Monday, 31 October 2011

Dead Pets Society

What is read without doubt influences what is written. What is read in childhood, those first words that strike a chord, that ignite as yet unexplored emotions, will be fundamental to the development of a writer. My own writing is rather dark - families dealing with tragedy, battling to recover, desperate to cope again. Shortly after my book was accepted for publication Mum asked to read it. A few days later she handed it back to me, silent, her face downcast. I felt a stab of disappointment.
     "You didn't like it."
     "No, I did. It's good..." Her reticence was painful.
     "What's wrong with it?"
     She looked forlorn. "I just don't know what I did wrong. You seemed such a joyful child." She was right. My sister and I had very happy childhoods: we wanted for little, our opinions counted, and we were loved. We were fortunate.
     Poor Mum.
     I blame my reading material. My first memorable book (after the Enchanted Wood, the Famous Five, and every Asterix book I could lay my eight-year-old hands on) was Susan Cooper's monumental The Dark is Rising Sequence. I quite literally climbed on to her magic carpet and let her fly me to a world  of seventh sons of seventh sons, The Light versus The Dark, amulets, runes, Old Ones, Walkers and Sleepers. My heart raced and my hands scrabbled to turn the pages as I ate up her words. A year or two older and my need for that adrenalin hit took a darker turn. Bypassing the Judy Blumes and Jilly Coopers (okay, maybe I did read Riders, but wasn't that on the curriculum?), I landed upon Virginia Andrews. Her twisted, sinister writing found the dark nooks and crannies of my teenage brain and fed them incarcerated children, sibling incest, abuse and torture, and then finally the mind-altering paragraphs that described the family dog, tethered and dead, a bag of bones, sores around its neck from desperate attempts to reach the bowl of water left just inches beyond its reach. That hit me hard. We had a menagerie growing up. We have our own now. A life without animals around me is unthinkable. But I haven't yet written a story that doesn't include a dead pet.
     There's something vital about the abuse of a helpless animal, something that cuts through us, our humanity. Those trusting eyes, the unconditional love, the unwavering loyalty. Dead pets stir emotion. Think Glenn close and that poor boiled bunny. It’s such a powerful device, often used at the peak of the drama, when things have got really bad, when the last threads of decency have flown. It's not illegal to kill a pet (humanely, at least). And cruelty is rarely punished with anything more than a fine. Yet animal abuse is linked to psychopathic behavior with many serial killers admitting to it as a child. Put it this way, if your husband-to-be tells you he used to cut the tails off field mice as a boy, however gorgeous he is, I advise you to start backing towards the door, and when you get there, turn and run as fast as you can.
     After Virginia, Stephen King and James Herbert were my next beloveds (it was an 'open' relationship, my love divided equally between them), and both know a thing or two about using animals to ratchet tension. In King's The Dead Zone a Bible salesman beats a barking dog to death with a bible and in doing so we learn all we need to know about the man. In The Magic Cottage, Herbert conversely uses the miraculous recovery of a half-dead thrush to establish a feeling of elated happiness (his subsequent transformation of the cottage in the story from love-filled haven to menacing epicenter of evil, in my opinion, is a master class in tone and mood). Now, I don't write horror. I don't even read it anymore (though having just written this post I might well go and blow the dust of The Magic Cottage). The pets in my books aren't starved or beaten to death, but I have been known to run one over and have it lie undiscovered for a day or two. Thanks to the lessons I learnt as a child, there's nothing I find as symbolically emotive as a dead or dying pet. 
     So, Mum, do you believe me now? My fascination with grief and loss, and the appearance of the occasional maggoty cat, has absolutely nothing to do with you...unless, of course, you blame yourself for having such poor control over what I read. I mean, Virginia Andrews? Good God, woman, what on earth possessed you to leave me alone with her?

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Agents love bananas

I am represented by a lovely agent. Fact.
I am grateful for her every day. Fact.
It is because of bananas that she is my agent. Fact.

'She' is the paragon of patience and generous provider of tissues and shoulder I will hereafter refer to as The Lovely One. Ensnaring The Lovely One was simple (ish). I merely tempted her out of her agenty lair with bananas. Not the well-packaged yellow is-it-really-a-fruit enjoyed by cartoon monkeys, but bananas of the semi-humorous kind.

The story of my route to becoming an almost published author is not an unusual one. There was no headline-worthy six figure sum, no ravenous editors fighting over my book at auction, but there were a number of long, and sometimes lonely, years of bringing up my babies and writing whenever they fell asleep or got the lego out. There was the first book. Then the second. (The first crashed and burned). The tortuous trawling through the Writers' Yearbook in search of a suitable (read 'any') agent, agonising over evil (still so evil) synopses, the excessive printing of chapters and introductory letters, and remortgaging to cover postage. Then there was the awful wait before rejection letters fell like confetti on the mat. Funnily enough you soon you begin to enjoy the rejections, albeit in a faintly masochistic way. My all time favourite came via email from Intern...EIGHT, not even one, two or three. This was a girl who was literally at the bottom of the unpaid pile of pre-school (possibly) people who between making tea, filling the printer, and sending her CV to television production companies (possibly), decided to send me a two line email with two spelling mistakes, thanking me for sending my first three chapters - that had only taken me a hundred years of blood, sweat and my kids’ tears to write - but that it wasn't really Our Sort of Thing. I laughed at that one (maniacally, whilst jamming a fork into my thigh, of course). But soon the rejections begin to wear you down. The confidence ebbs. The shoulders hunch, the mouth saddens, and the eyes lose their sparkle. Just as I was ready to throw my keyboard out for the bin man, a ray of light. Not one but two agents requested to read the rest of my manuscript. One thought my writing had a 'haunting quality'...the other liked my 'voice'!! I was ecstatic again. Note: this emotional alternation between extreme high and extreme low is something the would-be writer needs to get used to. It happens a lot.

Then followed another excruciating wait before the two rejections appeared within days of each other. That bit was tough, though amidst the disappointment there was a single chink of hope. One of the agents, The Lovely One, offered to take another look at the book if I happened to do any work on it. I think she was just being polite. Because she is. I wrote her a thank you letter (if I can pass any advice on it would be to send thank you letters. People like being thanked. Thank you is a greatly underused phrase considering it's weight to length ratio) and then did what any loving, committed mother slash desperate author would do. I ignored the children for six months and rewrote the entire thing.

Following three days of nervous hesitation I plucked up the courage to recontact The Lovely One. I asked her if she was still interested in seeing the rewrite. I explained that I had fed my three girls nothing but bananas - quick, nutritious, and filling - for half a year, and said I was pleased with the result (of the rewrite as opposed to the neglected off-spring). The Lovely One wrote back to say she would take a look, but only if I promised to feed my daughters. Two weeks later an email appeared to say the banana diet had been worth it. It was Champagne time! We signed a contract shortly after. And though I can safely say it's been a long and bumpy ride - the book we signed on also crashed and burned amid another matful of rejection letters, a third book was written, and rewritten, and rewritten again - with many bouts of tears (mine) and wise words (hers), our shared sense of humour kept us glued together. Three years after the banana quip I signed a deal with Constable and Robinson.

So, if anybody asks me if I have any advice on finding an agent, for what it's worth:
Make sure your children like bananas.
Make sure your agent laughs at banana jokes.
And don't forget your thank you letters.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Tweeter, Blogger, 25 for Lunch: One Weekend in October

Hello! I'm not sure who I am talking to. Most likely nobody. I talk a lot and hence I'm used to people glazing over. With this in mind I'm viewing this blog as therapy, my internal monologue posted, just in case there's someone out there who might be interested in reading, and might read without glazing, just for a paragraph or two.

A bit about me: three daughters, two large dogs, two fluffy cats, six chickens of various sizes, a husband, and a book out - yes, out, I'm still pinching myself - in August 2012 with Constable and Robinson. I'm starting to think about publication, and why, how, when and where, people might buy my book. Promotion. A little voice in my head. Promotion. The thing won't sell itself. One chance. Don't blow it. Think: Twitter. Facebook. Blogs. Website. Snog someone notable. Boris Johnson? (yuk), Clive Owen? (now we're talking).

Though guaranteed to help, snogging celebrities is not an option as the Husband seems unreasonably opposed to the idea. Back to traditional methods then. I looked at the list. Facebook was done, up and running, and you know? I get Facebook. Photos. Messages on walls. Replies to messages on walls. It's virtual stalking, right? Like I said, I get it. I have about a hundred and fifty friends, 60% of which I actually know, perfectly respectable for a technophobe of my age and standing. So, Facebook. Tick. Next Twitter? This is a bit more of a problem. Three years ago I opened/started/twitterered an account. Then I stared at it. For a long time. What to tweet? What to tweet? What to tweet... There was nothing and so I left it at that, a barren username with no meat or pastry, hanging lonely and followerless in the ether. But last Friday I tried again. I turfed Daughter 1 off the computer, ignoring her disgruntled, teenage mumblings. 'I need to work,' I said, unsympathetic to her Powerpoint homework she was halfway through. As she muttered her way out of the study I took a deep breath. 'Be brave,' I thought. 'You can do this.'

Just start with a profile description. So I wrote one, set it, sat back and stared at it on the screen. It didn't look too bad. 'Ok, you're up and running, girl. It's a walk in the park.' But then I got a couple of followers!!! The pressure nearly killed me. How to be funny? Or was funny too try-hard? Was one supposed to be funny? I read some people's (tweeple's?) tweets. Perhaps I should recommend a website or a blog or retweet something. I panicked all of Friday and all of Saturday and finally went with '...been staring at Twitter trying to tweet for two hours...' or something like that. Genius, eh?! Then the doorbell rang; 25 people had arrived for lunch. I shut the computer down, fed 13 kids shepherd's pie and 12 adults curry. Coffees all round. Red wine. Chocolate brownies. Bendicks Mints. Ribena on the carpet. Dog fight. Last person leaves at seven in the evening. Washing-up pile the size of a mountain and the dishwasher already on. uniform! My book, as is normal, is forgotten amidst the chaos.

But this morning I'm back at the computer. I have a second book to finish by the end of the year, an author photo to have taken (weight loss required), and didn't I say I would write a blog as well? Bolstered by a you'll-be-fine tweet from a new follower, and scarily successful, Kate Colquhoun (review in The Telegraph, April 2011, for her book Mr Briggs' Hat - '...unputdownable'), I am feeling up for it. I tweeted this morning - twice - and decided this was the day I would start my blog. But what should be my USP (unique selling point as opposed to University of Sao Paulo)? I log on early with a cup of tea while the kids are eating breakfast, and in the middle of the first sentence of my brand new blog Daughter 2 treads in cat sick and Daughter 3 tells me she has a headache and feels sick. She's hot too, however much I blow cool air on her forehead before feeling her. No school for her...

And with this comes the birth of Three Girls and a Pen: Juggle Juggle Toil and Trouble. It might not be unique, but it's all I know.