30 April, 2012

Stuck in the Mud

Does anyone remember playing 'stuck in the mud' at school? It was similar to tag but when you were tagged you had to stand where you were, with your arms and legs out wide until someone else came and crawled under your legs to set you free - while trying to avoid being tagged themselves. Well, right now I feel like I'm waiting for someone to crawl under my legs (not a sentence a respectable married woman often has cause to write). I'm stuck.

I'm about a third of the way through the second draft of my novel, but it doesn't feel like it, because I'm still wavering on the structure and voice. Writing in multiple first-person viewpoints is more of a challenge than I was expecting. To maintain a coherent style, but create four or five distinct voices within that style, is tricky. I feel like what I've written so far is incoherent and fragmented, I wonder sometimes whether the book will be boring and I'm continually wobbling on whether I can really write well enough to do it justice. I am prepared to make radical changes and to edit and restructure as much as needed; the trouble is, I'm not quite sure what is needed. I have one or two things I need to work on before I write any more of this draft, I just wish I could be confident that I knew for certain what they were. It could be good, I know it could, I'm just very afraid it won't be.

Working on two novels for the last year has meant little else has had a chance of happening. Months on end without much feedback is tough. This year I've wanted to start selling my work - or trying to at least. In the past I've mainly entered competitions, and I've had a little success with that. But I want someone to actually want to buy my work. With this in mind, I've edited and submitted a couple of old stories of mine. I'd like to submit more, but I'm stuck again. Where to send things? I don't think my style is really literary enough to make it into the top magazines etc. but most other markets seem to fit into a few categories:

1) Non-paying. This is alright to get a bit of exposure, but if your work's good enough to be published in the first place, then you should be expecting to be paid for it, right? I am open to submitting to non-paying markets as long as they are quality, but it's not my ultimate aim.
2) Women's commercial fiction. I don't write this (although one of my two current submissions does fit in this category). I've tried with one or two things, but it's not a style that comes naturally to me. It's the biggest market in the UK, so it's worth cracking, but it's also the most competitive.
3) Fantasy and science fiction. I don't write this either. I would like to try at some point but, again, it's not my natural genre. It's a style that seems easy to get wrong but also a bit easier to get right if you are a good writer. I resent that fantasy and SF writers have such a big market, where those of us rooted in the real world don't!

I know there are some good websites like Duotrope which help writers narrow down markets, but even they are much more suited to genre writers. It's no coincidence that the only two stories I've tried to find a market for are my only two genre stories (women's commerical and historical). I guess I've spent the last few years trying to teach myself to write, but I never realised a writer also needs to learn how to sell work. Anyone out there in the same position as me? Or have you unstuck yourself and have some wise words to help me on my way?

There is one competition that I did want to enter. It's a big one. Only open to writers over 18 and under 26 with a children or young adult novel, it seemed perfect. Having had positive professional feedback on my children's novel I thought I stood a fighting chance, especially as nobody older than me can enter! However, they released the full terms and conditions today and my novel is way too long. Back to taking the long way round then...

On a more positive note, I thought it was about time to add an 'About Me' page to this blog. If you read this regularly then you probably know about me, but feel free to take a look anyway!

17 April, 2012

Characterisation Masterclass: Titanic

Did anyone else watch the ITV drama, Titanic? Anyone else find it amazingly well-written and unbearably sad?

Written by Julian Fellows, I watched it mostly for this reason, having loved the first series of Downton  Abbey. Of course, some of the emotional pull of the four-part series was the knowledge that it was a real-life tragedy. However, that shouldn't take anything away from Julian Fellows - it was astonishingly well-crafted drama. I've never thought about writing for stage or screen before, but now I just want to be like him!

Each of the first three episodes started just before the Titanic set sail and followed a couple of different people and families up to the point where all the lifeboats had been launched. Throughout each however, we saw snapshots of the people we meet in the other episodes, with all the storylines dovetailing together so beautifully. The final episode covered the moment the iceberg hit, to the moment the survivors saw the lights of the ship that rescued them. It was heartbreaking. Finding out which of the characters you've been following survive and which don't make it hit me harder than any other drama I've ever watched.If you haven't watched it then go to ITV player at once and do it, for me. Just incredible.

The real key to the beauty of it was the characterisation. I consider the characters of Snape in the Harry Potter series and Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, to be the best examples of characterisation I've ever read. But now I'm adding these characters to my list. None of the  main characters was two-dimensional; they were all heroes and cowards, hopeful and despairing, good and bad. For example, one of the men is an adulterer, but also one of the few first class passengers that tried to help the third class women and children on to the lifeboats. He is a fallible hero and I loved him a little bit. Just like I loved the hot-headed father who loved his children so much but was helpless at the mercy of the Atlantic, and the arguing couple who realised how much they needed each other just in time, before... well, I'll let you find out. This is how your build characters folks. A absolute masterclass.

The thought of what happened 100 years ago is horrifying, isn't it? The panic and confusion of knowing the ship you're on is sinking into icy water in the middle of a dark ocean; the horror of women safe in the lifeboats watching and hearing 1500 people drowning, including the husbands they'd been forced to leave behind; the fear and gallantry of the men who saved others, knowing that they would die... I'm not really a crying type of person, but this really got me. I think it's the gallantry - bravery always chokes me up. I was recently reading  about HMS Birkenhead (the first recorded use of what became known as the Birkenhead Drill - "Women and children first!") and found myself with something in my eye. The men on the HMS Birkenhead, chose to stay on the deck of their sinking ship, in shark-infested water, and die rather than swim out the lifeboats as they'd been given permission to do, in order not to risk capsizing the boats full of women and children. And it's stories like that that sometimes gets me wondering, who needs fiction anyway? Real life is sometimes enough.

12 April, 2012


I've been thinking about coincidences. In literature, I don't like them. In true life they rock. What is it about coincidences in novels that leave us feeling cheated and deflated, while in the real world we are fascinated and spooked by them?

Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle are both considered to be giants of literature - and I love their work - and yet, if they were writing now, I'm pretty sure their editors would tell them off for their uses of coincidences to solve a plot. I wouldn't dare to accuse these literary heroes of cheating, but coincidences can seem like cheating can't they? It's another one of those things that writers do to rescue a plot - like untraceable poisons, identical twins, shots ringing out suddenly - that just seem unsatisfactory to the reader.

Have you ever been cheated in a book by the author relying on coincidences, or other cheap tricks ("and it was all a dream...")? Ever been tempted to use one yourself to get through a sticky patch in your writing?

I have recently experienced my own coincidence. The novel I am currently writing, uses The Scream - the famous painting by Edvard Munch - as the starting point of the whole thing. I came to write the book this way after a convoluted research process and many false starts. A couple of months after I first decided to use The Scream as my muse, the owners of the only privately-owned copy of the painting decided, for the first time ever, to sell it. When this news broke there followed a string of feature articles on the BBC and in newpapers about the painting itself. It has just been put on display and will be sold next month for some ridiculous price. Suddenly my novel is topical - maybe it's a sign!

Have you ever been involved in an interesting coincidence? Do you think they ever have a place in good literature? (If you can think of an example of a brilliant use of coincidence, do share!)

PS: Couldn't think of a suitable image for this post, so as Spring has sprung up here on the moor, here is a picture of one of the locals. Everyone loves ponies, right?

08 April, 2012

Chloe and the National Trust Manager

About a year ago I wrote a post about winning second-prize in a short story romance competition. I never read or write romance and so I had just cracked this story - "Doreen and the National Trust Terrorist" - out in a couple of days for a bit of light relief between novel drafts. Therefore, I was tickled pink to have won a prize. My reward was a professional critique. It was very helpful, but I was confused as one of the critique points was that the NT probably wouldn't like it and so I shouldn't set it in their properties. I wasn't so sure.

After a year of ignoring the issue, last week I bit the bullet and decided to contact the National Trust and just ask them whether they minded a story about pensioners pulling pranks in their properties. (Oooh, nice alliteration!). To my surprise and delight, the Publishing Manager of the National Trust, read the story and got back to me in just a few days. Not only was this very generous of him, considering I'm a nobody and he's busy, but he also said that he liked it, praised my writing and offered a few valuable bits of editorial advice - including which properties might make the best setting. What a nice man! He also said that if the NT published fiction (they don't) he might have been interested in talking to me about further opportunities. He could have just been being nice, but I choose to take that comment at face value!

Now I haven't sold this story (yet), won a competition, got an agent, wowed a publisher or been shorlisted for the Booker, but it was still a tiny event in my writing life that made me feel chipper. It was a great blessing which, for a day or two, stopped me lurching from blind optimism to despondancy about writing, as has been my habit recently.

While thinking about things that make me chipper, I also want to congratulate my friend and colleague Andy Stewart, who has just been signed to an agent in New York with his latest novel. It's a cracking book and his news put the biggest smile on my face. He's worked so hard, continued to write new novels while searching for an agent for his previous novels, and generally been a jolly good sport about it all (there's a British phrase for you, Andy!). Even with that tiny heart-sinking "that'll never be me" feeling you get when you hear such great news, I am so delighted for him. He's a top guy and in the space of a few months has made his first two professional short story sales to magazines and got an agent - so things can turnaround very quickly in a writing career. If that isn't something to keep me going, I don't know what is! Congratulations Andy!