Pissing into the void

There comes a time – or many ‘a-time’s – in your life when you wonder whether there’s any point in going on with whatever you’re doing. When you’re striving, putting heart and soul into a project, giving it your all and in return – nothing. Like you’re pissing into the void.

 

That’s how I’m feeling about this blog at the moment. Writers strive, above all, to be read. As I’ve said many a time, it’s a strange schizophrenic experience, writing. The process is a joy, a delight – the truest, most intense pleasure. But once a work is completed the only reward is the feedback we get from readers. No feedback, no payoff. Pissing into the void.

 

There are times when the work I post on here isn’t my best. I know that. Some days the words don’t come easy, or the only subject I can write about isn’t one I feel particularly strongly about. I hold my hands up and confess. But others – well, some posts I’ve posted I’m really quite proud of. Or contain invitations for you, the reader, to contribute. I’d never say I was hurt to be ignored, but it can be disappointing. I set up this blog to be informed by you as much as I did to rant.

 

This isn’t meant to be a downer: I’m not complaining (and certainly not to you, the person who’s actually taking time to read this). Just setting out another aspect of the writer’s life that isn’t really acknowledged. For most writers, published or not, being ignored is as bad as being slated. It takes a particular kind of stubbornness to keep on going when no-one seems to care. Even when you’re at the stage of submitting to publishers/agents, many will simply ignore you, not bother replying even with a no. Most published books go unreviewed; most self-published works slide gently into the ocean without even a ripple.

 

So what can you do about it? Well, I think it helps to acknowledge the truths of the business you’re in: that’s a start. And then? I’d suggest you get good and angry. Self-righteous, even. You have to be a champion of your work. Get pro-active on their asses. Be like the Little Red Hen and make things happen all by yourself. Be persistent. Let’s be honest, if you’re in the position to have work assessed then you’ve done something remarkable, worth being proud of, worth shouting about. This isn’t a world in which merit is trumpeted for its own sake. You have to blow your own trumpet, be bolshy, be assertive.

 

Which isn’t always easy. Even the loudest of us (the biggest blowers) have days when we just want quiet. If you’re anything like me you’ll oscillate between great passion and days of reflection and in these quiet times it’s hard to go push the world. But that’s just what you’ve got to do, unfortunately: go out and meet people, join writing communities, keep on pissing.

 

The void ain’t gonna fill itself, alter all.

 

*          *          *

 

My Mum just sent me this, and I thought it was worth sharing with you. It’s CS Lewis’ thoughts on writing – referring to Spenser in particular, but apposite to all writers. Hope you like it.

ON AUTHORSHIP

There is a stage in the invention of any long story at which the outsider would see nothing but chaos. Numerous alternatives, written, half-written, and unwritten (the latter possibly the most influential of all) ferment together. Passages which no longer fit the main scheme are retained because they seem too good to lose: they will be harmonized somehow later on if the author lives to complete his work. Even a final revision often leaves ragged edges; unnoticed by generations of readers but pointed out in the end by professional scholars. There is a psychological law which makes it harder for the author to detect them than for the scholar. To the scholar the event in fiction is as firm a datum as an event in real life: he did not choose and cannot change it. The author has chosen it and changed it and seen it in its molten condition passing from one shape to another. It has as many rivals for its place in his memory as it had for its place in the final text. This cause of error is of course aggravated if the story is labyrinthine, as Spenser’s was. And it is aggravated still further if his professional duties permit him to work on his story only at rare intervals. Returning to work on an interrupted story is not like returning to work on a scholarly article. Facts, however long the scholar has left them untouched in his notebook, will still prove the same conclusions; he has only to start the engine running again. But the story is an organism: it goes on surreptitiously growing or decaying while your back is turned. If it decays, the resumption of work is like trying to coax back to life an almost extinguished fire, or to recapture the confidence of a shy animal which you had only partially tamed at your last visit. But if (as is far more probable) it grows, proliferates, ‘wantons in its prime’, then you will come back to find it

Changed like a garden in the heat of spring

After an eight-days’ absence.

Fertile chaos has obliterated the paths.

 

 

C S Lewis: English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p 379

 

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Waxing lyrical

I sit here writing this with music on in the background. Laura Marling, if you must know, which isn’t the best choice as the lyrics are too good. Rather, they’re too much in the forefront of the song and don’t do their job as background to deeper mind processes.

I always write to music. It’s usually a lot quieter than silence, which has a deep sucking sound as the background is vacuumed into your soul. Music provides a sort of creative bubble around you, the rhythms strumming your creative core in a way that nothing else can. Not for everyone, sure – how much of a theme of this blog is that? – but that’s how its always been for me. It’s really no surprise that my writing really springs from the same creative well as all these songs.

I got into words via music. Caught up with depression and a stupid misdirected urge to create, I dreamt up hundreds of songs when I was – what, 16 – 22? Never heard outside my head, I became a prolific writer of lyrics; I still have most of them, now sadly shorn of context – hundreds of scraps of paper all carefully stored away in the spare room, too poor, too painful to be re-examined but too personal to be thrown away.

Slowly, after many, many trials and more errors than you can possibly imagine, these lyrics slowly became less attempts at poetry and more what they should have been all along; accompaniments for music. Some of these, I maintain, are pretty good. I’ve always been pretty cocky at my ability to write a good lyric. I’m certainly more confident about that than I am about my full-length writing. What infuses both, however, is rhythm. I can never measure it, but there’s a rhythm to novels, a pacing, and I think total immersion in a head-bubble of sound can really help bring that to life.

For me, music and words are almost the same thing. The mood that’s created in both can be totally detached from the actual ‘story’; the same plot can be given a totally different feel by the way it’s told (compare Neil Gaiman’s American Gods with his Anansi Boys: both set in the same world and with the potential to create the same emotions – but one’s an adventure filled with a sense of anxiety and foreboding, the other almost a comedy). Whereas in music the same lyrics can be given a totally different feel by the arrangement behind it.

Anyway, here’s some song lyrics for you to mock. I remember the first stanza of the first work as being the first thing I ever wrote. In my mind I was still a child but I’m imperfect: could’ve been anywhere from eight to fifteen. It came to me so complete and so perfect rhythmically – the nursery rhyme-ness of the measure – that I’ve never been entirely sure that I haven’t stolen it from somewhere, some half-buried memory from my earliest days – but if so I’ve never tracked it down. So I’m claiming it.

The second one remains almost mystical, magical to me. It’s the sort of thing you can get away with in lyrics that you can’t with poems and certainly not with prose. A sense (to me) of personal truth that transcends the actual words. I don’t exactly – not quite, not 100% – know what it means. It just felt right; again the first stanza coming to me in one big chunk in university halls, and then at a later date (on a train between Belfast and Bangor, I remember that) the second verse falling from the stars and striking me right between the eyes.

Both of these have actually been performed live with bands, which just goes to show.

Time 

When I was young I’d often sit and wonder who I’d be
But now that I’ve grown up I’ve come to find that I am me
But who am I and what am I and who am I to say
I won’t wake up to find I’m someone else another day

When I was young I’d often sit and wonder what to say
But now that I’ve grown up these feelings should have gone away
Timing isn’t everything, but when you’ve lost your voice
These isolations multiply and soon you’ve got no choice

When I was young I’d often sit and try hard not cry
And wish that I was older so I wouldn’t have to lie
But tears come and fears go and tears still abide
And everything that I once was is carried deep inside

Crush

And a force to crush me sweeps across
And a memory of what I lost
And who I was; but that’s all gone
You were here but time moves on

And seismic shifts in prose and poetry

And this does not mean the world to me
And who was there to wash me clean?
Gravity: my cruel machine
And here comes the rain

And to touch the truth; the story dies
And so we rip out future cries
And all that’s been will come again
You were here to ease the pain
And here comes the rain

And a force to crush me sweeps across
And all that I once was is lost
And here and now; you and me
The weight is gone and we are free
And here comes the rain

And a force to crush me sweeps across
And a memory
Of what I lost…

This article has been brought to you by Laura Marling and Scheer and edited in association with the Levellers, Metallica and Richard Thompson

I submit

Before we begin, take another look at the tag-line up on the top left. ‘Unpublished author’. ‘S what it says. So to be giving advice on how to submit to a publisher or agent may seem a little presumptuous.

But I’ve been trying, and I’ve been reading books, and I’ve been speaking to people – and several bodies have been asking me for full manuscripts recently, so I reckon I’m doing something right. And, since so many sources offer different advice, I thought it might be helpful to give my tuppeneth and see if we can’t thrash something out between us. Just to get things clear from the start, this is based heavily on talks by from David Headley, Adrian Magson, Madeleine Milburn and Daniel Clay at Winchester Writers’ Conference 2013, as well as books like the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (also 2013) and miscellaneous others. I’d also recommend Daniel Clay’s static blog for another perspective: http://danielclaysblog.blogspot.co.uk/.

Submission systems are changing. Just a few years ago, the chances of anybody accepting material through any channel but the post – with self-addressed envelope, immediately doubling postage-costs – were practically non-existent. Publishers weren’t the earliest adopters of modern technology, but once they got the bit between their teeth there was no stopping them. Now most (but not nearly all) publishers/agents take email submissions. And a growing minority now have dedicated web-forms and won’t accept any other method. So with all this diversity, can any one page give advice appropriate for all?

Well, no matter how you get your work to right people, the fundamentals remain the same. Most houses are looking for one, two or three things: a covering letter; a synopsis; and a sample of your writing. Usually the sample is three chapters or 10,000 words, but this varies greatly (and I’ll say this again because it’s so important); it’s crucial that you read the guidelines carefully for each different submission.

The synopsis is the least important part of what I think of as the standard submission package. I know it’s one of the hardest things to get right, but really it’s there as backup for the (probably junior) member of staff who’s reading your work. If they like your covering letter and sample they’ll want to check that the story looks promising: that you haven’t gone crazy and finished with God (or aliens, or great wizards – all the same, really) suddenly appearing to magically punish the wrongdoer and endow your hero/heroine. Unless that’s what your book’s been about all the way through. Consistency, people!

So I won’t say anything more about the synopsis right now. Nor will I waste time discussing your sample writing: just make sure it’s double-spaced (but check the guidelines, just in case) and in a standard font, has page numbers and a header with your name and the title of the book. And is good, obviously.

That leaves us with the covering letter. And it’s time to consider what an agent/publisher is looking for when s/he wearily flicks to the next file on their e-book reader. They want:

  • Great writing
  • To be able to sell your work
  • To be able to work with you
  • To know that you can help them to sell your book

Essentially we’re talking about a business letter here. A job application. This isn’t the place to demonstrate your flair with gimmicks or examples of what a ‘free-spirit’ you are. That comes in your sample. They want to know they can work with you. They want you to be respectful, to include all the info they’ve asked for and to make a short case for your work.

Agent Madeleine Milburn suggested that covering letters should take the following form (not verbatim):

  • Dear… (personal name if possible)
  • I’m currently seeking representation/a publisher for…
  • Type of novel – genre, word-count, YA/adult etc; the ‘story’ in as near to one sentence as you can get. Your fifteen word elevator pitch
  • Why you’re approaching this particular agent
  • A bit about you: your writing ‘qualifications’. Any blogs/social media sites you’re a part of. But don’t use the ones where you’re acting like a – well, as the Americans would say, ‘like a drunken frat boy’. Keep them to yourself, thank you very much. Filthy child.
  • Thanks etc

Oh, and please, please, please – don’t forget your contact details. Even if you’re emailing. Just – just don’t. Also don’t let it go over a page in length – and that can be awkward, what with the wotnots of letter-writing; address, yours faithfully etc.

An example:

 Address

Email and tel. nos

 Date

Dear Mr Publishgasm

I am currently seeking a publisher for my novel, The Rabbits of Satan. Set in 15th century Nuremberg, it is a cross between historical fiction and horror, and is aimed at an adult audience. It follows the attempts of young warrener Jurgen to foil a plot against the master the Prince – a plot that involves carnivorous rabbits, buxom wenches and dark, dark magic – and a trail that leads to the very heart of Bavarian politics.

The novel is my eleventh and is complete at 86,000 words. It’s intended as the first in a trilogy. Please find attached the opening chapters as requested on your website. It would be wonderful to work with Publishgasm as I see you as very much as the leader in 15th century Bavarian books and feel we would be a natural fit.

In terms of market The Rabbits of Satan can be compared with works by authors such as [two or three authors who have recently broken through so that the agent/publisher knows where they’d sit on the shelf].

I am currently employed at the Nuremberg Experience, Staffordshire, and previously worked as a warrener. I have a blog [give the address]. I’m committed to my craft and am determined to make my career in the field.

I am very grateful for your consideration and your time, and would be delighted to send you the full manuscript in either hard or electronic form, as you desire. I look forwards to hearing from you.

Yours, with thanks

Etcetera

Any questions?

Gadgets and NaNoWriMo

I got a new phone in August. I hate it. And I hate it because I like it so much.

What did we do before mobiles, tablets and their ilk? When we were on our buses and trains, when we were waiting for friends or our families, how did we pass the time? Were we perpetually bored?

I hate my phone because instead of spending quality time in my head I play chess or read Twitter. I don’t use my eyes as much – spend less time playing with architecture or admiring nature, or people-watching or dreaming. Several scientific papers – no, I can’t quote them – have suggested that we overstimulate our children and that being bored is an important part of growing up to be a human being. Now I worry we’re losing that as adults.

Because being in our own heads allows us to dream. It allows us to create stories, to make connections – a form of meditation where we can enter a state almost like sleep. Quiet time, where we do nothing, is a precious resource. It’s where we get to know our characters both real and fictional, where we plan and sketch theories and refine and abandon them. I’m a landscape historian by education, and my eternal pleasure is to spot old hedgerows and trackways and try to trace them back through time: to see where a t-junction used to be a crossroads; to spot old manor-houses and lodges and…

And so on. The point is that we’re willingly giving it up. And this time we sacrifice is also the best time for thinking of new stories. Writing-time isn’t just that spent on your computer or with your note-pads: it’s also the time we spend seeing and drifting through time, into wild fantasies and lurid, sweat-drenched nightmares.

Modern technology is fantastic. It’s given us so much, freed us up for more and more time to do what we actually like to do. But don’t let it steal your ability to dream.

*          *          *

It’s been a quiet time here at Writerly Towers. After the highs and lows of September, getting baited by publishers only to see them withdraw the hook, and the new first drafts, and all this… activity, I seem to have been swept into the Doldrums. Becalmed upon an ocean lacuna, awaiting fair wind to gently blow me into harbour, I’m slowly picking my way into the second draft of New Gods and sending off the occasional submission.

As I’ve said on many occasions, it’s a strange life being a writer. You’re constantly sculling from one manic phase to another, trying to cram as much real life as you can around the edges. I’m not a believer in some benevolent muse who’s pulling your strings like a puppet; writing is much more of a habit, even a struggle, than a gift. Still, there are days when the words just won’t come and, despite your best intentions, you feel like it’s just been wasted time.

I’m old now, and resigned enough to be philosophical. Take your time out, take a walk, visit the most excellent Norwich Beer Festival (who can fail to enjoy a brass band rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody with an ale in ‘and?). I’m not a big one for holidays, but I’m treating this time kinda like a brain-off-the-hook session. It’s nice to coast, for once, and not be hammering my muscles against the mighty ocean. And speaking of, you might like to check out this article (http://storyfix.com/help-wanted-hiring-fiction-writers-now) which demonstrates that it’s a mighty ocean indeed.

So for now I’m coasting, doing just a little every day; a sort of busman’s holiday. How long will it go on for? I’ve got no idea. Next week I might be back in the midst of creativity, as abustle as a Dickensian Matron. Who knows, maybe I’ll have had another nibble of interest and I’ll be bouncing around puppy-like, unable to keep from yapping at you all. Or I might have had hopes dashed, thrust into maudlin bitterness and lashing out at the whole industry.

A writer’s life. Weird, unpredictable, where the dull moments are to be treasured and schizophrenia is a constant.

Who will you be today?

*          *          *

It’s NaNoWriMo! That’s National Novel Writing Month (although it should really be InNoWriMo, as it’s gone exceedingly international) for those not in the know. The aim is to write a 50,000-word book in thirty days; a real challenge and a real achievement for those who get it done. Anybody out there giving it a try? I’d love to hear your stories of success or failure, elation or frustration.

I came across the idea a few years ago when I read the official NaNoWriMo guide – memorably described by my Dad as ‘a good book telling you how to write a bad book quickly’. I’ve never taken part; it’s not for me as I’ve got my ways of working and I reckon I’m doing okay on my own. Still, anything that encourages writing – or reading – is a good thing in my eyes.

Just remember that writing is supposed to be fun – or, if not exactly fun, then at least satisfying. For amateurs like me who don’t get paid for their work (not yet, at least) it’s important that we don’t burn out by setting unrealistic targets for ourselves. If you want to write know that I’m here cheering you on; there’s a great writing community out there and we’re all on your side.

And remember that, if it all goes wrong and you abandon your project half way through, that’s okay too. It’s how one responds to setbacks that really defines us as people. Treat those two imposters, triumph and disaster, etc…

Happy writing!

An interview with Marissa de Luna

As promised, this week’s blog is an interview with Marissa de Luna, author of Goa Traffic and The Bittersweet Vine. In fact, she’s at the launch for TBV almost as I type (Monday night).

 

This is the last halt on Marissa’s innovative ‘blog tour’; I’ll copy the details of her previous stops at the end of the interview. I know her through Abingdon Writers’ Group, of which we’re both members, and she’s been good enough to read through some early drafts of both Night Shift and Australis and provided much-appreciated feedback.

 

Hope you enjoy.

 

Author Interview with Marissa de Luna – Part 3

 

Can you share a little of your current work with us?

 

The Bittersweet Vine is a psychological thriller set in England. It tells the story of a traumatized abduction victim, Maria Shroder, who is abducted from her workplace but wakes in her bed physically unharmed. Having no recollection of the days that have passed Maria discovers she is suffering from hysterical amnesia; her mind is protecting her from a terrifying truth. Desperate to pull into consciousness the secrets her mind has buried, Maria must first uncover the lies hidden in her past.  

 

Do you see writing as a career?

 

In an ideal world, yes. But in reality I still need a full time job so that I can pay the mortgage. I love writing. It’s in my blood and even after a tough day at work I still feel compelled to write. As many writers will tell you – you write because you love to and not for money. The money is a bonus.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?

 

I am proud of The Bittersweet Vine as it stands I wouldn’t change a thing. I really spent time on the manuscript and believe it achieves what I set out to do! But I’ll let the readers be the judge of that.


Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

 

I remember always wanting to write but I never really having the courage to pick up a pen and actually do it. In 2007 I took a year out to travel and afterwards I spent some time in Goa, where I grew up. Inspired by the culture and the people I decided to write my first novel, Goa Traffic. It snowballed from there!

 

Do you have a specific writing style?

 

I think I am still developing my writing style. I enjoy the use of moving from the present to the past to create a sense of heightened suspense. I did this in Goa Traffic and the book starts with the protagonist looking back over the last year of her life. In The Bittersweet Vine the main character is on a journey but she too needs to look into her past in order to find clues to her future.

 

What’s your favourite part of The Bittersweet Vine?

 

There is a lovely scene when Maria and Alice (sisters) let go of their pride and their egos and just tell each other how they feel. To me that part of the book is special. They were close growing up and somewhere along the way they lost each other. From this scene onwards they start to learn about each other again. After they disclose their insecurities to each other they are able to pick up from where they left off. I think this is a pretty poignant scene.


Who is your favourite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

 

At the moment it has to be Sophie Hannah.  I plan to read a chapter of one of her books before bed and three hours later I’m still reading. Reading one of Sophie Hannah’s books is like being on a roller coaster in the dead of night. There are so many twists and turns and sometimes you just don’t see them coming.

What was the hardest part of writing The Bittersweet Vine?

 

Not being able to get my words on the page as quickly as I would like. I found with The Bittersweet Vine ideas were forming rapidly in my mind as I wrote. What I find most difficult with writing a novel, such as The Bittersweet Vine, is the drafting and re-drafting process. It is, of course, essential but it’s laborious and hard work!  

Do you have any advice for other writers?

 

Persistence. With Goa Traffic I didn’t have an agent or a publisher and so I decided to self publish. It was a great experience because I learnt so much along the way. When I finished writing The Bittersweet Vine I was tempted to just self publish after the success of Goa Traffic, but I decided to try the traditional route once again and after countless rejections I finally got a bite. It was worth the wait.

 

While you are going through the submissions process you can always improve your writing by polishing your writing skills. Start a blog or take up a short course. I have two blogs and I’m getting pretty savvy with social media. Having an on-line presence is a must for any new author.  Ensure that you have an up to date website and use various social media platforms such as Twitter, Pinterest and a Facebook Page.  It all helps when you finally launch yourself as an author.

 
What are the major themes of your work?

 

There are several themes running through The Bittersweet Vine. Trust is one of the main topics explored. Maria is estranged from her sister and her ex-lover, her supposed soul mate, has left her. Maria has lost her confidence and so she seeks the help of a therapist. When her best friend begins to doubt her, Maria does not know who to turn to making her plight even more arduous.

 

Sibling rivalry is another theme within the novel. Alice and Maria had an idyllic childhood. But when they first meet in the Bittersweet Vine they are estranged. The book explores the fragile relationship between sisters.

 

Previous ‘Blog Tour’ entries – and much more besides – can be found at…

 

Stop 1 – The Coffee Stained Manuscript! (http://thecoffeestainedmanuscript.blogspot.com) That’s here. This is where it all started. My blog. The one which reveals all my writing highs and lows.  On the 1st October 2013 I will be writing a post on my experiences between self publishing and traditional publishing!

 

Stop 2 – On the 7th October I will be making a stop at Jan Greenough’s blog Literary Teapot (http://literaryteapot.blogspot.co.uk) Jan Greenough is a professional author and editor who has co-authored and ghostwritten several books.  This post will feature a short author interview – part 1

 

Stop 3 – The 14th October will feature a post on creating memorable characters on the Abingdon Writers’ blog. I have given Abingdon Writers a big thank you in the acknowledgements for The Bittersweet Vine. As a writer if you don’t have many friends who write you will soon find out that not everyone is as passionate about writing as you are. Abingdon writers have kept me sane and have provided a great sounding board and critique for various chapters of The Bittersweet Vine.

 

Stop 4 – On the 21st October will see part 2 of the author interview on Luke Murphy’s blog. http://authorlukemurphy.com/blog/ You may have read about Luke’s story on The Coffee Stained Manuscript earlier this year on how he turned from hockey player to author.

 

Stop 5 – The tour is coming to an end! on 28th October I will be featuring a post on adding detail to your novel on Gabrielle Aquilina’s blog. http://gabrielleaquilina.blogspot.co.uk Gabby was one of the founding members of Abingdon Writers and is a talented writer and blogger! Her blog is always worth a visit as it’s full of her musings about writing and life with well organised tips on improving your writing and sending of submissions.

 

And, finally, Stop 6 is the one you’ve just read!

 

 

The Bittersweet Vine is available now
The Bittersweet Vine (ISBN: 978-0-85728-094-7, Thames River Press, paperback and e-book.) at Amazon or other on-line stores and in selected bookshops.  For more information about The Bittersweet Vine or about the author see www.marissadeluna.com 
Find Marissa de Luna on Facebook www.facebook.com/marissadelunaauthor