Friday, 15 August 2014

Chloe Banks on The Art of Staying Flexible

I'm delighted to welcome long-time friend of the blog Chloe Banks, who is out and about promoting her debut novel, The Art of Letting Go. Chloe is an accomplished short story writer, so I'm looking forward to reading the book and seeing how she's taken the leap into the longer form. The book is available from a new publisher, Thistle Publications, and that in itself is an interesting aspect - the company is a new independent outfit that slots itself somewhere in between the two usual avenues; it's not self-publishing, but it's not quite traditional publishing either. It's an exciting reflection of the way the publishing landscape is changing and you can read Chloe's thoughts on it by clicking here.

Anyway, without further ado, let me hand you over to Chloe...

The Art of Letting Go tells the story of Rosemary, whose peaceful seclusion is disrupted by the man who she was involved in a traumatic relationship with decades earlier; only this time he’s lying in a coma and Rosemary must decide whether to let him live, or let him go. In the midst of her secret dilemma she meets an abstract artist who is used to manipulating shapes and colours to make people see things differently. But what else is he manipulating? And can he help Rosemary see her own situation in a different light?

The Art of Letting Go is available as a paperback and an e-book here.

And streeeeeeetch...

When I was a competitive runner I was proud of being supple. I could pretty much do the splits, I could touch my head to my knees and all sorts of other contortions. When I switched priorities from racing to writing, I thought I could stop worrying about being flexible. I was so wrong.

There is a famous and much over-used phrase in writing – kill your darlings. In order for a story to be as good as it can be, sometimes you have to cut the bits of writing that please you most. In the first draft you can write what you want, how you want. When it comes to re-drafting and editing you need to make your narrative work, and that requires being flexible – changing your own ideas of how the story should go or how your characters should act.

When I was writing The Art of Letting Go, I had to change a lot. I have written elsewhere about changing from a straight-forward narrative to a multiple viewpoint narrative and how hard it was to create four or five authentic voices. With one of my characters, Cheryl, it was particularly tough. I knew what I wanted her to be like, and I knew how I wanted her to act, but feedback kept coming in – she’s not believable. It wasn’t until I had an agent and was perhaps six or seven drafts into writing the novel that I realised the problem: a person with the character I’d created wouldn’t act in the way I’d asked her to act. I ended up re-writing her completely – giving her a different background and different influences and motivations. And I think she finally works.

This willingness to adapt your ideas – rather than just edit your original plan – is key to getting an agent or a publishing contract. Believe me, it’s deflating to go through the euphoria of being offered a contract and then receiving an edit letter outlining all the things you have to change in the manuscript, but it has to be done. Edit letters often make authors cry. Here you are, with a book worthy of an agency/publishing contract, and you are STILL being told that you need to completely re-think one of your characters, alter a major part of your plot and start the entire novel at a different point. You don’t want to do that? Fine. Don’t expect to be published.

All this, of course, comes with the caveat that you are the master of your own story. Yes, you need to be prepared to flex and change. No, you don’t have to cave in to every suggestion. When my agent listed all the changes he wanted me to make before we submitted to publishers, I set to work on most of them. There were a couple of points however – such as changing the ages of my main characters – where I dug my heels in. I was able to explain why I didn’t want to make those changes and David respected that. Agents and editors are looking for writers who can both touch their toes and stand their ground!

When I was county cross-country champion I needed to have muscles that could power me up hills, but were still flexible. As an author I need to create my darlings, but be willing to kill them – or at least bend them a bit. But the real key to both? The same as it always has been: putting in hours of hard work and practice. When it comes to writing there are some rules that can’t be bent after all.

Chloe Banks lives in Devon with her husband, son and an obsession with words. She started writing for a dare and forgot to stop until it was too late. She is a prize-winning short story writer and a first-time novelist, represented by The Andrew Lownie Literary Agency.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Five Things

I was recently tagged in a Facebook post by Jonathan Pinnock in which he listed five things about his current work-in-progress. There was an enjoyable progression to his list, as it basically went from him saying he had no WIP (perfectly understandable seeing as he's just launched a non-fiction book, the excellent-sounding Take it Cool, which I'm planning to buy very soon (unless I manage to win a free copy from these guys)) to him deciding on an idea and planning to write it that same evening. To be honest, I'm hoping for a similar boost from taking on this challenge. Let's see...
Long-term Relationship
I've been working on this novel forever. At least it seems that way. It started off as a short story somewhere around 2005/6, back when I'd never have had the confidence to send it off anywhere. A couple of years later I showed it to one of the tutors at an Arvon course I was on, and he made a chance remark that 'unlocked' the rest of the story and convinced me it could be much more than just a few pages' worth. I wrote a few chapters, lost momentum, moved from Leeds to the Midlands, joined a writing class, wrote several more chapters, lost interest, wrote lots of short stories, had some success with those, moved again (not so far this time), decided I was never going to get where I wanted to be purely through the stories, rewrote everything I'd done, got nearly to the end, and stalled. That happened in about March this year, and I've been adding a few hundred words to it every so often, but it really doesn't feel like progress.

Identity Crisis
The main problem I'm finding with this book is that there's part of me that really worries about what will happen if I get to the end and if I can stay enthusiastic enough to edit it into a publishable sort of shape and if I'm lucky enough to land an agent/publisher and get the book out into the world. You see, it's a science fiction / techno-thriller type of deal, and I'm not convinced that's the kind of writer I am, or want to be. Michael Logan's written an excellent series of blog posts about his literary journey since winning the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award. The thing that's really stood out for me is how reluctant publishers are to let a new author change course - it's all about building your 'brand', it seems. If you want to veer off-course for book four or five then, depending on how your sales have been, they might let you take that risk. I know I'm jumping the gun massively here, but it's hard to focus on a book that could lock me into a genre I don't want to commit to in the long term.

I mentioned a while ago that another obstacle to keeping up my enthusiasm for the book is that some Hollywood types are, rather unsportingly, making a film that's based on more or less the exact same concept. I haven't heard much else about the film since then, but I go from thinking it's great news because people will be interested in other ways of looking at the idea, and it being a prime opportunity to piggyback on any big-budget marketing from the movie, to being despondent that my book, which always seemed (to me at least) a unique spin on the "teleportation accident" scenario, will just seem like a lazy knock-off of someone else's idea. I feel a bit hamstrung, and I'm trying hard not to convince myself that I ought to wait to see whether the film turns out to be any good before I make my next move.

Considering a Sex Change
No, not me. But I've been looking at one of my favourite main characters - a grizzled and unpredictable agent from a European equivalent of the FBI who helps the protagonist - and wondering about making him a her. I'm wary of the work involved in this (as one of the main elements of the rewrite was changing the narrative from third- to first-person perspective and that's been hard enough), but I think it might be an interesting way to go. It would help balance out the book a little, as it's pretty bloke-y at the moment, and I can't think of many similar stories where the 'mentor' character is a older woman helping out a male protagonist. I've been imagining Kenneth Branagh or Keifer Sutherland in the role - maybe I should consider Gillian Anderson or the evergreen Helen Mirren instead (not that I'm suggesting either of them could be described as "grizzled"!)?

Keeping the Faith
Okay, this post is turning into more of a self-pitying whinge than I planned. The thing is, I really believe in this story, and I want to get it finished and out into the world in some form or another. I think people will enjoy it, and I believe it will be a success if I can just keep going with it long enough to do it justice, although exactly how that success is likely to be measured remains something of a mystery to me at the moment.

So, there you go, five things maybe not so much about the book itself as about the crumbling mental state of the guy attempting to write it. Sorry about that. I'm now supposed to nominate five people to take up the baton and although I'm always reluctant to point the finger at anyone, I'd like to invite the following people to take part, who may do as much or as little with it as they choose. All you need to do is tell everyone five things about your current work-in-progress - interpret that however you wish.

Freya Morris
Nik Perring
Teresa Stenson
Amanda Saint
Dan Powell

If anybody else fancies jumping on the bandwagon, feel free! Rules are made to be broken.