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.”

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.

One tale; many stories.

There are many ways to tell one story.

This is something we, as writers, know. It’s something readers are aware of too. A story can be scary, or funny, or touching. It can be entertaining, or moralistic.

A story can be brilliant, or, and this is something I hope to avoid, terrible.

I’m currently working on the first draft of a new story, and as I write, it is taking unexpected turns. My characters decide to react differently to how I’d expected them to, and they’re meeting people I didn’t know existed until we met them for the first time.

My plot expands and contracts like a slowly beating heart and my setting morphs and moulds before my eyes.

In short, my story isn’t quite as I imagined it to be. And that’s ok. It’s bound to look entirely different by the end of the process. But the story I want to tell, the reason I embarked on this project, will still be there. The essence, or kernel, of my idea will be intact. It’s the anchor that keeps me swimming too far away as those new twists turn up and as unfamiliar turns force my characters to twist their words. It will keep me from drifting off into a too-strong current when a sub plot appears, threatening to drown out the important action. Like a salmon returning to a spawning river, the central thrust of my idea will bring me back to where I started; it will stop me from becoming lost in the deep blue sea.

The ability of a story to take unexpected, new and delightful twists and turns, without losing its way to the end game, was made clear to me last night at the ballet, (and if that last phrase doesn’t make me sound all high fallutin’, nothing will).

We went, the husband and I, to see Scottish Ballet’s Hansel and Gretel.

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image: edtheatres.com

A festive feast of fancy footwork; a seasonal splendour of sassy steps and jaunty jumps. Tutus as wide as elephants thighs and thighs as wide as… er…elephants thighs?

The pre-performance blurb hinted that this telling of the classic fairy tale was indeed a RE-telling. The wicked step mother was replaced by materialistic parents, more keen on watching tv than watching the kids. The witch was a glamorous beauty, luring the children away with her lollipops.

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A very un-witch like witch. Image: Scottish Ballet

Too late, the parents discover their loss, and they go in search of their little ones, now imprisoned in the familiar house made of sweets. Here, the ballet stuck to a familiar script of Hansel being fattened up for the pot, and Gretel handing him thin bones to convince the now-uglified witch that his time hadn’t yet come.

Dancing chefs, enchanted rag dolls and a decapitated teddy didn’t feature in Grimm’s original version, but they added to the fun rather than taking away from the tale.

Same story; different journey.

Years ago, I went to Glyndebourne (there he goes again, thinking he’s a cut above…) to see an operatic version of Hansel and Gretel. Same basic story, same music in fact (Humperdink’s score), but another interpretation.

If I remember, Glyndebourne offered up a drag version of the witch, whose house ressembled a supermarket, and where Hansel’s cage was a supermarket trolly.

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photo: telegraph.com

That’ll have got them talking in the long interval.

Again, same story; different journey.

As I continue with my novel, I’ll keep in mind these two wildly different versions of Hansel and Gretel, and, of course, Grimm’s original tale. They all entertain and thrill and satisfy. In all, the witch gets her comeuppance and the children learn a salutary lesson about greed and trust. In all, good wins out over evil. That is the kernel of this story, and it doesn’t change in the different tellings.

As long as I keep my kernel in mind, I can take my story wherever it wants to go. Although, just to safe, I might lay a trail of breadcrumbs in case I become lost.

Just yell if you see any hungry birds looking for a snack. Look what happened to Hansel and Gretel.

Conference Call!

I think it’s time for a positive blog post – my last was pessimistic in the extreme. And, after all, I have something upbeat to write about.

This weekend, I attended the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in Winchester. This year’s theme: Cracking Characters.

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This was significant for two reasons: first, I was returning the county where I grew up; second, this was my initiation into the world of SCBWI conferences. Here’s the good news (I said this post would be upbeat)…I’ll be going again next year.

For anyone with even the faintest sense of fairness and equality, the past months have been a shock. Along with so many others, I’ve found it hard not to allow myself to be dragged down into the morass of gloom and hopelessness left behind like a dark, sticky slug’s trail by the year’s events. I think I’d stopped trying to get unstuck.

And then came Winchester.

From the moment conference started I felt a resurgent sense of purpose. The opening remarks set the tone for me; referencing the doom that is 2016, we were reminded that as writers, we have a role to play in forcing light into the dark. He Who Must Not Be Named need not succeed…we can all defeat the menace, one scribble at a time. And with that, I felt the weight of our collective annus horriblis lift ever so slightly.

And it continued to rise throughout the weekend. David Almond couldn’t help but inspire with his instinctive joy and enthusiasm for writing for children. And if learning that he can make sense of the apparent chaos of his notebook – turning it into award-winning, vital stories – doesn’t fill you with optimism, nothing will!

Volunteering on the merchandise stall at lunchtime was always going to give me a boost, in the way that volunteering does. As the wickedly loveable muppet puppets of Avenue Q sing…”when you help others, you can’t help helping yourself”.

(Please enjoy this musical interlude)

Plus, I got to resurrect my link-selling skills from my short-lived retail days at Body Shop…turning, “Would you like some conditioner to go with your hemp shampoo?” into “Why not buy a soft, cotton tote bag to wrap your SCBWI mug in?”. I particularly excelled when a fellow delegate asked if I had a pen he could use to fill in his raffle tickets. “Certainly,” I replied, “how about these lovely SCBWI pens? Just £1.50 each”.

Then came the moment which gave me the biggest lift of all. The ‘Hook’. I’d entered this “pitch your book to a panel of agents” event for the same reason I’d offered to volunteer and for the same reason I’d decided to go to conference at all: Why Not? I realised that I’d have nothing to lose…in fact, in this event, win or lose, the finalists’ pitches would all be heard by the agents and any one else in the audience. Yes, I was nervous (very); yes, I doubted myself (more than once); and yes, it was hard work preparing for (hours spent going over the pitch and recording myself).

It paid off and I won the event. My prize: a meeting with the agent of my choice from the panel. I chose Thérèse Coen, from Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency.

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Therese Coen and a very happy contestant.

She now gets to read my whole manuscript before we meet. This is such a huge opportunity, I can’t thank the organisers enough. And I couldn’t be more pleased with myself that I went for it. The sense of camaraderie between the five of us during, and after, the event, only added to the growing lightness of heart.

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The five ‘Hook’ finalists, some in cunning disguise.

Why did I put myself through this? Because, at the end of the day, I often put my heroes in a position where they have to choose whether to go for something, even if it’s terrifying, in order to advance or survive or save someone. Some role model I’d be to my characters if I didn’t do the same myself.

I suffered a slight dip on Sunday morning…well…people would keep buying me drinks the night before…but surged back after Sarah Davies (of The Greenhouse Literary Agency) delivered her keynote. Despite hearing how many millions (ok, thousands) of submissions she receives every year, I still came away feeling optimistic about my own writing and chances. Concept and craft are her focal points in a good manuscript…and give every writer something to aim for. Create a great concept, then write it well. It sounds simple, and I know it isn’t, because otherwise I’d be delivering a lecture to writers rather than sitting in the audience hanging off every word…but I’m determined to get both right.

Finally, the good folk at SCBWI British Isles weren’t going to let us get away without some good old-fashioned, blood, sweat and ink-stained fingers. Cliff McNish offered the chance to get our heroes shining and our villains sweating with a double dose of expertise. These were great sessions to end the conference and I was thrilled to have a light bulb moment when I realised I should turn one of my characters from parent to villain.

The sense of community I found at the conference was one of the most important aspects. I’d already had a sense of this from my home network in Scotland, and they helped make sure I made the best of my time at conference.

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SCBWI South East Scotland delegates. Plus photo-bomber.

And the wider community of SCBWI wrapped me in an even bigger embrace.

However, it’s the feeling of empowerment with which I left Winchester that most surprised me. To know that I haven’t been wasting my time with writing and that it can be appreciated…that’s empowering. To have learnt new skills and made important plot and character decisions…that’s empowering. To know that I’m part of a huge community of supportive and talented writers and illustrators…that’s empowering. And to know that my writing, all of our writing, might let some of the light back in…that really is empowering.

Over to you Leonard…

 

 

 

Inspiration is everywhere…if you can see it through the fog.

Apparently, the UK has been basking in record-breaking September weather. At least, it has if you believe the front pages of the, as ever, London-centric press.

Mid-week last week as the headlines sweated…

…the reality in the east of Scotland, as was the reality in much of the UK, was somewhat different…

As a person who likes to think they’re in tune with the forces of nature, who has some connection with the elements and who tries to see beauty wherever and however it appears, I kind of pretended to say that it didn’t matter what the weather was trying to do to us…I quite like the dankness; the darkness; the can’t see the end of the garden-ness

But come on! A deck chair and a slathering of factor 30 would have been nice. I might even have put some shorts on.

However, I determined to make the best of what the North Sea was offering. And as it happens, I’m currently working on a story in which the fog, or haar, as they call it round here, plays an integral part. So the atmospheric conditions (and that’s called putting a spin on it) spurred me to make a research road trip to see more haar. When the haar closes in, everything changes: the view, obviously, but also sounds, the taste of the air, the touch on your skin. People stare out to sea and wonder…what if? Especially if they’ve seen The Fog.

By the time I got to my destination, in this instance the lovely East Neuk fishing village of Pittenweem in Fife, the haar was in retreat somewhat. For about an hour. But you still have the impression of there being no division between sky and sea. A fishing boat went out of the harbour and was quickly swallowed by the haar. And by the Kraken for all I know. It’s possible. It happened to Captain Nemo.

It’s the endless possibilities that weather conditions like this offer the writer that I find so intriguing. Mystery, secrecy, danger…things hidden and things appearing, words absorbed into the fog…people sucked into the fog. Anything can be hidden on a day like this…if you’ve something to hide.

35 degrees of blazing sun suddenly loses its appeal. It doesn’t offer nearly so much intrigue.

And if that’s not putting a positive spin on the weather, I don’t know what is.

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.