Sunday, 5 June 2016

The Writing Life - working hard but ...

I have to start with a newsflash because both my books are on a special e-book promotion for the whole of June. The Things We Never Said Amazon UK  is just 99p, and
The Secrets We Left Behind Amazon UK is just 1.99. They'll be back to full whack on 1st of July.

Right, that's that out of the way. Now, I see that it's over six weeks since I last blogged. This is because I've been thinking of the blog as being about my progress on the current novel (number four, as yet untitled), and as there has been no progress - none, zilch, nada – there has been no blog. But when I thought about it properly, the blog is called The Writing Life, and sometimes, part of the writing life is having to accept that you're not making any progress, despite still putting in the hours.

So how can I be working hard and not making progress? This novel started well, in that I love my 1960s protagonist and her story and I couldn't wait to explore her life and its difficulties. The problem came when I tried to write the contemporary strand that I'd originally planned. Every time I tried to explain it – to my agent, to my editor, or to writing friends – they got confused. And yes, I had worried that it was a little complicated. Ultimately, I realised that not only was that strand too complicated, but it didn't really fit with the 1960s story in a satisfying enough way, so I was going to have to rethink the whole thing.

And that's where the hard work comes in. My agent impressed upon me the value of planning – something I find very difficult, if not impossible. Usually, I plan a little, write a little, plan a little more, write a little more, and that's how I discover the story. But this time, I seem to have written myself down a blind alley. I have spent several weeks now trying to plot a second strand that will fit with the first and offer a satisfying conclusion. But I seem to be getting nowhere fast.

My agent has been an amazing and spent almost two hours with me on the phone a couple of weeks ago, trying to get to the heart of it all. With her usual insight, she has, I think, identified the main problem, which is that I've been trying to mix two genres - the 1960s story, which is an exploration of an unconventional relationship and the traumas and joys that accompany it, and the contemporary strand, which I was trying to make a bit more 'plotty'. I'm pleased with the 60s story and think it is perhaps some of my best writing, but then my agent asked the killer question: 'what is going to make the reader turn the pages?'

And that made me realise that while I hoped that a sheer love of the character and interest in her life would be enough, given that my first three novels (the third, What She Lost, is out in January) have all had some buried secret driving the narrative, a 'quieter' book might not go down so well. And yes, I'd love to write a book that does both things – explores the relationship in depth and also has a mystery at its heart, which is why I was going for the dual narrative again. But the secret I'd been relying on turned out to be too complicated, so I'm almost back to square one, and I've been thinking and thinking and thinking until my brain hurts, but I keep hitting dead ends.

In the worst case scenario, I put this novel aside for another time and I start something new. The idea terrifies me – I've written almost 70,000 words, although 25,000 of those were the contemporary strand that I now know doesn't work. I have around 45,000 words that I like so it seems a lot to give up on. But having said that, I abandoned my very first novel at around 40k words and went on instead to write The Things We Never Said. And regular readers might remember the struggle I had with What She Lost – I ended up rewriting almost 80 per cent. So it's not something I'm ruling out entirely. (although it really will be 'putting aside for another time' rather than dumping altogether.)

So, I'm still in that horrible phase of uncertainty, still trying to find a way through with what I've already written while vaguely sketching out other ideas should I have no alternative but to start again. My agent has kindly agreed to read the 1960s strand so that we can discuss it again, and while I hate revealing what I've written at this early stage, I don't want to carry on blindly if it's clear that it's just not going to work. We shall see.

Have you ever put a novel aside and written a new one? What do you do when you find you've written yourself to a dead end? (Apart from drink gin, obvs)

Ooh, by the way – if you're in or near Sheffield, there are still a few spaces on the two redrafting workshops coming up on Saturday 11th & Saturday 18th of June. If you book for one, is £40, if you book for both, it's £70. Have a look at the workshops page of my website for details.


  1. It happened to me too. I had written some 100k words when I accepted the "break" was not such but rather me being stuck with the writing in itself. The whole story, with its twists and sub-plots, was crystal clear in my mind but it wouldn't come out. In the end I decided to work on something else, rather than wasting further time on something that clearly had no intention to progress. The more I forced myself to find a way the more stuck I become with its writing. Try to take it easy, have some meditation sessions focused on your story and see if they may help. Sometimes they do - and in the most unpredictable ways!!

    1. Yes, I can relate to this – I feel that the more I'm trying to find a way through, the more stuck I'm becoming. I really must get into meditation! 100k words is a lot to put aside –did you manage to return to that story in the end, or is it still 'on ice'?

    2. Curious enough, I picked that draft again yesterday and finally found the link I was missing... it was so obvious I really struggled to avoid insulting myself!!
      Let's see how it goes now. Hopefully I'll manage to carry on til the end!

  2. I try not to underestimate the joy of just thinking. So I go for walks, read, dance in the kitchen, and rely on my mind so weave a way through whatever jungle it's in at the time. And (so often I've learned to trust this) the solution comes when I least expect it, and often can't write it down (such as in the shower!)

    1. Yes, this has often worked for me in the past, but it's not working so well this time.I allowed myself a couple of weeks' total break in the hope that some clarity would come, but alas, not so far. There WILL be a way out of this, but I have yet to find it.This blog will bear witness, as always.