On a writing workshop, they set us a task: Your character is at the supermarket, filling up her trolley with goods. What’s in there? And oh no, you can’t get away with ‘hair products’ or ‘vegetables’. You must lovingly describe the detail of each – the make, the quantity, any little extras along the way:
Nice n’Easy comb-through highlights (No.2 – Ash Blonde); one organic avocado, reduced from 99p to 50p due to squeezing; Take A Break magazine, featuring Jordan’s latest explosion at Peter Andre and Your 2009 Horoscope: Will Love Find You This Year?
One small tin of Lyons Golden Syrup; The People’s Friend; two slices of ham; one tin of potatoes; one carton of strawberries (reduced to 50p); one brown plastic comb; three tins of Whiskas (Tuna, Liver and Lamb).
6 cans of Red Bull; two Cup-A-Soups (Chicken and White Wine flavour); one loaf of white bread (thick-sliced); multipack of Walkers Crisps (Cheese and Onion flavour); Heat magazine; one packet of ribbed, SupaSized condoms.
Who we are, how we live – it’s all in the tiny details, the tics, the little eccentricities and oddnesses that make a person who he is. The dust on the dressing-table; the dead fly on the kitchen sill; the grey woollen socks (one inside out) hanging half out of the overflowing laundry bin. The momentary question in the eyes, the veins running like roots over the back of the hands, the down-at-heel slippers. In the details lie the secrets, the taken-for-granted intimacies, the white lies, the small betrayals, the unacknowledged passions.
Looking for examples for this post, I opened Jane Austen’s Emma. Though I’ve always felt a great sense of place in her novels, I realised that Austen hardly ever describes places or people objectively. Rather, she reveals these things through the tiny details of her characters’ conversations. Through their subjective eyes, we ‘see’ places, people, situations, and we see them in the minutest of detail:
"- there was a little disappointment. The baked apples and biscuits, excellent in their way, you know; but there was a delicate fricassee of sweetbread and some asparagus brought in at first, and good Mr. Woodhouse, not thinking the asparagus quite boiled enough, sent it all out again. Now there is nothing grandmamma loves better than sweetbread and asparagus – so she was rather disappointed; but we agreed we would not speak of it to anybody, for fear of its getting round to dear Miss Woodhouse, who would be so very much concerned."
Dylan Thomas, in Under Milk Wood, uses lists to great effect:
"Only you can see, in the blinded bedrooms, the coms. and petticoats over the chairs, the jugs and basins, the glasses of teeth, Thou Shalt Not on the wall, and the yellowing dickybird-watching pictures of the dead."
All this brings to mind Sam’s recent blog post about obsessive/compulsive disorder and the flood of responses to it. Maybe writers need to be obsessive about the little details, to return to them again and again. As Barbra Streisand said:
"I’ve been called many names like perfectionist, difficult and obsessive. I think it takes obsession, takes searching for the details for any artist to be good."
They say the devil’s in the detail. Maybe the alchemical gold lies there too.
Until recently I was in the habit of complaining quietly to myself when the light wasn’t right in my office, or if my favourite brand of notebook wasn’t immediately to hand. ‘How can I write under these conditions?’ was doubtless prompted by an unconscious desire to avoid work on that particular day. Then I discovered a series of diaries written by men and women interned by occupying forces during the Second World War, a period of time when my grandparents and mother were prisoners of the Japanese, suffering captivity for nearly four years.
Finding this writing was a revelation, not least because it demonstrated that the imperative to write is not the reserve of writers but can strike anyone with an urgent sense that they have a story to tell, words which must be heard and should not be forgotten.
In one instance, the writing I discovered was nothing more than signatures. Dozens and dozens of signatures. The names of every woman and child in the prison camp, written on a tea-towel and embroidered into place, the dates of internment stitched at the top. To see my grandmother’s handwriting as part of that testament was extraordinarily affecting. I wanted to abandon all other writing projects and focus on finding out everything I could about her experience. Did she know she was signing her name as such an astounding testament? Did she believe she’d survive to tell her story to grandchildren and great-grandchildren? How was she feeling at the precise moment when she wrote her name on the cloth, and her child’s name?
Some of the words written by internees have been preserved in museums (the tea-towel is part of an archive held by National Museums Scotland) but these stories deserve to be resonating right now. People risked their lives to record these details. The accounts are alive with colours, scents, tastes. You couldn’t hope for better examples of the old maxim ‘show, don’t tell’: unsentimental even inconsequential chatter that takes you right under the skin of the authors, directly into their lives.
On scraps of paper or cloth, concealed under stones, in the hems of skirts and under floorboards – these diaries survived thanks to the ingenuity of their authors. To read them is a privilege, and a responsibility. You feel the weight of the words, and want to add your own. This is inspiration at a gut-level, life-changing. It’s altered the way I feel as a daughter and grand-daughter, and the way I feel as a writer.
It’s exciting and daunting to take custody of family history in this way. I hope I can do justice to it.
Sarah is an award-winning writer whose fiction appears in Smokelong Quarterly, The Fish Anthology 2008, Prick of the Spindle, The Best of Every Day Fiction, and in the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, MO: Crimes of Practice. Sarah blogs here.
Do you keep a writing journal? Or are you more a ‘morning pages’ sort of person? For anyone who doesn’t know, morning pages were the brainchild of Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. The idea is that you take time every day – preferably first thing in the morning – to write anything that comes into your mind. You do it in longhand and don’t show anyone what you’ve written. This way you allow your brain to spout any old nonsense it feels like and in the process [the thinking goes] it frees up your creativity.
My mornings are more about wrestling boys into school uniforms and stopping them from killing each other over the Weetos than sitting at my window and writing in my beautiful leather journal [if I even had such a thing]. Plus, I can barely handwrite a shopping list these days. But I like the principle. I have a file on my computer where I can spout nonsense, work out knotty problems with my plot, jot down ideas and rant and wail about the submission process without ever being told to put a sock in it.
But it’s also taught me something about the way I process my emotions and reminded me how just therapeutic writing can be.
Just over a year ago, my four-year old child fell out of the tree he was climbing in the local park. He didn’t fall far – probably no more than two feet - but he landed at an awkward angle and broke his arm very badly. My elder son was there too and as we waited for an ambulance, we watched someone we love in more pain than I’d ever imagined possible. The ambulance duly came and my son ended up having emergency surgery to re-set the arm. With typical small boy resilience, he seemed to get over it all in no time.
But I didn’t. I kept having flashbacks of him lying under that tree, his arm with a new, unnatural bend where no bend should be. I’d written about the whole episode in my writing diary as a straightforward sequence of events but over the following week I kept returning to the subject. And then I had a breakthrough. I wrote about how it had felt as though my little boy was broken, not just his limb, and in that moment, I understood why I was unable to get over this thing. The horror lifted and I felt immediately better. I could accept that my little chap in his big blue cast was on the mend. It had just been a bit of nasty luck.
I wouldn’t like to suggest that I have major breakthroughs like this all the time. Most of the time I’m writing rubbish. But I do know that my writing diary, un-morning-page-like as it may be, is something I now couldn’t be without.
For those of you who are afflicted by this debilitating condition, don’t despair – it’s actually quite common amongst and almost exclusive to the male and female writing fraternity.
The good news? Pre Submission Mania, along with another condition common in writers, Whine Flu, do have temporary remedial alternatives to finding an agent and a publishing deal. Although to be fair, it is only either or both of these options that have been proven to provide an actual cure... There are encouraging alternatives available which provide immense symptom relief during the manic fear phase of PSM. The trick? To encourage the writer to think of anything else other than actually submitting their manuscript. I personally have self medicated during the height of acute symptoms by:
- Taking a long evening walk, followed by Sky plus recordings of Judge Judy accompanied by alcohol.
- Facebook stalking, not scary stalking, just watching what others are up to.
- Positive mantras e.g. ‘Marion Keyes, Who IS she? Marion Keyes, Who Is she? repeated in the mirror.
- Lines. You know the punishing school type ones? My favourite is, “I must not whinge, ‘But I want to be PUBLISHED’ to my husband anymore.” This particular one does only provide relief to Whine Flu symptoms and I’ve found it’s a lot quicker to type it out, rather than write it longhand?
- Ebay (It’s amazing what people sell) Write words and other writerly sites.
- Buying the envelopes and folders for the submissions, then staring at them with my hands over my ears singing, ‘La, La, La, La…..La, La, La, La’
- Googling Johnny Depp to see if he’s still married to that French woman.
- Burying my copy of The Writers and Artists Yearbook in the garden whilst eating maltesers.
- Washing, ironing, cleaning, recycling. You get the gist.
The first thing I wrote was a short story. Before writing it, I read over four hundred stories. A friend was freelancing for a national short story competition then got the chance to go travelling before he’d judged his quota of stories. He passed the job to me.
The stories arrived at my flat in cardboard crates, like fruit. I remember staring at them in wonder. Hundreds of characters from across the world, loving, thieving, grieving, killing and running away now squatted in the corner of my living room. They could have glowed or hummed, they seemed so charged.
Until I read them. A few were illegible or illiterate. A few were so good my stomach flipped. It was the majority that puzzled me. They were well-presented, well-constructed little tales of no discernible value. The characters weren’t vivid. Their behaviour wasn’t believable. The situations they were put in and their responses to them, uniform. There was simply no breath of life in them. The more I read, the more I longed to write life as I saw it. In these stories children played happily on carpets unaware their parents were fighting. Whereas children I knew reacted to fights by acting oblivious to appease or disarm their parents. That so many writers seemed unaware of the intelligent dissembling of children (many of these stories were about divorce) made me ache bullishly to put them straight. My first story came from an evangelical urge to preach: children are young, not stupid.
Years on, I’ve written a novel. It’s a double-spaced, immaculately punctuated, seventy-thousand word thriller. Bet you can’t wait to pick it up on the strength of that description. It’s an accurate description. It sums up the attitude in which it was written. Jaw set, joyless typing. I wrote it because people kept telling me I should. Short stories don’t sell. I know. But neither do novels written for the wrong reasons.
I’m convinced it doesn’t matter what drives a good author. There are dollar signs behind every Harlen Coben hook; maternal fear behind each dying-child-dilemma Picoult; political and social ideals behind Hosseini and Coetzee’s work, despite their radically different styles. What succeeds across all genres is when an author is driven by something surpassing the desire to secure an agent or get into print.
This should be obvious, but is it? What motored you when you first sat down to write? Does it drive you still? Has that drive deepened and matured or has your conviction been diluted with shoulds and industry standards and advice from well meaning professionals? I’m not suggested we flout good advice. But it can turn us into mechanical authors, and if it does, it’s time to clear out the accrued wisdom and return to the origins of our urge to write. I know when I’m connected to the work. My blood feels like it flows faster. My muscles seem warm and stretched, as if on a long run. Writing is visceral. Another writer described it to me recently as sending a wire down into the heart. Precisely.
Of the hundreds of stories I read for that first competition, maybe 2% possessed that urgent drive. You know it if you have it. And if you have it don’t lose it. Nothing is more important for a writer than keeping that alive.
Perhaps there are some writers who go from cradle to grave with the same essential voice. I’m not one of them. When I look back at my early notebooks, they read to me not so much as the work of a child from the 1980s as one from the 1920s. My characters all use words like “ripping”, go around in wide-brimmed hats and faint at the slightest provocation. Of course, this wasn’t my voice – it was Agatha Christie’s. As a child I devoured so many of her books in quick succession, and admired them so greatly, that what I was producing were ultimately pastiches, or to be kinder, homages. Later, in my teens, my voice shifted dramatically. Now all my characters were Cockneys, or at least Mockneys; they made wry observations on life, fought and drank and had unsuitable sex, and there were occasional wild veerings-off into bitingly cynical authorial observations. Yes, I had been reading a lot of Martin Amis.
Slowly, I grew to realise that the trouble with being a writer is that you are generally a reader first. Most writers have role models to emulate, and in the absence of a voice of your own, the easiest thing to do is to latch on to someone else’s. I readily admit that my first published novel, The Art of Losing, was inspired by Maggie O’Farrell’s After You’d Gone. But somehow, when I finished the novel and read it back, I thought I caught something else there – a voice that was not hers, or anyone else’s, but my own. I couldn’t quite define it; I still can’t, but when I wrote what will be my second published novel, I tried to hang on to it. Suddenly people were describing my writing as distinctive. It was one of my proudest moments when my agent, having read the opening scenes of Novel 2, wrote to me and said that within the first few pages, she knew that she was “reading a Rebecca Connell novel”. Of course, this voice isn’t set in stone, and I fully expect it to develop over time… but now at least I feel I know where I’m going.
In my own case, I think my themes found me my voice. Finally I was writing about issues which suited me, and about which I had something to say. Others might find their voice through characters, or settings, or something else entirely. So what do you think? Have you got one, and could you even begin to sum it up?
In fact I’m addicted to the internet with all the ardour of a junky, or one of those saddos that spend twenty three and a half hours a day watching porn.
But I digress.
What popped up was astonishing. There are courses at colleges across the land. There are internet courses. There are even, for the full writerly experience, residential courses in misty, remote Shetland Islands.
Now, I’m always honest about the fact that before I wrote my first book I had never attended a creative writing course. To be fair, I was working as a lawyer at the time and had baby twins. Where was I going to fit in a few hours a week to discuss the misuse of adverbs?
But once Damaged Goods was sold and I was under contract to produce book two sharpish, the worry worm appeared. What if DG had been a fluke? What if those 90,000 words had simply fallen into a random, yet coincidentally, pleasing order? More importantly, how could I ensure that the next 90,000 wouldn’t disappoint even my Mum.
So I booked myself onto a course. I swallowed my doubts that the simple act of paying over a few hundred, hard earned quid could magically turn my work into art, and signed on the dotted line.
I won’t say where I went, but suffice it to say it is an establishment that is well thought of in the trade and the course was a sell out. I was excited.
Day one and I arrived wearing a rather fetching baker boy hat and carrying my WIP under my arm.
When I saw my fellow students my hopes for literary alchemy lessened. For a start there were thirty of us. How can you learn anything in a class that size? – are you listening Ed Balls - ?
A quick fire round of Q&A confirmed that no-one was a writer. Now I’m not one of those that thinks you have to be published to ‘be’ a writer, but you do have to take it seriously. You do have to think like a writer. At the very least you have to actually be writing something. This particular group of charming retired accountants, tax inspectors and civil servants were happy to chat and drink tea. But write? No, nothing at the moment.
Enter a nervous lady in muddy boots ( this was central London) who announced herself to be the teacher. Later she divulged she was a poet who had been suffering from writers’ block for five years. Hmmm. We spent the first session discussing font size.
Though it galls me to give up on anything, especially when I have paid up front, I didn’t go back. I simply couldn’t afford the time.
Now I'm at that point again. Perhaps a different course, a different teacher? I know folk who swear by them, adamant that their writing has evolved tenfold as a result. I’m tempted.
Kathryn Robinson is Managing Editor of Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, where she works with Director, Helen Corner. Do visit the website for information on their book doctor services and workshops.
The author I wish we’d ‘discovered’ most is…..
Ooh where to start. There are so many authors whose work I would have loved to be involved in. Growing up, I was a huge fan of Joan Aiken - these were the books my mum used to read to me and I loved them so much I'd wait until she said goodnight and then read ahead. She has a huge range as an author - from chilling present-day ghost stories to gritty historical fiction with a fantastical slant. I also adored Gillian Cross who writes with fantastic warmth and wit and does tension as well as any author I've ever read. I find her depth of emotion and characterisation inspirational.
Left on a cliffhanger or told all?
Even books within a series ought really to have a good solid resolution – I’m not really a fan of books which end on a total cliffhanger (though ambiguity can be good) and I don’t think readers find them satisfying. But with individual chapters in a book – a cliffhanger, every time!
The perfect book deal is…
One where the agent, publisher and author all feel as though they’ve made a healthy investment for the writer’s career, rather than a deal that’s all about promoting a one-book sensation then leaving the author high and dry.
You really must read…
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. It’s a children’s fantasy but a crossover success and the premise is stunning with a seam of menace and mystery running right through the book. Scary stuff. The sequel’s just come out and it’s on my must read list. I’m also reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series at the moment and they’re unputdownable. I've also just read We Can't all be Astronauts by Tim Clare - it's a non-fiction account of his struggle to get published and it's laugh-out-loud, bitter sweet, with an uplifting message about how to enjoy the journey without worrying too much about the destination.
I get most excited by…
A really strong voice, a character who I feel I’d like to know (or be!), and an author who knows what they’re doing technically so I’m not distracted by niggly editorial details.
My biggest tip for a writer is…
Take time to learn your craft. Don’t rush to submit before you’re ready. Remember publishing is a business and treat your writing professionally, and those in the industry will respect you for doing so.
An author should never…
Lose heart. Try not to be frustrated if you’re not being snapped up; your timing may be wrong or you may be pitching your work slightly wrong or approaching the wrong agent; you may be doing something fundamentally problematic with the style or structure (in which case services like Cornerstones are here to help). Every finished piece of work is a success and if you’re loving writing and always striving to improve then this is an achievement in itself.
My pet hate in a submission package is…
A rambling synopsis where I can't pick out the story or character arcs. Dense, 5-page synopses are daunting to read and put even the most dedicated editor off a submission. On the other hand, a well-written and gripping synopsis means I'm going into the book excited and expectant and prepared to make allowances for minor technical problems.
Favourite desktop snack?
Apples for a healthy day and chocolate for every other day (four out of five, ahem…)
Best thing about my job is…
Reading something different and surprising every day; the satisfaction of seeing an author go from the beginning stages right through to publication.
Email or phone?
Either. We like to chat to authors as it helps us gauge what stage they’re at but email is fine. The hardest part of my job is… Realising that an author whose work I had been excited about hasn’t managed to revise successfully and may not go on to get published, at least with this book. Telling an author that they need to move on to a new project is hard and it isn’t always received well, but sometimes it’s the best possible step and allows an author to really fly.
The most common mistake I see is…
Poor grammar, punctuation and spelling. Many authors don’t get these things right, or think that they don’t matter. They do!
Cornerstones is first and foremost…
A teaching service, helping authors to find the right way forward with their work.
If I didn’t work in the literary business I would be a…
Beekeeper. Or a mountaineer. I’d love to climb Everest…
A show which is religiously series linked on my Sky TY planner, is BBC's Masterchef. Ever since Gregg Wallace and John Torode took over from Lloyd Grossman, I've been addicted to this fabulous culinary show which enables amateur cooks to demonstrate their best recipes and ingenuity. While watching the nervous contestants slice duck, knead bread and stir sauces, the sweat lashing off them as they dart around in the kitchen attempting to create that sumptuous masterpiece, I realised, laptop on knee, that their finished product is not unlike the author's novel. And the process too which results in the completed dish is similar to the procedure the writer follows as he or she attempts to create that novel.
The author needs to have the right ingredients, the book has to be enjoyable for the palate and it has to be free from mistakes - oops I've burnt the pancakes, messed up the POV, and the cream has curdled - help me! While it's often too late to salvage a Masterchef dish that has gone wrong under exam-like conditions, the novelist has the advantage of time to perfect the book.
Here are some thoughts on creating a lovely dish - or a novel, if you are a writer...
1. Use the right ingredients. Don't put black bean sauce in pasta and give it to John and Gregg to taste, and don't throw Bisto all over a Dauphinoise potato dish. Don't salt and pepper it to hell and back. The author can quite easily overdo the adjectives and get a little heavy-handed with the herbs and spices, making it go all flowery needlessly. Furthermore, make sure that the POV is right. Don't confuse the reader who is digesting your book. Don't have too many flavours going on - don't have the action taking place with a hundred characters. After all, you wouldn't heap thyme, garlic, ginger, sage, nutmeg, corriander, tarragon and curry powder into your starter.
2. The novel is a finely tuned dish which the chef has mastered over time. I (being a rubbish cook) wouldn't expect to make a perfectly cooked béarnaise sauce overnight (or in my case, a veggie Quorn roast with all the trimmings). Instead, and I'm sure all Masterchef participants will agree, that they have honed and practised their craft for many years. Likewise the novelist can't expect to start writing his or her first book and suddenly be the next JK Rowling with a New York Times number one seller. It all takes practice and rejections, screaming, tearing hair out and sobbing for hours in the bath with chocolate.
3. Present the food in the correct manner. If you shovel the pasta into the bowl and have it falling over the side like trailing ivy cascading down a dilapidated house, then you're not going to win your customer over. And John and Gregg will be pointing that out. But, you probably wouldn't have presented this car crash to them in the first place, would you? The novelist should never send a badly written covering letter penned in red ink, along with his or her sloppy submission, stapled together and covered in stickies and Tippex. No. The novelist should present it in a professional manner.
4. Have the right amount of food on the plate - there's no point in piling on potatoes, chips, waffles and mash and loading it with baked beans, salt, pepper and vinegar. For the writer, there's the urge to send in more than the first three chapters - perhaps chapters four, five and nine, because 'that's when the story really gets going.' Don't! Stop right now before you get to the post box!
And when Gregg and John say: 'Mmm, yes, I can taste all the flavour here' or 'I'd love to dive right in there', you're hoping they might ask for a full and give your book the Masterchef seal of approval. And once that novel is on the shelf, you have to believe in it and not constantly worry over whether your reader will have a bitter aftertaste. Remember, it won't be to everyone's liking, and there will be newspaper critics who will pick holes in your book. But it's on the shelf and it's selling.
Susie: I've been a member of WriteWords online writing community for a couple of years. The members take writing seriously - there are loads of published writers on the site who are extremely generous with their advice and experience - and there's a very supportive and encouraging atmosphere there. It's a place where you can ask (or tell) anything, both writing-related or generally. As well as forums for every kind of writing - from Chicklit to Flash Fiction, Non-Fiction to Poetry - there are also specialist forums for discussions on Getting Published, Technique etc. You can also post your work for critique - and the quality of critique is high. Why not try it - you can have a free month's trial: thereafter it's just £35 for a year's membership. All the Strictly crowd are members (if that's a recommendation!) and we'd love to welcome you onboard.
Geri: I have many reasons for nominating Womag's website as my favourite writing website. Through it I've made contact with writers whose bylines have become very familiar to me over the years, and who I hope I can now count among my many online friends. Without her research and her generosity in sharing it I wouldn't have entered and twice won Write-Invite, which led to an interview on Express FM. Nor would I have submitted a story to Bridge Publishing - a story which will appear in their Ghost Anthology in October. There are many websites to do with writing but generally the focus is on writing novels or literary short stories. Womag understands that if you're a writer aiming at the women's short story market then unless you understand that market before you submit your story then you won't get very far at all. And she is fabulous at providing and collating all the information you could possibly need in an easily accessible format. Womag gets my vote for best website every time!
Caroline G: Help! I need a publisher! (and maybe an agent…?) is the very funny and informative blog of Nicola Morgan, award-winning author and self-styled ‘crabbit old bat’. She has no truck with time wasters or anyone who thinks writing is easy. But her advice on the business and craft of writing is always spot-on and encouraging, albeit never sugar-coated.
Rod: contemporarywriters is the perfect haunt if you want to pass yourself off as well-read. It has biographies, bibliographies and photos of our most loved living writers. Well, the famous ones anyway. You won't find me or you there. The best bit is the "critical perspective", which puts the writer in context. Endless browsing fun is to be had by clicking on the strangely captivating photos that drift eternally across the top of the screen. They also list their agents, so it's a good place to go if you are tailoring submissions letters and want to claim a striking correspondence between your work and one of the gods.
Caroline R: Red Room is a great social media site for writers at any stage of their career. The design is classy, the content excellent, and you don't have to be published to create a page there. It's a brilliant way for authors to consolidate all their online stuff (links to interviews, reviews, blog posts, podcasts etc), for serious but not-yet-published writers to build up a web presence, and for keen readers to get in touch with their favourite authors.
Sam: I can highly recommend Nik’s Blog. Nik is a diverse writer of adult and children’s fiction and of poetry. He runs workshops and was recently instrumental in putting together the book 20 Photos & 20 Stories, to raise money for the Alzheimer’s society. I admire his initiative. I admire his innovation. I enjoy the interviews and reports on the literary events he’s attending. What’s more I enjoy following the life of someone who genuinely strives to make a living from the writing. It’s like popping in to catch up with a friend over a virtual coffee - a cosy safe haven within what can be a brutal world of publishing!
Fionnuala: I was recently recommended HollyLisle.com by a fellow writer friend and have been a daily visitor since! Holly Lisle, author of thirty two books including some writing clinic e-books offers a wonderfully informative website, being incredibly generous with her experience and insight into the writing world. The sight offers a wealth of information for writers of all levels from beginners to published successes.
At beginner level there are many FAQs, for example ‘What is a chapter and how do you know when you’ve finished one?’ For the more experienced writers, workshops are available on subjects such as ‘Creating Conflict’ or ‘Honing Your Craft’. These are presented in easy format – just read it through and sometimes perform a few simple exercises.
As I’m currently allowing my novel to breathe for a couple of weeks before revising it, her ‘One Pass Revision’ and ‘Revising Vincalis’ workshops are my chosen reads for today.
Have a peek. There is something there for everyone who already writes or wants to start.
Susannah: This Itch of Writing is the blog of literary historical novelist and writing teacher Emma Darwin. It’s witty, erudite, forthright and gives a deliciously varied insight into the life and mind of a working writer. I love this blog because it never feels dashed off. There is something in every post to mull on. Her posts are incredibly varied and always informative – particularly for the novice, as she is generous with information, not only on the nuts and bolts of getting published, but with those elements of craft that can have us feeling like headless chickens. She will bother to analyse a single sentence of HG Wells in minute detail to debate whether/why each word is necessary (in this post, Learning to Fly ) or discuss how empathy works (between reader and character) in Where The Wild Things Are.
Interestingly the tone of the blog is consistent with Darwin’s voice as a novelist. There isn’t a false chattiness or dumbing down when she moves online. But best of all, what shines through is that she is clearly constantly learning and developing. Here is a teacher who willingly shares what she knows then romps ahead so there is always more to be had. And that, for me, is what gives her blog the edge.
Rebecca: The Rejection Collection bills itself as “the writer’s and artist’s online source for misery, commiseration and inspiration”. Ever felt like drowning in a sea of self-despair after receiving a particularly vicious rejection letter? Get yourself over to Rejection Collection and be safe in the knowledge that you are not alone. Here, would-be writers (mostly from the U.S., but with a small British contingent too) post up letters they have received from agents, editors and the like, and share their thoughts – from sorrow to outrage. It hasn’t been updated for a while, but there’s a healthy backlog to plough through… perfect for those times when you feel as if you are the only writer in the world ever to have had a door slam in your face.
Helen: My two favourite websites aptly sum up my life: WriteWords and Mumsnet. The former is great for anything from a moan about 'the state of the publishing industry', to a heated discussion on the merits of literary fiction. The later is where I find information on everything from the charity status of private schools to the relative pleasures of “bumsex”. What's not to like?
Roderic asked me what it’s like being married to a writer. It took me a few seconds to cotton onto what he was on about. Then I knew he meant Sheila. Mother, yes. Part time manager down the university accommodation office, yes. Looking after yours truly, yes. But, to be honest, I’ve never thought of her as a writer. She did get a book published, I’ll grant you. But, come on, that was three years back. I never got round to reading it and it’s brought in zilcho cash, so she’s not a proper writer, is she? Not like that Dan Brown or Harry Potter.
I know she splashes a good bit of our hard-earned on the courses I mentioned. Teaches on them too now, so I suppose she’s getting something back. And judging by the bookmarks on the web browser (I checked to see what she gets up to) she visits a lot of places like this. The wife does spend years locked away with the computer (not cooking the dinner) so who knows what she’s doing in there. Yeah, I guess I’d concede that she’s a writer and, since you asked – it’s bloody lonely being married to one.
Now I think about it, she certainly spends a lot of time talking about writing and getting in a flap about it – ranting on about how she’s not sure if the new stuff is good enough. I had to tell her that if she doesn’t like doing it, then stop, or at least stop going on about it.
A few months ago, when she was going through one of her maudlin, I’m not good enough, woe is me, phases, she nagged me into reading some of her stuff. A story I think. I took a quick gander, just to be nice, but I couldn’t really see what she was getting at. It was something about some woman who packs her bags each Friday to leave her bloke, then unpacks them every Sunday. Pointless. I said the woman should just get on with it. A few days later Sheila wanted me to take a look again. It was exactly the same story, so far as I could tell. A week later she asked me to read the bloody thing for a third time. I had to knock it on the head. Not much of a one for reading anyway. Maybe something I pick up at the airport, like that one by Lewis Hamilton – now, that’s a decent read when there’s sod all on the tele in Spain.
Anyway, I’m told it’s a tradition here on Strictly Wasting Time for guest bloggers to stump up a freebie. One of their books. Well, obviously, I didn’t have any to offer. I s’pose I could send you one of Sheila’s (there’s a whole stack of them downstairs) but how am I supposed to know if it's any good? Of course, you might go for that old DIY manual I bought and never used. Sheila does most of the odd jobs around this house. But, in the end, I’ve gone one better, just for you. I’ve gone and written a story. Have to admit I quite enjoyed it and, it’s not bad, even if I do say so myself. It's about swine flu and starts off, These days the proles are watching Big Brother. It winds up back on the same "literary" note with, I always knew the pigs would get us in the end. Easy, this writing lark, isn’t it? Only took me half an hour.
Post a comment underneath here and you can win a signed copy. But, you can only enter this competition if you are one of the Strictly team; Roderic said he wanted that rule to make it fairer than usual. Rod, you can enter too, mate. More than welcome.
That is, I thought it would be pretty much the same as before.
I would have a book with my name on it, but other than that I'd still be sitting in the same chair, writing another novel at the same computer. The only differences would be that I'd have a valid excuse for doing it, and if I was very lucky, I'd get the occasional PLR payment enabling me to treat myself to a Wispa.
How wrong I was! It turns out that being an author requires a multitude of skills – and some of them don't have an awful lot to do with writing.
There's web design, for example. Now, I'm not claiming that my website is the epitome of professionalism, but it's sure better than paying someone else to do it, and then having to email them every time I have a whim to change the colours, and wait around for a few days while they're working on a proper author's site or looking for their lost hamster or something.
Then there's designing event posters and flyers, maybe some bookmarks or promotional postcards... and in my case, labels for gimmicky miniature gin bottles. It makes life so much easier to know how to do all this, because what happens when you leave it to a publisher, event organiser or even a techie friend? That's right – nothing.
While computer skills aren't incongruous with being a writer, public speaking certainly is. Way back when I was a sixth-former, I signed up for a Toastmasters International course, dreading it but knowing it would be useful one day. And boy, has it been useful! If I hadn't had that chance to discover I was capable of it, I can only imagine how terrified I'd be at the thought of giving a reading or speaking to a library group. Even for an author like me, hanging by a thread on the shabby coat-tails of the Z-list, that kind of event is a vital part of promoting the book. And yet the paradox is that writing's a solitary occupation not necessarily done by the most confident or sociable people in the world.
Which brings us on to... telephone skills.
It's pathetic, isn't it? Many of us are scared to phone for a pizza, let alone call a festival organiser and persuade them that our presence will pull in the crowds. How can we ever phone a bookshop and beg to be allowed to do a signing? Well, we can't, so we turn to the more sensible, efficient and, most importantly, written method of communication - email.
The problem with email in the world of book promotion is that no one ever answers it. Ever. Not even to say “Get lost, scummy author, I have more important messages to attend to. Yes, that's right, the ones from pieces of toenail dirt.” So the only real option is to stammer into that archaic and frightening contraption, the telephone.
I don't think I ever will ever master the skill of being coherent on the phone, but I find the other non-writing aspects of being published great fun, and more glamorously author-like than I ever expected. The only trouble is, I'm doing so much of all this stuff that book 2 is in danger of falling by the wayside!
So, please give a warm welcome to…
Andrew Sanger, author of The J-Word.
Alastair Sim, author of The Unbelievers.
Thomas Emson, author of Skarlet.
Paula Brackston, author of The Book of Shadows.
Fiona Robyn, author of The Blue Handbag.
- Tell us about how you first got published?
Andrew: My very first published book was the first edition of the Rough Guide to France, which I was commissioned to co-author. The first solo title was my own idea, The Vegetarian Traveller. Then came my first non-travel book, a memoir of the hippy years, called Love. I published it myself on the website, Lulu.com. Then last year I completed my first piece of real fiction writing, The J-Word. I was all set to self-publish again, but decided to send it to just one publisher. After a bit of research, I chose Snowbooks. I struck lucky – they really liked The J-Word.
Alastair: A short story 'Aurora Borealis' in 'Chapman', Scotland's main literary magazine in 1989 when I was still a student. Bizarrely, it was about a middle aged person facing up to Love, God and Death, so I suppose I've matured into that literary voice.
Thomas: I'd written a rough first draft of "Maneater" in 1999. Then I left it for years. I gave up full-time work in 2006 to concentrate on my writing. I went back to the novel, re-wrote the first few thousand words. I didn't know who published horror, but then saw one of David Wellington's zombie novels at WH Smith - the publisher was Snowbooks. I sent them the first 10,000 words of "Maneater". Emma Barnes emailed back within hours to say they loved it and wanted to see the rest. A few months later, after I'd re-written the rest, they came back to say they were going to publish - a fantastic day, a dream come true.
Paula: I spent several years having my non-fiction published, including a travel book, and selling my short stories to magazines, but it was Snowbooks who published my first piece of full-length fiction, Book of Shadows. Bless them for their open submissions policy! It is really hard for new authors to get their work looked at by publishers. And agents are not always the answer – I had one for two years. She was lovely, and we had some delicious lunches, but she never placed a novel for me.
Fiona: I submitted my first novel 'Thaw' directly to Snowbooks, and then a couple of months later thought I might as well send in my other two. Anna got back to me and said 'Thaw' had been sitting in her 'to be read more carefully' folder, and that the further submissions had prompted her to look at it more closely.
- What drives you - plot, theme or character?
Andrew: I don’t think about it in quite that way. I am simply preoccupied by a story I want to tell. So I suppose maybe that is the theme? But the characters are all-important. And without the plot, of course, there’s no story to tell! The characters become very real to me, and I spend long hours imagining them dealing with the situations into which I have put them.
Alastair: All of the above! Theme's important to me because I don't think characters are just dealing with personal issues - I think the personal life is driven by social/ historical/ spiritual/ intellectual environment within which a person lives, so that links personal stories to some meaty themes. But you need a good plot to set the personal challenges which will test your characters' mettle.
Thomas: Story, I think, as opposed to plot. Everything is story. And what drives story is character.
Paula: Almost always character, though setting is hugely important for me too. It is what gives the story its tone and atmosphere, I think. I might have an idea for a character, but until I have located them in the time and place that is right for them I can’t really ‘see’ their story. Theme, I believe, is inextricably linked to the character and the way they live.
Fiona: Character, character, character. I find out what the plot and themes are through my characters.
- What do those closest to you think about your writing?
Andrew: My family and friends have long thought of me as a journalist and travel writer. The unannounced appearance of The J-Word came as a surprise to some of them, maybe even a shock. When my mother started reading it, she assumed it must be in some way autobiographical. Then she phoned and said, “Hey, you’ve written a real story here!” It pleased me as much as the best review.
Alastair: Parents - perplexed then belatedly pleased. Wife - supportive since she's a writer too. Children - can't read yet so not that bothered.
Thomas: My wife, Marnie, is not such a fan of horror. She read and loved "Maneater", but there were some disturbing scenes in "Skarlet", and she knew she couldn't read the book. But she is incredibly supportive and I would never have been able to do what I do if it weren't for her support and 100% backing. She is an incredible woman.
Paula: Can one ever truly know? They have been so supportive, so tolerant, so patient, I can’t imagine them belittling my efforts or criticising them. My children have always been particularly good at reassuring me after rejections – they hate to see me weeping over my laptop. I like to think this is because they care deeply about me, but fear it may have more to do with saving the only computer in the house from short-circuiting and therefore putting an end to Spongebob online games. Importantly, all my friends and family members have grasped the inevitability of my writing. They wouldn’t waste time trying to stop me.
Fiona: So far my friends and family have really enjoyed my books (phew). Except Thaw which was a bit too dark for my mum's tastes.
- Has the experience of being a published author met your expectations?
Andrew: I have been absolutely amazed by the impact publication of The J-Word has had on my life. I was used to being on my own, I like travelling alone, I usually work alone. Yet when the book came out, I found that I also ‘came out’, giving talks, discussing the issues, being interviewed. Curiously, I feel perfectly happy with the change.
Alastair: Yes - having never sought celebrity I'm glad it's eluded me. But any decent writer writes because they have to, not for the money or recognition, though getting the recognition of publication and sales is a welcome affirmation that you're writing stuff which is worth reading.
Thomas: It's a great feeling - and better still when you have a supportive publisher who loves your work. I love Snowbooks. They're so great to work with. I admire the company, and I admire them individually. Emma Barnes is a star.
Paula: Met and surpassed. Fame and fortune were never part of my expectations (though I would happily embrace a little bit of either), what always drove me was the desire to create stories and have them find an audience. It is wonderful to be able to discuss my characters and ideas with people who have read and enjoyed my work.
Fiona: I wasn't expecting to live happily ever after once my books were in the shops - an agent advised me a long time ago to make the most of my time pre-publication when things were less complicated! On the whole I'm having a brilliant time, and have thoroughly enjoyed working with Snowbooks and having their support behind me.
- Finally, a trivial one! What is your favourite writing snack?
Andrew: When the work’s going slowly, I’ll eat anything at any time… tea and toast, a bowl of cereal, a glass of wine and some crisps, even a plate of spaghetti. When things are going well, though, I don’t snack. I might even skip meals.
Thomas: Peanut butter (Whole Earth, of course!) and tea - lots and lots of tea.
Paula: Nothing and everything. If the work is going well I drink water or Redbush tea and don’t snack. I’ll write for hours at a stretch and it feels like minutes. If I’m a bit stuck and the word count is going up at a crawl I’ll browse through the kitchen, raiding the children’s chocolate stash, finishing up cold roast potatoes, eating, eating, eating. Never mind being apple or pear shaped, the stalled writer is more your blackberry – bulging out lumpily in all directions.
Fiona: Currently Marks and Spencer's raspberry and white chocolate cheesecake, although not on a very regular basis.
Great answers, everyone, thanks!
Well, did you?
Sorry. You’ve caught me on a bad day. I feel like picking a fight.
The picture I present to the world is of a fairly mild mannered mother of two, but at the moment I am a seething mass of irritation. I am a veritable cauldron of misanthropy. The man in a van [isn't it always] who cut me up at the roundabout earlier? The stroppy teenage shop assistant who ignored me because she was too busy texting? The dog owner who failed to pick up after his mutt?
Toast, all of them. At least in my mind.
The reason for all this bile is that I’m what you might call between projects. If I was an actor I could say I was resting. Basically, I have no writing work in progress. And because of this, I am B-O-R-E-D.
OK, I know it sounds a bit pathetic. It's not like I never moan when I AM writing something. I just miss having a story to think about when I’m in the shower, or driving the car or washing the dishes. No offence to the wonderful people in my life. It's just more fun having the made- up ones too.
You’re probably going to say, 'Write something then'. And it’s great advice, which I've always taken in the past. The trouble is that I’m at a bit of crossroads with my genre right now. I'm currently in the process [the brutal, hideous process] of submitting my second attempt at a children's book. I've had the usual highs and lows [and then more lows] and am still a long way from the end, but it’s hard to think about another story at the moment. I need a bit of hard evidence that I'm any cop at this genre. Don’t fancy writing adult stuff [anything longer than 40,000 words? shudder] and I’m hopeless at short stories.
The other thing you're probably thinking [especially if you are at that hard midway point of your own WIP and it's like pulling teeth] is that I should enjoy the break. ‘Go to some exhibitions!’ you might say, or 'Take a bit of time to recharge your batteries!’ And I know that’s brilliant advice too, honestly I do.
I just don’t feel like it. I prefer to do those things when I have a story simmering on the back burner as well.
I know that some time soon I’m going to open a file and just write something, ANYTHING, in order to restore my usual optimism in life.
But in the meantime I’m just off to find a small guy to hit.
I'm a lucky girl. I've just been to see 'The Boss' aka Bruce Springsteen in concert in Dublin. Those who read my blog already know I'm a somewhat obsessed fan. Not just of the man, you understand - he is after all nearly sixty - but his music and particularly his lyrics.
So, there I was on Saturday night in the pouring rain, as close to the mosh pit as my freezing, aging bones would allow. I listened to the man with his E Street band and remembered fondly my stint as a lyricist when I used to dream that someone famous would sing my words. It proved to be step one on a steep learning curve that is my writing journey, a journey laden with many more amazing dreams.
Step two was to write my first novel. After it had been written, edited, sent off on the submission trail with a little kiss, the result was some encouraging support, two full manuscript requests – but alas no agent chomping at the bit. What? Learning my craft, working hard on it daily and willing my dream of publication into being wasn't enough?
Afterwards, finally accepting I was still on the early sector of the learning curve, I tried to figure it out. Both agents who read the full manuscript loved my writing, loved the themes but weren’t convinced enough in the plot. This forced me to question in even more depth exactly what was involved in the writing of a novel - and re-visit plot and theme when attempting book two.
Last week, eighteen months later, I began the edit of my second novel. I asked myself again - what is the theme of this novel? I wrote the answer(s) down, again and again, reminded myself, hammered it into the folds of my brain, mantra like:
‘The theme of this novel is …………..Other sub themes in this story are………’
I now have that piece of paper stuck on the wall beside the desk bearing the manuscript. Beside it, is another piece of paper with a plot outline, notes on all the characters, the events that move the story forward, the conflicts.
This time around, maybe now a tiny bit higher on that curve, I feel I’m better equipped. Emotionally, I’ve got the support of the most wonderful writer friends that the internet has introduced and practically, I’ve got my two sheets of paper stuck on the wall for reference. I’m taking the manuscript page by page, step by step. Each scene I ask myself the following questions:
Does this belong in the book? Are the characters vital? Does the scene either move their character or the plot forward? Is there conflict and action? Does the flow support the theme? Is there authentic dialogue? Is the chronology right? Is the prose full of adverbs or other ‘weak’ words?
I have a titan edit ahead of me, which both scares and thrills me. It thrills me because I know if I can get it right, I could possibly turn a good story into a great novel. It scares me because I'm really not convinced I know what I'm doing. Seat and pants and flying come to mind. Dreams of agents and bits and chomping come to mind.
When it's finished, after I've edited it to the best of my ability, I then have to make a stand and will one of my favourite dreams into being. The one where I run my hand along Waterstone's book spines and stop at mine. I have to have faith in myself as a writer - enough to convince others to read it, to value it, to take on the publishing world and WIN.
Yes, it's hard. Some days it feels like it's just too hard. But yesterday, on that rainy day in Dublin I was reminded with the following words, that whatever point of the curve, whatever junction of the journey I'm on - this is what I want to do. This is my dream.
'I'm working on a dream
though sometimes it feels so far away
I'm working on a dream
and how it will be mine someday.'
(C) Bruce Springsteen 2009
The first was for a signed copy of Rosy Barnes's inventive and hilarious novel Sadomasochism for Accountants. Published by Marion Boyars in February 2009, the book follows the story of 38-year-old 'pale and uninteresting' Paula as she joins a fetish club and turns to its colourful characters for advice about how to win back her ex. The lucky winner of this darkly comic story is...
Secondly, we have a signed copy of Jessica Ruston's LUXURY, published on 9 July by Headline Review. Set in the scandalous world of the über-rich, Luxury brings the guilty pleasures of the blockbuster genre into the 21st century. The lucky person who can look forward to a gripping tale of sex, feuding, indulgence and money is...
Congratulations to both of you! Please email me at caro_rance (at) hotmail (dot) com with your addresses and we'll get the books on their way to you next week.
Thank you to all who entered the competitions – keep an eye out for more chances to win over the next few months. Meanwhile, why not treat yourself to one of the books? Click on the pictures below to buy.
Titles are the bane of my life. Right now I’m about to start plotting a new serial. It will contain – should it ever see the light of day – a police inspector, a low-life who’s spent more time languishing at Her Majesty’s Pleasure than in his own front room and a…. No, that’s enough, or I’ll jinx it.
But before I write the synopsis – and I’ve yet to know the full story for myself, so don’t hold your breath – then submit it with the first episode, I’ll have to come up with a title. For me, that can be just as hard as plotting whodunit.
The last serial I wrote for Woman’s Weekly will go out under the title “A Storm In A Tea Cup.”. It conjures up the setting perfectly – a café - and it suggests that though the reader must expect some sort of disruption, it won’t be anything too unsettling and all will come right in the end. As a title it’s perfect. Oh, and in case I forgot to say, it’s not mine. I have WriteWords member James to thank for it!
Occasionally, though, the perfect title jumps right out of a story. Such was my enthusiasm for “A Worm’s Eye View”, a title I chose for my very first Casey Clunes’ serial. As you have probably worked out, a worm’s eye view is one from the earth, looking down, which was where DCI Casey Clunes discovered the body. Unfortunately, this title was rejected on the grounds of it being a bit grizzly. I think it went out under “Casey Clunes Investigates” in the end.
Similarly rejected was “Love in the Time of Chlamydia”, an inter-generational tale of love and sex. They loved the story, said the e-mail, only “We’re going to have to change the title I’m afraid.” Oh, well, it was worth a try. In the end we settled for “The Generation Game”, not a bad second choice. Though I still think my first title would make a brilliant TV drama, a kind of “This Life” for the noughties, with a cast from 16 to sixty and beyond, exploring the pitfalls and pratfalls of love. Maybe a better title, given the latest research, would be “This Test Tube Life”. Hey, how do you go about getting copyright?
A few times in my writing life I’ve woken up with a title in my head before I’ve written the story. “Tread Softly” was one. A short tale of three female friends, and how their footwear reflected both personalities and life choices. Feet, in fact, are big with me. (Size 6, actually, to reflect my childbearing hips). My story “A Footling Disagreement” won first prize in a competition. I loved the title; it was a story based on a chance remark that bore consequences for the heroine. I expanded the story from about 500 words to 2000 for Woman’s Weekly and gave it a new title – “Own Two Feet”. Co-incidentally the story I finished yesterday is called “Out of Step”. What is it with me and feet, I wonder?
Can you be put off by a title? “Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs” peers up at me from my bookshelf and I must admit I’m not drawn to it. Sounds like a colouring book. From where I’m sitting typing this, other titles are: - “Paradise”; “Larry’s Party”; “Where There’s A Will”; “The Children of Men”; “Harm Done”; “A Whistling Woman”; “A Son of War” and “A Sight For Sore Eyes”.
Do any of these jump out at you? Do you recognise the quotes? The play on words? The Shakespeare? He’s always good for a title. Personally, I’ve nicked “Making Amends” (from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and “All In A Summer Season” from a random website of Shakespearean quotes.
What should a title do? Tease, hint and please the ear, I always think, but all your comments welcome!
Finally, there’s Fiction Feast, who have - thank God! - bought many of my stories over the years. I long since gave up agonising over the names I should bestow upon my babies before I sent them off to that publication. Only a couple of times have they published my stories under the title I came up with. Inevitably the title they choose is always snappier than mine.
So, in the end, how important is a title? Maybe we should leave it to the editors and turn our attention to the tale we want to tell?
Footnote:- My story, "Own Two Feet" will appear in Woman's Weekly during the week of 21st July (publication date Wednesdays) and "Parents' Evening" can be found in the latest issue of Woman's Weekly Fiction Special, alongside lots of other delicious summer beach reads.
Open my handbag and you will find neither diary, nor pen. A stash of wine gums, yes, maybe the odd out of date voucher.
I do not remember to charge my phone or fill the car with petrol.
I have friends who keep colour coded wall charts that tell them where every member of their family should be at any given moment. They organise children’s birthday parties with the military precision of an invasion.
Invitations, check. Matching napkins and paper plates, check. Wholesome and varied sandwich fillings, check.
I have twins and the night before their last birthday I was up till four turning two Swiss rolls and a packet of Smarties into a replica of Hogworts. Authentic it was not.
I berate myself constantly, promise to change. But I don’t.
Tonight is my publisher’s annual summer party. I have known about this for A WHOLE YEAR. As we speak, authors and agents are getting their hair cut and slavering themselves in Fake Bake. It is with no pride that I admit my ‘good frock’ is in the bottom of the washing basket and my roots are so dark I look as if someone might have taken an axe to my head.
My mate and fellow thriller writer, Lee Weeks, will glide in like an extra from Sex and the City. I on the other hand look not unlike Myra Hindley in her famous mug shot.
There is, however, one aspect of my life which I plan meticulously: my writing.
Before I begin each novel I plan it in a detail that would make Madonna blush.
Having decided upon my structure, I set out each scene on a separate sheet of paper. Each scene will be numbered and written in different coloured ink depending on whose view point it is. It will note which tense the scene must be in ( I use a slippery mixture in my books ), where it is set, what will happen and how it will end. I often include dialogue and snippets of information and description.
Anything I haven’t worked out or need to research is listed in a separate document cross referenced to the relevant scene in the plan.
This part of my writing process is time consuming and I show a pedantry and self control quite out of my normal character. Where I would happily toss a red sock in a white wash, I simply could not countenance the incorrect coloured pen for my main character’s scenes.
I know many writers would find this way of working abhorrent. They begin with a vague idea and see where it takes them. Stephen King notably talks about building a character and letting them find the story. How can the writing, the argument goes, excite and surprise the reader if it doesn’t excite and surprise the writer?
My answer to that is I am hugely excited during the planning stages. I have no idea what will happen and love teasing out the twists and turns. As a crime writer, the laying of clues and red herrings is a huge part of the fun. Misleading the reader is, I find, an exact science.
So, however unlikely, I must accept that this is my style. My method. The system that works for me.
Now, has anyone seen my car keys? I put them on the table next to the unpaid gas bill and the box of Christmas decorations.
As well as being one of the things everyone asks about, it also seems to be one of the things most writers worry about. Is there too much sex in my book? Not enough? Is it convincing? Is it cringe-making and worthy of winning the Bad Sex Award? Will everyone who reads it think that every bit of sex is autobiographical? And finally, what will my granny think?
Because Luxury is a bit of a ‘blockbuster’ novel – big characters, big swathes of time, lots of juicy betrayal and revenge and passion – people expect it to have plenty of sex, so I’ve had to face up to all the questions above. I don’t have any grandparents, but my father kindly proof-read the text for me, and I seriously considered blacking out ‘certain’ pages with a marker pen. The sex in Luxury tends towards the overblown and over-the-top, but I’m afraid the answer to the penultimate question is, almost certainly, yes. People always assume novels are more autobiographical than not, in my experience, especially first novels, so I expect plenty of raised eyebrows after my friends have read it (However, I would like to state for the record that I have never had sex on the bonnet of a Bugatti Veyron…).
So how do you make sex scenes work as part of a book, rather than ending up with something that feels tacked on and awkward?
On one level, it’s like describing any other sensory experience such as a meal or a sunset. Avoiding cliché and bringing depth and fresh thinking to the matter will help.
But fundamentally, it’s about nailing your characters (so to speak…) Sex scenes are simply an extension of the relationship between your characters. Don’t think of them as ‘sex scenes’ as such, think of them as just another way of showing the ways your characters interact with one another, and another manifestation of their personalities, quirks, strengths and weaknesses.
Also, you don’t have to get too gynaecological about things – in writing, as in life, some of the most highly charged moments take place out of the bedroom, fully clothes. A sex scene doesn’t necessarily have to involve pages and pages of awful adverbs and coy euphemisms, as a lot of what determines whether a sex scene works is in what has happened before the clothes come off. If you have created two characters who live and breathe in your readers’ minds, and a relationship between them that is plausible and real, whether it is a full-blown love affair or a one-night stand, the sexual tension will be felt and the scenes involving sex will succeed. If not, you won’t.
For inspiration, check out India Knight’s The Dirty Bits: For Girls, for warnings of just how bad things can get, read the past winners of the Bad Sex Award…
Do check out Jessica's website! Her first novel, Luxury, is published this Thursday 9th July. For a chance to win a copy simply comment below and a name will be drawn out of a hat - the winner to be announced on Saturday! Sorry, Strictly Writers - yes, that does mean you, Rod - aren't eligible to win!
You check your answer phone.
No new messages.
You check the area near your letter box (although you already checked it this morning).
You might as well just check your email once more.
Perhaps it went in the spam folder. (No.)
You tamper with the idea of sending a message, “Sorry to send this message, but just wanted to check if you received the submission of my new memoir “Travels with my Hamster…” .
You agonise about whether to send it…
You do, of course.
A few minutes go by. Nothing. Perhaps this message didn’t get through either. I mean HOW LONG does it take to read and respond to an email?
Stuff it! You don’t need them anyway. Who needs to be published? You’ll sit it out and go for accolades and glory after death, thank you very much. Yes. That’s it!
(You send another email).
Those of you Strictly readers who are unpublished or “aspiring” writers will recognise this as the torture known as the Submission Process.
It is impossible not to feel too forward and yet simultaneously pathetic and needy, slimy and disgusting – the worst sort of life-form to crawl out from under a stone – when you’re submitting your book to agents or publishers.
Your world reduces down to the size of an email inbox (empty). You become incredibly boring. People start moving away from you at parties.
You might – by chance – meet someone who works in publishing at your friend’s wedding. You are delighted to meet them. You get the strangest impression that they are not quite so delighted to meet you. Probably paranoia. When they go down with Salmonella halfway through the reception and go home early you think nothing more of it.
And so it goes on…
You have to remember that agents and publishers won’t be aware of your suffering. They might sigh inwardly when you send in your memoir, “Travels Through Wales with my Hamster, Bob” and throw it straight in the bin, but they won’t see the sweat, your general disgustingness or be even vaguely aware of the long dark night of the soul you just went through to build up enough courage to contact them in the first place.
Unless you start stalking them that is and they meet the general disgustingness which is you in person…outside the school…when they’re picking up their kids…with a 4000 page manuscript clasped in your sweaty hand…
(Note: Stalking, harassing or assaulting agents and editors is generally considered to be a BAD IDEA.)
If you are really really lucky, at some point the rejections will start coming in.
“Whilst I loved the warm cuddly characters and the original voice, I wasn’t so sure about the unconventional subject-matter.”
“Whilst I enjoyed the unconventional subject-matter, I loathed and detested the acerbic unsympathetic characters.”
If you try to make sense of any of this stuff you will go slowly mad. Please try to avoid sitting down and addressing a reply that goes:
“Dear Mr Agent
Thank you for your rejection of my memoir “Travels Through Wales with my Hamster, Bob”. Do you realise it took 3 decades to write this work of unparalleled genius? How long did it you look at it for? A couple of minutes? Yeah right! If YOU were capable of writing a work of unparalleled genius you wouldn’t be an agent but writing your own hamster memoirs, you blood-sucking parasite.”
After months, years of trying, you finally stalk, harass or bully an agent into representing you. This is a real landmark moment. You feel exhilarated, exonerated and all sorts of self-justifying smug and self-satisfied sorts of emotions. Make the most of the bragging, trumpeting and general “I told you soing” to friends and family…because it will be a LONG time before you can do this again.
Life after getting an agent can feel pretty similar to life before getting an agent: a lot of waiting, basically.
At this point in the process you enter something called Publishing Time. This is where all life stands still. No birds sing. Plants stop growing and the only thing getting older and more shrivelly and wrinkled by the day is you.
Basically, the road to publication is full of corpses who just died of boredom whilst waiting along the way. It is excruciatingly stressful.
For me, I was eventually saved by the publishers, Marion Boyars – who loved the book, published it and really got behind it.
I was totally pig-headedly convinced that I would get there in the end. But - start to finish - it took a while. It was just a matter of finding the right fit.
So, my message is quite simple: don’t listen to a word anyone says about how to get published.
If you go looking, you will find millions of websites telling you how to achieve this goal. The truth is: none of them know how to get published.
Even people who get published have no idea how to get published.
Basically, my view is that there are no blanket rules. There are far too many people writing books and a lot of myths.
I have committed all the crimes. I’ve disobeyed submission guidelines (something that many people would say denotes me as a complete moron who deserves to be taken out and tarred and feathered by my peers). I’ve phoned up people (another heinous crime, apparently). I’ve written personalised and perky submission letters that sound like I just might be a human being (another crime punishable by complete excommunication from the writing world), and synopses of all shapes and sizes that left things hanging and didn’t reveal the ending (should be shot for that too.)
But, most importantly, I got out there, did my own thing and got involved.
One of the best things I did was become part of an online bookblog – Vulpes Libris Written by people from all over the world – from Scotland, Finland, France and Chile – to the darkest depths of Cornwall – iIt has allowed me to find out things about the world of books, interview publishers and writers and ask them the kinds of questions we all would like to know. It has also been a huge amount of fun. I’m sure the Strictly crowd feel the same way about this site.
So if there was any advice I’d have to unpublished aspiring authors it would be that – stop obsessing over your emails and get out there and be part of things. Take an interest in the world of books and channel the angst into something positive. You just don’t know what will come of it.
(Oh yes, and write a book, of course. But you knew that already…)
NB. This article formed the basis of RosyB’s talk given at an event for Debut Writers at The Borders Book Festival in Melrose 2009. (Please note Ferret Bill has morphed into Hamster Bob because she was getting bored of him.) Remember, do pop over to Vulpes Libris today to hear Rosy talk more about this event!
‘It’s okay, I’m not on the other side,’ he apologised.
It reminded me, with a jolt, that there are still people out there who find being gay unacceptable.
He drove on and I dreamed on, and, in a somewhat loosely linked way, his remark started me thinking about writing on the other side: in other words, from a different sexual perspective. I’ve always been a little wary of books where the author takes the point of view or the voice of someone of the other sex, even more wary when they try to be a dog or somesuch. My rather narrow-minded stance has been that if I want to read about what it’s like to be a woman, I would do better to read something by a woman. Of course, this reasoning breaks down in the case of the dog. I take a similar attitude to historical fiction: why read period pieces when I could be reading Jane Austen? Please forgive me, you hist fickers.
But everybody’s doing it. Writers seem to be magnetised by the idea of cross-writing. Nick Hornby did it in How to be Good, and according to The Guardian, who know about these things, “the shift in gender opens new possibilities for him: of more sustained psychological insight, and a bolder narrative rhythm.” Well, that’s got to be worth a try. And it’s been going on for a very long time: Henry James tried to know What Maisie Knew, and that’s often quoted as a classic of viewpoint, not just female but child too. I enjoyed What Maisie Knew, although I struggled with the long, complex, interwoven sentences. Many of the nuances were lost on me. Hornby is a slightly easier read.
When it comes to the female to male gender jump, the most recent example I’ve read is Rose Tremain’s The Road Home. It's an engrossing read but I didn't find the protagonist entirely convincing as a male. So, everyone’s done it, and everyone’s doing it, but I still wasn’t convinced.
Then I read a couple of Colm Toibin’s. In both The Blackwater Lightship and Brooklyn, his most recent offering, the main characters are women. In Toibin’s case, he pulls this off to perfection, (in the opinion of this male). Certainly my experience of his characters tallies with my experience of other women. Many of the scenes in Brooklyn, such as the sexual tension of two women whilst trying on swimsuits in a closed department store, are daring examples of cross-writing. I kept reminding myself that it was written by a man.
It’s irresistible. I’ve got to have a go for my next attempt at a novel. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time (plotter not panter) and the prospect does come with some trepidation. Perhaps it’s a bad idea, but I think I can pull it off. My credentials are that most of the people I relate to easily are women - I'm more at home with them than in the company of men. I started a business on my own and ended up working with fourteen women – it’s surprising no blokes ever took me to a tribunal.
At times I’ve felt like a gay man trapped in a heterosexual’s body. My girlfriend constantly ribs me about being gay. Now, before you all jump on me, I’m not saying that gay = female. I do understand that. The fact is, I’m not gay, not even a little bit, but I do believe I’m more in touch with my feminine side than many men. So it’s high time for a sex change. I’ve tried it in short stories and now for a novel. For ages I’ve been collecting examples of what it's like to be a woman – there's fun research to be had asking about this.
So, do you write on the other side? A million examples spring to mind. Anne Brooke springs to mind. What are the pitfalls I should avoid? Am I gay?