admit it. I had a bit of a #writingweekfail.

(And no, it’s not because I’ve been hanging out on Twitter too much!)

My excuse is thus:

1. I was asked to write a short story for a collection of photos called Still by Roelof Bakker and I was busy trying to come up with something. I have just finished the first draft and am hoping it’s not too strange.

2. (And more importantly) I read the book I was supposed to be writing.

Damn, I hate that when that happens.

OK, maybe not exactly the same book. But close enough for me to drop my pen, hold my head in my hands and cry.

My husband, always the reasoned one, said, But didn’t you check to see if anyone had written something like this?

Well, I did check. But I typed in Singapore. Not Hong Kong where this particular story was set.

The book is The Piano Teacher, set during and after WWII. The characters are British and Chinese. It is a love story of sorts. All the things I was going to write about. But in Singapore. Not HONG KONG!!

After hyperventilating I’ve decided to keep going for now. There are differences. Which I won’t go into because it’s all suppose to be a surprise.

So without further ado let me reveal my word count: 1345

I know.

Next week will be better. I promise.

Hope you all had a better week. x

photo by e(Spry) from Flickr


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What’s in a name?

Three weeks in and you’d think I have a name for my main character.

Well I don’t.

I have a make-shift name:  Lily, which isn’t at all right for her. Two years ago when I first thought about writing this story it seemed right. But she’s definitely not a Lily. She’s a…well, I’m not sure. But as I write more and more I starting to get a glimmer.

I’ve had trouble with names in my past novels as well. Especially the second. When writing Mounting Desire, a spoof on romance novels, I went through several names. Even Emily. And believe me, my favorite nymphomaniac is no Emily. In fact, she was even originally a he. But that’s another story.

Only in my first novel, How to Cook a Tart, did the name come quickly. It arrived in a flash and remained: Jasmine. She was a Jasmine at the beginning and a Jasmine she stayed. It was strong, evocative and memorable. Like she was.

The third, Believe Me, took some time but when it dawned on me it all made sense: Lucy. One, it’s my mother’s, two, it eluded to ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds,’ and three, the famous australopithecus fossil was named Lucy. All perfect for a character who was a mother and first rate scientist specializing in astronomy.

So for this novel, I’m still searching. Still trying on names for size.

I looked on the internet for popular names given in the 1920’s, the time of her birth. And there are some classic ones: Doris, Mildred, Shirley, Marjorie. All a bit strange sounding to us in 2011 and perhaps not that attractive to our ears but all in the top 20 in the 1920’s.

Nothing has really charmed me yet. Hoping to come up with something as dazzling as Scarlett O’Hara or Holden Caulfield or who could forget Atticus Finch. Now there are some names.

Maybe next week.

Anyway, got to my word count just in time to clean the kitchen before school pick up.

How are you doing? Anyone else with a name problem?


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Brick Wall

OK, so this week I slowed down a little. OK, I slowed down a lot. A brick wall rose on my novel’s highway and I have stopped in front of it, hands on my hips.

I wrote….3300 words. Which, as I was going for 2000 words a day, is, um, a wee bit short.

Granted it is half term and I have only two and half hours of kid-free time. But actually something else is going on.

I’m realizing I don’t know enough. Perhaps this was naive but I wanted to power through this draft just getting the story down. But I’ve taken on a new genre: a historical novel.

My idea is to write a love story set in Singapore in 1937. Groovy no? And I thought I knew a thing or two about Singapore, having lived there for a year and having done a certain amount of research.

And being a rather impatient person–(Cue husband’s and kids’ heads bobbing up and down in agreement…)–I jumped right in.

But as I write and the story unfolds, I realize I do not have the specific information I need. For example my character arrives by ship in 1937. OK. But what did the ship look like? Where did it stop on the way? What would her berth look like?

Each place my character goes I have to think, Did in fact this place exist and what did it look like? What kind of dress would she have worn? How would she have spoken?

The quantity of words I’m trying to write is limited by my lack of knowledge.

So Wednesday I used my two free hours to take myself off to the library–I know, how quaint– to scrounge around trying to find books about the times of my character.

Now I am reading and writing as fast as I can.

This morning I tried to write some words but it was hard going. Nothing was coming. And now as the clock tick tocks towards the time my children will come back from the little tennis camp I have banished them to (where they seem to be eating too many biscuits and hitting too few balls) I’m trying not to panic.

But the good news is…I’m intrigued. I’d like to know what happens.

And that is a good sign.

Tell me, what is going on with you.

photo by JPott (flickr)


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