Guest Post with Jan Baynham

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It’s a strange time for authors to be letting their new books loose into the world, not least debuts. Lockdown means a very different approach to publishing. So, this month it’s a genuine delight to invite Jan Baynham to be my guest. Jan is one of the most hardworking writers I know – my admiration for her is boundless. She’s also great fun, kind & incredibly generous towards other writers. Her debut novel, Her Mother’s Secret was published on 21 April by Ruby Fiction.

The book is described by the publisher as, ‘A wonderful sixties saga from a promising new talent’ & I couldn’t agree more. I asked Jan to share some of her thoughts on her path to publication. So, without further ado – over to you, Jan!

It was September 2015, my first visit to Tenby Book Fair, as it was called then. I got talking to Carol who’d signed a contract for her debut novel, ‘Ghostbird’, to be published by Honno the following March. I was about halfway through the initial draft of my first novel and loving the buzz of writing. My dream of becoming a published author was just starting to lurk at the back of my mind, with me never really thinking it would happen.

I came very late to the party having only started writing fiction when I retired. At that first meeting, Carol’s excitement and enthusiasm for what she had achieved shone through and was a definite motivating factor in my journey to publication. Our genres could not be more different, but her attitude and sheer delight in writing influenced me a great deal. She has been very supportive ever since even though we’ve actually met in person a mere handful of times at book fairs and literary festivals.

I started to build on what I’d learned on the novel writing workshop I’d taken the previous year, taking on board recommendations for workshops and reading articles about honing the craft of writing. A turning point for me was when I was invited to join a local Chapter meeting of the Romantic Novelists’ Association in Cardiff. My novel wasn’t a romance, but it had a love interest in it so in January 2016 I joined the association’s New Writers’ Scheme. In it, published authors critique your manuscript and give detailed feedback.

That first critique gave me both the confidence to carry on and plenty of advice as to how to edit the manuscript to become a tighter novel. Once I started submitting to publishers, I had to deal with rejection. It was always a disappointment and the wait could be endless, but once the rejections started to contain feedback rather than a ‘thanks but no thanks’, I knew I was making progress. My dream of publication was moving closer. Words like ’perhaps’, ‘maybe’ were entering my thoughts. I’d joke with friends that if it did happen, I’d be the oldest debut novelist!

‘Her Mother’s Secret’ was taken up quite quickly in the end. I had a one-to-one session with a publisher at the RNA Conference in 2018 who asked me to submit the finished manuscript. After reading it and giving positive feedback, she sent it to the company’s submissions panel, so I was one step further again towards publication. They did finally reject it but sent such detailed feedback that I worked on and Ruby Fiction offered me a contact in May 2019. Because the novel is mainly set in Greece, there wasn’t time for it to be published and marketed for the summer season last year, but I achieved my dream of becoming a published author in April 2020. It was both exciting and nerve-wracking, but I did it! My advice to anyone reading this is never give up. It’s never too late!

Thank you, Jan for taking time to chat! Best wishes for your book – I hope it flies!

My review:
For a story that, on the face of it, might appear to be a light summer read, Her Mother’s Secret is as dramatic as it is entertaining. In her debut novel, Jan Baynham lends an assured confidence to the traditional ‘love story’. Yes, it’s very much a love story, but there are dark dealings & darker agendas lending the book a crucial edge; a sense of excitement that never lets up.

In 1969, Elin Morgan, an art student, arrives on the Greek island of Péfka to attend a painting school run by a famous artist. The sun beats down on the idyllic setting but in the shadows lurks a grimmer story. In true 60s style it features sex & drugs (drug dealers) & one assumes, rock ‘n roll! Twenty-two years later, Elin’s daughter, Lexi follows in her mother’s footsteps, in search of the secrets hinted at in a diary belonging to Elin.

The author’s love for & knowledge of Greek society & customs shines through, giving the book an air of authenticity. And Her Mother’s Secret is redolent with vivid descriptions. The Greek family dynamics are beautifully observed; a sense of quiet menace ripples beneath the surface as Elin becomes embroiled in chaos, love, family drama & murder. And two decades later, Lexi discovers that some love stories never end. This a well observed story; contemporary & light but with a depth that suggests a fresh, new talent.

You can buy the book here: tinyurl.com/y8dvtlbf

Links to Jan’s social media:
twitter.com/JanBaynham
www.facebook.com/JanBayLit/
And her blog: Jan’s Journey Into Writing:
janbaynham.blogspot.com/

Bluesky days… ‘the being and the doing…’

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The weather is glorious. Clear blue skies & a bird song soundtrack, tempting me out of doors. Not a day passes when I don’t feel grateful to live in a small rural town with access to the countryside. Not that I’m walking in all my favourite places. Staying safe never felt more crucial.

In these locked down days you’d be forgiven for thinking a vast number of words have been written. However, like my physical rambling, the writing mileage has been abbreviated too. Although I’m showing up most days, my train of thought has been interrupted. Instead of pushing on with the story, I’m obsessing over the first few chapters, rearranging the same words on the page, indulging my inner perfectionist. And when I’m not doing that, I’m veering off into the nineteen-fifties, researching village school education, chapel graveyards & the business of bees. (Did I not tell you? There are bees in this book. Magical ones…)


In this new, unreal reality the best I can do is validate the way I’m currently working because it’s better than not working at all.

It’s my habit to open Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary each morning, at random. This, from 1935 was yesterday’s offering.

A very fine skyblue day, my windows completely filled with blue for a wonder … And I have been writing and writing and rewriting the scene … What I want to do is reduce it all so that each sentence, though perfectly natural dialogue, has a great pressure of meaning behind it.  


There’s only so much fine-tuning I can do though, before I shall be forced to crack on. It’s not as if I don’t know what comes next. I know a good deal about this story. My central character is smart & wild. The aforementioned bees talk to her. And this book has chapter headings which I have never written before although I’ve always fancied the idea. It has a title too, which pleases me hugely. A title I’m happy with connects me to the book; makes it feel more substantial, even though, in terms of word count, it isn’t.

Time enough to worry about how many words. What matters is there are some. And in these extended alone times, I ‘need not’ – to quote Mrs Woolf again – ‘think of anybody.’ I can be myself, by myself…

For now she need not think of anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others … and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.

From: To the Lighthouse

The strangest adventure indeed. If I only scribble half a page of notes each day, or rewrite the opening to chapter whatever seventy-billion times, I’m doing something.

Being present, chewing the end of my pencil, staring out into the skyblue day…

Spoilt for choice

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Along with many writers, I’m in semi-hibernation. Because I live in a rural area with a lovely walk almost on my doorstep I’m able to get out for a solitary saunter each day.

WALK 31 5


I’m managing to write too – most days at any rate & the new story is slowly unfolding. I feel blessed.

As is the case for many recently released books, my latest is fending for itself the best it can. Under the current circumstances all I or my publisher can do is promote as much as possible. I’ve had some wonderful support from other authors so this post is my way of saying thank you & returning the favour.

Titles marked* are ones I’ve read & highly recommend.

Three from Honno, my own publisher.

The Memory* by Judith Barrow.
The Covenant by Thorne Moore, coming in July.
Wild Spinning Girls, my new one.

Two beauties from Orenda Books

I Am Dust* by Louise Beech
Worst Case Scenario* by Helen Fitzgerald

And finally…

You Never Told Me* by Sarah Jasmon (Black Swan)
The Black and the White by Alis Hawkins (Sapere Books)

 

I’ve included links to the publishers. Do take a look & if anything takes your fancy, order direct from the publisher where possible, or an independent bookshop like Griffin Books in Cardiff.

 

Dear reader, enjoy all the books you choose to read. My lovely writer friends, may your muses be with you.
Be well, stay safe, best love. xXx

 

Hibernation & the muse…

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A few of you who follow me may recall my somewhat occasional & fanciful notion that Virginia Woolf is my muse. My admiration for her writing has sometimes led me to place imaginary trays of tea & buns outside her metaphorical door, with the aim of persuading her to lend her genius to my lesser & more lowly pursuits.

Right…

In other, more realistic, muse-related ramblings, I call on my word birds. And let’s be honest, they’re far more likely to aid me than the ghost of Mrs Woolf.

In these odd times, I confess to having struggled over the past week. Largely due to political shenanigans. (Let’s not dwell – this is a blog about my work, not my ‘men in grey suits where are all the women and the joined-up thinking?‘ observations.) Trying to get my old head around the new regime & telling myself, there is always the new story to write!

The interwebs have been awash with writer-focused memes, not least the one about how Will Shakespeare penned both King Lear & Macbeth during the plague. Aimed, I’m sure, at reassuring us that all we need to do is ignore the firestorm, hibernate, knuckle down & crack on with the latest book. All well & good but the reality is, anxiety is a poor bedfellow for the muse.

I’m hearing many stories, online & from my writer friends, about how they’re struggling to concentrate. How the plan to use this enforced time of solitary existence to write is already falling by the wayside.

A few weeks ago I began writing my fourth book. I love it to bits & if it isn’t quite writing itself (that would be a trick worthy of a witchy woman!) it is coming along nicely. Having lost some of my hwyl for the act of writing per se, rather than the story, I know this is a crucial moment. It’s an opportunity to write a story that wants to be written. No excuse not to. There are weeks, possibly months of this hibernating lark ahead of me so a grip must be got!

A myriad muses (musii?) for all my writer friends! And whether the shade of Mrs W likes it or not, I’m calling up one of my favourites quotes.

Onward & sideways as my mum used to say. Apposite on Mother’s Day too! I kissed her picture this morning & like to imagine, she kissed me back.

Naming things makes them real

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It’s an old witchy saying although it could just as easily apply to writers. Days were when we guarded our stories like a dragon guards its gold. Now, in a world where we blog our little hearts out, we give a lot more away.

I know I do. A few years ago I would no more share a story I was currently planning than I would my toothbrush. And yet, since I began blogging here – about five years give or take – I’ve shared more & more of not only the process of my writing but the content. It’s something to do with new notions of networking I think. Social media sharing has become massive.

These past two weeks I’ve felt very exposed, albeit in a joyful, just been published again way. The blog tour for Wild Spinning Girls has been a triumph, the reviews gratifying & in some cases mindblowing. And I was featured in the local paper too!

It’s all been about me & my book, which is wonderful & hopefully, the exposure will translate into sales & more reviews.

It’s another ‘famous for fifteen minutes’ thing though, isn’t it? A writer is only as good as her next book? And I’ve been banging on about my fourth, back & forth & undecided, until I’ve made my own head spin. A few weeks ago I was categorical. My next book would be the one about the river. The one I’ve been writing since 2012, on & off. I went back to it while I was in the countdown to WSG coming out, pottering & revising, revising, revising… And then I felt it, like a blow: the loss of what the Welsh call hwyl – a sense of motivational energy that stirs the soul. My soul, was drained because something else was stirring.

Back in January, talking about the River book, I wrote, ‘…why would I abandon over 80k anyway? You only do that if the story has no legs.’ 

I fear not only have the legs fallen off, so have the wheels. During two conversations with two different people, each of them beautifully & coherently said things that perfectly ‘named’ where I find myself. The first was said by a writer friend who has known this oscillating story from its inception. She said, ‘[this book] is the ghost of the writer you were … she flits in and out between books, tempting and taunting you to take a step back into that time when it was all still ahead of you.’

These words fed seamlessly into the ones uttered by my mentor when we caught up recently & I tried to explain my ‘dilemma’ to her. What do I write next? Stick with ‘River’ or write the one that’s now nagging rather than whispering. In what was almost an echo of my friend, she said, ‘River is the story your other books bounce off.’ And went on to reassure me that nothing is wasted, that putting away the old in order to make room for the new – not least when the hwyl for it is very definitely there – is as much about author instinct as anything else.

There we are then. In July last year, I wrote this: ‘… there’s another one. A new story that excites me so much I can’t stop thinking about it.’ It does so yes, I’m going to write that one. #Book4.

And say very little about it until it feels real… Go underground for a while & trust the muse.

Standing in the light

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It’s been twenty years today since my mother died. At Imbolc – the time of renewal.

Then it felt like heartless timing, but the years soften the sadness & two decades on, with two books published & the third about to be born, I wonder what she would have thought. I suspect she would have been proud of me. My lovely mum was proud of everything I did.

At the time of her death, I was middle-aged, still working full time & with only the vaguest notion of writing to be published. It was to be a few more years before I took that notion to the next level & began taking my writing seriously. And several more before my publishing dream came true. Even so, I look back at that woman, with her insecurities well-honed, sensing it was a good thing it took so long.

I didn’t know it then, but the mentoring & wisdom that was to come my way would prove vital. It shaped me as a writer & turned me into an author.

On my birthday, a few days ago, a small parcel arrived from my lovely editor/publisher at Honno & in it, two copies of Wild Spinning Girls. I confess to a lump in my throat. It never stops being the best thing – holding your finished book in your hand for the first time. And yes, I both stroked & sniffed it…

Wild Spinning Girls is a novel about mothers & daughters. About two young, very different women with one thing in common: their brilliant, lost mothers adored them.

Today then – remembering my lovely mum – I stand in the light, celebrate the turning of the Wheel & share a moment with her.

Wild Spinning Girls is available for pre-order: http://tinyurl.com/vlg9ec7

Less a resolution … more a plan…

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I’m an Aquarian – I love a plan. And it is this: after some thought & a number of steely glares from that there Janey Stevens, I’m committing to the book that’s been abandoned so many times it’s now in therapy.

At midwinter, at our last writing group of the year, Janey asked me what was stopping me writing the book that has, for several years, affectionately been known as RiverBook. She was having none of my, ‘Well, there’s this other story & it won’t leave me be…’ nonsense. Conscientious writing partner that she is, she challenged me to look at why I was prevaricating.

In the end, it was simple – it was the beginning.

I’ve changed the trajectory of this story many times, abandoned great swathes of it: plot lines, format & so forth. Introduced a new & relevant character. And simplified it. What I hadn’t done was pay attention to the beginning. I thought I knew where this story began but I’d missed an important trick.

Magic notwithstanding (if you hang with witch women who write, expect spells, dear reader) I’ve learned many valuable lessons since I began this writing lark. Not least from my mentor & my editor. One is to know the provenance of my stories – the root of them if you like. Most of mine offer some sort of nod to legend or fairytale. RiverBook is no exception. In it, I’ve played with the old selkie tale & given it a different slant. I like my version & that aspect – the essence of the story – has never been in dispute.

Once I knew (what I’d always known because we do – we just need a nudge from a friend) it was easy. Begin at the actual beginning. And why would I abandon over 80k anyway? You only do that if the story has no legs. This one can swim… And that’s where I must begin: in the water…

Now I have it, that’s my plan. Finish RiverBook & call it by the name I conjured some time ago: Underwater the Stars Shine Brighter. It’s a bit of a mouthful so I may opt for an acronym… A hashtag even. #UTSSB – go me.

Book list 2019

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Books I read throughout 2019

There were several contenders for ‘favourite’ this year but as I read, the list lengthened. In the end, I’ve decided not to choose a favourite per se because when I’m reading a book I adore, in the moment, that’s my favourite.
(Books marked with a * are those I have reread.)

Boy, Snow, Bird ~ Helen Oydyemi
After the Party ~ Cressida Connelly
A Modern Family ~ Helga Flatland
Old Baggage ~ Lissa Evans
The Heart’s Invisible Furies ~ John Boyne
The Fireman ~ Joe Hill
La Belle Sauvage ~ Philip Pullman
Northern Lights ~ Philip Pullman *
Our House ~ Louise Candish
Sharp Objects ~ Gillian Flynn
Sister, Sister ~ Sue Fortin
Waltzing Through Flaws ~ Paula Sharp *
The Rules of Magic ~ Alice Hoffman
Rather to be Pitied ~ Jan Newton
A Perfect Explanation ~ Eleanor Anstruther


The Summer We All Ran Away ~ Cassandra Parkin
The Paris Wife ~ Paula McLain
Take Nothing With You ~ Patrick Gale
The Beach Hut ~ Cassandra Parkin
Everything Under ~ Daisy Johnson
Transcription ~ Kate Atkinson
The Daughters of Ironbridge ~ Molly Walton
The Brighton Mermaid ~ Dorothy Koomson
Once Upon a River ~ Diane Setterfield
The Slaughterman ~ Cassandra Parkin
Thin Air ~ Michelle Paver
The Crow Trap ~ Anne Cleeves
Telling Tales ~ Anne Cleeves
Riverflow ~ Alison Layland
Himself ~ Jess Kidd
Odd Girl Out ~ Elizabeth Jane Howard
The Dancers Dancing ~ Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
The Hoarder ~ Jess Kidd
The Dust That Falls From Dreams ~ Louis de Bernières
Lanny ~ Max Porter
The Lie Tree ~ Frances Hardinge *
The Memory Book ~ Rowan Coleman
Señor Vivo & the Coca Lord ~ Louis de Bernières
True Colours ~ Kristen Hannah
Falling ~ Elizabeth Howard
Rebecca ~ Daphne du Maurier *
Wise Children ~ Angela Carter *
The Girl at the Window ~ Rowman Coleman
Jane Eyre ~ Charlotte Brontë *
None So Blind ~ Alis Hawkins
Violet ~ SJI Holliday
The Home ~ Sarah Stovell
Wakenhyrst ~ Michelle Paver
In the Absence of Miracles ~ Michael J Malone
I Am Dust ~ Louise Beech
Childhood ~ Tove Ditlevsen

Writing the wrongs

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It is highly likely, dear reader, I could be tempted into wordy confabulation (see?) when it needs only my best & simplest words to adequately convey what I feel. The hell in a handcart shenanigans I predicted have occurred. It gives me no pleasure to be proved right. Being right about something so wrong is awful. Like almost everyone I know, this feels like a dark time. I’m not in the mood for hopeful memes or well-meaning platitudes – hope for too many people has been ravaged. Our hearts are hurting.

Saddened by what I see as a squandered political opportunity, I turn to that which gives me, on a very personal level, a measure of hope. When despair strikes, write. Reach for the words.

Mistress Crow has been ubiquitous. Landing in the skeletal birch tree, her feathered finery silhouetted against wintry skies, she’s been eyeing me for a few weeks now. Or so it seems. I try not to anthropomorphise wild creatures & resist the temptation to second guess a bird. But the version of me who toys with the idea of a muse can’t give up on the idea that some of the words I conjure arrive via some magical, possibly birdy, portal.

My next quest, should I choose to accept it, is to write the right book. Finish #Book4 – all 89,000 words of it? I still don’t know & the reason is simple: the singular voice of #Book5 will not be still. Like Mistress Crow, she perches, peripheral & illusory, whispering her intriguing, scary first person present words in my ear. And I can’t shake her off.

Come the next new moon – Boxing Day therefore perfectly placed – I have a decision to make. The write one… Right?

Onward & sideways, as my mother used to say… Not least about shenanigans.

In which I am proofed by a pro

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The other day, regaling a non-writing friend about my editing process, she commented that it seemed as if most of the work was done after the book was written. She has a point. And most writers would agree: if the road to a publishing deal is long, the one we have to negotiate in order to create a finished book can seem endless.

For me however, it’s never a chore. I embrace every aspect of the procedure & always have. It may be my inner researcher – I’m curious by nature – when writing a book I need to know how everything works. Not just the story as it unfolds through various incarnations & drafts; I’m fascinated by the editorial side too.

The final version of the copyedited manuscript of Wild Spinning Girls with notes from the proofreader arrived a week after my cataract operation. Generous editor offered to clear up the ‘bits’ for me but as I explained, my sight was pretty good & thank you, kindly, only I want to do it all myself.

In the end, there wasn’t that much to do, although any part of the process is always an exercise in careful observation. (Oh, look, another sneaky strikethrough no one spotted. *Polishes halo*) There were issues though – which is why we need proofreaders.

And thereby hangs my tale. With regard to copyeditors & proofreaders, most of us don’t know who we’re going to get. The published authors amongst you will have heard about them: copyeditors on a mission to willfully misunderstand your story, proofreaders who take every single semicolon you’ve ever conjured & turn them into commas. And don’t get me started on the fiends who were clearly born with a genetic resistance to the Oxford Comma.

I’m a lover of semicolons & yes, I overdo them. I also fail, repeatedly, to hyphenate that which requires hyphenating. I know I’m going to get a pasting, frankly, & wonder what the latest proofreader has up her sleeve.

I am here to tell you: Not All Proofreaders!

Did I get lucky or did I get lucky? Yes – semicolons have been thoroughly disarmed & replaced by nicely behaved commas. Quite right too – fair play. I have been allowed to hang on to the ones that matter & even been given a couple! Some nicely place colons too – who knew? It’s a joyous thing to have your words & authorial style respected. To have the corrections made with professionalism & an obvious eye to relevant detail. Even the single thing I disagreed about: a ‘voice’ quirk I insist on keeping – was critiqued with respect to ‘the author’s style.’

There are so many stages to creating a book: drafts & edits when you think, this is a load of rubbish, what the hell am I doing? Even when you accept you may be on to something, there’s a fine line between liking your story & loving it. And finally, there’s the last line to be crossed: the falling in love with it one. Now it’s done, thanks to the dedication of a fine editor, followed by the professionalism & respect of a proofreader I’ll probably never meet, I am finally in love with Wild Spinning Girls.

Four years ago I had only the vaguest idea what a copyedit was or why proofreaders were so essential. With only a few months to go until publication date – 20 February 2020 – I have no idea how this third book will be received or if I’ve pulled it off again. And that is also part of the process.

Fingers crossed, dear reader…