Getting the feedback you need…

Having tentatively taken my first steps along the road of writing a novel, it has occurred to me to wonder – is what I’m writing any good??? Should I even bother spending hours and hours on something that may just be “meh”? I noticed last week that, having written my first scenes, I was quite happy with the tone I could see forming… Then a few days passed, I read through them again and wondered what on earth I was doing!

At this point, chucking in the towel feels fairly justified… but then I remember why I’m doing this. I pull on my big girl pants, roll my shoulders, stretch my fingers, tighten the non existent hairband in my short cropped hair and try again. The visual you’re probably sat with now has me chuckling (sorry, not sorry). Seriously though, am I the only one who feels sitting down to write is like preparing to run a marathon? Any who… I digress.

So, I’m sat here in my little writing bubble and wondering if I was half asleep when I wrote my last scene, doubting I have what it takes to be an author – a good one that is – and thinking I should just give in whilst I’m ahead. Can I look at this objectively and see what a potential reader will see? Not a snowball’s chance in hell! I’m already blind to any faults and inconsistencies, problems and pitfalls. I need feedback from someone with fresh eyes. I need a kind, but honest voice of reason that can tell me to forge ahead or pack it in! I need… an Alpha Reader!

Alpha Reader? Yup. Alpha as in first. As in top dog. As in A* reader! A few months ago I had no idea alpha readers even existed. Their job? To read your first fumbling efforts at fiction and tell you what works and what doesn’t. Your alpha reader is someone you can trust, who won’t mind reading your craptastic spelling and grammar and telling you what parts they adored and what parts they didn’t quite understand, what characters they loved and what characters they felt need more attention. Your alpha reader is also someone who will encourage you to keep going and give you some helpful hints.

I’m happy to say I have 3 very lucky (to my mind) alpha readers who have said they are more than willing to read what I write and give me some highly appreciated feedback! This puts me in the “I have the best husband and friends in the world” box and I know you will all agree, writing just got a whole lot easier… Not? Well, maybe not. But at least now I can get a feel for what works outside of my bubble and that will make the next step a little less daunting to take!

 

Book of the Month – January 2019

36389285The Songs of Us – Emma Cooper

  • Format: Paperback – 432 pages
  • Published: 20th September 2018
  • Publisher: Headline Review

If Melody hadn’t run out of de-icer that day, she would never have slipped and banged her head. She wouldn’t be left with a condition that makes her sing when she’s nervous. And she definitely wouldn’t have belted out the Arctic Monkeys’ ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ in assembly at her son’s school.

If Dev hadn’t taken the kids to the zoo that day, then the accident wouldn’t have happened. He wouldn’t have left Flynn and Rose without a dad. Or shattered the love of his life’s heart.

But if they hadn’t seen the missing person report that day, they might never have taken the trip to Cornwall. And, in the last place they expected, discovered what it really means to be ‘Us’.

As part of my newly established website and blog, I plan to write a monthly “Book of the Month” post to showcase one of the books I have read this month. 

For January I have chosen the debut novel “The Songs of Us” by Emma Cooper. This is a book that has been recommended by a great many people in a bookclub I am a member of on Facebook – The Fiction Café – Book Club. I took to it knowing upfront that it was deemed both incredibly funny and heartbreakingly sad. It’s been a few days since I finished reading it and I have to admit, I needed the time to recover! This book really was a roller coaster ride. My goodness!!! I loved every page and don’t think I have laughed so hard or cried so many silent tears when reading a book – ever! It well and truly hooked me and I have been recommending “The Songs of Us” to everyone I come across! In execution, the book has a cast of characters you can’t help but fall in love with, a playlist worthy enough to play at full volume in your car and a story that keeps you reading passed a sensible bedtime and at every other opportunity, right up until the last page. 

I was telling my 9 year old son about the book the other morning and why it had made me cry. He was teary eyed himself, listening to my short summary of the story! At the end he asked me why I would want to read such as sad book? I told him that even though it was very sad – it was also incredibly beautiful and touching to read how loved a person can be. How reading something so evocative, can help you appreciate what happens in your own life more. And how our lives are better when we feel all the emotions – not just happiness. He seemed to accept that – with a very sage nod! 

I contacted Emma and told her how much I loved her book and asked if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. I know she’s busy working on her next novel, “The First Time I Saw You”, but she was more than happy to oblige and I’m truly thankful she took the time to answer my questions and is allowing me to post them here for you all to read! As I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, I decided to stick to questions about the writing process rather than aspects of the story…. so here goes! 

 

14906595Hi Emma!

Firstly, let me just say a huge Thank you for writing such an amazing book and for answering my questions! 

It’s my pleasure, thank you for having me! I always get a real thrill when I hear how readers have been so affected by The Songs of Us and always, always love it when I hear that it is being talked about and recommended to friends.  That was how I often came across some of my favourite books so it’s wonderful that my book is being included.

Whilst I was reading I found myself wondering about your process when writing with so many references to popular songs. I had a distinct “chicken or the egg” feeling – what came first? Did you have a great song and then wrote the scene to match or did you have the plot and then found the perfect song to fit the scene?

A bit of both really.  There were certain songs that I always wanted to include for specific scenes – “This Woman’s Work” being one of them, but often, I would be writing a scene and a song would just pop into my head.  “Agadoo” was one of those and I burst out laughing when it did.  I had literally typed ‘Aaaaaahhh!’ and ‘doo, doo, doo, push pineapple shake a tree’ followed without any conscious thought from me.

The images your book creates are so rich and clear, I felt like I was watching it all happen right in front of me! How do you go about writing something so alive and not get bogged down just describing what you see in your head? 

That’s a really difficult question to answer …  I’m a pantser by nature, and without sounding like a pillock, my books do tend to just write themselves.  That being said, I learnt a great deal about writing techniques and features when I worked in Year six for several years.  I use a lot of pathetic fallacy, which is where you give a human feeling to an inanimate object, especially when using it to describe weather; it can give a whole different feel to a scene without too much mundane description, for example:

“As I step outside, I breathe in the dewy grass, tilting my head to the night sky which has already thrown off its dark blanket and now stretches and unpeels, revealing blood orange.”

If I had just described the scene as dawn breaking, and talked about the colours of the sky, you wouldn’t get that punch.  This isn’t something I’m really aware of as I write though … it just sort of happens!

After my many attempts at reading some of the passages from your book to my husband, and failing miserably because I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe – I wondered what it was like for you to write some of the most hilarious scenes, and equally the saddest ones? 

I love that you were reading parts out to your hubby! I do this too! 

Often, I found myself laughing when I was writing, especially when Melody took me by surprise.  The “Dontcha” scene came from nowhere as did the “Birdy Song”. Equally, there were times when I had to stop writing because I was crying so much.  I have to say that I didn’t cry at the ‘big’ scene at the end of the novel though, but I think that was because I knew it was coming all the way through.  There were two scenes that really made me cry, the “Perfect Day” scene was another of those that came from nowhere. I had the song playing while I wrote it and it was a real gut-wrencher for me.  The other was when Flynn sees his mum asleep, I wrote that when I was covering a class and had to pull myself together quickly!

What did it feel like to reach the big writing milestones – writing the final words, finding out your book would be published, seeing the cover design, reaching publication day and hearing the audiobook version? 

After writing the last words to The Songs of Us, I remember playing Melody’s final song really loud and having a bit of a dance around my lounge! That euphoria was short lived though once I started getting the gazillions of rejections through.  Funnily enough, I think getting my agent was my biggest milestone.  That email, next to meeting Russell and having my children, is the single most amazing thing that has ever happened to me. Having a literary agent telling you that you’re an incredible writer and that they want to help you find the right publisher is like no other feeling I have ever experienced!

Seeing my cover (and oh what a beauty it is!) was very surreal. I had an image in my mind of the tree that Tom sculpts, so I was expecting something similar to Rowan Coleman’s “The Memory Book” (which I love). Seeing this bright red balloon took me by surprise, but as I’m sure you can guess, I was over the moon with it.  I have a slight hint from my editor about the brief for “The First Time I Saw You”‘s cover and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the designers go with it.  More on this soon!!

As to the audiobook, that was quite a nerve-wracking experience, hearing actors speaking your words is just … incredible.  I’m so very lucky that I had two actors too, as this isn’t always the case in multiple viewpoints.  I think they did an exceptional job, they made your husband cry so I’ll take that as a massive win! P.S let him know he’s not on his own, Russ has cried at “The Songs of Us” more times than I can count … he had to actually leave the room when he read the ending for the first time. He’s cried at “The First Time I Saw You” several times too! 

E-book publication day I spent drinking prosecco and sitting outside my caravan obsessively checking my ranking on Amazon.  Paperback publication day, I went into an independent Book shop in Oswestry called Booka Bookshop and signed some copies … that was a very special feeling, seeing it there in the wild was just wonderful.  It’s a gorgeous book shop if you are ever close by, and they host some incredible author evenings … Jodi Picoult was there a few months ago!

And finally the universal question – what is the best advice you can offer a new author? 

Never give up.  I almost did.  It’s hard to keep believing in yourself when you’re getting email after email from agents and publishers telling you that, for whatever their reason, you’re not quite good enough.  It chips away at your self-belief day after day until you start to believe that they’re right.  I was so very close to giving up. No matter how good, deep down, I knew The Songs of Us was, it’s hard to keep believing in yourself. 

There is a phrase that you will receive when you get rejections: subjective.  This business is so subjective. I had publisher and agents saying that readers just wouldn’t like the singing parts, and of course for some readers that’s true, but there are other readers and publishers, all around the world who, like yourself, absolutely loved it.  I dread to think how different my life would be if I had have given up.

Thank you so much for being willing to answer my questions and letting me post them on here! I really hope “The Songs of Us” continues to attract new readers and gives them as great a reading experience as it gave me!

Thank you for having me and taking the time to ask such great questions!

 

So, my dear readers… I’m giving this book 5 out of 5 stars! If you’re reading this and curious about it – give it a go! I can guarantee “The Songs of Us” will have you in tears – happy and sad ones – and you won’t mind one bit! 

Social media and the modern author…

Do you have a Facebook Page? A Twitter account? Instagram? Yes? Congratulations! Or maybe commiserations? I suppose it depends on how you feel about using social media to further your writing career. 

For me, this was a big step. Naturally, I’ve had a private Facebook account for years, but the thought of creating an Author page was both exciting and a bit daunting. Same goes for Twitter and Instagram. Initially, as this is such a new adventure and I haven’t yet told everyone what I’m up to… I was concerned more about friends and family seeing my page before I was ready to tell them. Then I wondered if I could claim the right to set up pages and accounts with the title of “author” attached. I went ahead and did it anyway though and the exhilaration was palpable! 

Once my worries passed, I began to contemplate why on earth do we need all these different social media channels? How might they help me as a writer? If my goal is to write a novel, why must I also write a blog, and Facebook posts, and tweets, and and and…? First let’s just answer that question right there: I don’t have to do any of this if I don’t want to! But…

Using different social media channels can create a vital part of an authors platform. Regardless of how your book is published – traditionally or independently – you need to be able to reach a responsive audience. Every channel used is a potential point of contact with a new reader and it allows you to create a network of people who know and support you. Apparently, having an already-established audience is also a big draw for a prospective agent or publisher and should not be underrated! Besides this, social media is a great way to connect with other authors and make new writing friends.

So how do I reap the benefits of social media and avoid the pitfalls? One good piece of advice I heard recently was to make a distinction between the private me and the writer me so I don’t overload friends and family with writing updates, or writing friends and readers with updates on my children’s latest accomplishments, fascinating as they may be. Another piece of advice a friend offered, was to choose where I most want to be visible and not try to be active everywhere. It takes too much time and attention! Finally, something I read the other day when researching my last blog post, was how social media can easily become a drain on your energy and ability to focus. It’s much better to avoid social media for a few days, weeks or even months if necessary, than sacrifice the attention your writing requires. 

By establishing this site and engaging with social media I have made a conscious decision to build my online presence, at the same time as I work on my novel. My main goal is to chronicle my journey from reader to author, but I must admit – it would be lovely to also build a following of potential readers. The way I see it is, what I do now will potentially benefit me in the future and so it’s worth my time and attention…. We’ll just have to wait and see what comes of it all!

Finding the time….

I may have only taken the first few steps along the road to becoming an author, but already, finding the time to write is a challenge. There are so many things to do, especially when you add 3 kids into the mix. I have responsibilities, who doesn’t? But how do I successfully balance those responsibilities with finding time to sit and write? When needing to get everything else done and needing to write are equally important, how do you chose? 

I took to the internet to see what advice there might be floating around out there and I’m happy to say, I’m obviously not alone in this area! I found some really helpful suggestions!

The long and short of it is – if you want to succeed, you need to set yourself goals. Ultimate goals, small day to day goals – whatever you need! Without them you lack the necessary focus and direction you need to decide where to use your time and energy. There seems to be some variation on how these goals should be formed, but the version I like most is: SMART goals!

  • Specific – Your goal must be clear and well defined.
  • Measurable – Your goal should have clear parameters that can measure your degree of success.
  • Attainable – Your goal should be possible to reach.  
  • Relevant – Your goal should be relevant to what you want to achieve.
  • Time Bound – Your goals must have a deadline so you can measure both success and achievement.

Beyond being SMART, there are a few things I think make a goal even more powerful: 

  1. Be positive! – Use “I will…” rather than “I will not…”
  2. Make it motivating! – It’s important that your goals motivate you. Writing down why – this can help if you start to doubt yourself or lose confidence in your ability to actually achieve your goal. 
  3. Make it visible! Post your goals in visible places to remind yourself every day of what it is you intend to do.

So now I have my goal. Great! But does knowing what I want to achieve help me actually do what needs to be done to get there? What steps do I take to reach it? 

Here’s where planning and avoiding procrastination come in handy. We all have the same 24 hours in a day. How is that some people are so much more productive with that time than others? Part of the answer lies in how they manage their time or in essence manage themselves. So what are they doing right that we can learn from…? 

  1. Break down your goals into smaller more manageable steps. Instead of saying “I will finishing writing my first draft before the summer”, plan to “write 500 words today” or “write for 2 hours this morning”. It’s a lot easier to get started on a project and keep moving forwards when you have simple, reachable steps towards your ultimate goal. It’s also a great way to feel a sense of accomplishment and see the progress you’re making.
  2. Create a timeline or schedule for these smaller steps. Setting aside the time in your schedule to write allows you to prioritise writing as highly as going to work or cooking dinner. If you don’t make time to write, you won’t take time to write! 
  3. Get rid of the distractions! If Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Messenger are too much of a draw – shut them down and rid yourself of the temptation! It might feel good to keep up with what’s going on out in the world, but it’s actually been proven that activities like social networking can significantly increase stress and reduce your ability to focus. David Rock of the Harvard Business Review says “When we connect with people online, we don’t tend to get the chemical benefit of oxytocin or serotonin that happens when we bond with someone in real time, when our circuits resonate with real-time shared emotions and experiences…. [Web users are left with an] overabundance of dopamine that, while it feels great, creates a mental hyperactivity that reduces the capacity for deeper focus.” In short – your brain functions better without Facebook!
  4. Set yourself a timer for 60-90 minutes to maximise your effort and then take a break… But don’t drift back to social media during your break! Instead get some good, old fashioned exercise – stretch, go for a walk, do some yoga. While the brain produces the same amount of neurones regardless of physical activity, researchers have found that people who exercise form more neurones that emit a neurotransmitter known as GABA, which has been proven to calm the brain and reduce overall stress and anxiety. Meditation is also an effective way to reduce stress and boost your focus and sense of well-being. Just a few minutes can significantly calm and reset the mind and in the long run help you fight against depression, fatigue, high blood pressure, and insomnia. Help your body and your mind take the break it needs to refresh, so you can get back to the task at hand when you sit down again!
  5. Give yourself an incentive! No matter how small it is, allowing yourself a reward may motivate you to keep going! Save the really huge rewards for the big achievements though. That way you’ll have deserved them! 😉 
  6. Tell someone what you’re up to! It’s all too easy to postpone or “forget” if you’re the only person holding yourself accountable and responsible for your goals. As an added bonus, you also have someone to celebrate your victories with, no matter how small.

Backed by all of these helpful suggestions I now feel like I can make the necessary changes, find the right motivation and take the steps I need to help me reach the ultimate goal of finishing my novel! It’s been a great exercise researching this and I know it will help! If you’ve been in the same situation maybe you’ll find this useful? If so, let me know in the comments below and have a productive day!

Is it all about the desk?

img_4266As a new writer I’ve noticed my focus on all things writing related has increased tenfold and for the last few days, it’s been all about the space we write in. I’ve heard some fabulous examples over the years, about where famous authors create their worlds and fill them with amazing stories.

It’s no secret that the best place to write according to J.K Rowling, is in a café. Stephen King says in his book “On writing” that the most important part of your writing space is the door. He says the door not only serves to keep the world out, but it also serves to keep you in and focused on your work. Charles Dickens apparently loved his desk so much, he would have it shipped with him if he knew he would be gone for awhile. What this tells me is that there are likely as many favourite spaces to write as there are authors and that we must each find what works for us!

I know what doesn’t work for me: sitting at the dining table on a hard chair, surrounded by my children’s chatter and a constant demand for my attention. Having taken the step to jump into writing with both feet, I felt it was time to find a space where I can sit and be inspired to write. Which means what?

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Well, I like an organised space – everything with a place and everything in its place. That’s not to say I live in a house that never gets messy – quite the opposite with 3 kids, 4 cats, a dog and too much stuff! But chaos and untidiness make me feel claustrophobic and in figuring out what I will need to be at my most productive, an organised space is high on my list of priorities. I like the idea of Stephen Kings “closed door”, I’m just not sure it can be achieved, what with the ever-present need my children have to show me their newest colouring masterpiece or ask for yet another snack! Anything else? A window. I find I’m a muller and when I’m thinking things through, I tend to stare out of the window rather than at my screen. A window to the street is a distraction maybe, but a window to the tree topped rock face behind my house, is the perfect view for my wonderings.

img_4261And so, armed with ideas of what I would like, and propelled by an extreme aversion to sitting another minute at the dining table, my husband and I decided to convert our storage room into a work place for me. We went to IKEA and bought what we needed and thanks to his handyman skills – installing a huge desk and plenty of storage space – I now have the perfect work place for me! It’s a combined workspace for both sewing and writing and since I’ve spent several days doing an insane amount of sorting and organising, it’s beginning to look just how I want it. I have no idea if it will make my writing better, but I know it’s a space I will enjoy spending time in, and hopefully that will at least inspire me to write more and better than anywhere else!

What about you? Where do you write? Drop me a comment and let me know! And where ever you are – I hope you feel inspired to write today!

 

 

“Where words fail…

… Music speaks!” Hans Christian Andersen said that and I would imagine he knew what he was talking about!

Today I find myself staring out of the window at a clear, blue and beautiful winter sky, thinking over the scenes of my story. I can “see” my characters, “hear” their words and “feel” their emotions, but as with most stories – it doesn’t seem to work as well without a soundtrack! Have you ever had the shivers from a really good melody? Heard a singer who’s voice tugs at your heartstrings? Heard the words of a song and felt they were speaking to you? I live for moments like this and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, when I imagine the scenes of my story, there’s a soundtrack playing inside my mind in the background! It makes everything feel complete, feel “right” and I’m hoping the inspiration I take from the songs makes what I write, better.

To make my soundtrack more of a reality than an endless loop of phrases and snippets of melody running through my head, I decided to compile a playlist of songs that reflect the emotions, struggles and achievements of my main characters: Beth and Sam. As music will play a part of their story, I just had to create something that would do them justice! I know I will love listening to it – there are some of my all time favourites in there – but it occurred to me that maybe you would enjoy a peak into their musical world! If you’re interested in hearing Beth and Sam’s playlist, you can find it here on Spotify or follow the social media link at the bottom of the page! I hope you like it!

The journey begins…

Ever since my Dad first read Matilda to me when I was five years old – doing all the voices of course – I’ve been in love with books! But, never in a million years did I imagine I would some day be writing one myself! It’s a bit daunting and I’ve been second guessing and thirteenth guessing myself, but as of today – January 17th 2019 – I am officially a writer!

You might think it’s a tad premature to call myself a writer, with no published books, no agent, not even a finished manuscript! But I read an article today and it was like the internet was screaming at me “Here! We knew you were waiting for this!”. I won’t quote the entire article, but particularly one section hit home and gave me the push I needed to proudly acknowledge that this is what I am!

When you finally call yourself a writer, it drives home the fact that this is real. It’s serious. We’re no longer talking about some vague ambition. You’re a professional writer who has to produce content, be that novels or nonfiction books or articles or whatever.

Go ahead and say it right now: “I am a writer.” The more it becomes real for you, the more it will drive you to sit down as much as possible and put words on the page.

Maybe it’s about having the right mindset? Maybe I just need to believe in myself a bit more? Whatever the reason, if I am going to make this a reality and find the drive to push on and work hard – I need to start right here:

“I am a writer”

This is my journey!