June: the month I went crazy, made a plan, and got impatient for July

 

 

It’s been a really tough few weeks, made tougher by the fact that I was expecting to feel all kinds of wonderful.

I went to Manchester for work. When I travel for work, I get to write a lot. Hotels are inspiring, somehow. But Manchester was in lock-down and even though I was as productive as I’d hoped, something about the atmosphere crept into me. Writing the climactic scenes when your novel is about a woman recovering after a sexual assault is traumatic enough, but editing them over and over while in a city with armed police on every corner was worse.

It was only a few days and I did what I had planned – I finished a draft. I had promised myself to put the manuscript away for a month, and expected to feel elated. Instead, I felt lost, empty, and like I was abandoning it. I tried to distract myself by researching literary agents and the publishing world. There was a lot of encouraging advice around but all I could think was – I’m not ready.

I wanted to get straight back and start editing again, but I’d already entered the first three pages in a competition and paid for feedback. I felt like I couldn’t do anything much with it until I received the feedback, and then I found two more competitions I wanted to enter it in before the end of June. My month of marinating started at least one month too early.

For three weeks, I stubbornly stuck to my plan even though it was increasingly making no sense and I felt rubbish. Why would I get out of bed if I wasn’t going to write? The strangest thing is that when I’m not writing, I find it very difficult to do my normal work, or anything much. Life is low, basically. Finally, I gave myself permission to look at the manuscript again. The problem with not writing very much is it’s difficult to start again, it really is like a muscle that needs to be used. I read paragraphs and knew they needed to be changed but had no energy or inspiration to change them. It started to feel like I would never get it to the next level.

And then I realised – the competition is announced this Saturday. If, as is entirely predictable, I don’t win, chances are high that I won’t want to look at it for a while. So I panicked, and in my panic I found my motivation. The things I have been thinking about adding or changing, I suddenly need to do before Saturday and the expected slump. I work well to deadlines. So I will do what I can before Saturday, slump a bit, then hopefully receive the feedback and work on the first three pages ready to submit to the two competitions by the end of June.

Hopefully, in July, it will truly be ready to sit quietly for a month so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes. I am impatient to read it cover to cover (so to speak) and then start the process of finding beta readers (volunteers welcome!). And then, I will start using all my research and find me an agent. Who would guess I also have a full-time job?

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When ‘good’ rejections are the worst

16511061-little-girl-crying-Stock-Vector-cartoonA couple of months ago, two story ideas came together and I sat down and wrote. I changed one or two things the next day but essentially it was done. I loved it. Magic happens sometimes.

I sent it to Kill Your Darlings, a literary magazine run partly by Hannah Kent, an author I admire. I have been determined to be published in this magazine for a while and this, finally, seemed like the time.

I recently received the rejection email. When you research submitting short stories, there is lots of encouragement to rise above rejections, but there is also advice to take ‘personal’ rejections as compliments, or even as successes. Rejections are usually templates, but occasionally an editor will write an actual email. The email I received from Kill Your Darlings said:

Yours was [a submission] that we seriously considered as it captured the chaos and senselessness of grief beautifully, and while in the end it wasn’t quite right for our upcoming issue, we would be keen to see more of your work in future.

It doesn’t look like much, but it’s a little golden nugget compared to most rejections. It is still hard to take, however, despite all the advice. In so many ways it actually seems worse. If it was actually that good they would have published it anyway, or kept it for another issue, or changed this issue so that it could fit. This is when I go into toddler mode, stamping my feet and going red in the face. But I WANT it.

In typical me-fashion, I decided to cancel my subscription. I immediately sent the story to six other places. I started writing another one, a better one! Which isn’t better at all because, while magic does happen, it doesn’t happen that often. This one will take work, which is fine. Luckily, I still remember that glorious feeling two months ago when I thought I’d created something a little bit perfect.

How big is a hole?

Digging ManFor the past two months I have been working rather feverishly on the basic plot of my novel. After the manuscript assessment, I started reading about plot and tried to use what I was learning to help guide my revisions. It turns out that an awful lot has been written about plot.

I read two books and reworked the whole thing, cutting out more than half of what I had and adding and adding and adding more back in. I read through the whole thing the other week, start to finish. It was okay. I had hoped for it to be a near-final draft but clearly it isn’t, because I want it to be more than okay! Rather than a couple of months of editing left, I think it will take me into winter again.

The first half seemed good but then something happened. It drifted and I couldn’t understand why. So I’ve read more and I’ve written lists and I’ve paid much closer attention to novels that I’m reading to understand how they do it. Why do we care about people who don’t exist? Why do we stop caring?

The characters were lost in plot holes because I didn’t want that part of the plot to matter, or because I hadn’t thought of why it should matter. I hoped it wasn’t obvious but of course it was. If I’m treating parts that matter like they don’t, it is very easy to start seeing the whole thing as something that doesn’t matter.

It is back to the drawing board with my shovel. I will fill in those plot holes and god damn it, it will be better than okay when I’m finished with it.

A lesson in compassion

After the manuscript assessment, I cut my 60,000 word draft to 25,000, and have since built it back up to 40,000, with a pretty good idea where the rest is going to come in. Before I go any further though, I have made a drastic decision:

I’m going to change it from first person to third person.

This is a painful exercise and one I have been avoiding for a long time. I did the same with A Perilous Margin but at a much earlier stage. First person is a great way to get a feel for a character at the beginning when you’re unsure who they really are, but after a while it can feel like it is holding the book back. There are fewer angles, and, honestly, the main character can start to seem really annoying because they are always there.

After switching the first chapter, I have come to a new realisation.. When writing in first person, the character is judging themselves, and those judgments can be harsh. I’m not sure how many people in the world really like themselves, but writing in first person makes all those little personal criticisms tangible, like they are facts rather than opinions. Switching to third person, all of a sudden the narrator sounds mean for judging the main character like that, even though when the character was judging herself it seemed perfectly normal. All of a sudden I need to add compassion and understanding to what is happening.

I wanted to give this woman a hug because her harsh inner monologue seemed perfectly normal, yet when it was no longer inner it was unimaginably cruel.

Why are we so much less forgiving of ourselves than we are of others?

A test then, next time you think you have acted badly, or are generally unhappy with who you are. Write down something you did, including how you felt about it, and then switch it to third person. It is truly astounding.

Verdict

I know everyone has been eagerly wondering what the result of the manuscript assessment was. As I mentioned last time, I had a long wait. When the wait was over, my overwhelming thought was: oh yes, I thought so.

She liked my writing style. She thought it was accessible. She thought the characters were multi-dimensional and their relationships believable. All this is good.

She also thought at least a third of the plot was unnecessary, and that huge areas were missing. She said it was great that she cared about the characters and what was happening to them. But she sounded frustrated that she didn’t know more about why it was happening to them.

It is very similar to the feedback I first got on A Perilous MarginPlot, I have come to accept, is my Achilles heel.

Which sounds ridiculous, as it is a pretty fundamental thing for writing novels. That, I think, is the problem. For years I have thought of myself practising writing, not writing novels. But writing 13,000 well well-crafted sentences does not make a novel. It makes a whole bunch of pleasant sentences and a very frustrated reader.

It is easy for people who don’t read genre fiction to scoff about plot. If it’s not a thriller or a romance, does it even have a plot? Many books feel like simple, realistic stories about simple, realistic people. No serial killers, no longing gazes over candlelight. When a novel feels real it often feels plotless because it is so like our lives, and our lives certainly don’t have a plot. That is what the best writers do. It may be disguised among ordinary actions but if it’s not there at all then you really do just have a bunch of people who kind of like each other sitting around. It is painfully obvious, and it doesn’t get published.

So I am embarking on a new learning chapter. Since I can afford neither a degree in creative writing, nor a proper online writing course, I am doing the next best thing. Reading books about plot. I will teach myself, because whatever instinct or natural talent I may have clearly does not extend to understanding things like tension, or pacing, or narrative arcs. And if I’m going to write about a bunch of people sitting around, I’d like to at least know why they are sitting around in that particular spot on that particular day.

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Words to live by

Five weeks and counting

sourceFive weeks ago I submitted a manuscript for an assessment. For the first few weeks afterwards, I worked feverishly on something new, wanting to get as much down as I could before receiving the assessment.

Now, the fever has died, and I am waiting.

I am still dragging myself to my 500 words a day, but the spark has gone, replaced by the most fun questions ever, such as

  • what if the assessment says, you’re wasting your time
  • what if the assessment says, you’re brilliant, this will be published immediately, after which I’ll be plunged into writer’s block and will never finish anything ever again
  • what if the assessment says, meh, kind of, maybe try re-writing in past tense and third person
  • what if the manuscript was so underwhelming she has actually forgotten about it

That fun thing I talked about really hasn’t taken off.

On the plus side, in five weeks I’ve written 27,000 new words, read 7 books, been to Ireland, started jogging, discovered Netflix, and volunteered at Oxfam on Sunday afternoons, while working full-time.

Perhaps the fever is just being distributed.

Perhaps this post is a magical jinx and the manuscript is on its way to my inbox right now!

2017

In 2016 I self-published a novel I had been working on for years. It was mainly so that I could finally count the book as ‘finished’, and commit publicly to this writing life. It is harder to be lazy when people you know and love think you spend all your time writing.

A Perilous Margin is still available on kindle on all amazons, and in paperback through amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

In 2017, I am going to try the traditional publishing route again. I spent the first days of the year reading publishing advice, writing advice, agent-seeking advice, and was filled with the intense need to make this part of my life. There is nothing else I want to do and so my options are limited. That might be a good thing.

I have never felt so close to publication, or so ready. I feel like all the work for the last nine years is finally paying off and I am this close! I have sent my new manuscript off for an assessment by an editor and I am terrified equally by the thought that it’s rubbish, and that it’s good. Our dreams are scuppered by fear of success as often as fear of failure, apparently, and I am trying desperately not to let that happen.

So, 2017, if in 351 days I still have no agent and no sign that anything is moving forward, I’m going to be very angry.

In the mean time, these are the potential novels I’m working on, because I’ve discovered that making things public is a good way of committing to them.

  • Still Life (working title)

A young woman takes a year off after university to learn how to be the carefree, easy-going bohemian she has always thought she could be. Months of partying hard allow her to break out of her shell, but one disastrous and damaging night makes her reconsider the person she is becoming.

  • Harriet Starling (working title/name of the main character because I haven’t thought of anything else)

A former sex-worker turned women’s right activist is caught off-guard by her daughter’s approaching adolescence, and struggles to teach her to deal with the common juxtaposition of sexual freedom and sexual violence.

  • How to build a temple (working title)

Tabitha, a twelve year old girl whose friends have disowned her, helps her mother build a temple in their backyard to compensate for the fact that she can’t afford to travel to Thailand on a life-changing spiritual journey.

Fun?

I sent a manuscript to an editor this wcaution-fun-aheadeek. There is a great service where, for a hefty price, you can get professional feedback. No one has read this manuscript. It is of a fairly personal nature and so the thought of anyone I know critiquing it is uncomfortable, to say the least. But a stranger? I’ll have me some of that.

The thing is, when you have been polishing and polishing and polishing something for a long time, and then you let it go, everything else tends to look a bit shit. I was excited about getting back to work on something I haven’t looked at since July, but on opening the document my heart sank. It’s not very good. Which doesn’t mean it can’t be, but my god the WORK still to do! It’s endless!

So instead of facing that uphill battle immediately, I started something new, because having three unfinished novels going at once clearly isn’t enough. This one, I hope, might be fun. I’m not very good at fun, in general but particularly with regards to writing. I’m not a fun writer. After the personal, slightly tormented slog of the current one (last one? I’m not sure what to call it since it doesn’t have a proper name yet), it would be really good to write something enjoyable. Characters I can laugh with would be nice. We’ll just have to wait and see if the personality make-over is successful though, or if on re-drafting all the fun disappears.

 

2016 reading list

I read some great books this year but all up it was a slightly scatty, underwhelming year. For the first time in a long time I found myself finishing books and not knowing what to read next, which lead to starting and stopping many books I would normally enjoy simply because I was not prepared for them.

  • The lost dog – Michelle de Kretser
  • Boyhood island – Karl Ove Knausguaard

The third and most disappointing of the My Struggle series.

  • We need to talk about Kevin – Lionel Shriver

I’ve been meaning to read this for a long time and it didn’t disappoint. There were many lines that struck me, in particular: “To answer one life with a successive life is simply to transfer the onus of purpose to the next generation; the displacements amounts to a cowardly and potentially infinite delay.” Controversial, but it struck a chord with me.

  • Catcher in the rye – J.D. Salinger
  • Snow – Orhan Pamuk
  • Adela Pankhurst: the wayward suffragette – Verna Coleman
  • An evil cradling – Brian Keenan

Keenan’s experience as a hostage in Lebanon in the eighties. A story that I was too young to know about at the time but which I now find incredible.

  • Why I am not a Christian – Bertrand Russell
  • Story of the lost child – Elena Ferrante
  • Persuasion – Jane Austen

Forever my favourite Austen.

  • Climbing the coconut tree – S.C. Karakaltsas
  • A spool of blue thread – Anne Tyler
  • Divergent – Veronica Roth
  • Room – Emma Donoghue

A highlight of the year. So absorbing that my 30 minute train trip just didn’t feel long enough.

  • Sparrow migrations – Cari Noga

Another highlight and comforting that it started as a self-published novel. Several stories linked by the Hudson river crash and sparrows.

  • The strays – Emily Bitto
  • Hideous kinky – Esther Ford

I read this while we were in Morocco, which felt fitting. Told from the point of view of a child whose mother is a wandering hippy on the Moroccan trail in the seventies.

  • Great expectations – Charles Dickens
  • All the light we cannot see – Anthony Doerr

Every time I read a story about the second world war I think I can’t possibly read another one that sheds more light, and yet I do. There are so many nuanced experiences outside those of the camps and they continue to intrigue me.

  • The door – Magda Szabo

I found this on a list of best translated fiction. It’s incredible and Emerence is a character I’ll never forget. See the New Yorker article here.

  • Why not me? – Mindy Kaling
  • Not that kind of girl – Lena Dunham
  • 20 fragments of a ravenous youth – Xiaolu Guo
  • Silas Marner – George Eliot

I was only disappointed that this was so short. It is an incredibly succinct story of the interweaving of lives and how we see people.

  • The garden of evening mists – Tan Twan Eng

I wanted to love this, and the second world war information about Malaysia was interesting but the actual writing I found over the top.

  • First love, last rights – Ian McEwan
  • The history of love – Nicole Krauss
  • A little life – Hanyu Yanagihara

Everything is just so big in this novel. The violence is nauseating and the characters often frustrating, but it is a must-read.

  • Insurgent – Veronica Roth
  • Still Alice – Lisa Genova
  • The wandering falcon – Jamil Ahmad
  • A god in ruins – Kate Atkinson
  • Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout was the best thing about this year! I feel like I’m lowered into her novels in a glass sphere, the characters are so real that it is easy to believe I am simply visiting them for a time.

  • Purple hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Anne of Green Gables – Lucy Maud Montgomery
  • The Burgess boys – Elizabeth Strout
  • The eye of the sheep – Sofie Laguna
  • North and south – Elizabeth Gaskell

 

  • Farewell to the East End – Jennifer Worth
  • Dark places – Gillian Flynn
  • In the woods – Tana French
  • The girls – Emma Cline

I kept seeing this on lists of books to read in 2016, so I did. It’s a fictionalised account of the Manson murders, and it was engaging until the writing style got a bit much. Still, an amazing debut.

  • Emma – Jane Austen
  • Notes on a scandal – Zoe Heller

The best unreliable narrator I’ve ever read. Completely fascinating.

  • A murder is announced – Agatha Christie
  • Dancing in the dark – Karl Ove Knausguaard

Fourth in the series and it made me look forward to the fifth. I’m a fan once again.

  • Moments of reprieve – Primo Levi
  • Waiting for the barbarians – J.M. Coetzee
  • The lonely city – Olivia Laing

The third of Laing’s books, and I loved it. Non-fiction about how loneliness informed the art of artists including Edward Hopper. Heart-breaking and optimistic at the same time.

  • My name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout
  • Slammerkin – Emma Donoghue

I’m not usually one for historical fiction but this was great. Three years of a teenage girl’s life as she goes from prostitution in London to servitude in a Welsh country house.

  • Amy and Isabelle – Elizabeth Strout
  • Reckoning – Magda Szubanski
  • A streetcat named Bob – James Bowen
  • And all of Harry Potter, of course.

See previous years’ lists here.

 

The numbers game

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I’ve always enjoyed writing short stories. They were the first prose I tried to write, not counting several horrendous novel attempts when I was a teenager. I thought of short stories as a way of practicing writing without committing huge amounts of time or energy.

I think short story karma is coming to kick me in the shins for not taking it more seriously.

I just got a rejection email for a short story which I think is really quite good, but which has now been rejected five times. In the world of submissions, five rejections is not actually that bad. But it still hurts.

So I’m sitting here, knowing I should be being productive, but all I can think is – what more can I do? Of course, there is a lot more I can do.

I don’t actually read short stories. I’ve probably read three anthologies in the last six years. I was blown away, years ago, by Janette Turner Hospital’s collections of stories, but other than that I tend to just avoid them. I find their magnification of a writer’s style a bit painful. There is no escaping in a short story, there’s no sinking into the story and becoming accustomed to the style. It’s just there.

I can’t imagine trying to write a novel without reading novels. What a ridiculous idea, and yet here I am, treating short stories like the easy warm-up and getting disheartened when I’m not very good.

People talk about getting published as a numbers game, in terms of pieces submitted versus potential publications. That is, you need to submit a lot to get a small number published. But number one, I am not very good at handling rejections, and number two, maybe the real numbers game is about reading. Maybe rather than submitting 100 times to get 1 published, I need to read 100 stories to help me write 1 good one.

So my plan, because when sunk in the depths of a rejection depression I always need a plan, is to read one short story a day for three weeks. In three weeks, I’ll try to write something.

If anyone is looking for quality, free, online stories, check out Carve. They run the Raymond Carver short story contest, so they kind of know what they’re doing.