Grow Up and Get Back to Work

Back to work (crochet away!)

Back to work (crochet away!)

I’ve really struggled to get back into writing this January. After six weeks of Christmas planning and the children being home for the holidays, my brain is foggier than the dull winter skies outside.

I have started several blog posts in my head in the last week or two, but none have made it further than that. They’ve had titles like “Christmas Chaos and Crochet Stole My Voice” and “Farmville Is Evil”. But that’s same ol same ol.

I’ve written before about how my addiction to knitting and Farmville has derailed my writing, how having the children home from school causes me to sleep non-stop (I was asleep at 4pm on Christmas Day) and how hard it is to get the balance between Writer and Mummy. It’s time to stop making excuses and get back to work.

Another post that floated in the unwritten ether of my mind at 3am, as is often the case, was a review of 2014, and how I found inner peace.

Happy children

Happy children

It’s a bit late for end-of-year reviews and, anyway, my new year starts in September, not January. But it is true nonetheless. I might still struggle with depression and the more negative aspects of being HSP. I might have struggled with having hubbie home for four months while he found a new job (he did, hurrah). I might have realised that being self published, self employed, is harder than even my pessimistic view of the world could have predicted. But still, peace was found.

Somewhere between Sertraline, Mindfulness and Good Enough Parenting, somewhere between my children telling me they love me All The Time and being able to be at home with my husband for four months and still look forward to retirement, somewhere between five-star reviews and knitted toys, I found me.

I’m reading a children’s book called Winterling by Sarah Prineas at the moment, and the main protagonist finally finds a place where she fits, where she feels she belongs. This year, especially this Christmas holiday, between making bread from scratch, hosting Christmas play dates for nine and five children, learning to crochet, and being there for my children, I realised I have found where I belong.

Parenting doesn’t come naturally to me. My family and I thought I’d be a terrible parent. Turns out we were all wrong. For all my doubt and shoutiness and crying and constant need to hide, I am a great parent. My children are kind and happy, healthy and full of love.

Writing didn’t come naturally to me. My parents and my tutors at university said my writing was dull. But hard work beats genius every time, and six years in to my writing journey some people (not all!) love my stories. I began to doubt my writing after Class Act and Alfie and the Magic Arch but I need to realise I’m still learning, and not give up.

Huggable creativity

Huggable creativity

My writer’s blues, my lost voice, came from doubt and impatience. Knitting and Farmville are far more instant. I can make a toy in a few days, I can make cakes on my farm in minutes.

Writing is invisible and definitely the long climb to creativity. It’s intangible. At the end of each day I can’t measure my progress with a ruler, or gets oohs of delight from my friends. Just like parenting (my children thank me for working on their Farms, they never thank me for clean clothes or floors), you have to accept the results are a long way off and keep slogging anyway.

I reread a post from this time last year, and discovered I felt exactly the same. Lost, melancholy, restless. It’s January, dark, rainy, and exhaustion is rife after Christmas. Time to take a deep breath and put one foot in front of the other.

So today my laptop is charged, my crochet bagged (except for the photo!), the farms switched off. Today I will return to Lucy and Edan, Andrew and Graham, and I will find their story. I will write until they find their happy ending and, in doing do, I will find mine.

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.

Learning Characterisation from Humans Of New York

HONY Facebook Page

HONY Facebook Page

I’ve talked about the Humans of New York Facebook page many times before, mostly in passing. Today I wanted to discuss what an amazing resource the page is for writers.

For me, one of the hardest parts of being a writer is coming up with three-dimensional characters. When I start a first draft my characters are usually pretty vague. I know their motivation or I know the key story problem (Helen getting pregnant, Rebecca’s dislike of the upper class, Lucy’s need for a family and to fit in), but the character starts out as a hazy version of me at some earlier point in my life. They move on from that, and by the end of the first draft they become living, breathing, talkative people in my head. But I think one of the reasons I like my male characters better is because the starting point for them is more often men I know and admire or love, rather than versions of me. (There’s a lot of hubbie in Marcio!)

The problem now is that my novels are starting to have mirror scenes. I’m stuck with Finding Lucy because it starts with a death and a funeral – as does Class Act (although Finding Lucy came first.) Now, it’s unlikely many people will read both, as Class Act bombed, but I can see the reviews now. “Amanda Martin’s latest novel is dull and repetitive, with chunks lifted directly from her previous release.” Oh joy.

Similarly, the protagonists often have similar upbringings and backgrounds because I write more authentically when I can really live it (or have lived it!)

Brandon's Latest Post

Brandon’s Latest Post

So where does HONY come in? I’ve been editing Dragon Wraiths this week for one final time before entering it in the Chicken House/Times competition, after having had the lovely lady who proofread Class Act run through it. She pointed out the bits where I lose the sense of Leah being a teen (my editor has teenage kids, which is fantastic). But she also pointed to the bits where I evoke Leah’s backstory well, when she was in foster care.

I did a lot of research online for the care scenes, and the snippet of Leah’s time on the streets. I wanted it to be realistic but not sensationalist, genuine but not too gritty. A fine line. But then I read a HONY post yesterday which gave an insight into care in one paragraph. In fact it created a whole story and three-dimensional character in a couple of hundred words. Each HONY post does.

When Brandon Stanton (the amazing man behind Humans Of New York) was on his UN tour, the stories were beyond my ability to visualise, but now he’s back in New York the wealth of material is incredible. Not just for main characters. I think one of the reasons Baby Blues resonates with people is because all the characters have stories of their own. I chose not to develop the bit-characters in Class Act, because some reviews of Baby Blues said it was crowded with people, but I’m learning you can’t please everyone!

What Brandon shows is that a person’s whole life and character can be depicted in half a page. He has a way of getting under people’s skin to their very essence. He gets them to tell the core of their life story succinctly but with feeling. I read his posts to keep me grounded in the stories of the world, but also I read them to learn from a master.

Reviews, Revisions and RSI

The coveted snippets

The coveted snippets

Septembers are shaping up to be crazy months for me. It doesn’t help that this is the second year in a row that hubbie has been between contracts in September, so added to the usual mayhem I have an extra child at home to feed and worry about 🙂

September marks the return to routine, but is exacerbated by a new school year – new lessons, homework, after school clubs, teachers, expectations – and the fact that my son’s birthday is three weeks in. Even though we opted for the easiest party ever this year, at a soft play centre, so no food prep, no painting giant sharks or making decorations, we still had invites, party bags and presents to sort, and sibling grief “when is it MY birthday?” to contend with.

I buy for all the family, as I know my son’s various requests best, so I have the added stress of sourcing gifts for grandparents and aunties. The party was a blast though – the first I’ve actually been able to enjoy – and he’s as happy with his toys as a four-year-old who watches too many TV adverts can ever be.

Cheeky monkey

Cheeky monkey

September is also my chance to return to writing. As I discussed in my previous post, that wasn’t as straight-forward as I’d hoped, after discovering my old manuscript was dire. I decided to stick with it but I’m more re-writing than revising, and the going is slow. Thankfully the story is coming together, with some help from my shelf of craft books. I don’t think it will hit my Christmas deadline but, as I’m hoping it will form part one of a trilogy, it’s more important to get it right than get it out.

That’s particularly the case after Class Act’s rubbish launch (I struggle to give it away!) To boost morale (and in the vain hope it might help Class Act sales) I ran a free promo for Baby Blues a couple of weeks ago. I had a whopping 8,000 downloads, mostly in the US. And while it didn’t result in as many residual sales as I’d hoped, It has led to some lovely reviews. I finally have enough reviews in the US to get the little snippets next to my rankings. I was disproportionately chuffed!

The final thing that’s made September crazy is my knitting obsession. I’ve moved on from cats to monkeys, at my son’s request. I can’t read patterns so I’m making things up as I go. It’s extremely liberating, after all that loom-banding when one tiny mistake resulted in a pile of bands instead of an amazing creation. The downside is, apparently, knitting gives me shocking RSI. My hands are numb, my wrists swollen and my arms sore. Gutted. To find a satisfying hobby away from the iPad, and then to have to keep stopping from pain is so frustrating. But I daren’t risk not being able to type!

Anyway, a rather prosaic update. I just wanted to say I’m still here, still alive, still plugging away, and shocked that September’s nearly over already. At least I’m never bored!

Searching For The Next Novel Idea

A book of ideas

A book of ideas

I’ve decided to park Finding Lucy for now, as I need to start writing now to get back into the swing of things and the draft needs far too much analysing to write anything more on it yet. So today I ran through my scribbled list of projects looking for inspiration. I didn’t find it, even though the list is rather long!

Current Drafts:
Finding Lucy (needs too much work)
Bonds of Love (ditto, plus has overlap characters with Finding Lucy)
Annie and Phoebe (about a Georgette Heyer novel that isn’t in public domain, so a no go for self-publishing)
Dragon Wraiths part two (don’t have the energy to pick through the hot mess of the last few chapters)
Alfie and the Arch (don’t feel qualified to write kids’ fiction at the moment)

Pencilled in Sequels
Sequel to Two Hundred Steps Home (don’t have energy to re-read the 200k original to pick up the story thread)
Sequel to Baby Blues following Ben and Sharni (isn’t grabbing me, lots of cultural research required)

Totally New Ideas
The Pudding Club (an idea that floats around every time I catch up with my old colleagues – a novel or play written just through dialogue at regular catch-ups. Bit worried my friends will try out work out which one is them or take offence.)
Dad Starts Dating (a YA about a girl whose divorced parents start new relationships – based on personal experience; I worry I would end up offending my mum!)
Colony on Jupiter (YA? – one of the dream stories I actually wrote notes on rather than immediately forgot. A bit like the TV series 100, although my idea predates watching it, but where the space station is a functioning community with shops, school etc)

So far NONE of these is remotely grabbing me. I want to write something with a bit of pace; I’d love to write a series, to help sales and because I loved spending a whole year with Claire last year, and I’d love to write something fantasy/sci fi, even though that’s considerably out my comfort zone.

But a) I worry that straying from the stye of Class Act and Baby Blues will be a mistake (although I can’t give Class Act away, so there isn’t much to break) and b) I’m really not sure I have the imagination to pull it off without plagiarising something. It’s no coincidence that my characters are loosely based on me: my biggest fear is stealing someone else’s idea/style/world. I found it happened a lot with Dragon Wraiths, whereas it was easy to imagine the settings for Class Act and Baby Blues.

I feel like when I can’t decide on a new book to read, which ironically is also a problem I’m having. I have three or four good novels half-finished on the kindle and have reverted to the failsafe of Harry Potter just to keep reading. It feels like I poured all my creativity into loombands and knitting and art in August and now I’m empty (and have RSI!)

Arrgghh. Writers out there, where do you get your ideas from when you’re stuck? How do you choose your next project? I have been working on old manuscripts for so long I’ve forgotten how to start something new, and I’ve never started something without a glimmer of an idea from a dream or a character or an idea how the story ends. Maybe it’s time to get an early night and hope I remember my dreams!

Art in August #18 – New Class Act Cover

New Class Act Cover

New Class Act Cover

I finally decided on a new cover for Class Act (because I’m impatient like that). It’s by the same photographer as the most popular of the six I posted before, although in this one the daisies and heart are a bit clearer. Yes it doesn’t have people on, and doesn’t really scream romance, and yes it doesn’t explain the title (Sorry, Rinelle, your advice was good and I did try to find my perfect shot, with paint brushes and theatre tickets and daisies and people holding hands, but after four hours I admitted defeat.).

It does at least have daisies and a heart, so hopefully says romance a bit more than the previous cover, and I think it sits nicely alongside Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes, so it will do for now! It can’t do any worse than the current one, I haven’t had so much as a borrow this month, despite the new Kindle Owners Lending Library. The only question is whether to change my Goodreads Giveaway, or let it run with the original cover. I’ve had so few people sign up so far, I’m thinking of the latter.

That’s about it for the art today. It turns out my mum doesn’t have a virus, she’s just topsy turvy on sleep from watching too much sport (she says she’s regressed to being a teenager) so I have to accept I’m not ill either. Just stressed and all-parented-out. At least hopefully that means I’ll feel better when the darlings go back to school. Only nineteen days to go, not that I’m counting. 😉

Art in August #14 – Book Covers

Proposed new covers for Class Act

Proposed new covers for Class Act

I released my fourth novel, Class Act, at the beginning of June and to say the going has been slow is an understatement. I have struggled to even give the book away. When I ran a free promotion the numbers were a quarter of those for Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes. I put it down to having no reviews and didn’t panic.

But now, with a couple of good reviews (and a couple not so good!) I am running a Giveaway on Goodreads and still getting a fraction of entries compared with the Baby Blues Giveaway. I’ve decided that the cover and blurb must be failing me.

I’m not surprised. I mocked the cover up last year, when I decided on a new name for the novel (it’s working title was The Real Gentleman, as the novel was written as a modern day Georgette Heyer style romance) and I do like the design, especially the bold red paperback. Unfortunately the current cover doesn’t give anything away as to genre, all it does is explain the ‘act’ part of the play-on-words title.

I love the pastel covers of Joanne Harris books

I love the pastel covers of Joanne Harris books

So I’ve spent this week, in between making loomband pets and ignoring the children, looking at images on my favourite site istockphoto to find something more in the woman’s fiction/romance genre. I know that half-naked bodies is what the genre seems to dictate, but that really isn’t me. Besides, the novel isn’t at all raunchy, and I don’t want to set a false expectation.

When I designed the cover for Baby Blues I used the books of Joanne Harris as my inspiration. Her pastel covers are lovely and she is an author that I admire greatly. It also gave me a style that fit within my capabilities using Adobe Photoshop, as I don’t know any cover designers and my experience of hiring freelancers as an author hasn’t always been successful.

Another Joanne Harris

Another Joanne Harris

As I couldn’t find any images relating to the theatre and acting, I decided to focus on the two other ‘themes’ that I feel run through the novel: art and daisies. These are the covers I came up with (I only had an hour before little lady got bored, so I know the font doesn’t stand out well on some of them).

As an aside, these are all based on composites from istockphoto and I haven’t purchased the rights to use them yet, as they’re only mock ups. I will purchase the final image once I’ve made a decision.

So, do any of these stand out? And, for those of you who have read the novel, do any of these fit within your experience of the story? Do these set the right genre? I feel they’re all much more in keeping with Baby Blues (although I have had at least one reviewer say the title and cover put them off that novel! I guess it’s difficult to win without a big budget marketing department to do customer research!)

Once I have some feedback I hope to make the change and extend the giveaway, so hopefully I’ll see immediately if it makes a difference!