Letting it escape into the big wide world: novel writing workshop with Jennifer West – 7 October 2020

Wednesday evening arrived with its now familiar online AWC session over Zoom. As usual, I was frantically logging onto my laptop at 19.28 for the 19.30 start, noting as I did that it was already dark outside. Those nocturnal Autumn spirits obviously had some effect on me, as part way through the evening, I found myself giggling at my own scribbles and offering to write this week’s blog!

(FYI, I was drinking tea, nothing stronger!)

Writing wise, I am a poet; however, one of my reasons for joining AWC at the start of 2020 was to explore other types of writing. Like so many folks, I have an inkling of an idea for a novel in my head, and know how I want to begin the story, but as for the rest…? Jennifer has already finished her first novel and started work on her second, so I had high hopes that this workshop would inspire my brain elves to get creative and kick start the novel process. I was not disappointed.

The first part of the evening looked at two types of writer: the “Pantster” vs the “Planner”, with Jennifer taking us through the key elements that defined each one. “Pantsters” effectively write “by the seat of their pants” i.e. they put pen to paper and see where their characters and initial plot take them. This approach could certainly be interesting and very creative, as long as you accept the risk of literally losing the plot – cue much frustration and a half-written novel with nowhere to go. On the other hand, “Planners” do exactly what it says on their tin; they plan out the different elements of their novel to give it structure from the start. Plots, characters, chapters, back stories – all are carefully considered before the story writing begins.

Jennifer then posed her first question for our breakout sessions: Which of the elements are key to you in writing the first draft of your novel?

The magic of technology continued as all attendees were whisked away into one of three virtual Zoom breakout rooms. Confession time now – I think there were 7 of us in Ajay’s group but I only realised after the workshop that I never took a register for this blog, I just noted down the points made by various folk. Sorry Ajay and breakout gang. Anyway, back to Jennifer’s question. Damaris is a published novelist, and both Kirsty and Linda have experience of drafting novels so naturally we interrogated them, no, scrub that, asked them nicely, for their opinions. What clearly came out of the subsequent chat is that everyone has their own way of writing, and that a combination of both “Pantster” and “Planner” elements are necessary for success.

Comfortable in the “Planner” seat, Damaris puts her focus into getting the settings right for her stories – the landscapes, seasons, etc – then writes more freely with the other elements. In contrast, both Linda and Kirsty considered themselves more “seat of their pants” writers. Following on from Jennifer’s introduction, Linda acknowledged the difficulties in finishing a novel when you haven’t planned out your plot fully to begin with. Kirsty then introduced us to the concept of “Save The Cat”, prompting numerous baffled expressions across the Zoom screens! No, we hadn’t suddenly diverted off into David Attenborough territory – this was a method designed for writing screenplays where you set out 15 plot points over 3 acts. Kirsty uses this as her initial story plan, then writes….and writes….and writes, never looking back until her first draft is completed.

By this point our breakout time was up, and we took ourselves back to the main Zoom room, ready to feed back to the others. Jeanette’s group went first, with Carolyn making a very good point: historical plots can have a big advantage over other genres – you already KNOW how the story ends! Obvious once said, but I was a little mind-blown at that statement! For those who want to have a go at fantasy or sci-fi writing instead, you’d do well to follow Abby’s advice. She uses logic from our world to influence her invented locations and cultures; it stops things getting too complex in her writing.

Anne felt that characters came first for her. She creates a psychological profile for each one to keep the details consistent throughout her story, and often uses mind-maps to manage the threads between characters and events in her plots Another good suggestion tied in with “doing your research”, particularly if you’re trying your hand at novels with a technical aspect, such as crime fiction. Getting the tech right in key scenes will give more credibility to your story, so it’s worth considering courses related to your subject, such as “Forensics for Beginners”.

(Note to self at this point – binge-watching NCIS, CSI and Silent Witness is now “Necessary Research” in case I ever wish to write a crime novel, not just a way to avoid the ironing…)

Moving onto our group, Ajay covered off a number of points from our discussion, generating more baffled looks when he referenced “Save the Cat” again! Joanne finished off the feedback from the first question as spokesperson for the third breakout group. They felt characterisation was one of the most important elements, and agreed with many of the points previously raised by Anne.

With the first feedback session completed, Jennifer moved on to the 2nd part of her workshop, asking; What happens after you’ve finished the first draft of your novel?

 (In my view, this must surely be a huge milestone in any potential novelist’s journey, so my first thought was “eat a giant ice cream sundae”! It soon became apparent that my thoughts had strayed a little off topic!)

 Back on topic, Jennifer took us through another set of key elements related to that second question. You may need to revisit the punctuation in your writing for a start, depending on whether you’re aiming for the US or UK markets; there are some significant differences in the required format. Spreadsheets are a useful tool for version control and tracking changes (providing you don’t go over 65,000 rows 😉 ….). They’re good for plotting timelines too – let’s be honest, unless you’re writing a novel about a time-travelling doctor or gambling fraudsters, having one of your main characters reveal the winning lottery numbers two days before the actual draw is not going to work! I’m also going to mention the “C” word here – if you need a suggestion for a good book or two to pop on your Christmas list, drop a line to Jennifer. She recommended some novels that truly stimulated all the senses, or drove you slightly bonkers with their clever plot twists – two areas that you may be trying to incorporate into your own writing.

Key elements covered, and our brains buzzing with more food for thought, we whisked ourselves off into our breakout rooms again to discuss Jennifer’s second question. A few of my group stressed the importance of reading your work out loud to identify any issues with dialogue and to ensure sentences flowed naturally. This definitely struck a chord with me – as a poet, I’m always reading my work out loud to myself to ensure the lines have the right rhythm. Ending each chapter with a point of interest to keep your reader engaged was also suggested – don’t finish with your characters drinking their cocoa and heading off to bed…although a variation of this might be appropriate if you want to join the Mills & Boon club! Checking your spelling is also key, just be careful with the autocorrect function. Turning your main character’s surname into “Skeleton”, or the word “satnav” to “satanic”, could make your novel read very differently! (I’ll leave you to come up with the Chris Rea / Road to Hell jokes…)

Second breakout period over, we came back for a quick feedback session before finishing up for cocoa and bed ourselves. Proofreading / reading your work out loud was a key element across all three groups, with Carolyn informing us about the Read Aloud function that now comes with the MS Word 10 application. She has found this very useful for editing her work, even if the Word “voice” has a rather expressionless, robotic quality about it. Both Jennifer and Eddie touched on revisiting your novel’s first chapter after you’ve got the full draft completed – to either actually write it, or to chop it out if it now serves no real purpose, putting any key plot elements into another chapter in the book.

Jennifer finished off the workshop by confessing she hadn’t really thought about getting published whilst writing her novel. She had simply enjoyed the process of her story coming together, and hadn’t considered the “what next” until near the end. In fact, there’s every possibility she’ll be on novel number 5 by the time she seriously considers publication. Jennifer’s last piece of advice to us was to enter as many writing competitions as we could – feedback from the various judges had been invaluable for developing her writing.

So, here I am at the end of my first AWC blog, which I wrote….and wrote….and wrote, until I completed the first version, then did the necessary editing and re-writes. Hopefully you’ve stayed with me to the end and didn’t get lost or bored halfway through. Now, if I can just take this experience and apply it to writing my novel – suggestions on what to feed my brain elves always welcomed!

Maggie Morton

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