No, I haven’t really got the recipe, but right now there are three subjects in my head that in a strange way seem to link up.
1: Getting published.
2: A novel for young adults called Wasted
3: An inspiring poetry Workshop
If you’ve visited this blog before, you’ll know that it’s mainly about my writing life as a poet and novelist, and that this can be split into two stages: before and after publication. The ‘before’ part is a good deal longer – I‘m an expert in the art of dealing with rejection: : it took me twenty years from completing my first novel to finding a publisher for my fourth.
You can find out here about Novel oneand Novel two. I nearly made it with Novel three, when I won a competition to receive a free read from The Literary Consultancy. Several amendments later, the novel was recommended as ‘deserving to be published’ . That was where the luck ran out: although I now had the backing of T.L.C., the agents on their list of contacts turned it down. They loved it, but not enough to take me on.
After at least forty more rejections, Novel Four was recommended for a free read from… The Literacy Consultancy! This didn’t feel like good luck to me. I’d been editing this novel, The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society, for over a year, and I knew that it had reached its final form. I wasn’t going to attempt yet another re-write.
I sent it anyway. Was that luck, or chance or sheer doggedness? All I know is that if I hadn’t grasped that opportunity, I wouldn’t have heard of “the new publisher, Transita about to bring out its first novel in a few months’ time”, and I wouldn’t have become the published author of The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society in October 2005. You’ll find a mention about the demise of Transita here ,and there’ll soon be more about my second way of being published.
2: A novel for young adults called Wasted by Nicola Morgan which I finished last night, made me think about the role of luck or chance in our lives, and for me, specifically, the chance that led to publication at last. Nicola has an inspiring blog, ‘Help I need a Publisher’ and has set up another for her new novel, Wasted: which, in spite of my reluctance to buy yet another novel for my t.b.a. pile, I bought.
Although when I taught English in secondary schools, I used to enjoy reading fiction for teenagers, I haven’t done so since my own children were in their teens. I’m not going to say much about Wasted here – apart from saying ‘BUY IT!’ and quoting from an email I sent her after I’d read the first six chapters: “ I love the way you kind of dance through the words on the page with such energy and sensitivity. You’re ridiculously, arrogantly original and you’re making me want to write for teenagers. (not that I could)”
Last night I couldn’t sleep until I’d finished Wasted. This morning I visited the Wasted blog and came across this review.. It expresses my thoughts and feelings exactly.On another blog, where Nicola was responding to questions about Wasted, I find her voicing my own sentiments:
“As Jack says in Wasted, “Luck is just what we call it.” I think we very largely make our own luck. Terrible things happen to people through no fault of their own, and sometimes good things happen to those who don’t deserve it, but I believe that there are lots of ways of maximising our chances in all aspects of life. With trying to be published, there are right things to do and wrong things. The more right things you do, the more likely you are to be “lucky”…”
3: Yesterday afternoon I was at an inspiring poetry Workshop in the beautiful Shakespeare Memorial Room in Birmingham, led by Mario Petrucci and organised by Jaqui Rowe of Poetry Bites. I came away feeling grounded again, and with a few notes that might become a poem. I’ve been reminded of what I need to do and, more importantly, not do. I’ll write more about this soon, but meanwhile I shall follow Mario’s advice and do - what might look like to anyone who might see me – nothing!
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Although I thoroughly enjoyed reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and the films based on these, I wouldn’t ever have expected to find myself at an event dedicated to his life and work, but there I was, last Sunday in Sarehole Mill Recreation Ground in the Shire Park, Birmingham.
This large grassy space, enclosed with high hedges of flowering May, was filled with marquees, jousting rings and make-shift stalls and tents, staffed by Hobbits, Elves and Medieval Humans.Unfortunately, my camera batteries were dead on arrival, so I’ve had the make use of photos taken from the Middle-earth Weekend site.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I can be relied on to turn up at any event that offers me an opportunity to talk about my writing and I tend to be open to almost any new experiences - as a writer I can never know what unfamiliar sights or sounds might provide useful material for a future poem or story - so when Chris Morgan, Birmingham Poet Laureate 2009, invited me to read some of my own poems at the annual Middle-earth Weekend, I thought, ‘Why not?’
and as usual, said, ‘Yes, I’d love to!’.
The warmth and brightness of the sunshine after so many weeks of grey cold days somehow added to the illusion of stepping into a film set, where small family groups in ordinary clothing strolled around holding ice creams and cans of pop, mingling with characters from The Lord of the Rings. These included a medieval lord and lady each with their own pet baby dragon which looked and felt extraordinarily life like, almost seeming to purr as I stroked one under its clammy chin.
The poetry recital was programmed for 1.00 in the Performance tent, where four of us delivered our poems to a small audience which seemed to be split into two groups: the enthusiasts who’d found their way there on purpose, and the bemused who only wanted a a cup of tea and a piece of Victoria sandwich. Nonetheless , they all listened politely.
I didn’t have any Tolkein-themed poems, so I’d selected a few that seemed in some way to fit in with a fantasy theme and started off with one which is usually popular, even with people who aren’t particular fans of poetry, Becoming a Seal
It’s a long time since I’ve posted a new ‘poem of the Week’ so here’s another of those I read on Sunday.
After that startled awakening and chase through the woods
bears lumbered almost nightly
into her dreams
but by the time she married, she couldn’t remember
why even the smell of porridge
could scald her tongue.
She has a baby now, and her broken sleep is invaded
by bears again – their coarse dark fur
smelling of resin and fungus.
Sometimes she wakes with honey in her throat
hands as cumbersome as boxing gloves
flat white nails thickened to ebony .
When she slides from the bed
it seems natural as breathing
to pad across the carpet on all fours.
Grey light seeps through loosely woven
nursery rhymes. She unravels undertones of
talcum powder, sweat-damp hair
and hints of her own milk on sleeping breath.
Her baby. Is he hers? He seems so
folded in on his unblemished self
as though he’s tumbled through a crack in time
and she can’t touch him.
I wrote this several years ago and was delighted when it won a place in a Mslexia competition.
It started on Monday morning with a talk to a group at Northfield library – what a treat to start the week like that!. Quite apart from my personal use of libraries, especially for their unabridged audio books on CDs, which allow me to catch up on ‘reading ‘ novels, I love visiting the different libraries around Birmingham. After The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Societywas published, I was invited to talk to reading groups and other interested people in libraries all around the city, but for some reason that I can’t now remember, a planned visit to Northfield library didn’t happen, so I was delighted to be invited there by Lesley.
It’s a bit of a Tardis: once you step inside, there seem to be all sorts of bright open spaces on different levels. There were lots of people already seated in the large meeting room upstairs, and when I found that none of them had yet read my first novel, I realised that I’d need to make time for Agnes Borrowdale, the 75 year old heroine, before I moved on to talk about my new novel, Paper Lanterns.
Because part of that novel was inspired by some real-life letters, I usually start by reading one from the married English woman in 1920, and then one from the young Chinese girl. I think in future I’ll have to suggest that people bring some tissues with them as I’m sure there were hints of tears on some faces. You’ll see why, when you read that letter in one of my next posts, (or in the book itself!)
I didn’t really know what to expect from the event on Thursday. I’d been emailed by Tim, the organiser of Three Act Structure, saying: “We are hosting a celebration of Birmingham’s Literature at Birmingham City University School of Art, Margaret Street, Birmingham on Thursday 13th May 2010.”
I was familiar with the building, a beautiful Victorian structure with a stunning interior featuring oak panelled walls and stained glass windows but the event itself was something of a mystery for me – “The exhibition will follow a Three Act Structure with a beginning, middle and end. The focus being on the past, present and future of Birmingham’s Literature and the New Birmingham Library.”
Would it be mainly about creative writing or a celebration of an as yet un-built library?
Whatever! I always sit up and take notice when there’s anything that looks like an opportunity for networking with other writers and I was especially pleased with this next sentence as it shows that I must be on somebody’s list: “As a local author we would be delighted if you could attend to join fellow and aspiring writers for a day of mutual performance, critique and appreciation.”
“Try anything once“, is one of my mottoes, and ‘go with the flow’ is another. It always pays off in one way or another, and Thursday was no exception: lively poetry performances from a previous Birmingham Poet Laureate, Charlie Jordan, the current one, Adrian Johnson, and Matt Nunn, well known Birmingham Poet, and co-founder of Nine Arches Press.
Since this event was all about Birmingham I decided to give a brief talk about the Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society which is set mainly in the Midlands. I’ve really enjoyed dipping in to that book again - all those characters are still very real in my head so it was nice to be able to give some of them an airing.
I’d have liked to stay for Suzanne Wright’swriting workshop, but this was my first opportunity to nip across to the Ikon Gallery, the scene of my wonderful launch of Paper Lanterns a couple of weeks ago. The Ikon Bookshop (mainly for Art books) is one of the very few Independent Bookshops in Birmingham now, and I’d promised, Eva, the manager, that I’d pop in and sign the copies of both my novels that are now on sale there.
I was back in time for the Third Act, and had a chance to give another short talk and reading to a different audience - Up till then, I’d not really taken much notice of the fact that the construction of the new Central Library has started. If I hadn’t taken part in Thursday’s event, with its inspiring presentation about the new library, I wouldn’t be feeling as excited as I am now about this project – it looks as though it really will be a fantastic facility for us all.
It’s a whole week since my book launch and I still smile with delight when I go over the events of that evening, so I’m about to indulge myself shamelessly by giving a few more details of my conversation with Clarissa about Paper Lanterns, and how my writing career has been linked to our friendship as you can also see in my profile, published last week in the Birmingham Post, and now available to read on-line
As I said last week, we’d been treated royally by the Ikon Cafe staff, and you can read here about Clarissa’s comments on the food.
Friendships forged in childhood, especially those based on shared incarceration at boarding school, can last for a lifetime, and Clarissa felt that the best way of explaining how we’d met was to read a short extract from her autobiography, Spilling The Beans.
Our lives have taken very different paths through adulthood. It’s no secret that Clarissa is a recovering alcoholic, and when her drinking was getting more and more out of hand, I was so worried about her that I wrote a short story based on this.
I entered it for a competition run by BRMB and the Birmingham Readers & Writers Festival in 1985(the forerunner of the Birmingham Book festival) and I still have the clipping from the (then) Sutton Coldfield Times with the account of my prize winning story.
That was my first ever success with my writing, and in 2005, Clarissa was there to introduce me at the Birmingham Book Festival’s launch of my first novel,The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society.
Neither of us could have predicted this wonderful event and the changes in both of our lives 20 years later – Clarissa was no longer drinking and had forged an amazing new career for herself in television, and I was a published novelist at last.
We talked about other events in my writing career, and the ups and downs of my attempts to get published, and then I explained the ideas, inspirations and themes that produced Paper Lanterns. This included the story of how I discovered the original letters from 1920
First I read a long letter from the married English woman, and then the one from the young Chinese woman written 4 years before that to the same man. (I’ll post that one soon, but meanwhile, here’s an extract from the English woman. As I explained during the launch last Tuesday, I brought the dates forward to 1930, and changed the setting from Canton to Hong Kong, as this is a place I know well. In my novel, I’ve kept as closely as I could to the original letters, and have invented a series of journal entries, involving a totally fictional story line for a key section of Paper Lanterns.
Ah, Mr McFarlane, you are a disturber! What do you mean by upsetting the equilibrium of two highly respectable (!) ladies in their heretofore blissful states of married and single blessedness? And two at once, mind you! And you so young and all. The poor young idlers that we endeavour to teach to shoot must certainly not have got their money’s worth this morning and now at our first opportunity (recess) we two rush together to weep on each other’s shoulders for what we haven’t got and will never get. It’s a great bond, this being crazy about the same person. I only hope I’ll be able to preserve enough of a sense of decency from the wreck to give her the chance I wish I could take myself.
After these letters I read more extracts from the novel itself, and then went on to explain about the founding of Novel Press. I was delighted with the comments of Jonathan Davidson on the Writing West Midlands blog, where he suggests in his article “New Ways of Publishing” that:
“the means of production is moving away from being held in the hands of one conglomorate… Good writing will surface for us all to enjoy: poor writing won’t be quite so often foisted upon us in an attempt to get a return on investment or to distort our reading tastes for purely commercial gain.”