Thursday, 15 February 2018

Dreaming of a new book

I'm loving writing the new book. This is the way I like to write, incubate an idea for a year or so, while I'm writing something else, then sit down with a clear direction in mind.  In common with several of my books, the character at the centre of my world is a teenager. The adults rotate around her but she is strongly the heroic figure, sorting out the adult world around her. Her story is pouring onto the page, while her father tries to find her and one of her carers starts to wonder if she's been told everything about this comatose, lost child.  

My focus is on dreaming, which by itself is a fascinating area. I remember my dreams (mostly) and some of them are very odd. It turns out some people have way weirder dream experiences that I do, from waking dreams to lucid dreams (when you know you're dreaming and can 'direct' the dream somewhat. Over Christmas I fell asleep in front of the news (bad idea), the stories fed into my dreams. This idea that your dreams can be changed by what's going on around you is fascinating. It mostly happens in non-REM dreaming (non rapid eye movement), which leaves our muscles working and our senses on alert. the dreams are more snappy and bitty, and less colourful BUT they form particular movements of energy and activation in the brain that is in the area of the brain that produces consciousness. It's possible people in 'comas' (although most have moved into disorders of consciousness if they don't wake up) may experience NREM dreaming before their brain learns new pathways to wake up. Now all I have to do is turn that into 100k words of story and characters to make it interesting. Which will be easier when family life stops getting in the way.

Meanwhile, I'm exchanging books with my fellow panellists at my first CrimeFest - exciting stuff! These are two of my fellow panellists - their books, anyway. Bedtime reading when family stuff calms down again...

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Where did the time go!

Well, that was a crazy two months! Two bouts of nasty viruses got us, we went down one after the other until by Christmas week catering consisted of offering a selection of a Strepsils and maybe a Lemsip? I couldn't keep anything down except water, for eleven days (great start to the January diet) but it did ferment lots of ideas and sleepless nights were filled with research. I now know so much about disorders of consciousness, sleep and dreaming even if I couldn't sleep or dream. 

Saving Noah (working title) is turning out to be a terrifying roller-coaster about medical research and ethics. It's giving me nightmares which is funny because my character is sort of stuck in one. At least I've gone back to sleeping... 20k words in I've found my main characters and really, like most of my books, it's about a search for a missing child and/or saving a child. Wish fulfilment. But it's also about the lengths people will go to to save someone, how they will fudge the ethical consequences to try anything that might work. I'm not judging, I've been there. But pharmaceutical research is huge, and sometimes desperate people subvert the ethical guidelines. I've seen patients in palliative care offered 'last ditch' treatments which are not intended or expected to save them, the companies just need data about side effects and efficacy.

I've also met completely trustworthy and caring people who have been hoodwinked by someone who wants to make a name out of groundbreaking research. People selling cancer cures (although no-one calls them that) in private practice who are themselves drawn in by the need to help people. There's money, still, in snake oil.

Meanwhile, despite the bugs and coughing and insomnia, I managed to turn around a full edit of A Baby's Bones and now have... (drum roll) an actual, galley copy of the book!

It looks good, I love that the cover is about an aspect and character who isn't a principal but one of the victims. It is planned for 1 May 2018 so 89 days, two hours and thirty-six minutes (but who's counting). I'm very excited but as always, the current book is taking up all my time. A Baby's Bones will just get a final couple of polishes before it actually hits the bookshelves...


Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Scary amount of work to do

It turns out, changing genre was a lot more work than I anticipated. I'm mostly there, I still have 70 pages (of 500) to sort out, including a whole scene that needs rewriting. Of course, it's just about the busiest time of the year with family... I'm making myself work, and I'm getting there.

It's humbling to have some many edits to do. Editors know about the impact your words will have on a reader, because the writer is always very close to it by the time they hand a much tidied and rewritten draft in. It would be easy to get really defensive about a word change or a question, but if they impact on the editor they will raise questions in the reader. My terrible tendency to repeat words has been thoroughly reviewed. My painstaking research has been challenged - it's no good knowing something is true if I haven't convinced the reader. It doesn't have to be true, it has to feel true, as well. For example, I know women didn't curtsy in the 16th century - they bowed. But would a modern reader know? Would they expect a curtsy? I don't want to be wrong, but it needs to feel correct when you read it. I want to reader to feel they can trust the writer's research, and just enjoy the story without being distracted. So sometimes we have to find a compromise between correct and plausible. 

When I first started writing seriously, accepting being edited was one of the hardest things. It's still difficult sometimes, but mostly I'm hugely grateful for that distant perspective. And happy to keep making the book better (and who knows, more successful).  

I can't wait to get this back and take a bit of a breather. I feel like I've been deep in Sage's world with two books back to back, and it will be a relief to step back for a few weeks over Christmas. 

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The wonder of ending a draft

I feel like a hundred balloons are pulling me up, I feel relaxed, rested - I've just finished a draft. It's a wonderful feeling BUT just before I could really fall into a celebration with chocolate and a good book in the warmth, I got the line edits back for A baby's Bones. I changed the genre of the book from spooky, paranormal to crime, and it shows. there are thousands of changes. I'm grateful, my editor has done a fabulous job and made the book much, much better. But I can see it's going to be a lot of work. 

To make myself feel slightly better, I accepted all of her changes in one go, just to see what it looks like. Much the same as before, only clearer and better. I've found that being published has taught me more about writing than even the best course. So I will put the edit off until tomorrow and have a deadline of 4th December.  Hopefully it won't take that long, it's beautifully laid out in track changes and hundreds of comments, so all I have to do is fill in the blanks and consider the reader.

Which is such an important part of writing. I've managed to set a book on 'the Island' without mentioning the Isle of Wight until chapter 5 (oops) and not considered the US readers at all. I'm going to have to edit with an eye to explaining and describing for a reader from, maybe, Texas or Vermont. I love the idea that Sage and her book will travel much further afield than I will.  

Meanwhile, November is grey and raining and cold today, and December is just around the corner. I can't wait. We have done something that feels a bit radical - we've decided to stop giving (and receiving) presents this year. I don't need anything, and honestly, it's just a lot of worry and stress about what to buy not to mention the expense. We have a lot of kids, and they have partners, and now they're making babies. The last few years my main feeling has been relief that it's over. I don't want that any more. This year we are welcoming our lovely people, we will feast and play and catch up on all our news. The only presents will be for Lily, our one year old granddaughter. That feels right, and I'm glad we're reducing the stress for all our kids as well.

After the edits are done, I will be able to start a new project - which seems like a complete luxury. I love writing new stuff... 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Falling Leaves, Autumn Seas

When I write, the season creeps into the books and I've really noticed it this year. I started the contemporary strand in March, biting winds, sudden showers, bulbs up early. It was a good spring, and I think it was for Sage, too. I started the historical strand at the end of May and wrote through the heat of the summer, and something of the hot days and stormy nights fed into the narrative. The first full draft is done and off to my lovely agent. I wish I had more time to tidy it up before she reads it, but there just isn't time.

I used to love autumn, but it's filled with anniversaries so it's bitter sweet. We're enjoying wandering around RHS Rosemoor watching the flowers go over, laden with seedheads. The hedges are full of berries, and the 'old country folk' are predicting a hard winter (like the trees know in advance!). I've got two 'new country folk' observations: lots of berries means we had a good spring AND there will be lots of jam. 

The weeks between handing the book over and having to get down to a serious edit have been filled at least in part by the Appledore Book Festival - a celebration of all things literary and despite the small village setting, it had some really big hitters. The picture is by Becky Bettesworth, and is looking down Vernon's Lane to the sea via the Hockings van and the gigs. It captures this lovely village!

My favourites were Ian Rankin, Karen Maitland and Sandy Brown. I was stewarding both events Karen ran and bought her new book, The Plague Charmer, which I've just started. I should just mention that The Owl Killers got me into writing historical. She's also an enthusiastic speaker about her historical period - the first wave of plagues in the 1300s.

Ian Rankin's event was packed out, but he's always such a great speaker and I always learn something new. One of the things I was reminded of is the way he writes - no plan, no pre-arranged structure. He finds the story as he goes, and I think that's the main reason I have found writing A Shroud of Leaves so difficult. Having a structure already agreed made it impossible to include elements I really liked along the way. I don't know if A Shroud of Leaves works as well as A Baby's Bones yet because i'm too close to see it at the moment, but it was harder to write. I'm going to go back to rambling away finding the story, and I am following in giant's footsteps.   

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Drafts, redrafts, edits...

It's that time again. I've written a first draft, organised a rough second draft, then comes the agony that is the structural edit. Normally, I leave this for a number of months. That bit of distance means I can come to it fresh, and I can see what needs doing (hopefully). But I don't have time. I want to get this third draft off to my agent, where she will cast her wise eye over it and point out where it needs work, help or CPR. So I gave it to my son and he has done a magnificent job of giving me fantastic feedback on where it isn't working. (I especially like the bits where I think I have been especially poetic and he puts a line through it with the crisp comment "literary wankfest"). So, having worked out what's wrong with it (not enough crime, too much archaeology, whiny lead character, no suspense and a thin ending) I have to put it right. I'm giving myself seven working days and possibly the weekend in between. This is going to be a slog, but in a way it's invigorating. I feel like a proper author with deadlines and so on!

One of the advantages of working like this is I should be able to hold the complete book in my head by the end of it, so the edits will be much easier to do and follow through. I need a whole new plot strand so that will feed into the historical strand and a couple of my characters don't follow through.

The downside is it's full on and tiring and I was hoping to spend some time away before the winter (in our caravan) and we're doing our kitchen at the same time. No pressure then. 

A fellow writer asked the other day about how many drafts I do. Actually, it's eight or ten, and I hope that isn't discouraging because the later redrafts don't take all that long. The first draft takes me the longest, and I probably only have 50-60k words. The second draft is where I write all the linking chapters, get the main plot strands down and weld it into a sort of book. Then a solid structural edit starts to make the book ready for my lovely agent. I'm still substantially rewriting at this point and the book grows to around 100k words. This is the biggest edit, and I will read it aloud right through to make more changes. My agent will come back with more structural edits and I'll work on it again before the editor sees it. So she will get draft 4 or 5 at least. I'll work on her suggestions, that will be draft 6, there may be another round of tweaks but this will only take me a week or two. Then the copy edit will need a complete tidy up, sorting out repetitions, clumsy dialogue and wording, adding necessary description etc. I'll probably tweak further after the proof edit but this will just be words here and there. One final read through out loud and it's as ready as it will be. That's a lot of work. This publishing malarkey is a lot of work. So I'd better get on with it!

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Bronze Age

I'm loving all this research into the distant past. having been camping in our tiny caravan recently, I'm very conscious of the basic human needs of shelter and water, access to food and other people. Our society has become increasingly reliant on wholesalers and retailers, communication technology and manufactured housing. I know this isn't all a bad thing, obviously we're not all squatting in roundhouses in the dark after a day of trying to harvest enough food to keep us alive for the whole winter. Life is potentially enormously better (although I'm aware I'm not speaking about everyone's life here - abject poverty still haunts large swathes of the world's population, as we know).

But imagining my character's journey through actual cold and hunger has made me very grateful for what we have what we take for granted. Our ancestors may have had bronze technology but most people relied on stone tools, the familiar animals we use now for food were lean, half wild creatures whose needs we had to place alongside our own. Dogs were only recently tamed from wolves, as wild and dangerous as gold rush huskies. All strangers were potential enemies. The woods were literally full of wolves and bears. We had to tread a fine line between high levels of vigilance and being paralysed with terror. The only thing between us and predators were spears and fire. There's evidence that if we did kill a predator, we ate it. Ate every part of a bear including its bone marrow and rendered fat. Winter was profoundly dangerous, and a lot of the work of the year was about filling that hunger gap and ensuring enough shelter, clothing and wood for burning. Life was short and incredibly hard work.

Meanwhile I find a tiny shiver of the past sitting outside until the light goes, the cold already creeping into me, the dew dropping onto my face. If I get my clothes damp or get too cold I won't be able to sleep, I'm so pampered. Sitting out in the dark of a campsite miles from a town brings out millions of stars, but every sound seems magnified. We don't have predatory animals anyway, just the odd human. But I'm scared of the cold, damp, dark, it's hardwired into me. I long for a warm hut, a wood fire, a couple of guard dogs and spear carrying hunters. This is the view of a roundhouse at Lower Merripit, where Russell did a workshop. When the fire is lit the smoke fills the roof so you have to sit down.