In Memory of Sue the Storyteller

Last week I went to my grandfather’s funeral. It was a sad occasion, but he’d lived a full life and we gave him a good send-off. I can give him no better obituary than this one my brother wrote. This week, I learned of the death of Sue Wilson, a friend from my local writing group, Derby Scribes. She had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, went into hospital for surgery, and never came out again. I had known she was severely ill, but her death still came as a massive shock, one I think will take a long time to fully sink in. Yesterday I went for a walk round the park to try and clear my head, saw an old couple walking happily hand-in-hand, and ended up in tears.

I wouldn’t have described Sue as one of my closest friends, but I realise now – too late, of course – what an important place she had in my life. She was one of the most stalwart members of our writing group, always to be relied upon for knowledge, advice, bright ideas, and board games. She helped me immensely with her advice and encouragement, especially when I was writing my first novel. Her stories were always entertaining and her conversation always enlightening (if not always safe for work). More than anyone I’ve ever known, she was a born storyteller. She spent her life steeped in stories, whether novels, short fiction, or role-playing games. She could narrate literally anything in a way that made it sound exciting, and she had a quirky sense of humour that could make anything amusing, but was never at anyone’s expense.  Her invention never flagged, and nor did her enthusiasm – ever generous with her time, she helped all our group come up with ideas and marshal them into coherent narratives.

Needless to say, she will be much missed – not only by her husband John (and I don’t believe in soul mates, but if I did, I’d believe in those two, since I’ve never met a couple who seemed more perfectly suited) and by the rest of her family and friends, but also by all the Scribes, by all her fans on WriteOn, by all those who played the games she wrote and GM’ed, and by all those who did National Novel Writing Month alongside her – not to mention all the people she helped in her day jobs working with vulnerable children. She touched many lives and left all of us better for her influence.

For her funeral, she has asked attendees not to bring flowers, but to do something creative instead, and if that doesn’t sum up her attitude to life, I don’t know what does. Sue – if you’re somehow reading this in the afterlife, thank you. I will never forget your generosity or your boundless joy in story-telling, and I promise I will keep the story going.

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Guess who’s back

Hello there my lovelies. After a three-month hiatus, I’m back in business!

So what’s new? Well, my original plan back in October was that I would get my head down and finish my novel The Silvergreen Sea before Christmas. That, um, didn’t happen as planned. Instead I did NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, this is national novel writing month, an annual thing where you attempt to write a novel in November. ‘A novel’ is deemed to be 50,000 words, which is a tough-but-achievable target, and without a day job, I had no excuse not to hit it.

The great thing about NaNo is that, because it’s a big event, you can go to meetings – or just hang out online – with lots of other people attempting the same thing and swap tips, make connections, and generally appreciate the fact that you’re not the only insane person out there. I’ve done it once before – back in 2011 – and decided it was time for another plunge. So I started a completely new book – working title The Tide of Fire – went to a bunch of meetings, and dutifully churned out my 50,000 words of magic, murder, and mayhem. It was good fun, and now I have the makings of another novel – about half a rough draft.

But what about my current novel, the one I was supposed to have finished by Christmas? Well, to be honest with you, I’d been working on it for so long I was thoroughly sick of the thing, and I desperately needed a break. NaNo provided that while keeping the creative juices flowing. Now, refreshed, I’ve picked up The Silvergreen Sea again and started on the final edit, aiming for completion by the middle of March.

All this brings me round to the two questions which must always be asked at this time of year: what’s my new year’s resolution? And did I achieve last year’s resolution?

Checking back, I see that my 2015 resolution was to finish The Silvergreen Sea. Oops. Guess I dropped the ball on that one. Oh well. So, my 2016 resolution is – guess what – to finish The Silvergreen Sea.

But – famous last words – that’s not going to take a whole year, and so I’m going to have a couple more resolutions. One is to finish The Tide of Fire in first draft. And another is to read at least 50 books. (Last year I watched an awful lot of television, so I’m thinking 2016 should be the Year of Reading). I’ve read three-and-a-half so far, so I’m off to a good start. Let’s see if I can keep up the momentum, and not leave my to-read shelf as neglected as those gym memberships.

Best of luck for all your endeavours in 2016. Unless your endeavours involve annihilating the human race.

The Numbers Game

It’s nearly the end of November – or, as it’s also known, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). In a few days’ time, millions of would-be writers will be emerging from their shells, blinking in the morning light, having (we hope) banked at least 50,000 words on their novels in thirty days. I haven’t done NaNoWriMo myself this year, but I did set myself a writing challenge – to produce 60,000 words over twelve weeks on my fantasy-novel-in-progress, The Silvergreen Sea. My self-imposed writing regime has worked well so far, and I reached that milestone – my planned half-way point – a week ahead of schedule. So well done me – my sit-down-and-crank-the-words-out approach is thus far successful, in its own terms at least.

How about in any other terms? I’ve noticed that, when people ask me ‘how’s the writing going?’ they are sometimes bemused to receive a firmly quantified answer rather than a vague ‘fine, thanks’, and I can’t make any claims to rigorous quality control. Or indeed, any quality control. For the moment, it’s a numbers game: before you can polish your words, you have to write them. And there’s something very reassuring about the daily accumulation, the steady progression towards my goal.

Of course, there’s a strange tension between my neatly measured progress, and the nebulous nature of what I’m actually doing. I can claim I’m half-way through, but is my finished book going to be precisely 120,000 words long? Probably not. The truth is that I’ll just have to keep writing until I reach the end of the story, whether that takes 80,000 words or half a million. And then I’ll have to edit, revise, re-revise, cut, add, trim, make some tea, re-edit, re-cut, re-re-revise, cry into my cup of tea, feel like deleting the whole thing and throwing my laptop into the Trent and Mersey canal, cut some more, re-re-re-revise, call it finished, send it to my agent, await her comments, and then probably do a whole lot more editing and re-re-re-re-revising after she points out the gaping plot holes. I can pretend it’s a numbers game for now, but when was the last time you read a book review which said ‘the author wrote 115,765 words. Jolly good.’?

I’ve sometimes heard writing a novel compared to running a marathon. That’s true, only you don’t know how long your route will be when you start running, or where it’s going to go, and once you get to the end, you may have to go back and run by a different route. Also, you’re not running, you’re writing. So it’s not much like a marathon, really. It’s not like anything, except itself, and the only way you can learn to do it, is by doing it. And the real measure of success isn’t how many words you’ve written, but whether it makes the reader wish you’d written more.

But hey, 60,000 words is good progress, so I’m going to give myself a pat on the back and a G&T.

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 https://ruthdehaas.wordpress.com/2012/11/29/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.

One year on…

It’s now been over a year since I started this blog, and I thought it was worth taking a few minutes to reflect. In that time, I’ve finished one book (again), started another, entered some competitions with mixed levels of success, got an agent, and moved to a four-day working week. I’ve managed to keep to my self-imposed deadlines, writing blog posts on a variety of topics including cricket, music, trolls, the hidden gems of London, historical fiction, and how to write humorous poetry. Checking my stats, I see that I’ve had more than 2,000 views from people in countries including Canada, Israel, Malaysia and Kazakhstan. A number of different search terms have brought people to the blog, including ‘Giles Coren is a drunk’ ‘blah blah blah simple diagram’ ‘where to buy feuerzangenbowle’ ‘xkcd bubble bath’ and ‘Alastair Cook sexy and hot’, but by the far the most popular is ‘triple facepalm’. Not entirely sure what to make of all this, but hey, it’s feeling like some kind of success.

For my writing, it’s been a vintage year: I’ve improved my productivity and made some genuine progress towards publication, although there’s still a long way to go before I crack the Amazon Top Ten. This time next week I’ll be at the World Fantasy Convention down in Brighton, where I’m hoping to catch up with my agent, meet some interesting people and get some inspiration. Then I’ve got a whole week booked off to spend writing, coinciding with the start of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, where aspiring novelists try to complete 50,000 words in November). I’m not sure yet whether I’ll spend it working on my new book, Forever 27, re-working my first book, The Heartland of the Winter, working up some short story ideas, or perhaps just taking stock and thinking about what direction I want to take next.

I’ve always found one of the best ways to get in some quality thinking time is to wander around a local park or woodland. As well as being an aid to rumination, you can sometimes stumble across cool things – like a fine crop of toadstools. As a fantasy writer, I thoroughly approve of toadstools (Amanita Muscaria if you want to get technical) although I was amused to discover last year that some of my friends were under the impression that they were mythical. I can assure you that they are not – and here’s the photographic evidence. And with these pictures, my friends, I’ll leave you, until next time. TTFN.ImageImage