Thursday, 17 July 2014

The Life Cycle of THE RAIN, a book blog tour with Virginia Bergin

You might remember that back in April I reviewed a great little book called The Rain, all about 15 year old Ruby Morris and her quest for survival when the rain in the UK suddenly turns toxic. I absolutely loved this book and have been raving about it every since so I was delighted to be asked to take part in a launch day blog tour with author Virginia Bergin and her publishing team at Macmillan.

Yes that's right! It's launch day! So read on and then get ordering your copy of The Rain from Amazon or your local bookshop.

So we all remember learning about the water cycle at school don’t we? How the sun heats the water, and the water evaporates and… blah blah blah. The Water Cycle was never a topic that set our school books on fire BUT maybe if Ruby Morris had paid more attention to her Geography teacher then she’d know exactly which clouds might kill her! So we’re here to educate you, because don’t forget, just one drop will kill you. From the writing process to publication, we're here for a blog tour with a difference, join us as we learn about a FAR more interesting cycle – The Life Cycle of The Rain by Virginia Bergin.

Just like the water cycle, Virginia's writing and publishing process takes on some similar stages:
  1. The sun heats the ocean i.e. Virginia gets an excellent idea
  2. Prevailing winds pick up the manuscript and deliver it to the Agent Louise Lamont
  3. Pressure (also known as excitement) begins to build within the publishing cloud of Macmillan with Editor Rachel Petty
  4. Virginia is as high as a cirrocumulus cloud as her book begins to form
  5. Storm clouds gather over Frankfurt and Bologna – The rights!
  6. A downpour of marketing and publicity support
  7. Take shelter in your local bookshop – Totnes Bookshop
I'm hosting step 4, so here's Virginia's tale of what happens when her idea for a book becomes reality.

Cloud 9

This isn’t a blog post. It’s a true confession.

You will have to excuse the fact that I am now going to sound a little bit like the main character in THE RAIN, Ruby, because what happened after Macmillan bought my book was so life-shatteringly shocking that it felt positively apocalyptic.

‘I’m on Cloud 9’ . . . that’s what people say they feel when something really wonderful and amazing is happening - BUT IT IS ALSO THE REAL SCIENTIFIC CLOUD CLASSIFICATION FOR:

CL9 = a thundercloud
The tallest thing on Earth - which is why, when you’re on Cloud 9, you’re supposed to feel so ‘high’ with happiness... but just look at that picture! That cloud is scary; it is the most scary and dangerous cloud there is.

I’d sold a book. Everyone around me was ‘on Cloud 9’ – and I felt like I should be... but the truth is... I felt like I was right beneath that terrifying thundercloud, getting hit by that bolt of lightning. I could not believe what was happening. I’m ashamed to say that I kept thinking there had been some weird and incredible mistake... and every time another country bought the book, it was like getting zapped by another bolt of lightning. 

Germany – ZAP! – France – ZAP! – America – ZAP! – Turkey – ZAP!

This state of gibbering, zapped disbelief went on for five months. FIVE MONTHS. It should have been the best time in my life... but I was terrified... because Macmillan had bought a first draft. Anyone who writes out there will know: you do NOT send a first draft to ANYONE. You just don’t do it. Not ever. There should be no exceptions to this rule. Even if you really think that what you have written works, I wouldn’t ever - EVER! - recommend sending out a first draft. Here’s why:

OK, so I’d poured my heart and soul into THE RAIN, had written it in a frenzy, the same way Ruby would have done (so it felt very real to me, because Ruby wrote it) and I’ve been writing for so long I vaguely knew what I was doing... but THE RAIN needed re-writing, just like any first draft. Only now I had a deadline – ZAP! – and because Macmillan had bought it – ZAP! – and other publishers too – ZAP! – I knew every word I wrote from now on would end up in print. I wasn’t on Cloud 9, I was frying alive in my own terror. Then Rachel Petty, my editor, came along.

I’d never had my work looked at by a professional editor. I had no idea what to expect. I thought I would get a manuscript back covered in red marks, like the worst school assignment you ever did... what arrived was... a manuscript with a few comments here and there. There were some pages that had been crossed out to cut entirely, but that was ok: there was a lot that needed to be chopped! Then Rachel sent an email to accompany the manuscript. It wasn’t a long email. Barely a page. Forget ZAP! - this was:

Rachel had seen what I needed to do – with such a light touch. I had an editing fairy godmother. The question was: how to do it? What I would normally do with a re-write is knock the whole thing down and start over. That wasn’t an option. So, as though the whole book was a giant Jenga tower, I started work; carefully taking things out – it wobbles – carefully putting new stuff in. Adjusting stuff. It started to lean a bit... actually, it started to lean A LOT.

And then the rain came. In December 2013, Britain was battered by storm after storm. On Christmas Eve, I set out to see my family; my train was cancelled. I went home in tears. On Christmas Day, I sat alone, reading a book on microbiology. (That’d be another consequence of rule-breaking. You should always do your research first!) By New Year, I’d re-written THE RAIN – not once, but twice. THE WHOLE THING. I sent it off again, I waited. (Actually, I didn’t just wait, I was so worried about the factual elements in the story, I consulted some amazingly kind microbiologists!)

On 21st January 2014, I got an email from Rachel ‘Fairy Godmother’ Petty. The first line was, ‘NAILED IT!’

Finally, I felt as if I was on Cloud 9.

Hey - that could look a little bit like Darius, what’s he doing on there? It’s meant to be me.

But I still tinkered! I must have driven Rachel crazy. Right up until THE RAIN went to print I tinkered – because that’s what writing is. It takes SO MUCH time before you can truly see what you have written and, as Hemmingway said, ‘The first draft of anything is’... it’s just that sometimes, maybe it’s not so that someone else - like a fairy godmother, for instance - can see how it could be. But don’t take that chance; re-write, re-write, re-write... make your draft the best it can be. 

When I saw the cover for THE RAIN, I cried. My book was... err... going to be a book!!!! Now all I can do is send it out into the world – with a kiss.

THE RAIN was a long time coming. A lot of kind and talented people helped. It was written with all 
my heart... for every teen I have ever known, including myself.

Thanks so much for sharing your story with us Virginia, and congratulations on your publication day!

Want to follow the tour? Head on over to Liz Loves Books to read all about what happens at the Rights stage.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

"All the bodies are hidden above you"

"This has got an episode of Casualty written all over it," he said. We all chuckled nervously as we stepped amongst the debris, casting our minds back to the episodes from our childhood that had made the longest lasting impressions. Car accidents, a woman trapped under a horse, an abandoned newborn and, for me, the episode where a group of people gave a woman The Bumps for her birthday and left me feeling anxious about them ever since. I'm not entirely sure how that episode panned out.

I'd only heard of the place moments before. We were driving to the marina, four of us in the car, in varying states of hunger after a day spent travelling to our annual Scottish retreat. In previous years we'd been to Applecross, and Knoydart, and Gairloch, but this year we were staying in a holiday home belonging to the parents of a friend. A holiday home tucked away two miles down a private track, on a bay overlooking a tiny island that houses nothing but a cemetery and ghost stories for the locals tell. It's a place so remote and peaceful that a well known fashion designer once turned up and asked if she could buy it.

We had left London at 8:30am and taken two trains, a passenger ferry and a bus to reach our destination. Our friends met us in the town and, after a beer and a catch up in an empty hotel bar, we set out to find a spot for dinner. Things close early round these parts and not much happens after 6pm, even less after 9. We'd come seeking rest and fresh air, the company of our favourite friends, and the pleasure that comes from opening a good bottle of Malbec at 2pm. We weren't here for the urban or the unknown, but that's what we got.

"There's that place where they made the music video," said our driver, pointing at a building on the hilltop that could only be described as a shithole. I asked for more detail. "Someone filmed a hip hop video there. Apparently it's completely abandoned and then years ago loads of graffiti artists turned up and covered the place."

She didn't need to say any more, which is how we came to find ourselves inside the complex of abandoned buildings. The whole thing was made of concrete and untreated wood, bleached by years of sun reflecting off the water below. My phone's battery had died, and without the ability to snap photos every five seconds I found myself exploring freely, drawn into doorways and behind walls and, when I eventually found them, up the stairs.

I could not figure it out. Who called this place home? What happened here? Why did they leave?

And how the fuck did anyone pass a risk assessment to shoot a music video?

As I explored with my fists balled tightly inside my sleeves I found rooms and corridors and stairways and exits. I spotted some arrows which lured me round a corner, up some stairs, through empty rooms, down some more stairs until I found myself back where I started. Then I did it again in case I'd taken a wrong turn somewhere. Nope. Neat trick, NOT.

I've seen too many horror films, and I kept expecting to find a face staring at me from a broken window across the way, or to discover a person living there. Perhaps a former resident who had refused to leave, or at best a disgruntled security guard.

I found bedrooms, really small rooms, with really small beds. With empty drawers stuck underneath, or long since ripped from their runners. No mattresses. No belongings. No posters on the walls.

I could not figure this place out. It's abandoned, but radiates life. There are mirrors on some of the walls, mainly broken, but enough remains to make you feel like someone is watching you. There are no signs of drug use, though plenty of empty cans of beer. Entire walls are missing, and I realise later that they were windows, taken to be sold. And there'd be very little drug use in the area due to its remoteness. Local kids probably came once for the thrill of a secret party and quickly grew bored.

There were washing machines, big industrial ones.

And an enormous kitchen with oddly pristine white tiles.

I slipped through a doorway and three birds flew loudly and violently into my face and so I screamed a scream that echoed so loudly through the empty rooms that in turn I screamed some more. I pushed against one door and something pushed back. A stiff hinge no doubt, but in my mind this was clearly the work of a scary witch and so I headed in the opposite direction again.

I could not figure it out. There's no sense from the outside of what this place was for.

A low-security prison? It certainly looked like it, but we were too close to the water, inmates would be off in a stolen dinghy in no time.

A scout camp? Plenty of outdoor activities around, but I've been to a summer camp, and I knew there'd be tiny names scratched into everything. David, Gary, Angus, Duncan.

A care home? Again, they'd be off in a shot leaving names everywhere.

Who called this place home? What happened here? Why did they leave?

I've seen too many horror films. The further I ventured, the more certain I became that I'd shortly be uncovering a pile of bodies. Imagine my horror when my boyfriend moved a piece of wood to discover a hole with a pile of bones in the bottom of it. This wasn't a horror film, this was a Steven King novel and I was 9 years old again and NOT SUPPOSED TO BE READING THAT. I regained my composure and looked a little more closely. I've seen enough episodes of Bones to know that there were none resembling anything human, most likely a dog or a sheep. But we all know what happens when you hang out in places where people put dead dogs or sheep down holes. I've seen enough episodes of Dexter.

This did not help my sense of unease.

In another room we found a sheep skeleton, two floors up. I did not know that sheep can climb stairs and if they can't then I do not want to think about how or why it got there.

Back at our holiday home I felt obsessed. Who called this place home? What happened here? Why did they leave? I needed to know much, much more.

A Google search revealed that the place is in fact a village called Polphail, and was built in the 1970s. Plans were afoot to build platforms for oil rigs in nearby Portavadie and the complex would have housed some 500 construction workers. Plans were abandoned before anyone could move in, and Polphail was left to decay.

I wondered if the workers would have liked living there. Would the small rooms have thrived with hard work, tired bodies and camaraderie? Would their kids have visited? What would have been the impact on the small local community where not much happens after 6pm, even less after 9? Who would have enjoyed this view of Loch Fyne each morning?

I learned that the graffiti, or some of it at least, came from the group Agents of Change, who were given permission to access the site in 2009, shortly before it was due to be demolished. They made it beautiful, but I think it already had a beauty of its own.

I learned that in late 2012 the 25 acre site was sold for £250,000. Apparently there are plans to build houses and a distillery but there are no signs of that yet. I remembered that I couldn't even buy a studio flat in London for £250,000 and I wondered why I left Scotland.

Two days later we returned, cameras in hand, and ventured a little further into the complex, looking for signs of life where we knew we'd find none. Despite the place having been thoroughly ransacked a number of times, part of me kept a little spark of hope that I'd discover something special. Perhaps a pristine room, hidden away from all the rest. Lost treasures. Something, anything, but there was nothing but art, the best treasure of all.

Before we left I stopped to wonder who'd been here before us. Who built this place? Who broke it? Who smashed the windows and who painted the walls? Who partied here and camped out overnight? Who cast it aside, and who saw potential? I pictured a kind of dystopian future where the rich pay to trash a place, with no pause to think about the lasting footprint. Just to know what it feels like, without malice. And I pictured a past where something different happened here.