The Fun of Writing a Series

Mullins family saga mindful painting

The fun of writing a series – my fellow author and member of Alliance of Independent Authors Francis Guenette’s blog post a few weeks ago inspired me to write about fun of writing a series. Francis had asked whether we as readers were ‘fans of serialised fiction’ – did we enjoy reading or watching a series or prefer one-off, ‘stand-alone’, stories? My response was that I love reading a series and I am enjoying writing one, (the Mullins Family Saga – if I’d known it was to become a series, though, I would have given Max Mullins a more noble, memorable, surname perhaps! Dashwood? Or Mac-something?)

Examining the subject, it is fun, but it also creates its own drawbacks.

For example, November is Nano-month: many writers will use ‘NaNoWriMo’  ( National Novel Writing Month) to scribble down the basics of a novel, in the form of chunks of unedited script, on a daily basis throughout November. Why November? Well in the northern hemisphere November can be the dreariest of all months. After the beauty of October days, with bright sunshine and the trees in their autumn colours, November brings the true end of the year in our gardens and countryside, shorter days, long dark nights, increasing cold. And it is not yet Christmas, so, how to keep going? For writers, hunker down with storytelling.

For a first-time attempt at the long haul of a novel, Nano offers a solution to the question ‘how do I get the first 50,000 words down?’ But for the long-distance series writer, the attraction of ‘just keep going’ will never work. Once you have novel number one published, you have your characters in situ, and they must now develop in believable ways, following up the first story with what they really might do next.  You have family history, you have disputes to carry through or to resolve. You have consequences and memories.

And, that’s also the reason to move into a series. Exploration, and taking things further within established constraints. Seeing if they learn from experience, if they cope with new circumstances … That is the fun of it. And, therein lie the restraints.

After Baby, Baby, will Max and Jenny stay married, given the vast differences in their childhoods? And if so, how and why? How will their kids turn out? How do their careers and ambitions develop? What will crazy Daisy do next?

Even though I don’t subscribe to the rather romantic idea ‘the characters tell me what they will do next’, I have found, working on story number three, that there are some threads leading from past events into a future which I had not exactly planned, or planned at all. In The Labyrinth Year, two of the characters are growing closer as the book progresses, and now 10 years on from there, they are still in touch.

This was ‘never meant to happen’. It is enormously exciting to follow and see where it may go. And, it demands a whole lot of research …in unexpected areas.

On the other hand, they look to be making a bid for the centre stage, not where these two were planned to be in this story. Do some characters ‘come to life’ without the author’s orchestrations? Romantic whimsey, or psychologically predictable? What do you think?

Baby, Baby, and The Labyrinth Year (The Mullins Family Saga, books 1 and 2), published by Hodge Publishing, are available in paperback (or on Kindle). Find more about them on the Hodge website: http://hodgepublishing.co.uk/

Read Francis Guenette’s blogpost on being fans of serialised fiction here

‘Reading and writing: what do writers do all day?’

Good question. From a series, asking ‘What do Artists do all day?

In my writing – well, what do I do all day? 

Is it ‘writing’?  Actually, unwinding the story thread onto the page/screen? In reality: it’s housework, on-line-admin (dreary but dreary!), keep the fridge stocked, keep the garden from becoming a wilderness, keep in touch on-line to maintain a ‘platform’ (!), research for writing, planning for writing, thinking for writing, actual writing …

Trying to reach the point where you can enter the zone and work … without interruptions from real life, on-line life, or the cats … While lots of writing happens in my head, where it queues for the opportunity to hit the keys …

Reading is absolutely essential for writing.

Writers don’t only write reviews of other writers’ books,  and whiter about sales, marketing, and the Amazon algorithms (we do all of that): they exchange gossipy stuff like ‘what are you reading?’ (we’re hoping the others will respond ‘Your book, of course!’)

Today I found this note (to one of my on-line groups), sitting on my desktop:

“You asked the group what we’re reading. I’m reading Jessica Bell’s memoir ‘I Didn’t Mean to be a Rebel’ and Jodi Picoult’s ‘Great Small Things’. In tandem. Alternately. Together. And when I have time! Both insightful and both recommended. I’ve just finished Francis Guenette’s ‘No Compass to Right’ and am writing up a review of this lovely compassionate character-driven fourth novel in her Crater Lake series. (Yes, it’s all the heavy brigade story-wise: thoughtful, thought-provoking, and somewhat sociological … but never ever boring …) Well, you did ask …!”

Reading, like writing, is time-consuming.

But is the way you learn to write. (I happen to think it is one of the very best ways, and am grateful after nearly 50 years (gosh, it really is!) that we read Dickens at school. I never thought I’d be a writer … but looking back, reading Dickens wasn’t a waste of time in a past era where people thought differently, but a wonderful example of how to create and keep up dramatic tension! (Yes, I’d read them straight through, to find out what happened, not chapter by chapter as homework…)

books read June-August 2017
Books I’ve read over the summer …

Have you, reading this, read any of these?

(You can find reviews of some the books I’ve recently read, here on the Hodgepublishing website … shall be adding more reviews, including of the Picoult and Jessica Bell’s, soon… You can also read about, or purchase my books Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year, on the website …)

Hearing or seeing

Do you hear or see words on a page? Does it make a difference to your reading? In my family, the creative arts are represented by music and visual arts: people don’t write, or at least, they don’t write for a living, or write fiction. Very interesting. I realise that I hear what I read, and when I write, I see it like a movie, and I hear the words as the file out onto the page. There’s the musical ear, then. Despite I don’t play an instrument or sing.

As a writer, it’s almost impossible not to read ‘critically’, studying the style without really wanting to. Cliches can’t not jump out, and slow passages beg to be edited. Authors divide into two groups: let’s call them ‘raconteurs’] and ‘experiencers’. Raconteurs take the reader to a cafe, and having ordered two coffees (let’s say), and palate of delicious cakes, proceed to tell the tale. Or maybe it’s the pub, a pint, and sandwich.

Experiencers take the reader by the hand, and draw them right inside the story. ‘Here we are, step into my book: we’ll share the lives of the characters, we’ll feel what they feel as they feel it, see what they see when they see it, run from it if it’s scary, be embraced by it if it’s friendly, scent it, taste it, live it …’ You are inside, not noticing the story arc, not stopping long enough for a character to ‘tell herself …’ anything, because she has thought it, in the instant it took:  ‘Courage! Take care! Trembling at the roaring of the dragon in the mouth of the cave, I seize my magic sword. Excalibur! I’m charging towards the beast, lungs painfully gulping breaths, legs shaking, as the sweat rolls down my back..’

I love those writers who draw you into the book. I learn from them. A good story, with a great plot, can always be a page-turner as it unfolds. But when are you inside one which gives you the all-round experience … you stop reading, to study how this works … It’s one of the things which writers do – work to improve our writing. Edit and re-write, edit and re-write…

For this of course it’s preferable to be a person who loves solitude, which I am not. To write, I must climb inside my own work in progress, meet my characters once again, and fully engage …

You can find a good article on the process of writing here: (I agree with a lot of it, but not all (for example, I definitely don’t go for the arse on your chair whatever bit (unhealthy, and battering the  brain when it’s empty and needs to relax a while doesn’t work for all of us!… but, it’s comprehensive, lively and entertaining …)

Writing: Living in the Gaps in between … cats, blackberries, and pruning the jasmine … an overview …

blackberries
Distractions or necessary reality? 

One of those conversations appeared on Facebook today: the ones between writers where someone suggests (or puts up someone else’s blog suggesting) that we must ‘write something every day, in order to keep up/improve your writing skills.’   …’

Another version is ‘morning pages’: upon waking, or as soon as possible after (take the kids to school, feed the cat, walk the dog …etc, but do not forget you’re a writer) seize your notebook and write solidly for ten to twenty minutes. Not stopping, and even if what you write is rubbish. This will improve your skills, keep you writing …

There was some disagreement: is this helpful, or even wise? One person puts a new poem on her blog everyday. Another swears by deadlines, rather than daily practice. You get idea.

In practice, I don’t write every day, but I’m living in the gaps in between. Between my physical life and the life in my creative brain, where a scene can rest for days before there is space (between the realities) to write. And when that arrives, the scene may improve (vastly) on its sketchy beginnings.

The last scene I wrote, I’d only imagined in advance that Jenny (a research scientist and a mum two teenage girls) would at some point, at home, be discussing with her daughters what the family would all do at half term. When the scene arrived on the laptop, it brought along its own vivid details: (here’s an edited extract …)

‘How about,’ Zoe says, as she sidles into our study, bringing a tray with two mugs of mug of hot chocolate laced with vanilla, and the cinnamon biscuits she’s been making, ‘How about – it’s very boring for anyone who’s in a single parent family. When their Mum has to go to work. And they’ve just been told that if they bring a book along, they can read quietly in the St Hildie’s library…’

I shut down the rather peculiar e-mail I’ve been reading, and slide my arm around Zoe. ‘Zo-zo, this smells like heaven, darling. Have seat.’

‘Shall I move these?’

‘Careful. Can you dump those files on the window seat? I’ll need them tomorrow.’

… Then, head on one side, ‘Mummy, I thought, maybe we could ask Annalise to come with us to Granny’s house at Sennen?’

Mmm, I think. Daze will be there, with Rothko. Rothko, aged eight, is hardly a companion for a thirteen year old, slightly geeky, girl. Where would we all sleep? ‘I’ll think about it.’

‘For how long? Will you think?’

‘As long as it takes?’  We could, I realise, take a tent and pitch it in the garden. We have a family-sized tent, in the attic. Annalise and Stacey are, however, not really my kind of person. What is it with children, when they make friends with people you’d never hang out with? ……

  ……. ‘Mummy?’

‘Yes, Zo-zo.’ (She’s been reading one of the undergraduate scripts, something I shouldn’t let her do.) ‘Okay, … I’m wondering if Granny and Des would be okay with us pitching our tent in their garden, and some of us – maybe you and Annalise – could use it to sleep in? Because it’s hardly an elastic house, and Daze will be staying, with Rothko.’

‘Yes!’ Zoe punches the air. ‘And that’ll keep Rothko out of our things. I’ll take a padlock, zip up the tent and padlock it: during the day of course.’

‘I hope that’s just an idea, not something you’re planning?’

‘Rothko can be a pain…Shall I phone Annalise?’

Hot choc with vanilla, cinnamon biscuits, undergraduate examination papers, and Zoe’s sudden request to bring a particular friend whom Jenny isn’t keen on … that all arrived  and the scene came alive – and did I add,it takes place in a twilight room with Jenny;s desk illuminated by just a small lamp? I  had better …

Today a further scene forms in my mind: they have arrived at Jenny’s old home in West Cornwall, the holiday venue. Jenny’s partner (Max, a GP) is putting up the tent in the garden for Zoe and Annalise to sleep in. Possibly, it is raining or there is a sea mist: I don’t yet know which will arrive. Or, maybe, a wonderful golden Cornish seascape sunset… Max hears Jenny and stepsister Daze arguing inside the house… Where and when will he ask Daze to ‘lay off Jenny, she’s got a lot on her mind. A rather upsetting thing happened at work…’ and Daze counters with ‘You’re assuming I’ve got not problems in my life right now?’ (And will she, as she used to in a previous book, add a few choice bits of colourful language, or has she left that behind? Does she still smoke? Where are the kids? Who’s listening?)

It will reveal itself as I type – but the essence is stored already. It cooks gently in small gaps between the realities of the day.  Both cats had routine health checks. The jasmine (fastest growing fragrant shrub I know!) got pruned so the plants living its shade could see the sky. We went blackberry picking: the warmer drier weather earlier means fruits are ripening earlier. The bramble blushes were covered with more berries than I’ve ever seen, shiny black ripe ones, red ones coming on, a few still tightly green.

bee on thistle
Busy on its daily tasks …

There were rabbits bounding about, bees on the late thistle flowers, and a huge gorse bush covered in yellow blooms. A kestrel watching in the sky.

The berries (several kilos of them) will become jam.

Seems to me we fiction writers live two lives in tandem: words and events, words and events. Keeping the writing flowing along may not rely only on writing every day but on living creatively in the gaps in between.

Oh, but I did write yesterday, didn’t I? I hand wrote a long letter, to a friend I keep up with now she’s moved away… The pleasure to scribble away by hand, not typing a keyboard …

Getting back to the Writing …

BB new coverTLY new cover

2016 – a ‘Labyrinth Year’ for Fiction writers?

Many writers post only about writing…

Though it’s arguable that we should connect readers to what else matters in our lives, and why it can take well over a year to write a book.

As they say, not only frustrating and sad things are stressful: our first grandchild arrived in August, so last  year we had all the excitement, and the involvement, of the waiting, the arrival, and the getting to know. Otherwise, for me, the stresses of 2016 that were detrimental to writing were political instability and computer problems, occurring enough to disrupt every attempt to live creatively in the imaginary past world of 2007.   image6 (1)

What survived these better was my painting: two pieces for an exhibition in North Wales, as well as a number of others. I’ve been observing the natural world and taking photographs in our local Nature Reserve.

heron
A heron hides in the reed bed

And with others I’ve attempted to found a

lasting ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) local meeting in Oxford. I’ve done two interviews at Oxfordshire Live: (local TV). One, with my friend and fellow ALLi author Debbie Young, successfully went out. The other, with 4 of us ALLi authors, was scuppered by the station, which was a pity, as we were reading stories for Christmas.

I’ve been doing Mindfulness courses and making cakes, (some for the courses …)

 Fiction and Politics …

It was really when one of my ‘friends’ on social media posted a writing-related question that I realised I wasn’t the only fiction writer whose creative imagination had been hit by the political uncertainty, and its resolution. When asked, how or whether the political events of 2016 events had influenced our writing, many others were affected, even knocked sideways, by Brexit and/or the American election. A problem area particularly for contemporary fiction, though a possible encouragement for dystopian fantasy writers. And we contemporary fiction writers were already disturbed, concerned, and generally aware of the mass movement people across the Mediterranean and Europe, and alert to what this might mean. Even, if like me, your novel is set ten years earlier, in 2007, some fairly astonishing facts are now waiting to become future history, so should we take that into account?

In the present WIP (working title LYTM ), part of the Mullins Family Saga, we find Alice and Zoe (daughters of the couple who first met in Baby, Baby in 1984) as teenagers. Concerned for the future, with memories of the London bombings (July 7 2005) and conscious that attitudes towards the Muslim community have been influenced… it’s background, but it’s there…

The how-to of getting back to creative, imaginative, original writing:

Once 2017 began, my first decision was to give Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year new, exciting covers, to appeal to my ‘target readers’ out there. So, (via ALLi) I found a designer, and we got started. It  has become an inspirational project, and we agreed to also re-do the paperback versions. Lots of creative interaction over the details – and of course the blips and bits that need re-thinking … like asterisks … (see below).  These should hopefully be ready for the Hawkesbury LitFest, planned for Saturday 22nd April this year. Hawkesbury 2017 iconBoth Edmund and I will be involved in panel discussions at the “HULF” this time.

Here’s how I’ve made progress:

‘Plotter or Pantser: which are you?’ If you ever write a novel, you may be asked this question.

January and February were all planning. Gathering all the notes and scenes from 2015-2016. Putting them into an order, so the narrative made sense. Then who was doing what when, and what others were doing the same time, was all plotted on a 2007 calendar.

I teased out the development of plot and characters, and the backstory into 3 separate files.

This became a summary, evolving into a scene by scene file of the steps which would carry the story through from beginning to end. Inevitably, an author will be able to see whether there’s a problem at this point: mine was the ‘floppy middle’, well known to fiction writers.

clean lab, fridge cabinetAnd research …  I’ve been busy with all manner of research – science, place, weather, the News, slang … incredibly grateful for the people I know who have experience and knowledge in many diverse areas … neighbours, friends, contacts have been willing to talk about their lives, work, and places they’ve lived.  Some such as Penny, Ant, and Lianne who’ve supplied help and editorial/subject corrections in previous books are contributing again.

Meanwhile … daily life, a line or two from e-mails

I’ve received a strange tax form sent from Amazon, discovered a problem with asterisks in the new files which need adding … was hoping to watch Call the Midwife on iPlayer!  How life goes … Never dull. Some time I will sew a cushion back into its case … not today…

I have been trying to find the correct Foam Floormat for Leo – thickness, size, with or without letters/numbers – as they are hoping to stay next weekend …

I had a chat with our neighbours (who have worked in overseas development, and medicine) about where and how a British GP might be able to do a spot of work in an overseas setting (mid-career) … after some discussion, the idea of  South Africa came up … would be really helpful to have an extended conversation about anything you could add having lived there …(rural area …)

‘Could you please put this notice about the Food Bank into the church news sheet?’

I would … like to chat about the atmosphere in a lab in 2007 … styles of working, whether people use iPods …How might Jenny re-join an Oxford lab after her career break?

Hawkesbury 2017 icon

 PS: Don’t forget – Hawkesbury Litfest on 22nd April!

Hawkesbury Literature Festival Two!

The First Venue: The Fox Inn

This year’s Hawkesbury Literature Festival (the second, and expanded, version) has spawned a whole host of author blogs: so where to begin? As we drove West to the Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton, rain lashed down from a uniformly grey-ed over sky. It didn’t look promising. It continued raining steadily as some us gathered at the Methodist Hall to help lay out the pop-up cafe and display our books. Outside the Fox Inn the marquee, put up for the children’s art and writing activities, stood in the downpour.

But the weather’s total turn-round overnight meant Saturday promised a wonderful day. Moving between the Fox, the tent, the Methodist Chapel and the Hall, authors, visitors, and volunteers enjoyed  blue skies, bright sunshine, and attractive gardens full of spring flowers.

My home-made Lemon Drizzle Cake: already a quarter gone!
My home-made Lemon Drizzle Cake: already a quarter gone!

If there was anything wrong with Hawkesbury this time it was there was so much to do and to see. The Tent buzzed with children doing art or writing sessions, and adults viewing the illustrators’ work and the colouring books, the cafe buzzed with Tea-and-Coffee drinking, cake-eating, cheese-tasting the Cornish Yarg, chatting and book-browsing. (That’s the Yarg, in the bowl at the front of the photo, and William Fairney’s book title? Fifty Shades of Yarg … you get it?)

Performance poet Dan Holloway kicks off the poetry reading session

And there were sessions on poetry, (one beginning ‘I stubbed my toe on a  hedgehog ...) and on ‘Writing with or from Difference’, besides last year’s Fiction category, divided into several sections, and all featuring in both Readings and Panel discussion categories.

As a participating author, this year I enjoyed my first experience of being on a discussion panel (two: ‘Contemporary Fiction: Write What You Know – or Not?’, and ‘What’s the Point of Poetry?’).

It’s always interesting to learn how other people ‘work’, their motivations and their approach to creative activity. A number of us on the Fiction panel go for the ‘get the story all down, then edit’ method, and one at least said she doesn’t usually know how the book will end when she is at the beginning. I’m actually not usually that kind of writer: I’m apt to begin a writing session with a bit of editing on the last bit I wrote, it seems to get the creativity going. We all agreed that whether or not you set out to ‘write what you know’, research will enter you life as you turn your well-known environment (Jackie Kabler’s is working as a TV journalist/presenter) into the settings your plot.   Lynne Pardoe’s stories come straight from her experiences as a social worker – and have happy endings. Ali Bacon continues to experiment with how far or not she writes what she knows, and enjoys producing short stories. Jackie set her story within the TV Newsroom but someone had murdered her boss … which she certainly hasn’t witnessed … and Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn told us how her editor had suggested that although she had researched Venice and knew it well, the enthusiastic  descriptions needed editing down. Nikki Owen’s story features a woman with high-functioning Aspergers Syndrome, which she doesn’t have but obviously found fascinating enough to enter into and create a story. Thomas Shepherd does have Asperger’s, but his story, a fantasy, doesn’t feature this. Some find the research time a necessary evil: others really enjoy digging into what they don’t know. And we seized the chance to enlighten our audience about how much writing what we know is autobiography: no, it pretty much always isn’t.

So with sessions on contemporary, historical, sci-fi and fantasy, and writing fiction from a point of ‘being different’, what was the most popular with the audience? It was this one: the skill of writing about your or another’s difference or disability: making the ‘difference’ work for your writing, overcoming  by your  writing, sharing what it is like to be inside what counts as difference. Read Thomas Shepherd’s blog about participating in this discussion here.

Debbie Young, Festival Organiser, with Dan Holloway and ShIrley Wright, poets

At the same time, learning more about other authors, how they work, why they write, is tremendously unifying: books are the bottom line, and within that, a huge diversity of interests, styles, attitudes, and lifestyles.

Recently, we’ve hosted, as a City, the huge Blackwell’s Oxford Literary Festival – a chance for celebs and well known authors to be gathered into one place and for audiences to hear them speak and have them sign copies of their books.

Blackwells Oxford LitFest Festival Marquee … parked near the Sheldonian Theatre

A small Festival like Hawkesbury has a totally different feel: a chance to interact with readers, and fellow participants. Hawkesbury aims to be inclusive: we were a mixture of Indie and ‘trade published’ writers, of amateur and professional poets. None of us could claim ‘celebrity’ status, and this makes for a truly festive and for-the-people feel, offering a ‘platform’ to everybody and aiming to give exposure to new names in the writing business. And so back home, and to writing Love You to the Moon …

Find my books at Hodge website, or on Amazon here and here …

Photos of Hawkesbury Literature Festival with thanks to Joanna Penn, author and very active member of ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors), photo of Blackwell’s marquee and the Baby, Baby/The Labyrinth Year publicity card my own. 

Writerly myths: ‘I’ll put you in my novel!’

I’ll put you in my novel!

It’s a classic myth: along with the writerly notebook carried at all times. Once you let it out, you’re a writer, the first question from family and close friends, ‘Oh, are you  going to put us in your novel?’ (Groan)

If you are a writer, the tease, ‘I’ll put you in my novel!’

working in the SHLet’s look at the myth…

So writers always carry notebooks, and have this habit of seizing the moment, and noting down anything which can later appear in their writing? Writers are people who sew patchwork quilts from scraps on real life…articles, novels , etc.? Maybe.

There is after all great skill in choosing colours, and maybe following the old American quilt designs. And in all those tiny, tiny stitches (unless you cheat and use your machine …)

But using lives …Is it kind, is it honourable, is it ethical, do we have the right?

Of course, we may’ve spread the word tongue in cheek

… hard to tell how far into cheek. Just a little bit sideways (like a crooked smile?) or tucked safely away, as if to avoid the dentist’s drill?   

It might seem a bit disingenuous, but, my reaction to the mythical ‘Will you be putting us in your novel?’ is a genuine No.

Not only because I’d so hate it myself. ‘Put’ into a novel, like a china ornament placed on a shelf? The outside of me: the way I dress; my (oh too loud, a friend said recently) voice, booming across a room; my love of cats; or my circumstances as the mum of twins, who though living in the midst of sophisticated intellectuals and academics, does not drink wine?  Not the essential me. And, how stupid would I feel if, had I ‘put’ a friend or family person into a novel, when they read it, were upset, disgusted, or never spoke to me again? They’d have the right: we can’t know the inner selves of others, and a novelist, in essence, deals not in outsides but inner selves. And selves that fit.

Jigsaw People

It’s like a jigsaw: does this piece go there?  Or are we forcing it in, to hurry up and get the picture done? ‘Putting’ a person (name disguised) into a novel, means fitting them into the plot. Each character has a shape contributing to the whole. No good trying to force Aunt Jane, with her lugubrious hats, her high-Tory opinions, her little Westie terrier, into your romance set in Cairo… though maybe your best friend, the academic historian with the banker husband, might fit your international crime story … but would your Australian cousin suit that cosy mystery set in Elsfield, Oxfordshire, in 1946?  Like all misplaced jigsaw pieces, your real person who had that funny incident in the cafe will protest, by bulging, wobbling, becoming stuck at an awkward angle.  Nothing else will go right until you take it out again…

Making a cake

Do you like to eat cake? If you’re putting me  in your novel, (please don’t), you need to know that I enjoy baking, and eating, cake.  

cake for mondfulnessThe creative process is like baking: the ingredients, the raw materials, are the real people we know and meet, the strangers on buses and trains, the acquaintances from the exercise class … then all this needs processing in our brains, maybe over years, decades. After mixing, the raw cake is subjected to terrific heat inside the oven. By the time it is cooked and ready  to eat, who can tell which bit is flour, sugar, fat, egg … baking powder, a teaspoon of vanilla, a sprinkle of cinnamon? Or where those characters, busy interacting and unfolding their story, began?

Every novel is a mystery

So, whether a novel is crime, romance, sci-fi, adventure, it is always also a mystery.

As is the idea that your writer friend will put you in her novel (indeed, why you?)

Don’t be disappointed to discover you are not there. Or delighted that you are.  Whatever has been ‘done’ to turn a gallimaufry of people into a set of characters was probably done unawares … and that one’s not you at all! Maybe all of us fancy a little adventure, a romance, or to solve a crime mystery? Are people maybe asking for a slot, when they act scared they’ll be put in a novel?

The key to how it’s done …

is observation. What goes in the notebook or sticks in the mind is observation of the how, not the what, of human beings as a species.

Just my point of view …

Two Writers whose observation of the species ‘human’ I admire: 

Debbie Young, (an ALLi indie writer, and founder of the independent, Cotswold village based, Hawkesbury LitFest) for her wonderful ‘flash fiction’ books on twenty-first century living – try Marry in Haste for a humorous look at dating, deciding, and tying the knot.

Joanna Trollope, (well-established mainstream published, ‘She likes to tackle the apparently easy, but really very difficult subjects – how parents get on with their children, and vice versa – which many a lesser writer prefers to avoid.’ (Guardian Books, 11/02/16)). Whatever you think of  her subject matter (upper-ish middle class …) admire her acute observations of  small but telling physical actions … for example, a husband is behind his  newspaper. The wife taps on the newspaper with a teaspoon to get his attention… not a ‘classic trope’ but a small action typical of that kind of couple.

(Photos: my copyright, please request permission before using)

How to spend a Bank Holiday Weekend: Selling and sorting

BB, H for H, TLY
Late summer bank holiday isn’t known for its predictably splendid weather, but we HULF Pop-Up LitFest people were hoping.
HULF Indie Authors arriving and preparing the marquee
HULF Indie Authors arriving and preparing the marquee

Here’s some of us at the Hawkesbury Village Horticultural Show showground, preparing our marquee, and hoping that our location – next to the Pimms Tent and opposite the Local History Society stand, will attract customers!

Saturday’s weather was fine, bright and warm …

There were lots of stalls and attractions …

and floats from the carnival procession (this one won 2nd Prize in the competition)

We’d thought we’d do some readings from our work to attract the customers … but look at the opposition!

the oppositionjpg

The marquee was also opposite the biggest, loudest, screamy-est fun fair ride!

We abandoned the readings idea (next year we’ll find a quieter spot maybe with the Teas)

But, we made some videos of readings, and we sold books!

What drives sales?
ALLi authors and their partners, selling briskly at 4.30pm ...
ALLi authors and their partners, selling briskly at 4.30pm …
  • Good covers,
  • a blurb that hooks the reader in …
  • enthusiasm from the salesperson (in this case, we were all there as authors selling our own books) …
  • belonging to a supportive community (we were all members of ALLi, re-meeting after the LitFest for World Book Night back in April, at the Fox, and re-meeting each other – authors Ali Bacon, JohnLynch, Ellie Stevenson… and more I’d not met before… ).
  • Glasses of Pimms from the Tent, and later cups of tea – all brought round by Debbie who’d organised our appearance at the Hawkesbury Show …
  • wanting to succeed …
  • and keeping on until the end … in the last hour, we all made more sales than through the previous three and half.

Find out more about Hodge Publishing at http://hodgepublishing.co.uk/about-us/ – where you can buy our books, Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year 

‘… just finished The Labyrinth Year and want to tell you I thought it was a super read.  Baby, Baby was good but the sequel is even better!’  (review extract)

Monday, typically, it rained

Back home, Monday was dark, damp, and drear. But the plan was already in place!  It was time to do some attic clearing …

Files of course notes, assorted mugs, roller skates, random clutter, and possibly that thing you've always been wondering where it went ...
Files of course notes, assorted mugs, roller skates, random clutter, and possibly that thing you’ve always been wondering where it went …

There’s always something which has gone past the sell-by date of memory lane stuff … 

Despite the rain, and the effort, a welcome day of family involvement and catch-up, plenty of stuff taken to the Dump, and plenty more for the charity shops …

A Bank Hol of Boots and Books ...
A Bank Hol of Boots and Books ...

A good late-summer weekend!

And now, back to the desk and the Mullins family, and what does ‘love’ mean?

Writing: Glasses full at Hawkesbury Upton

To become a writer is to expect disappointment…  wise words, from a wise writer. His quirky, lighthearted, semi-fantasy writings are deceptively wise. His name is Alexander McCall Smith. 

Wonderful, life-affiriming books
Wonderful, life-affirming books

And at a rather bad time in my life, a friend’s kindness was to introduce me to his wonderfully affirming stories.

An Indie Author Life seems about the worst idea in the world. Edit and publish your own books? Write, design, and print your own publicity? Promote yourself on social media? Find your own readers?

Fun at The Fox: the Hawkesbury Upton LitFest

One of many ways to promote our books  is to follow up every opportunity to appear before an audience, willing to invite them into your stories by reading an extract or two. Thursday  was World Book Night, and over a hundred people gathered at The Fox, Hawkesbury Upton, to celebrate.

The Fox Hawkesbury Upton
The Fox Hawkesbury Upton

It was a  warm sunny evening, and the initial readings could be held outdoors in the marquee, giving the event a summery feel.

Later, after the official opening by Katie Fforde of the Romantic Novelists Association, a  huge-er than imagined crowd meant we were packed in the Function Room like happy, book-loving sardines.  Authors (gathered partly via our membership of ALLi http://allianceindependentauthors.org/)  were wreathed in smiles, locals curious enough to purchase a pint and join the fun gathered to hear a bit about the writing life. And more 5-minute tasters of Indie authors’ work.

Katie Fforde opens the Festival (photo Clint Randall)
Katie Fforde opens the Festival (photo Clint Randall)

Situated in a village rather than a large town or city, had a really cosy feel, and The Fox was providing not only the venue but dinner in the restaurant and/or B and B for some of us.

I was able to read from both my novels (Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year) about the Mullins family – Max the GP and his wife Jenny, genetic researcher – and my ‘Wannabe’ poem found a use illustrating the apparent romance of being writers … (see blogpost  Trips and Tropes ...  ) 

The LitFest Effect …

Friday morning was time to take a walk around the village: rolling green Cotswold countryside, wild flowers, a sloping lane bordered by woods, and the ancient, part-Saxon, St Mary’s church.

field of cowsWhere a friendly local dog-walker borrowed a key and showed us around. After a few over-busy months, and a series of appliance disasters in our house, elated by the country break, ‘Writing this now,’ I wrote on Saturday evening, with that quote from Alexander M S in my head, (Radio Four  Saturday morning)t- ‘I’ve still got that now all the exams are all over feeling … ‘ 

It was actually time to affirm the whole quote …

To become a writer is to expect disappointment…  until you remember that the glass that’s half empty is also half full.

Half full, half full, I am telling myself … Thursday to Saturday maybe it was completely full … but even  if I (and others) sold nothing, the glass is not half empty (as here in this intellectual city we so easily think) … no, it is definitely half full – and it will be full again …  Mma Ramostwe of the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is so encouraging, as she says,  ‘... it is well known …’

From an Amazon review … (G.Heppel, Kindle Edition,  http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Labyrinth-Year-Mari-Howard-ebook/dp/B00T81L1AU)

… Alice and Zoe, Max and Jenny’s children, are beautifully realised characters in their own right, not drawing attention to themselves, fitting into the story exactly as they should.

TLY with MSF stickerThe conflicts begun in Baby, Baby of religious fundamentalism versus tolerance, scientific progress in genetics and fertility against the risks of new procedures, are more relevant than ever, and Mari Howard does an expert job of weaving these themes into her story without ever letting them weigh it down. In her wonderful, accurate portrayal of the different strands of Christianity, she shows how faith and science don’t need to be mutually exclusive …

P1200017 - Version 2 

Trips and Tropes: the Writer, (Sub)Urban Myths

You’re at a party: some of the guests don’t know you: ‘Meet X: she’s a writer …’ 

Wannabe ...
Wannabe …

Others, friends from the past: ‘Are you still writing?’

So, a bit of doggerel verse: if you’re a writer, do you recognise anything here?

Writer’s Block? I’ve just read another writer’s blog: she tackles the trope,  then concludes ‘I’ve read enough to convince me that at best, it’s probably tiredness and at worst, a self-styled excuse to bunk off and not lose face. Plumbers don’t get plumbers’ block, I read, or heard, somewhere by someone …’ (http://bit.ly/1wZ9Gih )  But it’s established, bedded deep into societal writerly myth, so it must have a basis in reality… mustn’t it? Did Tolkien suffer from WB? Did Shakespeare, JK Rowling, or Dickens? Does Philip Pullman? (Send me your references if you know the answer!)

Daffodils, Yorkshire Dales

The writer loves solitude

Wordsworth may’ve started this one, when he wrote of his Lakeland rambles: that  daffodil scene which would later flash upon that inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude’. Though it seems that his wife, Mary, contributed what Wordsworth, later recalling the ‘tranquil restoration’ , called the two best lines in the poem,  (Wikipedia article http://bit.ly/1m4qmOb)

Quiet, yes. And  preferably away from the cats, who like to help by sitting on the computer. But solitude, beloved of writers, holds within its very sound, that hollow ‘o’ followed in the third syllable by that lugubrious ‘u’ , something empty, a feeling of isolation. Do any other writers find solitude actually a bit of scary concept? Solitary confinement, solitary child, sad associations with forced or unwelcome lack of society?

A welcome ‘solitude’ is to be alone but not alone, the family happy and busy son the other side of the door … not calling out or needing anything. A writerly FB friend, Carol Cooper, wrote a piece on her blog recently: ‘How to Annoy your Husband’ (7 March 2015, http://pillsandpillowtalk.com/). My kind of solitude is to be just far enough away that I won’t annoy mine by making a ratty response to being interrupted when  brought food or tea with a big friendly smile to match. It can be so rejecting to be married to a writer.

‘How lovely, you’re a writer!’

The third trope is a trip down Memory Lane, to what many writers describe from their childhood years: I escaped into books. (read about it here: http://bit.ly/1m4qmOb)

Violetgarden
Teenage solitude 1920s style: down the garden with a book

Many children with solitary  childhoods, through illness, disability, or being the ‘only child’ became, or are, writers … Robert Louis Stevenson (frequent illness, and an only child) C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien (both lost parents at a young age), Alice Walker (shot in the eye at age 8: she lost all sight in that eye. Alice retreated from social interaction for some years, though used the time to observe the behaviours of those around her, ‘“really to see people and things, really to notice relationships and to learn to be patient enough to care about how they turned out” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Walker.)

Others may escape to avoid noisy younger siblings or a controlling parent: not a surprise that Max, in Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year isn’t a writer:  one of five children … father a fundamentalist pastor.  Or that Daze, abandoned at age five, and step sister to two sporty scientific girls, developed solitary pursuits: drawing and surfboarding.

‘How lovely, you’re a writer!’ Isn’t it great that children who escape into books turn into adults who provide more books, for more escaping … into more books?

Adventures parcelled for escapees

So, are you a writer?  Would you envy those of us who are? Did you escape into books as a child?

The Kindness of Friends

Before the old blog collapsed, I was thinking about the kindness of  friends.

It all began with someone else’s blog (as it often does), posted on a Facebook site I belong to, where authors share about writing. The blog piece had all of us rather quirky writers sharing how it is for us who don’t fit the standard ‘genres’. I was still working on my Charlie Hebdo response (I may bring that over here later, or I may decide too much time has gone by and reactions have become old news).  But I think the discussion was kicked off by this  a guest post by Vivienne Tufnell on Philippa’s Rees’s blog ‘Involution’  (http://bit.ly/1DTFgfJ).

Since when the phrase The Kindness of Friends has stuck around in my head like a catchy title for Alexander McCall Smith, something to partner  The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, and The Lost Art of Gratitude. An introduction to McCall Smith’s lighthearted wisdom was the kindness of a friend during a time of loss and sadness,  and now we have a whole host of them  in our bookcase.   McCall Smith books

Without the kindness of friends, I’d probably not have moved from writing articles to writing novels: way back when a friend gave me that push of confidence, and showed real interest in what I wrote, books began appearing on my doorstep. Slightly unusual books, books which made you laugh or smile but carried deep and honest assessments of human nature and human predicaments. Books which encouraged my sort of writing, the kind I wanted to do.

Years before, the kindness of friends had assisted my flight from a perfectly frightful flat-share at Uni. Details apart, one of the horrible things was, the flat was in somebody’s attic, which three of us shared, and we had no front door. The landlady’s cats had a nasty habit of coming upstairs to poo underneath the furniture in our rooms … and once the dog came and deposited a present on one of the beds (not mine).  Friends, once they heard, came with a car (rare for students to own one back then),  we bundled my possessions into it in plastic carrier bags, paid the rent up and did a flit. That of course has nothing to do with  writing, though it may get into a story one day.

spike on bookcase
Spike files himself on the bookcase, among the research

Not that I don’t love cats: cats with clean habits and outdoor toilet ideas. Spike is a close friend: a ‘friend who sticks closer than a brother’ and  possibly has a story in him too.

 

j,n, & Dad
Our twins, long ago

Then there’s the kindness of friends who love to push a pram with your twins in it when they go to collect their kiddies from school: my New Zealand friend got to revisit her maternal baby-instincts and I got an hour off in the afternoon. Mummy-stuff indeed. And my more recent Hong Kong friend, who lived next door for a year with her family, and was always up for a mug of tea and a chat. The weary writer and the weary, breast-feeding mummy ‘chewing the fat’ in her rather chilly, rented house. The kindness going both ways.

So when creation’s by the mind, and the book’s our baby, is there a kindness of fellow-author ‘friends’?

Despite talk about jealousy and competitiveness of authors, about ‘trolling reviews’ on Amazon, our discussions around  reaching readers with books that defy genre-typing engendered posts written with enthusiasm and encouragement. Comparing our experiences, sharing what works.  A counterbalance to the thriller/crime/sci-fi mystery guys’n’gals whose sales top the lists. ANd followed by a rather splendid review of my first novel, Baby, Baby (Hodge 2010, available from the website (http://hodgepublishing.co.uk/home/) (or Amazon, p/b or Kindle).

Technology is neutral: how we use it is not.  The Alli site members’ group  (allianceindependentauthors.org/) proves the kindness of friends can exist across the net : sharing ideas at every level from newbies starting out to experienced authors who sell in large numbers. Even support themselves by writing. Sharing advice, frustrations, thoughts, guest posts.

Virginia Woolf 1937
Virginia Woolf 1937

(I wonder if Virginia Woolf would have lived longer if she had had a virtual band of fellow-writers displaying the kindness of  e-friends?)

A friend closer than a brother...
A friend closer than a brother…