Saturday, 2 January 2010

Writing Review of 2009


Over the holidays I've been thinking about what kind of a writing year 2009 has been for me and, slightly to my surprise, I've come to the conclusion that it was actually a rather good one. Inevitably, it's been coloured by the fate of Not One of Us but, not necessarily in a bad way. So, here's my writing year, 2009.

Testament was published in paperback in January and went into Waterstones' New Year 3-for-2 promotion which was amazing. I'm pleased to say that the exposure paid off and the paperback has sold in pleasing numbers. In January I heard that Testament had been longlisted for the Waverton Good Read Award and was asked to go and talk about the book to the Waverton book group which was an extremely enjoyable experience. Testament didn't win (Child 44 by Tom Robb Smith did) but it was fun to be part of the literary prize scene if only for a while.

In February, Testament made a brief appearance in the WH Smith's bestsellers list which was both amazing and encouraging.

In April, the blogosphere started to notice Testament's existence with a glowing review from Juxtabook which, latterly, has resulted in other blog activity.

Meanwhile, away from novel writing, in May I had been commissioned to write a promenade play for Rochester Cathedral's launch event for their new Heritage Lottery Funded interpretation project. Though I've always been interested in the theatre and have written bits and bobs of drama and sketches at various times, as well as a lot of unbroadcast radio drama, this was the first full length play I had written for public performance. It turned out to be a lot of fun putting it together (I directed the play as well as writing it) and it all went off extremely well on the day. It gave me a taste for working with actors so if you run a heritage tourism site and think that a play associated with your venue would be a good punter-draw, I'm your woman...

Also in May, the axe fell on Not One of Us, the novel I'd been working on since before Testament was published. Though it was a blow (obviously) it did make me take a couple of resolutions which you'll find if you read my post about the rejection here. And have I kept those resolutions? I'll come to that in a minute.

As well as writing and rehearsing the promenade play, the summer months were full of research for the new book whose working title is The Black and The White. I acquired several books on the history of charcoal burning and the Other Half and I went to the Forest of Dean for some hands-on experience of the craft. This doubled as excellent location research as the book starts out in the very real Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire and ends in the entirely fictitious Salster – the city in the east of England that I invented for Testament. I read wonderfully informative books like John Hatcher's The Black Death, An intimate History and Ian Mortimer's A Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century both of which have been massively helpful and which still bristle with those little page-marking post it notes. I scoured internet sites for everything from bird folklore and belief in fairies (and some of those sites were, I have to tell you, deeply weird...) to fourteenth century hemp-retting and bread-making techniques. I wrote a lot of notes on index cards and created spider-diagrams of thoughts. I bought maps, learned how to bend Googlemaps to my will and how to access OS maps online to plan a likely route for my hero, cross checking with maps of ecclesiastical sites from the medieval period and making sure that I knew whether what I was looking at was a river (probably there or thereabouts six hundred years ago) or a canal (almost certainly not there six hundred years ago). Eventually, by the middle of September, I knew enough to start writing - though, on average, an hour every writing day is still spent on the internet checking facts. (What kind of knives did fourteenth century people eat with? What was the difference between an eating knife and one used for hunting? What kind of herbs could they grow and what did they have to buy, when were tinder-boxes invented... etc.)

So, to pick up my earlier question – did I keep to my resolutions to write 'straight' historical fiction and to allow others to see the drafts along the way? Well, The Black and The White is now half written and is entirely historical; for the moment, at least, I am a very happy writer of historical novels. And, as for showing my working, as it were, I have kept to that too. Right from the discussion of the initial concept with my editor, Will, back in the summer, I have tried to get over my disinclination to talk about my work. I told my other half what the book was going to be about while we were on holiday in the Alps and she was able to help my thinking along significantly. She read the first few chapters and – in spite of a quite natural wish not to upset me – had helpful and astute things to say. When I was almost half way through, I asked another MNW writer whose work I admire and who had very kindly offered to read for me, to look at the first hundred pages before I sent them to Will. Her comments saw a far taughter, better-thought-through MS making its electronic way to his commissioning editor's desk.

And has it worked, all this unwonted discussion and reading of drafts? All I can say is that Will was very encouraging about what I've done so far and complimentary about the synopsis that I'd sweated blood over. Actually, though I hate to admit it, even the process of writing the synopsis helped as I was able to look at the bare bones of what I had decided the book was about and see that I need to strenghten certain threads which have, maybe, begun to wear a little thin in the narrative. Not, I suspect, that that will stop me bellyaching the next time I have to write one...

So the writing year ended on a very upbeat note which is a great place from which to start work again this week.

Anyway, enough from me. A happy new year to you all and, to those of you who write, may this be a year of fulfillment and success!

10 comments:

Frances Garrood said...

Alis, I think the way you have picked yourself up and got on with the new novel is little short of amazing, and to have done the research and wirtten half of it since mid-September even more so. Testament has obviously had an excellent year, and you have that to be proud of, too. All the very best for 2010. You certainly deserve it.

Alis said...

Thanks very much Frances. All the best to you, too!

Akasha Savage said...

It was lovely to read your post. It sounded very positive and upbeat. All the best for The Black and The White in 2010. (If you need another pair of eyes to read it, you know where I am!) xx

Alis said...

Thanks, Akasha, much appreciated!

Tim Stretton said...

What a very heartening piece, Alis! I'm looking forward to seeing how The Black and the White unfolds.

And for what it's worth, I thought Testament a much richer piece of fiction than Child 44...

Alis said...

Thanks Tim. I must confess I've not read Child 44 - not because it won but because the subject matter fails to appeal. But thanks for the kind comment!

Frances Garrood said...

Alis, it occurs to me that unless I missed something, I don't believe you ever publicised the (pretty major) triumphs of Testament last year. Waverton Good Read? Smith's bestsellers list? These are things to boast about, and on the main blog, too! You've done so well, but seem to have kept it all to yourself. Please share good news next time - we need to hear it!

Alis said...

Hi Frances - I did put news of both those things up on my own blog when they happened but I must confess it didn't occur to me to put them on the collective MNW blog.. You're right, I should have.

Karen said...

You had an amazing year (well-deserved) and here's to more of the same in 2010 :o)

Alis said...

Thanks Karen - I hope your 2010 is going to be amazing too. Here's to good news from the Lovely New Agent.