May Blog: Of Mice and Men and Mia

May was the month I was going to get oodles of writing done. That was the plan. Did it go exactly as I’d hoped? No, not quite but much progress has been made and breakthroughs occurred in unexpected ways. This lesson presents itself over and over in life; things don’t go as planned but that doesn’t mean they’ve gone wrong.

At the beginning of May I decided I would focus solely on my Romanov script and try to get a very rough draft done during the month. This is a story I feel very passionate about and it presented itself to me in a less than straightforward manner, meaning that I’ve been banging my head against a brick wall over it on a fairly regular basis. I have to admit, this is the most I’ve ever struggled with a piece of writing but it is starting to take shape. I’m nowhere near where I wanted to be with it but I have made progress and the story’s form is becoming a bit clearer, though still challenging.

I had just accepted that I was going to focus on the script rather than my second novel, Attrition, when I was informed of an upcoming novel masterclass with Irish author Mia Gallagher (HellFire: A Novel, Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland). The masterclass was free but there was a submission process and only 12 places available for writers currently working on a novel. It sounded perfect but I was unsure whether I’d be offered place on it or not, or if I really wanted to given that I had made up my mind to focus on the script for the time being. I applied anyway and decided that whatever happened, happened. Luckily, I was one of the 12 chosen for the masterclass. I have to admit, getting a place on the workshop was the bit of encouragement that I sorely needed this month, especially because I’d been a bit in the doldrums regarding my script work. After the initial excitement it dawned on me that I’d now have to refocus on my novel, which wasn’t a bad thing but just not what I’d planned.

In preparing for the first day of the workshop participants had to submit a (tiny) 250 word synopsis of the novel and a 250 word extract that demonstrated one of the problems with the novel (i.e. an example of “bad” writing). Synopses can be tricky but I’ve learned from experience that no matter how many words you’re allocated it’s never enough, so the low word count was actually kind of a blessing. All the synopses and extracts were circulated to participants in advance and we were asked to bring a printed copy of each with us to Farmleigh House for the masterclass. Farmleigh is one of those Dublin gems that I love and it was a delight to be there for something beyond a tour or concert as it felt a little bit more intimate.

 

The approach to Farmleigh House, in perfect writing weather.

All 12 of us and Mia sat around a dressed table in a rather grand room with painted swallows on the ceiling and high oak panelled walls. The format of the masterclass was straightforward, a bit like Mia herself, and there was a refreshing no-nonsense approach to things. Each participant’s synopsis and extract was explored and Mia provided feedback. It was simple, practical, and thorough, with a bit of Lacan and Freud thrown into the mix for good measure. I found that the feedback received by each participant was very relatable and transferable, which also indicated that lots of people experience the same problems when writing. This was a comfort. The main take home piece for me was to take my time. There’s no real rush and some stories need longer than others. I really needed to hear this as I know I get very caught up in getting things done and focusing on the end result.

On a more practical note Mia did encourage me to change the point of view of my novel. In retrospect this is not as drastic as it felt at the time, as she recommended swapping from third person omniscient to third person close. I will be exploring this option over the coming month.

I’m not a huge note taker during events or workshops as I’d rather listen and let it absorb (fingers crossed that’s a thing). I did jot down a few notes that are a mix of direct quotes and paraphrasing. Some of it might seem obvious but it’s worth being reminded of.
Here’s what stood out for me:

  • Let go of an idea if it’s not working or if it becomes detrimental to your story.
  • Write the obvious to find the salient moments.
  • Stop trying to get it perfect.
  • Be aware of having too many voices in a story.
  • Dig and question every plot point and sequence.
  • Make the storylines weave and work together.
  • Conduct a SWOT analysis of the story.
  • Beware of repetition of words (verbs in particular).
  • Who speaks? Who withholds? Pay heed to speech patterns.
  • Let the story happen rather than having happened (i.e. present rather than past).
  • Deal with the moment when possible rather than with flashbacks.
  • Don’t be afraid to write a boring scene.
  • Don’t use shortcuts.
  • Know the world of your story and the rules therein.
  • Know what is known and unknown within your story (to the characters and the reader).
  • Reveal the hidden.

 

Mia also gave us some handouts of questions to ask ourselves about our writing. Based on these we need to choose three achievable aims to work on between now and the next day of the workshop in September. I’m still formulating what my goals will be but the process has gotten me to refocus on issues in Attrition that need to be examined. It does mean that I’ll be spending more time on the novel rather than on the script but, as seems to be theme of this blog, even the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, though that’s not always a bad thing. I’m looking forward to the second day of the masterclass in SSeptember and I’m excited to see how Attrition progresses in the meantime.

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