Why I’m Giving Up Writing for Grown-Ups

Georgina the Giraffe says write for kids!

Georgina the Giraffe says write for kids!

I read recently on Sally Jenkins’ blog about a writing competition currently being promoted in the UK magazine, Good Housekeeping. 10k advance and a potential publishing deal, don’t mind if I do. The two categories are Crime/Thriller and Women’s Fiction.

Well, I thought, I’ve written Women’s Fiction before – my first novel, Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes, falls in that category, and it has a bunch of nice reviews. As I’m in my plot-hole mire with the latest children’s book, I thought it might be nice to write in a different genre for a while.

Being in my January sludge, I struggled for an idea (I need a character, a theme, and an ending to start writing these days). But Hubbie came up with a neat Fairy Tale reversal story, so I began playing around with that.

And that’s when the trouble started.

Write what you know is advice often given to wannabe authors. And, for women’s fiction, I always reach into myself for a character, as I feel that’s the best way I can empathise and understand motivations and so on.

But, as I researched my new character, I realised it was becoming some kind of therapy session for elements of my life I wish I could change. Enlightening as it was about my own past, it didn’t make for a great novel.

So scratch that, I thought, I’ll enter one of the two novels I’ve finished. Baby Blues is a bit long for a Women’s Fiction novel, and is actually doing okay on Amazon, so I turned to Class Act. It never flew. My two Goodreads giveaways resulted in awful reviews. Perfect for a rewrite, yes?

Then I re-read the reviews, and they sounded very similar to a review I got on Baby Blues recently. In essence, Okay writing, but I HATE the leading lady.

“…the way Rebecca’s character was written made her quite unbearable.”

Ah, yes, about that. I never loved the leading ladies in Baby Blues and Class Act all that much either. My love was always for the leading male, or a secondary character. And, with the distance of a few years, it’s obvious. In some way, they’re both me. And I don’t love me very often.

I have no idea what makes me likeable. Hubbie can’t tell me (not in a way that wouldn’t be better suited to 50 Shades) and I don’t really have close friends. I don’t know how to write an amazing leading lady because I don’t really know any.

Perhaps that is why I’m enjoying writing the kids’ books. If the characters are based on me (and I don’t know if they are), then they’re not deep enough – the stories aren’t long enough – for people to hate them. But more likely they’re based around traits I see in my kids, in the children at school, and from the books I read and love. They’re stories of bravery and daring and magic. My women’s novels are about the hardship of being a grown-up!

So I think I’ll walk gracefully away from the real world and leave the grown-up story writing to those who can create more sympathetic characters. Tempting as a 10k advance is, I’m not going to win a competition with a bunch of characters no one likes (when they’re meant to!)

I don’t mind. Give me magic ponies and talking cats any day.

Wishing You a Good Friday

Meeting the Easter Bunny

Meeting the Easter Bunny

At last, Easter is here! Two weeks into the school vacation I feel like the bank holiday is the finish line and I’ve more or less survived. We still have five days before the children go back to school/nursery, but at least there are some family members around to share the small-child entertainment that has left me exhausted.

We have been blessed, though, this holiday, with gorgeous sunny days every day. The kids have been able to run free with me just providing conflict mediation, hugs, plasters, food, drinks, craft supplies, cautions, rules, reward stickers and the occasional trip out for variety. Yesterday we went to play on the new indoor equipment at our favourite Farm, followed by a visit to the Easter Bunny. It was a great day.

One thing I’ve noticed this holiday is that the children have remembered how to play together. With my daughter starting school last September, they seemed to separate, with the age difference much more noticeable. My daughter had less time for her brother, and they squabbled more than cooperated. It’s been wonderful (and terrifying) to see them back to conspiring against me. For example when they decided to empty the sandpit into the paddling pool and across the decking, then fill the sandpit with water from the hose, breaking about five family rules in the process. I didn’t care, I just prayed they wouldn’t draw my attention to it, leaving me no choice but to tell them off.

When my daughter did finally come in saying, “Look, Mummy!” all proud of the carnage, I actually said, “You’ve broken about five rules, which are they?” and after she’d sheepishly acknowledged them, I said, “no matter, I’ll pretend I didn’t see, so long as you tidy up.” Which of course they didn’t, but it took less time to sweep wet sand than it would have done telling them off and finding them something else to do!

Sand Carnage

Sand Carnage

Rules and consistency are all well and good, but sometimes you have to be flexible. It was also another classic case of different parenting priorities as, when I posted my dilemma to Facebook, expecting people to laugh (because of course I wouldn’t stop them playing nicely just because of a bit of mess) I had a range of responses leaving me feeling somewhere between a dragon for having rules in the first place and a lazy parent for choosing to ignore them!

Anyway, this was just a short note to say hello, I’m still alive, and wish you all a happy Easter weekend. The forecast here is actually for rain, making me feel bad for all the working people who have been looking forward to their four days of freedom. But hopefully they’ll stay in and read a book, as I have Dragon Wraiths on a freebie promotion all weekend. If by chance you haven’t read it, do go grab a copy! (I’m trying out a new GeoRiot link, which is meant to take you to the Amazon site for your country, so do tell me if it works/doesn’t work. And thank you to Sally Jenkins for the idea.)

TTFN.

Bridport and Baby Blues

My Goodreads Giveaway

My Goodreads Giveaway

I wrote a long rambling post for the blog today about parenting, love and life, following on from a spectacularly low point on the school run this morning, that started with yelling in the traffic jam and ended up with daughter and I both in tears. But, if I’m tired of thinking about my failings as a parent then I’m sure you’re tired of reading about them. So I’m going to talk writing instead.

I finally listed a Giveaway on Goodreads this week to win a paper copy of Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes. It’s open to all the countries I can ship to easily from Amazon, so if you fancy reading it, or just like a chance at a freebie, do pop over to Goodreads and sign up, and tell your friends! 🙂

Continuing on a writing theme, I spotted a couple of my Baby Blues bookmarks in a stand at the library today in what turned out to be a rack of leaflets on the Bridport Prize. For those who don’t know, the Bridport Prize is one of the most well-known short story (plus flash fiction and poetry) competitions in the UK, with a first prize of £5000. I think about entering every year, but I haven’t written anything shorter than 100,000 words in years. If you have, and fancy your chances, the closing date is 31st May 2014. (I can’t put any more details at present because the website doesn’t seem to be working, but this is the link).

Brittle Star Competition

Brittle Star Competition

Next to the Bridport flyer was another writing competition with a March 2014 closing date, again for short stories and poetry. This is the Brittle Star inaugural poetry and short fiction competition closing on 12th March 2014. The prizes are much more modest (£250 per genre) but all winners will be published in Brittle Star and invited to a launch and prize giving event in London (a great chance for networking!)

Incidentally, if you want to keep up to date with UK writing competitions, I recommend visiting (and following) the Sally Jenkins – Writer blog. Sally Jenkins’ frequently lists details of writing competitions both big and small as well as lots of hints and tips and great resources. I learned about the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition from her and, if I hadn’t, I might never have finished Dragon Wraiths. I’m very grateful!

Reading as a Writer: 2013 365 Challenge #350

A fraction of the unread books on my Kindle

A fraction of the unread books on my Kindle

I read an article today, on Sally Jenkins’ blog, about reading as a writer and how it can destroy the magic of reading. I have to agree. These days, reading feels like a lot like work rather than pleasure.

Back when I was at university I read very little for fun. During my history degree it was lack of time, combined with strained eyesight, after reading dry historical works all day. During my English courses and Masters degree it was because I analysed everything, wondered about the author’s intention or tried to map character motivations. (And after reading the entirety of Clarissa, I never wanted to see a novel ever ever again!)

But at least that still kept me within the story: thinking about the action and the people. I was on the stage with the puppets. Now I’m a puppet master, above it all, seeing the strings, if not always understanding fully how they all work. And it has lost its magic. Like knowing how a illusionist’s trick is done I am super analytical and, if I’m honest, critical. It isn’t confined to the characters, plot or flow of the story either, but right down into the nuts and bolts of word choice, dialogue, even consistent formatting.

I’m reading two books at the moment that I’ve been looking forward to and I’m struggling to get swept away by either. It makes reading painfully slow and hard work, although whether it’s improving my craft remains to be seen. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I’m not enjoying them, so I don’t know how much I’m learning. At the moment I feel like the only time I’ll enjoy a story again is when I’m drafting it for the first time (because, quite frankly, if reading the well-crafted stories of masters like Terry Pratchett is giving me a headache, reading my own efforts is excruciating!)

Thank goodness I don’t write music is all I can say.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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“Hello, Jeff speaking.”

Claire listened to the deep voice answering her call and went blank. Blood rushed loudly in her ears. What was she doing?

“Hello?”

The voice now held a tinge of irritation. If she didn’t speak she would only have succeeded in making things worse

“Jeff, hi, it’s Claire.”

“Claire! I was starting to think I had some creepy stalker. How are you? Are you still in the UK?”

The warmth in his voice helped to lessen the quivering in her knees. She wondered whether to chat or jump straight in with what she wanted to say, before she chickened out.

“I’m fine, thanks. Good. I’m in Devon. With Kim and Helena, actually.”

“Kim and Helena?”

“Your wife and her sister?” Claire injected a humour she didn’t feel into her voice. This wasn’t going to plan at all. When she’d rehearsed the conversation in her head, during her surfing session with Conor, there had been no awkward silences and unanswerable questions.

I guess it’s easier when you provide both sides of the dialogue.

She wondered whether to abandon the attempt and make up some reason for her call. Jeff was going to think her an interfering cow at best, and if she made things worse between him and Kim, her friend was likely to fly off the rails again.

“I know who they are, I just didn’t realise Helena was back from Hong Kong.”

“When did you last speak to Kim?” Her voice was wary now.

“A week or so, I guess. Maybe a bit more. I’ve been very busy at work.”

“Maybe you should take time to speak to her now and then. She is your wife. Then you would know that her pregnant sister is home.”

“Helena’s pregnant?”

Jeff’s shock was palpable and Claire felt relieved that it meant he missed the antagonism in her voice. She hadn’t meant to pick a fight with him; but to find out he hadn’t spoken to Kim for weeks really stunned her. They were married. Surely husband and wife spoke every day? At least that’s how she’d always imagined it would be.

“Yes, apparently some indiscretion meant she was sent home under a cloud. Kim needed moral support, so she and Helena are staying with me in Devon for the weekend.” She stopped, unsure what to say next. She didn’t think she needed to spell out to Jeff why spending time with her pregnant sister was hard on Kim, but then she didn’t think she’d have to tell him anything.

Is this what it means to get married: to drift apart at the first crisis? I think I’d rather stay single and know that no one is there for me, rather than find out at the worst possible time.

She tried to picture Conor abandoning her, and smiled. He’d proved already that he was the most reliable friend: collecting her from the airport, taking her to see Kim in hospital. The memory pulled her back to the purpose of her call, and she pushed the pictures of Conor away.

“Anyway, I wondered if you wanted to come down and stay with us for a day or two. I realise it’s short notice, but it would mean the world to Kim.”

The line remained silent, and Claire wondered if Jeff had hung up or put the phone down and walked away. She held her breath; the pulse throbbing in her temples keeping time, counting down the seconds.

Eventually he inhaled audibly and said in a stilted voice, “I would love to, Claire, but I have to work.”

“On a Sunday? I know it’s a long way, but you could be down and back in the day, or you could come tonight.”

“It’s just not possible.” His tone indicated the conversation was over.

Hot blood flooded beneath Claire’s skin. “That’s utter bollocks, and you know it. You guys have been married three months. Three months! Kim needs you. What happened, Jeff? When I last saw you, you couldn’t do enough for her. And now you barely talk? What gives? Are you having a bloody affair, is that it? Your wife is broken and instead of trying to put her back together you sod off and bed someone new?”

Claire ran out of breath and stopped, panting, wondering what had come over her. She waited for Jeff to start shouting, or hang up, but he did neither. She could hear him breathing and it sounded as if he was labouring under strong emotion. When he spoke, his voice wavered.

“It was my child, too. I never knew I wanted to be a dad until that damned blue line. And then the wedding, and the uproar, and the miscarriage. No, I’m not blaming you, before you think I am. The doctors said the pregnancy wasn’t viable. And now they think she can’t get pregnant again. But there are doctors that will help, I’ve looked into it. I spent hours reading up, while Kim was low, and then after she tried to kill herself.”

He took a deep breath, and Claire waited, stunned.

“When you took her to her mother’s, it meant I could do something about it. I’ve got another job, evenings and weekends, to raise money for the procedures. I didn’t want to tell Kim, get her hopes up only to have them dashed again. I didn’t think she could handle that. I didn’t mean not to call, but I’m so tired: if I’m not working I’m asleep.”

He went silent, suddenly, as if his outburst had cost him too much. Claire’s mind whirled while she processed the words.

Poor Jeff.

“You have to tell her,” she said, quietly. “Please. She needs something to live for, to hope for. Otherwise you’ll raise the money, turn around, and she’ll be gone.”

“Oh God, she isn’t depressed again, is she?” Jeff sounded stricken.

“No, not really. But sharp, edgy, brittle. Spending time with Helena is not doing her any good. The girl is glowing and, although she doesn’t say much in front of me and Conor, I know the relationship the two of them have. I don’t doubt she makes little digs. If Kim could reassure herself that she has a solid marriage and hope for the future, she’ll have one over on her sister.”

Jeff sighed. “What a bloody mess.”

Claire could imagine him running his hands through his hair, and she yearned to give him a friendly hug. How lonely must it be, in the flat alone, working all hours.

“Just give her a call. You don’t need to mention we’ve spoken. She and Helena are downstairs with Conor. They think I’m working.”

“Okay, I will. And thank you, Claire.”

“Don’t mention it. I just want my friend back.”

She hung up the phone and hoped it was that simple.

***

Introducing George: 2013 365 Challenge #111

Planting Sunflower Seeds at Sacrewell Farm

Planting Sunflower Seeds at Sacrewell Farm

While lying in bed cursing the sore throat and stiff neck that have besieged me this afternoon, a germ of an idea planted in my mind and squirmed into the soil, like the sunflower seeds my kids planted at the Farm today.

I recently finished another great kid’s book and saw that, as with many of my other new finds, it was published by Chicken House. The name rang a bell and I realised it was the name of the publishers that were part of the competition I didn’t enter with Dragon Wraiths because the manuscript was too long.

I visited their website to see if they accept submissions and they’ve just launched the competition again, with a deadline of 1st November.

Ooh went my brain. It’s a long time to 1st November. There’s time to write something new. After all, I started Dragon Wraiths this time last year and had that finished by last November. And that was over 100k words. The maximum for The Chicken House / Times competition is 80k words. If I plan it out this time (at least a bit, I am a pantser after all) I could stay within word count.

On the Tractor Ride

On the Tractor Ride

Now of course this breaks all the rules of being a writer. You’re not meant to write for gain or fame but only for the love of writing. Thing is, I love writing but I need a goal and a deadline, at least to get me going. I’m proud of Dragon Wraiths and that was written for a competition (and ultimately prize money).

But I didn’t get up every nursery day and write 5,000 words just for profit (which would be a foolish aim anyway: everyone knows writers don’t make money). I wrote it to find out what happened to Leah, to find out how the story ended. But on dark days the thought of maybe winning £5000 did help keep me motivated.

So I lay in bed earlier this evening, feeling foggy and sore, and searched through my mind for a new idea. It felt a bit wrong, looking for an idea rather than waiting for one to arrive. But people who write hundreds of books must have to do that. I knew what genre at least: I’ve been aching to try my hand at a fantasy middle grade fiction since enjoying The Divide, The Extincts, Stone Heart, Shadow Forest, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, and now Ravenwood. And, after some throwing around of ideas, I tapped out the opening scene to a new novel. One I hope might generate characters that will survive to a sequel, since my favourite books are the ones with lots of volumes around the same central characters. I like characters to become my friends. My only dilemma right now is it might involve Time Travel. Again. According to some agents I follow on Twitter, Time Travel has been done to death already. Oh dear.

Penny the Chicken eating Lunch

Penny the Chicken eating Lunch

Is it bad, that I’m motivated by entering a competition? I hope not. I read Sally Jenkins lovely collection of short stories, One Day For Me, this morning because I couldn’t get the sequel to Ravenwood as an ebook. All of Sally’s stories were written for competitions. They’re still great. It’s accepted practice for short story writers to write for specific markets and hopefully financial gain. Why not novels? If it’s rubbish it won’t win so no one’s hurt.

Matt Haig, author of Shadow Forest, says otherwise and I respect his opinion but I hope there are grades of love versus money. Writing for love is a given or I wouldn’t have survived to episode #111 of Claire, through insomnia and flu and dearth of ideas. But bills need to be paid and everyone wants to think their novels might be read one day. Therefore, alongside trying to find new adventures for Claire, I’ll be creating George and his new world. Hopefully Claire won’t suffer (I’m actually hoping a new project will kickstart my imagination as I’ve been really struggling with Claire recently).

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Auntie Claire, I don’t feel very well.”

Claire looked down at her niece and recoiled slightly at the green tinge of her skin.

“Are you going to be sick? Lean over the side for heaven’s sake. But not too close! I don’t want you falling in.” She looked around at the other passengers and prayed Sky didn’t vomit on any of them. Something of her reaction must have come through her voice, because a clammy little hand sought out hers. “Sorry, Claire. I don’t mean to feel poorly. I’ve never been on the sea before.”

Patting the frozen hand, Claire tried to remain calm. The white tips of the choppy waves weren’t helping. It hadn’t seemed that windy on the shore, but here in the harbour the small craft was rocked by gusting blasts that whipped the waves to froth. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea. I might have known Sky would get sea sick, especially as she’s still recovering from her fever. When she remembered Sky’s amazement as they first arrived at the coast, Claire couldn’t feel it was a bad move. Her mouth had dropped into a perfect ‘o’ of wonder at the grey sea spreading out before them to the horizon.

“It’s so big,” she had said quietly, her eyes wide and staring.

The tour guide called out, interrupting Claire’s thoughts. “You can see grey seals now, if you look towards the shore. There are still some youngsters playing if you look closely. We’ll get in as near as we can.”

“Look, Sky,” Claire said brightly, “baby seals.” Sea spray soaked her skin and she knew it was frizzing her hair to an impossible mess. Snuggling deeper into her jacket, she felt Sky’s hands and face to ensure she wasn’t getting too cold.

Sky raised her head to look at the slick grey animals frolicking in the sea near the boat. Her complexion was still green and Claire hoped the distraction would help her keep breakfast on the inside. I wonder if I dare get out my phone and take some pictures for the blog. If Sky is going to throw up I might not get another opportunity. The boat pitched suddenly and she felt her own stomach lurch. I might even be joining her.

“If you look closely you can see common seals as well as grey seals. The common seals are actually rarer than the grey seals so we’re fortunate to see both today.”

The Guide’s words rolled over Claire like the sea as she focussed on getting a few snaps before another gust of wind sent her or her phone overboard. Feeling a tug at her sleeve, Claire could sense Sky trembling beside her. Tucking the phone back in the safety of a pocket, she pulled her niece onto her lap and hugged her close.

“Alright, sweetie. Just keep breathing through your nose and concentrate on the seals.”

“Here, love, give her one of these.”

Claire looked up to see a kindly face peering out through a fur-lined hood. Glancing down, she saw a pack of polo mints nestled in the woollen glove reaching out towards her.

“Thank you,” she said with real gratitude. Pulling off her gloves, she retrieved a mint and handed it to Sky. She was rewarded by seeing the distress on Sky’s face ebb slightly, like the outgoing tide.

Flashing a smile at the stranger, Claire hugged Sky close again. “That’s it, poppet. You’re being very brave. Well done.”

After a few more days with me, the poor girl isn’t going to want to see her Auntie Claire again. Somehow the thought made her sad.

***