No going back

It’s been a crazy week or so as preview copies of my book have been sent out.  It is no longer in my hands – my words belong to the outside world now.  This is were I wonder if the 2632 edits were enough?   My red pen is at rest, even of my heart is racing.

I have been more than a little overwhelmed by the interest it has generated.  Over the next few weeks there will a fair bit of press and PR about the book, as my diary fills with interviews and photoshoots.

It’s been a very unexpected pleasure to get so much interest from papers, TV and radio, both in Ireland and the UK before the book even hits the shelves.

I was pleased to just get the chance to write it!  I was delighted to even get a copy!  It seems the issues I address in the book – caring for parents, dealing with the pressures that entails, and the issues of grief – have resonated with those who have read it. Everyone has a parent, and I’m delighted that my own experiences are making others think about their own situation.

In fact, tIMG_4729here has been so much interest that it has been released early, and is now in the shops a week or so earlier than planned. (I was alerted to this fact by a flurry of texts from friends who are spotting it in bookshops -like a new treasure hunt game!). For various reasons I haven’t been able to get out to a shop yet, so I giggle over every new text and photo I am sent, safe in the knowledge I can’t flick through them and feel my red pen twitch.

 

So this is it.  There is no going back. Let the fun begin….

 

Who knew writing was so chatty?

As a writer, I would always have categorised my job in the lower end of the companionship scale. I work from home, writing donor communications for charities, or writing freelance articles, or writing a book, and there are days I talk to the dog and no-one else (except myself).  Writing the book was a soul-searching, soul-destroying experience as I paced my kitchen like a caged cat, looking for inspiration and finding solace in the chocolate cupboard.   At times is was downright LONELY.

But now that the book is finished, and ‘in the public domain’ as it were, I’ve discovered that writing is a joyous, chatty, busy world of people!   My wonderful publishers are filling my diary with book signings, and launches, and events where I have to leave my table, put on lipstick, and converse with company. The PR company (the lovely Plunket PR) are filling my diary with radio interviews (can’t wait to speak on Ryan Tubridy’s radio show), magazine and newspaper interviews and I get to talk, talk, talk to people, people, people.

IMG_4713This makes me very happy as a) I love talking and b) I love lipstick c) I love talking about my book, so now I get to do all three. At least I have a nice array to choose from.

What fun!   My book has also been chosen by Dublin’s prestigious The Residence Members Club as their annual Member’s lunch on Mother’s Day so I will not only have to put on lipstick but a posh frock too as they have asked me to speak. (Darn, no wine at lunch).

It’s a whirlwind of wonderful experiences and I intend to lap them up….because I am hoping to get my head down again soon and embark on the solitary soul-searching session to write another book.  And carry on with the day job.  Still, nothing to stop me wearing lipstick to talk to the dog…..

Discovering that writing a book, is more than just writing a book

I have written a trillion words over the last few years – many of them were terrible, some were lazy, some were good, some were better, and a few were even quite brilliant. (I have written before about the book in the drawer, the book that got sent to publishers and the book that is being written). And while most of those trillion words will never be read, they were all important. Because every one of those trillion words led to the following eight words – the words I have always wanted to write: I have a book being published next month.   And despite all those trillion words, there was a lot I learned about writing the 70,000 that are going to be launched next February in a memoir called Daughter, Mother, Me.

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The most rewarding thing I have learned is that while the writing process is a solitary, often lonely effort, the publishing process is a team effort. Once the book deal is secured, you are no longer alone. A team of people help you shape your drafts into a book, and being a part of that process, having support and guidance has made writing a book an incredibly exciting experience.

So as I embark on developing my second book, I’m quite delighted to be reminding myself of those lessons again.  As I think about what it has meant to actually get a book to publication stage, I realise that I have already forgotten them, and am walking around with book number two in my head, wistful notions scrappily written on scraps of paper, concepts discussed to anyone who will listen, but what I’ve already forgotten, and which is the most important lesson I learned this year, is that in order to write a book, you have to sit down, dedicate your time, scream and pull your hair out, and carry on writing every last bloody word until it is finished.   And then this is what I learned most of all. You do all the hair pulling and get the draft finished but it’s not really finished.  All that hair pulling, and all that sitting and writing, they’re only the beginning, because (thankfully) that first draft of words which you have sat bloodied and bruised and screaming at?  They’re not actually the book. You may say, while swigging a large sparkling Gin and Tonic, “I have finished my book” but you have not in fact finished your book. You have only written the first draft. This is like putting your welly boots on to go and walk the dog and saying “I’ve walked the dog!” The dog however is still wagging his tail and looking at you with great expectations.   So is your publisher.

So you put down your Gin and tonic and begin draft two.  This involves admiring much of your own writing, and crying over other bits. It’s about pushing and pulling and trying to get those words into a coherent shape. Then you finish Draft 2 and you pour another Gin but you know what?  You still haven’t finished that book. The dog has only just been let off the lead. But now is where the team effort comes in.  Your publisher reads it and comes back with advice.  This is the most important part of writing your book. Now, you have to restructure and rejig and rewrite and delete and add, and edit.  Now the dog is walking, and the words are beginning to look like a book. BUT, it’s still not a book. The book has organically grown from the concept to a living beast that is no longer yours alone – it belongs to a team of people!  This is scary but it is also liberating. And so there might be discussions around name changes, and book covers and that leads to more restructuring and editing, and rejigging and rewriting and deleting and adding.  Then other people read the book, serious professional editors who circle and jab and question mark with their red pen and you have to go back and explain this, explore that, define this, refine that.  This is really when the book comes to light. This is were the magic happens as the writing you did in the dark depths of your own mind, is brought out into the light by editors and publishers who can see what bits need developing and what bits need highlighting.  Then, and only then, have you finished your book. Now, you can pour that Gin and watch the bubbles of tonic dance in your glass. Now, you have written a book.  So as I embark on the concept of a second book, I am going to remind myself once again, that it is a practical, hard-laboured, time-consuming, time-dedicated, relentless process, like having homework every single day and night, and I need to move into the zone from scraps of paper and intellectual conversation in my head, to actually sitting down, getting out my Macbook, shutting out my life, and start to write.

Step 1.

Get, or give yourself, a deadline. On sending Hachette Ireland a novel, they researched me and found a blog I had written. They asked me to write a memoir based on my experiences in the sandwich years – caring for small children and sick parents. I was given five months to write a book of 70,000 words. I also had a job, three children to care for and lots of other commitments. It just had to get written; every evening, every weekend, every spare minute – and many minutes that weren’t spare but had to reallocated. The house became very messy, I bought some pre-made dinners and my dog has got fatter. It was relentless and draining but exhilarating.

Step 2.

Write!!!  This can or may include pulling out hair, screaming, chewing through an entire HB pencil, pacing, eating, drinking tea (at least two plantations were hurt in the making of my book).  But keep writing, every day. Give yourself deadlines. I had a white board, and every day I would set my targets (this included 15 minutes break every hour and a half to catch up on emails and Facebook but I had a timer and when it went off, I had to stop and get back to writing).  If you miss a target, cancel the night out and make them up. This is a job, not a hobby – it requires dedication, long hours and little pay.  Keep writing until you finish draft 1.

Step 3

Allow yourself a small Gin and Tonic but know that YOU HAVE NOT FINISHED YOUR BOOK.  You have only put some words on a page.  I call this the Vomit draft because it feels like you just have to get everything out of you quickly before your brain seizes up. It also allows you the freedom of just writing without mentally editing anything yet.  Now, you can relax, go back reread it (or get someone else to – preferably your editor) and then think about what should go where. Does it work as a story? Is everything in the right order. Is there repetition? Does it make sense? Have you explained everything or have you written with the Curse of Knowledge (you know what’s going on, but does the reader?). Have you described the scenes properly – can a reader imagine where the action is taking place, can they feel the weather as they read it, can they see the emotions?

Step 4

When you feel this is good enough (for now) send it to your editor.  You may well know this still needs something, but at this stage you are too immersed in it to be able to rationally see what needs to be done. So this is the most important step – take on board what your editor, publisher, agent or literary expert advises you. They have read it with a neutral eye and can see what can improve it.  This is the magic wand of writing. You are now part of a team and their advice is game changing.

Step 5

Editing. This is awful. Just plain and simply awful. For me, it involved literally cutting up pages and rearranging them, killing some beautiful babies (not real ones, just my literary ones that were stunningly written but bore no relevance whatsoever to my book. And so they had to go to the Heaven of Removed Words, a lovely little file that is filled with paragraphs and phrases that will hopefully find a new life in another work someday).It involved screaming and crying and pulling bits of my brain into the light that had never worked before and finding inspiration. It also involved immense satisfaction and whoops of joy as I saw a flawed text become a creature of literary loveliness.

Step 6

More editing – this time taking the feedback from professional copy editors. This is were you learn that sometimes the way you write isn’t the way it should be written. Learn to read as a reader not a writer.  It can be a bit hard, and a bit enraging and sometimes you have to learn to let go and sometimes you have to fight for a phrase. It is a team effort so it is a negotiation. The humiliating thing was 90% of the time, they were right.

Step 7

Develop your bio, the book blurb, and agree on the book cover.  Again my advice would be to lean heavily on the advice and expertise of the publishing team. The pretty picture you have in your head may not be the pretty packaging that booksellers and marketing excerpts know will sell. Again, it is a negotiation between your needs and their knowledge.

Step 8

Pour a long large Gin, dance with the bubbles as you add the tonic and whoop when the lemon hits the ice. Drink. Enjoy. Then take a deep breath, and begin again.

My huge thanks to my agent Sallyanne Sweeney and my editor Ciara Doorley and the team of editors and copywriters at Hachette. I wrote the book, but they made the book readable. For me, I am planning and preparing for the launch in January.  No more time for Gin….it’s time to get writing. Book two won’t write itself. I’m the only person who can do it.  Until the experts join the team. 

Daughter, Mother, Me is being published by Hachette Ireland, and due out in February 2016

This article first appeared on www.writing.ie

Sometimes magic happens

A weird thing happened this week.  Well, several weird things happened this week.

I sent out invites to my book launch.

I got to say the words “my book launch” and it not be me fake-talking ‘Oscar-acceptance speech-esque’ in the bath. (Everyone does this right?)

I got to type my name into Amazon and have it come up. And it be mine. Not the 3 other Alana Kirk’s who own gmail and apple ID’s.  Me. This Alana Kirk. And there it is in all it’s Amazonian splendour. My book.

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And just in case the publishers were only really having me on, I also popped into Dubray bookshop on Grafton Street to say hello since they are launching my book. And they had heard of me and my book, and confirmed in fact yes, my book will be launched there on the 16th February.

Then I did a real ‘debut author’ embarrassing thing. I asked, since the book is in the shops from the 11th February, if perhaps they might have a book out on the shelf that day so I can bring my children in to see it. And she laughed kindly at my debut author innocence and said yes, of course, there will be several on the shelves.   Oh, I thought, how weird. And Wonderful.

So many weird and wonderful things happened this week. And then the completely normal. I told my daughters we could go in and see my book on the Thursday it comes out, and my eldest said, with the interest of someone cutting their big toe nails. “Whatever.” Then she perked up and I thought, Yes!

And she said, “Isn’t there a Claire’s Accessories just beside it?  Cool. You go look at the book and we can go to Claire’s.”

Maybe I should stop work on my second book and start designing hairbands.

Then again, maybe not. I’m really liking the magic of weirdness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Woman on the go

Just finished reading the inspirational new book by Gloria Steinem, My Life on the Road.  Apart from a cultural delve into the beginnings of the women’s movement and the intrenched prejudices women faced, it is a real insight into how productive one human being can be!  It left me with two opposing feelings – I have a slight intellectual girl-crush on Gloria, and slightly resentful that she makes me realise I have done so little in my life.

What I loved about this memoir was the structure, not necessarily by timeline, but by the experiences and people she met through her life ‘on the road.’ There is a whole chapter dedicated to conversations she has had with taxi drivers and airline cabin crew – her scope of empathy for the everyday people is what makes this book so good to read. She has met a lot of celebrities in her lifetime, but it is the ordinary women she met, and the ordinary men, who really inspired her.

Highly recommend it, if only for the relief that things have come a long way since the days when she went to Harvard and there was only one sign on the toilet door – Faculty.   There was no need for another with a ‘Woman’s sign on the door, because there was no expectation that there would ever be female faculty staff.

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A runner’s guide to writing

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I run and I write.  One makes me thin and the other makes me fat and so they somehow equal each other out.  Until recently I did both of those things in small doses.   And then over the course of the last couple of years I decided to run an actual Marathon and write the word equivalent of a marathon – a book.   After a year of training I completed the Dublin Marathon last year, and earlier this year was given a book deal to write a non-fiction memoir based on my blog.

It was an intense experience. The sweat and tears, the self-doubt and crippling fatigue, the cramp and exhaustion, the aching limbs and the alcohol deprivation. The Marathon was really tough too. 

Tough gigs but with extraordinary rewards. And I realised that both projects were very similar – both in terms of what they took out of me, and what they gave to me.  As a result of both, my muscles are tighter, I’m older and greyer, and have taken up some interesting habits (iced bath anyone?).  I’m not just physically fitter but mentally fitter – and although I have a medal that hangs on a ribbon in the kitchen, I also have another medal which is not on view: an inner medal that has given me confidence.   I am on the last legs of the book. Manuscript complete, doing final edits. But as I write towards the finish line, I realise how much my marathon experience helped me through this book experience.

Training for, preparing for and running that Marathon taught me a lot about running, shredded feet and the intricacies of peeing in public, but it also taught me about my own strength, determination and inner-butt-kicker.

I had always been a runner, and I had always been a writer.  But I was not a marathon runner and I was not a book writer.  The most I had ever run was the annual women’s mini marathon on 10km – that was the limit I had set myself.  Mostly I ran little runs around the park, because my busy life meant I couldn’t schedule in regular exercise classes (official reason).   And I also limited myself by telling myself that was all I could do (real reason).   Likewise I wrote short pieces like blogs and newspaper articles because my busy life meant I couldn’t schedule in longer pieces of work (official reason).  And I also limited myself by telling myself that was all I could do (real reason).

There is nothing like a 16 week colour coded spreadsheet with your weekly running plan to show you that the only limits you should be setting yourself are the sky.   There is nothing like being offered a book deal and a 5 month deadline to show how to push those limits.

I always dreamed of running a marathon and I always dreamed of writing a book, but for many years I assumed they were and always would be, dreams.   I was writing a novel, but in a hobby sort of ‘ah sure this old thing’ sort of way.  I had always talked about doing a marathon but in a ‘oh yes I’ll try and fit that in next year, when the kids are older, when I’m fitter’ sort of way.

But life took several turns and circumstances allowed me to say, with fear-laden determination, “Feck it. Let’s do this.”   Over the last two years, I worked my fingers and toes to the bone, and I crossed the finish line of one, and am about to cross another and my fingers and my toes still (relatively) intact.  (The main difference between a marathon and a book, is that as far as I know, you tend not to loose many finger nails writing, whereby loosing a toe nail is a rite of passage for runners). 

So I realised that training for a marathon is very similar to writing a book.  Many people make the assumption that the first thing you do to prepare for a marathon is buy a decent pair of trainers. No. This is like getting a manicure to start writing. The first thing you do is get A Plan.   And the plan for both is very similar.

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The daunting challenge of running a marathon requires endless, endless, endless hours pounding the streets, building up your mileage experience. The daunting challenge of writing a book requires endless, endless, endless hours pounding the laptop, building up your word count.  Both are made easier with company. I joined a running group (and had a running pal / mentor / cheerleader) so that many of the runs were about laughter and toe-nail demise-swapping stories. Joining a writing group (or having a group of writing friends  mentors / feedback-giving cheerleaders) is equally important so that despite writing being solitary, it doesn’t have to be lonely. No-one else can run the miles for you and no-one else can write the words for you, but the journey can be dramatically enhanced with company.   I had a marathon training expert who helped me focus, gave me support and answered all my silly questions. I also had a writing expert (in the form of Vanessa at Inkwell) who helped me focus, gave me support and answered all my silly questions. (Once I got the book deal I then also had an agent and a publisher to give me the equivalent of an energy gel drink when I began to hit the writing wall).

Break It Down

It really helped to break it down into sizeable, manageable chunks, and set goals.   Thinking of 26 miles every time I went for a run would have crippled me without the toe strain. Breaking it down into a series of little runs that just sort of grew without me noticing into big runs gave me focus and a chance to breathe.   Breaking down my book into sizeable chunks and chapters also kept me focused. For the marathon, I literally had an Excell Spreadsheet with the number of runs and mileage for every week laid out for the 16 weeks. I had something similar for writing. Know when and were and how much you can and will write. It means you have goals but most important, you also know when you can rest.   Stephen King explained that he wrote every day, including Christmas Day.  This frightened me and made me think I couldn’t be a writer. (I had children and parents to look after, not to mention a job). The marathon training schedule showed me that the days marked ‘Rest’ are as important as the Run Days.

Commit

The marathon wasn’t a sprint. It was a marathon. The end wasn’t the race, it was the whole training and process.   If I thought about the 26 mile finish line on that first training run, I’d never have made it out the door. Similarly, you can’t look at a 70,000 or 90,000 word target when you try and get those first words on a page.

You are in it for the long haul. Just as there are runs that are life-affirming, and writing bursts that make you want to burst into song, there are runs that are painful and soul-destroying and take every ounce of energy and commitment, and days you cannot string two thoughts together. Sometimes I couldn’t do it, and just stopped and trudged the walk of shame home (every runner knows the walk of shame – you are in running gear but you are walking. You have failed. It is always a long walk home).   There were plenty of days when writing 500 words was a test of endurance, and somedays I did the walk of shame to the fridge to pour myself a glass of wine having shut down the laptop. But the difference for a marathon runner and a book writer is that you have to learn to push through those bad days and keep going.  Setting goals of 10km, 10 miles, 16 miles, 20 miles; 500 words, 1000 words, a chapter, half way is the only way to make progress.

One step at a time, one word at a time.

Build your skills

One of the most important part of my marathon training was not even about running. It was  learning how to nourish myself so that I was able to run.  I had to learn how to fill myself with enough energy in advance of the run to keep me going, and I also had to learn when to replenish just before I depleted during the run.  I had to develop techniques that would rejuvenate my mental battles when things got tough. But most of all it was just the basic art of training.   It is the same with writing.  Nourishing yourself with books and keeping well are as important as the training.  Every blog, every article, every thrown away scrap of a half-written story, every completed-book-in-a-draw-that-will-never-see-the-light-of-day is part of the training. All those long runs, all those short runs, all those articles, all those blogs, all those drafts and false books are part of building up our skills and endurance and experience.  Every step counts. Every word counts.   I had to know what it felt like to hit the running wall but run over the top of it before I started the actual marathon. And so it helped to know what it felt like to have writers block and write over the top of it before I started my book.

Know self-doubt is part of the process

The whole way through that marathon I didn’t know if I would get to the end. Even when I got to 18 miles, especially when I got to 21 miles. When I saw the finish line about 200 metres away, I still didn’t know if I would make it over the line.  My legs hurt but my brain hurt more.  I had done so many mental battles over that marathon, I was exhausted.  I had hit the wall at 22 miles but with the help of my running friend, training, and cheerleaders on the route, it took every ounce of my will to keep going.  During the writing of this book I have cried and thrown things and banged my head on the laptop. I hit the wall of writers block, but with the help of writing friends, training and cheerleaders, it took every ounce of my will to keep going. For the Marathon I got a medal, and for the book I got a publishing deal.

I have a poster on my fridge drawn by a friend’s child that she waved at me en route on Marathon day. It says in huge coloured-in letters ‘Run, Alana Run’.   And as I turn the corner to face into the last mile of my book, as every bit of me aches, and I can start to see the finish line, those words also read to me, Write, Alana Write.  Except this time the only iced thing I’ll be having at the end is a long chilled Gin.

This was first published on http://www.writing.ie

A book of words in photos (and a few more words)

On the 20th March 2015, I pulled back the curtains and searched for the sky.  It looked like any other day. But unknown to me, lurking in my unopened inbox was a dream.  I got myself and three children dressed and walked them to school. Then I walked the dog, still unaware that my life had changed. I got home and put on the kettle. And finally I opened up my laptop. And there it was, like a glittering jewel. An email. From a publisher. Asking if I would like to meet. I opened the email and my dream came true.   I had submitted a novel, and they liked my writing, and in the process of researching me, they came across my blog, The Sandwich Years.

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They asked would I be interested in writing a book about my experiences caring for young children and old ailing parents.   I did what any self-respecting writer would do – I danced naked down the street shouting Yeeessssssss!  Then I opened my eyes and returned to the moment and said, fully dressed, “Oh yes please.”   And so I found myself with a book deal.

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However, with the deal came a deadline.   I had to write 70,000 words in less than 5 months. On top of my day job, raising three girls and caring for parents. But I did have help.

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And slowly, shuffling of pages, pacing of feet, and tapping of fingers led to a plan…  A book of Post-It’s.

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which led to pure, unadulterated epic hours of actual writing until the first draft was finished.  I had a little celebration….

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But then Draft 2 began. And then Draft 3. And then Draft 4…. until I had it. I had a book.  And when all the research and drafts were complete it became a Book in a Box.

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Then I went to Donegal where I was meant to edit but Donegal is too beautiful so I gave it some space and came back refreshed and re-energised.

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As I poured the sand out of my shoes, I began the final push of editing, reshaping, rewriting, restructuring. Did I mention editing?  Oh the edits….they are like homework that never ends.  It was originally meant to be called the Sandwich Years, but in it’s writing, it wrote itself a broader scope, a bigger story and so it became Daughter, Mother, Me; A Memoir of love, loss and dirty dishes.

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It is being printed as I write, and I hope to have a real-life, dream-size copy in my hands next week.  It will be in the shops from the 11th February and the launch will be on the 16th February in Dubray bookshop on Grafton Street. All are welcome.

In the meantime, I continue to write. And to dream.

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