evseymour

Word on the Wire

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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.’ 

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.

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….

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.

 

LITERARY KARMA

Scooting around on Facebook, as you do, I spotted a number of writers who are embarking on edits, often after submitting drafts of new novels to agents or editors a couple of months ago. Now we all know that the likelihood of writing something fabulous straight off is as likely as winning Euromillions, but I bet we all secretly hope that edits are for others.

And squadrons of piggies may fly…

After the initial euphoria of the ‘thumbs-up’, there comes the downside of ‘Hell, what a lot of work I have to do.’ In my case, this is literary karma because my day job is spent analysing unpublished novels and suggesting edits to authors. As a veteran of the dreaded edits, I usually advise said author to read the critique a couple of times and put it and the novel away for a few weeks. Let suggestions percolate and then, if these resonate, revise.  This usually averts hot-cheeked fury and the strong desire to throttle the editor (me.) I’ve only ever received written attacks twice, both knee-jerk as soon as the critique has hit the inbox, which in many ways is surprising because however kindly constructive criticism is served up, it wounds.   It hurts. (Which is why bad reviews sting so much, but that’s a whole different story). A novel is like your child. Nobody wants to be told that his or her kid has ‘issues’.

With the stiletto firmly on the other foot, I settled down to figuring out which edits to tackle first this week. As every writer realises, even a slight change in a chapter or plot line has repercussions elsewhere. This stuff is not for the faint-hearted. Someone once told me that early drafts are like jam that hasn’t yet set. Sounds benign, doesn’t it? It might not have set but it can still be flaming sticky. Anyway, in the spirit of team effort (for that’s what writing is all about) I’m about to get cracking.

BOOKS GALORE

I had fond hopes of bursting into 2018 rested and full of good cheer after a lovely Christmas break. Instead, I’m sort of limping in half-cocked after a bout of ‘flu. Now don’t get me wrong, this is not the full-on Aussie version. I have not been hospitalised, but it was bad enough to put me in bed for the best part of a week, which is unheard of. I went off food, went off booze so that my unintentional dry January started in December – and not a drop touched since. All my best-laid plans went awry. During the ‘snooze’ time between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, I had intended to ‘woman up’ and plunge myself into techno hell by getting to grips with new software enabling me to update reviews and news on my website – not a chance. I was going to finish the first draft of a brand new novel – did a bit, almost made it, and faltered.

But it’s not all bad news…

One of the big pluses of Christmas is that I’m given lots of novels and so is Mr S, which means double the pleasure. In between sleeps, I was able to binge-read and, boy, what great books I’ve read. I have catholic tastes when it comes to literature. I also tend to read the ‘latest great thing’ months or even years after the hype has died down.   Having devoured ‘Stormbird’ by Conn Iggulden, I read ‘The Late Show’ by Michael Connelly. With female main protagonist, detective Renee Ballard, it signalled a departure from Connelly’s usual gig. I’d probably read another although, hand on heart, I didn’t find it as satisfying as some of his earlier work. I freely admit this could be due to the generally low mood I was in. Next up, ‘Archangel’ by Gerald Seymour. Written a long while back, it’s a tour de force of a story, and displays all the attributes commonly found in Seymour’s work.   His main protagonists are often difficult, complex individuals. Michael Holly is no exception and yet he displays the kind of nobility and integrity that make men risk all to follow him. Superb. I munched through’ Trinity’, the second in the War of the Roses series by Conn Iggulden in a couple of days. If history and terrific storytelling is your thing, it comes highly recommended.

So what’s next on the blocks? ‘The Midnight Line’ by Lee Child. (Mr S read and raved about it). Other authors in the pipeline feature Peter James, Stuart Neville, Clare Mackintosh, Colette McBeth, and, care of a nice deliveryman yesterday, Gerald Seymour’s latest ‘A Damned Serious Business.’ That’s for starters.   Like I said, not all bad news.

Whether you limped or burst into 2018, I hope it’s a good one for you.   Nothing like a decent read to make things better.

OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS

You’d think that sitting on your own in a quiet space with just you and your computer, or pen and paper, thinking your own thoughts would be the safest of occupations. Well, think again.

There’s been a fair amount of chatter on the airwaves recently about the physical problems associated with sitting for extended periods of time, ‘hunched over’ a manuscript. ‘Author’s arse’ – a migration of fat to that area of the body might be a royal pain in the rear – pun fully intended – but at least it doesn’t hurt. Likewise, ‘Bloggers Bulge.’ Easier to conceal but, nevertheless, annoying and unflattering. Headaches can afflict anyone who sits in front of a screen for long periods; the trick to take short breaks, which might seem obvious. However if you’re engrossed in a major scene, it’s easy to overlook. My personal thermostat bust years ago, consequently, I’m a chilly mortal in winter, overheated in summer. Not being terribly active (even when standing) can exacerbate my temperature gauge. A minor irritation maybe. Neck, shoulder and back pain, well, that’s a whole different story.

After experiencing agonies with my left shoulder, I decided to try a standing desk.   The result was as instant as it was amazing. Aside from the freedom of shifting my weight from one foot to the other whenever I fancied it, (to a casual observer, looks like I’m practicing dance moves) I could finally say bye-bye to frozen shoulder. Feeling exceptionally pleased, and filled with the kind of zeal commonly found in those who’ve conquered addictions, I proclaimed to my writer mates that they also had to get a standing desk or similar contraption. My closest writing friend had problems with her back, made worse by sitting. Astonishingly, after taking my advice, these magically disappeared. Great. Big tick. Well done me. Unfortunately, what might sort out one problem sometimes triggers another. My friend developed excruciating pain in her feet. She now has two problems instead of one. I hang my head in shame.

The mental health issues associated with writers are well documented; largely thanks to several big names brave enough to discuss them. Some feel that writers write because they are natural depressives, the general idea that writing is cathartic. Some believe that writing should come with a government health warning. Spending hours in isolation is deemed unhealthy. Yes, we have connections to social media, but it’s not quite the same as human interaction. (Not sure how many of my FB friends would turn up at my funeral!) All kinds of demons can assail you in the comfort of your own workspace, however nice you make it (and, naturally, with your standing desk in place.) Lack of confidence – is what I’m writing garbage? – and writer’s block, often inextricably linked, are just two that threaten to derail the writer. Fear of failure and rejection are also demonic big-hitters and they can cripple the unsuspecting author. To top it off, if you’re reliant on writing novels as a sole source of income, you could be in for an unpredictable, seat of the pants ride.

While reactive depression might be normal after a bad review, weak sales or, dare I say, other authors storming the charts with zillions of five star reviews, (green-eyed demons this time) while yours languish, it would seem that writers are more prone to a general sense of loneliness, isolation and abandonment than ‘civilians’. In addition, we’re expected to turn ourselves into mini celebs if there is a book to publicise. Pressing the flesh – even if only on social media – might come easy if you’re in sales, but for those who spend long hours alone crafting a story, ‘coming out’ can be quite a disturbing experience. By nature, most writers are not performers, let alone marketing men or women. And with so many books published every week, month and year, it’s necessary to ‘ ‘woman up’ or ‘man up’ to get out there and strut one’s stuff. It takes a different kind of energy and skill to ensure that a novel, however good it is, gets noticed by bloggers, reviewers and, very importantly, readers. While we might be passionate about our story, not all of us have those skills.

You might possibly conclude that the occupational physical discomfort endured by writers bear no comparison to the potential mental fall out. I’m not saying that writing turns you into a basket case, physical wreck, or both. Loyal and supportive friends who are also writers keep me sane and I hope I do the same for them. I guess anyone working in the arts and creative industries probably shares similar risks – perhaps with the exception of ‘Author’s Arse’!

 

 

 

 

 

 

YOU SAY ‘TOMATO’…

Remember that song flagging up the differences between US pronunciation and British?   (Clearly, not taking into account regional accents).   Well, I’ve been off-air because I’m busy editing not one, but two novels due for release in September and March next year with my US publisher, Midnight Ink. Added to edits I carried out last year for ‘Beautiful Losers’ (March 2016 release), it’s provided me with a fascinating insight into the differences between two nations, not just in terms of language but culture. According to my sharp-eyed copy editor, there were not too many unwieldy Britishisms with which she had to tangle and unpick but, even so, for smooth communication, there have been some.

Before I got cracking on the actual text, I corrected every single speech mark. We Brits tend to use single while Americans use double. I’d love to be able to say that with one flick of a button on my Mac I could magically make the transition without lifting another digit. Not so. Or, at least, not so as far as I could fathom. However there are distinct advantages to adopting a painstaking, if slightly anal approach, I got to pick up on pesky if minor grammatical bloopers. My excuse for having any bloopers at all – no, I’m not going to reveal which ones – is that I invested too much brio in the writing and not enough in the grammar. Moving swiftly on, the way in which we Brits talk to each other can sometimes pose problems for US readers who might take us a little too literally. There were the rather more obvious branding problems. Halfords is unknown in the US so I had to rely on a broader term. ‘Walking in crocodile’ confuses the hell and, when we talk about calling someone (as on a phone) Americans believe this means visiting in person. ‘Hooking up’ for a chat has a whole different meaning, involving sex – not what I wanted to convey at all.

While on sexual terminology, I received a genuine eye-opener. There is a scene towards the end of ‘Beautiful Losers’ in which my heroine, Kim Slade, confronts ‘the bad guy’. It’s a genuine ‘in extremis’ situation. She’s right up against it and she curses fulsomely and extremely offensively with a very Anglo-Saxon word. Let’s put it this way, it begins with ‘C.’ This is even more offensive in the States than here – completely unacceptable in most circumstances. Fortunately, Americans have their own plethora of profane terms. Would ‘Motherf**r’ do, instead, I enquired.