My compendium of failure and on beating the odds (an updated piece)

In the past few weeks I’ve been paying particular attention to people’s comments on twitter (mainly) about the impossible odds of getting a publisher for a book, or of getting an agent. I also see writers frustrated not only at rejection but at not getting a reply. Moreover, about perceived barriers to finding an agent or publisher and about not being listed for competitions. I thought I would write in response to this because I have launched and had to relaunch. Let me know if you have found this in any way helpful. Oh – and when it comes to competitions and applying for things, I’m going all out here. I BET I HAVE FAILED* MORE THAN YOU.

*TRIED; STUCK MY NECK OUT; WAS NERVOUS BUT DID IT ANYWAY….

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  1. I started writing long-form in late 2014 and wrote a memoir. I can’t quite remember whether it was this year or the following but I submitted it in the Mslexia memoir competition and it was not longlisted. I remember being gutted and crying a lot. I wouldn’t now, but at the time….
  2. In early 2015 I completely rewrote the book and changed it into autobiographical fiction. I submitted it to six agents and three replied with a no; one didn’t reply (with a clear statement that if no reply in…however long it was…it was a no) and the other two didn’t reply at all, even after chasing.
  3. I decided I would send it to an independent publisher and there it was accepted. This memoir went on to be my first book, Killing Hapless Ally, published in 2016 and, although, there were some bright spots and I had many lovely responses because it was about mental illness and resonated with people, was profiled and used as a teaching resource (still is), this book was otherwise pretty invisible. Somehow I hadn’t quite banked on this; probably because I was still really ignorant of how book publishing and marketing worked. And also, I do tend to be wildly optimistic about things!
  4. I wrote a novella right after that, The Life of Almost, and I had two full requests from agents. One never wrote back at full, the other, who had seemed extremely keen, rejected it but asked for my next book. Because I was completely naive, I wrote that to time for them and they then rejected it with a form rejection and I never heard from them again. My previous publisher then took it and it sank pretty much without trace, mood lightened by some wonderfully supportive booksellers and reviewers and readers. This was tough. On my release and book launch day I was crying and feeling wretched, pulled up by a lovely bookshop and some truly great people in the publishing industry, including a really nice agent who had rejected my work but was just a good egg. BUT
  5. …do you know what you do when you finish a book, or it’s out and about? Or when your book sinks? You get off your sorry arse and you write another one! This was my third book, Saving Lucia. I did have an agent meeting (we are now in the summer of 2018) about this one, but I want to tell you – and I am not going to name any names in any of this – that particular agent is someone whom I am proud to keep in touch with because they are so blinking nice and supportive and ethical and that is something to bear in mind. Someone may not be a good fit for you, but that doesn’t mean you cannot maintain really wonderful links with them. This is friendship and community, but it is also commerce. Where was I? For this past year or two I had been reading more and more books from the indies presses in the UK and beyond and it changed my life. It was so exciting. I got to know them, and their work and tried to develop an understanding of their vision; I sent Saving Lucia to seven independent publishers; two were a no with nice comments and I had three requests for fulls. Two didn’t reply at all. Still haven’t, you little buggers. But let’s say there was a fair bit of interest there. Saving Lucia is being published by the awesome Bluemoose Books next April. YAY. And did I say that while I was waiting I wrote another book, a work of historical fiction? It would be wrong to tell you any details now because all in good time…generally publishers will want first refusal on your next book so… (should I get rid of this bit? No, I think it’s ok.) I also met the person who was, in future, to become my agent around this time; just chatting through things, even though I had nothing to offer them right then. Because DO YOU KNOW WHAT? This doesn’t always work how you think it will work. Actually, we talked about hats and reading and what was the best kind of cake and America and Britain and ranging between the two (as we both do). But mostly about reading. And a bit about writing and what I might be up to.
  6. Well, so…I have done another book, I have now got a wonderful yes on Saving Lucia and I seem to have sort of got ahead. It was at this point that I started tinkering and ended up writing two short story collections. This was in very late 2018 and early 2019. I did this for stimulation and pleasure and it made me so happy. Again, this didn’t happen how I thought it would. I hit upon the idea of two themed books: the first with the theme of food and feasts and consumption (as in consuming, not TB) and that is Famished, out with Influx Press next September and while I was hanging around on that – request for full very quickly – and just after I had a decision – YAY – I wrote the other collection, and I am not telling you much about that other than to say it’s positively macabre but I hope you will find it funny too, one day. Oh – and I am also now agented. WHOAH.
  7. Right. So that’s books three and four coming to you in one year (2020) and that means that, in under five years, I have written 7 books (I have just finished number 7 now; it’s another novel and this time, magical realism, currently hanging out with a beta reader the pedigree of whom…well…maybe I can tell you about that if he doesn’t hate my book) and I am not entirely sure how this has been done with the kids hollering and my teaching and dusting and looking after chickens and cats (and see below) and volunteer work and physical and mental health challenges (you get the picture), but I think I took so long to start that once I had, well I was not going to give up. Plus I loved it.
  8. There have been some properly shit bits. The rejections; the no-replies. There are going to be more I expect when someone hates one of my books. Or lots of people do; it’s part of the business. But you MUST move on rather than feeling persecuted as well as rejected because your creativity will, I think, dwindle. That has happened a couple of times. Also, I mentioned relaunching. My first two books are now, as they say, between publishers. It wouldn’t be kind to comment on any of that because sometimes things go wrong, of course they do, but it is sad. Suck it up though because I have a new notebook. And on no replies – especially after a request for a full – not good enough, I feel. Plus, it causes people real upset.
  9. I have not mentioned an absolutely key thing. During this period, first word to page when I knew absolutely nothing about the writing and publishing industry, I have worked my tits off to make sure that I do know things. Maybe that’s how you beat the odds. Clearly the writing has to be there and you MUST listen to constructive criticism and advice and at least give it the time of day, but while you are working away, learn about the industry. Network. Well I didn’t know I was networking, because I call it HAVING A CHAT and I LOVE A CHAT. Expand your reading. Read as much as you can and diversely. Challenge yourself. When you submit, you really should know plenty about those to whom you are submitting. It has been bloody marvellous to do anyway, but I had read lots of books by Bluemoose and Influx and others I submitted to. That’s one example. Put the work in, because they did. Also, meet people and talk to them (HAVING A CHAT AGAIN); engage on social media if funds or your health or caring commitments mean you cannot get about; take an interest in others’ work – it is so life-giving and rewarding. Learn what an agent is, a publisher, and indie publisher, an editor (and the different types of editing); learn about book publicity and marketing, bookshops -especially our wonderful independent booksellers – and book marketing. And I was doing all this while I was writing; I also submitted various poems, short stories, creative non-fiction and short memoir, most of it, to my surprise, was published, though mostly not for money: for that reason, it had to be work I could do in pockets of time. I edited a couple of books and reviewed various books for online journals. I wrote a poetry collection which I submitted for Mslexia’s poetry anthology competition with Seren books and it didn’t get anywhere. You can tell I’ve been busy because I only just remembered about that. I also put together a comical parenting book based on diaries and blog posts I had done for various sites and submitted that to Unbound, where it was a no. Yep. I worked my tits off. I also tried, surmising I might be starting to look at least a bit credible, to help others forward. I have managed complex mental health stuff for a long time and I’ve got a couple of wacky health problems which aren’t always much fun, but that’s NOTHING compared with what many suffer; add to that the structural inequality which means that funds and resources preclude someone from writing. This is why I do four free manuscript reads a year: I think that life revolves, or ought to, around community and love. And chatting to people. Some people are twats, usually because they are (argue as you please) experiencing pain or threat in some way.
  10. Here is my summary catalogue of additional failure, because I see people getting upset that they do not make lists for competitions. I BET I HAVE FAILED MORE THAN YOU. I have never (other than Not the Booker) been longlisted. For anything? Let’s break this down. I didn’t make the Mslexia memoir list, my books were not longlisted for Rubery (that cost me £37!!!), Wellcome, Bath novel (twice!), Goldsmiths, Ondaatje, Exeter or Yeovil prizes; my complete poetry anthology didn’t make the Seren Books/Mslexia anthology; my short fiction and single poems have not made Fish, Costa or Bridport  and WHAT IS MORE I didn’t get a Gladstone Fellowship or Society of Authors Funding; because I didn’t, I a. got up at 4 in the morning to write and b. taught more and it was tough. But what are you going to do? Do you want to do this or not? Are reading and writing your lifeblood? Then there’s your answer.
  11. AND MAYBE THAT IS HOW YOU BEAT THE ODDS. You ignore them. You just write good stuff, as good as you can, keep talking to and meeting people; none of this has happened as I thought it would. A lot of things have happened because I met people and before anyone interprets that as schmoozing in inner circles, no: I mean I like chatting to people (apologies for the HAVING A CHAT repetition) and seeing what they do, asking them about their reading and so on. I am quite shy. but I love to talk to people (if that makes sense) and I think this has held me in good stead. When things go wrong, feel sad and let them go. Yes, there are clearly real things that need to change. Speaking as mum and English teacher, for example (there are other areas and fantastic people shining a light on access and unacceptable dead ends), it’s pretty clear that the industry needs to up its game on BAME books (and you too, exam boards!!!) – but for lots of other things, be sure it’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy; avoid feeling resentful and persecuted because that’ll stymie your creativity. Women: I won’t even engage with this stuff about ageism because, as I have been saying this week, unless I am about to get a horrid shock – my eldest son is nearly 18 so clearly I am 318 – I think we need to crack on and I have never experienced it and am not at all keen on its being used as positive marketing tool on the whole, because it’s reductive and I’d be lying. I’d say, ‘I’ll get my coat’, but I wrote that only to encourage and maybe make just one person less fearful.                                                                                                                                               AND I HOPE THAT, OVERALL, YOU’VE FOUND THIS LITTLE POST HAS MADE YOU FEEL BRAVER.
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    Love, Anna.

The boy who stole my life

This morning, The Guardian published this extraordinary letter. After I read it, I sat down and cried. It is beautifully written, for a start and, as was noted by literary folk on twitter, the account read like a short story.  Also, I wish I could invite this person over for tea right now and give them a huge hug. This is a deeply painful and confusing set of circumstances and one, I would think, in which it would be hard to find clarity or any form of comfort or redress. I want to say to its writer, though, that reading it, while it upset me, made me feel less alone with my own peculiar circumstances.

I want to say thank you and that I am sorry for what has happened. And yes – do you know that you write beautifully?

By the time I was an adult, I’d lost both parents, all grandparents, my oldest friend and the only person  in the world with whom I felt safe, my godmother. I had a sibling, much older than me. I loved him passionately, but was also scared of him and struggled to articulate why. Three years after my mother died, my sibling disappeared. Refused all communication with me and did not explain why. This carried on for many years and I experienced it as shame and bewilderment; in the end, it was easier to tell myself that I was an only child. I felt sick when I thought of it all; still do. I would hear, third hand or so, that my sibling wanted nothing to do with me because of what a terrible person I was, because of how badly I had treated our parents (I had done my best to nurse them, I hoped, abrupting my childhood, bisecting my adolescence or university career, where I felt separate and strange).

Later, I felt the story shift a little within the family. I suppose it was because it was easier for people to understand, or more palatable. There had been issues between us; an argument. Yes; that was what had happened. It’s the revisionist version of family history. I had tried, before, to raise with my extended family, the matter of events and their impact and, also, of the dark and distressing things which had happened within the family home. The things which led, in part – I am careful to qualify that – to multiple episodes of anxiety and depression. To this day, I still have nightmares about my experienced; some of these nightmares are about my sibling. And when I raised these things, emboldened by finally finding the right therapeutic support for me, I was told, “If ANY of this had happened, I would have known.” As I said, revisionist. But I did not revisit discussion because I didn’t want to cause upset. I could cope and it could have been worse, I reasoned.

When I was about to get married, I tried again to get contact with my sibling again: I wanted him at my wedding, I thought. Wanted him to know; thought he might want to. This time, I had a reply and it left me on the floor – it was all curses and how I was selfish and hadn’t given enough notice (three months, but maybe not enough: I’m not sure!) and no way would he be attending, you selfish little bitch this is typical of you. While I lay on the floor, I thought…well I thought that I would not survive it. I believed – and right here was further endorsement – that I was this terrible person. I had always been told I was, for as long as I could remember. I didn’t know otherwise and could not really understand why this really lovely man downstairs actually wanted to marry me. Still, the revisionism came into play: he’s upset because you didn’t ask him to give you away. That is the accepted version of events, which ignores a decade of refused contact prior to this. Perhaps I did the wrong thing and I cannot ever have been blameless, but it hurts to have a truth told which is not my life; which is a lie. When you’ve worked out it is a lie, mind you. It can be terribly hard to see clearly.

I had three children. Sent pictures. Nothing. Well, one little thing, once, out of the blue with the first child: “Thank you for your photograph. I will put it in an album. Regards.” Nothing subsequent; the first baby is now nearly sixteen. But I kept the note. I’m not really sure why.

And then. Three years ago. He was getting married and suddenly got in touch with all the extended family. With a couple of exceptions, everyone acted as if nothing had happened. His wife to be showered everyone with gifts and wrote to me – all about how much his nephews meant to him and he loved them from a distance; about how I was a special sister to both of them now and would “the boys” like to come and stay with their auntie and uncle? Again, the extended family saw it differently: why don’t you let them? Don’t the boys deserve to know him? Deserve to know their uncle? I really struggled with that, a recasting of a story – as if I had somehow witheld them. He’d never met them. Moreover, if you read the letter which follows below, you might have some notion of the inappropriateness of such a visit. An unsupervised visit. I have seen and felt things which I wish I could unsee and unfeel. Besides which, all the letters were from her.

My sibling rang me and said he would be calling at our house. This was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. He told me what I was to do and was explicit that the only reason for visiting was so his wife to be knew who I was. I rang an aunt and said that I did not want this, that it was not real, but was told not to behave badly and I had to do what my mother would have wanted. They stayed an hour. We lined the boys up for them. He barely spoke to me, talked about his work in a sort of boasting way – he is very wealthy from what I can gather – and they left.  Thereafter, I had further “precious nephews” letters from my sister-in-law and “treats from auntie and uncle”. Tenners on a birthday. Then they dropped the “auntie and uncle”, then the treats; then the birthday cards. I think it took a year for them to get bored.

We had a raft of family bereavements. They were there, leading the funeral procession. He pushed past me, looked through me, refused to speak. There was one occasion, for a beloved relative, where she was the first person I saw. “Thank you for making the journey for our beloved…” she said. I could have said, “Whom you knew for little over a year and who dandled me and loved when I was a tiny child forty years ago…” but I didn’t. It felt like a fantasy; as if nothing made sense. In addition to being transparent – he was looking right through me – to my own sibling, I felt like my life was being stolen, my narrative rewritten. On hearing gushing compliments about the two of them, on this occasion and others, what I felt was anger and shame. I am still getting over it, but I have to accept that they have propelled themselves into the heart of a family, and that is that. There is nothing I can say.

Without the support of my husband, and the one little enclave within my extended family…well thank you. I talk to my friends, too, about bubbles that come up – at children’s parties; in the school holidays – family stuff. I can feel like a social leper. But sensible friends now know to jolt me out of this. It is what it is. Also, I have my husband and my boys in front of me. It serves me well to have someone remind me not to be ungrateful or self-indulgent. And I do believe that family is a flexible construct and can be built; that our friends and our community are part of it. And that’s me, the chubby toddler with a bucket. For years I could not look at pictures of myself for loathing. I’m getting better, because there I am.

When I wrote my first book, a semi autobiographical novel called Killing Hapless Ally, I drew, in the section that follows, on homework I had to do in therapeutic support. I had a crisis – breakdown if you like – five and a half years ago and received extended support CAT under the NHS with people who saved my life. My sibling reappeared just at the end of this support – so I was able to talk it over a little, but not enough, perhaps. In CAT – cognitive analytic (or analytical) therapy – I was asked to write some letters, and the one that follows was to my sibling, here in its original form, before being slightly edited for my book.

But to return to the letter in The Guardian today, just know, if you are its writer or feel upset in reading it or because something that makes you terribly sad has happened in your family, that your story belongs to you. No-one can steal your life. You were there and you can heal or, more realistically, learn to live alongside bereavement or loss of such a painful, contorted sort. Yes, you were there. Tell your own story, make your own revisions, if you like, for your own sake; for that of your future happiness – but also so that you do not admit impediment to the love you give to others.

So here’s the letter, as I gave it to the NHS and pretty much as it went into the book. I should explain that there are references to real people in the letter and yes: I really did have Albert Camus as my imaginary friend! Dixie Delicious (sorry darling) is my husband.

‘To my brother.

Here goes. When I was a child I idolised you. You were like a more fun version of a dad and I would sit on your lap and watch telly or just chat. You spoiled me with sweeties, long walks, playing badminton. I don’t remember having a sense of discomfort about my relationship with you as a child. You would joke with my friends and always come to help entertain my friends at birthday parties, but I do have a memory of being scared of something and I don’t know or cannot articulate of what exactly. It came from the corner of your yellow eye. I know that when I was about ten, something changed – or maybe it was always there but I didn’t see it until I became more, shall we say, sentient, my newly knowing state coinciding with the time you first went off me? I remember what I thought -or rather willed myself to think- were happy visits; day trips. But they were punctuated by anger, weren’t they? You said I was the apple of your eye and that I would always be your precious “little sis.” But there would be the sudden wild anger; exuberance then angry tears, and I didn’t understand. Were you so sad, too? One day, you made the peculiar statement I didn’t know whether to admire or run from. You stopped in the street and said, “I enjoy being a bit of a bastard and kicking people when they are down” and you were all swagger and brilliance. You said, ‘People are all shit. It is the nature of the beast. You can’t trust anyone and no-one will care for you’ and you smiled knowingly as you said it.

That night I discovered the huge porn collection under your bed and couldn’t take my eyes off what I saw. Above your bed was a huge photo of a naked woman, breasts on show, all shiny tabloid and emerging from the sea, her lips parted expectantly. I stayed in that room with you, sleeping at the end of the bed with the giant tits looking on and the porn humming under the bed, easily within reach. I clung to The Wind in the Willows, incongruous in your bedroom. Tits. Being a bastard is fun. Readers’ wives. It is the nature of the beast. No-one will care for you. All people are bastards. Bestial. It is the nature of the beast. None of this cares for you. Oh my precious, precious sister. Raaarrrrrr!

For some time in my teens you stayed away. When you visited I remember you on edge; aggressive; I was nervous around you; you used strange language around me and shaming memories erupt: you would lean closer to me and say, “How are your periods?” or “Have you got a fat fanny?” or ‘Look at your breasts. Your silly little breasts.’ That might have been funny from kin close in age, but when I was thirteen, you were twenty nine and you shuddered in disgust when you saw me and it mortified me and made me ashamed of my changing body all through my adolescence and I would look at myself and be sick and so it was really only my adventures with Albert Camus and jaunt with Denis the Lusty Blacksmith that made me consider the possibility that I wasn’t some kind of, I don’t know, physical outcast: dirty girl: my sex repelling all those around me: Albert and Denis thought I was hot, hot, hot. Of course, the boys in school thought I was persona non grata: eccentricity, oddity and trying too hard tend to have that effect on people. It had to be me, didn’t it? I would have shrivelled up without the hot blacksmith and my imaginary existentialist. Vive La France. And the nightmares I have had for years about you doing the most terrible things to me? I do not know whether they were true, but I know it took me twenty-five years to be able to name the sexual parts of the body because there laid fear and loathing. For me, it’s hard, because my waking and dreaming and my real and imagined encounters are historically a little blurred, but I definitely do not cry to dream again when I dream of you; instead, I wake and cry not to and I’m a lucky girl now because I reach for the hand of Dixie Delicious and what can you do to me now?

Once, Wales, home in our bisected lives, we went for a walk on the beach. Took a young cousin. He was a lippy sod, but very little and his cheek was funny. But to tell him off, you threw this fully clothed little boy into the freshwater stream running down from shingle to sea. Hard compacted sand. Kid too startled to cry. “That’s what you get” you said. How. Why.

I remember your drinking and crazy dancing and wild unexpected swearing and the sense that our parents gave me, expressed quite calmly and not in the white heat of anger, that they preferred you. Oh yeah: I got kind of used to being under sufferance and with a muddled sense that I was shit and you were shinola. I never felt cross; I just felt sad and dug my nails into the palms of my hands. It was things such as this, I think, that made a place for the self harming to start. I felt a kind of rage and frustration – and also, as I grew, disgust at my own body: emerging breasts and all. I recall being thirteen and accidentally bumping a drawer on the wall of a bedroom in your house: it made a mark. You were incandescent with rage: you and mum called me a selfish little bitch, I ran out into the street, somewhere, anywhere. In darkness I came back to stern silent looks. When we left you said, “Next time don’t bring her – that – with you.” I hadn’t meant to cause harm or damage. “You marked his wall. You marked it. It was you, you, you. And you are marked, too!” Mum and dad just told me again how selfish I was and, well, everyone knew that. I felt kind of desperate and just wanted to know if anyone thought differently: it sounds so pathetic! I said, “But his next door neighbours said I was lovely” and mum barked out a laugh and spat, “That’s because they don’t really know you.” I cried silently for two hundred miles home. Santa Maria threw a carton of orange juice, a ‘Club’ biscuit and a bag of crisps into the back seat at some point. Like a bone to the nasty little dog. They did not turn round.

I feel that there’s a kind of spitefulness in you as there was in my mother. And what, as a child I must have, inchoately, begun to think of as true and eternal simply wasn’t. What you said – about us always being together; about you and me having adventures together; taking on the world – well I thought it was possible. I thought that with your thoughts and words you could make a star dance or melt its heart; really your words were hollow – beating on a raggedy old drum. I just didn’t know it yet or I tried not to know it. And what you seemed to be was just a layer covering up resentments, wounds and imagined slights; misogyny, pornography, the self-denial of a functioning alcoholic; a repressed and angry son. Look at me: I have morphed into a cod psychologist: isn’t that just typical of bucket-baby Annie – ha ha ha? I can’t not be your sister, but if you’re Brother who May as Well be Dead, I hardly expect to look on you again -and I will survive: with my most excellent unshamed bazookas, much beloved of my husband. They’re a double D! I just had them measured up. And say I do see you, expert on pulling the wool, on subterfuge, on being the out in the cold injured one, turning up to caress a hearse or wear a mourning suit with gravitas, well I won’t see you. You don’t exist anymore in my head even while you continue to take from me and snarl at me. I wish you only happiness, no harm. So Brother who Might as Well have been Dead, Mummy/Santa Maria and Daddy Daddy, I’m through, oh I’m through.”

For writers starting out. Do comment, discuss and contribute your thoughts!

I know there are a lot of people out there writing books and a lot of people submitting said books at the moment. I know or have met people who now have stunning commercial success, writers who are agented but yet to have their first book sold, those who work with the small presses and who are not agented, those who are what we might call a hybrid (I am thinking this is likely to be me) – by which I mean agented but also finding publication routes on their own, perhaps with a small press, those who are disconsolate because everything is a flat rejection or they have received no answer at all and those – including recent MA in Creative Writing students – who are, for various reasons, too scared to submit at all. That’s just for starters.

It might come quickly; it could take years. I do think the key thing is not to take rejection personally (while accepting that, maybe, you need to write a different book if nobody at all is biting); also, if you are floored by rejection and delay and disappointment, then this might not be for you. And that, OF COURSE, is fine. Because there is a life beyond writing.

Here’s where I am. I started writing a book, Killing Hapless Ally, a novel, which originally began life as a memoir, in July of 2014; by the 1st of May, 2015 it had a publisher and it was published in March 2016 by the small press, Patrician. I only sent this manuscript to five agents; two rejected it, three didn’t reply at all. I read an article about the press in ‘Mslexia’ magazine and I liked the sound of it, corresponded with its charismatic founder and there we go. I was, I should add, realistic about how visible the book would be, but I have relished the experience and, ever since, the bonds I have made with its readers. Is it a bestseller? Good God no, but it has been important to its readers and the engagement I have had with them has been life changing. With Patrician, to whom I now feel rather bonded, I also published a poem in Anthology of Refugees and Peacemakers (just back from an event at Essex Book Festival on that) and will be co-editor of next year’s anthology, My Europe and editor of its Tempest, which is a book, by various authors, on (Trump) America. And my poetry has been published by the brilliant indie Emma Press, too.

Way leads on to way.

Meanwhile, I spread my wings and wrote another book, a novella, The Life of Almost. I began sending this out before Christmas 2016. I’m a quick worker, apparently. Two agent rejections (one the day I sent it!), three small press rejections (but read on for that and for more on agents), waiting on two further presses and an agent so still out on submissions. BUT during this process, another agent had read a section from Killing Hapless Ally and admired my writing; said agent asked me to send what I was currently working on (as in, The Life of Almost) in partial then in full; told me they thought I was a brilliant writer but that this book was not, though they admired much about it, for them. To their taste, for example, it needed more pace. But I had also told them about my plans for the next book (I actually have four more books sketched out: is that crazy sounding?) and the agent asked me to send them the full manuscript for that as soon as it was ready because they absolutely loved its concept. This was my third text, Passerines.

Meanwhile, one of the other agents told me (having read three chapters of Almost) about how they loved my writing style. That there was much to like; it was innovative and compelling but in the end the book was not right for them. Keep sending! And of the three small presses who rejected me, one said that though they would not be taking this one, they were confident it would be placed and would I send them future work? The other told me there was some lovely writing and they were impressed, but that this text was simply too innovative for them and, on that basis, they would simply not be able to shift enough copies to make it financially viable. I do know that the small presses – whom I adore and champion, by the way – are often those who DO champion the innovative book, but clearly that is not always the case.

So you see, there’s a lot of encouragement in that pile, just as there is a lot of rejection. The rejection is part of the experience and of the learning.

I have almost finished my third novel. So that’s three books – from the first word, I mean – in three years and this is not my day job. I run a a company, teach, have three young boys and I’m a volunteer and mental health advocate, too.  I don’t have a great deal of time so I’ve got to want to do this.

Do you? Take your time and don’t give up.

I may not have hit a super stellar advance just yet and obviously I may never, but I am playing a long game. May those who find later books go back and read my first, for example. We are three years in and I have met so many fascinating people, read hundreds of books – I read a great deal anyway, but I am so much more alive to different presses and sources of reading; it has been such an adventure. I’ve made a film about mental health, presented at a literary festival, had a packed book launch at a wonderful bookshop, spoken to, had dinner with, corresponded with, interviewed and had my work read by – it is happening now – writers whom I admire. I’ve also published poetry and articles and guest blogged. To boot, I think I am a better teacher because I am a better reader and writer and what is more I am able to share my work with students. Right now, I am commissioning those in years 10-13 to write for the two anthologies I have mentioned and, through my company, I felt inspired to set up a year-long bursary so that I could help someone who had had – this is the icing on the cake for me – long term mental health problems (as I have had myself) to evolve and complete a creative writing project.

So that’s where I am now. In the peculiar position of having one book out on subs and another being waited for and…without giving too much away…being discussed. At the weekend I had an offer of publication for my second book, but I am taking my time.

And now I have to make the tea because the kids keep coming in and rooting through the cupboards. Not having the time forces me to write when and as I can and I mull at other times, which I also regard as working. If you wait for your perfect writing environment or space or time, it may never happen. So why not write something tonight and get started – even if it’s just a paragraph?

Do tell me about your experience and about how you are getting on.

Anna.

Killing Hapless Ally: Patrician Press (2016)

The Life of Almost (TBA!) and Passerines (ditto)

Passerines

Here she is again, the Honourable Violet Gibson. She’s feeding the birds in the garden of St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton. That’s where she ended her days. Because in 1926, Violet shot Mussolini. She wasn’t a great shot. She’d also previously tried to shoot herself and failed at that. She was beaten by the crowd, that day in Rome, when she shot Il Duce. She experienced prison, lunatic asylum, then deportation, not realising where she was going.

Home?

No. She was incarcerated for life.

But what if…

What if she had had help, that day in Rome? What if she had not missed, had not only grazed the nose of Mare Nostrum?

What of Lucia Joyce, similarly abandoned by her mother and brother, in the same psychiatric hospital? How would it have been if she got to do things differently; could go back and forward? Now, how would any of that be possible?

What has this to do with Anna O or Blanche? With Dr Freud, Dr Breuer, Dr Charcot? With Vienna, or the Salpetriere in Paris. And why did Violet’s father, Baron Ashbourne, meet James Joyce, Lucia’s father, before he left Dublin for Trieste? And if Violet shot and  didn’t miss, then history is changed, as well as the lives of women whose freedom was radically curtailed, whose madness was…questionable; who were abandoned,derided, or turned into exhibits.

I will publish a proper synopsis very soon, but it is one hell of a road trip, this – and what happens has much to do with the birds, the passerines…Some of this is true; some of it is imagined, but the latter for the sake of adventure and sweet liberty.

From the end of chapter one, where Violet speaks of Lucia,

‘I know that was a long sentence. I made like Joyce. Oh but Oh God and the snotgreen sea, I am determined. I’ve made her dance, just a little. And here’s a shorter sentence: so keep up.

“Come to us, passerines. Soon enough, we will come with you.” ‘

‘Where are Violet and Lucia, Nurse Archer? Are they accounted for? It’s not exactly scientific, but at my desk just now I thought…I sensed…a disturbance.’

‘They are in their rooms, doctor, and night medicines administered. Both seemed agitated; we have given extra, as per notes.’

Dr Griffith finds he cannot concentrate, takes up a bible. Remembers birds of childhood.

Let him see.

Remembers.

As a boy, turn of the century thereabouts, his father made him go to scripture memory competitions. Welsh Baptist family. Now his eyes are moist. He was good.

Psalms.

Even the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest.

Proverbs.

Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, an undeserved curse goes nowhere.

Down the corridors of the asylum echoes a turbulent commotion and alarms fly. This was the bit the staff heard. They’d missed the whispers, glissando of the winged helpers no louder than a heartbeat through a greatcoat; rustles of paper and scratches of soft pencil; tremendous change: you couldn’t stop it now.

*********

Passerines: some epigraphs for a new book

I find I vary how I write. With this book – Passerines, a series of interlinked stories about Violet Gibson, Lucia Joyce, Marie (‘Blanche’) Wittmann and Bertha (‘Anna O’) Pappenheim  and of psychiatry – I have tinkered with the beginning because it began life as a short story – and have now lunged into what is sometimes known as the ‘Frankendraft’! So I have 50,000 words to write and I will not read the book back now until it is all done. Then I will attack it with some vehemence.

BUT I have allowed myself two things to help me think. (In addition to the ongoing reading for research).

Although I have a rough plan sketched out, I have decided to write a proper synopsis, even if this is chucked out later – inspiration invariably striking not before but while one is writing. And also, it helps me to look at other books. That is, dipping into things, beyond what I might read for pleasure or research. I read all the time…but it is like magic.

There are lots of books in our house; the house is heaving with them; only yesterday, a cat was almost squished by a tumbling tower of books yet to shelve (or rather as we are waiting for Pete The Shelves to come and shelve for us). But as I was saying, I have been reading Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. It is magnificent; its beauty makes me cry – and this rarely happens – that I will find a book so affecting. And there it was: the description of boy Eugene, who is Wolfe himself, bounded in by his imagination, knowingly so, and living lonely in its country. And projecting what is required onto the world. I copied it. This is a key theme in Passerines. When you are someone else’s subject or subject to someone else, what might happen to your interior life?

Then…my hand brushed against William Empson’s Collected Poems. I’m sorry if this makes me sound like an utter tosser (‘Ooooh – my hand brushed against a book and it was the very book I needed…’), but this is exactly what happened. I was getting Some Varieties of Pastoral down because I need it for an A Level class on genre. And I suddenly thought of ‘Reflections on Anita Loos’ and its startling pairing of the girl who ‘can’t go on laughing all the time’ with the image of the tortured Christ after this mischievous villanelle. And you see, Passerines has both spirited girls and women and those same people encaged by madness and circumstance – in two cases incarcerated for life and in one almost erased from records  – and a study of both faith and imagination. It begins with Violet Gibson, the Irish aristocrat who shot Mussolini, was almost lynched, then pardoned by Mussolini (who himself drew his life as if it were the Passion of Christ and spoke of the prefuguration of his death) and then sent to St Andrew’s Asylum (as it would have been known) until the end of her life. The one picture we have there of Violet is unbearably touching: in her greatcoat in the grounds, feeding the birds, her stance reminding us of Giotto’s St Francis.

So, I realise this will not make total sense. Bear with me. I am fleshing things out. I know this is a rather a WTF sort of post. (Very literary, along with ‘tosser’: apologies.)

As I write, I’m still doing bits and pieces on mental health connected with my first novel, Killing Hapless Ally, and that has only been out eight months. I have sent my second book, a novella, The Life of Almost, out on subs to a small selection of presses and agents. Has it had rejections? Well, of course. Interest? Oh yeah. So I am a bit tense. And while this is happening, I am writing a third book, a novel, using the ‘Prolifiko’ app and setting my target to 3,000 words a day. I am told this is a lot, but if I don’t make it, the app is at least a prompt and very encouraging: a little cheerleader for me. In other news, I am thinking about applying to pitch at the London Book Fair (dependent on what happens in the next week or so, I think – as deadline’s approaching), I’ve applied for Womentoring  ( a fine free mentoring service, where an established author guides one at an earlier stage) and asked for Antonia Honeywell (am I allowed to say that?) because I feel passionately that I will find nurturing in such a project and she seems utterly delightful, a wonderful writer and frankly, I thought she might ‘get’ me, also managing a large family! Does that sound odd? And up ahead, Essex Book Festival in March to read my work in Refugees and Peacekeepers (a Patrician Press Anthology) and there’s a Birkbeck day I’d like to go to in May…

Back to the epigraphs. Synopsis follows soon: did you know there’s good money in Mills and Boon? More on which another day…I write well on hospitals, sex, Horlicks from the trolley and death. You’d be amazed at the categories extant in M&B!

‘The prison walls of self had closed entirely round him; he was walled completely by the esymplastic power of his imagination – he had learned by now to project mechanically, before the world, an acceptable counterfeit of himself which would protect him from intrusion.’

Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel, 1929, chapter fifteen.

‘Love rules the world but is it rude, or slime?

All nasty things are sure to be disgraced.

A girl can’t go on laughing all the time.

Christ stinks of torture, who was slaked in lime.

No star he aimed at is entirely waste.

No man is sure he does not need to climb.’

From William Empson, ‘Reflections on Anita Loos’, 1937.

‘The bird could also be seen as a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ. A non-Biblical legend popular in the Middle Ages related how the child Jesus, when playing with some clay birds that his friends had given to him, bought them to life. Medieval theologians saw this as an allegory of his own coming back from the dead. In another legend, when Christ was carrying the cross to Calvary a small bird – sometimes a goldfinch, sometimes a robin – flew down and plucked one of the thorns from the crown around his head. Some of Christ’s blood splashed onto the bird as it drew the thorn out, and to this day goldfinches and robins have spots of red on their plumage. Like the cross that Christ wears around his neck, therefore, the goldfinch might be read as a prefiguration of his Passion.’

From ‘The Goldfinch.Signs and Symbols’, notes in web text from the Ftizwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

People’s Book Prize

LIKED MY DEBUT, KILLING HAPLESS ALLY? YOU CAN VOTE FOR IT THROUGH THE LINK BELOW X

 

http://www.peoplesbookprize.com/section.php?id=6

Killing Hapless Ally

By Anna Vaught
Published by Patrician Press
ISBN 978-0-9932388-6-4
Category Humour
Autumn 2016 (Sept – Nov)

Synopsis

This is a black comedy in which young Alison conceived an alter ego ‘Hapless Ally’ to present a more palatable version of herself to her family and others. Ominously, the alter ego began to develop autonomy. Alison deals with this helped by a varied catalogue of imaginary friends.

Author’s Biography

Anna is an English teacher, mentor and tutor for young people, copywriter and freelance journalist; she has self-published two previous books, been a volunteer nationally and internationally and now writes poetry (to be published by The Emma Press this autumn and Patrician Press in the spring), as well as working on a new novel and some short stories. Anna is also a mental health campaigner and advocate and the mum of three young boys.

Reviews

Amazon (link as above) 7 Reviews
Price £10.00

 

Liked my debut novel, Killing Hapless Ally and want to offer a vote for it? Here’s a link.

 

Anna xxxx

Lost Child to Loved Momma.

 

Anna Vaught

Lost child to loved momma. Parenting for the sick at heart

‘My childhood was not the terrible of which we read in the papers. It was not an imprisonment or a brutal and terrifying thing, so why I am here?’ This is what I said, apologetically, to a skilled, kind psychologist as she helped to put me back together after I had conspicuously failed to function. I stopped apologising, in the end, at her prompting. What I saidit could have been so much worsewas true. But there was no getting away from it: where I had come from had scuppered me and sent me fearfully scurrying from place to place in search of shelter. So to get better, I had to ‘lie down’, as W. B. Yeats had it in ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, ‘where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’. And when I did, wounds began to healbut only after I had confronted things that were frightening and that happened as a commonplace in childhood: the scoff and thump of my brilliant mother; the soft acquiescence then rage of my father; the curses and scorn of a sibling. And I had to do thishad tobecause I was mother of three young ones. And they needed me to be well.

I came from a middle class and well connected family, with both parents paragons of the community, and I had a substantially older brother who was, by turns, angel and devil. When he was devil, I thought it must be me. Within this socially lauded family, there was risible dysfunction, for if you, as a child, are repeatedly told that you were lucky to have been kept at allthat you are an aberration, dreadful, responsible for terrible things and that this is a view held by your entire family and that everyone out there in the chilly old world can see who or what you arethen I am not sure it is easy to rebound and feel at ease. It HAS to be you you you. It cannot be her or them, can it? You are not blameless, but are you that bad?

So, as a young kid, I did this.

I packed it down tightly.

I invented an alter ego (partly to have someone else to confess to; partly to provide a more palatable version of my horrid child-self to provide in company) and gradually began elaborate conversations with imaginary friends from books (and their writers) and songs (and their singers). I had to tell someone, otherwise the anxiety and sadness were so bad that I knew I was going to explode. It sort of worked, but it wasn’t a strategy for a lifetime, or as a mother. And, always, up came the voices from behind the chintz:

Look at you. You should never have been born!’

When I became a mum, the sorrow did not abate and when I look back at all those years of parenting, I well up: I was looking at my babies through a glass darkly and thought I was blight not blessing to these kids. I didn’t feel at ease or safe. It was that horrid internal narrative, you see.

You you you.

If I told you that, at my lowest points, I could barely hear my babies cry without feeling waves of anxiety; if I said I was frightened that I would somehowjust because I was meharm them by dint of being their mother, would that make sense? Self-loathing like this is corrosive and hard to tolerate. I had internalised the notion that I was the bringer of terrible events and no matter how hard I set logic to work, I couldn’t get over it.

But there came a different day.

I remember sitting, paralysed, in the front room. My youngest, then six months old, was there with me; the other two were at primary school. I was frightened, that horrid morning, of everything and thought that I had broken irretrievably. But this is also where life shifted; the paradox of the thing. Now, for the first time, I began to let people in. Friends rallied and advocated for me and I want you to know, if you are looking for help or at sea as I was, that eventually I got the help I needed: partly because of CATcognitive analytic therapydelivered by a hugely skilled psychologist and long-term support, and partly because I let others in. It was life-changing to see what friends did, entrusted with my care and thus that of my three boys, and then to be with this clever, kind lady and God Bless the NHS. We unpicked patterns of thought and found new pathways; gradually, I got rid of the nagging voices (and, in fact, those other voices of which I told you!) in my head and became more dependent on my own voice and judgement. I began to look at my world more clearly and understand that there were some people (especially dead ones!) I could say goodbye to and that I could disentangle myself from past situations by freeing myself from blame for terrible occurrences that had happened to others.

Appropriate therapeutic support meant I could heal and re-build. It meant I could be with my children with less anxiety and shame. And I remember that near the end of my support, I came out of MHRS (Mental Health Rescue Services, but I prefer ‘squad’it’s cooler) and cried a massive cry, up from my toes, like a quake. I was seeing the world from a happy child’s eye: colours were brighter; life was simpler. An epiphany. A breakthrough.

These days, post CAT, are different. It’s imperfect, but I have, in my head, the resources I need. And I know that ultimately, it boils down to this. My kids have seen me sick and well; they know a bit about my own past, but not too much. And when I was really poorly and friends swept in, I knew, despite my distress, and as I wrote above, that this was a turning point. Both in the way my friends were family and in how my kids coped in the midst of crisis and kindness. I wrote about it in my semi-autobiographical book, Killing Hapless Ally. And it went like this:

‘There was no choice but to let the exigencies of motherhood force her to cope. But today, everything was back to front and in the incorrect place; there were two packed lunches in one bag and she was crying and her knees were buckling as she came apart. It is a testament to these children that they went off and out, knowing that they were loved. And knowing you are loved is all, perhaps. Not feeling guilty; dirty; too responsible too soon or with a head full of macabre images and angels howling.

Bye Mum.”

The boys’ eyes were like saucers.’

Knowing you are loved is all. That, I think, cuts to the heart of it. For you and for your children.

Anna Vaught’s debut novel, Killing Hapless Ally, was published by Patrician Press this March. She is currently working on two further novels and a collection of poems. Anna is also a freelance author and blogger, secondary English teacher and tutor, mental health campaigner and advocate and a mother of three boys. www.annavaughtwrites.com or follow her on twitter where she’s @bookwormvaught