In which I think about writing and mentoring and money

It’s not easy to become a published author. It’s even less easy to become a bestseller. Statistically the odds are stacked against anyone starting out with the dream of writing a novel and then selling enough of that novel – or even of multiple novels – to make a living from being a career author.

That doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. It does happen, and the authors who work hard and write the best book they are able shorten the odds of it happening to them. Unfortunately, some of the other things that shorten the odds have very little to do with the talent or work ethic of an individual writer.

Sometimes it’s just bad luck – your book might be brilliant but the agent you’re querying might have signed an author with a similar voice or subject matter just before your manuscript hits their desk. Or an agent might love your book but have struggled to sell something similar recently and not feel confident that they could get a better result with your novel. Or your dark gothic epic might hit their desk in a week when editor after editor has told them they’re desperate for something fun and escapist. And there’s very little you can do about any of those things.

Some of the ‘odds shorteners’ are more than luck though – they’re privilege. Publishing is not immune from homophily – that’s the tendency that people have to make positive associations around people who are apparently similar to them. In recruitment it’s part of the reason that, for example, male dominated workplaces can fail to recruit more women even when there are qualified women applicants and a stated intention to even the gender balance. There is a tendency to feel more confident and comfortable with that which seems familiar, with that which seems ‘like us.’ In publishing that can mean that there is a (possibly unconscious) bias towards authors who look like what we think an author looks or sounds like based on our past experience. That can potentially disadvantage, for example, disabled, BAME, transgender and working class authors, who have historically been underrepresented.

And there are also privileges that come from income or relative wealth. If you can afford it you can go on writing courses, attend conferences, and pay for editorial and tutoring services before you get anywhere near submitting a book to an agent or publisher. Now I could write a whole other ranty post about the quality of some of those services for writers, but there are lots of reputable tutors, editorial advisers and writing mentors around. I consider myself to be one of them. But our advice is often a privilege available to people who are able to pay for it and I worry more and more that that creates an even more unlevel field when people come to make submissions. A writer who has been able to pay for one-to-one support or for numerous writing courses, or even for a professional edit on their manuscript, before they submit has a lot of advantage in trying to produce and present a professional, well-structured manuscript to potential agents and editors.

I don’t have a magic fix to that whole problem so instead I’m going to do one small thing… From January 2020 I will be offering 1 FREE mentoring place for a writer who isn’t be able to afford one-to-one support. My one-to-one mentoring service is completely tailored to the individual client so precisely how things work will depend on the successful applicant but, as an indication of what to expect, I do most of my one-to-one work by video chat (Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp) and normally talk to clients roughly once every couple of weeks, although it could be more or less than that depending where you’re up to in your project. The free place will be for six months from January 2020. Full details and how to apply here.

In which I Have Thoughts about disability, writer-world and publishing

This morning a friend drew my attention to a twitter thread started by Sam Missingham. Sam is a bit of a publishing industry legend and the founder of Lounge Books amongst a gazillion other things. She’s also a great advocate for under-represented voices in publishing.

Her thread today (which you can see here) was asking about experiences of disability in terms of wider accessibility and also in terms of writing events and publishing. And those are things I think about quite a lot when I’m wearing my Vice-Chair of a major writers’ organisation hat. But they’re also things I think about just as Alison. And just as Alison I started to type a reply, and then I stopped, because even in the modern world of multi-tweet threaded epics I couldn’t martial my thoughts down to a tweetable size. So instead, here I am, blowing cobwebs off the unloved corners of the blogosphere like it’s 2013 or something.

So let’s kick off by outing myself. I’m a disabled person. The most common response I get to that statement is generally in the area of ‘Oh but not like, y’know, really disabled…’ Here’s what the Equalities Act 2010 says a disability is… ‘a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.’ So yeah – in those terms really disabled.

Amongst other things, I have IBS – a label I have lots of issues with – which basically means that I have chronic digestive pain and problems caused by nothing that GPs or consultant gastroenterologists can definitively identify. They can definitively rule out lots of things – bowel and stomach cancer, colitis, Chron’s disease, coeliac disease for starters – but can’t definitively rule anything specific in.

I’m not personally a huge fan of the term IBS. It stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and I find it sort of creates the image of one’s bowel as a kind of grumpy old man* – a Victor Meldrew figure – bitching and moaning at whatever food happens to get chucked his way. As well as causing pain, IBS can also cause constipation and diarrhea, or, for a lucky few of us, both (sometimes within the same 30 minute period). For me, at least, a more accurate term would be Over-reactive Bowel Syndrome. Everyone’s digestive system reacts to the food we eat – if they didn’t we wouldn’t all share an understanding that beans make you fart – mine just has significantly more dramatic mood swings than most, and sometimes reacts to entirely unexpected things, like ‘it being Tuesday’ for example.

As a result I have to modify my diet – red meat, for example, is pretty much a no no – and I have developed the ability to know where the nearest toilet is to the level of it basically being a superpower. I carry a radar key for disabled toilet access and am getting more brazen (although not fully shameless yet) in the face of the ‘you don’t look disabled’ whispers and glances when I have to use the damn thing. It also makes losing weight a real challenge. Pain levels vary from day to day but on flare-up days, doing exercise is a non-starter. If you can imagine your digestive system as a bottle of fizzy pop and then think about the shaking effect of a vigorous 45 minutes of HIIT or Zumba you’ll get a good idea of the issues there. And on flare-up days the only foods that don’t make things worse generally fall into the ‘beige carbs’ category. Again, not ideal, for maintaining a healthy weight. I get bloating to the point where I’m pretty much guaranteed a seat on the Tube on suspicion of being about seven months pregnant. If I get too hungry I get stomach pain. If I eat even slightly too much I get stomach pain. Sometimes I do everything ‘right’ and I get stomach pain.

The amount of pain varies a lot and, like most chronic illness sufferers, I do a lot of powering through. Because you can, up  to a point, but it takes a toll. Powering on through pain is knackering. I have friends who have chronic illnesses where fatigue is a major symptom – I can only imagine that the exponential impact of the fatigue of powering through fatigue must be horrendous.

So that’s me. And now, I’ll try to drag myself back to the point I originally intended to talk about… What would I like to see change in writer world and publishing in relation to disability?

Obviously these are just my personal thoughts…

  1. Events with multiple food options please…  It’s great to be asked about dietary requirements before an event – I have multiple weird food allergies so it’s good to get them down in advance –  but realistically a lot of days I don’t know what I’m likely to feel ok about eating until I’m there. Buffets are good. Menus with choices are good. If there’s only one option, staff who are understanding about me leaving half of it are good too.
  2. Enough toilets… men’s, women’s, gender neutral, disabled – in a pinch I’ll use any of those. It’s just nice when there’s more than one cubicle for the massive room full of people.
  3. Stop telling stories where disability is a metaphor for the character flaw the protagonist has to get over please… Disabled people can be delightful. Disabled people can be dicks. Most of us are somewhere in between. Like, you know, people. What disability and chronic illness definitely aren’t are flaws to be overcome. Powering through pain isn’t a great personal victory – it’s a choice. Staying in bed isn’t ‘giving in’ to weakness of mind or character. Both of those actions are entirely value and morally neutral.
  4. Ask disabled people what they want and need… disability is a massive range of stuff. Sensory impairment, mobility limitation, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, mental health and a billion other things besides. I can’t speak for someone with, for example, a sensory impairment, but they can speak for themselves.

So those are my thoughts for the day. I probably have more, but this is quite a lot of ‘reckoning stuff on the interweb’ for one afternoon. Probably ought to do some real work now. Toodle-pip.

Oooh… actually one more thing  before I go. If you’re about to type a comment that starts ‘Have you tried…’ then please don’t. I know it’s well-intentioned but seriously I was diagnosed in 2012. If you thought of it in the time it took to read this post, you can probably assume it’s been covered.

*No. No idea why I think my bowel is male. That’s probably a whole year of therapy right there.

In which I wish I’d been asked a particular question

With every book I’ve written, except for All That Was Lost, I’ve been asked at some point during the book promotion run which actors I would want to play the main characters if the book was ever made into a film or TV show. And every time I’ve been asked that I’ve ummed and aaahed and basically been unable to come up with a good answer. Which makes it all the more annoying that no-one has asked about All That Was Lost because for the first time ever I actually have ideas! As I was writing All That Was Lost it felt incredibly visual, so for the first time, I was picturing particular actors as I was writing.

So now I’m going to pretend that someone has asked me and answer the question anyway and because this is my personal corner of the internet over which I have total dominion nobody can stop me. So here we go…

Patrice Leigh

Patrice is a stage clairvoyant. She makes her living selling the idea that she can talk to your lost loved ones. Her biggest asset, which she makes great use of, is that she’s unassuming and unthreatening. She’s almost homely. People trust her. They feel safe with her. But she’s also highly intelligent and an astute observer of people around her, and she’s ambitious, single-minded and determined.

The performance I see in my head when I think of Patrice on screen is Julie Walters. She has the warmth but also the steel, I think, to bring Patrice to life on screen.

By Ibsan73/Flickr [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Patience Bickersleigh

Patience is very young, a bit naive, romantic, but also intelligent and thoughtful. Persephone Swales-Dawson springs to mind. She has a brilliant mixture of innocence and hardness. I also Ramona Marquez but, as I think I’ve written elsewhere before, she might be more of a Cathy from The Heights rather than a Patience. And I want someone who looks young, because Patience is so young – that informs and explains nearly all the choices she makes.

Louise Swift

Louise is incredibly vulnerable when we meet her in the story. She’s raw with emotion and everything is on the surface, but later in the story she learns to paint on a more controlled face, even with all the same emotion going on just underneath. Don’t tell anyone, but I think she might be my favourite character. But keep that between us. I’m not sure that having favourites is really the done thing.

By S Pakhrin from DC, USA (BAFTA 2007Uploaded by tm) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I was picturing Anne Marie Duff in my head while I was writing Louise, but, although she is brilliant in every imaginable way, she’s probably slightly too old to play Louise now. Hayley Squires would be a great alternative, or maybe even Billie Piper.

By Florida Supercon from Ft. Lauderdale, USA (MCCC_00790) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Leo Cousins

Leo is where my claim to have mentally cast this whole imaginary movie breaks down. In my head while I was writing Leo was white, dark-haired, with stubble and a slightly worn down attitude about him. But I can’t think of an actor who fits that physical description. And the name that made me go, ‘Oh yes… that would work,’ as I was scrolling through my mental rolodex of British actors in their late forties or early fifties doesn’t fit that look at all, but does have exactly the right ability to play both Leo’s pain and his charm and his fundamental ordinariness. So for Leo my dream casting is Adrian Lester.

So that’s all sorted then. If someone would like to make a film or tv series of All That Was Lost now that would be marvelous. In the meantime, please do buy the book. It’s available from all these lovely places… Amazon, Google Play, Kobo, and Hive, and is available to order from all good – and some deeply suspect – bookshops.

JWTSB: Part 3 – The Fear

Ok, so this post is a bit late in the day. I hope you’ll forgive me – I hit a tiny little itty bit of a deadline to get the first draft of Juliet Bell Book 2 knocked into good enough shape for my co-author to take a final look before we send it into our editor at Harper HQ. In order to further earn your forgiveness though, I’m tackling one of the biggest and gnarliest topics for any writer, whether they are brand new and shiny or jaded and wading through the draft of book seventy-eight. Today I’m going to talk about The Fear.

What is The Fear? The Fear can take many forms. It can be the feeling that you’ll never be as good a writer as the author of whatever awesome book you’ve just read. It can be the feeling that the idea that felt so golden and shiny six months ago has turned to dust under your fingers and you don’t have the skill to bring it back to being something wonderful. It’s the feeling, when an idea first strikes, that the story is too big or too important or too complex for a little brain like yours to be able to tell. It’s the feeling when your last book got rejected EVERYWHERE that you might as well not bother writing the next one. It’s the feeling when your last book got a really good deal and then sold slightly less than the publisher was so obviously hoping and you think you’ve blown your chance and clearly don’t have what it takes after all. It’s the feeling when your last book went perfectly – it sold to a great editor, it was marketed beautifully, you were garlanded with awards – that you’ve peaked and whatever you do next will be a horrible disappointment to all the people who’ve put their faith in you so far.

The Fear is the feeling that stops you writing and The Fear happens to us all.

Sometimes The Fear is contained to the feeling X thousand words into your draft that this novel is crap and you will never be able to make it good. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a writer that doesn’t feel like that at least once (and usually more than once) during the process of writing and editing each book.

Sometimes The Fear is bigger and more amorphous. It can masquerade as normal procrastination to start with until you get to the point where you realise that you’re ironing your guest pillow cases ‘just in case’ and you haven’t actually opened your manuscript file for three weeks.

So what can you do?

  1. Take a break. Sometimes your brain simply needs a rest from the thing that is stressing it out. Walk the dog. If you don’t have a dog, walk yourself. Take a bath. Go to the gym. Do something creative but small – something with an achievable end point. Baking is good, because at the end you will have cake. I’m told by people less cake oriented that painting, knitting, and sewing have similar properties (but less calories).
  2. Let yourself write stuff that isn’t brilliant. Very often The Fear tells us that we’re not good enough – it mentally highlights every slightly cheesy, ill-phrased line in a manuscript and tells us that it will never get better. Well on this point, The Fear is wrong. Cheesy, ill-phrased lines can be rephrased. Sometimes their cheesiness might even tell us something about the character who’s speaking them. Stuff doesn’t have to be perfect straight away. If the stuff in question is a novel, it won’t be perfect straight away and that’s all right.
  3. Break things into bitesize chunks. The Fear can put us behind schedule, and the enormity of getting back on track can be overwhelming so we end up doing nothing. Just do something, even if the something is simply opening the manuscript and reading what you wrote last time. If you’re editing, break it down into steps and tick off one step at a time. A novel is massive. There will be lots that doesn’t work  – don’t let the scale of the problem overwhelm. Break it down. Baby steps. Doing something tiny is way better than doing nothing at all.
  4. Talk to people. You are not the first writer who has felt like this. You will not be the last. Just hearing people confirm that helps.
  5. Believe that you will get through this. In my very personal experience, ultimately you can’t go around The Fear. You can’t jump over it. The only way is through. That might mean that things get worse before they get better. That might mean moving from fearing that your manuscript is a mess to knowing with certainty that your manuscript is a mess. It might mean admitting how sad you are about how things turned out with the last book before you’re ready to move onto the next. But you can get through those feelings. And you will. Believe that you will.

And hopefully over time what happens is that The Fear diminishes down into a fear and finally into a memory of a fear. Good luck.

 

If you’re suffering from The Fear, or any other writing quandary, and would like some more personalised support please either contact me or check out my For Writers page for details of courses and manuscript critique services. 

JWSTB: Part 2 – the saggy middle

Another last Thursday, time for ‘Just Write the Sodding Book’ (my very sensibly named advice for writers series) part 2.

The saggy middle is the death of many a good novel idea. We start with an awesome concept and, if we’re lucky, a clear idea of where the story is ultimately heading, and then somewhere in the middle the lovely, crisp, focused words we’re writing turn to into a sludgey, mess of boredom and unnecessary subplots. This, lovely reader, is what writers refer to as the saggy middle.

In my experience, both as a writer and writing tutor, most early drafts have a saggy section somewhere. And they are nearly always fixable. Here’s just a taster of the ways to fix, or avoid, a saggy middle in your manuscript:

1. Stuff has to happen

Have your characters stopped doing stuff? Have they retreated to a coffee shop/ballroom/spaceship/base camp (well I don’t know what your book is about) and sat down to have a jolly good think about how they feel?

If so, that might be your problem. Try to make sure your characters show the reader who they are and how they feel by what they do. So make them do stuff, not just think about stuff. Which brings me neatly to point number two…

2. Show don’t tell

A good old writing tutor cliché and a subject for a whole JWTSB post in itself one day. But look at your writing to see if it feels as though events are unfolding in front of the reader. Is your reader experiencing the stuff that happens alongside your characters, or is it being relayed after the event one step removed? The more the reader feels like they are alongside your characters experiencing what they experience, the less saggy your story will feel.

3. Have you gone wide, instead of deep?

‘Go deeper, not wider’ is one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received and something I still mutter to myself regularly when I’m revising a manuscript and trying to resist the urge to bolt on extra whistles and bells. Unfortunately I can’t actually remember who told me it – it might have been Sue Moorcroft – and Sue is certainly very wise, so I’m happy to give her the credit for this one.

The idea of going deeper rather than wider, essentially means – try to focus on your main character(s)’ emotional journey and make that as real and immediate as you can, rather than throwing more and more external stuff at your story. When we feel like a manuscript is flagging it’s very natural to add another subplot, or a big dramatic external event. And sometimes, that will help. But more often what helps even more, is really drilling down into the central character(s)’ emotional situation. One really common problem in early drafts is a character who has a huge emotional event – a bereavement, a long-held secret revealed, a rejection by a loved one – but there’s no emotional punch for the reader. The emotional pain of the event doesn’t play out on the page.

‘But, wise Alison,’ I hear you say, ‘you just said characters shouldn’t just sit and emote.’ And you’re right I did say that. You still want to aim to show us the emotional depth of an event by what your characters do in reaction. If they do something that shows their emotion, that should have the effect of sparking off further plot developments in reaction to whatever it was they did. And this makes more stuff happen, further shoring up the saggy parts of the novel, with action that is rooted in the emotional journey of your main characters. Hence many many birds killed with one little stone.

And here endeth today’s lesson. For more information on my courses, manuscript critique service, and mentoring for writers take a look here. And if you’ve got a topic you’d like to see covered in a JWTSB post, then let me know in the comments.

In praise of… Natasha Solomons

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any writer in possession of a wish to get better at writering must also be in want of some awesome writers to read. It’s a bit of a cliche to say that in order to get good at writing you need to read a lot. But it’s also completely true. Unfortunately, it can also be equally true that the more immersed in writing as a craft you become the harder it is to disengage writer-brain and just fall in love with a story. There are some writers whose books reliably creep past my inner editor and make me love reading again, and so I thought a little blog feature celebrating those people might be a very lovely thing to do.

So the first author I want to sing the praises of is… Natasha Solomons. I bought Natasha Solomons’ first novel Mr Rosenblum’s List when it first came out but for reasons of massive To Read pile I didn’t sit down to read it for years after I bought it. And it was a treat. It’s amusing and easy to read, which sounds like damning with faint praise, but easy to read is often really hard to write. It can take a huge amount of effort to make something look truly effortless.

The joy of leaving Mr Rosenblum’s List languishing on the To Read pile for so long was that by the time I got to it Solomons had another two (and now three, soon to be four) books out. I ration my reading of Natasha Solomons’ books. I could devour them all, one after another, over a single long weekend, but instead I make myself wait until a moment when I really need to lose myself in something beautiful. And then I pick out the next one from the To Read pile.

And she always pulls me into the story. Her books tend to focus on family and relationships, often examining how one difference in character, or one decision, or one sacrifice can echo through the years of a character’s life. She writes characters and places beautifully. But it’s not the themes or the story, or the characters, or the settings, that so reliably pulls me in to her writing. It’s the writing itself.

In On Writing Stephen King quotes Amy Tan as noting that nobody ever asks commercial fiction writers about the language. It’s a question that’s reserved for the Rushdies and the Amises of the literary world. But language matters in all fiction. Language can create a tense, jittery dystopia or a warm, inviting world. Language can be made to work really had to show the reader what is happening on the surface and what is hidden underneath. And Solomons uses language exquisitely – her prose wraps around you and pulls you into the world she’s creating. You can touch the stonework and smell the flowers. You can hear the different rhythms of speech between two brothers grown together and then separated by education and experience. I’m in love with her writing.

Read this author to: get swept away by the writing

Start with: The Novel in the Viola (or The Song Collector or any of them really. They’re all great).

JWTSB: Part 1 – there are no rules

JWTSB is the abbreviated version of my single favourite piece of writing advice – ‘Just write the sodding book.’ I’ve essentially built a career as a writing tutor on that gem of wisdom and happily spend weekends shouting it at poor innocent developing writers. When they start to look a tad jaded I do occasionally mix things up with a jaunty cry of ‘Stuff has to happen’ or ‘Editing is fun!’ But, fundamentally, ‘just write the sodding book’ sums up most of what I tell new writers about how to write a novel. You can spend a lot of time and energy building your social media platform and attending writing conferences, and it will all be for nothing if you omit to attach bum to chair, fingers to keyboard, and get the damn thing written.

That doesn’t mean that writers, at any stage of their career, can’t benefit from courses and advice and critique. That’s all part of developing your skills and honing your craft. So this is my new monthly* writing advice column. Please feel welcome to add your requests for topics you’d like to see covered down in the comments. I’ve already had requests for avoiding the dreaded info-dump, writing a synopsis, handling dialogue and how to make nice guy heroes super-sexy. Please do add your requests to the list.

This month though I’m starting by laying out my stall with the second piece of advice I want all my students to internalise, hold dear and understand. It’s beaten only by ‘just write the sodding book’ in the hierarchy of essential novel-writing advice. And it is simply this:

There are no rules

When it comes to writing a novel, there are no hard and fast rules. In my own writing I’ve been told with absolute certainty that you can’t have multiple points of view or multiple timelines in a novella; that you can’t start a novel with a character waking up; that you can’t start a novel with a dream; that you shouldn’t write first person; and that you shouldn’t write present tense. I’ve done all of those in books that were published, some of which went on to be award nominated.

There are things you can do that will make your novel more or less likely to find a traditional publisher, but taking creative risks doesn’t break any rules. For every ‘rule’ that says you can’t have too many point of view characters, there’s a Game of Thrones. For every declaration that boarding school books are out of fashion, there’s a Harry Potter. For every earnest edict that a novel can’t be to short or too long, there’s an Agatha Raisin or a Pillars of the Earth.

In novel writing it’s very rarely a hard and fast line of ‘you can’t do that.’ So it’s good to take advice, it’s good to understand the market you’re writing for, and then it’s up to you, the writer, to make whatever it is you’re trying to do work.

So that’s the ethos of these JWTSB advice posts – there are no rules. There is just the question of how on earth you’re going to make your crazy, unruly, disorganised mass of a half-formed novel into something that works.

For more advice for writers including courses and one-to-one critique and mentoring services click here.

*I mean I’m aiming for monthly. Last Thursday of the month, but y’know, it might just be sort of when I feel like it.