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…

Choices

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Opening Mrs Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary the other morning, I spotted this.

‘I write here: and note that the authentic glow of finishing a book is on me.’

And, as occasionally happens, the blessed Virginia nudged me. I say ‘nudged’ rather than ‘I am filled with an irresistible urge to crack on poste-haste stopping for nothing less than food & sleep’, because it would be a fib. That said, with approximately a quarter of this reimagined, remoulded, ripped-apart-&-put-back-together-again manuscript left, it’s a no-brainer really.

Also me…

I love Book 5 a lot. Even with sleep & food breaks, I’m pretty confident if I sat down now & wrote every day for three months, I could conjure a passable first draft. On Wednesday then, after two days recovering from the wonder that was Narberth Book Fair, I opted for the stab-in-the-dark method of choosing & literally held my cursor over the documents (Book 4 next to Book 5) closed my eyes & clicked.

Book 4 then… Search for the glow & finish it.

Apropos aforementioned Book Fair, what larks we had last weekend! This, perhaps, is my favourite memory of the two-day event.

From (L) Janey Stevens, Janet Thomas, Me

And this one with the talented writing goddess that is Juliet Greenwood.

It was a delight to spend quality time with the fabulous Anne Williams from Book Connectors & Being Anne fame.


The fair was a triumph. As one of the organisers, albeit the person faffing about on social media, my thanks to everyone who participated. As an author, there were some very special moments, not least with the woman who bought a copy of Ghostbird last year & chose to wait a whole 12 months to buy Snow Sisters so she could get me to sign it in person! 

And I cannot speak too highly of the downtime Janey & I spent with Juliet. Bates Motel shenanigans notwithstanding, more larks were had! And Miss Phoebe came too.

Judith & Thorne’s decision to cease running the fair is one with which I have an immense sympathy. Having organised more than my share of events over many years I know how easy it is to hit burn-out. Far better to choose to step away before this happens.

Huge thanks to you both – dear, good friends & amazing women who put the fair on the map & gave so many authors a fantastic opportunity to promote & sell their books. We are indebted to you.

A couple of days to wind down & I’m back at work. The choice is made & I’m good to go. Possibly…

Learning curves

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My initial idea for this post could be summed up in the cliché: If I’d known then what I know now. My list of pre-conceived notions about How Publishing Works is as long as the proverbial piece of string.

In the early, heady days of securing a book deal, I thought I knew a lot of things. How editing would be a matter of having my story checked over for grammatical errors & perhaps shifting the odd scene or one. Even when I understood the purpose of a copy editor, I still had some vague notion it also had to do with ‘checking things’ – in some random, nothing-to-do-with-me sort of way.

Lol, as they say…

Working on my first book was an enormous learning curve & soon disabused me of many notions. In spite of the terror, I began to enjoy the editing process. At heart, I’m a reviser & have never found it a chore to listen to my inner critic. And formal editing has taught me to respect & be in awe of the professional editorial side of creating a book.

Another preconceived notion of mine was, you get the cover you want & nobody will question the title of your book. I am here to tell you, this is only partly true. As someone published by an almost unique press that meets its authors more than halfway, I’ve been inordinately lucky with my titles & covers. There have been a few changes & tweaks but I love all of them. I know there are authors still weeping because they hated the covers imposed on them. I can’t imagine how that must feel & it took me a long time to learn that in Big Press World, it is industry practice. Small presses rock, in more ways than one!

For years I was a cover/title snob. All those books with ‘Girl’ in the title & all those girls, wandering off, away from the camera. I swore I would never, ever become part of that particular club. I was yet to grasp the fact that it’s what happens in the bookshops that counts. It’s shelf appeal, dear reader, pure & simple. (And there are copyright reasons why so many girls & women on covers have their faces concealed. Apparently it can cost more if the model’s face is visible.) Add the fact that readers prefer to make up their own minds about how characters look & it all falls into place.

Back in April last year, I wrote this:

Like it or loathe it, Girl in the title of a contemporary novel, however ubiquitous, appears to sell books. As a woman who writes largely about women (albeit about girls as well), I have long eschewed reaching for the Girl word. And yet I find myself unexpectedly in love with a title I conjured several months ago for this story.

(You can read the entire post here.)

‘This story’ is my third book, Wild Spinning Girls. I’ve broken both the rules it seems, & gone plural, but for all the right reasons. The details are in that previous blog post. Suffice it to say, telling the story of Ida & Heather; discovering the title within the finished narrative, convinced me Girl is good. Girls is even better.

Here then is my new book with its lush cover. With its pretty title.

Showing up: let me count the ways…

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Being here for starters. It’s been a month since I wrote a word. Not because I have nothing to say, more that I have too much. As I count down the months until my third novel, Wild Spinning Girls is published, I could write reams about how exciting the process is. But the authors amongst you know – while we wait, we write.

Most days then, I clock on for Book 4. (And, for a brief time, I showed up for the fifth one too. Until I ordered myself to get back to doing what I do best: one thing at a time.)  

Showing up are the two words that make up my daily writing mantra. Unless we put in the graft at the typeface, the road to publication is likely to be strewn with rocks. (Full disclosure: makes no difference – it will be littered with them. Boulders, bedrock & concrete slabs the size of dragons; Very Big Brick Walls & even bits of the earth’s crust.)

So you may as well show up. This is my current, favourite ‘Showing Up’ image. Words birds obviously, a nice frock & a beak.)

Image: Sarah Young

Like many writers, published & unpublished, I put in my ‘Time Before’ – years when the rejections piled up & I convinced myself I was comforted by the generic phrase: ‘You write well/interestingly/can’t quite place you on our list/we’ve just signed something similar.’ Or words to that effect. They’re all code for ‘No.’

It’s over seven years since I first pitched my debut, Ghostbird, to the woman who was to become my mentor. Back then, Janet Thomas was still an editor at Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press. She was the first in a galaxy of women destined to show up & have a huge impact on my life.

Initially, it was the Honno Sisterhood who embraced me & made me feel part of the best gang ever. Post-publication, many of them have become dear friends.

Some of the Honno sisterhood: from L round the table, my editor/publisher Caroline Oakley, Juliet Greenwood, me, Judith Barrow, Alison Leyland, Janet Thomas, Thorne Moore, Hilary Shepherd & Jan Newton

And then, in real life & virtually, out in the wider world a myriad brilliant, fabulous authors & bloggers have shown up. The kindest, most supportive human beings it’s my privilege to know. As I look forward to being published again, I count my blessings.

If I counted them – the kind, generous fabulous lovelies – I’d be here all day.