Archive | June 2012

Chapter 5: Rejection and Writers’ Block

If you are a writer and reading this chapter, then I know you will understand. If you are not a writer, you might question my sanity!

At the beginning of January 2009, I had more or less finished plotting the novel I had entitled “Going Back” (later to become The White Cuckoo). Just before Christmas, Sunlight on Broken Glass,  had been submitted to a publisher by an agent.  It had been a long, hard journey to get to this point – the family saga had originally started off as one long novel, but the publisher in question had commented that it would work much better as a trilogy and Sunlight was the first novel.

It was on a Wednesday in mid-January 2009 when the news came that every writer dreams about. One of the biggest multi-national publishing houses in London had asked for the full manuscript of Sunlight on Broken Glass and synopses and chapter outlines for the other two novels in the trilogy. Could I quickly draft up a synopsis and chapter outline for Melody of Raindrops and Twisted Garlands (the other two books in the trilogy) my agent asked?  My reply was “how quickly do you want them?”

For the next few nights, I somehow managed on only three hours sleep each night. I worked full-time at the Council during the day and then spent all night on my writing. I kept telling myself that the only way to succeed in this life is through hard work, and that it would all be worth it in the end. I emailed off the required documents to my agent, and braced myself for the inevitable nail-biting, hand-wringing wait that I knew would follow.

The next week I received an email. Sunlight was to go to an acquisition meeting. How I kept this news to myself, God only knows.  Only my family and two good friends knew about it, but I must have appeared to have become an incomprehensible, doddering moron to anyone else.  I’m sure my work colleagues must have thought I was going senile because I couldn’t concentrate on anything else at all.

Then I had some more news. My novel had to go to three more meetings – I think they were sales, finance and marketing – something like that.

I tried to put it all to the back of my mind and write something, but all I did was stare at a blank screen.  Not only was my mind curiously dyslexic, but my fingers were, too.  I was unable to write a single sentence apart from on my blog where I wrote this post entitled ‘Losing It’ which describes exactly how I felt at that time (just click on the highlighted link if you would like to read it).

Another couple of weeks passed. One day my intuition kicked in. Instinctively, I knew Sunlight on Broken Glass was going to get rejected. My head told me not to be so silly – no news was good news – but I am rarely wrong when I get these raw, primal feelings about something.

Sadly, I wasn’t wrong,

The rejection came at just the right time, though.  Emily’s due date at the beginning of March 2009 was looming closer, and my family life took priority.  The reason the publishers had rejected Sunlight was because of the credit crunch: I was a new writer (risky), it was a family saga (risky because there was talk in early 2009 of family sagas becoming less popular) and I was previously unpublished (extremely risky). I also had no unique selling points as an author (true).

The trilogy was subsequently submitted to other publishers right up until the summer of 2009, but, because of the recession, nothing came of it. I was told all publishers were being very careful about who and what they took on and. because I was previously unpublished, Sunlight was not a good business proposition.

If I said the initial rejection came at the right time because my mind was on other things, the timing was deadly to my writing. Demoralised and disheartened I thought seriously about giving up. It was as if my brain was encased within an impenetrable, hard steel vault. Every time I tried to write, the sabre-toothed Writers’ Block appeared with a vicious, stomach-churning scream and slashed through my creativity with its constantly waving machete.  There was no way in and no way out. I was well and truly stuck.

“Just shelve the trilogy and write something else,” my agent said helpfully. On the other end of the phone I was silently shaking my head.  Nothing in this world was ever going to make me feel this horrible worthlessness again. I was a failure – just like I had been at eleven when I failed my eleven-plus. This traumatic event had been made a hundred times worse because of other people’s expectations. My parents, teachers, friends and family had all expected me to pass my eleven-plus easily. When I failed, the shaking of heads, upturned palms and exasperated, unbelieving shrugs of shoulders had made me feel as useless as if I had been permanently stamped with “reject” on my forehead.

Now, forty years later, I had well and truly arrived on the scrap heap like a burnt out old car – not even worthy of a publisher’s slush pile. Everyone would be laughing at me because I had this misguided notion that I might just be good enough at writing fiction to become published. I tried to console myself – at least I wouldn’t have to read horrible, nasty reviews about Sunlight. I wouldn’t need to go on a diet, either, ready for my book cover photo. I could eat chocolate, crisps and dunk packet upon packet of biscuits into endless mugs of tea as often as I liked. I could become fatter than ever and no one would care.

I cried. And cried. And then cried some more. I felt a massive weight of blame on my shoulders, just as I had done back in May 1981 when I had conceived a precious baby boy who, because of something I had done (or failed to do) would never take his first steps, utter his first words, go to school and learn to read, write, get a job, fall in love, get married and have a family of his own. Back then, I had failed to take proper care of my firstborn son as he grew in my womb, and now I had lost the only thing in my life that had ever made me feel better when things were too tough to bear – my writing. To be unable to write when writing was the only thing that could drag me from the depths of despair was the most soul-destroying feeling I have ever experienced.

My family, although sympathetic, didn’t understand because they weren’t writers. Only other writers understood, but they all lived miles away – my only real-time contact with them being through the computer screen. My husband tried to throw me a lifeline. He told me I wasn’t useless and I wasn’t a reject. I earned a good salary – more than lots of people who had passed their eleven-plus and then gone to university.  I had written three novels when some people (and he was including himself in this comparison) couldn’t even string a paragraph together that made sense.

It didn’t work. Nothing worked. I still felt like a failure. Nothing else I had achieved over the years counted for anything – I had wanted to be a writer all my life, and now the Writer’s Block monster had taken it all away from me.

On 11th March 2009 Sophie Rose Ireson-Vaughan was born. As I held my perfect, beautiful granddaughter in my arms for the first time and she nuzzled her soft, fuzzy newborn head into the crook of my neck, I breathed in the unique smell of a brand new life. I closed my eyes and the aroma infused every cell in my body with a happiness so complete, I knew that nothing, not even writing, was as important to me as my family. Not only that, it dawned on me that my family WAS my unique selling point. Getting published was the pink icing on the cake of life. A nice-to-have rather than an essential ingredient. Being a good wife, mum, mum-in-law and granny was what was important.

Sophie Rose Ireson-Vaughan

 

At that moment, as I cradled the precious, freshly-opened flower on our family tree, I knew her birth had validated mum’s glorious last words to Emily in a simple truth. Sophie had come into the world in her place – and somehow, as she lay dying, Mum had known.

My lovely mum

 

I knew beyond doubt there was much, much more to this life than human beings have ever discovered, and as Mum had balanced on the fence between life and death, she had glimpsed another dimension the rest of us have yet to see. Mum would never have told Emily she would have a little girl in the future had she not been certain it was true. When I was growing up, Mum always told me the truth, no matter how unwelcome and unpalatable it was. Everyone trusted my mum because of her honesty. She was a truly unique, good person in this complicated and frequently evil world.

I knew I owed it to Mum to carry on writing and seeking publication. She always believed in me, and it was high time I started to believe in myself. A couple of days later, I fired up my computer and said to my youngest son “give me a prompt to write something – anything”. He had been studying at the dining table and pointed to a text book, which was open at a page of complicated formulae. “I bet you can’t write anything about this,” he said with a wicked grin. I just opened my mind and typed. A few months later, those first tentative paragraphs about circles and triangles eventually became the short story A2 + B2 = C2. The story was published in Telling Tales (a charity anthology) which, ultimately, attracted the attention of Moonworks Publishing, who will publish The White Cuckoo on 31st October 2012.

(Next week’s chapter will be published on 15th June. Back to The White Cuckoo this week, as the Writers’ Block monster is well and truly slayed – hopefully forever – but if it ever returns, one of my children will just have to quickly produce another grandchild!)

Bingo!

Don’t get excited. I’m not talking about winning.

On Tuesday night I was invited to go to bingo tonight (Thursday). Now it’s not that I am antisocial or anything, but, for me, on a scale of enthusiasm of 1-10, an evening playing bingo rates about two or even less.

I would love to be good at bingo or even just enjoy taking part.  On the rare occasions I have been to bingo, I have watched other people in action, yielding multi-coloured dibbers, jaws set in determination, concentrating hard on not missing a number. Their dexterity and mental agility in managing multiple sheets is a source of great wonder to me. (Kelly – you know who you are.)

How do they do it?  How do they block out the mesmerising mumbles around them, fail to be distracted by the number caller’s cheeky comments or even manage to find the right numbers in the right place on the sheet within about a hundredth of a second? It is a complete mystery to me, is bingo. No matter how hard I try to concentrate, I can’t help my mind wandering off like a recalcitrant toddler, and before I know it I am about four or five numbers behind and dibbing my dibber in places it really shouldn’t be dibbed.

Is this uneasy relationship with bingo because my mind prefers to play with words instead of numbers?  Do other writers feel the same as me? Or am I antisocial after all?

I think I’ll pass on tonight’s invitation. I really think I would be a liability to those who have invited me. Perhaps I could go, but not play ….?

Chapter 4: Titles, Characterisation and Plot

Once home from my day trip to London, I set about plotting The White Cuckoo, to which I gave the working title “Going Back”.  When writing a novel, I write a list of potential titles in a notebook and don’t choose one until I feel I have come up with the best title possible.  Some writers don’t bother too much with titles because quite often it will be changed during the publication process.  For me, the lesson was learned with “Sunlight on Broken Glass”, which was the original title of the novel I had abandoned.  This ended up being the title of the first book in my family saga trilogy.

If ‘Sunlight’ is ever published a reader will, consciously or sub-consciously, understand that the novel is about happiness and good things coming out of something that is shattered, broken and seemingly worthless. It gives a subtle hint at the genre of the book and will hopefully attract the reader’s attention as they cast their eye over a patchwork of other titles on the front table by the door in Waterstones. (Okay, I know I am aiming high, but there is no harm in that, is there?)

  • An example of a Mind-map pinched from Wikipedia

Through the eavesdropped conversation in the queue for the restaurant in the Natural History Museum I already had a basic plot for my new novel scribbled in my notebook: all I needed to do was add a couple of sub-plots. When I plot a story or a novel, I use a mixture of mind-mapping and then expand each plot-line with a detailed decision tree. The mind map will have the main plot at its centre, and then the characters and sub-plots appropriately interlinked to give a diagrammatic view of the entire novel.  The associated decision trees help me to decide what will happen in each sub-plot, and the eventual ending.  Well – that’s the plan, anyway. Usually, when I start writing, the book somehow writes itself and my characters do stuff that is completely out of character and generally don’t behave how I want them to – which is always a problem.  Tom (in Sunlight on Broken Glass) was really hard to handle. He quite frequently went off and did some pretty horrendous things behind everyone’s back, which completely messed up my plot, but there was nothing I could do to stop him.  He really did seem to have a mind of his own!  I used Tom as my character in a blog takeover day (just click on the link if you would like to read it). Poor Tom, his nasty experience at sixteen really did affect him for the rest of his life!

Some months previously I had drawn up a character profile for Tamasyn Hargreaves, and given her a name.  She was the main character in the novel I had previously started and then abandoned. I liked Tammy, but in the old novel she wasn’t strong enough to drive the plot forward. I felt instinctively that, by giving her a personal dilemma to grapple with, it would drive her forward, bring her out of her shell and make her a stronger person by the end of the novel as she became more self-assured and confident. Through their dialogue and actions, the people in a story somehow magically breathe a life force into the plot and give it the legs to run with. Don’t ask me how this happens, but it does.  Time after time I have seen a dull, uninspiring story I have half-heartedly started to write be jump-started into glorious technicolour by a couple of lines of dialogue and associated body language.  Description gives a sense of place and time, but it’s the things characters do and say that make a story three-dimensional instead two-dimensional.

After revisiting the character profile for Tammy, which I had filed away a year or so previously, I realised it was too skimpy – only a couple of sides handwritten on A4 lined paper.  Reading through my notes, it seemed like Tammy was a mere associate. It was as if she was a young woman I said hello to in the corridor at work, or someone I occasionally shared a few minutes of conversation with in the canteen: an acquaintance and nothing more. I chuckled to myself because I knew I had just discovered the reason why the abandoned novel had fizzled out after only 30k words.  If I was going to write this new novel, I needed Tammy to become like a daughter to me. I needed to know everything about her – her hopes, aspirations, fears and phobias. I had to know her parents, her worst moments in her schooldays, the job she did, her shortcomings and strengths and a host of other snippets of information about her. Creating characters isn’t easy, and, as I embarked on the first stages of planning the novel that was to become The White Cuckoo, I knew had just learned a harsh lesson –  I had not done enough work on Tammy in the first place, and the novel that had exhausted itself and fallen to its knees after only 30k words was my fault – not Tammy’s.

During December 2008 I spent all my writing time re-creating the character of Tamasyn Hargreaves (known as Tammy, apart from when Alan, her father, is annoyed with her), and as I did so, the other characters in the novel began to elbow their way in.  By January, I had a whole cast of characters and had built up their personal profiles and physical attributes.  I felt as if they were all waiting in the wings ready to go on stage.

Next week’s instalment (8th June), will go slightly off-piste for a while, and I’ll tell you why, at the beginning of 2009, I almost gave up writing for good.