Monday, 13 June 2011

Losing Control

By the time you read this I'll be in the Highlands of Scotland with fifteen other writers, hopefully lying in a field somewhere staring at grass, trees, lochs, mountains - and doing a bit of work of course. It is (at last reports), 46 degrees cooler than here and raining. Sounds like bliss. Meanwhile, I'm delighted to welcome debut novelist Emma Jane Unsworth to WKDN with a guest post about how it feels when your book is published. Over to Emma - enjoy x

‘Aggghhh’ is a word I’ve found myself typing a lot lately. Of course, ‘Aggghhh’ isn’t technically a word but hey, I like to think anything goes when you’re blogging – at least that’s what I tell myself when I write long, impassioned posts about the antics of the birds in my garden, which can’t be interesting to anyone other than me, and perhaps Bill Oddie (although I’m pretty sure he doesn’t subscribe).

Anyway, back to ‘Aggghhh’. I’ve been typing it in response to the many lovely people who have been getting in touch to say they’re reading my first novel, which is winging its way into the world this month. It’s the strangest feeling, getting something published. Publication is ultimately a brilliant thing if you want to make a career out of writing – but it’s also pretty bloody strange. This is partly because the process is a slow one. From the moment you sign off the final edit of a book it’s approximately a year until that book sees the light of day. That’s a year on top of the years it has taken to write and redraft. And that’s on top of the time you’ve spent thinking about the ideas and characters and letting the story ferment in your mind (for me, thinking is at least 75% of writing). It adds up to the best part of five years: a very long time. And then all of a sudden there it is, your book, staring back at you – a real, solid thing in the real, solid world.

It gets stranger still when you think about the fact that not only is out there, but people are actually reading it. Every time I think about this I find myself saying/typing that same Aggghhh! It’s not an exclamation of despair or joy, but somewhere in between. A sort of intense, exquisite confusion. In some part it’s excitement too, because it is exciting, and there are times when I can surrender to the pure excitement of it all (usually after a few vodkas). And I think, in part, it’s also probably a case of good old healthy stagefright. That fear of exposure, of standing up naked in front of everyone you know; of – as my sister-in-law would say – “baring your bum on the town hall steps”.

There’s something else at work, too: an inherent frustration in suddenly not having control over something I have thus far controlled every last iota of. I find myself wishing I could peer over the shoulder of everyone who’s reading it and say things like Just to clarify what I meant there and What do you think of that bit? but instead I’m having to sit back, shut up, and let it do its own thing. I have to trust it. Let go.

I don’t have kids but plenty of my friends do, and they’ve told me how they felt on that first day of school – when they had to leave their baby at the gate and walk away – and I feel as though now I know something of what that’s like. The parallels between books and babies are well worn: from conception, to gestation, to labour (NB painful as that is for novelists, I’m sure childbirth is worse, although it is usually over faster) and finally to birth. Similarly then, you spend immense amounts of time and energy making and moulding something for the sole purpose of abandoning it to become something without you. And so it must be.

Still, Aggghhh.

In his 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author’, the French literary theorist and general misery guts Roland Barthes insists that when a text goes out into the world it becomes detached from its creator, rendering that creator essentially “dead”. If only! Au contraire, Roland: I’m actually a little bit too alive right now. If I was dead, I wouldn’t be worrying half so much.

Joking aside, when I think about what (I think) Barthes is really saying – that the work is all, in itself – it’s actually a very calming sentiment. Writing novels feels like an intensely private act most of the time, but if you want to make a living as a writer by selling your work, then you have to be prepared for the exact opposite of that, too. You have to promote it. And then, you have to surrender it to anyone who might want to read it. And, once you’ve got over the initial bizarreness of your novel existing independently of you, it’s actually immensely liberating, and you find yourself freed up to write the next thing. At least, that’s the plan. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a shoulder somewhere I should be peering over…

Emma Jane Unsworth’s first novel Hungry, the Stars and Everything is published by Hidden Gem this month. It is available to buy here:

Emma also blogs here:

And if you are near Manchester:

Manchester Book Market

Dates: Fri 17th - Sat 18th June (Next week!)
Times: 10am-5.30pm
Location: St Ann's Square, Manchester

Now in its fourth year, the Manchester Book Market is the largest open-to-the-public book market specialising in independent publishers in the UK. It features publishers from across the country publishing poetry, novels, short fiction, art, photography, artists' books, non-fiction, local history and collectible editions. The market will be accompanied a live performance space with through-the-day readings by poets and authors published by presses featured in the market. This live space will also include a juice and food stall and will be partitioned off and feature over 30 authors a day.

Featuring over thirty publishers, including: Route Publishing, Comma Press, Commonword Press, Crocus, Satchel/Suitcase Press, The Hidden Gem Press, Night Jar, Peepal Tree Press, Flapjack Press, If P Then Q, Thanatos Books, Caton Books, Shearsman Books, The Reader Magazine, TTA Press, Manchester University Press, Societa' Dante Alighieri, Poke-in-the-Eye Publishing, Nude Magazine, and many others.

The readings will feature Manchester’s premier spoken word collective, Penultimate, the launch of Emma Jane Unsworth’s debut novel (and the first book from Hidden Gem Press), Hungry, the Stars and Everything, a special 25 anniversary showcase from Peepal Tree Press, and a whole host of Northwest poets and prose writers

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Letting go

How are you all? I came across this beautiful Modotti photograph this morning - my head's firmly back in Spain after the fun of the week-long Summer Writing Insitute. It seems to sum up so much about one of the main characters ... and yes, browsing Modotti is boondoggling with a purpose. So is translating Lorca, planning a flying visit to Valencia for a final recce, listening to the music I have on a loop for the story. Who said editing couldn't be fun? As I've often said on WKDN really letting go, immersing yourself in your story works wonders.

The writing institute was great - I worked with the British novelist Lesley Thomson, whose book 'A Kind of Vanishing' won the UK People's Book Award, and the inspirational American writer Carol Henderson. It was all a bit like having your brain cells pummelled and loosened up. Then, in the middle of the week Bloomsbury Qatar held a launch at Virginia Commonwealth University for 'The Beauty Chorus' - an amazing experience reading in front of a large crowd for the first time. There was great press coverage - an interview in Time Out Doha, and a cover story for Gulf Times Woman (when the photographer said 'Mam, perhaps you want to dress your hair ..?' I took it to mean I wasn't looking quite - well - coverworthy :) All good fun.

One of the most interesting things about seeing 'The Beauty Chorus' published has been getting feedback from people. I'll never forget a fully veiled student coming up to me on the night of the final, celebratory dinner and saying 'I bought your book. I am a feminist - I love stories with strong women.' Equally, it's been great seeing the blog tour is causing spin-off reviews, like this lovely one over at Freckles Family. Cara's a great photographer and crafter, and I loved this picture she took of her copy with some amazing knitted cupcakes. I've always loved those 'reader column' pics of people holding copies of magazines in front of the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China - surreal and homely at the same time. So I've decided to do something similar - send me a jpeg of you and your copy of the novel via the profile page email or Your Beauty Chorus page on Ask Evie, and I'll mail a signed bookplate and bookmark anywhere in the world (and put up links to your blog).

Meanwhile, I'm heads down editing this week, and next week I'm off here for a week-long writing retreat for the MA ... can't wait. It will be the first time the children have had a week alone with the pilot, and needless to say they are *cockahoop* about it. See you in a couple of weeks :) x

TODAY'S PROMPT: The single most interesting exercise from the writing insitute was this: write a dialogue between yourself and something - an object, a person, a part of you. Anything that's been taking up mental space or bothering you. For example, if your addiction to cupcakes/your cronky back/your tiresome relative is causing you grief, you might begin: 'What is it with you cupcakes/back/etc?' then write their response. Just let the essay flow - it's surprising what comes up. As our teacher said, this kind of personal essay as debate has been used since Seneca's time, and it's a valuable tool. Why not try letting go - enjoy.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Have you heard?

Today the unabridged audio book of The Beauty Chorus is published by Whole Story Audiobooks - if you like having a book read to you, (and who doesn't), check out the amazing selection of books they have on their site. The book has been beautifully narrated by Julia Franklin and Maggie Mash - it's magical to hear your words come to life. If you'd like to hear their great work, there's a sneak peek for WKDN readers over here.

For anyone in Doha, come and join us tonight at the stunning Virginia Commonwealth University Qatar down in Education City at 6pm tonight for a reading and signing of The Beauty Chorus. It would be great to see you there.

In more important news, the five year old is about to take his blue belt Taekwando, so I'd better get a skate on ... Hope you enjoy the audio sample - I'd be really interested to hear what you think. x
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