I’d been so looking forward to today. My husband deserved those tickets to Rick Wakeman at Hampton Court, despite his protestations that we couldn’t afford them. He’d been a lifelong fan and it was a special concert of music the star hadn’t played before. So, despite the price of £120, I bought them secretly in January of this year – as a combined Father’s Day, anniversary and birthday present. The concert was in May 2010.
On Father’s Day I hid them in a box of chocolates and told the children to pester him for one until he opened it up. Which they did. Okay, okay,’ he grinned, ‘let’s all have a Rocky Road with a cuppa.’
The kids and I sat on the sofa and looked at each other with excitement as he fished out the bag of goodies and then two “cards”. He turned them over, his eyes widened and then filled with tears - he couldn’t believe I’d bought them. With flushed faces, the kids hugged their knees and gazed from their mum to their dad. Oh god – I was going to cry. So I stood up to make that cuppa. As I got to the kitchen door I glanced back.
But now his brow was furrowed and he mumbled something about the date. ‘May 2010’ I grinned, thinking he was pulling some joke. He bit his lip and slowly shook his head. The kids’ smiles dropped. ‘May 2009’, he said.
I gasped and he nodded, his face full of concern. And like a child my face crumpled and my hands flew up to my eyes. I released a loud sob. His tears of joy morphed into my tears of distress. And then anger – ‘How could I have been so stupid?’ I asked the room, and buried my head into his chest. Don’t tell me it’s the thought that counts.
When finally I drew away, my youngest came up. He looked at me, a glint in his eye, and those tears of anger suddenly morphed into tears of mirth. How we all laughed and wiped our eyes. And then I sobbed again. And then I chuckled. In the space of ten minutes I’d experienced a whole gamut of emotions.
And the point of this post? Emotions are the hardest thing I find to write. If my husband had slapped me around the face or torn up the tickets, if the kids had shouted out how foolish I was, or jumped up and down with hysteria, this episode would have been easier to describe. I find that action scenes, or those full of drama or violence, fly onto the screen. But when it comes to emotions, I stumble and falter. I find myself recurrently using phrases like ‘he bit his lip’, ‘her chin trembled,’ ‘their faces flushed’ - it all seems so unoriginal and crass.
So what flies onto your screen? Emotion? Sex? Violence? I suppose the only remedy for difficult bits is practise and reading lots.
How easy it is to agonise over the syntax or grammar of a sentence. I have to confess to a love of all that tinkering. Part of the beauty of the language is that we have a lavish assortment of ways to express the same thought. I enjoy taking the time to feed every single one of the eighty thousand words in my WIP through the mental thesaurus?
Writing a novel is all about making a series of decisions. Martin Amis made this point in a conference speech about one of Saul Bellow’s books. He includes it in Visiting Mrs Nabokov, but I can’t check exactly what he says as all my books are in boxes at the moment with builders crawling all over the house. As I remember, Amis describes the process a bit like a decision-tree with Bellow starting with big decisions and then working his way steadfastly down to ever smaller ones. The biggest decisions include the overall structure of the plot, who's the main character, the setting, etc. The small decisions include choices of words.
The question I want to ask here is whether it's tempting for those of us somewhere below Saul’s status to jump on the small stuff too early. Am I the only one who goes through manuscripts again and again, polishing and polishing, without having corrected the mega-problems? That way you end up with something akin to a highly polished dustbin lid.
The more you polish, the more you’ve invested of yourself in a piece of writing and, because it is well-written it can be harder to see the problems, and easier to let yourself off. The more you polish, the more difficult it is to make bold changes or even to junk pieces altogether if that is what is really needed.
Is it a form of laziness? In a way, yes; and in a way, no. It's shirking the disagreeable work, but those of us who do this also work long and hard on our prose, attending to each sentence with lapidary care. It's harsh to call us lazy. We're just doing the wrong work. Doing what we feel comfortable with, like the builder doing up a house (an easy image for me at the moment) who rapidly settles on painting the gloss on the dado rail in the dining room when the wall still needs to be moved because the kitchen’s too small.
The bigger questions are often structural, especially whether to remove chunks that don’t work. Does the plot work? Is there enough pace in the narrative? Is the main character interesting enough?
I recently read someone’s draft novel: over 107,000 words without a single typo. That's an amazing achievement for a writer working alone, with no proof-reading help. It was a highly polished piece of writing. What he had missed were the serious structural issues and that there was far too much interior monologue.
When we do this, I think we do it because we long to call the thing finished. We ache to put it in front of some sort of an audience. We've laboured over it for months or years. If it’s polished we can convince ourselves it’s ready to submit even when a little voice in our heart knows about the lurking problems. We know that, at least, it will look professional, from the micro-angle of the quality of prose. Nobody will be able to say it’s badly written, but will anyone want to read it?
In the same week that choreographer Arlene Phillips (aged 66) is rumoured to have been given the chop from Strictly Come Dancing and replaced by a former contestant (aged 30), Alan Yentob’s Imagine followed The Company of Elders, a dance company whose members’ ages ranged from 61 to 85, as they rehearsed their latest contemporary performance at Sadlers Wells.
Part of me thinks it’s terrific that an hour of prime-time television has been devoted to older dancers. Another part feels uncomfortable, just as it did during the Susan Boyle fiasco. Is this a celebration of talent, or does it lend more weight to the underlying cultural belief that older people are unlikely to be successful in their chosen field?
There’s a great democracy about writing. Few can tell, from reading a book, how old the author actually is. You can write a novel at the age of 14. You can write a novel at the age of 84. Whether that same democracy applies to publishing a novel is another matter.
‘Mary Wesley!’ I hear you cry.
Indeed. After 35 years of writing, Wesley’s first novel was published when she was 70, and she went on to write another fourteen in the next ten years. But Mary Wesley – like Susan Boyle and The Company of Elders – is the exception to the rule, the one who became famous as much for her advanced age as for her prose (though her prose is magnificent).
A similar prejudice applies to subject-matter. Writing about older people is a bit of a no-no, I’ve been told. In a society obsessed with youth and with fending off any sign of ageing, who wants to read about it? Too depressing, is the received wisdom. Too downbeat. Even though the majority of the book-buying public are middle-aged or over.
Prejudice, it seems, extends in both directions. A well-known writer of women’s fiction was recently quoted as saying that no-one should write a novel under the age of 35 because people younger than this haven’t been ‘knocked about’ enough by life. Is suffering a prerequisite for writing stories that people love to read? And aren’t many people ‘knocked about’ quite effectively by life before the age of 35?
However, most ‘youngsters’ have the prospect of a long writing life ahead of them, whereas anyone over the age of, say, 60, may be considered a bit of a liability in the longevity department. We all know that publishers rely on an author producing several books before they begin to make a profit. Who can blame a publisher or agent for being wary of taking on an older writer?
And yet, time is a friend to writers. Unlike a dancer, a writer can continue to flex her writing muscles into ripe old age, can practise and improve her skills as long as her mind, imagination and perseverence continue to function. A lifetime's experience, together with the wisdom gleaned along the way, are far too precious to be written off.
Can you be too old – or too young – to be an author?
With fewer publisher pounds going into publicity these days, authors are increasingly expected to do the bulk of their own book promotion. Fortunately for us, the web provides a wealth of free opportunities. Unfortunately for everyone else, some authors don't realise what will do more harm than good. Here are the instructions for becoming one of those authors...
1. Join every book-related forum you can find – the members are waiting with bated breath to hear about your opus. Don't read the forum first, or introduce yourself – there’s no time for that in the fast-paced online world. Your first (and only) post should be:
You all should read The Undertaker by Doug Graves, ISBN 978-14M4N1D10T. This hilarious comic fictional novel has been described as Terry Pratchett meets The Da Vinci Code!!! Buy it now!!!
If it's a forum for writers rather than readers, add:
Yes, it happened to me!! I'm living proof that you should never give up! Be inspired, because even you miserable wannabes might one day manage to get published like ME!!
Then move on to the next site and wait for your Amazon ranking to shoot into the top 10.
2. Just think of all those stupid agents who rejected you. There's nothing that will humble them so much as a mass email with your ISBN and a huge attachment of the cover image. Ha! The joke’s on them now. They'll realise that they made the worst mistake of their life and will buy your book to serve as a constant reminder of their own fallibility.
3. Did some ignorant Amazon reviewer only give your book three stars? Don’t worry – you can turn this to your advantage. Use the comments facility to say:
Wow, did I upset you in a former life, you moron? This is not *supposed* to be great literature – are you too stupid to see that? Well, obviously you ARE, because there's a typo in the third line of your “review.” I know where you live, so if you keep telling people you only found my book “fairly amusing,” you’d better watch out, OK? And I'm getting all my friends to mark your review as unhelpful. So there.
The reviewer will be so scared he’ll give your next book five stars, and everyone else will be so in awe of your feistiness that they’ll place an order straight away. Result!
4. Put a SIGNED FIRST EDITION!!!!! on eBay. The key to success is to have at least ten identical auctions running simultaneously – you wouldn’t want anyone to miss out now, would you?
5. This is the most important one: plug your book in the comments section of blogs. DON'T just stick to relevant blogs, either – you never know who might be interested:
This sounds like a fun lake to go carp fishing – if you're sad enough to like that sort of thing LOL! By the way, if you’re interested, my latest novel “The Hound of the D’Urbervilles,” ISBN 978-5UPER1D10T, is a pacey thriller featuring Tess as a jaded detective and Angel Clare as her bumbling sidekick. It’s available from Amazon for only £17.99. Happy angling or whatever you call it!
Good luck! You'll need it.
Most of this post originally appeared on Writing and all that.
Oh yeah, and... you all should buy my book!!! Visit http://www.carolinerance.co.uk/ to find out how!!!
Phew! That's a toughie. Sorry, but you may not find what you've been looking for in this blog!
Or maybe not looking for?
I think a lot of talented writers tend to shy away from answering the question of what inspiration is. When asked they rarely give a satisfactory answer. It’s as though too look at it too closely may cause it to disappear and be lost forever. I think that scares more people than anything. Don’t examine what you don't need to examine or if it isn’t broke, don't fix it.
Of course some may think my inspiration, my ideas, are rubbish.
But who cares? It’s mine, it's there to be used because if I don’t use it I think it will wither and die, Becoming something once experienced, a distant echo, barely remembered.
To me it's youthfulness. All children have it, their minds race at supersonic speeds inventing stories, drawing pictures, creating games only they can understand. As we get older and 'grow' up, becoming mature (sigh!), it fades away, replaced by conforming, study, a means to make a living. Perhaps that's why some people show a quiet resentment when hearing I write. They want to write too but they've let it slip away or fear has strangled their thoughts.
But what is inspiration? Well it's difficult to put into words (some writer I am!) It's that 'thing', idea, line, a thought that pops into my head, unbidden, at any moment, be it day or night. Inspiration has its own timetable, its own agenda; all I can do is accept or reject it. If I reject then I do so at my own peril.
The biggest problem to me is writing it down in the way I feel it in my head. Sounds easy but we all know it's not. I have a scene, an image in my mind. I could call it an essence of an idea but then I have to write it down, to fully capture every meaning and nuance of it. Most of the time I feel I’ve failed to grasp it fully, to totally express it in the way I’ve felt it in my head.
Perhaps succeeding in that is the sign of a good writer. Bad ones fail. But possibly I can never truly express it in the same way as the words dancing in my head. That feeling is especially for me. My bit of nectar, an encouragement for me to carry on. A bit of private pleasure for making the effort to make public that which has been sent to me.
For I know it is a gift. But I don't think it's exclusively for me. I can reap the reward and why not? I’ve made the effort but it's made to be shared and that’s what I think inspiration is. Sharing without being selfish. Making the best of what's been given to me.
So I have to be ready for it when it catches me unawares. And I know it will! Hence keeping a notebook near me. The fact I’m in the car, on a bus or out walking means nothing to it; it is its own master.
Woe betide me if I refuse to get up at 1 am and write those few lines of poetry down or that idea for a short story. The thoughts seem so clear and obvious to me at the time. But in the morning it's gone and all I’m left with is a deep sense of loss. I feel as though I’ve let myself down and that little voice of inspiration down as well.
Blessing or a curse? Well that’s for each of us to decide. To be honest dragging myself out of kip when all I want to do is sleep can alter my judgment of inspiration but basically I don't think I can survive without it. So I’ll have to put up with its wily ways and inconvenient entrances.
So, in conclusion a sticky note to me:-
Get out of bed, sleepy head, get up off the sofa, lazy bones and write it down!
Remember, I’m keeping a little bit of my youth alive and potentially creating something that may earn a few crusts for the table!
But do it mainly for the pleasure of using that thought that I've been given.
It is precious. Treat it with respect.
Are they? I only ask because I’m sure I once killed one. You’ve heard of fratricide and patricide. This was a case of ficticide.
I didn’t mean to. I meant to nurture it until the day it would fly from the nest and bring back a lovely plump book deal wriggling in its beak.
Instead, it suffered the equivalent of being eaten by a neighbourhood cat. And it was all my fault.
Here’s how I did it.
Exhibit number one:
This is just a hunch, but I think the fact that I didn’t do any writing had something to do with the story’s failure to thrive. What I did instead was endless planning. This was an attempt to distance myself from the way I wrote its predecessor. My first attempt at a novel was put together in a state of wild abandon and unplannedness [yes reader, I was a panter of the highest order]. The result was a plot that had, shall we say, a loose and relaxed structure. In other words, it was rubbish. So this time I intended to plan my story to within an inch of its life.
Exhibit number two:
I was always waiting for the right time to get stuck into it. I had the excuse of a newborn baby at the time, but in my heart I know that wasn’t the real reason. The delay was really because I was waiting for news on the first book [ie, the rubbish one. Try and keep up]. I waited for a whole year to hear from one agent. In which time, I hardly wrote a word of my new project.
Exhibit number three:
You’ve heard the phrase ‘careless talk costs lives’? A tutor on a course once cautioned against talking about your plot too much before you have it on paper. She said that ideas are fragile, ethereal entities that visit us when we least expect them, and can also leave when they feel like it. I found this out the hard way. Instead of WRITING IT DOWN I talked about my brilliant idea to any poor fool who asked the question, ‘How’s the writing going?’ The result was that every time I opened the document and tried to write something I just felt bored. Why bother going to all that effort when I’d already described it in detail?
In the end, I did so much planning, prevaricating and blabbing that it brought on a crippling attack of writer’s block. I just couldn’t make this story work. When I made the decision to can it and move onto something else, it was a huge relief. But with a big dollop of regret. Maybe it might have been halfway decent if I'd only treated it well.
So here ends this cautionary tale. Look after your stories. After all, if you don’t, who will?
Of course, most of the time, the very privacy of these pictures in our heads prevents them from becoming an issue. What does it matter if one reader sees our MC as slight and brunette, another as curvy and blonde? – the chances are that we will never know. But there is one exception - one occasion when imaginary images become concrete – the moment when a book is given a cover. Cover designers have a daunting (and considering that most writers have strong views on their own work, an unenviable) task. They must effectively sum up a book in a single image. They must find the perfect picture to symbolise the conflicts, passions, themes and nuances that make up the complex tapestry of a novel. And because they have not written the book, they must interpret it through impartial eyes.
The picture that I have chosen to illustrate this post is an example of a cover designer making so bold a statement that almost no statement is made at all. I must confess I haven’t read the book, but I wonder what Eric G Wilson made of the fruits of the designer’s labours. Did he stare at the page, disbelieving, outraged that his work had been reduced to a slick of yellow and a semicircle of text? Or was he elated? – had the very simplicity of the design “got” his novel in a way of which he had barely dreamed?
I must confess that when I saw an initial cover design for my own novel, I was unsure. I looked at the image, and I couldn’t relate it back to the book I had created – couldn’t imagine that picture in my head. Luckily, the design was eventually changed, but I was surprised at how much it had disturbed me. I had not thought that I was “precious” about covers, but I soon discovered that although I had had no clear idea of what would fill that blank space, I instinctively knew what wouldn’t.
I’m already trying to imagine the cover for my second book – but whilst they say a picture paints a thousand words, perhaps expecting it to paint ninety thousand is asking a little too much. Could your book be summed up by an image… and if so, what would it be?
Do you recognize yourself from this list? Don’t be shy, as a writer you are in good company. Tennesse Williams, Dylan Thomas, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Capote were all alcoholics. Honore de Balza drank up to fifty coffees a day and poet Vachel Lindsay was obsessed with cleanliness. Dostoevsky at one time gambled badly and Syliva Plath had an eating disorder. And when I first surfed writing forums on the internet, it tickled me how many authors were fellow obsessive compulsives.
As a child my ‘thing’ was the number four. I had to do everything four times – from touching the gate on the way indoors, to going to the loo before I could sleep – OTHERWISE SOMETHING REALLY BAD WOULD HAPPEN. Then logic kicked in and I decided four times four was safer still, so I had to do certain things sixteen times – OTHERWISE SOMETHING REALLY BAD WOULD HAPPEN. When I was ten, I stayed with an aunt for a week and found out years later that she’d rung my mum to ask if I was ill, because I spent so long in the bathroom every night. Little did she know I was throwing water onto the top of each tap sixteen times (God knows why) - and then doing it again just in case I’d not done it right the first time.
As I matured, I learnt to face my fears and break my routines. And now it hardly features in my life – unless my husband is away and I have to lock up downstairs at night. It almost puts me off going to bed. Check oven hob. Is window locked? Pull down on back door handle – can it be opened? Are the taps turned off? Stare at oven hob again – is the red light on, are the buttons in all the correct ‘off’ positions? Check back door handle again, then the hob once more – OTHERWISE SOMETHING REALLY BAD WILL HAPPEN. And then out of the kitchen and start on the lounge. And then back to the kitchen in case I missed something…
But doesn’t this remind you of something? Like writing? Like editing? Check paragraph, read it out loud. Should that be a dash or a colon? Does that word have a capital letter? Read it out loud again and check that spelling once more – OTHERWISE SOMETHING REALLY BAD WILL HAPPEN like an agent despairing at my mediocrity. And when submitting – print out pristine, throw out that sheet as it is slightly bent. Put a joke in cover letter, no take it out. No, put it back. Tape down envelope – no that was a mistake, pull off tape. Now it looks messy, tape it down again – OTHERWISE SOMETHING REALLY BAD WILL HAPPEN like the agent not even reading it because of my sloppy presentation.
So, take a hard look at that list – what’s your thing? Does it release the writer in you or hem him/her in?
And by the way, being a chocoholic doesn’t count. The cocoa bean should be a staple part of anybody's diet.
Chronologically WriteInvite started in November 2006 in sunny Southsea: 10 x 6-minute pre-written stories with an anonymous vote (democracy is King!) in a salubrious and sort of posh wine bar. Half way through the next year came the themed 20 minute live write (anon vote again)in an oldy worldy hotel, then this year came WriteOnSite - which is the 20 minute write but online, and now Outwrite, basically a day out for gluttons for writing who are open to be inspired by differing enviroments that trigger those galloping pens.
WriteInvite has become a writing community: friendly, encouraging, where the
nibbles are free and the stories not always nice! People want to create.
Want to get away from their TVs. Some people couldn’t believe this. I had to
bite on my lip so hard I was down to the femur. All you have to do is treat
people fairly and honestly - I have found having money as a prize kicks out
elitism, which I hate - I want to un-earth that diamond, and we have too,
plenty of times.
We as organisers are really loving it! The WriteOnsite is a particular
thrill because we can bring Our Great Little Thaaaang to The Global
Community, as it were. Why not? Also great is that the beast is growing -
about an eighth per month - but more important aspects too, not only that
people have taken up writing, or resumed it, but also writers are sending
more work off to magazines and other competitions who I am sure in the
course of time - once we are not seen as fly-by-nights, we can become
'feeders' to. The quality is a really pleasant surprise. Worth checking out
the site as 10 x of WriteOnSite are perpetually up on screen:
The idea of the 20 minute write came when, between the sound check and the
gig (I'm a musician) I thought I’d wheedle away at something in the car
(stationary) and I found that, in such a time I could come up with
something half decent. It became a bit of a habit - and then I got thinking:
could someone who liked writing really afford not to sacrifice 20 minutes of
their time? This idea took a while to transform into the online comp from
the face to face but it’s working really well now. We have competitors from
Canada, India, Germany, Finland, the south of France but very very few men,
in fact not one man has won since early January and I cannot for the life of
me work that one out! The writers are really beginning to champion what they
hopefully think is a good idea. In fact it’s such a good idea I’d love to do
it myself, but I'm not allowed!
- Rob Richardson (http://www.write-invite.com/)
Last week I saw the Richard Long exhibition at Tate Britain. I love his rhythmic, organic abstracts that suggest simultaneously a cornfield, blood patterns when sun shines through closed eyelids, heavy rain on a window as seen by a child driven by boredom to observe. But the photographs of his walks-as-art got me laughing aloud. Not at him, but at his audacity. How does he find the guts to live precisely as he chooses – walking then photographing his tracks, spooning up tidal mud and stroking it onto walls with his fingers - and make a robust living from doing just that? Suppose we all followed our desires without doubt, guilt or compromise, would we experience the success and joy Long has found? Or do we need that anchor in the ordinary that we think we resent?
I’ve promised my agent a draft of the WIP by August. But June and July are filled with workshops and weddings. I teach and waitress to survive. So when does the book get written? Should I, like Long, jack all but the writing?
No, because this tension feels healthy. The book would come no quicker if I had millions and minions, despite fantasies that it would. Working and writing are essential companions. Years ago I got to know the writer Magnus Mills, who frequented a bookshop where I worked. He came to fame as the bus driver who earned £100k advance for his first, Booker and Whitbread nominated, novel. (Divide that by ten and you’re nearer the mark, since writing and earning is the crux here.) He was, of course, a writer all along, who drove buses to earn a crust, but his urge to write was inextricable from his urge to work. He called full-time writing, ‘being unemployed,’ and said it left him not only with nothing to say but no means of expression. The rhythm of the working day informs the rhythm of his prose. Think of Khaled Hosseini rising at five to write literary bestsellers before his shift as a hospital doctor. Could Eliot have written the ‘unreal city’ stanza of The Wasteland if he hadn’t commuted daily? Who but Larkin the librarian could articulate so movingly that the unlived life is worth examining?
It’s invigorating to recognise that our writing isn’t crippled by having to share its time with waged work. Every time I resent my waitressing uniform I remember a long shift in a tiny cooking galley last Christmas, so hot that we opened the skylight and took turns to stand under the shaft of snow falling into the kitchen, as steam rose from simmering vats of sixty lamb shanks. We drove home in the small hours, leaving the guests snowed in at an endless party. The A3 had become a thick meadow and the windscreen was white, filling our vision. We drove into oblivion. It felt like space flight. This is now the spine of a new story. Work feeds writing; writing elevates work. They’re a brilliant team if we let them nurture each other.
Plotters (as you may have guessed) plot. And Panters fly by the seat of their pants.
It was interesting to watch these two tutors at work. The Plotter had a list of items to get through in each session, and was rigorous about timings. The Panter would say – ‘shall we just try and fit in a couple of tutorials during the teabreak?’
I’m a Plotter. We Plotters need to know what we’re doing before we start writing. We want a road-map of the territory we’re about to visit. We feel happier and more in control when we have an outline, a step-sheet or even (ahem) a grid. We may feel a sudden, intense need to buy a packet of coloured index cards or draw a complex graph. We feel safest during the preparing and the editing processes. We focus on structure, plan all the twists and turns of the book, pore over character arcs, break down chapters into scenes. Once we have a plot, we feel freer. Once we have a plot, we can breathe out and write. I suspect that Plotters are also those of us who need to ‘get our house in order’ (literally) before we feel able to begin to write. Ironing, washing and cleaning provide us with a clear, orderly environment in which to work. Anal, moi?
Panters are spontaneous. They discover their story as they travel. They may begin with an intriguing idea, place or character which propels them off on a journey into the unknown. They follow breadcrumb trails, listen to the whisper of their intuition. They embrace the concept of the ‘shitty first draft’ – letting it all flow freely, scribbling ‘don’t know about this bit’, leaping back and forth from scene to scene in the book with alacrity. They are not afraid to follow their story wherever it goes, just to find out what happens. As Patrick Gale says, they ‘keep it as loose as possible for as long as possible’. Only then do they begin to edit.
Both Plotting and Panting are valuable and, indeed, necessary during the writing of a novel. Rather like being right- or left-handed, we each have a natural inclination towards one or the other. And just as artists are encouraged to work with their non-dominant hand, it may be helpful for us to learn a bit about our less ‘natural’ resource.
As a natural Plotter, I’m trying a different way of working for my second novel. Yes, I still have a very clear storyline and character biogs, but instead of writing in a linear way, as I did with the first one, I’m experimenting with writing scenes from different points in the novel, and I’ve also tried four different opening chapters. I’m writing more in longhand, and keeping the pages in a loose-leaf binder. It’s strangely liberating, and unsettling too. But I think I’m learning more about my characters and their motivations this way, which can only be good.
Or I may just be losing the plot.
And the result may well be pants…
When I was a child I read....
Favourite desktop snack?
When rejecting I...
Independent bookshop or Amazon?
Enid Blyton was...
If I wasn't an agent I would be...
Rowling or Pullman?
Email or phone?
My biggest tip for children's writers is...
Daily Mail or The Times?
My pet hate in a submission package is...
The worst ever was a manuscript that looked like it had been lining a parrot's cage. And I'm not that keen on hair. At The Greenhouse we are digital so people can email their submissions. No more bird-poo and hair!
Favourite work outfit?
You really must read...
I subscribe to Literary Review; if you don’t, you should. The writing is sparkling and I’ve learnt more about the yays and nays of how to knock up a novel from their reviewers than from many of the how-to books crowded on my shelves. Much of LR covers non-fiction books which can lead you down interesting research paths for fiction. Even reading the reviews can throw up ideas for stories. The only danger is that you spend all your money ordering sacks of books using the readers' offer. Well, that’s my review of Literary Review, but this post is not about that: it’s inspired by LR in a different way.
Today, let’s flick forward through the May edition to the fiction section; that’s what we’re into here at Strictly Fiction. We find ten novels reviewed last month, including the latest release from the truly amazing Colm Toibin, ultimate master of characterisation – his stories exist in the spaces between the characters. But, enough of him, the survey we are conducting is about temporal setting. How many of the ten novels would you expect to use a contemporary versus historical setting? Half? A third? One?
You were wrong; the answer is . . . er, not sure, possibly none. Of the ten fiction titles sweating under the precision eye of LR, there are eight historical offerings, one that was actually written in the 1930s and one that might be contemporary. Hoorah, there’s one. It’s included as one of the short pieces in their monthly Four Debut Novels page (my ultimate fantasy, but never mind that). In fact, for the one – possibly – contemporary novel we aren’t actually told when it is set, and this researcher wasn’t painstaking enough to find out. Nine out of ten would be a striking enough ratio, so who needs facts?
I bet the story you are slaving over right now is historical. Notably, the possibly contemporary piece receives, perhaps, the harshest treatment of all the books on trial, but surely that can’t be because its setting is contemporary. No, no.
So, there is a trend; you’ve noticed it too. Contemporary fiction is history. Setting your work in the present is so last year.
As you might have guessed, the novel I’m limbering up to submit is set in the halcyon days of 2008. Do you remember that period in history? So long ago now, the last of the salad-summer afternoons just before the world got crunched. I researched that period constantly while I was writing it, by staring out of the window. Since then it's been laid out on the editing table. Now I’ve come to realise the thing is unpublishable simply because it isn't hist fic. That's the only acceptable genre.
Before I press the delete key, are there any other rational explanations? Perhaps the readers of Literary Review are a load of old farts who only read historical fiction and regiments of contemporary novels are preening themselves on the bookshop shelves, blissfully ignored by LR. Frankly I doubt it. Every recently published book I can find in the Ealing branch of Waterstones harps back to days of yore.
People aren’t interested in now. They want then. We have to face the truth, forsooth!
Here’s an idea. I’ll tuck my novel under the bed for forty years and wait while it grows in value like a fine Margaux. If I’m still alive, I’ll then cast it into the gaping maws of the publishers, pretending I wrote it as a historical piece. Everyone will marvel at the startling recollection of the period just before the end of civilisation, the death of global capitalism. In the meantime I’m starting a new one set in the Mesolithic period; an extract is linked here. It’s called Hist Fic, to leave agents and publishers in no doubt that it’s the sort of stuff they are looking for. It's the only chance for publication to an escapist readership who can’t look today in the mirror.
Let’s extend this research a little more.
It’s enough to drive the thinking publisher insane. On the Two Ravens Press blog (http://tworavenspress.wordpress.com/) we often have a bit of a rant at the ‘dumbing down’ of fiction. Not that David and I believe in any way that a work of fiction has to be deeply literary in order to be worthwhile: I enjoy a whopping good story as much as anyone. It’s just that we get more and more desperate as, with every year that passes by, the less possible it is to find anything different and challenging to read on the bookshelves of most retail outlets. I have to admit that I get very bored with the kind of very carefully crafted novel (whose author has obviously devoured and internalised every page of whatever ‘How to Write a Blockbuster’ manual is hot today) that pushes all the right buttons but has nothing interesting to say. The truth is that we get that kind of novel submitted to us all the time, and we almost always turn it down. We don’t want a carefully crafted piece of work that’s carefully crafted to be like most every other novel out there today: we want something different, something that challenges us, something that makes us look at the world in a different way. We want to publish writers who take chances with language, chances with structure. Who aren’t afraid to write from the heart rather than to write to a formula. As our ‘publishing manifesto’ (see the ‘About Us’ page of our website) says: ‘Everything that we publish, we publish with passion. We love each of our books. They say something about the author, they say something about us and they say something about the time and the place they were born into. Each book is a person we like being around. Because each, in its own way, fights back against formulas and homogenization, against the analgesic washing-out of colour that threatens to fade our bright thoughts.’
We’re not necessarily talking about something so experimental that it’s virtually unreadable. We’re talking about books like Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, like Janette Turner Hospital’s Oyster, like Nikki Gemmell’s Lovesong. From the Two Ravens Press list, we’re talking about books like Angela Morgan Cutler’s Auschwitz, Stona Fitch’s Senseless, Lisa Glass’ Prince Rupert’s Teardrop, Suhayl Saadi’s Joseph’s Box (see http://www.tworavenspress.com/HTML%20Pages/Our%20Books.htm). Books that disturb, books that innovate. Our publishing manifesto goes on: ‘This is the Alamo. We want ideas, we want the language that Albert Camus demanded should “disorientate and challenge us.” We want language as a rallying flag, as a sanctuary, a bayonet, a broom.’
So next time you hear someone say that literary fiction is dead, think of all the small presses out there working tirelessly to preserve it. Next time you want a book that makes you think as well as a book that tells a superb story, look to those same small presses for inspiration. And buy the books direct from their website, giving both them and their authors a fairer deal, often at the same or better discounts than you can get from the likes of Amazon. We need all the support we can get!
Oh alright, I’m not an international woman of mystery at all but I’ve always fancied being one, whatever the job entails. The truth is, I’m a complete blabber mouth in most areas of my life.
Except for one.
I’ve somehow managed to keep the whole writing thing fairly quiet from many people in my personal and professional life. The sharp-eyed may notice that I’m the only person on this blog who doesn’t use their full name. I thought long and hard about this when Samantha was setting it up. My ‘day job’ is as a magazine journalist and it struck me that it might not be a great idea to have all my thoughts and insecurities about the much-more-important-but-thus-far-without-visible-success side of things up here for all to see. Those feature editor types are no strangers to Google when they’re about to commission someone.
Obviously there is a picture with my biography, but it is quite old [and it was taken in the days before the Witness Protection Programme….but that’s another story] and you would only stumble across it by accident unless you were a writerly type too.
Many of my good non-writer friends hear nothing of my highs and lows… the finished projects, the painful rejections, the excitement of that request for a ‘full’. They wouldn’t know even what a ‘full’ was.
It wasn’t always this way. In the early days I blabbed to anyone who would listen that I’d started looking for an agent. But now I keep my cards close to my chest. Unless you’ve ever been truly part of this bizarre world, it’s easy to imagine that six-figure-deals and movie rights are the natural order of things when someone who can string a few words together has a go at writing a novel. So I stand in the school playground waiting to collect my children and when someone asks, ‘What did you do today?’ I’m sometimes dying to reply, ‘I sent off some partial subs and made real progress on my WIP….how about you?’ But I don’t. I talk about the weather and the kids and wonder whether I’ll ever have the courage to stand up and talk about something almost as close to my heart as my kids, and way more important than the weather.
I wonder, however, whether part of all this simply comes down to labels. I can call myself a mother, a wife, a journalist, a sister, a daughter and a friend. No problem. But answering the question, ‘And what do you do?’ with, ‘I’m a writer,’ makes me feel like a little girl clomping about in my mum’s slingbacks again. It’s just pretend. But considering I’ve written for a living for 17 years, this is actually a bit daft.
So how about this: I Write, Therefore I Am A Writer.
Come on, those of you who feel the same. Repeat after me, ‘I Write, Therefore I Am A Writer’.
I’m sure it will get easier if we practice saying it.
The team have been eagerly waiting for Susannah Rickards to join the Strictly Writing blog. She is a busy bee but has finally carved out time for us and we look forward to her first post - no pressure there, then, Susannah!
Here's a short word from the woman herself!
"I'm from the North East but now live in Surrey with my twin boys and my husband. I write mainly short stories and have had them, and poetry anthologised, broadcast and won/placed in a few awards. I teach creative writing and literacy and also waitress to earn a living. I love Lit Fic and Crime and am trying to write a second crime novel. The first is in a box and the second is heading that way. Short lit fic is my first love as a reader and writer. I love Kyle Minor, Tobias Wolff, Alice Munro, Chekhov, Graham Greene and many many more. Also love dancing, climbing hills, biking through the woods and tickle tournaments with my boys."
Welcome on board, Susannah!
1. A writer is born not made. I believe rather that we become writers. However, all the writers I know are usually people who start life with a love of words and who also love reading. They generally prefer to observe life rather than participate in it too. Actually, all writers suffer from arrested development, very likely. Well, I do. I’d much rather play with my imaginary friends than go and work in an office with a lot of nasty grown ups.
If a love of words was all there was to it, though, there’d be far more writers than there already are – and that’s saying something. Only call yourself a writer after you’ve put in a good few years of practice, can paper your smallest room with rejection letters and then, even after you’ve put your last ounce of strength into your novel or story only to have it rejected again, you are willing to dig even deeper inside yourself to find more strength to unpick it and put the pieces together one more time. Or however many more times it takes to get it right. (See below: 7)
2. Writers are sensitive souls. No. It’s been said before but while others are trying to take in the broadcast of a piece of tragic news, like the one that’s come to light this week about the couple who threw themselves off Beachy Head because they couldn’t cope with the tragedy of losing their son, you are the one already writing their final dialogue. (See below: 3)
3. Writers are blessed with vivid imaginations. Tell that to Shakespeare, who pinched pretty well every plot he set down. Or all those writers who find themselves in court, charged with plagiarising someone else’s work. Or the ones who never get to court but whose story you feel you’ve read before. Writers famously steal and recycle. After all there are only seven basic plots in existence, right?
4. Writers make a lot of money. Ha! I believe the average income for a full-time, published writer is about £10000 last time I read an article on the subject. There was a brief window in the evolution of fiction writing, when there was money to be had by all, but writers have always, in the main, had to combine writing with another job if they want a decent salary. And you’d even need a mortgage for a garret these days!
5. Writers are glamorous creatures for whom the quotidian is so far beneath them it doesn’t even register on their radar. Much as I’d love to lie on a chaise longue, dictating “How many pages?” to my secretary while I eat my way through a box of champagne truffles, I have to go to Sainsbury’s, put the milk bottles out and make sure my kids have enough funds in their paperless dinner money accounts, just like anyone else.
6. To be a proper writer you need an M.A. in Creative Writing these days. It certainly seems to be the case that more and more people are arming themselves with M.A.’s year on year. But not everyone benefits from such a course and many actually find it stifles their creativity. I’m wondering if I’ve got the right temperament. I fear that I would quickly lose self-confidence when in the company of gifted writers and deep down would hate to have to read stuff that was far more brilliant than my own muddled efforts. I’m much better on my own, where the only stories I need to compare my story to are the ones I’ve written before.
7. Once you have written “the end” you have finished your WIP. Ha! That’s only the start. Only non-writers are surprised when they hear that a novel went through 17 drafts before finally reaching the publishable stage. We know the truth!
8. Writers can only write when the muse strikes. If that were true our reading matter would be restricted to the back of cornflake packets, the libraries would be empty and no one would be arguing about who should win the Booker. Writers write. That’s what they do. One per cent inspiration and ninety nine per cent perspiration, as someone said.
9. Anyone can write. This is along the lines of “Everyone has a novel in them.” Maybe, but not everyone would want to read it.
10. Writers are all slightly mad. Nonsense! Now, pass me my Napoleon’s hat. I am off to take my chimpanzee for a stroll up Mount Everest.
This insanely hot weather is making me all funny (in a humorous way) so I've brought some giggles (hopefully) to the blog this week. I've just watched a Paris Hilton film too, so my brain is not really geared up to tell you all about the shakers and movers in the publishing world! This film, The Hottie and the Nottie, tells the story of Nate who moves to L.A. to track down Cristabel, the woman he's been in love with since childhood, only to discover that his plan to woo her has a hurdle to overcome - what to do with June, Cristabel's not-so-hot best friend? It's a movie of opposites - good and bad, beautiful and ugly, and with this in mind, I am employing the idea 'hottie and nottie' to this post.
Below are two covering letters, one hot (well, I wouldn't go that far as it was written by me, but it gives you a rough idea), and one not so hot. The letters have been written to imaginary agents, by a Mr A. Moron and a Mrs I.M. Smart (that's me). Hopefully this blog is self-explanatory, but in case you are a little worn by the heat, the first is a covering letter which you wouldn't send to an agent - not even in your wildest dreams - while the second is my own sent to a top agency, who, in their rejection e-mail complimented me on a 'very good covering letter.' Now I don't want to get all big-headed about this, but it should give the novice writer a rough idea of what an agent is expecting to receive. Mr Moron wrote his letter in green biro on the back of a soggy cereal-stained Cornflakes packet, while Mrs Smart typed her letter out and printed onto nice white paper.
Dear sir or maddam
I've written a book, so tel me how much money your gonna give me for it. Its caled 'Henry Porter' - it's like Harry Potter only its better. Its about this boy and his talking cat and they do stuff like magic spells and slaying dragons. My brother says this is the best thing Ive ever written so thats why Im sending it to you to see how much money I'm gonna make. If you dont get back to me, Ill send it to other agents. I haven't written anything before, this is my first time cos Im a plumber and Im busy fixing peoples toilets. Ive sent you chapter six and ten cos they're the best ones. I'm not including a synopsis in case it spoils the plot for you. Its not finnished yet, but I thought Id let you know in case you wanna start reading now. My brother says this will sell more than JK Rowlings books. So, what are you waiting for??
Ring me now.
Mr A. Moron (andy the plumber)
Dear (insert name - make sure it is correct)
I am seeking representation for my novel (insert title - 00,000 words), the story of (brief description of book, summing up in one sentence).
I work as a newspaper journalist, covering a wide variety of news, politics and entertainment stories, but I have a particular love for human interest features which is where my strength lies (this is relevant to my writing as my book is human interest and based on current events). (Insert Title) is the result of extensive research and indeed a personal interest in (the topic of the book).
Over the course of my career, I have had a wide range of news and features published in newspapers at home and in the USA (this is relevant, so I've included this, BUT it doesn't matter if you don't have any publishing credentials - the writing will speak for itself). I have taught creative writing and journalism to A Level students (also semi-relevant, plus I added some writing for television experience - don't get too bogged down in this). I have also had poems published in various magazines and anthologies and (I have also been shortlisted/won - mention competition success).
Although this can be read as a stand-alone novel, I am currently working on a follow-up which traces the life of the only member of the family to escape the concentration camp (shows you're not a one-book novelist).
I enclose the first three chapters of my book as well as a synopsis in the hope that this is a piece of fiction you'd be interested in (make sure you do enclose them, along with an SAE). Thank you very much for taking the time to read and I look forward to hearing from you,
Miss I.M Smart
Any book by my clients and GENTLEMEN OF SPACE by Ira Sher
Favourite desktop snack…
Which 3 writers, living or dead, would you invite to dinner?
Ernest Hemingway, Paul (from the Bible), and Walker Percy. We’d either get really drunk or all get in a fight. Or maybe both.
Left on a cliffhanger or told all?
Depends on whether the next book is under contract.
The best thing about my job is…
Seeing my clients’ books in the wild.
When rejecting I…
Get back to people quickly.
If I wasn’t an agent I would be…
Reading far more books for pleasure.
Email or phone?
The best advice I can give an author is…
The worst submission I ever received…
Those records are permanently sealed.
The incredible success of my blog is due to…
My amazing readers/commenters.
And what are we writers, if not storytellers? As human beings we all have stories to tell, but though the need to tell a story may be instinctive, the art of committing it to paper is not easy. The novelists among us choose to write 100,000 words. Others use less words, telling shorter stories but those of us who seek recognition in either genre have to adhere to many rules. There are always rules.
I’m quite sure the ‘Seanchai’ sitting by the parlour fire was less confined by rules. I’m sure their use of adverbs was frequent. They would have loved ‘telling’ as much as ‘showing’. A switch of point of view would have been a must. Plotting and planning would have been exempt from their lexicon. All very well with each tale being told, retold and lasting mere minutes, not alas for the modern equivalent of oral storytelling – the audio book, i.e. the audio novel.
Despite hard recessionary times, the audio book is an area of publishing witnessing steady growth. According to a 2008 APA (Audio Publishers Association) survey, 28% of adults and 53% of teens surveyed listened to audio books in the previous year. As a writer who dreams of commercial success, this market share is something I, and others like me, certainly need to be aware of.
However, all books do not translate well to the audio medium. I’m not aware of the rules but there must be some! My current WIP, my second novel, almost finished at 96000 words is dialogue intense and though every piece of dialogue I’ve written is read aloud by me many times to ensure its authenticity, I’m not sure the novel lends itself to a single narrator being able to tell the full ‘story.’ So, is that a major ‘faux pas’? Have I made an already difficult job harder, effectively cutting off a potential market or could a professional abridger edit the work creating an audio version, whilst staying true to the spirit and content of the story? Hmmm. I'm not sure I’d recognise it. The fact is that I've written a book that I feel needs to be read.
Maybe this was subliminal on my part. The writer in me also loves to
read and I prefer longer narratives than would have been favoured by the ‘Seanchai.’ Had I lived in that time, before most of their audiences could read and write, I would definitely have occupied a worn out corner near the fire. Today, I’m lucky enough not to be affected by physical or educational limits and so, I choose to read the story the writer sought to tell. I want to hold a book, to feel it, smell it’s scent, put a bend in the spine.
It does bear thinking about for the future though. Perhaps book three as well as being a quality work of unique fiction depicting endearing character's lives, their struggles and conflicts whilst never using adverbs, with authentic dialogue that illuminates the characters and always moves the story along with wit and pace and panache (Breathe...!) Perhaps it also needs to be written to be heard? Just as I thought I was getting the hang of this writing thing. Pah.
Yet in some literary quarters, ‘The Market’ and ‘Target Reader’ are dirty words. They are considered somehow less noble than ‘writing for me’ or ‘following my heart’. As Moliere once said:
“Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.”
Goodness me – financial reward has always been my goal! But why, I hear you cry? Because I seek fame and fortune? A big house? A celebrity lifestyle? No. Because, quite simply, I need - I crave - an audience. The story is in my mind, so I don’t need to reproduce it on paper for myself. For me, things are better if shared. When my husband is out I find I cannot watch a film. I cannot cook a meal. It’s channel-surfing and snacks on the sofa – alone. And that’s how satisfying I would find it to write a story and never show it to the world.
Initially, I started my latest novel, Lunch Date with a Tomb Robber, with no reader but myself in mind. I indulged my every fantasy. I ignored the current chick lit trends. But only a few chapters in I was considering market niches and looking up agents who like quirky literature. I’m not wired to create stories that no one else will read. And yet I’m aware that I might be a better writer if I was. I truly admire those who craft short stories and poems without the end goal of a competition or publishing deal. I truly admire those who don’t seek validation or approval.
But don’t suggest I write Flash or a Haiku just for fun. Don’t turn up your nose at authors who, some might say, only ‘write by numbers’ to get their work sold. If you write as a hobby, because it’s therapeutic or simply to please yourself, I’m in awe. But I need any talent I may have confirmed by a publishing deal. I need to hear the clink of sales. My apprenticeship is in the business of writing commercially viable novels and that’s all I intend to do. And if the day comes when I admit defeat and jack it all in, you won’t find me in my rocking chair, writing wee tales for me and my dog. I’ll find another obsession – like re-learning how to do housework or getting through the day without a blog search.