Don’t Break the Chain

Guest post by Amanda Berriman, author of HomeHome PB

It’s Wednesday 4th March 2015, Day 59. I’m up at 5am, breathing in lemon and ginger steam from the mug warming my hands and staring at my laptop screen willing my brain to engage. Normal Wednesday writing time is after a day of teaching, sometime in the evening, after the kids are in bed, but I’m taking my school choir to Manchester Arena today for Young Voices. I’m out of the door at seven and not due back until almost midnight and, whatever I do, I must not Break the Chain.

Don’t Break the Chain was a Christmas gift from my husband. An A4 sheet of paper with a grid marking out 365 days. It was his way of telling me to get on and finish the first draft of the novel I talked endlessly about but kept making excuses not to write. The novel in progress had grown from a short story – A Home without Moles – that I’d written in 2013 for the charity anthology Stories for Homes (raising money for Shelter). It had taken me a year and a half to write forty-five thousand words but I kept procrastinating, excuses ready for every time I didn’t put my bum on the seat. I can’t write too early (not awake enough). I can’t write too late (too tired). I’ve only got half an hour (no point starting). The kids are playing upstairs, downstairs, outside (I’m not sure what the excuse was there but the constant feeling that they might need me, interrupt me or start the next world war between them was enough to paralyse me).

But at the same time, this novel was gnawing at me. It’s main character, four-and-a-half-year-old Jesika stomped about demanding attention, her voice clear and alive and needing to be heard. And, like my children, she was very hard to ignore. So I took up the challenge.

I started my chain on the 5th January 2015. (I’m all for starting a new year the way you mean to go on but I was realistic; I waited until after we’d taken the Christmas decorations down and the kids were back at school.) I set simple, achievable rules: write every day; no time limit; no word limit; all words count including the shit ones. I was working on the principle that a single sentence was better than nothing because a sentence could lead to a paragraph, to two paragraphs, to a few thousand words. And if it didn’t, I’d still have one more sentence, I was still moving forward, so I still coloured in another square in the chain.

My alarm goes off just before six; my half-drunk cup of lemon and ginger tea is lukewarm. I started writing without noticing and I’ve added around three hundred words to the draft. I colour in Day 59 and go and get dressed for work.

The days tick by, the chain grows longer. Conscious effort to find time becomes habit. I’ve learned which days I must sit down at the first opportunity (because it’s likely to be the only one) and which days I can relax a bit more and plan a more luxurious time to write that involves peace, quiet and no interruptions. I’ve learned that I can write before six in the morning and after ten at night. I can write in the kitchen for a hurried twelve minutes while I wait for the pasta to cook. I can write in the front room while the kids are watching their favourite annoying children’s programme with the theme tune that I’ll be singing in my sleep for weeks. And, REVELATION, it turns out that it is even possible to bash out a thousand not bad words in the middle of a soft play centre cafe. Who knew? (I was supervising my kids at the same time, honest.)

When I finally type THE END on the first draft of the novel a few days before Day 100, I’m not sure what to do with myself. I need to get stuck into rewrites but I also need a break, but I don’t want a break from writing. It’s become my every day routine. So I write flash fiction and short stories for a few weeks and, when I feel I’ve got enough distance from the first draft, I get stuck into the Big Rewrite.

I finally broke the chain in February 2016, a week after finishing the Big Rewrite and sending it off to my mentor, Debi Alper, for its first editorial critique. For anyone counting, yes, that was Day 399 of writing every day and, yes, I was very annoyed with myself for not making it to Day 400! But what I’ve carried forwards is that when I need to be writing every day it is possible. I can write anytime, anywhere with any distractions.

On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve 2018 (New chain, Day 141, forty-five thousand words of a new novel), my husband and I sit in A&E in Edinburgh with our youngest son. We’re visiting my Mum over the holidays and he’s been presenting some strange symptoms: persistent backache and wonky walking. A few hours and an MRI scan later, we’re given the news that he has a growth in his thorax and he’ll be in hospital for the foreseeable while they work out what’s going on. I return to my childhood home that evening to let our elder son and my Mum know what’s going on. We sit up for a bit but nobody feels like bringing in 2019; we’re in bed before midnight. My eldest son doesn’t want to sleep by himself so he gets into bed with me and drops off almost straight away. I can’t sleep. I realise I haven’t done my writing for the day. Does it really matter if I break the chain now? I have much bigger things to think about. I lie next to my son wide awake and utterly overwhelmed by the hopes and fears and what-ifs crowding my head. At ten to midnight, I sit up, get my laptop out and bash out a couple of mediocre sentences. The words aren’t great but my brain inhabits the story, switching off from reality. When I get back into bed, I sleep.

Today is Day 67 of our son’s stay in hospital – twelve days in Edinburgh and fifty-three days in a hospital closer to home. Life has changed immeasurably. Our son has been diagnosed with Neuroblastoma and he has lost mobility and sensation below his waist due to the tumour pressing on his spine. Both are being treated and we are hopeful for a positive outcome. Some days it is easy to be positive (there’s a lot of progress to focus on) and other days it’s a battle (the road ahead is long and full of uncertainty).

Today is also Day 207 of my chain. It turns out that it’s possible (I’d say essential) to find time to write every day even when you’re spending every day in a hospital. This time the chain is not merely about finishing a draft of a new, exciting novel – writing every day helps me to clear my head, channel negative thoughts away from my son, re-charge my positive energy, pass the time and, like reading, it’s a way to step out of ‘now’ when I need to.

My son is collecting Beads of Courage, different coloured beads to represent each step of his treatment and each challenge he faces, telling the story of how far he’s come. I’m collecting days coloured on a chart and words in a document. My son has 289 beads on his thread. I have 206 coloured boxes and fifty-nine thousand words. One foot in front of the other, one day at a time. We’ve got this.

There’s a prize for the best second novel isn’t there?

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I’ve just been to collect my dog from her country seat (she stayed for a few days to keep my in-laws company when all the noise and children and fun suddenly disappeared a few days after Christmas).  I could have asked another member of the family to go to get her, but secretly what I really wanted was two lovely train journeys to finish the book I was reading.

This was a book I knew terribly well – but it transpired, as I read it, not at all.

Vigilante by Shelley Harris is published on January 8th.  I’m trying to remember when I first heard of Shelley’s wonderful idea of a woman who is so determined to be someone that she creates an alter ego for herself, but it may be as long ago as July, 2010, when Shelley’s debut Jubilee was the subject of a four-way auction in a two book deal, and Vigilante was just a twinkle in its author’s eye.  I  read an early draft  in the autumn of 2012, and I could tell then that it was going to be fantastic: Jenny Pepper was such a straightforward and loveable character, who was so determined to matter… very recognisable.  And her husband Elliott with his cool job (he’s a designer), and his apparent confidence was instantly likeable and recognisable too.  But like every early draft of any book I’ve ever read, it needed work.  We discussed the book in Patisserie Valerie over coffee and cakes, and then I didn’t see it for a while.  The next edits were done by Shelley’s very sharp editor, Kirsty Dunseath at Weidenfeld and Nicolson.  Shelley and Kirsty kept me in the loop as to what changes were being made, and then suddenly last month I had a finished copy in my hand.  I wanted to read it before Christmas, but didn’t want to read this precious book through a mulled-wine addled filter.

So I waited for my train journey.

What is so extraordinary is that the book is the same book I read a while back, and yet it felt utterly different.  Jenny hadn’t changed in her essence, but now she is fully fleshed out, I’m with her every step of the way.  Where once I was admiring the concept, I’m now fully engaged, so much so that the author (‘my’ author) falls away, and I’m just galloping through the pages.

Shelley would be the first to say that the second book is a difficult thing.  As an agent you’re very privileged to be party  to that difficulty, but though you try to help, there’s really not much you can do other than offer tea and gags and thank God you‘re not an author.  So isn’t it ridiculous that I’ve come away from reading Vigilante feeling … incredibly proud.  I’m proud to be associated with the book, proud to see what Shelley has achieved, and excited to see that the very first national review sees the book as a bestseller.

There IS a prize for the best second novel: it’s The Encore award.  I’m not saying Shelley should win it (though that would be dandy) but it’s great that such a prize does exist.  It’s a huge thing to follow up a big successful debut – and very very satisfying to see that challenge NAILED.

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If I were an octopus, but eyes wise not tentacles wise

JoUnwin

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I love getting post.  I love getting signed contracts, proof copies, invitations to parties… and I love receiving unsolicited submissions, because there is always the possibility that one of them is going to change the course of my career (and the author’s, obviously!)

I don’t think I’m alone amongst Literary Agents when I say that the working day starts the moment I wake up and check my phone for overnight emails from abroad, or early risers, or night owls – and there are always several.  I’m certainly not alone when I say that the working day ends when I turn off my bedside light.  

If you follow this blog, you’ll know that I absolutely love my job, but there is never enough time.  I would love to be able to hold down a full time job, and read four or more novels a night, but sadly that is not possible.  I have a…

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artworks-000009762622-1krie6-crop

 

I love getting post.  I love getting signed contracts, proof copies, invitations to parties… and I love receiving unsolicited submissions, because there is always the possibility that one of them is going to change the course of my career (and the author’s, obviously!)

I don’t think I’m alone amongst Literary Agents when I say that the working day starts the moment I wake up and check my phone for overnight emails from abroad, or early risers, or night owls – and there are always several.  I’m certainly not alone when I say that the working day ends when I turn off my bedside light.  

If you follow this blog, you’ll know that I absolutely love my job, but there is never enough time.  I would love to be able to hold down a full time job, and read four or more novels a night, but sadly that is not possible.  I have a house, a husband, teenagers, a dog, parents, friends, siblings, sibs-in-law, nieces, nephews, a garden, laundry… and there is very, very rarely time to read during office hours.  

We have to give priority to the authors we already represent, because they pay our wages, so sadly the unsolicited submissions gets smooshed into a very short reading window – almost always in my case an hour or two over the weekend.  

Now you know what it’s like when you go into a bookshop:  you have a fairly good idea of the shelves where you are likely to find something right for you.  You can flick through a book and pretty quickly get a sense of whether you’re interested or not.  Like it or not, that is often how I prioritise my own reading.  Something will grab me, quickly get under my skin, excite me. Something else… just won’t.  I’ll read a few pages, and if the book isn’t getting to me, then I recognise that I’m not going to be the best person to champion it through the publishing process.  So it goes on my ‘no’ pile.

And then, because of the aforementioned teenagers, great-uncles, dog and laundry (just checking how closely you’re reading this  – he’s ninety-nine) I send a fairly standard ‘rejection’ letter.  I try to be very clear that what doesn’t grab me may well thrill someone else: there are hundreds of books in my own house that I’d never dream of reading, my sons and husband just don’t share my taste. But there simply isn’t time to write and tell you why it’s not for me.

 

Now I know – honestly I do – what courage it takes to send your work off to agents at all, and I can well imagine how disappointing it must be to get a response that hasn’t been personalised to you. The good news is that if you are looking for feedback, there are other places to try.  Try critical but supportive friends, consultancies, freelance editors, writing workshops, writing groups… anyone who reads A LOT and will be honest (so not your mum, or someone who owes you money)

This isn’t an apology but I do wish I could give every unpublished author who approached me  some personal feedback. It feels discourteous not to do so.  But it’s just not possible.  There are pants to wash.  And I STILL haven’t read Wolf Hall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writers’ and Editors’ Retreat in Burgundy – August 2nd-9th 2014

 

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Are you starting a new book, working on your second draft, grappling with an edit? Do you need to escape somewhere to spend a week on it?   I’m running a Writers’ Retreat in France for the first week of August.  The venue is Le Manoir de Thoires in deep rural Burgundy. It’s incredibly peaceful, with lots of space to daydream, write, sleep, swim… There’s a river at the bottom of the garden where kingfishers dart about the little rowing boat, there’s a swimming pool surrounded by roses.  There’s very little to do, and lots and lots of space to do it in. We’ll have the whole place to ourselves.

I’ll provide all food and drink (breakfast and cold lunch, cooked supper) so you really can concentrate on what you want to think about, and I will offer each course participant a one-to-one session on any aspect of their work during the course of the week, as well as group talks and activities.  (Nothing is compulsory – if  chatting about writing and books isn’t your bag there is enough space to avoid all of that!)

There are seven spaces, or more if you’re happy to share a room.  There won’t be more than twelve people, and I’ll try to put a nice group of people together.   It’s not the height of luxury, but it’s comfortable and peaceful and very, very beautiful.

The price is £600 per head or £400 per person for two people sharing.  You need to get there, but you shouldn’t have to spend much money once you’re there, though there is plenty of sightseeing and nice market towns nearby.

Get in touch if you’re interested – jo@jounwin.co.uk – it would be lovely to see you there.

 

 

 

 

 

Hats off and Legs up

I could never write a book. I don’t have the determination, the tenacity, the confidence in my idea… in fact don’t have an idea in the first place. 


It’s a pity because, let’s face it, I am incredibly well-connected in the book world. I work all day long with authors, agents, editors, marketing experts, sales gurus, publicists, designers. And if I WERE to write a book (which we’ve established I’m not) I would have a pretty good idea of what to do with it.


So wouldn’t it be great if the people who were writing the books could have a leg up occasionally. They’ve earned it, and deserve it. And let’s face it, there are people who are going to get that kind of leg up just because of who their parents are. My kids for example. If they were ever to write a book. Which isn’t looking likely just now as they’re not out of bed yet, but who knows?


So I’m very proud – and interested – to be part of the WoMentoring Project. Kerry Hudson has inspired women across the publishing industry to try a new approach. It’s taken her own determination, tenacity and confidence – AND she’s written at least one superb book.  Hats off to her.  

 

Read about the WoMentoring Project here:

 

http://womentoringproject.co.uk

 

 

BOOK FAIRS!

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Looking at my own and other tweets, you’d have thought the Bologna Children’s book fair was a massive jolly for publishers and agents every year.  And yes we are jolly in the main, but waking up this morning to no meetings but the literally hundreds of emails that have arrived over the last three days, I thought I might have a quick go at trying to describe what a book fair actually is.  (The sharp-eyed reader will spot the issue at the heart of the previous sentence – ok yes – I’m procrastinating)

Discussing with colleagues, admittedly over a bowl of particularly delicious pasta and on to our third glass of wine, but I’m sticking with ‘discussing with colleagues’, we started to identify the particular feeling of cheery excitement and utter dread that takes over as you approach a fair.

For a few days you will be sitting at a little table as every half hour, on the half hour, from 9 until 6, with no gaps for lunch or even a wee, publishers from all over the world come to you, hoping that you are going to make their fortune.  Are you the agent that has the book that is going to make their sales soar, win them awards, help them keep their jobs?  There’ll  also be discussions about books that are already ‘out there’ – could they be doing better?  We agents will be pushing the publishers to be sure that they are doing everything they possibly can to get the attention our beloved books deserve, and they’ll be courting us in the hopes that when we have the next big thing – they’ll be the first to hear about it.  So as an agent you need to be nimbly diplomatic, and terrier-like in your determination and enthusiasm.  (Note to self: well done me, have managed to include a dog)  Publishers are being sent hundreds and hundreds of books at this time of year.  How to be sure that yours won’t get overlooked, merely glanced at, put to one side?

This year is particularly horrendous for people who represent both children’s and adults books as I do, because we have a week off and then go straight into the London Book Fair.  At this time of year editors are being sent SEVERAL BOOKS A DAY.  It just isn’t humanly possible to read them all. So whilst submitting a book before a fair can result in a storm of international auctions, it can also mean that a perfectly crafted gem gets overlooked by a louder, more immediate book.

And ‘normal work’ goes on.  Existing clients deliver their drafts, and anxiously await feedback.  Prospective authors keep sending in the manuscripts that they’ve been working on for years.  Two have popped into my inbox in the twenty minutes I’ve taken to write this.

But I’m not complaining – I’m really not.  I’m staying in a lovely hotel, I’m meeting up with friends from all over the world, and I’m working with the books I love. My excitement and determination for them is utterly genuine, but there is an actual limit to how much you can fit into one day. So far, going for a morning run has curiously not featured.