In Between Tangoes

Photo on 2014-03-27 at 15.01

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.

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

Image

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.

So Little Time

Image

I’m sorry not to write lately. I haven’t wanted to write much of anything. 

I’ve evidently got a heart condition – who knew? I’ve felt breathless most of my life, but I’ve been a bit extra breathless lately. Then I phoned my doctor to say I had some chest pain and the next thing I knew I was in the back of an ambulance. I have angina…and on Monday I’ll find out if it’s take-a-few-tablets angina or open-heart-surgery angina or something in between. They told me the finding out procedure kills one in 1000 people who have it. It starts heart attacks in 20 more. And in some, it causes strokes. 

I’m waiting for this procedure. I’m also waiting to find out if Editor O’ My Dreams likes my latest manuscript. 

I hate waiting.  I’ve already died once, in a car accident when I was fourteen. I constantly feel time ticking away. And Monday seems to be rushing towards me. 

So I started wondering – do I really want to spend the time in between writing?

And then I wondered: Do I really want to spend the rest of my life writing at all? My writing life isolates me. To fund it, I work in a stressful environment (doing what I love, teaching other writers, but in the increasingly competitive academy). To really succeed at the combination of them both, it’s not enough to write well enough to be published. I must try and write world-class, award-winning fiction. The whole thing really is quite stressful – I haven’t had that big break-through book and might never have it. It means my place in the academy and in publishing is always uncertain. The whole thing can’t be good for me or my heart. 

After all, I don’t just live for me – I have an eleven-year old child and a husband and an elderly mother. It might be actually selfish to keep writing. 

Since I had time to think, I’ve thought. I’ve thought about the great relief it would be just to live – to go to work and come home and make dinner. To see my friends lots and keep my house nice and have parties…to GO to parties. And then I thought the parties I really want to go to are usually other writers’ book launches. And that I’ll still be reading. And that I doubt very much if I could actually stop writing altogether. 

Then I went to breakfast with a friend who talked about one of my books with such fondness that it made me cry. And I read a few fan letters. And I read this article from Science. And I thought some more, about why I really write and how if it helps just one person, just a little bit, it will all have been worth it.

My life will all have been worth it. 

So I started writing again. 

 

 

Don’t Listen To Anybody – For David and Susan

Photo on 2013-09-20 at 15.28

 

Writers make millions of decisions. Some are easy…should I use double quotation marks or single?… but some are tough. One of the toughest is about listening to advice.

Advice on the single or double quotation mark question might be very useful, especially if your publisher has a house style. Advice on whether or not anyone is picking up on a subtle plot hint is useful, too.  And if everyone who sees your book hates the main character or the narrative voice or the way you’ve used third person, it’s time to rethink.

But when someone tells you what to write or what not to write, you really shouldn’t listen.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, ‘Oh, don’t write X. Nobody wants to read X anymore,’ to an emerging writer. Sometimes it’s an agent or a publisher, who really believes that the X form is dead. Sometimes it’s a next door neighbour, who heard someone say it on Radio Four. Sometimes it’s someone who couldn’t sell their own X project.

It doesn’t matter. What’s nearly guaranteed is that sometime in the next five years, someone will have a big hit with X. And if that poor writer actually listened, they’ll be gnashing their teeth in the wilderness, looking at their abandoned manuscript and moaning that it could have been them.

We have to write what’s in our hearts and write it the best we can. The next big thing might be X or Y or even Z. Nobody really knows.

But we do know it will be really good. It will have meant everything to the person who wrote it. He or she will have been unable to stop themselves from telling that particular story. And it’s absolutely certain that someone, sometime, somewhere, will have told the next big writer not to bother, that nobody wanted that kind of book, that they should write something else.

But they won’t have listened.

Money, Money, Money

Photo on 2013-08-22 at 09.46

 

 

Most writers can’t just write. The last number I saw was 43…that’s the estimate of how many writers can make a living from just writing fiction. ‘A living’ is a semi-detached house with three bedrooms, two cars and school fees for two children, plus one foreign holiday a year.  ‘Ha!’ we say, and ‘ha!’ again.

Most of the writers I know do something else, too. Lots of us do more than one something else. We might teach in universities or colleges, go into schools for day or week-long workshops, go into residencies, write journalism, give public workshops, review or do public speaking. Many of us do combinations of several of these.

It gets complicated. In any one week, I might be doing two or three of those things AND writing. And then, I have to remember to claim the money I’m owed for the first one while doing the other one or two. Sometimes, I forget. For weeks, even months.

Then there’s the nature of fiction publishing in general. You get a whack of money (and smaller and smaller whacks, these days) up front and then nothing for quite a long time.

It makes for a very confusing and irregular income. You often ‘lose’ money as an author, after expenses, for years. That means you rather forget about your tax bill when a good year comes along and then, boom! That’s how I ended up driving such a horrible little car. I had to sell mine to pay my tax bill…

If you are a very organised person with good budgeting skills, you can do quite well from your fiction. You can do three or four events a week, booked well in advance, do some teaching where you carefully monitor hours given and hours paid, save for your taxes and invest your advances and end up coining the stuff.

But if you are a very organised kind of person, you probably won’ t be a writer.

So you’ll be like me, at the end of a carefully budgeted summer, having forgotten to claim the income I was going to buy food with in September.

Beans on toast, anyone?