Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Working with Editors.

I love working with editors. It is such an enlightening experience. Having said that I have been very lucky in that the two main editors I have worked with have really understood my writing and got my stories. Every time they have brought something new and good to the process. I have never once felt like it was a negative process. I do know of others where this has not been the case, so I do count my blessings.

Don't get me wrong when the email arrives with the edits attached I do have that gulp moment and have to let them settle before realising that, yes they are right. They will make the book better. I can see why they are being suggested. You don't always have to agree but you have to have a good reason not to. Editorial comments are there for discussion. They are suggesting you look at an element in the manuscript and consider an alternative way of exploring it. 

It is always important to remember that an editor's opinion is precisely that, an opinion. There is that joke that you put seven editors in a room and give them the same manuscript and you will get seven different lots of editorial comments. I can say the same about writers. If I set my students a writing task where I give them all the same opening sentence, not one of them will write the same story. It is because everything we do, whether it is writing or reading/interpreting what we read is based upon our life experiences. Our education, our upbringing, our politics, our interests. The films we watch, the books we read. Everything has an impact. If you want to get all theoretical you go down the lines of Roland Barthes and his tissue of citations. But let's not. 


This is why it is so important to be open-minded to editorial suggestions and not defensive. Don't be precious about your work. You want it to be the best it can be. You will be too close to it and you won't see the flaws, however, often you have proofread it. Believe me. There have been many a moment when I have cringed when one of my editors have highlighted something that I would have jumped on my students for doing. But I just didn't see it because I was too close to it. I confess I was mortified. Don't be hard on yourself but welcome your editor's input. 

Working with an editor is a joy because they are as passionate about your story as you are. They want to talk about your story as much as you do. Trying to talk to my family about my story is never the same. They are very tolerant of me, bless them, but they don't really care. They are not particularly interested. But your editor is. Make the most of it. Share your ideas when you discuss your editorial notes. Bounce ideas around. It is a chance to get honest feedback. 

Obviously being part of a crit group helps you get used to having feedback, but always make sure it is constructive feedback you are receiving and it is not someone trying to make the book into their book. Always listen to the feedback and ask questions about your manuscript. If you don't agree and you have a good reason not to agree, like with editorial feedback you don't have to follow it. But make sure it is a good reason and you are not just being precious about your work. 

How I envisage the latent 
process
A man reading in the garden
Honore Daumier

I spent years receiving feedback as a student then giving it as a lecturer and as an editor with the Golden Egg Academy. It doesn't make getting feedback from an editor any easier. I still get just as worried though once I have got the edits, I get really excited because I love doing editing and bringing the story to life. Making it sing by ensuring it is the best story it can be. It is all about giving yourself time for latent processing once you have the editorial notes and then enjoy the rewriting. This is why I love working with editors and as I said I've worked with two of the best, Imogen Cooper and Janet.Thomas. 

Happy writing/editing everyone!


 

Saturday, 10 July 2021

Writing Through - the power of reading and writing

Damian Barr
 This post has been inspired by the Radio 4 #GuideBooks with Damian Barr particularly the programme on bodies. It made me think about the books that have helped me but more importantly in this instance how much writing has saved me.

My entire life can be described in one sentence... "well, that didn't go as planned." This has been an echo throughout my life. Just when I think everything is falling into place, I can almost guarantee that something will come along and turn my world upside down. It hasn't just happened once. The one theme throughout is that in one shape or form I will write my way through it. It is one of my coping mechanisms as is reading. The writing allows me to explore the emotions involved and soothe a fractured mind.

The back page of my 
first book!

 From a small child, I have found solace in writing and reading. This photo is of the book of powems [sic] I wrote for my number 2 sister (yes, we are sometimes known by our numbers because there a few of us) when I was five maybe six and she was leaving home to go and study to be a nurse. I was going to miss her terribly and I wanted to make sure she wouldn’t forget me. The answer in my mind even then…write her a book then you will always be with her.

Whenever things got difficult throughout my teenage years. I would lose myself in books or I'd write the predictable heartfelt and fraught poems and, in my case and perhaps randomly, articles. I believe I even considered entering the Vogue young writers' competition. I can't remember whether I actually did, but I know I certainly thought about it and was convinced I would win. Having said that, I was convinced I would win the pony in the WH Smith competition every year (you'd never get away with that now!). I never did! I do also remember a time when in the second year (year 8) my English teacher read out a piece of my descriptive writing to the class. Having finished it, she looked across to me and said, 'You know Vanessa, you really can write. That was beautiful. Maybe you will be a writer one day.' There was a lot of smirking in the class as I was bullied mercilessly at the school, but for that moment I glowed. I can't for the life of me remember the name of that teacher as I have blocked a lot of memories of that school for obvious reasons. I can see her face though. I doubt she is still alive, but I wish I could tell her that I did make it eventually. Writing was a big part of my teenage years as was reading

One of my early notebooks
In my twenties, I found myself as a single parent with three very small children. At the time my way to deal with it was to read voraciously everything and anything but an awful of Joanna Trollope in the evenings when I was on my own. For childcare reasons I couldn’t go out and get a job so I set up my own business. A lot of what I did was based on writing. I wrote press releases, property features for the local paper, newsletter for the local charity, software training manuals. You name it I wrote. I quietly wrote in the evenings dabbling with fiction and poetry that no one ever saw which helped me deal with my emotions. It was the continuation of a habit. If I’m stressed or struggling I write. Never really taking the fiction seriously at that time.

Giving myself a feed
Just when things were beginning to go ok and were falling into place, I had some surgery to stop the serious reflux I suffered from. Unfortunately, my body reacted badly to it. I came around unable to swallow food and only able to take sips of fluids. There were all sorts of other implications that I am not going to include here because you really don't need to know them, but it all turned my life upside down. I was too ill to work. I became disabled. My children were my carers. I would cook for them absolutely starving and crying with hunger. It was a nightmare as it took a year for them to decide to put a PEG tube into my stomach through which I could take special feeds. It was such a difficult time because eating forms such a central part of our lives, our social life, everything really. Think of how many food-based programmes there are on television. Not being able to eat and work, I lost my sense of identity. I had no idea who I was. Yet again in my life, I had to reinvent myself. Work out who this newly disabled person was and how they fitted into this world. Once more I turned to writing. I wrote my way through it. . I have notebooks full of my witterings in. They will never be shared. All too personal and raw.


The PEG however allowed me to start a new life. To become a new person. I decided to make use of the writing that I’ve always played with. I signed up to the University of Winchester to do a degree in English because at that time the degree had modules in Creative Writing (there was no single honours degree in Creative Writing at that stage). Little did I know I was about to change my life completely. I had a chance to try on lots of different voices that included writing for children. Something I’d never thought about before and the rest, as they say, is history…I took an MA in Writing for Children, a PhD, became a lecturer and my debut novel Flight was published in 2018 by Firefly in the UK and by Feiwell and Friends in the US in 2021. Firefly will be publishing the sequel, Safe, in 2022. Writing my way through has helped me in so many ways.

I still do it, when I ended up on crutches because of joint issues, for example. Or when I cut back my hours in order to focus on my writing and build up my school visits just as the pandemic hit - perfect timing Vanessa! I will always write my way through stress and fear. I know if I don't write it has an impact on my mental health. I have learnt that now. I have an understanding.


Me, my crutches, and my crazy family at the launch of Flight.
I do my best not to let disability define me or stop me

Writing can be therapeutic, as can reading be. I have recently read an article about how reading to children in ICU can increase their production of oxytocin, which has an impact on their pain and can reduce it. It also reduces their stress levels. The writers of the article saw parents as a cost-effective intervention as they could read the stories to their own children. I am also a great believer that a book will find you just at the time you need it. It may be a little cliched, but Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist appeared in my life at a time when I needed it. The same with Matt Haig's Reasons to Stay Alive, which arrived at a moment when both myself and various people close to me were having issues with mental health. Yes, I know, the pragmatic part of my brain says, it is because you notice the write-ups of certain books when you need them. The romantic part does say they find you. Believe whatever you want to believe. The choice is yours. Writing and reading are so powerful. They will always be my salvation.



Saturday, 26 June 2021

Writing Historical Fiction - Research and the immersive experience

 

Only two posts ago I wrote about walking away from stories because they didn't feel right and giving it a rest for a while. I wasn't going to write. I was just going to focus on the edits to Safe when they came in. What a silly thing to state. I should have placed a bet on what happened next as I could have almost guaranteed it. 

Within a few days, an idea for a story came to me in the middle of the night. It was so demanding it woke me up! And the idea wouldn't shut up as a basic plot began to form in my head. I couldn't go back to sleep until it was done. I had no idea if it had legs. I thought maybe if I still remembered it in the morning, it would be a go-er. I did, so I wrote down the basics the following morning. This was going against everything I had said I would do. See writers never do what they say they are going to do! My writing never goes to plan.

But I am having a wonderful time. I am playing with this new story idea. It is historical again. Before I start writing it though, I have to read myself into the period. What this means is I have to do some basic background research. I spend a couple of days reading what I can about the period and the place at the time. Reading around the general history, the country, the culture, and the people. Enough to give me a sense and a feel for the place. A brief immersive experience. The more detailed research will be done when I do the editing and I will add more colour - it is all about the writing cold/edit hot process. I wrote about it here.

It is important to limit this background research because it is easy to find yourself going down many a rabbit hole as things spark your interest. There is a risk you could spend so long doing research that you avoid writing or actually forget to write the book. It is great for procrastination.

Illustration from US 
edition of Flight
by Zach Myers

However, when I am doing this research what I love the most is finding those small details. Nuggets of information that make my spine tingle. They are all very small minutiae, but I know when I use them to inspire my writing, or I include them in the narrative they will add depth to the writing and make it sing. Hopefully giving the writing a richness and a sense of verisimilitude. It is important that research despite adding richness is there with only a light touch.

This is because what I mustn’t do is overload my writing with too much detail and information in order to prove how much research I have done to the reader. Such a rookie mistake. All that does is make the writing inaccessible and boring for the reader. The quickest way to switch any reader, particularly a child reader off. It is all about leaving just enough hints on the page that help the reader paint a picture in their mind as they read, but not lecturing them or slapping them around the face with information.

The other thing I do a lot of when I am doing all this research is think. There is a lot of visualisation going on. It is once again all about the latent processing – I have written about this before too in the same place. As a writer, I see my story as a film in my head as I write and my process is all about getting those images from my brain on to the page. At the beginning of the story, as I start to create it, odd scenes appear in no particular order. They frequently give me a vague sense of the direction of the story as images from the beginning, middle and end appear.

Quite often some of the research I may include will mean nothing to the child reader, but it might do to any adult readers – of which I have quite a few. Also, there is a chance that the child reader might take it in and remember, which is why I try to do as much research as I can and do my best to get it right. I remember Imogen Cooper saying to me, it is important not to get it wrong. I've heard of people being put off a text because they found mistakes. For me, particularly when I am writing historical fiction, I am aware that I am influencing someone's perception of history even if it is fictional. A reader may take it as truth, which is why I try to do as much research as I can. 

Having said that, I do remember a time when a man thought I hadn't done my research. They accused me of basing my representation of General Patton on the actor who had played him rather than the actual person. This really stung. I had spent days and days researching General Patton as he was key to my story. I had read his memoir, war correspondence, anything I could about him, but most importantly spent hours staring at photos of him. I didn't watch the film, watching films are a last resort for me when looking at real life characters. Unfortunately, I highlighted in my novel the one facial characteristic that both he and the actor, George.C Scott, who played him in the film had - a prounounced cleft in the chin! I knew I'd never convince this person otherwise. He'd made his mind up about my researching capabilities and my book, a children's book. There are times when it doesn't matter how much research you do, someone will find fault. Be warned.

I spoke about needing the 'feel' when writing and I am definitely getting that with this story. These little nuggets of information I am finding are helping to create a truly wonderful story in my head. The emotions are there already. I hope they stay. For the moment, I am enjoying the process. Writing is the best job in the world. 

Monday, 14 June 2021

Social Media - My love-hate relationship

 

Fabulous social media friends
Candy Gourlay and Kathy Evans
At my book launch

I very definitely have a love-hate relationship with social media. Probably about ten years ago somebody I knew had a go at me because I used social media. They said 'you know the friendships you make on there are not real?' Well, those friendships I had made via social media then are still some of my greatest friends now. Many of them I've met in real life, and they have been with me through the highs and lows of the last ten-plus years. Proving that somebody very wrong.

I love social media because it is a wonderful place to celebrate the great news. When you shout about your book deals and publications. The wave of support is incredible. It is a wonderful way to keep in contact with friends and family too. With Facebook, I have a closed account for privacy so that my students can't access it, I am able to post things I want to share with my siblings. They can see photos of my children and grandchildren as they appeared. Plus family in Australia and the US can also catch up with what is going on here. Social media can be great for connectivity and communication. I should add, it is not just for the good times. It can be a great source of comfort during difficult times. Being like a huge hug as friends swoop around to support you.

I said I have a love-hate relationship. The hate element is because I am very aware that social media can have a negative impact on my mental health. Social media is fantastic if you are feeling positive. But if you are not having a great day, it can suck the life out of you. It can make you feel you are a total failure. You are not the one visiting all those schools, you haven't got all those events planned, you haven't got another book/film/tv deal. This is when you have to remind yourself that social media is the edited version of someone's life. Nobody shows their true life on there. You don't know know what is going on behind the scenes, what struggles they might be facing, and everyone's journey is a personal one. Plus you need to remember Matt Haig's brilliant words from Notes on a Nervous Planet: 



This phrase is my mantra!

Also, I should mention at this point an element that I have not personally, so far, had to deal with and that is trolls. There are some people out there who seem to think that because they are behind a screen it doesn’t matter what they say. It gives them a right to say whatever they want regardless of how offensive and inappropriate it is because it is 'only on social media' and therefore doesn’t count. Yes, it does! You should never write anything on social media unless it is something you would be prepared to say to somebody face to face.  You do not have a right to pass comment on somebody’s decisions, looks, children, careers, anything come to that. Don’t say anything unless it is supportive. Be kind.

KL Kettle -
brilliant author

It is also easy to become overwhelmed by social media particularly if you try to do all of them. There is not enough time in the day to do them all. Focus on what makes you happy. I confess I have taken a bit of a step back from Twitter as I find it rather shouty. I post some bits and any articles that I find interesting. More recently I have focused on Instagram. I find it a friendlier place at the moment. I have an author page on Facebook and as I said a closed personal page for the family. I am watching TikTok, in particular, K L Kettle and Kathryn Evans who are doing brilliant things on there. It is something I might explore soon. What I try to do is schedule things. I use Tweetdeck to schedule my tweets, so I don’t have to worry about those during the week. I have an Excel spreadsheet with potential tweets listed that I might use, so I do a single brainstorming session that covers a few weeks, then I just dip into the spreadsheet when I am scheduling.  I plan my Instagram – particularly if I have a campaign I want to do. I then sort out my content and save it ready to post. I might spend a Sunday morning doing that, so it is ready. I do though have times when I step right away from social media to give myself and my mental health a break. It gives me a chance to decide what I want to include next in my social media and refocus my life. Remembering what my priorities are. 

The important thing with social media is that you do what is right for YOU and what YOU feel comfortable with. There is no right or wrong (other than being kind and not abusive obviously). There is an expectation if you want to be published that you will have some social media engagement, but you have to mediate between their expectations and your needs whilst being aware of your mental health. Be social media savvy.



Saturday, 29 May 2021

Writing is hard - Be brave


 Writing is hard.

Sometimes the words and ideas flow with ease. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes you have to make some very difficult decisions. You need to be brave.

Recently I've had one of those moments. Some of you who follow me on social media may know what I did. Consequently, I thought I'd explain my process/reasons a bit more.

During the previous eighteen months to two years, I have written three novels. One of which is Safe, the sequel to my Second World War adventure story, Flight, which was published by Firefly in 2018, and Feiwell and Friends in the US this year. I am currently waiting for the edits to come back from my publisher for Safe which is coming out in 2022.

The other two novels I had written were contemporary, realist novels, so very different from Flight. They contained similar themes, horses, nature, family, and important current issues such as food poverty and being different. I enjoyed writing them and as always doing the research. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love doing research. I rewrote them and edited them. I put them to one side while I worked on Safe then came back to them again and did another edit.

BUT...



There was something wrong I had a niggle. A familiar niggle in fact. The last time I had this feeling I had been editing what had been my Ph.D. novel and luckily for me at that time I had been working on it with my great friend Imogen Cooper. Some of you may have heard me tell this story. I had been worrying about the manuscript. I couldn't get it right. The writing and the story were all perfectly fine or adequate is probably a better word. But something just felt wrong all the time. The feeling was deep inside me. I found it really difficult to explain but knew I needed to try at the next editorial meeting. However, unbeknownst to me, Imogen had also decided to have 'THAT' conversation with me. We got together. I didn't realise how worried she was. She had no idea how worried I was. 

My memories are vague now but I seem to remember Imogen saying to me, 'Ness, I think you need to walk from it.' It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders because that was exactly what I had planned on suggesting. Her face was a picture when a grinned broadly and said 'Thank god!' I think that was the last thing she expected. The scariest thing was Imogen told me to go away and write whatever I wanted to. But it worked. Flight was the result of that conversation.

Recently that niggle was back though. It didn't matter how much I edited these novels. They weren't right. They were fine. They were adequate. But they weren't good. I was very conscious that whenever I edited Flight it could still make me cry or laugh at the appropriate moment. These novels didn't move me in the same way. They didn't reach deep inside me. The point being is if I am not feeling a story then my reader is certainly not going to.


I made the decision this week to walk away from both novels. Some may think it is a stupid thing to do but I can't keep putting energy into books that don't work for me. Again, I spoke to Imogen about what I was doing. I told her about how I had the same niggle. As usual with her normal insight, she pointed out how I need to feel my stories. I have to get all the emotions. If I don't then it doesn't work for me. I can't make it happen. It is all part of the writing process for me. I admit it, it makes it quite torturous at times. 

I notice my previous post, all the way back in January (University was very time-consuming and stressful with all the online teaching so please forgive me), I was talking all about latent processing. I am taking some time and stepping back from it all (great advice Jo and Amber) as I think about where I want to go with my writing. Once again I felt great relief having walked away and am looking forward to exploring where I am going next and finding new stories. There are also the edits for Safe to look forward to. Another story I felt deeply. 

What am I saying? Sometimes you have to have the courage to walk away from a story. However, give it a good chance though. Don't abandon it at the first hurdle. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint (how many more cliches can I get in!) One final cliche and one that is very important to me: trust your gut. Be brave and enjoy your writing. Get all the feels as my small grandchildren sometimes call it.  

Update: I am going to add a caveat to this. As the brilliant author Jennifer Killick so rightly reminded me and which I think is so important to highlight. No writing is wasted. Writing is like a muscle. The more you do the stronger you get. But also, elements of these stories and inspirations from them may well appear in other manuscripts in some other format. Writers are naturally very good at recycling. Please don't think I am in despair because I have walked away. I know it is the right thing for me. This is all about knowing what is right for you as a writer. 

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Latent Processing

 

Latent processing was something I have always done when writing, but often felt guilty for doing it. As if I wasn't writing properly. It wasn't until I knew Imogen Cooper that she made me realise how important the latent process is. 

Latent processing is the time you spend thinking about your manuscript. It happens during the writing and editing process. It is an important part of it.. These photos were taken this morning on a walk. I have a new story I am working on and it has been going well, but then I felt a little stuck. I knew where I wanted it to go, however, I wasn't one hundred per cent sure how I was going to get there. I needed time away from it. The story takes part during midwinter and wandering through the countryside near my house, I was able to think how my characters would feel/think seeing a countryside covered in a hoarfrost. As you can see some of the left over seedheads look magical when covered in frost. It was foggy alright, but it gave me clarity. The next elements of the story started to fall in to place. 


Latent processing can happen at any time. It often works really well when you are doing something mindless like ironing, in the shower, driving, gardening or going for a walk. 

When you have written a full manuscript, it is important to put it away for a few weeks (I know most of us only managed a few days!). Inevitably even when we are not working on it, it is there at the back of our minds. Thoughts ticking away. Ideas flowing. 

I find it particularly important because I write cold , edit hot. What this means is I get the basic story down first, so I know there is a working structure. The editing process is where I add in all the colour, the details. I build the story up. It is a bit like doing embroidery. The basic story is the black outline and editing is where you fill in all the colour in order to make it a whole living picture. The details lift the narrative off the page. 

Latent processing can happen even before you start writing. It is as you mull over an idea, deciding whether it might 'have legs.' Whether it is something you want to actually write. I have many ideas that never get beyond this point. When a story idea does stick, the latent processing becomes really exciting as you start thinking about characters and settings. Building the narrative world in your head. 

When you reach the editing process, latent processing is still useful. You may have plot holes that need dealing with. The process is fabulous at filling holes or making you realise that your characters need bringing to life a bit more and how. 

As I said at the beginning, I used to feel guilty about doing latent processing. Wallowing in my writing. Now, though, I see it as a vital part of the process and relish it. I no longer feel the need to justify my processes to anyone, as I have a greater sense of what works for me. You will find your own way. Good luck with it all. 

I saw this video earlier this week. I confess it made me smile and the sentiments seemed appropriate in the world we are currently living in.