Monthly Archives: November 2012

Getting the thing written the NaNoWriMo way

Having just emerged from 26 days of NaNoWriMo, (National Novel Writing Month), like a mole, appearing from its burrow, blinking at what passes for sunlight at this time of the year, I’m still not sure how I managed to write 50,000 words.

You see, I am inherently lazy and lack the self-discipline that other, less work-shy novelists seem to have. You know the ones I mean – they’re on to their thirteenth, fourteenth or fifteenth book and from time to time, feature in the lifestyle section of the weekend newspapers. When I read a piece about the prolific Alexander McCall Smith, who, on a good day, can write 10,000 words, my first reaction, I am afraid to say is, I wish he wouldn’t! Call me shallow, but that seems to me to be super human!
I’d far rather read about a writer that faces the same struggles that I do, like Jennifer Saunders, who admitted in a piece in The Observer that she too finds that there are too many other distractions: ‘even if it is only watering the geraniums or taking the dog for a walk.’ Her solution is to keep work and home separated and has an office where she goes to write. Even if I could afford to rent one, I can’t see it working for me: I know I would invent any number of procrastinating excuses not to go there. Or, perhaps because I escaped a demanding day job in television, but I’ve always thought that the words ‘office’ and ‘creativity’ never went together.

I would be worried that when I got to my office I would feel that I was under pressure – that I had paid to rent the space and was there ‘to write.’ But what would I do if once I got there, I found I had nothing to write about? If there’s one thing I have learned from the NaNoWriMo experience it is that if you are consciously thinking about writing instead of writing, trying to squeeze out the words is exquisite torture.

On those (rare) days where I was able to somehow transport myself into that trance-like state where the words just seemed to flow, where once I would have knocked off when I’d reached that day’s target, I kept going for as long as the zen-like state lasted. “Just another 100 words’ became my mantra. And the funny thing is, if you do it for long enough, soon 100 words turns into 1000 and before you know it, you are one step closer to the finish line.

On the bad days, when I wasn’t able to shut out the rest of the world, I would cheer myself up by planning all the things I would do once I’d hit my target – even if they were as banal as taking the car to the car wash. In a previous post I told you that it was the first weekend where I really struggled. I did manage to tell that negative voice in my head to shut up and go away and did manage to increase my word count target – to 2000 words a day. I wrote when I was tired; I wrote with a fuzzy head; I wrote with tennis elbow; I wrote with a cold; I wrote in my office at home; I wrote on the train; I wrote on the sofa; I wrote on the kitchen table; I even wrote in a spare ten minutes in the changing rooms at the gym.

Yet here I am, 26 days later, still none the wiser on why, on some days it’s a joy to write when on others, it’s as though the words were stuck together with treacle and I had to laboriously lift each letter out, one by one and rearrange them. One thing’s for sure, if I ever do unlock the secret of achieving that zen-like state of mind, where writing, rather than procrastination gets done, I’ll bottle it and sell it!

I decided to tell others that I was taking part in NaNoWriMo, in the way that someone taking part in a marathon might do. It’s a good trick, as when you do that, getting to the finish line becomes a matter of pride. You could argue that the fear of looking foolish is essentially a negative motivating force but, negative or not, it worked for me. And the other external motivators were very simple ones: the NaNoWriMo word count and the end of November deadline. And for no other reason than I had a lot on, I decided that instead of the end of November, I would try to finish by the middle of the third week.

So to sum up – my advice to anyone who wants to get anything done – whether that is writing a novel, screenplay, report, or even painting your house, and that is to give yourself external motivators: Tell everyone you are doing it and to give yourself a deadline.
By the way, if you have any other tips on how to get more done – whether it’s writing related or not, I’d love to hear them!


What I’m Working on Now – The Next Big Thing: Blog Circle


By Alison Ripley Cubitt, co-writing as Lambert Nagle

It’s day 18 of NaNoWriMo.  There are ten left to go.  Although I’m not writing at the Overlook Hotel and therefore not yet at the stage of Jack in The Shining, typing: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” over and over again, I’m not all that far off!

So I was very pleased when fellow author Sharon Robards, was kind enough to tag me in the online game, The Next Big Thing:  a blog circle where writers get the chance to let the world know about their current works in progress/what they’re currently working on now.  So here it is:

Next Big Thing:


What is the working title of your book?



What genre does your book fall under?

Conspiracy thriller

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a film version of your book?

Irish actor Colin Farrell as the protagonist and British actress Romola Garai as the antagonist.  She was the young Briony Tallis in the Oscar nominated film, Atonement and is currently starring in the BBC drama, The Hour.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Whoever said crime doesn’t pay can’t have been doing it right.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’s still very early days for Nighthawks. It won’t be sent out to agents until it has had input from beta readers and been copy edited and polished to perfection. Writing a book is relatively easy, writing a good one is hard!

The advice we received from a leading U.K. agent who read the manuscript of our debut indie-published political thriller, Revolution Earth,told us that it’s an even harder sell now to the big six publishers (five since the Random House-Penguin merger.)  One of the things we learnt from our first novel was that what we thought was ‘finished’, in needed considerable refining and polishing.  I come from a screenwriting background and I’m used to re-writing. Screenplays are made in the re-write and can go through umpteen drafts.  I feel the same way about the novels we write.  It might seem like a huge amount of thankless hard work, but in the end, submitting work too early does you no favours.  A first novel has to be exceptionally well-written in order to be taken up by a U.K. agent, given the recent changes in the publishing industry. But the good news is that the agent who gave us this advice has invited us to submit Nighthawks.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I am hoping it will be completed in a year and the rewrites and edits will take another year.  Revolution Earth took six years to write but that was because we moved house four times and country twice.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’m talking up our book here but a novel we would love to emulate is The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

A trip to Rome where we were the victims of two scams, one of which was so clever I couldn’t help but admire the blatant cheek of it. You’ll have to wait for the novel to find out what it is….

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Pity the poor cop up against a criminal in Italy.  Poorly paid (compared with the criminal fraternity), the Italian police officer will have spent years gathering evidence only to see the case dragged out in the courts for so long that the case is dismissed.  And the bad guy is free to enjoy his big house, his pool and drive around in his Maserati.

If you want to be tagged to join in the game, it’s not too late to play!

Message for the tagged authors and interested others:

Your post should be up by Tuesday of next week–(11/20) Tuesday 20th November.  I hope you all have fun with this, and thanks for joining me.  I’ve pasted the “rules” below: Please tune into these blogs the week of November Tuesday 20th and check out their posts!

Include the link of who tagged you and this explanation for the people you have tagged.

Rules of the Next Big Thing
***Use this format for your post
***Answer the ten questions about your current WIP (work in progress)
***Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them.

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

What is your working title of your book?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
What genre does your book fall under?
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

While you’re waiting for those new posts next week, be sure to visit Sharon Robards who tagged me, as well as any other participants in The Next Big Thing.

Have questions about our current work in progress, Nighthawks?  Feel free to leave them in the comments!

Have you Tried Grammarly?

Putting Grammarly Creative to the Test

This week we were debating the pros and cons of using computerised grammar checking software when writing fiction, over on the Facebook page of ALLIA, The Alliance of Independent Authors.

One traditionally published (and award-winning) author put the first three paragraphs of her professionally proofed and copy edited novel to the test and was not impressed. So, curious to see how I would fare I did the same for the opening section of Revolution Earth.  Grammarly doesn’t like dialogue, apparently and the novelists who use it to check their work ignore anything the program suggests in relation to dialogue– unless it is to do with missed quotation marks.  The excerpt, which you’ll find at the end of this post  is purely descriptive, with no dialogue.

With the Grammarly setting on: ‘creative’ (there are five settings to choose, from ‘academic’ to ‘casual’ – whatever that is), Grammarly came up with 14 writing issues – including, wait for it, one of plagiarism!  There were three for spelling, nine for grammar and one for punctuation within a sentence. But more worringly were the 48 ‘enhancement suggestions.’

I forgot to tell you that although I may be guilty of wonky syntax and confusing modifiers, (I’m a visual thinker and that’s why I chose film to tell my first published stories), my co-writer, with 10 non-fiction academic titles published by the likes of Macmillan and MIT Press, ought to know a thing or two about how to construct a decent sentence.  And so too does our copy editor, the very thorough Mary McLaughlin of Little Red Pen who gave the first half of our manuscript a line edit.

Annoyingly, you can’t follow up Grammarly, unless you sign up to a free trial.  And so, in the interests of finding out whether or not we had indeed been guilty of stealing another writer’s work, I signed up.  Incidentally, this is rather a bold accusation – and not one to be taken lightly – but presumably, a computerised program that accuses you of copying another writer’s work can’t be challenged in court?

As far as fiction is concerned we were evenly split, with one group a fan of using Grammarly to check their work first, before it was sent off to a professional copy editor or proof reader.  One novelist in the ‘pro’ camp remarked that she had been praised by her copy editor for her ‘clean copy’ and that she had been able to off-set the annual fee of US$149 /£94 (mid-market exchange rate today) for Grammarly in return for a reduced professional copy editing fee.

For those of us, rather more circumspect about using a computer to check grammar and spelling (and a US one at that) for our fiction, we did see that Grammarly could be useful for students in their academic writing, particularly if English is not their first language or if they are dyslexic. 

Writing fiction is a painstaking business – it’s easy to do but difficult to do well and the hard bit, for me at least is the number of re-writes and the endless polishing of the prose, to make it shine.  And this is where I do question the use of grammar checking software because, surely, the final polish stage is where you eliminate all the grammar nits?  Despite the 14 issues, Revolution Earth did score 75 out of 100, which is a bit of a relief! But seriously, though, is Grammarly worth the £94 annual fee? What do you think?

Because I do a bit of proof-reading and copy editing, as well as write a blog, I am going to make the most of that free trial and test out Grammarly for non-fiction and will let you know how I go and will report back here.

The excerpt that was analysed by Grammarly:

Revolution Earth


Kakadu, Northern Territory, Australia

The sky is immense tungsten blue. It is his ocean and he floats like a diver in its depths. He feels this land where his people have stood for four hundred centuries, the winding of the river, the rising of the cliffs, the spirits that made it, the men who inherited it, the ancestors whose bones are the dust at his feet. Stamp. He makes his mark in the sand and knows that, like every other human artefact, it will disappear in the winds of time, the endless friction of world and air, evanescent as the sound of foot on ground. Stamp. But there is something new here. An unseasonable moisture. He looks down at the sudden mud under his feet. Carefully wiping the damp from his sole on a gnarly patch of grey-green grass, he moves away with long strides that roll his hips, a man who has walked many miles in his life and knows he has many more to travel.

Chapter 1 Love Lies Bleeding

Soho, London, Tuesday, 2.45pm

There’s a cadence to riding at speed that whirs with a logic that’s half human, half clockwork. A rhythm that comes from travelling the city hour upon hour, day upon day — over broken paving, potholes, and storm drains, the trainers pushing firm in the toe-straps, a wary familiarity with every venerable cobble that bumps its way up through the tarmac into the grimy sunshine of Soho. Up from the pitted streets stir physical memories of jarring and jouncing. You know how they say you never forget how to ride a bicycle? There’s more. Things you never realised you knew, like the best route to swing across from this loose paving stone to avoid that broken drain. Your body never forgets. When those feet press down one two one two, tendon-taut memories steer the bike. Hands on the handlebars, flick of the gears, the momentary judder of chain on cogs, skitter of speed, woman, bike, world.

She is at one with herself, the exhilaration of her blood and muscle, yet intensely aware of the ever-present danger of traffic and crowds. Bone, steel, and rubber, wrapped in the punch of music that hits the same beats as the pump of blood and the jab of the down thrust, a kind of meditation undertaken at 25 miles an hour down the cluttered streets. Between the parked cars and the randomly braking vans, with oblivious citizens stepping into the road, Jonie weaves through traffic like a movie extra threads through the jungle. To ride is to be, there in the moment, alert as a bird, a still point in a turning world.

Jonie hurtles through the chaos of Soho two blocks north of Shaftesbury Avenue with the poise of a bodhisattva raised on adrenalin and rock ’n’ roll. Sinuous tracks she makes in the permanently greasy surface of London roads disappear in her wake. Her eyes are sharp to what’s coming, to the Volkswagen rocking on its clutch on the corner, the midday hen party drunks teetering on white heels, the bald guy in the parked Mazda checking his wing mirror before he throws his door open, London caught for microseconds in perfect detail in the perfect here and now. What she doesn’t see is the black Mercedes-Benz GL500 SUV that rams into her hipbone and upper thigh, throws her to the ground, splits her plastic and polystyrene helmet open, flattens the side of her head on the grey tar.

The last of her energy spins the back wheel, slower and slower. The buckled front forks have jammed the front wheel against the brake pads she had been meaning to change at lunchtime. Deeper red than wine, sticky and heavy, her blood spreads a ruby pool into the colourless oily dust, gluing her tawny hair to the ground of which, scant seconds ago, she was the speeding queen.

Think you don’t have the time to write a novel?

Think again

When you start the second novel you bring with you the determination not to repeat the same mistakes of the first. The enthusiastic, first-time novelist is so thrilled to have finally completed her labour-of-love that she remains blissfully unaware that she might be guilty of breaking any of the writing ‘rules.’  It sounds naïve, but as someone freed from the prescriptive constraints of writing screenplays, I thought that writing a novel was liberating – that you could do just about anything you liked.  I didn’t even know what ‘head-hopping’ was, or why too much narrative summary might be a problem. I knew the principles of ‘show not tell,’ – it sounds so deceptively simple in theory, but is oh so much harder to achieve in practice.

As I began to work on the writing of this new novel I was keen to do things a little differently the second time round.  Fortunately for me, just as I was starting to struggle, The Guardian published an extract from Karen Wiesner’s book, First Draft in 30 Days.  It is a schematic plan for writing a novel, with work sheets to guide you step-by-step through the process.

Although a structured method might not work for every writer, it must have worked for Wiesner: she’s had 90 books published in the past 14 years.  As someone who has taken six years to write their first novel, that seems like an incredible achievement.  I would dearly love to write more quickly and after reading through the extract from the writing book, I couldn’t help but think that Wiesner might be on to something.

I kept Wiesner’s booklet for reference, thinking that it would be useful – but I was yet to commit to such a tight writing deadline.  And then as luck would have it, I was sent a reminder email that NaNoWriMo was due to start in November and was I up to the challenge?

The NaNoWriMo challenge – in case you don’t know, is ‘thirty days (and nights) of literary abandon’ in which you are required to write 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel in the 30 days during the month of November. That works out at around 1700 words a day, every day.

Although you might be a little late now to start on NaNoWriMo – unless you can write fast, you can start the 30-day method at any time, and the worksheets can be downloaded from:

I don’t mind admitting that I’ve found this first weekend a struggle. The little voice in my head kept saying, ‘come on, it’s the weekend.  Everyone needs one day off a week.’ I told that little voice to shut up and go away – for now.  So I intend, if I can, to try to write a few more words every day in the next five days and build up some ‘word credits’ so that I can stockpile them in case of a lapse in will-power over the next three weeks.

During the challenge life goes on and meals still have to be made, food has to be shopped for and houses have to be cleaned. Children, partners and pets still have to be cared for as well and even though you’d rather be writing, there’s the day job to go to.

What has impressed me most though is the dedication of so many of the NaNoWriMo challengers, who are prepared to do what it takes to get the work done, whether that means getting up long before it gets light, or burning the midnight oil.

No-one is pretending that you can write a completed novel in 30 days as the first draft, in the NaNoWriMo example, is one where no editing is done until after the challenge finishes.  You can take the competitive side of it as seriously or as lightheartedly as you like.  I like the challenge as I find that knowing that so many other people are taking part motivates me to strive that little bit harder, in the same way that a group exercise class does.

What I like too is that the 30 day time scale is relatively short and it challenges assumptions that puts off many would-be novelists, who say that they can’t possibly write a novel as they don’t have time.  What’s humbling about NaNoWriMo is that nobody else really has the time either – but instead of using that as an excuse they just get on with it.  I don’t know about you but I find that very inspiring.