I’m absolutely delighted to let you know that my UK publisher Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin will publish my fifth novel, Body of Water, in spring 2023.
The press release published in The Bookseller says:Continue reading
As Patron of the Winchester branch of Read Easy (a UK charity which helps adults learn to read), I’m delighted to be talking at their coffee and cake morning on 9th June 2022. Rick Stein Restaurant are kindly providing the coffee (or tea) and cake and their restaurant for the morning.
I’ll be talking about Unsettled Ground and its theme of struggling to read and how that affects the main character, Jeanie. Read Easy will talk about the work they do, and one of their students will talk about how learning to read has changed his life. There will also be a book draw, where, for a cash donation you’ll have a chance to win one of several book prizes donated by Waterstones, P&G Wells, and Penguin Books.
The event starts at 9.30am and lasts until 11.15am at Rick Stein, 8 High Street, Winchester, SO23 9JX. Tickets cost £12 each including an Eventbrite fee, and are limited – so get yours soon! Click here to book yours.
Today, April 26 2022, the beautiful paperback of Unsettled Ground is published in the US by Tin House. I’m delighted with the cover, designed by Holly Ovenden, and of course that it includes the Costa Book Award Winner sticker, as well as mention of the novel’s shortlisting for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I hope that Unsettled Ground will find a whole new readership in the US. If you read the US paperback, I’d love it if you took a picture of the book and posted it on whichever social media you use. Don’t forget to tag me or let me know so I can thank you.
To find out what Unsettled Ground is about, visit this page for a synopsis, reviews and interviews.
The paperback is available from all US bookstores, either in store or available to order. Or you can buy online. Click here to find a selection of places to buy the book from.
Are you in a book club? Either one with friends or one associated with a book shop? If you are (and you’re in the UK), and you’re looking for a great book club read, you might want to consider Unsettled Ground. There are lots of controversial characters, themes and plot elements that result in a lively discussion – or so I’ve been told. And if you do decide to read Unsettled Ground in your book club, I’d be delighted to send you some signed bookplates and postcards. I’ll send them for free to a bookshop or if you’re in a book club with friends, for a donation (of whatever you can afford) to Read Easy Winchester.
Read Easy Winchester is a my local branch of Read Easy, a national charity which helps adults learn to read – very relevant to one of the themes in Unsettled Ground.
Just send me a message with information about your book club and I’ll get some in the post. And I can send you some book club questions to help get the discussion started!
Writing a novel can be a big unwieldy task. You’ve written 40,000 words or 90,000 words and you really need to know when you your protagonist sneezed for the first time, or when the octopus escaped, or when you last mentioned that minor character. It’s hard to keep track of it all, especially if you write in Microsoft Word as I do. It’s also hard to move quickly around a big document, as well as reordering chapters and scenes. But there is a part of the programme which should help: the Navigation Pane.
Yes, Scrivener – software designed for writers – will help with all this too, but I didn’t get on with it. If anything it was too complex and it too took long to get to know all its bells and whistles. I’ve written nearly all of my five novels (fifth finished recently) in Word. And I use Word’s Navigation Pane to help me keep track of what happened when. Here’s how you open it:
In the Navigation Pane, under ‘Headings’ you’ll see a list of all the headings in your document. It might be that you can only see Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 etc if you’ve only used the ‘Heading 1’ Style in your document and have only given each chapter a number.
But if you write your chapter headings within your WIP as mini descriptions and create subheadings for scenes within that chapter, your Navigation Pane will become much more useful. So rather than only writing ‘Chapter 15’, you write something like, ‘15: UNIT – First morning’. And give it a Style of Heading 1. (Styles can be found under ‘Home’ in the top ribbon.) And you might break each chapter into scenes, and give each scene a title that you make a Heading 2 style – for example, ‘Day Eight’ and ‘Oct’. Making each chapter and scene title a mini summary of what’s in that chapter and scene will allow you to see the whole content of your WIP within the navigation pane.
Here’s a snippet of what my Navigation Pane looked like in an early draft of my most recent WIP. (Oct stands for Octopus)
I also write word counts for each chapter after the chapter heading so that I can check how the lengths work together. And I make a note in the chapter heading to remind me which of my writing groups have seen and commented on this chapter.
In the early stages of writing when I’m still finding my way I will often create headings for ideas. ‘Thoughts about Neffy’, or ‘Thoughts about the octopus’, creating new headings as I think of something that I don’t have a place for yet. These headings and notes stay at the end of the WIP until I find somewhere for them to go – but I always know they’re there because I can see them in the list of headings in the Navigation Pane.
Once you have given your chapters and scenes titles which make sense to you, and made sure they use one of the heading styles which Word provides, there are number of ways you can use the Navigation Pane:
I hope you’ve found this useful. If any of it isn’t clear, let me know. And if you already use the Navigation Pane and you’ve found other great uses for it, please do share them in the comments below.
As a judge of writing competitions and a creative writing teacher, I’ve seen many pieces of creative writing with the text laid out in a way that makes it difficult to read. Incorrect indents, asterisks all over the place, but the most common error is inconsistent and confusing line spacing. Writers often end up with bigger gaps between paragraphs than between the lines within a paragraph, which makes it appear as though each paragraph is a new scene or stands alone.
If a literary agent, writing competition, or journal specifies layout guidelines, you should always follow these, but if they don’t, it’s best to follow the conventional layout, similar to the layout you’d find in any contemporary, non-experimental novel.
This article will show you how to get your formatting right using a PC. It’s how I do it, and there might of course be a better, easier way. If there is, please do let me know in the comments.
And if anyone would like to let me know how to do the same on a Mac, I’d be delighted to include it for all those Mac users out there.
Here’s what it looks like:
Now, every paragraph you write in the document will be indented, which is not what you want. What I do now is start to write, and when I’ve written more than one paragraph (this is important), at some point I go back to the beginning of each chapter and start of each new scene, put my cursor in front of the first word and press backspace. This will remove the indent. (Note – if you haven’t set this formatting as the default for this document or for all documents based on the ‘Normal’ template, then removing the indent before you have written more than one paragraph will mess up the formatting.)
Sometimes my formatting gets in a muddle. If you have some formatting that is correct in your document and some that isn’t, you can highlight two or more paragraphs of the correct formatting, go to the Home tab in the top ribbon, and click ‘Format Painter’ in the ‘Clipboard’ section. When you move your cursor over the text you’ll see a paint brush come up beside it. Move your cursor to the start of the section of text that needs its formatting sorted out, click and drag to highlight all of the incorrectly formatted text. Release the cursor, and the correct formatting should be applied.
Inserting asterisks should be the very last thing you do before you submit your piece of work to wherever it is going. If you do it earlier and then continue editing (removing or adding text), where you need to put your asterisks will change.
Using asterisks to help indicate a scene break is only necessary if you know your reader is going to print out the document to read it. If they are only reading on screen you don’t need any asterisks. If you don’t know if they will print it, best to include asterisks.
But imagine they do print out your work. Imagine a new scene starts at the very top of a new page. The start of the scene won’t have an indent (you’ll have removed it), but because one scene ends on the previous page and the new one starts at the top of the next page it is easy to miss that a new scene has started. To indicate this you need to insert a centred asterisk between the two scenes. It might sit at the end of the first page or at the beginning of the next – it doesn’t matter. But you must insert your asterisks from the beginning of the document, wherever you notice a page break between scenes. Inserting an asterisk will push all your text down by one line – which means that further on in the document you might be creating new places that need asterisks or getting rid of some that did.
When you’ve formatted your story in this way, and your story has a large jump – moving to a new scene (a character in a new place, a different character, or a different time period) – you simply need to insert an extra return at the end of the previous scene and continue writing your new scene. This will create a single extra line space between scenes – letting the reader know we’ve moved to a new scene – while keeping all other line spaces as just double.
But, using the formatting describe above, your new scene will start with an indent. Only when you’ve written a couple more paragraphs at least should you go back and remove the indent at the start of the scene (by placing your cursor before the first word and pressing backspace).
If this seems like a rather awkward way of getting rid of unwanted indents, I agree. I’m sure there must be a way to set this up as a default (no indent after a double return), but I don’t know how. If you do, please let me know!
You need to follow a similar process to set your font style and size as you’ve done with formatting.
I hope this is helpful. Please let me know if anything is incorrect or poorly explained.
I have quite a few in-person and online events coming up in the next few months, talking about Unsettled Ground, including Saffron Walden in Essex, Oxford, Leeds, and Chipping Norton. Visit my upcoming events page to find out whether I’ll be in a town near you.
I’m so delighted and amazed that Unsettled Ground has won the Costa Novel Award 2021. It means a huge amount that Jeanie’s and Julius’s story will be more widely read, and it’s simply a wonderful privilege for the book to be chosen from so many entered and of course the brilliant shortlist. More information about the awards can be found here.
Unsettled Ground will now go forward for the Costa Book of the year where it will be judged against the other category winners: biography, first novel, children’s, and poetry. The overall winner will be announced on 1st February.
On 13th January I’ll be celebrating the publication of the UK paperback of Unsettled Ground at Waterstones in Winchester. There are limited tickets to keep numbers low, so if you’d like to come, please do get yours soon. They are £3.00 each (including a glass of wine) and are available either by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by dropping into the High Street shop. More info here. I hope to see you there.
It’s time again for Tim (aka #LibrarianHusband) and me to give you our top ten books of the year for 2021. As always these are selected from books we read this year – 95 for me and about 50 for Tim. And as always it was such a hard decision. I had thirteen on my longlist, but was determined to reduce it to ten, so three beloved books were taken out.
One of my books – Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon – was an audio book, so I’ve mocked up an actual book in the photos. And Tim and I shared one book in our top tens – Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini. The Gloaming by Melanie Finn is called Shame in the UK.
If you’re interested in buying any of the books in Tim’s or my lists then, I’ve set up a Bookshop.org list, so that UK readers will be able to buy them easily while supporting UK independent bookshops. Readers in other countries will have to find the books themselves, but I do urge you to use your local independent or Bookshop.org rather than Amazon.
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
It’s not possible to say too much about what happens in the novel without spoiling things, except: a white middle-income family, rent a remote airbnb holiday home a little way out of NYC for a week. Only a couple of days into their holiday the black, wealthy, owners knock on the door and say there is a power-outage in NYC and ask if they can they come in. Although the power in the holiday home is still on, the Internet and TV are down and so there is no way of checking what is happening in the rest of the world. I loved the mix of literary with horror with a pace that story that starts slowly and builds.
Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, translated by J Ockenden
This book crept up on me until I absolutely loved it. An old hermit lives in a remote shack in the Italian Alps. He forgets things – has he already walked down the mountain to the shop or not? He meets a dog, and the dog begins to speak. It’s not whimsical, but this dog is funny; this dog made me laugh out loud. They’re snowed in over winter and when finally they can go outside again they see a human foot sticking up out of the snow.
In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut
This calls itself a novel, but the character’s name is Damon, and it feels very autobiographical in the way that real life will meander and not really have any resolutions. Damon, the central character relates three journeys and experiences from a distant future point. As with The Promise (which won the Booker Prize) he slips between first and third person naturally, gracefully. There is very little dialogue, and a lot of wandering around, but for all that there is so much tension, so much anxiety for the reader. In the first journey Damon walks in Lesotho with a German he doesn’t know very well and discovers he doesn’t really like. In the second he meets a group of Swiss friends and travels with them through Africa, always on the edge of something that is never quite achieved. And in the third he travels to India with a self-destructive woman whom he finds he cannot handle. Magnificent.
The Gloaming by Melanie Finn (called Shame in the UK)
My perfect kind of novel. Beautiful writing, with every sentence crafted and considered, but with a gripping story and characters. In Switzerland, Pilgrim’s husband leaves her for another woman and shortly afterwards she has a terrible car accident, the consequences of which reach far across the world. She turns up in Tanzania, traumatised and guilty, waiting and watching for when her shame will catch up with her.
One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard
Oh my, this was so good. A cross between Under Milk Wood and Lanny. Welsh village life with all its death, desertion, gossip, madness, and joy. Lyrical and sometimes mystical its unnamed narrator goes out one moonlit night and remembers his past. The end is shadowy and shocking. It was first published in 1961 in Welsh, and this translation is by Philip Mitchell. How have I only just have heard of this?
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson
I’d read this snippet of dialogue before, but hadn’t realised it came from this book, which is a collection of family pieces Jackson wrote for women’s magazines in the ’40s and ’50s. Jackson is being admitted into hospital for the birth of her third child:
“Name?” the desk clerk said to me politely, her pencil poised.
“Name” I said vaguely. I remembered, and told her.
“Age?” she asked. “Sex? Occupation?”
“Writer,” I said.
“Housewife,” she said.
“Writer,” I said.
“I’ll just put down housewife,” she said.
. . .
“Husband’s name?” she said. “Address? Occupation?”
“Just put down housewife,” I said.
The whole thing is wonderful. Jackson is at her most observant and funniest. I’m sure it’s a highly idealised view of her life with young children (in fact having read both biographies about Jackson, I’d say it definitely is), but there are just so many perfect moments, so acutely observed.
That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry
Filled with loners, edge-of-society types, and those trying to find their way, this short story collection is rich with unforgettable characters. The young woman waiting in the van for her boyfriend to come back from robbing a petrol station, or the character wooing a woman from Eastern Europe, or the man who is sexually alluring to women only in the house he inherited from his uncle – are all going to stay with me. Plus, Barry’s nature writing is stella. (This is a collection that my #librarianhusband and I read to each other.)
Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash
Another short story collection that my #librarianhusband and I read to each other, and it was perfect! So many brilliant stories, brilliantly written. My favourites: In The Trusty, a convict on a chain-gang escapes and is double-crossed. In A Sort of Miracle, two lazy young men are embroiled in a plan to catch a bear. And in Three A.M and the Stars were Out, an elderly vet (in both uses of the word) visits his farmer friend who he was with in Korea, to help him deliver a stuck calf. They are all moving, witty, and I know this shouldn’t really matter with a short story – but a perfect length for reading to each other. (And I’d also recommend Rash’s collection, Burning Bright.)
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
Oh my goodness, this book. What a book. Densely poetic, stuffed with ideas and knowledge, rather experimental in structure, enigmatic with much of the story. And heart-breaking. I listened to it (read in a beautiful slow Canadian drawl by the author) and I immediately bought a physical copy so that I could go back and reread sections.
Book 1 is Jakob Beer’s memoir, not finished because he dies in a car crash (easy to miss this and get confused). He describes in snippets of circular memories how when he was seven he was rescued by Athos after his parents are killed by the Nazis and his sister taken. Athos takes Jakob to Greece and hides him there before the two of them move to Canada. There is lots more, but I don’t want to spoil it. Book 2 is narrated by Ben – often writing ‘to’ Jakob – and details his life as the son of parents who survived the Holocaust.
It’s about love and memory, fathers and sons, inherited trauma and so much more.
Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
I loved this slow unfolding of the history of a marriage. Nothing but Blue Sky is quiet and thoughtful and very moving. I listened to the audio version, beautifully narrated by the Irish actor, Stephen Hogan. In the slight present-day story David has returned to Aiguaclara, a small Catalonian resort where he has holidayed for the past twenty years with his wife Mary Rose. Except that Mary Rose died in a plane crash about a year ago, and David has decided to return to this place – so familiar and yet now, without her, so different. David remembers his marriage, examines his and Mary Rose’s differences, what they each hoped for, and what they both loved. He recalls his own difficult childhood and Mary Rose’s family. There is nothing here that is surprising or terribly shocking, and I loved it.
I’m thrilled to let you know that my fourth novel, Unsettled Ground has been shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards. This prestigious annual prize, which is fifty years old this year, awards prizes for books written by UK and Irish authors, in five categories: Novel, First Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children’s Book. One of the winners from these categories is selected as the overall Costa Book of the Year.
Unsettled Ground is one of four books in the Novel category, the winner of which will be announced on 4th January 2022. The five category winners will then be considered for the £30,000 prize announced in early February. You can read more about the prizes here, as well as seeing which other books are included in the novel category.
With this and the shortlisting earlier in 2021 for the Women’s Prize for Fiction it’s been quite a year! Keep your fingers crossed for me.
And if you’re in the UK and you’d like to buy a signed and dedicated copy of the hardback of Unsettled Ground, or any of my other books, click here.
This November and December, in time for Christmas, I’m offering UK readers a chance to buy signed and dedicated copies of my books, whether for yourself or as a gift. You can buy a single copy, several of the same book, or a combination. Find out more about Our Endless Numbered Days (paperback), Swimming Lessons (paperback), Bitter Orange (paperback), and Unsettled Ground (hardback). Once you’ve let me know which book or books you’d like and what you’d like me to write in them, I’ll calculate the cost of the books and the postage, email you a secure payment link, and once you’ve paid, I’ll get the books in the post. Simple.
Send me a message using this form, and make sure you include:
(Offer closes on the last 2nd class posting date in time for Christmas: 18th December 2022. I buy my own books from local book shops in order to support them.)