The Beginning of The End

I have at last put the finishing touches on my final edit, run the spell-check, and sat back and allowed myself the relief of this achievement. I have been writing RIDING THE HIGH ROAD for about eight years: picking up from a slow start, and then pushing through momentous family crises, to finish the first complete draft in July 2015; the last two years spent re-shaping and editing.

There have been times when I have despaired of ever finishing (see my blog The Loneliness of a Long Distance Novelist).  Would I even have started this novel if I’d know it’d take so long? But my stubborn persistence has at last brought me to this point, if for no other reason than it would seem a waste of so much time and effort not to see this thing through. And I hope that by blogging this process I can inspire other writers who struggle to believe they will ever finish: just keep going, you will get there in the end!

And yes, I know this is not the end. My task now is to set in motion the production line of enquiry letters, synopses and samples to send to possible agents and publishers.  I will be lucky to get away with not having to edit some more, indeed I will welcome any feedback that comes my way.

But for now I will raise a glass, or three, to my achievement before taking on the Big Bad Literary World: crafting delicate morsels to tempt my prey, hoping I’ll land a reasonably sized fish before too long.

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Of a growing love affair with Scotland

Just over a week since our annual trip to Scotland: six days of glorious sunshine spent partly on Skye and partly in Gairloch, the place we are thinking of moving to (see my blog Just looking out of the window). It is in this part of the world that much of the action of my novel is set, with Gethin making a spontaneous trip to find his sperm donor father here, and hooking up with Jez on her Harley. Many of our visits have doubled up as research, though I’ve pretty much done all that now. Still, I took photos of the sunset from our campsite, which is where I imagine Gethin, bewildered and alone:

IMG_0637That’s Harris you can see in the distance

I was going to set this novel in 2011, the year the pilot whales were trapped in Durness, but after visiting in 2014, I decided to go for that summer of the build-up to the Independence Referendum. I was struck by the energy of that campaign, the way people talked about it everywhere you went, the young people hungry to find out and argue their way to political awakening. It seemed the perfect metaphor for Gethin’s widening perspective, the idea of hope for shaping a better future, something his generation had never felt before. And how that compares to the disillusion his mother Pat feels after the radical political action of her youth. How he brings back that sense of possibility to her.

Of course things have changed since then. The disadvantage of being a slow writer of fiction set in contemporary times that refuse to stay still! The Yes campaign lost the Indy Ref, and although the momentum for political change stayed strong in Scotland, Brexit and this year’s general election seem to have thrown its direction into doubt. And then there is Jeremy Corbyn, doing for the youth south of the border what the Indy Ref had done for the Scots. Record numbers of young people registering to vote, packing out his rallies and chanting his name at Glastonbury, his campaign endorsed by Grime musicians. And people from my generation feeling for the first time in decades there is something worth getting behind. For all we lost the general election, we gained increased hope in the possibility of change.

But for me there is something about Scotland that is more than just the Indy Ref. It feels so different to the place I used to visit as a child and young adult. The highlands always caught my imagination, but the facilities were severely lacking. Just the odd snotty hotel which might deign to let you into the public bar if you took off your boots. Sparsely populated hamlets and not a vegetable to be found. Now it’s teeming with cafes and shops selling high-end local produce, and the hotel bars are more like pubs. But it’s not just about an easier life for the tourist; there are cafes that are run as social enterprises, employing local people and using the profits to invest in local services. Community centres promoting local bands and artists. An openness to migrants and the benefits they bring to the previously dwindling communities. It feels like a place that is taking matters into its own hands. If only England could follow suit!

Feeling this buzz has turned the Scottish Highlands from a place I loved to visit to a place I want to live. And from first discovering the NW coast in 2007, I knew this had to be where my novel would unfold.

A couple of books from my holiday reading:

Hope and Other Urban Tales  by Laura Hird, whose stories of Scottish low-life revealed a humanity in her dysfunctional, mainly male, characters that I found very humbling.

And I loved Meaghan Delahunt’s To the Island with its tale of an Australian woman’s search for her Greek birth father. A story steeped in the turbulent violence of post-war Greek politics and the effect this has had on the psyche of the people caught up in it. Her description of the father character, imprisoned and tortured by the Junta, and the system of informers that broke the trust within communities and families, makes the Indy Ref an afternoon picnic in terms of political backdrop.

Still, Writers Rule No 1: Don’t Compare Yourself To Other Writers. You will find yourself lacking whether you are or not. And so, after entering another competition, I continue on my M1 journey of the final edit. If it’s Sheffield to London I’m probably just passing Leicester now. And Gethin has reached Scotland, with Jez not far behind.

 

 

 

 

Baby Boomer Calling Millennial

A few weeks ago I was pleased to receive comments on my almost final draft of RIDING THE HIGH ROAD from the 25 year old daughter of a good friend of mine. As no-one under 50 had read the novel so far, I was keen to run it past a younger reader, particularly as the novel alternates the points of view of 18 year old Gethin;  23 year old Jez; and Pat, Gethin’s 50-something mother. My young reader’s feedback was gratifyingly positive: she said she’d meant to make loads of notes, but got too carried away with the story; she could totally relate to the characters, and found it refreshing to read a tale that features a LGBT family she could identify with.

I read a criticism a while back of a story proposal told from two generations’ points of view, which said it would be difficult to know who it was aimed at. Indeed, I thought, there aren’t many novels that do this. Oh, apart from Anne Donovan’s  Buddha Da, Kate Long’s The Bad Mother’s Handbook and Roma Tearne’s The Swimmer: three examples that quickly sprang to mind from my limited list of recently read contemporary fiction. Still, I fully expect my largest readership may be from my generation of post-war idealists who are the parents of young adults today. Some will perhaps identify with the hard-to-admit disappointment of producing young people who don’t appear to give a toss about anything much. But maybe it’s easy to conveniently forget not just what we were like at their age, but also how much harder it is these days for young people to take the time and space they need to find their way in this world. OK, there are things that are possibly easier for them: being in any way different from the dominant ‘norm’ is in many ways not so problematic. But while we might have raised our voices against the undoubted injustices of those times, many of us fucked about doing nothing very meaningful with the luxury of being able to fall back on student grants, easily available casual work, or signing on, no questions asked. We can be in danger of forgetting to listen to our young people, of writing them off as spoilt brat hedonists just because they have the internet, better drugs and cheaper booze. And so I attempt to get under the skin of the generation I’ve helped bring into this world: to see things through the eyes of the 18 year old son of a lesbian single mother seeking his sperm donor father; to look at how his experience contrasts with that of his parents.  And I hope that some of my readers will be from his generation.

And then I have Jez, my sassy motor-cycle adventurer, adopted as a child by a foster carer. Everyone who has read my drafts likes Jez: she’s the star who wins best supporting actor. She is nothing to do with Gethin and Pat’s world of self-righteous choices and I enjoy allowing her to blow it apart, and in doing so I hope to broaden the niche of my readership. That is the point of Gethin’s journey: he sets out to find meaning by tracing his father and encounters people who live much closer to the edge and who don’t pay too much heed to his preoccupations. And in the end he is able to bring his widened perspective back to Pat.

Jeremy Corbyn’s recent success in inspiring and galvanising our disaffected young people shows that it is possible for people even older than me to reach across the generational divide. And at nearly 60 with a 20 year old son, and 23 year old stepdaughter, I am an older parent than most. I ask myself, am I really capable of writing the stories of these young people? As a writer I believe it should be possible to write from any point of view, as long as I am open to hearing the voices of those outside of my experience and have the imagination to put myself in their shoes. I don’t know for sure if I’ve managed that with this novel, but my young friend’s feedback gives me some hope that I may be on the right track (even though, as she pointed out, at 25 she already feels a different generation to 18).

Meanwhile I plod on with my final edit, having worked up the first few chapters for a couple of competitions. I’ve been distracted as usual by work and life, most of it good. I feel this stage is like driving down the M1. If it’s Sheffield to London I’m somewhere near Derby but making steady progress. Road works ahead! Hoping it won’t be too long now.

Catching Up With The Twenty-First Century

I completed my almost final draft of RIDING THE HIGH ROAD a month ago, and handed copies to a few people who have kindly agreed to read it, before I embark on my final edit.

Well, it ain’t over yet, but in this breathing space I have been playing catch-up with life, allowing a tad more lazing about time, as well as starting to research agents and markets for when I’m ready to send out the completed manuscript. I’m familiar with the process, having gone through it in 2009 with my first novel, WIRE ANGEL. I’ve bought the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and read the excellent articles that bring me up to date, but the business of pitching work to an agent doesn’t seem to have changed radically. I know about enquiry letters, synopses of various lengths, giving agents exactly what they ask for, researching their lists to see where I might fit in. This last, of course, requires being kind of up-to-date with contemporary fiction, particularly the type of in-the-present social realist stuff I write.

But I have to confess that in recent years I have been absorbed in a love affair with late 19th/early 20th century fiction, revisiting books I read in my teens without fully understanding their context, and discovering many more.  Zola, Conrad, Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky – these are writers who fill me with awe for the way they place their stories within such a breathtaking sweep of their contemporary world.  And while I don’t aspire to anything like the scale of their work, they do inspire me to look beyond the immediate lives of my characters and to acknowledge the social and political contexts that shape them. In RIDING THE HIGH ROAD I explore how those people of my generation who tried to live by the radical idealism of the 70s and early 80s are now faced with the increasing  alienation and sense of social exclusion of many of their young adult offspring. What difference have all our ideals of alternative parenting actually made to these young people? It is with an half an eye out for such themes that I am embarking on a crash course in the contemporary fiction that I have shamelessly neglected for quite a few years (though I have been reading a fair amount of Scottish fiction and non fiction as much of my book is set in NW Scotland in the lead up to the independence referendum). I’m raiding friends’ bookshelves, scouring review pages, researching agents’ lists, and trying to prioritise reading as much as I can.

I’m handicapped by a slow reading speed, never having mastered speed reading. I like to think this means I remember the books I read better (or at least the ones that have an impact on me), but I can feel overwhelmed by the quantity of ‘must-reads’ required for the most cursory overview of contemporary literature. But I’ve made a start, trying to make more time than the minutes before dropping off to sleep at night. So far the book I’ve enjoyed the most is Karen Joy Fowler’s WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES. I loved the tone of this book and the very original take on being brought up in an unconventional family.

Time is always an issue, and there is plenty else to catch up with in preparing to get the book out, competing, as always, with the demands of paid work and family and friends. I want to send off some short stories, connect more to the online writing community and build up my social media profile; all these are things I’ve neglected while pushing on with finishing the novel. For me this was the only way: getting my head down, getting it done. Now at last I can see above the water-level of the novel’s minutiae and start to look outwards again. And I am excited for it.

The Loneliness of a Long Distance Novelist

Earlier this year I read a couple of blogs, by author bloggers I follow and admire, about the dangers of Writer Burnout.  ‘If you normally write 1,000 words a day—and then suddenly notice you’ve written 10,000 words in three days—you might be on a slippery slope to burnout.‘I’ve slowed down a bit (phew) and have written another eleven thousand words.’  And while I have no doubt this could be a serious complaint, I won’t have been alone in my Oh, to have such problems reaction, as I despaired of ever finishing my novel.

I am a Long Distance Novelist in the sense that it takes me forever to write a novel. The trials of being a writer with a job and family responsibilities that have neatly shifted from the kids to the older generations. I started writing RIDING THE HIGH ROAD in 2009, still recovering from a severe nervous breakdown. After the focussed push to get WIRE ANGEL out (my first novel), I was going easy on myself. My progress was slow and intermittent, but when in late 2013 I was able to drop a day at work, I decided to step up and get the first draft finished. Life got more demanding again, but the revised version of this draft was presented to my writing group in July 2015. Most of the rest of last year was taken up with my terminally ill brother and the aftermath of his death in October.

But this year I was determined to press on to the end. As well as absorbing my writing group’s feedback, I set about working on the full back-stories of my four main characters. This approach worked for me with WIRE ANGEL: setting out the bones of the story in the first draft, making up the characters as I went along, then going back to work out how their lives had led them to where they were in the novel, and threading through the novel, once character at a time, giving them more depth, motivation and consistency of voice.

I don’t remember this taking SOOO long with WIRE ANGEL, but by this spring I was hopelessly lost in the life story of my artist lesbian mother character, the one I was finding most problematic. I wrote 18,000 words, clocking up 42 hours on my timesheet just for this task. It was already March and I hadn’t started trying to thread this material (or a small percentage of it!) through the novel, with three more main characters to go.

There followed an Existential Crisis: Why the hell am I doing this? I’m bored stupid with this story that no longer preoccupies me. Why would anyone want to read it?

WIRE ANGEL took close on five years and at least attracted an agent. I have posted extracts online, made copies of the manuscript available for people interested in reading it. This one has taken longer already and this spring it felt nowhere near finished. I think of all the time and energy spent writing one and a half novels. I could have been having a nice time, earning more, both?

In the end it’s stubbornness that keeps me going: what I’ve written isn’t so bad, I’ve come this far, it’s a waste of all that effort not to finish. My impatience wins through as I pick myself up, dust myself down, and remind myself I can’t be the only writer unable to dedicate herself full time to the churning out of books, who battles with constant broken resolutions and empty timesheets, but somehow can’t, won’t, give it up. Writing is engrained in who I am, and it only takes feedback such as that from an old work colleague – who told me WIRE ANGEL was a book she had very much needed to read -to give me reason to carry on. If I can give one person that feeling of connection across the abyss that I experience reading novels I love, then that is motivation enough.

And now, a year since my last blog, I can report that persistence is starting to pay. This morning I felt a little surge of excitement as I opened my Complete Draft 2 document, to spend half an hour putting the finishing touches to the threading through of all four main character stories. Now I just need to work through the secondary and minor characters, which shouldn’t take long (famous last words?). Then it’s just a case of checking through some of the factual detail about motorbikes, art and the Scottish referendum campaign that provide the context for my story. I should be ready for the fine edit early next year and my aim to have it completed by Easter suddenly feels doable. I wouldn’t say I was exactly hitting Writers’ Burnout, but the shorter the distance to the end the greater the momentum and motivation.

This novel will be read! Watch this space!

Just looking out of the window…time and space for reflection

I am sad to have to report that my dear brother died just over a month ago after his 22 month battle with brain cancer. I was with him on this journey for as much as I could manage, although of course in the end the journey was his alone. There was much that was difficult and challenging, but also heart-warming and immensely enjoyable in a bitter-sweet way, and I am left (as are all who were close to him) in awe of the way he embraced the limited life left to him, and bereft of his unique presence. His funeral was attended by about 80 people, and we gave him the send-off he deserved. The bond I now have with his many friends is a consolation I will hang onto for a long time.

The last two weeks have been spent with my husband in a holiday-let on the NW Scottish coast. The trip was planned a while ago, the idea being to see how we fared in the winter here, as we are thinking of moving up here in a couple of years. It has turned out to be excellent timing, giving me a complete break following the immediate aftermath of my brother’s death, a chance to reflect and recharge.

The view out of our window...

The view out of our window…

I also had in mind taking the opportunity to see how it would be to be a full-time writer here (well, I would need to grab an income wherever I could, but hopefully wouldn’t require a 30 hour a week day job as at present). And so I set myself the task of getting back to work on my novel. A large part of the novel is set in this part of the world and although I have been here before as a tourist in the summer (which is when the novel is set), I wanted to try and get more of a feel of how it would be for the character I have living here, as opposed to the ones who are just visiting. I also wanted to start work on the back story for another main character, the one I have had the most problems with up to now. This character is an artist and so part of my task is to track her artistic development and influences over the past 30 odd years.

I wouldn’t describe the attention I have given these tasks as full-time. There are plenty of tempting displacement activities: walks on the beach, exploring the local area, going to the pub, attending a couple of events, browsing the wealth of interesting books on the area and its history, listening to the local radio station, on top of the usual distractions that Wifi and TV provide. And then of course I have needed time to simply lie about doing nothing, just looking out of the window. I have cut myself a lot of slack, knowing that I need this time to start to absorb the fact of my brother’s death and my feelings about it, to take stock and think about my life ahead.

But still I have probably managed a couple of hours a day on the writing tasks. I have note-booked observations based on conversations with a few local people which will help me locate my Scottish character in a similar setting. I have made some headway with my artist character’s back story, helped enormously by discovering the Artsy website. A fantastic resource, with a huge database of over 300,000 images of art spanning historical and contemporary eras and searchable by theme (eg Feminist Art) as well as by decade, lots of interesting articles, news and more. Hugely distracting in itself, but you can’t have too much art, really, can you?

Home the day after tomorrow, back to life with a busy December lined up. I am hugely grateful for the gift of this time with no pressure in this beautiful place and I’m sure it will help me embrace the challenges of my full-time life ahead, including pressing on with the writing and getting this novel finished.

Burning the baggage

Having presented my writing group with the first complete draft of my novel in progress, I duly took a writing summer break. Most of my many plans to get things done were ditched in favour of spending time with my terminally ill brother, who I’m glad to say is reasonably stable for the time being. And I did get a holiday with my husband and a weekend away with some old mates. But still I was determined to sort out the mess that was my bedroom/workroom. You know, when you can’t draw the curtains or reach for a book without knocking over dusty piles of papers and other assorted unsorted things? I feel weighed down by stuff: my minimalist aspirations smothered by maximalist practice. Having elderly parents makes me more aware of the colossal amount a person can collect in a lifetime, much of which can be overwhelming to the people left to sort it out.

My plan to get ruthless included the momentous decision to destroy all my journals: a pile of about 15 hard bound books of personal and emotional writing (as distinct from the spiral bound writer’s notebooks for jotting down ideas and rough drafting). The journals fulfilled a need to splurge my inner thoughts and feelings onto a page, and in doing so to make sense of them. I started my first diary at 12, inspired by Anne Frank, and filled two volumes with lonely teenage misery, stopping as soon as I made some friends. But journal writing continued to be a tool I relied on heavily throughout my 20s and 30s and into my 40s, especially when the going got rough. Somehow the act of writing externalises a problem and in doing so has helped me gain a sense of control. I have certainly benefited from the well documented therapeutic effects of journal writing.

But in the past few years I have felt less inclined to internal navel gazing and have tried to focus more on looking out at the world. I was inspired by a friend who composted all her old journals, making me wonder why on earth I want to carry these volumes of baggage to the end of my days. Do I really want whoever survives me to have to even think about wading through this potentially upsetting emotional bilge? I was ready to purge the splurge.

I couldn’t resist a last glance at the journals, even though I worried that reading them could catapult me back to difficult headspaces – the last thing I need. But this didn’t happen for the most part. Some of what I read made me sad, quite a bit made me cringe, a lot I skipped out of sheer boredom, but mostly it gave me a sense of how many things that seem insurmountable, or feel like they will never change, can fade and pass and simply seem a long time ago. One advantage of growing older.

Sometimes it almost feels as though I have been documenting my life for posterity. From my self-conscious early teenage diary where I explained the rules of Monopoly as if to an audience in the distant future, there is a sense of writing for someone else’s eyes that I found hard to shake off even much later. Anaïs Nin, Virginia Woolf, eat your hearts out! How many journal writers secretly imagine future readers?

Not that there is anything wrong with published diaries: Anne Frank, Anaïs Nin, George Orwell, Tony Benn are diverse examples of diarists I have enjoyed immensely. But reader, my journals are not of this calibre, and I doubt I will be the subject of a bestselling biography. These days the blog provides all the platform I could need for anything I want to share publicly.

And so to the brazier they went, taking most of a sunny afternoon to burn. All that remains is a couple of pots of ashes ready to dig around the gooseberry bush. But enough of displacement activity! I have received the feedback on my draft from my writing group, and am ready to launch into editing my novel with my workspace and headspace wonderfully liberated of a great mass of clutter.

All fired up...

All fired up…

All that remains...

All that remains…