10 good things about not being published

Take a seat (© Clare O'Dea)
Take a seat (© Clare O’Dea)

Writing is a very private and personal affair; publishing is anything but. I seem to be hearing a lot lately about published writers living not so happily-ever-after once their first book is out there. They have to deal with changes they were pressured into making, a title or cover they don’t like, poor sales or reviews, stressful book promotion and the pressure to get the next book written or accepted.

On some level I must be taking this in and yet it has about the same effect as hearing about someone else’s unhappy marriage, when you and your chosen one are still love-struck and kissing on a park bench.

So just to celebrate the journey, here are ten great things about writing while it’s all about passion:

1. Just the Two of Us: You spend a lot of time together and you’ve been through a lot. The characters have become real people whose unfolding stories keep you from ever feeling bored. After that long process of building a relationship sentence by sentence, you are protective of your manuscript. Nobody who isn’t hand-picked by you will get to comment on your work. You’re slightly unhinged about the book but who cares, it’s mine, all mine!

2. Dream a Little Dream: If you haven’t tried to get published yet, you haven’t tasted failure and this is the time when you can still dream big. On your first query letter, the agent will instantly get back to you asking for more and it will be love at first sight for him or her. This will be followed by a bidding war, a fabulous launch party, the big reaction, the prizes, translations, interviews. Who will play your lead character in the hit movie?

3. Sitting on the Dock of the Bay: There has to be a certain self-imposed pressure or you would never have got as far as finishing the book, but it is self-imposed and therefore adapted to your reality and routine, and, well, if you keep extending your deadline, no one minds but you.

4. Wild World: This may not apply if you have started submitting your novel but before that phase, you are delightfully naïve about the whole publishing business. That innocence is something you’ll probably miss someday.

5. All By Myself: You know the argument, partly because successful self-published authors are very vocal about it. Agents are the gatekeepers to a moribund publishing industry that excludes good books from reaching the audience they deserve. You can spend your life crying over your forty rejection slips or take matters into your own hands and bring out your own book. Better still, don’t even bother submitting to agents and publishers, put your energy into self-publishing and reap the rewards.
When you are still writing you can ignore this whole debate, as it’s only academic – for now.

6. It Had to Be You: Somewhere out there is someone who will like your work, believe in what you do and put their heart and soul into getting your book off the ground. You haven’t met them yet, but when you do find the one, it will all have been worthwhile. In the meantime, you can dream about getting the call.

7. You’re So Vain: If you haven’t had the good fortune of having your book chosen by an agent or a publisher then you won’t have experienced the begrudgery backlash that inevitably comes with success. Even writing buddies you laboured uphill with may not be immune from thinking sour thoughts about you.

8. Learning to Fly: Writing your first novel is special because it’s an intense learning process, and that makes it very interesting. You can do the learning in advance or learn as you go about point-of-view, antagonists, show-don’t-tell, foreshadowing, revising. Either way it’s a pleasure.

9. With a Little Help from My Friends: Since I started writing two years ago I have met many wonderful people – some in person and some through social media – who have been bitten by the same bug. Some I now count as friends, whose support and understanding light the way on this sometimes lonely journey.

10. When I Wish Upon a Star: Before you write a book, there has usually been a long period of carrying around that wish and doubting your ability ever to achieve it. That fantastic feeling of satisfaction when you get to the last page is for keeps, and it is independent of the publishing outcome.

Did I miss anything folks?

I never liked you anyway

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Don’t you just love confrontation in fiction? Those flashpoints of drama, whether it’s a blazing stand-up row or a subtle exchange of fire unnoticed by the rest of the crowd, when the characters are pushed to extremes and the reader has the best seats in the house. Of course most of the time the conflict is underlying, like the thrum of an engine on a ship. That’s what makes it so satisfying when the tension surfaces.

I’m just coming to the end of Alice Munro’s short story collection Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage and marvelling at her mastery of every aspect of the craft of writing. In scenes of confrontation she has an amazing ability to convey the build-up of tension between characters, through facial expressions, dialogue, the character’s own commentary and the things that are left unsaid.

Take one brief scene in the short story Family Furnishings. Two women meet for the first time at a funeral. One of them, the narrator, whose father has just died, is a writer who once wrote a story based on a personal experience in the life of an older cousin called Alfrida. It turns out that the other woman who approaches her is Alfrida’s daughter, given up for adoption when she was a baby.

Munro describes the moment after the woman (only ever referred to as ‘the woman’) breaks the news of her identity.

“There was some sense of triumph about her, which wasn’t hard to understand. If you have something to tell that will stagger someone, and you’ve told it, and it has done so, there has to be a balmy moment of power. In this case it was so complete that she felt she needed to apologise.”

From there the conversation becomes more edgy as they reminisce about an old family story, involving the narrator’s father and his first cousin Alfrida, and it transpires that their versions of events do not match.

“… that feeling of apology or friendliness, the harmlessness that I had felt in this woman a little while before, was not there now.
I said, “Things get changed around.”
“That’s right,” the woman said. “People change things around. You want to know what Alfrida said about you?”
Now. I knew it was coming now.
“What?”
“She said you were smart, but you weren’t ever quite as smart as you thought you were.”
I made myself keep looking into the dark face against the light. Smart, too smart, not smart enough.
I said, “Is that all?”
“She said you were kind of a cold fish. That’s her talking, not me. I haven’t got anything against you.”

It’s such a perfect depiction of something we are all familiar with. The gap between our true feelings towards others and what is actually revealed (in some cases even to ourselves). People may go through life harbouring ill-will towards people close to them without ever giving an outward hint of their animosity. If those true feelings are ever expressed the effect is dramatic. And when I say people, more often than not it is family. Like this exchange between another set of fictional Munro cousins, Polly (single and left behind with an extended family to care for) and Lorna (married with children and comfortably off) in the story Post and Beam.

Fresh tears came welling up in her eyes. She was a mound of misery, one solid accusation.
“What is it?” Lorna said. She feigned surprise, she feigned compassion.
“You don’t want me.”
Her eyes were on Lorna all the time, brimming not just with her tears, her bitterness and accusation of betrayal, but with her outrageous demand, to be folded in, rocked, comforted.
Lorna would sooner have hit her. What gives you the right, she wanted to say. What are you leeching onto me for? What gives you the right?
Family. Family gives Polly the right. She has saved her money and planned her escape, with the idea that Lorna should take her in. Is that true – has she dreamed of staying here and never having to go back? Becoming part of Lorna’s good fortune, Lorna’s transformed world?
“What do you think I can do?” said Lorna quite viciously and to her own surprise.

I think with conflict the real challenge for a writer is to stay on the right side of the line between drama and melodrama. I’m still working on that, and trying to eliminate clichés is part of the challenge. In my novel, Counting the Days, the main character, Laura, cannot accept how unemotional her sister Kate is about their brother’s disappearance five years before. They’ve just spend a day and night together, the first time they’ve been under the same roof overnight since Kate left home for college. For most of the visit they manage to steer clear of expressing the resentment and misunderstanding that lies between them, until a few minutes before Kate has to leave when they finally get to talk about their brother, falling back on the same old arguments until there’s nothing more to say.

“It must be time for you to go.”
We stand in silence, indifferent now to the gentle glory of early summer gathering around us.
Moving closer, Kate puts her hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry. You did a good job with the campaign. No one can say you didn’t try your hardest.”
Pushing off her touch, I glare at Kate. “If you could just once show that you cared, that you still felt something. Where is the love for God’s sake?”
Kate shakes her head slowly and looks at me, her bewildered eyes full of reproach.
“You’re too much for me,” she says and walks back to the house.
A short time later, the sound of car doors closing cuts through my cloud of resentment and I hurry back towards the yard, almost tripping in the tangle of undergrowth in my sudden desperation to make amends. Kate opens the passenger window of the car for a final word. “Can I say something? You’re not going to like it.”
“Go ahead.”
“I saw your diary.”
A sudden fury passes through me like a spasm. The lack of respect, I am not imagining it.

First and last time I put my writing on the same page as Alice Munro’s! Some of the participants in the writing course I attended in Dublin last year have got together to meet fortnightly as a writers’ group and I am really pleased to be taking part by Skype. It’s difficult to know when a novel is finally ready and then to let it go. I’m hoping that this routine will give me the motivation and discipline to get the novel polished for submission.

In other news, I have a new writing buddy – Lucky. Isn’t he lovely?

Good boy!

The smart thing to do

Goodbye Swiss winter, roll on the spring!
Goodbye Swiss winter, roll on the spring!

Is it generally the same type of person who thrives in society, regardless of the social or economic climate? Or are different qualities useful in different systems? I suspect you need to sell a little of your soul to get by anywhere.

I was listening to an ABC documentary recently about the history of adoption in Australia and it made me think (with a shudder) about the winners and the losers in a conservative society with zero tolerance of pregnancy outside marriage.

It was a time of limited opportunities for women when being a married at least guaranteed respect and opened the door to a celebrated occupation – married motherhood. So if you were smart you conformed.

A bit like joining the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.

John McGahern’s memoir of growing up in mid-twentieth century Ireland, apart from being a wonderful book, is an excellent piece of social history. In it he illustrates some of the routes to respectability and a decent living, which required people to cling like limpets to the apparatus of the Church and State.

“The year was 1953. In the 1950s a half-a-million people emigrated from this small country, nearly all of them to Britain, far more than in any other decade in the entire century. These emigrants were young and poorly educated, for the most part, and ill prepared. … The men sold their physical strength, the women their willingness to work long hours.”

And the winners? As McGahern puts it, the State had become a theocracy in all but name.
“The Church controlled nearly all of education, the hospitals, the orphanages, the juvenile prison systems, the parish halls. Church and State worked hand in hand.”

McGahern was offered a place at St Patrick’s teacher training college, full board and tuition paid with guaranteed employment at the end. Needless to say, he accepted it at once. His books were later banned in Ireland and he was dismissed from his teaching job but at this early stage in his life, McGahern had to conform and take what was available.

During the economic boom, those hard old days seemed as real and relevant as a dated movie. Post 2008, the Celtic Tiger is looking pretty dated and unreal too. What was normal then seems unbelievable now.

But even the boom had its losers at the time, lest we forget. There were many who just plodded along looking bewildered during those years. Priced out of the areas they grew up in, paying exorbitant rents to live in flatland, they were there. And something was holding them back.

They were unwilling or unable to follow the new rules. Rule 1: Get on the property ladder. Rule 2: Enjoy your disposable income. If you were smart, you conformed.

How people interact with the rules that surround them is great fodder for fiction. When I sat down to write my novel, it was set at just this time in Ireland’s recent past. And the people I feature and favour in the novel are mainly those who did not naturally flourish in the new climate of prosperity.

Do you ever think about what rules operate in society? And if so, have you played by them to get to where you are today?

Regrets, I’ve had a few

suit

One of the highlights of English class in secondary school for me was being introduced to short stories. One that I remember vividly is Brendan Behan’s The Confirmation Suit, a story about regret that beautifully illustrates the dilemma of being caught in a social bind. When reading this story, most of us were fresh from doing our own Confirmation (a coming-of-age ritual in the Catholic Church in which a lot of importance was placed on the new outfit bought for the occasion). Behan couldn’t have found a more receptive audience (albeit posthumously) for this iconic Irish story.

The boy in Brendan Behan’s story was obliged to accept a kindly neighbour’s offer to make a suit for him for the big day. An elderly seamstress who normally made funeral habits, Miss McCann was not blessed with a great sense of fashion and the writer gets great comic mileage out of the child’s embarrassment and his father’s amusement at his predicament. This must be why the unexpected sad turn of events produces such a memorable punch.

This description comes half-way through the story:

When I made my first Communion, my grandmother dug deep under the mattress, and myself and Aunt Jack were sent round expensive shops, I came back with a rig that would take the sight of your eye. This time however, Miss McCann said there wasn’t much stirring in the habit line on account of the mild winter, and she would be delighted to make the suit if Aunt Jack would get the material. I nearly wept, for terror of what the old women would have me got up in, but I had to let on to be delighted, Miss McCann was so set on it. She asked Aunt Jack did she remember father’s Confirmation suit. He did. He said he would never forget it. They sent him out in a velvet suit, of plum colour, with a lace collar. My blood ran cold when he told me.

The stuff they got for my suit was blue serge, and that was not so bad. They got as far as the pants, and that passed off very civil. You can’t do much to a boy’s pants, one pair is like the next, though I had to ask them not to trouble themselves putting three little buttons on either side of the legs. The waistcoat was all right, and anyway the coat would cover it. The coat itself, that was where Aughrim was lost.

I’ve just finished reading Big Brother by Lionel Shriver and it wasn’t until I finished the book that I realised how personal the story was to the writer. She wrote the novel after her older brother died of obesity-related illness. Shortly before he died, when it seemed he might recover, Shriver considered taking him. She enquired about bariatric surgery at the hospital where he was being treated and even imagined bringing him home to recover in her house in New York. In the end her goodwill was never tested because her brother took a turn for the worse and died.

But Shriver went on to write a story about a woman who gives up her home and marriage to move in with her morbidly obese older brother to help him lose weight. The book is steeped in regret and raises that difficult question that often arises after the death of loved one: could I have done more?

In the story I have written, the main character has always had strong motherly feelings towards her younger brother and she feels enduring grief at his disappearance, for which she partly blames herself. In that sense it is about regret but later it explores the problem of how far it is possible to save another person bent on self-destruction.

I’ll leave you with the image of Behan’s boy standing in the rain wearing that silly suit. It encapsulates what is tragic about the end of childhood – the loss of innocence, the feeling of being misunderstood, the first taste of regret.

I needn’t have worried about the suit lasting forever. Miss McCann didn’t. The next winter was not so mild, and she was whipped before the year was out. At her wake people said how she was in a habit of her own making, and my father said she would look queer in anything else, seeing as she supplied the dead of the whole quarter for forty years, without one complaint from a customer.

At the funeral, I left my topcoat in the carriage and got out and walked in the spills of rain after her coffin. People said I would get my end, but I went on till we reached the graveside, and I stood in my Confirmation suit drenched to the skin. I thought this was the least I could do.

Breaking every rule in the book

“Never let a manuscript hit the ground. Keep them in flight – working for you.” That was the advice I heard from Mike McCormack at a seminar organised by the Irish Writers’ Centre in November. This is a man who tried forty publishers before he got a deal for his first book. At the moment I have two little birds in flight but I’d like to do better than that and declare February a submissions month.

The timing is right because the novel, now that the rewrite is done (let’s call it the second draft), is going to be banished to a drawer again, almost a year after its first banishment, which in retrospect was too short.

Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t prepare a little better before embarking on this writing marathon. Along the way I have broken every rule in the book.

It started with too many sub plots. A novel, like a good meal, needs the right ingredients and a little bit of planning. You are unlikely to delight your guests if you throw everything you have in the cupboard into the pot. When I removed the extraneous bits and pieces from the book, the debris resembled the collection of things you might see extracted from a dead shark’s stomach (just to stretch the digestion metaphor ever so slightly).

There were also too many goddamn people in the book. It got so bad they were bumping into each other and there was nowhere to sit down. I’ve done my best here but things still a tad crowded.

Not only that but I fell into the trap of dumping back story in the opening chapters like it was going out of fashion. For every one step forwards, my main character was taking thirteen steps backwards, way back into her memory and the more distant past, reflecting on her childhood, relationships, current life situation – anything rather than get on with the story.

Did I mention that I changed the point-of-view of the novel too? Somewhere around the end of November I had a crisis of faith (another one!) and came to the conclusion that the book would work better if it was told in the first person. I tried out a reworked chapter on the members of my writing course, got their blessing and the big conversion began.

There was also the small matter of multiple breaches of the show don’t tell rule, which I dealt with in a previous post.

Also on the subject of showing, I made the classic mistake of showing too soon. Under the illusion that the novel was ‘finished’, I asked for feedback before I had a clear idea of where I was going with the story – and before I had weeded out the indigestible matter.

Which brings me to the final point, the only piece of advice I feel qualified to give to anyone wanting to write their first novel. Do not put finger to keyboard until you have a clear sense of direction for the story. Something like this perhaps:

Girl in tribal Pakistan wants to be a doctor, makes a bargain with local warlord to sacrifice her honour for her dream. He pays her way through medical school but will she ever really escape the clutches of the evil Khalid?

Of course it will evolve as you write but so much better to have the roadmap there.

You might wonder whether I have managed to rescue a coherent piece of fiction from this muddle. I’d like to think I have, or at least that I am well on the way there. But we’ll see when the manuscript comes back from the cooler.

Another speaker at that seminar in Dublin, Dave Lordan, said he had always found it essential to take time away from everything to work on a manuscript. “That time and concentration will lift the manuscript. It won’t happen if you do two hours here and there.”

It would be nice to make a date with the manuscript after its return from exile, a mini-break away from all the other demands and distractions of life, just the two of us. Here’s hoping. Has anyone else managed to steal time away to write? Sounds like heaven to me.

Ps. This blog is one year old today!

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Famous last words

Image courtesy of arztsamui at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How many of you are bold enough to read the ending of a book before beginning it? I might take an occasional guilty peek but only when a novel begins to drag. As a rule I am an obedient reader and let the author lead the way. Also when I am enjoying a book, the ending becomes ever more precious and I want to appreciate the full power of the finale.

There is a popular notion that a writer has to capture his or her potential reader on the first page. With all the emphasis on the opening of a novel, I haven’t been giving that much thought to endings but as far as any lasting impression of a book goes, the ending has more weight. It is the place where you are likely to hear the author’s voice most clearly and often find the real message of the book.

To the most recent example: I have just finished On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, a wonderful depiction of lost love. The private hell of the newlyweds’ wedding night is beautifully portrayed but it is the row on the beach after Florence and Edward’s doomed attempt at lovemaking that broke this reader’s heart. The two main characters are trapped in an escalating argument where they find themselves saying the most hurtful and reckless things to each other, simply because honesty is impossible.

So it makes perfect sense to me that McEwan ends the novel back at the beach on that fateful night, with the message that not even a lifetime of regret can undo the consequences of our actions, or in this case, inaction.

On Chesil Beach he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. … Instead, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was a blurred, receding point against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light.

Here are a few more endings for your enjoyment:

The Gathering by Anne Enright

Gatwick airport is not the best place to be gripped by a fear of flying. But it seems that this is what is happening to me now; because you are up so high, in those things, and there is such a long way to fall. Then again, I have been falling for months. I have been falling into my own life, for months. And I am about to hit it now.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

And I thought of a cresting wave of water, lit by a moon, rushing past and vanishing upstream, pursued by a band of yelping students whose torchbeams criss-crossed in the dark.
There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

A rare surge of feeling, of something like vindication, came from the pit of his belly and spread out till it sang in his veins. As he stood with his hands in his pockets, staring out over the sleeping city, over its darkened wheels and spires and domes, Veals laughed.

I’ve got to say McEwan with his “cold and righteous silence” is my favourite here but maybe that’s because I’m still under the spell of the book.

(Image courtesy of arztsamui at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Switching the novel to sustainable energy

(M1energysolutions.com)
(M1energysolutions.com)
You know that feeling when you just make it to a socket at the last moment before your laptop dies? That’s how I felt crossing the threshold of the Irish Writers’ Centre on Monday. It’s going to be OK.

This novel that provided its own fuel for the first year has been draining me since then and needs to be switched to sustainable energy. What better source than the positive energy of fellow writers? I want to get the manuscript into the best possible shape and send it on its way to make room for the next book. This course is the boost I’ve been looking for.

Somewhat dishevelled from the blustery walk up O’Connell Street, I held my paper cup of tea and looked around in excitement and wonder. These people, I realised, are just like me and finally we have come out of the woodwork. We’ve been squirrelling away words for months or years, storing up the stories we want to tell. Now is our chance.

I had the experience of reading out the opening of the book to a group for the first time and it went well. My relationship to the work is different now that it’s been exposed a little. That feeling of working in a vacuum is gone and I can see more clearly now what needs to be done. The feedback was encouraging and useful, under the kind and expert guidance of Conor Kostick.

Even though I didn’t have to use my one-line pitch last night, here is what I have come with. I realise I have two lines here but surely the concept is not that literal? It’s also possible that I have veered towards writing the blurb rather than the pitch. Do they necessarily have to differ?

Set in boom-time Ireland, this is a story about people, what they bring to our lives and what they take away. Haunted by the disappearance of her brother years before, when Laura is caught up in an emotional and professional disaster, she has to find new faith in family, friendship and love.

I may have to go back to the drawing board on this one.

Beating the second draft slump

www.organicgardening.com
http://www.organicgardening.com

It was all so simple last year. Whenever I had time to spare I would whip out the laptop and write a bit more of my novel. I was able to use my writing slots so productively. It was just like mowing the lawn, keep going until you get to the end.

Now I’m out the other side of that process and can see what a rush I was in to get to the finish line. The words that I flung onto the page now have to stand up to scrutiny and carry the story.

These days when I sit down to revise the manuscript, more often than not I stray into other writing tasks. Revising is not a straightforward process. The grass is cut but now I have to finish the garden. I need to pull up bushes that are not thriving, plant new trees, create flower beds, trim the hedge, put in a patio and weed, weed, weed.

Where to start? It’s so much easier to procrastinate. In my case this involves dabbling a little in flash fiction, teasing out new book ideas or bashing out a post for this blog. Could I really be writing about writing as a way to avoid actually writing?

All is not lost. I have my writing course coming up in the Irish Writers’ Centre and in the meantime I will read up on revising so that I can tackle this job with the right tools.

If you have any good revising tips that have worked for you, please share!