Claire King

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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

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.

The Proximity by Proxy of Writing Letters

Posted on: August 2nd, 2015 by Claire - 2 Comments

My 9 year old daughter has joined the Scouts. One minute she was in the car and the next we had pulled over half way up a mountain and she was stomping off to join her troop with 40kg of orange T-shirts and mess kit strapped to her back, calling back over her shoulder, “I love you. But you can go now.”

The camp is 10 days long, and there is no contact. No Skype, no time-limited calls from pay-phones, and no emails or texts obviously. But we are allowed to write to her, and she is allowed to write to us too, should she have the time and inclination. She has been equipped with SAEs (remember those?) and pencils. And a sharpener.

I have no idea if she will miss us – I suspect she will a little, 10 days is a long time when you’re that age – but I’m already missing her. I’m used to us being apart when I have to leave home for a few days to go to work, but I do get to speak to her every day, and anyway it’s somehow different when I am still here and she is gone. The mess she has left randomly around the house – drawing books on the kitchen table, sandals in the courtyard, discarded pyjamas on the bathroom floor – is much less annoying than if she were here for me to ask her to pick it up. Her absence has given it a sentimental value. And so I have already written my first letter to her (see below). Actually, I confess that I did also write one the day we packed her rucksack. While she hopped about fizzing with excitement, I was writing to tell her how I hoped she would have a brilliant time, and posting it so it would arrive after her first couple of nights away.

When I was younger I wrote letters all the time. To absent parents, to penpals, to friends I missed in the holidays, to people I saw every day. They provided a moment of concentration, of catharsis, of closeness in absence, of amusement and crafting. I loved writing letters in a way I don’t love writing emails. And in putting pen to paper today I realised that I still love the way that you have to let the writing flow. There’s no going back to delete bits, and there’s no spell check, but you can express yourself in handwriting in a way that type doesn’t permit. You can sidle off up the side of the page or add in drawings or flourishes. You can be more authentically yourself than in a well-crafted email. It’s closer to speaking than typing, except you can hold it and re-read it, if you were that way inclined.

My challenge to anyone reading this post is to get out a piece of paper right now and a pen of your choice and in one sitting write a letter to someone you miss. Maybe you’ll enjoy it too…

 

So, then, that’s the first day without her over with. Just nine more to go.

It’s OK, I have PLENTY of pens.

PS

 

Fire and Flood*

Posted on: July 18th, 2015 by Claire - 1 Comment

Writers, generally speaking, tend to read a lot. But we are also a pretty tough audience, as it can be hard to get fully swept away with a story if you can’t detach your author’s mind from the writing itself. For me it takes a sustained, captivating voice coupled with a powerful sense of place – environment, atmosphere or era – to make a novel believable and compelling.

But the last two books I finished went beyond that, both managing not only to engage me completely as a reader, but also speaking to me as a writer because even as I was swept along by the story I could not help but admire the authors’ skill: novels for novelists, perhaps? Both enjoyable and inspiring.

I don’t do book reviews but I wanted to share these novels, so I’m going to choose three words I think best describe the books, and give you a couple of quotes as a flavour of the writing.

The first is Stephen Kelman’s second novel, due out next month – Man on Fire. I found it comedic, charming and redemptive. Quotes below from uncorrected proof.

“I had the feeling the weather would enjoy stripping me down to the vulnerable parts I could cover up with clothes back home. I thought it might expose a madness I’d been carefully hiding all these years.”

“I chose the groin kick for my opening record because its danger and high skill level required would guarantee that it would remain intact for many years to come (this has since been proved correct as to this day of writing I remain unmatched in this area).”

“I was beating the life out of Bibhuti with a baseball bat when my first monsoon broke…”

ManOnFire

The second book is Sarah Perry’s debut novel After Me Comes The Flood – which was recently released in paperback. I found it languid, discomforting and atmospheric.

“She stood and reached across the table to shake my hand. Hers was as small as a child’s and her nails were dirty. She was very slender, and I could see how fine and sharp her bones were, with a thin covering of white skin glossy in the heat. In a voice on the verge of singing she said: ‘You must be hungry, John. Do sit, won’t you? And don’t let Walker frighten you: he will, you know – if he can.’ She gestured towards the man sitting next to her, who concealed a smile, then struck a match on the table’s edge and lit a cigarette.”

“As John set out on the path he paused to let a toad cross; it splayed out its soft patient feet and crept past, a pulse throbbing in its stomach and its butter-coloured eyes rolling thanks.”

Flood

 

*By complete coincidence, the casts of both of these novels play out their stories in searing heat, in anticipation of impending rains, but the similarity stops there. Even the quality of the heat and the impact it has on the characters is perfectly distinct in each book.

Are there books you have read recently that you loved as a reader but also admired for the quality of the writing itself?

 

The Multiverse of a Novel in Edits

Posted on: June 30th, 2015 by Claire - 6 Comments

Everything Love Is, my next novel, found its home at Bloomsbury in December of last year. Since then I’ve been working with my editor on getting it into the right shape for publication next year and I’ve just handed back my revised-redrafted manuscript just in time for the school holidays to come surfing in on the back of a heatwave.

This is my second experience of having a novel edited and it has been so different to the first time around that I thought it was time for a new post on the subject.

Unlike when I was submitting The Night Rainbow, I knew when I submitted this book at the end of last year that I wasn’t entirely happy with it, but after literally years of editing it myself and getting it to the point where it was clear what it was GOING to be, what I needed was an editor. So I plucked up the courage, hoping I hadn’t gone off half-cocked, hoping that everyone would see through the not-right bits to the heart of the story, and hit send. This story has a happy ending.

fistbump

Then…

In the new year, my editor re-read the novel, this time with an editor’s eye rather than a reader’s eye and subsequently spent a long time trying to put her finger on the elements that weren’t working for her and find a way of articulating that*. I got her (7 pages of) notes back in mid-February and we chatted through them. I was SO happy to have this input. I think sometimes when you are so deep in writing a book it becomes impossible to drag yourself back out of it to look at it objectively. Beta readers can be a great help, but even if asked for useful feedback they are still reading as readers, primarily, and if you’re hoping for publication I think at some stage you do need the professional eye of a good editor.

The kinds of things we were looking at in this stage were fundamental to the shape of the book, like the way of introducing the two narrative voices in a way that best helps the reader get to know them and understand where the two perspectives are coming from; plot elements that needed moving around, scenes that needed bringing to life more, and scenes where I’d relied on excessive exposition unnecessarily.

Helen asked all the difficult questions – difficult for me to answer because they really challenged my understanding of the characters, forcing me to think deeply and question myself , but also the flow of the storytelling – the timing of foreshadowing and the placing of clues in the narrative at just the right moment to keep a reader engaged without giving too much away.

* I think it’s an amazing skill to be able to read a novel draft and be able to pull out the questions you need to ask the author in order to help them improve and strengthen their book.

The complexities of writing this particular book had started to feel overwhelming to me and all this input was exactly what I needed to get it to the next level. I spent the next two months working on this, looking at different ways of responding to the challenges that Helen had thrown down. I redrafted the whole thing, handing it back in in mid-May, but not before I tweeted this:

A month later, Helen came back to me with her feedback on the changes I’d made. Most of them were received very positively, but there were some new changes I’d made that she wasn’t sure about, and on top of that she had now gone on to comment on the manuscript in a much greater level of granularity –  73 specific comments and queries throughout the novel. To deal with these we had switched to commenting and tracking changes in Word. By the time we had both done with it it was a very colourful document. I’d love to show you an example page, but I can’t, because SPOILERS! Thankfully wherever Helen suggested I made a change she had also highlighted the other parts of the story that would need revising if I did (as the implications of the change cascaded throughout the rest of the book).

As I said above, I’ve just handed back my reworking on all these comments so we’ll see what Helen makes of this newest iteration. I have to say that I am feeling really positive now about the way the novel has taken shape. I think with Helen’s help and guidance I’ve got to a stage (copy-edits and last minute changes not withstanding) where I feel happy releasing this story out to the world. So thank heavens for editors, three cheers and more.

fistbump2

One extraordinary realisation I had when I was going through this rigorous process was the overwhelming number of choices we face as authors: the decisions we have to take for the story that turn it into what it will ultimately, irrevocably, become.

It reminded me of the theory in physics that says not only is it possible, but that it makes sense that there are multiple universes like our own, each one just a tiny bit different. So we live in an infinite number of parallel universes, essentially in which all the variations that could have happened in our lives are being played out. Best to let someone like Professor Brian Cox explain this scientifically, but I do think that parallels (no pun intended) can be drawn with writing a novel.

In a 90,000 word novel, there are so many potentially different novels, and all of them could be good. How do you choose your story? How do you know which one is the right one? How do you know which is the best one?

Star cluster Omega Centauri by the Hubble Space Telescope

Star cluster Omega Centauri by the Hubble Space Telescope

 

Footnote 1

For more of my archived posts on revising/rewriting/editing pre and post submission, see these:

 

Footnote 2

Please do also have a look at Susan’s blog below, as she charts the process of revising her third novel, and do let me know if there are others I should link to here as well:

Susan Elliot Wright: “Yes, fellow writers and esteemed readers, it was crap with a capital ‘C’. Thing is, there were those ‘not entirely hopeless’ bits, and there was five per cent gold (potentially gold, anyway.)  I knew that somewhere in that draft was a story I definitely wanted to tell, so I virtually started again.”

Why we all need a First Follower

Posted on: June 4th, 2015 by Claire - 4 Comments

I was recently reminded of this short (3 mins) TED talk on starting a movement, and it occurred to me how it’s a great analogy for the word of mouth that grows around a book.

So, when you publish a book, you are basically the dancing man. Out there on your own, enjoying the contents of your own head, wanting to share it with others, taking a risk.

But as Derek Sivers says, The First Follower is what transforms you from being a lone nut. You put it out there and then wait for that first person to stand up and dance with you. Maybe it’s a reviewer, maybe it’s a retailer, but more often than not it’s a reader who really loves your book and wants to tell the world about it. What’s important is they are also taking a risk, letting the world know that they’re part of your movement before they know if it’s going to take off or not. And *thank you* they start trying to get all their friends to join in too.

And you, the dancer, are hoping and praying that they will come and join in, but you can’t make them. You’ve done all you can with your funky dance. All you can do is welcome these people to the party graciously and with gratitude. And keep on dancing.

And very soon it’s not about you any more. You are just one more person in the crowd.

The perfect time to sneak off and write a new book.

 

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Posted on: May 28th, 2015 by Claire - 14 Comments

You have 250 words (the length of this blog post) to describe your novel in the way that describes it accurately, and in the most appealing way. Go.

No, not the dreaded synopsis, but the short description that readers will see alongside Everything Love Is on Bloomsbury’s website, on Amazon and copy-pasted into the beginning of many reviews after publication next year. It sets the readers expectations and hopefully whets their appetite.

My editor has just given me her first draft to review. As the one other person who has read this book several times and put a huge amount of effort into making it as good as it can be, she is brilliantly placed to do this and you can see that in the way she managed to encapsulate the novel in so few words. As with The Night Rainbow, Everything Love Is is not a book that is easy to describe. It’s not “The next” anything. As I joked on twitter – No Girls, No Trains and Nothing Tiny: You Will NOT Believe What Happens Next.

As I ponder how to get this description just right there’s a lot to consider. There’s a temptation to use superlatives (flipped into an actual book title by Dave Eggers – as pinched for the title of this post), or to second-guess what readers might feel as they read it. An option to hint at twists. A need to avoid clichés. What makes a description both believable and enticing? What do you think?

child's drawing

*I wasn’t sure what image to use for this blog post, so this is my 7yo’s drawing of me singing in the shower.

 

Blurby be Kind (2)

Posted on: January 30th, 2015 by Claire - 15 Comments

In the Before Time, when my editor at Bloomsbury was sending The Night Rainbow proofs out to authors with little enthusiastic and hopeful notes, suggesting if they liked it they might consider saying something nice for the jacket, I wrote this post: Blurby be Kind (do have a read and then come back!)

The post talked about how I was feeling, which was anxious, mostly, and how I *would* behave in the future, should I be faced with the same request myself.

Three years on, and I am indeed getting quite a few requests to read novels, usually debuts, with a view to providing quotes for the book jacket or for PR releases.

proof

And when I say quite a few, well, I have read more of these proofs in the last six months than I have read books from my (very tall) to-read pile, because they often come with deadlines whereas my own reading does not. Some have come direct from authors I know personally or on social media. Some have come from my editor and the remainder arrive from other publishers.

In some ways I’m absolutely delighted about this. It’s an opportunity to pay forward some of the kindness I received myself. (An actual author giving up their time to read my book – amazing). But in other ways it is a tricky thing to handle because however much you want to love a book, sometimes you just don’t. And that’s sad, especially when you know the effort and the hope that are bound up in that little proof.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and have come to this conclusion: I’ve been reading for pleasure for decades now, and I tend to know what I like. When I browse books I flick through the first pages and when I find a voice that is going to grab me and delight me I just know it straight away. When I listen to others making personal recommendations, in reviews, on blogs or on twitter, I tend to get a good sense of if a book is for me. That’s how I choose what to read. So I enjoy the books I’ve chosen for myself more often than not.

But with the hopeful books lining up for a bit of cheerleading, there’s none of that. My personal taste in books is not usually a factor, and so many of the books I am sent, just as with many of the books in a bookshop, are simply not my cup of tea, no matter how well written they are or how successful they will go on to be.

Still, when I read one of those books that nevertheless found its way into my hands I get such a sinking feeling. Because I want to be that cheerleader, I do. I carry on with those books long past the point I would normally – either as a reader or as an editor – because I want the magic to happen. But to be honest I already know it won’t. It’s like a blind date with a lovely person that you just don’t fancy. So if you know your book has been sent to me hoping for some blurb-love, please know that I have given it my best attentions, whatever the outcome. And if I don’t fall in love with it, well,  it’s not you, it’s me.

And by the way, isn’t PROOF a weird looking word?

proof

 

 

Fallow Fields

Posted on: January 5th, 2015 by Claire - 13 Comments

The idea of a fallow field is thousands of years old. Farmers would let a field fallow for a year so that the field could regain its strength. If a field was used year in year out, especially for the same crop, the soil’s fertility was exhausted.

In modern times fewer and fewer fields are left fallow as it has a significant impact on farmers’ yields, and these days rather than grazing animals on the land for a year, letting the manure and the earthworms and the wild grasses do their work, farmers use commercial fertilisers instead.

I am not a farmer, but I do believe that this shift away from ‘resting’ a field and towards artificially stimulating the land to produce non-stop, must have an environmental impact. Just think how it affects the bee population, for example. There is also a theory that without fallowing, levels of carbon in the soil are reduced, releasing it into the atmosphere (see here if interested in this theory). I’m also convinced there’s  an impact on the flavour and nutritional value of the food produced.

ARS2009-fallowing-1_1

 

It’s quite easy to see, I think, how this example from agriculture is analogous to writers, and indeed to our lives in general. In Jewish teachings the concept of leaving fields fallow, or ‘shmita‘ gives us the idea of the sabbatical:

Sabbatical or a sabbatical (from Latin sabbaticus, from Greek σαββατικός sabbatikos, from Hebrew shabbat, i.e., Sabbath, literally a “ceasing”) is a rest from work, or a break, often lasting from two months to a year. The concept of sabbatical has a source in shmita, described several places in the Bible (Leviticus 25, for example, where there is a commandment to desist from working the fields in the seventh year).” (from Wikipedia)

ARS2009-diversitymanagement-1_6

As writers, we are often told that we should write every day, and when I can I do. In recent years this kind of routine and discipline has been the thing that has kept my words flowing even when I was too tired or too busy or just not motivated. But recently I got to a point where I felt I was forcing my brain to write, but there was something missing – an energy or an inspiration – that left me feeling flat. And when you are prioritising writing above, say, spending an extra hour with your family, that decision becomes easy to question too.

I wonder, can you really force creativity to work non stop? If you look you will find plenty of advice on how to keep going. But is that the right advice? I don’t think it is, at least not for everyone. I think sometimes our imaginations also need to be left fallow for a while. It doesn’t mean that nothing is happening, that the time isn’t productive. Far from it. Great things are taking place below the surface.

Daniel J. Levitin, the director of the Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University explains why in his post in the New York Times on taking a real break. It seems that for our brains, stopping focusing on a task is exactly what we need sometimes to be truly creative. And writer Rachael Dunlop describes the process in action in this post about her taking a conscious decision not to write.

I am convinced. Not just for writers, but for anyone trying to produce creative work, every now and then our minds need a restorative sabbatical. It might be the best investment of time you could make.

My lovely editor sent me this link to the Wapping Project Berlin a ten week residency in Berlin for artists (aged 33+) photographers, writers, musicians etc. The residency is ten weeks accommodation in the heart of creative Berlin, and the one condition is that you do NOT use the residency for work. Instead, you take the time for “rest, recreation and reflection”. Perfect, right? (Well, perhaps when you have got over that part of you that’s protesting “but imagine how much writing I could get done in ten weeks!”)

I’m not in a position to be able to apply for this residency, sadly. Even while on writing sabbatical I still had to carry on with the rest of my life as usual – earning a living, being a mum and so on. But maybe YOU could – you have until 14th February, so follow the link and good luck!

My two-month writing sabbatical comes to an end today. My notebook is bursting with jottings and prompts and I’m feeling full of momentum again. I’m ready to sow the seeds of the next novel. Wish me luck…

Book News, or How my Writing Process is like Monty Python.

Posted on: January 1st, 2015 by Claire - 9 Comments

Back in February last year, Science Fiction author Una McCormack tagged me in a blog chain for writers about our current projects. Here’s her post, so do head over there to find out more about her and her new Star Trek novel which will be published this month. Yes that’s right. Star Trek!

In accepting her tag I had four questions to answer: What am I working on?  How does my work differ from others in its genre? (I’m not going to answer that one, by the way) Why do I write what I do? and How does my writing process work?

I didn’t want to reply immediately because I wasn’t ready to talk about the novel I’ve been working on. In fact I’ve discovered in the last three years that in fact being asked about a book I’m writing, especially if it’s tough going, makes me pretty grumpy and defensive.

Effectively, in 2014 I was silenced by this book. I wrote just 9 blog posts in 2014 and only one of them was about writing or editing, the one from January: The Order of Things. Even that was a post about not actually being able to write because, well, life. When I posted that blog I thought I was close to finished. In fact I didn’t finish until nine months later. So many times I thought I was ready to submit it, but then I’d fall into a pothole of confidence and set off again on ‘just one last edit’. So I guess this is the part where I talk about how my writing “process” works:

I spent 2014 wrestling with my own editing process. The more I edited, the further I seemed to be getting from the end. And then suddenly, in autumn, it finally came together. A bit like this:

With hindsight I think a lot of this was to do with the fact that I had no experience at what stage a first draft was good enough to show to an agent or editor. I wanted it to be clear exactly what I was trying to do with the book and for the writing to shine, at least in parts. With your first book you are always told to polish your novel as much as you can before you send it to agents. But with a second one? When is it good enough to share?

Times are still tricky in publishing. Just as getting an agent doesn’t mean the novel she took you on for will get published, so getting that first book published doesn’t automatically mean your publisher will want your second (unless you are contracted for it). And the novel I had chosen to write was pretty ambitious. I felt a huge pressure to get it right.

Funnily enough, by the time I thought it was good to go and finally sent my agent my manuscript in October, I was so drained by the effort of getting to that place that I was starting to wonder if anyone would ever actually love this book that had caused me so much heartache…

But they did (joy!), and because they did I now feel positive and confident about it again myself. Oh the roller-coastering of it all. Now I am really looking forward to (my editor) Helen’s edits this month. I’m convinced that she will be able to illuminate things I can work on that will turn this book into what I want it to be for readers.

Meanwhile, in the last two months I’ve been having a writing break, I needed to read, spend some time with my neglected family and get my writing groove back again. I’m starting 2015 feeling refreshed and raring to go.

 

So what is it I’m are working on?

Firstly, it’s my second novel, Everything Love Is, which is now scheduled for publication in 2016. I’m delighted that it’s no longer just me that’s working on it, but me the team at Bloomsbury too. It’s set in France on the Canal du Midi, and is a love story wrapped up in a mystery, about memory and the happy endings we conceive for ourselves.

I’m also starting the first draft of my next novel. My plan is to use the very early mornings for this, before the rest of the family get up for breakfast, as I find that’s when my brain is at its least polluted and most uninhibited. I’ll save the editing work for later in the day when I’m more analytical.

I also plan to try and squeeze in at least one short story in January/February. It’s a form I’ve neglected lately and I do get a lot out of writing short stories, both creatively and from a satisfaction point of view. And I’ve promised my daughters I will write them a children’s book we’ve been talking about, which is a great fun thing to pick up on difficult days.

It looks as though in January I won’t have much day job work on, which is just as well really, given all the above.

 

Why do I write what I do?

I always seem to struggle to describe my novels in terms that don’t make them sound bleak. The Night Rainbow, I would tell people, is about a little girl whose pregnant mother is too depressed, following the deaths of her husband and a previous baby, to look after her. How gloomy does that sound?!

And Everything Love Is, well it’s about a man who discovers he has early onset dementia just as he meets the love of his life. It doesn’t sound like an uplifting read, put like that (but I promise it will be).

And if I told you about the new book I’m working on (which I won’t, sorry!), the elevator pitch would be similarly jolly.

But the thing is that none of these books are dismal books. For me the common thread in the novels I choose to write is the resilience of the human spirit. The challenges that I throw at my characters are not burning buildings, but burning hearts. I am convinced of our extraordinary capacity for strength of character and hope in the face of struggles and that’s what I want to write about. Those are the stories I want to tell.

 

Who next?

I’m also allowed to tag one or two other writers to write a similar blog post. I am going to tag Alison Wells, a writer who leaps across genres with great skill and tenacity, who writes some of the most beautiful prose, both in her novels and short fiction, and who I hope will soon be snapped up by an agent and a publisher.  No hurry, Alison, obviously!

 

 

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