where there’s shit there’s gold

‘Where there’s shit there’s gold.’

This saying of my maternal grandmother, which you may either like or not, is a favourite one of mine: it reminds me – reminds us – that in tough times, when we are laid low, we need to look for the bright spots; to look for the treasure in mire. I use this phrase today  in a variety of contexts, but because I am talking about writing, and my thoughts are often all about writing in the context of chronic health problems – and also being a carer – my darlings, sometimes I am on the floor – I will look specifically at what this means in that arena.

The saying, by the way, is from my late grandmother, and I must ask you to say it with a South Wales accent and slightly theatrically and to know that she was a working class woman of limited education and literacy who had a huge number of children, a husband she was not keen on and a tough life. So if she could say this about finding gold in shit, then I insist that I can. This essay is partly in her honour, because she was well loved, but had little or no opportunity to follow dreams, such as writing romantic novels or being on the stage: I could have been on Broadway, some people said to me. I take great pleasure that my literary agency is right there on Broadway and that I am her granddaughter doing it partly for her. But back to the essay on shit and gold.

I carry with me the confusion and weight of complex trauma. My nights were sometimes punctuated with fear as a child – and this explains why I am to this day such a an avid reader, for it was always in books that I found solace and company – and I evolved into teenage years when I was part carer, part wild child and eldritch child all over. That is, I felt separate and odd but could not embrace the very weird of me and could not for a long time. Books always accepted me in times of intense loneliness and strain; I ran to them when I dying to tell the outside world that those who were held up as pillars of society were also responsible for demeaning me, subjecting me to slaps, punches and kicks in the sides and the loss of handfuls of hair. And I say I was dying to tell the world, when what I really mean is that I thought I deserved it, was told that everyone else would think I had deserved it and so had colluded; moreover, there were lovely times too, so those lovely things seemed to give credence to the fact I deserved or sometimes, even, that I had imagined it. You see how confusing that must have been. I do not remember a time when I did not carry around the intense pain of this and I want to say that I do not, even after good therapeutic care (though very late in the day) believe that all sickness can be healed, even that of the mind. We do not all get well and, in a way, I became more free when I stopped trying to. I understood I had to live with it and that trauma response had hammered in a number of responses, and appeared to be the reason why I was prone to periods of depression, generalised anxiety, dissociation, panic and OCD. That wasn’t even the whole adventure.

As I became an adult, still I read and read, then taught and read and mummied and was a mentor and volunteer and read some more, but I did not dare write until I picked up a sharpie and scrawled a title about five years ago. This will sound ridiculous: something lit up. I cannot explain why it happened just then. Did I finally see the gold? I was angry and inspired and crying all at once and, in five years, I had written seven and three quarters books, pitched another parenting book and here I am doing this. Actually, that is eight and three quarters. I was told, by the more  gaslighting end of the industry, to present as if I had struggled to get published because this was a good story for a woman of a certain age (which meant, I think, not a twenty-five year old debut) and it reinforced a narrative that was helpful. Think about that. Not, supported women, but was a helpful marketing tool. In the end, I railed and things changed there, too: more excitement, energy and crying: more being livid. Why? Because it was untrue and the real story was that I did not start writing. the point was that, during a long early period I had felt nothing, a weirdo, someone who was tolerated and someone of very little talent. It  was hard for kinder and more expansive minds to puncture this, though wonderful insightful people did try. In short, I was hard-wired to feel like a failure, scared of exposure and I did not have a voice. But it came. When it did, it was like a torrent and I can feel it raging, a river in spate, right now: I can feel it in tender and tingling hands and wrists, my eyes are sparkling and you could detonate a small bomb next to me and I would carry on tapping away. Once I started writing, I could not stop and until my toes curl up, I absolutely promise you now that I will not. As I said, I took a long time to start.

Let me tell a bit more about the path I had been on before I put pen to paper.

I have, over many years, been introduced as ‘the crazy one’, ‘the mad one,’ ‘the nutter’ and, best of all, ‘the weird one (I was telling you about’ – thereby revealing that they’ve been talking about your particular peculiarities behind your back). I used to get very upset about this. It’s because I have been described in this way my entire life and, despite parts of my brain wanting just to be me, weirdo, the other parts yearned for acceptance. This is not a comfortable thing. However, what does fitting in mean? If it means suppressing your character, oddities, imagination, beliefs and those things that make you you, then this is sad. You should be you. Certainly, you ought to reflect on others’ responses and needs; check your language and outlook are broad and inclusive – and you ought to self reflect, because from that stems greater kindness to others. However, if you have earnestly done those things, then come as you are. Because, other than that attention to kindness, detail and community, FUCK OFF, basically. Weird is great.

Also, weird might be your voice. Your art. It’s mine. Trauma and heavy reliance on the world of the imagination do tend to set you a bit apart. That could kill you. It almost killed me twice.

So, I am thinking I have grown into my weird a bit better. I think I might have raised slightly weird children. Actually, one of my offspring was described critically as ‘weird’ by a teacher on parents’ evening and it was not meant in a positive way. So I quietly said, ‘And with that I am going to leave and maybe we can talk again at a later time while we consider what might be positive about weird?’

Then I put him in a story because I like a bit of revenge every now and then.

Because of my things that happened to me, I made a  number of unusual but creative choices: I had a catalogue of imaginary friends well into my teens. This is precisely because I was beaten and scared and gaslit. I made myself into Frida from ABBA because I liked her red hair – my parents had ABBA albums – and my best friend was Agneta who had awesome counselling skills. Dolly Parton was another gem in the catalogue (or gold in the shit?), because she was my imaginary mother and big sister. In my late teens, I used to go out with Albert Camus. When I was sixteen, my best friend was eighty eight. She got me. She was weird too and liked bird skulls, tarot and Irish myths and legends. She was a storyteller, God rest her soul. I think that, as with my grandmother, her voice is melded with mine; the one that comes out in writing. I wouldn’t have had that had I not been a bit odd. I also wonder if, because I felt lonely and afriad to say things, I listened more. To morbid family stories and myth and legend on both sides. Tales, apocrypha and skewerings that were way too gory to be brought up over sausages and mash. And yet and yet.

A child at my youngest’s primary school recently said to me, ‘My mum says you’re weird but I really like you.’ Think about that sentence. You don’t know the half of it love. There was another time when someone said to me (I remember it; I was outside the school office, attempting to partially conceal myself behind the bin while trying to hoick my tights up), ‘You are clinically insane.’ That was someone’s ma too, but directly to me.  I was dumbfounded on this occasion because she was smiling and I was a bit stuck on the word ‘clinically’ because as far as I knew she was an interior designer. It might have been the fact I was partially concealed behind the bin that prompted the comment, but more likely a sense, after having made various observations and tours of me, of having to express a dislike of something…off; odd; eldritch. To spit it out; like, if you thought you’d put a Minstrel in your mouth and realised it was a rock or some poo. I had started writing by this point though, so, instead of suppressing tears at her laughing, callous comment, I decided I might have her exit pursued by a bear in something. So this is another thing. When I found the gold, it did not take away the shit, then or now, but it also helped me find recourse so that I could recover: now I could take revenge from having (a version of) the mouth that spawned those words heartily eaten by an evil pie-maker in my short story volume, Famished.  Do you think me awful? I really do find it a relief from tension and unkindness to write someone out and occasionally have them in the wrong place when the kraken rises.

And yes, maybe I do look ‘clinically insane’ to some people.

I dress in a funny mixture of Victoriana and sports kit and my tattoo is in Latin.

I carry my chickens about, crooning to them. I was reading Dostoevsky to them the other day, although they prefer Flaubert, and the shorter prose. Do you see where I am going with this? Because of my past and because of the problems I have had and will likely always have, I spot inspiration in unexpected places, and my oddity, born I believe of necessity and separation from the healthy mass, looks for conversations in unusual places. I can’t wait to start a conversation with the man who whispers and gurgles to his rooks, the lady who has a tiny glittering altar outside her house or the man who crosses the road every time he sees the local priest. I have a theory, which is that maybe, if you’re a bit odd, you notice more. And maybe – even more radically – you notice people who might be a bit marginalised but with whom you could have a great chat and suddenly everyone there is having a better day. You do that because you have been so hurt and so lonely and feel it to your core and perhaps it makes you more responsive to others. What do you think?

I think, then,  that my grandmother’s saying was right. There have been long days and nights, with cortisol firing and flashbacks; frightening recurrent dreams and in the day I ordered and reordered like a talisman and so OCD came to stay, with all its persistent, intrusive thoughts: as a primary school child, I would have to go and tell a person a bad thought I had about them in order to stop the bad thing happening to them. It was not even a bad thought, just words that occurred and had not even coalesced into a pattern. Either way, this is not normal behaviour by any stretch. Not the intrusive thought, but its persistence and the fact that I really did believe that if not surrendered to source, calamity would befall. Somewhere, embedded in my psyche, were the words of my mother repeated early and thus lodged; I did not know how to tease them out. I had been led to believe that I was a burden, that I was the calamity and that I was the bringer of harm. Where’s the gold in that shit? There was none; not then. But one day, I realised that all along I had believed in the transformative power of words; I had just believed in it the wrong way, and had yet to connect this kind of magical thinking with the magic I felt wrapped up inside books, sucking on words, transported. That was the gold, and it also came later, when I found my voice. Not only because I had spectacular anecdotes, but because I was quite capable of being in my imagination and creating something, inhabiting it passionately. I had learned that very early and, five years ago, when I found my voice, it was what helped me make books: all that mental health adventure and the horrible events which preceded and accompanied it all, now that was threaded through narratives and made richly coloured.

My thinking goes rat a tat rat a tat all day long; allusive; solving problems with quotations; snatches of song if need be. It is how I manage things but also I am always making stories and seeing links. I wish I had had the confidence to write books earlier – but it’s all coming out now. That’s because of the weird I am, you see. It’s liberated. And partly because of the shit. I am not – please do not misunderstand me – saying that suffering is a path to art, because I have always found that trite and offensive. But I could not escape and I had no-one to tell. And I could not get better – I am not better – so I have tried to mould it and form it into something I can share with others.

Here’s the thing: we are all a patchwork of oddities and everyone really is an outsider in their questing and difficult experience. We all hurt and we all have emotional problems. How much better to channel those into something creative which might absorb and bring pleasures to others, than to suck that pain in, yet turn it outwards by planting it on others, manipulating and gaslighting them instead as a displacement activity because you hurt inside. So find your weird. Explore it in writing, as I have done and will continue to do. Ultimately, just be you: perfect and as you were meant to be, memento mori, spoon collecting, fancy dress you. Perfect you in pain, not fixed, sick, screwed up and shat on, but indescribably  beautiful and incandescently talented.

Remember: where there’s shit there’s gold. That gold is your work. It is also, my darling, YOU.

Successes and failures (and yet…)

So, tools down, decisions made…what happened in the year and what do I plan?

SUCCESSES

I rewrote my big new novel, The Zebra and Lord Jones. That went on agency submission six weeks ago. We will see.

Yay.

I was offered publication of my second short story collection, Ravished. That will be out, autumn 2022, with Reflex Press.

Hooray!

My work – opinion pieces to short stories – was featured widely in anthologies and journals and twice in the national press.

Yay again.

I became a Bookseller columnist

Absolutely delighted

I think I have proved I am able – and I so love doing it – to write novels and short stories, but also a range of other creative pieces, features and opinion pieces.

Exciting innt

Got asked to speak to Creative Writing graduates at two universities, made a podcast about Joyce and my own Saving Lucia, alongside Trinity College Dublin, pitched and got a year’s worth of events and taught courses with Jericho Writers, began a new novel, a novella and a book on gentle productivity, for which – alongside other things – I took the plunge and applied for Arts Council DYCP funding – we will see.

I am proud of myself for this lot, especially when I think about what the last three years have been like for me and for my immediate family.

WHAT DID NOT WORK – or, rather, work YET?

The non-fiction anthology The Alchemy of Sorrow, went on agency submission in February. We said that, come December, we would assume it was unsold. Here we are. I had 37 exceptional writers to work with me, three of whom are NYT lauded, folks. The feedback was amazing. My proposal was considered excellent, the book important and all of it was interesting. It still did not sell. This is tough. Was I upset? Yes. Will it stop me writing? ARE YOU KIDDING? Also, the people I have met!

My memoir, These Envoys of Beauty, went on submission independently as my agency is very cool and happy for me to do side projects. I am going to be blunt here. I sent this to eight independent publishers and waited some months. Of those, I had two replies. Very favourably, but that does not mean the project is doable.

BUT THIS LEADS ME ON TO THE NEXT POINT

As for the people who don’t reply? It happens a lot. To a lot of people. I am sympathetic but, as I end a term, though it’s not a competition, I want to say that I work, I have three offspring, I live with chronic illness and one of those offspring has been seriously ill so I have been his carer for three years. I have – on top of mental health stuff and neurological damage – been coping with Long Covid. I have still written these books and these articles and features and answered my emails. So here is what I think. I think that people are busy; I think that we have all been stressed and fearful. But at this stage in my publishing career, I STILL don’t understand why or consider it acceptable – across queries and submission – at least half the places and people you contact simply do not reply.

Moan over. Honestly, though: I feel tender when I think of people I work with – because I think, WILL THEIR WORK GET READ?

PLANS

Lots of teaching – with me increasingly as a creative writing teacher and there is more to be firmed up early in the new year. I aim to finish my novella by the end of January and the book on gentle productivity by June. If I get my ACE funding, there will be workshops and mentoring on offer in the second part of 2022. I want to try and get some university teaching if I possibly can and I would like a second column in an industry or literary journal or newspaper. I am also going to be firmer about looking after myself. On the no-reply thing, one chase, put it down, move on. Be firm and don’t look back.

DREAMS

I would like someone to offer translation – particularly in Italian – of my Saving Lucia; I hope my podcast with University College Dublin leads more readers to my Saving Lucia and roots me in the Joyce communities because the book is totally threaded through with Finnegans Wake and Ulysses; all its language is indebted to James Joyce. I would like Ravished to be enjoyed and also to lead readers back to 2020’s Famished because I wrote one to follow on from the other as companion texts. I hope that The Zebra and Lord Jones finds a beautiful home and that, with this, I get to take things to the next level. I’d like – we are talking dreams – to see both Zebra and Lucia as film and I’d like one of my older sons to write a film score for Lucia, if so. And I want to do all I can to help others find a voice and use it. THAT is both dream and plan.

Merry Christmas my darlings.

What to do when your heart breaks…

If you want to get your work published, there are two tricky things to accept. The first is that there is a lot of waiting – I do believe particularly at the moment; I am absolutely sure people are fatigued and I know I certainly am – and the other one is that your work is going to get rejected and, quite possibly, it is going to keep happening. Also, it may be that after feeling jubilant because you got an agent, your longed-for publication never happens. No-one buys.

I have written about rejection a good bit before – here: https://www.thebookseller.com/blogs/fail-again-fail-better-1260011 – and I offer a section here:

Five minutes on twitter would show up a lot of authors and would-be authors feeling upset about how rigorous the querying process is. I have been paying particular attention to people’s comments about the impossible odds of getting a publisher for a book, or of getting an agent; about failure and rejection. There is a pervasive perception that lots of people have a smooth road, a clear career trajectory and that overnight successes are just that.

I like to speak publicly about failure, because most of what we do in life, from sex to politics to friendship, to meringues (that might just be my meringues) to drafting a book, is absolutely mired in failure  – and I say that with good cheer and to help liberate you from your eviscerating perfectionism. More specifically, failure is hardwired into creative endeavour and I propose this: that to drive a sustainable, resilient, and emotionally healthy industry, we speak more openly about it. Also, that as creatives, we better understand that failure inevitably comes from such endeavour – and it takes courage to work in this way in a pressured and highly competitive arena.

Moreover, it seems to me as an author, albeit quite a new one, that the publishing industry is predicated on failure; if, as I am informed, figures alone show the vast majority of publishing is a failure riding off a few mega-successes. Books do not sell; advances are not earned out; the publisher takes the hit. But in this, it is not unique as an industry. I am interested to see some voices from the independent presses criticising the bigger houses for not taking risks and for having damaging business models. I have been so lucky to have found good readers for my work at independent presses, but I would hope that publishers large and small want to find new voices, so is it possible that any combative attitude (going either way) could be part of the issue too? Could it not be possible for smaller and bigger publishers to work together more and for them to be more accepting of one another’s business models, thus adding to the sustainability of what we do? While we are doing it, we might say openly that failure is endemic in all this, support one another, and work on ameliorating what, to an outsider, might seem divisive and confusing.

So there are some initial thoughts: it happens to everyone, but it is hard and, yes, it can break your heart. How? Because you may think that getting an agent – or perhaps an indie publisher which does not require agent representation – is the time you have made it. No, alas. It means you are on your way. Yes, your book might sell and you have a wonderful smooth road and great sales. Or, as happens in many cases, your agent sends the book out and it does not sell. The reality is this. Most people trying to get an agent or an indie publisher are not successful. Then when they are, an agent may not be able to place a book or sales may be very poor – although there is a caveat with the latter (indie press) here: is it because you needed to be more realistic about the reach or because, frankly, your book just was not promoted much or just not liked much? I know, harsh. But this is an industry in which there are no guarantees. Agents do NOT sell all the books they send out on submission and that – maybe after years of trying to get an agent – can be really upsetting.

I understand. But let’s help you, my darlings, right?

First of all, I was shown this brilliant and encouraging post earlier. Do read what author Gareth P. Jones has to say. https://t.co/fIiLoqutIh?amp=1 It gives you tips on what to do with the book which do not place and offers thoughts from a range of authors. What do they have in common? I bet you can guess!

Then, let me tell you what I have done and what I am doing. It’s frank. I am also going to tell you about books that were actually published.

My first two books. 2016 and 2018. Rights retrieved. These books were well received by a knot of readers but pretty invisible, often out of stock and in very few bookshops. I have now put them to one side, while working on a bilingual edition for one and expanding the other. Wasted? NO. And I learned a lot, too.

Books 3 and 4. 2020. Came out at start of pandemic and during second lockdown. Awful timing but I made the best of it and I hope they will have a long life; I have my own imaginative ideas for things connected with them and have been offered – am still being offered – work because of them. Both second books for these two publishers were turned down. I felt very sad. Well, I got rejected. The first was a complex novel of historical fiction; I decided to use three sections of it as short stories. Two have been published; one to come. The second I offered to someone else – with my agent’s blessing; its predecessor had been agented – and it’s coming out next year.

BUT because I felt sad about it all, I channelled all that into a new novel. That went on agent submission last week. Because I felt frustrated I channelled THAT into a non-fiction proposal and that is currently on submission. I have got to be honest. We have given it until December to sell. It has not sold yet and it has been out since February this year. Feedback is exemplary: this does not guarantee a sale. Tough, but that’s the way it is. That done, I began pitching boldly and, frankly, properly above my weight. Some pitches were rejected, but this push still got me writing some pieces for the national press and a monthly column in The Bookseller. And finally – see this is what happens when I feel sad and my heart gets heavy – I took some ideas from my first and second book (ideas this time, not actually text) and my journal entries, and wrote three essays plus a proposal and sent out the backbone of a memoir to some of my favourite indies. Now, as I wait – and I KNOW the whole lot could not sell – I am writing a novella; a ghost story and have just submitted an ACE – Arts Council – application to enable me to write a book about writing, in the context of reframing and adjusting productivity.

So, in brief, yes your heart may break. You may have spent years writing your book, it is so important to you and no-one will publish it. That hurts: of course it does. To me, the key is that you must try not to take this personally and, also, try not to feel persecuted because that will stymie your creativity. Instead?

Keep writing. Be working on the next thing, ready to share and submit. If you find you’re too upset, try to up your reading and, also, maybe try writing something in a different genre. You never know. Then, if you are down, ask for help from the writing community. You are not weak, disloyal or a whinger: you are saying, Okay, what ought I to do? You are asking for professional support. Then, if you don’t know a group of writers, why not start one? Look, if someone as socially gauche as yours truly can do it, so can you! It can be a temporary or evolving group, too. Perhaps online and for those working towards publication of their first novel. Or put together a twitter chat or anything you like where those whose books did not find a publisher when they went on agent submission – for example – can just get together for a chat. How about that?

Ultimately, keep it moving and keep talking: those are your keys.

Good luck x

Pass It ON

I am sure the furore around Kate Clanchy’s book, Some Kids and What they Taught Me will not have escaped many readers of this site. I would like to offer some thoughts as someone who is both author and teacher. I am struggling to condense everything that troubles me into 800 words, so let me just say this. I could write this column solely on the peculiarity of ‘we’ in the narrative – an inclusive pronoun that has done an invidious job of exclusion, in my view; a feint which allows the reader to imagine more generally what teachers think and do. And let me also share this: I am recovering from the grief and anger at the way in which a small group of people in high-profile school roles spoke to and about my older sons, one of whom in SEN, the other SEN and ASD. I have fought – it really is the verb here – to have concerns heard across agencies. I am not the only one and I know it will have been terrible for young people and their parents and carers to revisit, for example, ableist comments and attitudes; for students, to wonder, ‘Is this what teachers really think of me and say about me?’ There is flaw, bias, and bad behaviour in all classes and staffrooms: thank goodness for those teachers who pointed out the wrongness of Clanchy’s peculiar taxonomies of childhood in the book and I remain baffled by those who thought it was a wonderful teaching book or the most inspiring book on teaching they had ever read. HOW? When you read this, about autistic children: ‘’More than an hour a week would irritate me.’ ‘If I set them a task, they will stick at it, not deviating, for hours, and never ask why. This is fun.’ That a teacher could mock in this way is appalling; that it was repeatedly endorsed, staggering.

I am haunted by the descriptions of children and young people, when we ought to have seen due diligence on safeguarding. I am furious at reckonings passed off as knowledge because this percolates into misunderstandings and gets passed on as fact and scholarship. It is hard to understand the publishing, legal parsing, editing, prize-winning when these are minors described in this way. I am embarrassed for and furious at the people who came forward – doubtless without having read the book – to moan about cancelling and censorship. Finally, I think the discussions around the book have again exposed the stiff old arguments of not being able to say ANYTHING nowadays, which is, as ever, radically ill-informed, predicated on privilege – your freedom, that is – and plain cruel and self-indulgent.

Going forward? We already know that there will be a rewrite done more ‘lovingly’, but how can that be? I have read the book and there is something unlovingly written on each page and often at length; it would need to be a different book. I would also like to know about consent because while we know that consent was given by the students for their work to be included and that they were paid, what is consensual about their lives, appearances, class, or race being written of, shamed, or appraised in this manner? For whether you agree that they have been appropriately anonymised (and I do not), those students can still see themselves and future students can see themselves too. The ‘African Jonathon’, the autistic child who is good at Maths but has no friends, the young girl with an eating disorder whose proclivities Clanchy translates into other areas of life and classroom work.  I think there must be clear and probably difficult discussion going forward. I certainly feel differently about publishing now, about some writers and about a lot of teachers. I also do not accept the notion that someone meant to do well and be kind and therefore their behaviour and tropes should be exonerated. A writer – or teacher – needs to work harder than that and understand both that it is the outcome, which is of significance and, also, that within an apparent kindness may be arrogance and ethnocentricity; within serving and trying to raise people up, there may be pity and, for example, the press of an unacknowledged structural racism. We need, also, to have very clear guidelines – in consultation with those who are specialists in educational law and the right of the child – so that damage of this kind is not done again. Or at least is not done after the reprint of Some Kids I Taught and What they Taught Me. As for me? Those kids – the ones I taught and those I still work with – taught me to learn and to challenge myself to do better; to think differently. Now would be a good time to resolve once and for all for sectors of publishing to do just that. Let us all learn from some kids and hear their voices, true and beautiful and do better by one another, whether in teaching or publishing: or both.

Resources and examples of key comment on the book. Monisha Rajesh https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/aug/13/pointing-out-racism-in-books-is-not-an-attack-kate-clanch

Pragya Agarwal: https://www.thebookseller.com/blogs/impact-above-intent-1274963

Speaker and writer Karl Knights from 2020 on the book and its troubling depictions of disability on twitter here https://twitter.com/Inadarkwood/status/1318521456872067079 and, again on twitter, there is a superb forensic account of the book from experienced teacher, Diane Leedham with the hashtag #DiReadsClanchy in which language and point of view are dissected and the legality of text in terms of child protection, safeguarding and The Equalities Act are addressed. 

An Online Day Writing Retreat, Saturday, July 17th, 10-4.30

Photo by Olya Kobruseva on Pexels.com

Booking – details will be publicised – from Wednesday the 9th of June, from 10, through Eventbrite.

10-4.30 (with a break for lunch and a mid-morning break, too) and for a maximun of fifteen people.

A space in which you will be heard, accessible, fun and, hopefully, really inspiring! With frank talk and plenty of time for questions. You can ask anything!

£65 to include written feedback on a small section of your work, if requested. There are TWO funded places for those from an under-represented group or unwaged/low income.

Who is it for?

Those who are working towards first publication in prose, whether a novella, novel or short stories. I am quite aware that some of these people may have been writing for pleasure for some time. Also, there is probably going to be at least one genius in the room! I want to comfort and encourage and reassure you that you are heard and in a safe space. The day is also for those prose writers who are perhaps a bit further on – perhaps they have already had a book published – but want a boost and reboot, possibly because they have got stuck or not had a supportive community around them at any stage. I hope we can provide insight and encouragement to those who are currently querying their work with agents (possibly small presses) and not having any luck, or who have experienced disappointment in their industry experience so far. 

Here is a sketch of the day and the first part is all with me, Anna Vaught. However, at least two of us will look at samples of work sent to us as we understand how vital feedback is. I will be in touch about this nearer the time.

10-1

*Questions. Frank as you like. If I don’t know, I will say so and aim to find someone who does know.

*Writing a beginning and netting your reader. How might you do it?

*Close reading exercises. Place, atmosphere, character, punctuation. Observing it in others’ work to make us think about our own writing. Translating this into our own work.

*Techniques to help you with editing your work. Outlines, development, why you should always read aloud.

Short break

*Questions. Frank as you like again. These can be on anything, so on writing, but also on the industry or anything you need help with.

*Confidence. Very short bit because this can make you feel vulnerable and I do not want anyone to feel this way, even in a safe and supportive environment, so rather than asking YOU, I will tell you about me and what my barriers are and how I manage mine. If anyone wants to ask a further question at this stage, that is fine.

Lunch. 

*More on close reading; characters hints and hooks and thoughts on a story arc. What is it? How do you create and sustain one and is it true there’s an equation for it…?

*Troubleshooting. Proofing, common errors, homophone checking, speech punctuation, laying out speech, techniques with long and short paragraphs; my observations on the most common problems in the many manuscripts I have seen over the past year – such as too many characters too soon, a beginning that lacks pace or interest, sluggish narrative and many more. Feel free to disagree that these are problems.

*****

In the afternoon, from 2-3.30, there will be three special guests, Michael Langan, Heidi James and Sam Mills. They will be covering a range of topics. Between them, these three have covered novels, short stories and non-fiction work, including memoir. There is a great deal of editorial experience here and two of your writers are lecturers in Creative Writing. So, you are with people who have a wealth of experience. 

Michael is currently in the middle of a rewrite of his next novel, following feedback from his agent so has decided to talk specifically about the redrafting/rewriting process and his experience of what that might entail. 

Sam’s  topic will  be ‘literary fiction v commercial fiction’, thinking back to some years back when she used to teach/critique with the TLC and the Writer’s Workshop and how often authors would ask what category their work belonged in or feel a bit bewildered by the division and what it meant. Having written in so-called genre fiction – YA – and experimental fiction, Sam will discuss the two. She does not see them as hugely distinct categories – which can also be part of the discussion – but knows how it can help would-be writers to think about direction and how publishers might see these categories.

Heidi will be talking about risk and developing the confidence to write against the grain in your work. That is, risk is writing what you need to write, not writing to please/what you think people want.

BUT THAT IS NOT ALL. We will finish with an Agent q&a with literary agent, Jonathan Ruppin, Founder of The Ruppin Agency (keen to find underrepresented voices) & Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio (mentoring across the UK).

We hope you have a wonderful day!

Sam Mills is the author of The Quiddity of Will Self (Corsair) and several award-winning YA novels publisher by Faber. Her memoir about being a carer, The Fragments of my Father, was published by Fourth Estate in 2020 and shortlisted for the Barbellion Prize; her feminist essay, ‘Chauvo-Feminism’ was recently published by Indigo Press. She has contributed to various anthologies, including Know Your Place (Dead Ink) and Disturbing the Beast (Boudicca Press).She is the co-founder and MD of indie press Dodo Ink.

Michael Langan has worked as an editor, writer, mentor and teacher for over twenty years, and currently facilitates writing workshops and critical reading groups at various locations, including Lisbon, where he lives. He has a PhD in creative writing from Liverpool John Moores University and was Programme Leader of Creative Writing at the University of Greenwich from 2002 – 2012, specialising in the novel and short fiction. As Arts Editor of the online LGBTQ culture journal ‘Polari’, he wrote about visual arts, film, and literature and, in 2016, was a Contributing Editor to the Paris-based ‘Seymour’ magazine, writing a series of essays about his experience of the creative process. For the last five years he has co-facilitated the LGBTQ+ Free Reads Scheme with The Literary Consultancy during Pride month, offering free manuscript feedback to emerging queer writers. His debut novel, Shadow is a Colour as Light Is, was published by Lume Books in 2019 and he is currently working on his second.

Heidi James is the author of critically acclaimed novels Wounding, So the Doves (a Sunday Times Crime Book of the Month) and The Sound Mirror. She won The Saboteur Award for her novella, The Mesmerist’s Daughter and was a finalist in The Cinnamon Poetry Collection Prize. Her short stories, poetry and essays have been published in various anthologies and magazines including, We’ll Never Have Paris, Somesuch, Dazed and Confused and Galley Beggar Press. She hosts a podcast, First Graft, where she discusses the writing process with other writers.

Anna Vaught is a novelist, poet, essayist, short fiction writer, editor and a secondary English teacher, tutor and mentor to young people, mental health advocate and mum of 3. 2020 saw the publication of Anna’s third novel, Saving Lucia (Bluemoose Books – longlisted for The Barbellion Prize) and a first short story collection, Famished (Influx). Anglo-Welsh, she splits her time between Wiltshire, Wales, and the Southern US. Anna’s essays, short and flash fiction, creative non-fiction, reviews, articles, and features have been featured widely online and in print. She has just completed another novel with a novella and first non-fiction book on their way. She is a monthly columnist for ‘The Bookseller’. Anna is also a mental health advocate and campaigner and a passionate advocate for those with chronic mental and physical health problems who wish to write and have their work be seen.

Thalassa-MÔr

What have we here? Eighteen of my poems; one was published before and others appeared in different forms as chapter epigraphs in my second book, novella, The Life of Almost. They are all fixed on thirty miles of coastline – thalassa and môr are sea in Greek and Welsh – forest and quay on the estuary, and it is a place I revisit again, because it is family, generations back, though not where I grew up. Have myths, terrible women, strange deaths, awful advice, smothering landscape and an eviscerating moment when you learn that your parents do not actually love you. Yes, all in its awful beaiuty and melancholy, here we are. Really they need to be read aloud for you to feel their rhythm, sound patterning and hear their curious inflection. I do not consider them good enough to develop as a collection, or seek to publish further but here they are for you. All were written five years ago. You may see the influence of Dylan Thomas, but there are also threads from the Mabinogion and classical texts, as well as references to old songs and sea shanties.

                                               

                                                ‘Cast out, my broken comrades’


St Justinian at dawn; the boat,
Its clenched hull scowling,
As braced against the swell,
Collected errant figures – all
Adrift, so lost on land, and sad.
We reached out, emptied souls,
To Ramsey Sound; the island
Siren-called us, brought us home
To sea: to stay afloat a while
And find our shipwrecked selves.

It wasn’t in the landing of our craft,
Against the crashing deck of shore,
But somewhere in between the rock
And rock, that melancholy came to rest –
And tumbled down through navy depths

And we were free, unbroken: still.

This poem is published in Anthology of the Sea by The Emma Press, October, 2016.

                                               

                                                ‘My heart unbroken, then, by fish- frozen sea.’


‘Oh, never fill your heart with trawlermen’

My nanny told, then told: ‘You want
A man with both feet on the ground –
A man with roughened nails, from
Dirt and labour on the land,

Not brined and drenched through by the Sea.’
But Nanny never knew the sound
Of oilskin slipped on clover bank;
Of danger in the stolen hull,
Of silver, limned above your head,
While thwart hands toiled through the night,
And washed me up and brought me home.

I wouldn’t learn: I dreamed of pearls, full fathom five;

I sang of gales, the tang of salt,
The storied depths of sea and sea –
Limb-frozen journeys, far from home
With yellow light on midnight crests.
But Nanny told, then told, ‘You want
A man with bone-dry shoes, inland;
Your sailors leave you high and dry,
They catch and throw and pack in ice
The keenist heart that you can toss.’
But Nanny never knew the song
Of siren journeys way out there,
Of labour stoked by heat and loss –

She did not feel the azure pull,

The mermaid kiss, the tongues that spoke;
She died a desiccated death, in clod
That choked, while primrose mocked.
Still, out at sea, I rocked and bobbed:
We drew the finest catch that day.

                                               

                                                Madonna of the Cleddau

The sea coast was too far for you.

To keep inland was your advice,

Away from Jack Tar, foreign folk:

Stay cloistered on this estuary.

Madonna of the Cleddau, come:

Square jaw, dark eyes and, counterpoint,

Retroussé nose and powdered cheeks:

And born of earth, not briny downs.

You birthed eleven, stood back up,

With apron on and sleeves rolled high,

Delivered livestock, lipstick on,

With plaintive songs of field delight.

But, round the wall, the sea began,

Spoke not to you: you had no thought

To jump and best a warmer wave;

A voyage out was lost on you.

What did you care for them or theirs?

Madonna’s night world of the quay

Had supernatural force: the owls,

The rustle of the hawk, black elms,

The screech and call and elsewhere sound.

Such pale wings drew on navy sky

As you looked out across the flats

And thought that this was world enough,

The kelp, the wrack was only stench.

I’ve seen it now, your home; your hearth:

The summer quay was bunting dressed,

The village pub all polished up,

No gossip, snarling by the bar;

A ‘Country Living’ August snap,

All cleansed of snuff or pewter cup,

Sent gentry, as you might have said.

And rag and bone man, gone to dust.

Madonna of the Cleddau, mine:

I sing to you from farther shores:

I wish that you had gone to sea –

We could have basked there, you and I.

It never changed, waves’ thunderous moods

Could not be altered, made anew.

I look at Cresswell now and wish

The sea would roar and cry and break

The weeded walls, the altered beds,

Bring wrack and shells to grace the stones

Where mortar tidily restrains.

                                                                                              

When did I

            I went out early, tiger-clad, for bravery’s sake

            To try the sea. Its bite was worse than mine –

            It told harsh words and mumbles spat a briny sound

            Of fury’s heart. And I was spent, so roared no more.

                                               

Returns a sea echo

Had I not been mute, still yet, as Milton might,

I should have cried to miss a mirror in every mind –

Not to have glimpsed the swallow, bright,

Such cresting clarion call and bravest hunter’s horn.

I might, I say, have wished to be alone,

Caressing so the dampening blossom now –

Finger tipped to velvet wings at dusk,

Unbound by duty, or amaranthine depths.

To sit on quiet rosy evenings, darkness settling by

In bowing woods, with harebells pealing close.

For stillness made replete what things I saw –

And bosom sentiment was only that.

Such contemplation of this hour was wasted not:

The honour was replete.

But very now, then up the churchyard path

A fox came, sharp; the beech tree whispered thanks.

Thus honour was in being quiet,

Reverent in this storied landscape, still.

                                               

                                                Myfanwy, I loved

Myfanwy, as you were: bay window, a side light, and a black background.

Then as you were again: middle room – direct front light. I was specific.

Myfanwy – I was precise; exacting with the fall of dark and bright: I wrote it down.

Myfanwy, as I hoped you were. But you smiled and sailed away, sassy girl.

I sat for hours as the shadows fell, knowing what night must still portend: my craft.

I drew a nail across a pane and scratched your name, invisible to others as

The evening settled in. I knew that morning brought a monogram in window frost

For you to see and I to know: I showed you how its feathered lines and confidence

Spoke truth to us – that you could stay.  The frost had crept along the span

To show you how this foolish clot had said the most that could be said

And then I spoke – and ruined all. A foolish joke: my love; my word –

Myfanwy, stay. Myfanwy, do not sail away.

I tried to draw another length to keep you here: pellucid worlds for us to share,

yet how I knew what I had done. You cared not yet for crystal casts,

the shapes recorded day by day. The metaphor for heavenly plan

Was lost for you in my thwart hands – and so I scratched and tried to show

A simple script, its blazon – you. I fell and fell, and no-one knew.

Oh, sassy girl, why should you stay or want a watcher of the skies,

a gabbling fool, like me? Why, no. Myfanwy, stay. Myfanwy, do not sail away.

                                               

                                                County Town

If I should fall, then say to me the reason clouds form as they are,

Why ice should seed along a scratch, why I should love my six-point star.

I do not know or care to see the smiles that fall in brazen line,

But innocence and clearest eye embolden me to make her mine.

I speak of love and quiet worlds, the county town on winter nights:

The sweets of honeybees, a view of ruby sky and amber lights –

Of unctuous syrup mixed with snow, auroras made of rosy glow,

My borealis blood red sheen – if I should fall, then make me know.

When I am not and you are here, beholden to this dusty room,

Be gentle with the tenuous forms of memory; do not grieve too soon.

Consider this – why should we be, ephemeral and urgent? How?

And speak to me with confidence, declaim for me on cliff or prow.

In nature’s fragile frame I see a world that lives beyond the hill,

Beyond the log pile, salt and shed; behind our eyes when we lie still.

And when I fall, then say to me you read its language, pure and keen –

And set my records on my desk and light my lamp: make them be seen.

                                               

                                                ‘Always there were uncles’ (Dylan Thomas, A Child’s                                                                  Christmas in Wales

I longed not to talk to him, the schoolmaster;

He was always old, even as a boy, Llewhellin.

His eyes blorted thick, his voice rasped:

Never a pretty thing was he.

But I misses him now, you see, that old man

Cresting the corners of the foxgloved lanes –

Standing at Walton West, scowling at the tankers

Bound for Milford from great bright places

He hadn’t seen and didn’t want.

And I misses the silent pouring of tea

And the picking of apples from his headland-wizened trees;

the storied estuary, century feuds and nodding campion.

And I cry when I scent, alone, the violet patch, dug up,

Where I found him. And he was gone, eyes closed and young.

                                               

                                                Walton West

In this drear place, I see my family loved

In celandines and mugwort garlands drawn;

I do not know what tears or mossy lies

They fought so hard to keep from being said

Llewhellins, thick and fast and tired and gone,

Their stories drawn in stone or footstep sand.

                                               

                                                Still to be sad

In the old shop on the harbour walk I saw a note: ‘Be Mine:

Were you that girl I saw on the sand, turning to face me

Against the gale? I think you saw me, and I want to know.’

It was there for weeks, that note, rusting in the sun,

And brushed by arms of the boys running from the beach

For ice cream and the papers for bored parents.

And weeks more it hung, unnoticed, torn;

Down in shreds it was, a girl would never see;

But a girl had never seen. She’d been looking instead

Over the shoulder of the keen bright boy

To the man who broke her heart: a challenge –

Find me, save me. Do not let me now walk out

Into the sea. But in the keening of the wind

And the straining of the gale, all turned away

And she was gone and the slips of note removed,

For something clean and tidy and not sad.

                                               

                                                Druidstone Haven. A sonnet

We climbed the downward spiral of the trail

To best the shedding fingers of the cliff,

I’d promised you, oh love, I could not fail

I’d prove to you against our lovers’ tiff,

That there was treasure to be found that day –

Albescent moons to cradle in your hand –

Sea urchins fine, a little world to say:

Echinocardium, wanting to be grand.

But my world was not yours, you did not care

To hold the little lanterns in your palm –

The hollow globe within the greatest fair,

You did not care if such should come to harm.

So cracked the sea potato on the tide:

I knew, although I smiled, my love had died.

                                               

                                                Grave bag

‘Girl, get the grave bag from by the back door!’

‘I’m doing it now, in a minute!’

‘But have you got there the water in the milk bottle,

the scrubber and the cloth and the scissors,

they’re rusty but will do to trim?’

‘Yes, yes, I see them now.’

‘But have you got them, have you? Must not forget

and must not leave the bag at home and must not take it

to the graves half full, is it done now, is it all and are you sure?’

‘Yes, I am sure.’

The bag was bundled and the car was roared and the dead were glad

of a well-kept stone and the brambles trimmed and no-one cursed,

like they did, all did, in life, and the door was keyed and the grave bag was refilled

and sat just as it should, and the life was endless not altered,

even in this loud new world.

                                               

                                                Cariad

Rounding the headland at St Brides and sighting the small churchyard,

Cariad, you were aware, weren’t you now, that things were changed that day?

You saw us with the girl, cousin by marriage, I think she was,

And all was well because she was not you. You were, weren’t you now,

The same age and the same beauty and the same dimension, even, roughly now,

And all so different because she was not you. And daddy said, I know he did,

‘Ah, my lovely girl, my cariad, look at your lovely golden hair

And your blue eyes and the light foot and a tumble of a laugh’ –

But that was not for you, but for your cousin, by marriage I think she was,

And she was fair and pretty and you with your welter of a laugh

And your thin voice and your pinched nose and you my shameless,

shameful little girl, mine but not mine and yapping now

as we rounded the headland at St Brides. Sing to the sailors, girl,

cry for the mermaids if you see them there, but in this dark world

where cliffs heap up and the boy drowns and the wrack fills,

think always that none of this cares for you, but for her, cariad.

                                               

                                                Lewis, who went away

When I was a kid, Lewis took his own life.

I heard them say he took it, but where it went,

I couldn’t say or wasn’t told. Perhaps it had

been drained, in the sloop, with all his pints,

or thrown gladly off Stack Rocks with a shout

that he married well and was a man they liked,

but I don’t know. For once, though I was very young,

I saw a look from out the corner of his eye as he shipped

off, went laughing with the pot boys and his girl:

that look it said, I think, that Lewis wanted rescuing,

but no-one came, as the sea foam danced in Cardigan Bay.

                                               

                                                Auger

The Auger shell, unbroken, in the palm,

still yet, such tenor of this hour upon this tide,

I wait at Nolton, looking out to sea:

you do not come. I nurse the shell,

its whorls and tidy chambers tell

of secrets and of things I cannot know;

the grains of sand, or filament of carapace

swept up inside its little maze,

its rooms, its tidy cap, once came from elsewhere,

elsewhere on this tide, I’ll never know. And you,

I wait for, still, looking out to sea. I hear you laugh

and cannot say from where it came, but seabirds circle low.

I throw the shell where anemone and spider crab

have made their home – more life reclaims it now,

as your laugh is lost to me, in warm thrift and gorse

and the tenor of this hour upon the tide.

                                               

                                                Rhiannon

My mother taught at Wiston school,

Her hands were lithe, her mind so sharp,

Her friend Rhiannon worshipped her

And plucked her name upon the harp

Which sat all gold, in sight of all,

Rhiannon’s talons told mother’s fall –

She plucked a death upon the strings,

Her dainty nails scratched their goal:

‘Your mother will have feet, not wings

And with their clay, they’ll crush her soul –

Oh, read The Mabinogion, dear,

You pretty pretty little child –

For you shall be my daughter fair,

my son Avaggdu’s ugly – wild –

the thick and thwart upon his brow

why should she have while I’ve not got?

Your mother taught at Wiston school

and so I tell you, she shall not.’

She plucked and plucked and screamed her rage

now mother’s clad in primrose dell,

But I can’t go and see her now,

Rhiannon keeps me in a cage

And sings to me of sweetest love

And all the things I cannot gauge:

Avaddgu scowls, for he’s not loved

And spits upon upon sweet mother’s grave.

                                   

                             The Famished House

            ‘Around here, the trees suck air and, at night,

            when the last shriek of the plump and pretty-breasted curlew

            is drawn from its throat, and when the strandline treasure

            is dulled and shredded against the rock, even in fair weather,

            well then: that is the time that the houses take their fill.’

            ‘Nanny, is it true?’ ‘ Oh yes. Around here when the moss

            spawns bad, it creeps across your foot if you slowly move,

            so be sure to move quite fast, when the twilight stalks,

            then that is the time that the houses take their fill.’

            ‘Nanny, is it true?’ ‘Oh yes. When the jewel sky

            and the lapping wing, have beat their very blood

            into the hour, take heed; the tidiest stones

            we built such with, will stretch up so to bark at silly men,

            the silliest from away, for we shall know

            what is to come, as groaning, crafted stone leans in

            to kiss a sleeping face and staunch, in wild rebellion, dear,

            the men that wrest it proudly from the ground.’

                                                                       

                                                                        Slebech Forest

            ‘Today we will go inland dear, to see the rhododendron bloom,

            Away from sea scent, sunset shell; away from me, away from you.’

            We travelled for hours on little tracks, their way being marked with showy prime,

            It was, at first, of some delight, but then my love spoke of his crime:

            ‘So, stay here, love, forever held, unless you scent the estuary,

            And I fly high, to England bold, away from you, away from me.’

            Ah dear, you underestimate my knowledge of this mazèd land,

            You did not hear the laughing breeze, dead mammy’s come and with her hand

            She’ll pen you up, beside the Rhos, and I will run forever free,

            I’ll not stay here, forever held, not stay with you but live for me –

            An orient boat will rescue me, blown fast on daddy’s pretty curse

            And rhododendron casket blooms will strip your life and end my verse.


On loss, grief, change and…

.

Just a quick lunchtime write, but perhaps this will resonate and comfort. I don’t pretend to know any answers, but I do know what I found to be true. I entirely expect to be wrong about this or to have to adapt my thinking. That ought to be the natural way of things.

I had a great deal of loss, raw and confounding in my childhood and early years; there was a period between 16 and 20 when I lost my grandparents, my godmother – to whom I was so very close; I write about her in some of my books – and both my parents, followed by the decision made by my sibling to separate from me without explanation. It was his right but I did not know why it happened. So it was that I launched into the world in a different way from any number of my peers. I felt so odd; a weirdo. I was in pain, confused and, with a complex and very damaging background, I had any number of things to deal with – not least having to decide how best to provide for myself going forward, where to live and how in the hell to heal. I wish that none of this had happened, but I want to say something encouraging, too – while I hope that you have had not similar, yet know that some reading this have had much worse – let me say that first.

I realised that grief did not go. I used to push it down and try not to feel it until I learned that you had to live alongside it because grief is not possible without love. I suppose that this grounded me, which is not the same as saying it stopped hurting. It didn’t; it still hurts. But I let waves wash over me and feel that even the worst paroxysms do not last. I have learned to feel them and not be afraid for them and, also, that grief is not possible without love. I think it can feed into creative energy, too. I think your experience of it fits you to help others, unfurl a tiny story in the darkest experience, and to be less afraid of the world and all the people in it.

There is another type of grief and I often wonder whether this kind of grief is at the root of many ills around us; there is pain in the aggressive voice and stance; in the person who hits out because to hurt another or deride them insistently seems to assuage pain. It does not of course. This type of grief (I think) comes from a sense that you are excluded, looked down on, that your dreams were trampled on or, perhaps, that you did not dare to dream at all because to do so would have been too painful, watching it all come to nothing. Obviously there are many people who do suffer those awful feelings and go on to challenge them and needle rightful targets who truly negate possibility for other, but there are others whose hurt and vulnerability may turn to malice. Have you seen it?

Both the grief born of loss and the grief of what you could not have or be are intense and can be eviscerating. In my experience, for both, it is our contacts with other people and our sharing with them, plus our relationship with art, music and the natural world, which make a difference. Also, the humour that blunts loneliness and enlivens possibility; which refreshes perspective.

I am writing this today because I am reflecting on how I feel and how I want to live my life. We have had a number of bereavements during the past year and then, last night, our beloved tabby became ill, deteriorated quickly and the vet advised that there was no effective palliative care and so he was put to sleep. My boys are devastated; our animals are so much part of our family and this one has been there for as long as they can remember. I think that what I am most upset about is seeing their grief; it is also their first experience of a sudden loss, but certainly not mine and I must help them navigate their way through it. I have spoken to them about grief before and told them what I said at the beginning; that it has to live alongside you. That you must make a place for it to do so. Because with grief, whether it be because of loss or through your keen sense of what you could not have or be, you cannot keep tamping it down, trying to subliminate it; yes, you can distract yourself for while, of course, and that is good, but you have to feel it so it can be lived with and so that you can change as the grief changes.

There is a type of loss which is not about losing a loved one, but is about change; a death to an old way of life. There are decisions that appeared before me or which I forcefully made during this past year. I realised that I wanted to live in a smaller but richer way; that I was truly contented on my own and might like to spend more time that way, that I was actually quite ruthless about certain things – for example, it seemed to me that a friendship could be extinguished and a clear current example (for me) is those who have not been mindful at all of rules during the pandemic; who insist it is solely about individual choice. I realised I did not want to be friends with someone like that as, ultimately, it connoted so much more: effectively a casual disregard for a community, local, national and global. I felt a little bit ashamed to think like that, because we are encouraged not to be judgemental. I was told I was judgemental. I did not mean to hurt feelings, but now I no longer mean to be friends. And it was loss. You may make a choice, but that does not take away pain. I feel much has changed and come to the surface, too. I know many people reading this might feel that way too. The change, or the visibility of this process, is uncomfortable. But test something on your pulse: does it revolt you? Do you tense up? Or do you feel a surge of joy, that sense of being alive, or perhaps just at peace – as much as can ever be! You have your answer. That is what you believe.

For me, time, trying very hard to be present is a key thing. The past is a different country and up ahead, in the future, is a place where you can never actually be. It is simple but fiendishly difficult to plant yourself in the now. At least it is for me. But I am learning to do better in this regard. I plan to spend more time with those people I feel I cannot bear to lose (though of course I must, or they will lose me) and I am so looking forward to meeting other people. There will be people I no longer see. There will be people I realise I need to see less. I have to stop trying, also, with two older ones with additional needs, not to focus on what I think occurs in other families and to look only at love and doing the best we can, with what we have, at that time And as for work? I have reshaped it. I will continue with teaching, but do not think I will return to a school, though I miss the classroom. I want to work with a variety of ages and in different areas, books at the heart of this. I want to do things that are more focused on local and global communities through writing. For this reason, I am currently part of three mentoring activities, one with young people and, in my writing – forgive me, but it would wrong to say any details with work out and about – I plan even more to pay it forward. So, for every event I do, I will make an online version; for books, I aim to use my teaching and mentoring skills and experience to boost others which is, essentially, my favourite thing to do. I am excited, but I am uncomfortable with it, because it is change, because there is loss mixed in – there have already been books written which are not valued and which fail to fly – so wish me luck as I go forward, doubting myself but determined.

I will close there. Today, I am sad, bereaved, in a period of change. I am mired in loss, wearing it as lightly as I can, but giving in to the paroxysms I mentioned earlier. Perhaps you feel the same. We could do it all together. I should like that.

And I send you my love. x

On writing, querying, being published and taking care of yourself

Anna Vaught Writes

Some general thoughts. These may be used when you are first querying – that is, sending agents or indie presses your work – or perhaps they may comfort as you go further along and have found an agent or a publisher and…in comes the doubt. Or perhaps your agent has your book out on submission and back comes that creeping feeling of…what if/they don’t really like me/eeee this is tough/holy actual shit, am I good enough? Well then, you are going to tough this out. I absolutely promise you you are not the only one feeling this way and, if you thought you were super-amazing and considered yourself gifted PLUS the very thing that publishing needs, and that you know things no-one else does, then you’d be an arrogant twat and, ultimately, would you rather be that? I am sure you have seen the odd person like this on…

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Day writing retreats -NEW!

There will be further announcements as we go, but I am delighted to say that my first writing retreat will be held in West Wiltshire, just outside Bath, on Saturday the 3rd of July. Because I have pledged to offer an online counterpart to in-person events where I possibly can, there will also be an online writing retreat via Google Meet on Saturday the 17th July. For the in-person, be assured that there are excellent road and transport links to the destination and (for example) we are accessible from train changes at Bristol, Bath or Westbury, Weymouth or Cardiff Central; there is a daily direct St Pancras train

Details for in person (timings are the same for online…but read on).

10-5. You will need to bring your own packed lunch, but there will be tea and coffee and soft drinks and biscuits (please advise of allergies when you book) during the day. The venue is a lovely working chapel, with lots of space and a beautiful garden. I hope you like it!

My aim for all 2021 and early 2022 retreats is to offer a range of work on ideas, techniques and lots on using close reading to help you grow and improve. I am also very keen to encourage you so that you work on confidence, a sense of worthiness – people feel outside the writing community or think that publishing is for others, even once they enter this world. As well as the day retreat itself, where I look at group teaching, there will be exercises to make you think and, as a special feature, you get some one to one with me in advance, where you send me some work and I will write to you and give you feedback.

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Who is it for?

Those who are working towards first publication in prose, whether a novella, novel or short stories. I am quite aware that some of these people may have been writing for pleasure for some time. Also, there is probably going to be at least one genius in the room.

Those prose writers who are perhaps a bit further on – perhaps they already have a book published – but want a boost and reboot, perhaps because they have got stuck or not had a supportive community around them at any stage.

Those who are currently querying their work with agents (possibly small presses) and not having any luck.

The day starts with a meet and greet; you know what I mean. No embarrassing ice breakers because I would rather stick pins in my eyes! Would you?! But I will get you to wear a sticky label with your name on. You can use whatever name you like.

*Questions. Frank as you like. If I don’t know, I will say so and aim to find someone who does know.

*Writing a beginning and netting your reader. How might you do it.

Elevenses.

*We may continue with the beginning task a little more if necessary.

*Close reading exercises. Place, atmosphere, character, punctuation. Observing it in others’ work to make us think about our own writing. Translating this into our own work.

*Techniques to help you with editing your work. Outlines, development, why you should always read aloud.

Lunch. Outside in the garden if it’s a fine day.

*Questions. Frank as you like again. These can be on anything, so on writing, but also on the industry or anything you need help with.

*Confidence. Very short bit because this can make you feel vulnerable and I do not want anyone to feel this way, even in a safe and supportive environment, so rather than asking YOU, I will tell you about me and what my barriers are and how I manage mine. If anyone wants to ask a further question at this stage, that is fine.

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*More on close reading; characters hints and hooks.

*Story arc. What is it? How do you create and sustain one and is it true there’s an equation for it…?

*Troubleshooting. Proofing, common errors, homophone checking, speech punctuation, laying out speech, techniques with long and short paragraphs; my observations on the most common problems in the many manuscripts I have seen over the past year – such as too many characters too soon, a beginning that lacks pace or interest, sluggish narrative and many more. Feel free to disagree that these are problems.

Cup of tea and a gentle end to the day. My house is immediately behind the venue, so it may be that some of you would relish the chance for a little bit of one to one chat afterwards.

How does that sound? I will hand out some written materials for reading, but the rest, ingest and take notes, as you see fit.

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How do you book? via annavaughttuition@gmail.com payable in full in advance via BACS or paypal, and you will need to tell me at least one emergency contact details and forewarn me of any allergies, illness or sensitivities of which I must be aware; likewise, I would appreciate your sharing any trigger warnings with me so that I either avoid them or you know that we will touch on them, but I given you reassurance and context. When you book, I can tell you the exact location and how to access it, parking, route from train station and bus stops.

The online counterpart will be 10-5 and follow the same format except you just pop off and get a refreshments for yourself and eat lunch and there will be time for a little one to one afterwards, if you want that. This will take place on Google Meet (very very easy to use if you have yet to encounter it).

The in-person day is £150 and the online is £110 and both will be for a maximum of twelve people. This will be refunded in full if there are further restrictions owing to Covid. If I do not get a reasonable number of bookings, we will not go ahead – so also a full refund. Remember that in addition to a day of work, I am also looking at a section of your writing beforehand and commenting on it to provide maximum value and usefulness for you.I hope you like the sound of this. I will look at your written work during June.

Who am I again? I am the author of four books, with my fifth on submission as I write and other work on its way, I have written widely: novels, novellas, short stories and poetry and contributed to many journals both online in print. I am also a proofreader, editor, copywriter and experienced secondary English teacher, tutor and young people’s mentor. I have also long been involved in literacy projects, community arts initiatives and literary mentoring with adults. As I hope you can tell, I am passionate about it all!

You are so much more productive than you think

This is is specifically for those aiming to write their first book but finding it difficult because of a lack of time, energy, illness, caring responsibilities, grief or anxiety. Also, for those who have not started but would like to; yet they do not start because of a perceived lack of time, energy or space.

This short post is to comfort and encourage you.

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For a start, you work with what you have. That is, it’s lovely to have an office or a dedicated room, but if circumstances demand that you write at your kitchen table, or on your lap wherever you are, so be it. If you wait for those perfect circumstances, you will never start, so always go with what you have. I write at the kitchen table and am frequently interrupted. I go with it and use headphones for really busy times. Remember that genius exists in the finest library, but also at a scruffy kitchen table. Also, if you think you have to assemble ideal conditions – that is, ideal emotional or psychological conditions – before you write or continue writing, then I do believe that is deferring your creativity to fate. You may feel down, sad or that heavy weight of grief that comes after the first pains which you think will kill you. My darlings, I am so, so sorry. But you know, you can write in rage and sadness, too. Maybe not yet, but you will. Sometimes, little bits of story unfurl within the sad story of you and yours; cling to them, because they are still there and precious. Think I don’t know? I am writing this now, to you: after a second very broken night, this little story unfurled while I was on to the phone to care providers and emergency staff because I have a very unwell eldest. I find it heartbreaking sometimes and after years it seems a solution is not within our grasp, but within those feelings, I try to draw something else out. Today, it was for you. Take it.

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Writing every day. Well lovely if this is you, but it cannot be everyone. I cannot do it. If you are poorly or managing any combination of circumstances, or just because it doesn’t work for you, then you cannot do it. This does not mean you cannot produce a book. Again, go with what is available to you because, again, if you think it is only possible with (perceived) ideal circumstances, then you may never get started or find your progress is stymied because you are feeling anxiety about your lack. Look, instead, at what there is. Thought. Cogitation. Reading. Listening. Man, you’ve been busy.

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This point follows on from the last. You may not write every day – as in get words down on a page – but try to inhabit the world of your book. What might that mean? That you mull over its characters and plot, read, go for a walk and just let it sit and let your mind freewheel and see what springs up; that you keep reading; that you look over edits – your own or someone else’s – and maybe you could do bits of admin if the urge is that strong. Do your page numbers, check SPAG or write an acknowledgements page: these things can be lovely little boosts and make you feel your book is evolving into an actual THING. So think of the work and the writing as not only being the writing down, but also of the rumination while you are having a bath, or resting, say. If you do that, you may find your attitude to it shifts and you realise you’re further along than you thought.

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I hope these help. x