Thursday, 26 August 2010

I Am Pinching Myself...

As you probably already know, I have been working on my first novel since November 2009, when I wrote my first draft. I've been reading about how to contact agents and publishers since I started writing, and recently feeling a bit worried about how to approach that next step. I imagine I'm not the first writer to feel a sense of dread about getting *that* letter together.

So, imagine my utter amazement yesterday, when I was contacted by a publisher, who has requested to see my manuscript! Yes, I *know*!!! I am pinching myself as I write this. I won't say any more just yet in case they decide that my story does not fit their list, but still, it's very exciting.

The past 24 hours has been a bit of a weird dream-like experience actually. In a good way.

Only this lunchtime, I was carrying out one of the gazillion tasks involved with my other "job" and making some cheese sauce, when it dawned on me that I was so overcome by this request that I have not even mentioned my other publishing achievments this year.

As a result of gaining over 30 votes for my story 'A Knowing Look' on Authortrek, this story will now be considered for inclusion in an anthology of short stories. (Please do still visit and vote by clicking on the beige button just above my photo if you have yet to do so. I'm determined to get as many votes as possible!)

Also this year, I have submitted three pieces for charity fundraisers which are moving towards being published too. All in all, this year has been quite a success, when I stop and think about it.

For now I am waiting for the school "holidays" to finish, and then I will be able to polish my book until it shines and send it off.

And then, who knows...?

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Friend or Faux?

In this world of virtual friendships and social networking, it is easy to imagine people are as you would like them to be, and assume that everyone uses the same sites as you for the same reasons, and that they are all like-minded.  

This is a false sense of security, as people are different everywhere in the world and the internet is no different. There will always be a wide range of characters in every human group, whether online or out in the real world.

As a writer, it is hard enough to put your work online but when you consider the personality behind the piece, it is not always easy to judge accurately. Some of the most powerful writing in history has been created by people with mental illness or deeply ground issues that you may never suspect by reading their work. Even when a piece is strong, and a writer is a bestselling, famous author, the person behind the mask could be crumbling when faced with a negative comment on their work.

Recently on Twitter I have witnessed people that have only every demonstrated that they are lovely, helpful and friendly people be attacked by others. This usually happens in an anonymous way, and is done people who hide behind fake names. Sometimes referred to as trolls, they seem to get pleasure from upsetting others.

I think I am the exact opposite of this. I watch what is being said to people that I like, and I feel the anger rising up inside me. Not the sort of anger that wants me to be aggressive or violent, but the type that makes me want to go and administer hugs, chocolate or a stiff drink, and to tell the person that is being attacked how wonderful I think they are.

It is usually the gentle, friendly types who are subject to this sort of flaming. This is what bugs me the most. The people who lash out think they are being clever or amusing, hiding behind fake names and flaming people for sport. They have no idea or worse, no mind, for the amount of upset they can cause. I could name (but I won’t) four people in particular who I have grown fond of on Twitter, and each of them has been subject to this sort of mindless behaviour.

One of them said to me recently, “This always happens to people who are influential.” I wasn’t so sure. I did wonder whether it was a case that anyone would do. But now I think she may have had a point, and that it is indeed a way for people to try and get noticed.

I was a victim of playground bullying. I am now 39 years old and it is only this year that I have been able to forgive the ring leader, and this was because someone who knew both of us (and had no clue about the bullying) recently told me what the bully herself had been through at a younger age. It helped me to understand and forgive her 11 year old self, but at the same time my character was formed during those experiences as an 11 year old, and I have spent my entire life suspecting that people dislike me. Somehow, despite this, I am an eternal optimist, and I have no idea how this tallies, but I always see the best in everyone, until they prove me wrong.

This knowledge about me may help people to understand that when I put my work out on my blog I am constantly waiting for the negative comments. It has literally blown me away how many lovely, talented and gracious people have commented positively on my blog posts again and again.

My first dip into the world of constructive criticism was when I emailed one of my earliest short stories to a few fellow writers that I had got to know on Twitter and to a couple of friends. I had a few “loved it” comments, which is always a pleasure, and then one of the writers, who I admired and had a lot of respect for – ok I was kind of in awe of – gave me more of a critique as an answer.  The bristling happened, the hackles went up, there was a quivering lip and a ‘bloody… sodding … flipping’ type rant as I stormed around the house, thinking “I am crap, it is crap, I give up.” This is my in built reaction to criticism, I admit. However, I braced myself and I went back and looked at this writer’s blog. I realised how much she knew that I still had to learn. I read the message again. I no longer have the original, but the thought is lodged in my brain. It was all about removing unnecessary words, and only including words that were vital. This person has given me a gift. She has helped me to sharpen my knives and slice and dice every piece that I have written since. She has been like the teacher that you completely respect and love at school and want to impress.  She has taught me so much and yet she treats me as an equal. Imagine how I felt when I saw her comment under my last short story and it said: “This is extraordinary, the descriptions, the measured pace, the emotion but without being overly sentimental. The emotion built up over the story. This is my favourite of everything you've written.” Imagine, also, how it felt when she refers to me as her writing twin. Especially as she feels like mine too.

If you are reading this post and have got this far, you may have seen what happened yesterday when someone left me a ‘helpful’ comment on my latest story. Perhaps they genuinely thought they were being helpful.  Parts of the comment did in fact tally. But the thing that stood out for me was that this person felt the need to hide behind anonymity. There is no way I can discuss what they have raised, or ask them more about their point of view, or even understand their own experience and see how it relates. I have no idea who this person is. It could even be someone that I consider a close friend.

Anonymity is a useful tool in some cases. Personally I would rather let people know that it is me giving the comments. I also hesitate to criticise unless I know it will be considered helpful. I am the first person to advise people not to listen to critics as it is only one person’s opinion. I actually don’t read reviews of films or (generally) books, as I think each to their own, and I like to make up my own opinion, and in many cases I have loved films that have been panned by the media.

I’ve made the decision now that I will treat anonymous comments on my blog similarly. I appreciate every comment that I have received from friends, writers, and everyone else who has commented and put a name to their words. It is helping me to develop both as a writer and a human being. But an anonymous comment only leads me to wonder who is behind it, and actually the reality is that I prefer to know who it is that I am meant to be respecting the opinion of.

I also appreciate more than I can put in to words, my reliable bunch of Twitter and Facebook contacts who I now think of as friends.  It constantly amazes me how people that I only know online can feel so important in my life, but you really do. You know who you are. You’re amazing.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Short Story: A Knowing Look

This is the original version of this story.
I have since edited it a number of times, and it has been published in a collection called A Knowing Look and Other Stories.

I grew up in a National Park, the rolling heat of the African plain a constant companion, along with the mammals that we observed. A child born of two rangers, it was natural that I would grow up and work in the base camp.

I was twelve when I had my first close encounter with an elephant. Elliot came to us after being attacked by an angry bull. Being young and defenceless, he hadn't stood much of a chance, yet he limped towards our camp after his escape. The bull elephant must have been distracted to leave him before he had finished the job.

For four days we fought to keep Elliot alive. We fed him formula and cared for him day and night, but we were still learning and it wasn’t enough. I held his head on my lap as he slipped away from us. We buried him under a large Boscia tree, and the next day his family group arrived. It seemed that they had been watching from afar. Mimi, the matriarch, and her team of cousins, aunts and sisters gathered under the tree and somehow unearthed his shallow grave, only to cover it again with leaves and branches. Week by week they visited and carried out their rituals as I watched. When Elliot was nothing but dry bone, still they gently covered him with leaves and lightly stroked his jawbone with their trunks.

Life felt balanced in our base. Animals and man lived in mutual respect. The problem we faced was the tourists. Although we were not in a tourist area, certain trips passed our way. They treated us like a curiosity, and named us on their ‘must view’ lists, after the Big Five.

Mimi and her family visited regularly, yet always seemed to be absent when the tours came by. My parents, the other rangers and I also tried to melt into the landscape when these invasions occurred. Apart from when it was the tours ran by Benson. When he came to the base, his clients were always given fresh lemonade and respite from the scorching sun for a while, as my parents told them a little about our work.

My family always joked that one day Benson and I would have a family of our own. The son of two former rangers, he now lived elsewhere but always called in when he was passing. I learnt all I needed to know about biology from the animals we observed. It was to be expected that once I was of a certain age, he and I found a quiet space and did what came naturally. I wasn’t quite sure how I was supposed to feel, but he smiled each time as he walked away. Studying elephant for years had made it clear that males were not designed to stick around.

As I neared the age of twenty, Benson’s tour was diverted to another area of the reserve, and the visits ceased. I had no concerns that he no longer visited me. These things happened all the time.

Our elephant family continued to visit. Years after Elliot died they still congregated under the Boscia. It was fascinating to watch.

The summer of my twentieth year brought changes. My once easily bronzed skin began to burn. I stayed inside for longer as nausea burnt my throat. Once I recovered, I ventured outside again. One afternoon, in the shade of the Boscia tree, I fell asleep.

Waking suddenly I felt claustrophobic; an unusual sensation on the wide open plain. As I reluctantly opened my eyes, I saw Mimi and her family standing above me. They encased me on every side yet avoided trampling my body. I shivered in the afternoon temperatures as one of them touched me. Suddenly their trunks were all over me. Their gentle, tender explorations meant me no harm.

They slowly turned and walked away, until only Mimi was left. Her trunk casually held above my midriff, she gave me a knowing look before walking off behind her family.

I thought nothing more of it. Nothing unusual happened for a few more weeks, until the time when the cramping came. I thought of Benson and our time together. I grabbed my cleanest shawl and headed off to the forest edge, crouching alone, until the cramping ceased.

As I walked back to base, the shawl swaddled my offspring. Red rivulets ran down my legs as I had not thought to stem the flow. The baby scrunched his eyes up against the searing sunshine. I shaded him with my shadow as best I could, as I searched the camp for my mother.

“Look, Mama,” I said as I showed her the newborn.
“Oh, gracious,” she exclaimed as she sat down, knowledge and realisation mixing like an emulsion.
She gazed at him, his tiny black eyes wide in a mocha face, and knew more than I that he was yet another reason to hide when the sunburned tourists came passing our way.

For three weeks, I strived to feed him. But the camp was a harsh place and infection took hold. The raging sun made it impossible to get treatment in time. Mama assured me that she would look after Benson. I let go, knowing that he was in safe hands.

There was no priest at my burial. I was laid to rest as I had requested, on the other side of the Boscia tree. It was fitting to be with Elliot again; another who I had tried and failed to nurture. As my Mama took over the raising of Benson Jr, the love that she had felt for me transferred to my son. She held him close and smiled through her tears as they left me that day.

Deep, searching, soulful eyes watched the burial from a respectful distance. Mimi and her family then approached, and stood under the Boscia. Their trunks gently skimmed the freshly laid earth as they grieved again. Their visits lengthened and became more frequent, as they mourned an equal and a friend.

Benson never did return to the camp. But Mimi revisited until Benson Jr grew up and left. It was as if she was keeping him safe and willing him to thrive. As, once, I had tried to do for Elliot.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Short Story: Our Favourite Place

Another story written in six minutes thanks to Six Minute Story
The prompts for this story were: green-clad man, rain and a tan.
I edited to remove a surplus "just" in this copy.

Our Favourite Place

I stand on the fine sand, gazing out to sea. We stood here before, didn't we? You and I. Younger, then. Innocent perhaps. Lovers learning about each other in those early days.

The time we spent on this beach was perfect. Like an advert on TV for far flung luxurious holidays. Our own private paradise. We didn't want it to end, did we?

A man walks past. Dressed in green trunks, he glances at me. I signal to him and buy. He's feeling lucky now. Selling watermelon and coconut is not easy at this time of year. I feast on the melon. Sticky juice runs down my chin and neck. I don't care. I can swim later and wash it off.

It's funny being here alone now. Not so innocent. I wear factor 30 sunscreen, taking a gamble with health to try and gain a glow. You don't worry about health any more, do you?

They'll never find you. The tides and the rain can do their worst. I dug down deep enough to find the wet, thick sand, and your remains won't be found until I am long gone. Or maybe you will become sand yourself, and have footprints trodden into you.

I watch the sea with a complex smile.

This story is also on the Six Minute Story website.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

My First Book: The Story

When I decided to sign myself up for NaNoWriMo, I didn’t really know where my story was going to go, but I enthusiastically entered some text in the synopsis box. This is what I wrote:
Sam Hendry is not looking forward to starting at her new school. Things go from bad to worse as the day of truth arrives and all of her fears come true… and then some.
The main character, Sam, is eleven years old and just about to start at senior school. She’s a gentle, happy soul but she is quite shy. That’s all it takes for the stronger and less pleasant characters in her class to single her out and bully her.

During the course of the book, Sam finds some really good friends who help her to deal with the situation that she is in, and encourage her with her more positive pursuits. She also has some very positive adult influences in her life, which lead her down a path that is both character building and exciting for her. Although the subject of bullying can be intense, the overall story in the book is a positive one.

The book is aimed at the 9-12 age group. I was originally intending to write for an older readership, and have Sam move schools after settling in at one, but as I wrote it, I decided that I would prefer to write it for children who are just leaving primary school or are in the early stages of senior school. If they take anything from the story, I hope they realise that it is not good to be a bully. Or, in the case of being a victim, that there are things you can do to help yourself out of the situation. They may also enjoy the part about it being good to follow your dreams, but I won’t say too much about that, as I don’t want to spoil the story for you completely!

Bullying is a subject that is close to my heart as I have been a victim of it myself and I know what a huge impact it can have on someone. It is only recently that I have developed more confidence and decided that this subject matter should be the basis of my first book, as I wanted to "put it out there". It is by no means a "how to..." guide, but it will hopefully raise awareness of things that may happen.

I know many people who have been bullied, at school as well as at work. It’s so common, and it impacts on people’s lives. I feel so passionate about this that I will be donating a percentage of any profit I make from this book to Bullying UK.

My second book, by contrast, will be women’s fiction. I have a main character in my head and the book will form itself during November 2010.

If I have any time between the two, I will continue to write flash fiction, and work on another novel (again, women’s fiction) that I have been gradually writing for a couple of years.

I would be very grateful for any comments. Especially if you know of anyone who may want to read my book when it is published.

Thank you for reading this. I really do appreciate it.

For further details on my writing process, please see my blog post: My First Book: The Process.

My First Book: The Process

In the past couple of weeks, people have been asking me about my book quite regularly, so I thought I would write about it in more detail here.

I wrote the first draft of this book during NaNoWriMo 2009. I then took a huge step back from it and did not open the file up again until earlier this year. NaNoWriMo is very intense, so I think I needed that breathing space to be able to re-focus both my attention and enthusiasm.

In the meantime, I did a lot of reading on the process of getting published. I read a lot of articles that were shared via Twitter, and finally bought ‘The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2010’ and Carole Blake’s book “From Pitch to Publication…” which re-emphasised a lot of what I had read previously, and included some new information too. I highly recommend these books for anyone else who is hoping to get their work published.

I had done four edits of my manuscript myself by this point. I got to the point where I was happy with the first chapter so I sent it off to three trusted friends of mine for their thoughts. Rachel has many years experience of working in publishing and a keen eye for typos, Keris is a published author, and Sarah has experience in all sorts things to do with writing and publishing, many of which I am still finding out about. By this stage I had almost had enough of my story, so I waited for the feedback with mixed feelings.

All of the feedback I received was helpful. Sarah, who is obviously a very clever cookie, sent the chapter back to me fully edited. This renewed my enthusiasm to edit. I am pleased to say that she is now going to edit the whole book for me. Hopefully, I will have it ready to hand over soon. Sarah is wonderful at many, many things, but singing her own praises is something that is not on the list, so I feel the need to do so. Follow both her and Keris on Twitter and you will not be disappointed.

My plan is to try and get this book finished before October so that I can start my next one during NaNoWriMo 2010. Luckily I write by sitting down and typing what comes in to my head. I have a main character in my mind, but that is all of the planning that I will do before 1 November.

Further details on the subject matter for my book can be found here:

My First Book: The Story

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Short Story: A Deep Voice

I’ve been here a while. I like to observe.

Check her out: slim and brown, yet can’t seem to form an attachment. She’s too shallow by far.

Look at that hairy beast! Tries to approach people, but always dismissed with the flick of a hand.

As for her down there, she’s constantly hoping to rise to the top, but is too drippy to do so.

People zip past all day. Thinking perhaps?

I remain unnoticed despite my glowing personality. I’m looking for ‘The One’, and when I find them, I will stick to them like glue.

It’s lonely being a lump of snot, bobbing up and down in the pool.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

A Day in the Life of a Writer / Mum (Unedited)

I wake. Is it dawn? The sky looks as if it could be. I check my mobile. 4.45 am. I feel wide awake. Voices arguing in my head. They’re back. The characters are crying out to be made real. Their voices want to be heard. Should I get up and write?

The decision is made. But then I hear a thud. A door opens, then footsteps across a carpet. A sad face appears. “These chickenpox are getting more and more,” says a tiny voice. I lace some lemon squash with Piriton and hold a cup while he slowly sips through a straw. It takes minutes but I must be patient. He snuggles down in my bed. A few moments of fidgeting and moaning, then he is still. His breathing slows. The house is peaceful again. He is sleeping, yet I still feel guilty when I sneak out of the room.

I creep to the kitchen. The kettle sounds like a steam engine. It’s a toss up between running caffeine-free and risking the kettle waking another sleeper. I open up my laptop. Voices calling louder now, more incessantly. The huge Whittard mug is empty before I have time to think. As I sip I check my Facebook and e-mail and finally settle on Twitter. I refill my cup and it’s time.

I arrange the paper in front of me. Familiar now, having been no more than a meter away for the past forty-eight hours. My manuscript and I should be joined by an umbilical cord. I’m trying to give life to it. Desperately trying. When I can.

I transfer changes from paper to laptop. Smiling, I feel the flow. Small changes, then entire paragraph rewrites. My pace quickens. Then I hear it. Another door. Thud, thud, thud down the stairs. It’s 6.10am. I close my laptop.

Through the day I glance at the closed computer. I work on the paper, which is easier to do in stolen moments. Red on white. Red for improvement. Willing the marks to transfer themselves to the screen. The stolen moments are few and far between.

A time comes, all the children are playing nicely in the garden. Peace. I gently lift my screen. I open the file but before I can find the right place to start, two people are standing by my side. “Mum, I need to ask you something.” “Mum, I need you.” These voices are more incessant, more demanding, more unforgiving than the others. I give up, again. I troubleshoot. It’s currently the top item on my job description.

It’s nearly noon by the time I take my first trip to the bathroom. It shouldn’t be, but it is as there has been no time, no peace. I consider combining the trip… I glance at my papers… but no, that would be taking it one step too far.

The day continues. The voices whisper at me constantly, but are drowned out by the here and now. Food is made, I am not even hungry. I just feel frustrated as my papers gather dust.

Bedtime comes. Settling three is a full time job in itself. By the time they are all in bed I reach for my manuscript. A few red marks then I give in to reality. I have to sleep as I will be up at five again.

I get into bed. The house is silent but all I can think of is my stories. Should they do this, would she say that? When I wake in the night I never know if the voices that wake me will be my children or those of my characters.  Then suddenly, it is dawn again.

You can see how I cope with the following school summer holiday in my new post: Writer/Mum Part 2.