Why This Writer Needs Other Writers

I spent the first half of last year being cross at my writing. It had taken me away from people and I was beginning to feel quite isolated.

Then something started to change – my writing began to bring connection, people who I could really hear, people who energised me.

It started when an agent put me in touch with an editor. Yeah, yeah – I know lots of us have been through this, and I was cynical but decided to take a leap of faith and pay for my novel to be edited. It was a wise choice. Editor, Sara Sarre, got my book, was enthusiastic about it. Her wisdom gave me a new spark. Suddenly I felt as if I wasn’t in this alone.

And it was a magical moment in June when literary agent Rowan Lawton signed me. My face hurt, my smile was that wide.

Writing has brought me new friends too. In November, I met up with a group of writers who I knew only through Twitter. I stood outside a restaurant in Covent Garden feeling nervous before I opened the door and sat down to lunch with seven complete strangers. It was one of the highlights of my year. Forget nothing conversations about the weather; here we talked openly about our fears, our hopes, our children. And oh how we laughed.

For a long time, I’d wanted to meet gifted writer Joanna Campbell whose work I admire. In December, I got my chance at the launch of her short story collection When Planets Slip Their Tracks. Her nuggets of wisdom have stayed with me. As has her book – it is so well observed and funny and I am enjoying it immensely.

I’m ending the year feeling grateful to my writing. It’s brought me some special personalities, people who have made my life better with their thoughts and funny asides. I’ll be holed up in the writer’s cave again throughout 2017, but I intend to make regular escapes to talk about it all.

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5 Things to Know about Writing your First Draft

‘You’re an old hand.’

‘You must know what you’re doing by now.’

These are just two of the things my friends have cajoled me with this week while I’ve done everything in my power (and some things that were beyond my power – let’s not mention unscrewing the U-bend of that blocked sink) to avoid starting the first draft of my next novel.

You see, it’s been a while since I faced the dreaded blank page. Back in December 2010, I started typing my first novel only to get lost in a crowd of superfluous characters. Then there was that literary flirtation with the love story in 2014 (the one with the unmentionably pretentious title – breaks off here to delete all blog post references to it). And last year I began the first draft of my third book, The Maid’s Room, which, aided by a detailed plan, flowed well.

This next manuscript will be my fourth novel and I have to confess I’m a bit scared. To quell my concerns I’m reverting to what works best for me, writing a detailed plan on a piece of A3 paper. At the top of it, I’ve scrawled DRIVE and INTRIGUE and CHARACTER ARCS inside helpful squiggly clouds to urge me to stay on course. And yesterday was a good day, I finished with 3,074 words.

Whether you’re taking part in National Novel Writing Month or going it alone, here are some first draft nuggets to remind you (and me) how it’s done.

  1. Don’t stress about the future. If you’ve done this novel writing malarkey before, chances are you’re inhibited by what lies ahead. The agent rejections. Will this ever get published? It all comes tumbling in, so that you might end up shutting down your blank page and looking at Facebook instead. Well, don’t. Stop thinking big. Just plonk yourself in front of the computer and type. I’m aiming for 1,000 words a day. But if you’re taking part in National Novel Writing Month, you’ll be going 1,000 better than me. 2,000, ladies and gentlemen.
  2. Do write rubbish. The first draft can’t be anything else, can it? You don’t know your cast of characters yet. They’ll probably be acting in a way that will end up contrary to their later, more fully-formed selves. And the voices might be clunky. Just keep on tapping those keys though and the characters should eventually start to take shape.
  3. Don’t go back and edit. Not too much anyway. Let me just mention my pretentious novel again here. I ended up with 70,000 words that might have been coiffured and polished to the max, but that didn’t stop them causing a catatonic state in one of my liveliest friends. I’d wasted so much time titivating along the way that I hadn’t seen the glaringly obvious; the book was drivel. This time I’m going to leave the editing to the end. This draft isn’t about perfection after all; it’s about making it up the mountain.
  4. Do turn up. Tidy your desk. Pop a couple of inspirational books on top of it, so you can read some pages to spur you on. My chosen one is Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey. I’m not writing a love story, but reading Grey’s flowing and immersive narrative puts me in the right mood. Make a deal with yourself not to get distracted. I try to write for an hour before I allow myself to get up and make a cup of tea. I became absorbed in writing The Maid’s Room – I’d get up early and write late into the night. The more you write, the more you want to write, and the better the writing gets.
  5. Don’t isolate yourself completely. Because a) you’ll develop twitchy eye syndrome, and b) you’ll stop writing well. Go to the party. Attend that book launch. Listen to your friends talk their hearts out. Seeing people will energise you and make your characters sing. You might even find a new subplot.

Right, I’m going in again. Are you?

Word-ometer: (as of Thursday 17th November) 28,267.

Trying to Write Like Your Favourite Author? Just DON’T do it

I tried quite hard to be Evie Wyld for a while. Instead of becoming a contender for the Betty Trask Award, what I ended up with was the sleepy novel equivalent of downing half a bottle of whisky with your Nytol. In a word, it was crap.

The husband falling asleep with an early draft of it on top of his face, and a successful novelist friend of mine saying, ‘The thing is, I really preferred your other book,’ failed to convince me that something was wrong. I carried on buffeting my female protagonist with dramatic gale-force winds and filling my hero’s mouth with histrionic piffle.

But finally I realised why, when I spoke about that book, all my friends tried to change the subject, and I went back to book one – the one set in motion by reading a Maggie O’Farrell book. The one that had ground to a halt because it wasn’t quite Maggie O’Farrell enough.

I ripped the whole thing up and started again and this time my head didn’t scream. ‘For God’s sake, it’s a lesser Anita Shreve.’ The words, ‘You’re not good enough to be the next Kate Atkinson’ didn’t repeat like a CD with a scratch down its centre. No, I just wrote.

Somewhere along the line, I’d shaken off the need to try and be a writer other than myself, and I ended up writing my heart across 330 pages. I think I might just have found my own writing style now. It can take years to find it, but let’s be honest, even when you do find it, it’s a slippery thing. Sometimes it turns up to do the hours; other times it slides through your fingers.

My short story collection this year is a case in point. It’s been a neglected thing – what with trying to find an agent and all – but I did complete two shorts. One didn’t work out – I loved the concept and the twist, but the voice was too weak, too damn depressing. And my other story did work out, I guess. Sea Gift is a contender in this year’s Bristol Prize.

But the point is, writing without constraint, without thinking ‘I need to be as good as ……..[insert name of favourite author here], well, it’s full of possibilities and sometimes gleans grand results.

So as I stare at the blank page again – I’m about to start writing another book – I’m going to remind myself of this and take another gamble.

From Rejection to Representation – 6 Steps to Landing a Literary Agent

Well, I have to admit my head is spinning. After more than three years of trying to hook a literary agent, Rowan Lawton is now representing me, and I am beyond delighted.

If you’re looking for representation, or smarting from yet another rejection letter, please don’t switch off. I’ve had some major disappointments since my first rejection letter in January 2013, but somehow I just kept writing.

I’ve kept most of my rejections in a folder called Novel. (It should really be called Novels, since I’ve written three of the things.) There have been highs – being shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize in 2014, for example, when writers and publishing bods including organiser Joe Melia said some lovely things about my work. (I tucked these away for dark days.) And there have been lows. At one point, five agents were reading a full manuscript, but all of them turned me down.

When I look back though, the extreme lows, the moments that hit me hardest were the turning points – not that I knew that then. My ego was battered purple, and just a tiny frazzle of hope remained – but I kept going and at the moment, I am so thankful that I did.

Here are my six wobbly steps to getting representation (I fell over several times):

Step 1: Write the Damn Book

I didn’t do a creative writing course; I got five books out of the library about how to write a novel, and started reading them. A shame then that I didn’t take enough notice of them. I scribbled down a theme and two flagpole events then started typing. I wrote 1,000 words a day. And two years later, in 2012, I had a book. It was riddled with telling instead of showing, and it had more tangents than the human circulatory system.

Step 2: Enter a Competition

I entered my novel, Out of the Cupboard, into a debut novel competition. And fist pumps and high pitched ‘yessing’ – it was longlisted. It went on to be shortlisted and read by a panel of literary agent judges including Rowan. I didn’t win, but to my amazement, Rowan wanted to meet me. A few months later in September 2013, we met up and Rowan gave me her editorial thoughts on my book. She read the book again after I’d made changes, and boom – she rejected me. I was never going to get another chance like this, never, I told myself. I buried the book on my computer and decided to write a second one.

Step 3: Write a Second Book

Clearly upmarket women’s commercial fiction wasn’t my genre, I thought. Inspired by Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, I began writing a dark and moody literary love story. Meanwhile I was shortlisted in the 2014 Bristol Short Story Prize with a panel of judges, including Rowan. My story was entered anonymously and although it didn’t win, it was published in the anthology. I went down to the prize ceremony in Bristol where I pitched my second novel to Rowan who said she’d love to take a look.

However I then decided that this book didn’t make the grade. I excavated book one and started working on it all over again. Things began to look up when another agent requested the full, using words like ‘brilliant’ and ‘wonderful.’ Then two other agents requested the full. This is it, I thought. Trouble was all of them turned it down. One added that, for her, it was too bleak and one of the characters was too wet. Goddamn it, I’d failed again. Even my eternally optimistic husband was lost for words. However, this was a turning point.

Step 4: Write a Third Book

There was nowhere else to go with this book. I spent three days thinking about how unfair life was. And then, you know how it goes, an idea dripped in, followed by another and another. I got out a blank sheet of A3 paper and started plotting. There were columns and thought bubbles, and notes in the margin. I met up with my journalist friend, Lucy, for lunch, pulled out my A3 sheet and subjected her to the equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation while she chomped on her quinoa. She dabbed her mouth with a serviette and when she pulled it away, she was smiling. ‘I like it,’ she said.

I wrote The Maid’s Room, in a matter of months. To my delight, I was shortlisted again in the 2015 Bristol Short Story Prize and several literary agents contacted me through Twitter to request a look at my third book. One in particular seemed extremely interested in it. I contacted Rowan once again and was really surprised when she asked to see the full manuscript. There were five agents now reading it. One by one the rejections arrived. They all said much the same thing. They enjoyed my book, but the narrative wasn’t quite taut enough, the pacing wasn’t right. I was lost, and low, the lowest I’d ever been about my writing. (This was another turning point.)

Step 5: Find a Fantastic Editor

I was sitting on the floor with my back against the radiator writing a freelance health piece when I decided to open one of the rejection letters and read it again. There’s nothing like torturing yourself, right? In it, the agent said she could recommend an editor to me. I’d had my first and second book edited though and it still hadn’t got me an agent. Oh, what the hell?! I replied, saying that yes, I’d love a recommendation. And that’s when I met Sara Sarre. She read my book in two days, and said that she thought it was really strong then cut to the chase – I’d only started the story halfway through the book and two of my main characters had no arc. I wrote, and rewrote while Sara mentored me – going well beyond the call of duty. Sara read my book three times in all, and finally said the magic words. ‘You’ve nailed it and I think it’s brilliant.’

Step 6: Submit Only when the Book is Ready

I sent the full book to Rowan and initial submissions to three other agents. Two of them requested a full. Ten days later, an email from Rowan arrived. I read the last line first, but there was no brush off. Rowan wanted to meet me and talk about representation. My hands were shaking, and I said, ‘Oh my God!’ quite a lot. It was a blurry-headed moment. A few days later in a cafe close to the Furniss Lawton offices in central London, I met up with Rowan. She gave me some more editorial suggestions for my book then talked about her high hopes for it.

I’m realistic; I know this is just the beginning, but all those late nights and early mornings, all that rejection, well, it was worth it. Because finally I’ve found an agent who believes in me and my work. So please keep writing – because those dreadful down days really can lead to something good.

Should You Write the Synopsis BEFORE You Write the Book?

I’m about to start writing book two. The characters are churning in my subconscious and I’m storing up real-life personalities and moments to be regurgitated later.

My story’s come from sticking two ideas together – one, taken from a newspaper cutting, the other, something that a friend is going through. The subjects fascinate me and have the potential to keep me gripped for the year it’s going to take to write the book.

A year?!  Who am I kidding, right? My first novel, The Maid’s Room, has taken me five years to finish – (it was abandoned on the laptop for a lot of that time, mind you). Three weeks ago, I started submitting it again. (Fingers, toes and other relevant parts of anatomy are well and truly crossed.)

One of the reasons my first novel took so long to write is that I was a greenhorn – I had no idea what my writing style was. And when a helpful literary agent met up with me and said, ‘You need to show not tell,’ I replied, ‘Oh, of course!’ a disguise of a smile wiped across my face; I hadn’t the foggiest what she was talking about.

I’m no expert now, but I do know more.

And one mistake I’m not going to repeat is leaving the synopsis to the end. I’ve already written it for my second novel. I know I’ll veer off it, that I’ll change my mind about things. But setting the story within the framework of a synopsis is a reassurance that this new book might just work.

It contains the following three features that are essential for any book:

1 The story starts in the right place.

Put your characters in an inciting incident in your opening scenes. That way, you’ll reduce the chances of a literary agent telling you, ‘I didn’t fall into your narrative.’ Writer: Take hold of the agent’s ear and drag her over the story’s precipice.

2 Characters have arcs.

By the end of your novel, your main characters should have gone through a change. They should be different at the end to the way they were at the beginning.

3 Characters are at risk.

How are your characters in jeopardy? Show how great the risks are. Don’t let the tension and drive go slack.

Writing a novel: False Starts and Second Chances

To be or Not to Be?

Positive, I mean…..

My little old book is almost ready to be frisbeed out into the world of literary agents again.

So when you’re submitting, what sort of mental attitude should you have?

I’m writing a feature on the forthcoming Rio Olympics at the moment, and researching past and possible medallists. I could take the Usain Bolt stance. I’m going to win, no doubt. Or I could be more of an Adam Peaty. ‘It’s not yours until it’s physically around your neck.’ (Hmm, that probably works better with medals than books, although……..)

book necklace

 

Away from the sporting arena, I could go Victor Meldrew. Yesterday, a photographer pal of mine told me: ‘This may sound a bit negative, but I think you should expect the worst.’

Say, what?!

(Note to reader – he hasn’t read the book). ‘Erm, I just mean you should think negatively and then you won’t expect anything.’

Maybe I should adopt this approach.

But just now an email popped into my inbox.

‘I’ve finished reading your book and I have to say it’s looking absolutely brilliant.’ That’s my editor, Sara Sarre.

So, I’m about to walk up to the starting blocks yet again. Prayer position, and breathe….. and back to that feature…..

(Header image unsplash.com patricktomasso.com)

The Frome Festival Short Story Competition

The Frome Festival Short Story Competition. Deadline: 31st May. 

Entry fee: £8

Prizes for 2017 are 1st prize – £400, 2nd prize – £200, 3rd prize – £100.

Enter your unpublished stories of between 1,000 and 2,200 words – either by post or online.

The three winning winning stories will be published on the website.

  • Entries should be typed on single sides of A4, 1.5 or double spaced, with pages numbered.
  • A separate sheet should be attached with your name, address, phone number and email address, plus story title and word count.
  • Stories should show title and word count only. Your name should not appear in the main body of your story.

For more information, click here.

Enter here.

I was lucky enough to win this competition in 2015 with my story Plenty More Where You Came From.

For tips on how to win a short story competition, take a look at this.

Writers: Why rejection is good for you

A rejection letter ruins my day. And the closer I seem to get to finding an agent, the more those letters sting.

But rejection has an unexpected edge. It makes your work better.

Every time I get a rejection from a literary agent, I’m crumpled. The words, It’s not fair! kick through my head in a silent, red-faced tantrum. I find it hard to lift a smile. Everything seems heavy.

But my mope always sends me back to the screen. How can I make this thing sing? I try again.

Rejection shakes your work up; it fine-tunes it. It reimagines and reshapes things. It helps you create something a hundred times better than what’s been given the big thumbs down.

But God does it hurt.

There’s a world of difference between the amateur book that I first submitted three years ago. The story is different, the title too. Many darlings have been murdered, but not forgotten. All that telling rather than showing has been rooted out and shoved onto the slag heap.

But it was only by going back to that really rather rubbish book and sending it out again, that it got a new life.

A rejection letter from a literary agent has led me to a brilliant editor and mentor who’s helped me write a book with all the things that were missing from that first attempt. Pace, tension, character arcs – things I’d hadn’t even realised weren’t there. It was only by sending out my book again and getting rejected over and over that I found her.

She (and me) thinks my book is just about ready – one more scene to write, two more proofreads and then ping – I’m hoping that this book might earn itself a new R word. Representation.

Should you base your characters on real-life people?

‘If they’re based on somebody else, in a funny way it’s an infringement of a copyright. That person owns his life, has a patent on it. It shouldn’t be available for fiction,’ said author Toni Morrison in a recent interview with The Paris Review.

Which got me thinking, do I ever copy from life?

I use aspects of things – situations, people’s personality quirks, the way they look. I apply a heavy dose of imagination then write.

To put it the Maggie O’Farrell way: ‘I think all fiction is a patchwork of things you borrow, things you lift from real life and others you simply make up.’

To copy directly would be plagiarism, right? And a tad risky. I mean look what happened to novelist Gregoire Delacourt when a court ordered him to pay actress Scarlett Johansson 2,500 euros for his ‘demeaning’ depiction of a female lookalike in his book The First Thing We Look At.

And although few of these cases get as far as court, writing is a risk. Ablene Cooper, a housekeeper for the family of the brother of The Help author Kathryn Stockett filed a suit. Cooper claimed that her image and likeness had been used without permission for one of the main characters, Abileen Clark. The case was dismissed because the one-year statute of limitations had elapsed.

If my book ever makes it into print, I wonder who’ll be looking for themselves in the margins. My mum is convinced I’ve used her personality for my central character. ‘I haven’t,’ I said. ‘Ya wee devil,’ she replied. I might add that not once does my main woman say ya wee devil. Hailing as she does from the Philippines, it’d be completely out of character. She does however give everyone nicknames (like my mum). A work colleague of my mum’s whose wayward hair failed to stay in a daily chignon became Bird’s Nest. A neighbour became Margaret with the Dug, to distinguish her from the five other Margarets living on the street. Probably best not to mention The Space Cadet or Whhhhhhhy Me????? at this juncture, but the point is, my mum can see herself in my main character.

Some of the people who’ve read earlier versions of the book, reckon my other main character, Juliet, is me. But a couple of months ago, a literary agent, who was admittedly giving me positive feedback at the time, confessed, ‘Juliet’s too wet for me to really care about her.’ Ouch. Out came the drying-up cloth, and in went optimism and some classic lines delivered by one of my best friends. (She’s bound to recognise them). For the record though, Juliet isn’t my friend, neither is she me. I haven’t ever given anyone mouth to mouth resuscitation like Juliet although I did practise on a plastic model when St John Ambulance came to our school once. There was dribble involved.

The few times I’ve tried to write a character based entirely on a person I’ve known, it simply hasn’t worked. Writing like this is a dead end (for me). Copying people is like trying to copy another writer’s style – it just leads to bad writing – oh, and lawsuits.

So best stick to the tried and tested method. Let real events and people send your imagination into a spin, then invention will do the rest of work.