Starting a Novel from Scratch

2016 sees the start of my new novel with the provisional title, Father of the House. It’s been brewing for a while, and started as a story based on the reverberations of war down the generations. I’ve since shifted focus but kept the main character, Justin, whose youthful involvement with radical politics comes back to bite him and his family in later life.

This time round I promised myself not to launch in without an outline, however sketchy. My own experience of left activism in the 80s gives me a framework, though Justin was busy rocking the establishment in the early 70s. I now have a cast of characters with name, age and life history; I don’t always know how they will pan out until they appear on the page. I’m excited to be bedding them in and watching them grow. In the first flush of enthusiasm it feels good to ride the wave of making things up as you go along. Then comes the grind of rewriting, editing and brutally deleting.

I have a plot mapped out, but confess I don’t know how it ends. I’ll just have to keep writing to find out.

Edwin’s advice about goal setting, in Jan 6 post, is timely. My goal is to write the first draft over 12 months, allowing for background reading and research. Achievement –  yes – brilliant idea!

Will let you know how it’s going.


New Years Goals not Resolutions: Writing that Novel


, , , , , , , ,

Welcome to the new year, may it be everything you hope for. And may you keep all your resolutions… although, statistics tell us only about 8% of you will.

I don’t want to start off the new year on such a downer, so let’s try to improve those statistics, but how to do that?

Well, the most important thing, say experts, is to turn those resolutions into goals.

What’s the difference?

Well, a resolution is more like wishful thinking or perhaps the conclusion of an ideal circumstance. It’s something you hope will happen if you start on a path and somehow manage to stay on that path. It’s a start and a finish with no middle.

A goal is a something you work towards through a sequence of steps. To be most effective, those steps should be as small and achievable as reasonably possible. Even better is to set small goals to aim for along the way. These can also give you a measure of how well you’re moving toward the main goal.

For example, your goal could be to write a novel this year. But you’re busy with life and you know writing a novel is a big task, so how to go about it?

To begin with, get used to writing your goals down. The act of putting them on paper gives them a greater sense of reality.

Then, break the task down into smaller, ideal goals, and adjust those until you get goals you think are reasonable. For example, if you want to have the novel ready to submit to an agent or self publish by the end of the year, then you must realize that you’ll likely need at least three drafts: (1) the first, rough draft, (2) the first edit where you clean up plot holes and expand on themes you’ve identified, (3) the polish edit. Often you’ll need more edits, but you should plan on these as a minimum.

Therefore, unless you’re completely rewriting for draft 2, a reasonable breakdown of the year would be 6 months for draft 1, 4 months for draft 2, and 2 months for draft 3. These are just crude estimates and each person will be different, but this seems a reasonable estimate to me. So, how fast do you have to write draft 1?

A novel is approximately 100,000 words. At 1000 words (4 typed, double-spaced pages) per day you should finish the first draft in 100 days (3 1/3 months). That means that finishing in six months (180 days) would require writing 556 words per day, or about two typed double-space pages, seven days per week. Adjust if your schedule leaves fewer days. With a good idea and a strong direction that seems achievable even if your life is fairly busy. You may have to adjust this if you haven’t done any planning or if your story will require a lot of research.

So, you’ve got the first six months set, you’ve planned how much you have to do per day, but six months is a long time to stay motivated on a task and life has a way of interfering, so you will need to build in other goals, checkpoints, if you will along the way.

A simple one is just to subdivide the word-count, ensuring that you work toward 3900 (4000?) words per week, and target 16700 words per month. If you have a good idea about your story structure, then you could also have goals of finishing certain chapters by a certain date. It all depends on knowing how you work.

To keep yourself motivated, plan rewards if you reach those goals, a greater reward the higher the goal. If you don’t trust yourself to be honest, get someone else to give you the rewards. If you’re in a writing group, you could create a series of achievement awards, for example, or whatever motivates you – get creative!

{Not sure I condone this, but some psychology studies suggest punishments may be more successful than rewards. For example, you set up a donation to a cause you are strongly against. Then you give a friend the information such that you can’t cancel the donation unless you are successful and they give you the missing information!}

The other two stages for the second half of the year can be set up similarly, although the goals will be different since you’ll be editing instead of writing.

Then, with some hard work, good planning, and much less luck than you might otherwise need, by this time next year you’ll have your novel done.

Are you thinking about trying this? Have you already tried a similar method? Do you have a different strategy? Let us know your experience in the comments below.

Happy Writing.

The NaNoWriMo Experience


, , , , ,

25 Days gone      39,700 words written      5 days remaining

Writing in NaNoWriMo is an interesting experience. I’m usually a pedantic, painfully precise writer who can take hours to produce a page. That just won’t cut it in the National Novel Writing Challenge, where the goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days (or 1667 words / day). The only way I can find to do this is to turn off the internal editor, that voice in your head that constantly says ‘fix that’, ‘that’s not right’, ‘that doesn’t make sense’.

This year, I entered NaNoWriMo in an attempt to kickstart myself back into writing. There’s been a lot of good reasons for procrastinating as of late, however, it’s still procrastinating and the only thing ever produced by someone sitting around is hot air. So what better way to restart the writing engine than to be thrown into the fire.

Of course, any writer partaking in NaNoWriMo who’s worthy of the moniker has to realize that what you produce during this period will have to be heavily edited. But if you succeed, the important thing is that – YOU’VE WRITTEN HALF A NOVEL IN ONE MONTH! That’s a significant achievement. It make take you months more to finish and revise it, but the experience is irreplaceable.

Admittedly, it’s taken me about half the month before the engine began revving and the internal editor’s voice dulled to a barely audible whisper. But I have finally reached that point and I’m on schedule to finish November 30 (yes! down to the wire). Finishing, however, is mostly symbolic – I’ve taken on the challenge and come out the other side successful. More important is that I feel I’ve truly and properly kickstarted myself back into the writing enthusiasm I had when I started ten years ago.

So, it may not be for everyone, and there are other ways of developing your writing habits ( is one that sounds promising), however, if you are the kind of person who rises to a challenge, then I heartily recommend NaNoWriMo – as long as you enter with the right spirit. What you produce could very well be the backbone of a great story. Just remember, however, that it won’t read like that on November 30.

Happy Writing.

After Apple Picking



apple-picking-at-eragny-sur-epte-1888It has been a beautiful day so I took advantage of the warm, dry October weather to to finally pick the apples from my tree. I only have the one now as the other gave up the ghost a few years ago. They both seemed pretty ancient when we bought the house twenty-odd years ago and the gnarled old survivor is leaning at a precarious angle, but somehow it carries on. Last year there was barely half a sack of apples and I thought this is the beginning of the

But today as I clambered up the trunk it was obvious that this year was going to be much more productive. I don’t use a ladder, partly because the tree is still strong enough to support me and partly to prove that I can still do it twenty-odd years after I first did. I can.

Once up there I am able to put a sack on a nearby shed roof and start to pi
ck away. The fruit at the very top was warm in my hand as I gently eased it from the tree. Devil’s coach-horses which have been happily living up there round the stalk of the apple run across my hand and down my sleeve as I continue to pick. I still find these pincer clad critters as menacing as I did as kid. But in spite of the wildlife, soon the sacks are filling nicely as I work from bough to bough.

My plan this year is to make cider. I have been thinking about this for a while and even bought a press a couple of years ago, where it has been gathering dust in the shed til now. But this year will be different. Oh yes.

I always tell people that I don’t get poetry, but then I realise that that is not really true. Every time I pick my apples I return to one of the poems I read at school and which has stuck with me ever since. So I just re-read Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking”. It was a bit disappointed that after my excitement at the prospect of my new venture in cider making I discover (or re-discover) that he consigns apples which fall to the floor to cider making “As of no worth”. Not that I am going to let that put me off. I (well strictly speaking my wife) just washed the cider press and a couple of demijohns we found in the garage. All we need now is – well actually it seems we need a whole load of other kit – but I’m not going to let that put me off this year. Honestly. In any case, sadly,
“…. I am done with apple picking now”.

It’s NaNoWriMo season again!


, , , ,

For those who haven’t participated in the global writing event, now inaccurately named the National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo challenges you to write a 50,000 word novel in one month.

Sound crazy?

Yeah, just a little. But the goal is intended to encourage people to turn off those doubting parts of the brain, and, for writers, that internal editor, and just have fun writing like an author possessed for one month. Leave the editing until December, or even January after holiday excesses are over.

NaNoWriMo began in San Francisco in 1999 and has since spread worldwide. There are local meet-ups, kids packs for schools, preparation programs, and self-publisher deals for NaNoWriMo participants, although the NaNoWriMo organization itself remains donation-based and non profit.

However, make no mistake, this is a significant challenge whatever you decide to write and however seriously you decide to take it. You’re attempting to average 1666 words, approximately 6 pages, per day of coherent, at least somewhat flowing, fiction. For some this is easy, for others – like myself – it’s far from trivial.

I’ve personally participated in NaNoWriMo four times in the past. The two times I wasn’t prepared, mentally and with regards to my story, I didn’t even succeed in cracking 10,000. The other two times, when I was ready, and outlined my novels ahead of time, I succeeded. In both of those cases it was a thrill to see a novel, this abstract mental creation that had been vaguely floating around my head for months, take form as a completely realized story. Of course, it took a few more months to clean them up enough to properly call them a first draft, but that initial feeling of accomplishment is something I still remember almost a decade later.

This year I’ll be returning to NaNoWriMo after a long break from it. I’ve recently moved house and, with all that entails I’ve been away from writing for a while. So, succeed or not, I intend to use the excitement and encouragement of NaNoWriMo to get back to a regular writing routine. Now to start preparing.

Happy Writing.

Canadian Transcontinental


, , , , , , , ,

Three days turn into four as we accumulate stoppage time for mile-long freight trains thundering down the track. We are passengers on Canada’s VIA service, where time, it seems, is no object.

‘This is stretching a friendship,’ as a fellow traveller puts it.

Rockies and prairies, lakes, forests and chiffon skies, a panoramic sweep from Kamloops to Toronto of this vast and beautiful country is ample compensation.

Most daunting are the prairies: sandless desserts that suck you in and threaten to tip you over the horizon. No parcelling of land into squares and strips with hedgerows and dry-stone walls, no relief of hill or tree. In these unconfined spaces the eye must shift dimension to find subtle shades in yellows and browns, fix on a distant tractor or trace telegraph wires in parallel lines. With steady gaze and firm foothold, I may yet distill this vision into words; like a blank page, the landscape cries out for delineation which only the mind can impose.

The Rockies have other qualities. Excitement bounces round the viewing dome as we happily snap our digital imprints of these stolid and graceful giants capped with snow; from distant heights they shed crystalline waterfalls. I’m put in mind of the flow that occurs, on a good day, after chiselling at the surface of language – an unforgiving material at the best of times – into some recognisable shape. Whether with camera or keyboard, we chase the shadows of nature’s commanding presence and perhaps our own half-expressed dreams.

Brakes creak as we grind to a halt to let an oil train pass – again. I have an intimate view of a pine forest and observe a spectrum of green as variegated as any sea. The trees stand close and tall, branches sweep skywards like dancers’ arms, spreading feathered hands to spiny tips. Mature trees are a muted bottle-green, others lead-green or verdigris – sometimes only a borrowed word will do. Younger specimens shimmer apple-bright with lime green shoots, light shining through still sparse growth.

There’s a jolt as the train moves forwards, to general cheering.

‘The destination is the journey,’ chirps a neighbour, which after ten hours’ delay, sounds like a gem from Forrest Gump.

Self- Publishing Strategies – Talking to Local Groups


, , ,

As a self-published writer I am now finding that writing a book was the easy part. The hard bit is marketing your book i.e. letting people know that it exists and that it is something they would like to buy and read. One of the things I have been doing is speaking at meetings of local groups who might be interested in the subject-matter of my book or are interested in writing. Last night I gave a very informal talk to a small group at a local writers meeting.

I am not vastly experienced in public speaking, so I have to force myself to do this kind of thing. However, I do suggest that if you are thinking of self-publishing then this is a part of your marketing strategy. You should identify such local groups and make contact with them and try to build up a rapport so that they are amenable to you speaking to them. They are often looking for something new to enliven their meetings so there is a good chance that you will be invited to speak, especially if you are not charging a fee – which I suggest you don’t. They will probably give you a slot of 15 to 30 minutes and in my experience that could range from giving a Powerpoint presentation to an informal chat. My suggestions for giving such talks are:

  • keep it simple and don’t pack too much in
  • if you are not an experienced public speaker, make sure your notes are well prepared and simple for you to follow without you having to read out loud from them. As you are talking about a subject which must be very dear to your heart, i.e. your book, it should be relatively easy to talk enthusiastically even if you are not very experienced.
  • gear the talk to your audience so that they don’t go away feeling they have heard a sales pitch and nothing else. Make sure that the pitch is part of the wider subject.
  • having said that, make sure that you do communicate in an interesting way what your book is about and why they should buy it
  • if you are not already familiar with it, learn how to use Powerpoint and have a simple presentation prepared which you can then amend as required.
  • it’s obvious, but remember to take copies of your book for people to buy. Also make sure you have change to give them, as they will be paying by cash.
  • have some kind of marketing material which you can give to everyone who attends to take away with them. People may not want to buy your book on the night for various reasons, but they may do so later, so need to know how to find it. I have book marks with the book title, a plot summary and the website where they can buy the book on it and i give these to everyone.
  • finally, don’t expect to sell large numbers of books at these talks. They are just part of a much wider strategy which is all about publicising your book as widely as possible.

As I said, I have to force myself to do this kind of thing, but once I get going I have to say that I do enjoy these opportunities to talk about my book and I think that you will too.

Writers’ idyll


, , , , ,

What do you get if you place fifteen writers in a rural melting pot, simmer for 5 days with the occasional stir from a tutor and serve on a bed of literary aspiration? Answer, an Arvon creative writing course.

Arvon HouseWe earnest scribblers, or more appropriately key-tappers, from as far afield as Switzerland and the US, congregated at the remote idyll Totleigh Barton in the depths of Devonshire. Wifi/phone access required a significant uphill walk and frenetic mobile waving to obtain a signal. Any observers would think we resembled Star Trek crew members on a reconnaissance mission. But this didn’t faze (or phase?!) us as we focused our efforts on writing in our monastic-style rooms. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

IniP6180028tially apprehensive yet hopeful we gathered for the first evening’s activities. After formalities we jumped into the ice breaker: everyone had to state three facts about themselves, the twist being one statement had to be untrue. Aside from revealing the effective liars, it was an early indication of writing style: from terse action sequences to fairy tale weaving.

Our motley crew of fourteen women and one undaunted man was comprised of those with related careers such as literary festival organiser or children’s librarian, some members with writing MA experience, and some with simple enthusiasm. But the common thread was the desire to write Children/YA novels.P6190035

By the end of day 2 we’d all had a one-to-one with Gillian Cross or Marcus Sedgewick, both award winning authors. Later we sat entranced as they read extracts from their books and discussed their literary backgrounds.

On the third day, after much further pounding of the keyboard, and another mentoring session, it was my team’s turn to make the evening meal. We narrowly averted a disaster to a huge vat of chilli con carne when my ageing eyes initially read tablespoons of spice instead of teaspoons in the farmhouse kitchen’s gloom. The camaraderie of cooking, eating and much washing up (the dish washer was broken) was followed by our guest author Emma Carroll’s reading and talk.


It was fascinating to compare the three authors’ publication experiences: Long-standing writer Gillian Cross had approached a publisher directly, Marcus Sedgewick worked for a children’s publisher before finding an agent, Emma Carroll was ‘discovered’ when successful in her MA course. Although they acknowledged they couldn’t help with advice about conventional routes to agents, their input concerning our work was invaluable, rendered broader due to their different approaches: detailed critique versus overview.

After we’d spent the fourth day beavering away at our lap-tops, with the occasional sortie into the beautiful gardens and rural surroundings, we appreciated our evening down-time. Considering our target readership, it was unsurprising that our by now socially cohesive group reverted to childhood with party games. We giggled uncontrollably, not wholly due to the quantities of wine imbibed.

The final full day held the last tutor meeting and the first chance to hear excerpts of each other’s work. Some were more serious, topics ranging from a feral child to teenage love. But there was also the earthy humour so appreciated by school boys: a poem about farts followed by a piece about a pigeon squadron called the B-fifty-poo bombers.

The following morning we were subdued by our imminent departure but heartened by our learning experiences. We’ve exchanged email addresses so hope to keep all informed of event news, recommended books and, dare I say, publishing successes.

What did I take away from the course? Minor tips such as how to improve titles (don’t use personal names: passé), avoid comic book phrases, instead letting the verb do the work (‘She was startled’ rather than ‘Aargh’), and steering clear of brackets! More major adjustments concerned pacing, tightening the narrative by asking myself: what is the purpose of this chapter? and plot suggestions, for example considering the ending then working back from that.

The crunch point, sadly, is that my first book, Cat’s Eyes, where my teenage heroine overcomes the loss of her sister through helping a life-threatened alien, may have to be set aside as a mere learning exercise, and not become the début roaring success I hoped it would be!

But there’s promise in one of the alternative novels I’ve embarked upon. The general consensus was that Poppy’s adventures with sidekick Albert the eccentric talking cat could hit the publishing spot.

Perhaps I should leave you to decide (the first chapter of each novel will be posted on my personal site shortly –> Feedback welcome.

Co-op Writers York Talk Sun 2 Aug 15



Co-op Writers York hold regular workshops to encourage and support writers in their writing. Alan Robertshaw giving a short talk about the trials and tribulations of self-publishing at the start of their next workshop which is being held upstairs in The Function Room of The Royal Oak pub on Goodramgate in York from 17.30 to 20.30 on Sunday 2nd August. We hope to see you there.

Welcome to our new site


We’re updating and getting our house in order and that means it’s time to get the web site up to spec. So, welcome to the new look. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The York Novelists is a group of writers in and around the York, UK area who are published, in the process of being published, or working toward pubication. We meet fortnightly to give detailed critiques of each others’ writing (in the Milford style, for those with some experience of this critique style).

On this site you’ll find information about members, their publications, which events they’re attending, some free stories, and resources for the new and breaking-out authors.

So, once again, welcome. We hope you enjoy your visit.

The York Novelists