The Winter Solstice has just passed. The darkness of winter is slowly and almost imperceptibly giving way to the light. This is the true New Year.
No, I’m not going to bang on about writerly resolutions. Instead, I’m thinking about new beginnings. And when they’re necessary, writing-wise.
My first novel was a bit of a miracle. I’d turned up for a week’s How To Write A Novel course, run by the redoubtable romantic novelist, Jane Pollard. I arrived clutching my WIP like a lifebelt – not much of it, but a beginning nonetheless – all bright-eyed and ready to Learn. Imagine my horror when Jane told us to abandon any novel we’d already begun and to start, this week, from scratch. What the hell would I write about? But I reluctantly let the novel go.
That night, something extraordinary happened. After a long day on the course, the germ of an idea appeared. I sat at my kitchen table and began to write. By next morning I had a story. Something I’d never thought of writing. I knew who the characters were to be. I knew roughly what happened and how. I knew how it ended. Indeed, when Jane had us write a sex scene during the week’s course, I wrote the final scene. And whilst much of the novel has changed over the course of the following five years, that scene has remained almost untouched.
So I’ve been struggling to write my second novel for ages. I got as far as a third of the way through, and stopped. Then I embarked on a frenzy of editing – bad idea - and stopped again. I ran it past various writerly friends and colleagues – and stopped yet again.
Of course it’s different second time around. I’ve been busy editing and preparing the first novel for publication. I have a marketing plan to sort out. I’ve also moved house twice in a year and had countless stressful things to deal with. Is this the reason why I haven’t written anything new for over a year? Could be. Or is it fear? Quite possibly. Or the dreaded Second Novel Syndrome? Wouldn’t be surprised.
Or do I need to let this novel go and see whether there’s a sliver of a new idea waiting to be born?
It’s a knotty question. It may be that I haven’t fully committed to the novel. It may be that I haven’t yet fallen in love with the characters or the plot. These things may happen in time. Or they may not.
It’s a bit like being in a relationship which has weathered the early, heady days but got stagnant. Do you persevere with it in the hope that it will deepen and revive or let it go and trust that something more resembling a soulmate will appear?
Part of me longs to set the current novel aside and start again, from scratch. To sign up for a course in novel-writing and begin again at the beginning. To somehow wipe away the years of rejection and angst and find again that bright-eyed innocence, that trust in the process and a successful outcome. But as William Blake wrote, once you’ve been through the process of Experience you will never have that innocence again. All you can do is bring your newfound experience to bear on the next thing, and try to learn to trust.
So my toast, this Winter Solstice, is to new beginnings. Whether this means a new commitment to an old love, or the search for a new, unknown one. Perhaps all that’s required is an empty heart. I wish you all joy for your writerly festivities and all creativity and joy for the year to come. Oh, and here are three quotes, as companions on the journey:
Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist but the ability to start over.
Standing on the starting line, we are all cowards.
You don’t need endless time and perfect conditions. Do it now. Do it today. Do it for twenty minutes and watch your heart start beating.
Apologies for the cop-outedness in the compilation of this post, but when I read this I immediately wanted to share it with you all...
And A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS to everybody!
I must admit that much of what the author said made massive sense to me.
Her first revelation that plotting saves time came as no surprise to me. Indeed, I am already a heavy plotter, knowing pretty much what a scene will look like before I come to my PC. Often I will have already played it out in my head and know who says what to who and where.
I'll have also asked myself the question...where does this scene take me? And I will have satisfied myself that it is integral, nay essential for the story. All before I begin to type.
I know that there are as many methods of writing as there are writers. And I know that the things this author highlights will seem counter intuitive to many. But I would urge anyone who needs to increase their output to at least consider these methods. I'd also give 'em a shot if I were 'stuck'.
Anyway, have another peep at the link and tell me what you think.
I’m sure you didn’t watch this year’s I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here! Did you? I'm sorry to say that I wasted many hours watching various ‘celebs’ Facing Up To Their Fears.
The fascination lies in the way each individual has a completely different comfort zone when it comes to phobias. The Incredible Hunk (Mark Wright) was reduced to a whimpering bundle of terror when faced with a night in bed with a bunch of rats. Antony Cotton from Corrie had a panic attack at the thought of jumping out of a plane. Fatima Whitbread, on the other hand, battled her way through every trial in a gladiator-like manner, even when a cockroach got stuck up her nose. I’m full of admiration for them all, since I’m the Sinitta of the phobia world – petrified of everything.
Which leads me to wonder: what are your writing/marketing phobias? Where does your comfort zone end?
For months now I’ve been compiling a vast file of ideas for publicising my novel, ranging from having postcards printed (to press upon any poor soul who shows an interest) to randomly approaching well-known people for reviews. I’ve even done a public speaking course (which was actually excellent and enjoyable and which helped on many different levels).
So now I’m asking myself how far I’d be prepared to step out of my own comfort zone in order to let people know about my book? Would I walk into one of the large booksellers and ask them to stock my book? Would I learn how to write a magazine article and trawl it around likely publications? Would I dress up in a silly animal costume and give out leaflets? I realised I’d be prepared to do quite a few of these, if they seemed promising (fortunately the animal costume wouldn't be relevant, unless it was a book worm).
But there’s one experience which really terrifies me and feels waaaaay outside my comfort zone. The Radio Interview. Especially live. I fear that I’d find myself a) unable to talk any sense or, worse, b) unable to speak at all. After all, that's why I write - because I can express myself better on the page than at the microphone.
But a writing friend – whose comfort zone boundaries easily encompass radio interviews – suggested that I prepare myself for the (unlikely) eventuality of an interview by thinking about the kinds of questions I might be asked. Rather as an arachnaphobe might be persuaded to open a book about spiders before facing up to touching the real thing. And she suggested that I ask you, dear readers, for your help.
So here goes.
If you were listening to me being interviewed on the radio, what kind of questions would you want me to answer? And what kind of questions would you expect the interviewer to ask me? (My novel, The Making of Her, is contemporary women’s fiction and is about television, cosmetic surgery, middle age and transformation).
Any thoughts would be hugely appreciated!
And please be gentle, or I might scream...
This post is directed at writers who have faced rejection. Yes, I know that means all of you, each and every one of you. Anyone who writes - published or unpublished, agented or un-agented has to put themselves out there in the line of fire and if and when rejection knocks on the door, there’s a decision to be made. The guarantee is that it will hurt. How much is dependent on you, the writer. Is it going to be a bruising body blow? A crushing kick in the solar plexus? Or a fatal beating from which you/your writing will never recover?
I had one this week. If rejections can be good, it was a good one complementing my ‘distinctive narrative voice’ and ‘my intriguing characters’. There was, however, a ‘but’ which I could sense looming through the good stuff. My downfall was apparently my plot. Whilst it wasn't missing, it wasn't convincing either.
I immediately started my survival process. The first step was denial, where I stuck my fingers in my ears and chanted, while closing down the email and pretending that it never arrived. The second step was that I told no-one, but talked to myself in my head about it for days. I call this my ‘licking my wounds’ phase. Stage three happened in bed this morning at five a.m. (Saturday), the time that I decided was the right moment to discuss the week’s events with my long suffering hubster.
He may not be as glad as I am for the early morning chat. But I needed it. Through my inevitable tears, he told me kindly but bluntly that I had two choices. Give up or carry on. He told me that I was too good to give up and that I may still have a lot to learn but to give myself credit for what I have learned. He suggested that I invent an alter ego – my writing self, who does all the work but deals with the down side too. He suggested I call her Faith.
It’s now 7:15 on Saturday morning. The tears have stopped. I’m back at the laptop counting my blessings. Faith is administering arnica to her bruises and beginning to think about her plot problems. The hubster is deservedly asleep and no, he’s not available for hire. Those short sharp motivational interventions are just for me – and Faith.
Okay, okay... You lot can share them too.
Dear Mr Agent
I’ve wanted to write to you since receiving my Dear John letter and finally I’ve got the time to pick up my pen and tell you how I feel. Some time ago I sent you my book and you wrote back and said you didn’t like it. Well, you said it was a fantastic story worthy of being told, held your attention, blah blah blah, the characters were believable, but you just didn’t love it enough to take it further. So, I’m writing back to tell you I LOVE the book and so do all my friends. In fact, a publisher loves it so much, he’s gonna print it and make me rich. As filthy rich as JK Rowling and Dan Brown combined. He said I’m gonna make millions from this book and he’s gonna turn it into a big Hollywood Blockbuster.
So have yourself a merry Christmas. When you’re chomping on your mince pie, and sipping on the brandy on December 25th, you can think back and wonder how it could have been. You could be rich now. You could be pulling out your wallet, flashing the cash, ordering a Ferrari and holidaying with Richard Branson. You could have bought a nice bottle of Bollinger and some fancy nibbles with your cut of my earnings. I bet you’re sitting there right now, watching the Queen’s speech with your paper crown on your head, thinking: ‘Crikey, if only I’d signed Mrs Writer.’ Well, this is your annus horribilis and you deserve every minute of it. I hope you choke on a brussel sprout.
I should also point out that, if I am invited to the Booker awards this year, I may just ask you to come as my partner, because quite frankly, I really want to see your expression as you sit in your seat while I collect my award. I may even thank you for not signing me, as I’ll get to keep the extra 12 per cent. With that, I’ll buy myself an Aston Martin. You’re not allowed in it.
All that’s left for me to say is Merry Christmas and a happy new year. I’m off to stuff my vegetarian roast and put on my expensive crown, not the ones you buy in supermarkets. I buy the really expensive ones which have gifts such as Mont Blanc pens and Breitling watches inside. And I’m actually pulling one of the crackers as I write this. I’m putting on my watch, and putting the finishing touches to my submission with my Mont Blanc. Are you jealous? I bet you are!
2. Don't write anything anybody else likes.
3. Don't send anything you (might) write to an agent and/or publisher. Only other people get signed up anyway.
4. Don't enter writing competitions. Somebody else always wins.
5. Sign up for every writing magazine going - they'll be handy to make kindling from in the winter.
6. Make sure 98 percent of your Facebook 'friends' are proper published authors. Read of their success. Sigh. Repeat.
7. Read books that suck. Beat yourself up that you didn't have the nerve to send off a sucky book to anybody (because you followed rules 1-3 above. Either that or you're a Double D-list celebrity who's cashing on on Christmas. But let's not get bitter. You could just be a crap writer).
8. Write crap.
9. Watch repetitively mind-numbingly destimulating reality TV shows and debate the meaning of life from behind a cushion of shame.
10. Sign up to do NaNoWriMo, add some buddies, read the messages on the forum, wonder if you might like to join your local writing group who meet up in Starbucks every Sunday morning, read some excerpts and watch their wordcounts soar. Decide you're better off staying in bed, beating yourself up and reading crap until 1st December.
I've had a reasonable share of encouragement recently, with pieces published or doing okay in competitions. Enough scraps of endorsement to keep me going. My confidence is in the greenish amber zone at the moment, maybe even in the green much of the time. So I'm chucking out the words? Racing to the writing desk? Filled with inspiration? Well, not really. Just when you get your fragile mental state together life comes along. Recently it has been family disasters. Illnesses and other problems that I won't go into here but which stopped me in my writing tracks. It seems that there is always something to climb over to reach the writing desk. As well as the personal stuff, work has picked up. It's nice to be earning some cash, but working twelve hour days in Frankfurt with virtually no breaks doesn't leave you full of energy to dash out a short story or a sonnet at bedtime. And now that things are finally settling down again on the family front, and I have the prospect of a couple of weeks away from real work, there's Christmas. Bah humbug!
I loathe books which contain glaringly obvious errors, not that there are many out there, but every now and then, one just has to escape through the net. My pet hate with this book started around a year ago when I purchased it from a garden centre. Granted, it wasn’t Waterstone’s or Barnes and Noble, but I did feel the retailer had a duty to sell products which are not misrepresented. It was an impulse buy along with a trowel, a funny book about cats and their antics and some Burt’s Bees products.
The book in question, Complete Vegetarian Cookbook, promised lots of mouthwatering recipes to keep me and my tastebuds entertained. It was heavily discounted – the sticker stated: GREAT VALUE - publisher’s price £12.99, our price £3.99 - but that doesn’t excuse the fact that there were some serious errors in it.
Firstly, it was a ‘vegetarian’ cookbook not a ‘vegetable’ cookbook which would let it off the hook (note to veggies – never order the ‘vegetable’ dish whilst dining out without checking first if it is vegetarian friendly). It contains some of my favourite recipes including Israeli avocado cream, tahini, hummous, stuffed peppers and garlic mushrooms. Upon opening the book, I looked at a photograph and though ‘gosh, they look unusual, I’ve never tasted those exotic vegetables.’ Upon closer inspection I realised the photograph was…shock, horror….prawns!
I leafed onward…..flick, flick, flick, then stopped at a recipe as I noticed the odd man out – gelatine. ‘Crikey, I thought. The writer must be referring to the vegetarian friendly gelatine you sometimes see at Tesco.’ I read some more, pondered making a garlic soup to scare away the vampires, then noticed another suspect recipe. I felt the urge to vomit – ‘Crudites with anchovy dip’. No thanks. Many vegetarians wouldn’t even touch an anchovy, let alone insert it into their mouths. Pescatarians, like Gok Wan would though. Then came another recipe, this time for anchovy dressing. Maybe the author lives near a stream and her husband likes fishing? Maybe someone dumped a load of anchovies on her doorstep (remember PETA dumped a load of horse manure at Gordon Ramsay’s Claridges? Snigger) and she needs rid of them? I then gave Mrs Author the benefit of the doubt and attributed it to a typo. ‘Perhaps she means alfalfa instead of anchovies?’ I muttered.
There is a long lengthy foreword about how modern food production methods have made meat much cheaper than before and adds how the slaughter of animals has caused many to switch on to a vegetarian lifestyle. I looked at another recipe for a yoghurt and tahini dip which, wait for it, would be, and I quote from the book, ideal to ‘serve as an accompaniment to vegetables, salads and also meat or fish dishes.’
How does the publisher get away with a serious error like this? It’s like buying ‘Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone’ and finding ‘The Da Vinci Code’ inside. This leaves me with a dilemma – do I close the book and put it away, give it to a second hand bookshop for another vegetarian to be surprised, or do I write to the publisher? I’m inclined to go for the third (veggie) option.
A few weeks ago I posted here about my fears of reading in public. With some of my poems shortlisted for competitions or appearing in literary magazines I have been finding myself in front of a microphone more often and I wasn’t enjoying it. I hated it. The first time I did a poetry slam it was a traumatic experience and I actually worried that I might not be able to make the journey up to the stage.
Well, here’s an update. A friend of mine, David Pullen, who works with executives on communication skills read that post and contacted me. David said he thought he might be able to help reduce my fear and generously offered to travel up from Sussex to visit me.
A week later we were sitting in the summer house where I do my writing. First David interviewed me about three examples of reading my work when I had experienced extreme fear. He also asked about a place where I felt deeply relaxed. I described the path through the tramontana-swept pines behind the beach in Catalonia, near where we have a holiday apartment.
Next David took me through a sort of hypnotic journey. After helping me to relax and counting backwards slowly he asked me to walk in my mind along the path through those pines until I happened upon a television. David had me watch videos of my previous terrifying experiences of reading my work in public. I had to watch the videos both forwards and backwards and I remember finding it faintly odd, but I tried to give myself up to the suggestions he was making. It helped that David has an open, trustworthy manner and as a former actor he also has a soothingly pleasant voice. When he brought me out of the trance I was surprised to find that there was nothing else to be done. His hope was that this would reduce my fear in the future.
Since then I have done several readings. I was eager to test whether this strange hypnotic journey would make any difference so I signed up for the open mic session “Poetry Unplugged” run by the wonderful Niall O’Sullivan at The Poetry Café in Betterton Street. They get a good crowd there and I had to wait for about twenty poets to read before I got my chance at the microphone. Amazingly, I was much less nervous than I would previously have been. In fact I spent most of the time trying to calculate how nervous I was – in an interested sort of way. In the last few weeks I have also taken part in the open mic session at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, with minimal nerves and have recited one of my poems at a friend’s fiftieth birthday concert. In the last case I was the only poet to read a poem, and that would have been the most terrifying of all. Thanks to David’s treatment I actually felt confident enough to recite the poem from memory. Previously the prospect of reading my work in that type of gathering would have ruined my whole evening and I would have looked for opportunities to cry off. As it was, I felt honoured and enjoyed the chance to gain an audience for the poem and to discuss it with people during the birthday dinner.
A massive thank you to David Pullen.
That aside and back to the basics of writing - is there a time when every writer worth her word count has to sit back, take stock and put away childish things?
I ask this question with a semi heavy heart. Only last year I fervently and adamantly fought the corner of the Chick Lit title on this very site. I have said that I embraced the term - loved it - felt inspired by it.
Have I changed my mind with the passage of just 12 months? Sadly, and with my big fat slice of humble pie eaten, I have to say yes. In the last 12 months, you see, this particular chick has grown up. And while I still feel there is good chick lit out there - and in no way feel that the very name of the genre denigrates women - I just don't feel I fit the mould any more.
I now consider myself very much a contemporary women's author. That sounds grand doesn't it? Even saying it makes me react in a different way to those times when I told people I wrote "chick lit". I feel, although I'm loathe to admit it, as if I should be taken a little more seriously.
There's nothing wrong with chick lit, of course. If what you are writing fits that exact model. Chick lit to me is - and I'm aware I'm contradicting my previous viewpoint - the lighter side of women's writing. It is cool glasses of wine, designer clothes, rugged men, falling in and out of love, getting a cool job in a trendy magazine of similar. I love books like that - books which offer complete unadulterated escapism.
But are they relevant to my life these days? I'm afraid not. And I've come to think that dismissing tales of depression, domestic violence, miscarriage, adoption and more as "chick lit" has been doing those topics a disservice. We should not dismiss serious topics as fluffy - we should not say it is okay to write them only as long as they have pretty covers.
Chick Lit is still alive, for sure and for certain but it's not a one size fits all label for women's fiction either. I'm proud of what I've written, and of what I'm writing. And I proud to have served my time at the coal face of the chick lit industry, but I'm moving on.
Claire Allan is an author and journalist based in Derry in Northern Ireland. She has been a reporter with the Derry Journal since 1999 and has written for a number of newspapers including the Belfast Telegraph, the Irish News and The Mirror. She has an Honours degree in the Humanities and a MA in Newspaper Journalism. She writes a weekly column on topical issues, with a focus on women's issues and parenting. Claire is a regular contributer to BBC Radio Foyle and Culture NI Magazine. Her bestselling novels have all been published by Poolbeg Press in Ireland. Her fifth 'If Only You Knew' is now available.
I've now written five books in just over six years, I think, and yes, at times it's been hard. Not least because the publishing industry is so fickle, so open to highs and lows.
I've had a lot of 'success' compared to many writers, and for that I am grateful, yet I've also had my share of rejection, editorial sharp elbows, poor reviews etc. I'm also as vulnerable as anyone to what may happen in the future. I cannot be certain that after book six I will ever have anything published again. Ever...
Despite the obvious downsides of this biz, I remain though, pretty happy. I wouldn't do it if I wasn't.
Indeed I'll never understand those writers for who the whole process is one long sick-making episode of torture. Why put yourself through that? There are places you can go and pay to have yourself whipped and wotnot if that's your deal.
But even those of us who take things in our stride, would be lying if we said we were never affected. On a grey autumn day, looking down the barrel of a deadline, even I, Queen Pollyanna, am tempted to stick my foot through my PC at the sight of an email from a loyal reader telling me she 'can't get hold of a copy of my latest...'
So what do I do to stave off, if not despair, despondency? How do I keep up the momentum?
1. I remind myself that no-one is making me do this. I can go back to the day job any old time.
2. I focus on my successes and not on my failures (I know this sounds easy when I've got real life books I can touch, but encouragement of any form will work just as well).
3. I turn to Elizabeth Gilbert, in particular the video of a speech she gave not long after EPL became a world wide success. If you haven't seen it before I promise you it will became one of your fave motivators, if you have, can I urge you to watch it again, you won't be sorry. Then save it for any time you need a pep talk.
So pour yourself a cuppa and enjoy...[[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86x-u-tz0MA]]
I could skirt over the irritatingly obscure names of the MC's (Ebonie, Sherlaine, Twinkzie, Jezzabelle - that sort of nonsense) and during my formative years I didn't even mind very much that I learned a lot more about horses than was absolutely necessary. Jilly Cooper was the dog's doodaghs to this impressionable tweenager and I still have a lot of love for the cheerful gappy-toothed author. She got me through many a rainy day, even though for years I was convinced an orgasm was probably something only seen on display at the organic farmers market every Wednesday and as my mother clearly didn't know how to prepare one, THAT was why I'd never had one.
And I didn't mind too much that these stories of Ella-the-downtrodden-but-feisty-button-nosed-brunette-who-secretly(but to we readers)-enjoyed-fantasies-of-fairytale-love-and-yawn-yawn-finally-got-it-on-the-last-but-one-page.... much. But then, like my predeliction for roasted sweet peppers, although I knew I was going to have a perfectly nice time whilst they were in front of me, once I'd digested them, they'd start to upset my insides a bit.
There isn't a Rennie in the world that can take away the distended feeling inside that this really isn't quite your cup of tea anymore, actually, and you need to find something a bit more... well, agreeable; something that you can rely on won't leave a bad taste in your mouth and have you retching over the literary toilet pan unless you hurl this particular forray of female fiction in aforehand.
I've kind of shifted sideways in my reading fodder. No more do I chuckle and gurn at Ella's silly girly trips over the path to predictable true love. No longer do I have the tolerance for MC's who insist on bringing their monosyllabic, snotty kids into the frame and NO WAY am I putting up with a wizard and/or vampires and werewolves.
So, after having stood at my personal book-buffet for the past 2 years or so, I think I now know which particular tome I can reach out and open without needing an accompanying paper bag.
Give me an edgy, unsympathetic main character who doesn't even own a Louis Vittuon handbag let alone crave ("crave", I ask you) a matching pair of heels. And please don't let her have just been dumped or be best friends with the guy who turns out to be the love of her life If Only She'd Known.
Equally I don't want an Aga, a cute dog (unless they belong to any of Jenny Crusie's MC's because she does them SO well) and a well-meaning mother/best friend who steals the spotlight and gets my lionsshare of love, meaning I couldn't care less where MC ends up.
I don't mind a bit of gore; sadness; deviation. I can put up with paranormal possibilities and as long as sex isn't graphic I can get through those bits too. Too many detectives with too many weird surnames starts to confuse me and I don't want too many secondary characters with their own stories so that I end up losing my thread. And I like a twist but not a tangle.
My taste has certainly changed. I'm not sure what it says or what it means but I'm very aware of reaching out for the darker, grittier looking covers on the shelves these days, knowing that I'll get a lot more satisfaction out of something a bit less fanciful and lightweight than I used to. I wonder what I'll be devouring in another 10-20 years' time - a bit of gentle James Herriott perhaps or even *shudder* autobiographies of TV stars who've brightened up my living room over the decades. Maybe I'll even return to Jolly Jilly again.
Have YOUR reading tastes evolved with you or are you a once-a-fan-always-a-fan?
Equally I also can't say Donny Osmond does the same thing to me now as he did when he sang Puppy Love in that field in the 70's but then he probably wouldn't look at me twice these days either.
Oh, and on this subject, it reminded me of someone I 'know' online who has been writing novels for years and who has womanfully continued to write in the face of rejections for all five of them, determined to keep learning her craft and tenacious enough to keep going no matter what. This week, and for her sixth novel, she's got an agent. And I, for one, am thrilled and inspired and actually in awe of her. So I guess the message for the weekend is -
Don't Give Up. It Can Happen. It Has.
Have a good one.
I never take part in NaNoWriMo, partly because I’m always working and to rack up a word count of six for November would be uninspiring for others and embarrassing for me. I find time to write when time finds me. It could be first thing in the morning, in the middle of the night, or just before bed time. I certainly don’t say to myself: “Right, let’s do one thousand words before 9am.” I work at my own pace; I always have and I never feel pressurised to look at the word count in the bottom left hand corner of the laptop.
For that reason I’m not a fan of NaNoWriMo and I never will be. I prefer to write a few chapters and revise them fully before moving on. I’m not a fan of churning out word after word just for the sake of word count. It may look great on paper if you have managed ten thousand words before November 8, but if you’re constantly shifting POV and have made many grammatical and spelling errors, then what you’ve just written is a waste of time. There are so many people who publicise their writing goals online, some really ambitious. I found one guy who pledged to write twelve thousand words per day – is he writing War And Peace Part Two?
On the other hand if it gives people inspiration to sit down and seriously put a book together for the first time in their lives, then I’m all for it.
I carried out a little experiment - thanks to Rod, we’ve had a plethora of posts about poetry recently, and it has inspired me to write an ode (well, not strictly) to Strictly. Not being a poet, nor having the talent of Shakespeare or Keats, nevertheless, I’ve decided to tackle this art form in a matter of five minutes, reaching my word count of around one hundred. So here we go (it’s all fun of course):
Strictly Writing is by far the best blog.
It’s read by every woman, man, cat and dog.
We serve the needs of the writing people
Across the nation, past the tallest church steeple.
We’re here to help and entertain with our wise words
Accompanied by pictures of pens, desks and birds.
Our readers are novelists and poets too
They write in coffee shops and even at the zoo.
They say the pen is mightier than the sword
So turn to the written word and you’ll not be bored.
Thank you to our readers who comment all day
Hip, hip, hooray to Strictly - is what I say!
(Incidentally, November/Movember is also moustache growing month aimed at raising money for charity. If you haven't the patience to write a novel, then grow a tache. Go check it out!)
Back in August when I was eight months pregnant and starting to think about a blog tour to promote my second novel, Home for Christmas, I approached Strictly Writing and asked if I could guest blog on their site. When the Strictly ladies said yes, my first thought was that I'd write about the similarities between having a child and writing a book. After all lots of authors compare writing a book with pregnancy and publication day with giving birth (and worrying that, while you think your progeny is beautiful, the rest of the world thinks it's ugly as sin).
So why have I decided AGAINST making similar comparisons?
Okay so it was by Caesarean (my baby was breech) so it could be argued that I got it 'easy' compared to a natural birth, though if you'd said that to me when I tried to get out of bed the day the next day and felt like I was being stabbed in the stomach I would have punched you in the head - right before I fainted! Anyway, in this author's opinion writing a book and setting it free on publication day is nowhere near as difficult as gestating, birthing and bringing up a child. To think I was going to draw a comparison between the characters in your head and your baby keeping you awake - ha!
That's not to say I had an easy time writing Home for Christmas - far from it. Second Novel Syndrome was alive, well and squatting in my brain. My first novel, Heaven Can Wait had an easy 'birth'. I wrote the first draft in under four months and edited it in six. Once I'd found an agent and publisher there were a few more tweaks to be made (I laugh to think I called them 'edits' at the time) and then the book was ready to be published.
Home for Christmas, however, was an entirely different story. Its first incarnation, 'The PDA', was scrapped at 20,000 words when I realised I couldn't stand my main character and didn't care what happened to her (a slight issue if you want your readers to care!) Instead of trying to make her likeable I started a brand new novel instead. I called it 'Happiness Ever After' and, while I loved the main characters, it wasn't long before I realised the supporting cast weren't working and needed rewriting. So I did...for several months...until I realised that the characters weren't the problem - their subplot was. Cue the deletion of the subplot and another rewrite. Finally, over two years after putting fingers to laptop, I had a novel that my agent, my publisher and I were all pleased with. I don't mind admitting that by the end of the process I was EXHAUSTED, my confidence was dented and the thought of writing another novel made me nervous.
Cally Taylor's second novel Home for Christmas was published by Orion paperback on 10 November. Cally blogs at Writing About Writing
We have a signed copy of Home for Christmas to give away! All you have to do to enter the prize draw is leave a comment below. We'll draw a name from an adorable baby bonnet and announce the winner next weekend.
I woke up in a panic last night thinking that I’d forgotten to return the telephone call of a friend, then realised (with a sense of impending insanity) I’d been dreaming about a character in the novel I’m writing. I didn’t need to call her back, I owned her, but I still couldn’t fall back asleep.
Done right it’s a baffling power, to design a character, but how is it done? Dickens was inundated with letters begging him to save Little Nell when The Old Curiosity Shop was coming to an end. Some of my most intense memories of the last family holiday I went on revolve around the thoughts of Yossarian from Catch 22 (many apologies to my family about that, I know it’s rude to read at the lunch table).
Like most writers I’d love to know the magic animating ingredient that makes a hybrid of observation, imagination and autobiography come alive on the page and last in the minds of readers. We’ve all probably conjured characters in our heads only for them to fall flat on their faces the moment they hit the page, missing some indefinable something so they just drag their feet and don’t do what their told until we’re forced to brutally dispatch them back into nothing. And then sometimes, bliss, we hit on a character that we feel like we could push out into the world and she’d exist without us. Even then we (by which I mean “I”, others are probably much less anxious) lie awake at night obsessing over whether the figments of our imaginations are too nuanced or too predictable, too unlikely or too obviously based on feral uncle Malcom or that colleague at work we hate. Or, much worse, that our carefully crafted and seemingly inventive protagonists in fact reveal a lot about ourselves that, in other circumstances, we’d rather people didn’t know.
One of the most surreal problems I’ve stumbled on as a young female writer sending young female protagonists out into the world is that people insist that my characters are thinly veiled versions of myself. “You must really hate your mother,” a woman informed me sagely at a wedding reception recently, having read my latest novel, The Pink Hotel, about a young English girl travelling Los Angeles returning love letters and photographs to the men who knew her errant and recently deceased mother. I smiled sweetly at the wedding guest and let her believe that I would be capable of half the seduction and deduction that my character achieves in the course of her journey, but of course she did raise and interesting point.
When Breakfast at Tiffany’s was first published, Truman Capote described a “Holly Golightly Sweepstakes” of women guessed to be the “real” Holly when of course there was no such thing. Capote later insisted that Holly was an amalgamation, a “symbol of all these girls who come to New York and spin in the sun for a moment like May flies and then disappear”. Biographers have added the author’s mother to Holly’s inspiration-mix (a rural Southern belle, Capote’s mother was originally named Lillie Mae while Holly’s birth name is Lula Mae) plus the author himself of course (who suffered from the “mean reds” as Holly does). Occupying some perfect place between a symbol and an ideal party guest, a thousand observed arched eyebrows, childhood memories, flirty smiles, little black dresses, martini-nights and witty conversations must have bubbled into the making of Holly.
Thank God for Yossarian and Little Nell, Lolita and Holly and all the rest, I hope I write a character as great as that one day. In the mean time one of the perks of being a writer, penning stories for ourselves or the local newspaper or the web or a publisher, is surely that we never have to choose whether to be a management consultant or a lawyer, an Olympic swimmer or a mother. We can be everything we want, including other people. What other profession can say that? Our alter egos are not “us”, but we can try a thousand lives on for size.
Floating high, my shroud has frills
When all at once I hear a sound
Bang bang they go, the daffodils
Beside the lake beneath the trees
I fluff my frills in the cold breeze”
I know. By Tuesday I was thinking of admitting myself somewhere, especially after I’d compiled the second verse. You ready?
“Continuous as the stars that shine
My billowing shroud wants its say
It stretches towards an alpine pine
While all the time the daffs they pray
Their sound it puts me in a trance
I join their chant and start to dance”
What can I say, except maybe apologise to Mr Wordsworth, whose work I revered until this week. As well as poetry desecration, I found myself putting on unnecessary clothes washes, trying to come up with new Christmas recipes, shopping online, facebook-ing, emailing, and yes, I could even be found loitering with intent on Twitter...
This is all because I’m forcing myself to write a story that I’m not sure I want to write. Has anyone else had this problem? I keep telling myself to keep calm and carry on, that it’s only one month and it might actually take a turn somewhere in the process that could lead to an interesting lead at least. I’ve done ‘Nano’ before and I’m a HUGE fan but right now, I fear for the poets. I really do.
I try to read as many newly released books as I can, mainly those in the so-called literary genre, but as you know, it’s like taking on the role of a goalkeeper when a thousand balls are heading toward you. As much as I desperately want to read every book as soon as it's released, I fully appreciate that even the keenest (and fastest) of readers will only select from those newly released books that most interest them. I’ve only read a handful of books this year – the first half of the year was obliterated thanks to having severe hyperemesis. I’ve missed so many good books in recent months but I always try to add them to my Amazon wish list so they don’t slip through the net altogether.
I’ve just ordered this year’s entire Booker shortlist as a Christmas present for myself (!), not only because it looks like a fine combo, but also to see if I agree with the judges’ decision. I have a feeling I won’t though. I’m especially looking forward to reading The Sisters Brothers (shouldn’t there be an apostrophe there?) Then there’s Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan published by the highly respected Serpent’s Tail. My first inkling when I saw the cover was that this particular book had been written by a man. Just goes to show you shouldn't judge a book by its cover.
Talking about having missed many fine reads over the last year, I dug around Amazon and added quite a few ‘must have’ books to my list, not all of them literary though. I really want to read The Pink Hotel by Ana Stothard, but I may just keep it as my summer sunbathing read. I also added Submission by Amy Waldman, a September 11 novel, The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon, The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph, The Pleasure Seekers by Tishani Doshi (I love the cover), The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht, and The Privileges by Jonathan Dee. I could go on and on and tell you about the 319 books I have on the list. I hope I live long enough to get through the list which isn’t yet complete, and which grows each week, thanks to the Sunday Times Culture section among other supplements.
It’s nice to cosy up with a good book on a cold winter’s night, listening to the gentle patter of snow on the window pane. That, I suppose, is the only good thing about winter. And I'm looking forward to getting through this long list I have. Sadly though, even if I spent every minute of every day of every year for the next fifty years, would I be able to be goalkeeper to all these wonderful books?
Thanks for this opportunity. I’m new to blogging and new to being a published novelist, but I’ve been involved with creative writing many years, one way and another. I enjoyed Helen’s recent post and thought I would join the debate. I share your scepticism about this ‘creative writing industry’ that’s suddenly appeared in the last 10 to 20 years.
I started out in theatre in the early 1980s, and was a television script editor through the 90s, and never heard of it then. Creative writing was something you just did – it was called writing. Some wrote novels, some wrote scripts… then I think it started appearing in the school curriculum and a few universities started offering degrees in it. I do remember that the UEA MA course sounded very desirable, as it was taught by Malcolm Bradbury and Ian McEwan shot to fame immediately after finishing it.
Since then the number of different degree courses, workshops, residential courses, mentor schemes etc has exploded; even publishers like Faber are now running courses and putting their top authors in as guest teachers. Mind you, you need to be wealthy to sign up for those. It’s bound to make you wonder whether it’s good value for money.
I’ve even wound up teaching creative writing myself; these days I’m a part-time tutor for the Open University on the Advanced Creative Writing module. I have to say that it’s a brilliantly well-written course, enabling any student whether a beginner or an experienced writer to improve their skills radically in whichever direction they choose. It’s not about telling them how to write, it looks at different approaches and encourages students to help one another achieve whatever they want, by developing their own voice and improving the effectiveness of their writing. I’d recommend anyone to take it, although I can’t vouch for every tutor being equally helpful. Each year a few of my students have a wonderful experience and find that the subject has opened up to them in ways they couldn’t have anticipated; they’re usually people who left school with next to no qualifications and work in relatively dull jobs. This makes it really rewarding to teach.
I’m quite sure there are a lot of charlatans out there, I’ve attended quite a few events myself over the years which I’ve felt annoyed about. I suppose the important thing is to approach with caution, to work out what you want to develop in yourself, and to go looking for it in a discriminating way. There are no rules which can’t be broken, and anyone who tells you how to write is asking to be ignored. The odd thing for me is that I haven’t had the benefit of a mentor of any kind, but my experience of being an editor enabled me to act as my own fiction editor, and the process of teaching creative writing helps in the same way that practising scales is good for musicians.
My novel All To Play For is out courtesy of Legend Press. Its subject is making television drama, and its characters struggle with changes at the BBC in the 1990s, when creativity lost out to re-organisation and commercial pressures, and the consequences are on our TV screens today.
Heather is a former theatre director and BBC script editor who now writes fiction and teaches creative writing for the Open University. Her novel All to Play for, which draws on her television career, is published by Legend Press.