Friday, 31 August 2007

When is writing also a MAT?

When it's another piece of writing.

I managed to stop writing the short story (the one that was a novel, you remember) this week so that I could resurrect the idea for a children's novel from a horrible first draft written one thousand (well, ten) years ago.

And the reason for stopping? To send three re-re-re-re-re-re-redrafted chapters and a synopsis of the children's novel to Fidra Books's competition A New Book for Fidra. The deadline was today, I emailed my submission yesterday afternoon and now I am worrying about having too many pieces of writing on the go at once (and having to find even more reasons to avoid doing any of them).

But I am the only person who asked me to do this, and so I am the only person I can turn to. Just as, when people ask me how I manage to be disciplined about writing I say, 'If, by seven o'clock in the evening (The Archers, of course) I haven't any writing to show for myself (or research done or thoughts written down), I am the only person I can blame for my pissed-offness at the lack. And I get sick of being pissed-off (and only having myself to blame) at the bottom of the stairs of an evening.

So, perhaps writing will beget writing?

PS: Did you know that Jennifer Aldridge's Ambridge website really exists? How does that work? A real website about a fictional village on a site for a soap peopled with invented characters on the BBC? I am confused ... but I sense a new MAT coming on.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Publishers and writers: the relationship?

These are what's left of the boyf's roses, and as I was looking at them last night and wondering if they had another day left in them (they have, because I decided to dry them this morning), we began a conversation about an idea that's been in my head for a while, but hasn't properly found words.

It's this: that the relationship between a (big) publisher and a (novice) writer is like the relationship between a parent and a child.

If, as the novice writer, you are that rare thing, the brightest new child in the family (and the family is a very large one) the relationship benefits both: the parent proudly sends the child's work out into the world and knows that they will both benefit, the parent will bask in the financial and excellent-literary-nose glow of a successful first novel, and the writer will know that her work is being read, that the publisher is likely to want to publish her next, and that her first will make at least some of the money she'll need to buy her time to write the next.

But if, as is surely the norm, the relationship is one of a time- and cash-poor parent and a worried, insecure child, neither benefit and both end up with little, or nothing. The child's book is published and then, not long afterwards, remaindered: the parent realises that she knew all along that this was a punt too far and she never should have thrown good money after bad, the child's gold was only glitter; the child realises that the parent she took for a loving guardian, she mis-took. (I have no experience of such a relationship so I can only surmise - but I have enough vicarious knowledge to think that I surmise not-so-far from the bone.)

However, and this is where the conversation with the boyf began last night, the relationship between an indie publisher (this, I do know about) and his writer can develop into one of equal responsibility one of, as I believe they say on TA courses, adult-to-adult. And then remarkable things can follow.

It is, of course, a question of the child growing-up and taking responsibility. And, on Saturday, I took responsiblity (I have done so before, but this was a new departure). I went to four indie bookshops to find out about them and, also, to find out whether they would like to stock copies of Speaking of Love. To my delight, two ordered it immediately, one said he thought they'd be more interested in the paperback, but would discuss same with his manager after the bank holiday, and one suggested I talk to the manager when he was back after the bank holiday.

The idea of selling my own work has been anathema to me (I have remained a child) until, after typing 'sell my novel' into Google's search engine the other day, I found Mark Thornton's SHELF SECRETS, see here and here, went on his course and learned a thing or two. And, as a result of that course, the idea that triggered last night's conversation began to grow: that growing-up and taking responsibility are the point.

My local cafe, by the way, has now sold seven copies, see
here for how they sold five in July.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Booking through Thursday ... on Friday

Just caught up with Booking Through Thursday (thank you Simon at Stuck in a Book)... where a weekly bookish question is posed. Here's this week's question:

When growing up did your family share your love of books? If so, did one person get you into reading? And, do you have any family-oriented memories with books and reading? (Family trips to bookstore, reading the same book as a sibling or parent, etc.)
It comes with the heading INDOCTRINATION, although I don't think of what happened to me as indoctrination, more as wonderful memories. My father read me Alice's Adventures in Wonderland when I was about four or five. I remember the green cloth cover (yup, still green, faded now in a strip where the sun's got to it, with a red half-moon at the top and Tenniel's illustration of Alice shaking hands with the mock turtle, 1954 Macmillan edition ... obviously I've still got it, I've just checked those details) and I can still recite (decades later):

You are old father William, the young man said,
And your hair it has turned very white.
And yet you continually stand on your head,
Do you think at your age that is right?
I blame Father William for the yoga I took up, and still take up ... and although I'm sure the verse is not word-perfect (I haven't checked) it's pretty close, and that's after fifty+ years ... . My father - and his name was William - also read me Through the Looking Glass (extra details: Alice and the red and black queens in the half-moon, 1956 edition) when I was about five or six and I can remember the room (white-pillared gas fire, him in an armchair, me on the floor, or sitting on his knee, Tenniel's illustrations, his voice, smell-of-book heaven).

These readings alone are responsible for my love of books, my belief in the power of fiction sometimes to solve problems that real life can't, and the fact that I write fiction now. (And the fact that I believe that absolutely anything can be the subject for a work of fiction.) They're also responsible for my love of oral storytelling.

My parents also subscribed to World Books (do they still exist?) which meant that an exciting parcel arrived - how often? - every two weeks? - with a novel inside it which, once read, was proudly added to the bookshelves. Lark Rise to Candleford was a favourite title of mine, for its poetry. I can't remember the subject matter of Flora what-was-her-name's novel, but I know I read it all those years ago. Thompson! That's what she was called.

Years later, when yearning to write but not daring to take time off work, my father lent me some money so that I could. When I took him a cheque to pay him back, he said, 'Thank you, but I don't want it, darling. Think of me as your first publisher.'

I still do.

PS: Edited to include: after reading the replies to this week's BTT, I want to add that the day our local librarian said to my mother that I'd read everything in the children's section, so I'd have to move on to the books in the adult section (aged 9) is still one of the proudest days of my life!

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Mostly Books, indie bookshops and indie publishers

THIS is the place to go if you want to learn how to sell your book into indie bookshops

Last Sunday I and four others spent the day at the table you can just see through the window. We were given delicious and copious cups of tea and coffee all day (rudely I brought my own teabags 'cos no caffeine's allowed on my natural building-up-my-calcium-to-get-rid-of-osteoporosis regime) ... and we were given a lovely lunch and the chance to browse among Mostly Books's shelves and Mark Thornton (prop.) was seriously generous with his time. (Especially as it was, see above, a Sunday.) But the most important thing we were given was the chance to find out how best to find our own books on these shelves, one day in the not-too-distant future, or on the shelves of the indie bookshops where we live.

All the course members bar one were published or about-to-be published authors, and all were either published by indie publishers or about to self-publish for reasons of trouble at big-publisher mill. But the trouble about being published by an indie publisher, as I've said here before, is that it's difficult to persuade the liteds to review indie-published books. In fact, as Long Barn Books's blog wrote yesterday:

It is assumed by the liteds (with honourable exceptions) that small independent
publishers either publish the unpublishable, supported by Arts Council grants,
or publish what the Big Six have all rejected.

But we who've been published by indie publishers also know that that's not true. My indie publisher, Beautiful Books, published my first novel because they loved it, were moved by it and the one review it's managed to pick up so far, from Simon Thomas at Stuck in a Book, not only judges it as anything but unpublishable, but has done the book the honour of adding it to his 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. Beautiful Books are doing everything in their power to get my book out into the world and Simon Petherick, the publisher, keeps reassuring me that it will be a 'slow burn', that he isn't giving up, and that he's publishing the paperback early next year ... however in the meantime sales are slow because without broadsheet literary-page reviews bookshops don't know about the book, so don't stock it.

AND SO, back to the beginning and SHELF SECRETS, Mark Thornton's innovative course for writers which concentrates on how writers can get their indie-published books stocked by indie bookshops. It's simple really, and I don't think he'll mind me saying what his fundamental message is: it is that what we writers have to do is think like booksellers. Which is obvious, as soon as you say it, isn't it, but it wasn't obvious until Mark said it. But everything flows from there. You'll have to go on his course to find out what his specific SHELF SECRETS are, but if you have a local indie bookshop and you have written a book that hasn't managed to get any literary-page reviews yet, I seriously recommend SHELF SECRETS. I think the next course is in September, see here for course details.

So ... tomorrow I'm off to see the nice people in my local bookshop.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Emily Young's Wounded Angel

sculpture copyright Emily Young, photograph copyright Angelo Plantamura

You can see this beautiful angel (called Wounded Angel I) in Kew Gardens, in London, or you can see a photograph of him in Tacit Hill's A Light Touch and a Long View which was published in June and is full full full of colour plates of Emily Young's sculpture.

Emily Young's angels truly touch me. I first saw one at the London Art Fair several years ago and have searched them out ever since. This one is part of her Earth Angel project ... and in my workroom, among the piles of paper, work in progress (not to mention the other people's work in progress that I'm editing), in pride of place on the floor is a copy of A Light Touch and a Long View and it's usually open at this page because this angel's expression is almost unbearably touching to me. But he can also send me into reflective mood, and I often end up in a (story) place I hadn't intended heading for ... he is, sometimes, like a story guardian angel. When I'm lost for words, or tired of editing, or anything really, I look at him.

Emily Young also writes about the stone she sculpts. She writes about the 'stink' that sometimes comes from a piece of stone when she cuts into it, a stink that has been trapped in that piece of stone for millennia. She talks about the age of the stone and the stories hidden in the stone, the stories the stone carries.

Looking at her work is worth not writing for. But, unusually for a MAT, it also sets me on the road to writing.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Editing, MATs and piles of paper

Most writers, in fact surely all of us except those with humungous sales, earn their living by doing something else (obviously not by MATing).

I earn mine by editing other people's non-fiction, and/or proofreading it. I have just quoted for a piece of editing work and while I am waiting for the editor at the publishing house to say whether my quote and the length of time I've said it will take are acceptable, I MATed (just a bit) on the net, and I found this while searching for a solution to my horrible when-I-add-a-picture-or-a-quote-the-line-spacing-on-my-blog-goes-single problem. (I know, they hardly seem related, but you'd be surprised):
cartoon from
Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

The third pile of paper accurately represents the state of my writing room (mostly piles of editing in varying states of completion, but also one novel pile and one short story pile - writers of novels and short stories have to research, you know, and research often leads to paper). Anyway the cartoon made me laugh while I was trying to solve an irritating problem (which has been solved HERE, if any other Blogger is suffering similar symptoms), and there are lots of Dave Walker's cartoons on We Blog Cartoons (link above) that you can copy into your blog for free, if they appeal to you. Dave Walker says he lets us do this because:

The more people who enjoy my work the better, and life is generally too short not to give things away.

I, uncharitably perhaps, shall not be giving any of my editing work away.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Back to reality

So, back to reality in my writing room (I'll be there in a minute, when I've written this MAT ... er, I mean, blog) after a dizzy day yesterday living on the adrenalin that Stuck in a Book's review of Speaking of Love generated. Before I was published, a line or two from an enthusiastic (even when rejecting) publisher was enough to live on for several months: it returned lost courage and refuelled the hope chest. Now that Speaking of Love is published, a review of two pages is enough to live on (I speak spiritually, natch) for as many years.

The thing is I write mostly because I have to, because I feel so much better when I have written and better still if what I have written says back to me at least something of that intangible, difficult-to-grasp mysterious wisp-of-an idea that I had when I began to write whatever it is that I am working on at the time.

But the other reason I write, and I'm sure it's true of many writers, is to engage with and to touch the people who read what I have written. (Not all of them, obviously.)

When I'm reading I want the writer's imagination and use of language to gently capture me, and I want the characters and their situations to live with me just as vividly when I'm not reading the book as when I am. I've just begun The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng (Booker prize longlisted) and I can see the woman staring across at the island while he watches her, and cooks for her. And Eng has captured that misty sense of the beginning of an idea in his misty, rainy landscape.

When I read I want the way the characters feel, or don't feel, to affect me. The only way a writer can know if she's done this is for a reader to tell her. When I have loved a book I write and say so to the writer. Penelope Lively wrote this, after I'd written to say how much I loved The Photograph:

Such a warm response from a reader lights up the day.
She's right. It does.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Orchids for Simon

I am overwhelmed.

This orchid is for Simon at Stuck in a Book for his overwhelming review of Speaking of Love. See The word on ... at the top on the right.

Orchids, according to Clare Florists' flower meanings are flowers of magnificence and, although I'm not at all sure what the thanking-for-a-blog-book-review etiquette is, it would surely be rude not to thank Simon, publicly, for such a magnificent review, wouldn't it? So thank you, Simon.

It is also the most wonderful MAT yet ... I read the review early this morning, fell over, read it again, posted a thank-you comment on Simon's blog for it, failed to do my exercises, haven't even had a bath yet, and am sitting here in my PJs writing this before I do any of the above, let alone before I get down to writing for the day.

But there is a serious point to make, too. Speaking of Love is published by the wonderful, independent Beautiful Books and, as dovegreyreader says in this post 'small publishers work with limited funds' and so, if the literary review pages don't review the books the small publishers publish (and send out in their hundreds to them for review) - and they didn't review Speaking of Love - the bookshops won't stock their books. And if the bookshops don't stock the indie publishers' books how do the indies sell their books, when they can't afford to buy the space in the big-chain bookshops' windows? And it's almost impossible to get a review in the literary review pages if the writer and the publisher are unknown. So how does an indie publisher become better known if the literary review pages ignore them? See my post here on this Catch-22 situation-situation.

However, I think I have discovered a secret weapon. This Sunday, 19 August, I'm going to Mostly Books in Abingdon to take Mark Thornton's one-day course for writers on how to sell your book into indie bookshops. I heard him talk at the Society of Authors on 25 July (see my post here for more). And I will post about his course and my success, or failure - which I'm sure will be because of my incompetence, not his advice - when I am armed with the secrets of (t)his secret weapon.

In dovegreyreader's post about all this she says that she thinks the 'Indies should just band together and set up their own review magazine'. I heartly endorse that and enthusiastically forwarded her post to Beautiful Books, and suggested they go and hear her at the Publisher's Publicity Circle lunch at Foyle's on 30 August: see here.

But in the meantime, here are more orchids for Simon,

for giving Speaking of Love a helping hand on its way out into the world.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Writing, MATs and ticker-tape turn ups

On Friday morning, in the bath, before I started work (a bath can be a MAT, but only if I'm still in it after the practical stuff is over), the sentence, 'On the whole we resist falling in love' turned up in my head. This isn't unusual (not that sentence, but sentences in general, or phrases, often turn up in my head). Sometimes they're connected with the piece I'm writing at the time, sometimes they're not, but they stream through my head on what seems to me to be ticker-tape, although they stream horizontally, not vertically, and if they're not connected with the piece I'm writing at the time, they're often springboards to the next. (A springboarding ticker-tape?)

I've just Googled ticker-tape to make sure it was what I thought it was, and here is a rather beautiful (copyrighted) image of a working replica of a stock ticker, and a Wikipedia entry that explains.

Anyway, the short-story-that-was-a-novel found itself being given, 'On the whole we resist falling in love' as its new opening sentence and (I hate to say this for fear of the wrath of the writing gods ... but ...) beginning that way imposed a structure on the story that works. At least it worked on Friday and it was still working yesterday. And so, naturally, I am resisting getting back to it by posting this MAT-blog in case (a) I'm proved wrong today, or (b) it continues to work and so requires me to continue to put one word after another. One word after another ... that was the word I needed in Sunday's blog - not one word in front of another, nor one word behind another.

And so, with trepidation, to work.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Roses, MATs and Annie Lawson's "Partner"

Isn't this rose beautiful? My boyf gave it to me (see below), and I took its portrait with my new digital camera which I went out to buy today, prompted by the beauty of Find me a Bluebird's blog, and helped by a good friend who is a wonderful artist and knows about digital cameras. She hasn't got a blog, otherwise I'd tell you about it.

I don't really know how photography and writing the short story from the novel-that's-no-longer-a-novel, or even writing the second second novel, go together, but I have a feeling that I'll find a way. There are certainly endless MATing possibilities, and, quite probably, endless possibilities for inspiration when on a walking-in-the-park MAT because I've got backache and absolutely cannot put one more word in front of another. (That really should be one word behind another, shouldn't it? Words don't anticipate each other, except, on bizarre occasions, in my dreams. Once, in a dream, I heard the words, 'And I turned a corner of syllables.')

It has only just occurred to me (more than a month after beginning this blog) that MATing reads like mating, which it absolutely isn't. This blog is all about MATs, not mates, but, because it's Sunday and I'm not writing, let alone MATing, here's an Annie Lawson cartoon which has made me laugh for years and years, ever since a great friend sent it to me:My boyf and I have settled on boyf and girlf (or the elongated versions of same, despite their schoolgirlish-boyish nature), but if you can't decide, because you can't read the captions underneath the cartoons (photography a bit off, sorry), they read like this: 1: No, sounds too boring 2: No, sounds too schoolgirl-ish and 3: If you say this, I say you need help. But if you can't read the fourth balloon caption, I'm not going to spell it out for you.

And so to write, tomorrow morning.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Blogging (is a MAT)

I've spent the morning roving from blog to blog (I never could surf, too much water up my nose) and finding more and more delightful things to read. I've been reading blogs about books and life at Asylym, BooksPlease, Cornflower, dovegreyreader and Stuck in a Book; and blogs about writing books and life at Bookarazzi, The Writing Life, writing, coffee and other obsessions and one about both and, at MetaxuCafe; let alone writing a blog about writing ... all is gloriously MATful (although it is Saturday, and I don't write on the weekends - at least I don't if I know I'll have time to write in the week; I do if I know I won't, or if, the wonderful if, someone else - a publisher, for instance, - has imposed a deadline).

Speaking of which, Douglas Adams said a wonderful thing about deadlines. He said that he loved to hear the sound of them as they whooshed by. He was, allegedly, legendary in his inability to keep deadlines (or dead lions as a young nephew once thought I'd said - which conjures wonderful images of something very smelly, doesn't it?) Anyway, Douglas Adams was a wise, wildly funny and wonderful writer and he said this, in answer to these:

How should prospective writers go about becoming an author?
First of all, realise that it's very hard, and that writing is a gruelling and lonely business and, unless you are extremely lucky, badly paid as well. You had better really, really, really want to do it. Next you have to write something. Unless you are committed to novel writing exclusively, I suggest that you start out writing for radio. It's still a relatively easy medium to get into because it pays so badly. But it is a great medium for writers because it relies so much on the imagination. You will learn a tremendous amount from it, and maybe get some useful exposure.

What qualities are needed by an author?
A determination to keep at it.

There's nothing more to be said really, is there? Except that the questioner obviously thinks it takes several writers make one author ... .

Friday, 10 August 2007

Making the language sing

So ... I spent yesterday rewriting the first seven pages of the short-story-that-was-a-novel. Or, as I prefer to call it, making the language sing.

Now that's not a full-scale opera you understand, just one short under-rehearsed aria, but I hate clunky language. I'm a huge fan of the less-is-more-poetic school of writing, but when I'm trying to find out what the story is (although in this case I mostly know that) and what order it should be told in, the language doesn't get enough attention. (Obviously I'm not much of a multitasker, despite the fact that I'm a woman.)

Today ... I'm about to get down to doing the same to the next seven or so pages (I know, it's late, and this post will be the absolute LAST of my MATs for the day). Then there are about another seven roughly drafted, and then who knows which of the remaining parts of the once-upon-a-time-this-was-a-novel will make it into the short story? No doubt I shall find out next week.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

First novels and short stories

The thing about writing your first novel is that as well as doing it you're finding out how to do it. So, you would have thought that I'd have discovered at least the fundamentals of the how by now.

But it seems that I haven't, or hadn't. My second novel, which I had the idea for while I was still writing my first, in 2003 (or was it 2004?), turned out - in early 2007 - to be a short story. And the reason is simple (I realise, three years on). What I have been struggling to turn into a novel is a glimpse of a life (as William Trevor so deftly describes the essence of the short story) not a sinuous, continuous, easily-flowing or utterly dammed-up great big chunk of a life. (Or better, all these things, in their turn.)

A short story revolves around one main event, not a series of events caused by the characters or which cause them to react (or not). Of course the characters in a short story are affected by, or have caused, the event (which won't necessarily be a concrete exterior event, it could be an interior, psychological event), but this event is the fulcrum of the story. What has happened before it or what may happen after it do not belong in the short story: the event itself and how the characters deal with it serve as food for speculation about the before and the after in the readers' minds.

So, at last I know what to do with this novel I've been wrestling with. It is both a huge disappointment (no novel) and a great relief (I haven't had to bin the idea completely).

So, now I know what to do I'd better stop writing this MAT and get on with it. (Sometimes, getting down to a piece of work when I know where I'm going is more daunting then getting down to a piece of work when I don't know where I'm going. Why? Because it might not work, of course.)

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Man Booker Longlist, MATs and Natalie Goldberg

So ... the Booker Longlist is out and it includes four first novels which can only be good news for those of us with books which have cleared the finding-a-publisher-for-the-first-novel hurdle.

I looked in vain for Speaking of Love, knowing that it wouldn't be there but hoping, fantastically against the odds, that it would be. (Me and all the other first novel-makers among the 97 books that didn't make the longlist.) In my yoga class yesterday afternoon, which I went to to cure the RSI that my obsessive clicking on the Man Booker site had provoked, I even managed a Jimmy Rabbitte-(of-The-Commitments)-type interview with Germaine Greer (not sure why her ...) when I was supposed to be meditating on a clear lake with no ripples. (Roddy Doyle won the Booker with Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in 1993.)

But what the fact that there are four first novels on the longlist really does is remind me that the cure for the MATs is simply to write the next part of the next story. When Natalie Goldberg is asked how writers write she simply holds up a pad and a pen. She doesn't say a word.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Bookarazzi and Find me a Bluebird

I'd intended to post every day ... so much for the best-laid plans, or even the worst-laid.

Anyway, one of the things I've discovered while trying to find ways to midwife my first novel, Speaking of Love, out into the world (yes, that's another MAT) is Bookarazzi, and on the Bookarazzi recommended blogs page was a breathtakingly beautiful blog called Find me a Bluebird which I looked up because it's name is so touching. But so visually beautiful is the Find me a Bluebird blog that I am inspired to become digi-camera-literate (a new MAT, how exciting!) and post photographs as well as words here in the not entirely distant future.

The poetry on Find me a Bluebird is beautiful too.