Actual Glamour

For the last two years, I’ve come onto this page, posted something (usually moaning about writers’ money) and promised to post regularly.  Then I’ve disappeared again…for months at a time.

I have shame.

But the fact is, things are going well. My books are being reviewed and are actually selling (I got a royalty cheque – I thought they were fictitious). I’ve got a new job…I’m now Reader in Creative Writing at the University of Bristol…and I wrote a new book over the summer.

In the photos, you can see me hanging out in Soho, signing a stack of Coyote Summer at the Bristol Waterstones and attending my last graduation at Bath Spa University in my doctoral robes from the University of the West of England. (In case you didn’t know, your official academic robes are decided by the last place that awarded you a degree. Academics spend all their time at graduation examining each other’s robes and talking about the ones they like, wishing they’d thought about this when they’d decided where to do their PhD.)

And then there’s the photo of the most glamorous thing of all – hanging out with eminent children’s authors and discussing how to help families re-wild themselves using our narratives. Julia Green, Gill Lewis, Nicola Davies and Jackie Morris were there as we discussed the #mywildworld initiative… and I even got to meet Karin Celestine and her wee felted animals. There’s a chance that some of these authors may come onto this blog and talk about their glamorous literary lives soon.

But let’s keep it real. I spent my summer holiday mainly at the tip as my hoarding family finally decided to declutter. I wrote my book so quickly because I had a stomach bug and was pretty much tied to my bed and the loo for two weeks. My royalty cheque is going to  stop my shower from leaking through the kitchen ceiling. Then it will go towards repairing my kitchen from the deluge.

I’m still not rich and I’m still not famous. But I do love my literary life. And it is, sometimes, actually glamorous…

In Between Tangoes

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I’ve talked about failure and rejection. I’ve talked about despair. I’ve talked about lethargy and procrastination.

But I haven’t talked much about joy.

This post is about the joy in a writer’s life.  I have joy to spare today.

For the first time in quite a long time, I wrote a book my agent simply loves. A simple, uncomplicatedly good book, which easily fits into the market’s requirements. It will be going out to publishers soon.

And that’s heavenly. That’s such good news, that I’ve been tangoing around the house, literally dancing around in utter glee. The dog thinks I’ve gone mad, and I’ve had to go to our new Waitrose in order to make myself sit down properly and write this post.

My new novel is a wonderful story, about a girl who befriends a wounded grizzly bear…but I won’t go any further than that. You’ll just have to trust me. It’s a cracking tale, and it’s set in a spectacular part of the world that I know quite well. The setting is so strong, it’s almost another character, and it gave me a great deal of excuse to let loose with my inner poet. I loved writing this book – I wrote 33,000 words in 11 days.  The ending made my husband (a hardy Northerner) cry.

thought it was pretty good, but Sophie had reservations. I’ve overcome her reservation with the polish-up, however, and she’s now just as keen as me.

And that feels…amazing. Out of all the people in the world, this story came to me. I got to write it, and I did a good enough job that other people can now experience it for themselves. Before I sat down last spring, Darcy and the bear and her father did not exist. Now, they live in at least two readers’ minds. Where there was nothing, now there is something.

All the stuff that comes after; money and reviews and (please God) award nominations and etc, that’s not the reward for the world. The reward is this moment, when I know I’ve made something good.

Excuse me. I’m just going to tango around the produce.

Ten Things I’ve Learned Playing Bubble Witch Saga

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I’ve been writing. No, I have, really. I’ve been away for a fortnight, travelling on my own, and I’ve been logging in the hours.

But I’ve also been thinking. Writers spend a lot of time thinking. It’s often called procrastination…but it’s not, really. The fact is, the part of your brain that does the writing needs time to just…think.

Philip Hensher watches (often quite crappy) television. On a recent school visit, he told young fans that his partner says, ‘Why don’t you do something?’ and he says, ‘I am. I’m writing.’ And then his partner says, ‘You’re not writing. You’re watching Deal or No Deal.’

Fay Weldon, this autumn in conversation with Hilary Mantel, says she has written a book a year for…forever. But she spends most of the year, ‘Sitting there, not doing anything. I have to do that.’ She said, ‘I sit and mess about for about eight or nine months and then do the rest in a huge rush.’

Right now, I’m playing an awful lot of Bubble Witch Saga.

I’m thinking. I’m thinking about my place in the publishing industry, about what I want this book to do, about what kind of writer I really want to be. And I’m thinking about the nuts and bolts of the writing. And I’m thinking about things I’m not telling myself, but will come out in the writing.

And these are things I’ve learned while playing it:

1. ‘They’ want you to do something…in this case, pay for extra bubbles or lives or other help to play the game. ‘You’ want to play the game, but not spend your family’s hard-earned cash on Bubble Witch Saga. Your play takes place in the overlap of those two desires. This makes things more difficult, but you can’t help that. It’s all about integrity and who you are.

2. It’s never a good idea to start a ticking bomb. Sometimes it seems like an adequate shortcut, but it’s usually not. Shorting yourself on time is not a good strategy.

3. Sometimes you will lose. If you didn’t, it wouldn’t be any fun and you wouldn’t be pushing yourself hard enough.

4. If you quit a game, the witches get all upset. That doesn’t mean quitting isn’t the right decision.

5. The goal of the game is to burst the bubbles at the top. If you spend time doing anything else, no matter how satisfyingly creative, you will not win.

6. Sometimes you can’t win, and should use your time to get better at playing that level.

7. Fiendishly difficult situations are difficult to engineer, so once you find a way around them, you can get around them again.

8.  Sometimes you can play beautifully but, because of the ways the bubbles bounce, you might not be awarded stars. This is about the bubbles and spiders, not you.

9. If you think about it, you can get your spiders lined up when your bubbles are ready to drop, giving you more of a chance at stars.

10. Friends are helpful. You need three to travel to a new level.

Happy thinking….

Other Writers II – Finding Your Tribe

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Here I am at AWP in Seattle.

AWP is HUGE. Think of the biggest conference/exhibition you’ve ever seen and double it. Now imagine all the attendees are writers…scary, isn’t it?  I talked to staff in a big restaurant across the street from the venue. They’d never seen anyone eat like the writers. They’d never seen anyone drink so much, either (they kept running out of Jack Daniels and Pinot Noir). ‘And you talk so much,’ one waitress said, as everyone else nodded. ‘You’re always talking, and you interrupt each other to talk some more.’

With an estimated 14,000 writers in town, you do tend to see certain similarities in dress (some hip, some smart, most dishevelled) and behaviour. Most of us normally work alone, in a room, so we’re a bit overwhelmed and over-excited to be in such a big crowd. Some soon rather sort themselves into roaming packs. The memoirists and poets form big clubs and have long-running discussions in which sides are passionately taken.

But the fiction writers don’t do this…there’s too many of us. We go to many of the same panels and events, but we wedge ourselves into rooms designed for fewer attendees, sitting on each other’s feet to hear the speakers. And then we hide more, skulk in our hotel rooms.

There are so, so, so many of us. All publishing, or trying to publish novels this year, next year or the year after. Thousands and thousands of us, publishing novels. It can feel a little disheartening.

Talking to the many publishers present can help. The small and university presses, in particular, have to have a strong sense of mission. They know what ‘their’ kind of books/stories are and that’s what they look for. Other things might be good, but it’s not what they do.

That’s the attitude you need to have as a fiction writer. You need to know what you do and what you don’t do. You need to know who is doing the same kind of thing you are doing. You might admire and enjoy other kinds of writing, but you should have a good idea of your home interest, your tribe.

When you do this, you can build relationships with the writers and publishers that are working in your area. You can even club together and promote  the whole concept of your tribe. Genre writers – in particular romance writers and science fiction novelists – are brilliant at this.

It’s easy to feel like a voice in the wilderness in this game. Or else, like at AWP, one wildebeest in an enormous herd of wildebeests. When you find your tribe, it gives you power. Now you are a pack of wolves, making each other bigger and stronger by working together.

With what I am writing now, I am finding more and more people I recognise as part of my tribe…I’ve never fit well into one before. I’m looking forward to hunting with them and seeing what, together, we can bring down!

 

Riding the Just-broke Horse

Photo on 2013-11-29 at 11.49 #5

I’m waiting.

I had a phone call with Editor O’ My Dreams this week and we talked about what she wants from the beginning of my fictionalised-memoir-of-dying-in-a-car-accident. What she’s asked  is going to be quite challenging. She wanted the fiction to show more than the memoir about my life before the accident, about what I lost when I lost my voice. But now that she has that, she misses the immediate sympathy and hook of the original beginning, which took you just to the moment when I was struggling to stay alive. Somehow, I now have to weave both into the beginning.

I tried to work on it yesterday, but my imagination wouldn’t come when I called.

It’s like that.

And I really wouldn’t want it any other way.

One of my first jobs was as a cowgirl. Well, I could ride and we’d all had to leave the ski hill where I was working early because the snow just…stopped. In Montana. In January. It wasn’t like there were tons of jobs waiting for us. I could string fence and I could ride and I knew how to move cows around. I have no idea how I knew how to move cows around. I’d never done it before. But on my trial, I motivated them through a gate as if I’d been born doing it. The rancher ‘s wife was impressed and I was hired.

I also got involved with training horses (and, later, mules, but that’s another story). I was working as a waitress in an all-night diner on the graveyard shift and feeding cattle and riding fence in the early mornings. I slept from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, but then I had some free time. I was also usually still wearing my jeans and boots, having collapsed on top of the quilt. I thought I might as well make some extra money, so I took on the training.

Some of the horses were just-broke. You could get them to come to you, eventually, and you could get the saddle on, usually. What happened when you got into the saddle was not predictable.  There was only one thing about them of which I was certain. They loved to run.

They were still young. They could still remember the freedom of the big fields and ranging the mare/foal pastures. They couldn’t wait to shake the fidgets out of their legs. I stopped riding not long after that time, after a bad fall which dislocated both arms and my nerve. But back then, I was still totally fearless with ten or twelve years of riding under my belt. I’d raise up a bit in the stirrups (I’ve always liked them a bit short), lay down on their necks and just fly.

The mountains were high and snowcapped. The air was angel-pure and burned your lungs with cold. It was, I suppose, about as close to heaven as we mortals get.

And that’s just what it’s like when the writing comes. I lose track of my fingers and what they’re doing. I forget that I’m making a world with pixels on a screen. I just fly.

But first, I have to catch the horse. It will come to me, eventually. And I’ll be able to get the saddle on, usually. But sometimes I can’t and sometimes it won’t come when I call.

It’s like that.

On Being Irrepressible

Photo on 2013-11-18 at 07.54 #2

I’m going to talk about writing. I’m going to say something very profound and important. But first I’m going to talk about my hair.

My hair. Sigh.

Some of you have always known me with straight white-blond hair. The fact is, I thought I’d bleach it white and that made it straight (I also made it break and made my scalp bleed a little, too, but hey, ho). I couldn’t keep doing that (even though I loved how it looked) so I’ve had to go back more to my original colour. And my curls are starting to boing up. Straightening them takes me half the day. Cutting them off seems to be the better option. There’s just no stopping my hair, once it starts.

And, now that I’ve given myself permission to start writing again, there’s no stopping that, either. I’m still waiting for the Editor O’ My Dreams to come back to me. I delivered two new manuscripts to my agent last week (well, one new, one rewritten after her comments) and, over the weekend, I started another, which will be a follow-on to the based-on-a-true-story ms with the Editor O’ My Dreams.

And something else seems to be happening, too. I’ve always read every book I started. All my life. Some, like James Joyce’s Ulysses (which I read far too young) I threatened to leave, but I didn’t. Every crappy romance found on a rainy day at a B&B, every sports biography opened during a sleepless night at a relative’s house, every Rainbow Magic Fairy book my daughter pressed into my unwilling hands – I read them all to the last horrible page.

Now, I’m not. I’m saying to myself, ‘That’s too self-indulgent. I’m not reading any further.’ Snap shut the cover. I’m saying, ‘This is too densely referential and all the research is ruining it for me.’ Regretfully pat and put back into library bag.

I’m not reading anything else that I don’t like. Even if the writer won the Nobel.

The fact is, when I became  a professional writer, I started listening to what people told me about writing. About mine, about other people’s… I rather lost my own sense of taste, my own understanding of what is good and what is not. I’ve got no beef with Louise Rennison – she’s dead funny. But I’ve had the fiction director of my publishing house sit down with me and ask me if I thought I could write more like her.  And felt bad because I didn’t think I could ever say yes.

Well, goodbye to all that. Life is too short to read books you don’t like…and much too short to write them.

I’m afraid my taste in writing, like my hair, is becoming, once again, completely irrepressible. My hair colour might change again. But that won’t.

Afore Ye Go

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At railway stations, there used to be large signs advertising Bells Whisky. ‘Afore Ye Go’ was their slogan – in WWI, they gave away drams of whisky to disembarking troops.

The last time I wrote this blog, I thought I might be about to die. I’m not.

I also wrote about considering giving up writing. I’m not doing that, either.

But to be honest, I’ve considered giving up writing for years now. It’s been a hard time for me. I’ve had some rotten luck with publishers; good editors leaving or being forcibly retired and then me and my books pushed onto editors who didn’t want or like them, a publicity director getting sacked just when one of my books came out – so no review copies sent out – and then being pulled into a meeting for poor sales… I know I shouldn’t moan, but it does get to you, eventually.

I’ve done extraordinary things in order to write. I was engaged to a man who left me because I ‘spent too much time writing’. I used to wake up at four a.m. to write before cycling into Oxford Circus from Stoke Newington and working a ten hour day. I cycled because it was quicker and I could write longer. When we lived with my in-laws and I was trying to rewrite my first novel, I’d get up at five and get a lift with my father-in-law to a condemned house, which had been owned by friends. I had a small paraffin heater, and I’d take a flask of tea. Toilet facilities were a bit grim.

I used to be passionate about my writing. But I’d taken so many punches (at work and in publishing) that all the passion had been punched out of me.  I kept on writing in fits and starts, but I had no confidence, so I had no passion. It certainly didn’t seem more important than, say, the laundry, or a pile of marking. Nobody seemed to value it, so I didn’t either.

When I thought I might be about to die, I really had to ask myself: do you want to keep doing this? If you only have a few years left, do you want to spend any of it alone in a room, typing?

Something extraordinary has happened as a result. I’ve rediscovered my passion. I’m saying, ‘No, I can’t make breakfast, sweetie, I have to write.’ I’m saying, ‘I can’t finish this marking in the time I’ve got because I can’t work ten hours a day unpaid.’ I’m saying, ‘Mummy loves you very much, darling. Now go and do something else for another hour.’

And I’m writing, writing, writing, writing, writing, writing, and writing.

Afore I go.