Congratulations to the six readers who have already contacted me with the correct answer to the first of my questions in the Virtual Treasure Hunt.
If you get this one right, and the others that I’ll posting over the next couple of weeks, the first five people to contact me with all the correct answers will receive a free copy of either Paper Lanterns or The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society.
For those of you who haven’t yet entered the TREASURE HUNT, you’ll find Question One here
I’ll give plenty of notice when I’m about to post the final question, and will let you know the latest date for submitting your answers.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed about writing this blog is the opportunity to use some of my own snapshots – I make no pretence to be a photographer – all I do is point the camera and press the button. I’m always amazed when I see the picture on my monitor with details that I hadn’t noticed at the time. Hurray for digital cameras!
My TREASURE HUNT is giving me an excuse to display photos a second time – This is one that I’m quite proud of!.
Here’s PART TWO: with just one question. This will involve scrolling down through some previous posts – and the Peacock is the first HINT.
Once you’ve landed on the correct post, you’ll need to follow ANOTHER LINK to find the answer to this question:
What was the date of Nicola Morgan’s ‘Party’ for her blog’s first Birthday?
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 might make more sense if you read the ones below, first)
I’ve already had my main holiday abroad this year (the inspiring poetry course in Spain at Almaserra Vella, run by Penelope Shuttle, but the weather then was cold and wet, so I’m hoping to get some proper sunshine in August during my summer break from my job with the Birmingham Adult Education Service.
This August, it’ll be thirteen years since that poetry course at Arvon’s Lumb Bank Centre in Yorkshire. Joining that course was far more daunting than floating around in the sky, firmly linked to a boat in the coastal waters of Gran Canaria. It was also a more significant stepping stone into the future I wanted: being a writer. It’s amazing to think how far I’ve got with my writing since that particular turning point in my life.
I’d been dabbling in poetry during the previous years, when my job took up more and more of my free time. Not that poetry can easily be squeezed in to a brief half hour, here and there, but it was something that helped to satisfy that creative itch, and is still a significant part of my writing life.
Various friends and family members had said, ‘That’s really good.’ But then they would, wouldn’t they? I knew I needed to brace myself for something more objective from someone with more experience and knowledge of the craft of poetry.
The workshops, run by Joan Poulson and John Lyons were an inspiration, but I always dreaded the time when we were expected to subject our half-finished creations to the comments from the tutors and the group. It was fascinating to hear the contributions from all the others and I’d marvel at the standard of these offerings. I found it very enlightening to see how the tutors focussed in on the best parts, and explained what they felt had worked well, and why, with suggestions on how the piece might be further developed.
My life-changing moment came with my one-to-one appointment with Joan. She looked through the poems I’d brought with me and seemed to consider some of them worthy of publication. I’d known nothing about the various small poetry presses and she suggested a few that I might try.
Anyone who’s ever written poetry or fiction can imagine the size of the smile on my face for hours after receiving this news.
The next hurdle was to find somewhere to lodge this cheque. I’d decided years earlier to use my maiden name of Coleman for my writing endeavours, rather than my husband’s name that I’d (willingly) taken on at our wedding. I was shocked to find how hard it was to open a building society account in my own, original name. For the first time in my marriage, I felt like ‘goods and chattels’ as I was sent home to fetch my birth and marriage certificates, my passports, and a bill for the water rates that just happened to be in my married name, rather than his.
(This post might make more sense if you read the one below, before you read this)
Clarissa was able to maintain a civilised exterior when she came to stay with us, but I knew that her condition was worsening rapidly – it was becoming increasingly worrying for all her friends. And that was what my story was about. The title, A Head for Heights, referred to an episode at school when we’d climbed out onto the school roof and hoisted a skull and crossbones flag, while a visiting group of priests on some kind of conference were strolling around the grounds. But really, it was about the ‘me’ character’s worry about the ‘Clarissa’ character’s decline.
I’ve still got the cutting from the local paper about that prize-winning story – I vividly remember how excited I was when they sent a photographer to my house. The title of the prize-winning story made the headline of the article, and it made me sound quite professional, until the final ‘quote’, which had definitely not emerged from my lips, ‘I want to be a famous novelist one day!’
And here is the picture from the newspaper cutting. I discovered it a few years ago.
At that stage, I hadn’t seriously decided to write a novel, let alone dream of having one published, though that would have seemed more likely at that time than the major transformation in Clarissa’s life which began a couple of years later when she entered Promis, the Recovery Centre in Kent.
I don’t think either of us would have believed what was in store for me in October 2005, when my novel, The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia was launched at the Orange Studio during the Birmingham Book Festival (the descendant of that same BRMB Readers and Writers Festival ).
It was thanks to Clarissa’s new position in life that I was able to have such a high profile venue for this launch. Her story was even more amazing: there she was, a very public figure, having dragged herself back from the brink of drunken oblivion to build a whole new career for herself as a famous cook, TV presenter, and champion of countryside pursuits, among numerous other occupations and talents (including, by that stage, having 9 or 10 published books to her name) .
So much for my worries about her survival, expressed in that story twenty years earlier.
This post might make more sense if you read the one below, before you read this
My teaching and learning continued, and my pile of rejection letters grew, and then one day another phone call brought some exciting news – It was from the competition organiser of the Birmingham Readers and Writers Festival – I’d entered for the short story category, and the man from BRMB radio station was telling me that my story, A Head for Heights had won fourth prize – my first ever recognition as a writer! The smile on my face lasted hours.
The subject of my story was one that would provide yet another strange link across the years. My best friend at school was a skinny girl with thin straggly hair and an occasional Australian accent. She’d turned up at our convent boarding school halfway through the year, and, unlike the rest of our class, wore actual nylon stockings instead of knee-length socks. (I discovered later, after we’d become friends, that her mother had been misinformed by the woman in Harrods school uniforms department about the regulations for the required clothing in the different years ). This put her at an added disadvantage, as it made her look like a sissy, choosing to subject herself to the discomfort of suspender belts a whole year before it was absolutely necessary, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, she had an unusual Christian name and a double-barrelled surname – I mean, I ask you, Clarissa Dickson Wright!
She was adopted by a kindly group of girls, who took her under their wings and showed her the ropes, but after a few weeks, one of them approached me and asked if Clarissa could join our small gang instead, as she was too naughty for them, and that was it – we’ve supported each other through the ups and downs of our lives ever since.
So, back to my prize winning story, which features a character based on my friend – It’s no secret to anyone who’s ever shown the slightest interest in Clarissa since she became famous that she’s a recovering alcoholic and that before she went into a treatment centre she’d had several years of slow decline. She continued to visit us throughout those years, and was dearly loved by my two children, her godchildren, who had no idea of what was happening to her. They both took for granted her store of green Gordon’s bottles that she brought with her whenever she visited, and they’d compete with each other to be the first to pour her tonic and fetch the ice cubes from the freezer.
There was one occasion at the pre-school playgroup when I sensed some strange looks from one or two of the helpers. I was later enlightened when I was told about my three year old’s offering of a doll’s size plastic cup and saucer to a visiting playgroup leader, with the words, ‘Would you like a gin and tonic?’