On Feedback

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I belong to a fantastic Writers Group. It grew slowly, from small beginnings (two of us used to sit in a tiny room at the New South Wales Writer’s Centre every week for three hours, critiquing each other’s work and talking about writing). Over the years, people have come and gone, either because of their other commitments, or because they weren’t the right ‘fit’ for the group, or us for them.

Now we are nine, and have a level of trust and respect for each other and the work that we share that allows us to be honest without being unkind, and celebrate each others’ successes without envy. It is a rare thing.

I often come away from the group with plenty to work on. In fact, the days I come away with little in the form of feedback to work with, I feel cheated! I know that my Writers group makes me a better writer, and my books a better read.

And then there are the unknown critics. I recently sent one of my manuscripts in to an agent. They way this agency works is that they send a MS out to a panel of Readers for feedback. They ask them a series of questions to consider while they read, from whether it’s even worth reading, to marketablilty and everything in between.

I waited with bated breath for six weeks (which, I have to say, isn’t long in this industry!) and then came the phone call. I had pen and paper at the ready, and wrote copious notes. Much of the feedback was positive, which was nice to hear, but I was more interested, as always, in what they thought needed changing, tightening, removing. I agreed with most of it immediately, and will think about the rest of it over the next few days.

But what humbled me was the fact that these people had taken the time to read my book paying attention to tiny detail as well as story arc and character development, and then spent even more time writing notes for me. Helpful comments. Suggestions. Questions. I don’t know who any of these people are, but I thank them a thousand times over.

And so to the next edit.

Onward

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On Writing Prizes

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It’s not the Stella or the Miles Franklin, the Man Booker or the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I have just won my first prize for writing, and I am very proud.

A friend alerted me to the Hunter Writers Centre Grieve Project a few months ago. Launched in August, as part of National Grief and Loss Month, the centre publishes a book of poems and short stories about grief. Any sort of grief. Writers are invited to send in their pieces, and one hundred and twenty are chosen to be included in the anthology.

My story was chosen. But even better than that, I received an email to say that mine was one of twenty that had been chosen to be read out at the launch. I decided to go and hear it. It’s a rare thing for a writer to hear someone else read their work to an audience, and I was interested to experience it.

The twenty stories and poems that were read couldn’t have been more different, but that is hardly surprising, given the range of feelings grief throws up, and the styles of writing  and ‘voices’ developed by the authors. What I wasn’t prepared for was the impact that hearing my own story read out loud would have on me.

It was harrowing writing it. It was about a deeply emotional subject, it was read beautifully by a woman who had obviously read it a number of times and was moved my it. But I found myself listening not for the emotion, but for the way the story was constructed, whether it ‘worked’ as a piece.

Was this because I didn’t want to get emotional in a room full of strangers? Or because I knew the content so well, it was time to focus on structure (although I had, of course, done this before I submitted it, it wasn’t just a stream of consciousness dump)? Or was it that in being aware of all the other people around me, I was viewing it as performance, something separate from me? I don’t know. Possibly it was all of these things. I certainly felt emotional, but not in response to the story. It was more about how I might be judged by the other people in the room. Other writers in the room. Instead of grief, I felt anxiety.

After all the pieces had been read, we were invited to stay for the awards. It turned out that the woman who read my story was from the Hunter Institute for Mental Health, and that she had awarded their prize to me! My legs shook as they carried me to the stage to receive my prize, and I wanted to give her a great bug hug, this woman I’d never met before, for liking my work, for deeming it worthy of mention. But I reined myself in and shook her hand, thanked her for reading the work so beautifully, and tottered back to my seat, the proud recipient of a writing prize.

In the foyer afterwards, over drinks and nibbles, several people came up to me and told me that my story had touched them, and congratulated me. I felt like a rock star, and decided that maybe next time, I would try not to get so anxious.

So, thank you, Hunter Writers Centre and the Hunter Institute of Mental Health.

 

On Beginnings

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Writing is a funny way to spend your time. At times it is totally engrossing as the words flow and the ideas speed along, word count growing by the minute. At other times it is like trying to paint your finger nails with gloves on!

I have the plan of a book sitting in my computer. It’s been there for over a year. I have a title, a plot outline, character profiles and pages of research on the theme, but I haven’t been able to find my way in to the story. I’ve written several beginnings, a few scenes from later in the book, and even the ending, but none of the beginnings feel right. I don’t want to abandon the idea, because I think it’s a good one, but it is extremely frustrating.

So, imagine my excitement when I was talking to one of my writerly friends and he suggested a way into the story. It seemed perfect. It would hook the reader, give a glimpse of the protagonist’s character and, more importantly at this stage, get me started! I could hardly wait to get home and start writing.

I sat at my computer and the words started coming. I saw a scene in my head and got it all down. I was rather surprised at where it was going, but it was fun and at least I was writing. After a few hundred words I had to stop – real life interrupted. A day or two later, I went back to it and added some more. I was enjoying myself, but a little voice was telling me that this was not the beginning I was seeking after all.

I was disappointed that what had seemed so promising wasn’t, after all, the way into my novel. I began to worry that I would never be able to write anything again. This was my one idea for a new book, and I couldn’t write it. Imagine my relief when this morning, as I was having coffee with a friend, and told her about it, I realised that it may not be the start of one book but it is the opening of another, totally different, but equally interesting.

So…the book I can’t write will sit a bit longer in the dim, dusty wasteland of my documents folder, and I’ll start fleshing out the new idea, build characters, set scenes, create a story arc, see where it all takes me.

At least I have a beginning.

Onward.

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.