Wednesday, 26 September 2007

New South Wales to Old North Wales

I had an unexpected visitor last Friday evening. It was my Uncle Bill fresh from Australia via West Wittering. Armed with a mental map consisting of two dots representing Auntie Vera’s house in Sussex and mine in Wales joined by a wiggly line, he’d found his way after seven hours on the road, asking everyone after the Severn Bridge if they knew where I lived and having been piloted the final stretch of the journey by a good Samaritan from Cardigan.

‘I’m not stopping,’ he insisted weakly, ‘I’ve got to get to Porthmadog tonight.’ As Tom said afterwards, what else was there to be done? Imagine if I’d driven for miles to his home in Australia, exhausted and with only the most tenuous grip on where I was going, only to be told, ‘Yeah, good luck with that, pal. Best you get off now, nice to see you!’

Uncle Bill is eighty-one. His quest, we discovered, once we’d fed him and given him a fortifying tot of rum, was to find the naval training base where he had started a journey that had changed the course of his life. Anticipating a long evening, I’d found myself instead being absorbed by my uncle’s clear, incisive recollections of the danger and camaraderie of war and, afterwards, the anguish of coming back to England to tell his mother, my gran, that he had fallen in love with an Australian girl and was returning to Sydney. My uncle and his Aussie bride, Edna, (I’m not making that up!) have been married fifty-nine years now. Edna has untreatable macular degeneration and is going blind so my uncle returned alone to England for the last time to see his family and revisit the past.

It’s a long drive up to North Wales. We were all tired and Uncle Bill was confused by the changes he found. Nothing seemed familiar so we put our thinking caps on. Bill came up with a name, ‘Afon Wen’ and Tom remembered that Butlin’s had taken over many of the old army and navy bases and turned them into holiday camps. A little way up the coast, just outside Pwllheli we found the place and a sympathetic porter let us have a look round.

Whilst Uncle Bill was pleased to have revisited his past it was undoubtedly an emotional journey for him and he was pensive on the return journey. Once back at my house, at about four in the afternoon, he was insistent that he needed to be back on the road as my Auntie Joan and Uncle Sid (he of the ‘Cutty Sark’ fame) were expecting him. Considering this is only the third time in my life I’ve met Uncle Bill (if indeed it was him!) I felt really sad to see him go, knowing that I would never see him again.

Anyway, we saw him off with provisions for the journey and good directions and I phoned Auntie Joanie to say not to expect him until late, about 10.30pm.
‘Billy?’ said Auntie Joanie, ‘Is he coming here?’
Ah, good old Uncle Bill, he’d done it again. And, true to form, he managed to get lost on the way there and turned up at 1.30 in the morning.

And finally…
*Phew! I got an award and didn’t even know it. As I said to Milla, I might have the odd Orange prize knocking around somewhere without realising it. Thanks a lot, Milla.

*Having worked frantically on the book the word count’s hardly gone up. Need to add rather than subtract I think!

*Uncle Bill seems to have started an avalanche of Autumn visitors here at Hotel H with friend arriving later today (what am I doing blogging? I should be cleaning?), Mil, Dil and Mil’s inherited digestive condition next week and the Fat Boys) Tom’s equivalent of the Ace Gang bringing up the rear.

Hwyl fawr!

Painting is 'Under the Castle' by Tom Tomos

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Proceed With Care

The Blogosphere is heaving with writers many of whom are aching to be novelists. A few days ago, over at Purple Coo, I was asked a couple of questions about making submissions. This may possibly have raised a few eyebrows as I’m not exactly bursting with novels but I have plenty of writing experience and a few cautionary tales which may help anyone about to embark on this path.

1. It helps if you can write.
I’ve spent most of my working life as a professional writer. That hasn’t always been my job title, of course, which has been Research Officer or Local Government Officer (of various descriptions) but writing has always been essential to the job description. I’ve written research papers, policy notes, briefing papers and press releases and if you want someone to turn your hesitant speech or venomous rows into concise elegant prose, well, it ain’t me, babe, because I don’t do that anymore.

In addition I’ve been placed in national essay and poetry competitions, I’ve been published in magazines and I’ve sold work to newspapers. Earlier this year I even had the pleasure of seeing my work in a real live book. Last June I picked up a 20,000 word script I’d abandoned and, by January, had turned it into a novel, which, I reckon, also makes me a novelist.

If you have any doubts about your writing ability send it out into the big wide world and test the water.

2. Stop if…
a) You think writing’s a chore – it’s not, it’s a privilege and pleasure. Certainly it requires a lot of effort but sewing garments in a sweatshop is hard work, not writing.
b) You are not completely and utterly in love with your writing. If you don’t love your work why should the reader?
c) You think you’re going to get rich. For every dazzlingly successful novelist there are dozens who get two book deals then disappear off the radar. ‘Cracking it’ isn’t enough. You’ve got to keep turning out page after page of sparkling fiction if you really want to be a success.

4. Recognise help.
When my daughters were little I wrote a Mills & Boon. It came winging back with a very nice letter explaining why it had been rejected (not sticking to formula), suggesting amendments (beef up the hero) and inviting me to resubmit. Did I take this help? No. I saw it as criticism, spent the whole day chucking my toys around and vowed never to give M&B the dubious pleasure of reading my work ever again. This is what is known as a big mistake.

5. Choose your publisher wisely.
I sent my failed M&B to a new publishing company. They asked for some changes (make it less formulaic, make the hero less arrogant, grrr!). I delivered, they sent me a draft contract, I congratulated myself on how easy it had been, they went bust.

6. Don’t forget the rest of the book.
After mucking around with bits of genre romantic fiction it was suggested to me by Hilary Johnson, who has been described as ‘the doyenne of doctoring’ and who, at that time, ran the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s ‘New Writers’ Scheme’ that I should try my hand at contemporary fiction. I duly sent three chapters and a synopsis off to a well-respected agent who phoned me up the minute my script landed on her desk and asked to see the rest of it. My personal life then went into freefall and I failed to deliver the goods. This is what is known as a very big mistake and it’s one I’ve taken ten years to recover from! My advice to you is to write the whole book first, apart from anything else it’ll be good practise and teach you to hone your craft.

7. Listen to Beeny.
If you’ve ever seen ‘Property Ladder’ you’ll know that there’s always a bit where Sarah Beeny tells the would-be developers who intend to turn their wreck into a 6 bedroom, 1 bathroom family home, ‘If I was you I would add an extra bathroom.’ The so-called developers round on Sarah and tell her that the family they’re aiming at are good at crossing their legs and saving water so they don’t need an extra bathroom whilst the rest of us are screaming at the telly, ‘Listen to Beeny!!’

If a professional is good enough to give you their opinion, please act upon it. Please don’t think that she is wrong and that you, your partner, your best friend and your dog know better!

So there we are, a brief guide of the possible pitfalls you may come across on your journey to becoming a novelist. As for me, in July, I heard from the agent who’d read the novel I finished in January. She suggested a number of amendments and this time I’ve listened – there’s absolutely no guarantee that when I’ve finished my rewrite that my novel will be one that she can represent but at least I’ll know that I’ve tried. I would prefer not add to my list of big mistakes.

And finally…
* Clocks played a really tight, professional set at their gig at the Barfly on Tuesday despite Stepson Two’s appalling cold and sore throat.
*I saw my lovely Lily – I am, if you haven’t guessed, completely besotted with my daughters and it’s so good to catch up with either of them.
*The rewrite is going well at last!

Hwyl fawr

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Picture This

8 September: 7.30am
Popping into Jeremy and Tracy next door to watch the opening game of the rugby world cup was possibly not the best idea in the world before today’s Welsh ‘Rustbuster’ day. Especially since large amounts of curry and wine were involved. Fortunately my sensible head prevailed so I’m not feeling too fuzzy but ‘Dw i’n nerfus yn iawn!’. In view of the fact I’ve completed two intensive weeks of Welsh learning I’ve decided to go up a level from September and today’s one day course is a chance for me to see if I can talk the talk.

Okay. Here I am in Grwp 3 and I can already see from the pages they’re looking at in their course notes that they are way ahead of me. Even worse a couple of the students should be in the group above but have come down to this one for a spot of revision. Great.

I’m trying to tell myself that it doesn’t matter if I’m the class dunce when The One walks in. Yep, there’s always one person I dread working with. In this case, he’s like Oliver Reed way past his prime, swaggering and loud, so naturally he makes a beeline for me.

I have survived the course but The One has been a right pain. He’s spent all day telling me what a hit he is with gorgeous Laydees – including Keira Knightly (It’s all gone a bit Keira and Sienna mad round here since they were spotting filming for the new Dylan Thomas biopic). He’s stuck so closely to my side that I can still smell his aftershave even when I get in the car. To make matters worse he’s going to be in my new group when term begins in a couple of weeks. Tom who is normally utterly sanguine and never swears advises me to tell him to f*ck off!

All I want to do is throw myself on the sofa but it’s the opening night of Tom’s exhibition so have to put my public face on and get ready to glad hand everyone. I’ve said before that I think that Tom’s latest collection is very powerful but it dawns on me, shortly after we arrive, that en masse, they are possibly a bit overwhelming. There are simply too many huge, energetic canvasses on the wall for folks to take in.

Oh well, I needn’t have worried about the punters being overwhelmed. Almost nobody has turned up, apart from the usual coterie of artists and gallery hangers-on. Tom is putting a brave face on it but I am so disappointed for him.

Everyone in the room now except me is (1) An Artist. (2) V. v. drunk. Quite a few people are in danger of disappearing up their own backsides by the time I persuade Tom it's time to leave. ‘But we said we’d do each other’s opening nights and book launches!’ Tom reminds me, as I start the car, sensing, perhaps, that I have had enough for one day.
So far it’s opening nights: 2, book launches: (‘Strange Days, Indeed’) 1. Suspect that enjoyment of any of these occasions rather depends on whether or not you are the centre of attention.

And finally…
*The Local Authority has apologised and reinstated Tom’s nephew’s school transport. (Not entirely unconnected with Tom’s brother making a fuss).
*My niece seems to be doing well on her epilepsy medication.
*My shoulder is still bloody killing me so it’s back to the GP.
*Stepson Two’s band, Clocks, are on tour now.

Hwyl fawr!
Painting is 'Urban Garden' by Tom Tomos

Monday, 10 September 2007

If the Lights Grow Dim

Little Brown Dog (and, by the way, if you haven’t read her blogs you are missing a treat) has asked me to reveal the twelve scents and sounds which would still reach me when everything else has failed. They are:

1. Freshly sawn wood. Forever associated with my dad who was a carpenter. If this doesn’t revive me than at least I’ll know Dad’s waiting to show me the way.

2. Talisker. Peat, wood smoke, phenols and memories of a golden October holiday with Tom, Lily and Rose. A few drops of this wee dram wafted under my nose and I’d be a happy woman.

3. Rose and Lily making each other laugh.

4. The warm, clean smell of my husband when he gives me a hug.

5. My mum saying the prayer she used to recite to us before we went to sleep. Not for religious reasons but as a talisman against fear.

6. Crushed basil leaves. We always have a pot by the kitchen window.

7. The smell of autumn mornings – the dying of the year and new terms and new beginnings.

8. John Martyn singing ‘One World’.

9. Putty. That linseedy smell takes me back to when I was little and I ‘helped’ dad who gave me little chunks of putty to warm up in my hands when he was glazing windows.

10. The smell of a brand new, pristine, glossy magazine and the crisp crack of the pages breaking open. Shallow? Moi?

11. Rain on the coach roof of Veryan, our old wooden boat, and feeling snug and secure in the cabin below. A nostalgic memory now as we’ve just sold her.

12. Someone whispering in my ear, ‘Chris! Your book's number one in the best seller list.’ That ought to do it!

Okay. You know who you are. If you haven’t done this exercise yet, stop hiding at the back and do it.

The photograph is of Mwnt, our nearest beach.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Application, Talent or Luck?

Friday 31 August: The Right Place
Back at her Dad’s in the south east the heat’s been on for Rose to find a job ASAP. After an interview and near miss at Penguin, Rose needed something in the pipeline fast. She tried three local employment agencies hoping to do some temping. The first agency entered her for a bulk recruitment day for short term work at an insurance company, the second agency refused to register her (‘Just’ a graduate) and the third, ‘Reed’ asked her what she was hoping to do in the long run.
‘Well, I’d like to go into publishing,’ said Rose, ‘but I know that’s a tall order round here.’
As it happened that particular branch of Reed recruit for an international company which has a publishing arm. Looking at Rose’s details, the recruitment agent thought she be just the kind of person the organisation liked. He emailed Rose’s CV straight to the company; she had a phone interview the same day and was invited for a second interview yesterday. This morning she rang to say she’d been offered a job as a production assistant.

Naturally I’m absolutely delighted and I suppose you could say that Rose happened to be in the right place at the right time but I know how hard she’s worked to be that lucky. Not just academically but in her extra curricular activities, for example taking herself off to Tanzania last summer to carry out conservation work. Sure, you can work hard, be very talented but still need luck – it doesn’t always work out, but it’s nice when it does.

Saturday 1 September: The Right Time
Tom starts to take paintings to St Dogmaels for his forthcoming exhibition and returns with exciting news. Three of his small paintings have sold. Hurray! Some of the proceeds will come in handy for buying wine and nibbles for the opening night on Saturday, a third goes to the gallery and the rest will get ploughed back into art materials.

Sunday 2 September: Not Winning Them All
Tom rings me to tell me to come over to the gallery to the paintings in situ. I’m really excited about this exhibition as think this is Tom’s strongest collection yet and I would love to see his work reach a wider audience. I arrive to see two teenage girls walking away from the side window where three smaller paintings are on display.
‘Ninety-five pounds!’ says one in disgust, ‘I might pay a fiver!’
It doesn’t bother Tom who paints because he loves painting but this current show is really stunning. It’s not about the kind of safe watercolours folks might like take to home as a reminder of their holidays but he’s certainly talented… now all he needs is some luck.

Tuesday 4 September: Application, a Personal Mantra
Over at ‘The Novel Racers’ (see link) we were invited to share our writing mantras. Mine is ‘apply bum to seat’ because it’s the best way I know to keep writing. I’ve never needed it more than with this re-write! I know I keep bleating on about it but there’s a sense of new love about a first draft which keeps me engaged whereas a second draft is about hard work and application. This week I’ve been writing a lot of back story, most of which I won’t even use in the work in progress but I have to know what’s there. The bottom line is if I don’t believe it, the reader certainly won’t.

Why bother? I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week. After all, it’s not just hard work that will decide the final outcome for this book: timing and luck play a part too but I’m a very driven person and I expect a lot of myself. (I blame Mum, of course, (remember that Philip Larkin poem?). My sister and I could get 99% in an exam and she still would tell us to do better next time!) So, I think I’ve got the talent, I might need some luck but it’s application I need to finish the re-write and find out whether or not I’ve made a better job of it.

Hwyl fawr!

Painting is 'Aberystwyth Beach' by Tom Tomos