Is it ever finished?

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself.

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Last September, I finished my novel – and sent it forth to the unwelcoming bosom of agent land.

Now, I’ve just finished it again. Due, it has to be said, to my first foray into that strange world.

Not that it was really that awful. There were a few who seemed to like it and asked for the whole manuscript. But, that’s where it ended.

Some others were quite nice in response and a decent number gave constructive comments. One even liked it a good bit, but not quite enough to read the whole magnum opus.

Thankfully, I haven’t despaired. Mainly because I have a day job – one that has been turned all the way up to 11 for much of this year in terms of workload.

A few months ago, I tried a different tack and sent a submission to a scout. Yes, a new being for me. Not a publisher, not an agent, but a scout for agents.

The scout seemed to like it, but suggested some changes and additions. All of which made sense.

So, I opened up Draft 22, and started on Draft 23.

Novels are, as we know, one entity, so if you make changes at the start (some in the form of content, others stylistic) it has a ripple effect, or multiple ripple effects. The changes have to be consistent throughout the novel.

I went through the entire thing, like a jaded jungle explorer, hacking away.

When you rewrite, there is the fresh potential of new spelling/grammar mistakes. That requires (for me at any rate) another run through, to proofread. For that I printed the thing out. It’s funny when you print it out you see more that needs to change than when you worked on it on the screen. So it turns into more than proofreading, and you make more content changes. And it goes on….

You are frustrated, exhausted, partially blinded (from familiarity), and, at the same time, battling our old friend – doubt and self-criticism.

There is that terrible sensation that you are making it worse, by taking this out, putting that in, rewriting this, deleting that. You can write it to death.

But, at your centre, you have to keep your focus and breathe oxygen into that belief that there is something in this.

Draft 23 has been sent to said scout.

Draft 23 is better than Draft 22. That is true.

But could I subject myself to Draft 24? Or will I mentally (perhaps even physically) fling it into the canal (where my novel is set)?

If a scout, agent, publisher does bite, I’m sure there could be Draft 24 and 25. But that’s different. Because you have jumped that obstacle. There’s progress. Someone else (apart from your wife/mother/dog/cat) actually sees something in it.

Anyway, to all of us going half or three-quarters or nine-tenths bonkers from finishing our first novel, keep hacking/shoveling/polishing.

To torture the much tortured phrase from the tortured Irishman…

Finish. Finish better.

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Death at Whitewater Church

The bracing weather imbues the physical landscape of the Inishowen Peninsula with an “eerie, otherwordly quality”.

Death at whitewater churchThat’s what Andrea Carter’s narrator tells us at the start of Death At Whitewater Church.

But really, it’s the mental landscape of the reader that Carter endeavours to paints.

And, as we sink into her writing, Carter applies generous layers of colours and textures and brush strokes to the canvas.

Whitewater Church teeters on the edge of the cliffs of Donegal, assailed by the hostile “inky blue” waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

The grim granite chapel has been crumbling for years, after its community was scattered following a tragedy.

“The building had a heartbroken look about it,” Carter’s narrator Ben O’Keeffe tells us, “as if grieving for the parishoners who had abandoned it, the people who would have come to worship every week.”

A small-town solicitor, fleeing her own personal demons in Dublin, Ben makes a chance discovery of a crypt as she assists in a survey for a potential sale of the deconsecrated church.

Inside the damp chamber is a skeleton. Not just any old skeleton, but one wrapped in a blanket with a pillow placed under its head.

Carter introduces her narrator thus: “I’m Ben O’Keeffe. Benedicta actually, thanks to my parents’ fondness for an obscure fifth-century Italian saint, but the full version rarely gets an outing. ‘Ben’ does me just fine, although it does create some interesting misunderstandings.”

At first, this jarred with me, addressing the reader like this. But, it set the tone in what is purely a first person narrative.

Ben is a chatty, friendly pleasant person, the type you could sit down with and feel comfortable talking to. We are, of course, fed little breadcrumbs that there are secrets in her past and that she has come to Donegal to forget. We are quickly on her side.

Amidst an array of supporting characters is a main secondary character: Sergeant Tom Molloy, a slightly gruff, but decent garda, with whom Ben has a kinship.

“I like to think that he regards me as an ally, a friend even. But there are times when it isn’t so clear cut. He is a guard and I am a solicitor, after all. I guess there are limits – it just feels sometimes as if it is always Molloy who remembers them.”

They shared a “moment” a few months ago, one that has added a bit of spice to things.

Throughout the novel, the standout trait of the author for me is the quality of her writing. More often than not, it involves the weather in some way.

“The only heat in the room was coming from an old gas Superser heater fizzing bad-temperedly and ineffectively in the corner, impotent against the hall’s high ceilings and old wooden floors.”

There are scenes of her swimming in biting, icy waters, and of her relationship with her cat and the like – all of which deepen our liking of Ben and Carter’s writing.

You can feel the care, and, no doubt, hardwork, Carter must have put into her writing.

“The winter sunshine did nothing to reduce the strange sense of melancholy that comes with walking alone in an old graveyard, but still it was oddly beautiful. The only sound came from a family of rooks calling to each other high up in the laden yew trees, and the creaking of the snow beneath my feet.”

Again and again, the reader is rewarded with treats like this. It all creates a vivid sense of place, which really is the third character in the story.

“The waitress arrived at our table with a tray laden with steaming bowls of soup and doorstep sandwiches. She returned within minutes with an enormous pot of tea. As I poured, the room darkened and a sudden shower of hailstones clattered violently against the window.”

Carter also does natural, chatty dialogue very well.

As a solicitor in the fictional town of Glendara, Ben meets a range of relevant characters in her work, providing her with snippets and leads as to the mystery of the body in the crypt and who put in there.

The plot thickens and twists and people are not as they seem and pasts are revealed – all providing ammunition to Carter to develop Ben’s backstory, her detective skills and her relationship with Molloy.

In a deadly two-liner description of Molloy’s character, Ben muses: “Molloy was like a set of tangled Christmas tree lights. The harder you tried to find a way in, the more inaccessible he became.”

And it another one: “I opened the door to let him out, realising as I did so that I really didn’t want him to go.”

There is a bit of work for the reader in navigating, remembering and prioritising the range of characters we are presented with, and this reviewer did struggle at times.

But the reader invests in Ben and wants to see what happens to her as she unravels the mystery.

Author, Andrea Carter

Author, Andrea Carter

A standout chapter for me, nestled about two-thirds in, is Ben’s long deferred visit home. Only eight or so pages in length, the chapter packs a heavy emotional punch.

Now, Irish fiction has enough dysfunctional family drama to beat the proverbial drum, but Carter’s chapter still reasonates, clear and pure.

“I took off my coat and scarf and looked around me. It was the same old kitchen cabinets, the same electric cooker with the ring on the left-hand side at the back that I had no memory of ever working, the same dim lighting. But the room didn’t have the warmth it used to have.”

Ben tells us the evening continued “as if nothing was wrong, as if the years hadn’t passed, as if I had been there the previous weekend”.

But, as wounds that have never healed ooze, the pain and stunted communication quietly scream.

“I couldn’t bear it. The same conversation. Either I told them the whole story, of I left. But I honestly didn’t think they could take the full truth. I’d be doing it for me, not them. A clearing of conscience. I stood up and went over to the bread bin on the pretence of making fresh toast I didn’t want. I stared at the old tiles on the wall above the sink. But the pretence was unbearable too. I switched on the radio and the sound of Martha and the Vandellas filled the room.”

For those of you who like your mysteries with an assured literary touch, this is a rewarding read.

Death At Whitewater Church by Andrea Carter is published by Constable.

  • Disclaimer: I know the author, but I still think this is a good novel. Honestly!

 

 

 

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Reviews of the year

The murder plague in south Los Angeles. The global cocaine trade. The heroin and prescribed opiate epidemic in the US. And the one-man killing machine of Anders Breivik. All the subject matter of powerful and compelling crime books I read in 2015. And each of them non-fiction stories.

Ghettoside

Many of the authors may not be household names, but they ought to be. Two of them (Jill Leovy and Sam Quinones) are journalists from the same publication, the Los Angeles Times. They are a testament to everything that is admirable of great newspaper men and women: dedication to research, to hard work, to the lives of ordinary people and to holding powerful institutions to account – and, not least, to crafting a good story.

Another is Roberto Saviano, a man under constant police protection from the Italian mafia, after his first book (and subsequent film) GomorrahAsne Seierstad has also made an important contribution to society, in her powerful portrayal of Anders Breivik and the murder of 77 people  – 55 of them teenagers – on the darkest of days for Norway and Europe.

During the year, I reviewed these books for the Irish Examiner and I’ve given the links below.

I’ve added links to features I wrote about Luke Waters and his book about his time in the New York Police Department and a debut crime novel by leading Irish barrister Michael O’Higgins.

If I was to pick one book as my favourite it would be Jill Leovy’s outstanding Ghettoside.

 

GhettosideGhettoside (Vintage) by Jill Leovy

 

http://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/artsfilmtv/books/book-reviewghettoside-369523.html

 

Zero Zero ZeroZero Zero Zero (Allen Lane) by Roberto Saviano

 

http://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/artsfilmtv/books/book-reviewzero-zero-zero-354520.html

 

DreamlandDreamland (Bloomsbury Press) by Sam Quinones

 

http://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/artsfilmtv/books/book-reviewdreamland-the-true-story-of-americas-opiate-addiction-339317.html

 

One of Us One of Us (Virago Press) by Asne Seierstad

 

http://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/artsfilmtv/books/book-reviewone-of-us-the-story-of-anders-breivik-and-the-massacre-in-norway-319427.html

 

NYPD GreenNYPD Green (Hachette Books Ireland) by Luke Waters

 

http://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/features/irish-mans-twenty-years-on-new-yorks-mean-streets-325486.html

 

SnapshotsFeature/interview on debut crime novel Snapshots (New Island) by Michael O’Higgins

http://www.irishexaminer.com/viewpoints/analysis/top-lawyers-insightful-crime-novel-is-more-than-just-fiction-358046.html

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Novel gets catapulted (at long last) onto slush pile

Yes, dear agent, this is the novel you are waiting for. Isn't it?

Yes, dear agent, this is the novel you are waiting for. Isn’t it?

I made a decision early in the year to get this novel finished. Before it finished me.

I had to put whatever time and energy I had into doing just that. Which meant, among other things, not going to any more writing events, entering any novel competitions, limiting writers’ groups and, for that matter, blogging. I had to grit my teeth and drive on, just like Popeye in the deliciously unhinged car chase scene in The French Connection.

Finishing the God-damn novel, Gene Hackman-style. Courtesy media.gunaxin.com

Finishing the God-damn novel, Gene Hackman-style. Courtesy media.gunaxin.com

Okay, it has taken an awful lot longer than expected, but I have done it. Some five years after I started, I have finished my novel, with a capital F. And done by the end of September – as I had set myself in July.

It went through a final – and significant – structural edit/edits during July and August. This followed a reading by a friend and literary guru (my words, not his). He rated it, but was quite clear certain work had to be done to maximise my chances of attracting an agent/publisher. At the same time I had two ghost readers – both writers – go through the entire thing. They came back very positive about it. Which, a la Fast Show, was nice.

Finally finishing it was like a weight off my shoulders, even if I had to do several proof reads (the seemingly endless mistakes were a tester) and make little changes (which could go on forever if I wanted to).

I had to brush off an old synopsis and rewrite and tighten it. After that, was the covering letter, which I had not done before. This was quite a bit of work, but enjoyable.

I deliberately had not spent time on literary agents until I was finished. I had little or no idea how to go about this. I sought some advice and perused the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and spent some time looking up websites, agents and submission guidelines. Note: Being crystal clear on submission guidelines is crucial – and following them.

Then came the moment of truth. Sending off submissions. This was exciting, but also a bit nerve-wracking. It was either I did it, or my long-suffering wife would.

The agencies had different requirements – the first three chapters, the first 10 pages, the first 5/10,000 words, first 50 pages, etc, etc. Same with covering letters. I quadruple-checked the attachments and then (half-cracked by this stage) hit send. Bang. They were gone. (One of the submissions I sent off was by post).  Sending the submissions was an even bigger relief, and release, than finishing the book. No more polishing or fretting or pulling hairs or barking. They were catapulted onto the (mainly digital) slush pile.

Much to my amazement, I got one response very quickly, within days, looking for the full manuscript. After that came my first rejection (which was actually an encouraging rejection). That was followed by another request for the full manuscript.

I have wires strapping down any Walter Mitty flights of fancy and have read enough/talked enough to writers to know this is just the beginning. It may go somewhere, but also may not (and the odds are very long). And, I’m not forgetting what my son wrote on a post-it (at right of image) as I scoured for agents…

Does my son know something I don't?

Does my son know something I don’t?

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It ain’t done, till it’s done

So, this was the opening line in my last post: That’s it. No more excuses. Finish this novel and send it out by year’s end.

Well, what can I say? Other than: That’s not it. I have more excuses. I won’t be finished my novel by year’s end and it won’t be visiting a post box anytime soon.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m a bit disappointed, not least because my previous post was written three whole months ago!

But, I’m not disheartened. I have done a huge amount of work and the novel is significantly better. And, after a round of consultation in recent weeks with key people, it will be better still.

An essential part of this draft was going through some 130 printed pages of notes relating to my writing. I assembled those notes together by topic (characters, plots, setting, dialogue, etc), identified where they should go and stitched them into the novel.

I have done that. And it was a lot more work than I thought it would be. It was painstaking, with ripple effects all around, compounded by tangents, digressions and holes of the plot and character kind.

Another thing I’ve done in the last weeks was meet three key people: two experienced detectives and one drug worker (who has read the first half of an earlier draft). They were very generous with their time and insight. This advice is going to make a big difference for many reasons. One or two significant issues were raised, which I will have to put a lot of thought into, possibly requiring considerable rewriting. That is the next draft.

My schedule is off and I don’t have an obvious deadline now to aim for, which I am concerned about.

But, as an agent told me – it ain’t done, till it’s done.

 

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No more excuses

That’s it. No more excuses. Finish this novel and send it out by year’s end.

Given my last post was mid May, you might wonder what have I been doing. I have asked myself the same question, but just get hmms and ahhs.

Pintrest BookI do have a good excuse, though. The kids. Off school. Rampaging and pillaging for two months solid.

School has restarted (hurray!) and they are back in State care now. So no one to blame.

I need to up my game big time: get up early and do a couple of hours before work, say three days a week.

I have recently given four people – a detective, a drug worker and two journalistic colleagues – the first half of the novel.

My next stage now is to go through my notes. I have more than 120 pages of notes typed up from my notepads I carry around. They contain everything from ideas and changes about my novel – regarding the characters or the plot, etc – as well as incidents, colour that would enrich it. I am finishing going through the notes and identifying where in the novel they go could go in.

Soon, I’ll start doing the actual changes. The more I look at them, the more I realise there are quite a lot of alterations. This, of course, can be tricky, with ripple effects throughout the novel.

Once this process is done and taking into account possible recommendations, I will then set about a last draft and edit.

Then, print the baby out for a final, final proofread and check.

That’s the plan.

No excuses..

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Dating an Agent

Pintrest Book in YouI got a bit of a start when I took my seat at the Dublin Writers’ Week Date with an Agent last Saturday and took a sheet up, entitled Coping with Rejection. It wasn’t an auspicious start!

But things went uphill from there. Assembled before a packed room of circa 75 aspiring writers/writers was a panel of five agents: Simon Trewin, WME (www.wmeauthors.co.uk); Polly Nolan, Greenhouse (http://greenhouseliterary.com/index.php/site/about); Sallyanne Sweeney, Mulcahy Associates (http://www.ma-agency.com/agency); Madeline Milburn (http://madeleinemilburn.co.uk/); and Faith O’Grady, Lisa Richards (http://www.lisarichards.ie/writers#.U3o_j4F_uyo).

It was an interesting chat, hosted by a fireball of energy and chat Vanessa O’Loughlin of Inkwell (http://www.inkwellwriters.ie/people/vanessa-oloughlin/) and http://www.writing.ie/, with a good Q&A session.

At one stage, regarding submissions, Polly Nolan said Greenhouse only took the first five pages of the novel, no more. They make their judgment on that, plus synopsis. She said it had been said to her this was very little – and it does seem so. But she, and most of the others, pointed out that when a reader is in a shop they look at the cover, the blurbs at the back and the first few pars, maybe the first page or two, and then decide. And they’re right. But it’s a sobering thought and one to digest.

Vanessa agreed and urged people to start just before the action, not three or four chapters and then the action.

Simon mentioned a phrase which I liked: a quartet of books. That must be the new thing, not a trilogy or series, but a quartet. Has a refined, classical ring to it.

While we were all in and out of adjoining rooms with our respective agents in waiting (more of that anon), Vanessa filled the silence (an extraordinary achievement, given it continued well into the afternoon) with endless bits of advice, tips and little tests.

A selection of her tips included:

*Submissions: Read the guidelines on agent’s/publisher’s sites

*Agents: Look up Agent Hunter (online list of all agents in UK http://www.agenthunter.co.uk/)

*Cover Letter: Have Pitch Line (Couple of sentences), paragraph on the novel and a par on your good self

*Manuscript: Put contact email on header, along with your name and book title

*Strategy: Have A list and B list of agents, start with B and get their reaction before moving to A list

*Positive: Be positive about yourself (yes, we all squirmed and laughed at the thought) – because they are looking for marketing angles to go with book

*Blogs: Have your contact info in it (an X for me); Keep it updated (huge X for me); Use humour (eh, pass); Ensure the target market for your book should be the target market for your blog (not sure)

*Self-Publishing. Check out http://catherineryanhoward.com/ and  http://www.kazoopublishing.com/

On the date bit, well is was good, but very quick. Apparently, it was ten minutes. Maybe it was, but it zipped by at a ferocious speed and ended the date abruptly! That caveat aside, I met Faith O’Grady and it went really well. She was very amiable and interested. Looking back, it was a bit of a blur, but I got a lot of positive feedback.

Oh, there was a guest speech by Jax Miller, the New York born Irish resident whose writing career was catapulted after Simon Trewin took her on (following an email and attachment from Vanessa). Her novel Freedom’s Child was signed in crazy time by Harper Collins. A fellow member of the Irish Crime Fiction Facebook group, it is great to see her progress. For more see http://www.writing.ie/news/six-figure-book-fair-pre-empt-for-irish-author/and @JaxMillerAuthor.

For more on Dublin Writers’ Week see http://www.dublinwritersfestival.com/

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