Friday, 28 September 2012

Learning again

Having waited all week, I have heard that I shall get an offer for my book on Monday. I'm still astonished by that. Wow. Of course, they may offer ten quid and a Mars bar. Fair enough.

Well, the writing class was OK, and I did learn some useful stuff, as well as meet other writers, which was very cool. We looked at Hemingway's classic story:

 For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn

It makes the reader speculate and fill in all the gaps, I think of it as concentrated story, but other students thought all sorts of things about it. I have always assumed the narrator is male, for example, but many thought it was a female. We looked at story structure, and got prompts to write our own mini story. I had to think hard why I wanted to join, essentially, a mixed class of writers having studied writing at post-graduate level but last night confirmed - I want to learn to be more comfortable presenting my work and having feedback, and I want to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of writing. Like a lot of writers, my work comes out of having read so many books, and I'm not always sure what I am doing, or if it works, why it works. It was good to have to start with the basics...consider the reader. I hope that at some point, a few of the group might want to start a writing group.    

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Fresh start at college

Despite not hearing anything from editors/agent yet, I am about to set off an a new adventure - a writing group. The local college are running a course, and I am of the opinion that being open to learning is the only way you learn anything, so I am packing my trusty notebook, an assortment of coloured pens, and setting off for the town college.

I realise I have no idea what level this course is pitched at, but hopefully it will stretch me on the genres I struggle with (drama, anyone?) and maybe I will hear about other groups, or at least meet someone who might like to help me form the kernel of a group. I need critical feedback. It does me good, it makes me concentrate on the reader and it reminds me of the basic skills of writing which it's easy to float away from. One complication is that I'm agoraphobic, so walking into a college is a bit of a challenge anyway! I'm a perpetual student, but I think this course is good value, and will put me in touch with other, local writers. We moved here five years ago and I'm finding it hard to find writing friends/rivals to bounce ideas and drafts off. I've been lucky that I've found very good beta readers for the novels, but I'm a complete beginner at drama and still struggling with literary short stories. I also know that I produce a lot of good work off writing prompts that come from outside myself. Being made to do homework, or write with a pen in class also makes me much more inventive.

Anyway, it's a great distraction from the waiting! 

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Still no word

I've worked out what's wrong with me. I'm in denial. That numb, nasty feeling you get when faced with something you can't cope with. Deep down, I don't believe the book is good enough. Do we ever believe something we've created ourselves is good enough, though?

I have doubt. Doubt whispers in my ear. 'You aren't very good. They are all being kind, and polite, and dishonest.' I couldn't pitch my book because I didn't believe in it. Deep down, I can't believe something I made up is worth publishing.

Now wonderful friends and family have told me otherwise. A couple of them haven't much liked the book, and that was helpful too, because even if it was brilliant no book can be universally loved. But somehow the external messages don't really help, do they?

I need to deal with my denial first. It's not about my writing, really, it's about the difficulty we have really loving and celebrating ourselves. It's so...British. Human maybe, I don't know. It's easier to say: 'Oh, that old thing? It's OK, work in progress, just a good yarn.'

So I looked at the book (which I printed off in Lulu so it looks more like a real book) again. I tried to imagine what I would say if it was someone else's novel. A friend is reading it at the moment and is giving me lots of positive feedback. So I looked for the bits she highlighted and thought, yeah, it's good there, that bit's funny/atmospheric/clever. Then I think about it objectively, and if it's like that in the first few chapters it's like that in the rest. I have written a good book. I am a good writer. I have masses to learn, and will continue to improve, but it's all there somewhere.

So, if you have doubt, and are not blooming with self-belief, I suggest you look at your own writing as if it was someone else's. Stand back and celebrate your work. Give yourself feedback, make a list of all the positives. And, guess what? That feedback makes all the good things others have said seem more real. So, yes, I'm impatient and in denial, but less so today, because I've lit a little flame of pride in my own book.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Still waiting...ungracefully

*Whine alert* *Whine alert* *Whine alert*
I'm not very good at waiting.

I am good at cooking, patchwork, bird-keeping, poetry, making up rude lyrics for songs, board games (don't play me at monopoly), reading books, shopping on a budget, writing novels (I think), making bread and reading tarot cards.

I'm terrible at waiting. (I'm also terrible at Suduko, dancing, knitting, horseriding, drawing, foreign languages, maths, playing piano and sports quizzes, among other things.)

I want to be one of those people who airily says, 'Oh, has it really been fourteen weeks and five days? Goodness, I didn't notice.' Of course I would have to become one of those people who says 'Goodness', which isn't likely, frankly. Of course, the stress makes me miserable. Not depressed, thank God, or even goodness, because depression is like being chained up in a  box full of pain. But something akin to it, something like I just want to stay in bed and come out when it's over.

Isn't that pathetic? I had the nearly the best news a novelist could ever have: 'someone is going to offer for your book' ('they have done so' slightly eclipses it) and I'm sitting here whingeing. What I should be is productive, but even here I'm struggling to do my 1000 words a day. More like half that, and I'm not sure they're any good. People seem to be waiting a lot in my books at the moment. They are miserable, and it's raining. There is no chocolate. 

Deep down, I find it hard to believe the good news. I mean, it hasn't happened yet, so it isn't real. My world is full of made up, for goodness sake (and again) I write fiction. The one anchor in all this, is my lovely agent. She is real, in fact her voice down the phone is so real it's sort of anchoring me in the place where I get a book deal. So I'm still planning my Oscar speech. (I would like to thank Earl Grey, whoever he is, without which I would never have finished a book...)

I am trying to wait quietly, without emailing my agent every four minutes 'Are we there yet?' because she would phone if we were. I'm trying to see the joy in the rest of my life. But I can't get past it. I WANT MY GOOD NEWS!

Monday, 24 September 2012

Change is in the air

OK, no fabulous book deal yet (expected this week) but things are changing. As an adapting agoraphobic I have tackled all sorts of scary occasions including theatres and universities and public transport. I now enjoy eating out, I love walking in the countryside and the seaside here, I've even been into London - twice this year. But hairdressers are especially scary...terrifying places full of snapping scissors and judgemental hairdressers. So it was with trepidation that I ventured into a hairdresser with my thirteen year old to watch the scary people cut her hair.

Ten minutes later, with a happily truncated daughter, the charming and helpful Mersadie suggested I might like to just sit in the chair. Maybe have a little trim? Just snip off the loose ends that must have accumulated in the last six years. Seriously, it's a nuisance, it's so long I can tuck it into my knickers (what a great look that would be?) and usually have it tied back, in a  bun or contorted into a plait.

I got comfortable in the chair and remembered to breathe out. Whoosh. Maybe she could cut it about as long as Rosie's...who was now dancing around the shop looking in all the mirrors. Maybe with a  bit of layers or something? In 1996 (last shop haircut) I think that was what they did.

That's what she did. Stopping with each few inches to give me a chance to say 'that's enough', she cut my hair. I concentrated on breathing. In...out. I boasted a bit about the impending book deal, not because I really believed it yet (I'm not sure I do yet), but for a bit of Dutch courage.

It ended up looking really nice (I think). I don't keep leaning on it, cooking can go on without me catching fire or adding frazzled hair to the dish, it was fine. And painless. I even discussed, when I remembered to breathe, maybe one day having highlights to disguise the grey hairs that are creeping in.

So, I'm sitting here with my new hair, tapping away at the sequel, waiting for a book deal. The sun is even out, intermittently. Happy days.

Friday, 21 September 2012

One step closer...

For months, I feel like I've been toiling up a mountain in a fog. Low cloud, maybe. It's always uphill, and I've kept pushing, but the signposts have kept me going. Mslexia runner up, that was a big one. Getting an agent, definitely encouraging. Keep going, keep going. But the last three months has been frustrating. It felt steeper, and the end was nowhere in sight, and I began to lose heart. Then...the sun came out. It turns out I was almost at the top of the mountain. My agent phoned to say that a publisher was putting an offer together. Now, I don't want to say too much, or jinx it in any way, so I can't say more than next week sometime, I will have an offer for my book, which is a hand up to the last bit of that mountain. So I do feel fantastic and wrecked all at the same time. part of me just wants to lie down and cry as I look back over the last years of working and hoping and writing some more. The other part wants my book deal, and to run down the other side. I realise ahead lies more mountains, but the first one is the biggest. So, if you are toiling up your own mountain in the fog, relish the encouragement you get, keep on working, and you will get to the top of your mountain.

Now I'm going for a long, hot soak in the bath to recover. Then possibly, to bed early. Climbing's hard work.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Reflecting on the MA

Well, it's over, all bar a bit of binding and posting and marking. One dissertation. 20k of Borrowed Time, as it was, and a 3k rationale, a critical reflection on the creative writing. That's two years in total and an intensive year of classes and assignments in Winchester. Was it worth it? Writers are divided about MAs in general, ( see 'Can you teach creative writing; Jeanette Winterson: teaching creative writing; Creative writing courses are protecting our literary future) so here's my personal answer.


I went from being a writer with no idea if I had any storytelling ability or craft, to knowing my strengths and weaknesses. I didn't know what I was doing well, or what I needed to work on. I write insufficient description (it just doesn't occur to me). I cannot plot, but it's OK to write a first, rambly, rubbish draft then rewrite it into something coherent. There's no such thing as writing publishable words, for me, it's only rewriting that is publishable. And my MA, my OCA and Open University courses all confirmed that my very best work is of publishable quality. I've even seen a few bits in print. I may sell a novel. I learned to take criticism, and weigh it up, and use it to improve my drafts. The module which introduced us to the world of publishing was helpful, and gave us an overview of the industry which has been invaluable, now I'm interacting with it. I put writing on a business footing, and managed my time around it. I spent a year training myself to think of it as developing a career and creating art, not a hobby that's behind hanging out the laundry or feeding the cats in importance. 

And no.

I didn't need to spend almost half the MA doing obscure literary theory modules. I enjoyed them - the research module linked up art and literature for me, and inspired some interesting poetry, but they didn't push my writing. The other students varied from immensely talented, to working towards, to what felt like beginners, and all offered comments on my writing. I found myself contacting those students whose writing genuinely impressed me, and leaving the (few) others behind. One of those students has gained a first class MA, which I don't get. It seemed as if the MA was at least partly about becoming a bit of a literary nerd rather than a better writer. But the worst thing was the cost. Ignoring the move to Winchester, the degree was about £4000. Now, as a family, we live on a low income, and if it wasn't for the kindness of a relative passing on part of an inheritance that she received I wouldn't have been able to afford it. We had six hours of contact time each week, per semester - that's 144 hours, plus a few extra hours supervision. That's about £26 an hour. Each. I realise the universities have to run for all the student body, and the buildings and staff need paying for - but it is a lot of money. Not to mention all the books and peripherals that we needed.  

But I don't regret it.

I used to be someone who wrote as a hobby, who always fancied writing a book. Now I have written and re-written millions of words in a pile of books, and I may even get published. And all that was possible because, at a very painful time in our lives, my husband helped me go away for most of year and supported us all while I did it. He listens to plot twists in the car, reads my drafts, offers endless encouragement when I am despairing. Knowing I am loved and supported? That's priceless.   

Friday, 14 September 2012

The Yeovil Literary Prize - official

I've been blathering on about it for weeks, but it's finally here! I must say, getting an actual prize did make it seem a bigger deal, I always thought the Mslexia shortlist should get a celebratory certificate (like a swimming certificate, but less penguins or dolphins) or book token or something. It makes it hard to prove it in days to come when we might want to impress and agent or editor. I think the competition idea is good for me, it brought my writing to the attention of a lot of industry readers. One of my writing colleagues said: 'oh, I couldn't enter a competition, I'd be so upset if I didn't make the shortlist.' OK, but sending your masterpiece off to an unknown agent is much harsher, and there is only a winner, no shortlist to work your way up. People quibble over the entry fee, but it costs that much to print off your book and post it multiple times! The Yeovil opens in January and the deadline is in May.

Meanwhile, all is eerily quiet on the book front with several editors still holding it. The good news is that people who my very knowledgeable agent trusts, have declared it an adult book which is great. Much as I admire YA writers (and read them), the rest of my writing is definitely adult, and I didn't want to have to give that up.

I have talked to my tutor about my rationale, which she says would already probably pass but has suggested a number of changes that I could think about. This is a huge relief, and although I have a lot of rewriting to do, it's all possible. So that's my weekend sewn up!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Prize money and crazy stress

I've had some extremely stressful times in my life (haven't we all?) and as I get older, I get better at managing it. But this summer has been bad, mostly because the stresses are coming from things that I can't resolve. Relationships with family, friends, money worries. But the everyday stress is coming from another direction. The book has been with editors, who are still considering it, for THIRTEEN WEEKS. I know it's just a book, it's just a hobby...but that's the point. I feel like I've been on a three month job interview with the two options being a career in publishing goes back to being a hobby.

I had a doctor's appointment this morning, which I went off to without any concerns, because I'm pretty well, I thought, despite mild diabetes. Wrong. My blood sugar is out of control. This is ridiculous. I've been sensible and careful and taken my medication properly - the nurse asked the big question. Have you been under any extra stress lately? I can't remember the last really good night's sleep I had, because the normal summer stress of extra kids has been complicated by this full on worry about the book. This morning I had a phone call from a  relative who comforted me by saying it took him years to break into writing (for a hobby magazine) and hopefully I'll get my big break too. He also said he couldn't see what all the fuss was about with 50 Shades because at OUR age, we're past all that! Now, he's a lovely bloke but he's a generation older than me and I'm not past anything. So I sit and wait for news (some more) and the stress is literally making me ill. Bugger that.

I'm going to get on with the next book and forget about what is or isn't going on at editors. What I do need (I really need) is a couple of weeks off the summer stress and get used to going back to just 2 kids. And I would like a chance to sit back and work out what kind of a writing career I would like. Yesterday I went to Exeter and spent £250 prize money on me. New clothes, new boots. Now, that felt good, having had a new book do well in a big competition! There's hope yet...

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Now they want more

I'm taking this as a good sign. One editor from one publisher would like to see the synopsis to the sequel. This is encouraging, since I have a sequel at least outlined and most of the first third written in first draft. This seems like good news. I don't really know my agent that well, and I want them to know that I'm prolific, I am amenable to edits and suggestions, and that I have a plan for these books. Funny enough, I've found book 2 leads naturally on to a book 3, where Elizabeth Bathory's and Edward Kelley's story changes/ends. So I sent off the synopsis and I'm working to tidy up the front of the book in case they want a first few chapters to see if the style and pace are similar to book 1.

Anyway, while I wait, I am enjoying pottering about with my father-in-law's book and thinking about my next non-series book. In addition to out night time badger invasion, we also had a much less welcome visitor, a young fox, right next to the gate where I keep my chickens. This is the time of year the vixens turf their babies out, and he's mangy and bald on his back, and very, very thin. He was nose to nose with my ginger cat and ran off when he saw me. Hopefully, he'll come back at badger feeding time and share their biscuits, long after my ladies have gone to bed in their secure accommodation.


Thursday, 6 September 2012

Twelve weeks today

What are they doing? Why haven't they all rejected my manuscript (Secrets/Borrowed Time) with a nice 'no thank you', or said they liked it? I'm confused. It's starting to get me down, especially as I'm in the 'Oh God, how the hell do I slap Baby's Bones into shape?' stage of editing. It's all rather depressing.

So, I've started the next book. I promised myself they would have deliberated and judged the first book by the time I finished the second, which with hindsight is probably why I finished the second book so fast! Maybe it's the third book...on the plus side, this is a book that's been incubating in my imagination for a long time, so I will actually have a novel plan, like a real, grown up writer! One unexpected complication: I wrote a character sketch of one of my two bad guys - not that anyone is entirely bad - and found I'd based one of them on my brother. I have two, one a health care professional, very family orientated, and one a builder, also very family orientated. I found the bad guy was so much like one of them, I had to dial back considerably and reinvent him to be more like a real psychopath I saw interviewed on the telly. Unconsciously, we do use the people we know as characters, or at least bits of them. I'm trying not to use real people but they creep in. Does everyone do that?  

I'm also waiting to hear what my tutor has to say about the rationale I wrote last week, which was so hard to commit to. I found the process of thinking about what I did and why was a challenge, though I did learn a lot about the process along the way. Useful exercise, but I'm not sure I want it marked. It would be like opening the blog up to be marked by some unknown criteria.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Weary and sad

I'm struggling with motivation, mostly because I had to write my dissertation for the MA, but partly because I'm feeling blue. They call it 'empty nest syndrome', but it's more than that, it feels like my whole purpose has been undermined. I had hoped to have a career in publishing to put in its place, but no news yet. The Secrets of Life and Death (Borrowed Time as was) is out, as of today (still) with seven publishers, one of which asked for a synopsis today. Who knows? Meantime, my kids are gathering ready to move out at the end of the summer, like swallows, but with loads more luggage. At least my daughter is home for a few days with her delightful fiance, to lighten the mood a little.

The rationale for the dissertation made me reflect on the crazy way I wrote Borrowed Time, and to focus on its weaknesses and strengths. It's from multiple points of view (POVs) which really don't help the narrative thread at all. You just get into one story - and you're off on another one. A Baby's Bones just has one narrator of each strand - easier - but I find the present tense in one strand a bit dislocating when I read it aloud. I do like the present, because there is no hint in what's going to happen but...I'm not sure. Feedback from the kind and generous Nicola Vincent-Abnett has given me ideas about restructuring for the next draft and about Felix's role in both books. I do have a next book featuring Felix, so maybe it would be worth writing him more evenly over the whole series now, rather than try and match up as I go along. Other ideas, too...

I wish I had the energy to get into it, but need to take a few days to get myself back on track. But time to get back to another editing project!