Tag Archives: first novel

Fermez les yeux and brace for impact

I’m so excited today I can hardly string a sentence together. And that would be ok, because what I’d really like to do is to cut the prose and list, shamelessly, the places you can see my book online.

That’s MY BOOK.

My. Book.

Oh, but you’d be interested to take a look? So kind of you to say so! I don’t want to bore you. And I won’t be offended if you don’t click on any of the links. Though the cover art really is quite fab. Intriguing, even. Just the right sort of thing for a thriller.

Well go on then, you’ve twisted my arm…

Fermez les yeux 

Just - aggghhhhh!

Just – aggghhhhh!

Didn’t I say it was in French? Ah well, they have excellent taste, the French – everyone knows that. The Germans too – there may be a post on that subject coming up in, say, July or so.

So… here it is, at long last. I have the artwork and a publication date – 10 February – and in the next day or so I expect to get my hands on the book itself. That’s a real live, honest-to-goodness book, with an actual cover, and a spine, and pages with words on them. My words.

Not that I’ll actually be able to understand many of them, it being in French and all. I only have a GCSE and my characters don’t spend all their time telling each other what their name is, and that they live in London, and asking if they could they have a white coffee and a ham sandwich, and what’s the best way to the post office.

But still. They’re my words en français. At least I hope they are.

I’ll be honest: alongside the excitement, there’s more than a hint of trepidation. One part of me understands that this is a first book being published in translation. That it’ll be a pebble dropped into the ocean of new books. That it’ll be a struggle to get anyone to read it at all.

I know all of that, and it doesn’t matter: I’m still ridiculously happy to think that my characters will be let out to make their way in the world. At the same time, I feel the first faint stirrings of obsession and paranoia.

They’re feelings that aren’t entirely unfamiliar.

Because there were times when I hated this book. When I was so sick of rewrites I felt I knew every single word off by heart. That I felt like I never wanted to look at it again. It brought me some of the greatest highs of my life (getting an agent; hearing that the big five were taking it to acquisition stage) and some of the biggest disappointments (none of the buggers were offering).

After a while, the disappointment faded. I appreciated what I had – a brilliant agent who was passionate about my book and who’d given it as good a chance as it could ever have got; a deal for the French rights with an established publisher; the idea for the next book and a glimmer of an idea for the one after that. I might not have had Euromilions-winning levels of good luck, but it was definitely five-lotto-numbers-and-the-bonus-ball territory.

All my passion for Waking Sara – for that’s what it was called back then – both love and hate, subsided into a gentle affection. I looked back on the days of the rewrites with a head-shaking fondness. I regained a sense of perspective.

Until now.

The release date is 10 February (just in case you didn’t get it the first time). That’s a whole 24 days away. And yet – someone has already given it three out of five!

I mean, I suppose it could be worse. I think I’d rather have a boringly middling mark than out and out disdain.

I think.

But couldn’t my unimpressed reviewer even had added a few words of explanation?! I mean, that book was the result of three years of my life! But no, he/she (or possibly even the default setting on a computer programme somewhere – I live in hope) has just given me my mark and got on with their life as if it doesn’t matter. Hmph, I say. Hmph.

And then there are the discounts. Not that I mind them in themselves – €15.90 is a lot of money for a paperback novel – but it’s the indecent haste of it! My poor little book isn’t even out and it’s having 5% lopped off its price without so much as a by-your-leave. It’s as if it’s already on the way to the bargain baskets! (Mind you, though, it is a bargain. So if you want to brush up on your French…)

And then the final indignity. Amazon, whom I once bravely defended on this very site, have got my name wrong. How they’ve managed this, I’ve no idea, but I can say with absolute certainty that I have never, ever been called Clarence. Not even in a French accent.

Anyway, if you or anyone you know speaks French/would like to speak French/ knows someone called Clarence, there’s a book out next month you’d absolutely love.

Let’s Get Metaphysical

Ooh, I wanna hear your philosophy talk…

Right, that’s enough of that. Despite being one of those people who if asked “If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” would reply, “Yes, of course it bloody does! What a ridiculous question!” I have found my mind wandering in a vaguely philosophical direction in recent weeks.

Tree in forest The culprit was a blog post by a playwright who was talking about her first experience of having a play staged.  To her shock, she found the finished product didn’t bear that close a resemblance to what she’d had in mind when she wrote it. “That’s the thing with writing plays,” she said, “It’s a collaborative effort.”

To start with, I breathed a big sigh of relief that I’d never tried my hand at any kind of script.  I wasn’t sure I’d like that, I thought to myself, handing over my work to someone else –  a whole bunch of someone elses, in fact – and then holding my breath to see what emerged at the other end.  I liked the feeling that, in writing a book, I was in control: my characters would say and do only what I told them to. Ok, sometimes they developed minds of their own and tried nudging me in different directions to the ones I’d planned, but when it came down to it, I was the person who decided what words went on the paper; the product began and ended with me.

Until I thought about it a bit more and realised that was rubbish.

For the last month or so, I’ve been sweating away over a re-write of my first novel.  After much excitement and getting to acquisitions stage with six UK publishers, sadly no-one got as far as making an offer to publish.  I did, though, get lots of feedback.  It’s that feedback, together with the wise suggestions of my agent, that I’ve been soldiering away with for the last month, desperately hoping that the next version will have dealt with enough of the issues for someone to say “Yes.”

So the most recent incarnation of my book is already, to a considerable extent, the product of a whole range of people: my brilliant beta readers, who took so much time to give me their comments and encouragement; a whole pile of editors, who distilled their reasons for rejecting me (hmph!) with varying degrees of clarity; and my agent, who helped me work through it all and come up with some ideas to respond.

But of course, it’s not just those people who are helping decide what my book will be – ultimately, it’ll be the creature of whatever handful of people I can bribe, cajole or threaten into actually reading it.  I might think I’m the god of my own little literary world, setting out my story, deciding who does what to whom and why; but just because I think I’ve explained something, it doesn’t mean my readers will agree (there’s a life lesson lurking here somewhere…). They might interpret the words I think of as being only mine in any number of different ways. They might see all kinds of different motivations for the way my characters behave.  They might – whisper it – not like the characters I like.

I remember in one GCSE English class the teacher reading a passage from To Kill A Mockingbird.  As I recall, there’s a bit where Scout is in fancy dress, oddly enough as a ham (can that really be right? Sounds unlikely, but it’s what I remember). The costume was held in shape by a frame of wire mesh, and the teacher said that if we were studying the novel at A’-level, we’d be talking about the way that this mesh represented the cage of expectations and social convention in which Scout found herself. There was a good deal of snorting at this, with one boy making the point that perhaps the author meant nothing of the sort; perhaps he was simply describing her costume.  “Well, perhaps,” said the teacher, “But if that’s the case, why is it there?”

Fast forward a couple of decades, and Lionel Shriver is being interviewed about the creepily brilliant We Need To Talk About Kevin.  There were deep divisions, apparently, amongst the readership: was Kevin the way he was because his career-focussed mother starved him of love and affection as he grew up? Or was it just that he was born an evil little so and so? Infuriatingly, Ms Shriver said she wasn’t going to tell us. “If I haven’t told you after 300 pages,” she said (a little sniffily, I thought), “There’s no point in telling you now.”

At the time, I found this rather annoying: couldn’t she just put all those irritating people who obviously thought a woman should sacrifice her whole personal identity the minute she reproduced back in their boxes, and tell them that Kevin was a nasty piece of work?  But now I think: maybe it doesn’t matter.  After all, I’m bringing my own ethical framework – alright, my prejudices – to my interpretation of this book, just as much as anyone else; and the author is doing exactly the same thing.  Maybe that means that Kevin has his own life now, independent of Lionel Shriver, existing in the imaginations of all those different readers? Maybe it doesn’t matter what the author thinks is the truth – perhaps each of those interpretations, each one of those different Kevins, is just as valid as hers?

Recognising that we don’t really own or control our story may be frightening – but it’s also fascinating.  Sending your characters out into the world for people to like or loathe, to decide what they think about their behaviour and motives – well, it’s a pretty exciting business, isn’t it? And while writing may be a solitary pursuit, I think that means that telling a story really isn’t.

Over, over, under

Monday evening was spent at the brilliant London Writers’ Café with a talk from Scott Pack, publisher of Harper Collins imprint The Friday Project.  As well as enthusiastically promoting Harper Collins’ online community for writers, Authonomy (authonomy.com), Scott gave loads of really clear and practical advice for would-be authors.

For anyone, like me, dreaming of one day seeing your name facing out from a bookshelf, his observations on the most common mistakes made by unpublished writers are worth thinking about.  Reproduced here for your entertainment and edification…

Common Mistake 1: Over-writing

In other words, using six long words where one would do, cluttering up your prose with tautologies and other unnecessary verbiage, and… better stop there.  Scott surmised that writers’ tendency to do this stems from a wish to impress: we all know how many people are out there scribbling away, desperately trying to get the attention of someone in the industry, so it’s not surprising that we sometimes go a bit OTT trying to ensure we stand out from the crowd.

Scott gave a couple of pieces of practical advice on how to exorcise your over-writing demons:

Pick up a book from an author you admire and type out a passage of their prose.  Then type out a passage of your own.  Unless you’ve picked Salman Rushdie or Martin Amis (clearly not favourites of Mr Pack),  you’ll almost invariably find that the work of the established author is simpler in language and style than your own.

Re-read your work and do ten sit-ups every time you come across an adverb.  You’ll either de-clutter your prose or get great abs. What’s to lose?

Common Mistake 2: Over-explaining

What it says on the tin – spending too much time telling your reader things they either don’t need to know at all or should work out for themselves.  A close relation to both “telling not showing” and…

…Common Mistake 3: Underestimating your reader

Looby Loo, Andy Pandy and Teddy: for the avoidance of doubt, they were all great friends who loved each other very much.

Looby Loo, Andy Pandy and Teddy who, for the avoidance of doubt, were all great friends who loved each other very much.

You get what I mean, right?  I don’t need to tell you that Andy Pandy hates Teddy for running off with Looby-Loo when he’s spent the last two pages carving AP 4 LL on tree trunks and doodling pictures of Teddy with his stuffing coming out of his neck.

Don’t patronise your reader.  It’s rude and, worse, it’s boring.

Right, I’m off now to look again at draft three.  My abs need the workout…

Falling out of love

If someone asked you for your advice on making a relationship work, what would you say?

That’s what happened this weekend when I attended the wedding of one of my cousins. Seated for the wedding breakfast, my dining companions and I began the customary exploration of the various goodies on the table. Little organza bags with wedding favours – check.  Bottles of bubbles – check.  Party bags for the little people – check.  Disposable camera – what, no disposable camera? Sigh of relief.

And then we found them: postcard sized pieces of paper inviting us to offer our pearls of wisdom for a happy marriage.

Now, it’s nigh on impossible for anyone in a relationship to attend a wedding without reflecting on their own credentials as a couple.  Add a bit of alcohol and then ask people to write down their thoughts?  Can. Of. Worms.

I’d repeat some of the comments that were made but none of my family would speak to me again.  Let’s just say, the first offering was “Keep your expectations low,”  and things didn’t improve from there. Thankfully for the bride and groom, most of them weren’t committed to paper.  Husband and I failed dismally to come up with anything at all which, compared to the nuggets from our fellow diners, probably qualifies us for Couple of the Year.Falling out of love

What has any of this got to do with writing, I hear you ask? I’m getting there, I promise.

Presumably the long-suffering types around the table had once sat at a different wedding breakfast wreathed in smiles, full of optimism, believing they could face whatever life threw at them because they had each other.

Well, time had passed and real life had happened. Work, kids and money, irritations and let-downs. Scar tissue. They knew they still loved each other, but sometimes they were just too tired or stressed or fed up to feel it.

But they were still together.  Whatever the problems, they still cared enough for each other not to have thrown in the towel.

When I was writing my first draft, my novel was close to me every day. I could feel the breath of its characters against my skin. For almost two years, we were in our own private honeymoon world.

Already, I feel that slipping away.  My draft has been shared. My characters have spoken to other people. We’re no longer exclusive. To be honest, things just aren’t the same.

And I have to take my share of the blame.  I’ve been looking around myself. I’m spending a lot of time here, on this blog, instead of working on the second draft.  There’s a short story idea I keep making eye contact with across the room.  I’ve met up for drinks with an outline for another novel.

I know my book and I have more troubles ahead.  I know there’ll be rejection and disappointment when I reach the point of submitting it to agents and publishers.  I expect I’ll find myself questioning what on earth I was doing thinking I could write something other people might want to read.

But when it comes down to it, I still love it.  I do. And if you can’t stick with the thing you love and try to make it work, what hope is there?

Maybe that’s what I should have written on that postcard.

(Wo)Man in the Mirror

Derren Brown did a really neat trick once. Well, he’s done lots of neat tricks, but this one really stuck with me.

He told a room full of people that he’d prepared an in-depth astrological reading for them.  They each received their reading in a sealed envelope and weren’t allowed to discuss the contents with each other. The camera showed people’s reactions when they’d finished reading: they were almost uniformly bowled over by the accuracy of what they’d read. People were shocked and moved. One woman was in tears, sobbing that no-one had ever understood her that well in her whole life.

Do you dare challenge the MIND MONGER?

Do you dare challenge the MIND MONGER?

Then they exchanged envelopes with each other. You can probably guess what’s coming.  Yes, the text of each of the readings – over an A4 side of closely typed prose – was exactly the same. As someone aptly put it in a blog comment recently, it’s tough to be a student of oneself.

Today marks seven weeks into my six-month period of unpaid leave, and I’m in a reflective mood.

When I left the office that last Friday, I wasn’t sure what I’d miss or how much I’d miss it.  I wasn’t sure how I’d fill the days when I wasn’t back in Wales helping out my dad (or nagging him, as I’m sure he’d put it).  I wasn’t sure what it would feel like to try and spend whole days writing, treating it like a job because to do anything else when my husband is supporting me to have this time away feels unforgivably selfish. I wasn’t sure how much of my identity was bound up in being a civil servant, and how much I wanted it to be. (I realise many, if not most, of you are at this point shouting. “WHAT?! Astronaut, brain surgeon, teacher, yes – but who in their right mind would want to define themselves as a civil servant?!” I have no excuse.)

It turns out that seven weeks isn’t long enough to come up with the answers.  I have learned a few things though.

I’ve learned that I can keep disciplined while I have a daily word count to work towards…

…and really struggle when I don’t.

I’ve learned that editing isn’t as easy as I thought it would be.

I’ve learned that when the sun isn’t shining it’s far too easy to spend a lot of time cooped up indoors. And even with the world’s cutest pussycats (oh yes they are) that’s not a good thing.

To my astonishment, I’ve learned that I’m actually not all that bothered about politics. (A former colleague has, though, told me that he experienced the same thing when he left the civil service, and it turned out to be temporary. We shall see; for the moment I’m quite enjoying being a bit less angry.)

And perhaps I’m starting to learn that, when it comes down to it, I don’t need to be defined by how I spend my days. Perhaps I should stop worrying about whether, for this period of time, I call myself a civil servant or a writer.

Perhaps I should just try to be me.

Now all I need is that astrology chart and I’ll know just who that is.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Writing a sex scene is a tricky business.  Having someone you know read it is even trickier.

There’s only one sex scene in my book. I knew from the beginning that it would feature. It is, as the director said to the actress, “integral to the plot”. It was also a full-on nightmare to write, taking me the best part of two days for a relatively short – er – passage.

There were two reasons for this.

First was the language used for body parts.  There’s no getting round talking about those unless you’re going for some soft-focus, romantic, camera-panning-away-at-crucial-moment scene.  I wasn’t. So what do you call people’s bits?

Let’s take the bottom (and no, I don’t mean it like that). “Bum” is funny.  “Rear” is something horses do.  “Rump” just sounds like a joint of beef. It’s okay for the Americans, who bandy about “ass” with aplomb, but a Brit can’t use “ass” without sounding like, well, an arse. And “arse”, in turn, is so British that it immediately conjures up scenes from seventies soft porn films with names like “Confessions of a Used Car Salesman in Rotherham”.

I'm sorry, Geoffrey, it just feels as though there's something missing...

I’m sorry, Geoffrey, it just feels like there’s something missing…

And that’s before you get on to the really rude bits.

You know, just know, that choosing the wrong word is going to immediately shatter any erotic tension you’ve managed to build up. It’s the literary equivalent of comedy underwear. It’s like getting hot and heavy with your lover when the iPod changes tracks and you’re suddenly listening to My Ol’ Man’s a Dustman.  (To be clear, there’s no Chas ‘n’ Dave on my iPod. I’m not saying anything about the Husband.)

The other problem was that my sex scene comes, as it were, towards the end of my book. By the time I started to write it, various kind friends and colleagues had agreed to read through the first draft and tell me what they thought. The idea of them – actual living, breathing people I knew – reading my attempt at erotica was almost terminally embarrassing.  What if they thought it was vile /perverted /laughable /just plain rubbish? Imagining people I’d worked with, professional people with whom I’d sat in meetings discussing local government finance, reading The Scene was almost enough to make me abandon the whole idea.

In the end, I did actually cross a couple of people off my readers list.  Ridiculous, I know, when I want to be a published author, but there it is. I warned the others and gave them a get-out – i.e. if the thought of reading something I’ve written that’s a bit rude turns your stomach, feel free to say “no” and I promise not to be offended.  No-one took it, bless their hearts, but I still can’t help imagining them finishing those paragraphs, putting down the manuscript and taking a deep breath to keep down their dinner (“I know she said there was a sex scene but, really, I wasn’t expecting that!“).

Ultimately, of course, I just had to get on with it: write the words and hand ’em over.

Now I’m waiting for the feedback. Wish me luck.