On writing, on difficulty and sadness, but also the magic of reading and making a new story. Yeah: I AM EXCITED, ALRIGHT x

So, I want to tell you how it feels to be writing what I am writing at the moment. It’s a strange time, because it is also a time of waiting. News of my first short story collection is out and I am receiving edits for my third novel, which is out next April. I have just written some notes for the latter – Saving Lucia, Bluemoose – and some thoughts on cover images; not, that is, what the cover image is to be, but concepts and thoughts I might want to be represented there. There is a further volume of short stories to be read (that is on submission), I have a novel waiting to be sent, and I have been gathering in time for my ongoing project; a new novel, the idea for which began germinating in spring when, quite by chance, I saw a newspaper article for autumn 1940 about London zoo…I can share some details, but not many. I want to tell you what I have been doing and how exciting it has felt, as well as delineate a few of its low points. kit

 

  1. Yesterday I wrote a new chapter. In that I vividly imagined myself in St Nicholas’s Church in Deptford. Here lies Christopher (Kit) Marlowe, a huge favourite of mine, buried in an unmarked grave in 1593 and with a commemorative plaque: its plangent quotation from Dr Faustus made me shiver. Now, I hadn’t actually intended to visit Marlowe, but one of the young characters from the book goes to visit the grave of his father in the churchyard there and his mother tells him, not for the first time, about Kit Marlowe and his untimely death in a Deptford Tavern. There is a great deal in this novel about memory and grief and suddenly, with another shiver, I began to make some connections with the poet and playwright and some of the themes in the book. I can share those with you at some later date. Also that St Nicholas’s church turns out to have been badly damaged by an incendiary bomb on the very night the (true) event on which this novel turns occurred.
  2. I realised, after sensible advice, that in this book, I had to stretch out the action and give it room; I made it first as a novella, but it didn’t work because it was too rushed. I had to allow more time for relationships between characters to develop and that the plot was not tight enough. I’d say that the two biggest flaws in my writing (your view may be different if you read my work) are that I over-express ideas because I love luxuriating in language and consequently a perfectly respectable idea gets lost underneath clusters of these over-expressed phrases which would be HIDEOUS for a reader. The second thing is that I describe too much  – particularly about sensual detail, texture, landscape and the nature of a place – and advance the plot too little. I am learning to be flexible on all this. I have to be! I am not precious about my work, but I do tend to be stubborn about keeping long, poly-clausal sentences because I personally love them; sentences of many clauses held together by a range of punctuation. Work in progress, that one. I also have a really irritating habit of using archaisms and I’ve also had a couple of bitchy reviews about having to read my books with a dictionary on the side. I thought that sounded great, but again, work in progress! You want to be you, but you don’t want to irritate your readers, either. Is that a good maxim, do you think?
  3. I am not a very confident person. Tricky background and so on; lots of truly unhelpful thoughts. I fake it; propel myself into a room. The teaching background has helped in this way. However, I am easy to crush (there’s an antidote or two to that, though). Now, I was told only the other day (and not for the first time) by a member of my extended family – sorry folks; I know you didn’t mean it like this, but it hurts – that when my next book comes out, it’s really hoped that no-one knows we are related. And someone else asked me to tell them what happens in what I am writing and what I am editing, then said, ‘Well I won’t be reading any of that. I don’t think I’d like that at all.’ People, I would rather stick pins in my eyes than say this to a member of my family, but it is not meant to hurt; it’s an expression of disapproval or a lack of interest because if I wrote it, it can’t possibly be good – or it will contain stuff that people would rather not associate with. What can I say? Sometimes we are swatted back to our earliest pathology. Sometimes, when people say such things, I am afraid that I hear my mother’s voice mocking and criticising: it is full of horrid triggers and can spin me into dissociation if I am having trouble coping more generally. (And I don’t mean this in term of criticism of my work by readers, because that is part of the process.) BUT my bravehearts, I want to say that although I had a jolly good cry the other day, by teatime I was in Ethiopia meeting a Grevy’s zebra, by late evening, I was watching Haile Selassie get his photo taken on Brighton Pier (when he was in exile) and by late at night I was back in Deptford again, by way of the Cleddau Estuary and I thought, oh book, oh reading, writing, imagination, (forgive the pink doughnut and the sprinkles, which truly don’t go with the plaque of Kit Marlowe and the sombre comments…no: fuck it. I LIKE pink doughnuts and sprinkles so…), oh book, oh reading, writing, imagination,

    woman holding donut with sprinkles
    Photo by Karley Saagi on Pexels.com
  4. Writing a book is a daunting prospect. Here’s something that really helps me. It’s something Hilary Mantel said. That she ‘will do a little scene…then another little scene and try not to think of the enormity of the task ahead.’ That’s very much how I am getting this current book written. I know that, when I have written this post, and before (or after) I have cooked tea for the kids and sorted out domestics and helped with an English homework, I will be writing a ‘little scene’ about some evacuees arriving on St Brides Bay in Pembrokeshire in 1939. I know that there is one particular lad called Ernest (he’s the boy from Deptford, if you remember that I was there, in the churchyard, regarding Kit Marlowe!) and that he is lodged with a family that I have based on what I know of that of a distant cousin of my maternal grandmother’s, she whose stories have, my whole life, affected by imagination so much. I have been imagining him all day, though: his life, the times, the details of the very stones and the sea wall around places I know well. So, when I come to write this scene, it will seem at least partly familiar. As if it were a figment of memory that has come forth, filling out a story for me. Again, that feels like magic; a gift.
  5. I hope that, whatever you are writing and despite its ups and downs and the ups and downs of your life, you find solace and happiness as you are absorbed in the rich world that you are creating: something that did not exist before you made it. I hope that it is also so with your reading. Anna x

    books in shelf
    Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com
Advertisements

WRITING. Ten thoughts on the last four years! (PS don’t tell me off for not really having a twitter break; it’s automatic from my site. x)

I am off social media until November or so as I am working on edits for my next book (novel, Saving Lucia, which is out in April) and doing a rewrite – and expansion – of another book. Head is down because I’m balancing this with teaching and a brood of offspring and…well, you know. Anyway, if you reply to me on twitter or FB, I won’t see it, but I hope you find these thoughts encouraging or interesting. They are not only about me, but about what I have learned and seen, since I started writing in 2014.

quotes by lemn sissay
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com
  1. Don’t ever assume that writing is not for you. There are many reasons why you might. In my case, I thought, ‘Oh I’ve left it too late’ and other lame things related, in my case, to self esteem, which has, I will tell you frankly (and as I have written about elsewhere), been radically affected by a tricky background and a daily management of sometimes scary mental health stuff. And I am not going to sugar coat issues of structural inequality; it’s there – let’s look for ways to overcome it as we support each other.  Writing, if you want to do it and can make a good shot at it, IS FOR YOU.
  2. Related to this, I bet pretty much everyone feels like an outsider or has that old chestnut, imposter syndrome. I am constantly sure I am about to make a massive fool of myself, but if I do, I do it with a full heart. Make sense? Would you rather be mightily arrogant and therefore, I would argue, less able to self reflect, less delicate in your observations, perhaps less kind to others, because you NOTICE LESS – and maybe you are thus a lesser writer? Because don’t you need doubt in order to write well?
  3. There could well be some mighty cock ups. You don’t need to hear the ins and outs of what has gone wrong for me, but you might be heftily let down by someone, have a book that is not promoted, simply not be valued or find yourself actually gaslit by someone you work on a book with, in some capacity. This is not the end; it is part of learning, of amassing (sorry, but I do love swearing) the twats in one useful corner (or rather the people who were twats to you) and, though beaten, you can get back up. The writing community is large and welcoming, everyone has disasters sooner or later, far as I can tell, every writer has bad track in common (that is, a book that tanked, but bear in mind that this is more subtle than it looks because much also depends on the provenance of that book) and so lift your sights.
  4. Do not wait for ideal circumstances. Room of your own? I should cocoa; no chance in my house. To be happier, thinner, less busy, add anything…NOOOO. If you want to do it, start right now. YEAH. THIS AFTERNOON. Even it’s just scribbles or a few lines; or a chapter; or the whole first draft vomited onto the page. It will be dreadful, it will be your shit first draft, but it will also be the germ of something that is not. Or lead on to another piece of writing that is so much better in the first place.
  5. You do not have to write every day. Well, if you feel you do you do. But don’t feel that you can’t write a book if you can’t write every day. Write when you can. Also, don’t wait for inspiration. Start writing and inspiration will come; if it doesn’t, take a break. Try later.

    brown notebook in between of a type writer and gray and black camera
    Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
  6. Read. It’s your greatest teacher. Why not read from a genre you haven’t tried before? Or perhaps read a book that seems too long or too difficult. Try works in translation, novellas, poetry, a play.  All time periods if you like. Get to know the brilliant small presses there are. Try non-fiction as well as fiction.
  7. Your writing and all the shit first drafts that got crossed out or maybe the books – it happens – that didn’t make it: it’s all an apprenticeship. You are learning. While I have been writing, though, I’ve been learning about the industry, because that seemed to me to be something I ought to do. Plus I was interested because I like to learn now things work. By the industry, I mean learning about small presses and big publishers, agents, independent and big booksellers, international markets, editors, marketing and book PR. Also, connect with people. I am a funny mix; I’m naturally quite shy and need to hide, preferably under a duvet with a book, after a big social event, because my tank runneth dry. Nonetheless, I love talking to people and learning about what they do; chatting to people who love reading is a joy of my life but it is also a great way of learning what’s going on.
  8. Pay it forward. Help others. I am a great believer in communities; they are the mainstay, I think, of our world. If you get a break, try and help someone else to. Or just try anyway.
  9. When you come to submit – and this is based on manuscripts I have seen and conversations I’ve had with people more knowledgeable than I am – be you, but be mindful of the fact that agents and small publishers get many, many submissions and so as well as being you, you’ve got to be you pitching up having done the groundwork. Craft your approach really well; make your query personal to them and really do your homework – on their catalogue, say; or be aware – and tell them – of a recent wish list they published or an interview they gave where they mentioned a book they’d love to see and you think you might pique an interest. Likewise, if you are submitting to an indie press, then you really should have read some of the books on that catalogue, otherwise why are you submitting to them if you don’t really know what they publish? If you’re submitting in a particular genre you need to be aware of that genre at market. And follow the submissions guidelines always and without exception.
  10. This might be a testy one, but I stand by it. I have found the best use of your time while waiting for rejections – or hits! – is to be working on something new. I’ve heard people say that they cannot start another book until they know about the one that they have submitted, but you might be waiting many months. This may or may not have happened to you and it sucks and it isn’t really good enough, but here are two things that happened to me. First, I wrote something to time for an agent who then rejected it with a form letter after many a cheery back and forth and I never heard from them again. I thought THIS IS IT (how naive was I?) and didn’t work on anything else. Then I stalled because I was upset. Also, I haven’t, compared with some of you extraordinary indomitable people out there, submitted that widely. But I would say that about 30% or so of the people I submitted to, including big agencies who promise they take notice of the slush pile, never replied. I had a no reply after a full manuscript request. Submission is testing; rejection after rejection is testing. There will be low points. So I say, don’t wait to clear your decks before you start another book. Get cracking. This, by the way, is one reason I’ve managed (nearly!) 7 in four years and I am not a full time writer by any means: I am always writing a book. And the writing can be planning, researching, daydreaming in the bath, reading, mind-mapping: all this is your book writing, be reassured. x

    books in shelf
    Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

News on writing: next novel, short stories and getting a literary agent

In haste this one – and apologies that I haven’t written for a while. Just to say that I have placed my first book of short stories Famished (publisher TBA all in good time; I’m not allowed to tell you yet) to be published September, 2020 and so, with my historical fiction Saving Lucia out with Bluemoose next spring…herewith some stars of the show: the Honourable Violet Gibson who, in 1926, went to Rome and tried to assassinate Mussolini – and Lucia Joyce, dancer and artist, daughter of novelist James Joyce. She, like Violet, was admitted for life to St Andrew’s Infirmary (formerly the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum).

….that’s two books for you next year. I also have a piece on rebuilding your mind with books for Trauma: Art as a response to mental health for Dodo Ink in January – and we’ll see if there are further commissions. In other news. Tempest…

tempest-front-cover-192x300

…the anthology of writings about dystopias for Patrician Press for which I wrote the introductory essay came out on March 1st and, this summer, one of my stories is published in Newcon press’s Best of British Horror, 2019. Now, if you are looking for my first two books, 2016’s Killing Hapless Ally and this year’s The Life of Almost, you may, at time of updating this (4th April) be able to buy copies online, but these books are, as of this week, currently between publishers and I will post updates as soon as I can.

What else? Well my second historical fiction, The Revelations of Celia Masters (set in mid 17th-century Somerset and Virginia) is waiting for its read (will update) and I have more short stories and another novel, The Fabulist (working title only…) on the go.

Love,

Anna

Hello: this is me, by the way! My seven year old took it and I have snow in my hair.snowyanna

And also…I have a literary agent! I have just signed with Kate Johnson of Mackenzie Wolf Literary Agency, NY…http://www.mwlit.com/…

MacKenzie Wolf

…and we will see where this takes us. Kate has been very involved already – actually I have been talking to her for a year and it is partly Kate whom I have to thank for Famished, partly because she encouraged me to write gothic fiction. We are both delighted with the press it has gone to: it’s a fantastic home! I am currently writing a second volume of short stories which will go directly to Kate and that is called Ravished. While Famished is a series of gothic, horror and weird fiction tales linked by the theme of food and feasts, Ravished is all about age, faith, death and judgement. It’s bloody terrifying me, in fact. I call it my eschatological volume. I’ve been researching Victorian memento mori, photos of the dead, embalming…flipping to googledocs now, it looks like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children in its use of photos…ooohhh.

Much love and happy writing – or writing amidst a whole lot of other things going wrong and Brexit stress. Don’t wait for the perfect moment, the clear day or a room of one’s own, huh?

Anna xxx

Editing and killing your darlings

This week, I begin on a rewrite of my fourth book, The Revelations of Celia Masters. This is historical fiction, set in mid 17th-century Somerset, then the Chesapeake area of Virginia, then Somerset again. It’s gothic in feel and has woven in the literature and characters of the period. So you’ll meet the poets of the first Caroline Court, see Ben Jonson and get acquainted with the head of Sir Walter Raleigh and the man who brought the first pineapple to the English court. This is a book which has had a lot of interest from various quarters and…needs to be redone in the light of feedback.

Here is a synopsis (longer version; if you’re submitting, make ’em shorter and offer the whole plot) to give you a flavour.

Oooh – go and read the wonderful book, illustated below. It’s Albion’s Seed and was my greatest stimulus for my novel, together with my reading of Southern gothic – and thinking about its origins – that I am Somerset born and travelled and also in love with the South, and married to Georgia Boy. Oh, and my love for and interest in the Cavalier poets. A few more things, but I shall write on this at a later date.

albion

Young Celia Masters was born in 1625, the year that King James I died. She is an orphan, raised by a guardian, the rich and connected Frances Masters, and remembers nothing of her parents, though she thinks she sees them in troubling dreams at night. Celia visits the Caroline court and goes on to be the inspiration for the Celia poems of Ben Jonson; Richard Lovelace writes about her as both Amarantha and Althea; she is dandled on the knee of Henrietta Maria and adored by King Charles, too. It is a gracious life and yet, Celia is unsettled and questioning, and at night returns to her troubling dreams. Of her mother, a beautiful shadowy figure; of half whispered truths. Sometimes, the fear and longing in these dreams seeps into the day world and Celia is ill at ease and runs wild late at night in the Somerset valleys which are her home, but by day she remains composed. Her maids tend her, but she sometimes hears them whisper at her door, ‘I know you what you are.’ By this she is both chilled and thrilled. Once, given a poppet by the Cavalier poets, she drives a pin into it thinking of a pompous man chiding her for impudence – and tastes wickedness: it is delicious.

Beyond Celia, the Cavalier world is crumbling and when the Civil War comes, the Cavaliers fight, or they spend their money in the cause of the king and many fly for the new land of America and try to establish themselves in the new colony there. She knows some things of the New World of America, of ‘New Britain’, as some call it. There is much here that troubles her. Is here not enough? Home is established in the Chesapeake; she is courted and feted for her beauty, this New World celebrated, and yet the arrogance of those who preside unsettles her. News reaches them of Cromwell, of war and of Charles beheaded at Whitehall, Henrietta Maria fled. Her dreams are darker, more pervasive as she lives this new life in Virginia. Celia marries, lives on a successful plantation and is the mother of three sons and a girl, loving but restless, and not appreciated by her unimaginative husband; eventually, she takes to wandering, the shifting landscape of the tidewater with the night-time dreams seeping into her day. She is restless when she sees the slaves whipped or the Algonquins insulted; when she sees the brutality of the white man and the woman. At night she creeps to the houses of the workers, shares their meals. They come to trust her and she tells of her dreams and aching heart. Rise up, say their voices; rise up say the voices of her night-time. Her dreams of a unremembered but keenly felt past permeate her waking hours and, knife to throat, Masters is forced to tell her who she really is. She is Celia Lee, child of the last witch killed under James I. Celia grows increasingly wild. Her husband tries to keep her at home and is cruel to her, insisting that she stay on the plantation and that she shames him. She wanders, receives stories, legends, from the occasional lone traveller in these parts; hears whispers. What of the lost colony of Roanoke? Young Virginia Dare? What happened to her? And then, one night, she is gone with her sons and daughter to the remote wooded areas of the frontier, Virginia. Around her, she establishes a faith, an awakening, a cult. She builds a church of sorts. With this awakening, she speaks tongues and makes magic, has powerful spells, begins to understood what she really is and who her powerful mother was – a woman King James had long wanted killed. As the old world in England crumbles, she builds, her devoted children by her side, witchery aflame: the Somerset maids who whispered ‘I know you what you are’ help her too, the Algonquin girls and the slave girls from Barbados and, astonishingly, Virginia Dare, still alive, an old woman now, kept safe in the Indian villages, seeks her out: together they establish something extraordinary. And after long life, she dies there, with her sons, leaving her daughter, Bess, to return to Somerset and begin her work there. Establish a new church of spells and sorcery. And it is the descendants of Celia – and of Bess – who keep her flame and begin the story.

I am, among other things, extending some sections of the book, reconsidering the way in which I have used dialect and dialect words – all of which has been very carefully checked insofar as it is possible to do this with mid-17th-century conversation – and I am killing some darlings. I personally love little set pieces at the beginning of books. The other night I couldn’t sleep, so I was re-reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies and noting that I enjoyed her notes at the beginning: Charles Brandon:  a peer of limited intellect; Thomas Wyatt: (about whom I want to write, by the way) a courtier of unlimited intellect.

BUT

I’ve cut the following and offer, now, a more straightforward dive into the text. Here’s what you used to have…

 

Bruton, Somerset, England with reference to other English counties and people of the time.

The court of King Charles I (1600-1649) and Henrietta Maria (known also as Mary), palace of Whitehall and various, London. And with reference to the court of King James I and VI (1566-1625), his father.

Elizabeth Town, new Williamsburg, James City County, Virginia, during the emigration from the South of England and with other reference to the Chesapeake Bay. Tidewater and the James River.

Celia Masters, a young woman of Bruton, well heeled and cultured.

Francis Masters, her guardian, of Primrose House, Bruton, a landowner and man of great kindness

Celia’s maids, Agnes and Isabella.

William Berkeley, of Bruton Somerset, and governor of Virginia, 1641-1652 and 1660-1677 and with reference to other known families and characters of the time.

Cavalier poets and playwrights of the seventeenth century: Ben Jonson, Richard Lovelace, John Suckling, Robert Herrick and with reference to Edmund Waller, Thomas Carew and John Donne.

Trepanned (kidnapped or coerced) girls for employment as indentured servants in the colony, Grace, Mercy, Mary and Joan.

Slave girls, referred to by employers as ‘hands’, ‘people’ or ‘workers’, Daphne and Betty.

Algonquian Indian girls, Chepi and Numees.

And with reference to Pocahontas, born Matoaka, known as Amonute, later named as Rebecca Rolfe on her marriage to colonist John Rolfe; to her father Wahunsenacawh, the paramount chief of Tsenacommacah, an alliance of Algonquian-speaking Virginia Indians in the Tidewater region of Virginia at the time English settlers landed at Jamestown in 1607. And with reference to Virginia Dare, first white child to be born in the New World at Roanoke Island, where was sited the colony established by Sir Walter Raleigh; this disappeared and became known as the lost colony of Roanoke and the whereabouts of its inhabitants remains a mystery.

 

And here – do please comment – is the first chapter (with a short preface which I have not included here and may also cut).

There is a house, in a green forest clearing. At the fringes and in a new land. In a New World. Above the tidewater and amongst the fringing trees. There is a house, where there is no door and where ivy claims the gate. There is a house, with a garden whose ancient borders breathe out the last of the blown roses which are used, by now, to half-light and darkness. Still they bloom. A house, whose outbuildings tumble around the books and pitchers and tables with fat drawers. A house, with crumbling masonry and chimney stack akimbo. This house. The outside slides and falls. It’s bewildered by moss and ivy. You should not enter this place. Don’t even be fixing to enter. In the New World, in Virginia, beyond the bay and glancing at deep river.

But if you did – and, as I said, there is no door – you would, you should, draw a sharp breath.

Inside, the walls are slip-shiny and the beds made.

There is no dust and the rugs have been shaken out and made flat.

There is an altar with crescent moons, turned this way and that,

With burnished turkey feathers and jewels of marsh periwinkle:

All polished to a shine.

Such excellent housekeeping. No creatures here.

But you should not enter this house, this house in the forest.

And I am someone who should know.

My house. My church. A temple. See the shapes on the walls? Handsome, aren’t they? Crescents turned this way and that to my own purpose and for you. And other shapes too, as we shall see. A book for everyone and a stretch of white linen replenishing itself.

Find me outside and sing me a sea shanty; we’re away from the coast but I miss the tidewater dreadfully. And I miss the rush of my Somerset coast. Find me near those struggling roses, I told you about. There. Look carefully and you will see the stones. Carved stone; carmine when the light catches. There are five and I am under one of them. There are three for the beautiful boys but a monument only for the lovely girl because she lies not here. There: one for me. For friends and witch-lovers, too. For a disappeared child of whom you will have heard, grown old but safe. But none for him. Because those are pearls that were his eyes and I am no-one’s prim unveiled statue in a gallery. I will never be a lady of honour. I am no-one’s prim unveiled statue in a gallery. I will never be a lady of honour. But you could come to see him, if you like; he is buried upright, in the silt. Dig down in the malarial tidewater.

There is another house, too, a sea away. Once that was my home, too, in a broad swathe  of pretty Somerset, England. Once, I was Celia, only Celia, in our county’s days of gentry, I danced with a Cavalier. And have you heard of Celia in the poems of the time? Mr Ben Jonson said they were all for me. Mr Lovelace said I was his Althea, his Amarantha, sweet and fair; Mr Herrick dandled me at court and brought me perfumes as I grew older; said I was his Corinna, sweet as Flora.

Yes, gone. As am I. Once I was Celia, then came the wide sea, the tidewater and the forest. I am not the person I was, though I am not saying I shall not still visit.

Do not come into my house.

And I say do not but I only tempt. If you were not strong enough, it would eat you up. If it loved you, as I would, a paradise; a spell within these walls. Draw closer because it did not begin here, by tulip trees and persimmons. But instead in a green sward, a hollow, in Somerset in the old country.

Draw closer. I may kill, like the screaming monkey in Queen Mary’s gilded cage would do, but I shall not bite.