In praise of publishers

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

Who knew, dear reader, that at an age when a good many women are settling into a version of retirement, I would be getting my first traditional publishing deal? Back in 2016, after what seemed like a lifetime, that is exactly what happened. And in 2017, I did it again.

There was – because there always is – an element of luck attached to both events. I was lucky to have access to the Meet the Editor scheme, hosted by the press that would eventually publish me. I was fortunate to be mentored by an editor with an astute mind & an eye for something on the quirky side. And finally, I found myself in the hands of a ridiculously small & hardworking team willing to take a chance on me.

In a world where getting a traditional publishing deal is as rare as a Kate Bush gig, I remain grateful. Genuinely so. I’m lucky to be published. Lucky to be so well looked after, to have my words treated with respect, my responses to editorial differences thoughtfully considered; to be involved at every stage of the publishing process. If the past few years have taught me anything it is this: those of us who are traditionally published by reputable presses are immensely privileged.

Since I was published, in many ways my life has changed beyond recognition. It’s still amazing to me & each day I count my blessings. I love it when people smile & say, ‘I read your book. Wow! Well done!’ Yes, I’ve worked hard but being published doesn’t make me special, it makes me fortunate. Makes me want to write more, be “full of work” & regardless of the future, remain indebted to my publisher.

This morning, as I often do, I opened A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf at a random page. This is what I read:

The dream is too often about myself. To correct this; and to forget one’s own sharp absurd little personality, reputation and the rest of it, one should read; see outsiders; think more, write more logically; above all be full of work; and practice anonymity…

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#TeamHonno

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More than a fan

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

Every year on Christmas Eve, I enact a small ritual. I read, out loud, to myself, A Child’s Christmas In Wales by the poet Dylan Thomas. It’s a short book & takes me about fifteen minutes. My copy is old – I found it in a secondhand bookshop years ago. It bears a dedication: ‘Fondest Christmas Wishes, Ann‘ & the date, 1968. Every year I wonder who ‘Ann’ was, who gave her the book & how it ended up being given away again.

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In the same way I would never use the word ‘fan’ about my esteem for Virginia Woolf, I resist it with regard to Thomas too. Both are without equal in my view. I’m an admirer of both writers & try not to sound ridiculously pretentious by using words like ‘veneration’ & ‘homage’…

Yesterday, for the first time, I went to Laugharne & visited The Boathouse where Dylan Thomas lived for the last few years of his life. I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long. One of those things (like visiting Monks House where Mrs Woolf lived) I’ve always meant to do & somehow never got around to. Now I have & it was worth the wait. I went with my daughter, who is as much an admirer of Mr Thomas as I am of Mrs Woolf. (I can feel a ‘famous dead people’s dinner party’ coming on.)

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Thomas’s renowned writing shed is en route to The Boathouse. You can’t go inside & quite right too. It’s been preserved (& renovated) & nicely evokes a sense of what it must have looked like when Dylan Thomas worked there. You can peer (we did!) through the tiny window & take pictures.

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On a blisteringly hot day, I stepped inside the parlour at The Boathouse & the sense of place was immediate & quietly mesmerising. It was cool & peaceful. There were no echoes of voices: joyful or fiery; no hint of the explosive relationship Thomas had with Caitlin, his wife. Time, it seems, has softened the edges of the house. Which I like. The private lives of my & heroes & sheroes are best accessed through biographies. This close to home they are none of my business. I was content to be there & feel privileged.

Rest in peace Mr Thomas… Gently or otherwise…

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‘And changes into the most beautiful iridescent blue’ *

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Island life, Word birds & Process

In case new followers aren’t aware (my ramblings notwithstanding) this blog is my version of a writer’s diary. Its main function is to help me keep track of my writing process. In other words, it often consists of me thinking aloud – it’s highly likely I’ll make little sense to you, dear reader & if you’ve got this far, I’m impressed…

In my last entry I talked to myself about my next story: resurrect a previous one or start from scratch. It ended with me saying, I would wait & see which word birds ‘whispered the loudest.’

It seems the new one wins. Not because ‘going back’ is a bad thing. It can be & a story that isn’t working is a story that probably needs ditching. I know when I’m writing the wrong one. Riverbook isn’t wrong – it just isn’t the right time.

At writing group on Monday, I ran the outline of my new idea past my co-conspirator, Janey, & a week later, on the back of much slashing & brainstorming, I have it. Beginning. Middle. End. With the wrong whistles & bells relegated to the delete pile, the new ones glimmer. And I have a title! This early in the process it’s a bonus. (Book 3 has had almost as many titles as chapters. In the end I found it, hiding in plain sight within the narrative, but it took ages.)

This new story is as Gothic as I’ve gone thus far. I’m enjoying the trajectory of my books – from baby ghost to ‘presence’ via a tragic Victorian haunting. This one has sisters, another house (although not necessarily as we know it) & birds. (I am programmed to write birds into my stories.) And the colour blue… Also again, but it’s a lush colour & it works – in an entirely different context – so why not? A stroke of serendipity just now: as I thought blue, Kate Bush sang the title line above, which is, frankly, witchcraft & convinces me I’m on the right track.

I’m taking my time, making my notes & feeling my way. I have a new, magical writing frock (to go with the writing earrings.) All I need now is some discipline.

Chiharu Shiota
© Chiharu Shiota
* Kate Bush Sunset

‘I hear stories…’

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

‘…It could be myself telling them to myself or it could be these murmurs that come out of the earth. The earth so old and haunted, so hungry and replete. It talks. Things past and things yet to be.’ *

The space in between finishing a book & beginning another is filled with confusion. The non-writer perhaps imagines euphoria laced with a self-satisfied grin of smug. I’ll concede a fleeting sense of relief. It’s done. You’ve done it (again, if you have) & jolly well done. Have all the chocolate & a vat of wine; abandon the pyjamas & see to the pile of ironing in your bedroom resembling an art installation.

The truth is closer to panic. Even after several (sev.er.al.) rounds of editing, a reasonably competent draft is only the beginning. The editing we do for ourselves is just that. Ours. It’s subjective & highly likely to be Not Good Enough. The manuscript must now line up in readiness to be perused by The Real Editor.

This space is called Waiting. Cue gibbering, a sense of doom & the utter conviction that you are pants. (The small, hopeful voice lurking in the corner, whispering ‘It’s really not that bad, you know’ is a fool & a trickster.)

There is only one remedy. Crack on & write another.

And hereby hangs my dilemma. My plan was to return to the now mythical manuscript known as The Next Book. It’s been the next book twice now. Working title RiverBook, I began it before Ghostbird was accepted & carried on writing it between Ghostbird & Snow Sisters. Abandoned it in fact to write Snow Sisters. And then again to write the one I’ve just finished. Now there’s a new story wearing down my pencils, insisting I write it. (I’m making notes in my head as I type this, for goodness sake.)

RiverBook feels like the past & yet I still love it. It has an older woman main protagonist & we need more of them. It references my (very sideways) take on the selkie myth. It’s a completed first draft. I have to make a decision, see which word birds whisper the loudest.

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Onward & sideways…

*Edna O’Brien
~ House of splendid Isolation

Unexpected book review in blogging area

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You are being treated, dear reader, because I don’t want to wait until September, when this book is published.
It’s my pleasure to offer my review of The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech.

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As a storyteller, with every new book she writes, Louise Beech demonstrates a remarkable ability to reinvent herself. Although she returns to familiar motifs (which I love because I enjoy recognising them), each of her books presents the reader with a new scenario. The Lion Tamer Who Lost took me on a genuinely unexpected and fascinating trajectory. To Zimbabwe (with lions) and into a gay love story with a sadness at its heart that cracked mine.

Ben goes to Africa to realise a childhood dream to work with lions, and finds himself in a situation he could never have imagined. Andrew hides a wish in a box, which when it comes true, rips his world apart. Ben’s and Andrew’s paths keep crossing, and it may or may not having something to do with fate.

Gay men and their love affairs are rarely my go-to story of choice. But it is impossible not to be affected by Ben and Andrew’s relationship. By the authenticity and utter poignancy of it. By their responses to a tragedy that unfolds and over which they have little control. The characters are so well drawn, the relationship so sensitively observed, I was reminded of Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter. (I adore Gale because his male, gay characters are always relatable.) And that’s the trick, Beech has pulled off. A love story which resonates regardless of our (my) assumed preferences.

Which only goes to show.

Be careful who you love’ reads one of the straplines on the cover of the book. Be careful what you read: I turned the cover and fell headlong into a wonderful surprise. Because nothing about this story disappoints. The African setting, the excellent writing, and above all, the immaculate storytelling. It’s a cleverly constructed book too. I loved the chapter headings which give us a glimpse of the story within the story.

Another triumph. A beautifully crafted book which will do a great deal to further an understanding of gay relationships. From a writer coming into her power.

With huge thanks to Karen Sullivan at #OrendaPress for sending me a proof copy.

You can pre-order the book here.

Letting go of the lovely…

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

It’s highly likely I’ve used the above heading before. (And I’ve definitely written about editing.) No matter – my blog my repetition. Apposite in any case. Editing involves digging out the repetition. And much more besides. I’m on the 84,670,943rd pass & the excess keeps on keeping on… Were it not for chocolate & wine I might well have gone quite mad.

My writing co-conspirator has her head down too. (For those of you who don’t know, Janey & I are are the sole members of the smallest writing group in Wales.) Since her hip op we’ve had to meet less often but we never stop comparing notes. (I think she’s on draft 62,897,504…)

I’m doing my best to stay serene. On the surface at least – drifting like a lily on a lake, looking as if I know exactly what I’m doing. Under the water, trust me, I’m kicking the mud.

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My bête noire is a tendency to ramble. To embellish my stories with far too much exposition & description. My mentor & first editor calls it ‘the lovely’ & has, from the beginning of our collaboration, bid me be rid. She may no longer be my editor, believe me dear reader, as I edit Book 3 it’s like she’s in the room… Which is a good thing.

An old Facebook post from a very famous writer – who I’m not going to name in the interests of playing nicely – recently emerged. In it, she declared she was no longer going to allow her manuscripts to be edited. Quote: “I felt that I could not bring to perfection what I saw unless I did it alone.”

Lovely…

The thing went viral & of course, everyone has an opinion. Mine echoes what seems to be the popular view: Stop talking, famous writer! Shush now & be grateful! Being well & professionally edited is a privilege which we scorn at our peril. (And a best-selling author would surely have access to top-notch editorial advice.) There is a legion of writers out there who never get the opportunity.

And so forth. I’m off to unmuddy the waters. Please send chocolate.

Odd earrings

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

One of my writing rituals involves earrings. I have a designated pair. They’re not in fact a pair at all. They’re odd. One is a beautiful moonstone, the other, two chunks of amber. Both are set in silver & both lost their mates at some point in the past, the way earrings are inclined. Not least the ones we like best.  I loved both pairs very much so decided I may as well wear the not lost ones together. They’ve become talismans & when I’m particularly challenged (editing) they give me confidence.

Who knows if they have any power? Writers love ritual & I’ve spent a goodly part of my life indulging it, one way or another.

Numbers have power! The number of the moon is nine!! Merry meet for a lunar lark!!!

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And so forth.

You get the gist: I’m not keen on even numbers. There’s something about their uniformity that grates. Too precise. I prefer the risky, more magical nature of a nine or a seven. And I like what the ghost in my new story has to say about them:

She preferred odd ones, she said they were feminine.’

This morning I finished the third pass. After some serious slashing, it comes in at 89,977 words & sixty-three chapters. The title is three words long.

So far, so far. (So far…)

‘What kind of language is this?’ *

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

My ability to ignore distractions is pretty good. So long as I’m at home writing, as opposed to hanging in a cafe or suchlike, I can concentrate reasonably well on my current work in chaos. The world at large is far too interesting & full of shiny. Paradoxically, silence is a complete no-no too – there’s no such thing when you live in even a small town & distractions abound. When I’m writing I need familiarity: a touch of Radio 4 in the background, music that fits my mood; add the view from Withering Heights & I’m good to go.

Background is the operative word. I don’t need to be able to distinguish particular words. My own are what count. So long as I’m where I belong, the lyrics to songs turn into a sweet humming & I can crack on happily.

What interests me though is how, when I’m editing, some words do get through. It’s only certain songs that can do this. I don’t have a play list – my choices are pretty random. Or are they? An album I return to over & again while editing (& writing) is Kate Bush’s Aerial. In particular, the second CD: A Sky of Honey. I know the words to every song almost by heart. If I could only take one album to that desert island, this would be it. And this week, as I began the first important pass on Book 3, I returned to these songs once more. In the background you understand, but as present as the real, word birds still edging their way into my consciousness. (They have shiny too & secrets.) More often than not they know far better than I how this editing process needs to go.

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Oh, editing… What fresh hell & all that. What gibbers (thank you dear Juliet Greenwood for this perfect expression of the editing writer’s almost constant state of mind.)  What terror as you approach The Bit You Know Will Need A Vast Amount Of Work Because You Kidded Yourself You’d Nailed It When Clearly You Have Done No Such Thing. That said I enjoy editing. For me, in the first instance at any rate, it’s the smell of printed paper, sharpened pencils & a different outlook. Literally – I hard-copy edit in my sitting-room rather than my study, sofa bound & cushioned & very familiar.

Five days ago, having rescued Book 3 from the Dark Drawer after a month of marinating, I began. And when I get fed up with Jenni Murray chatting earnestly about vaginas, when the state of Bob Flowerpot’s compost & Pippa Greenwood’s sweet peas lose their allure, when the news stops being news & sounds more like coffee adverts, I reach for Kate.

And even though I have the volume turned down, some of the words do get through. I pause & listen: What kind of language is this? / I can’t hear a word you’re saying… And yet somewhere I can. In some part of my edit-addled brain, the right words exist. If I try really hard, make sure I have enough tea & chocolate to sustain me through the gibbering, I’ll hear them. My best words are in there somewhere.

Better get on then – see if I can find them.

*Kate Bush

Writing in the margins – somewhere in between

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

In spite of a lush sun trying to burn it off, the mist sticks. The swallows are back, Mistress Crow is in her tree & all’s right with the world. My bit of it at any rate. And for that I’m grateful.

With Book 3 still resting in the Dark Drawer, I’ve been busy Harassing the Hovel & restoring ten months of disorder. Apart from general cleaning, I’ve been decluttering, frightening the filth into submission & chalk-painting furniture. Larks galore! And not much writing done, frankly. I’m between [drafts], so to speak.

I don’t believe writers ever stop writing mind, even when they aren’t physically wielding a pencil, they’re at it in some form or other – ‘not writing’ their little socks off. ‘Not writing’ takes many forms, from actually not doing it to scribbling in your head. This is what I’m currently doing. With a Big Fat Edit looming, I’m already harking back (& forth) to scenes I know I’m going to play with (aka: mutilate.) The word birds are in whisper mode – they know how this works far better than I do. As I paint & clean & tidy, they slip notes into the mental chaos in the margins of my mind.

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I slipped in a few of my own too, last Sunday. As part of the Llandeilo Lit Fest I attended a poetry workshop run by the poet Kathy Miles. My admiration for Kathy’s work is huge. And the title of the workshop – The Changeling Poet: Writing Out the Narrative Voice – intrigued me enough to sign up. As did the description: A workshop which explores the persona poem, and how we can write ‘out of ourselves’. We will look at different ways in which the poet can write as animal, object, ghost or mythical figure, some of the techniques used to transform the narrative voice, and use these techniques to produce a piece of writing.

The persona poem form wasn’t unknown to me – it was absolutely not a motif I’d ever explored. (My forays into poetry pursued the patriarchy & shouted, ‘Watch out, the feminist is cross! Again!’) I wasn’t mistaken in my certainty that Kathy’s workshop would be useful. It exceeded my expectations & not only did I leave with ideas galore, I even wrote a poem that wasn’t livid & snarky.

A goodly number of the whispered words in my head involve my ghost. She’s different from Angharad in Snow Sisters & nothing at all like wee Dora in Ghostbird. Her voice has a quirky edge & I like the idea that I can play with it, perhaps create something unusual. The workshop definitely gave me food for thought – mine & my ghost’s.

I’m still working on it – Kathy has kindly offered some tips & I may one day be tempted to share my poem. Then again, I may not… In the meantime, I’ll keep writing in the mind margins, translate the whispers. Once the painting & housework are done, I’ll delve into the Dark Drawer & dig out Book Three.

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The Dark Drawer

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Island Life, Word Birds & Process

At the end of May last year, I ran a story idea past my mentor, Janet Thomas. (I blogged about it here.) I had 2,000 [random] words down. Ten months later, dear reader, I did it. I finished Book 3.

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Checking my writing diary this morning, I saw that on 7 October, I was ‘back in the chair for Bk3.’ (The bit in between involved copy edits for Snow Sisters, getting the book ready for it’s September release & the blog tour.) I still managed days here & there, writing the beginnings of the story.

It feels longer than ten months. I’ve struggled with parts of this book & I’m by no means out of the wood. (Note to self: Order more bread crumbs.) Nonetheless, it’s done & I hope, like the ecclesiastical egg, it’s good at least in parts. Time to step back & leave well alone for a while.

In terms of a completed first draft, The Dark Drawer is often a metaphor. Not everyone prints off actual hard copy & stuffs it in a literal drawer. In my case, I do. It’s part of my process & when it comes to the first round of edits, I prefer paper, sharpened pencils & a box of tissues. (Weeping may be involved – I have to shift a minimum of 20 k to make this story viable.)

I’m not normally very good at not writing, but I’m fairly relaxed at the moment. No idea how long it will last; I have a couple of talks to polish (& a neglected house to be kind to.) For the rest, it’s thumb twiddling time I guess. I’m taking bets on how long I can resist opening The Dark Drawer.