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.

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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.

 

The art of juggling

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I’m writing this very much for myself. Trying to work something out. You are welcome to come along…

Years ago, when people asked me why I wrote, my flippant answer was, ‘Because I can’t play the piano. Or juggle.’ It was a bit true though. Since the scribbling gave me so much pleasure why would I persist with the piano? Or the juggling? More than one ball frankly & I’m pathetic.

In all the years I’ve been writing – pre- & post-publication – I’ve never tackled more than one story at a time either. My inclination has always been to focus on a single project – work on it until it’s my best endeavour. (Unless it’s no endeavour at all, in which case – kill it.)

Before Ghostbird – my first book – came out, I had an idea for two more stories. One, I quickly realised, wasn’t meant to be written & I dumped it. The other story (Working title: Underwater the Stars Shine Brighter) was more persistent & before long I was deep into it.

Enter the idea for Snow Sisters – out of left-field & itching to be written. In the end, it nagged & won the argument. Consumed, I set aside UTSSB.

I could have tried to write both. It’s a well-known fact: writers do this all the time. They say they like something else to turn to when the current WIP sags or they need ‘a break’ from it. This has never happened to me. It’s one at a time & sorry, new story, you will have to wait your turn because, ‘too many balls, okay?

With Snow Sisters published, I turned my eye to dear UTSSB. It was the least I could do. And damn if it didn’t happen again. (Hello, book about dancing & with a ghost* – of course I’ll write you!)

Having completed Wild Spinning Girls* – lined up for publication in February 2020 – I have returned to UTSSB yet again albeit with renewed enthusiasm. In fact, I’ve rewritten loads of it & it’s now a contender.

If you’re still with me, dear reader, you can probably guess what’s coming…

Yet another one – out of whatever field stories grow in.

Only this time, it’s different. I’m actually writing them both at the same time. I say ‘writing’ – I’m working hard to refine & finish UTSSB because I like it & I want to & it’s been so very patient. But I also have 7,000 words of the new one down & I want to write that as well.

Am I finally learning to juggle?

Asking for a me…

My Welsh heart

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In my various author profiles I claim Irish blood & a Welsh heart. The latter is possibly more relevant than the former. I’ve never lived in Ireland & the last time I set foot in my mother’s homeland (my father’s heritage is half Irish) I was a little girl. Wales on the other hand has been my home for decades. I live here from choice & I love it. I love the people, my home town, the landscape & the language (even though my command of it is abysmal.) It pleases me to say, ‘I’m from Wales.’

Needless to say, the scenery, culture & folklore of my adopted home informed my writing. In terms of place, when I began seriously making up stories, I wrote about what I knew. Welsh villages & their often idiosyncratic inhabitants, the surroundings & a history shaped as much by mythology as fact. I wrote my Welsh books from my Welsh heart & dreamed of being a ‘Welsh writer’ – at least by association.

Being published by a Welsh women’s press was the realisation of that dream.



I’m proud to be published in Wales; to be called a Welsh writer & to have people ask me about the genesis of & settings for my stories. Along with many other writers living in Wales & published by a number of brilliant presses, I feel very strongly that we & our publishers are constantly fighting to be visible. Our books (fiction in particular) are often sidelined in Welsh shops as ‘of Welsh interest’ strongly & erroneously suggesting they are written exclusively in the Welsh language. They’re tucked away in this niche category rather than being displayed in ‘general fiction’ alongside the rest of the best of contemporary fiction currently flooding the market.

As authors (alongside our publishers) we’re doing our best to change the perception of Welsh fiction as particular or anachronistic. Where our books happen to be written is deeply important; being Welsh matters but it doesn’t make our books exclusionary, inaccessible, odd or of no interest because somehow, a largely London-centric publishing industry has decided, ‘no one’s interested in Wales.’

And the bookshops have to take some of the responsibility. Good books alone do not sell themselves. This is as mythical a perception as my dragon bones & ghosts! In Wales we struggle to promote our books. And it’s promotion above all that ensures visibility. However good a book is, without promotion no one will know about it. The big chain retail book outlets need to be kinder to us. Give us window space, inclusive shelf space, table top space & above all – the right to be seen as viable & as good as the rest! Their till receipts might cause them to be pleasantly surprised.

HONNO is a Welsh word meaning ‘that one (feminine) who is elsewhere‘ & it’s lovely & evocative.

But Honno authors & Welsh authors generally ought to be everywhere. I will never stop being proud to be a ‘Welsh writer’ albeit it one with Irish blood. (After all, we’re all Celts!) And I’ll bang on about being a proud Welsh writer until the dragons return to Wales!

Where to now?

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With Wild Spinning Girls waiting her turn with the woman who makes me a better writer, my thoughts turn to what comes next. My current Book 4 has had an erratic passage. It was first usurped between Ghostbird & Snow Sisters then again by WSG, getting periodically abandoned like an unwanted rag-doll in the process.

I’ve always believed some books aren’t meant to be written. As writers we have to learn this & know when to let go. In the past I’ve had no qualms about discarding stories & stuffing them in a dark drawer, or worse, killing them off completely.

This one though – the one I call RiverBook – simply will not be silenced. Regardless of several long interludes, it’s survived. At one point I was a hair’s breadth from dumping it. The main protagonist – a woman I think I may be slight scared of – was having none of it. She knew what was wrong with ‘the story so far’, but better still, what was right with it. She knew what was missing & what needed chucking.

A while back I did a big rewrite & decided yes, this is the one. I have 75,000 words which is almost a complete manuscript. Be rude not to finish it, frankly. No problem then…

You think?

One of the reasons for writing this down is so I can’t easily back-track & abandon the book yet again. And the reason I could be tempted is because there’s another one. A new story that excites me so much I can’t stop thinking about it. An altogether new way of writing, an almost entirely character driven story with virtually no plot, written in first person present



I know… mad or what?

The plan – for plan I must have – is to potter until the New Moon on Thursday. See which of the word birds offers up the best pitch… They clearly love RiverBook & have stuck with it like a precious egg baby in a nest.

But they have a rival.

Yesterday, out & about, there was a wee spider in my hair. A friend spotted it & grinned when I said to leave it be; it was probably writing stuff. About her… the new one…

Onward & sideways…

Wild Spinning Girls… an extract…

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The woman who makes me a better writer did her work & now I’ve done mine. At least I hope so. They say a book is never completely finished & I concur. At this stage, pre-copy-edit & proofreading, there’s still space for ‘intervention’ of some kind or another.

Wild Spinning Girls will be published in February 2020. In the meantime dear reader, as you have have been so kind – shown such keen interest in this third book – I’m offering up an extract. It passed muster without comment in the dreaded tracked changes & sets the scene rather nicely.

Enjoy.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Five

Smoke-coloured sky stretched for miles.
   Midafternoon and still at least a hundred miles to go. Instead of stopping at one of the numerous motorway service stations, Ida turned onto a slip road, pulled into a lay-by next to a stone bridge, snacked on bananas, nuts and a chicken wrap she’d picked up in a supermarket before leaving. (Years of not eating, in order to stay thin, meant she’d had to learn not to be afraid of food. She was still working at it.)
   As she listened to a trickling stream beneath her, Ida tried to work out if it came from Wales or, like her, was trying to find its way back. 
   On the motorway once again, crossing a different bridge, she saw how this one rose in a majestic ripple of slender metal lines. Its elegance was lost on her. Ida saw only bars and their towering vastness stunned her.
   Croeso i Gymru.
   Welcome to Wales.
   She may as well have been driving into Patagonia.
   Fumbling in her purse for the toll fee, the sense of separation was complete.
   ‘Sorry, I don’t have the right money.’
   The man in the booth reached down to hand her the change. ‘No worries, bach. There you go. Safe journey.’
   After a couple of hours the motorway narrowed to dual carriageways and lanes. Towns gave way to villages and eventually to scattered countryside beneath careless skies. As she drove closer to her destination, Ida returned to the mental list she’d been compiling since she’d set off; things she’d need to do once she reached Ty’r Cwmwl.
   She tried the Welsh name again out loud, tripping over the lack of vowels.
   ‘Bloody silly language.’
   Cloud House it would have to be. And top of the list would be cleaning. The house was bound to be dusty and neglected. As for the contents, she couldn’t imagine wanting to keep anything. The furniture would be older than she was. Possibly older than her father. Ida frowned, but her dismantled memories revealed nothing. She would get essential repairs attended to and sell the house as seen.
   Pulling onto the side of the road again to check the map on her new phone, Ida squinted at the screen, zooming in. The house still appeared like a dot in the middle of nowhere, a mile from the closest village and another twenty from the nearest town.
   There was a text from Liz. Are you there yet? x
   Ida shaded her eyes, watched as lines of edgeless curving land merged into an illusive vanishing point. For a fanciful moment she could believe that reality and myth had become interlaced. Flicking off the phone, she looked up again, for a connection, a moment of recollection.
   I’m a bit Welsh…
   It didn’t come and a sense of unease enfolded her. What memories she did have were her mother’s cast-offs.
   Horrid place … I hated it.
   Finally, her uncertain memory led her, more by luck than good judgement, to the right road. Too narrow and insignificant to warrant a number, it uncurled through the imprecise light, finally arriving at an open gate flanked by broken, intermittent dry-stone walls.
   A solid metal sign bolted into a stone upright bore the legend: Ty’r Cwmwl.
   Twenty-nine years ago, she had been born here. For five years it had been her home. The last time she’d driven down this track she had been barely big enough to see through the back window of her father’s car as it jolted away from the house.
   Ida had a vague memory of her mother tucking her into her arm, as if she hadn’t wanted her daughter to see what they were leaving behind, and make a memory. 
   She needn’t have worried.
   Gazing around her now, Ida recalled very little of either the house or her surroundings. Other than the sky, wide and endless and, regardless of the season, always with an edge of winter, nothing was familiar. The marbled, changing glare of it reached for miles. 
    And in each direction, falling away in a palette of washed-out colour, a landscape out of legend.
   There were no landmarks, only barren moorland and rocky outcrops. Skinny blackthorns with witch finger branches fought the prevailing wind making it hard to believe they could ever grow leaves. Ida blinked, searched her fragmented memories; anything to reassure herself being there was a good idea.

© Carol Lovekin

Sir Kyffin Williams


   

It’s in there somewhere…

I’ve had several conversations recently, with writers, referencing the nature of story. Where they come from, how we access them. How we write them. Story as separate from the writer, even when it’s ours & we’re the ones writing it. How the stories are already made; we just have to find them.

And on her blog, Louise Beech does the synchronicity thing again. (It’s like she’s in the room!) She talks about the ‘magic‘ – how she ‘finds her stories by writing them.’ How it’s the very mysteriousness of the process that fascinates her.

Then, only the other day I came across this quotation from Virginia Woolf, in a letter to Vita Sackville-West. As a constant reader of Mrs Woolf in one form or another, it’s one I’m familiar with & another wee sliver of consonance.

‘I believe that the main thing in beginning a novel is to feel, not that you can write it, but that it exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross: that its [sic] to be pulled through only in a breathless anguish.’

Anguish aside – let’s not – the nub of the quote utterly resonates with me. It applies not only when one begins a novel but throughout the entire process. Because the unfolding of a novel is alchemy. It begins with the initial ‘What if?’ moment & flows into the witchery of what follows. Mrs Woolf’s words provide a perfect backdrop for my current process.

Months back I submitted myself to the structural editing process. Wild Spinning Girls was as done as I was able to do it. And yet not. I didn’t believe this anymore than my excellent editor did & when she dared me & my manuscript to do better, the magic began. A new approach was called for – one which, because the right question was asked: ‘Where does this story come from?‘ instantly changed the fundamental nature of the thing & found it’s heart.

And now, several months down the line, homework done, I’m being tested again. This time it’s a pre-copy edit; the more personal one that comes when an astute editor looks beneath & sees aspects of the story you not only missed pre-structural & even post-, they were almost invisible anyway. Like a covering cobweb in the early morning, a fine net obscuring what lies beneath. These are the slender threads that, if you tie them up correctly, will fine-tune your story.

I have a deadline, which I prefer to call a Plan. (Aquarians thrive on Plans.) It’s the first of July tomorrow & the moon goes dark. As shall I. Radio silence on social media, for the most part at any rate. Total concentration, a new bag of breadcrumbs & off to the wordy birdy wood.

art Peter Ilsted
Painting © Peter Vilhelm Ilsted

The cup with the golden bird

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Once upon a time, my oldest friend insisted mugs have personalities. She had (& still does have) a superstitious nature & wouldn’t dream of drinking her coffee out of a boring brown earthenware mug for fear of repercussions.

I’m not quite so choosy although I do have favourites. In one of my kitchen cupboards sits a selection of mugs with very definite personalities. The Virginia Woolf one, the sweet narwhal one (“I am not a unicorn” – quite), the bee one & several decorated with birds. And my “Girls Are Best” Girl Guides mug discovered in a charity shop a decade ago. Best of all though, are the cups. And saucers. I’m my mother’s daughter & I like a cup & saucer.

My writing rituals are many. And my first daily one begins in bed.

B BED 2

With a tray of tea. Because I wake early, I can usually manage a good half hour with my current book before the lure of notebook & pencil claims me. None of this happens without the tea though. Made in a teapot with different cups for different days.

Weekends tilt to the laissez-faire edge of writing – no one likes a swot – & the cup & saucer combos reflect this. On Saturday it’s the red rose one with forget-me-not sprigs idling like a lazy summer day. On Sunday I take tea from a charming old china cup & saucer, decorated with violets & a slender golden filigree of stems. My daughter bought me this set & I adore it. It’s tiny & delicate so of course, it gets saved for Sundays.

Come Monday though, it’s an entirely other cup of tea. (Sorry not sorry.) Monday through to Friday, I take my tea from the cup & saucer gifted to me by my writing sister, Janey. She knows me well. A golden bird is painted on the side of this cup: a golden hummingbird in full, fanciful flight through blue flowers.

hUMMONGBIRD

And as I drain each cup of good English Breakfast, scribbling & anticipating the morning’s work, there’s another one, a small blue bird in the bottom of the cup. I like to think she’s the golden bird’s sister, a less showy word bird, reminding me to get up & get on with it.

BLU.jpg

And to that end I must. To those of you who ask about these things – thank you. #Book4 has taken a tangent. A satisfying one & currently, the writing word of the day[s] is ‘immediacy.’

In word [birds] & deed.

 

 

Defining procrastination

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Procrastination is a big word – it has a lazy ambition & is, frankly, a bit pretentious. I do my best to ignore it, in the hope it will go away. The other day though, I owned it. Hours past Virginia o’clock I was still messing about on Twitter. (I’d spotted a sister writer doing the same so what was good for the goose?) Nonsense of course & in any case, two geese are the beginnings of a gaggle & that way lies chaos. Eventually, we both flapped off to our respective typefaces & cracked on.

It’s easily done – disciplined or not (& I usually am) the temptation to lollygag around the interwebs is ubiquitous & wasteful. And me, in the middle of resurrecting an old story.

SCRIBBLING 2

Rewriting an existing story is complex. You might be forgiven for thinking that if you have the makings of an entire manuscript down, it’s just a matter of tweaking. The thing is, I abandoned it twice, because two other stories insisted on being written first. But I did, effectively, discard it which suggests there was something about it that wasn’t quite right.

There is a lot about it that isn’t at all right. Grace, my main protagonist, knows it too, which is why she doesn’t mind if I take my time to get it right. Just as long as I do, albeit, murdering most of it en route. (She doesn’t seem to mind that either – anything that makes her look good.) She knows she still retains the starring role & that the essential premise still works. It’s the detail that doesn’t.

Grace is like a determined gypsy with a basket of lucky heather. She shadows me & there is no respite. Having survived being dumped twice – her story all but relegated to the Dead Darlings File – Grace is persistent. She’s not a young woman – far from it – she’s old & something of a curmudgeon. Grace doesn’t care that her story is ‘old’ – her certainty of her place on my modest list of books is such that she makes it hard for me to resist her.

I read a quote by Harper Lee the other day: “To be a writer requires discipline that is iron fisted. It’s sitting down and doing it whether you think you have it or not. Every day. Alone. Without interruption. Contrary to what most people think, there is no glamour in writing. In fact, it’s heartbreak most of the time.

Harper Lee

Until that last line, I agreed with every word. Showing up, regularly, is what writing is all about, but heartbreaking? Not that, not for me. Writing feeds my soul. It makes me happy. Even when I’m embroiled in a massive rewrite, messing about in my river (there’s a river in this one, dear reader – a tricksy one), wild-eyed & certain I’m never going to get it right, I somehow manage to wing it.

Out with the old then & (Grace notwithstanding) in with the restructured, reshaped new. If, on the way, I take time out now & then to have a bit of a dally (tea, cake, Twitter break, more tea/cake), it’s only because writing is sometimes quite hard & every now & then I need time to think about it rather than actually do it.

I shall keep at it mind, & keep an eye out for my stray sister doing the same. I know exactly what she’s up to. Procrastination is the new research. Trust me, I’m a writer, I know about this stuff.

river water crow foot

Book review – The Beach Hut

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One of those, so good it makes it onto my blog, book reviews! I loved this book.

My review of The Beach Hut, by Cassandra Parkin.

the beach hut (2)

Reading Casandra Parkin’s novels in the ‘wrong’ order has in no way diminished my appreciation of any of them. Each one is a treat – each has its own voice while the author’s is a constant – a presence reverberating through all her novels.
I’ve caught up now & with The Beach Hut, the author’s second book, found myself immersed in a contemporary, sometimes tough, ultimately poignant story, interspersed with charming, fairy-tale vignettes. (These are small, exquisite creations & I could see them gathered into a collection.)

The Beach Hut isn’t about twists per se – it’s a series of ‘Ah’ moments, slow realisations & relief that you didn’t (necessarily) spot the clues. I loved that I hadn’t worked out the truth about Donald & immediately wanted to go back to the beginning & read the book again, in full knowledge.

What we do know is, he’s a retired copper, running a pub in a small seaside town in Cornwall. He’s mourning his wife. He’s Alicia’s dad & he will do anything to protect her. She’s fifteen & would rather he backed off, left her to her own life & secrets. Because we all have those don’t we? Wild, crazy Finn & his gentle, protective sister Ava certainly do. They rock up on the beach, build the titular hut & not everyone approves. Certainly not Donald. They plan on staying until Midwinter. Finn & Ava befriend Alicia & these four people’s lives become unexpectedly entangled & their various secrets, as in the very best of novels, eventually spill over.

Cassandra Parkin has a deft way with words. She creates memorable, authentic characters (I love Finn & will never forget him) & above all, she makes you long for her next book.

Highly recommended & not enough stars!

Review also posted on Amazon & Goodreads.