The breakfast of champions

The observant among you have noticed that I haven’t been here for a while. Here are the headlines of what’s been happening since my last post on 8 April. I:

  • finished the first draft of my second novel, a clean heart
  • wrote a short story
  • attended four Friday afternoon writing classes (output so far: three poems)
  • signed up for an online course on blogging run by Women Writers School; attended the first webinar
  • edited a short story and sent it off for consideration for Story Shop in the Edinburgh International Book Festival
  • started my application for a 2018 Scottish Book Trust new writers award (goodness, that came round again quickly)

What? Oh, you noticed that, did you? Yes, that’s right. No submissions to agents.  Which was, after all, the point of this whole process.

I’ve heard of writer’s block (and seem to be blessedly immune from it), but I appear to be suffering from something I haven’t heard of: submission block.

When I’m really struggling with something I always turn for advice to the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century: Winnie the Pooh.

In my favourite Pooh story, In which Tigger comes to the Forest and has breakfast, Pooh has to try to find something that Tigger likes to eat.  This is tricky.  Each time Tigger is offered something he says, ‘that’s what Tiggers like best’, but it transpires that he doesn’t like Pooh’s honey, nor Piglet’s haycorns.  And he really, really doesn’t like Eeyore’s thistles:bumblebee_thistle_4

‘Are these really thistles?’ he whispered.

‘Yes,’ said Pooh.

‘What Tiggers like best?’

‘That’s right,’ said Pooh.

‘I see,’ said Tigger. So he took a large mouthful and he gave a large crunch.  ‘Ow!’ said Tigger.  He sat down and put his paw to his mouth.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked Pooh.

‘Hot!’ mumbled Tigger.

‘Your friend,’ said Eeyore, ‘appears to have bitten on a bee.’

Eventually, Tigger discovers that what Tiggers like best is Roo’s strengthening medicine (malt extract).

I’ve been trying to eat thistles. My search for the equivalent of Roo’s strengthening medicine continues.



Today is day two of my holiday. No work for eleven days. No trying to get published for eleven days. It feels great not to have to think about either of those things for that long.

Writing, however, is a different matter. I can’t imagine taking a holiday from that. The longer I do this, the more I understand Stephen King’s confession in On Writing:

‘I used to tell interviewers that I wrote every day except for Christmas, the fourth of July and my birthday. That was a lie. I didn’t want to sound like a workaholic dweeb. The truth is that when I’m writing I write every day.’

I was reading John Boyne’s my wrting day in the Guardian earlier this week and he said something similar.  He also talked about writers who say they hate writing.  Like him, I wonder what on earth possesses anyone to write if they don’t enjoy it. They’d probably get paid more doing almost any other work. And possibly get more positive feedback.

I had rejection email number five yesterday, by the way.

I can live with that beacuse I love writing. I’m nearing the end of the first draft of novel number two: just two chapters left to write. Maybe. It’s always possible someone will do something unexpected, almost certainly outrageous, to change that. That’s fine because I feel the way I do when I’m reading a really good book: I want to keep going to find out how it ends, and I want it to last as long as possible. So – no writing holiday.

Back to Stephen King:

‘When I’m writing it’s all the playground, and the worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damned good.’

Food for the journey

Earlier this week someone was talking to me about a friend who is on a diet. The conversation went something like this:

She says she hates it. She hates the food. Absolutely hates it. All of it. 

It’ll never work, then. You have to find food you like, otherwise it’s impossible to stick to it. 

I realised I was saying this because I needed to hear it.

I’ve spent every Friday this year pushing myself to do the grim work of trying to find an agent. I now hate Friday. All of it. In food terms Friday is overcooked cabbage and watery, lumpy porridge. Not a ripe mango or a tender asparagus spear in sight.

Time for action. Otherwise, I’m going to descend into a cycle of not doing the work, feeling guilty, being even less inspired to do the work, berating myself for having given up a day’s salary to fail at this… and so on. And on.

Step one was to sign up for a Friday afternoon writing class next term: having something to look forward to on Friday afternoon should help pull me through Friday morning.

Step two is going to take a bit more work, but I feel excited about it.

I went to a lovely Eat and Wonder supper club on Friday evening. Nine of us, eating delicious food and watching a fabulous selection of short, quirky, inspiring films about swimming and water. Halfway through I had an aha moment: what about a supper club for people who’re trying to get published? I’ve got nothing to lose by trying to set that up.

This is the way with quests. You set off believing you’re going to travel from A to B. First, you find that B is a good bit further away than you thought. Next, you suspect B can only be reached via Q, Z and some strange place labelled with a symbol you’ve never seen before. Finally, you realise that B might not be where you’re going at all (or at least not yet).

But as long as the journey is delicious none of that matters.




Sin, sex and salvation

Today didn’t start well.  I had to phone HMRC to try and sort out a tax thing. I won’t bore you with the details, but after 80 minutes online and on the phone (most of that on hold) I was no further forward. And ready to punch someone. Luckily I was alone.

It did, however, stop me vacillating about whether I could bear yet another Friday at my computer trying to find agents to reject my book. Yup. You’re right. I decided I definitely couldn’t bear it. I did what any sensible person would do under these circumstances: I emailed a friend who works from home and asked her if she wanted to meet for lunch.  She said yes (within about 20 seconds) and I felt better.

In fact, I felt well enough to submit a short story to a competition and believe that wasn’t displacement activity.

Part of the competition prize is a week-long writing retreat to a place called Gladstone’s Library. They offer some interesting workshops, often about art and faith. The novel I’m working on just now is about two slightly elderly Anglican priests and their struggles with doubt and temptation, so the workshops interest me.  One on Perspectives of Art on Faith caught my eye – here’s the picture that goes with it:


(I suspect I looked a bit like the guy on the left with the teeth and the horns, after my 80 minutes ‘interacting’ with HMRC)

Then I read the programme for Day 2:

  • 08.30    Breakfast
    09.30    Sin
    10.45    Coffee
    11.15    Sex
    12.30    Lunch
    17.00    Salvation
    18.45    Dinner

If it wasn’t already fully booked I’d be there like a shot.


Defined to death

I have a life-long reading habit. I use the word habit here in the same way people talk about a drug or alcohol habit, except (at the risk of stretching the metaphor too far) in reading terms I do every drug you can think of, I guzzle booze in many varieties, I eat lustily and omnivorously and I have a shoe collection that would make Imelda Marcos look like Cinderella on her way home from the ball.

Anyway, you get the idea – I read all sorts of stuff, and lots of it.  I thought that meant I knew a bit about books and genres.  I was wrong.

This morning I read that the Bailey’s prize long list only has three debut authors on it, and includes hugely successful, incredibly well-established people like Rose Tremain, Margaret Atwood and Annie Proulx.  I was still pondering this, trying to decide whether it was worth expending any energy on being disgruntled about something I’m so unlikely ever to be part of, when I read that there was only one example of speculative fiction on the list.

This week’s confession: I had no idea what speculative fiction* is. Thank goodness for google.

Next, I was researching yet another agent’s submission rules.  This one wants a ‘one-line elevator pitch’. I can just about deal with that, though it’s hard to be very nuanced in an elevator.

Then came the thing that tipped me over the edge. I skipped disgruntled and went straight to seriously pissed off. The last item on the list of things to include in the submission was: ‘let us know where you’d place your book in the market and up to three comparable books or authors you’d place your book alongside’

Come on guys.  That’s your job, surely, not mine.

And, I so hoped I’d written something that wasn’t like someone else’s work.

I’ve noticed a disquieting trend recently: books advertised with phrases like, ‘if you liked Harry Potter you’ll love (insert title of book about teenage wizard who goes to the local comprehensive school)’ or ‘Val McDermid meets Kurt Vonnegut’.  Is that really how people choose the books they buy?  It just puts me off.

I’ve written, am writing, the story my characters ask me to write about them.  I wouldn’t insult them by comparing that story to another author’s book, no matter how fabulous that book might be.


*Because life’s far too short to wade through a wikipedia post that runs to over 1000 words, and cites 30 references, here’s the definition:

Speculative fiction is a broad umbrella genre denoting any narrative fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements.  It encompasses science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternative history, magic realism and superhero fiction.



Ground Control to Major Tom

I’m reading An Astronaut’s Guide to Earth by Chris Hadfield just now. Here he is just before he left the International Space Station after 144 days aboard.  He’s singing David Bowie’s space oddity.


His book is all about the lessons he’s learned from his life: first as a boy with a dream, then as a man who got to live that dream.

When Hadfield decided, age 9, that he wanted to be an astronaut he believed it was impossible: he’s Canadian, and back then Canada didn’t have a space programme. But he spent the next couple of decades doing everything that he could to give him the best chance of fulfilling his dream if things changed.

I was shocked to learn just how infrequently any astronaut actually gets to be in space. Hadfield has been just three times since he was accepted to train in 1992: 8 days in 1995; 11 days in 2001 and the 144 days, mentioned above, in 2012/13. In between he trained (and trained, and trained) and did all sorts of other space-related – but not actually in space – jobs.

At the start he didn’t know if he would ever be picked for a mission. And each time he came back to earth he didn’t know if he would ever be picked again.

You know where I’m going with this by now, I’m sure.

I wrote out and stuck on the wall this quote from Hadfield’s book:

It’s probably not going to happen, but I should do things that keep me moving in the right direction – and I should be sure those things interest me, so whatever happens, I’m happy.

As the observant among you noted (and phoned to ask why – thanks, guys) I didn’t write a post last week.  Seven weeks in and I’d lost my motivation.  And the writing wasn’t going well.  So last Friday I took myself off to the BP Portrait Award Exhibition and wandered until I found a portrait that inspired my to write.  It worked: I wrote something I was happy with and, more importantly, it unlocked something I was stuck with in my current novel.

I also got rejection email number three last week.  This one contains a smidgen of hope in the form of positive feedback:

You’re a good writer and I deliberated over these sample chapters for some time.

That’s good, much better than the other, bland ‘no thank you’ rejections I’ve had.

But all of that has made me realise that I’m not going to keep doing the things I need to do to try to get published unless I can be sure those things interest me.  So – part of the work now is to find out how I can do this in ways that I enjoy, so that whatever happens, I’m happy.


Here’s a video of Chris Hadfield’s Space Oddity from space


What are words worth?

This week’s reading included a Guardian article about the author Donal Ryan. In short, after what (from where I’m currently sitting) looks like great success – bestsellers, awards – he’s gone back to his day job as a civil servant because: ‘You could take a chance and scrape a living through bursaries and writing books, but I’d get too stressed out. It just isn’t worth it.’

In the article was a link to a survey by the  Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society. The two most startling stats were:

  • authors’ median real terms earnings fell from £15,450 a year in 2005 to £11,000 in 2013
  • in 2005 40% of professional authors earned their income solely from writing. In 2013 it was 11.5%

That should be depressing, disheartening at the very least, to someone like me who’s just setting out on trying to get published. Weirdly, it’s not.

My reaction told me a whole lot about why I write, and why I want what I’ve written to be published.

It’s not in any expectation of making money. Just as well.

It’s also not in any hope of being famous. Ugh. Horrible thought.

I really do want all these characters who play out their lives inside my head, then on the scribbly pages of my notebooks, then in the pixels on my computer screen, to go off and share their lives with lots of other people. They’ll need to get published for that. It looks like they’ll be the ones who pull me along through this less than pleasant process.

What are words worth? I’m not sure, but it’s not measured in £s.

Incidentally, I got rejection email number 2 this week. And someone who reads this blog asked for some regular stats, so here they are:

  • words written so far: 149,430 (that’s one and a-bit-more-than-a-half books)
  • words written this week: 2,376
  • submissions to agents so far: 7
  • rejections: 2
  • requests to see the whole manuscript: 0
  • feedback: 0
  • lovely, strange, infuriating, intriguing characters encountered: 27