A pile of books about writing.

Mini reviews: books about writing

Err… happy new year?! I feel as if I’ve almost forgotten how to write a blog post, it’s been that long since my last one. But the academic year is now over, and I have a bit more time for blogging. And reading. And… writing.

I’ve just read the last post I wrote about my MA, and wow was I naively enthusiastic about my novel all the way back in November. Since those halcyon days, I’ve submitted my first semester assessment (the first 6,000 words or so of said novel), had an extended break from novel writing due to a very intense reading unit, written my first essay in almost two decades and, surprisingly, written quite a few short stories.

The novel, though? The extended break, the feedback I got on that first assessment and some goings-on in life generally have prompted a bit of a change in direction. I’ve just started writing what is essentially a new draft, even though I was only halfway through the first one. I will still be able to use quite a lot of the first draft, at least. I just need to write it somewhat differently.

Anyway, the subject of this post is supposed to be books about writing. So, books about writing. I’ve read a few over the last 8-9 months to supplement the craft lessons I’m getting from the MA (while I’m in a learning frame of mind and all), and I thought it might be helpful to other writers if I wrote a round-up of what I’ve read and what they may be useful for.

So, without further ado, here’s what I’ve read…

Becoming A Writer by Dorothea Brande

Becoming A Writer by Dorothea Brande.

What it’s about: Developing good writing habits.

Who it’s for: Anyone new to writing, or more seasoned writers struggling to keep up a regular practice.

Becoming A Writer isn’t so much a book about writing as it is about how to get in the right mindset for writing.

I was surprised at how much useful advice there is in this book, considering it was first published in 1934. The book very much focuses on getting into the practice of being a writer, rather than the technical side of good writing, with some useful exercises for unleashing your creativity. These include the practice of free writing or writing a journal every day before actually writing your work-in-progress.

Some of the writing is a little old-fashioned, but many of Brande’s ideas do stand the test of the time. It’s worth a read if you’re trying to work what kind of writer you are and what practices might work best for you.

Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Story Genius by Lisa Cron.What it’s about: Developing a novel idea from first inklings through to a first draft, using scientific theory about why humans are drawn to stories to pinpoint the most compelling elements of your idea.

Who it’s for: Anyone who is thinking about writing a novel, but only has a vague idea of what it might be about.

Story Genius is a brilliant, useful book that helped me to flesh out the backstory of my protagonist in my first draft, and point the way forward for their development.

Lisa Cron spends a bit of time talking about the science behind engaging stories, and why we respond to particular kinds of stories, before working through a process for developing a story by starting with a character and exploring who they are and what their story is.

Cron provides examples of how to undertake specific exercises from a writer friend who works through each task for her own work-in-progress, which is particularly useful. I’ll admit that I haven’t worked through all of the exercises (because of my change in direction for my own work), but I’ve done most of them, and they were incredibly helpful.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E B White

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E B White.

What it’s about: Rules and advice for the finer points of grammar and sentence construction.

Who it’s for: All writers!

This a useful little book to keep on your desk (or wherever you write) as a handy reference guide to punctuation, grammar and putting together a sentence that works.

It’s not really a book for reading cover to cover. I dip into it in those moments where my brain goes blank and I need to check something grammar-related. There are chapters on elementary grammar, composition, and commonly misused words and phrases, as well as a section with general advice on harnessing style to write clearly.

And yes, that is the same E B White who wrote Charlotte’s Web!

Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker

Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker.

What it’s about: How to create a simple novel outline quickly and easily.

Who it’s for: Time-poor writers who need to come up with a structure for their novel pronto.

This is a helpful book on how to outline if you’ve never done it before, and want to get it done relatively quickly.

I’m not under any particular time constraints with my work in progress, so I used this alongside Story Genius to flesh out backstory and delve deeper into my protagonist’s psyche.

However, I can see this book being really useful if you already know your protagonist’s backstory and just want to plan out what’s actually going to go in your novel.

One thing to bear in mind is that the structure promoted by this book is the fairly standard ‘flawed character wants a thing, but an antagonist stands in the way’ plot. After reading Craft in the Real World (review at the end of this post), I’m now aware that this isn’t necessarily the only/best plot for a novel.

Who Says? by Lisa Zeidner

Who Says? by Lisa Zeidner.

What it’s about: An introduction to different points of view (first person, third person etc) and how to make the most of your chosen point of view.

Who it’s for: Writers who don’t know much about the various points of view available to them, or those who want examples of stories that wield point of view effectively.

Who Says? is an excellent, accessible guide to the different ways in which writers can deploy point of view in novels and short stories.

Zeidner takes the reader through first lines/paragraphs, omniscience, third-person limited and first person points of view, while also giving an overview of more niche narrative voices – children and animals, and also second person and first-person plural. She makes her point clearly and gives lots of supporting examples and quotes to show how certain points of view work (or not).

The chapter relevant to the specific point of view I’m using in my own novel is interesting, but what is even more useful is the final chapter on the revision process, where Zeidner suggests some of the key issues to look out for when revising a first draft. There are also some useful-looking exercises to try at the end of the book.

Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses

Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses.

What it’s about: A critique of the workshop model used on many creative writing courses, and an exploration of how they could be more effective for writers from minority/marginalised backgrounds.

Who it’s for: Minority/marginalised writers (whether you’re taking a course or not) and creative writing tutors.

I ordered this book after reading an intriguing extract from it online. My MA has a workshop component, and I wanted to learn more about how workshopping is affected by the background of both the writer whose work is being workshopped, and of the students/tutor critiquing their work. It’s not a consideration that has really struck me before, but after reading Craft in the Real World, I feel much better informed.

The book is split into two parts – the first considers different aspects of craft and how they are informed by cultural outlook/background. The second part is more for tutors running workshops, and I only read the parts of this half that interested me from a writerly point of view.

The first half is incredibly informative. Salesses describes the origins of the workshop format that dominates creative writing teaching today – i.e. the Iowa-pioneered ‘cone of silence’ that dictates the writer of the piece being workshopped remain silent while others critique their work – and outlines its flaws when it comes to really helping the writer to improve their work, especially if they’re not from a ‘majority’ background (white, cis, straight, affluent, male etc).

He also delves into areas that most writers will be familiar with – conflict, plot, relatability and so on – and explains the traditional definitions of these, while also pointing out any gaps in these definitions.

Salesses gives some useful examples throughout, and there are also a number of exercises at the back of the book that will definitely be useful to both individual writers and workshop groups.

Have you read any of these, or any other useful books about writing?

Collage of books released in 2020.

Favourite books of 2020

It’s been a funny old year for reading. I got off to a great start, but I definitely read fewer books during the lockdown(s) as my powers of concentration dwindled to almost nothing.

Still, one highlight of this weird year for me has been a renewed focus on new releases. I normally rely on the library for these, and then buy anything I really like in paperback, but I bought lots of 2020 releases when the library closed and it became apparent that indie bookshops and publishers need our help more than ever. And that’s not to mention the authors who had the bad luck to have their latest works come out in a year when they can’t do their usual publicity events.

So, to that end, here are my favourite books of the year (divided into new releases and older titles), with links to the small presses and bookshops you can buy from to help support this crucial part of the publishing industry (if you can’t/don’t want to borrow from a library, of course – they still need our support). Blackwell’s is my bookshop of choice here, but go forth and buy from other bookshops if you want!

(Note: There are no affiliate links in this post, so I won’t make any money if you click through and make a purchase.)

Favourite new releases of 2020

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud.Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud

This is by far the novel I’ve recommended the most this year. I first heard of Ingrid Persaud through her excellent prizewinning short story The Sweet Sop. When I heard that her debut novel was being published this year, I just had to give it a go.

Reader, I adored it. Set in Trinidad and New York, Love After Love tells the story of an unconventional household and the physical and emotional journeys that the three main characters go on. Persaud is just so good at creating characters who leap off the page, and her descriptions of place and food are simply fantastic. If you’re looking for a novel full of heart and warmth, this is the one to go for.

Goldilocks by Laura Lam.Goldilocks by Laura Lam

I haven’t read an awful lot of science fiction this year, but this quiet thriller about a group of women astronauts who hijack a spaceship bound for an exosolar Earth-like planet is definitely my favourite 2020 read from the genre. 

This extraordinarily well-researched and thoughtful novel follows Naomi, an astronaut who joins her adopted mother on a risky adventure away from a near-future Earth that is battling climate change chaos and a sinister, misogynist agenda in the US to strip women of their hard-won rights. It’s not an action-packed story as such, but I found Naomi’s story incredibly compelling, and I devoured the book in days.

Exit Management by Naomi Booth.Exit Management by Naomi Booth

I signed up for a subscription from indie publisher Dead Ink early in lockdown. I raced through Exit Management not long after it landed on my doormat and just can’t praise it enough. It’s a haunting, intense story about two people thrown together by the vagaries of the London property market, with recurring themes of class, xenophobia and the consequences of trauma.

Naomi Booth has a wonderfully unique, urgent writing style with short sentences and a creative approach to denoting pauses (using spaces rather than an ellipsis). Her writing is powerfully descriptive, but never seems overwrought or too try-hard. I’m desperate to read her previous novel, Sealed, now.

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid.Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

There was a lot of hype immediately before the release of Such A Fun Age. Happily, it delivered! The story begins with a tense scene in a shop where a 25-year-old black woman, Emira, is accused of kidnapping the white toddler she babysits. This event sparks off all sorts of intrigue as we learn more about Emira and her employer, Alix Chamberlain.

It’s every bit as good as the rave reviews say – funny and compulsively readable with complex, flawed characters who attempt to navigate race, privilege and power with what they think are the best of intentions. I couldn’t turn each page fast enough.

Keeper by Jessica Moor.Keeper by Jessica Moor

I don’t read much in the crime genre, but Keeper caught my eye because Jessica Moor is a graduate of the master’s course I’m taking. This dark and gripping story is told from the perspectives of a young woman called Katie, the policeman investigating her apparent suicide, and the women who Katie worked with in a shelter for those fleeing domestic abuse.⁣⁣
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I loved this novel, as dark and disturbing as the subject matter is – I could hardly put it down! The writing is terrific and the novel raises many important issues about how domestic violence is perceived, tackled and enabled in the UK in a compassionate, thoughtful manner. 

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo.The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

I loved this short but thoughtful fantasy story about a non-binary cleric, Chih, who visits the house where a former empress was once sent into exile. Chih discovers that the house is still inhabited by the empress’s old servant, who gradually tells them the real story behind the ‘official’ version of the empress’s rise to and fall from power – and her eventual resurgence.

The story focuses on those seemingly unimportant objects and details that can be overlooked by historians to highlight the ways in which women’s voices are removed and hidden in historical records – something that’s very pertinent to the real world too! This is a wonderful story with some memorable characters fuelled by love, grief and fury.

Dominicana by Angie Cruz.Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Dominicana is a gripping story set in the 1960s about a teenage girl, Ana, who is sent from her home in the Dominican Republic to a new life in New York with her recently acquired husband, who is twice her age. Loosely based on the life of the author’s mother, the novel paints a stirring picture of the reality of immigrant life for those with very little who aspire to a better lot.

I absolutely loved this novel and found it very difficult to put down. Ana is a compelling character and it’s hard not to empathise with her plight. But she isn’t just a victim; bit by bit, she tries to make the most of her situation. Angie Cruz does a brilliant job of describing immigrant life, as well as the 1960s setting.

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi.Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

This Booker Prize nominee seems to have divided readers, but I personally loved it. Burnt Sugar is an incredibly well written and disturbing story about an Indian woman’s fractured relationship with her mother, who is starting to lose her memory as the book opens. The novel can be unsettling to read at times, with some vivid imagery illustrating Antara’s often strange-seeming thoughts. Yet it also says a lot about the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, and how things change when a child is born.

I was drawn into the story from the first sentence, and it kept me reading even through some of the more disturbing parts of the novel. I really felt an affinity with Antara even while feeling conflicted about some of her thoughts and actions, which for me is the sign of a great storyteller!

Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen.Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Comedy Women in Print Prize, Big Girl, Small Town is a darkly funny character study of Majella, a woman who lives with her alcoholic mother in the Catholic side of a fictional Northern Irish border town, and works in one of the two local chippies. There isn’t much in the way of plot; the novel is structured around Majella’s routine over the course of a week. This focus and some of her habits – like flicking and sucking her fingers – suggests that Majella may be autistic. 

I really enjoyed getting to know Majella. She’s a flawed yet likeable character, and I also loved the various portraits of the other inhabitants of the town, many of whom are struggling with alcoholism, unemployment and general despair. This is one to read if you don’t mind a story that isn’t plot driven, and you enjoy deadpan humour.

Boy Parts by Eliza Clark.Boy Parts by Eliza Clark

Another subscription book, this time from Influx Press, Boy Parts has made it into quite a few ‘best of’ lists this year – and it’s no wonder. This is one of the darkest, most violent novels I’ve read in quite some time, but it’s also incredibly readable, blackly funny and thought-provoking.
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We follow the story of Irina, an attractive photographer living in Newcastle who takes weird and disturbing photos of men she scouts on the street. When she is asked to take part in a London exhibition, she is forced to dig through her archive for pieces to display, taking us into her murky past as a result. I do love a story with a flawed/damaged protagonist, and this is definitely one of them. ⁣⁣You won’t be able to stop reading even as the discomfort level inches higher and higher…⁣

Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth.Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth

Emma Jane Unsworth is another graduate of my master’s course whose previous novel, Animals, I read and loved earlier in the year (see below). Following a hugely flawed but relatable 35-year-old, Jenny, Adults is a slightly more grown-up affair than Animals, but it’s just as funny and readable. Jenny’s obsession with social media hits new heights during and after a long-term relationship with a high-flying photographer. She also has an unstable writing job with the hilariously named Foof website.

There are many laugh-out-loud moments throughout the story, which jumps back and forth through time and is told through prose, emails, texts and WhatsApp messages. While there are some elements of the plot that might have some readers rolling their eyes, this is an excellent novel that echoes some of the thoughts and feelings I’ve had as a 30-something woman in the last few years.

Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe.Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe

I picked up Reasons to be Cheerful when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed by bad news, and I’m so glad that I did. Set in 1980, the story follows teenager Lizzie, who moves away from her home village to a flat in Leicester so she can take up a job as a dental nurse with a xenophobic dentist. The novel also explores Lizzie’s blossoming relationship with dental technician Andy and her more complicated relationship with her mother. 

I’ve had my fair share of dental trauma so I was a bit worried I’d find the ‘work’ storyline hard to stomach, but I needn’t have been! It’s a lovely, funny and very British story full of warmth and odd characters.

The Abstainer by Ian McGuire.The Abstainer by Ian McGuire

I’ll get the disclaimer out of the way first: Ian McGuire is one of my MA tutors. I haven’t read his previous novel, The North Water, but I wanted to read The Abstainer because I can’t resist a Manchester setting. This slow-burning, evocative thriller begins in 1867 and follows James O’Connor, an Irish policeman on the trail of Stephen Doyle, a member of Irish secret society the Fenians. Doyle’s perspective makes up some of the novel, making for an interesting read as we learn about his past and his motives.

I absolutely loved the way 19th century Manchester is brought to life, and could visualise most of the streets that the characters walk along. The plot twists and turns in between quieter moments where we delve into O’Connor and Doyle’s psyches, and the writing is pared back but with some absolute gems of phrasing. It really is worth reading if you enjoy historical fiction. And I’m not trying to suck up to my tutor – honest!

Favourite backlist reads of 2020

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow.The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a wonderfully written love letter to storytelling with a plucky heroine who strives to write her own story instead of others writing it for her. The writing is beautiful and fable-like, and made me rather envious of Alix E Harrow’s way with words.

The plot is a little slow at first, but I didn’t mind that so much in the face of such a brilliant concept for a portal story, with themes touching on racism, sexism and the perils of allowing unimaginative oppressors to rule the world. I definitely almost cried a couple of times and closed the book with a satisfied sigh. What more could you ask for?

Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth.Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth

Animals tells the story of Laura, an aspiring author whose ambitions are somewhat curtailed by her hard-partying lifestyle courtesy of flatmate and best friend Tyler. Both women are in their late 20s/early 30s and take full advantage of the drugs and drink on offer in Manchester in 2012. 

I loved so many things about this novel that I’m not sure where to begin. Laura herself is a wonderful character. I loved the interplay between Laura and Tyler as they get wrecked in various venues around Manchester – and I LOVED the way that Manchester itself is written throughout the novel. The novel is definitely laugh-out-loud funny, but only if you’re not easily offended/disgusted and are happy to stick with characters who might seem unlikeable/unpalatable at first…

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I’ve been meaning to read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for years, and I can’t believe that I put it off for so long! This is a huge, labyrinthine novel set in Regency England that explores the changing relationship between magician Mr Norrell and his pupil, Jonathan Strange. 

I fell in love with the novel pretty much straight away. The combination of Austen-style writing and humour with inventive magical fantasy is irresistible, and I loved many of the characters, especially Stephen Black, a long-suffering black servant descended from slaves who is unwittingly pulled into the world of Faerie and groomed to become a future king. If you too have been meaning to read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but haven’t managed it yet, get on it!

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The only other Neil Gaiman novel I’ve read is Good Omens, which is funny and pacy and thoroughly enjoyable. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a different beast entirely, but no less enjoyable. The novel recounts one man’s memories of a strange chapter in his life, when he was seven. The story begins with the suicide of a miner and features a family of women with mysterious powers, an evil housekeeper and a pond that’s more than it seems.⁣

Gaiman captures the experience of being a wide-eyed, bookish seven-year-old so well, and I absolutely loved the weirdness revolving around the titular ‘ocean’.⁣ This is a beautifully written, haunting and fantastical story about the shifting nature of memory and how children perceive the adult world around them.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud.The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Oh my. I LOVED this book. The Woman Upstairs delves into the interior life of Nora, a teacher and artist in her late 30s who becomes obsessed with the Shahid family, particularly the mother, Sirena, but also her son and husband. Not much really happens in the book, but that’s okay, because the story is propelled by Nora’s pulsating rage at what we think at first is societal expectations of how women are supposed to be. We realise that there is more to this rage than meets the eye, and this device kept me reading to find out exactly what.

I was completely gripped by Nora’s distinctive voice. The characters around Nora are also strongly drawn and felt like real people to me, or at least like Nora’s impressions of what they were like. I’d never heard of Messud before reading this, but I definitely want to read more of her work (as well as the suggestions for ‘further reading’ in my edition).

The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet.The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Graeme Macrae Burnet is best known for his Booker Prize-shortlisted His Bloody Project, which I loved. The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is completely different, but I loved it just as much. It’s a well-written and precise novel that is ostensibly a mystery, but is really a study of the flawed, repressed and not entirely likeable character of Manfred Baumann, a creature of habit who quickly becomes upset whenever there’s any change to the usual way of things.

When the waitress in the restaurant he regularly frequents goes missing, everything changes for Manfred. While the story seems to focus on Adèle’s disappearance, we also discover through flashbacks and through the POV of another character, Inspector Gorski, that Manfred’s own backstory is not entirely what it seems. It’s hard to say more without giving too much away, but the characters are excellently drawn, and Burnet is incredibly deft at using small details to set a scene or portray emotion.

Hormonal by Eleanor Morgan.Hormonal by Eleanor Morgan

I haven’t read much non-fiction this year, apart from a small pile of writing-related tomes. I’ve wanted to escape into fiction even more than usual this year! But Hormonal is a fantastic book that should be read by any woman in their 20s or 30s who wants to know more about how hormones impact on our lives. 

Morgan, who is training to be a psychologist, does a great job of explaining the science behind the menstrual cycle and why we feel the way we do at different points of it, drawing on studies to back up her explanations without using lots of jargon. Although this book is a largely white and cis perspective, and menopause is only dealt with briefly (as Morgan is in her 30s), I would recommend it to pretty much any woman who would like to demystify the workings of their cycle.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E Butler.Parable of the Sower by Octavia E Butler

This novel perhaps cuts a bit close to the bone in this year of all years, but it still thoroughly engrossed me. Published in 1993, Parable of the Sower is an eerie, unsettling and yet somehow hopeful near-future dystopian novel set in California in the mid-2020s, told from the perspective of black teenager Lauren through diary entries. Lauren lives in a gated neighbourhood, and climate change has made the necessities of life scarce and expensive. Events force her to leave her home and embark on a journey towards a better future.

It was quite something reading this during a pandemic, in a time of inept, selfish government! Yet, most importantly, there’s still a thread of hope running through the narrative. It’s a gripping novel, and one that will stay with me for some time. There’s a sequel that picks up Lauren’s story again, which I do want to read soon.

This Paradise by Ruby Cowling.This Paradise: Stories by Ruby Cowling

I’ve read quite a few short stories this year, but This Paradise has to be my favourite short story collection of all time. Yep, you read that right! The stories are hard to pin down to any one genre, but there’s a constant theme of climate change and being on the edge of destruction throughout that had me gripped all the way through. I honestly couldn’t get enough of this collection.

The best thing is that Ruby Cowling is working on a novel that I absolutely cannot wait to read! You can read my full review of This Paradise on the Sabotage Reviews website.

Did you read any of these books? Or does your own best of list look completely different?!

Here’s to a happy Christmas and new year in this weirdest of years…

Vintage typewriter.

On writing

It’s hard to believe that we’re still battling the pandemic through lockdowns and half-baked regional measures five months after my last post, but here we are. For once, though, I’m not going to dwell on COVID – this post is all about writing. Or, more specifically, studying writing.

What I’ve been learning

Since I last posted, I’ve completed a very enjoyable short story course with Comma Press, had one of my stories published in the course anthology (available as a bargain ebook on Amazon), and started an MA in Creative Writing where I work, The University of Manchester, on which I’m writing my first novel proper. [My NaNo effort from last year doesn’t count – I never finished it and it was more of a way for me to get used to writing regularly again, rather than to actually complete a novel.]

I decided to apply for the MA at the start of the year, well before we realised how much of a problem coronavirus was going to be for the world. I decided to do it partly because of new year restlessness, and partly because I’ve always wanted to get a master’s degree. I’d never known what I wanted to study, but after two years of being back in the writing game, I finally realised that I wanted to put everything into a passion project, instead of worrying about the implications of an MA qualification for my career. And I’ve always wanted to write a novel, so what better course to choose than a creative writing one?

I applied to UoM and also Manchester Metropolitan University, and was accepted by both of them, but I think that, deep down, I was always going to study at UoM, mainly because I already knew of the course and knew others who had done it and enjoyed it. The MMU course looked fantastic, though.

I got those offers through in the spring, and a summer of waiting for things to start stretched out ahead of me. I thought it would be a good idea to fill it with something constructive, so I took the Comma Press course to sharpen my short story writing skills. I enjoy writing short pieces very much, but I also find them incredibly difficult to master. The course was amazing for highlighting why and how certain short stories work well, and how to implement some of those lessons in my own work. And, of course, it led to my first publication in the course anthology, which has three other brilliant stories, too (here’s the link again – I might as well use my blog for shameless self-promotion, eh?).

I accepted my UoM offer, then tried to get into a regular writing practice ahead of the start of the course by writing every day in September. This was a difficult undertaking, partly because we went to the Lakes for a few days that month, and partly because I came down with a mega migraine that made concentrating extremely difficult. Still, I just about managed it, but I can’t say that I wrote anything of note, other than some ideas for my novel.

The MA started in October, and it’s been really good so far. I’m taking the course part-time over two years, so I’m studying one unit per semester. This semester’s unit is a fiction workshop, where about ten of us read each other’s work and critique it in workshop sessions. At the moment, of course, these sessions are online, but we’re all hoping that we’ll be able to meet in person at some point next year.

I was the first up to have my work – a short story – critiqued in the very first workshop. To say it was a nerve-wracking experience is a bit of an understatement, considering that I hadn’t really shown my writing to anyone but my husband since I started it up again a few years ago. But it was actually fine, and I got some very encouraging comments and extremely helpful suggestions to show me how to redraft the story.

Since then, I’ve submitted my second and last piece for the term – the opening to my novel. I’ve tried to write this opening several times over the last year or so, and the extract I submitted was the one I was happiest with. Yet because I’d made so many attempts at it, I was even more nervous about what everyone would say than I was about my first submission. I needn’t have worried, because the comments I got showed me that I’m very much on the right track. It was such a relief to hear those comments after months of self-doubt. It just goes to show that what you think of your own work doesn’t necessarily align with what everyone else thinks!

The hardest thing about the course so far has been fitting it in around my job, which is still full-time, although I have an afternoon off each week for the workshop at the moment. Really, I just want to immerse myself in my writing and learning about writing well (as well as reading, of course!). Most of the other students are either working part-time or not at all, and I find myself dreaming of being in a similar situation quite a lot! I’m actually quite grateful that having to work from home has freed up some time in my day that would otherwise be spent commuting, and which I try to put to good use by writing in the mornings before I start work. It’ll be interesting to see how I get on with writing, working and studying when I start my next unit, which involves a LOT of reading. And then how this will work if and when we’re allowed to work in the office again.

What I’m actually writing

If you’re wondering what my novel is about, don’t worry, so am I! Well, I’m joking. Sort of. It’s a contemporary novel that does NOT feature a pandemic of any kind, because I have no desire to go down that road with my writing just yet. It does, however, feature a thirty-something British Indian woman who is in a bit of a bad place emotionally, and is grappling with the anxieties of living in a world that’s teetering on the edge of breakdown. So perhaps there’s the ghost of the pandemic in it, after all!

I’ve paused my short story writing for now, although I do want to go back to the story I submitted in my first workshop (which has a climate change theme, too, as it happens) and redraft it in line with the feedback I received. It’s all about the novel now, and my ultimate goal is to get to the end of the first draft and write those magic words: THE END.

I’m hopeful that the MA will really help push me over the finish line. The staff and students are so nice and supportive, and some of us have formed a little group that meets online every weekend to write and chat about writing. This is something that I’ve never really had beyond a creative writing module in my first degree, and it’s helpful beyond words.

One thing I feel I should note is that I don’t feel like I need to have this MA to become a published author. Publication isn’t even a goal for me right now, as it’s all about improving my craft and getting to the end of my novel. That aside, there has long been a debate in literary circles over whether you need an MA in Creative Writing to be successful as an author. I would honestly say that no, you don’t. No one needs to do a MA. If you can and do write, and are determined to improve and succeed, that’s all you need. Joining a writing group isn’t really that much different to the workshop I’m in. But if you like the idea of having a structure to the way you learn the craft, and of tapping into a community of like-minded people who are all working on their own writing projects – some of whom have been writing and been published for years – then a course of some kind (not necessarily an MA) might be for you.

That’s what I’ve been doing these last few months – I’d better get back to actually writing, now!

Breath of the Wild art.

The comfort of the familiar

When I was a child, there were a few books that I read over and over again, sometimes in back-to-back readings.

My copy of 101 Dalmatians – one of the very few books that I actually owned back then – has been read so much that it’s held together with garish blue tape. There was a particular Famous Five book that I loved to the extent that I would borrow it from the library multiple times, and read it three or more times during a single loan period. I would flick to certain stories in The Puffin Book of Animal Stories over and over, then feel guilty about not reading the others, so I would end up just reading the whole thing anyway.

As I got older, this hankering for what was loved and familiar extended to video games, music and films. When I finally got to the end of my first unforgettable playthrough of Ocarina of Time, I went straight to the title screen and started again. There was a period when I was a child when we had *cough* not-quite-legit *cough* cable at home, and there were a few ‘unlocked’ pay TV channels that had the same films playing on a loop. I would sit down in front of the TV and watch the ones I enjoyed most over and over, endlessly. When I started building my own DVD collection, it was even easier (and more legal) to sit through my favourite films again and again. I used to listen to my favourite records over and over until I got sick of them, then went back for more a few weeks later.

I fell out of this habit as I entered my thirties – I thought that there were just so many things to read/play/watch/listen to, it seemed less justifiable to go through all of the same experiences that I’d had so many times before. I’ve always made an exception for my very favourite books, but everything else just fell away.

Then COVID-19 happened, and all of a sudden all I’ve wanted to do is reach for the familiar, like a young child’s worn and slightly stained comfort blanket.

I went back to Stardew Valley and started another game of growing crops and tending to animals, despite not exhausting my original save file. I bought Breath of the Wild on the Switch (despite already playing it to death on the Wii U) and am now several hours into another playthrough of it.

I’ve bought a lot of books during lockdown in an effort to support my favourite bookshops, but I’ve been getting through them at a slower pace than normal, and keep wondering whether it’s too soon to re-read my Robin Hobb books again (I finished my last read-through of all 16 of them last September, having begun in early 2018).

Last weekend, I put on Sleepless in Seattle for the first time in years – my ultimate comfort watch. A few days ago, I started idly looking up prices for the DVD boxset of Fringe, which I binged on when it was on Netflix back in 2015.

The album listening parties run by Tim Burgess on Twitter have also sent me back in time by featuring old favourites that I hadn’t listened to in years (hello Lost Souls and The Hour of Bewilderbeast), prompting me to seek out more lost gems in my collection.

My head knows that I have 100+ books to read, several games that I need to finish (or even start), and a huge Netflix to-watch list. But my heart just wants to return to the things that I know I love.

It’s not just me. There have been a few surveys and articles confirming that a lot of us are turning to old cultural favourites during lockdown, as well as looking at old photos to summon up the memories of happier days. Nostalgia can have a powerful hold over people at the best of times, but its grip seems vice-like in this current strange period.

One thing I didn’t know about nostalgia is that, in the early 17th century, it was originally deemed an illness with physical symptoms that Swiss soldiers went through when they were fighting abroad and longed for the hills of their alpine home. I recently read Dolly Alderton’s memoir Everything I Know About Love, in which she touches on this when looking back at the period covered by the book:

In the run-up to my thirtieth, my twenties became my alpine dreamland. My twenties were my home, somewhere I knew and felt comfortable. In my rational mind, I was totally aware that most of it had been fraught… but I was overcome with the sickness of nostalgia.

I think my nostalgia comes from a similar place. Although I’m more used to the current situation now than I was at the beginning of lockdown, and I know full well that the pre-COVID world was far from perfect, I still want to flee from the whole thing to somewhere that I know. Whether this is a good thing or not, I’m still not sure.

I recently banned myself from Twitter and news websites for a couple of weeks because I could feel the constant stream of bad news digging into my brain and sowing the seeds of anxiety. While it was helpful to cocoon myself away from the real world for a bit, I couldn’t help but feel a different kind of anxiety that by blocking out the news and refusing to engage with everything outside of my bubble, I was being selfish – especially at a time when protests are erupting around the world to demonstrate against the murder of black people. Wasn’t I being a bad ally by not keeping up to date on everything that was happening? How could I contribute to the fight against racism when I didn’t know what was going on around me?

I sometimes feel like that about my recent trips down memory lane. What’s the point of going back in time when there are writers, directors, actors, musicians and games developers putting out new works that are more relevant to the modern era? (Although I’m quite thankful that there aren’t yet any COVID-themed novels or TV shows to plough through!). How can I hope to develop my understanding of the world when I’m not engaging with it, especially as someone who hopes to write a novel one day?

Perhaps this way of dealing with lockdown is actually good for me. Perhaps, as the rules around lockdown ease (albeit in typically chaotic fashion) and we gradually re-emerge into the new world that’s appeared over the course of this strange spring and summer, I’ll be mentally stronger to deal with whatever new events are going to come our way. We’ll see, won’t we?

Silhouettes on a hill.

25 things I miss about pre-lockdown life

  1. The pure joy of locking the front door and setting off on holiday.
  2. Making a surprised “oh!” noise when the food arrives mid-conversation at a restaurant, even though I was certainly there when I ordered it just a few minutes before.
  3. Guaranteed reading time on the commute to and from work (but not the will-it-won’t-it agony of waiting for a delayed bus, or the other people on it).
  4. The first big mouthful of a pint in a lively pub on a Friday after work.
  5. Falling into a massive Gujarati food coma as my husband drives us home from seeing my mum.
  6. The sight of Manchester city centre basking in butter-soft sunshine that particularly flatters the reddish-brown buildings there.
  7. Random office banter that distracts everyone, even the managers, from work for longer than it probably should.
  8. The curtain of calm that falls over me the moment I walk into a bookshop.
  9. Spilling some of my beer on myself in the excitement of a banging, sweaty gig.
  10. Eating all of my sweets in the cinema before the film even starts.
  11. The sight of my husband bounding up a Lakeland hill like a mountain goat while I slowly struggle along several metres behind him (yes, really).
  12. The wonderful, magical Cheese Man’s enthusiastic greeting of “Hello! ‘Ow you doing?” when we get to the front of the queue at the local market.
  13. Dissolving into hysterical drunken laughter with friends, inevitably resulting in at least two of us getting the hiccups and/or choking/coughing.
  14. Sunny lunchtimes spent reading by the Old Quad at the university, bees drowsing nearby.
  15. Wandering aimlessly up and down the aisles of shelves at the library, knowing that I could take home any book I see for free, if I wanted to.
  16. Licking melted ice cream from my hand after buying a 99 (with raspberry sauce and a Flake) on a really hot day and not eating it quickly enough.
  17. Flicking through a dog-eared inflight magazine while being too excited about my holiday to concentrate on the articles.
  18. Bumping into people I haven’t seen for years and standing on the pavement either nattering for ages or having a quick, slightly awkward catch-up.
  19. Ordering a ridiculously expensive cocktail in a bar and not regretting it in the slightest.
  20. Sitting down with a pot of tea and a huge slice of cake in a cafe after an interesting but exhausting walk around a stately home/castle/museum.
  21. Walking out of Boots/Superdrug while scrabbling in a pocket for a tissue to wipe off all the make-up I’ve tested on the back of my other hand.
  22. Writing to the soundtrack of the plinky-plonky music in the cafe above the bookshop at work.
  23. Furtive glances at other punters’ sleepy under-the-table dogs in a sunny beer garden.
  24. Neck ache from looking upwards at interesting buildings in a foreign city.
  25. Coming home after- well, just coming home, full-stop.
Stardew Valley.

I hope you’re well in these strange times?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost count of the number of emails starting with the title of this blog post in the last few weeks. These are indeed strange times, but sometimes I want to reply with something along the lines of ‘OF COURSE I’m not well! Who is?’. I don’t think many of us will really be able to come to terms with how truly awful this situation is until the worst is over and we can look back at the pandemic from the safety of the future.

Still, I can at least count my blessings. So many people are in a much worse situation than me: I still have a job I can do from home to keep up some sort of routine, my husband is at home, we live in an actual house with a (very small) yard, we don’t have children to keep clothed, fed, entertained and educated, and I have plenty of books and games and music and TV shows and films that should theoretically keep me occupied outside of work. We are healthy. Our families are fine. All good, right? We just need to wait this out.

That’s what I keep telling myself as the UK death count ticks ever higher and the void inside my brain gapes wider and wider.

I have 100 books on my to-read pile, yet I can’t read.

I’m partway through the first draft of a short story and have long-held plans for an actual novel, but I’m barely writing any more.

I scroll endlessly through social media for the comfort of the voices of others who feel the same, even though I know I shouldn’t, and then try to put my phone down and feel like a failure when I can’t do anything productive.

We’re normally looking forward to our anniversary break to the Lake District at this point in the year, but we’ve cancelled it for 2020, and it’s just so depressing to not have a holiday to plan for and talk about excitedly.

This is all actually incredibly rubbish, but I haven’t broken down yet. Somehow, I just keep going, and I know deep down that we’ll eventually get to the end of all this, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the moment.

So, what’s getting me through these strange times?

Games

It seems that I’ve found it much easier to escape into visual media than written works. I’m on my second playthrough of the delightful Stardew Valley on Nintendo Switch (that’s the picture at the top!), which is providing real joy through the simple tasks of growing crops, brewing beer, milking cows and collecting eggs from my chickens and ducks. We’re also letting off steam by shouting obscenities at Toad in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe every now and then, because Toad is an absolute tool who wants to make your life hell.

TV

We’re also working our way through Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Netflix (the latest series is also free on All 4). My husband has been watching it for ages, but he suggested we watch it from the beginning together because I wanted to watch something funny and distracting. And it’s absolutely brilliant – it’s proper laugh-out-loud hilarious with wonderful characters and 20-minute episodes that aren’t too taxing in terms of plotlines. I really hope we can make the remaining episodes last until the end of the lockdown…

Food

Cooking and baking is helping too – when we can acquire flour, that is. After becoming lax on the meal planning front earlier in the year, we’ve gone back to properly deciding what we’re going to eat each week to cut down on trips to the supermarket.

We make sure to plan particularly lovely meals for the weekends, and always have a supply of biscuits in the house, because it’s not nice to run out of biscuits. If you can get hold of Lemon Puffs (we get them from Tesco), they are particularly lovely!

I’ve done a lot of baking recently – muffins, cakes and bread, mainly. No banana bread yet, though. Bananas don’t really last long enough in this house for them to make it into a cake!

Exercise

I’ve been trying to exercise every day before work, mainly from my exercise DVDs. The weight is still piling on regardless due to the aforementioned cooking and baking, but at least I’m trying to actually keep my strength up. Going running in the park nearby is the closest I get to ‘going out out’ these days!

Music

We’ve enjoyed a few of Tim Burgess’s listening parties on Twitter recently. They’re really good – choose something from the schedule on the website, then put on the CD/record/digital stream at the appointed time and follow along on the #timstwitterlisteningparty hashtag to see what everyone else is saying about the album.

Tim usually gets the band/artist in question to provide a running commentary on each song on the album too, which is incredibly interesting! Throw in a couple of beers, whiskies or teas and it makes for a really nice, distracting evening. We’ve had a couple of beer deliveries from local breweries recently, which have been much appreciated! It’s worth seeing if you can do the same, if you fancy a nice beer and don’t much like the selection on offer in the supermarkets.

Quizzes

I would wholeheartedly recommend signing up to Richard Osman’s newsletter. It’s supposed to promote his upcoming novel (which sounds great, by the way!) but is also a really nice weekly dose of gentle chat about snacks and other random things, and there’s a great quiz at the end of each one that you can do yourself or with someone else.

That’s what I’ve been doing. How have you been keeping well (or not) in these strange times?

The Secret Commonwealth cover.

My favourite reads of 2019

Yes, it’s yet another ‘best of 2019’ book list. Sorry. But if it helps, I’m keeping this one short – just 5 books on my list, even though I read enough fantastic books to fill a top 20 this year!

Below the 2019 list are a few brief honourable mentions. None of the below are in any particular order.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo.The blurb

From Newcastle to Cornwall, from the birth of the twentieth century to the teens of the twenty-first, Girl Woman Other follows a cast of twelve characters on their personal journeys through this country and the last hundred years. They’re each looking for something – a shared past, an unexpected future, a place to call home, somewhere to fit in, a lover, a missed mother, a lost father, even just a touch of hope…

My thoughts

Girl, Woman, Other mesmerised me from the moment I started reading it and is definitely one of my books of the year. The style – a fusion of poetry and prose – is unusual but highly effective, as is the structure, with each section focusing on one character and almost being short stories in themselves, despite being part of a narrative that spans the entire book.

[Read more: Booker Prize thoughts]

The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust Volume Two) by Philip Pullman

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman.The blurb

It is twenty years since the events of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One unfolded and saw the baby Lyra Belacqua begin her life-changing journey.

It is almost ten years since readers left Lyra and the love of her young life, Will Parry, on a park bench in Oxford’s Botanic Gardens at the end of the ground-breaking, bestselling His Dark Materials sequence.

Now, in The Secret Commonwealth, we meet Lyra Silvertongue. And she is no longer a child…

My thoughts

Like La Belle Sauvage, The Secret Commonwealth is darker than the His Dark Materials trilogy, with several very upsetting scenes. But the wonder of this amazing world, the very human characters and the globe-trotting, twisty plot do much to sidestep the potential pitfalls of dwelling too long on human misery.

There are more than a few nods to real-world events through themes of corporate and religious interference in state affairs, the displacement of people from their home country, poor mental health and extremism, which are examined mostly through their effects on individual people, and this is done so carefully and honestly.

I very much enjoyed getting to know Lyra as an adult, and can’t wait to read more in the final book.

Assassin’s Fate (Fitz and the Fool Book 3) by Robin Hobb

Assassin's Fate by Robin Hobb.The blurb

The much-anticipated final conclusion to the Fitz and the Fool trilogy… Assassin’s Fate is a magnificent tour de force and with it Robin Hobb demonstrates yet again that she is the reigning queen of epic fantasy.

[I’ve removed most of the publisher’s description here to avoid spoilers for the previous books]

My thoughts

I finished this in tears after re-reading/reading for the first time all of the previous 15 books over the last year or so. Assassin’s Fate is a more than fitting end to a wonderful and unforgettable series, tying up various plotlines from the Six Duchies, Bingtown, the Pirate Isles and the Rain Wilds and reintroducing many much-loved characters from all of the books.

It’s a huge book, and the middle does suffer a little from ‘characters make an interminably long journey’ syndrome, but I welcomed this because I was trying to put off getting to the end for as long as possible!

I’m going to feel bereft for quite a while. [Reader, I still do.]

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky ChambersThe blurb

At the turn of the twenty-second century, scientists make a breakthrough in human spaceflight. Through a revolutionary method known as somaforming, astronauts can survive in hostile environments off Earth using synthetic biological supplementations. With the fragility of the body no longer a limiting factor, human beings are at last able to explore neighbouring exoplanets long suspected to harbour life.

Ariadne is one such explorer. On a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds fifteen light-years from Earth, she and her fellow crewmates sleep while in transit, and wake each time with different features. But as they shift through both form and time, life back on Earth has also changed.

My thoughts

I loved the concept of humans being able to biologically engineer themselves to survive in what would otherwise be hostile environments. In fact, I loved all of the science in this book – it’s beautifully and simply explained in Chambers’ trademark style.

There are also some wonderfully evocative descriptions, both out in space and here on Earth – I so want to visit the gardens of the organisation behind Ariadne’s mission in real life!

To Be Taught… is a small but perfectly formed ode to the wonders of space exploration and what can be achieved through collective effort. I zipped through this in the space of a day during a week filled with particularly bad news, and it is filled with so much warmth and humanity that I couldn’t help but feel soothed.

Greetings From Bury Park by Sarfraz Manzoor

Greetings From Bury Park by Sarfraz ManzoorThe blurb

Sarfraz Manzoor was two years old when his family emigrated from Pakistan to join his father in Bury Park, Luton. His teenage years were a constant battle to reconcile being both British and Muslim. But when his best friend introduced him to Bruce Springsteen, his life changed for ever.

In this affectionate and timely memoir, Manzoor retraces his journey from the frustrations of his childhood to his reaction to the tragedies of 9/11 and 7/7. Original, darkly tender and wryly amusing, this is an inspiring tribute to the power of music to transcend race and religion and a moving account of a relationship between father and son.

My thoughts

I absolutely LOVED this memoir. There are still few books that closely and honestly examine the experience of being a second-generation Asian immigrant to England (for that is still what Manzoor is, despite being born in Pakistan), and Greetings From Bury Park articulates a lot of aspects of that experience for people like me who have generally felt more of an affinity for British culture than for the culture of their parents’ birth country – while still feeling like that they don’t fully fit into either.

I read a library copy, but if it had been my own copy I would have underlined many passages in it for how much they truly spoke to me, even though Manzoor is at least a decade older than me (my Springsteen was Britpop!).

I also loved…

  • Refugee Tales: Volume III (read my review on Sabotage Reviews)
  • Educated by Tara Westover
  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara (I read a proof copy – it’s released in 2020)
  • Ordinary People by Diana Evans
  • Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin
  • The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
  • Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
  • Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  • Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
  • Normal People by Sally Rooney
  • Restoration by Rose Tremain
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt
National Novel Writing Month Winner 2019.

How NaNoWriMo 2019 went for me

I did it! I ‘won’ National Novel Writing Month – or NaNoWriMo – by writing precisely 50,187 words of a novel over the course of November.

Considering how terrified I was back in October, this surely means that it must have been easier than I thought, right?

Well… sort of. Or not really.

No, in fact.

The bad bits

It was every bit as difficult as I had expected.

It was even worse during the first and third weeks, as you can see in my daily word count chart below:

Daily word count graph.
My daily word count for NaNoWriMo 2019

The first week because a) I decided to start again after 2,000 words or so (but I still kept those in my final word count!), and b) it just felt too hard to fit writing around work.

The third week because my brain decided to treat me to an epic four-day migraine just as I was getting back on track with my word count. Lucky me!

The good bits

Yet, somehow, I persevered.

After the struggles of my first week, I got into a solid routine of writing every lunchtime and most evenings. I also set 6am alarms on the days when I had a lot of catching up to do so I could write before leaving for work, too.

I got really good at just throwing words onto the page and not going back to rewrite entire paragraphs, change characters’ names, or add or remove whole scenes. This is pretty amazing for me, and has taught me a good deal about the benefits of hashing out a first draft before doing any sort of editing.

I ended up writing on every single day of November (not including the 30th, as my goal was to finish 50,000 words by the end of the 29th). Yes, I even bashed out a few words on my phone on those awful migraine days, just to keep up my streak. I’m astonished at myself for achieving this, when my writing routine is usually incredibly erratic and basically relies on me being in the mood for it.

A chart showing progress towards 50,000 words.
My overall progress towards the 50k goal

It was so helpful to be able to chat to other NaNo writers in Manchester, both online and in person. Talking to people who are going through the same struggles as you can only be a good thing when it comes to worrying less and writing more.

The writing itself

The only real fly in the ointment is that I never really felt like I was writing anything good (although I knew that would be the case). I did a little planning before I started, but then completely ignored my plan and essentially pantsed my way through those 50,187 words.

I had also originally intended to write my novel with multiple third-person points of view, but just went straight in with a single first-person narrative instead. As it’s a fantasy novel, this made worldbuilding extremely difficult! I don’t know how Robin Hobb does it, to be honest.

Next steps

So, will I go back and finish the novel that I’ve started?

I think so, and perhaps when I do look at what I’ve done again, I’ll see it in a kinder light. I’ll finish it in its current form, and then perhaps use the editing stage to totally rewrite it in the format I originally planned to use. The good thing about having already written so much is that at least I’ve got more of a feel for the plot and how it will develop, so hopefully rewriting won’t be as big a task as it sounds!

(I know. It will be even bigger.)

For now, I’ve gone back to writing short stories, as I came up with lots of ideas during November. Of course, I’ll have a list of novel ideas as long as my arm after a week or so of doing this.

I’ve also been enjoying going outside at lunchtimes and spending evenings relaxing instead of staring at a laptop screen.

And, as I banned myself from reading novels during November to avoid being disheartened by published authors’ actual talents, I can’t wait to read a proper novel again!

NaNoWriMo 2019.

On NaNoWriMo, or doing something really daft

What’s the least sensible thing you can do when you’ve written a handful of short stories to date and like to take a relaxed (i.e. non-existent) approach to planning? Because I think I’ve done it.

After months of contemplating an ever-evolving idea for a full-length book, I bit the bullet and registered with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which kicks off on Friday.

All around the world, thousands of people are preparing (or not) to write 50,000 words of a novel or another project throughout November. And I’m one of them.

The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems.

Writing something approaching 1,700 words a day when I have a full-time job?

Writing 1,700 words a day when I have a house to look after, cooking and exercise to do, and gigs to go to?

Writing 1,700 words a day when I can’t do any computer work late in the evenings because it triggers bad headaches and means I can’t sleep, but the thought of setting a dawn alarm just so I can write makes me weep?

Writing ONE THOUSAND AND SEVEN HUNDRED WORDS A DAY, you stupid woman?

Okay, it’s officially ridiculous. But I do have my reasons.

  1. I need to force myself into a regular writing routine, because I’ve been severely slacking off recently.
  2. I’ve suspected for some time that one of the reasons that I struggle with writing short stories is that my heart isn’t really in that particular format. Novels are my absolute favourite thing to read, so perhaps I should be writing them, too!
  3. This particular novel idea has been floating around my head for the best part of a year, and if I don’t write it now I probably never will.
  4. This might how I discover the joy of planning. I mean, I’ve already done some planning!!!
  5. I really like the community aspect of NaNoWriMo, and have already (virtually) met other writers in Manchester who I hope will help keep me motivated because they’re all going through the same issues as me, compared with my current solitary unmotivated state.
  6. I’m definitely off my trolley.

Of course, I could just write the thing at my own pace and not bother with the pressure of something that requires me to write SEVENTEEN HUNDRED WORDS A DAY.

But I know for a fact that I just wouldn’t do it. I’d write maybe 500 words of it, tinker with what I’ve written for a day or two, then get fed up and eventually move that file into my depressingly well-stocked ‘Unfinished – archive’ folder, which is a polite way of saying that everything in there is doomed to never be looked at again.

I’m at least under no illusions that whatever I write will be any good. First drafts are pretty much always rubbish. First drafts of first novels are definitely always rubbish.

The main aim is to write 50,000 words (FIFTY- you get the idea) that wouldn’t otherwise be written. Anything else is a bonus.

Wish me luck…

Booker Prize thoughts

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.There’s been a bit of a hoo-ha in the world of books this week, thanks to the judging panel for this year’s Booker Prize insisting on awarding the prize to two authors instead of one – Margaret Atwood for The Testaments, and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other.

I’ve just finished Girl, Woman, Other, and read The Testaments very recently, so I’ve been particularly interested in the controversy around the awarding of the prize over the last few days (and I would say I usually don’t pay very close attention to literary prizes!).

As far as I can gather, there are a few reasons why some people have been up in arms about it, the main ones being that the decision broke the prize’s rules, and that this is the first time a black female author has been awarded the prize, with comments from some that Evaristo’s achievement has been diminished by the decision to award it to Atwood, a white woman.

Yet, with an ethos similar to that of the Great British Bake-Off (well, in theory… don’t get me started on this year’s series), the whole point of the prize is to honour authors based only on the quality of the work nominated. The Booker website says its aim is to “reward the finest in fiction, highlighting great books to readers and transforming authors’ careers”. (So this article by one of the judges, Afua Hirsch, who refers to judging “the titanic career, the contribution to culture” of Atwood, is rather interesting.)

On that front, I believe that Girl, Woman, Other is superior to The Testaments and should have won the prize on its own.

I did enjoy Atwood’s novel and appreciated the relevance of its themes to the real-life chaos going on around the world today, but I didn’t take to it in quite the same way as The Handmaid’s Tale, and had some issues with the build-up to the climax at the end. It was possibly a case of me going into it with very high expectations after all the hype and anticipation, and being slightly disappointed as a result.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo.In contrast, Girl, Woman, Other mesmerised me from the moment I started reading it and is definitely one of my books of the year. The style – a fusion of poetry and prose – is unusual but highly effective, as is the structure, with each section focusing on one character and almost being short stories in themselves, despite being part of a narrative that spans the entire book. I felt like I got to know each character inside out, whereas a couple of the protagonists in The Testaments seemed a little vague or out of reach for me. It’s such a brilliant, honest portrayal of life in Britain as a woman (or non-binary person, in the case of one character), and especially of the vastly different experiences that women of colour in particular have.

To me, there’s no real contest between the two. However, there are lots of people out there who feel just as strongly about The Testaments as I do about Girl, Woman, Other – and others who think neither should’ve won.

As succinctly outlined in a brief book group scene in Girl, Woman, Other, there’s a whole other debate to be had about whether it’s possible to ‘objectively’ decide that one book is definitely of a higher quality than another, as opposed to believing a book to be good because it speaks to you on a personal level more than something else – regardless of how well it might be seen to be written in general. And who should decide whether a book is good, anyway? Critics, judges, other writers, the public?

I’m certainly capable of liking one book mainly because it seems well-written compared with other books I’ve read, and then liking another mainly because it echoes my own thoughts and experiences (or because it introduces me to experiences I’ve never known). I don’t think we have to be exclusively in one camp or the other for all the books we ever read.

If all of the Booker judges felt that both books were equally brilliant regardless of which side of the debate they’re on, then all we can do as readers is find out for ourselves whether we think they’re right or not. But no doubt the controversy will rumble on for a while yet!