It’s an odd position – judging and being judged simultaneously.
The village I live in is running a short story competition and I’m organising the judging. At the same time, my novel has just been longlisted for a national crime writing prize.
Of course, being listed for a prize is great. Someone read it! Someone liked it! Such moments of reward are so few in the writing world (in my writing world, anyway – yours may be crammed with awards) that they need to be savoured and rejoiced in for as long as possible. That small burst of optimism has to last for many long and lonely writing months into the future; a lovely bright balloon of encouragement bouncing joyfully about. Even as I admire it, I know it will drift away or turn wrinkly and flat soon enough.
This has made me so acutely aware of the feelings of the writers being judged in the short story competition that I can hardly bear to choose one over the other. There is genuinely something to be admired in every story. And the range of them is huge; some profound and philosophical, others surreal, others hilariously funny. It’s not just comparing apples and pears; it’s more like comparing apples, Liquorice All Sorts and Chicken Vindaloo.
We’ll get there in the end, because that’s what judges do: compromise.
I was at the 7th Self-Publishing Conference in Leicester yesterday. There was loads to digest. Orla Ross from the Alliance of Independent Authors gave the keynote which was a rallying cry to indie authors, urging professionalism and dedication to publishing the very best. Thus inspired, I went to workshops on metadata (yes, that’s how dedicated I am), crime writing with Stephen Booth (17 successful novels to date) and blog touring, with lovely Anne Cater, who made organising a blog tour sound as easy as pie. (Speaking of pie, lunch was good, too.)
Morgen Bailey’s Promoting Profitably with a Podcast was my favourite, because I’ve fancied a Granny Writes Books podcast for ages, and Morgen’s talk made it sound perfectly possible. Her handout is a treasure trove of podcast know-how and as someone already equipped with a microphone and an endless supply of curiosity about how other people write, I reckon podcasting is right up my street. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a time-gobbler – here I am already dedicating time to it – but I’m keen to give it a go. If you would like to be interviewed on a podcast about the writing stories of older writers – let me know!
So thanks to Morgen, Orla, Stephen and Clive Herbert of Nielsen Books. You have filled my head with ideas and my bag with business cards.
But really, the best thing about conferences and writing events in general is sitting next to someone and asking “What are you writing?”. The answer is always a surprise.
Thanks Matador and sponsors, it was a great day. And isn’t the Festival Bookshop fabulous?
Today it seemed to me that writing a novel was like constructing a bridge over a deep ravine. There is only one place on the opposite cliff where the bridge can safely attach; that narrow spot must be aimed for with precision.
The problem is that the bridge must be constructed out of tongue depressors or lolly sticks and you, the builder, have to built it whilst standing on it over the ravine, so it needs to be as solid as such little pieces of wood can make it. The beginning is extremely difficult, but with patient practice you eventually find a construction method of sorts and find a way to build something strong enough to stand on. You get used to the height and the crosswinds and a certain compulsive rhythm keeps you at it.
But then there is issue of direction. What keeps happening is that because of a few lolly sticks misplaced early on, the bridge veers to one side, away from the safe landing place on the opposing bank. This means dismantling all the lolly sticks back to the place where the wrong direction began, then reassembling them all – thousands upon thousands of them – until they head in the right direction, or seem to, because it is terribly easy to misplace one or two and very gradually lose the right line again.
I have several times, according to this metaphor, managed to build the bridge right over the gorge, almost to jumping-across point before realising that there is a dreadful mistake way back behind and a huge amount of work to do before the leap will be possible.
For some reason I never think of abandoning the tongue depressor bridge, or of throwing myself into the ravine, or even of staying on the other bank and not bothering to cross at all.
Plot listening comes way before external editing or beta reading. It comes around draft 4 for me, but it depends how you count and everybody’s different. PLs don’t even need to read the draft, they just have to be patient enough to listen as you mangle and chunter your way haphazardly through the ill-formed ragbag of half-formed ideas and rough-hewn, lumpy characters that is the early draft of a book. You can be repetitive and vague, over-specific, longwinded and forgetful about names (Did I say Aberdeen? I meant Nairobi.) yet somehow this patient person sits through it.
With crime writing it seems especially important because the twists and clues and red herrings the genre must have are too much for the ordinary (at least the fairly sane ordinary) human brain to contain all at once. It’s only when you run it past a listener that the awful omission of X or the impossible condition of Y suddenly becomes clear.
The PL sits up and asks something like, ‘But isn’t B in Moscow?/Where did you say he left the grenade?/Shouldn’t A have left with V after Fritz found the envelope, not before?’ and they’re right, and you, the shambolic writer, until then bitter and apathetic, are electrified by this helpful observation and leave your coffee to grow cold on the table, so swiftly do you sprint off in the direct of the laptop.
Hurrah for the patient plot listener! Find one immediately if you can. And reward them well. Jam is good for this, or pizza, but beer and sex* are fine too.
If they write things too, you probably owe them some PL time in return. But sex is obviously quicker*.
My Writing Advice to Self of the week is this: whatever the genre, pack the action in!
Bedtime reading at the moment is High Rollers by Jack Bowman. Jack Bowman is the pen name of Belinda Bauer and I bought her book at the Killer Women conference in London a few weeks ago. Belinda was a great speaker. She wrote High Rollers (‘Brace yourself for IMPACT’, it says on the cover) after being marooned in a holiday home with only one book in English. It was a thriller and she found it so predictable and the male lead character such a stereotyped action man with a horrible attitude to women, that she decided she could write one a lot better – and (unlike most of us who have had similar thoughts) she did!
In the chapters I read the other night, the hero and his potential love interest/sidekick makes a vital breakthrough in the investigation, is driven off the road at night, misses an opportunity to make love to his lady friend, goes back to check the evidence and finds it gone, returns and finds their hostel has been torched, is hurt in the fire and in rescuing a dangerous dog, is hospitalised, is wooed in return by the lady friend, is questioned by the police and fined, finds an escaped animal (an ostrich, as it happens) and helps to capture it only to find the bird itself holds another vital clue.
All this is in the middle of the book – the flat bit in many plots.
Now, we don’t all write fast action thrillers. I don’t, for one, but I know from reading manuscripts that one of the weaknesses that can occur in any novel is the sitting about talking (SAT) problem. It can be caused by a flabby plot moment – you know where you’re going, but not quite sure how you’re going to get there. Sometimes it is also a signal of authorial self-doubt (just tread water for a while, characters, while I figure out whether this novel is going to be worth the effort). Whatever causes it, dull passages of SAT have got to go.
Action is what we want as readers.
I don’t mean car chases or burning buildings, necessarily. In different genres the action might be far more cerebral, but it would still be action, in other words there would be change. Change of scene, of tone, of point of view, of shot distance or frame, of tempo, of colour or accent or rhythm. Change; movement; surprise!
The best of all books are a huge sequence of surprises. You never know how any single sentence will end, let alone a chapter or the whole story.
A lot of my lovely readers are older and don’t care much for technology. I’m not stereotyping here – my parents, in their 80s, love a bit of tech. and are rarely seen without an iPad – but lots of their contemporaries like paper books best and wouldn’t know what to do with a phone that didn’t have buttons.
Fair enough, I say.
These dear readers, when they like the books, tell me so in offline ways: face to face, by handwritten letter, or in an email their friend has helped them send, all of which I appreciate hugely. What they don’t do is write online reviews, because – well because they don’t come from the review culture. In their day, if you bought something; you just bought it. You weren’t expected to give it stars or tell them the packaging was or wasn’t up to scratch!
But we hungry writers need online reviews. It’s how the algorithms work. So a little plea: if you enjoyed a book (any book!) please leave a little online review. A passing young person, or your nearest tech-savvy great-granny will help.
I loved the “great post-operative” one above.
Oh, and a few copies are in a give-away offer at the moment (see above).
Many people, as they grow older, begin to show symptoms of conditions that, in their youth, they were able to manage or suppress. Writing is one of these conditions. In the past it may have been a very slight disorder, masked perhaps by employment or caring activities, but in older age, perhaps as a result of a change in one of these areas, it becomes more evident.
The sufferer, might, for example, begin to write more during the day. They may talk about their writing openly, in company. They perhaps seek out, and show signs of enjoying, the company of others gripped by the same condition. They may begin to send their writing out to competitions and sometimes, in extreme cases, they may even write whole novels and try to have them published, or to publish them themselves.
Life with such a person presents many challenges. The sufferer will, for example, almost certainly feel the urge to stop doing anything useful such as housework or shopping. They will lock themselves away for hours and sometimes emerge in a less-than-sunny frame of mind.
The partner of someone who is undergoing this condition – whether it is sudden-onset or slowly developing – is in a difficult situation. Their loved-one has begun to live an inner life that is completely unknown to them. One moment they show a passionate interest in the variety of birds found on islands off Mongolia; the next it is the effects of undercooked beans on the digestive system; or the likelihood of delay on the sleeper to Inverness on a Wednesday that is all they can think about.
In other ways they may appear perfectly normal, but you will notice a tendency for note-taking at odd moments. They may seem drawn to anyone with a particular area of professional expertise. At social gatherings all small talk is cast aside as they plough into the relentless questioning of the wheelchair gymnast/deep sea diver/forensic accountant they need to pump for information for their latest fiction.
If it is crime writing that afflicts them, it will naturally be police officers, security staff and anyone associated with the criminal law they head for, but with romantic novelists things are not so predictable; it may be the broken-hearted or the fabulously good-looking, but it may also be the shy, the plain or the socially inept. Either way, as their partner you can expect long hours in the kitchen at parties.
Then there is the Google search history. The best advice is: don’t look. The same applies to their Kindle library. A glance at either will indeed offer an insight into the workings of the fiction writer’s mind, but not in a helpful way. It is very likely to lead to unnecessary suspicion and anxiety, but remember this: just because your beloved has spent several days Googling methods of strangulation or undetectable disposal of human remains does not mean they are planning a real-life murder – well, not yours anyway.
All in all, life with a writer is frankly less a roller coaster, more a long downward escalator, but as you plunge the depths of household disorder, poverty and social exclusion, remember there are rare cases of successful publication and even financial reward.
Obviously this is as likely as a lottery win (14 million to 1 last time I checked the odds), but when it does happen, writers have been known to buy champagne. They never go back to doing any housework, though.