Where to begin

It’s been so long: let’s start with the celebration of my second wedding anniversary. As I write, Mr D and I are ensconced in a converted cinema on the Fife coast, overlooking the Firth of Forth. Through the floor to ceiling window an anthracite sea disappears into a bruised winter sky – below us, the curved beach upon which we ran this morning.

Inspired by our friends B heart-25and B, we’re spending our anniversary flexing our creative muscles in an artists’ studio, away from distractions for a few nights. Mr D sits to my left, hat pulled down over his ears, shoulders hunched in concentration, fingers transforming three years of research into the final write up of his PhD. I try to write but my feet are cold and my eyes return to the sea again and again and again.

This blog is by means of a gentle easing into my next project. The same principle as stretching my hamstrings before a run.

I have news though. On the writing front. Quite a bit as it happens.

The last time I wrote I had completed my manuscript and was preparing to set it free. It took a couple more months before I did so, to one publisher, Freight Books in Glasgow. Four years previously I had listened to Freight’s Adrian Searle talk about the future of books during a panel discussion, after which I had turned to Mr D and told him Adrian was the person I wanted to publish my first novel. No matter that I had neither a manuscript nor even the inkling of one at the time. I would. One day.

indexWhen I sent out my manuscript, I had a wish list of two publishers: Freight was first. I also had a plan. Contrary to advice, solicited or otherwise, I decided to play the long game. Send to Freight, if they said no, send to the second on the list. If both turned me down, then I would lengthen my list and take it from there.

What were the chances, I was asked, that the first publisher you send it to will want to publish it? Even the best authors are rejected many times, I was told, some have even published books of their rejection letters. You should send it to at least a few, I was advised, just in case, not that it isn’t good.

I smiled, took a deep breath and dispatched my manuscript to my first choice. And waited. Two months later, at the end of August, they made me an offer.

If, from this news, you’ve made the assumption that the process was simple, I apologise. It wasn’t, isn’t. I didn’t finish my manuscript in a flurry of brilliance, send it to my preferred publisher and wait to bask in the glory of a publishing deal. Instead, when I was happy that I’d written, proofed and edited as well as I could, I sent it to half a dozen people to look at for comments on cadence, repetition, narrative flow and readability. Half were friends whose opinion I trusted, the other half acquaintances. Next I sent it to two people to edit: a friend whose editing skills I trust (and who isn’t afraid to be critical when necessary) and another much newer friend with relevant editorial experience and little knowledge of me or my story (remember the book is a memoir).

Armed with the collective feedback, I had a good idea of what worked and what needed tweaking. And yet, there was still something niggling me. Every person I’d shown it to knew either me or my story to varying degrees. I needed someone unconnected to me, with no prior knowledge of my story, to give me their unbiased opinion. I found them through a friend of a friend. Only after I received their assessment which, as it turned out, was similar to that of the others, could I conceive of sending the manuscript to Freight.

angela-writingDuring the manuscript ping-pong, I used the time to research my choice of publisher. I’d already read some of their authors but I read others, ones I might not have come to naturally. I noted the style of writing, choked down the panic that rose in my throat at the brilliance of some of the use of language, and read interviews to try and get a feel for the relationship between author and publisher. Through published articles about Freight, I developed an understanding of its ethos and vision.

By the time I sent my manuscript out, I was as prepared as I could be. Despite that, when Freight responded I was stunned and delighted. I still am.

And that’s not all. Mr D and I have also been dabbling in spoken word, as those of you who’ve read my blog will know. We developed a twenty minute performance based on extracts from my manuscript, chosen to reveal my state of mind on different days during my wait for a new heart. Mr D intercut these with guitar music to reflect the tone of the writing. We added an original song, an exchange of dialogue and poetry. The piece began and ended in the same way, with the line ‘the heart that beats within me is not the one I was born with’, spoken over a guitar riff that was passed through a looping pedal and slowed to replicate a heartbeat (the technical stuff is all Mr D).

Inspired by the positive feedback we received after our performances, I applied to the Starter for Ten project at the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) – funding and support to develop new theatre. I knew it was a long shot. I wasn’t chosen but I was told my idea had scored very highly and I was invited to NTS to speak to them.

Last week, Mr D and I visited NTS to discuss my idea and were overwhelmed by their enthusiasm and offers of help to realise the project. We now have further meetings with people in the theatre industry to look forward to.

Along the same vein, I also sent my idea to the Tom McGrath Trust Maverick Award. Again, it was a shot in the dark. Again I didn’t win. Again I received an email to let me know I’d been shortlisted, that they liked my idea and offering support.

gin-and-tonicWhere things go from here, who knows. I loved doing the spoken word (or rather I loved it after each performance had ended and I was drinking a large gin and tonic) but my first love is writing and my next novel has been brewing inside me for far too long.

Time to get writing again. Time to hit those keys and type the first letters on a blank screen. Time to begin. Gin and tonic anyone?

A bird in the hand

In my hand (well, trapped between the keys of my computer) is the equivalent of a new-born spring chick – the completed manuscript of my first book. Key words to note: completed and manuscript. After a gestation period longer than that of an elephant, my book made its first appearance mid March. Since then, I’ve fed and watered it, burped it, changed its nappy and passed it around a few people for admiration, validation and reassurance at my ability to be a responsible parent.

Over the last couple of months we’ve grown together, my book and I, and I’m now faced with the terrible realisation that I need to send it out there, into the world, to find out if it can make it on its own.

spring chickOkay, that’s more metaphor than enough for one blog post. The reality is this: I’ve written a memoir based on the sixteen days I spent on the urgent transplant list, waiting for a new heart. Sounds morbid? It’s anything but. I won’t lie, there are dark days but throughout, the narrative sparkles with joy and laughter. Above all it’s a love story, not only mine with Mr D but also the one with my friends and family. For sixteen days I waited, on the brink of death, for someone else to die. Difficult both physically and emotionally. I didn’t wait alone. On Christmas Day, my donor and their family gave me a gift more precious than any other. My own friends and family made sure I was (and still am) able to receive and make the most of it.

book birdBut I digress. This post isn’t about the content of the book, it’s about how to set it free. How and when do I release my Caxton bird-in-the-hand skywards in the hope that it can fly?

To get to this stage, the first edit was easy – read-through and correct all the obvious spelling and grammar mistakes. Next, kill, or at least mutilate, all my darlings (at least most of them – the ones I missed were culled by a couple of ruthless editor friends). Follow this with reading for continuity, flow and cadence. And then the hard part.

Close reading and editing. Sentence by sentence, word by word, until my eyes crossed and watered. This stage, in my experience, is the trickiest. Get too up-close-and-personal with the narrative and you run the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture: maybe it’s okay to use that verb again, perhaps there is no better word than this one. It’s difficult but worth it. Which leaves me with the shiniest and most robust version of my manuscript.

champagne uncorkedLike every anxious parent (I’m wringing the last droplets from this metaphor), I’ve equipped my fledgling with all the survival skills at my disposal, what happens next is out of my control. It’s time to leave the nest. To fly.

If I succeed in publication I’ll celebrate, likewise if I don’t. A manuscript, complete, is an achievement in itself and should be celebrated. As the saying goes (I think), I’ve come a long way to get this far: time to pop the bubbly!

Now, what to do with the empty nest.