From Hook to Book

A Change of Book Title and A Change of Author Name!

Well the book part of the journey From Hook to Book is coming real now. Lots has been happening of late.

Quite fortuitously, an overseas trip – May/June – meant I didn’t have time to fret over what the first round of edits on my manuscript might reveal. Sadly for the editor, who became ill, but fortunately for me, the edits arrived a few days later than originally scheduled, giving me time to recover from both my travels and jetlag.

I was much relieved to discover when the edit did arrive that it was not going to be half so onerous as I’d begun to imagine. Lots of wonderful feedback and suggestions. The novel though is written in a unique voice and, it seems, often ‘unwieldy syntax’. (I did know this, however the syntax is a big part of what makes the ‘unique’ voice of the novel.) So I’m sure it was quite a challenge for the editor to have to balance the fine line between readability and messing with the voice. It was a slow process for me to interrogate every one of the suggested language changes, several times, to ensure that the voice did not become inconsistent. It was quite a give and take operation. (And I mean me agreeing, then switching back to the original and sometimes back again.)

Now that the first round edit has been returned, from what I can tell, between the manuscript, the editor and the fabulous team at Ventura/Impact Press, I think it’s going to be alright. In fact, the book may even turn out to be pretty damn good!

So onwards to the next stage, (before round two edits arrive). This next stage firstly entails a change of title. My novel has been called The Swing Tree for a very long time, so when a change of title was flagged, it was a tad disappointing even though I’d always known it was a possibility. However, I totally understand and appreciate the publishers’ reasoning behind the need for the change. I won’t explain the whys and wherefores and give away too much about the story, but I quickly came around to the publishers favoured choice, No Small Shame. This title was ‘stolen’ (in their words) from one of my chapter titles and I now agree No Small Shame is quite catchy.

It’s wonderful to hear a new perspective and to have fresh eyes that know the market.

Which brings me to the next big but small change: my author name. I’ve often wondered when it came time to publish my adult titles, should I do so under Chris or Christine Bell. Back when I was first published, as a writer for children, it was considered better for me to publish as the ambiguous ‘Chris’, as boys (who were often my main characters too) were reluctant to read female authors. I’m not sure whether that’s still a thing in children’s publishing, but today it’s important and necessary to stand tall as a woman writer. Ventura Press, my publisher, are a feminist press and ‘love to champion female authors and female voices.’ They too thought it would be great to put Christine Bell on the cover. I’m totally happy and up for the change. I think it will translate better visually on a book cover too. I just hope I don’t ignore the speaker or think I’m in trouble when someone new talks to me in the writing world as, usually, I’ve only ever been called Christine when I’m in trouble. I answer to many things, Chris, Kitty, Chrissie, but Christine will be a new part of my journey From Hook to Book.

Since I don’t have a cover to reveal quite yet, I’ll share a few favourite pics from my recent trip instead.

Ps: OMG! Did you know you can walk on the rooftops of the Milan Duomo?

 

 

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HNSA Melbourne Chapter Readings Night

With a debut novel coming out in a few months, it will soon be time to start spreading the word on my new novel. But recently, I was really honoured to be asked by the Historical Novel Society of Australasia Melbourne Chapter to be their featured reader at their July Readings night.

Held at the historic PMI Victorian History Library in Prahran, it was a delightful evening where I read an extended piece from my upcoming novel The Swing Tree. (News on a title change soon.)

It was very reassuring to have my piece so well received and the opportunity to gauge some audience reactions. I found myself absolutely loving question time and quite forgot to be nervous. It was a joy to share some of my on-the-ground research experience in Scotland and the background to my story with the enthusiastic audience.

The floor was then opened to interested participants to share a short reading from their own works-in-progress or a work of their choice. I thoroughly recommend these regular evenings as a fantastic opportunity to read your work aloud and to get some audience reaction. It’s not critiqued at all, just reading aloud to your peers.

At the conclusion of the formalities, everyone is invited to continue the discussions and evening over dinner at a nearby bistro. It’s a great networking and social opportunity too.

For me, it also just showed how much I love talking about this story.

 

(The next HNSA Melbourne Chapter readings evening will be held in September: https://tinyurl.com/y4h6xxak)

The Journey From Hook to Book

From Hook to Book – Yes, indeed!

Well almost! A book is on the way!!!

My adult historical novel, The Swing Tree, is to be published by Impact Press (an imprint of Ventura Press) in March 2020.

It’s been a big journey from hook to the book.

Several more years ago than I like to admit, I signed up for a Year of the Novel course through the then Victorian Writers Centre (now Writers Vic). I had an idea for a contemporary novel set in China, where I’d lived and worked for several months a couple of years before. The book was to be from an Australian expat teacher’s perspective and my first attempt at a novel since my Prof Writing course.

Around this same time, I was trying to put together a family tree and decided I should find out more about where my forebears came from and why. I never got further than one branch of the family, because…

Well, I’ll try to keep a long story brief. My great-grandparents originally came from Belfast in Ireland. My great-grandfather, John McConaghy, came home from the Boer War to a quiet house and a grieving wife. His three baby daughters all dead and buried from maladies to which many infants succumbed in the slums of the Falls Road. With no work to be had, in 1901, John and Mary, my great-grandmother, immigrated to Scotland to the Lanarkshire pit village of Bothwellhaugh to join John’s brothers in the Hamilton Palace Colliery. Though to the best of my knowledge, John had no prior experience mining coal. Within short time another babe was on the way – my grandmother, Alice. Two sisters followed. But in the interim another sister and brother were born and died within months of the dreaded gastroenteritis or bronchitis. Again the rate of infant mortality was extreme and somewhat inevitable as the family lived, at different times, in two of the poorest rows – Store Place and The Square. One room for the entire family with no indoor plumbing but plenty of mould and rising damp.

Not a fit environment to live and thrive and so in 1912 John answered the call of immigration posters from Australia promising sunshine, good jobs and cheap nominated passages.

My great-grandfather came out to Australia first on the SS Makarini accompanied by several other families from the village. Their destination – the new State Coal Mine in Wonthaggi. Six months later, on nominated passages, Mary and their three surviving daughters embarked on the SS Hawkes Bay out of Tilbury.

From the moment I walked the heritage trail at the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine, touched the old miners’ tokens, viewed the old film footage and faded photographs, it sounds a bit soft to say, but I heard a whisper. There’s a story here. There’s a story here. There’s a story here. And it would not be quieted. Not even once back in our 21st century automobile with the radio blaring on the journey home.

Over the following weeks, instead of working on my new novel, as I should’ve been doing for my course, I was web surfing and taking steam ship voyages in tiny cabins by candescent lighting and discovering everything I could about pit villages in Scotland. Bothwellhaugh, a tiny dot on the map in 1912 when my family left, had long since been demolished as had so many pit villages when the mines closed and the tenement rows made way for modern housing, or in Bothwellhaugh’s case a new country park. The more I read and discovered, the more the life entranced me. (Probably because I didn’t have to live it.) Then, in the quiet of my research, Mary showed up. My novel’s protagonist – a young woman on the brink of immigrating too – oddly enough.

My real-life family flew under the radar, had no grand story to tell. They left no mark on history, no diaries or letters or place to begin. Except in my imagination. But it seemed Mary had a life and a plan of her own and her story began to grow. But how could I give her breath… I was halfway through my YOTN course and faced with a dilemma. Or so I thought. Until the night I grumped over dinner that I really wanted to be writing Mary’s story and researching Wonthaggi, Bothwellhaugh and steamship voyages, and not the novel I’d started. Then my husband asked matter-of-factly, ‘Why don’t you just write the novel you want to write. It’s your choice, isn’t it?’

Well, yes. It was my choice. And ironic, since the novel growing in my mind was so much about choices and how one choice can change a life forever. In that moment I made mine.

I switched projects and Mary’s story began in earnest. As did the work of learning to write an historical novel. A work of length when, previously, I’d written mostly short works of fiction for children and one contemporary YA novel.

As I fell in love with my characters, the era and the history, it came to me that I’d loved and read historical fiction my whole life. So really it was a no-brainer to write it. It only surprised me that I hadn’t thought of it before!

There was a lengthy period of time – mid-journey – where I set the manuscript aside to write another book while I worked out what to do with what had become a very unwieldy work-in-progress. Neither a full-on literary novel, nor a commercial novel, it crossed the genres of both. Young protagonist with adult problems! Which way to proceed? But that’s a whole other story!

I’m just delighted that the publisher loves the story too and I can’t wait to share the physical book with everyone next March. But first, there’s more rounds of editing and lots of exciting publishing things ahead like cover and book design, and reveals, marketing and a launch to plan.

Stay tuned…

ps: From the length of this blog, you can understand why the book took so long!

 

Small disclaimer: The photo above of the tenement rows in Bothwellhaugh is taken many years later than my story is set, but offers a glimpse of the life.

The Writer is In!

Late last year I fell off the horse – figuratively speaking! Of course! After months of head down, unrelenting focus on trying to get down the first draft of my WIP, one day in early November, I suffered a complete crisis of confidence over where my story was going. And if I could write at all. Add in two very disappointing rejections that week, a day apart, and I quite literally melted down.

In all the years I’ve been writing, I’ve tried to approach it professionally – as a job. Even through the most gutting knock backs, after manuscripts have gone to acquisitions meetings and not made it through, I’ve given myself the standard 24 hours to mourn and cry, but the next day I’d be back on the proverbial horse and back at my desk.

Being a Friday, I figured, a couple of wines and a good cry and come Monday I’d be back at my desk as always. But even as I walked out my office door, I sensed something was different this time. It was as if a switch had flicked in my brain. I can’t do this. Do I even want to do this anymore? I was sick to my stomach in fear this might not just herald a break.

Over the coming days, I couldn’t even step into my office. I’d lost my nerve, my mojo, and, it seemed, my will to write. What the hell was wrong with me? The question nagged again, did I even want to write? It’s too hard. It hurts. Who and what am I writing for?

It took time before I could face a good hard think about writing and my practice. But when I did, I realised that somewhere, somehow, my determination to get words down had become an obsession. I’d barely noticed in the passing months that I’d stopped exercising and going to the swimming pool (too busy), or working in my garden (too wet/too cold), or even taking time out for friends (I’d catch up as soon as my draft was done). Even playtime and training sessions with our precious puppy had become snatched moments between writing. Poor baby!

I came to the sad realisation too that I had no hobbies, nothing that was not connected to writing. How and when did that happen? I’d been given a beautiful mirrorless camera the preceding Christmas and it had scarcely been out of its bag.

I have a little easel (pictured above) on a shelf in my office bookcase with the sign, “The Writer is In”. As a joke, when I made it, I made one for the reverse side, “The Writer is Out.” (I’d never turned it around.) The week after my meltdown, I spotted it as I left my office, after being unable to open my manuscript for the umpteenth time. I cried as I turned the sign around, wondering if the writer would ever be in again? Again, the question: Did I even want to write anymore?

But when someone near and dear innocently asked, what do you want to do then? ‘WRITE!’ came my savage reply. ‘It’s who I am. What I do. All I want to do!’ (Despite the voice screaming in my head, ‘I just don’t know if I can do it anymore.’)

Turns out, there is more to life than just writing. In these past few weeks, I’ve undertaken a CAE Intensive Photography Course, worked prodigiously in my garden, read some great books – for pure enjoyment, romped, played and generally hung out with a very cute, small, white dog, as well as with some human friends. I’ve given my house a mini-makeover and enjoyed a lovely Christmas and holiday break with my family. Plus I’ve pretty well planned and booked an overseas trip for us later in the year. Plus, as of this week, I’m back in the pool.

I’m also booked to do a 5-day writing masterclass in February and I’m sincerely looking forward to it (more on that another day) and I’ve finally found some words (if only to write this blog post – it’s a start!)

Oh, and I nearly forgot, Santa brought me a most special present. I’ve always, always, wanted to learn to play the piano and shortly before Christmas I took the time to ask the question, was it possible to teach an older dog such a trick. Turns out, Yes! It is. In the weeks since, I’ve been practising with an app, learned to play a couple of songs, and, hooray, hooray, today I had my very first piano lesson!

I also reread my WIP and turns out, there is a story there. One I really want to write. So it seems, albeit it tentatively, the writer/photographer/piano player/gardener/dog buddy is IN.

Month of Writing Wrap

My Month of Writing is over. Yay! I achieved my goal of adding 25,000-words to my manuscript and met my deadline last Friday 31st August at 7.29pm. (Then I collapsed with exhaustion! And wine!)

I only exceeded my goal by a miniscule 93 words but I’m really pleased with the new scenes and chapters I’ve written and the considerable development of the storyline. It’s not all sparkling prose that’s for sure, but the bones are there. (Though, I’m not sure that the final 1000-words written on Friday will stay or go. I haven’t been back yet to read them over and fear they may have turned into waffly exposition in order to hit the 55,000 mark by my self-imposed deadline.)

So was it a good approach or a positive way to write for me?

Yes and no! Yes: it worked on lots of levels: achieved word count, added scenes, developed storyline. No, it’s not a way I’d want to write all the time. I really missed taking time to go back and edit and rework scenes as I went, but I realised early-on that if I wanted to hit my word count goal, I had to just write and worry if it was all working later.

The real positive is that the new scenes capture the essence of what I want to say and where I want the story to go. And now they’re written I have something to work on. Another bonus is that these latest 25,000-words have really progressed the plot and inspired an important sub-plot in the story.

I don’t think that I could ever do NaNoWriMo with its word count goal of 50,000 words. I started my month of writing with a strong plan for the different scenes that I wanted to write in the belief that I should be able to just sit down first thing each morning and crack on with the writing. I can actually write quite quickly when I’m in scene but, regardless of all my planning and good intentions, it still took me half the day to get started – as is usual for me. Turns out I still need to dream, think, imagine my way into the writing. The great thing though is that by having my Month of Writing goal and deadline, I did just crack on with the writing before the end of the day and it was incredibly satisfying to watch that story/word count grow daily. (Or almost daily.)

So, the stats:

Achieved:

  • 13 new scenes
  • 25,093 words
  • 1 new subplot
  • belief and confidence this story is worth writing

Pros:

  • inspiration to get words down
  • permission to write regardless of quality (equally a con)
  • inspired serious plotting
  • enforced the writing of some ‘skipped’ scenes
  • enabled strong character development through intense writing
  • proved the idea has legs (even if still a spindly, wobbly first draft)

Cons:

  • permission to write regardless of quality (equally a pro)
  • gave licence to waffle
  • limited scope for editing of completed scenes (as I prefer to do as I go)

So now to review the 55,000-words to date, give in to the urge to edit and then reset my writing goal. It just won’t be quite so intense next time!

 

 

Month of Writing

Today I begin a “Month of Writing”. A writing retreat if you like with a fixed deadline and word count aim.

But it’s all self-imposed and self-inflicted! And necessary. Of course I would love to go off on a fully-fledged writing retreat in some idyllic setting, meals laid on and nothing to interrupt the writing flow but my own thoughts. But with a young puppy in the house and planning an overseas trip next year, I can’t afford either the time away or the financial outlay.

So I’ve devised a plan: I’m keeping my August calendar as clear as I can. I’ve set a 9 am daily start, so I’d better type faster now. I’ve set myself a daily word count aim of 1000-words. I’ve multiple scenes mapped out and some exciting aspects of my novel to explore. I know where it’s all heading and the only way to get there now is to write. I’ve also given myself permission to just write. Crap, if necessary. But words.

No, I don’t have to tell the world my plan (not that the world is reading my blog!), but I’m a person who thrives on accountability. This is my commitment to myself. So here I go – manuscript currently at 30,200-words. End of month aim 55,0000-words. I’m leaving myself a little leeway, because life always interrupts. My plan is to bar the door against all but the most important of interruptions. See you on the 31st.

Research can take you there!

There are so many touchstones that I come across in my research. Small poems, articles, images or videos that connect me to my story.

In the spirit of my promise to not make my every blog post lengthy, I want to share more of these poignant and emotive links to a past that somehow I am irrevocably joined to – if not through story, some unexplained connection. Since I had few (and not close) family members directly involved in the Great War, I cannot explain my deep affinity for such an horrific event. Originally the era fitted one story but my new WIP and the novel planned after that are all turning out to be closely involved with WW1. Perhaps it was the week I spent in 2012 visiting the battlefields and surrounding war museums that connected me, not so much to the war as to the stories of the men who fought and to the people of the Somme who endured the war raging over their countryside and through their towns and villages.

Now, deep in the writing of a turning point scene, set during the Second Battle of Villers Bretonneux, the image above depicts the night battle that saved the town. Though it nearly destroyed it too, the battle and the Australian battalions’ efforts changed the face of the war.

This image is blu-tacked to my computer and takes me right there, into the mist and smoke and desperate fight lit up by shellfire. Combined with the haunting and heartbreaking music of Karl Jenkins “Benedictus” that I’ve been playing while I write the aftermath scenes, I rarely fail to tear up. #am writing #amlovingwriting

[Night attack by 13th Brigade on Villers–Bretonneux, Will Longstaff. [Oil on canvas AWM ART03028] Australian War Memorial]

Permission to Write Crap and Crap on!

It’s time for me to get back to blogging, but, from now on, without always spending hours researching or pedantically connecting all my posts to serious writing subjects, which takes away from real, actual writing time.

At the beginning of a new novel project real writing is top of my agenda.

At least that was the plan until I sat down to start and out poured a pile of… clunky, flat sentences, sour similes, in scenes seemingly going nowhere.

OMG! What had happened to the joyful act of writing that I remembered, the excitement and thrill of the perfect word or sentence appearing on the page? Dialogue that my characters had no trouble giving voice to?

Oh yeah, that was writing my last novel, of many, many drafts! Long contemplated, researched, workshopped, drafted and redrafted, edited and at last complete, and where for the longest time I’d known where my characters were going and why and what they were doing. In essence, working with a tame, respectable, easily approachable and beloved friend.

Starting a new project is more like opening the door to an unhouse-trained, ill-behaved, messy, unrecognisable, often traitorous beast.

 

“There is no beginning that is a blank page,”  Amitava Kumar

The prospect of that blank page and beautifully set-up EMPTY Scrivener mss file became mind-boggling and scary and confidence crippling. In my panic, and procrastination, I buried myself in research. It took me awhile to work out that really I was just avoiding the blank page. I began to think I couldn’t write. My idea was crap. No-one would want to read it. And what did I know about Paris post-WW1 anyway?

Creativity is always a leap of faith. You’re faced with a blank page, blank easel, or an empty stage.” Julia Cameron

Then I remembered I didn’t know much about pit villages in Scotland, early 20th century immigration, WW1 or shellshock until I began to read and research for my previous novel either.

Most importantly, after initially freaking out, then giving myself a stiff talking to, I recalled some sage advice from the wise pen of Ann Lamott, author of the popular writing book, Bird by Bird. “Writing is not rapturous. The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” Just what I needed to hear. And action.

“I have done, this year, what I said I would: overcome my fear of facing a blank page day after day, acknowledging myself, in my deepest emotions, a writer, come what may.” Sylvie Plath

Three weeks after giving myself permission to write crap, in fact insisting I write crap, if that’s all that hit the page, as long as I bloody-well wrote words, my word-count has grown by more than 12,000-words. After some further prodding and poking (editing), because I had actual words to work with, I can now see where my story is going. The tone and voice are developing and beginning to ring true. Scene by scene I’m getting to know my characters and their world. I’m beginning to really like my MC and love again the act of writing.

Of course, I’m not alone in fear of the blank page. It’s still scary at times, but I wouldn’t ever want to do anything else.

Inspiration, Imagination and an Operation

I’ve been thinking a lot about inspiration and imagination of late. This has been an unusual year for me, as it’s mostly been taken up with editing and rewriting and not a lot of new writing. After a spinal surgery last December, I gave myself time out to rest and recuperate, but back then I had no idea how long it would be before I’d get back to my WIP, or started on my new adult novel project or even how neglected my blog would be since then.

Then, while researching the new novel, Hugo turned up. In truth, the name of the young man pictured above is not Hugo. I will share his real name and shattering story another day, but for now this image (blu-tacked to my Mac screen) represents my protagonist in my new adult work. His deeply expressive eyes drew me in and in short time the character has become real to me. The voluminous research has sparked so many ideas and every day I add more to my story map. The excitement and pull to begin writing is electric. It’s like an adrenaline shot that I’m sure all creators experience. It’s made me think a lot about inspiration, imagination and what helps us create place and people when we’re not out in the world physically scouting settings or spying on Joe or Jillian Public.

Sitting at my desk, I’m sure, like other creators, I’m surrounded by ephemera deeply connected to my writing life. The bits and bobs, I’ve collected over time that resonate with my stories and ideas, but may look like an assortment of oddities to anyone else.

My fascination for the Great War and post-war years continues and is probably the reason my inspirational touchstones have not changed much over recent years. Though I was almost sorry to roll away my rabid gang of 1830s convicts that served as evil inspiration while writing (my war-based exception) a YA historical convict era novel. The sometimes defeated, sad, ugly, vicious, devastated faces of these men filled my dreams some nights and I’m sure gave rise to traits in one or more of the vile characters that I’ve been told I write very well. Not sure what writing them says or reveals about me.

I’ve now returned to a large wall map of the Somme that I bought during a trip to France in 2012. My research at the time was not as in depth, as the novel I was writing was set largely in Australia. I couldn’t have imagined then the significance of that battlefields’ visit or the excitement of the story idea that has emerged since.

The shrapnel and rusty wire pictured were retrieved from the edge of a field on the roadside by our guide. I debated whether it was somehow wrong to remove them, but accepted after I was assured that farmers are digging up shrapnel, bits of barbed wire and WW1 relics all the time and that the soil of the Somme will probably never be rid of it. Just as it still gives up a body, or rather skeleton, on occasions.

The small pebble (at left) comes from the banks of the Strathclyde Loch in Strathclyde Country Park, Motherwell, Scotland. Undoubtedly, it was brought in for the construction of the park, long after the pit village of Bothwellhaugh was removed and the paths my great-parents trod, or stones they skipped in the River Clyde, had long gone. But it connects me to them and to my story, the day I stood on the water’s edge writing a scene that refused to wait for me to get out of the lightly, misting rain.

The silver miniature of the coal miner with pick axe came from a shop in a museum in Scotland. It reminds me daily of my great-grandfather and the life he and my characters, Liam, Joe and Da led.

The little steam engine came out of a Kinder Surprise™ many, many years ago. Somehow I still have it, and it has become a touchstone to my great-grandparents journey from Scotland down to catch the steamship at Tilbury Dock, along with my character’s journey, and my own steam train ride through the Yorkshire Dales where I crossed the same spans of the Ribble Head Bridge in 2015.  (My blog banner at the top of the page features my photo as we’re about to cross that amazing bridge.)

I bought the decorative horse brass (at right) from a small, cluttered craft shop at Land’s End in Cornwall. The pit pony and miner on the cart practically jumped off a pile of dusty similar brasses as I passed, which items tend to do when I’m travelling and/or in story mode. They seem to find me as often as I find them.

I wonder, what’s your inspiration?

#HNSA2017 Brilliant!

What a fantastic, inspiring conference was HNSA 2017! This second Historical Novel Society Australasia Conference, I have to say, was even more brilliant and better than the first.

The hugely diverse and wide-ranging program of speakers, super sessions and workshops provided so much choice – from sessions on ‘personal histories’ with renowned writers such as Kate Forsyth, Sophie Masson and Deborah Challinor, giving insight into their processes and work, to panel discussions on Modern Voice in Historical Fiction and Authenticity Vs Truth to the insightful publisher Pathways to Publication and First Pages critiques. There was also a separate academic program and hands-on opportunities to learn of armour and armouring and historical costumes.

The conference was also a wonderful opportunity to catch up with many writing friends and fellow authors and to meet quite a few new ones during the frequent breaks and/or the cocktail party and dinner nights.

I had a fabulous time and came away inspired, motivated and with lots of new resources and authors to check out.

I got a bit excited too on the tweeting side, and, with so much of value to share, rather than go into all the insights and memorable moments, I’ll share them again below in tweets.

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If you’d like to check out any other snippets of wisdom I shared or pics, you can find them on my Twitter feed @chrisbellwrites.

I’d like to say a special thank you to Elisabeth Storrs, Chris Foley and the wonderful Historical Novel Society Australasia team for an amazing event. Roll on 2019.

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