Meander if you want to write a novel
I started writing ten years ago when I reached a crux in my teaching career. It became clear I was investing far too much time and energy into my paid employment without enjoying a creative outlet. I was standing still while my students were moving forward.
At the beginning of that summer, I decided to write one thousand words each day which would become a complete manuscript by the end of the holidays. But what to write? Like many others, I was convinced there was a story in me and my experience of travelling was a good place to begin. How many women have met a Scotsman in Outback Australia, been granted a twenty-four hour licence to marry in Cairns and then spent two years living in the highlands of Papua New Guinea? Rather than writing as memoir, I decided to fictionalise events so invented characters and set about structuring the plot.
"I could not extract one positive comment from the eight page report, but do you know what? It made me even more determined to write a publishable novel."
Six months and a couple of drafts later, I sent off my first three chapters for assessment. The report identified substantial weaknesses in the plot and characters. There were issues with grammar and the propensity to tell not show. Descriptive passages required detail and texture, dialogue needed atmosphere and mood. I was implored to be more writerly ‘if you decide to continue writing’. I could not extract one positive comment from the eight page report, but do you know what? It made me even more determined to write a publishable novel.
I joined a writing group who were keen to develop skills in flash fiction (stories up to one thousand words) and I continued to work on my novel which then had the title Pay Friday (a reference to the fortnightly payday for government workers in Papua New Guinea). I found that writing very short fiction gave me a chance to address some of the issues raised in the report. I finally understood what it meant to show not tell and I became adept at using figurative language. My first piece of flash fiction was published one year after I began my creative writing journey. I was chuffed to receive a cheque for £25 but it was another six years before I’d earn money again from writing. In the meantime, I kept writing flash fiction, submitted to a range of magazines and began to find my stories winning or being placed in competitions.
Using the editing skills I had honed through writing flash fiction helped to improve my novel writing abilities. I started work on other novels when it became clear Pay Friday wasn’t going to be published and I began writing poetry. Although I had never studied poetry, I found the form immensely freeing. It’s a way of capturing a moment in time or a passing but significant thought. Again, these skills of being playful and light with words fed into my longer fiction.
"I’ve always got several writing projects on the go at any one time but I see this as positive. The writing of short fiction, poetry and comedy sketches exercises different creative muscles, which help to build the necessary stamina to complete a novel."
As I had never felt confident about writing dialogue, I joined a script-writing workshop with the hope of improving these skills. There I met two other local writers who were interested in working collaboratively. They were both experienced at writing comedy and I saw this as a brilliant opportunity to learn from them how to develop humour. Our first comedy sketch Killer Ladybugs was performed as part of the short play night with Cast Iron Theatre in Brighton. Once we’d seen our work on the stage, we continued to collaborate and took our show Big Heads & Others to Shaftesbury Fringe earlier this summer.
I’ve always got several writing projects on the go at any one time but I see this as positive. The writing of short fiction, poetry and comedy sketches exercises different creative muscles, which help to build the necessary stamina to complete a novel. The flash fiction and poetry I write takes an equivalent amount of time to finish as writing a chapter of my novel, but it is satisfying to have a complete piece of work. These I send off as competition entries or for publication in journals so that I continue to build my publication record.