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How Critcal Reviews Are Making Me a Better Writer

Knitted Christmas Baubles

Knitted Christmas Baubles

When I released Class Act back in the summer I think I knew it was rushed. As a self-published author, the only way I see that you can make success (rather than it coming through luck or good fortune) is by writing more books. So I took an old manuscript, gave it a few months’ polish, paid for a light edit, and released it, happy that my Beta Reader loved it.

It bombed.

Okay, one or two people have enjoyed it, but the critics have been harsh and eloquent. And fair. Much as I would have preferred not to have the debate about my book in public, through Goodreads (and thank you to the critics for not writing their reviews on Amazon), it has been like having extra Beta Readers who don’t know me and are therefore not afraid to tell it as they see it.

Some of the criticisms I can answer – they’re a matter of personal taste – but others are completely valid. For example there is a general view that Rebecca is a cow, or at least unlikeable. I have been trying to work out why that is the case, when Helen (Baby Blues) garners sympathy. While walking the dog last night the answer came to me: I didn’t live with Rebecca long enough for her to become fully herself rather than a version of me.

Finished Rainbow Fairy

Finished Rainbow Fairy

All my characters start out from an element of my life and my experience. With Helen it was having postnatal depression, with Claire (Two-Hundred Steps Home) it was disillusionment with the corporate world and finding myself through travelling. Rebecca started out from a few instances in my childhood when I felt belittled by people who acted like they had privilege (someone saying to me at school ‘you’re my grandmother’s secretary’s daughter’ as if that made me scum).

The difference is I lived with Claire and Helen for a long time. Baby Blues took two or three years from start to finish, Claire racked up 280,000 words. They became people in their own right. Rebecca, not so much. I wasn’t even happy with the name Rebecca, changing it several times before deciding it was as good as any. Alex I loved, Alex was real, but Rebecca remained a character.

So I have learned not to rush Finding Lucy. It isn’t just the characters who need to find her – I do too. I think that’s why I find the male protagonists easier to relate to (and therefore probably they’re more likeable to the readers) – they might start out with a trait or two from people I know, but they quickly become three-dimensional in my mind. Despite it being six years since I started drafting Finding Lucy, I still don’t have her clear as a real person in my head.

The other, more specific, piece of feedback I’m following is the review that complained about Class Act opening with Rebecca’s father dying.

“I found that when our heroine, Rebecca, is introduced, the scene is not the best way to warm up to a character. Yes, her father had just died, so she is entitled to be upset. But perhaps this is not the best way to introduce a main character, one who is completely vulnerable and who is constantly sobbing in the scene, it unfortunately had me rolling my eyes and wanting to skip ahead. Not a great start for the character. Sorry. “

Don’t apologise! This is great feedback. Finding Lucy also opens with a death. It’s where the story starts. But I see now that it’s hard to feel sympathy for a character you don’t know. So I’ve had a shuffle and now it comes a few chapters in. I’m also working hard on making Lucy more likeable. It’s hard. I’ve decided to think about Pixie Lott. Watching her on Strictly Come Dancing this year I realised she is one of the few people I can look at and say they’re genuinely adorable.

Christmas Cookies for teachers

Christmas Cookies for teachers

The problem with writing for me is balancing the character’s flaws which make for conflict with the traits that make people love them. It’s not hard to see why – I’ve never managed it with myself. I’ll always feel like a bad mother, a bad person, no matter the evidence to the contrary. To quote Pretty Woman, “The bad stuff is easier to believe”.

I haven’t managed much writing this month – Farmville, knitting and Christmas have derailed me completely. But I have invited the characters from Finding Lucy to live in my head. Edan and Andrew are there, making themselves at home and squabbling over the remote. Lucy is still dithering at the door. “Are you sure you want me?” she says. Yes, come in! Let me get to know you. This novel could be my best yet, if only I take the time for it to mature.

In the meantime, have a great Christmas/Hanukah/Festive Season and here’s to a creative 2015.

 

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Cold? Itchy? Sick? It is WINTER! A cure for all that ails you…cheap.

Amanda Martin (writermummy):

A must read this winter! (Off to put a pan of water on the stove…)

Originally posted on 2me4art :

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Sounds a bit arrogant, does it not? I happen to be one of those people that think too much. (Thank God for sleep, but…”to sleep-perchance to dream- there’s the rub. for in that sleep of death what dreams may come…”)

Winter is tough on our bodies & wallets. Heat, whether it’s from a gas or electric fireplace or stove…is drying. When i’m cold, i turn up the heat, then, my hair turns to hay, my skin turns to something akin to an alligator w/ a terrible case of poison ivy, my nasal passages burn while my nose runs…AND heating my house costs buckets of cash. Last year, the man in command, kept the thermostat at 65 degrees while the kids were at school– to save money. Yes, dress in many layers (scarves, hats too) helps, (drink tea, coffee, cocoa, eat soups & stews) but i cannot paint with gloves on…

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Posted by on December 15, 2014 in Parenting

 

How Knitting is Like Writing

Can you tell what it is yet?

Can you tell what it is yet?

Two days in to assembling my 38-piece fairy doll puzzle, and I am beginning to see how creative endeavours are all the same. What looks like the hard part is often the easy bit, and coming up with a finished product that shines takes a lot of painstaking detail that is lost on the person who recieves the final product.

I thought following a pattern and knitting my 38 pieces of doll was the hard part. It turns out that, like childbirth, that was the easy bit. The impossible part is putting it all together so that it resembles the pattern or – failing that – at least looks a bit like a doll.

I’m learning that not all DK wool is created equal, so some of my pieces are bigger than others. I’m discovering that fluffy wool doesn’t sew all that well, and that pillow stuffing isn’t a patch on the proper stuff. Most of all, I am learning that it’s worth the effort to polish and take time to make the end product as good as it can be. Not something I’m always good at in writing.

So many people say, “I’d love to write a book,” – almost as many people as have said to me recently, “I wish I could knit.” The answer is the same for both – anyone can. I only started knitting in August but, through passion, practice and a willing audience cheering me on, I’m now creating something I can be proud of. The same goes for writing.

I started my first novel six years ago and now I’m writing my fifth. And in that time I’ve learned that it isn’t the rush rush bit of making the raw materials that makes you a writer, it’s being prepared to take time putting it all together. Slowly, carefully, with consideration and a willingness to pull bits apart. Actually I haven’t got there with my knitting! I should have redone the hair piece and the wings, but it takes me so long to knit something I haven’t the willpower to pull it down again. But with my writing I do – that’s what five years has taught me.

Next time I watch my very talented mum pulling down a piece of knitting that would have taken me a week, because she didn’t like it, or the wool was wrong, or there was a mistake, I won’t wince. I will just think – there is someone who is such a master of their craft, they know what it takes to create a masterpiece. In the mean time, I’m still practicing, learning. And, more importantly, having fun.

 
 

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Writing Comps, Knitting and Farmville Frenzy

An impossible puzzle

An impossible puzzle

So another fortnight whizzes by and suddenly we’re in December. Thankfully, Christmas gift buying is under control and hubbie has a job for the new year (hurrah!)

For the last two weeks I’ve been caught up in competition entries, knitting projects and (in the last twenty-fours hours) farming. I think Farmville 2 could be the downfall of my writing career. This is the reason I don’t play computer games like the rest of my family – because I don’t know when to quit. I was farming until 2am this morning and my ‘just ten minutes’ at lunchtime stretched into two hours.

If you haven’t come across the Farmville app, it’s a little make-believe world where you grow and sell fruit and veg, and care for farm animals, to make money to buy more fields, livestock and work buildings. The children each have their own farm on the two ipads loosely known as mine but when they’re asleep or at school I can ‘just keep things moving’ (i.e. Take over for a few hours.) it’s beyond addictive. Even now the game is calling to me.

My son's (my!) farm

My son’s (my!) farm

The other distraction has been knitting. I’m making toys for the children for Christmas, including reading and following my first ever knitting pattern – this lovely Deramores fairy doll my friend showed me on Facebook. The pattern might be straightforward (if time consuming, with 38 pieces to knit) but the instructions on how to assemble it are clear as mud to me! It might just remain on the ironing board!

I have five or six concurrent projects, including making up my own (so far unsuccessful) Elsa doll – it’s no wonder my brain is full. Like anything I do, I run at it full pelt, knowing it will fizzle out and I’ll be left with crates of wool and bits of half-knitted toys (like my loft full of paintings). So far writing is the only creative endeavour that had endured. Hopefully that’s a good sign.

Christingles and Poorly kids

Christingles and Poorly kids

Needless to say, I didn’t get shortlisted for the ITV Be a Bestseller writing competiton. Not to worry, I’ve kept the dream alive by entering the Janklow and Nesbit / Mumsnet novel writing competition, so fingers crossed for January. At least the competitions are forcing me to tidy up my early chapters and think about my synopsis, even though Finding Lucy is only half finished.

And that’s it, aside from horrid colds that have swept the family, one member at a time, and the Christmas Fair (which required two decorated pringle pots, a chocolate donation, a bottle donation, raffle tickets to be sold, event tickets to be bought, and a Christingle charity candle to be filled with coins.) Unfortunately my daughter was too poorly for us to go to the Christingle service so I made the children one each so they didn’t miss out.

The tree is decorated, the chocolate advent calendars opened, the floor is covered in tinsel. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. I hope all is calm and bright with you this festive season!

 

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Write Every Day. Seriously

Chatter Boy

Chatter Boy

I hate it when advice turns out to be spot on.

When you start writing, the advice you are always given is ‘write every day’. I’ve managed to skirt around it for the last five years, with the excuse that I have young children (apart from last year, when I took writing every day to a new extreme).

And, to be fair, for a long time I survived on writing only on a couple of days a week. But what I did in between didn’t seem to clutter my brain, and I managed to sustain my story in my head.

Now the children are older, my mind is constantly filled with someone else’s words. Even now as I write this my daughter is showing me photos, videos, making up poems and asking questions. She knows I’m working – this is her ‘not interrupting’.

No wonder when I have sat down to write recently, I’ve been more caught up in whether the children have finished their homework or what’s for tea than why Edan hates his dad.

Yesterday I was full of cold so hubbie gallantly volunteered to have our youngest while I went to bed (there are some advantages to having hubbie at home). It threw me completely, because usually I work Monday, Wednesday and Friday and have my son home the other days. Even though I slept most of the day and did very little writing, I had a break from the endless chatter and need to listen to words other than the ones in my head. (They are my children after all – they have so many words!)

As a result of the extra child-free day I thought today must be Tuesday. Realising it was a work way was marvellous. I got so much done. I wrote several scenes and rearranged a few more. I stopped trying to over-think my plot while the kids watched Dora, and just wrote some stuff down. I remembered that I know how to write.

I used to have my nursery days together, two days mid-week. I think I would need to do that again if I am going to finish this darn book (I can’t though because the nursery don’t have space.) Thankfully, the darlings will both be at school from next September. Even though that will mean double the homework, ironing and paperwork, it will also mean five glorious consecutive mornings of writing time.

Bring it on.

 

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My Brain Hates Me

This is my brain

This is my brain

My brain hates me.

Ever since I started back writing after the summer holidays, when I sit at my laptop and stare at the shambles that is my current work in progress, my brain shrugs and says, “nah, I got nothing.”

But 4 a.m. after a crazy day of laundry, school runs, home work sessions and Rainbows drop offs, it comes up with the most Technicolor, conflict-laden, heart-wrenching epic dreams.

Take last night: My dream included a man chasing me through a hotel, where the darn door locks wouldn’t work and I had to climb out the window, only to discover some pots by Tibetan Monks being sold as tourist junk, inscribed with, ‘free my people’ and ‘I live on one cup of rice every fourteen days’ (?!), and a journalist insisted on taking photos of me holding them in awkward poses, while in the background two people were uncovering a dead infant beneath the foundations of the hotel.

I mean, WTF? In the day time, I can’t decide if one of my lead characters in Finding Lucy is gay, but I can construct some warped version of an NCIS program in my sleep? Where’s the fairness in that?

I can only assume that my creativity is buried beneath Christmas shopping, school paperwork, reading homework, ironing, shopping, cooking and concern that hubbie is still between jobs, and it only manages to free itself from the shackles when my conscious brain is out for the count. I’m going to have to stop eating chocolate and reading Harry Potter at bedtime!

Oh for a virtual iPad to record my dreams, then I really would Be A Bestseller (I sent my entry in last week and now wait in terror for Friday, just in case by some scary freak accident I get selected and have to appear on TV!)

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2014 in Competitions, Writing

 

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I Want to Be a Bestseller, Oh Yes (Oh No)

The judges don't look at all scary

The judges don’t look at all scary

This week I’ve been working on a competition entry, flagged up to me by fellow blogger and authors Pat Elliott and Helen Yendall.

The UK based competition is being run by ITV This Morning and Curtis Brown (an agency I’ve submitted to in the past). The entry has to be the first 3,000 words of a work in progress (I wonder how many NaNo first drafts will be entered) together with a one-page synopsis.

As my WIP has three POV characters, back story, tarot mysteries and hidden secrets, I found it almost impossible to write a coherent one-page synopsis. I’m also reliably informed that having three POV characters in the first four chapters is pretty confusing, so I don’t expect to go far.

And actually that’s fine with me, because even though one of the judges is my idol Marian Keyes, and the prize includes a six month writing course and representation by Curtis Brown, the idea of being shortlisted leaves me quivering like a cowardly jelly.

Why?

No desire to sit on these sofas!

No desire to sit on these sofas!

Because the five finalists have to go to London in a couple of weeks and appear on live TV. I think they might even have to read out some of their novel. I genuinely can’t imagine anything worse. Even meeting Marian doesn’t tempt me. I couldn’t get a book signed by Joanne Harris, even though I love her novels, because I was too embarrassed.

Shy, introvert, HSP, anxiety, whatever my affliction is, meeting new people terrifies me.

So, I’ve entered, I’ve worked hard on my entry and I’m reasonably pleased with it. But don’t wish me luck because I’m not sure I want it! Thankfully, having watched the launch program, I don’t think I’m in any danger of having to sit on that couch!

Oh for the days when writers sat in their drafty garrets and spurned the public!

 

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