A Single Man learns a Universal Truth.

I don’t think I’m alone in trying to absent myself from the grim reality that is Article 50, and Britain’s entry on the desolate road to Brexit. To stay tuned in all day to social media at the moment is to punish myself constantly. Every news update twists the thumb screw tighter; each check on Facebook allows the torturer to put another turn on the rack. How many times a day do i need to be reminded that we’re now on a one-way journey to isolation, leaving in our wake decades of progress, peace and mutual understanding?

Last night, aware that on the eve of Article 50 being triggered, this calamitous leap into the void would be all over the news and social media like bullet holes on a shooting range target, I quarantined myself with several pots of tea and a book. Now, reading is not an unfamiliar or unusual habit for a writer, but spending an entire evening reading still feels like a luxury. With so many other projects and tasks jostling for attention, taking four hours out of the schedule is decadence itself. I didn’t even choose a children’s book, which could justifiably be classed as research.

No, my drug of choice in my quest for Brexit coverage amnesia was my go-to, literary comfort blanket: Christopher Isherwood, and last night I settled down to read A Single Man. wp-1490788442115.jpeg

Being a stream of consciousness novel, with a serious, somewhat heavy-going theme, it was guaranteed to transport me far away from this small island and the worries, fear and despair that come these days from living here. I settled down to be transported far away to California, where I could lose myself in the worries, fears and despair of someone else.

A Single Man is not intended to uplift the spirit; it doesn’t entertain; there are few smiles, and those that appear tend to be wry and ironic. The novella is melancholic and pessimistic. But it is also beautifully written prose, well-observed, and unashamed to wear its gay subject matter right there on its tee-shirt sleeve. It is an important book. It speaks the truth. It is life, loss, love and lust. It is a story for all time.

And there lay my problem: reading Isherwood last night reminded me that great writing transcends the here and now; or rather, it transcends the there and then of when it was written, offering universal truths that speak to us across the years, to the here and now. It holds up a mirror to that here and now, and in its reflection we see the there and then.

The opening paragraphs of A Single Man brought this home to me:

“Waking up begins with saying am and now. That which has awoken then lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognised I, and therefrom deduced I am, I am now. Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home.

But now isn’t simply now. Now is also a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year. Every now is labeled with its date, rendering all past nows obsolete, until – later or sooner – perhaps – no, not perhaps – quite certainly: it will come.

Fear tweaks the vagus nerve. A sickish shrinking from what waits, somewhere out there, dead ahead.”

My instant reaction to these opening words was: really? Am I not to have even five minutes shielded from the sickish shrinking from what waits out there? I almost put the book down; it was supposed to take me away from my concerns and the sinking, sickish feeling Brexit is giving me. But I didn’t. I carried on reading until the last page.

I’m glad I finished the book; I’m glad I stuck with George as he faced the day ahead. His experience on one single day, as one single human, is about as unsingular as it can be. It is the experience we all face, every single day: we can’t avoid the inevitability of time passing, nor of events happening, so we prepare ourselves for the onslaught of life, or death, and get on with it.

It is the universal experience of being human. Brexit or no Brexit; Trump or no Trump. The day must be faced.

I even forced myself to listen to the news this morning. Article 50 can’t be avoided; it must be faced. I don’t have to like it. I’m never going to like it. But life, with its loss, its love, and its lust, is still there too.

With A Single Man, Isherwood speaks through the decades. His human experience is no different to mine. We all live, lust and love. And we all suffer loss. I’m losing my European identity right now; and I’ve lost more than that in the past.

Isherwood, I think, is saying: “Yes, I know. Shit happens.”

Lurgy Diaries, Volume One…

…or, what I’ve achieved in the last 48 hours, when all I should have been doing was manuscript edits, but have been too ill to manage.

Being a conscript sucks. I never asked to be here. I didn’t sign any joining-up papers. I never enlisted myself with my friends and marched off into the sunset through cheering crowds of nationalistic fervour.

And yet I find myself cowering under the iron-fist rule of Major Lurgy. And let me tell you: I’m doing exactly what he says. When Major Lurgy says “stay in bed”, I stay in bed. When Major Lurgy says “drink your body weight in water”, I drink it; all the way to the bathroom and back. When Major Lurgy says “wear as many clothes as you can regardless of the sweat levels”, I obey. And when Major Lurgy dictates that all I can swallow down my razor-lined throat is custard, then custard shall be my nourishment.(Did someone say ten-a-day? Hush now. My head is sore. And anyway, haven’t you heard of the custard apple? Thought not).

And so, finding myself unable to do a final read-through of my manuscript edits due to Major Lurgy’s insistence on only concentrating on things which need little, or no, concentration, I have had to look elsewhere to make use of the time I’d put by for the important stuff.

In between enforced naps (Major Lurgy has a way of making you comply when he says “get some sleep”), I have managed to enjoy – I think I enjoyed them; it’s hard to tell when you’re drugged up to the eyeballs –  the following cultural highlights:

  1. The Lego Movie.

How has this passed me by until now? It’s a hoot. And when you’re on an emotional and physical low, it’s amazing how much meaning can be found. President Business is Trump, right? I mean, he says he’s going to build walls…those folk at Lego Movie HQ either saw something coming, or it’s a conspiracy of some sort.

And The Lego Movie has given us one of the greatest film characters of all time…wp-1488364123240.jpeg

I give you Unikitty. After two days on the Beecham’s powders, I’m ready to leap into her Cloud Cuckoo Land, rainbow realness and party on down to her bubblegum sound.

Everyone should be prescribed a dose of Unikitty when they’re ill. The health benefits are, as yet, unfounded; but who cares? Look at her. Unikitty is great!

2. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland

You know when you think you’ve read something, because you really ought to have read it by now, but in fact, you’re not sure if you have? That feeling.

I must have read Alice, because, you know, I write for children. And I know the story. I know the verses. I know the characters. But I don’t think I’ve ever read it through a Major Lurgy hazing. And it’s not the same story when you’re as high as, well, the caterpillar, on cold and flu medication. wp-1488364297584.jpeg

Ok, so I’m not smoking my paracetamol. Although who knows? They might be more effective inhaled through a Hooka.

It might not have been the closest reading of Alice, but I needed it on day one with the Major.

3. Fargo

Fargo has long been in my top five movies, and last night’s viewing changes nothing. I love the blackness of the humour, and the whiteness of the landscape. I love Frances McDormand’s character Marge Gunderson. I love the left-field whackiness of the Coen Brothers. But last night, the thing I loved most of all about Fargo, was the bowl of jelly* Marge selects from the all-you-can-eat buffet. wp-1488364885185.jpeg

How my virus-ravaged throat longed to feel that cool jelly wobble its way down.

Just as some nights, only a gin martini will do; other nights, it’s jelly.

There you have it. My lurgy-induced, cultural diary, volume one. I’m hoping there won’t be a volume two, as I’ve a ton of things to get done before going back to work. But the way Major Lurgy is looking at me from under the brim of his beret, I think he’s not finished with me yet.

I think I’d better investigate how to get hold of some jelly, without actually leaving the house.

And now, before I drag myself back to a dark place, padded with cushions, I’ll leave you with the Awesome Song, from the Lego Movie. Ironic, really, because being with Major Lurgy is anything but awesome.

 

* jelly, for my stateside readers, is JELL-O. Your jelly, is our jam.

 

Not-So-Secret Agent (anymore)

I have news. Good news. The sort of news unagented and unpublished writers dream of receiving. (And I’ve been sitting on this for ages, like a penguin desperate to get off his egg).

I am now longer without an agent.

Along with writing the next Harry Potter series, having a book optioned by a Hollywood studio, and being part of Richard & Judy’s Book Club, having an agent make an offer of representation is, for most writers, part of the Holy Grail. The shiniest treasure; that which gleams like a glorious, golden geegaw, is, of course, a publishing deal. But here’s the thing about the publishing industry: it’s really hard to get your book onto the shelves without first having an agent to help you get it there. An agent acts like a conduit – a well-connected, deal-making conduit – between the starry-eyed (or bleary-eyed, depending on how long they’ve been hammering away at the keyboard) writer and the publishing houses. It’s possible to make it without an agent looking out for you, but not easy.

I’m insanely happy to have found my agent. Here’s how it happened.

In a previous blog I wrote about my experience at the Society of Children’s Bookwriters & Illustrators UK conference. I’d entered a “pitch-your-book-to-a-panel-of-agents” competition. Having made it to the final, I had to live pitch my book, on stage, in front of the massed conference, with the judges (agents) sitting behind me!

I won the event, and my prize was to pick one of the agents to have a 1-1 with at some time.

I had spent some time researching the five agents, just in case I should be lucky enough to win. Therefore, when I was put on the spot, and asked to pick the agent I wanted to get some feedback from, I was ready. This task was made easier because I’d felt some connection with her during my ten minutes on stage.

And wow! How pleased am I to have chosen the fantastic Thérèse Coen?

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Agent & Writer!

Fast forward two months…

Thérèse had already asked for my full manuscript (a leap forward in itself – only two other agents ever asked for THAT before), and we arranged for the 1-1 to take place in London. Thérèse picked an interesting venue: the House of St Barnabas in Soho.

 

It’s a not-for-profit private members club, whose staff have experienced life challenges in the past, but who have been offered a chance (and employment with training) by the club. It’s members appeared to be predominantly hipsters with beards tapping away on their Macbook Airs. The unmistakable scent of Penhalligan’s beard oil lay at chin level like an alternative-scene aether.

Thérèse had pre-warned me about the location’s pro-trendy tendencies, and I did my best, honest. I think my slim-fit jeans, Uniqlo sweater and air of quiet desperation did the job.

Fast forward two hours…

Having received feedback on my manuscript, Thérèse said the magic words and offered to be my agent. I think I was so shocked that I wasn’t entirely sure I’d heard correctly. She very politely suggested that if I had any other agents in mind, she would understand. Notwithstanding the thirty plus rejection emails in my inbox, I accepted her offer without too much delay.

Fast forward two weeks…

With my contract at Hardman & Swainson Literary Agents signed, I am now at liberty to share my good fortune.

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Signing the contract!

And share it I have. A friend of mine from SCBWI-BI said that good news such as mine is like oxygen for writers. It is. We thirstily lap up positive stories about publications, prize wins, and yes, agents obtained. They smell better than the rejections we bury out in the garden.

Right now I’m embarking on edits and word-culls to get my book into shape for the publishers my agent might approach. And I’m doing so with a smile on my face. Writing has always been worth it; I love telling stories and bringing characters to life. I like giving them problems to solve and danger to survive. I enjoy forcing them to take risks and aim high. Higher still. As high as they can reach.

I took a risk entering the pitching competition. And I’ve been aiming high for ages trying to get an agent. Now I’m aiming higher still. But now I’m not aiming alone; with my agent behind, beside and out in front, we’re aiming as high as can be. Write a book? Check. Find an agent? Check. Get published? Not yet, but I’m reaching for that star right now.

 

Second-hand books; first class words.

Being, as I am, fortunate to travel all over the world in my job-that-pays (writing, as yet, not providing much in the way of financial nourishment), I try to grab opportunities when they come my way. And an opportunity to duck into a second-hand bookshop is never to be missed.

In Boston, this means a pilgrimage to Brattle Book Shop. Despite the cold, visitors are still drawn to the bargain carts of books which sit in the vacant lot next door. Arranged in ascending – or descending, depending on your inclination – price, the carts offer books at $1, $3, or a heady $5. It was on a $5 cart that I found my first scoop of the day:

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At only five dollars, this US first edition seems like a bargain. Just as well Vita isn’t looking down from the writer’s mural on the wall. To be available so cheaply….

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Still, I feel that I have found myself something special. And a quick check on Amazon suggests that ‘The Dark Island’ isn’t in print. A copy in French is available; but even for this francophone, that’s a bit de trop.

Escaping from the biting chill whipping through the carts, I headed directly for the children’s section. (I didn’t dare head to the vintage and rare books floor; last time I did that I found myself shelling out for a Christopher Isherwood first edition). It didn’t take long to bag a couple of gems here. First up is this joyous volume:

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There’s something comforting about knowing kids have been learning the same alphabet for hundreds of years. The examples might have changed, but the letters haven’t.

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Shame they couldn’t think of anything for ‘Q’ or ‘X’.

A topical modern version might begin: ” A’s for America that’s been led astray; B is for Brexit that won’t go away”.

And talking of satire…

My final delight of the day is this intriguing book. It is, of course, a parody of Alice in Wonderland from the late 1920’s. In it, the author satirizes immigration restrictions, censorship and prohibition, amongst other topics.

As Trump takes office later today, I imagine we should expect a tsunami of satire to pour forth from America. As it must.

Heading back to the hotel along Boston’s mall, Commonwealth Avenue, I stopped at one of the many statues which proudly watch over the joggers, lunchers, dog-walkers and book-buyers. William Lloyd Garrison was an abolitionist, suffragist and social reformer. The kind of person I’d gladly sit next to on a plane. His world view – an expansive, anti-isolationist one – that we are all the same, is on the defensive in many parts of the world right now. But it is one I identify with, and on a day which feels like a massively retrograde step for decency and democracy, I’m sharing it with you.

“My country is the world. My countrymen are all mankind.” William Lloyd Garrison.

A morning which began with second-hand books, ended with a first class sentiment.

And an unexpected feeling of hope.

Tinker, Tweak it, or Let it Lie?

It’s the forgotten quandary in the writing process, creeping up on the writer, ready to blow a raspberry in your face just when you thought your work was ready. Ha! It laughs. Thought you were done with this manuscript didn’t you? But are you sure? Go on! It says. Have another look. Wouldn’t another word work better here? What about there? Or there?

Maybe this is your fourth or fifth draft. Sixth even. Or more. Doesn’t matter. Just when you think you are ready to send out to agents, to start the terrifying process of submissions and queries, a voice says: hold on a minute. Are you sure it’s absolutely ready?

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You’ve shared your work with your beta readers; workshopped it; had it critiqued. You’ve polished, buffed and flicked a duster over it. So what! The dust always settles and needs shifting again.

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You’ve cut, copied and pasted. You’ve examined every chapter, paragraph, line and word. You thought they were the best choices, but then the doubts creep in…maybe a tweak here…how about a quick tinker there…

The truth is, you could go on forever like this. There will always be a change you might have made; and it might have been for the better. Poets often rework their poems years later, even after they’ve been published.  But there has to come a time when you say, “That’s it. It’s done. It’s as good as I can make it just now.”

Because all this tinkering and tweaking and dusting and polishing and agonising is simply preventing you from moving on to the next project. That idea which is locked inside, straining at the leash to be let out on to the page…doesn’t it have rights too? How will it ever know the joy of running free if you keep on keeping on at the same novel?

The time has come to cut the cord and allow the completed work to flex its muscles out there. Maybe it will sink without trace; maybe it won’t .

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An agent might throw it a lifeline and reel it in.

In the meantime I think I’m going to release that new idea. I’m allowing it to unfurl its wings to see if it can fly.

The duster is shaken out and neatly folded. I’ll be using it again one day; but not right now.

Snowballs…in June

Odd, perhaps, to be thinking about snowballs in June, but then, these are odd times.

Two events this week have made me consider the snowball; one utterly depressing and the other distinctly positive.

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Post-Brexit Britain feels like a snowball – a really big one – hurtling downhill towards an unknown oblivion, gathering, as it rolls, untold calamities, complications and catastrophic outcomes. They say a rolling stone gathers no moss; well, a rolling snowball gathers more snow exponentially. Each turn adding piles more of the white stuff, gaining momentum, power and threat of danger.

The image playing in my mind is of sixty million people, caught like pieces of mountain scree in the world’s biggest snowball, bowling down the slope towards a gaping crevasse.

It’s Ice Age IV, ‘Frozen in Fear’.

And so to Saturday and snowball number two; a gentler, friendlier snowball. And in terms of writing, a rather useful one.

I attended a writing workshop in Edinburgh: ‘The Writer and the Agent’, jointly hosted by writer Janis Mackay and her agent Kathryn Ross. Janis is a wonderful author who I was lucky enough to meet at last year’s Kelpies Prize, when I had the thrill of hearing her read an excerpt of my shortlisted children’s novel. She is best known – to me at least – for her Magnus Fin series and her Timetraveller trilogy. Kathryn Ross, her agent, is from Fraser Ross, an Edinburgh-based literary agency.

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Kathryn Ross (agent) & Janis Mackay (author)

One of the exercises we were invited to do involved creating a ‘snowball’ of our novels. Disregarding the fact that I can’t draw a circle that actually resembles a circle (I went with ‘squashed ellipse’ or ‘half-melted snowball’), the exercise turned out to be incredibly useful.

Staring at the centre of the ball, we were asked to write the where and when of our story. Then, in a series of ever-larger concentric circles – or ellipses – we scribbled down the inciting incident (the thing that kicks off the action), followed by whatever it (or who) gets in the way to thwart our hero, then the decisive moment or turning point at which our hero must decide whether to act and how to do it. Finally, the outer circle of our expanding snowball contained the resolution to all this. Effectively, we had drawn a diagrammatic pitch for our work.

In using the snowball analogy, I found I suddenly had a real sense of the growing impetus within my story. I could almost visualise it rolling down that hill, gathering pace as the story developed. The exercise helped to distill my book into its core essence, leaving me with a much better idea of how to describe – i.e. pitch – it to anyone kind enough to ask.

The next exercise had us actually verbally pitching our books. I think I’ll gloss over my rather amateur effort. I’ll be better prepared next time. Promise.

As snowballs go, this one really helped me on my journey with this novel. And it didn’t leave me cold, wet and uncomfortable.

Unlike the other one. Try pitching that story to someone successfully. When it finally stops rolling, it’ll be so huge, it may never defrost.

 

Second-hand Perks

One of the perks of my job, (besides the obvious: nights out of bed, permanent jet-lag, cleaning up vomit), is the chance to visit some truly wonderful bookshops around the world.

I’ve not taken the opportunity to blog about them before, and I’m certainly not the first to do so, but this being no reason at all not to, let me tell you about Brattle Book Shop in Boston.

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Tucked down a sunless side street just off Boston Common, Brattle Book Shop claims to be one of the oldest and largest used book shops in America.
There are three stories of books inside, including a rare and antiquated section (where I once found a first edition of Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood), but outside is where the most fun is to be had.
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Here, along shelves attached to the brick, or on wooden trollies, are the cheaper books…$5, $3 or $1 will bag you a bargain to send you home with a bibliophile smile, and a couple of kilo’s extra baggage.

There is little order to arrangement outside…Dewey decimal does not deliver here. Instead, fiction squeezes alongside non fiction. Poetry tickles prose. History nuzzles German cookery.
On one trolly I witnessed ‘Advanced Mathematics’ for Christians’ bivouacked with a biography of Lincoln.
So, the keen book-hunter must keep their wits at the ready and scan the shelves with an open mind (which I imagine you would need for that tome on mathematics).
Otherwise, how to explain these three gems which will accompany me home to Scotland?
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Eclectic? Perhaps.
There’s the ‘worthy’ read…Bede’s History of the English Church and People.
There’s the one to add to my other Isherwoods.
And there’s the joker in the pack. How could I refuse the cries (or was it whale song?) of Frances Diane Robotti’s book? This was written in a time before whales were regarded as in any way vital to the planet. To quote from the dust jacket..whaling was early America’s “most romantic and picturesque industry”. I chose it mainly because you never know….inspiration can come from anything.
And indeed, a story immediately presents itself when the book is opened…this was hiding inside:
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Come on, be honest… don’t you want to know what these two discussed either before 11pm or over breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows.
Like I said, inspiration and stories everywhere….