Not the Booker at the Halfway Point

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Well, here we are – mid way through the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize process.

Half of the novels on the shortlist have been reviewed by the Guardian’s Sam Jordison so far. ‘Dark Chapter’ by Winnie M Li, ‘The Ludlow Ladies’ Society’ by Ann O’Loughlin and my own, ‘Not Thomas’ have all felt the sting of Sam’s not overly-friendly reviewing skills. They’ve had their turn for comments from members of the reading public too.

As I type, Sam is uploading his review of the fourth novel, ‘The Threat Level Remains Severe’ by Rowena Macdonald, and then that too will be ready for all the comments – positive, negative or indifferent – that readers want to throw at it.

It’s been a fun and odd five weeks for my novel ‘Not Thomas’ since the Guardian’s shortlist was announced.

Although being reviewed first wasn’t the easiest of positions, it has meant that ‘Not Thomas’ has ended up being mentioned in relation to the other books too. And the more it’s mentioned, the more its title gets ‘out there’.

In his review, Sam denounced Tomos as too young to think the way I’ve portrayed him. That’s fair enough – after all, I expect everyone has their own view of what a typical five-year-old is like, and even if we don’t know any right now, we’ve all been one in the past.

Fortunately for me, a few teachers and some other people who work with children came to Tomos’s defence in the comment thread of the ‘Not Thomas’ review, pointing out that at age five children fit into a broad spectrum of abilities.

And even Sam defended ‘Not Thomas’ the other day –  in a very mild way, of course. When someone who hadn’t even read it suggested it was a ‘clunker’, Sam said it wasn’t a clunker and that “Not Tomas (sic) had some good points”. That’s about as much praise as I expect from him. (But note the misspelt title – what little he gives with one hand he takes away with the other!)

There are five more weeks to go before this year’s winner of the Not the Booker prize will be announced.

The live announcement will be made on Monday 16th October. But before that, there’ll be a week of public voting to endure, and along with some of the other finalists, I’ll be attending an event in London where there’ll be debates, readings and Q&A sessions. All good fun – nerve-wracking, nail-biting, good fun.

I’ll be over-dosing on the flower remedy again!

Thanks for reading.

Love,

Sara x

P.S. Have you read any of the books on the shortlist? Let me know what you think of the competition so far.

Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher and from Amazon.

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Not Thomas & Not the Booker: How We Battled the Guardian Website Part 1

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I must have said it a thousand times by now – the last fortnight has been the craziest of my writing life.

During the final days of July, from out of the blue, came a nomination for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize longlist – an opportunity I could only have dreamt of – and on Monday 31st July I was thrown into a state of total mind-numbing panic.

I had only just finished a blog tour with Brook Cottage Books, and it was Anne Williams of Being Anne that nominated Not Thomas for the Not the Booker longlist after she’d reviewed it for the tour.

It makes me laugh now to remember how nervous I was before the blog tour began. I didn’t feel very confident on social media, and was afraid I’d forget to retweet on Twitter or share on Facebook. I was afraid I wouldn’t know how to message people to thank them for their reviews, and that I’d miss their replies…

I didn’t know the baptism of fire that awaited me.

The Not the Booker longlist was announced by Sam & Lisa, of the Guardian reading group, and we were off – all 192 of us that had titles on there – in a rush for the line, with hopes of getting off the also-ran list and into the winner’s enclosure.

Before the winner could be found though, a shortlist had to be created. It was to be decided by a public poll – a vote for two titles from different publishers and a 100 word review that ‘showed you cared’. The five titles with the most votes would go through to the shortlist, and a sixth title would join them, selected by the judges. There was just one week to rally votes.

So the rules understood, the race began.   

Not every author felt like making a charge for the finishing line, of course. The big names, I’m sure, hadn’t even bothered to spare a glance at that long, long longlist. Colm Tóibín, the Smiths – Ali & Zadie – Will Self and Matt Haig probably went about their Monday as if nothing earth-shattering had happened at all. Colson Whitehead has probably never even heard of Not the Booker.

When you have a Pulitzer Prize for fiction I expect a mug from the Guardian doesn’t feature on your wish-list.

Plenty of other not-quite-so-well-known authors decided they would sit back and see what happened. Some were just happy to feature on the list and in some of the comment boxes, and to get a bit of extra publicity for their titles that way. Some had been nominated before and hadn’t enjoyed it the first time round.   

But for me, being on the Not the Booker longlist was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

My debut novel, Not Thomas, had been published by Honno, a small female-only Welsh publisher, just two months before. It was receiving better-that-we-could-have-hoped-for reviews, and news of it was spreading by word of mouth. It had been July’s Book of the Month with both Waterstones Wales and the Welsh Books Council. 

Despite this, Liz – the PR person who Honno had employed on a freelance basis for the first couple of months of the novel’s life – had had very little luck getting mainstream media outlets to take any notice of Not Thomas. It certainly wasn’t for want of trying or lack of enthusiasm on her part.

But a book from Wales about child neglect & drugs? Well, that’s a hard sell.

She tried the Guardian and the Indy. “If only they’d read it…” she used to say.

“We can’t make them do that,” was always my sad reply.

But here it was, this one-off chance – an opportunity to make someone read it. And that someone was going to be Sam Jordison of the Guardian’s Reading Group – if only I could get it onto the shortlist.

It was a chance for Not Thomas that would never come around again. And so I took a deep breath, tied my colours to the sticking post and became the ‘tiger mother’ Tomos never had but always deserved.

And I let battle commence.

Thanks for reading!

Part 2 coming to this page sometime in the not too distant future.

Until then… Yours,

Sara x

Which novel do you think the Guardian judges will choose as title #6?

Will you be reading and reviewing all the titles on the shortlist? 

Have you read ‘Not Thomas’? What did you think of Tomos? 

Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas – a story of child neglect and hope – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy on Amazon.

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When Crying is Good

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It’s a strange thing to have written a book with the potential to make people cry. I knew it made me cry – I could hardly edit some sentences for the tears – but I had no real idea if when someone else read Not Thomas it would have the same effect on them.

Before it went to print, four authors read it and gave Honno, my publisher, some lovely endorsements to use on the cover and inside the book. All four authors said they found it sad, and some of them emailed me and told me it had made them cry. That was good news – maybe.

But what about readers that wanted a book for pleasure, rather than to ‘endorse’ it – what would they think when they read it? Would they find it sad? Too sad? I didn’t know what to think.

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Until the other week…

I was holding a signing event with early editions of my novel where a lovely person called Alli came along and bought herself a copy. I was amazed when she messaged me on twitter close to midnight that same day. ‘It was un-put-downable,’ she said. ‘I started crying at page 30 and didn’t stop until the end.’

The next day she wrote about her teary experience on her own blog, and eight other people who read her account bought a copy of the novel or downloaded the e-book. Wow! I was over the moon. That’s the kind of thing I’ve dreamt about: people getting to know about my book by word of mouth – or word of blog. Whichever, it was fabulous!

It was also really interesting to read the comments left on Alli’s blog. Some people were less than keen on a ‘sad’ book, while others were attracted to the idea of a good weep. And there were definitely more in the ‘crying’ camp.

It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a former teaching colleague in June, when I first had my early copies of Not Thomas. I had taken some into school as gifts and was explaining the setting of the story – how Tomos has been removed from his lovely foster family and sent back to live with his mum; how she’s hiding a drug addiction and so she badly neglects him; and how the story is told from his five-year-old point of view.

And then I gave an apology. ‘It’s a bit of a weepy, I’m afraid. One reviewer said it should be printed on plastic paper so the reader’s tears don’t ruin the pages.’

‘Don’t apologise,’ the ex-colleague said. ‘That’s a bonus. Sometimes life is a pile of manure’ (I’m paraphrasing there) ‘but in real-life you can’t always let your guard down and have a good weep, so I love books that give me permission to cry. It’s a release – like weepy films.’

And she made perfect sense.

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Of course, we shouldn’t feel we have to hide our tears. It ought to be OK to have a cry whenever we want. But most of us are used to packing away the upsetting baggage and just carrying on with life. So maybe she was right – sometimes we do need to give ourselves permission to have a good weep.

Her comment forced me to think again about my own attitude to having written a ‘sad’ book. So now when I explain the set-up for Not Thomas and someone says: ‘Oh dear that sounds very sad’ I don’t apologise anymore. Instead I say, ‘It is a bit of a weepy, but there are some funny moments too. And reviewers have called it “ultimately uplifting”.’

At ‘ultimately uplifting’ the person I’m talking to usually sighs with relief.

And if they do decide to buy the book and dedicate five or six hours to reading it, I hope in that time their mouths will have smiled, as Tomos might say, even if their eyes have cried.

Thanks for reading!

What do you think? Do you like books that make you cry? Does it help to know a sad book is ‘ultimately uplifting’?

I’d love to know your thoughts,

Sara x

Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy on Amazon.

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Music to Make Me Cry – My Not Thomas Playlist

I love listening to music when I write.

I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’ve met quite a few authors who prefer to write with no distractions, but music works for me. I find it creates a background emotion.

There are some songs I return to, time & time again, when my creativity needs a boost. These are songs I play to remind myself that ordinary people can transform themselves into songwriters and create something fantastically beautiful out of thin air –and lots musical talent, of course. When those songs come on the radio, they make me want to drop everything and write.

Songs like Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’ and Stereophonics’ ‘Graffiti on a Train’ make me turn up the radio to full volume and surrender to their inspiring brilliance.

There are other songs, though, that remind me of something I’m already working on. They help ease me back into that piece of writing, and keep me in the mood I’m trying to create. They’re the ones I play quietly in the background while I tap away on my laptop.

I had a playlist when I was writing ‘Not Thomas’.

The most-played song on that list was Kate Bush’s ‘Moments of Pleasure’. In a previous post, What Wuthering Heights did for me – the confessions of a Kate Bush fan, I wrote about how playing that song helped me evoke the feelings of Tomos, the little boy who’s the central character in my book. I’d hear the music and feel the emotion, even if I hadn’t written about Tomos for months. But there were other songs that helped too. Here’s a few of them, thanks to YouTube.

Calon Lân, a well-loved Welsh hymn, was one of my starting points for ‘Not Thomas’.

In fact, for quite some time the working title of ‘Not Thomas’ was ‘A Pure Heart’ – the English meaning of ‘calon lân’. The title eventually (and thankfully) got changed, after I listened to the advice of my writing group. (More about the failure of ‘A Pure Heart’ as a title in What’s in a Name?)

Tomos sings Calon Lân near the start of the book. He’s been taught the words by Nanno – his beloved ‘foster gran’. This version, by Cerys Matthews, is my favourite on YouTube.

It’s the childlike quality of her voice that gets me every time.

In the case of Calon Lân, the lyrics loosely suited the theme of the book, particularly – and rather sadly – the opening line ‘I don’t ask for a life of luxury’, as Tomos is living in terrible poverty.

But most of the songs I listened to didn’t have lyrics that connected to the subject matter. Instead I chose them for the way the music or the tone of the singer’s voice affected me.

It was the emotion the singer conveyed that was important.

Like this one:

I only have to hear the opening chords of ‘Talk to Me of Mendocino’ by Kate & Anna McGarrigle for my eyes to fill with tears. The music and their voices manage to convey, so beautifully, that sense of longing to be somewhere else.

It’s perfect for Tomos, as he constantly longs to be back in the love and safety of his foster parents’ home.

And since I’ve already blogged about how important ‘Moments of Pleasure’ by Kate Bush was to me when I was writing ‘Not Thomas’, I ought to include another song of Kate’s which I played a lot too.

‘This Woman’s Work’ is an obvious choice, I suppose, when you think of songs that conjure up vulnerability – it was used by the NSPCC in one of their TV adverts.

Again, the opening notes get me every time.

And finally:

This last song, ‘Lost Boy’ by Ruth B, is a cheat.

It came out in 2016 and I’d long finished writing ‘Not Thomas’ by then. I was in a dress shop in lovely Llandeilo when I first heard it playing on the shop’s radio. It stopped me in my tracks.

I knew by this time that my book would be published and that Tomos’s story would see the light of day, something I’d thought for so many years would never happen. And the realisation that my novel was actually going to be published hit me.

I grabbed the nearest frock and hid in the changing room until the moment of realisation – and the tears – had passed.

Had Ruth B’s ‘Lost Boy’ come out ten years before, I’d have been playing it as I wrote. It’s Tomos to a tee. I think it’s beautiful.

All these songs have something in common – lots of emotion. One comment from an early reader of ‘Not Thomas’ said it should be printed on plastic to save the paper from tears.

Maybe my playlist explains why.

Thanks for reading.

Love,

Sara x

If you’re a writer, do you ever listen to music while you’re working or do you prefer silence?

If you’ve read Not Thomas, can you see any influence from the songs above in the novel? 

Do you have a single piece of music or a song which you always find inspirational?

Sara’s debut novel Not Thomas –  a story of child neglect and hope – is published by Honno Press and is available in paperback and on Kindle directly through the publisher and also from Amazon.

The lady’s here. The lady with the big bag. She’s knocking on the front door. She’s knocking and knocking. I’m not opening the door. I’m not letting her in. I’m behind the black chair. I’m waiting for her to go away.

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