Fiction writing 101: the fluffy pink cloud of early sobriety (and writing first drafts)

When I was in early sobriety, I heard people talking about a ‘fluffy pink cloud’. It’s that high that recovering alcoholics get when they’ve put down the bottle and life appears to be falling back into place again – you feel excited about waking up in the morning, and full of hope for the days and weeks ahead (or at least not as full of fear as before). Not everybody goes through this, but I did. It started when I was a few weeks sober, and carried on for a good few months. In that time, I felt alive again. I sang songs in my head as I waited for the bus to to to work, and I looked forward to the weekends where I would drink tea instead of vodka and chat with fellow recovering alcoholics, safe in the knowledge that I had found my tribe. Life was safe again, and I relished every moment, absorbing the goodness and joy in the world around me.

There is also a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous: this too shall pass.

And pass it did. The fluffy pink cloud doesn’t last forever, and it can be a double-edged sword. Whilst it is there, it can help you stay sober, to stay away from the booze one day at a time, but there will come a time when it starts to disperse and everyday life just becomes everyday life, in all its grey, tedious and worrisome glory. And that is when the real work of staying sober begins.

But fluffy pink clouds exist everywhere; they are not exclusive to recovering alcoholics (although I do wonder whether there is something inherent deep in many of our personalities that makes us more prone to them than most).

in my life, I experience many fluffy pink clouds, but the biggest and most glorious of all of them is that high I get when I am writing something I love, something I didn’t realise I was capable of. I had it for months when I was writing the first draft of my memoir. I expect I wouldn’t have written it if I hadn’t experienced that high. It’s like a kind of higher power that helps you to believe in yourself, that helps you to plough on and get the job done when the harsh realities of the publishing world and a lack of belief quite frankly would have had you give up at the first hurdle. Fluffy pink clouds are the magic that gets you to the other side without giving up.

And when you’ve got so far, you’re less likely to give up (and that’s the point you need to prop your dreams up with the scaffolding of determination and editing tools).

I’m floating on a fluffy pink cloud at the moment. For years, I thought I couldn’t write fiction. I thought that maybe I just didn’t have the right imagination. Because despite the characters and stories I told myself in my head, they all just seemed to fall apart whenever I tried to get them down on the page. Somehow all the stories I started went the same way. It was almost as if I was trying too hard. So I gave up, and resigned myself to the fact that I couldn’t write fiction. No problem, I told myself. I’ll just stick to non-fiction. I mean, I’ve written a memoir. Maybe I could write another? But when I went back to the memoir drawing board, I just kept going over the same old stories again. All roads led back to stories I’d already written.

Now, I guess this is an issue for a lot of writers. You have something you want to say, and you just keep finding different ways to say it. A lot of writers have themes they keep on going back to. So, I had to find out what the things were I wanted to say, and then it would be easy, right?

Sort of. It still took me many, many attempts to get anywhere with fiction though. I wanted to write about addiction, about teenagers, about sex, about families, and I also wanted to write a damn good comedy. And I was attempting to write about all of these things in one book. It just wasn’t going to happen – too much pressure. And I was still trying to write for myself, which was fine for the memoir (to an extent), but what I really needed to do was to branch out and think about audience more.

As soon as I took myself out of the equation, I started to think more objectively about story structure and character arcs, and it was through my reading about the Snowflake method, and authors such as K. M. Weiland and Roz Morris, that I finally had a breakthrough. One night before I went to sleep, I thought out a very sketchy plot involving teenagers, female friendships, absent families and issues surrounding sexual consent. It wasn’t a comedy (alas, I shall come back to The Library Letters when I’ve finished), but I had a few characters I thought I could try to mould. It was perfect. I began writing a brief synopsis and plot the next day, and to my amazement, it didn’t sound trite, like every other attempt I’d ever made at writing fiction.

The plot’s evolved slightly since then, but my passion for the book is still as strong as ever. I’m up to 12,888 words now, and somehow I know this time it’s different. It might be the fluffy pink cloud talking, but I don’t care. It’s helped me to break through the barrier.

I expect the fluffy pink cloud will go pop when I get to around twenty or thirty thousand words (see Emma Darwin’s blog post about the twenty thousand word doldrums here), but for now I’m just enjoying the ride.

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New year, new goals

For various reasons, I didn’t write very much last year at all. At the beginning of the year I was busy with university work, and I got out of the habit of setting my laptop up except to write an essay. When I had a couple of rejections, I went through a spell of wondering whether my writing is up to scratch and berating myself for not being better at it, while not doing the one thing which is essential – Actual Writing.

That’s not to say I didn’t produce some decent work in 2016. I edited my memoir a bit, I wrote a handful of short stories, and I started a new fiction project. But really, I think I spent most of the year pottering about, not doing a huge amount, and certainly not committing myself to finishing a project properly. All of it to avoid taking any risks, to avoid another rejection.

Well. Here’s a thing for me to learn: rejection is essential for a writer. Not giving up is essential to a writer. Not worrying about what everybody else is doing or thinking is essential for a writer. But what a writer really needs to do above all else, and for better or worse, is to Just Write. (I think I may even have written a whole blog post about it earlier a few months ago?!)

And that’s where I’m starting this year. Here’s the plan which I Must Stick To:

1. Finish sending the memoir out to agents. I came to a standstill with this last year, because I was putting off getting to the end of the list and then being at a loss as to what to do. The reality is that I probably will get to the end of the list without finding an agent (although there’s always a small chance of success). So what do I need to do? Keep sending stuff out. I can’t stay at a standstill forever. Surely at some point I’ll come up with a plan? I need to deal with that possibility, not keep putting it off.

2. Look into the WoMentoring Project and pick out a writer/editor/agent who may be willing to help me with editing etc. Then apply.

3. I also think I need some more beta readers for the memoir, so if anybody reading this can help, or know anybody who might be interested, please let me know (obviously happy to return the favour).

4. Write a proper outline for The Library Letters. Now that I’ve finished reading the K.M. Weiland book, I know exactly what I need to do. However, because I started writing the novel before I had a detailed idea of the plot, it’s turned into a big editing job, which I really need to untangle before I start writing again. So, back to the drawing board with characters and plot for this.

5. On the plus side, reading the book on outlining has given me an idea for a YA novel. I’ve spent some time working on this over Christmas and I have a plot, some characters and an outline – and I’ve nearly finished writing the first chapter. I want to finish the first draft of this as soon as I can and then see what I’m left with.

6. Read, read, read. This is key to everything, I think. I must read more novels – both modern and classic, plus more books about creative writing. I will also start logging all my reading on goodreads.

So that’s that: my writing year in a nutshell. I have other plans too, like applying to do my Diploma in counselling again (but part-time, this time). I also want to gain some more experience for this by doing some volunteering, and I have an interview with my local Victim Support branch next week. And I really want to explore some other areas too – like spirituality. I want to get to grips with mindfulness properly this year (I know, I know, I said this last year too), because I’ve been reading some stuff by Thich Nhat Hanh which really resonates, and I want to find out more about Zen Buddhism.

I think 2017 is going to be a good year.

And here’s my rather ambitious reading pile!

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Getting back to basics

When I first started writing, I had a plan. It wasn’t a particularly detailed plan, but there was a focus to it. My plan was to write as much as I could, while learning about the process of writing at the same time. In the beginning, this was relatively straightforward. The first books about writing that I read were more about tackling your inner editor and giving yourself permission to write – badly, if need be. I read Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg, and Anne Lamott, and I got words down on the paper. Then I branched out with my reading and started reading books about different types and genres of writing, and about techniques, and I practiced. It was all very amateur, but it gave me a purpose while I was on maternity leave and my bigger career and life plans were on hold.

Then life got busy again, and I had to scale back on my writing and reading. This year, I’ve had a couple of knocks to my confidence, and recently I’ve felt myself turning away from my writing to focus on more everyday things. The main issue has been that I’m at a bit of a crossroads with my writing, and my life in general. If I’m honest with myself, I’d love to be writing all the time, and make it the focus of my career. But sadly, it’s not an option for me. I need to train for a career that can help pay the bills, which is why I’ve chosen to go back to uni and do my psychology conversion course. Only now that it’s looming nearer to the start date and I’m quickly running out of all that lovely spare time I had (3 days a week to myself), I’m panicking slightly. I need to make sure I’ve got my writing time and inspiration in the bag before I start.

So I need to make a new plan for my writing life.

I need to put my memoir on the back burner for a few months (bar the odd submission to agents, because you never know…) and work on a new project. I can do nothing more with it at the moment. So from now on, the only memoir pieces I shall focus on will be shorter pieces for competitions and any other calls for submission that sound interesting.

I need to get back to the comic novel I started (The Library Letters) and really myself a chance with it. I got up to around 17,000 words, but it’s got so many plot gaps that I’m a bit stuck. I’m discovering that I’m not really as much of a pantser as I thought. I think I need to structure it more before starting writing again. So I’m going back to the books.

I’m going to start with a series by K. M. Weiland about outlining and structuring novels, and maybe even have a go at the workbooks. I will use this blog to chart about where I am with the project.

I also need to read more generally, which is another little project I am going to set for myself and I’m also going to use my blog to chart it. So, by the end of the year I will read ‘Reading Like a Writer’ by Francine Prose, and I will also try to finish two fairly easy classic novels that I started earlier in the year and didn’t finish: Northanger Abbey and Oliver Twist.

And I hope to be writing again very soon.

(P.S. I must also learn more about blogging and figure out how to make this blog look more professional. I’m so hopelessly non-technically minded that I just keep putting it off. But I shall figure it out!)