Friday, 30 January 2009

Writing Trials and Tribulations: Dealing with The Rejection (Part 2)

So what comes next for the writer, after yesterday's chocolate and tears and grieving for might-have-beens? There is a part of you which wants to curl up, give up, get out of the whole sorry business. But you are a professional. These things happen. You must carry on, or the bread on the table will be mere crumbs, fit only for mice, and there will be nothing to buy more with. "And anyway," says the sensible, practical part of you, patting the emotional, heaving part on the shoulder kindly, "look at what happens when you don't write. Think of the grumpiness and snarling and bad temper when there's a really good idea brewing, and instead of writing it down, you have to change sheets, or iron, or be a teen taxi or pay the bills or sort out mending or any of those other 'have to' things that live in the world outside your head.* And there was that other novel, remember. The one you were having trouble with, and then you suddenly had a brilliant idea about how to fix it? Why don't you haul that out of the folder and have a read?"

As a child, I had a horse-mad granny. Whenever I fell off, she would pick me up, plonk me back on, and we would carry on as if the fall had never happened, me having learned the lesson that falls mean bruises, but that bruises fade soon enough. It is neccessary to get back on the writing horse too, and sooner rather than later. Go back to something you like, and tinker with it. Play. Rediscover the fact that you actually like the act of writing, the challenge of getting words just so, in a way that says exactly what you want, how you want it. Write a letter. Write a poem. Write a blog. Just write. Because once you are back on the writing horse again, yes, the bruises still hurt, but you are high enough up that you can see the world ahead, stretching out in front of you. And you never know what treasure trove of ideas and inspiration might lie in wait just over the horizon. If you don't go forward, you'll never know--and it might be that idea which sells a million copies. As the Bard, (a useful man in times of trouble), said, "Sweet are the uses of adversity, which, like a toad, though ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in its head." Or, in more modern parlance, "Sh*t happens. Deal with it and move on."

*It has to be said that the activities of ironing and driving can, under the right circumstances, be quite good and fruitful thinking time--but you take the point. In my particular case, when I really want to write, beware the fool who gets in my way.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Writing Trials and Tribulations: Dealing with The Rejection (Part 1)

Writing matters--and honesty about the life of a writer--are the main raison d’ être for the existence of this blog. This is because I am a writer, first and foremost, (although my life is full of many other things, as evidenced by the disparate nature of previous entries here). So today I am going to address one of the trials and tribulations all writers--professional or otherwise--face at many points in their writing lives. The Rejection. And let me tell you a brutal truth here: however many times you go through this, it never gets any easier to deal with and you always feel like a 'failure' as a writer when it happens. Whether this is for five seconds, five minutes, five hours, five days or forever is entirely up to you.

Imagine the scene: your piece of work (novel, story, picture book) is either finished or in a suitable state to be sent off to the Lovely Editor. You send it. You wait. Perhaps you wait a long time (months), perhaps you are lucky and it's shorter (weeks). You are hopeful. Of course you are hopeful. You've worked hard. It's an exciting new idea. You love it. You want to write more of it. Visions of cover art and literary kudos fill your brain with fantasies. And then the email answer pops into your inbox at last. Your heart starts to beat faster in fear and anticipation. Will it be good news? Your finger hovers over the 'open' icon. You press it.

Your heart sinks to the floor with a bump. It's not good news. The Lovely Editor has all sorts of really excellent commercial reasons for not taking this one. But right at first you don't want to know about those. This is because you are sunk in misery and mourning for all those hours and days and months wasted. You are grieving for a literary child which will not now be born--at least not in this form, (though you may cannibalise bits of it for some future but as yet unimaginable project). Rejection hurts, has a physical effect on the body (in my case), of sickness and aching and sleepless sadness. And at the edges, a sort of bleak, despairing frustration and anger too. It's not good to stuff all this emotion away. It needs to be let out; looked at; dealt with, or it will fester and turn to resentment.* But tomorrow--tomorrow will be another day--a day for moving forward. Come back then for Part 2, when I'll (hopefully) have rediscovered how to do that.
* A judicious amount of very dark chocolate is a fine remedy for resentment and grief and a myriad other mental and physical ills, I find. This has been scientifically proven. I forget where I read this useful fact. But it is true.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Writing Views

Sometimes there are mornings when it is hard to write. The mind wanders. The fingers are slow and unsure on the keyboard. The Muse slopes off and has coffee or slugs back the ambrosia with her friends, with no regard to scheduled word count or looming deadlines. It is at these times when I look for inspiration out of the window. Yes, I am lucky enough to have a view whilst I write. It wasn't always so. For years I had a peeling yellow wall with inspiring posters on it. Not quite the same, but I managed. Now, at this season, I gaze out over wintergreen fields, starkly bare trees, a full brown stream winding its way over to a hidden distant river. Sometimes there is movement in the landscape. No sign of the rabid rabbits assaulting the vegetable garden so far today, but Sir Prancelot the vicious cock pheasant is once again engaged in chasing some surprised-looking ewes off his territory. He ought to know better, because they are heavily in lamb, and the shock of a small but belligerent bird-with-ears telling them what to do is not at all what they are used to. They are milling about, baaing clouds of panicked breath over the dead clumps of nettle by which they huddle, hoping for rescue from their farmer-in-armour. In early morning, the colours were all muted shades of greyish green, dusted with the crunching whiteness of frost, but now the sun is out, and the ice has melted to round rainbow drops on the weeping twigs of the silver birch. The grass in the field has turned that parched but sodden yellowy green which goes with too little daylight, and there are rusty brown patches where the floodwaters have overflowed and receded, making walking the wimpy weasel and the dastardly dinmont a squelchy business in the afternoons. You see how it goes? The fingers are flying now, and the words are coming again. The Muse has returned from her ambrosia break, and is raring to start firing ideas into my brain. All it takes for me is a little gazing out at the English landscape.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Comfort Reading--And A Little Unwarranted Prejudice

There are writers that one returns to time and time again in moments of illness, crisis, sadness, or just plain 'in need of comfort'. For me, one of these is the late, great Georgette Heyer. Perhaps some will scoff at my liking for Regency romance, which got a bad name with the advent of such lesser writers as Barbara Cartland. But Heyer is a different kettle of fish altogether. A fine academic historian in her own right, she did her period research meticulously and well, and her ear for the conversational tone of the era is second to none. I have learned many fine and useful (but no longer in use) words and expressions from her books, and am entirely likely to describe one of my children as looking 'as queer as Dick's hatband' if they are pale and ill, or, alternatively, 'shamming it', if they are only pretending to be so. Her heroines are no milk-and-water creations, but tend to be intelligent and to think for themselves, despite sometimes adverse circumstances of fortune. Some of her rather masterful heroes I like less, especially the ones very high in the instep--indeed they often set up my (feminist) bristles--but then no Regency romance is complete without one, so they have to be borne for the pleasures of the rest of the writing.
My historian grandfather, not a man of romantical tendencies, having survived terrible battlefield injuries and then a German prisoner of war camp from 1915-18, was the person who introduced me to Heyer's books. He always said that her description in An Infamous Army of the battle of Waterloo was, bar none, the best he had ever read. I would have to agree, adding that the descriptions of life during the Peninsular War in The Spanish Bride run it a very close second. Those are two of my favourites, along with Frederica, These Old Shades, The Masqueraders, Beauvallet and Devil's Cub. However, I have to admit to an unwarranted piece of Heyer prejudice here. Before this month, I had always refused to read both Royal Escape and My Lord John. Neither are Regency--but I love the Elizabethan swashbucklings of Beauvallet, so that is no excuse. According to her husband, the mining engineer turned QC, Ronald Rougier, the Regency period was never her first love, but the one her myriad fans demanded she write about over and over again. Her heart lay much further back in history, with the royal families of York and Lancaster. After her death, her novel on this subject, the aforementioned My Lord John was edited by Rougier from the papers she had left behind, and published. Now that I have, finally read it, I can see why she loved the intricacies and intrigues of John of Gaunt's time. She has a knack of getting behind dry and dusty historical personages and imbuing them with life and laughter and, more importantly, making her reader love them despite their flaws and mistakes. Royal Escape covers the period after the Battle of Worcester and the fate of King Charles II during that time, including the famous oak tree episode. Not only am I now totally enthralled by and in love with the wickedly engaging Charles (I always was a natural Cavalier), but I am also actively pursuing further knowledge on his time with the wretched Scottish Covenanters. (Being a Scot-by-blood, I was naturally delighted to have confirmed by Heyer my inborn, inbred belief that trusting a Campbell is always a Bad Idea.) I have learned much from these two unloved-till-now books. Would I have loved them when I was a teenager? Perhaps not. But discovering two new treasures from a favourite author for my comfort shelf has been a delight. I almost look forward to the next bout of misery in order to have an excuse to read them again.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Seeds of Promise

"One little seed the size of my thumbnail
in a pot of black compost.That’s how it started..."
from 'Pumpkin Soup' by Lucy Coats
It's time for another January ritual--seed ordering. Thump go the mail-order catalogues on the doormat, thump thump thump, fat bright books full of the promise of summer feasts and blossoms to come. The miserable, dreich morning weather does not hold out much hope for Spring, despite the lumpy, bumpy hummocks of dull green-grey pushing through the earth with a hint of white at their tips. But if I do not put the order through in the next day or so, it will be too late. I have left it till February before now, through laziness and general disorganisation. Then the lovely Suffolk lady at the other end of the phone is full of apologies. "I'm sorry, madam. The Red Baron has been very popular this season." So that year we did without red onions. A shame, because my red-onion jam is a joy and a pleasure to all, embraced with love by any meat it finds itself next to on the plate. But I digress.
The ritual of seed ordering is the same every year. First Vertumnus and I ponder the holy seed drawer. Will the remaining carrot seed take? Is it safe to ignore the 'use by' dates on the broad beans? How many sunflowers do we need. What about those Valor potatoes that got the dreaded 'rot' last time? Do we want those again? Lists are made of what we have (and which empty packets we need to restock), and then a large pot of coffee is brewed, preferably accompanied by home-made brownies. But a digestive biscuit will do. Now it's time for the serious work. The catalogues are piled high, and we go through them to see what's new this year--what marvel of nature (and F1 hybridisation) we can grow this time round. Another, longer list is made. Ooh and Aahs and cries of 'Oh, how pretty/delicious that looks/sounds! We must have some of that!" echo round the kitchen. We always order too much, though perhaps not this year, because the Lovely Husband is now working from home, and wants to be involved this time around. He has made charts and plans and planting schedules (even though Vertumnus and I have been doing this for years, we all agree that our succession sowing is something that needs to be worked on finally, so that all the vegetables don't appear in a great glut of plenty in one week).
In a few weeks, packets and boxes will arrive through the post in dribs and drabs. The soil will be turned over again to incorporate its winter coat of mulch, and the seeds will begin to go into the earth. Then, and only then, will the promise of a new Spring truly begin.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Muse Wrestling (A Bit Like Mud Wrestling)

I was chatting on Facebook to the Badly Behaved Boy yesterday. He has an overdue 2000 word essay to write and yet his poor Muse is cowering in a dusty corner with a wet towel about her head, moaning about the effects of a bucketload of cheap vodka, too many late nights and ill-preparation on the required reading front. She threatens to desert altogether, and leave him to the mercies of the dreaded last resort of Amazon-synopsis-and-reviews. Maybe he will coax and cozen her out of it, being a resourceful and charming person, and the essay will be a joy unto his tutors. Just maybe. But I hae ma doots.

My Muse, however, is not treated so badly, and yet I have to wrestle with her recalcitrance on a regular basis. Last summer, she deserted me altogether in the early stages of a teenage novel. Although I have written many books, novel-writing is still...well...novel. This one had a grand arc and scale--it was to be two books, stretching over a long time span and many nations. But suddenly, having been all bright-eyed and keen, my Muse revolted. She refused me inspiration, bound a dark cloth over my creative mind, and threw me down into the slippery, muddy pit that is labelled 'writer's block', where I wrestled her hard and fruitlessly for months. Despite much good and useful advice from many writing friends, I have to admit that I gave up. Sometimes admitting defeat and putting work away in the bottom drawer for a while is the best thing you can do for your writing sanity. There is nothing so demoralising as the muddy pit.

I started another novel (which came as a bit of a surprise when the Muse, perhaps as a kind of apology, slipped it into my head). This one has gone better, though it is still raw, and there is a lot of work to do moving around plot and chapters into a form that will (perhaps) please the Omnipotent Editor one day. (Just as an aside here--no one tells you, by the way, how much frelling waiting around you do as a writer, longing for decisions and opinions from your publisher.) While I was waiting for that same Omnipotent Editor to do his stuff--not wanting to write more on Novel 2 in case it was all wrong--the Muse popped in. "Why don't you take another look at Novel 1?" she purred, all nice now, as if the wrestling in the pit had never occurred. So I did. You don't argue with her when she's being nice. Actually, Novel 1 is rather good. And I can see where to go. And I can see that it should be only one novel now, not two. Probably. My Muse and I are currently in charitable harmony, no pistols to the head, muddy pits, or wrestling required. But I forsee that the tricky Matter of the Two Prophecies will set us at odds again. That's the trouble with bringing deities with minds of their own into the writing equation. She's jealous of her status, my Muse. Perhaps I should get out my old boxing gloves for this round.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

There's No-one So Irish As Barack Obama

I woke up this morning to dulcet Irish tones in my ear, along with some cheerful jiggy Irish music on the radio. I like a nice Irish tone and a lively jig very much in the general way of things, but this was a different kettle of potatoes altogether. These boys were telling me that there was no-one so Irish as the new, about-to-be-inaugurated, 44th President of the United States of America. I have to say that this was news to me. Who knew? But there it was. 'O'Leary, O'Connell, O'Brian, O'Hara--there's no one so Irish as Barack O'Bama'. Listen to The Corrigan Brothers for yourselves if you don't believe it.

Obama is not my President. I am a Brit with the blood of a Celt. But somehow, today, I feel that he is. In this terrible time of gloom and depression he seems to be a beacon of hope for the future of us all. So today, at 5pm UK time, I shall be watching as he takes that inaugural oath on a historic Bible--and there will be a good feeling in my heart, and probably a tear in my eye. I so very much like the way that he harks back to and respects history--taking Abraham Lincoln's route to Washington; serving the foods Lincoln liked at the dinner. Somehow, bringing America's great past into this present future has given it a new and as yet uncharted meaning. History is important. None of us should forget that. But I also love the fact that yer man could grin like a delighted schoolboy as he yanked on the train whistle and that iconic wavering, mournful note--the sound that signals the progress of so many long and pioneering journeys across the States--rang out. 'How cool is this?' was written all over his face. At the start of this most historic journey of all, I wish you luck, and good 'cess, Mr Obama. I wish it for all of us. And I am delighted that your Celtic roots have been uncovered at last. Perhaps you are truly a man for all nations. I hope so with all my heart.

Monday, 19 January 2009

(Literary) Musings on Marmalade

It must be said that, so far, the question of marmalade has not greatly exercised the literary mind, apart from the honourable and obvious exception of Paddington Bear, who is the arch example of profligate marmalade eating. D.H. Lawrence maintains that, 'It's amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges and scrub the floor.” (How right he is.) And of course, in other children's literature there is A.A.Milne, who asks in the poem The King's Breakfast, 'Would you like to try a little Marmalade instead?' (The King rather grumpily doesn't--he wants butter on his toast). Other than that, marmalade is of rather more interest to lexicographers, who squabble over whether the word has its roots in a Portugese mess of fruit (mermelo is the word for a quince), or whether it was a queen's cure for seasickness (a corruption of Marie est malade). Personally, I prefer the romance of the latter, however questionable. I like to think of the pale, listless queen lying around in the state cabin of her armed and dangerous dromond or carrack being coaxed into eating morsels of dry toast and orange jam by her fluttering ladies in waiting. It makes a much better story--and I am, after all, a writer.

The rôle of marmalade in my own life is inextricably connected with the rhythms of the seasons. January--that dark and dreary month when the excesses of Christmas and New Year are behind, lingering only on the waistline and in the wallet--is brightened immediately by the sight in shops of misshapen, mottled green-and-orange fruits which, if eaten raw would pucker the mouth into disapproving maiden aunt mode. But combine them with water and sugar and heat, and an almost magical alchemy occurs. That opaque, sour ugliness turns to pots of clear, sparkling beauty which bring to your kitchen a blaze of the sunshine which ripened the original fruit (see pic above for the alchemical results of my own labours this week). Not making my own marmalade would be unthinkable. Shop-bought is not the same at all--too sweet, and not enough fruit (and don't even mention Golden Shred, which is anathema to real marmalade connoisseurs). There is something about the ritual of scraping and shredding and sieving and boiling which is deeply comforting to the soul--and the glorious smell permeates the house for days. I should perhaps also mention that I have a Wanton (but fussy) Toast Eater in the house. My very own Paddington Bear, in fact (though marginally less messy). No truck with dark Muscovado sugar for him though--only the finest white cane, and a hint of lemon juice so that the sweetness is tempered. I have worked out that it will take 10lbs (yes--I'm old-fashioned in my weighing habits) of fruit and 20lbs of sugar to satisfy his breakfast addiction for a whole year. That's why I'm off now to do some more stirring and chopping.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Feet First

Blogging. I knew it would get me eventually. In July 2008 I dipped a toe into the waters with An Awfully Big Blog Adventure--20 children's authors blogging about life, the universe and assorted literary wisdoms. I liked it, rather. What writer wouldn't relish the thought of pontificating on the page, and being read by the countless millions who had hitherto missed out on their talents? Well--maybe not millions. We have approximately 40 faithful followers, and many more lurkers in the shadows. But.... It's not my personal blog, and the blogging bug has bitten me badly--infected my blood and brain with the desire to put my rather disorderly life on the page and share it. So here I am, jumping into the rushing waters of the blogsphere feet first, where I shall, most probably, promptly drown. Whilst I am, first and foremost a writer of children's books, I am also a creator of culinary marvels, a composer of furious letters in my head, a taxi service to teenagers, a stargazer, a bard, and other things too numerous to set out on one page. This is only the start. I hope that you will come with me on a journey of discovery, and I look forward to creating a world of wonders for you, dear reader, whoever you are and wherever you come from.
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