Tag Archives: writer

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.

Who Wants To Live Forever?

I want to be Winston Churchill.

Well, not Winston himself, obviously. That would just be silly. Besides, he’s dead, and I still have a novel to publish.

But on Monday I visited Chartwell, home to the great man for many years, and it left a pretty big impression.

Of course, I knew the esteem in which Churchill is held in this country. I’ve visited the Cabinet War Rooms. I’ve heard some of his speeches and seen some of his correspondence. I knew he was considered a great war-time leader. At the same time, I believe we’re all of us a mixture of strengths and weaknesses and that one man doesn’t win a war, no matter how stirring his oratory.  I’ve never been sure about the decision on Coventry.

But what Chartwell showed me was a man who was loved, sincerely and gratefully,  in his own time and by people across the world who believed they owed him their liberty.

On show were astonishing gifts from world leaders: cigar boxes in gold and silver and polished wood, painted and inlaid and carved; medals and scrolls and swords; an ebony fly swatter from an African tribal leader; carved boats with silver figures from Stalin; an ashtray, three feet tall, with model bombers flying in formation around the central stand.

More moving were the gifts from ordinary people.  The pendant in a matchbox sent by an old lady from Edinburgh.  The plain wooden snuff box, hand carved by a chap in Nottingham. Gifts sent by people who had suffered through the war and wanted to show their gratitude to the man they believed had led them to victory.

Then there were the honours. In addition to his knighthood, Churchill was given the freedom of over thirty British cities. Parliament published a resolution on his retirement to put on record its admiration for his achievements. He was made an honorary citizen of the United States. Oh, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

He found time to paint over 500 pictures. He owned racehorses – that won races. He even spent seven years building an impressive brick wall around the garden at Chartwell. (I like to think his wife started encouraging him to “get a man in” around the end of year 2.)

Churchill: leader, statesman, Nobel Laureate and bricklayer

Winston Churchill: leader, statesman, Nobel Laureate and bricklayer

And this was a chap whose dad told him to stop mucking about after he finished school, or he’d end up a miserable failure.

What a remarkable life.

The truth is, though, I don’t want to be Winston for the presents, or the honours, or even the love. I’m still not sure what I’d have done with that decoded German message about Coventry, which is probably a sign I’m not cut out for wartime leadership.  I know my painting is amateur and I don’t really like horseracing. I’ve never built a wall.

But what a mark that man left on the world!

His words are still read. His speeches are still listened to.  Sitting here, I can call to mind his voice as clearly as my own mother’s.

And that’s the thing I want. I want my voice to outlive me. Even if it’s in a scruffy, dog-eared, paperback in a second-hand bookshop somewhere.  Because there’s always the hope that one day, someone will pick up that paperback and blow the dust off the cover and read a story I wrote; and then my words will make them feel something, long after I’m dust and ashes.

Perhaps that’s the dream of everyone who writes. Not fame, or glory, or six-figure publishing deals (note to any agents: those things would be nice too); just a chance to live on, in however modest a way, through the words we leave behind.

Losing the Armbands

How do you exercise your writing muscles?  And how do you know if they’re getting stronger?

This weekend, I watched my sister compete in her first ever open water swimming competition.  She finished in the top third of men and women for her distance, and third in her age group of women (30-34 years old, in case you’re wondering).

Like me, Little Sis learned to swim at the age of four or five.  She swam at school and sometimes went to the local pool on weekends.  On family holidays, she mucked about diving over waves or trying to get onto lilos in the sea (have you tried this? Don’t bother in Britain’s choppy waters unless you have an hour to spare and no concern for your personal dignity).  In recent years, our occasional visits to health spa pools involved looking up occasionally from a book or magazine to watch a lone swimmer thrash up and down a few lengths.

In other words, swimming wasn’t a serious pursuit – until the last year.  Little Sis started going to the pool several times a week.  She started timing her swims and telling me about stroke length and body rotation.  She bought a proper swimming costume.  Then she bought a wetsuit.  Last weekend, I watched her swim 1500 metres down the river Thames in 34 minutes and come out at the other end fresh as a daisy.  Being impressed doesn’t come easy to older siblings, but impressed I was.

Okay, it’s not news that practice improves performance – but it made me think: am I practising my writing with the same degree of discipline my sister showed in improving her swimming?  What does that even mean for a writer? And how do you know if it’s paying off?

In the first month after I left my job, I was focussed on finishing the first draft of my novel.  I made sure I wrote a minimum of 2,000 words a day.  Some days it was easier than others.  I don’t think what I wrote in the last week of the month was any better than what I wrote in the first.  I’m not sure it was any better than what I wrote when I first started the manuscript, two years ago.floating rubber ring

I’m now struggling through the editing process.  One third of the way through, I’m no clearer than I was at the beginning on whether my edits are improvements or just changes.

Before I go and slit my wrists, I’m going to ferret out a few positives.

I have at least written regularly.  My own stuff, that is, not the policy papers or letters or emails I wrote in my job. I think the creative process now comes a bit more readily.  I’ve always been able to string a sentence together (feel free to take issue with that)  but my imagination doesn’t need quite the prodding it once did to stir into life.  Sometimes it used to refuse to get out of bed at all; these days, it only gets to hit the snooze button once or twice before grumbling into consciousness.

Thanks to my writing group, the excellent London Writers’ Café, I’m slowly reclaiming my critical faculties. I find I have things to say about other people’s work. At some point, this has got to (surely?) translate into being able to critique my own writing.

I know I have a lot more to do.  I subscribe to some great writers’ prompts and fail to do anything with them.  I read other blogger’s short stories and don’t get beyond telling myself I should give flash fiction a go.  I faff about reading other people’s tweets when I should be editing the bloody manuscript.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? And if it does, have you found any techniques to help? And any ways to assess your progress?

One thing’s for sure: I might not be a stranger to the swimming pool, but I’m not ready for an open water swim just yet.

An Appeal for Carol, Deserted By Her Inner Critic

I’d like you to imagine some tinkly, sentimental music playing as you read this.  Sad-faced children looking entreatingly into your eyes. Perhaps a kitten.

The camera pans to a small desk at a window.  A girl – alright, a woman fast approaching middle age – is sat, chin resting in her hands, staring out at the garden.  (There was a tree there until yesterday, but that’s another story.)  In front of her is a pile of typed pages, a little creased and dog-eared now.  The margins are filled with scribbles, crossed out and replaced with others, now almost illegible.  The woman twists and turns a biro between the fingers of her right hand, clicking the top so that the nib pops in and out.

Only you can help Tiddles smile again.

Carol’s cat: only you can help Tiddles smile again.

Voice over:

A long time ago, Carol – not her real name – dreamed of writing a book. 

She wrote first chapters – lots of them. But she could never get any further.

You see, Carol couldn’t silence her Inner Critic; the voice that told her everything she’d put on paper just wasn’t good enough. The voice that told her she was wasting her time. 

Then, one day, Carol decided she wasn’t going to live like that any more.  With your help, she locked up her Inner Critic.  She made herself develop a plot and characters.  She gave herself word count targets.

Carol finished her first draft. She thought she’d succeeded.  But the story doesn’t end there.

Now she must edit her work.  But Carol’s Inner Critic is sulking and refusing to help. Carol can’t decide what’s good and what isn’t.  Is she improving her writing, or just tinkering pointlessly?

[Music rises to a crescendo]

That’s why Carol needs your help again. 

For just one pound a month – I mean, with just one comment on this blog – you can help Carol know that she’s not alone.

Your editing stories can make a difference.  Please, post a reply and share them with us today.

Please.  For Carol’s sake.


People Are Strange – But Are They Strange Enough?

How different are the characters you write about to the people you know? Whisper it: how different are they from you?

Now, I like to think I’m fairly cosmopolitan. I live in a bit of London that could serve as a good location for a gritty and realistic crime drama.  My husband is a different colour to me.  I don’t have kids, but I’m pretty sure my cats belong to a gang.

They're good kids, they just want to belong...

They’re good kids, they just want to feel like they belong…

I was also brought up in a tiny village in Wales where there was one bus a week and everyone knew everyone else. I went to university, but I was the first person in my family who did.  I have friends and family who are doctors, warehouse workers, academics, police officers, company directors, tube station attendants and shop assistants.

Like I say, I like to think I’m fairly cosmopolitan. But I’m not.

This was brought home to me a couple of times in recent weeks when, as a result of circumstances I must conceal to protect the innocent, I found myself in company with People Who Were Very Different to Me.

If I tried to describe why I found them so different, I could say that some of them lived in different kinds of places – more or less affluent, small towns, rural areas or even just different cities. I could say that some of them had different sorts of family background and education to me. Some of them were quite a lot older, some quite a lot younger.

But really, it wasn’t any of those things.  It was that, for one reason or another, they had a very different outlook on life.  A different way of relating to other people that’s hard to quantify.  I found them difficult to talk to. I expect they had the same experience.

It made me think: how individual, how genuine are the characters I write about?  How different are they, not only from each other, but from me?

Okay, I’m not – to my knowledge – a murderous psychopath or an increasingly unhinged, phobic charity worker, or an anally-retentive, overbearing older sister (alright, I might be that last one) – but how far away am I really from the thoughts that go on inside their heads? From their way of looking at the world around them? How far is it possible to give them a life that isn’t, in some way or another, my own?

And doesn’t that make writing just about the most public bit of soul-bearing it’s possible to do?

Hmm. I’m glad I didn’t think of that before I sent my draft to my beta-readers.




Yakety Yak (or The Joy of Writing Groups)

It’s a lonely business sometimes, this writing malarkey.  Sitting there day after day, struggling to make characters that seem to have developed minds of their own follow the damned plot; plodding away for ages, typing, then deleting, then typing again; checking on the word count and discovering the tragic truth that, whilst you haven’t even looked at Twitter all morning, you’ve still only managed 200 words.  Keeping going on your own – especially if, like me, you’ve been used to working in an office surrounded by busy colleagues – can be a bit of a challenge.  So I was both excited and intrigued when I met a former colleague for drinks recently and he told me about the London Writers’ Café.

This, it transpires, is a group for unpublished writers that meets regularly to discuss each other’s work.  It turns out there are a lot of these groups – you probably know this already but this is still a whole new world to me, my friend – but, unlike many of the others, the LWC requires would-be members to complete a short questionnaire before they’re admitted to the group. The questions aren’t difficult – tell us about your current writing projects, what you’d like to get out of the group, and so on – but the message is clear: this is for people who are serious about writing and prepared to make a real contribution to the discussion.

Finding a picture of talking yaks isn't as easy as you might think...

Finding a picture of talking yaks isn’t as easy as you might think…

I dutifully filled in the questionnaire and waited anxiously for the response.  A day later, it came: I’d passed! (I’m not sure anyone actually fails, to be honest, but I’m not dwelling on that.)  I felt inordinately pleased as I added the details of the next meeting to my diary: look! A real, honest-to-goodness appointment for me-as-writer!

Well, the meeting took place yesterday and I can say it was inspirational – genuinely inspirational.  I’d been a bit nervous about it, to tell you the truth: I mean, these were clearly serious people and I’m a complete novice; but there was that appointment in my diary, and I’d been so proud of myself when I wrote it in – there was no way I wasn’t going. I did my homework in advance, of course – there’s still quite enough of the civil servant in me to make sure of that – looking at the summaries of each of the members attending, checking out their blogs and tweets. And, despite telling myself not to be ridiculous, I did spend ever such a little bit of time trying to decide on the perfect I’m-very-serious-about-writing-but-that-doesn’t-mean-I-take-myself-too-seriously-and-I-really-really-know-how-much-I-have-to-learn-whilst-at-the-same-time-hoping-I-have-something-helpful-to-contribute outfit.

I only got changed twice.

But to the meeting: in a nutshell, it was two hours spent listening to group members who’d volunteered to read their work, following by a discussion full of insightful, constructive criticism.  It was the kind of experience I’m pretty sure I’ll go on learning from for some time, but here’s what I think I’ve taken from it so far:

  • yes, there are a lot of writers out there who are really serious about what they’re doing…
  • …but that doesn’t mean you’re all fishing in the same pool.  The five pieces I heard read out yesterday were completely different from each other;
  • some of the points of criticism were the kinds of technical things from which I know I’ll really benefit – thoughtful comments on structure, voice and tone.  I’ll be reflecting on those as I go through my own editing process;
  • others were matters of taste – and even in a group of twenty or so people, the kinds of things some people took issue with were exactly those that appealed to others.  That’s helped me realise that expecting everyone who reads my writing to like it, or even to see good qualities in it, is an exercise in futility – it’s just not going to happen.  That’s not to say it isn’t valuable to hear what people like and what they don’t, just that I don’t necessarily need to take every comment as gospel;
  • literary criticism is a skill and it’s one that I’m very rusty on.  I need to brush up if I’m going to be more useful to other people.

Finally, what I’ve learned is that I really, really love identifying myself as a writer and being surrounded by people doing the same.

The next meeting is on Monday and I can’t wait.  I’m not ready to read at that one – which is just as well, because the reading slots get taken up a long time in advance – but I’ve put myself down for a slot at the September meeting, i.e. the one that’s sufficiently far off not to feel too real or scary just yet.  Watch this space for signs of nerves as the date gets closer…