Hogmanay

Do you dream in the wee small hours

between this year and the next?

When the past recedes in minutes; steps

darkening shadow of regrets.

 

Do you glimpse the spirit of your other self

and pausing, consider which coat you wear?

Which hat, which shoes, which life –

your choice. Simply ask yourself, ‘Do I dare?’

 

When failure tightens a noose around your neck

and tethers ivy twine about your feet,

does fear unhindered caress your hands? Then, do you

unshackle; do you risk all while your heart still beats?

 

Do you step up? And out at Hogmanay,

and promise, whispered clear,

to be the better Bestest you.

Or bend and wilt away another year?

 

 

 

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As promised: first peek at first chapter

Chapter 1: Castellina

No chance!

Absolutely no chance.

Alicia did the maths – the unknown darkness ahead, plus a scrawny physique that was more computer games than Olympic Games, equalled no way she could move fast enough. Absolutely no way.

After all, out-running a galloping horse is generally considered to be impossible. Unless the distance is short and you are a world-class athlete. Or you are astride a faster horse. Or you are a liar, happily embellishing the tale after the event. Alicia Bertoli was none of these things.

She peered into the blackness of the tunnel and listened. The noise was wild and unmistakeable: hooves ripping through the air and hitting stone with a rhythmic rapid repeat of four hammer strikes – four following four, following four, again and again and again. Coming closer. Growling louder.

A wave of hot wind, rushing ahead of the noise, crashed over her and smacked dust into her face.  Behind it, a swirling black cloud had started to fill the tunnel, gushing like oil flooding a pipe. If it reached her, she would drown. She flinched. She could feel the noise in her chest now. The dust in her mouth was bitter. It stung her eyes.

She had to escape. Panic tightened the muscles in her throat. Where was her Dad? Where was her brother? Why was she suddenly alone? “Dad!” she screamed. She span round. Should she run or seek shelter? Dad would know what to do. But she couldn’t see him.

Maybe she should run. Or hide. But she knew she couldn’t run fast enough. And there was nowhere to hide. Feeling trapped, she stepped backwards and pressed her shoulders into the cold stone wall of the tunnel. Her hand groped behind her and fell into the shallow recess of a door. She pushed. It didn’t move. She turned and grasped the door’s handle.

Screaming, she rattled it, “Please! Please open!” But the door didn’t budge. Its handle crumbled; splinters pricking her fingers. The door’s hinges were rusted and near its top left corner there was a jagged, broken gap in the grey decaying wood, just big enough for a hand. Fleetingly, Alicia felt the spirit of someone else trapped here, long ago: she shuddered as a ghostly vision, clawing desperately at the door, flashed into her head.

She slipped her hand into the rough hole, ignoring the tangling mesh of cobwebs at her finger tips and pulled herself in close, moulding her body to the wood. She held her breath and froze, barely moving even when a cockroach plunged into a crack above her left eye.

She waited.

“Please pass. Please pass. Please pass!”

Hooves pounded – metal-on-stone, metal-on-stone, metal-on-stone – the noise billowing in her ears and exploding against the tunnel’s unyielding walls. Her heart, leaping in her chest, banged on the old wooden door. But she could hear nothing other than the galloping horse. The black oily cloud engulfed her, wrapping choking fingers round her neck. She couldn’t breathe. This was impossible. It couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t!

Alicia was tired. It had been a long, languid and stiflingly hot summer day, followed by an excruciatingly slow evening. Her stomach was full of good Italian food. And she had always suffered from an overly vivid imagination.

“Look out for the ghost,” her uncle had joked. Was this vision a ghost? It seemed too real for that. She started to shiver uncontrollably, as every nerve in her body screamed that, ghost or not, she was trapped in a tunnel, with a knight on horseback charging straight at her. Only an hour ago, she had been at the restaurant. Her mind clutched at the reassuring memory of something normal. How had an ordinary evening led to this?

To M.A. or not to M.A. – part 2; the writing academy course

About a year ago, I procrastinated myself into a corner. But it was one with a door. I wrote about my dilemma – To M.A. or not to M.A. I had unexpectedly found myself with the time, the hours and the finance to cope with a writing course and I discussed the pros and cons of doing a university M.A. vs. a writing academy course. Well … I have just completed 5 months of writing academy and have to say that it was, I think, the right decision. It allowed me to concentrate on my writing, which not all Masters degrees do. It fitted in with my life outside writing. It was intense but achievable. And it was fun. Lots of people have written about the value or otherwise of creative writing courses often from the point of view that ‘you can’t teach someone how to write.’ I beg to differ – if a writing course teaches the shape of a story, the importance of plot and the central role of character, then it doesn’t require a leap of faith to surmise that an understanding of these things will inform and assist the writing of any author. Learning that there are few hard and fast rules, that character drives the story, that without character there is no plot and without character no substance, is incredibly freeing. Get into your characters head; hit him or her with ‘what if’ missiles at every turn; think – what does he want, what is standing in his way and how will he overcome the obstacles lying in his path – and your story will fly. In theory.

Attending the writing academy has been such an enjoyable experience – everything from the country-mouse-visiting-the-big-city (London) and mastering the game of sardines on the tube (answer – avoid the busy times and walk everywhere), to the squeezed-in trip to the National Gallery to see the Goya portraits; from the camaraderie with people who understand that the need to withdraw into your own lonely little world and indulge your passion for words and story telling is not a symptom of mental illness but an wonderful and intoxicating expression of creativity, to finding independent coffee shops with incredible coffee; from being able to say no to offers of work because-I’m-at-my-writing-course-that-day, to the warm encouragement from the other writers on the course; and above all the freedom to write and to tell family and friends that I am writing without feeling that they will somehow not take it seriously, or worse put my aspirations down. To end five months with an understanding of the tools needed to write a book and the belief that I can probably write is a fine result. Better still is the friendship forged through trust and sharing of our stories with the other writers on the writing academy course.

But what happens next? Does a post academy chasm open up and gobble me back into a world of career and snatched, diminishing slivers of time in which to write? Or is life post-academy a life when I prioritise writing? Somehow. Yesterday, at our final session, we each listed three things that we either have to or want to do next. If I distill our aims into a collective list and stir it into mine – the answer to the ‘what happens next’ question becomes a little less hazy.

First, I have to properly finish the writing academy course – there is the biography and synopsis required for the alumnae book and then the agent reading afternoon. Both daunting. But both well defined and with deadlines, which makes them a little easier than the second aim of the ‘what next in the life of a post-writing academy writer,’ which is to make some decisions. For me, do I continue with the book I have shared on the course – continue to edit, to wade through the treacle of fine tuning the voice and tighten the story? Or do I mentally place it in a drawer and start something new? Or return to one of my other projects?

My third intention is to pick up again my writing of blogs, poems and short stories. And to experiment with other familiar and less familiar forms of writing. And see where they take me.

Perhaps – aside from the oft repeated character, character, character – the essential message I take away from the writing academy course is to continue writing. My stories will only get written if I write them. I believe in them. If I write them well, others might believe in them too. If I understand why I write, how to write, when to write and believe that I can, then I will find the time to do it and I will become the writer I want to be.

Maybe.

Perhaps, I’ll revert back to my procrastinating ways. Although, if I’m honest, I never really stopped procrastinating – I just had slightly less time to devote to it.

Perhaps, I’ll be lucky and an agent will like my words and take me on. And I’ll step a little closer to that dream of being a published author.

Perhaps, if I simply continue to enjoy the craft of writing, I’ll be happy. Happy enough.

… who am I kidding?

The case for fantasy fiction

Presented with a well-stocked library, bookshop or friend’s bookshelf what genre of book do you choose? Do you feel comfortable with crime fiction, stifle a yawn over historical romance and skip quickly past fantasy and sci-fi? Or are legal dramas your thing? Or perhaps, tales of strife in distant lands, heroic deeds and family feuds? Do you ever read “the classics”?

There is a frequently voiced opinion among literary types that fantasy and science fiction are somehow less worthy, less monumental and less able to stand up to academic examination than other genres. It is widely considered that they have less to say and less to teach the reader – they are a bit comic-like, mass produced and written for the relatively uneducated, easily thrilled masses. In my opinion, try telling this to Homer, Tennyson, Asimov, Tolkein, Pullman, Rowling, Ishiguro, Attwood, Gaiman, Mitchell, Zafon, Orwell, Doctorow, Zales and many, many others – their books excel in forcing the reader to step beyond the familiar and to think ‘outside the (comfort) box.’ Their fantasies insist on great leaps of faith into unknown worlds and ignite imagination, triggering an explosion of ideas and vivid pictures in the reader’s head.

Because the new world is exciting and strange, the writer can exploit this and create characters who interact in ways that are on the one hand invented and on the other intrinsically human. They can be kind, cruel, jealous, commanding, loving, bullying and grieving but because they exist in an unfamiliar place their relationships can be scrutinised in a way that would seem too intrusive in the real world. Hierarchies can be established and explored and the politics of new lands with different laws and morals examined. The reader is forced, then, to reflect on their own morals in this world, to make comparisons and to learn  about themselves and their surroundings.

I believe that fantasy can transport us into worlds where our rules are re-written; where we are unshackled and escape from everyday worries binding us down on this earth.

Writing fantasy fiction is an escape into my dreams. Reading it is to tread across the words of another’s dreams.

Next time you are browsing the bookshelves, consider taking time out with a good science fiction or fantasy book.

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.

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.