A decade of #funs (and a LOT of support).

It’s mine and Mr Norman’s tenth wedding anniversary in a few weeks and for all those who have no idea who my husband is, he’s an author (of several non-fiction books). In a few months he has another tome coming out which you will no doubt be hearing about soon enough.

Basically, he writes.

We both do.

The best support a fledgling novelist like me can have is from someone who’s been treading the publishing boards a long time. This is handy:

I’m impatient for news on novel 1, he counsels to concentrate on no.2 (which I’m now a third of the way through – still no news).

I’m fed up of waiting; my book has been out with major publishers for six weeks now. He smirks. That’s nothing. Read: don’t bother me with your six weeks schtick.

My stuff’s shit. It’s boring. I can’t write. He says everyone feels like that; it’s when you don’t feel like that you need to worry.

It’s been a tough three years for us, but thanks to him, it’s also been the best of times too.

It’s been great; the next ten years will be greater.

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Writer’s Block

I’ve been thinking about what drives a wedge of self-doubt under the door of the writing process. Depending on mood and circumstance – and every day brings different pressures and feelings – certain things get in the way of just getting on with the job.

For me, I plan my novels quite meticulously (this is for another post), meaning my agent approves the book idea first. This is a good thing, obviously, but on a bad day it can also feel a little, well, too organised to be a heap of fun to write.

When writing fiction you have to hammer out chapters from nothing more than polluted London air. You have nothing to go on but what’s inside your head and quite often there’s nothing in there to come out. There’s NOTHING THERE. It’s tempting to just force something out (that’s fine and actually that’s what writing a book mainly is) but instead you may just feel frustrated, or more dramatically, consider never writing again.

But I have certain tactics at hand for when I have no bloody idea what I’m doing. These are some of them:

*I read. Fiction or non-fiction, it doesn’t matter.  I read writers who are better than me and there’s no shame in admitting this: it’s a fact of life. Are these writers humbling or inspiring? Both, actually. (While you’re reading, do make a note of unfamiliar words and keep a word book. Mine is bulging now and you’re more likely to remember a word you’ve taken the trouble to write down and contextualise).

*Blog. I blog to flex my non-fiction muscle. Writing features and reviews is my background. I miss it sometimes. Balance is good.

*Write flash. For a break from the discursive, I can’t recommend this enough. Sometimes I need to be experimental. It’s good for my soul and a reminder of how writing should stretch form and be quite fun to do. Shine a torch on a scene and then walk away.

*I stare. I stare out of the window and have a cigarette. Yes, I’ve had some of my better ideas doing this, so there.

If all else fails, I just have a day or two off. That’s fine too. Nobody’s going to nag me.

What do you do when you’re exasperated with the writing process?

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Freaking Hell, it’s one from Freaks!

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I’m delighted to host an exclusive story from new anthology Freaks! The stories in Freaks! are written by Caroline Smailes and Nik Perring, and the illustrations are by Darren Craske. I’ve read this book already in its entirety and it’s … Continue reading

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I Spy The Boss!

Away from his family, relaxing after making a bullet-proof presentation, Jon Wonderbaum sits at a bar in Manhattan. He’s seen it many times on the screen, moments like this. A salesman away from the routine of home. Making the most of his freedom.

1. He has a scotch on the rocks (always that).
2. He loosens his tie.
3. He scans.

In the US for the first time, Jon Wonderbaum begins to consider where he could find such a girl.

1. A minx he doesn’t have to pay for. Loose – (weird, clingy).
2. A chanteuse happy to be bought a drink in return for contract-free sex.
3. A slut with a welcoming, warm cleavage to comfort his loneliness. A harlot who’ll disappear as soon as the light dusts through the hotel window.

Then, he sees such a woman. Alone, self-possessed, wiping a stray tear, she stirs her cocktail. She looks straight at Jon Wonderbaum. She looks sad. Familiar. Unsettled. Wonderbaum smiles at her. She rises from her seat and walks slowly over.

And Wonderbaum remembers: the cosmetics company in London.

1. She’d called him in to her office for failing to reach the new sales targets.
2. She’d snarled at him for letting the team down.
3. She’d fired him right there on the spot.

Tonight, he thinks, she’ll do.

***

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On Rejection

It’s hard being a writer. Admittedly there are more demanding jobs, like being a nurse – or any other proper job that involes being somewhere and doing something – but there’s no security in this game. Just when you’re patting yourself on the back for crafting a particularly exquisite sentence (come on, we all do it) and your own genius spins before you like a bibulous Lord, something happens to cloud your day.

You open your inbox. Your eyes focus absentmindedly, and yep, uh-oh, it doesn’t look like good news. You thought just because you’re a published writer, you’re immune. It’s a rejection. Remember those?

That poem you sent to such and such three months ago (so long ago you’d actually forgotten about it) now bounces back with a form rejection. Your eyes narrow and you take a closer look. You cringe. Did I really send one of my favourite literary mags that pile of shit? Sweet Jesus. Yes, your embarrassed inner voice shouts, you did.

For a fleeting second you’re almost tempted to write the journal a letter of apology and say you hope they won’t hold it against you in future. You don’t, of course. You’re not mad. Yet. (This is also where a pre-emptive pseudonym comes in handy).

I could say rejection has always scared and paralysed me. Perhaps it has for some people, and that’s a shame, but my attitude to rejection has never really changed: I shrug it off. If it’s for a piece of writing I’m proud of – something I’ve taken a lot of care over – I’m sad. I can’t help it. I know it’s part of a writer’s lot, but it hurts.

But it doesn’t sting for long. There’s so much more to do and improve and tomorrow could be another story. A story with a letter of acceptance. It has been known.

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The Call

The net’s a wealth of free information on writing and editing techniques and approaching a good agent. You will doubtless have figured this out for yourself and I won’t replicate what Nicola Morgan already does so brilliantly on her blog and in her extraordinarily generous guide to being published, Write To Be Published. Instead, I can share with you how I became agented and how having written a comparatively short novel, I managed to bust some myths circulating on the net.

Spurned writers have said a variation of the following:

‘You’ve written a short novel (or novella as I still refer to it), and you want an agent? Forget it. THEY WON’T BE INTERESTED.’

Actually, they might, and in my case they were, which is nice.

You can write a novella as a first work, but it’s unlikely you’ll find an agent if you don’t have a plan for a full-length book. If you’re lucky enough to be called by an agent (yes, a real phone call) they are screening you every bit as much as you’re sussing them out. They want to know:

1. Your book of fiction isn’t autobiographical.

2. You have an idea formed for another book.

In my case this book should ideally be longer than a novella. Also, it must be similar but different to the one submitted. Not a sequel (that would be madness) but evidence of a similar thread running through is a positive indicator. If you’ve written a thriller about a sinister baker, your next book should ideally be a thriller, but not about a sinister baker. Try a warped pathologist instead, or something.

3. You’ve ideally been published in high profile publications before (but this isn’t in any way a deal-maker).

4. You’re of sound mind (much more likely to be a deal-maker).

There are other subtle tactics up their sleeves but much of what they’ve decided happens before they call. They’ve read your writing and it will not have been perfect but they will see you can form character, pace, plot, dialogue, voice and point of view well (and I should imagine that’s cause enough for celebration in the average slush pile).

He/she will then work with you to point out what needs improving before he/she sends it out to publishers.

They will share with you who they have in mind and this part is lovely. If they’re a good agent they will be writing to the type of publishers (with iconic spines) you dared not dream would house your own work.

And then you wait, and you make a start on your next book, and hope burns softly.

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The Story

I first started creative writing for fun when I was in middle school. I’d write poems and illustrate them. They were rubbish. Anointed with such expressive and insidious titles as ‘the ghost’ and ‘the spring’,  I felt Stephen Spender quaking with envy in his grave.

In university, a lifetime ago (quite literally if you’re younger than nineteen) I opted for a creative writing module. Luckily, the marks I got for this didn’t count towards my final grade. I scraped a third (and only Auden would be proud of this). My efforts were trite, old-fashioned and derivative.

I had some semi-serious work to do and more specifically, some voracious reading. By doing so I learned a lot. In the next decade I read everything I could stomach. I read the complete McEwan and I tried to do the same with Amis, but as much as I admire his diction, his stories struck a cold chord with me. I read Self (didn’t like him much either), Coe, Cusk, Smailes, Atwood, Doyle and Warner, to name a few. In short, people writing today. And it wasn’t just fiction I learned from; there is inspiring writing everywhere, if you know where to look.

I read poetry. Good poetry. Esther Morgan, Sarah Salway and a million others buried deep in obscure anthologies and seldom read regional journals were devoured in spare moments on the tube. I amassed a pretty book display of well designed literary pamphlets, and I started writing flash fiction and poetry for myself. Soon, I was having the odd piece of short fiction published. Working hard, I nurtured my skill and honed my craft.

And last week I landed an agent for my debut novel and my small writing space opened up…

To be continued…

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