A Singular Sort of Holiday

Turkish Gulet Singled OutSingles Holidays are a surreal experience, and I ought to know; I’ve been on one or two – actually around a dozen. Most of the vacations I took between the ages of 35 and 45 were singles holidays, either alone or with a female friend – a fellow singleton.  If you’re… um… single, singles holidays are a good way to get away for a bit of sun and relaxation, when co-ordinating diaries and budgets with friends has become too complicated.  My favourite destination was Turkey, where small coastal towns and villages and wooden twin-masted gulets can’t be beaten for warm hospitality, dependable sunshine and great food.

Whilst the atmosphere can be stilted at times, singles holidays are generally sociable and good-natured affairs where you can join in and make friends or slip away by yourself if you please, accountable to nobody but yourself.  Most such holidays are hosted or otherwise corralled, to encourage some mingling, usually around food and drink – which isn’t unreasonable when you consider that most people have come away on a singles holiday to be with other people. Otherwise you’d go away on your own, wouldn’t you?

But here’s how it can turn out: You’ll spend one or two weeks with between twenty and thirty strangers.  Some will be easy-going and friendly, some tiresome and irritating; still more will be decent but dull; and there will always be an oddball or two, unique personalities, not necessarily in a good way.  Invariably women will outnumber men by around 2:1, which isn’t great – if you’re a woman.  The faces of this motley crew will fill your photographs but dissolve from your memory.  Months later, you’ll struggle to recall the names of more than one or two.

It’s not all bad though.  I would never have travelled to Turkey on my own, yet over several singles holidays I developed a deep affection for its exotic, laid-back charms.  I met one of my now closest friends on a singles jaunt too.  And I’ve even entertained one or two holiday flings – which burned hot under the summer sun and fizzled to nothing once the chill of the English autumn got into their bones.  That’s the nature of holiday flings though, isn’t it?

When I first contemplated writing a novel, I took myself away on an Arvon Foundation writing course. Write what you know, the tutors said, and it seemed like practical advice. But most of what I could claim any familiarity with seemed dull and uninteresting.  With my imagination stirred by four years of creative writing, I would not say this today, but that’s how it appeared to me at the time.

One thing stood out – those singles holidays.  Most people I asked were fascinated by the singles holiday concept, the environment, the behaviours, the… potential.  Some saw it as adventurous or exotic, others as sad and desperate.  Many felt those people willing to embrace such an experience were either brave… or bonkers.  I’m not quite sure where they thought I fitted into that summation and I didn’t want to ask.

For a writer, a singles holiday is a self-contained scenario, like a locked room in some ways; one location, more or less – a sumptuous one at that; and an uncomplicated timescale.  For a novice like me, that’s encouragingly manageable. Plus I understood the scenario, the mentalities and motivations. Then you need characters, and that’s where it gets properly interesting; because you can dispatch a potent cocktail of personalities away on a fictional singles holiday.

Once I got to recalling my memories and formulating my characters and story, I found the singles holiday setting was fertile ground for fictional misadventure.  Now Singled Out is ready to be sent off on its own adventure – to agents, publishers and who knows where – I’m excited by the story that has evolved from that first germ of an idea. I only hope others will be too.

Synopsis Crisis

Synopsis crisis 1Today I began the task of writing the synopsis for my now completed manuscript.

I’ve read books, articles and many, many blog posts on how to write a synopsis.  I know it’s more about what you leave out than what you put in.  I know how long it should be… um… between 1 and 5 sides of A4, depending on whose advice you take.  I know that it needs to not be a blow-by-blow account of what happens next, and next, and next.  I know it needs to be about character, inciting incidents, conflict, tension and emotional progression; and it needs to show that I know how to plot – and how to write too.

All that, it’s all very well.  I get it.  And I’m an intelligent woman (don’t argue…) with a good grasp of the English language and an intimate knowledge of the subject of this synopsis.  So what could possibly go wrong?

Well… I sat in front of my PC this morning and the words that spewed on to the page were a confused, desperate ramble around my plot.  Tangled, like a plate of angel hair pasta, a mass of fragile threads jostled for attention.  But there was no sauce and it was all very, very claggy and dry.

One thing was abundantly clear about Draft Number One; if I were reading it, I wouldn’t be reaching for those first three chapters.

At least I know it’s crap; self-awareness is a strength, I tell myself. But it’s only a first draft, so I’m not going to get discouraged.  No, really.  I’m not.  I’m going to print it out in double spacing with big margins.  I’ll scribble on it and chew it over for a few days, and perhaps the right way to tackle it will surface (maybe around 4:00 in the morning).

I know there are things that need to be worked out. Whilst my timeline is a snug single week in the life of my characters there are intricacies in how those characters’ stories weave together, impact my protagonist and move the plot forward.  I’m going to have to decide which of these need space in the synopsis, and which do not – there isn’t room for them all.  Then there’s my ‘big reveal’ scene, an intense mental battle between two characters. At the moment, it is dispatched in a single line.  I may only have 500 words to play with, but I feel it deserves more than that.  Or maybe I’d just like to think that because I bled all over the carpet for weeks writing that darned scene, I’m going to force anyone who reads my synopsis to appreciate the time and effort it took.  I don’t know.

I’m sure I’ll get there – I’m a writer and a marketer after all, so I should be able to cope with a synopsis. Right?  I just said I’d give you a feel for what’s happening in my head now the book is written and the selling game begins.

So here you have it – synopsis crisis, day one.

Wide awake at 4:00am

creativity inspiration ideas writer's notesWhen are you at your most creative or imaginative?

For me, annoyingly, my most productive moments – creatively speaking – seem to occur around 4:00am. I’m not generally insomniac, but I see 4:00am on the clock more than I would like. It’s a peaceful time where I live; nocturnal traffic is too distant to be audible and only slivers of light peer round the edges of my blackout blinds. There’s a chill in the air; the window is open a crack, as I can’t sleep in a stuffy room.

That’s when creative ideas emerge… like how to address a plot weakness, develop a back-story or reorganise a critical scene to make it more compelling. The still of the night seems to drain away all distractions and allow a flotsam of thoughts to float to the surface. Sometimes they’re fully formed and logical, prompting me to wonder, why didn’t I think of that before? Sometimes I get the germ of a new idea, something that takes me along a more lateral train of thought. Sometimes come daylight, I filter and discard; but often, those 4:00am shoots warrant nurturing.

I’d rather my creative fire came alight at a sensible time of day, perhaps as I sat in front my PC, ready and waiting to capitalise on the outpourings of genius, ideally just after I’d made myself a nice cuppa.

But no, 4:00am it is for me.

The chance of my recalling these inspired creative ideas when the sun comes up without some prompting is… well, zero. I will remember I thought of something, but by the morning, I will have no clue what it was. It’s a lost idea, layered with the frustration of knowing something promising was within reach, but slipped away.

I tried the advice you see everywhere – that writers should keep a pen and paper by their beds so they can make notes whenever inspiration strikes, write down their dreams and so on. But that would involve switching on a light and grappling for my reading glasses, all of which pulls me from a somnolent state into full-blown wide-awakeness, which guarantees I won’t get another wink of sleep until about 3 minutes before the alarm goes off.

Tried it, doesn’t work for me; but something else does. My tool of choice has become iPhone voice messaging. I record semi-coherent notes to myself whilst hardly having to peek through my sleep-sticky eyes.

This morning my iPhone held evidence of last night’s creative spurt; a drowsy ramble through a bunch of ideas for blog posts. Yes, I’m embarrassed to admit, I was awake at 4am thinking about what to write in this blog. But I got a dozen fresh ideas out of it; that’s not bad for a few moments of ruptured relaxation, is it?

I’d like to know, do you have a favourite moment, place or environment where creativity strikes? Is it a time of day or night? Is it about being in a particular place – a daily walk, a favourite cafe maybe? Do you need solitude or companionship, the presence of a pet, a backdrop of music, the hum of family activity, or the serenity of silence? Do you carry a notepad and pen for those moments, or a voice recorder of some kind, or do you trust your memory? Post your ideas as comments – they might be a help to others.

What’s your USP?

So ‘novice crime writer’ Robert Galbraith is revealed in yesterday’s Sunday Times to be the phenomenally successful author, JK Rowling.

One or two publishing houses are nursing their wounds having rejected the manuscript for the now critically acclaimed The Cuckoo’s Calling.  According to yesterday’s Telegraph, Kate Mills, publishing director of Orion bravely admitted she had thought the work ‘perfectly decent, but quiet’ and confessed she could not find a unique selling-point with which to market it.

It must be hard enough to launch a new author, with no public profile and no track record.  Without a compelling USP, it’s easy to understand why a publisher would not be inspired to invest their time, effort and resources, especially in a crowded genre such as crime.

I’m a writer with ambitions to be the next critically acclaimed debut novelist. Assuming I don’t have a gold-etched multi-million dollar alter ego tucked in my back pocket (I haven’t), my first novel needs to stand out in other ways.  More of the same, just like this writer or that book already on the shelves, won’t be enough to get a debut novelist off the ground.  Marketing and selling – whatever the product – is all about the USPs.  Uniques give the publisher something tangible to promote and give the reader a reason to take a risk on an unknown author.

I set out to write the sort of book I enjoy reading, but rarely find.  My (almost finished) work-in-progress is a slow-burning psychological drama with the sun shining on its face, but a dark heart and tension running through its veins.  I’d say it has one or two significant USPs for a publisher to go to work on.  It’s a book I’d take a risk on if I saw it on the 3-for-2 table at Waterstones, particularly if I was going off on holiday. (There – that’s all the clue you’re getting.)

I have 105,000 words to show for two years’ worth of evenings and weekends and I’m editing, editing, editing; tightening the writing, balancing the rhythm of the plot, ensuring my characters are consistent and credible and my landscape sensual and evocative.  If I stay on track, it’ll be out on the wind by October, in search of an agent to help it on its way to the publishing houses.

Then, when a publisher like Orion reads my first novel for the first time I’ll be hoping they feel a rush of blood to the head as they realise they have their hands on something different and exciting – and marketable; something they won’t want slipping through their fingers.

The beginning of the end – or just the end of the beginning

Last weekend was the last gasp of summer and I spent it in the garden.  Not weeding and watering, but with my fingers glued to the keyboard.  Yes, I have at last reached the end of my first draft.  My story is complete.

Well, sort of.

I’m at a surreal moment of elation and crisis.  I’m thrilled at having got this far, but keenly aware that my story is full of holes, inconsistencies and great chunks I want to change, improve and delete – and add too, I think.  There are character inconsistencies and plot weaknesses, to say nothing of the sections I first wrote a year ago that today make me curl into a ball and weep.   And that’s before I start on the inevitable adverb cull and punctuation review.

I’ve learned so much in the last 18 months, and come so far, but there’s so much still to do.

And you know, I’d love to write great huge blog posts, but what I really want is to get on with finishing my story. You understand, don’t you?