Wednesday, 30 May 2012

And...what do you do?

I've been asked recently, several times, that patronising question when I've been out with the husband (after they establish what the MAN does, of course). I've gone from somewhere 'I used to be...but now I'm...' (psychologist/lecturer to kept woman/layabout) to somewhere else. 'Oh, I'm a novelist'. When did that happen? Somehow, with absolutely no real justification, I'm boldly announcing I'm an author, without even thinking about it.

My theory (there has to be a theory, I used to be a psychologist) is that having actually finished and polished a book to a certain level, the incontrovertible truth is there - I wrote a novel, ergo, I am a novelist. I write, more or less 9-5, therefore I am a writer. I create new stories out of my imagination, so I am an author of novels. Why has this been difficult to say? Back in 2010 I was starting to challenge my difficulty about using the word 'writer', as I reinvented my self concept before having to include 'MA student'. I suppose my identity has been so bound up in 'mother', for so long, I kind of lost 'me'. Because I have never stopped writing, just stopped expecting anyone to read anything I had written. Now I'm throwing it out there and more or less making people read it! 

Now I say 'I'm a novelist' and I'm working on answering question 2 and 3, when they say: 'Oh, how interesting, what kind of books do you write? What's your book about?' That's when the stammering starts...I must work on my pitch. 

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Poetry sequences

I've written lots of poems, but I've only rewritten, polished, honed, edited and sweated over a few dozen, the rest are just poetic larvae. Now I have to find some sort of sequence to put into a pamphlet. This means I also have to come up with titles for them all, and I'm wondering if the titles could tell the story that the poems kind of tell. They are presently arranged mostly chronologically, but some have very boring titles. ReunionBookmarks, One Day, Crime Scene, Spice Rack. I also have to come up with the title for the pamphlet.

Clare Pollard offers this advice in a workshop provided by Mslexia: look for words that crop up many times, or a single line that is relevant to many of the poems. She even suggests looking at book titles for inspiration, which I've had a go at two. One word that comes up many times, is sister. A line I liked was 'three sisters, two are dead' which I've played around with. It does seem to have a hook but something about it seems weak. I may be at the stage where everything seems crap, though, so don't mind me.

A Baby's Bones has been truncated and edited and polished for the Yeovil competition, so I can start working on the poetry properly, until I get the last draft back from the agent, anyway. Then I can get back to 'work'.  It does occur to me that when I'm looking at poetry, I weigh my fiction up much more carefully, listening for music, for the structure of the words as they translate back off the page when I read it. I think I could do with some time just to create more embryo poems - freewrites normally - as raw material to hone later. Just to keep me on my literary toes. 

Friday, 25 May 2012

The Yeovil literary competition

I'm putting A Baby's Bones into another competition, mostly because the deadline has made me sharpen up my focus on the book, now I'm in the middle doldrums, and has forced me to finish a reasonable synopsis. It turns out, I'm not floundering, I'm starting the build up to the finale. Eventually I hope to conquer 'saggy middle syndrome' by just writing a good beginning and a strong ending, then welding them together with a few well written paragraphs.

I drew on Nicola Morgan's Write a Great Synopsis, which I found enormously helpful, and has clarified what a synopsis is for me. I think I was including elements of an outline, worrying about sequence, but now the synopsis is a neat 800 words and does sound like a book I'd quite like to read.

I also re-ordered the first three chapters, wanting to include more of the conflicts in both strands. (I'm writing two stories, woven together again, I can't keep away from the history, and anyway, I can't write a long enough story otherwise).

My agent still has my novel, I'm trying to be patient, but I'm really keen to get on with it! Maybe she's out enjoying the ridiculous heat - if so, I can forgive her, it's baking hot here, way too hot to be hunched over someone else's novel. It's also get-no. 2-son-from-Uni day so the husband's going to be broiled as well.

I'm entering the Yeovil competition partly because I'm looking for exposure and to put something in the CV. Sophie Hannah is the judge, and I hope this will catch her eye, and maybe make the longlist. Then I can sort out the pamphlet of poems for Mslexia, by which time (hopefully) final edits for The Secrets of Life and Death should be done. Busy days.  

Thursday, 24 May 2012


There wasn't really a prize for the Mslexia competition - except for the winner - but they have arranged a 'networking' opportunity. We are to be exposed to editors and agents en masse,  and in order to further our fledgling careers, we are invited to a day long workshop in promoting our books. I can see this is a brilliant idea, and I'm looking forward to the workshop, but I'm not at my best in social settings. I suspect if you are an agent, this is probably your workplace, but I wonder how many authors can stride up to a total (and possibly better dressed) stranger and say 'Hi, I'm Reb and my book is about...'

Since I have an agent, I'm focusing on the editors, and I suppose, honing my skills in case my agent gets struck by lightning or gets bored with my writing. I just wonder how many writers are party animals? It just seems like a reclusive activity, well suited to shy woodland creatures who shrivel in the harsh sunlight of publicity. I'm sure there's a wide range of personalities, and plenty of natural extroverts also writing, but I've met quite a few of the retiring types. As someone with social anxieties, the networking party is one of my worst nightmares, simple as that. I shall start stammering, drop my drink (which will save me drinking it, which would be worse) and go bright red. I may be naked, without my homework...OK, probably not, but it may feel like that. I'll probably end up chatting to one of the caterers, starting with 'I'm not really a writer, I'm a psychologist' followed by her asking me if it's normal that her daughter wets the bed at three years, four months and eight days and telling me all about her postnatal depression. I suppose it's just two hours, but I'm really nervous about it anyway. Hopefully the workshop will help. At least I have met, in a cyber way, most of the other shortlisted writers.

I am grateful, I can see that if I didn't have an agent this would be a fantastic opportunity to impress one; I just think my writing is more impressive socially than I am.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Beta readers

I have two amazingly helpful beta readers. I haven't asked them if it's OK to name (and shame) them, but I'll call them, say, B and D. Between them, they have picked up buckets of mistakes. D found so many repetitions - who would have thought I would need to use the word 'bellows' so much - I was red faced doing corrections. Who else can use the same verb three times in the same sentence? After editing? Good grief.

B was on comma patrol, and I went through the MS with secateurs and a bucket. I may have had to tip the bucket onto the compost heap a few times, where they can rot down with all the question marks I took out a few weeks ago and great slimy heaps of freshly mown adverbs.

What I'm not so ashamed of, because it's impossible to come at a story as a new reader when you've written and rewritten it, is questions about whether a character could know something, or whether there's enough information. It's invaluable that someone who isn't so familiar with the story (although B had read an earlier draft) can give me the reader's POV. I'm now waiting for the agent's edits and suggestions, then it's back on to the next step. Polished a little shinier, looking more like a proper book, less like a draft.

Oh, and finally, I came up with a 25 word pitch - rubbish but a starting point!
Jackdaw Hammond lives on borrowed time, a ritual devised to save a countess called Elizabeth Bathory in 1585. A ritual dependent on teenager Sadie’s blood.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Pitching the novel

It seems pitching a book, or even summarising it is well nigh impossible for me. Yesterday we went to a wedding packed with lovely people I have know for many years, and yet when asked 'what's your book about?' I go blank. I find it difficult to summarise 100,000 well edited, honed words to a few sentences. 'It's about 16th century sorcery, the lengths people will go to to save a child, John Dee in Europe in 1585, being a non-person, the nature of death...' all of which is kind of true, but none of which would make me want to read it. After all that, people were still asking me if it was non-fiction (no, and I should have nailed that first) and was it for kids (also no).

I'm off to Newcastle soon to attend a workshop on how to pitch a book to agents and editors, and while I already have the agent, and she will hopefully pitch to the editors, it would still be helpful to know how to talk to these people. I can't imagine an event where I am less able to shine than a load of industry bigwigs crammed into a small space for two hours with a couple of dozen authors, all competing for attention. I'd much rather make the sandwiches.

So I thought I would prepare by reading up on it. Louisa Burton writes a mean column about it here, and I'm making my way back through the book to look for a fifty word pitch that sums up the conflict (no-one really wants to die? Seems a bit thin...) while still giving a hint of voice and two strands and five main, wait, six, seven,eight... It's still easier to write a whole book that all the peripheral stuff. Nicola Morgan recommends that a short pitch should focus only on the main character, show what is at risk, and include the main conflict - in 25 words. Back to the drawing board. I'll let you know how I get on.

Friday, 18 May 2012

A new day

What has hugely surprised me is that I can go back to a book, many times, and find new things in it. The key seems to be giving enough space between drafts. Not necessarily a lot of time, but a diversion, like working on the kids' book, or poetry, or developing books 2 and 3. Although it's hard to focus enough to work, at the moment, getting a gazillion edits back from people has really helped, so much that I sat down and worked non-stop yesterday on the MS, not only correcting silly mistakes, but seeing a few bigger ones as well.

In the past, I wrote one book, editing as I went, and was always disappointed at the end. I had invested massive amounts of time and energy, and it looked nothing like a finished book. I might even want to change several characters around, change the tone of the book. I've finally realised that the writing of the second draft is much easier and quicker than the first, the third is easier still, and by the seventh (I would never have believed I would read my own book 7 times, let alone write/edit it 7 times) I'm able to work through the entire book in a single day and produce a better, more polished version than the one that I thought was finished three weeks ago.

As Michael Crichton said (he wasn't the first): 'Books are not written--they're rewritten'. And rewritten, and edited, and written again. A few more polishes and it's off again.

On another note altogether, tomorrow I'm attending a wedding of a dear friend's daughter, a lovely girl who was my daughter's best friend for a long time. I hate parties and social occasions,  but this one, I'm looking forward to. The group[ of kids who used to sit around in my house and learn science have all grown up - I'm so proud of them. It does make me feel old, though.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Finding poetry with my sisters

Sarah 1987
I was lucky enough to have a sister, in fact, I nearly had two, but my parents' first daughter was premature and died after a day. When I started to have my own children, I really wanted a girl, so my children would have what I had, a sister. When I was on the MA I wrote a sequence of poems about my sister Sarah, who died thirteen years ago, not just about her death although that was a seismic shock for the whole family, but our relationship, the times we played together as children, that enabled us to play as adults. One of my great memories of Sarah is one hot day, when the wind was up and the waves mad, we left our two babies in the care of a friend and nipped to the beach for a quick swim. It was exhilarating, and for an hour, we left responsibility and exhaustion behind and played in the waves as we had as children.

For the poetry collection, I imagined what life would be like in our fifties and sixties, if we were all alive, by contriving an imaginary reunion. This is a very early draft:


Coat brush each other as we overflow spindly chairs.
Jo rests her bag (leather, neat) in her lap as if someone would steal it,
Sarah puts hers (hand sewn, gaudy) on the floor for all to admire,
my rucksack (patchwork, overflowing) hangs behind me.

We laugh, compare children, order drinks.
One coffee, milk foamed into fluff, a shot of hazelnut,
one hot chocolate oozing with cream and chocolate curls,
one Earl Grey with fat slices of lemon and no sugar.

We are between lovers, husbands, jobs.
Jo’s rings clink against her cup, she wears her history
like her vintage blouse, with elegance
and a touch of theatre.

Cakes arrive, fragrant and ornamented, on bone china
barely chipped. I nibble an éclair, lick chocolate like a cat.
Jo spreads jam and cream on a scone, closes her eyes as she bites.

Sarah almost touches each cake, weighs up tastiness
then delicately extracts a doughnut, dissects it with a knife,
and eats each morsel, dipping it in fallen sugar.

We hide our scars. Caesarean, appendix, hip replacement.
Wrists scarified in a tide of relief.
A chicken pox scar, centred white in a tanned forehead
like a bindi, like an assassin’s mark.  

We don’t talk about the past, let memory
sharpen our tongues with childhood rage.
Or remember the vortex of depressions.
We can’t talk about the future.
Two of us are dead. 

Oh, and just a reminder that Kissing Frankenstein and other stories is available here, on National Flash Fiction day, and I have two stories in it!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Losing my way

I have a 500 word minimum word a day habit. In theory. Which means (excluding blogs and emails) I write 500 words at least on my current WIP. Or the equivalent in edits - say review 2000 words of previous writing. That is my absolute minimum, which I am failing to complete, and I'm not sure why.

In practice, I write a thousand words a day, anyway. In fact, it crept up to 1500 minimum at one point, which pushed me to exceed that every day. It's time to forgive myself and remind myself I only have to find 500 words. I know if I don't write to that routine, I literally grind to a halt. I know why this dry spell has crept up on me - I'm stalled waiting to leap into action on the next round of little edits on the book. I have two outstanding projects to get on with and two books on the go, and a rationale to write. That's too much, I'm dithering between them rather than doing any of them. So, I'm planning to choose one each day, and I'll work on that. I can't switch between projects and all the time I'm thinking about a novel some little voice is nagging me about the poetry competition.

Speaking of the poetry comp, I sent off a draft to look at from Lulu, and immediately can see the order is crucial, also that I need two more poems to play with.  There's something wonderfully encouraging about actually holding a book in your hands. It also gives you a sense of the substance of the work. Eighteen poems represents masses of work - I wrote two novels over that time. Poetry is HARD but there's something incredibly satisfying. So, today, I'm planning to polish a couple of poems and move them around.  

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Home, home on the range

The little homestead is looking more ready for summer, and less battened down for the winter. Baby plants are growing in pots, four chickens (Welsummers, for the chuck aficionados) are ordered and the chuck house has been given two coats of preservative and is clean. Two days ago it was three inches deep in water and I was wondering whether to buy ducks...or dolphins. Anyway, Welsummers lay better (than dolphins, no-one lays better than the ducks I used to have) and various foodstuffs have been planted. The whole thing makes me feel better. The best news is, I have several bowls of cherries growing in my baby tree, and with a bit of luck and the judicious use of a net curtain, they are ALL MINE.

The book has been shared with beta readers D and B, who have a million better things they ought to be doing but are kind enough to help by reading through the book for me. Hopefully I am down to minor edits, repetitions, typos and the odd clunky sentence. I may have to share my bowls of cherries...though I don't think they would survive the postal service. I will be reciprocating.

Meantime, I have written 2200 words of the rationale for my dissertation, the 'why I did what I did' bit. I've finally heard the message my tutor's been telling me - just write it and send it in. So I will.

Here is Kid 5 and 6 painting the chicken shed in the back yard. We literally back onto a cliff so the yard is quite sheltered.

And this is the raised beds the kids weeded for me, all bursting with seeds and plants (and wigwams).

Friday, 11 May 2012

He FINALLY read my book!

It has been a source of some sadness that my bear doesn't read fiction, though he loves biographies and film so gets excited about story. But, although I talked the plot through with him, on every car journey for a year, he hasn't read the actual words. Then I went to Lulu and printed off a copy of my own book, mocked up to look like a novel. So he sat down and started reading last evening.
And read, and read...we went to bed but he was still reading...until 1.30 in the morning. He finished it this evening, 24 hours from cover to cover, a new record for dyslexic bears. He liked it. I know him. He's rubbish at faking it (don't ask how I know this). I'm ridiculously pleased, as if the main person I wanted to write for was him, which makes no sense at all since he doesn't read novels anyway. I told him to pick up words and punctuation he didn't like/clunky sentences etc. and I gave the other copy to the kids with the same intructions, so hopefully we will find some of the little edits that need doing. But I am pleased. Oh, and the sun came out. I'm not sure if the two are related...

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Grey, grey day

I'm sad. and the weather seems sad as well. Certainly it's crying all over the garden. It's cold indoors, as well, so I'm huddled in a jumper trying to cheer myself up. I have done NO WORK AT ALL. Grief just chases me around at certain times of the year, and this is one of them. I miss Léonie. 

So, I'm reporting on the garden instead. We have some raised beds out the front, and the youngest kids and husband moved about a million tons of homemade compost (possibly less) and several bags of manure onto them ready from plants and seeds and vegetables. They looked great, and some wigwams for mangetout peas and french beans have also gone out. My baby plants are all looking great and some are already big enough to transplant into pots in the conservatory, like cucumbers chilli peppers, and flowers are ready to be potted up outside (for the slugs to eat, I realise this. maybe they won't eat the vegetables). 

Then in an effort not to pig out on chocolate, I made bread. Beautiful, fat freshly baked rolls, and a lovely recipe for pesto with vegetables and pasta from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Veg book, which I've already enjoyed four recipes from. That's my mark of a good cookbook - how many stained pages/bookmarks does it merit? Anyway, the smell of warm rolls just cheered me up, not to mention the squishy dough. Maybe I'll get back to work tomorrow. Maybe I'll just have to start posting word counts again, that always helps me.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Playing around with Lulu

Lulu is a self publisher. Now, I grew up in the era when 'self publishing' was vanity publishing, when someone told you your book was marvellous and with a little injection of cash (thousands) from you, would sell by the bucket. Or you paid a small printer to print off 500 copies of your book which were almost impossible to promote or sell. How things have changed!

I wanted to get a feel for the actual book, as a book. Early last week Rachel Carter, who had put together a peer reviewed anthology of flash fiction (including two of mine) had uploaded the whole thing to Lulu and copies were available for sale. I sent off for mine. The publishing project of the MA had also used Lulu so I wasn't completely ignorant. The anthology was cute, well organised, and cheap. It occurred to me I could run off a copy of my novel in paperback for less than it would cost me to print 386 pages of A4, just for my own use. So I did. It came in at £5.75 and £2.99 p&p.

It's only a mock up but I wanted to see a real book, partly because I am acutely aware of mistakes in proof copies that look perfectly OK in Word. I also need to celebrate the fact that I have never got this far with a book, that I actually fuss over indents and formatting, that I'm largely down to tidying up typos and repetitions, and occasional bits of clunky language.

This book isn't for sale - Lulu allows you to have the book 'just for you', in a private print rather than for sale. But if it doesn't get a publisher, I wouldn't mind bunging it out there. But I'm hopeful. Meanwhile, I have a copy for my kids to pass around and a copy to mangle with edits and tidying. I'm certainly thinking I could have some fun with the poetry if I don't get anywhere with the pamphlet...

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Writing the last bit of the dissertation

I've been kidding myself. I'm scared shitless of finishing the rationale for my dissertation. Three thousand words of carefully researched prose on why I wrote the book, and how. Then I hand it in...and am judged and found wanting. I will get a D in red ink. It's giving me nightmares. (I think the book being back with the agent is doing the same - I'm worried that will come back with a D too). When I was doing edits, I slept like a log. In fact, I slept in every morning I could. Now I'm back to waking in a panic at 6am after several nightmares.

I'm looking at why I did what I did, and it is a useful process, I have to (reluctantly) admit. I am interested in the collision of belief and science in the sixteenth century, so have inflicted it upon my readers. I'm fascinated by how outsiders find their way in society, since I feel like one. I don't really have any filters, I tend to say what I'm thinking as I think it. This gets me into a lot of trouble. I am also intrigued by death, having observed people dying a number of times (in a work-in-a-hospice way, not a serial-killer way).

Reflecting on how the book has evolved has also been interesting, for a YA book to a supernatural thriller to a book club book. It's also grown like Topsy, now bulging at 99k words. But actually writing this all down is agony, and I'm only 750 words in. Perhaps I should just redirect my tutor to my blog posts?

Saturday, 5 May 2012

I may have more books than I need...

I recently filled in a questionnaire about my book-related habits. I had to estimate how many books I owned, read a year, that sort of thing. Pretty straightforward. So I made a conservative estimate of how many books I own. There's quite a few in the study. There's a wall in the dining room, a few shelves in the living room, more in the bedroom, the entire Terry Pratchett collection on the landing...OMG. Is two and half thousand books a bit much?  

The problem is, the kids are not entirely book-free either - that's another thousand books...and the husband isn't without a few metres of bookshelves of his own. No wonder the house creaks a bit in windy weather, it's probably about to fall down.

Writing, poetry, literature
Then they wanted to know things like how many books do you read a year. Actually, I've slowed down enormously, from two a day at my most prolific (when the kids were small) to less than one a day. I do read ridiculously fast, and I don't get as much detail out of books as some readers, which is fine because chances are, I'll read them again. And again. I own dozens of books I've read more than ten times, they are the ones looking sorry for themselves.

Non-fiction and work
Which raises the issue of the possibility of a Kindle. As soon as I sent the book over to the agent, she 'stuck it on the Kindle' so she could carry it around with her. What a brilliant idea! Think how many trees would be saved, not just in making the books but in building the many many bookshelves. On the other hand, my house would never end up looking like a secondhand bookshop!

Not to mention that most of my books were secondhand when I bought them. I'm not sure that would really work in Kindle!

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Another draft

I've trimmed the lumpy middle, slowed down the precipitate ending and sharpened up the beginning. I have a new draft of the book, and now I'm ready to send it off with a report on where I've made changes, and let it go where it goes. I've also let go of the title and am proud to declare 'The Secrets of Life and Death' open. I've had some very good advice from a  recently published author - trust the agent, let her do her job. Which will give me a chance to get back to BT2.

Having had time doing edits to think about BT2 (or should that be TSOLAD2?) I have thought of plot twists, approached, characters. Because I'm not blessed with a plotting mind, I have to let plot strands come to me, and each new one means reweaving the old ones, but I'm getting better at that. The difference is, I know this is just the first draft. It's the basis for future drafts, but there will be some pretty major revisions. So I can experiment with this first draft, it's very freeing.

A Baby's Bones , also known as Book 2 (this is getting confusing) is also getting restless, and I can see where it is going much easier now. With the poetry collection to work on as well, I have even more reason to write. Happy days.

I surprised myself by enjoying the editing process. I get so far with a draft, I know it's flawed, but I can't see what to do. Then the agent came along with 'it's great, but would be even better if you...' and new ideas popped into my head. Rewriting became a creative process again, having to imagine new ways to get from A to B. 

I'm loving writing at the moment, and It doesn't hurt that the sun's out...  

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Time for a change

Well, I really enjoyed doing the A-Z because it made me look at aspects of writing (some of which will end up in my dissertation, I suspect). Now I have to get back to life and work.

I can't separate life from work, it creeps into my writing. My daughter left home (this is a good thing) but with two of the boys away as well, the house is neither busy enough to stop it echoing nor empty enough for the husband and I to have some privacy and peace and quiet. I'm grieving a bit for the busy days and also the fact that we, as a couple, have never had any time when it was just us. We didn't ease into parenthood, we threw ourselves into having six kids, at least of three of which weren't our own. They were all out of school at first (age 3-16). Step-parenting is one hell of a challenge. It's nice to breathe out now and then, and be alone with the person I chose. So we're off to the Lake District and then I'm onto a workshop organised by Mslexia and New Writing North on talking confidently about our writing ahead of a London 'meet the industry' do. Eight days, just the two of us.

I write differently when I'm away. The choice of music also hugely influences the mood of my writing - the last few days I've been doing edits and have needed to darken the mood of the middle part of the book. I'm the kind of person that makes jokes when under stress - and so does my main character. I have to go back and make the character be more in touch with the authentic feeling and react accordingly (just like therapy, then!). So I put on the soundtrack from the English Patient. I'm now slightly depressed but the writing is working.

Oh, and I forgot to mention! The anthology of Flash Fiction South West, Kissing Frankenstein & Other Stories, which includes two of my short stories, is available to buy for £5.25 plus p&p. A very big thank you to Rachel Carter, who organised it!