In which I go to the library, and behold its great and wondersome shininess. Aaaaah…

Worcester's shiny shiny library

So the magical city of Worcester (note: not actually magical) has a new library. It is called The Hive, and nobody really knows why. It’s very exciting. The reasons it is exciting are twofold. Firstly, it’s a combined University and City library and therefore is a bit massive and has space for ALL the books. If you’re thinking that no library could really have space for all the books, you’re wrong, and need, urgently to get your Pratchett on and learn about l-space. Secondly, the new library is exciting because it is GOLD! Altogether now….

The goldness is particularly exciting because it means that we have a new building that isn’t a glass box. Now some people aren’t fond of the gold. They think it looks a bit weird. Those people are, of course, entirely correct, but I love it. Weird is always better than bland. It’s why I very much like the Selfridges building at the end of Birmingham’s Bullring too. It’s silvery blue and looks like the shopping centre has a big lovely derriere.

Anyhoo, we were talking about the library. I say it’s new. It opened in July. The Queen came and opened it. Actually it was already open then. Queenie “officially” opened it. She didn’t turn up with a big bunch of keys and the code for the alarm system. She just wandered into a building that was already open and pulled back a little curtain on a plaque which said the building was opened by the Queen, which, I think we’ve clearly established, is technically lies. Thinking about it, it was even more of a lie when it was engraved, because the Queen hadn’t even turned up then. Probably the plaque should read, “possibly opened by the Queen, but maybe not. She might cancel with a nasty head cold. Anything could happen. It’s really too soon to say.” But that would probably need a bigger plaque.

Anyhoo, again, the point is I went to Worcester’s shiny shiny new library, and it’s really rather good. It’s like being back at University with all the books and little corners to sit and read and the many many computers which you can log into with your library card or, if you have one, with your University ID. It makes you feel like, with a bit of ingenuity, you could basically make up your own self-study degree programme, and maintain the pretense of still being 19 without the nasty tuition fees. And, because it’s all new, there are modern red sofas with individual overhead lights right out in the middle of the floor where you can walk by them and think “Oooh, red sofas, nice.” And then, further back in the darker corners, there are plain grey chairs and sofas, because it is still a council building after all, and you can’t go frittering public money on red sofas just willy-nilly.

The whole place is a bit of a gift to lazy procrastinating writers and wannabe eternal students like myself, and visiting it has led to a new plan. Novel no 2, which entered hard drafting mode last week, is, I think, going to be written at the library. On writing days I shall pack myself up a little bag with paper and pens and a bottle of water and leave the house like a proper grown-up with a proper job. I shall walk to the library, find a corner (probably a dark corner with a plain grey chair) and I shall write my words. Then I shall walk home again.

This plan has advantages. Again, they are twofold. Firstly, it adds a short walk into my routine, which, hopefuly, will contribute to the ongoing battle against my expanding writer’s bottom. I was going to type “running battle” there, but if I did running the writer’s bottom probably wouldn’t be a problem. Secondly, it moves me away from the home with all its various aids to procrastination, so I might actually manage to write something. I don’t see how I could possibly be led to procrastinate in the big room with ALL the books. Hmmm…

So in summary: libraries are good; big gold libraries are better; and plaques that say the Queen opened something are not to be taken at face value. That is all. Come back next week, when I’ll probably be talking in more detail about the whole diet/weightloss/writer’s bottom issue. Although I might not. I’ll probably become distracted and talk about something else entirely. As ever, please follow if you like what you read. And please comment if you have an interesting thought. If you’re Worcester-local what do you think of The Hive? If you’re not from these parts, then please just chat about libraries, or Queens, or writing locations, or gold things, or anything really.

In which I think about what I learnt at the RNA conference

This weekend was the annual RNA Conference, an event at which romantic novellists get together, talk about writing, the state of the industry and generally maintain a communal level of fabulousness not normally seen outside of a glitter factory.

There are lots of posts all over the internet about the conference – the main RNA blog will gives you a taster (and more pictures of shoes than most shoe shop websites), but I wanted to share a few specific things that I learnt this year.

 

1. I must blog more regularly.

The first session on Saturday morning was led by Talli Roland and was all about social media. For most of this session I was quite smug. I tweet. You can’t really move for me on facebook. I blog, and then Talli dropped a reality bomb into my self-satisfied bubble. “You have to blog regularly,” she said.

Ah. Yeah. About that. I have been deeply blog-flakey of late. So my new resolution is this. I will blog every week. Every Monday in fact. It would be really truly lovely to see you here. You could do commenting, and then I would do replying and we would be one big happy blogging, chatting family. 

 

2. Things feel a little bit more positive than last year.

At last year’s conference the overriding vibe from the publishing types in attendance seemed downbeat. I couldn’t escape the feeling that ebooks, self-publishing and the recession were scaring traditional publishers, but no-one had worked out how to respond. There was a sense that if publishers just carried on as if nothing had changed, the world might go back to normal. It had an air of Neville Chamberlain in 1938 about it. The vibe around submissions was downbeat too. The tone was very much, “Our list is full. You could submit, but we’re not really looking for that type of thing…”

This year things were different. Maybe it was just the different personnel in attendance but the vibe was definitely more positive. Publishers were talking about actively looking to acquire new titles. Chatting to authors who’d had one-to-ones with editors, the numbers being encouraged to submit manuscripts seemed higher. And publishers talked openly in their sessions about self-publishing and why they believe that traditional publishing is a better option. Heads were out of the sand and looking forward. None of which is to suggest that getting published in 2012 is easy, or even significantly easier than in 2011, but, to my ears at least, the tone felt more encouraging to try.

 

3. Everyone needs a good day every now and then

Trying to get published is hard. Writing a novel is hard (I mean, not like brain surgery hard or training 10 hours a day to be an olympic gymnast hard, but in its own way, still tricky). Editing a novel is hard. Getting an agent is hard. Editing again with someone else’s input is harder. There are points along the road where it’s easy to think that it’s never going to happen. It’s easy to see other writers signing deals and posting pics of their cover art on facebook, and wonder if that’s ever going to be you.

At times like that you need A Good Day. A Good Day might just be a day you get an tweet from someone who likes your blog. It might be a day when you write a really good chapter and read it back and think, yeah, that’s actually ok. It might be a day when someone else tells you you’re writing is ok. Saturday was A Good Day for three reasons.

Firstly, I explained the concept behind my novel to a publisher, who responded that she loved the idea. Now that doesn’t mean she’ll love the novel. She might hate the way I’ve dealt with the idea. She might read the opening chapter and think it’s not funny enough. She might think it’s too funny and the jokes distract from the plot. She might just get something else that’s similiar that she loves ever so slightly more on her desk on the same day. But she loved the idea. That alone is worth a tiny happy dance.

Secondly, I won the Elizabeth Goudge Award. This prize is awarded for the RNA’s own story competition which is open to any members attending the conference. This year I won. I have a little trophy, which at some point in the next 12 months, will be engraved with my name. I’ll be alongside some fab writers. That’s worth quite a big happy dance.

Thirdly, in slightly drunken conversation with a gaggle of published writers, someone acknowledged that one of the most frustrating stages in the journey towards publication is the bit where people are reading your work and saying “I really like it, but…” That, they agreed, was the stage just before, “I really like it, and…” Maybe, for me, the “I really like it, but…” stage will last for years and years and several more “not quite there yet” novels, but the next stage, the “I really like it, and…”, doesn’t feel so completely unachieveable. It’s still an IF rather than a WHEN, but it’s a doable IF. Altogether now, Massive Happy Dance!

 

So that’s just three of the things I learnt. There were lots of others. “Celebrate often” was a big message from Miranda Dickinson’s talk, which I seem to have taken on board particularly well. Just look at all those happy dances. In summary, conference was brilliant. The RNA is brilliant. And you’re all brilliant too, so if you fancy joining me here every Monday for super regular blogging, please follow or subscribe. It’ll give me yet another cause for happy dancing.

In which I share a very little story what I wrote

I don’t usually blog stories or poems, but just for variety (and because it’s far too silly to try to actually sell) here is a little storyette what I wrote. It’s called “Bored”.

The sky hangs dark and menacing above the horizon. Rain beats mercilessly onto the cold barren land. A light shines from a single dwelling-place, defiant against winter’s icy hand.

Inside two men survey their labours, waiting for the coming of the hour.

The older man speaks. “Come forward, young apprentice, and behold.”

“Behold what?”

“Do it properly. We agreed.”

A sigh. “Behold what, oh glorious and worthy master?”

“Behold the power in this land writ large.” He holds aloft a manuscript covered in mystic runes. “Above us,” he declaims, “only the Great Ones. Below us, the minion classes quake in their fear.”

The young one takes the manuscript and reads in wonder. “Then it is finished?”

“It is.”

Silence.

“Why are maintenance-”

A sharp look from the wiser older man quashes his tongue. He tries again. “Why are those who tend…” he shrugs, ”…those who tend this mighty ground on which we stand shown green?”

“Because, my youthful friend, green is the colour of hope. Green is the colour of life. Green is the colour that was prophesied.”

The younger man pauses. “Can we stop doing this now, Dave?”

The older man scratches his armpit and gazes out across the Rotherside and Armley Business Development Centre carpark. “’Spose.”

His colleague puts down the manuscript and spins on his seat. “It’s good that you finished the Org Chart.”

A sigh. “It’s ok. You wanna do corridor chair races?”

The young one nods. “Why are Maintenance in green?”

Another sigh. “I quite like green.”

In which I offer musings on what it means to “finish” writing a book

My first ever attempt at writing a novel is nearing completion. And let me be clear, by “completion” I don’t actually mean “completion” in the sense that any sane and normal person would understand it.

The non-writers amongst you will probably be open to two potential definitions of when a book is complete. It could be when the writer has typed their way all the way from “Once upon a time…” to “happily ever after” and stepped away from the keyboard. It could also be when the book gets handed over to a publisher and winds up in actual bookshops. Well, I’m not at either of those stages. The first passed some months (years?) ago, and the second may never happen at all.

So what have I been messing about at for the last two years, since I completed my first draft of this novel? Well, various things. There have been periods of having to leave the house and earn some actual money. Although he is astonishingly supportive of my whole penniless writer thing, much beloved husband does also remain fond of more mundane stuff, like eating and paying the mortgage.

There have also been periods of watching my life inexorably ebb away through the medium of my twitter and facebook news feeds. There has been a brain-mushing amount of watching old episodes of Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model on youtube, and falling ever so slightly in love with both Heidi and Tyra. Turns out my ideal woman is a German version of Tyra Banks. Who knew?

There have been periods of sitting staring at my novel-in-progress on the screen and rocking gently before flicking back over to youtube where it’s safe. But mainly there has been editing and rewriting and editing again, because starting at “Once upon a time..” and typing through to “happily ever after” doesn’t get you a book. It gets you a draft, and within that draft there will be plot holes that you could drive a truck through. I mean, YOU could drive a truck through them. I couldn’t obviously. I have driving-terror. The draft will also include characters who change their personality for no reason partway through, and, in my case, one character who changed their name for no reason partway through. That first draft was like a route map for the whole – it was only after I’d written it, that I could really start navigating through the novel.

There have been periods of very bravely allowing other people to read bits of my work for feedback, occasionally leading to periods of weeping and periods of defensiveness (usually followed by a much longer period of acceptance). Feedback on work in progress is interesting. The main thing I’ve learnt is that it’s wise to be careful who you ask. The best writers aren’t always the best critiquers. Twitter and facebook are brilliant for chatting to other writers, but the best feedback can come from intelligent readers outside of the little “writer bubble” we sometimes occupy. (Although I have had top feedback from some v talented writers – Huzzah for Holly Magill,  Lisa Bodenham-Mason and the RNA New Writers Scheme.)

I am now very nearly done with the editing and rewriting. I’ve (I think) beaten my insubordinate opening chapter into submission. There’s one more chapter to rewrite and then a few bits and bobs of line edits and then, and then… Well, and then, it’s time to send baby out into the world. I’ve made my list of potential agents, and prioritised within that list. I’ve identified publishers who accept unagented submissions. It’s pretty much all over bar the posting.

And after that, I start back at “Once upon a time…” and do it all over again, with a whole new set of problems and anxieties trying to get in the way. I “finished” one novel, but was it a fluke? Can I do it again? The rejections for novel no. 1 will be flowing by then too, trying to distract me with their depressing hints at my inate lack of ability. And that’s not even the worst thing – the worst thing is that I’ve now watched ALL the episodes of Top Model on youtube, even Canada’s Next Top Model. Can I write at all without a Top Model based word count incentive? I’ll let you know…

Where I talk about why I won’t be self-publishing soon (which is not the same as ever)

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about self-publishing. The ability of Amazon to capture books in their magic butterfly nets and trap the words inside their lovely Kindles means that writers have a realistic alternative to wading through the months of submission and rejection (a process which, almost invariably, ends up with them having nothing published, but having contributed considerably to the coffers of the nice people at Rymans who sell the Big Envelopes). More and more writers are thinking why bother? And there are good reasons for feeling that way. The perception is that mainstream publishing is getting increasingly risk-averse. Publishers are prepared to spend money on books by posh girls with famous sisters and even more famous bottoms, but not so happy to risk an outlay on a new novel by an untried writer.

If your book doesn’t fit easily into a neat marketing box, there’s even more encouragement to go it alone. Across web forums, writer’s conferences and writing courses, new writers are repeatedly told that they must be able to describe their book in a single sentence. To attract the capricious attentions of a mainstream publisher you have to have that instant-appeal marketing hook.

I’ve also been told, by an editor for a major publisher, that she expects writers to be able to explain what genre their book fits into and where it would sit in the market. That is just one person’s view, but a person who should know of what she speaks. So, if you’re writing a sort-of literary rom-com based on Shakespeare but with added maths, for example, you might decide that it’s easier to sell your novel directly to readers than to jump through that particular hoop. It’s a problem a lot of writers face – two others describe their own responses to this particular publishing headache here and here.

The economics of self-publishing, at least in e-book form, are also looking increasingly enticing for writers. Advances from publishers for new writers tend towards the modest. Publishing directly to Kindle through Amazon gives you a much bigger share of the cover price. In principle, it’s perfectly possible to make more income from e-publishing a book independently and selling fewer copies at a lower price, than if you published through a traditional publisher.

Despite having made a stunningly convincing arguement in favour of self-publishing, I still don’t wanna. In traditional “Alison does like a numbered list” style, here’s why:

1. It’s possible to make better money, but possible is not the same as easy.

I’m a totally unknown writer, and I’d be publishing without any marketing support behind me. Now there’s stuff I could do to promote a book at very little cost. I can tweet. I can blog. I can bully close personal friends into buying it. I reckon that between this blog, Facebook, Twitter and good old-fashioned real-life (you know where your parents and the old people live), I can put information out directly to somewhere in the region of 1000 people. Now, they won’t all buy the book. 1% of those people buying it would be 10 people. 10%, which is probably ambitious, would be 100 sales. That’s charming, but several orders of magnitude below what you need to get a book to the tipping point where word of mouth sends it on its way.

So I’d try other stuff: getting reviews from friendly blogs, encouraging Amazon reviews, making myself a proper glossy website, making myself a lovely shiny Amazon author page, trying to get some local press coverage – realistically I’d have to do a lot of that if I had an agent and mainstream publisher too, but I wouldn’t be doing it entirely on my own. And, at the risk of sounding overly focussed on the money, I’d be doing it while eating marmitey-toast paid for out of my advance.

2. There’s no such thing as a free-to-publish (and good and successful) book

So marketing is one problem. What about the actual novel itself? I could write the book, edit the book, draw myself a lovely little cover in Paint, and stick it up on Amazon. The problem there is that what I’d have published probably wouldn’t be a very good book.

To get a book  to publishable quality involves a bit of cost. I’d definitely want a professional cover design. I’d probably want the book professionally edited. That’s expensive. Even non-commercial critiquing services (like the RNA‘s fabulous New Writer’s Scheme of which I’m a very proud member) aren’t free. To self-publish a properly finished, professional-looking book, even as an e-book only venture, involves some investment, and, unless my numbers come up (which would involve me buying a lottery ticket, which I don’t because I, y’know, have a basic understanding of probability) I’m not really in a position to fork out that money.

3. Good enough isn’t good enough (for me)

Without the costs described above, particularly professional editing, would I be confident that my novel was good enough to put out there? Writers develop – I definitely hope to be a better writer in the future than I am now. The book I’d be e-publishing at the moment is my first completed novel. That inevitably means that I’ll look back on it in the future and see lots of things that could be improved, but I don’t want to look back and wish it had never been published. It might be a novel that I’d be proud of on the day I sent it out into the world, but would I still be proud in two or three years time?

Part of this is about my personality. I’m a perfectionist. I have high standards – that’s part of the reason that I’m good in my regular money-earning job as a trainer. I have high expectations of students, and generally find that if you set a bar just above what people think they are capable of, they will exceed their own expectations to achieve it. It also means I set high standards for my own work, and I do still see acceptance by a traditional publisher as a validation that I’ve achieved a particular standard. It’s would be a massive shiny gold star on the star chart inside my head. Perhaps the fact that that’s important to me is a weakness. Perhaps it’s just a view that’s getting out of date, but in my gut, it’s still how I feel.

So that’s why I won’t be self-publishing my first novel, and am, instead, about to embark on the long tortuous journey to repeated rejection. I applaud, wholeheartedly, all those people who are braver than I, and are going it alone, and I’d love to get your comments on the self-publishing quandary. I’d also love to hear from anyone who’s decided against, and from anyone else who thinks anything at all really about things. Comment away! And why not subscribe or follow the blog while you’re here? Good-o.

In which I look forward to the shiny new year

So this is 2012. It seems perfectly resonable so far, although it was trailed as a bumper exciting year, what with Olympics and Diamond Jubilees and The End of The World. Compared with the spoilers the opening week could be seen as just a tiny bit dull.

To brighten up the boredom, it is traditional, at this point in the calendar, to take stock of one’s life and make resolutions for its improvement. Now, lots of people don’t hold with resolutions. They point out that you always end up breaking them by about mid-January and then you get downhearted and end up doing worse that you were before you made the resolution. These people think they are being mature and sensible, when actually, they are fools. They are allowing their experience to override their hope. Hope should always be allowed to win in these little internal debates. Hopeful people may be disappointed more often, but I suspect they are still happier overall, and they’re definitely more fun to be around.

So, supressing my inner Eeyore, I have made three resolutions for 2012.

1.  Get fit. Get thin.

I’ll not bore you with this one. If you’ve read the blog before you’ll have heard all about it here. If you’ve not read that already then just click back there, where it said here and away you go.

Being fit is good. Not having a heart attack when you’re 40 is good. Not having to buy a whole new wardrobe every year because you’ve gone up another dress size is good. Being able to walk up small hills without turning blue and making death noises is good. For all these reasons and more I’m very focussed on losing weight this year.

My aim is to get down to somewhere below 10.5 stone by summer, and (and this bit’s important) still be the same weight by the end of the year. I’ve managed the losing weight bit before. The big challenge this year is staying at a healthy weight once I’m there, but it needs to be done, and so it shall.

2. Get some writing (apart from this lovely blog) out there into the world

There are two parts to being a writer pursuing publication. There’s the writing, and then there’s the pursuing publication. Sadly, the two activities don’t really require the same skills. One is all about sitting in a lonely garret and trying to type more words into Word than onto Twitter. The other is about venturing out into Big World and thrusting your precious manuscript into the hands of agents, publishers, publisher’s cleaning ladies, agent’s manicurists, and any other poor sod who gets in your way. That part of the deal is all about covering letters, having a killer synopsis, networking and the truly horrendous sounding Elevator Pitch.

This year I’m going to be getting my increasingly svelte derriere into gear on both fronts. The novel-in-progress which has already been in progress for far too long will get it’s final spit and polish and will be winging it’s way out to be rejected by Easter. My second novel will also be completed and out there landing on slush piles by the end of the year. And finally, I’ll have written a first draft of number three before it’s time to get all Auld Lang Syney at each other again. Oh yes I will.

3. I’m going to learn to drive.

“Hang on!” Some of you are probably shouting (those of you who know me in the Real World TM and are also odd enough to shout at your computers without shame), “You can already drive.”

And the weird shouting people are correct. I passed my driving test in 2008, at a very respectable second attempt. Admittedly the first attempt wasn’t that respectable and did involve a certain amount of trying to pull away in 3rd gear, but no-one normal passes their driving test first time, so that’s all good.

Unfortunately, since then very little actual driving has occured, to the point where I now don’t think I’ve driven for over a year. This is largely to do with the driving terror. I properly detest driving to the point of almost being phobic about it. I get genuinely scared at the idea. If I think I might have to drive the next day I won’t sleep the night before. Add that fear to a lifestyle where I live within walking distance of a city centre, do most of my paid work in central Birmingham where it’s much easier to get the train, even if you like driving, and you end up with a girl who has never got over the initial driving nerves.  

This is silly. I know that I’m a perfectly reasonable driver. A little inexperienced, but still less scary that lots of other people who hop in their motorised vehicles without hesitation. So this year, I am going to get over the driving fear, even if that does involve going back to the driving lesson stage with all the irritation and expense that entails.

This, I suspect, is the resolution I’m most likely to break. The first two are things I desperately want to achieve. This is one I’d quite like to achieve, but mainly is something I think I ought to do. And I can be a pig-headed little madam – being told I ought to do something (even by myself) rarely works as a motivator. Nonethless, I will try.

So those are my resolutions. They probably should include something about increasing my amount of paid work, but I’m responding to the low levels of freelance work out there on the horizon by making a happy face and hoping something turns up. (Anyone looking for a adult trainer in the Midlands area and/or online, please do get in touch though… I can train on advice skills, managing volunteers, welfare benefits, employment law, social media, training skills…)

Any thoughts on my aims for the year? Any resolutions of your own you’d like to share? For example, you might want to resolve to stay up to date with lovely Alison’s lovely blog by following or subscribing. I think that would be a very good resolution indeed.

The Unromantic Romance Writer

So here’s a curious thing, dear internet, a much adored friend of mine recently pointed out to me how odd it is that I’m currently writing romance, because, she said, I am the least romantic person you could hope to meet. She’s not the first person to observe that I’m slightly lacking in the hearts and flowers department. My sister-in-law, much more recently married than my husband and I, oftens makes fun of our habit of marking shared emotional triumphs with a high five. She considers this unemotional in the extreme. She is equally bemused by the fact that she will share a heartfelt reminiscence from her wedding day, and then ask about memories of my wedding, only to be met with a blank face and a vague excuse about it having been a frightfully long time ago.

We don’t do Valentine’s Day. We don’t do anniversary gifts. For the first 2-3 years we had a competition to see who could buy the other the most ghastly wedding anniversary card, but that petered out after I refused to spend a fiver on objectively the most hideous card ever produced (about 8 pages of “rhyming” verse, much glitter, many badly drawn flowers). It would have been a surefire contest winner, but it cost five whole English pounds, which might otherwise have been spent on important accessories.

The most romantic gift my husband has ever bought me was a dictionary and thesaurus. The most romantic gift I’ve ever bought him was… no, actually I’ve got nothing to offer there.  He’s bought me flowers about three times in 15 years. If he started buying them regularly I’d probably think about getting him checked in for a brainscan. And flowers are wasted on me. They’re lovely when they’re fresh, but the following 3 weeks, where they slowly die and then begin to rot in the vase before I get around to chucking them out, does rather take the shine off.

However, I don’t think any of the above means I’m not romantic. I’d argue that it just recognises that romance isn’t something you can buy off the shelf in a one-size fits all package. To be truly romantic a gesture has to be individual. So, in our special little world, high fives are romantic. The act of mildly winding up people who think we should be more lovey-dovey is a personal, specific shared joke. The dictionary and thesaurus present really was romantic, because it was based on a very vague comment I’d made months earlier about wanting a nice dictionary and thesaurus, because I thought that maybe one day I might like to try to write stories, and a dictionary and thesaurus seemed like the sort of thing a Proper Writer ought to own. That’s personal, and personal, I think, is romantic.

So in a very individual way, maybe I am romantic, but even if I wasn’t I don’t think that would preclude me from writing romantic stories. It’s so common for writers to be asked whether they base stories on real people and real situations, and the answer, if we’re honest, is probably both “Of course,” and “Of course not.” In the bigger sense, you can ultimately only write from the brain that you have and that is entirely conditioned and created by the life you’ve led and the influences you’ve been exposed to. Having said that, I’ve never sat down and conciously based a story on a person or situation from my own life.

As a writer I don’t want to be tied to only writing about what I’ve directly experienced. I want to make stuff up. So even if I’m not romantic, there’s nothing to stop me from writing a character who is. In the story I’ve just begun my heroine is uptight, has an overblown sense of duty and is terrified of losing people she cares about. My hero is impulsive, loyal and focussed on living life to the full. When I write about those characters, I’m not thinking, how would I react in this situation? I’m thinking, how would this character react in this situation?

Your characters aren’t you. You don’t have to live their lives. If you did, there would be no fantasy novels, no historical stories and scary crime fiction would be even scarier, knowing how many people the writer had to dismember for the purposes of research.

So, in conclusion, I don’t need to be romantic to write romance. And anyway, I do think I’m romantic, but probably only in a way that 1 other person on the planet would appreciate, and in real-life, as in fiction, you only need 1 other person to make the romance work.

Reading that last sentence back I’m finding it a bit uncomfortably mawkish, so I think that’s a good place to stop. You can scurry off and follow me on twitter, or subscribe to the blog, or leave a little comment – are you romantic or does the notion induce a mild nausea? If you write, to what extent do you draw on your own experience? Or you could not comment and run along and crack on with the day. I shall go and do something bracing and emotionally unengaging. Good-day to one and all.

The downsides of writing too much too fast (or why I don’t do NaNo).

Tuesday is the 1st November, and, as such, marks the start of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month – although it’s actually totally international). NaNo is a fixture in many a writer’s calendar. The idea is that you commit to writing 50000 words during the month of November. It’s all about getting the words out, and it has become a valuable annual kick up the butt for many  writers. Some, such as Julia Crouch, have even gone on to get published with books they started during NaNo.

NaNo can be great. As a creative writing teacher, I get bored out of my brain from hearing, “I’d love to write a book but…” NaNo gets rid of the fatal ‘but’ and forces you to just get on with it. 50000 words in 30 days is 1667 words per day, or somewhere near the 2400 mark if you allow yourself weekends off. 50000 words still isn’t  a full-length novel (although it’s not far off one of the shorter formats, such as a Mills and Boon romance), but it’s an awful lot of white paper that you’ve killed off and an excellent starting point.

But I don’t do NaNo. Here’s why; it’s because I know I can write 2-2500 words per day. I’ve done it before. I wrote an 80000 word first draft of my current work-in-progress in jut under 8 weeks, writing 2000+ words per day Monday-Friday. I didn’t go back and correct. I didn’t edit as I went along. I just got the first draft out and onto the screen. I didn’t allow myself to leave the computer until at least 2000 words were done, and I did them every single weekday, whether I felt like it or not.

And that draft was terrible. Really truly terrible. Sure – there were odd sparkles of diamond amongst the manure but overall it was Not Good. And that will be true of most people’s 50000 NaNo words too. It’s not necessarily a problem. Editing and rewriting are a massive part, probably the main part, of writing a novel. I suspect that most writers’ actual first drafts are never seen by another living soul. The thing they call a “first draft” and send to critique partners or editors has had at least one vigorous tidy up before it’s deemed fit for other human beings to take a look.

But for me, where I feel I need to develop my writing is not in the area of just getting going and banging the words out. It’s in banging better words out. That’s why I’ve decided to write my second novel more slowly, to read back yesterday’s writing before I start todays, to make obvious revisions as I go along, to plan the outline of my plot and my different character’s transitions a bit more clearly. The first draft will still be terrible, but I’m hoping it will be marginally less terrible and feel a little tighter and more rounded.

So if you struggle to get started with your writing and maintain your motivation, then NaNo can be a brilliant spur. You can use the target to force yourself to get your words done every day. And it’s only a month so if the housework slides or you miss some overtime or your sleep patterns go out the window or you eat a lot more takeaway than is good for you then the sky won’t fall in. The only caveat is to remember that what you have at the end isn’t a novel. It might be a strong starting place for a novel, but you’ll need to find your own ways to maintain the motivation through the months of rewriting ahead.

For me getting the words out isn’t my particular writing problem. So, for my novel-writing at least, I’m trying a new mantra. Write less. Write slower. Write better. What do you thnk?

Where I muse on compliments, chain letters and not liking cancer.

Not so long ago the lovely Sue Fortin included me in her list of Friendly Blogger award recipients. The Friendly Blogger award is a generally nice, happy, caring, sharing way of bigging up blogs you love. Us little individual bloggers scibbling away in our tiny corners of the modern Interweb appreciate all the support and links we can get, and so a bit of sharing the blog love is always welcome. The Friendly Blogger award invites you to “pay it forward” if you will, and when you read down to the bottom of this post you will see that I’m sharing a few of my fave blogs for your delectation. The award also invites bloggers to share seven interesting personal things about themselves. Sadly  my fundamental British/Northern/middle-class ness prevents me from doing that. Seven things? About me? Seriously, I’ve been with my hubbie over 15 years now, and he probably only knows about four things. I consider that a sign of a worrying level of emotional outpouring as it is.

The Friendly Blogger award also got me thinking about some of the downsides of my modern uber-connected life, the main one being that, although being easily connected to masses of people all over the shop opens you up to equivalent masses of loveliness, it also brings a whole world of opportunities to get irritated with humanity. Here are a few of my main InterWeb things that make me go Grrr.

1. Just for the record, I think that cancer is a Bad Thing. But here’s where I’m setting myself apart from those annoying Facebook status updates on the subject. I’m just going to assume you feel the same. Frankly, if you don’t, you’re a bonker and any further discussion would be pointless anyway. What I’m not going to ask you to do, is copy and post my view that cancer is a Bad Thing onto your blog or status update. I’m not going to imply that if you don’t do that, you’re a living embodiment of evil. I’m not going to suggest that failure to comply with a copy & paste instruction suggests that you are somehow in league with cancer and in favour of your friends and family suffering painful and premature deaths. I’m definitely not going to imply that if you fail to copy & paste as ordered you are not a True Friend.

For future reference, valiant status updaters, please assume that, when it comes to cancer, I’m against it. I’m also opposed to many other major life-shortening illnesses and pretty much anything that can be shown to kill children, puppies or kittens. Thank-you.

2. Secondly, internet, I would very much like you to learn to do simple maths. This would stop you, for example, from tweeting comments about how a month with five Sats, Suns & Mons in it only comes along every 800 years. This is obviously preposterous. Every month with 31 days (of which there are 7 every year) will have three days which appear 5 times. As a rough guestimate I’d figure that any given set of three days must appear around about once a year. And yet, every time there’s a 31 day month I see one of these tweets or status updates. That means I’m irritated unneccessarily at least seven times a year. So why not think about the numbers before you click on post and save me the mental effort of checking your working? 

Now I know that lots of people struggle with maths. I’ve taught adult numeracy in the past, and fully understand that maths is a subject that lots of people find intimidating and a bit overwhelming. That’s fine (well, it’s not fine really, but I’ll save the discussion of the bigger failures in education that have created that situation for another day). What I would suggest though, is that if you’re one of those people who suffers from a touch of Maths-blindness you shouldn’t write status updates or tweets that rely on a mathematical oddity for the point they’re making. There’s a high chance you’ll be wrong, and that will irritate me. And it should be clear by now, lovely internet, that I do feel that you need to be dedicating a higher percentage of your time and brainpower to not irritating me than is currently the case.

3. Actually, it’s not just the maths, I’d actually like you to think more right across the board. So, when you get an email that alerts you to a specific crime wave that is spreading across the globe, what I’d like you do to is pop over to Google, copy in a couple of key phrases from that email and click search. What you’ll probably find is that the email is a hoax, and you’ll have saved me the time of searching myself and then deleting the email, and you’ll have saved yourself from looking like a gullible fool. And again, I’m less irritated. Win:Win:Win.

4. Finally, I would just like to remind you internet, that, back in the old days of mail being delivered by a man (or indeed lady) who had to physically carry stuff to your house, there was such a thing as a chain letter. That was a letter that carried the promise of much reward if the receiver passed on the letter to x people, and, often, the threatened dire consequences for those who did not. Those sorts of chain letters were a fairly revolting attempt to prey on the superstitious and the vulnerable. Status updates/emails/tweets that demand reposting, or which promise great luck for those who repost, are exactly the same thing, only now they get reposted by people who would have thrown away a paper chain letter (and who would never have dreamed of starting one).

So don’t do it. Don’t repost messages that promise great riches for those who continue the chain. Doing so is manipulative. If you wish your friends luck and happiness contact them directly and tell them that. Don’t post it to a general audience with a veiled threat against those who don’t participate included. That is Very Bad Internetting indeed.

Ok. I think that is all. I’m breathing normally again and my little fists are starting to unclench after good venting of irritations, but please tell the world about your internet irritants in the comments (or indeed tell me why I’m wrong and facebook statuses promising to make me rich if I repost are beneficial to society).

As promised I’ll finish with a handful of blog recommendations. These are mostly of the writerly variety. As noted back here I don’t very often write about writing, so here are a few suggestions of some people who do, and do so rather well:

Talli Roland: http://talliroland.blogspot.com/ Talli writes a bit of general journal stuff about what’s happening in her life, but also about her writing and publishing experiences. As she’s just announced that she’s self-pubbing her next novel I’m watching her blog with interest to see how that goes.

Raw Light: http://rawlightblog.blogspot.com/?v=0 Jane Holland’s Raw Light blog is celebrating it’s 6th birthday at the moment. A mix of writing about poetry, prose writing and anything else that crops up.

Hollyannegetspoetic: http://hollyannegetspoetic.wordpress.com/ A poetry blog – this one generally has 2-3 new poems every week, so not even writing about writing, just actual writing. And (for those of you in Worcestershire) you’ll be supporting one of my fave local poets too.

Sally Jenkins: http://sallyjenkins.wordpress.com/ Good stuff on here on all different sorts of writing, including articles and short stories 

So there you go, four writerly blogs to make up for the fact that I can’t focus my brain enough to blog about what I actually do. As ever, if you like please subscribe either as an email subscriber or via NetWorked Blogs (and, yeah, I know that RSS feed isn’t working quite right at the moment – I’m working on it, promise.)

Where I muse on chick lit, writing and accepting feedback

There’s a bit of a rumpus in chick lit world at the moment. Earlier in September the author, Polly Courtney, publicly dumped her publisher, Harper Collins, ostensibly for marketing her books with what she felt were misleadingly chick lit-ish covers. She explains in her own words more fully here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/sep/16/chick-lit-womens-fiction

This was closely followed by a flurry of news stories detailing the fall-off in chick lit sales (for example http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/have-we-fallen-out-of-love-with-chick-lit-2361445.html), and topped off by this delightfully reasonably headlined piece by Harriet Walker in the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/harriet-walker-saccharine-silage-that-fails-women-2361506.html

Obviously, what this debate needs is another random internet opinion, so here we go. To start off in any sort of half intelligent debate, it’s important to agree about what your terminology actually means. Doing so can avoid a lot of unneccessary bickering over stuff it turns out everyone actually agrees about. So what do we mean by chick lit?

Probably most of us who frequent bookshops or spend inordinate numbers of hours browsing on Amazon can bring a picture into our minds of what we perceive as a classic chick lit novel. You’re probably picturing a pink, or predominantly pastel coloured, cover with sparkly writing and a semi-cartoonish picture of a woman wearing shoes. Alternatively, you might be picturing one of those stylised photo covers showing just a woman’s legs, or a pair of hands entwined. But that’s just the cover. What makes a story chick lit?

Again, the classic understanding would probably suggest that we’re talking about a youngish single-ish female protagonist, a plot that’s heavy on romance, a contemporary setting, a good dash of humour, and usually a story that involves some sort of self-discovery or self-development on the part of the heroine. So let’s look at a couple of those writers that the Independent cites as being emblematic of the fall-off in chick lit sales. Do they match that template?

We’ll start with Dorothy Koomson. I would suggest that Koomson’s early work fits well into that classic chick lit template. The Chocolate Run, for example is a story laced with humour and centred around a heroine learning to trust rather than run in a developing relationship. But Koomson’s work has shifted and developed over time. Her more recent novels, notably The Ice-cream Girls (which is fabulous – you should all definitely read it) would probably be better described as psychological thrillers. The cover art, though, remains stylised and heavy on the pastels.

Marian Keyes is another interesting author. Often described as one of the first chick lit writers, she has been seen as one of the big players in the genre for over 15 years. Her work is certainly funny, and generally follows female protagonists. However, in a number of her novels, for example This Charming Man  or Rachel’s Holiday, any romance is a secondary plot, while the story’s main focus is on an issue such as addiction or domestic abuse.

So, it looks like it’s actually kind of tricky to define what we mean by chick lit, and that’s before we even start to try to unpick the broader term used by some booksellers, “Women’s Fiction.” What is, perhaps,even more fascinating is the level of vitriol towards what is perceived as light entertainment aimed at women. You don’t generally see a lot of newspaper opinion pieces arguing that the wide availability of action thriller novels has stunted male intellectual development, so it makes me uneasy that female writers are expected to in some way represent their whole gender.

There are essentially only two types of book that matter to me as a reader or writer. There are good books, and there are lousy books. There are lousy books in most genres, and chick lit is by no means exempt from the lazy and the formulaic, but there is also some really classy and interesting work out there. (I’m particularly liking Sarra Manning at the minute). Being light, being funny, and being by and about a woman, does not make your story intrinsically inferior. Suggesting that it does was daft when people did it about Jane Austen and it’s still daft now.

Which shouldn’t be taken to imply that I have no issues with the way that fiction by women, and about women, is sold and marketed at the moment. Here I can only write from my own prejudices and opinions, so please jump into the comments and argue with me if you don’t agree.

About 3 months ago, I attended a talk by a editor from a very large mainstream publisher of popular fiction, who said that they were looking for chick lit that was lighter, frothier and more escapist. That made my heart sink a little. There is absolutely a place for those books, and for writers and readers who love those books, but looking at writers like Marian Keyes, tells us that in the past chick lit was a much broader church. It does worry me slightly that publishers aren’t seeing a place for more issue-led or just slightly edgier romantic comedy. And it’s also concerning that books like Dorothy Koomson’s more recent work might be being marketed in such a way that is making it harder for them to reach the widest possible potential readership. The pastel cover will attract Koomson’s existing readers who recognise her “brand” but will it encourage regular readers of crime and thriller novels to give her work a go?

It’s also interesting, I think, to look at another standout successful romance novel of recent years, this time by a male writer. David Nicholls’ One Day was a huge hit with readers, and spawned the obligatory bestseller’s movie. The book was published under a very gender-neutral orange and cream cover, the colours and artwork being striking but very un-girly. My guess it that the same book, by a female writer, would have been marketed quite differently, in a manner that could have alienated a potential wider audience, including a lot male readers.

And this brings me onto my own writing. Now I don’t normally blog about writing. I do have a slight sense that writing about writing is a tad on the self-indulgent side, which given that in this sentence I’m now writing about writing about writing, probably means I’m about to drown in a torrent of my own self-importance. Moving on…

I have just received my feedback report from the RNA New Writers Scheme on the current draft of my first novel, which would probably fall under the broad heading of “chick lit”. There were some really positive comments, and some really useful feedback about plot and pacing which has got my head buzzing with rewrite ideas. I am, though, unsure whether those ideas will ever make it into the manuscript, as there are elements to the book, which I’m starting to feel are too fundamental to change, but really weaken the chances of interesting an agent or publisher in the finished manuscript.

For example, the story is told from the point of view of four different first person narrators, a technique which I now realise was quite ambitious for a first novel! I also now realise that a lot of readers (and writers) just don’t like first person narration. So do I rewrite the whole thing in the third person, as my feedback report suggests? I’m unenthusiastic about the idea at the moment, partly just because that’s a massive job, but also because I, personally, really like the different narrative voices, and do I really want to end up with a novel that I don’t like as much?

So, what to do next? Redraft using the feedback on pacing/plotting but leave the narrative style alone, accepting that the chances of publication in that form are beyond super-super-super-slim? Redraft fully into a third person narrative, and risk losing part of what I love in the manuscript? Or just chalk this down as novel writing attempt number 1 and move onto something else? At the moment that last option seems to be beckoning. I have an idea for novel number 2 which is buzzing at my brain, but would that be “giving up” too easily? Would it be better to do another redraft of number 1 and try to follow through with that piece of work? Decisions. Decisions. Comments about chick lit and suggestions on the writing both welcome – do you always take all feedback on board, or do you make decisions about when to accept feedback points and when to stick to your guns? And when do you walk away from a work-in-progress?