I recently finished a new book. It’s now with my agent for pitching and it suddenly hit me that getting published doesn’t end all the ups and downs and the worrying and the wondering. It just allows you to step onto this marvellous rolling road. It’s then down to you whether to go with the flow – whether to let the rolling road determine the speed or whether to walk as well. Or run. Or race...
Whether, in short, to worry, to run so fast you trip...or smile in wonder.
Facing up to this for a moment gave me a wobble. Fact is, it is much too easy as an author to glance around too often. I’m so delighted with what I have achieved…but glance too much and there is a danger you will put yourself down because there will always be others doing better. Selling more books. Making bigger deals.
The important thing, I learn, is to remember always how very lucky we are to be here at all. To this end, I have deliberately positioned my little bookshelf of published novels en route to my kitchen. It means I pass it every day – an important reminder that the dream has come true already.
And so if I get a momentary worry about a current project, an edit or a pitch, I simply pick up the Korean version of my debut. Yes...Korean. My words....in Korean. I remind myself how completely crazy this is and tell myself to give thanks.
You are published in Korean, Teresa. Stop worrying. Sure - keeping this dream alive is now down to me. But choosing how to live it is also down to me.
I write because I love to write. And I want to get better, not to compete with others, but to be better than the writer I was yesterday. Which is why I wanted to use this quote for my blog.
So I share it today with pride and thanks to all those who have helped me on the journey so far. Also to sign off to do the only sensible thing after any writer types THE END and is going on sub all over again..
Which, of course, is not to think too much about how the pitching is going...but to start a new book….
A lot of people ask where the idea for a book comes from….so here is the story behind my second novel.
The truth is it all stemmed from a haunting. Or rather a haunting image.
A long time ago when I was a television reporter in London I was sent to cover a campaign launch on a little green opposite the house of commons. I arrived with my TV crew to find a group of women releasing dark balloons against a clear sky.
I learned, to my great sadness, that they were all mothers and each balloon represented a child they could not find. The stories of the estrangements were many and varied. Runaway children. Custody disputes. Crime...The list went on and on. But though the stories were all so very different, the look in the eyes of all the mothers was the same.
I was young. I was not a mother then but it still broke my heart. I interviewed a number of the women and one took me back to her house to show me the bedroom that she had kept exactly the same since the day her two children were “lost” to her.
I have always been a little haunted by the memory of those balloons and when I was looking for an idea for my second novel, I realised that I wanted to write a fictional story that would capture something important I learned that day. For those brave women taught me the real difference between empathy and sympathy. Through their campaign they gave each other strength and hope and a lot of love. They were able to help each other so much, I realised….because they truly understood each other.
My second novel tells the story of two women who strike up a powerful bond of friendship born of an empathy they don’t at first understand…as they each deal with secrets from their past. The story is entirely made up, of course. It’s a novel and I would never use the facts of anyone’s true story for my fiction. But I do hope I have captured the emotional landscape of what it means to search for someone you love. And the huge importance of true friendship…and the healing power of love.
The book called Last Kiss Goodnight was published in March 2016 and has received more than 100 wonderful reviews. Thank you, readers. It means so much to me to see people enjoying the result of watching those balloons. One reader recently wrote: 'One of the best books I have read this year'. That certainly made my day!
I hope your own writing life is full of wonderful inspiration.
Er – you remember the last blog about being calm and professional while editing? Taking a lot of walks and thinking things through, blah, blah.
This time an honest update on panic. Those days in between the walking and the calm professionalism when you temporarily forget that it always all comes good in the end and want to hurl the manuscript out of the window.
Also I need to tell you how much I pity my poor husband and that my best advice in all the world is to avoid novelists (aspiring or otherwise) when they are in the final throes of editing.
Here’s the story, then.
Last week I loved my MS. Last week I thought I was pretty much done.
I had ticked all the boxes re editing notes from my agent. I made the mistake of thinking I was “there”.
And then. Oops. Just one, final hurdle. New concern (after all the previous changes) over a character who is supposed to be minor but has apparently got just a bit too big for his boots.
Oh gawd! He is apparently now too dominant. Needs to become a minor, minor character. The problem is he cannot become a minor character without another quite substantial rewrite for various structural reasons I won’t bore you with.
To avoid this additional rewrite I ignore my own advice about going for long walks ( see last week) and instead regale my husband throughout most of Monday evening about why this character is so very important, not just to me but to the book. I bore with an analysis of my “motivation” list for this character. How he shines a light on so many things. How he provides action where otherwise there might be too much emotional journeying.
My husband agrees with me. Oh, but he completely understands. Poor, poor me. He will completely understand if I stand my ground.
By Tuesday I have secretly started the rewrite, not just diluting the character but taking him out .
“What are you doing?” My husband has an expression of resigned exasperation as steam pours from my computer. The house is a tip. No one has any clean underwear. Whenever a mealtime looms I suggest Tesco restaurant tokens.
“Oh I’m taking that character out now. Amazing how easily I can kill him off. Do you know. I think this final version is going to be just brilliant without him…My agent is a genius.”
My husband, whom I do not deserve but is thankfully used to all this insanity, knows exactly what line works best in this situation. For anyone new to a relationship with a writer, it is - for reference – as follows :
Daytime: “Coffee, honey?”
Later : “Wine, honey?”
PS In the midst of all this I have also just started my workshop tour of Devon libraries, sharing all my tips for writing short stories and negotiating the writer’s life. My first group were just brilliant. We had a ball. And yes – I did tell them the story of “killing your darlings”! How they laughed…
Had a bit of a Victor Meldrew moment this week. (Script-wise not in sentiment, that is.)
Me: “I don’t believe it.”
“I don’t believe it!”
“Er; You’ve said that….”
In my hand a brown envelope containing not a bill, not a tax form, not a pack of complex paperwork relevant to recent family traumas ( very sadly we get a lot of those) but a wonderful, delicious and completely unexpected surprise.
“We got the Arts Council Grant!”
*dances around room very, very unlike Victor Meldrew much to the amusement of the Husband*
Oh lovely blog followers, I cannot tell you how happy I am.
Last year I piloted a new Creative Writing Workshop for aspiring short story writers. Having had dozens of short stories published over the last decade, I wanted to share all that I had learned along the way. I get a bit soap boxy about short stories as regular readers will know. Whether you are writing commercial stories for the magazine market as I do regularly or stunning vignettes a la Paul Lasdun ( a favourite contemporary short story writer of mine), I consider them the most wonderful platform for both inspiration and experimentation.
As I tell all my students, there are so many superb opportunities. Competitions to enter such as The Bridport Prize and The National Short Story Award. And even if publication or competitions are not your motivation – there is the tremendous sense of achievement along with inevitable growth as a writer.
Anyway; I’m wittering. Sorry.
The fact is the new workshop went down a storm and me, being me, I got a bit ambitious. Why not try to take this same workshop on a tour, I thought? To reach more people? Help grow their confidence? And hang on a minute, Teresa. Why not line it up alongside my other soap box….helping to promote libraries which we all know are having such a very tricky time in this difficult financial landscape. Yes. Why not try to make this a Writers’ Workshop tour of libraries and to ensure fairness and open accessibility, find a way to make the workshop places FREE.
I put my thinking cap on. I did some research. I decided that with my TV and writing profile, I just might stand a chance for a small grant from Arts Council England to make all this happen. And so to my delight, the brown envelope arrived, confirming a "YES" – which means we can offer 100 FREE places at 10 workshops across Devon during September and October 2014.
We are just working out the final timetable at the moment. As soon as that’s agreed, I will post how aspiring writers can apply for a place.
And the lovely little PS is it just might be possible to do the same for libraries in Cornwall for 2015. Crossed fingers…and watch this space.
For now – here are the details on the Devon library tour .
Thank you, thank you - Arts council England. A distinct hop and a skip in my step today.
I have just come back from holiday – refreshed, (temporarily) tanned and all set for the big, deep breath…by which I mean time to start a new MS.
I love this part of writing. The fear, the fury and the fun of coming up with a new title, a new story and a whole new cast of characters with whom I will live for the next year. As I write
short fiction as a major part of my professional life, I am very used to starters orders. The mini buzz of my mini tales. But starting a new novel is something very different. A much bigger, deeper breath.
I always swear, of course, that I am not going to put myself through it any more as it is such a major commitment . There will be tears, for sure! But trying to give this up is as hard as trying to do it. I wake. I
breathe. I write. That’s just how my life goes.
But I am learning to do a better warm-up on the starters blocks these days. I accepted a long time ago that I will never be the kind of writer who maps everything out at the start. Sure – I always have a game plan. A
beginning, a middle and an end. I always ensure I know my characters well before we set off on the journey
together. But in the past I have tended to trust the story and the people within it to guide me a part of the way.
This time I am doing a little more planning than usual simply because the idea I am working on and the structure of this next story demand that. How will it go? No idea.
It makes me think back to my days in television. Often people would ask which part, as a television reporter, I
liked best. The research, the filming or the editing? The answer was it varied from story to story. And this feels the same.
What I am enjoying just now is the sense of anticipation. The excitement of the unknown. The picture at the top of this post sums that up perfectly for me. It is of the Tomb of the Kings in Cyprus which I visited on my recent holiday. I had so wondered what it would be like.
To be honest, I had feared disappointment as some historical “sights” turn out to be a smaller pile of stones than I envisage. But this exceeded my expectations. More expansive. More impressive. More thought-provoking.
And so I hope this new MS will prove to be too. Certainly the idea, the pitch and the “peg” of this story feel completely right. And out of the corner of my eye I can already see the main characters waiting impatiently for me. Come on, come on….they are whispering. We need to get going.
But just for a change, I am making them wait. Asking them a few more questions.
This is something I advise my writing students in short story workshops. Always grill your characters before you get going. You need to know their biggest dreams and their greatest fears before you can share their lives. Take a peak in their fridge and their bathroom cabinet.
We writers need to know what it is in the cupboards (skeletons included).
It was Elizabeth Bowen who said that writers do not create characters. They pre-exist and we have to find them.
I like that.
Mine are certainly forming a little huddle, all eager for the drama ahead. Fetch the straight jacket , if you like,
but it doesn’t feel as if I invented them.
It feels instead as if we are simply eyeing each other up. Each of us wondering how we are going to get along…
I thought I would share a little tip today which I still use regularly myself when writing and also editing short fiction.
When I first started penning stories professionally, I inevitably had my share of rejections (who doesn’t!). Over the years I have thankfully managed to minimise those dreaded “no, thank you” responses and even when they do pop into the inbox (oops), I can normally “fix” a story quite quickly these days to ensure I sell it on somewhere else.
At a recent short story workshop, I told my students to carefully drill the “basics” at the story planning stage. You need, above all, a strong character and a strong theme. Avoid clichéd situations and try to think of something original. Then check that your character has learned something or changed significantly by the end of the story. This is the clincher. It may be that your character has realised something internally. It may be some external change. But it must be significant.
A story can’t just be a moment in time that goes nowhere ( ie has no plot) – however brilliantly you write it.
“Not enough plot” is a regular reason for rejection in the magazine market. So check that your story has layers. Plot can be woven in as back story…but it must be there. The reader needs to understand why your character has a problem. Where that problem came from. And how the character might move forward from it.
Ipso facto. The plot must thicken!
OK. Despite the title, this blog is not going to be a moan. The hair-shirt kind. Oh woe is me. Why do I not have a rocking book deal yet , blah blah.
This is not even a blog about my height (though I admit it– only 5ft 4” in my flats. Same height as the Queen, in case you’re interested).
We are , in fact, back to word counts ( see earlier blog).
I have just received some very nice feedback from a respected women’s fiction editor with Penguin. OK – so it was a rejection. Technically. But it wasn’t one of those – go away and never darken our door . It wasn’t – “not right for our list”. It wasn’t
- “you’re rubbish” and it wasn’t that old favourite - “ I just didn’t love it enough”.
This response said some v nice stuff… “dynamite premise”. She liked the voice and the story apparently has a great deal going for it ( phew!). And the little but? The manuscript for this novel has apparently come up a bit short… Oops! With all my editing of chapters in and out, seems I have edited a wee bit too much.
The best bit is this editor took the trouble to give some really helpful direction to get the MS back on track which in a busy schedule, I really value.
I guess, given that my forte just now is selling short stories ( thankfully going great guns), I should not be surprised. I am very used to tight plotting and packing big stories into tight corners. Switching between the disciplines takes practice and as all freelance writers know, we tend to be juggling many different projects at once so memo to self is to watch those word counts on my longer MS.
Not that I am downhearted. For a prolific writer like moi, what’s a few thousand words more? So it’s back to the chapter plan (yup; if my agent is reading this, I even do smart “chapter plans” on Excel spread sheets these days) and the jolly ol’ word count button.
Which is why you must forgive the short update this week on account I have bulking up to do ( and I don’t mean
yours truly on the cupcakes, more's the pity). Also I need to file a couple of short stories to keep the income stream happy.
Wish me luck!
PS If anyone reading this has signed up for my short story workshop, I look forward to meeting you very soon. Lots of lovely tips to share from the commissioning editors I work with regularly.
Oh, for goodness sake stop counting, Teresa.
Why do we writers do this? Obsess with the maths.
If I write a thousand words a day, I will have a book in so many weeks…
If I write 500 words by lunch, then divide by the paragraph I first thought of, I will be re-born as Zadie Smith….
Sometimes when I start a new book, I set myself temporarily free of all this madness. To be frank it feels both exhilarating and too daunting all at the same time. In the very early days of a MS, I simply can’t bear to check the word count as the hill ahead is too darn steep. I keep my head down into the wind and it’s only when I pass the quarter mark, that I can face it.
Then the pendulum swings entirely the other way and I become completely obsessed with the word count– checking the numbers much too often for my own ( or anyone else’s) sanity, carefully working out precisely what
percentage of the book I’ve written.
It is pure, yes - madness and I should clearly stop doing it immediately but the truth is it is an addiction. Probably just one of the many procrastination techniques I have developed to distract myself from the task in hand.
Naughty, naughty writer.
Stop doing the maths and just write, damn you.
But hang on a minute. While we have the calculator and the word count button to hand, I have just
realised something rather nice. Tap, tap. = button. Well, goodness gracious. Seems I have passed something of a milestone in my writing life. Yup. According to my sums, I have now officially sold a “book’s worth” of fiction. And if “A book’s worth” sounds a strange turn of phrase...
Oh, all right. All right. What I have actually done is sold a book’s length…but in terms of short stories. Dozens of ‘em. And while we’re pressing buttons – tap, tap, tap – according to my calculations, I have earned from short fiction more or less the sort of sum I would have earned from the advance from one of the major publishers for a first novel (that is; according to my spies. Modest first advance, please note. I am not Cecelia Ahern, more’s the pity).
Anyway. Experienced authors may smile. Even mock. But for me this is significant. For though I have earned a jolly fair living from words as a journalist for decades, I have yet to nail that elusive book deal in the fiction field –
despite having a super enthusiastic literary agent and more near misses than air traffic control.
So this word count milestone, then?
Smile you may but I reckon I might just savour it. Yes, indeedy. Makes me feel as if I am at least on the right track. Especially as an email has just pinged into my inbox confirming the sale of another 2,000-word short story to a leading mag which ups the word count and the dosh yet again. ( Pause while she taps number into calculator).
So. A “book’s worth” – ahem- of fiction sold, eh?
As a man might say to a pig…
PS If you live in Devon and fancy picking up some tips on your short story writing, do check out my next workshop. Details by clicking here : WORKSHOP JULY 20
(PPS Word count of this blog = 500+ . Sorry. Just saying)
Oh gawd. I am not the greatest fan of PowerPoint. I keep pressing the wrong buttons…
That said, I do find that it can focus the mind when you’re planning
something; make you think in headlines which is never a bad
They say, for instance, that you should be able to describe any piece of fiction – in a sentence. And if you can’t? Well.
Houston: we have a problem. The same goes with a PowerPoint presentation which is why it’s a good discipline. If you can’t sum up your thinking in a nice, snappy headline… you probably need to think again.
Just now I am putting together a new writers’workshop and am using PowerPoint as a skeleton to help me focus. To be frank, I don’t even know if I’ll have a plug at my next workshop venue, let alone access to a white board. But - hey. A little PowerPoint sequence helps me concentrate, Teresa.
Today as part of the sequence I’m doing a slide of favourite/most useful writers’ quotes. The idea is to pull together the quotes that resonate most with me now that I’ve been writing fiction for around a decade. My thinking is to help new writers to zone in fast on things that I have found (from trial and error) to be really
There are so many fabulous quotes from great writers that it is proving tricky and the list is very long.
But here, for the record, are those which are fighting for top billing at the moment:
" Write with the door closed, edit with the door open" STEPHEN
" Make your characters want something right away…even if it is only a
glass of water" KURT VONNEGUT
" If nothing changes, it’s not a story..."
" A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a
song " MAYA ANGELOU
·"Being able to write is not the same thing as having something to say… " ( in translation – don’t forget to check your THEME)
" Everything stinks till it’s finished" DR SEUSS
" Check for conflict ..and check for change" ( OK- apologies; that is my quote. I pin that to my desk some days as it’s a good mantra when planning and a useful reminder when a story is not quite working)
"The adverb is not your friend" STEPHEN KING
Not a tip, this next one but a favourite to a regular question:
Interviewer: Where do you get your ideas? ARTHUR MILLER: I wish I knew; I’d go there more often
* My next workshop, by the way, is on July 20th in Ivybridge in Devon so if you’re local, do check out the details on the teaching page here:
My final quote meantime? “Powerpoint aside, I’m looking forward to it”. And if you want to see what kind of short stories are selling the commercial uk magazine market just now – do check out my collection Moments. Just click on the cover on the right of this page. All bar one of these stories have been commissioned and published by leading magazines ( and I will tolerate no literary snobbery over the market as I am both proud of and very grateful for the income stream).
As ever - good luck with your own writing.
Teresa Driscoll - journalist, author, mother of two and lover of great coffee.