The Learning Journey All Writers Take

 

I wrote this a couple of years ago when Michel Roux Junior presented Masterchef, but I believe it continues to have relevance.

I’m a bit of a Masterchef addict, partly because the men in my house are always glued to it. There’s a benefit to this, (apart from the fact they are now both better cooks than I am and have ousted me from the kitchen) it’s a bonding half hour where we all sit in one place in our otherwise fragmented evenings. And as a result of watching Masterchef I have acquired a real admiration for Michel Roux Junior. Not just because he’s bilingual and a great cook. It’s to do with his humility. There he is, no doubt one of the top chefs in the country, the world even, and yet he expresses genuine surprise and admiration for new, younger, and less experienced contestants’ creations. When one of these thanked him for his comments and admitted he was still learning, Michel responded, ‘So am I from you, and I will continue to learn from others all my life,’ with disarming honesty.

For a while after my first novel was published I thought I was supposed to know it all. I felt I had pulled the wool over the judges’ eyes with my pasta course and they now expected me to produce another great concoction but without any access to the support and guidance I’d had with the first. And all because I’d made one reasonable dish, the literary equivalent perhaps of a fresh spaghetti pesto or carbonara. Publishers want their authors to constantly produce something new and better than their last book, but authors (new ones especially) may well be drawing on a depleted larder – having used up all their ingredients and ideas in their first creation.

Of course nobody thinks you’re a chef if you’ve only produced one meal. And neither are you a novelist if you’ve only written one novel (unless you’re Harper Lee maybe.)

Michel Roux confessing that he continued to learn from others even at his stage in his career was a revelation. Rather than acting as if I knew what I was doing, and feeling a complete fraud, I realised it was not a failing to turn to other writers, readers, people with more experience and expertise out there, in order to continue to learn. Even experienced novelists benefit from an ongoing education in writing (or in other things that may inform their writing.) We learn from experts sometimes, or from each other, or from less experienced, or younger, or fresher-faced people than ourselves. We also learn from new experiences, and from talking to people from all walks of life

In order to continue to develop in any profession, but especially in creative ones you have keep on learning. After my first novel came out I can see now I was only at the very beginning of a career in which (if I wanted to stay in it) I would have to keep on learning, working, soaking up the wisdom and criticism of the people around me.

One of my resolutions for this year is to sign up for a course in something I need a little tutoring in. It might be a different sort of writing course, script writing maybe, or poetry perhaps. I also intend to have new experiences, go somewhere I’ve never been before, learn something I’ve never tried before, speak to people I’ve never met before. Whatever, my thanks go to Michel Roux and his inspirational humility, as he launches his young chefs on what they like to call their ‘learning journeys.’

As he shows us, you are never too old or too experienced to learn.

Breakthrough 2018: 12 week novel writing course

This course is now FULL

Do keep an eye on this page for future courses

 

My new 12 week Breakthrough novel writing course begins in January  in central Cambridge.

This course is designed to help writers who have begun a novel to complete a draft or to regain motivation in order to move on.

12 two hour sessions will help you to focus, build confidence, find your story, establish a voice, create tension and pace and to pitch your novel to an agent. Groups are kept small in order for writers to receive maximum attention.

We have chosen a quiet centrally located historic  Cambridge location with a cafe to hand for coffee, croissants or drinks.

You will also receive, as part of the course, two FREE 30 minute  one-to-one tutorials.

For further information  and an application form please email aruczaj@gmail.com

Day course begins Jan 9th 2017.

Tuesdays 11.00 -13.00 at the historic Cambridge Union behind the Round Church.

New Price, £799.00 for 12 weeks including two free tutorials

 

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TESTIMONIALS from previous Breakthrough course

I found Penny’s course and her teaching completely excellent. Listening to everyone has really helped and encouraged me to complete my first draft. Thank you! ( Barry Howes)

The progress on the second draft of my novel had ground to a halt and I was beginning to feel the project was slipping away.By chance I heard about a course Penny was planning, called Breakthrough. I thought it might help me to get writing again – and it did.The course not only refreshed my motivation but also helped me to take a critical look at the structure. The encouragement and guidance I received from Penny and my fellow writers restored my flagging faith in what I was trying to do. It can be difficult to talk about your writing to a group of strangers but Penny was able to establish a calm and supportive atmosphere from the start. (Rail Taylor)

Breakthrough was exactly that for me. I had begun to dislike the material I had written and I couldn’t see any way to take it forward.The sessions with Penny and the other Breakthrough colleagues brought my novel back to life. I think everyone came away with renewed determination and new ideas.’ (Kate Hurst)

Writing Courses for 2018

NEW NOVEL WRITING COURSE FOR 2018

I am in the process of designing a new novel writing course to be run in 2018 in central Cambridge.

The course will not only provide exercises and inspiration for finishing your novel, but include at least  one one-to-one tutorial and have the option for a close critique on your work.

Watch this space for details.

BREAKTHROUGH was my novel writing course for people half way through a novel who needed motivation to complete it. I had some lovely feedback from my very talented participants some of whom have gone on to complete their novels.

I found Penny’s course and her teaching completely excellent. Listening to everyone has really helped and encouraged me to complete my first draft. Thank you! ( Barry Howes)

The course not only refreshed my motivation but also helped me to take a critical look at the structure. The encouragement and guidance I received from Penny and my fellow writers restored my flagging faith in what I was trying to do. It can be difficult to talk about your writing to a group of strangers but Penny was able to establish a calm and supportive atmosphere from the start.

(Raili Taylor)

 

Obsession— my recurring theme. What’s yours?

 

Sometimes, as a writer, it’s helpful to identify a common thread that weaves through our work. This can draw our focus back when our story-line begins to wander.  Identifying a consistent theme may help us rediscover the enthusiasm we felt when we started writing. It’s what makes our work unique, after all, what delineates it from other writing. There are always going to be moments when our work feels arduous, exhausting, confusing. Returning to basics, rediscovering the energy that fired us up to begin with, by remembering the themes that fascinate us, can help us untangle the knots so we can move forward.

The more I write, the more I see that ‘Obsession’ is a recurring theme in my work. I believe that everyone is  a little obsessive in their own way, and of course obsession can be a positive thing, when it refers to the desire to see something through to completion. Perfectionists are obsessive, as are successful sports people and many entrepreneurs, but obsession can be negative; stalkers are obsessive and stalking is never positive.

Obsession – as in the case of stalking—becomes destructive when it attaches itself to something impossible to achieve, but won’t let go, so that the sufferer ends up resorting to extreme behaviour in order to follow it through.

Literature is full of obsessive characters. Humbert Humbert in Lolita, (twelve year old girls) Macbeth, (status and power), Anna Karenina, (fear of rejection) -all suffer from overly obsessive natures that lead them down increasingly fixated paths towards murder, rape and suicide.

Personally I’ve experienced positive kinds of obsession‑ I can get obsessed with the garden, or with finishing novels, but a lot more negative types—worrying endlessly over things I have little control over; things I’ve said, mistakes I’ve made, regrets, and anxieties about whether I can keep all my children happy and safe at all times.

But I’m fascinated by what happens when an otherwise normal, psychologically healthy person lets an unwise obsession take over. When they find themselves going to places they probably shouldn’t—no, definitely shouldn’t! When the type of emotional responses we’re all subject to (love, desire, guilt, anxiety) progress to something irrational. When what starts out as a minor obsession gets out of hand. I find the fact any of us could get that obsessed, but that luckily, most of us don’t, an interesting ‘what if?’ scenario. It carries with it that ‘there but for the grace of god go I’ sense of voyeuristic fascination.

Obsession is a common thread in all the novels I’ve written so far.

In Tideline, Sonia is obsessed with recapturing a teenage love to the extent she falls for a teenage boy and becomes obsessed with keeping him in his present form, ‘protecting’ him from the outside world and from growing older (in the way she wasn’t able to protect her first love). An obsession gone at least one step too far!

In the Darkening Hour, Theodora is obsessed with status, both within her family and at work, so when this comes under threat, she takes it out on her domestic worker, belittling and bullying her— projecting her low self esteem onto someone who is beneath her in terms of social standing.

 

And in A Trick of the Mind, Ellie becomes obsessed with the idea she might have been responsible for a hit and run incident— against all the evidence— to the extent that she visits the victim in hospital and lets him believe she’s someone she isn’t, until she realises this has led her into real danger. Her obsession starts out as misplaced guilt and ends up with her becoming the victim of a psychopath.

So obsession, whether in the guise of obsessive love, obsessive ambition, obsessive guilt, or obsessive pride is a theme I return to.

At the moment, I’m writing about mothers, two friends, obsessed with proving their children are the innocent parties in a rape allegation— an understandable response—but this desperation hides a deeper obsession; the need to prove each is a better mother than the other.

I’m doing it again.

Writing about obsession.

Obsessively

Summer at the Beach Event.

Guin and I  had a lovely time on Sunday answering Cressi’s probing questions about how the Fens and art seep into our writing.

Thanks to everyone who came, asked questions, bought books, and supported Summer at the Beach.

 

 

IN CONVERSATION with CRESSIDA DOWNING: Guinevere Glasfurd and Penny Hancock Sunday 16th July 2.30 pm

 

On Sunday 16th July at 2.30 pm Guinevere Glasford and I will be talking with Cressida Downing  about how our writing has been influenced by living in the Fens, and by art. Guin’s beautiful literary first novel The Words in my Hand, the untold story of Descarte’s maid, was shortlisted for the Costa first novel award. I will be talking about my writing in general and my new novel which is set in the Fens. This is a local event, held in Waterbeach Barracks Museum, the first building on the left inside the entrance. It is part of Summer at the Beach, three weekends of Open Studios and other events. Please come along and join in the talk over coffee, tea and cake. There will also be a book signing, and the art on show alone is well worth a trip to Waterbeach,’ the Left Bank of the Cam!’

Thick Skin Thin Skin, (how a writer needs both.)

I recently rediscovered a short story I used to love. It’s by Graham Greene, and it’s called ‘The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen.’

 

In the story, the narrator eavesdrops on a young couple having dinner in a restaurant. The woman is bragging to her fiancé about the advance on her first novel ‘The Chelsea Set,’ due to be published. She boasts, among other things, that her publisher has admired her ‘powers of observation.’

The eavesdropping narrator, an older and rather jaded novelist himself, is worried about the blinkered enthusiasm with which the young woman is entering his profession.

‘She couldn’t have been more than twenty,’ he says. ‘She deserved better of life.’

The story is a meditation on the reality of the writing life versus the one many new writers imagine when they set out.

The narrator has become cynical over the years, but his message, that a writer’s life isn’t the glamorous one aspiring novelists might dream of, is salutary. The story serves as a reminder that unless you have unusual determination and a thick skin, there are more reliable, less exposing and sometimes even soul-destroying ways to earn a living.

‘As the years pass the writing will not become any easier,’ Greene’s narrator wishes he could tell the girl, ‘the daily effort will grow harder to endure.’

(If this sounds a bit doom and gloom, bear with me, there is a positive point to this!)

The story shows us that novelists need a paradox of attributes to survive. They need a thick skin in order to take criticism and judgement, and a thin skin in order to be sensitive to the nuances of human experience and to their surroundings.

They need the resilience to endure set back and failure, and at the same time, they need humility in order to realise they are only ever as good as their last book.

They need the determination to continue when the going gets tough, but must stay receptive, and attuned to their readership.

They need to be both extrovert when they are required to read or speak in public, and  introvert  enough to endure the solitude required to write alone for hours.

These characteristics are in such acute conflict it is surprising anyone has ever stayed the course of being a writer at all. And today this is truer than ever. Novelists can no longer enjoy the relative anonymity authors did in the past, since we are required to attend festivals, talk on panels, appear at readings, turn up at literary events, however vulnerable, overworked, or fragile we may be feeling. Writers today need public speaking skills, confidence, and the ability to promote themselves. Skills which clash with the fact we often write because we feel socially awkward or shy and prefer to work on our own.

On-line reviews require an even thicker skin. Every writer I know pays far more heed to a one star Amazon or Good Reads review, than any number of four or five stars. One star reviews niggle away at our already delicate self-esteem. Social media, where we’re told self-promotion is a prerequisite for success, is a double-edged sword.   An abusive tweet or unpleasant comment on a conversation thread can destroy a writer’s self-belief in seconds and rattle the hardest of virtual armours. We may be driven to bin whole manuscripts as a negative comment means we are consumed by self-doubt and loss of faith in what we’re trying to do.

Yet to write we do have to feel things keenly. The thick skin we need when we go out and face our public, or receive these knocks and blows, has to be shed when we pick up our pens or keyboards.

Inevitably sometimes the two requirements crash head-on.

Two summers ago I delivered a novel I felt pretty proud of. I knew it needed work still, but a few tweaks to the plot, and another edit, and I thought it would be in the bag. Instead of the appreciation I expected, I was told the book was beyond repair in time for the publication date. I needed a thick skin at that moment, but I was in thin-skinned mode, my head still in the novel. And so instead of taking it on the chin, I went home on the train in tears, the kind stranger in the seat opposite (who had no idea why I was sobbing my guts out) handing me, silently, a tissue, and a sympathetic smile. (I mention this because even in the depths of despair often something uplifting happens—something that reminds us of the fundamental goodness of our fellow human beings.) I had put my heart and soul into that book, and what I thought was to be a sure-fire best-seller was ditched. It felt as though my world had ended. I’d been outed as the fraud I’d always believed, deep down, I was. It was humiliating, and it was soul destroying and I thought I would never write again.

It took me over a year to recover from that blow to my confidence. But what finally helped, was to remember that every failure is a learning experience. A message I knew in theory but had never put to good use.

I had to put it to good use now. I had to don a thick skin and think carefully about how I could turn this setback into something useful.

The experience taught me some practical lessons; that I need to stick to my gut instinct about what I want to write rather than being blown by the wind and changing my mind at every comment or criticism or bad review. That I need to trust my own voice and not attempt to emulate other writers — which meant I’d lost focus on the way. I needed to develop my own writing process, using a loose outline and knowing my ending, writing in scenes and redrafting, because I’m not a plotter.

It was, I realized, also time to take a rain-check.

Did I want to keep trying to write domestic psychological thrillers in what was becoming a market crowded with extremely talented writers, mainly other women?

What was it I loved about writing in the first place?

I had to go back to basics and think again about what I wanted to express when I first fell in love with  writing.

And it was good to define this.

The things I identified were; getting inside the hearts and minds of ordinary people placed in difficult circumstances, creating atmosphere, unearthing our subconscious desires, untangling impossible-seeming conflicts within relationships. I’m intrigued by what drives people to do unwise things, their blind spots, their passions and their obsessive behaviours. Those are the things I love to write about, those are the subjects that fire my imagination.

For anyone who has reached a point where their confidence has faltered I hope some of these strategies, — looking at what you can learn from your mistakes, redefining why you want to write in the first place, pin-pointing your unique strengths,  might help you too.

It’s vital that as writers, we can be thick skinned enough to take failures as opportunities to learn. When we are told what we have produced is not good enough, there is a danger that in thin-skinned-mode we might go under. In a worst case scenario a writer might not surface again. I suspect there are those—probably brilliant writers—who have stopped writing, undermined by a bad review or criticism at a time when they might have been about to produce their best work. But we couldn’t be writers if we always wore a thick skin.

When the young woman novelist in Graham Greene’s story gets up to leave at the end of the meal, her fiancé wonders aloud what the eight Japanese gentlemen are talking about at the table next to them.

She asks, surprised, ‘What Japanese gentlemen darling?’

This young novelist’s powers of observation are, Greene’s narrator wants us to understand, not as astute as she has told us. She is an example of someone who has been judged so far on ‘promise’ rather than on ‘performance.’ Her enviable thick skin, revealed by her oblivion both to the world around her, and to her own failings, might, it is implied, serve her better in another profession. After all, no one can ‘show the glint of light off broken glass’ (as Checkov bid writers do) or evoke empathy for characters whilst wearing a bullet proof vest, crash helmet and ear plugs to fend off detractors.

But writers are always going to have to endure knocks and blows. We have to learn, as Greene’s narrator laments, that

‘as the years pass, writing will not become any easier,’ and that we are judged as we get older or more experienced ‘by performance and not by promise.’

At his most jaded, Greene’s narrator describes his life as a writer as ‘the long defeat of doing nothing well.’

Which sounds depressing, but  given Greene’s legacy, is at the same time reassuring to those of us who feel our work is never  good enough. Because even after expressing this pessimistic view of a writing life through the narrator in his story, Greene would go on to write a further eight novels—including some of his best.

Ultimately most writers do summon the strength to spring back after setbacks, to attempt to do something well again. To write out the more rocky moments in our careers—getting back to the keyboard after being knocked off course. We accept criticism, or rejection, we  tolerate judgement, and we endure the daily grind, because writing is a passion.

A challenging, and sometimes grueling passion but one few of us who love it would give up lightly, however thin our skin feels at times.

 

Clutter? Or fictional catalyst? Write It In and Let It Go


 ‘Nice watch,’ I overheard a woman say to her friend in the gym.

‘Trouble is,’ the watch-wearer replied. ‘It hasn’t worked for years. But it has sentimental value, so I can’t get rid of it. And now I’m always late.’

Like her, I used to have an attachment to stuff. After my father died, I gathered bags of the bias bindings he used to manufacture before my mother could cart them off to a charity shop.It was the same with my godmother’s extensive collection of leather gloves. I kept them, though they were all far too small to wear.

 

 

I saved strings of beads that had lost their fastenings, books I’d never read again, cracked crockery, soft toys that had lost their stuffing, my children’s broken dolls’ house furniture. I daren’t let anything go in case I lost some vital, vague, and indefinable link to the past.

 

In the last three years my family have cleared the houses or flats of four departed relatives. Their belongings, I feared, might contain memories that would be lost if we let them go. And so I gathered the things my more practical relatives happily discarded. My mother-in-law’s photograph albums, trinkets and jewellery; my aunt’s boxes of medals and collection of glasses; my mum’s sewing boxes, tea sets, napkins and canteen of cutlery—it all ended up in our house.

There comes a point, however, (as aficionados of the clutter-clearing guru Marie Kondo will agree) when far from providing a direct line to the past, stuff begins to obscure it.The crunch came when my mother’s walnut canteen of bone-handled cutlery began to bug me. I’d kept it because the knives and forks had come out for my parents’ dinner parties when I was little. They reminded me of their suburban middle-class 1970’s etiquette; that there was such a thing as a fish knife, or a soup-spoon. But now the box of cutlery sat in our kitchen, the bone handles began to seem macabre, the turned-up blades of the fish knives menacing.  The cutlery brought back memories of family rows as well as happier times; it was not a source of happy nostalgia after all, but rather a nagging reminder of my mother’s descent into dementia. This dark blot at the edge of my vision reminded me of who she no longer was. Of who we’d lost. My partner confessed the box reminded him of a coffin!

 

I gave away the box of cutlery, and for good measure my mother’s silver tea service and a whole china tea set once belonging to her mother. It felt ruthless, then freeing. It set off an avalanche of releasing things. Rather than regret, or guilt, I felt a massive, energizing sense of euphoria at the unburdening. As insurance, I took photos of the things I was getting rid of, a record for my siblings or children if they ever asked.  There is, however, another more creative way to pay homage to clutter, I found. And that is by recycling it in fiction.

Everything in fiction has to be there for a reason.

If a gun appears in scene one, Chekhov tells us, the writer must make sure it has been fired by the end.

The walnut ‘coffin’ of cutlery? It appears in The Darkening Hour, Theodora’s pride and joy. By the end, Mona, the domestic worker, has sold the silver-plated spoons for cash.

My mum’s blue darning mushroom? Sonia in Tideline thinks about it when she sees the hole in Jez’s socks. By the end of the novel it has become a murder weapon.

The sculpted head of my mother with a broken nose? A benign statue sitting outside an old man’s window becomes the cause of an accidental death by the end of The Darkening Hour.

I have no idea why these inheritances play such sinister roles in my fiction. Freud would have a lot to say about it, perhaps.

At present, I’m trying to be less morbid. My late aunt’s yellow Aquascutum coat is worn by the heroine in a new novel I’m working on when her friend first falls in love with her. My godmother’s breathtakingly extensive collection of leather gloves become the focus for another character’s passion in  the same novel.

Using things of sentimental value as inspiration for writing is surprisingly fruitful: the memories they spark, the conflicts they represent, the emotional attachments they rekindle. And once they are written down, they can live on, but without taking up any energy or space. Far more exciting to give new fictional roles to objects than to have them pile up, absorbing valuable space, energy, and—as the defunct watch belonging to the woman in the gym symbolized—time.

 

Chekhov’s gun theory

If you hang a pistol on the wall in an early scene then it should be fired by the end.

#amwriting #sentimentalvalue #writers # writerslives #inspirationforwriting

Refuge – short stories GalleyBeggarPress

Refuge is a  collection of short stories put together in order to raise money for the refugee crisis. It includes some fantastic pieces from some of my favourite authors, Stella Duffy included.  It’s an honour  to be listed alongside them.  For just a fiver you can contribute to the lives of people who have had to leave their own homes and to seek refuge in countries they do not know and may feel unwelcome in- something that always terrifies and moves me. Having a home is a basic human right, being at home is where we are most able to be ourselves, to feel loved and wanted. The thought of being uprooted or of not being able to reach home is something that haunts me. The concept of what home means is something that fascinates me. I am so pleased to have been able to make a tiny contribution to the refugee crisis, albeit from the comfort and warmth of my own home!

It’s easy to download if you go to the Galley Beggar Press website http://galleybeggar.co.uk/store/books/refuge

Refuge

The Darkening Hour is out in France as Deux

12184136_955547314517213_8288214122876690550_oAnd here’s the review!

Wouaouuu laissez tomber ce que vous lisez en ce moment et foncez dans ce thriller plus que captivant !
“Deux” de Penny Hancock Author ( Sonatine Editions ) est absolument renversant.
Deux femmes, deux histoires.
Deux beautés vénéneuses à souhait.
Laquelle des deux préférerez-vous?
Laquelle des deux croirez-vous ????
La douce et discrète Mona a dû quitter son Maroc natal pour Londres afin de subvenir aux besoins de sa famille.
La londonienne Théodora est dépassée par sa vie mondaine et familiale.
Alors que la seconde engage la première comme femme de ménage ,t rès vite va s’instaurer entre elles deux une relation de dépendance puis de malaise indicible….une lutte violente et insidieuse qui va les mener au pire…
Après “Désordre” Penny Hancock nous offre un second livre encore plus percutant.