Silver linings

Oh, dear.

As planned, I paid for a professional review of my agent submission pack (letter, synopsis and first two chapters). The report was mildly complimentary but ultimately inconclusive so I bit the bullet and ordered an editorial review of the complete MS of The White Lady. That was just over a month ago.dark clouds

I received the report two days ago, halfway through England’s World Cup semi-final match (I know! What on earth was I doing checking emails?!) and of course I read it immediately, very quickly. I couldn’t resist. It was long, forensically detailed and very, very critical of many aspects of plot and character development and motivation. I had anticipated a tough report but it was far worse than I had expected. I was deeply disappointed and utterly demoralised.

And then England lost to Croatia.

It’s taken me two days to get back on my feet. The first 24 hours I veered between denial (it’s only one person’s opinion!), anger (she just doesn’t get me!) and sadness. I was kept afloat by friends old and new and by reading a kind and very practical post on Andrew Wille’s blog.

It was Andrew who suggested I try to identify the “gifts” presented by the report. At first I laughed a hollow, bitter laugh but then, early this morning in the gym, I had a glimmer of insight and things started to fall into place. Here (in the interests of the devastating honestly that is the hallmark of this blog) are my first three gifts:

  • This report has given me a reality check; an opportunity to stop me making a t*** of myself in public and a second chance to write something less over-heated and self-indulgent.
  • This report has validated my own instinct – and, yes, the opinion of some of my readers – that something was not quite right with certain aspects of the book.
  • This report has given me a timely nudge to be more flexible in my thinking; permission to let the mental discipline slip, throw away the writing schedule and send my story into free-fall.

 

 

Posted in editing, getting published | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Three gifts

Thanks to a laptop problem and other unavoidable domestic and personal circumstances I am treating myself to a brief reading vacation. This has two serious aims:

  • To identify examples of modern historical fiction (including historical romance) that align with my own work.
  • To work out why (in my not-particularly-humble opinion) some books grip me in terms of style, content and writing and others, well, just get chucked in the nearest flower bed.

I will use Instagram* to suggest “three gifts” that my favourite books offer me as a writer-reader.

*@hannahonbrillhill

 

Posted in inspiration | Tagged | Leave a comment

Despair (again)

That last post was terrible! So noisy! So cocksure! TherapyThoughtUSE_3188422b

Life’s not really been like that at all.

Writers should be readers too – but reading just reinforces my inadequacies as a writer. Especially when reading a novel as beautiful and mysterious as Nineteen Twenty-One by Adam Thorpe. Or as exquisite as Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift or Month in the Country by JL Carr. Or as vivid as The Somme Stations by Andrew Martin or Field Service by Robert Edric.

What is the point of me writing? The world doesn’t need more average books! The world needs brilliant books. And I can’t write a brilliant book. I lack the intellectual breadth and the emotional depth.

I don’t have the words.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in getting published, the writing process | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Sorry!

Sorry. Long gap between posts. I’ve been busy – but being busy is the object, surely? (See Running out of life and Farewell Facebook.) Writing this blog helps me organise my thoughts but it won’t get my books published.

14914066-a-line-drawing-of-a-woman-at-a-writing-deskMany things increase one’s chances of getting published – but only two things are mandatory. Writing. And getting one’s writing out there.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. Serious, eight-hour days. At a desk. No lounging in coffee shops, compiling inspirational playlists, or being witty on Twitter – just good habits and a consistent working environment. And so-bloody-what if nobody takes me seriously when I say I’m working? I do and that’s what matters.

 

My aim? A synchronised, simultaneous four-pronged approach:

  • plan one
  • write one
  • revise one
  • have one out there

Plan one. Ideas? Goodness me, yes! – but, like a bag of sweets, I have to resist dipping in too often or I’ll get distracted.

Write one. Revise one. This is the fun bit. Love every minute. Keeps me awake at night, inspires me during the day. This is my personal, patented 5 draft process:

  1. The dirty draft. no punctuation no capitals present tense stream of consciousness like a screenplay go go go
  2. Make it readable. That’s where I am now with Book 2. Chapters, scenes, sentences, dialogue, description. Nice and tidy in Ulysses.
  3. Make it sensible. Pace and plot. Continuity and cohesion. I’m quite excited about Fictionary for the nuts and bolts of this stage especially for defining the Purpose of each scene.
  4. Make it beautiful. Mood. Meaning. Themes. Accuracy. Aspiration. Come on! This could be so much better!
  5. Make it perfect. This is where I am with Book 1. Engage with beta readers, take a big step back, and be very brave. Lots of Bs but aiming for an A.

Have one out there. After last summer’s premature submission, I’ve ordered an Agent Submission Pack Review from Jericho Writers. Gonna do it properly this time. And if there are no bites for Book 1, then I’ll have Book 2 in the pipeline ready to go.

What else am I doing?

Planning and prioritising my reading. Three books on the go: one (or two) heavy historical, one lighter historical, one novel. Right now:

  • Lyn Macdonald’s Roses of No Mans Land: written back in 1993 and still one of the most comprehensive and lively of all the Great War medical and nursing histories
  • Jane Robinson’s brilliant, erudite and highly readable Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women won the Vote
  • Gunner Officer on the Western Front by Herbert Asquith (published in 2018, based on an autobiographical work written in 1937)
  • The King’s General by Daphne DuMaurier – because I’ve never read it and I like strong heroes 🙂

Light relief? Film or television – but carefully curated. The English Patient last weekend. First the screenplay, then the film. And A Very English Scandal on the BBC because it’s so damn good. (The Englishness of this selection is a coincidence. Honest.)

A poetry writing course – because an appreciation of rhythm and rhyme is good for writers of prose as well as poets. I’ve downloaded a DIY short course from the Poetry School.

Networking. I’ve joined the recently re-launched Jericho Writers, mainly for the discussion forums – and I’m going to a Words Away writer’s salon in London next week. Even so, I really do need to get out more. Just too busy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Best left unsaid?

One of my beta readers told me that I leave too much unsaid in my book. Too many hints and not enough facts. Inadequate exploration of motivation. Paucity of descriptive nouns. Scarcity of adverbs and adjectives.

The strength of this reader’s opinion rather knocked my confidence and so it was with gratitude that I read this comment from Peter Selgin writing on Jane Friedman’s website:

Whenever we authors state things that are or might be implied, we rob our readers of an interactive moment, of the chance to infer those implications: among the great pleasures offered by good writing.

But as Selgin explains in another post, “never state what you can imply” is not the same as “show, don’t tell”. Sometimes the writer has to tell in order to interpret the action – or simply move the show along.

The crucial thing is that even whilst telling a skilful writer can leave much unsaid – unlabelled, unexplained – because she trusts her reader to understand, even if placing this trust opens up the possibility of misunderstanding.

Telling readers what to think or feel is the job of a propagandist. A storyteller’s main purpose, on the other hand, is to create experiences for the reader, to involve us so deeply, so convincingly, so authentically in those experiences that we feel what characters feel.

“To create experiences for the reader.” Ah, now; that is the challenge – and somehow, with or without adjectives, I failed for this particular reader.

 

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Getting started with beta readers

There’s lots of good stuff out there about beta readers so this is (as usual) a strictly personal account, complete with small successes, upsets and second thoughts.

Before you read on, please see my post about BetaBooks because without that brilliant software none of this would be possible.

So, who is the ideal beta reader?

First and foremost, beware friends!

If you ask a friend or relative to read your book, they will say “yes” because they’re a nice person and you’re a nice person and they want to please you. They will dutifully start reading but then realise it’s really not their cup of tea so will quietly stop. They don’t tell you they’ve stopped – because they don’t want to upset you by saying it’s not their cup of tea – and you don’t ask them why they’ve stopped because you don’t want to appear impatient or pushy (and you’re secretly terrified they hate it and now you by extension). So your book is never mentioned again and becomes the resident elephant in the room of your friendship.

Conversely, beware the friend who says they’d absolutely love to read your book. What they mean is they want to read your book in five years’ time when it’s piled high in Waterstones and they can boast they know the author – not whilst it’s 10,000 words too long and riddled with inconsistencies and loose ends.

Your ideal beta reader is a friend or relative of a friend or relative. Somebody who is close enough that you have an intermediary for asking those awkward why-have-they-stopped-reading questions but far enough that you don’t meet them in the village shop knowing they’ve just read the oral sex bit in chapter 20.

If a first-degree friend genuinely offers to read your book, smile sadly and explain at length what an onerous and tedious task this would be. If she repeats her offer (and she’s not obviously drunk) take her hand off. (And if this friend then moves halfway across England and doesn’t have a job and is happy to engage in long, late-night WhatsApp discussions about the minutia of character motivation, you’ve hit the mother lode.)

Tell readers what they are letting themselves in for!

Choose people who actually like – or are at least tolerant of – your chosen genre. I personally wouldn’t read a contemporary, angst-ridden, kitchen sink drama for love or money so I can’t expect fans of like to persevere with horse-drawn cabs and trouser buttons. There has to be a nominal element of enjoyment 😉

There is a sexual assault in my first chapter with more (mostly consensual) sex scattered throughout the book, plus some brief but explicit violence. After a false start, I now make this clear to potential readers. My eldest son’s partner (too close a connection, on reflection) stopped reading after the first chapter on account of the unpleasantness therein but didn’t like to tell me why.

How many readers does it take to beta a book?

I researched this question online and found the recommended number to be surprisingly low at just two or three. I wanted to be more scientific so I decided to apply the qualitative research principle of ‘saturation’, which means continuing to sample until no new themes or insights emerge. I approached this objective with five readers and achieved it by seven. Additional readers were a bonus.

What guidance should you give your readers?

Don’t waste your beta readers on typos and spellings; we’ve got Grammarly for that chore. Advise your readers to read as naturally as possible but if they do catch-out Grammarly (and it’s easily done) accept with gratitude. Better them than some exhausted literary agent in a few months’ time.

I gathered ideas for beta reader guidance from across the internet and distilled my findings into what I considered at the time to be five manageable questions:

  • What did you like most about this chapter?
  • Was there anything you found particularly unlikely, annoying or confusing?
  • Are the characters believable? Did the dialogue keep your interest?
  • Did the ending hook you and make you want to read the next chapter?
  • What are you curious about now?

If a reader has particular expertise or you are aware of specific issues or loose threads, should you ask further leading questions – or wait and see what happens? After trying both approaches, I recommend the latter course. You may (like me) be pleasantly surprised. Never mind not seeing the wood for the trees; we writers can only see individual leaves. Readers step back and view the whole county. They may not spot each subtle element of foreshadowing or acknowledge every lovingly-crafted sentence but they do make intelligent and unexpected connections.

In reality, most readers ignored my five questions after the first few chapters and did their own thing, somewhere between brief bullet points and long thoughtful, literary critiques. (Both, I hasten to add, were equally welcome; I have eternal respect and gratitude for all my beta readers.)

Towards the end of the book, feedback from a couple of readers was reduced to excited emojis. I didn’t mind that either! The flurry of BetaBooks notifications told me that they couldn’t put the book down – so, in some ways, this was the nicest feedback of all 🙂

beta books image

Image from BetaBooks

 

 

 

 

SaveSave

Posted in editing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

On writing only what you know

A paradigm-changing snippet courtesy of a piece by Lidija Haas in The London Review of Books.

Reviewing A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays and Poetry, Haas highlights Paley’s inversion of the established advice to “write what you know”, asserting that to do so is the “best way to end up with something dead on the page”:

It’s a real mistake [Paley suggests] to assume that what is nearest to the foundations of your own life is what you know best: nothing dulls the senses like proximity. […] If you find you already know the answer, ‘drop the subject.’

I like this!

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Accepting the inevitable

I’ve just completed a nice writing exercise suggested by editor Andrew Wille.

Without looking back, summarise your draft in under 100 words. Then 50 words. Then 20. What does your instinct tell you is its intention: not only your intention, but the intention of the writing? Use this to craft a mission statement to evaluate your book.

I rattled off 500 words and then, with great difficulty, refined this down to 50:

A suffragette and a soldier find unexpected happiness together only to be torn apart by war. Battered by grief but supported by the courage and tenacity of other women, the suffragette undertakes a dangerous mission for her country before being forced into a desperate race against time to save her lover’s life.

Distilling this down to twenty words was even harder. What is the essence of my story when stripped of all sub-plots and secondary characters?

Two unlikely lovers are torn apart by war. Only her courage and determination in the face of tragedy will reunite them.

And then it hit me: this is a romantic thriller. After two years of trying to convince myself otherwise (such is the literary snobbery where romance is concerned), I’ve now accepted the inevitable. I’m writing a love story. Yep. A love story.

Version 2

And my mission statement? (Who’d have imagined a book needed a mission statement, eh?)

To celebrate love in its many guises and tell of the honour and courage that can exist amidst the horrors of war.

It was like cropping a photograph on my iPhone or pruning a rose ready for the summer. For the first time (after twelve months of intermittent editing; how embarrassing!), I understand what really matters in my story.

Note added June 2018 following feedback!

Somebody pointed out that the “soldier and suffragette” pairing is a good USP – so a pity to lose this concept in the final edit.

So, how about…?

A suffragette and a soldier find unexpected happiness together only to be torn apart by war. The suffragette undertakes a dangerous mission for her country and enters a desperate race against time to save her lover’s life.

 

 

Posted in editing, inspiration | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The writer’s task

A writer ought not to be an opinion-machine… The writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth … and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation. Literature is the house of nuance and contrariness against the voices of simplification. The job of the writer is to make it harder to believe the mental despoilers. The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is, full of many different claims and parts and experiences.

It is the job of the writer to depict the realities: the foul realities, the realities of rapture. It is the essence of the wisdom furnished by literature (the plurality of literary achievement) to help us to understand that, whatever is happening, something else is always going on.

Susan Sontag (2007) At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches quoted in a post on the beautiful, brilliant, challenging website Brain Pickings

Quotes like this both inspire and trouble me. IMG_3804

I am troubled because such wisdom humbles me (agonising over my tawdry romantic thriller) and because I don’t know if I understand.

I think Sontag is saying that truth is not absolute and to pretend otherwise is to collude with over-simplification of a complex world; that it is the writer’s job to deal with shades of grey and the general messiness of life – and the writer’s privilege to give hope (and instill fear) in a world of endless possibilities. But I’m not sure!

 

I am inspired because these thoughts help me see that although I may work with small stories from obscure corners of history I can – I should – nevertheless aspire to “depict the realities: the foul realities, the realities of rapture”. And because it helps me make sense of a question I felt compelled to put recently to one of my beta readers (a dedicated reader who is struggling with ambiguities in the central relationship): Surely love and lust can co-exist? 

 

 

Posted in the writing process | Tagged , | Leave a comment

In praise of … BetaBooks

beta books image

BetaBooks: The world’s first reader management software for professional authors

I like to think I arrived late at the beta reader party because I was waiting for BetaBooks to come into my life.

 

I knew there had to be an easier way to get feedback on my book than the semi-public humiliation of writers’ festivals and disjointed conversations with my youngest sister whilst she struggled to negotiate a 120,000 word PDF on her smartphone. Thanks to Jane Friedman’s Electric Speed email, I found it.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that joining BetaBooks was a game-changer in my embryonic career; the moment when I came out as a writer and actually let people read my story, when embarrassment gave way to pride in my readers’ enjoyment, and shyness became professional curiosity as to what works and what wobbles in my writing.

BetaBooks is practically perfect. It’s good to look at and intuitive to use, with incredible attention to detail and a real understanding of the needs of authors and the enjoyment of readers. It works as well for me with my newbie novel and my handful of readers as it appears to work for established authors juggling multiple books and a fan base of thousands. I love the pioneering spirit of the authors (themselves writers, I believe), their engagement with users of the software, and the sense of constant review and improvement.

I plan to write a couple of posts about working with beta readers so I won’t describe the process right now. I’d far rather you used the time to hop over to BetaBooks and watch the walk-through video.

 

 

Posted in editing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment