Sunday 27 August 2017

Unfamiliar Territory - Guest Post Sonja Price

Most of the guests I invite onto my blog are people who I know but, a few weeks ago, I received an email request from someone whose name was new to me. It was an email that was so lovely and engaging that that I just had to say yes. That someone is Sonja Price and she's going to tell us about her novel, the Giants Look Down, and about what it's like setting a novel in a place you've never been to.

Over to you, Sonja. 

At an Arvon Creative Writing workshop Jim Crace, Booker Prize shortlist candidate, gave me some invaluable advice about depicting places I’d never been. You see, I decided to set my novel THE GIANTS LOOK DOWN in Kashmir, which was unfamilar territory for me. He told me not to write it like a travel report, but instead to take some aspect of the landscape and show its familiarity. So I described the image of the old women’s face playing on the rocks created by the moonlight:

We lived in one of the finest houses in the foothills, built of stone with a sweeping view of the valley from the veranda. From my bed I could see the Gilgul pass and the rock face that looked like a woman’s face with snow white hair. She used to smile at me when the moonlight fell on the stone. In early spring the scent of mulberry blossoms filled my room so that in summer I would climb and harvest basketfuls of berries from the tree outside my window for Sabri our cook, who made delicious chutney from them. With plenty of food in store winter never posed a problem. We always had a taste of summer in the house even when we were snowed in for days. I loved those days, when even Pa couldn’t get away. A blizzard would be raging outside as we gathered around the fire to listen to stories of what Pa got up to as a boy.

Writers go where their imaginations take them, and mine was ignited by a report on the car radio of the Great Earthquake in Kashmir of 2005. I discovered that the region, specifically the Vale of Kashmir, is breathtakingly beautiful. Majestic snow-covered mountain ranges, among the highest on this planet, cradle a valley lush in sycamore woods and fields of saffron interspersed with a pearl necklace of lakes. Wular Lake is all of 100 square miles and full of carp and trout; houseboats moor amongst the reeds, and on Dal Lake gondola-like boats called shikara laden with fruit and vegetables meet to form a floating market. As if the scenery were not spectacular enough, the vale boasts a rich history of maharajas, princes and princesses. But this paradise has been the centre of political strife over the past 70 years since Kashmir lost its independence with the Partition of India. Although its population is overwhelmingly Muslim, the Vale of Kashmir chose to become part of its Hindu neighbour, India. Two wars have been fought between Indian and Pakistani over it and both armies still stand their ground on the highest battlefield of the world, where avalanches claim more lives than armed conflict.
There must be a story in there somewhere for me, I thought to myself. What would happen if a 10-year-old Hindu girl called Jaya decided to become a doctor much to the chagrin of her mother and the patriarchal society of 1960s Kashmir? And how would she react to being transplanted to Scotland? I had my doubts about evoking Kashmir on paper but bolstered myself with the fact that Elizabeth George got away with basing her first published book in England before ever crossing the Great Pond and Andy Weir didn’t need to go to Mars to write THE MARTIAN. Well, publication brought relief when the reviews, including some from Indians, praised the authenticity of my portrayal of Kashmir. One reader even thought that I must have lived there for years! Well I did conduct some intensive interviews with Indians, but it’s amazing how helpful books, especially picture books, travel blogs and endless online resources such as google maps can be.

One Kashmiri journalist understandably questioned my intentions and asked me how I could deal with the conflict so superficially. Given the complexity of the situation, it was a reasonable question. But I countered that I was simply endeavouring to tell a story: nothing more, nothing less. My aim was solely to entertain and amuse the reader; I did not want to take sides nor deliver a message, yet at the same time I still tried to depict the situation as sensitively and genuinely as possible. Drawing attention to the plight of Kashmiris could surely not be a bad thing in itself, I added. Well, he seemed to agree and printed my interview in full together with a picture of yours truly with her book:

Going to Kashmir, if only in my mind has been a wonderful journey that started in my car!
You can find Sonja on Facebook
You can find out more about Sonja on her website here
Twitter: @PriceSonja
The Giants Look Down can be bought here

Wednesday 23 August 2017

The End of the Fairy Tale?

This was not the post I thought I was going to be putting up today but, sadly, life doesn't always go the way you'd like it to.

After the post about finishing my novel called Not Giving Up and the one following that about my glowing RNA New Writers' Scheme report, A Small Step closer, I had hoped that the next post I wrote would be giving you good news.

Sadly, it's not to be.

This afternoon, I had a telephone call from my agent. Imagine my excitement! But she wasn't ringing to tell me how much she loved the novel... or about the next step... or even that there was work to be done together. Instead, she was ringing to say that, due to changes within the agency creating greater workloads, they would no longer be able to give the time needed to work on a debut novel. In other words, with regret, they would be having to let me go.

After feeling so elated at having finished the novel, and after having had such positive response from my RNA NWS reader, you can imagine how disappointing this was to hear. It's also sad because I got on well with my agent. It doesn't seem five minutes ago that I was writing the post in which I told you how my submission had been picked out of a slush pile of 10,000 and how it felt like winning the lottery.

But I refuse to be disheartened and this is why:

  • I now have TWO novels to offer a new agent
  • I have the fabulous words of my RNA NWS reader to give me the confidence to start the whole process again
  • I will now be able to self-publish more collections of my magazine stories

I know it's not the news you wanted to hear but it's not the end of the road... just the beginning of a new journey.

One that I hope you'll continue to travel with me.

Sunday 20 August 2017

A Small Step closer...

This is a short follow-on post from last week just to let you know that, since posting, I have received my novel critique back from the RNA New Writers' Scheme (NWS). When the email came in, it took a while to pluck up the courage to go online and download my review then, in my haste, I forgot to put this year's password in and couldn't understand why it wasn't there. Luckily, the lovely NWS organiser was very patient with me and explained what I'd done wrong.

This year, I asked to have the same reader as last year (all critiquing is anonymous so I had no idea who it was but for ease of reading I shall call my reader 'she'). The reason I asked for the same person was my submission last year, for my first novel ,elicited a critique (of several pages) that was so astute that I just nodded in agreement at what had been written. She loved my writing and enjoyed my novel but knew it wasn't working on a few levels. I trusted her opinion and thought it might be interesting for her to take a look at my new project.

I stared at the screen... What would she think? Would it be another, I love your writing, but...

Eventually, I opened the file, expecting another several pages of suggestions but, instead, there was only a page and a half of writing with an apology for its brevity... it’s because there’s really not very much I can say that would improve it.

As I continued to read, I felt a warm glow inside - she loved the plot and thought my characters tremendous and believable. She also said I built up the tension wonderfully, every scene raising the stakes. My agent had asked me to write a suspense and it seemed I had managed to do it.

There were also small suggestions on how to increase the pace of the first few chapters and some queries about some plot devices I'd used (which I will definitely look at) but, overall, she loved it... hurrah! One tiny step closer on the long path to publication.

Of course, it's my agent who I really need to love it but at least now I know I haven't written a great big pile of rubbish (sometimes you can't help wondering if you have).

So now all I have to do is be patient and wait.... which I can guarantee won't be as easy as it sounds!

Sunday 13 August 2017

Not Giving Up

This week, I gave up on two things.

The first was a book:

When I was younger, I would plough through a book to the end, regardless of how badly written/boring/annoying it was, just because I felt I ought to finish it. I'm not sure why I thought this. Maybe it was because I'm from a generation that was taught to eat up all their dinner because there were starving people in the world (I never understood that one) or finish the egg and spoon race even when there was no longer an egg in your spoon.This week, I had no qualms in giving up on a book that had many high-scoring reviews but which, to me, had narrative that was amateurish and a formulaic plot. I have too many books waiting to be read to waste time on those that aren't entertaining me so I gave myself permission to leave it and start a new one.

The second was a future concert:

Earlier this year, I was encouraged by some members of my choir to join them at the Royal Albert Hall in November to sing The Messiah. I was in two minds (not really knowing the piece and not being very good at reading music) but agreed to give it a go. For three months, we've been practising and last week I gave it up. Why? Because it's hard and to sing it well would need more time commitment than I am able (or willing) to give. The main reason though is that I was just not enjoying it. I know I'm probably in the minority here, but I found the music and words all rather depressing. His 'yolk' might have been 'heavy' and his 'burden light' but my burden was massively lightened when I gave myself permission to give the concert up. Luckily, someone has taken my place. Someone who I know will get a lot more pleasure from it than I would.

But, in a week where I've given up two things, there's been something I haven't given up on (even when the going's got tough) and this has allowed me to say these magic words:


Yes indeed - novel two has left the building and is with my agent. It's also been sent to the RNA New Writers' Scheme for a critique. Yay!

I could easily have given up after my agent suggested that novel number one (which I still love) be put aside so that I could work on a different project. I could have given up when new ideas wouldn't form. I could have given up when I got to twenty thousand words and stalled. I could have given up when I was nearing the end and thought 'I've been here before'... but I didn't.

Why? Because this is something that's important to me. Because I knew I had it in me to do it. Because, as I wrote the book, I fell in love with it and you don't give up on something you love unless there's a mighty big reason, do you?

I was going to try and find some inspirational quote to end this post but gave up (ha ha). Instead, I'll just say this:

If it's not right, if it doesn't give you enjoyment, if it won't alter your life unbearably if you give something up, then give yourself permission to do so. But, some things are worth pushing on with and fighting through the hard times for. If you love them enough, you'll know which ones they are.

Tuesday 1 August 2017

5 Top Tips for Editing Your Novel - Guest Post Alison May

I'm a big fan of Alison May. Why? Well, firstly, because she tells me it's OK to be a pantster (she's one too). Secondly, she gave the RNA Writing Conference 2017 a great lift with her humorous and informative talks. Mostly, though, it's because (despite her soft spot for aliens and her penchant for writing 'this is where stuff happens' in a synopsis) Alison clearly knows what she's talking about. So much so that after hearing her talk about editing in one of her conference sessions, I nabbed her and asked if she'd like to write a post for me on this same subject.

Luckily for us all, she said yes. So over to you, Alison.

Five Top Tips for Editing Your Own Novel

Editing your own novel is hard. It’s really hard. It can be really difficult to know where to start, and even more difficult to know when to stop. Editing is vital though. So often writing a first draft is a journey towards having something terrible. Editing, on the other hand, is a journey towards having something good or even – fingers crossed - great.

So having ridden my story-writing pony through the rocky outcrops of the self-edit a fair few times now, here are my top tips…

1. Editing is fun

Honestly it is. At least it can be, and if you try to view it as something fun and empowering rather than a trial that has to be survived, the process will go more easily. I think of it like this - you’re basically god of your own tiny universe, but unlike actual God if it turns out the world you’ve made isn’t that great, you get to change it around and fiddle with it until it’s all perfect and lovely.
So don’t feel overwhelmed by the challenge of revising your manuscript – try to feel empowered. You can do this. You can totally do this.

2. You’re allowed to hate your own book

In fact I pretty much insist upon it. If you never reach the point of utter despair and absolute certainty that the whole story is a steaming pile of poo then you’re probably not being sufficiently self-critical. As a writer, you need to be your own toughest critic AND your own biggest fan, sometimes simultaneously, which can be a little bit challenging.  But you do need to look your own book squarely in the eye and be honest with yourself about what doesn’t work. Focussing on the negatives will make you hate the book. Don’t panic – it’s temporary, I promise.

3. Always know what stage you’re up to

Editing is not just one process. It’s at least three processes, and one of the most common mistakes I see from newer writers is the tendency to jump past the bit where you make the actual story work, and onto proofreading.
I break self-editing down like this:

Stage 1 – Major Revisions
This is where you look to see if the actual story works. Are your characters consistent? Are there gaping plot holes? Does your timeline make sense? If you’re anything like me the answer to that last one is invariably no. My first drafts are replete with two month and two year pregnancies, but editing can fix that. So stage 1 is where you tackle the actual bones of the story and character arcs.

Stage 2 – Line by line
Now the story hangs together we can look at the prose itself. Is every sentence as punchy or as elegant as you can make it? Does your dialogue have the believable rhythm of speech? This might also be when you fact check any outstanding little details. Could your heroine really have travelled from Edinburgh to Bath in a day in 1901? What is the legal driving age in Mauritius? I have no idea, and you probably don’t either - this is your last chance to check.

Stage 3 – Proofreading
This is spelling, punctuation, and grammar time. It’s also time to check that you’ve been consistent with any disputed spellings eg. OK, Okay or Ok, and to check things like chapter numbering that might have been messed up if you moved things around during Stage 1.

Know which stage you’re at as you’re editing and resist the urge to jump ahead.

4. Don’t cut corners

Because editing is not just one process, that means it takes time. Don’t be tempted to submit your work (or publish your work) before it’s ready. Allow yourself enough time to edit and revise. If, like me, you’re somebody who writes without much of a plan, it’s quite likely that you’ll need longer to revise and polish the manuscript than you did to write a first draft. That’s fine so long as you allow yourself the time you need.

5. Know when to stop

This is the flip side of number 4. It can be very tempting to keep tweaking forever, and you could easily do that. No book is ever really finished – I never read my books after they’ve been published because I know the editing pen would want to come out again. Ultimately though you reach a point where you have to stop. Knowing what stage you’re at helps with that. When you’ve finished your proofread (the final stage) you’re done. Time to press ‘Send.’

Good luck and happy editing!

About Alison

Alison is an author, creative writing tutor and freelance editor. She has published five romantic comedies and numerous short stories Her next full-length novel, All That Was Lost, will be released with Legend Press in 2018.

Alison is the current Vice-Chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. She is also a qualified teacher with a degree in Creative Writing. She runs novel-writing workshops and offers individual tutoring and manuscript appraisals. Her next scheduled courses are in Birmingham in November 2017, looking at Dialogue and Synopsis Writing:

You can find out more about Alison at, on Facebook or on Twitter @MsAlisonMay