Anyone who’s been dipping into this blog on Writing Matters will have noticed that the first few lines often stray far away from my intended subject. But I won’t talk about today’s torrential rain - and I’ll wait till Sunday, when I post my next Poem of the Week, before I tell you about my radio interview on Chris Morgan’s Poetry Show this evening.
Now it’s back to the next phase of my novel’s journey towards publication. I imagine the package being opened by someone at The Literary Consultancy, who glances through the synopsis and decides which of their team of Readers to send it to.
Time was doing its usual trick, and had already swallowed the rest of September and the whole of October before I’d even noticed they’d come round again. Then, half way through November, a letter arrived from Sara Maitland , the well respected novelist who also works as a Reader for TLC.
She remembered reading my previous novel, In The Lamb-White Days, and how beautifully written it was. After some more encouraging words, she moved on to the book in hand, The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society.
I was delighted with her initial comments :
In the first place, I think that the idea behind the book –the “concept” – is delightful, enormous fun and surprisingly original
She then paid me the complement of commenting in depth and detail for several pages about the aspects she liked and those which she felt could be developed or altered. I respected her suggestions, but at this stage, after all the cutting back I’d done in response to Leigh Pollinger’s suggestions, I knew that the book was now set in its own shape – it was a finished product.
But the crucial part of her report was this:
I don’t know if you have noticed but there is a new press setting up in Oxford to publish novels, called Transita (www.transita.co.uk) specifically to publish “grown up” novels-so they obviously think there is a market out there.
She went on to explain that Transita had just taken on a novel by a friend of hers which had been stigmatised as being about “middle aged people”.
‘So I think there is a good chance that novels on themes like yours are going to be coming into fashion, and this will obviously be an enormous advantage in selling DSES.’
The next package I took to the post, contained the synopsis and first three chapters of The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society. It was addressed to Transita.
It’s beginning to seem that whenever I’ve planned to write about poetry, I really feel like posting about fiction, and vice versa. Therefore, since I’ve designated Sunday for my Poem of the Week, it’s no surprise that I really want to tell you about the work I’ve just been doing on my novel, Paper Lanterns.
So here’s a short digression first. Although I produced the final version of this novel a few months ago, there were one or two of the early parts that I’ve kept tinkering with - especially the first part of Chapter One, and now I really do think it’s sorted.
The other thing I’ve been doing today relates to aspects of sign-posting (which I may, or may not keep to, when I’m laying out the final PDF version ready for self-publication). I’ve been experimenting with giving dates and titles to different sections, in order to present an initial overview for the reader. I’m very visual myself, and I like to see the overall shape of what I’m about to read.
I’ve also made a list of the 35 chapters, with just a few words about the content of each, in case I decide to give them all a title (that’s not very likely, though).
Not counting the brief prologue (Sutton Coldfield 1971), I’ve identified ten section headings – starting with:
Sutton Coldfield 2008 – Ann; (chapters 1 to 3)
Hong Kong 2008 – Vivienne; (chapters 4 to 10)
Hong Kong 1930 - Belle (chapters 11 to 13)
I now have an A4 page with the relevant chapter numbers and brief details arranged under the different section headings, and I like the shape of the book’s structure!
And now, it’s back to poetry again. My post last Wednesday mentioned the event at the Kitchen Garden Café, so here’s one of the three that I read that evening
Through her camouflage of mohair
my fingers meet a sudden shoulder blade
and jut of rib. Bone of her bone is nothing new.
Flesh of her flesh. But this is new:
that stem cells of a foetus make their way
into the very marrow of their host –
renew themselves, year after year. So
I transmit my thoughts, electric pulses along
axons and dendrites out through my palms
and fingertips into her skin then down
to the dark centre of bone where my own
cells and my siblings’ cells and the cells of our
long-dead brother, her first baby, jostle each other
and I tell them push your strength into her.
I wrote this a few years ago, inspired by an article that caught my imagination (I can’t now remember where). It revealed that the bone marrow of mothers contains some of the stem cells of their own children – and these are still renewing themselves many years after the birth. I read this shortly after returning home to the Midlands after visiting my mother in Sussex. She was in her late 80s at the time, and I’d noticed that she seemed to have become thinner and more frail since , and I’d last seen her. (She’s now 92, and still doing well, so maybe those cells have been doing their job! )
This story of my fruitless (so far) search for an agent to represent my novel, is turning into something of a shaggy dog story! In my previous post, (see below) I explained how I’d approached Tindal Street Press, and, at first, had been encouraged by their response, asking to see the complete manuscript.
July passed slowly, and as August drifted away into September, I began to fear the worst.
A couple of weeks later, I received a letter from Luke, telling me that, although their reader ‘found this an appealing story, told with energy and insight,’ they would not be publishing my book, because ‘he thought there were too many problems with the plotting.’
The good news was: their reader thought my manuscript had promise - and I might want to take advantage of an offer of further editorial advice. They’d been asked by the National Association of Literature Development to choose some promising manuscripts to send to…(and here is where I experienced a strong case of déjà vu) …The Literary Consultancy for a free read. (See my post, so near and yet…)
For a while, I wondered if I really wanted to take on yet another person’s helpful suggestions for changes, and then, if I was lucky, have the TLC’s reader recommending my book to the same agents who had turned down my previous novel In The Lamb-White Days. I was finding it hard to get rid of the song that had been reverberating in my head since reading Luke’s letter: ‘There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Lisa, dear Lisa….’
But I find it almost impossible to ignore a genuine ‘free offer’. On top of that, I had been told to contact Sibyl Ruth, the Literary Officer at the Midlands Arts Centre at that time, if I wanted to accept the offer – and I had a particular reason for wanting to bring myself to Ruth’s attention.
(This is where Me-as-Poet wants to take centre stage, but the story of Single Travellers, my small poetry collection, will have to wait for a while.) As will, my account of Late Shift’s performances at the EdinburghFestival in 2003
Ruth was very encouraging, and The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society was packaged up again, and posted off to London.
Poetry keeps intruding when I’m focusing on prose, so before I carry on with my account of trying to find a publisher for my novel, I have to make a brief mention of a very entertaining poetry event I attended on Tuesday evening at the welcoming and atmospheric Kitchen Garden Café in Kings Heath.
There was a real buzz to the evening, created not only by the highly entertaining and thought-provoking performance of Luke Kennard,the guest poet, but also from members of the audience who’d signed up for their three-minute floor-spot to recite their own poems. I love hearing these – there’s such a wide variety of styles and subject matter, all delivered with great enthusiasm. And I enjoyed having my own three minutes of attention too.
So far, on this blog, I think that my fiction has taken up most of these posts, and I see that I’ve already reached 2004 without saying much about what had been happening with my poetry. That will have to wait, while I carry on telling you about my novel.
By the time I’d received the disappointing news from Leigh Pollinger, it was already 2004, (see this earlier post) and I’d almost exhausted the supply of literary agents listed in the 2003 Writers & Artists Year Book . Each attempt seemed to have led me round and round, backwards and forwards through a maze of impenetrable hedges. And now I found myself at the start again.
This time, I decided to try a different route to publication. Tindal Street Press, the small, Birmingham-based publisher had recently had its profile raised by the success of Clare Morrall’s brilliant book, Astonishing Splashes of Colour. I’d re-worked The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society to its final, final shape and length, so I felt I had nothing to lose by approaching them. After all, I was a ‘local author’ and my book was based mainly in the Midlands, with several key scenes taking place in Birmingham. I could be in with a chance.
Several weeks later, I allowed my hopes to rise when Luke Brown, the Editorial Assistant asked me for the whole manuscript – their reader had obviously liked what she’d read so far. As the weeks went by, I tried to think of what I could do next if they turned me down. After being rejected by nearly 40 agents and a few publishers, it was beginning to seem that the only realistic option for The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society would be to publish it myself.
I had a fabulous day in London yesterday, offering pre-event support to my friend, Crysse Morrison who gave a wonderful hour of poetry from the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square from 4.00 to 5.00 pm. She has her own regular blog, so click here for her own account of the event.(Scroll down to Sunday, July 19th 09)
Now it’s Sunday again, and while I was browsing through my file of fairly recent work, wondering which poem to post as my Poem of the Week, I came across this one, which was set in a hotel not very far from where I was yesterday:
In the Garden of the Goring Hotel
Thickets of laurel and rhododendron cushion the wall
lulling the background of car horns and engines
almost to silence, until a sudden hiss of exhalation –
a bus, maybe, pulling away from the grimy kerb
dropping young travellers from Poland or Estonia
to pan for gold. In the shrubbery, a five-year old
plays among the twigs and beetle tracks. The scent
of box-leaves hasn’t altered, all these years; dark-red
pansies, yellow ones and indigo, display the same face.
Moss has homed in on the cracks in the crazy paving
that leads to the dark fence and the tall pines.
On the edge of this echo of forest, a running girl
almost breaks free from the dappled shade.
The bronze sole of her bronze foot holds her still.
I wrote the first of several versions of this poem in May 08, after staying in this friendly and luxurious hotel for a couple of days, thanks to the generosity of Clarissa, my best friend from school days (scroll down to the 2nd paragraph of this post)for the story of how we met.
Being unaccustomed to staying in any hotel, let alone an upmarket one in central London, a mere stone’s throw from Victoria Station, I was fascinated by the contrasts, not only between the oasis of calm in the beautiful, enclosed garden, and my occasional awareness of the noisy streets beyond the high walls, but also between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ of this city.
The strongest memory that I took from that visit, was the image of the beautiful bronze girl, held in perpetual motion under the trees.
As usual, I tried to cram too many details of thoughts, sights and sounds into the poem. When I was on a poetry writing course in Crete in June 08, run by Mimi Khalvati she unerringly focussed on what was, in fact, the real heart of the poem.
This final version has now been reduced from 20-something to 14 lines which seem to have shaped themselves into a sonnet and I’m much happier with it as a result. (Thank you, Mimi!)
One of the activities I’ve most enjoyed since becoming a published author, is giving talks to book-reading groups. Many hundreds of new novels will have made their appearance in the bookshops since my publication date of October 2005, so it was a nice surprise to be invited by Gail at the Sutton Coldfield Waterstones to join the group that meets there once a month on Wednesday mornings, because they’d been reading my book.
It was a lively group with lots of interesting comments and questions, and I’m hoping that I didn’t rattle on a bit too much - once I get started on talking about writing novels and all the other stuff that comes with it (getting published, and then the marketing side of things) there’s no stopping me!. So it was probably just as well that I had to leave them early and get back to work.
This morning at Waterstones, I was asked if I’d approached publishers directly, or went through an agent.
Even before I’d received the definite rejection from Orion, I knew that I had to start hunting for an agent again – so I went out and bought the 2003 version of The Writers & Artists Year Book.
Apart from the addition of a few new literary agents, the most useful development was the occasional invitation to make a first submission via email. Hurray!! I thought, that’ll cut down on postage costs (high) ,and the length of wait for any response (long). It was certainly encouraging to get swift responses from the ones I approached, most of which were encouraging - ‘your book sounds unusual and thought-provoking’ and ‘interesting and original’ (phrases like these are food and drink for a struggling author).
Equally encouraging were requests to see the synopsis and first 3 chapters, and even more encouraging, the few who took things to the next stage and asked for the whole manuscript to be sent. (Yes, sent. By post. Freshly printed pages packed into large jiffy bags with return postage.)
In spite of several encouraging ‘starts’, I was no nearer to persuading an agent to take me on. The nearest I came to that happy situation was a useful correspondence with Leigh Pollinger from Pollinger Ltd. Before that, I thought that I’d cut it as ruthlessly as possible, from 120,000 to 114,00 words.
But when I followed Leigh’s advice to remove one extraneous story-thread and try to reduce the word count to 80,000, I went though the whole manuscript again, removing any paragraph, sentence, phrase or word that wasn’t making an essential contribution to the novel. eventually, I managed to get the word-count down to 87,000, and I know that the book is much stronger than it would have been without this useful advice.
My first contact with Pollinger’s was made in early June 03, and it wasn’t until early February 04, after he’d seen a couple of re-writes, that I was given his final conclusion: this was either ‘the right book, with the wrong title, or the wrong book, with the right title.’ Although I was grateful for the time he’d spent on reading through and commenting on my work, I was beginning to lose heart.
If I wasn’t ever going to find an agent, then I’d need to approach a publisher without one.
Sunday is now my day for posting one of my poems. As I said last week, I might not feel the same about some of my poems as I did when I wrote them, but they’re part of my writing history.
Here’s this week’s offering - a poem from 2002: (I’ll explain below a little about what inspired it, and what I think about it now.)
AT ATHENS AIRPORT
White has a different meaning
underground. More so in that hollow time
before thin hours swell to daybreak.
If this mile-long corridor held stores of words
blank walls would be awash with abstracts -
detachment, dislocation, distance.
Single travellers seem to cast no shadow -
landing, they’ll brace themselves,
not against the jolt of wheels on tarmac,
but the delicate reintegration of self to self.
A wall of plate-glass holds the heat at bay.
Light waves stream through, skid to a halt
on marble tiles. The floor’s a lake, the way
it draws down smudged blue lines from strip-lights
and dark Aegean blue of check-in counters,
sky-blue monitors floating below them.
I’m trying to label blue I’ve left behind.
Shutters opening on white walls are easy
but sea defeats me – flash of kingfisher,
a peacock’s eye, can’t catch that shade between
taste of spearmint and smell of eucalyptus.
Blue fades so fast. How will I keep it?
Voices. Man and wife, an awkward wall
around their son. Squat wheels skew out
under luggage. In the marble lake
a creature stirs. The boy treads ice,
hand on his father’s arm until bare calves
make contact with my bench.
Eyeballs swivel like a startled horse.
See nothing. The mother’s words
like fingers on his face, We won’t be long.
You sure you’ll be all right?
Does he know there’s someone beside him?
He’s fumbling a remembered blanket
rocking his body like a metronome. My hands
lie clammy on my lap, veins like blue worms.
The usual offering won’t help me now, the smile,
the nod, that gives me haven in eyes of strangers.
Blue’s just a name for certain waves of light.
It’s a strange experience to re-read some of my own poems that were written several years ago. A bit like suddenly coming across a photo of my younger self, and realising that I’ve moved on since then - that not only do I look different, but that I think about, and understand, the world from a different vantage point.
Reading this poem again just now, has reminded me more about the struggle that I had when writing it, than the thoughts and emotions that inspired it, and that I was attempting to convey.
And now I can see that that’s what’s wrong with it! The effort is too apparent - I was trying too hard to pin down with absolute precision my feelings about everything I was experiencing - every sight and sound had to be described in detail, and this, I now realise, has dissipated the emotion in too much ‘thinking’, too many words.
I’m still pleased with several parts of each section, but that’s not enough – by focussing too much on individual ‘trees’ I’ve (at least partly) lost sight of the wood in its entirety.
I’m somtimes asked if I find it difficult to switch from writing a novel to writing poetry, and although at the time I wasn’t aware of it, it could be that I was in ‘novel-writing’ mode when I wrote this poem.
(It wouldn’t be surprising, because I was also spending a lot of my time on The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society)
I don’t really need to give any more background to the poem itself, apart from saying that it came from my experience of spending the night at Athens Airport. I was on my way back from another wonderful writing course at Kithera, in June 2002, this time led by Crysse Morrison – an inspiring tutor, poet, performer and author of two enthralling novels.
I’m snatching a morsel of time for this post before I have to go to work. In the last few weeks I’ve had to choose between my almost daily pre-breakfast dose of endorphins at the gym or jogging, and working on my Writing Matters.
I’ve got so much to write about my writing history that I’m constantly torn between my novel writing and my poetry. In my last post I introduced my ‘Poem of the Week’, so now it’s fiction’s turn:
My last mention of The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society was in the post ‘Devon, Torrential rain and my novel’
One of the questions I get asked about writing a novel is,’ How long did it take you?’ My answer for my first published novel is ‘Two years,’ but there’s a lot more to it than that. It depends on what you mean by ‘writing a novel’. For me, it’s a lot more than finding myself at the ending of the story, because that’s when the intensive re-writing begins. Paradoxically, a major part of this process involves ‘un-writing’ – i.e. cutting.
My original version was 120,000 words, from which I cut about 6,000 before I started sending it out on its long journey towards publication. As I’ve already said in a previous post, in some ways, I enjoy the re-writing more than the first draft(s).
I was well aware from my previous attempts at getting novels published, that publishers are very unlikely to look at your manuscript if it has come directly from the author, rather than an agent. But this time, I had a direct introduction to a publishing house, Orion. Helen Cary, my tutor on my first creative writing course on the Greek island of Kithera in June 2001, was a personal friend of Yvette, a reader/editor at Orion.
I was delighted when she replied to my package of the usual first-3-chapters-and-synopsis, asking to see the complete manuscript, and even more delighted, a few weeks later when she said that she really liked the book and would recommend it to the editing team.
I was rather puzzled when she wrote again, saying that the others had considered it to be a ‘difficult subject’ and would therefore not be publishing it. This was my first introduction to what is now, increasingly, an essential ingredient in being published: the crystal clarity of the category into which your book will fit like a glove. No fit, no publication. The most important people in the publishing house, the Sales and Marketing Team, will find it ‘difficult’ to sell to the book-sellers – they wouldn’t know what shelf to put it on.
My book couldn’t be placed on the shelves of any of the following: Crime, Romance, Thrillers, or any other nice, clear category (certainly not ‘Sport’ in spite of its title). And I’d made the most naïve mistake of all: creating a main character who, instead of being young and feisty and beautiful, was merely feisty. And how was a marketing person going to promote a book about a seventy-five year old woman in search of her grandchildren, who invents an unlikely life-saving society when she’s prevented a lonely, retired barrister’s clerk from throwing himself under a high speed train on Birmingham’s New Street Station?
Our extremely large and heavy tabby cat, Heidi, is curled up on a cushion on my lap, purring like an engine. Without the cushion, I’d be at risk from her long claws – the slightest sound of footsteps in the kitchen, and she’ll be digging her claws through my thin summer skirt as she hurls herself halfway across the floor and out of the door with the speed and agility of a much smaller, lighter creature, determined to greet the real love of her life, my husband.
Now that she’s stopped gazing up at me, asking for her head to be rubbed, and appears to be asleep, I can get on with my Writing Matters. I’ve been finding it strangely helpful to look back on the various stages of my writing ‘career’ over the last 25 years. Reflecting on the pattern of my ‘two-steps-forwards-one-step-back’ journey, confirms for me what I already (partly) knew – persistence is even more essential when times are difficult, and, you never can tell what’s round the corner.
Although at the end of my last post, I said that I’d be talking about novel writing and the events leading up to the publication of my book, I’ve let myself be side-tracked to my other passion: poetry. At Erdington Library last Wednesday, I was being asked lots of questions about my poems, and I’ve just been browsing through some older files on my computer, and my small collection, Single Travellers; Flarestack 2004 –there’s a story behind that, and I’ll come to it sooner or later.
I’ve dabbled in writing poetry since I was a child, but it wasn’t till my Arvon Course at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire that I ‘came out’ as a poet.(see my post: an Arvon Course and a Poetry Prize….)
I think that some of these poems have stood the test of time and ‘work’ on me the way they did when I wrote them – others, are just not ‘me’ anymore. I probably wouldn’t write those poems in that way these days - my circumstances are different, and I’ve developed some different techniques, but they’re part of my writing history.
So I’ve decided to start a new category, ‘Poem of the Week’ where I’ll give an airing to some of my poems, old and new. I’ll aim for doing this every Sunday. I expect this’ll be a fairly random selection, based on something in my day or week that’s triggered a memory of the poem itself, or the experience that led to it, or simply because it seems in keeping with the weather or season.
This is a fairly recent poem, inspired by a wonderful creative writing course, led by Mimi Khalvati in Crete in June last year. I was delighted when it was selected by Penelope Shuttle for inclusion in the second edition of ArtemisPoetry, published this May.
In this hot weather, I’ve thought about that beautiful place, and how grateful I was for the patches of shade on a long walk up the mountain side.
Climbing to Livaniana
I thank the hands
these small cairns
at each turn of the track
and the owners
of the olive trees
for their caves of shade
and those who tend
the hairy goats
for ripples of wind-chimes
in this airless heat
the keeper of the bees
that stream from their
to graze the purple
cushions of thyme
and I thank the thyme
for its crushed scent
the way it nudges
I can almost
At my money-earning job with Adult Education, I’m known by my married name, while in my alter ego as a poet and novelist, I use the name I was born with, Christine Coleman. I get a particular enjoyment from fusing the two roles, so this afternoon was especially enjoyable.
As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I see a strong link between my teaching and my writing (particularly teaching adult literacy - see the post ‘A Beginner reader is not a Beginner Thinker’) This afternoon I’d been invited by the tutor, Jan Watts, to help launch the little book that she’d helped the creative writing group to produce : ‘A little Book of Smells.’ This very evocative sense was stimulated on every page and it was lovely to hear the proud authors reading some of their own pieces. The high standard of their delivery was a tribute Jan’s drama background.
The group meets once a month at Erdington library, and in my then role as manager of the nearby Osborne A.E. Centre, I had set up this class several years ago. It was a joy to be back there, sharing the ‘Visiting Professional Writer’ role with Chris Morgan, Birmingham’s current Poet Laureate.
The group were keenly interested in what Chris Morgan and I had to say about our own writing practices. This is one of the reasons why I started this blog: Writing Matters - so many people enjoy writing and are fascinated by the varied experiences of others, particularly those who’ve progressed a little further along the journey.
While answering questions from the group, I was suddenly struck by a thought which I’d never articultated before in quite this way: one of the things I love about writing is that I’m always learning. If I ever I lose that joy in learning, I’ll stop writing!
When I was asked which I preferred, writing fiction or poetry, I couldn’t give a definte answer, though I’ll explore that question in more detail later.
Right now, I know I want to continue writing about the events leading to the publication of The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society. In my last post, I’d just finished a wonderful writing course on the Greek island of Kithera that was in May 2002 and I’ve not mentioned my poetry career, since the first performance of my poetry group, Late Shift, at Ledbury in 1998? or was it 99?
I’ve got lots more to say about the way my poetry developed from the late 90’s to the present day, but that will have to wait for a few days.