NaNoWriMo 2017 – we’re halfway there folks!

So we are now just over halfway through NaNoWriMo 2017. Have I reached my target word count to be on track for 50,000 words by the end of the month? Not even near. But that’s ok.

Jennie pulling a confused face while writing on her Apple Macbook laptop

50,000 words? No problem. Aaaaarrrrgghhhhhh!

This is the second time I’ve attempted the glorious madness that is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short). The first time around was in 2015, and I think I reached a grand total of 10,000 words. But just because I didn’t ‘win’ and reach the 50,000 target, doesn’t mean those 10,000 words weren’t a huge achievement in themselves. Up to that point, I don’t think I had ever managed that many words on one writing project.

This year, November, the month of NaNoWriMo, just so happens to also be the month of the NCTJ national exams. I’m currently studying the NCTJ Diploma in Journalism via distance learning, and last week I took the media law and magazine regulation exams. All the studying and revision has meant I haven’t been able to commit my full attention to getting those words down on paper (or computer screen) for NaNoWriMo. Nevertheless, I have still managed to write several chapters, fitting in writing time during my lunch break, for an hour when I get home, or a few hours here and there at the weekend.

If you’re a fellow adventurer on this intrepid journey and feeling in a need of a little pep talk, author and podcaster Mur Lafferty has written some oh so true words about why not hitting the 50,000 words target is not the be-all and end-all. Read Mur Lafferty’s article ‘Help! I’m 10,000 words behind!’ on the NaNoWriMo Blog.

Julie Murphy, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dumplin’, says “No-one writes a good novel in a month” in her pep talk for NaNoWriMo writers. Read Julie Murphy’s pep talk on the NaNoWriMo site. She says: “whether your thirty-day novel is The Book or just an exercise that you shelve in the dustiest corner of your computer, I promise you there is something to be gained from this experience”, and I heartily agree. Whether I hit 50,000 word or not by the end of this month, I will have written more words and dedicated more time to one of my novels-in-the-making than I ever have before. And that is most definitely a worthwhile achievement. Now let’s get back to writing. Onwards and upwards!

NaNoWriMo – bitten off more than I can chew?

So at the start of this month I signed up to do NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Naturally, the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month somewhat fazed me, but I thought if I put my back into it I could give it a good crack. The fact that I was also rehearsing for a show and that show week was in the middle of that didn’t seem to enter my mind at the time. Now, however, it most definitely is, as is the fact that I have just started working back in my old office for a few weeks, limiting my writing time for the final sprint. Out of a goal of 50,000 words, my current word count is: 2,918. Have I bitten off more than I can chew?

The answer is: probably yes. Will I make it to 50,000 words? Probably no. But according to the lovely folk at NaNoWriMo: “If it’s really not looking possible for you to hit that elusive 50k target, then why not set yourself an achievable goal for the end of the month and work towards that instead? We all know Real Life can get in the way sometimes, but even writing a little every day can make a big difference.”

Despite signing up to NaNoWriMo on the 2nd November, I didn’t actually write a word until two days ago. Up to that point I was still planning! Obviously the idea is to plan before the start of November so once the month starts you can write away to your heart’s content, but I was a little late to the party. Now I am cracking on with the writing, like most writers I’m finding it difficult to fit my writing time into the day. The bookbaby blog has some great advice on time management for writers and a few tips for setting deadlines that I’m going to use from now on to help me rattle off that first draft. One of the most crucial tips for me is to focus on phase one first. I’m guilty of constantly thinking ahead, looking to the future, the next step, the finished product, rather than focusing on the here and now, and not just in my writing!

To all you fellow NaNoWriMos, I salute you! Whether you’re on track for the 50k target, have flown past it already, or, like me, have set your own smaller goal (I’m going for 10,000), I admire your effort, your persistence, your tenacity and your desire to tell stories. Keep on writing!


No no no no no no no yes

Thus says Jim Trott in The Vicar of Dibley. While causing much mirth, this phrase also sums up both of my passions and chosen professions. In both the acting and the writing world, getting accustomed to regular rejection is just part of the deal. For every ‘yes’ there has usually been a stream of ‘no’s beforehand. After two such ‘no’s today I was faced with several options: throw my laptop on the floor and start smashing up Costa, sob uncontrollably much to the alarm of everyone in Costa, or get back to work, and write. Thus I chose the latter…

It’s a crazy old thing, being a ‘creative’. You put your heart and soul, and a great deal of time and, often, money into your work, only to have someone tell you it’s not what they’re looking for, it’s not quite up to their standards, it’s too different/not different enough, it’s been seen before, it would never sell, or just… ‘no’. Faced with such criticism many people would sink into a deep mire of self-loathing, or else construct a solid concrete wall around themselves. Actors, however, are required by the very nature of both what we do and the industry itself, to keep going, keep trying and, very importantly, keep feeling. Admittedly, there is a certain degree of self-loathing, self-pity and self-defence that goes on, but it has to be a temporary state. In order to do the work, we have to rise up out of the mud time and time again, learn to take the knocks and still come back for more. And while doing this, we have to stay open, receptive and fully engaged in the world around us. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. It’s almost like going in the ring with a heavyweight boxer knowing full well we’re about to be hit in the face, yet not only doing nothing to defend ourselves, but in fact presenting our cheek for his glove.

The ‘no’s I’ve just received are actually for my writing, but the principle is the same. We put ourselves into our work then put it out there to get stamped on, discarded or, even worse, simply ignored. I have indeed just had a moment (or several) of doom and gloom, but as I pack up my things to head over to the theatre the grey clouds are lifting. Tonight I get to be a Russian, a flamingo and a wolf. I get to share a sacred space with my fellow actors and adventurers and tell the people gathered there a magical story. Tonight I get to play.

So I shake off the ‘no’ and remind myself why I’m doing this: for the love of it. For the sheer joy. It’s certainly not for the money! And I remind myself how lucky I am to get to do this every night this week. This is what sustains me through the ‘no’s. This is why it’s worth it.

Synchron Productions’ Chronicargo is on at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington tonight and tomorrow as part of the New Moon Festival.

Local writers in Day of the Dead

Portsmouth BookFest is in full swing. If you haven’t yet made it to one of the events on offer, take a look at the BookFest website to see what literary treats are still in store.

Ahead of this evening’s ‘Day of the Dead’, I caught up with William Sutton, one of the authors taking part in this year’s festivities. Writing for Strong Island, I asked him about tonight’s event, an evening of spooky tales organised by Portsmouth Writer’s Hub, what literary festivals like BookFest do for writers and the local community, and how it feels to be taking part this year as a published author.

Writer Will Sutton in action

Writer Will Sutton in action

Below is a taster of my chat with Will – for the full interview and others related to art, literature and culture generally in Portsmouth, check out the Strong Island website.

Why did the organisers choose to do a ‘Day of the Dead’? It sounds a bit grim! 

Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is a huge festival especially in Mexico which is a counterpart of Hallowe’en, and it’s anything but grim, celebrated with feasting, skeleton models, amazing food. We’ve adopted the title to bridge all aspects of death, from spooky to gory to elegiac. 

What can those attending the event expect from the evening? 

Expect the gut-wrenching, the terrifying, the mind-blowing, the fantastic.

Last year’s BookFest featured a brilliant evening in the atmospheric Square Tower about Dickens and Conan Doyle, with a ghostly flavour. We wanted to unleash the imaginations of our own brilliant writers. Among our writers are Diana Bretherick (appearing on ITV3’s Crime Thriller Book Club and nominated for Specsavers Crime Awards); award-winning short story writers, Lynne Blackwood, Jack Hughes and James Bicheno; and Matt Wingett, whose work with The Three Belles scored a sell-out hit at the New Theatre Royal.

What are the benefits of an event like this to the local writers taking part? 

It’s fun. Writing is a lonely game. Writing and performing for a specific event is a welcome challenge. This is a way for wonderful authors, including published novelists and award-winning short story writers, to entertain local readers, to connect with each other and to push our writing skills in new directions.

Read more at Strong Island


OutWrite day – writers on tour part un

Writing on location is something I’ve often wanted to do but never had a pen and notebook ready at the right time. The key is to plan your writing expedition, which is where OutWrite comes in. Run by Rob Richardson and his lovely wife Chris, who run the WriteInvite short story competitions in Portsmouth, OutWrite is basically a day out for writers.

You are taken to two mystery locations where you have time to look around and get a feel for the place, then half an hour to write a story inspired by the location. At the end of the day you reconvene for coffee and cake to share your stories and get a bit of feedback.

From the upper level, looking across the courtyard at the lighthouse

From the upper level, looking across the courtyard at the lighthouse

This weekend I was lucky enough to go on my first OutWrite. The first location was Southsea Castle, one of my favourite places in Portsmouth. Being surrounded by so much history is bound to invoke certain feelings and spring up ideas, and I felt a little well of excitement inside me as we crossed the wooden drawbridge and stepped into the courtyard. We had 45 minutes to explore our surroundings before we set down to write wherever we chose to. That little girl inside me, who loved nothing more than exploring the ancient ruins of an abbey or peeking into rooms in stately homes, imagining what it would have been like to live there, was in her element.

I ran my hand along the uneven wall as I climbed up a curved stone staircase to the roof. Open to the elements, my hair was swept about by the wind as I looked out over the wall at the sea. I tried to imagine standing here in 1545 watching the heart-wrenching sight of the Mary Rose going down, her masts tilting forlornly as they sank below the surface. Making my way along the wall, I ran my fingers into the nooks and crevices, imagining the many hands that have traced this path before mine. In an opening in the wall that looked much like a fireplace I saw what I presumed to be broken-up headstones. A name was engraved into the surface of one, and bending down to get a closer look I saw it said ‘Annie Maria’. The name had a lovely ring to it, and I instantly chose it for my character.

The three gun ports, which were sealed up in the 17th century - the one on the far left was re-excavated in 1966

The gun ports, which were sealed up in the 17th century – the one on the left was re-excavated in 1966

Opposite the stones stood the seaward-facing wall of the keep. On the far left a dark wooden door was set into the wall. To the right of it I noticed the outline of a second doorway, and to the right of that, a third. Both archways had been filled in, and I wandered over to investigate. I love spotting things like this – filled-in doorways and windows. There’s something mysterious about openings that once led to somewhere and provided a passage for people from one place to another, that are now blocked, the way barred. It’s as if, once a passageway has been created, the ghost of it remains, even if the way through has since been boarded up. My eager curiosity always wants to know what’s beyond. If you put a doorway there my instinct still wants me to go through it – filling it in with stones doesn’t stop that.

The 19th-century lighthouse

The 19th-century lighthouse

I decided to use the blocked doorways in my story, and moved on around the outside of the keep to the lighthouse. A striking black-and-white-striped figure, it stands elegantly amidst the ancient stones and looks rather out of place. Heading down off the roof and into the keep, I read on the information boards that the lighthouse was added in the 1820s, which explained it not fitting in with the surroundings. There was also a mannequin of Henry VIII inside the keep, along with several examples of period clothing, and I stood before a Tudor dress, taking in all the details and imagining how the fabric would feel against my skin. I felt its weight as it hung on my body, imagined how its cut would affect my movement.

Moving on to a collection of replica Tudor vessels and household objects, I picked up a jug and pictured liquid sloshing around inside as I held it. By now I had decided my protagonist would be a Tudor lady, so I wanted to understand how she would have lived and what it would have physically felt like to be her.

With five minutes to go before we could start writing I made my way back up to the roof and found a spot on the wall opposite the blocked doorways. I had discovered these were gun ports that were sealed in the late 17th century, once they were no longer needed. Fishing in my rucksack for my little black writer’s notebook and a pen, I shuffled around until I was comfy, crossed my legs and got down to some writing.

I’m guilty of editing as I write, which can be a very frustrating and unproductive habit when you only have 30 minutes to write your story. It can also dangerously disrupt the creative flow, so although there was the odd bit of scribbling out here and there, I did my best to just let the words flow and worry about form and polish later. As it turned out, it made perfect sense even without my constant editing, and gave the right-brain-left-brain battle a bit of a rest. That said, half an hour passes much too quickly when you’re having fun, and when your stupid hand tires out long before your words run dry, struggling desperately to keep up with your mind.

A paragraph on the first information board in the keep, and just the reason we were there!

A paragraph on the first information board in the keep, and just the reason we were there!

When I read the story to the group at the end of the day I felt excited at the prospect of taking the character and her story further at some point. I wasn’t satisfied with the story as it was – I’d need more time to make it work as standalone piece – but the creation of a character and situation with the potential to develop was the sign of a productive day!

Part deux – coming later this week – will talk about the second mystery location!

Beginnings – how to make a start

Last night I went to my second session with Kerry McPhail’s writer’s group. Scribbling away in the new Innovation Space in Portsmouth with cups of tea and chocolate swiss rolls, the wonderful plethora of stories and writing styles once again fascinated me.

Although I’d only been with this group on one previous occasion, it already felt like rediscovering old friends. There’s a lovely sense of camaraderie among writers when you get a group of us together to share our work. Whether a profession or simply a pastime, writing can be a very solitary thing, so I think we all feel a bit of light relief to come out of the magical writer’s cave and be in the company of our kind.

The writer's group in action

The writer’s group in action

We looked at the beginning of our novel or whatever we’re working on. Kerry reiterated an important and often surprising point from the previous session – that writers often don’t start writing their novel at the actual start. You may open up a book to the first page and presume that’s where the author started writing, but this isn’t necessarily the case.

Regardless of whereabouts in your story you start writing, the main thing is to start. To help us do this, Kerry gave us an exercise. She asked us to write our first paragraph, starting with the words ‘It is’. This is what I came up with:

It is funny, the things that come back to you in your final hours. You would expect it to be the big things, the momentous events, loves lost, life-altering moments; the landmarks from your life. Not the time you got a parking ticket when you were 17, or the imprint of lipstick your mother always left on her drinking glass. Certainly not the strange clicking sound your grandad’s knees would make as he tackled the stairs. But those were the things that came into Emily’s mind as she lay there slowly dying.

After reading our paragraphs aloud to the group with positive feedback, Kerry asked us to cover the same material but start this time with dialogue. As my protagonist Emily is alone when we first meet her, I found this one a real struggle. After a fair bit of umming and aaahing and false starts, I managed the following:

“I can see mum’s lipstick smudged on the glass,” I said to the haggard old woman in the mirror. Her lips curled up into a faint smile as she remembered the way mum would hold her glass with her pinky finger stretched out, just to make Emily laugh. A solitary tear rolled its way down my cheek and the smile turned into a silent sobbing. Even remembering grandad’s clicky knees didn’t cheer me up. I missed his soft knees poking out below his shorts in summer. I looked down at my own knees, now soft with age too. Death came and took him all those years ago, and now it was nearly my turn.

Fellow newbie to the group Sally made an interesting remark – with the first version, she had pictured a young woman who had been attacked and was lying dying, whereas in the second she said it was clear that it was an old lady who was dying. I’ve also just realised that adding the dialogue resulted in me moving from the third into the first person, something I didn’t actually intend to do.

I do much prefer the first version, but the exercise just goes to show that there are a number of ways you can start, and a number of perspectives you can give your writing, still covering the same situation or events. Next week: endings…

The art of reviewing

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing a spot of theatre for free and getting to write about it for the local paper. Still a relative newbie when it comes to reviewing, and acutely aware of the importance of those words from an actor’s point of view, I felt as nervous as if I were the one onstage that evening!

The show in question, 84 Charing Cross Road performed by local company HumDrum Theatre, was brilliant, thus I was able to write a glowing review. However, the process got me thinking about the job of the reviewer, what to look out for when watching the performance, and whether there is indeed an art to good reviewing.

Review of 84 Charing Cross Road in local newspaper The News

Review of 84 Charing Cross Road in local newspaper The News

I read the local newspaper The News every morning as part of my job in a university press office. The paper often includes several theatre reviews of local shows, professional and amateur, so I have started poring over these in the belief that with each review I read I will absorb the structure, tone and rhythm as if by osmosis.

The work of the reviewer seems to be entirely different to that of both the news reporter and the feature writer. A skill all of its own, the writing of the reviewer has to be truthful, give the writer’s opinion but be balanced and fair, and come from a trusted source.

The title of this post is perhaps a little misleading. Is reviewing really an art, or is it a craft? The best way to get better at reviewing is to work at it. Improve your review writing style by reading and writing as many different theatre reviews as possible.

When I find a reviewer who’s work I particularly admire, I look at how their pieces are constructed, what elements they keep and what they have left out (reviews for The News have a word limit of 200 words). Crucially, I also notice how they manage to remain balanced and fair, regardless of the quality of the show they are reviewing.

Whether it is an art or in fact a craft, the writing of reviews is an influential element in the theatre-making process. As an actor, these words can hold great satisfaction or great disappointment. As a writer, I hope I can do my fellow actors justice, and perform the task entrusted to me with the integrity it calls for.