Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Life imitating art

I seem to write about my life. Not in a self-conscious 'look at me' way (possibly an unconscious 'look at me' way, though) but it just sneaks in. Life has been very, very busy and I have no energy left at all. Writing is reduced to a hundred words here and there - slow progress really doesn't cover it. In the last two months we have (big breath) emptied two shipping containers into our family car and moved it in (one still to go), painted two large rooms and started on a third, installed half my books and all of Russell's music equipment, reorganised the kitchen by moving units around and putting a washing machine in, reorganised the whole garden, Russell has built me a huge shelf unit in the dining room, he's been to Arvon, I've finished the historical strand of a book and started another and have organised two new chimneys and wood-burners. Phew. All of that has sneaked into the books I'm writing.

My characters are tired out, stressed out and away from the familiarity of home. They are trying to find their way in a  new world, too, and perhaps other people don't understand the difficulties they are having.  I wonder how much of us is woven into each book, how much of our experience and personality is woven so tightly in our words that we can't take it out - or maybe even recognise most of it.

My present book (the dreadfully titled 'B&B' book) has a character who just wants to be left alone by the Aga and never bothered again. Get me an Aga, stat. On the plus side, it's crept up to 16k words in a  few days, so she obviously wants me to tell the story. 

Our anti-depressant kittens are definitely working even though they have both had surgery in the last few weeks (Jasper is sick of having his bottom examined, thank you, let alone stitches, but his castrate went wrong). To our amusement, they have started watching TV, from about three inches away, so we have to find programmes they will like. Autumnwatch, that worked, as did a programme about meerkats, but they also chase the clouds on the weather forecast. This was a cat programme...

Thursday, 9 October 2014

It’s out – The Secrets of Blood and Bone

It’s publication day – on Super Thursday no less. This pretty little thing is out at bookshops and online.

I loved writing this one, it flew off the page and wrote itself. I think it’s hard to write the middle book of a trilogy, I’ve tried before, but I never thought of this as a middle book until the last few chapters when it needed to connect with a future book. I wrote a book, a found a sequel, and late in the process, a third book suggested itself more and more strongly. So don’t blame me for the last few pages, they do (I promise) lead onto book 3, which will come out next year.

Before I got a book deal I imagined publication day was a big thing, but in some ways it’s a quiet celebration, the full stop at the end of a really long sentence, and a bit of a relief. It comes out in paperback next year, I’m looking forward to the cover, always a pleasure to see what they are going to do with it!

Writing here is a bit subdued. We’ve moved house (Yay!!) but now boxes are invading every room, and demand things like new bookcases or plate racks or shelves. I’ve reached a natural break halfway through my new book, and need to stop and catch my breath with that before I move on. I’d like to start a new book completely now, just to be moving over new territory, but as I’m a ‘pantser’ not a plotter, that’s always a bit terrifying. I have a main character, and a location (based at least loosely on my old house) and am just wondering where it will go. It could go anywhere. Really. 

Monday, 6 October 2014

Publication in America!

In a few hours, The Secrets of Life and Death comes out in America. This feels like an astonishing gift, a real surprise. I was so much more connected to the UK release, it seemed there was so much to do, so much to think about. It wasn't that long since I had been making changes, responding to edits, thinking about publicity and marketing, it wasn't that long since I had signed the deal, in fact! But a year later I haven't had to do anything but let the team at Broadway package and look after the book, which they have done beautifully. I have marvelled at the different covers a few times - one of my sons is at university with a number of US students - who universally approved the US cover. The English students preferred the UK cover (I wanted him to canvas the university's student body to see if there was a Finnish student lurking there somewhere). The publishers really do know their business! I hope it sells, as much for Broadway Books as for me, I'm still carrying a copy of the paperback around with me to make it seem real. There's a little article written by me about Elizabeth Bathory ahead of the launch.

Two days later, The Secrets of Blood and Bone comes out here. I felt more confident to take Edward Kelley to Venice, and explore a whole new culture. Writing the past is like writing science fiction in some ways, we can't put ourselves back so far, everything was so different, the smells, the textures of linens and the connection to temperature were so different. There were no waterproof, lightweight fabrics, no softness against your skin, no elastic. Things got damp, clothes were rarely washed and so you carried a history of your recent life in your clothes alone. In the contemporary strand I had fun putting my characters in a similarly medieval environment of an old house that isn't welcoming, just like the one I had once lived in. 

Some years ago I fled to the Isle of Wight, still battered by the recent death of my daughter and husband, and viewed a number of houses in my price range. The one we bought was hemmed in by a spectacular block of ten foot high brambles the estate agent called 'the garden'. He took me upstairs to see it, pointing out the trees in each corner that bounded it. Downstairs it was like being underwater, the leaves were plastered onto the windows, as if it was trying to get in... 

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Writing for your reader

Blimey, one month has passed. In that month I've moved house, written a load more of A Baby's Bones 2, received copies of book 2 in all its shiny blueness, received a copy of the Finnish version (also lovely!), struggled with depression and decorated two rooms in my house. Presently we have about 50% of our books on shelves, and the rest in the storage container. Everyone has a bed (at last) and the cats have explored every cupboard, under floorboard space and possible way to the outside. Normal life is starting to creep in. With it is a reminder to myself that I need to write first draft for me, then second and subsequent drafts for the reader.

I am surrounded by pretty talented writers at my local group, and some of them could and should be working their way up the publication ladder. The difference between me and some of them is the editing process is the need to switch from pleasing yourself to pleasing a reader who doesn't know your character inside out, who doesn't know what's going on in your head. 

A classic mistake is introducing too many characters in the first chapter. To a reader that's just confusion waiting to happen, and if I am confused by a book, I put it down. That's compounded if I can't form a representation of the name in my head. A name from another culture, a made up name for fantasy or names that are too alike compounds the difficulty for the reader. I chose (it's a family name) Guichard for my male protagonist. That's Gee-shar to the French, Gwee-shar for the English. I ended up having to get Felix to pronounce it for his audience in book 1 - also for the reader. I had to do the same in book 2. It's my own fault, I should have gone with something less exotic. 

I'm enjoying writing a book that isn't sold, it's a different kind of pressure. I'm writing more for me, while being open to changing it for an audience once they've been identified. But for now, I'm following Viola over the beautiful - but dangerous - landscape of sixteenth century Dartmoor.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Writing limbo

Just when you're dying to write you can't. Pah. We are blessed with a  house move that is turning into a big challenge - we have to move ourselves. Down a long, narrow drive and by hand - from a six bedroomed house. Most of our stuff is already in storage in two big containers. 

Fortunately, I have a bunch of lovely people helping, and we'll do it over a couple of days. I can't wait to be in now. And be unpacked, and have the fire lit, and something nice in the oven, and a kitten or tow on my lap so I can go back to my present project. Even though it's a heavy heavy new desk, I feel it's full of new stories...

I also branched into applying for a writer-in-residence post. The 'job description' just sounded like so much fun - and so much lovely teaching and workshopping as well. I didn't really think of myself as a 'writer' other than - you know - spending time every day writing. But I have learned a great deal through the process of being published, and I would love to share that with other writers. See, I have no problem calling them writers, since they are actually writing! I don't expect to get an interview, but how cool would that be? 

Feedback for book 3 is coming in - thank you Charlotte, Sophie and Guy - and I am working their suggestions in. The worst thing is that I didn't start out to write a trilogy, and certain pitfalls have revealed themselves! It is really difficult to write a book 3 that someone new to your books will like - or understand. Lots more suggestions will need to be explored. The book is with my editor at the moment, I am sure he will have some helpful suggestions as well. I like feedback. I've learned that you can't see your book for the first time again, once you've written it. You need beta readers. But it needs to be better before I send it off to anyone else.

So, all we have to do now is say goodbye to an incredible house, pack up the last few things, and head off to our new life in a Georgian town house near the river. I'm looking forward to a new start.   

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

New house, new book...

I have delivered book 3 to my agent, which is a huge relief, and am back to charging forward on the sequel to A Baby's Bones, sadly unsold at the moment. ABB 2 is independent so I don't mind too much, and I'm back exploring history and it's another mystery/romance. I hate the word romance, it suggests some giggly silliness that ends up with the perfect guy and perfect girl skipping off into the sunset, but many 'romances' are actually exploring real relationship problems like infidelity and incompatibility. It's more one of those. 

Like previous books it has a historical and a contemporary theme, although I'm leaning heavily towards the historical here. I think, if I have time and the energy, I would like to write a 'historical novel' about the period I've been investigating so heavily. I'm drawn towards a real person whose life was remarkable, but I'm fairly terrified of the level of research you need for a real historical novel. I can do the fill in the gaps bit, I'm just worried about getting the real bits wrong. Like most Tudor women, her life is recorded thinly, and by men. Maybe for a PhD.

In other news - we're moving! Hooray! It's in the everything we need is in boxes stage, pretty well. We're hoping to actually move in two weeks, but the date is still not fixed, not even provisionally. We're moving from a rural, monster quarry-master's house from 1865 to a late Georgian terrace in a town. We're also downsizing from 7 beds to 4 which may produce a few problems but there's just about room for the thousands of books and more than a dozen guitars (not mine!). I'm going to miss the house - it's inspired several books including the one I'm just starting again, the much rewritten ghost story set in a B&B. 

The new house has a great living and dining room/study (for my new desk! Not a good time to buy a desk when we have to pay for the removals and buy my daughter a new car but these moments can't be missed) and stark and cold modern kitchen stuck on the back. I'm sure we'll cheer it up. But I'm going to miss my woodburner the most.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Finished book 3

So, I've finished book 3. Only I haven't really finished book 3 because it still needs massive edits, replacing, and glueing the two strands together. That's the craft part really, rather than the creative part of pushing the story onto the page and following the different perspectives. I wrote 5,500 words yesterday - all day, the last 3 chapters of Kelleys' journey, just leaving the finishing half a chapter for today. I'm reluctant to end - I want to follow their story on to the next few years, really!  

I have been asked a gazillion times by new writers - how long should a book be? Well, you'll get lots of different answers, but you won't get a look at less than 85-90k and you will struggle with over 120k (unless they are epic fantasy). Big books take up too much space on the shelf for a début and less than 90k makes it hard to write a full, character-led book. This ones at 103k at the moment and will finish around 110k. Because it's the last book of the trilogy I need to work at finishing story arcs, especially for less important characters.

The hardest thing has been killing off a couple of my characters. Their race is run, I can't see them doing anything essential, and the drama of their sacrifice works. So it has gone off to my son, Carey (who really is my no.1 editor) who has been hunched over all the chapters, sorting and making notes. He will help me stitch it together in the next few days then - Pow! Off to Charlotte, my agent (I still love saying that). Really, I write for Carey and Charlotte first, then start to refine the book for a family audience (all of whom come back with a million things they would like to change) and then off to my editor, Michael Rowley. It occurs to me - this is the end of my present collaboration with Del Rey, and then I go back to being like every other aspiring author - looking for another book deal! Scary thought, especially as I've just got used to working with Del Rey UK and I think the relationship has been a great learning curve and safe place for me, as I got used to the publishing world! I'm lucky to have an editor who really loves fantasy and sci-fi. I'm also dying to see what book 3 will look like - here is book 2.

Now I just have to come up with a name for the book. Secrets of ... what?Bloody hell, this is the hardest bit... suggestions on a postcard...

Friday, 25 July 2014

When it's working, it's working...

I'm so enjoying writing at the moment. I've written a third of a sequel to A Baby's Bones and I've nailed sixty thousand words of Secrets 3, with just fitting the historical strand in and writing the last three chapters to go. At last! It was a very long dry spell. Worrying about cancer and selling the house and just the everyday stresses of a big family all reacting to their Dad's illness just killed my concentration or even the interest in writing. But the last few weeks have been great. When the writing is flowing, it's like being in a boat of a fast flowing, straight bit of river. Despite a family emergency a couple of weeks ago I seemed to have kept the momentum going. 

Pulling the last book of a trilogy together was both very hard and surprisingly satisfying. In the end, it all seemed to slot into place as I followed up each character. I still have a couple of loose ends and people to chase up but the first draft will be able to go off to my agent shortly. Yay! It's been a long slog. One of the things that helped me deal with an unwieldy, lumpy manuscript was to pull out the two strands and write them separately. Within those strands, I found there were story arcs I could dissect out, write as one continuous narrative (so I was sure they worked) and then pop them back into the flow. Now all I have to do is assemble what I have, write those last chapters (now I know what has to happen in them) and package it up for Charlotte. Then I can back to my heroine in ABB 2, who I left in the dark, surrounded by strange sub-human creatures in the night, defended only by her handsome cousin and her husband. 

Monday, 7 July 2014

Found some writing mojo

It's been a whole month since I blogged, and I have been busy with writing but not just the creative kind. Editing for publication is a serious business. What goes out has to be perfect, or at least, as close as you can get, so lots of blind corners, repetitions, awkward sentences and other mistakes have to go. The copy edit came back with lots of useful suggestions, thank goodness, sorting out the temporal problems.

I have a problem with numbers. A real problem with numbers, like I struggle to remember 4 digit numbers,and can't hold a 6 digit number in my head long enough to dial it. So keeping dates and days in my head as a story progresses - nightmare. Anyway, the copy editor not only found where I had made mistakes but suggested ways to get out of trouble. Then I worked on the manuscript for a couple of weeks and the book was gone through at the publisher's end. Finally, a whole load of typeset pages came my way courtesy of editorial assistant Emily - to be gone through one more time. Three pages of corrections later it is off, and finished.

This has released a flood of pent up story that just needed to be told. A Baby's Bones just cried out for a sequel, so in between mornings spent wrestling with Secrets 3 I have been writing ABB2. It's just steaming along at two or three thousand words most days. I've got 23,000 words in ten days, all of it historical. I've decided to try and write one whole story, then write the other strand as a separate story, a bit like I did with The Secrets of Life and Death. So satisfying to be writing original words again! I'm also writing linking chapters with book 3 - also very satisfying. This is what I want to do, write for a living, but the editing, rewriting and other writing related concerns do take up a lot of time. Meanwhile, the wait for a second book deal goes on... Just because you get one doesn't mean you'll ever get another one, a humbling thought.

We also got kittens...
These are anti-cancer, anti-depressant kittens. I recommend them. maybe they are responsible for the writing mojo. Yeah, baby.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Working with artists

One of the unexpected benefits of writing books for a publisher is that they come up with amazing artwork for the book covers. And then, if the book sells overseas, each editor thinks about how to sell the book in their market. The publisher in Finland (LIKE) have just come up with this:

I really like it - the colour, the birds, the drop of blood. So different from the UK covers. It reminds me of paperback thrillers from the sixties and seventies, sharp. I'm wondering what the German publishers will go for. The US cover is very different again.

I love that another creative person gets to use the book as a jumping of point for their own art. I think it encourages people to speculate more, ask questions about where the character is walking and why? What about the magical glow?The UK paperback is less mysterious, I think and more related to a moment in the book. Here the font of the words tells a story all of its own.

I didn't have a say in the covers, though my opinion was sought. What can I add? I'd be pretty defensive if one of the artists concerned made me change the words! What do I know about selling a book? I think all three, in their own way, are eye-catching. My favourite will probably always be the hardback, and I love what they are hoping to do with book 2. Very classy stuff, I'll post when I can.  

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Editing editing editing - the nuts and bolts of this writing business

You write a book which you are rather pleased with, your agent likes, even your editor likes. But the process in some way is only just starting. It has to be handed to the more objective scrutiny of the copy editor. 

I don't know if she liked it or not but she's noticed that I've got the timeline wrong in Book 2 - again. It's my Achilles heel - I'm absolutely rubbish with numbers. The timeline goes from March 15 to April but the character back in Mar 15 calls the character in April 10. Ouch. This means moving WHOLE CHAPTERS and worse, means that all the other stuff in them isn't necessarily in the right place now. I remember thinking a writer's life must just be so creative, sitting at their desk and just crafting lovely stories and characters. Well, it is sometimes, but more often it's rewriting, editing, fussing over the placement of a comma or a plot point, trying to find the right detail of research to support your book, rewriting some more, cutting out great chunks of stuff you love, writing whole sections of the book you didn't envisage... It's a pleasure and a privilege to be doing this, but wow, it's a lot of work!  

Book 3 is in just that state, with a beginning I really like, an ending I think works very well - and basically a gaping whole of rejected chapters where the middle should be. I just carved twenty-two thousand words out of the draft and threw them on the bonfire. But the book is better for it. I just have to get A and B to the right place to connect up with the ending. No pressure then! I hope they do join up. 

Meanwhile we are trying to sell our big house but although people love it - they really do - they can't cope with the location. We live at the top of a VERY steep drive... But we hardly ever get unwanted callers. It is too steep and narrow for a lot of cars to be fair, but our elderly Toyota people carrier storms up it just fine. People are wimps.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

A new week and a new book

I've been very productive this week. I don't think it's a complete coincidence that this is the first week my husband went back to work as cancer free as he is probably going to get. He did his usual week's work (Mon-Wed) and so did I. I knuckled down and edited, rewrote and reshaped Secrets 3, sent off A Baby's Bones to be put to my publisher (he has an option on my next book) and I have sent book 2 off for copy edits and so on before its publication in October. The US, Finnish and German versions of book 1, The Secrets of Life and Death are set to come out in the same week, sort of Halloween time. And the US listing on Amazon has the nicest review from JD Horn, who I'm reading now. And I know this is undeniably tacky but I'm so thrilled I'm going to put it up here! Mostly because one of my favourite book ever was Kostova's The Historian and I'm thoroughly enjoying Horn's first book.

"In Rebecca Alexander’s engrossing debut, THE SECRETS OF LIFE AND DEATH, Alexander offers up the most successful blending of mystery, historical intrigue and occult fantasy since Elizabeth Kostova’s THE HISTORIAN. Inspired by an authenticated encounter between the family of Elizabeth Báthory and the occult superstars of the Elizabethan Era,  John Dee and his protégé Edward Kelley, the story moves seamlessly between the contemporary tale of heroine Jackdaw Hammond, a woman living on borrowed time, and Kelley, a morally conflicted scholar who believes himself possessed by angels. Defying pigeonholing into any single genre, Alexander’s brilliant and multilayered reimagining of the vampire mythos balances contemporary fantasy with erudite, yet accessible, historical fiction."
                   -J.D. Horn, author of the Witching Savannah series

J D Horn's first book, The Line, is part of a series and so far it's dragged me in and kept me hooked. I'll let you know what I think of it when I finish, but it's very promising so far! 

Monday, 5 May 2014


I did it. I went away to Totleigh Barton in a remote area of Devon (really, really tucked away) and did poetry. With hindsight, I wasn't really at the same level as most of the other students: not only were they much more knowledgeable and proficient and fluent than me - they were really good readers too. I learned loads, but I still came away with the most valuable lesson - I am NOT a poet. I can write poetry, sure, and I know x, y and z about poetry, but the love of it isn't there. It's that passion that makes people push their poetry into art, and I'm just not there. But I don't mind - I got some amazing feedback from both tutors (Mimi Khalvati and David Harsent) and we had an amazing guest reading and Q&A session from Maitreyabandhu

But the urge to tell story and find plots and twists comes first for me. I did spend some time wandering in the amazing garden and thinking about characters in book 3, even though I'd promised myself I wouldn't. I was entranced by the beauty of the place, and the incredible mix of people there. The group was rich with accomplished and experienced poets, some of whom were already getting published. There were also a few (very few) who were finding their feet, like me. There were some very lively personalities there, too! Being in such a varied and funny and sometimes rowdy group (or was that mostly one Irishman and his patient, artist partner offering translations?) was a delight, if exhausting. So many creative people, so much lovely poetry by the end! 

It was also a relief to get away from the six month drama that is the fallout from my husband's cancer, in the final stages of being shrivelled by radiotherapy. No kids, no sickly cat, no house-on-the market drama (except one. The BBC might be interested in using our house for one of their programmes - how cool is that?). 

I won't give up on poetry because it's how I work and process the dramatic moments of my life. But next time - I'll be better prepared for the subject matter.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Time to get on with it.

Back to work, whinge over. I've delivered book 2 - edited, read through a dozen times, tarted up and smoothed out. I'm sure it's still full of stuff I haven't seen or sorted, but someone's new eyes coming to it will find them.

Editing is so important. I'm sometimes sitting with other writers, and one will say: 'I never edit.' Well, you should. Even if you tidy up as you go along, even if every chapter and scene is plotted from the outset, when you look at the whole thing you need to go through and consider the reader. If they don't have your life experiences/sense of humour/values will they understand every line? If these characters are new to them, is there enough to make is easy to understand them? Do they know what you meant to say or are they dependant on what you actually said?

I'm doing a substantial re-write of book 3, too. More than an edit, I'm looking at whole threads which don't quite work, don't actually mesh together. Maybe I'll even lose a character or two, or make it less complex. As the final book of a whole trilogy, I'm trying to tie up a lot of loose threads, complete the journey of increasing numbers of characters. I've started by looking through the first six chapters and rearranged them into a much better order. Then I've printed them off and have worked through them, finding things that need to go in, changes that need to be made, backstory that can be managed better.

I'm also planning to go off to the Arvon centre in Devon on the 28th April to write some poetry. It might seem a bit strange that having spent so much time and effort (and having some success) in the arena of fiction that I might not bother with poetry, but I find poetry is the spring of inspiration where words are concerned. I'm more economical and precise with words in fiction when I've been writing poetry - and editing. Poetry IS editing. Even deciding to keep your first draft is a conscious decision. I can't wait, even when I'm terrified of going away for a week with strangers in the middle of nowhere... There's no internet, no phone, no nothing. Excellent.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Wrestling with motivation

Sometimes it all feels like every step is uphill. The book is out there in its paperback livery and doing OK, as far as I can tell. Not taking the High Street by storm, but selling. I did want to email everyone who bought it personally to say thank you, but once we got past the 1000 mark common sense starts to come in. I also wanted to thank everyone for writing reviews, which on the whole have been very lovely, and even the one person who reviewed it and didn't like it said it just wasn't their sort of thing, completely fair comment. But you can't do that. I'm so happy to be published, and I should be skipping, but real life is getting in the way at the moment.

I'm selling my much-loved house, largely because my husband's cancer diagnosis has made him want a fresh start somewhere else. But to do this we had to tidy up, sort out and de-clutter our house and now I'm showing strangers around. Some of them are less than complimentary. They are entitled to their point of view, of course, but can't they take a leaf out of the reviewer's book and understand it's a matter of taste? No, I don't have walls covered with trendy wallpaper with giant flowers, and I don't have laminate floors everywhere. I have no problem with people who do, but this is an old house. It just wouldn't go. I'm just hoping for a buyer soon, before I actually go crazy.

My husband is off to radiotherapy every day, having his pelvis microwaved or whatever they are doing, and being remarkably chilled about it. We follow all the side effects and discuss talk about everyday. But what we don't talk about is whether it will work. He's relentlessly positive about it, which I love, and need him to be otherwise he wouldn't do all the treatments. But it leaves me with my doubts, which rage through my nightmares every night. I'm actually going crazy.

I know other writers who believe if they could just sell a book and get published they would be happy - forever - but real life is so much bigger. Writing is my escape - I wrote before I got published and I will write afterwards too. But real life is hard to get away from at the moment. So I would like to sell my house, and move, and have the radiotherapy work. Please. 

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Paperback day!!!

The paperback came out today! 

And it's in Tesco's, which is unexpected and amazing. The big supermarkets like books that are either by established authors or non-fiction. Début authors are less represented, and fantasy is not very commonly sold by them. So it was a coup for the sales team - I can't imagine how they did it but I hope the book rewards their hard work! It's also in bookshops, apparently. I shall scour local shops anyway. Wow! It's hard to believe even though we talk about it with my agent and editor, and they talk as if it's all quite normal. It still seems strange to me!

We've found a lovely house in Torrington, which is sort of in the middle of Devon and the house is great. I don't know if we could sell quickly enough to secure it, but it gives me hope that the right sort of houses are out there. So much for downsizing though - moving this year we still need 5/6 bedrooms! The cats might find the road a bit busy but they aren't going out much now, and all the mouse/vole/sunshine action is definitely at the back - gardens south facing and overlooking fields. All cool. 

I'm still working on book 2 - once I get into editing it's very satisfying, and thanks to all my beta readers and my editor, it's a straightforward process. I think I'm the one who wants to make the most changes, just because I want it as clean and coherent as possible but also because I know what happens in book 3!     

Monday, 10 March 2014

It's been a long time...

...since I blogged. Life is massively complicated at the moment, but not necessarily bad. We've decluttered, painted, cleaned and packed our house up to within an inch of its life. We've viewed houses, had estate agents round, we're seriously moving. I'm editing, cooking, sorting, packing and keeping an eye on Rightmove. But there's a distracted part of me that is thinking what plants I ought to get in the garden, what seeds should have already gone in, the state of the raised beds and their weeds. I'm fretting that the poor chickens haven't been able to go out in the yard since the storms blew their fence to bits. I'm thinking about book 4 when I need to concentrate on book 2 and 3. I'm definitely distracted.

February blew through with such a drama I almost forgot March would follow behind. There are fat bumble bees feeding on the winter honeysuckle, a couple of butterflies have already wandered up to the spring flowers. The cats have spent time rolling around on the garden steps absorbing the energy. It is time to put the cancer drama behind us a bit and think of it as just another job. So I'm looking forward.

I've booked a course at Arvon to spend some time looking at poetry. I'm going to step out of the selling and buying a house/radiotherapy world to go and do something truly creative. I'm looking forward to it but I'm also terrified. Poetry is something I would love to do better but I think (for me) it's the hardest thing. I think I've spent longer on a single poem than on a whole chapter of a book. I've prepared by looking at Mimi Khalvati's poetry and love it. I'm sure I'm going to get loads out of the week, providing I'm not too stressed out to go! So we're renting a shipping container and moving most of our possessions there to make moving easier. I'm enjoying having a lot of the clutter out of the way - I'm wondering if we should just leave it all in the container... 

Monday, 24 February 2014

Finally! Book 3 is in a proper draft.

After struggling to write with all the distractions of cancer in the family and trying to get the house ready to sell, book 3 is finally all in one place. It's also an unholy mess, as the longer I take to write a book the more room for mistakes there is, changes of heart, plot lines that peter out into nothing, characters that just wander off and I forget to explain or, you know, massacre. It's finally all in one place along with a few blank pages with 'Jack chapter - how does she get to Dartmoor???' at the top. So far, it's 87k of vaguely coherent story, but I'm worried that I've been accumulating characters as the story goes on in the series and now there's way too many. Time for a serious prune or even, when I rewrite book 2 next week, the necessary movement of some stuff into book 2 to take the pressure off book 3.  

Life is strange without a phone, and very intermittent internet. In some ways it's more manageable and it's helped with the distraction of 'Oh My God It's Cancer' which still has the odd echo rippling through the family. I miss speaking to family, mostly, as the mobile option is a bit poor in our convoluted geography.

Next week I shall be ready to blitz book 2 into shape (hopefully) with possibly the odd addition from book 3. But my mind has already turned to the sequel to A Baby's Bones, an archaeological mystery. The sequel is set in Moretonhampstead and I'm looking into maybe sneaking away for a couple of days to go and see the site of a strange ghost sighting at Lustleigh Cleave. A servant girl, walking back over the moor to see her parents some miles away, saw a group of Neolithic hunters, and the description by Theo Brown, a folklorist, caught my interest. Great area for atmospheric locations for stories! After a sunny morning, it's started raining again. A half-drowned buzzard has just landed on the conservatory roof. Maybe he'll hold it down, because all the storms have played havoc with our roof!

For light relief I'm reading 'Longbourn', a charming retelling of the over-told Pride and Prejudice story - but from the servants' point of view. Loving it. 

Friday, 21 February 2014

A week in the Dark Ages

Now, I shouldn't have a problem with the complete absence of internet or phone. I was born in the sixties, and we didn't have a phone then, and the internet only existed in inventors' heads. So when a huge lightning flash and bang knocked out the power and the phone line, you'd think we would cope fine, wouldn't you?

A week later we had gone through withdrawal from the internet, and come out the other side. I must have picked up my tablet a thousand times, just going to look something up, check Facebook or emails, blog... it was a strange experience! I didn't realise how connected I was by the internet. This last week we have packed a thousand boxes (OK, probably 30 but they're really heavy), moved four bookcases into storage, kept husband company on his targeting CT scan for radiotherapy (which starts in March), thrown away oodles of clothes and other things to the dump, tidied and sorted and cleaned - Oh My. And I couldn't tell anyone. I couldn't even phone (I still can't and BT have dug up the road to work on it) and our mobiles have very limited reception here in the valley. 

I was reduced to writing without access to the internet for research. How would an Arab mathematician address an English mathematician? Would that be different if he had just bought him at auction? How far is Alexandria from Brindisi by sea (oh, I so wished I hadn't packed the atlas at this point!). I did do some words, and I'm coming into the very last stretch of book 3 - or I would be if I hadn't separated out the two strands and now have to reunite them as some point!

I'm also editing book 2 which came to a complete halt when I realised I couldn't access the notes my editor had painstakingly made for me to work from... I hate missing a deadline but it's never going to get done by the 28th. Crazy days. I'm going to enjoy the internet while I still have it though - I doubt I would have attempted a historical novel otherwise! 

I'm also going to have a go at the Liebster award Teresa Stenson nominated me for - I loved her responses, check them out! Thanks, Teresa!

Monday, 3 February 2014

February already

I had a bright idea: that I would be finished with book 3 at the end of January. Good idea but a bit unrealistic because I forgot how many things I had to do in January. I went down to Winchester to talk to some students on creative writing courses, and some other writers, and had a fantastic time. Looking over the seated people (a fellow student from my year in the front seat) it was lovely to be telling my story and encouraging fellow writers to push on, finish that book, get on with the next one. It's not a pipe dream, it's still very hard to get published, of course, but those writers who have stories they just have to write down would probably find readers just as enthralled by their characters. I followed that by a talk to creative writing students at Brockenhurst college. If my personal philosophy wasn't 'give back, give forward' I still would have got loads from addressing these different groups. Questions make you look at what you do and why. Sometimes it is the younger students at the beginning of their writing journey who make the biggest challenges, and gave me a chance to reflect on aspects of writing I hadn't considered consciously before. So, thank you for making me welcome and thank you for making me look at my writing practice and understand the process better.

Anyway, back to work. Book 3 is in its last stages of development then I can put it aside for a couple of months to work on book 2. Book 1 is in its paperback incarnation (which will, hopefully, sell well) and looking rather eye-catching, I think. It's embossed like the hardback, very glossy white writing, very smart. 

Meanwhile, cancer-cat seems unbothered by her probable fate, despite being a bit lumpy around the neck. It has made me wonder what it would be like to be animal and child free at some point. Free to travel, maybe. I can't imagine writing without her, though. She sleeps in the study when I'm working, curled up on a  blanket  on a sling on the radiator, occasionally sitting on my lap and the keyboard for attention.

I am wrestling with the vagaries of sixteenth-century travel. Countries that we think of as Greek were under Venetian control but they must have had their own ideas about their identity. Venice wasn't part of 'Italy', which wouldn't exist for centuries. My characters are aliens, lost in a conflicted world of the Ottoman empire.    

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Good news and more good news

I'm writing again. That's good therapy for me, and for my husband, whose future remains a bit uncertain. But two other things have really cheered us both up this week apart from coming to terms with the uncertainty.

First, we have received a copy of the paperback, complete with highly tactile cover. It's bright and fiery and I love the lettering - and hopefully, it will be enticing on the bookshelf. That's the plan, anyway.

And second, my agent and editor have put their heads together, and swapped A Baby's Bones (a mystery) with book 3 of the trilogy, thus ensuring that books 1, 2 and 3 are all with the right editor and imprint, and releasing ABB to find another publisher if it can. It has a different feel to it, more of a romance with a fantasy-light edge rather than the full on urban/historical fantasy style of the trilogy. I love writing both, so it's not a problem for me. But since I am finishing book 3 at the moment, I am looking forward to getting back to a different type of writing for a change. 

I'm off to Winchester to give a talk on Tuesday night, at the university where I studied my MA. Hopefully, it will be nice to tell them what I heard from the Publishing Project - keep going, keep writing, it's possible, it isn't a pipe dream at all. Then, hopefully, off to see friends and family before talking to some 'A' level students on the way home. Then it will he head down and on with finishing book 3 in order to send it off to my agent, who will hopefully give me tips and guidance on where it needs to be taken. That's the thing about an agent, you start to write for them, and I love that. It's like I have an audience of one person to please, and one (my son Kez) to criticise. With my husband to help me plot - it all works.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Thousand by thousand, we build a book.

It's slow going sometimes, although a thousand words a day is a bit of a triumph after the last few weeks. Yesterday I hit three and a half thousand words in one go, partly because I had raw material to draw on. My Kelley strand is at 16k, not bad since 1 January. But I still don't know where it's going and I think Alexandria is too ambitious. I wonder is Kirkira in Corfu will be enough. Actually, I don't think it will. Alexandria was such a powerful centre of commerce, I think we'll end up there anyway.

My problem has been backstory. Kelley had a whole adventure a couple of months before this story starts, and that is the springboard for this whole book. What I didn't want to write is: the story so far... In fact, those are the bits that are mostly getting taken out. It's so much harder to weave them into the story, and I still found I had a big chunk to tell, so I made Kelley stand up and tell it by firelight, to a bunch of sceptical, semi-mutinous sailors. But I still need a few bits. I need to tell the story of what Dee did while Kelley was gallivanting all over Venice in book 2. Hm. More weaving needed, which means going back (again) and putting more little clues in. How do people do it? How on earth can someone plan all this out ahead of time? For those of you who plot - I salute you. I wish I could do it.

Meanwhile, cancer-cat is recovering really well from her surgery while cancer-man is almost back to normal after his (much more extensive) operation. It's nice not to have to worry about him moving a chair or putting a log on the fire in case he pulls something. The cat will hopefully gain a good summer or so from the surgery. Then we will be down to one cat - hard to believe we started last hear with four healthy if elderly kitties. We're starting to get past the painful numbness and crushing terror of the diagnosis now and to plan some fun things. Like a trip to Rosemoor to see the winter garden. A drive down to Hampshire to see friends and family and give a talk in Winchester.

I also spoke to my editor about book 1. Book sales are low. Hardbacks sell very few and mine is in the doldrums. It's early days and we all have more hope for the paperback. I'm not surprised - they will always tell you good news but everyone goes quiet about bad news. My focus is more on book 2 and 3, we'll see. As always, I am kept afloat by Ian Rankin's remarkable story of how long he waited for a commercial success with his books.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Finding the joy

Today, having put it off all day, I sat down to write. And stood up an hour and half and two thousand words later. The story, the need of the characters to get from A to B (Prague to Crete, actually) dragged me in as it used to do. After ten weeks (blimey, has it really been that long!?!) I am finding the words again. I've managed to put down eight thousand odd words in eleven days - not exactly my usual output and it feels slow, but it's coming.

This week was all about results. Once the tests are in, the  surgery done, then all the extracted tissues go up to a lab to be tested and analysed and explored. The best possible news would be that there was a clear margin of healthy cells, no other organs were affected, and it hasn't spread to the lymph glands. We didn't get the best news. As the week went on, the results were slowly shared with us and a plan evolved for radiotherapy, a year of hormone treatment and still, our bubbly oncologist predicts, a reasonable chance of a cure. We didn't brood. Something much more immediate came up that we could deal with. Our fifteen year old tortoiseshell, rule-the-world cat Harry Wooggo aka Bumface had developed a small soft lump under the skin on her chest. Yesterday, she had it removed at the cost of three hundred quid and is now bumbling about with various bald patches, a plastic collar which she is just refusing to see and hopefully, her cancer removed. We refused to have pathology - we wouldn't put her through the treatments my husband is facing at her advanced age, and anyway, she's spectacularly healthy as she is. As, interestingly, is he. I have faith in them both.

It's strange how real life pushes back the impact of the book etc. Yet the need to write is a force that has me mumbling dialogue under my breath and poetry spilling onto envelopes if I don't sit down and get on with it. Writing is how I cope with life. The life of the book out there in the world - doesn't seem as real, now. I wish it well, but my priority is its little brothers, book 2 and 3. There I still have a creative input.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Forcing the words out

I've written 926 words today, in several goes. It's uphill at the moment, I can feel all the different distractions pulling at me. Kids at home, kids going back to university, putting Solstice/Christmas back in its boxes. I feel as if being patient/understanding/kind for a few weeks has left me with a backlog of selfishness backed up. I just want to jump up and down and shout 'but what about ME?'

My husband's got cancer, which is awful and scary and hopefully well on the way to being cured. He's got six incisions and has had to go back to the hospital twice, and I'm really sorry he's weak and tired. But there's a child in me that had a very hard holiday and worked extra hard to make it as good as it could be for everyone else. And yes, I really do know what a selfish cow that makes me sound like! But I put my life on hold once before for someone who was ill and it stretched out to eight years of uncertainty, false hope and eventual devastating loss. I've got baggage. 

So that's today. By tomorrow I hope to be back on my feet and serenely Zen about the fact that we are about to get THE RESULTS. We will be told whether the cancer has probably gone or not, and whether radiotherapy will help and when he will have to start having it. Again with the uncertainty... To make matters worse he wants to move house.

Excuse me while I jump and up down shrieking for a few moments.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

The strange journey of research

I've solved the problem which was blocking me over book 3's historical strand. Not enough story, not enough reason to set out on an adventure that might very well kill my protagonist. So I looked up when John Dee met Emperor Rudolf II and stumbled across the Golem of Prague. Since my story is about the nature of life and the focus of book 3 is early Jewish mysticism... what a great find! This is why I do research, I'm not just ignoring the TV or the kids, I'm working on my book...

A golem is a clay figure brought to life by various rituals and the word of God, which only a few rabbis knew how to pronounce.

These creatures don't stay obedient and they have to be deactivated by the rabbi in most of the stories. There are fairy stories of children created from soil and even the gingerbread man, all with comical or disastrous consequences. Lots of opportunity for research and room for extra plot from me. I have to say, early Jewish mysticism is a vast subject and pretty fascinating.

Apart from that, life is starting to return to normal, with the kids starting to fly back to university. It would have been easier to write today had the electricity been on all day but the storms have created problems for the last few days. More storms are forecast. Apart from yesterday when I left the computer unplugged most of the day because the current was unreliable and lightning kept knocking it out, I'm managing my word counts. 1100 today, not massive but I have rewritten the whole of the first three chapters. More research coming up... 

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Moving along with book 3

Well, getting back to writing is uphill but I managed more than 1300 new or recycled words yesterday. I love one of my characters, Marinello, a sea captain from Venice and a real wheeler dealer. I have a feeling my character Kelley has a crush on him - whenever I see him through Kelley's eyes he just seems larger than life, this time dallying with a nobleman's wife until she pierces one of his ears with a bodkin and puts one of her own earrings in it (causing some jealousy with her husband). Maybe we both have a bit of a crush... we certainly linger over his occasional nakedness. Those 1300 words required eight 'facts' from research though (thank the gods for the internet), no wonder it takes so long! It does make me realise how much detail could be tucked into book 2 to help with book 3. Jane Dee is coming to life as well, after being just a memory of Kelley's. Women are only casually referred to in his-tory, but Mrs Dee seems a remarkable lady. She married a man thirty years her senior and bore him seven children (one of them probably Kelley's despite being constantly loyal to Dee - long story. Read book 5.)  She was dragged all over Europe, with her husband spending every penny he earned on books and research, and ended up pretty well bankrupted and hanging on at the court of King James I. She was accounted 'a sweet and learned lady' - I think I would have become a complete nagging nightmare after being evicted (again) in debt from one country to another. I'm keen to show her as a resourceful and intelligent woman who was a great reader in her own right.