In which I live the dream

It’s been exciting times in the life of this inkstained writer. My nib positively overflows in fact. I can finally announce the publishing deal, news of which I’ve been keeping under wraps for months now. I have a two-book deal with the brilliant Headline – I love their covers and the publicity they do is great. The whole process seems to have taken an interminably long period of time between initial offer, negotiations, deal, contract drafting, negotiations, signing, posting, etc. Apparently this is how it works. But now it’s done! One strange thing is that because it takes much longer than I realised, I didn’t really have what everyone seems to call ‘the phone call’. I had several phone calls and far more emails, in fact. And being a comfortably pessimistic Irish person, I didn’t want to celebrate until I had that contract in my sweaty inkstained grip. I’m much better at worrying than celebrating.

In fact, I got the phone call that said we had a final offer and should accept (from my agent) minutes before I was about to go into my boss and try to negotiate working part-time. I had just been offered a two day a week job with the Crime Writers’ Association (www.thecwa.co.uk ), handling the day-to-day running and helping to develop what is already a long-established and prestigious organisation. Since I hadn’t realised until the publishing deal came that I even wrote crime, and then the job, their first ever paid role, popped up on the website round about the same time, this could be a type of serendipity.

So I have a new job, and this combined with the book deal means I can finally give up my day one. My parents (cautious Irish folk not given to ‘follow your dreams’-type views – if they were the nun in the Sound of Music they would sing ‘first open a pension’ instead of ‘Climb Every Mountain’) were worried and I’m very aware that nowadays, publishing careers are short. But this is what I’ve wanted to do all my life, and it seems to be working so far, so I think it’s right to give it my best shot. Farewell then to the old job. So long, rubbish, delayed, Southeastern trains (will I have to change my blog title?). Thanks for all the writing time, as I spent three hours a day on you. Sayonara, day-long meetings and clip art and discussions about the Christmas do, and all the other accoutrements of office work, my daily life for the past five-plus years. Bonjour, working in pyjamas avec USB-heated mittens and tea on an IV drip. I don’t know yet how I will cope without the office and the long trips up to Kennington (my guess is REALLY WELL), but we’ll see.

So that’s it. Thursday will be my first day as a working writer. I now have three weeks to edit a 100,000 word book. Inkstains will indeed be all over the show.

The truth about getting a publishing deal (you heard it here first)

It can still happen – Just over a year ago (January 2010) I still had not shown my work to a single other person for nearly twenty years, and I had only been writing seriously for a year or so before that. If this is really what you want, and you’re prepared to slog it out, don’t give up. It almost breaks my heart when I hear stories about people who have given up on their writing.

It takes ages to sort out – my agent keeps gently explaining this is how things work. Luckily being a writer makes you a really good player of the writing game. I once waited six months to hear from an agent, only to get a ‘no’. Just because it takes a while doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

You CAN get enough to live off – it still happens, no matter what you hear. It depends of course on how much you need (Primark or Prada?) and an understanding/ solvent spouse probably helps too. But it is possible.

You will be told how great your book is…then presented with a list of what’s wrong. Of course I knew in practice this would happen, and I think I’ve coped quite well, but it is still a shock to see a big list of all the ridiculous errors and typos you made. Aargh! Did I really write something happened ‘six weeks’ before when in fact it was months? Idiot.

Everyone will be happy for you –although I know a fair few writers, I haven’t yet had anyone try to beat me to death with their unpublished manuscripts, or shun me in the pub. Maybe they hate me inside, and I can totally understand that feeling as I’ve had it for years, obsessing over Bookseller deals and grumbling at other people’s vast advances, but they haven’t shown it yet. So thanks. Writers are the kindest and most helpful people I know. FACT.

Fictional books I’d love to read (but never will)

Well, I’ve moved, but I still have no internet (why is it not seen as an essential service like water? I need it much more than TV, for example. One day, soon…) so my blogging ramblings will continue sporadic and whimsical. After I wrote last time about Clary from the Cazalet series, I started thinking how much I love books about writers. I’ve heard a few people say, rather snottily, that writers shouldn’t write about other writers. That’s one of those so-called rules of writing, up there with ‘no present tense’, ‘no prologues’, and ‘no waking-up first scenes’. These rules really irritate me. We can all think of examples where books break them and are still brilliant. The bottom line is, you can do anything in fiction, so long as it is good. And I’ve personally always enjoyed reading good books about writers.

But when I sat down to list some of my favourites fictional writers (not writers of fiction, although Google doesn’t understand that distinction it seems), I found myself a bit stumped. The list I did come up with is also rather heavily weighted to children’s fiction – are children’s writers less afraid of the ‘don’t write about writers’ rule? (I mean, who’s the boss of these, really?) I hope future writers don’t get hung up on this stupid rule. I’m sure it was these characters who first introduced me to the idea of actually putting one word after another.  

My favourite fictional books and writers (aside from the afore-mentioned Clary Cazalet):

Ruth Cole in John Irving’s A Widow for One Year. I love the idea that everyone in this book is a writer one way or another, and the insight into the creative process as Ruth researches a book in Amsterdam (which goes very awry). John Irving is clearly not afraid to break the rules, as Garp in The World According to Garp is a writer too, and I would also love to read some of his fictional works (Garp, that is).

Paul Sheldon in Stephen King’s Misery. When you read this book as an aspiring writer, it’s likely you’re thinking ‘Wow, I’d love to be that famous’. But Paul’s greatest fan exacts her dues in some rather horrific ways. Stephen King is another who has written about writers in several books – Bill in It, Jack in The Shining (a failed writer), Mike in Bag of Bones….and they are all brilliant. In Misery we’re treated to parts of Paul’s series about the character ‘Misery,’ who he longs to kill off, a book that his mad captor burns, and the one he writes when he escapes – Fast Cars. The fact I can still remember the name shows me how much I learned from this book about the creative process.

Jo March in Little Women – Jo isn’t the only writer to have made up plays and forced her family and friends to appear in them, of course. I loved reading about someone who did the same mad things as me, like write thinly-veiled homages to whatever you were reading at the time. Although it is sort of annoying how starry-eyed she is when the Professor disses her work in the next book (I’d never have married him after that).

Emily Starr in Emily of New Moon, by L M Montgomery – In some ways I preferred this series to the more-famous Anne books. Emily was sort of irritating– everyone was in love with her, she was partially psychic, and a brilliant writer to boot – but I loved the interaction between her and her curmudgeonly schoolmaster, who read her first poetic attempts and then said she had only 50 good lines in all her work. When Emily cried, he said that 50 good lines at her age was pretty good. We all need a firm and wise editor!  Emily’s first book was called A Seller of Dreams and the next something like Meet the Applegates? Her family used to make amusing comments like, ‘I hate your heroine, I can’t women with green eyes’ etc. Good times.

Master of Murder – this was a Point Horror book by Christopher Pike about a teenager who had a secret identify as a massively bestselling author everyone was reading. Well, I was totally sold on the idea of this. I still am, to be honest…One day.

Laura Shane in Dean Koontz’s Lightning – I’m thinking of this as a children’s book but obviously it’s not. I just had an understanding mother who let me read whatever I liked (but not watch anything risqué on telly). I’m not a big horror fan but it’s a great story, and I loved the bit where Laura’s first book was auctioned off for millions and squillions (we can dream…) It also has a timeslip theme and Laura had written different books in each reality. Well worth a read.

I can’t think of any more, but these fictional writers and their fictional books have inspired me from I first began reading, given me the first spark of an idea that maybe I could do it, too. Perhaps one day I’ll write one of my own, ignoring the rules!

PS Just remember another – the hilarious Adrian Mole, with his opuses Longing for Wolverhampton and Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland. Speaking for every angsty teen who ever put pen to paper in a depressed regional town.

Writing away

Ever since I read the amazing Cazalet series by Elizabeth Jane Howard, and discovered the fabulous character Clary, I’ve been attracted by the idea of going away to write. In the final novel, Casting Off, Clary, the clumsy and endearingly inkstained writer, sequesters herself in a cottage to finish her first novel The Visiting Moon (what a great title, hm? Definitely one for my list of ‘fictional books I’d love to read’). With no company and not even electricity, she finishes the book in a blaze of triumph. Whereas I have electricity, internet, and many other sources of distraction. Does it matter? How much peace do you need to write?

It’s on my mind now because, despite what I said, I didn’t write at all for three days over the weekend. I was moving house and somehow just couldn’t find the energy. Even now it’s done I feel like a cat that has to turn round three times before I can settle. I need to walk through the house over and over and pick things up, work out where everything is until I don’t need to think about where to find my toothbrush/wireless mouse/small but apparently vital bit that makes the table stand up (I hate moving).

I’ve been writing for more than two years now on the train, often hemmed in on both sides by bad-breathed commuters, other people’s loud dull conversations about children’s ski gear, tinny sounds of iPods, children crying. For some reason I find it works perfectly. I’ve powered through a torrent of words in this time. Something about the level of background noise and the forward movement is the perfect combination to distract my attention, while the rest of my brain gets on with writing.

Natalie Goldberg, in her brilliant book Writing Down the Bones, recognises this phenomenon. She suggests scribbling away in cafes or even laundrettes to keep the ‘monkey mind’ occupied while you work. I’ve done both café and laundrette-writing, mainly while living abroad, and can advocate the idea. Also on buses (too bumpy), planes (fine but the whooshing noise somehow makes me want to sleep), and even on boats (even better than trains, if anything). While I do find it hard to write new work with the TV or music on, I think if I was immured in total silence I would find myself running for the nearest village shop as fast as I could. My ideal trip would probably be to circumnavigate the globe on trains and boats, scribbling away and sometimes surfacing to speak to human beings. Sort of Eighty Thousands Words Around the World. I suspect though that while going away to write still has an irresistible appeal, most of us could do it anywhere if we’d only get on with it and stop prevaricating. So that’s enough unpacking/DIY/discussions about toilet-roll holders for me, time to work!