Why I re-read books.

The first book that I remember re-reading was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I was aged 11, and there was no sequel yet. I couldn’t bear to say goodbye to the characters. I still remember the day I finished it, crying in my bedroom and feeling like I’d just lost one of my best friends. Then the idea hit me: I could just read it again and re-live the entire experience. I read it four times before the second book came out.

Re-reading books starts in infancy, with patient parents repeatedly reading the same books to their children. The more often I read a book to my young daughters, the more they love the book. But I rarely re-read books now as an adult. This is partly because I can’t even get through my reading list of new books, let alone keep going back to ones I’ve read before. But every now and then an old book calls to me, it’s familiar spine almost glowing on my book case. Sometimes it’s when I feel nostalgic, or want to read something that I’m guaranteed to enjoy. Sometimes it’s because I’ve momentarily mislaid the book that I’m in the middle of and don’t want to start something new until I find it. And sometimes it’s because I want to be transported to another place, somewhere comfortable and familiar.

For a few years, the book I re-read was David Copperfield. I think this is Dicken’s masterpiece, and the humour takes the edge off the dark subject. I first read it when I was newly engaged, and liked to compare the similarities and differences between David’s young adult life and mine. I felt that no matter how tough my life got, it was never as hard as David’s. Which was a constant reassurance, even if he was a fictitious character.

But now the book I re-read is Larkrise to Candleford by Flora Thompson. Admittedly, this started with my love of the BBC television programme, which led to reading the book. But unlike David Copperfield, I don’t read this book for the characters, because the book is more about the times than the individual people. I re-read this book for the feelings it evokes in me.

What’s strange about the fact that I re-read this book, is that it doesn’t necessarily make me feel happier. It makes me feel like I was born in the wrong century, and I feel nostalgic for a life I never had. It is set in a hamlet, in the late 1800s, a time when the roads were only trodden on by horses. When everyone had a role and a purpose, and no family in the hamlet suffered unemployment because machines hadn’t yet taken over farming.

Of course I don’t crave the poverty that existed back then. As Thompson says, “Poverty is no disgrace, but it is a great inconvenience.” But I do crave the simplicity of the times. Life now is so full of choice, that no matter what option we pick, we are always left wondering if we would have been happier with the other option. There was no choice in the hamlet, with every family living the same lives, and only their characters making them different. Their lives were as entwined as the ivy growing up their cottages, with a community unlike any I have ever experienced.

Would I transport myself back to those times? Part of me says yes, I think I would enjoy the life of simplicity, old-fashioned skills and community living. But the woman in me says no, because there is no excuse that can justify gender inequality. In Larkrise, the men went out to work, the women stayed home to raise the family and keep the house. While this would not be a problem for me, it would not suit me to have no choice about it. Choice is a vicious circle, with too much causing havoc, and too little causing despair. The reader and writer in me also says no. Illiteracy was common place, and reading was looked down upon. I cannot imagine a life without they joys of reading, and the release of writing.

And so instead I will keep picking up my tattered copy of Larkrise to Candleford, and dream of the best parts of another world. That’s the joy of a book, you only have to imagine the parts you want to. And escape, just for a little while, into a world without your own problems. Again, and again, and again.

Advertisements

My first Reader’s Report

Why did I get a Reader’s Report?

I have some very loyal readers, friends and family, who are happy to read my novels. They give me the words of encouragement that every writer needs. But when I went back and re-read my first novel, I was horrified by how bad it was. And my loyal readers had not told me how bad it was. I am eternally grateful to them, because if I had realised how bad it was, I may never have tried again. I needed their support, and their words of kindness. But since then, I have started taking writing more seriously. What started as a hobby, a wonderful form of escapism, soon became an obsession. The desire to join the community of established authors hit me.

I have reached the stage of sending my work to agents. But my eyes don’t always see the flaws in my own novels. I know that I need to get my novel as close to flawless as I can, before I start submitting. So I decided to bite the bullet and pay for a Reader’s Report.

What is a Reader’s Report?

I did not know what to expect from a Reader’s Report. I sent my novel to the Inkwell group and crossed my fingers, hoping this wasn’t a waste of money. I wasn’t disappointed.

My novel was critiqued by E.R Murray. Like me, she writes for children and young adults (YA). This particular novel was for young adults. The friends and family who read my novels were all adults, and not even adults who read YA. So getting a YA writer to critique my novel was the obvious next step. E.R Murray knows what YA books are out there, knows what works and what doesn’t, and has already been through the editing process. And very importantly, she was once in my shoes, so had the empathy to thread softly on my words.

I imagine that every Reader’s Report is structured differently, even when carried out by the same reader.

Mine was structured something like this:

  1. Summary of Areas that need work: Show don’t tell, Character’s motivations, Plot weaknesses, Character inconsistencies.
  2. Sub-plot: Things that needed more development, suggestions as to making the sub-plots flow smoothly.
  3. Pace: How to cut out repetition and keep consistency.
  4. Characters: What works, what doesn’t. In a general sense. Who needs to be developed, in particular the relationships between characters. Believability.
  5. Themes
  6. Writing Style

It then turned to chapter by chapter notes, summing up what needed work. Things I hadn’t seen myself, and even things I had seen but had chosen to ignore.

I was startled that I hadn’t thought of writing a short summary of each chapter before. Summarising each chapter into short paragraphs is a great way to spot repetition, notice that you didn’t mention a vital part of sub-plot for a lot longer than you realised. It shows you in a glance when characters meet each other, where you could merge scenes, when you can add new and important scenarios, without throwing off the whole sequence of events. The reader’s report did not summarise each chapter, but gave me an over all observation of the chapters.

How the Report affected me

My hand was shaking as I clicked the email to open the reader’s report. A part of me thought I was going to find an email saying “Throw it away, start again, come back to us when you’ve something decent to read. Just keep writing.” Instead I found page after page of observations. Every line I read I thought “That’s true.” “How did I miss that?” “She got the wrong meaning from that, I need to re-phrase…”

A smile replaced the shakes, as I saw that this novel was already getting better, just by changing my point of view about it. By seeing it from another perspective, by understanding what another writer saw in my words. Admittedly, the smile dropped with the penny, when it dawned me that all these observations meant a huge amount of editing. I do not like re-writing. I was already on draft 5, and sick of it. This meant another draft, probably two. I smugly thought the novel was nearly ready to send to an agent. This Reader’s Report told me I had a long way to go yet. It saved me from sending out my work too early, which just might make all the difference.

Be Ready to Edit

I am glad I waited until this novel to get a Report. This novel is the one I believe in, and can defend. There is no point getting a Reader’s Report if you’re not going to use the information and actually make changes. Editing takes time, especially as you will question everything the report suggests. You won’t agree with every single thing in the report, but you need to be open minded, to take the reader’s opinion on board and defend the bits you don’t want to change. Why bother paying for a service if you’re not willing to listen? So wait until you have something worthy of sending to an agent. Then get a reader’s report, when you believe in it enough to spend the following month or two editing.

Would I do it again?

I can’t recommend getting a Reader’s Report enough. I don’t even see it as a luxury, but a necessity. You only get one shot with each agent (admittedly you could probably re-try in about 2 years, but that’s a long time). Don’t send it out too early in a flurry of excitement; wait until your manuscript is as perfect as you can make it.

Nothing spots flaws better than someone else’s eyes, someone with no personal link to your novel, someone not afraid you’ll kick them out of your life if they point out the faults in your beloved words. Someone professional.

Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever send another manuscript for submission without a Reader’s Report. In fact, I am considering hiring E.R Murray as my own personal writing guru. Though I doubt she’d accept, since I could only pay her with tea. Though who knows, maybe this novel will be the one to get me published, in which case I can add apple pie to her pay cheque.

The Writing Path is Paved with Patience

When my husband and I were honeymooning on a cruise ship, we got cajoled into taking part in a quiz show for married couples. The wives went off stage while the men were asked questions about the women. When we came back on stage we had to guess what answers the men had given. One question was “What do you wish your wife had more of?” Of course some of the men said bigger breasts, longer legs; to the women’s horror. When it was my turn to guess, I racked my brain. I knew my husband was much too polite to suggest a body part. Then it dawned me. Patience. The audience gasped, as I guessed correctly.

Thankfully, I since took up writing. If you don’t have patience before you become a writer, you either need to learn it fast or find a new hobby. Writing requires more patience than I could ever have imagined, and I have slowly been developing this virtue.

The first time I sat down at my computer, determined to write every single day until the first draft of my first novel was finished, I was filled with excitement. The possibilities loomed ahead of me. I was about 20,000 words in when I realised that this wasn’t going to be as easy as it seemed, that it would take much more time than I expected. There were many days that I had to force myself to write, telling myself over and over again to be patient, that the end was in sight. But how I can I be patient, I thought, if I don’t actually have any patience? There was only one answer: I had to find my patience.

When I finally reached the end of that first novel I was on a high, exhilarated. All that time and dedication had paid off. I put the manuscript away for 6 weeks, since everything I read on writing told me to. After 6 weeks I read the first draft, horrified that it was nowhere near as good as I remembered. But I knew it had potential. I knew if I gave up then, after writing 75,000 words, I would never try again. So I forced myself to re-draft and edit. I know some people love editing. Not me. I don’t mind the first two re-drafts, when you start putting the plot into shape, inserting coincidences and noticing themes. But when it gets down to the nitty gritty of making sure each word is the right word, I find it gruelling, and at times boring. I have to summon every bit of patience I can find.

Thankfully I don’t write for money, so I have time on my side in my plight to get published. If I was depending on becoming a paid novelist, I would probably have no hair left because I’d have pulled it all out in frustration. If I thought writing a novel required patience, I had no idea what comes next. Submission after submission to magazines, trying to get something published to stick some credentials to my writing name. Time, waiting, patience. All the effort I put into making a submission and sometimes I get no response, sometimes I get a response three months later, sometimes a neutral rejection, sometimes a positive rejection. And I’m only talking about short stories and poetry here.

I am yet to send out my novel (the third one: it took three books until I found my voice. Patience..) to the world, my baby. I am almost scared to send it out because I don’t want the rejections. A rejection to a short story makes me feel “What a pity”, but a series of rejections to the novel I really believe in will be much harder to bear. The good thing that comes out of this fear is that I refuse to send out my novel until I know I can’t make it any better, so that with any rejection I get, at least I know I gave it my best shot. And so I wait patiently for feedback, for sufficient time to pass so my eyes will be able to spot my mistakes, until I know that I am ready, and so is my novel.

Thankfully patience is a learned skill. I wasn’t lucky enough to have been born with it. But I’m getting there. The patience I learned from writing has spread through my whole life. And I bet that if my husband was asked now what he wished I had more of, he would not pick patience. Now, five years and two children later, we would both pick time.

 

My Date with An Agent (article first appeared on writing.ie 19/05/15)

Everyone wants to know what will make their novel jump out from the agent’s slush pile. I was lucky enough to be one of the 75 writers picked to go to Date With An Agent at the International Literature Festival Dublin last weekend. I thank my lucky stars I was there, and got to hear what five different agents want, right from their very own lips. The five agents present were Julia Churchill, Sallyanne Sweeney, Clare Wallace, Simon Trewin and Paul Feldstein.

Julia works with AM Heath, and represents children’s and young adult authors. Sallyanne works with Mulcahy Associates, representing  children’s, young adult and adult commercial and non fiction. Clare Wallace with Darley Anderson Agency represents children’s, young adult and women’s fiction. Simon Trewin, Partner and Head of Literary at WME London represents adult fiction, some YA, non fiction and poetry. Paul Feldstein, of the Feldstein Agency, represents adult fiction and non fiction (although not historical fiction, sci-fi or romance).

The agents all agreed that an outstanding ‘voice’ is what they want above all. They want to be excited by the style of writing, by how the writer makes the reader feel, by how the words flow together in a way that only that writer can do. I have previously heard Vanessa Fox O’ Loughlin explain ‘voice’ by pointing out that if Pavarotti and One Direction both sang Ave Maria on the radio, you would immediately know which was which. It should be the same with writers.

Julia told us that everyone has their own voice, and it’s what makes the reader recognise something in the writing that they enjoy. Simon explained how important it is for writers to stop trying to copy or create a voice based on other authors, that you need to find your own voice, your natural self. Sallyanne agreed with this, saying if you hold back your own voice, your work won’t be true to you. So much so, that you shouldn’t really be aware of your own voice in your writing because it’s so natural to you. In short, summarised by Paul, the voice is the soul of a book.

Along with a unique voice, the story needs to stand out. Simon said that he likes books that make him see the world in a different way. While he deals with many books that make commercial sense, his passion lies with quiet novels, books that make a difference. Julia wants to be taken somewhere new when reading a book. Clare likes to see a character led novel with a “cracking pace”. Paul wants fiction that grabs him, and again, something different. He would love a new crime novel with a fresh angle or a new character, as many of the crime novels he gets in his submissions are similar.

It became clear that the agents want to be moved by a book. Sallyanne wants books that excite her and evoke passion. Julia gave some hilarious anecdotes about how passionate she can get about a new book, to the point of letting her hair turn grey at the hairdressers when she wanted to sign up a new writer (wouldn’t it be wonderful to be that writer?). Simon joked about how he has had to hang up the phone on authors when their novels brought him to tears.

The unpredictability of the market was referred to at various stages, and how fickle the market is. Julia advised writers not to follow trends in the market because by the time the book comes to the shelves, the trend will be gone. Clare also advised against following trends because your heart won’t be in it. A book needs to be unique and have its own merits and qualities. Sallyanne summed this up beautifully saying “We want to see the book that only you can write.”

Researching the agent before you submit is vital, as they often get submissions for books in genres that they don’t work with. Paul said agents tend to stick to what they know, because that’s what they can promote the best. So sending an adult crime novel to a children’s agent is not a good idea. And it does happen! Sallyanne added to this that an author needs to be very clear on their pitch, and make the agent understand why this is the book for them. She also said the tone of the book needs to match the target audience. In relation to children books, she said the only way to make sure your tone is right is by reading children’s books. On this note, it is vital to read the submission guidelines online before submitting to any agency. Not sticking to the guidelines is an immediate black mark on your submission.

I loved realising that agents are all normal people like you or me, not scary ogres who don’t want your books. They want new voices. As Sallyanne said, they want long term relationships with their writers. Clare reminded us that agents are all different people with different tastes, and finding the agent that is passionate about your book is what matters. The same book in different hands will have different outcomes, and Simon pointed out that if a successful author was turned down by a particular agent, the author may never have become as successful with that agent.

When it came to the Date, ten precious minutes with an agent, everyone had different experiences. Many came away with some great advice or even a sparkle of hope.

My date was with Julia Churchill. Julia’s extensive experience in the world of children’s books was enough to make my heart giddy-up. I went into the meeting seeing it simply an opportunity to get professional feedback, but I came out of it with so much more. Julia had read 1500 words of my novel and the synopsis. She picked one negative and one positive thing, explaining why they mattered and where there was room for improvement.

Getting this kind of feedback is invaluable, especially on the first chapter which is the most crucial part of the book to get an agent’s attention. The highlight of my day was when Julia said she could see I could definitely write. That comment alone was worth the trip from Cork to Dublin. As for the future, who knows? I will send Julia my novel when the final draft is done, and maybe she will love it, and maybe she won’t. If she loves it, I’ll pop out the champagne. If she doesn’t, then I’ll know we weren’t the perfect match. Either way, she gave me hope, and I am deeply grateful.

On a final note, the day was more than just the agents, editors and publishers. It was about writers, and for writers. If the other writers in the room were anything like me, writing is their addiction, and a day spent learning about getting to the next step was like an infusion of sense and hope. Meeting other writers, talking about our books to people who understand our obsession was inspiring and heart warming. Writing can be a lonely business, with a lot of solitude. Events like this throw us into the light.

The Lonely Star: Children’s Poem

A lonely star was watching high

Above a cloud one night.

He saw the people of the world

Who loved with all their might.

How sweet it seemed to have a friend,

A family full of laughter.

Rather than a single star

Alone for forever after.

I will go to earth, he thought,

I’m sure that I know how.

I’ll find myself the dearest friend

I’ll travel there right now!

He opened up his fiery arms,

And threw away some light.

Suddenly he started falling,

A shooting star so bright.

As he fell he shed his flames,

His sparkle getting lost.

Through the wind and rain he rushed,

Through the winter frost.

He landed with a thump at last

Into an Irish garden.

He left a scorch mark on the ground

And begged the grass’s pardon.

He heard a clatter and a bang

And looked up first in fright.

But when he saw a window open

His fear turned to delight.

For peeping through the flapping curtains,

The star saw there a boy.

His eyes were wide, his mouth was open.

A friend! Star thought, What joy!

I’m looking for a friend,” he called.

I’ve travelled very far.

I’ve fallen from the depth of space,

You see, I am a star.”

“A star?” The boy cried out so loud,

“A burning ball of fire?

How can I come and play with you?

I’d end up in a pyre!

I wish that we could be best friends,

I’d love to hold your hand.

Can’t you see? It cannot be,

You’d burn right through this land.”

The star looked then around the garden

And saw the trees and flowers,

Were wilting from his yellow heat,

Decaying from his powers!

This heat and terror that I bear

I truly did not know.

I never meant to cause such harm,

Please forgive me so!”

“I forgive you for I see,

How lonely is your heart.

But you must travel back to space

And make a fresh new start.

You’ll find a friend amongst the stars,

Above this atmosphere.

A companion for the darkest nights,

Whom you can hold so dear.

If you join a constellation

You’ll never be alone.

An extra handle on the plough,

Canis needs a bone!

You’ve so much choice up there in space,

So many stars to choose.

And why not ask the sun and moon?

You’ve got nothing to lose!”

The star’s sweet heart felt light and free

A smile filled up his face.

The excitement was too much to bear

And he shot back up to space.

Baking your stories: Thoughts on Writing

Have you ever tried to create a cake recipe from scratch? I don’t mean if you were lucky enough to grow up in a house with Darina Allen. I mean those of you who grew up in a house where the only buns were lined up in a neat plastic tray from the local shop, and the only flour that came into the house went into the bin un-opened, two years out of date. Then, imagine you get this sudden urge to bake; to invent the perfect cake. It becomes an obsession, occupying your daily thoughts. Just like writing is to an aspiring author… i.e. me.

To begin with, you need to read recipes that already exist. Learn the rules, and follow the amounts carefully. You need to master how to bake those recipes.

When you’ve read and read and read, you hit a point where you feel that you now understand how it works. You understand why you need to mix the eggs in slowly so the mixture doesn’t curdle, and why you have to grease the tin before you pour in your batter so it doesn’t stick. Surely you’re now ready to invent your own recipe. Right?

You begin one optimistic day, with a new apron, and a sparkling spatula. You take a little bit of this recipe, a little bit of that recipe, and mix it all together. You wait eagerly, watching the oven, and bing! It’s ready. At first it looks okay, and you leave it cool down. But when you come back in ten minutes, you realise it’s still raw in the middle. Back into the oven. This time the outside is burnt and the inside is hard. What went wrong? You tell yourself you just need more practice.

You try again, with a new recipe, something more manageable. Again you wait patiently, watching the oven. This time it even smells good. It comes out of the oven and looks reasonable. It even tastes reasonable. Definitely not the worst cake you’ve ever tasted. And so you share it with your family. They each take a bite and politely refuse the rest. Except your child; they tell you it’s the worst thing they’ve ever tasted and spit it out again.

So you go back to reading. You read and practice, not understanding why you’re not as good as all these other bakers, who make it seem so easy.

After much time and patience, you eventually make a masterpiece. Everyone in your family likes it. But when you put it on-line, it being too good to waste on just you, you don’t get much feedback. Why don’t they love it? Why haven’t you won the best cake of the year prize? Why are PR agents not knocking on your door?

And so you keep trying. Month after month, slowly getting better, steadily producing nicer cakes. Each one more delicious than the last. You fall in love with the baking and creating, experimenting and tasting. Out of the blue, you make the perfect cake. Even your kid, who is by now a stroppy teenager, eats an entire slice. And asks for more. People start sharing your recipe, and soon it goes viral. Other people are finally appreciating your creation.

I believe it’s the same with writing. You have to love the writing process enough to do it without needing the world to love your words. Then, when you’ve mastered the craft, someone will find you, if you really want them to. I’m still waiting, but my day will come, and by then I’ll be a better writer than I am today, and will have read more than I have now. Each book I read teaches me more than the words I write. It is an act of patience, love and enjoying the delicious journey.

Two ways to do everything: Thoughts on Writing

Last year I wrote a blog-post about writing my first novel. Since then I have completed one young adult novel, one children’s novel and the first draft of another young adult (Y.A) novel. What I have learnt from writing more than one novel, is that there are two ways of doing everything.

I once thought that to write a novel you should just plough ahead and never re-read anything you’ve written while still on the first draft. But if I lived by my own rule, then I wouldn’t have gotten very far, or would have suffered hugely in the second draft, having to tediously edit out major flaws.

In both my Y.A novels, I hit a stumbling block between 30,000 and 40,000 words. Not a word block, because words kept coming. It was more of an uncertainty about where to take the characters next. I had forgotten how the story started, forgotten plot hints I’d put in. In one instance of this, I read back over the novel so far, and I realised one character wasn’t working and scrapped her before I wasted precious time on her. In another, I fell back in love with the story after it had started to tire me, wondering if it was going anywhere. This refreshed my motivation and allowed me see how the story should naturally progress.

I started an online course on writing for children and it insisted that you plan the whole story from beginning to end. This is something I’ve read many times, but planning and my style of writing don’t go together. This came as a surprise to me, because I plan pretty much everything else in my life to a tee. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy writing without a plan; it sets me free from the norms of my life. I did try to plan novels, but when the characters started naturally drawing the plot away from my plan, I got flummoxed. Not having a plan allows me to create as I go, surprising myself and getting to know the characters the way the reader does.

I definitely believe that to write well, you need to read. But I don’t think you should read everything. I got caught with this one. I took the advice to keep reading, even bad writing so you know what not to include in your novel. But this is dangerous, and I found myself stuck reading a book that irritated me. And while it did have the positive effect of high-lighting how not to write, I did spot, in horror, that some of the other author’s way of writing was weaselling it’s way into my own work. Since then, I’ve become very picky about what I read when I’m writing a novel. I try and only read books by authors much better than me, and hope that they’ll rub off on me. I keep the other books for the times I’m in between novels.

To plan or not to plan, to read and edit as you go or just keep writing, to know your ending before you start or to surprise yourself with the ending….

There are two ways to write everything (or three, or four..). What works in one novel may not work in another. What works for one writer won’t always work for a second. The only way to learn what works for you is to begin writing, and see what works for you.

The Honey Bee: A Poem

How nice to be a honey bee,

Flying the world fast and free.

Buzzing high through trees and towers,

Drinking delights from summer flowers.

 

But things aren’t always as they seem,

His life not just a happy dream.

His orders come from high above,

Made to work and not to love.

For in the hive, there lies unseen,

His Mistress there, the honey Queen.