Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Unusual guest - my (usually) silent partner

My creative efforts are supported by a  creative man. Without his support I don't think I would be anywhere near as productive as I am, and certainly not confident enough to enter a competition. He's a sounding board, facilitator, enthusiast and, when needed, the man in charge of carrots/sticks. These are his words:

I was asked to write what it is like having a writer as a partner. Where do you start? In the past four years my wife has started an OCA course, which challenged anyone’s initial fear of putting pen to paper: being judged. I can emphathise with this, from the Open University courses I have taken and from writing and performing my own songs. I saw an amazing talent for poems and prose based on walks that we had taken together and from her life experiences. In the passing couple of years she discussed plans for books and stories with me. I found them inspiring, and her stories so imaginative.

Then two years ago she announced that she wanted to do the MA. This meant ten months living apart, me here in Devon and her in Winchester. It enabled Reb to concentrate on the course , getting the most from the taught sessions and freeing up her days from all the chores of running a big house and family.  She also started an Open University course in creative writing and took two of the boys with her so they could do courses at the local college. While it seems now that the ten months went past fairly quickly now, it seemed like forever at the time, with Rosie (our youngest daughter) and I driving the 167 miles after I finished work, to steal a few quality days with them all.
The house, oh, I have to mention that. It was the coldest house in the world. Many times through the winter I travelled down to Winchester, only to find them with several pullovers on, fingerless gloves (so they could type on their laptops) and the heating on full, not really making any impact on the winter.

It was an amazing journey, watching my wife craft poem after poem, short story after short story and each chapter of the novel. Every draft would see tweaks to a sentence or a word, fine tuning it into a finished piece, for whatever assignment was coming up. There was nothing whimsical about taking on the MA, and the results and marks speak for themselves. Then following the distinction for the OU course, Reb took on another one, to get the Creating Writing Diploma. All the time I was treated to the latest instalment of whatever assignment was next. I especially loved the feminism module, and all the books that came with that. Ah, the books. I am not even going to speculate the number of these that are in our house. This has resulted in the need to build more bookshelves. But then, what is a house without books? While it is not the ultimate goal to sell a book, I am secretly hoping to look up one day and see my wife’s book with her name on it amongst the A’s on the shelf.

The book that was written for the MA, seemed to be really good. I say ‘seemed’ as I do not read fiction, but the story was original and the characters compelling, and I was sucked into the alternative world. From the discussions of each chapter as the novel grew, I was able to get to know these characters, then, in a depression of a backspace, a scene was gone… just as I had had got familiar with a particular strand, the plot changes, and a new thought process starts.

Then the Mslexia magazine dropped through the front door and in it was the literary novel competition. The MA novel would be entered. I thought Borrowed Time was an amazing novel, but I hadn’t read it, as it wasn't yet complete. So Reb rewrote the first few chapters and off it went. Then I got an e-mail. The reason I got it was because I had taken out the subscription on the magazine as a present for Reb. I do not look at my e-mails often and it was only after the long list for the novels had passed and we hadn’t heard anything, that I checked. Oh, it was long listed and the full novel had to be in asap. That was long few days. Reb, fuelled by lots of tea and meals prepared by our daughter and I, completely revised and tidied up the novel to get it to the judges by the following Monday. There were a lot of candles burned that weekend. While we were all thrilled that the novel had been long listed, we thought that the Mslexia competition was a ‘literary’ prize and this was a genre novel, so don’t get too excited.

So, the weeks passed and a lot of checking of e-mails was performed. While there was an air of optimism from myself and the kids, we were aware that from the 1800 entries, 100 were long listed and 12 would be shortlisted, so the chances of being winning would be remote. I cannot put into words how proud I was when an e-mail was opened saying that it was shortlisted and then when it was placed in the top three, I was as excited as Reb.

I cannot begin to quantify all that effort spent learning the craft from the OCA, OU and the MA. All those hours hunched over a monitor, a lot of it in freezing conditions in Winchester, and I haven’t even mentioned the excruciatingly, bad back that she had at the time. The rewrites, the research on the historical strand, the way points of view and chapters were amended to make the novel flow and be more readable.

This has been quite an amazing journey… so far. Now an agent is interested enough to want to meet Reb and see the novel.

In the meantime, a new novel has been started, and I am privileged to be part of the creative process as I am included in the thought process for this plot, the new characters and their adventures.

Who needs soap TV when you can live out the dramas of all these amazing people brought to life in front of me in our house? I love it. What will be the next deadline and what will tomorrow's writing bring? I am so proud of my writer wife, following her natural talent, with amazing results.

That was quick - re-writing in eight hours.

Having made a huge fuss about re-writing, I received a request from the agent I am seeing next week. She would like a copy of the book to be emailed over, so she can put it on her e-reader. EEEK! Every time I look at the book, I see great flaws and holes, clunky sentences and (worse) sentences that don't make much sense. So, today, I sat down for eight hours and sorted it out. Fortunately, I had done about two fifths before I got too dispirited, so I just had 200 pages to do.

I can't say I've fixed all the problems (and the last eight chapters are just in second draft) but at least the last few chapters make sense, now, and the main characters' relationship problems are tidied up a bit more.

My problem has always been that I wrote the very first draft of Borrowed Time two years ago, for fun, alongside a 'serious' book. All the plotting skills I had went into the other book, and so rewriting Borrowed Time has been difficult. Although I love the characters, and enjoy the story, really I think my other books are better written! I think I'm going to put a few chapters of book 2 - 'A Baby's Bones' - under the microscope to show this agent as well. Just to say, I can plot better!

 I don't have a problem with word counts. I can write 1000-2000 words a day easily, and do every day. My problem is, I hate going back and rewriting, editing, polishing etc. which is the real craft of writing. I wish I could find the same passion for that, it's got to be easier than working through part of the night! Thank goodness for deadlines.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Letting it happen...And I have to rewrite the book

I have an appointment to meet an agent and talk through the book etc. That's good news, and while I'm excited, I'm still aware I do need to finish Borrowed Time's second half to the standard of the first half. Having a deadline of next Wednesday is a bit tight but I'm going to give it a shot. I also think it would be handy to get the first few chapters of book 2 and a synopsis together, with a rough synopsis of the next Jack and Sadie book as well. This is quite easy because when I first started writing Borrowed Time I went in a completely different direction, which will now be the next book.  Decorating the spare room is a chance to think through the whole drama of the last weeks.

I'm at an impasse with book 2, the Sage book (which is book 4 really - or 5 if you could the one I wrote 50k on and gave up on) because one of the characters unexpectedly fell down a well. That means I have to move all my plans for the rest of the book around. So much for my feeble attempts at planning BUT this new plot twist would never have happened if I hadn't sat down and tried to plan the rest of the book. It just shows me, not only am I not in control of the publishing business, I'm not in charge of my own book either. Back to work. 

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Makeover time and sex scenes

Since we've had two days of sunshine here, and the bulbs are all flowering, I thought it was time for a cheery change of scenery. The husband and kids are ripping up three layers of carpet in what will be the 'guest room' and the wreckage of yesterday has been transformed into a neat patchwork of plasterboard, ready for finishing.

Meanwhile, I'm wrestling with the sex scene. Or rather, the nearly sex scene. How does anyone write the bloody things? I'm acutely conscious that at some point people I know or worse *gulp* parents might read one. It seems strange to me that you write a scene of violence and no-one thinks you're a blood-thirsty psychopath but the first hint of sex and they assume it was a) completely autobiographical and b) think they know who the other participant was. A few even think I'm writing about them.
It's like poetry. I wrote a poem about seeing my sister after she died. I used a bit of poetic licence - surely designed for that very purpose - and brought in a  few details of a previous occasion when I had viewed the body of a loved one (I went through a really bad patch). There has been debate about 'what actually happened' - which is ludicrous. I want to hide a bit behind fictionalising the account, doesn't everyone?

Fortunately, since they don't actually have sex, it's a bit easier to write.  At least I don't have to explain what went where (like the reader doesn't know that already). But - and I am not shy about sex - at least I don't have to go into any detail. I think my readers are bright enough to have already created the protagonists from the story and can conjugate them however they want.

Saturday, 25 February 2012


I find it hard to write if the house is in chaos. I don't mean untidily covered in piles of books and papers, that's OK, but in the process of being demolished or remolished or whatever. Presently, the big room at the top of house presently looks like this:
Honestly, you take a few tiles off...

Anyway, that's what my imagination and worse, concentration looks like. I'm trying to find the tension in the scene where someone is found at the bottom of a well - dead or alive, that isn't clear yet - and all I can hear is bangs and thumps from upstairs. Not that I'm ungrateful - I've been wanting to do that big room for the whole four-and-a-half years we've been here. It's a kind of nervousness about doing it, and getting it done before the carpet man (Bob the bun) comes to lay the carpet remnants we picked up.

I'm working on filling in the gaps in the plot. I have a good, solid, 30k beginning. I have a tension filled 20k ending. I have the bare bones of the historical strand that will thread through the story, telling the actual history as my main character wrestles with reconstructing the past through old records and archaeology. All I have to do now is sketch out the middle. I just want to get a good synopsis together to work from. I took some very wise and experienced advice and sat down with a  pen and paper and soon had the process flowing again.

Maybe these days when it's hard to type have their uses.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

The good news just keeps coming.

Yesterday, the editor of Mslexia, a literary magazine I admire hugely, phoned me to compliment me about my book. Wow. Several people have read my book and liked it, which is a huge bonus in itself. Better still, one of the judges suggested her agency might like to represent me and asked me to submit to one of their agents. This £25 investment just keeps on paying back.

So, I'm just printing off my submission for the post. Another gift that came was contact with one of the other shortlisted authors, Nicola Vincent-Abnett. She recommended a publisher who would be willing to cast an eye over my first few chapters. And so I'm writing a (slightly different) submission for him, too. Something to work on!

One of the previous novels I wrote has been shifting about in its box under the bed. I think one of the characters may find its way into the present book. I love the way characters do that - Felix was born out of a short story I wrote five years ago, and now he's featuring in a whole series of books. 

I woke up with a migraine in the small hours, so I'm a bit dopey today on tablets, but for some reason, migraines boost my imagination (often with nightmares but sometimes usefully) and I've got half a dozen ideas for Sage this morning. As my husband says, the characters I'm writing kind of move in with us, they need to be accommodated. When I'm on a roll, they get a lot more attention than he does, and when they are absolutely shouting at me, I can write all night. I'm looking forward to what they do today...

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Research for the novel leads to characters taking over

I am loving the research for the book. All my favourite subjects: history of Elizabethan households; poetry (female Elizabethan poets - very rare); chemistry, including the transition elements; and a fair dose of archaeology and anthropology thrown in. Thank goodness for the search engine of the university library! Today I have looked up the naturally occurring incidence of Thorium, the poet Isabella Whitney and bellarmine jugs and other Tudor pottery. I did manage to get my 1000 words written as well, and have wrestled with pen and paper to make sense of all the threads uncoiling and rambling through the story. How do murder mystery writers cope!

I have a tendency to be surprised by my characters. Today, I found a perfectly pleasant young woman who has helped the plot, and the main character along, is going to fall down the well she has just helped excavate. I just hope she survives. Is this just me? I thought I was in charge of my own creations but once I build them and put them in entirely fictitious circumstances, they take charge and do odd things.

Take Jack, principal character in Borrowed Time. Since I was thinking about my creative choices for my dissertation, I wasn't expecting her to turn up in it, sit down in the rocking chair, and start reading book titles. I'm going to have to give in and complete that interview, because she would like to know why I didn't make Sadie the central character, allowing her to hug the shadows, where she prefers to be.

So I'm wondering: is this normal? Am I just facilitating these characters' stories or am I actually in charge?

Monday, 20 February 2012

Back to work

After all the promise and drama of Mslexia it's back to work on the books. I'm busy with book 2 (still no title) and after putting another scene into the book I'm a bit dispirited that I don't know where it is going or how Sage and Nick are going to get to the big battle (or where they will go from there). Because, there always is a big battle. I don't mean cavalry and machine guns, I mean a big resolution of the main conflict, of course. Although the cavalry idea sounds intriguing.
Perhaps I need to get on and write the second strand, threaded through the book. I just feel a bit dispirited - in the middle of the book rather than full of enthusiasm (at the beginning) nor running downhill (last quarter). Time to stop blogging, going on Facebook, playing Plants vs Zombies and writing emails. Perhaps I should grow up at some point...

Saturday, 18 February 2012

So: What do I want to do when I grow up?

Despite spending most of my adult life writing short stories, novels, poetry, plays etc. I only seriously started the journey towards publication four years ago. Now I'm certain publication is within my grasp, I wonder if I want it. I realised I have fallen into that ridiculously common trap that I saw other people fall into. I'm OK with failure, I'm unsure about success.

All  around me, people are shouting at me to push on and capitalise on my present position. Yes, the Mslexia competition result was encouraging and maybe now is the time to send stuff off to agents. Actually, my long and shortlisted poetry looks like it would make a nice collection, perhaps I ought to polish it up and submit it to a chapbook publisher.

Yet I'm sitting here, thinking about it. I feel like I need to pace things. I can't control anything, I can't make an agent take me on, I can't force a publisher to offer me publication. I'm just gently letting the Mslexia thing happen for a few weeks, working towards another competition - the prize is publication, after all. When I was on the MA one author said you've got to be 100% focused on selling your book and not let go. Another one said when you're ready - when you've written enough drafts and novels - your stuff just floats to the top. Most people, he pointed out, don't write enough, don't get to that point.

So I'm sitting here, enjoying the moment, dealing with other stuff like one daughter moving out (literally, today), one son applying to university, another son at university, one daughter about to hit teenage and random other happenings. My aim, always, was teaching. Now I know it was always, under the surface, getting published, but I can let it happen rather than try to force it to happen.

Bottom line is I know Borrowed Time is a stonkingly good book. A lot of reassurance comes from that. I want to be a novelist.  

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Mslexia loser announced

By the time I opened an email from Mslexia this morning, I was a) nervous as hell and b) terrified in case I had won. That sounds silly, after all, I did enter the competition at some personal cost in time, effort and twenty-five quid. As an agoraphobic recluse, the idea of the publicity and the expectations now placed on the mystery winner would be a huge hassle for me in my hillside retreat. All I want to do is be allowed to write books, preferably for an audience, and preferably for some money (last bit optional).
So, I am informed I was in the last three which, it has to be said, is magic even though part of me still wants to go for the Good Housekeeping competition with book 2 (the Novel With No Name).
I feel strange - not elated but sort of justified. When I first wrote Borrowed Time I knew it had something special, that I needed to develop, because at its heart, it's a story about people that I have grown to care about. Well done, Jack, Sadie and Felix, you should take as much credit as me for getting your story this far.

And this is something else to put in the rationale for my MA! So, well done and congratulations to the winner and all the other shortlisted novelists, who have stressed and waited and stressed some more over what has proved to be a terrific competition. I look forward to seeing some of those novels in print!

Monday, 13 February 2012

New novel

I'm working on a name for the novel, I really am, but it still seems to end up being called '2nd book' or the new novel. I'm working my way through Mslexia's 'Choosing a Title' exercise, mostly because I think a title helps me narrow down what it is I'm writing. I've heard arguments that titles don't matter but actually, when I'm selecting a book, the title is the thing that helps a book stand out for me. Then the blurb has to intrigue, then the first few pages not disappoint...

Talking about the first few pages, the Good Housekeeping competition has simple rules:
  • A synopsis of the whole book, of 2 pages or less.
  • A single chapter of the novel of under 5000 words OR no more than 10000 if the chapter is more than that.
  • A 100 word bio of the author.
  • The entry form, accessible here.
My problem is that the first chapter of my book is under 3000 words, and although it does promise the intrigues to come, it is limited since it's less than 3% of the book. So, ideally, I would construct a first chapter of maybe 8-9000 words that really sells the story. It's a chance to show off my writing - so I'm trying to cobble together something that does the job. It has to lead the reader deep into the mystery, into the characters and their conflicts, and show off the actual writing. I can't do that in less than 3000 words (there's no guarantee I can do it in 10000 either!) So I'm looking at the structure of the book to produce the best competition entry, rather than necessarily the best opening to a book, without losing the fact that it does still work as the beginning of a book. Phew.

I still have to have a title for the book... watch this space.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Counting down to the Mslexia final

I'm trying not to be stressed out by the Mslexia deadline for judging. I know I'm in the last 12 of 1800 women. That is the level of success I'm up for at the moment. Being placed or commended or whatever would feel a lot like I need to do something about it. To be honest, being in that last 12 means I could at least send out to agents, but I'm holding fire because I want to enter the Good Housekeeping competition, and you can't if you are published or agented. So I'm trying to stay calm.

Life, of course, doesn't understand this at all. The kids have been applying for jobs and my daughter and boyfriend are moving out, I've had a minor medical procedure which freaked me out completely, the cat spent the day at the vet having most of her teeth out, no.1 son is driving home tomorrow through snow and ice, the house is in chaos and we have a house guest coming that I've never met.

Out of nervous tension, and the the need to keep the sedated cat quiet, I've been stuck in the study writing - 2000 words today - and trying to relax. I could do with being put out of my misery. I can't win - Borrowed Time is a commercial genre non-literary novel, and fantasy to boot. But I still can't settle to anything.

For something to do (as I don't spend enough time at the computer) I'm working on familiarising myself with Scrivener for Windows. I totally understand that this is a miracle product and should make holding a large piece of text like a novel in convenient chunks much easier. The problem is, learning the new Word took me months, and Scrivener is like starting again. I can't see me using it for book 2 any time soon. Has anyone else tried it?

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Knuckling down to the rationale.

It may seem silly, but I've got a terror of this part of my MA. I confessed this to my tutor, who was sympathetic enough, but clearly didn't understand why it should bother me. Other students on my course, apparently, have written spectacular commentaries on their creative work.

While I was talking to her, one thing did occur to me. I really don't read that much modern fantasy. And here I am, writing it. That leaves me at a bit of a disadvantage when I come to write it, so I'm trying (again) to read Kate Mosse's Labyrinth. It's hard going, which doesn't make any sense, because it's well written (I think) and I love historical fiction. I've begun to realise if I can unpack what she's doing, I will have an insight into how I have written my book.

Another thing I realised is the idea that you can do a spell, or conjure a being or magically heal someone is irresistible to someone who has had to watch a loved one die. It was irresistible to me, as a parent, watching my daughter Léonie, at the end of her life. Borrowed Time, the concept of the book, leads to terrible consequences - breaking the natural order is dangerous. Part of me felt like that when  Léonie was four years old, and only heroic surgery gave her any chance at all. I felt a huge tug towards letting her go, instead of the horrible surgery they were offering. In the end, my decision with my husband, was to try everything we could, and we lost. Worse, I think,  Léonie lost. Now that idea has found itself - couched in fantasy terms - into my fiction.

Maybe that idea is relevant for my rationale - who knows? I still haven't really worked out what a rationale is.

Monday, 6 February 2012

New Blog at 300 posts

In July 2009, I started this blog. I had just started A215 with the Open University and was finishing a course with the OCA. It was the first step on a journey towards the distant city of 'Published', and it has become a place where I try things out, wrestle with new ideas, rejection, success, my learning, my writing and occasionally my family. While this will still be my main blog, because I still am stumbling along that path, I feel I need to have a second internet presence that actually expresses what I have produced.
This is my wayside stall, put up along that Publication road, as I camp outside the walls.

It's actually got my name on it (which I think is important) and is a reflection of the fact that I am more serious about my writing and (eek!) more serious about getting published.
So feel free to visit at Rebecca Alexander, and please, if you don't mind, follow it. Apparently publishers like to see a bit of internet presence, and it would help me to be able to sell my wares if I can say that people have at least looked at them. Thank you!
Meanwhile, I am astonished that I have written 300 posts, had 418 comments and about 600 emails from it. I have had fantastic support, been given great ideas and inspiration, enjoyed loads of other people's blogs and made cyberfriends. I look forward to the next 300 posts here on Witchway!

Friday, 3 February 2012


On the back of my nearly success in a poetry competition, I decided to send off the same three poems to a poetry magazine. This is a reasonable thing to do, I thought, how long can it take to print off three poems, add a query letter and sling them in an envelope?

Two hours and forty-three minutes.

First, each of the poems needed tweaking, and if you mess with one word in a poem, you're going to have to move around, assess the impact of and question every other word. I only changed a couple of words but boy! That took up most of the time. I printed them off, only to find one had a huge smudge of ink down it and one had the word 'teazle' with a  capital T. Screw up the wrong ones, print off new pages. Out of paper, filled printer up.
Then I looked at the submissions page of the magazine's website. Every magazine has its own preference: name in header or footer, no name, just title, nothing at all. This one wanted everything - name, address, email etc. in the footer.
Then you find an envelope and address it by hand (easy). Back to the website: they need a stamped addressed envelope. Do I mention the Plough in my query letter? Whoops - back to the letter and print it off. Wrong email address, so print off another one. Sign it. I then debated for some time whether it would all go on a first class stamp? Write out own address on nice light envelope, worrying about weight of stamp.

Fine. That led onto the recommendation on Poems Please website (thank you, Tony) of the RSPB/Rialto competition for a nature poem. Easy. It's only two poems and they don't need tweaking, do they...? Oh, they do. Find the rules on presentation - take off any name or address - fill in form, add entry fee, address envelope, worry about weight, add heavy stamp... Fifty-three minutes. I'm exhausted, and I haven't done any writing today.

I then had a lovely email from a fellow novelist asking about the Good Housekeeping competition and it gave me pause for thought. GH only allows submissions from unagented authors, so I can hold fire on that pesky synopsis/query letter of Borrowed Time for the moment. I can concentrate on the competition submission instead - oh, wait, it's the first chapter of book 2 and the synopsis of the whole book. Crap. 

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Approaching agents: synopses

Helpful daughter sat down with me as we looked at literary agents. We thought they would all want similar things - which they generally do. Three chapters, a query letter with information about the book and the author, and a synopsis.
  1. I don't like synopses. I find them much more difficult to write than books.
  2. I don't like saying the words synopsis, it sounds like a snake did a somersault.
  3. Every agent wants something different from the synopsis.
One wants an outline. Another wants a punchy summary that would make them want to read the book. One wants three closely typed pages, one wants no more than 1000 words, one wants no more than 3000, one wants 300 words (eek!) and the worse one wants - wait for it - three sentences. Ninety-three thousand words, two strands, four hundred years and nine important characters in three sentences? Will these be the hundred word sentences Thomas Hardy used to excel at?

It turns out, sending stuff to agents will be way harder than writing another book. Maybe I should write book 2's synopsis first. So, I turned to Nicola Morgan's excellent little book on writing synopses (there he goes again, tumbling serpent) and she warns of this phenomenon. So I sat down and wrote 1, one thousand word synopsis. At a squeeze, and in Times New Roman 11 and single spaced - one closely typed page. Three sentence lady is out the window.

Then I noticed something odd. The book is front heavy, I wrote the final chapters less well and in less detail than the front chapters. So is the synopsis. When I realise how to balance up the synopsis...ideas about how to fit the book just pop into my head. Maybe these synopsisy thingies (look at them go! Cirque du Soleil for reptiles!) have extra uses?

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The theme for this week is Boasting.

We're British in this house, we don't really do boasting very well. But I've got a lot to boast about at the moment, which is highly unusual, so I've made a boasting folder. I entered three poems into the Plough Prize this year: Ghost Walk and Swimming with my Sister were longlisted and Crime Scene was shortlisted. Better than that, a previous winner, Patricia Ace, was long- and shortlisted alphabetically above me in the lists. As in, Patricia Ace, published by Happenstance. I love her stuff. And CJ Allen also published, also shortlisted (OK, twice). I'm sandwiched between published poets. In fact, loads of people on the lists are published in magazines or chapbooks or even their own collections. Why not me?

When I was doing the MA, one very talented student used to rant on how difficult it is to get a novel published. So I asked them (humbly) how many had they written? How many rejections from agents and publishers had they had? Answer - zero. They weren't even going to bother to write because what's the point? You only get rejected anyway. That's what I'm doing about poetry. I'm so convinced my work will get rejected I don't put it out there. So I'm giving myself the same advice I tried to give this writer - write and you get better. The more work you put out there, the more likely you are to get noticed. I read somewhere, committed writers are most likely to get their fourth book published - that means they had the commitment to write three duds first, all the way through.

So I need to send my poetry out - where's the harm? Most of them are the price of a stamp or an email. I'm declaring Wednesday 'send poetry out' day. Then I can put something new in my boasting book.