Writers are like plants. Some are hothouse flowers, delicate and sensitive: put them in a greenhouse and they’ll flourish: but place an orchid in a draught, and it soon topples over. Others are hardy perennials: providing they’re planted as per the instructions on the packet, they’ll keep growing back year after year, even after the toughest of winters. And then there are those tenacious miracle-plants – you know, the ones that can root themselves in the tiniest fissures of rocks, or anywhere where they can extract the smallest particle of nourishment from the air or the sun or the ground. Wherever there’s the whisper of potential, they’ll cling on for dear life.
There’s a discussion on WriteWords at the moment about how ‘cosy’ an atmosphere needs to be to support writing. Can an environment be too understanding and accepting? Do we need the harshness of rejection to grow, in the what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – sense?
Environment is, of course, deeply important to writers. Not just the places we write about in our novels or short stories or poems, but the environments in which we place ourselves. For some, a café table with a latte and a laptop is the ideal environment. For others, a silent study with the door firmly closed and a ream of empty paper.
But I’m not just talking about physical spaces. We writers are sensitive to the invisible energies whispering around us, whether we know it or not: the weathers of our world. That silence at the end of the extract we’ve just read out: is it the silence of disapproval, surprise or realisation? The raised eyebrow, the exchanged glance: what’s being said, really? Is the critique we’re receiving engendering and appropriate, or subliminally cruel and undercutting?
I’m a great fan of the I Ching – the Chinese Book Of Changes. Written poetically and symbolically, it offers often obscure but usually excellent guidance to seekers. One line from its many pages has always remained with me:
Develop an atmosphere in which things can grow.
The environment which most nurtures you as a writer may be very different from the one which nourishes me. The important thing is to be aware of what you, as an individual, need - and to do all you can to cultivate such an environment for yourself. This includes the place you work in; those very personal little rituals that most writers have: the tin of biscuits on the desk, the hot water bottle in the lap, the pictures on the wall, the view from the window. It also includes the people you choose to share your writing with and the places you send your writing into. And, perhaps most importantly of all, there's the atmosphere you develop within yourself towards your writing.
Here's an example gleaned from the Strictly team. After a long bout of block and discouragement, Rod was at his wits end. How could he ever write again? Fortunately, his wise partner suggested to him that he return to the seed of his writing: the enjoyment of it. Since then, he's been using 'enjoyment' as a barometer for his writing activities, and can really see the green shoots of recovery. (Rod will be blogging more about this later on).
We are each unique. And it’s my opinion that an engendering environment – whatever that may be for you – must be found if we are to flourish and grow. As Barbara Sher, author of the wonderful Wishcraft – a free, online book about ‘growing your own best life’ writes:
‘If a seed is given good soil and plenty of water and sun, it doesn’t have to try to unfold…If a seed has to grow with a rock on top of it, or in deep shade, or without enough water, it won’t unfold into a healthy full-sized plant. It will try – hard – because the drive to become what you are meant to be is incredibly powerful. But at best it will become a sort of ghost of what it could be: pale, undersized, drooping…
In the age of ecology, we ourselves are the only creatures we would ever expect to flourish in an environment that does not give us what we need! We wouldn’t order a spider to spin an exquisite web in empty space, or a seed to sprout on a bare desk top… Put us in a nourishing environment, even late in a hard life, and we burst into bloom.’
In the immortal words of Morcambe and Wise: Give me sunshine. Whatever that means to you.
I'm serious. I don't know about you lot, but this writer can't move for articles by literary authors or broadsheet columnists ( often both ) declaring that the publishing industry is in the final stages of terminal decline.
Books, they weep, have had their day. Boo Hoo.
I was doing an interview on Monday for a fairly commercial radio station, when this came up. Now how these things usually go, is that sandwiched between the traffic news and Chain Reaction by Dianna Ross, I'm asked, by a DJ who hasn't read any of my books, a. where I get my ideas from and b. is Lilly Valentine based on me.
Everyone knows where they are with this stuff.
But no. On Monday I was asked, in tones last reserved for the death of Princess Di, whether book discounting would ultimately lead to end of creativity as publishers focussed more and more on the big sellers.
Look, I know where he was going. Of course the current tiny profit margins on books mean vast quantities have to be shifted and some of the more serious books are never going to have that broad appeal...but come on, dude, do the lovely listeners care on their way to the office?
What they know is that they can get books cheaply and who am I to deny them that.
When I was a kid I had about twenty paperbacks on a shelf in my bedroom. This was about nineteen more than most of my mates. Books were bloody expensive. A luxury. Is it really for me to suggest we go back to that? Not on bloody national radio it's not.
Then there's the e-reader. Apparently this isn't a smart new gadget, but the destroyer of fiction as we know it.
Writers all over the internet are clutching a copy of their favourite novel to their bosom and declaring their undying love for the very paper it's printed on.
I often wonder if at the advent of the stone tablet some travelling minstrel was telling anyone that would listen that writing stories down was the spawn of the devil. That humankind would no longer need or want stories in this new fangled way.
Now I too, wonder if I'll ever get along with a Kindle, but I'm sharp enough to know that this is because of my AGE. My kids will no doubt embrace it like all the other technology I can't quite get to grips with.
Like most other ten year olds, my children are hardwired to love stories. They read voraciously, everything from Harry Potter to Alex Rider. They insist I read to them every night.
The other day I told them about e-readers and their reaction was simply 'cool'. Loads of books at your finger tips. Good one.
Now I don't want to come across as some sort of Pollyanna. I'm as aware as anyone that times are hard and that the publishing industry is having a tough time. We writers are on the cusp of some big changes.
I guess I just don't see it as necessarily a bad thing.
Humans have spun yarns since the dawn of time and I'm convinced that will continue.
How it will happen, I don't yet know, but I'll be buggered if I'm going to waste energy worrying about it.
Hey, guys, I think I’ve found an aspect of writing that we haven’t already fished to extinction on Strictly Writing. That’s fucking difficult these days; we’ve trawled the whole of it, from dreaming up ideas to polishing your commas. In case it isn’t fucking obvious enough, I’m talking about swearing. Do you mouth it off in your fiction? Only in dialogue or in the narrative too?
For my part, I keep it to the dialogue. Unless my narrative voice were some young rebel or obvious member of the cussing classes, I would clean up the prose. In fact, looking back at my work, there’s almost no profanity to be found. One of my poems, Bloody Marvellous, is a stark exception. It’s odd really as I’m an inveterate foul mouth in speech, even when I’m alone. This morning I dropped a knife plastered with butter on the kitchen floor and automatically let out a quick fuck. Alone in the car yesterday someone pulled across in front of me and I said, ‘Thank you, wanker.’ I didn’t wind down the window and shout, I didn’t leap out and open his door at the lights, I just recited the little prayer at normal volume for my ears only. It’s what we do, isn’t it?
Long before he became a televisual big-shot I went to see Mark Thomas doing stand-up at The Viaduct, down near Ealing Hospital. I still remember his exegesis on the merits of swearing: ‘It is fucking big and it is fucking clever.’ He also pointed out, irrefutably, that some things are impossible to say without swearing: Richard fucking Branson, for example.
There’s definitely an aspect of diminishing returns when it comes down to four letters. If you fucking swear all the fucking time it loses some of its fucking fire-power. Perhaps that’s because the words are all clichés in their own right. And too much licentiousness looks as if you are trying to be cool, or clever, like using long words.
In my first novel, I am not John Nocent, I held off for impact. None of the characters use bad language at any point in the story until John’s house is surrounded by an angry mob who have built a pyre in the street and are now advancing on his front door. In that situation a little profanity seems apt. He could hardly say, ‘Would you all mind just popping along home now?’ I hoped John’s, ‘Fuck off!’ would ring out into the night street.
Even if I don't swear in stories, it’s been bloody pleasant to give myself free rein across the bastard keyboard for this sodding Strictly post. Perhaps I’ll look for a chance to let rip in fiction too. If I do, there’s one word that I might not be able to use. I won’t even utter it in this hallowed place. I’m afraid to do so, and it’s embarrassing to admit that. After all, we’re writers. We don’t believe in censorship, especially not a censorship of vocabulary. The word in question is nothing special. It’s even used in its Spanish form by certain (well-behaved and respectable) Latin American girls to say hello to their mates. It’s just that, in English, it’s the most potent word I know, and whilst it is more popularly employed by males to insult other males, there is something about it that offends against the female.
The last time I remember hearing the word was from the lips of the actor Neil Pearson of Drop the Dead Donkey fame. We were in the bar at the Old Vic Theatre. The curtain had just fallen on the opening night's performance of the appropriately named play, Cloaca, in which he starred. I had taken the opportunity to give the Director, Kevin Spacey, and some of the cast a little gentle feedback. Neil didn’t agree with me and called me the word we are now too polite to mention. It spiced up the evening wonderfully, his delivery of the word being much more memorable than anything that had happened on the stage. It was his best line of the night. Later I felt vindicated when the play was roundly panned by the critics. The dead duck was duly dropped. Kevin Spacey, I have to say was polite and charming, throughout.
There we have it. Proof that even those educated at the same school as Ian McEwan readily hurl at their customers the foulest language they can scrape up. Does that mean I need to include more of it in my fiction? After all, I enjoy it when I read it.
Now I really want to type that word, so I had better stop.
Don't want to be a xxxx.
I typed it and then my little finger leapt diagonally right to the backspace key to remove the smirch from the screen.
So, am I taking bollocks? Please, give me your views on all things vulgar. I await them with lungs on pause. And when you do comment, make sure that your words are suitably couched in obscenity: non expletives will be deleted.
Hell oh. I'm Gillian and bye now ewe will no me as won of the Strictly crew. Eye like to think eye am a good speller. Of coarse, we knead to bee good spellers, ewe sea. As authors wee set an eggs ample to others. Perhaps there are sum people who want to bee authors but our not that good at spelling. That's were the pea sea comes in handy. Some people don't give a shirt weather they spell write or knot, butt I do! Four me, it's very imp port tent. I learned too spell when I was at school at the age of for. My teach her said I was a grate speller and I even got won hundred per cent won year.
Eye halve won of those spelling chequers which is help full. Ewe can tell, I hope? Regard less of weather I halve a spell chequer or knot, I no I am a grate speller. Many of the grate righters did knot halve spelling chequers. George Oar Well could spell and he didn't halve a spelling chequer because he lived long a go. Charles Dick Ins new how to spell write. If ewe reed Grate Expectations ewe will bee amazed at how good he is. All sew, there's Emily Braun Tea who probably did knot halve a spell chequer, and Dug Glass Cope Land – he know doubt did though, as he is mode urn.
The knew write hers from the naughties like Nick Cola Bark Her and Kazoo Oh Ishiguro or even Hill Lorry Mantle will halve spelling chequers witch will help them to spell. All there novels, and even Hilary's book Wool Fall where all free from mist aches. They will halve spelling chequers on their comp pewters and eye max.
Eye have been running my hole novel threw it and have realised it's perfect all the weigh threw. There are know wig lee green lines, know mist aches at all – soup her, I thought! This novel, numb bare three, which eye halve stored on my pea sea is grate. I'm well pleased with it and I'm hoping some won some were will want to publish it.
Butt, the spelling chequer can be danger us two. We may think we spell a whirred write butt it is, in fact wrong. Sew, we must be care full when sending are books two agents.
I can knot bare those rejections. I'm board with them. Those callus agents think they no it all. They chews only a few books each year two print - and just think off all that paper they waist, righting reject sean let hers. Plane crazy, huh?
Eye halve taken grate care with this blog two, sew if ewe sea any mist aches please let me no. All the words our spelt write – that I can ass sure ewe. Knot won whirred is out of plaice – can ewe bee leave that?
Let this be a less in to ewe, to poof read care fully!
Take a bough spelling chequer, your the best.
For the past two and a half years, those three words have been banned not only in my house, but anywhere in my vicinity. That’s how long it took me to whinge about and complete my second novel – Cold Light. I started just as my agent started submitting A Kind of Intimacy to editors and at that time I was full of confidence – thinking that I’d done it once, of course I could do it again. This time it would be much easier, and quicker, and less frightening – because I knew what I was doing.
Insert the sound of hollow laughter here.
It wasn’t quicker, it wasn’t easier and in many ways, although I didn’t take the Donna Tartt route and leave a decade between my debut and follow-up, it was actually more difficult and time-consuming than the first time around. For months I deleted more than I wrote, dismantled the plot and screwed it together again threw the kind of hissy fits that I sneer at when I hear about them from other writers. It was a horrible couple of years.
Exactly like, in fact, writing my first novel.
The cliché of thought around SNS is that the publicity surrounding your first gives you a bit of stage fright. But I’ve been incredibly lucky. There was an initial flurry of reviews, none of which made me swear or cry, and a steady stream of events at festivals, libraries and bookshops, which I quite liked doing, actually. Nothing I could point at and say, ‘there, it’s your fault I can’t write this.’
For me, the problem was in the transition between writing as a hobby, done in the early mornings, late nights and lunch hours at work, and writing as a job – shoes on at nine in the morning, bum in chair, sit yourself down and get on with it no peeking at twitter kind of work. I got an arts council grant, gave up my job as a prison librarian, and got on with it. Except it didn’t happen right away. I struggled to take myself seriously, to take the work seriously, to feel like a real writer. They don’t do it like this, I thought, not in their cardigans with a bag of satsumas in their laps. Real writers aren’t like me. I needed a boss.
I wish there was a trick to sorting that out. I spent some of the grant on mentoring – a difficult, rewarding, demanding process that really helped. Forgetting about money and resigning myself to always being a bit poorer than my Friends With Jobs helped too. Rationing facebook and twitter. Knowing when to give myself a bit of sympathy and when to sneer at my own tantrums and force myself back to the desk. Remembering something I am always telling my students – it’s all right to write a shitty first draft. The magic is in the re-writing.
The most important thing was giving myself permission not to write. The world has enough books – no-one needs something I can’t be arsed writing. If I don’t want to do it, then fine, don’t bother. See if I care. The thought was usually enough to drive me back to my desk for another round. I’m easily manipulated like that.
And I’m done now. I’ve an idea brewing for the third. It’s bound to be easier this time. I’ve done it twice now, haven’t I? This time round, it’s got to be a doddle.
Strictly Come Dancing's Tess Daly has had a tough time lately. First her husband, Vernon Kay (er, right - who?) owned up to some sleazy shenanigans. Now the Daily Mail has jeered at her 'disastrous' writing career. Her book, The Baby Diaries, about life as a new mum, is apparently a flop - because when the Daily Mail looked at Amazon, it ranked a mere 351.
Oh no! 351? And there's me feeling pretty happy if my book's at 351,000. What's worse, according to the Mail, is that Tess did a signing at a Dublin bookshop and there were 'less than (sic) 30 people' there!
While I don't give two hoots about Tess's (or anyone else's) experience of motherhood, I do sympathise with her about this snide coverage of her supposed failure.
Selling 30 books at a signing is brilliant, and the photos show Tess quite rightly smiling. For losers like me, the shops only order about 25 copies in the first place (which is good, because I can say 'I sold out!' and people are more impressed than they really ought to be.) Some authors and publishers are ambivalent about the value of signings because of the time involved for relatively few sales, but the number shifted on the day is only a minor measure of an event's success.
The main benefit of a book signing is the publicity surrounding it - for most of us this is at a
If you live near the venue, you can ask local shops to display posters - all helping to make the cover art familiar to readers next time they see the book. At the signing itself, you can give out bookmarks (see here for instructions on getting them cheap) or postcards with your web address. Only a really miserable sod will refuse a free bookmark. Any of this publicity can lead to someone picking up the book at a later date, and you can be spotted by festival organisers, local reading group members, librarians - anyone who might be in need of a friendly author for an event. My first ever signing resulted in an invitation to speak at a literature festival; the next got me a county reading groups event and a couple of library talks... which meant the library authorities had to buy a few copies, which have been constantly out on loan ever since (yeah, I do check the online library catalogues, I'm that sad.)
A signing is also a great opportunity to meet the booksellers who talk to your potential readers every day. Make a good impression on them (i.e. by being an average nice person – anyone who has ever worked in retail will know that's rare enough) and maybe they'll recommend the book to customers - maybe even put it face-out on the shelf.
Though the Mail's unpleasantness about Tess Daly is all we can expect from the tabloids, I hope she isn't too disheartened. A signing's success isn't down to the number of sales, but to the sometimes surprising opportunities that can result - and perhaps even the negative coverage will bring The Baby Diaries to the attention of people who will appreciate it.
For up ‘til now I’ve always bemoaned the six thirty alarm and the Eight o’clock School drive and then the additional 45 minute slog to my own school (I don’t mean I run it – I’m not the Head or anything, just another cog in the educational wheel). And then having to spend the next four hours trying to make sense of stuff I’m supposed to be doing and getting paid for doing there, whilst I’m actually writing the next scene of my book in my head.
Y'see, I know I have to have the ‘paid’ job and without it I wouldn’t be able to afford to pay bills and eat food or buy paper and ink cartridges and belong to wonderful online writing sites like WriteWords. But all I want to do whilst I’m there is be back home with my eyes firmly fixed on the screen and my fingers flying like crazy (on a good day) across the keyboard creating a whole Other World.
I’ve been exasperated to the point of distraction at times; that I’m tethered to this ridiculous worker’s treadmill all for the sake of having some paper on which to churn out chapters of the next dream I’m working on so that I can post them off to a handful of carefully selected Agents to then shred on my behalf before they’ve even properly read them.
Because that’s how it feels at times, right?
Of course, I’ve always managed to cheer myself up with the fact that my ‘paid’ job is not without its merits i.e the lovely warm printer which sits happily beside me. And a keyboard and screen. Oh, and the kettle and biscuits are well within reach too. However printer, screen, kettle and chocolate Digestives do not a contented writer make. Very close, granted - but still no cigar.
Lately though, with the enthusiastic responses from the latest wave of Agent-subbing, I’ve found this part of my daydream morphing into something strangely different. And I've let myself get sucked further into my 'dream'. I even waltzed down one of the corridors the other day chanting (under my breath of course) *"I have an Agent". I have an Agent" - just to see what it would feel like. But I was unprepared for the feelings this incantation induced.
No longer do I see myself running like a hairy banshee into the main hall during full school assembly with a cry of “That’s it, I’m published – I’m OUTTA HERE!” Then setting of all the fire alarms, turning on all the Bunsen burners and blocking the year 8 loos with reams of sugar paper. Oh no, I seem to somehow have risen above all that nonsense (although now I read that back, it does look like fun). Because strangely enough – and even though I know that most published authors still need to keep the day job going to support their literary urges, I would miss the social interaction. The happy little faces of the quirky assortment of people I work with. Their eager enquiries into how my writing endeavours are going; their enthusiasm at my excitement of being asked for chapters and their continued support of this Other Job I have when I get home from the first.
And anyway – whether they know it or not – they are also the source of some of the best material that one day may lead to that other … *Pine/Hollywood-based dream!
* These ideas are brought to you as part of my subliminal visualisation technique!
(Due to slight Dalek-like sound quality from the pink haired writer, aka D.O.D, please find below a copy her letter. I should add that no real writers were harmed in the creation of this video!!)
Dear Mr Agent,
I'm writing in response to your very rude return of my letter.
I know you agents are very busy but I have to confess that I expected more than my letter returned with a line through it. How rude!
But be assured, you're not the only one I'm writing to. Oh No Siree!!
Another rude agent wrote and told me I didn't understand what Point Of View is. I shall be writing to her and telling her I do indeed remember the Terry Wogan programme on the BBC.
Then there's the guy who got one of his interns to write me a hand-written message. What was it..? Oh, I remember now. He told me I had a problem with character arcs. I fully intend telling HIM that I am a writer not a carpenter. I do not have time to build rescue boats for my characters. It was that same guy who told me to show not tell. Everyone knows you TELL a story. What a total crock of crap!
On that note Mr Agent, I'm signing off now. Forever yours,
DISGUSTED FROM DONCASTER
Hilary Mantel wrote a lovely piece for the Guardian recently where she talked about her passion for stationary. When the new catalogue arrives, she loses herself in it for hours, browsing everything from notebooks, pens and paperclips to ‘biscuits, buckets and bayonet fitting bulbs.’
I too am a stationary addict. The only part of Mantel’s article I couldn’t identfy with, was her view that fixed-spine notebooks like the Moleskine are ‘death to free thought’. She believes you have to be able to shift notes around to create a novel but being rather linear of mind, I rather like Moleskine notebooks. [Maybe this is why she is a brilliant and successful novelist and I’m not]. Anyway, this got me thinking about the tools of the trade and what is absolutely necessary to me to write.
First up, I must have the right pen. And that pen is the Pentel Superb, with its lovely fine nib and lack of inkiness. Since being a small child I have always written in a cack-handed way, with my hand curled over and above what’s gone before. This means I spent my childhood with indigo mitts. Secondly, I need a notebook that isn’t too fancy but is allowed to have a utilitarian beauty, if that makes sense. My husband bought me a beautiful red leather notebook the Christmas before last and I find it almost too gorgeous to use. It currently languishes by my bed in case I get any noctural inspiration. So far, I’ve only written on two of its pages. I’m currently into Moleskine exercise books, which are very pleasing [sorry Ms Mantel].
But what is this obsession with using the right stationary? I’m sure if I was holed up in a foreign prison I’d write on a dirt floor with a stick if I had to. The urge to write is powerful and once, bored in a playground while my children ran about, I resorted to writing story notes on my mobile phone. And I don't have an iPhone or a Crackberry, so it was a laborious process I can tell you.
Maybe this desire to use equipment that is just right has a purpose. I’ve heard many writers say they believe there is some connection between brain and hand that triggers the creative process and allows stories to grow and breathe. Even though I use a computer to do most of the work, there are times when nothing beats writing in a notebook by hand. I wonder whether this has its origins in the time when all we had was a stick to use in the dirt or the wall of a cave. Humans have always told stories and its thought this desire may be hard-wired into our brains. Maybe our ancestors argued over which stick had just the right amount of definition to make the perfect mark.
Every day I arrive at my lap top and estimate how far I'll get, yet somehow I'm always way behind. I have the very best of intentions so what on earth is holding me up?
My husband suggested, with an arched eyebrow, that I make a note of what I did during those hours I'm supposedly writing.
I glared at him. 'You mean a time and motion study.'
He didn't deny it.
Honestly, who does that man think he is? I don't waste time. I'm not on the phone all day, or watching Jeremy Kyle. The cheek.
So another day, came and went with only 1000 words on the clock, and I cracked. The results, friends, were shocking.
I may not be glued to day time telly but neither am I working flat out.
The internet is sucking away my life.
Enemy number one. Mumsnet.
For those of you who don't know, Mumsnet is a parenting website, peopled for the most part by middle class mothers.
To be honest, even if you're a childless pensioner from Peru, you may well have heard of it recently. As the election approaches, the powers that be (and want to continue as such) are courting the very community that Mumsnet represents. Apparently, we women with small children hold the keys to the Kingdom. And there was me thinking we held the ironing pile...
Anyhow, I have to admit to being an avid Mumsnetter. Not that I have any aspirations to political power, but rather because it's so damn entertaining.
The forums are always buzzing. There are discussions on everything from how best to deal with toddler tantrums, to how best to deal with the pensions deficit. These are intelligent women with plenty to say. And boy do they like to say it. Frisky, feisty, however you want to describe it, the forum on Mumsnet are not for the lilly-livered.
Of all the subjects that up the tempo, nothing comes close to a good debate between the Mums who work outside the home (WOHMs) and the Mums who stay at home (SAHMs).
Before you can declare Kate Winslet's latest decree nisi, the accusations start to fly, with the WOHMs decrying the SAHMs for not providing a good role model and the SAHMs stating that Mums who work 'outsource' the care of their children, and parent on a part time basis.
This last one makes me hoot out loud. The idea that while my children are at school, or with their Nana, whilst I write a few pages of my book, I am no longer their parent is rather engaging. Perhaps I could spend the time in the pub. Or travelling the world.
Of course, no one ever wins these arguments, but that's besides the point.
Another way of throwing away my time, is lurking on Authonomy, which for good old car crash internet value, is not unlike Mumsnet.
It was set up by HarperCollins as an alternative to the slushpile. Genius. Unpublished authors upload their books, rather than send them in to the acquisitions dept. The idea is the most popular books sneak up a chart and the top book is looked at by an editor, who might spot its masterly storyline and promptly offer a contract. This never happens of course but still...
What reminds me of my beloved Mumsnet is the constant argy bargy on the forum. And nothing gets them there Authonomites in a tizzy like 'the rules'. These arguments centre around whether writers should stick to certain rules like 'show not tell', 'never use adjectives',or 'avoid the passive'. Hilarious. Honestly, pull up a chair.
One camp declare such rules the work of the devil, that they sap creativity and can never replace talent. The other camp say the rules can only improve writing and quote Stephen King, 'the road to hell is paved with adverbs.'
I'm always tempted to point out that there is no black and white, only good writing, but I don't. Like a Roman at the ampitheatre, I enjoy the show.
Things go round and round in circles until someone points out that maybe they should stop rowing and get writing...
Which is of course what I should be doing. But then I heard about this great blog...
I curse you Mr Internet and all your seductive devils.
I'm even blocked for blogging. Sitting here in front of a square of empty screen, due to post tonight, and no ideas have come. This is scary and disconcerting, and it's the second time it's happened in a month.
The last time I worked on my novel was 18th January. I know, because I have a list of days and word-counts I kept to encourage me to keep going. So what happened?
For a long time, I've been pushing energy out into my writing and nothing’s been coming back. I've been watching friends and colleagues succeeding in their writing lives (which is thrilling and inspiring) but failing miserably myself.
I have this theory: Creativity, in its best and healthiest form, is a circular process:-
- Someone (or something – like inspiration) says: Here’s a thing. Can you do
- You feel excited. Yes, you say. Yes, I can.
- You go away and do it to the best of your ability.
- When it’s completed, you hand it over. Thank you, they say. I like
that. Or they pay you for it.
- And that pleasure in receiving, or acknowledgement, or financial remuneration, is a boost of energy. It fills up the space where the creative object used to be, all ready for a new cycle of creativity to begin.
This cycle happens naturally in every creative act. Trouble comes when the cycle is interrupted, or uncompleted. And especially when this happens lots of times. You start to feel a certain tiredness, a certain emptiness. You watch other people receiving their boosts and a childlike whine begins to hum through your brain: What about me? What about me? it goes. So you redouble your efforts. You send out a few more creative babies into the world. Again, nothing. You retire to lick your wounds. There’s not much energy left now. But you push yourself doggedly onwards. This may be the point at which you realise that you are attempting to get out of a hole through the act of digging.
Maybe that hole needs a bit of filling instead. And maybe the world can’t fill it.
I know I’ve got off track because I’ve so badly wanted the publishing world to want what I do. And that’s dangerous. In hoping or expecting this, I put myself in a very vulnerable position - especially if that’s where ALL my hope resides.
When a neighbour heard about the latest rejection, she said: ‘I think you should just enjoy your retirement.’ Retirement? I haven't reached that age yet. It felt like an added blow. You’re old as well as useless. But perhaps she had a point. Sometimes we need to retire. Retire gracefully from the one-pointed need to be published at all costs. At least for a bit. Work on filling that empty hole I’ve been so busy digging. Remember that what I do has worth, to me - even if not to ‘them out there’.
And maybe, one day… hell, you never know.
Debs Riccio, once writer of grown up novels now writes YA in between working, running a home, being a wife and mother, blogging and tweeting. She should fit right in!
Welcome Debs. It's great to have you on board.
At the moment a big part of her job is to steam the stamps off the slush pile. You see, they receive about 200 unsolicited manuscripts a week. That’s around 10,000 a year, for those of you who blushed in the Maths classroom. In her first twelve months, Lillian was able to generate almost £12,500 in free revenue from the stamps she painstakingly peels off the SAEs.
It’s a lucrative source of revenue and brings in more than the agents are able to make on many of the books they tout to publishers. It also covers most of her salary. The steaming only takes about four hours each day, which leaves her enough time to take on other responsibilities like driving the rejected manuscripts down to Kent to the pulp merchant for recycling. At £140 per ton, the agency is able to bring in a good chuck of extra cash that way too.
Recently Lillian had a flash of inspiration. She’s found a way to increase the revenue eightfold. Her idea has been supported by the head of the agency and Lillian’s been given a pay rise. What they do now is ask for a full manuscript from all the writers who submit to them. By requesting the full via email they don’t have to use the SAEs that come with the original three chapters. They require a second SAE for return of the full, and the beauty of it is that this one comes with a whacking great average stamp value of more than £5.
That’s for an industry standard literary novel of 80,000 words. Blockbusters that weigh in at 120,000 to 140,000 words are even more profitable. They come plastered with stamps worth £7-8. Recently Lillian amended the submission guidelines on the agency website to say, We are particularly interested in longer fiction – please send the first six chapters (don’t forget to include an SAE) and we will promptly inform you if we would like to read the full manuscript.
This increases the whole steaming business to an annual value of over £80,000. In fact it’s a lot more when you add the scrap value of all those eternal reams of double spaced white paper. Lillian now gets a fifty percent bonus. When I questioned the ethics of this over an extra glass of Montagny, she pointed out, somewhat defensively, that her labour means that many writers who would never normally receive more than a standard rejection slip now have the frisson of being asked for a full manuscript. It’s an experience they will treasure for life. And you have to admit that, in these troubled times, it’s encouraging to hear that someone is able to make a living out of literature.
Thanks to all who entered our competition and look out for more very soon.
(Karen - please e-mail me: gfmcdade [at] hotmail.com with your postal address)
We’ve all heard this quote many times (it’s actually a slight misquote from Albert Einstein), that creativity is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. For the most part, this feels like a truism to anyone who struggles to finish a poem, story, play, song, or novel. However, what about that one percent?
A question I’ve been asked a lot lately, since I just came out with a debut collection, is what inspires me as a writer? In other words, where does that one per cent arrive from? I never had to think so closely about the process before. In the past, I just waited or looked for inspiration, not giving much thought as to how it happens.
I’ve become conscious that my main source of inspiration is travel. My father, with a PhD in psychology, often used to tell me and my brother that it was important to put positive, beautiful images into our minds because images never leave us. Once our vision processes a scene or picture, it is stored in our unconscious forever. Our minds are one big filing drawer that stretches to infinity. This is one reason I’ve tried to avoid graphic violence on TV and film; one reason I like to garden, go to art museums, and explore different places and cultures. I don’t shrink from reality or disturbing human situations, but I don’t want to waste space in my cabinet on gratuitous images that can depress, if too much accumulates.
I remember early on spending a summer in London, when I was about six years old. Everything I came into contact with intrigued me — the townhouse garden, the towering foxgloves, the neighbors, the strawberries we ate out of a paper cone, the huge pennies, Big Ben, the countryside, the ballet under the stars, the cliffs and castle ruins where King Arthur supposedly roamed. But nothing intrigued me more than the Queen. I toddled around the garden in my grandmother’s high heels, wearing a crown of ball-fringe pom-poms I had sewn together, and carrying over one arm a handmade pouch I had primitively created — I was pretending to be Her Majesty. Perhaps it was the beginning of my desire to get into other people’s minds, even before I could really read and had any sense of writing or being a writer. I was building a character I didn’t know in my own childish way.
Since then, all the files of color, smells, objects, flora and fauna, weather, architecture, culture, personality, clothing, and food are my ingredients for story making. In the same way that someone turns to a little tin or wooden box of recipes that’s been handed down for generations to build a family meal, I turn to that mental file box to mix and stir and build a story.
The urge to travel fuels my writing, and my desire to write stories about many people and cultures urges me to travel. I hope readers get the feeling they are traveling with my characters as the characters take their own physical and emotional journeys.
Tara L. Masih is editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (2009) and author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories (2010). She has published fiction, poetry, and essays in numerous anthologies and literary magazines (including Confrontation, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Natural Bridge, Red River Review, Night Train, and The Caribbean Writer) and several limited edition illustrated chapbooks featuring her flash fiction have been published by The Feral Press. Awards for her work include first place in The Ledge Magazine’s fiction contest and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations. www.taramasih.com.
Where the Dog Star Never Glows is available at Blackwell UK:
We have one copy of the fantastic Where the Dog Star Never Glows to give away. All you have to do to be in with a chance of winning is to leave a comment below. We will choose one person at random, so check in with Strictly on Sunday.
So, over the past twenty four months, I’ve read many different genres that otherwise I wouldn’t have touched with a proverbial bargepole. I’ve escaped the reading rut I was in, that of reading commercial beach fodder only. And though I’m still rather partial to a beach bonk-buster, with nine members of both sexes, the book club choices have forced me and others to reach past our self imposed comfort zones. Most of the times, I’ve liked the book. Some of the times, I’ve loathed the book and quite often, I’ve loved the book to the point of passion. I’ve wanted to shout from the rafters, any rafters, that everyone should read this book! The latest author to come under our scrutiny, Mr Markus Zusack, writer of the magnificent ‘’The Book Thief’ has provoked such emotions in me.
‘The Book Thief’ took me ages to get into. If it has a fault, that may be it, but I soon forgave it because after an initial feeling of ‘What the...’ – I loved this really remarkable book. Narrated by Death itself, it tells the story of a young girl, Liesel Hemminger, in Nazi Germany. This unusual narrative device, expertly delivered by Zusack, gives Death an often sympathetic voice, for example when he questions the human race saying “So much good, so much evil...”
The characters are superbly drawn with Liesel’s disparate foster parents, Rosa and Hans Hubermann, providing as safe a haven as possible in war torn Molching; a town close enough to Dachau for Liesel and her foster family to witness streams of starving Jews marched slowly to their fate. Liesel is taught to read by Hans and a love of words and language creates a longing desire for books (used to fuel Nazi fires) prompting her to have to steal them.
Liesel learns compassion when her normally short tempered foster mother agrees to hide a Jewish man in their basement, without question or concern for their own well being. She learns to love and laugh in the company of best friend Rudy Steiner and together,be it by stealing apples or leaving a trail of stale bread for the Jews on the road to Dachau, they do their bit to fight the oppressive regime they live under.
This novel celebrates the power of words and language, both in the telling and content of the story. As a reader it left me wanting more and as a writer left me feeling – that’s how it’s done. And without offering spoilers, I think I can share with you that in THIS example of writing, the last line was even more powerful than that all important first, when Death reveals ‘I am haunted by humans.’
I still get a lump in my throat thinking of the impact of that line.
Following Caro’s piece yesterday on authors' responses to book reviews, I trust Markus will be happy when I shout from the rafters 'Yay Markus! You made me laugh and smile, you made me cry. You made me stare at your words in wonder.'
Yes. All of the above. 9/10
Upon receiving a bad review, there are three options:
1. Maintain a dignified silence
2. Say 'Thank you very much for taking the time to read and review my book.'
3. Make an absolute arse of yourself.
Responding to a bad review with anything other than points 1 or 2 is – in vulgar parlance – filled with fail. I cringe when I see an author going off on one at someone who happened not to fall at their feet.
So why shouldn't authors be allowed the right of reply? Why shouldn't we unleash the full force of our wit against a rude reviewer, or even politely correct someone who has made a genuine mistake?
No reason at all. You're allowed to do what you like. You have every right to launch a ballistic rant, to manifest in a negative forum discussion like a spectre at the feast, or to email the reviewer and point out why they are wrong. Having rights and exercising them are, however, different things, and there's huge potential to earn the disdain of readers who might otherwise be intrigued by your book.
Here are some sentiments I've noticed, either in author responses to reviews, or in forum threads sympathising with them:
- That jealous hater probably had their own crappy novel rejected a million times and takes it out on anyone with a modicum of talent.
- They're probably too stupid even to try to write a book, so they don't know the mortal anguish you went through to bleed every word onto that unforgiving page!
- There's a typo in line 4 of the review, so they're a 'retard' (or any other offensive terminology) who doesn't deserve an opinion.
- The idiot hasn't read your 500,000 pages of research that prove you're right to have your Roman British characters tucking in to a meal of rabbit and spuds.
- The last book they enjoyed was SF, so they obviously just don't 'get' your crime novel. How dare they read a different genre from the one they were assigned at birth?
- They shouldn't have read it in the first place if they weren't going to like it!
The reviewer criticised your book. That's all. That's tough, and it hurts – and there's no law that says you have to be happy about it. You can sob into your pillow, or make a little doll and stick pins in it, or type up a stinging response that you never send, but if you really want someone to lick your boots, give up being an author and buy a puppy.
Keeping your dignity in the face of a bad review is not about sparing the feelings of some rude person – it's for your own good. The reviewer might genuinely be evil, they might have got completely the wrong end of the stick, they might be stupid beyond measure, they might be someone from your past who bears you a grudge - or they might be a normal, intelligent person who happens not to like your book. It's not about them. You're the one presenting your writing to the world, and if you have a go at a reviewer, you're the one guaranteed to look an utter tit.
One of my favourite talks when I do school visits is the one I call “Teen Fiction Myths”. And one of my favourite myths is that teen fiction is a New Thing. I hear adults well under the age of 60 mentioning this all the time. “The kids of today are lucky,” they say. “We didn’t have any books aimed at teenagers in my day.”
“Really?” I always want to say. “You didn’t have fiction with teenaged protagonists, exploring coming-of-age issues and relationships from a teen point of view? Are you SURE?”
I don’t usually say that, though. If the person is lucky, I nod and smile and move on. But the unlucky few get me climbing on my soap box and saying the following, only in a lot more words and animated hand gestures, causing a lot more watch-checking and sudden-bus-arrival in my ‘listener’...
Teen fiction has existed ever since adolescence became recognised as a distinct stage in life, sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s.
Sure, I can argue the case for books that people don’t necessarily see as teen fiction, such as J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But I don’t just mean those. I’m talking about all the other, less famous books where the point of view is that of a young adult in the moment, and not looking back. I’m talking about the kinds of books I’ve always loved reading – and writing.
From the age of about 10, I’d scour the spines of the Harrow Library Services children’s sections for the yellow star that meant “teen”. I’d pounce on the books I found, borrowing them many times. In fact, it’s that very yellow star that lead me to reach the above conclusion. Hunting through my old books one day last year, I came across a yellow-starred book I bought for 2p when it was retired from Harrow Libraries in the late eighties – a book called Fifteen by Beverly Cleary. And the publication date? 1956. Yet, in many ways, it could have been written today. Take this quote from when our heroine is in the presence of a boy she likes. “Sitting down and standing up had always been such a simple process until now. Suddenly life seemed unbearably complicated.”
Having said all this, I’ll jump off my soap box and admit that there is probably much more fiction like this now, which can only be a good thing, in my opinion. And also from the point of view of my teenaged, yellow-star-seeking self, who has never left me.
Just for fun, try this quiz. I have one short opening extract of a book published in each of the following decades: 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and noughties. The books are all aimed at teenage girls. Can you guess which decade they are from? I’ll put the answers and book details in the comments when this is posted, so don’t click the comments yet if you want to try the test!
1. It’s hard to know where to begin telling you this. I wonder if there’s even such a thing as a beginning – or maybe there is, but you can never pin it to one time or one place.
2. Getting to be thirteen turned out to be an absolute and complete bummer. I mean it. What a letdown.
3. I am in a cupboard, and I’m snogging the coolest and most gorgeous boy in the whole school.
4. Penny thought it was a wonderful piece of luck that they were moving house on a Thursday, because nobody, not even Miss Wolff, would expect her to do her arithmetic homework in the middle of a move.
5. As the hot water pounded down on me, I was suddenly aware I was not alone. Someone was standing very close to me, under the same shower. I opened my eyes, blinking away water. It was him.
6. Today I’m going to meet a boy, Jane Purdy told herself, as she walked up Blossom Street toward her baby-sitting job.
Luisa Plaja is author of teen novels including Split by a Kiss, Extreme Kissing and Swapped by a Kiss, and editor of teen fiction site Chicklish.co.uk
I've never skied in my life. Quite frankly, the weather here is rubbish, and once September arrives, I count down the days until mid to late March when we are promised at least a little bit of sunshine and warmth. I have an extreme dislike of cold weather, but watching the winter Olympics in Vancouver, coupled with enjoying the gorgeous scenery in Sky HD, has inspired me to want to be the next British skeleton champion. The speed, the exhilaration, the excitement, and even the wait as you take your place on the starting line at the sliding centre is just like writing a novel. Our experiences are not much different - both the athlete and the author have desires to be the best at their game and nothing stops them in the quest for that number one position.
Before we authors begin our journey, we put in countless hours of practice - it's the first thing we think of in the morning and the last thing we think of at night. We hone our craft constantly, learn from our mistakes, try and improve our techniques, eat, sleep and breathe novels, and simply aim to be the best. Both the author and the winter sports athlete see what's in front of them - for the skier it's a long steep slope with the end in sight, and for the author it's a long winding and sometimes unclear road to publication with many false starts. The lugers will get there more quickly than we will, even if they don't see the finishing line.
The uncertainty too causes a lot of anxiety. Just like Canada's triumph over the United States in the ice hockey, which nearly didn't happen, our journeys are filled with angst, doubt and worry over whether or not the book and medal will come to fruition.
For the skier it's all over in a matter of minutes. It's a race against time to the finishing line, but at least we authors can take our time. In that respect I'm inclined to believe that writing a novel is closer to figure skating where the routine has to be perfect. Every move and every mistake is noted by the judges and one slip-up completely ruins your years of build-up.
And when the skiers and lugers lose out to gold in just a matter of a split second, the heartache is just like the flinch of a literary agent's assistant's arm, as she throws your manuscript on the slushpile. It's all over in a matter of seconds. Be the best!
Check out the luge below...
When I received an email over a year ago from You Write On saying they wanted to publish The Chronicles of Joya via a grant from The Arts Council, my husband jumped around the room. I held back. I’d allowed myself to get excited over such things before and landed with a thud on Reality Earth that had left bruises the size of plates on my behind.
When Bloomsbury had read the first five pages of the book and asked to see the first three chapters, I didn’t sleep for a week. When an agent told me on the phone that her daughter loved my book and read it in a day, I let out a yelp. She popped the air out of my balloon when she continued with 'but your book doesn’t fit with my catalogue'. Even though she thought it was great and that I should definitely pursue other agents, it hurt. I’d so wanted her.
Renni Browne, who’s been editing since the year I was born, said I had as much talent as her company’s biggest success story. She assured me of success with The Chronicles of Joya only to discover American agents weren’t looking for animal stories at that time.
And of course there was the instance of self-sabotage. A great agent contacted me. I had an hour conversation over the phone with him and found myself destroying the opportunity because I was scared. Everything was happening too fast. I could hear myself throwing the chance away and a sensible synapse in my brain tried to scream over my fear, 'what the hell are you doing?' I’m sure you’re shaking your head. Believe me, I’ve done the same. It’s a wonder it’s still attached.
So before I allowed excitement to creep in over the You Write On email, I read the small print. I devoured the contract. Twice. It couldn’t have read better. That’s when I allowed the joy and relief to pump through me.
Only after signing the contract did I realise I’d entered into the world of self-publishing. I’d have to purchase my own stock, do my own marketing and sales. It’s something I’d avoided after reading the horror stories from those who’d taken this path.
I had to roll up my sleeves and throw myself in. I designed my website and arranged for it to be up and running the month before release date. With a background in selling contact lenses and shotguns and rifles, I tapped into my old skills to arrange book signings in Borders and Waterstones. I arranged school visits and hoped for the best.
Boy, did I get it. At the book signings I sold an average of 60 books at each event and was invited back to all stores! The children in the schools cheered and screamed at the end of the sessions and emails fly in every day via the website telling me how it’s the best book they’ve ever read.
Life … is good.
Oh, how I love a good writing course.
They’re an opportunity to learn about the craft, to pick up tips from people in the know and to mix with like-minded folk. They’re also, if I’m brutally honest, a nice break from the everyday business of kids, work and walking the dog. As for the residential ones – they're even better. I’ve never been on a week long Arvon course [family, dog and job would not make the space for that quite yet] but I’ve been on two short courses through Cornerstones, which were worth every penny. I’ve also done a couple of evening classes through the London arts based body Spread the Word, run by the wonderful writer [and teacher] Maggie Gee.
I’ve recently finished an excellent telephone course run by the London Writer’s Club and just to show how keen I am, I’ve also ploughed my way through a couple of the course books for an MA in creative Writing. I read every blog by editors and agents I can find and buy just about every ‘how to’ book on writing I can get my hands on.
But I’m starting to notice that the advice given is sounding familiar. I think I understand about showing and not telling, about the importance of voice, about the subtleties of characterisation and dialogue, and how to recognise a good plot. You hear about people pretending to be doctors and I reckon I could put on a pretty good impression of a writing tutor if it was a course for beginners.
How to get an agent? Simple: target the ones who are the best fit for your writing, write a sparkling letter, be businesslike in all dealings and make sure your work is at the highest standard it can be. Workshop it, pay for a report, check it and edit it again and again. Then edit it once more before it gets anywhere near an agent’s overloaded desk.
See? I'm quite convincing. Ask me another....
This isn’t meant arrogantly. I’m not exactly beating agents off with a stick so I’m still clearly a way from making a success of my writing. My point is that I understand all of this on a cerebral level and maybe that’s as far as it goes. Some other fairy dust has to be mixed with this knowledge in order to elevate me out of the slush pile. A famous author whose name escapes me was once asked for some advice for authors trying to break through. His answer was, ‘write a better book’.
Harsh? Maybe. Good advice? Probably that too.
I’m reaching the stage where I know what has to be done. No course is going to open a magic door for me and make my dreams come true.
It’s time to put on my Big Girl Pants and simply write a better book.
A book develops a life of its own once it’s published, and you don’t know who, if anyone, will pick it up and read it. One of the things that worried me as a new author was the thought that some readers might be upset by things in my book, Numbers, which were too close to home. Although the basic premise of the book – that a girl can see death dates in other people’s eyes - requires a suspension of disbelief, I tried to make the rest of it contemporary and relevant. But then I worried that it might be too relevant, and could upset someone who’s in foster care, facing serious illness either their own or of someone close to them, a victim of a terrorist outrage, or whose parents have died.
My book has been read by people whose circumstances are close to those of my main characters, Jem and Spider, but the feedback I have had from them has been unexpected and wonderful.
One of the most moving reviews I’ve read was posted on US Amazon. The reviewer reported that her husband had inoperable cancer and had asked her ‘How many days do you think I have left’ a hundred times. She said that the book made her wonder if she would tell him if she knew. She concluded ‘There are few new ideas but the storyline in this book is one I haven’t read before and I am glad I did.’ I’m not ashamed to admit that this moved me to tears.
I’ve also heard from a group of readers from a book club in Wiltshire. All the members of the group are looked-after young people, and they have told me how real my characters are, and how close to their own lives. This has moved me too, because I had no idea when I was writing where my characters came from. I confess that I didn’t do any research about living in foster care or talk to any kids in that situation. I could have ended up writing something that was unrealistic or, worse, patronising.
I think I was right to worry about the effect my book might have, but it’s also right to write about things that are real and relevant. Books can help us get a glimpse into lives very different from our own, and they can also help us to make sense of our own lives when we identify with characters or situations.
In January, one of the people nearest and dearest to me had a brush with death. After a horrific day like every hospital drama you’ve ever seen on TV, we’re now looking towards a slow, but hopefully full, recovery. Throughout the past few weeks, I’ve been editing Numbers 2: The Chaos, a book which develops the theme of mortality, knowing the future and fighting it. At times it felt too close to home, but I kept going and now the book’s done, handed over to my publisher, and soon to make its own way in the world. When it hits the bookshelves in June, I wonder who will pick it up...
Numbers is published by Chickenhouse.
Ruth's first entry is below, and you can continue reading tomorrow here.
These hands are ninety-three years old. They belong to Charlotte Marie Bradley Miller. She was so frail that her grand-daughter had to carry her onto the set to take this photo. It’s a close-up. Her emaciated arms emerge from the top corners of the photo and the background is black, maybe velvet, as if we’re being protected from seeing the strings. One wrist rests on the other, and her fingers hang loose, close together, a pair of folded wings. And you can see her insides.