New Beginnings?

The Winter Solstice has just passed. The darkness of winter is slowly and almost imperceptibly giving way to the light. This is the true New Year.

No, I’m not going to bang on about writerly resolutions. Instead, I’m thinking about new beginnings. And when they’re necessary, writing-wise.

My first novel was a bit of a miracle. I’d turned up for a week’s How To Write A Novel course, run by the redoubtable romantic novelist, Jane Pollard. I arrived clutching my WIP like a lifebelt – not much of it, but a beginning nonetheless – all bright-eyed and ready to Learn. Imagine my horror when Jane told us to abandon any novel we’d already begun and to start, this week, from scratch. What the hell would I write about? But I reluctantly let the novel go.

That night, something extraordinary happened. After a long day on the course, the germ of an idea appeared. I sat at my kitchen table and began to write. By next morning I had a story. Something I’d never thought of writing. I knew who the characters were to be. I knew roughly what happened and how. I knew how it ended. Indeed, when Jane had us write a sex scene during the week’s course, I wrote the final scene. And whilst much of the novel has changed over the course of the following five years, that scene has remained almost untouched.

So I’ve been struggling to write my second novel for ages. I got as far as a third of the way through, and stopped. Then I embarked on a frenzy of editing – bad idea - and stopped again. I ran it past various writerly friends and colleagues – and stopped yet again.

Of course it’s different second time around. I’ve been busy editing and preparing the first novel for publication. I have a marketing plan to sort out. I’ve also moved house twice in a year and had countless stressful things to deal with. Is this the reason why I haven’t written anything new for over a year? Could be. Or is it fear? Quite possibly. Or the dreaded Second Novel Syndrome? Wouldn’t be surprised.

Or do I need to let this novel go and see whether there’s a sliver of a new idea waiting to be born?

It’s a knotty question. It may be that I haven’t fully committed to the novel. It may be that I haven’t yet fallen in love with the characters or the plot. These things may happen in time. Or they may not.

It’s a bit like being in a relationship which has weathered the early, heady days but got stagnant. Do you persevere with it in the hope that it will deepen and revive or let it go and trust that something more resembling a soulmate will appear?

Part of me longs to set the current novel aside and start again, from scratch. To sign up for a course in novel-writing and begin again at the beginning. To somehow wipe away the years of rejection and angst and find again that bright-eyed innocence, that trust in the process and a successful outcome. But as William Blake wrote, once you’ve been through the process of Experience you will never have that innocence again. All you can do is bring your newfound experience to bear on the next thing, and try to learn to trust.

So my toast, this Winter Solstice, is to new beginnings. Whether this means a new commitment to an old love, or the search for a new, unknown one. Perhaps all that’s required is an empty heart. I wish you all joy for your writerly festivities and all creativity and joy for the year to come. Oh, and here are three quotes, as companions on the journey:

Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist but the ability to start over.
F.Scott Fitzgerald

Standing on the starting line, we are all cowards.
Alberto Salazar

You don’t need endless time and perfect conditions. Do it now. Do it today. Do it for twenty minutes and watch your heart start beating.

Barbara Sher

Not a Partridge Nor a Pear Tree In Sight...

I had this post drafted when there were twelve days to Christmas and had it all nicely tied in the with festive song. However, without boring you with the details, I’m posting a later version of it now. And it’s really got nothing to do with the song, not a sign of milking maids or partridges... It hasn’t even got anything to do with Christmas... However, it is my little gift to you procrastinators out there who like to browse websites/articles with writer-ly stuff. One for each day left in 2011 – enjoy!

Interesting concept where readers pledge unpublished authors support in getting their book published

Article on e-publishing with Kindle. Could YOU make a million?

Do you, like me, dread the word ‘synopsis’?

How to write a novel using the ‘snowflake method’.

A link for those writers who are interested in the world of short stories, but the site offers so much more as well.

Do you tweet? If not, should you?

Brilliant writer’s forum website and the first place where I met some fab writer friends!

Stuck on a name for that guy inside your head? Name your characters in a simple click!

An interesting read on character versus plot. Which do you write naturally?

Pen names – why and how?

"Fifty Things I've Learned About The Literary Life"

Apologies for the cop-outedness in the compilation of this post, but when I read this I immediately wanted to share it with you all...

And A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS to everybody!

Important announcement




Happy Christmas from Roderic.

(Hope to see you back here tomorrow for our next post)

A Recipe for Success: Guest post by Sam Tonge

This week, after 6 years of subbing to agents, I finally signed a contract. Whilst I know this alone is no guarantee of a publishing deal – let alone Hollywood film rights, dinner at The Ivy or worldwide stardom – it’s an important step for me, up onto the first rung of an author’s career ladder.

So, how have I accomplished this? What is my particular recipe for success?

100g of Maths

Hemingway said you needed to write 1,000,000 words before you were publishable. Okay. I’ve written 5 books. That’s 500,000 words. Plus short stories this last year. Call that 30,000 with all the rewrites. Blogging for a year, four years at university years ago if I can count that… All in all I’ve probably raked up 700,000 words. I’d say once you hit the half million mark, you are seriously on your way.

Someone else said it took 10,000 hours of practise to become the top of your field – an outstanding sportsman or great concert pianist. Okay. For the last 6 years I’ve probably written a minimum of 15 hours a week, minus 2 weeks hols. 50 weeks x 15 = 750, 750 x 6 years = 4500 hours. Plus all the extra stuff – uni etc – I’ve probably racked up around 6000-7000 hours. So, again, whilst there’s still great room for improvement, I’d say rack up around 5000 hours of writing practise and that first rung of the ladder should be in sight.

50g of Networking

Networking in itself will get you nowhere if the writing is not good enough. But it will open doors into getting your work read, hearing about new agents setting up and looking for clients, making friends with other writers who will introduce you to their agents. Over the years, through contacts, I have had large chunks of my novel read by certain agents. They’ve never offered me a deal, clearly I wasn’t ready yet – but their feedback was always invaluable. Join an online forum and get to know other writers on Facebook. Blog. Attend literary events. Get yourself out there.

50g of Feedback

Join an online workshop. Upload your work to get critique and, just as importantly, critique other writers’ work – it will teach you a lot. Over the years I’ve also had several editorial reports done, from which I’ve probably learnt the most.

I medium-sized eye for the market

Don’t write in a vacuum. Keep an eye on what is selling in your genre.

A pinch of madness

Only a fool would put themselves through years of rejection, right? Treat with large quantities of chocolate and Chardonnay.

To Decorate

Ice with a huge dollop of determination and sprinkle with sweat and tears.

For some the recipe is more straightforward and may contain nothing more than an appearance on a celebrity reality show and a ghostwriter. But for most of us, the combination of ingredients is more complex. Whatever your own personal recipe turns out to be, I wish you the best of luck. Don’t give up. The final taste is worth it.

Gimme more...

As most of you know, I'm a fairly prolific writer. Not for me endless hours waiting for the muse to strike. But when I read the blog post below, I felt like the biggest fattest amateur out there.

I must admit that much of what the author said made massive sense to me.

Her first revelation that plotting saves time came as no surprise to me. Indeed, I am already a heavy plotter, knowing pretty much what a scene will look like before I come to my PC. Often I will have already played it out in my head and know who says what to who and where.

I'll have also asked myself the question...where does this scene take me? And I will have satisfied myself that it is integral, nay essential for the story. All before I begin to type.

I know that there are as many methods of writing as there are writers. And I know that the things this author highlights will seem counter intuitive to many. But I would urge anyone who needs to increase their output to at least consider these methods. I'd also give 'em a shot if I were 'stuck'.

Anyway, have another peep at the link and tell me what you think.

I'm A Writer, Get Me Out Of Here!

I’m sure you didn’t watch this year’s I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here! Did you? I'm sorry to say that I wasted many hours watching various ‘celebs’ Facing Up To Their Fears.

The fascination lies in the way each individual has a completely different comfort zone when it comes to phobias. The Incredible Hunk (Mark Wright) was reduced to a whimpering bundle of terror when faced with a night in bed with a bunch of rats. Antony Cotton from Corrie had a panic attack at the thought of jumping out of a plane. Fatima Whitbread, on the other hand, battled her way through every trial in a gladiator-like manner, even when a cockroach got stuck up her nose. I’m full of admiration for them all, since I’m the Sinitta of the phobia world – petrified of everything.

Which leads me to wonder: what are your writing/marketing phobias? Where does your comfort zone end?

For months now I’ve been compiling a vast file of ideas for publicising my novel, ranging from having postcards printed (to press upon any poor soul who shows an interest) to randomly approaching well-known people for reviews. I’ve even done a public speaking course (which was actually excellent and enjoyable and which helped on many different levels).

So now I’m asking myself how far I’d be prepared to step out of my own comfort zone in order to let people know about my book? Would I walk into one of the large booksellers and ask them to stock my book? Would I learn how to write a magazine article and trawl it around likely publications? Would I dress up in a silly animal costume and give out leaflets? I realised I’d be prepared to do quite a few of these, if they seemed promising (fortunately the animal costume wouldn't be relevant, unless it was a book worm).

But there’s one experience which really terrifies me and feels waaaaay outside my comfort zone. The Radio Interview. Especially live. I fear that I’d find myself a) unable to talk any sense or, worse, b) unable to speak at all. After all, that's why I write - because I can express myself better on the page than at the microphone.

But a writing friend – whose comfort zone boundaries easily encompass radio interviews – suggested that I prepare myself for the (unlikely) eventuality of an interview by thinking about the kinds of questions I might be asked. Rather as an arachnaphobe might be persuaded to open a book about spiders before facing up to touching the real thing. And she suggested that I ask you, dear readers, for your help.

So here goes.

If you were listening to me being interviewed on the radio, what kind of questions would you want me to answer? And what kind of questions would you expect the interviewer to ask me? (My novel, The Making of Her, is contemporary women’s fiction and is about television, cosmetic surgery, middle age and transformation).

Any thoughts would be hugely appreciated!

And please be gentle, or I might scream...

Ya Gotta Have Faith...

This post is directed at writers who have faced rejection. Yes, I know that means all of you, each and every one of you. Anyone who writes - published or unpublished, agented or un-agented has to put themselves out there in the line of fire and if and when rejection knocks on the door, there’s a decision to be made. The guarantee is that it will hurt. How much is dependent on you, the writer. Is it going to be a bruising body blow? A crushing kick in the solar plexus? Or a fatal beating from which you/your writing will never recover?

I had one this week. If rejections can be good, it was a good one complementing my ‘distinctive narrative voice’ and ‘my intriguing characters’. There was, however, a ‘but’ which I could sense looming through the good stuff. My downfall was apparently my plot. Whilst it wasn't missing, it wasn't convincing either.

I immediately started my survival process. The first step was denial, where I stuck my fingers in my ears and chanted, while closing down the email and pretending that it never arrived. The second step was that I told no-one, but talked to myself in my head about it for days. I call this my ‘licking my wounds’ phase. Stage three happened in bed this morning at five a.m. (Saturday), the time that I decided was the right moment to discuss the week’s events with my long suffering hubster.

He may not be as glad as I am for the early morning chat. But I needed it. Through my inevitable tears, he told me kindly but bluntly that I had two choices. Give up or carry on. He told me that I was too good to give up and that I may still have a lot to learn but to give myself credit for what I have learned. He suggested that I invent an alter ego – my writing self, who does all the work but deals with the down side too. He suggested I call her Faith.

It’s now 7:15 on Saturday morning. The tears have stopped. I’m back at the laptop counting my blessings. Faith is administering arnica to her bruises and beginning to think about her plot problems. The hubster is deservedly asleep and no, he’s not available for hire. Those short sharp motivational interventions are just for me – and Faith.

Okay, okay... You lot can share them too.

Back in the subbing game - guest post by Jo Carlowe

Wrestling with elastic bands, the disappointing thud on the doormat of a returned manuscript and that: ‘From Pitch to Publication’ plug shamelessly inserted into agent Carole Blake’s rejection letters.

For me all the above sum up the self-flagellatory process that typifies the book submissions’ process.

It’s been a while since I’ve done this – in fact it’s been nearly eight years. I recall the routine the first time round. It was gruelling and exhausting. It did eventually involve me being signed up to an agency and riding that rollercoaster of false hope. It ended without a book deal and the realisation that if I wanted to pay my mortgage and raise a family then I’d better put aside such a foolish dream.

Nonetheless, I made a promise to myself – once the kids were old enough and I had a little more time, I would write fiction again. It’s a pledge that I’ve kept and it’s been every bit as enjoyable and fulfilling as the first time I set pen to paper.

Last week, I decided I was finally ready to seek out an agent. So I bought a copy of the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook and read the advice section convinced that in this digital age, there would be differences of which I should be cognisant.

But to my shock, nothing had changed. I assumed that in the years that had passed, agents would not only accept emailed submissions but would insist upon this (it’s environmentally the right thing to do). I was wrong. When it comes to adult fiction, agents still, for the most part, request postal submissions.

Even the guidance was the same: lots of stuff about proper elastic band usage, correctly spelling the agent’s name and not playing fast and loose with font selection (Wingdings being an obvious no-no).

It is as though time has stood still. Everything is as it ever was. My only hope this time, is that the outcome, at the very least, will be different.

Jo Carlowe is a freelance journalist writing features on health, psychology and lifestyle. She is working on her novel: ‘Fly-By’ – a contemporary adventure love-story.

Merry Christmas, Mr Agent

Dear Mr Agent

I’ve wanted to write to you since receiving my Dear John letter and finally I’ve got the time to pick up my pen and tell you how I feel. Some time ago I sent you my book and you wrote back and said you didn’t like it. Well, you said it was a fantastic story worthy of being told, held your attention, blah blah blah, the characters were believable, but you just didn’t love it enough to take it further. So, I’m writing back to tell you I LOVE the book and so do all my friends. In fact, a publisher loves it so much, he’s gonna print it and make me rich. As filthy rich as JK Rowling and Dan Brown combined. He said I’m gonna make millions from this book and he’s gonna turn it into a big Hollywood Blockbuster.

So have yourself a merry Christmas. When you’re chomping on your mince pie, and sipping on the brandy on December 25th, you can think back and wonder how it could have been. You could be rich now. You could be pulling out your wallet, flashing the cash, ordering a Ferrari and holidaying with Richard Branson. You could have bought a nice bottle of Bollinger and some fancy nibbles with your cut of my earnings. I bet you’re sitting there right now, watching the Queen’s speech with your paper crown on your head, thinking: ‘Crikey, if only I’d signed Mrs Writer.’ Well, this is your annus horribilis and you deserve every minute of it. I hope you choke on a brussel sprout.

I should also point out that, if I am invited to the Booker awards this year, I may just ask you to come as my partner, because quite frankly, I really want to see your expression as you sit in your seat while I collect my award. I may even thank you for not signing me, as I’ll get to keep the extra 12 per cent. With that, I’ll buy myself an Aston Martin. You’re not allowed in it.

All that’s left for me to say is Merry Christmas and a happy new year. I’m off to stuff my vegetarian roast and put on my expensive crown, not the ones you buy in supermarkets. I buy the really expensive ones which have gifts such as Mont Blanc pens and Breitling watches inside. And I’m actually pulling one of the crackers as I write this. I’m putting on my watch, and putting the finishing touches to my submission with my Mont Blanc. Are you jealous? I bet you are!

Yours sincerely

A Writer

10 Ways to Stay Unpublished

1. Don't write anything.

2. Don't write anything anybody else likes.

3. Don't send anything you (might) write to an agent and/or publisher. Only other people get signed up anyway.

4. Don't enter writing competitions.  Somebody else always wins.

5. Sign up for every writing magazine going - they'll be handy to make kindling from in the winter.

6. Make sure 98 percent of your Facebook 'friends' are proper published authors.  Read of their success. Sigh.  Repeat.

7. Read books that suck.  Beat yourself up that you didn't have the nerve to send off a sucky book to anybody (because you followed rules 1-3 above. Either that or you're a Double D-list celebrity who's cashing on on Christmas. But let's not get bitter. You could just be a crap writer).

8. Write crap.

9. Watch repetitively mind-numbingly destimulating reality TV shows and debate the meaning of life from behind a cushion of shame.

10. Sign up to do NaNoWriMo, add some buddies, read the messages on the forum, wonder if you might like to join your local writing group who meet up in Starbucks every Sunday morning, read some excerpts and watch their wordcounts soar. Decide you're better off staying in bed, beating yourself up and reading crap until 1st December.

Reading a Kindle in the bath

Last month I had a birthday. The occasion leaves me well and truly within the realms of 'middle aged' – but I was fortunate enough to receive one of them new-fangled things that all the cool kids are calling a 'Kindle'.

Before then, I was very pro-ebook but reluctant to commit to a device that didn't do anything else. I'd been reading on my iPod Touch for the past couple of years, but was wary of forking out for something that only displayed ebooks, especially as the iPod Touch served the purpose very well, in addition to getting on the internet, playing music and providing handy apps.

I was, however, grateful to receive the Kindle, and its usefulness quickly became apparent. I can email academic papers to it rather than having to print them off and have loads of bits of A4 floating around the house at the mercy of a 4-year-old boy and a Staffordshire bull terrier. So far, I've used the Kindle as a PDF-reader rather than a book reader, and for that purpose it's brilliant. I can highlight bits and add comments, and the Kindle lets me view all these highlights in one go, which makes it a great way of summarising a document.

There are some things I'm not so keen on – I find it hard to adjust to the lack of backlighting, and haven't yet found a contrast setting that's as clear as a paper book in ordinary light. It all just seems very grey. Although the Kindle is supposed to be ideal for reading in direct sunshine, well... I live in England, so that's not really an issue. The experimental web browser is well... experimental, (assuming 'experimental' is a synonym for 'crap'). And using arrow keys to tap out a search in the Kindle store is so tedious that I haven't actually bought anything. But overall, I like not having to take print-outs on the train, and another advantage is that my young son doesn't try to commandeer it – he gets bored with the fact that the touch-screen inexplicably doesn't work.

I still haven't read an actual book on it, but I was getting along well with the Kindle until the other day, when I discovered I had been committing a terrible offence that probably dates back to the time of King Alfred or someone. I have been reading my Kindle in the bath.

I had no idea this was a Bad Thing. But when idly looking online for other people's opinions I found out that the phrase 'and you can't read it in the bath!' (presumably accompanied by a hoik of the bosom and a catsbum expression) is the last word in arguments against e-readers.

Why the heck can't you read a Kindle in the bath? If you're worried about dropping it – well, don't bloody drop it then! It's not as if we all went around chucking printed books willy-nilly into baths before Kindles came along. I'm not really bothered about steam getting into it, but for those who are, I'm sure clear plastic bags aren't that difficult to find these days. It's still easier than reading a weighty hardback.

Now that I've said this, there is of course the chance that irony will rise to the challenge and make me drop the Kindle into the water. Luckily I'm one step ahead of that possibility – to cheer myself up in the event of it happening, I've already started saving for an iPad.

And for my next excuse . . .

Isn't it wonderful the way life contrives to stand in the way of writing? If you are anything like me then half the time you can't write for reasons of paralysis. I've had long periods when my confidence has been so low I can't even look the laptop in the eye. Apart, that is, from the usual displacement activities of checking emails, facebook, writing sites, etc. At those times I have an almost visceral revulsion at the thought of sitting down to write, and I would welcome any excuse not to do so. This is accompanied by pounding sensations of guilt. Strange, isn't it, that an activity that we don't have to do, and that hardly anyone cares if we do, causes such oppressive guilt when we don't. Usually those periods of gloom have followed a series of rejections in my case. But that isn't how I feel today.

I've had a reasonable share of encouragement recently, with pieces published or doing okay in competitions. Enough scraps of endorsement to keep me going. My confidence is in the greenish amber zone at the moment, maybe even in the green much of the time. So I'm chucking out the words? Racing to the writing desk? Filled with inspiration? Well, not really. Just when you get your fragile mental state together life comes along. Recently it has been family disasters. Illnesses and other problems that I won't go into here but which stopped me in my writing tracks. It seems that there is always something to climb over to reach the writing desk. As well as the personal stuff, work has picked up. It's nice to be earning some cash, but working twelve hour days in Frankfurt with virtually no breaks doesn't leave you full of energy to dash out a short story or a sonnet at bedtime. And now that things are finally settling down again on the family front, and I have the prospect of a couple of weeks away from real work, there's Christmas. Bah humbug!

What The? Seriously!

I loathe books which contain glaringly obvious errors, not that there are many out there, but every now and then, one just has to escape through the net. My pet hate with this book started around a year ago when I purchased it from a garden centre. Granted, it wasn’t Waterstone’s or Barnes and Noble, but I did feel the retailer had a duty to sell products which are not misrepresented. It was an impulse buy along with a trowel, a funny book about cats and their antics and some Burt’s Bees products.

The book in question, Complete Vegetarian Cookbook, promised lots of mouthwatering recipes to keep me and my tastebuds entertained. It was heavily discounted – the sticker stated: GREAT VALUE - publisher’s price £12.99, our price £3.99 - but that doesn’t excuse the fact that there were some serious errors in it.

Firstly, it was a ‘vegetarian’ cookbook not a ‘vegetable’ cookbook which would let it off the hook (note to veggies – never order the ‘vegetable’ dish whilst dining out without checking first if it is vegetarian friendly). It contains some of my favourite recipes including Israeli avocado cream, tahini, hummous, stuffed peppers and garlic mushrooms. Upon opening the book, I looked at a photograph and though ‘gosh, they look unusual, I’ve never tasted those exotic vegetables.’ Upon closer inspection I realised the photograph was…shock, horror….prawns!

I leafed onward…..flick, flick, flick, then stopped at a recipe as I noticed the odd man out – gelatine. ‘Crikey, I thought. The writer must be referring to the vegetarian friendly gelatine you sometimes see at Tesco.’ I read some more, pondered making a garlic soup to scare away the vampires, then noticed another suspect recipe. I felt the urge to vomit – ‘Crudites with anchovy dip’. No thanks. Many vegetarians wouldn’t even touch an anchovy, let alone insert it into their mouths. Pescatarians, like Gok Wan would though. Then came another recipe, this time for anchovy dressing. Maybe the author lives near a stream and her husband likes fishing? Maybe someone dumped a load of anchovies on her doorstep (remember PETA dumped a load of horse manure at Gordon Ramsay’s Claridges? Snigger) and she needs rid of them? I then gave Mrs Author the benefit of the doubt and attributed it to a typo. ‘Perhaps she means alfalfa instead of anchovies?’ I muttered.

There is a long lengthy foreword about how modern food production methods have made meat much cheaper than before and adds how the slaughter of animals has caused many to switch on to a vegetarian lifestyle. I looked at another recipe for a yoghurt and tahini dip which, wait for it, would be, and I quote from the book, ideal to ‘serve as an accompaniment to vegetables, salads and also meat or fish dishes.’

How does the publisher get away with a serious error like this? It’s like buying ‘Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone’ and finding ‘The Da Vinci Code’ inside. This leaves me with a dilemma – do I close the book and put it away, give it to a second hand bookshop for another vegetarian to be surprised, or do I write to the publisher? I’m inclined to go for the third (veggie) option.