The Surprising Benefits of Volunteering

For the past months, I’ve been volunteering as a delivery driver for Crossroads Care Richmond and Kingston which supports carers in the community. During the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, the charity expanded its remit temporarily and started looking after other people too – anyone who was shielding and unable to go out and pick up their medication and shopping. 

I’ve started this blog post a couple of times now, but each attempt sounded so worthy that I ended up throwing them into the bin. My contribution has been small really in comparison to the other volunteers in the team. I’ve been doing one or two days a week whereas there are women and men who’ve been delivering food and medicine to people all day, every day for months. Then there are the two incredible women who took many of the hundreds of phone calls that deluged the charity office as the pandemic took hold. They set up filing and computer systems; they got to know every single client by name and by need. It is a strange sign of the times that it was only yesterday that I saw the full face of one of those women because every time I have been in the office she has been so diligently wearing her face mask. 

I have answered phones and listened to people with no one else to talk to, so that the sheer relief of chatting had made them cry. I have delivered food bank parcels and medicine. I have stood outside a block of flats talking to a man suffering from dementia who could not remember how many children he had. When I asked him whether he needed me to guide him back into his flat, he snapped: ‘I’m not that bad!’

There are many other moments that I will carry with me too. Chatting to a couple in their 90s with their arms around each other at their front door; two proposals of marriage from a grumpy old man. Whenever anyone says, ‘you’re so good to be working for a local charity,’ to be honest, I feel a little bit fraudulent – you see, I’m getting far more back than I am putting in.

I have been freelance for many years now, first as a feature writer then as a novel writer and editor of books, but how I have missed people. Through volunteering I have got people back.

Volunteering has given me something entirely unexpected too. Meeting so many people is stimulating in a way that sitting at a desk on my own just isn’t, so now when I do sit down to write, ideas for stories keep dropping into my head.

I had thought I’d only be volunteering during lockdown, but working for Crossroads Care has been so rewarding that I’m not planning to hang up my lanyard any time soon.

 

Step Away From Your First Chapter

A few weeks ago, I finished the first draft of my third novel. It was a rough old thing, scribbled with question marks, tenses kept switching and there was an occasional foray into first person even though I’m writing in third. My first chapter, though, was pristine. I had spent many hours gazing at it, tucking in its saggy bits, titivating it until it was so tight, it could hardly move.

It had taken me a long time to complete this first draft – not just because of the day job, but because every time I opened the draft, I’d re-read that first chapter and edit it some more. I was all but whispering ‘my precious,’ at it. Certainly I had begun to view it through a vaseline lens. ‘God, this is good,’ I thought. And then I’d get to tidying it some more.

Of course, a first chapter is important. It’s your chance to hook your reader into your story, so it should contain some suggestion of the action that’s about to unfold in your novel; perhaps it’ll show some central dilemma. My first chapter did just that.

The problem was I’d become stranded there. Instead of moving on and finishing the first draft by which time I would have come to know my characters and the way they speak, I wasted time re-reading my first chapter and marvelling over its supposed perfection. What a deluded procrastinator I was.

When I was about 10,000 words into this first draft, I gave it to a couple of people to read and they both agreed it was ‘overwritten’. I wasn’t letting loose enough; it was a bit staid.

That’s because I had no idea who the character was; I had not found the character’s true voice. Despite drama and a few clever sentences, the pages were pretty much empty.

As soon as I finished my first draft, I started to write my second draft, and the first thing to be booted out was that first chapter. I retained some of the essence of it, but there was a new voice, new thoughts – it now feels much freer and more authentic. 

So step away from that first chapter. Don’t waste time editing it to within an inch of its life. And a warning: the addiction clearly runs deep because even though I’m well into my second draft, the pull to keep re-reading that first chapter remains strong.

 

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Why I Abandoned The Book I Was Writing – interview in today’s The Gloss Magazine

I am so thrilled to feature in today’s The Gloss Magazine interviewed by the wonderful Sophie Grenham. I’m talking jogging (aka fast walking), what it’s like to have to abandon a book because another author’s already written it, and what the defining moment was that made me pick up my pen and write The Maid’s Room.

Sophie says: ‘Fiona’s refreshing and respectful prose gives voice to a nation of people that are often seen and not heard, and shines a light on a system that should have been challenged long ago. In preparation for her novel, she interviewed many women working as maids, who opened up to her about their treatment.’

Click here to read the rest of the interview.

Novel Competitions – Do You Have The X-Factor?

Huge congratulations to everyone who has been longlisted in the Blue Pencil First Novel Award. What a huge privilege it is to have read your work – and I don’t just mean the work that has gone through to the next round. I have marvelled over inventive story ideas and underlined beautiful sentences; I have fallen in love with many of your characters. It was incredibly hard to choose just 25 entries for the longlist because the standard was so high.

One of my Twitter followers has asked me what it was that gave the 25 that X-Factor. The answer is a strong voice – that quality that makes writing great, that stamps it into your memory so that you think about the characters long after you finish reading the pages. I’ve come across voices that are likeable, unlikeable, funny, bubbly and cross. It doesn’t matter what shape or form the voice takes as long as it is arresting and makes the reader want to spend time with it.

Liking a voice is incredibly subjective, but I prefer voices that show much more than they tell, that don’t explain too much, that make me do some guess work. I adore a voice that dishes out surprises.

I can’t wait to re-read the longlist again as we decide on the shortlist, then yippee – we get to read much longer excerpts to figure out who the winner will be. Good luck everyone, and a big thank you for letting me read your wonderful work.

How To Deal With An Author Publishing A Novel Similar to Yours

There I was beavering away on book three when I discovered that a well-known author might be about to publish a novel with the same central concept as mine. I had logged onto the early reviews and a reader had mentioned the words, ‘a mother with a secret.’ Oh, Christ, I thought, and so began my two-day long endurance until the book came out.

I bought it and read in a frenzy that ripped the pages and wrecked the spine. Huh – take that, stupid book! Reader, it was all I could do not to stamp on the thing, because what stared up at me was virtually the same book as mine. It even had an almost identical opening scene.

It felt as if there was a brick in my stomach. I was 50,000 words into my first draft, for goodness sake. It was possibly one of the worst first drafts I’d ever written, but still. . .

I’ve got the last three chapters of the published-by-another-author book to go, but in truth I can’t bear to read anymore.

Are there any truly original ideas anymore anyway? Isn’t everything just a pastiche of what’s gone before? I continued on this spiral of unanswerable questions that might have been snatched from my three pretentious years as an English Literature undergraduate. And then, I rallied.

It wasn’t as if I was writing a psychological thriller like this author had, after all. And my second half was truly different. Mine was funny in places, well, ahem – it would be eventually.

My writer friends helped persuade me that all would be okay. ‘You’re writing up-lit though,’ one said.

I plonked myself in front of the computer, determined to carry on. But all that fretting had provided a pause, and into it had fallen a chunky great question mark. Did I actually like this idea anymore? Did I really want to go on with it? I started doing some research – daring myself to come up with a new idea. I wasn’t sure I could. I read news pieces, features, true life stories. There was something brewing, I just didn’t know what yet.

A day later, I was in the middle of hoovering the stairs when an idea landed, and then another. Dots started to join in my head.

I wrote an outline and when I compared it to the already-done idea, I decided I liked my new one better.

Perhaps I’ll go back to my old idea one day (I especially liked my peripheral characters – sigh), but for now I’m moving on. I may not have 50,000 words anymore, but what I do have is a scruffy outline, a new story that I keep daydreaming about, oh and 1,600 words so far. I’m going to see where this new story takes me and hope very hard that nobody else gets there before I do, but you know what, even if they do, all will be well.

Click here for a survival guide to discovering your story idea has already been done. It helped me.

 

Holding Image by Ross Findon on Unsplash

How Friendship Helps You Write Books

A dear friend gave this canvas to me last week. It is a painting of the cover of my novel, The Maid’s Room. My friend, Paola, didn’t just pop down to Snappy Snaps and copy the cover onto a canvas, she took weeks to paint it, and what’s even more remarkable is that she’s never painted a canvas before.

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She watched YouTube videos on how to paint a canvas; she made regular visits to an art shop to match each of the cover’s colours; and she repainted parts numerous times to get the picture exactly right. It’s an extraordinary gift and a symbol of true friendship.

It was thanks to my friends that I carried on writing my first book, even when trying to get published seemed like a fool’s errand. My friends listened to me complain and snivel as rejection after rejection plopped into my email inbox. My friends made me laugh. They kept on regaling me with their own stories, and they made their way into my books, my friends – funny moments they shared, their burning questions about the state of the world, their interactions with people.

The Maid’s Room and my next book called The Swap, which is published in April next year, both ask the question, what is family? – if it’s broken, if it’s small, if it doesn’t exist at all. Sometimes people tilt their heads and look sorry for me when I tell them I don’t have any siblings – my daughter doesn’t either – but for me, friends are family. They’re the ones that connect, that get you, and they can inspire you to do all sorts of things you thought you might not be capable of.

So here’s to discovering talents you didn’t know you had, to art, and to books, and to friendship. Oh, and now seems like just the right time to stop faffing around and write the acknowledgements page for my next book.

5 Types Of Rejection Letters And What You Can Learn From Them

On submission? Then you’re either roller coasting upwards, or plummeting down; maybe though you’ve only just begun.

It still hurts to look at my fat folder of rejection letters, formerly known as ‘The Folder of Doom’, but I can’t bring myself to delete any of them. They’re badges of honour, aren’t they? Look at this pile, and yet still I carried on and on and . . . 

Unwelcome though these missives were, they did contain some upsides though. Honest. Here’s what:

1. The Encouraging Rejection Letter

‘You write vividly, well.’ This was my first ever rejection letter dated 21 January 2013. It was for a novel called Out of The Cupboard – which was a pretentious precursor to The Maid’s Room. If an agent was bothering to be complimentary, then perhaps I was onto something, I thought. I chose to ignore every iota of advice that letter contained – ‘There are too many characters to keep track of, and it’s taking too long to focus.’ I should have paused, thought deeply about what the agent was saying. Instead, I kept sending out the book regardless. Even if you don’t take all the advice an agent gives you, it’s probably worth taking note.

2. The Bog-Standard Rejection Letter

The standard letter where the agent’s assistant has typed your name over somebody else’s – ‘I’m going to pass’, ‘I didn’t fall in love’ – will have you tutting/swearing/crying into a cushion depending on how many times you’ve received such a response. Well, grind my ego under the sole of your sandal, why don’t you? Know this: there may well be a next time. Several of these bog-standard replies turned into requests for a full when I sent the agents a book that was more evolved than my first offering.

3. The Request for a Full (Followed by a No-Thanks) Letter

This will get your excited hands shaking over your keyboard, adding superfluous commas everywhere, and doing frenzied spell checks. It’s a moment to be celebrated because this could be the one. And if it isn’t, all is not lost. This is an opportunity to get feedback. Every agent that requested a full from me (bar one – see point 4) has given me invaluable feedback which helped me to improve my writing.

4. The Absent Rejection Letter

This is when the agent requests your full manuscript then doesn’t even bother replying. Ever. It’s happened to a couple of writers I know, and it’s happened to me as well. It’s incredibly disappointing, then relief descends. I lose my keys on a daily basis; I shove my post into a pile and riffle through it, papers flying, when I need to find something. So does someone as disorganised as me want an agent who doesn’t even reply to represent me? No, I do not.

5. The Rip your Novel Apart Rejection Letter

One agent requested my whole book then listed the things she loathed about it. Her email might have mentioned the words ‘brilliant’ and ‘talent’, but it also said my ‘story was too bleak’ and that one of my characters was ‘too wet’. It was my face that was wet after reading that. And after I mopped up my tears, I peppered the air with swear words. It was my lowest point, but it was also a turning point because it was then that I decided to set that novel aside. I took my central idea and wrote a new novel, the one that eventually landed me an agent and a publishing deal.

If a rejection letter happens to land in your inbox today, chances are you’re going to feel horrible. But you’re in this for the long haul, so use anything these letters tell you to make your writing stronger. Get angry and use that anger to power you on.

16 Things I’ve Learned About Publishing Since Releasing My Debut Novel

My paperback has been out for a week, but the hardback edition of The Maid’s Room was published five months ago. Here’s what being published has taught me so far. . .

  1. The first bad review hurts – but your back gets broader.
  2. A five-star review is fabulous, a one-star review can be amusing, but oh god, a three-star review. . . I prefer extreme reactions.
  3. Being published is not going to imbue you with the confidence you imagine when you’re still struggling to get representation – there’s a new list of things to worry about.
  4. You know all that gushing gratitude towards literary agents in authors’ acknowledgements, well, I concur. Your agent is your guardian angel, the font of truth, the person who puts their arm around you when you’re wobbling.
  5. Before your first book is published, it’s a good idea to have written the first draft of your second book. I’m not sure I would have had the head space to write book 2 with all the debut fanfare.
  6. There are some blooming lovely writers out there.
  7. Don’t compare yourself to other writers. Not everyone gets a London Underground poster.
  8. The editor is right 99.9 per cent of the time.
  9. Your mood is inextricably linked with your Amazon ranking, even though you’ll be unable to make any sense of the algorithms at all.
  10. The first draft never gets any easier – no matter how many times you’ve faced the blank page.
  11. A complete stranger saying they’ve connected with your book? Nothing beats it; it’s the most exquisite gift of all.
  12. Spotting your book in a bookshop is exciting, but instantly you’ll be overcome with a desperate yearning for someone to buy it.
  13. Seeing your book in a library will make you want to dance in the aisle.
  14. You’ll think little old you can’t possibly stand up in front of a room full of people and make a speech or give a talk, but you’ll surprise yourself.
  15. Publishers sometimes send you books to read – it’s like opening a birthday present.
  16. Want to feel good? Get off social media and write.

The Best Thing about Being Published

The very best thing about being published is seeing my book in libraries across the world. I’ve glimpsed it on library shelves in Australia and South Africa, and this latest picture comes from a reader in South Devon who loved The Maid’s Room so much she donated it to her local library.kfZ_FxWt.jpg-large

It’s a fantastic feeling knowing my book will be borrowed by people who might love it, and if they don’t – they can simply return it and borrow something else.

I’ve written lots about where the idea for The Maid’s Room came from, the anger that made me write, but its true beginnings came from going to libraries. My mum and dad took me to our local library regularly when I was a child. It was a place to be free, sitting in the alcoves reading, and selecting dozens of books to take home. It was here that I caught not just the reading bug, but the writing one too – if Jilly Cooper could do it, if Judy Blume could, maybe I could too. I buried my head inside books and when I emerged, I’d scribble poems, diary entries, plays.

I kept on going back to the library for more. I found ideas, information, glorious escapism, the belief that things could be different. I cried, I fell in love; I found empathy, nuance, and kindness.

When I left home, the vast library at Sussex University became my frequent haunt – struggling through literary theory, becoming addicted to Toni Morrison, smoking in the basement cafe.

After university, my library visits stopped altogether. I didn’t have that much money, so I didn’t buy that all that many books. No surprises then that my early twenties were an unhappy time in my life – I read little, and as a result stopped looking outwards so much; I became self-obsessed.

Things changed when I became a journalist – writing almost every day and journeys to work filled by reading. When my daughter was born, I joined a library again, helping to build her imagination and keeping mine alive.  It was good, essential even, to get out of the house and be among books and people.

When I moved to Singapore in 2009, and decided that this was it, no more messing around, I really was going to write a book, Queenstown Public Library gave me wings. I put so many empty slots into that creative writing shelf on the second floor. I checked them all out – Writing a Novel and Getting Published for Dummies;  90 days to Your Novel – (hell, it took me a lot longer than that).

After years of false dawns and endless perseverance, Hodder & Stoughton published my book in November last year. My childhood library – Barham Park – gets a mention in my acknowledgements. Like so many libraries, the council closed it down, but thanks to a group of a determined campaigners, another library has opened nearby, albeit one run by volunteers.

When I saw The Maid’s Room in my local library for the first time recently – cover facing outwards, not just the spine – I was giddy with excitement. People might actually borrow it, I thought; they might experience disgust, empathy, love, the idea that things can change. I stood there for a while just staring at my book. And when I returned a few days later, someone had taken it out. To see my book in the library was wonderful, but to see it gone better still.

Does Being a Journalist Make Writing a Book any Easier?

In this blog post, I ask journalists-turned-novelists what their steepest learning curves have been . . .

Sometimes people nod their heads knowingly when I tell them I’m a journalist. ‘See that’s why you’ve managed to get your book published, you were a writer already.’ But there’s a world of difference between writing magazine features or newspaper stories and writing a book with 300-plus pages. And the differences have become even more apparent since my debut novel, The Maid’s Room, was published in November.

I’ve been interviewed several times over the past three weeks and I’m trying to get used to being the one answering questions instead of asking them. Over the years, as a journalist, I interviewed quite a few people who didn’t have all that much to say for themselves – yes or no answers, without elaboration. All while my blank notebook stared up at me, along with the creeping fear that I wouldn’t have anything to fill my 1,000-word feature with. When I’ve been interviewed, I have to admit I’ve given some monosyllabic answers myself. ‘Why did you write that scene the way you did? ‘Er, I’m not sure.’ ‘And what about the juxtaposition of light and shade in chapter 7?’ ‘Erm . . .’ I’ve also fallen into the other extreme of filling the awkward spaces with seemingly never-ending gibberish.

Yep, I may be a journalist, but I’m definitely a newbie now I’m on the other side.

Here, best-selling authors and debut novelists share their thoughts on the differences between journalism and writing a book.

 

 

Fiona Cummins– Author of Rattle, and The Collector which will be published on 22 February 2018.

‘I was surprised by how exposing it felt to be critiqued by readers. I was used to writing other people’s stories – the focus of attention was never on me – and, then, suddenly everyone had an opinion. It gave me some sense of what it must feel like to have a newspaper story written about you, whether you liked it or not. Ultimately, you have no control over what others may think.

‘It’s certainly been a steep learning curve. With my tabloid newspaper background, I was used to working at breakneck speed. Publishing moves much more slowly. I’ve also had to learn to pace myself. Writing a 90,000-word manuscript takes time – I can’t just dash it off in a day.’

 

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Francesca Hornak – Author of Seven Days of Us

‘The thing I struggled with in fiction is making bad things happen . . . This isn’t true of all journalism, but in glossy magazines there’s a constant aim to create a kind of aspirational, fantasy world, where people cook recipes and buy £200 moisturisers and scented candles. In fiction, you need to make your characters miserable, otherwise there’s no story. At first I was a bit squeamish about that, but I’ve got the hang of it now.

‘Long deadlines can be hard too; there isn’t quite enough pressure in publishing.’

 

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Chloe Mayer – Author of The Boy Made of Snow

‘I work in news rather than features, so the longest it usually takes for my copy to appear as a newspaper article is the next day. In contrast, the book industry moves at a glacial pace! My debut novel, The Boy Made of Snow, was released last month – more than a year and a half after I signed my publishing deal!

‘As a journalist I write stories all day long, but many articles are limited to just a few hundred words. It’s a completely different skill set to make up a story from scratch and tell it over 100,000 words – with an arc, sub-plots, and an entire cast of characters.

‘The first thing all news reporters are taught is that they must tell the whole story in the first sentence; the introduction must contain the crux of what’s happened and why. But with fiction, you must gradually build a world and let the story unfold over time.

‘Another difference is that in journalism you must explicitly lay out all of the facts and be as clear as possible. Whereas with fiction, you often have to hold back – and what isn’t said, or revealed, is often as important as what is. So learning how to write a novel as I went along was the steepest learning curve for me.’

 

Juliet West – Author of The Faithful and Before the Fall

‘As a journalist, and especially as a news reporter on a daily paper, there’s a pressure to get your story out very quickly. Ideally that story will be word-perfect straight from your notebook. So when I first began to write fiction I attempted the same modus operandi. I thought I could file my story straight onto the page and all would be effortless and wonderful. Of course, what came out was terrible, so I would re-work every sentence, trying to make it perfect before moving on. I think I wrote three paragraphs over a fortnight, and they were desperately worthy and self-conscious and forced.

‘I realised I needed to give myself more freedom to write a first draft, allowing the story and characters to take root before going back to add polish and finesse. So that’s my top tip. Give yourself a break. Your first draft is yours alone – it’s not going to turn up in the next day’s paper with your byline on it.

‘When I did get a publishing deal in 2013 I was delighted, but also daunted by the prospect of a publicity campaign. Somehow I’ve risen to the challenge, and I’m really proud that I’m able to stand up and give a talk, or chat to a presenter on live radio. But I don’t think I’ll ever shake the feeling that I should be the one asking the questions.’

• Holding Image by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash