The Long Silence Explained

SylvesterIt occurred to me after I posted my essay on guilt yesterday that I forgot entirely to explain the long silence, despite putting that in my title. Making it a separate post possibly gives it too much weight, as if anything more than normal life has been going on in the last four weeks. It hasn’t. That said, there has been a convergence of events since the beginning of November, creating something like a maelstrom in my life. Some I’ve mentioned already – my husband being made redundant for example – but others happened amidst the whirlwind of NaNoWriMo and beyond.

NaNoWriMo in itself was a struggle this year. I learned a lot about myself as a writer and about the life of a Writer (with the capital letter firmly in place.) I didn’t start NaNo until several days into November because my brain was frozen after weeks of editing. Ideas don’t exactly spill out from my tired mind on the best of days but I had truly exhausted my imagination writing and editing Dragon Wraiths in nine months (ready for the Mslexia competition – more on that later). So in the end I opted to write up a story idea I had for NaNo back in 2010 (abandoned for something easier due to having a tiny baby to care for).

The idea excited me because it combined my favourite things – love stories and Georgette Heyer. The basic concept is a girl auditions to be an extra in a Georgette Heyer movie (based on the book Sylvester) but ends up being cast as the lead role despite having no acting experience. Various plots and dramas ensue and it ends with a love story.

But oh the writing was hard. I know next to nothing about making movies – not something that would normally daunt me, that’s what Google is for. But researching during NaNo is difficult as it breaks the flow. Then I realised I had no story arc, only character arcs, so I was writing into the dark. Again not something that normally bothers me, but this time (whether due to sleep deprivation, mental depletion or just a rubbish story idea) I drove into the dark to find only more dark.

nano_12_winner_detailI managed to limp over the 50k mark with two hours to go, but it was the greatest struggle and I was happy to abandon my half-written novel for Christmas Shopping on 1st December. Will I pick it up again? Hopefully one day. I began to understand my characters and get interested in the intrigue, but it is a draft that requires a complete rewrite so it’s likely to languish for a while. What did I learn? That maybe I’m not a Pantser writer after all. Perhaps, now and then, I need a better idea of where my story is going, other than that it will end with a happy ever after. I learned, too, about sitting down and just getting the words out. I had a week of no writing towards the end, leaving myself a 20k target for the last couple of days. I know I can write that much, but only when the ideas are flowing. This time I dragged myself along, like someone finishing a marathon long after the wall has been hit. And it was good. Good to know that I can write even when the ideas aren’t flowing, when the sleeping isn’t coming, and when I’m praying every day for my last novel to fly. Maybe I could make a career out of writing if I ever find an agent.

The cover I mocked-up for Dragon Wraiths to print a copy via Lulu

That brings me on to another event – Mslexia. My novel didn’t get shortlisted for the Children’s Novel competition but I did receive a very encouraging (group) response to suggest why. I was told that there were many strong novels written in the first person (like mine), many covering contemporary issues such as climate change (like mine), many with strong individual voices (hopefully like mine) and where there were two books covering the same topics only one was shortlisted. So maybe mine was just nearly good enough, rather than way off mark. Either way I believe in it, which is a first, and happily started sending query letters to agents the next day. The month before Christmas is probably not the time to be querying but I shall start again in the new year after reading through my newly acquired Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.

artintheheartThe other things that have been happening are that I have had some paintings accepted into the gallery Art in the Heart, despite my view that they would think them insufficiently arty (see earlier post). It was fun getting all my paintings out of the loft and choosing four to be displayed in January, alongside my miniatures and cards. It was nervewracking too, trying to narrow twenty paintings down to four, and writing an Artist’s Statement that was both interesting and honest. I still have much to do – getting new business cards and flyers and promoting the gallery through social media, as indicated in my contract, – but it was great to temper the disappointment of the Mslexia competition with a success.

www.amanda-martin.co.uk

I might have to expand my website – Author/Artist/Photographer/Mummy isn’t covering it all any more!

Finally I had a job interview last week for a Marketing Manager (although really a Marketing Director) role. I had to pull together a presentation with a day’s notice, and despite tears and tantrums (mine and the kids) I managed it. I was rather relieved not to get the job as it turned out I would be managing 8 staff – I find it hard enough managing two pre-schoolers – but it was wonderful to put my heels on again and remind myself that I used to be good once. It’s funny how, in this slash-slash generation, you can forget the lives you lived before. Funny, too, that Artist and Marketing Manager should both come back as Writer and Mummy were under pressure.

PublishingLogo2cmSo, where next? I have decided I need to try harder to start my own business, to use those brain cells that have been long dormant. I rather-jokingly came up with 3AD Publishing when I prepared Pictures of Love for self-publishing, so that I would have a publisher’s logo on the spine.

My husband has started 3AD Solutions to promote some of his Product Management ideas. I think it might be time to combine forces.

The cover I designed for my sister's book

The cover I designed for my sister’s book

I have enjoyed preparing texts to self-publish (I did one for my sister and her husband for Christmas, as well as several of my own) and I loved designing the front covers. There must be a market out there for those services!

Whatever happens, Writer/Mummy will continue, even if she morphs into Artist/Writer/Photographer/Mummy/Marketer/Designer/Editor.

Phew.

Bring on 2013!

Art, Literature and Authorial Intention

Do you see a donkey’s head (upside down) a gladiator (tilt head right) or a tiny ballerina?

Apologies, this is a whopper-post about some stuff that’s been whirling in my brain!

This week I had the amazing opportunity to take some of my paintings into a new gallery that has opened in Peterborough, called Art in the Heart. The gallery is a grand eclectic mix of artwork produced by artists who live within a 20-mile radius (preferably within the city but thankfully the Director, Dawn, makes exceptions as I fall in the 20-mile bracket).

The lovely Dawn generously gave me half an hour of her time to look through my abstract paintings, desk art and cards, as well as the marketing literature I have produced since I left work four years ago to become a full-time artist. It is the first time I have had the chance to speak properly to a gallery owner (which probably explains why I gave up my dreams of being a full-time artist fairly quickly) and it was an enlightening experience.

It seems that Art is all about the artist’s intention.

Now I’m the first to confess I know very little about art. I’m more or less self-taught in acrylics and have only had a few classes in watercolours since I did GCSE art twenty years ago. For me there has never been much in the way of meaning. I paint because I love colour (my one solo exhibition was called It’s All About Colour).

It’s All About Colour – Exhibition Flyer

I choose my palette of two or three colours, squirt them on the canvas, and then let my subconscious, or the paintbrush, or the paint, or whatever, take over. I push and pull at the paint to create texture, I follow what seems to be needed and I keep going (usually past the point where it’s at its best!)

When the painting is dry I ask other people to have a look and see what they can see. Often there is something to be seen: a skeleton, a tiger’s eye, an emu, a dancing ballerina, a skull. These are all things that have appeared in my paintings. Not everyone can see them but, like those pictures of dots where you see the image if you go slightly cross-eyed, once you have seen something in my pictures it’s hard to see anything else. My husband’s favourite piece hangs in our dining room: a 4ft x 3ft dark red, black and gold painting that he stared at for weeks when he was really sick once. It is so personal to him now because he sees a gladiator fighting a lion.

Me, I see a donkey’s head.

It annoys me.

I daren’t show him where the darn donkey is or that’s all he’ll ever see, thus ruining his appreciation of the picture forever. (That’s partly why I don’t read book / film reviews. It’s too easily to be shown something that spoils your favourite book/film forever).

So for me there is no intention in my artwork, but I don’t think it makes it any less artistic. If anything, I think a picture is more profound, affects people more deeply, because they have decided what it means to them. They have invested their time and energy in interpreting it. I haven’t tried to push them in any given direction. Okay the pictures have titles, but usually they’re added afterwards.

Do you see a carnival mask?

I might be motivated by the colour of river weed in sunlight or the bark of a Tibetan cherry tree but that isn’t necessarily what I’ve painted. If someone else sees a carnival mask or a desert landscape, then that is what the picture is to them.  In writing that would come under Reader Response Theory: the author and reader create the text between them and it is recreated new – and different – for every reader. Much nicer than being told what to think by the author, surely?

When I spoke to Dawn at Art in the Heart I got the impression that wasn’t enough. To be taken seriously in Art circles it seems I need to have profound thoughts before I began to paint. I need to want to say something, or to shock or question or promote thought. I like to think my paintings do that, if you give them enough time. But I can’t lie and say I’m trying to make people question their inner being or their religion or what it means to be a celebrity.

I just want to bring pleasure.

It’s hard to remember to keep the freedom of a child

Somebody bought one of the paintings at my exhibition because she said it was an exact representation of the inside of her head. It doesn’t get more personal than that! Yet some of the feedback I got when I had my exhibition was the usual ‘My two-year-old could do better.’ Actually, when I watch my two-year-old painting, I think that’s actually a compliment. We have a freedom when we’re young, a disregard for what others think, that allows us to be completely uninhibited. My artwork got safer, more boring, less exciting, as I started to care what people thought. I lost some of the freedom of just painting for me, because it made me high on adrenalin to take a blank canvas and turn it into something vibrant and alive.

I’m trying to avoid the same thing happening with my writing. As I read books and blogs on writing craft I sense a danger of trying to conform to expectations, of shoe-horning myself into a genre or a three-act structure or what I am told makes good literature. I’m forcing myself to accept that, through writing what I like to read, I might be writing something that will sell without being too safe.

At least when it comes to authorial intention it doesn’t seem to matter so much in literature as it apparently does in Art. It doesn’t seem unforgivable to start writing without an intention, to not know where the story is going when you tap out the first sentence. I am sure there are as many authors who set out to teach, shock, thrill, amaze, tease or terrify as there are authors who start merely hoping they’ll get to the end of 100,000 words and have a story that works.

It was never my intention to paint a skeleton (right hand side) it just appeared!

Thinking about it reminded me of a section of my English Masters course about Authorial Intention. At the time I hadn’t written anything creative since GCSE English, ten years earlier. So, when I read that an author’s work could (should) be separated from the author’s intention, I thought What rubbish. Surely an author is always in control of their own writing? You can’t read into a character’s depth without accepting that the author meant for them to be like that. You can’t debate whether Hamlet is mad without accepting that Shakespeare knew very well whether he was or not. He must have had an intention.

Now, as an author with five novels and dozens of unruly characters under my belt I understand what baloney my old opinion was. Characters are sneaky: they do things we don’t expect or intend them to do. Their motivations can turn out to be nasty when we meant them to be good. They go off at tangents and fall for the wrong man. Somewhere in our subconscious we probably know why, but I don’t think it’s always a result of our intention.

I’ve found myself analysing my characters after I’ve finished a book, looking for their motivations, their flaws and strengths. To begin with that felt as fraudulent as adding words to my paintings after they’re finished, saying they’re about death or anger or whatever. The difference I guess is that people are easy to analyse by their thoughts and actions, presented there on the page. Paintings aren’t. And it isn’t fraudulent to look at Leah at the end of Dragon Wraiths and say she has suffered from growing up without a father figure. It’s there in the text, if you look for it. And it’s something I’ve been told is true about me. So I’ve written it into my character subconsciously because I understand it as a concept and because it fitted with my character and story. It wasn’t my intention but it’s still there.

One of the texts I studied on Literary Criticism during my MA is the one quoted below (borrowed from Wikipedia)

W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley wrote in their essay The Intentional Fallacy: “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.”[1] The author, they argue, cannot be reconstructed from a writing – the text is the only source of meaning, and any details of the author’s desires or life are purely extraneous.

I can’t remember how I viewed this during my MA – those years are thankfully a blur – but I know how I view it now. True and not true (actually that’s exactly what I would have said then. My academic answers were always neatly balanced, me being a Libran and all.) I believe my books can be judged separate from me – as my paintings can – but you could use details of my life to help understand them better. My own relationship with my father, for example. Fathers, living or dead, feature quite often in my work. (In my NaNoWriMo this year the father has just had a heart-attack). Whether you could use that information to better understand my characters I’m not sure. My characters are not me. They draw on my experiences, they live lives I might have lived, or would want to live, or am glad I never lived. They often have red hair and green eyes (which I have always wanted!) or grey eyes (like a Georgette Heyer heroine) but they’re not me.

Wikipedia do a lovely summary of the different approaches to authorial intent in literary criticism (which made me quite nostalgic!) here. It was fascinating to remind myself of it all having now written some novels. It makes me want to go back and review my course through new eyes. Maybe it should be a requirement that every literary critic has written at least one novel (preferably a deadline-driven NaNoWriMo one, when your characters are most likely to wander off by themselves.)

Anyway, if you’ve read this far, thank you so much! Having scanned back through my post it isn’t always lucidly written. My academic days are long gone I’m afraid. But it’s been fun revisiting all those ideas and it was good to have your company. I would love to hear what you think!

Tarot Cards, Dragons, Babies and Georgette Heyer

My novel Finding Lucy is all about Tarot

Tarot Cards, Dragons, Babies and Georgette Heyer: What do these things all have in common? They’re the main themes of my last four novels. Just as I have an eclectic taste in books and music (Metallica and Einaudi currently my car-CDs of choice) I appear also to have a varied set of themes and genres for my writing.

I’ve heard it’s wise to settle on one genre and writing style that represents your voice and stick to it. But when in your writing career do you do that? I’ve enjoyed writing Young-Adult-first-person-paranormal as much as writing third-person-contemporary-woman’s-fiction and now (hopefully) a romantic comedy. Who is to say which one is really my style?

Except they’re all romances. Gotta have a love story.

I guess maybe the market decides, by what you manage to get accepted by an agent or what sells online. Georgette Heyer, the subject of my NaNoWriMo this year, wrote forty odd Regency romances and something like a dozen detective stories, together with a historical novel or three. By all accounts she despised her romances and the people who read them and her best book is considered to be one of her historical novels. Yet her witty and well-researched historical romances still bring pleasure to millions. Even Stephen Fry counts her as one of his guilty pleasures.

I guess the thing to accept is that unpublished fledgling authors like me won’t know what their voice, their style, their genre is until it’s validated externally. If I’m extremely lucky I might get one of my styles published. I’m not fussy which one!

Until then, in my best Strictly Come Dancing Bruce Forsyth voice, “Keep writing!”

NaNoWriMo irony

 

The cover I mocked-up for Dragon Wraiths to print a copy via Lulu

The cover I mocked-up for Dragon Wraiths to print a copy via Lulu

I’ve been really struggling this week. Not just with a bad cold, conjunctivitis and a newly-unemployed husband at home scuppering my writing routine. None of those things has helped, of course, any more than the freezing rain, or the end of British Summer Time that has resulted in my kids getting up at 5.30pm every day.

No, what’s really killed my Muse at the worst possible time is the appearance of an unknown character in my head: my Willing Editor.

I’ve met my Inner Editor before – that nasty critic who stops me writing before I’ve even started and tells me everything I write is rubbish. I’m even on nodding acquaintance with my Reluctant Editor. The one who half-edited Pictures of Love before getting bored, and who tortuously ploughed through Dragon Wraiths to meet a deadline.

But to want to edit? To want to edit more than write something new for NaNoWriMo?

Unheard of.

Until now.

I think the change came when my husband commented on how much easier it was to read the second draft of Dragon Wraiths and has told me several times since how impressed he is at how good my editing was.

Praise – it works every time.

Also I’m deliriously happy that I managed to edit Dragon Wraiths enough to make the darn thing actually made sense. For the first time editing has produced tangible results rather than just giving me a headache. Hurrah.

The irony?

Well it’s Nano. I wasn’t going to do it this year, knowing I had too many projects on and am neglecting the family as a result. But I got swept up in the online chat, the excitement, the buzz (although that’s not being helped at present by the fact I’m not receiving the pep-talk emails. I really miss them and hope the guys at Nano fix the problem soon.) I persuaded my husband and my best friend to give NaNoWriMo a try this year. I wrote my top tips which said just get on and do it.

Then I got Writer’s block on a scale I’ve never experienced before. It has taken me five days to even settle on a topic and the one I have chosen is an old novel idea that’s so technical I keep getting dragged off into research. Thus far I’ve managed 1600 words including the synopsis.

Oh, and I’ve edited 30 pages of Pictures of Love. Properly this time. And do you know what? I think I enjoyed that more!

What if anything has derailed your NaNoWriMo this year? Will you get back on track? I now have a dual target of 50k words and 500 pages of editing for November. Apparently I work best under pressure.

p.s. one of my best NaNoWriMo-avoidance activities this week was making a mock front cover for Dragon Wraiths so I could print a copy for my mum for her birthday. It’s not what I’d choose for a final cover but I was pleased I managed to turn a word doc into a printed Lulu book (interior and exterior) in eight hours!

Always get a second opinion

I love a printed manuscript: it LOOKS like 7 months’ work

This week my Young Adult novel, Dragon Wraiths, got long-listed for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition. I would like to say I was thrilled when I received the email, but I’d be lying. It came only hours after I had typed up the last second-draft-edit amends and vowed to put the darn novel in the bin/cupboard/big pit in the garden because, seven months after starting it, I still had no idea what it was about.

Instead my overwhelming emotion was fear. How could I send my manuscript off, all 112,500 words of it, with my name on the front (though thankfully the competition is judged anonymously) when I KNEW it was a pile of crap? But I had come so far, invested 7 months of my life, not to say thousands of pounds of nursery fees, plus the competition entry fee. I wasn’t giving up.

So I called in the troops. Sent the novel to my mother and pleaded with her to read it and tell me the most awful plot-hole-disaster bits so I could focus on fixing them before sending the manuscript off a week later.

That was Thursday night. On Friday, when I took the kids over to see her as usual she had to tear herself away from reading the book. My book. Friday night she sent a copy over to my step-dad’s iPad and Saturday morning (early) I got a text to say he was so engrossed she couldn’t get a word out of him. That of course spurred my husband to start reading it again, the edited version this time. I have learned an important lesson about waiting to give out the edited version because he soon couldn’t put it down. (He sat in the car while I took the kids to an indoor play centre on Sunday on the excuse that he had a cold and it was too hot and noisy, when really he wanted to keep reading.)

By Sunday night everyone had finished it.

My step-dad (who isn’t an avid reader, but loved the Twilight series) said “Book 2 Please”.

“What about the plot holes?” I asked, perplexed.

“Well, apart from saying she’s never been camping in part 2 when part 1 pretty much opens with her camping on a hillside, we didn’t find any plot holes.”

“What about the ending? Doesn’t it all feel a bit forced?” It took weeks of agonizing to try to make sense of it all, with me cursing my Pantser habits all the while.

“Ending was great, it all made sense.”

I sat and stared, open mouthed.

So instead of spending this week desperately re-writing huge chunks of my novel I have been calmly tweaking the one or two weak scenes my husband highlighted. Today I printed out all 462 pages and posted it.

Dear manuscript, all my blessings go with you

Leaving me free to start NaNoWriMo tomorrow.

Of course, that’s a different ball game entirely. I was going to rework one of my romances for Nano this year, but now I’m thinking about starting a sequel to Dragon Wraiths. Who knows, unlikely as it seems to me, it might actually go somewhere.

 

What have I learned?

I’ve always been too scared to relinquish my work to a critique group for fear of being told to give up writing and go back to the day job. I know family members are biased, but my parents don’t give up their weekends lightly. If they read my book non-stop to the end it was because they wanted to. That must count for something. Maybe I need to have more faith in myself.

Writing is a solitary business and editing is worse because you don’t even really have your characters for company. It’s easy to forget what’s good about your novel. You get too close, you lose the ability to feel the suspense, to be swept up in the drama.

My advice? When you have torn your novel apart and rebuilt it from the ground up, and you still think it stinks, remember – ask for a fresh opinion. You might just be pleasantly surprised.

 

Writer Wednesday – Interview with Chris Baty (founder of NaNoWriMo)

 

There is a great interview with Chris Baty (founder of NaNoWriMo – see previous post) over on the Bookinthebag blog. I wanted to paste the entire interview here, but it’s probably best just to go and read it!

My favourite answer:

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that everyone has a wealth of stories in them, and that folks who who claim to be storyless just need a good deadline and a tiny bit of encouragement to help get things flowing

via Writer Wednesday – Chris Baty.

There you have it in a nutshell, all the reason you need to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. Go on, you know you want to. 🙂

My NaNoWriMo Thoughts

It’s that time of year again when people kiss goodbye to their families, put the takeaway numbers on speed dial, stock up on coffee and chocolate, and launch themselves into NaNoWriMo.

This is my fifth year and most of my novels started life in November. For those of you who have never heard of it, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writers Month, and is about “Thirty days and nights of literary abandon” (or writing 50,000 words in the month of November, but that doesn’t sound as poetic or inspiring!) 

There are plenty of blog posts better than mine that will tell you how to structure your NaNoWriMo novel, or how to edit it when it’s all over. [Oh my, turns out there is actually a National Novel Editing Month, held in March. And I thought it was just my wishful thinking. Count me in!]

There are discussions as to whether you can really write a novel in 30 days and whether it is insulting to “proper” writers for people to think they can. I don’t feel qualified to write on any of those things, even if it hadn’t already been done. I guess everything to do with NaNoWriMo has been done, given what a phenomenon it is. However, for those that have no idea what NaNo is, or are contemplating trying it for the first time this year, I thought I would tap out my top tips.

My NaNoWriMo Top Tips:

1. Write something on Day One. Anything. Even if you’re a Pantser and your mind is blank, make up a character from five items in your work space and think of something awful that might be happening to them. The longer you leave it before getting words on the page the less likely you are to start at all.

2 Try and keep up with the word-count chart but don’t panic if you fall behind. Once you get some momentum you can do astounding things (I wrote something like 17k words in my last 36 hours last year.)

3. Do not re-read more than your last line (just to see where you got to). Even better, end your writing session with a couple of notes about what might happen next so you can start writing the minute you sit at your desk.

4. DO NOT EDIT. If you can handle it by all means leave spell check on and fix as you go. If that causes you to re-read, worry, and question the quality of your work, turn spell check off or – better still – write in Notepad or equivalent.

5. Engage with the community. Read some Facebook posts, follow on Twitter. If you can afford it, donate to NaNo and get all the motivational emails. They’re the reason I come back each year.

At the end of November you won’t have a finished novel. As most novels are nearer 100k than 50k you won’t even have a finished first draft. But you’ll have something. Even if you bin half, or put the whole thing in a hidden folder on your computer, you will still have something to be proud of.

Before discovering NaNoWriMo I was convinced I couldn’t write a novel because I had no imagination. I was wrong. I may not have the sharpest literary mind in the world but I can spin a yarn. I’ve discovered I’m more Pantser than Plotter and my main weakness is generating conflict. I know I can write good dialogue and that I can churn out 50k words of reasonable first draft in 4 weeks, even when it isn’t November.

I have no idea what I’m writing about this year (as you’ll see in my guest interview on Findingmycreature in a couple of weeks) but I’m unfazed. In fact, after weeks of tedious editing, I’m so excited I’m counting down the days. To switch off my brain, commune with my subconscious, tell my inner editor to eff off, & just write?

Bring it on!