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.

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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.

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!

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!

Rather Prosaic Life Update

My submission pack

My submission pack

One of my regular blog followers/commenters, Hollis (thank you, Hollis!) suggested recently that my blog silence might be due to my being busy with the children or maybe even volunteering. I felt guilty, because my absence is due to nothing so altruistic.

I have been head-down this month, it’s true, but with the purely selfish motive of getting Dragon Wraiths ready for The Times/Chicken House children’s novel competition. The deadline is the end of October but, as it’s half term next week, I wisely posted my manuscript on Monday.

There’s nothing like printing off 265 pages of manuscript to make you realise you are a real author. Unfortunately I still struggle with cover letters and writing a synopsis. But it’s done. All I can do now is hope. My dream is to make top twenty. Fingers crossed.

Mohair Brooches

Mohair Brooches

It shows the cyclical nature of writing and trying to get published, as it was almost exactly two years ago that Dragon Wraiths (in it’s original format) was longlisted for the Mslexia competition and I was polishing final edits before posting the manuscript. Let’s hope it’s second time lucky.

I have also been knitting like a demon. I want to have enough things to run a stall at the children’s Christmas Fair, with little things at pocket money prices. So I’ve put cats, monkeys and dogs on hold, and I’m making mohair brooches with the gorgeous wool my mum gave me on my birthday. Great fun, if not great for the hands.

It’s been a creative month, all in all. I have taken up piano again, in an effort to get the children interested in music, and work is progressing on Finding Lucy. I solved my writer’s block by adding in two extra points of view, for the two lead males. I’m enjoying getting inside different heads.

I made the blue one!

I made the blue one!

It was also my daughter’s first Learning Conversation (parents’ evening) since starting school proper in September. She’s nicely middle of the road although I did have to confess to her teacher how hard I find it to not correct her spelling (they let them spell phonetically)!

And, of course, as November approaches, I have the annual NaNoWriMo dilemma. Finding Lucy started life in my first NaNoWriMo attempt, six years ago. But the only child I had then was growing in my tummy, not demanding my twenty-four hour attention.

Now November means half-term, early starts after the clocks go back and the terrors start getting up at 5am, and pitch-black school pick ups. Not really conducive to creativity for me.

So I think I’ll plod on with my WIP and let others with more energy sprint for the 50,000 word finish line! If you’re NaNoing this year, good luck!

My NaNo top tips are here.

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.

Autumn Already?

Smiley Son

Smiley Son

What happened to September? Someone stole it while I wasn’t paying attention. I can’t believe it’s October already (and nearly my birthday!) Despite the glorious warm and sunny days we’ve had recently, autumn is still in the air as we shiver our way to school in the morning, through rainbow coloured leaves and fallen conkers.

I love autumn, I think it’s my favourite time of year. Misty mornings, crisp afternoons, riotous colour everywhere and an excuse to wear jeans again.

My daughter has Harvest Festival today and I feel that I also want to celebrate the abundance and beauty around me. It’s been a year of ups and downs but, despite everything, we’re still muddling through, still smiling.

I’ve recently altered the time of day I take my meds and have realised just how much they give me. Returning to the twitchy, ranty insomniac for even a few days was enough to be grateful for the change. I might have become a little more dozy, a little more befuddled, since starting on SSRIs, but I’m definitely happier.

My challenge for this month is to concentrate on finding things to be happy about rather than things to worry me. Good enough parenting, good enough housework. I’m taking up piano again and knitting like a demon. I even enjoyed spending time with my son yesterday, as he took a break from being a whiny, greedy, annoying four-year-old and (briefly) became my little boy again.

October is also about getting Dragon Wraiths entered into the Times / Chicken House competition (the deadline is sneaking up fast. Thank goodness for my editor who has agreed to proofread it in a hurry). I’m almost convinced I shouldn’t waste my time and money, having had another half-dozen rejections on it in the summer. Almost, but not quite. Got to be in it to win it, isn’t that what they say? 🙂

Meanwhile, Finding Lucy is slowly taking shape and Baby Blues is doing well on the new Kindle Unlimited. I have no idea yet if that earns me any money, but it’s nice to see the numbers ticking over.

That’s life in the Martin household at the moment. What does autumn mean to you?