Perks of being a reader

Amongst all the debate about Kathleen Hale’s piece in the Guardian and the Goodreads reviewer allegedly* hit over the head with a bottle by an enraged author, I want to put my emphasis on the positive aspects of reading and reviewing.

*it is under police investigation at present


10 reasons to review – with examples

  1. Finding works and writers you never expected – Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage, China Mieville’s Railsea, Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne Trilogy, Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who …series
  2. Seeing  authors grow and change over time – Frances Hardinge, Chris Priestley, Celia Rees, Jonathan Stroud
  3. Developing relationships within the community – readers, writers, publicists, editors. Chutzpah pays off.  My experience so far has been overwhelmingly good. I love it when I tweet or comment and make someone’s day – or I get hold of a book I really wanted.
  4. Improving your understanding of the book market. I’ve much more idea of age-ranges, the style of different imprints and the likely readership than I had before.
  5. Matching the right book with the right reader. I cannot emphasise this enough. A reviewer’s purpose is to unite the people who like that-sort-of-thing with their preferred reading material. It’s not for me to judge – the thing’s been written. I know what love and care goes into the vast majority of writing for young people that I read – what earthly good could come of me slagging it off?
  6. Investigating good and sometimes great writing. How does it work? What can I steal?  [ Please don’t take that too literally] Even with works that really aren’t my thing, I have learned a lot by thinking about why.
  7. Inspiring me to write. We’re all ‘just adding pebbles to the cairn’ as Maeve Binchy put it so beautifully. Not rivals – fellow creators.
  8. Receiving books for free – how wonderful is that? If I can bear to, I pass appropriate ones to my local library – doubly pleasing.
  9. Occasionally getting books well before they come out. I feel so honoured when that happens. Hint hint publishers!
  10. Pleasure.
MESSY BOOKCASE

Shelfie

I mostly write for Serendipity Reviews and occasionally for Fantasy Book Review. I read the whole book – or I don’t review it. Why not join me?

 

Of Books and Babies

Extrapolating a cliche till it makes sense to me.

After a fun full-on day at the GEA social organised by the hot-pant wearing eco-heroine that is Emma Greenwood, I took refuge with Tracey Mathias Potter an Arvon friend in Camden. In her calm and choral-music-filled kitchen, we discussed children. We both have had three in a row.

Inevitably, we got round to a shared truism – of books as our new babies. I’m going to develop that theme, courtesy of our discussion.

We all have story conceptions that come to nothing. A quick spurt of an idea but no gametes fuse. Some tales get further. We miscarry, abort – sometimes an almost full text ends in stillbirth. In an echo of the maternal reality, I doubt many are lost and not regretted. Perhaps that’s why some writers resist talking about their work until the first draft is done: like naming a baby in some cultures, it may bring ill luck.

So it’s not surprising that we celebrate our achievement when we put down the least full stop. Balloons and chocolates, flowers and partying are entirely reasonable for what may have been a similar nine months or so of gestation.

the end

Oh no it isn’t…

But just like a flesh-and-blood baby, the hard work comes after her first emergence in the world. Walking, talking, the potty-training of punctuation – we do our best to make them relate to the outside world.  Finding out who they really are. Each one has a different personality – parents and writers both experience that shock of recognition.

Then there’s the School of Editing. Handing over your darling to a professional or a group of critique pals to develop their particular strengths. Now that’s an important relationship we fret about – will they see what’s at her heart? Will she even get in?

Home Ed is possible – but with it comes the difficulty of being objective. Of course, your child is completely lovely, just as she is. Won’t she get hurt out there?

a toddler clambering

And what of the Agent, that marriage broker?

The analogy got in a bit of a muddle there – but the point is, we do our best on our own or with help, to bring our stories to maturity. When they are ready to go out in the world with their readership, we have to step back. We can never forget them, but what others think, how they get along together is not our problem – just like our grown-up children.

a model bride drags her groom  across the cake

After all, we have others to tend to. Well, that’s my theory, anyway. My printed offspring are still in the Nursery.

baby-with-book-b&w-CC

What do you think?

The Blind Seamstress III

completing my fairytale for creative people

ripped-cloth-morguefile-web

‘Then let us begin,’ the Rose Lady said and she pulled the dress apart. The sound of each stitch ripping ran inside the Blind Seamstress’s ear like cold poison. Stitches unravelled and fabric rent. It seemed to her that she was servant-of-clay with its fired skin crazed and broken. Pain trod her gut like hunger.

Yet like hunger, it pushed her on. No detail of pleats or fastenings but her need made her swallow and chew the understanding of it.

‘You must be humble,’ said the Rose Lady, ‘and ask others to see the faults for you. There will be many – they will be as grit in your bread and as salt in your coffee.’

Together they unpicked, and made patterns so numerous that rocks had to hold down their flutterings. Toiles and trials, miniatures and mock-ups filled the house of the Blind Seamstress in a soft forest.

At last, the Rose Lady bade her lay her needle down.

‘This, she said, ‘this we will take to market.’

The Blind Seamstress felt the dress lying across her wrists. Not a bead nor a silk thread broke its smooth surface. Like the desert breeze with neither scent of water or palm tree.

‘But it is too plain, too simple. No-one will want so humble a thing. I only made it to please myself.’

Trust me – and most of all, trust your own soul.’

The Blind Seamstress made her way to the market and took her usual quiet corner. Strong fingers clasped her wrist and pulled her away. With a push and a leap, she stood on a high place, the base of an ancient column.

‘I must go and you must stay,’ the Rose Lady said.

‘Have faith.’

column-morguefile-web

The Blind Seamstress held out her dress and waited. She smelled camels and donkeys passing, heard the tellers of tales and sellers of water call out in the distance – but close by, the breath of many  encircled her. The tinkling of gold coins, rustle of cloth and scent of flower oils told her they were mostly women.

Words of wonder and delight bubbled up to her ears. Fingers tugged gently at the dress and lips sighed wishes that they might have such a dream of loveliness.

Then by-and-by came a merchant. Rings banded his plump hands and satin trimmed his sleeves. Tiny sandalled feet followed him, their sound no heavier than summer rain.

‘I am Hassan of the Ostrich Feathers – and my beloved daughter desires a gown from you.’

She knew he was a rich merchant fallen on hard times when his ship was lost at sea. Of his only daughter, she had heard hushed-up whispers of misfortune and ill-favoured looks.

A merry voice spoke.

‘I am to be married to my heart’s blessing – it would be an honour to wear such raiment. But I fear it will not fit me – can you alter it to suit?’

The Blind Seamstress heard the hope threaded through her words and considered.

The Merchant pulled off his rings and laid them fat and warm and heavy in her hand.

‘I give you the last that I have. Make the joy of old age happy.’

‘I must know what size and shape she is.’

He helped her down and she measured the young woman. It would take hours of work to fit someone so slight. Could she do it? Could she clothe a papyrus reed and make it into a lotus?

‘I will do my best, Hassan of the Ostrich Feathers – for your daughter’s sake.’

lotus-flower-morguefile-web

It was weary, fiddling work but she completed the gown and sent it. More work came her way. It seemed every quiet girl and shy woman in the City wanted a dress to fit. Hopeful buyers flocked around her little home. She clothed women tall like egrets, or plump and full-breasted as pigeons, or  dainty as quail.

To her, they were a delight. Each curve she could flatter, each skin she could wrap in voluptuous cloth, each spirit she could grow was a pleasure.

The best were the twisted ones who came by night. They crept to her window and pleaded for help. She called upon the Rose Lady for counsel and thought often fractured her sleep The labour was hard and rarely paid . But then their footsteps walking boldly by daylight made a rhythm of deep contentment for her heart to dance to.

Weeks went past. The Merchant returned.

‘You have made my daughter more lovely than I believed possible,’ he said. ‘There is nothing I could give you to repay that debt. But still – my ship came back unharmed and I would give you a token. Here is a pearl of great price – may you be blessed all the days of your life.’

She took the smooth and rounded treasure in her work-worn hand. She thought for a moment.

The_Girl_With_The_Pearl_Earring-cropped_1665

‘Indeed, I am.’

Last post …of 2013

It’s the time of year to review what happened over the previous twelve months. Part of me wants to just put the past behind me and look forward without reflection – but the history-lover in me recoils. How can you know how far you’ve travelled if you don’t know where you’ve been?

Don't look back. You're not going that way.

So here it is – a collection of events and thoughts about this writing year.

  • January – the launch of the Golden Egg Academy in Bath. Such enthusiasm for the world of writing for young people. Inspiring – and smashing to be in at the beginning.
  • February – first Chi-SCBWI event at the Fountain Inn in Chichester. Reminded me what a talented and kind bunch of writing pals I have locally.
  • March – Book Mapping Weekend at the Golden Egg Academy. So wonderful to have someone professional taking me and my work seriously – and some pretty challenging things to think about.

An antique lamp in Chichester

  • April – Major structural revisions to  my Georgian lamp-lit novel. I found the saggy middle the worst – radical surgery left a lot of bagginess.
  • May – Scoobies’ retreat. Inspired by Lucy Christopher to deepen my story. Encouraged by mad and lovely friends to get even more involved in SCBWI (British Isles).
  • June – up to Newcastle for difficult and very worthwhile pitching workshop courtesy of Mslexia.  (I did get to dance with David Almond’s daughter at the Kathryn Tickell gig the night before. though.)Then speed-date-the-agent event in Foyles. Exhilarating, fun and apparently successful: 5 agents and 1 editor interested in my selkie story. No takers though.

Sad-looking seal on a beach.

  • July – a stay in Devon at Deborah Dooley’s Retreats for You. Partly for my writing, partly for industrial espionage as I want writers to come here to Sussex-by-the-sea. Little details and thoughtfulness can make a big difference.
  • August – Arvon, Lumb Bank. Glorious – it felt like coming home, the other writers were great and I gained a great deal of insight from Steve Voake and N. M. Browne doing a brilliant good cop, bad cop routine. Also the Magical Books exhibition at the Bodleian Library – who knew Alan Garner had such distinctive and beautiful handwriting? And Phillip Pullman and Neil Gaiman in conversation at the Oxford Playhouse. Definitely a great deal of wannabe moments there.

black and white photograph of Neil Gaiman

  • September – brief sojourn in Devon again – but this time with Charlie of Urban Writers’ Retreats. Lovely venue – much to enjoy – but also gained the inevitable realisation that cannot escape yourself. Bum on seat, fingers on keyboard and crack on – the only way that works.
  • October Spain – glories of the Alhambra followed by the shooting star of my writers’ retreat dream plunging into a cold ocean. The house we wanted was sold to someone else. Remind me never to share my hopes far and wide. On the other hand, attended thoughtful and stimulating talk with Susan Cooper, Chris Priestley, Geraldine  McCaughrean and Sally Gardner on Halloween. Resulted in my best/most popular blog post yet.
  • November – NaNoWriMo: 55k of a first draft done. I proved to myself I could do 2k or more every day for 21 days non-stop .  I found sometimes I could outrun the inner critic – and I ended up exhausted with a grubby house. Scwbi-con was fun – met brilliant people and somehow found the chutzpah to read short story out in front of the utterly smart  and encouraging Malorie Blackman.
  • December – so disappointed not be long-listed for Undiscovered Voices. Got back in the saddle and sought editorial help from Golden Egg Academy with new funds (thank you Father Christmas for coming early). Full circle, eh?

Christmas decoration with joy written on it.

So there you go – I hope I didn’t bore you too much. It was a useful exercise for me at least. I now know three things;

  1. I will  carry on writing throughout 2014, published, agented or not .
  2. My fellow writers mean so much to me.
  3. I still haven’t given up on the writers’ retreat idea!

Finally, to quote Peter Sinfield:

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear

 

I hope to see you in 2014.

Sunday Special

On Thursday 31st October 2013  I took myself from West Wittering to Swiss Cottage Library. I didn’t get the prize for furthest travelled – my friend and colleague Julie Pike from Dorset earned that – but I did come away with several small and special treasures.

Firstly the most obvious – signatures from the illustrious guests in copies of their books which I had taken especially. The event was organised by IBBY and focused on using myth, legend and history in writing for children and young people. The four wonderful writers were:

Sally kindly signed my review copy of ‘Tinder’ which I had just finished reading on the train. I shall be writing about it on Serendipity Reviews shortly – but what I can say is that the complete book is most beautifully produced – and was perfect reading for Halloween.

I took ‘Mister Creecher’ for Chris to sign . Those who know me well will know I hold this in high regard – but I am also itching to read ‘The Dead Men Stood Together’. I thoroughly enjoy his thing of taking something from an earlier creepy masterpiece and then genetically engineering a whole new organism out of it.

Susan Cooper made me come all over tongue-tied. Not only is she the author of ‘The Dark is Rising’ sequence, but so cool and laid-back and wise I just wanted to breathe the same air in the hopes that something would transfer to me. After all, she inhabited the same Oxford as Tolkien and Lewis, and I think she knows Alan Garner. Phew.

Last but never, ever the least was Geraldine. I took a little paperback copy of the first book I ever read aloud to a class  (Dog Days). Geraldine has written so many smashing books – from Monacello to A Little Lower than than the Angels – that I was spoiled for choice. But I have soft spot for frost fairs and Old London Bridge, and it was a pleasure I shared with the children.

I also took away some less tangible but no less special treasures – in fact I filled the last remaining pages of my Moleskine with them. Here’s a small selection:

Sally Gardner:

  • children can’t be policed in historical fiction – they can have truly great adventures
  • imagination allows you to float your mind out of a situation
  • the pea-soupers she knew as a child around Gray’s Inn were made of ghosts and Charles Dickens

Chris Priestley:

  • historical fiction allows child characters to be master/mistress of their own destiny
  • dystopias are historical fiction – just in another direction
  • he writes for the vestigial 14 year old inside him beguiled by grotesquerie

Susan Cooper:

  • she is obsessed with place, with the layers of time
  • uses the past to illuminate the present but ‘God forbid messages’
  • what a child gets out of a story is not what is put in deliberately to educate – or even to entertain

Geraldine McCaughrean:

  • history was another place where I had often gone as a child
  • after a brilliant rant about bowdlerised folk stories – she said the originals were a a place where we can taste the amoral terrifying darkness, the inchoate beings we all nurse inside
  • research as much as you like – and then around half-way, throw it all away! 

I can only agree with the librarian (whose name sadly I did not catch) who thanked the panel for ‘not dumbing down’. It was an exhilarating evening with far more than these brief highlights – much of which is fermenting in my imagination.

day-of-the-dead-woman-CC

Oh, and one final thing – it’s a really good idea to wear something emblematic such as a silver Peter Pan brooch, a skull close to your neck, a gilded vulture or an interlaced  symbol of Celtic mysticism. I leave you to guess who wore which…

We plough the fields and scatter…

I am old enough to remember singing Harvest Festival hymns at school – and thoroughly enjoying them. I love the cycle of the farming year and where I live I am fortunate enough to see it. There are times this rural corner of West Sussex can look like something out of The Ladybird Book of Proper Farming.

The-Farmer-Ladybird-web

Traditionally Autumn is a time for ploughing and I have long had a soft spot for the word ‘fallow’. Not just for the beautiful dear – but the concept of leaving the land to rest. The sight of warm brown corduroy fields always pleases – and a tractor with a comet-trail of gulls makes it even better.

morguefile-tractor-web

My writing is doing that at present – having a rest.

The idea of fallow land comes from the process of crop rotation I looked into it and found a surprising and rather satisfying correlation with what I am doing.

I am deliberately taking time out before my first attempt at NaNoWriMo  (National Novel Writing Month) – thirty days of writing 2k a day come Hull, hell or high water. It’s a tall order – but I think it could be a fine way to bash out a rubbishy first draft and outrun both the Procrastination Imps and the Bog Monster of Self-Doubt.

If you remember your British Agrarian Revolution*, letting land lie fallow as part of crop rotation brings these benefits:

  • restores nutrients to the soil
  • minimises pests and diseases
  • decreases soil erosion

I hope that having a planned breather will;

  • give me chance to replenish my stock of inspiration (I am still researching & reading)
  • minimise my errors and writing tics – avoid rehashes of same old, same old
  • decrease my weariness

I will add that continuous production of the same thing in the same place  leads to the need for artificial inputs. In the same way that I would endorse organic farming, I think writers need to take a holistic approach – or risk being depleted.

A change is as good as a rest they say, so I am sketching and taking notes and doing writing exercises to keep up my momentum, I hope. It’s just going in a different direction.

Jethro+Tull

  * and even if you don’t recall Turnip Townsend and Jethro Tull (no, not the one with the one-legged flute-player), it still does.

 Fellow creators – how do you approach a new project?