Thursday 31 May 2012

Keeping on… and on

That’s it. You’ve researched and written and re-written and edited and re-written and proofed and, oh damn it, re-written again until you realise that your re-writes and edits have become changes  rather than improvements and you realise it’s time to stop. It’s time to submit.

Trawling through the internet and the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is actually more exciting than it sounds; so many of those agencies have your name all over them. General fiction they cry? Yes! With a thoughtful edge, a bit of Maggie O’Farrell thrown in? Yes! Open to submissions, looking for debut authors. Yes, oh yes.

And then it starts. The wait. The constant ‘just checking’ the in-box, the racing to the letter box which you know is counter-productive because anything sent by the post these days is only going to be a rejection so why make the moment come any quicker? The ‘no news’ starts to ache but it’s tinged with just a frisson of expectation. There is the smallest of chances that it’s your book being read and discussed at that moment. Why not? you ask, when you’ve just poured yourself that umpteenth glass of self-belief, every writer starts somewhere.

Then comes the right hook, square in the centre of your self-confidence. It’s back to business as usual; more hours spent submitting when you really should be focussing on the day job, or helping your children with their homework, taking the dog outside for his ablutions, spending time with the person who does actually earn some money for the daily bread, seeing friends...

It’s time to pour another cup of self-belief. I do this with a glance at my list of authors who achieved double figure rejections. It’s a salubrious list. I remember RJ Ellory at the York Writers’ Festival who said that the difference between a published and unpublished author was that the unpublished author gave up. I remember how I feel when I’m writing, that there are parts of my novel which make me smile, characters I love and that the ending always makes me cry. And then I think about how I’d feel if I didn’t write, if I wasn’t trying to get a book published. And the answer is that I’d feel bereft, that nothing makes me feel alive like committing a story to paper or that response from an editor, even when it’s a rejection.

I’m addicted to writing. Resistance is futile. I’m trapped and I love it. I’m writing my second book.

I wrote this in response to a question on Twitter about our strategies for coping with rejection and holding on to a semblance of a positive attitude. Currently I'm just waiting... and waiting... which, personally, I find even harder! So, what about you, what keeps you going? I'd love to know your strategies.

And to my non-writer readers out there with *proper jobs*, thanks for holding our hands on this roller coaster of a ride.

Monday 21 May 2012

Changing Paces

When my children were younger and I used to see the Mum’s Taxi sign hanging disconsolately in the back of, well, a Mum’s Taxi, it struck a not insignificant amount of fear into my exhausted body. From where would I find any extra time to transport my children three times around the county on any given day, the way it appeared mothers and fathers of teenage children quite happily seemed to do? When did those parents find time to cook and clean and read and play and work and clear away the Happy Street?

What I couldn’t imagine when the teeny tots were scuttling everywhere, me and various house-hold items in their wake, was that these babies would grow into individuals who didn’t actually need, nor want, to spend every moment attached to my left foot. Indeed, once fed and watered after a hard day at school, they would drift off to friends’, to the garden or to a varying assortment of pitches and screens, and even sometimes to their homework.

Thus, I discovered, that far from not minding this extra draw on my time, I actually relish it. It’s the chance to be alone and chat with my children without all the other demands on our time and attention that exude from the four distracting walls of home.

There’s more. With Mum’s Taxi comes the humble cafĂ© stop. Yes! I exclaim a little too readily, Of course I’ll pick you up. No rush. Quickly I sort through my mental map of Harrogate, searching for the nearest, yet least frequently visited, coffee shop (lest the owners should think I have nothing better to do) in which to meet. I do all in my power to arrive early, and hope that my daughters arrive late, so that I can order my cappuccino, place myself next to the window and People Watch.

All in the name of writing, of course.

Today, I’m fascinated by speed and the different pace people use to walk up and down the main shopping street. It says so much about them and their lives - real or imaginary. There are the loving strollers, not simply moving slowly because they are in no hurry to part, but because their foot intercepts the other person’s and at this speed, their brains can automatically prevent them from getting in a tangle.

There are the bouncing teenagers who gallop one by one up to the quickly forming group of friends which will soon amount to eight. Each issues a hug and two kisses to the existing members, the next to arrive repeating the operation, like an affectionate version of I Went To Market And Bought…’. If you look really closely, you can see which of the 14 year olds is comfortable with this. I’ll use that, I think, and realise that although both my novels span three generations, I’ve never yet featured a teenager.

Then come the mothers, fathers and grandparents, each with a child at the end of their fingers-tips, walk-running behind, seemingly unfazed by this most uneconomical stop-start method of travel.

A minority of people scurry, darting in and out of the other shoppers, barely looking up to do so, perceiving their presence like a bat making full use of its sonar system.

Some people have very large, determined strides, I notice, their back straight, shoulders down, one arm swinging army-like at their side, the other clutching at the purchases which have made them late for wherever they’re going. And it’s one such man who walks purposefully, but without haste, to the front entrance of Marks and Spencer, stops, looks once right and left, then to his watch and the clock diagonally above his head. He gives an unnecessary cough into his fist, tugs at the hem of his cord jacket. He doesn’t stand still, rocks a little instead, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He’s getting cold, stuffs his hands into his pockets, removing the right only to compare the time on his watch to the large clock advertising H. Samuel, thinking that checking both will make the time pass twice as quickly.

Does he know her well? I ask myself, wondering if it’s really possible to work out whether this shuffle of a dance is born out of excitement, irritation or the cold. And why have I assumed he’s expecting a woman?

Still he waits, more people flow past with their varying stride length and extensive assortment of arm movements, until eventually he stops his marching, offers one final glance to the clock and another more pointedly to his watch and forces a smile. You’re late! I know he says, because he puts his hand on the female’s back and pushes her in the direction they clearly need to go as he speaks. It’s a teenager for whom he's been waiting - his daughter. It’s clear because when he goes to place a kiss on top of her head, she wafts it away, no doubt with a scrunch of her nose. With matching long strides, heads held high, they walk faster than everyone else. I lose sight of them.

I have another sip of my coffee. He needs to discover coffee shops, I think to myself, and I start to write.

Thursday 10 May 2012

Happiness is an Ironing Basket

I remember Kirsty Young talking to Chris Evans about happiness, how she’d been misquoted in the press and what she was really saying was that her ambition for her children wasn’t simply for them to be ‘happy’ per se. Life brings its challenges and striving simply to be ‘happy’ through everything, though an appealing goal, was one destined to fail. Kirsty said that to ‘know’ those fleeting moments of happiness, those moments when you just want to sigh and say, yeah, this is GREAT, to hold on to them and appreciate them, makes for more contentment. Hallelujah! I’ve been saying for years that you ‘have to be down to be up,’ and Kirsty’s given me a much more eloquent way to express it. So, that’s what I bring you this week: three fleeting, and not so fleeting, moments of happiness which made me stop and smile.

Bluebells. I turned a corner, and there they were. I stop for time or no man when I run, not, I hasten to add, because I’m incredibly fast, dedicated or even sticking to a training plan (try as I might to bring some discipline into my running, after ten years of the darned thing, I haven’t managed it yet). No, generally I’m on a tight schedule, have given myself a certain time slot which leaves five minutes at the end to get back into the house, make a cup of tea, shower, stretch, look at the post, chat to the neighbour…and be back at my desk. But, on this glorious Tuesday morning, I was compelled to pause, to recognise the almost artificially bluey-purple scene, appreciate how lucky I am to have this on my doorstep, and take a photo for posterity.

The second moment was the unveiling of the bottom of my ironing basket. In truth, this moment actually preceded the bluebells - I had to achieve the empty basket before I could allow myself the run - but I thought if I started with the ironing, those of you as keen as I am on the fetters of domesticity, might wander off.

Apart from that heady day over two decades ago when purchasing the wretched thing, I cannot remember every seeing this ironing basket empty. Most days I iron. I can’t bear to do it in one shift. But I always leave a few items languishing at the bottom of the basket, just to deny me the satisfaction of crossing the ironing off the to-do list. Not this day! It’s a simple thing, but it made me smile enough to reach for my camera again, even if it was the most transitory of my wafts of happiness, only lasting until the next instalment of misshapen clothes had been peeled from the radiator.

And now the third. This has given me more than a moment of satisfaction although the subsequent wait is bordering on torture, grateful as I, unequivocally, am.  From the general junk of my in-box trying to convince me that a 50% discount on false nails would make my life complete, as would a cut price holiday to somewhere very hot leaving tomorrow, together with the news that an EBay item has been re-listed and a company with far too much time on their hands are still harbouring the misapprehension that anyone other than my wonderful mother makes my curtains, the words, ‘Both your entries have been shortlisted’, greeted me one fine morning,

The First Chapter Competition is run by the Oxford Editors, an international literary consultancy and agency, and I entered samples from Glass Houses and my current Work In Progress, Misguidance. The constant clicking on the website boasting no further news has caused me some distress, as well as a touch of arthritis in the clicking finger, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Shortlisting is great, a win would be a champagne moment and until the Fat Lady Sings, I can still dream, can’t I?

So, distract me! What are your fleeting moments of happiness? Please share!