Category Archives: On writing

On Writing: Blog Hop

A writer who I admire for many reasons such as the way she brings her characters to life with so few words, gets to the raw truth of an experience and most importantly gets her novels out there (rather than stalling an moaning like me), invited me to take part in a blog hop.  Thank you Katie O’Rourke.

The simple principle for this blog hop is to answer a question about what I am writing and why and to link to two other writers blogs whom I rate.

Why are you working on the project you are writing now? Why is it important? (to you, or to the world, or…)

This is a painful question to answer as I am still working on a novel I started seven years ago and can’t seem to move on from. I think I know why it is important to me, although knowing doesn’t necessarily help.

1) It is based on my sister’s experience and she asked me to tell her story before she died (no pressure then).

2) I have had a number of agents interested (based on the partial MS) only to turn it down once they had read the full MS. This make me believe it has something, if only I could tell it right.

Whether it is important to anyone else (the world) I am hoping to find out by publishing it in serial chapters on this blog (see tab in top right hand corner – Forever In-between). If nothing else I will at least have got it out there to succeed or fail (subjective terms I know) and I can move forward.

Now onto the nice bit, giving a shout out to other writers who have been there for me (despite my pathetic track record of actually getting anything completed).

First off I would like to introduce Anne Goodwin and her blog Annecdotal which in her own words

is the persona through whom I navigate that in-between space both here and in the comments boxes on other blogs, with mutterings about reading and writing peppered with snippets of psychology and a quiet rage at social injustice and stolen childhoods.

I first read Anne’s writing on Your Write On and was blown away by her ability. I am honoured she counts me as one of her writing friends.

Secondly is a writer I met through the peer review site, Authonomy. Juli Townsend and I were part of the Women’s Fiction Critique group, but Juli, unlike me, has gone on to get her novel, Absent Children, published and I admire her tenacity and self-belief and wish it would rub off on me.

I know I am only supposed to nominate two writers, but there is one more shout out I must do. Stephen Gallup has written an incredible memoir about his son with a developmental disorder and the fight he and his wife faced to get him help.

Nobody knew what hurt little Joseph, and no one was offering a way to help him. He cried most of the time, and thrashed about as if in pain. He wasn’t learning how to crawl, talk, or interact normally. Doctors told his parents to seek counseling, because nothing could help their son, and the quality of their own lives was at risk. Refusal to accept that advice changed their lives forever. WHAT ABOUT THE BOY? A Father’s Pledge to His Disabled Son chronicles a family’s rejection of hopelessness and their commitment to the pursuit of normalcy.

On writing: or not

skywriters block

I’ve stopped. It’s been coming for a while. It wasn’t intentional at a conscious level, although I suspect my unconscious knew exactly what it was doing. I actually feel all right. Not elated, but not desperate either and most importantly I feel better than I did when I was doing it.

I’m talking about writing of course, or more specifically writing to get published. Somewhere along the way I lost sight of why I was writing in the first place. I don’t know whether this is a hiatus or something more permanent. I am trying not to think about it because I think that is what I need to do (or not do). I do know before I stopped I was crabby and bitter rewriting the same novel over and over because the thought of starting something new seemed pointless. Everywhere I looked success was happening to other people. If I could only cut out the excess words, make this character nicer, show not tell better I would make it too. I would get published.  Each rejection scored deeper than the last until I began not only to hate everything I wrote but also myself for having the audacity to think I could write at all.

It’s been nearly two month since I last ‘wrote’ anything, and by that I mean rewrote/ tweaked/ added to something I had already written. I haven’t actually written anything new for over a year other than fragments, which I haven’t been able to finish; a massive red flag, which I completely failed to notice while in the grip of self-loathing and envy.

It’s been a relief to still those derisive, berating, destructive thoughts. To say ENOUGH!

It may well be the case that the only difference between a successful author and failed writer is the former didn’t give up, but equally doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity.

I’m sort of waiting but not waiting at the same time. I may never get that full on first time rush again, but I’ve decided, by not deciding, to leave it up to my unconscious; the place where my writing comes from, but it is also where my dark, destructive thoughts arise.

In the meantime I will read and read and read some more. I love books. I love brilliant characters. I love where fiction takes me. I will not read to analyse and dissect, but for the utter joy of it. I will support my fellow writers when they get their break without envy or regret. I will learn to love the craft again.

If I am meant to write I will write, but this time I won’t worry about what it is, or how many words it is supposed to have. I won’t worry about POV or motivation or whether the characters are likeable. I won’t worry about finishing it, sharing it, or even liking it. And, atrocious simile or not, I will stop wearing my writing like a hair shirt and wear it like a silk scarf instead – casually, lightly and most importantly of all for the sheer delight of it.

I’ve not so much stopped writing as stopped head butting the wall.

Any other writers out there reached this point? If so, what happened next for you?  

No chick-lit here: Review of Alys Always by Harriet Lane

Alys Always

ALYS ALWAYS is Harriet Lane’s debut novel about the ‘little’ people, the ones that make world turn for the ones who think it turns just because they will it to. With a cast of morally dubious characters it is both a satire of celebrity culture and an indictment of how lost all of us really are.

What matters is ‘who you know’ and in the small and nepotistic literary world, Frances Thorpe (thirty something sub editor on The Spectator) doesn’t know anyone. That is until she meets Alys Kyte, trapped (and as it turns out dying) inside her overturned car on a lonely, country road. At first Frances wants to forget the horrible incident, until she realises who Alys was married to; literary heavyweight Laurence Kyte. When she is asked to meet the family (for closure) she is invited into a world of privilege and entitlement. Encouraging the friendship of Polly, who is missing her mother and nursing a family secret, Frances’ metamorphosis begins.

Frances is a complicated and calculating female character, which makes this a refreshing read. No chick-lit heroines here. Hallelujah! The story taps into the jealousy us ‘little’ people feel when we pore over the pages of glossy magazines at the lives of the fated, and asks the question; what would you do?

There are two reasons I really enjoyed this novel. The first is the clean prose. Harriet Lane bravely puts her command of grammar under the spotlight by making Frances a pedant, who spends her days correcting book reviews for the magazine she works on. A great plot can be ruined by sloppy writing, and although of the two plot is key, many times I have given up on a book because the writing overwhelmed me (and not in a good way). It is said that great writing is invisible, which does not mean it is without voice or personality rather it does not eclipse the story and become a thing in its own right. Rest assured Alys Always has a clear, ego-less voice in direct contrast to the lauded novels of the ‘emotionally lazy’ Laurence Kyte. Harriet Lane is making a subtle point in both ‘how’ she writes and in Frances assessment of what passes as ‘great’ literature.

My second reason is an emotional one – the most reliable indicator of a good book – and more specifically how I felt about it when I wasn’t reading it. Like falling in love, I was excited about seeing it again and planned ways of making time for it. I thought about it frequently. I was desperate to find out how it all turned out, but at the same time didn’t want it to end. On finishing it, I missed it.

The novel’s protagonist reminds me of the insidious character of Barbara in Zoe Heller’s Notes on Scandal. Like Barbara, Frances’ actions are driven by dubious motives, but the people around her are so convinced of their ‘special’ status that you can’t help but wish she succeeds.

My only minor criticism is that the ending, although satisfying, would have been improved by an increase in conflict. I was craving a character that could really challenge the status quo and push Frances to her limits (and beyond them).

I would certainly read more from Harriet Lane and for those who want a story where the woman isn’t a simpering simpleton waiting for Mr Right, then ALYS ALWAYS is the book for you.

Let me know what you think? Does it matter to you if the lead character is likeable or not?

For more on Harriet Lane Click here 

Animal collection: Bridport prize 2011(longlist)

Schrödinger’s cat

schrodinger's cat

His cat slipped through my legs and disappeared upstairs as I let myself in the front door. In the kitchen, I emptied the contents from his Waitrose bag-for-life onto the pine scrubbed table. I poured out a glass of red wine from the bottle I’d started last night and reached over the sink to press play on the CD player on the windowsill.  His garden lacked inspiration. I pictured gaily painted pots, spilling over with summer blooms. I would suggest doing them on his return.

The chunks of beef browned in the heavy bottomed saucepan from John Lewis. My stomach felt like a kitten’s, swollen with squiggling worms. I topped up my glass.  He’d said I could stay if I wanted, save having to come by and feed the cat. I’d not been home since. I didn’t plan on returning.

His cat startled me as he leapt onto the work surface and made a beeline for the saucepan.

“Shoo.” I flicked the tea-towel at him. He arched his back, but held his ground, his tail a black bottle brush.

“I said off!” I lunged at him like a pit-bull on a short leash. He jumped from the work surface and skittered across the floor, his tail curled around his bottom. The cat-flap flapped as he exited.

I added a good glug of red wine and used the edge of the wooden spoon to scrape the bottom of the pan like my nana showed me, before Mum and her fell out. Adding the roughly chopped vegetables, I replaced the lid and turned down the gas. The CD ended and the radio cut in.

“… Head of communications, John Haines, said: ‘It might have been struck by lightning. It’s a possibility.’ We will bring you the latest on this breaking story in our seven o’clock bulletin. In other news a man is suing McDonalds for making…”

I remembered the cat just before seven and popped a tea towel over the dumplings, perfectly round and smooth like eggs, before emptying a packet of cat food into his bowl. Dropping the empty packet in the bin, I turned back to find his face in the dish as if he’d always been there.

“How’d you do that?” He purred and smacked his lips. I reached down to ruffle his head.

Hisssss. He shifted his position to the other side of the bowl. The narrow tip of his tail flicked.

 “Don’t be so precious. You’re going to have to share him from now on.”

 I picked up the spoon and lifted the saucepan lid. The stew simmered patiently, unlike me. I would take a long bath and paint my nails to pass the time. A meaty aroma filled the kitchen as the seven o’clock news began.

“Fears are growing for 229 passengers on board British Air jet 658, which vanished on a routine flight from New York to Heathrow over the Atlantic around 3pm BST. The most likely explanation is a lightning strike. Head of Communications, John…” 

The wooden spoon clattered to the floor. Gravy splashed onto the terracotta tiles. The cat sauntered sideways as if aiming for the cat-flap and took a surreptitious lick. He began to purr and settled over the dark stain.

I held the piece of notepaper up to the lounge window, scanning the details three times. The evening light was the colour of peaches. I crumpled to the floor. His cat appeared and head butted my shins. I pressed my hand along his spine. He arched into my touch and I whispered his name, “Schrödinger.”

His name was silly, I’d said, the first night he brought me here.

He laughed at me and said; had I never heard of Schrödinger’s cat?

And I said, yes, because I had, but that was all, and then I distracted him with my lips and hands.

At work, I’d looked it up on Wiki, but got irritated by the jargon and gave up clicking on links because each one made me angry. It wasn’t until after he told me he loved how we ‘fit’ together that I asked him to explain.

Are you going to listen to me then?

I’m a woman I can multi-task, I said, pressing butterfly kisses into his chest, before resting my ear against his heart.

You put the cat inside a box
Why would you do that?
So you can’t observe it
Why not just say, so you can’t see it?
Because seeing and observing are not the same
They are
Your eyes see, but your brain observes
You’re splitting hairs
Cat hairs?

Funny, not. Inside this box is some mechanism that could cause a random event to occur, and this random event, if it does occur, would smash a vial of poison

What random event?

It’s not important – the important part is that the vial of poison may or may not smash and therefore the cat may or may not be alive

And…?

But don’t you see, the cat is both dead and alive at the same time

Only until you look in the box

Exactly! It is the act of observation that collapses the cat’s superposition. Reality decoheres into the observable and the not. In one reality it’s dead, in another it’s alive.

My head spun. I kissed his nose. I don’t know about split, but I imagine it would be spitting. I wouldn’t want to open that box without a full body suit and thick gloves on. Why didn’t he use a rat or mouse or something harmless like a fly?

You exasperate me. The point is this. Until you look the cat is both dead and alive at the same time. It is your observation that creates reality

So if I don’t look nothing is real?

Yes and no. If you don’t look everything is real, every reality is possible. That’s what Schrödinger was trying to demonstrate with his thought experiment…

Enough, enough, I get it, I lied. Now kick out the cat, close the bedroom door and observe which state I get in…

Schrödinger strutted off, his tail smooth like a snake. I pulled myself to standing using his desk for support and tugged my phone from my bra. His number rang and rang and rang… The house phone startled me. I dropped mine, the back and battery separated as it hit the floor. The dying sun crept across my bare toes. The house phone stopped.

“Darling, it’s Mum. Your dad says a flight’s gone missing over the ocean, but I don’t think it’s your flight number…”

I reached down and yanked the phone line out of the wall.

‘He’s departed, but not yet arrived,’ I spoke it softly, like a prayer.

Schrödinger cleaned his ears and cheeks and then his right back leg. Or he’s arrived and has departed.

It got dark. I found some ear plugs for his iPhone in his bedside drawer and rammed them in until my ears hurt. A waft of stew made me retch. I slipped silently down the stairs and turned off the gas, returning like a scolded cat to the safety of the landing. I dragged the feather down duvet into the en suite and climbed into the bathtub shaped like an egg.

“So what came first? Chicken or egg?”

“Neither and both,” I replied. Flicking water at his chest.

He smiled and stroked my thigh. “How long is a piece of string?”

I blew bubbles from my palm into his face. “As long as you want it to be.” And he laughed and told me that was exactly the right answer, but I didn’t know why.

“Take reality,” he said, “what is it?”

I sat up. Foam slid down my breasts as I pressed my hand flat against his. “This.”

 Cocooned in the tub, wrapped in his king-size duvet faint with his scent, I slept. When I woke, my limbs were stiff as if I’d made a quantum leap into old age. Daylight showed too much of everything. I climbed out of the bath. On the top shelf of his wardrobe, I found his ski goggles. It took some time to tighten them. In the silent blackness my dream returned. He soared across the sun. The muscles of his shoulders and arms picked out in gold.

Something nudged my leg. My panicked hands groped around the sides of the goggles, until I realised it was Schrödinger. I crouched down. He was meowing. I could feel the vibrations in his chest and front legs.

I made my way downstairs and into the kitchen. The surface of the cold stew was congealing white or maybe it wasn’t. I ran my hand along the work surface until I came to the tall cupboard. Pulling a bottle from the shelf, I unscrewed the cap and sniffed and then made my slow and stumbling way back upstairs.

Eventually the Vodka bottle grew light and I didn’t know if it were day or night. I saw him constantly in the vast, blue sky, flying beyond the moon, past Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, all the way to Neptune and then on and on through the nothing of outer space and on and on and on…

 He’s flying not dying.

 My head split apart. Unfurling like Schrödinger after a rainy day snooze, I climbed from the bath, groping for the cool edge of the sink. I opened the cabinet above. My fingers walked around bottles and boxes. I felt Schrodinger’s presence like a draft on wet skin.

He has arrived and departed, he hissed.

No. He has departed and not yet arrived,’ I replied, clutching a box and spinning round to confront him.

You’ll see.

‘I won’t. Not ever.’

I swung back to the sink, my cheeks hot, and lifted the bottom edge of the goggles to check the label on the box. The brightness of the light flooding in around the goggles frightened me, like a buried memory of something bad that had happened.

 In next door’s home office, Schrödinger padded across the Karndean floor as the radio announced plane wreckage had been spotted in the ocean by a cruiser.

The tablets popped easily from the foil into my palm.

Schrödinger cleaned his tail in front of next door’s television showing pictures of an upturned section of fuselage, the words scrolling beneath; after three days at sea, a handful of survivors of Flight 658 have been spotted by a luxury cruiser.

I swallowed five tablets and climbed back into the bath and dreamt of angels and gods and planets and stars and forever. I woke briefly and took the rest, dropping the empty blister pack over the side of the bath.

A flight touched down at Heathrow.  A shiny black car with tinted windows left the airport.

 Schrödinger returned, though no-one saw him arrive. He sat in the doorway of the bathroom as Hannah’s head lolled to the side and bubbles of dribble escaped her pale pink lips. A car turned into the tree lined road.

From the turn in the stairs through the top-light over the front door, he observed two navy suits get out of a long, sleek black car. The hairs along his shoulders and spine lifted like an arrow and his pupils widened into oceans of dark matter. The suits took off their hats and tucked them under their arms. A crumpled shirt appeared between them as they reached the front door.  Schrödinger’s tail twitched and his hair smoothed flat. He stretched – a purr rolled through his jaw. The front door swung open.

His whole world was before him. Schrödinger could not contain his smile. He has arrived. His head swiveled to the bathroom; and she has departed.

He trickled down the stairs and entered orbit.

On writing: some nice news

Not career making, but nice all the same to find out a short story I wrote about a pig in a schoolyard made the Mslexia short story competition shortlist of fifty.

a little happy dance
a little happy dance

It’s given me a boost and I have reworked the opening chapters of my newly named novel ‘The replacement wife’ and posted them on Authonomy. There is a link at the top of the page if you are interested. Now all I’ve got to do is get up the guts to send it out again.

rejection

On writing: Will I ever become a writer?

Borrowing the title from Dorothea Brande’s 1934 novel that speaks with such clarity nearly 80 years on, I wonder if I will ever become a writer or always be becoming?

Unlike most things I have done in my adult life there isn’t a syllabus or a set of instructions to follow. I can’t mind-map my way to publication. Up until now, I have assumed that if I put in enough hard work and commitment I will be successful – it’s worked before.

But then I have never (seriously) tried to become a writer until now.

And never have I felt so vulnerable, so useless and so wretched.

Most days, I am preoccupied with worry that I have reached my ceiling, that there is no more capacity to improve. At times I am floored by my arrogance in believing that 1) I have anything worth saying, and 2) anyone would want to read it.

And yet I can’t stop doing it – like the rebound singer on a reality show, returning year on year, provoking a pity cheer and embarrassed applause.

I don’t want to be here, feeling like this. But I have been cursed by a malicious imp, sniggering over my words, while whispering accolades in my ear.

Will I ever become a writer?

I don’t know. But I do know, I will only have failed if I give up becoming.

How do you keep going,when it gets tough? What makes you want to write?

On Writing: Seven degrees of rejection

snoopy rejection

1) Standard form rejection based on partial, five minutes after you pressed send.

2) Standard form rejection based on partial.

3) Personalised rejection based on partial (you’ve got talent variety).

4) Standard form rejection based on full.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”  W. C. Fields

5) Personalised rejection based on full (I didn’t buy into this aspect, but it’s a good idea).

6) Personalised rejection based on full (send us your next one).

7) Personalised rejection after you have resubmitted the same novel, which they asked you to edit further.

“You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.”  Isaac Asimov

This time I made no. 5. The higher the number the higher the hurt; 5 hurts pretty bad.

The only way to avoid it is either a) be a genius or b) don’t submit.

I’m working on a) and considering b).

And yes I know, it is only one agent. It doesn’t mean others won’t love it, but my writing ego is soft and easily wounded. I have to learn to toughen up because the alternative is not to write, and I can’t imagine not.

“After rejection – misery, then thoughts of revenge, and finally, oh well, another try elsewhere.”  Mason Cooley

What number have you got to? Do you struggle to send your novel out again?

“If you want the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with the rain.”  Dolly Parton

Six for writers: Show don’t tell – what’s all the fuss about?

The Betterware catalogue is sat on the kitchen table all innocent looking. For flip’s sake, either you are morphing into a boomerang when my back is turned, or else someone is bringing you back in. For the third time that day, I put it back out on the front porch. I never buy anything from it. I have the internet.

My son and husband are talking (loudly) in the next room. Since he has got taller than his father, every conversation they have is loud, and to my ears, competitively edged.

“Who brought the catalogue in from the porch?” I shouted three times.

“I did,” my nearly grown son said, filling the kitchen doorway, momentarily startling me – where did the boy go?

“Well don’t.”

“Why? What is it?”

It’s a catalogue of house stuff, but I never buy anything from it. Just leave it on the porch and they will pick it up again in a few days.”

He screwed up his nose. “Why don’t you just throw it away? If you don’t want it and didn’t ask for it?”

“Because it is someone’s business – how they make money – and I am not trying to hurt them, I just don’t want anything myself.”

His face smoothed into a wry smile.  Looking down on me, he said: “You’re such an inspiration. Do you know that Mum.”

My eyebrows lifted, waiting for the sarcastic punch-line.

“I really mean it.”

And I learnt a major lesson in how to be a parent (slightly too late as my youngest is almost eighteen) and the parallels in writing emotionally connecting fiction.

You can tell your kids until the polar ice-caps melt that they must be kind and respectful, but showing them is likely to have more power and impact. I am not a perfect mother, but I am ‘good enough’ and my son is kind and respectful not because I told him to be, but because I showed him how to be.

Just as it is in your writing.

When you want to convey an abstract idea, like respect or hate, you must show it through a concrete action if you want the reader to feel it rather than merely hear it.

I could say:

Roger was filled with hate.

Or,

I could show you:

Roger placed the air-rifle on the windowsill to steady it. The window was already ajar; the day had been the hottest one yet. The squeals from the playground were deafening.  The One Show was about to start and Monty Don was going to be on talking about his new Gardening programme. In Roger’s day, children were sent to bed straight after tea. There was no point talking to the parents, if anything they were more ignorant than their offspring. Some bright spark, no doubt the flashy lawyer from no. 45, with the four blond-haired boys ranging from downright evil to obnoxious, had filled a large paddling pool and placed it not more than ten feet from Roger’s back fence.

He heard the News coming to an end and lined up his sight. The eldest of the four boys had dragged a plastic slide over the paddling pool and was standing at the top of it, crowing about the splash he was going to make.

Roger aimed for his thigh and pressed the trigger. The gun popped. He swung it around and aimed at a squirrel running along the edge of the fence – rats with bushy tails was all they were. The squirrel and the boy fell down together.

The screaming started. He went upstairs and stood at his bedroom window as children ran into and over each other, scrambling for their back gates, like the savages they really were. Soon all would be quiet. He plumped up his pillows and sat on the bed, remote in his hand.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be all ‘show’ – sometimes ‘tell’ is good enough, for example, when you have to cover a lot of time quickly. Not everything you write needs to have emotional resonance, sometimes characters just have to get places or complete an action, but never forget showing is where the power is.

So make sure, when the reader needs to feel, you show them how to.

Do you think unpublished writers make too much fuss about writing ‘rules’? Is show and tell one of those ‘rules’ that you get fed up hearing about?

A review: My top ten for 2013

Time to review my list for 2013, one month in:

  1. Get an agent- well, I jumped. MS is sent.
  2. Get a publisher – depends on 1.
  3. Fast twice a week – yup, still doing it. Still feel great. Husband starts it tomorrow.
  4. Meditate regularly- not once. I really must start doing it again. Make time.
  5. Enjoy the moment (live in the present) – always trying, but would help if I meditated.
  6. Worry less (see no. 5) – nuff said.
  7. Read more books – reading two at once, currently. Spent a great train journey, immersed in Sadie Jones, Small Wars.
  8. Write more (instead of procrastinating on the internet) – well I’ve sent the MS and my friend and I are challenging ourselves to write something new each month and put it in our shared dropbox.
  9. Keep blogging- love my blog.
  10. Accept change is part of being alive and embrace it – I’m getting on a plane to Honduras! And looking forward to it.