Finding your way around my blog

To help you find posts from the past, I’ve added a guide to my home page, like a long list of contents.

In August and September last year, posts are about getting started (including things not to worry about), from late September to December we look at character, in January this year we started learning plot skills and from April posts are about what Stephen King calls the Box of Tricks: aspects of the writing craft.

This week, we’re busy rewriting, polishing to the highest standard, with a section to follow between now and the summer, about getting your novel out to the public.

Happy writing, everyone! More next week.

The hillside exercise

This writing lark can feel like an uphill slog going nowhere. Especially at this time of year, when our writing time can melt away in the festivities and well-meaning loved ones ask us difficult questions like ‘How’s the writing going?’ Not all of us can report a new publishing contract, launch or shortlisting for a prize. So now and again it does us good to sit and rest, look back and congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come.

The last time I was among my favourite writing friends, my hillside exercise was this:

2007-06-01 12.26.10I’m up the Mournes, County Down on a clear June day, a bit of bite in the air, pleasure in the body as my boots meet the grass, contentment in being here doing what I’m doing.

There have been dreadful times, toiling hard in squalls on the lower slopes with hailstones driving hard into my back, plastering my hair wet to my face, freezing the rims of my ears. There have been steep patches where the only way I could get anywhere was to narrow my eyes to the square metre in front of me and keep plodding, silent, alone.

People have joined me from time to time – Anji, my first proper agent (then at AP Watt), and Dennis my poetry publisher being my kindest and most lasting champions.

I remember a brush of brief success when a Guardian reviewer asked my publisher to put my novel up for the Guardian First Novel prize. But it wasn’t my first novel – my children’s novel edged to publication first – so she couldn’t, and now that experience feels like a brush from an angel’s wing, a dreamt blessing from another world. But there have been breaks in the clouds, widening patches of clear blue on leaden days, when a contract for publication of my children’s novel arrived eighteen months after submission with no chit chat or connection in between. And when Dennis Greig of Lapwing accepted my submission of poems, with incredible speed and enthusiasm, in 2010.

Lately, the going is grassy, warm, brighter. A few wee flowers cheer me. Now and again I even sing to myself as my palms press strength down through my knees into my boots. The higher I climb, the higher the sky rises. The air is fine and free. It’s time to turn around and glance back.

The tough bits of the climb are invisible. No shale and scree meet the eye at all, just stretches of green, the odd boulder and a surprisingly clear, neat path. Cows in fields below are smudges of a sharpened pencil. Cars are glints in the granite. My climb, my effort in getting here, where is all that? Gusts in the heather, rufflings in clouds.

On a peak not far away, there’s a happy launch for my next book of poetry.

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The ground dips between here and there, masked by whins. I can’t see what the going is like. Further off, steep, sharp, dignified, is a beautiful granite summit garlanded by pale mist. Its slopes are white-grey, luminous in the sunlight, and I’ll need all my skills to climb it – publication of my non-fiction book-in-progress.

I’m up off this boulder now, ready to keep at the climb. Happy with the privilege of being here, in love with this writing world.

I wish you joy in your writing climb too, wherever it takes you.

Love and many thanks to my late father, RR Johnston, for these photographs. He adored and climbed the Mourne mountains all his life.

Where are we now?

My blog was later than usual this week so here is an extra post to warm us up for the writing weekend…

We’re travelling deep into the hidden furrows of your characters’ hearts and memories now so it’s time for a breather before we go even deeper. Let’s look around at the places in your story where your characters eat, sleep, work, suffer, celebrate and love.

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Your draft flows more quickly, more consistently if you get to know those places early in your writing. Most important of all, find out how your characters feel about them.

This is about more than location: what are the colours, smells, textures and sounds that tell us about your character and are significant for your story? What is the atmosphere in each place? How does the air move there? Is it warm or cold, stuffy or clear-headed, does it bring a taste to the mouth? Does it bring memories? Above all, does your character want to be there? Why? If not, where would they rather be and why?

  • Let’s start at home. Using your scribble-chat technique, let your character invite you to where s/he lives and show you, a room at a time, their kitchen, sofa, bathroom, garden/ view from the rooms, bedroom, bed and so on. Robert Graves’ kitchen in Mallorca is below – I loved that place.

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  • How does your character describe her/his bed. Tracey Emin was right, you’ll learn a lot.
  • Let’s move on to day to day travel – how does your character usually get around? Ask your character to describe her/his car, bike, route to work etc.
  • From there, it’s easy to lead the scribble-chat to your character’s work place. We spend vast chunks of our lives at work and have a wide range of feelings and reactions to it.

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  • What does your character do in spare time? Find out about their gym, choir room and so on.
  • Can you think of other places that are important to your character? Friends’ and relatives’ homes, for example. Worship spaces. Places to socialise.
  • Where is your character’s favourite place in all the world, real or imaginary?

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Different characters will see the same places differently of course and that’s always fun.

As usual, this is just exploration. You could have another go next week and find yourself up to the eyes in different answers. That’s great! You can choose what excites you most and works best for your characters and your story. Above all, you are immersing yourself more and more in your characters and their world, letting your writing flow, and getting closer to a deeply imagined, consistent draft.

On Sunday we move to Stage 4 – where is your plot’s engine? See you then!