To M.A. or not to M.A.

I come to writing from a background in science. Typically scientists speak in a language inaccessible and incomprehensible to most of the world. Full of acronyms and latin, medicine is particularly hard to comprehend. And it is made harder by the need to be precise. Time constrains note taking. What the patient says sometimes needs to be recorded verbatum. And an eye is always glancing over the shoulder – have I covered myself, would this stand up to scrutiny, would it support me legally if the patient sued? Horrible. Stifling. Prescriptive. And dashing of any literary flair.

Why do I write?

I always have.

A better question might be – why am I a scientist and not a writer?

This is easier to answer. I grew up at a time when the clever kids became doctors or lawyers. A few branched off into veterinary medicine and engineering. But that was pretty much the choice. No … actually, that was not the choice. It was the expectation. Particularly for a hard working loner who was socially awkward and desperate to please.

Biomedical sciences, criminology, cultural history, linguistics, teaching even – didn’t figure on the aspirational career ladder of my teachers (even!) and parents. So I dropped History and English in favour of Physics and Chemistry. I hated and struggle with the latter two and loved the subjects I had dropped. I sometimes wonder what a careers advisor would suggest today if I had that time again. Had I said that I wanted to be a writer I would have brought the weight of family and school disappointment down on my head. Or to be fair I would have taken my impression that they would be disappointed upon myself. Which is different. And bound up with the shy child, massively lacking in confidence who wanted to please.

So where does this leave me?

I work. And I have a love hate relationship with it. Mostly it’s a deep seated hate. But occasionally something happens that touches my weary hardened heart in a way that makes me question just a little did they get it right. All those years of work and exams. All that self doubt and questioning. In walks that one patient who says you changed their life and thanks you – does that maybe make it all worth while? It’s the stories that patients tell that fascinate the writer inside me. Life in all its good and bad moments. Inspirational – yes. But soul giving and resolve hardening too. I can’t do this much longer – pretend that I’m too busy, pretend that I have to put work and income first, pretend that I don’t need more. I do need more. I need to free myself. I need to write.

Again, where does this leave me?

With the opening of a small window; one that might allow me to write more. It leaves me with a dilemma. I want to write but I lack the skills of language to make a book good. I can tell a story. But I’m uncertain if I can write it down in a marketable way. I am therefore looking at ‘doing a course.’ The question is which one? M.A. or writing academy.

Whatever I do, it will have to be part-time. That bit about pretending to need to work was sadly more dream than truth. Perhaps I can work a little less, or more efficiently – more hours on fewer days.

Perhaps I might procrastinate less.

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Debutante

Continuing the submission theme – see previous post:  Submitting to Submission – I find that I am a ‘debut author.’ This is how a literary agent will define me – or would define me if I got round to submitting my manuscripts.
It is a definition that identifies me with risk and shouts out to publishers ‘be wary of backing the novice.’ 
As is the nature of a mind prone to procrastination, I find myself straying from what I should be doing (which is trawling through lists of literary agents) and wondering about the word debut – what exactly does it mean?
Debut is a French word, with 18th century origins. It sounds French ‘deh-boo’ or ‘day-boo’ (I’m not sure which is correct). It means first appearance or first performance in a particular role. Stretched, it forms ‘debutante’ – not someone bestowed anew with nephews or nieces i.e. not ‘deh-boo-t’aunt‘ , although I guess you could be an aunt debutante – but a young aristocratic lady coming out into society for the first time at a grand ball. Back when the debutante ball was an annual event in the calendar of royal, monied and titled families (a husband hunting cattle market dressed-up in silk and diamonds), it was de rigueur to give every nicety of society a chic French name. Good trends don’t die – today, a new author is a ‘debut author when he or she ventures out of the writing bubble and appears in public for the first time in the  role of author.
Am I a debutante? I write – two unpublished books, several poems and a blog and I tentatively call myself an author, not quite believing that I yet have the right to do so. I have an author’s website. I have written all my life. My debut performance is a long, slowly brewing one and its extension has been guaranteed by an inertia, partly fuelled by fear of rejection and partly by procrastination. Ho hum. Here I go again.
This procrastinating, frightened debutante has finally finished editing (though, admittedly, I have said that before), has cut and re-cut and cut again the synopses for both books and has written rough templates for agent letters (it’s probably not good to admit that. But I will personalise them!). I even have a customised letter head. All that is needed is a literary agent.
The Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2015 edition is on my desk – the 2013 and 2014 editions sit on the bookshelf above my ever-procrastinating head. Pencilled notes, scribbles, circles, exclamation marks and asterisks scatter across the literary agent pages.
How do you choose?
I have written myself some criteria – it’s a bit like the tick-list when searching for a property, only less expensive. In fact none of the proper agents ask you for money, so any expense is all your own – time, paper, stamps, laptop, memory sticks etc.
So what are my criteria –
Ideally, the agent needs to be London-based. Or in Edinburgh! At my core I will always be a Scot. The romantic in me likes the idea of coffee in the shadow of St Giles – there’s an excellent French coffee shop just off the Royal Mile. And I fall in love with Edinburgh each year at the Festival Fringe. And … I digress. First on the list of criteria: Edinburgh or London.
Second, is that the literary agency has to take email submissions. So much easier than paper, stamps, envelopes and recorded deliveries. And wondering if it got there. And not wanting to phone to check in case that sounds to desperate. And daily listening to the fall of the post – was that a heavy envelope landing on the tiles? Email is better. And kinder on the ears.
Third, the agency should have a list of clients some of whom I have actually heard of. But in a good “Ooh, I liked their book!’ way, not a ‘Gosh, I didn’t know that footballers also wrote children’s books!’ way. Maybe, footballers write very good books. Maybe, I should take up football. Maybe that doesn’t follow. What does follow is that I am intimidated by a client list filled with the names of people famous for doing other things. This reduced my list of potential agents by one. And felt like a small victory. An own goal for the football supporting agency perhaps.
Finally, on my list of criteria, the literary agency has to have a good website – one that looks good artistically, is easy to navigate, isn’t too full or fussy and ideally states ‘We love debut writers’ or something similar. It it looks too big or too commercial and lacks a personal feel, it gets the pencil line through its entry in the yearbook.
So far, I have looked at a handful of websites, scribbled some question marks and asterisks, put circles round a couple of names. I started with a list of 35 agencies. I need to keep going.
I want to submit soon.
Really.
I do.
Will this debutante come out?
You’ll have to come back to see.

Submitting to submission

Submission – why does that one, not particularly little word, fill me with dread?

Maybe it’s something to do with its meaning – to submit is either to present a proposal for judgement, or to yield to a higher power. I have written two books, one for children, the other for young adults. Submitting them to an agent is akin to entering your child in a beauty pageant or auditioning them for a role on the West End stage. Seeking approval and praise for your precious creation is potentially excoriating. Criticism that stabs deep into the heart is best avoided. Thus it feels safer to protect yourself and your child or book from outside opinion.

In other words, when you submit (first definition), you submit (the other definition) to your fear. Or to your natural tendency to procrastinate. Or to whatever excuse you tell yourself is a powerful enough reason for avoiding submission.

But submitting to a fear of submission is cowardly.

“It is hard to fail but worse having never tried to succeed.” T. Roosevelt

So – gulp! – not having a clue about the publishing industry and definitely lacking the accountancy or legal skills to examine a publishing contract, I find myself in need of an agent. And – gulp again – I am determined not to put the submission off any longer. Admittedly, writing this is putting it off. ‘Forever a procrastinator’ could be my epitaph but hopefully I can put off needing one of those for a while.

There is a recognised check list for submissions –

First, pick an agent who takes on writers like you. Don’t send a children’s book to an adult only agency. A specialist in travel writing is unlikely to take a fiction proposal. Next, get the name of the agent – far better than the anonymous ‘dear sir/madam’ that immediately suggests you have made the same impersonal approach to every agent you could find.

Next, read the submission guidelines – if they say no email submissions then don’t email them. If they want a particular font and line spacing do it. Getting the formatting right is pretty basic. Essentially, if they have a particular like then go with it.

If they want the first three chapters, send the first three chapters. Don’t send an action section because you think it’s your best bit. That screams ‘the beginning isn’t great but I think this bit is ok.’ If you don’t think the beginning is good, you’re not going to persuade an agent that it is.

Okay, I can do all the above. Easy peasy! But now it gets difficult. My first agent letter was three pages long. In other words, it was a long winded waffle that wasn’t going to get beyond the slush pile.

… ah! The slush pile. What is this? In my head it’s a top-heavy stack of dreams. Nearly all destined for the recycling bin. Why slush? Perhaps slush equals rubbish in the agent’s mind? I suspect it does. Slush is that wet, messy, shoe-staining irritation of greying half-snow, half-water that covers the pavements and slops deeply over the very spot where you want to put your foot on stepping out of the car. Soggy with no redeeming features = the slush pile. It is a transient heap, just passing through a temporary state of hope, before forlornly slithering into the shredder. Hmm – I don’t want my books to go there.  My letter needs to be better. It needs to carry my submission over the slush pile.

It needs to describe the book briefly, in one sentence if possible; quickly state why I am the best person to have written it and summarise my writing career – have I won any prizes, been on any courses; say who inspired me without saying that I’m the next Philip Pullman (I’m not. I wouldn’t say that. But apparently people do. And it puts the agent off. Apparently! Not surprisingly.); describe the target audience; give an approximate word count and summarise future plans – is this book a one-off or the first of a series? And all on one page of A4. Including the letter head, agent address, date etc. One page!

Right. I’ve done that. I’m happy with it too. It was difficult, but not impossible. What is very nearly impossible is writing a synopsis.

The problem with synopsis writing (or should it be ‘the writing of a synopsis’ or ‘writing synopses?’) is that I know my story. And the agent/reader doesn’t. In order to make it (the synopsis) brief, I make assumptions. I lose the agent/reader. So I make it longer. But making it longer and including more detail, makes it more confusing. The agent/reader remains lost. So I condense it to the very bare essentials. The agent/reader appreciates the clarity but finds that it is boring – nothing much happens, the plot is thin, too few characters are mentioned – and it sails swiftly into the recycling bin.

I think however that I might have the synopsis cracked. I’ve tried it out on some friends. Either they were being polite or they genuinely got it. The next step therefore is to submit. Yes! – yield to the voice inside my head that is telling me to quit procrastinating, quit making excuses, quit being sae feart and send an agent my submission.

… tomorrow.

Maybe.

I just need to decide on the agent. Or agents.

The Birds Still Sing

When we miss someone, we feel the absence of their touch and see that they are not there in the stillness of our personal shadows, but it is when we notice the absence of their noise that the missing becomes hardest to bear. That is when we long for an absent-minded hum, a footfall, fingers running up the piano, a burp, a cough, a sneeze, or the clink of a spoon in a tea-cup – anything that tells us they’re home.

A cappella is all that is best about the human voice – its genre hopping versatility, its energy, the beauty of its harmonies and the ear popping acrobatics of its beat boxing – so much so, that when it is suddenly switched off, the world becomes a much quieter place. We had an a cappella group living with us for a week last summer – this is for them and the void they left behind.

*****

Do you know that the birds still sing?

And the grass soft mourns,

whispering

where youthful feet once fell?

Leaves, timid, dare to shift and shuffle,

in zephrous breeze,

hinting at lingering laughter lost.

While dew drop tears falling

splash

and my soul misses their noise.

*

Song filled our ears

for one summer week – long lived.

Now the wind

blows a crescendo of nothing

to collide with the notes in my head;

silent notes – the memories of music shared.

Shared music that will be shared again.

And joyously again.

But listen now,

for I had forgotten that the birds still sing.