Archive for July, 2010

What happens when you mix choking, Social Media and hamsters? I know.

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

So I didn’t do too well on the looking after children front. Barely a week after Alice was out of hospital following the coin-swallowing episode (bit like sword-swallowing but less interesting and more dramatic) I had to dial 999 because she was choking again. I couldn’t believe it. Neither of my children have ever choked in their lives before and now that the youngest is nearly three and a half she does it twice in a week. Fortunately the issue was resolved without medical attention but it has made me very twitchy about Alice and small objects. Which is a shame because she’s now missing out on things. For example, the lady who does my nails was – er – doing my nails yesterday morning and in between doing my fingers and toes she decided, apropos of nothing, that she would take Alice next door to buy her some sweets. It wasn’t a successful trip in any sense because there was a fair queue of people waiting to be seen who looked thoroughly hacked off, and when she and Alice returned it was with a handful of lollipops which I promptly confiscated, and an ice lolly which Alice licked once and then said “I don’t like it,” in that charmingly grateful way that children do. So I had to eat it. Out of politeness, you understand.

I haven’t been especially productive on the book front either; shame on me. I have a couple of separate projects on the go at the moment. The first is writing my new book, which I am approximately 20,000 words into, but it seems to have staggered to a bit of a halt. Although, to be absolutely fair, I didn’t do nothing towards it over the weekend. By any means. What I did was indulge in some fairly intensive socialising, which is usually where I pick up the best anecdotes that I can adapt into a less recognisable form for my new manuscript. I will generally come away with two to three new stories from an average event. Perhaps up to five if I’m lucky. And very occasionally they drop into my lap during the week. They don’t have to be long-winded stories, sometimes it’s just a name, or a comment someone’s made. Or most recently an absurd new treatment that’s all the rage on the dinner party circuit. Well it sounded absurd to me – ear candles. So you put the candle into your ear and set fire to it. I kid you not. I think the aim is to smoke out your ear and clear the tubes, etc., etc. whilst cleverly leaving the ear intact. But in this day and age of modern, 21st century medical miracles and marvels, and taking into account the latest, greatest advances for cancer research and the spectacular things that can be done on the operating table (e.g. coin removal) I am a little suspicious of something that you simply put into your ear and set fire to. I have actually seen this advertised as well and the model was smiling – this doesn’t ring true either. I wouldn’t be smiling if my ear was on fire. Anyway, enough of the idiosyncrasies of the wealthy.

My second project is obviously to promote my forthcoming novel (Things He Never Knew, released 24th September 2010 in case anyone’s missed that bit) and build up a bit of an internet presence. This is very important, and I know that because today I had an email from the novelist Adele Parks whose advice on marketing was definitely centred around the internet. She said – and I quote – “…..with novels I think the most effective marketing is word of mouth, which nowadays is word of internet.” So there we have it. A foray into the more complicated side of the internet is definitely called for. By this I mean more complicated than Hotmail and Facebook, which is where I am usually to be found. Youtube, at a push. But no, this is where Social Media will come into its own I am told. But I’m struggling a bit. First off, I had no idea how to set up a website and now that there is one I have no idea how to maintain it nicely. I am entirely dependent on others. Then there’s this blog which I’ve just about got the hang of (though I admit to having written instructions on how to post a blog which I refer to every so often). And then there’s Twitter…….which isn’t going so well for me. I think I have two, maybe three followers? If it wasn’t so important I would be laughing. Because it’s quite funny. But it isn’t the done thing to laugh at your own ineptitude when others are working hard on your behalf. You must be seen to take it seriously. So therefore I must work out how to attract more followers – I mean how hard can it be? I manage it very well in real life. But to continue, once you have: a website, a blog, a facebook page, a Twitter account, it isn’t enough just to maintain them and coax people into looking at them. They must be all be discreetly linked together so if one is updated the others must magically follow, like the children and Pied Piper of Hamelin. This I find quite tricky also. My children never follow me anywhere.

So you see I have a lot to be getting on with and many new things to be mastered. All of the above, plus general childcare which today has involved dealing with a weeks worth of faeces in one go. I’ll leave that bit there because her father was horrified enough for all of you when he learned the details. And then there’s packing and preparing for my forthcoming trip to Wales this weekend. Which is where my wetsuit comes in for surfing. I think packing my camera must be a priority. Also, I need to keep on top of the publication preparations, ensuring that I receive my advance copies in a timely manner; that should be this week. AND my laptop broke today which nearly caused a meltdown from me because that is just about the worst thing I can imagine at this point. Oh and I forgot – book launch plans must be clarified and set into motion very soon as well. So I really do have a lot of things to do. In addition to which my eldest daughter has just said to me, in all seriousness and in relation to her hamster: “Also Mummy, if you have some spare time, he really does like to be hand fed through the bars.” All right darling, tell you what, you peel the grapes and I’ll push them through, shall I?

Next time: some questions will have been answered – did I survive the surfing? Did I manage to get the wetsuit off? Have I received my advance copies? Are the launch party plans running smoothly? And last but not least – is the hamster deigning to eat from his bowl??

Dangerous Writing

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

About three or four months ago I began to start editing the proofs of my manuscript that arrived. There were two sets. I began with a totally untouched one which was exactly as I’d typed it initially, and this clearly needed some work. ‘Some’ in this sense means ‘a lot’. I literally re-wrote chapters and cut huge swathes of the text completely, wondering most of the time how I’d ever thought it passed for good prose. It was also at this stage that I carefully removed any unflattering references to people that I thought may read the book and recognise themselves. Either through identifying subtle but significant character traits, or because I’d used their name. It wasn’t too hard because the main characters are entirely fictional, but a few supporting ones were – shall we say – based on reality. Interestingly, there is one person in the book who is almost exactly as she appears to others in real life. But happily this is so far removed from how she views herself that it shouldn’t be a problem. So I’ve left her as she is. And once I was happy with those proofs they went off to be corrected and I received the second set, checked those and sent them back.

Around this time, people began asking me if I was excited. To me, this was a bit of a non-sequitur. Excited about what? About the fact that I’d written a book? The fact it’s being published? The book itself? The reception of the book itself? And these last two points were so far away at that time I hadn’t really thought about them. So the answer was essentially ‘no’, which sounded a bit silly and ungrateful so I didn’t say that and struggled to know how best to handle the question. ‘Excitement in progress’ was probably about the closest that I got.

Anyway, that aside, there was one thing that I was definitely excited about. The Front Cover (cue revered and hushed tones). For me, this was the embodiment of the book itself. Not only is the Front Cover spectacularly important in terms of luring people to look more closely at the book, but for me it represented the whole story in one picture. I had a very specific idea of what I wanted and it needed to be perfect. But it’s a very simple illustration so I didn’t think it would hard for the graphic design department of a publishing house to achieve. I thought wrongly. To put it mildly.

First of all, I had to elect whether I wanted a ‘photo-style’ (and there I quote) cover or whether I wanted an illustration. Photo, I thought to myself, that gets the message across nicely. So I duly received the ‘photo-style’ cover, and I was taken aback. Photo-style did not mean photograph (silly me). It meant computer-generated images stuck onto a background that was offensively blue. Steph had paw-like hands with no defined fingers and my twins looked like crash-test dummies. I felt dreadful about rejecting it but I had to, it was just too disappointing. And I couldn’t imagine anyone being lured to pick it up in a bookshop. And I felt a little suspicious; had they really expected me to accept it? Or was it a joke? So I emailed and said, no, that wasn’t quite what I had in mind, some details were wrong. Colours and so forth. I had a revised copy which was equally as bad so I changed my mind (cringing slightly) and said actually, could I have a drawing instead? The less detail the better, to minimise damage. A simple line drawing would be perfect. I probably deserved the disaster that followed. ‘Minimal detail’ had been interpreted as ‘none’. I had some figures with a few lines to denote hair. I felt I was being unreasonably fussy but really – I couldn’t accept that. It was embarrassing to reject yet another idea but not as embarrassing as having it on the front of my book.

It was clear by this point that they weren’t going to come up with the goods, but I couldn’t blame them really. It’s incredibly hard to try and match an image which only exists in someone else’s imagination. And I was being a particularly fussy someone else; I remember one of my principal points of complaint was that Steph’s hair wasn’t long enough. Eventually I decided that I felt too awful saying no all the time – which was why I decided to create the Front Cover myself. When I say ‘myself’ I mean that I directed someone who had the necessary skills and equipment into producing precisely what I wanted. Which he did admirably well and I am thrilled with the result. When I sent it to the publishing co-ordinator he commented that it was the first time he’d ever heard of an author putting themselves on the front cover of their book, which surprised me. I thought it was a completely natural link, I don’t know why I didn’t make it before. Quite clearly a photo of me was the only way to achieve perfection.

So with the book itself now sorted out and hopefully in pre-production, it was time to look at marketing and promotion. When I delved a little deeper into this hitherto unexplored world, I discovered that I was approximately six months behind my ideal schedule. I mentioned in my postscript to the previous blog that it is de rigeur these days to begin promotion before the book is written, and this is only a slight exaggeration. So – a detailed list was concocted of exactly what needs to be achieved and when. I’m not going to detail this list because if I’m successful then it should be self-evident! Jury’s out on that one, I suspect.

But probably the biggest difficulty I face is combining what is fairly intensive effort (for me, who is used to writing as and when I feel like it) with both of my children being at home for nine hundred weeks over the summer. Or should that be nine? The difference is minimal. It’s very difficult to be productive with “Mummmeeeeee!” being yelled every ten seconds – no word of an exaggeration – as I discovered last Wednesday. I hope I’ll find a balance that works, indeed I thought I had. I was capitalising on a particularly productive mood, whilst my children were being suitably entertained by a DVD and crisps. And a pile of coins, as I later discovered. The smallest child swallowed the biggest coin and what followed was a whirlwind twenty-four hours, involving two hospitals, lots of x-rays, a team of specialists and an hour in an operating theatre for the small child. Obviously I am not as balanced as I thought.

Next time:  trying to understand the complicated world of Social Media (as I’m told it’s called) in my attempt to self-promote. And the emphasis there really is on ‘trying’. I consider myself a relatively intelligent individual, but for anyone observing my painstaking crawl into a more complicated area of technology you’d be forgiven for thinking that I’m not. And also trying to look after my children better. I hope this week passes with no more visits to the A&E department in Portsmouth; slightly out of concern for my girls but also because it’s just one of the most horrible places to be.

Beginning at The Beginning

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

As an avid reader and incurably nosy person myself, I’m aware that when you read a book (if it’s good) you often want to know all about the author, the person whose mind this stuff has come from. What do they look like? Do they look like the kind of person to have had these thoughts, to have created these characters? Are they old or young? Well-dressed or more bag-lady? And most importantly do they seem intelligent? Creative? Worth reading more of? Clearly they don’t set this out for you, it has to be gleaned from the drops of information that they do feed you. But usually, upon looking for more information, you get a sparse account of their lives which runs something like this: “So-and-So was born in Leeds and attended Manchester University, graduating in Something Which Has Nothing To Do With Writing Whatsoever. So-and-So now lives in Hull with their partner and small child. XYZ is their first book.”


There’s something missing there – what about the bit in the middle? The all-important decision to become a writer/novelist/author, whatever term you want to use. What about the idea for the book, where did the characters names come from? How long did it take to write? Did they write during the day or in the dead of night? How did the rest of their lives fit in? And then when it was finished, how did they get it published? Because goodness knows, it’s far from easy for those of us who were not born into a distinguished writing dynasty or happen to have an old boyfriend who now edits The Times or some such publication. For me, I want to know warts and all. Although not literally. So I’m going to write about the whole lot. Me, my world and my writing in its entirety will be chronicled from this point onwards. And if I had warts I’d write about those as well.

So let’s go back to that first moment when I decided that I wanted to become a novelist (the bit before that is what can be found in my author bio, plus going to school in Henley and then Reading and having one brother and one sister which then spiralled rapidly to one sister, one brother, two step-brothers and one half-sister and one half-brother when my parents divorced and attempted to out-do each other with children).  I don’t remember the exact moment when I decided to be a novelist but I do recall that it was a definite decision which came almost immediately after my graduation (Law) as real life loomed and there was a distinct danger that I might have to do something constructive and purposeful. This always comes as a shock to students.

I don’t know quite what reception I envisaged for my announcement, but I can’t say that anyone I knew was thrilled. My parents looked a bit pale as they stared back at the last twenty years and an expensive education; the words ‘in vain’ were definitely floating around their minds if not actually being voiced. They hadn’t been too happy when I announced that I was having my first daughter, Molly, in what should have been my second year at University. But we’d got over that by the time I graduated. This event had undoubtedly lulled them into a false sense of security whereby they felt that I was actually on the road to employment. I don’t think they saw the bend in the road. Neither had my husband who looked aghast at the idea of years of supporting our expanding household alone whilst I filled my time writing a few stories (except I don’t think I presented it like that. The words ‘famous’ and ‘novelist’ and ‘millions of pounds’ definitely featured in my persuasive account of why I should be allowed to stay at home in front of my laptop.)

Like most writers who are just beginning, my first attempts at ‘novels’, as I optimistically called them, were atrocious. Badly-constructed with badly-defined characters with a plot that ground to a halt after 25,000 words. But this is part of the process. I was sending my work out to agents along the way and surprisingly I received some very positive replies. No-one was prepared to actually take me on, but it and they were encouraging so I persevered.

Then in March 2007, my second daughter was born and unbeknown to us at the time she had a genetic abnormality. Myself and my husband were plunged into a strange, nightmare world of tests and investigations and prolonged hospital stays as doctors attempted to find out exactly what was wrong and how badly she would be affected. Alice was diagnosed with something called 22q11 deletion, or Di George Syndrome. She spent much of her first year of life in hospital, either undergoing tests or being treated as an in-patient for whatever infection had arisen. Her health appeared to be going from bad to worse as each professional identified a new problem area. As a desperate attempt at escapism, I sat down one night in Alice’s bleak hospital room on the oncology ward and planned what turned into Things He Never Knew in a few hours. Start to finish. And from that very bare plan I crafted the book in whatever snatched moments I could. Life was busy and I made slow but steady progress. Then I put it on my desk where it lay, untouched, for about a year.

In April 2009 myself, my husband and Alice attended the Max Appeal conference in London. Max Appeal is the charity which supports sufferers of 22q11 deletion. During the conference we heard India Knight (@indiaknight) speak, and listening to her inspired me to dig out the manuscript and give it a heavy re-editing. That done, I chose three chapters that I thought were a fair reflection of my writing ability and sent it to a publisher. Having been knee-deep in rejections for the last four years I didn’t think much would come of it and frankly expected to have it back almost by return of post. But a few weeks later I received a letter asking to view the full manuscript. This was a good sign, but I wasn’t jumping with excitement yet, I’d been here before. Almost this exact spot in fact. So I posted the manuscript as requested, again not expecting much, but about a month later a letter arrived saying that the publishers liked it very much and wanted to publish. Drum rolls, champagne corks, vuvuzelas, etc., etc.? Not quite. Because although the offer to publish was a much sought-after, hard fought for offer, this is not the end of the battle to be a novelist. I’ll rephrase that. It’s not the end of the battle to be a successful, well-respected novelist, not by a long shot. So where we are now is just the end of the beginning, although I have to admit that I’m pretty pleased to be there.

Next time: working out how many times it was viable to reject the drawings for the front covers that the publishers were sending me; I use the term ‘drawings’ loosely. And how I eventually ended up with the cover that I did. Also it’s full steam ahead for the promotion side of things, as I realise that I am approximately six months behind where I should be. These days it de rigeur to start promoting yourself before the actual book is written. Plus assorted revelry as the summer holidays kick off…..