The best laid writing plans
My plan for July is simple: I aim to submit my memoir to three agents.
I started submitting for the first time last summer. I bought a copy of 'The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook 2016', and went through all the literary agents in the UK, writing down the ones that dealt with memoirs, and then finding out the name of the right agent in each agency to contact. After that, I started fine-tuning my synopsis and covering letter.
I discovered that it's not as simple as sending out the same sample of work, the same synopsis, and the same covering letter as a job lot to a bunch of literary agents, because the agencies don't all work in the same way.
Mostly, my synopsis has stayed intact (although it's not unheard of for agents to want a synopsis of a different length to the one you've written). On the other hand, I've had to format three separate versions of my work to send, because although most agencies generally like you to email the first three chapters, Aitken Alexander only wanted the first two chapters, and The Blair Partnership only wanted one.
I sent off five submissions in the first batch. After I got rejections from four agents, I lost heart a bit. I kept telling myself I'd send another batch out, that I was just busy with other commitments, but the sad truth is that the whole process seemed fruitless.
I knew that rejection was to be expected in the literary world, and that it would happen more often than not. I also knew I'd get over it and eventually find the courage to try again, but there was always the worry that perhaps my work just wasn't up to scratch, that I was foolishly trying to enter a world that wasn't meant for me. So I kept putting off sending another batch of submissions out, while I worked on other things.
Technically, I was busy. I was in the middle of writing a couple of short stories (that ended up getting nowhere in the competitions I entered them into), and I'd started writing a comedy based in a library (which, come to think of it, I also need to look at again). Plus, I was busy with school runs, and looking after my toddler, and I also had the occasional essay to write for a postgraduate certificate in person-centred counselling that I'd been studying for.
So not much editing got done, and I kept putting off the submissions.
I've realised since then that it wasn't so much the fear of rejection that prevented me from moving on, it was the expectation of rejection, which is one step removed, and means that there is no hope - which may or may not be true, but it still brought me to a standstill.
I considered the realistic odds of publication for my memoir, and the future didn't look great. Realistically, I'm aware that I probably ought to be looking at smaller agencies, or pitching directly to publishers, but the dream of being published traditionally is not one I'm ready to give up on just yet.
I've always known that I faced an uphill struggle as far as being traditionally published was concerned. The market for 'triumph over adversity' memoirs peaked in the 1990s, when my own story was yet to finish, with titles such as 'Prozac Nation' and 'Girl, Interupted' capturing the hearts of many readers (myself included).
These days, with physical book sales in decline, and the fact that there is just so much more choice, means that the likelihood of writing a story that is so different from what's been said before is slim. Memoirs about addiction, especially, have had their day. In the current climate, unless the subject matter of a memoir is particularly unusual, it is harder to get a publishing deal. Otherwise, to be a success, a memoirist needs now to capture something phenomenally different about a relatable experience, and give it a poignant and unusual slant (Hence why I mentioned 'H is for Hawk' in my last post, because it's a story that has it all, and also has a distinguishable and extremely readable 'voice').
As far as my own memoir is concerned, I'm still searching for an unusual twist, which I may or may not ever find. In the meantime, all I can do is make sure my writing is as good as it can be, that my plot is as tight as possible, and that my characters are memorable.
I've got over my wobble now, and I'm ready to put myself out there again. So, I'm setting myself the minuscule task of submitting to three agents, and we'll see what happens. I don't hold out much hope, but I haven't given up yet. As far as I'm concerned, this is only the beginning.Read Full Post
It took me over a year to write the first draft of my memoir, It Never Rains in Wycombe. Perhaps I'd have completed it sooner if I'd had more time, but I believe the thinking time was a crucial aspect. I'm sure I wrote most of that first draft in my head, while falling asleep at night, or doing the washing up, and sometimes it spilled out onto my morning pages. Then I'd sit down and type - though not in a linear way.
My story formed haphazardly on the page, with odd scenes coming to life in no particular order. Apart from the first and last chapter, I had no plan as to how I was going to write the rest of the story. Sometimes I made lists of events, or vague suggestions for chapter titles, or if I was feeling particularly lazy, I'd jot down everything I could remember about a particular character or place I lived (I'd filter the details later). The main thing was that I needed to be in the right mood to tell certain parts of the story. When I sat down for my half-hour sessions during the day (my eldest son never napped for longer than half an hour until he was two), I'd see where the gaps were and make a snap decision as to where I would begin. The only rule was that I had to write non-stop for at least fifteen minutes.
I didn't write during every nap time either. Often, there were chores to be done - milks to be made, bottles to be sterilised, washing up, cooking, tidying, and the odd sit down with a cup of coffee. I also tried to read as many books on writing and editing as I could, though there's only so much you can do in a day, so I often saved the reading for bedtime, however tired I was after baby groups, weaning, nursery rhymes, board books, stacking cups and CBeebies. I always turned my bedside lamp off feeling like there was so much more I ought to have done, but I carried on regardless, making the most of those first months of motherhood, and discovering myself at the same time. Here are some of the highlights of my first year of writing:
Joining a writing group
I don't think I'd ever have got my first draft finished if I hadn't joined a writing group. I joined an online group called WriteWords, which was heaving with members when I first signed up. I couldn't attend a local writing club, because I was wiped out in the evenings, after our son had gone to bed, and I really needed to be in bed with a book before nine o'clock. I knew I needed support and advice though, and WriteWords was full of writers of all levels - from complete novices through to published, well-regarded authors (some of whom I'd even heard of). I joined several of the groups on the site, and I'm still a member today, even though the number of members has declined since I first joined in 2012. Even today, I meet so few fellow writers in my everyday life, that I really value the contact with the friends I've made online, and we all keep each other writing, however diverse our projects and goals are.
Giving myself permission to write badly
This is probably the best advice I could give to budding writers, especially if you're a perfectionist, like me. I always thought that when I came to write my story, I'd just write it in one sitting (!) and the words would all fall into place, as if by magic. However, if you try to let go of that desire to be instantly great, you might actually give yourself the chance to write something that's probably fairly decent. I cringed and used the delete key so much to start with, and I cringe even more if I ever read any of that first draft. It was very rough, had so many pace problems, and was far too heavy on telling-not-showing. I learned early on to gloss over quite a lot and be a bit kinder to myself - it's the only way.
End of maternity leave
This was the crunch time for my writing, sink or swim. I knew that if I let the muse go at that point, I'd let 'real' life get in the way and probably never write again. It was an emotional time in other ways too, as our little boy was going to be be starting nursery, and I worried my special time with him would end. I knew I was being silly in that respect, as I only worked part-time to start with, and I always appreciated how fortunate I was, but it was a leap into the unknown nonetheless, though thankfully in retrospect, not a leap I needed to fret about. As it happened, our son loved nursery, and I enjoyed being back at the library again. It also turned out that I cared enough about my writing project to keep plugging away at it. My schedule required a little tweaking, but the passion was still there, and I held on tight.
When is enough enough?
This question kept me procrastinating for at least three months until I actually decided I'd finished the first draft, and that I ought to start thinking about taking a break before starting the editing process. It was a similar feeling to the way that I'd started writing to start with - I expected I'd just know I was finished, that I couldn't possibly write another word. Obviously, 'the end' doesn't come come completely out of the blue, but I think I'd expected some kind of sixth sense to kick in, or a fanfare, or something more marked than the kind of uncertain, fearful, anticlimactic, will that do? kind of thoughts that were going through my mind. I spent weeks not doing very much writing at all, until I finally decided that the first draft was complete.
Apart from the mind-blowing knowledge that I'd written the first draft of a memoir, the reality of pressing the last full-stop key (for the time-being) was fairly disappointing. I rewarded myself with a break from writing for a few weeks whilst I thought about how to begin editing. I had many dilemmas, such as whether to keep the story written in present tense or switch to past tense (I chose past tense in the end), whether to fictionalise the book or not (I chose not to), whether I was allowed to keep the 90s song lyrics I'd put in (not without huge expense). I also had so many questions, like how would I know if I'd got too many characters? How could I stand back far enough from my story to know what to cut? How do know if I've got the pace right? Is my story marketable, different enough?
I struggled with the last question, because I suspected my memoir wasn't different enough, and I didn't know what I could do to fix it. My dad joked recently that I need to add a hawk, like Helen Macdonald, but ultimately it was a problem I had no solution to. All I could do was to write the best second draft I could, and hope that by the end of it, I'd have more of an idea where I was going with the book. (Disclaimer: Although I have more of an idea what I'm doing with the book now, four years on, I still wish I had a story like Helen Macdonald's.)
So, there I was with a first draft under my belt, some spare time on my hands and no idea how to begin editing. I worried that was the end of my writing career. Would I even have the courage to start writing again, after a break? It was an uncertain time, as my partner and I were talking about moving back to East Anglia again, and we were also thinking about having another baby. A move and another baby would put my postgraduate study plans back, too, although I'd always known a delay was on the cards. Again, thoughts of writing kept me going. I decided I'd learn everything I could about editing and apply it to my second draft. I was ready to start again.
Starting the second draft was almost as daunting as starting to write in the first place. But because I'd invested so much time, so much of myself into my writing life, there was no way I was ever going to stop.
I still feel the same way.Read Full Post
Memories of a past life: morning pages and motherhood
I admit, I haven't written morning pages for a long, long time.
But this blog is about my writing journey, and for a time when I was on maternity leave, and a short while afterwards, morning pages were my salvation.
I started writing them when I was reading The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. The Artist's Way is entirely responsible for me starting to write again in the first place, as Cameron's words, and the words of the other creatives she quotes in the pages allowed me to begin to get my story down, and to start finding my voice - the voice of a new mum who was still finding her feet, and the voice of the troubled teen and young adult who hadn't seen daylight for years.
I loved being a mum, but it was hard. We were living in a small village in North Yorkshire, far away from my family, far away from friends, and far away from the person I'd once been. My life consisted of our son's routine, which I stuck to rigidly, only venturing out to do things with him - NCT coffee mornings, Swimbabes, or the odd play date with other mums from my NCT group. But most of the time, I felt like I didn't exist.
Morning pages changed all that. The idea of them is that you write three sides of A4 first thing in the morning, without stopping to think about what you're writing - because if you can't censor your writing, then there's no room for your inner critic to interrupt and derail your train of thought. When you've finished your three pages, you stop and put the pages away.
I admit, I did cheat a little, as I'd often begin with an idea of what I wanted to try and write about. But I still wrote them, and the things they brought up became the lifeblood of the memoir I was writing about my drinking days.
In those pages, I wrote about anything and everything. I wrote about how tired I was, and how unsure I was of myself as a mum and a human being. I wrote about my future study plans and 'debated' whether or not to pursue a career in psychology or counselling. I rediscovered my cultural identity, and my identity as a woman. I wrote about the places I belonged, and didn't belong. I wrote character sketches for the people I'd write about in the memoir. I set myself targets for finishing the first draft, and for how many words I could write in a day, a week, or a month. I wrote lists of books to read - on creative writing and editing, and novels and other memoirs that looked interesting. I spoke directly to my inner critic, and discovered the reasons it had taken me so long to start writing.
Writing morning pages enabled me to get to know the person I'd become since I'd got sober at the age of twenty-four, and why I was the way I was.
In sobriety, I was a sensible person. I did everything I was supposed to do, never let my hair down, and quite frankly, was a little bit square. I knew my youth was behind me, and in some ways, that was just fine. I knew I'd never get drunk and snog strangers again, or fall down stairs in nightclubs, or wake up thirsty and tearful at four in the morning only to drink the last few dregs of whiskey or vodka in the bottle.
Morning pages helped me to remember those bad times. They also helped me mourn the better times, even though I knew deep down I didn't really want them back. But I needed to relive those memories, and preserve them so that I could remember that before I started hurtling towards my rock bottom, some of those drunken days were pretty fabulous and special.
I'd never never have silly drunken girly chats again... I'd never roll on the floor laughing drunk with friends about how we'd gatecrashed a band on stage the night before... I'd never walk down the street drunk in daylight with friends who knew me at my worst, with a feather duster in one hand and water pistol in the other, singing 'Wannabe' by The Spice Girls...
...I'd never sing, or dance again.
Suddenly, all I could see was my youth getting further and further away, and middle-aged, middle class mediocrity looming.
I had to find myself in the midst of that, find the old me - then I could march boldly into the future, knowing I wasn't lost.
Morning pages helped me find myself. They helped me come to terms with my past, and the struggles I'd endured that had led to me becoming a drunken mess in the first place. They helped me to carve out the story I wanted to tell, of a lost teenage girl, hopeless, misplaced, having no idea how to address the bullying I'd suffered in my early days at high school: the name-calling, the dinner money stealing, the chasing and stripping in the changing rooms, or the sexual assault I never spoke about that changed me forever the summer I was seventeen.
Morning pages helped me to remember the girl who survived, who found a way to belong. She wasn't very functional; she drank triple gin and tonics, smoked Marlborough Lights, and slept around. But she was fun, she was popular, and she was always the one at the centre of the joke.
She was also a bit of a flake, and even though she always said she'd have done anything for anybody, she wasn't a very good friend to others in the end.
Morning pages were also my way of remedying that. I would write that girl's story, and I'd do it as a testimony to those people I hurt, those friends I lost, and also as a way of telling those people who'd hurt me that they hadn't won, they hadn't broken me. It was time to speak my truth.
Obviously, I didn't write the whole of the first draft of my memoir in morning pages, but they gave my writing day structure. I wrote my three pages first thing in the morning, before my son got up (we were very lucky he was a great sleeper), then during his first nap of the day, I'd read my notes (I know you're not really supposed to), and during his second nap, I'd write. And as the months went by, the pages started filling up, and my story started to come alive.
I'm sorry to say that my morning pages went by the wayside a long time ago. Life took over. I went back to work after maternity leave and didn't have time to do them everyday. Then my son started cutting down his naps, and I stopped completely.
Sometimes I look back on those days, and I can't believe I dug my way out. But I did. I found a way to be a mum and myself at the same time. I thrived. My son thrived. Our family thrived.
Now, with two kids and studying part-time, morning pages are a distant memory. I couldn't tell you the last time I thought about writing them.
Until I started this blog post. And now I'm remembering how transformative and empowering they were, I'm wondering why I ever stopped. I think I need to find time amongst my busy life of school runs and essays and agent submissions to write them again. Who knows where they'll take me?Read Full Post
I didn’t write for years after I got sober; in fact, I actively steered away from any desire I had to write about my drinking days (and the urge was strong). Whenever I had he desire to do anything creative with my experiences, I quickly talked myself down. I worried it would be a slippery slope towards drinking again, as if by vicariously reliving some of the more exciting and troublesome times in my life, I might accidentally (or not so accidentally) fall off the wagon. It took a long time in sobriety to even entertain the idea of writing down those stories from my drunken past.
Ironically, when I really started listening properly to that voice inside that was getting louder and louder, I discovered to my shame that I couldn’t write. There was something physically stopping me from putting pen to paper.
It was fear. Fear of rejection, fear of being laughed at, fear that nobody would want to hear my story. Fear in all its glory, but mostly fear of being me.
Part of the problem was that I had too much time on my hands. I was working part-time and studying part-time, but this was pre-kids so I still had time to read and watch TV, and drive into York on my days off to wander through the snickleways, stopping off occasionally for a cup of tea somewhere, and a browse in the book shops and make-up departments, on my endless search for the perfect shade of red lipstick that I never found, and classic literature I’d probably never read. All of this meant that I could put off writing until tomorrow.
Tomorrow, I decided. Tomorrow would be the day that something big would happen that would give me the push to start writing again. I was always waiting for that one big message from the universe to give me the go-ahead to write the story of my drinking. The message never arrived.
Life carried on. I finished my degree, I took on another job to earn some extra money so that we could save for a bigger deposit on our first house, so that we could afford to start a family. A short time later, I was pregnant, and we were house-hunting. We finally moved into our first owned house when our baby boy was about eight weeks old.
Then suddenly, life became real. I looked around me – this was the life I’d always dreamed of when I was younger. Yet something was missing.
It was me.
It’s hard enough for most women to rediscover themselves after having children, but for me it was more than that. It wasn’t so much that I’d lost the person I’d been just weeks and months previously – I knew I’d find her again, albeit in a slightly different guise. What I’d lost was that sense of who I’d been when I was younger – that flighty, messed-up, overly-dramatic drunk girl. I didn’t want to be her again, I knew that. But suddenly, I was protective of her, a little bit proud even, because despite everything that had happened since I’d got sober, she was always there inside me, waiting for the older me to dust her down and write her story.
And now that I had increasingly little time to write, it also became vitally important that I start. So that’s what I did. There was no big sign from the universe, no big fanfare, no other person who knew (or loved) the old me enough to keep egging me on. I was on my own, just me and a laptop during nap-times frantically piecing together scenes of the story of my youth.
The moral of the story: Don’t wait for big signs from the universe. Just write.Read Full Post
I was intrigued when I discovered that Sir Herbert Butterfield, the historian had written a book about historical fiction.
Sir Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979) took up the chair of modern history at the University of Cambridge in 1944 and was appointed to the Regius Professorship of modern history in 1963. He was editor of the Cambridge Historical Journal from 1938 to 1955 and president of the Historical Association from 1955 to 1958. He was also master of Peterhouse from 1955 to 1968 and vice chancellor of the university from 1959 to 1961. He was knighted in 1968.
As an undergraduate at Peterhouse he entered the Le Bas prize (offered annually for an essay written on a literary subject, the winning entry to be published by Cambridge University Press). It was this essay, which was the basis for Butterfield’s first book The Historical Novel (1924).Read Full Post
I ask who is God?
He says he is the creator of heaven and earth
I ask why God?
He says His grace is sufficient but I have free choice
I ask where God?
He says right here in your heart, I have never left you.
I ask when God?
He says unless born again, i cannot see kingdom of heaven
I ask what God?
He says love your neighbour as yourself no greater commandment
[url=https://postcardpoemsandprose.wordpress.com/2016/01/25/liberation-by-oonah-v-joslin/]Liberation[/url] was never posted here but it found a home at PostcardPoems and Prose.Read Full Post
â€˜You want me just to talk, then? OK. Well, when I met Michael, the very first thing he said was that heâ€™d had testicular cancer, which I thought was strange because weâ€™d been e-mailing for about two months by then. Huh, cancer reappeared a few months later, but Iâ€™ll try and keep this in order.Read Full Post
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