With a little over two months until the publication of my second novel, the focus has moved from improving the text itself – apart from scouring the proofs for a stray comma or worse – to ways of articulating what the story is about. You’d think that page upon page of carefully selected words could speak for themselves, but no. To interest readers, I have to write and talk about what’s between the covers.
Since childhood, Thelonius Liddell has striven for excellence in an attempt to forget the trauma of seeing his father murder his mother. At a university careers day, he’s recruited into the US intelligence agency by Becky Firestone, the somewhat disturbed daughter of the director whom Thelonius eventually marries. When we first meet Liddell he’s already a dead man, writing his memoir in the ten metre square cell in the clandestine containment unit he calls The Beige Motel. Now preferring the name Ali, he was converted to Islam by his wizened cellmate in a squalid (presumably Iraqi) prison, where he is accused of the murder of a man and his young daughter and of desecrating the Koran. His conversion was part of a deal brokered by a young woman, Fatima, but, like almost everything else in this multi-layered thriller about the war on terror, we have to keep on turning the pages to uncover the truth. While I’m inclined to agree that, as Fatima says, Stupidity has taken over the process of government in both countries, there’s nothing stupid in this complex tale of compromised morality and the fragility of the human mind.
Last year, I set out to read 60 books and read 96. This year, I set a target of 100 books, and read 120. This suggests I’m reading more each year and making more accurate predictions. Of course, it’s not a competition, even against myself, but I do like figures. And, daft as it seems, I do like producing an annual report!
I recently shared an extract from my next novel, Underneath, in which a little boy is dancing with his mother to Cliff Richard’s Living Doll. The words are taken all too literally by the child who becomes the man who keeps a woman imprisoned in a cellar but I knew, from the very first draft of this novel, to be wary of quoting song lyrics. Yet, in the version I sent my publisher, I’d retained six words that furnished a neat link between past and present, while demonstrating the narrator’s disturbed and disturbing state of mind. But as publishing becomes a (still fairly distant) reality, I thought I’d better get some advice from the Society of Authors on copyright law. Based on what I was told – and this is only my interpretation – I’ve decided to paraphrase instead of quoting: I don’t want to risk having lawyers on my back; nor do I want to renege on my own personal vow never to pay to be published (it’s the author’s, not the publisher’s, responsibility to seek out and pay for permissions).
Keep at it! You’ll get there in the end if you try hard enough. How often did I come across such words as I struggled to find a publisher for my novel? And, now I’m published, am I going to regurgitate the mantra to others on the way up? No, I’m not, because – do you know what? – it’s bollocks. While writing a good book, and investing time and money to make it better, and treating each rejection as a trigger to try again, no doubt improve our chances, there’s no magic formula. Success doesn’t happen without an element of luck.
They mean well, those published writers who perpetuate the mythology. After all, the great unpublished are hounding them for scraps of encouraging advice. Looking back on their own rocky road to publication, all they see is hard graft and talent. If that got them through, why wouldn’t others achieve the same result? But history is a story told from the point of view of the victors. The voices of those who worked equally hard without the golden ticket go unheard, save a few brave exceptions. Although his emphasis is marketing, Dan Blank proves himself an ally of the disaffected, picturing success as a function of writing talent, author platform and luck.
One of the things I was careful to check before signing up with my publisher, was the proposed retail price of my book. I’d come across other small presses where the paperbacks were the price of a hardback from one of the Big Five. While I appreciate that small print runs contribute to the higher unit costs for the independent publisher, most readers wouldn’t understand. Why should they pick up a paperback from an unknown author and publisher when they could get a discounted hardback from a household name and half a dozen fancy bookmarks for the same price? How could I entice friends and family to support my launch if they had a sneaking suspicion they were being ripped off?
So I was delighted when debut novel, Sugar and Snails, came out priced at the lower end of the scale. With its beautiful cover and quality printing, people queued for signed copies, a few buying an extra one or two for friends. They were happy, I was happy, my publisher was happy – until I spoke to some booksellers.
The year I turned fifty, I undertook a long-distance walk: 190 odd miles across northern England from the west coast to the east. Instead of trying to cajole a group of friends into joining me, I chose to do the whole thing alone, but arranging for various friends and family to accompany me for a day at a time. Sometimes I walked solo, sometimes with individuals or a small group of four or five, with my husband – not an aficionado of rambling – valiantly attempting to fill in the gaps. Although the planning process stretched my organisational capacities to the limit, the event itself was wonderful, despite blisters, inadequate navigation skills and the vagaries of the English weather. After two and a bit weeks hiking across three national parks, I reached my destination at Robin Hood’s Bay, exhausted and exuberant. Back home, with a couple of days free before returning to work, I began writing the novel that became Sugar and Snails.
It’s been another hectic week on the blog tour: sharing the novels that have helped me find a mind of my own with Urszula Humienik; examining how contemporary novels feature scientific research with Gargi Mehra; talking attachment with Safia Moore stemming from my character’s difficulty in “telling a story about when you were a little girl”; confessing and commiserating with Clare O’Dea regarding our shared difficulty in articulating what our novel’s about; to come to port on Friday with Lori Schafer to address the question of how much my novel might be autobiographical.
After my weekend in a virtual California, I’m heading northward today to join lead buckaroo, Charli Mills on her fabulous Carrot Ranch in Idaho. She’d already set my place at the table with this lovely introduction on her blog. I’m heading back to the UK for the rest of the week, stopping off first with novelist and psychologist Voula Grand, who was the first to feature in my series Psychologists Write, to explore a shared interest in transgenerational trauma, both on and off the page. Then it’s a second guest post (the first, on Day One of the tour, being on debuting as an older author) with my publishers, Inspired Quill, to reveal my responses to the thoughtful questions put to me by one of the team, Hannah Drury. With all this travelling I wonder if I’ll have time to tidy up before Thursday, when I’ll be showing everyone around my Writers’ Room, courtesy of novelist, former prison governor and Costa Short Story Award winner, Avril Joy. Friday, I’ll be hot-footing it to London to join novelist, blogging addict and reader of an early version of Sugar and Snails, Geoff LePard, for a post on how walking facilitates my writing with, hopefully, a few photographs of the walk that features in my novel. (Yikes, did he realise that’s the day he launches his second novel, My Father and Other Liars, or is his attention to me an excuse to avoid a launch party?)
For the first fortnight of the Sugar and Snails blog tour, I’ve been mostly confined to the UK. Apart from a visit to The Oak Wheel in California, I stayed, like the homebird I am, in my own country until pitching up at the end of last week in Australia. While Norah Colvin might live as far away from me as it’s possible to get, I knew I’d have a warm reception on her blog. Now she’s injected me with the travelling bug, I’m spending this whole week with blogging friends beyond my country’s borders, and greatly looking forward to the trip.
I’m starting today in Poland in the Monday Inspirations slot courtesy of former art therapist, writer and fellow broccoli addict, Urszula Humienik, to talk about the books that have inspired me. Tuesday finds me in Pune, India (one of the two calling-off points in this week’s tour I’ve visited in real life) to explore fictional research with Gargi Mehra, software engineer by day, prolific short-story writer by night. On Wednesday I’m off to Ras Al Kaimah (Arabic for Top of the Tent) in the United Arab Emirates to talk attachment with Safia Moore. Recent winner of the Bath Short Story Award, Safia posted a beautiful review of Sugar and Snails on her blog last week AND flew over from her native Belfast on Friday to join the launch party at Jesmond library. On Thursday, I’m visiting another expatriate Irishwoman, journalist turned fictioneer, Clare O’Dea, now a Swiss national, resident in Fribourg, to discuss not knowing what my novel’s about, a follow-up to her own popular post on the topic. Friday takes me back to California with writer of serious prose and humorous erotica, Lori Schafer, where I’m pondering the autobiographical element of fiction with the author of the prize-winning memoir On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened. If all that doesn’t show that the blogging community is truly international, I don’t know what would!
If I was breathless last Monday, announcing Week 1 of the Sugar and Snails blog tour, I must be on the verge of a swoon this week as I begin another round of visits. The first week has gone brilliantly (you can catch up with those first five posts via the links on my blog tour page), so how could I not be excited about the second? I start today under Julie Stock’s Author Spotlight, with a piece about setting part of my novel in Cairo. As a writer of contemporary romance from around the world, Julie has a particular interest in the challenges of setting fiction in real places, the subject of her own post on Susanna Bavin’s blog this week. Tomorrow, Helena Fairfax is interviewing me about where my own life is set, among other things. Helen lives in an interesting place herself, the UNESCO World Heritage Site and former mill town, Saltaire, which you can discover more about in her fascinating post. Then I’m off to chat with my namesake, Shaz Goodwin on Jera’s Jamboree. With her day job as a school Inclusion Lead, I was interested in her interest in novels that tackle a social barrier, as Sugar and Snails most definitely does. On Thursday, I’m on Our Book Reviews discussing the various transformations of my novel from its initial inception as a story of masculinity across three generations. This post arose out of a Twitter conversation after Mary, one half of Our Book Reviews, read and reviewed an advance copy. Obviously, I was delighted to be invited back. Finally, Friday sees me in Australia, quite fittingly discussing the theme of friendship in the novel and in its realisation (extending the theme of my previous post on gratitude) with one of my dearest blogging friends, Norah Colvin. As Norah has already hosted me once before, I know the tour bus will be safe to leave there over the weekend until I get behind the wheel again on Monday.
I’m generally not in favour of “update” posts, but I can’t ignore the perspective shift since I posted five days ago. As of last Thursday, I’m a published novelist, and enjoying it immensely. With each review (six to my knowledge so far), with each supportive tweet at #SugarandSnails, I’m claiming more of my authorial authority. I’m even infiltrating the more traditional media, with a feature on Sugar and Snails in the Lincolnshire Echo and a nerve-wracking but not too dreadful outing on BBC Radio Nottingham (my bit is at about 2.15 p.m. and the link expires in about three weeks). The highlight of the last few days was, of course, my Nottingham launch party, which I’ll be sharing more about in due course. But in the meantime, there’s this lovely and unexpected post on the event from The Mole, the other half of Our Book Reviews.
It’s publication week for Sugar and Snails and I’m breathless with excitement. The buzz is building with two reviews already (from Victoria Best and from Stephanie Burton) and some lovely tweets from early readers at #SugarandSnails. Now, thanks mainly to the generous response to my request for hosts, I’ve made two excursions to other blogs (firstly, to Shiny New Books to share my thoughts on writing about secrets, the false self and insecure identities; secondly to Isabel Costello’s literary sofa to discuss the pleasures of small-press publication), and my case is packed ready to depart on the blog tour proper.
I’m sitting on Isabel Costello’s literary sofa today, sharing my experience of being published by a small independent press. So who better to keep my seat warm while I’m away than Teika Bellamy, writer, artist, publisher and founder of another small press, Mother’s Milk Books? Over to you, Teika.
When I became a mother to my firstborn eight years ago, I found it to be a joyful, yet overwhelming time. I was inundated with conflicting advice from health professionals and received very few words of support. I can still clearly remember the sharp reply I received when I asked a nurse for a glass of water: ‘You’ve got a new baby now. You’d better get up and start looking after yourself.’ So I struggled out of bed with my newborn and, weak due to the post-partum haemorrhage and perineal tearing I’d just suffered with, I shuffled down the corridor and somehow managed to extract a cup’s worth of water out of the water cooler. (A difficult task when it requires two hands, you’re holding a baby and it feels like your groin might fall out of your body at any moment!)
What can be more excruciating than contacting your favourite reviewers and writers in advance of publication to beg them, not only to read, but to like, a proof version your forthcoming novel, and declare so publicly for all the world to see? Well, quite a lot, as it happens, but please indulge a first-time novelist’s egocentrism, if you can, for the duration of this post!
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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