Holidays are Great but I Love My Job

We had the beach to ourselves

We had the beach to ourselves

We got back from a wonderful week in Italy yesterday, happy and exhausted (and a little sunburnt in my case after forgetting to get hubbie to put cream on my back.) I’ve spent the last twenty-four hours unpacking, washing, ironing, cooking and trying to survive the tantrums of four shattered people.

The weather was glorious for most of our week – unlike back in the UK where they suffered days of torrential rain. The dog came back from kennels a little rounder than she went, instead of the kilos lighter she usually is after a week of long walks and no table scraps. I’m guessing there weren’t many opportunities to walk dogs in that weather.

Not that we didn’t get any rain. Our second day on the beach saw us sheltered in the nearest cafe when the heavens opened for an hour. There is something rather cool about sipping a cappuccino in twenty degrees heat watching the soft sand getting pounded and water flooding across the patio because the drainpipes empty onto it. It left the sand with the texture of a wool carpet.

The downpour

The downpour

Our trips to Italy are family visits rather than holidays and we spent plenty of time with aunts and cousins. The children and I don’t speak Italian, so it’s always rather chaotic and overwhelming, although lovely and heartwarming. With our family spread all over the world it always means a lot to catch up with them and spend time together.

That said, we were glad to come home to our own beds. The children find it hard staying in an apartment, unable to go outside whenever they want and constantly being told to be quiet. I feel trapped, too, because I can’t drive the hire car and it terrifies me not being able to talk to the locals. Plus the apartment is in town and rather noisy! I haven’t slept properly for a week.

Mind you, coming back to a foot-high lawn and a messy house, I can now appreciate the beauty of living in a small flat and spending all the time at the beach!

Beach babies

Beach babies

The best part about being home for me is being able to get back to work. While hubbie and the kids are dragging their heels and not wanting the holiday to end, Monday morning can’t come soon enough for me. The only difficulty is choosing between working on Class Act or my kids’ book.

I’ve opted for the latter and have printed out the manuscript in readiness. I spent some of the holiday reading middle grade fiction (after re-reading Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, a fantastic book,) and I can see all the things that are so wrong with my Alfie book. Not that I think I can fix them – I’m still not sure Middle Grade is my genre – but I’m excited to try.

Me, excited about editing? How did that happen? I used to hate it. I still don’t feel I know what I’m doing. But already having sourced an editor has made a difference. I know what she thought was wrong with my sample and so I know what I’m looking for in my redraft. It’s like writing an essay for a university tutor, and that’s something I’ve had lots of experience doing. I used to love writing essays. (I know, I’m a freak!)

Of course I’ll probably end up sleeping instead of working tomorrow – the danger of working from home! Best work in the coffee shop. Talking of which, it’s definitely time for bed! Night night.

A Bio, A Synopsis and The Danger of Distraction

Back at Nursery Today

Back at Nursery Today

My son went back to nursery today (hurrah!) and I was able to get back to work. Unfortunately a night of broken sleep has left me a little dazed and I’m finding it hard to concentrate. So, rather dangerously, I decided to do something different. I’ve just read Julie Duffy’s guest post on Charlotte Rains Dixon’s blog, about 15 Fixes for Your Worst Writer’s Block (worth a read!) I decided to combine ‘Work On A Different Part Of The Project’ and ‘Change Projects’. So today I’ve been working on the extra stuff I need to enter my WIP in the Independent’s children’s novel competition – the bio and synopsis – and I got out an old manuscript that I want to work on next.

It was a shock looking at the old manuscript and realising I started writing it in 2008, before my daughter was born. That’s five and a half years ago! Where did the time go? It’s also tough reading something that you remember as being quite good and realising your writing has come on some way since then. Which is of course fantastic – I’d hate to think my writing had got worse – but as I wrote the manuscript whilst also studying a Creative Writing degree course with the Open University, I kind of assumed it might be okay. Actually the writing might be – I didn’t get much chance to go into it – but the formatting and grammar are awful!

I spent the morning roughly reformatting it because I’ve programmed myself to write ready-to-publish documents, after doing Two-Hundred Steps Home last year, when everything had to be ready to publish at the end of each month. Formatting and layout, styles and chapter headings, all have to be to Smashwords standards (easy enough to convert to Kindle formatting). It did mean that I noticed things like how many bits of dialogue start with, “So…” Which is how I speak, but no longer how I write fiction. It’s nice to know I have grown a bit as a writer in half a decade.

I had to quickly put the manuscript away before it dragged me further in. It’s probably a blessing that it needs so much work: I’m not tempted to start that particular challenge when I have two big deadlines looming: finishing this children’s book by the end of next week, and getting Class Act out by the end of June.

So I wrote my Author Biography (see! I started another sentence with ‘so’!) It was rather gratifying. I was able to put:

Amanda Martin is a self-published author and blogger, with a presence on Facebook and Twitter. Her blog, Writermummy, has accumulated 550 posts in two years, and she has published four novels. Amanda’s women’s fiction novel Two-Hundred Steps Home was written in daily instalments and published in monthly volumes in 2013 as part of a challenge on her blog. A section of the novel has been selected to appear in a Cambridge University Press study book. Amanda’s Young Adult novel, Dragon Wraiths, was long-listed for the Mslexia Children’s Novel award in 2013. George and the Magic Arch is her first Middle Grade novel, although MG fiction is her favourite genre.

All of which should hopefully be true by the time I put in the competition entry, or at least by the time someone comes to read it! It’s nice to feel I’ve been doing something with my time at home these last five years.  I even managed to write a one-page synopsis which, although it will need tweaking, takes a weight off my mind. I hate writing synopses (if that’s the correct plural?)

Anyway, distraction time is over. As the children have been off sick this week I’m marginally behind on my 15,000 word target, although it’s still in sights. I definitely do better working to a target. I must remember that.

Back To Work… I Hope

Partners in Fun

Partners in Fun

It’s 6.50am on Wednesday morning. Not just any Wednesday, but my first day without children in seventeen days. In two hours, after the chaos of the school run, dropping reluctant (and probably tearful) children at school and nursery, I can finally get back to my work in progress. And my mind is blank.

I’ve been reading like mad these last two weeks, to keep my writer’s brain active, in between trips to the park, scraping up sand and dishing out snacks. But still I can barely remember how to write, the ideas are all gone and I haven’t a clue what my WIP is about.

It doesn’t help that I have to give a progress report to my Doctor at 10am on how the medication is working. I think I can say ‘fine’, given that we’ve survived the holidays still smiling (more or less!)

Actually, the kids have been amazing. Thanks to two weeks of incredible weather (for England, especially in April), they’ve played together almost non stop, with few arguments. It has made me so proud to watch and listen to them co-operating and scheming. Maybe the long vacation won’t be so awful (provided it doesn’t rain all summer…)

And on a positive note, I re-read the first chapter of Class Act and was quietly impressed, if I’m allowed to say that of my own novel. I’m going to select an editor this week, which is exciting. There are only four and a half weeks until half term, when we’re away visiting rellies in Italy, so I need to crack on and find some inspiration from somewhere. Pass the coffee!

All Quiet on the Blogging Front

Busy busy...

Busy busy…

This is just a quick note to explain my silence on the blog recently and to say that normal service will hopefully resume in a week or two.

This week I’ve been concentrating on drafting my children’s book (working title George and the Arch, but that will change!) I’m around a third through, at 22,000 words, and have realised that writing a first draft uses ALL my energy and inspiration.

My daughter’s school teacher pointed out that there are only 11 full weeks of school left before the summer vacation, which means I have that much time to get George ready for the Chicken House competition AND get Class Act ready to publish (I haven’t even sourced an editor yet). Argh!

The reason for my silence over the next two weeks (more specifically the next four days) is that the children are on their Easter Holidays. In four hours the children and I will drive to Skegness to stay in a static caravan for the week with my good friend and her two children. I’m terrified. Please God don’t let it rain!

I’m looking forward to it too, but the idea of four days in a small box with four kids aged 2-6 does fill me with fear! Ear plugs and wine at the ready! 😉 I don’t even know if there will be internet…

So, enjoy the peace and quiet and I’ll hopefully have some new things to write about when I get back! Wish me luck.

How to Get Out of Writer’s Block

Designing plot: like trying to assemble a marble run

Designing plot: like trying to assemble a marble run

For me the most effective way through writer’s block is to become like my three-year-old and son ask questions. “Mummy, why?” is something he repeats ten times a minutes and, as infuriating as it is, it’s how he learns about the world around him. Most of my answers start with “I don’t know, maybe because…”, or, “Let’s google it”.

Working out what’s going on in a new novel is no different. The more questions you ask, the better the story gets. The harder you search for answers the further you get away from clichés and predictable plot lines. But when asking what happens next and why comes up with nothing, you can start questioning the characters instead. What are their motivations? What are they yearning for, even if they don’t know themselves? What are their greatest fears? What might happen to chuck them out their comfort zone.

Like many younger siblings, my protagonist George is looking for his own identity. He knows he isn’t smart like his sister or sporty and musical like his brother. He thinks his mum doesn’t love him, that he’s always useless. Only his dad understood him, and he vanished a year ago. The thing he likes to do most is kill aliens in his computer games. But he also likes to cook.

As the story progresses, George is discovering he’s fitter and smarter than he thinks he is, and his cooking ability is earning him respect. But, now that I’m at a dead end in the plot, I’ve been questioning him to see if he can help me work out what happens next. And he’s reminded me he loves computer games, which means he is observant and tactical. If the games he plays are like the Tomb Raider games I loved as a teenager, he has to work out puzzles and keep trying until something works. He must be tenacious and brave and good at lateral thinking.

So far his co-protagonist Merula has been leading them both and making the decisions. They are in her world and she has the answers. But he’s been challenging her thinking, questioning things she’s always believed in, and now they’re at an impasse. I think it’s time for George to come into his own and develop a clever strategy to take the action forward, using his game-playing skills.

Now if only I knew what games ten-year-old boys are playing these days I would feel on more solid ground. Any ideas?

I Am A Writer

(Temporary) cover for hubbie's book

(Temporary) cover for hubbie’s book

Yesterday I took the day away from my latest WIP to do something I hoped would cheer up my husband: I published his children’s book, Max & Shady, on Smashwords. I spent the first three hours designing a cover for it, because (unfortunately) the one I did for him before used a photo I couldn’t find the rights to. Important note: if you grab an image for inspiration, make sure you know where it’s from. Unsurprisingly, hubbie preferred his original cover (I do, too) but at least this one is bought and paid for.

Then I dug out the word document I formatted for print as a present a few years ago (turning someone’s first draft into a readable document is quite a task!) I’m ashamed to say it was full of typos, despite it being me who proof-read it the last time.

The rest of the day was spent fixing the big stuff (formatting for Smashwords and inserting punctuation inside the quotation marks). By the time he got home from work (having had to hush the kids a few times to sort out the niggly formatting issues that always seem to crop up) the book was live.

It breaks all the rules. It’s a first draft so shouldn’t be anywhere near the light of day. It’s only been proofread quickly, mostly by Word rather than a human being. It’s probably full of inconsistenices and it certainly has pages of info-dump. No matter. It served it’s purpose. Hubbie smiled.

Two things came out of it that should give both me and hubbie a boost of confidence. Firstly, when I was researching covers and categories, I couldn’t find much in the way of space adventure in the middle grade market: that makes his book much more stand out than mine. So, if he ever finds the energy to write some more, on top of being the bread winner who is pounced on by two small children as soon as he walks in the door after work, there might be a new niche he can fill.

Secondly, I re-read my work-in-progress, after editing Max & Shady, and realised just how much I have learned about writing in the last two or three years. I can see my progress from what I would have written as a first draft (much as hubbie’s is – fun but flawed) to my current work: not perfect, but oh so much better. I got quite excited reading it and found it pleasurable rather than excruciating, as reading my own writing normally is (a bit like hearing your own voice on tape). I understand things like avoiding info-dump, developing a character arc, climax and lots of other useful / essential things, mostly from reading blogs on writing. All that staring at the iPad seems to have had an effect. Who knows, I might actually, finally, be able to consider myself a writer!

Now I just need to work out who the bad guy is in my children’s book, what the plot and storyline are, and I can get on and finish it. I might be a better writer now, but I’m still pants at planning!

In Celebration of Pantsing

Keeping children entertained: full time job

Keeping children entertained: full time job

Sorry I’ve been quiet this week. On top of drafting a new novel, which has been draining my energy, I had my daughter at home on Wednesday, because the teachers were on strike. Goodness knows how I’m going to write or blog in the school holidays: I think I might have to try and plan to have manuscripts with editors so I can take the time off without guilt and frustration.

On the plus side, I am really enjoying getting stuck into a new novel, especially one where I have no idea what’s going to happen next. With a Romance, there’s a certain inevitability to the plot, no matter how much you try and avoid cliches and tropes. Eventually boy meets girl, they have some problems, but they get together in the end.

With this Middle Grade fiction book I started only with a character and a rough idea that it would be a fantasy book, along the lines of The Divide – one of my favourite MG books in recent years. (The first book in the trilogy is currently free on kindle. Bargain!) The trick will be to avoid plagiarising Elizabeth Kay’s book and coming up with my own, original, story, while still learning from what I read.

The best bit about Pantsing (writing by the seat of your pants) is that you avoid the info-dump. The most tedious part of editing a first draft of a Romance novel for me is that I always info-dump in the first couple of chapters, so have to go back and rewrite whole sections. In fact, for both Baby Blues and Class Act, I ended up adding a bunch of chapters at the beginning of the manuscript, to turn the info-dump into action.

But when you know nothing more about a character than his name and the fact that he lives in a farmhouse with his mum and two older siblings, it’s much easier to drop in backstory as required and as it occurs to you. Then the second draft becomes about continuity.

I’ve just watched a top tips video by Barry Cunningham, the man who published Harry Potter, on how to write children’s stories. His first four tips (the fifth covered submissions) could be summarised as:

1. Put yourself back in the age group you are writing for: remember the excitement of that age [Ah crap, I can hardly remember being a child]
2. Include lots of details: The setting. What are they eating? What do they look like? Kids love detail [Oh dear, I’m not one for reading or writing lots of detail]
3. Planning: make sure you know when to introduce and remove characters, when your climaxes are, in order to keep the reader engaged [This is a blog post on Pantsing. Enough said]
4. Remember the importance of humour, especially in dialogue [My book is shaping up a bit dark and depressing. I’m screwed]

Oh well. Plenty of stuff to work on in the second draft! For now I’m enjoying finding out what happens next.