Tag Archives: novel

In Search of Fairy Dust

Somewhere in here, nurse, there's a story, and we're going to save it!

Somewhere in here, ladies and gentlemen, is a story. Let’s try and save it!

I’ve got the editing blues.

After almost three years of sporadic work, the first draft of book 2 is complete and I’m half way through the read through. It’s confirmed my darkest fears: it’s in need of some serious surgery.

First, there are the slips of voice. Was I re-reading Pride and Prejudice, dear reader, when I came over all Jane Austen in the middle of my contemporary psychological thriller?

And what was I thinking of when I plodded my way through all those boring passages: she did this, then she did this, then she did this – and voilà! The cup of tea was made!

And then there are the abrupt transitions, the scenes that don’t seem to have an actual point, the echoes of words and phrases; and those damnable adverbs I’d tried so hard to purge but have somehow bubbled up anyway through the cracks of my subconscious and turned my sentences an alarming shade of mauve.

Keep breathing, I tell myself. It is good that you can see there’s work to do. Admitting the problem is the first step to solving it. Etc. Etc.

But the truth is, those problems are only part of the picture.

Before I started the edit, I took two weeks away from writing to cleanse my mind. It gave me the chance to read and re-read a whole pile of psychological thrillers, proper books by proper authors who had navigated the battlefield of publishing and landed an actual deal. It reminded me that there’s something else I need to add to the mix…

Fairy dust.

Because there are a hell of a lot of books out there. More specifically, there’s a truck-load of psychological thrillers aimed at the female market. Loads of victims and villains, secrets and lies, mysterious pasts and vengeful friends/siblings/former partners. And there are plenty that are competently written, with clean prose and a story that makes sense and keeps you turning the pages.

But the thing is, after a while, the vast majority of those novels sort of merge into one other. And that’s where the fairy dust comes in.

As part of my reading marathon, I turned back to two books I’d loved. No prizes for originality here, because they were both mega-sellers: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I could see that they deserved their success. I could see that they both had something special, something that separated them from the rest. I tried to put my finger on what it was.

In the case of Gone Girl, you could argue that it’s about the voice or the language, those clever descriptive phrases that capture so perfectly a mood or an expression in just two or three words. For The Girl on the Train it might be the concept, elevating something so ordinary – the commute to work – to a stage for gripping drama.

But whilst those elements play their part, I think at bottom they both have something else, something that’s both elegantly simple and nightmarishly complex all at one.

Compelling characterisation.

I mean, I really liked Rachel, Hawkins’ troubled, alcoholic, quietly desperate protagonist. I rooted for her. Remember that time when she threw up on the stairs of her friend’s flat and then went to bed, telling herself she’d get up and clean it all up before her friend got home? Yes it was pathetic and disgusting, but all I wanted to do was take her by the shoulders and shake her, tell her to clean it up now, no matter how bad she felt, because I knew what was coming if she didn’t. I cared about her. I wanted to save her from herself.

And then at the opposite end of the spectrum there’s Amy, Gone Girl‘s anti-heroine. Amy isn’t so much flawed as twisted, psychotic, poisonous – and written with so much snap. She’s horrifying but fascinating, so dark that she sends a delicious shiver of fear down the spine. Like her husband, Nick, I had to know what was going on inside her head.

So I know that when I’ve cut the pointless scenes, and scrubbed out the adverbs, and improved the narrative flow, there’s another, more important thing on my to do list for the next draft:

I have to turn my protagonist into a heroine. I have to find the fairy dust.fairy-dust

Toddlerville: or Why Writing in a Café Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

I wonder… Did JK Rowling have kids?

I am now Living the Dream. By which I mean: here I am, on what to the office-dwelling population is a normal working day, sitting in a café and scribbling in a notebook.

It’s true that I’m doing this in a somewhat self-conscious manner. I’m pausing every now and then to scan the room under cover of sipping my green tea, wondering whether anyone is looking at me. Wondering whether they’re thinking “Look at that woman on her own, writing away in that notebook. I wonder what she’s doing? She looks an intelligent sort. Perhaps she’s a writer?”

The fantasy

The fantasy

But of course, no-one is doing that.

That might be because they have other things to think about, or that they’re just not as nosey as I am, or because actually I don’t look intelligent at all. But the main reason that they’re not looking around full stop is that they’re all engrossed in their children. Those small people who’ve colonized all the lovely places I’d dreamed of idling in looking arty, just as soon as I’d relieved myself of the millstone of paid employment.

I look around the room and every table has a minimum of one babe-in-arms. Most have two or more, surrounded by a hinterland of buggies and bags and bits of plastic in primary colours and scraps of clothing in – I’d be prepared to put money on it – organic cotton. And this isn’t Hampstead or Primrose Hill, for Christ’s sake. This is Lewisham. Where are all the pimps and drug dealers? They’ve been driven out by the bloody parents.

The result is a constant soundtrack of squealing, squawking, burbling, gurgling and the occasional distant bark (we’re in the middle of a park, but the dog owners are keeping a respectful distance). Which brings me back to my original question: did the JK Rowling who sat in a café penning her future mega-sellers have small children?

The reality - only with more chairs

The reality – only with tables

To be clear: I’m not imagining that any such creatures were with her at the time. It takes only a moment’s observation to see that if they had been, her time would have been spent cajoling, scolding, pleading and mopping, not getting Harry, Ron and Hermione to do battle with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. But surely she must have had that talent, peculiar to the parents of toddlers, of blocking out the cacophony they produce?

Did she, I wonder, also have a coffee budget? How forgiving were the owners of that café, wherever it was, unaware of how this daily drinker of single lattés (I’m just guessing here; they might have been cappuccinos) would one day put their establishment on the map?

And do these omnipresent parents have coffee budgets too? Did they take into account in whatever calculations they made about the financial cost of parenthood (assuming that they didn’t simply shout “Babies!” and abandon contraception) the sheer quantity of caffeine they would apparently need to get them through the Vale of Tears that seems to be years 0-5?

I’d like to think that I could wait them out; that if only I ordered another tea, then another, and perhaps another, eventually – as well as needing to find the loos – the parents would leave, taking little Matilda or Moses to baby massage, or baby yoga or baby cross-country skiing, and the space could once again be used by people higher than 2 feet tall, speaking at a volume that wouldn’t trouble a jet engine.

But the hope is a vain one. There is a never-ending supply. No sooner does one group depart than another arrives to take its place, clad in the same clothes, talking about the same things, taking the same supply of toys and soft-covered books and plastic bottles from the same bags hung in precisely the same way from the handles of the same buggies.

This is their world, and I am the interloper. I feel like Neville in I Am Legend (the book, not the film – damn you, Will Smith). Joining their ranks is unimaginable. I have only one option.

Next time, I’m bringing headphones.

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.

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.

Karma Chameleon (or The Perils of Being Mean to Your Characters)

I was mean the other day and I got my comeuppance.  I just thought I’d get this in early, in case you thought this was a post about reptiles.

It happened at a service station.  Not a very promising place for a story, I know, but it happened there all the same.  I was queuing at the hot food counter, trying to decide whether the chicken tikka masala or the pie and chips looked less unappetising, when I became aware that the couple in front of me were having a bit of a tiff.

The gist of it was that she (white, American, very cross) had to work tomorrow; why did they have to come to this service station and wait in line? Couldn’t they go somewhere else instead? Or even better, couldn’t he just wait until they got home and make himself something to eat there?

He (Asian descent, very British, embarrassed about making a scene) didn’t say a lot, just huffed and puffed and fixed his gaze on the steaming stainless steel containers in a way that suggested he wasn’t going anywhere until he’d availed himself of his fair share of their contents.

Call me a child, but there’s something about watching other people lose their tempers that’s always made me giggle.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve been known to fall victim to the red mist myself from time to time, so I find it reassuring to see someone else behaving like a bit of a git.

This time around, though, the thing that tipped me into comedic schadenfreude was the mother dimension.  Because throughout the exchange, the mum of Hungry Chap was twittering feebly at his side, too nervous to intervene but desperate to comfort her poor, henpecked son. This she did by stroking his arm, looking anxiously up at him whenever the girlfriend made another verbal thrust to assess the damage and adjust the speed of the palliative arm-stroking as necessary.

Sadly for American Girlfriend, the queue moved slowly, so I enjoyed the spectacle in a thoroughly unkind way for the ten minutes or so it took them to be served.  I was still smiling meanly to myself as I carried my tray over to a table; still smiling as I took my seat; still smiling as I placed my cutlery on the table top.  Then I lifted my plate from the tray, catching its plastic cover on the saucer of my teacup and spilling scalding green tea all over my lap.

That’s when I stopped smiling.karma pic

After the blisters had healed, I thought I should take some time to reflect on this experience.  I wondered: what would happen if the concept of karma extended to the things you wrote? What if by writing about terrible events or emotions – betrayal or hatred or murder – you were somehow adding to the sum of negative energy in the world?  What if the afflictions you imposed on your characters were revisited on you?

It’s a bit problematic, this. How can you write a murder mystery without a murder? Or a crime thriller without a crime?  How can you even write a romance without misunderstandings along the way? Simon met Helen and they got on really well and got married and had two lovely, well-behaved children just isn’t the kind of tale to get the blood racing.

In the end I concluded that it was impossible to avoid putting my characters through the emotional wringer.   Anything else is ridiculous, right?

But just to be on the safe side, I’ll be ordering cold drinks from here on in.

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.

Twittersweet Symphony (or How To Get Noticed When Everything Around You is Amazing)

The other night I was sat reading the book for my first ever book club meeting next month (Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, since you ask) and, in a rare scene of domestic tranquillity, my husband was sat next to me on the sofa looking at Earth Pics (@Earth_Pics) on Twitter. (That’s right, the telly was OFF. Sign me up for my subscription to Organic Vegan Yoga Weekly now.)

The raison d’être of Earth Pics, for the uninitiated, is to share astonishing or beautiful things from around the world, captured on film.  Every so often, Husband would interrupt my reading to show me something particularly astounding. Photos I saw:

  • a German cavalry soldier circa 1935 standing ramrod straight and perfectly balanced on the saddle of his horse whilst firing his rifle;


    Dobbin wasn’t sure that Thai massage was for him.

  • a towering wave in Antarctica, turned to a snow-coated tube of ice at the very moment when it should have broken;
  • two oceans joining, a clear line between royal blue on one side and turquoise on the other, because the waters for some reason don’t mix;
  • a couple of 1940s types playing tennis on the wings of an aircraft in flight.

Anyone with access to the internet can see this stuff. It’s amazing.  We should spend our days in a state of perpetual amazement.  We should pause on that very first photo and spend the evening discussing it.  We should spend the next day telling our friends about it.  Instead, we murmur to one another how wonderful it is and move on to the next one.

My point is this: when everyone has access to these incredible images, to a world of fantastic, eye-popping, brain-scrambling photos and paintings and video, all at the click of a mouse, how on earth do you get your material noticed?

I don’t just mean this little blog (though I mean that too, obviously).  But setting aside the wonders of Earth Pics and thinking about reading for a moment, there are five centuries’ worth of incredible books out there.  All those classics that have withstood the test of time are now free as e-books. Austen and Dickens and Thackeray and Trollope, all of them amply re-paying second and third readings and all of them available for precisely no pence.

Fair enough, Woman cannot live on the classics alone.  But honestly, am I the only aspiring writer out there who reads a new David Mitchell or a Barbara Kingsolver or a Julian Barnes and dies a little inside?  When there’s so much writing out there that’s absolutely, bona fide brilliant, what miracle of chance or fate is needed to get a reader to choose to spend hours of their life with my offering?

Taking as read that the odds are stacked against me, I’ve seen two tips over the last couple of days that I think might help.

The first was: be a perfectionist in your writing.   Having spent the better part of the last two years trying to silence my inner critic in order to complete my novel’s first draft, I’ll be  honest, I find this one a little disheartening.  I’d got to the point where I quite enjoyed the freedom that came with recognising this or that paragraph didn’t quite flow properly, that my simile was a bit of a cliché, or that my whole chapter’s structure seriously needed work and ploughing on regardless.  This being a perfectionist business sounds like a lot of hard work.  That probably means it’s worth doing.

The second was that persistence is more important than talent.  I like this. It feels reassuring.  Talent seems to me one of those things you either have or you don’t.  Persistence, on the other hand, surely just requires a bit of will power.

Both of them, though, imply a degree of effort. A measure of blood, sweat and tears.  A soupçon of struggle and strife.

Hmm. I think I might be revising my deadline for completing that second draft.