She Said with a Laugh

Or why I can’t leave those damn adjectives alone
Overwriting. Stupidly, as I tremble with excitement embarking on the terrifying prospects of a new novel, I appear to be putting in far too many extraneous words into my carefully crafted stories, and although these words are pondered over thoughtfully, chosen wisely and considered in a rational and logical way, there are just too many of them. Do you see what I mean?

I entered a competition with the first three chapters of my second novel and didn’t even make the long list. Crushing disappointment followed naturally. What came after this crushing disappointment was some feedback from the organisers which can be boiled down to: stop putting in so many blimming words. Overwriting. The curse of the amateur. That’s embarrassing. Whilst I am not published I had unwisely considered that I was a reasonable writer and had read and written enough over the years to not still be considered a total amateur. Think again.

I can’t leave them alone. They whisper to me in all their descriptive loveliness. Calling me. Telling me that my reader will have no idea precisely what happens now in the story. They won’t know what they should be thinking and feeling to really get the most out of the plot if I don’t use loads of them. A few more won’t hurt. Only one or two. Just to be clear. Who doesn’t like a word like ponderously; where’s the harm in harmoniously

This theme is consistent through any feedback I have had for my work. Embarrassing again. You would think I would have learned by now for heaven’s sake. I can tell a good story, I can create believable characters, I can conjure up scenarios that make people excited but then I ruin it all with those damn adjectives. Scattering them willy nilly across my prose. Let the reader decide. But when I take them out, the writing seems bare to me. Sparse little sentences which are not sufficient to survive on their own. They need feeding up with adjectives for them to thrive and prosper in the heads of readers surely?

The need to explain how my characters say things is another talent of mine which is not appreciated by the publishing world. She said sarcastically; he shouted, surprised; she whispered, horrified. I pop these in because if the character says or shouts or whispers in another way then the meaning of the scene might be lost, or at least the dialogue which follows. But readers get annoyed by this and want to be given the freedom to decide how people say, shout or whisper apparently. I should have done enough in the story for those describing words to be unnecessary. Readers will get it

I have to stop it. I have to stop being such a control freak and release the story into the wild to make its own way. Not tether it to a post with unnecessary description. 

If an overstuffed manuscript is like a treasure map leading the reader plodding from point to point then taking those naughty little descriptors out lets the reader enjoy the view a bit more. Maybe find another path. As an author I have to have faith that they will discover the chest full of diamonds buried in the sand and most importantly they will have enjoyed the journey much more

So that is my goal. Not an ambitious goal, or a stretch goal or a scary goal. Just a goal to de-adjective my work and see if it makes it better.  

Where’s my careers advice?

Puzzled girl
Wafting into Soho in a chauffeured limo before sipping chilled prosecco over a lobster spaghetti lunch whilst discussing the best option for the next novel is how meetings between agents and authors go in my head.
I follow a fair few on Twitter and their feeds seem to bear this out.  Not a day goes by without a photo of something pale and fizzy heralding a successful lunch with a wonderful agent/fabulous author. And whilst I am agent-less and of course miss someone selling my book for me and negotiating deals on my behalf, what I am also missing, and which for me is just as important I have come to realise, is advice on what to do next.
Thicker than Water was simple for me.  It was a high concept novel, I loved the characters, I really enjoyed writing it and I had taken four months off work to get it done.  And whilst that manuscript is ricocheting between agents, I have launched myself with gusto into the next one.  This is where things are beginning to fray a little at the edges.
There has been a story burrowing in my head for a long time.  It began as an idea for a short story, then morphed into a different tale and then settled on its final form as a novel.  But it is not high concept; I went to a writing conference the other weekend and had some difficulty explaining it.  Once I had got the idea across to those I had buttonholed to listen to me, they were excited and interested, but that elevator pitch is eluding me.
So I wonder whether I should can it? We hear all the time how it is virtually impossible to get a debut novel published so why make it more difficult for myself by writing something that does not easily pop into a genre?  I know all the advice is that we should write with our heart and not be bound by commercial considerations but when you want to get published, surely it is foolish not to write with an eye to selling it on?  We have to paint a vision in the agent’s heads of how this novel would work, make it easy for them to do a deal.
So I had a wobble at the weekend and went back through my special notebook and folder on my laptop with all my ideas in.  That was an exercise both in pride in my creativity and depression at how much I have done and how little I have achieved.  But there are two or three ideas of novels in there and once I began reading my plot notes and character sketches I remembered my enthusiasm for each one again. I wanted to return to those people and write about them more, immerse myself in their challenges and tragedies and find out what happens.  But which one should I choose?
This is where I need a glass of prosecco and a lobster spaghetti with someone who knows what they are talking about.  Someone who knows more than me about what is going on in the world of book selling and who can give me some advice, pick over the plot, question the characters, spot those holes and share my enthusiasm until we have landed on the one. We would of course order a second bottle to celebrate our cleverness.
But it is just me.  Sat at my dining table, staring at these scraps of novels and outlines of characters trying to decide which to pick to give me the best chance of being picked. It’s not easy being on your own. But I suppose I could still enjoy the prosecco.

Don’t make me talk about it

Or How I Prefer to Organise My Life in Compartments

“So you have two minutes. Talk to the person in front of you about what you do outside of work.” Panic.
Speed dating at work is not as weird as it sounds. As part of a ‘getting to know your colleagues better’ about 70 of us were being almost overwhelmed by a cacophony of sound as we shuffled up the chairs in two minute bursts talking to people we have only seen at the tea point, maybe nodded to in the lift. The very definite brief was not to mention work but to talk about what else was important in your life.
I was not entirely surprised to find I couldn’t do it. I talked about the fact that I am a member of a running club, I had two daughters, we liked to go camping. And the usual reading, cinema and perhaps theatre if I was really trying to impress the person who had wriggled up in front of me. All the time I was willing the little bell to jingle so the person in front could move on and we would have avoided running out of things to say and I might have felt compelled to say the words out loud.
Not once did I mention that I had written an adult novel and a children’s novel or that I had a writing blog and Tweeted regularly about the challenges of writing whilst holding down a full time job. Why not?
I’m not really sure. Anyone who has read any of my previous posts will recognise a theme coming through here that seems to be driven by embarrassment that although I write I am not published. These are the people I work with. In order to do my job well I ought to have the respect of my colleagues especially my team. Wouldn’t that be undermined by them knowing I slave away bashing out stories to send them off on a wave of excitement and hope only to have them volleyed back with a no thanks, not good enough?
The unexpected benefit of writing blog posts is that it gives me the chance to consider things that have been bothering me. Maybe I would set an impressive example in creativity and resilience if I confessed to my secret hobby. Never give up, keep your passion in your life etc etc. Writing is part of who I am and what I like to do, so shouldn’t I be out and proud about it?
But then: “How’s your book doing?” I am reminded that whenever I pop into the pub on a Friday to meet my friends, the questions about the book comes up. They are my friends, they are interested, they want me to do well but I find myself embarrassed to say that the only progress since I last saw them is that there are one or two additional rejections added to the pile. I’m not sure I could cope with that at work as well.  
So I find I continue to keep it a secret. I have developed a series of coping mechanisms to fend off questions about what I have been up to at the weekend when I have been on a writing course or what I have planned for my days off when I am going to be bashing away on my laptop for two days and most of all where I would like to see myself in five years’ time which is of course on a Book of the Month list somewhere. 

When is a Book not a Book?

Startup Stock Photos

Startup Stock Photos

When it’s a manuscript

Boom boom.  Not much of a joke is it?  So how’s the book going?  That was the title of my last blog post and it posed another interesting question and one that has troubled me for some time.  What can I call my cherished 77,000 words lovingly saved in a special folder on my lap top?  My friends call it my book but is that right and proper?  It hasn’t been published so technically it isn’t what most people would regard as a book.  So what is it then?  It tells a story, it has a structure, characters, a theme, a moral dilemma, three acts, beginning, middle and end.  It has all the ingredients of a book. But no one can buy it.  It hasn’t been printed and bound with a glossy cover. There’s no blurb or supportive quotes and reviews.
Is there an interim term, a holding pattern for those would-be books circling the publishing runway waiting to be called in to land?  I think this is also linked to a similar question – when can I call myself a writer?
My job is in communications for a charity.  That’s how I pay my mortgage and put food on the table and it is what keeps me in gin.  Writing doesn’t do that.  Writing is something I enjoy although I would dearly love it to be the thing that keeps me in gin.  Reading blogs from other writers the advice seems to be that we should call ourselves writers if we write regularly, regardless of whether or not any cash changes hands.  The  thinking is that if we say we are writers to family and friends and random people we meet in bars then we will take ourselves seriously, write regularly, put effort into it and create things that will have more value than if we just dabble, call it a hobby and don’t give a project the focus it deserves.  That makes sense.  My experience of life in general confirms that the more effort one puts in the more one is rewarded at the end. Diddling about delivers little.
But I still find myself embarrassed.  A Sunday league footballer who works in a bank calls himself a banker and not a footballer when he is at a party.  So is it the intention that makes me different from my footballing friend?  He has no hope or expectation of making it to Wembley yet I want to make writing my job and maybe what currently pays my bills is just a temporary measure whilst I wait for someone to be bowled over by my book/manuscript and for the big bucks to roll in.
Which brings me back to the initial question.  What do I call this thing I have written? My fear is that I will sound too grand if I call it a book. “Where can I buy it?” would be the natural response.  “It’s not published,” would come the answer whispered shamefully.  Embarrassed glances all round would then follow.
So am I a writer with a book or do I enjoy creative writing in my spare time and have completed a manuscript? Who knows?

When is a book not a book?

“So. How’s The Book Going?”

Secret

Or Those Five Dreaded Words
Five words that make my mouth go dry and my armpits wet as I know there is no way out of the shame of confessing it is nowhere near being published.  It hasn’t even been picked up by an agent.

I was out last week with a group of friends I used to work with.  We don’t catch up that often, in fact it had probably been almost a year since we last got together.  Over wine and food we did the usual rounds of asking how everyone was, what we had been up to, how are the children, husbands, parents.  As we skittered round the table I grew quieter, hoping that no would would notice that I hadn’t pitched in with an update but knowing that I couldn’t avoid that question I was dreading.
It was framed in the spirit of friendship, of kindness, of genuine interest.  But I was embarrassed. When I took my time off to write Thicker Than Water I didn’t make a big thing of it.  I knew the chances of it being published were small so I didn’t tell too many people that this was my plan.  Once it was written I was proud of it and asked a few people if they wouldn’t mind reading it to give me some feedback.  And so word spread that this is what I had done.  I was surprised at how impressed everyone was that I had actually completed a whole book.  77,000 words for heavens sake.  It turns out plenty of my friends have thought about writing a book, might have scribbled down a few notes and a plan but never taken it any further.  But despite them being genuinely amazed by my awesomeness, I didn’t feel that myself.  I was ashamed that I had taken time off work, used up some of my finite financial resources, written a book and no one wanted to publish it.  Publication would mean my gamble had been a success.  The manuscript gathering pixel dust on my laptop meant it had failed.
But these people are my friends.  They were indignant on my behalf.  Those who had read it reiterated how great it was.  Those who hadn’t read it, asked to.  All of them urged me to self publish.  Get it out there.  Sod the agents and publishers and book shops.  They know nothing.
They also wanted to know what was next.  Did I have another book in me?  I confessed that I did.  That I had already begun planning and drafting. They were excited and wanted to know what it was about.  I spluttered out a couple of sentences but was desperate to change the subject.  Move the conversation on to someone else.
No one at work knows I write.  No one knows about this blog.  About my Twitter feed in my maiden name plugged into other writers and writing groups.  When anyone asks what I did before I joined the company, I talk about my previous job and don’t mention the four months I had at home writing furiously with everything crossed.
I always say that I would rather have failed having given it a good go rather than not having tried.  But it turns out I am only happy to have done that as long as no one knows.

And the Winner is ….. Not Me Again

A Young Woman Passed Out Drunk on a Bar Counter

Image by © Patrick Strattner/fstop/Corbis

Or How Writing Competitions Make Me a Bad Mother

Can you come and get us please? Mummy is shouting at me while I try and choose my lunch
This is the text that my eldest daughter sent to her dad on Saturday and was her interpretation of me getting impatient with them as they selected the most expensive things from the cabinet when I had asked them to grab a sandwich for lunch.  Shouting?  In the middle of a supermarket?  This was Waitrose in Surrey not Lidl in the middle of a sink estate for heavens sake.
But while she might have been exaggerating for dramatic effect (not sure where she gets that from) I was certainly more ratty and cross on Saturday than I usually am when trying to feed my children nourishing food whilst restricting the money I hand over at the till.  And why was that?
As the party poppers explode and the champagne flutes chink, I look on enviously when the winners of writing competitions are announced. I am inspired by the tales of humble beginnings, self doubt,  triumph against the odds and success bestowed just as the fledging writer was about to give up hope of it ever happening.  If they can do it so can I.  This must be the secret key, the way in.  All I need to do is craft the perfect 5,000 words and one page synopsis and glory shall be mine.  Easy.
There are so many competitions to enter.  Each week I seem to stumble across another one being heralded on Twitter promising fame and untold riches for the winner and I feel sure this one has my name on it.  Why wouldn’t it?
This weekend I was gearing up to enter the Bath novel award.  I have my completed manuscript and have begun work on my new novel.  I checked the rules and I could enter twice, excellent.  Of course there is an entry fee, there is always a fee.  So by Sunday night I would be £44 lighter but my chances of success would be doubled. And then on Friday I received the email telling me I hadn’t been shortlisted for another competition, the Lucy Cavendish prize.  Depressing.  Another failure.  One more to add to the list.  Whilst I am usually quite resilient, rejection being a major part of a writers life (all of it so far in my case) I found myself in a trench of despair for most of Saturday.  So bad was it that I my teenage was prompted to send THAT TEXT. The shame.
I enjoy browsing writing blogs and finding that there are other people out there like me.  And as I slumped on the settee with a large gin and tonic on Saturday night reflecting on my failure both as a writer and a mother I remembered a blog I had read about rejection.  Of course it stated the obvious that any writers need to have a thick skin, but it identified competitions as particular hotbeds of dashed dreams. If you enter a lot of competitions then you have to be prepared to get a lot of rejections.  I found myself wondering if it was worth it.  Paying money and entering competitions.  Being one of a thousand submissions which have to be skimmed through swiftly by the readers to find that golden nugget before the deadline of the short list announcement.  The odds of an agent picking your book are slim, but competition conditions must surely reduce your chances of standing out significantly.  So why do I do it?
When I see the word competition, my brain tells me these people are looking for me.  They want what I have to offer.  But when I followed this thought thread through, I understood that agents run competitions every day.  All day every day they are asking writers to send them submissions so they can pick a winner.  And the best thing is, they are not just searching for one winner a year.  They can choose unlimited winners if the quality and the writing is good enough.
Before my second gin I realised need to spend less time crafting competition entries and more time working on my manuscript and my agent submissions.  I will still be rejected I am sure, but the odds are a little more in my favour I think.
So yesterday, with the £44 I had planned to spend on my competition entries I took my daughters out for the day with lunch out and afternoon tea.  A way to spend my money which guaranteed a happy ending.

Is it the idea or how it’s written?

Moving on from my first novel is not as bad as I was expecting as I have started to get all fired up about the next. There is regret and a little bit of embarrassment – can’t keep the Britishness out of the girl no matter how hard I try. The first one isn’t published, didn’t even get close, wasn’t shortlisted for any competitions I entered it into although a couple of agents I met were kind. However I had paid for their advice so maybe that’s why.
Anyhoo. Having spent the last year immersed in the world of amateur writers I have made my peace with the fact that I am going to keep going. I have tried to stop writing for the last twenty years and have failed to give it up as comprehensively as I have failed to get published.

So as I am scribbling notes about plot and structure and characters those pesky questions begin to creep in. I start to wonder whether the idea is any good. It is a big departure from the last one (probably a good idea and something in its favour) and there is nothing like it out there that I have seen. This leads me to draw two conclusions: it’s unique so it will stand out, it’s too odd to get anywhere. Do I go for it or find a new, more sellable idea?

We are told that books these days have to have marketability, they have to be easy to sell, readers need to quickly understand what they are about. Especially for a debut author without a bank of fans who who are eager for your next one. So anything too complex or off the wall is likely to be sent whizzing into the trash. Yet some of the most stand out books are the ones which I would have thought were not a very easy sell: a young girl in 17th century Holland has a dolls’ house, an elderly lady descends into dementia – I am paraphrasing for effect of course. The Miniaturist and Elizabeth is Missing are both wonderful books and stand out because they stand out. They are not a murder mystery, a courtroom drama or family saga.

I have considered abandoning the idea for my second book in favour of something a little easier to explain. As I am not a professional I don’t have an agent or a publisher or an editor to have a chat with who can give me a business like opinion of the story’s chances. I have to take a gamble. And that’s a big decision for any of us who are writing whilst working. Time is precious. If I decide to go for it, writing this book will absorb all my spare time like a massive car sponge. It will take me months to complete in the little scraps of half hours and the odd day here and there. I am reluctant to invest all that time in something that doesn’t have a hope of even getting looked at because the idea is no good.

But despite all my doubts I know in my heart I will give it a go. I am excited by the idea, I love my lead character (a man by the way for anyone who has read my previous post) and I can’t wait to find out what is going to happen because I know for a fact it will turn out different to how I have planned it. That passion and excitement should be revealed in my writing if I am any good and ought to be the thing that makes it shine. Maybe with one completed novel under my belt this one will be even better and will have the double whammy of a stand out idea and great writing. Another thing I have made my peace with over the past year is that this giant leap into the dark and huge investment of resource without knowing how it is going to end up, is the mill stone and also the thrill of the amateur writer.