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.
Standing on the starting line, we are all cowards.
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.
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!
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 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...
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.