Sunday 27 February 2011

Sons and Daughters...

What a week... the arrival of Millie Iris Gebbie is something smashing - she is gorgeous and beautiful and all the things new babies are meant to be.Millie at 20 hrs old with her Dad, Nick, who I think has fallen in love all over again...
Maybe I fell in love a little, too...

And the return of Toby after two GAP year months in India - complete with new look beard and tache. Very Lawrence of Arabia...

Wednesday 23 February 2011


Fellow Bloomsbury ‘Baby’, Claire King, writes on her brilliant blog her fifteen absolutely, must follow, rules for writers of novels.

“Once you have rewritten your manuscript according to the above rules, (she says) it will be ready to blend in with others on the slushpile.”
Ha!! Love this.

So here are my own, sort of, think about it, fifteen rules, or not, perhaps. Because as we all know, those who say there are rules, admit there are actually none. And those who say there are none, know there are lots.

1. Begin. It is very tough to write a novel unless you begin. Ergo, a blank screen with the words ‘Chapter One’ in varying fonts towards the top will make a useful start.
2. Save document. External hard drives are good. So is sending every paragraph to yourself via multiple email accounts created for the purpose. Nice to receive all those emails! Writing is a lonely occupation – pretend you have friends.
3. Continue. By this I mean open a lot of different documents with the words ‘Chapter Two’ and so forth.
4. Save all documents again.
5. Time to ring all your real friends, and selected family members, to tell them you are writing a novel!
6. Order new business cards from Vistaprint on special offer, styling yourself ‘novelist’.
7. Look up rules for writing novels. Discover that they all contradict each other. Fall into a depression. Visit GP. Collect prescription for antidepressants. Believe you have joined the ranks of real writers – because all real writers are depressed. (You read it somewhere...). Feel better.
8. Find some slightly more acceptable rules, which chime with what you have been doing anyway. Feel better still. Throw away the pills.
9. Open first document, and delete those headings saying ‘Chapter One’ whose fonts you feel are not quite... you know.
10. Experiment with different colours on the remaining fonts. Decide actually, black Times New Roman 12 point is about right for your novel.
11. Make handwritten list in moleskine notebook bought for the purpose. Characters. Their name, sex, colour hair, and what they wear on weekdays. This is sufficient information for the present. Look up if this is right. Read on Vanessa Gebbie’s blog that you don’t have to describe what characters look like at all. Especially if the novel is a literary one. Feel confused.
12. Decide not to write a literary novel, because you have got all this information (the list is 218 wds – you checked) on what your characters look like.
13. Looking at the list there is a lot about red hair and the men are wearing materials like worsted. Decide these are characters from a historical romance. Or maybe the red is blood. Horror. Or maybe sci fi, or a mix of all these plus literary.
14. Decide you need to decide on more things, like which tense to use. Read on Claire King’s blog that you must never use present tense. This is your preferred tense. You are not sure what the others are anyway. Get very tense.
15. Check word count in computer files for this novel. ‘Chapter One’ and al other headings etc adds up to 64. Add in the handwritten list in moleskine notebook. Total 282.
16. Ring selected friends and family to tell them what hard work this all is...

You are now on your way as a novelist. Enjoy.

(Marvellous photo is from Writetodone, where I found no fewer than 176 real tips for writers... - )

Sunday 20 February 2011

THE TWO BOOK DEAL - Is it always a good thing??

When I knew my agent liked the manuscript of ‘The Coward’s Tale’ enough to send it out to publishers, and when I knew a couple of places liked it enough to bid – I emailed him to say something like this:
"In the unlikely event of a two-book deal being on any agendas, please can you stop the discussions before they start. I could not go down that route."

I have no idea whether either publisher suggested such a thing, but I was and am absolutely serious. I would not have accepted one, even if the figures looked marvellous. And there are good reasons for my taking that stance.
‘But it is everyone’s dream, a two book deal! What’s wrong with you?!’
So, I will try to explain, if only to make people think about their own processes, their own strengths and weaknesses as creators.

But before I do, read this feature by Robert McCrum writing in The Guardian some years back, Caught Between Two Books - basically, he says:
"two-book deals are bad deals, bad for the publisher and often worse for the author."

And he goes on to explain why. Two scenarios – first, the successful first book, and then the unsuccessful one that does not quite live up to its hype.
McCrum says that if the first book does not succeed, the author may write the second novel poorly:
"all the writer wants to do is fulfil the second half of the contract as fast as possible, and be shot of the whole thing. Inferior work is delivered too quickly, contributing to a generally low standard among second books."

And if, in contrast, the first book turns into a bestseller..
"the author ... feels hard done by. In an ideal world, a successful first contract should lead to better terms for the second book. Not in the two-book deal. The author, tied to terms that cannot be varied, feels resentful, at odds with the publisher."

Jennifer Laughran, literary agent, on her blog Jennifer Represents, makes the point that some writers work best to a deadline, in the knowledge that a publisher has guaranteed to publish book two, even if number one flops. But she says, there are three very good reasons not to go for a two book deal.
1. You are locked in...You may deserve a lot more money for book two, but the book is already sold.
2. If you .... think the first book is published badly... you are stuck for another book, with an potentially expensive and hassle-filled nightmare if you want to get out of the contract.
3. There is a sense of ... freedom knowing that you don't have a contract for the next book. You could do anything you want! Some authors work better if they "stay hungry" and free in this fashion. And some authors panic under a deadline.

Yes, I understand that last point! But also, I experienced real downs after successes, whilst building whatever writing career this is. It was not only the bad times that caused long periods of non-writing, but good times too. Win a competition, and I froze. Get a book published? Aagh! A pit of non-production. And that will continue, only worse, I am sure, when ‘The Coward’ comes out.
Anther agent calling herself Kristin, blogging at Pub Rants (Publishing Rants – not drinking-type pubs!) sees a genre divide in the multiple book deal stakes. Multiple book contracts, she says, are good for genre novels, especially romances, and single contracts are best for literary or literary/commercial books. Now that is interesting – I hadn’t really considered that genre writers work differently, but obviously, they do – a colleague - a very successful romance writer who has landed a lucrative three book deal – talks about sitting down with her editor to discuss plans for the next novel, and I am left shaking my head. I don’t get how you can do that – how anyone else can have that much input into a project – but then I am sure she doesn’t get how I work, either.
Kristin of Pub Rants sets out her points for single book deals in another list –
1. Literary fiction takes longer to write. Sometimes it’s not feasible to write a second book on a prescribed deadline ...
2. A one-book contract can alleviate the pressure on the author. The sophomore effort can be a tricky thing. I know from experience that every author hits a stumbling block with that second novel ...
3. Literary fiction—especially those that lean commercial—often get undersold initially and then break out big later. If there is a sense that that could happen, why lock the author in for a certain amount of money?
4. The author might not have a second novel to propose and ...the author might take 10 years to write next literary novel. It happens.
5. If the author’s editor leaves and there is just a one-book contract, it can make it cleaner for the author to follow his/her editor to a new house.

She alo sets out the pros and cons of multiple deals and discusses the genre issue, in another post.

Of course, these scenarios do not work for everyone. But I’m old and ugly enough to know my own processes... I took a long time to write 'The Coward'. I don’t know what I am going to write next yet, even though I may already be following my obsessions. It may take me ten years. I just don’t want any pressure to deliver, thanks.

And if anyone thinks this is an academic argument, I would send you to read the blog of Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah, whose collection ‘Elegy for Easterly’ won the Guardian First Book Award among other accolades. (Reviewed by Tania Hershman on The Short Review)
Gappah is to be thanked for sharing the less than kind turn of events when she submitted book two to her editor. Having experienced the highs of success, prizes and so forth for Elegy for Easterly, was she able to enjoy writing book two? No. She puts it like this:

"in the last year, even as I was enjoying public success, I lived every day with private failure. I felt that I was held hostage by this damn book that was blighting my life."

You can read her experience in greater depth on her blog, and discover the happier turn the subsequent discussions led to. I wish the third book, now the second, a happy genesis.

It is not easy, this writing and publishing stuff. And it is both interesting and sad, to note that what sounds like a perfect dream, sometimes turns into nightmare. I did myself a favour, unwittingly, thanks to knowing the weaknesses of my own creative process.
Edited to add this, sent to me by a writer who wishes to remain anonymous. I'd like to thank them for their generosity in sharing their experience.

This is timely and directly relevant to my situation, Vanessa.

My two-book deal quickly became a nightmare. My editor asked for a sequel, and I lept into the writing, but it wasn't long before I saw the possibility of the "bad second book" phenom hanging over every word I wrote. (I wrote seventeen partially-completed versions, with over 150K words of notes. All freshness and joy was sucked from the doing. I hated it.) I worked my day job. Life pushed in, with family concerns, a death, two major geographical moves, and ever-present financial difficulties. I pushed back book deadlines. I wrote more new beginnings that died too young. I'd never felt quite so stifled and guilty and unhealthy.
Finally, in December, I had a bit of a breakdown. It was probably a bad reaction to the anti-depressant I'd begun taking, but the pressure certainly played a role. When I could speak in complete sentences again, I told the sordid story of my "progress on book #2" to my agent.
And my agent is an angel. She contacted my editor and called me back and offered two options: Cancel the second book entirely, or remain obligated to produce it, but with NO DEADLINE at all. I chose option #2. And, as too much time has passed for the publisher to market a direct sequel to the first book, I can write whatever I choose.

I'm coming alive again, and free-writing again - it might be a few more months before I set out to seriously write another book.
I need to say, I am not a raw new writer. I'd been at this game for more than twenty years, pushing past the dreaded novel-in-the-drawer syndrome and receiving at least 1,000 rejections. I'm extrememly grateful to have landed a wonderful agent and understanding editor. But yes, two-book deals are not for everyone.

Friday 18 February 2011


At the NAWE conference, I met one of the best creative writing teams. They hail from Columbia College, Chicago - and I have attended their workshops, cheating madly (this conference is for teachers of writing) not as a teacher but as a writer, soaking up what they say and do - it feels right at gut level. There may be plans afoot to do a joint something this year - but that's for another post.

We've got nattering, Professor Patricia Ann Macnair and I, about the short story - of course! Now, she is running a fascinating conversation between four short story writers, on her blog, and I am honoured to be one of those writers. This is the start of my ramblings.

Why the short story?
But that’s like saying why the dream?
Or why the root in the ground?
Because that’s what they all do – they act (if we let them) as portals. They grow into something far greater than the wordcount – they are the wardrobe in ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’ or the rabbit hole in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.
Who needs mind-altering substances when you have stories? Do novels do that quite so well? Mostly, no. because the author is doing the filling of the world for you, to a large extent. They are making you live the dream they had themselves. Whereas with a good, well-written story – it plants seeds. They grow inside you. Its world remains alive after the pages are done. There is less closure, even if the story, that story, has finished. Is that a function of length, of our need to live longer than that? Is it a legacy from our ancestors, telling stories round cave fires, stories that span off each other until the night was filled with worlds..?

Read on on Patty' blog. Read her own starter for this conversation, and keep tuned to catch up with contributions from two exciting short story writers, whose work I am looking forward to discovering. Gina Frangello, author of the wonderfully titled 'Slut Lullabies' who blogs here and who invents titles like 'How to Marry a Wasp'. Can't wait!
Gina is founder and executive editor of Other Voices, an imprint of the wonderful Dzanc Books.
The second writer is Dennis McFadden, whose collection 'Hart's Grove' is reviewed on Haydens' Ferry, here.

And Patty herself is author of the collection 'Temple of Air', forthcoming later this year. Attracting glowing pre-publication comment, such as: "bright, breezy, bold: a riveting debut...” this one will be rather special addition to the terrific collections hitting the shelves this year. Get ready for a treat.

Well here are the covers of these terrific collections - apologies for the differences in size - thats the way they arrived!

Saturday 12 February 2011

The Thorny Issue of Writers and their Muses, and the Sex thereof...

The Thorny Issue of Writers and their Muses, and the Sex thereof...and Writing Like a Man (grrrr...)

I dunno – been reading all these posts from those who must mean well, and no doubt seek to redress a perceived imbalance in male v female publishing opportunities. But really, do publishers seriously discriminate? Don’t they just want to sell books and stay in business? Why would they discriminate if more women buy and read books than men? Doesn't make sense to me. But then, it also does not make sense for people to whinge that more review space is given to male writers. Is it? Pick up a women's magazine and the books reviewed will be mostly by women. Are the blokes screeching about that? Maybe, just maybe the books that came in that week to the broadsheets, by men, were more interesting reads for the reviewers? Oh my gad the sacrilege.
My shelves are groaning with male writers because in general, over the years, and with some notable exceptions, I have preferred their work. Sorry and all that, if I am offending any delicate sensibilities. I am being honest, if that's OK?
But while looking at one of the early articles that flagged the need for female writers to ‘write like men’ if they want to get on, (whatever that phrase means) here, in Washington Post of December 30 2009 the old brain was working overtime... one minute I was wanting to laugh, and the next, not...and at the same time I was also reading about the poet M A Griffiths today, an Anglo-Welsh female poet who published her work solely on the internet, and sadly died early... but her work was so loved by her colleagues that they have collected it all together. ‘Grasshopper’ is published by Arrowhead Press.
But what interests me about her, specifically here is not how lovely her work is (and it is) but the fact that many of her colleagues on poetry forums thought she was a man – when all they had to go on was her work, or her forum monikers – Maz or Grasshopper. Read this here, from one of her female colleagues, Rose Kelleher:
Why did they think she was a bloke? Having read round this a bit - I think it is because of her boldness with language, and her interest in many many things, her need to write about them, from the intimate themes to the wider ones. And no doubt lots more reasons.

I used to take great pleasure in colleagues thinking a piece of my work posted anonymously for feedback, was by a male writer. Why? I’ve been thinking about that – and I think the answer is, because the stereoptype I would least want to fit is ‘ the woman writer’ because that stereotype (in my head - OK...)is a female who is mostly preoccupied with the things I am not.
Yes, I know, I AM a woman and I am a writer. But I would really hate it if anyone said – ‘Oh yes, I knew immediately I read your work – it’s got ‘written by a female’ written all over it.’

But then I re-read Rose Kelleher’s post about M A Griffiths. ‘Maz and the Male Muse...’ and I started thinking about the muses. Mine is not, never has been and never could be a female. Maybe the muses were depicted as females because they were invented by – er- men??

So what sex is your muse? Are you a woman writer who writes with one of the female muses wafting about in your study? Or are you, like me, fed by someone different? Is your muse something intangible, of the air? Or is it a solid person? The great painters had them. Why not us lot?!

Lots of links to M A Griffiths here by the way.

A quick peek at The Bookseller Top 20 booksales this week shows female writers on 12, men on 8. Maybe the statisticians need to get on with something else. Or get a bloke to do it? We all kow us girls can't add up for toffee....Bookseller.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Congratulations to all on Willesden Herald Short List...

Oodles of congrats to everyone on the Willesden Herald short story comp shortlist, selected by the inimitable Maggie Gee! The announcement was made today, and here is the link to the complete post on Willesden herald blog
Delighted as I am for everyone, I am particularly pleased to see a few names I know on here - Teresa Stenton, whose work rose to the top at Bridport in 2009. Adnan Mahmutovic, who read at Pages of Hackney only last Saturday, and stayed with us on his way back to Stockholm where he teaches at the University. Nemone Thornes, with whom I have crossed writing-swords more than once, Emma Martin, erstwhile writing colleague from New Zealand, and Andrea Ashworth, facebook writing friend. My goodness. The short story world is very small. This is going to be some party!

"Apartment" by Y.J. Zhu
"Blue Raincoat" by Teresa Stenson
"Dancing with the Flag Man" by Nemone Thornes
"Gusul" by Adnan Mahmutovic
"Homecoming" by Alex Barr
"Out of Season" by Mary O'Shea
"Overnight Miracles" by A.J. Ashworth
"Set Dance" by Angela Sherlock
"The Bedroom" by Michael Coleman
"The Place" by David Frankel
"Thingummy Wotsit" by Adrian Sells
"Victor" by Emma Martin

Monday 7 February 2011

Of book jackets, statues, feathers and so forth

This is 'In Labore Benedictio' by a sculptor named Picciole - a small bronze that stands on an old chest in the corner of my living room. I don't think Picciole is particularly good - most of his other stuff seems to be a bit saccharine, from researching what turns up at auction and in antique/junk shops.
However. I love it - because it was obviously modelled on this: Dalou's larger-than-life sculpture of 'Le Grand Paysan, in the Musee D'Orsay, Paris.

There is a statue in The Coward's Tale. This was at the back of my mind when that statue was there, on the page. Perfect. Absolutely perfect. So Bloomsbury got a photo of the Dalou when wanting to know if I had any thoughts about the cover. of course, I did - this, and what about some feathers?? And bless the designer, he is there, on the jacket, beautiful and absolutely perfect. But I'm not showing it yet, until one tweak is done, I think...

I talk more about the process of The Coward's jacket on his own blog, HERE

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Editing, rewriting, revising the manuscript...

I have just finished the little tweakings (sounds like an address in Surrey...) on The Coward. They took me a couple of sessions, one at home, and one at the British Library, to get away from the internet, phone, cat and various others.
And no, that does not mean that was all there ever was to do!
I found myself approaching this piece of work differently - it is the first time I have written anything so long, so involved, and the process became very different to my writing of a short story - something that tended to need to be all there in draft form before I tried to bash it into shape at all, or I'd lose something, freedom, flow, air... something.
Over the four/five years it took to write The Coward, I polished as I went. Literally, and obsessively. I would write the opening to a section and worry at it for days, reading it out loud, changing a word here, there, and only when I had it as right as I could, did I go on to write more of that section. The process would begin again - reading the whole thing, as far as I had it, out loud. Smoothing, changing, swapping paragraphs over to see if that made it different, better, worse -before continuing.
Sometimes, this process was very necessary. There were great gaps in writing anything of the novel, thanks to external factors. No - I am not whinging - just explaining my process, to myself as much as anything. And to be able to return to the place I was at creatively became quite a leap, very often.
I found reading out loud, slowly, really listening to the words, the rhythms, helped to ground me in the work over and over again, and was also a necessary part of the editing process.
The first draft was completed at Anam Cara in February 2010... and when I came home, I sent it to the marvellous Maggie Gee, with whom I was working on final polishing, thanks to an Arts Council grant. This was the first time anyone had read the whole manuscript right through, apart from its author.
'About 80% of the way there. Publishable already, but will be so much better if you do this, that and the other...'
That was marvellous to hear.. I was getting there. I have to admit, looking back, that there was a bit of me that wanted to hear, 'This is perfection. No need to do anything, oh a typo on page 234...' but I knew it wasn't, and never would be perfection - but it absolutely HAD to be the best it could be before sending it out to my agent.
The world is tough. If I sent him a 'less than' manuscript, and he had ten pieces of work whose authors had taken the trouble to polish, polish, polish on his desk - see the issue?

So how did I approach the polishing process? Maggie prepared detailed notes, pointing out those places where her response to the book became 'teachery' as opposed to 'readery'. That I understood completely. We would discuss the bigger issues, and I would go off to sort out the solutions. It took a long time - working up to a final read from Maggie in the late summer, a final list of notes, and a couple of weeks in Ireland, chipping and chipping away.

Many times during the process, I would print off the whole book, read it through, trying to keep a distance, treating it as a whole, to see what effect this or that change had on the whole thing. In this way, reading it through again, and again, I picked up more little nits and nats and changed those too.
And by October I had a piece of work I felt was right to send to my agent. The attention to detail, obsessively ironing out the nits, guided by a seasoned, marvellous novelist, (also, incidentally first female Chair of the Royal Society of Literature) paid off. He wanted no revisions, and sent it straight out and the rest is history.

So what tweaks can my editor want? As many as she likes, actually - she is so in tune with the book, I have no qualms about anything, and trust her judgement. But there are so few, thank heavens. The process this time was this - to get Helen's suggestions via email. To read carefully - and sit on them for a few days. Then print out the novel again (!) and consider each suggestion separately. And tweak. Often, all it took was a single phrase added. (But of course, I would always end up reading out loud to make sure the phrase fitted absolutely!)

So the only tip I can end on, is this.

If you are not normally an obsessive personality, there is one time you absolutely must be one. And that is when you are editing a novel.