Friday, 31 August 2012

Actually working on my rationale

For my dissertation, I have to hand in 20k of the novel, then write a 3000 word rationale about it. Why I did what, basically, with some reference to the learning curve that got me there, a commentary in OU speak. Easy, huh? Well, I can honestly say it's the hardest part of my MA for me, and I've held back from doing it. I think I may have written the whole of A Baby's Bones as a displacement activity to get out of writing the rationale. If I ask for another year's extension I may write two more books to get out of writing it.

It's not the words - I did two and a half thousand today. It's just that the words have to be academically literate, well referenced etc. I can write an academic essay in my sleep - anything about psychology, go on, test me. maybe not about computer modelling of cognitive processes, I've forgotten all that. I just didn't grow up in an arts subject, I don't do footnotes, I don't understand the idea of the rationale, at least not well enough to be secure about it. So I took a deep breath, read the last few chapters of Amanda Boulter's book Writing Fiction, which has a sort of checklist about what a rationale should be like, read a distinction level rationale, and then dived into it. I don't know if it's any good, and I'm sticking to Harvard referencing, but I'm going to need at least a day to do all the references. I've got about forty so far...

A Baby's Bones is off to my agent, and no. 1 son and I are reading it to find dodgy bits and repetitions. I do it by reading it out loud, Kez does it on the computer with track changes on. It's not bad but ouch, alliterations are everywhere, some of the dialogue is a bit stilted, and there are some confusing sentences. It makes me wince that anyone is reading it, but they will help me work on it later. I've also sent it to the lovely Nicola Vincent-Abnett, who kindly offered to give me some feedback. It's still fun to work on.   

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

News and no news

My agent sent my book to sixteen editors on the 14th June - that's seventy-six days ago. And seven hours and twenty-six minutes, but who's counting. Today, a ray of light from my agent, as she explained that five of them still have the book, it's not dead at all, but they still have people away on holiday. Also, reading between the lines, she's got a bit frustrated herself and sent it to two YA publishers (young adult for non-writers) and one was positive. 'Very good initial feedback' is nice to hear after...seventy-six days. You can see why I was losing heart.

Fortunately, I have resolved twenty-one post-it problems with the structure (I read it through and write post-its, very high tech) and went through the manuscript looking for words that I over-use. Like 'looked' and 'back', as revealed by the very useful 'Wordle'. Wow. It does make you step back from the story to work on the words. The idea is I send out the MS on Friday to my agent (oh, that still isn't getting old!) and then can write my rationale over the weekend ready for feedback from my tutor. It will be nice to get  back in contact with Secrets/Borrowed Time because it all seems very distant at the moment. If anything happens next week, at least I'll have read the book recently.

Meanwhile, the leaves are looking increasingly battered and brown, I have a mouse in the study somewhere, so autumn must be coming. My increasingly idle cats still bring things in from the garden, but tend to release them unharmed, so we do have a succession of bewildered rodents in the house. I just hope we don't have a rat, Harry Wooggo (tortoiseshell monster) has been know to tenderly relocate them from the compost heap to the house. Something to look forward to, then. I shall bait the live trap tonight - if we have one mouse we usually have a dozen.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Finishing drafts

There's something very satisfying about finishing a draft, I find. But anxiety starts to creep in as I come to the end. This was a structural/plot/pace redraft. Where did all those odd characters go? What happened to the radioactive Thorium? What did the olde French 'Dechausee' turn out to mean? Why did I name so many characters with such similar names? Again?

Meanwhile, the weather beats against the windows like bleeding winter, the house feels damp, the chickens are begging to be let out but don't have armbands, so it wouldn't be safe, we seem to have even more kids that we had last week, and I'm half way through reading a not very satisfying thriller. I did suddenly panic last week, when I realised I haven't got a next book incubating in my imagination, so I talked it over with my patient and ever-optimistic husband. The character that has been stalking me for five years immediately raised his sneaky, psychopathic head - that is to say, someone mysteriously died and he was nowhere to be found. That's caught my imagination, and I've gone back to writing his journal, a device I used when I first wrote about him some five years ago. I'm just waiting to see what happens with The Secrets of Life and Death next week, polishing up the last pages of A Baby's Bones and then I can start tentatively writing. I always like to have two projects on the go, and I love this character.  Writing his journal part time is great, because he's not a character I want to immerse myself in.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The new book - using Wordle

If you go to Wordle, you can paste your whole book in and see which words you use - and overuse. This is Baby's Bones:
I think it's pretty! The book is coming on well. Obviously, it's about Sage (did you guess?) but I will look at just how many times I use certain words like back, like, woman and voice.

I'm busy editing my book in the mornings, then working on my father-in-law's book in the afternoon. He's a cartoonist, and he worked for the kind of comics I enjoyed in the 1970s as a kid. Sadly, comics are dying out. The Dandy, for example, has just folded because it had a print run of less than 8000. It's hard to edit someone else's book but it does show me how much I have learned in the last few years. Making a manuscript into something that can be published as a book is a set of skills that I seem to have picked up over the last few years. The voice in the book is lovely, by the way, just like the man himself.

Meanwhile, A Baby's Bones is proving much easier to edit - I should have readable versions for my beta readers by the end of the month.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Dilemma - Past or Present Tense?

I've really never considered writing in present tense, because - well, we naturally tell stories in the past tense, don't we? But, when I started writing my historical narrator's snippets, I found I was writing them down as he said it. OK, he isn't actually speaking directly to me in my head, because hearing voices is scary and weird. But the words seem to fall into the keyboard as if I wasn't involved, I'm just hearing him relate events as they happen for him. The big advantage is he doesn't know what's going to happen, so the events aren't contaminated with the future plot. I could write third person more like that but somehow an overshadowing creeps in.

Anyway, Vincent narrates (mostly) in the present tense, in the 1580s:
The shutters have been left open for air, and I see why when the body is revealed.
The white, swollen thing surely died in the summer, when the waters were warmer, for there is little left of the face, or the hands and feet, perhaps eroded by the sea or eaten by crabs. The swollen flesh make it hard to see whether it is man or woman, as it is naked but for a few rags. It is probably tall enough to be Mistress Agness, and the hair is long, but I have no impression of it being the rector’s demented sister.
‘I know not this person,’ I say, backing away and covering my nose. The stench is vile, and I hack and spit in the air outside. ‘She has only gone into the sea a few weeks since.’
‘There is a widow coming over on the packet, thinks it might be her husband, fell off the quay at Portsmouth last year.’ He bars the door and takes a deep breath of sweet air. ‘Sooner in the ground, the better.’
 Now, I could easily rewrite this as past tense, but I think it loses something in the translation:
The shutters had been left open for air, and I saw why when the body was revealed.
The white, swollen thing had surely died in the summer, when the waters were warmer, for there was little left of the face or the hands and feet, perhaps eroded by the sea or eaten by crabs. The swollen flesh made it hard to see whether it is man or woman, as it was naked but for a few rags. It was probably tall enough to be Mistress Agness, and the hair was long, but I had no impression of it being the rector’s demented sister.
‘I know not this person,’ I said, backing away and covering my nose. The stench was vile, and I hacked and spat in the air outside. ‘She has only gone into the sea a few weeks since.’
‘There is a widow coming over on the packet, thinks it might be her husband, fell off the quay at Portsmouth last year.’ He barred the door and took a deep breath of sweet air. ‘Sooner in the ground, the better.’
Is this better? Worse? Does it matter, as long as I don't mix them up? I'm working on a few longer pieces and would be glad of your opinion! I am mindful of the Philip Pullman article on present tense... 

Oh, and no news. Except one of my poems was shortlisted for the Mslexia poetry prize but it wasn't placed. Still...good competition, and huge field.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

I finished the draft - somewhat unexpectedly

I was cruising along, a chapter a day at about 1000 words or so each. Then I realised the pace was picking up, so I wrote 2000 a day, then it all got very tense - and I finished the book. Shorter than I expected at but I know I have about 8000 words of description, links, epigraphs and explanations still to add in the next draft. But there it is, a bit lumbery in places, a bit underwritten in others, but basically - a whole book! I didn't realise I had quite so much of the ending already written that could just be added. Wow. I just need a day to change my mindset from creator to editor and I can start smoothing out all the links and wrinkles. I'm really pleased, because at this stage the last book was in a bad way.

Now I'm going to go through with my agent's advice on a checklist along with my First Five Pages checklist. Is the emotion downplayed? If so, turn it up. Increase the drama, seed the backstory or information through carefully, make each chapter move the story on, and end with a hook.

I also have my checklist of shame - look for repetitions and cliches! Add descriptions of people and places - I never do in the first draft though I am getting better with people. Make sure it all makes sense. Pick up the Kate character and thread her through the later scenes. Write all the historical scenes in the same tense (they are all over the place!) and check for typo bungles. 'The' often comes out as 'they'. But I'm still very happy about the nice things the judges said about A Baby's Bones, it's given me a real lift.

Oh, The First Five Pages book is great if you want to really edit page by page, scene by scene. It's by Noah Lukeman, 2000. He thinks like an editor or agent, not a writer, so it's very helpful.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Coming second

Still no news. I'm now so tired and stressed I got a weird dizziness last night which made me feel sick. However...a house full of guests keeps me distracted and I got an email from the Yeovil prize about A Baby's Bones:
Second Place: A Baby's Bones - an excellent, richly imagined and deftly plotted story that keeps revealing new layers as it progresses. The weaving together of present and past is expertly done, and the authorial voice is confident and sophisticated.  All the different elements are woven together perfectly here: story, character development, setting and atmosphere.” 
This from the judges, which included Sophie Hannah! And they are going to send me a cheque for £ seems to be my year for coming second but out of a thousand entries, I'm getting there! Now all I have to do is get on and write the remaining 12k of the book and take a breath. Hopefully I'll hear from my agent in the next week or so.

PS She will follow the editors up on Monday - I can stop worrying over the weekend. Not that I'm that worried now, more resigned, and excited about the new book!

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Writing in the doldrums

At the moment, I'm a maybe going-to-be professional author, because my book is still officially out with editors. On the other hand, I feel if they wanted it they would have said something, offered me money or at least sweets. At the same time I feel like a real bona fide author of my current book which seems so much more real than the shadowy draft doing the rounds. 

I'm at the finishing stages of producing a reasonable draft. I have set myself one month to write a thousand words a day of the historical strand. I know how it starts and ends and the middle is starting to fill in the pieces. I've just found myself quite nauseated by what someone has done to a pregnant cat. How is that, that we can summon such a real scene in our heads that we make ourselves (and our characters) feel sick? 

I'm reading a book at the moment that, for me, has overdone the nausea bit. I don't think I can read it. A Respectable Trade by Philippa Gregory contains some gruesome details of the slave trade that actually, I can't deal with. Of course, the stark facts are awful, and gruesome, but it's just not for me, especially as I mostly read before I go to sleep. 

I know it sounds as if I can dish it out, but not take it, but so far one of the slaves has been raped, tried to kill herself by eating soil, been fitted with a metal scold's bridle so she can't eat more, and has now died in agony. I just found the body of a tortured cat. It's well written, it's evocative, it's honest and I'll probably enjoy it more when I'm a bit more robust.

This is always a bad time of the year. My daughter died in August and I'm already dreaming of her ahead of the anniversary next week. I'm stressed out about other stuff, and the Secrets/ Borrowed Time book feels like it's just drifting about without me. Who knows where it will end up. Meanwhile one of the things that feels solid is Baby's Bones. Which I'm enjoying, and succeeding at. 

On another, more scary note. How do you back up? I've heard some sad tales of people's cloud storage being breached and wiped, especially if they don't use separate passwords for it. Hard storage like memory devices are great but not if you keep them with your computer, and definitely not if you keep them plugged in. If your house caught fire... I use a combination of a separate hard drive for regular backups, DVDs that aren't kept with the computer (normally for things like photographs) but the easiest backup I have found is to open a gmail account (or yahoo or whatever) and send myself drafts every day. I can access my gmail account from anywhere and open my inbox and pick up my latest draft. I regularly send myself a folder full of drafts, and so far I've only used up 2% of the available space. Sure, gmail could be compromised, but it's unlikely that my computer will die, and my house catch fire on the same day. Just a thought. 

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Virtual post-its

I've been using virtual post-its called 'Sticky notes' to plot the book. As I write a scene, I stick a summary on my desktop, or over whatever I'm working on. It's helping me keep a handle on what revelations I show and where they are going. I did it for the contemporary strand and now it's working for the historical strand. I feel like I'm trying every approach and gradually whittling them down to what works best for me. 
Sticky notes!
   As I write a scene or change something I add what needs to be changed in other scenes in capitals. Simple system. I know that Scrivener would do this way better, but I don't have time to learn another software package and I understand as much of Word as I need.

Meanwhile, the sun is out and the words are photon lubricated. We have friends coming for the weekend which will be great for Russell, as he will play music until his fingers bleed, grow black and drop off. He's missed playing with his mate that much. It will be lovely to see them.

I really must write my rationale but all the time the book is in limbo I only seem able to focus on A Baby's Bones. I'm having to research the religious intolerances and laws of Elizabethan England which is interesting but time consuming. Maybe next week... 

Monday, 6 August 2012

Rearranging chapters

I'm working on A Baby's Bones and have had to rearrange all the historical bits into proper chapters. I've arranged them behind the contemporary ones, but I'm still struggling to get a strong sense of plot for the historical strand. I'm not sure it stands up at the middle (I am really happy with the end and fairly confident with the beginning). I think I need to unravel the strand and write it as a story, then thread it back, maybe not tidily, one chapter per contemporary chapter, but where it needs it. Back to the drawing board. Me and that drawing board are now old friends, except that I hate going back and possibly wiping out the 8k I've written in the last 6 days. I seem to spend a lot of time faffing about cutting and pasting at the moment.

Meanwhile, the badger watching has progressed, we now have two badgers visiting at ten o'clock promptly (presently known as Small and Medium because the huge one that comes later is bound to get called Mr Big). They are unbothered about us, their sight isn't brilliant and we obviously don't smell like a threat. We spend the money we would spend keeping a dog on our bird and mammal visitors. We have such a rich range of birds visiting, so it was a bit of a shock to find the garden empty this morning. Not a sparrow, not even a baby blue tit. Then I noticed this on the edge of the washing line, moulting and bedraggled in the rain.
One female sparrowhawk, looking for a crunchy snack. It's difficult to know what to put out on the bird table for that one!

Sunday, 5 August 2012

It's raining

I should be writing (I did do a few words this morning) but it's Sunday so I'm cooking a big family August. It's so dark we're having to put lights on, the rain on the conservatory roof is deafening and it's actually quite cold. As if by design, I've packed a few days with more excitement than I can handle. A lot of visitors on the 11-19th, the deadline for the editors contemplating buying my book - the consequence being that I will have a career as a writer...or not is the 16th. My daughter is moving house the same day - and her Dad can't go and help because he's here helping me with the above visitors and ready to congratulate/commiserate if necessary. At least her eldest brother is going to be there to help, and Sophie's moved so many times she's an expert. 

I need some quiet time on the 21st August, and usually the run up to it is painful. My daughter died that day and years later, my husband had a massive pulmonary embolism and nearly died, also on the 21st (he made an amazing and complete recovery. Hooray for warfarin). I have booked a few days gibbering and being hand-fed chunks of Galaxy chocolate when our visitors depart. Meanwhile, I need to get ahead on the final chapters.

I decided to change the order of the historical strand/contemporary strand and this means all the careful clues I laid down like breadcrumbs are now arse-about-face. So I'm rewriting them and writing a brand new first chapter to keep the sequence making some sense, but my feeling is it will need a lot of jiggling about. I'm hoping to get one good week's work in, then friends are coming for the weekend, then I have a couple of days before family arrive. I just need to focus. It would be easier if it wasn't raining, I'm more productive when I can see the keys and hear myself think...    

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Not sleeping

I'm not sleeping very well. This is probably for lots of reasons but I would like to introduce you to the best of them.
He has been helping himself to the snails and slugs from the long terrace outside my bedroom window. Last night I put a few cat biscuits out as well, but when Russell snapped the 'noise' out of the window it wasn't the enormous badger that's been crunching most nights but one of the babies. Extremely cute, and very unbothered that a large man was leaning out of the window above him taking photographs. Russell disturbed one of the big ones just outside our front door a few weeks ago. Amazing wildlife we have here. A few months ago a female sparrowhawk brought a wood pigeon that must have weighed as much as her down, right outside our kitchen window. Then it ate the breasts, taking about half an hour, before taking off, so full it could barely fly. Fantastic. The wildlife does creep into the writing...

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Feeling a bit crushed

There's a lot going on at home, at the moment. Visitors, family stuff, kid stuff, that sort of thing, that builds up and leaves you feeling tired before the day even starts. Then at the end of the day, you can't sleep...

The one thing that's going according to plan is the writing. The deadline has stuck, the writing is flowing - in a kind of lumpy, chapterish way. Now I have a dilemma.  For Borrowed Time (that became The Secrets of Life and Death) I alternated chapters between the present and the past. This time, I'm sort of putting chunks of the old in with the new and I think I ought to stick to the formula I used before. Only now I have to move everything...the contemporary strand is about 60k words in 31 chapters, so quite short chapters really. But adding the old would make a 90k book into sixty odd chapters - even shorter chunks. I think jumping from chapter to chapter needs a change of pace or a reason, because it does stall the flow for the reader. But jumping four centuries or more is also distracting. I don't know. I may have to try both. 

The other problem is, the first sentence needs to be strong, engaging. The contemporary strand is much stronger from the beginning. 
It was a bone from a baby’s hand. A slimy twig on Sage Westfield’s latex glove, the ends crumbled away by the action of the sieve, it was still distinctive to a trained eye. 
The historical strand starts out quiet and tenses up. Choices, choices... at least, this time, I can ask the opinion of my agent. (That hasn't got old, saying 'my agent'). At least the stress at home has stopped me fretting about the book at the editors...