The defining thought for my recent CFT posts has been how writers can pick up on the zeitgeist, long before we know there is one to tap into!
This summer the topic has been about changing direction. Some writers do this a lot, others only every now and again. Some make the change a permanent one, others see the variation as a detour from what they usually write though they will resume that in due course. My recent interviews with Scottish crime writers, Val Penny and Wendy H Jones, are good examples of this.
Another author changing direction is Jennifer C Wilson who has gone from writing ghost stories crossed with history in her Kindred Spirits series to romance with The Raided Heart and is now writing non-fiction with her recently released A Novel Approach.
A Novel Approach
I met Jennifer, along with Val Penny, who has also ventured into non-fiction with her Let’s Get Published, at the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, which for the first time in its long history had to be cancelled this year. Naturally we are all looking forward to getting back together again at Swanwick next year.
But meantime there are books to write and promote and Jennifer’s latest book is based on the workshops she runs for the North Tyneside Writers’ Circle. See the blurb below for more details.
Blurb for A Novel Approach
Is there a novel in you? Let me help you find out…
Based on my series of workshops held throughout 2019 and into 2020, this book is designed to help writers work through each of the key stages of their story, including:
– Idea generation;
– Creating characters;
– Describing your settings;
– Showing vs telling; and
– Keeping the words flowing when you find yourself stuck.
As well as the above, I have also added sections on hooking your readers in, leaving them wanting more, and useful resources as a writer, including how to dip a successful toe into the world of social media.
The workshops were fun, helping writers of short stories and novels alike, and I hope these exercises can help you too!
Allison: Welcome back to Chandler’s Ford Today, Jennifer, and I will start with the obvious question.
1. Why make the switch to non-fiction?
Hi Allison, and thanks so much for inviting me onto the blog today. Firstly, it wasn’t entirely intentional! I ran a series of workshops throughout 2019 and 2020, and I built up a lot of prompts, information and advice, which, at the end of the workshops, was just sitting there, with nowhere to go. Chatting to my mum one weekend early in lockdown, she suggested doing something with it, and so A Novel Approach was born.
2. What did you love about writing non-fiction and what did you dislike?
I think the one thing I’d say I disliked was that the freedom is reduced. In fiction, the core facts need to be right, but at the end of the day, it’s your world, and your creation, so although people might not like it, it cannot be ‘wrong’. With non-fiction, we’re dealing with facts, and so there was a lot of double- and triple-checking of things before hitting ‘go’ on the final copy. In terms of what I like, I love the fact the work I did might help other people get some writing done!
3. Who is A Novel Approach aimed at and what would you like the book to achieve?
It’s aimed at people who need a little help in getting started with their long-form writing. During the physical workshops, we started at generating ideas, then moved through each stage of the process, from creating characters, to settings, and beyond. I’d say it was primarily for those at the start of their writing journey, but I’d hope that anyone might find some of the exercises useful.
In terms of what I’d like it to achieve, I already know one person who came to the first workshop, and developed a brilliant idea, which was then expanded on at every workshop. It’s a great story, and if anyone else manages that from the exercises in the book, I’d be thrilled to bits.
4. You are heavily involved with the North Tyneside Writers’ Circle. What do you think are the advantages of a good writing group for writers, whether they are newbies or more experienced? What have you yourself gained from being involved in your group? How much work goes on behind the scenes? How can writers coming to things like this get the best from them?
I think writing groups are so important. Writing is, by its nature, a solitary activity, and having a group of people you can turn to for celebration or commiseration, from those who understand exactly what you’re going through, is invaluable.
With NTWC, we have such an array of writers, from those who have published several novels, or multiple poetry collections, to people who enjoy writing for pleasure, and everyone is always so willing to share their advice in our round-table discussions. Novelists can learn skills from poets, and playwrights can teach non-fiction writers things – whatever style you use, writing is writing, in many ways.
For me, I’ve made some really good friends, which is one of the things we were looking to achieve, just as much as sharing writing skills and news. There is a lot of prep work that happens, from organising guests, to setting prompts, and making sure we keep an eye on everything that happens at group. But it’s really enjoyable on the day, so the hard work is worth it.
In terms of getting the best from a writing group, I’d say if you can, try a couple. Groups come in lots of different types, and you might find a critique group too daunting if you’re starting out, or that might be what you need, and you find prompts aren’t really working for you. But definitely find something, online or a real life group, because if you find the right one, you’re in a good place!
5. Would you write non-fiction again, as and when your other writing and other commitments allow? What has been the main challenge to overcome here given the demands of non-fiction are very different from the ones for fiction?
I think I would. I’ve had an idea knocking around my head for a couple of years now, which you might recall me sending you a synopsis of at one point, looking at history in Paris. (Allison: I do!). It’s a quirky idea, and will take a LOT of research, which is why nothing is happening with it just yet. But one day… Maybe. And worst case, once life returns to normal, it’ll be a good reason to go and visit Paris again! (Allison: Sometimes the writing life can be so hard!).
6. What writing guide(s) have you found most helpful and why? I’ve loved On Writing by Stephen King and From Pitch to Publication by Carole Blake.
I’m such a magpie; I love collecting writing guides! Each year for the last decade, we’ve headed to Newton Stewart for a week, and always visited Wigtown, the home of the local book festival. There are so many second-hand bookshops, I always come away laden with new (to me) books on writing, full of writing prompts etc. For prompts, I’ve found the OU Creative Writing Workbook particularly helpful, and when I was starting to write, I used it as a workbook to do something each day towards my writing life. The 3am Epiphany is also a mine of information, and has some pretty advanced prompts too.
7. What do you think are the three biggest challenges to someone wanting to write a novel?
Time has to be the main one, I think. Finding the time, keeping the discipline, and maintaining motivation. I have so many half-started novels, or opening lines/paragraphs, but after a couple of weeks, as real life starts to kick in, I run out of steam. It’s usually a sign the story wasn’t going anywhere, but it’s still sad. I think this is why things like NaNoWriMo work for some folk – it takes away the risk of over-thinking, and makes you just hit the keyboard, getting the words down. You can tidy the edges up afterwards.
Allison: NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month and is in November. You commit to writing 50,000 words in a month, which works out at a little over 1,600 a day. You can team up with writing chums to help keep each other going. Nobody is expecting perfect writing from this. The idea is to just get something down you can edit and polish later (and it will need it!). The word count is an interesting one as it would give a writer a novella (albeit on the high side) or be a lot of the way to a standard novel (which can come in at about 80,000 words). I am guessing the idea here is if you decide you do want to write a novel, having got so much down in first draft, you will carry on and complete the project.
8. What drew you into novel writing?
I always wanted to write stories, and deep down, I knew I wanted to write a novel. It just took me a while to find the right one for me. When the idea for Kindred Spirits: Tower of London landed in my mind, I was so happy. I was able to write the whole thing, without losing steam, and I was thrilled with that.
9. You’ve also ventured into short stories recently with Kindred Spirits: Ephemera, a collection of shorter tales involving some of your characters from the longer KS books? How did you find writing short stories?
It was great fun! I think I was a little bit gutted I had some (what I thought were) great ideas for scenarios, but they weren’t full enough to be a novel. I loved writing the story set in Hampton Court Palace, with the wives of Henry VIII, but I don’t know whether that story could have been stretched much longer than it already is without feeling ‘padded out’. As it is, one single piece of action, I think it works well. It gave me the freedom and flexibility to explore some new characters and locations, without having to worry about finding enough story and conflict in each place to fill ~60,000 words.
10. What do you think is the tip that has helped you most as you’ve developed your writing and taken it in different directions?
This is so hard! I think probably to just ‘keep going’. It took a while, and took a meandering journey, through poetry and attempts at ‘tales with a twist’ (which are NOT easy, and I am rubbish at them), but eventually, I had in my hands, my first novel, through a traditional publisher too, no less. All those half-thought-out ideas came to something in the end.
Allison: Little is wasted in writing. Even finding out what isn’t for you can prove useful. You can focus then on what is and at least you will know.
11. What is your favourite writing exercise and why? I love opening lines…
I love going to writing workshops. If I wasn’t hosting NTWC, I’d definitely be attending it every month. For me, I like the variety of exercises workshops deliver. Opening lines are good, but I also like scenarios. Just a couple of days ago, I read a set of sixty historical fiction prompts, and some of them really got me thinking…
12. One of the biggest things I’ve missed due to the lockdown has been getting together with fellow writers including your good self at various events. Zoom has been helpful and “compensated” to a certain extent in that you can at least still see something of your writing friends! How has Zoom affected your writing? I’ve had to learn how to make a video, as well as get to grips with using Zoom itself, and I’m sure those things will continue to prove to be useful to me. When we eventually get back to normal, or as near as possible, what good things from the lockdown period would you like to see continue? Have you used Zoom for your writing circle at all and, if so, how has everyone taking part found that?
Oh, I know, I’m really going to miss Swanwick this year, and having a good gossip in the bar!
Allison: Oh yes…
Darkstroke have been holding fairly regular Zoom calls, which have been great, but I’ve not been dialling into that many other things, and only one or two workshops. I think the one positive thing I’m going to take from lockdown is trying to keep the diary quiet. Months of events were wiped out, and although some weeks, like the one I’m writing this during, I have something every night, it’s been good for me, I feel, to have some blank space in the diary.
We took NTWC online, but have used the Facebook events function, rather than Zoom, and that worked nicely, sharing prompts and the writing that emerged from them.
Many thanks, Jennifer, for a wonderful interview and may I wish you the best of luck with A Novel Approach. One aspect I knew I had trouble with when I was starting out as a writer was in understanding what showing and not telling meant so I can see your book being so helpful there. A good writing guide is like another author taking a newbie by the hand and stepping them through what they need to know.
What I would say to any writer is to have fun with your writing, whatever direction you go in. The first person who should be entertained by your non-fiction or by your stories, whether they’re novels, epic sagas, novellas, or flash fiction stories, is you!
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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