Sunday, 16 March 2014


I've been away from this blog for far too long, but I have been very kindly invited to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour by the very talented, Lorna Fergusson, writer and founder of Fictionfire, so, being a gal who doesn't like to disappoint her pals, I decided I should pull the virtual dustsheets off Writing Towards Possibility and let in a little long overdue air. I will be launching a new blog, The Book Diner, in the coming weeks and look forward to welcoming writers such as Jenna Blum, Vanessa Gebbie and David Rose to my online red banquette and asking them to dish the dirt on the literary life, but, until then, I'm happy to say howdy to y'all from here. 

The Writing Process Blog involves writers answering four questions about their creative process (funnily enough!) and Lorna's wrote a fabulous piece on her nocturnal writing habits and the perils of research at Literascribe before passing the baton to me, so it's all a bit daunting, but here goes ...

1) What am I working on? 

Well, you'd think that would be a simple question, but my writing life currently resembles air traffic over Heathrow, with various projects hovering at different levels of completion. 

Most of my creative energy right now is going into preparing to promote my first novel, Welcome to Sharonville, which is being published by Unthank Books on June 15th and is already available to pre-order on Amazon. Even writing those words after a decade of scribbling, editing and rejections makes me want to jump up and down!! Holding the proof copy in my hands - which I about to check over for the final time - was the fulfilment of a dream I've had since I was a little girl. All the work has been worthwhile and, even though I find marketing daunting as it's a strange, new world for me, I'm having real fun sorting the novel website and new blog, arranging the book trailer to be made and sorting an author shoot in a 50's diner! I am so lucky to be surrounded by talented artistic friends who have come forward to support me with this project. The novel has even been entered into the Booker Prize which is so exciting! It is rather like a Blackpool beach donkey running the National and I fully expect to fall at the Chair and need to be shot, but it's still an incredible experience. 

So, anyway, what am I working on? I'm working on all this publication stuff - which is, whilst less lofty, a very important part of the writing process - perhaps the most important as it is when the whole purpose of all those years at the desk becomes real. I write because I love it, because I cannot imagine my life without doing it, but I also, ultimately, write to be read, to touch people's lives in the way that writing of all kinds has touched mine. If this novel can do that for one person, then all the days slaving in a leopard print dressing gown, doubting myself and crying over being rejected by agents will all seem fair enough. Okay, I am kind of dreading reviews - my friend had the word, 'BORING' (yes, in capitals) splashed over her (excellent) book's Amazon wall - but that is also part of the writing process, I guess, and becoming a grown up at my 'craft.' (For want of a less pretentious way of putting it!) 

Julia Cameron writes about creative projects having seasons and Welcome to Sharonville is, finally at the glorious summer point in the writing process where I skip through the waist-high grass, high on life (until someone calls the book 'boring,' at least).  However, I have another novel at a different, more difficult stages of their development (the image of potty training comes to mind!). Emptiness/ The View from the Moon is at the part of the process when even the title is in flux [shakes head]. I researched this novel about two generations of female astronauts at NASA (nerd swoon!) and made a fair amount of progress, but then decided the literary thriller plot needed more pep, so I scrapped what I had and started over. 

If two excerpts from it hadn't already been published in magazines such as The New Writer, I would probably want to be exiled to space myself - without oxygen! - but the fact that other people enjoyed parts of it encourages me that this project is worth pursuing. I also feel very emotionally attached and even loyal to the achievements of women such as Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who perished on Challenger, and the Mercury 13 women who weren't allowed to participate in the space program(me) in the 60s due to straight out sexism - these courageous and gifted people inspired the novel and remind me that I need to keep going 
even when things get tough. 

Christa training for the Challenger mission on a zero gravity flight

I now think that scrapping stuff is probably part of my writing process and maybe a sign of things 'working' - although that could just be a desperate hope! I'd written 55,000 of Welcome to Sharonville when I went to a course on novel writing at the City Lit and realised I didn't have a plot (gulp). I hadn't lost the plot, I just didn't have one in the first place! I had a Ph.D. in English and had taught Critical Theory at master's level and still had no idea how to plot a novel. (I say nothing at this point about the content of most Creative Writing postgrad courses!) My tutor, Leone Ross, kept pushing me until I saw that someone crying by the bed of a woman in a coma really wasn't going to fly for a whole book and I came home and replanned the whole thing. 

Originally, I think I'd wanted a connection of short stories - and the novel still has lots of viewpoint characters and little vignettes - but, after taking that class, I looked seriously at Evan Marshall's novel writing schemas and realised that storytelling had laws which you could break, but were useful to adhere to, especially as a rookie. If I'm honest too, I was raised in a German-Brazilian family, so planning a novel as if you were building a bridge really appeals to my anal side! And it seems to work - at least, once I get the plan right. Some people can gush out a whole masterpiece and then go back and rewrite and rejig the structure, but I like the bones underneath to be sturdy as I find the whole notion of endless do-overs utterly exhausting! Luckily, after Welcome to Sharonville was remapped and I cut about 25,000 of loose flesh, the fundamental structure was strong, so I thankfully didn't need to redo much except the beginning (I lost count on how many versions I went through!) and endless line edits.

I wrote and completed my second novel, The Red Umbrella, by more organic principles, cocky now I had one book under my belt - and it's been, er, resting ever since. I could never get it to gel - maybe it's something which I can revisit later, but it's not a tragedy if I don't use that material as I (re)learned the crucial lesson that others might be able to pull stuff out of their sleeves with a magician's flourish, but I need to plan like a general going to war. 
Hence I studied how to write literary thrillers and then redid my NASA novel - and have also meticulously planned out my other current project, Low Tide. It's a mystery set in a rundown seaside town, so it needs carefully thought out to ensure the clues are as well laid as Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs, but I must admit I did dash out the first chapter without much thought about what was to come. Books resemble falling in love in that way and I let myself have that first flush of imagination to fuel the project, before then letting the control freak get hold of it.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre? 

I write literary fiction which is a broad genre, allowing all kinds of variations. I'm increasingly finding myself drawn to a thriller/mystery element - probably because I do enjoy plotting so much! - and even have aspects of alternative timelines/histories in my NASA novel, both of which probably set me apart from classical literary fiction. Even so, I think that compared to a lot of literary work, mine is a quite quirky. 

I was raised in a family who were essentially novel characters masquerading as people, so I am drawn to create figures who are eccentric and live outside the bounds of 'normal' life. It was nothing for my grandmother to tell my dead grandfather how I was doing at school, or for me to learn of the regrets and unsatisfied passions of the generations which went before me, so I find the magical aspects of life, as well as the heartbreak of the misfit, all good grist for the creative mill.

It's only now my novel is coming out and my publisher called my work 'a masterpiece of psychological nuance' (the M word - shocker!) that I have realised how much our emotional life - flawed and lost and beautiful and hopeful as it is - fascinates me (that may be why I write such long books as we're a complex subject!). I have always worshipped writers such as Richard Ford who excel at capturing the inner workings of humanity - I couldn't hope to ever be in his league, but it seems that this psychological aspect is something which makes my work differ from others [clutches at straws and tries to sound like she knows what she's on about].

My literary hero, Richard Ford

3) Why do I write what I do?

Well, it ain't for the money! Ha, ha. 

I write because I have since I was a little girl who made the top step of the stairs in our house my 'desk' and it's part of me, but I think I write my particular stuff because the life I have lived and the kind of person I am has lead to me being enthralled by why I and others do what they do, how we hurt and how we heal. I guess I found literature helped me so much from the time of being a messed up teenager forward that I have always been interested in ways in which writing can affect change in people. Literature models emotional closure and presents the possibilities of redemption in significant ways and allows us to feel less alone with our muddled, bittersweet humanness.

I was particularly interested in the issue of how we learn to love and forgive ourselves and others when I was writing Welcome to Sharonville - it wasn't like I set out to deliberately build a book around that theme (for all my planning, so much remains subconscious), but it's there and is exhibited in nearly all the book's characters, much in the way that the struggle for self-esteem is there for most of us. I guess I write to give people hope that we are all in this mad world together and there are roads out of the insanity. My new literary thrillers are necessarily a tad darker by reason of their genre, but the notion of allowing people to find more palatable answers to some of life's crueler questions is still there. I've had way too much therapy, read far too much self-help and had a lot of spiritual training - it makes you a softie. 

4) How does my writing process work?

By fits and starts. Binges on words and then lost months. Massive progress and then pulling teeth. Mistakes and then making it over. Much like life really!

I would like to say I write daily, but my current promotional work and my health issues (I am recovering from M.E. and Fibromyalgia) mean that I often go long stretches without writing - but then, when I am well, I produce a lot at one go. I wrote the first draft of Welcome to Sharonville before I got sick and so I managed to bang out 80,000 words of it in six weeks, knowing I would be hemmed in by my academic job after the summer was over. I look back at those halcyon days of massive productivity with envy and wonder and I think the mind does work so much better in terms of making connections and keeping your style consistent when you write consistently, but my present life (and body) really doesn't allow for that. Hence I aim to do three afternoons a week and really crack out the words then - I don't even want to leave my desk to drink or go to the loo as I go into a kind of trance! - but I try to be patient with myself when I'm too ill to even manage that much. Weeks often pass without me writing due to some reason or another. 

What consoles me is that I think much of the writing process happens when you're not technically writing - the heart of creativity is in daydreaming, wondering, taking time for the various jigsaw pieces of plot to find their place. Billy Collins has a poem ('Monday'watch him read it here ) where he talks about windows being invented for poets to stare out of - and it's true of all writers.  

Staring out of windows is a crucial part of the writing process - we may not seem like we're working, but we are! (Ahem.) I find that having had time away from my work, I do need to read over and catch up with the action and current tone of the piece which is hard, but it is also very helpful to have had that preparatory time - I tend to visualise scenes in my mind before writing, including the setting and even much of the dialogue, so if I haven't had much down time between sessions, the writing itself can be harder. 

To be honest, it is challenging for me write in a more relaxed, intermittent way and to not be able to keep to the breakneck pace which I think is probably my natural state, but it may well be healthier and more sustainable. Novel writing is a lifetime pursuit, after all. We are not ballerinas.

Next week, The Writing Process Blog Tour will be moving on to check out the processes of the following writers ...

 Ashley Stokes 

Ashley Stokes is the author of Touching the Starfish and The Syllabus of Errors, the latter of which was long-listed for The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. His fiction has appeared in Fleeting, The Warwick Review, Lakeview and London Magazine among others. He is also editor of Unthology. He lives in Norwich and is currently working on a short story collection, The Susceptibles and The North Surrey Gigantopithecus, a novel. 

Nick Sweeney

Nick Sweeney’s novel 
Laikonik Express was published by Unthank Books in 2011. Much of his work shows his fascination with Eastern Europe and its people and history. When he’s not writing, he plays the guitar with Balkan troubadours, the Trans-Siberian March Band. He has turned to America to inspire his current work-in-progress, about celebrity culture, American urban myths, curious children, arms dealers and serial killers, The Fortune Teller’s Factotum

and, just to be different, the non-fiction writer, Gilly Smith. 

Gilly Smith is a food and travel writer and a writing coach, specialising in her own creative technique of ‘dreamwriting,’ and also teaches at the University of Brighton. She runs a writers’ retreat in 8.5 acres of beautiful East Sussex woodland which is a cross between Arvon and the National Film and Television School. 


Saturday, 9 February 2013

Stories from Song - Music's Influence on Writing

Writers, do you find music inspires your work? I am often inspired by musicians - not only for their originality and drive, but especially by their lyrics. Many songwriters are amazing storytellers - Bruce Springsteen, Death Cab for Cutie, Sheryl Crow, Sufjan Stevens ... I could go on and on.

In fact, the 'inciting incident' of Sharonville, where a central character crashes her truck, was influenced by an Aimee Mann song called 'It's Not' where she sings about waiting at a stop light and feeling unable to move forward. My character feels the same way and then, when her pick up is destroyed, falls into a coma where she believes she's in space ... Oh, and, yes, and she lives a life which 'from behind the screen ... can look so perfect/ But it's not' ...

In this case, Aimee's words captured beautifully the character's emotions and helped me shape this important scene, so I'd love to hear about times when music has inspired other writers.

Now over to wonderful Aimee ...

It's Not

I keep going round and round on the same old circuit
A wire travels underground to a vacant lot
Where something I can't see interrupts the current
And shrinks the picture down to a tiny dot
And from behind the screen it can look so perfect
But it's not

So here I'm sitting in my car at the same old stop light
I keep waiting for a change but I don't know what
So red turns into green turning into yellow
But I'm just frozen here on the same old spot
And all I have to do is to press the pedal
But I'm not

People are tricky you can't afford to show
Anything risky anything they don't know
The moment you try - well kiss it goodbye

So baby kiss me like a drug, like a respirator
And let me fall into the dream of the astronaut
Where I get lost in space that goes on forever
And you make all the rest just an afterthought
And I believe it's you who could make it better
Though it's not
No, it's not...
No, it's not...

 Listen to it here!

Thursday, 7 February 2013


I've written about rejection here, about the 'Great Wall of No' that I've faced over the years of trying to get my first novel, Sharonville, published ... I've discussed the misery, the self-doubt, the 'I can't freakin' believe it!' of yet another near miss in a competition or with an agent ... But, today, I'm going to tell you about that magical moment when someone finally says 'Yes' - the big fat yes of we want to publish your novel!

Because, yes, it's happened to me!

On Monday morning last week, groggy from sleep, I opened my email to see something in my inbox from Robin Jones, the publisher of Unthank Books, telling me he loved my book, that it was full of beautiful prose and so perceptive about the human condition ... and how he'd love to discuss publishing it, if it hadn't already been snapped up. 

I screamed so loud that the cat flung herself from my lap, terrified, and then stared, bewildered, as I wept and wept - not the tears of disappointment and doubt which are familiar to me (and most writers) on this winding creative road, but beautiful, happy ones. The tears of 'I got my dream' and even, 'My God, the fight to find my book a home is finally over.'

Because it's been a long, long haul - over ten years, from the first scratchings of a novel 'til now. And, believe me, at every single stage, I've been scared to death and doubted how the hell I could go on.

I remember trembling as I wrote Sharonville, imagining all those hard-won pages slithering into a shredder in some agent's office. (A writer's imagination is both our greatest strength and weakness!) Even so, I sobbed when I finished the last sentence, ripped apart by both my disbelief at reaching the end and the pain of letting go of the characters who had become so real to me. It was as if they went on living their lives in the desert in Arizona and I was left alone at my desk, suddenly separate again.

A hilariously truthful take on the 'novel cycle' from a participant in NANOWRIMO -  I'm all too familiar with the rollercoaster of thrills from the first idea, right through to 'It sucks, but it's done and it's not bad as I thought'

As a new writer, I didn't know how lengthy the editing process is - about all the times over the next eight years when I'd see them again. And again. And again. So many times, in fact, that what first seemed like a joyful family reunion, soon became boredom, if not outright bickering and having to hide the knives!

Because that's the thing - we think we can rush books and especially the editing process, probably because we live in capitalist world which favours the economics of the production line which are utterly unsuited to artistic endeavours. As a result, I wanted to take this book to market way before it was ready. I even wanted to begin editing it way before it was ready - after a month, when really a month allows no time to develop the objectivity to cull those sneaky errors or enjoy the places where the writing actually works - even if those paragraphs often seem like they were inserted by someone else!

The fact is, writing books take time and editing books usually takes even longer. It's a process of years, not months for most folk. We can certainly help ourselves by getting encouraging, but challenging feedback on our work, as I was lucky enough to receive from Ashley Stokes and Anna South of The Literary Consultancy. But I've also learned over the years that writers need to trust their gut and only take on board those criticisms which resonate with their existing feelings about their work. (Because we all know deep-down what's a bit sticky in our books!) Unfortunately, though, it takes experience to learn to trust one's own judgement and so, as a baby writer, my desperate attempts to satisfy the demands of every critique, even if they were contradictory in their views - along with bereavements, illness and divorce - ultimately led to me shoving Sharonville into that classic metaphorical drawer for several years.

I still loved writing though, so I worked on my second novel, The Red Umbrella (which is complete, but now 'resting') and was lucky enough to have a few stories published and be shortlisted in some international competitions. Even so, Sharonville lingered in the back of mind as a disappointment - a creative wound, as Julia Cameron would put it. My fear of not being able to fix the book's opening section, of not being good enough, of outright rejection and failure totally overwhelmed me and I was stuck. The kind of 'Caught in the Alligator's Jaw in the Bond Villain's Lair' stuck where you need someone to pull you out - or be eaten alive.

The lovely and talented Jacqui Lofthouse
007 didn't come to save me - but novelist and writing mentor, Jacqui Lofthouse, did. (I call her my Yoda now!) Warm, funny and voraciously positive, Jacqui forced me to drag Sharonville out of seclusion and let her read it.  She rang me a few weeks later and said: 'It's f*cking brilliant! This is the most exciting thing I've read for years!' Now Jacqui is a lady, so I knew her using 'language' meant something and I had to concede that maybe she - and the other people who'd believed in the book before I'd got neurotic about it - were right and it deserved another shot.

Using Jacqui's very useful notes and a few mini-critiques from Cornerstones, I managed to finally 'crack' the beginning section which had been my blocking point before. The truth is, all creative artists get better over time if they're practising their passion consistently, so waiting before performing surgery on my book again was a good idea (not so much the waste of time which I felt it had been). Now I understood it was positive (if painful!) when I cringed at some (okay, a lot!) of my sentences - that just meant I was more skilled now as a writer and editor and could better see where I'd gone wrong. For this reason though, I knew I could well keep waiting and polishing and perfecting forever - and never let the darn thing go.

This is where Jacqui saved me again (she should wear a superhero cape - I'm sure she does when I'm not looking). Due to her faith that this book deserved to be read, she began scouting for agents - and we had lots of bites and full manuscript reads which is great going in this business. In fact, if agents make any personal comments when rejecting your work, you're a freakin' superstar - something we all need to remember when our manuscripts slouch back through the door again, like scruffy teenagers we really wish we would just go to college already.

Anyway, eventually, after years of supporting other writers, Jacqui went off to fulfill her new dream of teaching drama, but, by then, she had given me the confidence to submit my own work. It was hard to be out there alone - I shook and cried and cursed at some of the agents' reasons for not taking me on, but the near misses continued and, in late 2011, I heard Sharonville was one of 100 of 2000 books long-listed in the Mslexia Novel Competition. I grasped each bit of good news with both hands, celebrated with my friends every single time something positive happened with my writing, as Monica Wood suggests, and chose to see these small successes as signs that I was doing the right thing. Even though people kept telling me how hard it would be to be a British-based author selling a US-set novel, how the market was extremely cautious right now and no one wanted to take a risk on newcomers - especially quirky, literary writers who thought ghosts and aliens belonged in family dramas as much as anywhere else.

Being also trained as a life coach, Jacqui told me to read Jack Canfield's work and he has a phrase about finding success which I love: 'Someone out there wants to say yes.' And, it turns out, in the end, I found them.

And that's what Jacqui used to tell me, whenever I had an acute attack of What's the Pointitis - that it was a numbers game, a game of getting the book to the person who would get it. It took lots of false starts years ago with a weaker version of the novel and then, this time round, about eighteen agent approaches and well-aimed one shot at Unthank - a small, but fine literary publisher whose list and ethics shine in a time when the book industry is floundering, arguably, favouring commercialism over quality and taking safe choices over talent. I didn't send my book anywhere else because I didn't want to my novel to be anywhere else. I knew as soon as I read about Unthank that this was where my book belonged - they make the brave choices over the bottom line every time and I find that inspiring. I especially adored Sarah Dobbs' international literary thriller, Killing Daniel, which they published in 2012 and so I am very proud and awed, as well as thankful, that my book is going to be in such fabulous company.

But the moral of this story really is, there's a good home for every good novel - if you don't give up. One day you'll be jumping up and down like me. One day you'll be happier than for years because now you have this dream, you know others are possible.

And it's a little like how my gran described the pain of birth to me too - now that I have a deal, all the rejections, the self-doubt and anguish don't matter any more. The agony has been forgotten. Because I struggled to get here, in fact, the victory is sweeter.

I have challenges ahead now in terms of working with an editor, building my 'platform' and publicity, facing readings and reviews (gulp). But, despite the work ahead and the inevitable ups and downs, I'm actually excited. So incredibly excited. And I wake up every day wanting to pinch myself to see if it's true that this is happening to me!

A fellow author friend sent me an email headed, 'Sharon Zink, Novelist' and it felt so strange to read that - even after years of dreaming, of convincing myself I was a writer just because I write. Somehow it seems like I'm 'more' of a writer now someone else has taken me seriously.

But I need to keep building too - getting better with words and stories. This news certainly motivates me to complete my current NASA-set novel, Emptiness. Fear so often still keeps me from my desk - but now the increased belief that someone might actually want to read my work will hopefully help me to get myself into the chair and scribbling.

This blog is all about writing towards possibility and the possibilities are endless now for my little novel ... and for you too. So ...


As founder of The Literary Consultancy, Becky Swift, said to me years ago after reading a few pages of Sharonville: 'This book is going to happen, it's just a matter of how.'

I say to you now, if you work with passion and determination, YOUR book is going to happen, YOUR dream is going to happen - it's just a matter of when and how. One day, someone is going to say 'Yes.'

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Next Big Thing

Each Wednesday, selected authors answer ten set questions on their blog about their next book. They then tag other authors (preferably five) and then it will be their turn the following Wednesday. The idea is to make some sense of the blogosphere by drawing attention to good writing. I'll name my tagged writers at the end of this post.

But, firstly, special thanks to the talented novelist, poet and publisher, Adele Ward who tagged me. Adele’s blog, The Poet at the Bus Stop is at

1) What is the working title of your next book?

It's called Sharonville which is meant to be an ironic, self-referential nod to the fact that it's about a town in the Arizona desert which I've made up. When I travelled the U.S. in 2002, I was fascinated by the way the pioneer spirit lives on in the American West - you can buy land from the state really cheaply and they'll let you keep it if you improve if after a number of years. Hence when I returned and was once more dragging myself through a long three to four hour commute (each way!) to my lectureship, I started to stare out of train windows and dream of Sharonville and its quirky inhabitants.
The Arizona landscape which inspired Sharonville
It is loosely based on Kingman, Arizona though - a tiny tourist and truck stop en route from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon - so it was rather shocking to discover some years into the writing, when channel surfing at my dad's house, that some of the stranger elements of the novel - such as sightings of black triangles in the sky - actually had occurred in Kingman in recent years! Spooky!

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

I had never considered myself a writer before that first trip across the States. I was a published poet as a teenager and became an academic in my twenties, but I'd never thought I'd write fiction.

Yet when I was in Las Vegas - the people watcher's paradise! - I suddenly started 'hearing' all of these different characters' voices and the idea of having a fantasy place to unite them evolved. The desert between Nevada and Arizona had got to me too, on a long bus journey through purple dusk, so I knew exactly where these tales had to be set.

Vegas, baby - it made me a writer
I'd been reading a lot of Carver during my commutes to the university, so I thought I'd have a crack at imitating his style, just for fun - I was incredibly lucky in that my first story, 'Lobsters' (see my website), won the Writers Inc. competition, so I thought maybe I should keep going.

It wasn't until the following summer though - when I attended an intensive novel course at City Lit, run by Leone Ross - that I realised I didn't actually have a plot! Evidently, having a Ph.D. in English and knowing a lot of literary theory doesn't help with craft matters! So, after studying some Evan Marshall, I re-imagined Sharonville as a 'proper' novel - although there are still multiple viewpoints, the more minor players merely 'pass the baton' of the main plot concerning the lead character, Franco. In this new reworking, book then became more resolutely about his quest to wake Toni, the young professor he has raised, from a her coma and tell her the truth about her paternity.

That central idea came from the fact that both my mother and myself never had our real fathers around. My mother's tragically fruitless journey to find her biological dad and my own uncertain sense of identity due to having never met my blood father (though I know who he is) underpins the novel's explorations of such loss and lies at the heart of families. Fundamentally though, I'd like to think it's a book which looks at how you can heal and make peace with yourself, no matter what your past.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Contemporary literary fiction, though I feel it's pretty accessible in its style, despite being full of my unusual imagery (once a poet, always a poet - at heart at least!).

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

James Gandolfini would be a great Franco - whaddyagonnado?
Franco, my main character, is a binge-eating Italian restaurateur, originally from Brooklyn - as soon as I saw James Gandolfini in The Sopranos, I said to myself that he was exactly the image of my leading man. Not only does he have the right physique, but there's a depth of emotion and vulnerability in his acting which Franco needs to be played properly. Gandolfini compared himself to an overweight Woody Allen once and I thought that is exactly what my Franco needs! However, my friend, Anthony Forrest, who is a screenwriter and former Star Wars actor, told me that Russell Crowe could do well in the role and is much more 'bankable' - he also happens to be my friend's second cousin, so maybe I should ask!

As it's such a multi-viewpoint, multi-ethnic, multi-sexuality novel, I could go wild and say I also want Susan Sarandon, Michelle Yeoh, Jet Li, George Clooney, William H. Macy, Lucy Liu, Tobey Maguire, Rosemary Harris, Matt Damon, Pamela Anderson (yes, really!), John Turturro ... I struggle with casting the main female character, Toni, as she's got a certain dark Italian beauty, along with intellectuality, sassiness, spirituality and fragility - I adore Pauley Perrette as Abby in NCIS as she's got a real quirkiness and warmth - as well as the raven hair! - so maybe she could pull it off. As you can guess, this script would cost far much to cast - a Hollywood nightmare! But, hey, they made The Towering Inferno and The Cannonball Run!

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When Professor Toni Sorrento crashes her pick up in the desert in Arizona a few a weeks after 9/11, it brings to light long-buried secrets in her small home town of Sharonville and forces her guardian, Uncle Franco, to face the truth he's spent over thirty years trying to forget.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Beautiful Marilyn reading

It's currently at the last stages with a small publisher and am awaiting their response. If they don't take it, I'll go back to searching for an agent (I've had several near misses already and the novel was longlisted for the Mslexia novel award in 2011) and try other small publishers.

Writers have to be fighters really - or at least know how to grab onto the furniture and pull themselves back up from the floor following multiple rejections! Your passion needs to be immense, I think, to keep going at any creative career. As Marilyn Monroe said, “I don't want to make money, I just want to be wonderful.” You have to have that attitude or being any kind of artist is pointless and far too painful. (Though some money would be nice - or Marilyn's curls!)

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

The first draft was pretty quick - I wrote about 80,000 words in eight weeks during one summer vacation as an academic - but, as I said before, I'd had to scrub 55,000 before that when I realised I didn't have a plot, so it probably took two years, all in all.

The editing period has been much longer though, interspersing times of frantic activity with years when I kept it in a metaphorical drawer whilst I completed another novel (which I have decided to let 'rest' indefinitely). It wasn't until 2009, when I met my mentor, Jacqui Lofthouse, that I started really taking the book seriously again -although it wasn't until 2011 that I was happy enough with it to submit. That is, it one ever really can be satisfied! I'm sure more edits await, should it get accepted by a publisher.

So the simple answer is: draft, two years; something edible, more like seven! I have gone various massive life changes during this period too though, so I'm hoping the current project, which is called Emptiness - a literary thriller about female astronauts - goes more quickly! Although a publisher friend told me seven years is about the right time a book should be left to "brew."

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I'm very much influenced by contemporary American writing and this novel has been likened to Paul Auster's work and even described as a combination of Anne Tyler and Douglas Coupland, due to the combination of the domestic and quirky, I suppose.
Although I've got a more literary style, Billie Letts writes really warmly about small towns crammed with eccentric characters and her books, Where the Heart Is and The Honk and Holler Opening Soon, reminded me a little of Sharonville when I read them.

Raymond Carver, Amy Tan, Garrison Keillor and Armistead Maupin definitely shaped the book's multiple viewpoint structure - with Sharonville's various inhabitants playing their part in events - as I love the sense of community they create in their fiction.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I wouldn't have become a fiction writer at all if I hadn't gone to Vegas, baby, as I said above. Travelling across America at thirty changed the course of my life. I suddenly went from wanting to be an English professor to wanting time to write more than anything else. It's not been an easy road, but I am glad I found my calling - or finally listened to it. However, I will be using my Renaissance scholarship in my next novel which is already circling, eager to be written.

In terms of people who inspired me though, the book is partly dedicated to my English teacher, Bryan Ricketts, who encouraged my creative talents from the time I was teenager. Thanks to him, I became Shell Young Poet of the Year when I was seventeen, despite all my adolescent difficulties - or maybe because of them (poet and misery are a pretty good mix!). He was very proud of my academic achievements (sadly, he died just before I got my Ph.D.), but, during our long correspondence, he always told me I 'should' write - meaning literary stuff! - so I hope he's pleased with me, wherever he is. I'm sure he was meddling from on high!

The book is also dedicated to my grandmother, Grace, who was the world's best storyteller. She would constantly recount family tales from across the generations, including the most precise and lively dialogue. I didn't care that she told these tales over and over or that they changed each time and weren't the 'truth' - it was precisely because she gave new meaning to these events again and again which kept me fascinated. In fact, I'll tell you a secret ... a few of her stories made it into this novel! I just hope she doesn't mind me stealing or dishing a bit of dirt! I could never tell them as well as her though, so I'm sure she's shaking her head and saying, “Oh, Babbee,” Up Above in her West Country drawl.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

My family couldn't tell the difference between the living and the dead - it was quite normal for my granny to talk about how she'd discussed my exam results with my deceased grandfather. I also grew up surrounded by UFO sightings and a mother who wanted me to be a topless model (!), so readers should be get ready to see family, friendship and lost love through new eyes.

The book also features the Liberace Museum - surely spangled hot pants and sequin-splattered cars are enough to entice anyone? It's closing though which is a real tragedy!

The Next Next Big Things

Here are the three authors I’ve tagged. They have been great supporters of my work, so it's lovely to be able to return the favour. Enjoy these very talented, original writers.

Ashley Stokes was born in Carshalton, Surrey in 1970 and educated at St
Anne’s College, Oxford and the University of East Anglia. His fiction has
appeared in many journals and anthologies. His first novel, Touching the
Starfish was published by Unthank Books in 2010 and his first collection 
The Syllabus of Errors will appear in February 2013, also with Unthank. 
He lives in Norwich.

Nick Sweeney published Laikonik Express in 2011, with Unthank Books. The story of two Americans on a vodka-driven trek in search of a woman in snowbound Poland, it brings his interest in all things Eastern European out in a cross between a laugh and a belch. He may give it all up to play the guitar in a Balkan band. Until then, his published works and works-in-(slow)-progress can be seen at

Laura Wilkinson grew up in north Wales. She live sin Brighton with her husband and two ginger boys. After many years working on non-fiction, she writes fiction now. Her short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies, online and in print. She has been a finalist and shortlisted in a number of competitions including: the New Writer, Cinnamon Press, the Virginia Prize and Brit Writers’ Award 2010. Her  first novel, BloodMining, was published by Bridge House in 2011, and she is seeking an agent for her second novel while working on a third. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Following Ms Seagull's Example: Nurturing our Writing Life and Keeping Going

For three Springs now, I've watched seagulls nest on the roof behind my house. Ms Seagull's out there now, feather-treasuring her unborn babies, as she has been throughout the past few weeks, despite harsh sun and days of rain.

And when her babies are born, she will fly frantically back and forth to feed them, coralling those kooky grey furballs away from the edge of the roof and even buzzing my house like a fighter jet should I dare to stare at them too long.

Her persistence, devotion and even courage comfort me as I look up from my daily duties (I'm still here, I'm still here) and it's struck me that I could learn a lot from her in terms of my writing life - all about staying put when self-doubt, rejection and even illness claw at my artistic dreams like thunderclouds or stiffening cold.

Ms Seagull's teaching me that I have to warm my novels - cradle them in my hand like eggs, as fragile things full of possibility and hope - until they are ready to come into the world and then do all I can to help them grow and fly. She's also showing me that I must accept that some books, some dreams may tumble off the roof anyway and never grab the agent, the publisher, the reader I hoped for and that, even then, I need to go on towards another Spring, believing more beautiful things will be born to me.

How cute is this baby seagull? And how tough is her mama! I'd probably be a lot braver and determined with my writing if I thought of my books as such sweet things  

What can we do to nurture our writing lives or a particular project-in-progress?

Inspired by Sage Cohen's The Productive Writer ( and Michael Nobbs' Sustainably Creative (, I've been carefully considering how I can give my writing more attention by establishing a schedule which will keep me on track and positive about my progress, but which also takes into account my low energy levels and pain (from Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). By being realistic and compassionate about when I generally feel my best and exploring and exploiting my motivations for writing, I'm hoping to be a more constant presence at my desk - just like Ms Seagull.

What can we do to help launch our projects into the world?

I've also realised that by blogging more and keeping focused on submissions - not only in terms of my first novel, but also to competitions and anthologies - I'm also taking care of the work that is already done, but which needs a sky to dive into. Hence, following Cohen's advice, I'm looking into how I can make regular space in my writing life for sending stuff out and participating in the creative community online.

As for the part about precious projects tumbling from the roof, readers of my last blog entry will know that rejection is something I'm simultaneously terrified of and fascinated by and thus aim to write a book about - The Great Wall of No. A fresh insight on this issue came to me this week when I read about Rosie Garland ( who won the Mslexia Novel Competition ( which I was lucky enough to be long-listed for. Hearing Rosie's story - of being twelve years with an agent without selling any of her four books and then fighting off throat cancer - I lost all sense of  'I wish that was me' and suddenly felt so happy for her. It's so good to see people who've fought on - like Ms Seagull - finally getting their due. It's the same for my lovely friend, Andrew Thorn (, who has now been taken on by agent, Eve White, who richly deserves a wonderful deal after having one agent and publisher close down on him.

Rosie Garland as her performance double Rosie Lugosi - it's always good to see another girl who wears eyeliner doing well.
In the end, the writing life is an unpredictable one, for sure, and our babies may break a wing and perish, but if someone else's little birdie manages to take off, we can feel hope for our own future. Indeed, in a Buddhist sense we are all inter-connected anyway, so one person's success belongs to us too - as do all our losses. That's why it's so important to cheer for others and show compassion on their darker days. We're all on our own paths, but we're all in this together too.

I'd love to hear how you nourish your writing life on a long-term basis and how you find time and the all-important faith to keep putting it out into the world.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Great Wall of No

A few days ago, I realised that, although I don't have the teary tantrums of yore when I receive rejection letters, the drip-drip-drip of the submission process for my first novel, Sharonville, is subtly wearing a hole in the Sweatpants of Hope which I wear when I write (and, I suspect, many of my comrades do too).

Now, as the Sweatpants of Hope often remind me, I really don't have that much reason to be despondent as I'm only about 18 agents into my search. Indeed, as the lovely Isabel Losada pointed out  (, Jonathan Livingston Seagull was rejected 98 times, so I'm still a rookie at this game. I should also be optimistic because this book was not only one of  the 100 books out of 1800 to be longlisted in the recent Mslexia Novel Competition (, but has also been nearly taken on by three different agents in the past year. I also have a very fine small literary press interested in reading the book soon - another thing which makes the Sweatpants smile.

Still, there's that gravelly, ten packs-a-day voice which whispers in my head that my dreams will never come true, that my work is too this or too that to sell, that I'm wasting my life and a complete and utter failure.

Nasty, nasty stuff.

Indeed, I've often thought we could fuel reactors with the toxic self-hatred which boils in us at times. We certainly need a pretty thick concrete wall between it and us if we're to have a happy, creative life.

So that's why I posted the following question on my Facebook wall a few days ago:

I was just wondering how my gorgeous literary friends handled rejection earlier in their careers (or maybe even later!). I've been doing the agent trawl off and on for a year now and have realised today it's bloody hard to keep being my own cheerleader.

Any tips for maintaining hope and self-belief when faced with The Great Wall of No and keeping the Wolf of Professional Envy from the door? 

The Great Wall of No often feels endless, like The Great Wall of China - that's me, wearing red, right at the back.
I used to tell my college students to never fear asking me a 'stupid' question, so I dared to be as brave as those young adults and expose my vulnerability, my state of unknowing and even my shadowy, shameful envy. It cost me a lot to write those words in terms of pride, but, I also know it's just common sense to ask people who have done what you want to do how they did it, to learn from those who are experienced in the craft you wish to perfect. Writers are no different than plumbers in that respect.

And, as often happens when we are bold and aim at what is real, the response was far beyond what I imagined.

Whereas recently I had been considering leaving Facebook's bazaar of comparison and cute kitties, I now recognised what I would be losing if I left (aside from the kitties!) - that I had made real connections online and that other writers were there to inspire and support me, not make me feel inadequate. I also came to to see, through the passions of their various responses, that all of them suffered due to rejection - no matter what stage of their career.

Reading their comments, I also recognised that whilst I stomping my feet in the goop of self-pity about finding an agent and publisher, but they were standing in the mire too. When the savvy publisher and writer, Adele Ward ( revealed how punch-drunk she was from fighting her own fear of submitting work, I didn't feel so bad that my novel spent a few years hidden in a metaphorical drawer until Jacqui Lofthouse ( forced me to drag it, zombie-like, into the light. Suddenly, I didn't feel so much of a coward for finding this all so damn hard.

Indeed, when the lovely and multi-talented writer and comedienne, V.G. Lee ( ) shared her similar experiences of those painful 'Almosts' with her own first novel, I felt my own frustrations weren't so uniquely painful. In fact, I discovered that, even beyond the fabled book deal, writers still face repeated hurts, in terms of, say, sniping Amazon reviews - something which Edmond Manning, fired up by my question, discussed with his usual warmth and wit in his blog (

What's more, I also learned that well-received authors, such as Vanessa Gebbie (, also have to bear the pain of waiting for literary prize lists to be announced. And then, of course, there are sales figures to worry about. As one recently published writer friend said to me, 'It's one disappointment after another.'

But, the thing is, despite all these challenges, every single writer still emphasised enjoying the writing itself. Indeed, the very experienced Paul Magrs ( suggested that a pet project (perhaps aside from the main one) could offer the inspiration and pleasure to sustain authors through dark times.

However, bestselling Brighton author Sarah Rayner ( made a very astute point -  given that it's, arguably, the sensitivity of writers which allows us to create moving, emotionally compelling work, she wondered if we should even expect ourselves to handle rejections well.

I think she's nailed something important her and would add that maybe numbing ourselves might dull some of that affective energy. Nevertheless, the fact is, we do need to somehow become more resilient if we are to remain on the potholed literary road. As Richard Ford told me some years ago when we discussed self-doubt: 'It never goes away.' Evidently, rejection eats Pulitzers for breakfast.

Count Floyd from SCTV certainly knows that rejection is scary, kids!
As well as novels, poems, plays, films, acting careers, songs, life-saving inventions, potential love affairs ...  Life is one big fat buffet for this fear-monger.

So what can we do to fight back, to become a little less afraid to post that competition entry, to make the time of crying under the duvet a little bit shorter next time rejection plagues our houses?

I think there is no easy answer. Rejection's agonies are maybe the result of a swirl of psychological longings and losses, the sense of sociological injury of being expelled from the 'tribe' and our culture's obsession with perfection and success - even as Tony Robbins and other excellence experts assert that failure teaches us more than easily-gained attainments (

All I know is that my question stirred a powerful response in my writer friends, showing that this is an issue which we all deal with, no matter what the world perceives us as, and that, as Sarah Rayner said, needs more exploration. There are plenty of books on writing technique which I respect, but the literary life is based in our beings, our minds, and we need to know how to tend to those as they form the core of our work. After all, it's pretty pointless being a fabulous stylist if you're too petrified to send work out - or if you make your high-falutin' literary life a misery by focusing on every critic's narky remark.

Julia Cameron has done much to illuminate the emotional and spiritual dynamics behind making art (, but I believe more close attention needs to be paid to this issue of rejection, so in the coming months - despite being bound up in submitting this novel and completing another and tussling with a chronic illness! - I will attempt to try to gather some wisdom and resources together in a book which will help writers (and anyone who faces difficulties, in fact) face up to the Great Wall of No. I'm going to undertake some research and talk more to my writer friends, but I'd also love to hear your thoughts on rejection and your coping strategies. The Sweatpants of Hope need you to save them from holey doom!

Remember, the wonderful thing about a wall is you can write anything on it.

The graffiti artists who created the Lennon Wall of Love in Prague

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The Love Made It Through

Just a quick post today as I'm busy ahead of a well-deserved break, but I wanted to share something I read recently by David Richo:

My greatest joy is in the realization that I can still love. That capacity remained intact despite all the blows.
That the love made it through means that I made it through.

This is very meaningful for me right now, as I swamp-trudge my way through grief due to a (hopefully temporary) separation from someone I dearly love.

But this quote also has some resonance for me in terms of writing-that no matter what other life forces intrude, my love for that remains. No matter what else breaks my heart, the excitement about finishing my next novel and then the next is still there.

In fact, it's comforting to know, that despite the disappointments, the dreadful doubts, the isolation, lack of money or time or whatever hurts have hit my creative life over the years, the love for language, for strange imaginary people who move in with me and persuade me to tell their stories is resilient.

Love for others, for self, for our work may be difficult, even sometimes apparently impossible, but without it, the artistic self shrivels. Love is a sign of survival, as Richo says, but it is also the fuel of all that is great in life. It may seem easier sometimes to cool to all that's painful by throwing the water of cynicism over it, but then we also lose the messy warmth which makes being the world and passionate writing possible.

Because I have so much love inside me right now that it makes me cry on the stairs, because I love my work enough to worry about its future or whether I've chosen the accurate image to describe a character's hair, I know I made it through my past and will make it through this shadowy, frightening time too. And so will you, whatever goes on. As Richo also says in his book, How to Love as an Adult:"Let the chips fall where they may." Love never fails.