Monthly Archives: October 2013

See you on the other side!

Gideon Osborne hiding away from the world. It's NaNoWriMo

Gideon Osborne hiding away from the world. It’s NaNoWriMo

October has been an amazing month of birthdays, scary films, seeing friends and walking on the beach. This has been possible because it has also been a month of reading, researching and planning the new novel. But now the hard work is about to start. November is NaNoWriMo. It is a great opportunity to create a significant amount of raw material (50-60 thousand words) to get the novel off the ground. I am keen to start now. I feel like I have been standing on the edge of the swimming pool for a while now and it’s time to jump on in. So for the next few weeks, there will not be much time for anything apart from writing – and the day job of course. So I will be hibernating at my desk as much as possible. Gideon Osborne will be hibernating with me. Good luck to all the other Wrimos out there.

We will see you on the other side.

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Why NaNoWriMo?

Constructing a framework for NaNoWriting Plan

Constructing a framework for NaNoWriting Plan

My good writing friend Andrew Bailey (check out his website here and his stunning poetry here just asked me, via twitter, what I would say to encourage writers who were contemplating NaNaWriMo but who were not yet convinced. This made me reflect on why I am signed up for it again this year and what I think the benefits are.

You can certainly see why NaNoWriMo might not attract writers. The schedule of writing 50k words in a month is quite punishing but also there is the risk that writing so quickly might jeopardise the quality of the writing. I would say, straight out, that NaNoWriMo won’t suit everybody’s creative process. Nor will it deliver either a complete draft (50k words is unlikely to be the final length) or a publishable novel. Most writers respect their readers too much not to want to spend subsequent months (maybe years) working on their NaNoWriMo draft to bring it to a point of completion. So why do it?

For many writers, it is the sense of encouragement, community and structure that the NaNoWriMo challenge brings. There are suddenly cheerleaders urging you on and the allure of silly prizes and fun rewards. It really helps to alleviate the drudgery and it breaks the task down into manageable, daily steps.

These are some of the reasons why I am signed up to it. But, for me, the most important reason is that the emphasis on pace and keeping up the daily word count helps me to overcome the endless carping and sniping of my inner critic. My first clumsy attempts to capture an imagined world on paper can provoke such a strong sense of despair ( and even shame) that it can stop me in my tracks. I have started and given up a number of potential novels because I can’t get over my own disappointment in myself – forgetting, of course, that for many of us, it takes a process of exploring messily and clumsily to get to the good stuff! Ira Glass is good on this:

The great thing about NaNoWriMo, for me, is that it helps me to push on past the disappointment. You just have to keep going in order to meet your wordcount. I find this liberated me from the savagery of my inner critic. For those of you who know what I mean, here is a video (don’t know if it’s staged or genuine, but still very funny) of that vicious, inner assailant. NaNoWriMo helps me get past all those private voices in my head that are shouting at me.”You don’t have any talent. You suck!”


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Truly. Madly. Historically.

Strong Dress. A Restraint Garment for Female Patients.

Strong Dress. A Restraint Garment for Female Patients.

Can I get away with another three word title? I was going to call this post ‘The Politics of Madness in Historical Fiction’ but thought that would lose me some followers on twitter! And the topic of this post isn’t exactly that – although it is the title of my extended critical study for year two of my MSt in Creative Writing course. In that essay, I will be testing my theory that, in most serious historical fiction, madness has a political function in dramatising the pathology of the age. But more of that later.

The topic of this post is my own possibly mad commitment not only to complete NaNoWriMo again this year but to do so by writing 50-60k words of the historical novel I am currently researching. If you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is, you can find out more here but essentially it is the attempt to write a complete novel draft in a month. The idea is to complete the whole trajectory of the novel even if it needs to be reworked and extended through subsequent drafts. Last year, I managed to compete a 60k draft of my psychological thriller ‘The Cruel Mother but this year feels like a much bigger mountain to climb.  There is a reason why I have chosen to set my novel about mental illness and political turbulence in the precarious pre-World War 1 years – the clue being in the topic of my critical essay project –  and so I need to take the research into the period seriously. However, the time demands of this are problematic, given the fact that my writing time is already under pressure from the extreme demands of my time-sensitive day job, and that once NaNoWriMo has started, there is no time to do anything but write write write!

My plan is to complete the first pass through my research in October so that I start the Big Write of November with the basic social, political and material ‘architecture’ of my world in place. I will then write flat out through NaNoWriMo, leaving gaps where further research is needed. I commit 7am to 7 pm to my job, but 5 am to 7 am is for writing and 7pm to 10 pm is for planning and researching (that’s the weekday routine for November!). Truly. Madly.

The new novel’s working title is Burntwood. I am not going to say too much about it yet but here is a snippet from the Preface:




Exhibition of Art-Works made by the Patients of Burntwood County Asylum Organised by Asylum Superintendant Charles Osgood, Esq.  

Item 33. A padded dress (used to protect and restrain). The garment is decorated with embroidery and appliqué.

Catalogue note: The base garment is typical of those issued to female patients. Its high neck, long sleeves and full skirt are designed to provide the wearer with some modesty and protection. It is made of a hard-wearing, padded cotton fabric to prevent the wearer from tearing it. The extended sleeves can be wrapped around the body and tied behind to stop the wearer from hurting themselves or others. This particular ‘strong dress’ belonged to Jane March,  a patient at Burntwood from 1899 to 1910.  She worked on the embroidery without any assistance, using threads pulled out of other garments and items of furnishing. Threads of five different colours are used on different parts of the garment.  On close inspection, the intricate patterns appear to be words sewn onto the fabric. These patterns continue from the outside to the inside of the garment, partially hidden from view by being worn next to the skin. They appear to tell a story but one that is impossible for the casual viewer to read.

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Life. Death. Prizes.

Best prize from my fellow students

Gift from my fellow students

I was so surprised and honoured to be awarded the F.H. Pasby prize (you can read more about it here: that I was (almost) speechless. Apparently, I did say something but I don’t really remember. What I do remember is all the hugs and kind words from my fellow students and a bottle of bubbly from the generous Kiran Millwood Hargrave and all my amazing friends on my course. I have chosen to use this photo rather than the more formal photo of the award as, thrilled as I was to be be awarded the Pasby Prize, I was even more grateful for the kindness of all my fellow students. Not least because I feel that their support, help and encouragement have been fundamental to anything I have achieved this year.

This has made me think a lot about literary prizes and competitions in general and this one in particular. I feel a bit uncomfortable about them. That may just be because, until now, I have never won a prize. There is always that possibility – I am ridiculously competitive so when I say I don’t like something, that usually means I am just not that good at it!

But I genuinely do struggle with the idea of literary prizes. Only the one hand, I rarely disagree with the judges. They seem able to select work of real power and significance. On the other hand, I am not always sure how meaningful prizes are when creative work is so varied and may be aiming to achieve such different things. In the case of the Pasby Prize, it seems particularly difficult to separate out the success of the individual from the support and help of the group. I can think of so many specific conversations, feedback and suggestions I have had with fellow students that have contributed to the development of my own work. Any prize should perhaps be for the group as a whole. It is hard to recognise the importance of collaboration and group dynamic in a prize. Still, that said, I am keeping it! It has made a huge difference to my confidence and, as a writer in a full-time, serious job,  will be particularly helpful in keeping up my motivation in the face of competing demands.

I am particularly touched by this prize as it was set up by Lisa Sargard to honour the memory of her grandfather F.H. Pasby who was a great supporter of women’s success and education. This seems very fitting as the novel on which I will be working this year is set at the turn of the twentieth century and is concerned with ideas of female education, deviance and militancy. My own mother was quite a pioneer in terms of combining education, career and family.  However, I know that the marks I achieved in  the first year were boosted by my critical pieces (Gertude Stein turned out to be a real friend!). I could list the names of my fellow students whom I feel are already achieving a degree of creative achievement that I can still only hope to emulate. As we go into the second year, there will be no-where to hide. The emphasis, quite rightly, will all be on the creative project. I am both terrified and profoundly excited by the creative challenges it will bring.

To Lisa Sargood and her family, I want to say that I am very grateful and honoured.

To my tutors at Oxford, I say heartfelt thanks.

To my friends and fellow students, I say wild whoops of love!

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