Category Archives: Writer’s Blog

The waiting game

I am not a naturally patient person. I like to feel the illusion of control over my life, to believe my own actions are shaping my destiny. Waiting for others to decide my fate is something I find really tough. I’d love to say something zen about how patience isn’t in the waiting itself but in finding peace whilst waiting, but I simply don’t see it. As far as I’m concerned, waiting is just awful.

I was in the fortunate position of having a long and varied legal career with one employer and I only ever applied for one job elsewhere, whilst exploring alternatives to fee earning that might have worked alongside writing. It has been two years since that interview, in itself rather awkward – I was wearing the same dress as one of the interviewers and was 10 months into maternity leave so lactating and nappy changes had blotted out most of my professional brain. I still haven’t heard back from them. For many weeks I watched my inbox nervously, waiting for a response. I no longer expect one, particularly as I know somebody else was appointed to do the job, but I find loose ends somewhat disturbing, so on occasion it still crosses my fastidious mind that they are yet to reply.

When my husband and I decided to start a family, I hated the long wait until our daughter was finally on her way. Each month was filled with nervous anticipation and ended in bleak disappointment. My difficulty wasn’t with the time it took but with the uncertainty of whether it would ever happen at all. All that hope and fear spilling from weeks into months and then into years. Had I known how things would turn out, I could have relaxed and enjoyed those carefree days before the joys and responsibilities of parenthood consumed us, but instead I obsessed over the future, and wished away the time.

It won’t surprise you to hear that the resounding silence that follows submission to literary agents has not been suiting me particularly well. My working hours have been spent imagining their disgust at my audacity in even contacting them and I’ve been waking in the small hours to torture myself over clunky wording in a cover letter or a missing comma in my manuscript. Not very constructive, nor conducive to writing book two, which I had hoped to lose myself in whilst languishing in the ‘slush pile’ (the somewhat harsh industry term for the numerous lovingly crafted novels awaiting the attention of an agent or publisher). All in all, I was feeling lost in a wilderness of my own creation, filled with self-doubt and far too much self-indulgent reflection.

But, no more. I would love to be able to tell you that mindfulness or yoga had soothed my weary soul or to report that my nerves were unfounded and that agents are fighting to represent me, but the kick in the derrière I so badly needed actually came from my very first standard form rejection. Far from catastrophic, it was bland, polite and inoffensive. It pinged into my inbox unexpectedly, alongside an email from a clothing brand I once made the error of providing my email address to. And the world kept on turning. And I still believed in my book. And I reached out to some local authors in the hope of finding some peers. And I researched more agents, found one with whom I felt a connection, rewrote my cover email with more passion and got back out there. I was relieved the process was working. I felt like I had a new chance to share my book, to try to find an agent who would be passionate about it. It felt like I was doing something.

Tomorrow I’ll be back to the waiting game, but for now I feel like I’ve been through an initiation rite. It may be strange, but I think I’m actually celebrating my first rejection, embracing the gritty reality of life as an author.

Admissions and submissions

In less than a fortnight, I will complete my first year of focussing professionally on writing. Shortly, I hope to send my novel off to seek representation, so my days are currently filled with stalking literary agents on social media and agonising over condensing a 108,186 word book into a two page synopsis. Since completing the first draft, it has been both pruned and expanded, words have been slashed and detail added, until, in the words of my surprised mother, it reads like an actual book.

I do feel a huge sense of achievement for completing it; whatever happens now, I have written a novel. I’m also distracted with excitement about the next instalment – yes, I’m already losing myself in book two; I just couldn’t wait. But I’m also consumed with terror about sending it off for professional consideration. Even whilst seeking clients, agents seem universally determined to prepare writers for a slew of rejections, which is far from comforting. I’m hoping to find a well of gritty determination to draw on; it seems weirdly taboo to confess that rejection is unpleasant, rather than merely character-building, but I’m comfortable to admit it’s not really something I look forward to. Nonetheless, as the anniversary approaches, the main thing I have learned this year is that I love being a writer. And that is what will give me the motivation to keep plugging away; I’ve finally found what I want to be when I grow up!

An end and a beginning

Today I completed the first draft of my novel.

It has left me quite unsure about how to feel; in some ways it is a landmark that ought to be celebrated, but I also find myself conscious that there is still a lot of work to be done and in many ways I am only just beginning. To continue with an analogy I have already over-egged: the baby is born, but the job of parenthood is only just getting underway.  

Over the course of writing the book, its characters have become more real to me and I will need to go back over the parts where I was still getting to know them to add depth that does their personalities justice. I need to sharpen the focus of the book so that it has a punchier beginning, a gripping start that draws readers in. I need to read and reread it to check for consistency, repetition, pacing, phrasing. I want to start on the sequel, mapping out what’s next in greater detail and making sure the first book introduces enough of the characters and concepts that the two feel connected without leaving unsatisfactory loose ends that confuse the narrative of the first. I need to edit and cut it down so that it has impact and feels dynamic but also add details that build richness and vibrance. It needs a title; I feel the pressure for each of those few words to somehow convey the sense of the whole, to carry the essence of the entire book in just a few syllables.

Now it is a complete entity, I am overwhelmed by its scale. Its 111,463 words are an intimidating forest that I could lose myself in indefinitely. I will need to carefully balance the importance of editing and revision with the need at some point to reach an endpoint, to decide it is as complete as I can make it and to have the courage to send it off, to seek representation, to find it an editor, a publisher, an audience. All of this is daunting, which will make it deeply tempting to hide in its depths indefinitely, for there will always be the scope for further tinkering.

For now, my first task is to read it through, to experience the physicality of forming the words in my mouth and hearing it aloud, to follow the story without being side-tracked and to enjoy sharing it with my children. I worry about how others will receive it, but my biggest fear at the moment is whether, after gestating it for so long, I will even like it myself.

Facing fears

Before becoming a writer, I had a number of worries about what taking such a big step might mean. Almost eight months in, I’ve been reflecting on some of those concerns and how things have panned out so far.

  1. What if I become a badly dressed hermit?

I loved dressing up to go into the City for work. A fitted dress and a pair of killer heels made me feel special, powerful, confident. I enjoyed entertaining clients in fancy restaurants on the firm’s tab and team drinks were always fun, especially when held in bars with a minimum spend, where the budget stretched further than the needs of our conservative colleagues and we were left to use it up by drinking champagne that was far beyond our own means. Don’t get me wrong, mostly we were sat in little offices tapping away at keyboards until there was only enough time for a piece of toast and a curtailed sleep before turning around to head back again, but there were little bursts of glamour and excitement that made it feel worthwhile.

I was worried about becoming drab and mundane, trudging the daily school run in whatever comfy mismatched and ill-fitting garments were to hand, losing my sense of freedom and identity, no longer going to the latest restaurants and sipping unpronounceable cocktails in rooftop bars. I didn’t want to lose my social life or the opportunity to eat lobster-sized crayfish and try a glass of Cristal. I pictured myself walking past chic dresses in search of comfy jeans and I cringed at the thought.

Turns out that my fear of missing out has simply evaporated. Yes, I sometimes grab yesterday’s cut offs and t-shirt to take the kids to school and yes I wear pumps or trainers, but I hated tights with a vengeance and heels are far less fun when you’re carrying a 28 month old three miles a day in a sling. I still dress up for weddings but otherwise I have no need to – the people I see aren’t judging me on my appearance (and if they are, I feel no need to impress them) and I no longer need to make myself feel good with clothes. When I worked in the City I needed those moments of feeling like Cinderella at the ball because my job made me feel like Cinderella waiting on her step-family. Now I’m into my happily ever after, I can wear clothes that let me run and play and write without getting in my way; they’re just background. Maybe people see me and think I’ve let myself go, but my skin has a healthy glow from all the time I spend outside and I rarely have those moments of deep stress or anxiety that used to etch themselves onto my face. I don’t have access to a fancy gym but I go to local zumba and aerobics classes. I don’t often eat out but our home cooking has evolved and, despite my heavy-handedness with cheese, is far healthier than restaurant food as well as being delicious (I cheat here by being married to an amazing cook).

As for my social life, I am definitely far more of a hermit than I was, but instead of going to drinks that have been in my diary for a month, I now have an impromptu glass of wine at a friend’s house or sip Pimms in the garden because the sun is out. I can be spontaneous and I have more time to socialise with the people I really want to see, not just the people who are working nearby. I do miss the camaraderie of being part of a team and I was lucky to have been spoiled with amazing colleagues and clients, but I love managing my own time now and having the freedom to simply be myself, not the representative of someone else’s brand. I go out less, but I laugh more. I talk to fewer people, but my conversations have more meaning. It is the opposite of drab; my life is in full technicolour.

  1. What if people think less of me?

This raises the interesting question of whether we define one another by what we do, rather than who we are. If pressed on the point, most of us feel uncomfortable with the idea of the former, but it is incredibly convenient to be able to categorise people quickly when we meet them so we know roughly who we’re dealing with. There was great comfort in being defined as a City professional, it sounds sensible, well-educated, reliable. Being a ‘writer’ is far more amorphous and alarming; after all a writer might start spouting poetry or dangerously liberal views at any moment and cause an awkward scene or, worse still, might simply turn out to be someone unemployable who has angst, considers themselves creative and is breaching that tipping point between quirky and just plain objectionable. Combine that with being a mother (because hysteria and an inability to scroll past a post you disagree with on an internet thread are, of course, delivered straight after the placenta) and I feared people would be instantly dismissive and possibly patronising.

This worry has also mostly dissipated. Turns out if you don’t fit neatly in a box, you end up having much more interesting conversations. Also turns out that the other humans don’t much like lawyers.

  1. What if the book fails?

This was a big one; giving up an interesting career and a decent income to expend a lot of time and energy writing a book that might never leave my laptop. The statistics don’t make pretty reading and even those who defy them often find themselves earning less than minimum wage based on the time they put in.

Failure is still a distinct possibility; the novel is almost 100,000 words long now and I’m excited about it but that’s no guarantee that anyone else will be. I remain very nervous and a bit clueless about next steps once I’ve finished whipping it into shape, but it’s mine and I love it unconditionally and I’m glad I’m writing it, even if only for my own kids to enjoy. I finally understand why some people do jobs they love even though they could find something much better paid; it’s genuinely a reward in itself to be writing and I know I’m incredibly privileged to be able to give it a go. No regrets; however life turns out, sometimes you just have to go for it.

  1. As a writer, I’ll look a complete tit if I haven’t read the classics or if I use a word incorrectly or spell it wrong

Some people care about grammar and spelling, others don’t. It would be embarrassing to proclaim oneself a writer and then demonstrate failures in basic literacy, but it’s unrealistic to expect perfection from anyone. I have found I have a lot more time now to explore the nuance and origin of words and I get a genuine thrill when I find just the word I needed or learn a new one. I’ve stopped clenching up about language now that I play with it so much and I’ve accepted that sometimes making mistakes is the best way to learn. Also, nothing could be more embarrassing than the time I was describing my tendency to talk too much to a group of colleagues and accidentally described myself as having anal (rather than verbal) diarrhoea. There’s really no coming back from that with any dignity.

I love books, but I also have other interests and I simply haven’t read everything. I’ve learned not to apologise when I don’t know what someone is talking about; now I simply ask them my many questions with enthusiasm. I’ve also discovered that most people, on hearing you haven’t read a book that they’re referring to, will become hugely evangelistic about it and sometimes even look you out a copy. This is a fantastic way to discover new books and somebody using a reference I don’t get is now something I look forward to rather than dreading. When you admit to not having read a particular book, there will of course always be people who look at you as if you’ve just announced you have anal diarrhoea. I think they mostly like to feel cleverer, more cultured or better educated than me and I’ve come to realise that’s not actually about me at all.

  1. What if my brain atrophies?

I was concerned that I would miss the intellectual challenge of work, the academic rigour and the commercial practicality of practising law. In the office I was surrounded by bright, busy, hard-working people I could bounce ideas off, debate with and learn from. I pictured myself sat at home, hunched in front of a laptop and isolated from the world and feared running out of inspiration and drive.

I think colleagues are definitely what I miss most about my job, but now that I’m not working, all the headspace and energy that was spent on clients is now freed up for reading, for researching, for writing and for living. I don’t miss the work because now I can turn my mind to whatever I want; I can challenge myself and learn new things because I want to, rather than renting my brain out. And although a book might be something everyone believes they have somewhere inside them, not everyone can get that book out; I certainly don’t find myself underemployed or lacking a challenge.

  1. What if it changes me?

Change is not something that I look forward to; I generally adapt to it pretty well when it comes, although I find the anticipation of it pretty unsettling. But challenging myself has always helped me to grow, even if that has been in ways I hadn’t expected. Becoming a writer has definitely changed me, but it has felt like growth and has been gradual, subtle, gentle. Life does not always follow the path I anticipate and I don’t have any idea where I’m heading, but I’m finally living for the moment and loving where I am right now. I’ve never had a coherent five year plan, but for the first time that doesn’t worry me at all.

 

But it’s about a girl…

I can’t get too frustrated with my children as they sneak an extra five minutes of reading time instead of brushing their teeth, or sit on the toilet with a book after lights out, because I understand their desperation to read just a little more, just one more page, just to the end of the chapter, just to the end of the book. Engrossed in the adventure, enchanted by the brave, funny, talented and quirky characters and lost in another world, I feel cruel dragging them away for something as mundane and sensible as basic dental hygiene or a good night’s sleep. I can see them falling in love with the protagonists, wanting to be them or know them.

My eldest dressed as a certain beloved boy wizard for world book day, complete with scar, a handmade replica of his wand and the copy of Salazar Slytherin’s locket housing a note from Regulus Black that she penned herself. She knows those books inside out and every tiny detail is important to her. As she marched proudly to school, we all gasped as one when a wise bearded eleven year old Gandalf emerged from his house en route, for we are reading the Lord of the Rings together and the fellowship has just left the mines of Moria.

In my own writing I hope to evoke those amazing connections with characters; the ones whose wisdom and strength makes you feel safe, the selfish ones that infuriate you, the irreverent ones that make you laugh, the powerful ones that make you quake and the struggling ones whose bravery you admire. Despite being set in a dystopian world, I want readers to wish themselves into my book to share in the magic, to dream themselves into the garb of the characters, so that they themselves form part of the fabric of the world they create inside their own minds from the words on a page.

As my book grows and develops, I can hear the voices of my characters before I write their words. As I put them in different scenarios I can see the indignation on their faces or their eyes lighting up with glee and my job is simply to describe it. They have eccentricities and foibles, friends and adversaries, strengths and weaknesses and sometimes their flaws are what I love about them the most. They are complex blends of a thousand different traits, some admirable, some not, and are motivated by their own ambitions, hopes and fears.

Reflecting on the characters that have most drawn me in over the years, there are certain qualities they have in common; the ones that spring to mind are determination, loyalty, bravery in the face of adversity, kindness, inner strength, humour, integrity, diligence, a willingness to stand up for their beliefs and to protect those they love, humility, trust. Whether displayed by hobbits, humans, anthropomorphic animals, wizards, elves or aliens, these characteristics are universally admirable. Some characters transcend their fictional worlds and we take them into our hearts, they can inspire us, amaze us, impress us, leave our hearts racing, make our cheeks ache from smiling or leave our faces damp where tears have rolled silently down our cheeks.

One factor that has never been of relevance to my admiration of a character is their gender. I lived the journey to Mordor with Frodo and Sam with my every heartbeat; swapping them for Freda and Sara would not have impacted my ability to put myself into their hairy feet. I have seen a lot of excellent articles about the lack of strong female characters in books and how this is poor role modelling for girls. It would be ideal to find a wide range of inspirational characters, of different genders, races, backgrounds and abilities. But what sickens me far more than the lack of strong female characters is the inclusion of women and girls who lack any aspirations or meaningful character traits of their own; I can look up to a man as a role model, but I find the plethora of vapid female characters offensive and confusing.

Perhaps as a result of the significant existing gender bias in children’s literature, girls who are avid readers are encouraged to read and enjoy books with male protagonists; a book about a boy can be marketed to all children. Very often in these books, the story is not about gender and thus the main characters being male is fairly incidental. If I were to gender swap the characters in many children’s books, the newly female characters would often make near perfect sense. The questionable personalities would be the newly male peripherals who are jarringly subservient and whose lives revolve entirely and inexplicably around the women. In my opinion it is those roles that most need to change; two dimensional people don’t make sense as men and they don’t make sense as women either.

Of particular additional concern to me, first as a children’s writer who aspires to be published but also as a person who would like to live in an equal society, is that a book with strong female characters is often not perceived as a book for children at all, but as a book for girls. The main protagonist of my first novel is female, and yet it is not a book for girls. It is a fantasy adventure story, with dragons, magic and danger; it is a book for people who like fantasy adventure stories and the gender of the reader and the main character ought to be irrelevant to anyone’s enjoyment of the story. I have not yet reached the stage of discussing publishing or marketing the book, but already I have had feedback that there ought to be a boy as the main protagonist in at least a few chapters, or boys won’t want to read it.

Boys won’t want to read it, because it isn’t about a boy. That statement may not seem shocking or offensive, but I think our society needs to move towards finding it so. It is not only girls that need strong female characters that they can relate to, but boys as well. What message does it send to boys if books with women or girls in them are perceived as somehow beneath them, somehow less exciting, less worthy, less interesting. Like so many of my favourite stories growing up, my book is not about gender at all, and I hope that every character would stand up to a gender swap. At the point where that is achieved, the only objection to reading a book with a girl as the main character is an objection to girls in principle. And if my generation of women has looked up to strong men, I would like to challenge the next generation of boys to look up to strong women as well as strong men.

In an equal society, we would not even need to think about the gender of our mentors or role models, for the characteristics we seek to emulate are not usually sex based. Why would I insist on keeping my main protagonist female, you may ask, if it may well impact the book’s potential sales significantly? Because in an equal society, books aimed at all children would have a balance of male and female protagonists, with children reading the stories with content that appeals to them, rather than limiting themselves to books where they have genitals in common with the people who happen to feature most prominently. Of course we all want role models that look a bit like us and to whom we can more easily relate, but we can also admire and appreciate those who don’t. In an equal society, having a female protagonist would not impact sales at all, they would come down to whether it was a good story and well written. But to get there, we need to make plenty of those books available and encourage both boys and girls to read them so that we all get used to a world where there is no debate about books starring boys and books starring girls, just people seeking stories that inspire and move them.

Lessons learned

It has now been three months since I committed to becoming a writer and I still have a lot to learn. I am yet to finish a first draft of the book, and although progress has been good, I am conscious that it is far easier to open up storylines than it is to conclude them satisfactorily without being trite. I have not properly researched literary agents and publishers, as every time I google it my stomach lurches and I have to calm myself with an episode of ‘The Good Place’ or a rerun of ‘Gossip Girl’. As that is not conducive to actually ever finishing the book, I have embargoed those searches for now, but that is a temporary solution while I deal with the hundreds of smaller hurdles that need crossing before submission is even close to needing serious attention.

There are many challenges ahead, but I thought this an appropriate time to reflect on what I have learned so far.

The draft is just a rehearsal

It is far easier to edit a poorly phrased idea than it is to sit in front of a blank screen and come up with the perfect turn of phrase from scratch. Trying to get the content, the phrasing, the pace, the characterisation and the ambiance all as I want them, as well as ensuring continuity, variety and interest in my language is simply not a one stage process. I am learning to forgive myself when a first draft looks like a draft and to view a session where I splurge story from my brain as the very first stepping stone to what a chapter will look like when it is finished.

There are a lot of rehearsals

Nothing compares to the feeling when the story flows from my fingertips as they race across the keyboard and my characters are confronted with disaster or delight. But although the narrative might be there, the words are usually not; sometimes not one remains after an editing session. There is not the thrill in tweaking words and worrying about nuance that there is in taking an idea and giving it form for the first time, but without that labour, the story is easily lost in distracting repetition, inconsistencies or clunky phrasing.

I have learned that my editing process requires a little distance – if the story is still bouncing around my head all fresh and exciting, it feels very raw to take a scalpel to my work. Equally, if I leave it too long before editing, the volume of prose becomes simply too arduous to wade through, so I have to mix up the writing, research and editing to keep the process interesting and maintain focus. Each time I read a passage I focus on a different aspect of it and I seem to be constantly tinkering. As the book grows in length (54,000 words and counting) a full read through has become a somewhat more significant undertaking and I like to have two versions open, one to edit and one to search (how anybody handwrites a book and manages to keep track of everything I have no idea; electronic searching is my crutch) alongside a notebook covered with lists, diagrams, tables and timelines. It can be a time consuming process, but the polish is what makes the story shine.

It’s hard not to blur the lines

My job used to bleed into my personal life through my blackberry, but it always felt very clear what role I was playing at any given time. The line is far more blurry now; I think about plot lines while cooking dinner or singing lullabies and I clear my head after an hour of writing by doing some laundry and listening to the radio. On the whole I like that my worlds have collided and I no longer need two separate personas; I can just be me.

But the mask of the professional is not just a disguise for our quirks, it is also a shield. If a partner critiqued my work as a lawyer, I would stand before them in my demure Hobbs dress and Karen Millen shoes, armed with a pen and paper for taking notes. I was there in my capacity as a lawyer and so my heart was locked safely behind the trappings of corporate life. But feedback as a writer can be far less formal; a comment from a friend or relative while I’m playing cars with my toddler, wiping down the kitchen worktops or eating lunch. Without my guard up, a suggestion that will later prove helpful as I sit at my laptop writing, can pack a painful punch. I need to find a way to take the sting back out of constructive feedback, as I genuinely want and value it.

Every book needs research

To most people this may be stating the obvious, but I had not really imagined that a children’s fantasy novel set in a fictional world would require much research, after all, it’s just made up… But the physics, the biology and the chemistry have to be internally consistent as do the history and geography that provide the context for the story. I want the setting to feel real and that can involve a lot of work for what is sometimes a very minor detail that will pass the reader by quite unnoticed. Fortunately the internet enables me to easily find and read detailed analysis of the obscure, although I expect my google history would now make very odd reading.

I am happy

The writing process is far from easy, but it is a challenge that excites me every day. I never have that ‘Sunday evening feeling’ any more and I love having the head space to be creative and the time to simply sit and write.

Halfway there?

On my 35th birthday I finished Part One of my book. ‘Finished’ is of course a relative term for a writer, for the constant reading and revision will continue, but the story has been broadly translated from my head to the computer and it is time to embark on Part Two. I am pleased to be on track with my ambitious target timescales but I am also terrified, because I had a four month plan when I put my career on hold and the initial phase will soon be over.

I am learning every day and loving life as a writer; I remember reading long ago that once you have your characters and scenarios, a book will write itself, and that has certainly been the case for me so far. My protagonists are becoming very real to me and I’m afraid to admit that my hopes of engaging more with the real world on leaving the City behind have not been borne out. Instead of being tied to a Blackberry or practicing a presentation to a Trustee Board in my head, I am researching the physics of dragons and running through synonyms on the school run.

Until now, the book has been embryonic and I have protected it, kept it close, sharing it only with those I trust most intimately. But my ultimate dream is that it will transport children to another world, the way Tolkien, Cooper and Pullman took me to Middle Earth with the hobbits, to join the Old Ones in their battle against the dark and to Lyra’s Oxford, wishing fervently for a daemon of my own. The gulf I have to cross seems vast and my next step is to find my book some readers and get some feedback, which means letting people into my world and introducing them to the characters who have become so significant to me.

The magic of a book is that it paints a different picture in each reader’s head, but it scares me that some people may not like what they see. I like to think I am receptive to constructive criticism, and I hope to welcome any feedback that will help improve the book, even if my ego takes some denting, but sending it out into the world feels momentous, like the first day of school, and as I send it off, I won’t be able to stop myself worrying about how it is faring, out there on its own for the first time.