Monthly Archives: January 2013

Questions, Questions…

One of my regular readers and commenters, Ania, wrote this blog post yesterday and asked me if I would answer some of her questions. I’m sorry to say I don’t have time to answer them all, but I’ll do my best to answer some of them in today’s post. I’m going to take a random sample of the questions and try to answer in as much detail as possible.

So, hold onto your hollyhocks, people. Get ready to find out what I keep in my handbag!

What is your zodiac sign? Do you match its description?

My zodiac sign is Scorpio, as I was born one long-ago November. It’s apparently a Sun sign, which is a strange thought considering I was born during the winter! Scorpios are, as far as I know, supposed to be secretive, passionate, jealous, possessive and (ahem) rather amorous in their outlook on life. I’m not sure about the amorous part, but I know I have exhibited most of the other traits at various points in my history on planet Earth so far.

It looks just like me!Image: compatible-astrology.com

It looks just like me!
Image: compatible-astrology.com

What song(s) would you choose as a soundtrack to your life?

Well, this is a tough question for me, because I love music so much. Choosing one song would be impossible, and even choosing a top 10 would be hard. But the first ones that come to mind are:

‘Immigrant Song’ – Led Zeppelin : This song makes me appreciate the Viking heritage which I’m sure I have. It’s a lot of fun, and it also has a killer beat. But then, I pretty much love all Led Zeppelin’s songs!

‘Unknown Legend’ – Neil Young: This song is one of many that reminds me of my dad, which is another reason to love it. But truly, I love every single Neil Young song I’ve ever heard, and he’s my all-time favourite artist.

‘Time Has Told Me’ – Nick Drake: This song kept me going during a very hard period in my life. I love it because it reminds me that things will get better and never to give up hope, but that’s just personal to me. The lyrics don’t really reflect that message! Again, I love all of Nick Drake’s tragically small output. He’s wonderful.

‘A Case of You’ – Joni Mitchell: I can’t explain the effect that ‘A Case of You’ has on me. Every note and every word of it makes my skin tingle. I love the song, and the entire album ‘Blue’, and most of what I’ve heard of Joni Mitchell. She’s a legend.

‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ – Sandy Denny: Sandy Denny was the best singer in the world. Ever. End of story. This song changed my life, and I adore every note of it.

‘May You Never’ – John Martyn: Just a gorgeous song from a wonderful singer/songwriter, sadly also gone from the world too soon.

If I answered this question every day, I’m sure I’d come up with entirely different songs, every day. Truly, I love so many thousands of songs that I’d never be finished answering this question!

Who are the most important people in your life?

Well, this one is easy. My husband, my parents, my brother, my parents-in-law, my brother-in-law, and my ‘sisters-in-law’. Then, I have about ten million aunts, uncles and cousins, as we’re a good Irish family. And then, of course, I have a huge helping of friends, none of whom I could live without. So, a lot of people are important to me, and I love them all. I’m a lucky girl.

What’s your favourite book/writer?

This is like the question about music. Every day, my top 5 favourite books changes! So, today’s favourites are:

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman (or, anything by Neil Gaiman)

Lords and Ladies – Terry Pratchett (or, anything by Terry Pratchett. I’m seeing a pattern here.)

The Earthsea Quartet – Ursula K. Le Guin (okay, so technically four books, but you’ll have to allow me that indulgence. It’s Le Guin!)

The Once and Future King – T.H. White

The Passion – Jeanette Winterson (or, indeed, surprise surprise, anything by Jeanette Winterson.)

I’m also going to include The Canterbury Tales by my hero, Geoffrey Chaucer, even though it’s technically a poem, not a book. But I love it. Only in the original Middle English, of course.

What do you carry in your bag?

Well, it varies, but normally I carry a rucksack-type bag, as I’m not very girly. So, I usually have at least three paperback books, my purse, a hairbrush, a bus timetable, an assortment of tissues, lots of receipts, some hand-cream for my eczema, a pen (usually not working), a notebook, and a plastic bag to put everything into if (or, rather, when) it rains. The glamour of my life is just overwhelming, isn’t it? I should have my own style magazine.

What countries would you like to visit?

So many I can’t remember them all. I haven’t been to very many places so far! My dream destinations would include: Iceland, Scandinavia (anywhere – ideally all the Scandinavian countries), Belgium (to visit my friend Tine), Spain, Italy, Hungary (I’d love to see Budapest), Canada, and Antarctica. If Antarctica counts as a country.

If you compare yourself five years ago to yourself now, what has changed?

I’m not working as an English tutor any more, and I’ve had another job in that period too; I’m married now, but I hadn’t met my husband five years ago (though I was about to meet him, which is a happy thought); I’m following my dream in life now (i.e. I’m writing), whereas five years ago I wouldn’t have had the confidence or support network in place to help me to achieve this dream. So, a lot of positive changes have happened.

So, I hope that’s good enough for Ania, and that I haven’t bored the pants off the rest of you. I’ll try to be a little less self-absorbed in tomorrow’s blog post!

Image: thewritersadvice.com

Image: thewritersadvice.com

 

Love = Risk

I’ve just seen a wonderful Tweet from one of my literary idols, Jeanette Winterson, in which she used the phrase ‘Love = Risk’. I’d been searching for a title for today’s blog post, and when my eye fell on her words, I knew I’d found it.

(By the by, if you’re not familiar with Jeanette Winterson’s work, I really can’t recommend her more highly. Every book she writes is a perfectly crafted jewel, and she does things with language that most people can’t even dream of. The first Winterson book I read was ‘Sexing the Cherry’, which was on a course I did at university – I read it, loved it, and have never looked back. I think my collection of her work is pretty much complete now!

book jacket Sexing the Cherry

But this is all preamble. If this blog post had an editor, I’m sure she’d tell me to cut out all the waffle, and get to the point.

Here’s the point, then.)

Yesterday evening, I watched a beautiful programme on BBC which followed the early life of a lady named Mary Berry, who is a ‘celebrity’ chef in the UK and, in recent years, in Ireland too. I say ‘celebrity’ because she seems a very down-to-earth and unpretentious woman who would probably not relish the drama that goes with being a famous face, and this programme about her life gave me a real insight into where she gets her grounded outlook and her dedication to her family and her craft. She grew up during World War II and was raised in a large house in the English countryside, with parents who gave her everything they possibly could and did their best to ensure she had a happy childhood.

One aspect of her younger days touched me very deeply, however. At one point in the programme, she recounted her relationship with her father, and she spoke of the fact that she and her siblings had spent their childhoods being afraid of him. He seemed an aloof and cold figure, one who believed children should be seen and not heard, and a man who didn’t relish physical contact or shows of affection. Later in the programme, she was given the opportunity to look over some of her medical records – she suffered polio in the late 1940s, along with thousands of other young people in Britain – and a photograph, clipped from a newspaper, was shown to her. It was of her father, and Mary herself, shortly after she’d been released from hospital as a 14-year-old girl. She’d never seen the image before, and was extremely moved by it. Her father is seated on his horse, and Mary stands beside him. He is looking down at her with an expression of such love and devotion, with such soft and caring eyes, that it took Mary by surprise. In the photograph, she’s not looking at her father, and so his expression is lost on her. But the expression on her face as she gazed upon the image of her father, she now far older than he was when the picture was taken, was extremely touching.

This lady had grown up not really believing she’d been loved by her father, just because he was unable to show her how he felt. Her father must have been a man moulded by his time, a time when fathers didn’t show affection and when children weren’t always treated with tenderness. This doesn’t mean that those feelings of love weren’t there – but for silly societal reasons, people didn’t feel free to show their loved ones how much they meant to them. I found it sad that it had taken so long for Ms. Berry to finally see the love her father had for her, but the joy on her face as she realised that, all along, she’d been a treasured daughter was a beautiful thing to witness. I’m sure her father realised how lucky he and his wife were to be able to take their child out of hospital alive, and mostly unmaimed by the illness she’d suffered, and his joyful love was evident in the photograph. Perhaps, though, he could only let his love show in his face when he knew he couldn’t be seen by the object of that love.

Loving someone does involve a huge amount of risk, whether you receive that love in return or not. In fact I think love that is returned to you, or a love you share with someone else, can involve more risk than love which is unrequited. You’re risking being hurt – because nothing makes you more vulnerable than being in love – and you’re risking the person taking their love away, and leaving you in pain. If your love isn’t requited, your risk-taking is limited – unless, of course, your beloved discovers how you feel. In the case of Ms. Berry’s father, perhaps he feared being seen as less of a man if he allowed his children to see how much he loved them, and perhaps that was a risk he couldn’t take. He’s not the only father to have fallen into that trap.

But the risk is always worth taking. The pain of having your heart broken, of taking the risk to love someone and show it, can’t compare with the pain you might cause someone by loving them so secretly that they never know. In the context of a familial relationship, providing a child with things isn’t the same as telling them you love them. In a marriage, taking your spouse for granted by assuming they know how you feel about them is not usually a good idea. It’s worth taking the risk of looking a bit of a soppy fool by telling them you love them every once in a while. Isn’t it?

Love = Risk. It has always been, and will always be. I’m not the world’s greatest risk-taker, but this one’s worth it. Don’t you think?

Writing Up a Storm

Yesterday, the weather was terrible. Not hurricane-terrible, or tsunami-terrible (I’m often thankful for Ireland’s reasonably clement climate!), but dark, cold, with really heavy rain and hail storms. So, I kept myself pretty much housebound.

Sort of like this, except worse.Image: disastersafety.typepad.com

Sort of like this, except worse.
Image: disastersafety.typepad.com

That’s not to say I didn’t do anything useful, though.

I set myself up on http://www.authonomy.com a few days ago, and one of the things I did manage to do yesterday was upload just over 10,000 words of a Work in Progress to the site. Its working title is ‘Eldritch’, and as I said yesterday, I envisage it as being the first book in a trilogy (currently titled ‘The Astolat Conspiracy’), aimed at readers between the ages of maybe 8 to 12. Of course, I’d hope older readers would enjoy it too! If you’d like to check out what I’ve done, please feel free to visit the website – you can search for my book using the word ‘Eldritch’. You can read it without logging in, or giving details, or any of that craziness, and best of all – it’s entirely free. So far, I’ve been made very welcome and I’ve (at time of writing) managed to gather four kind reviews, complete with some useful critical comments. Even though it’s early days yet, my impression of the site is very positive. I’ve also read some wonderful work by other users, both people who’ve reviewed my work and people whose work I just liked the sound of, and it’s been an education to say the least. There are a lot of very talented people writing in the world today; I’m trying to take that as a good thing – in other words, the genre I love, and the stories that I love, are alive and kicking – instead of ‘oh my goodness, look at all the competition!’

It’s not as easy as it looks, you know, this positive thinking malarkey. But I’m doing my best.

Following a dream is a bit like feeling your way around an unfamiliar room in the dark sometimes. As well as the inherent insecurity of chasing something intangible, though, I also know I only have a limited time in which I can indulge myself, so I really hope I can make the most of the time I’ve got. I suppose, then, what I’m doing at the moment is more like feeling my way around that unfamiliar room in the dark, all the time knowing there’s a really wonderful treasure to be found somewhere in the unknown – and, like the hailstones that fell yesterday, the treasure won’t last forever. Eventually, it will melt away and be gone, leaving no trace that it was ever there at all. However, I am determined to do the best I can, and write as much as I’m able, and do the best work of which I’m capable. If other people read and enjoy it at the same time, then it’s a bonus.

In other news, work on ‘Eldritch’ is going well. I also spent some time on an even older WiP yesterday, one I started so long ago that I’d forgotten the story of it. I’m not sure it’s salvageable, but I know that I loved it dearly once upon a time, so perhaps I’ll find a useful nugget in there. And, of course, ‘Tider’ is bubbling away in my subconscious all the time! I feel like a circus plate-juggler, sometimes. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Since the competition ended, I’ve felt a little bit unfocused – the central point of my writing life has gone, you might say. But I’m making new goals for myself, and new milestones and deadlines. I want to have ‘Eldritch’ out on submission by the end of March, for instance. That’s a goal I can meet, I think. I’m hopeful I’ll be able to work on ‘Tider’ during that time, too – the two books are very different, so working on them simultaneously should not only be possible, but maybe even beneficial.

(Sometimes I read back over things I write on this blog and say to myself: ‘you crazy fool!’ I just had one of those moments. However, I suppose those moments keep life interesting.)

So, today I’ll be embarking upon a marathon ‘Eldritch’ writing session. I’ll let you know how it goes. Stay warm, stay dry, and remember to keep searching for that treasure!

The Journey Begins Again!

Apologies for the (very) late delivery of this morning’s missive. The delay is due to the fact that I’ve spent most of the morning searching for my password to the new Authonomy profile I set up for myself last week. Of course, just as I’d given up hope of finding it, and requested the site to send me a new one, what happened? I found where I’d taken careful note of the original password, tucked neatly away in my notebook – for whatever reason, my eye had just hopped over it the last ten or fifteen times I’d looked. So, then I had to reset the new password and reinstate the old one… *wipes brow*

And all this before I’ve put up a word of my writing!

So, Monday morning has been a bit of a kerfuffle so far. Perhaps that’s because I had a wonderful weekend, spent with family and friends (in fact, spent with friends who are as good as family, so the best of both worlds!), and during which I didn’t worry about writing, or my work, or the future. I met a beautiful new baby girl who melted my heart, and I took a long walk in the wind and rain – that might not sound like fun to some people, but I enjoyed it. All this relaxation, and the change in my focus and pace, is probably responsible for my ditziness this morning. But it’s wonderful to have the opportunity, and the license, to be ditzy once in a while.

I had managed to wind myself up into a panic about The Novel at the end of last week – none of which was necessary, of course – and I had felt like I was making myself unwell as the week drew to a close. I had a sore throat, I was exhausted, and I felt like my eyes were going to fall out of my head. Thankfully, I feel much more rested now and eager to begin the work of writing once again. The weekend was a lifesaver, really. I’d decided on Saturday that I felt unable to continue with ‘Tider’ for the minute, and I thought I might leave it for a while, and focus on other things – but in my heart, what I really meant was ‘I think I might leave it, forever, and forget I ever started writing it.’ Thankfully, I no longer feel that way. During my refreshing walk yesterday, I found myself thinking about the book and coming up with another idea to strengthen the beginning of the story – so I’m taking that as a hint that my mind hasn’t finished with this story yet.

My walk left me feeling (and looking!) a lot like this guy. Invigorating, to say the least! Image: theatlantic.com

My walk left me feeling (and looking!) a lot like this guy. Invigorating, to say the least!
Image: theatlantic.com

I’m going to do some work on my other WiP today, though, the first book in what I’m dubbing ‘The Astolat Conspiracy’. I have a trilogy planned out, and I’m enthusiastic about the characters, their voices, and the plot. I’m ten chapters into the first book, and I’ll keep you all posted on how it’s going. In the next few days you’ll probably see new Tabs appearing across the top of this blog, where you’ll be able to find out more about ‘Tider’ and my other WiPs. (At least, if I can figure out how to do it in an elegant manner, you will. My husband the computer genius is away for a few days with work, so he can’t help me. I’m a bit apprehensive about going it alone!) And, if I haven’t locked myself out of my Authonomy account forever, I’ll tell you how that’s going, too.

It’s all happening around here today! I hope your weekend was restful and relaxing, and that you’re full of energy and enthusiasm for the week ahead.

(And even if you’re not full of energy and enthusiasm, I hope you have a great Monday, and a happy and productive week ahead of you. I recommend going to visit a gorgeous newborn, and then taking a walk in the rain. It worked for me!)

The Next Steps

The shortlist of the Novel Fair competition was announced last night, and, unfortunately, I wasn’t on it. I had no expectation that I would be, given the calibre of entrant I was up against, but it was wonderful to get as far as I did. Being longlisted for a writing prize, on my first time out, has given me a great boost.

So.

What now?

Well, I’ve joined ‘Authonomy’, and some of my WiP will be posted there in the coming days in an attempt to gain some feedback and (hopefully helpful!) critical opinion. I’ll put some up here on the blog, too, in order to give those who don’t use Authonomy a chance, should they wish for one, to have a look at what I’ve been working on. I’m already nearly 30,000 words into an entirely new WiP, so I’m going to bring that one to completion before I revisit ‘Tider’, and try to get it ship-shape and ready for submission to agents and publishers.

And if all that fails, well – we’ll see.

Wish me luck! And thank you for being such stalwart supports on the journey so far. I hope you’ll all be with me as I take the next steps towards achieving my life-long goal of seeing my work in print.

Happy Saturday! I’m looking forward to having a day off from writing, actually. My husband and I are off to visit one of our best friends and her brand-new baby girl, so we’re extremely excited about that. Writing will take over my life again from Monday – hope to see you there.

It's Off to Work I'll Go!Image: arenaconsulting.net

It’s Off to Work I’ll Go!
Image: arenaconsulting.net

Nothing For It…

I’m under pressure today.

I‘ve proven to myself that even a book which someone spends months on plotting, planning, preparing for and thinking about can still need so much work to bring it to a proper conclusion. I know all this, because it’s happening to me right now!

My brain is working overtime, thinking of better ways to structure scenes, and more efficient ways to structure the entire plot. I’m going to make some changes which will bring the character where she needs to be in a quicker, more exciting and less wordy fashion – ‘less wordy’ being the most important bit, of course! It’s not as bad as it sounds, really. I have everything I need already – I just need to change a few scenes around and lose one or two overly descriptive, overly obvious parts.

I’m a bit sorry that this breakthrough didn’t happen a bit earlier, but I think my brain needed to be in its current space – i.e. ready, willing and able to see my book not as a precious and treasured creation, but as a crazily long document that needs a serious prune – before it had the freedom to embark upon these changes.

As a result, I must fly! There’s nothing for it, but to knuckle under and get the work done, just like this lady. And then, hopefully, I’ll be able to do a bit of singing.

Image: starpulse.com

Image: starpulse.com

 

The Wavy Green Line of Death

I am tired today. I worked until midnight last night, because my husband went to bed early (like a sensible person). Instead of seeing my abandonment as an opportunity to perhaps read a book, or watch some TV, I grabbed the WiP and edited until my eyesight began to fail.

Image: someecards.com

Image: someecards.com

But, in a way, it was worth it.

Yesterday’s editing was brutal – it was a merciless slaughter of words. Line after line of useless text fell beneath the blade of my Green Felt Pen. (In fact, my word-thirsty Green Felt Pen may need to be replaced with the even mightier Blue Felt Pen later today, because I’ve nearly worn out the nib on Green the Destroyer, such is the swathe it has cut through the excesses of the WiP.) And, surprisingly, I’m learning that it actually feels good to edit. It feels good to re-read a paragraph or a page after I’ve cut lumps out of it, and realise that it now says exactly the same as it did before, but in fewer words and without doing all the work for the reader.

It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention (that is, if you’re a regular reader) that this edit is my seventh. Seventh. And I’m still finding things to fix. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’ve read the manuscript of this novel about ten times at this stage, and it’s only becoming clear in this edit that I’ve made a huge amount of rookie mistakes. Thank goodness for the all-powerful Green Felt Pen of Doom, then! Maybe the power is in the pen – that would explain a lot, actually.

Anyway. Let’s do a little round-up of Things I Have Done Wrong, in the hope it’ll help other writers:

Item the First: My book is narrated in the first person. This can pose tricky problems for me, because all I have to go on is my protagonist’s viewpoint. Yet, at regular intervals through the book, my protagonist describes for the reader how other characters are feeling. This, of course, is a no-no. It’s only striking me now how silly this is, and how badly it reads. People can make guesses at how others are feeling, of course, based on body language, tone of voice, and so on – but for a first-person narrator to say something like: ‘He looked at me, and there were dark circles under his eyes. He was so anxious. His heart was racing,’ is plainly ridiculous. (I have to point out that the sentence I’ve just used is most definitely not taken from my WiP – I wasn’t as silly as that. I’m just trying to give an illustrative example!) So, anywhere I’ve noticed my protagonist making assumptions about other people’s feelings which are not based on very clear physical cues, the Green Wavy Line of Death has been employed, and those needless words have fallen. And hurray to that.

Item the Second: I’ve also realised that my protagonist describes things in too much detail sometimes. If she encounters a machine, or a vehicle, or a piece of technology, she tends to go on and on about it, describing every last dial, switch, and piece of tubing. She’s not a particularly enthusiastic engineer, and she’s not a machine-nerd. These things are not out of place in the world she lives in. So, I ask myself, why does she go on about them for half a paragraph? It’s equivalent to someone in a modern novel taking fifteen lines to describe a washing machine, or a refrigerator. Unless the refrigerator in question was powered by a meteorite and made from solid diamond, or the narrator is a freshly-arrived alien, there’s no need to do that. Of course. What I’ve done – as, I’m sure, will be clear to you – is I’ve mixed up my own voice with my narrator’s. That is a shocking mistake to make. I’m fascinated by the machines and technology in this world, and I’ve thought deeply about them. I’ve done some research into steam-powered engines, and condensers, and propellers, and so on. So, when someone in the book enthuses about something which should be totally ordinary from their point of view, it’s actually me speaking, not the character. I’ve slapped myself on the wrist for this already, don’t worry. And slash slash scribble goes the Green Felt Pen of Doom.

Item the Third: One of the things I was most proud of yesterday was condensing six pages (or, approximately 3600 words) of descriptive exposition with a bit of dialogue into about 2.5 pages (hopefully, fewer than 1000 words) of pure dialogue, with a tiny bit of exposition. It was a scene which had bothered me for a while, but until yesterday I had no idea how to fix it. Eventually, I just ended up rewriting the entire thing. It’s an important scene, because in it, our Fearless Protagonist is learning things about her family, and realising how little she understands about them and what they do. But, as I’d written it up until yesterday, the scene was basically a lecture given by one of the other characters, both to the reader and my protagonist. Now, it’s more like a discussion – she engages more, puts things together herself (without having to be smacked across the head with things that are, actually, obvious), and I don’t feel the need to expand on every tiny detail. As before, with the overdone descriptions, I’ve sketched around things that would be clear and unremarkable to the character, and allowed them to gradually reveal themselves to the reader.

So, basically, this is what I’ve learned (the hard way): Don’t give your characters knowledge they couldn’t possibly have; Don’t confuse your enthusiastic, nerdy voice with theirs; and Don’t allow Captain Obvious to visit your manuscript and explain everything in minute detail. Smack him with the Green Felt Pen of Death.

I hope this has been helpful, and mildly diverting. Do let me know if you have any other editing tips, or if you disagree with anything I’ve said here. It’s all about the discussion, people!

Have a wonderful Thursday.