How can I enjoy my writing more?

It’s some weeks since my last post, and I’m still debating whether I want to write another book. It could help if I could pin down why the prospect feels problematic. What is it that fills me with trepidation?

I’ve already accepted that my recollections of the past year have been coloured by my fall down the stairs just over a year ago and all its consequences – temporary immobilisation, pain, frustration, endless physiotherapy. I’m almost back to normal fitness now, but it’s been a long haul.IMG_1725

The content of last book was difficult too. I chose a backdrop – the catastrophic Foot and Mouth outbreak in Cumbria in 2001 – that required very careful research and a balance between authenticity and fear that the ghastliness of it all could overwhelm the ‘front story’. The research was painful, but I live in a farming community and couldn’t get the details wrong.IMG_0637

I was also working with a new editor, which was fine in the end but felt different than the well-worn relationship I’d had earlier. The new editor is very experienced in what makes for successful commercial genre fiction, but sometimes her expectations clashed with my obsession with authenticity. Yes, her ideas for a scene or the ending would be exciting, but if they felt ‘unrealistic’ I couldn’t go along with them. It’s quite a strain to pay someone for their advice and then decide to ignore it. And when I did agree with her, after the first draft, our shared view required a complete re-write of the first quarter of the book, which I didn’t enjoy at all.

For all these reasons, and probably others too, writing the last book rarely flowed easily. I had a deadline, and achieved it, but when ‘Burning Secrets’ finally emerged it didn’t excite me, even when it was clear that readers enjoyed and some think it is my best to date.

Looking back, I think I was so taken up with the research that I didn’t spend long enough on the structure before starting the first draft. So the writing stopped and started, got stuck and had to be rescued, and in the end had to be hammered into submission by some agonised re-thinking of the final scenes. Very stressful. If I could summon the patience and imagination next time to create a better detailed outline, that would definitely help to enhance the writing experience, and avoid painful rewrites further down the line.

Now I have the Arvon writing course to look forward to, which starts on September 10th. I signed up for this particular as the focus seemed to be on structure and plot, which is exactly what I need. I’m going with an open mind to see if help, advice and an undivided focus will clarify the future enough for me to stop writing without regret, or carry on.

In darker moments I think about the boxes of unsold books stored in my writing shed. While I have a new book to promote, sales of all the books tick along nicely. If there’s no new book, will I still be able to sell the backlist? I don’t necessarily need the money, but those boxes could haunt me for a long time.

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My new book arrives: how does it feel?

BURNiNG_SECRETS_AW.inddI’m ruthless with my Twitter feed, regularly and systematically blocking anything I don’t want and refusing to ‘follow back’ until I’ve checked the person out. Too many ‘followers’ are just fishing for reciprocation, and I’m not interested. As a consequence, my Twitter line includes almost exclusively people involved either in books and publishing, or Cumbria and the Lake District, or any combination of those.Wasdale

 

In a sense those two threads dominate my thinking about my books and writing. I’m passionately interested in West Cumbria, an area I have loved all my life and where I’ve lived for the past decade and more. Part of my determination to begin writing fiction at a relatively advanced age stemmed from the need to write about this place and its history and people.

That’s the upside: the downside is that I’ve never been sure about the ‘genre’ of my writing. Which comes first for me – setting, characters, or plot? In the Jessie Whelan trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ the priority was clearly setting and characters. The main external dramas were provided by real events, and the internal dramas arose from the interaction among fictional characters, and between them and their surroundings, both place and time. When I decided to have a go at crime fiction, I realised that balance of those aspects would have to change, and that plot would have to be more important, but I don’t believe I’ve truly made that shift. Setting and characters still dominate, and details of the plot are much harder for me.

Maybe it’s that ambivalence about what my writing is really about that has made me less enthusiastic about the new novel than I should be. All my writerly Twitter acquaintances speak of the arrival of a new book from the printers with such excitement, much like the arrival of a new baby – unalloyed positive feeling. Or at least that’s how it appears. There are photos of piles of books waiting to be signed, glamorous launch events and brimming champagne flutes.pexels-photo.jpg

For me, the new book’s arrival last week was just another stage in the long tedious process of self-publishing which has felt endless and stressful, even though the whole schedule has worked without a hitch. I suspect that part of my anxiety about it is a hangover from the anxiety about the serious accident I suffered almost a year ago when the new book was in its very early stages, too late to be abandoned but too early to see the light at the end of the tunnel. For a while I couldn’t walk, or drive, or even type without pain. It would have been good to just relax into recovery but the unfinished book haunted and taunted me, and kept me awake. I resented it, and maybe I still do.

The arrival of a new book could feel like a milestone, and a relief, but it doesn’t, because now the real work starts of trying to sell the damn thing. Promotion requires unceasing optimism and enthusiasm and for me those are both in short supply at present. Should I be honest and admit that the book felt rushed? The background details of the Foot and Mouth outbreak in Cumbria in 2001 are rich, authentic and moving, but one of the characters is unconvincing and the plot allows authenticity to triumph over a more eventful – and satisfying? – ending. I’m always my own harshest critic, which is unhelpful at this stage.

So, for various reasons, when the books arrived I wasn’t overwhelmed with love for a much-loved child after a difficult pregnancy. It was more like ‘Here we go again. And they’re not going to like the ending. And do I really want to do this all over again in another year or so? And I’m supposed to be retired.’ Not very positive is it? Maybe I just need to pull myself together and stop whingeing.

The anti-climax of completion

Yesterday morning a strange feeling came over me, a sense of loss and uncertainty, a long way from the delight and celebration I’d anticipated at ‘The End’, the final words of the new novel. In the final week, for six days straight from first thing in the morning utired eyesntil it was dark I’d tapped away furiously, stopping only to gaze at the wall while I found a way through a barrier. The concentration was intense: it spilled over into those times when I wasn’t sitting at the laptop, and unfortunately haunted the night too. I would sleep for a couple of hours and then wake with dialogue or a plot twist in my head.The only way to break its hold on my mind was to play Solitaire on the ipad, which meant more screens, more eye strain and was probably not conducive to getting back to sleep. When I’m writing, the usual habit of reading before sleep doesn’t seem to work.

When ”The End’ finally came it took me by surprise, and more surprising was that I felt so flat. Maybe it had happened before, but if it did I’d forgotten. Living alone, there was no one to turn to in triumph. Friends are very patient, but listening to someone banging on about the details of a fictional conversation or the way out of a plot puzzle is enough to make your eyes roll back.

I was ahead of schedule, but worried that I’d been too driven by the deadline and should have taken more time. I’d resolved a big plotting problem, but it still felt too cerebral, too subtle, not enough action. I’m working with a new editor and chose her for her experience and ‘hard-nosed’ straight-forwardness, but I don’t know how she’ll react to the first draft of mine she’s ever seen. Worry, worry, worry.

And of course, the ever-present question: why do I put myself through this? I’ve retired from ‘work’ and should be pleasing myself, sauntering through the days, going on little jaunts, planning big jaunts, seeing people, having fun. And instead of that I’m spending most of time on research, planning, writing, re-writing, and worrying.

NewBookRelease1I tell myself that the rewards are worth the painful gestation and birth. It’s undoubtedly true that you have to keep writing if you want to maintain people’s interest in your work and the sales that go with it. Every new books boosts sales of the previous ones. If you want press interest or access to speaking at book events and festivals you have to have a new book to showcase.

If all goes well, the new book should be out in June, and then what? I have a choice: pack it in and have an easy life, or keep going and endure the lows as well as the highs, all over again.

How important is ‘the horse’s mouth’

 

straight-from-the-horses-mouth-idiom

 

‘The horse’s mouth’…where did that phrase come from? And how did it come to mean ‘authentic first-hand information’? However that happened, I’m learning yet again just how powerful such information is when writing a story set in the recent past.

The first novel I wrote was set in 1937, too far back for me to find real people to talk to about how they lived their lives, and I had to be content with first hand accounts in print. The next one, set in 1947, lent itself to listening to people who were around at the time and had stories to tell. I also found the transcript of the National Coal Board’s enquiry into the pit accident in Whitehaven in August 1947 which provided first hand testimony in the witnesses’ own words. By the time I reached the third novel, set in and around the Windscale nuclear power plant in 1957, I was able to find loads of people who remembered the reactor fire there in rich detail, as well as Youtube footage and other contemporary accounts.

The first two crime novels, ‘Cruel Tide’ and ‘Fatal Reckoning’ were set locally but dealt with the issue of institutional child abuse, of which they were no cases from my chosen area that I could draw upon. I relied instead on the report of the enquiry into events at the Kincora boys’ home in Belfast, and the news items that are painfully frequent as historic cases are uncovered.

The novel I’m working on now is set during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in Cumbria. There are two sets of factual details I have to get right. One is about the disease itself and its impact on the area. The other is about methods of policing at that time, so that I can ensure that the ‘crime detection’ aspects of the novel are accurate. Family dramas are as old as the hills, but the contexts in which they play out change with the times.

The historian in me loves digging around to find the the best information, and although books and online research are useful there’s really nothing as rich or satisfying as listening to people who lived through the events I’m describing. So far I’ve talked in depth to two CID people who were serving officers in Cumbria at that time, a local vet who played a significant role right through the FMD outbreak, and a man whose job it was to value the farm animals before they were killed. Incidentally, some of the animals were actually free of the disease but were victims of the need to prevent its spread. The memories of my interviewees are raw: it was both cathartic and painful to share them with me. Next I’ll be talking to another person, who liaised with the army and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (as it was in 2001), and to a forensics expert who was professionally active at that time.

The end product of all this activity will be a novel which will also hopefully be a chronicle of a particular time and place, and a community in crisis. This is the community I will live in for the rest of my life and it’s very close to my heart. I owe it to the people here to get it right, and to weave the fictional story and the factual background together in a way that does justice to both. It’s the people, – their memories, their insights and the words they use – that bring life and authenticity to the writing. It’s also one the most fascinating part of my various writing projects, and I’m really grateful to those who are willing to talk to me.

And I still don’t know how and why it came to be known as ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’.

Do you?horse-289x300

 

Do sex and money make the world go round?

Sex and money are powerful human motivators. Almost all the great stories involve one or the other, or both. What can I learn from this?sex

My new book is taking shape, in chapter outlines not a first draft as yet, and it’s at this stage that I begin to look at the movement in the story, how it rattles along, what makes the reader want to turn the pages. At the root of it all is the energy generated by the characters themselves, faced with the circumstances that I have created for them. What makes them act they way they do? Are sex and money critical in this story too?money-logo

Having left myself more space this time to think about the story rather than ploughing on quickly to meet the self-imposed target of ‘one book each year’, I’m interested to see how the characters are developing in my head. Straight-forward ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ are too easy: there need to be layers, nuances and contradictions that push the reader one way and then another as the story unfolds. I’m asking the ‘what if?’ questions about my story, and it seems to be working. At some point, when all thirty or so chapters are sketched out, I’ll start the first draft. Even then, details and complications will come to me and have to be incorporated, but hopefully without too many ramifications for earlier parts of the plot.

Another useful effect of spending longer thinking before I write is that I forget great chunks of the research. The things that remain are the precious bits that stay lodged in the memory when the rest has gone – the ‘nuggets’. Nothing bogs a story down as fast as too much extraneous detail which the writer has dredged up through painstaking research and is consequently determined to use. The trick is to identify the ‘nuggets’ and use them sparingly, adding colour to the story without slowing it down.

Sex and money aren’t the only things that drive action: love, fear, survival – they all play a part. Theymay manifest themselves differently in different eras and societies, but they never lose their relevance and their potency.

 

Talking about the 2001 catastrophe in Cumbria

Does it help to talk about a catastrophe years later?

The 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in Cumbria Burning Secret Flyerwas undoubtedly a catastrophe, and mention of it can still stir a wide range of emotions – sadness, anger, and fear are commonplace among my neighbours and farmers across the county. We could deal with all that by saying nothing, or by remembering and sharing memories and giving ourselves permission to move on. It’s not mawkish or self-indulgent or false to talk about bad times. They happened, people and animals suffered, children were traumatised, businesses were lost, lives were changed.

My novel ‘Burning Secret’ is not based on Foot and Mouth, but the outbreak serves as a backdrop and a catalyst to the story. Here I am talking recently about that to Paul Teague, a Cumbria writer who recalls the events of 2001 as vividly as I do. Click the link to hear our conversation, part of a longer interview that will air later this month.

Here’s another link, to the ‘Unbound’ site where you’ll find all the details about ‘Burning Secret’ and how to pledge your support for its publication, for which I will be very grateful. Thanks.

 

 

Authentic local setting: useful or off-putting?

It was a wild and snowy night, with a full moon wierdly visible through the snow, as I drove to a readers’ group meeting at Grange-over-Sands library on Thursday and spoke to the hardy souls who turned up. Talking about the new book ‘Fatal Reckoning’ grange-librarywithout giving away most of the plot was a challenge, so I relied on questions to pick up what my ‘audience’ wanted to discuss. ‘You obviously like to use specific local settings,‘ said one, ‘but what about people who nothing about the place? Doesn’t that specificity make them feel excluded and put them off?’

It’s a good question, and one that’s been on my mind for a while. Many of my most enthusiastic readers are local to the region of West Cumbria that I love and have used as the setting for all my books so far. The area has everything a story backdrop should have – interest, historical depth, variety, beauty and even controversy, in the local nuclear industry based around Sellafield. Occasionally I have to anonymise the community I’m writing about, but mostly the place names and the details are precise, and that’s what many of my readers enjoy. They haven’t seen references to their own home turf in novels before, and it’s great fun to recall them in your mind’s eye as you read.

But there’ll be many more readers – I hope – for whom the area is unknown and the specific references immaterial. Honestly, I don’t think this detracts from their reading pleasure. All of us read about places we don’t know, and accept the author’s word about what the settings look like. Too much description is a drag, but we appreciate enough detail to picture the scene, whether the setting is authentic or not. We enjoy finding out more about the setting of a good book: evocations of Ann Cleeve’s Shetland or Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh add immeasurably to the reading experience.

For me, setting is important on a number of levels. For all readers it provides the visual context of the story, adding colour and depth to the ‘events’. Sometimes, setting is so crucial that it becomes almost a character in itself. CRUEL_TIDE COVER frontIn my first crime novel ‘Cruel Tide’ the vast mudflats of Morecambe Bay and its sneaking tides are central to the plot. This can be achieved whether or not the reader knows the area herself. Local knowledge is not and should not be essential, but it adds another layer of enjoyment for some readers. This is especially so when the locality has previously been neglected in fiction, which I feel West Cumbria has been. Cumbria has been celebrated by many writers and poets, but not the west of the county, where the mountains meet the Irish Sea and seams of coal stretch further west under the waves. Coal and ore mining have gone, steel and iron works have closed, ship building has been replaced by nuclear submarines and commercial fishing is a shadow of past prominence, but the fascination of this coastal area continues and cries out to be shared. My next writing project may be different in characters and genre, but I’ve no doubt the setting will be the same, and hope it will be appreciated whether the readers are familiar with it or not.