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:
Open your work in progress (WIP) in Word
Click ‘View’ in the top ribbon
Tick the box next to Navigation Pane
A column called Navigation will open on the left hand side of your screen
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.
How Navigate 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:
Move quickly around your WIP. Click on any heading or subheading in the Navigation Pane and you’ll be taken to that section of your WIP. No more scrolling through 90,000 words.
See all headings or just top-level headings. If you have some subheadings for scenes in your WIP (such as Day Eight, and Oct in my example above), you can click the arrow in the Navigation Pane beside each chapter heading to expand or collapse the subheadings. So you can see just all your top-level Chapter headings, or everything below them.
Easily move a section of your WIP. Hover over a heading or a subheading in the Navigation Pane, click and drag it somewhere else. It will take all your text below that heading (up until the next heading in the WIP) and move it to where you drop it.
Find a word or phrase in your WIP. You can easily search your WIP using the Navigation Pane. Maybe I want to know when the character, Leon is first mentioned in my WIP. I type Leon in the ‘search document’ bar in the Navigation Pane and every instance of the word ‘Leon’ will be highlighted. I can use the up and down arrows in the Navigation pane to jump through the WIP from one Leon to the next. (This is very useful when I’m editing, if I know I use a particular word or phrase too often.)
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.
Font: Times New Roman
Font size / colour: 12 point / black
No line spaces between paragraphs
An indent at the start of each paragraph (including at the start of each line of dialogue) except –
No indent at the start of the first paragraph of a chapter or the beginning of a new scene
An extra line space between paragraphs when starting a new scene (a scene break)
If that scene break happens at the end of a page include a centred asterisk (*) within the break. This will either be at the end of the page or the beginning of the next
Page numbers wherever you prefer (Use ‘Insert’ Page Number)
You could put the title of the piece in the top right hand corner of every page, but if submitting check the guidelines (Use ‘Insert’ Header)
If you’re entering a competition don’t include your name or initials anywhere on the document (unless specified in the rules)
How to Format Paragraphs on a PC
If you are starting with a new blank document
Open a new blank document in Word
Within the document either right-hand click to bring up a box from which you can select ‘Paragraph’
Or in the top ribbon select ‘Layout’, and in ‘Paragraph’ click the little box in the bottom right hand corner
This will open up a ‘Paragraph’ box
Under the first tab, ‘Indents and Spacing’ set the indentation of Left and Right to zero.
Under ‘Special’ select ‘First line’ from the drop down box.
Make sure ‘By’ is 1.27cm
Under ‘Spacing’ set Before and After to zero
Under ‘Line spacing’ select ‘double’ from the drop down box
Here’s what it looks like:
At the bottom you can decide whether to ‘Set As Default’ for this document only or all documents based on the ‘Normal’ template. I would recommend selecting one of these. (Selecting the latter means that all your future ‘Normal’ documents will adopt this style.)
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.)
If you have already written some or all of your document
Highlight the whole document (either click and drag down from the start, or if your keyboard has a number pad on the right – hold down Ctrl and press the number 5 – this should highlight everything)
Follow the instructions above from the second bullet point.
If some of your formatting goes wrong
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.
Scene breaks and asterisks
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.
How to use this formatting for scene breaks
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.
Right hand click and go to Font or on the Home tab in the top Ribbon select the small righthand box in Font.
Here you’ll be able to select your font and size (Times New Roman and 12 point black is recommended) and then set it as the default for the document or default for ‘Normal’ style.
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.
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.
And the rest:
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 Savagesby 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.
As part of the Women’s Prize for Fiction short list festival, the wonderful actor, Juliet Stevenson read the opening of Unsettled Ground and now the video is available to watch. So if you’re thinking of buying a copy, this should serve as a taster.
Here’s a bit of extra info that you may not know: A few years ago I won the @pindropstudio / Royal Academy short story prize with my story, A Quiet Tidy Man, and the winner had their story read our by Juliet. So, not only has she read my work before but I got to meet her and I can confirm that she’s as friendly as she seems (see the picture above).
I have few in-person events coming up which you might be interested in especially if you live near Essex, Oxford, or London. Visit my events page for more details.
The UK cover of Unsettled Ground has had a refresh! The colours have been made much brighter, so now you can see all the creepy-crawlies in more detail, as well as the rotting fruit. Also included is a new quote from The Times (the previous one was about Bitter Orange, and some readers found that confusing), and the Women’s Prize For Fiction Shortlisted ‘sticker’ appears permanently in the bottom right-hand corner. I love how the cover really glows now, which makes it very eye-catching. Do let me know what you think. At the moment this new cover will only appear on the ebook.
I want to tell you about a message I received recently from Betsy Teter, a reader in South Carolina, in the US. It has astounded me. But first I need to tell you a little bit about Unsettled Ground. And this is going to include spoilers, so if you haven’t read it, I urge you to stop reading this article now, if you’re planning on reading the book.
You could always go and buy Unsettled Ground, read it, and come back here. In fact, you could buy it from Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg, South Carolina, if you’re in the US (as well as being a physical bookshop, they also sell online).
But anyway, the thing about Unsettled Ground is that I made all made up. None of it is based on anyone I know or any stories I heard. In the book (as you know, since you’ve read it – ahem) Jeanie has rheumatic fever as a child, and then when she’s twelve her mother tells her has rheumatic heart disease (RHD) and so she must live a gentle life with her, at home. Only when Jeanie is in late middle-age does she discover from her doctor that she never had RHD and so nothing is as she imagined.
Betsy wrote to tell me about her mother, Bette Hubbard who died in 2008. Here’s what she said:
‘The doctors told [my mother] at age 13 that she had rheumatic fever and they sent her to bed for eleven months. Then they told her a couple years later that it had returned, and she was put back to bed for 9 months. Her family was so worried about her they carried her back and forth to the toilet. This was the central story of her life. She missed a huge part of her childhood. Then, when she was in her late 70s and began to develop some symptoms of Parkinson’s, the doctors dropped a bombshell: she had never had rheumatic fever. She had been misdiagnosed.
‘Bette was very bright, and her parents sent her to college in the warmer climate of the American South to protect her health. She was one of a small handful of Northerners at her college (in those days she was tagged a Yankee) and in her senior year she was elected student body president.
‘She died of some sort of Parkinsonian disease – the doctors called it “white matter disease”. We saw dozens of doctors trying to figure out what this was, and along the way, one of them told her there was absolutely no sign that she’d had rheumatic fever. Her heart was strong until her last days.’
Thank you so much to Betsy for telling me this amazing story and letting me write about it here.
* The title of this piece is a quote said by the mother of the author, Anne Patchett, and I keep it stuck on wall next to where I write to remind myself about what it is I’m trying to do when I write.
If you live near Oxford you might be interested to know that I’ll be doing my first in-person event in a while on 21st July at Blackwell’s Bookshop with fellow author Lucy Atkins (her latest novel is the amazing Magpie Lane). We’ll be interviewed by Sarah Franklin about our ‘dark fiction’. Tickets are available here.
While I wrote Unsettled Ground, I listened to two pieces of music: Polly Vaughn (an old English folk song) sung by Tia Blake, and We Roamed Through the Garden, written by my son, Henry Ayling. Listening to only two songs for two years, it was probably inevitable that they were going to become part of the novel I was writing. But they had a bigger influence: Jeanie and Julius, the protagonists in Unsettled Ground became folk musicians.
I thought it might be interesting to create a playlist for Unsettled Ground, for those who are currently reading the novel or those who have read it already. I hope that this selection – which are all pieces of music I love – will help add to the atmosphere of the book.
Henry is an unsigned acoustic guitarist – teacher, performer, and composer – and therefore his song isn’t on Spotify. But you can listen to We Roamed Through the Garden, here: www.henryayling.com/music/ It is number five on this page.
The playlist below will allow you to hear a little of each song. Open it in Spotify to listen to all the songs in their entirety. And please do let me know which you might know already and if any particularly resonate. Happy listening!
Unsettled Ground will be published in the US on May 18 and I have lots of online events planned, where, from the comfort of my writing room in England, I’ll be talking about the book, my writing process, and what it feels like for Unsettled Ground to be shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It would be lovely if any US or Canadian readers could join me on Zoom.