Beth Miller

Writing and tea


Someone who talks through their nose (Yiddish)

A sporadic blog about writing

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Sorta finished

Posted on March 26, 2012 at 5:15 PM

I see that almost exactly a year ago I was knocking down walls. Well, here I am now, with what I'm tentatively calling a 'finished novel.' I've sent it somewhere; I'm waiting. Actually, I'm not waiting. I'm sitting back with my feet on the desk, enjoying the peace. My novel is like a disruptive child with ADHD. Suddenly, after I've spent years being the sole carer, it's been whisked away to a holiday camp for the loud and over-energetic, and someone else has responsiblity. Just for a short while. It's respite only. But here is a hiatus during which I don't have to worry about it.


The book's got a new name, too, though I have no expectation of this title sticking. I'm not getting too attached. The book began life as 'Two-Thirds Happy.' This became 'And Then We'd Be Happy,' which lasted a while, till I realised that it didn't actually match the theme of the novel any more. And more problematically, that it used a song lyric and would thus cost me a fortune in copyright payments. Latterly it was 'The Solidest Thing We Know,' which wasterrific apart from me being the only person who liked it. Everyone else hated it and said it made them think of taking a crap.


The new title is fine. I won't jinx it by writing it anywhere except on the front cover of the manuscript. Which I have sent off, did I mention that?


* Sits back, puts feet on desk, lifts tea mug to lips, revels in the blissful silence *

The wrecking ball

Posted on March 15, 2011 at 1:35 PM

I started writing this novel in 1947, and have interrupted it on several occasions to run a business, have children, eat more cake and so on. So, because I am a better writer now than when I started - not through any clever planning, simply by dint of the passing years - I'm having to make some tricky decisions with the rewrites. It's akin to restoring an ancient building. At what point do I give up on shoring up unsteady old beams, and just knock the whole thing down and start again? I read some of the oldest pages and I have to hide under the desk in embarrassment at myself. But then again, some of the old stuff has a passion and spark that some of my clever new stuff lacks...


As I am fond of saying, this will ALL BE DIFFERENT WITH THE NEXT BOOK.

School's back: let the writing commence

Posted on September 8, 2010 at 10:36 AM

My writing friend C said, 'someone wise told me years ago that I had to 'give up' being a writer over the summer as long as I had a child/children to look after... and so every summer I have to relearn the fact of that'.


I must remember that for next year.


The irony of summer is that you socialise so much, and all your friends and acquaintances ask how the writing's going. 'It's stopped for now' is the most accurate reply.


But now here we are, September, and a week from now my boy starts school. Then I will have to try and remember what my novel is about, and where I was in the great re-write. I think it will be good to have had a break. Maybe some of the seemingly insurmountable problems will seem quite trivial; and maybe many of the things I'd planned won't seem necessary.


And I have at least, in the glitteringly brief summer writing days, started on the next novel.



Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs Lincoln?

Posted on June 27, 2010 at 8:27 PM

Winchester. Previously, simply a posh city with a nice cathedral. Now, a word which strikes an icicle through my heart.


‘Which agent are you meeting first?’ asked a fellow wannabe.

‘Denise Iceberg’, I replied.*

‘Oh, I’ve just seen her! She’s really nice! She said her list was full, but she liked my book.’


Her list was full? Then why come to a conference where the whole point was for writers to meet agents who might sign them up? Still, on the bright side, that meant it would be an unpressurised encounter, a good practice for my later meeting with Trudy Maxwell.*


Later, outside a room, waiting with others about to have one-to-ones with agents, another writer asked who I was meeting.

‘Denise Iceberg.’

‘Oh, I’ve just seen her! She’s really nice! She said her list was full, but she liked my book.’


Oh yeah? This was looking good. If slightly repetitive.


The bell went and we trooped in. All around the room, people said goodbye, stood up and left. All around the room, the next appointees took their seats opposite agents and began to talk. Except at Denise Iceberg’s table. She and the writer carried on chatting. I couldn’t hear the words, though presumably they were along the lines of her list being full and her liking the book. I stood there like every kind of yellow citrus fruit, as the minutes ticked by, keenly aware that my 15 minute appointment was being eaten up. A facilitator noticed I was standing alone, the only girl at the ball without a dance partner, and told Denise it was time. She finished up languorous goodbyes, and finally, five minutes late, I sat opposite her and said hello.


She didn’t say hello. She said: ‘I’m not really the right person to see your book.’

I had been worried about this; I knew her fiction list didn’t fit too well to my book. So I said, ‘Yes, I had wondered...’

‘Because I am an observant Jew, and this book is anti-Jewish.’

‘It is?’

‘All British Jews are anti-Jewish.’ Denise was American. ’I remember first coming to this country and meeting Freddie Raphael, and thinking, what the hell is his problem?’

I gazed at her.

‘They have these ‘United’ synagogues and think they’re devout, then they do whatever they like. All this business in your book of watching television on a Friday night.Pfah!’


That’s how I was brought up, though, I failed to say. Does it matter, really, as it’s what the characters do, I failed to say. Can’t characters in a book do things you don’t approve of, I failed to say.


‘I went to Howard Jacobson’s wedding and there were 276 people there, none of them Jewish...’


I started to fade in and out, as she told a well-worn anecdote about how she educated a roomful of people about Jewish traditions. Wondering what, exactly, this had to do with my novel. Finally, I got a word in. ‘Can I clarify what you said earlier? You think the book is anti-Jewish?’


‘It’s not just your book, it’s the entire publishing industry. No-one will touch a book with a Jewish or Israeli theme.’ She mentioned a publisher. ‘He said he’d publish anything by an ethnic minority. So I said, Jews too? And he said, any minority except Jewish.’


I'd thought I'd come to this meeting completely prepared. The days and weeks I spent working on my pitch, fine-tuning my synopsis, polishing my chapters, researching her list, looking through her author's books. Turned out I was actually completely unprepared. The power agents hold, when you're a nobody, is so immense, they can, on a whim, decide to simply air their prejudices at you, and there's little you can do about it. Apart from stand up for yourself. But in all my preparation, the one base I hadn't covered was to think about how I might defend my religious upbringing, and my right to write about it. So I sat there like an arse, quite unable to assert myself, while she lobbed a few more grenades into my lap. Just because she could.


‘The theme in your book, this pretend Jewish thing, it’s so familiar, you know? I’ve seen it so many times.’


I wanted to say it was only familiar to a handful of London-based Jewish women in the publishing industry, but she was off again. ‘What’s that Maggie O’Farrell book? The first one?’

‘After You’d Gone?’

‘Yes. You know that was all about her relationship with William Sutcliffe, except of course he didn’t die: he just became Orthodox. Well everyone hated that, thought she was terrible for writing it.’


Thought it won awards. And hey, you know what? I liked it. I failed to say.


With a minute to go, she flicked through the chapters I’d sent.


‘Reminds me of that writer, Allegra something. Allegro?’

‘I don’t know her.’

‘Yes you do. Anyway, you write better than her. We all wonder how the hell she got published.’


Time was up. She was clearly going to be prompt for the next person. As long as they weren’t a secular Jew.


‘Well’, she said, handing me back my work as though it were dirty loo paper, ‘If you WANT to send it to me again, you can, but you probably don’t...’


I smiled. ‘That’s all right, thanks’, I managed, and staggered out of the room.


Phoned J in tears, and luckily he reminded me that I used to have encounters like this quite regularly, when I worked for a Jewish HIV organisation. People who, like the character in one of Woody Allen’s films, couldn’t hear about dew in the morning without thinking someone was dissing a Jew. Jews who were much more comfortable with Christians and Muslims and Zoroastrians than liberal Jews like me; who believed we had carried on Hitler’s work of destroying the Jewish race, as one rabbi memorably accused me. Jews who would be astonished to have it pointed out that they were the ones demonstrating bigotry and racial hatred.


Under other circumstances I would have coped okay with my next meeting, with Trudy Maxwell. Renowned for being harsh, she was actually much nicer than Denise. Though she told me my writing was ‘flabby’, my story ‘petered out’ and my main character a mere ‘ventriloquist’, she nonetheless said she liked it, thought I had 'something', and would see it again when it was tighter. The most interesting thing she said was, ‘The Jewish thing. I like that. You don’t see that too often. It’s your unique selling point and you need to bring it out more.’

Uh huh?


Alas, I was too shell-shocked from my Denise encounter to process this as a positive meeting. I was due to spend the night in Winchester, and attend several events, but instead I crossed my name off all the lists, checked out of my hotel and got the next train home.


Other than that, I had an utterly marvellous time.

Oh yes. And my sweetly optimistic post below ('The pitch is a bitch')?

No-one wanted to hear my pitch.

* Not their real names. Though I'm happy to tell you their real names.


The pitch is a bitch

Posted on June 21, 2010 at 1:03 PM

I'm going to the Winchester Writers' Conference on Friday. First time. Looking forward to: 50%. Crapping self: 60% (I like to give these things 110% in case there's any Apprentice recruitment scouts out there).


I'm signed up to meet two agents at Winchester. Two one-to-ones, very exciting, at which I get to tell them about my novel. Or rather, at which I must pitch the dang thing, as though it were a cricket ball, and hope no-one gets whacked on the head with it. Not having done a pitch before, I idly googled around, and am now properly bricking it, as is the usual response to googling anything. A little knowledge is completely paralysing. There are so many things to remember. My main concern is that the brain overload will result in me forgetting how to walk. I will stand hopelessly at the door, trying to recall what it is I do next, while across the room the agent waves half-heartedly at me from behind a desk, before giving up and starting to play Wordable on their iPhone.


Things to remember when doing a pitch:


1. What your novel is about (harder than it sounds, when you are a vague kind of writer who likes to 'let the reader work it out').


2. What your novel is about in approximately 50 words. These need to be 50 different words; you’re not allowed to just repeat the word ‘sex’ 50 times in the deluded belief that it will grab the agent’s attention. It will grab their attention, yes, but also the attention of the hefty guy on security.


3. What your name is (though the Conference have thoughtfully supplied me with a name badge so I don’t need to hold this in my head).


4. Ma-nish ta’ana – Why is this night different from all other nights? Or, more to the point, why is your novel different from all others? Acceptable answers do not include: because it’s worse/ because it’s written in crayon/ because the main character is a piece of dried mango.


5. What other authors your writing is like. Choose writers who sell, not writers like your Aunty Jane who self-published a booklet entitled, ‘The Life and Times of a Small-Town Computer Programmer’.


6. Who your target audience is. Correct answer is everyone over the age of 16. Incorrect answer is Swedish transvestites who are allergic to fish. There are probably not enough of them to constitute a ‘lively market’.


7. To not come across like a weirdo stalker (‘You want to see the entire ms? Brilliant, I’ll bring it right to your front door. Isle of Man? No problem’).


8. To be respectful yet not slavishly obsequious. To be the right side of needy and desperate. Do not: boast, show off, clam up, yell ‘you’re my only hope!’, clutch their hand and not let go, smoke, drink, spit, undress, show them that trick where you lick your nostril, tell them they’re deluded, argue at all, fart and pretend it was them, get their name wrong, let slip you haven’t read any of their authors, mistakenly tell them how much you love Kate Figes when it’s Kate Mosse they agent, set fire to your synopsis, forget they are a human being, take everything they say too personally. Or anything else, other than:


9. Pretend it’s a business meeting and act accordingly. This doesn’t mean do a Powerpoint of your book. Look smart, be polite, act sane.


10. Don’t start sobbing till you’re out of sight.


I’ll report back. Long as I remember how to do the walking thing.

In praise of Chapter 22

Posted on June 14, 2010 at 2:15 PM

The sun is shining, but I am indoors, blinds down, wrestling with Chapter 22.


We've been through a lot together, Chap 22 and I. There was the time I decided, for no good reason, that it would appear in the third person. My, how we (she, he) laughed. And that other time, when I chose it, against its better judgement, to host a climactic scene: an argument so massive it would change everyone's lives. Appalling novel device disclaimer - this was in a very early draft. Perhaps around draft 86.


I was a bit scared of actually writing down this monumental row, partly because it was full of unaccountable emotion, but mainly because I wasn't quite sure what it consisted of. So I put three stars to indicate that something major had happened, and skipped the crucial bit. That made it considerably easier to write - it only took a few minutes - but on the negative side, more than one of my readers didn't realise a fight was meant to have occurred at all. Thus the rest of the story made no sense whatsoever.


Chapter 22 and I have of late reached an understanding. In its current, and I hope final incarnation, it showcases the only time in the novel that we hear from the grown-up Miffy. Even I, with my obsessive re-writing disorder, can see that it's all starting to come together.

And I guess that's why I am stalling. I'm not sure I'm ready to let go of dear, kind Chap 22. It's so much more forgiving than that stuck up Chapter 14, or mean Chapter 9. But I need to move on. And so does the story.