The weather forecast is talking about the warmest Easter on record, the news is full of people sunning themselves on British beaches, and the smell of charred meat hangs in the air as barbecues are dusted off and lit for the first time in months. And me? I’m playing Christmas jingles and thinking about tinsel, icy pavements and turkey leftovers. Yes, I’m writing a seasonal story.
The time-lag involved in publishing means that a story with a seasonal flavour has to be submitted six months before. My story has a May deadline, hence my writing about Christmas whilst nibbling on an Easter egg.
The story is for a collection of Christmas stories featuring fictional detectives, and I’m writing a story featuring my PI sleuth, Eden Grey. The story must be set at Christmas and have a Christmas theme. For a long time I simply dragged my mind back to Christmas and compiled a list of things that are typically Christmassy: office parties, buying presents, houses smothered with lights, food, drink, family. Eventually I came up with a theme I could work into a detective story, and that allowed Eden to do all the things she’s good at: surveillance, breaking and entering, and getting into a fight.
Once I’d got the plot, I needed to feel more Christmassy, in the hopes that those sensations would translate onto the page. Here’s how I did it:
1. Playing Christmas music
The neighbours thought I was bonkers, but playing Christmas tunes helped me to think about Christmas and to remember how that time of year feels. Sound, like smell, is wired into memory. Certain songs evoke specific places, people, and events. Even decades later, a certain song will remind me of a school trip to Norway. Writing to a background of ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’ helped me get into the Christmassy swing.
2. Remembrance of Christmas past
Confession time. I don’t like Christmas much. For me it means other people’s stress, overspending, overeating and general tetchiness. Call me Scrooge if you like, but my Christmas is quiet and simple, and that’s how I like it. The good thing about Christmas for storytellers is it’s usually a time of great tension, and as we all know, stories are powered by tension. At Christmas, everyone is expected to have a wonderful time. If you’re ill, lonely or generally fed-up, that feeling of alienation from everyone else intensifies.
3. What’s the weather like?
Although we often think of a white Christmas, it rarely happens in the UK. Christmas is usually dank, misty, dark and rainy. It’s difficult to remember exactly what the weather is like in certain seasons, so I turned to my journal to remember. Notes about gardening in the rain, slipping on frosty pavements, or unexpected warmth reminded me that winter isn’t cold and rainy every single day. These details gave my prose authenticity.
4. Eat, drink, and be Christmassy
Mince pies have long ago disappeared from the supermarket shelves, but there are Brussels sprouts, turkey, and fruit cake. Plus hot chocolate, hot toddies, and Baileys. Certain seasons have distinctive tastes particular to them, and by experiencing that taste I evoked the season associated with it. While everyone else was sipping Pimms and eating barbecue chicken, I was drinking hot chocolate and eating pigs in blankets.
Writing a seasonal story means being out of synch with everyone else. You have to create a bubble in which it's Christmas, and block out everything Easter around you. The benefit of writing this way is that when winter rolls around, and everyone huddles inside counting down the days to summer, I’m already there, writing six months in the future, glorying in the long June days and toasting myself in the sun.
During the Second World War, posters were put up warning people 'Loose Lips Sink Ships' and to 'Be like Dad - Keep Mum'. The posters were to remind people that they didn't know who was listening - that a casual conversation on a bus could give away where troops were based or ships were heading.
So what's this got to do with writing? Well, loose lips sink ships, and plots, and characters, dialogue, twists, metaphors and settings.
Let me ask you this. When an idea for a story or a novel or a poem comes into your mind, do you jot it down, play with it, write it, rewrite it until it's the best you can make it and then send it off? Or do you jot it down, tell your husband about it over dinner, act out the brilliant bits of dialogue to your friends, describe the plot twists in minute detail to your mum, and try out the comedy on your kids? Chances are if you do, that the story/ novel/ poem never gets written at all, never mind rewritten and sent off.
Bursting Your Bubble
Why? Because when writing is new it's very fragile. That initial idea isn't really an idea, it's a seed. A starting point. It needs nurturing and feeding. How do you nurture and feed? You jot it down, you play with it, you write some bits, you think about it, you leave it alone for a while, you idly turn it over in your mind while cooking dinner.
Talking about it makes it lose the magic. Imagine that idea is a bubble - exciting and colourful and different from every angle, but pass it around a bit and it'll pop. To go back to the seed metaphor, talking about your idea is like digging up the seed every few hours and seeing if it's sprouted yet.
How To Kill Your Idea
Your brain will get bored with the idea if you talk about it. While it's new and fresh, it's exciting. It's yours to discover. The more you keep it secret, the more energy that idea has, the more it will grow, and the more you'll want to write it. You'll write it because you need to know what happens next.
Tell other people about it and they'll soon take the magic away, often unintentionally, sometimes not. Comments like, "Hm. Interesting" don't help you to keep the excitement alive. Nor do, "Is that character based on me?", "What will the kids think?" or "What you need to do is ..." Talking about a partly formed idea is the swiftest way to kill it.
People rarely laugh at the hilarious bits until you've written them and worked them. Scraps of dialogue are flat if taken out of context. All of this makes you despondent. When you go back to your notebook it's just a heap of words scribbled down. The gloss, the intrigue, the possibility have all gone.
So when it comes to writing, when that brilliant germ of an idea strikes, remember the advice on the War posters, and 'Be Like Dad - Keep Mum'. Keep it a secret until you've worked and polished that piece and it's as good as you can make it - then you can tell people about it.
I've been writing for a long time now, and inevitably have made many mistakes along the way. I don't mean stuff like using too many adverbs, or characters changing eye colour half-way through a story, (though I've made plenty of those mistakes, too), I mean mistakes in how I approached my writing and built on success.
So here are the things I've done that I wish I hadn't:
1. Writing a whole novel longhand
I'm an old fashioned type of writer in that I find my thinking flows better when I write longhand. All my notes are written longhand, and every short story starts life as a first draft in handwriting (sometimes fountain pen, sometimes pencil, sometimes purple felt tip, depending on my mood). And every novel is planned out longhand, then I write straight onto my laptop with my notes beside me.
It's a system that works for me, so what was I thinking when I decided to write a complete novel in longhand? Sheer madness. I have huge lined notebooks filled with writing, 100,000 words in total, some of which is illegible because when I write I write; the words fall over each other and come out as a scrawl.
I tried to type out this novel and gave up. It was too dispiriting. I also tried to dictate it using voice recognition software, but I didn't have the patience to train the software and it wasn't expecting the er...gritty nature of my writing. And so the book languishes in an unfinished, unloved, and incomprehensible state.
2. Not following up on success
When I was new to sending work out for publication, I was very bad at following up on success. I'd send a story to a magazine, get an acceptance, and then wait several months before I sent another one. I felt as though I didn't want to bother them again too soon.
I know now that what I should have done is immediately write another story and send it in, reminding the editor they'd just accepted a piece from me. In waiting, I let the relationship go cold, so each time I sent in a story, I was starting from scratch. Having a relationship with an editor doesn't mean that they'll accept everything you send, but it often means they give you some feedback if they reject a story, or let you know what kind of material they're short of. Invaluable industry insider information, in other words.
3. Giving up too soon
I recently counted up how many full-length novels I've written in total. It came to 15. Four have been published, and another is with a publisher, but that still leaves 10 full length novels (including the monster in long-hand) that are hanging around doing nothing. Some of them are definitely apprentice pieces - novels I wrote to learn how to write novels - and should never see the light of day because they're not meant to. You don't show the world the scribbles you do when you're learning to draw.
But some of them are not apprentice pieces and have been sent to agents, publishers or competitions at some point. Where I went wrong was I didn't send them out enough. One novel got great feedback from agents and publishers, though was never published: what I should have done was take heart from this and keep on sending it out until it had been to every single potential publisher or agent. Apparently the book 'The Zen Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' went to 99 agents and publishers, and only went to the final one, which published it, because the author wanted to make it a round 100.
Sometimes writing really is a numbers game.
4. Telling other people what I was writing
I put my head in my hands when I think of the times I've shared my precious, fragile ideas with someone who then reacted in a sarcastic/ non-committal/ hurtful way and the blasted idea popped and was gone. These people don't have to be your worst enemies, either, they're often the very people who you think would support, encourage and nurture your writing ambitions.
Ideas are fresh and full of energy when they're in your head. They're also pretty good once they're on paper and you've rewritten them a few times. But when they come out of your mouth for an audience that doesn't understand, and frankly, has their own issues with your writing, then they fall stone dead.
If people ask me about my writing now, I do a little mysterious smile and say, 'It's fine, thanks', then change the subject. They can read it when it's ready (i.e. published).
5. Not resubmitting
Similarly to the first point, when I started submitting writing I tended to think if a story or article wasn't taken up by the first magazine I sent it to, then it was rubbish so I abandoned it and wrote something new. When I started entering writing competitions, I found to my astonishment that a story that has gone absolutely nowhere in several small competitions is perfectly capable of winning a big competition, and that if a story is rejected several times it doesn't mean it won't find a place somewhere, some time.
I make out an index card for each story I write, including the title, word count, and where I've sent it. This helps me to keep track of where I've sent it. I often also pencil in a number of alternative places to submit it if it gets rejected. This isn't looking on the black side and expecting it to be rejected, but a way of saying to myself that there are plenty of opportunities for each story, and a knock-back doesn't mean the end.
Over to you - what's the most important thing you've learned about your writing? Let me know in the comments below.
Writing always evolves as it progresses: characters change eye and hair colour; names change; subplots develop; you decide the whole thing belongs in a different time period or setting. It’s tempting when you realise something needs to change to go back and correct it from the beginning of your manuscript: that way you can progress knowing that all is in order. However, there are a few problems with this approach:
1. It takes longer to nail down a first draft
A first draft has lots of energy as it’s the draft where you’re discovering the story as you write, and that gives it momentum. If you go back to correct whilst writing the first draft, it’s easy to lose that sense of excitement and the energy in your writing will fade.
2. You get fed up
If you constantly go back and edit things whilst writing the first draft, you can easily start to feel bored. This is because you’re going over the same material time and time again. If you feel bored, it’s very hard to crank out that first draft – writing becomes a chore, not a pleasure.
3. You’ll probably change your mind again
When you write a long piece, such as a novel, there are hundreds of strands you need to keep track of and ultimately tie together into a satisfying story. Change one bit, and you have to change other bits. Then if you decide actually your first idea was better, you have to go back and change it all back again. This all takes time, it’s tedious, and you’re more likely to lose patience with the whole thing and give up.
Here’s a technique that I use in my own writing which ensures I get the first draft written quickly, I keep track of all the changes I need to make, and without spending precious time going back and editing. I use a technique called writing ‘as if’. It works like this. Imagine I’m writing a novel about someone called Dora who lives in 1900. Part way through writing, I think it would be more fun if she was called Edna and lived in 1920. Obviously, I can do a ‘find and replace’ for the name change, but there are huge implications for the story in changing the time setting. Instead of going back and making all the necessary changes, I simply type in capital letters across the page:
FROM THIS POINT ON DORA = EDNA
FROM THIS POINT ON SET IN 1920
To make it stand out all the more, I often make the font larger, and colour the text in red. I then carry on writing AS IF I have gone back and made the changes. In other words, I write the rest of the piece with the character called Edna, and set in 1920, with all the implications associated with that change. I also make a note in a notebook I keep for editing purposes, describing the changes I’ve made and jotting down what I’ll need to attend to when I come to rewrite.
It means that I can keep on writing without having to stop, go back, and make changes, and it means I know where to focus when it comes to the rewrite: tackling all those notes made in my editing notebook. If I then change my mind again later on, I simply write:
FROM THIS POINT ON SET IN FRANCE
make a note in my notebook, and keep on writing, as if I’ve gone back and made the changes.
I’ve found this technique helps me to keep writing without feeling bogged down, and without worrying that I’ll miss something. By jotting all the changes down, I keep my mind clear for writing, instead of trying to hold all the changes in my head. It makes both the first draft and subsequent rewrites much smoother and faster.
Try it, and let me know how you get on!
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.