When lockdown unlocks writers

Last year I was one of many who wrote a guest blog post for Chantelle Atkins, an author, writing group teacher and mentor with a similar teaching background to mine. She was collecting articles on experiences of the first lockdown (how long ago that seems! Yet a rerun remains a distinct possibility given how poorly the Westminster government have managed the pandemic). Don’t groan, that’s not the theme today. Instead, this interview with Chantelle celebrates the creativity she, her fellow writers and mentees, child and adult, demonstrate in this anthology just published. Like me, she enjoys encouraging children’s writing and storytelling and links it with adults’ creativity too. As we emerge into a changed world, do enjoy this varied set of approaches and reactions.

Hi Chantelle. Please start by telling me how you planned the anthology.

The first three sections came about from posts I wrote for my personal blog. I then asked other writers and bloggers to join in and write under the same themes. It was in my head from early on that if I got enough content, we could put a book together under Chasing Driftwood. Lots of contributions came from the writing groups and clubs we run and via word of mouth. Many others were writers and bloggers I’d connected with previously and who wanted to participate.

Which is your favourite piece and why?

I think I have to say the poems on Hope written by the children. Not to say the adult poems aren’t amazing, because they are, but I felt like the hope theme really caught fire with the children and we had lots of wonderful entries. Each hope poem really made me smile and a few brought tears to my eyes. The children are also particularly proud and excited to be published for the first time!

Was putting “Stay Home” together an individual task or a team effort? Would you like to acknowledge any special help here?

We couldn’t have done it without the contributors so a huge thank you must go to every one of them for participating first in the blog posts and then allowing us to publish their work in the anthology. Myself and my business partner Sim did the work between us, putting it together, formatting the ebook and paperback, editing and proofreading. We were extremely lucky that a talented friend of Sim’s offered to do the front cover design for free! So we are very grateful for that.

It’s a great cover! Did it take the designer many attempts or come right straight away?

Law Baker is a friend of Sim’s and we gave him a bit of a brief, wanted something with a house and windows and different people gazing out. It was his own idea to add the nurse on the street which I think is absolutely perfect.

How will the proceeds will be used?

They will all go straight into the bank account of our Community Interest Company (CIC) and will be used to fund our next community writing projects which will benefit young writers. The company is called Chasing Driftwood. The name came when I had two old songs in my head one day when walking. Driftwood by Travis and Chasing Rainbows by Shed 7. I combined them for something unusual!

A community interest writing group? That sounds interesting…

I started as an adult writing group, adding children’s writing workshops in 2015. Because my youngest was only a baby at the time, I was limited to running workshops in school holidays but it started to take off and in 2017 I applied to become a CIC. Once my youngest started school I reached out to local schools about running writing clubs and they were very keen. The local home education community approached me two years ago for clubs to accommodate them, and Sim joined in 2019. It’s gone from strength to strength.

Describe a typical children’s and/or adults writing workshop. Are they online only?

With the clubs, four are online via Zoom and four are in person, within schools and libraries. Workshops can be online or in person. Adult workshops include sessions on developing characters, how to build an author platform, whether self-publishing is right for you and more. The children’s clubs and workshops cover many things! Poetry, short stories, creative non-fiction, article writing, blogging, journaling, comic books, developing characters, how to plot, how to use literary devices and much more!

What’s the next project for you personally and/or for Chasing Driftwood?

I’m working on a four-book YA post-apocalyptic series, among other things! I’m also co-writing a YA series with Sim. As well as the many clubs and services we already offer, we’re hoping to launch a new Chasing Driftwood community writing project soon. I can’t say too much yet but it will involve putting together a climate and wildlife themed anthology written by young people, and will also involve another project that aims to connect children with nature through writing.

Thank you. It’s been a pleasure to play a part in Stay Home and to hear about Chasing Driftwood and your personal writing projects. Good luck with everything as 2022 approaches!

You can buy the ebook of Stay Home here and the paperback is here

Find Chasing Driftwood on facebook and Instagram

Find details of Chantelle’s books on her blog here or find her on Facebook or Instagram

And here are Sim’s Facebook page, Instagram and blog

Five glorious years!

WordPress tells me I’m five this week! Not a message I expected to see when I wrote my tentative Welcome in 2016. Right now I’m very preoccupied by what’s best described as a Demanding Family Event so will keep this post brief (at last! you sigh). It’s a quick rundown of the posts you and I liked best every year. Thank you for travelling with me; do please revisit and return, and I’ll do my best still to be writing for you (and me) in 2026.

2016: My most popular post with (for me) a whopping 1,357 views obviously struck a chord with the teaching profession I was about to leave. Read my thoughts on teaching writing at Back to the Writing Bored. I haven’t changed my mind! But the post that pleased me most was The Great Amazon Dinner Party because my first novel The Infinity Pool had done so well. If Shakespeare had sat SATs was aimed at the same audience as the writing bored. I’m also pleased to reread my memories of a wonderful workshop with Professor Marina Warner at Dartington, which led eventually to The Magic Carpet.

2017: Most popular post: The Best Independent Bookshop in London. Could be subtitled How to Bring up a Bookworm. If you are more or less raised in a good bookshop, your welcome to the world of words is assured. Runners up in my own mind are diversions into UK travelogue: an exploration of “my” corner of East London called The World in Four Short Blocks and Marsh Frogs Sing Loudly in the Ditches which came from a trip to the ancient Sussex town of Rye. I also wrote a little about cultural appropriation as I worried my way into The Magic Carpet. I wouldn’t dare start writing that book now, but it has its merits and I hope Getting It Right expresses the sensitive dilemma so many authors face.

2018: Most popular post: I was surprised but pleased for my German translator to find this was Sought and Found in Translation, after the publication of Der Infinity-Pool. But I also enjoyed exploring an unusual POV In a Nutshell, and was humbled and proud (if you can be both at once) to be asked to start a fortnightly books column for Smorgasbord, one of which is here. I kept that up for a year or so before asking to contribute more occasionally so that I could get on with my own writing. But I was so pleased to be asked and Sally and her crowd of co-bloggers have become good and supportive friends. Finally, although sometimes along with many of you I feel as though I Can’t be Bloggered, I did have a bit of fun giving a backward glance to Prologues.

2019: Most popular post: The Magic Carpet – Standby for Landing. This is one flight that hasn’t been cancelled so if you haven’t bought it yet… I also had the interesting experience of a blog tour in 2019, and there are a couple of posts about that. Not sure what I was doing otherwise, there seems to be a six month gap in blog posts.

2020: Most popular post: What Authors Don’t Bargain For. As when I struck a chord with all those angry teachers, I seem to get the biggest audience when voicing a collective grievance. Hope it makes people think! It was a sad spring, 2020, and here I am saying Au Revoir to Europe and just two months later worrying about how to write fiction in an age of pandemic. I hope you’ve all stayed safe and well into…

2021: …when as I say an ongoing family event has taken most of my time and attention, and my most popular post so far is from people revisiting my Easter Eggheads quiz of a previous year. My post on a workshop with Sophie Hannah did well though, and if you look back through there are others on writing courses each year. I’ve learned a lot in five years. Please stay with me, even if we’re both erratic, for the next five.

©Jessica Norrie 2021

Plotting with Sophie Hannah

My Work in Progress and I languished, less WIP than RIP. But all was not lost, with the opportunity of advice from a bestselling writer. Sophie Hannah was giving a Guardian Masterclass last Tuesday. When my previous books were ailing, doses of professional writer wisdom revived them. Another Masterclass, days at Jane Austen’s house and RIBA/The British Library, and evenings in Bloomsbury were just what the doctor ordered.

I’ve been mired in familiar worries, explained in previous posts, that my poor plot and sluggish pace will yield an unpublishable book. Hannah was having none of that. Her PhD in Positivity trumps my Diploma in Negative Thinking. I once met another course leader who allowed “Yes, and…” and banned “Yes, but…” They’d be soulmates.

First Hannah had us write one thought about “our thriller” in the Zoom chat box. Participants wrote of frustration, being stuck, dead-ends, plot knots, losing faith, lack of time/inclination, and not having even started. Clearly I wasn’t the only one stuck in the mire.

Hannah runs a 14-week course called Dream Author. These two hours were a brief introduction. Anything in italics is a direct quote from her.

The facts about your book are less loaded and awful than your thoughts about it. You maximise your chances of the desired result if you realise the difference between facts and thoughts. Facts are neutral, objective. We have thoughts about them, and we can choose to have positive ones. We can audition our thoughts, only casting the helpful ones. Thoughts lead to better feelings. Positive feelings drive our actions. Actions get results.

Fact: I have written 30,000 words of Novel 4. Thoughts: “What great material from which to edit the best parts” OR “Shapeless waffle”. Audition: reject second thought. Feeling: I like editing (this is true). It’s a chance to select the best I can do. Action: I’ll edit maximum ten pages a day (manageable goal). Result: tight start that’s easy to build on.

Yes, but… was in my head. Yes, and… cut in Hannah. Discover the things that work by trying out the things that don’t. Even unsuccessful things are useful.

To get started, imagine your ideal reader. The instinct is to think of groups (women/animal lovers/YA). Hannah prefers to envisage an individual, an avatar, perhaps yourself. Write the book you’d read, themes and characters that fascinate you, with the writers you enjoy in mind.

To generate idea, you need to regard everything with curiosity, as a possible starting point. Yes, and there are so many: overheard conversations, tiny one line news stories, a glimpse of a church from a train. My third novel starts with a pub sign. Hannah’s right, stories come from small beginnings. You can take an everyday situation and just change a few details to make it weird.

Start by writing the blurb! Yes, but a blurb’s meant for the cover of the finished novel.

Exactly! Writing the blurb helps you visualise the final product. PLUS it provides the overriding question the story promises to resolve for the reader. I do like this idea. As Hannah says, writing the blurb makes YOU aware of what you’re undertaking – tone, setting, characters, mission statement. Put the character in an intriguing plot situation, and as you write keep referring back to that central question. Her blurb for her most successful book, Haven’t They Grown, promises to show how an impossibility can appear possible. (Her description had me so hooked I ordered one.)

Now the planning. This is where famous bestselling author Sophie Hannah, and I – indie author with just a few exclusive fans – differ. Her planning takes her at least two months. The novel’s 80-100k words then take her about 4 weeks (!) and her revisions 3 days (!!) because she’s solved structural and editorial problems at the planning stage (!!!) My planning, er, happens as and when. My first draft takes me around nine months and as for the subsequent drafts…. I ignore, er, consider, er, solve problems when they derail me or someone points them out.

Yes, but I really ENJOY writing whereas planning is a necessary evil. Although, supposing I did want to try, how would such a detailed plan look?

Right. It may run to 100 pages, full sentences describing the chapter rather than the chapter itself. It includes dialogue. It’s effectively a plan and first draft in one. You can depart from it, but it’s like a handrail on steep steps. If you know it’s there, you can relax and not use it. Relaxed, you’ll write better. Successful books usually have a solid, shapely structure – readers don’t realise but structure is what keeps us hooked.

Hannah’s plans are plot led. Realistic characters aren’t fixed, they react to events. Hannah puts them through the same fact, thought, feeling, action, result sequence she described in the coaching session. This method of developing characters is not at all “me”, but I’ll try it. I’ll embrace it! Yes, and I’ll follow her other advice, to address ”plot knots” by noting them, identifying what’s NOT working and taking the least worst alternative. Believe in advance your decisions will be right, and commit. If I decide planning’s fun, it will be! I’ll give myself achievable goals, celebrate success and trust myself to create something good.

So, a jolly practical pep talk. Yes, and in other news, my lovely German translator has a project for an online reading of The Infinity Pool / Der Infinity-Pool. Yes, and a delightful fellow author/blogger/creative writing teacher has offered a guest post and review for The Magic Carpet. Yes, and in a hopeful sign for Novel 3, the editor at the publisher I dream of working with has informed my agent that her long silence is because she hasn’t yet read it, not because she’s ruled it out. Opportunity knocks!

Jessica Norrie 2021