Next Step

The manuscript took another step towards independence today. As a (mostly) law-abiding person whose only run-in with the law came when I knocked a policeman off his motor bike, (another story, another day) I needed someone with insider police-type information to check my facts, procedure and believability. I’m a writer, if in doubt, I just make it up. But I’m not confident enough to send it out into the world if it makes me look like an idiot.

So today I met Andrew in the new Costa in Lyme Regis (sorry boycotting locals, but it was his suggestion, not mine!) We ordered bowls of coffee and got to know each other before launching into the story. It was a pleasant hour in which we sorted out politics (small p), moral stance, shared history, and talked about the book.

It was hard sharing my story with a complete stranger for the first time. The only other people who have read the mss so far are friends, and we all know that objectivity is hard when they’re feeling proud that you finished it at all. (Proud, amazed, shocked, a tad jealous)

I liked the fact that Andrew hates watching crime series on TV as he says he always spots whodunnit and gets unreasonably annoyed when they make obvious mistakes… my baby is on the hands of a natural born critic, and although we hit it off, I hope he’ll be honest, and kind, and enjoy it.

Everything was good until I set off to drive home and felt an odd wrench. It’s much easier to be an unpublished author with the whole exciting world ahead. It’s a different matter to get your work ready for people to read, and then to put it out there for the criticism that will come…


The Walk Has It

I twisted my knee walking next door’s dog last week. My welly got stuck in the mud; she carried on walking, my knee didn’t. So I’ve been bandaged up and walking gingerly for the past few days.

Which led me to looking at the way people walk and what it tells the writer about them. I am a fit, active person, yet one minor accident had me walking like an old lady. Small, tentative steps. Embarrassing wobbles when the knee gave way. Winces when I twisted it, the pain showing in gritted teeth and tight frowns. The key for me was the care I took to avoid anything which might cause me to swerve or stop suddenly.

Young people, fit people, walk carelessly. There may be a swagger or a slouch or a quick nimbleness to their movements but they don’t think about getting around- they just do it. Some people walk on the balls of their feet, bouncing along. These days many people use their phones as they walk, only the push and sway of the walking mob keeping them from accident. Others trudge with their heads down and shoulders slumped, but what I saw was that we reveal our attitudes and our fears through our walk. Useful? Oh, yes.

So I had a think about the protagonist in a short story I have just started. She’s heavily pregnant at twenty and finding life difficult. I sat in the window of a coffee shop in Taunton for an hour and watched pregnant people (and other people too). The slightly backwards leaning gait, legs apart (to provide balance?), the stroking , clutching and patting of the belly; the pushing back of the hair and fanning of the too hot face; the slowness of the walk so at odds with the youth and beauty in the face. Yes – the hope and fear is clearly written when we think we are not being observed. I think I can write her now.

Making a Bowl – a writer’s guide to craft

Most writers, and certainly us newly-minted ones, love the words we write. After all, we have slaved over them, used thesauruses to check the usage of them, spell-checked them and sometimes even replaced them. Our creative imaginations have worked flat out, often over months or years to make something that could, one day, be a bowl.

Finally we think we have reached the end, and hold up our creation for inspection – and it’s not good enough. Of course this isn’t the end. We walk away from it for a few weeks, pretend we are not writers, go for walks, see friends or get on with the rest of what life brings. But it haunts us, that unfinished thing. And one day, we go back to it.

It is the beginning of the next phase- the crafting of the prototype bowl of words and character and plot into a thing of beauty. There is no quick way to learn this craft. Doing it teaches us how to do it. We have to cut, chop, re-write, discard, re-mould, add colour, slice away redundant frills and find the heart of the story we are trying to tell. We have to smooth the rough and decorate the plain and never lose sight of the simple beauty that of the first idea.

And maybe then we will have a bowl fit for purpose, and a beautiful object of which we can feel proud. At least that’s what I believe will happen if I just keep working at it.

So it’s back to the editing pen, and learning me my language, to misquote Caliban.

Getting back into it

Back to it.

Well, here I am again fellow bloggers, after several months break so I could concentrate on the book, and, ta da! I have finished the 2nd draft of my first full-length manuscript and have put it out to be read by, well, anyone I can convince to give up the time, basically.

Soon it will be ‘find an agent’ time. Yes, I’ve delved into the W&A yearbook and sifted through many agents, (looking for the ones that might want to read yet another crime thriller) and have come up with Selection 1; 5 agents from different sized agencies. They sound nice.  I like the look of their websites. Most importantly, they’re still taking on new writers. (Selection 2 will be recruited if the first attempt yields nothing. I may also have a Selection 3 and 4).

Why, you might be thinking, as you’ve stayed with me thus far, did you choose to write in one of the most popular and over-stocked genres in the world, you fool?

Which would be a good question if only I knew the answer. Truth is the story came to me. It came really fast, too. I wrote the first draft in a couple of frantic months in the spring. I love crime thrillers, so I suppose I felt most comfortable writing in that genre. And I didn’t want to do ‘serial raving nutcase killer’ (generic storyline 23). I wanted there to be doubt and confusion, and ultimately, sadness surrounding the deaths and the killer. You don’t tend to find many raving serial killers in Exeter anyway…

So out came newly-minted Inspector Dan Hellier. Only 32, still growing and changing, and making some serious mistakes in his quest to be a better policeman. I like him. He is rash, and possibly lacks empathy, but he has a strong moral core, and he will learn, and love again, and fail again and win sometimes. I hope readers will like him, too.

Driving Lesson

So I was driving back from a quick visit to the seaside in my little Ford Ka with the soft top down, enjoying a suddenly warm and sunny afternoon when I pulled up at the traffic lights. Behind me, in a posher Peugeot, but also with top down was a blonde woman, tapping her hand on her wheel to the throbbing bass beat banging from her speakers.
‘Hmmph,’ I muttered, ‘at least I have the courtesy to turn down my radio when I stop at the lights.’ A few minutes later, we drove on. Through my mirror I could see that we looked similar, both with blonde curly hair and big sunglasses, but the real differences between us slowly seeped through my self-deceit and demanded to be recognised.
The real reason I turn my radio down at the lights is that I’m usually listening to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4, or the Archers, or the latest Stephen Fry on audiobook. I don’t listen to music that has a deep, pulsating bass drum much. Don’t like it anymore.
We might have looked similar, me and the lady in the car behind, but I bet there were at least twenty years separating us. There were lessons that had to be learned this afternoon.
So, dammit, I’m middle-aged, I like the Archers, and I’m out and proud. No more turning down the volume for me, beatboxers!

Displacement Activity

Today is a writing day. It has been planned and I have nothing else to do, no jobs, no e mails, no events. I am a quarter of the way through re-writing and editing my first novel (Thanks Debi and Emma at Writers’ Workshop for the brilliant Self-editing course- at least I know how to do it now!
Got up early, had porridge for slow release carbs, stroked the cat, and did four hours straight. So why am I having a whinge? Well, looks like that was it. Concentration’s gone.
Since lunch I have put through two loads of washing, pulled a load of ivy off the back fence, weeded the front garden, picked red and yellow tomatoes (it’s so exciting when things actually grow) and now here I am at 3.30, blogging to you good people.
What is it that makes it so hard for us to look critically at our own work? I vacillate between disgust at the clichés and over-use of adverbs, (lazy, sloppy writing, tut) and pride at the bits which even I can see do work (captured that character in four lines). I do want to write the best book I can.
The one thing that I definitely see clearly is how much better the second and third drafts are compared to the raw stuff that spewed out in the first flush of creativity. It is hard slogging away at the editing but rewarding when you can recognise that out of such hard work may come something worth reading, and something that other people might like to read.
I have a date in my head (1st October) when I want to have this MS ready to send out to publishers or agents, and believe me, I shall be back on the Cloud asking for guidance when that time comes.
Feel better now. Might manage a couple more hours before dinner….

Accessing the creative side of the brain

Betty Edwards, a much-respected teacher of drawing and painting in the USA published a book in the 1970’s which was considered revolutionary at the time. She put forward the argument that the left side of the brain is verbal and analytic, whereas the right side of the brain is more visual and perceptual. She has taught thousands of non- drawers to draw using simple techniques which halt the left side critic and allow the creative right side to emerge. It was inspiring then and now.

I think writers put similar techniques into practice when the ideas flow and we lose track of time, when the connections seem effortless and the words sit right- that’s when we are accessing the creative side.

The switch over from ‘I’m hopeless’ to ‘I’m writing’ is a subtle one, though, and it has a great deal to do with time. Of course, we need both sides of our brains to function well as humans, but the left side is full of excuses, of deadlines, of reasons why we might as well watch TV or have another glass of wine or do the washing, rather than get the pen out and alter the balance of power.

So, how do we do it? I think it’s silence we need. The silence that feeds the creative brain. The decision to spend our precious free time writing, rather than doing anything else, that makes the difference. So hard when we are at the beck and call of the world.

But if we really want to write (and I do, I really do) then we have to make that time and keep it for ourselves. Shut the door, turn off radio 4 and give ourselves time for something to come through. Walking on your own is also a good way, letting your imagination roam under the big sky.

Well, that was a nice little left side of the brain diversion. Turning off the radio now.

Edwards, Betty. The New Drawing on The Right Side of the Brain. Penguin Putnam. ISBN 0-87477-424-1.

Finding my voice

I’m losing my voice.  What voice I have left is raspy, giving me a Lauren Bacall growl I don’t recognise. Throat is pinkly sore. I can feel the poison of the virus thriving in the damp darkness. I’m seriously fed up – talking is one of those things I’m good at.

On Saturday I took part in a voice workshop run by an inspirational teacher called Tina Bridgman. It was about freeing the singer inside us, loosening and relaxing the grip that many of us keep on the emotional range and breadth of our singing voices. We are moved by music and by songs, yet we shy away from using the power that we have to move and inspire others through singing. Why?

Well, from what I understood that day, it can be something as simple as someone telling you, as a child, not to sing, or that you couldn’t sing, or to mime instead. Off-hand advice not meant cruelly, but devastating to a fragile childhood ego. And once the lid comes down on a budding talent, it stays down.

So, let go. Join a choir, attend a workshop, see where it takes you. Have a go. I did, and yes, it made me cry. An upwelling of emotion that I didn’t even know was there broke down a barrier that I didn’t even know was there. I sang like I have never been able to sing before. On my own, in front of people.

Looks like I am finding my voice, after all.