It was so exciting to see my book come out, especially in paperback. It all seemed worthwhile. Those hours staring at a blank screen or at least they felt like hours. Deleting chapters and starting again.
Refused by several agents, I decided to self- publish, though not without trepidation. It contains some sexually explicate scenes – what would my adult children think? Could I even tell my elderly relatives?
I didn’t set out to write a racy novel, though the idea for the book came from a friend who I knew was having an affair. She told me that her lover was now suffering from dementia and the novel was conceived, if not yet born. Originally, the mistress was the main character but the wife, Paula, developed organically and became the primary focus.
My research included joining a web site for women wanting to date younger men. I joined toyboy flirt.com. as if I were Paula, a sixty -year old woman looking for some fun. I much prefer the name of my fictional website. mrsrobinson.com, but the replies were great and some went into the novel, though others were too sexual even for Demented Love and many of the photographs were gross. I had plenty to choose from, as within a week, I had over 500 replies!
I also attended a day centre for dementia sufferers and sought advice from friends whose parents suffer from Alzheimer’s. I did a lot of soul searching about the voice of Jack, who has Alzheimer’s. The book is full of dark humour but I did not want the reader to feel I was mocking Jack but rather laughing with him.
I wrote each chapter from the point of view of a variety of characters, so I set myself the hard task of finding voices for characters as diverse as an eighty- year old dementia sufferer, his gay son, a toy -boy and a young surrogate mother.
I started Demented Love several years ago, when attending a creative writing evening class run by Susan Elliot Wright. I had constructive feedback from other students and from the Sheffield Novelist’s group. I pitched it at the Novel Slam in Off the Shelf and came second. This gave me the confidence to apply for the MA Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam, where I completed the novel as my final piece.
My blurb describes it as S&M for the M&S brigade and most people find it very funny. I hope though behind the humour it begins to reverse the asexual way older people are generally portrayed and to explore the dynamics of elder abuse in a very different way.
If you want to buy it is on Amazon to download or in paperback
Researching and Writing ‘White Water’ – A Historical Novel
by Sarah Peacock
While my sister, author Mandy Lee was visiting the ballroom of the The Savoy Hotel and exploring personal shopping in Harrods as research for her erotic romance novel sequel ‘True Colours’, I was researching pilchard fishing and asylums in the nineteenth century. I did find myself wondering at this point why historical fiction was my genre of choice.
‘White Water’, my second novel, is set in a Cornish fishing village in 1873. It is set against a background of social metamorphosis. The population is moving from country to town and women are beginning to campaign for the right to vote. Nell and Francesca – two women from very different backgrounds, both with secret passions, are thrown together following a shipwreck in the tiny fishing village where they reside.
This is my first foray into the historical novel genre. I have to admit, it did scare me a bit. I was worried that I wouldn’t get all the facts right and that ‘the experts’ would pick up on my naivety. However, reading what others had to say about writing in the historical genre put my mind at rest. I realised that, as always, the story comes first and filling the novel full of fascinating but irrelavant-to-the-story facts is more of a mistake, than say, getting the exact type of tea-pot in a guest house in 1873 correct (and believe me, that’s something I have considered!).
I find social history fascinating and have always been more interested in how people lived their day to day lives, how they thought and felt, rather than the great political events of the times. For this novel, set in 1873, I found Ruth Goodman’s book ‘How to be a Victorian’ absolutely invaluable. It covers everything from underwear and leisure time to working practises and schooling. When I wrote about my character’s clothes or talked about using a bathing hut in 1873, I was fairly confident I wasn’t too off the mark.
Finding out about the fishing industry has been a bit more difficult. I started by reading another brilliant book, ‘The Wreckers’ by Bella Bathhurst. It explores wrecking across the British Isles through the ages and goes some way to separate fact from fiction. The history of the fishing industry, however, is not an area that is greatly written about but I found a few really useful websites which I have listed below.
The important thing for me was knowing the details and how it felt. So finding out that the women wore oilskin aprons and layered their skirts, tucking them in while collecting the catches from the boats, was important, as was finding out they sometimes bound their hands with fabric while working because the salt could really hurt.
I’ve only just started reading about the Victorian Asylum and finding out about the changes in mental health practise in the nineteenth century such as the introduction of ‘Moral Treatment’. This has been really interesting and I intend to carry out further research in this area, in particular, into how women were diagnosed and treated for ‘hysteria’.
Some writers like to use a lot of the local dialect and some don’t, just as some readers love it and others hate it. I prefer not to and instead I have chose to drop a few relevant words into ‘White Water’ such as ‘huer’ and ‘lugger’. I was more interested in exploring the voices of my characters. One of the central tenets of ‘White Water’ is how differently Nell and Francesca experience the constraints of their lives and how they voice this. I found reading the prose and poetry of women around the time useful for this, as was reading diaries and letters.
All in all, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed writing ‘White Water’ and here are a few, hopefully useful tips I’ve learnt along the way:
1) The story comes first. Do your research but understanding what your story wants to say, where it is going and your character’s motivations are more important than minute details.
2) Try, if possible, to read some literature of the time. Diaries, essays and poetry are useful in understanding how people thought and felt.
3) Check the important facts. Look up what happened politically and socially at the time. It might provide useful back story and setting, helping to amp up the tension.
4) Be wary. Don’t get caught out. For example, I wrote a whole scene entailing having a bath in great detail before I found out Victorians didn’t actually take baths!
5) Enjoy the research. You never know you might find little pearls of interest to jot in your journal which might become the basis for your next novel. I’ve found some fascinating stories reading about Victorian Asylums in ‘Bedlam’ by Catharine Arnold and have jotted down a few ideas for further short stories.
The Wreckers – Bella Bathhurst
How to be a Victorian – Ruth Goodman
Bedlam – London And Its Mad – Catharine Arnold
The Cornish Fishing Industry – A Brief History – Dave Smart
And if you fancy reading about shopping in Harrods and dancing at The Savoy Hotel rather than pilchard fishing then be sure to check out Mandy Lee’s blog http://www.mandy-lee.com
Sarah Peacock is a writer from Sheffield. She’s had one short story published in Wolf Girls – Dark Tales of Teeth, Claws and Lycogony (Hic Dragones, 2014) When she’s not writing, she enjoys reading, walking in the woods and surfing.
At the Louder than Words music writing festival in Manchester, Sheffield Novel Slam organiser Anne Grange caught up with the Novel Slam’s 2015 winner Olivia Piekarski about her experience.
I heard about the novel slam though my writing group, Manchester Women Writers, which is an amazing mixed-ability group of writers who meet weekly at Manchester Central library. Susan Solazzi, who runs the group, found out about the slam. I thought it sounded amazing. I need to find an agent at this stage of my career, and the chance of a guaranteed read-through of my manuscript by Joanna Swainson seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. I rang up and booked a place in the Novel Slam.
My novel The Guest List is my first piece of fiction that I’m pleased with. I’m nearing the end of my first complete draft. I’ve gained confidence as a fiction writer since The Big Midweek, the music memoir I co-wrote with Steve Hanley, ex-bassist of the legendary and notorious band the Fall was released. After all, it had a guaranteed audience of at least 5,000 fanatical Fall fans. Our independant publishers Route don’t insist on working with agents, unlike the larger publishing houses, so I had by-passed that stage during The Big Midweek process.
I almost didn’t make it. The train was delayed, and I was sending frantic text messages to the organiser, Anne. Steve and I piled into a taxi at Sheffield railway station, and told the taxi driver to put his foot down. We reached Bank Street in about five minutes, but didn’t know where Bank Street Arts was and sped past it. Luckily, I caught sight of the A-board outside as we were speeding past and stopped our driver just in time. I arrived just as the first writer was doing his pitch, and we sat down at the back, massively relieved.
Reading the guidelines for the Novel Slam, I was impressed with the format. It was a clean slate that enabled all the writers to compete on an equal footing. The pitching round meant that you had to sell the book to the audience in one minute. I spent hours developing a decent synopsis that fitted into the time limit – something that would be perfect for the blurb at the back of a dust jacket. There were lots of good pitches though – I think that Iain Broome, the compere, was a bit disappointed that he didn’t have much opportunity to blow his horn at people who had run over the allotted time!
The three-minute reading from the start of the novel was the most important and most difficult part of the Novel Slam to get right. I knew I needed to hook people in from the first page – that was all I got to read, and if you were browsing books in a bookshop, that’s all you’d read too, when deciding whether to buy a book. Three minutes was just the right amount of time to keep the audience interested. I was elated when people were laughing and clapping in the right places, even though it made my hands shake with nerves! It was a good experience, but a little terrifying. Getting a positive audience reaction to your work stops you from feeling like a nutter, sitting at your laptop and laughing away to yourself.
I was blown away by the standard of everyone’s writing. All the competitors were serious writers – competing for serious prizes, such as a read-through by the Literary Consultancy, and creative coaching.The feedback from the judges’ panel was very well thought-out, and gave all the writers something to work on to improve their work.
In the break, people came up to me to say that they loved the opening of my novel, which was great. Being an author is very isolating. It’s not like being in a band, where you get immediate feedback from your colleagues and from the audience. The Novel Slam is a beautiful way of testing authors’ writing.
When I found out I’d got into the final, the feeling was amazing, and when I won, I was completely overwhelmed. Then I ran back off to catch the last train, feeling like I’d got away with a total hit and run, Manchester style.
Writing a book is a massive undertaking, and the chances of actually making money from it are very slim. Truly dedicated writers have no choice. They have to go on. It’s an all-consuming passion, even though it’s important to live a “real” life at the same time. Writing is a condition, and only becomes a viable job for very few. The entire profession should be stamped with a mental health warning but if you really can’t help yourself perseverance and patience are key.
I’m now working hard on finishing the first full draft of The Guest List, but I’m buoyed up by the experience of the Novel Slam.
Thank you, Sheffield!
Note from Anne: I was waiting for a tram home after the Novel Slam when I found lots of panicky text messages from Olivia on my phone about her train being delayed. While she was texting, I was busy taking the ticket money for the event, and was too busy to check my phone. I was so glad she’d made it! It was a great opportunity to congratulate Olivia. Her novel is set in the mid-nineties, against the backdrop of Oasis’ rise to fame. My writing is also closely intertwined with music, and we started chatting. This led to an invitation to me working on Across the Tracks, the book of the Louder than Words festival for Route Online publishing, and I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. I had a fantastic time, met lovely people, including some music legends, and now my work will be in print too. As a writer, chat, network, ask questions; be cheeky. It might just get you somewhere!
The annual Off the Shelf Novel Slam has become something of a Sheffield tradition over the last few years, with fiction writers getting brave and pitching and reading out their work in front of a live audience. The aim of the event is to give new fiction writers an audience, and a chance to showcase their work, just like poets would do in a poetry slam. Writing novels can be a lonely business!
The novel slam takes place on Tuesday 27th October at 7.30pm at Bank Street Arts, in Sheffield city centre. Tickets cost £5 /£3 concessions on the door, and refreshments are available. If you don’t want to compete, just turn up, enjoy it, and vote for the best books.
The first round is a 1 minute pitch of your novel. You will be timed! You have exactly one minute to convince the audience that your novel is a must-read. You don’t need to explain your entire plot, you just need to prepare the blurb that will make readers pick your book off the shelves and take it straight to the till in the bookshop.
The audience will vote for their favourites, and after a short break, the ten people through to the next round will have 3 minutes to read a compelling extract from their novel. Most people pick the start of the first chapter, but some writers have had success with extracts from the middle of their books.
The panel of published writers will give feedback to the contestants and there will be a break while the audience vote again, and the judges pick the four winning novelists.
The winners will each read a slightly longer extract from their novels, and the judges will give more detailed feedback.
Although the competitive format of the Novel Slam may seem a little daunting, it’s just for fun really, and a great chance to meet other writers.
Tip: practise makes perfect, so carefully craft your pitch, test it out in front of your family and friends, use a timer when you’re rehearsing, and edit your extracts to read so they’re engaging, attention-grabbing and intriguing.
This is the blog for the Sheffield Novelists Writing Group. We are a friendly group of people writing novels – at various stages and levels, and everyone who is writing a novel is very welcome to join us!
We meet monthly at Bank Street Arts in Sheffield City Centre, usually on the last Monday of the month at 7.30pm, but during the summer months and December, dates may change, so please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
This blog is a work in progress, so please bear with us, but it will evolve and develop over the next few months.