Writing Process Blog Tour

I’ve been invited by This Thirty Something Life author Jon Rance to answer some questions about my writing as part of a writing process blog tour. You can read his answers to the questions below on his blog. Here are my responses:

What are you currently working on?

I’m actually taking a break from writing for a few months. I wrote two books last year – Blown-Away Man, a comedy drama about a successful ad man who returns to his village for a school reunion only to have a bombshell dropped on him, and The Adventures of Fartella Gasratilova, a collection of humorous short stories for children. While I thoroughly enjoyed writing both books, writing two books at the same time left me feeling a bit burnt out afterwards! For the first time in years, I have no idea what I’m going to write next – and I see that as a positive thing. Saying that, inspiration usually strikes whenever I travel, and I’m off to France soon…

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

All my books are comedy dramas – but they’re all different. Package Deal and Hot Property are set on Greek islands and are written from multi-viewpoints, so you get male as well as female perspectives. Hence those books seem to appeal to men as much as they do women. Pearls, however, is definitely more of a women’s read, and has slightly more depth with its underlying theme of self-love. Then, veering off in a completely different direction, Blown-Away Man is set in London and Lincolnshire and is written from a man’s perspective with a much more humorous tone of voice. To be honest, I don’t know if my books differ greatly from others of their genre. I don’t put pressure on myself to be unique. I can only write the stories that are in me.

Why do you write what you do?

Comedy comes naturally to me. I’ve kept a diary since I was 10. When I was 17 I wrote all about my aunt’s wedding in Dorset. My parents had just split up so it was an emotional time, which wasn’t helped by my mum being given a lot of responsibilities at her sister’s wedding. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong – from traffic jams to forgotten bouquets to arsey friends of the bride. When we finally got back home, the washing machine had flooded the kitchen, creating a sea of soapy water surrounding a sort of St. Michael’s Mount-shaped object – a ‘welcome home’ turd generously left by our senile cat. By this point, my mother was a nervous wreck. After helping her clear up the mess, I scuttled off to my room to write up all the horrors of the weekend in my diary. As I wrote, the funny side emerged, and I wondered if it’d make her feel better to read what I’d written. To my delight and relief, it made her howl with laughter. It was a wonderful reaction and must have had a profound effect on me, because from that moment on I’ve been unable to write anything without injecting some humour into it.

How does your writing process work?

My novels begin life as an embryo, a single scene, for example. I let the embryo germinate in the back of my mind for a few months, visiting it every so often to find that it’s sprouted a few more scenes or characters, or even an ending. When it’s grown to a size that can no longer be ignored, I start to sketch it out very roughly. There are still lots of gaps at this point. You can’t necessarily wait for inspiration to fill all the gaps, so I start actively shaping it, plotting out where it’s going. When I start writing, however, things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes the story guides me, sometimes I guide the story. Ultimately – and I know this sounds wacky – I believe the story wants to come out. It wants to be told.

While I’m writing the first draft, I try not to edit. I make notes of issues that need addressing and then deal with them in the second draft. When I’ve done three or four drafts, I send it to my editor. She then makes a list of suggested changes and I then decide which ones I agree with and which I don’t. Then it’s a few more drafts of editing and polishing before reaching the proofreading stage, which I get someone else to do, as I can’t see the wood for the trees by then. As I self-publish, I have the ultimate say on everything, which is as daunting as it is liberating. I’ve had literary agents in the past so I know the book editing process, and I’m a sub-editor by trade, so I’ve got the necessary skills to edit a book myself. But that said, having an editor and proofreader are essential. A writer can’t produce a professional book on their own without some help from people with the right skills.

Many thanks to Jon Rance. I’m now passing these questions on to Starlings author Erinna Mettler who blogs at http://www.erinnamettler.com/ so look out for her answers soon.

Publish and be damned (sure you’re done)

Today JK Rowling admitted that, in retrospect, Hermione should’ve ended up with Harry Potter rather than Ron Weasley. Yesterday, author Khaled Hosseini said on Radio 4’s Book Club that he hadn’t re-read The Kite Runner since he wrote it because he’d only chastise himself for all the changes he should have made. Interesting, I thought. Just when is an author satisfied with their work and the decisions they make? And to what extent should authors be trying to please their audience?

I’m at the final stages of completing my novel Blown-Away Man. My editor has undoubtedly helped me shape it into a better novel. But, with a week or so to go before I press the publish button, should I give it to more people to read to offer me their opinion on it? Do I really want to start seasoning it to other people’s tastes at this stage in the process? Does Damien Hirst round up his family and mates and say, “What d’you think of my shark in a tank then? Does it work? Any suggestions for improvement?” (Maybe he does, I have no idea. But I’d be very surprised if he gave a shit what anyone else thought.)

Aside from my editor, my husband has already provided lots of feedback. And, a year ago, a few close friends and family members gave me their thoughts on the first three chapters. Some of their opinions about a few details were similar, but at the same time, everyone had something different to say. For a while my mind felt foggy with other people’s opinions. It actually wasn’t helpful. I started to doubt my protagonist. I started to doubt the whole story. It took me a while to frogmarch all those voices out of my head and get back on track to believing wholeheartedly in my original idea.

Each time I write a book I learn different things from the experience. This time I’ve learned that it’s not always helpful to show your work to lots of other people and ask for their feedback. My husband’s and editor’s thoughts are invaluable – whether I agree with them or not – but beyond that, if I start listening to too many opinions and doubting my original ideas, I might as well let the story be crowdsourced. (Which, who knows, could be a fun exercise.)

Should Hermione have ended up with Harry? Should Amir and Hassan’s story have turned out differently? That’s what book clubs and reviews are for – the joy of airing and debating what you loved or didn’t love about someone else’s book. If it’s your book though, there comes a time when you have to put your ear plugs in, finish the story and turn over a new chapter…

Raw with all your might

While having a clear-out the other day, I stumbled upon a book I hadn’t seen in ages. This was a book I leaned heavily on in the early days of my writing journey. In fact, it would be fair to say it was my ‘Writing Bible’. You may have heard of it: The Right to Write by Julia Cameron.

It was thanks to this book that I forced myself to believe in my writing and take the plunge to send things off to agents. It helped me to stop seeing authors as a different group of people, a group that I didn’t belong to. It helped me to believe in my individual writing voice. I didn’t have to try to emulate someone else’s style or write something in the current hot genre.

I used to do a daily exercise (before I had children) as suggested in Julia’s book. It was called ‘morning pages’. The idea is to grab a piece of paper and a pen first thing in the morning and just write. Write whatever comes into your head and don’t edit a single word of it. Write fast. Don’t pause to plan what you’re going to say. The idea is to learn to silence your ‘censor’ and conquer your fear of criticism.

So this morning, for the first time in over eight years, I had a go at ‘morning pages’. Below is what I wrote. I’ve typed it up word for word, without correcting any spelling mistakes, or rearranging any sentences. I’ve resisted the temptation to sculpt it into something witty, or polish it to perfection. It is completely raw. I’d forgotten what a therapeutic exercise it is. It’s like cleaning out cobwebs.

I’ve also typed up a handful of the many gems I’d underlined in Julia’s book (see below) as they helped me no end. But if you’re struggling with writer’s block or self-doubt, then I recommend reading the The Right to Write cover to cover. By the way, if this is the last time I blog for a while, it’s probably because I’ll be in arachnophobia therapy after my husband gets me back for the toad incident.

My morning pages

Haven’t done this in years. Not sure I’ll be able to write without editing as I go along. Kids are on the computers. The music from the games they’re playing is sending me into a trance. Sainsbuy’s delivery will be here any minute to rudely awaken me. Feel sleepy. Keep having weird dreams. Dreamed Olympic opening ceremony took place in a London square & involved lots of grey slimey creatures emerging out of the water to crowds cheering all around. This most likely down to seeing a toad in my friend’s garden yesterday. Chris wouldn’t go near it. I touched the toad – as did the kids. Then we all chased Chris and I stuck my finger in his mouth while he was yelling. The finger that touched the toad. He freaked. So I said I was only winding him up & I never really touched the toad. However he went & rinsed his mouth out before I let on I was only joking. Only I wasn’t joking. My toad-contaminated finger did go in his mouth. I will never let him know or else he’ll wreak revenge on me. He knows my weakness is spiders and I’ll go mental if he puts one near me. Anyway back to present moment. Going to beach today if weather nice for picnic with friends. They are showing Mama Mia on an outdoor screen near the pier. Apart from the Abba songs I doubt the kids will be that into the movie. If I have to explain to them the storyline I’m wondering if they’ll ask why the girl doesn’t know which man is her dad. And so I need to prepare an answer. Because her mummy had special cuddles with those three men all within a short space of time probably isn’t the best way to go. Where’s the bloody Sainsy’s delivery man?

(You don’t know how hard it was not to edit as I typed this up.)

A few passages from Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write:

How much control are we willing to surrender for the sake of allowing creativity to move through us rather than our trying to flog it forward for agendas of our own?

I believe that what we want to write wants to be written. I believe that as I have an impulse to create, the something I want to create has an impulse to want to be born.

So much ‘good’ writing doesn’t seem to care. It’s too cool, cerebral, calculated and calibrated. Therefore I love to read the tabloids. The tabloids are full of ‘bad’ writing.

It is one of the ironies of the writing life that much of what we write in passing, casually, later seems to hold up just as well as the pieces we slaved over, convinced of their worth and dignity.

(Recounting a conversation with Arthur Kretchmer, editor of Playboy.) “Don’t bother to write for your common reader, Julia. You’ll never meet your common reader. Write for your ideal reader, the one who will get everything you say.”

(Quoting a friend) “…sometimes I need to write without thinking about an editor, without thinking about where it will get published. I need to write something just for the joy of writing it.”

…what is actually required at many points in a writing career is the grace to allow ourselves to one more time be a beginner, writing for the sheer love of it.

When we write from fear of criticism, we hamper our stride and we cripple our voice.

Put yourself out there

As the half-term holiday approached, I started to notice a pain in my right hand at the base of my thumb. Scrolling and clicking the trackpad seemed to be making it worse. Could it be RSI? If so, it wouldn’t be surprising. As a self-published author, I spend a lot of time on my laptop, much of it online, ‘putting myself out there’.

Aching thumb aside, I was starting to feel burnt out with writing, editing, proofreading, tweeting, blogging, monitoring sales figures, etc. My eyes needed a screen break, my fingers and thumbs needed a trackpad break, and my brain needed to stop thinking about how best to promote my books. I needed to put myself out there all right – but outside, in the elements.

Cue camping trip. Forecast: high winds and showers likely. Hmm…

As I packed and packed and packed, I thought that this wasn’t the most relaxing trip I could’ve chosen. Packing pretty much took the entire day before departure. On arrival, unpacking, putting up the tent and sorting out the bedding took time, too. It was a good while before we could sit down, relax and join our friends with a well-earned beer and admire their far simpler tents.

However, the simple activity of packing and unpacking, putting up a tent and preparing food for the BBQ in 40mph gusts of wind, all required 100% concentration. And while my focus was on these activities, it wasn’t on writing, editing and marketing – a good thing.

The rest of the time was spent having fun in the open air. The kids turned feral, building dens in the muddy woods, while the adults huddled closer to the fire and cracked open more Cava.

A highlight was taking a walk through the woods to the ‘cave of poo’. The cave of poo was not for the fainthearted – it’s dark enough to need a torch, muddy enough to need wellies, and smelly enough to hold your nose. So naturally I sent my eldest daughter in with a far braver adult.

Meanwhile, my youngest daughter had got herself stuck in a muddy bog. ‘Mummy! I can’t move!’ she screamed hysterically while I caught up with her and immediately found myself in the same predicament. We stood there, knee-deep in mud (it was only the top 5mm of our boots that were not submerged). As I debated whether it was easier to go forward or backward, we wobbled precariously from side to side, watched by the others with baited breath. Miraculously, we eventually managed to get out with our wellies still on our feet and without falling flat on our backsides. My daughter’s tears turned to giggles and she was soon racing with the other kids towards the next disaster zone: a muddy stream with a rope swing above it.

Our camping trip was over too quickly, but one weekend of being outdoors in the fresh air connecting with the elements was enough to clear my brain, restore blood flow to my thumb and replenish my creative tank. As Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘In order to write about life, first you must live it.’

Agents: masters of TLC (Tough Literary Criticism)

They take months to respond, and then it’s usually with an impersonal rejection. In the miraculous event that they like your MS enough to take you on, it’s still a gamble whether or not they’ll be able to sell your book to a publisher (see my previous post).

So, in this era of accessible-to-all self-publishing, are agents worth paying any attention to at all? The answer is yes. It is absolutely worth going through this process, even if, like me, you get all the way to being taken on, only to be released again, novel unsold. For while my agents were unable to sell my novels, they helped me to edit my work, to ‘sharpen’ it so that it was as good as it could be, and I’m very grateful for that.

For example, one of the areas that I needed to work on was pace of plot. In my first ever novel 12 years ago (which I haven’t put on Amazon because I don’t think it’s good enough), an agent I met with at the time pointed out that the beginning was strong, the end was strong, the characters were strong, but the middle of the story “sagged”. She was right. I had a lot of re-writing to do. Even though, despite the re-write, that agent decided not to take my novel on, it was a good exercise which I learned a lot from.

With Package Deal a few years later, my agent at the time suggested putting in an extra scene where the main character, Mia, has some kind of confrontation with her mother or her mother’s husband. I followed her advice. She was right, it added more tension in the build-up to the climax. She also suggested toning down Steve and Craig’s language. I deleted a few expletives here and there, but in doing so I could almost hear Steve and Craig shouting at me: “Give up swearing? Us? You must be fucking joking!”. They’re just not polite, what can I say? They’re real.

With Hot Property, and yet another agent, I was advised to lose 20,000 words. (My word count was over 100,000.) That was a challenge. I didn’t want to lose any of my precious words, but they had to go. Fortunately, as a sub-editor I’m used to axing copy, but when it’s your own copy, it’s a lot harder to detach! Also with Hot Property I was advised to change a risqué storyline to avoid “alienating readers”. I didn’t like this suggestion or agree with the reasoning behind it, but I did it anyway. And now that I’ve self-published, I haven’t changed it back to the way it was originally because it felt OK like that.

I was also given advice on presentation and layout, told to shorten the sections where Georgie is emailing her friend back in the UK and make them more “punchy”, and work more on each character’s voice so that they all sounded different and distinct. It was pointed out that my teenage character Sophia was a bit of a Nobby No-mates – wouldn’t she have some friends to hang out with? All these observations, whether I agreed with them or not, helped me look at my work more objectively, more carefully. The result was a better, stronger story.

So even though I’ve ended up self-publishing on Amazon, I’m still glad to have had the experience of working with a literary agent. It has definitely helped me improve my writing.

I’m currently editing my fourth novel (title TBC) and half-way through writing my fifth (working title Blown-Away Man). Now, while I’m editing, I try to bear in mind what an agent would say (even though I’ve currently got no plans to submit to one). But while I’m writing, I shut those voices out and listen to the characters. It’s their story, after all.

Slasher on the loose

The other night I was in the pub with a group of women, when someone asked me what I did for a living. I explained that I’m a copywriter, and that I used to work as a sub-editor. Like many people, she wasn’t too sure what a sub-editor did. I joked that sub-editors are like the distant cousins of axe-murderers – that there’s a lot of hacking and slashing involved.

Everyone knows what an editor is, of course, and people often assume that you are the editor of some publication or other, inadvertently pegging you further up the career ladder to a slightly more impressive position than the one you actually occupy. But in fact, sub-editors are usually a few notches below the editor, doing the dogsbody work of axing, lengthening, re-writing, fact-checking, spell-checking, proofreading, headlines and captions, while making the text look tidy, consistent and presentable.

I like to think of sub-editors as the unsung heroes of journalism, that behind every great journalist is a team of great subs, whipping that copy into shape, giving it an attention-grabbing (sometimes misleading) headline, axing a lot of unnecessary waffle and leading it towards a neatly tied-up conclusion.

Subs also have the power to change the tone of a sentence and take words out of context (surely the bane of every celebrity’s life). This isn’t always intentional. Sometimes a 1000-word article has to lose 500 words in order to fit into an appointed space and leave room for pictures. A sub decides which 500 words must go. Sentences will get skimmed down, losing words here and there, sometimes with the result that a light-hearted remark ends up sounding brusque.

Sub-editing is definitely a geek’s job. You get apoplectic about apostrophes, and you appreciate a sentence that has the words apoplectic and apostrophe in it. You weigh up ‘the staff is helpful’ versus ‘the staff are helpful’, knowing the former is correct but the latter sounds more natural. And of course, you are as smug as a bug in a rug when you spot a typo such as this one: ‘The lightweight screen shits comfortably on top of the hard drive’, which I’m relieved to say I spotted when working on an IT magazine years ago. (Although I’m pretty sure the editor planted it there just to keep me on my toes.)

Subbing is also a creative job. Thinking of the right headline to match the article is one thing, but getting it to fit into the allotted space with the given font size is another challenge. This was particularly tricky working at The Sun TV Guide years ago: Most headlines for the soap pages were only three or four short words long, and there was only so many times you could have ‘Mum’s the word’ or ‘Kat’s got the cream’.

But there are also disadvantages to working as a sub-editor. For example, I am now programmed to always think in puns when trying to come up with a headline, strapline, caption or title. A deluge of corny, cheesy, inappropriate ideas will always come gushing out before anything vaguely on the money.

But by far the worst disadvantage: I am not allowed to make a mistake. Ever. Dare I send a text or email to a friend abbreviating ‘you’re’ to ‘your’ because I’m in a hurry? No, I dare not, lest they think I don’t know the first thing about the English language. If I’m proofreading, I cannot miss a single forgotten full stop or misplaced apostrophe, even if my eyes are bloodshot from staying up way past midnight ploughing through a box set of The Killing.

No, there is no mercy for the sub who makes a mistake (despite eradicating hundreds). So I raise my glass to subs and copywriters everywhere: “Pats you’reselfs on the bak, u lot. U is all doin a gr8 job:-)’