Vanessa Savage – Inspired by…

I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s in a small Gloucestershire village – back then, there were only four channels on the telly and as a teenager there was nothing to do and nowhere to go. My nearest library was ten miles away, my nearest bookshop twenty.

I was never one of the hanging-round-on street-corner kids, I preferred to stay in and read. As a teenager, I remember endless rainy Saturday afternoons when there was nothing but horse racing and darts on TV and my mum and dad’s bookshelves became my escape. Lack of access to bookshops meant I had to make do with what I could find and expand my reading genres – once I’d worked my way through the teenage reads in the school library, I read anything and everything we had at home. On my mum’s shelf, there was Mills & Boon and Catherine Cookson, Jackie Collins and Shirley Conran. On my dad’s, it was Alistair MacLean, Stephen King and James Herbert. I read my dad’s non-fiction books about nature and war, I read cookbooks, I read the bible. I read every copy of 2000AD stashed in my brother’s room and I even read the Watchtower magazines the Jehovah’s Witnesses stuffed through the letterbox.

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I learned a lot from all of them, but most of all I learned not to be a reading snob: I appreciated a good thriller or a sweet romance as much as any of the classics we read at school.

Some of those books still sit on my shelves – all my old Enid Blyton and Noel Streatfield books, the Narnia books, What Katy Did and Little Women. But also my dad’s Stephen Kings and Alistair MacLeans, my mum’s Catherine Cooksons and Jackie Collins.

Now I’m all grown up and writing my own stories – whether it’s short stories, flash fiction or novels, I’ve written thrillers and romance, comedy, fantasy, sci-fi and horror. I like to think the access my parents gave me to all those wonderful fictional worlds has helped shape me as a writer and I want to thank them for that – I only wish they were still alive to see where their love of books has taken their daughter.

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At the moment, my eldest daughter is only interested in books with horses in them and my youngest books about fairies, but I’m hoping they’ll find their own inspiration in my bookshelves as they get older – shelves that offer romance and crime and horror and fantasy, a fictional look into the past and the future, classic books and future literary classics.

I hope that some rainy afternoon when there’s nothing on TV will open up a whole new world for them like it did for me.

Vanessa x

Life Cycle of a Writer – Jumping in and letting go

I made the decision at the start of the school summer holidays to lock my work-in-progress away and leave it alone for a couple of months. Complicated editing left my brain aching and I was no longer sure if I had something good or the worst thing ever written in the history of the written word. I couldn’t look at it objectively – all I could see was a big, tangled mess. Definitely time to let go and walk away before I deleted the whole thing. So I did think my turn on LCOAW would be a very short and not-so-sweet ‘I’ve done nothing in the last two months’… but sometimes the down times can be productive in other ways.

  1. Progress has been made on the next book – I have a sheet full of post-it notes, a notebook slowly filling with character and plot notes.
  1. My house is tidier. (Not tidy – but tidier…)
  1. My garden has real flowers in it, not just weeds.
  1. I’ve caught up on a lot of reading – all ready to top up the TBR pile with lots of lovely new releases.

And most importantly, I’ve had time to spend with my daughters – trips to the park, the beach, the cinema – picnics and playtime and fun. Sometimes that’s as important for grown-ups as it is for kids!

Last week, I went on holiday – first week away in the sun for many years – and it was total bliss. A wonderful week of relaxing and reading. Mostly there was a lot of this:

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But I did also put the work-in-progress on my kindle to take with me. Having rested it, I was ready to read it through again – away from the computer so I couldn’t edit as I went along, but armed with a notebook so I could make brief notes.

The time away from it worked wonders – as did the lack of access to a computer. I read it through in one go and could see right away the problem that’s been bogging me down for ages, and I could see how to resolve it. And as soon as the children go back to school next week, I’m going to sit down, re-edit and finally call the book finished!

On the first day of our holiday, the first thing my daughters did was jump straight in the pool with all their clothes on. I was more cautious – one toe at a time… that’s how it’s been with this book. Changing genre is scary and I’ve been nervous about jumping straight in – it’s definitely been a one toe at a time kind of book, nudged and encouraged along by my agent. Maybe by the time I get stuck into the next one, I’ll be braver – maybe I’ll even jump straight in :-)

Vanessa
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Life Cycle of a Writer – Turning to Crime (Writing)

The last couple of months have seen a few changes for me – I’m back to the day-job now as my writing bursary period has come to an end. It was wonderful to have so much time to write and I’m hugely grateful to Literature Wales for awarding me a bursary. I achieved more than I hoped to – my work-in-progress has moved on and been through a whole new re-write and edit and I’m almost ready to press send… and I’m keeping everything crossed that the faith shown in me and this book will be rewarded with some good news.

I also attended Crimefest in Bristol last month – my first ever crime writing conference. I’ve always loved attending the annual RNA conferences but as my current book is a domestic noir / psychological thriller, I was keen to hear other writers in the crime/thriller genre speak about their books and their writing. Each day of the conference began with a debut authors panel and as an unpublished writer, it was interesting to hear about all the journeys to publication.  The conference is for readers as much as writers so I got to discover dozens of new authors I can’t wait to read – and, of course, I ended up spending far too much money at the bookstall! As well as all the interviews, panels and spotlight sessions, there were several drinks receptions hosted by publishers plus a reception to announce the CWA Dagger Shortlists. I didn’t make the pub quiz or gala dinner this year, but I’ll definitely be there next time!

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As well as dabbling in crime, I’ve been indulging in a bit of flashing… Flash fiction is my other writing love – when I find myself floundering in a 100,000 word ms, writing something 500 words long – or 300, or 100 – is a breath of fresh air, a pit stop, a power nap. If I write a tiny flash piece, I go back to the novel refreshed. National Flash-Fiction Day is on 27th June and I’m happy to report my story Useless Without The Other Half will be in the upcoming NFFD anthology http://nationalflashfictionday.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/presenting-landmarks_17.html

Almost more rewarding than any of that was the eureka moment when the fragments of ideas floating around for my next book came together – so my next couple of months are now set: After I’ve sent off The Murder House, I won’t allow myself too much time for obsessive in-box watching because I’ll be straight onto the first draft of the next one! I’ve bought the post-it notes, a new notebook and three new pens. I’m ready!

Happy writing!

Vanessa x

Life Cycle of a Writer – Time to Write

I’m sitting here staring up at the empty space where my ceiling used to be… A few weeks ago, it was just a ceiling – white painted, a light in the middle, it did the job it was meant to do. But then there was a leak that made a hole and then we decided to get the house re-wired. When the electrician turned up, he looked at the ceiling and said why not pull it down and get it done again properly, rather than patch it up and keep on making do. Cost-wise, there wasn’t much in it. Yes, there would be mess, yes there would be disruption and yes, it would take longer, but in the end it would be perfect. Finished, perfect and just how we want it. (Hold on – I am coming to a point with this.)

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Sitting there, staring at the mess, it struck me that this is just like editing. My book was finished – first draft done, it was okay; it did the job it was meant to do. But there were plot-holes, a saggy middle, a bit of a tangle at the end… I looked at it again. I could patch it up, but I’ve decided to pull it apart and get it done properly. Yes, there’ll be mess and yes, there will be disruption and yes, it’ll take longer, but in the end I think it’ll be worth it.

So that’s where I am with my writing – the old edit is in bits in the back garden and I’m looking at the bare bones of it, getting ready to put the new ceiling up.

The timing for my week on Life Cycle of a Writer has turned out to be perfect –

At the end of last month, I was thrilled to be awarded a bursary from Literature Wales for my work-in-progress The Murder House. The bursary is allowing me to take six weeks off from the day job to write, and this week is the first week of that bursary period, the rest of April and the whole of May stretches before me with nothing to do but write (well, between the hours of 9am and 3pm anyway – then it’s back to school runs and after school activities and real life.)

It means for the next six weeks, for six hours a day, five days a week, I’m being paid to write – I’m getting a taste of living the dream. Even with no ceiling and an awful lot of mess.

I’ve spent the last few weeks planning my time – setting myself targets to get the most out of the time. I want to have The Murder House finished and polished by the time I go back to work – and I’m also hoping to have the next book, which is currently just a few fragments floating about somewhere in my brain, plotted and planned and ready to go.

At the moment, writing is limited to evenings, the odd day off work and sneaky half hours snatched at the weekends. Being a full time writer is a long-held dream and I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to this little taste of it. I’m not going to waste a second of it, so if you see me on twitter, tell me off and send me back to my desk.

See you later – I’m off to live the dream.

Vanessa
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Dear Auntie Romaniac… Plotting panic

Dear Auntie Romaniac …

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I’m just beginning to think about a new book idea. I’ve bought a new notebook and a new pen and I have some vague thoughts in my head. Now, what I usually do is have a beginning and an end in mind, a setting and an idea of my main characters and armed with that, I begin writing and the story forms as I write and as I really get to know the characters. The problem is, I then end up with lots of scenes and chapters that are really just character studies, or nice descriptive bits, which don’t advance the story and my second/third drafts involve major re-writing. I have tried advance planning and plotting and character questionnaires but I struggle until I get into the minds of my characters by writing them. How can I plot and structure my book when I don’t really know the characters yet?

Vanessa
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Sue: I always plot heavily before I write, but I have found if I can get to know my character really well beforehand, this makes life easier. You could ask your character a number of questions, or give them some moral dilemmas – these don’t necessarily have to be part of the story, but they will help you know your character thoroughly before you start writing. Maybe, write the first draft focussing on the plot and then go back and weave character traits, thoughts, feelings and reactions in afterwards. 

Catherine: I think I’m still learning on this, like you, Vanessa. I use a bullet point story line method. I start out by planning what is going to happen in the novel and I scribbled it all out in a notebook. Each bullet point is about a paragraph of information and that eventually becomes a chapter. I haven’t stuck to it rigidly, but it has given me a framework to go by, so each chapter I know what the purpose of those events are and where it will eventually lead. In my second draft I will add more detail and check the timeline, something I could have done prior if I’d been more organised, and that’s something I will try to do with the next one.

Laura: It’s a great question, Vanessa. I tried detailed planning for the first time for book I’ve recently finished, using the three act structure, brilliantly explained by author, Fiona Harper, at a Romantic Novelists’ Association conference. Here is a great series Fiona wrote for the Pink Heart Society in 2012 about that. I usually start with an idea, then bring in the characters, and sketch out a rough picture in my head of what I’d like to happen. Often parts of the plot don’t come to me until I’m inside the story. Even having planned book 3, I struggled with refining the end. How was it resolved? I talked through it with Catherine – she was my captive audience in my car for five hours – Some might say that’s extreme advice, but I’m only suggesting talking it out as the method, not the kidnapping. It really helps me to talk through the story with trusted friends. However, I do like to get to know my characters well before I start writing. I use enneagrams to determine their personality traits. This was one of the many tips I picked up from the fab Julie Cohen a few years ago. This gives me an instant insight into what motivates my characters, and a foundation on which to build.

Jan: I’m a serious plotter. To touch on what Sue has suggested above, I create and then interview each main character, posing various questions and scenarios. This gives me a great sense of who they really are, how they think, their gut feelings, motivations, private versus public reactions. I then roughly draft out what will happen in each chapter, as in ‘harmony versus tension’ scenes, points of conflict, timelines, etc, making sure I have a good idea of balance and story pace. It probably sounds a bit regimental, Vanessa, but even though I’m methodical in my approach, I do keep an open mind when I’m writing, to allow for any unexpected diversions. That’s the fun and beauty of telling the actual story – you’re never 100% certain where it may lead you. I wish I could come up with a magic solution, but I suppose it really is a case of trying every option, every which way, until it gels for you.

Life Cycle of a Writer – In the Waiting Room

It’s my turn to give an update for our Life Cycle Of A Writer series this week …

I was due to send a new edit of my work-in-progress off to my agent at the end of January – this has been delayed by a few weeks as I moved house and it’s taken me a while to find my way through the boxes to my desk!  Also delayed by the fact I keep thinking I’ve finished, then waking up in the night with new ideas so I go back to re-edit. But I think I’m nearly there and the latest edit will be going off to Juliet at the end of the week and I’ll be back in the waiting room refreshing my emails every five seconds and biting my nails waiting for feedback.

I think all writers spend time in that waiting room, whether unpublished or published, agented or not. We wait for responses to agent or publisher submissions, we wait for feedback, we wait for editorial notes, we wait for the day our books are finally published, we wait for reviews, we wait for sales figures. We wear out our computer keyboards refreshing that email in-box and we jump every time the post hits the mat.

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I often fill the waiting time by entering writing competitions – this is also good for my poor agent who, otherwise, would end up getting a squillion needy emails a day from me looking for updates/news/reassurance. Entering writing competitions also adds to that email checking excitement – the next email that comes through might not be spam, it could be news of a shortlisting or even a win!

Last year, I entered a lot of competitions (I’m not very good at waiting) but also had a lot of shortlist success which is another kind of reassurance – I found myself on shortlists of competitions I’ve come nowhere in in previous years: The Harry Bowling Prize, the Yeovil Literary Prize, the Mslexia Novel Competition, the Brighton Prize, the Caledonia Novel Award. For me, it’s a sign I’m heading in the right direction with my writing – a sign I need at the moment as I’ve changed direction and this book is a psychological thriller. Previously, I was writing women’s fiction, but with dark themes and ideas and I could see I was heading for a cliff edge where I needed to decide whether to step back and go lighter or make the commitment and jump. Talking through my ideas with lovely agent Juliet, I could see where this book wanted to go – it wanted me to jump, to fully embrace the dark side. The clue was in the title – my original working title was Hunting the Light, which is maybe what I was doing, nervously standing at the edge of that cliff, but it didn’t work for the book so I’ve re-named it The Murder House, taken a deep breath and jumped off the cliff.

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I was thrilled last week to find The Murder House in the final four of the inaugural Caledonia Novel Award so I think taking that jump was the right move. And I’m also hoping that with The Murder House in its new edited form, this year will be the year the waiting ends.

Vanessa
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Write Behind You – Sarah Manning of The Agency Group

I’m delighted to welcome the very lovely Sarah Manning onto the blog today. Sarah is a Literary Agent’s Assistant to Juliet Mushens at The Agency Group and is here to give us insight into her role and some insider info on life in a literary agency. Pull up a chair, Sarah and help yourself to cake!

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Can you tell us a bit about your background prior to working at The Agency Group?

I read History at Durham University. With no real idea what career I wanted to pursue, but aware that I loved books, I luckily landed myself a job at Orion working for their Paperbacks Department. I also interned in script development at Amber Entertainment and worked as a reader for Island Pictures before happily arriving at The Agency Group.

How long have you been working with Juliet at The Agency Group, Sarah, and how did you come to apply for the job?

I joined The Agency Group back in October 2013 and the time has absolutely flown by. I first stumbled across Juliet’s name during our many editorial meetings while working at Orion. I was beginning to realise that there were many exciting careers within the publishing industry that I hadn’t been aware of straight out of university, and so I closely followed Juliet’s career – she was in her twenties, vibrant and her success was snowballing. I found her easy to identify with and I knew I could learn a lot from her. At the time I was on a temporary contract at Orion and so I took the initiative to contact Juliet and ask her advice on how to move my career forward in publishing. Six months down the line Juliet was looking for an assistant and it felt like everything was falling into place. During that time I’d built up my experience and I knew for certain the direction I wanted my career to take.

What’s the best part of the working day for you?

The best part of my working day is reading the full manuscripts that have been called in from the slush pile. I love the creative, editorial side of reading submissions and it is especially exciting when you stumble across something special. But even when a submission still needs more work I enjoy sharing my thoughts with Juliet. I learn a lot from this process and it is always interesting to see how our comments compare.

What are you reading for pleasure at the moment?

I have just finished reading Apple Tree Yard and opened The Little Stranger by Sarah Walters on the train this morning. Apple Tree Yard was suggested to me by Juliet and, unsurprisingly, it didn’t disappoint. With a complex female narrator, and tackling interesting issues about sexual assault, it is an incredibly compelling read. I’ll let you know how I get on with The Little Stranger – here’s to hoping it’s as dark and chilling as I expect.

Could you please tell us about a typical day at The Agency Group and describe your workspace?

My days are pretty varied but there are some things which need to be done regularly. Every day we will have contracts coming in and out of the office, and it’s my job to keep a track of them all. Juliet does her own foreign rights and so we have contracts issued from all over the world, and with no separate contracts department this is quite a big job! I also complete the tax forms for our authors and am the one chasing all the money. Unlike in other jobs I have previously had, I don’t see these tasks as tiresome administration because they are so closely tied to direct contact with our clients, and I’m learning so much about the ins and outs of the industry. Hopefully this will just make me an efficient agent sometime in the future! And then, after all the general office jobs, I will help Juliet with the slush pile.

Our office is lovely, especially now we are slowly filling the white walls with framed book covers. And of course there is an enormous tube poster for James Oswald’s Mclean series.

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Do you find you have a typical day or is each day different?

Each day is different working for Juliet and this is something I really appreciate about being her assistant. I am very lucky that I am welcome to sit in on all of Juliet’s meetings and so I find myself part of meetings with potential clients; existing authors; scouts and the list goes on!

Has anything surprised you about the job?

I was pleasantly surprised by just how fast-paced the working environment is here. There is always something going on and new deals being struck. It makes it very exciting to be a part of.

What was your dream job as a child?

I’m not entirely sure it would count as a job, but for most of my childhood I wanted to compete in the Olympics in synchronised swimming. Unfortunately, you can’t read books while upside down in the pool.

What’s your dream job in the future? Do you hope to become a full-time agent and build your own list?

When Juliet asked me where I’d like to be in five years’ time I replied, “your desk”. Well, perhaps not her actual desk, but one next door as a full-time agent would be lovely. My dream is to build a client list of my own with authors as varied and as exciting as those I get to work with now. My favourite aspect of the job is following authors from their slush pile submission through to their first deal, and championing debut authors is something I hope to take forward when establishing my own list.

Do you read the submissions that come in to Juliet’s slush pile – is this a job you share or do you both read promising submissions?

Juliet will read everything that comes into her slush pile and will decide which submissions to call in the full for. I will then read these full manuscripts alongside Juliet and we share our editorial comments. I absolutely love this process and, although the pile is often very large and somewhat daunting, it is always exciting when you begin reading a manuscript and realise you can’t put it down.

If you do read submissions, what would you love to find in the slush pile?

I have a weak spot for flawed, independent female characters that aren’t defined by the men around them. I would love to find an ‘Amy from Gone Girl’ type character placed in a historical setting: something that turns the male discourse of history on its head in a very modern way.

Who’s your favourite author / favourite book of all time?

Favourite author is a tricky one as, even if there is an author who I generally like the style of, it is always the story itself that I am most passionate about. A Thousand Splendid Suns is my go-to book and got me through my finals at university. There is something so magical about the strength of the characters despite the sadness that surrounds them, that no matter where I am it always manages to transport me. Plus, I’m a bit of a sucker for something that makes me cry!

Thank you so much, Sarah!