Thursday, 30 June 2011

To E, or not to E? Now there's a question...

Do not, dear reader, be surprised if this post contains at best shonky or no research at all into the subject matter. After all, this is me here; I don’t do much in the way of research (unless it’s to check out 21st Century Heroes and their pectoral presence of course – see ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ a couple of posts back. But I digress. Which only works if you’re Ronnie Corbett. And a National Treasure).
Anyway...focus, woman.
E-books and E-book publishing. It’s very ‘on-trend’ right now isn’t it? There’s stuff about it EVERYWHERE. Especially on-line *ahem* obviously. This blog made me nearly need to change my underwear twice whilst reading it: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2011/02/02/why-your-self-published-book-sucks-a-bag-of-dicks/
And for the most part I kind of agree with everything it says. I know it denigrates the whole idea of e-publishing and spins such a negative on it that it’s difficult to know how an average human being could believe anything like this is worthwhile. But, bear with me, I’m trying to be impartial.
For instance I’ve never considered Self/Vanity Publishing. In fact I get very heated at the word ‘vanity’ – I think it’s a throwback from my childhood and actually, isn’t Vanity one of the Seven Deadly Sins? BUT (and this is only since I’ve begun to approach A Certain Age) I have decided to weave into my Last Will and Testament the stipulation that should I die unpublished, I want three of my books to be posthumously printed so at least my daughter can show my grand/great grandchildren one day. I’m also hoping that the adage “never speak ill of the dead” also applies to being posthumously self-published; CAN you be vain AND deceased?
{Aside… okay then, digression… just had a small ‘lol’ moment imagining my e-book review on Amazon reading something like this: “…was crap. Thank god she’s not around to write any more sh*te like this one”}
And speaking of scary reviews, I’d NEVER want to be in the position where I’d feel I had to deliver a ball-breaking response to a (not even bad) review of my e-book like this one: http://booksandpals.blogspot.com/2011/03/greek-seaman-jacqueline-howett.html
Once you start getting heated in defence there’s really no going back for some people, is there?
And this, I believe is the crux of the whole e-matter. I think it works for certain people - people with the right kind of character; the strong, the determined and the unfathomably brave.
All of which, I’m sure you’ve sussed by now, are qualities of which I have none.
I am an anxious, feeble-minded coward who needs somebody to hold her hand and kick her up the arse, whichever is the nearer. And I could no more promote any product of my own making than I could fly to the moon and back. Unless I had somebody – a Proper, Professional, Qualified somebody behind me one hundred and ninety five percent who was willing – and being paid a percentage of course – to stick their neck out for me and declare me a creative literary genius (or similar… just a Good Writer would do for now to be honest).
Of course it DOES help if you are an excellent writer. It helps if you can work happily and constructively alongside spellchecker, it helps if you’re a first-class Proofreader who can spot a typo at fifty paces, a consummate Editor who can find a plot-hole without falling into it.  And I imagine it would also help to have a couple of hundred quid as a cushion/starter block for things like cover-production, initial set-up/registration fees and soforth. (Can you tell here’s where my research falls a little flat? I don’t have precise figures and I hate maths so can I please be excused if “a couple hundred quid” is wrong in any way... I’m just hazarding. Phew, thanks).
And it must all be so very… I don’t know, stressful. Going through this whole process pretty much on your own, with the unswerving belief that what you’ve written is Good Enough to be out there… even if Agents and Publishers have already told you there is No Place for it. Half of me is in total awe of these e-authors who have flown in the face of rejection and self-pronounced  that their work is publishable, whilst the other half of me is hiding behind a cushion wishing they’d just bided their time a bit longer and given any feedback they may have had from professionals, the proper considered thought it warranted before launching their babies into the ethosphere.
So I'm on the fence.  Which is probably why I walk this way.
Oh, and during my 'research', I also found this site: http://theselfpublishingreview.wordpress.com/ where a lot of self-published/e-books are reviewed and I found myself especially drawn to the 'tags' section on the left hand side which felt rather like looking out for a car-crash, which I know is all kinds of wrong but reading these makes me feel more sure I'm doing the right thing with my game of patience.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Very Superstitious...


Every year, the Great British Public carry out a strange ritual. For two precious, sunny (hah!) weeks in summer, we secrete ourselves in our living-rooms in front of the box to experience, vicariously, the pleasures and pains of Wimbledon. If we’re really keen, we may even buy strawberries and cream, or wear a silly tartan hat with built-in red hair. Under extreme pressure (atmospheric, usually) we may even stoop to sing-a-long-a-Cliff.

On the courts, the players, too, are behaving oddly. They devote almost more time to a frenzy of superstitious and illogical actions than they do to their game: blowing on their palms, adjusting their bra straps or their sweatbands, refusing to let go of the ball that won them the previous point and, in Andy Murray’s case, pumping his fist in a rather lewd manner and pointing vehemently into space in a strange gesture of victory. Djokovic bounces his balls (steady) up to 25 times before serving. Nadal is obsessive about the positioning of his drink bottle, clearing the court lines with his shoe and adjusting the rear of his shorts.

Which brings me to the power of the ritual, and to wonder what exactly the difference is between a ritual and a habit, particularly where it applies to us writers?

I guess the difference, for me, is that a ritual is something which is a) consciously chosen and b) is carried out in order to enhance the spirit of an experience - whilst a habit is something one feels driven to do, is mainly unconscious, and can be detrimental to the project in hand. My worst habits are: reaching for chocolate or crisps when things get tricky – or, indeed, when they’re going well; and surfing the internet between sentences. My best rituals? Applying the seat of my pants to the seat of a chair and writing regularly in the mornings, sandwiched between a stretch routine and a brisk walk.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, writes that, under pressure, she returns to using an old-fashioned electric typewriter. She finds the rolling-in of the paper, the return of the carriage, a soothing and affirming ritual. Most of us get obsessive about word-counts. 2,000 words a day, or four hours in front of the computer? Some insist on only using moleskine notebooks, whilst others must write in longhand, (or in cafes). I know writers who prefer to light a candle or play certain music in order to evoke a suitable atmosphere. Some of us even have particular outfits for writing (these may include pyjamas). Our writing times are particularly ritualistic: for some, it’s a matter of getting up before the family and using the quiet, early morning hours. Night-owls prefer, well, night-time, while others choose a scattergun approach, tapping out a few sentences between checking emails, jumping up to answer the phone, making a cup of coffee, or cleaning the kitchen floor.

We writers are sensitive souls. Perhaps we value ritual so much because it provides a safe ‘container’ for our ranging imaginations. And for those of us who don’t have ‘a proper job’ (a whole other blogpost), we need to create some kind of schedule or boundary in our day. Within such limits, our creativity feels nurtured and protected. And however weird or outlandish such rituals may be, they’re as vital to our output as Djokovic’s bouncing, Murray’s pointing and Raffa’s shorts.

Anything else wouldn’t be – well, tennis.

Monday, 27 June 2011

The Finish Line

The hubster is away this weekend playing golf, for the first time encouraged by me, because I have SOOOO much to do... I’ve been head down trying to finish the WIP and I'm at the point where I can see the finishing line, almost touch it. In the meantime, I’ve been eating and drinking crap. I’ve put weight on in the last week– now have lardy lady writer’s bum – and I think I’ve become a little antisocial.

For instance, the phone just rang. Three weeks ago, hell even three days ago, I would have at least leaned across the desk, looked at the caller I.D and decided whether or not to answer the phone. Now, I can’t even be arsed leaning, I am so immersed in what I have to do. I’m drinking copious tea and coffee, marginally better I know than my normal copious amounts of sauvignon blanc, but I’m wired in a sort of exhausted way.

Yesterday, I forced myself to take two breaks. One was a trip to Sainsburys - where I bought two melons, a mango, a packet of paracetamol and two packets of chocolate fingers (buy one get one free). Oh and six toilet rolls. I have so far consumed both packets of biscuits and thought about making a fruit salad, while stacking the loo rolls on the loo roll stacker thingy. My second break yesterday involved watching a movie the hubster had ‘sky plussed’, where there were so many plot holes that I needed the paracetamol and ended out yelling at the television ‘Just die, asshole!’

This morning I’m back at my desk ignoring the phone, the doorbell, the telly and the internet determined to write another two thousand words before I make the fruit salad. Stop laughing. I will make the fruit salad.

In the meantime, two thousand words must flow before my next break. I know what scene I have to write. Thinking about it, I’m smiling and I realise this is why I allow myself to become a fat recluse every now and then. I know what I have to do and I know the words will soon begin to flow. I’m excited because in the next few minutes my characters will take me far away from loo roll stackers and fruit salads.

But the phone is ringing again. Persistent little bugger. My daughter’s voice speaks on the answer-phone. ‘Mum, you have to eat. Come out of your cave for a few hours. We’re having a ‘Barbie’ at three. Be there.’

That sounded very much like an order. I wonder briefly when exactly that role reversal took place? Did I not notice it because I was too busy in my cave? I check my wrist, 10:05 and look out my office window. It is a lovely day. If I don’t take a break until then, I could get an awful lot done. I could even take a fruit salad with me.

Must go. ..Things to do... Imaginary places to be... Then must make some time for the real world.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Confessions of a hoarder


Hoarding books is a hobby of mine. I have books from the 70s, 80s and 90s, spine-creased, worn, torn and tattered but still loved. No matter how hard I try to let go of them, just like redundant boyfriends, I simply can’t part with them. I have my Enid Blyton collection neatly packed away just in case I want to read ‘Five Go To Smuggler’s Top’, the Mallory Towers set to fondly remind me of my school years, and The Secret Seven, in case I feel like indulging in a little detective work. And there’s the Nancy Drew collection, in case I suddenly aspire to be like Nancy and want a few tips from her on becoming a heroine. And the crème de la crème is my Anne of Green Gables box set which was purchased in America – my pride and joy.

It’s not just my own books I hoard. On one or two occasions, I’ve borrowed books from friends only to conveniently ‘forget’ to give them back. I innocently add them to my collection. On several occasions, the friend has simply not pursued the case of the missing book. Others have said: ‘Just keep it, Gillian. Don’t worry, I’ve read it.’ Now I don’t know whether they were just being polite or not, but I always took this at face value. Samuel Beckett’s More Pricks Than Kicks springs to mind as a borrowed book. I’m don’t think a kleptomanic, honestly. Or am I? No, I always ask before borrowing.

However, I’m the person who, when staying in a hotel, will trawl the room to see what I can get away with ‘borrowing’ – from the robe to the nice shower gel. In cheap hotels, they appear to fasten the large shampoo bottle to the bathroom wall, and guests have to make do with a few pump action shots! How unfair. I prefer the establishments which let you ‘borrow’ the Molton Brown bottles, soaps and shower caps. Confession – I still have the sewing kit from a hotel in Mauritius. Have I ever stolen books from hotels? No. Not even from a hotel in Prague which boasted a rather robust library in which one could browse freely.

But I do love to hoard and often refuse to share just in case the friend genuinely forgets to give me it back. That would hurt me a lot. It would be like losing a child. If someone asks me if they can borrow one of my books, I’ll politely forget once. If they ask a second time, I’ll hand it over, but closely monitor the situation until it’s handed back. What’s the most appropriate time frame to expect a book to be returned – one week, two weeks, or for the slow reader, two months? I have a huge collection but please don’t ask to borrow any of my books as your request may well fall on deaf ears.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Somewhere to write home about

Are there no limits to the hardships this intrepid Strictly Writer will endure to track down a post for this place? I tried to put together something a few days ago but, as so often, inspiration fled when I needed her most. So I've taken the iPad off to a spa hotel in the hope that these majestic trees and these pools and maybe "a complete detoxification treatment leaving the skin purified from pollution, beginning with a full body peel to encourage the elimination of toxins followed by soft warming flakes and feather brushes in a breeze across your skin, concluded with a fresh detoxifying gel wrap" will provide an environment conducive to writing. Not only this piece, of course. For the experiment to be chalked up as a success I must chuck out at least a couple of poems before we pack the massive suitcases. The plan is that Jess pampers herself while I scribble. We are justifying the obscene self indulgence with the excuse that we won't have a holiday this summer.

The assumption that a comfortable environment will bring forth peak performance has also struck the England rugby team, most of whom were either in the pools or showers with me yesterday. They are building a different set of muscles but I like to think we are essentially here for the same reason. Naked rugby players slapping each other playfully on the bottom is probably something to inspire my Strictly Writing colleagues more than me, but I did notice how unfeasibly tall they are - don't forget that detail, girls.

I remember when I was a younger and told myself I couldn't write because I couldn't afford a typewriter. At other times in life I didn't have somewhere quiet to stare at an empty page and didn't have the stomach to overcome my phobia of libraries. Now, for God's sake, I have a purpose-built summer house, several laptops and this tiny bundle of technology complete with waterproof roll-up rubber Bluetooth keyboard (on which the g and the h keys refuse to play even though I didn't take them into the jacuzzi with the England rugby team).

Despite all this writerly support, despite the dinner with the canapés first then the two amuse-bouches and the between-course snack, (we debated whether this was an intra- or an intercourse treat), despite the "pre-pudding" that nobody could justify, despite the writing technology and despite the eight swimming pools, I am still scared I won't find words today. It's a tough life. All I ask is that one little poem might come dropping out of the sky before Jess and I have to rub mud all over each other's body at four o'clock (after the "therapist" has explained the benefits of mineral rich clay ochres). It is seven in the morning now. I'm waiting. I'm still waiting.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Long And Short Of It


Are you a novelist? A short story writer? Or both? Neither, perhaps?

Me? Up until last year I saw myself quite clearly as an aspiring novelist. Yet, over the years, writing friends told me I must try writing shorts. Could I think of a beginning though? Never! Let alone a middle and end. “I just can’t write short stories,” I’d tell people, having thoroughly convinced myself this was true. So, I carried on writing my novels and in 2008 started a chick lit book, set in Ancient Egypt. I fell in love with the setting and characters, convinced that this twist on the genre was sure to be a success. It was time, I decided (oh the self-delusion), to have some sort of web presence, so at the end of that year, I set up the Strictly Writing blog (it’s lovely to be back as a guest, thank you!).

What has all of this got to do with writing short stories, I hear you ask? Well, about a year later, an online friend ran a short story competition and to my amazement, I was able to come up with an idea. How? I am utterly convinced this is because I’d been blogging, week in, week out. For twelve months I’d been forced to consider the short form (albeit in non-fiction) and come up with pieces that had a beginning, middle and end. Little did I know this was my first step along the road to becoming a published short story writer.

Of course looking back, my entry for that first competition was dire. I’m embarrassed to admit, I probably thought I could get away with clichéd writing when it came to shorts. So following the inevitable outcome (my masterpiece got nowhere), I re-joined an online writing forum and become a member of their short story group. Here I learnt a lot; studied the market; appreciated truly how much work was necessary to go into producing a good short story. Then hey presto! At the beginning of 2011, I sold a story to The Weekly News. Since then, I have also sold stories to Take-a-Break and Take-a-Break Fiction Feast, plus been shortlisted in several competitions.

Am I still writing novels? Yes, the first draft of my next one is complete. And I understand now, why writing friends used to tell me to write short stories. When I edit each chapter, my eye is looking out for different details. In short stories, every single word and nuance counts, there’s no room for misunderstanding, no room for unintended double entendres. This has taught me to make my writing in whatever form, clear and precise. I’ve learnt how to get my point across more efficiently, whether that’s to do with some character trait or plotline or a particular bit of prose.

So do I think of myself as an aspiring novelist or a short story writer now? Both, I guess, although the idea of having a book published is still closest to my heart. But if any of you reading this have never tried the short form, PLEASE DO. It will give your longer pieces another dimension. Not only that, it takes away a lot of the pressure from trying to get a novel Out There. If my current 90,000 word WIP is eventually rejected, I won’t feel as emotionally drained as last time around. I mean, let’s face it – why would anyone pine for the moon when they’ve finally got a few stars?


Sam Tonge is the founder of Strictly. Thanks so much, Sam, for this inspiring post!

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Is your writing ready to party?



Do you remember the trend for 'Come As You Are' parties, where the host would round up all their friends without warning and drag them away – curlers, bathrobes and all – for prawn cocktails, cheese and pineapple hedgehogs, LSD and whatever else they had back then?

No, neither do I, thank God.

Such events are (I hope) a thing of the past, only surviving as the source of much contrived hilarity in vintage sitcoms. The thought has occurred to me, however, that if my writing were invited to a 'come as you are' party, I would want it to step straight out the door looking effortlessly glam, not to hide behind the sofa afraid to be seen with greasy hair and an egg-stained string vest.

Where is this dodgy analogy leading? Well, as I approach the fine-tuning stage of novel 2, I want to make sure each sentence is the best it can be and ready to sparkle if suddenly invited out by an agent or publisher.

Buried somewhere in a 100,000-word manuscript, perhaps a sentence can afford to slob around, hoping that the pace of the narrative will distract the reader from the fact it's not up to scratch. But there's only so much one can get away with – become too complacent and the substandard bits soon add up to a congealed cheese fondue of tedium.

So I'm trying out a new editing trick. I scroll through my manuscript and stop at random. Then I pick the first sentence I see, and write it out longhand on a blank page. Then I look at it critically. Does it still shine, without the story to hide in? Is it flabby or clichéd or even redundant?

If I had to post it online without changing anything, would I be embarrassed? Would I feel compelled to explain that the rest of the book is much better, honest guv – it's just this bit that needs work? Would I be prepared to read it out to an audience... or would I cringe and search for a better example?

I want to end up with work I'm proud to send out in public, and this method shows up weaknesses that I might otherwise skim over. It does, of course, rely on the structure, characterisation and plot being all worked out – if they aren't in place then there's no point going into detail. For the final stages of editing, however, isolating sentences can be an illuminating exercise.

Perhaps one day they'll get that unexpected call and become the life and soul of a publisher's party.


Thank you to Cole Henley for the photo of a scrumptious hedgehog

Monday, 20 June 2011

Holding out for a Hero

Heroes have come a long way.


The Heroes I used to read about (when she wasn’t looking) in my Mum’s Mills & Boons books were swarthy, lean beasts of men with a strong Swashbuckling or Medical influence.
They brooded, they rippled, they had flinty grey eyes with impossibly long lashes and invariably they gave just enough hints of bulging pectorals to ensure a reader was all unnecessary by page 5.

And the pictures on the covers of these books left almost nothing to the imagination – in fact some still don’t.  Not that I’ve looked or anything.  Well, only in the name of research, of course.

Historical Heroes are lucky, though.  They can stay fiery and brooding and sneer misogynistically at every passing temptress whilst beneath their breeches throbs a yearning of misunderstood proportions.  And equally, the average plucky period heroine can still be feisty and feminine with a heaving bosom and a temper to match her gender opposite. Because that’s what their time period is all about. We wouldn’t want it any other way, would we?   

But not so much your 21st Century Hero, bless him. He’s had to up his game, politically correct himself, work out the 28-day rule and still find time to shave.

Today’s Hero has to contend with things like feminists, equal pay, veneers, control pants and critical managerial out-manoeuvres. That’s what we’re all about, us girlies. We’ve burnt our bras, chained ourselves to railings and thrown ourselves in front of horses so that we can be just as equal as our men folk, if not more so.

So don’t assume we’re going to be overcome with an attack of the vapours simply because you’ve deigned to smoulder in our general direction, Mr Hero, oh no, we want – no, NEED – you to be dynamic yet sympathetic, persuasive and yet understanding of every hormone fluctuation we endure – and if you think for one moment that we can be won over with a spontaneous outburst of flowers or chocolate, then…. well okay, you’ll be halfway there with the chocolate.

It'd also be nice if you had some kind of flaw - this could be physical (say, a slight limp/lisp - so long as it's endearing) or psychological  (not verging on the disturbing or fanatical, these are not sexy qualities).  A chequered past is okay so long as there aren't too many boiled bunnies or axe-wielding psycho-bitches from hell strewn about in your wake.  They might do something for your air of mystery but they do nothing in a romantic candlelit situation.

And you’ll have to be able to cry (in private is fine, so long as we, your reader get to see those heavy drops of compassion hanging from your unfeasibly long lashes), laugh, change nappies, sing, dance …oh,  and cook.

Of course lastly,  but more importantly, you mustn’t forget that the size of your sense of humour has to far outweigh any other of your cheeky but charming bodily attributes … I’m afraid a firm grasp and an ardent euphemism isn’t going to earn you any points these days.

Whereas the chocolate… (see above).



Wednesday, 15 June 2011

A Horse With No Name

I’m writing this post on Monday 13th June, in order to have it on the blog on Wednesday 15th June. I’m organised, see? Well it’s organised for me... Besides, tomorrow is our annual Ascot day and I possibly won’t be able to function post midday. Note to self – don’t forget to go online and ‘study the form’ of the ‘gee gees’.

Okay, I won’t really be going online to read The Racing Post. I will do what I always do; pick a jockey with my favourite colours or a horse with a good name, which sort of (tenuous link alert) leads me to think/write about book titles and the ‘look’ of a book.

Being truthful, it’s often what I do in the 3 for 2 section. If I like the look of the book and the title THEN I pick it up and read the blurb. If I like the blurb, I often read the first page. If I like that, it becomes one of the three purchases.

I love a good title, me. I love short snappy ones, and have a bit of a penchant for ones that contain three words e.g The Horse Whisperer, Pride And Predjudice, Brave New World, or more recently Water For Elephants and Cutting The Stone.

Why then did I send out a manuscript to agents with the title ‘Journey To The Monkey Nut’? Eh? Granted, it was a couple of years ago, but I’ve recently revisited the novel, made some changes to the plot and I really dislike the original working title. Don’t get me wrong - it sort of made sense at the time and was explained in the old 'blurb', but today two years later, it feels completely wrong. Weird...

So, here’s where I ask for help. I haven’t got a new blurb for the re-worked novel yet, so I can’t give you a hint. I haven’t got a new synopsis written nor have I got a new title... mainly because I’m immersed in finishing my current WIP. But it’s there, nagging at the back of my mind (tenous Ascot link alert). So, here’s the first scene – Go on! Challenge yourselves! Work backwards! What would YOU call it?

Chapter One - Beth Who?

‘My husband is a philanderer,’ I answer her. She sits, legs crossed, taking notes in her feint lined legal pad. ‘That’s a four syllable word for a cheating dick-wit. How am I supposed to feel?’ I’m twitching slightly at the futility of the question and my words seem to come out in a venomous spit. ‘He’s moved in with a waitress!’ I pause to catch my breath. In my head, I apologise to all the nice waitresses in the world. Aloud, I finally reveal how I really feel, as my right hand clutches my upper left side. ‘I feel betrayed. It feels like physical pain...’

Dr Caroline Gothenburg seems sympathetic. At least she has an effective sympathetic nodding of the head motion. She has long legs encased in glossy tights and I wonder if she has ever been betrayed in her shiny life. With beautiful green eyes, set in a heart shaped face, flanked by titian curls - she’s very good looking. Lots of qualifications adorn her wall.

‘I’d like you to do me a time line for the next session,’ she interrupts my thoughts, explaining what she means. I frown. I’m an intelligent woman. What the hell am I doing here? When did I become this ‘last to know’ cliché? How long has this woman got? I look again at her neat ordered frame.

‘It will help me get to know you,’ she says. ‘Who is Beth? What makes Beth be Beth? I’d like to understand who you are, where you come from?’

‘Me too,’ I whisper.

………………………………………..

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Guest post by Carys Bray


I believe the purpose of the guest blog was for the winner to ‘crow about their success,' but I read the other shortlisted stories and consequently know that a chirrup or even a tiny trumpet-toot would be unjustified. Thank you to everyone who voted for me to win. It was very exciting to click on Strictly Writing on 27th May and see my name.




I really enjoy reading this blog. I found Caroline’s recent post ‘Why don’t they just tell us’ especially thought-provoking. I started writing stories in 2008/9 during the final year of my BA. I was a very mature student (I have 4 children and all the commensurate wrinkles). My first few stories were stilted and awkward. I made, and continue to make, lots of mistakes. Caroline said that ‘writing ability is not something that remains fixed from the moment we learn how to hold a pen’ – how I hope she is right! I try and write as often as I can, even if it’s just a few sentences when my children are in bed. I’m operating on the premise that practice makes progress, if not perfection. The more I practise the more mistakes I can see, and I’m hoping that extra practice will allow me to eventually work out how to rectify them!




This year I’ve had the pleasure of working as an intern on the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. It’s been inspiring and humbling to read some of the best short fiction in the UK (including Susannah Rickards’ excellent collection, ‘Hot Kitchen Snow’ which I heartily recommend). I’ve just finished my PhD proposal and I’m beginning to plot and draft my first novel – exciting times. I’m looking forward to continuing to read helpful posts from the regular and guest bloggers at Strictly Writing as I try to stretch myself across a novel-sized narrative and I’m also hoping to have some more success with short stories in the meantime.




If you would like to read some of my older stories you can find one in New Fairy Tales: http://www.newfairytales.co.uk/pages/currentissue.html and another on my blog: http://postnatalconfession.blogspot.com/2011/04/sweet-home.html




Forthcoming stories will be in Black Market Review: http://www.blackmarketreview.com/ in Flax 026: http://www.litfest.org/publications/ and in PoemMemoirStory http://pms-journal.org/




Thank you for the opportunity to post at Strictly Writing and good writing luck to everyone.

Friday, 10 June 2011

There’s nothing worse than waking up with Lemon Drizzle Cake stuck to your pyjamas

Any kind of Feedback is Good. And for a writer, feedback from an agent is precious. Whereas straightforward ‘Not for us, thanks’ tells us absolutely NOTHING, a reply containing words of kind but critical encouragement is a thing to be cherished.

A day later, at any rate.

Because after your eyes  have scanned the response and sent the message to your brain from seeing words like ‘sorry’, ‘although’ and ‘but’ and re-written the reply to read simply "REJECT",  it’s all you can do to scour the house for a tub of Ben and Jerry’s you already know you don’t have and putting an imminent sleepless night down to the hog-wart that shares your bed. (Of course it could also have been the aftermath of the lone sausage you found lurking at the back of the fridge. Who knew it was extra spicy and would repeat for the next 48 hours? Who knew it was extra spicy and … well, you get the idea.)

And a writer who wakes up after a crappy night’s sleep is not a pretty thing.

But ‘but’s can be good. They’re a conjunctive, so it follows that, well, more words will follow. More information is going to be forthcoming. Don’t stop reading. After all, you can’t put a full-stop after a 'but' - you’ve learnt that much, right? Turn away from the e-mail/letter and take a deep breath. In fact, just take SOME breath and refuse to cry. It won’t help. You won’t even be able to SEE any more words let alone know what it is you’ve already decided they mean.

Start by ignoring the ‘sorry’ word. It’s overused after all. I had a friend who used the word ‘sorry’ before everything else she ever said. EVERYTHING. She’d stand at out doorstep after calling for me and say to whichever parent got there first “Sorry Mr/s Cooper but is Deborah there?” of course I blimmin’ well was, we were catching the school bus together. But she said it every morning without fail until it came to mean nothing. She even said “sorry” if she needed to use the loo. And her first words when she telephoned me…? Well, it doesn’t take a great imagination.

Actually I have been known to say sorry if someone steps on my foot in Sainsbury’s and I’m still not sure if I’m being facetious or whether I really AM sorry I placed my foot underneath theirs because I’m such a notorious doofus.

‘Although’ is not such a bad guy either. Although is another way of saying ‘even so’, ‘even if’, ‘whilst’…. you remember that book: Synonyms Can Be Fun? So you also remember the Good Guy coming through at the end - the full stop didn’t finish him off either, right?

Let’s try a nice analogy. Let’s say Aunty May made a Lemon Drizzle cake. Aunty May loves to cook and particularly likes to see other people enjoying her baking efforts. So today she waits with an expectant flush whilst her cake is nibbled and swallowed and then she hears: ‘Hmmmm…. that’s nice, but….’ No, No! NO! Not a But!
But…
‘…a bit less sugar would’ve made it sharper’ perhaps?
‘…maybe some grated lemon rind to give it that slight edge?’
‘… it’s not as moist as your last one.’

Okay, we’ll forget about Aunty May’s moistness conundrum for now, I’m sure she’ll sort that particular problem out herself. The point is that even though it got a but, she’s actually amassing a wealth of constructive advice (not criticism, that word can turn and bite your ‘but’ before you realise it) on how to improve her lovely Lemon Drizzle.
She’s either going to never make this cake again for as long as she lives and live in mortal fear of every future lemon she passes or else she’s going to have to bite this particular bullet and run with it (perhaps one metaphor too many).

After she's slept on it for 24 hours, of course.

On the ‘feedback’ I mean, not on the lemon cake. That would just be silly.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Winner of a Signed Copy of The Somnambulist!

Thank you to everyone who entered the draw to win a signed copy of The Somnambulist by Essie Fox. We put all the names into the top hat pictured here*:

and plucked one out.

The winner is....

KIRSTY LOGAN

Congratulations, Kirsty! Please email us at strictlywriting@btinternet.com and we'll get the book in the post to you.

Commiserations to those who didn't win - if you'd like to buy the book, it's available on Amazon or at a bookshop near you.



*Actually, it was just my everyday hat.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

I'm Ready For My Close Up

Like so many women d'un certain age I am a member of a book club.

I'd like to say that we are an eclectitc and funky group...but in truth we are bunch of Mums who have kids in the same school. We are all married, over forty and have a pair of white linen trousers hanging in our wardrobes.

Attending my book club is without the doubt the most middle class thing I have ever done.

In its defence, though, we are a loud and opinionated bunch. We don't sit around politely nodding our heads. Discussions are often heated. Plus we all drink like George Best after a month in rehab.
Shouting is a common occurance, crying is not unheard of.

Anyhow...we were asked by a TV company to review a book for a chanel four programme and we agreed.

At first we began to fret about what we would say, but that was soon brushed aside as paranoia over whether we could all lose a stone in three days settled in.

The book in question was The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson, a compelling tale set in a deliciously rural and run down Provencal farm house. It's being featured, quite rightly, as a big Summer read, given that each page is redolent with the scent of endless lavender fields, and the idea was for us to review it in a similarly sunshiney vibe at a pub on the river with the light glittering off the water and our wine glasses. White linen trousers a go-go.

Naturally, on the morning of the shoot it was pissing it down. Not a small shower or what my Mum charmingly describes as 'spitting', no this was proper rain. And wind. And cold.
My club mates wondered if filming would be cancelled or at least postponed, but if I've learned anything from writing it's that sometimes you have to work with what you've got. So I wore white trousers and sunglasses almost as an act of defiance. One of my mates kindly brought a plastic carrier for me to sit on, pointing out that a wet bum is never a good look.

In the end we filmed inside. Which was fine...but by God do these things take time. We filmed for over three hours which will probably translate into about three minutes of telly. I was very pleased with what I thought was a snappy little soundbite: 'A great Summer read for the thinking Summer reader.' Pleased until I had to repeat it about fifteen times...it had, to be honest, lost its shine by then and I'll cheerfully let it drop from my cannon.

Time and again the camera guy changed his angle, checked the light, asked for a repeat. Little was left to chance and I was reminded of the writing process and how you just can't tell how much time and effort goes into making something work. Indeed the easier it looks, the more seamless the end product, the flipping more time consuming the project is.

In the end when the shoot wrapped (get me with my insiders lingo) we all went away with a new found admiration for the graft behind the scenes that no-one sees...

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Young And The Restless


Today I’m turning to a topic we’re all sadly familiar with – rejection. Who enjoys rejection? Not me, nor any writer. It’s something we’ve all had to face at one time or another. To be honest, it doesn’t bother me in the least as it’s all part of the learning process. Crikey, even Cheryl Cole had to deal with it recently, but instead of taking her dismissal from the US X-Factor like a grown up, she threw her toys out of the pram. As writers, I like to think we have more dignity than spoiled slebs.

Let me take you back many years to my first ever submission when I was a naïve young writer, thinking every agent would just fall in love with my submissions. I remember scurrying to the post office, after having opened the envelope four times to check I’d spelled my name correctly. I recall making a mental note to myself – Monday, June 25 – this would be the day Big Agent is overwhelmed by my wonderful three chapters, so much so, that he calls this date ‘the first day of the rest of my life.’ Ok, so it’s Friday, June 22, I mutter to myself. Big Agent won’t be in the office tomorrow to read it, so it’ll be Monday at the earliest before he feasts his eyes upon my masterpiece. Maybe Tuesday if Royal Mail has a backlog. Luckily I’d taken that fortnight off work, as it was compulsory Wimbledon viewing. I made sure I had my mobile switched on from early dawn, just in case Big Agent arrived early at work – perhaps he’d gone to a clairvoyant over the weekend, and therefore knew there was a fabulously talented author just….sitting….waiting. Good, the phone had plenty of charge and reception. Reception, most importantly. If he couldn’t hear me, he may well hang up and end my dream. But no phone call came that day.

So…Tuesday….I’d arranged to visit a friend in a slightly more rural area. Panic set in just in case the reception was poor and Big Agent couldn’t get hold of me. He’d bin mine and move on to Joe Bloggs’ manuscript ‘Henry Porter and The Magnificent Flying Owl’. Thankfully o2 was the most reliable provider in the area and I took comfort in that. I decided not to leave my mobile phone in my handbag in case it slid down the infamous black hole in the lining. I would hear the ringtone, but my mobile would be playing a vicious game of hide and seek. What if he didn’t leave a message and the number was withheld. So I balanced my phone on top of my bag. No phone call on the Tuesday. Maybe he’d gone to the gym and had a minor accident on the treadmill? Perhaps he was in the Seychelles for a two week holiday. Mmmm.
Maybe tomorrow. Again I rose at the crack of dawn, perched my phone within reach and prayed to the gods of submission. Nothing. Thursday….nothing….Friday….nothing.

I consoled myself with the belief that Big Agent had it on his desk and was so engrossed in it he hadn’t moved for days. Could he have been so excited about the storyline he had a heart attack at his desk? Maybe he was booking a flight to meet me but was so incensed by the baggage charges he cancelled. I checked the flight schedule for London Heathrow to George Best Belfast City Airport on the Monday, making sure there was availability. Maybe he’d prefer to fly from London Gatwick. Again, flight schedule checked. Availability - yes.

No phone call ever came. Instead about five weeks later I got a rejection. Thanks but no thanks. Oh well. And it was a standard signed letter. I folded it and put it inside the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. Onwards and upwards, I said to myself.

Friday, 3 June 2011

The Fraud Squad - a post for occasional writers


A writer is someone who writes. Not someone who intends to write at some point soon when life is just that little less hectic.

True or not?

We are filled with directives that tell us Real Writers write. Daily! And any let up on this regime smacks of slack attitude. Faint-hearted fraudulence. 

Half the time, I don’t write. More days than most are spent teaching to earn a living then coming home to groundhog nights of domesticity and childcare - shopping for bigger uniforms as the kids sprung the last lot within a week. Overseeing piano practise, spelling tests, ferrying to and from clubs, helping at said clubs so kids aren’t kicked out of them, checking out secondary schools, rubbing sore tummies and administering Calpol, rushing to clean guinea pig cages, run Hoover across floors and scrub loos before tutorial groups arrive. Who has time to be a writer? Who has that luxury?

I’m not poor-me-ing. I want to be the one who strokes my children’s hot damp hair when they’re ill, or cuddles guinea pigs as they wheet-wheet their unintelligible secrets to me. And I love teaching.  I’d rather truant a writing day to take my sons to the South Bank and charge through a Miro exhibition declaring: ‘Brilliant! Brilliant! Rubbish!’ at breakneck 9-year-old speed then go mudlarking at low tide on the Thames to find Tudor pottery shards, than pack the kids off to a holiday club and sit at home totting up word counts.

But after weeks on the trot of hardcore domesticity, I feel unworthy and unskilled in the art of saying anything/having anything worth saying. I feel an utter fraud when eventually reintroduced to my dusty desk.  For years I thought that meant I wasn’t a proper writer. I didn’t take it seriously enough. Maybe so. There are more successful authors certainly, who choose to absent themselves from home life and domestic duties so they can get the words down. But I bet there are just as many writers who work piecemeal, as I do. Are we frauds for being part-timers? Is it useful to berate ourselves this way?

I’m coming round to thinking that the mark of a writer isn’t gauged by how often we write but by how seriously we apply ourselves when we do write.  Are we too quickly satisfied with a near-enough word, good-enough action, or do we strive for the exact gesture, comment, phrase? Do we allow our voices and ideas full expression or do we censor and abandon them easily when up against a block? 

The Fraud label discourages us from returning to our desks. It’s taken me some time to realise how unproductive it is. End of. I’m not saying, let’s all slack off and still call ourselves writers. Sometimes I write like a demon and the children go to school in ankleswingers with corner shop cakes for their packed lunches. (Fraud mother!) But where’s the joy or point in living like that full time? It’s just a rerouting of guilt from one role to the other. So I say, ditch all the guilt, enjoy whatever takes up our time but when we do sit down to write, waste not a moment on Fraud Squad excuses: ‘Oh I’m so rusty, I’ll never get back to it. If I were a real writer I’d…’


We do know what makes us buzz, what writing standards we keep, what qualities we aspire to and with them in mind we can take up where we left off.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Hatched!


It’s been a month since my YA book, Dark Ride, launched. And it’s almost a year since this story started, when the best email of my life pinged into my inbox. It was from my publisher, Piccadilly Press, and I can still remember that it began with,’ I am delighted to be able to make you an offer as follows....’


Books are always being compared to babies so forgive me for doing it again. But let’s face it, there are parallels.

I remember being shocked at how bloomin’ long pregnancy was the first time round, for a start. It seemed an eternity after that thin blue line that something HAPPENED. It’s a bit like that with 'hatching' a book too. There are all the rounds of edits and proofs to check, a cover to approve and a launch party to arrange. The whole thing seems to take forever.


And then, just as with pregnancy, time suddenly speeds up and everything happens at a dizzying pace. Okay, so you don't have the hideous business of childbirth to contemplate. But it's pretty scary when you suddenly have total strangers reading and judging your pride and joy..


Before you know it, you’re standing in a bookshop with your family and friends and you realise the whole thing wasn’t just a dream. It’s a wonderful, magical feeling. There have been some other brilliant moments too in the past month...


1. The first time I held– and smelled – the actual book.
2. Friends’ children running up breathlessly in the playground after school to tell me they’d loved it.
3. Seeing the daughter of my son’s football coach sitting on the grass, head down and utterly still as she read my book.
4. Getting some good reviews online.
5. Doing a school event and hearing that the children worked for two solid hours enthusiastically on their own stories afterwards.


There have been down times too. Like, the strange anticlimactic feeling when the first excitement fades. Or when everyone asks you how the book is selling... and you don’t know the answer [frightened to ask in case the news is discouraging]. Then there’s people you barely know asking for a free copy ['absolutely...and maybe you can do your job for free in return']. Not to mention Amazon rankings and the world of paranoia they induce...


But the good bits far, far outweigh the bad and every rejection letter and moment of doubt suddenly becomes worthwhile.


I had many moments in the past of thinking that getting a novel published was an impossible dream. I’m so glad I forcded myself to keep going. If you’re having a tough time right now on the treadmill of looking for an agent or publisher, remember...
...it really could happen to you too.