I’ve completed the shitty first draft of my latest novel with a day to spare. The revised goal was to complete it by the end of the year, and it has been a struggle as I’ve spent a large chunk of the last few months looking after my 92-year-old Dad and my brother who has just had a major operation. I was then laid low with labyrinthitis, which sounds like it ought to by a sequel to a film by Guillermo Del Toro, but is an infection of the inner ear, so it was sit up and throw up for a number of weeks. I’m very grateful to the help of my friends and the writing retreat run by Global Wordsmiths to get me to the finish line.
After dancing around the lounge in celebration, I returned to the computer, was faced with an empty page, and felt … bereft. I’ve got a million things to do, none of which appeals, and I know I’ll motivate myself to do at least some of them later on, but I was surprised by the strength of the emotion. It’s not as if I don’t know I’ll need to rewrite the novel a few times before it is fit for public consumption, because I do, but I expected to feel jubilation and relief and a sense of achievement, not an aching sense of loss. So, after a cup of tea and a little reflection I reckoned it was the loss of sense of purpose. Not the obligations and duties which seem to increase exponentially because those are always there with their heavy reminders, but the sense of doing something that fills my thoughts and warms my soul.
Does anyone else have this sense of deflation after finishing something?
I’ve been looking after my 91-year-old dad who has just come out of hospital after a bad fall. His confidence has been knocked and we still don’t know why he blacked out, but I can tell he’s improving. He’s started working on the fiddly bits of the galleon he’s building from scratch again, and there was a whole bingo card of swear words as he was engrossed in trying to get it right.
My dad is fortunate in that he lives in a small village with a real sense of community. He has been heavily involved in the church and parish council for many years and there is a whole group of women in the village who have been looking out for my dad. In addition to umpteen phone calls, he had people calling in with eggs, biscuits and cakes all of which he was delighted to receive. Then he wonders why he has put on weight!
One call was from the vicar. She asked if she could pop around in the afternoon. Although she took over the three parishes just before Covid she hadn’t been inside my dad‘s house before.
So, the vicar came to tea. It sounded like a cliche.
Dad insisted I get down and wash the best China and prepare the tea and homemade biscuits when she arrived. I was happy to do that, and when I joined them in the conservatory, she was already discussing the readings for the next 8 o’clock service with my dad.
I asked her what the biggest challenge was in bringing together three parishes into one.
“Having three parishes is not the problem, the biggest challenge is trying to bring different factions together in the church. There are three different factions, liberals, the evangelicals, who are probably the most active, and the traditionalists like your dad. They all want something different for the church.”
We had an interesting conversation for about twenty minutes with Dad saying he didn’t want anything to change and he didn’t want the “happy clappy” services, thank you very much.
Then the vicar turned to me. “What do you do?”
“I’m a retired accountant, and now I write books.”
Most people would leave it at that, or say “that’s interesting,” and move on. However, the vicar is one of those people who listen intently and always seem as though they are genuinely interested in what you have to say. It’s very powerful and appealing.
“What’s the book about?” she asked and nibbled on a cookie, waiting for an answer.
Ah. How would I explain this? To add a bit of context, when I first came out to my dad many years ago, he cut me out of his will and had nothing to do with me for a long time. It’s been a long road back to being accepted and part of that acceptance is that we never talk me being a lesbian.
I tried to ignore my dad’s glare, although I could almost feel his eyes boring down on me, willing me to say nothing.
I wasn’t going to be silent, so I smiled at the vicar and said, “it’s a lesfic romance.”
She didn’t blink an eyelid, clearly knowing what that was, she returned the smile and asked, “Are you gay?”
I stole a glance at Dad, who stared at me stony eyed, his mouth a straight line.
“I am, but we don’t talk about it.” I indicated my dad.
“I’m not talking to your dad; I’m talking to you.” she smiled. “Tell me about the book.”
So, I proceeded to explain it being an intergenerational story, covering the period from 1939 to the present day, with themes of secrecy, prejudice and love.
“It sounds really interesting,” she said, “I’ll have to pre-order that.”
“You’ll have to shut your eyes on some of it.” I explained and she laughed and gesticulated that it wouldn’t bother her.
I have no idea if she has pre-ordered it, but I am very grateful. She acknowledged me, who I am and what I’ve achieved and wasn’t going to put up with any of my dad’s prejudices. It was the first time in twenty odd years that Dad has had to confront my whole truth (after the first disastrous time, I’ve never taken any girlfriends to meet him) and it was good for him to hear that the church has moved on, somewhat, and the vicar approves and encourages me and others like me.
Needless to say, Dad has not mentioned the conversation at all, but I think he’s had to think about it.
Afterwards, I thought how bizarre that I’m happy to chat about the book to the vicar, the plumber, and window cleaner, because that doesn’t feel like marketing. Yet I balk at having to sell myself, or go online onto the various Facebook and Twitter groups and say, hey you don’t know me but buy my book, it’s great.
That’s what I’ll have to do, though. Maybe if I can treat it as if I am just chatting with friends and they’re asking what I’ve been up to, then it will feel more natural.
Does anyone actually enjoy doing the marketing? To me it feels like selling myself, selling my soul, not letting people know about what I’ve been working on for the last year. And now it’s available to pre-order, it’s all starting to feel a lot more real.
As it comes closer to release day for my debut novel, I’ve started to shred my nails, even though I haven’t bitten them for many years. I think I’m as nervous as when my daughter had her first day at school, knowing she needed to be out in the world, but hoping she wouldn’t be targeted by bullies or be called horrible names.
Releasing a book feels very similar. I’m quite a private person, having many acquaintances but a few really close friends I’d walk through fire for. So the thought of being vulnerable to strangers who have no interest in being kind or understanding is giving me nightmares. So far people have been kind, and I love that, with some exceptions, the lesfic world seems more interested in supporting and helping each other up, rather than pulling each other down. Long may it continue.
I was surprised by one very close friend, who typically does not read lesfic, said it seemed to fall between two genres: lesfic and romance. When I asked her to clarify she said it was all about the sex scenes. She thought they were unnecessary, and if it weren’t my book she was reading, she wouldn’t have gone past them. Not that there was anything wrong with the sex scenes, she said, just that she wasn’t expecting them, or if they were there, she expected there to be more at the end. When I explained it was not unusual in lesfic to have sex and romance intertwined within a book she seemed happy, but suggested that if I wanted to market it into more general/ women’s fiction maybe I should leave those out.
So, it got me thinking about whether you should tailor the book for distinct markets with different editions. Yet I have read some of the more recent women’s/ general fiction that can be quite explicit. Having said that when I was researching book covers, I noticed that some books have separate covers for different media (very crudely, kindle tends to be bolder and brighter, paperback more stylish). I guess the tweaking of the book could be done later, in the meantime I have some nails to bite.
And if you are interested the blurb for Warm Pearls and Paper Cranes is:
A family torn apart by secrets. The only way forward is love.
Maud Heaston has been in love with Beatrice Williams since they first met in 1939. They’ve been through hell and back; family, careers, and secrets have threatened to tear them apart, but their love has endured it all. Until now. Old age and illness have forced them into separate nursing homes and the family Maud trusted to take care of them are only out for themselves.
Hannah Jones is trying to put her past behind her and find her place in the world. Midway through a doctorate and living with Suki, the woman she’d like to be more than just friends with, the last thing she needs is Gammy, her interfering great aunt, back in her life. Though Gammy took Hannah in when her mother died, her overbearing nature and constant criticisms forced them apart. Now they barely speak.
Maud needs Hannah’s help to be reunited with the love of her life. Hannah needs Suki to take a chance on love. Can a reconciliation between Maud and Hannah free them both to be with the women they love or will the past destroy their future?
The release date is 15th October, and it can be pre-ordered now through the following:
For the last week or so I’ve been trying to work up a design for the book cover for my debut novel, Warm Pearls and Paper Cranes. Having got a number of suggestions back from designers, I spread them all out neatly on the floor so I could do a compare and contrast exercise. Jerry must have strong opinions as he scattered them and then shred one. Clearly, he doesn’t appreciate the work and thought that’s gone into them. Or maybe he was just aiming to get my attention. He succeeded.
I rescued the remaining designs and asked my daughter what she thought. She dismissed most of them. Okay, all of them. They were either too dull, too cluttered, or only showed the WW2 side. Because the story is intergenerational it covers not just contemporary romance, but travels back to 1939 and it is really difficult to bring that together in a picture. We tried with letters etc, which links the two generations, and how Hannah, the younger protagonist, discovers the secrets of her Great Aunt Maud, but again they didn’t stand out, particularly when looking at a thumbnail, which is how most people will come across the book.
Robyn, my editor said I needed to consider the market, the tones and fonts that work and subject matter, and pushed a link through for the top lesbian romance and women’s fiction, where it could also fit. I took the hint that what we had wasn’t hitting the mark. Well, it wasn’t really a hint, but hey, I can wear my big girl pants.
So back to the drawing board, I mean computer. I downloaded a free piece of software called gimp, which is like a free version of photoshop. Seriously, that’s the name they decided to go with? They could have just called it IMP, image manipulation programme, and we would have just nodded our heads. Especially as I have been struggling with how to use the masks. No, I don’t want to go down this side line.
Eventually after some suggestions from a close friend, I worked on an alternative that seemed to hit the market (it features a young woman), and hints at the conflict – she’s wearing pearls, which seems a more old-fashioned style and also has a paper crane tattoo. It also has a strong visual impact which I was aiming for.
“No,” my daughter said, “that’s not Maud, and I can’t imagine Hannah wearing pearls.”
“The cover is not supposed to portray the characters completely, just intrigue the reader enough to pick up the book, or scroll down to read the blurb and hopefully decide they’ll download it.” I replied. My editor agreed with my daughter, saying it was an Audrey Hepburn knock off, so it hit the reject pile too.
The challenge got me thinking though. Do the covers have to be a literal translation of the characters? I know a lot of them don’t, particularly traditionally published fiction. If someone is described as really tall, or quite boyish/butch looking I don’t really expect to see two femmes together on the cover, but that does seem to be the norm. Because I like data, I did a quick straw poll. Of the eleven covers in the top fifty paid lesbian romance on Amazon that show two women together, nine were of two femmes together and the other two covers you couldn’t tell.
Would it put me off completely though, and do I feel disappointed? No, not if I’ve enjoyed the book. One of my favourite authors is Olivia Waite and the cover characters don’t look like they’re described in the books at all; they are definitely pitched within the romance genre showing two characters who happen to be female and very femme. Does it matter? I guess if I didn’t like the books that would be another mark against it, but I will happily pre-order whatever she has in the feminine pursuits series, irrespective of the cover, because I love her writing style and her characters.
Does it bug you if the people on the cover are very different from how you imagine them, or as they are described?
Excuse me, I need to get back to yet more cover design ideas.
I’ve had a very fortunate lockdown and I’m very grateful, because I live surrounded by beautiful countryside, I enjoy the company of the people I live with, I’ve been able to go out for walks with friends and I’ve been working on my novel. So I’ve been busy, engaged and even enjoyed zoom quizzes, poetry readings and catch ups with friends and family. Don’t judge me!
Of course I’ve had worries and concerns, one of the biggest being my 91 year old Dad but he’s been keeping himself busy and my brother and I have managed to visit him and deliver “red cross parcels” and sort out his ipad…again.
I know a lot of people have struggled and my heart goes out to them. So when one of my closest friends invited me to go away to a house in Devon overlooking the water, to help celebrate her birthday with a small group of friends, I should have been delighted. And I was. Then I panicked. Not so much about Covid,as we had all been double jabbed and had all agreed to take a test in the morning before travelling, but about seeing people, mixing with people and having to interact with them.
It was great, but exhausting. It was wonderful to be with friends and to see the sea, play games and go sightseeing. The issue that freaked me out was having to deal with other people’s energy, baggage and agendas. It’s as though over the past eighteen months I’ve become even more of an introvert than normal and need even longer to recharge my batteries and do my ‘reset’.
So they great news is… we are not alone! I guess we now need to negotiate how we greet people (do we give them a hug or a kiss?), decide whether to wear masks or not (personally, I will be in public places) and do a risk reward assessment of every social event. I’m happy going to an art gallery or museum (I can’t believe how much I’ve missed that), but will avoid a raucous pub watching the football (soccer). That doesn’t stop me watching it on TV with a couple of similar footie nuts though.
Most of our visitors never see Jerry, our neurotic cat, they just catch a glimpse of a white flash as he retreats to his nearest hiding place. But whenever I am working he appears at my side, “helping” with the writing by batting at my fingers, sitting on the keyboard, or in this case, choosing a playlist to set the tone.
My current work in progress, Warm Pearls and Paper Cranes, is an intergenerational story, part of which is set during the second world war, so it’s been fun to select old songs to get me In The Mood, or in this case, choosing the D Day Darlings rendition of We’ll Meet Again. That track has been the theme tune to this story, partly because the older couple, Maud and Bea, keep getting separated; first by the war, then by convention and work and subsequently by Maud’s family.
When I wrote my short story called Pele, for the second Lesfic Eclectic volume, I listened to Iz’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which always makes me cry. I also listened to Pixar’s Lava on repeat to get into the Hawaiian vibe.
Talking to various writer friends some can’t listen to music at all while they write, others only while they edit or do admin tasks. I probably fit in to the latter category, and if I’m not working on a particular theme I tend to listen to opera because it’s full of passion and feeling. Now, I just need to make sure I translate those emotions into my writing :0) .
One of the wonderful things about writing is that you can unravel quirky facts, or read around a subject and call it research.
I’ve been researching World War Two for my current WIP and have asked questions of both my Dad (who’s 91) and my ex-father-in-law (who’s 92). Both have provided me with fascinating details of the time, most of which will never hit the final page. The irony is neither will ever end up reading my books. My dad does not like or approve of my lifestyle and when I first came out to him over twenty years ago cut me out of his life and his will. It’s been a long slog back to normalcy, with the help of advocacy of both my late stepmother and my brother, and now we have a good relationship, although there are number of taboo subjects that we avoid.
In my research on the land army, I decided to conflate an incident I read about and a memory from my Dad that he has related on a number of occasions. I asked him to write out everything he could remember about it, which he did and I asked some follow up questions, part of which will make it into the manuscript.
When we spoke about the incident, Dad said how much he had enjoyed thinking back over it and recalling the details (he has an excellent memory) that we decided to do an experiment.
We speak every night. Before the pandemic he was off doing things, but like everybody else in the lockdowns, his interests and activities have been severely curtailed. He found the first lockdown a lot easier to deal with, maybe because it was as we were about to hit spring, it was a novelty and because it was warmer, he could potter in his garage and created a model ship from scrap wood he had lying around. Inevitably, we called it the SS Corona.
This time though, he has found it a lot harder, both physically and mentally, as a number of his acquaintances have caught Covid 19, it was cold and wet and he has missed meeting up with people. He seemed to be slipping into despondency and started to repeat what he had said, not because he didn’t know it was a repetition, but because he wanted to keep me on the phone and have a connection. I put my hand up that I am not the world’s most patient person (as my daughter will testify), and even with poetry readings twice a week with him, there are only so many times I can hear what he’s eaten during the day and be polite and enthusiastic.
So, given how much he enjoyed thinking about and relating his war story I have started to ask him about facets of his life, from his childhood, during the war, in the RAF etc. He thinks about it during the day and writes notes, then relates the stories in the evenings. As he now has something to think about and something different to talk about, he has been more cheerful and I’ve listened with genuine interest. In short, our connection has been strengthened, and all because I asked him about his experiences in the name of research. Who knew asking simple questions could lead to a deeper bond and understanding? Irrespective, I’m grateful.
Are there places research has taken you that you didn’t expect?
The stream of consciousness writing, the word dump, is the easiest bit of the writing, for me anyway. I like to scribble when I’m half-awake in the early hours of the morning. Ideally, I’ll then drift back to sleep with the opportunity for a second go around when I wake again around seven.
But the editing is hard. Why? Because I have to chip away at a crudely shaped draft stuffed with telling and formal dialogue and turn it into something that is engaging and beautiful. Well, that’s the aim, but I haven’t hit there yet.
Of course I’m talking about self- editing, before it goes to professional editors, such as the wonderful women at Global Wordsmiths, who spare no punches but will turn a raw manuscript into a crafted piece of work. They also run some great courses and I’m hoping that next year we’ll be able to go back to Spain, rather than zoom.
So, what has helped?
I’ve just bought the program Pro Writing Aid to help with the grammar, but it won’t tell me when I am going off on a tangent, or have major plot holes (and there have been a number!).
To help with the readability I’ve put my manuscript in Word, under the review section there is “read aloud” which converts text to speech. It’s very helpful to listen to what is working and what is not. Despite the monotonous tone and some strange pronunciations (sake being read like the Japanese drink rather than rhyming with rake for example) it’s been great for picking up pacing errors. And I make lots of those.
I’ve read lots of books about editing. Perhaps my favourites have been the Jodie Renner books and those of James Scott Bell. But if you have recommendations, I’d love to know them.
I’m also a member of a critique group, a group of like-minded readers and writers who meet monthly (on zoom) and critique writing uploaded onto Google drive. We are lucky in our group that we have some professional writers who give of their time to challenge and query, and we also have fun.
And finally, knowing I have a professional editor who will challenge hard, but also support and encourage.
And it’s all in the name of better writing.
So why have I been struggling? I was told I needed to go deeper and show more emotion. In other words, be more vulnerable.
As I private person I find this tricky, I’ll be honest. I don’t like “to wear my heart on my sleeve for daws to peck at,” as Iago would have it. The fact that I’ve spent a career’s worth of report writing, trying to obliterate anything emotional from my writing or working life, it’s difficult now to prise open the shell and uncover what’s in there. But I’m still seeking the pearl.
And even when I have gone deep and retrieved a feeling, it’s how to express it that isn’t already cliched or elicits the response in the reader that isn’t a yawn.
As pearls are formed as a protection of the oyster against an irritant, like grit, maybe I should just accept the irritant and learn to dive deep and see what I can uncover.
But still, I shall dive deep, prise open the oysters and seek that elusive pearl.
This was the first time of attempting National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) in November. I had written and rewritten the first scenes a couple of times, and after a bit of prodding and support from Global Wordsmiths plotted the book, scene by scene.
I’m so glad I did.
By having something concrete to complete each day, meant I just checked what needed to be done the night before, ready for the onslaught. I had the Global Wordsmiths intermediate (online) writing course half way through November, so had to work around that and they provided a writing lounge on zoom in the evenings to hold us all to account, and to support each other. With the result that I completed 88,000 words in 38 days. And finished the first draft of the novel, with the working title of Gammy’s story, but that will change!
So, the things that made the difference for me were:
Support of others, being held to account and chat/ work in the evenings. Hopefully next year we can all meet up in person. Perhaps with a glass of wine and cookies?
Planning as much as possible beforehand.
Not being distracted by researching down too many rabbit holes. Did they really use the word ‘clit’ around 1941 in the UK, if they knew what it was of course?
Not doing the scenes in order, but what I felt in the mood to write. Feeling angry? Write a scene with lots of conflict.
Writing something everyday, even if it meant getting up at 5:30am.
Using my best time to write for the more creative aspect. For me that’s first thing in the morning, so I’d do the stream of consciousness thing using notes on my phone. Then attempted to decipher the predictive text later in the day and write it in some semblance of order.
Anything else that helped you?
If you’ve done Nano this year, well done, and if you tried but didn’t reach the 50,000 words, you still got more words down than you started.