For you. If you want to write and get it published; if you are tired, unwell, stretched or broken-hearted. This is for YOU

I took a long time to be published; by that I mean, I took a long time to start writing. I didn’t have the confidence. Now I have, it’s like a torrent. I am six years in. When the occasional person decides to be a bit snarky about the seven books I have written in that time, I tend to explain that they were in my head for decades and that’s why everything is as it is now. My bravehearts, do your own thing; believe in your work first and foremost and do not apologise for the way in which you work, whether it be ‘too fast’ or ‘too slow’. Here is my first bit of love for you all and it is about productivity – but perhaps not in the way you might expect. Also, being gentle on yourself and always working with what you have.

So, let’s go on this adventure together. 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 yes: always go with what you have. I write at the kitchen table and am frequently interrupted. I go with it and use headphones for busy times. Remember that genius exists in the finest library, but also at a scruffy kitchen table. Also, if you think you must 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 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, this morning, so tired, it was for you. Take it.

It may seem that, with difficulties in our daily life, for those we care for or, or with ourselves, we cannot create, but that is not so. Here is more about me: I manage several long-standing mental health problems and I have been recovering from Long Covid (I think we are getting to know each a bit better, right?) – and I am not writing from a position of privilege, telling you sweet things. I am aiming to comfort you, so that you might follow a dream and, hopefully, get paid for it, too – but we will come back to the latter.

What about the adage of writing every day? That real writers write 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. So, you may not have committed words to the page, but a process is still ongoing. Pondering is the writing, too. Don’t forget that now. (I dedicate this last sentence to my fantastic agent who had to remind me about this and specifically in the context of pondering the plot. Ahem.)

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? Perhaps, that you mull over its characters and plot, read, think about it all on your commute, 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. 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.

A little exercise to do right now. If you don’t have a dream…Grab anything (if it were me, it would be a not very fancy exercise book and a felt pen, I expect). Now, scribble down in any way it comes to you some thoughts about the kind of book you want to write. What would it explore? What themes are in it? Where is it? Not what you think you ought to be writing, but what you dream of doing because you need to test it on your pulse. It must make you feel excited. That will focus the mind. You could also think about what your dream is in publishing: again, consider what you really want. Shall I tell you mine? It’s to write books that you can see in bookshops, have at least one of them made into a film and empower as many people as I possibly can along the way. That’s what this book is. I also want primarily to be a novelist, but with other short fiction, features, and non-fiction texts. To build a portfolio of varied books. In terms of industry, I want to be with industry professionals who are supportive, open and flexible. Over six years this has not consistently been the case and, with my everyday concerns, I found it startling and then eviscerating. We will return to looking after and working with this side of things  later as it is all part of the picture.

BUT

Most of all I am going to get totally lost in what I am writing – and we are back to testing on your pulse. This is where everything starts.
I have a second exercise too. I said, work with what you have. Well, what do you have and how can you make it better for yourself? Never mind the conditions in which you think you ought to be writing; never mind what you have surmised everyone else is doing. Where can you work, how can you make it a nicer environment for you – which includes things that are soothing if you are prone to anxiety or those troubling MY WORD MY WRITING IS SHIT WHO AM I KIDDING thoughts which may bubble up as you work. I have essential oils and fake peonies in a vase and music to the rescue on the kitchen table or a desk in my bedroom. Think also about you: reflect on your assets, your reading, life experience, the way you see the world, your dialect, accent, phrases specific to you: all that richness and beauty that you are. Think about where you have been – yes, even if it was in your imagination – your sufferings and joys and know that with all the stories and the myriad experiences you have, you are extraordinary. And don’t tell me you are ordinary, because no-one is that, especially not you. In reflecting honestly on what you have, your vision becomes clearer, I think. Your vision of who and what you are as a writer; if you can feel reassured that you don’t need the glittering education, (readers, I went to Cambridge, albeit from a not very good comprehensive and was sure that everyone there had had a better previous education than me and I still met lots of people – forgive me – who were exam-smart but dumb as soup),or  the MA or MFA (although there are many lovely reasons for doing one). I do not have a room of my own, but I have a table I gussy up and earplugs. And I know who I am. I have found my voice. I hope you can hear it speaking to you as I encourage you or remind you to find yours.

Author burnout

It may be that you saw a recent slew of articles in the industry press on burnout in the publishing industry. I then did my best to dovetail with pieces in The Bookseller on this – you can read what I had to say here:

https://www.thebookseller.com/comment/under-pressure-the-authors-perspectiv

Here is the first paragraph of my article:

First let us define burnout. The World Health Organisation, which classified it in 2019, conceptualises the syndrome as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It has three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy. When it comes to authors and this definition, it’s important to remember that our workplace is often our home, and the site of a multi-strand freelance career, which can make things harder, rather than easier; I personally have experienced all these feelings over the past three years while launching two books in lockdown, being unwell, home-schooling, teaching online, and being a carer. Writing can make for quite an isolating as well as an overwhelming life, especially in times of strife.

So there is a definition.

Then, I was able to suggest some things we might do to support ourselves, but in a short piece I could not offer much detail. So that’s what I want to do now. If you are feeling rotten, exhausted, what might you do?

  1. First line of defence – and I am not a medical or mental health professional, but these are things I know: if you feel you are in crisis and you are frightened, remember that The Samaritans are there twenty four hours and here is a link. There are ways to access help beyond calling and these are outlined here: https://www.samaritans.org You may be aware of the text line SHOUT but here: https://giveusashout.org/ – this is twenty four hour text support. I also offer you this next page, because there are further resources and it also lists urgent mental health care routes in your area: https://www.nhs.uk/nhs-services/mental-health-services/where-to-get-urgent-help-for-mental-health/ Promise me you will not ever be embarrassed about being scared, feeling vulnerable or needing help? Human beings get ill; they have tipping points. Here are some starting points if things have got very bad and you don’t know what to do. Emotions are massive unwieldy things for a start, no-one is invulnerable and it is estimated that, at any one time, one in four people in the UK is coping with a mental health problem. It may be that you are overwhelmed and exhausted and what you need are rest and pals and respite; or it could be that this needs input. I think it’s important to say that it need not be your call: I have been in and out of mental health care for decades and this is something I would say. On two occasions I got extremely ill and because I had things to do, kids to look after, classes to teach, I did not ask for help soon enough: it resulted in people needing to advocate for me because I fell apart and could not verbalise what was going on. For me, that’s bad! So yes: promise me that you will take action and not feel embarrassed, that someone else’s need is greater or that you ought to toughen up or you’re probably okay really. Bravery is actually asking for help. Now, in more specific terms, that is, in terms of being an author, what might you do? I am going to have to approach this one rather broadly, because being an author may mean that you are first querying work, that you are more established, or that you have stalled. That’s a lot of situations. Some things that I have done, because of feeling awful, have included everything on this bullet list…
  2. Evolve a group of writers at similar stages. Your tribe. It can be online: put the call out on twitter and do not be shy. You could have a writing support group through twitter DMs or WhatsApp, say, considering which option feels best. When people are very down or overwhelmed, the tap tap and pressure to keep up in an online group can be too much, so you could all set some parameters for what is helpful.
  3. Compare and despair. Look: I regularly see people with the opportunities and exposure with one book and after one book (and no other writing) that I have yet to access after many articles, pieces in the national press, a column in the industry press and seven books either published or coming to press. Is it fair? Well no, you could say not, but it’s common, just as it’s common in life. If you are expecting parity of this sort, you’ve come to the wrong industry! Possibly the wrong planet! So you can allow resentment to curdle here or you can smile (I KNOW it is hard) and understand that everyone has a different route in writing and publishing. You do not know what will happen further down the line after a magnificent debut with full voltage exposure, just as you do not really know what else is going on in that person’s life. Be generous and also be kind to yourself. As I said, compare and despair. Plough your own furrow here. If you reiterate to yourself how unfair it is, you will suffer creatively and become – which I know, because it happened to me – less buoyant and more vulnerable. It is hard, but focus on you.
  4. Now, people may write, oh take a break. But that is predicated on privilege and, frequently, ableism, and the assumption that we can all get out for a run, or a weekend away. I have tried to rethink this, so it is the case of finding time and support in your mind supported by, as far as possible, being in and honouring your body as best you can (which you are also not going to beat yourself up about right?) How might you repeat helpful things to yourself, praise yourself? How might you develop that quality of rest? Think about that and do it. Write it down if need be. Because of the serious challenges my family and I have had to face over the past few years, I have had to recalibrate and rethink the notion of success. So, for example, while other families were putting their amazing holiday pictures on socials, I was focusing on the maxim, ‘Everybody fed, nobody dead’ at Bookworm Towers. Do the same with your writing. It takes courage to put your creative work out there, for example: never stop reminding yourself of that. As treats, be very kind to yourself in your head. If I do this, it is like a tiny holiday and it makes me feel less tired. It all helps.
  5. It is trite as hell, but live in the moment as much as you can to minimise panic and overwhelm. You can never BE in the future, up ahead, and the past is a different country: it was and there’s nothing you can do about it now. Focus on right now: what you can do, in this moment, to make yourself feel better. Because I have had a very ill offspring, I have had to do that. I didn’t at first, but exhaustion claimed me. Things are scarier when you are always anticipating and, in my experience, getting too stuck in anticipation leads to catastrophising. Feel free to disagree.
  6. Try using the Kaizen method – google it but there are a number of books (around £2-3 second-hand; I just checked) – where you think about making very small positive changes – VERY small – to change your attitude or practice. That could be a simple to-do list you set down for writing goals; a small piece of industry research. The point is small. It’s all you need to keep moving.
  7. If you are burning out or think you have burned out because of others’ unkindness in the industry – cutting to the chase here, in seven years I have encountered a handful of shockers – take it to your tribe (point 2, above) and don’t be shy about joining and telling a union. In my case Society of Authors – such as here https://societyofauthors.org/advice There is a range of guides, but you can also call and write to them about a specific matter. Something that caused me a great deal of upset led me to ask for help and they replied in considerable detail to everything and also outlined how a professional complaint might be made. My point here is two-fold: don’t suffer alone and, also reclaim some power – which brings me to the next point…
  8. Rejection happens at all stages, whether you are first querying or a few books in. Some have an easier road of it than others but, as in point 3, compare and despair. So know that this is normal and natural. It is actually ghosting and being ignored – from first queries to full books sent to commissioning editors by your agent – which floors me. I got extremely low about this. Talk about it, but look at what you can do – because this is disappointing and feels disempowering, yes? (And I should say, cope with rejection by always being working on something else, at however tentative a stage.) What I have done now in response to the ghosting is to set deadlines in my mind and then move on. In some cases. I have begun, very politely, to ask for deadlines when I have queried independently. For agency work, I’ve asked that we do the same. It has been a way of reclaiming some power.
  9. Don’t see patterns where there are none. It is very easy to assume that because it has been tough, it will always be tough; even to connect other areas of your life where you have screwed up and connect that to feeling terrible as an author. But life is not a place where everything happens for a reason; it is full of happenstance and changes, small and radical, and tomorrow can be different from today. That is easy to forget, isn’t it? I believe that human beings mess most things up and I am absolutely sure that most creative projects fail – because creative endeavour is full of risk. I would say, start each day – each moment – afresh and then it is easier to spot opportunities; to be as positive as you can be. This is something I have been practising in order to feel lighter.
  10. Reading. I am a reader before I am a writer. I think of reading as my saviour, so if you are burned out, increase or vary your reading and into your life will come new forms of beauty, new worlds and new ideas. And do you know, I talk a lot about gentle productivity, so I want to emphasise that it is in play here: you are also working – writing – when you are reading, even though you don’t notice it. Nourishing your imagination, your core; relaxing into it and finding a myriad ways of looking at the world.

With much love and remember that you are not alone,

Anna xxx

A quiet life. I think that’s where I’m heading

I’ve always been quiet; I am merely accidentally loud. I love activity, but become extremely stressed and tired out by noise when it is clamouring for my attention and when it is a noise competing with other noises.

I have always been melancholy; I look the opposite!

A while ago, if you read it, I wrote about an epiphany I had in Nando’s – here it is again: https://annavaughtwrites.com/2022/02/25/an-epiphany-and-some-things-i-want-to-say/

I’ve been thinking about all this again – and the noise and the melancholy – because I need to reflect on changes I feel I must make. These are really changes in my thought and, because writing and reading are at the core of what I do, some of those changes may impact on that, or rather my perception of it. You see, after the past intense years of my eldest son being terribly ill and the total failure of multiple agencies to help him and us, while I was already managing chronic illness, I am a bit tired.

I wrote before about how I don’t have the strength to pitch articles now. I may do the occasional one with someone I already know, with whom I have worked perhaps, but that’s it. Also, I will continue doing as much of the recommended push for The Alchemy, which I am crowdfunding for – https://unbound.com/books/the-alchemy/?utm_campaign=thealchemy&utm_medium=AuthorSocial&utm_source=AuthorActiv …but what does not work and what I cannot do, I shall not berate myself for. Everything else: I will meet deadlines for forthcoming books, greet good news for future work with love and enthusiasm, but other than that, I need to start relying on others a bit more (not to mention avoiding those who have been unsupportive or unkind; I cannot make everyone like me, can I?) Because the asking, pitching, getting involved in a lot of things is, I’ve discovered, too much for me. Everything I have learned about the book business has been through twitter, but I can’t constantly hawk my work in the way I have been. I thought that was what sold books; it isn’t: it’s a good team of people behind you with strategic planning and you, being your bookish self, as part of that.

I was reflecting, as I looked at Instagram briefly this morning, that, even if I were to be invited to do exciting book events all over the country or abroad – I am not proud to admit that I get awful pangs of jealousy and might have beens as I see many doing such things – how could I? The kids need me, because when one is long-term ill and there’s no professional support – we are talking years here – it has an impact on everyone. And I am managing pain and mental health stuff, as usual; waves of fatigue. I’ve been pushing myself too hard, haven’t I.

So yes, time to rely on others a bit more. There are plenty of lovely book folk about and some of the bad experiences I have had are put to bed while we focus on what comes next.

I think the key here: take your time and find good folk and work with them. Don’t try to do too much and don’t expect too much of yourself if your life is already complex.

Books – the reading and the writing are a joy: don’t lose that in the clamour.

Sometimes a quiet life is where it’s at.

x This is me, looking at you – in case you need quiet, too.

THESE ENVOYS OF BEAUTY

For this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and by kind permission with the publisher of my forthcoming memoir, I offer you part of the opening section of that book. Please note the trigger warning and that this book is still in an editorial stage, to be published Spring 2023. Text is copyright. Here is the publisher’s link to the book:

https://www.reflex.press/these-envoys-of-beauty-by-anna-vaught/

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A collection of interconnected essays on the natural world and its detailed and passionate observance over decades in the context of trauma and mental illness.

Trigger warning. Please be aware that this book is about personal experience and includes accounts of or references to mental ill health, OCD, self-harming, suicide, depression, anxiety, dissociation, and derealisation. Also, to violence and cruelty within a family. Importantly, some of these experiences were lived through by a child so please read mindfully.

TO go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities , how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty and light the universe with their admonishing smile. (Ralph Waldo Emerson. From Nature, Chapter One[1].)

A note on the text.

All epigraphs are from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay ‘Nature’, as is the title of the book (shown in the first longer epigraph), I have included botanical names for all plants and trees because they are so beautiful and I thought readers might enjoy seeing them, too. As a kid, I loved to learn them and would roll the names around in my mouth. Like sweeties. Only – arguably – Latin is better for you in the mouth than butterscotch.

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Introduction.

So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes

There are twelve essays in These Envoys of Beauty, and each looks at some element – or elements – in the natural world and what it has meant to me. When I say that, I mean in terms of how I look at it, how I feel, how that has changed but, for the scope of this book, what any of it has to do with trauma and its management. Let me explain.

I grew up very rurally, raised by a Welsh family on the Somerset-Wiltshire border, but I have habitually spent a great deal of time in West Wales, particularly Pembrokeshire, because that is where most of my family is from. I now live in West Wiltshire. Open land, woods, riverbanks were and are my world. I am also sure that they are how I survived – not better, but intact.

What I show you in this book rests on formative incidents as a child and adolescent: bookish, nerdy, and socially awkward (all of which I still am, only I do not mind now). I spent as much time outside as I possibly could and was always scrambling about somewhere, up trees, in ditches, into rivers and streams and home to look things up and, sometimes, preserve specimens in books or a flower press – or found antique treasures in pillboxes and tins. That is still me today. If you had looked in my primary school books or those in the early years of secondary school, what I wanted to be when I grew up was a botanist. I would spend hours out there and, afterwards, hours in there, looking at my guides and drawing plants and animals – a particularly tame wren on the dog roses; a tree mallow with its flowers open to the sun, looking happy. Lavatera arborea: I loved the rhythm of those words as a child and would linger there now.

            I was raised on the crest of a hill, with orchards and old woods behind me and the fields below me and to one side; the river Frome in the valley, near to where it meets the Avon. The Wiltshire sign was below our house but parallel with a lower wall and I was always delighted that where I lived straddled two counties. I must have thought this was unique, back then. Or forbidden: that you had to live in one place or another, not in two. Then, the time in Wales: St Brides Bay, Cardigan Bay, the islands – Ramsey, Skomer and Skokholm – and the water lands; the Daugleddau estuary where my grandmother had once lived, where part of it ended at Cresswell Quay. There were other places that felt like a home, too – Cardiff Bay, the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains and I have always felt more Welsh than English, because I was raised by Welsh people in England. I feel that within me, and I like the way the two things tangle, itself a story for another book.

In many ways I was so lucky, and I am very aware of the privilege of growing up in these places. This is one story: bluebells, wild garlic, wood aconites, red campion, mud, and flood and feeling the lichen and moss and stone stiles.

Photo by Vlad Kovriga on Pexels.com

But there is a second story.

I did not understand the dynamics of my immediate family, that I was blessed in where I lived made me think it was terrible to confess it, and I am not sure who I could tell. There was deep weirdness, death, unspoken illness, and psychiatric problems the nature of which I did not understand in my father’s family and, since the day he died, when I was eighteen, I have not seen them: they cut me off, just like that, my world there and everything that it brought into my imagination at first, had disappeared. I did not understand at first that its best bits could live on in that imagination, lively and fresh, though wrought by that deep weirdness. Then, my parents and sibling. I did not understand and still do not and, because I have explored it elsewhere and it is not the main thrust of the book – though you can see and infer much, reading through – I will not do so. But there were events which still, as I write, make me feel unsettled. My mouth becomes dry, and I feel that I am under threat. I do not expect to get better from this. It is all because of my mother. She was a splendid woman and I loved her, really, against my will. Because although there were streaks of that splendidness with me, what I was given and what I was left with was the sense that I was evil, the bringer of harm, a blot, a brat, a harlot, a slut, a terrible, selfish thing. This, she would always tell me, even when I was very small, was what everyone else thought too. I did not know any different.

She would slap me, pull my hair, kick me when I had fallen and scratch at my ears, but mostly it was the words. The confusion lay, as I say, because I grew up in a beautiful place. I could see that, empirically, but I knew it, hard, because my parents had come from large working class rural families, and had made the ascent, they would say, to the middle classes, or were very much on the way. It makes sense that they should want to remind me of blessings. But, you see, my mother also repeatedly told me I did not deserve it. She was ill a great deal and I remember feeling sick and shivering at the tension in the house. She took the time to tell me that I had made her worse. Then, when I was thirteen, my father became ill. The descent was slow at first, then rapid and dizzying. I did my best to help them both, to care for them, while feeling that I was burden and blot and then came the day that I was told I had hastened his death. I had always worried I was capable of this. Now it had come true.

At night, I would recite Latin names from plant books like mantras and talismans. I had awful ruminating and intrusive thoughts. I would feel a bad thought about someone ushering in – not something I felt, but a collocation of words in my head; a fit of diction, that was all. But by the time I was seven or eight, it was so entrenched that I was a bringer of harm that I decided I had to expel the words so as not to make the bad thing happen. I would have to go and tell that person, always an adult, a dinner lady, a teacher, the school caretaker, the vicar. What they thought I cannot imagine, but I do not remember reassurance ever being given.

By my late teens I had developed severe anxiety, depression. I first tried to take my own life when I was fifteen and again when I was nineteen. On the first of those occasions, my mother would not take me to hospital but instead said I should go to my room. I did not tell anyone this until after the birth of my first child, when I was dreadfully unwell and being looked after by a consultant psychiatrist in outpatients and a kindly GP. This is the first time I have written about it. I don’t know whether she hoped I would die – I had taken a considerable amount of paracetamol – or if it was simply too much for her to think about. I did not understand then, and I still don’t and will never have the opportunity to ask. Both my parents were dead by the time I became an adult.

From the age of twenty one I have been in and out of care – such as is available – and, ever since my teens, I have had difficult periods, of varying length and intensity, where I don’t know where or quite who I am; where my edges are. It is exhausting. It was never talked about by my parents, and they did not try to help me. My mother said mental health problems were an indulgence. She said moods were a myth, especially moods in teenagers, a licence for bad behaviour. PMT, she said, was made up. People who were mentally ill were those who had failed to control themselves. I don’t know why she said these things, but I feel now, looking back, that there was such burning life in her which had been thwarted. Moreover, mental illness – and severe mental illness – was rife on both sides of my family and I wonder if neither of my parents could bear to accept it within our family home. They rejected it because they were frightened and wanted to retain control and function; in doing so, they created something that was dysfunctional. Any one of us can be ill – and any one of us can have things go wrong with our mind.

I remember that it often felt so cold in our house, though a fire was often lit. I remember the day when my mother bought lamps as a development from the days of big light. I felt like we had arrived, and I loved the soft pools of light which fell on the floor and then, wonders, beside my bed. But you see that softness did not last and it was cosmetic. I looked outside.

Oh, there was a lot more than I feel I can tell which went on, but you can infer as we go because the point of this book is not degradation and terror, but joy and survival. Of course, I learned a good deal from some – not all! – of my therapy received sporadically over the decades of adulthood, but all that time, today, this afternoon, it was my connection with the natural world (and my reading[2]) and all things in it which shored me up. On my worst days, I cannot go far, so I am just outside, but I am listening intently. I am a rural girl, but I am observing wherever I go.

Photo by Mihai Benu021ba on Pexels.com

In this book, stay with me as I try to show you the world I explored, what it meant to me then, and now. The essays are not chronological, but dart back and forth between them and within, memories and ideas associating and cohering. I do not mean to mythologise nature, because it is also full of facts and yet it illuminates, calms, and makes things intelligible. Sometimes I feel it as a metaphor, sometimes just as a sense or a reminder or prod – in the hard lines of something or the delicate feather of rime – to think about something with a different attitude. Also, even when it is small about me, I perceive space; that’s how it was for me as a child.

‘We constantly refer back to the natural world to try and discover who we are. Nature is the most potent source of metaphors to describe and explain our behaviour and feelings,’ notes Richard Mabey in Nature Cure[3] and that is true, I think. When I was very young, and I would run out, or just stand and stare, I would look to plants and trees to help me explain to myself a bewildering world. There was something else, encapsulated by Wilson A. Bentley, known as ‘The Snowflake Man,’ who studied the snow and published many extraordinary photomicrographs of snowflakes. Bentley saw the snowflakes, as he observed them from Jericho, in Vermont, as a metaphor for all things beautiful on earth, but also ‘The snow crystals…come to us not only to reveal the wondrous beauty of the minute in Nature, but to teach us that all earthly beauty is transient and must soon fade away. But though the beauty of the snow is evanescent, like the beauties of the autumn, as of the evening sky, it fades, but to come again.’[4]

I want to reiterate. Nature has not been my cure. It has been my inspiration, teacher, and companion.

I am not better, but I have never been alone.

Photo by David Roberts on Pexels.com

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Essays, Lectures and Poems, ed. Robert D. Richardson, Bantam 1990, 2007. ‘Nature’ was written in 1836

[2] If you like, you can read an account of reading, the imagination and survival in an essay I wrote for Trauma. An Anthology of Writing about Art and Mental Health, Dodo Ink, ed Mills and Cuell, 2021); it also uses some sections from my first book, which was a work of autobiographical fiction.

[3] Nature Cure, Richard Mabey, Chatto & Windus, 2005, Little Toller, 2021, p. 32

[4] Quoted in The Snowflake Man, a Biography of Wilson A. Bentley, Duncan Blanchard, Macdonald and Woodward Publishing Company. 1998.


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

My Writing Year

I was wondering if I had enough to say here! That is, I’ve tweeted quite a bit of it, in personal terms there is only so much I can say without breaching confidences and in writing about the difficulties of the publishing year that are particular to my work, I would rather move on positively as there so many blessings! Some things were connected with timing; others with having little control over situations. But chin up, I thought! I will keep this short and do write and share your thoughts, if you like?

I was mildly ill with cold-like symptoms in early March, as were my husband and one of my three kids. At this point my eldest had been seriously unwell, so we were navigating difficult times before Covid and so marched on. I will come back to that! With advice – a lot of it from the brilliant people you meet on twitter – and a great community, we could cope. When the pandemic began, I had all three at home and then was responsible for home learning with the youngest and access to ongoing support we really needed with eldest ebbed away. I had a book out imminently, Saving Lucia. The launch was cancelled and there were no other events, barring my involvement in the fantastic Lockdown festival and a turn for SL on some online events. I was devastated, but decided it was best kept in context because of what folk were going through, though I still had to acknowledge that it mattered to me because I had waited two and half years for publication from acceptance. It helped so very much to connect with readers, read extracts from the book and think about my new book having a long life – beyond this time. I found someone to have mentoring chats with and that really helped. Also, to write short pieces related to my books for various journals and for my blog. Keeping it moving and lively as much as I was able. BECAUSE the other thing that happened was that I was not well and I have not been for about 9 months now. Hello Long Covid. You remember I mentioned the cold-like symptoms in early March? AArgh. Chest pain, vertigo, shortness of breath and hello fatigue like I had never experienced it.

Once Saving Lucia was out, I decided what I needed to do was focus on the book under construction. I had seen my lovely agent in February, shortly before she went on maternity, and had great edits and notes. I do believe you should always be working on something, because there are a lot of waiting, planning and, I think, variables in writing and publishing. Between April and August, I rewrote my novel and began plotting another one, The Cabinet of Curiosities. Just as I finished this run of The Zebra and Lord Jones, I won the publishing and writing section of Creative Bath, which was great because it was a broad acknowledgement of what I am trying to do with my volunteer and community work alongside my writing. Then, in September, Famished was out. Again, I found it wonderful to focus on engagement with readers, to offer readings of the book and to work diligently on social media. We had a lovely launch event and then – very 2020 – Instagram went down shortly after it started. Very important to laugh, my bravehearts!

When all is said and done, I am immensely proud to have been part of two little teams and to have met so many brilliant people. Also, I think, to have been building new and enduring friendships because of the books, because of a shared love of reading and, frankly, because I have had to ask for help in navigating what is still a new world to me alongside work, domestic stress, exhaustion and illness. I am immensely proud that we got two books out this year, that I rewrote another one and, frankly, that I coped as well as I did when a further novel and volume of short stories were turned down this year and I was told rights and translation were not shifting. This happens; it’s natural. But it’s hard! But we made a plan and hopefully it will come to fruition.

So, The Zebra and Lord Jones (novel) rewritten, I began a new novel, The Cabinet of Curiosities and made some – for me! – major pitches for features. I also tentatively began plans for a non-fiction book I am passionate about doing. Where are we as we stand? I have to be vague about a lot of this as you can imagine, so I will say that I am working on this pitch, making approaches to people, keeping in touch with my agent and that there is a lot of work on desk. Recently, I was longlisted for the new Barbellion prize – you can read about the prize here – https://www.thebarbellionprize.com/ for Saving Lucia and, in four books and lots of entries for prizes, it is my first longlisting and I am delighted.

During this year, I have also been fortunate both to work on several manuscripts with writers, to mentor and, also, to receive some mentoring myself from kind, brilliant and inspiring people whom I will not embarrass here. And for 2021, well…as I said, there is a lot on the desk and I know that we will be clarifying, planning and strategising. As I am still not better and because I still have complexities within my home life – and quite possibly I will have 2/3 not going back to school and college (the other is on a rather uneventful gap year before studying Psychology at university) – I need to pace. I have made some PhD applications – that is, a PhD by Publication to be worked on with three of my own books – but it will not be the end of the world if it does not happen; far from it. In a terrible year, there is, if I may say, already so much that I am thankful for.

Much love,

Anna x

Things to cheer you and cheerlead

Here is what I have for you.If you are a writer of low income or from an underrepresented group in writing and publishing, then I have a four month FREE mentoring slot, starting in September. This is for someone working towards a novel or short story collection and with a body of work already under way. Please dm me on twitter or annavaughttuition@gmail.com by the end of July. x

Every Thursday on twitter, 6.30-7.30, I am going to be doing an #askbookworm -use the hashtag so everyone can see it – and this is all about writing. Look, I am still a newish writer but I am prolific and have learned a good deal. I get sent a number of messages anyway, so I am formalising it. YOU CAN ASK ME ANYTHING ABOUT WRITING, such as

  • finding an agent
  • keeping motivated or finding confidence in the first place
  • writing with a chronic health condition (in my case mental health stuff)
  • feeling like an outsider
  • putting together a short story collection (or novel)
  • what to do when you are stuck
  • writing with kids and finding space and time to write (my motto is always to work with what you have)
  • anything else you like!

LOADS OF LOVE,

Anna x

In Praise of editors: an interview with Lin Webb, Senior Editor, Bluemoose Books.

My new book, Saving Lucia, is out on 30th of April with Bluemoose books. My editor there has been Lin Webb and I have so enjoyed working with her. Look what we made, as part of a team at Bluemoose.

It occurred to me it would be fun to interview Lin, reflecting on the editing process for me, but also because I knew she would be full of advice and ideas and we thought these things might be really useful for a new writer – or perhaps any writer. I have asked her both general and specific questions, including those to highlight the particular challenges we faced on my own book. Finally, I wanted to draw attention to the role of an editor on a book. They are vital and you can learn so much. There is a degree of self-editing you do when preparing your manuscript for submission – and I hope you may find tips for this stage if that is where you are now – but when that book is accepted it is the skill of the editor which brings it to press: they see things that, perhaps, you do not and, with a firm hand if necessary, your book has a chance to be polished; to shine. It is vital, therefore, that you work with and not against them. I have had a few rocky writing and publishing experiences to date and I am sure most people do, but working with Lin has restored a sense of fun and self-belief, too: I will always be grateful to her. You will see, also, that Lin shows you how she is part of a team, for example referring to going back to Kevin and Hetha at Bluemoose and particularly Hetha (another very experienced editor as well as co-director of the press) on the thorny issue of punctuation in this particular book. Now that brought us to some tremulous then rather wonderful changes…read on.

TEN QUESTIONS WITH LIN WEBB, SENIOR EDITOR AT BLUEMOOSE, DRUMMER, WOODWORKER, AND ALL-ROUND GOOD EGG.

What do you enjoy most about editing?

I enjoy the whole process: familiarising myself with the text, getting onto the writer’s wavelength, and working with them to shape, smooth and polish their manuscript. Seeing the book go out into the world buffed up to a shine is deeply satisfying.

Building a rapport with ‘my’ authors is a bonus which enhances the editing process and has led to some lasting friendships. I’m very fortunate in working for a small, independent publisher that adopts writers into the Bluemoose ‘family’. The editor/writer relationship can be very different, depending on the context. Some editors make only two or three passes through the manuscript; I‘ll go through it dozens of times, getting to know the work as well as the writer does. The big publishing houses employ different editors for each level of editing, whereas I’m likely to see the work through from start to finish, albeit with back-up from other editors if needed and fresh eyes at the proof-reading stage. I believe that this makes for a better experience for the author, as well as a satisfying one for me.

Could you describe any particular challenges for you as an editor? That is, in general terms, what are the trickiest things about editing a book?

The aim of editing is to make the book the best possible version of itself (while preserving the author’s voice, of course), but some authors think that their book is already the best it can be and may be resistant to cutting or changing any of their carefully-chosen words. If I say that a sentence is unclear or over-complex and the writer retorts, ‘That’s just your opinion’ or ‘Nobody else has complained’, I know it’s going to be an uphill struggle at first. Eventually, one hopes, they will accept that I’m working on behalf of their readers, as well as with the writer and for the publisher, and become more receptive to suggestions for improvement.

As an editor of some years’ experience, might you comment on pitfalls for authors – perhaps about structure of narrative? I understand that there is a degree of subjectivity here!

One of the most common pitfalls is cramming in too much information too soon: an interesting opening is followed by a surfeit of explanation and a history lesson. The writer needs to know all the back-story, but readers need a lot less detail, and the essential elements should be dished out in small helpings.

Do you have any pet hates? Appalling things that your authors do. For example, sloppy speech punctuation, non-English words placed in italics, strange crimes against apostrophes – you name it!

I do wish that writers would check their default language setting in Word and change it, if necessary, from US to UK English before they start on their manuscript. I can change the submitted work to UK English, but I have to spend time checking for US spellings and punctuation differences. My other pet peeve is finding that writers have moved to a new page for a new chapter by pressing Enter repeatedly. (Anna’s note: WHO WOULD DO SUCH A THING?) This means that any changes to the text will move the start of the chapter, so I have to go through and delete the multiple returns and insert page breaks instead. If writers know how to insert page breaks, it saves my time for more important editor-y matters.

Other than these time-sinks, I don’t have a problem with people’s peculiarities of punctuation, spelling or grammar – although I’m sometimes surprised by new strange crimes against apostrophes.

Any advice for writers in terms of looking back critically at your own manuscript? Tips and things to watch out for?

Reading your work aloud is invaluable, as Nicola Morgan explains in Write to be Published (which I highly recommend). As well as listening for errors and repetitions, she says: ‘I imagine that my audience consists of a group of potential readers who would far rather be doing something else. My job is to hold them there. So, I’m honing my prose to ensure that each sentence, phrase and word works hard. If it doesn’t, it goes.’

Reading aloud is also the best way of checking that your dialogue sounds natural and that the speech tags aren’t obtrusive. There’s no need for variations like ‘he gruffed’. Some writers worry about using ‘said’ too often, but readers barely notice it. A further benefit of reading aloud is to hear the rhythm of the phrasing, plus the variations in sentence length and construction. Or the lack of rhythm and variations.

Beware of over-writing! It gets in the way of the story and covers the beauty of it with frilly bits. Over-descriptive passages can give an inflated idea of the significance of a place or person in the story; over-written description can also tempt the reader to skip past it. Look very closely at paragraphs you’re particularly pleased with and ask yourself if they could be improved by judicious pruning. Have you overdone the adjectives or the adverbs?

Might you tell us about highlights of your editing career – other than the fun we have had together and the fact that SL* is your favourite Bluemoose title to date? (*Joking.)

The highlights depend on when you ask me, since it’s always the most recent project. Every writer is different, every book is different, and with each one I learn something new; each one feels like the best so far. So yes, at the moment you and Saving Lucia are my favourites…

May I ask you about my own book, Saving Lucia, and a little specific insight here? What were the challenges you and I faced as we worked on this book, would you say?

It was important to ensure that the book is accessible to readers who, like me, aren’t familiar with the work of Joyce and/or Beckett, without losing the essence of it, leaving the influences visible to those in the know.

We had to rein in your fondness for obscure words, didn’t we? I think it’s ok to use unusual words as long as they don’t bring the reader to a halt, and if the context permits readers to bypass the unfamiliar words and look them up later. Repetition is not recommended, though. Another challenge was that there were so many passages in foreign languages that it looked rather like showing off. We had to cut those back.

Still on Saving Lucia, what about decisions we made on the book – for example, things we were hesitant about but pleased with later?

We ran into problems with nested single and double quotation marks when, for example, Lucia was reporting Violet’s telling of Bertha’s story, which included quotations. It looked messy, especially where closing speech marks were clustered. I asked Hetha’s advice and she suggested cutting out some of the quotation marks. I’ve never been in favour of unconventional punctuation, and it went against the grain for you, too, but we agreed to give it a try. Cutting away one level of speech marks made the pages a lot cleaner and, while I was going through the proof and finding strays that I’d missed, I started to wonder if we could get away with removing them all. Greatly daring, I marked up all the remaining quotation marks for deletion and tweaked the text slightly where necessary. When the typesetter sent the fresh proofs back, I was stunned at how much better it all flowed and I emailed it to you with a warning to take off your English teacher hat. Your unexpectedly enthusiastic response was a great relief, I must admit. I don’t think either of us expected the punctuation change to improve the book so much. Hetha and Kevin are also pleased with the finished result.

What next for Lin?

I’m editing Heidi James’s new book, The Sound Mirror, which will be out later this year.

And finally, tell us about books you like to read?

I like humour: I have lots of books by Patrick Campbell, Alan Coren, Bill Bryson, Carl Hiaasen and Terry Pratchett; only one by Brian Bilston, as yet. I hadn’t realised it before, but my fiction bookshelves are full of strong female characters, from Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise collection andAlexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Detective Agency series, via Sue Grafton’s ‘Alphabet’ books, Anne Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope and the Kathy Reichs ‘Bones’ novels, to all of Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak books. I’m also a fan of Val McDermid and of Joanne Harris, whose short stories I’m currently reading, and I should have mentioned Dorothy Parker earlier.

Recent non-fiction purchases include Dreyer’s English for dipping into, and Tom Cox’s The Good, The Bad and The Furry because it’s cats.

Thank you Lin. It has been a tremendous thing. xxx

What I am up to!

I thought, as I am about to go into hiding for a bit, that I ought to update my writing news. This isn’t my day job, but my goodness there’s a lot happening with me, books and writing.

Before Christmas, we hope to give you information on events for the launch of my new novel, Saving Lucia. This is an extraordinary adventure, starring Violet Gibson, the Irish Aristocrat who tried to assassinate Mussolini in 1926…Isn’t this a beautiful cover? Note the bird. It’s a passerine. Note the four lit windows. I LOVE IT and pretty soon will tell you why it has this design and whose windows they are.

savingluciaCOVER

We have been working on final edits and book has now gone to proof. I hope that I might see you at London or Bath launches in April and there will be events during the year.

This is a very busy year for me. In addition to teaching, tutoring and mentoring young people, I am also a volunteer and I need to see my two eldest boys through exam years and also…in September…my first volume of short stories is out. You can even pre-order now as part of the subscription service from Influx: https://www.influxpress.com/famished

It’s wonderful to see such different cover styles; this brilliant edible plate that gets weirder the more you look at it. 18 stories: weird fiction, bit punky, lots of Welsh, terrible feasts, gothic pop shops, killer sweets and some funny bits of consumption. It’s very different to Saving Lucia, but I will be so interested to see people make comparisons and find links. Because, there are some. To discuss later, I hope. And next year, we will bring you details of launches and maybe lascivious lunches and oooh.

famished cover-c (1)

I have an essay – a memoir piece – called ‘In Order to Live’ in April’s Dodo Ink Anthology, Trauma: Art as a Response to Mental Health and towards summer, you can see my weird fiction, ‘House’, in a new anthology from Unsung Stories. I hope that, during the year, I will have the opportunity to write further pieces connected with the two books I have out next year.

Alongside all this, I have a further short story collection on submission – ‘Ravished’ – and another novel, The Revelations of Celia Masters, which is historical fiction, waiting to be read. And I am working with my agent, Kate Johnson of Mackenzie Wolf http://www.mwlit.com/ on other things. She is in actual fact the best agent in the world. You might have noticed me tweeting questions about all kinds of things from zebra feet to The Holy Grail. I tell you no more about why. But I can say that what I am working on is Magical Realism and I was lucky enough to have a brilliant beta reader for this that I’d love to name…but will embarrass at a later date. I am small fry compared to the folk this chap has worked with!

As to my first two books, Killing Hapless Ally and The Life of Almost, these are on the move so not with their original publisher and we will give you news on these all in good time.

You know, I have only been writing for four years and next week I am going to be handing in my seventh book. I just rocked up, daft and loud as I am; I assumed that I could not do this, though I have spent my life around books. Reader, writer, doubter: I was wrong. Publishing and writing have, I know, got a way to go in terms of access and possibility. We hear about gatekeepers and you have to understand why. But I also want to say, consider this: is the gatekeeper YOU, mired in so much self doubt that you cannot move? Doubt is normal and healthy and proves you are self-reflective. You will be a better writer because of it.

If, over the coming years, I can encourage you to get the books you want to write out into the world, then you tell me, okay?

Here’s a picture of me so you recognise me. One of my kids took it; no filters; nothing fancy.

Hello.

annapic

Anna. x

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