Sunday, 31 October 2010

Concrete Operational winner

Thanks to all those who commented on 'Concrete Operational' which we featured on the blog recently. There can only be one winner of course, so congratulations to Wayne Blackhurst who wins the box set.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Remember, Remember


Approaching as we are, November 5th, my mind has turned to plots.

Not to blow up parliament you understand...though now I come to think of it...rather the plot of my next book.

You might remember from my last post that I have rather ill-advisedly agreed to sub book five by next Easter. Thus, instead of doing the naked author's dance when I signed off on book four and looking forward to a hard earned rest, I was forced to turn immedaitely to the next project and make some important decisions.

First, I settled on a structure. When I say settled, what I really mean is I dithered and tortured myself to distraction until I imposed a deadline. At that point I simply went with the structure I had on the table and refused to change. A bit like pass the parcel when the music stops. Only without the bite sized Milky Way in the middle.

I suspect Salman Rushdie doesn't use this method.

Hey ho, with my structure in the bag, I moved to my plot.

What was actually going to happen in this book of mine?

I know a lot of writers just get started and let the characters find out for themselves what happens. I read of authors being startled by twists and turns that unveil themselves like delightful belly dancers. Sadly, for me, it doesn't work like this. I find my dancers stubborn, fat and unengaging if I don't actively tell them not to be. Left to their own devices they won't find murders to solve or long lost lovers to bed. No, they will have a bit of a natter and go down the pub for a half.

So, I've been planning.

For me, this means many many bits of paper. Al Gore would not be pleased.

I literally take a seperate sheet of paper for each scene. I number each one. Then I write on it the salient points. Most important being whose POV the scene is from, where the scene is set, what happens and how the scene moves the story on. I'll include any interesting detail that I can already picture, or a snipet of dialogue.

Sometimes I fill the whole page and when I come to writing the thing, it will be little more than a typing exercise. Sometimes the page will be utterly blank. I instinctively know something is needed, but am buggared if I know what it is. Perhaps, I'll write an encouraging note to myself. Something like...FFS.

So, I hear you cry, how is the current plan coming along?

Wellllllll.........I'd be lying if I said I was there. That there wasn't work still to do.

So I'm setting another deadline. By close of play today, I will finish my plan. The music will stop and whatever I have on those scraps of paper will be the basis of book five.

Maybe I'll start a new trend. Writing as a children's party game.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

When art forms come together


Question - When several art forms come together what do you get?

Answer – a collaborative project which, some say, will be the future of the publishing and creative arts industry.

Operation Concrete is an independent project, sponsored by the Arts Council of England, which brings together the work of five artists and five bands around the themes of emotion taken from the debut novel by its Creative Director Richard Galbraith.

In the book Concrete Operational, the readers will be swept along on a rollercoaster of emotions, from desire to love, jealousy and madness. What sets this particular book apart from the mainstream publishing industry is that the book is more a 'project' as it is complemented by a book of art and a CD featuring five music tracks.

The book follows Germany, a man who has been turned into a celebrity against his will. The story is about the human condition and delves into the emotions, and while surreal at times, is an enjoyable read and not like anything I've read previously. Admittedly I did find the book quite hard-going and intense at time, due in part to the immense detail in every sentence, but I admire Richard for his perseverance in writing a novel which is not genre-specific nor mainstream.

Now to the art – I'm no expert in art, but I did find the images, which are all of the human form, quite captivating and disturbing at times. And the music – well, it's a variety of styles which will intrigue fans of any genre. It complements the book and the artwork well.

Richard firmly believes that a rich immersive experience can be realised through the collaboration between art and music and visuals. And it's true. This is an 'experience', rather than a book, art work and music as separate entities.

"We think that the people who read books love them, they love the written word, but they also love music and art and architecture and design and anything creative, and we want to provide them with rich, immersive experiences that encapsulate their minds and imaginations," he said.

"Furthermore, a lot of work has obviously been put into sourcing the collaborators as well as trying to get it to fruition. Having experienced my first collaborative project, it's definitely something I'd like to see more of in the future. There are so many more marketing and promotional opportunities for a mixed media project such as this."

Strictly has one box set to give away, courtesy of Richard. All you have to do is leave a comment below and we will pick one at random.

You can visit the website Operation Concrete to sample some of the art work, listen to the music and view the short movie. Readers can buy the novel, the 70 page art book, or five track CD album individually, or as a limited edition, hand made package containing all three. the box set can be purchased through the project’s website.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Doing it by the Book


I’m a nice girl, me. Good as gold. I do my submitting by the book.

What book, I hear you asking?

A clue: The Great Agent In The Sky begat it.
And Lo! It was carried down from On High in tablets (Prozac, probably) by His disciples and delivered unto us aspirant writers.

The title? The Ten Commandments of Submitting.

And here they are:

1. Thou shalt Finish thy novel before thou Cast thy Read upon the ether or into the realms of the Holy Post.

2. Thou shalt use No Other Font but Times New Roman, nor any space but Double.

3. Honour thy Margins, that the agent may Set His Mark upon them.

4. Every Page Shall Be Numbered and Every Synopsis Shall Be Exalted.

5. Covet not thine adjectives and adverbs, for they make agents Sore Afraid.

6. Thou shalt abjure all prologues and present tense narratives, for they will be Ignored.

7. And thou shouldst never Tell, but Show.

8. Never shalt thou call an agent by the name of Christian, or sign with a loving Kiss.

9. Thou shalt send no Chocolates, Ribbons or Knickers with thy submission.

10. And never shalt thou Pester, Push or Rush an agent, on pain of Rejection. For Ever and Ever.


Hmm.

As far as the Tenth Commandment is concerned, I just had a very interesting e-conversation with a Real, Live Agent who advised me to contact the agent who has my full manuscript and chase him up. After just three weeks.

I was astonished. The Tenth Commandment had always been set in stone, seemingly. You never, EVER push an agent, at least for the first three months. That’s scary, I said. Chase him up, he repeated. It’s a much more go-getting environment, these days. And (ref. First Commandment) he’s used to people hustling him with novels they haven’t yet written.

Which leads me to wonder how many of those Commandments (and all the others that float around in the writerly ether) actually hold true? Of course there are sensible guidelines which would probably best be followed if we want our work to be looked at and seriously considered. Of course we should make our work as accessible and easy-to-read as we can.

Perhaps I’m just railing against the feeling that I’m being preached at sometimes, and that the Rules are set in stone. Which goes against the natural fluidity of the writer’s craft. What do you think?

Oh, and should I send pink or black knickers?

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Reading Poetry in the Nude


Last Wednesday I heard a thud on the hall floor and for once it wasn't a rejected manuscript.

All week I've been carrying the book around like a talisman, and reading it ostentatiously on the tube.

Like many people I wrote poetry in my twenties. I went further, going to events at the Poetry Society and hanging out with a poet I met at one of the readings. It was always a difficult relationship; he encouraged my writing and introduced me to the work of many poets I went on to love, but he kept asking me to read to him naked. I wasn't so sure about that. Ted (not his actual name) suggested that it would free up my creative energies. I suspected that it might free up his. In the end we drifted.

About six years ago, when I started to write again in earnest, my inclination was towards novels. These days, it seems, many people consider the novel to be proper writing. At least that's the way it looked to me. I slaved away and ploughed out two novels (as yet unpublished). But all the while, pieces of verse kept popping out of me. One of my poems in the Iron Book of New Humorous Verse came while I was making coffee - ostensibly a break in my writing.

I never thought of trying to get any of it published until I saw the call for submissions for the anthology. It was a delight to find I would be nestled in the company of wonderful poets including: Wendy Cope, Jacob Polley, John Whitworth and Julie Kane.

That letter from Iron Press has changed everything about my writing life. I did an Arvon course with the truly inspirational Ian Duhig and Amanda Dalton. I'm now doing an evening class at The Poetry School. I've subscribed to a million poetry magazines and bought skip-loads of poetry.

For now, I've no interest in going back to the novels. I'm intent on extending my range in verse form and subject matter, and daring to write serious shit as well as my natural home territory of comic stuff. For the first time in a long time, I'm enjoying writing again.

It's a refreshing change to be rejected by poetry magazines instead of literary agents.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Quickfire Questions with Books on the Nightstand







Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness run the excellent podcast Books on the Nightstand. Strictly Writing recently caught up with Ann...

What prompted you and Michael to set up the podcast?

Michael and I both spend a lot of time in our respective cars, and we both were listening to a lot of podcasts. But neither of us could find a book podcast that was conversational in tone -- most were author interviews or lengthy reviews. So we decide to create it ourselves! In our roles as publisher's sales representatives, we do many book talks to readers in bookstores, so the podcast seemed like a natural offshoot of those talks.

Were you surprised by how many people wanted to hear book talk?

Because we did many in-person book talks, I knew that people were interested. What we didn't realize was how many people we didn't know would find us and listen. Our initial thoughts was that we would do the in-person book talks and then the people we met there would be able to listen to us more often through a podcast. In reality, though, very few of our listeners come from in-person meetings; most of our listeners find us some other way.

What do you think a podcast brings that you don’t get from a blog?

The podcast allows us to be more natural and conversational than writing a blog ever could. Also, I think the passion comes through more clearly on audio -- sometimes it is hard to get across in writing just how much I love a book, because most of the adjectives are overused and sound forced.

You and Michael are both publishing professionals...do you ever get a kind of reading fatigue and think, ‘Not another damn manuscript!’

Never! It may sound surprising -- I've been doing this for more than 20 years, but it's still exciting when I get something new to read. What does get tiresome is not being able to finish every book that I want to finish. We have to sample hundreds of books a year, and can't afford the time to read them all to completion. It's not in my nature to abandon a book in the middle, and when I am really enjoying it, it is very frustrating to have to put it down.5.

How many books do you think you read in a week or month?

I read about 2 books a week from beginning to end, and usually read 20-50 pages of 5 or 6 more. I usually have an audiobook going at all times, too.

Tell us your top five books of all time...[sorry, I bet you’re wincing at this one]

Not wincing, but it is very hard to commit. So let's just say that these are my top 5 for now:
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
(those are the easy ones ... here's where it gets hard)
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
And a new addition ... Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese


Have either of you ever had the urge to write a novel?

When I was a kid, I always thought I'd be a writer. Shortly after I started working in publishing, though, I realized how difficult it was and also how driven most successful authors are: I really believe that to be a good writer, a person has to *need* to write. I don't have that burning need -- there are always a million other things I'd rather be doing, so I leave the writing to others.
Are you a slow reader or do you gobble books up quickly?

I used to be a very fast reader, but since having kids I have slowed down considerably. I still turn the pages quickly, but I don't get enough time to actually sit down and read -- but then, I don't suppose many of us get the time to read that we'd like...

Check out the podcast here

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Recipe for a Happy Writer

Ingredients: 
Over-active imagination. The bigger the better.
Computer. Or, in the Early Days, a Petite/Brother electric typewriter, complete with strips of Tippex and carbon paper and only one font.  One font!
Flat surface. In my youth I used to sit afront an old cupboard – opened the doors wide and stuck an old door on top of them as a desk - this also meant it was collapsible and gave mother back the half a room it took up when fully opened. I must have been a lot better organised in those days, I’d certainly have a hard time ‘collapsing’ everything that sits on my desk right now.
Comfy chair. Essential – although an old kitchen stool did me perfectly well until I met my current husband (I don’t mean I sit on him now – he just had a more sensible one with a back and arms and stuff).
Printer. Would love a smooth and funky Laser-printer like we have at work. These home-office printers are still too flippin’ slow and if you turn your back for a minute your words are all over the floor!
Paper. Sainsbury’s cheapest. It all ends up in a shredder in a London W1 Agent’s office, anyway (that’s the spirit, right?).
Stamps and envelopes.Although not so much these days – I only approach e-mail-able Agents… *get me!*
Mountains of Memory. However I have ‘proper lost’ two books on a memory stick which did what it said on the packaging – and stuck - refused to open. Luckily(?) these two books had already done so many rounds to Agents they were in danger of being asked to move along nicely by the Query Police. Another lesson learnt. Not sure what the lesson was, though – maybe get a better memory stick?
Thick skin (or pretence of one).
Love of words (obvs).
Deep desire to be taken seriously but not take self too seriously.
Short nails. My personal ‘jumpstart’ is to clip them so short they can’t do anything BUT type – housework included. What? Oh, come on now, WHO can seriously dust and cook with short nails, hmm? That’s why women are the assumed housekeepers – come on ladies – unite! Get those nails clipped – your man will never expect another meal!
Part-time (not rocket-science-based) day job to fuel the need – and the stationery supplies and to let the imagination roam freely without any risk to Health & Safety regulations
Support network of like-minded individuals (that’s writers. Both published and aspiring – ‘cos we all need the encouragement, don’t we?) *waves*
Thick skin (have I said that? Oh. Well, then it MUST be important)
At least one floor of stairs separating the keyboard from the kitchen; and by kitchen, of course I mean Biscuit Tin. And if you really haven’t got the determination and resolve, then at least you’ve had a bit of exercise in a bid to stave off the dreaded Writer’s Arse. This leads me neatly onto the assonantal…
Writers and Artists Yearbook (aka the Bible). I don’t know how I’d function without mine. And even though every new one gets ticks and crosses and dates and stuff scribbled throughout the ‘UK Agents’ section, it will be lovely to one day flip through one nostalgically, remembering these leaner times… that’s the visualisation anyway.
Thick skin. Wait… have I already said that?

Method:
Everyone’s different but I like to just chuck it all in, season it liberally and see what happens. You can always adjust the flavour after you’ve let it simmer a while. But not EVERYONE has the same taste, so don’t be too hard on yourself that if, when you’ve offered it around, some turn their noses up. Some, of course, will ask for a bigger bite.
And some might even offer a cherry for the top!

Monday, 18 October 2010

Let's Start at the Very Beginning...

When I posted last week, I was wittering about how tight the timescales are for we commercial writers, how difficult it is to get a book out in a year and how the whole process feels less like wonderous creativity and more like a sausage factory.

So why oh why instead of giving myself a month off after editing book four did I agree to get the first draft of book five to my editor by March next year?

Weeeeeellllllll...I could say it's because I love a challenge. Or that I've already written half of the thing. But I'd be lying.

I agreed to get it to my ed by March because the idea is about Something Very Bad happening at the Olympic Games and she wants to get it in the bookshops in November/December before the opening ceremony for a nice publicity drive and sell in period.

So call it greed. Or call it ambition. But I agreed to this incredibly tight deadline to sell more books.

There, I've said it.

No doubt it flies in the face of how writers are generally seen. The artist starving in his garret is a popular vision, slaving over a project for twenty years with only his craft to keep him warm.

In reality, we all want to sell books. Not only for the money (though I see no reason why making a living from one's skills should be thought of as a bad thing), but also for the communication with the reader. We writers have something to say, and we don't want to shout it into a darkened and empty room. More books sold, means more participants in our conversation.

Anyhow, here I am with a definite date less than six months hence, when the MS for Twenty Twelve must be delivered.
And what do I have?

Not a lot. A concept. Highly commercial, but vague. A cool title. Oh and two great characters who have introduced themselves to me almost fully formed. After that, nada. Empty pages.

Unsuprisingly, panic has set in and I can hear a clock ticking whenever I open my laptop. Should I just get started? Throw myself into it and get typing? Lots of writers do it by the seat of their pants, having no idea where the story will take them. The trouble is, I have never written a book that way. I am a detailed planner. And now doesn't seem a wise point at which to change tack.

So what then, do I usually do? How do I get started?

For me, I cannot type a word until I have decided upon a structure. This is always the most important decision and one which I agonise over. A story is just words until you decide how you are going to tell it.
I believe many books fail precisely because the writer chose the wrong structure. Or didn't actively chose any and just let the writing fall onto the page.

What structure then for Twenty Twelve? As I say, I already know my main character and he is begging to be written in first person. Much of the story entails him hurrying towards the climax, so I'm also veering towards the present tense for a breathless, immediate feel.
The second character will spend much of the book chasing. He is the hunter. That feels to me like a third person POV. He will be more grounded, analytical...so past tense too.

I'll alternate these scenes, though they won't necessarily carry the same amount of air time.

Right then, I hear you say. What's the problem? Get on with it.
The trouble is, I've got a hankering to also include a parallel narrative from the past. A self contained story that will eventually explain much of the present. It will add much to the texture of the book but...and this is a big but for a commercial novel...it might slow the main action down.

Under normal circumstances I would chase my tail about this decison for weeks. Not this time. No can do. I have set myself a deadline of close of business tomorrow.

Hopefully, as you are reading this post, I will have it settled in my mind.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Guest post by Rosy Thornton and recipe giveaway!


My latest novel, ‘The Tapestry of Love’, is out this week in paperback, and to tie in with its release I have produced a collection of recipes.

Recipes? Yes, you did read that correctly. The idea was suggested to me after reading the book by my aunt, who is a keen cook. ‘People like recipes,’ she said. ‘And they might like to know how to cook the dishes which feature in the novel.’

‘The Tapestry of Love’ tells the story of Catherine Parkstone, a divorcee with grown children, who sells her house in England and moves to a remote hamlet in the Cévennes mountains in the French Massif Central to start up in business as a seamstress. The backdrop to the story includes the mountain landscape, Catherine’s tapestry work – and the local cuisine. Throughout the book, she enjoys the hospitality of various new neighbours, and in her turn prepares meals for them from local ingredients. The cévenole cuisine is a peasant tradition, and based on the produce of the woods: chestnuts and forest raspberries, trout from the upland streams, wild mushrooms and wild boar. And these are the recipes that I have collected together, so that readers can enjoy their own taste of the Cévennes hills.

The lovely people here at Strictly have kindly agreed to e-mail the recipes to anyone who leaves a comment here. So post a comment – and then get cooking!

[If anyone would like the recipe sheet, please email us at strictlywriting@btinternet.com and leave your email address.
Thanks!]

The Tapestry of Love is published by Headline Review on 14th October for £5.99

Rosy's website is here

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Just Keep Swimming


This has been a funny old week.
First, I finished the editing process on book four.
Normally, this is a moment for a cold glass of something bubbly - and I aint talking milkshake. I find the entire getting-the-book-into-shape thing, fraught. Not in a 'oh I can't abide tinkering with my baby' way. Rather, it's a 'there's no chance I can get this done in time,' way.
Indeed, this is the only time when I envy literary writers. They are much less tied to deadlines than we commercial dudes. No-one, I suspect, is standing over them tapping their watch ominously and muttering about how Mr ASDA has opened a space for two weeks only, after which the plastic Halloween pumpkins take proirity.
Still, I was not complaining when my new publishers told me that book four will hit the bookshops next May. I was, I'll admit, drooling over the thought of all those holidaymakers trawling the BOGOFs.
And I can't even pretend that I didn't know what would be involved. I've traversed this process three times already...but at the time I was too busy high-fiving my agent.
What then, is the problem?
Well let me tell you about the editing sausage factory.
In order to get a book out by May, you need to get a decent draft in to your editor by the previous April.
He or she will then take six to eight weeks to consider it. I'd like to think that they spent every moment wracking their brains for ways to improve our master pieces, but I suspect they sit on them until panic breaks out...
Then comes the call or the email. It starts in such glowing terms that your writerly ego is almost as puffed up as when you were told you were getting the Summer slot.
Then comes the important stuff. The small matter of your protagonist being too arsey, your plot being too slow, and there being a distinct lack of your usual humour.
This stage is called structural edits. The word re-write is never uttered.
It's now June...but could you possibly get a fresh draft back to your editor by the end of August.
You work all Summer, cursing those same holiday makers out there getting tans while you chain yourself to your PC.
What seems like seconds after you re-sub your MS, you receive a document containing the line edits. This is where someone with more patience than Desmond TuTu picks up on every typo and continuity problem. And I mean every single one. It looks to an untrained eye as if someone has commented upon each line of your book. That's because they have.
But could you have a look, and get the edits back in, say, two weeks?
Slavishly you start to go through them. During the first week, you weigh up each and every edit. By the second you're nodding and ticking them off like those old ladies who can run ten bingo cards at the same time.
So when you finally slide that mother back into an envelope and send it back for the last time, you breathe a deep sigh of relief and satisfaction.
It is October.
The book will be checked once more for errors.
It will then be set.
The sales team will go into overtime frenzy.
And the books will be on the shelves in May.
Phew.
Open the Moet. You've done it again. You are a pro.
But never again...
Except when you have just agreed to get book five out in even less time...

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Guest post: It takes courage to write by Jean Dewitt


Inspiration can come in many forms, for me the 'match' is frequently struck within my soul by either a visual catalyst or something I hear someone say. If visually inspired, the outcome will usually be a poem or prose. If audibly inspired, my soul 'captures' the sound-bites and morphs them into an article or book idea.

We are complicated creatures, we mortals…one minute we can be lining up all our ducks up in a row (organizing our 'game plan'), and the next we’ll have our head filled with fragmented artistic meandering, with the words and images flitting around like a butterfly.

So when that inspiration hits, we run for our pen and paper or our recorders and slap it down like a fry cook flipping a line-up of pancakes. Bing—bang—boom, there it is 'recorded' and ready to be turned into masterful communication.

I personally LOVE that moment when inspiration visits me—it’s an exhilarating high, and I would even call it a moment of connecting with the Divine since it has that quality of 'I can’t put my finger on where this came from, because it seems like it didn’t actually come from within me.' I frequently experience that when I draw also. I’ll look at the picture after and think, 'I don’t really even completely remember drawing this…it’s like someone else did it.' Very ethereal stuff!

As for me (regarding my writing), one of my goals is to not only inspire people to find their personal splendor, but to encourage them to share it with liberty and liberality. After all, there is only ONE you, and just as you have a one-of-kind fingerprint, you also are the ONLY YOU there is…so we need your uniqueness and perspective. You fill up our gaps!

I don’t know about others, but frequently my flow gets stopped up if I give any thought at all to what the reader will think of my writing…I have to get back to that place of throwing caution-to-the-wind and “just write” what’s in my head and my heart.

You can not give any place to those apprehensive, self-conscious thoughts, because the fact is, people will always judge your writing…no matter what. So you have to take your inspiration and slap it down with a blatant courage—with the thought in mind: this is what I have to say, this is what I feel about it, this is my slant…take it or leave it. It takes bravery to put your personal splendor down through the written word, a cerebral courage, if you will.

Fear of failure or judgment can castrate the creative process. So whenever you hit that mental wall, you have to kick that sucker out in no uncertain terms—saying, 'hit the road dude! You are not welcome here!' You can’t be namby-pamby with those imprisoning thoughts, you have to be aggressive, because how on earth are you going to share your splendor if your mind is trapped? So every time you’re writing and you sense yourself 'cramping' with those little bugger-thoughts, TAKE ACTION and command them to leave! I guarantee you after about one month of doing this you will be more free in your writing approach, and it just might translate over into other areas of your life as well!

Now before I close I want to share a little (well, it’s actually not so little) poem with you—something that will stir you up to be courageous about revealing yourself—no matter what the cost.



The Exploration of You
You have within yourself talents that are still untapped—

Things that you haven’t permitted yourself to give expression to.

You are certain that there’s a world within you that’s unexplored territory—

Things that are lying 'below' and 'beneath,' but not beyond.

Things that you’ve perhaps reached towards a few times, but didn’t quite lay hold of.

You see, sometimes we have gifts that we’ve put to use a little, but not a lot.

So all we’ve done is expose our souls to a 'maybe;' not a 'for sure.'

But interests only become passions after exposure through time and experience!

Treasures are not found on short excursions—they require investment.

What lies within you can certainly be defined as treasure, but what are you willing to invest to find that 'thing that fulfills?'

Are you willing to risk? Are you willing to leap? Are you willing to try, fail, and try again?

Are you willing to feel certain one day and uncertain the next, and yet keep going?

Are you willing to accept your weaknesses, but not let them hold you back?

If yes, then life’s greatest adventure awaits you with open arms—the Exploration of YOU!

So go forth and excavate with perpetual patient persistence—for all of life’s riches are unearthed with these treasure tools!



Jean Dewitt is a poet, artist, songwriter, and blogger. She is bonkers about good biographies, persistent in her pursuit of learning French, and just plain weird when it comes to symmetry. She is a 'quiet' philanthropist (or 'good deed doer) according to the Wizard of Oz) who liked to make a difference in people’s lives. She enjoys too many things and wishes she could be more focused (suspicions of ADD have crossed her mind!) One of her dreams is to have a library just like Professor Henry Higgins (My Fair Lady)…ladder and all! Visit Jean's websites at http://gloryjean.com and http://artbywordsby.wordpress.com

Friday, 8 October 2010

First Impressions

Have you ever been on the end of a cringeworthy chat up line? You know the type: "Get your coat love, you've pulled" or the one that I married, "Dance with me. I'm avoiding the girl behind you." Well, they say first impressions count...

As writers, we are so often told about the importance of the first three chapters, the first chapter, the first five pages, the first scene and indeed the first line. While thinking about today’s post, I ran my fingers along the spines of my bookshelves and pulled out a few of my novels. The intent was to read the first few pages of each book again, but in fact, I found myself getting hooked on the real first impression, that is the very first line. And it proved to be a totally fascinating exercise!

Here are a few examples and my instinctive thoughts on reading them:
1. “The boy followed the guard along the corridor, watching the sway of his wide backside and the belt with its handcuffs and baton and the big bunch of keys that jangled as he walked.” (Extract from ‘The Brave’ by Nicholas Evans)

Nicolas Evans' first novel, “The Horse Whisperer” is still one of my favourite books. His use of imagery without being too weighed down by a multitude of words had me hooked from the start. Here in his latest novel, which by the way I haven’t read yet even though it’s on my bookshelf, hints at things to come. A fairly long first sentence, delivering two potential characters, one obviously a policeman and one a child/boy already gives us a hint of Evans’ style.

2. “Gradually, Caroline returned to her senses.” (Extract from ‘The Legacy’ by Katherine Webb)

A debut multigenerational drama, which made its way to the TV book club selection and was, as a result, a huge success. Though there’s not a lot revealed in this first line, I still want to read on. I want to know who Caroline is and what had happened her.

3. “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” (‘Emma’ by Jane Austen)

A big yay for Miss Austen! God, she used a lot of words to say - Emma at twenty one had so far led a charmed life! I do love her books, but wonder even in today’s historical fiction genre if a debut author with such a first sentence would get past the slush pile intern?

4. “It happened every year, was almost a ritual.” (‘The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo’ by Stieg Larsson)

The first in the first book of his Trilogy. A brief sentence, but clever in that we want to know what ‘it’ is straight away.

5. “Two men, who were brothers, went to Suffolk” (La’s Orchestra Saves The World by Alexander McCall Smith)

I guess I ask the question, ‘why’?

6. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” (Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier)

I’m not sure why, but this is one of my favourite first lines!

7. “ They said I was a drug addict” (Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes)

The Queen Keyes... She is, in my humble opinion, the queen of chicklit/women’s drama fiction. And just as I was thinking there’s obviously a trend in short snappy sentences with recently published commercially successful books – I check the inside cover of my well thumbed copy, only to see it was published in 1998! Bang goes that theory...

All in all, a fascinating exercise and one I recommend doing particularly if you’re writing in a certain genre. Check out a few of the competition's first sentences? Of course the exercise wouldn’t be complete without reviewing both my as yet unpublished novels and fessing up to their current first lines. (Would YOU read on??!!)

‘Journey To The Monkey Nut’ - “My husband is a philanderer,’ I answer her question.”
‘Plumb Crazy’ - “I follow Mama into the garden.”

What have I learned? Well over six hundred words of a post and all I can tell you is I seem to favour short snappy opening lines! And that I've decided to use that chat up line of my husband's as the opening for a future piece. Think of the variations that could follow, "Dance with me. I'm avoiding the girl behind you..."

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Look Who's Talking!


Four years ago, I started writing my first novel. (I’m not counting the one before that, back in my twenties, which I never finished). Anyway, this one’s told from the points of view of three characters, two women and a man. Third person, present tense. Its theme is change – indeed, originally it was called The Change (please, no sniggering). And change has certainly been the theme of its journey towards the novel it’s now becoming.

In those four years, I’ve revised and revised. I’ve altered the structure. I've dropped the adverbs. I’ve killed the darlings. I’ve changed the title. I’ve copy-edited countless times. The usual stuff. Then, for a variety of reasons, I stopped. Began the next one. Got a third of the way through the first draft of it. And stopped again.

Argh.

There followed several months of nothing. And more nothing.
And one day I woke up knowing that I needed to return to the first novel. And that I must make one big change to it (along with a list of other, smaller changes).

I had to change one of the characters into first person pov.

That this should come at the end of the process rather than the beginning is an oddity, it seems. I’ve read that one of the ‘mistakes’ first-time novelists make is to write in first person – I’ve never been entirely sure why. The implication is that it’s self-indulgent, or that one is too close to the narrative to be objective.

Whatever, from the moment I began the process of changing this pov to first person, it was as if something fell into place – in the novel and in myself. Where before the emphasis on the two main characters was equal (and deliberately so) now the strength of narrative falls on Jo, the first person character. Where before, seen from outside, and objectively, Jo appeared to be the victim, changing to first person has mysteriously transformed her into the heroine. It’s been the strangest of processes.

Each time I changed ‘she’ to ‘I’ (and everything else that’s needed when such a change is made) I felt happy. As if I’d somehow claimed something for myself from the process. I don’t know if this makes any sense to you, but this is how it feels.

When I was at art college, I experienced a similar turning point. I'd been struggling to find my 'voice', visually, until I decided to take famous paintings - like Picasso's Boy With Pipe - and add myself to them. Putting the 'I' into these paintings changed my own relationship to the art world, which had until then felt like an impervious world. Perhaps this is what I'm doing now.

I wonder, in fact, whether changing ANY of the povs into first might have an equally powerful, but different, effect. But this is the one I've chosen intuitively. It may or may not create a more marketable book, but in a way that's not the point. It's created the book I want to write, and I believe it's better than it was before. And that's all you can ask for, really.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Paddling the toes, transatlantic style


Recently I made a brief foray into the world of trying to secure a US-based agent. It was on a whim that I decided to pen my 'help, I need an agent' query letter. This sudden freakish fantasy was inspired by my discovery that a fellow Irish writer had garnered much success from paddling his toe transatlantic style.

Now I know this is a topic of some debate, with many writers saying that it's a better idea to target an agent in your own country. But the majority of agents are London-based, so what if you live in John O'Groats? Or the Orkney Islands? You get in a car, park it, get the train and spend nine long hours travelling down.

So let's pretend my agent's in New York. I get on a daily flight which leaves from the airport which is eight miles from my house, and five hours later I'm there. Voilà. Sorted. With e-mail, instant messaging, teleconferencing, and more, communication opportunities will only get better in the future, so what's the harm in having an overseas agent? Sure, anytime we need to ring the bank with a query, we phone India anyway. So what's the problem?

My second and fourth books are heavy on the Irish-American theme, like those of Colm Tóibín and where better to send my 'help, I need an agent' query letter, than to America? The first question the agent will ask is: why aren't you submitting to agents in our own country? I'll say 'well, don't you Americans just love us Irish? Every time I meet an American, they're keen to tell me their great-great-great grandmother was part Irish.'

And anyway, what if I decided to uproot and move abroad? I can't expect my UK based agent to follow me. There are pros and cons to having an agent abroad, but I think it's all down to a matter of personal taste and whether or not the relationship will work for you the writer. I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who has an American agent, but is UK-based or vice-versa, as well as people's thoughts on the topic.

For your info, the scary top agent in question wrote back saying he was inundated with work from current clients and thanked me for my letter. This was nice, considering I didn't send an SAE!

Photo: Brooklyn Bridge, New York.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Method madness


Mslexia magazine runs a regular feature called 100 Ways to Write a Book. It takes a a given author then sets out exactly how they work. This includes stuff like how they plan out their novels, where they write them, and where and when the best ideas tend to strike.

The sub-heading is The Hilary Mantel Method, or The Ali Smith Method or whoever is featured. You get the picture. Now much as I love to read this stuff, all this talk about ‘method’ makes me feel as though I’m looking at the Grown Up Table.

The sad truth is, even though I’m currently writing my fifth novel, including a first attempt that should have stayed in a bottom drawer, I don’t have a clue what sort of writer I am. I’m neither a plotter nor a panter. I seem to be a strange mixture of both. I don’t always make notes in a notebook, nor on the computer. I don’t tend to get my ideas when I walk the dog or have a long bath or do the gardening. Although I do sometimes. I don’t have any half useful tip for coping with writer’s block. Heck, I don’t even know what my preferred writing snack is, and that’s a question we at Strictly Writing ask in all our questionnaires.

I love the idea of being so comfortable in my writing skin that I can hold forth on my methods. But somehow, I have a feeling it's not part of who I am.
I guess this extends to life beyond writing too. Despite being middle aged [see, even writing that makes me want to look over my own shoulder to see who I’m talking about] with a house and two kids and an estate car and life insurance, I don’t entirely feel as though I’m grown up yet. When is this magical feeling of adulthood going to happen? Is there something missing in me that it hasn’t happened by the age of fortysomething? Am I, in fact, just really, really immature?
Maybe it’s why I write for children. It gives me an excuse to inhabit worlds where mortgages and estate cars and life insurance don’t play much of a role.

I like to tell myself it’s a good thing because I never forget that I still have an enormous amount to learn, both in terms of writing and life in general.
But I do wonder when I’m going to feel I’ve earned a place with the grown ups.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Sitting Tight


Here is a place I haven't been before.
Actually Prague is also a place I haven't been before but this isn't about Prague.  Or anywhere else.  This is about a place called Here.  Or Now. Or Here-and-Now.  They're probably twinned or something.

I never really took my writing 'seriously' until just after my Mum died.  My marriage died at the same time and I wasn't sure how to grieve or which to grieve for first.  I got very confused, a little lost and what with finding myself a single mother all of a sudden and having to try and prop up self, daughter and father, I turned to the only thing I ever found comfort in and that was writing.  Getting it all out of my spaghetti-brain and onto a piece of paper/screen was the only thing that made any real sense.
 
Then I joined WriteWords.  I was thrilled  to find other people who loved to write and loved to talk about writing and I was delighted when they started telling me how much they enjoyed reading  stuff I'd written. I can still remember the real sick-fear of clicking the 'upload' icon when I posted the first chapter of the book I was writing.  And the very bad sleep I got that night and the trepidation I felt before logging back in to see if anyone had said anything.  Followed by pure elation when I read the comments - a feeling I shall never forget.
It was how I would imagine it feels on those Makeover programmes when you've spent most of your life feeling a bit left out and a bit lonely and suddenly you're coming down those steps and there's a whole load of clapping, cheering people greeting you and telling you how lovely you are.  That's how it felt.  And I wanted them to be my friends forever.
I still do.

And if it hadn't been for this amazing writing group that I found myself a part of, then I'd never have dreamed of even thinking anything I wrote was worthy of anything like proper publication - in a book with a cover and everything.  But this seemed to be the way to go.  After all, I'd had a couple of shorts published and a poem or two... heck I even won a load of Mills & Boons and a pink telephone in a BT/M&B scriptwriting competition, so I must have had 'something' going for me.

So publication it was, then.  Not exactly Publication or Die.  But pretty near, it's sometimes felt.

And Now.  Here I am.  Waiting.  Oh, so patiently.  Four books later and nearly a decade later, I've been having some very encouraging correspondence from one particular Agent concerning the Teenage book I've written.  And even though it's been on a super-massive rewrite journey, had three different endings and enough 'darlings' killed off that it could start it's own Am-Dram society, I still love working on it.  Last week she mailed me to say she'd "love to read anything I've written" - which has given me a renewed writing energy I always knew was lurking about somewhere.  I just needed the encouragement to let it shine. So now she has the final version.  And some chapters of another YA book I'm halfway through.  And ideas for three other books that are being all patient at the back of my head and waiting for their 'time' to come.

I'm very good at sitting tight and waiting.  Especially if what's coming is worth the wait.  And even if it isn't what I hoped for, I know that right now I'm Somewhere I've never been before.  I got this far.
I'm Here.