Oompah Humperdinck predicts a riot

I kept saying to myself, when I get to Singapore, I’ll be able to settle down to some writing. I’m a week in and it hasn’t happened yet. I know that at some point I have to start writing, anything, just exploring a character or something and eventually a way in will emerge. The muse appears while we’re in the process of writing. I know this. Yet I can’t summon the will, the energy, the inspiration, or whatever the hell it is I’m waiting for.

Today I have an excuse. I’m in Jakarta with Rob, who’s here on business. I’m just tagging along. Perhaps I should have stayed in the room if I wanted to write but the hotel room is pretty soulless. So I ventured to the pool on the 5th floor. Very nice, exactly what you would expect – pool, loungers, shades, tropical greenery, bar. Perhaps the muse requires a piña colada? You can see where this is going, right? Bet you can’t.

I lay back and wonder what the hell the rumpus is all about. There is incongruous music playing. It sounds like a Eurovision entry. Not so much Humper as Oompah. It really does sound Alpine, but we’re in Indonesia. I guess there’s a kind of music that sounds the same the world over. There is also a man on a loud hailer making what sounds like a political speech. I look over the railings to find a demonstration going on below. Not your usual poolside entertainment. But fascinating and a sure-fire way of keeping me from writing. I might gain inspiration from it, says the professional procrastinator on my shoulder. And I have to agree. This is what writers do, drink in what’s happening in around them, along with the piña colada. It worked for Hemingway, although I guess he was more a whiskey man.

Below, flags of the opposition party – green with a white smiley crescent and a white star above it – are being waved along with black flags with white writing, a mass of people wearing red t-shirts are circling the roundabout with the fountain in the centre. Perhaps more than one party is represented here. One of the bar staff joins me and tells me they are protesting because the government is removing petrol subsidies. At the moment it’s about 50 cents a litre but it will go up to 62 cents.

I try to stop my jaw from falling open. Fifty cents a litre! No wonder this city is choked with traffic and pollution. But an increase in fuel prices also means an increase in food prices and Indonesia has a lot of poverty. Nevertheless, the Green in me says Indonesia has got to get with the programme on this one. It has been used to being oil rich and oil dependent, even cooking with kerosene rather than gas. Change never happens easily but change it must. Besides, I’m told the protesters are paid to turn up by the opposition party, which makes it kind of hollow.

There is increasingly frenzied rhetoric coming from one of three loud hailers, followed by a roar of assent. There’s chanting from another loudhailer and tuneless singing from the third. The Indonesians do love karaoke. I don’t think the protest can turn into the riot that government fears while they’re singing. Unless it’s Englebert Humperdinck’s latest, in which case I will personally revolt.

Hope shimmers on the horizon

The new year has started with a glimmer of hope. I sent the first three chapters of The Smuggler’s Daughter  to a small independent press in Dublin after I heard the managing editor speak at a SCBWI retreat at the end of 2011. I received a lovely email back saying she was ‘impressed’ by my work and I had ‘real talent’ and she wanted to see the rest. Woohoo!

This was tempered by her preparing me for the ‘not right for our list’ rejection as they are a small press and only have one historical title which is also set in Napoleonic times. But she still wanted to read it and she was interested to hear my ideas for my next project. Hope shimmers on the horizon. I’m praying it’s not a mirage.

Are the stars are aligning, at last? Or maybe it’s just taking a positive step like going to a writing retreat that is continuing to reverberate in opportunity and  possibility. I needed the encouragement and support of fellow writers. They understand about the process, about dealing with rejection, about picking yourself up, about persevering. Steve Hartley, who wrote the children’s series Danny Baker Record Breaker, spoke about how it took him 15 years to get published and was afraid that might discourage us. But as someone who has spent 12 years writing (well 10 years writing and two years sulking), it gave me hope. I wasn’t alone.

I’m happy putting the time and effort in to learn the craft. With each of my three books, I’ve got better and got closer, getting shortlisted for competitions and having agents ask to see the rest of my book after years of standard rejection letters. Then, with Smugglers, which I wrote for my MA in Creative Writing (another of those positive steps), I found my voice and got lots of agent interest and a couple wanting to represent me. And then came the barrage of publishers’ rejections and two years of writer’s block.

It’s  harder to pick yourself up when you’ve got so close. But it’s what you have to do and my fellow writers encouraged me not to lose faith in the book. Children’s author Patricia Forde (Hedgehogs do Not Like Heights) gave me the nudge I needed to talk to the editor about Smuggler’s and it worked. It’s being considered again.

Wordism: Take positive steps to achieving your goal of finishing your book or getting it published. Take courses, go on retreats, join a writer’s group, network all you can, develop an online presence.

Just after the retreat, I discovered that my MA friend Liz Trenow had got a two-book deal with Harper Collins’ Avon imprint for her book The Last Telegram. Again, it gives me hope that it can and does happen. The following day, I saw a familiar name on the SCBWI Facebook page. Tina Orr-Munro – a former colleague from my days as a journalist. She had a book cover as her Facebook photo, Ellie Foster’s English Courseworkand sure enough, when I got in touch, I discovered that she too had got published. Not only that, but she’d been through the same journey as me. She’d got an agent only to be knocked back by the big publishers. She gave up writing for two years then decided to try some small independent presses and, hey presto, Rickshaw jumped at it.

The right book has to land on the right desk at the right time. You can have the talent. You can have the craft. But what you really need is luck. I wish you lots of it!

Singapore Slung

I know, I know… I haven’t blogged in nine months and a whole baby could have been born in that time. You see, initially, this blog was supposed to chart the course of my next novel and I was going to bring you along with me for the journey. Or, to continue the metaphor, the gestation. Except the book never got past the embryonic and so it seemed pointless writing the blog about the book that never was.

This is my excuse: I moved house in March and that was followed by decorating and floors being sanded and bookcases being built and generally refurbing top to bottom and, half way through all that, I found out we were moving to Singapore for a couple of years, which kind of filled my head so I didn’t have the time, space or even inclination to write. I was Singapore slung.

Rob has made the move already. I am visiting to help find us an apartment and I move here properly in January. I see it as a creative opportunity and am generally looking forward to it. However, I am dreading leaving Harry, my dog and constant companion who patiently listens to excerpts of my writing without judgment. He’s not coming with us because the journey would stress him out, he’d hate the heat, and he’s nine years old and set in his ways. I couldn’t do it to him. Thankfully, Mike, a writing friend from the USA , is coming to London for two years in January and will house and dog-sit for us. Mike is also looking for a chance to get creative again so it works for both of us. And Harry will get to hear his drafts instead.

I am blogging in the hotel. A tropical storm is raging outside and shaking the windows. It sounds like the heavens are being ripped open, such is the crashing and roaring. This is good. Being abroad provides not only a change of scenery, but a change of perspective. You don’t tend to think of the weather as violent in the UK. It’s a mild, wishy-washy thing. Here it is extreme and, at the moment, violent, primal, and potentially inspirational. I can understand why people might take it personally and think the gods are angry. I know they can’t be angry because I’m actually writing for once so, obviously, the gods are celebrating raucously.

I’m hoping the move will bring inspiration. Also it means I’ll have two years of clear writing time. There’s nothing else to do. Not even dog-walking. Well, apart from lounging by the pool, travelling around Asia, loafing and procrastinating. Apart from that, I have the time and, I hope, the head-space so lacking this past year in order to write. So I must seize the opportunity, focus and use the experience to get creative.

Procrastination and the muse

There must be something in the stars at the moment that involves huge life changes. I seem to be compelled to throw everything up in the air to see where it lands. Sometimes it’s good to do that. Ending old ways opens up new paths.

I’m moving house and when I’m at the new place, I’m hoping I’ll be able to settle to writing. Strangely, I seem to move house whenever I start a new book. Maybe moving is part of the process. Or perhaps it’s just coincidence as it wasn’t even my idea.

However, there are other life changing opportunities in the offing, which may mean that I can’t settle to writing just yet. Living abroad is one possibility. It’s exciting, it’s daunting, I worry whether my dog will be happy in a hot climate, and, as I write this, I wonder, is it all just an excuse for procrastination on a massive scale?

Life is carrying on, presenting opportunities, throwing the odd curve ball and somehow I need to learn to fit the writing in. But maybe the time’s not right.  I always have a period of feeling unsettled between books. I call it ‘floundering’. But this has gone on for longer than usual, so I’m worrying whether I’m really a writer at all. And anyway, is there ever a right time?

The other problem is that there are two ideas I’m exploring. I start on one, then stall and start on the other. I’m excited about both of them at different times but can’t seem to get going on either. They’re both mulling away in my head. Perhaps I don’t have writer’s block but am writing two books at once. Really slowly. Or is that double writer’s block?

All I know is that my mind is like a monkey swinging from tree to tree. I need a quiet space to still my mind. To eat a banana and contemplate the jungle rather than the trees.

Is there ever a right time? I know what Stephen King would say. Turn up to the desk each day. Don’t wait for the muse to turn up first. He’ll come in his own good time, chomping on his cigar, feet on the desk, proffering insight and inspiration. That’s his muse, not mine.

Panic! Do I need to visualise a muse? I have no idea what he or she looks like. I’m not sure I care what they look like, but I’d rather they didn’t smoke. Terrible habit.

I think my muse would be more Holly Golightly. No, she’d lead me astray and I’d end up at all kinds of wild parties. Fun as that would be, I don’t deal with hangovers the way I used to. They can write off a whole day. A whole writing day. Except I’m not writing so I may as well be hungover. They didn’t do Hemingway any harm.

Perhaps a Noel Coward figure swanning round in a smoking jacket and offering me a glass of sherry with a dash of inspiration. Or Bogart as Rick in Casablanca.

Renault: ‘What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: ‘My health. I came for the waters?’
Renault: ‘Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert?’
Rick: ‘I was misinformed.’

I’ve just realised that all my potential muses smoke.

Oh my God. Am I looking for perfection in a muse? (Head in hands.) Who wants a puritan for a muse? What a yawn of a story that would be. I have to let go of the perfectionist, searching for the perfect first chapter and the perfect bloody muse, I have to stop over-thinking everything and just write. Anything.

Here’s the deal. I’ll do my bit and turn up at my desk. Muse, you can turn up in whatever form you like. I’ll even provide the brandy and the smokes. Just turn up. Go on. Please. After all, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The end of the world and the theory of everything

The world is not going to end on Dec 21st 2012 despite there being over 16 million google entries about it. Let me explain. The fifth cycle of the Mayan long count calendar will come to an end after 5,125 years on this date in 2012. This appears to have triggered speculation, along with prophecies in Revelations and by Nostradamus, about the end of the world and how it will come about.

The net is abound with linked theories of planet alignment, exceptional solar activity, magnetic flips, even a planet named Niburu, spotted in ancient times that, we are told, will collide with the earth in 2012.

This just goes to prove that we love stories of prophecy and doom, disaster stories that scare us and capture our imaginations. The idea that the Mayans might simply have a big party, wake up with the mother of all hangovers and flip over the page of the calendar as we do every Dec 31st and start again, doesn’t grip the imagination in quite the same way.

I came across all this on the net after I mentioned to my husband Rob that I was thinking of exploring the fantasy element of my Inca adventure story. He suggested I look up Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods. Von Daniken has a theory that much of ancient civilisation – the pyramids, Peru’s Nazca lines (and perhaps Inca cities), the Easter Island stone heads – could be attributed to ancient astronauts / aliens visiting earth. It’s an interesting theory. I’ve been to Machu Picchu and I was at a loss to explain how the Inca’s managed to fit those great stones together so perfectly in their buildings when they had no hard metals and they hadn’t invented the wheel. But with alien technology, all can be explained.

I got sidetracked from this to the Mayan calendar and 2012 and then, looking up parallel worlds, which I’m thinking of introducing in my book, I started looking at M theory. This has developed from Einstein’s Theory of Everything, through the Big Bang and String Theory, with scientists now thinking that there are 11 dimensions plus time and the universe is contained within a membrane. From what I can gather, the thinking is that our universe is in a giant bubble and the big bang could have been a collision with another bubble membrane, ie a parallel universe. This would mean that time existed before the Big Bang and there is, in fact, a multiverse.

Wow! Still trying to get my head around that lot.

I tell you, researching a book can lead you to some interesting places. And when your ear is attuned, you hear connected stuff. So on Radio 4 last week the astrophysicist Prof Jocelyn Bell Burnell was talking about none other than 2012 and the end of the world and was giving the Faraday lecture on that subject at the Royal Society later that week. So I went along. And it was she who reassured me that the world is not going to end next year.

There is no alignment of the planets in 2012. The last time that happened was in 2000 (no resulting disaster) and the next one is in 2040. Yes there will be extra solar activity when the sun’s magnetic field field reverses but that happens every 11 years. The earth’s magnetic field also ‘flips’ every 300,000 years and we’re long overdue such an event as it hasn’t flipped for 750,000 years. There are indications that it may have started but a ‘flip’ takes 5,000 years. The world will not stop or start spinning the other way.

All of the disaster scenarios, says Prof Bell Burnell, starts with a grain of scientific truth except the planet known as Niburu colliding with earth. That is a complete fiction. If the Sumerians had seen Niburu with the naked eye it would have to be gigantic and planets just aren’t made that big and, also, if it was on an orbit collision with Earth, Nasa would have spotted it by now.

All this was comforting but somehow disappointing. Not that I want the world to end but I was quite enjoying the stories and science so often pours cold water on the story and the mystery. But it is also comforting that when scientists set out to develop a theory of everything, it actually raises more questions and presents even greater mysteries. That, a writer can work with.

Books, creeks and paddles

I haven’t posted recently about the process of writing my book, (which was supposed to be the point of this blog) or even about the process of not writing. This is because I’ve been in a strop.

I had started on the Suffragette idea and had some joyful moments of ‘flow’ before losing my paddle. Not only that but I started to question whether I was writing the right book. Up the creek. Again.

I got to the same place with the last idea – my Inca adventure / romance – and bailed out because it just wasn’t coming to me. I lost faith in it. And here I was in the same situation.

But then Lee Weatherly, a writer friend and mentor, got me thinking about what I wanted to write rather than what I thought would sell. I loved writing my last book, The Smuggler’s Daughter, but I’d not got a book deal. So this time I’d been focusing on getting the right idea. A marketable idea. But perhaps I was focusing too much on the goal of getting published.

Wordism: Focus on the process of writing and the joy of that rather than on the end product.

So, I thought, what do I want to write? What do I enjoy? I like writing YA fiction. I enjoy adventure stories. And love stories. I like strong female characters. This led me back to my Inca idea. Is that my paddle over there?

I made a foray into a possible first chapter and had some fun, before getting stuck. But this time, rather than feeling blocked, I recognised that the idea needed work.

I hold on to the paddle, I don’t jump ship (or canoe), I think about how to find my way out. I stop thinking and notice the creek is pretty, even if it doesn’t go anywhere. Ideas begin to rain. I could develop the fantasy element. Maybe it’s set in the future. Or an alternative present. I can feel the boat shifting. Pretty soon I’ll be off the mud flats and into the stream of a first chapter and, I hope, swept into the exhilarating white waters of a novel.

Review: Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick is a brilliant, sparsely written YA thriller set in the Arctic at the turn of the 20th century. Sig Andersson is alone in an isolated cabin with the body of his dead father, when there’s a knock at the door.

It’s Gunther Wolff, who has unfinished business with Sig’s father, Einar. And if Einar is not alive, then his business is with Sig. He wants to know where the gold is.

Sig has no idea but the man doesn’t believe him. Wolff has been chasing Einar for ten years and isn’t going to walk away empty handed.

As a story of Arctic gold-lust unfolds, Sig’s mind turns to his father’s prized Colt revolver. His mother had preached that faith was the answer but his father had said there were times when faith ran out and a gun was the answer. Was this one of those times? Should he resort to violence or have faith?

This is a finely crafted novel that seamlessly switches between Sig being held captive and his father’s story ten years earlier. For a writer, it’s a lesson in how to create suspense, how to reveal back story and how to create atmosphere.  Not just the isolation and the cold, which practically gave me frostbite, but how to really draw a reader in. Marcus Sedgwick evokes the world brilliantly. I was in that cabin with Sig, I felt his loss and his fear. I struggled with his dilemma, and, I admit, I was willing him to use the gun to save himself.

Egmont UK – what the editors say

I went along to the first of the SCBWI Professional Series events in London last night and heard commissioning editors Peter Marley and Ali Dougal talk about what Egmont UK is looking for in a manuscript.

Egmont publish Lemony Snicket and Mr Gum but is publishing more teenage fiction now, picking up on the paranormal trend with The Dark Divine by Bree Despain. The vampire trend is beginning to fall off, according to Ali, but paranormal is still going strong with angels and werewolves taking up the slack. Michael Morpurgo’s brilliant War Horse is on Egmont’s list and the film, directed by Stephen Spielberg, is out soon.

With a picture book, Peter Marley is looking for ‘iconic’, memorable characters that are full of personality. He likes funny or quirky characters. Writing must be concise – around 800 words – and age appropriate. There should be a good story arc and a strong ending.

Ali Dougal deals with young fiction (age 5+) through to YA and crossover. She’s is looking for a clear ‘hook’. By which she means a plot you can hold in the palm of your hand, a high concept.  She has to champion a book to her sales and marketing team at the acquisition meeting, so it needs to be an easily understood, marketable concept. One submission that stood out recently, she said, was a book called Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick (brilliant title), a YA action thriller that was fast paced and fun. It was ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off meets Kill Bill‘. This hook helped her pitch it to the acquisition team.  It’s due out later this year.

To make Ali sit up and take notice, it needs one or more of the following: A stunning voice, mass market appeal, a character she loves or something genuinely funny. It can be commercial or have prize-winning potential. If it has both, all the better. International appeal (they have offices in the US and Australia) or film potential also hits the right buttons. Basically, she has to absolutely love it and it has to have the potential to ‘sell by the truckload.’ Publishing is a business, after all.

Ali mentioned a couple of other memorable submissions, also out later this year. The Shadowing, a horror series for boys aged 10+, which had a clear series arc, was commercial and the writing was great. And Dear Dylan, a coming of age story written in email form which dealt with issues but was also fun and had a very real voice.

Egmont is the biggest children’s publisher in the UK and one of the only ones that still accept unsolicited manuscripts. A junior staff member will read them first and pass those they like to an editor. But Ali warned that they receive 180 unsolicited submissions in a two week period so it does take time. If you have an agent, of course, it will go straight to an editor. But all submissions are read. Send your manuscripts to: childrensreader@euk.egmont.com

Thanks to SCBWI for hosting a great event.

Getting to the top of the slush pile

Yesterday evening I was out celebrating with some writing buddies from my old creative writing MA class because one of our number has got a book deal with HarperCollins in the US. A big cheer for David John. Well done, mate and well deserved.

It gives me hope because it’s tough out there for new writers. David hasn’t got a UK deal yet, which is bizarre as his book is a thriller set around the 1936 Berlin Olympics and, with London hosting the 2012 Olympics, you’d think UK publishers would be snapping it up. I expect a UK deal will follow soon but publishers do seem to be risk averse at the moment. And new writers are a risk. It’s understandable, I guess, in the current economic climate, but not helpful to those of us trying to get our first publishing deal.

So how do you get to the top of the slush pile? How do you differentiate yourself?

1. First off, it helps to have a high concept idea or a unique selling point. By high concept I mean like Vampirates. (This is particularly the case with children’s or YA novels.) You need a strong, marketable idea with a plot you can sum up in a sentence or two. Another writer friend Liz Trenow comes from a silk-weaving family and her book, currently being pitched, is set in a factory manufacturing parachute silk during the second world war. It’s a quirky take on the genre and her knowledge of silk is a great USP. It makes her, the author, marketable as well as the book.

2. You need a brilliantly written, well structured novel. That means sympathetic characters, page-turning plot and a strong voice. Get feedback from other writers before you send it out to an agent. This could be through an online community like Writewords, people you’ve met on a writing course or a professional literary consultancy like Cornerstones. Criticism, when it’s constructive, can be enormously helpful. There will be some criticism that you just don’t agree with but often people will pick up on something that you’ve felt unsure about yourself. Listen to that. Sometimes you’ll know there’s a problem in your work but you can’t quite pinpoint it. That’s when you need a fresh pair of eyes to look at it. Your book needs to be the best it can be before you send it out.

3. When approaching an agent, presentation is important. (Read the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook for guidance.) Check for spelling mistakes and make sure it’s in the format that a particular agent or publisher prefers – usually three chapters, a synopsis and a covering letter.

4. But for an agent to get to the book, you need to stand out in that covering letter. Showing professionalism, that you take your craft seriously, will get them to sit up and take notice. Having done creative writing courses / retreats / an MA will help. If you’ve won or been short-listed for a writing competition, mention that. (Writing magazines often run such competitions.)

5. Belonging to a writing organisation will also help distinguish yourself from the crowd. For instance, I belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Such organisations are great for networking with other writers. But often they’ll get agents / publishers/ published authors to give talks. And if you’re approaching an agent or editor, having met them or having heard them speak somewhere is going to get their attention. It means you can say: ‘At the SCBWI conference this year, you said you’d be interested in seeing a good ghost story…’ That kind of personal connection is invaluable.

Good luck!

British Books Challenge 2011

I’ve joined the British Books Challenge 2011, which involves reading 12 books by British authors over the year. I figure I’ll be reading books anyway, why not join the challenge, connect with other readers, writers and reviewers, give British authors a plug and share my reviews on my blog.

I’ll be reviewing YA fiction as that’s what I’m writing. First on my reading list is Marcus Sedgewick’s Revolver, which I think has been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. I’ve previously read Dark Horse by the same author and loved it, very atmospheric.

I’ll also be reading Hello Mum by Bernadine Evaristo, which is sitting on my desk and is a story of murder and heartbreak, according to the strapline. It’s a slim novella that looks like it’ll be urban and gritty and, as I’m writing a contemporary teen book, I thought I should read some similar titles. Both of these books were published in 2010 but I’ll be on the look-out for 2011 titles too.

I do tend to read books that will inform my writing in some way. Books I hope to learn from.  I will review as a reader, of course, but also as a writer.

This is all a bit new and I’m hoping I can follow the challenge’s sign up instructions, which involves linking the site to my review and widgets were mentioned but I’ve forgotten what they are. Still, I’ll do my best.

So watch this space for YA reviews and if anyone else wants to get involved you need to sign up before the end of the month.