I’ve had an exhausting and exhilarating day with H. J., one of my writing friends. We’ve talked almost non-stop since the moment she arrived yesterday evening, sharing our struggles with our different writing projects.
H J loves walking as much as I do, and this afternoon we had a three hour walk around Sutton Park. It was (apparently) a gift from Henry VIII to the people of Sutton Coldfield in perpetuity, so what ever else he might have done, I’m grateful to him for preserving this beautiful space. It’s one of the largest enclosed parklands in Europe – 2,400 acres of heathland, ancient woods and seven lakes. I feel so lucky to have this a mile or two away from on my doorstep.
It’s funny how a solitary activity like writing can extend one’s chances of meeting new and interesting people – anyone who’s read some of my earlier posts will know that my first residential writing course (at Arvon’s Lumb Bank Centre) opened up new opportunities not only for developing my poetry and novel writing skills, but also for creating new circles of friends. It’s been one of the unexpected joys of ‘coming out’ as a writer.
Once you’ve settled into adult life with a steady job and children about to leave home, it can be only too easy to trundle along in your comfortable rut, as horizons shrink, and you hardly notice that your eyes are fixed on the same old view. I joined the MA in Writing course because I knew I needed to be challenged – that was nearly twelve years ago and I’m still being challenged by some of my then-fellow students, and many other writers I’ve come across since then.(H.J. is one of the most challenging and inspiring -she’s a whirlwind of energy and a talented writer and artist.)
This afternoon, as we skirted muddy puddles, treading layers of last year’s leaves under beech and oak, holly and chestnut trees, I knew which of my poems I’d be posting today:
Down to the Wood
The table has grown smug. It smirks
at her, winks in the lamplight
as she lifts her fork.
It came with the house: dead wood
wedging itself between them, her
back, closer to the wall each
year as he inserts another leaf.
Mahogany. She hears it settle
dreaming of forest.
Sometimes she hushes it with damask,
the way a cloth drapes silence
over a parrot’s cage.
The fabric slides onto the floor, letting
the table hold her hands and face
in its deep sheen.
She’s lost her appetite for balanced
meals on a polished surface. She’ll
forage in the wood,
lips and fingers grained with
blackberry and juniper, no table
but the tawny floor of leaves.
This poem was first published in Poetry Nottingham International 2004, and in my own collection Single Travellers (Flarestack 2004) Since then I’ve changed the ending, and it’s this version which appears the anthology, A Twist of Malice (Grey Hen Press 2008)
I was delighted to have the chance to cut out the final stanza, as by that time, I’d felt that it weakened the whole poem. Here’s the original below in italics. See what you think!
lips and fingers grained with
blackberry and juniper, no table
but the tawny floor of leaves she’ll ruffle
with her palm and blue-veined wrist
the way she used to on the
tangle of his chest.
In my last post, I mentioned my delight in coming across ‘so many informative, and/or quirky, inspiring, reflective, hilarious, challenging etc etc whole new communities out there.’
One of these is Essential Writers, where you’ll find a cornucopia of posts about the experiences of other writers – something new and interesting everyday.
I was delighted when Judy invited me to be interviewed by her, and even more delighted on Wednesday when I was able to read the interview on-line . I’m now looking forward to seeing another feature of mine appear on the site on Friday next week. (It’s about what happens between having a book accepted, and the actual publication date)
Another web link that I enjoyed seeing this week, led me to Antony Gormley’s One & Other Project in Trafalgar Square, where my poet friend, Karin, was doing her bit on the Fourth Plinth. I found it unexpectedly moving – not only what she writes about her reasons for doing this, but the calm and confident way she performs the most mundane of household tasks and imbues them beauty and dignity.
I’m tempted to copy the whole text that appears underneath the video, but I’ll leave it to you to discover the pleasure of reading Karin’s words, and the poem by Tess Gallagher , called ‘I stop Writing the Poem’, which helps to convey the meaning of the whole performance.
Karin is the second of my poet friends to take to the Plinth. The first was Crysse Morrison in July. Ignore the first second of the video (the previous performer gets scooped up by the JCB before Crysse takes her place on the plinth)
My mind is now buzzing (as it has been for the last few weeks) with all aspects of the publishing business. I’d never have imagined there were so many details to investigate. It’s exhausting, but fascinating.
And what analogy pops into my head, along with this thought? Something totally different - I’ve been whisked back across more than three decades, to another unexpectedly fascinating and exhausting period of my life. Click here to see if you can make sense of the connection I’m making between motherhood and publishing!
I started this blog 4 months ago, mainly because I wanted to share some of my ups and downs and what I’ve learned from these, during 25 years or so of poetry and novel writing. Before this, I’d not come across many other reading/writing blog sites so it’s been a great delight to find so many informative, and/or quirky, inspiring, reflective, hilarious, challenging etc etc whole new communities out there.
One I came across recently made me laugh out loud, the way it celebrates one of the most common aspects of a writer’s life: REJECTION!.Now that I’ve reached the part of my own story, where The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society was accepted for publication, it seems like the right time to say a bit more about my own rejection experiences.
I haven’t kept any of the letters which came with my returned short stories during my first attempt at leading a writer’s life, nor those which, at first, caused deeper disappointment with the return of my very first novel. It took a few years for me to understand the full truth of the adage, ‘beware of what you wish for’: I’m profoundly grateful for that rejection – especially the one from an agent who said she’d be interested in seeing my next novel (click here to see what I felt at the time!).
That was in the mid-eighties; my next supply of rejections came with each return journey of my children’s novel, The Tide Machines of Mermaid’s Rock.
In the next few years, I had less time for Novel Writing, and focused mainly on Poetry.I had some success with this, but in the late 90s I was back in the firing line again with my novel, In The Lamb-White Days. This generated some truly lovely rejection letters in the course of its circuitous journey to and from agents, publishers and The Literary Consultancy (a genuinely useful organization, which, in a roundabout way, helped me find a publisher for my next novel, The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society).
The letter below is the one with the nicest compliments, and I’ve been amused to see from the Rejected Writers site how the same types of phrases crop up over decades and distances. I particularly like the notion of 150% commitment!
Even so, I won’t deny that did gain encouragement from it, at the time.
I have enjoyed reading 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. That said, it seems to lack that necessary ingredient that really lifts it off the page and make me want to take it any further. We are a very small agency and take on very few new authors each year. We feel 150% commitment to those writers that we do sign up, and we work alongside them to ensure that their books reach their maximum potential. Sadly, while I have liked In the Lamb White Days, I do feel that it lacks that magical indefinable something that I would look for in a book of this type, and with that in mind, I’m going to have to recommend that you approach another agent. 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.
To see more about my rejection experiences for my now-published novel, click here.
As I write this, the sun is shining down onto my husband’s onion and shallot harvest that is spread out across our patio, so I didn’t need to put much thought into my choice of this week’s poem. To say he’s a keen gardener is an understatement. (This picture shows just a small sample of this year’s crop.)
Some people might decide to reduce the size of their allotment, once half the members of the household have left home (in our case, a son and daughter). But though he’s always been good at maths (unlike me), he’s not one to do things by half, so instead of reducing his very successful production of vegetables, he has now acquired a second plot so that he can grow even more.
Not that I’m complaining, of course, and actually I do appreciate the year-long supply of delicious fresh veg, but occasionally the excess can prompt a poetic rant.
The boiler room is out of bounds to her -
a Bluebeard’s chamber crammed with hanging rows
of surplus vegetables.
She used to cook him soups and casseroles
chopping the slippery white rings, half blinded.
It stings her eyes now, just to think of them.
Regardless, he produces more each year.
She watches him in silence from her window
unloading brimming boxes from his car.
He always waits till every plump green stem
fades pale as straw and flops exhausted
onto the nurtured soil of his allotment.
Back home he spreads a dust sheet on the terrace
and tumbles out his harvest
gloating over each brown globe in turn
rubbing it between his thumbs
fumbling through loose layers
brittle as wings of winter moths or flies.
He loops the twine around each fractured stalk
and tugs , to stifle any flow of juice
without quite severing the stub of neck
then calls her to admire his handiwork -
bunch after bunch of dangling heads
with grains of earth clinging to wiry hair.
She knows they’ll hang till swarms of tiny flies
feast on sterile shoots and rotting husks
while rust-brown liquid drips onto the floor.
I wrote this poem about ten years ago and as well as appearing in my own collection Single Travellers, it was first published in Weyfarers 2000. Since my husband (fortunately) has some understanding of poetic licence, he doesn’t take this personally, and in fact it’s his favourite poem of mine.
As it’s quite a dramatic narrative, it’s a good one to recite, and I’ve used it in performances with Late Shift. (I’ll be posting more about Late Shift soon)
Today I’ve been exploring ways of having a cover designed for my new novel, Paper Lanterns. This is a digression. I’d intended to post an account about what happens to a book (in my case, anyway) between the time it’s been accepted by a publisher (what joy!!) and the actual publication date.
This whole blog, Writing Matters, has turned me into a time-traveller, taking me back and forth over more than two decades (with additional interruptions each Sunday when I post my Poem of the Week), and since I’d been remembering my feelings of delight when I was sent the first piece of A4 cardboard showing the front and back cover and the spine for The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society it seemed like a good time to start thinking seriously about the cover for Paper Lanterns.
Browsing through book shops and handling their various covers, has brought home to me that, whatever people might say about not judging a book by its cover, if the cover doesn’t attract the person doing the browsing in the first place, they won’t even pick it up, still less, read the ‘blurb’ on the back and start to make any kind of judgement.
So I opened my copy of my first published book and checked out the name of the company that had produced the cover - Baseline Arts Ltd, Oxford. They’d done a good job with mine and many of the other Transita novels so I looked them up on the web and rang them.
By the end of our conversation, I had a clearer understanding of the importance of the wording on the back cover. I wrote my brief description many months ago now - it’s what I’ve put up on the ‘My Novels’ page above. But then I decided it needed some amendment, so that’s part of what I’ve been doing today -It’s taken me ages to complete this version - and I’ll probably want to tinker with it some more tomorrow. For an experienced writer, I’m ridiculously slow, especially at writing short pieces. Here’s today’s version.
Any commments will be welcomed - and when I’ve got two or three versions of the front cover, I’ll be asking for your opinions too - though that’ll be a while yet.
Told with insight and compassion, this novel moves between Hong Kong, Norfolk and the Midlands, and shows how the consequences of an act of infidelity have shaped the lives of three generations of women.
After a phone call from her younger brother, Ann travels to Hong Kong in search of the truth about their scandalous mother, Vivienne. Here, she discovers a series of letters and journal-entries which reveal a secret about her beloved grandmother’s early life that challenges her most deeply felt convictions. Ann must also face up to her own part in an event which took place just before her sixteenth birthday, and caused the break-up of the family.
Hong Kong itself, with its exotic mix of old and new in the bustling urban districts, and the quiet charm of beautiful Lamma Island, plays a key part in Ann’s reappraisal of her own life and marriage, and the unexpected dilemma that confronts her.
It’s the month of August that links these two very separate items. The first is my aunt’s 90th birthday celebration lunch which was held today; the second is the title of the poem I’ve chosen for my Poem of the Week, Fat Woman on a Trampoline.
There were no trampolines in my aunt’s garden, where we enjoyed our pre-lunch drinks in the glorious sunshine, but I did mention this blog to some of my cousins, aunts and uncles when they asked if I’d got another novel published yet.
On my journey back home along the M 40, I was thinking about the group of friends from my MA Writing course, and how we arranged a writing weekend in a B & B in Derbyshire exactly ten years ago this month.
Fat Woman on a Trampoline
She waits until the children leave.
They haven’t noticed her
leaning over the stone wall
of the formal garden.
She saunters down the path
under an arch, past broken flower pots
and onto the rough grass
of the venture playground.
A walking holiday.
She sketches too. This B & B,
a family home to late Victorians,
broods above a wooded gorge.
Yesterday her heavy legs
hauled her, panting, up the ridge,
stiff boots guarding against rock
and contact with the springy turf.
She’ll just remove her shoes
and lie flat on this trampoline
large as the double bed
she sleeps alone in.
Above her a blue sky, white clouds,
sheep on the far green slope.
No one around. She stands
knees bent. Sways. Jumps.
Soars, arms outstretched
light, light, light
on taut blue plastic.
Light. Light. Light.
Several of my poems have a narrative strand, and often the first spark of inspiration comes from an emotion I’ve experienced myself. In this case, the actions and feelings in the final two stanzas are mine, though the character’s situation is invented. The description of the trampoline itself was accurate.
It’s not a ‘great poem’ but it reminds me of a happy and productive weekend with my friends. I was thrilled when it was a runner-up in the 2001 Kent & Sussex poetry competiton,. It was also published in Obsessed with Pipework, the magazine run by Charles Johnson, the then publisher of Flarestack, of which, I’ll be posting more soon.
Following on from my post last week (About the most welcome phone call of my life),
when Nikki Read from Transita said, ‘We would like to publish your book.’ here’s what came after the magical words, ‘But our marketing person feels that the title will have to be changed.’
This was a surprise, because so many of the rejecting agents and publishers had been intrigued by the unusual title: The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society. But at that moment I was floating on cloud nine, and the loss of my treasured title seemed a very small price to pay for publication. I soon learned that it was Transita’s Editor, Marina Oliver, who had felt that some people might be put off by the word Euthanasia. She might well have been right, but now, over four years later, I still believe that more people were attracted by it than the reverse.
After my feet had eventually settled on solid ground once more, I attempted to find a suitable alternative title, but anything I managed to think of seemed very weak in comparison, and I became more determined to keep to the original title. I gathered a selection of agents’ and publishers’ favourable comments on the name, including one from Sara Maitland of The Literary Consultancy, and Nikki and her publishing partner, Giles Lewis, were persuaded to keep it. ( I got the impression that they were almost as pleased as I was to have received what turned out to be compelling evidence in favour of The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society!
I’ll write in more detail soon about my experience of the various stages between that phone call on 19th February 2005 and the publication date in October of the same year – I’d thought that it would take at least a whole year, (maybe even two years) , but Nikki and Giles weren’t the types to stand around while the grass grew up around their feet.
That April, they brought out their first four novels, and over the following months, they kept up the comet-like pace of publication. They’d already gained their expertise from their other publishing venture: Howto Books, and I’m glad to see that this is still flourishing, in spite of the sad demise of Transita after the publication of thirty two novels in the eighteen months or so of its short life.
But I’m running ahead of myself. I haven’t yet come to the launch of my book – probably the best evening of my life!
I’ve always loved trees so a visit to Kew Gardens in glorious sunshine this Saturday was real treat for my birthday - even more so as we were able to walk there from our daughter and boyfriend’s new house, just a minute’s walk from the Thames. Better still, our son, who also lives in London, joined us for the weekend.
I’d looked it up on the website beforehand and was very excited to see that there was a tree-top walkway, over eighteen metres high.
I was surprised by how low the river was on our walk towards Kew, with a ‘beach’ of grey mud and stones. On our return, the water had been splashing over the path, and the whole atmosphere had changed.
This morning I went for a jog along the river before the others had woken, and the warm air was full of jasmine and buddleia.
This was the cue for selecting my Poem of the Week:
Lady of Shalott
I can forget the mirror sometimes
pretend I’m out there
strolling in the meadow by the river
Not looking straight at things is bad enough
not touching’s worse
I close my eyes and use my sense of smell
to measure seasons
Clods of mud release hints of
fat white roots of grass and scarlet dreams
of dormant poppy seeds
I play the rain’s aroma like a scale
to harmonise with notes of mistletoe
fungus, moss and winter apple trees
When I catch the tremulous warm
breath of hibernating dormice
I leave my needle with its crimson thread
dangling from a ray of setting sun
in yet another landscape
curl up against the cushions and
adjust my breathing to that slow rhythm
but when summer’s sticky fragrance spills
into my rounded room
honeysuckle, lilies, buddleia
juice of cut grass, ripe corn, all
cling in my throat. It’s then
I quicken clammy fingertips
across the mirror’s face
I wrote this poem about seven years ago. I’m usually very visual in my use of images when writing poetry, and this time I was experimenting with using a different sense. I remember that I enjoyed ‘getting into’ the character of someone who can only experience the world from a distance , and I enjoyed focussing on all the different seasons, particularly summer.
Reading it now after all those years, I think that it expressed what I was trying to say then, but I don’t rate it very highly as a poem in its own right and I now find it a bit sentimental. I wouldn’t want to change any of it though - it exists as a part of my past.
It’s been a long time coming, but after all the posts I’ve made since my very first one in May, I’ve reached the part of my writing ‘history’ that describes one of the most welcome phone calls in my entire life!
In the post before this one, I explained how I heard about a new publisher called Transita. (I’ve now remembered that I didn’t actually put my novel in the post, because they were happy to receive the first three chapters and synopsis via email.)
That was in the middle of November. By the second week in December, I decided to telephone them, pretending that I just wanted to check that they’d received my email , but really because I couldn’t bear to wait all through the Christmas season without knowing if I’d managed to jump over the first hurdle.
My heart was beating as the phone rang and rang. At first, when I explained why I was phoning, the woman said in a guarded voice, ‘Oh - I see. Well, we’ve actually had a huge number of submissions…’
Here we go again, I thought, my heart sinking. Then I told her the name of my book.
‘Ah! yes. The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society. That did sound promising, so if you’d like to send us the full manuscript..?
Like to!! I couldn’t get back to my computer quickly enough - and the large attachment was flying through the ether, making its way to the publishers’ Oxford office.
Well, at least my Christmas would be flavoured by hope. It’s a funny thing, hope - It starts off rather tentatively, but then gradually grows bolder, and promises all sorts of exciting futures - a really nice state of mind for the festive season. But back at work again in cold wet January, Hope begins to droop and fade.
I always like to have a fall-back plan before the inevitable rejection happens, so I started looking at the self-publishng alternatives. If Transita turned me down,there was nowhere else to try. I’d tried them all.
My husband was away on a business trip to Hong Kong and I was at home on my own on the Friday of the half-term week. It was nearly five o’clock, and I needed to put a letter in the post. A brisk walk up the hill to the post box would do me good.
I was just about to walk out of the front door when the phone rang. ‘Is that Christine?’ came the same woman’s voice. ‘This is Nikki Read from Transita. We would like to publish your book.’
In my last post, (see below) I mentioned that I’d been interviewed last Wednesday by Chris Morgan (the current Birmingham Poet Laureate) for his Poetry Show on Unity FM.
The time went surprisingly fast, during which Chris asked me lots of questions about my poetry and other writing. We paused in our conversation from time to time as Chris invited me to read one of my poems.
Being interviewed on the radio is a slightly unreal situation - during a ‘normal’ conversation with another individual, sitting opposite each other acoss a wide desk, it would seem a bit odd to punctuate the conversation with a poems. I felt very relaxed, but at the same time I was also aware that there could be several other people listening in. (And on the other hand, there might be no-one at all)
In a way, it felt a little like writing this blog - creating an illusion of communication with unseen readers )
I had selected several poems that I might want to read, but realised I’d probably need to make some kind of link to the latest topic of conversation, and I didn’t know in advance what questions Chris would be asking.
This Poem of The Week is one that I read during the interview - I’d been explaining why my soon-to-be-published-novel, Paper Lanterns, was set in Hong Kong, and this poem is one that I wrote after my first visit to Hong Kong with my husband and son, when my daughter was out there during her Gap year.
Snake Stall at the Night Market,Kowloon
I knew this was a language understood
by the rapt crowd of men and the man
performing and the woman holding
the bowl and knife -
not the Cantonese, rapid as gunshot
peppering shadowy figures on the pavement
nor the manic cacophony
of plastic alarm clocks from
three stalls away, nor tannoys blaring
White Christmas and voices bawling
Kalvin Klein jeans one hundred twenty dollars
and long-past-bedtime toddlers keening.
This was beyond vocabulary
an alien body language
of animal and human locked
in ritual more primitive than speech.
I’d have been swept along by the mainstream
alert for siren voices chanting silks
and watches, perfumes and leather
at must-have prices, but
my teenage son stopped
entranced. So I had to watch
as the four-foot, green and yellow snake
was gripped at the throat, its tail
pinned under the man’s boot, its belly
squeezed upwards, again and again
in the deft hand. The crowd knew
what this meant, what the man was offering
to one who was rich or brave or
foolish enough to buy what was about
to happen. All I could decipher
was the snake’s tail escaping
and the way the creature looped itself
into a knot until the man untied it
clamped the tail again, and took the knife.
I turned away, but still could hear
the many-headed monster suck its breath,
and commentary from my son’s mouth
that I would not interpret, for fear of
falling through a crack in the paving.
I wrote this poem a few years after the experience I’ve described. The incident had made a profound impression on me, but if I hadn’t made some detailed notes at the time, I would probably not have recalled it all.
I strongly recommend the use of a note book for jotting down a few words about things that you notice - however, I don’t do nearly enough of this myself!