Monday, 30 April 2012

Z is for Zero

Zero words written, zero words to edit. Blank pages, finished pages. Zero is both the beginning point and the end point for me.
Nothing is more exciting (and slightly intimidating) than that blank page. Even more intimidating, a new notebook, perfect, like freshly fallen snow...if snow had faint parallel lines in it, anyway. I buy linen backed A5 notebooks from Paperchase - the paper is think enough not to bleed through and they stand well on the bookshelf. They are also packed with pages, so I don't have to replace them...going through that horrible moment of taking a new one off the shelf and spoiling it. The computer screen is neither so personal nor so permanent, and having a new story fermenting in my head makes me let it loose on the cyber page. I love starting things. I can write the first 10k of a novel over a frantic weekend.

Editing and rewriting is harder. At the moment I have, according to my agent, an excellent first 20 chapters and a lovely last 20 chapters. But the book has a sagging, lumpy middle (my words, not hers) that need a change. I've worked out where the problem is and am fixing it, but have to rewrite a number of bits. You move one thing, and everything moves. I've decided to bring the character in earlier and make him more prominent, so I'm having to check every scene he's in subsequently, or any scene where they meet him to make sure it still works. I printed off the hundred pages concerned, and am working through them, first with a red pen and next on the computer. When I get to zero pages, it's one more read through of the whole lot, and it's back to the agent. Beginnings and endings, the easy bits. The trick is to get better at the middles.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The A-Z of blogging

I started this A-Z thing on a whim, but I've really enjoyed it. I've read many many other blogs, learning a lot along the way, not just about writing but about place, lifestyle, people. All the things I have to write about. I've visited blogs in Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Canada, Paris, Berlin, all over the UK and all over the States. I've been challenged, stretched and enchanted by poetry, fiction, whimsy, humour, art and opinions. I'll definitely be doing it again.

It's also really made me think about writing. I'm in the transition between being a hobby writer who dips in and out of writing (up to 5 years ago), learning about writing and trying out different styles and forms, (5 years ago until last September) and actually trying to create publishable work. Work being the operative word here. The A-Z has made me look at various aspects of writing, some that I might not have touched on otherwise, while my agent pushes the book into a leaner, more streamlined shape by dropping edits and ideas on me. These translate into big ideas and bigger edits, but the book has slimmed down and I understand the process of editing for publication more.

The A-Z has also helped me look at the last part of my MA. I have to write a fictional piece of text, 15-20k in length associated with a 3000 word rationale, explaining why I do things the way I do them. This blog has helped me focus on why I do something, not just following my intuition or the story. It's taught me a lot about how to take a first draft and turn it into a commercial proposition, with the invaluable help of my agent and other writers. So thank you to everyone that stopped to add your invaluable comments, I have considered and learned from them all.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Y is for Young

There is an assumption that new writers are young. In fact, my university has just written a nice piece about me for a forthcoming magazine, and the author comes to the same conclusion, adding: 'The future looks bright for this young novelist and the MA Creative and Critical Writing course goes from strength to strength.' Young? I looked over my recent reading of debut novelists: Emma Darwin (over 40), Bernie McGill (over 40), and the competition winner, Rosie Garland, is my age.

Imaginatively, I can write from the perspective of man or woman, child or adult: hell, one of BT 2's characters is inanimate. But as I get older it is easier to write about things I remember, and when I was in my twenties I found it hard to imagine being older. I fell into stereotypes of older people because I couldn't imagine what it would be like to be, say, fifty. (I thought it would all be about teapots and slippers). There's a rash of books set in the sixties and seventies at the moment, and I wonder if it's because a lot of new writers grew up in those decades. Unlike that young me, I know what it's like to be young and middle-aged. I can see old age just ahead. And my writing, I'm glad to say, is getting better, partly because I have read so much more.

You don't have to be young to be a novelist, you have to imagine and write. I'm off to brew a pot of Earl Grey and snuggle into my slippers...

Friday, 27 April 2012

X is for Mystery

My maths is a bit crap, but x seems to be the unknown factor. When I write first drafts, XXX stands in for names and places I haven't yet decided on, or can't remember what I used earlier in the book. But I notice that the same first drafts have fairly simple characters at first, that slowly gather history and mystery as I write on. The main characters often end up quite different at the end of the draft than they started out. I find the mystery, and the second draft becomes a whole rewrite. Now I know them better they will behave differently, and possibly take the story in a  completely new direction.

I like characters to be complex and involved, like real people. I used to meet people through my work at a hospice. These weren't people who would normally have counselling, but their bereavement was a stress so I would see them. Under the most conventional exterior you could find the broadest range of personal secrets, tastes, lifestyles and emotions. It all entered into my memory banks and sometimes (completely anonymised, of course) into notebooks. Out of that mass of observation come characters, sometimes so real to me they almost dictate the story.

I wonder how much of those 'real people' creep into the books, and whether they (or I) will recognise them.  

Thursday, 26 April 2012

W is for Watching

I think one of  the key traits of a writer is nosiness. Sorry, keen observational skills. Not to mention surreptitious note taking on napkins and receipts. I usually carry a notebook, and I find quick photos with the mobile phone also very helpful.

We were stuck at a service station a few weeks ago, in a Costa, having a tea break. A dapper man in his fifties or so came in with a younger woman, maybe early thirties. they were very affectionate and flirty. He was wearing a wedding ring, she wasn't. I could hardly sit down and ask them, in a non-judgemental, curious way, 'are you having an affair?' But I could shepherd my husband away from the inviting sofas and towards the hard backed chairs right behind them. Her name was Cheryl, I think, but it might have been Cherie for all I know. (Maybe he was French!) She just called him darling, about twice every sentence.

Anyway, being a bit road-dazed, it took the husband a while to realise what I was doing (I think my actually pulling out a notebook may have tipped him off.) But, so much research! He can't complain, he writes songs on the fly, and once wrote a love song that you realise slowly is a stalker talking about his victim. I think he got that off something written in the sand on the beach.

PS This is not an endorsement of Costa coffee or of affairs. I don't drink coffee, for a start. 

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

V is for Voice

Much is made on writing courses about developing your voice, your unique pattern of using dialogue, syntax, punctuation and vocabulary that is distinctively you. The problem is, we don't always hear our own voice, as distinct from our favourite writers, we just know we don't match up to them. We are influenced by them, but mostly unconsciously. I know if I read something like Emma Darwin's The Mathematics of Love (a five star read, by the way), I unconsciously pick up a little of her style and pace. It's like spending the weekend in Ireland, you come back with a  trace of an accent. Then it fades and a new writer influences your voice. I can almost pick out what I was reading while I'm bombing through a  first draft, where I listen to myself the least.

Then the characters have voices, too. My historical narrators speak to me the loudest, especially as two of them are first person narrators. Kelley's voice, in Borrowed Time, is so loud in my head I write him twice as fast as anyone else. I feel like I've found out about him as the chapters went on, a picture forming in my head that doesn't feel like all mine. Vincent's love for Viola, his brother's child, is so much that of a doting father it shines through his grumpiness. Somehow I have a grumpy old man lost in my head, who can be snappy. The one character who is quiet, is my main character Jack, who would probably not speak much anyway if she was real. She occasionally wanders into the study to stroke the cat, look at the books, and sit in the window looking over the garden. 

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

U is for Upstart

I feel like an upstart, like I'm going to get found out at any moment. Upstart means suddenly thrust into a position of power or wealth from a humble position. I can't say I have any wealth, but suddenly I seem to have acquired some credibility with an agent etc. None of it seems real. Having spoken with my agent, I am sat surrounded by edits (mostly small) to do in a sensible, business-like manner, but I feel so overwhelmed with it all. What, me? You want me to edit this made up manuscript that I just wrote? So I printed out the pages and pretended they weren't mine.

Actually, those small edits are still quite tricky. Imagine you built a house, from scratch, it took you ages. You are then asked to remove that brick and that hinge, add three more bricks and change the shape of that window. It doesn't sound like much, but it's massive. You end up having to rebuild half the walls because if you take a brick out, there will be a hole, and maybe the bricks above it won't be supported. It isn't easy to turn around and say: 'I haven't done this before, I'm making it up as I go along.'

I don't feel prepared. I'm not a published author. I'm just finding my way, and I'm sure if I ever get a book deal I'll gradually get better at it all. After, say, a couple of decades. In the meantime, I feel a bit out of place.

Monday, 23 April 2012

T is for Travelling

Travelling is a real issue for me. I'm agoraphobic, which doesn't mean I can't go out in the open but is more to do with crowds and queues and people. I have a passport but I haven't been out of the country (except Ireland but that doesn't really count). Going to Winchester for my MA and walking into a classroom took some doing, and travelling to London to meet an agent was extra stressful because it meant a number of hours on a train. It follows that I haven't been anywhere, so either my settings have to be centred on the places near my home, or I have to do a lot of research. Thank the gods for the Internet!

Stef Penney wrote The Tenderness of Wolves, set in Canada, about a pioneer family trying to survive in a new wilderness. She, too, was agoraphobic, and her main character is as well. So, Stef did all her research from the security of the library, and created that snowy wilderness for her readers entirely from research.

I'm travelling, imaginatively, through the landscape of Transylvania, hundreds of years ago. There's no-one to tell me what life was exactly like back then, we only have historical snippets to work from, but I felt the book deserves the closest representation I can come up with. Provided it serves the story, of course. 

I still hope, one day, to travel further afield. I managed to get to the Lake District a couple of years ago, maybe Scotland would be fun but ultimately, I'd like to give that passport a run out, especially as it took me so long to get.

Sunday, 22 April 2012


Every year, grief stalks me around this time of year, and again in August and October. Every year I decide to ignore it, distract myself, but every year I dream about my daughter in such vivid detail that I wake up with the feeling of holding her in my arms. I know it will go on the 28th, her birthday, and possibly before, but it bites me every year. The trigger, bizarrely, is my next daughter's birthday. She was born when Léonie was coming up to her third birthday. Here is the post for April 2010 and the one for April 2011. Grief is like being in pain, for me, I just want to huddle up against a radiator and wait until it goes. My niece, born a couple of months before Léonie, has just had her first child. It's just another loss,  Léonie will never have children. I'm going to spend the day watching feel good movies and possibly eating chocolate and ice cream. Maybe cake. Sod it. Normal service will be resumed shortly.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

S is for Success

We're all geared up and prepared for failure. When I was training therapists, I used to get them to write ten things about themselves they would like to change. Thirty seconds later, they were all done. Then we turned the paper over and I asked them to write down ten characteristics they were happy with. There's a whole lot of half hours I'll never get back. We are self-conscious and unsure about our successes, our strengths.

I wrote, in all sincerity, that I didn't want to win the Mslexia prize. What I meant was, I couldn't imagine coping with winning the prize. In a few weeks, I have been a runner up, got an agent, rewritten the back of the book, and am starting work on line edits. That's about as much success as I can cope with. All around me, people are talking about 'when' rather than 'if' which seems oddly optimistic to me. I'm only prepared for failure.

So I'm applying some psychological strategy to me. I am going to celebrate each little success as it comes along. I got my edits back and she doesn't think I should scrap the whole book! Yay! I still have my agent and she still likes the book, so Yay! And, best of all, she paid me the nicest compliment.

I had written these little epigraphs at the beginning of each historical chapter. They were quotes from my narrator's journal and she asked if they were from an actual journal.
    'No,' I replied, feeling a bit stupid, 'I made them up.'
    'Well, they're great, I love them.'
Success indeed if I've managed to convince someone as experienced and educated as my agent that my fiction is plausible!  

Friday, 20 April 2012

R is for Rejection

From Kameron Hurley, quoted on AR Yngve's blog

Rejection is part of publishing. There are many more writers than there are outlets for work. Rejections are why a lot of us give up. Now, this applies to ME and I don't suggest that it applies to anyone else, but I have never had a rejection that at some point, I didn't agree with.

Take poetry. Loads of poems are rejected because they are bad. Or good, but out of tune with the magazine. Or brilliant, but not to the editor's taste. Or worse, brilliant, but s/he has just published something just like it. but most poetry is rejected because it's not good, or at least, could be improved. I started out with a  free-form poem after a walk, that has been edited into a sestina, and then rejected by two magazines, then entered into the Plough Prize and longlisted, and now edited again for more submissions. The trick is to keep improving it...keep learning, keep putting it out there.

Fiction is the same, it's just that the emotional and time investment in a  novel is so vast the rejections are much more painful. In the nineteen eighties I wrote a novel, painstakingly typed it out on an ancient typewriter someone was getting rid of (it had nearly all the letters) and sent it off. I was lucky to receive a gentle rejection, but it still crushed me. What I should have done is read the positive things in the rejection, edit, send it out, re-edit, send it out again. I should have learned, and improved my writing. Most books are rejected because they were badly written. Most could be improved. 

I found rejection crushing because I took it personally. It took me until five years ago to tackle my feelings on rejection, by allowing a tutor to critically comment on my work. It was never meant to be a reflection on me and my work...just on the writing. Early on in Borrowed Time's beginnings, the book was dismissed by someone as rubbish because it had fantasy elements. (She didn't say rubbish, she said it didn't seem worth investing more time in, and clearly the Mslexia judges disagree.) That almost stopped me, but not quite. I tried to listen to the positive feedback, and tried to see the negative as either constructive or personal opinion. I can't say I've entirely won that battle, and I'm glad that I have someone else doing the submission/rejection bit for me now. But rejection is a necessary step towards improving my work, and eventual acceptance.

PS Persistence in the face of rejection DOES pay off. Simon Kewin's debut novel Hedge Witch is going to be published! Simon has been an inspiration to writers like me, he works so hard at his craft. The work has paid off...

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Q is for Quality of Life

I know this is a strange one, and you wouldn't have assumed it was about writing. But books are about big ideas, and those ideas have to be heartfelt ones in order to sustain a writer's interest over many thousands of words and several drafts. Quality of life is the big idea at the heart of Borrowed Time.

We make choices all the time about quality of life. My cat's old, should I take her to vet and have her put down? OK, now she's limping, is it time? Thyroid problems, that means tablets every day, how about now, she hates the tablets? She has cancer, how about now?

My daughter was born with a disability, then acquired a secondary, terminal illness. I'm not suggesting we should have taken her to the vet to be put down, but certainly at the very end, I agonised over how much pain relief she was having, whether it was OK to sedate her into sleep to avoid the agony, whether it was all right to let her dehydrate (because she wouldn't drink) or whether we should take her to hospital (which she loathed and might have extended her life by a few days/weeks). I've also worked in places where end-of-life decisions are made all the time.

So in my novel, someones life is extended by artificial means, without their consent. She is essentially disabled, has to be very careful not to lose her tenuous hold on life. She will never finish her education, hold down a job, or have a child. Worse, she has only been saved to help other people. I realise on some level this is wish fulfilment, because I probably would want my daughter back on those terms, but would she? As I come up to what would have been her 28th birthday, I wonder if her disability and illness would have been acceptable to her, and I'm allowing my character to think about her quality of life.

What big idea is at the heart of your story?

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

P is for Prologues, epilogues and epigraphs

I love books with prologues, epilogues and epigraphs. When I was a kid, I loved Jack London's Call of the Wild (1903), and the book starts with a quatrain from John Myers O'Hara's poem, Atavism.   The poem teases the reader with the nature of the wilderness into which the main character will go.
“Old longings nomadic leap,
Chafing at custom’s chain;
Again from its brumal sleep
Wakens the ferine strain.”
The problem, is, does anyone else read them? What happens if the reader doesn't, will they lose the plot? Feedback from the competition told me to concentrate on boosting the historical strand of the book, so I did, but I also found lots of bits of useless but fascinating facts that made the setting more real for me, so I thought I would stick some of them in epigraphs for the Dee chapters. Having written more chapters, I had to write more epigraphs. Giving them an apparent historical presence was fun too - I pinched references from old demonologies, a Myles Coverdale translation of the Bible (1535) and the German school of swordfighting. I just hope someone reads them. I have an epilogue, too, to round off the Dee strand, returning to his 'olde englishe' way of writing.

During the MA prologues and epigraphs were given short shrift, and for good reason. They can be info dumps, just filled with backstory the writer is too lazy to feed through the book, they can distract from the main story or take the focus from it. They can sometimes be more usefully called 'chapter 1' to be honest. I hope mine sets the scene for the historical strand.

I'm hoping the epigraphs add verisimilitude, the truthful details that make a fiction more convincing. I hope they are 'hooks' that keep the reader reading. But they aren't necessary for the plot. I'll be interested if anyone else likes them! 

PS. On a sobering note, my book is being shown around to people. I'm feeling strangely tense and nervous. The book, which for more than a year was just mine, was somehow a private obsession and hardly anyone knew about it or read any of it. Letting it go feels weird. Not bad, but as if some secret of mine was being gossiped about. I feel exposed. It's a good job I don't know any of them!

Monday, 16 April 2012

O is for Original

It's really hard to be original. The compliment of 'original' is one I aspire to, but how do writers, musicians and artists keep their ideas fresh when they are bombarded with stories in the press, novels, TV, songs, film, gossip...? Hasn't every story and plot already been done gazillion times?
Well, yes. And, in my opinion, also, no. The basic plot may the be same, but the way it's told, the characters can be presented in a completely novel way. Or reinvented for a new audience, anyway. For example, I have recently read The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill.

The book takes a familiar story - the abuse and neglect of children - and turns it on its head by making you follow the accounts of two women, one the mother, in her year in prison following her conviction, and one the maid in the house, talking to a living link between the two families. It takes a shockingly familiar story and presents it in such a fresh way, the mother telling her story partly through the butterflies she collected, and the maid in a second person recollection, almost talking to herself while she relates the dark secrets of the past to the almost invisible visitor. Set in the 1890's in Portstewart, NI, it the idea came from a true case of a child killed in the town. I loved the way the mother was gradually revealed as more sympathetic and the maid as more complex and complicit as the book went on. Beautiful writing.  

So, originality is always possible. They say there are only half a dozen basic plots yet they can be incarnated in a million different ways. 

PS I've got a bit ahead of the A-Z so will catch up with P on Wednesday!   

Sunday, 15 April 2012

N is for Novella

I'm going to tell you a secret...I'm assuming that it's just the two of us anyway and I won't tell anyone, so if it gets out, I'll know who it is.

I can't write novels. It's not the writing that's the problem, or the stories, it's the length. Take A Baby's Bones, which I'm working on at the moment. I'm forty thousand words in and I've already identified one of the skeletons in the well, dropped one of my students down the same well, nearly split up a couple and they have reunited. Given the natural tendency of novels to speed up towards the big finale, I'm going to finish at under 60k, which is too short for a novel. This happens every time. I naturally write novellas or at least, very short novels.

The book I'm hoping my agent will be able to sell is really two books. One is a contemporary story (60k), one a historical (40k), and you might think I was trying to be clever stranding two narratives together (I may suggest so in my dissertation rationale!) but honestly, I didn't have much choice. I really can't pad a book out just to get to a word count. Fortunately I have another strand for A Baby's Bones. Borrowed Time 2 naturally has two narratives. But it's a question I've been asked a lot. How long is a novel?

Saturday, 14 April 2012

M is for Memory

We bring so many skills and experiences to writing. Even if we are writing complete fantasy or science fiction, we are still drawing on our own experiences of people, emotions, places, situations. So can I suggest, if you don't already do this, that carrying a journal is incredibly helpful? In the same way that an artist might carry a sketchbook, I find it helpful to paint word pictures of people, places, overheard or observed moments in other people's lives. Words and phrases that pop into my mind end up there too...Borrowed Time was born out of a simple sentence, the first in the first draft. I collect photographs, and look through pictures and websites for inspiration. 

I have also met loads of people. This is one benefit of working in a therapeutic environment, you see people at their wits end, all politeness burned away, the quirky bits underneath. So many people go through life feeling like they are the only weird one and everybody else is 'normal'. This is not true, we're all weird! 

This is something you find out as you get older, and that is something that is not celebrated enough. Older writers have so much experience of people to write about. We have more memories. It seems ridiculous to me that some writers are at a disadvantage getting published because of their age. We have more experience, often more time, and are free to develop those quirks and eccentricities that seem more common with each decade. The only problem is retaining those memories...which is where the journal kicks in. If I could only remember where I left mine...    

Friday, 13 April 2012

L is for Learning

Can you learn creative writing? It sounds like a daft question since I'm on a creative writing MA (an experience which I really recommend). I don't, however, think you can learn everything you need to know on an MA or any other course. But you can learn some valuable lessons.

  • How to benefit from criticism, even if you don't always take it
  • How an experienced reader experiences your book
  • How to pick out what's good and not good in your own writing
  • How other writers do it

But the most valuable course I have ever done was an Open University course (A215) which was on creativity as well as the nuts and bolts of putting words down. How to come up with new ideas, how to identify what kind of writer you are, giving you permission to pursue your own style and genre while developing your inner editor. It was the closest to teaching me storytelling, as opposed to the craft of writing, which the MA helped me work on. I think storytelling is something you are partly born with, and it partly develops through reading extensively. I can also recommend the Open College of the Arts, which now offers a degree in Creative Writing for people wishing to extend and develop their skills.

But the most valuable lesson I learned was letting someone read my work with a critical and experienced eye. It isn't easy to listen to what someone else thinks isn't working, but when the smarting eases, you often find they are right. And sometimes, you see that you can stick to your guns, because you see that what you were trying to do wasn't fully realised, and you can extend it. Either way, the work gets better, and you internalise a few more hints about writing. Critiquing other people's work was also valuable, because very often you pick up in someone else's writing problems with your own. 

Thursday, 12 April 2012

K is for Knowledge

In my happy, naive days, I thought all you had to do to get a book published is write a lovely, well crafted, entertaining manuscript. You would send it off to a publisher, and they would carefully consider it before - promptly - informing you whether they would like to take it or not.

Those were the days. Now I realise knowledge of the publishing business is crucial. When I was studying the MA we had a module called 'Publishing Project' and we had a number of speakers visit, who talked about their experience of the industry. What an eye opener. I know a few fellow students were very disheartened (they probably cherished beliefs a bit like mine) and talked about giving up.

But a very good book was recommended to me. Carole Blake's From Pitch to Publication, while out of date in some respects, is a real how-to in others. There's a fabulous interview with her at  Gemma Noon's blog, The Literary Project.

Betsy Lerner's The Forest for the Trees is also useful, even though focused on the American market, many issues are the same.  
Knowledge of how to sell your work is invaluable. You get one moment to impress, and it's worth spending time working on your 'elevator pitch', your query letter and your synopsis. Of course, this is only important if you've really written (and rewritten, and edited) your masterpiece. Ultimately, the above are all aimed at impressing someone enough to give your book a shot. That, then, has to impress. 

So, I think it's worth spending a little time acquainting yourself with the world you are trying to get involved with.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

J is for Jealousy

I have been jealous, in my efforts to get published, which is a feeling I haven't really suffered from much for many years about anything else. I'm happy with my family, have a secure home I love, and have enjoyed the last few years immensely.

The jealousy is speak of is, I feel, because getting published seems so random. I know people who write better than me who can't even get their work read by an editor. I know people who, in my opinion, don't write as well, slide effortlessly past me on their way to success. I know agents and editors say 'write a brilliant, unforgettable, saleable book' but that seems sadly dependant on trends, fashions, other books and films that are coming out etc. There must have been a writer out there with a nice 'girl meets boy vampire' a few weeks after Twilight was bought up, who is still grinding his or her teeth. Maybe a better writer (rather likely, if you believe Stephen King, whose opinion of Stephanie Meyer's writing I share).

So, because it seems random, it doesn't seem fair. You can't, by the application of hard work and study and practice, make it happen. Make it more likely, of course. But you can put that effort in for years and years, and your number may never come up. So when a fellow blogger (a very good writer, I might add) got a book deal, I was jealous, and I just hoped I didn't come across as snippy, snappy or whiny. Instead, I shall rise above my childishness and recommend her book, an extension of her blog which has come to fruition as a book, and if it is as funny as her regular posts, well worth the money. I just hope that other Canadian ex-psychiatrist who is trying to publish her French blog into a book isn't grinding her teeth as I type...

PS Since I wrote this blog, the winner of the Mslexia competition (in which I was a runner up), Rosie Garland, has received a well-earned deal for her book, and amazingly, I am NOT jealous. I can't imagine what it feels like to be in her shoes, but that's one hell of a rollercoaster! Maybe a tiny bit of envy, then! Certainly a lot of tension, since my book may be doing the rounds shortly...

PPS I am GUESTING ON ANOTHER BLOG!!!! See me over at Write it Down-ith, I'm so excited, I've never been a guest before!

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

I is for Imagination

Imagination is key for fiction, as far as I'm concerned. I've been on a number of workshops and writing courses over the last few years and I've met some spectacularly proficient writers. There's only a few whose books I would like to read, though. There seems quite a gap between the craft and some of the actual stories. As Kate Kellaway said: 
I learnt that being able to write well is not at all the same thing as having anything to say.
There isn't always an imaginative story there big enough to carry the kind of novel I like to read. I know how to develop my writing, but there are less courses or workshops on opening up our imaginations in the first place. I sat through workshops watching some people write fantastic prose based on, frankly, recycled stories from TV series or popular books. Now, we can't shake off all the wonderful stories we have been bombarded with over the years BUT surely we can stretch our minds a bit further towards the 'what ifs'?

I would suggest to writers, to have faith in their stories, not worry too much about what other people might think of them. Our first stories are magical fairy tales filled with rabbit holes and wardrobes and scary monsters. I think there's room for elements of that in our adult fiction, even if the book is completely realistic. People do fall in love/see intuitive solutions to the biggest problems/dream and speculate in real life. I've written books about a woman being stalked by the man who nearly killed her, and is fascinated by the specialness of her survival; an identical twin who has never quite recovered from the loss of her twin; an abducted child held back from death by Elizabethan sorcery; a woman haunted by photographs of her childhood abuse in circulation; inheriting a house from your aunt, whose death may not have been accidental but is mixed up with childhood leukaemias; and two bodies in a Tudor well. I'm not suggesting all stories have to be extreme, but look at We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver), for example, or Room (Emma Donoghue). Extraordinary stories.

Reading books and watching films feeds our imaginations. That, I think, is the key. Read widely, and outside your comfort zone, rewrite endings of favourite books, argue for sequels of blockbuster films or TV series. Speculate. Imagine. Go nuts.

Monday, 9 April 2012

H is for Hope

I have friends and acquaintances who have declared that they have to get a book published. They are doggedly, energetically determined...a nice way of saying obsessed in a few cases. Of course, I hope I get published, but my stated goal is to write a book to publishable standard (in my own head) and the best way to test that is to actually put it out there. So, I hope I get published.

But I'm astonished at some comments I've heard from a few other writers - they seem to be saying they have to get published, it has to be a best seller and they have to get rich. Which is absurd. The average advance for a two book deal for new novelists, according to Kate Kellaway in the Guardian, was £12,000 five years ago. For two books. So, according to the usual idea that a two book deal pays out over three years in small chunks, minus the agents percentage that makes -  about £3,400 a year. Hardly riches, especially with today's financial climate. Yes, some people do better, maybe lots better, but on the MA we were warned that between £3k and £8k was reasonable for a first novel. Ouch. 

My hopes are smaller. I hope for someone to read my book and enjoy it (maybe lots of people). I hope to keep enjoying writing, and learning about writing as much as I do now. I hope that writing leads to other things I enjoy, like more success with my poetry and teaching in my own community. I hope to build a career from this early base. I would still like to be writing in twenty years time. So, yes, publication would be nice, but I'm not going to get sour over it.     

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Sleepless nights (not A-Z)

No word on my book and the necessary line edits. I suspect, because the agent is busy selling someone else's book, as reported in the press, anyway. My turn will come. So I'm waiting...which is actually time I could be enjoying. I can't imagine what that other debut author is thinking and feeling, but it must be intense. They are expecting a deal next week, apparently. A little of the anticipation has spilled over onto me.

I find it difficult to value my own book so I don't take publication seriously. I haven't heard from the agent so I assume she's forgotten it. When she drops names of publishers I find it hard to process the information. Who would like to see the book? Are you sure?

I could be relishing this time as adjustment time. A couple of months ago having an agent was terrifying and impossible, now it seems...well, still a bit unlikely and scary, but not as huge as it was then. I should get on and enjoy writing the next book because, at the moment, I'm not writing for an agent or an editor, I'm writing for myself. I'm following the characters and their adventures, I'm enjoying the research, I'm untainted by worries about markets and trends. I have also reminded myself: some people enjoy rollercoasters. I hope that other debut author does, and that she gets a brilliant, well-deserved deal.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

G is for Good

If there was one lesson I heard from listening to agents, editors and authors about getting published it's that your book has to be good. It can survive being badly represented by your query letter or undersold by your synopsis, but the book itself has to be outstanding. That is where 99% of my effort has to go.

Now, I'm making no claims that I am anywhere near that, but I do know my writing is getting better. I have some concrete evidence:
  • My writing tutors from the Open University, Open College of the Arts and the MA all say so.
  • I'm getting longlisted and shortlisted in competitions.
  • Now, an agent thinks so. That's not necessarily going to lead to publication, but she thinks it's worth a punt.
  • And I think so. I can see the weaknesses and the strengths.
But contrary to all of my tutors' advice, good writing isn't the whole picture. I've worked on characterisation and voice, I've developed dialogue and description, but the final component I had to work on by myself.
Only the agent seems to be interested in how good the story is. I've never had much difficulty coming up with stories, but I was thrilled when someone from the competition recently described my book as 'weird. Really weird.' Because that's what I was going for, and it was lovely to play around with creepy atmospheres, strange history, Elizabethan sorcery and the semi-dead.

So my advice to new writers is get yourself on a course to develop your skills (the OCA is by far the cheapest and I found, incredibly helpful) but keep pushing the boundaries of those stories. Because, if a book is going to be good, it needs a fantastic one, competently written, not, in my opinion, a competent story fantastically written.

The advice I was given from the agent (for more experienced writers) was take the story up a gear, more atmosphere, more warmth, more emotional engagement. And I'm happy with where it's taken me so far.

Friday, 6 April 2012

F is for Fear

The biggest thing stopping me writing for decades, was fear of failure. Closely followed by fear of success. You don't get a book slightly published, you're either in or you are out. Nearly every writer is out, including me. You write and polish and write some more, and someone may like it. But probably not enough to publish it.

So I wrote and wrote - but only first drafts. That way I could never send it out, have it tested, or have to cope with rejection. Few people cope well with rejection. I probably cope less well than most. I have had a lot of positive feedback over the years, from the people who don't write as well as I do, but giving it to people who know loads more than me? That's terrifying. They are going to have a vast red pen, give me a D- and tell me it's all rubbish. It will be year 9 geography, all over again.

I started by giving my work, very tentatively, to a creative writing tutor for the Open College of the Arts. She was enthusiastic, and helpful, and had about a hundred suggestions on improvements I could make. I agonised over it, and gave up. Once the bruises faded, I went back for round 2. Ouch, ouch ouch. I look back at those assignments now, and see what she saw: vivid, lively prose lamentably reliant on abstracts like adjectives and adverbs. Fluidly drawn characters, unusual descriptions that painted a bright picture, poor pacing, a reliance on telling. I learned probably half of what I now know about writing from that tutor. I also, finally, learned to deal with criticism, to see the positives as well as the negatives.

What I can now say to new writers is: those negative remarks that we fear so much? After the sting eases, they give us a window into the world we can't get to otherwise - the reader. How they react, how the prose comes off the page for someone who comes fresh to it, helps us write better. Does the character come across as mysterious, or just creepy? Is the dialogue realistic or does it sound like someone reading lines from a play? Does the description evoke an atmosphere or is it unreal to the reader?

Constructive criticism - harder to find as you get to be a better writer - is a gift. Because once you have written your novel, rejection doesn't usually come with constructive criticism, it's just the distant sound of another door slamming. Fear of failure can stop us tapping on the next door, which is sad. 

I'm coping better with my fears now. Which paradoxically may make me more likely to send stuff out, and possibly succeed.    

Thursday, 5 April 2012

E is for Editing

The most unpalateable lesson I have learned from the MA is that my first drafts are inadequate. That's me being polite, really. Any combination of the words pile, poo and steaming should cover it. I'm always left speechless by people whose first drafts are accomplished, elegant prose but I do have one advantage. I have learned to rewrite because I have to.

Not push things around a bit, I mean sit down and substantially retype the whole lot. Maybe even massively revise the plot. Delete characters, whole chapters, change the genre of the book. That gets me the second draft.  For Borrowed Time I added an entire historical strand, squeezing out several subplots. One will end up in book 2. Arrange heapcompost and fermenting.

The third draft seems to be the one where the book settles down. maybe bits from the second draft stay in - that's helpful, but they may change order a bit. I start worrying about whether the characters are consistent, and that the main character (MC) is sufficiently visible and likeable. I sent in Borrowed Time halfway between draft 2 and draft 3. Bits had been tidied, the second half had not. Try: a book, like and looks.

Fourth draft, and now I'm really doing minor edits,  re-ordering scenes and maybe cutting unnecessary stuff. This is where I start to look for clichés, clunky sentences, mistakes and my absolute bugbear, repetitions. I start to make sure dialogue is well signposted, something I hate when I'm reading if the speaker of a line isn't clear. Some sentences don't make sense, like: 'My father broke down the door with my brother', which perhaps would be better phrased: 'My father and brother broke down the door.' I'm even happy to change the title.

Finally, with it, and happy-ish.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

D is for Deadline

I'm a deadline driven writer, in fact, I don't get my arse in gear for much unless I know I'm counting down the hours to a submission date. It's the same with life: if I need to decorate a bedroom, say, I order a new carpet and book the fitter. Now we have to get it done in the time frame. The sad thing is, with my crappy spine I'm reduced to painting the middle sections on the wall (at best), all the easy bits. Everyone else has to do all the prep work, heave out old carpets, move furniture. At least with writing the deadlines are just mine.

Writing a novel doesn't come with deadlines. You have an unspecified amount of time - say the rest of your life - to produce a draft that someone you don't even know might like. That's too wishy washy for me, and I just start lots of things and don't finish them. I couldn't find deadlines, so I started going in for competitions. That gave me a framework of deadlines to work towards (even if I didn't always enter).

So now I've learned to set deadlines for myself. Borrowed Time: first draft finished June 2011 (tick), second draft finished September (nearly) in case I was longlisted. Quick revisions for Mslexia because I was longlisted, 48 hours (tick). Now I've set myself the deadline of the London Book Fair (16th April) to finish my edits, send them as agreed to the lovely agent, then do the line edits etc. she proposes and hand it back ready for possible editors to view.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

C is for Competitions

Competitions can make us work harder. Competitions can make us turn outwards and consider the reader, having written a book for ourselves. Competitions present us with deadlines.

The submission process for a novel writing competition is somewhat like submitting to an agent or publisher. This can be good practice, and I've found I add a layer of polishing and editing that perhaps in the whole manuscript, didn't seem to need it.

I had some really helpful advice about competitions from a previous tutor and have used it to some benefit (runner up for the Mslexia novel competition anyway):
  • Treat the submission as a piece in its own right. It doesn't strictly have to be the first 5000 words (but don't exceed the word count) but could be edited to get a bit more story in. If it says 'first chapter or 5000 words, whichever is the shorter' and you have really short chapters, consider amalgamating scenes into bigger chapters. You will be at a disadvantage if you put in 800 words, say. This is your showcase.
  • End your submission on a plot point that makes the reader want to read on.
  • If your first scenes are slow, consider starting your novel at a point of huge tension and excitement (maybe do that anyway).
  • Check and double check the exact rules. If they want a synopsis of the whole book, provide it. If they want 10,000 double spaced words, don't exceed the specifications. Be especially careful about whether or not they want/allow your name on the entry.
  • Make sure you have written the whole book, if you might be asked to submit it. Some competitions are just for the first chapter.
  • Spend plenty of time on the synopsis - it won't win by itself but it might help judges choose between finalists.
  • Submit it with time to spare - it's heartbreaking to miss the deadline!
There's a novel writing competition at the Yeovil Literary Prize that might be worth a look. Sophie Hannah will be the judge and several previous winners have gone on to be published (£1000 prize, too). It all adds to your writing CV and gives you something positive to put in your query letter.   

Monday, 2 April 2012

B is for Blog

What's the point of writing a blog? I've been asked this by a number of bemused people who point out that if I put the sheer number of words I've written into a book, I'd probably have a hefty paperback. True. 

Other people suggest I have a giant ego need to put myself on show at all times, like an electronic sign flashing 'Look at me!' Maybe.

But actually, my main reason for doing it is to process the experience myself. Five years ago I wouldn't let anyone read my work because I was afraid it was crap. I thought I did have some natural storytelling talent, and that idea was so rewarding I didn't want to challenge it with actually failing. As I gained enough confidence to actually write some stuff, and let a nice OCA tutor have a look at it (and criticise it), I recorded the journey for myself. Having set myself a goal (get something - anything - published) the blog helped me take my development as a writer seriously. I would improve by practice, by listening to feedback, and eventually by understanding the craft. I would go as far as I could, and celebrate that with other people on the same journey. My fellow bloggers have been an enormous encouragement to me, and I thank them.

Maybe I won't get a novel published, but that's no reason to stop trying. I'm still getting better, and I know that because I can see the progress through these posts.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

A is for Agent

The elusive, impossible agent. I got mine by throwing my book into the Mslexia novel writing competition. Afterwards, I was telephoned by Debbie Taylor, the editor of Mslexia to say an agent wished to discuss representation, and the rest, if not history, is this blog post. Now I have to try and tread a fine line between doing all the edits (I can) that have been recommended in a way that I think enhances the book. Most of her suggestions have really pushed the book into another class, I can't believe I didn't see them myself.

She's a guide in the stratosphere of publishing. She has explained how it is supposed to work, and how it actually works. She's also my representative in a world of lunches, meetings, book fairs and colleagues. She has met, worked with or knows people who have worked with all the major publishing bigwigs. She also understands the market, because her history is in sales. She knows what editors want, and is able to translate it to me. It remains to be seen if I actually get published, there are a lot of agents pushing a lot of projects out there.

 One blog I have found useful is this one - Carly Watters, a literary agent, with a lot of useful insights into how to attract an agent, and maybe how to get the most out of of having one.

I don't know how to get an agent, I just know how I did it, but getting noticed in a competition seems like a good start. We all want to write the best book, and in truth, only the best books are noticed by publishers and agents. Competition makes us push our books and our writing forward, and that's got to be a good thing.