My niece’s wedding on Saturday was held in an idyllic setting in the Devon countryside - a beautiful ancient church, accessed by a long flight of steps - you can get an idea of it from this photo
Fortunately the sun shone throughout the whole event - it might not have felt quite so idyllic if we’d all been squelching up the aisle and dripping rainwater all over the pews. Our journey down the M5 the day before had been accompanied by torrential storms, and the skies opened on us again this evening when we got back home.
One good thing for me about long car journeys is that for the last fifteen years or so, I’ve been able to read a book when I’m in the passenger seat. This weekend, my book was the aptly named A Seriously Useful Author’s Guide to Marketing and Publicising Books by Mary Cavanagh. I know I’m going to be dipping into various chapters over the next few months, while I’m working at getting my next novel, Paper Lanterns, into print. (Thank you, Mary, for producing this well-timed book!)
In my previous posts I was talking about my first writing course on the island of Kithera in Crete. There have been a lot of changes in the world of publishing and marketing books since then (about seven years ago now).
I’d say that the ‘real’ start of The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society was during that week in Kithera, in June 2001. It was my individual tutorials with Helen Carey that helped me discover my main character’s back-story and her motivations for the future - I already had a general idea of what was going to happen to seventy-five year old Agnes Borrowdale, but it wasn’t till Helen asked a few key questions, that I realised I was focusing too much on the intricacies of the plot, and didn’t yet know my characters from the inside out.
One of difficulties that Helen identified was the relationship between Agnes and her son, Jack, who places her in an old people’s home, from which she escapes at the start of the book. As the main protagonist, Agnes must engage the reader from the start, and maintain their interest and affections to the end. I had to show that Jack himself, though a flawed character, was not unsympathetic. I also needed to show why Jack, and his new partner, Monica, felt that The Harmony Home for The Young At Heart, was the best place for Agnes.
Gradually, these characters, and many more, developed both inner and outer lives of their own, as the action moved to and from Sussex to Nottingham and Birmingham. I had enormous fun in getting to know them all, and extricating them from the various awkward situations I landed them in.
Even now, as I think about them I can see and hear them in my head. They’re absolutely solid and real as the friends and relations I met up with again this weekend at the wedding. And yet at the same time, I’m fully aware of the fact that I invented everyone of them. (And I still regard myself as sane!)
This has been a busy week at Adult Education, leaving no time for Writing Matters (my blog, and my own creative writing). Weekends are usually my main time for writing, but I shan’t be able to catch up with my writing-self this weekend because it’s my niece’s wedding. She’s the only niece on my husband’s side - his only brother’s only child. I’ve got six nieces and nine nephews on my side.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m not looking forward to this event - far from it- I’m very fond of Sally, and I was delighted when I heard that she was engaged to Luke - I think they’ll make each other very happy. It’s just another example of the way ‘real life’ tends to intrude on the ‘virtual life’ of a writer. At least, that’s my experience - a constant balancing act between focussing on writing; earning a living at my ‘real job’; keeping in contact with friends and family members (and/or fulfilling other responsibilities towards them and other people). Whenever I’ve reached the final, final end of writng a novel, I wonder where on earth I managed to find the time from!
I now picture the whole novel-writing process as a kind of huge bulldozer, rather like a snow plough, but pushing a track through water, holding it at bay as I surge ahead with my novel. Unfortunately, once I’ve actually finished it, the water floods back again, surrounding and almost submerging me.
I still have lots more to tell you about what I’ve learned about the craft of writing over 25 years or so, and the highs and lows of these experiences, as you can see on my About page, above.
Apart from my actual posts about writing matters, I’ve still got quite a lot of work to do on this blog-site, particularly on the ‘pages’ on the blue line along the top, with more ’static’ information about My Fiction, My Poetry, and lots more to put onto the Links page. I also need to find out more about the technical behind-the scenes aspect of WordPress.
I’ve had useful feedback from a few readers, who’ve suggested that putting dates on the posts would make the blog easier to follow, so that’s another item on my to-do list. I’ll get round to that as soon as possible (I’ve a feeling that next week at work will be just as busy - especially as I won’t be there today or Monday)
Hurray!! Four days’ off in a row, and I’ll be seeing my son and daughter and her boyfriend - the five of us will be in a cottage in the grounds of the place where the reception will be and it’ll be lovely for us to be all together under one roof.
And now I must go and pack the car while my husband heads off to his allotment to pick strawberries to take with us.
I’ve been working on this blog-site for most of the weekend, and I’m gradually getting my head round some of the weird codes on the admin pages behind the scenes. There’s an amazing difference between these, and the effect they have created on the visible site that you’ll be looking at. Click here, and admire the spaces between the authors’ names - it took me hours of trial and error towork out how to do this!
Anyway, enough of that for the time being - I’m meant to be telling you more about my writing course on Kithera. It was organised by Andy Mullett, the driving force behind The Greek Experience – he used the local facilities, (including the tutor of the Greek course, whose main occupation was running his own delicatessen). The creative writing workshops and tutorials took place on the sheltered terrace of the small hotel, or outside one of the local bars. The art tutor lived in a nearby village, and her course took place outdoors, wherever there was an inspiring landscape, ruined farmhouse or small church.
The students on all the courses were allocated accommodation scattered around the little town of Chora. This itself was not one single place – the old ‘town’ of Chora was up at the top of a hill, and the other part was the harbour front, a long, steep road of at least a kilometre, though when walking uphill it felt like more than double that distance.
Tutors for writing courses came mainly from England. Mine, was a novelist called Helen Carey. I’d sent her parts of the novel I’d intended to work on at Arvon, and also the first few chapters of my new novel. By the end of May, I’d already won the prize of a free read from TLC, so, since I was about to get feedback on that novel, it made more sense for me to ask Helen to discuss the new novel with me. At that stage, I hadn’t got a title for this book which was to become my first published novel, The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society
Helen offered me some useful suggestions, and pointed out some possible pitfalls that I needed to be aware of, if my main character, Agnes was to keep the sympathy of the reader.
The sun shone, the mountain slopes were crisscrossed with narrow winding tracks, the air was scented with wild thyme. The sea was clear turquoise above the flat white rocks. It couldn’t have been more different from the Midlands urban setting of the novel whose characters were beginning to emerge.
It was one of the best (and most productive) holidays of my life. I was lucky enough to have another week there the following year, and that opened up yet more opportunities - but I’ll come to that later.
(Unfortunately, Andy Mullet stopped organising these activity holidays a few years ago.)
If you’re wondering about any possible connection between the terrible Foot-and-Mouth outbreak of 2001/2 , and an idyllic Greek island, read on! (if you haven’t read my previous post, it might make more sense if you read that one first)
I thought this peaceful picture of a typical Greek Island
would be a more soothing way for you to approach a post that includes mention of Foot and Mouth.
Having gained so much from my first Arvon course, I decided to apply for an ‘advanced’ fiction course, which was to be held at Totleigh Barton in Devon in March 2001. I was to bring my novel to work on and to get feedback from the tutors. This was shortly before In The Lamb-White Days had undergone its final re-write after the help I’d had from TLC.
I sent the first part of this manuscript as part of my application, and was thrilled to be accepted on the course. I knew that more work was needed on this, but I wasn’t quite sure what was missing, and/or what needed to be added. Agnes Borrowdale was already whispering in my ear, pushing for her story to be discovered, but she’d have to wait till I’d got my first novel sorted.
Anyone who’s been connected in any way with farming, or has lived/was living in the countryside in the spring of 2001, basically, anyone who watched the flaming pyres on TV news night after night, will understand that a venue set in farmland in the middle Devon, could not take the risk of encouraging visitors, who might inadvertently spread the terrible disease.
I’d realised this, even before the letter arrived, but was still disappointed. I’d been so looking forward to this week since the previous autumn, and now it had been snatched away. My brain quickly kicked into action: first, to scold me for my selfishness, when all my sympathy should be directed to those who were losing their treasured stock, and their livelihood. My sister, Jo, who had moved with her family to a small organic farm just a few years earlier, was in the middle of an infected area herself.
Then, as my brain has a helpful tendency to do, it switched my thinking on to the bright side, and encouraged me to search out a writing course somewhere unaffected by foot and mouth.
On a recent trip to Cannon Poets, I’d picked up a few leaflets with information about competitions and new poetry collections. In the middle of these, was one that I’d barely glanced at, until now: The Greek Experience – writing courses held in May/June and September/October on a small island called Kithera, in the south of the Peloponnese . There was one on fiction writing, and it fell during the Whitsun week.
I rang the contact number. There was space for me on the course.
Arvon would have been wonderful, but the combination of sunshine on a Greek island, and help with developing my novel, sounded like a very fair exchange. And so it proved to be.
Hurray! It’s Friday evening and I’ve got the whole weekend in front of me. I can catch up with emails and phone-chats with friends I’ve been neglecting a bit recently. I might even have time to do more work on my publishing venture, NovelPress. (But more of that at a later date.) And I’ll play around with my newly acquired skill of posting pictures. (Just for practice, here’s one of our cat, Heidi, admiring a few punnets of strawberries from my husband’s allotment)
Meanwhile, I’ll carry on with what I was saying in my last post , The Literacy Consultancy.
Although it’s encouraging to be praised enthusiastically by an experienced agent, it’s also frustrating, since it raises the question, ‘So what else do I have to do to convince an agent to take me on?’
Here is an example of one of those letters, praising and (sadly) rejecting In The Lamb-White Days:
“You have captured those wonderful days of innocence beautifully and have created an utterly charming world (though with certain bleak moments), peppered with some interesting characters. You write very well, and tell a good story, but without feeling that passion for your novel, I feel it would be irresponsible for us to take you on. You deserve to be nurtured and treasured by someone who believes in you and can represent you with that vital enthusiasm.
I am sorry to be the bearer of such disappointing news, but we all have to realise our limitations, particularly if it involves someone else’s career. I am sure that you will find another agent very easily and I will watch your rise to stardom with interest.”
This lovely letter was from Broo Doherty when she was still working for Gregory and Company.
When I’d exhausted TLC’s supply of named contacts, I had to face the fact that this was it. The meandering path had led me, pleasantly enough, back down to where I’d started.
Not quite, though. This whole experience, from winning the prize of a free read with TLC, through all I’d learned from Sara Maitland’s reports, to the encouraging comments from the recommended agents, had boosted my flagging confidence, and given me renewed enthusiasm – enough to get back to my next novel, the ideas for which were still in the very early stages of development.
It had been a useful experience. I’d learned a lot, and in my own eyes at least, I’d been confirmed as a ‘real writer’ worthy of publication. I just hadn’t made it yet. And even if I never did find a publisher, it wouldn’t be because I wasn’t ‘good-enough’. I didn’t actually need ‘permission’ to carry on with my fiction writing – I would do that anyway. But it was nice to be given that affirmation of my skills.
As far as I was concerned, that would be my last contact with TLC and Sara Maitland. I was wrong, as I’ll explain later.
Meanwhile, I needed to get my act together and sort out the jumble of ideas jostling for inclusion in the novel whose main character, following on from my discussions with Clarissa Dickson Wright in the pub in Herefordshire all those years ago, was just emerging from the mist of unconsciousness: seventy-five year-old Agnes Borrowdale. (See my post, ‘about rats and not writing a sitcom’)
I chose a good weekend for driving down to visit my mum - the countryside is so beautiful at this time of year, especially when it’s sunny.
Now it’s Tuesday already and I can’t believe how quickly time is rushing by.
Now, back to what I was talking about in my last post. The first hundred pages of In The Lamb-White Days were read by Sara Maitland, a well-respected and highly accomplished novelist - Her first novel, Daughters of Jerusalem won the Somerset Maugham award. (See my previous post to find out more about my novel). Within a few weeks, I’d received 3 pages of typed A4 paper, full of welcome praise, and critique that was both lucid, and, as I immediately acknowledged to myself, fair.
I’m constantly surprised at the way I manage to ignore some deep seated niggles of doubt about certain passages of my fiction, and phrases of my poems. As soon as these have been pointed out to me, I know that the comments are valid because they strike with the light of recognition.
I still had a lot of work to do on this novel, and I tackled it with enthusiasm. In some ways, I enjoy the re-writing more than the first draft(s).
When I’d managed to reshape it into a form that I was happy with (apart, I later realised, from some aspects of the final section) it was time to contact TLC again. Would I have to pay the full price for a read of the whole manuscript? If so, would I go ahead? I needn’t have worried: as a previous ‘client’, albeit non-paying, I was entitled to a greatly reduced fee.
Sara’s reaction to my amendments was very gratifying, and, still inspired to aim for the best, I went back to the novel again and re-wrote the entire final quarter. Having got this far, it seemed stupid to baulk at another payment. I felt that Sara had so far earned every penny I’d paid. I trusted her judgement implicitly, not only her suggestions for improvements, but also her detailed and specific praise.
The final (and third) report I received, announced that she deemed my book worthy of publication, and would recommend to TLC that they should offer me help in finding an agent. They duly gave me the contact details of a short list of agents whom they felt might be interested in representing me.
From each of these, I received a beautiful letter, praising the quality of my writing, but, suggesting that, although they, themselves, could not offer to represent me, they were certain that I would be successful with another agent.
Before I ‘get back to my novel’, I’ve got to mention poetry first because I’m about to drive over to Leicester to my fortnightly evening meeting with the women’s poetry group, Soundswrite, and this particular meeting is one I’ve been looking forward to for ages - The wonderful poet, Mimi Khalvati is coming up from London to lead a workshop for us, and she is always inspiring - even if I don’t manage to come up with anything during the event, I’ll certainly be taking away a few lines ideas to work on later.
My free time at the moment is divided between my first love (poetry) and my equal love (fiction). I used my-as-yet-unfinished novel as the basis for my dissertation, and achieved my Masters degree - but I hadn’t joined the course for the sake of a qualification. (See my post: ‘Starting my first proper novel’. What meant far more to me than the qualification were my new friendships, and the novel for which I was determined to find a publisher.
When I finished that novel, I was back onto a self-directed course, learning even more about the Difficulties of Getting Published. My first ‘course’ on that subject had been more than fifteen years earlier, and I’d gained nothing to show for it (apart from an increased resilience in the face of rejection.)
Nothing? The hide of a rhinoceros and the tenacity of a terrier were precisely what I needed during the years that followed.
I was already aware that publishers were unlikely even to glance at a standard submission package of three-chapters + synopsis, without the stamp of approval from a reputable agent. (See my earlier post Hunting for and Agent)
In spite of that, I did approach a few publishers direct - ones which, for some reason, I’d hoped might be different from the rest. After all, a person can’t give up their store of magical-thinking without the occasional lapse - you’ve got to leave at least one tiny door ajar, for luck to squeeze through!
My belief in luck diminished as the pile of agents’ rejection slips approached the state of critical mass. It slowly dawned on me that agents themselves were longer the first port of call. I was increasingly finding, along with their brief , ‘Thanks-but-no-thanks’, an enclosed leaflet with information about the third layer: the Professional Readers Services.
The leaflet which turned up more often than any other was from an organisation called The Literacy Consultancy ( or TLC), and, being part-funded by the Arts Council it seemed like the best bet. However, when I saw the fees involved for a full length novel, I put it from my mind.
Until, that is, I came across a writing competition, organised by East Midlands Arts, inviting the submission of the first 100 pages of a novel. The prize for the one (or more) of the most promising manuscripts was a FREE read and subsequent written report from TLC itself.
I won that prize!
Once the first rush of excitement had diminished, I realised that though it was very encouraging in itself, this prize was only a start. It felt a bit like setting out on a winding track that seemed to be leading uphill, but could just as easily wind its way back down to the start again.
(This post will make more sense if you read the ones below, first)
After a cold, wet weekend and a chilly Monday and Tuesday, I’ll be off back to work again in a few minutes as this is the evening for teaching my evening literacy class - something I always enjoy once I get there.
Meanhwile, here’s the next part of my story about my first public performance with the poetry group, Late Shift. See: ‘Will I make it to Ledbury Literary Festival?’
Everyone knows that stage fright is unavoidable – and there I was, on the M5 on my way to Ledbury Literary Festival and still there was no sign of stomach butterflies or clammy palms. OK, then, enjoy it while it lasts, I thought. It’ll happen with a vengeance when I get nearer to Ledbury. I entered the town and found the hotel we’d all booked into for the night. And still I felt perfectly calm.
I booked in, and went out again to meet up with the others, as arranged, at the festival office. Seeing them was a pleasure, unalloyed by any hint of lurking panic. Maybe it was saving itself till I reached the venue?
Well before the programmed start-time, we trooped in to the hall, where at least 100 chairs were waiting for the audience. Our audience! Still not a flutter to disturb my composure. Every time I’d begun to think about the possibility of stage fright, I could feel a physical block in that part of my brain. Try as I might, any thoughts of that nature refused to materialise. It was then that realisation dawned:
I’d been ‘zapped’ by our family friend, a highly skilled psychologist, who mainly worked with children. I’d been talking to him a couple of days before my big event, and worrying about the possibility of stage fright, so, in his own inimitable way, he’d fixed it.
Hypnotism doesn’t have to be obvious to be effective. Quite the reverse, I’d imagine. Whatever the truth of it, I managed to give a good-enough performance, without a twinge of stage fright. The audience seemed to be enjoying my contributions just as they enjoyed the others – and their silences were as telling as their applause.
Love Bites, by Late Shift was a huge success, and because I was never troubled by stage fright, or even the fear of it, from that day on, I’ve been able to focus on perfecting my delivery - thanks to our friend. What a gift that was!
Next stop – the Edinburgh Festival (not quite next, exactly, but maybe the most exciting !)
Gaining new skills when you get older – especially when you’re on the down-hill side of fifty - is unimaginably rewarding.
A rather depressing day at work - a meeting about the new funding for September. You’ll understand why I’m feeling like this if you look back at one of my earlier posts, A Beginner Reader is not a Beginner Thinker .
I enjoyed working as an Adult Literacy tutor, and later a manager, because the service was dedicated to helping people who’d not been successful at school, and giving them support and time to work at their own pace. Now, the funding is depending more and more on quick results and accreditation, with less opportunity to take account of the realities of people’s lives, such as shift work, ill-health, and familiy responsibilities.
The word ‘family’ brings me back what I was mentioning in the previous post about Late Shift (to see how this came about, take a look at the post, Cannon Poets and What This Led to )
As any parent will know, once you’ve fixed a date for one of the most important events in your adult life, particularly one that closely involves others for whom your presence is vital, Sod (of Sod’s Law) will manage to arrange a conflicting event on the same date at the same time somewhere else in the country for one of your children – an event that in their eyes will rank as the most important of their life, ever. One of those key rites of passage, than which nothing, absolutely nothing, could be more important – for example, your daughter’s graduation ceremony.
Naturately, that was the date chosen for Late Shift’s first performance – an occasion that was to take place in one of the main venues for artistic events in the Literary Festival at Ledbury. The date of my daughter’s graduation ceremony at Nottingham University, with an invitation for two close relatives. This, in her case, meant her father, and her mother.
This was the three-year old who’d stopped my heart at the thought of our future separation. How could I not be there for her? (see the post: A Short Digression onThe Joys of Motherhood)
Enter Clarissa Dickson Wright, (a bit like a fairy godmother!) My daughter would have four visitors to her university that day: both parents would be at the lunch beforehand, together with her brother and her dearly-beloved Godmother. We could all be photographed with the graduate in her cap and gown (proof of her mother’s presence, in spite of everything) , and then I’d drive our son back home, before setting off for Ledbury. Meanwhile, Clarissa would take my place among the assembled parents, and offer her cheers and applause instead of mine.
As I drove away, I wondered why I wasn’t feeling nervous. Well, it must be because I wasn’t strictly on the way to Ledbury yet – I was on my way home, to collect my script and drop off my son. Stage fright was obligatory, wasn’t it? It was bound to hit me, sooner or later.
Am exhausted! Tuesday evening is when I teach my adult literacy course. It’s been very muggy this evening - and the whole building was hot and airless, in spite of having the windows opened. I was there because I had to be - it’s part of my job, but the students have dragged themselves out again after a hard day’s work, when they must have been tempted to relax with a cold drink.
As I often do at the end of a session, I wondered if I’d made it worth their while. We’d all been a bit more subdued than usual and preparing for exams places some limits on the kinds of activities I can plan for, but they all said they’d found it useful.
Talking about planning takes me back to what I was talking about in my last post, How the Poetry Group, Late Shift, was Created.
I’ll always be grateful to Don for giving me this opportunity, and to Susan and Rob for their encouragement. The planning meetings and rehearsals were great fun. We developed a very effective format for designing our performances. To start with, we’d agree a topic - preferably one on which we already had some suitable poems. The name of our first show was ‘Love Bites’, which gave us more or less a free hand.
The next task was to select some of our own love-related poems, humorous or serious, and often both. We then met to select or discard some of these offerings, divvying up the numbers for each of us, and identify the gaps, which we would have to fill with new-coined poems.
It was usually Rob who volunteered to sort the final choice of poems into a running order that would make a kind of conversation, with the poems talking to or bouncing off each other. We’d arrange another meeting, varying the host house, up and down from Berkshire to the Midlands, and, after agreeing to (or amending) Rob’s arrangements, we’d insert some lively ‘impromptu’ linking comments to each other, weaving a seamless show.
This formula worked so well the first time round, that we used it for all our subsequent shows. Audiences enjoyed the interplay between us, and the constant switching from one voice to another. We seemed to have hit the bulls eye of the middle ground, where ‘serious’ poets and followers thereof would feel they were being fed enough of the ‘real’ stuff for nourishment, while those for whom the word ‘poetry’ would normally act as an instant reminder that they had to be somewhere else very, very far away that very minute, came out smiling and saying, actually, that wasn’t like poetry at all - I really enjoyed it!!’
But I’m running ahead of myself – My first-ever performance since the age of six, was looming. My biggest fear was that I’d let the others down