Thursday, 29 January 2009

Who is my reader?


There is a kind of writer who rarely spares a thought for the reader. I’m writing my novel for myself, they’ll say. And if someone should happen to pick it up and something I’ve written resonates with them, that’s great. But even if no one ever read a word it wouldn’t stop me writing. Fair enough, I always think, as long as you don’t mind if it stops you being published either.

There is another kind of writer who hides their jottings in a drawer. They long to share what they’ve written but self-consciousness or fear either of failure or of being exposed as a sham or any combination of these things prevents them. Having been there myself I’m inclined to be a lot more sympathetic towards this kind of writer, though the bottom line, however cheap and tacky it may sound to those of a sensitive disposition, is still – to quote the lottery slogan - you’ve gotta be in it to win it.

I guess there’s a third kind of writer who’s found the middle way. There must be, or the shelves of bookshops and libraries throughout the land would be empty. Writers who’ve owned up to their split personalities – (I write for myself but I wanna be famous!) - thrown caution to the winds and sent their stuff out to an agent explaining how their particular novel may appeal to readers who enjoy Kate Atkinson or Marion Keyes or whoever it may be. Bingo. They may be in luck since there’s always room for another Kate or Marion. Provided enough of what you've penned is different from either.

Then there are writers like me. If you write for women’s magazines and make a living from it, you’ll know that your reader is your priority. Think first of her, then write your story. Do that every time and you’ve doubled your chances of being published.
How To books dwell at length on the importance of writing for your market. We all know to read the adverts and if it’s Stannah stairlifts and incontinence pads then it’s no use writing stories of false pregnancies or hot dates with your best friend’s beau. And that if the magazine is peppered with articles on your baby’s health and the five best foundations for a yummy-mummy complexion, nostalgia is a no-no, unless it’s about your schooldays in the late eighties.

But can you go beyond this initial research? Put a face, a name and a personal history to your reader? While remembering, of course, that if you’re subbing to a multitude of mags then you’re going to have to go through the exercise as many times as there are mags you’re subbing too.

Take- A-Break readers don’t carry briefcases, so I was reliably informed at a writers’ conference I once attended. Unless they’re stay-at-home mums, which many are, they’ll have childminders, not nannies. They work part time. They probably left school at 16 and aren’t overburdened with GCSE’s. Take-a-Break’s own website describes its readers as “ordinary” - a pejorative word in anybody’s book.

I met my Take-a-Break reader once. Let’s call her Mandy. She ticked all the boxes. And then some. I got to know her through a summer play scheme we both attended with our children. Our children, really, were all we had in common.
My life was comfortable. Hers was – is – a struggle, as I"ve found out little by little over the years. When she told me how she’d left her husband, taking her children with her, because he was violent, I wrote "Spellbound", a story triggered by the day the magician came to the centre to entertain the children. I gave the story a hopeful ending. I’d like that for Mandy too.

Now, when I want to write a story known in Fiction Feast as “One from the Heart” I think of Mandy and her life, the hurdles she and other women like her encounter every day. Conjuring up her face reminds me my readers are real, not ciphers. They demand respect, not condescension. No use trying to pull the wool over their eyes with a simplistic morality tale. Life is hard sometimes, often we’re completely thrown off balance by something we couldn’t have predicted. So we need to write stories to reflect that.

Next time you’re waiting in the playground for the kids to come out of school, or pushing a trolley round Tesco’s, keep an eye open for her – your reader. She may be in the middle of a domestic with her toddler, or on the phone to her best friend explaining why she can’t come out tonight. She may just be loitering by the swings, wishing her life were a bit more interesting. Like the stories she reads in the magazines. Hopefully, like the next story that you are going to write.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

It's all good

It's good to read, just like it's good to talk (according to BT).


Of course it's good to read, I hear you say. If your nose never graces a book, then realistically what hopes do you have of ever becoming an author?
Granted, you may have been a great speller at primary school and top in the creative writing competitions, but if you don’t read much, let alone stop to analyse a book, then halt your writing dreams now I say.

And this brings me onto what I deem a very valid question - what makes a good book? It’s a question which has been asked many times and one which has generated all manner of interesting replies.
Is is a good story? Interesting characters - ones which the reader can relate to? Or is a good book one which, when you take it to bed, s
imply allows you to escape the last few hours of a mundane Monday thanks to its engaging plot and intriguing storyline?

Is a good book one in which the plot really grabs our attention? When we think we know 'who dunnit' then the author hits us with a cruel twist, and we're left reeling over the events of the last ten pages? I don't know - what is a good book? Do you know what a good book is? Come on, give me some answers...
Well for me, it's good writing with a page-turning plot - it's as simple as that. Good solid writing with the use of language in a colourful manner. But every once in a while a book comes along and I scratch my head, wondering where its merits lie. I toss and turn at night wondering how the author ever managed to grab the attention of an agent, especially with the opening chapters. There has been one in particular which produced a rather large advance for the novelist and many readers, me included, were convinced our bottom drawer unpublished efforts had more merit. In other words, it needed a darn good edit. Once in a while when a book such as this crops up on our shelves, I wonder why this so-called 'great book' has been labelled by critics as such.
A 'good book' to the average Joe Public reader is usually a personal preference. But if you are a reasonably experienced writer who knows the ins and outs of the business, you tend to look for more than the basis of a solid enjoyable story.

When I read a book, I focus on originality, in characters, story and language. One book which literally blew me away in terms of originality was Darkmans by Nicola Barker - one which now takes its place on my list of all-time favourites.
(If you ask a child what he or she wants from a book, the young reader will almost always say 'I want to laugh' or 'I want funny and sad bits together')

There are books too which have been hailed by critics as the best thing since Shakespeare and sliced bread, and I've struggled to find any admirable qualities. I don't want to condemn certain books as poor quality, but I've just finished Netherland by Joseph O'Neill and I'm still waiting for something to happen. It was like a rambling stream of consciousness with no pace or structure and the reader was constantly being pulled this way and that. I want a book that makes me anxiously turn each page and in Netherland, I was patiently waiting for that. I didn't feel anything happened. More happens in my Bottom Drawer novel in a more erratic fashion.
It’s not the first novel I’ve been disappointed in - there have been a few. A good book will be filled with the author’s passion - and that will be evident in a reading. So whether it be an agent, or an independent publisher, make sure you have a good book lined up too when the time comes.

Have a flick through How NOT to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark. I must admit I haven't read it but, according to the critics, it has a plethora of info which will help us avoid the pitfalls of sabotaging our own work....including the over-use of the exclamation mark!! That's my pet hate!!!! So, go on, make your book a good one!!!!!!

Monday, 26 January 2009

Is There Anybody There? - Guest Blog by Rosy Thornton


Writing – any writing – is an exercise in communication. Writing fiction, in particular, is a peculiarly intimate kind of communication. The writer creates a private world which she wants others to share and enjoy; she puts down on paper, through the medium of story, some of her most personal thoughts and feelings about life, relationships and the things that are truly important, because she feels she has ideas to impart. And then…?

For the unpublished writer, the hoped-for dialogue is all in the future; the lack of anywhere to obtain feedback and validation is a perennial and much-vented problem. But when I am published, you tell yourself, all that will change. At last people will read what I have to say. I will get to communicate.

So, your book is eventually published, your words go winging out into the world. And… nothing happens. There is no dialogue – only the same buzzing monologue there always was inside your head. After a time you receive figures of sales, and of library borrowings, and you stare at them and tell yourself that, yes, some real people must actually have read your book. But what did they think of it? Did they get past chapter three? Did they agree with you?

HELLO, you want to shout, IS THERE ANYBODY THERE?

Then one day you receive your first piece of ‘fanmail’. Now, I shouldn’t want to give the impression here that I am some kind of popular writer or anything. With three novels published, my mailbag has contained to date – from persons to whom I am unrelated – precisely five letters. But each one has been a pearl, a diamond, a precious drop of glistening response from out of the otherwise echoing void.

What I have loved about my (five) readers’ letters has been their diversity – and also the way in which, in every case, something I wrote spoke very personally to somebody somewhere whom I don’t know and will almost certainly never meet.

My first novel ends with Ipswich’s first gay wedding, on the day that the Civil Partnership Act came into force. I received an e-mail from one of the staff who was on duty at Ipswich Register Office on the day in question, and actually presided at the town’s first civil partnership ceremony. She said she felt as if the book had been written especially for her.

My second novel is set in a fictional Cambridge college. A gentleman who was at my own college many years ago wrote me a letter (signing himself gloriously with the words ‘matric. 1957’ beneath his name) to tell me how interesting it was to hear what the place was like these days – what with there being women about now, and everything.

A widowed grandmother in Western Australia got in touch to say how much she had enjoyed my book. Just one sentence, in particular, out of the many thousands I had written, had connected with her – about how the little everyday things, which used to be imbued with such meaning, suddenly seem empty and valueless when there is nobody there to share them with. She still sometimes talks to her dead husband, she admitted, even after twelve years alone. It was a comfort, she said, to read about someone else feeling the same way.

Have you read a book recently and enjoyed it? Did it resonate in any small way with the experiences of your own life?

If so, then think of the lonely and frustrated writer, sitting in isolation at her keyboard. Dig out some notepaper – or click on the author’s website and find the contact page. Write back. Let her know she has communicated: that she has been heard and understood.

Right, I’m off now – to write a letter to the author of the book I’ve just finished.
Rosy
(matric. 1982)


Rosy Thornton is an exciting, original author of contemporary women's fiction and has three novels published by Headline Review - "More Than Love Letters", "Hearts and Minds" and this year's "Crossed Wires". Do visit her website at http://rosythornton.com/

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Is it worth it?


It's funny how the idea for a blog post develops. Last time I mentioned how, if I were an agent, I might bin a submission because the writer had the same name as an ex-boyfriend. So that got me thinking about crappy ex-boyfriends, and that made me remember the time one of them informed me “you just haven't got the guts and determination to become a professional actress.”

This pronouncement could have been hideously wounding. In fact, it probably would have been, if I'd ever harboured the remotest desire to be a professional actress.

I quite liked amateur dramatics. I'd go in for one or two plays a year, and even “starred” in a soap opera on the university radio station. But that was about it. I had no hankering after Hollywood or the RSC. Neither have plenty of other people involved with theatre clubs. To most outside observers (dickweed boyfriends excepted) am-dram is an acceptable hobby, both for those who are brilliant at it and those who, frankly, aren't.

The same doesn't seem to be true of writing. The moment you blushingly admit that you enjoy penning the occasional short story ... or worse, that you're a member of a writers' group ... or far, far worse, that you've got the nerve to be working on a novel, it's pressure time:

So, have you had anything published?

Oh. Well, d'you think you'll try and get published?

So, you're going to be the next J.K. Rowling, eh?

Mind you, it's very difficult to be a writer, love. You have to be really good to get published. Don't get your hopes up, will you?

It's all right to take part in a local panto without everyone thinking you fancy yourself as Nicole Kidman. You can sing along to Abba in the car, and people don't start smirking about how you haven't got a record deal. You can enjoy a round of golf without anyone adopting a serious expression and saying “What makes you think you're as good as Tiger Woods?”

Writing is different. Increasingly, there's a sense that it's not an interest but an ambition; something not worth doing unless publication – and preferably mega-deal publication with a major publisher – is within reach. Both on and offline, I'm noticing more and more people saying they'd like to have a go at writing, but they're not sure if there is much point when there's no guarantee of success.

Arguably some of those people don't really want to write, in which case, fine – there's no law that says they have to. To the genuine but uncertain ones, however, I say it is worth trying – very much worth trying – for its own sake, not because of what the future might hold.

If writing proves a source of strange inner excitement, if it plunges you into a different existence, if your characters become more real than the shop customers or office boss you have to deal with every day, then it's worth doing. If it makes you look at the red clock-numbers at 3:56am and smile because there are still two whole hours of thinking-time left, if it makes you look forward to getting back to it, if it's the only chance you've ever had to create something that no one else can control, then it's worth the effort. If it makes you feel as though you've said something, when everyone always thought you had nothing to say, then yes, it's worth it. And, even though it would be more highbrow of me to lament that writing is agony, actually, a lot of the time it's very good fun.

So, to any potential new writers who have stumbled on this blog looking for info on whether there's any point: yes there is! Give it a try. Don't be deterred just because someone (a dur-brained soon-to-be-ex, for example) has made you feel that anything short of JKR fame isn't good enough.


(Thank you to Adam Ciesielski for the photo.)

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Ten Great Reasons for Remaining Unpublished



1) I can change genres without having to change my name.

2) I revel in comments such as “Good for you for following your dream”, instead of “I haven’t heard of your book”, “How much then do you earn?” or the classic, “Ooh, would you take a look at my work?”

3) Tax forms? Not for me – I’m an artist, not an accountant.

4) My self-esteem is not dependent on sales figures or reviews on Amazon. It relies solely on my own view of my work until the submission process and even then I can dismiss an agent who’s rejected me as a narrow-minded jerk.

5) I feel no compulsion to spend my Saturday mornings at the local bookshops, dragging my novel to the front of the shelves.

6) I’m not writing to a deadline, there’s no advance to hand back, so I can go on holiday, read Heat magazine or watch Celebrity Big Brother without the slightest twinge of guilt. My time is my own.

7) I can stuff myself with pizza and eat chocolate until I get spots. No one is going to take my photo for a cover or judge my appearance whilst I sign their book.

8) As a struggling writer I’m a far more romantic figure, untainted by commercialism, surviving on my muse and fresh air alone… although my spouse’s salary does help, as does my credit card.

9) I can still dream of a Hollywood deal, in fact I’ve already cast Daniel Craig in the leading role. I’ve practised my answers for Oprah and know exactly what I’ll wear to the television studio.

10) I don’t obsess with self-Googling my name – imagine the ego you’d need to do that? How annoying it would be to find another person of the same name more successful than yourself? Ahem, not that I’d know….


So there you have it! And perhaps my tongue is lodged firmly in my cheek. But come on, you published authors out there – I bet you’d forgotten just how good the wilderness years were!

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Born to write?

'Next!'
The Great Careers Officer in the Sky pushes her horn-rimmed spectacles up her nose, adjusts her beard, and sighs. It's been a long day. She shifts the damp, wriggling bundle onto her knee and hopes for a swift dispatch down the Tunnel To The World.
'So.' She eyes the fidgeting one without enthusiasm. 'What do you want to Be?'
The infant hiccups and fixes her with a watery, yet penetrating stare.
'Well?' The Great Careers Officer in the Sky manoevres the child into launch mode, thinking of Ovaltine and Jeremy Paxman.
A thought-bubble pulses around the child's head. 'I think...' it whispers, 'I need to...'
'Spit it out, do -' snaps The Great Careers Officer in the Sky, then wishes she hadn't as a gobbet of undigested ambrosia further dampens her knee.
'I think...I feel...I want to Be...' The thought-bubble forms inexorably around the kid's head. The Great Careers Officer in the Sky prays, silently, that this will not be Another One. That they've sent her an accountant. An X-factor wannabe. Even - even a lab technician. But no. She can feel it in her water. She closes her eyes and faces the inevitable.
'I want to Be...a novelist.'
'Now look here -' The Great Careers Officer in the Sky grabs the kid and swivels it to face her. 'Writing just Won't Do. Be a bee-keeper. Be a bean-counter. Be a Beefeater. Be Wayne Rooney.'
'I can't,' the thoughtform whispers. 'I've got to write.'
'But there's no renumeration! No career structure. No pension. Picture this -' The Great Careers Officer in the Sky conjures up a room, a laptop, a desk. 'You're sitting all alone, day after day, just you and your...' she averts her eyes '...novel. Month after month,, year after year, decade after -'
It's useless. The kid's dribbling. Or is it salivating?
'Your partner - if you ever manage to find one - grows to resent you. Your children - should be get time to have 'em - grow to hate you. You grind your teeth at night - and when you're not grinding 'em you're awake, scribbling down ideas which turn out to be crap in the morning. Even your RSI has RSI.'
The Great Careers Officer in the Sky pauses for breath. The child's rosebud lips part in a beatific smile. Or is it wind?
'J.K. Rowling,' it whispers. 'Mary Wesley. Salman Rushdie.'
'Piffle.' The Great Careers Officer in the Sky snorts. 'It's not romantic to eke out a skinny latte in a cafe for years. Or to be hoping for publication in your dotage. It's not funny to be slapped with a Fatwah.'
The infant burps gently, but the thoughtform remains intact.
'You'll become Reclusive. You'll become Obsessive. You'll become Compulsive.'
The child farts gently, but the thoughtform remains intact.
'You'll get Writer's Back. You'll get Writer's Block. You'll get Writer's Itch.'
'Writer's Itch?' The tiny brows arch.
'Ask Emma Darwin. There's nothing she doesn't know about Writer's Itch.'
At least, thinks The Great Careers Officer in the Sky grimly, the X-Factor wannabes are quick and easy. A case of wham, bam, Cowell's your man and crashing out of the competition into a nice safe job in MacDonalds.
Writers. Hanging on like terriers, like bloody limpets. Never know when to let go.
She finds herself gripping the kid, unwilling to send it on its way to certain doom.
'Only think,' she implores the babe, gazing into its innocent eyes. 'You could be anything. Anyone. You could be Rolf Harris.'
'Jane Austen,' whispers the babe. 'F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ernest Hemingway.'
'Spinster. Depressive. Suicide -' roars The Great Careers Officer in the Sky. 'Listen to yourself, child. Have you no ambition?'
The infant winks gently; but the thoughtform remains intact.
'Go on then, if you must. Just don't blame me when you're up to your neck in Slush. Don't blame me when your walls are papered with rejections...'
The babe's brow furrows for a moment, then clears.
'Hope,' it whispers. 'Tenacity. Passion.'
The Great Careers Officer in the Sky heaves a great sigh and positions the child at the entrance of the Tunnel To the World. She thinks of her own novel, waiting for her along with the Ovaltine, and scratches at her beard.
'Goodbye,' she says. 'Good luck.'
And slowly, reluctantly, she lets go.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

The writer as reader




Does the act of reading help make you a better writer?
There’s no question that familiarity with a genre is vital if you want to write within it. For me, it’s a no-brainer that to write books, you must read books. But I’m talking about reading a novel by a top author and seeing it a sort of one-to-one tutorial. Analysing how the nuts and bolts fit together in a way that helps you to build your own story. (Enough engineering metaphors, Ed).

The reason I’m blethering on about this is that I’ve been thinking about my complete inability to read a novel as a writer, rather than as a reader. I’ve heard lots of other writers say that their reading pleasure has been tarnished by learning about some of the techniques involved and a feeling of ‘knowing how it’s done’. Although I’m very glad that I never feel this way, I’m slightly envious that they’re able to stand back from the page and analyse a novel as they read it. As soon as I start to be interested in a story, I’m largely blind to how it’s done. I just get sucked in.

If a book is exceptionally bad, I might find myself spotting lots of ‘don’ts’ – point-of-view inconsistency is a particular bugbear, for instance – but if it’s a good read, I immediately forget what I’m meant to be doing and just enjoy the ride. For me, it’s like looking at some haute couture dress and trying to see the stitches. And I say that as someone who can barely sew on a button and once ‘took in’ a pair of jeans as a teenager, which then fell apart at the school disco.

I just hope that somehow, by some sort of literary osmosis, some good habits might start to be absorbed, unconsciously.

The American writer Francine Prose has addressed this in her book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. It’s extremely well written, but for some reason I found my attention drifting quite quickly off her point. I started thinking, ‘Hey, I wonder what her novels are like?’ I’ve now read three and loved them all. I still haven’t finished Reading Like A Writer. Which says it all, really.

It may seem obvious that you should want to read, if you want to write, but not everyone thinks so. I once went on a residential writing course and a handful of the people there said they ‘liked to read, but didn’t always find the time’.
Huh?
The very thought of not reading makes me feel panicky. Like the smoker who has a new pack ready when they stub the last one out, I have to know what I’m reading next or I get the jitters. My desire to read is almost compulsive and always has been. As a child, I once walked into a lamppost because I was trying to finish a book on the way home from school. If I’m not enjoying a book but not quite ready yet to give up on it, I actually feel quite sulky.
I just wish other writers’ skills would rub off in the process. There is a danger, of course, that you subconsciously copy a particular style in your own writing, but I’m wondering whether you do absorb helpful stuff about technique and style and flow just by reading. I live in hope. Maybe I can say ‘I’m off to hone my craft’ next time I’m spotted trying to slink off quietly from the family with a novel under my arm.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

A Writer's Virtue


I have never been one of life's more patient souls. A supermarket queue of more than two people can get me tapping my feet and sighing with exaggerated despair. I hardly ever buy off the internet, as I find the thought of having to wait three days (and I think I'm being generous to Royal Mail there) for a package to land on my doormat frustrating in the extreme. I often have to fight the temptation to finish slow-talking people's sentences for them, regardless of whether or not I know what they are actually going to say. As a child, I was once heard to utter the dreaded "Are we there yet?" before I had even got into the car. So what does all this prove, aside from the fact that my family and friends must be pretty patient themselves to put up with me? Well, the damning truth is that despite being a writer, I really don't have the temperament for it…. because writing, you see, is All About The Waiting.

Take the "simple" act of writing a book in the first place. Admittedly the only person you're waiting on to finish the damn book is yourself, but by God, I sometimes feel like shouting at my own fingers as they hover hesitantly over the keys, fluttering feebly with pent-up phrases. Come on! Just type a word – anything! And then repeat that 80,000 times… Writing a novel is playing the long game, and for someone who can't even get through an Easy Level Sudoku without losing interest, that's a challenge in itself. When I wrote my last novel, the whole thing was as clear as day in my head from about 10,000 words onwards. I could almost read it word for word in places – and yet I still had to write it all down. Surely there should be some kind of thought-reading machine that can do that for you by now? Yes, I get impatient with science and technology, too.

When you've put that final full stop on the page, things don't get much better. You gird your loins, take a deep breath and rush down to the Post Office with your trusty jiffy bags, all addressed to various luminaries within the agency firmament. Then you go back home and make yourself a nice glass of Ribena. Then, well, you have to find other things with which to accompany your time for the next however many weeks. I realise in retrospect that my own waiting game when it came to hearing back from agents was mercifully brief – but did it seem that way at the time? No. It did not. Every morning, I would charge to the front door and splutter with indignation at the blank mat. Where on earth were my rejections? (I didn't entertain the possibility of acceptances at that stage, you understand.) Of course, if they had come back by return of post, I would have been equally outraged. They didn't even read it! Which just goes to show that as well as being terrible at waiting, I am also perverse. Luckily, I managed to get an agent before I slit my own wrists with frustration, and she in turn managed to cope with the increasingly falsely bright and breezy sounding emails with which I bombarded her over the next few weeks. Just wondering if you'd heard anything more from the publishers?! I know I only spoke to you half an hour ago, but hey, you never know!! Actually, I probably deleted most of these before I pressed Send, which is just as well.

By April 2008 – fanfare please – I had a publisher. At last! The culmination of all my hopes and dreams, and an end to the hell of waiting. At least, that's what I thought. It is only now, as I hover on the brink of publication (seven weeks on Monday, and counting) that I can even permit myself a hollow laugh at my former naivety. If you thought it was bad before, just try testing your patience over the pre-publication period. You sign the deal, you celebrate in a flurry of champagne corks and confetti (well, you could have done), and then absolutely nothing happens for months on end. Well, of course that's not quite true – plenty happens, but it's all at the publisher's end, and short of hiding out under your editor's desk, there’s no way you’ll get to see much of it. Over the past year, I've tried many things to attempt to get the year to go quicker. I've become a dab hand in the kitchen, I've taught my cat an excellent repertoire of tricks, and I even considered a jewellery-making course when the going got tough. At the end of the day, however, time is time. You can't hurry time, no, you just have to wait. Or was that love? No matter. The important thing to remember is that, in the immortal words of Guinness, good things come to those who wait… and despite all the hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing, finger-drumming moments along the journey, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Split the difference




I’ve just typed ‘The End’ on a novel I’ve been working on for over a year. I’ll let it ferment for a bit and in the meantime I’m planning a re-write on another project. This means that at some point in the next few months I might actually have two books ‘Out There’ in the submission machine at the same time.
A terrifying prospect, you say? Luckily I have a cunning plan.
I’ve hired myself a Submissions Assistant.
She’s efficient, straight-talking and – best of all - tough as a rottweiler in hob-nailed boots. She’s going to roll up her sleeves and trawl the Writers and Artists Yearbook, firing off subs by the bundle and having no hesitation in phoning up scary publishing types to demand they hurry up and bloody well read them. If any of the envelopes come back with rejection slips tucked cruelly inside, she’ll crumple them up in her ham-like fist and chuck them in the bin without a second thought. Then she’ll make me a nice cup of tea. And bring me a biscuit.
(Go on, admit it, you’re jealous, aren’t you? Well, hand’s off. She’s mine).
The best part is that she’ll do it all for nothing, because she is, in fact, a figment of my imagination. I’m thinking of calling her my Kickass Alter Ego tm or KAE for short.
Just in case you’re wondering if I have literally lost the plot here, let me explain.
This writing game seems to me to require two quite incompatible personalities in one person. There’s the wafty creative you, who spends a significant portion of each day in a land of make-believe, sometimes, ahem, actually preferring fictional folk to the real thing. But publishing is a business like any other and once you send off your baby, sorry, manuscript, it’s out there in a world where harsh realities, tough decisions and financial constraints are the name of the game.
Somehow we all need to bridge the gap between the sensitive soul who likes writing stories and the person who has to deal with (in the case of wannabes like me) rejections from agents, or (for those further into the process) tough-talking editors who casually ask you to kill off your main character, make the ending the beginning, or completely re-write every bit of dialogue. It would be nice if all this just ‘pinged’ off us, like cartoon bullets.
Some writers suggest you have a ‘writing head’ and an ‘editing head’, so you can dispassionately slaughter your darlings and cut swathes of unnecessary words when needs be. And it’s true that emotional distance is vital when it comes to honing and shaping your work.

Well, I’m just proposing you go that little bit further.

I’m not the first to come up with such an idea. Take the author Preethi Nair. She self-published her novel Gypsy Masala after countless rejections and pretended to be her own publicist in order to flog it to bookshops. She did such a good job of persuading them, that her made-up persona was shortlisted for Publicist of the Year (red faces all round there then). Nair eventually landed a major publishing deal.
Strictly Writing’s Sam recently talked about the need for rhino hide in this business. I don’t think I’ll ever manage that so maybe I’m proposing a kind of mental armour, which you only slip on when you need to put your creative side on hold and get out there with your elbows flying.

The strange thing is, I’m not half as sensitive and thin-skinned when it comes to my day job as a freelance journalist. I can negotiate fees with the best of them and a significant part of my day is spent cold calling interesting or clever people and trying to extract good soundbites from them. It’s just that when it comes to writing stories - which come from somewhere much closer to my heart - then it all becomes a good deal harder.
Maybe in time I’ll become a little tougher about the realities of publishing, just as I have in my other career. Who knows, I might one day successfully combine the sensitive writerly me with a right old business bruiser.
In the meantime, I’m sticking with KAE.
Now, where’s that cup of tea she promised…

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Staying Motivated, Staying Sane


When I tell people I work from home and then – reluctantly, because I know what’s coming next, add that actually I’m a writer - the response is always the same. How do you get motivated when you haven’t got anyone standing over you and telling you what to do?

(By the way, what’s coming next is inevitably a) Are you famous? b) How much money do you make? and c) I’ve often thought about writing a novel myself, you know. To which the only reply is one as pithy as Beryl Bainbridge’s to the brain surgeon who remarked on his own literary ambitions once he’d laid down his scalpel for the last time. Really? she said. Actually, I’m thinking of becoming a brain surgeon when I retire. )

Will my interrogators really only do their jobs if someone’s standing over them? Hard to imagine. Unless they’re employed to hew coal for twelve hours a day by an unscrupulous flint-face miser whose only concern is the comfort and prosperity of himself and his horse-faced wife and daughters. Or forced to dig up turnips, gut fish or wash scummy dishes in a restaurant till well into the night.

No, I don’t think they will, since those thus employed are generally migrant workers and rarely in a position to ask personal questions at dinner parties over the Chablis and smoked salmon blinis.
Instead, they’ll work in warm centrally heated offices. There’ll be people there they can chat to. There’ll be coffee breaks, lunch breaks, toilet breaks and water coolers where they can stand around and gossip about their line managers. They may even be line managers.

Occasionally they’ll remember a deadline and scurry off to meet it – taking a detour via Facebook, browsing Principles’ latest additions on their website and dashing off a text home to say it’s his turn to pick the kids up tonight.
There’ll be meetings too. Whole swathes of time spent happily staring out of the window, or doodling in your notebook while wondering whatever happened to The Mindbenders. Then there are holidays – often paid! – where you don’t have to give work a second thought for two whole weeks at a time. How cool must that be!

When first I traded work outside the home for work inside I told myself –because it seemed to be the accepted wisdom - that I had to get into a routine. A routine would ground me, give shape to my day. Make me sit down at my laptop and knock out one thousand words before lunch.

It didn’t work. Not for me. For months I felt restless. Lonely. Trapped at the mercy of my muse, which stubbornly refused to show its face. Lynda la Plante wakes at six and writes till twelve in her jim-jams, I wailed. Martin Amis goes to his office at nine and stays there all morning, before dashing off to play tennis in the afternoon. Joanna Trollope talks about taming the domestic beast before putting in several hours till teatime. If they can all do it, I cried, then, why oh why can’t I? (As Judy Garland put it)

It took me months of muddling through this period of anxiety-filled adaptation from one way of life to another, before I realised the answer. They are all lying through their (in Martin Amis’s case, expensively capped) teeth!
Writers are just the same as other employees. They procrastinate as much as anyone else. But whereas they may not have water coolers to stand around or anyone to gossip with, they have kettles, and Phil and Fern and Loose Women. They have blog stats to check, WriteWords posts to read and reply to and goodness knows how many other sites they need to pop along to just in case they’ve missed something.

Maybe they check their email more than most. But that’s business isn’t it, since editors don’t use phones these days and you’ll never know if you’ve sold a story unless you take a little peek at your inbox every once in a while (for which phrase substitute every three minutes.)

Since I made this discovery – that writers dissemble about their output just as much as everyone else does - I’ve really settled into my way of life. I write when I choose. Because, you see, I choose to write. Eventually. It may not be between nine and midday on a weekday. Some days I don’t write at all. I clean the house, do the ironing, cycle into town and have lunch with a friend.

But the bottom line is this. I want to write. I long to write. I have to write. Because a writer is always a writer, even when s/he isn’t writing. Forget the nine till five. Some of my best ideas come to me in the middle of the night, when I can lie awake for hours, plotting, mulling through the alternatives to the what-if questions posed by my characters, scripting (hopefully) witty dialogue in my head.

I’ve learned to be less anxious that I’ve only written two hundred words today. The words will come. But they cannot be forced. Wait a bit and tomorrow they’ll be better words. Hopefully more of them too.

I’ve said enough. I should get on with it – I have a serial to write. But first, let me just check if the price of that black shoulder bag from Jigsaw has come down.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Entry into bloggersphere

I feel under pressure to perform right now as this is my first official blog. Like a debutante's entry into society, this 'coming out' is just as nerve-wracking. But I'm delighted to be here and I'm grateful to you for stopping by to read and of course for any comments you may have.


Let me first of all tell you a bit about myself. I'm Gillian, and for the last ten and a half years I've been working as a newspaper journalist. The most exciting person I've interviewed so far is Uri Geller. Whilst chatting to him, my yoghurt spoon bent. I've also stood beside the Queen (royal, not Freddie) and Hillary Clinton (at separate events) and I've had my picture taken with Adele from Big Brother 3. I've been on the box a few times too and I've produced a short documentary on a pet cemetery which made the Daily Mirror telly critic cry. The most daring thing I've done in my writing career so far is dispose of a used cocktail stick inside an antique vase in the drawing room of the Secretary of State's residence Hillsborough Castle (there was no bin, and I'd no pockets).


At this point, you're probably wondering why I have used an astronomical word in the title (bloggersphere) - well this is due to the fact I received a telescope for Christmas from Santa and have been communing with the moon nightly (I also got a Wii – honestly, I am cool).


For the last three or four years I've been working on my entry into the world of novel writing (note again the astronomical pun). I've just finished novel two, entitled The Standing Man and I'm currently in the process of editing, revising and tweaking.
My first novel A River To Cross, set in North Korea, was completed in the middle of last year and I've since managed to notch up a few rejections, coupled with heartening comments from agents telling me to persevere and not give up on this one. It's still very much alive and well in a little yellow folder on my hard drive. I should tell you that my initial attempt grew wings and went to Novel Heaven in the sky but may be reincarnated some day. I've just embarked on my third novel called Cake, set in a fictional Irish village in which a Women's Institute member goes on a murdering spree after losing a Victoria Sponge competition.


All this of course has been a learning curve. When I started out, I thought my work was the best thing since sliced bread. And when I posted my first submission, I sat beside the phone eagerly awaiting the call from Ed Victor (big scary agent). How wrong I was! Much of the earlier ramblings were utter dross and deserved nothing more than to be consigned to the bottom drawer. Fit for nothing but the bin. But if we are honest, that's how we all start out. There's so much more to a book than a story, as I've found over the years. The novelist Kingsley Amis once said 'The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one's trousers to the seat of one's chair.'


Most of all a novel is fun to write. Don't do it for the money - what money, some say? A novel is like a cupboard – you open it up, there are different compartments like characterisation, plot, description, and of course, the writer's main faux pax – telling rather than showing. And I suppose a book for the customer is like a bag of Revels – you open it up and you don't know what you're going to get - hopefully a nice surprise.
Then there's the opening sentence - just how important that is, I cannot stress. That's the crucial bit that allows you to form an immediate opinion about the book. And if the opener is not engaging, there's the danger of the reader losing interest.


The fact I have a background in journalism means nothing. I thought it did - and I was wrong. Yes, of course it sounds good in the letter which accompanies the submission, but it does not make me a better author than the person next to me. If anything it can be detrimental - there's the rush to finish a news article and the urge to pack in as much information, in as little words as possible. And that's not how to write a novel.


But remember - a good writer never gives up.


Well that's all for now folks: if I continue on, I'll be heading off on a tangent into the stratosphere....Wishing you all a happy new writing year and may all your dreams come true in 2009.



I'm currently reading Netherland by Joseph O'Neill.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

The Slush-Pile Experience

I've often thought it would be fun to volunteer as a slush-pile reader for a day. When I say fun, I've no doubt I'd lose the will to live after about three manuscripts, but I do like the idea of gaining an insight into how publishers and agents feel about unsolicited submissions. Are 90% of them really crap, or is that just an urban myth? Are 90% of them actually pretty good, now that writers have internet communities on which to share advice, research markets and get feedback on their chapters?

Though I sympathise with the common lament that agents reject work without reading it, I must admit that even if I started out giving careful consideration to everything, this wouldn't last beyond the first covering email that said: “This is teh next harry potter. Tell me how much u r going 2 pay me lol.”
I can see myself whizzing through the submissions going:

Nope.
Nope.
Hmm, pretty good, but... nah.
Nope.
Aww, this one has a picture of the author's puppy... but the book still sucks.
Hmm, nice writing, but it's the end of the first page and no one's died yet, so nope.
Huh, this author has the same name as a loser boyfriend I had 15 years ago, so... nope.

We writers know we must make sure our work is better than the rest of the pile, that our plot isn't the same old chestnut as everyone else's, that we spot the typo we've supposedly proofread a million times, and that we time the submission so that its position in the Leaning Tower of Envelopes corresponds to the ten-second window when the agent is in a good mood. The only trouble is that, as industry outsiders, we've got no way of knowing what the rest of the pile is like. What exactly are those clichéd plots and first-page no-nos? We don't get to see them because... well, they don't get as far as a bookshop. Without access to much unpublished fiction, it's difficult for a writer to appreciate the all-important (and perhaps subtle) differences between a standard rejection and a request for a full.

I think a bit of mutual understanding between agents and not-yet-published writers would be a good thing. Therefore, I have a bright idea. (Yes, just the one.) Agents and publishers could offer exciting Red Letter Days-style activities, like so -

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The Slush-Pile Experience!
The perfect gift for the writer in your life.


Whether you've always fancied yourself as a top London agent, or whether you want to know once and for all how much worse a writer you are than the rest of the world, here's the chance to fulfil your dreams!
Your special day will start with five cups of strong black coffee and a couple of paracetamol (included) before your instructor shows you to your desk for the experience of a lifetime! Are you up for the challenge of trying to break into gaffer-taped Jiffy-bags? Can you last more than two paragraphs of a 500-page political rant in free verse? It's a race against time to read and reject 200 manuscripts by the end of the day! You'll learn all the terminology (including “What a load of crap,” “Oh God, please not the first chapter of Pride & Prejudice under a different title again,” and “This is brilliant, but I just don't love it enough.”) After your exhilarating fourteen-hour shift, you'll be treated to a witty email from a bitter author telling you why he is rejecting you.
A fun and original way to re-discover your sense of adventure!

------------

Agents would get their slush-piles dealt with and writers would get first-hand knowledge of what really makes a submission stand out from the rest. The submitting writers would have their work read within a year by someone who didn't have thousands of phonecalls to answer and bestselling authors to look after. Everyone wins!




Thank you to Ali Farid on Stock Exchange for the "Rejected" photo.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Resolutions for the Aspiring Writer

Once more, it’s time to take stock of the past twelve months and work out how to make the next year count – in terms of being more productive, more happy or, like me, by finally understanding that five-a-day doesn’t apply to units of Chardonnay or mini Twix bars. It’s that time of year when we writers resolve once again to… Simply improve? To network on the, er, Net? To get to grips with the position of the apostrophe after a name ending in S?
Well that’s all well and good and bravo to anyone who hopes to achieve the above. What you don’t want to do is make the resolution I have written down every year, since embarking on my quest for literary success:

THIS YEAR I SHALL GET PUBLISHED.

I suspect at this point some of you are cringing – but don’t. It’s an obvious goal for a writer, just like a forty-year chain-smoker resolving to give up the fags. Only a stash of rejection letters will make you realize such grand declarations are pointless and a bit like me resolving to be the next Bond girl à la Ursula Andress. Even if I spent the next six months in the gym, got the obligatory boob job and pumped my face full of Botox, I would still need to kidnap Barbara Broccoli, hold her to ransom and only then might I be in line for an audition (failing a prison sentence). Resolving to get your book published in one year is like wishing yourself to the top of Mount Everest before you’ve planned your trek. Without wings, there is no quick way up – the only way is to take it step by step.
And what a trek it is. Finishing your first ever chapter and eventually your first draft, learning how to edit, striving to create empathetic characters and produce a page-turner of a plot. And then there's coping with rejection, learning to accept critical help and bracing yourself to abandon a much-loved project. In this era of reality shows where apparent nobodies win huge talent contests, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that these winners have usually spent years learning their craft.
So what should the writer in you resolve to accomplish in 2009?

1) Firstly and most importantly, find some writing friends on the internet – join an online writing group, get some constructive feedback from people who know what they’re talking about. Without the support, inspiration and humour of my virtual friends I would probably still be scratching my head, wondering why my fantastic prose hadn’t resulted in the equivalent of JK Rowling’s success.

2) Read in and out of your genre to learn how it’s done – or how it’s not. But do not mimic or aspire to write like another, I say, as someone who for a year or two wished herself to be the next Sophie Kinsella. In the words of Agatha Christie:

We are all the same people as we were at three, six, ten or twenty years old. More noticeably so, perhaps, at six or seven, because we were not pretending so much then, whereas at twenty we put on a show of being someone else, of being in the mode of the moment… As life goes on, however, it becomes tiring to keep up the character you invented for yourself, and so you relapse into individuality and become more like yourself every day…
I wonder if the same holds good for writing. Certainly, when you begin to write, you are usually in the throes of admiration for some writer, and, whether you will or no, you cannot help copying their style. Often it is not a style that suits you, and so you write badly. But as time goes on you are less influenced by admiration. You still admire certain writers, you may even wish you could write like them, but you know quite well that you can’t… I have learned that I am ME, that I can do things that, as one might put it, ME can do, but I cannot do things that ME would like to do.


3) Develop a thick skin – we’re talking rhinoceros hide at least. Release and then mop up the tears whilst savouring each word of a rejection letter that isn’t standard. You are in good company as almost every author from George Orwell to Dr Seuss has felt your pain. Do your best to minimise the risk by researching your agents and selectively subbing.

4) Write and write and write, as frequently as you can. Practice is everything. Enhance with How-to books and creative writing courses if desired.

And finally…

5) Never lose hope. There are those who’ve been published with their first book, who’ve been taken on by the first agent they rang, who’ve rarely faced the lows of writer’s block. And remember, the main difference between a published and unpublished author is that the published one NEVER gave up.

As for me, I’m off to Google Barbara Broccoli’s address and do some press-ups…