Five Things I’ve learnt Through Writing A Novel.

'If I'm getting lively about it, its because I feel lively about it.' (46)When you first put pen to paper or finger to key, you might think it’s easy. There are definitely some of you out there who write novels the same way you gobble bacon, quick, no fuss, but for many of us it’s not a picnic in the park. Here are five things I’ve learnt through writing a novel.

1) Let’s play dot to dot.

As I am writing my first novel, I spent an inordinate amount time thinking about plot and how much plotting I needed to do. Some people like a heavily detailed plot. Some like a heavily detailed outline and pages and pages of additional notes. Some prefer a two-page synopsis and a two-page sketch. Others like just a little light ordering of story like a medium rare steak, others wing the whole thing, living on a prayer with nothing but a simple idea and a man called Ray.

One is left with the choice and as in all things, if it’s your first foray into the novel, you will probably have no idea. For me, now I am coming towards the end of the editing process, in hindsight, I have realised that I am an excessive plotter. It makes me feel falsely secure and if my characters do give me any trouble, I know with a quick hand brake and an even more rapid u-turn I can bring them back, often after they’ve done something inherently stupid.

2) Characters walk off without even a goodbye.

People told me, constantly, that my characters would up and leave at some point. My colourful, symbiotic creations, the characters I vicariously lived through would choose a different path and make a run for it and I would be left waiting for them to return, like a dumped red faced bride at the top of an aisle trying to snatch a remnant of dignity.

It felt too cliché that this would occur, so I didn’t take adequate measures, instead, the day my antagonist got all creative and wandered off while giving me the dirty finger, I was shocked. I sort of sat there, comatose and when she returned and admitted she had killed a man, my alibi presented a problem.

Your characters will walk and it is honestly like trying to wrestle a salmon. Good luck!

3) Your story gets boring because you’ve read 355 times.

If you have a favourite book, you may have read it once, twice, three times or perhaps if you are really obsessive, maybe ten times. It doesn’t get boring and it also helps that there are often years of time between each comforting ending. It’s not the same with your own book. You read it over and over again and often end up wanting to pull the plug on the story and watch it surf down the plug hole like dirty bath water after you’ve cleared your head from lice.

I know my story so well, I think it happened to me. It’s a bit like a full time drunk who likes to tell you stories about their not-so-exciting life and you hear about how they had a row outside the café with Cliff in 1963 and how it came to fistycuffs but Cliff only had one arm. The drunk tells you the same tale every time you encounter his warm paper-bagged Vodka,  let’s say, 44 times, so in the end you believe it happened to you, to the extent you’re dream about Cliff and honestly believe you’ve been taken over in some sort of non-attended séance sort of way.

You can’t read your manuscript twice a day for three months without wanting to shoot yourself in the head or trample on your Word document with steel toe-capped boots. It is worth remembering though, that no one else has read it – NO-ONE –  and they will have a very different experience of Cliff. He will haunt them in a different way, probably get them sniffing glue or something.

So, don’t press delete.

Stay with us novelists.

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4) Comma, comma, comma.

Wilde once said ‘I spent all morning taking out a comma and all afternoon putting it back.’ If you want to write a novel, be prepared, this will be you. If you were once laissez-faire about grammar, get ready to become a militant, like a terrorist, but fundamental about the full stop after the west rather than the west.

Punctuation can feel rather monotonous, I know, it’s the humdrum to the novel and although I have met many ‘Grammar Nazi’s’, I have never really understood them. Correcting people on Facebook for instance seems rather pretentious. Not everyone can spell, knows how to use appropriate punctuation, I am more interested in the fact they are communicating. Unless they’re chatting shit, then dangle them like a particle by all means.

Although, what will change is the way you treat your own words. Suddenly punctuation will matter, as now it’s the way to dress your beautiful words and whether you are going for a grey pinstripe suit or something more casual, like a pink/purple shell suit, you demand it wears just the right attire to give emphasis to the material that matters.

5) You will never be fully sure.

I used to think you must get to a point with a novel, when you feel ready. You are now on your fifteenth draft. You’ve read it through 345 times. You have edited and rewrote, smoothed and polished and now it’s ready to be sent out into the world with a big red bow and a hard working flourish. Except I don’t feel that sure and I am full of self-doubt and questions and during the night I wake up panicking because I think it’s shite and during the day, I read it and think it’s quite good, until ten  minutes later when I become indifferent and wonder whether I should start again.

You will never be 100% sure, so get to 95% if you can or 90% on a bad day.  Surround yourself with people who will support you, pull you through those icky percentages,  keep you positive with plates laden with cake. If we all waited until we were absolutely sure, none of us would do anything. You have to put your big people pants on – they are over there by the way – and chase that dream.

I’ll be right behind you.

© Copyright Henrietta M Ross.

What have you learnt from writing? Tell me in the comments below. 

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You Are Beautiful. 

'If I'm getting lively about it, its because I feel lively about it.' (45)Been thinking about women today after reading a friend’s status earlier. What does it mean to be beautiful? According to advertising/media/entertainment preferably tiny and unblemished, shiny hair, perfect skin, face and limbs in perfect proportion. As many of us do not fit these black and white dimensions, because we are human, not a block of wood manipulated to size, we can end up feeling a lack: ugly, less than, undesirable, not good enough and the list goes on.

Beauty isn’t what western society dictates, it’s not the airbrushed images in magazines or svelte figured actresses in films. It’s not the most perfect white smile or shiniest hair. You can be size zero or size 20 and still be attractive. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder…..you can be the beholder and raise yourself up.

Beauty is everything. It is everywhere. It’s everyone. It can be unblemished skin and pretty faces and long limbs, youthful faces and pert bums. But, it includes so much more.

It can be the zig zag of stretch marks and wobbly tummies. It can be messy hair and tired eyes. It’s a woman pregnant with child who will one day birth a miracle, the same woman who feels self conscious afterward and forgets her worth. It’s women who are big and small, fat and thin. Women who are happy or sad, angry or calm, all emotions being shared without censor.

Swap Your Subjective, For The Wider Objective. (11)

It’s women who are able bodied and women who aren’t. Women living with illness and adversity, fighting through each day.

Nothing needs to change, you are enough, perfect just the way you are and don’t let anyone tell you different.

© Copyright Henrietta M Ross

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If You’re Living With Mental Illness, It’s A Struggle.

'If I'm getting lively about it, its because I feel lively about it.' (44)If you are living with mental illness, it is a struggle. There are good days and bad days. Sometimes there are bad seconds and worse minutes. On good days you achieve what others take for granted and on bad days it’s hard to put one foot in front of the other. You get depressed, anxious, obsessive, and manic and you hear things and see things and feel things. You often feel lost and terribly alone and isolated and often scared.

It’s hard and people don’t always understand and trying to reach out becomes hard when your life is a litany of doors shut in your face – even harder when the door shutters are family and friends who can’t get it or don’t get it and the sad part is you don’t need them to absolutely get anything, although that would nice, but to just show up and be there and make you feel connected, not a pariah skirting around the blurred edges of life.

Either way, wherever you are and however you are feeling today, you are my heroes, the real superheroes with your dazzling shiny cloaks and miraculous powers and your sheer tenacity and brick built resilience.

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I get it, you know that and you get it too and even if it’s only on social media, it still counts for something I think. You count for something in my eyes and I am glad you are here.

© Copyright Henrietta M Ross

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Just Write.

'If I'm getting lively about it, its because I feel lively about it.' (43)I’ve just reached the end of my second draft. It will soon be time to get the red marker back out, contour the book like all those You-Tube make up tutorials I keep seeing, I am not a fan.

Have to admit, I never thought I would be here, with a story and the novel desire for it to be seen. I spent so long thinking ‘I haven’t got time’ or ‘I can’t so this’ or ‘I can’t write’ or even ‘who do you think you are?’ at the worst moments. A barrage of thoughts all coming from one place, paralysing self-doubt, the monkey in your ear, the limbic system shaking itself down.

You can’t have a blank canvas as a writer, but we all have them. The blank, winking word document, the new notebook still bare, the lined A4.

Write. Just write.

Allow yourself to write drivel. Be liberal with the adverbs and aggressive with the passive. Fight with the Oxford comma and prepositions and dangling particles and split infinitives. Write long sentences that lose their meaning and short ones that tell you nothing. Be boring and cliche and repetitive and use ‘that’ and ‘very’ and ‘really’ with relish.

But write, just write.

Some people get overwhelmed about writing a novel. Understandable, 0 to 90,000 would unsettle anyone. You worry about word counts and perfect prose and plot and characters and story arcs and forget that without a first draft you will have nothing to edit. Plots can be changed, characters filled out, arcs made more complete, prose crafted, word counts managed.

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But you have to begin, you have to write.

Write anywhere. Whilst you wait for your kids at home time, during breaks at work, in carparks and on buses and when you take the train. Write in the early mornings before the house wakes up and late of a night when it’s dark and quiet. Write in cafes and in the park sitting on a bench or sprawled on the grass beneath the sun. In your garden amongst the flowers and in your free time and spare time and even in the bath if that’s your thing.

Just write.

Go back to the blank space, don’t be afraid of it. I know it sometimes feels like a drunk, angry heckler is sprawled across the space, with a topped up paper bag and a match to distinguish every letter.Sometimes you hear your Mum’s voice scolding you or that teacher in year eight who told you would amount to nothing.
Still, just write.

We are stories, lives sewn together though narrative and themes and nuance. You tell yourself stories and others tell you stories and you read stories and share stories and make up stories woven from the imaginations of your lives and these stories need to be heard. Need to be shared.

There is room for them all and a roaring appetite.

So, just write!

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Do you struggle to write? What holds you back?

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© Copyright Henrietta M Ross

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Books Are Our Constant Friends. 

'If I'm getting lively about it, its because I feel lively about it.' (42)I’ve travelled the world to far flung places, by boat, by plane, once on a carpet. I’ve stood with the mighty and trodden down with the disgraced. Love has opened its crisp pages wide and hearts have fallen through the gaps, sometimes leading to sweet proposals and passionate embraces, sometimes, leading to hate. The hate has burned holes in flimsy souls and often led to death, bloodied bodies thrown by the wayside. Killers have stepped out into the light and chased me down; one put me in cage and kept me there.

Teddy bears have spoken to me and I met a creature with a moon for a face. Pixies have shouted at me, toadstools have held hidden secrets and Brownies have swept my health. A little princess coped through telling stories, some children became enchanted with the railway whose father was a spy and a shiny black horse deserved a better life. Peter Rabbit has been in my garden, I’ve met Christopher Robin one cold frosty morning and in London the dusty streets weren’t paved with gold.

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Dreaming of Manderley has given me goose bumps and made my heart ache to see it and Orwells Pigs have rebelled. Ishmael has chased Moby Dick and Claudius has spied on Hamlet. Mr Gray has made me step back in shock and Lady McBeth has given me rough hands. Nick Carraway has met Jay Gatsby and the ever shallow Daisy,  Boo Radley still hasn’t said hello and Mac is still stuck in the mental institution.

Books, our ever-constant friends. Stories, some good, some bad. Some that make you giggle and others that make you cry. Profound stories that leave you changed and frivolous stories that leave you smiling. Books, always there, like a warm hug, constant, steady, the eternal wide-open book and through their soft, magical pages we all often fall.

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How do you feel about books? What’s your favourite story?

© Copyright Henrietta M Ross.

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Scared of The Internet

'If I'm getting lively about it, its because I feel lively about it.' (41)Stood at the bus stop the other day with my partner, he had a good idea for a novel. Although I am rarely short of ideas myself, it doesn’t stop me mining others for narrative gold. I think it’s our responsibility as writers to do it, these non-‘writerly’ people need to be purged of their creative notions, otherwise they might go mad and get rather frantic, like a furious bee trapped in a box, although as my partner is an artist, he would have a counter argument to this statement.

Anyway, his idea when I fleshed it out in my mind whilst staring out of the window of the no. 62 meant I’d have to write a paranormal novel at some point in the future. You might think that sounds great, and I suppose it is, as exciting as knowing what my next few novels are going to be about and now having yet another idea to toy with. I should be grateful and I am but I have to be completely honest. I am also scared.

I’m not good with the weird. The weird keeps me awake at night, eyes on stalks with the light on next to me hoping nothing is in the wardrobe or under the bed and it gives me goose bumps during the day. I have become scared of the internet because people post creepy shit on here and even when I whiz past because I know I am about to be assaulted by a ghoul with a lurid grin, I still see things. The fact videos now play on Facebook without any mouse action and Giffs roll without you pressing go means I get poked in the eyes with the weird and macabre constantly.

If I had to write a paranormal novel, I would have to read paranormal novels first (I don’t) and that seems suicidal. I used to enjoy James Herbert when I was younger, but I have not read The Ghosts of Sleath for years. I thought it was a good book at the time, but now I am scared to open it in case something jumps the hell out.

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Could I write something in a few years without losing my sanity? The weird thing is I don’t even believe in ghosts, but if anyone starts talking about one, I am inclined to hide under a sheet. It’s got to the point that I cannot consume anything creepy. I have to be on constant spooky alert for anything that might upset my delicate equilibrium otherwise I lose a weeks sleep and start to believe I am possessed.

So what do I do folks?

What would you do?

What scares you?

 

© Henrietta M Ross

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Try Harder With Your Mental Illness

 

1

Pull yourself together.

Heard those words?

Something you may also hear is ‘you need to try harder,’ which is pretty soul destroying when you are working your little arse off trying to stay well, and yet people think your enormous feats of determination, self-care and discipline are somehow lacking.

It gets worse. Sometimes people who once experienced mental illness or who still live with mental illness believe they have tried hard enough; actually, they’ve tried harder than you in fact, so the reason you are still struggling is because you are just not trying hard enough.

Would they say this if you had a cold? Can you image them coming up to you to tell you that you’re not working hard enough to beat your ‘razor blade got stuck’ sore throat, that you need to breathe better, cough less, not produce so much snot, sort your voice out, sup on more foul tasting medicine and think some nice positive thoughts and not believe it’s the worse f***** cold you’ve ever had.

I appreciate a cough and mental illness are two separate things, well unless you’re feeling paranoid and think someone delivered the nasty thing via a tube up your nose in the dark of night, which is my sort of thinking, but still, there is no room in mental illness for oversized ego’s. Of course, many of us like to think we can act upon our own minds and prevent relapses and messy bad spells and we often do prevent these from occurring through getting enough sleep, exercise, a good diet, therapy, drugs and hobbies. This doesn’t mean that we cannot be side swiped by an episode that we didn’t see coming or that shouldn’t have happened.

Of course, you would probably say I didn’t try hard enough to not be side swiped, and I would laugh, full on, in your face.

Maybe you are well now or pretending to be well, or were never ill, or were very ill, either way, just because you recovered and feel mighty proud of yourself, gloating and passing judgement isn’t a dignified way of behaving. It’s about time you opened your mind and the swapped your subjective for the wider objective.

Someone told me the other day that if I don’t want to be depressed again, I have to decide not to be. In the same way I can decide to not have Bipolar Disorder I suppose, or green eyes or brown hair or size seven feet. Now, I am the first to admit I love Buddhism, I read Buddhist texts, I meditate, I follow some of the precepts, and I’m a firm believer in mind over matter and mind training and that my thoughts are my own responsibility. I would argue that along with good self-care, it’s Buddhism that maintains my mental health and has helped me understand my own moods and experiences.

Although, what I have come to understand is nothing is infallible and even with all the maintenance and support options I can find and utilize within my daily life, I have (and will) still become unwell at times, though far less than I used to. It in no way means I haven’t tried or haven’t tried hard enough according your competitive perspective, if that’s what you take away from another person’s suffering, then your mind is a reductive place where suffering is a crude measure of a person’s worth.

Maybe instead of competing in an invisible competition where no one’s the winner, you would be better off learning why you need a cloak of superiority, why waving the lame banner of ‘I tried the hardest’ is more important to you than using your experiences to understand and support others.

Either way, I am pissing on your parade.

My banner says ‘Please Try Harder Too.’

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What are your experiences with mental illness and others reactions towards you generally and when you’re unwell? Are you told you told to pull yourself together? try harder? How do you deal with it all?

© Henrietta M Ross

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