The long and winding road

I am delighted to welcome Fiona Lloyd, author of the intensely honest, moving and funny The Diary of a (Trying to be Holy) Mum to my blog. I had the pleasure of proofreading it, and can thoroughly recommend it. Here, she explains how writing has always been a part of her life – and details the journey towards becoming a published author…

I was 10 when I self-published my first book: a dozen or so of my own poems (written out in my best handwriting), with pencilled illustrations and a cover purloined from an old calendar. I was immensely proud of myself.

Fast-forward a few years into my teens, and I had titles in my head for several more books. Some even made it onto paper, although I never seemed to get much beyond the first page. As I grew up, my dreams faded: I got a sensible job (in teaching), and settled down to married life followed by – at a respectable interval – three children.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that the idea of writing began to niggle at me again. I started work on a non-fiction book, aimed at helping people to grow closer to God, but my prose was stilted and formal, and relied far too heavily on quotes from other books I had read.

Then one afternoon, while doing the school run, the phrase ‘the day it all went wrong’ drifted into my head. This triggered off all sorts of questions in my mind. Who was talking? What had happened to make it such a bad day? And what were the consequences? Gradually, the character of a flustered mum, trying to do her best (but often failing) formed in my head.

WRITING FROM EXPERIENCE

As a young mum, I frequently felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of looking after three small children (much as I loved them). It appeared as if everyone else knew exactly what to do: I thought I was the only one whose toddler had tantrums in the supermarket, and whose children who refused to eat more than one variety of vegetable. If I tried to set time aside to pray, it was pretty much guaranteed that I would be snoring 30 seconds later. Worse still, there always seemed to be plenty of people around to tell me I wasn’t doing it right.

By the time I got to child number three, I was older and maybe a little wiser. I could see that other mums often struggled with similar issues, leaving them lonely and discouraged. My book started to take shape, inspired by the things I knew that I and others had wrestled with. I hoped that if it ever got to the stage of being read by other young mums it would help them feel less isolated.

GAINING CONFIDENCE IN THE WRITING PROCESS

By now, I had plenty of ideas in my head, but lacked confidence to develop them into a full narrative. I tackled other (shorter) writing projects, with varying degrees of success. I joined the Association of Christian Writers, finding valuable advice and supportive friendships. Still – after several years – my words petered out around the 5,000 mark: I found I spent more time editing the work I’d already done than adding new material.

What eventually got things moving was my decision to take part in NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] in November 2014. I knew I was unlikely to hit their proposed target of 50,000 words in a month…but I did manage 20,000. I was delighted: I was also reinvigorated. I knew I needed a more defined story-arc, so I spent my work commutes having lengthy conversations with my protagonist, Becky, about what was going on in her life. My word count crept steadily up until August 2015, when – after much reworking and tea-drinking – my first draft was completed.

SUBMITTING MY WORK TO A PUBLISHER

One of the advantages of having spent such a long time on it was that I knew (from conversations with other writers) that several rewrites would be required before it was ready to go off to a publisher. I quite enjoy a bit of nit-picking, so I spent many happy hours deleting unnecessary or over-used words – ‘just’, ‘actually’ and ‘but’ were popular culprits. Over the next year I tweaked and re-tweaked. A few kind friends read the manuscript for me, resulting in yet more amendments. Even after I’d incorporated their suggestions, I agonised about whether I’d really got it to the point where it was ready for submission.

This raised another issue: where to send it? I’d written a clearly Christian work of fiction – because I wanted to encourage Christian mums – only to discover that there are very few publishers taking on such books nowadays. I wondered about going down the self-publishing route – and I have friends who’ve done this very successfully – but I wasn’t sure I felt able to take on such a huge task.

It was through a writing friend that I found out about Instant Apostle, a small – but growing – Christian publishing company. At the time, they’d just taken on a second novel from her, and she knew that they were looking to publish some more overtly Christian books. I did some last-minute fine-tuning, dithered for a few weeks, prayed like mad, and finally sent off my first three chapters plus synopsis to Instant Apostle.

BEING ENCOURAGED

A few weeks later, an email pinged into my in-box: they liked what they’d seen – could I send the rest of the manuscript? Could I? Could I?? I’d pressed ‘send’ almost before I’d finished reading the email. This time, the wait was much shorter. On 17 May 2017, I received a phone call: Instant Apostle wanted to publish my book! I’ve been very pleased with the support they’ve given me, and I think the finished product – now entitled The Diary of a (Trying to be Holy) Mum – looks amazing. I’m trying to keep both feet on the floor, and my prayer is still very much that young mums (and others) will be encouraged by it.

So, I’ll leave the closing thoughts to another friend who has just read the book.

‘It’s so reassuring,’ she told me, ‘to know that I’m not the only one who struggles.’

I can’t ask for more than that.

Fiona Lloyd is vice-chair of the Association of Christian Writers, and is married with three grown-up children. Her first novel, The Diary of a (trying to be holy) Mum, is being published by Instant Apostle on 18 January 2018. Fiona has also had short stories published in Woman Alive and Writers’ News, and has written articles for Christian Writer and Together Magazine. Fiona works part-time as a music teacher, and is a member of the worship-leading team at her local church. You can find her on Twitter: @FionaJLloyd & @FionaLloyd16

 

Author profile: Sue Russell

Sue Russell’s fascinating new book, A Vision of Locusts, has just been published. I asked her some questions about it – and about writing in general.

Could you briefly describe how you first started writing?
At some level I knew I wanted to be a writer from a very early age – maybe even 5! I was always reading and making up stories, and as time went on I branched out into children’s stories, poetry and other things. With work and family life writing got crowded out but it was always there, the quiet insistent voice, the unappeased itch. My complaints made a group of friends issue the challenge to pin down the first draft of the adult novel I had always wanted to write – before my 50th birthday. Leviathan with a Fish-hook was the result, but it took another 8 years of hiding it away, revising and editing, writing a sequel, submitting and being rejected, for it to appear in public.

You have written various books, which you would describe as all fitting into the genre of ‘realistic contemporary British Christian fiction for adults’. What do you mean by this, and would you say this latest book  fits into this category too?
‘Realistic contemporary British Christian fiction for adults’: it’s a bit of a mouthful but yes, I am aiming it at an adult audience (although arguably A Vision of Locusts, with its adolescent protagonist, could be read by young adults also). It is written openly from a Christian viewpoint with some Christian characters, but without, I hope, any in-your-face heavy sell or preaching. The backgrounds are British, a stumbling block for some, an attraction for others, or so I gather; the time-settings are recent – 1990s to 2011 so far. I tend to write stories that happened about 5 years before the time of writing!

As for realistic, my characters, whether Christian or not, are, I hope, real believable people, with doubts and fears and failures as well as delights and triumphs. I feel there’s a place for portraying Christians as normal people with recognisable life issues, and I like to think my clergy characters go some way to redressing the poor image of ministers in the media. The ones I know are self-sacrificing, genuine, hard-working, sometimes even saintly. They certainly aren’t weak-chinned buffoons.

The premise of the book is fascinating – could you give a brief description and explain where the inspiration came from?
To be honest with you, I don’t remember. Where do ideas come from? Where does inspiration spring? I suspect it all comes from several sources, among which may be one’s own particular leanings. I had the idea of a small Christian community threatened by a malevolent outside force. I’ve long been interested in the thin wall between what is deemed normal and what isn’t, in our own age. (In some of my other books mental illnesses are present.) I leave it to the reader to decide just what is the issue with Paul/Will. The idea of an unlikely heroine isn’t new, nor the idea that salvation may come out of left field. But as with most novels, I suspect, as the story unrolled  and the characters took on life,  a fair bit of my original concept altered.

Your characters are strong, and it is great to get an insight into their thoughts throughout the book – was that an intentional device to help the reader feel more connected to them?
I’m not sure whether the insights into the characters’ thoughts in Locusts was intentional or not – it seemed to be the best vehicle for understanding their private motivations. I have used internal monologue quite a lot in my books, and with the Christian characters in particular it’s a way of showing sincere faith struggles as well as how the characters cope with the general problems of life.

Could you give us an insight into your writing process? For instance, do you map out each story first or does it evolve over time? How immersed do you get into the characters and scenes – do you work for an extended period of time solely on the book or do you fit the writing around other things?
My writing process seems to have altered with each book. I am in some ways less confident now than I was all that time ago when I plunged blithely in and just wrote: perhaps because I know more now, and also because I dislike the prospect of major rewriting arising from gaping plot-holes! So I do a lot of research, note-taking, cogitating, making diagrams, reading how-to books (some more helpful than others) and conferring, before chapter one gets under way. Things can and do change en route – new ideas pop up – it’s just that with a plan these changes are less likely to derail the story! Once I hit my stride I can write very fast and for concentrated periods, but I will stop and do something else in between; otherwise (quite apart from the demands of normal life) I might just get a bit unhinged – it’s very easy for characters to take on more reality than perhaps is healthy!

Do you have another project you are thinking ahead to now?
My next project is in fact already well under way, although I haven’t yet written a single word of the story itself. After a lengthy period of thinking I’m beginning to understand how this story will pan out and what its intended payoff will be. Any more than that will be a spoiler!