To celebrate the paperback launch of The Eliza Doll tomorrow (and the e-book relaunch), here is a slideshow of book-related images, accompanied by the clear voice of Emma Fee singing Missing You, which seemed to me a perfect soundtrack to The Eliza Doll. I hear Emma, from Hull as the voice of the young Ellie in the book. You can buy Emma Fee’s beautiful album Too Busy Watching Invisible Things here.
The photographs were taken with my new iPhone, from inside our moving (rattling) van. Please excuse the squashed bugs on the windscreen!
The lovely lanes of South Lincolnshire on a blue and yellow day.
When writing a novel I often end up removing whole chapters, or even a series of chapters from the finished manuscript, because those elements are not necessary to move the story forward. It’s not as if I don’t like the elements I’ve removed, simply that they may be over-indulgent on my part. I once submitted an early draft of The Last Time We Saw Marion to an agent. At the time, the manuscript had an extra part about Sarah when she goes to live in Ireland. I so enjoyed writing about Sarah’s newly-renovated cottage and the furniture therein, but I knew in my heart that it wasn’t doing anything for the pace of the story. The response from the agent was that they felt the literary fiction had become chic.lit at that point. I had diverted from the path I had chosen to write on. This could happen the opposite way round.
A great piece of advice I was given when I first began to write seriously was “Make every word count” and I’ve tried to stick with it ever since. I’ve removed the POV of one character from my latest novel with Inspired Quill, Of His Bones (to be published in March next year), and a lot of the history of Maria because they were superfluous to the progression of the story. The finished book is shorter but I hope will have more impact.
I have so many ‘outtakes’ from my 5 novels that I could write several short novellas derived from my books. Here are three samples of outtakes.
Outtake #1 – from The Foam of The Sea (due out 2018) Flodigarry, Isle of Skye, September 2015. [I decided to keep the POV to one character, Lauren, at different stages in her life.]
Reluctantly, Murdo closes the book, marking his page with a till receipt from the store at the ferry port in Uig. It always gives him a pang of homesickness that the place has the same name as the township of his birth: Uig on the Isle of Lewis. He’s gone from being an Outer-Hebridean to an Inner. He’s got to admit that conducting his business is easier living closer to the mainland, but he still misses home.
His mind continues to cogitate on parallels as he replaces the book on the shelf in his large, sunny kitchen and brings his cup and plate to the sink before shuffling his arms back into the sleeves of his overalls, ready to resume his task in the workshop outside.
The book is about his various ancestors’ journeys by sea from the Scottish islands to Alba Nuadh where they hoped to begin new lives. His great-aunt Isabella was one of them, married to a MacDonald at only fifteen. Family lore says she eloped with him to Canada after her mother died. She left Murdo’s namesake, his great-great-grandfather, with her baby sister to look after alone. Consequently the original Murdo remarried, a young woman named Catriona whom Murdo’s niece is named after.
There is a photograph of Isabella and her new husband in one of the island museums. Bloody MacDonalds. The name’s like a red rag to a bull to Murdo, for reasons of his more recent history.
In a tiny way Murdo’s emigrated himself, albeit only across the Minch, and that in order to try and improve the lives of his loved ones (he had been perfectly happy and comfortable where he was). But he is thinking more at the moment about the thousands of refugees currently attempting perilous sea journeys from East to West to escape life-threatening danger and extreme poverty, many of them dying along the way as his ancestors had done. Thrown overboard into the sea. You can’t turn on the news without hearing about the bodies of children; it sickens Murdo to the stomach.
Outtake #2 – from The Last Time We Saw Marion (Inspired Quill 2014) Pottersea, East Yorkshire, 1989. Lisa. [Lisa’s POV doesn’t appear in the final book]
Much later that evening, I lay on mine and Cal’s bed reading the latest instalment of Cal’s current novel. It was called ‘An Angel Said’. About a woman who claimed to have a relationship with an unearthly being. I’d just reached a crucial part in the story, when Alice appeared in my bedroom doorway, making me jump. I hadn’t heard her coming down the stairs.
“What is it, Alice?” I reluctantly placed the pages I was holding face down on the bed, imagining she wanted to chat some more about the picnic tomorrow. To be honest I was enjoying the time alone while Cal was out. I’d never had a problem with my own company. Solitude was a rare gift now. Alice hesitated, sensing my annoyance. Then she took an audible breath and marched across the carpet. “It’s that funny girl in my room again, Mummy!” She leaned forward. She cupped a hand over her mouth and whispered close to my ear. “She’s waiting in my room and she won’t go away this time.”
Standing back, she looked at me expectantly. I felt nervous, it was obvious she wasn’t lying or playing make-believe. She was deadly serious. I sat up and stared at her. “What do you mean?”
“What do you mean, what do I mean?” Alice’s eyes were round. I reached out and took hold of her hand. “Have you seen this girl in your room before?”
“You KNOW I have, Mummy!” Alice exploded. “You NEVER listen to me! I told you about that girl when I came in your room before. Cal believed me about the girl but you didn’t. Well it’s the same girl and she’s come back again.”
“Did Cal see her when he went up with you last time?” Goose pimples prickled up my arms. I’d forgotten to ask him. “No,” Alice sounded disappointed. “She’d gone by the time we got back up there. That’s why I asked her to wait for you this time.”
I felt my mouth go dry. “Oh Lord. You didn’t need to do that, you know.” I wished Cal would get back from his interview. I was a pregnant woman, I should be taking it easy at the end of a stressful day. But Alice pulled at my hand, trying to get me off the bed. “Come on, Mummy; she’s not going to wait all night, is she?” I dearly hoped not. I swung my legs over and played for time. “Are you frightened of her, Alice?” Alice looked thoughtful. “Not really,” she shook her head a little. “But I just don’t like the way she stares. She never looks at me, she just stares at nothing and never speaks.”
I tried to disassociate the manuscript I’d been reading from what Alice was telling me now. Could this house – or more accurately the attic – be haunted? Was that why Sara had been so reluctant for Alice to have her room up there? “Come on, Mum!” Alice demanded again. And so there was nothing for it but to go. If the ‘funny girl’ didn’t frighten Alice then she ought not to frighten me. Still, I was mother-enough to tell my daughter to wait in the bend of the attic staircase while I bravely went forth alone, even though I’d much rather have had her hand to hold. “Go on then!” Alice commanded. She folded her arms when she noticed that I hesitated at the bend in the stairs. Her bedroom door was wide open. Oh Lord. As soon as I reached the top I saw her – the ‘funny girl’. She stood at the foot of Alice’s bed. She wasn’t funny at all. A sob rose in my throat, along with a wave of nausea. She wasn’t funny, she was – Marion?
Outtake#3 from Of His Bones (Inspired Quill 2017) London, November 1990. Maria. [The detail of Maria’s history was pure indulgence in this book, which is set from the perspective of a different character. But I definitely see a novella in the future!]
Her father drove Maria away from the hospital. They didn’t go home but headed directly for the railway station. Joseph was a self-contained man who dished out emotion sparingly. His eldest daughter knew she’d always been his favourite; unfathomable little scrap, he had called her. He said that to witness her breakdown after giving up her baby had almost broken his heart. Still, he was a Yorkshire man, and nothing would keep him down for long. She knew he’d plod on, deal unflappably with his imperious wife, his vain second daughter and Maria’s cherished youngest sister.
“If you’re not going to see that babe, lass, then neither am I. Call it solidarity if you like. When things get tough remember that I’m still behind you. You can always come home, you know.” Maria was choked. She didn’t know how she was going to manage in London alone, but making a determined effort to begin a career was the one choice she could make for herself now. And she did want a life.
She moved into the Islington flat her mother had inherited many years before. Her sister also stayed there sometimes. Daily, Maria travelled on the Northern Line to the offices (a room above a pub) of the Blue Fish Theatre Company, who were putting on her first completed play, Sea Music. She’d written the story when she was pregnant. The play won a competition. Part of the prize was a job with Blue Fish. Maria would have to participate in all areas of production, from helping to print leaflets to pushing them through doors; sewing costumes and painting scenery and moving furniture around. But she would be a bona fide member of the company and receive a tiny percentage of any profits.
Danny Brett was the founder and director of Blue Fish. The first time she saw him, Maria’s heart lurched. He had a hunk of hair that kept falling over his forehead, and it reminded her of Cal. She’d come all this way to escape… Yet though she found it painful, it was comforting at the same time. She was allowed to have feelings for Danny. It wasn’t until they were casting her own play that Danny finally seemed (or deigned) to notice her. “Maria, Maria, I’ve just met a girl called Maria. You have the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen.” He was looking directly into them. Maria didn’t object when he pulled her close and kissed her and she didn’t complain when his hand strayed to her breast. She tried not to remember the hungry baby’s ferocious mouth, drawing milk from that breast. It was someone else’s baby, a girl named Marianne Fairchild, not Maria.
“You’re as thin as a wraith, a beautiful mist of a woman…” Danny’s words continued to slip out of his mouth like wine from a jug. She took pride in managing to maintain her target weight of seven stone, but it was difficult. She didn’t think she would ever enjoy eating. It was simply a methodical and necessary activity, the effort of it helped keep her focussed on life. By conquering the power of food rather than the hunger, she could remain in control. Danny’s words ceased as if someone had switched him off. His mouth plunged back onto hers. She tried to give herself up to feelings, but her body remained detached, in much the same way as it did when eating. Still, she saw this as progress in the life of Maria Child. When he took a break from kissing, she reached up and lifted the hair off his forehead. Now she could feel emotion.
“Ah,” he’d seen the tears. His hand strayed down her back, catching in her hair. Disentangling his fingers, he fondled her bottom. She felt nothing again and fixed her eyes on the soft brown of his wayward lock, waiting for it to fall back across his face. Cal’s hair used to do that.
I think I read something recently about science having discovered evidence for a parallel Universe. Whether there’s proof or not, I’ve always half-sensed such a possibility.
From a young age I’ve been drawn to vividly corporeal books with a sense of otherness. Often the wildness of landscape and the give-and-take of the sea is a gateway to the more tenuous strands of existence; dreams, ghosts, super-nature in fiction. Where there is light there is darkness. In Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights the enduring relationship even after death, powered by elemental forces, between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw is so compelling it subsumes Heathcliff completely.
I must admit Emily Bronte’s darkly passionate novel strongly influenced my book, The Last Time We Saw Marion, (Inspired Quill 2014). Cal is something of a contemporary Heathcliff and Marion just wants to be part of ‘The Everything’, as does Cathy. Nature is dark, after all. Everything repeatedly dies, only to be reborn. The twisted relationship of Heathcliff and Cathy is redeemed by the next generation, and in my sequel to ‘Marion’, Of His Bones (out with Inspired Quill in March 2017), I try resolve Cal and Marion’s life stories in the same way.
Contemporary writers have influenced me, too. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry are both supernatural, at the same time dealing with human issues. Claire and Henry meet at different points in time, when they are different ages, yet at the heart of the novel is a very real and every-day relationship that super-nature can’t make any better or worse. Elspeth dies at the beginning of Her Fearful Symmetry and hovers around in the background of the story until she is able to make herself manifest again, and the longing soon turns dark. In film (I’m thinking Truly, Madly, Deeply) and fiction the theme of wanting a dead loved one back so badly that they are re-conjured is recurring. Niffenegger deals with it in both books, as does another author who is a favourite of mine, Julie Myerson.
In Myerson’s novel The Story of You a woman’s baby has died and her grief sparks off a series of passionate but at the same time impossible, it turns out, meetings with a former lover. Or are they? If there are parallel universes, it would make complete sense. I touch on this theme in both my second and third novels, Another Rebecca (Inspired Quill 2015) and The Eliza Doll (Wild Pressed Books 2016). In the first example, Bex’s fiancé died days before their wedding, when she was nineteen. She determines to remain in her ‘Great Grief’ for the rest of her life and her decision affects her daughter, Rebecca. Sebastian is a powerful, ongoing presence in both of their lives. Can grief keep a passed loved one earthbound? When I had lost my first baby in 1984 I stared so hard at the prepared cradle I almost believed I could make her appear in it. Instead, more than 30 years later, my character Ellie in The Eliza Doll goes on to give fictional birth to the baby I lost.
The theme of lost motherhood evoking powerful consequences also runs through The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. A couple move out to the wilderness of 1920s Alaska, separately mourning their stillborn child. One night they build a small snow-figure and a short while later a child appears at their door. The story is inspired by a Russian folk tale. Absence of parenthood (usually motherhood) and the coming-to-life of a constructed son or daughter is also the thread of fairy tales such as Pinnochio and The Gingerbread Man. An enduring theme that I well understand even though I’m a mother of four grown children. The one that is lost can never be replaced. In The Eliza Doll, Ellie encounters her daughter when she needs to the most, through sheer force of will.
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I’ve been writing books for years. In fact, since I was ten. Before that I wrote poems. I could still recite a few that I wrote when I was seven, but I won’t, I promise. In my twenties I wrote the first draft of what eventually became my first novel. I attempted to resurrect it a few times over the ensuing years but at the same time I built up an art practice, and had babies, and did other stuff, and the novel gathered dust. My marriage ended and I spent ten years as a single parent of four young children. I raised them and made art and worked as a teacher, and occasionally got ‘my novel’ out and fiddled around with it.
I met up with a male friend from my school days, who had also become a single parent. We got married and lived for a while in a huge house with six mainly-teenage children. My job as a teacher ended (cuts!) and my husband said, yeah, go for it, write. That was in 2010.
It was easier to write on a laptop than the notebooks and typewriter the first draft had been written in. I renamed what had been The Drowning Man (spot the U2 influence?) The Last Time We Saw Marion. By the summer of 2010 I mistakenly believed my (let’s face it, 20-years-old, isn’t that long enough?) novel was ready for submission. Who wouldn’t fail to see what an amazing story it was, how well-written!?
All of the agents to whom I submitted my novel failed to see it! But I gleaned some useful feedback from my many rejections. I examined every slightest morsel of feedback from every angle and made revisions where I considered their responses fair. I saw that I could make my novel better.
Late in 2011, I joined an online community of writers and received in-depth critique of individual chapters of my work. I can’t thank those friends from the now-defunct Authonomy enough for their help and support. A small group of us decided to set off down the road to submission together, calling ourselves the Yellow Brick Road. (I was Dorothy, AKA Dotty.) Working as a team, we shared experiences and contacts, and generally cheered each other on. We lived in diverse parts of the world: Senegal, Jerusalem, and in the UK, Buxton, Lake District and Lincoln. At the end of the road two of us signed up with small publishers and two of us signed with agents. One dropped out along the way. In 2012 we had a memorable get-together in the Peak District.
Also in 2012, I attended a Random House Writers Academy course with one of my favourite authors, Audrey Niffenegger. A group of us workshopped our novels-in-progress with her and learned how she tackled the complicated timeline of The Time Traveller’s Wife and the multiple viewpoints of Her Fearful Symmetry. Audrey takes eight years to complete her novels, and it’s not going to stop anyone waiting for the next one to come out (2018). I keep in touch via social media with some of my fellow course participants. Several are now published by small presses, one with a large publishing house, and a couple of others signed up with agents.
At the time I received my offer of publication in 2013, my full manuscript had been requested by three independent publishing houses. One had requested my full for the second time after initially rejecting it. I took the feedback in the rejection seriously and considered how I could improve the pace of my story. I made some revisions and informed the editor of what I’d done, and she asked me to send it back over. I sent it back, and by this time there were still two presses interested in publishing my book.
I was on holiday in Majorca with my mother and my daughter when I got the offer from Inspired Quill. I thought long and hard about committing what was at that point my life’s work to a small press that I had never heard of. I weighed up the options. I was not going to get the advance of money that every aspiring author dreams of. The royalties I would receive for each book sold would not amount to much.
But what I would (and did) get were a series of further edits on my book, mutual back-and-forth edits which improved it even more – and for me, the quality of the writing is as important as the story and the book’s potential saleability – I’m in it for the long run. I write literary fiction, though I like to think my books are accessible to anyone who’s willing to tackle some complexity and deep thinking within the plot.
Signing with this particular small press would also result in a beautifully-produced book with a professional cover design, and printing costs, all funded by my publisher. From signing, to the first box of books, equates to at least £2000 in monetary terms, and that doesn’t take into account what would have been the cost of the repeated rounds of editing. The small press publisher contributes these services for free. I take immense satisfaction from working with an editor, perhaps my willingness to work with others on every possible way of improving my work comes from my background in Fine Art. During the process of the BA and Master’s degree, ‘group crits’ are an essential means of personal development.
The £2000+ costs of proofreading, cover design and initial printing, not to mention any publicity costs, are what I would otherwise have had to spend myself to come up with a comparable finished product, (which I didn’t have!)
The feeling when you open your first box of newly published books is hard to describe, but anyone who has had this experience will know what I mean. The Last Time We Saw Marion became physical in April 2014. Another Rebecca was published by Inspired Quill in 2015
In November this year, The Eliza Doll (currently out on Kindle), comes out in paperback with Wild Pressed Books, the independent press I’ve set up with my husband, Phil Scott-Townsend. In March, 2017, my fourth novel, Of His Bones, is due to be published by Inspired Quill.
Wild Pressed Books has also published two other books this year: Davíð Rafn Kristjánsson’s Burning Karma (launched at the Embassy of Iceland, London, March 2016) and Holly Bidgood’s The Eagle and The Oystercatcher, is to be launched at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August. Phil and I promise our authors unlimited editing services, painstakingly carried out by me, flawless formatting by Phil, a professional cover design by the award-winning Jane Dixon Smith and a professional proof read by the trusted Julia Gibbs. We also promise them a decent launch, and aim to give them at least one bookshop signing, (to date, we aren’t letting anyone down) and a follow-up targeted paid promotion on Facebook to get the ball rolling. Davíð is currently making a name for himself in Iceland, and he did extremely well at his signing in Waterstones Nottingham.
Why did I decide to go back to Inspired Quill to publish my fourth book? Because I value the editing and production services of my small publisher. Yes, I could do it myself, as could have the authors who have signed up with the small (tiny) press Phil and I have set up. But for me it isn’t about having all the control, it’s about working in conjunction with, to produce the best and most professional outcome. This can be achieved in different ways for different writers, and the small-press way is the best way for me.