Plug of the Month – Girl With A White Dog by Anne Booth

I am SO delighted to be announcing this plug of the month. Tomorrow my lovely friend Anne Booth will be publishing her children’s novel Girl With A White Dog. I’ve been privileged to watch the development of this story over the last eighteen months from first draft to publication and it’s a great read. Not only does it provide a moving account of a young girl’s attempt to understand her grandmother’s past, but it also highlights an issue close to my heart – the rise of disablism in the UK and the need to challenge it. I’m totally biased, of course, but this one is highly recommended.

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Guest Post – My Writing Process, Blog Tour – Judith Heneghan

In my blog last week, I posted on my writing process. I’m delighted to offer this space to my guest, and lovely friend Judith Heneghan, a wonderful writer, teacher, friend. Over to you Judith!

I’ve been invited by my dear friend and fellow writer Virginia Moffatt to contribute to this blog tour and she has very kindly agreed to host me on her site.  I have to admit, though, I feel a bit of a fraud.  At the moment I’m not doing much writing.  As with many writers, my need to earn a living means I talk about writing an awful lot, as a creative writing lecturer at the University of Winchester and director of the Winchester Writers’ Festival http://www.writersfestival.co.uk. 

But the actual act of writing?  What, real writing?  Uh…

So here are my answers to the four questions I’ve been asked.  I’m going to have to dig deep!

What am I working on?

That kind of depends on timeframe.  I write lots of nonfiction for children and this year is no exception with two series to complete before September.  I am absolutely committed to excellence in nonfiction for young audiences and I’ve written nearly 50 books now but that’s not what I’m going to talk about here because usually I write nonfiction to a very tight brief from the publisher.

A while ago I finished a children’s novel called Ruthie Bow and the Lady Spirit Detective about which I care passionately but it has not yet found a publishing home.

Then there are the pieces of short fiction I write whenever I’m pushed to do a reading at the University or with the Hyde Writers – a group of wonderful novelists, poets and critics who support each other locally.  My last two pieces were called ‘Mole’ and ‘Snegurochka’ and I had some fun with them.

Yet what really fills my head and my heart at the moment is a novel for adults that is starting to take shape in frustratingly short fragments on the page.  The novel is set in Kiev in 1993.  Current events in Independence Square have gripped me and horrified me over the past few weeks, but I’ve been trying to find a way to write fictionally about Kiev for the past decade and I’m reaching back to a time shortly after that initial declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, when journalists held their breath but for ordinary Ukrainians, so little had changed.  The novel is told from the point of view of an English woman who goes there with her baby and the woman is like me, up to a point, as I lived there with my journalist husband and our baby son from 1993-94.  It is a story, imagined, about the interrelatedness of people I glimpsed but rarely spoke to, lived next door to but never shared a meal with.  The boy who spends his days rollerblading across the floor of the apartment above.  The caretaker who sniffs an empty box of imported After Eights she’s retrieved from the bottom of the dump bin.  The white goods importer with the Astrakhan hat who wants to give this nervous young mother a washing machine.  I want to write about moral ambiguity, about history never being finished, about the ownership of apples and a desperate obsession with the novel Jurassic Park.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

Genre is an interesting question when it comes to my Kiev novel.  I think I absorb a great deal from the fiction I read, in terms of structure, brevity, dialogue, what isn’t said and so forth.  I suppose where I hope it might differ is that while it is about motherhood (many kinds) it isn’t merely ‘domestic’ in that unfortunately pejorative sense.  Domestic can be, and often is, universal.

Why do I write what I do?

I write about what interests me.  That’s about it!

How does my writing process work?

I wish I could say something sensible here.  Zadie Smith, in her brilliantly titled book of essays Changing My Mind, divides writers up into two kinds: micro managers and macro planners.  I always thought I was a micro manager.  I’d start with very little idea of where I was going, discovering the story as I went along but never able to progress until I felt that the last sentence I’d written was as good as I could make it.  Now I’m not so sure.  The switch to writing a novel for adults means I’m starting all over again and I find it quite terrifying!  Nevertheless, with this novel I do have an ending.  The final pages are already real for me, so instead I find myself writing out of sequence, creating small scenes as key moments form during that marvellous thought factory, the daily dog walk.  I’ve not settled on tense, or voice, or even point of view yet, and this is quite a different way of working  and one that I wouldn’t, on the whole, recommend to my own students but then I’ve never been much of a believer in writing ‘rules’.  That’s why we have drafts.

I like to think I’d be more productive if I had a weekly word count to hit.  I’d love a magical shed like Joanne Harris, or a deadline to hurtle towards.  Instead I write fitfully, slowly, over months and years.  It’s not good, but I tell myself this is infinitely better than never writing at all.

Oh, and oddly, I type straight onto my laptop.  I’m left-handed and never really learned to hold a pen comfortably!

Next week I’m passing the blog tour mantle to Claire Fuller, novelist, sculptor and long-time friend whose debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, publishes next year under Penguin imprint Fig Tree and around the world.  I feel privileged to have read the manuscript – taut and subtly terrifying.  Also quite beautiful.  The novel to read in 2015. 

The Agent Hunt

You might have noticed me mention recently that I’m currently looking for an agent. It’s quite a tricky place to be but it’s also an important part of the path to publication, so I thought it worth a blogpost.

In some ways I feel like I’ve been here before. In my early twenties, I was a happy singleton;  but, as friends,  family and acquaintances started pairing off and creating families of their own, I realised I wanted marriage and kids too. Although I was pleased for them, as the years passed it was hard sometimes not to grit my teeth at the latest birth announcement or engagement. I was delighted for them, of course I was, but for a long time, I thought, no matter how much I wanted it, it was never going to happen for me.

This stage of my writing career feels rather similar. For years I aspired to be a writer without doing anything about it. When I finally got going, it took me a lot longer than I’d anticipated to write my first novel. During which time, I’ve watched friends, family and acquaintances write novels, acquire agents and book deals, some seemingly without any effort whatsoever. Once more I find myself trying not to grit my teeth as someone I know fills their social media with  the good news that I’d love to announce myself. And once more, it’s not that I resent their good fortune (and indeed I know that no-one gets there easily, however much it looks that way) it’s just the fear that it won’t ever happen for me.

So I’m trying to hold on to the knowledge that the self-belief and determination that preceded meeting my husband can help me here. Love and motherhood didn’t happen overnight, but it happened  eventually. It happened because I didn’t give up in the face of failed relationships. It happened because I learnt lessons about myself from every rejection. When I finally met  my lovely Chris, I was more than ready, and so was he, and everything just slotted into place.

I’m holding onto that knowledge as I search for the agent of my dreams. Writing submissions is hard, waiting for a response harder;and no matter how much I try and prepare myself, that “no” entering  my in-box hurts every time. But, when the “ouch” moment has passed, I’ve been able to look at the helpful feedback and see how it can help me improve my work.

So I’m beginning to realise rejection doesn’t mean that I’m a bad writer, or my novel hasn’t got potential, it’s just that I haven’t found the right agent yet. The person that will get what I’m about and what I’m trying to do. The person who will love my novel as much as I do. The person who will champion my writing and get me the book deal I desire.

We haven’t met yet, but I know that agent is out there. And I like to think that s/he is looking for a writer like me. So that when we finally meet, everything will slot into place. However long it takes – 6 weeks, 6 months, a year or even more –  I know it’s a moment well worth waiting for.

My Writing Process – Blog Tour

I was tagged into the My Writing Process Blog Tour by my lovely friend Anne Booth. Anne, and I and our friend Judith Heneghan (see below) were at University together where we used to talk into the wee small  hours about our desire to be writers. Both of them got started before me, and have inspired me to keep going. I’m delighted that Anne’s excellent first book for children, Girl with A White Dog, is coming out next month. (Watch out for it as a plug of the month).

I really enjoyed Anne’s account of her writing process which she has written about here. And here is my attempt to answer the same questions:

1) What am I working on?

I have just completed (or completed as far as I can without professional help) my first novel, “Echo Hall”. I’m in the process of submitting to agents, getting rejections, learning, revising, resubmitting, which is all very nerve-wracking. So to give myself something to think about, I have written the first draft of my second novel, “The Wave”. I did this in a month for Nanowrimo, and I’ve left it aside for a few weeks so I can think about the re-writes. I’m aiming to get back to it soon.  The novels are very different. The first is told over eighty years with complex plotting and a strong narrative arc as it explores the impact of unresolved conflict from one generation to the next (both personally and politically). The second takes place in less than 24 hours and is much more character and ideas driven, so  it’s posing very different challenges. (With the first novel, I’ve spend ten years taming an unruly plot, with the second, I am trying to work out how to make limited action interesting and alive.)

I have also completed a collection of flash fiction drawn from writing on this blog and some newer pieces. “rapture and what comes after” contains ten paired stories dealing with the light and dark aspects of love. I’m hoping to publish as an e-book soon in order to generate income for a pamphlet version.

Finally, I have a strong idea for a play, and have the beginnings of a screenplay sitting in my files, but never have time to take them forward. (So many ideas so little time…)

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

That’s quite  a difficult question to answer, partly because I don’t consider that I write to a particular genre, (“Echo Hall” has several, and “The Wave” is quite different); and partly because unless you are writing formulaic fiction, each writer should have their unique way of writing in the genre they choose. What I can say is that I aim to write to the best of my abilities, using the genre most suitable for the narrative, and experimenting only when it serves the story.

3. Why do I write what I do?

This one is easier. Reading and writing have always been inseparable for me. I read to be entertained, thrilled, horrified, amazed, inspired, moved.  I write to do the same for other readers. I write because I absolutely have to, because I am possessed by stories that only I can tell, peopled by characters jostling in my head who demand to be heard.

 All fiction writers draw from their experience, vision and values, and I am no exception. I aim to tell stories that people can’t put down, but which also make them think. I hope I manage to communicate something about my views on war, God, politics, relationships without preaching or forcing readers to agree with me.

4) How does your writing process work?

I spent a very painful two years on the treadmill of a creative writing course that demanded two long assignments each term. I found trying to write to such short deadlines absolutely excruciating and it did nothing for the quality of my work. However, whilst it was a difficult period, and I nearly gave up on the course more than once, it did teach me what process works best for me.

I  now realise that when I have an idea, I have to just throw it on the page, not thinking about the writing, till I can see the shape of it. Once I’ve got that down, I have to put it away for a while (as I have done with “The Wave”). In the meantime, I research and keep my writing skills honed doing other projects (flash fiction is particularly good for working on precision). When I come back to it with clear eyes I can see what is working and what is not. I start by dealing with the structure, and after that will edit the words. My first drafts are always banal, full of cliche, repetition and limited character development. I have to do a lot of re-writes to create work that uses the right words in the right way, feels fresh and clarifies character motives. I have to be prepared to jettison scenes and chapters I really love, to ensure the story is told the best of my abilities. My writing can’t be rushed!

So that’s my process. Here are three more writers, who next week will tell you theirs:

Julia Williams. Julia is my twin sister, chief cheerleader, and unpaid editor. She was a brilliant editor for Scholastic Children’s Books where she took over the prestigious Point Horror series, developed Point Crime, Point Romance, Point Fantasy and edited “The Sterkhalm Handshake” which won the The Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize in 1998. When she took a career break to raise her family, she began writing fiction of her own. She is now a successful author of commercial women’s fiction, with six best-selling novels to her name, including “Pastures New,” “Last Christmas” and “Midsummer Magic”. She is currently developing a great fantasy series for children. Julia’s website is http://juliawilliamsauthor.com/ and she tweets as @jccwilliams

Dan Holloway. I first met Dan on-line. For a long time I thought he was a woman, till I discovered his twitter handle @agnieszkasshoes was derived from his novel “The Man Who Painted Agnieszkasshoes”. Since then our paths have crossed at a flash fiction reading, a protest and somewhat surprisingly, when he was a guest at my work’s annual fun run (where despite his pretence to be slow he beat me hands down). Dan is a prolific writer of novels, poetry, flash fiction. He was self-publishing before Kindle, and is a leading light in avant-garde independent fiction. He has recently announced his first book deal. He blogs at http://danholloway.wordpress.com/about-me-2/

Judith Heneghan. As noted above, Judith, Anne and I have been close friends for thirty years. Judith was the first to forge ahead with her writing career, when she took an MA in Creative Writing for Children at Winchester, which inspired me to get going myself.  Her first novel “Stonecipher” is a wonderful piece of historical fiction, which reminds me a lot of Diana Wynne Jones. Since then she has written a number of picture  books and over forty non-fiction books. She is a highly regarded lecturer in Creative Writing and is currently Programme Leader for the Winchester Children’s MA course.  She has recently been appointed Director of the Winchester Writer’s Festival.  Her blog for the festival can be found at http://writersfestival.co.uk/blog. She tweets as @JudithHeneghan


A Visit to Laugharne

This week sees the 60th anniversary of the first radio performance of “Under Milk Wood”, Dylan Thomas’ wild and funny play/prose/poem. I love “Under Milk Wood” (which I first read in English lessons with my wonderful teacher Sue Brown) and was enchanted to discover on holiday in Wales in 2008,  that the town of Laugharne where Dylan Thomas lived for many years, was the inspiration for Milk Wood. We were staying close by, so of course, I had to take a look.  It was an important visit in more ways than one. I had just completed the first year of a tough writing course which had not ended well. In fact, I’d received some feedback near the end of term that had shaken my confidence so much I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a writer anymore. I love literary pilgrimages, but as I arrived  in the rain-soaked town  that August afternoon, I knew this one was going to be therapeutic. 

I didn’t have a map, so I followed the signs from the car park past the bottom of the impressive looking castle, to take the walk along the estuary. It was a grey scudding clouds sort of day, the water as grim as the sky, but the kind of summer rain that invigorates no matter how many times you have to clean your glasses.  I stuck to the path, marked by benches with quotes from Thomas poems till I arrived at a series of wet rocks. I slipped my way across them to a series of steep steps that led to the road to the Dylan Thomas Boathouse.
Thomas’ writing shed was the first excitement, a little wooden hut on a bend on the road just before the boathouse. I’m a sucker for writer’s rooms so it was a thrill to peep through the windows to see a desk, crumpled paper and the view over the estuary that inspired so many wonderful poems. The boathouse itself was a few yards further along. A white house with oblong black windows, it is set at right angles to the cliff, affording stunning views of the hills and river. It must have been a beautiful place to live. Now, it is run as a heritage centre. One of the children’s bedrooms is a little bookshop (naturally I bought a copy of Under Milk Wood, and a copy of Thomas’ very funny piece about Laugharne); there is a sitting room laid out as it might have been in Thomas’ day, a desk with some of his original writing (always exciting for a literary nerd), and an art gallery upstairs, with a timeline of Thomas’ life. 
After hanging out on the balcony for a while, I wandered into town. It was wet and there were no cobbled streets, but I could imagine the characters in Under Milk Wood living in their terraced houses, the unrequited lovers Myfanwy Price and Mog Edwards who only meet in dreams, Organ Morgan and his Mrs, the Rev Eli Jenkins dreaming of Eistedfoddau and all the rest… Till it was time to head home via the graveyard. I thought it would be easy to find Thomas’ grave, but I hadn’t anticipated quite how big the cemetery at St Martin’s church was. It was chucking it down as I walked fruitlessly round and round the gravestones,  feeling totally stupid that I couldn’t find something so obvious. I was on the point of giving up when I noticed a little field to the side of the main cemetery. It was another beautiful spot, overlooking St John’s Hill, apparent inspiration for Llaggerub*Hill  in Under Milk Wood and still I couldn’t find the damn grave. Then I saw a plain white cross, marked Caitlin Thomas. Dylan’s must be round here somewhere I thought, but for the life of me I couldn’t see it. It took me about five minutes to realise I was being totally dense,  they were buried together, Caitlin’s name, was written on one side, Dylan’s on the other. I found the simplicity of the cross, and the fact that Caitlin had chosen to be buried beside him forty years after Dylan’s death, intensely moving.  I stood by the grave for some time, thinking about his writing, and how much it inspired me. I thought about the fact he was able to write poetry, prose, and drama, how he used words like magic, how his writing makes me laugh and cry. And I realised that despite my difficult year in college, I wanted to be a writer more than anything. I knew that I wanted to make my writing move people the way Thomas moves me. It was a turning point for me that helped me decide to finish my course, and made me decide I’m a writer come what may.
I drove home that day renewed and invigorated by this visit to the town that Thomas loved so much. As I  mentioned above, I brought back Under Milk Wood and Thomas’ description of Laugharne which sits in the in-tray on my writing desk to remind me to be a writer:
Now, some people live in Laugharne because they were born in Laugharne and saw no good reason to move; others migrated here, for a number of curious reasons, from places as distant and improbable as Tonypandy or even England, and have now been absorbed by the natives; some entered the town in the dark and immediately disappeared, and can sometimes be heard, on hushed black nights, making noises in ruined houses, or perhaps it is the white owls breathing close together, like ghosts in bed; others have almost certainly come here to escape the international police, or their wives; and there are those, too, who still do not know, and will never know, why they are here at all: you can see them, any day of the week, slowly, dopily, wondering up and down the streets like Welsh opium-eaters, half asleep in a heavy bewildered daze. And some, like myself, just came, one day, and never left; got off the bus, forgot to get on again. Whatever the reason, if any, for our being here, in this timeless, mild, beguiling island of a town with its seven public houses, one chapel in action, one church, one factory, two billiard tables, one St Bernard (without brandy), one policeman, three rivers, a visiting sea, one Rolls Royce selling fish and chips, one cannon (cast-iron), one chancellor (flesh and blood), one Portreeve, one Danny Raye, and a multitude of mixed birds, here we just are, and there is nowhere like it, anywhere at all.
He was right, it’s a very special place, that I’m glad I visited. If you’re ever in the area, make sure you visit too.
* Bugger all backwards.