Sunday, February 15, 2015

Surviving The Ups And Downs Of A Writer's Life

Publishing continues to take up all of my working and leisure days at the moment, in the most enjoyable way. We have just published The Modigliani Girl a brilliant new novel by my old friend Jacqui Lofthouse.  A deceptively light satire on the writing and publishing world, the story follows wannabe author Anna Bright as she braves up and joins her first writing group, The Girl Novelists' Dry Martini Club. Lots of fun, with an opening offer on Amazon at just 99p/99c:

UK Amazon Link   US Amazon Link

An alumni of the famous University of East Anglia creative writing course, studying under Sir Malcolm Bradbury, Jacqui achieved early success, landing a publishing deal for her first novel with Penguin. Here I reblog her fascinating post from her website The Writing Coach, on how to deal with the inevitable highs and lows of the writer's life. I'm also thrilled to be part of Jacqui's new team of Literary Consultants  which kicked off splendidly last week, as every new venture should, with a Prosecco-fuelled lunch. Over to Jacqui:

In those heady days, back in 1995, when I achieved my dream and had my first novel The Temple of Hymen published by Penguin, it was easy to take myself seriously as a writer. How could I not, when I had my name on an orange spine next to that iconic logo? Here I am, shortly after publication, onstage with the late Sir Malcolm Bradbury, my inspiring teacher on the MA Creative Writing at UEA, feeling every inch the serious writer (even if my legs are looking a bit wonky).
Jacqui Lofthouse speaks at 'The Dartington Festival' with Sir Malcolm Bradbury and Louise Doughty on the subject of 'Can Creative Writing be Taught?'
At ‘The Dartington Festival’ with Sir Malcolm Bradbury and Louise Doughty in 1995, speaking on the subject of ‘Can Creative Writing be Taught?’
Yet the literary life is an unpredictable one, for all of us. I must admit, I never thought I’d be one to find the big publisher; it was a bit of a shock in a way, and whilst I felt confident in those days, I also felt a bit lost and insecure too. I wasn’t certain that I fitted into the glitzy publishing world. Indeed, I’ll never forget the day when I had my first lunch with my editor in an expensive Soho restaurant. Immediately before I left the house, my cheap IKEA writing desk collapsed underneath my brand new Apple computer. I mean literally, the desk keeled over and the computer crashed to the floor, just as I was about to go out the door for the most important lunch of my life. Naturally, I spent the whole lunch freaking out about my broken computer and the state of my hard drive, not daring to say why I was a bag of nerves, for fear of looking like a total prat.
On the surface, my social skills were just fine; after all, I’d had an earlier career in media training, I could do surface confidence pretty well. But there was always a part of me that felt like a bit of an imposter, an ordinary girl from Essex who had somehow walked into this exclusive world and was certain that at some point she’d be found out.
Luckily there was one area where I had a deep confidence. I knew that I was a serious writer. On my first day on the MA Creative Writing at UEA, Malcolm Bradbury said to our cohort of 12 students: “This year, you are writers.” It was genuinely life-changing. Here was this hugely respected man, telling me to take myself seriously; I decided to do just that.
My first professional author shot, for Hamish Hamilton/Penguin
I had wanted to be a writer for a long time; I had dreamt of this moment for years. I honestly believe that the seriousness I cultivated back in 1992 has endured over the last twenty-odd years as a writer. It has taken me through many stages of my career. When Penguin turned down my second book, I was serious enough about the book not to ditch it. I doggedly kept going, through the doubt and uncertainty. I took a job as writer-in-residence at Feltham Young Offenders Institution and one at City University teaching creative writing. And stubbornly I kept writing the book that Penguin didn’t want. Eventually, when I’d written a novel I was really proud of, I sent it out again and (a few rejections later) was rewarded by a deal with Bloomsbury.
Een Stille Verdwining (A Silent Disappearance), published by De Bezige Bij
Bluethroat Morning went on to become my bestselling book, with publication in six countries and 100,000 sales in Holland. Those were the headiest days of all. But it doesn’t stop there. Persistence is all. The rejections for my third book came hard and fast. I didn’t get a British deal for that book. But in a way, it didn’t matter. I’d already had one acceptance, from my Dutch publisher. I was buoyed up by publication of that book (Een Stille Verdwijning) in Dutch. I might have despaired. Instead, I celebrated my success in Holland. I was serious about my work and I no longer needed the world’s approval.
The publishing world is full of highs and lows. I’ve worked with so many writers who feel frustrated about the industry and I’ve experienced that frustration too, myself, at times. Indeed, I went on to satirise the whole creative writing world in my novel The Modigliani Girl. But I still believe, as I have always done, in my own talent – as well as in my ability to continue to grow as a writer. If I didn’t love writing, if I didn’t believe in myself, why would I do it?
I might be flaky about many things, but in my writing life, I’m serious. I take my professionalism seriously, I take my writing habits seriously, I take my writer clients seriously. And I hope that you will do the same.
Here are a few ideas that might help you in the process:
1. Only be a writer if you love writing and can’t imagine your life without it. If you don’t love it, you probably won’t have the stamina to keep going when the going gets tough. You have to want to create your book, you have to care about the world you are conjuring or describing, in order to make this journey worthwhile.
2. When the going gets tough, eat chocolate – good chocolate. (This Rose and Bergamot is the best I’ve ever tasted and I’m not on commission!). Then get back to your writing.
Good chocolate is essential for writers, don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise…
 3. Write what you are passionate about, but also have an eye on the marketplace. Never write what you think the market wants. Follow your gut, your fascinations. But equally, be aware of what is selling. This sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. It’s about balancing love with pragmatism; think about it.
4. Don’t allow yourself to wallow in self-doubt: it’s a waste of time. Don’t focus on whether you have an agent or publisher and how that affects your self-esteem. Focus on producing the best work you possibly can and your own love of the world you are writing about. When your writing is ready, you will find a way of getting it out into the world, whether by a traditional or an independent route. Think about the writing first.
5. Find a writing routine that works for you. Find out what motivates you to write. Never think ‘I can’t possibly write anything in half an hour’. Have you tried? I like to have a couple of long writing sessions per week, but I also pick up my laptop late at night or take it to a cafe to write a few paragraphs over a cup of Earl Grey. But make sure that you work on your writing project often – don’t put it off. The more you focus on the work, the more you will obsess about it, dream about it, and return to the page regularly.
6. If it helps you to do the maths, do the maths. 2500 words a week equals 130, 000 words a year.
7. Get really clear on what your writing aims are at any point in time. For example, at the moment, I’m working on a play and a young adult (YA) novel. It’s my intention to complete a second draft of the play by the end of April, whilst dabbling in the YA novel during the shorter writing sessions. In May, I’ll focus fully on that novel again and I intend to complete it by December latest.
8. Be professional. When your work is ready, send it out. Not just to one or two agents/magazines/competitions but to many. Keep a log of what you have out at any particular time. If you get specific feedback that suggests it’s not ready, then pause and re-evaluate. Take action before sending that work out again.
9. Get good feedback and always act on it. Find a select number of people whose opinions you trust. These might be friends who read widely, colleagues in a writing group or a professional reader.
10. Believe in yourself and don’t take any shit from people who tell you otherwise. There are a lot of people out there who think it’s not possible to be a professional writer or to get published. If I’d believed them, I wouldn’t be writing this now.
11. Consider how you will make money in ways related to your writing. Do you want to have a blog that makes money online for example? To write freelance articles or business copy? Or do you prefer to make your money elsewhere whilst you’re developing your professional writing? Be aware that seriousness as a writer does not necessarily equal being a wealthy writer. Most professional novelists also have other streams of income.
12. Wherever possible, invest in your training. I practice what I preach here. It didn’t stop with the MA. Two years ago I completed a PGCE in teaching secondary Drama and English, which I know will be a huge benefit when I go out there as a Young Adult writer later this year. It has also deepened my understanding of the young people I’ll be writing for. Immediately after completing my NQT year in a secondary school, I attended Blogcademy (pictured below). Last term I completed a course in playwriting at The Rose Theatre, Kingston and I’m currently studying screen acting at City Lit. I find acting a wonderful counterpoint to writing, enabling me to inhabit characters and it’s a great way of balancing my time at the desk.
Me at Blogcademy London in 2013, investing in my own development, as I prepared to return to the writing world after a two year ‘sabbatical’ as a Drama and English teacher.
12. Live a bit! Travel as much as you’re able, go to fantastic art exhibitions, take in the outdoors, visit interesting old houses, see plays, and laugh – a lot.
What ideas about seriousness and professionalism can you share? I’d love to hear your views in the comments (click on the post header to see the comments box).
If you enjoyed this post, you can you can sign up for more regular inspiration and my 30 day guide to productivity and confidence for writers ‘Get Black on White’ here. You can also subscribe to this blog – and future writing exercises using the subscribe button to the right or find me on Facebook.
My novel  The Modigliani Girl is published by Blackbird Digital Books: “a deceptively light satire on the modern writing and publishing world”.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Confessions of An Author Turned Publisher

Publishing has taken over lately in many interesting ways as we embark on the journey in reverse order compared to most publishers - from digital to physical books - and hold our very first launch party. This is a reblog from my publishing company's site Blackbird Digital Books.
Diane Chandler and Stephanie Zia (Photo c. Catherine Hurley) 
We were delighted to welcome the former Secretary of State For International Development Clare Short to the launch party for Diane Chandler's The Road To Donetsk last night. Clare read an early draft of this impressive novel and, as well as making a hugely supportive speech, kindly gave us permission to use her endorsement on the cover. Backing from such a well-respected public figure is priceless to an author just setting out (and to a young company like us) and we are extremely grateful to Clare for making time in her busy schedule to come to Chiswick, west London to raise a glass to Diane. 
Clare Short and Diane Chandler (Photo c. Catherine Hurley)

Diane Chandler is a former pupil of Susan Lee Kerr's creative writing classes at Richmond College and it was Susan who suggested us to Diane as a possible publisher. Susan, along with many other west London writers, came to wish Diane well. The Pimlico Kid author Barry Walsh was there, along with Blackbird's own Susie KellyTim Salmon and Diana Morgan-HillIt was also great to meet Bridget Osbourne of The Chiswick Calendar and Torin Douglas, Director of the Chiswick Book Festival (10-14 Sept 2015).

This was our first ever Blackbird event. As we continue to evolve, as publishers must these days, we hope the first of many. We are all set to launch three more special titles in the coming months: The Modigliani Girl by Jacqui Lofthouse, Love & Justice by Diana Morgan-Hill and Travels Around My Kitchen by Susie Kelly. Tanya Bullock is busy writing her second novel. Her first novel, That Special Someone, is still to be discovered by a mass readership, which is one of the reasons why that will be that for this year as we call a halt on title expansion to concentrate on promoting all the great books and authors we have been lucky enough to procure. 
The Road To Donetsk by Diane Chandler

Cover doll artwork by David Lewis Cartoons

Cover design by Fena Lee

Blackbird authors come out to party, Susie Kelly and Tim Salmon (Photo c Catherine Hurley)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Widow's To Do List makes a Christmas book list. 

High 50 is a website for "Generation High 50" - check it out here. And here's Mariella on the dawn of 50-something movies. Talking of which, I went to a screening of Bonobo last weekend. A movie v much with The Widow's To Do List sensibility, about sexuality and the older woman. Tessa Peake-Jones is fantastic and James Norton gorgeous. 


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Successful Writers Reflect On Failure

As this blog began all those years ago as an anonymous document of failure after my 2-book fiction deal wasn't renewed, I had to post this Guardian article:

Plenty of nuggets here as Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Anne Enright, Howard Jacobson, Will Self and Lionel Shriver reflect on failure.

I loved Will Self's:

'A creative life cannot be sustained by approval, any more than it can be destroyed by criticism – you learn this as you go on.'

Howard Jacobson's:

'..failures are nothing if not grandiose. If the world doesn't value us, we won't value the world. We seek solace in books, in solitary and sometimes fantastical thinking, in doing with words what boys who please their fathers do with balls. We look down on what our fellows like, and make a point of liking what our fellows don't. We become special by virtue of not being special enough. I doubt many writers were made any other way.'

And Anne Enright:

'...A book is not written for the crowd, but for one reader at a time. A novel is written (rather "pathetically) not to be judged, but experienced. You want to meet people in their own heads – at least I do. I still have this big, stupid idea that if you are good enough and lucky enough you can make an object that insists on its own subjective truth, a personal thing, a book that shifts between its covers and will not stay easy on the page, a real novel, one that lives, talks, breathes, refuses to die. And in this, I am doomed to fail.'

After a few tough years unrelated to the writing side, I used to be so sad, and worried, but am, now, finally, happy in my own writer's skin. The Deal or No Deal, all or nothing, element has long ago been eliminated. I can live a life of writing without the worry. That is what I think successful authors are envied for by other writers above all else: the freedom they have to carry on writing.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Hidden London - At The End Of The Summer

Holland Park

Holland Park
We've been having a bit of a strange August. Torrential rain for days on end, washing out the Carnival, followed by cool, overcast days. Amidst discussions about putting the heating on, a general acceptance that that was it for this year, suddenly, this morning, a full-on summer's day blinks back into action.
Holland Park
After all that rain, the park was looking extra-special, in full, post-soak, bloom.
Holland Park

Holland Park

Friday, July 25, 2014

Hidden London: - Marina Abramović

London is roasting and schools are out. The traffic has eased and everybody appears to be slowing down. The most exciting event for me so far this summer has been the exhibition by Marina Abramović at the Serpentine GalleryThe gallery is a pleasant half hour walk through the parks. 

"In a unique work created for the Serpentine, the internationally acclaimed artist Marina Abramović will perform in the Gallery for the duration of her exhibition:  10am to 6pm, 6 days a week. Creating the simplest of environments in the Gallery spaces, Abramović’s only materials will be herself, the audience and a selection of props that she may or may not use. On arrival, visitors will both literally and metaphorically leave their baggage behind in order to enter the exhibition: bags, jackets, electronic equipment, watches and cameras may not accompany them. 
The public will become the performing body, participating in the delivery of an unprecedented moment in the history of performance art." Serpentine Gallery
I had to queue for around 40 minutes. Once inside I was ready to turn and run, fast and hard, but curiosity kept me there a little longer. Falling in with the general pace of things, I walked slowly through the rooms, returning to hug the wall in the main room, settled now, and happy to observe.

Then I had 'my' encounter, she came across the room, full eye contact, smiling widely, gently put her arm around me and took me for a walk. She went and found me a chair and I sat there for I don't know how long.

This was weeks ago now. I want to go back and see what's happening now. I might go this weekend.  I find it quite amazing that it's all still going on. Her energy must be incredible. She's startlingly beautiful. Ageless. At midnight she records a diary of the day.... you can see it here. Also online are the visitors' comments. I've just been scrolling down - looking to see if mine is there of course. We are all about ourselves. That wasn't it... I found it! But what a great read her visitors' book is:
"Silent Party at Marina's House."
"Amazing what you can make a group of people do just by setting an example. Huh? Bit Weird"
"I really don't know. I have very loud clicky ankles."
"Of course in the 70's we did it naked."
And here's me!

No. I haven't a clue.

So there you are, if you fancy it, you can go and take part in this extraordinary thing. Open until 25th August. Free.

Walking home, feeling a little floaty, I came across that empty flower meadow - in the centre of London...

Actually, I can't wait to return now.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Free Ebooks With Digital Book Day - Authors join in now...

One of the most successful US indie authors, C. J. Lyons, has thought up this great initiative to replace the discontinued US World Book Night. Authors make one of their ebooks free on July 14th and post it on this site. On July 14th we all link to the Digital Book Day website and readers can browse and download as many free ebooks as they wish.

I will be offering Done & Dusted: The Organic Home On A Budget, my collected Guardian columns, eco household cleaning tips and various bits of domestic miscellany.

Read Jane Friedman's interview with Carol here. Authors interested in joining the fun, add your ebook here.

Digital Book Day: FREE on Amazon on July 14th

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Fun While It Lasts

The Widow's To Do List is #4 in Amazon UK's Literary Fiction, Humour and #14 in Romance Literary Fiction. This one is hilarious - tucked in with all the Janes:

It's all thanks to Amazon KDP Select's Countdown system, which lets you reduce the price for 7 days in each 3-month period. The book then appears on an Amazon front page "Countdown offers of the day". So it actually gets to be seen by readers. This is the biggest challenge, to be seen. When it reaches the charts it then flips out to more readers seeing it. It might then find its way on to the 'also bought' sales pages of some of those insanely big name titles, or it might just sink back down again as soon as the price changes. Definitely fun while it lasts.  

Saturday, May 03, 2014

The Best Book On Writing I've Read Since 'On Writing'

  • Forget pantsers vs plotters
  • Forget the hero's journey (as a film-goer oh yes please) 

What a fantastically generous, practical and wise book this is. And how needed as well. For movie-goers sick of the refusals, magic flights and thresholds and the rest and for writers of all genres, novelists and screenwriters alike. I found it thanks to a Tweet by the great (IT Crowd, Father Ted) Graham Linehan, whose Amazon review here speaks for itself (& love the 'comment'!).

It came at just the right time for me, post-pantser-first-draft novel and with 2nd draft plot/character cards plastered up everywhere.

About to tear all this down and start again.

The ending of this book (being the all-important conceit) blew me away. THANK YOU HULK.


Amazon Kindle USA

Amazon Kindle UK

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Lots of Good News For Authors: What I Learnt At The London Book Fair Day 1 #LBF14

Not strictly at the Fair, but first, the difference between learnt and learned had to be Grammarly Googled... learned is used much more frequently in the US, but as I'm in the UK, learnt it is...

I made straight for The English PEN Literary Salon at the back of EC2, an oasis of calm, nearby coffee and seats, to meet with author friends from my old writing group, Jacqui Hazell and Louise Voss. I told them about signing up for IPR License and recommended the free App Afterword which tracks Amazon sales, and Louise told us she'd heard great things about Amazon Audiobooks ACX. Nah I said, only for those in the USA; but a later visit to their stand confirmed that they have indeed just this week opened for business to authors and publishers outside the USA. This is very good news - a whole new revenue source.
The London Book Fair
Jacqui went off for a meeting with her agent; Louise to a meeting with her writing partner and I for lunch with Sarah Tomley, my ex-editor at Hamlyn and now DK editor, MD of Editors Online (just love their website design) & associate editor at Blackbird Digital Books, amongst her many hats.

We made for the famous (Dylan/Hendrix et al) Troubadour Coffee House in nearby Brompton Road. They have a great buffet salad thing going on, I'm guessing for the duration of the Fair. My publishing focus this year is on developing the company and the site before we start growing the content side some more, and Sarah had lots of good mainstream publisher's advice for me and I was able to fill her in on how digital publishing is developing.  BookBub is still the buzzword - again, this is US only, but at least they are open to all comers. It's difficult to purchase a slot with them as they're so picky, which is what makes the whole thing work so well, especially in collaboration with Kindle Countdown. So we talked about how there needs to be some quality review, recommendation initiative that is outside the (all US-based) Amazon/Goodreads/Library Thing rating system - and later I saw on Twitter that Penguin Random House are about to launch My Independent Bookshop which is simply more good news. On top of that The Guardian, in association with Legend Times, has announced a new, monthly literary prize for self-published authors.

Time to get showered and ready to set off again, I'm going to a talk at 2.30 and will probably leave it at that for today. Unless I bump into anybody. Yesterday, I was standing with a friend as they were having a bump-into moment and a not unhandsome man came up to me and kissed me on the cheek. He then realised I wasn't who he thought I was, his face did a kind of combined twist of shock, embarrassment and drop to the floor in disappointment and he literally turned and ran.

Oh, a friend has just called. More Troubadour now scheduled for later... & more fun at the Fair.