At the crossroads

It’s been almost a year since I secured a literary agent, taking an important step on the road to publication, and I now find myself in an interesting situation. My first novel, The Heartland of the Winter, a coming-of-age tale set in a fantasy land with a harsh climate, has been doing the rounds since last July. It has attracted some positive comment, but sadly the publishing contract and cheque for that five-figure advance seem to have got lost in the post. Oh well. So it looks like I’ll need to write another book before those royalties start rolling in. This writing gig is starting to seem a lot like hard work.

What should my second novel be? When Heartland went off on submission, I had to decide what to do: get cracking immediately on the sequel and give myself a headstart on that trilogy, or try the ‘and now for something completely different’ approach. Of course, if the first book doesn’t sell, nobody’ll want the second, so rather than risk doing work on a project that would then end up on the scrapheap, I went for the latter option and started writing Forever 27 – a tale of sex and death and drugs and magic and rock n’ roll, inspired by the 27 Club of prematurely deceased musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. But then there were some problems with the plot, and by the time I’d ironed all those out, I was struck down with ill health, unable to write any significant amount, and the project ran out of steam. So the short answer to the question ‘what are you working on at the moment?’ is ‘nothing’. Now my health is in the process of recovery, and I’m faced with another decision: do I pick up Forever 27 again, or would one of my other ideas be a better bet?


Well, I think I’d quite like to finish writing Forever 27, but then there are also other considerations. I wrote The Heartland of the Winter – quite consciously and deliberately – without any concern for the eventual market whatsoever, and I’ve written here previously about the joys of being unpublished But now I’m at the stage where I’m thinking I would actually really quite like to experience the joys of being published, for a change. So, the short answer to the question, ‘what do you want to write?’ is ‘whatever is most likely to get me that 3-book deal’. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Nobody wants to work speculatively for a year, however much passion you have for the project. But if you try to write something purely for the marketplace, your lack of genuine enthusiasm will probably show through in the finished product, and you could well be left with something that won’t sell and which you didn’t even enjoy writing.


The good news is that there’s no shortage of ideas, of possible books I want to write – some I’m keener on than others, of course, but then, concentrating on one project doesn’t mean you can’t have something else on the back burner. So my latest work has been to collate my hopelessly disorganised mass of ideas into a semi-coherent list, ranging in level of detail from ‘I have a six-page outline, 3 chapters in first draft, a character list, loads of background, and a bunch of stuff I wrote in a sleep-deprived haze for NaNoWriMo 2011’ to ‘well, I had this nightmare…’ And now I’m awaiting a steer on which one to pick. I don’t yet know whether that steer will come from my agent, a publisher, my own feelings, or possibly a roll of the dice, but in any case, I’m hoping to get going within the next month or so.

Smells like…?

So… those developments I mentioned last week, which I was hoping would have developed by now… they still haven’t developed. Oh well. That’ll teach me to tempt fate. So I’m writing about smells instead.

Last weekend I went on a hen do, down in Birmingham, which was extremely exciting as it was the first time I’ve managed to get out to an actual nightclub since BMBWB (Before My Back Went Bad). The only negative was that I struggled to sleep, finding the pillows in the rented apartment too hard. So when I got home on Sunday, the first thing I did was flop onto my bed and let my head sink into my own deliciously soft pillow. And the funny thing was, I immediately noticed the smell: after two nights on synthetic bedding, my feather pillow had a distinctively organic odour. Now I hasten to clarify that my bedroom does not smell like a farmyard. But after spending the weekend away, there was definitely a detectable aroma welcoming me back to my own bed. Smells like home.

Trying to describe this sensation to my husband, I was struck by the paucity of the English language to describe smells. And then I saw a post on tumblr, gently mocking the cliches of fan fiction: “he inhaled his scent. he smelled of (ingredient 1), (ingredient 2) and something undefinable, that was uniquely (name of buttsex partner).” * This made me laugh out loud, because it’s so true – not just for amateur slash, but for professional writing. I recently read a book in which the heroine was described as smelling of strawberries and cut grass. Now I’ve never met anyone who smelled of either strawberries or cut grass, unless they’d been eating the one and rolling around in the other, so I didn’t find this terribly convincing, but, as anyone who has ever borrowed clothes from someone they fancy will tell you, people DO have a unique scent.

But there are only a few words – sour, fresh – which actually describe odours, and fewer still – musky, heady – that specifically refer to smell. Hence resorting to claiming that someone smells like cinnamon and honeysuckle when they clearly don’t (it’s curious that these descriptions are nearly always of sweet things, when humans are surely more likely to smell like, well, meat). Compare that with the myriad number of ways we have to describe the way something looks. I’m not sure whether other languages are similarly poorly equipped, but I have noticed that Proust, the master of sensory evocation – the taste of madeleines, the sound of a piano sonata, the sight of the sea or of the sunlight playing on a bedroom ceiling – doesn’t dwell much on scent, which suggests that either French isn’t much better, or he was too consumed with hay fever to smell very much.

This all presents a problem for the writer, trying to evoke this most elusive of the senses. But then, that is perhaps the joy of smell: even in an age of Yankee Candles which claim to capture the scent of anything from fresh cut roses to camouflage, it isn’t easy to pin down. It bypasses the more rational parts of the mind and plunges us straight into a sensation, whether a long-forgotten memory from childhood, gut-wrenching repulsion, hopeless lust, or that deeply joyous feeling of coming home.

* in case you’re wondering, yes, quite a lot of fan fiction really is like that, as I’ve previously chronicled:



The smell of a garden after rain…


So, I did have a post planned for today, pending some developments which I was hoping would have, um, developed by now. However, they have failed to fully develop yet, so I’ve taken the decision to postpone the post until next week, by which time I will (I hope) have some news to share. Or not. That’s the way it goes.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of a great spotted woodpecker, as seen by me yesterday (picture not taken by me, I hasten to add) as proof that even a really lazy birdspotter such as myself can see some cool stuff if she keeps her eyes open. Like the bullfinch I mentioned back here