Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Ask yourself this

I was reading The Guardian recently and wondering why the Review section doesn't have a column for aspiring writers. Actually, that's a bit of a fib. I know why because I proposed such a piece and they politely declined, saying they prefer to commission in-house or to work with people they already have a relationship with.

However, my point still stands. Where - blogs aside - are the advice columns from aspiring writers? The ones who don't say 'this is what worked for me and here's the proof', but dosay 'this never worked for me at all' or even 'this seems to be working for me although you won't find my books on the shelves yet'?

Despite the well-worn advice to be original, I suspect most writers are looking for a route into publication that has been at least tiptoed through by somebody else. And yet, ironically, each of us is nothing like anybody else. Which is why I thought I'd use this post to do the kind of interview I'd like to see in a writing magazine.

These are the rules:
a) No links.
b) No plugs.
c) Ask yourself and answer the questions you think other people (especially other writers) might want to know about you.
d) Be honest.

Here we go then...

1. What sort of writer are you?
I ask myself that everyday. My standard response is that I write fiction, non-fiction and comedy. But the truth is that I don't know what sort of writer I am. I write for fun / personal fulfilment, I write for cash and I wrote for ambition. Strangely - or luckily - for me, these competing masters rarely conflict. It's as if the respective muses have organised a timetable. So, short answer: I haven't figured that one out yet.

2. Will you ever self-publish a novel again?
Previously, I'd have said no, as it was a labour of love and relied on some expert help from friends. However, lately I've been thinking about why I started writing in the first place and that was for two reasons: to work through the story myself and to have my work read. It's only time, money and my expectations of what conventional publication will do for my work that keep me rooting for the traditional model. Plus I'd love to do a book signing.

3. You're working on your fifth novel - does it get easier?
Yes, because I think you recognise the process and you learn to trust yourself and the muse more. The story evolves and sometimes it goes places you hadn't envisaged. That can be scary and frustrating, but I think it's preferable to having a contrived tale that only meets your requirements. I can't speak for other writers but I definitely do not write only for myself. 

4. What does success look like to you?
Five novels, five ISBNs and a five-figure sum. Also, the experience of collaboration on projects that take me into unfamiliar territory - plays, TV and more radio. I'm both fascinated and envious by the way some writers and performers end up in interesting places because they move in circles where those opportunities are possible. They get to extend their boundaries and develop more of their potential. Writing, as we know, is a solitary business much of the time, so having the right people around you can create unexpected adventures.

5. If money wasn't an issue, would you still write fiction, non-fiction and comedy?
Yes, with changes. I'd pick the freelance work carefully, I'd concentrate on the novels and I'd develop my own comedy projects (and complete others I started way back). I'd also love to do more gratis work to give other people a leg up.

6. How many book rejections have you had overall?
In excess of 100, spread across three novels and four humour books. And yes, that has stung a little over the course of the years. On the plus side, I saved on a roll or two of wallpaper in the downstairs loo. (And loo roll too.)

7. Social media - Holy Grail or crock of crap?
Holy crap. I think my mindset has changed around social media and for me it's more a means of connecting with writers and readers than a PR or sales portal. Apart from blogging and tweeting, I wouldn't miss the rest.

8. What advice would you give to your younger writer self?
Be courageous. Take chances. And, most importantly, live fully so that your writing has maturity and depth. Also, while I have his ear, learn quickly and move on. Don't get stuck in fixed ideas about writing, people or even yourself. Make life an adventure sooner and stop waiting for something interesting to happen. (Although, frankly, that did result in an interesting book.)

9. Any regrets as a writer?
Well, apart from whatever you can pick from the bones of my previous answers, there's the toll it takes on the other areas of your life.

Plus, I'd heard of golf widows before, but I didn't know about writing widows.
Writing is part of living, and not the other way around.

Genuinely, I regret not being able to help other writers more and vice versa. I think we either gravitate to other writers at our level or those are just the people we encounter. Sometimes it can seem like a wonderfully supportive club of fellow creatives; sometimes it feels like a buzzy competitive space; and some days it just feels like we're rats trapped in a bucket, trying to bite the hands of passing agents and editors as they waft overhead, out of reach.

Mostly I regret not getting more of an education - and by that I don't just mean qualifications. I'm talking about a greater awareness of culture and having greater creative aspirations and ambitions from a younger age. Fundamentally, I think, it's a class thing.

10.  Do you actually enjoy being a writer because it doesn't always sound like it?
Absolutely. I enjoy all of it in a way - even the despondency of rejection, the agonies of editing (and then re-editing) and the confrontational challenge of the blank page. We are fortunate to live in a place and a time when we can express our ideas so freely and quickly, and reach some kind of audience within minutes. We take that for granted, but it's a privilege many others don’t have.

Okay, I'm done. So, I have two gauntlets to cast down for you:

Firstly, to my fellow Strictly Writers, to interview themselves in a similar fashion.

Secondly, to our readers. I'll answer any writing-related question about my writing practice, my experience of the world of publishing (mostly from the outside!), or about the wonderful world of freelancing.

Don't be shy now.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Howdy Amigos!

Howdy amigos! Happens that you’ve caught me in a dreadful happy mood. You see, those good folks at Alfie Dog Fiction published my first short story collection, ‘Sweet Talk’ on 24th September. Finally, after years of grafting, little old me will have a real book signing – ain’t that just as exciting as any old rodeo? ‘Sweet Talk’ is a collection of 21 feel-good stories, guaranteed to leave you feeling as happy as a mustang off its reins. There’s young and mature romance, sibling rivalry, humour and plenty of tales starring pesky animals like cats, stick insects and birds.  That’s why I love writing short stories – I can experiment with any subject matter or genre.

Hence the Old West American tone of this piece. Recently, I woke up with the voice of – now whadda us modern folks call it? – a cowboy in my head. So, goddamn it, I created two characters, Connie and Elijah Boswell. Dreadful in love they were, during the gold rush of 1849. That lady was as fine as cream gravy. Their wicked neighbour Nathaniel was one to watch – a regular wolf, after gambling and whiskey. But good old Elijah, in his broad-rimmed hat, kept that particular outlaw in check. In fact, Nathaniel could have easily ended up in the bone orchard, thanks to Elijah’s rifle.

Hell, yeah, more fun than a hog in mud, I had, writing that story, set near Sacramento River. And fair dumbfounded I was, when The People’s Friend bought it.

So, listen up, y’all - what I’m saying is: go for it. Have fun. Let yourself loose. One story from ‘Sweet Talk’ is set just after the Second World War. Hell, I ain’t never written nothing earlier than the eighties, prior to that. But thanks to some fancy information I found about soldiers and rationing coupons, it all fell into place – same with two stories all about Irish luck and a Scottish poet. I just slapped on my research hat.

I’ve wrote stories about kids, men and women, sexy santas, divorced parents and awkward bosses… Don’t limit yourself. Vary settings, eras, characters and themes. Draw on your own life and that of others.

Most importantly, write from that there heart. Makes me sound as sweet as my ma’s plum pudding to say that, don’t it? But I speak the truth.

So, get a wiggle on and have a go. Best of luck folks! And if you know someone who’d just love a collection of warm, heartfelt stories to dip into, why not order them a copy of ‘Sweet Talk’?

Samantha Tonge has sold almost 80 stories to women’s magazines and her work appears regularly in The People’s Friend. She also writes romantic comedies and her agent is currently subbing her latest novel, ‘Doubting Abbey’, to publishers.

         For more information about Samantha why not visit:

‘Sweet Talk’ is available here.

Good news alert!

”Samantha has just agreed a 3 book deal with CarinaUK, Harlequin’s digital-first imprint. Her debut novel, “Doubting Abbey” will be published late autumn 2013.”

Monday, September 16, 2013

You are never alone when you have a book to keep you company by Mary Dinan

As I walked by the sea I saw a solitary figure, head down and fully focused. I wondered if she was lonely but then as I got closer could see she was reading a book. She looked as if she was enjoying the experience. I breathed a sigh of relief. I knew she wasn't lonely. How can you be lonely with a good read? She had entered into another world.

It was then I had a thought. 'You are never alone if you have a good book.' A book can fill almost every void. It can advise, comfort, entertain, inspire, and provide a means of escape. A book can change your life and has changed people's lives. God released one of the most read books in the world, The Holy Bible which has changed countless lives.

A book is an ever reliable friend that you can pick up and put down at will. A good book can really lift the spirit no end; even a cover on a book can lift your mood in an instant.

It's a great gift for a child to learn to love books from a very early age, as they will never be lonely while they have a good book and the thrill of going to a library as a child has stayed with me even to this day. I remember the joy of finding another Famous Five book by Enid Blyton and how I loved escaping into the world of ginger beer and Timmy the dog; joining the children who went on adventures.

Growing up, I remember taking a great interest in self-help books. I read them all, Dale Carnegie - How To Win Friends And Influence People, Wayne Dyer - Pulling Your Own Strings, Susan Jeffers - Feel The fear And Do It Anyway and the list goes on...As an only child these books were my big brothers and sisters. I turned to them for advice when there was no family about.
Books and reading are a gift.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A literary great is laid to rest

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney's last words in a text message to his wife were 'Noli timere' - Latin for 'do not be afraid.' His recent passing has had a huge impact on the literary world which is so much poorer now he has gone.

His death has left a void which will never be filled by even the most talented of writers. But Heaney, the legend, still lives on in the hearts of many, as does his poetry with its lyrical beauty. A man who never let go of his roots, Seamus’ observations on life in my native Northern Ireland put the country on a world pedestal for scrutiny.

Heaney, a Catholic nationalist raised in an area called Mossbawn in South Derry (county) had views which clashed with the majority of pupils in my school. When our English teacher, ironically called Mrs Heaney (no relation!) introduced Digging to us, we read it as townie Protestant-like pariahs looking down on this poor rural nationalist world. We learned about his fervently Irish background and the fact he’d written the following shocking words: Be advised my passport's green. No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen.

The life that we were reading about was a world away from ours: as middle class Protestants, none of us could identify in any way with potatoes, bogs, Mass, rosaries, or priests. Granted, he wrote at a time when Catholics felt marginalised, like second class citizens, but with his unkempt white hair and warm smile, there was something so endearing about him. We didn’t study any more of his poetry, so it’s fair to say, we only really skimmed the surface.

However, his poetry become more and more alive as I matured and studied at university, and I soon grew to identify with his sense of loss, his love of nature and his reflections on childhood. Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for what the committee described as "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

He was universally loved around the world and no one could deny that. Often people don't get excited about a celebrity until that person has passed away. Then the bandwagon is filled and it's on its way. Like Kurt Cobain or Michael Jackson: suddenly, a slew of super fans come out of the closet. Thankfully, with Heaney, we have always loved and cherished him, as a fellow countryman, a patriot of poetry and a lover of language.

I must admit I only found Heaney’s poetry mildly interesting as a student at grammar school. Yes, shame on me. But his poetry grew on me the more I studied English Literature until I came to truly love his work. And when that alert came through from Press Association, while I was in Dublin, not only did I feel a sense of sadness and loss, but I started to sift through his poetry. Death of a Naturalist, Human Chain, Beowolf, North. The images lit up. I read slowly and I realised his work is stunningly beautful.

It gave me shivers up my spine as I read: Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops. And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him. For the first time in six weeks. Paler now.

I’m so disappointed I never the chance to meet him. It just wasn’t to be. Last Monday, he was laid to rest in the land which had inspired him. The cortege through the village of Bellaghy was headed by a lone piper, mourners snaking their way along the country roads. Earlier his friends and family bade farewell to him at a funeral service in Dublin.

This video, courtesy of my newspaper The Mid-Ulster Mail, shows the literary great being laid to rest…..

Friday, September 6, 2013

Who do I think I am?

Smiling, it appears, is not an option.

Well, this is me, sitting in the attic and doing my best to look authorial and as non unphotogenic as possible.

I'm woking with a client at the moment to bring her short story collection to life and what struck me most of all was the authenticity of the emotions on the page. I mean, I know we talkabout being authentic and moving the reader and all that groovy stuff. But I, as the reader, felt something when I read her words. I laughed out loud several times and I choked a little when I read about death and loss. (Which, if you know me, despite my track record in that department, is not my usual response.)

So, what gives?

Well, I think what gave was the pretence, which can happen when you create fiction a lot of the time, that this whole business of creating characters and words and worlds is all in the mind. 

It isn't - that's bullshit. If there's no emotion, the characters don't live. They simply exist. And we've all known, at some time or other, how soulless that can be. And while we're ensouling our characters, sometimes we need to ensoul ourselves. To really inhabit the landscapes of our creation and to put purselves in touch with the source of it all. Because, often, that source is our own experience.

I had a dream last night, which has inspired me to write this post. 

In the dream, I'm a small child, taking an exam. To my right is a boy I knew from school and he's continually looking over at my efforts to see what I'll write. He's smug because, I think, he's already finished the paper. Or perhaps he isn't taking the exam. Anyway, I ask him politely to mind his own business, but he persists. 

Finally, after maybe the fourth time, I say out loud (in the dream): "That's it. Enough. I'm not doing this." And I close the exercise book, push back my chair and stand up. Smug kid is a little taken aback, but he sits and watches me. Another boy to my left mutters that it's the wrong thing to do. However, I have the bit between my teeth now (in a way I never actually did as a child), and I make my way to the front of the hall where an English teacher towers over me and asks what I'm doing. I explain that I've quit the exam and he tells me it will cost £100 to do it again, and immediately starts planning how he could get funding for me. (He was a great teacher in the real world too.)

I push open a door and find I'm in a deserted London, close to Bank. As I looked down the gentle slope of the road, all I can see is grey stone buildings. And there's this tremendous sense of setting off in a new direction without security or community, and I can hear the echo of that other boy who was to the left of me, telling me not to do it. So I smile a little and start walking.

I doubt this is a dream that Messrs. Jung or Freud need trouble themselves with. As a writer, what struck me was how intense the emotions were. That sense of blood pumping through my veins and a maelstrom of conflicting ideas and fears, all subsumed by my will. 

In the end, that's all it was. No direction, no plan, guarantee, no strategy and no angle. Just the will to move forward. You know, I think there's something in that.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Much ado about not much

It's been a funny week. By which, I mean, it's been an unfunny week. Which, paradoxically, is still quite funny to me.

The new book, The Caretaker, is mapped out and the characters are taking their own sweet time to get where I want them to be. To be fair to my imaginary friends, I've been neglecting them in favour of a self-pubbed novel full of other imaginary friends, Covenant. You can read about my adventures with the Kindle Select giveaway over here.

The unfunny / funny parts?

Four book rejections this week. Four. And one of those was for a non-fiction comedy writing book I'd proposed. When your book is rejected before it's even written, that's a caution to you!

It has to be said, though, that one of my rejections was as positive a rejection as can be:

'While there was a lot I enjoyed about your submission, ultimately, I did not feel convinced I could find a publisher for it and therefore I don't feel able to offer you representation for this project.'

That's great, right? Sure, it is. Except, if this agent isn't convinced they could find a publisher - and they're a top-flight agency - what hope is there for the others?

Add to that the scumbags who still email me in the name of my deceased brother, eight years on, because one of his online betting account providers (whose account I changed to my email in order to close it) passed the email address on.

And it would be easy to sit and await the orange bird of despondency (second cousin, once removed, to the bluebird of happiness). Only, even without the horrors of the news and the loss now of both Iain Banks and Seamus Heaney, let's face it, if those are my biggest issues, life must be pretty good. In fact, it is.

If my past selves (interpret as you wish, but I mean the me I was at various times in my life) could see all the writing and the stories to be written he'd be totally stoked. He'd be thrilled that I chose to become a writer and remind me that he's in a far worse place, even if he does have a full head of hair and fewer battle scars.

In a sense, we are always indebted to our own past - to the courageous choices we made and, from a different angle, those times we flew a flag of convenience. Our futures and our stories are dependent upon the people we are today and what we do with the opportunities we have at hand (or actively create).

If you've recently had a submission rejected, or your characters aren't playing ball, or life just sucks like a lemon taster working overtime, you have my empathy. If the muse doesn't answer your calls and the world can't see how great your work or your potential are, that can really sting.

So, what are you going to do about it? 

Me, I'm going to write. Why would I do otherwise?

Here's Howard Jones to play us out:

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Get shirty!

Is it me, or is it hot in here?

Unless you live in an igloo or on a desert island, without WiFi, a LAN connection, TV reception or a newspaper, you'll know that the prolific and celebrated author Elmore Leonard died this week.

Alongside his frankly phenomenal creative output, he is also well known for his ten rules of writing, which I will repeat for you here with additional comments:

1. Never open a book with weather, even if it is a dark and stormy night.

2. Avoid prologues, which knackers every novel I've ever written - bar one.

3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. But what about my whispering, gasping and growling, he muttered.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said” … he admonished gravely. Erm, well said?

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. Do interrobangs count? Or should that be

6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose." All of a sudden I have a sinking feeling that all hell will be let loose in my next edit.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Damn straight.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Finally, one I've often adhered to, only to find that readers feel they can't picture my characters clearly.

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things. Which leaves descriptions of...?

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. You mean they skip parts of a book? That's just terrible.

Okay, those are EL's rules and here are some of mine.

1. Stand by your writing. That means owning it, even the sucky stuff. Everything you've ever written has made you the writer you are now.

2. Never justify your words  - and avoid explaining them, if you can. Once you start defending  something you've written - which is, after all, a collection of structured squiggles and lines, you've missed the point.

3. If an idea for a piece of writing takes you to a dark place or makes you feel something, go there.

4. Don't spend time trying to be everybody's friend. Firstly, it's not possible. And secondly, you're not writing for everybody - not unless you're writing a dictionary.

5. Just give it a go. Try, draft, edit and maybe even bin. But don't sit and wonder what you could have achieved. That way lies sadness. 

Anyhow, that's enough of me and my made-up-on-the-spot rules, what writing rules do you have?