On Writing being Worthwhile

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I have had two books published now, and still feel embarrassed when people comment on them to me, even though the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive (I suspect that people who don’t like a book don’t seek the author out to tell them!). And while it’s great getting the praise, something happened the other day that blew me away.

My second novel, Two Lives, wasn’t an easy book to write, nor is it an easy book to read. Being a counsellor, I tend to write about protagonists who are confronting hefty issues, because I like to explore how people respond to them. Two Lives, as you might guess from the title, has two protagonists, both female, both grappling with big, awful, painful situations; one is living in a violent relationship, the other loses her four year old son in a car accident. Eventually they meet and there are also consequences to that (I don’t want to give too much away!)

If this sounds to heavy, here’s a snippet from a review by thebookbag.co.uk

“…this is a compelling story built around two likeable main characters with convincing dialogue and experiences. The novel does what fiction does best: exploring the small moments that can change lives for good. I’d be interested in reading a sequel or another novel from Sarah Bourne.”

That was great. But even better was the feedback I received the other day. I was talking to a woman who had read the book. Here is the conversation we had:

‘My sister left her husband because of you.’

‘Sorry? What do you mean?’

‘I read Two Lives. Then I gave it to my mother, and when she’d read it, we had a chat and decided to give it to my sister.’

I held my breath.

‘She had to read it in secret.’

I let the breath out. I knew what was coming.

‘She saw herself in your character, Emma. And suddenly she realised that she had to get out, and what’s more, that she could get out. So she did. Thank you.’

I can’t say I wrote Two Lives in order to enable people to leave violent relationships, but to know that even one woman was helped by it is extraordinary and humbling. It is this kind of feedback that makes the countless hours of writing, revising and editing worthwhile. So now I must get back to the works in progress; one, the story of a British nurse in the Second World War and the other, a woman wrongly accused of terrorism after the London bombings. I wonder what people will say about them?

Onward.

 

 

On Resolutions

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Happy New Year!

I didn’t make any New Year Resolutions. I never do, because I don’t think it’s a good idea to wait until a certain date to resolve to do something. I either want to do it, or I don’t. If I do, I start there and then, if not, nothing short of the promise of millions of dollars, world peace or freeing all the detainees from detention centres will make me do it, so why bother? I believe, I suppose, in building on success, so failed resolve after failed resolve isn’t helpful.

Which is why I was surprised to hear myself asking my son this question yesterday;

“Now you’ve got your uni offer, are you still going to take a gap year?”

He looked at me as if I was deranged, which was a bit scary for two reasons. Firstly because I do sometimes worry that I am, but I don’t want it confirmed by anyone else, and secondly because he was driving and should have been looking at the road.

“Of course I am.”

Had I thought before I opened my mouth, I would have known his answer. He has been talking about this gap year for months. It had been the beacon to which he has been trudging all through his last year at school and the exams he had to take. The thought of leaving school and working for a few months to earn enough to take off on his travels has been his constant companion. He had a job lined up as to start as soon as his exams were over, then he got another to earn a bit extra. His motivation to work (i.e. earn money) is far greater than his motivation to work at school ever was.

So why would I suddenly think that all this resolve would vanish just because he had another opportunity. An opportunity, I might add, that will still be open to him next year?

Do I think he can’t make a plan and stick with it? No, he’s proven time and again that he can.

So am I hoping that he didn’t really want to go overseas in the first place and was just saying it because he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do? To say Yes to that would not only be untrue, but derogatory; he is a young man who knows what he wants and how to get it.

Is this all about me, being left behind, being (I admit) slightly jealous that he has all this in front of him? I hope not. I like to think I’m better than that. I have travelled and relished every moment of every trip. I want him to have the same.

Was my question then just asking him to clarify and confirm his decision? I would like to think so, but the truth is, it was out of my mouth before I had a chance to think why I was asking it, and perhaps it doesn’t really matter why I asked. He is taking a gap year, he knows what he wants, and is resolved to do it. That’s good enough for me.

Now I have to find enough resolve to finish the current manuscript which has been patiently waiting for my attention over the festive season. I think I heard a little whistle from it the other day, the quietest of reminders that it needs an ending.

Onward.

On writing books

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I have written nine books (almost – the ninth needs another 5,000 or so words to complete it). That’s a lot of words – roughly a million of them all up, counting the ones that didn’t make it past the first edit. Two of them have been published. Just two.

Why? I hear you ask.

Well, there’s a story there – isn’t there always?

I love writing fiction. I love the fact that I might be doing anything, and suddenly an idea comes to me. If I remember it when I get to a notebook, I jot it down, and if it still seems like a good idea a few days later, I start asking myself questions to expand the kernel of the idea and see if there is enough about it to make a book. If there is, I start researching, reading, thinking, jotting notes, dreaming up characters, imagining story arcs, plots, sub plots, twists and turns, themes…

Often I don’t start writing for several months, but when I do, the words come thick and fast because so much time and energy has already gone into the story. Often, a first draft is down in three or four months. I leave it for a month, mourning the fact that the initial writing is finished and I’ll never go on that particular journey of discovery again. I pine, mope, snap at the dogs, try to take an interest in the family, when what I really want to do is hang out with my characters a bit more.

And then I do a read through and a first edit. I look for places where the pace drops, or a character does something out of character. I search for the themes and strengthen them, I check that all the scenes are necessary and cut those that don’t move the plot forward (I cut 16,000 words from Never Laugh at Shadows), and generally tidy the book up.

And by then, usually I’ve had another idea, and I’m researching for a new story, giving birth to new characters who I want to hang out with, and the old book sits waiting for another edit, and another, and another. So I have seven manuscripts in varying stages of readiness sitting in the metaphorical bottom drawer.

One of my writerly friends has banned me from writing another book until the others are edited and ready to send out to publishers. I know she’s right, it’s the sensible thing to do, but I’m days away from finishing Annie’s War, and I’ve already got this really interesting idea for another book…

Happy Holidays, one and all xx

On being regular

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I have set an alert on my computer. Every Thursday, I get a reminder that today is the day I will write a blog post. Every Thursday since 19th August, I have looked at it, deleted it, and carried on doing whatever I was doing, feeling a little guilty, and that I am somehow letting myself down.

Only myself. I don’t believe I have hordes of adoring fans out there who are waiting with baited breath each week, wondering, hoping, that this will be the day that Sarah Bourne releases another fascinating blog post. No, it is only myself who is let down. I am lazy, incompetent, have nothing to say…the list goes on.

After my Writers Group the other day, I had a conversation with one of the members. She was asking me (!) about using Social Media as a marketing tool.

“Do I need to blog? What about Facebook? And Twitter? Instagram?”

“Oh, yes,” I said, “All very important. You have to build your brand, get your name out there. It’s not just about selling your book, it’s about letting the reader, or potential reader, get to know you as a person so they want to read what you’ve written.” Thats the theory, anyway, so I’m told.

“Oh, I must get around to it then. I have a long list of topics I want to blog about.”

Lucky you, I thought. I have no idea what to write most of the time, and if I do, I don’t get round to it. I think no-one will want to read it, or it will be so boring I’ll fall asleep while I’m writing it.

The thing is, I love writing. On the days when I know I have uninterrupted writing time, I leap out of bed with a song in my heart and a spring in my step. (Okay, writers shouldn’t succumb to cliches, but that is honestly how I feel, and why reinvent the wheel?) My fingers itch to get to the keyboard, and sometimes, although not always, the words flow and all is right in the world.

The Writers Group decided this year to put out a little book for Christmas. We would all write a piece about a memorable meal we’d had, somewhere, some time. Everybody else wrote a memory, mostly about a terrible meal they’d endured in an exotic location. Now, I’ve been to my fair share of exotic locations, and eaten meals of varying quality with tropical seas lapping at my toes, or magnificent sunsets dazzling my eyes. But every time I tried to write about one of them, it was flat, didn’t zing off the page at all.

I am writing a novel based in and just after the Second World War at the moment. Aha! Rationing, I thought. And how women used to get together and support each other while their husbands, brothers, fathers were away. As soon as I freed myself from the confines of having to write a ‘true’ story (or a strongly embellished true story), the words came. And the added bonus is that it is now a scene in the novel.

So what do I take from this? For today, and I reserve the right to change my mind, it is this:

I write fiction. I do not naturally lean towards writing from my own life, although, of course, there is some of that in fiction. Heavily disguised. So distant from the source as to be unattributable and unrecognisable. I like to make things up. I’ve lived my life once, I don’t feel the need or the desire to rehash it. So, fiction it is.

Today is Thursday, my alert went off, and I have written a blog post. I also have an author Facebook page, a twitter account, Instagram. (One day, I’ll learn to link them all).

Have a good week or month or whatever, until we meet again. Oh, and just in case, Enjoy the Festive Season, however you celebrate it.

On new computers

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My Macbook died last week. I was in the middle of looking something up for my son, which he could really have been looking up himself, but I was there and…anyway, the screen went all weird so I turned the computer off and on again, as Roy from the IT Crowd would have told me to do, and the screen stayed blank and the Macbook beeped at me in a desultory way. I rang the Apple Store who had never heard of such a problem, but if i logged in I could make an appointment at the Genius Bar. So I got my phone out, old, small but functional, and got onto the Apple Website. Screen of phone too small to make it possible to really see appointments on Genius Bar, although I did eventually learn that it was going to be at least a week before anyone could see me and my computer.

So I took it up the road to the computer fixit shop. A week later, they said they could fix it for $700 or so. I said no, it was a second hand machine in the first place, I would’t spend that much having it repaired. Which left me with the choice of buying another second hand one, with no warranty, or going to the Apple Store.

The purpose of the Apple Store is to make you feel as happy as possible while spending shitloads of money on a product that lasts 7 years (that was the age of my last one, and the Customer Service Representative I spoke to told me that was about average). So I spend a bucket of money on a computer that will last a few years, and I walk out smiling like a Cheshire Cat, as if I’ve just solved the problem of world poverty, when in fact, I’ve just joined the ranks of the poor and will be needing food handouts for a while.

Now I am shaking. I have managed to set the thing up (it is very beautiful, I just want to stroke it), and I opened my files – yes, they were all there! And I am stuck. It’s like I am staring at the blank age of a new notebook, full of possibility – but will I succeed, or will I fail? With my Work In Progress open before me, my fingers hover above the keyboard but seem to have no intention of descending to the keys, of forming words and sentences. My mind is blank. I am awed by the new machine. It has some sort of power over me – the power to make me doubt myself, to fear typing sentences that it feels are beneath it. As if it is the Judge and I have to prove my worth.

It is just a machine. It doesn’t know what I’m typing. I am the master of it, not the other way around. It’s taken me a fair while to realise that. So I will go back to my WIP with determination, gritted teeth and stern words for my hands. They will obey me and type. I will finish the book. The computer is my friend. Repeat after me…the computer is my friend. Deep breaths.

On launching a book

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So, it turns out that launching a book isn’t as scary as I thought, and that people do turn up. And that they are interested and have fun chatting to each other and the author about the book and anything else that comes up.

At my launch on Friday evening, people from all areas of my life turned up – yoga students, parents from the children’s schools who have become friends, my children’s friends, my dog groomer, my husband’s friends, football parents, cricket parents, writer’s group friends – a real mixture. Some of them even found friends amongst each other they hadn’t seen for years!

There was wine, there was food, there was a marvellous MC in Liz Allen who works for Gleebooks, and with whom I did yoga many moons ago. There was Khyiah Angel, author, friend and all round superwoman, who launched the book with lovely words that made me feel proud and humble at the same time. And then there was me – an extrovert who doesn’t like being the centre of attention. I kept my part as brief as possible – some thank yous, a couple of words about the writing of the book and two short excerpts and another thank you for coming, now please eat and drink and chat.

Then came book signing. That was weird. I don’t know about other writers, but I feel embarrassed when people buy my book and want me to sign it. It’s not that I’m not proud of the product, and I certainly recognise the amount of work that I put into it, and know that it was all mine – the research, the endless drafts and revisions, working with the feedback I requested until the book was as polished as it could be. I think the embarrassment is in the fact that now it is about to be judged by another who may not like it, and (so the thinking goes), therefore not like me either. I am fused with the product. And yet I also know that my friends are bigger than that, that they appreciate the time and effort put into the book, and while some may not like the style or the content, they won’t hold it against me or find me diminished in any way. So I have to get over it. Stand up tall, look them in the eye, and say, Thank you for buying it. If you like it, tell all your friends, if not, keep it to yourself!

And on to the next one…

On developing a new story idea

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I finished the first draft of my seventh novel (only two published so far) a few months ago now. As usual, I felt flat for a week or two, not quite knowing what to do with myself now that I had no writing to do. Then I felt a little proud that I had actually finished another book length piece of writing – 104,000 words in this one. That’s an achievement in itself, I reckon. After a few weeks, I went back to look at it. I read it through, marked parts that needed a big rewrite, fiddled with other bits, sent it to my beta readers, and waited for feedback. When that came in, I re-read the manuscript with their comments in mind, and decided which ones I agreed with and which I didn’t. Then came another draft, and another, and another. All this time also workshopping it with my Writer’s Group. Lots of feedback, many people wanting to help me make this the best book it can be. That’s the part of writing that I have come to love.

And now I am back to the part of writing that is lonely and isolated; the searching around for a new idea, the research, the note making and scribbling out, the despair that I’ll never have another idea, or if I do, it won’t be any good, or I’ll waste time on doing lots of research only to find that there are twenty seven books like it already, or that it’s not a bad idea but there isn’t a book in it, or at least, not by me because I’m not clever enough or could never do enough research to do the subject justice or, or, or…

I thought I had an idea. I like to take a problem and set up characters to deal with it. So I had decided that Limerence would be the topic. It’s fascinating; not quite the same as unrequited love, obsessive love or erotomania, although it has elements of all three, it is a ‘syndrome’ for want of a better word, in which a person becomes fixated on another to the point that their emotions and behaviour become tied to how this person responds to them.The Limerent will be ecstatic of they get a smile, practically suicidal if they believe they have been shunned. Think Fatal Attraction, or Misery. And that’s the problem – it’s been done before. Not that my plot was anything like either of those, but how many novels on Limerence or Obsessive Love does the world need?

So back to the drawing board. I started wondering what it would be like to wake up and remember nothing of your past. It’s also been done before, of course, but there is huge scope here. What if a man came along claiming to be her husband, and then some weeks later, another husband came out of the woodwork having been away for some months and only just having received news of the accident? The book would have to be set in the 1950’s so that communication was difficult. So then I wondered what the woman would have done during the war, and started researching women in England during the Second World War. I then began looking into the lives of German women in the war to see how similar or different they were, and then wondered if there might be a story about two women, one English, the other German who had both been nurses in the war, and how their experiences shaped them. So what about the amnesia and the husbands? Out of this one,  but perhaps an idea for another book, maybe a comedy, maybe chick-lit, maybe never to be written.

The Limerence idea is plotted out, the Women in War idea is still just an idea, with research continuing apace, but no characters presenting themselves yet. How long do I wait for them? In the meantime, here I am, not writing, enjoying the research but wondering if it’s just indulging my habit to procrastinate. I miss writing though. I want to get my teeth into something.

Hey-ho. One more google search…