Building a Novel – Scene by Scene

I have a weird way of writing

I know – oh, how I know – it would be most sensible to start at the beginning of a story and work my way through until I reach the end, but have I ever managed that? I haven’t – although, believe me, I’ve often tried.

My problem is I’m a sucker for scenes, and I always want to write the big ones first. That means my first draft is essentially the whole plot, but told through the main episodes – no linking bits, no descriptions, none of the expected ‘niceties’. Of course, those elements are added in – eventually – but I tend to think of them as extras. And I’m not a ‘descriptive’ kind of writer, which is why I tend to leave descriptions until the story proper is done. It’s one of the challenges of writing that I don’t find enjoyable.

But there are other challenges I really love

One of my favourites is retrospectively adding in hints about where the plot is going. As I’m happily writing the main scenes, I also make a list of ideas to add in further down the line, and later I’ll take great pleasure inserting these passages and watching them gradually tie the scenes together. As I tick them one by one off my long list, I always have a wonderful sense of satisfaction.

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Page one of my ‘To Add In’ list

Julia Green, author and Professor of Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University, came to speak to Hay Writers at Work this year, and I was so pleased when she suggested that it was a good idea to think of fiction in terms of scenes –  events that are happening, rather than have happened – and that each scene should move the story along.

It made me feel that maybe my weird way of working wasn’t quite so weird after all

Whether you take the straight forward route when you write, or if you write randomly like I do, I hope your writing is exactly where you want it to be. Fingers crossed, we’ll all get to the end of the story we want to tell one way or another!

Thanks for reading.

Love,

Sara x

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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How to REALLY Know a Writer

A few months ago, along with 19 other writers from Wales, I took part in the Hay Festival Writers at Work programme*

All 20 of us – here’s the full list – spent 12 hours a day together, over 11 days, in the ‘tent’ designated for our workshops, in the canteen and, most evenings, in the pub.

We chatted over meals and during coffee breaks. We discussed where we were from and the sort of things we wrote. We shared our nervousness and excitement about being part of Writers at Work and discussed the masterclasses we’d been to and the amazing insights we’d been given into the way internationally renowned authors work.

A few days into the programme I thought I was getting to know my fellow writers pretty well

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Hay Festival Writers at Work 2018

And then we hosted the first of a series of events about Writers at Work. This was a chance to read our own work at Hay to an audience made up of the public – and each other.

It was a complete eye-opener

After the first few people had read their poetry or prose, it began to dawn on me that even after all the time spent socialising over lunches and coffees, only now was I being given the opportunity to really know them – to see their creativity and to understand what actually made them tick. And I realised that you can never truly know a creative person until you experience what they create.

Each writer came into their own as they took to the podium to showcase their work. They were in their element and it was remarkable to witness. There was such a breadth of fantastic writing on show, rich in diversity and totally inspiring. We had several sessions like this, and after each one I felt I knew my fellow writers so very much better.

So how do you really get to know a writer? Get to know their work. It’s the window into their personality, their soul and creativity.

Thanks for reading!

Sara x 

*Hay Writers at Work is a professional development course for writers from Wales. It’s the brain-child of Hay Festival’s Peter Florence, is funded by the Welsh Arts Council and run by Literature Wales. Author and educator Tiffany Murray is the programme co-ordinator.

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

 

The Nocturnal Writer: When too much imagination is a bad thing…

I’m naturally a nocturnal writer…

That’s not to say I sit at my computer writing every night – that would be too disruptive for my family – no, what I mean is this: I do my best work after midnight, and I often write whole paragraphs in my head at half past three in the morning. Believe me, it’s not the most convenient way to work.

I know I’m not alone in this affliction. When Frances Hardinge, the Costa Prize-winning YA adult author, came to speak to us at Writers at Work as part of Hay Festival this year, she told us she’d be totally nocturnal if only that lifestyle would fit in with society.

A few of us nodded our agreement. Some of us had already had this discussion – how if we didn’t need to be mindful of our families and others keeping office hours, our days and nights could be reversed, and how much more productive we would be, how much more our natural creative selves.

After the talk, Frances signed my copy of her latest novel, ‘A Skinfull of Shadows’ – to real-life me, Wendy.

She asked me about being a natural nocturnal like her – she’d obviously noticed my nodding. I briefly mentioned how, as a child, I had swapped night for day for almost a whole year, and how blissful it had been.

I didn’t have time to tell her the complete story: that I was absent from junior school for months with an infection after an operation to remove my tonsils, and that when I was sent off to bed at night I’d write and read until dawn and then sleep until lunchtime. It suited me brilliantly.

I’d had trouble sleeping from a very young age, so I was delighted with my new routine. I was getting far more sleep than I normally did and, despite the infection, I was starting to feel better than I ever had before. But, of course, my parents were terribly worried by my new and weird sleeping habit. When my mum mentioned it to the doctor, he told her not to worry – my health was clearly improving and he predicted my sleeping pattern would too, once I was back at school.

It didn’t

The light would go out at 9 o’clock and I’d lie awake for hours, writing stories in my head. I say ‘writing’ rather than ‘making up stories’ because that’s what I did – I wrote passages in my mind, word for word, with actual punctuation and paragraph breaks. And after a night of busily ‘writing’, I still, of course, had to get up for school in the morning.

After a few months, my parents were worried by how tired I looked and I was taken back to the doctor. When I admitted what I did when I couldn’t sleep, the doctor diagnosed ‘too much imagination’. He didn’t have a cure for that.

And I’m still not cured

All my life I’ve written huge amounts in my head when I should be sleeping. I wrote paragraph after paragraph of ‘Not Thomas’ that way. I used to worry I’d forget it all, and sometimes I’d get up to scribble down passages in the half-light of dawn. But recently I’ve become more relaxed about the process. If it’s good enough to type up the next day, it’ll stay in my head. If not, I’ll have forgotten it by morning. It was encouraging to hear Roddy Doyle, another speaker at Hay Writers at Work, tell us he took the same approach.

We nocturnal writers may be a peculiar lot, but I’m certain of one thing – nocturnal or not, as a writer you can never have too much imagination.

Thanks for reading!

Sara x

P.S. Do you write best at night? And do you wish, like me, you could live your life nocturnally? Let me know what you think.

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

Not the Booker Madness

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It’s been a very exciting week for me – a weird, amazing, crazy three days since I found out Not Thomas has made it on to the longlist of The Guardian’s annual Not the Booker prize.

To be fair, it didn’t have to do anything to qualify, apart from meet the simple criteria that the regular Booker prize entrants meet.

But it did have to be nominated.

I’m very proud to say that Not Thomas was initially nominated by book blogger, Anne Williams. I’m so delighted that out of all the very many books she’s read this year, she chose my little Not Thomas.

If you’ve read Not Thomas too, and liked what you read, you can vote now for it in the public voting stage. This ends at midnight on Monday, 7th August, so not long to go!

There are a couple of rules: you must vote for two different titles & you must review one of the titles you’ve chosen.

Why not go to the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize page and take a look at what people are saying in the comment thread?

And if you’re curious about Not Thomas – a novel for adults in the voice of a five-year-old child – you can find a sample on Amazon.

Not Thomas is available to buy for £2.84 on Kindle today.

Read it by Monday and then if you like it, please consider giving it one of your votes!

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I’ve been keeping a nightly diary on my Facebook page since I heard about the Not the Booker longlisting. I thought I’d share last night’s snippet here:

Before I crawl off to bed after another weird but wonderful day, I thought I’d post a quick round-up of ‘Being on the Not the Booker prize Longlist’ Day 3.

It’s been a day when I’ve realised that there are so many people – who I’ve never even met in real life – going that extra mile to support me and Not Thomas.

I turned on my laptop this morning and found the wonderful book reviewer Being Anne’s blog post about why she loves The Guardian’s Not the Booker prize and why she nominated Not Thomas for it. It’s so kind of her to choose Not T out of all the books she’s read this year, and I’m very honoured she did.

This afternoon, the very talented YA author, Amy Kitcher created a wonderful graphic on twitter for Not T, plus a voting & buying link. It’s brilliant! I wouldn’t have a clue how to do it. She’s made one with all four of us authors from Wales on too. They’re on my twitter feed if you’d like to take a look.

There are lots of other instances of people showing their support too – the re-tweets, the shares, the supportive comments. My lovely neighbour kindly put a post on our town’s FB page, and my local post office suggested I put a poster up there.

And then there’s been the votes.

A huge thank you to everyone who’s voted or reminded someone else to vote – the tally was creeping towards 20 when I last looked, far more than I dreamed possible on Monday afternoon, when I first heard I was long-listed.

So that’s the end of Day 3. Thanks for your support. Dare I say this? I’ll whisper it:

If voting carries on the way it’s going, with nearly 20 votes at the end of today, maybe there’s actually a tiny, tiny chance of getting Not Thomas onto the short-list. A tiny chance. Tiny tiny…

Thanks for reading. There’ll be an update of Day 4 on my Sara Gethin Writer Facebook page tonight. Until then…

Sara x

Here are those voting and Amazon links again, just in case I’ve tempted you… 

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Not Thomas Brook Cottage Books Blog Tour

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This week is a very exciting one for me as my debut novel for adults, Not Thomas, goes on blog tour with Brook Cottage Books. I’ve never had a blog tour before and so needed to have the whole thing explained to me very carefully and slowly by Helena who’s responsible for marketing at Honno, my publishers. I think I’ve got my head around it now.

For the whole of the week, book bloggers will be promoting and reviewing ‘Not Thomas’ on their own websites, and also posting on twitter and Facebook – all co-ordinated by the wonderful Brook Cottage Books. There’s also an interview and competition to win copies of Not Thomas hosted by Boon’s Bookcase.

Today I’m going to feature here on my website the review by BeingAnne.

Not only did Anne write a review that made me cry – in the best way possible – she also nominated ‘Not Thomas’ for the Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker‘ prize. I’ve followed that award with interest for a number of years now, and to think that my little novel will be on the longlist come next Monday (provided it meets all the requirements) has absolutely made my week! So a huge thank you to Anne for taking the time and trouble to nominate Not Thomas, and for believing it worthy.

Here’s Anne’s review:

“Every so often, a book comes along – without any great fanfare – that makes me want to shout about it from the rooftops. Not Thomas by Sara Gethin – published by the consistently excellent Honno Press on 15th June – is one of the most stunning books I’ve read this year. As I finished reading, I immediately nominated it for the Guardian Not The Booker prize – if there is any justice in this world (and I do hope there will be) this book should be on mainstream prize shortlists everywhere. I’m just so thankful that Sara chose a blog tour with Brook Cottage Books to help bring it to people’s wider attention. Had she not, it might have passed me by entirely… and what a loss that would have been.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a big fan of reading about the ugliness of this world, drug culture, violence, neglect – but that’s the world you’ll find in this book, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. And if you’d told me that I’d sit, totally rapt, reading a book written in the voice of a five year old child, seeing that dreadful world through his eyes and from his unique perspective – well, I really wouldn’t have believed you.
I could do with a thesaurus to come up with some new adjectives – the best ones have all been used. Let’s try powerful, moving, heart-wrenching, poignant, shocking, emotional, enthralling, and maybe a bit exhausting – but let’s not forget uplifting, life-affirming, and sometimes wonderfully funny too. The impact of this book was exceptional. Tomos’ voice is absolutely authentic and compelling: you find yourself smiling at the way he expresses himself, immediately before being in tears at some new piece of cruelty that he dismisses as the norm. The detail of his world becomes part of yours – the borrowed coat, the damaged truck, the coin, the black chair – and long after finishing reading, those small details will stay with you.
Standing back from the story and its content a little, the mechanics of story-telling are superbly handled – overheard adult conversations, not always fully understood by Tomos, move it cleverly forward and disentangle the threads around past history and the adult relationships. The story itself is strong, with real narrative drive and unexpected twists and turns – much more than an unflinching view of a suffering child.
There’s a whole range of humanity in this book – exceptional generosity, love and kindness sitting alongside ignorance, cruelty and neglect. And you’re left with that aching feeling that someone should have seen what was happening and intervened more forcibly – and then wondering how many other children might be suffering in a similar way.
The author, in one of her blog posts, says of the reader: I hope… their mouths will have smiled, as Tomos might say, even if their eyes have cried. That summed this wonderful book up absolutely perfectly for me. A unique and unforgettable experience – and one I’d urge everyone not to miss.”

Thanks to Anne for her wonderful review. You may like to check out all her other reviews on her website Being Anne. And here’s the link again for Brook Cottage Tours – where there are opportunities to become involved with book blogging, if you love reading. And why not enter the Not Thomas Giveaway with Boon’s Bookcase?

More posts from the blog tour to come, and I’ll keep this site updated about the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize too.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this. Let me know what you think.

Love, Sara x

 

Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy on Amazon.

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When Crying is Good

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It’s a strange thing to have written a book with the potential to make people cry. I knew it made me cry – I could hardly edit some sentences for the tears – but I had no real idea if when someone else read Not Thomas it would have the same effect on them.

Before it went to print, four authors read it and gave Honno, my publisher, some lovely endorsements to use on the cover and inside the book. All four authors said they found it sad, and some of them emailed me and told me it had made them cry. That was good news – maybe.

But what about readers that wanted a book for pleasure, rather than to ‘endorse’ it – what would they think when they read it? Would they find it sad? Too sad? I didn’t know what to think.

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Until the other week…

I was holding a signing event with early editions of my novel where a lovely person called Alli came along and bought herself a copy. I was amazed when she messaged me on twitter close to midnight that same day. ‘It was un-put-downable,’ she said. ‘I started crying at page 30 and didn’t stop until the end.’

The next day she wrote about her teary experience on her own blog, and eight other people who read her account bought a copy of the novel or downloaded the e-book. Wow! I was over the moon. That’s the kind of thing I’ve dreamt about: people getting to know about my book by word of mouth – or word of blog. Whichever, it was fabulous!

It was also really interesting to read the comments left on Alli’s blog. Some people were less than keen on a ‘sad’ book, while others were attracted to the idea of a good weep. And there were definitely more in the ‘crying’ camp.

It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a former teaching colleague in June, when I first had my early copies of Not Thomas. I had taken some into school as gifts and was explaining the setting of the story – how Tomos has been removed from his lovely foster family and sent back to live with his mum; how she’s hiding a drug addiction and so she badly neglects him; and how the story is told from his five-year-old point of view.

And then I gave an apology. ‘It’s a bit of a weepy, I’m afraid. One reviewer said it should be printed on plastic paper so the reader’s tears don’t ruin the pages.’

‘Don’t apologise,’ the ex-colleague said. ‘That’s a bonus. Sometimes life is a pile of manure’ (I’m paraphrasing there) ‘but in real-life you can’t always let your guard down and have a good weep, so I love books that give me permission to cry. It’s a release – like weepy films.’

And she made perfect sense.

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Of course, we shouldn’t feel we have to hide our tears. It ought to be OK to have a cry whenever we want. But most of us are used to packing away the upsetting baggage and just carrying on with life. So maybe she was right – sometimes we do need to give ourselves permission to have a good weep.

Her comment forced me to think again about my own attitude to having written a ‘sad’ book. So now when I explain the set-up for Not Thomas and someone says: ‘Oh dear that sounds very sad’ I don’t apologise anymore. Instead I say, ‘It is a bit of a weepy, but there are some funny moments too. And reviewers have called it “ultimately uplifting”.’

At ‘ultimately uplifting’ the person I’m talking to usually sighs with relief.

And if they do decide to buy the book and dedicate five or six hours to reading it, I hope in that time their mouths will have smiled, as Tomos might say, even if their eyes have cried.

Thanks for reading!

What do you think? Do you like books that make you cry? Does it help to know a sad book is ‘ultimately uplifting’?

I’d love to know your thoughts,

Sara x

Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy on Amazon.

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An Unusual Book Signing Memento

Just last weekend I held my very first book signing event with early copies of ‘Not Thomas’ at the Waterstones bookstore in Carmarthen. It was my first signing for this book, but wasn’t my first signing ever – I’m used to doing these events with my children’s books and they’re something I really enjoy. As a book lover, why wouldn’t I want an excuse to stand around a bookshop discussing books with other book lovers? It’s a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

 

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But I’d been warned that this signing would be different. The managers of the shops I’d booked events at told me that children’s books and adults’ books are two very different beasts. Children’s books (at least mine) tend to retail for around £5, a good impulse-spend price. You can sell to parents, to grandparents, aunties and uncles. They’ll come in for a browse and go home with a little present for a beloved youngster.

But books for adults are entirely different. They cost more, for a start, and they have a much more limited and specific audience. And sometimes they give the impression that they’re aimed at one sex more than the other – and that halves your potential customers at a stroke.

So, the managers said, be prepared to talk to lots of people on the day, but don’t expect to sell many books – that’s just the way it goes with books for adults. I’d taken all this on board and was thoroughly prepared to sell one book, if I was lucky. And I decided not to be disappointed if I sold no more than that.

But the word fairies must have been on my side because my day went far better than expected. The weather was drizzly – not great for heading to the beach or the countryside – and the shop was very busy, with plenty of people browsing the tables of special offers. I had lots of opportunities to give out ‘Not Thomas’ flyers and to chat to potential customers, telling them what the novel was about. And most people were very happy to stop and talk, particularly when they saw my banner – placed right in the middle of the shop with a huge picture of the book cover on it.

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Two good friends from my writing group arrived near the end of my session, and by this time I was down to my last three copies. As we started to chat, I suddenly had a little rush of customers. All three books went in two minutes. It was surreal to see three people standing at the checkout, each with a copy of my book. My writing friends had obviously brought me extra luck! No copy left for them – well, not until our next writing circle meeting, anyway.

So, feeling extremely fortunate, I very happily packed up my banner and set off to the nearest coffee house for a long awaited cup of chai latte – my reward of choice. To off-set the amount of sugar in a mug of that guilty pleasure, I forwent the cake and had a toasted teacake instead.

As I sat relaxing, waiting for my drink to cool and the butter to melt on the bun, the smoke detectors in the café went off. Someone had burned the toast and the whole place was evacuated. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough hands to take my toasted teacake, so I had to stuff one half into my mouth and leave the other half on the table. All the customers ended up finishing drinks out on the street – haphazard alfresco style.

The staff locked up and waited for the obligatory visit from the fire brigade. As we drained our cups, they handed out tokens for free drinks and told us not to worry about returning their china. It wasn’t exactly practical to leave mugs on the pavement.

So I now have a lovely big Café Nero mug as a memento of my first ‘Not Thomas’ signing. It’s a cheerful and bizarre reminder of the day I spent a few very happy hours in Waterstones – not that I’m ever likely to forget that day in a hurry!

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Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an ebook and is available to buy on Amazon.

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Sending a new novel out into the World

Being a writer is the perfect occupation for a person like me.

I’m someone who likes their own space and enjoys their own company, someone who lives more in their head than in the outside world. Sitting at a desk – or more often than not, before my laptop at the kitchen table – is my natural environment.

But two weeks ago, I was dragged out of my comfort zone, forced to make myself reasonably presentable and put centre stage in front of a room full of people.

Why?

Because I had a new book to send out into the big, wide world.

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I needed a pre-publication book launch for Not Thomas – pre-publication because it’s not officially out until the middle of July.

And who exactly was forcing me? Well – me, myself, I, if I’m honest. My bossy self.  I knew I had to get my new book out into the world, and there was only one sure way to do it. (I’m good at pushing myself to do things I’d rather not. As an essentially shy person, I’ve had a lot of practice.)

So how did it feel, being out of my comfort zone?

Well, I knew having the centre of attention focused on me for a whole afternoon would be a tall order. And so when an organiser of another event offered to include me in theirs, I jumped at the chance. It was the perfect solution for me.

Early copies of Not Thomas were launched as part of Spoken Word Saturday, a fabulous event that happens in Llanelli’s Ffwrnes Theatre every second Sat. And I was so grateful to Eleanor Shaw, the organiser, for suggesting it and bringing it all together.

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Eleanor was on holiday that weekend, so her friend & colleague, David Pitt, hosted the event. He was brilliant and I felt I could relax knowing everything was well organised and running to plan. (This photo captures the moment we heard that the last of our participants was about to walk through the door!)

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We had music from the wonderful Liz Crippin, poems and stories from Richard Foreman and Rhoda Thomas, plus readings from my writing circle friends, Mari Dafis and David Wallington.

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Then it was time for cake – yay! – and more cake, and tea all round.

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After refreshments, Jon Gower, well-loved Welsh author and broadcaster who’d written a cover endorsement for Not Thomas, introduced my novel. He did the book proud – he even mentioned Dickens’ Little Nell and my Tomos in the same sentence! (My parents are already treasuring that gem.)

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Caroline Oakley, my editor, gave an overview of the work Honno does, and most interestingly for the writers in the room, what she was hoping someone would submit in the future.

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And then it was my turn.

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I was pretty nervous but by that time, everything had gone so well that I had relaxed quite a bit. Still, I was glad I’d written down what I wanted to say – my brain had totally deserted me.

I thanked people, then read a section of Not Thomas (the part about the Christmas concert where Tomos is singing the solo and trying to find his mum in the crowd). I was delighted with how the extract was received – when you’re reading the words of a five-year-old boy, you don’t know if it sounds right or just weird. But the audience’s reaction was lovely.

To look out and see the sixty or so faces watching and listening intently, and to see all those early copies of Not Thomas sitting on people’s tables was just amazing. The audience was full of friends too, which was so lovely to see.

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So would I do it all again? Absolutely!

But for now, it’s back to the kitchen table to work away at what will hopefully become the next book…

A very big THANK YOU / DIOLCH YN FAWR to Eleanor Shaw, David Pitt, Spoken Word Saturday, Ffwrnes Theatre Llanelli & the staff there, Rhoda Thomas, Mari Dafis, Richard Foreman, David Wallington, Jon Gower and Caroline Oakley. And to everyone who came along and supported me – you are all wonderful!

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Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas is published by Honno Press in paperback and on Kindle and is available now on Amazon.

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