Thursday, June 2, 2016

Beverly, Stuttering and Me

About a year ago I went to a writers' talk on social media and book promotion. A woman I've become friends with through these events was there too and I made my way over to her after the talk, as she is always, what my English friends would call good value and my Irish friends would call good craic. For the sake of this blog post, we'll call her Tallulah.

As writers do, we greeted each other with writing progress reports. Tallulah is working on a romance/whodunnit. It's shamefully flowery, she says, with a dismissive wave of her hand. And me? I'm working on a book about a woman who has a falling out with her best friend over a guy. She also happens to have a stutter.

"Oh, wow," Tallulah replies, like I have ignited her interest. I should point out here that what Tallulah doesn't know is that I have a stutter too. The reason she doesn't know this is because:
 

a) My stutter is very mild; it was strong when I was young but since adulthood it has faded each year so by now it's only occasionally problematic.

b) I'm what we refer to as a 'covert' stutterer (as apposed to an 'overt' stutterer). A covert stutterer can anticipate when they will come to a word they're going to get stuck on, and swap it out for another 'easier' word. Sometimes this happens smoothly and you would never know such lexical acrobatics were going on behind the eyes. Other times an alternative word can't be found quickly and a pause is in order - so there'll be some "Er.. what I mean is..." and there might even be some feigning of forgetfulness, until an appropriate word can be found.


This is why Tallulah feels free to continue along these lines:
 

"I went out with a guy with a stutter once. Moaned about it all the time. He was really self-pitying, you know?" She's making a painful face. "I mean, put it in perspective. It's just how you speak, right? It's not like a real problem..."
 

As Tallulah expanded on how this chump couldn't get himself together, I was thinking, how can I make someone with this point of view sympathise with Beverly? When she has no experience of what it's like to not be able to express herself and to constantly fear humiliation, how can I show her how that feels? She became my target audience and in subsequent edits of Beverly I carefully went through scenes trying to capture this discomfort, show Beverly's focus on her speech and its dominance over her identity.
 

That is why it has been hugely gratifying to receive early reviews with these comments:

"I could feel myself holding my breath with Beverly every time she struggled to say a certain word."
Go Book Yourself review...

"I was worried with the main character having a stutter that it might affect the formatting and readability of the book, but it actually flows pretty well, and allows you to get a strong sense of the character and her struggles."
Awesome Indies review...

I know Beverly will not be for everyone, of course, but it's beginning to feel like I have reached my goal, of bringing the reader into this obscure world. So thanks, book reviewers, you make it worth while for us writers. And thanks, Tallulah. I hope you have found a man of courage.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Beverly on Kindle!

I am very excited to announce that Beverly is now available on Kindle! And it has been awarded a place on the Awesome Indies list of quality independent fiction! Awesome Indies identify and promote independently published books that meet the standard of books published by mainstream publishers. Their reviews are known for being tough, so I'm really proud to be included on their list.


Check out their review on Amazon. My favourite part is: "I connected deeply with the characters, I felt each and every dramatic moment." Then why not download an original story about two best friends in London whose codependent relationship is set to implode as soon as they make a quid pro quo kind of deal.



Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Do's and Don'ts of the Hook - Part 2

Time flies! It was January when I wrote this post The Do's and Don'ts of the Hook. My super writing group had a similar event again this week, and it was fantastic to get more agency feedback on my updated first page. This time we welcomed DKW Literary Agency who gave brief feedback to everyone who submitted, so there was no singling me out this time - though I did sit right up front, in case I was going to be picked on.

To recap, here's the initial draft of the first page and the feedback from Greene & Heaton:

Beverly woke up as if arriving from another world. The image from her dream came with her, and for a moment, before moving, she imagined her bed was in a playground. It was a memory, that she had been reliving in her sleep, of being on a roundabout and trying to say stop to the children pushing it – lightly tapping the bars that whizzed around – but only being able to say the ‘S’ and the ‘T’, while the rest of the word was snapped away by the wind. The spinning settled and Beverly shifted to let air in under the covers. Her lungs billowed and a headache began. She was properly awake now and the childhood memory was replaced with memories from the night before. Singing in the taxi – taxi drivers had a hard job – they opened a bottle of wine when they got back – who came home with them? She jerked, reaching a hand out to the cold side of the bed. There was no one there. She retracted her arm with relief. 
     Other things came into existence: coffee, a clean tracksuit. She dressed herself with a heavy, detached feeling and then opened her bedroom door. No noise. The T.V. wasn’t on so Ella wasn’t up yet. And no voices from Ella’s bedroom. Beverly moved to the bathroom and then the office. She sat at her desk and shook the mouse to waken her computer. The fan started humming. Beverly checked her email, which was already open on the screen, and then clicked over to Facebook – a shoe ad; a baby picture from Dave; A cat with a human expression from Lucy. 
     She knocked on Ella’s bedroom door. The voice was muffled but strong: ‘It’s your turn to go.’
    ‘Shit.’ Beverly whispered, shrinking slightly. 

  • The waking up beginning is a cliche. 
  • The dream doesn't seem to link to the subsequent action.
  • Who is Ella? A friend, a daughter?
  • Where are they? At home? Why is there an office?
  • The hook, which is "what does Beverly not want to do?" comes in too late.

Now here's the new first page which attempts to address the above issues, and the related feedback:

Beverly opened the door of her bedroom but instead of stepping out, creating the usual creak underfoot in the hallway, she listened. A bitten fingernail went to her mouth. No sound was coming from the living room – the TV wasn’t on. That meant her flatmate hadn’t surfaced yet. Probably Ella’s new friend had stayed over. Beverly couldn’t remember his name. It was 10.30. She couldn’t wait any longer.
     She dressed as fragments of a dream returned to mind. It wasn’t a dream really, more a memory that sometimes visited her sleep, of being on a roundabout and trying to say stop to the children pushing it, but only being able to say the ‘S’ and the ‘T’, while the rest of the word was snapped away by the wind.
     Now the childhood memory was replaced with memories from the night before. Laughing in the taxi, opening another bottle of wine when they got back. Beverly just had half a glass before leaving the pair alone – she could see Ella was putting on her moves. She crossed the hallway, letting the wooden floor announce her presence. Hopefully the noise would wake Ella.
     In their office, she sat at her desk and shook the mouse, watching her computer screen come to life. The fan started humming. She checked her email, which was already open, and then clicked over to Facebook – a baby picture from Dave; an endangered monkey from Lucy; a suggested post about local gigs. She didn’t mind Facebook intruding on her timeline – it knew her well. She was stalling but a hangover was kicking in.
     She raised herself out of the leather seat and knocked on Ella’s bedroom door.
     No sound. ‘Shit,’ Beverly whispered, shrinking slightly. She would have to go by herself.


  • One scene is focused on, opening up slowly, which is the right thing for a first page. We don't want a sense of information being crammed in quickly.
  • No cliche's. For example: a character waking up!
  • Segue from recollection of dream to memory of the night before is relatable. 
  • Understanding immediate - Beverly is trying to wake up her flatmate.
  • Tension is built in a subtle way through Beverly's actions and the fact that she doesn't want to go somewhere.

As you can see, according to this agent, all the previous issues have been fixed! There actually wasn't any negative feedback at all. So a relief for me, as the next submission scrolled up on the screen, for review. My gratitude to London Writers' Cafe, Greene & Heaton and DKW for their support!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

BEVERLY is coming soon!...


Beverly sidesteps the need to interact with co-workers by working from home. When she must venture outside, she wears earphones so no one will bother her. Social niceties are designated to her best friend and flatmate, Ella. 


Beverly would be jealous of Ella's gregarious charm and high-life, if she didn't have the security of her long-term boyfriend, Roland, who spared Beverly from the dating scene and gave her a future. Beverly won't speak for herself because she has a stutter. This is how she carefully arranges her life, until Roland breaks up with her... to date Ella.



Soon-ish. After getting a fantastic copy-edit with SilverWood Books, I finally have some time off from my busy job to work through changes (see my previous Beverly blog post). 

I was surprised, reading the copy-edit, to find character traits coming across that I had not
realised were there! It is as if I unconsciously brought forward these traits and needed someone else to point them out. With this fresh perspective, I can see some small changes can shape the character dynamics further.

But never mind small changes. Check out the book cover! I had a great experience working with 99designs. If you're not familiar with the site, what happens is you launch a competition for your design and set your prize money. Then, designers submit their entries and you can work with them, asking for changes, until you decide on a winner. I chose four designs for my final round which were all strong covers, I thought, but this one by Wild Women Designs has captured Beverly and how she interacts with the world. It also ticks all the boxes I'm learning are necessary for a good book cover: the title and author name are clear, the image will stand out in an Amazon line-up, the idea is communicated simply, and there is space for a quote.

So I'm looking forward to the final shaping of Beverly and sharing it with you! In the meantime, check out Beverly's page and stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Two New Poems in Tuck Magazine!



It's lovely to be included in online magazine Tuck again. I'm sure other people who write poems have their favourites, like me, and I particularly like these two new poems Aboard The Waits Train and Playground of My Youth which I submitted to Tuck, thinking they might be a good fit.

I actually tried to write a poem about listening to Tom Waits a few times, before a theme came to mind. I don't know why I felt like capturing the moment but there you go. Playground of My Youth I wrote on a visit home to Dublin. I grew up near a lot of parks and some of my time was slightly misspent.

All Aboard The Waits Train 
(listening to Tom Waits)

All aboard the Waits train
It’s a lovely sound you make and I’m not the first to say it
Leave your bags and credit cards behind
Find a seat that slides
You move me

read more...

Playground of My Youth

The hill
Playground of my youth
An hour after school
The grass always damp
shadowed by oak trees

read more...

I've been enjoying Tuck over the years since they published my poems Prime Time Guy and Sifting for Gold. As an arts and politics magazine they publish everything from photography, like these lovely movements in the dark, to current affairs essays to a lot more poetry and prose like these fast-moving poems by Scott Thomas Outlar.

I also really enjoyed interviewing Tuck's managing editor Val B. Russell two years ago.

So fix yourself a cup of tea and check out the links!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Beverly Edited

To whom it concerns, Beverly has just come back from it's editing holiday covered in crossings out and sticky notes. I'll be working on the final, final draft over this summer but it won't be my usual sprint, it will be more like a meandering walk taking in a weekend here and a week evening there - due to a new job that is eating into my work-life balance at the moment.

But I've had a good break from thinking about the story and I'm looking forward to getting back into it with editor's comments, friends comments and a fresh perspective.

Stayed tuned for exciting updates over the summer about book covers and marketing ideas!....

In the meantime, here's the Beverly story so far.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Do's and Don'ts of The Hook

Earlier this week, my writing group invited literary agents from Greene & Heaton to talk to us about first paragraphs, the do's and don'ts. Before the event, we were able to submit our opening paragraphs for feedback. I submitted the first page of Beverly and arrived for the evening, assuming mine would not be one of the examples chosen for discussion. There's nothing remarkable about the start of Beverly after all, except it turns out there is a remark that can be made - don't do it! I was sitting at the back of the room and strained to listen, taking notes as the comments started out encouragingly - nothing wrong with the writing per se - while a big BUT was clearly looming...

So here's the sample and the feedback:

      Beverly woke up as if arriving from another world. The image from her dream came with her, and for a moment, before moving, she imagined her bed was in a playground. It was a memory, that she had been reliving in her sleep, of being on a roundabout and trying to say stop to the children pushing it – lightly tapping the bars that whizzed around – but only being able to say the ‘S’ and the ‘T’, while the rest of the word was snapped away by the wind. The spinning settled and Beverly shifted to let air in under the covers. Her lungs billowed and a headache began. She was properly awake now and the childhood memory was replaced with memories from the night before. Singing in the taxi – taxi drivers had a hard job – they opened a bottle of wine when they got back – who came home with them? She jerked, reaching a hand out to the cold side of the bed. There was no one there. She retracted her arm with relief.
      Other things came into existence: coffee, a clean tracksuit. She dressed herself with a heavy, detached feeling and then opened her bedroom door. No noise. The T.V. wasn’t on so Ella wasn’t up yet. And no voices from Ella’s bedroom. Beverly moved to the bathroom and then the office. She sat at her desk and shook the mouse to waken her computer. The fan started humming. Beverly checked her email, which was already open on the screen, and then clicked over to Facebook – a shoe ad; a baby picture from Dave; A cat with a human expression from Lucy.
      She knocked on Ella’s bedroom door. The voice was muffled but strong: ‘It’s your turn to go.’
      ‘Shit.’ Beverly whispered, shrinking slightly.


First of all, apparently a lot of us start our stories with a person waking up. This being an irritation for these particular agents - and possibly others - because it's hard to make it interesting if it's going to be the usual mundane steps and we see it in a lot in movies so it has become a cliche. One of the agents was strongly against describing a character's dreams but I got the feeling this was a personal choice. After all, Margaret Atwood uses character dreams and interpretations so I think we can agree it has its place.

Secondly, the switch in the second paragraph left both agents confused. They couldn't see a link between the dream and the following action. This confusion was further deepened with the introduction of Ella. Who is Ella? A daughter? A friend? She is mentioned later with the knock on the door but this doesn't clarify the relationship. Then there's the casual mention of the office - Beverly moves from bedroom to office - does she work from home? Where is she?
 

They did like the last two lines though. These had a hook: what does Beverly have to do that seems to be habitual, but is something she clearly doesn't want to do? Their curiosity kept coming back to this question until they asked if the author was in the room. So I stood up and explained over audience heads what Beverly had to do that she didn't want to do: Go get the coffees, I said. This seemed like an anti-climax, so I added: See, she hates having to speak or interact with people. She has a stutter and tends to rely on Ella a lot. Ah... that made the whole piece clear. That's what the dream is about, I continued, encouraged. Even asleep, she's thinking about her speech. There was nodding at this. It's an emotive idea but it's not clear, one agent said. Gone-Girl-it, he concluded. Gone Girl had been one of the extracts read out before mine. Here it is:

      When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.
      I'd know her head anywhere.
      And what's inside it. I think of that, too: her mind. Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes. Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy? The question I've asked most often during our marriage, if not out loud, if not to the person who could answer. I suppose these questions stormcloud over every marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?
 


I was grateful for the feedback but left feeling a bit unclear about what I was supposed to do. One reason being this: In the next scene of Beverly, which wasn't part of the extract, Beverly comes back from the shops with the coffees and she and Ella chat about the night before. Here it becomes clear that they are old friends, that Beverly relies on Ella introducing her at parties and that Beverly has a stutter. It is also the conversation where Ella admits that Beverly's ex, Roland, has asked her out. Before the workshop, I was thinking the story unfolds pretty fast. So how soon do I really need to get all the facts out? Do they need to be jammed into the first paragraph? That doesn't seem right... Also I was confused because I began to think: Didn't I Gone-Girl-it? The opening paragraphs are the husband thinking about his wife's head, with overtones of violence. In my story Beverly is thinking about her speech. So what's the difference?

It wasn't until I went to bed and was drifting off to sleep that the difference hit me: In Gone Girl, although nothing actually happens in those opening lines, the suggestion of action is there. As this man describes his wife's head we can imagine him hurting her. The passage is foreboding, threatening, creepy and that fires our imagination to think about what he might to do to her. I think when our brain starts to speculate like that, that's when we want to know more - maybe because we want to know if we are right. In the Beverly passage, that speculation doesn't start until the last two lines. So while the dream is representative and we understand its significance later, initially, the information is flat. The brain is taxed with understanding the scene but there's nothing to fire the imagination, make the reader project possibilities, speculate, in other words, get drawn in.


I slept well.