19 December, 2011

A Tiny Bit Encouraging?

Brown envelopes are horrible aren't they? They only ever seem to mean one thing to writers: another rejection. There was one waiting for me this morning when I came downstairs, but this time I'm not downhearted.

Before anyone gets excited (because of course, you all were, weren't you?), it was indeed another rejection. This one was from my first-choice literary agency - Conville and Walsh - who I submitted to in September and was beginning to lose hope with. So far nothing to celebrate, right? However, it wasn't a standard rejection - it was personalised! I appreciate that getting a personalised rejection might not seem like anything much to shout about, but after five fairly swift standard rejections, it was somehow one of the most encouraging things I've ever read! Tragic but true.

Reading those few words, "you write brilliantly and the premise is wonderful", followed by the assertion that they are "sure you will find an agent soon", will keep me going through a good handful more rejections. Standard rejections are difficult because you don't know whether they hated your work or it just didn't quite make the grade, so it's a boost to know that one of the bigger agencies actually think I can write. (I'm not being stupid here, am I? They wouldn't write that in a standard letter, would they?)

Of course, if they really loved it, they would have asked to read the full manuscript and then found me a publisher - but I refuse to let that minor detail discourage me. Conville and Walsh use readers so it looks like my sample chapters might have got past the readers and on to the next stage of assessment - that's something at least! I don't share their optimism about finding an agent soon, but they have persuaded me that it might not be completely impossible...

17 December, 2011

Finding A Voice

Having dragged myself kicking and screaming from the novel that I started writing in November, to give my mind a break, I am now finding it daunting to go back to it and start over. What if I find I can't do justice to this plot after all? What if the words I produce are nothing but a poor shadow of what's in my head? I suppose there's only one way to find out...

My main sticking point is that I am sure the story is crying out to be written in the first person - it is currently in third-person. However, I started writing some chapters from viewpoints other than that of the main character and that really worked too. So now I have to decide whether to write multiple first-person viewpoints, or to write multiple third-person viewpoints, with just the main character's chapters in the first person. I was swaying towards the latter, but the more I think about each of the other characters, the more I can hear their voices telling their own stories. To add to the difficulty, the whole books revolves round secrets and lies, and therefore the narrators are going to have to be unreliable!

So, this was the point I'd got to in my thinking when I decided to read a book in order to take my mind off my own story. I chose 'My Sister's Keeper' by Jodi Picoult... which turns about to be written in multiple first-person viewpoints! In a way this was perfect timing as it showed me that it can be done, but it has also made me feel quite inadequate for the task ahead.

So what do you like to read? Are your favourite books written in third or first person? Multiple viewpoints, or only one? What do you see as the drawbacks and advantages of each technique? And if anyone can tell me about any first-person books with an unreliable narrator, that would be grand!

29 November, 2011

Winner!

It is (nearly) the end of November and I am pleased to say that I have finished Draft Zero of my new novel, Thousand-Word Things. Having written it as part of NaNoWriMo, I needed to do at least 50 000 words of it during November, which I managed to do by the 22nd of the month. Today I finished the story completely at a smidge over 60 000 words.

I don't feel particularly victorious, I have to say. Although I am pleased to have "won" NaNo this year, I really didn't have an excuse not to. Many people have managed to get to 50 000+ words while holding down a full-time job and looking after three small children. I have been able to concentrate mostly on writing while just looking after one small husband.I feel a bit like I cheated!

It's been a great experience. It's forced me to write in a way that I wouldn't usually write, and encouraged me to take more risks than I normally would. With limited time for plotting and planning, the only way to make it work was to get to know my characters and let them develop the story themselves. The best bit of this is that I'm really excited about what I've created. Obviously, it needs to be expanded to the length of a full novel, by fleshing out the plot in places, and the writing quality isn't the best I've ever done, but I love the story and the characters and I'm excited about creating a proper novel from this beginning.

My plan for now is to read what I've written - I haven't read back a single chapter yet - and then to spend a month or so mulling over its potential while I crack on with some other things. I have the first draft of a short story crying out for attention and I'd like to start tidying up some previous compeition successes to try and get them published. But then, come January, I hope to get back on the Thousand-Word Thing case, with my own deadline of 31st March to have a finished novel.

08 November, 2011

What I'm learning in November...

So, a week into my first NaNoWriMo and I'm enjoying it. I'm lucky to be able to devote a lot of my day to writing, and therefore don't feel in such a mad rush as everyone else. Even so, I am on 19 500 words this evening, whereas some members of my region have reached the half-way stage already!

I've learned some important things so far.
  1. Microsoft word does not recognise the words lothario or wellies (it tries to change the first e to an i - not the message I was going for)
  2. It is easy to mistake writing fast for writing lots. I charged into my novel feeling the pressure to turn out a lot of words and started racing through the plot. By 10 000 words I was beginning to worry the book will be over before I even reached 50 000 words. The idea of NaNo isn't to get through the plot at double-speed but to get through words at double-speed - over-writing, including the disgusting abuse of adverbs is very much encouraged in NaNo land.
  3. When you delete a word because it is spelled wrong, it is vital to put it back in again. Having deleted most of the word "affairs" from a sentence, I forgot to replace it with the correct spelling. When I read back through the paragraph I found I had written, "If I wanted someone to meddle in my privates, I'd hire a cleaner." Again, not the message I was going for.
  4. Leaning on your elbow for hours at a time while you read and/or think leads to "student elbow" - too much fluid in the joint - which means you have to try and lean on your other elbow, which in turn means you have to try and use your mouse with the wrong hand. 
  5. Using your mouse with your other hand is hard.
I also found out yesterday that I didn't get anywhere in the Spilling Ink Fiction Prize, which wasn't too much of a surprise, but always a little bit of a downer. However, a magazine arrived in the post today with my prize-winning story in it, complete with judges comments and big cheesy photo of me (thanks Joe for the image!) which cheered me up - nice to see my name in print, even if it's not my own novel (yet!). I'll take every boost I can get; I feel like the next few months could be very slow on the "good writing news" front and depressingly quick on the "bad writing news" front, but I'm not letting that get to me. Not today, anyway.

28 October, 2011

A Guardian Masterclass

Some friends of mine have presented me with a supplement that came with The Guardian last weekend: How to Write Fiction - A Guardian Masterclass. It is wonderful. I haven't read it all yet, but the articles - written by various professional writers - are giving me all the inspiration I need in these last few days before NaNoWriMo begins.

I was particularly pleased to read that Zoe Heller, author of the highly-acclaimed Notes on a Scandal, wasn't an overnight hit. That's not the sadist in me, it's just encouraging that she has found such success after being told that "With a lot of work this could be a quite interesting book - but only quite." Ouch.

I also really enjoyed the article by Jill Dawson about just getting on with writing - very apt for National Novel Writing Month!

"I can, of course, see the temptation of not beginning. Chiefly, not beginning sustains the belief that you are gifted, that the novel - when you one day get round to writing it - will surpass all others [...] Not beginning protects you from the disappointment - no, the shame - of reading what you have written and finding it rubbish. It also prevents you from an equally disturbing possibility: discovering that you can write."

This week I have been finishing a short story for the Ruth Rendell competition. It was a 1000 word limit which I found quite awkward - too long for flash fiction, but very short for a full story. I almost had the guts to try a second-person narrative. But not quite. I had written-off this story after a few drafts but when I read it again on Monday I decided to give it another shot and have ended up with one of my favourite bits of writing. Don't you just love that?

The view from my desk.
I love writing altogether this week. This week - sitting in a patch of sunlight at my desk, looking out at the hills, finishing a piece of work I am pleased with and scribbling notes in my novel-planning book - I love being a writer. It's odd because the Ruth Rendell competition is one that I am so very unlikely to win even if my story is the best thing I've ever written (big number of entries, was won by a professional writer last time and there's only one prize I think!) and I have received two rejections for my children's novel within the last three days, but all of that seems sort of alright at the moment. It's a nice way to feel at the start of a new novel. I'm excited.

What is it that makes you glad to be a writer or to do your day-job?

I'll  see you all in NaNovember and I'll leave you with another article quote, this time from Andrew Miller, about spending all our time creating fictional characters to answer the big questions of life:

"An odd use of time! An odd use of life. But there's a courage to it. Even, perhaps, a type of beauty."

17 October, 2011

NaNoWriMo

As I may have mentioned in a previous post, this year I am planning to take part in NaNoWriMo - also known by it's less snappy title, "National Novel Writing Month". At this time of year there are plenty of bloggers posting about what this month entails and there is an official website if you are interested in knowing more, so I'll keep this short: by taking part in NaNoWriMo, you are aiming to write a novel - or at least the first 50 000 words of a novel - between the 1st and 30th of November.

There are many people out there who say they want to write a novel, but the huge majority never get round to trying. So the idea behind NaNoWriMo is to get people just to get on with it. What started off as less than 20 people in the San Francisco area has grown to over 200 000 participants in the last dozen years or so. The organisers confess that what you produce is likely to be terrible - but that's not the point. Everyone who completes 50 000 words is a winner and who knows, you might just produce something terrible that has the potential to be turned into something better.

The novel I am planning to write is an amalgamation of ideas from previous short stories of mine that never quite worked as short fiction for various reasons. I'm excited about it, but I sort of feel that I don't know how to write a novel. That may sound a little strange coming from someone who has just written onel, but I look at The Crosser of the Worlds and wonder how on earth I ever managed to work out such a complex plot with the characters and structure to match. It seems like an impossible task to me, even in hindsight! However, I really want to try writing a novel for adults that isn't genre-specific and this seems like a good way to go about it.

In other news, I am currently working on one short story that I hope to finish by the end of the month. A week ago, I also received my first rejection for my novel. I sent it to The Greenhouse Agency on Friday evening and got rejected on Monday morning. Brutal! I'm working on the prinicpal of submitting to three agents at once. Every time I get rejected I submit to one more and in the mean time try to forget I ever wrote a novel in order to preserve my sanity. At least I'm not alone... I'm sure anyone who has been or is going through the submission process for a book will appreciate this light-hearted post about the process.

And finally, the news you've all been waiting for. Using my prize from the last short story competition I won, I have got round to buying a new coat so I can actually keep dry while wandering the high moor in fog and rain. As I said at the time of winning... it's a glamourous life this writing business, isn't it?

09 October, 2011

Starting As We Went On?

Many writers say that to be a good writer - or indeed any sort of writer - you need to do a lot of reading. In a previous post, I asked you what your earliest memories of reading were. The definitive answer seemed to be Roger Red Hat. Anyway, it is my humble opinion that to be a good writer, you probably need to do a lot of writing too.

So here's a question: what memories of writing do you have as a child? This one's not just for writers - we all had to write about our weekend on a Monday morning at school in order to give the teacher time to drink their tea. Tell me something you were really proud of - or really embarrassed by. Then we can all laugh at you.

I have so many memories I want to write about. But to keep this post short(er), I'll stick to just one. Every year, my primary school ran a creative writing competition which would be judged by members of the Burma Star organisation (Veterans who fought in Burma during World War Two). It alternated between stories and poetry. I won one year with a story called 'The Pendulum'. (I know, I know. Give me a break, I was nine.) But the previous year, in a shamless attempt to woo the judges, I wrote a poem called 'My Grandpa Fought In Burma'. In my defence, my grandpa did actually fight in Burma.

Well, it worked because I won the prize and my poem was published in a children's anthology. My friend Robert had a poem in the anthology too, which he wrote it from the point of view of being a bubble. There was a line in it about how all the children tried to pop him except for me, because I was nice and gentle. I imagine he wrote it on a day when it was our turn to be best friends or something - I remember being pretty chuffed at the time. Mildly embarrassing for both of us.

Anyway, in a bid to get the ball of shame rolling on this topic. I will now reproduce my earliest published work for you. Please remember I was eight. Eight.

My Grandpa Fought in Burma

My Grandpa fought in Burma, he was very brave.
He fought on and on because he had England to save.
There was lots of fighting and lots of blood
Worse than a fire, worse than a flood.
He must have been relieved when the war had ended
And lots of wounded people had to be tended.
But the main thing is, and it's added to my pride -
He's my grandpa, and he's alive.

Yeah baby. Autographs later. (Did I mention that I was eight years old?)

Sadly, those last few words are no longer true. But I like to think that Grandpa can be part of my journey as a writer by being my muse for my early successes. (Eight years old. Don't judge me.)
Over to you again now...

03 October, 2011

A Deadly Sin

As I can't think of a suitable picture for this post, here is one taken near our home on Dartmoor. I like living here.

Three months ago I was told that I had won a short story competition but that I wasn't allowed to tell anyone which competition it was until October. Well, happy October everybody! Please indulge me in the sin of pride for a few moments...

The competition was run by the Association of Christian Writers but it wasn't to write a Christian story, but a story on the theme of '40' to coincide with their 40th anniversary. On Saturday, Paul and I travelled to Wimbledon to attend their Writer's Day and pick up my prize. The few other times I've won things I haven't gone to collect my prize personally as it would cost more money than I was winning. But we decided to just go along for the adventure this time and it only cost about half of the money I won, so that was a bonus! I'll be able to get a new raincoat now. It's a glamourous life...

Really, my husband wanted us to go because it was a day hosted by Adrian Plass. Paul grew up reading Adrian's books and wanted to meet him. It was a little bit daunting as I had been asked to read my story during the day and therefore I was the only person, other than Adrian -with his years of writing and public speaking experience - to be speaking. But actually it was really fun. The best bit of course was hearing the judges' report...

Whenever I've done well in a writing competition, I've always had the nagging feeling that there were only 10 entries and seven of them broke the rules or something. So it was reassuring to hear that there were 150 entries into this competition - not massive but a decent number - and that both the judges independently chose my story as the winner, right from the start. I still feel like there was a bit of luck involved - one of the judges spoke about what they were looking for in the stories and I found myself thinking, "Gosh, what a coincidence that my story had those elements in it. That's pretty lucky." But maybe that's like winning the London Marathon and thinking, "Gosh, it's jolly lucky I ran fast." I don't know. Anyway, they were very charming about my entry and after I had read it, everyone was very nice about it so it has given me a new burst of confidence that maybe I have some idea what I am doing. Well, sometimes at least...

Apparently, one of the plus-points of my '40' story was the original interpretation of the theme. I think they had a lot of stories about birthdays and anniversaries! I love themed competitions because I'm just not one of those writers who is bubbling over with ideas and so a theme gives me parameters to work in. It also means that everyone is trying to do the same thing with their writing which makes it more competitive but - on the down side - easier to appear unoriginal or to be compared unfavourably with other entries. What do you prefer when you enter competitions - themes or open entries?

Lots of people have said they will look out for my name in future so I suppose I'd better do something about getting my name visible now! This month I hope to crack on with a few assignments on my writing course and maybe write one bit of short fiction before November comes and I attempt to write a whole novel in those 30 days as part of NaNoWriMo. But as this post is rather long already, more on that another time...

Thanks for indulging me.

21 September, 2011

That's Quite Enough About Me...

Now that my novel's finished and I am entering the potentially very long process of submitting to agents, I need something else to talk about. Sure, from time to time I may have some interesting news, but mostly I'm just going to be doing assignments for my writing course and playing around with bits of fiction, trying to get inspired. I'm guessing that is not going to make for scintillating reading. So how about instead of talking just about me, we talk about you instead?

Freya Morris recently posted about villains from children's literature. It was a great post in itself, but it was also fun to read everyone's responses to it. It's interesting to find out what different people think (in this case, which villains scared them the most when they were young - both Freya and I would give our vote to Maurgrim the wolf from the BBC version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Visit her blog to cast your own vote!). So I've decided that whenever I have no news worth writing about you can do the work for me by answering questions. Starting with:

What is your earliest memory of reading as a child? 
What was your favourite book as a young child (for argument let's say, before the age of eight)?

Image from: amazon.co.uk
My earliest memory is of nursery school, reading the Roger Red Hat series. I remember there was a page that had a picture of Roger with a ball and the words, "Roger has a red ball" underneath. I couldn't read the sentence so I remember desperately scanning the picture to try and guess what the words might mean. I can still see that page as if it were a photograph.

I'm sure I had lots of favourite books, but the one that sticks out in my mind is, "The Hurricane Tree" by *hastily checks Amazon* Libby Purves and Priscilla Lamont. Perhaps it was because I spent every moment I could in the garden and considered the apple tree to be one of my best friends. It's not very famous so I would be interested to know if anyone else has ever read it? I haven't read it for years but I'm pretty sure I've still got it somewhere.

Over to you, then...

09 September, 2011

No Excuses Now

Novel finished. Novel proof-read for dodgy punctuation by mother. Synopsis written. Cover letter written. Sample chapters formatted as required by first agent on list. Submission guidelines checked obsessively multiple times. Ego prepared for repeated battering.

Suppose I've got to actually send it off now, don't I?

I spent some time considering whether to go for a bigger agency to start with or a smaller, more personal one. I can see the advantages of both. In the end though, I've picked my first agency just based on the fact that I really like the sound of them. They are biggish but not too big and everything on their website is friendly. Most agencies talk about being "willing" to read work and then everything else they write makes it sound like they're anything but! I've found a few though that are more amiable and this one talks about being "excited" to read work from unpublished authors. They've even provided a little essay from their reader to help you know what they are looking for. They are honest about their statistics - about 6 books a year taken on from about 2400 submissions - but hey, we all know that that's how it is anyway, don't we? A 0.25% chance of success definitely raises expectations from none to slim.

Right, better go and get the printer warmed-up...

01 September, 2011

Speaking the Same Language

The first time I finished my novel I was amazed that I had managed to create a vaguely coherent entire book. After the first edit I was still pretty excited. Following the second draft I was quietly contented. This time, I put the last full-stop in and went to hang the laundry out. It's not that I'm not glad to have finished, it's just that the euphoria of having written a novel is somewhat dampened when it's the third time you've written it. Finishing a children's novel is becoming a familiar feeling!

It's not just finishing either. With the completion of another version comes the familiar insecurities as well. Suddenly, what seemed like scintillating dialogue feels cliched. The fast-paced fight scene is something you're sure everyone's seen before. The touching moment of re-union is not so much tear-jerking as vomit-inducing. That's when the fiddling starts - a tweak here, a tweak there. I've had to send it to my Mum to proof-read for me to stop myself playing around with it and making it worse!

Being objective, I'm pleased with it. Every draft has been better and richer than the previous one. It is by no means the best book ever written, but it's alright you know. Some bits, I'm even quite proud of. The thing I most worry about though is getting the balance right. Have I explained everything properly? Have I over-explained things? This is particularly tricky when you are creating a fantasy world (or five in my case). How do you get the message across without being patronising?

We humans are pretty bad at getting a message over when it's something close to our hearts - like a first novel! Take Christianity for example. The message is insultingly simple:
  1. We may not all be murderers or adulterers, but none of us is perfect. We are all grumpy/angry/jealous/human somtimes.
  2. If there is to be true justice then everything we do wrong must be dealt with. We can't set some imaginary line and say that everything up to that point is fine and everything after it is not fine - everyone would draw the line somewhere different and we'd spend our whole lives making deals (I illegally downloaded a music track today, so I need to help an old lady across the road tomorrow)
  3. God is big enough to deal with this. He says, "OK guys, I kind of like you and I don't want you to spend your whole life feeling guilty and counting the stuff you do wrong. So here's what I'll do: I'll send my Son to deal with all those times you snapped at someone or lied to a charity collector in the street or parked inconsiderately. He'll take the responsibility.You just have to accept that that's what I've done and we can get on with life. Deal?"
(OK, I may have paraphrased the bible a little there!) Yet somehow, Christians (and I'm not excluding myself from this) have managed to take this message of, "you don't need to feel guilty any more" and let it come across as, "you need to feel really guilty about being a terrible person". I'm not saying there aren't important things to think about but we let something we never believed in obscure what we do believe in.

All that was rather a  lengthy illustration of how easy it is to get the message wrong. Can I be sure that the central theme of my book - approximately, 'being a hero isn't about being good at stuff, it's about making the right choices' - won't come across as, 'being a hero is about being really good at stuff'?! Just like God is probably banging His head against a brick wall sometimes when He watches His message being mangled, perhaps all writers have to accept that once the story comes out of our heads and on to a page, it doesn't just belong to us any more.

What do you worry about most in your writing or work? Does it bother you or excite you that something you create can be interpreted differently? Are you an over-writer or an under-writer? (I'm definitely over!)


For anyone else about to start another draft of a novel, may I point you to this article for some helpful, last minute advice. Happy September everyone!

19 August, 2011

A Suitable Book

After a few months of wading, I have finally made it through A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. It was brilliant. I was completely daunted by it - being the longest novel written in English and all - but I now fully agree with The Times: "Make time for it. It will keep you company for the rest of your life."

I have to admit, I often find books set in places and times I know nothing about a bit off-putting. It takes all my energy to understand what's going on rather than enjoying the plot. However, despite knowing next-to-nothing about India in the early 1950s, it was wonderful. There were some long sections detailing debates in the Indian parliament that I didn't get on with so well, but the rest was fantastic. I don't think it's giving too much away to say that one of the main plotlines is about finding a suitable boy for a character called Lata to marry and I think one of the best features of the book is that the three young men who end up in the running are all likeable. That goes for all the characters really (and my goodness there are a lot of them and they're mostly related to each other somehow!) - they are all flawed and nearly all likeable in some way or other; i.e. they are like real people! I didn't understand all the cultural references, especially regarding Hindu and Muslim traditions, but it didn't seem to matter too much.

The ending seemed to me to be really sudden, but I quite liked that. It didn't feel like this massive cast had been invented for my reading pleasure, but rather that they were real people and I had just dropped in to witness one particular period of their lives. Although many loose ends were tied up, not all of them were - the lives of the characters continued on past where I stopped reading. In a way this was frustrating, but if Vikram Seth had written it otherwise I think it would have ruined the magic.

One interesting coincidence is that Paul and I have just started to sponsor a child. We said we didn't mind where he or she came from and we were therefore allotted a lovely little girl in India. The charity we are with sent some information about the work they do in the country and it turns out that they started working there after meetings with (then) Prime Minister Pandit Nehru - who is a character in A Suitable Boy! It hadn't really occurred to me until then that at least the outline of the politics in the book must be true.

So nine out of ten for A Suitable Boy. Right, I'm off to read Carrie at last...

09 August, 2011

Cutting and Sticking

I have reached a milestone in my novel rewrite: the "so-close-to-halfway-I'm-going-to-say-I'm-halfway-just-to-encourage-myself" point. I'm halfway(ish)! It's been pretty plain sailing so far. I've had a bit of fun making things more quirky and adding some neat lines. That's the brilliant thing about writing - unlike all those situation where you wished you had said something wittier/smarter/more poignant and then thought of the perfect retort two hours later, with writing you can go back and say it! Obviously it doesn't do to have your characters come out with perfect one-liners all the time, but one or two thoughtful bits of speech can reveal more about a character than three chapters of watching them faff about (not that my characters do too much faffing - I hope).

The main challenge so far has been to add bits of extra scene-setting (as reccomended in my critique) but not add anything to the word count. Actually, I'm feeling pretty smug as I have cut the word count by about 1100 words so far. However, I have a lot more to stick in later and really don't need the novel to be any longer than it is, so I shall be getting increasingly ruthless from now on. More cutting before more sticking! It's amazing how easy it is to find wasted words (or it is in my writing anyway!) all over the place. Why would I have written,"Rowan reached over and picked up the sword...", when I could have written, "Rowan picked up the sword..."? I confound myself sometimes.

So I have another few chapters before the head-hits-desk bit comes and I have to start re-working sections completely. This week I have done the bit that I always found really depressing to write, but that everyone said was the best bit. Instead of taking me two weeks, it's only taken me two days this time and I actually enjoyed it! Hooray! However, between pages 55 and 160, I had three comments on my critique and they're all positive. Whereas, between pages 160 and 175 I have four comments and they're all... shall we call them 'suggestions for change'. I've just been working on the positive bit and I am rapidly approaching page 160. Probably best you don't ask how it's going for the next week or so...

In brief other news: I am very happy to have received my copy of the anthology and to see that my story is the opening one (and no, it's not alphabetical by author if that's what you're thinking!). I've read the other stories and they're all so different! There are some really good writers in it. I am also only 200 pages away from finishing the epic "A Suitable Boy" and still enjoying it. Happy reading, writing and blogging everyone!

28 July, 2011

Beyond the Horizon

Just a little blog post to announce the publication of, Beyond the Horizon, the first publication of Bamboccioni Books. It is a collection of short stories on the theme of 'discovery' and available at Amazon now! I'm sure anybody in their right mind would love to receive this as a present for any occasion. (I would like to say that I'm not being paid for advertising this book, but as I'm one of the authors who contributed a story, technically I am. But that doesn't mean I'm biased. Of course not. Never.)

It was the first story I was actually commissioned to write. Being asked to write a story by a publisher makes a very nice change from begging publishers to publish things I've already written! I guess this does kind of make me a published author now, right? I am slightly bemused by the fact that it went on sale yesterday and there is one "used" copy for sale on Amazon already. The mystical world of book selling...

06 July, 2011

Things I Have Learnt in the Last Week

  1. The NHS is amazing
  2. My husband is amazing (OK, this isn't the first time I've learnt this but...)
  3. Morphine is pretty cool too
After my cheery last post about how antibiotics were getting rid of my tonsil infection, things went rapidly downhill. In a few hours, I progressed from having a bit of pain in my ear to being in the worst pain I have ever experienced, unable to open my mouth very much or swallow at all. Turned out that  I just didn't quite get on to antibiotics fast enough to stop a nice little abscess (a "quinsy") forming behind my tonsils after all, so I duly spent my weekend on an antibiotic drip in hospital. Ignoring the fact that everyone who came into the ward all weekend felt it necessary to say something along the lines of, "It's such gorgeous weather out there - best we've had this summer," I am trying to think of  my first two nights in hosptial as good research for future stories.

For instance, without this unnecessary episode I wouldn't know what it feels like to be given morphine (amazing actually - from agony to no pain at all in about 60s), or what it's like to have a doctor stick a massive needle into the soft bit at the back of your throat to withdraw a syringe-full of pus. I wouldn't have spent the early hours of Sunday morning listening to the nurses deal with patients in other rooms ("Richard, where are your trousers? No, I think it would be best if you put them on now, there are young ladies on the ward.") or known what it's like to wake up in the morning to see that while you were sleeping, someone managed to attach/detach various tubes from your arm. I'm sure one day, it will all come in useful...

I had hoped to have written more than the words "Chapter One" on my novel re-write by now, but these things happen and I certainly can't complain about the care I recieved. The first nurse we met got it into her head that I just needed to calm down and wouldn't listen to my husband (and couldn't listen to me as I couldn't speak) trying to tell her that I was actually crying because I needed some pain relief pretty urgently, but even she was very competent (and did eventually give me some drugs) and everyone else we met was brilliant. My recovery is also being helped considerably by the capable nursing of my husband who has been doing everything from catering to my every nutritional whim to using cushions to engineer the correct angle of my pillows to keep me comfortable. Even now, when I am up and about again, he is being most attentive and - ladies you'll be very impressed with this - he even thought to include my moisturiser when he brought me my wash-bag in hospital. What more could you ask?!

What experiences have you had that you can draw on for your writing (or art, or whatever...)? I don't usually find it easy to "write what I know" - do you?

30 June, 2011

The Good and the Bad

Bad first? Well, I haven't started my novel this week thanks to a dose of pertonsillar cellulitis (a bit of a sore throat to you and me). I thought I was just making a bit of a fuss, but went to the GP in the end and ended up needing intravenous doses of antibiotics and things like that. So I am looking forward to a week of destroying my stomach lining with copious amounts of aspirin, on top of two different strong doses of antibiotics. The thing I'm finding most distracting today however, is that my throat is too swollen to allow my soft palate to lift when I swallow. This means that when I drink, a large quantity of the fluid goes up my nose which gives that fizzy"just jumped into a swimming pool without holding my nose" feeling. This is almost certainly made worse by the fact that I'm one of those 1-2% of people with a bifid uvula hanging at the back of my throat, instead of a nice normal one (see picture*).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palatine_uvula#Bifid_uvula
Anyway, more importantly - the Good. I can't give any details for another three months, until the organisers announce the results officially, but I have been informed that I have won another short story competition. Apparently there were over 150 entries in this one, so I'm very pleased with that. I also received my first assignment back from my tutor. It was very straight-forward so I wasn't expecting any trouble, but it was still nice to recieve positive feedback. Now I just need to find time to crack on with Assignment Two in between taking tablets and trying to get my fuzzy head in gear to write my novel!


*This is not a photo of my throat. If it was then you would see the left side of my throat being bright red and swollen so it nearly touched the uvula!

26 June, 2011

Of Weddings, Earthquakes and Revving the Engine

I didn't think I needed a holiday. I live in a beautiful place and do a job that I love and my responsibilities barely extend further than making sure my hard-working husband has his dinner on time and a clean t-shirt to wear. However, having just come back from a lovely week in the Yorkshire dales, I am definitely feeling ten times more revved-up and ready to go with the final draft of my children's novel, so perhaps a total break from writing was exactly what I needed. It certainly helps that, just before we went away, I sent some ideas for the re-write over to the author who critiqued the last draft for me and she really, really liked them. I was worried that e-mailing her was a bit cheeky but she has told me that she is willing to be there throughout the re-write to bounce ideas off. It's such a great position to be in - to have new ideas that are entirely your own but also have someone professional to reassure you that they're not rubbish! So I am rested and relaxed and ready to re-write...

Our holiday started in the most perfect way, with the Durham wedding of Paul's sister, Naomi. I was honoured to be a bridesmaid for her and it was a fantastic day. Now I may be a tad biased as, in the two and a half years since she became my sister, I have grown to love her tonnes, but she made the most beautiful bride I've ever seen. Her husband is a top man as well and God really blessed them by taking a weather forecast of heavy showers and turning it into quite respectable day with even a little bit of sunshine. I know some of my blogging friends are planning weddings themselves, so here's praying for sunshine for you too.

The rest of our holiday wasn't quite so exciting, but lovely all the same. Paul and I continued our steady decline into middle-age by looking round castles, eating damp picnics whilst huddled in our raincoats, playing speed-scrabble in the evenings, making good use of our National Trust membership - and loving every minute. Nothing however, aged us quite as much as the moment when we were climbing on the rocks in Gordale Scar and heard an enormous roar above us. It turned out to be a fighter plane going over, but sounded exactly like what you would expect a massive rockfall to sound like if it was crashing down on top of you. Took years off my life, I can tell you! We did plenty of walking too and climbing on the amazing rock formations at Brimham Rocks (see picture) before returning to our equally wonderful home in another of England's national parks to find there had been an eathquake in our absence! It ran along the fault line across Dartmoor from Sticklepath to Torquay and sure, it was only 2.7 on the maginitude scale, but it was enough to unnerve some people.

The only negative side to holidaying is all the driving - I hate being on the road. But it did at least give me the chance to study the map and pick out potential names for future characters. The villain of my children's novel is Hinton Blewitt - named after a tiny village in Somerset - and I intend to use village names for many more characters in future. Unfortunately, our favourite Dales names of Giggleswick and Blubberhouses don't make for good characters, but how about Kirk Langford or Martin Hussingtree (yes, there is a village called Martin Hussingtree!)? What wonderful place names do you know? Any that I could use as character names? I have a couple up my sleeve but suggestions are always welcome!

10 June, 2011

The Blogosphere

Isn't blogosphere a horrible word?

You can probably tell that I am having an unproductive writing week by the fact that I'm posting on here for the second day in a row. But it is for good reason. When idly browsing my blog stats yesterday (told you - slow week!) I noticed that several visitors had clicked through to my blog from a link on someone else's blog. It got me thinking about my fellow writing bloggers, how I "met" quite a lot of them through other blogs and how I am enjoying being connected to a few other writers in this way, even if it is only occasionally and online.

If, like me, you find yourself idle sometimes, why not visit some of my companions at their home blogs, using the list I've added over on the right. Currently, you'll find the lovely Nari, who is writing a young adult novel; Freya, whose life is freakishly similar to mine in lots of ways; Derek, who's just posted the great first chapter of his work-in-progress; artist as well as writer, Tom; the author of the Sir Gadabout books, Martyn; Andy, who is posting his novel up on the blog, tantalising section by tantalising section; fantasy and sci-fi fan, H C Clarke; short-story writer and flash fiction guru, Dan and the refreshingly candid, Paul.

These are the people I take comfort from - there's always someone who is having a lucky break, an attack of writer's block or a slow week (my turn this week). It reminds me that, as it says in the bible, "Time and chance happens to every man."

PS: while I'm giving a few shout-outs, I would like to draw your attention to the stock exchange where I get most of the pictures for my blog. It's a great resource of images that are free for personal use. Good news for those of us who like pictures but don't like stealing.

09 June, 2011

Oranges, Storytelling and Reading

So, I see that the Orange Prize for fiction was awarded last night to the youngest ever winner. Well done Tea Obreht. And of course I'm totally not jealous in any way. Obviously. I mean, I still have some months before I'm her age (25) - plenty of time to become a celebrated writer, right?

This week I have come to something of a writing standstill. I did manage to finish my first assignment and have got within a couple of exercises of the end of my shorthand workbook, so that's something at least. Actually, shorthand is having an interesting effect on me - it's making my longhand terrible! My handwriting is getting worse and I find I really resent having to write long words out in full when there is a easy Teeline outline. Work on my short story though has stalled. Partly, this is because I found out that I didn't get anywhere in the Exeter Writer's competition. This in itself wouldn't deter me - I don't get anywhere in a lot of competitions - but, I read the three winning entries. They're good. So very good. Much better than anything I think I could ever create. With that downer in mind, I don't want to rush a story to get it out to a deadline I've set myself, knowing that if I spent longer on it, it might be so much better. So no Bridport for me this year I think.

I really believe in the idea behind my current short story. It's just the storytelling that isn't working. I think I am going to have to do something drastic like completely change who the main character is and try writing it in a different POV - I think 3rd person might work best after all - and maybe even play around with tenses. Obviously, these changes won't happen overnight and as I have a fairly urgent need to get on with the final draft of my children's novel, it may be some months before this little literary baby is ready to take its first steps in the world.

On a different note, I am currently reading A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. I am enjoying it but still feeling rather daunted about how long it is - think Lord of the Rings plus another book. After a couple of weeks I'm about 20% of the way through. I am also trying to be good and finish it before I move on to Carrie - Stephen King's first published novel, which I've wanted to read for ages. What are you reading at the moment? And what do you wish you were reading?

01 June, 2011

Is it Really June Already?

Not posting for four weeks? How terrible of me! My excuse for this unforgiveable lapse in blogging is that I have had nothing much to write about. Instead of writing a tedious post about how hard it is to think of something to post, however, I will at least update you as to what I've been doing over the last month.

Firstly, I organised myself with folders and spreadsheets and notebooks and all sorts so that I can at least pretend to be a proper writer who is expecting to get commissions and be published and things like that. I like organising. As I have quite a lot of different projects going on at the moment, one of my new organised-writer techniques is to write down what I am going to achieve on each of them, each week. This gives me a pleasing sense of achievement when I can cross them off - why is crossing things off lists so extraordinarily satisfying?

My main project has been writing a short story about an artist, which I hope to have finished in another two weeks. It's longer than any of my other stories (5000 words) and I found the length quite hard to get right - it's long enough that something has to happen, but too short for anything much to happen! I'm quite pleased with it, although annoyed that the only way I can get it to work is to write it in the first person from the point of view of a teenage girl, which is highly fashionable at the moment (if you read competition winner's work), but hardly original. In addition to this, I have been working on my shorthand, on the first assignment of my writing course and on planning the changes I need to make on my novel. The first assignment isn't very interesting but it will be good to get it out of the way so I can make contact with a tutor.

Hubby and I are going on holiday in a couple of weeks to see my lovely sister-in-law get married and I would like to be able to focus on my novel re-write after that, so the race is on to finish my shorthand workbook and this short story before we go. The only thing I will still try to do at the same time as my novel is the next assignment, oh, and maybe a txtlit or something, just for fun. Ooooh, that's just reminded me that I forgot to enter the May txtlit and it's now 12 hours after the deadline. Damn. I had written an entry and everything. So much for being organised...

PS: I am pleased to say that my author profile is now online at Bamboccioni Books, in advance of the anthology I was commissioned to write for being published later this summer.

05 May, 2011

On Baring the Soul

On Tuesday, I received the critique for my children's novel from SM, courtesy of the Writer's Workshop. I promise I'm not being paid for this, but can I firstly say just how impressed I was with WW. The manuscript got lost in the post and so they offered to print it out for me for free to save time and postage. Only a week after that, I recieved my critique. Good work!

Getting a professional author to critique the novel you've spent so much time and energy on is a bit like standing naked on a stool and asking a supermodel if you look beautiful. You feel very vulnerable! The worst thing that could have happened was being told that I really didn't stand a chance of ever getting it published. The second worst thing would have been to be told that it was too complicated and I needed to take out one of my worlds (there are 6 in the book). Thankfully, not only did neither of these things happen, but SM was actually very encouraging. She was very enthusiastic - excited even - about it and wrote a very long report with both general pointers and page-specific advice. Best of all, she seemed to think it did have the potential to be published one day and was keen to help me get to that point.

That is not to say of course that she thought it was perfect. Far from it. But she did at least only think that one more draft would be needed before it was ready for agents. There are three or four places in the book where she thinks I could do something more with the plot and I am beginning to work through some ideas for them, but the biggest thing I need to think about is adding depth to the fantasy elements of the book - draw more vivid pictures of the six worlds, add "more of the quirky". Although writing it all again is a little daunting, I think this could be quite fun. She had some great ideas and I've got some more of my own. Yet again, I am so bowled over with how much a critique can help. As my husband said, when someone who knows what they're talking about suggests something it seems really obvious!

So, I have some work to do. This final (I hope!) version will ironically contain a lot more plot changes than the last version, despite needing less re-writing in other ways. Basically, in the last re-write I had to alter the overall structure and improve on my writing style (which I seem to have done with some moderate degree of success), whereas this time I am just working on the "storytellling". I might give myself another few weeks breathing space before I launch into it all again. In the meantime I hope to work on another short story, start my writing course and, every now and again, re-read the complimentary parts of my critique just to remind myself that there is hope for me yet!

PS: I couldn't think of a suitable picture so here is one of the birthday cake I made for my husband this week. it doesn't look quite like the one in the book, but I'm quite pleased with it!

29 April, 2011

Smoke and Mirrors

Now they have announced the results on their website, I am very pleased to say that I have been awarded first prize in the short story competition run by Write Now! The theme was Smoke and Mirrors and my entry was called The Last Illusion.

I'm really pleased with this - not just because I can finally afford new running shoes now, but also because I had real trouble with this short story for a while. It was the last thing I wrote before going back to my novel and I had to write so many drafts before I felt like it worked. I tried writing it in the first person and third person, from the female character's point of view and goodness knows what else before I finally found the right tense and voice. The key breakthrough was when I suddenly found myself humming the old wartime tune, We'll Meet Again, and realised I could use those lyrics to pull the whole thing together. Phew! It was apparently worth it in the end.

The last time Write Now! ran a competition it was one of the first things I entered and, although I didn't get one of the top three prizes, I was a runner-up which encouraged me to keep writing in those early stages when I was only just discovering how disheartening it could be! It's a very well run competition and I was pleased to be able to support it again and even more pleased to find that my writing hasn't gone downhill since last time!

Writing has been going quite well for me over the last few months, but with my novel currently being pulled apart by the Writer's Workshop, I'm not sure I'll be feeling so clever in a few weeks.... Happy Royal Wedding Day everyone!

26 April, 2011

Back to School

I feel like the time has come for me to have just a little bit of formal writing training. It is undoubtedly the case that you can't make a bad writer into a great one through education - there needs to be some spark of talent - but I think you can take an adequate writer and make them a good one. After all, even the best musician needs a little help to become a virtuoso! Therefore, I am planning to sign up for the Writer's Bureau comprehensive creating writing course which covers everything except poetry. This course is the biggest writing correspondance course in the country but I am aware that it is far from perfect. I am sure I would get a better class of education at the Open University or Open College of the Arts, but for me the Writer's Bureau has one or two advantages. Firstly, although still a good chunk of money, the whole thing costs as much as a single module at a more prestigious institute does. Secondly, its emphasis is on becoming a commerical writer. I am not interested in gaining a qualification - I have a degree, I don't need another. My main motivation for taking a course like this is just to have a regular amount of feedback and a little more structure to my writing, rather than to become an academic, and this course will hopefully provide that.

Opinions on the course are somewhat mixed, but I think if you go into it without thinking it's going to make you rich and without hoping for more than you are paying for, then you have a better chance of being satisfied. A lot of people have said that they have been unable to finish the course because of the amount of work set, but it is designed to be flexible so you only have to do the bits of the course you want to do. This suits me very well as I can work around whatever projects I have on and you are allowed to take several years over the course if you need to. I think I could just continue writing and reading as that approach is gradually making me improve anyway, but I am aware that getting that one bit of feedback on the opening to my novel at the end of last year taught me more in 15 minutes than I had taught myself in months. If I am serious about writing then I need to be serious about letting my work be criticised by people who know what it takes.

In other news, I have been working on a short story the last couple of weeks. I was moderately pleased with it, but something wasn't quite right and then yesterday I had a flash of inspiration and tried writing it in a mixture of tenses and so far I like the results. Hopefully I will get it finished today or tomorrow and entered into the ACW competition. I have also had some very good news from other quarters in the last week, but I am waiting for it to be made official before I indulge in a smug, self-congratulatory post! At the moment however, the lure of writing is competing with the lure of the great outdoors. Husband and I spent a wonderful day on the moor on Saturday with just the ponies, wild violets and a particularly persistent cuckoo for company - it's wonderful to be spending our first spring in such a beautiful place. Writing may be about life, but I strongly suspect life is about walking in the sunshine.

06 April, 2011

To Edit or Not to Edit...

...that is the question. Having received most of my reader reports now, I have started to analyse what they had to say about my novel, The Crosser of the Worlds. The first thing I've learned is that different people interpret questions differently! To some a "favourite character" is the one they liked most, to others it is the one they thought written the best. To some the lowest point for the main character, Kit, is when he is acting most stupidly, to others it is the point where they felt most sympathy for him. But these different interpretations have actually been really helpful as they have highlighted things which I might never have noticed.

Perhaps my biggest revelation is that it is always worth getting more than one or two people to read your drafts! This helps weed out personal taste from actual issues that need addressing. One reader found the young girl in the book a bit irritating, but she was the favourite character of two of my readers. At least one reader didn't particular like the swashbuckling sword-fighters on one of my worlds, again, another absolutely loved them. Some readers focussed on the practical ("how could a deep wound have healed enough to have formed a scar in only two weeks?"), others were more emotional ("it brought actual tears to my eyes"). One small scene that one reader wanted me to change back to how it was written in the original draft, was the one scene that another reader (who had also read the original draft) didn't want me to touch at all.

You might think that all this would make editing a bit of a nightmare. But actually, this way I get the best of both worlds: I won't end up changing something that doesn't need changing just because it happens to not be to the taste of one person, but also I know that if two or more people mention the same thing then it really is an issue I can't sweep under the carpet. Every reader so far has caused me to add something to my list of potential edits and every one has also mentioned something different that they liked about the book that gives me the confidence to carry on with it. Sure, I could be hurt that my favourite character is nobody else's, but actually it's great that nearly every "goody" is somebody's favourite as it means I must have got something right about them!

So I now have before me an ever-growing list of edits to make before I send this draft off to the Writer's Workshop for some professional advice. But, having made six other people read the book in the last month, the first thing I should probably do is read it myself...

28 March, 2011

Of Readers, Reality-Checks and Refreshing

Three weeks on from finishing the latest draft of my children's novel and the reader reports are beginning to creep in. Six people offered (or in some cases "offered") to read the manuscript and answer some questions and, so far, half of them have done just that. Some interesting things have come out already - confirming my fears about some aspects of the work and providing pleasant surprises about others. In particular, the week I spent on the part of the novel that I find particularly difficult and soul-destroying to write was not in vain - all three readers so far have named it as one of the best bits! Once the rest of the reports are in - hopefully by the end of the week - I will be able to sit down and work out what is in urgent need of work, before I send it off to be critiqued again by a professional author. This is the reality-check stage, but so far it's not looking too desperate and mostly, I am just excited to see how things are going to turn out.

And what have I been doing while my readers have been hard at work? Well, I've done some little chores like making lists of potential agents and I have also been working on my shorthand speed. I taught myself the basics of Teeline last year but I never have to use it so it's only a little quicker than writing longhand at the moment! Mostly however, I have been working on a short story for the Exeter Writers Competition.  It's been an interesting experience as I am a plot-driven kind of person (often, to a fault) and this is the first time I have come up with a character and a first line and just let the plot evolve around them rather than crowbar-ing charcters in to fit my plot. I think some of the sentences and paragraphs of this latest story, therefore, are some of the best I've written, but I'm not sure that the story as a whole works perfectly. I'm happy enough with it to enter into the competition though and it's been a refreshing change to write something for adults. From the prize money and the calibre of previous winners I am guessing Exeter are expecting at least a couple of hundred entries (I could be miles out - anywhere between 100 and 1000 would be my guess!) so I'm not sure quite what chance I stand, but if nothing comes of it there's no harm done and hopefully, as my writing matures, I'll be able to revisit and re-work my old stories.

All this of course, is by way of avoiding the inevitable: at some point I am going to have to tackle writing the synopsis of my novel. Advice welcome!

08 March, 2011

And.... relax. (A little).

I am done! Yesterday I finished this draft (I won't quite bring myself to call it the final version until it has been accepted by a publisher!) of my children's novel, The Crosser of the Worlds. It's about 92 000 words which is getting on for 10 000 words shorter than the original draft so I'm quite pleased with that. I can probably do a bit more of a slash and burn job in a few weeks time, before I start sending it out into the world. First though, I need to have it read by my crack team of readers. I have four people who have read the original version, waiting to have another go at it and two people who will be approaching it with fresh eyes, so I count myself very lucky! Once I have their verdict and have fiddled around with it a little more, it goes off to The Writer's Workshop again for professional advice. Then the plan is for it to be picked up by the first agent I send it to, fought over by the biggest publishing houses in the country, become a bestseller and the film rights to have been sold by about this time next year.... hmmmm...

In the meantime, I am going to have a couple of days off and then get on with other things. I handed the final version of my anthology-bound short-story over to the publishers last Friday, so I can be purely self-indulgent for a while. I am really looking forward to writing something - even just a little short story - that isn't targeted at 10 year-olds! I also have to start making lists of target agents and begin to think about the dreaded synopsis.

Photo: Hannah Timm Photography
All this, of course, would not be possible without my lovely husband, Paul. We were watching the European Indoor Athletics at the weekend and there was an interview with Helen Clitheroe who had just won the 3000m despite not having been given any funding. The people who sponsor our best athletes didn't believe that she was good enough, but her husband did. He was the one who encouraged her to keep training while he paid the bills. Well, Paul is just like that - he works hard so that I can write and we can still eat and pay the rent and I'm not going to even try writing about how grateful I am. Hopefully I'll be able to show him one day, by justifying his faith in me. I couldn't think of a fitting picture for this post so as a little tribute to my sponsor, here's one of us just after we signed the marraige register, demonstrating how happy it made me!

Right, I'm off to do some baking and walking and other things that I don't have to feel guilty about now that I'm finished!

25 February, 2011

Counting the Words

Yesterday I got to the 70 000 word point in my novel re-write. Which means, I hope, that I have about 20 000 words to go and might be done in a couple of weeks!

I am a bit of a statistics geek so I love my word counts! I was worried that for a novel for children, 98 000 words (the length of the draft I am working from) is too long but the author who critiqued part of it for me, assures me it isn't. I am pleased, however, to be cutting down a fair few thousand in this version anyway. About 100 000 words is normal for adult pop fiction (e.g crime and thrillers) and fantasy tends to be a bit longer, but word counts on children's books vary from really short to really quite long. On the Harry Potter scale (that all children's writers will be doomed to be compared to for eternity) my book will be just a smidge longer than The Chamber of Secrets but shorter than all the following ones (particularly The Order of the Phoenix which has over a quarter of a million words in it) and shorter than the books in the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. I'm happy with that.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King says that one of the best bits of advice he was given was: second draft = first draft -10%. I try and bear that in mind when I'm writing. The first time I wrote this story it came out at just over 100 000 words, so if it's close to 90 000 I hope I will have made Mr. King proud. But how do you cut down so much? Well, another piece of advice he was given early in his career was, "When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story." You know what that means folks: all those adjectives and adverbs that you lovingly put in to make the prose more interesting but really just slow the story, that great metaphor that is a creative masterpiece but has no place in the narrative, that elaborate bit of scene-setting that shows off your technical wizardry but bores your reader stupid, all those needless bits of dialogue that are merely pleasantries (contrary to popular opinion I think that if you make dialogue strictly realistic you end up with a lot of wasted words - we don't talk as economically as we should write!) - they all have to go. It doesn't matter how good something is, if it doesn't move the plot forward it's out. I am in the middle of this process: the process of killing my darlings.

I have found quite a bit of wasted conversation in the draft of my novel so that's obviously one of my writing sins. What are your worst word-wasters? Or, if you're not a writer, what's your equivalent to having to kill off the words you've so lovingly slaved over?

15 February, 2011

Nose, meet Grindstone

I'm at that stage in my novel re-write where it's all about endurance. The first few chapters needed to be re-written entirely and in another few chapters time I need to do the same, but for now the only alterations are little tweaks here and there. In a way it's a good place to be as progress is fast - I am about half-way through the re-write now - but by the end of the week, it can also feel like a bit of an uninspiring trudge. I reached the end of last week with my head on my desk. I tried to read back what I'd written, on Friday evening, but I was in no state to judge what I'd done - to me, everything sounded terrible and overwritten. I think if I'd let myself edit my work when I was that tired, I would have ripped out about half of it and ended up with a list of bullet points!

Yesterday I decided to take another day off the novel in order to fulfill my obligation to the short story anthology I'm meant to be contributing to. Having had some feedback on the first couple of drafts I spent the day working on the final (or nearly-final) version. The deadline is soon, but as long as the publishers get my contract to me in time, I am sure I'll make it. I just need to think of a title...

So today it's back to The Crosser of the Worlds for me. I need to spend a few hours editing last week's work and then it's onwards and upwards I hope. I have got my hero, Kit, off the world that I find it hardest to write about, so I see a ray of sunshine ahead for this week! I just need to find some inspiration. Thank God I live in such a beautiful place and with such a supportive husband - those two things keep me sane and happy however much my nose is being ground. The photo is just one of many I have taken recently that makes me smile. This is taken from on top of the hill I can see from my study window, I love being so close to places like this. I've definitely been more inspired and focussed to write since moving here. What inspires you with your writing or with your work?

08 February, 2011

A Sad Twist in the Tale

I was sad yesterday to read that on only its third showing, the Twisted Tales competition has closed its doors. I came second in the inaugral competition last summer and from the e-mail list I deduced that there were about 50 entries in that round, which is reasonable for a first-timer. But it seems that the number of entries went downhill instead of up from there and they have not been able to cover the prize money.

It's such a shame that people who are willing to run friendly and well-organised competitions have not been able to keep going, but finance is finance and organisers rely on writers entering their competitions as much as we rely on them organising competitions. Perhaps it was overly-ambitious to try running a competition every quarter. Anyway, I was on their website in the first place to check there was nothing in their rules to stop me publishing my short story on this blog as well as it being up on their site. I guess the fact that they've shut down is an answer in itself. So for those of you who haven't read it, When All This is Over can now be found on the "Sample Writing" tab above.

04 February, 2011

Criticism

Yesterday I received the critique for Doreen and the National Trust Terrorist, which was my prize for being the runner-up in Short Story Radio competition. Having someone criticise your work doesn't feel like much of a reward, but I know it's good for me! It was also a rare chance to have work critiqued by someone who was once the fiction editor at a large magazine.

I was really pleased that she was complimentary about the fluidity of my writing and especially about the dialogue. If your dialogue is poor there's little point in you bothering to write the rest at all and as I am currently writing a children's novel (which, because of the age of the audience, has a greater proportion of dialogue than adult books), this was very encouraging. I wrote this story in only a couple of days and because I didn't think it stood a chance in the competition I let a few things slide that I normally wouldn't have done, thinking that nobody would notice. And of course, these were the things she picked me up on! They were mostly factual inaccuracies like Doreen taking buses to the National Trust properties where they are unlikely to be on a bus route - little bits of information that I didn't bother checking out. I thought I could get away with a little bit of lazy writing, but sloppiness always shows!

Considering the name of the story, it was interesting that the editor didn't think I should either use the word 'terrorist' or set the story in the National Trust properties. She doesn't think the National Trust would be amused! I agree with her on the use of "terrorism" - although it is a very light-hearted story and there is no terrorism involved, it is a very loaded word in the media - but I'm not sure I agree on the setting. I also found it odd that she didn't think it was appropriate for one of my characters to poke fun at English Heritage. But it wasn't my opinion! If I was writing a character that was racist then they would have opinions that neither I nor my readers shared and I would write them saying things that I would never say. One of my characters having an opinion that is contentious is surely not a problem in a work of fiction? But then, I am sure that the editor knows a lot more about what is acceptable or not. What do you think?

Now I just need to decide whether I want to make the changes she has suggested and try to sell the story to a magazine, or leave the story as it is and just put it up on this blog and forget about it. Completely changing the setting would be quite a big deal and I'm wondering whether it would be worth it to get a magazine credit on my writing CV...

24 January, 2011

Doreen and the National Trust Terrorist

Avid fans of this blog might remember my post a few months back outlining some of the things I had been writing at the time. One of those things was a short story romance that I wrote when I was getting annoyed with the short story that I had been writing for weeks and wouldn't stop being terrible. Well, I am delighted to say that my story, Doreen and the National Trust Terrorist, was runner-up in the Short Story Radio Romance Award. I was pleased enough with this anyway, thinking that it meant I was probably in the top 6-8 entries, but it turns out that they were only choosing a winner and a runner-up so this is actually second place. Who would have thought?! My prize is a critique from the judge - a ex-magazine editor and editorial consultant.

I feel a bit like I've cheated I have to admit. I've never written romance before and it's not really a genre I've read either. I entered for a bit of light-hearted relief. The idea of a group of pensioners running round causing mayhem at National Trust properties came to me a couple of years ago when I was out walking, but despite all my best efforts I couldn't get it to work. Then when this competition came up I thought I'd have a crack at turning it into a romance and here we are... Bizarre!

Unless any writers out there know any different, I suppose as I own the copyright I can put the story up as a page on this blog now the competition is over. So I may well do that sometime. It's not the best thing I've ever written - and it's quite "women's magazine" which is not a genre I usually write - but it's one of the few happy things I've managed to get to work so I have quite an affection for it.

19 January, 2011

Ready. Almost steady. Go?

In the last few weeks I have read and written chapter plans for Northern Lights, re-read my novel, decided I quite like it, spent hours cutting out all the unnecessary rubbish and pulling apart the structure and even longer sticking it back together again. I have a horrible feeling that I'm nearly ready to start re-writing. I am managing to put off this feeling so far by working on the short story that I have been commissioned to write by Bamboccioni Books.

The hardest part has been deciding what to reveal when. Being set in six different worlds there is an awful lot of information that it's necessary to get out there. This is why the average word count for children's fantasy novels is considerably higher than non-fantasy for the same age group. In my original draft I did the classic insecure writer thing of trying to get all the information in as soon as possible. I didn't trust my reader to work things out for themselves - I wanted to be sure that they completely understood how my worlds work. I've learned my lesson. Firstly, the reader does not need to understand everything about your world (or your characters or the background to the story...), they only need to know enough for the book to make sense and, secondly, people are intelligent enough to join the dots between what you tell them and what they need to know.

So, having written out a full time line of the book (and discovering that the action in the book takes place over 40 days and nights - how charmingly biblical), I wrote all the things that need to be revealed to the reader on individual scraps of paper and have then stuck them on to it at the appropriate point of revelation. This has allowed me to make sure everything gets said by the time the information is needed, but means I can spread all the "telling" out through the book without worrying I'm going to forget something. It's making the wall of my study look like something from Mission Control (see photo), which in a way, I suppose it is.

Having already written the first draft it has been really nice to plan the book again, taking into account the personalities of the characters and the unexpected twists and turns that happened along the way when I first wrote it. After several months away from it, it has been much easier to see its flaws and the places where things should be cut or rearranged, but also to find the bits that I'm actually quite proud of. Now, to pluck up the courage to write those most-dreaded of words: Chapter One.

11 January, 2011

A Bit Like Buses...

A while a go I wrote a post about entering a flash fiction competition called Tinsel Tales. It's an odd little competition as each entry goes on-line as it is received and people can vote for their favourite. The top 10 are then added to the judge's own shortlist and she picks the winners. Well I'm delighted to say that she picked my entry out as her favourite! My entry was called Dead Cert and you can read it and the judge's report here.

About a week after entering the competition, another entry appeared using an almost identical plot device. At first I felt put out - my entry had been online for the world to see for a week, what was stopping someone reading it, liking the idea and writing their own spin on it. But then a nagging doubt kept playing at the back of me mind. It seemed too much of a coincidence - but isn't that exactly what a coincidence is? As I do when I'm annoyed about something I had a chat with God about it while out walking and came to the conclusion that it was arrogant to assume nobody else could have had the same idea at the same time as me. It was hardly in the spirit of Christmas to make a fuss. What I thought was an original idea turned out not to be so and I thought I had to accept that my chances of winning were gone. However, not only did I win, but the entry that seemed so similar came third! I shouldn't have doubted the judge's ability to judge on the writing only and not on silly coincidences.

Interestingly, only three of the entries with the top ten votes made it on to the judges top ten as well (I was 16th in the votes). I suppose this is because a lot of voting is done by family and friends of the writers and so it has an element of a popularity contest about it. It's an interesting spin on judging which I'm not a huge fan of, but you know what you are entering when you enter and I am hardly in a position to complain! This is the third year I've entered and I've always found it a well-run and friendly competition.

The question is: Are competition wins like buses? Will three come along at once?

02 January, 2011

And the Re-write Begins Here...

It's 2011. You may have noticed that yourself. Here's where I should be writing a post outlining all my resolutions for this year, but to be honest I don't have many. For the first part of the year I will be concentrating mainly on the re-write of my children's novel and of course, I would love to find an agent for the completed version but, other than that, I am happy to take the rest of 2011's writing as it comes. At present I have just a little tidying-up to do on a curent short story and I have to think of a suitable idea for an anthology of short stories I have been asked to contribute to, but then I will be a slave purely to the novel.

Back in November, I sent off the first 12 000 words of the novel to The Writer's Workshop to be critiqued by a professional author and was lucky enough to be assigned Sam Mills. It was a big decision, due to the expense of professional critiques, but I am so glad I risked it. I learned more about writing in reading Sam's report than I could have taught myself in a decade of muddling through. She was encouraging but did not sugar-coat her words. It was not her job to make me feel good but to tell me that I have some serious work to do, particularly around the whole area of structure. A lot of what she said were things that deep down I already knew, but it took someone completely impartial to give me a kick up the backside. It is not necessarily easy to give your work to someone to tear apart and criticise and I wondered how I would take the report, but when it arrived it only made me excited to get re-writing. Her criticisms were spot on, the things she liked were encouraging and the suggestions she made were interesting. Most importantly of all, I had been "marketing" my book as a Young Adult novel when it's actually for the 8-12 age group. This is a crucial bit of information to get right when approaching agents.

So, bring on the re-write! The next few weeks will involve reading another book for the same age group (probably Northern Lights as that's already in my bookcase) and studying the structure of the plot, then re-reading the draft of my own novel, ripping it apart at the seams and putting it back together again. I have a lot of planning to do, but I love planning so I will be in my element!