Monday 31 October 2011

To plan or not to plan?

I went to Westonbirt Arboretum on Saturday.  Crowds had flocked to see the Autumn colours and we were directed to an overflow car park.  I've been there a few times, but it's easy to get lost as the paths, which have names such as 'Main Drive' and 'Loop Walk' twist and wind through the trees.  Usually we get a map but we forgot to ask for one when paying for our tickets. 
            The sky was blue that day and the light dappled through the trees, which were an assortment of colours; red, yellow, shades of green and brown.  Pine cones, acorns, twigs, logs, bark, leaves and dust covered the ground.  Usually we work out our route at the beginning and end up dithering because we see a path which we want to take.  We look at the map to see whether this path will lead us back to where we started or to the café, where we can get coffee and cake.  On this occasion we had a better time without the map because we just went with the flow.
            These two approaches to tackling the route at Westonbirt Arboretum could be compared to how we write a novel. I wrote the first draft of my first novel in about eight weeks (ie. without a map). Since then I've spent several years knocking it into shape by reading creative writing books, talking it over with writing friends and by going to classes where I've had my work critiqued.  It is almost there and I plan to send it to an agent in November.
            During the summer holidays I came up with an idea for a second book.  We were in Brittany and I decided that most of the book would be set in France. I came up with a rough outline for the plot, gave my main characters names and typed a few key scenes into a spreadsheet. When I've sent my first book to an agent, I want to get stuck into this second book.
            The question is now I understand Aristotle's Incline (see below), should I plan this next book scene by scene? (ie. use a map) If I do this, it would be like following the map around Westonbirt Arboretum without deviating from the planned route. When writing a scene, I always come up with ideas which impact the plot.  I've decided to spend a bit of time planning the key scenes and the subplots.  I'll make notes on the main characters, the confidante and the antagonist.  After that I think I'll just dive in and see what happens.

Just found a link which gives a simple explanation of Aristotle's Incline:

Did you plan your second book more than your first because you knew how?
I'd be interested to read your comments, answering this question or on anything relating to the above.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Do you use dialect or other languages in your writing?

In my book, 'The Grandson', the main character, Jessica and her mother, Mary are from Yorkshire.  I've gathered from writing classes and creative writing books that using too much dialect when writing can put a reader off.  Apparently it is best to sprinkle dialogue and a character's thoughts with the odd word which gives away where they're from.  This makes it easier for the reader to take in the story.
Some writers break this rule however with success.  I recently read 'The Help' by Kathryn Stockett.  Initially after reading a couple of pages, I put the book down because it is written using a great deal of dialect.  (It is also written in first person present tense which I find difficult to read-see previous post) A friend told me to stick with it so I picked it up again and I'm glad I did.  After a while I got used to the dialect and enjoyed the story which unfolded.
Using another language:
Most of my book is set in Tuscany.  In earlier drafts I wrote much of the dialogue in Italian, typing the Italian in italics and putting the English translation afterwards.
            eg. 'Stasera incontro mio nipote per la prima volta. Dimmi cara, com'è? Tonight I'm          going to meet my grandson for the first time. Tell me dear, what's he like?'
When I read this out in writing classes, it clearly didn't work because two versions of the same dialogue slowed the story down.  After reading several books set in countries where different languages are spoken, I worked out that I could put the dialogue in English but imply it was being spoken in Italian.  This was made possible by adding the occasional word such as 'cara,' meaning dear or 'grazie,' meaning thank you.  Another way was by phrasing the English so that it seemed as though an Italian speaker was saying it, translating the Italian literally sometimes instead of using the English equivalent.
eg. ‘Tonight I meet my grandson for the first time.  Tell me cara, what is he like?’

An English speaker might say 'I'm going to meet my grandson tonight for the first time. What is he like?'  We wouldn't necessarily say 'Tell me' whereas Italians use 'dimmi', meaning 'tell me' all of the time.

I'd be interested to read your comments on the use of dialect and other languages when writing. Have you broken the above rules and made it work?

Thursday 20 October 2011

The pros and cons of writing in first person present tense

Much contemporary fiction seems to be written in first person present tense. I find this difficult to do and I'm most comfortable writing my heroine, Jessica's scenes in third person past tense.  Whenever I've tried to write Jessica in first person, she becomes more like myself and that is (as per my previous post) exactly what I'm trying to get away from.  Writing her scenes in the present tense doesn't work either.

I have written a subplot (journal excerpts) in first person present tense however and the words seemed to flow more easily than when I tried to do it with Jessica.  I wonder if this is because the subplot is written from the point of view of a man, the heroine's grandfather, Peter and because the setting is during the Second World War rather than in the 1990s. I have found that the further away a character is from myself, the easier they are to write.
The problem with the word 'had' when writing in the past tense and referring to what happened before.
An advantage of writing in the present tense is it's easier to refer to what happened before as the past tense can be used to do this.  When writing in the past tense, referring to what happened before can be tricky.  The pluperfect (or past perfect) tense can be used meaning the word 'had' can crop up too many times.
eg. She went to the dentist, she had not been there since she'd had the root canal treatment. 
Nobody wants to read the word 'had' over and over again. By writing in the past tense, I have to find ways to avoid using 'had' when referring to what happened before. Sometimes rewording can work by merging sentences together.
eg. She went to the dentist. It was a long time since she'd had the root canal treatment. 
Another trick I've discovered is to use the word 'had' initially (pluperfect tense) and then convert to the past tense.
eg. She went to the dentist.  It was a long time since she'd had the root canal treatment.  That day the local anaesthetic lasted for hours and she survived on milkshakes because she couldn't eat.

By the way, my book isn't about going to the dentist - it's the first example that sprang to mind!
I'd be interested to know your thoughts. Which person and tense do you write in and why? What other problems occur because of the person and tense you're using? Please feel free to leave a comment.

Friday 14 October 2011

Characters and Psychology

Whilst developing characters for my book, 'The Grandson', I've struggled mostly with the main character Jessica because she is female and the same age as I was when I lived in Siena. I don't want Jessica to be me but it's difficult not to make her like myself because I am so close to her. When I saw psychologist, Oliver James on TV about eighteen months ago promoting a book, I decided to order it (and ended up getting two others for a special price!). I thought these books would help me develop my characters and they did.  The book 'They F*** you up, How to Survive Family Life' turned out to be useful. There is a chapter 'Scripting our place in the family' which talks about how a person's character can be affected by whether they are first born, lastborn, from a large family etc.
Before I ordered the book, Jessica had an older brother.  I decided to take him out, making her an only child.  This would mean I could instantly give her character more depth.  Her mother, Mary could indulge her by never letting her lift a finger around the house.  Jessica would find leaving home difficult because of this and when taking on an au pair job in Italy, she'd have little idea of how to carry out routine domestic tasks.  This in turn would make it easier for Mary to play the role of antagonist by preventing Jessica from being with the hero, an Italian-American.  Mary could stifle Jessica's independence in an attempt to keep her from leaving their Yorkshire village.
Making Jessica an only child also solved a problem I was having with the plot. Mary wanted her to marry the son of the neighbouring farmer, Tom.  I needed him to have a good reason for waiting until she returned from Italy before she gave him an answer to his proposal of marriage. Being an only child, she was now heir to her parent's land, but a clause in the will would say that she had to be married.
Would love to know your thoughts! Feel free to leave a comment.

Monday 10 October 2011

Are the scenes we cut out a waste of time?

I recently took an Autumn scene out of my novel, 'The Grandson' (which I've almost finished editing).  The heroine's mother, Mary was sitting on a bench in her garden under an apple tree.  An apple fell to the ground with a thud and she pulled a letter out of her pocket from her only daughter, Jessica.  The letter said Jessica had met an Italian-American man whilst studying in Italy.  Mary's greatest fear was Jessica settling anywhere away from their Yorkshire village, never mind another country. She wanted Jessica to marry Tom, son of the neighbouring farmer but Jessica knew he was only interested in her parents' land. 
            During this scene Mary looked around her garden and she felt miserable because summer was over.  She looked up at the tree branches laden with apples and instead of seeing their beauty, she thought about the work she needed to do to clear up the rotten ones being eaten by wasps on the ground.  She'd have to get the leaf-blower out. The broken acorns and hazelnut shells would need to be picked up by hand.  Everything would have to go on the compost heap which was a mess and needed sorting out.  It was time to mow the lawn again. The tree needed pruning and the ripe apples needed to be picked and converted into chutney, apple and blackberry jam and crumble.
            I cut this scene out of 'The Grandson' because it didn't move the plot forwards. Initially I wrote it because I like writing scenes which happen in places I enjoy being in.  The only aspect of the scene which moved the plot forwards was the letter.  Mary didn't need to receive a letter to find out this information.  Jessica could tell her when she got home from Italy. So I cut and pasted it into my 'deletedbits' folder in word. I may use it as inspiration for a short story or for a scene in another book. Once I would have seen writing this scene as having wasted my time. But now I know that it helped me get to know Mary so that her character came across better in her other scenes.

Comment below made by Ruth Brandt - thanks Ruth! Anita.

Saturday 8 October 2011

How do social media and technology influence a character's life?

When I first started writing 'The Grandson' I decided to set it in 1994 which is when I lived in Italy. This was because I knew what it was like to live there then.  I didn't have access to a landline in the flat I shared because you needed to be Italian to apply for one.  The only technology around was mobile phones.  Many young Italians used them to organise their social lives. At that time in the U.K. young people didn't tend to own mobile phones as they were too expensive.  Although the internet was around then, I don't remember hearing about it until late in 1994.
I have a padded envelope full of letters from my time in Italy, many written in fountain pen which I received from my friends whilst I was living there.  Who writes letters in fountain pen now?  I save mine for thank you letters as those are the only ones I write these days.
If my main character, Jessica was living in Italy now, she'd have a mobile phone.  Her and the hero wouldn't leave notes for each other in the pigeon holes for their flats.  She wouldn't have to buy a phone card to ring her parents and get them to call her back in the bar downstairs from where she lives.  If she arranged to meet somebody and they were late or they changed their mind, they'd call or text her.  Do you remember when you arranged to meet people before mobile phones? Once me and a friend spent our lunch hour standing at different exits of Liverpool Street station before thinking the worst of each other and returning to our desks at work!
Nowadays Jessica would communicate with friends by text message, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. It's unlikely that she'd write letters. When going out she'd take photographs to post on her Facebook page.  She'd stay in touch with people because of Facebook. 
In 'The Grandson' there are two letters which are significant. One arrives at the end of Act 2.  As a result of what it says, the hero and heroine can no longer be together.  The other, sent by the hero in Act 3 is intercepted by the heroine's mother. If I set 'The Grandson' in 2011 and changed these letters into e-mails, I don't think they'd have the same impact.
I plan to set my next book in the modern day which means at least all the time I'm spending on the internet can be put down to research!

Friday 7 October 2011

A pic to make you laugh

I was just flicking through my photos of Venice when I saw this one which sums up the way Italy is. And that is why it's such a charming place to visit.

RNA Blog

There is a new interview with Nell Dixon on the RNA Blog today.  This blog is a useful source of advice from published writers who know what they're talking about!

Poetry to inspire!

My writing teacher read a couple of poems from Jonathan Davidson's book, 'Early Train' yesterday and they were just lovely.  One of them was set in an apple orchard in North Yorkshire.  Think I'll get the book.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Guildford Book Festival

The Guildford Book Festival is coming up on 13-22 October


Frankfurt Book Fair

The Frankfurt Book Fair is coming up on 12-16 October.  A couple of agents have made it clear on Twitter that before, during and after the book fair is not a good time to send in a submission.  My MS isn't ready anyway yet! - aiming to submit early November.

Link to Frankfurt Book Fair website
Follow on Twitter @Book_Fair

Wednesday 5 October 2011


Interesting link re Twitter

I joined Twitter this week and so far have 2 followers who are friends!  Not many of my friends seem to be on it, even those who are on Facebook.  At the moment I have no idea what to write on there and how to get more followers!

Tuesday 4 October 2011

A scene in Venice!

Today I'm working on my book, editing a scene set in Venice which is great as I can pretend I'm there! Think I need to switch the internet off though when I'm writing as I can't help flicking through Facebook/ Twitter/ Blogs etc!

Monday 3 October 2011


Lovely pic of beach at Trebeurden in Brittany

First blog post

This is my first blog post. I'm writing a novel set in Italy and hope to send it to an agent soon.  I've been writing it for a few years and it's time to start another book otherwise this one will go on for ever!  I went to Brittany in the summer and thought I'd set the next book in France with possibly a short trip to Italy along the South coast to somewhere like Ventimiglia and then on to Portofino. Leaving the first book will be strange as I've had the characters in my head for such a long time.  But it's time to come up with a few new ones...! I'm doing a writing class at the moment which is great as it means I have to write new stuff.