It’s a touchy subject in our house. It always has been. You see I kept my name when I got married. There wasn’t a hope in hell of me shedding my identity, especially as I work in journalism and have a bit of a reputation. Not like that! But people know me. Not to the same extent they know Victoria Beckham or Cheryl Cole though. Having built up a reputation in journalism or indeed any profession, I imagine it’d be suicidal to become Mrs Smith or Mrs Jones. But what if you’ve written a rubbish book which bombed with the critics and you suddenly want to lose the name ‘Betty Blooper’ and become ‘Camille Harrod-Windsor.’ The name change would work for you.
JK Rowling kept her name, just like me. After all, Joanne Murray doesn’t sound that flashy on the cover of a book (apologies to all Joanne Murrays out there, authors or otherwise!) I'm sure you'll agree that the moniker JK Rowling has a bit more magic to it. And from the publisher’s point of view it was probably fundamental to the success of the book. It’s my understanding that young boys would be reluctant to read sci-fi or fantasy written by women novelists. I could be wrong though – do they even look at who wrote the book?
A reputation is something which our predecessors didn't have the freedom to enjoy. In the 18th century many female writers wrote under male or gender neutral pseudonyms to ensure they’d be taken seriously. George Eliot is perhaps the most famous example and is the creator of ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.’ Then there’s S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders and Rumble Fish) and P.D. James. I recall reading The Outsiders after seeing the movie and thinking S.E. Hinton was a young man. I was wrong.
I think we ought to thank these women for standing up for literature and letting the outside world know that our books, several generations on, are just as engaging as those written by men. I often wonder why Lily Allen changed her name to Mrs Cooper. Such a talented songsmith has an international following and she gave that up following her marriage. Thank goodness it’s 2011 and times have changed, is all I can say, otherwise this post would have been written by a certain Jullian McDade.
The string quartet’s already been dealt with and I’ve slapped a “Do not Resuscitate” Post-it Note on each of their heads – so there’s no point in even IMAGINING you can hear plaintive strains of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in F-Minor (even if he didn’t blummin’ well write one. I don’t CARE – didn’t I mention?) soaring sorrowfully over the following words…
I’ve been in the wilderness for a while. Unable to write, because my powers of concentration were reduced to that which would fill a thimble. I have also been unable to read for the same reasons. So, for the last two months, I have been introduced to and reduced to, the empty and barren world of daytime television. And sitting still... No exercise at all, since a walk upstairs rendered me breathless and panting. An acute bout of pneumonia will do that to a girl.
So, if you need any advice on Homes Under The Hammer, The Matthew Wright show, The Jeremy Kyle show (bless me Father for I have sinned...) Judge Judy, The Real Housewives of various USA Counties, To Build Or Not To Build - call me. Having a dodgy lung has reduced me to a panting vegetable. The hubster, trying to inject a little humour into my very un-funny situation suggested I set up a sex phone line. Panting could earn some money, he said. The fact that I thought about it, albeit briefly, shows how bad things had become.
Two months on, I’m still clock watching to take the next pain relief, however, I do feel better. I feel my brain is once again demanding more; I can walk up the stairs without sounding like an audition for a porn movie; I can read a newspaper without falling asleep (although...) When I close my eyes and imagine my brain, I now see it as a functioning, pulsing organ with lobes and a stem, rather than an empty, threaded bit of floating tumble weed. Once again, I’m reading a book without wanting to put it down after two pages and here I am, at last, writing.
Everything happens for a reason and in between all the crap television programmes, there was an odd gem - tightly written or suspenseful, or plain old brilliantly crafted characters in a drama like Downton Abbey. I watched the whole of series one on DVD just in time to see series two start last Sunday. It made me want to write a screen play, something I’ve never thought of doing before. How different can it be to writing a lot of dialogue? It’s a lot of dialogue with stage order thingys isn’t it? Or is it? Something tells me my recovering brain may be oversimplifying this somewhat. I’m no Julian Fellowes, but I still think I want to give the scriptwriting thing a go.
Has anyone out there done any courses? Any books (now that I can read again) to recommend? Advice on the different crafts of script writing versus novel writing? I need to get my teeth into something new and challenging, remind myself that my brain like the rest of my muscles that have been semi retired for the last two months, now need flexing and exercising. Wish me luck...
This has been a summer of contractions and a contract.
On August 1 at 6:16am hubby and I gave birth to Amelie (7lbs 11oz) and a few days later I signed a contract for Novel Two (Novel One is currently on the backburner). If truth be told, the novel was far more painful and laborious, despite mum having hyperemesis from hell (extreme sickness) for nine months. The book took around two years from start to finish, whereas my labour (as a first timer!) was four hours and up until the last eighty minutes or so, relatively painless which I attribute to my chiropractic treatment.
Conception is just the beginning. From conceiving those ideas in a flash of inspiration and getting them down on a piece of paper, to the foetus developing into a perfectly formed baby, often I look back on both and wonder how it all started. And every parent I'm sure has gone gaga over early scans, aka the rough draft, wondering whether or not everything will turn out right and if all the bits and pieces will be in the right places.
When we found out Baby was healthy and doing well, we began to look forward to the end result, bound in flawless skin, like a fine leather book engraved in intricate detail.
With a birth and a book comes the plans. The birth plan went reasonably well - from waters breaking naturally to a fast birth and minimal pain relief, I was happy. Admittedly it did go a bit pear-shaped at the very end thanks to my soaring blood pressure, and the recovery has been hellish. However, I’m dealing with the aftermath by pulling my anger away from the forceps and trying to focus on Book Two - which had a plan. It was a lovely detailed plan and I stuck rigidly to it. Now and then I wandered off course, but that's part of giving birth to a book. We can't have it all our way.
The urge to push is very strange. It’s like (TMI alert) expelling a cannonball and for me, similar to the desperate urge to push on with a work in progress and meet those self-set deadlines. Once you have that initial idea for the book, you need to expand on it before the inspiration disintegrates into the hectic blur of daily life. Likewise, every parent nurtures a growing child, feeding, taking care of him or her and guiding the offspring in the right direction.
My book will no doubt be the subject of a future blog post, and like a parent rejoices over the safe delivery of a baby, I’ll also rejoice over the appearance of it.
There’s a wonderful book called 29 Gifts. Have you come across it? It’s written by a young American woman called Cami Walker who was diagnosed with MS a month after her wedding. In pain and despair, and barely able to leave her flat, she was given the following ‘recipe’ by an African medicine woman: Give 29 gifts in 29 days. And if you miss a day, go back to the beginning. The gifts included a tissue for a friend in tears; giving away a bouquet of flowers she’d bought for herself, stem by stem, to strangers; giving a shell she’d found on the beach to a little girl. The point of all this was that in giving a gift each day, her energy turned from focusing on pain and difficulty towards the power to make a difference.
What is this to do with writing, I hear you ask?
Writing works energetically from the inside out. It’s expressive, outpouring, giving. Maybe it’s time to give your inner writer a gift. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, suggests Artist’s Dates each week to fill the well of inspiration. But the smallest gift will be appreciated by our hard-working inner writer. Here are some suggestions:
• The gift of half an hour a day to write in
• A comfortable, back-supporting chair
• Some healthy writerly snacks
• Membership of a writing group or online community
• Time each day to walk and imagine and ponder
• A really good book to read.
• The choice to write differently – a haiku or a short story or a novel
• A trip to the bookshop, or the zoo, or the seaside.
What gift would your writer most appreciate this week?
Here's Mrs Whitaker - who wrote, typeset and printed four newspapers while looking after two small children in 1942. Writing is soon skimmed over as a minor and untelegenic part of the process, and Mrs Whitaker enjoys no fame or fortune today, but she's an inspiration to those of us feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of work and family life.
(If video doesn't display, click here.)
Film courtesy of British Pathé. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook
It was just passed where they are pulling down the council offices. The building had half its face ripped off, as if it had been the victim of a bomb blast.
Strands of iron hung down in the gaps between the floors with concrete fragments like decorations. The whole eight storey block was missing one side of wall with all the other walls intact and the edges of floor protruding like snapped bones or the ripped edge of a cardboard box.
On the bench I looked at West London to see if it contained one last shred of beauty. Today, in this war-torn, commercialised, celebrity-worshipping, whore of a city, was there one scrap of nature left to comfort me? To inspire me.
I stopped because my bag was heavy too. Already tired from swimming I’d bought two reams of paper, to be used for purposes I won’t go into here.
There was another broken wall alongside the path where I sat on the bench. It had uneven stones along the top. Not exactly beauty, but at least a reminder of age. Ancientness creates its own value. I can forgive the historical city with its brutal employer practices, death-penalties, denial of suffrage for women, because all that is long ago and time has healed while it has eaten away at that wall.
Above the wall there were claret clouds scudding westward on the early evening breeze. Nature at last and undeniably beautiful, if only because the clouds were elevated so far away from humankind.
I watched a man walk by with a haunted face. He probably saw in me a threat, another man, a stranger, sitting on the bench for no purpose. What purpose could there be to sit outside in London with no cigarette? He probably didn’t notice the nascent flowers below the bench, and anyway, nascent is a word best reserved for breasts.
Then a sound. A single voice of opera. A tenor, either recorded or practicing, I couldn’t tell which because he was so deeply embedded in the house alongside the path. That got me off the bench. I went and leaned in close to the wall and listened. But the singing voice was still far off and faint, drifting away with the claret clouds. So I gave up and finished my walk home. But all the way up Castlebar Hill I could still hear opera. It was slightly scary. It seemed to emanate from the echoes of cars that laboured up the hill past me. It came from slightly behind and it sang that beauty existed everywhere and inspiration can be found anywhere. Even in Ealing.
Inspiration is like sex, always available if I really want it.
Ever wished that readers could give you feedback on your novel-in-progress, telling you where they’d like the plot to go? Luisa Plaja, author of several teen novels, talks about writing for Fiction Express…
Fiction Express publishes online novels in weekly instalments - with a twist. At the end of each chapter, readers get to vote on what they’d like to see happen next. The writer then works on the subsequent part of the story according to the majority vote, and the whole process goes on for a total of eleven weeks.
I visited Strictly Writing back in May to talk about jumping on the Fiction Express. I’m now pleased to report that my novel, Diary of a Mall Girl, is complete.
And what an experience it was! Every Monday morning, I eagerly awaited the email giving me the vote result so that I could rush off to write. Except… it didn’t quite work that way. I’d spend the rest of the day thinking and planning, ending with a large amount of panicking about not having written anything. This was usually followed by at least one all-night writing and/or editing session, racing to meet the Thursday editorial deadline. (Of course, I’m sure the other authors weren’t like me. I imagine they all got their chapters in bright and early each week. Ahem.) I can’t pretend that writing this way was easy, but it was definitely a fun challenge. And somehow the story came together, with characters developing and plot twists revealing themselves in ways I hadn’t foreseen.
I write teen romance, and at the start of Diary of a Mall Girl, I wasn’t even sure who the love interest for my main character would be. Some interesting voting soon made it obvious which character the readers wanted Molly to be with… though not without complications and a few wicked vote results on the way.
You can read more about my experience of Fiction Express in an interview at Serendipity Reviews, together with a review of Diary of a Mall Girl. You can also read all the completed e-books at Fiction Express. The latest novel there is a steampunk adventure called Remy Brunel and the Ocean of Light by Sharon Gosling, and as it’s in progress, there are still many chances to influence the course of its plot.
Think you’d like to try writing this way yourself? A Fiction Express editor writes:
“Fiction Express is always looking for enthusiastic authors, so if you're interested in being part of the project, please email firstname.lastname@example.org . Although our current e-books are targeted at teens, we are looking to launch some titles for younger children later in the year, too.”
First chapters of all novels are free to read, with subsequent chapters costing one credit each (from 59p). The Fiction Express team is kindly offering ten free credits to readers of Strictly Writing. To claim this special offer today, register (for free) at http://www.fictionexpress.co.uk, click on “add credits” and enter the following code: STRICTLY10
Happy reading and writing!
‘Where do you get your ideas from?’
It’s probably the question writers get asked the most and it usually prompts a bit of an internal sigh. It’s not at all a stupid question though. It’s just one that’s very, very difficult to answer.
So where do they come from? Anywhere and nowhere, I guess, is the short answer.
Ideas can come from: a picture in your mind, an overheard conversation, a news story, a song, a poem; from another book, a movie or TV programme; a gorgeous/ugly/ moving bit of scenery, from a memory, from personal experience...
Okay, I’ll stop there because there are probably a million more ‘sources’ and I bet if you’re reading this you’re thinking I haven’t even mentioned whatever seems the most obvious one to you.
The reason I’ve been mulling on this though, is that I’m in the process of thinking about my third book. My second was already half finished when I got my book deal and originally it was to have a sequel. But as I was writing it, I realised in my heart of hearts that a sequel felt completely wrong. I said nothing but luckily, my very perceptive editor said, ‘You know, I feel you’re holding back in this story. How about putting everything into one book, ditching the sequel idea, and book three can be decided later?’
That book is slowly getting there now and my editor wants to have a chat at some point soon about ideas for the next one.
And that’s a bit scary.
Some writers have a constant stream of good ideas. I’m pleased for them, truly I am [smug gits]. But for me, I’m more likely to have one on the boil at a time. So I suddenly felt a bit, shall we say, terrified that I had to produce a very solid idea out of a magician’s hat? So I started wondering in more detail about where MY stories come from. What if I couldn’t think of anything at all?
It didn't help that this summer has been very intense, with a house move in the offing and all sorts of other tricky life issues going on. Thankfully, I was able to go holiday and when I asked myself that question in a relaxed and happy state, I realised that atmospheric settings are very important to me. And looking at some of the incredible places we visited in Northumberland, I started to get the tiniest of tiny story ideas.
It’s so delicate as yet, I daren’t even talk about it out loud in case it’s rubbish. [I’m actually a bit wobbly about even mentioning it here in such veiled terms]
It may be nothing. It may be something. But it has reminded me that this part is one of the best bits of writing.
Fingers crossed it’s a keeper....