Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Autumn is already turning into a fruitful time for me.

2015-10-02 17.13.07Autumn is my favourite time of year. I love the turn of the season, the explosion of colours and smells; I love that transitional blend of chill mornings and still warm, sunny afternoons. I love to see banks of blackberries ripening in the park. I love it when #Strictly starts up again on the telly.

One month into a(nother) healthy eating/exercise campaign and already a notable few pounds less lumbersome, a simple commitment to an early morning walk (weather permitting – I’m not yet a friend of Parkas and Pakamacs) has begun to embed itself into my routine, sending oxygen to all the parts that need waking up as the day begins.

In the park this morning
In the park on Sunday morning

So it is that for the last few weeks I’ve been feeling increasingly fruitful where I have for months been feeling, well, a bit… stale.

2015-09-10 21.24.42My fruitful phase got off to a good start in early September when I retreated with the folks of Circle of Missé in France, spending six intensive days working on the structure for Novel Number Two. It took me a little over 4 days to nail it – that’s what happens when you push everything else aside and make the story your priority. Wayne and Aaron at Circle of Missé know just how to create the perfect environment for writerly focus. In a sublime setting, and with the opportunity to socialise with other writers and enjoy amazing meals every evening, it’s somehow easier to dedicate yourself to the writing – or the thinking and planning of the writing – throughout the day.

I came home with a roadmap and some very positive feedback on my ideas. Now I’m back on my horse, and back to that bare-minimum 500-words-a-week commitment – the one that should see me in perpetual motion (ideally a great deal faster than 500 words a week) through my first draft.

2015-10-04 14.13.45

On Saturday night, autumn brought yet more writerly stimulus – courtesy of my local library service, who have organised a month long festival of literature, arts and music in my borough, called Culture Bite. That’s already amazing, when so many other library services are in decline. Even more amazing, no less than three exceptional new authors came to talk about their debut psychological novels. Clare Mackintosh, with her Sunday Times/Richard & Judy triumph, I Let You Go, which begins with a tragic accident; Rebecca Whitney with The Liar’s Chair, a dark tale of a toxic marriage; and Renee Knight with Disclaimer, about a woman who finds her own darkest secret within the pages of of a novel. These are the kind of books I love to read, and the kind of books I aspire to write. All three writers were so generous of their time, their enthusiasm and – when they learned I had written and self-published my first – their warm encouragement and support. Thank you – all of you – for a fabulous evening, and for sharing your insights and experiences so openly.

Did you realise, you’re living my dream?

Birth of a Book: Week 2 #amwriting

acorns-57305_1280To plan, or not to plan, this is the question

I’m more of a planner, than a pantser, which means I can’t get very far into a new novel without putting a bit of flesh on the bones of my scraps of story outline.  Those three or four pages need to evolve into a chapter-by-chapter summary before I begin to feel even a little bit comfortable about where things are going.

I’m not obsessive about it. I won’t end up with 10,000 words, perhaps 3,000 all told, in table format, so I can juggle the chapters around. (And no… so far, for those who are interested in this kind of thing – no Scrivener, just MSWord.) I write a few lines about what happens in each chapter, plus – and this is very important – a note of qualification; an answer to the question… what is this chapter doing in the story? That means either (i) how is the chapter moving the story forward, or (ii) what is it telling the reader about a key character. If it doesn’t do one or the other, it has no business being in the story.

So planning has taken up what time I allocated this week, and I’m satisfied that things are taking shape. I’m about half way through, and I’m pretty sure i know where the rest is going – that’s for next week. When I’m done, I can pick my way forward through the chapters, knowing what I need to write.

Do things change as I go along? You bet they do. Things I think will work, don’t. Things I’ve forgotten, emerge. Characters evolve in ways I hadn’t anticipated. New ideas arrive. So I’m certain I’ll be re-engineering my chapter-by-chapter as I go along. That’s a given. But wherever it goes, I have to begin with a plan.

Planning aside, I’m determined to keep up with my minimum 500-word commitment (I can’t allow myself fail after just 2 weeks). So Saturday saw me out in the garden with my laptop, bashing my way to 800 words.  Hardly a stellar performance, but the plan came first this week; that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Oh… and one other thing – a happy motivational moment. Singled Out hit that magic 100 sold copies milestone this week.  It got there with the aid of a promoted post on Facebook of which, more later, once the promo is over and I know whether or not I broke even or got ahead by a few quid. Still… One. Hundred. Sold. Copies. Break even or not, it was worth it.

I’m a minnow in an ocean of self-publishing fish, but I confess, I feel chuffed. It’s a start. Onward and upward.

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.

What’s my genre?

Notebook 03

One of the things I struggled with when preparing the framework text for query letters/emails, was genre.  I’m a marketer in my current day job, so I understand perfectly well why it’s helpful for agents and publishers to be able to classify a book according to what category or categories it falls within.  Amongst other things, genre (and, by the way, sub-genre and sub-sub-genre) will point to a likely audience, set expectations as to the content and style, and drive decisions on cover design, marketing and promotion.

Knowing your genre means you can pinpoint authors whose books bear similarities to your own – although whether you indicate same to agents in your submission material is a matter of fierce debate here and there on the interweb.  Either (i) do it because it helps the agent figure out where you might sit in their talent stable or (ii) don’t do it because it makes you seem cocky and pretentious and you should let them be the judge. No help there then.

Inevitably for every mainstream genre, there are gazillions of sub-genres, and sub-sub genres, and it’s up to you how far you navigate the tributaries, to arrive at a label which adequately categorises the novel you’re writing.

What follows here is not some great rambling on the whys and wherefores of genre – if you’re looking for guidance in categorising your own writing, Google is your friend.  There is already more help out there than you can possibly need in an entire literary lifetime.  This is about me and my genre, and how I got there.

The first issue was the question of literary vs commercial.  Commercial books – apparently – sell in large volumes to an audience which may not be sufficiently discerning – apparently – to mind that books in this category may – apparently – not be all that well written.  In commercial fiction – apparently – the plot is the only thing that matters. Everything else (characterisation, setting, sensory detail, realistic dialogue, linguistic style, grammar…) is inconsequential relative to the plot.  It may therefore have been thrown together and served up as a literary and linguistic dog’s dinner – and – apparently – nobody minds.

Literary fiction, on the other hand, is all about the quality of the writing, and how poetic, evocative or mesmerising it is.  And the plot?  Who needs plotting when the writing, line by line, word by beautiful, witty, well-chosen word, is such a sublime joy to read.  Apparently.

For those of us who fall somewhere between the sublime and the ridiculous (no, I’m not getting drawn on which is which, thank you very much) there is a wealth of options for that first level categorisation, amongst which Quality Commercial, Mainstream Literary, Literary-Commercial Crossover, Book Club, or even more specifically, ‘Richard & Judy’, and my personal bête noir, LitLite.

I vacillate between Quality Commercial and Book Club for Singled Out.  Books which end up on book club reading lists tend to offer plenty of scope for discussion around moral dilemmas, character qualities or shortcomings and so on – and I like that.  And Quality Commercial?  I don’t see what’s wrong with cherishing the vision that I’ve written something which might be simultaneously popular/saleable and well-written.  An agent or publisher will probably put me straight one of these days.

Next, there’s the subject and content of the story.  At the high level, is it a romance or a thriller?  Is it science fiction or magic realism, chic-lit or crime?  Is it humorous or historical, fantasy or satire, politics or parody? Is it erotic, domestic or dynastic?  And… breathe.  Yes, if you’ve looked into this, you’ll realise as I did, there are myriad ways to slice-and-dice for genre.  There’s a crime in my story, but it’s not, technically speaking, a crime novel – there’s no mystery (well, not much mystery) and no police (ah, almost no police).  There is a little romance and an erotic moment or two (no sniggering at the back please), but not enough to make it a romance and certainly not enough to position it on the same shelf as Fifty Shades of Naughty.

Having read several (too many?) blog posts and articles, I think I’ve got there.  The genre I’ve concluded best fits Singled Out is Psychological Suspense. Theoretically this is a crime fiction sub-genre – but that’s as close as it’s going to get to crime.

The elements which characterise psychological suspense include the following:

  • Psychological suspense may use crime as a pretext for investigating psyche and personality, but the story is about the context of the crime, rather than the crime itself.
  • There’s often no mystery as to who committed the crime – what psychological suspense is interested in is not whodunnit, but whydunnit.
  • Psychological suspense is about the mind of a criminal – and the other people involved.  There will be insights, observations and reflection, from all sides of the house.
  • Psychological suspense stories are often told from multiple points of view – from inside the minds of protagonist and antagonist alike.
  • The overarching mood is one of dread or malignity – a sustained suspense embedded with moments of heightened tension, rather than a build-up to one massive peak.
  • Psychological suspense stories often feature psychologically damaged central characters such as sociopaths, or people with weaknesses, phobias, a tragic past, the weight of guilt or shame bearing down.
  • The reader can see what’s happening before it happens – they watch, seemingly helpless.  I liken it to the reader banging soundlessly on a window, trying to attract the attention of a character, who walks innocently towards some terrible scenario or event, content in the company of the person the reader knows to be dangerous.
  • Interestingly, psychological suspense is often ambivalent when it comes to ethics and justice.  There are moral ambiguities, few happy endings or easy solutions; and the baddies don’t always get what they deserve.

I’m fascinated by stories like this – they’re the ones I go to when I’m looking for a good read, and so it felt good to be writing one, even though it’s not what I set out to write.  I started out to pen a wry dissection of the comings and goings on a singles holiday. But when I realised this amounted to not very much and would bore a readership to tears, the landscape shifted.  And that’s when I begun to learn how much I loved writing about bad stuff happening and dark, damaged psyches.

Hey ho, happy days.

A moral perspective – explained

Circle of Misse and Chateau d'OrionYesterday I posed a question – or several questions – around the theme of ‘to tell or not to tell’ and whether people have ‘a right to know’.  As I’d hoped, it generated some interesting and thoughtful responses.

Themes took a while to emerge from early drafts of my debut novel, Singled Out. I know this isn’t unusual, that themes often take some time to show themselves.  We know what kind of story we want to write, but it isn’t until the characters take hold of the action, that the themes offer themselves up. I held my breath and eventually they came out from the shadows.

One theme, and the reason for yesterday’s post is – yes, you guessed: To tell or not to tell.

Perversely (sorry about this) I can’t tell you much about the scenario, and I’m obviously not going to give away the plot.  However, the views expressed in the comments on yesterday’s post reflected some of my own thought processes as I wrote Singled Out, and they inform the moral and values-driven dilemmas my protagonist faces as the story unfolds.

Is it right to be open and upfront, whatever the potential cost?  Or is it ever better to withhold and leave someone in (blissful) ignorance?  Rigid morality makes for a black or white choice, where there are in reality – as all the responses articulated – multiple shades of grey, and many considerations which interweave and serve to confuse the picture.

I just hope it makes for a compelling story.  And maybe even an interesting set of back-of-the-book book club discussion topics.

If you’re writing a novel, how are you handling the issue of identifying theme(s)?  Did you start with a theme and work your story up around it?  Or did you, as I did, pile all the elements of your story – plot, characters, dilemmas, challenges and so on – into a sieve and keep on shaking it until the themes fell out?

A moral perspective

Circle of Misse visit to Chateau d'OironShould people always be told?  Does someone always have a right to know? Is the truth always better out than in?

If you find something out – something you believe someone you care about has a ‘right to know’ – is it ever better not to tell?  If you hear or see something you shouldn’t have, would you look upon it as your duty to enlighten whoever is being deceived, misled or lied to? Is it ever preferable for someone to be kept in the dark?

And what do you worry more about – the impact on the person you care about, of the news you’re considering breaking to them, or what they will think of you when you tell them? Or perhaps even, what they will think of you if they find out later and realise you knew but didn’t tell them?

I’m being deliberately vague here – I don’t want to tell you why I’m asking or give you any specific scenarios, because I’d like to know how you interpret these questions and what colour and shade you bring to your responses.  It would be great to open up a debate on the question of secrets and lies, and whether ‘to tell, or not to tell’ in the comments.

I have readers of all faiths, and no faith, and from all parts of the world.  Presumably that means a multiplicity of perspectives – and that could be interesting.

So are you up for it?