novel writing

Sit under your novel in progress, lessons from motherhood

As I mother of four I am very familiar with having to wait, to rein in speed and impetus and to go very slowly or not at all while being present for my children in some way or another. Walking with a toddler or even my 5 year old now there is more standing than proceeding, where special things such as pebbledash walls and ‘baby leaves’ need to be examined, legs are short and cannot do distances at speed. I take a step forward but my stride is too long, I stop, I wait. These days we might be on the school ‘run’ and I can feel frustrated at my lack of progress with the 5 year old as I watch my older children stride ahead of us down the hill. I remember breastfeeding in particular (since only the mother can do it) as one of those experiences where it was  a question of sitting under the infant for long swathes of time (perhaps up to an hour) at each feed and all thoughts of being elsewhere or achieving tasks of any kind needed to be put aside. Right through pregnancy and right up to the late toddler years there are physical restraints, whether it’s a cumbersome body or trying to negotiate a pushchair in the town. There are things that young mothers miss; having their arms loose as they walk, walking straight out of a house without first cajoling an army, getting into a car and just driving without negotiating with a plethora of awkward straps and resistant toddlers.

This society is geared up for achievement, for awards, for the spectacular rather than ordinary mundane heroics. As writers now we need to be everywhere, building a platform, marketing ourselves, we need to keep up a presence and be productive. But what we keep needing to be reminded is that the occasions when we need to stop, sit under our book and it’s themes for a while are absolutely necessary and valuable and part of the process.

I’ve talk around this before, about how Kirsty Gunn spent seven years on her book, about incubation, the benefits of walking for creativity and so on. I’m thinking about it now as I’m looking at how I go about writing books, how expression and structure interplay, how the first excitement of an idea needs to be followed by thought and observation.

I’ll add more specifics of my own current experiences with a new project in a further post but what I will say in general is that if you come to an impasse at any stage of a project, don’t let your lack of progress dismay you, first, just sit and wait, follow your train of thought, read more things that are tangential to your work, look out the window, spend the necessary time, as this beautiful post by Kim Triedman explores, staring at trees to live ‘on both sides of the brain’.

The  children grow up in time, and your novel will too, there will be less need for stopping but the stopping has given you greater insight, added a whole new depth and dimension. Never apologise for your lack of speed.

(By the way, if any of you have joined us for the #15KinMay (which is a very reasonable/non manic wordcount target) I have now reached 10K words but many, many of these are not sections of the book per se but thoughts on what the book is. Many writers, including Irish writer Claire Kilroy who I spoke to at a writing event, say that they write many many thousands of words beyond what is required, including notes of all kinds, then they extricate the story afterwards, many of you are more methodical than that but we all need to find our own way.)

Emotional energy and the writer

The last few weeks have been full on writing my novel The Book of Remembered Possibilities and dealing with family life, getting back into the routine of school. One of my children has been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. These children don’t like change, struggle with social situations and outside stimuli, noise, light, smells for example and are unable to organise themselves. School and homework are ongoing challenges both for the child (and the parent!). There is often a lot of frustration, stress and anger for the child. The other children in the family are also affected by the difficulties and need extra support. Where does this leave the novel writer (in this case me? ) Often mentally confused and emotionally fraught and yet I need resilience and persistence to keep going with a task that requires a lot of concentration and emotional investment in writing the story.

About two years ago, my dear mother in law had a stroke. She was very young and she was a great support, mentally, practically and emotionally to me. Unfortunately she was severely affected and while we still enjoy each other’s company, we can’t share conversations in the same way as we did before. Something has been lost. A sort of grief continues over time.

With this backdrop of real life. I need to find ways to again and again, lift myself up to the challenge, to take heart from the writing itself and also put heart back into it. I talk more on this topic today on writing.ie about the kinds of things we as writers might do to continue to write and work when life isn’t easy and ways we can recoup our emotional energy – sometime through writing and sometimes by doing the things we love

What have your experiences been when life gets too much? Can you still find writing energy or how does your writing help you?

Novel writing: Untangling a slinky

Slinkies, fun to play with but easily tangled

I’ve just spent a long time untangling my daughter’s slinky, which, as you’ll see from the picture is one of those springy coils that are really fun to play with. This slinky has been tangled up for a couple of weeks and all the members of the family have had a go trying to untangle it and until now, none of us could figure out how to sort it out.

At the moment I am in the middle of a novel (this is one of the reasons, along with school hols that I’ve been off the blog for a bit).  I wrote the first 50,000 words of the novel during last years #nanowrimo although a lot of it was not chronological but consisted of various scenes. I’m most a pantser writer, making it up as I go along with not too much of a structure. It’s here that people will wag their fingers and say, ‘well you only have yourself to blame’ when I say that much of my novel writing time lately has been concerned with untangling the mass of storylines in the book, and trying to discover the main thrust of the book and making everything fit in with that. I still haven’t got to the bottom of it, there’s a whole element that may or may not stay in at all. I don’t yet have the confidence or clarity of vision to see whether it can fit or not.

In our attempts to untangle the slinky we used (what we thought was) rational deduction. We first asked ourselves ‘how did we get here, what happened to tangle it up in the first place?’ We attempted all sorts of contortions, feeding whole chunks of the coil ‘back the other way’ which, in hindsight was actually making the problem worse. Like writing can be, working on the problem was compelling and my husband found it difficult to give up on the endeavour to go out to work. He was firmly convinced that it could not be done.

I am fully aware that I have much to learn as a novel writer. A lot of the flailing and uncertainty is because I have never solved the particular problems before or because I have walked myself into a novel with a plethora of ideas, when one would have done. At times it seems that I will not be able to figure out the way ahead or that I may have to give up altogether. But with the slinky and similarly with the novel, I knew that there must be a method that could be used, that, with a different mindset the problem could be solved.

There were two qualities that helped me unravel the mysteries of the slinky: instinct and determination. I didn’t give up on the problem and in the end the solution was to follow the coil along with my fingers and to keep ‘unspinning’ the thing (hundreds of times) until it found it’s proper trajectory. This was a more intuitive process that our earlier rough attempts. And now I have the solution to take forward with me, the next time that the children arrive to ask me to untangle the slinkies.

With my novel I have written mind maps and lists, I have physically printed it out and sellotaped it together again. All these were usefully done to acquaint myself with the problem but in my experience analysis rarely solves my writing problems (not to say that techniques can’t be taught – if someone knew how to untangle a slinky and told me, it would have saved hours of work. If someone knows how to tell if your novel has too many elements then please write in!).

Having done the rational analysis with my novel, I am now intuitively following the coil of it, giving it that quiet but open-minded attention, writing my way toward what feels right and noting what elements become less necessary. Will this work and will I be able to explain one day to others how to solve the tangled slinky of their novels, I’m not quite sure yet, but I hope so.

To come on the blog in September: Interviews and hopefully some readings from my short stories as well as some more #fridayflash. There are also some very interesting interviews lined up on my guest blog on writing.ie, so keep an eye out!

#Fridayflash Solid Table Fallacy & New Post on Writing.ie

I am absolutely delighted today to have been asked to post my #fridayflash on the #amwriting website.

#Amwriting is ‘an award-winning Twitter hashtag created by Johanna Harness.’ Joanna is a mother and writer of middle grade and young adult novels who has created a venue on twitter (the hashtag #amwriting allows you to see a stream of people now currently engaged with their writing) and now on a dedicated blog for a community of writers to come together, share their work, resources and ideas and support each other. For an excellent explanation of what #amwriting is all about see here.

My #fridayflash fiction today is called Solid Table Fallacy, it is one of the stories from my flash collection in process and features characters from previous flashes You can read it here on the #amwriting website. Don’t forget to leave a comment if you have some feedback!

My other hat is resident guest blogger on Writing.ie . Today I have a post on novel writing and headspace: My novel is a submerged island.

I hope you enjoy!