evseymour

Word on the Wire

WRESTLING AN OCTOPUS

Earlier last month, I tweeted that writing a first draft was akin to wrestling an octopus. Oh yes, I know the theory. You understand your characters because you’ve done proper profiles. Structurally, you know the beginning, the middle and the end. You recognise what’s at stake. You have a clear idea about your ‘bad guys’ and the dynamic between him/her and your main character. You have your outline, which you’ve worked up into a full-blown synopsis. You’ve thought about themes, locations, that hard to pin down quality: ‘tone’. In short, you’ve covered all the bases. So what can possibly go wrong? Answer: quite a bit.

Generally, with every novel I’ve written, I get off to a gallop. Like all mid sections, it’s important not to break into a slow canter. This time was fine, incidentally. Pace nice and tight. I even boasted to another writer (Paddy Magrane) that I was on the home straight. Talk about tempting fate.

I have no idea what went wrong other than I had a crisis of confidence. I got too picky with what I’d already written. (Fatal with first drafts). I wasn’t even sure about what to write next. The words simply wouldn’t come. Not one of them.  It was as if English was not my first language. I was certain I couldn’t move on, without going back. Aside from those clever dressage horses, have you ever seen a pony go into reverse?  Mine wasn’t even slow trotting. My nag had fallen, crushed under a weight of self-doubt. The plot twist that felt so sure-footed on paper didn’t quite come off. Characters had their own voices and I wasn’t sure I liked what I heard.  That kind of negativity is pretty destructive. And yet it happens more often than one might think, or possibly admit. Embarrassing to say but I work with writers all the time who encounter such a difficulty. And yet it had never happened to me. 

To get out of this awful self-defeating cycle, I gave myself a stern talking to, which didn’t work. I did not phone my agent. Nothing worse than a writer whining about losing her wits.  I did talk to my other half who, although kind, had no advice other than ‘keep going.’ (As it turned out, he was right). And then, mercifully, I had a breakthrough. 

Turning to St Google, I discovered reams of great advice. Essentially, a first draft is just that. It exists to muck around with. With a second draft, scenes can be switched, added to and deleted. Characters may change. You may warm them up or tone them down, or axe them completely. The second draft is actually where the fun starts but you need the original, as flawed as it is, first. Intellectually, I knew all this but, somehow, had failed to embrace it in my heart.  Anyway, after a short break, normal service has now been resumed and, as I speed towards the finish line, this will be my last post before Christmas and New Year Celebrations. Have a good one and, if there are writers out there who are currently struggling, remember what Ernest Hemingway said: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ 

DISPATCHES FROM THE WRITING SHED

This blog post should really be called ‘Vive la France’ because there’s a whole French thing going on, starting with the French cop drama ‘Spiral,’ which returned to our screens with a seventh season this month. It seemed grittier and more gripping (not easy to say) than ever. If you haven’t already caught it, I urge you to do so. The characters leap off the screen and the plot lines are always varied, twisty and compelling.

As mentioned last time, ‘The Nazi Hunters’ by Damien Lewis was next on my reading list. As the title suggests the story is about a secret SAS unit and the quest to track down Hitler’s war criminals, many of which had flouted the Geneva Convention and executed captured SAS soldiers. But this is not simply a tale of ‘derring-do’. The extraordinary courage and heroism shown by the French who did so much to protect the British during the invasion and occupation of their country is astonishing – and for which they paid an extraordinarily heavy price. Of some 1,000 villagers in Moussey and its surrounding valley, who were seized and shipped off to concentration camps, 661 would never return. It’s a sobering tale but it’s also one that leaves you with the conviction that, whatever madness and cruelty is inflicted, good people will always triumph.

In my last blog post, I promised to give you a little more information about my brief (very brief) foray into TV. In November, I’m appearing in ‘Everything is Connected – George Eliot’s life,’ a new Arena documentary directed by artist Gillian Wearing on BBC 4. Transmission time has yet to be revealed so my lips are sealed, especially as I have absolutely no idea how much of my participation will actually translate to screen. More anon.

Other than this, I’ve been flat out writing, which is why this post is so brief. However, attending an art exhibition in a church some weeks ago, we glanced up and spotted the order of hymns. 007, huh? Surprising ‘The Saint’ didn’t put in an appearance!

Back With A Bang

Having signed off for the summer, I’m back, and what a lovely few months it’s been. Big feel-good wedding: tick. Holiday: tick. I read a couple of unpublished manuscripts that blew my socks off: big tick. I haven’t killed plants in the garden – this is deserving of a massive tick but I’ll refrain. I can still play several pieces on my piano by that wonderful composer Einaudi, without cocking them up: satisfied tick. And we hosted what we loftily call a garden party (nothing like those elevated dos at Buck Palace) and IT. DID. NOT. RAIN: hell of a tick.

On the literary front: the paperback version of ‘Her Sister’s Secret’ was released on September 5th and has already garnered great four and five star reviews published in e-book format. There is nothing more rewarding and I’m busily crafting my next story. Oh, and, between you and me, I make a brief TV debut later in the year, care of Arena Films, but more of that nearer the time of broadcast. And, yes, it was an eye-opening experience for a TV ingénue.

But a holiday wouldn’t be the same without books. It’s so easy to return to tried and tested writers you love but I thought I’d branch out and discovered a new writer (new to me, that is) Michael Robotham. I whipped through his novel, ‘The Drowning Man’ in a couple of days so, if you fancy something fast-paced, this one’s for you. I also read ‘Unnatural Causes’ by Dr Richard Shepherd. It provides a masterclass in pathology, (not the best reading before you go to sleep). A highly experienced forensic pathologist, Shepherd has covered some very high profile cases. One of the many interesting things about his book is the mental and emotional toll of dealing with the dead and, worse: talking to the deceased’s loved ones. It’s an occupational hazard that is under-appreciated. Similar applies to the Scenes of Crimes officer. And Kate Bendelow’s forensics book for crime writers: ‘The Real CSI’ is a genuine ‘must read’. Hopefully, future fictional scenes with SOCO’s and pathologists in my stories will now rock with greater authenticity.

When writing I make a point of not reading fiction in the same genre, so if anyone can recommend any new historical fiction writers on the block, or great non-fiction writers, do drop me a line. In the meantime, I’m plugging into ‘The Nazi Hunters’ by Damien Lewis. More of this anon.

NO SWEAT

When I started writing a blog I wrote weekly.  It nearly killed me so I believed a monthly blog would work better.  A monthly blog is doable, I thought.  No sweat. Well, I was wrong, which is why I’m just squeaking in my June blog on the cusp of July.  How on earth can the weeks fly by this quickly? And then I looked at my diary and made a sobering discovery.

In the past month I’ve read through final proofs of ‘Her Sister’s Secret’.  Actually, the novel is due to be released next week and I’m looking forward to seeing it ‘in the flesh’.  I’ve worked with six authors on their yet as unpublished novels on behalf of Jericho Writers.  I’ve carried out serious legwork (research) for a brand new story of my own, fielded phone calls – professional, that is –  (personal doesn’t count and there’s been plenty of those) and spent three glorious days away when I should have been working.  I also read Mick Herron’s sensational ‘Spook Street’, yet hardly made a dent in my ‘To Be Read’ list, which is why I feel so damned guilty for only just starting ‘Turbulent Wake’ by fab writer, Paul Hardisty.  Within pages, I was absolutely drawn in and enthralled. Having worked with Paul on ‘The Abrupt Physics of Dying’, it felt very special to be back and in such a safe pair of hands.  If you haven’t read his books, do.  Already I have the impression that ‘Turbulent Wake’ is literary fiction of the highest order;  superb, actually.   

I appreciate that my list of professional endeavours is as nothing to what the average agent ploughs their way through, but, phew, it makes me giddy to read, which explains why, in a bid to maintain a healthy work/life balance, I’m taking the summer off from blogging.  I will still be chirruping on Twitter and playing my face on Facebook so I’m not disappearing from the digital ether completely.  

Have a wonderful summer those of you who follow my blog. See you in…ahem… September.

WAITING GAME

A writer’s life is a waiting game.  This month, I’ve been in various stages of waiting, but the main wait (and for perfectly good reason) was for a title and cover to be finalised. 

If you’re an unpublished author, following the traditional route, you’ll be waiting for that email offering agent representation, or a ‘yes, please’ from a publisher.  A close cousin of waiting is hoping.  Depending on which way things roll, hope can turn to joy or disappointment.  Overall, hanging on for the cover, the final edits, the agent, the deal, represents the hidden, frustrating side of the business and, occasionally, it can be wearing, if not downright exhausting.  So what to do to avoid going stir crazy?  This is not a formula for all but, for me, this worked:

I gardened.  I walked.  I shopped (not for food). I spent time with friends and family, and read a couple of books, about one of which at least two trusted people asked me:  ‘Why are you reading that?’

I should explain that the author has a problematic past – and this is an understatement – but when said author wrote a ‘best selling and international bestseller’, I wanted to know what all the fuss about.  I should also add that I’d had an encounter with the author who, in a previous life, was a commissioning editor who allegedly wanted to sign me up with a major publisher only for the deal to fall through for obscure reasons.  Anyway, I digress.  Casting aside every preconceived idea, dare I say prejudice, the fact is I loved the novel, but felt extraordinarily guilty for doing so, which is why I’m neither mentioning the author nor the book by name.  Perhaps I’m being unfair, silly or cowardly.  Like I said: waiting can make you stir crazy.  The truth is it hardly matters a jot whether I endorse the novel or the author.  With a movie in the offing and fantastic book sales, he is doing quite nicely without a pat on the back from me. 

But back to waiting:  good news:  I now have a title for my new novel with Harper Collins:  ‘Her Sister’s Secret’.  The cover looks glorious but I’m not allowed to spoil the reveal just yet.  Can’t wait.

THE HOUSE THAT EVE BUILT

I haven’t fitted in a spot of house construction in my extensive free time (not) although moving three times in the past six years to satisfy my nomadic wanderlust might qualify me. No, I’ve been observing our local builder erect another home on the tiny development on which we live (eleven houses in total) and I have to say it’s not that dissimilar to crafting a story.

I haven’t fitted in a spot of house construction in my extensive free time (not) although moving three times in the past six years to satisfy my nomadic wanderlust might qualify me. No, I’ve been observing our local builder erect another home on the tiny development on which we live (eleven houses in total) and I have to say it’s not that dissimilar to crafting a story.

First, there’s an architectural plan. Now I know lots of successful writers are ‘pantsers’ – writing by the seat of their pants – and I have to admit, of late and for a variety of reasons, I’ve become more pantser than planner, but usually I have a rough idea of where I’m heading however vague that middle bit might be.

Getting back to the building development: early on, the ground is surveyed and pegged out. I liken this to reading a ton of novels, not necessarily in your chosen genre, to stimulate those creative writing muscles. I’m staggered by the number of authors I talk to (mostly unpublished) who declare in slightly lofty tones that they don’t bother because they don’t want to be influenced, or ‘simply don’t have the time.’ As Joanne Harris said only last week, and I paraphrase, the best favour you can do yourself as an up and coming writer or even a published writer is READ. And read anything. Cereal packets. NHS leaflets. What some wag has written on the back of a dirty old van. Romantic Fiction when you really like Crime and vice-versa. You get the drift.

Having dug out the footings, and channels for pipes, next the cement goes in. This is where my analogy runs a bit thin because everyone knows that the first draft is more runny jam than hard and fast concrete. In other words it can be changed and often radically so, which really isn’t possible when building a structure, but I digress. Breeze blocks next and these most closely resemble the cast of characters you’re going to use. All the houses here are timber-framed, providing the basic structure of the building, similar to the spine of the narrative and overarching main plot line. For bricks, think scenes, necessary for pinning the story together. Then there’s plastering – could this be style or tone?! Wiring has to be pace and tension to electrify your story. Sorry about that! I admit that I stumbled a bit on plumbing although I guess one could compare it to removing all the crap bits. (Pun intended). As for painting and varnishing, how about polishing the final draft to within an inch of its life?

No do-it-yourself manual on how to build a house – I’m sure I’ve missed out crucial elements – but maybe a rough guide to writing a story. Maybe….

ART FOR ART’S SAKE

We all recognise how solitary writing is. I occasionally feel as if I’m stuck in a far-flung outpost, disconnected from reality, (not a bad thing sometimes) ploughing my own literary furrow, alone. Since October, I’ve been living, breathing and sleeping in my imaginary world – hence my very limited activity on Twitter – but last week, I reconnected with a trip to the Capital.

I can’t tell you how great it was to kick off with a long overdue visit to Goldsboro Books, David Headley’s bookshop baby (now fully grown and mature adult) and home of DHH Literary Consultancy.   There, I caught up with my agent and, after a whizz around the bookshop, we sauntered off for a working lunch with my publisher.   An hour and forty minutes later, I emerged with a new set of edits and spent the rest of my stay belting around various watering holes not far from Leicester Square. Two life times ago, I used to work in a PR consultancy not far away in Gt. Marlborough Street. That same frenetic, edgy, noisy, ‘being part of something’ feeling I experienced then assailed me now. Ironically, I’d be lying if I said I found it entirely pleasant. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in solitary.

I headed back to ‘the sticks’ and on Saturday visited Malvern Theatre to watch ‘Art’, a play written some time ago by Yasmina Reza. Brilliantly conceived, it tells the story of three friends, Marc, Yvan and Serge. Serge buys a modern art painting for an absurd amount of money. The canvas is all white. When Marc comments that’s it’s ‘shit’, (‘merde’ I’m guessing in the original) all hell breaks loose.

With an all-star cast, featuring Denis Lawson, Nigel Havers and Stephen Tompkinson, we knew we were in for a treat but Tompkinson’s sensational and hilarious rant in the mother of all soliloquies had the audience breaking out in spontaneous applause.   The play, above all, is a study of friendship, the bonds that bind us, and those that break us, and it seems particularly appropriate for the uncertain times in which we live. I left the theatre with my ribs aching from laughter, but the play was not simply comedy gold. There was a message in the mayhem and it left me with a strong sense that we all come, make a lot of noise and then we fade away. Strangely, there is unity and grace in that thought.

NEVER A DULL MOMENT.

Keen to take advantage of a week ‘off’, I went to the theatre and reduced my ‘TBR’ (To be read) pile by a factor of two. The theatre trip was amusing for all the wrong reasons so I’m going to gloss over that one – apart from saying that the man sitting next to me fell asleep in the first half and let out a very loud snore. I didn’t blame him.  It didn’t put me off the theatre – not quite – and we booked to see another play in March. But back to reading: first up, and very belatedly, Jane Harper’s highly acclaimed novel, ‘The Dry’.

The big question that drives the plot forward is: ‘Who murdered the Hadler family?’ Although detective work plays a role, the novel is so much larger than a police procedural. For a couple of days after I’d finished the last page, I couldn’t reach for another story, so strong was ‘The Dry’ in my mind. Sublime and original writing – I so admired how Harper runs two complementary narratives alongside each other – coupled with a deceptively simple premise, it had me hooked from the very first line. In common with another Australian writer, the late Peter Temple, Harper uses her tinder dry environment to exceptional effect. No spoilers here so just go out and buy the book.

Finding something to follow was tough so I fell back on a tried and tested, ‘you know what you’re getting’ writer, Frederick Forsyth. Again, another deceptively simple premise: ‘What if a teenager hacker can outclass the most sophisticated security services in the world, with devastating consequences?’ The thing about Mr F is that his stories are terrifyingly topical. When you read them you always receive a masterclass in how the military and security services really operate. Intriguing international insights are discreetly whispered and, it feels, for your ears only.   His stories don’t ring with authenticity they clang. A devotee of the authorial viewpoint, he never writes in a ‘pin your ears back and listen up’ manner. It’s subtle and all the more pleasurable to read.

But it wasn’t solely a reading and theatre week. I caught up with friends and family and generally did that thing most people do over Christmas, which for me last year was a uniquely something and nothing affair.

With deadline one dispatched – more on this to follow – and deadline two met and on track for more edits, I really enjoyed my relaxing week in the run-up to February.   I even managed to make sense of my chaotic writing ‘shed’, and that’s really saying something.

INTO THE TWILIGHT ZONE

No, not those early January days following all the celebrations when, bit-by-bit, we stutter into a New Year, with resolutions already broken. I refer to that weird space in time when a writer types the last word of a first draft.  Initially, all kinds of jubilant emotions kick in but, my goodness, they are swiftly tempered by a slump. The big question that haunts the ‘just finished first draft writer’: ‘Is it any good or not?’ (Note the polite version).

Some months ago, I swore off all sorts of things.  My life as I knew it became quite alien.  And the reason?  I was deeply enmeshed in a writing project that consumed me from day one. Consequently, Christmas and New Year festivities were more than scaled back. I didn’t write on Christmas Day, (I lie – I wrote notes before bedtime) but pretty much kept going throughout because, as every writer knows, when the force is with you there is little choice. I’ve never been possessed by a demonic power but this was how I imagined it would feel. All those characters whispering in my head and making their presence felt, occasionally at three a.m.

Ta-da, I emerged this morning not so much like a butterfly from a chrysalis, (nice thought) but an adventurer tramping, sleep-deprived through a jungle, without a compass. How the hell did I get here, I asked myself blearily?

Now, as any fool knows, a first draft is not a finished novel. There is more work to be done. Lots of it probably. So, short term, I took myself off into the sunshine for a long walk by a river and wished Happy New Year to all kinds of people. On my return home, I actually drank a cup of coffee, looking out across the garden, without feeling the need to take it through to where I write. More importantly, I had a conversation that was more or less coherent with my other half. I gazed longingly at the books amassed on my TBR pile and picked one out that came highly recommended – more to report in a future blog. I checked out my editorial work schedule and was pleased to see that there were some interesting manuscripts waiting in the wings. I reminded myself that I had a line-edit deadline to fulfil for my brand new novel (the title not yet absolutely buttoned down) to be released in June with Killer Reads. Stuff to do, in other words, but 2019 is looking great. I hope it’s great for you, too.

 

IN THE ZONE

I’m badly overdue with my post and it’s going to be the shortest ever, but for the best of reasons: I. Am. Writing.

Scary and thrilling in equal measure – hope this translates to the story – I’m literally sleeping, eating and breathing this one and won’t be coming up for air for some time.  Apologies for my abject failure to engage and hopefully normal service will be resumed in the not too distant future.  So adieu, farewell, until we meet again, and, as I won’t get to post before you know what: HAPPY CHRISTMAS!  May 2019 be a good one for you and yours.