Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Saturday 31 March 2012

So... About that Agent

Last night...
I dreamt... No, that’s not it, although it does feel as if I was dreaming.
The husband was having a snarky afternoon and wandered into the drawing room yesterday, around teatime, where I was running edits. He wanted to talk about his snark, and I’m always happy to listen, but I was distracted. What I wanted to say was, “You think you’re snarky? I’m going nuts waiting for this agent to get back to me. It’s been...” And that’s when my ‘you’ve got mail’ ping... well... pinged.
There it was, the e-mail that I’d been waiting for. It had been 27 days, don’t think I didn’t count them, since a lovely agent had asked me for a full manuscript of “Naming Names”. I had two thoughts. One was that it’s not a long novel, and if said agent needed 27 days to think about it, there were clearly problems with it, and the other, more charitably, was that agents are busy people, especially agents as successful as this one is, and I should let said agent get on with agenting clients, because, if I was one of them, that’s what I’d want rather than someone scratching around for new talent all the time.
Either way, the lovely agent had sent me an e-mail. Naturally, the word that jumped off the page was the ‘however’ that began the second paragraph. It rather spoilt my enjoyment of all the wonderful things the lovely agent said about “Names” in the first paragraph.
I read the whole thing to myself and then to the husband, who had offered to leave, bless him, so that I could read the mail in private, but who stayed because I suspected I’d need his support. I shed a tear, but only one, and all thoughts of feeling snarky about anything disappeared from the husband’s splendid head.

Friday 30 March 2012

It’s Like Taking a Lover

It’s better done one at a time, one after the other.

Perhaps it’s only my experience, and it’s worth bearing in mind that I don’t have a great deal of it, but I think, when it comes to writing, that any project is like taking a lover, particularly the novel. 
When I begin a book, it’s all very intense and exciting. That never entirely goes away, but by the middle of the relationship things have settled and more practical questions come to light. When the end comes, which, I suppose it must, there is often dissatisfaction and sadness.
I simply don’t believe that I could carry on two relationships at once, work on two projects at the same time. I do it, of course. Inevitably, writing is interrupted by other things, whether it’s reading for the husband, or doing accounts, whether it’s editing a book or even having a new idea. I write other things, too. I simply never cut myself in half by running two full blown projects side-by-side. I never take a second lover.
I write this blog, which is like having a lunch break, say from my regular job, or like a drink after work with the girls before going home to the lover that is my latest project. I write short fiction, too, which is more like kissing the dishy colleague at the Christmas party, with the lover in the room than it is like having an affair, but there’s still guilt involved.
There are, of course, writers who are promiscuous, and even get away with it. The husband never works on one project at a time. At the very least he’s working on two or three projects, and he literally carves up his time between them. He’s a bit of a lothario, but no less effective. He can look every lover and every mistress squarely in the eye, and make them believe that they’re the only one, and while he’s with them, they truly are.
It’s not a man thing; it’s experience. He’s a professional. I’d never keep the names straight, I’d constantly be looking over my shoulder, my schedule would quickly become impossible, and, in the end my lovers would meet in the hallway. I’d never pull it off. I’d never keep everyone happy, and everything would fall apart. The husband, on the other hand, always manages to leave everyone happy and satisfied.
So, is it better to be a happy polygamist or a serial monogamist? In life, I’d like to think we’re both happy monogamists, but when it comes to work, the husband’s got a wealth of experience, and dozens of notches on his metaphorical bedpost. Me? Well, I’m only just beginning, so, you never know, maybe one day.

Thursday 29 March 2012

Right Here, Right Now!

I’ve spent the past... crikey... almost sixty days banging on about the Mslexia Prize and “Naming Names”, and I hope you can see why, but, today, a little something of mine has been launched as an e-story for you to read and love and cherish, for less than a quid.

This is that ‘other’ thing I do, when I take a break from being Nicola Vincent-Abnett and go into Nik Vincent mode. See what I did? Like the ambiguity? When I’m writing tie-in fantasy or sci-fi, when I collaborate with the husband, and when I want to be a little more anonymous, this is who I am.
The name comes from the husband, I suppose. I was never really a Nicky, but Nicola’s a bit of a mouthful, so I was always Nik to him (still am), and, obviously, Vincent is my father’s name, the one I grew up with.
More than once, mostly at signing events for the Black Library, boys and men have gawped at me. To begin with, I’m a woman in a man’s world, and, usually, I’m sitting next to the husband, and they’re much more interested in him. On joint signings, readers regularly breeze past me, and the husband has to suggest they might want the co-writer to sign their book, too. That’s not always what they want. On one famous occasion a teenaged boy looked from my name card to me and back again, and exclaimed, “You’re a girl.” What could I say, but, “Well yes, I was the last time I looked.”?
It’s been fifteen years. The Black Library has been in business for fifteen whole years, and the husband and I were there at the beginning. He’s their biggest selling author, while I’m someone who sells them a little something once in a while, or the person Dan goes to for a bit of extra input. The Black Library has been in business for fifteen whole years, and I know that, because the company is celebrating its anniversary by putting out fifteen e-short stories on its website on fifteen consecutive days.
Funnily enough, the husband took day one of the celebration. His story “Kill Hill” has been available since last Monday (March 18th). There has been a story every day since, and mine appears today.
Do you remember a blog called, “Research, Research, Research” posted on March 14th? Well, the story I mentioned in that blog is the same story that’s on sale today. It’s called “Gilead’s Craft”, and there’s an elf in it; he’s called Gilead. He featured in “Gilead’s Blood”, which Dan and I wrote twelve years ago, and he’s currently featuring in a string of short stories for “Hammer and Bolter”. So, now, you can discover just what all that research was about when I wrote the blog, as luck would have it, fifteen days ago.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

A Little Success Goes a Very Long Way!

Well, that's a start to the week I could NOT have foretold 3 months ago. My new agent has just sent my novel out to fifteen publishers. Fifteen. Good gawky lawky. - Rosie Garland
I was thrilled when I read this yesterday. Look at those two lovely pieces of information: a) New agent and b) Fifteen publishers!
Rosie Garland won the Mslexia novel-writing competition. Her novel “The Beast in all Her Loveliness” (I do hope they keep the title) beat my novel “Naming Names” into a runner-up slot. Rosie beat ten other shortlisted writers to the prize, and, what’s more, she was shortlisted for two of her novels. 
You all know how long it’s been since the shortlist for the Mslexia was announced, because that’s when I began this blog, 55 days ago. Clearly, an awful lot can happen in a couple of months. Rosie got her new agent, and, presumably worked with said agent to produce a polished manuscript, and that is now being sent to fifteen (count them: 15) publishers. One... two... three... four... I spy a bidding war!
I’m pleased for Rosie, because I’m sure her book is good, and because, from the little contact I’ve had with her, she’s already proven to be a smart, funny, generous woman. 
I’m not just pleased for Rosie, though. I’m also pleased for myself and Rebecca Alexander, who were runners-up to the prize, and for the other eight women writers, who were shortlisted too. Rosie has set us an example, which we can all follow. Success, like most things, is catching, and I hope that some of it will rub off on some of us.
Mslexia brought a certain pedigree to its inaugural novel-writing competition, and Rosie Garland has taken up the baton, and is well on the way to giving the Mslexia Prize a very good name. I hope the same will be true of me, one day.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Stop Whining and Write a Better Book

It’s not that I’m not sympathetic. I haven’t had much luck with my writing so far either, but maybe it’s because I haven’t tried hard enough. 

I love writers, and I know several of them. I know one or two who make a tidy living out of the words they put on paper, I’m married to one of them, for goodness sake, and I know lots of amateur writers. Too many of them are wannabes. 
Don’t call yourself an aspiring writer; ‘aspiring’ means ‘directing one’s hopes towards’. There’s no point directing anything at writing, except for a lot of time and effort because nothing else will get it done. Be a writer, and when you’ve written the best book or short story or poem that you are capable of writing, you’d better become a really good marketer or PR person.
That’s what I’m working on, right now: finding a way to get the work out there to the audience. 
There is no point learning to do this bit of the job until you’ve done the other bit. Yes, I’ve got this blog, and yes I’ve got Twitter, and yes, I do advertise them and try to get people to take an interest, and yes, once in a while Susan Hill or Ian Rankin or Sarah Pinborough will talk to me over the waves, and that’s often fun.
My point is this, what are you trying to do when you write a blog or spend every spare minute on Twitter when you haven’t finished that book yet? 
I wrote “Naming Names” almost three years ago. The first couple of chapters were on Authonomy for a while, where I worked pretty hard to get it noticed, and it received some very good attention, and some not so good. I persuaded some of my writer friends to read it and listened to their feedback. I sent it out to agents, although, I realise now that I didn’t necessarily choose them carefully enough, and, finally, I entered it for a writing competition. Only when I was shortlisted for the Mslexia prize did I think about beginning a web presence for myself, because, do you know what? I was busy writing!
I’m still busy writing, and if you really mean it, if you aspire to be published, and you've got something new or interesting or important to say, or even a new, interesting, important way to say something, then you should be writing too.

Monday 26 March 2012

When to Stop

There’s a trick to small children producing great pictures. It isn’t rocket science. All you have to do is take the picture away from the child when it looks gorgeous, because most kids will happily scribble forever on a piece of paper that’s already full, turning the whole thing into the most awful tortured mess.

Artists... the real ones, know when to stop... Think of Picasso’s Dove, for example: simple, elegant, beautiful, understated. The same is true for artists who take a little longer with the paint and work a  little harder. Lucian Freud worked, sometimes for hundreds of hours on a portrait, but I always get the feeling that he stopped at exactly the right moment, when the thing was genuinely at its most perfect.
I begin to wonder whether the same applies to writing. I don’t edit much, and that might be because I don’t need to edit much. On the other hand, my work hasn’t been read by a whole lot of people, and few of them really have the credentials to know that I’ve done my best work, that I’ve perfected a piece.
It’s easy to see where and how to edit short fiction, in particular the sort of flash fiction and the extended jokes that I write for this blog. When something is very brief and there’s a punch-line, it’s not difficult to make every word count, not for me at least.
Long form fiction is something else entirely.
Every day that I’m writing a novel, I read back through what has gone before, and for quite a long time, that means reading everything that I have written, every day for a decent number of days. That’s when I make the most changes to the text, early on, when the whole thing is new and I have very little idea where it’s going.
Obviously, it’s impossible to read all of a novel everyday before I continue with it, so, as time goes on, I tend to read less and less. It feels like this is because my confidence has grown, and I know more of the book with greater authority, but what if it’s just complacence.
I’m looking forward to taking the next step. I’m looking forward to finding an agent, who can suggest changes to my ‘finished’ novel, who can give me a fresh perspective. Who knows what might be thrown up by a conversation with someone else who’s in love with my characters and my writing?
I only hope that whoever it is sees what I see, and sparks the little extra in me that can make the work sublime. It can happen, I’m sure of it. 

Sunday 25 March 2012

Early Bird or Night Owl

I always thought I was a night owl, but it turns out that I’m just not much of a sleeper.

The husband worked long hours, many of them into the night, until he was stricken down with seizures, more than two years ago, and after cleaning up his lifestyle, suddenly found that he was rising with the dawn and working two or three hours before the rest of us were up for breakfast.
Now, we have oddly crossed over schedules that mean we both get time alone every day, which suits us rather well.
The husband brings me a cup of Earl Grey in bed, every morning, and I actually begin my workday right there and right then. Checking e-mails, writing this blog, and checking the Twitter feed aren’t what I call work, it’s just what I do; it’s like reading the papers. I spend the mornings editing, reading and researching, and often don’t begin to write until the afternoon. I generally write best between lunchtime and suppertime. I can and do and will, no doubt again, write all day, if I’m working to deadlines, and, if it’s a bit of flash fiction for the website, I might write one of those in the morning. Generally, though I like to write in the afternoons when my mind is at its most awake, but also when my discipline is at its best, when I can sit down for hours at a time rather than flitting about. (A lovely French friend of mine refers to me as ‘Shiny’.)
The husband and I, like most married couples, I suspect, take the majority of our time together between supper and bed. We also take at least one long lunch together during the week, since I generally don’t each lunch, and he takes his at his desk, and we always eat breakfast together on Saturday and Sunday mornings. However, our real time together is between supper and bed. 
Here’s the thing, though: The husband is up at five in the morning, so I’m about three hours behind him all day long. This means that when he’s ready for bed at ten or ten-thirty, I’ve still got two or three good hours left in me.
I call it splitting shifts, but what it amounts to is that the quietest, and sometimes most productive part of my day takes place between ten at night and two in the morning. It might sound insane to you, but I just see it as one of the many benefits of working for myself.

Saturday 24 March 2012

Make Hay while the Sun Shines

It’s a trite title on a gorgeous sunny Saturday, but I had to start somewhere with today’s offering and I’m running late... About eight hours late.

I write my daily blog as soon as I get to my desk with my first cup of tea at about 8 o’clock in the morning. It’s called discipline, folks, and it’s fine for now, although, 52 blogs in 52 days does rather beg the question of how long I can keep this up, and, indeed, how long you’ll put up with me.
It took me forty years to write my first novel, and forty weeks after that I had the second written and was on to the third. Of course, I’ll never write a novel in forty days, but what I’m trying to say is that, if you’re lucky, you might get to do something creative with your time. I’ve found my little seam of luck and I plan to plunder and exploit it every day for as long as it lasts.
Some people have long writing careers, and the husband is a good example of that, and some people have short ones. Some writers find the wherewithal to write a book a year, or even more, and some write only two or three over a lifetime. It’s far too early to tell what sort of writer I’m going to be. The only thing that’s certain is that I did an awful lot of other things, for a very long time, before I finally sat down and did the one thing I really thought I could make a difference doing. 
Now that I’ve sat down, I’m finding it very difficult to get up again, and that’s why I was at my desk at 7-30 this morning working on edits. I stopped at 2-30 to have a spot of brunch with the husband, and now my day begins in earnest. 
Perhaps I should have written my blog at 8 o’clock this morning, as I have almost every other morning for the past six weeks or so, but I was busy making hay while the sun shines, and long may it continue.
Now, off you go and find a ray or two of your own.

Friday 23 March 2012

Not a Total Amateur

It crosses my mind that I haven’t talked very much about pedigree. Unless you happen to know already, some of you won’t realise that the Mslexia competition wasn’t my first foray into the written word.

I think that’s probably true for many of the shortlisted novelists for the prize. The last eleven included at least three performance poets, and almost everyone either has or is working towards a creative writing qualification.
Most of my work has been behind the scenes. I spent several years editing and proofreading, and, of course, I’ve been running the husband’s office for a very long time. He’s the writer in our house, but I’ve always been his first reader and editor, and after forty novels, I have a pretty good idea how this all works.
We’ve always been a partnership, and I’ve enjoyed picking up the slack when he’s been overworked, which is virtually all of the time. I’ve put together skeletons for him, done research, and, of course, edited his work. I’ve written everything from short stories to children’s comic books, from adverts to how-to manuals, and I’ve even taken co-credits on some of the tie-in fiction.
When I’m out and about with the husband, I’m known, variously as Mrs Dan, or, more regularly, Nik Vincent. 
There are a great many reasons why I didn’t step out of the shadows to write something for myself with my name on it sooner. It’s easy to say that I was too busy doing other things, and, to some extent that’s true, but I think, in the end, I needed that apprenticeship. I needed to see how it could be done, that it’s possible to be a professional, hardworking writer rather than a flake in an attic somewhere. I’ve also had an opportunity to hone my skills. I’m a better writer than I was twenty years ago, and I put it down to loving the work without being precious about it. I know, possibly better than anyone, that the first draft doesn’t have to be the best or the last. 
I also needed some age. I wasn’t experienced enough, twenty years ago, to write “Naming Names”, in particular, and nor did I have the confidence to show the work to anyone who mattered. As a younger woman I would have struggled with the amount of rejection that most writers suffer unless or until they finally secure that agent and book deal.
It is thirty years this year since the husband and I first met, and, in that time, he’s built a career to be very proud of. I’m sure there are things that he still wants to write, goals that he has yet to fulfill, but his path is well-established. Now, it’s time for me to set about carving out a new path for myself, and, so far, it’s all going very nicely, thank you.

Thursday 22 March 2012

Do I Know You?

Characters make stories. Some writers begin with plots, but I think they’re fooling themselves. I don’t believe a plot will unfold successfully unless the characters driving it are exactly who they need to be.

Most books have a recognisable protagonist (they call them MCs - Main Characters - these days), and many publishers are very clear that one main character is enough, that readers need someone to pin all their hopes and dreams on, someone to hold their attention, someone with whom to identify. I think most readers are more sophisticated than that, but I don’t make the rules.
As it happens, my novel, “Naming Names”, is absolutely about one character. So, I suppose, the real question is, ‘Who is she?’
Writers are often asked about their characters, who they are and where they come from. I know a number of writers who rely quite heavily on friends and family, on people they’ve worked with or met, to mould their characters onto. Whether they simply adopt their physical attributes or look for deeper character traits, I know writers who also use public figures, politicians, actors, musician’s and celebrities in this way.
I couldn’t do that.
For the protagonist of “Naming Names”, I had to do something else. It was unthinkable to put someone I knew through the things that my character needed to go through in order for my story to work. This character had to grow from nothing, in my head.
In order to find the character, I made her surroundings familiar to me: rooms, entire buildings in some instances, furniture and things like habits and clothes all had to be very real in my mind for me to be able to grow this girl. 
It was important that I wasn’t distracted from finding the character of my protagonist, and, by putting her in spaces that I understood, with objects that I knew from long-use, I avoided the distraction of working out which way a window faced, or which wall had a door in it, the geography of a house or the feel of a pair of slippers. 
I think it’s natural when embarking on a potentially dangerous journey, to want to do it in a well-maintained, familiar vehicle with a recent MOT, a full tank, and emergency supplies in the boot.
On the other hand, if I had to cast the movie of the book, my nameless, many-named protagonist would probably be played by Rooney Mara.

Wednesday 21 March 2012


I don’t need much in order to write.
Some writers plan their stories, and research them down to the last detail before they ever begin to put pen to paper. Some writers construct their plots in note form and some work up character sheets.
I do none of those things.
It might be because I haven’t actually been writing long-form fiction for very long, or it might be because I’m lazy, but when I sat down to write my first novel, I had no idea what it was going to be about, who was in it, or when or where it was going to be set. I simply began to write, and the first few sentences determined the tone of what became “Savant”, a near-future SF novel about parenting, autism and probability. You see... I don’t think I could ever have intended to write that book. My intentions had nothing to do with it, in the end; the thing more-or-less wrote itself. Every chapter, every event, every character informed the next, and so the thing grew, almost as if by magic.
When I wrote “Naming Names”, I did, at the very least, have a first scene in mind, and the kernel of an idea for the main theme. That was it. That was all I had.
My third novel, “Prom Queen” had a plot. It was about a page and a half long, and since this novel was going to have an ensemble cast, I had a sentence for each of the characters. That’s all I had before I began writing.
I don’t like to have too much information up front. For me, that would be like reading every review of a movie, including all the spoilers, before seeing it. I want my novels to be the movies in my head, to unfold for me, unbidden, in my mind’s eye. I’m lucky, because, for all sensible purposes, that’s exactly what they do. 
Part of the reason I continue to write novels, is to watch the movies in my head. One day, I hope that’s the reason why you’ll want to read them.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

In the Wilderness

I have been blogging for 47 days. It doesn’t seem like a long time, does it? 
Think again. Christ spent 40 days in the wilderness. That’s why we give something up for Lent, you know? between Ash Wednesday and Easter. By the way, congratulations to all of you who have made it this far through Lent without eating chocolate, drinking beer, or smoking a cigarette. No... I mean it... I honestly do. Congratulations!
The difference between you and me is that you have all the control. It is entirely up to you whether you break your promise to yourself, and, for some of you, to God, and fall off whichever wagon you climbed onto on Ash Wednesday. I’ve been where you are, I’ve given up stuff, successfully and unsuccessfully, for various Lents in previous years.
After more than 40 days in the wilderness, I feel stuck. I can’t see my way out, and, although I keep asking for help, my pleas are falling on deaf ears.
Most writers write in a sort of vacuum. It is a solitary business, and we accept that; it isn’t torture to us, not in the way that this is.
I was given hope. My novel, “Naming Names” was runner-up for the Mslexia novel writing competition! Yay! Go me! I hoped that, having beaten 1800 other novels to the table, my little book might begin to get some attention. OK, I’ll admit it, it got a line in the Mslexia magazine. I also got a phone call from a lovely woman at the magazine. An agent is reading my work... That’s right! An Agent Is Reading My Novel!
Once upon a time, I believed that life couldn’t get any better than this. The very height of my expectations was that an agent might be persuaded to take an entire manuscript for one of my novels and actually read it. Now that is happening, and, instead of feeling fulfilled, I find that my expectations have reached new heights, and that waiting for someone to finish reading my book is, in fact, becoming a bit of a nightmare. 
What happens when the agent has finished reading my novel? How many new questions will its rejection, or, indeed, its acceptance, throw up? Dozens, I tell you.
Then, I’m sure I will be plunged back into another wilderness. It has been more than 40 days since my novel was shortlisted for the Mslexia. How many days between one agent rejecting the book and another asking for a full manuscript? And, if the agent decides to take on the book, how long until it finds a publisher willing to take a chance on it? Then, how long until publication?
It could be years. I know that it could be years. I am ready for it to take years... Almost... First, I need to learn to breathe and stop counting the bloody days! Six weeks... So far, it’s only taken six short weeks.

Monday 19 March 2012

A Room of One’s Own

Different writers thrive in different environments. I know writers who work to music, for example. I know writers who work in mini-offices built into under-stair cupboards or wedged into box rooms along with the household clutter.

The husband’s office in our first home was half a bedroom in a three room flat. To be fair, the rooms were vast attics at the top of a huge, old house. His second office was also an attic room, it was smaller, but at least it was a dedicated office space.
My first room was my studio when I was working for a fine art degree. It was full of art books and materials, and my easel, but also had a small desk in it, facing out of the window. Now that I am a full-time writer, I no longer have an office.
The husband works in a large room. One wall is lined with bookshelves and there is a sofa and chair as well as his desk, library table and all of his art and objects. The husband is very visually stimulated, and he likes to be surrounded by books, paintings and prints, his collection of signed photos, arms and armour, treatises on writing... all sorts of stuff.
I can write anywhere. My computer used to sit on the end of the husband’s partners’ desk, but I only ever used it when I had to. I spent my thinking time somewhere else, and wrote in longhand before transferring stuff to the computer. 
Besides, a lot of my work involved reading, and, for a long time, read and edited hardcopy.
Now that I think about it, I really began to take writing seriously when I got a laptop. 
My current desk is in a corner of my sitting room, facing onto a yard; there are no visual distractions, I promise you. Still, I don’t use it much. 
Most of my writing is done on one of two laptops, always fullscreen, in Pages, the screen showing only the words I have typed.
I sit in bed and write, first thing in the morning or last thing at night. More often than not, though, I take my laptop to one of two rooms on the ground floor that has only one entrance/exit point. I sit in the drawing-room, beside my stove, on a small, tatty sofa, facing a window. I don’t turn on the stereo, and there is no television. The room is comfortable and has a good deal of art on the walls, but it’s so familiar that I almost don’t see it any more, and it certainly doesn’t distract me. 
My only companions are the cat, the hum of the main road several hundred yards away, and the occasional pedestrian passing my window. They all look in, and are often surprised to see me sitting there, head-down, elbows out, feverishly working on my latest opus.

Sunday 18 March 2012

Happy Mother's Day

I am, of course, referring only to my own mother. If I wanted to include every mother, I would have moved the apostrophe over one place. That’s how it’s done.

I’m not the sort of writer who can ever write casually. 
It’s a nightmare. 
I can’t just toss off a note to the husband, or scribble a list on the fridge. I can’t fill a celebration card full of gushing sentiment and finish with noughts and crosses, or is that hugs and kisses? E-mails are a nightmare, and I cannot ‘do’ text-speak, although I do text. I twitter too, and I write flash fiction. This suggests that concision isn’t a problem, so what is my hang-up?
Well... My hang-up is this: The chances are that if I’ve written something down, someone’s going to read it. I know that virtually none of those people will care whether my spelling is correct or my grammar accurate, but, here’s the thing: I care!
I’m the sort of person who has an opinion about everything, and, sometimes, I feel like I have to work hard to be understood when not all those around me agree with everything that I say. Writing isn’t like that. I don’t struggle when I write; I have time to think, and then more time to consider how transparent I have been, how well I have ordered my thoughts and how persuasive are my arguments. When I write, clarity is everything, and I don’t stop writing until I feel that I have achieved it.
So, when I say, “Happy Mother’s Day”, I am saying it directly to my mother, and it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t, necessarily, realise that the message is intended only for her, but, for me, it’s the only way to adequately express my sentiments.
To the rest of you mothers out there, “Happy Mothers’ Day”, I hope your children feel the same way about their mothers as I do about mine.

Saturday 17 March 2012

The Full Nine Yarns

The single biggest reason why I entered the Mslexia novel writing competition was because Jenni Murray was one of the judges. I’m a fan. I’ve often said to the husband that my one abiding ambition is to be interviewed on Woman’s Hour. It hasn’t happened yet.

However, on Friday, yesterday, in fact, the incomparable Rosie Garland (sometimes Rosie Lugosi), winner of the Mslexia competition was interviewed by Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour. I am, of course, a teensy bit jealous, but I’m also thrilled for her, and, no doubt, my time will come... eventually. Go listen to the interview here, and if you don’t have time for the entire show, Rosie’s bit begins at minute 14 for about 7 minutes.
So, what of the rest of us?
After the competition, the rest of us who were shortlisted for the prize were put in touch with one another. Nine of us have since got together, on the internet, at least, to collaborate on a writers’ blog called ‘The Full Nine Yarns’. It is early days, naturally, but it is already clear that our experiences are all different, and that we all have interesting things to say about where we have been with our writing and where we hope to go in the future. I’m sure some of you will find interesting things to read, over there.
I always hoped that at least some of the twelve books on the shortlist would find agents and be published, and this looks increasingly likely. What’s good for one of us should be good for all of us, so, I’ll be following the progress of the Full Nine Yarners carefully and with great interest, and I’ll be supporting Rosie Garland by following her progress, and, of course, by buying her novel when it’s available. So far, I’ve been rather charmed by all of the women that I’ve ‘met’ through the competition, so being part of this rather special group of writers doesn’t seem in the least arduous. I hope they’ll come to feel the same way about each other, and, of course, about me.

Friday 16 March 2012

On Reading and Writing

I got to thinking. I didn’t plan it, it just sort of happened.

I got to thinking about reading.
I’m a writer, so I feel a connection to the written word, and that’s what I’ve been talking about for the past six weeks or so. It’s not as simple as that, though, is it? Aren’t we all readers first?
Most children are read to while still unable to do much more than grasp a rattle or clutch a fat, wax crayon, long before they can say their letters, let alone write them down. Of course, some of the greatest storytellers were bards, who might never have learned to write, and there are all sorts of things that modern writers could learn from telling tales and recounting folklore.
What I’m talking about, though, is an appraisal of other writers’ work, of making comparisons, and, above all, of contextualising my own writing within the broader tradition. None of us writes in a vacuum. Everything we do is informed by what we know, and most of what we know about writing is, in the first place, via reading.
I’ve always been a reader, and I studied English Literature at a time when Chaucer and Shakespeare were widely taught in schools. I was lucky enough to learn some Latin, too, although, rather sadly, my Latin Master ended up teaching IT. What a waste.
I feel a connection to the past, to my favourite writers and favourite literary forms over a couple of millennia. I’m as comfortable reading Shakespeare or the poetry of Lovelace or Marvell, as I am sitting down with Jane Austen or Philip Larkin, or, dare I say, Stephen King or Ian Rankin. I’m grateful for the examples of beautiful writing, or great storytelling, or, once in a while, if I get very lucky, both of those things. I’m affected by cadence and rhythm, by grammar and style, and I still respond to the written word, sometimes with anger, sometimes with pity, and sometimes with wonder.
I’m not entirely sure exactly where my own writing fits into the whole, but I am aware that it does, and it must. I have a decent knowledge of what has gone before, and certain expectations about what is being written right now. I feel grounded in the continuum, and, I honestly believe that all that reading and studying will make me a better and more relevant writer when my time finally comes.

Thursday 15 March 2012

One of Those Days

I’m in one of those moods today, the kind of mood where everything seems just too damned difficult, too unlikely. I’m having one of those days when it really does seem impossible that “Naming Names” or any of my other novels, will ever be published.

When I entered the Mslexia competition, I had no idea what I was up against. I supposed that, like me, some women would enter novels. I guessed they might number in the low hundreds. 
I know that everyone seems to think they’ve got a book in them, and I know that the advent of cheap computers and good wordprocessing software, complete with spelling and grammar checkers, has made writing a novel increasingly easy, at least in the most practical sense of producing a typed manuscript. 
When “Naming Names” was longlisted in the Mslexia competition, I still didn’t know how many books had been submitted, and I didn’t know how long the longlist was. The deadline for submitting the completed novel was tight, so I guessed not all the books would be finished in time, and some might have attracted agents or publishing deals since being submitted. I assumed the longlist was about a dozen, or maybe 20, books.
It was only after I heard that “Naming Names” was one of two runners-up for the prize that I found out that 1800 first chapters were submitted for the competition, and that the longlist comprised 100 novels. I was shocked. That put “Naming Names” in the top .0017% of the books submitted for the Mslexia competition. That’s pretty good going by anyone’s estimation.
It doesn’t guarantee anything, though. 
More and more people are writing novels, more and more of those novels are finding there way into agents’ hands, and, all the time, a bigger and bigger percentage of them is being rejected. 
So, what makes me continue to believe that my book is any better, any more special than any of the hundreds and thousands that are rejected every year by the people who know what they’re doing? Rejected by the agents and publishers whose job it is to know what the reader wants before the reader knows it.
Right now, “Naming Names” is in the hands of an agent. A very good agent, by all accounts, is actually reading my little book. I’d ask you to wish me luck, but I’ve got a feeling I’m going to need a damn sight more than that. I’m off to gird my loins for the possibility of more rejection, but, if it comes, I do hope it doesn’t come today, because today, I’m in one of those moods.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Research, Research, Research

So, when exactly should a writer do research, and when is it OK just to make stuff up?

This is tricky. 
I wrote a little piece of flash fiction yesterday; it was almost exactly a thousand words long, and, in it, a character made something. The who and the what don’t matter, and it wasn’t real-world, so, how long do you suppose I spent doing research? 
The answer to that question would be more than twice as long as I spent writing the story. 
The what is a real object that can be made by hand, and I wanted to describe that. I could, I suppose, have made it up, and there’s a decent chance that none of the readers would know the difference, but I wanted to be confident that I knew how the object should be made. The story is better because of it.
I began with ‘wiki’, read some passages from a reference text on the subject that just happened to be sitting on a shelf in the husband’s office, and I watched several YouTube videos. I could, I suppose, have done less research, after all, I didn’t actually use quite a lot of the material I worked my way through; I didn’t need to use it all, because I wasn’t writing an instruction manual, I was writing a story. 
The point is that the character knew how to make the object; he’d done it a thousand times before, he was experienced at it, and I didn’t want him to be all fingers and thumbs, because I wanted him to be thinking about something else while his hands were working.
There is a balance in all things. I don’t drive, but that doesn’t matter if all I want to do in the story is get a couple of characters from A to B in a car. On the other hand, I’m not a mechanic, but if a fan belt breaks in my story, set in 1973, and if my hero is going to effect a repair with a pair of his passenger’s tights, I’d better know more than the fact that ‘American Tan’ was the bestselling colour for hosiery in the UK in 1973. Of course, that’s a detail that I might want to use, especially if the scene is intended to be amusing.
Research is not always essential, but a few well-chosen details will add verisimilitude to everything a writer does; on the other hand, wholesale dumping of research, simply so as not to waste the time spent collecting it, is always going to make for a dull, soulless read.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Following in His Footsteps

Having goals is a good thing. Without them, I have a tendency to get precisely nothing done. I got little or no writing done for years before I finally sorted out a heteronym, screwed down my courage and wrote a novel. It’s nice to be able to tick that box, and I’ve ticked it five times, and, still, I cannot get arrested!

Five books and no agent. I will get an agent, I’m determined to. That’s goal number two.
The husband has written something over forty novels, and, apart from some juvenilia, he’s had them all published, all of them are in print, in one form or another, and many of them have been translated into upwards of a dozen languages: Not bad for a writer without an agent.
I keep thinking about how wonderful it would be to have the husband’s career, but that isn’t going to happen. I’m probably not going to have forty titles in print at any one time, and certainly not before I’m fifty. I’m probably not going to appear on the New York Times bestseller list in four different categories; I’ll settle for one category. I’m almost certainly not going to win a Comic Book Writer of the Year Award. I might, however, appear on the Nielsen list, one day; I can hang on to that as an ambition, but will I ever win a Bob Morane Award for best novel in translation? Who knows.
Right now, it’s all about baby-steps. I must not forget that I’m talking about my FIRST novel, (OK, “Naming Names” is the second book I wrote, but that’s a technicality), my first agent-hunt, my first publishing deal. I want to get this right, because, if I do, there’s a chance I might publish a second novel, and then a third. There’s a chance I might, one day, win an award; there is a chance that, one day, I might see a long row of published novels on a shelf in a book shop, with my name on the spines.
Until then, I’m going to rely on Samuel Goldwyn for inspiration and remember that, ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get.’ So, onto the next book, “Title Pending”.

Monday 12 March 2012

Writer's Block

Excuses... excuses...
Perhaps I’m just lucky, I don’t know, but I do know that I’ve never suffered from writer’s block.
Lots of things can slow me down when I’m writing. I like to build up a decent amount of momentum, writing all day, every day until a project is finished. When I write in discrete chunks, when time elapses between chapters, I have to get my head back in the game; I have to read back through everything I’ve written to that point, find all my threads, and work my way back to the voice. You can imagine the sort of time and energy that can take if I’m two-thirds of the way into a hundred thousand word novel, and it can be frustrating, but that doesn’t make it writer’s block.
I’m not afraid of a white piece of paper, or, in our times, a blank screen. Every blank screen offers a new opportunity to be creative. There are days when that blank screen appears on the computer and I look at it, and I switch screens and read e-mails and check Twitter, and, some days, I never find my way back to the word processor, but that doesn’t make it writer’s block. 
I have been known to change my mind about a story, sometimes more than once, and I go back through a text scraping out characters and story-lines that I no longer need, and seeding in new material. This can take days, and sometimes, after the changes have been made, I haven’t added to the word count, but that doesn’t constitute writer’s block, either.
I don’t think writer’s block is for me.
I think that writer’s block is for professionals of world renown who need not produce more than a book every couple of years or so to make a living, and that’s all right with me. And, I think that writer’s block is for amateurs and wannabes, who don’t rely on their writing to earn a living. I’m OK with that, too, but, if they’re ever going to be successful, if they’re ever going to take the bull by the horns and quit the day job, they’d better call the procrastinating and the displacement activity something else, because if they call it writer’s block, they’ll never cure themselves of it, and that way failure lies.

Sunday 11 March 2012

Be Careful What You Wish For

I’m an easy going sort of person, or, at least, I like to think I am. I’m pretty hardworking, and not very fussy, and one of the jobs I most enjoy is editing for the husband. I have an opinion about the work. He listens, and as often as not, he adopts my suggestions; he certainly always takes them seriously and gives them due consideration.

No one has ever done this for me. “Naming Names” and the other novels that I’ve written have not been through an editing process. I’ve written a number of short stories, over the years, most of which I’ve been invited to write, and other than the odd nip or tuck, they’ve always passed muster without any major criticisms. This isn’t very usual.
In a previous blog, I talked about the novel belonging to the reader. Once the work is in the public domain, it no longer belongs to the writer; his or her job is over and the work must speak for itself.
I’m beginning to wonder, though, at what point that process begins. My work has universally gone out into the World without being pulled apart by an agent or an editor, but I’m not sure whether to be grateful for that, surprised by it, or relieved.
What if I secure an agent, only to find that said agent wants me to substantially rewrite my book? I like to think that I’m open to suggestions, I’ve got a few ideas of my own about how “Naming Names”, for instance, might be improved, but they are my ideas, and not someone else’s, and nor is anyone strong-arming me into making changes; I’m free to make changes or not, as I see fit.
My argument has been that the audience must be considered first, and, surely, it’s an agent’s job to know what an audience is likely to want to read, or, at the very least, what the next audience - the publisher - is going to want to invest in. Isn’t that the job of any good agent? Let’s not forget that writers are seldom published without agents, and agents need to earn a living, just like the rest of us. 
I’m looking forward to landing an agent, I’m looking forward to having a good and lasting relationship with someone who not only ‘gets’ the work, but also sees ways to improve it, including making it pay. I don’t see any reason to be concerned for my integrity in all of this, and, if I did, I’d stick to writing for fun and forget about being published all together. 

Saturday 10 March 2012

Holiday? What's a Holiday?

It’s nice to take a day off, isn’t? 

I’m doing that today. 

I’m writing a blog, obviously, and I’ve been invited to write a piece of flash fiction for an anthology, so I’ll be working on that. I must finish reading that book, partly because it’s good research, and partly so that I can get onto the next. I might start that edit this afternoon; it’s a long job, and a fast turn-around. Must pop to the post office to pick up those comp. copies... Oh, and I should collate Twitter questions for the husband so we can get that job out of the way. I can do that while he prepares his address for the kids at the grammar school.
It’s so nice to take a day off.
I’m sure it’s not just writers, and writers married to writers, who fill their ‘days off’ with all the stuff they can’t fit into their working weeks; probably, pretty much anyone who works for himself or who simply loves his work will happily find time to do more of it in what most salary-slaves would consider down-time.
In the end, I reserve my real admiration for all those ‘weekend writers’, writers who work a forty hour week, or longer, and then spend more hours in the evenings and at weekends working on their novels.
Sadly, in the end, I also reserve my real scorn for ‘weekend writers’, for the wannabes who are kidding themselves that one day their fictional novels will not only be published, but will make them millionaires and household names overnight.
It doesn’t work like that. 
I read somewhere that, on average, a first novel sells 18 copies. That’s right, the ‘0’ on my keyboard does work, and I haven’t forgotten to hit it. EIGHTEEN, people. If “Naming Names” is ever published it might only sell 18 copies, and, as that’s the average, it might sell even fewer. In my case, that could mean that even my closest family members chose not to buy my first novel. So, SO sad!
The husband has published over forty novels and any number of comics and short stories, and he still works VERY full-time. He took 6 days off last year, and I am including weekends. Don’t think for a moment that signings aren’t work, that conventions aren’t exhausting, that talking to a school full of kids or a library full of readers doesn’t involve decent preparation and a knack for keeping a crowd happy. 
And don’t think I wouldn’t love to be in his shoes. 
We do it because we love it, and loving it is the best, perhaps the only, way to be successful.
I’m hopeful that when my first novel is published, and it will be, every member of my family, every one of my Twitter followers, and every one of you will buy a copy. 
It was never my plan to be average.

Friday 9 March 2012

Pick a Genre, Any Genre

Yesterday, I wrote about elves and rat-people battling underground. There was muck and dust and lots of killing, and then the walls came tumbling down.
Today, I’m going to write about the death of a serial killer.
I’ve written SF, I’ve written YA, and “Naming Names”, which finished in the top three of the Mslexia competition is something else again. I’m not a huge fan of the Literary Fiction label, but I guess that’s probably what it is... or maybe Women’s Fiction.
I like to write, and I like to write what I’ve got ideas for. I have ideas for lots of different things. I wonder if its the husband’s influence, or whether it’s because I began writing, seriously, only quite recently, but I’ve got more than one voice, and I intend to play with them all, at least for the time being.
All of my books are about people, all have themes about identity and parenting and sexual politics. I see no reason why an SF novel shouldn’t discuss autism, or a YA fantasy novel deal with an anxiety disorder.
There’s a good chance I might not sell all of my books, and “Naming Names” is probably the one of which I am most proud, but I don’t see any reason why I can’t follow two distinct strands, appeal to two audiences. Ian (M) Banks has done the self-same thing pretty successfully, and Ian (Jack Harvey) Rankin, Ruth (Barbara Vine) Rendell and Stephen (Richard Bachman) King have also had a go at it.
Ultimately, genre doesn’t much matter to me; a good read is a good read, and I’ll scour any and all bookshelves for a book that tells a compelling story beautifully. Some writers transcend their genre roots, and others, Kaaron Warren springs to mind, defy categorisation, so, don’t decide you don’t like horror fiction, or SF or Fantasy or a thriller, just peruse the shelves until you find a better book.

Thursday 8 March 2012

Oranges ARE the only Fruit

It is International Women’s Day, Mslexia’s birthday, and the day on which the longlist for the Orange Prize for Fiction was announced.

You might wonder why on Earth I’m talking about the Orange Prize when I haven’t even had my little novel published yet, but it makes perfect sense to me. You’ve got to have a goal, and you’ve got to have ambition. My first goal was to complete a novel. Tick. My second is to get an agent, which I’m working on. The third will be to have my first novel published. Once I’ve reached my third goal, I plan to set more of them, but I suspect, at that point, ambition will be more of a driving force for me.
Somewhere between achieving the first goal and embarking seriously on working towards the second, I entered the Mslexia Novel Competition. I was pleased to be longlisted, but didn’t expect to be shortlisted; however, once I was shortlisted, I wanted to to win... Of course I wanted to win. I might not have expected to win, but that didn’t stop me being ambitious. Ambitions are different from goals; goals are always achievable, given enough rope and a following wind; ambitions are less concrete. One of mine is to be interviewed on Woman’s Hour (I’m a big fan of Jenni Murray) and it was that ambition that tipped the balance for me when it came to entering a competition. I’m very happy that I did.
So, back to the Orange Prize. There are twenty very happy women writers this morning, longlisted for the seventeenth annual award. All of their stock will rise, all of them will earn more because they are included on the list, all will have reached another milestone, fulfilled another ambition... And all because they sat down and wrote a good book. 
Now, here’s the thing. Five of the books on the list are first novels! That’s right, a quarter of the books on the list are by first-time novelists! One-in-Four! You’ve got to love those odds, but even if it takes me another decade, or even longer, I shall keep working on the writing, I shall keep achieving goals, and hopefully, along the way, an ambition or two will also be realised.
Congratulations to the longlisted writers, and may the best woman win.