Thursday, 29 November 2018

A regular blogger - no, wait

I used to be a regular blogger. I always had something to say about writing, the books I was reading and writing, the struggle I was going through to write better stores and better prose. But this year especially, one big real life story has got in the way. I'm watching my father in law die very slowly. He's a creative himself, he used to draw for children's comics as well as draw cartoons for publications like newspapers and magazines like the Radio Times. 

This is the cover of the book he wrote (with my help) about his life in cartooning. He drew it off the cuff at the age of 80 something. He drew for Whizzer and Chips (my favourite), Dandy, Beano, Pow! and Buster amongst many others for forty years.
His life is drawing to a close so slowly you can see all the different phases. He started with losing his appetite for food and especially drink, and has progressed though to now, when he just sleep, wakes for a few minutes, drops off again. He's not in pain, thanks to the doctor, but he's not comfortable either. He's not accepting of death, but he wants this stage over. 

What keeps running through my mind is how much nicer it would have been to have these last six weeks ten years ago, when he came to stay at our house with his wife, and we had so much fun. Or five years before that when he bought a box of toy guns that fired foam disks and had running battles with all the kids around his bungalow,or when he played badminton with them in the garden. It has made me quite anxious about our own deaths, and has raised issues around the level of care that most cancer patients are offered compared to non-cancer patients. I'm not in favour of euthanasia as such although I understand the case for assisted suicide and think it might help some families. I am in favour of palliative care being much more used in the community. Having an 'end of life' care pack in a residential home is useless if the staff can't touch the contents without calling the doctor. If we were looking after him at home we would have access to powerful pain relief, the district nurses and syringe drivers. But it's all down to funding and allocating scarce resources, it makes me so sad that one old man was left in pain over the weekend.because care staff didn't know what to do, we didn't know who to turn to.

So I am writing and thinking about books and getting published but this is what's happening in our lives. A small, expected but painful emotional bomb is about to go off and it's been hissing and fizzing for six weeks.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

It seems like a very long year.

It has been a very busy year. A Baby's Bones came out to a good reception, which was great. I wrote Finding Noah, which I am editing right now, and completely rewrote A Shroud of Leaves (the sequel to A Baby's Bones). Which all sound very productive except the whole year has been taken up with other things, with writing side-lined to odd moments and days when I could sneak off to the computer. There have been a lot of promotion events from library talks to festival events, all of them different and interesting. I've taught workshops, read manuscripts for people and worked on next year's book idea. 

But it's felt like it was all too much, too complicated and difficult because real life was so emotional and complex. My father-in-law from my first marriage reached his mid eighties, had a heart attack and died, bang, there in the bathroom. His son, my husband, suffered a haemorrhage caused by unsuspected leukaemia, and died. Light out, gone, and much missed at the age of 33. My second husband's parents haven't been so lucky. They are wrestling with dementia, struggling to remember who they are and understand what's happening around them. My father-in-law has been devastated by Parkinson's, the disease which he shrugged off for many years but has suddenly combined with three strokes to limit his mobility, even his speaking and drinking. This year they had to give up their home and their independence. They are living through the moment of dying in slow motion, and it's cruel to see. It's a sadness at the back of every moment of our days. I visited my mother in law yesterday and she genuinely didn't know who I was or even if she knew me, that was hard. It took her a few minutes to download the file that is me, now relegated to 'that lovely girl's mother'. She clings to fragments of memory of the grandchildren and the baby, she remembers men better than women. But a woman who can't physically care for herself is fighting to remember who she is now even the distant memories are out of reach. Her main concern is 'Can I stay here?' and 'Where's my husband?'. He's on another floor, fighting off a chest infection. It feels like just writing their year down would be the most awful drama. 

Other transitions had to be weathered too - our youngest child went off to university. That left us looking at each other with nothing to talk about except selling the in-laws' bungalow, getting the care home right, transitioning their medical and social care to a new town. At first we couldn't even get their tablets transferred, let alone the funding they were entitled to. The house is empty and quiet or filled with talk of illness and work, and my husband has taken every opportunity to get out of it to play music.  

So, I haven't blogged because it would all seem so sad. Now, it's out there, I've vented, and can get back to writing about writing. Because there's a lot to say, it's a steep learning curve even now, with five books written and more to work on. Each editor teaches me a new focus to work on, highlights a new skill. I feel like my editing has come on more than my writing, which comes easier with each book. The gap between my first draft and anything publishable, however, gapes ever wider... My next blog will be more hopeful.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Hacking the book apart and putting it back together

It's been a really interesting week. I've been waiting for feedback from my new editor on the sequel to A Baby's Bones. I was very nervous. It's the first time I've tried to write from a detailed plan and it was incredibly uphill for me. The book felt muddled and overly complicated but I just didn't know where to start with structural edits. 

Fortunately, she did. She was kind but honest - using lots of words like 'it's difficult to see' and 'I wonder if' she basically reworked the whole thing, turned it gently upside down until all the complications and distractions fell out and voila! What looks like a proper crime story just needing to be substantially rewritten. Which is easily done, because most of the strands don't rely one each other (red flag right there) and pulling one out doesn't unravel the whole.  

She also liked the historical strand from the get go and it doesn't need as much work so, just 60k words to sort out. I knew it wasn't right, it seemed overlong for an early draft. I have pages of helpful notes to work through.

It occurs to me that as a writer, one of the things we need to learn is to take criticism in the spirit it was given. I used to find it so hard, I nearly ducked out of my first writing course because the honest (and amazingly helpful!) feedback was so painful. I've just helped someone self publish their book. It's a good read but honestly, it would be ten times better with a structural edit, a good copy edit and some proofreading. But they can't cope with even the smallest suggestion of a change word let alone a big chunk of story. 

My editor suggested taking out two characters, two subplots and about 15k words and I was very happy to hear it. I'm quite proud of myself, really, I've come a long way from crying over a few adjectives and a moderate mark! 

The other thing some writers struggle with is positive feedback. She liked the historical strand and I'm taking that at face value. It works. No doubt it will work even better with a  thorough rewrite. I'm learning not to go all bashful and self critical when someone likes something. I think it's a skill we don't learn early enough. 

Monday, 30 July 2018

Meeting new writers

I've been very happy and very impressed to spend the last couple of months enjoying other people's writing. I met someone in Penzance whose poetry is lyrically beautiful, a fellow writer in Barnstaple has just self published her first book which is well worth a read (when she goes public).  I've heard first draft writing in workshops that show so much promise, I feel drunk on good words. 

I'm looking forward to running a workshop in Taunton (21st September at the Brewhouse) and after that settling into a year's course at Barnstaple Library (Write a Better Book). I meet so many authors who write a book (kudos to them, it's quite a slog!) but then rush to self publish before they consider traditional routes. I hear a lot of 'Oh, the agent turned me down' but not many stay the course, take a professional approach to it. Your book has to attract an agent, it has to be so engaging they fall in love with it enough to work with you (unpaid) and then put it into the world to earn some money for you.

If you can't get an agent or publisher, I would ask:
  • Is the book as brilliant and polished as you can make it?
  • Is it right for the genre/audience?
  • Are you really trying every avenue i.e. all relevant agents, all publishers who take submissions?
  • Is your work of prize-worthy quality? (Even getting on a longlist says it's getting there).
  • Primarily, though, is it actually good enough?
I'm not dissing self publishing, sometimes it's the best option, especially if you have a professional approach to selling your own work and are prepared to do the promotion yourself. I presently have a novella that I think will need to be self published just because of the length. But getting commercially published confirms that you're on the right track.

Of course, that doesn't guarantee the elusive best seller... Back to those intoxicating words. There's some bloody brilliant writers in the West Country...  

Saturday, 21 July 2018

All over the place

That's where I've been. Last year we bought a tatty little caravan for a few hundred to, as much as anything, help salvage our relationship (cancer is a bitch, don't let anyone tell you it isn't). In a way, fighting the thing was easier (for my husband) than dealing with the uncertainty, the consequences of treatment, the whole 'I'm going to die/I'm going to be widowed' thing. So, we bought this elderly caravan (1985 Rapido). 

As you can see it's not glamorous and is a fraction of the size of the tent in front of it. You either sort your issues out or one of you sleeps on the grass. We sorted a lot of stuff out, including accepting that he might die/I might be widowed (again) but what the hell? Hasn't happened yet and the best research suggests if it comes back there are treatment options to give us some time to deal with it. If we have to. 

An unexpected bonus was that we reconnected with our inner campers and loved living in a field, just the two of us. We used to take half a dozen assorted kids (and often camped with other families) but there's something very companionable about stretching out on our bunks and reading our books while the sun goes down.

We've been exploring our own backyard: St. Ives, Marazion and Penzance, Totnes, Paignton, Goodrington, and Torquay. We're off to South Devon again in September - getting a week's accommodation for little more than a night in a  B&B. In the meantime, we're going to the Green Gathering with two daughters, one boyfriend (Rosie's) and the grandchild, who is now eighteen months. Being away from home has focused my mind on plots and characters, my head is buzzing. I've visited National Trust and English Heritage properties from my era (sixteenth century) and wandered around museums (I recommend the one in Totnes, an Elizabethan merchant's house). 

We spent last week having a proper holiday rather than snatching a weekend around a book event - it was heaven. Swimming in glassy turquoise water on hot days, wandering around cool walls and along beaches to catch the wind and (fortunately) the caravan was at the top of the hill, got loads of breezes coming through. We also indulged my passion for public transport, with a river cruise to Dartmouth, an open topped bus and a steam train. We saw spoonbills on the river, new to me but apparently they are occasionally breeding here after going extinct around 1650. There's a theme here, as I research the Elizabethan era.     

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Wow. What a month.

OK. Deep breath. It's been a busy few weeks. I finished the Noah book that I started in January. A Baby's Bones came out on May 1st. Older relatives came to the end of their independent lives and had to move into a care home. It was horribly stressful, especially for them, they were devastated at the initial idea and fought against it for a long time. Then they had to accept it. It made me think, how do I envisage old age? How long do I really have, how long do any of us have? It's been painful.

Honestly, the book's been well reviewed and is on its way in the world. I'm doing various book events including CrimeFest next week. I'm organised, I'm ready. But I'm sad, we're grieving for the past family life that we had when the kids were younger, when we would all meet up for days or meals or to play cricket or badminton in their garden. To help them settle in, I made a photo album of happier days for her, because her Alzheimer's gets in the way of her remembering good days. It was a sad process, and I find myself pushing my husband to be more involved, help him adjust, while trying to remember these are his parents, this is agony for him. So sad. 

So, yes, the book came out and I'm happy and I'm pleased about it. But it will keep travelling and family will not be the same. Today, two of the boys come home for their birthdays and we'll celebrate, and they will visit their grandparents, but it won't be the same without them. 

Sorry about the sad post. Writing is great but this is real life, you can't just change the ending.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

A Baby's Bones, out May 1 2018

There is this magical moment when the last rumbling of rounds of editing die down and you wait. And then the email comes in. 'We've put your copies of the books in the post...' along with some very kind words of congratulation. And two days later, these babies arrive!

A Baby's Bones, out May 1

The thing is, for me this book has been around for years. I wrote it before The Secrets of Life and Death even came out. I could even say, the book kind of wrote itself, I was filled with nervous energy and waiting to sell the Secrets books and tapped away to keep busy. the Del Rey bought the books and they wanted A Baby's Bones... But after I wrote The Secrets of Blood and Bone, I realised that ABB was very different in tone and we amicably swapped it out for The Secrets of Time and Fate, allowing me to finish the series, for which I am very grateful. So, A Baby's Bones just sort of sat there, waiting for a home, and I got on with writing other books. When we came back to it a couple of years ago, my then agent suggested it might translate into a crime novel, and there we were. I read crime so it wasn't a huge leap, but editing meant I had to rewrite almost every line. It's been a lot easier writing the sequel, crime from scratch. 

There's a lesson there for prospective writers, though. Listen to feedback. If you're in love with your sci-fi/romance/spy thriller (and who wouldn't be) that's fine. But if an agent or editor or your readers suggest you need to take it down a notch and focus on just one audience, then I would listen. Your own perfect version will always be on your hard drive (my fantasy version of A Baby's Bones sits there) but I know this new version will reach a wider audience.

Incidentally, Titan Books (Miranda Jewess, Jo Harcourt et al.) have done a lovely job in little time to smooth the edges and tidy the story up. It looks lovely. I almost want to read it myself, but the ending won't come as much of a surprise.  

So if you like archaeological mysteries in the present day and to see what really went on in 1580, this might be for you.  

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Fiction and faction

I'm busy writing while watching the snow fall thickly outside. I don't fancy skating down the path so I'm happy indoors while my husband builds new (and necessary) bookcases for the front room. I have a lot of hardbacks that need a proper home as well as a lot of research books. Having three books on the go is space consuming. I have written 80k words in two months which is astonishing for me and honestly, is because I'm so enjoying the characters and story. It feels so self-indulgent to be back writing fantasy for joy. 

The thing is, as I make stuff up I'm colliding with actual facts. I invented a drug that was rejected because it gave people serious (even life threatening) nightmares and guess what? An anti psychotic was withdrawn late in testing for that reason. I found studies that showed that extreme physiological stress could kill people who were suspected of having the worst nightmares. I invent a shared dream and it turns out there's quite a lot of empirical evidence for people connecting in dreams. New research leads me down some very funky paths, and that leads to new ideas in the book.

It almost makes me want to write a 'stranger than fiction' chapter at the end of each book. Or maybe a non-fiction book about some of this amazing stuff (well, I find it amazing). I am cursed with frequent and dramatic nightmares so perhaps I have an unusual level of interest.  

In far more important news, my granddaughter (16 months) had her first experience of snow today! The most uncomplicated joy and curiosity that reminds me not to overthink everything. 

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Dreaming of a new book

I'm loving writing the new book. This is the way I like to write, incubate an idea for a year or so, while I'm writing something else, then sit down with a clear direction in mind.  In common with several of my books, the character at the centre of my world is a teenager. The adults rotate around her but she is strongly the heroic figure, sorting out the adult world around her. Her story is pouring onto the page, while her father tries to find her and one of her carers starts to wonder if she's been told everything about this comatose, lost child.  

My focus is on dreaming, which by itself is a fascinating area. I remember my dreams (mostly) and some of them are very odd. It turns out some people have way weirder dream experiences that I do, from waking dreams to lucid dreams (when you know you're dreaming and can 'direct' the dream somewhat. Over Christmas I fell asleep in front of the news (bad idea), the stories fed into my dreams. This idea that your dreams can be changed by what's going on around you is fascinating. It mostly happens in non-REM dreaming (non rapid eye movement), which leaves our muscles working and our senses on alert. the dreams are more snappy and bitty, and less colourful BUT they form particular movements of energy and activation in the brain that is in the area of the brain that produces consciousness. It's possible people in 'comas' (although most have moved into disorders of consciousness if they don't wake up) may experience NREM dreaming before their brain learns new pathways to wake up. Now all I have to do is turn that into 100k words of story and characters to make it interesting. Which will be easier when family life stops getting in the way.

Meanwhile, I'm exchanging books with my fellow panellists at my first CrimeFest - exciting stuff! These are two of my fellow panellists - their books, anyway. Bedtime reading when family stuff calms down again...

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Where did the time go!

Well, that was a crazy two months! Two bouts of nasty viruses got us, we went down one after the other until by Christmas week catering consisted of offering a selection of a Strepsils and maybe a Lemsip? I couldn't keep anything down except water, for eleven days (great start to the January diet) but it did ferment lots of ideas and sleepless nights were filled with research. I now know so much about disorders of consciousness, sleep and dreaming even if I couldn't sleep or dream. 

Saving Noah (working title) is turning out to be a terrifying roller-coaster about medical research and ethics. It's giving me nightmares which is funny because my character is sort of stuck in one. At least I've gone back to sleeping... 20k words in I've found my main characters and really, like most of my books, it's about a search for a missing child and/or saving a child. Wish fulfilment. But it's also about the lengths people will go to to save someone, how they will fudge the ethical consequences to try anything that might work. I'm not judging, I've been there. But pharmaceutical research is huge, and sometimes desperate people subvert the ethical guidelines. I've seen patients in palliative care offered 'last ditch' treatments which are not intended or expected to save them, the companies just need data about side effects and efficacy.

I've also met completely trustworthy and caring people who have been hoodwinked by someone who wants to make a name out of groundbreaking research. People selling cancer cures (although no-one calls them that) in private practice who are themselves drawn in by the need to help people. There's money, still, in snake oil.

Meanwhile, despite the bugs and coughing and insomnia, I managed to turn around a full edit of A Baby's Bones and now have... (drum roll) an actual, galley copy of the book!

It looks good, I love that the cover is about an aspect and character who isn't a principal but one of the victims. It is planned for 1 May 2018 so 89 days, two hours and thirty-six minutes (but who's counting). I'm very excited but as always, the current book is taking up all my time. A Baby's Bones will just get a final couple of polishes before it actually hits the bookshelves...