That’s it. I’m finished. (Again…)

eggs-14177_640Some time ago I wrote about completing my edits and finally having Singled Out – the finished article – ready to submit to agents. Okay, so I was wrong. But I’m really, really finished now. Honest.

Last September 2013 – over a year ago – I fancied I’d finished my book. I was happy with it, as happy as one could be with a first attempt anyway. Several passes through the text had resulted in me reducing an unwieldy 107,000 word draft down to 97,000 words, more acceptable to agents and publishers – apparently. I’d sweated blood over a synopsis and cover letter and begun to fire my story off to a succession of agents. Over the ensuing weeks there were flickers of interest here and there but nine months later, nobody had bitten my arm off for the rights to market my book.

Cut to July 2014 – and several months since I’d read more than the odd paragraph of Singled Out. Having considered the full manuscript, a couple of agents had offered me a few lines of critique. Ignore these courtesies at your peril, I thought. So I decided to take another look at my story to see if I could address the issues raised in their feedback. I passed the not-so-finished novel to two or three more beta readers too and significantly, I read it again myself from beginning to end.

Have you ever put a piece of work down and come back to it after several months? Then you’ll know what I found, and you’ll understand my crisis of confidence. So, so many surplus words, lines and whole paragraphs; description overload, formulaic chapter openers; language I thought was gritty but now just made me blush; motivations that didn’t quite add up; character clichés; pitiful pacing… I could go on.

Okay, it wasn’t a total disaster but what with the agents’ feedback and my beta readers’ comments too, it was easy to see a thorough review was required. Fortunately, with the benefit of distance came the ability to detach, to disown aspects of my narrative that I’d been so precious about, to murder those darlings and get ruthless. So I made a start.

The last three months have been, as they say, emotional.

At the outset and for several weeks I hated Singled Out. I was one small step from shoving it in a drawer and forgetting all about it. I resented the fact that as I took account of both agents’ and beta readers’ critique and began making changes, it seemed no longer to be the book I’d set out to write; it was trying to be something different. In the meantime it was a bugger’s muddle, all bent out of shape. It felt as if I were shoehorning things into the text to turn it into something it wasn’t. It felt as if I’d lost my way with it. Teeth gritted, I plodded on, resenting my mashed-up, mangled manuscript.

I was in the throes of a proper writerly temper tantrum.

I don’t know quite when it was, but a couple of weeks ago, I started to get it. Perhaps things had to get worse before they got better (you know that cliché about breaking a few eggs to make an omelette). I can’t tell you exactly what I did, because I honestly don’t know. But I started to feel better about my book. It had gone through another two end-to-end edits; I’d added four or five scenes, moved a few things around, played with a couple of the characters, injected odd moments of uncertainty and dismissed another 7,000+ words. And you know what? I actually feel quite a lot happier with it now.

The best thing is, I’m excited by Singled Out again, and excited by the decision I’ve made to self-publish early in 2015. For a start, I can’t face touting it round again when I know the chances of it gaining traction with an agent – let alone a publisher – are meagre to non-existent. Secondly, I’ve come to see self-publishing in a  different light. I want to manage my own destiny, put my story out there and see what people think of it. And… I want to get on and write the next one.

So that’s the plan. I’m doing my homework on self-publishing and aim to get to grips with all the necessaries in the coming few weeks, then publish in the New Year.

Then… I’ll just hold my breath.

When will it ever end

Last September, I dotted the last ‘i’ and crossed the last ‘t’ on my final final final draft of SINGLED OUT. Or so I thought.

murder your darlingsLast September, I believed I’d taken My First Novel as far as I could in drafting and editing terms. I wrote my synopsis (a traumatic experience) and carved off a chunk of text into a sample document. I took a set of fluorescent markers to my copy of ‘Writers’ & Artists’ Year Book 2014′ and lined up a shortlist of lucky, lucky agents who were to be the priority recipients of my masterpiece.

Then I sat back and waited for the offers to flood in. I waited, I blogged about the wait, and I waited some more. Instead of a flood, there was a trickle, and what trickled in was not overawed, enthusiastic ‘oh my word, this is magnificent, send us your full manuscript and come in and see us at once, and by the way don’t talk to any other agents until we’ve explained what we can do for you’ emails. What trickled in was – yes, right first time – a smattering of polite and kindly worded ‘sorry, not for us’ rejection emails.

I kept going, still fairly selectively. But those rejections kept on coming. The current tally is 17 agent submissions and 13 rejection emails. Of the remaining four, three date back to February/March and can thus be regarded as time-expired, rejections by omission. (Happily, the majority of agents have proved to be more courteous than this.) To date one agent, in theory, still has my novel in review, but as this agent accepted it as a courtesy following a seminar, I’m not holding my breath.

There was the odd flicker of interest. Two agents requested the full manuscript on the back of my submission, prompting palpitations and a wave of misplaced optimism in yours truly. Their rejections followed in due course.

But here’s the thing. Pithy though their feedback was, those two agents made broadly similar observations in their rejection emails. Not only that, but a very welcome latecomer to the beta reader party (you know who you are…) and a much loved and valued writing buddy both offered more detailed critique which, blow me down, highlighted the exact same issues.

I went away for a few days last week with these critiques much on my mind. The original plan had been to spend a few days rereading my manuscript and sharpening up a few lines here and there. But I’d begun to realise the ‘problem’ with my story was more fundamental than scrapping yet more surplus adverbs (though the volume of those infectious little critters you have to steel yourself to eliminate across layers of editing is a revelation in itself).

As I grappled with my folder of curiously comparable critique, I confess I grew frustrated. Having been so close to my novel for four years, I just didn’t get it. Intellectually, I could grasp what they were saying were the shortcomings. But when it came to addressing them, I couldn’t see how without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Worse still, I couldn’t see why my story seemed to need such fundamental changes. Cue a gnashing of teeth and much grizzling and pouting.

In the still of the night I lay awake, frustrated, fretful. True to form at around 4:00am, my brain at last began to shift into the right gear. I began to get my head around what they’d all been saying. I started to find my way from I can’t towards how can I?

In the morning I got to work, identifying sections which screamed out for more tension and scenes which demanded more mystery; I earmarked pages where the pace dipped, weighted by too much unnecessary detail; I hunted down paragraphs where the language had to be nipped-and-tucked to better fit the character.

I decided two of my main characters will undergo a name change; I’ve finally conceded they have too much of the stereotype about them, and it begins with their names. But that’s mind-bending for me, as I’ve lived with them for upwards of four years. Oh, and talking of characters, I’m introducing a new one.

If this all sounds like a major rewrite, I don’t want to mislead you. This is far more than the tweaking I’d originally planned, but it’s not a rewrite. The story is essentially all there and all the pieces matter. Everything fits together and the plot is – I still believe – strong. What I’m dealing with is tone and pace, adding suspense in places I hadn’t realised it was needed, keeping up the tension instead of allowing it to fade away, injecting moments of uncertainty, deleting yet more extraneous detail – that sort of thing. This means I’m back in murder your darlings territory – not just words and lines, but paragraphs, great chunking paragraphs, sometimes one after another – and it hurts. But I know what I’m doing and at last I can see why it’s needed.

So that’s my job for what remains of the summer – to carry on culling whilst I meld new and modified material seamlessly back into the story. Then the plan is to approach a few more agents in the autumn months. As to what happens after that… Well, without suggesting anything at all about my more grounded expectations for this part of the process, I’m booked into a ‘how to self-publish’ seminar towards the end of the year. So we’ll just have to see.

Am I the toiletry industry’s wet dream?

This morning, I counted up how many different products I apply to myself before I leave the bathroom.

Turtle-neckEarly on in my yet-to-be-published novel, SINGLED OUT, my main character, a woman in her 40’s readies herself for the day. It seems to amuse people that her make-up routine is, shall we say, comprehensive. This has been insightful, as her exact routine used to be my own in the days when appearance was everything and I faced customers and prospects on behalf of one global technology company after another, every working day. Safe to say, as a home-based freelancer, I’ve let myself go a little since those high-pressure days.

And yet… I remain in thrall to the toiletry and cosmetics industries. It seems I cannot rise in the morning without recourse to no less than 23 jollops, unguents, creams, lotions and potions. And that’s before I begin my now significantly curtailed make-up routine.

Impossible, I hear you cry! Well, here it is, this morning’s precise schedule of application:

  1. Toothpaste – a minty-fresh dental drenching
  2. Gum gel – yuk, temporary measure only, I hope
  3. Mouthwash – yes, I do love that minty-fresh feel
  4. Soap – duh
  5. Shampoo – twice, primer and undercoat
  6. Conditioner – topcoat
  7. Shower cream – soap is for the basin, bottled jollop in the shower
  8. Ph-neutral wash – muse no further upon this
  9. Shaving mousse – see, I still have some self-respect left
  10. Deodorant – what did the old advert say… may your armpits be charmpits?
  11. Hair mousse – it’s purple, does it really make my highlights gleam, I wonder?
  12. Anti-ageing serum – meant to sound medical, but off-the-shelf from Boots
  13. Face cream – I think this one actually does a job
  14. Eye cream – a micro-pot of magic with an earth-shattering price tag
  15. Talc – summer… summer
  16. Body lotion – scrummy one infused with tiny flecks of something gold, summer indulgence
  17. Athlete’s foot cream – purely pre-emptive, as I love to swim
  18. Heel balm – ditto above
  19. Lip salve – I keep a half-dozen of these dotted about the place
  20. Hair putty – gravity-defying sticky stuff
  21. Hairspray – I’m an 80’s girl, so shoot me
  22. Hand cream – I go back to this at least 5 times a day, but it pays off
  23. … last but not least, I can’t leave the house without a squirt… Eau de Parfum

As far as make-up goes, my significantly curtailed routine still involves eight products on an at-home day and ten on a going-to-a-meeting day.

You might call me a little OCD – and I would of course protest. But as a woman with a bathroom all to herself – I get all the cupboards, all the shelves, all the drawers, every flat surface, the whole dressing area, all of it – I can give free-rein to my corporal indulgencies. So I do.

Just don’t ask me if I line my jollops up facing forward with exactly, precisely the same space between each one.

Back to the Notepads

We hear all the time about writers settling down in coffee bars to write. But something else happens for me when I sit with a bowl of my favourite dark roast, watching and listening – and filling up my notepads.

A Writer's NotepadA couple of years ago I was drinking coffee at a table outside a cafe close to Earls Court, keeping an eye out for a friend who would emerge from the station over the road. I had a little time to wait. Like any good writer (irony, okay?) I started noting the sights, sounds and smells, but my imagination took the setting and wandered off into the first few lines of a story. Here’s what I scribbled in my notepad that day:

The spring air smells of coffee grounds and Gauloises; buses stutter to a stop, spewing diesel; mobile advertising hoardings promoting the latest action adventure, thriller blockbuster; sun blasts the bus shelter, a blinding glare; there’s a cemetery opposite, a land of death and loss; light and dark; crowds of foreign students jostle, yabbering, excitable; a pair of Japanese ladies, prim and bewildered; a queue of builders buying sandwiches, overwhelming the cramped cafe in their day-glo jackets and steel-capped boots… Watching… something happens… what? An accident? A crime? A car pulls up, screeching, a rear door opens and a man is shoved out into the street. He lands in a heap in the gutter. He clutches a manila folder to his chest. He’s bleeding from somewhere – a sticky ooze leaks from between his fingers. The car wheel-spins and vanishes. For a moment, no one moves. One of the builders sets his coffee and sandwich bag on the table and wanders over. ‘You alright, mate?’ he asks. The man groans. A BMW whooshes by, blue lights flashing in its grille. Back inside the cafe, someone is on the phone summoning an ambulance. Dazed, the man lets go of his folder, leaving a bloody handprint across the cover. A breeze catches it and it flaps open, drifting beyond his reach. A dozen sheets of paper fan out, hovering just above the tarmac before another bus draws up, sending them spilling down the road. The man moans, ‘no… oh no…’.

That’s as far as I got before my friend arrived. I don’t know if that moment, with its mix of reality and imagination will ever enter a story. But having written it down it remains vivid, rather than floating away like so many thoughts and ideas.

A few weeks ago, and I was in another coffee bar in a provincial town – yes, I confess, I have a coffee bar habit. I sat alone with my back to a table occupied by three people; an elderly lady and a middle-aged man and woman. It transpired that the middle-aged pair were brother and sister and the elderly lady, their mother.

I wish I could have taken verbatim notes of the conversation, but it seemed a little obvious. So instead I listened and absorbed, whilst trying to keep my jaw from dropping to the tabletop. The brother and sister each with their different agendas, were, in a well-mannered but very insistent way, working their mother over in an effort to persuade her to release part of their inheritance to alleviate their currently compromised financial situations. There was a business in difficulty; there were school fees to be paid; the burden of mortgages and so on. And all could be made right by the early deployment of the older woman’s money.

I imagine conversations like this take place quite a lot – especially these days.   I can understand the pressures which lead to adult children approaching their parents for help. What astonished me was that this conversation took place in public, within earshot of a dozen people – in a public coffee bar – in public.

It got me thinking; not so much about the inheritance issue, although that could certainly form the basis of an intriguing narrative. But instead the thought that a personal conversation – one that should have taken place out of earshot of anyone – a conversation overheard in a coffee bar, could open the door to a story, and pretty much any kind of story at that.

I’m trying to get together some ideas for my second novel – wondering all the while what will be the fate of the first. That’s why I’ve turned to my notepads. Here I’ve found the details of several more places where I’ve passed a few minutes over food or drink, or days of leisure; a detailed description of a spectacular barn conversion completed by the friend of a friend, painful notes on an excruciating weekend away (everything is material for the writer); characters from all sorts of places whose visual appearance or mannerisms have made an impression, tastes and sounds, and several, several other moments in time. I don’t take anywhere near as many notes as writers should (I imagine), but even so, I’m already amassing quite a diverse selection of what one might think of as springboards, creatively speaking.

Springboards are all very well, but when one can write about absolutely anything, when one can create whatever kind of a story one wants, and bring to life whatever collection of characters one cares to imagine, the question is this… where… where… where on earth do I begin?

Light and shade and a Singing Ringing Tree

Once upon a time, in my compact and bijou suburban garden, I planted a tree.

Amelanchier 2014My amelanchier is beautiful, but shy. She blossoms in early April in an incredible gown of a million tiny, delicate white flowers. She parades her splendour for just 3 or 4 days before donning a summer cloak of bronze-green leaves – pretty enough, but no match for the pure abundance of the spring blossom. In the autumn she’ll come into her own again in a spray of blood-red berries, and leaves which turn shades of fiery red, orange and golden umber.

My shy amelanchier boasts a little non-natural adornment. A set of metal wind chimes tinkles almost imperceptibly amidst her leaves and three strands of tiny mirrors drip from her branches. In the evening as they twirl in the setting sun, they cast a shower of light, spinning circles around and around the garden like fireflies or fairies. Even after years, I’m still transfixed by what I have named my Singing Ringing Tree.

My Singing Ringing Tree bears little resemblance to its namesake. Those of you who grew up in the UK in the 1960’s may remember a gruesome Central European fairytale which appeared on our TV screens first in 1964, and popped up once or twice more over the years. ‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ (or ‘Das singende, klingende Bäumchen’) was a product of secret, scary East Germany; a story in three parts in the style of the Brothers Grimm. It was without a doubt, the grimmest, creepiest and above all most disturbing fairy story I’ve ever encountered. And judging by what other people have blogged about this nightmarish narrative, I wasn’t the only one to be utterly terrified at tea-time.

If you’re interested, Wikipedia provides a plot summary here. The story revolves around a cruel and haughty princess, a prince who turns into a bear, a giant fish and – most disturbing of all, an evil dwarf. Yes, the 60’s had little shame when it came to negative stereotyping.

Singing Ringing Tree DwarfCentral to the story is an enchanted tree guarded by the evil dwarf, which will only sing and ring once the princess falls in love with the prince. But all is not well in this dystopian fairytale land. The dwarf cruelly keeps the prince and princess apart with devilish spells and tricks; and the path of true love lies dark and cold until the princess learns to mend her selfish ways.

Old-style fairytales have dark hearts and evil characters. Children live in poverty and get lost in woods; they are lied to and deceived, routinely starved and poisoned – or fattened up to eat. Beautiful girls are abused, locked away in dungeons and towers and forced to sleep for hundreds of years. It is a world beset with nightmares, monsters, evil stepmothers, witches, trolls and goblins. And whilst there are life-lessons within their lines and they usually have a happily ever after ending, fairytales are awash with tragedy and drenched in evil. There is much to unsettle in fairytale land.

But children enjoy being unsettled by stories. In the comfort of their beds, before they’re safely tucked-in for the night, they’re gripped by tales which drip with malevolence – so long as they end with that happily ever after moment allowing a contented slumber and sweet dreams.

Fortunately, as adults we still enjoy being chilled and disturbed from within the pages of a good story. In books, we meet the sort of characters we might hope never to meet in real life. Our nerves are jangled and our emotions and loyalties toyed with. Sometimes we don’t know what’s going on; sometimes we think we do, but then realise we don’t. We are misdirected and misled. We follow trails of breadcrumbs scattered by the author, uncertain what lies at the end of the journey, but excited by a discomforting ride.

I love reading stories like this – and now, I love writing them too. Dark tales by the likes of Joanne Harris, Gillian Flynn, Erin Kelly, S J Watson and Carol Topolski inspire me. I try to imagine my way into sick and damaged psyches and I won’t be burdened to provide a neatly sewn-up resolution or a happily ever after ending.

This summer, I’ll sit under the shade of my beautiful Singing Ringing Tree, as it tinkles gently and showers its dancing light across my garden. But as I push on with Novel Number Two, my thoughts will lean to the mood of the original Singing Ringing Tree and all its perversity, darkness and dread.

The Fat Bird – an atypical protagonist

Fat BirdI needed a strong central female character for Singled Out; a woman in her early to mid-forties, perceptive, bold and shrewd. When it came to physical appearance and with one eye on Hollywood (see how optimistic I can be!) I could have gone for an Angelina Jolie, a Julia Roberts or a Gillian Anderson type – lithe, slender, unsettlingly striking.

But I’ve gone for a fat bird. Yes, my protagonist – early to mid-forties, perceptive, bold and shrewd – is unapologetically overweight.

But let’s be clear, this isn’t your stereotypical one-dimensional fat bird. You know the cliché; the friendless, clumsy lump, drifting round in a cloud of body odour, stuck in a dull job and spending her evenings in front of the TV stuffing her face with donuts and chocolate whilst fantasising about an imaginary boyfriend. If she’s in a novel or a TV series, she’s the one that’ll get murdered, her corpse lying undiscovered in a secluded attic flat for months until her bodily fluids seep through the floorboards and attract attention. Or she’s the deranged axe wielding perpetrator, desperate for affection and driven to heinous crimes by her loveless, empty life. So far, I’m afraid, so very predictable.

That’s not my girl. Not even a little bit.

In the great tradition of novice writers I’m writing what I know – at least in part – because I’m overweight too. I’m a lifelong yo-yo dieter who has spun into middle-age at the wrong end of the string. Depending on your perspective, I’m fat, plump, obese, tubby, lardy, big, broad-beamed, heavy, chubby, chunky, stout, podgy, ample, fleshy, well-rounded, plus-size, large, buxom, curvaceous, womanly, cuddly, curvy, rubenesque, bountiful, abundant, voluptuous and any number of other flattering and not-so flattering descriptors.

Apparently, novice writers are wont to base a main character on themselves. But I’m sorry to disappoint you; whilst I wouldn’t mind being my female protagonist, and whilst she and I share one or two other characteristics, I’m really not her. I understand the physicality and the occasional self-confidence issues of someone who carries extra pounds and I thought it would add a non-stereotypical dimension to my character – and that’s more or less where it ends. I’d love to have her boldness, and her hair, come to that. But she has frailties and failings that…  Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it? Anyway, they are frailties and failings I like to think I don’t possess. I have others, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about.

When it comes to my abundant, warm yet troubled female lead, I’ve played it deliberately vague on the question of size. That’s because what’s fat to one, is curvaceous to another, what’s blubbery and revolting to one is alluring and magnificent to another. My readers get little – actually nothing – in the way of specifics. No height-to-weight ratio, no Body Mass Index, no speak-your-weight scales, no dress size – nothing… um… concrete.

Aspects of her physicality reveal themselves here and there but the biggest (sorry) clues the reader will get are from the other characters, who respond to her according to their own perspectives, prejudices – and desires. She could be a size 16 or a size 26 for all the reader knows, and I imagine each reader will see her differently.

As to how I see her – I’m not telling. If you encounter this woman within the pages of my debut novel, you’ll need to imagine her yourself; and the persona you conjure up will be informed by your own perceptions and preconceptions, alongside all the other clues to her character, spirit and style.

I just hope I’ve done a good job of bringing her to life.

Rise and Shine

scissors-editI have committed one of the cardinal sins of novel-writing.  It’s a trap which many neophyte novelists fall into, although when first I fell into it, I wasn’t aware of this.

My story begins with not just one, but two characters waking up.

Actually, that’s not entirely true.  My story begins with a prologue – albeit a short one, at around 350 words. But guess what? That’s another cardinal sin.

Never start your story with a prologue.  Or someone waking up.

I’m busted.

I wonder if these faux-pas explain the steady trickle of rejection emails. Each one is perfectly courteous and proclaims, using remarkably similar wording, that the agent in question does not feel passionate enough about my novel, to invest the time and effort required to launch a debut.  I understand. In a world where countless hopeful authors are chasing a finite and modest number of agents, my novel is not standing out.

But I wonder, is this because it has a prologue?  Is it because it starts with someone waking up?  Are those agents I’ve approached so far not getting past those two cardinal sins?  I don’t know whether they’re even reading beyond those first few pages.  Maybe, by the time my two characters have exited their respective hotel rooms and met in the corridor, I’ve already lost them.

For every rule there are exceptions.  One could list dozens of novels which begin with a prologue.  I’m reading one at the moment in fact, Dominion by C J Sansom.  I’ll bet there are dozens of novels which begin with a waking-up moment too. But if you’re a first-timer, a would-be, a novice… you break the rules at your peril.

You might argue I’m being naive, or misguided and put it down to my lack of experience, but I believe the wakey-uppy moment in Singled Out is important.  The reader learns things about both characters in those first few pages, including the roots of their respective frailties.  But perhaps it would go down better if I found a way to impart those essential attributes later in the narrative.

I want to keep the prologue, I’m afraid, but it’s so short I can’t believe that this alone would prompt the casting-aside of my manuscript. But if I get rid of the wake-up call and the early-riser breakfast, would it make Singled Out more buoyant?  Would this be enough to make it rise above the slush pile?

I don’t know if that’s the answer, whether it will bring agents flocking to my door (or popping up in my inbox at least). But I’m beginning to think, if I don’t try it, I might never know.