Claire King

Author

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

A Solstice Story

Posted on: December 19th, 2017 by Claire - 14 Comments

A Solstice Story

Under the indigo light, the twilight roads glistened with rain, but the clouds were clearing now, and the sky of the winter solstice was luminous and streaked with pink. In the windows of the houses, yellow lights snapped on one by one, and as their curtains were drawn, the girl caught sparkling glimpses of tinsel and fairy lights.

Up in the woodlands that were silhouetted on the soft curve of the hills to the south, a roe deer raised her lovely face to the silver sliver of rising moon. A hare hopped from her form and twitched her black tipped ears at the sounds of faraway cars taking people home to their families for the night. Or home to their cats. Or to the television. Or for some people, home to nothing but loneliness.

In the skies over the commons, wisps of jackdaws rose and fell noisily as they settled into their roosts for the night.

The girl, Asha, walked past the well-lit houses. She walked past the houses where Christmas music could be heard behind the closed doors. She stopped, instead, at a quiet house, dark but for a single candle burning on the window ledge.

Asha stood before the window, and waited to be seen. It was getting dark, but she knew that there were children in the house. Children often seemed to sense the way the light changed as it bent around her, and would look up from whatever they were doing. It wasn’t always the way with adults. Sometimes adults would not see her for days, and often they were so busy they did not see her at all.

Sure enough, in only a few minutes the surprised face of a girl appeared at the window. Asha smiled, and the girl raised a shy hand. Asha could not wave back, so instead she nodded and smiled again. After a moment, the girl disappeared from the window. When she reappeared again it was in the widening crack of the front door, with her mother and her two sisters besides her.

“I told you,“ the girl said, looking up at her mother, and her mother rested her hand on her daughter’s head and said, “yes, Sweetheart, you did.”

Asha moved into the shaft of light that fell out from within the house onto the path, so they could see her better. Her eyes were kind and wise, and so familiar to the mother that when she looked into them she caught her breath and raised a hand to her lips in surprise.

The smallest girl approached her cautiously, as you might approach a wild creature. “Hello?” she said. It was said like that, like a question.

“Hello.”

“What’s your name?”

“I’m Asha.”

“And I’m –“

“It’s OK, “said Asha, “I know you.”

The mother stepped forwards then. “Asha, why are you out here alone in the cold? Are you lost? Why did you not knock at the door?”

“I couldn’t knock because of this.” Asha raised the box she was holding by way of explanation. The little family looked at the box in her hands. It was almost as big as the girl herself. How had they not noticed it before?

“Come in, you can put it on the table,” the mother said.

“I will come inside for a moment, thank you,” Asha said, following them into the house, “but I can’t put it down.”

“Why not?”

“I have to carry it forever.”

“Who says you have to?” asked one of the children. “It’s not fair to make a child carry something so heavy.”

“That’s just how it is,” said Asha. “Don’t worry, it is not always so big. It’s true, some days it weighs so much all I can think about is how heavy it is. But I’ve carried it for a long time now, and sometimes it is so small I hardly notice it at all.”

“What do you have in such a strange box,” the tallest girl asked, “that could grow and shrink like that?”

Asha took a deep breath then, as though readying herself to hold more weight. “In my box,” she said, “is the smell of his skin. There is a lost future I had imagined. There is the first time we played chess and he let me win. There is the space where answers should be. Sometimes even an empty space can feel heavy.” And as she spoke, the box in her hands grew larger, but not large enough to hide from them the tears that rolled down her cheeks.

“I’m so sorry,” said the mother.

“How can we help you?” said one of her daughters. And the other girls wrapped their arms around Asha, and as they did so her box indeed became smaller again. None of it made sense.

“Thank you,” Asha said, “but it’s not the time for you to help me.”

“Then why did you come here to us?” the mother asked.

“I came to tell you that your box will not always be so heavy.”

And just as they were all about to tell her that she was mistaken, and that none of them carried a box, they each felt the weight of it in their hands, a weight so heavy that they fell together on to their knees. And one of the children cried out in anger because she did not want the box, but she could not let it go. And one of the children wept because holding the box made her feel terribly sad. And the third child looked at her mother in fear, because the box was so heavy she did not think that she could bear it. And the mother looked at her daughters with her eyes full of love, and she took a little more of the weight in her own hands, and said to them, “we are stronger than you think.”

Up in the woodlands to the south, now blanketed in dark for the longest night of the year, the jackdaws moved closer together against the whistle of the wind, the brown hare ate her modest supper in silence, and the roe deer lowered her lovely head and allowed herself to rest a while.

Tactics for writing

Posted on: December 16th, 2017 by Claire - 4 Comments

pantone-color-of-the-year-2018-ultra-violet-lee-eiseman-quote I like finding out which colour Pantone has picked as the one that best represents our collective mood for the year ahead. For 2018 they’ve gone with Ultra Violet, chosen as a colour of reflection and innovation. It makes sense – after the political events of 2016 and their fallout in 2017 we all need a bit of mental space to regroup and find new ways to take positive action.

On a more personal level, the last year has amplified and consolidated a lot of things I’ve learned about myself as a writer that will affect how I do things next year. Something clicked for me earlier this month when my daughter was given a short solo in her school play. She loves to sing but worried that she wouldn’t be able to control her voice and it would ‘come out wrong’. And then people would judge her. I don’t know about singing but I know about public speaking, so I gave her some advice about posture and practice and mental attitude, but beyond that all I felt I could do was reassure her that everything would be fine. Then I thought, perhaps there was some more practical advice to be had.

I’ve been lucky enough to make contact on twitter this year with Alison Moyet, who is just a joy, and if you haven’t read them I really do recommend her Other tour blogs which are not only well written, but bursting with honesty and good humour and resolute no-shit-taking. So, I asked Alison if she had any advice for Bea. Alison suggested warming up thoroughly and some ways to do that, because, she said, “Fear closes the throat”. Long story short, Bea took her advice and it all went well, but this idea that fear can stop our bodies doing what we’d like them to do resonated with me.

Of course there are clear parallels with writing. Writers are also sometimes afraid – I am sometimes afraid – afraid that the words won’t come out right, or that they will not be judged to be good enough, or that even if they are good enough they will still be rejected. Fear that the time I give to this would have been better spent giving more time to the people in my life. Fear that some idiot might have started a nuclear war before I even finish the next chapter. And fear can also shut down our writing ‘muscle’, so what can we do to make our writing respond to our will?

Here are a few things I’ve learned that help me:

Avoiding reading or discussing the news in the morning. Starting the day by thinking about the state of the world is the best way to muddle my mood and my mind, and a constant drip feed of outrage and incredulity cripples my productivity. Half an hour of news in the evening is enough. So if this means asking my husband to keep our discussion on news to a certain time of day, or not logging onto Twitter, that’s what it takes.

Not wringing the pleasure out of writing. Many articles on writing say you should write every day without fail, rain or shine. While it’s true that forming a habit is helpful, if you’ve got a miserable cold and all you want to do is snuggle under a blanket and read a book, not write 1000 words, then I think that’s what you should do. Don’t let writing become something you begrudge doing.

Writing exercises or prompts. If I can’t get started on the thing I’m trying to write, coming at it sideways as a warm up often helps. Sarah Salway posts some great prompts, or you could try writing small stones – tiny vignettes of something everyday that you observe closely.

Switching from screen to paper and pencil. It changes the dynamic and wakes up a different part of the brain.

Dedicated writing time. This is about knowing for how long I can go undisturbed and having strategies to manage that. 30 minutes of uninterrupted writing is usually possible (unless you have a baby, when sometimes it just isn’t). If someone is in the house (kids, partners, builders) it means explaining that I can’t be disturbed for the next half an hour unless someone or something is on fire. If no one else is home then I  have to make a deal with myself that I won’t answer the phone or the door. It’s doable.

Accepting that routine is not important to me. I’ve tried writing at the same time and in the same place every day. It doesn’t work for me, but when I’ve tried to make it work and failed it felt like the writing had failed. By accepting that having no chance of routine does not mean having no chance to write, I’m already winning.

Being a writer not an author. This means keeping my head clear of publishing stuff when I’m trying to create. Publishing stuff is not writing. Thinking about reviews, sales, rejections, prizes, lists, the dismal state of the market for literary fiction…all of that is author stuff and needs to be dealt with separately.

Gathering people around me who nourish and support my writing, both professionally and personally. This is vital for my energy and enthusiasm and I’ve felt the effects of not doing it enough this year… and then putting that right. I am VERY grateful for all my writing friends and non-writing sympathisers who have given me such a boost this year, and also for my lovely new agent 🙂

Going for a walk. It’s a classic. But walking really does replenish my good and creative thoughts. The bits of the mind that marvel at the shape of a tree, the coldness of the air or the smell of the seasons. 2017 has been the first year we haven’t had a dog since 2002, so going out for a walk has had to be a much more conscious decision.

Tree Reflection

Of course the things that work for me might not work for you – I’d love to hear what does!

Wishing you all a very positive and creative 2018 xxx

Desired Things

Posted on: November 3rd, 2017 by Claire - 9 Comments

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

A Table

Posted on: September 30th, 2017 by Claire - 7 Comments

Fifteen years ago my boyfriend and I moved to France. That winter I bought a large oak kitchen table, and two years later we were married.

These facts are not necessarily linked, although the number of times we prepared and ate meals together at that table probably have something to do with it. Food is a kind of love glue in our house. It is not surprising, then, that we are a round-the-table sort of family. In the years that followed, high chairs came and went and countless breakfasts, lunches and dinners have been eaten together around this table.  IMG_1228

Badly spelled letters have been written to Father Christmas and left on this table with a slice of Christmas cake and a carrot and a sprinkle of magic every Christmas eve for twelve years.  Friends, neighbours, parents and grandparents have sat around this table with us and talked and laughed. It has been laid and cleared and wiped down thousands and thousands of times.

This table has not been treated preciously. It has been smeared with chocolate, spilled with wine, and decorated with greasy cat footprints following a roast chicken larceny.
table 2012

I have sat at this table with bankers and lawyers and bereaved friends. Tax returns have been prepared here, the children’s dictée grudgingly practiced and it has regularly been covered in the paint and glitter and glue of creativity. Short stories and novels have been written at this table, and it also has a cameo in the opening scene of TheNight Rainbow, covered in an oilcloth.
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If this table could speak it would tell you that it has heard arguments ranging from who gets a chair and who sits on the bench to the kind of words that break up families. But on balance, it is mostly kind words that have been spoken in its presence. This table has fifteen years of stories in it and every time we sit at it, whispers of those stories are there.

Table 2009_2

And that is why we brought this big, wine stained, glitter encrusted lump of wood over to England with us when we moved back here last year even though we knew our new house was really too small to accommodate it. It felt at the time as though by bringing it we were holding on to something that symbolised the heart of our family life in France. A kind of anchor.

I read this article recently where Elizabeth Luard talks about bringing her table back from Spain to London – she describes it as ‘the only thing that matters to me in my new kitchen’. I understand her sentiment exactly, which is why we have spent five seasons trying to ignore the fact it doesn’t fit in our house. We have edged around it, bumped into it’s solid corners, hefted it up against walls and back out again but the fact is, it just doesn’t fit.

So next week the table will be rehomed. It’s as solid as the day we got it, and will hopefully go on for another fifteen years at least.  I’m sad to be parted with it – it’s funny how inanimate objects can come to be so invested with emotion – and I hope that it quickly becomes more than just a piece of wood to its next family.

Food_Photo_Table 2013


We’re all antagonists now.

Posted on: April 2nd, 2017 by Claire - 2 Comments

Growing up, when my friends and I would imagine our own stories in the playground, or each others’ back gardens, there would invariably be goodies and baddies. Baddies were often witches or wolves or the cowboys in black hats and there was generally some dispute about who got to play which part, because although playing the baddie was often more fun, you knew that in the end you would be vanquished.

Now we are grown ups, and when we talk about stories we talk about protagonists and antagonists. This partly reflects our interest in the mechanics of storytelling and our understanding that – in the most simplistic terms – the protagonist is the person we are being asked to get behind – who they are and what they want – whilst the antagonist is there to try and stop them getting it (even if they don’t do this on purpose). It also, though, takes some of the judgement out of the story. Who are we to say who is good and who is bad? If we take the time to empathise with the witch, maybe we’ll see things from her point of view (see Wicked).

witch

Here are a few things I know about antagonists:

  1. Be they redeemable or not, a story without an antagonist is not a story. Imagine Neil Gaiman’s ‘Fortunately the Milk if the dad just went to the shop, bought the milk and came home again. But the presence of one antagonising force after another amplifies both the ‘struggle’ and the story.
  2. When the protagonist gets into conflict with the antagonist, the protagonist’s character grows, usually to become stronger and wiser. Inadvertently, the antagonist has somehow cause positive change.
  3. Antagonists stay as antagonists because this is not their story. No matter what they want, this not their narrative.

Let’s think about this about this in terms of some of the real life narratives that are playing out today across the world. Just pick one you disagree with and see if the following makes sense to you:

In the era of making ideas ‘go viral’, the antagonist plays a vital role in propagating any kind of narrative. Now, because it is so easy to do with just one click, people actively share stories that they disagree with. The result of this?  Extending the reach of the original message whilst having no counteracting effect on it at all. By latching on to a narrative we disagree with, and effectively becoming the antagonist to that story, we are giving it power and in some ways validating it.

By taking up the term fake news, for example and turning it against those who use it to spread lies and propaganda, we accept and authenticate that narrative. If on the other hand we were to reject it outright, and focus on the need for transparency in positions of office and for excellent journalism, we make our own, more powerful story.

By telling those whose narratives are bigoted or racist or sexist that they are wrong, and getting vocally angry with them, we are behaving exactly as they expect us to do, and we are fuelling their fire. In their story, we are the antagonists who their supporters love to hate. By instead creating our own narratives of equality and human rights, we create our own sympathetic protagonist that others can get behind, and hopefully our story, in the end, will be more powerful.

This is not to say, of course, that protests or resistance, are useless. Of course not. But successful movements always start not by playing the antagonist, but the protagonist, and defining the positive outcome that they seek.

Are we all antagonists now, in someone else’s narrative? We don’t have to be.

 

Writing, not writing.

Posted on: December 1st, 2016 by Claire - 1 Comment

Many of you will know that we moved from the South of France this year, and ended up in Gloucestershire. What with moving countries, buying a house, selling a house in France, moving schools for my daughters, starting a new job, catching up with all the friends we’ve missed while we were in France and so on, it’s been really hard to fit much writing in this year.

That’s OK. I’ve a new novel on the go and it will be done when it’s done. For me these fallow writing periods are not wasted. Living is a good preparation for writing. Feeling the stresses and anxieties of change and running the gamut of emotions is all useful stuff when it comes to getting inside the heads of characters. I still take notes, catch fleeting inspirations, keep it all for later.

And the shock of the new is something I think all writers need to experience as often as possible. New environments and experiences open our eyes, shake us out of complacency and bring back our close observation of the day-to-day that brings fiction to life by making it ring true.

We now live very close to a canal, and one of the delights of this year has been my daily walks along the towpath. I have loved seeing how it burst into life as spring approached, and meeting the neighbours:

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There are a resident pair of swans who began building their nest, eventually laid eggs and then hatched a brood of cygnets. Watching how their behaviour changed, with each other, with the nearby humans and with their cygnets was a daily surprise.

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One day as I had turned and was walking home, a kingfisher flew across the towpath in front of me and turned west, up the canal, pausing on every other tree, taking my breath away completely.

In summer the canal was buzzing with life, both animal, human and plant. It was the place the surrounding communities converged on in the evenings to get together and relax.
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We had a gentle autumn, with a proliferation of perfect garden spiders’ webs and plume moths .
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And as the sun has got lower in the skies, the light has begun to hit the water differently, and the water itself has regular phases during the day – in the morning the canal is still and glassy, but later in the day it shifts, and the reflections become rippled and distorted.

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Today is the first of December. It was a frosty morning, but I am noticing too that there are parts of the landscape where the frost doesn’t melt all day.stroud-england-frome-gardens-28-april-2016-1-of-10-3

And today the big surprise was to find  one of the shadier stretches of the canal iced over, the frozen reeds in the water fanned out under the surface.

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There was a crow, which I’ve not seen here before, perched in the low, bare branches of tree with a flock of black-headed gulls swooping around it, complaining at its presence. The crow was holding her ground and every now and then shouted ‘bugger off’. At least that’s what I imagined she was saying.

And over in the fields across the river, the cows’ breath condensed in the chilly air.

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After 14 years in the same place, all of this is new, all of this is different. Noticing these small delights is the food for thought that will bring my next novel to life. So although I barely made a dent in an ambitious target word count for November, I am writing, just not writing.

Back to Life

Posted on: August 15th, 2016 by Claire - 2 Comments

It’s been a whirlwind few weeks as Everything Love Is made its way out into the world. The hardback, ebook and audio CD are now available, and I’ve been whizzing around the country doing a few events to mark the occasion as well as keeping all my other balls up in the air.

I’m not doing a grand tour, of course, but have been fortunate enough to visit bookshops in places that are special to me, where people that are particularly important to me might be able to come along. What makes these kinds of events is the people who are there on the day – the welcoming booksellers who do their best to showcase your book and your event, and all the people who come along to have a chat and buy a book.  It was so lovely to have such a brilliant turn out over the last few weeks, from new friends and neighbours here in Gloucestershire, to old friends, neighbours and even school teachers in Yorkshire and everyone in between. At every event there were also lovely people I’d ‘met’ on twitter and have been chatting to about bookish things for years, who I finally got to meet face to face, as well as curious passing book-lovers willing to give my writing a try (THANK YOU!). Thank you so much to everyone who made the effort to come and support me, it was amazing to see you all. Special thanks also to Stroud Bookshop and The Little Ripon Bookshop who made so much effort setting things up. I’ll be doing one last Hurrah in Suffolk in the autumn so do stay tuned for more details on my events page.

I feel I can let go a little now my book has its wings. The first few reviews for Everything Love Is are online and are (JOY!) good. What a relief. There was also an excellent write-up in the Yorkshire Post, which said, “Really good literary fiction is a difficult trick to pull off…but Claire King has succeeded magnificently.” There’s not much else I can do at my end to help this book along at this stage, and I have already made quite a lot of noise on Twitter and Facebook, in fact you’re probably fed up of hearing me bang on by now. However, my books are what are fondly known as ‘word-of-mouth’ books, certainly that’s how The Night Rainbow grew its readership, and so if you’ve read Everything Love Is and feel you could share your thoughts with others by leaving a review I would be very grateful indeed. While you are always going to get the best service, book chat and experience in your local bookshop there are those people who don’t have that option and it helps them choose wisely where they don’t have a lovely Anna or Gill to help out. I also hope that some people read reviews online and then go and shop local…

By the way, Gill, at Little Ripon Bookshop suggests you get a book buddy to read Everything Love Is with, because there will be things you want to discuss afterwards that (hopefully) you won’t find in online reviews. I think that’s a excellent idea. We had a great and rather surprising little chat in Ripon about one plot aspect she wasn’t sure about… I’m also always more than happy to chat to reading groups, and to answer questions sent via the contact page here, so do feel free to give me a shout.

We are already halfway through the summer holidays. In three weeks time my girls will be back at school and I can’t believe how fast it’s gone. The summer holidays have felt so short this year now we are back in England and especially since I’ve been so busy. They were ten weeks long in France, and one of the things we gave up to move back here was our ability to take an extended summer break and enjoy the time together. The change has been worth it, but how I re-apportion my time is still taking a bit of getting used to.

The day-job calls. The pull of the next novel is strong. My kids want me to take them swimming.

In 2010, in my very first blog post – It’s Wrangly –  I talked about how I manage conflicting priorities. What I wrote then is still relevant two books and six years later. I’m feeling pretty stretched right now, so I’m going to take my own advice, switch off social media for a while, and split my time over the next couple of weeks between just three priorities – my family, my day job and getting some new writing down on paper.

I’ll be back again in September and keen to catch up. Until then, I hope you enjoy the rest of the summer.

Child leading donkey

Other posts on this topic you might like:

Gone Fishing

Gone Fishing Again

Prepare for Re-entry

Hope, Id and Climax.

Posted on: July 27th, 2016 by Claire - 12 Comments

It’s Wednesday night, 27th July 2016. My second novel comes out tomorrow. It’s a book that I have put a huge amount of thought, effort and love into. I have tried to be delicate, tried to create something that will touch people without hurting them. When I had a pre-launch signing last week, and I signed copies for people (THANK YOU PEOPLE) I felt I had to hand them back with two hands, carefully. For me this is not just a book, but a hope. My hopes are modest, but sincere.

The other thing of note is that the Booker Prize Longlist was announced today. Being long-listed is something I aspire to one day (yes really, because I want to write really amazing books), but I think it’s a few books down the line, if I’m lucky. I want Booker-listed books to truly blow me away. To challenge me and inspire me to be better. Two novels in to my writing career I think I would be disappointed if I hit this kind of aspirational standard. But I have been following some of the various predictions in advance of the announcement and to be honest I have felt uncomfortable for some of the authors touted as likely candidates. I think you must have to have a robust personality to manage someone planting that seed of hope in you, especially early on in your writing career before you have developed a thick skin of experience. A lot of the predictions and cheerleading for the longlist are, I feel, are fuelled by a buzz that feeds on itself. Or by an authentic desire to reward someone for a beautiful book you yourself loved. Or by a feeling that the author, somehow, personally deserves the honour. That it’s their time. But there are some 150 books put forward for the ManBooker, so it’s natural that most of us will not have read them all and will not be able to make an truly informed prediction. Still. Being on the receiving end of the cheerleading and hoping could be fun, right? Like sex without climax.

1993_climax

1993, The author reaches Climax

Authors are often fragile creatures, who take the risk of putting their hearts on show, to be loved or ridiculed. For most of us, that love comes very personally, from somebody who was touched by something you wrote, not in a tide of fandom. And yet something still compels us (me) to seek broader approval, even as we are also telling ourselves to run off and occupy ourselves with something else.

My friend, author Barry Walsh, quoted Virginia Woolf on twitter today: “I think the weeks when it [one’s novel] is first out are humiliating. People will talk about it, or they won’t talk about it. Which does one want? All that is miserable; and yet a necessity—one goes snuffing round after it.”

Same thing, right? But why? I blame my id. Freud used the analogy of the id as the horse, while the ego is the rider. I think we authors, no matter how skilled we are at riding, have pretty frisky horses.

Still with me? Bravo. In any case, all of this is to say that it’s a funny old feeling, launching a book out into the world. Particularly a hardback, which for most authors is a sort of prelude to the main act of a paperback. Book foreplay, if you will. It can be the kind of launch that can feel anticlimactic, if you’re not sure what’s going on or you’ve never done it before. This year I’m in the privileged position of doing it for the second time around, and based on my previous experience I plan to enjoy it, expectation-free, shape-wear free and wearing flat shoes.

In the publishing world, experience comes slowly. The process of writing and publishing a book takes years. It’s a long cycle. But if you are courageous as an author you can circumvent it. How? By actually talking honestly with other authors and learning from their experiences. This is not as easy as it may sound – we have a shiny image to project, right? Letting your guard down could be a risk. You won’t hear these kinds of conversations on twitter, unfortunately. But I think as authors we owe it to each other to have the conversation. Fortunately, in the last month I’ve been lucky enough to have a couple of amazing ‘off the radar’ author chats. Honest chats, in confidence, where we have talked about some of the (frankly ridiculous) vagaries of publishing, about the Emperors New Clothes, about advances and agents and expectations and disappointments and all the other things that are usually not said on social media or at parties. Of course I can’t tell you what was said. But I can say that these chats have left me feeling positive, good humoured and happy to be part of a community of like-minded, kind, clever, individuals. Learning as we go, sometimes disillusioned, but still hopeful.

I said earlier that my hopes are modest, but sincere. They are. I hope you will choose to read my book. I hope it will find a place in your heart. And I hope, if I’m being honest, that it sells enough copies for me to be a good bet for book three.

The Second Star

Posted on: June 2nd, 2016 by Claire - 4 Comments

Why am I feeling so on edge?

When my debut novel The Night Rainbow was published back in 2013 I was a little nervous of course, but I was mostly just massively over-excited: I was absolutely happy with my book, having it published was a dream come true and I was REALLY looking forward to other people being able to read it.

With the publication of Everything Love Is imminent (July 28th), although in some ways I feel much calmer about publication itself because I know much more about what to expect and what not to expect, my anxiety about how it will be received by readers is much greater.

I’ve been trying to work out why that is. Although The Night Rainbow will always hold a special place in my heart, I like this book just as much for different reasons. So, what is it exactly? I’ve come to the conclusion it’s not the reviewers, or the new readers that concern me. If this were my debut I’d be perfectly fine. In fact, I’m worried what readers who loved The Night Rainbow will think. How will this book compare?

Hardback books

When you publish a debut novel your writing is generally critiqued on it’s own merits, and compared (even in readers minds) to other authors, but it cannot be compared to other novels you have written. Most importantly it cannot disappoint a reader who bought this book because they loved your first. But a second novel can.

It’s not really a question of the standard of writing: writers tend to become more accomplished as they go through their careers, unless a book has been hurried along due to an excessively short publication deadline or something has gone awry with the editing process. But until you have published a second novel, your first is a lone star, a single point of reference.

Unless the second is a sequel or part of a series, it will tell a completely different story to the first. The voice will be different, as will the themes and the characters. There will be similarities that mark out the book as a product of the same author, but it will be largely unfamiliar.

star

A second novel encourages direct comparison. A second star alongside the first, their positions are marked in relation to each other. It is only when there is a third star that they start to make up a picture of something more – who the author is, their style, what you can begin to expect of them. When you start to see what ties an authors books together – then they become a constellation.

As I finished writing Everything Love Is – and even more so as I embarked of the first draft of my third novel – it has become clearer to me what shape my own constellation is taking. I understand more about what is important to me as as a writer, what seems to tie together the stories I want to tell and how I want to tell them. This is something of a self-discovery, and feels really exciting. But of course that is getting way ahead of myself and is still overshadowed right now by my pre-launch preoccupation with how Everything Love Is will be received by those readers who are waiting for it in anticipation after having loved The Night Rainbow. Because it’s basically all about the readers.

Meanwhile there are a lot of other authors’ second novels out – and coming out soon – this year that I’m very keen to read. After their cracking debuts I really want to see what their next books will bring. It’s wonderful to discover an author whose work you want to keep going back to. I’m looking forward to seeing which of these will become some of my favourite constellations in my literary universe. Are there any growing in yours?

 

Photo (c) Gary A. Becker at Astronomy.org

The Naming of Parts – Language for Language’s Sake

Posted on: May 2nd, 2016 by Claire - 6 Comments

My daughters recently moved from a French primary school to one in England. In the light of the current debates raging around SPaG* tests I wanted to share my first observations about one particular difference between the two systems as we’ve experienced them, and its noticeable effects on my children.

clippy

Much of the SPaG conversation recently mocks the fact that in her correspondance the Education Secretary herself has failed to meet the expected levels of primary school grammar, and perhaps if she were assessed on her use of subordinating conjunctions and fronted adverbials she would be found – embarrassingly – wanting. But I want to step back from that kind of sniping and look at the more fundamental issue – how literacy is affected by the ways we encourage children to engage with language.

Author Michael Rosen is a tenacious and articulate opponent of many of our current government’s education policies and his voice can, thankfully, be heard widely in the press, challenging their thinking. You can find his excellent blog here where he regularly shares his opinions on these issues. In this Guardian article he says:

“You must hope we parents are so mystified by this that we’ll think it represents “rigour”. In fact, it’s the grammar invented to describe how the Romans wrote. Our forebears neither knew nor cared how the Romans spoke, so they devised a self-serving system of descriptions that bear little relation to why we say or write things the way we do. So, back with the new gold standard of “subordinating conjunctions”: all this kind of description does is describe language as if humans invented it for the sole purpose of fitting it together. Amazingly, we invented speech and writing to enable us to do things. Language varies according to what we want it to do.”

For me, this hits the nail on the head, and illustrates is the big difference I see already in the way my girls are being taught here as opposed to in France. In their French primary school, French language, spellings, punctuation and grammar were learned by rote. There is an enormous emphasis in this area at least up to age 11, and the children are tested weekly. They certainly came out of it knowing vast amounts about verb conjugations in at least half a dozen tenses, being able to recite by heart the definition of a preposition, and explain the difference between a pronoun and a demonstrative adjective, amongst other things. They also learned about story structure. However they never seemed to DO anything with all of that. They wrote no poetry, no stories and no essays. They did no comprehensions and no projects. All the reading they did was sections specifically written for approved textbooks, which was then followed by questions to answer on the use of grammar and punctuation. It was dry, joyless and uninteresting. Language for language’s sake.

After a month in their new school, my children want to talk to me about the Tudors, about Egypt, about Coasts and Mountains. They want to discuss the life of Charles Dickens, the Plague and the Great Fire of London. They are excited by the different styles of language they are being exposed to and keen to use the new vocabulary they are developing to express their ideas and tell their own stories. Yes, they still have grammar and spellings to learn, and more so because they are shifting languages from French to English, but they are more engaged because they are applying it to interesting topics that give them a reason to use their words, and are exposed (by the school) to literature where the “rules” are not necessarily followed. It’s like a revelation.

I understand that this side of the channel our family’s experience is very limited – I’d be interested to know what your experiences are. For us, the difference is marked and in a very good way. The first thing my 10yo was asked to do when she joined her year 6 class in March was to write an essay about the differences between French school and English school. She had never in her life been asked to write more than a single sentence response to a question. She suddenly had a lot to say.

I’m a writer. I became a writer because I love language. I love the stretch and shift and richness of it. The malleability, the way you can play with it to make ordinary things sound surprising or beautiful. The way you can use words to give someone goosebumps or bring them to tears. The way you can use them to inspire other people, communicate ideas and create momentum. There is such joy to be had in all of this – surely this is why so many people want to be writers? Far fewer people want to become copy editors, (although thank goodness for the ones who do).

I honestly believe that if in my early exposure to English I had not been allowed to be creative, to play with words free of the constraints of the naming of parts, I would have felt suffocated by the rules and quickly lost interest. And even if I had not wanted to be a writer, but just be able to use written communication effectively, the end result would have been poorer. On the other hand, when you enjoy doing something there is a natural urge to improve your craft. In the case of language this means striving to find better ways of telling your stories and being receptive to learning from others, by lesson and by example.

 

*Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar. Whenever I see this abbreviation I want to add ‘Bol.’…

No Spoilers Please

Posted on: April 25th, 2016 by Claire - 4 Comments

What makes something a spoiler?

Although my new novel isn’t out until July, it’s been available on NetGalley for a while for reviewers to get hold of, a few uncorrected proofs have been sent out and there was recently a Goodreads giveaway, so it’s now in (very modest) circulation.

A few reviews have started to pop up, and since they are so lovely – and also gratifying for an author with pre-launch wobbles (PLWs) – I thought I would add some of the comments onto my Everything Love Is book page.  You can see that here.

Image0004LOW RES

However, in order to do that I had to edit out a few lines of what I would consider to be spoilers. I don’t believe for one minute that the reviewers considered their (very kind and insightful) words that way. But some of the comments included information that, as the author, I’d prefer future readers discovered at their own pace, through the story itself. And if they learn about it before diving in, well, it could spoil the read. Not ruin it, but still make it somehow less gratifying than I had intended, and tried to achieve through the (meticulous) way I wrote it.

With The Night Rainbow there was a huge potential spoiler, and to start with I was quite obsessive about looking at reviews to see if it had slipped out, and thanking reviewers for their discretion! I knew how easily it could be mentioned when trying to summarise what the book was about.* Thankfully only a few reader reviews ever mentioned it, although one national newspaper mentioned it in the first line of their otherwise glowing review. We couldn’t do anything about the thousands of print editions, although at Bloomsbury’s request they did edit the online version.

*I know how hard it is to answer the question “What is it about?” because I am asked it often and struggle to respond in any meaningful way. With some books it’s not a problem – it’s easy to talk plot points without spoiling the story – but with the kind of books I write, it isn’t and I find it easiest to stay thematic. With The Night Rainbow I would say it was about hope, our human struggles with grief, and the tenacity of children. With Everything Love Is I am simply telling people it’s a love story. I do realise that these are not always satisfactory answers, and I’m sorry about that. This is why I need reviewers, obviously.

I am always so moved by the careful way people phrase book reviews. I think that because book reviewers are book lovers, they  are sensitive to avoiding sharing plot points that could affect someone else’s experience of the book, even when this makes writing a review much harder to do. The question is, where is the line drawn between explaining something that gives a little context to the book, and revealing a spoiler, and as an author, should we just try not to get involved? After all, once our novels are published what people say about them is out of our hands.  We cannot curate readers’ experiences of our books any more than we can govern if they like them or not.

 

 

Ring Out the Old.

Posted on: December 30th, 2015 by Claire - 46 Comments

For me 2015 started with the itch of change: certain elements coming together at a certain time that made the status quo begin to seem unstable. It can be easy to brush this kind of itch off, I know, and get on with life as usual. But if you listen to it, if you try and understand what it’s telling you, if you face the fear and the risk that it implies, eventually you will reach a tipping point where change is inevitable.

Without going into the detail of what is behind all of this, suffice to say we reached that tipping point in the early summer. This was encouraging, because if you can seriously consider leaving a life in the south of France when the weather is perfect, the sky is blue and the first ripe delicious tomatoes are on the table, then you know your decision is made.

And so we started taking steps. One after another, at first slowly but taking us further and further from safety. From this life that to many people seems idyllic. From this house that has been home for 14 years, longer than any house I’ve ever lived in. The house our daughters were born to and grew up in. The mountain at our feet. The kitchen table a storybook we wrote.

Feeling full of energy

The house is up for sale now. We’re leaving. It’s scary and exciting and happy and sad. The last days of 2015 mark not only a year coming to an end but a chapter closing.

The Last Times have already started: Seeing people for the last time that we will likely never see again. The last time at a favourite place. The last time we will cook a certain meal, or walk a certain path. Some are clear cut, with tears and goodbyes. Others are vague, we know it may be the last time and we sense it all a little more keenly, just in case it is.

As we unpick this life we have inhabited, a light is cast upon it. A reflection of how we have lived. What we want to keep and what we don’t, what we want to guard as precious and what we want to change.

Some of this is physical – in preparing for the move we are having to be selective about what we take with us. It’s expensive to move – they charge you by the cubic metre – and we have accumulated, shamefully, so many things, so much stuff. We have an enormous cellar and we filled it over more than a decade with books we had no shelves for, building materials we had bought too much of, baby clothes I couldn’t bear to part with, clothes that used to fit me and never will again, scuba equipment from a life before children, VHS cassettes and LPs from the 80’s. The clear-out has started. We are now forced to discard, recycle and donate. It’s difficult but the release feels good.

Some of what we don’t want to keep is not physical. We don’t want to accumulate things anymore. My husband and I didn’t exchange Christmas gifts this year. Likewise, much of what we do want to hold on to is a way of life – the family values we have created together, the time we have made for ourselves.

Perhaps this time of introspection and reflection is why I’m feeling hesitant about social media at the moment. There’s a lot of noise out there. Some days a lot of anger. Others a lot of spite. Sometimes just noise for noise’s sake. And so many people trying to give the public impression that everything is perfect for them. It often feels to me like the extremes of emotions are posted online but that the reality of life rarely shows through. Rather than take a break from it all, I’m trying to filter out the noise now, down to the genuine exchanges, to the authentic, to what social media can be at its best.

Meanwhile I’m drafting out my third novel, a book which which reaches into the dark places inside myself where I keep the questions that I have never found answers to. I’m excited about this book, it’s going to be a cracker, but I’m also intrigued by the way it has decided to be written just at the time when I am turning a new page .

Finally, I’m ending this year in anguish. How can I not be preoccupied by the people flooded from their homes (and why this has happened), by the people who have fled for their lives and have no homes (and why we are not helping them more), by the disenfranchised and the poor and – on the other end of the spectrum – the self-serving powerful who do not use their status and their wealth for good, but to further bolster their own positions? Instead of just being a spectator, what can I do about all this?

I’m looking forward now. 2016 is ripe with promise.

Work-wise I will continue to split my time between writing and what I refer to as my day job, but after 14 years working for myself, in 2016 I am tying myself to a company which is determined to make real and sustainable change for the better. Maybe together we can make a real difference. Maybe – I hope – I can use my powers for good.

If everything goes well with our move we will be in a new home in the UK before winter is out. My daughters will be starting new schools (in English not French – they can’t wait!). We will reconnect with old friends and make new ones. My second novel will be out in the summer, which is a nerve wracking thing in itself. 2016 is already being fêted as an amazing year for fiction. Will my book find its place in amongst all those great contemporaries, or will it drown in the flood? Not much to do but wait and see.

And so to ring out the old and ring in the new* we’ve decided to reinvent our New Year’s Eve. We’re not going to stay up until twelve, filling the hours until the clock ticks over. It doesn’t work for us, I’m not sure it ever has. It puts too much emphasis on that moment at midnight as though it’s that which changes everything (even though in the UK there’s still an hour to go before the kisses and the fizz). We will say goodbye to this year, and this chapter of our lives, in our own way, in our own time, the four of us together, and then we will climb into our safe, warm beds and be glad of them.

And when we wake up in 2016, everything will change.

—-

* Tennyson of course:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

 

Everything a book cover is…

Posted on: November 6th, 2015 by Claire - 20 Comments

Waiting to see what your publisher proposes as a book cover is akin to waiting for judgement.

Publishing people read your book, then sit around in closed rooms discussing design briefs. I’ve never been to one of these meetings but I like to imagine that alongside marketing and sales perspectives, they also involve intense discussions around leitmotifs, imagery and basically how to encapsulate 90,000 words of a novel in a single photo or illustration.

Which explains why it’s so nerve wracking when the email with the cover art finally comes through. Will it feel right? Will there be disappointment, horror or relief when you finally dare to click on the .jpeg? Or dare you hope for something even better?

For me, the moment my book has a cover is the moment it stops feeling like a manuscript and starts feeling like an actual book. And so I’m excited to share with you the hardback cover for Everything Love Is, designed by David Mann, art director at Bloomsbury.

What do you think? I do hope you love it visually as much as I do, and that when you’ve had a chance to read the story next year* you’ll agree it’s clear just how much thought and attention to detail has gone in to the design.

Everything

 

*Click here for more details, including places you can already pre-order it if you wish.

P.S. Fellow Bloomsbury author, Samantha Shannon, ran a Q&A with David when she revealed the stunning cover of The Bone Season back in 2013. You can read what he has to say about the process of cover design here.

About Time

Posted on: October 18th, 2015 by Claire - 12 Comments

I was reading this blog post by Bridport shortlisted writer Tracey Upchurch, who talks about the fact that her shortlisted story was the first she had written in two years. It got me thinking about the way time messes with us.

Time

Two years? How does that happen? Sometimes life sweeps us up, and weeks and months and years just slip by without any discernible output. We have day jobs and families, people get sick or need support, or roofs leak or cars break down, or we are going through the process of editing and proofing a novel ready for publication, which eats up all those ‘spare’ hours we could be writing new things. Did it really take me four years to finish my second novel, and WHAT has happened to the 10 months since it sold? This is lubricious, unfathomable time that leaves us feeling a little baffled when we emerge, often years later, and can finally allow ourselves the time to put pen to paper again.*

But then there are the hours and days and weeks that seem to stretch on forever. The days when you’re waiting on news about competition results, or waiting to hear from an agent or a publisher. The dragging, torturous time that comes with an ache in your chest, and invisible filaments that tie you to the letterbox or the inbox or the phone.

And let’s not forget the kind of time that makes itself the focus of everything. The galloping, obtrusive time that happens when you’re on a deadline, or have a rush of words that you can’t get down fast enough. When you have a thousand things to do and they all need doing. When you are conscious of the need to make every every second count. Days when the clock is your master.

Strangest of all, perhaps, is the way these three states can co-exist, so that time can simultaneously drag and gallop, and yet still somehow slip away unnoticed.

———

*THE VIRTUAL COMMUTE – AN IDEA

I found that this kind of slippery time was affecting my reading too. Was it true I was only reading one book a month? Well yes, because when was my reading time supposed to happen exactly? An exhausted page or two before falling asleep at night. I’ve since instigated a virtual morning commute, where (when I’m at home) I sit for 30 minutes and read — once the kids are at school and the dog walked — as though I were travelling to my desk. Not only do I read more books again, but it also helps me get into the right frame of mind for writing after the rush and clamour of a school morning.

 

Image: Time Travel Haikus 5-7-5 photo by CityGypsy11 (Flickr.com/ Creative Commons)

On the Penrose Staircase

Posted on: September 18th, 2015 by Claire - 8 Comments

There is a time, when all the drafting is done, all the revising and the copy editing, when you are expected to let go of your story and let the readers take over. Many writers have difficulty with this part. Because as we all know, just one last read through a novel not-yet-published might elicit a change or two that could make the book just that bit better.

It’s possible that part of this is simply that we want our work to be the best it can be before we send it out into the world, even though we all know in our hearts that it will never be perfect. And it takes courage to publish something with imperfections when you’re aware that some people will be quick to point them out.

But I’ve also come to the conclusion it’s because we are no longer the person we were when we conceived the book. We have learned things about ourselves and about our writing at every stage of its creation (well, I speak for myself but I suspect it’s true of most authors). Plus we will have been inspired by other books, other stories, all of that life that has happened in the meanwhile. So the writer you are when you finish your book is not necessarily the same writer you were when you started it.

“Ascending and Descending” by Official M. C. Escher website. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

This week, at the tail-end of copy edits, I found myself putting the final, final touches to a novel I started in the Before Time. Before The Night Rainbow was even published and I had no idea if anyone was actually going like that book, never mind my Difficult Second Novel. It seems so long ago now. I mean, I was actually still in my thirties when I wrote the first words of Everything Love Is and I’ve been writing solidly, making mistakes and learning from them for the four years since.

So it felt strange, sending it off for proofs. Perhaps I’ve lived with that novel for so long that some part of me thought it would just stay with me forever, being tweaked and improved as I grow (into myself?) as a writer. And then the image of the Penrose Staircase came to me. The idea that I had reached a point where I could keep on trying to climb upwards with this book but would always end up in the same place.

It makes sense. This is exactly as it was meant to be. My second book is my second book, just as my debut was my debut. Time for 2015-writer-me to take everything I’ve learned and apply it to the writing of number 3.

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