Sunday, 29 April 2012

Grace Kelly

Occasionally, caught in the slipstream of social media, our own voices can be drowned out by the baying of a crowd that yells, "Like me, follow me, review me, add me, and friend me." And 'friend', last time I checked, isn't even a verb. How close a relationship can it be when someone wants me to 'noun' them?

I try really hard to accommodate my fellow writers. Honestly. I know that, whether in the short term or long term, a raised profile means more book sales, which in turn means more likelihood of another book becoming economically viable. Plus, as I have a foot in both Musa Publishing and A Word with You Press (not the same foot, silly), I recognise the importance of standing shoulder-to-shoulder and backing those who have backed you.

I know all of that, but sometimes - just sometimes - I would love to see Twitter (my favourite playpen) have a non-promo day. Just a blissful 24 hours of opinion and stupid jokes - even if they're not mine. Of course, I might feel differently if I had a clutch of my own books to sell right now, but in a way...and I'll whisper this next part...I'm pleased that I don't.

Right now, I can reintroduce myself to the business of writing, taking those scrappy notes from my writing pad and seeing whether they merit further attention. In short, I can be a writer for a time.

And the photo? I know you're dying to ask. It's connected with Scars and Stripes, my recently edited comedy drama, about a semi-fictional year spent living the American Dream. For a whole bunch of reasons, some of them related to Richard Bach and his books, Oregon was my Sarras island. Naturally, reaching there changed little for me, but it was the culmination of an inner and outer journey. Sounds hippyish, I know, but it was a long time ago - before I found my inner cynic.

And Grace Kelly? Surely it's obvious!

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Making of Her



It's a rare thing indeed to witness the journey of a writer, from a newbie finding their feet to a fully fledged author in the eyes of the world. I met Susie at a Novel Writing Summer School in Falmouth, back in 2006. We worked together in a few exercises, under the guiding hand of tutor Jane Pollard. Over the course of a week we all whipped our ideas into some sort of shape and experienced the familiar flow of elation and deflation that happens when a course of this kind...well, runs its course...and ends.

I can't remember who suggested it (probably Susie), but not long afterwards a few of us decided to meet up at regular intervals - every two or three months - to give a shape to the solitary business of writing and of editing (a joy we had yet to encounter). As our respective novels developed we offered support, commiseration, objective feedback and a sense of shared experience, as we moved forward from the exaltation of the completed first draft to the trench warfare that is editing.

It's a particular pleasure to see a friend achieve one of their goals. Friday, April 27th, The Making of Her is published. Here's to you Susie, you've climbed the peak and can now take a breather!  

Naturally, I couldn't resist the opportunity to put her on the spot and find out what the view is like from there, whether her feet have blisters, and her highs and lows of the journey so far.

But first, here's a summary of The Making of Her, in Susie's own words:

Set in the pressure-cooker world of television, The Making of Her is a blackly funny retort to a society which values youth over age and appearance over experience. 
     The Making of Her is the makeover programme that Clara never wanted to produce, featuring the one person she never would have chosen.  Add to the mix an errant husband, a barefoot counsellor and a reclusive rock star, and change is inevitable.  But does transformation come from the inside out, or from the outside in? 
     And will The Making of Her prove to be the making of them all?

(Cue sound of spotlight being clicked on...)

 
1. What, if anything, has changed in your writing from the way you wrote at the summer school to the published version?

I think the main difference is that I’ve learned not to be afraid of discarding and rewriting.  I was terribly precious about writing before I began this novel (and throughout much of the writing of it).  It was very late on before I dared to really make the necessary changes - dared to ‘let go’.  I have also learned to lighten up – the original version was called ‘The Change’ (I know, I know) and full of gloom, doom and menopausal mentions. 
   
 2. What are your views on opportunities that are specifically for women, such as Mslexia, The Orange Fiction prize and Linen Press Publishing?  Are they a niche, a response to an industry deficiency or purely a matter of choice for the organisations involved?

I’d say, a matter of choice for the organisations involved.  I guess you could also see them in terms of a ‘brand’, which sits easier with me.  Linen Press is a publishing house which brands itself as ‘great writing for women - by women.  This allows our readership – mainly women – to find and recognise us, just as The Women’s Press or Virago did before us.

 3. What inspired / drove you to write about the themes in your book?

I’ve always been fascinated by transformation since devouring C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories as a child, together with The Brothers Grimm.  Fairy tales always feature an element of transformation – Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid – and it seems as if this longing for personal transformation has developed, over the centuries, through various incarnations – alchemy, psychoanalysis, personal development and finally, in today’s youth-obsessed culture, cosmetic surgery.  It could be argued that changing your outer appearance is more a matter of changing gold into lead – but I was interested as to whether changing the outside could actually bring about inner transformation.  In The Making of Her, one woman opts for surgery whilst the other enters therapy.  And both are transformed, in very different ways. 

 4. Do you see yourself differently, as a writer, now that you have made the journey from first draft to book launch date? And how might this influence your future writing?

I feel validated, after years of rejection.  Not particularly estimable, but when people ask what I do, it’s a great relief to be able to answer that I’m a writer, without dreading the inevitable next question:  So do you have a book published?

But my confidence as a writer has both grown and diminished – because I have no idea whether the next one will be publishable, or even writeable.  And because I’ve opened the Pandora’s Box of publishing, I can never again approach my writing in the same innocent and exuberant way that I did.  Although - as in the story of Pandora’s Box - in spite of all the terrors, Hope endures.

 
5. Was it difficult to say goodbye to your characters?

Yes and no.  No, because they each found resolution and redemption, so their stories – at least for now – are complete.  Yes, because I grew very, very attached to them.

 
6. What would you have liked to have been asked?

How did you come to be published by Linen Press?  And my answer - apart from writing the novel - would be: because Derek not only sent me Linen Press’s details, but reminded me – as I despaired after a hard rejection from an agent – that everything turns on a sixpence.  The day after Linen Press replied, a real sixpence arrived in the post from Derek.*

 
7. What would you have not liked to have been asked?

How many hours a day do you spend writing?  The reluctant answer would be – none.  My hours are spent marketing and tweeting.  This must change soon!

The Making of Her is available from Linen Press - www.linenpressbooks.com
An ebook version will be available in due course.

Susie Nott-Bower, who neglected to mention that she's a BAFTA winner, is available for talks in the Bristol area. She is currently working on a new novel called Reborn, which is about painting, magic and rebirth.

* Sometimes we're metaphorical signposts for one another, whispers of possibilities unseen but almost within reach. Other times, if we're really lucky, we can be the actual link in the chain for someone else to reach their dream.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

You have to laugh



The interesting thing about comedy writing is that what's funny to one person can be entirely unfunny to the person sitting next to them. And although you can dissect it until you're blue in the face, there are ultimately only two kinds of humour:
Funny humour and unfunny humour.

Something works or it doesn't work, and all the tea in China doesn't change that to any great degree. Although my eternal banner cry of 'Content and Context' often sheds an illuminating light on material.

Running a comedy writing workshop, like the Moon Hut one I delivered in Falmouth yesterday, reminded me again why I enjoy the company of other writers. We're like magpies, picking up snippets of life experience, ideas and associations, and then assembling them together in our creative nests. (Too many bird analogies? Fine. I'll stop here.) Writers speak different dialects of a common language, seeking to create, interpret and reinterpret the worlds (inner and outer) that we inhabit. Humour - and in this case, the art of joke writing - offers a range of models and techniques for squidging those ideas together in a variety of shapes.

Over the course of the day, we looked at what jokes are for, where material comes from, old jokes, corny jokes (I hold my hand up), offensive jokes, easier routes to jokes, topical jokes, cartoon jokes and, here and there, how that same toolbox relates to writing fiction. 

The same objectives are there, whatever it's writing humour or dramatic fiction:
- To keep the reader hooked until you're ready to deliver your own punchline.
- To entertain, challenge and enlighten.
- To take the reader or audience on a seamless journey where you, the writer / performer, are always at the helm. Even when, and perhaps especially when, it doesn't seem that there's anyone at the wheel. 

So my thanks to all the Moon Hut event participants who tuned up yesterday. You helped me appreciate what I do in a fresh light, gave me a glimpse into other people's creative processes, and let me take you on a little journey of my own. And it was funny too!

Friday, 20 April 2012

As in Bodge*


Whatever else it is, writing can also be an outlet for the frustrations and confusion of daily life. Writers can create take those uncontrollable influences and experiences and then reshape them into situations, characters and plots where the world makes a little more sense (but doesn't have to be predictable, of course). Or we can just tell it as it is.


With that in mind, here is a stranger-than-fiction tale of a recent foray back into project management.

Now, before we start, I'd like to do two things:
1. Check if you're sitting comfortably (come back Listen with Mother, all is forgiven).
2. Give you a little background.


Freelance writing can be a fascinating and lucrative way to earn a living. It can also, in common with other forms of self-employment, be a case of feast and famine. So it pays to have a Plan B. Back in the corporate jungle, I became an accredited project manager, so I continue to look out for proj man temporary roles, among other work. Got that? Okay then let's move on.

Once upon a time...the telephone rang and it was a temp agency I'd registered with. And a good one too (and that's not just in case they read this).
"It's good news," they said. (See, I told you they were good.) "There's a project management job doing the rounds - full-time and a three-month contract."
"Hmm..." says I, checking the bank balance (which we also call 'The Pallor of Money'), and lacing my fingers together like a Bond villain. "Tell me more..."

And so they did, about a golden role that centred on Compliance and Project Management - in times past, two of my favourite subjects. Indeed, it was me who once coined the phrase about some of my product manager colleagues: Never Knowingly Compliant.

Anyway, the fairy jobparents sent me a job spec and, despite some hesitation on my part, due to the specificity of the role, I agreed to them sending in an application. Weeks passed before the fairy jobparents returned, with great news and gladness. I would be receiving a telephone interview.
'Crikey,' thought I, 'I'd better do some serious prep on this one.' And before you could say two hours I'd learned about compliance all over again, plus codes of conduct, government contracts and all manner of wondrous things.


The next day...
09.30 Interview time. I sat by the phone, flexing my fingers. By 10.00 my fingers ached. No call. No show. No clue. I rang the agency, and they had no clue either. They did explain that the job dude was given my details days before. Oh well, these things happen (to me). I asked them to reschedule it for the following day, and went about my business.
15.30 Same day. My other business concluded, I got back to the house and picked up a phone message. Interview dude said he never got my details until after the call time and that he'd try to ring me later. I left him a message, confirming my understanding of the new day and time, along with my number (even though, obviously, he'd already rung it to leave me a message - but one can never be too careful).

Day 2 (feel free to imagine a Big Brother style voiceover from here on in)...
09.30 Those fingers were flexing again. Right up until 10.00. No call. No show. Even less of a clue. I emailed the agency, who reminded me that they themselves were dealing with an agency, and they said they'd investigate.
10.15 Phone call. Brilliant. But it's not the interviewer. Not so brilliant. It's my agency. Interview dude apparently rang the wrong candidate - similar surname, although a completely different number - and interviewed my semi-namesake instead. My call would now be at 11.30.
11.30 Ta da! The interviewer called, and the first thing he asked was how much I knew about the role. I told him that I've read the job spec in detail and spoke a little about compliance and government contracts and so forth.

There followed an awkward silence. "That's not the job," he said, a little wearily I thought.

I hastily scrubbed out the half dozen or so pertinent questions that I'd put together and changed tack, asking him what the job was about. Both being professionals, we quickly got back on track with the job requirements, the high-level project objectives and the key skills and experience ncessary to fufil the role. The call ended after 30 minutes, with all the bases covered.

It's been just over a week now, and it's all gone very quiet indeed.

Worst case scenario - it's a blog post...

*Proj as in Bodge

Update: The job was cancelled. Another red letter day for project management.

Monday, 16 April 2012

The Name Game


There's a definite art to naming your book. Or perhaps that's an indefinite one. On the face of it, it's the headline for the story - pure and simple. A title can create reader expectations about the setting - 1984, Animal Farm or even Great Expectations itself. Or, perhaps, act as a teaser - Tell No One. What has always surprised me is the confidence and the artistry with which some authors (or their publishers!) name their work.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is one example, I think, of a title that can only have come from an established writer. It's confident, bold and stands apart.

I've written four novels now and the way I arrived at the title has been different each time.

In the beginning, Covenant started life as The Promise of a Rainbow. Fine for a tinkly fantasy, but it seemed mismatched with its central themes of reincarnation, death, retribution and inner worldly mysticism. The original title came from a 'message' I was given once, and the replacement title was suggested by a friendly editor (not friendly enough to take it on, mind), as two of my original chapter headings included the word Covenant.

Next in line was a novel born at a novel writing summer school, Standpoint. I hacked and hacked at this one, keen for the title to have a clear association with both the protagonist's surveillance photography and the story of him making a stand against injustice. It's still not too late for Thomas Bladen Ho Ho Ho, though.

Third in line is Line of Sight, sequel to Standpoint. Again, there's a clear association with the plot and the central character's ability (or inability) to understand the subtleties of what's going on around him.

Lastly, for now anyway, there's Scars & Stripes, my wunderkind. A no-brainer really. The comedy drama novel is set mainly in the US and tells the tale of Alex 's efforts, following the end of his relationship, to live out the American Dream.

Here are some titles by friends of mine:
The Making of Her by Susie Nott-Bower
The Reluctant Detective by Sinclair Macleod
The Geneva Connection by Martin Bodenham

So, dear reader, what are the best, worst and most intriguing book titles you've ever encountered?


Thursday, 12 April 2012

Stand by your plan


So, in one of my replies to a comment last time (You mean you don't read those?), I mentioned turning some opportunities down. Naturally, someone has asked me to explain and I never like to disappoint an audience on a Thursday.

Here's the thing though, and by all means sing it along with me. Ready? Writing is a business.

And the best way to stay in business - apart from oodles of money and your own subscription-based content mill - is by knowing what sort of writer you are. We're not talking moral judgements here, just business ones. For example, I don't right romance novels because it's not a genre I generally read. (Does Jude the Obscure count? And if that was my template for romance, at least that explains my adolescence.)

So, over the past mmgngghhbmrr weeks - that's my interpretation of mumbling, don't you know - I have politely declined the following:

1. A contract for my novel, Covenant.
For anyone who has read the book or listened to me going on about the different versions and the treacherous journey it has taken (deceased editor, bankrupt publisher, 1.25 years for a response), you may well be gnashing your teeth right now. Hear me out. It was an independent publisher, with strong experience in esoteric books and a tiered contract approach. However, due to a number of factors (size of the book, the fact that it's esoteric fiction and my limited profile / media contacts), they could only offer me a deal which required some financial investment on my part. Now, before you start booing and chucking stale bread rolls (take it from me, those things sting), I don't hold it against them. Not at all. It was a business decision. By way of balance, here are some of their feedback comments, which I hope to use in the future:

An excellent read; an exciting story, well paced and really well written. Strong, three dimensional characters and good dialogue. Starts well, straight into the action and hooks the reader immediately. Lots of action, conflict and a love interest. The characters are well drawn and I was immediately interested in the female character even at the first brief glimpse.

2. Copy writing
The job involved writing articles and reviews. The pay rate was excellent and the client was British, saving on Paypal fees. So far so great. The editor's response was quick too, which is always a plus. There was a short test, which involved joining a couple of sites to fully navigate them for review, but I was welcome to use fake details...

Now, the first 'dating' site was a but of a clue and the second 'happy cheaters' (my term) dating site was a clue the size of a billboard. And, for the record, I'd like to think, if I'd ever chosen to use a dating site, that I would have attached a picture of my face, but that's just me. Anyway, before you can whisper uh-oh, I dropped a line to the editor to say no thank you, not for me. Three minutes later, a short email whizzed back. It simply said: It's £50 for a paragraph.

I'm not a prude. My comedy material is testament to that. I just know, subject to prevailing weather conditions, the directions I want my business to go.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Achievement without tears

It's always a very strange time when you finish writing a novel. There's a mixed bag of emotions - part of you is sad to see the end of the adventure, part of you is still focused on whether you did the story and characters justice, and part of you is just plum tuckered out and glad to be at the finishing line (for now).

In my case, all the above is due to completing the edit of Scars & Stripes, my fourth novel. I know what you're thinking, and it's either 'Well done you, how productive!' or 'Jeez, four books written and none of them published yet - can't you take a hint?'. We'll come to that in a minute.

An excerpt from S&S was entered in the Good Housekeeping novel competition, so that novel can now be put to rest until the end of May. And, given my ability to miss my own typos, the rest will do us both good. Meantime, a couple of trusty friends will probably be reading the new version through. Plus, unusually for a novel, I'm waiting for clearance from someone who, along with a specific life experience, appears in the book.

So there's a lull in the proceedings now, where I can turn my attention to other writing. And a vantage point where I can catch my breath, glance back over the journey covered and think about where to head next. Which brings me back to success.

Most of the time, we define success by an external standard or recognition. But is that always a meaningful yardstick? Take a glance at any popular book online, where there are reader reviews, and you'll find people polarised in their support or criticism. In fact, the more successful the book is in terms of its profile and sales, the greater the disappointment appears to be for those who hated it. Numbers do not always equate to quality.

Surely then, you might say, publication itself is success, since no publisher would spend money on a book if they did not think it had artistic merit and commercial potential? That's certainly true, if the former goes hand in hand with the latter; businesses are, quite rightly, in the business of doing business. But, just as we're not all going to the prom, we're not all going to be conventionally published. Don't blame negativity here - it's maths, pure and simple. And I'm not knocking self-publication, having self-pubbed The Showreel Sketchbook myself.

I think what's missing is a personal measure of success; one that doesn't need to stand up to the world's scrutiny. Because if copy writing has taught me anything, it's that information can be presented in a variety of ways to support a variety of conclusions.

Your success might be defined by:
- Having an agent.
- Having a publisher.
- Having a book in print or an ebook, with its own ISBN.
- Sales figures and royalties.
- Reader feedback.
- Prizes and awards.
- The respect of your peers.
- Being asked to speak at arts events.
- A hugely popular blog.
- The quality of your writing.
- Your ability to develop as a writer.
- Your willingness to sit down and write, irrespective of most of the above.

So, should you find yourself in a roomful of strangers, and someone asks what you do or what your passions are, don't flinch. When you've said, "I'm a writer," and the next comment back asks what you've had published, don't falter. If their only interest is in ISBNs and publishing credentials (in which case you can be sure that your earnings will also be somewhere on their list), they're not interested in your writing. Test it out. Tell them about your plot, subplots and character arcs - see if their eyes glaze over!

Don't let your passion for your craft be dependent on other people's approval. Remember, writers write; and if you're writing for public acclaim, they can also take that away from you.

In the words of George Edward Woodberry:
Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Be Still - found in a notebook


'Be still and know that I am God.'

How many times had Carrie heard pastor Gellard say that in class? Yeah, she knew God - saw him winking at her between the lines of her Student Bible. But did he know her? Did his all-seeing eye witness the pile of dishes left by her mum and friends, along with the beer cans and pizza boxes left out on the counter? And hey, if he did know then why didn't he do something about it, huh? If she could see that mum needed taking care of, how could he be so blinkered? She thought about it all. Yeah, a blinkered God - that about summed it up.

Pastor Gellard looked up, made momentary eye contact and then continued speaking. Sometimes, Carrie wondered if the class were just for the Pastor's benefit. I mean, it wasn't as if she learned anything, not really. That same droning voice, week after week. I mean, come on, it wasn't exactly jubilation at the word of the Lord. She tilted her head forward to stifle a chuckle. Where was the joy?

The droning had stopped, or at least it had changed pitch a little. Now he was talking about Outreach. Hell, that wasn't even a proper word. Hell. She took a breath. Pastor Gellard had a fondness for hell - talking about it, that was.

"So, the Outreach Programme is looking for volunteers. You'll get extra school credits and it would mean being away from home for one week's initial training. If anyone is interested, please let me know."

Carrie's hand shot up, as if she were signalling to God. 'Look, here I am. I've been still, and I know you. I'm showing you, right now, where I am, so you can get to know me.'

Monday, 2 April 2012

Adrift - found in a notebook

"You'll love it," she said. "It's where you find your soul."

Find the bottom of my stomach, more like. "But what about the snow? Surely a boat can't sail..." I realised I was sounding like an idiot halfway through my plea bargain.

She smiled. The sea won't freeze, and anyway, it's going to rain later - it'll wash away your sins!

I put the phone down, stepped over a pile of unfinished work - the curse of the time-afflicted picture framer - and fetched out my coat from the closet.

Fifteen minites later, the car beeped outside. My stomach leapt. It was getting in practice for a command performance. The car was my gallows walk. When we arrived, I nearly kissed the snow-cpvered ground as I hear the words: dry dock.

When I'd finished dancing my jig - on the inside - I heard her voice waxing lyrical about the majesty of the sea and the power of the waves. Me, I gazed around silently, curious about her hidden world, but happy to remain at the edge of it. There were other sailors there, or boat people - whatever they called themselves; and a couple from France, judging by the accent. But Frankie, when I saw her hand touch the side of The Aspiration, her face lit up and I knew I'd seen a hidden side of her as well. Internet dating had been the starting point, but now it was something other. We lived in the same locale, yet never met except when she called me. That was the arrangement and it suited us both, for a time. It suited me no longer. The more I pushed, the more she retreated, and the more curious I became. I began to construct elaborate fantasies about her; I even wondered if Frankie was her real name or if the boat were hers at all. Or if I were hers at all...