Climbing the mountain of doom with the crampons of hope

Often I imagine what kind of things I’ll do if I scale the Everest that is a career in writing today. Apart from taking baths in champagne, shooting pheasants (and possibly peasants) on my country estate, etc. One thing I would definitely do would be look back on the progress I’ve made. Less than a year ago, in the first days of January, I took my first big step as a writer – I let someone else read my work. Now that dozens of people have seen it, from closest family to virtual strangers, this doesn’t seem scary any more, but at the time it was a huge hurdle. So that was step one.

Next, I’ve learned a lot about the business of publishing, what agents do and why I need one, how to submit manuscripts, and, I think, have a fairly good picture of what kind of book I need to be writing to get published. I’ve read dozens of books on writing, obsessively ringing bits or tossing them across the room in disgust. I’ve been to talks and seminars, I’ve buttonholed agents for their advice (they are mostly very kind), I’ve even started submitting. Again, this gets much less terrifying when you realise that no, the phone isn’t going to ring with a huge offer within 24 hours of submission. Six months and an offer of 10p plus a chocolate orange is probably more realistic.

Which brings me on to another thing I’ve learned – writing is by no means an alternative career choice. The chances of making money are slim, and certainly not likely to happen overnight. You’d have more luck catching a leprechaun, frankly. So I’ve learned to scale back my expectations and ask myself sternly do I still want to do this if I never make enough money to live off. There’s a long way to go I’m sure –maybe I’m at base camp and soon to be struggling for oxygen – but I’ve learned a lot too. I’ve networked. Perhaps this is the biggest sign of how I’ve grown – a year ago the concept of networking was enough to have me sneaking along the wall to the peanuts, trying to blend in with the paint. What I didn’t realise was how easy it is to ‘network’ when you care deeply about the subject and could talk about it all night if you weren’t afraid the nice agent would soon be pressing a hidden panic button while smiling nervously in a ‘keeping the serial killer talking while we tap their phone’ kind of way.

This week’s progress: one agent met, more tips learned, talk attended, very exciting news about which my pen must be still until next week, got my questions answered for research. Excellent.

Papercuts by lamplight

This post is an attempt to explain to myself more than anyone else why I sat up till 2 am last night when I was already tired.

I’ve always been a sucker for books that draw you in. I remember when I was seven getting in trouble because I just didn’t stop reading when book time had moved on to Maths – Hurrah for the Circus (that Enid Blyton one) was just a bit more interesting that long multiplication, sorry, Miss. In my teens I could have spent every waking hour (and often did) stuck so deep in a book I’d only move to eat (walking to kitchen reading, make tea while reading, risk third-degree burns etc). One of the reasons I like holidays is you can read all day until you fall into a stupor and no one is allowed to judge you (same as drinking, really).

Last week I was up with David Mitchell’s new book, but the sheer length meant I had to eventually put it down and got to sleep. That finished (brilliant), I started reading Sister, this new book that’s been selling thousands and generally making the rest of us wannabees weep into our crumpled manuscripts and cry, ‘It should have been me, damnit!’ (Or maybe that was just me).

So, I didn’t really want to like it, but, sadly, it is very good. It has that ineffable ‘unputdownable’ quality that makes you want to keep reading – no, have to keep reading – long back your bedtime and when you know you’ll be knackered tomorrow and not able to sleep on the train because it’s half-term and someone let the little beasties out of their jail school.

I was trying to analyse what made me so much want to read on, and how I could apply this to my own work. I think it was how she started near the end and moved back, and how she let little titbits of information slip tantalisingly out, introducing lots of potential suspects. Or maybe because you don’t realise what kind of book you’re reading until you’re right in there. I did admire the way too she slipped in quite a few poetic lines without slowing up the narrative. So it wasn’t perfect  – but by that point I didn’t care because it was 2am and I had to know!

There’s an interesting post here http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/may/18/whydobadbookssellbettert about why, when it comes down to it, being unputdownable seems to matter more than anything else. Maybe you won’t win the Booker, but I bet the criticisms aimed at Dan Brown and JK Rowling don’t bother them, since they probably can’t hear inside their gold-plated houses.

I suppose my lesson from this is that it’s possible to write a book that sheds light on the human condition, in which we can recognise the truth of life, while still telling an edge-of-your-seat story. I think I’d prefer that than writing a worthy book that’s so boring and/or repellent I can’t bring myself to finish it (looking at you, Martin Amis).

Take That and Publish

I’ve been editing a lot recently. (The ‘cut 50 words off every page so I don’t have to think about what sections I don’t need’ approach is working really well – down to 100,000. Done!) Usually editing is so painful I want to stick the pen in my only working eye so I don’t have to do it anymore, but it does occasionally throw up some interesting new perspectives on the book. Today I was going over a part of where a character thinks about Robbie Williams. Since a friend pointed out the egregious error where I had the character in 1995 think about Dawson’s Creek (it’s, like, a totally highbrow book) when in fact the show didn’t start until 1998, I thought, hang on, I better check Robbie hadn’t left by that point.

A quick search revealed that surprise, surprise, Robbie left Take That in July 1995. Part of my book is about teenage girls in July 1995. This is where I come up against the limits of internet research. Yes, he left in July, but when in July? A few weeks could make a big difference.  

That’s when I realised a surprising number of things happened in 1995. The book’s set in Ireland, when there were the riots when solider Lee Clegg was freed, the Drumcree standoff, and all kinds of troubles and strife. I was only thirteen myself in 1995, so it’s hard to know exactly when things happened that I think I remember (cf the Dawson’s Creek mistake). I’ve been researching all kinds of details, like the exact date riots took place, or what temperature it got to during the heatwave, or exactly when Oasis released Roll With It (The Britpop chart battle was another 1995 event, although I think I’m actually a little early with it in the book).

I read this article recently criticising writers for making mistakes on flora and fauna. I’m not sure if it was tongue-in-cheek or stick-up-bum, but I don’t think it matters so much if the details aren’t strictly accurate. Reading a novel is like looking through someone else’s eyes for a time, and people don’t experience things in the same way, they don’t always notice or remember things accurately (leave that to Pedants’ Corner).  So I hope I’ll be forgiven if I mistake the date of Robbie’s earth-shattering departure by a few weeks. I have however realised today that Robbie rejoined Take That (Back For Good?) in July 2010. As the other part of the book takes place then, it made me wonder if there is some secret Take That theme going on that I’m completely unaware of…

The millionaires, the thief, the nice man, and his dog

I had an interesting experience last night, when I was attending a fundraising dinner. Despite the fact I was probably one of the least wealthy people in the room, some useless thief decided my bag was indeed the one to steal. I can see how they got confused – tatty clutch bags from BHS probably yield riches, like, all the time. Millionaires, thieves – it was like something from the Pink Panther. So I did the normal things you do when your bag is stolen: sulk, argue with your phone provider, and worry about someone breaking into your house and using your name and taking over your life….you know.

 

The plot thickened today when I got a voicemail at work from ‘the dog handler’ (his superhero nom-de-plume of choice?). This one-man-and-his-dog crime-fighting team (TV show idea?) found items from my bag scattered down the street at 2am, and I’d randomly put some of my work business cards into it. Today ‘the dog handler’ plus dog brought my things round to my office. He told me it was a pity he’d been too late to set the dog on the villain and I had to concur.

The connection to writing here is it got me thinking about ideas and where they come from. In big cities we all live quite separate lives side by side, until incidents like this force us together in unexpected ways. I remember reading a book about writing where the author said that when something annoying or bad happened to her she tried to think how to make it into a story. You could make a good story out of the theft and the fact that some total stranger now has all my pictures and music (sob).

Most of my novel ideas come from dreams I have. It could even just be an image that I’m left with on waking, that somehow grows into a whole story. For my first novel, it was a dream about a young girl lying in bed in a holiday house, with shadows moving over the wall as someone came into the room. For the second it was a dream I had of a woman crying hysterically outside a courtroom because her boyfriend had just been sent to prison. These fragments are now finished novels, hundreds of scribbly, ink-stained pages stuffed into folders here and there. The next book I write is also based on a dream of people walking through an old shut-up house on a hot day. The way it develops is often surprising and I have no idea where the rest of the ideas come from!

My bag and keys have now been restored to me, and maybe I’ll one day write something about the situation – every cloud? But if you see a thief wearing Benefit pink lipgloss and singing along to Girls Aloud on an iPhone, it might be time to call…’the handler’.  

Why exactly pains, trains, and inkstains

I wanted to start this blog to chronicle my attempts to do something stupid, hard, and emotionally ruinous. No, not auditioning for X factor or climbing Mt Everest (except metaphorically). In fact, after something like twenty years of scribbling, I’m trying to become a published writer. And it’s not easy! I hear of nothing but publishing cuts and the impossibility of finding an agent. I hear how even published writers struggle to keep themselves in pens. But despite all this it’s the only thing I really want to do.

 I’ve written two novels to date. One has been longlisted for the Sony Reader award, results in December. I’m looking for an agent – any takers?

Pains – aside from the obvious deep emotional trauma of rejection (think X factor), writing can cause a whole array of physical ailments. I have such bad shoulder pain I scare younger people away from desk jobs. I get serious wrist pain from excessive typing, and after a detached retina a month back, pretty full-on headaches from too much screen-time. Plus those paper-cuts can be hazardous. Boo hoo, right? Maybe I’ll do a misery memoir instead.

Trains – I work in London but don’t live there, so I spend much of my time listening to other people’s tinny music and dodgy TMI phone calls. This is not all bad as I’ve written large parts of both books on my commute. If I do get published I’ll have to say a big thank you to South Eastern Trains for the frequent delays that extend my writing time – couldn’t have done it without you! I’ll do it anywhere though. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a Dr Seuss book – I like to edit on the train/ I like to edit on a plane/ And in the bath, and in my bed/ And when I’m bored, inside my head…

Inkstains – at any given time about 20% of my surface area will be covered in ink. I also spill tea, water, and other staining substances on both my MS and myself (The quest for the perfect pen, with a balance of full lush inkiness, yet quick-drying properties, goes on).

 So stay tuned and I’ll keep you posted on my torturous quest. As the X factor auditionees would say, it’ll most likely be a rollercoaster of emotions and I’ll give it 110% – unless I’m tired, or the train’s late, or I decide to do something easier like tame lions or go base-jumping.

Can you spot the tea stain?