Landscape – with editor

A painting of a figure walking a long a beach by David Pott.

Study by David Pott

After over six weeks of lying in a metaphorical drawer, I am looking at one of my scripts. The frenzy that was NaNoWriMo certainly meant I wasn’t thinking about it during that period, and I am now able to look at it with some detachment.

I can see the sparse clearings and the lush dells; engage with the inhabitants I had grown to love, and generally see the wood for the trees.

a picture of an old tree in a forest

There will have to be felling of some parts – and some judicious pruning. I may have to sacrifice some sub-plots I had lovingly tended to make the whole thing healthier and stronger – like a fire-break has to be cut through the forest at times. And even the best and sternest of lumberjacks needs help, I expect.

I had hoped that my MA ( can it really be two years ago?) would equip me to edit better. I think I am a slow learner at times – or just plain inexperienced. So I am buying help in. There’s a small, whiny, possibly egotistical voice, says that this is failure.

This book – if it ever gets published – may well end up costing me more than I could ever earn from it. Nonetheless, I have learned a great deal. If nothing else, tremendous respect for those whose work is good enough to be published – and in some cases, downright awe.

a gargoyle sits thoughtfully in some ivy

I do hope I can get the best out of the advice. That I can  sit on my ego – hard. That I can find the humility to accept what is said in the spirit it is meant – and the self-confidence to argue my point when I really have one.

I’ve read my story again – and I can honestly say, some of it is good. Now I need help to make it better.

a little girl takes big steps with the help of  her grandfather

The Tenth Muse

I am not referring like Plato to Sappho, or Ann Bradstreet – The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America as she was called in the first volume of American poetry, but Chance.

According to the Greeks, the Muses were inspirational beings:

  • Clio, history,
  • Calliope, epic poetry,
  • Euterpe, music,
  • Melpomene, tragedy,
  • Polymnia, sacred song,
  • Terpsichore, choral song and dance.
  • Thalia, bucolic poetry,
  • Urania, astronomy,
  • Erato, erotic poetry
I cribbed this list from Sheila Finnigan’s The Last Of the Muses

Wonderful names and a surprising set of disciplines you need inspiration for. I do have a soft spot for female embodiments of concepts. The thought that ideas can be beautiful and feminine seems both true and powerful.

Though why not male Muses? Perhaps they would be like the daemons in Philip Pullman’s The Northern Lights – the opposite gender to the person they enthused?  I wonder what other Muses there might be nowadays.

Chance is the Tenth Muse

Sadly I don’t recall who said that. I think it is a translation – probably Spanish and possibly a Surrealist. I think it was at West Dean that I heard it.

At any rate, for me there is a great dollop of truth in there. Not just that things come together in curious, unexpected ways – but that you must listen to the inner voice telling you so. Now it’s up to to you whether that spirit, anima, genius is a concept or a reality – but whatever your view, tuning into that moment of serendipity is essential for all creators.  As Horace Walpole, originator of the word ‘serendipity’ asserted, an individual needs to be sagacious enough to link together apparently unrelated facts to make a valuable conclusion – whilst in pursuit of something else.

Our current world has so many possibilities for making strange, unexpected and wonderful links between things – and so much distracting us all from doing so.

Just occasionally,I am sufficiently ‘relaxed yet alert’ (David Almond’s phrase) to allow such connections to take place. My writing benefits enormously. But I do have to be on my way, but not anxious and blinkered.

How about you, dear reader? Does the Tenth Muse visit you? Do you discover accidental inspiration on your route to something else?

I’d love to know.


Away with the Fairies

On Saturday 12th January, I went to the launch of the Golden Egg Academy in Bath. I expected that I would meet at least a couple of people I knew – and I could now tell them about my latest success. I had known since before Christmas that The Selkies of Scoresby Nab had been long-listed for the Times/Chicken House Competition. You would think I’d be bursting to tell anyone and everyone – but I felt oddly reticent. Shy even.

I found myself lost deep in La-la land: talking with the Barry Cunningham, finding that Beverley Birch had read a  previous blogpost and remembered it, welcomed by Imogen Cooper as an equal. I had slid into a world of my imagination.

But in my daydreams, it had been easy, I had confidence – not this edgy feeling I have now. I feel I’m tiptoeing on the borders of Fairyland, nervous and full of hope and fear.

Joanne Harris by kind permission of Kyte Photography

I’ve had lovely little glimpses and excursions: a workshop with the much-admired David Almond; twitter conversations with the wonderfully accessible Joanne Harris; and even Susan Hill. There was astonishing interview with Greg Mosse on the MA at West Dean where for a moment he helped me soar, to feel like a proper writer.

But I’m scared. I’m frightened to succeed.

I’ve grown accustomed to being second-rate, an also-ran. Grade B ‘O’ & ‘A’levels, a II:I English degree at Loughborough, not Oxford, a minor teaching post. It’s all been quite comfortable – and I bitterly resent it. It’s also painfully true that I envied Susie Wilde her well-deserved First in her MA at West Dean.

There are times I really don’t like myself.

I wonder, am I bringing my own danger into the Perilous Realm? I really don’t mean to be smug or condescending or self-satisfied – but I hear those thin, superior voices in my head. They distract me from paying proper attention, they tell me I know that or this already.

On one hand, I am so wary of pride that I find it hard to rejoice.On the other, I so desire recognition from authors I wish were my peers that I fear I must be insufferable. I look to see who has congratulated me far too often – yet I am genuinely moved when anybody does wish me well.

Am I hunting for fairy gold?


Of Muppets and Men

I tweet a little ( @lockwoodwriter) and read a lot on Twitter. Recently I followed  with horrified interest Jeremy Duns‘ continuing expose of Stephen Leather’s tactics. I knew more than I wanted about the man’s political views and obnoxious ways of self-promotion. Other than tainting the whole concept of writer, I didn’t see how it could affect me.

That was until I read about R. J. Ellory. I was so disappointed that I cried.

I had read Roger’s work as part of my MA and met him in that context as well. I liked him – and truth told, I still do. He was unstinting of his time & encouragement- and we’ve had a few laughs and discussions on Facebook too. I find it so hard to put him in the subset of ‘sock-puppeteer’ and make that intersect with the bloke I know. You can probably imagine my relief when he apologised – and this was accepted by Mark Billingham, one of the writers whose work he had trashed.

It was perhaps naive of me not to realise that this stuff goes on in the Wild, Wild West which is modern publishing. And it would be foolish to assert that it certainly doesn’t go on in the pure innocent realms of writing for children. I honestly just don’t know.

‘It’s not easy being green…’

All I can be sure of is what I do. All my reviews are written as myself. I welcome feedback and debate.

I read books for Serendipity Reviews. I have had my moments of anxiety with this. I’ve had friends’ books to review that didn’t quite do it for me, and genres which are definitely not my thing. I try to take a compassionate and professional standpoint by asking myself the following:

  1. How would I feel to receive a review like this?
  2. What were their intentions – does it suit the readership it’s meant for?

On the whole, I err on the side of kindness. There are times I wish I had the all-guns-blazing self-assurance and spleen of an Anthony McGowan – and I do wonder if I have elected for cowardice. Perhaps my judgement is weak. But my motto in this context is ‘first do no harm’.

Likewise in my role as Graduate Editorial Assistant at West Dean, my primary goal is to develop what the MA students are trying to do. Doing them down to make me look or feel superior won’t achieve much. I need to suggest more they could do, not shut down their options.

The green-ey’d monster which doth mock…

Now before I sound far too goody-goody, I had better point out this took a while to learn. And I should also make it clear I acknowledge several motives for sockpuppetry in myself:

  • envy of sales – 50 Shades of **** for example
  • jealousy of talent – Patrick Ness, Philip Pullman, Kath Langrish, Sally Prue et alia
  • sheer desperation

That last is a killer.

Oh to be superstar like Miss Piggy

Let the one without sin cast the first stone…

Reading material

This post owes its parentage to Vanessa Harbour on ‘The importance of reading as a writer’ and Maureen Lynas’s writing about an approach to structure. I thank them both for getting me thinking about what I read and how it affects my writing.

One notable feature of the MA at West Dean was the challenge of reading in new genres. Without that I would never have discovered the emotional intensity of ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’ by  R. J. Ellory  or to be honest ,the complex and satisfying structures used by Agatha Christie & Ngaio Marsh. I didn’t ‘do’ crime fiction before. It’s taught me to be an even wider ranging reader.

Now I enjoy being sent books by Vivienne Da Costa for Serendipity Reviews. There are joys like the sheer delight of seeing a much-liked author Chris Priestley come into his own – really using his deep knowledge  to create ‘Mister Creecher’. Or the pleasure of reviewing a colleague’s debut novel like ‘Slated’ by Teri Terry.

I am sent different age-ranges and genres – this helps me to see what I admire, and also what I don’t want to write.

Greg Mosse insists students understand that it’s not what we like in a Reading-Group-glass-of-wine-and-nibbles way that matters, but what works. To my family’s annoyance during the MA year I couldn’t watch anything without taking it apart to see the gears and cogs. I keep quiet now – but I’m still anatomising in my head.

And yet…

It’s not just that, however useful. It’s about inspiration. The things that make me want to write.

This will sound cringeworthy but it is true: I want to pay it forward.

I want to take readers to new worlds.

I loved Narnia and Earthsea and Pern and Middle Earth ( yes I know -it’s our world millenia ago). How wonderful to transport other people somewhere special.

I want to speak with my own voice.

I can hear writers like David Almond and Robert Westall, and Leon Garfield and Joan Aiken. They taught me I can be myself, Northern vowels and all. That you can use language to give flavour and identity. I want to share that.

I want to revel in reworked tradition.

I think of Alan Garner, George Mackay Brown Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper and nowadays Katherine Langrish, Jackie Morris and Pat Walsh. They develop shared folklore, myth and legend and keep it alive. It’s too good not to pass on.

I want to express my delight in transformation.

Books move me far more than cinema or TV, they always have done. I can never forget the change in Mary Lennox in ‘The Secret Garden’, or Eustace Clarence Scrubb in ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’. And I’m still a soppy date about Scrooge & Silas Marner. Who wouldn’t want to show what people can become?

So, in short, I think you have to read and read and read  to be even a halfway decent writer. Or at least I do.

How about you?


Get over yourself

Yesterday I made a complete fool of myself. In public. In front of people whose good opinion I deeply desire and those I am supposed to be helping.#epicfail

I had to take part in a mock interview with a much-respected colleague as a demo for newer MA students. I was simply supposed to speak about my work-in-progress.

I really struggle to tell a story in mid-field, as it were. I can give you the grand sweeping overview – girl with magical powers has to choose between saving her mother or saving her city – or the close-up detail – Georgiana plays knucklebones with her friends the Blewcoat Boys. Anything inbetween I still find appallingly difficult. Before I’ve even opened my lips, what I have to say sounds so lame, I just dry up. And when I do venture something, it’s just plain wrong: not what I was asked to do.

So humiliating.

Those around me could not have been more supportive. No-one tried to make me feel pathetic – I was surrounded by encouragement.

But I still couldn’t do it.

Having been told it was both easy and an essential skill didn’t really help. Nor having it demonstrated with admirable skill by others. Currently, I feel an utter failure with no future in writing.

I know. Ridiculous. But it is how I feel amongst the tears.

But I’m still carrying on. I watch my friends stream ahead of me with book deals and agents and distinctions and just plain skill. I just crawl a bit further.

Give me a wave when you pass.


Playing away

I am going to Carcassonne for the first time tomorrow. I have a soft spot for any walled city or castle and a deeply romantic yearning for the medieval. I think I have dragged my poor parents to every single Norman castle in Wales and one of my earliest memories is being told off for using the clothes prop as a lance. I can only have been five.

You can guess that I am really excited.

However this trip has absolutely nothing to do with my current work-in-progress The Wedding Ghost, nor any other writing I have on the back-burner. It certainly has no relevance  to selkies. So what is the point?

First of all, it is a creative respite: in Julia Cameron’s terms, a chance to refill my well. I have been bashing the first draft of my ghost story and I’m pretty drained. Something unrelated yet inspiring gets the muse going again, I often find. Besides a little French cuisine and culture is all to the good.

Cassoulet - this I must try.

Secondly, you never know, it might start something off. I do not think I would be treading on Kate Mosse‘s toes if I were to write my sort of fantasy adventure prompted by  Carcassonne. A. she is far too generous a writer to mind, B. I don’t think I could manage such involved doorstops as she does and C. it would end utterly transformed by the time I’d finished with it if any of my other locations are anything to go by. Scoresby is not Scarborough, Selchester is not Chichester nor Selsey and The Isle of Wythering exists in some dark space on the South Coast entirely of its own.

Thirdly, it is a deliberate distraction. My MA novel provisionally titled The Seal People of Scoresby Nab is out there: somebody professional is reading it. I am understandably nervous yet I need to focus on what I am supposed to be doing now. I cannot emend my work by telekinesis so worrying about it is fruitless. Hence a trip away thanks to The Beloved Husband.

I am a very lucky wife and writer, I realise. I expect this will stoke me up for quite a while. I shall report back soon.

Which new place would you chose to set your muse singing?

Copy – wrong?

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – anon

It is very easy to echo a favourite writer. Like picking up a strong accent, you may well do it in unconscious admiration. Does that make your work fake? A blend of your most-read authors would not be plagiarism as such – but would it still be your work ?

Since we are a result of our life experiences – and a book properly read and interacted with is an experience – I would say this is inevitable. We write who we are – and we imitate.

But I’d suggest taking it one stage further. Do it deliberately.

Take an aspect  – the structure of a thriller, the rhyme scheme of a poem, one choice character – and play with it. Analyse how they did it and apply your new knowledge. You might draft a thriller set in a completely different world, compose a poem on another topic or send that character on a new voyage.

It worked for Constable – an avid copyist:  Shakespeare – a great ‘borrower’ of stories and writers such as Jean Rhys in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ & Susan Hill in ‘Mrs de Winter’. There are many more examples – indeed for most of art history learning from the Masters (please forgive the sexist term) was de rigeur.

You may wish to acknowledge the original  – to make the source obvious. I did so in my poem ‘Meanwhile, Mr Ferlinghetti’ because it was a reply – but it is not compulsory.

There is plenty of controversy in this area – arguments over intellectual property are complex and often heartfelt. I would say that it’s not the idea that matters – it is the execution: something I have learned from Greg Mosse on the West Dean MA. If I put in the spadework and create something new – well, then it’s my work.

I would love to know other people’s views on this – is it always wrong to copy?

Never mind the quality, feel the width…

I’d read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing.’ I knew I had to put my work away in a metaphorical drawer for six weeks.

But it’s hard. You’re locking your baby away. Your baby that you’ve cried over, laughed and smiled at. As a writer you have to be totally involved with your work. If you don’t care, why on earth should your reader?

It is, however, entirely necessary to thrust it on one side. You have to have time to develop the emotional distance so that you can stand back and look at it with a critical eye.

If you’re too close, there’s a terrible temptation to fiddle, to tinker with the little safe bits. If it were a wedding dress you might rearrange a few seed pearls on the bodice- whereas it’s the darts that want seeing to.

Now I have to admit that my MA script is a bit of a meringue at the moment. There are some flounces that it really doesn’t need. They are well constructed but detract from the overall effect. They will have to go because they just don’t suit.

I don’t really like it – but I can see it has to be done. The big cuts have to be done first – no point pinning on the broderie anglaise until the overall form is right, is there? Makes me wish my design and my  toile had been better.

Ah well – at least with writing, you can cover the joins.

Passing it on

I’ve been away to Turkey on an activities holiday. It’s one way of counteracting that dreadful complaint ‘writer’s bottom’ and a good way of meeting new people. During introductions,  it usually got round to what you do for a living.  I decided to be bold and admit I write for children. The response was gratifying – it has to be said this was the middle classes at play – people were interested.

In particular, one family wanted me to chat to their son, Lewis, about his writing. As an ex-teacher, I couldn’t resist this appeal for help.

Now I have to admit this wasn’t entirely altruistic. I had taken my business cards and was quite happy to self-promote. As we all know, word-of-mouth is the best advertising. I had Kate Mosse’s voice in the back of my mind:

Never fail your constituency.

Not only that, but I have a viva voce to go before I complete my MA at West Dean and all practice is good. Explaining what I do and why clarifies things for me. As Frank Oppenheimer said:

The best way to learn is to teach.

So, not only did I enjoy reading Lewis’s high quality and instinctively dramatic work and the opportunity to hold forth, it was useful to me to examine what I had really learnt. Thus I am delighted to be asked by Greg Mosse to support the new MA students on a Tuesday: that’ll sharpen my ideas up.

It may be sentimental but the thought occurs to me that knowledge is like love – the more you share it about, the more you have.