Not yet a novelist

It doesn’t happen often, that I am left speechless. Even if it’s only a curse I can usually muster a couple of words.

Being unable to write is a new experience. Never have I stared blankly at a bare sheet of paper for ten minutes and failed to find a single word worth writing.

But on Wednesday  that’s what happened. Unnerving.

I’ve sometimes been called a novelist. The definition of a novel is a story invented by the writer – a tale about imaginary characters and events. In other words, fiction. The person who writes a novel is a novelist.

All my books so far have been non-fiction. They are about actual events, people and places. They are not novels, and I am not a novelist. I’m a writer, or author. However it is increasingly common to hear all writers referred to as novelists. Does it really matter except to the pedants?

But I have meandered away from the point.

Our guest speaker at the May literary luncheon hosted by Charroux Literary Festival was the effervescent Alison Morton, author of the Roma Nova novels. After lunch Alison held  a workshop on ‘character and setting.’ The first part of the exercise was to create a character. In ten minutes.

While the 17 other guests bent their heads and wrote diligently, my mind became a vacuum. The minutes ticked by. Alison called: “You have five minutes left!”

I felt a wave of panic. This is how Masterchef contestants must feel as the clock ticks down and their panna cotta hasn’t set. I quickly scribbled down the most clichéd character imaginable, and as quickly scribbled them out. When our ten minutes was over, my character was non-existent. It’s the hardest piece of writing I’ve never done. I could feel sweat trickling down my back, and my throat had dried up.

Things looked up when we went on to the second element of the exercise,  creating a setting. From nowhere came a muse who settled on my shoulder and helped squeeze out a couple of hundred words.

The final part of the exercise was to swap all our characters and settings around anonymously, and create a story from them. Pity the poor person who was landed with my non-character.

I landed on my feet, as the character and setting, although devised by two different people, could have been written for each other, and I regained my writing mojo, for the first time actually writing fiction. And loving it. Something I have never believed I am capable of. That doesn’t mean I’ve become a novelist – 200 words do not a novel make, but I can see a glimmer of light beckoning from the end of a previously unknown tunnel.

Since then I have been creating characters in my head, and without the pressure of the ticking clock have found it addictive and fascinating.

Alison is – forgive the cliché – a prolific author with a huge fan base, and has written five novels in the Roma Nova series in three years. She also blogs energetically and offers advice and help for writers. I bought her book The 500 Word Writing Buddy which contains  no-nonsense, succinct advice delivered with a generous dollop of humour. It has motivated me to hope that one day I will deserve the title of novelist.


First, however, I must finish the current non-fiction book I am working on. 🙂









20 thoughts on “Not yet a novelist

  1. Well, given that you have written memoiry stuff, that is regarded as fiction. OK so, it’s not really fiction, but it does get a pass into most fiction/novel categories.

    Sounds an interesting workshop too. Must consider, not consider, joining our local writers’ group. Hmm.

    • Not sure how memoirs can be regarded as fiction? Given that they are all based on actual events, people and places, and taken from diary notes? However.

      I am not a ‘joiner’ by nature, but did find the exercise enjoyable and could see the benefits, particularly how other guests tackled the tasks. It gave food for thought.

      One thing I will never join is a reading circle. The tales I have heard of people having to read something chosen by somebody else, and then to analyse and discuss it when they have hated it – left all that behind when I left school.

  2. Ha! I get this block every single time I do a writing exercise. Something tells me I’m not good under pressure! Wish I could have been at Alison’s workshop – but I’ll see her at the St.Clementin litfest so that may make up for missing yesterday’s session.

    • I hadn’t ‘written to order’ since I left school, and was shaken by how blank my mind became when I needed it.

      Loved Alison, she is so bubbly and funny. 🙂

  3. Oh that horrible blank page taunting when the mind goes all ephemeral at the wrong moment! You are a great writer. My mother thinks so too. Whatever you write, I’ll read it – fiction, non, auto, biog, raphical. All of it 🙂

    • Thank you and your mother for the flattering remarks. Much appreciated. I am not seeing much in the way of blogging from you at the moment, hope that whatever you are doing, and wherever you are doing it, you are all having a good time. 🙂

      • De rien 🙂 We are all fine ….. Just back from a short break in Maine which is which served to clear my head and adjust my focus and resolve on all that needs to be done here – sometimes I just need a cricket bat to the ears, other times I need more cajoling. Dogs are so much more sensible!

    • First ‘workshop’ ever for me, Helen. While I probably would not have signed up for one, this one was part of the luncheon and it would have been rude not to join in. And I’m so glad I did, as I learned from it as well as enjoying. 🙂

  4. Isn’t life strange.
    Novel and novelist are two words I don’t think I have ever used.
    I think of and refer to authors, writers, even story tellers and books, stories, even a saga but never novel or novelist.
    Both those words have an ugly feeling in my mind.
    I have no idea why and until I read this piece I had never given it a thought.
    It must be the approach of retirement and moving to France that has unbalanced my senile brain!

      • Hi Susie.
        We have sold our UK house and going tediously through answering daft questions and legal slow moving to justify fees!
        Thankfully no chain. We await exchange.
        Come what may we will go and live in France after school finishes in early July. We plan to be in our French house for at least a year then downsize in the same village. Have to avoid M. Hollande’s change of rules to capital gains tax by being our maison principale for over a year. Having had the house for 16 years the tax would be horrible – and I don’t like donating anything to tax departments if I can avoid it.
        In the meantime we will hop back and forth to visit kids and grandkids and do FaceTime/Skype a lot.
        Eventually we’ll get a motorhome (our own Tinkerbelle but hopefully a tad younger and more modern) and then explore lots of the rest of Europe and use it when we go back to UK visiting family and friends.
        A new facet of our life about to start. Counting days now.
        During some of that time I aim to write about my early life and family history so the kids have some records of how they got here.

  5. Maybe it’s proof that you are in fact a novelist, in the sense that you need time to let the idea mature. Create a character in ten minutes? I can’t think of an exercise more likely to douse whatever spark of creativity I might have had!

  6. Funnily enough, ever since the workshop I’ve been creating characters in my head, and without the constraints of the time limit, have been able to create myriads in just a few seconds. 🙂

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