Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Cheltenham Literature Festival 2010

The past few months have brought with them a lull in my writing and hence also in this blog. After being unable to go days without scrabbling for my laptop, a form of writer's block descended upon me alongside nausea, exhaustion and some fairly intense mood swings.

Noone ever told me that writer's block was one of the symptoms of pregnancy.

So, to kick-start my writing and celebrate the onset of the second trimester, I bought tickets to the Cheltenham Literary Festival. I'd been a year or two ago and really enjoyed the workshop I went to but, as I was living in London at the time, I'd been limited to just the one. This year, being conveniently located just down the road in Cirencester, I booked myself into no less than five workshops.

I have to give the people who run that festival their dues. Everything was run like a well-oiled, yet personable, machine. My tickets (costing just £20 per workshop, which seems very cheap to me) arrived weeks in advance and were pinned happily on my noticeboard. As the day for the first workshop neared, I pulled them down and re-read through what I'd signed up for.

Writing Convincing Dialogue, with Jacob Ross.
Setting the Scene, with Helen Cross.
Writing a Good Plot, with Owen Sheers.
Writing Convincing Characters, with Trezza Azzorpardi.
Writing Romantic Fiction, with Katie Fforde.

The funny thing about writers leading workshops is that it's a stretch for most of them. People who are skilled at sitting in a room and composing beautiful or interesting sentences aren't necessarily going to be those who are the best at engaging with a room full of people. But, I have to say that I was really impressed with all of these writers and the care they took to give feedback and encourage the writing of others.

Of course, it's not so easy for us in the room, either. I must admit to a momentary envy that flickers when I see someone who has achieved success in writing, especially if they seem young. Irrational? Certainly. Writing may be competitive to get into but once you're through that first gate, it's hardly a blood sport. I suppose I'd be better off sabotaging the writing efforts of those trying to get representation...


A couple of presenters stood out for me. Coming out on top was Katie Fforde, who despite confessing to being quite a shy person naturally, led a funny, constructive and oh-so-encouraging workshop on the final day. Perhaps my favourite moment was when she said that writing takes perseverence and talent, and probably more of the former. None of us really know if we have talent until an agent takes an interest. Perseverence I can do.

Another notable workshop for me was Setting the Scene, with Helen Cross. It is perhaps unfair in one sense to highlight this workshop as we had the benefit of just eight attendees (compared with up to 30 at Katie Fforde's). This gave us all the opportunity to write and get feedback individually (many of the workshops had us writing in pairs or groups, which is a nightmare of negotiation and dissatisfaction in my view). Helen also won my affection forever by reading the first few pages of my as-yet-unsuccessful second novel and giving me some feedback. I'd given myself three chapters to get into the action, but she said I need to move even faster. Good to know, and something I'll be working on in the coming weeks.

One final end result of the festival has been my initiation of a new writers' group for people focussed on commercial fiction - ie, getting published, getting bought and getting read. Hopefully this will also contribute to keeping my fictional motor running and getting those fingers tapping over the next few months.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Fantabulous Feedback

Shortly before my birthday in April this year I finished my second novel. I feel pretty good about it - it's definitely better than my last attempt and I really do love my characters (in the kind of scary way like they're my friends and we hang out together...sad but true).

The thing is, I did this a year ago. I finished my first book, gave it to my husband and sister to read and was told it was great. I then sent it out to all and sundry without the merest nibble. Having finished the second I've gone back to the first and can agree that yes, it's not very good at all. But why didn't anyone tell me?

One of the blogs I read is named 'the elephant in the room' - referring to the fact that lots of people can't actually write. But how are we supposed to know if we can't? Agents sure aren't going to tell us - only the most dedicated amongst them send anything more than insipid responses that provide absolutely no guidance as to what the problem was. Friends and family tend to just say 'oh, it's fantastic' - or worse, 'I'm sure it's fantastic', which is about as far from helpful as is possible to be.

What is this hypersensitive beast, the wannabe writer? The oddest thing about this world of the not-published is that, if you make it through to being published, you need to develop just about the thickest skin known to mankind. You need to handle having your year's work torn apart, mocked, criticised...even compared unfavourably with every author you've always sneered at yourself. Writing means exposing your heart and soul to the world and waiting for everyone to spit on them. So why protect the unpublished writer from the realities of the realm they dream of entering?

Personally, I'd rather know as soon as possible if I'm utterly hopeless. That way I'll keep my writing to myself and will stop spending half my time dreaming about having my words printed in an actual book by an actual publisher. Why can't agents just print out a slip saying 'Badly written - no chance of publication. Give up while you've still got a day job'...or, as the case may be, simply 'boring'? It would hurt, but at least it would be a sharp blow rather than the painfully slow chipping at your confidence that comes from those meaningless slips of photocopied paper saying 'it's not for me'.

Anyway, my new book, which is currently entitled 'The Sisterly Conspiracy' needed some harsh and uncensored feedback before I sent it out to agents. However, I know that my friends and family love me and don't want to hurt me, so how do I get their true opinions?

I started with my husband, who doesn't hold back. He read it, made loads of great comments and generally proved himself to be a pretty outstandingly perfect man by reading chick lit and (saying, at least) that he enjoyed it.

I then chose six people - three friends, my two sisters and my aunt - to get their views. I asked them to send all feedback through my husband so that it could be anonymous and they could be as harsh and critical as they liked.

Anyhoo, the feedback has come back and, while I expected it to be useful, I've been really stunned at just how useful it has been. In this one process I have learnt more about my writing than ever before. Interestingly, none of my friends sent any feedback (or read the book at all, it seems). My two sisters and my aunt read it and sent loads.

So...what have I learnt?
- I can’t seem to keep my finger on time passing - whether in the book or in characters' ages.
- I use the word 'seriously' way too much. Seriously.
- I’m a little over fond of commas.
- I use too many adverbs when writing speech (I noted, truthfully.)
- I would have sworn black and blue that it was St Suplice, not St Sulpice in Paris – I’ve always mispronounced it!
- While I know how to spell 'dyed' and 'tyre' my brain doesn't compute this when I'm in the midst of a writing binge. In those cases it is 'died' and 'tired'. Embarrassing but true, and perhaps a little Freudian?

And...not only was the feedback I received detailed and useful, it was also a fascinating insight into the different minds of my family members.

One person was an absolute guru on punctuation...another calculated that time had passed incorrectly (ie sunflowers blooming in April, trips stretching between 9 weeks to 6 months)...another gave advice about characters. Almost all the errors picked up by each had been missed by the rest, showing the value of multiple feedback.

Whether they like it or not, my aunt and two sisters have just been nominated to read every book I produce from now on.

Lucky them.

Friday, 12 February 2010

My first official sale

It has happened! At last.

Ok, so I haven't bagged myself a publishing deal, or an agent, but I have sold my first story.

The dear, darling, wonderful people at People's Friend have decided that my story, 'Don't Fuss, Vera!', was worthy of publication.

The news came just as I have made arrangements at work to start taking one day off a week to write.

Last May and June I went through a burst of short story writing, as I realised that my attempts to get an agent for my book weren't likely to be well received without any other writing experience (unless you count numerous academic and professional publications on heart warming matters like people trafficking, international corruption and human rights, which they don't).

I have to admit, when I started thinking about writing short stories for magazines, I thought it would be easier. I read the stories and thought, 'yeah, easy, I can do this'. But then I wrote nine stories in a couple of months, put them into little envelopes with a tiny fragment of my heart, and sent them off to all and sundry.

One by one, they found their way back home.

I'd already discovered the depressing effect of those little brown envelopes with my self-made address labels on them from my efforts to get an agent for my first book. Given that I used the same envelopes, I was never quite sure what to expect when I saw them sitting there, so innocently, waiting for me to take a deep breath, open them up and feel a tad more dejected.

But there was one, my little tale about a fusspot called Vera, that never returned.

I thought perhaps she had gone missing, that she had lost her way home. As I had submitted her last May, I figured that the postal service had let her down. I even thought about resubmitting the story, because it felt good. My husband loved it.

But something stopped me from doing anything about it. Perhaps because I didn't want to see dear old Vera turn up in a brown paper envelope like the rest of them, attached to a little note saying that she was trite or predictable or some such.

And then, after months of not daring to hope, not daring to check, of still having to resist the urge to rummage through the post urgently every day, she came back when I least expected it, complete with a letter telling me that they enjoyed it!

How sweetly do those words ring after almost a year of 'it's not for me', which seems to be the phrase that agents and publishers think are the least offensive to writers' sensitivities.

It was lovely to see her again.