Monthly Archives: June 2013

‘Wednesday’ Write-In #45

So, today’s blog is a late entry to the Wednesday Write-In; yes, I am aware that today is Thursday, and I hope you’ll forgive me. Apologies for the interruption in service, but I was away yesterday, doing very wonderful things like visiting a castle and exploring a garden first planted in the twelfth century. I will also be away from tomorrow (Friday) until early next week, because I’m attending a Book Festival (the joys!) So, until next week my fair friends – farewell! Try not to miss me too much…

This week’s words for the Wednesday Write-In were:

coven  ::  bermuda triangle  ::  stroke  ::  discovery  ::  moreish

 

Break

And I say, Woman, are you mad? Bermuda Triangle, it makes people dis-app-ear…

‘Oh, my God! Will you turn that bloody radio off?‘ I snap, as the tinny, feather-boa notes creep up and down my spine, making me feel like I’ve just swallowed a mouthful of old coins.  Unfortunately, as the coven of Manilow fans sitting at the far end of the room can’t hear me, I’m essentially talking into my egg-and-chive sandwich. I fling it back into its cardboard and plastic box, feeling my stomach roil inside me as it splats, wetly, against the packaging. ‘Moreish!’ it shrieks. ‘Delish! and All for 300 Calories!’ Shut up, I tell it. You’re a liar.

Bermuda Triangle, don’t go too near…

I’d been convinced this empty, allegedly unused room at the top of the building had been my discovery – my own little place to disappear for half an hour a day, just me and my book – but, of course, Betty and her fan club weren’t long in planting their flag in it as soon as they’d found out where I went every day at 12.30. They’d been going here for years, apparently. I was only a blow-in, they said. Yeah right, I told them, inside my head. They can’t leave me alone in work, so why did I think they’d leave me alone at lunch?

But she won’t see my angle, and she thinks I’m be-ing dumb…

My book sat, unopened, on the table beside me. I stretched out one slightly greasy finger and gave its lovely cover a plaintive stroke, wishing I could carve out enough brain space to read it in peace. What with the shrieking from the other end of the room, though, there was fat chance of that.

Bermuda Tri-angle, here we come!

Letting my head sink into my hands, I drift off into a parallel universe, one in which I’m not the new girl, not the one about whom they’re all saying ‘what the hell were they doing, employing her?‘ One where people don’t talk to me in that slow, stupid voice they use to talk to their dogs. One in which I march over to my colleagues and rip the plug on their radio out of the wall, and they’d look at me with something like respect, instead of pity. The poor thing, their eyes say. She’s been through a lot.

The corner of my uncomfortable stool digs into my leg, dragging my mind back up out of the whirlpool. I look at the clock, hoping hours have passed, but I’ve not been that lucky, of course. I gather up my wet, half-eaten sandwich. I have to pass Betty to chuck it in the bin.

‘All right?’ she says with a grin, her eyes screaming laughter at me. ‘Nice lunch, then?’

I don’t realise I’ve thrown my sandwich at her until I’ve already done it. I stand there, not feeling sorry when the eggy mess slides down the front of her uniform, not even caring when the corner of the box hits her in the eye. Her wide-open gaze takes me in like I’m something from outer space as she struggles to take a breath. One of her mates starts rummaging through her handbag for something to clean her with and the other one opens her mouth to talk to me, to call me all the names they usually call me, but I turn on my heel without a word.

Look at it from my angle, do you see why I’m so sad,” croons the radio as I walk out the door. I’d better hurry, I remind myself. Can’t be late back to work.

Reality Check

I’ve written before on this blog of my passion for encouraging literacy, particularly among children; if I had my way, every child on this planet would be exposed to books at as early an age as possible. If there was one thing I could do – given unlimited power and funds – it would be to equip every child in the world with their own mini-library, and with the skills to read it. I truly feel that one of the most useful things we can do for our future generations is to ensure they can read as well as they are able, and that they read as widely as possible.

Of course, there are children who just don’t like to read – that’s sad, but it’s a fact. However, they should, at least, be given the opportunity to read, and encouraged to try, and exposed to as many different types of book as possible, just in case something might engage their imagination and spark off their interest. I have a belief – and it may be a naive and silly belief, but it’s mine just the same – that there is a book for every child.

A sight that gladdens my heart... Image: shannonbrown.typepad.com

A sight that gladdens my heart…
Image: shannonbrown.typepad.com

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to put this belief into practice. I was in a bookshop – one with which I’m long familiar, and which I can never resist dipping into if I’m close enough to visit it – and I was, of course, browsing intently in the children’s section. A young mother approached me, her six-year-old daughter in tow, and asked me my opinion on what she should purchase for her little girl to read.

I’m not sure if she thought I was a staff member, or if it was a case of ‘once a bookseller, always a bookseller’ and she caught the whiff of enthusiastic knowledge from me, but whatever the reason for her question, I was happy to help. I learned this lady was the mother of a ten-year-old, the six-year-old I had the pleasure of meeting, and a four-year-old, all girls. The eldest child was a strong and enthusiastic reader, she told me, but the others struggled. They found it hard to emulate their sister, and found themselves bored by a lot of the books they’d tried in the past. They liked ‘funny’ books, and were growing tired of the princessy-type, pink and glitter books that they had once loved.

I threw my eyes around the shelves, and came up with a few ideas. Andy Stanton’s ‘Mr Gum’ books were my first suggestion, followed by Francesca Simon’s ‘Horrid Henry’ series (enthusiastically grabbed by the six-year-old); for the older girls, I thought of Jeremy Strong’s ‘There’s a Viking in my Bed!’ and the wonderful books of David Walliams, which are funny but also sweet and uplifting, with a comforting focus on love and friendship and family, so important to young readers. I think the lady was touched by my efforts and glad of the suggestions, and I certainly appreciated being asked for help.

Image: waterstones.com

Image: waterstones.com

However, as pleased as I was to have helped these young readers to find something good to exercise their brains, there was one aspect of the situation that has been on my mind ever since, and it centres on the fact that the bookshop we happened to be in was one that deals exclusively in second-hand books. The reason I like to go there so often is because I always find new authors to follow and new series to start collecting, and it’s fantastic to dig around in the piles of books and uncover some lost classics and rarities. It’s also wonderful to be able to pick up a book for less money than it would be if I bought it new – but with a view, always, to purchasing the writer’s back catalogue in a ‘proper’ bookshop if I like what I buy second-hand. I discovered Catherine Fisher this way; I got heavily into Kate Thompson by browsing the shelves of this very shop. The same thing applies to Jenny Nimmo, who I adore, and most of whose books I have subsequently purchased new. Sometimes, I don’t mind buying books second-hand if the author is deceased, or if their work is out of copyright – then, I don’t feel like I’m dipping my hand into a fellow writer’s pocket and taking their earnings from them – but normally I try to purchase books new as often as I can. Not everyone feels this way, for a variety of reasons – some of them excellent, unassailably logical reasons.

The mother of these young readers, for instance, was enthusiastic about second-hand books not because they were a gateway to new writers and their back catalogues, but because of their cheapness and relative ‘disposability’; it’s always easier to give a book away, or not to mind if it gets wet or torn or dirty, if you didn’t buy it ‘new’. I can’t blame the lady for thinking this way – as important as it is for children to read, it’s also important for them to have shoes and clothes and school uniforms and food, of course, and I can completely understand why new books would slide down a parent’s list of priorities. But, as an aspiring writer, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of pain at the thought.

Every book bought second-hand benefits, in financial terms, nobody but the person selling it; the author gets nothing. If a book is borrowed in a library, at least the author gets a tiny fraction of a payment for it. It’s tough, realising that something which benefits readers so much (i.e. second-hand book purchasing) can be such a bad thing from a writer’s point of view, but that is the reality of the world we live in. I do not judge the lady I helped for her choice, particularly because I also frequent second-hand bookshops (though I do try to support the authors I love as much as I can); I just hope that, perhaps, encouraging children to read when they’re young will turn them into not only enthusiastic consumers of books, but also enthusiastic supporters of writers when they grow older, thereby ensuring there will always be a flow of new books to read. I also hate reducing the whole ‘book creation-book consumption’ thing to crass economic terms, but that’s a reality, too. Writers need to earn a living, however meagre, and that’s becoming harder and harder with every passing year.

It’s important to clearly state that of course I believe it’s more important to encourage children to read than it is to ensure they only read from brand-new books – literacy concerns trump all else – but thoughts of ‘what will become of writers?’ have been playing on my mind since my encounter with this lady, nonetheless. I’d love to hear your opinions on this, if you have any. If you buy your books in hard copy, do you like to browse in second-hand shops? What’s your thinking on the economic issues I’ve laid out here? Do tell.

Happy Tuesday! And, naturally, I hope you’re reading, no matter where you bought your book.

Stories and Tellers

As I write, I am sitting in my parents’ living room, working from my mother’s laptop computer (upon which I will lay the blame for any typos, being as I’m unused to the keyboard, and all); I owe this pleasure to my husband, who suggested we take a trip to my hometown to celebrate the fact that he’s on leave from work for a few days. So, we made the trip, and here we are. It’s only a flying visit, but it’s been wonderful. I haven’t been home in ages, and I’ve really missed it.

However, coming home, as well as being a fantastic chance to catch up with my family, has also taught me a very useful lesson. Sit back, get comfortable, and I’ll tell you all about it.

On Saturday evening, my family and I spent some time in my local pub, whereupon a certain amount of alcohol was, I have to admit, imbibed; as well as this, though, something else happened – something which I believe is rather special, and important, and worthy of sharing. As well as the laughter, and the companionship, and the happiness, there was something which is connected to all these things, but also a separate wonder, all of itself – there was Storytelling.

Image: theabundantartist.com

Image: theabundantartist.com

Storytelling is an important part of Irish culture – we still value the storyteller and the act of storytelling in Ireland, something which has its roots in our earliest history – but from the point of view of my family, it has a hugely important personal significance. My parents have told my brother and I stories as long as we can remember – stories about their lives when they were young, long before we were born; stories about local ‘characters’ and people famed in our hometown for their abilities (or, sometimes, lack of ability) to do certain things, and stories from their own parents’ time, from far back into the history of our town and its foundation. My brother and I were raised on stories of my father’s friend Wilf, for instance, a man who took on heroic proportions in our eyes because of all the tales Dad spun about him, and we were regaled with sagas of the deeds of our grandfathers and other men of their generation, all of whom seemed to have immense intelligence and wit. This weekend was no different. We revisited some of the old favourites, and some new tales were added to the treasury, particularly those told in memory of a few friends who have recently passed away; they may not be with us any more, but their stories and their memory will live on. As I listened to the tale-telling, however, something struck me – something so important, it’s amazing that it never really occurred to me before.

I love to write – it’s what I want to do, and it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. My brother is similar to me in many ways, especially in his love for words. Sometimes, I’ve wondered why this is – why my brother and I are so similar, on such a profound level, despite the fact that we’ve chosen to do different things with our lives. Writing, and reading, and tale-telling, are among our favourite things, and something which we both treasure. Listening to my father telling tales on Saturday, and keeping me as rapt as ever, despite the fact that I’ve heard most of them before, made me finally realise something.

My parents are storytellers. They may not be writers, but they are tellers and creators and repositories of stories, local history, cultural history and family history. My brother and I have been raised with these stories, we’ve been fed them and nourished on them all our lives. It’s no wonder, really, that we both want to create stories, and we both love words and the power they possess. We’ve learned it all our lives.

The stories my parents tell are more than just a way to pass the time; they’re a way to bond, to create links between people, to unite communities, to store memories, and to honour those who’ve passed from our sight. They’re the most important thing we have. Most of my favourite family recollections from my childhood involve storytelling of some sort, whether my parents or grandparents or our family friends were the ones doing the regaling; all my parents have to do is mention a favourite story, and we’re all primed to listen, not only to a treasured tale but to all the layers of memory, all the happy recollections of all the times that story has already been told and enjoyed. I’ve had this wonderful trove of story all my life, and I never fully appreciated it until this weekend.

My parents gave my brother and I the best gift anyone could give. They gave us the history of our family in a series of stories, memories crystallised into tales we can treasure and keep safe to pass on to a new generation, and – as if that wasn’t enough – a love of sharing and telling and creating stories that both of us have used to enrich our lives in ways our parents probably couldn’t have imagined. If ever a parent wondered whether it was ‘worthwhile’ to spend time making up silly or funny stories with their child, or whether it was a good thing to encourage imagination by telling tales, or whether encouraging a child to enjoy language and the feeling of accomplishment gifted by the creation and retention of a treasured story was something to be aimed for, then I hope this post will answer those questions for them.

Yes. Yes, it is. Yes, it certainly is.

Happy Monday. Happy new week. Go and create some stories, and make sure to tell them, and retell them, and turn them into treasures.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Heroic’

Sometimes, it’s the books you buy on a whim that can turn out to be the most meaningful, and the ones you’ll treasure for years. ‘Heroic’, by Phil Earle, is one of those books for me.

Image: thefemalebookworm.com

Image: thefemalebookworm.com

It wasn’t actually me who chose this one – it was my husband. We were browsing through the children’s and YA shelves in a large bookshop a few weeks ago, and he handed it to me. ‘This looks interesting,’ he said. ‘I might actually read this myself.’

Well. That got my attention. My husband, read fiction? This must be some book!

I added it to my pile of to-be-purchased titles without really looking at it; I checked out the cover image, saw that it was a Penguin title (it’s great to have such trust in a publisher!) and was quite happy to fork over the money for it. Then, when it arrived back home with us, it took me a little while to get around to reading it; when I did, though, I wondered what had taken me so long.

‘Heroic’ is the story of Sonny McGann, primarily, though his brother Jammy is the other main narrative voice in the book. We read three or four chapters in Sonny’s voice, and then three or four in Jammy’s, and so on – the story unfolds through both their perspectives. Sonny and Jammy have grown up on the Ghost, a high-rise housing estate somewhere in London, the focal point (and only un-graffittied part) of which is a large statue of the soldiers at the centre of the housing units. This outsize memorial was raised to commemorate the men of the area who’ve given their lives, down through the years, in the service of the Army, and it’s often mentioned – as a meeting point, as a reference point, as a grounding image, and, finally, as an emotional focus – throughout the story. Life on the Ghost is not easy – fathers are absent or abusive, mothers are worked to exhaustion, unemployment among the young is rife, drug and alcohol abuse is rampant. In order to escape his life, and earn some money to help his mother keep the family together, Jammy enlists in the Army, and is deployed to Afghanistan along with his best friend and neighbour, Tommo.

Sonny is left to face the cauldron that is the Ghost. His sections of the story tell us of his struggles to keep away from crime and drug abuse, his love for Cam (the sister of Tommo), and his everyday life, full to the brim of frustration and rage. He wants to help his mother by trying to get some sort of job, but she wants him to stay at school; they both know, in any case, that being labelled as ‘a kid from the Ghost’ will make him unemployable, so their arguments are, in some ways, moot. His future looks grim, and his life is hard – it’s leavened only by the presence of the beautiful, gentle and compassionate Cam, whom he loves deeply. However, Cam – as a sister of one of ‘the gang’ – is supposed to be out of bounds; her relationship with Sonny must therefore be kept secret, and it is a huge source of stress for them both. Sonny’s friends are struggling as much, or more, than he is, particularly the enigmatic and troubled Hitch, and their efforts to carve out a living for themselves is painfully described.

Interspersed with this brutal vision of life, we read about Jammy’s experiences in Afghanistan. He does his best to take his friend Tommo under his wing, trying to keep him safe and sane amid the dust and terror, and he struggles with the reasoning behind their presence in Afghanistan to begin with. He learns the hard way about the drawbacks of trying to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of local people, the brutality both of the war and of the regime they are, allegedly, there to fight, and how risky it is to become close to the people you’re trying to protect. A scene in the middle of the book involving Jammy and an Afghani child almost literally stole my heart out of my chest and broke it; I had to close the book, put it aside, and weep for a good ten minutes. It is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever read, made even more harrowing by the fact that similar events happen every day in reality. Eventually, Jammy returns from Afghanistan, but what he’s been through, and what he’s seen, mean that the man who comes back to the Ghost is not the same man who left. Jammy’s struggles to reintegrate, to slot back into life with his family and community, are unashamedly examined. The book particularly takes us into the heart of his relationship with Sonny, and how the brothers seem to have lost something precious that once bonded them to one another.

Cam, Sonny’s girlfriend, becomes a pivotal character in trying to heal the brothers’ relationship despite the fact that she is dealing with her own unimaginable loss. The boys’ mother, driven to distraction by the life she is leading and the future that faces her sons, is a strong and loving figure, but it takes her love and Cam’s together to have any impact on Jammy and Sonny. They have to realise how much they share and how deep are the ties that bind them before they can reforge their relationship, but their attempts to do this are almost too much for either of them to take.

‘Heroic’ pulls no punches. It is a visceral novel, full of pain and anger; the characters’ rage spills forth from the pages and their tightly-bounded lives struggle to break free from between the lines of text. I didn’t just read this book – I lived it, I breathed it, I felt the strictures of the Ghost and the front-line both. I willed the characters on, frustrated by Sonny’s immaturity and pigheadedness as much as by Jammy’s inability to admit he needed help, horrified by Hitch’s struggle with heroin and Cam’s experiences at the hands of her father, and deeply moved by the love between them all, and their willingness to do whatever it took to save one another from destruction. Having said all this, I don’t mean to imply that ‘Heroic’ is a bleak book – it isn’t, really. The desperation and pain of the characters’ lives is always counterpointed with their love for, and devotion to, one another. You could almost say this is a book about brotherhood – not just the blood ties that bind Sonny and Jammy, and which end up, in a way, being weaker than the ties between Sonny and his friends, and Jammy and his comrades – but the brotherhood, or the family links, that bind all of us together, wherever we live or whatever we face in life.

In short, this book is a marvel. I’m so pleased my husband spotted it, and that I bought it, because it’s probably not the sort of book I’d have picked up for myself. Now, I know better. I’ll be looking out for the rest of Phil Earle’s books, and recommending them highly to everyone I come across.

Happy Saturday, y’all. Get reading!

Ribticklin’

Friday. The universal Day of Happiness. A day when everything seems a little bit zanier than normal, and most people are in the best shape they’re going to be in all week.

Image: mdjunction.com

Image: mdjunction.com#

What better day to talk about humour, then, and how fickle a beast it truly is! Right?

Being funny is a funny thing. There are people who can make you spew with laughter in general conversation, but who clam up completely or veer slightly too far towards the weird side of eccentric when in certain company, or under certain conditions. There are people who are wonderfully witty most of the time, but ask them to tell a joke and they manage to suck every tiny droplet of humour out of it like a huge grey sponge. What’s worse is they know they’re doing it; they can see the joy and fun evaporating from their words like steam from a boiling kettle, and the rising panic in the eyes of their audience is all too clear. Often, they’ll try to save the situation before it all tumbles down into Humourless Gorge, but it’s normally impossible to bring it back from the brink once the rot has set in. I’ve seen many a conversation turn into an awkward silence this way.

I’m not speaking from personal experience as the joke-teller, of course, before you get the wrong idea. I am a sparkling correspondent at all types of social occasion, naturally.

*awkward silence*

Anyway. Humour is a strange and personal thing. Even people who have very similar mindsets, who get on really well, who share the same viewpoint in most things, can often have such varying senses of humour that it’s amazing they can hold a conversation without it turning into a fistfight. There’s a particular TV show, for instance, which my husband and I find extremely funny (well, me more than him sometimes, now that I think about it), but which my husband’s friend can’t bear to watch because it’s, apparently, painful dross. My husband and his friend are pretty similar in their outlook on most things, so I find it fascinating that they can have such different senses of humour, at least in relation to TV shows.

This phenomenon has been on my mind quite a bit over the past while. It’s not because I’m planning to change career yet again and go into stand-up comedy, but there is one particularly important side-effect of the subjective nature of humour which has a direct bearing on my life, and that is: humour is an extraordinarily volatile ingredient to use when you’re preparing a story. It’s extremely difficult to use it correctly, and even when you get the balance right you’re not sure the type of humour you’re using will hit the mark. What makes a writer snort with laughter at the keyboard may make a reader set a book on fire in disgust. Is there really any way of knowing how to write what’s funny, and appealing, without sending around a world-wide survey on humour?

I'm guessing this is the look you're trying to avoid on the face of your audience... Image: lexicolatry.com

I’m guessing this is the look you’re trying to avoid on the face of your audience…
Image: lexicolatry.com

The book I’m currently querying, ‘Eldritch’, tells a story which is narrated by two boys, one of whom is twelve; the other has just turned thirteen. Now, it has been a very long time since I was thirteen, and an even longer time since I was twelve. Also, unfortunately, I have never been a boy. I do have a brother, and once upon a time I’m sure he was twelve, and then thirteen; also, he’s very funny and the two of us have always been able to make one another laugh more than is healthy or sensible – but, unfortunately, my memories of him at that age are pretty hazy. So, there have been times during the writing of ‘Eldritch’ when I’ve asked myself what I think I’m doing, as a middle-aged woman (practically, anyway), trying to write a book about two young boys facing a dangerous and potentially life-threatening situation, all the while wisecracking and poking fun at one another the way only best friends can?

I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer to that one. I guess the Muse wants what she wants, and all that.

Aspiring writers are often told to avoid things like slang, or self-consciously ‘cool’ language; it smacks of trying too hard to be ‘down with the kids’, which is an instant turn-off for young readers. As well as that, of course, it dates quickly and leaves your book looking like an anachronism after a few short years. However, it can be hard to try to write humour, or realistic-sounding banter, without throwing in the occasional slang word; in fact, as hard as it is to write convincing dialogue, it’s even harder to write believable jokey banter between two people who are younger, far cooler, an entirely different gender and, of course, generations younger than you are yourself. So, you have the problem of trying to sound funny without trying to sound funny, and getting across the coolness and youthful enthusiasm of your characters without being tragically over the top, that thing that so many older people do without even realising it. Trying too hard is immediately obvious to a reader, but very hard to avoid as a writer. It’s also difficult to know what appeals to younger readers, and what they find funny.

Luckily, if you’re trying to write funny for young people, there are things that can be done. Reading books aimed at the same age group, for a start, and keeping your eyes peeled on the internet for the latest trends among the age group you’re writing for – not, of course, to slavishly follow them, but to get a flavour for what’s popular. There are some perennially funny things, too – bodily functions, for one, and the fact that supporting a different football/soccer/hockey/tiddlywinks team to your friend is a never-ending source of insult – and, at the end of the day, just following your own sense of humour. However, it’s important to remember to smooth down the more idiosyncratic sharp edges of what you find funny, in order to maximise its appeal to a general audience. Nobody needs to know about the ten thousand hilarious things you can do with cotton wool, for instance.

Does anyone have any thoughts on humour, and how to approach it in a writing project? I’d love to benefit from your wisdom.

Happy Friday! Hope you’re having a thigh-slapping day.

The Plunge? Taken!

We find ourselves on the rocks of Thursday once again. I trust you’re all well? Good, good.

So, this week, I finally got around to doing that thing I’ve been promising to do for, oh, the last six months, or so. I’m sure most of you had given up all hope that I’d ever make good on my word, and had probably come to the bitter realisation that sometimes, you just can’t believe a thing you read on the internet…

I never should have trusted her! Sniff! Image: nature.com

I never should have trusted her! Sniff!
Image: nature.com

Yeah, or not.

In any case, it might be of interest to you to know that this is the week in which I finally did it. After many months of waffling about it, I’ve at long last begun to make contact with agents. Literary agents. Actual literary agents. With connections in the publishing industry, and everything. So far, I’ve lived to tell the tale, but we’ll see how long that lasts.

You know, sometimes, how you can pay visits to really tall buildings – in places like America, I mean, because of course Ireland doesn’t have any *really* tall buildings, on account of how we’re all short and oppressed – and they have glass floors that you can walk on and look down hundreds of feet to the ground below?

Like this? *covers eyes* Image: alexderavin.blogspot.com

Like this? *covers eyes*
Image: alexderavin.blogspot.com

When I tell you that I had to have a cup of strong coffee before I could even do a Google Image search for that picture, I’m not joking. I hate heights so much that even looking at that photograph is giving me vertigo. Standing on a kitchen chair is as high as I ever want to be off the ground – and even at that, sometimes, I get an attack of the wobbles.

And, my dears, that feeling of vertigo, and the sensation of ‘ooh, I think I might be out of my depth here,’ is now a permanent fixture in my life.

Pressing ‘send’ on an email which contains the first five pages, or the first three thousand words, or the first ten thousand words, or whatever the case may be, of a book over which you’ve (almost literally) sweated blood, is no easy thing to do. The email doesn’t just contain words, of course – it holds your hopes, and fears, and plans, and ambition. It contains everything in you which is good and admirable, and everything which is desperate and terrified, too. Every submission made is an hour, or two hours, or a day of preparation – writing a synopsis, crafting a cover letter, reading and re-reading and re-reading your opening chapters just in case there’s an error you’ve missed the last five thousand times you read it; it’s the hours spent researching the agency to which you’re submitting and making sure they have an interest in what you’re writing, as best you can; it’s the hours of self-talk, trying to convince yourself that this isn’t completely crazy and that you can actually go through with it.

So, you see. Not just a case of ‘whack it all together and let it go wherever it needs to.’

I’m trying not to look back over the emails I’ve already sent, because they’re sure to make me cringe. I’m trying to be positive, and hope that something in what I’ve sent will spark interest, somewhere; I’m aware, though, that what I’m doing is akin to trying to light a match somewhere on the deepest ocean floor. There are a lot of people trying to do what I’m doing – most of them with more to offer than I have – and it can be hard to keep dredging inside yourself, expecting there to be endless supplies of optimism and hope just waiting to be tapped; that, however, is what I have to do. Every time I sit to write a synopsis (because I do a new one each time I submit to an agent, in the interests of keeping the whole thing ‘fresh’ and relevant to each particular recipient), it gets harder to shake the feeling of boredom surrounding my novel – it all seems so old, and worn, and overdone. I’m telling myself that’s because I’ve read it so many times, and I’m clinging to the hope that this is the truth.

And, of course, I’ve only just begun the whole process. I still have the weeks and months of waiting for a reply to come yet. At least the waiting process will give me some time to build myself back up again, just in time to cope with the lovely, kind, well-meaning emails which will read something like: ‘Thank you for your submission – we can see you’ve worked very hard on it, but unfortunately, it’s not for us…’

And, the best bit of all? I’m not even halfway through my list of agencies, so this will be going on for some time yet. Someone pour me a whiskey…

'Tomorrow... Is... Another day!' Yes, Scarlett. Another day in which I have to turn around and do all this again! Yay? Image: lesscakemorefrosting.com

‘Tomorrow… Is… Another day!’ Yes, Scarlett. Another day in which I have to turn around and do all this again! Yay?
Image: lesscakemorefrosting.com

 

Wednesday Write-In #44

This week’s words were:

sunshine  ::  glass eye  ::  connection  ::  golden gate  ::  lisp

Reliquary

‘We have to let some light in here,’ said Martha, wading her way to the window. ‘My goodness. What a place!’ She grabbed a handful of the ancient curtain, receiving a faceful of dust for her trouble. Her cough rattled as she yanked the filthy drape open, but she didn’t let it put her off; within minutes, a faint haze of sunshine began to struggle in, reluctantly, as though it wanted to be there about as much as we did.

‘Wow,’ I said, looking around. ‘Have you ever seen anything like this?’

I took her shocked silence as a ‘no’.

There was nothing for it. We were here to do a job, and standing around gawping at the scale of it would get us nowhere. We’d left our equipment – gloves, masks, dusters, cloths and the like – out in the hallway, along with our industrial Hoover and Martha’s own cleaning fluid, her secret formula which had, apparently, never been known to fail. Secretly, I reckoned this place would be its ultimate test, but I said nothing. We set to it, trying to be systematic as we worked. I took one side of the detritus-mountain, and Martha the other.

‘What sort of person lived here?’ I asked, incredulous, after about half an hour. I straightened up, holding an illegible school copybook older than Martha and I put together in one hand, and a filthy, withered leather dog lead in the other. ‘I mean, there’s no connection whatsoever between the things I’m finding.’ I blew a stray lock of hair out of my eyes, feeling it stick to my sweaty skin. I saw my plastic gloves were already coated with grime as I chucked both objects into the nearest rubbish sack.

‘That’s the nature of people who hoard, though,’ called Martha. I couldn’t see her – a tower of newspapers stood between us. ‘The things they keep only make sense to them. You know?’

I understood what she meant, but I still couldn’t wrap my head around actually living like this. An elderly, recently deceased, man had owned this flat; his niece had hired Martha to clean the place up so she could sell it and get on with her life. She wanted to keep nothing, apparently. I just hoped we’d be able to get the job done quickly – this kind of thing was way out of my comfort zone. I’d only agreed to help Martha when she’d begged me, putting on her little-girl lisp and fluttering her eyelashes.

‘Shelly,’ called Martha, suddenly. ‘Holy… Get over here! You’ve got to see this.’

I dropped what I was doing and began the trek to the other side of the room. I could see Martha crouched down, her attention pinned to whatever she was holding in her arms. It looked like a wide, shallow box, made of dark wood.

‘My God!’ I breathed as I drew near. ‘Is that…’

‘A glass eye collection!’ she confirmed. ‘Look! There must be eighty here. More, maybe.’ My flesh juddered as I looked at them, gleaming up at me from their dark graves, each one neatly placed and exactly aligned. Every colour imaginable was represented, and – weirdly – they were smaller than you’d expect. My stomach flipped as I realised what it might mean. Glass eyes for kids, I told myself. Gross. Something about it just seemed unsettling. They’re for dolls, I told myself. Stop freaking out.

‘That could be worth money,’ I said, my voice low. Martha threw me a look, her eyebrow raised so high it almost disappeared under her regulation plastic cap.

‘I’m just sayin’,’ I laughed. Martha snapped the box shut, and placed it carefully to one side. I followed its movement with my eyes, and that’s when I saw the glint – barely there, but it was enough to grab my attention. I knelt, and carefully excavated through the piles of crumbling magazines and moth-eaten cushion covers that surrounded whatever I’d seen.

‘What have you found?’ asked Martha, vacantly. She was distracted by a pile of old VHS cassettes, and seemed to be trying to work out what was written on their spines.

‘Something… gold,’ I said. ‘But not gold gold,’ I added, as Martha jumped to attention. She was interested enough to flop down beside me, all the same, and together we gently prised the mystery object out of the hole it had lived in for God knew how many years.

‘What am I looking at?’ I asked, once we’d freed it. It looked like nothing more than a tiny plastic house, moulded as a complete unit; its neatly pitched roof had a yellow chimney, and each window bore a pair of blue, unmoving curtains. Amazingly, a miniature golden gate, fragile as a wish, surrounded the whole thing; it bounded a perfectly square patch of plastic grass, which came complete with painted flowers. The house was faded and battered, but somehow the gate still gleamed.

‘How can you play with that?’ I asked, turning it over in my hands. ‘What a useless dolls’ house. Nothing moves!’

‘It’s a collection box, I think,’ said Martha, gently taking it from me. As she carefully examined it, she eventually thought to turn it upside-down. ‘Hey, look! It’s only got a rubber stopper. Let’s see what’s inside.’

Before I could say anything, she’d pulled aside the tiny, perished gatekeeper, and a long-shut door opened. The contents of the box spilled out over her hand, between her fingers, in an unstoppable stream.

‘Jesus Christ!‘ she screamed, getting to her feet; she saw it straight away, but it took me a long time – too long – to work out what I was looking at. They seemed almost innocent, you see, pearly-perfect amid the dust, this pile of tiny milk teeth claimed from many tiny mouths. How many, I couldn’t say. Too many, was all I knew.

I felt the room swim around me, and the walls fall on top of my head.