Tag Archives: Writing course

When do you Stop?

In just a few days, the Snake will give way to the Horse (in the Chinese zodiac). It was roughly a year ago, before the Snake had even entered, that I finished my tome of a historical novel.

Here’s what I mean by ‘finished’: I planned it, did my research, wrote the first draft, and then ‘edited’ that draft twice – from the first page through to the last, where editing included the heavy re-writing of particular chapters. I was aided throughout, even in the early stages, by Dr. Nathalie Teitler, poet, director of The Complete Works II and a professional developmental editor. Some writers think this unusual, but for me, feedback is invaluable while I’m still crafting a story.

Ultimately, the whole endeavour took two years. This, I was told, was not that long, given the scope of what I attempted: a story commencing in 1878 and ending just before the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941 (a period which spans sixty three years), where real history is incorporated into a fictional setting.

Writing my book made me look at art and artists in a different way. Most of us see only the finished piece, be it a book or play, opera or painting; we don’t usually think about how much effort a ballerina or opera singer, actor or painter, has had to put in. Now I know.

My novel Spirit of Kueh contains roughly 145,000 words. To give you an idea of what that means, the first two paragraphs of this blog-post contain approximately 100 words. Imagine writing 1,450 more paragraphs like those and then editing each twice, and you will perhaps see why it took so long. By the time I finished, I had reached the point of exhaustion. I closed the folder on my PC marked ‘Manuscript’ and could not look at it again. There was no way I could have edited my novel a third time – not then anyway.

In this age of bite-sized concentration and 140-character sound bites, I’m aware that a novel of 145,000 words is deemed long, especially for a first-time novelist. A published novelist I met (who hasn’t read any of my work) claimed I would never find a publisher. We shall see.

I don’t doubt the challenge, but having put a lot of thought into the way my story should be structured, I believe it hangs together as a coherent whole and some impact would be lost if the story were to be split up. Also, we’re not short of drama: the female protagonist, who is illiterate, starts her own business while raising a family of ten children. Ten children! How many of us could imagine raising ten children? All of this takes place against a backdrop of a rapidly westernising Malaya. Hence the themes in my novel are rather contemporary : the ongoing conflict between modernisation and tradition, and especially for those of us living as minorities in a foreign land: what is the true cost of (our) cultural assimilation?

My next step then, after three months of research, was to send off query letters to agents, together with a synopsis and the relevant pages or chapters. Each agent, incidentally, is different: writing to them is like applying for a job; there is no ‘standard’, and everyone asks for something slightly different, which means that each query takes time to prepare. I wrote to five agents, received one response – a no – and was ignored by the others.

Fortunately or unfortunately, life then took over. I became bogged down with managing a house renovation project in a new country (France) and my routine went kaput. In snatched moments, I wrote. Not being able to focus in the same way, I turned my hand to non-fiction, jotting down hundreds of snippets about the many surprises France laid my way. I also wrote two pieces of flash fiction (published in Litro Online and Postcard Shorts) and several short stories (now under consideration for publication). Without a proper routine, it was impossible for me to even think about what Helen Dunmore, the award-winning author who visited us during the one Arvon Foundation course I attended, called ‘writing biz’: the process of dealing with the commercial, non-creative side of writing. Agents and publishers fall into this category.

Now that we are about to enter the Year of the Horse, it feels to me that the time has come. I have looked again at the folder marked ‘Manuscript’ and have, inevitably, begun further editing. This time, I bring a fresh eye and new skills, skills I could only have gained by writing short fiction. Indeed, I find that many of the published novels I read today could use further editing. In art though, there is no right or wrong; you could continue editing a story ad infinitum. When do you stop?

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Of Gates and Gatekeepers

A bird with yellow and black feathers and a blood-red beak rises into the air off the lawn. I have no idea what sort of bird it is, but its beauty is astonishing. I hold my breath; the sight makes three months of effort worth every minute (see previous blog-post Oh Interfering Life!).

As always, great things come at a price. And the price I have paid is that for three months, I took my eye off the publishing ball.

After sending parts of my manuscript to five literary agents in March, I’ve done nothing else with regard to getting my novel published. In case you’re wondering why I’m contacting agents, it’s because in most Western markets, it is virtually impossible for a novelist to approach a publisher without an agent. An agent’s job is to represent a novelist and to sell that writer’s work –  first and foremost to publishers, but also to film producers and others. Ergo, to get my novel published, I need an agent.

Like potential employers, every agent demands something different: some ask for the first 10,000 words, others the first three chapters; many accept electronic submissions but some still require manuscripts by post; yet others require that you upload material onto their private electronic platforms, accompanied by assorted information about yourself. Each is thus like a separate job application, and takes thought and care to prepare.

Unlike employers though, agents do not tend to reply. Of the five to whom I wrote, only one provided a personal letter of rejection. Another agent acknowledged receipt of material – for which I was immensely grateful – but sadly, this agency did not come back with anything else. As for the remaining three, I can only assume that they received my emails.

The experience has been educational. I’m assured by writer friends (including those already published) that not hearing back is the norm.

In this electronic age, I find that extraordinary. I don’t expect feedback (though that would be wonderful); what surprises me is not even receiving a simple automated reply to tell me that my material has reached its intended destination. That much, surely, should be possible?

In contrast, I’ve received an electronic acknowledgement of receipt – of the kind described above – for every short story submitted, whether to a journal or a competition. Short-story journals tend to be lean, so if they can acknowledge receipt and send messages of rejection, I see no reason why everyone else cannot.

Granted, this bold statement is based on the tiniest of samples (so small that it would not qualify statistically as a sample). I only began writing short stories in earnest last November after an Arvon course with the wonderful Tania Hershman and Adam Marek (see blog-post Trapped in Totleigh Barton! which describes my experience of writing in this pre-Domesday manor house). Between them, Tania and Adam and my fellow-participants managed to transform the way I felt about short fiction. And so far, my sojourn into their world has been thrilling.

From each of the four competitions and three journals to which I submitted, I received an acknowledgement which I could file. The seven emails thanking me for my submissions were heartwarming, following as they did on the heels of my first round with literary agents. Even the rejections were encouraging, since they showed at least that the stories had been read.

Of the competitions entered, I wasn’t placed in one, was long-listed in a second and am waiting to hear on another two. One of my journal submissions, Night of Falling Stars, was accepted by Litro Online and published on 21 June 2013. (Incidentally, the same story was rejected just days previously by another publication, which shows that there is always hope.) I never thought short stories could be so much fun! I even enjoy the submissions process.

What then, of my novel?

If I want to get it published conventionally in the West, I will need to contact more agents. But I may not restrict myself to conventional publishing. Or indeed, to the West.

Then, there is the lure of short fiction. And even a piece or two of non-fiction which, thanks to this blog, I’ve been invited to embark on. If I amass a collection of published short stories before I hear back from an agent, I may yet focus on the short, including the micro and the nano. Trying to construct a story in 140 Twitter characters is challenging and, would you believe, there is a home for them – One Forty Fiction – where a story cannot exceed 140 Twitter characters! For someone who not long ago was convinced of the impossibility of this genre, my change of heart has come as a surprise, especially to me.

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Trapped in Totleigh Barton!

The blurb had advertised Totleigh Barton as a ‘thatched, pre-Domesday manor house’. On looking up Wikipedia, I discovered that the Domesday Book was completed in 1086. Did I say 1086? Even modern British houses are cold, I find, especially their bathrooms. What was a house with a thatched roof built before 1086 going to be like? And in November…Totleigh Barton

Worse was what I had actually enrolled to do: learn new techniques for short stories, and actually write them. Short stories were not ‘my’ genre, I told myself, while wondering what the hell I was doing there.

But it was too late to turn back. Not least because we were in the middle of nowhere. Literally. Having tried to find Totleigh Barton on googlemaps beforehand, I realised we would be heading for a dot in the middle of an ocean of fields. The nearest town, Sheepwash, was two miles away. There was no wi-fi, not even mobile reception. To get mobile reception, you had to walk up a steep hill – which I couldn’t do because I was still using a crutch, thanks to an ankle sprain six weeks previously.

Then, there was the rain. We were in Devon after all, where rain falls in biblical proportions. devonI heard it in my slumber and would wake up with ready-made sentences. A short story I wrote began like this: “Winds like the dogs of Cantelabra howled through the night. Rain dropped in pellets, hitting the window panes of Sheepwash. The sheep in their pens were soaked; their clothes turned into mink, pink like the rain.

These aren’t my finest lines, but they are an example of what we were encouraged to do: let our imagination meander anywhere it cared to go . There are no rules in the short story, we were told. We gave ourselves permission to write whatever we wanted, in any way we wanted. Otherwise, I would never in a million years have come up with the dogs of Cantelabra or sheep in pink mink.

Our tutors, Tania Hershman and Adam Marek, were extraordinary. The whole course was extraordinary, as you would expect from Arvon, the UK’s premier writing foundation, which has perfected its recipe over many years. Our tutors’ seemingly crazy exercises undoubtedly produced results, because within ten minutes of our first session, we had all written a piece of flash fiction (a very short story of generally fewer than 500 words).

Equally important, we had great fun. So much so that on the last morning, when we were supposed to have free time, we asked for more writing exercises. How masochistic is that? We were simply hooked – not even the cold of the beautifully restored barn could stop us. When Tania and Adam complied, everyone came. We stretched out on sofas in the barn, then after a break, moved into the mediaeval dining room to huddle along benches, our shoulders hunched over a banqueting table the celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal would surely covet (see photograph below from the Arvon website, reproduced with their kind permission).

TotelighdiningroomSo just why had I been so afraid of going on an Arvon course?

A clue came in the middle of the week. That evening, we had a guest writer to visit. We were sitting at the mediaeval dining table, warmed by sips of wine and a roaring fire, when Oliver Meek, who with his wife Claire Berliner runs Totleigh Barton, mentioned that Arvon was thinking of ways to attract a more diverse audience. Arvon, he said, wanted to reach out into new communities. To do this, it had expanded its courses to certain cities; ethnic minorities, it seemed, were intimidated by secluded rural centres. As Oliver spoke, something clicked in my brain. I identified immediately with his words, which may sound strange to some. Fear of the countryside? Why would anyone be wary of sheep and rolling fields?

Only much later, after I had left the calm of Devon, was I able to reflect on this. I too, had been put off by where Totleigh Barton is situated. Though Sheepwash is beautiful, my mind associates seclusion with few people, all very similar but different from me, whose view is limited to a tiny piece of the world. I expect danger. And hostility. I didn’t fancy being stuck in such a place with strangers, unable to escape. Sweeping generalisations these may be, but they are the things we cannot rationalise away. Or even articulate to ourselves: until Oliver spoke, I wasn’t fully aware of what my fears had been about.

Such baggage may be stereotype and pre-conception, but it has power. I nearly didn’t book myself onto this Arvon course. And if I, with my privileged Oxford and City background, had been anxious, how much more would others be.

I’m so glad Arvon wants to reach beyond its traditional catchment. Oliver’s words made me stupidly happy. I walked on a high all evening. Perhaps it was also the Dunmore effect: the fabulous Helen Dunmore, prize-winning poet and novelist who spoke to us after dinner, is nothing if not breathtakingly eloquent. She could put anyone on a cloud. If you ever have a chance to hear her speak, grab it.

For anyone reading this who is hesitating over an Arvon course, especially if you come from an ethnic minority group – don’t be afraid, just do it. The magic will come. Arvon cares about everyone who comes through its doors. Its formula works. But you have to be open, and be prepared to give of yourself.

There was something in the air over Totleigh Barton, a magic which came precisely from being secluded in a beautiful place with others who loved words and stories. There was another kind of magic – the kind that comes from being cared for all day long. I had never expected to enjoy it so much. Even sleeping in a building which had once been home to pigs seemed exotic (see photograph below of my bedroom in the Pig Stiles, with windows on the other side overlooking green fields). The Pig Stiles

When it came time to leave, we discovered that Devon was covered in water and trains were only running from the next county. But I didn’t care. I had learnt about dribbles (micro stories of 50 words) and drabbles (micro stories of 100 words) and had finally found my short story voice. What did it matter that England was soggy?

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