Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Get your coati, you've pulled!

Our preliminary discussion turned once again to the difficulties of a writer’s life. Christmas is coming which means lots of sponsored writing opportunities for Izzie but the PR companies that approach her expect her to write for peanuts. Tony is reeling from the blow of a magazine rejection but undaunted has entered a short story competition. He's also drafting a mental health non-fiction book proposal.  Rob performed his Rattling the Family Skeleton talk to a group of 70 people and sold only three books.
Izzie's coati buddy
Izzie read her blog post entitled Two Weeks in Mexico. This was received enthusiastically with the overall comment being ‘pretty damn-near perfect’. Okay, we maybe would have liked to get to know the animals better – what sort of personality does a coati have? (Annie’s was the dissenting voice here. She didn’t like the idea of ‘rodents’ roaming the pathways and attacking the guests.)
There was some debate about whether ‘sugary-white sand’ created a picture of sublime Pacific bliss or a sticky mass that stuck to the soles of your feet like bubble gum on a pavement. The majority opinion was positive.
In summary, all agreed that, as the piece was more a review than personal travel writing, this required disinterest and impartiality. However, the most interesting parts for the reader were Izzie’s personal reactions to the various elements of an all-inclusive resort and we asked for more of them.
In the planning  section, it was agreed that the next meeting will be Monday 23rd November at Annie’s at 8pm when Linda will read. The only meeting in December is going to be the Christmas social in the week commencing 14th December.
Christopher J Smith
In a sad postscript, it is this scribe’s duty to report that one of the founder members of SVA, Chris Smith, has decided to resign from the group because his work commitments preclude him from attending meetings. We shall all miss Chris’s wise counsel, particularly his knowledge of punctuation. Chris can parse a sentence with the precision of a brain surgeon wielding a scalpel. Our work will be poorer for his absence and we all hope he stays in touch if only to remind us of where to stick our commas.
We wish him luck with his magnum opus, Karl Marx and Careful Driving.

Best wishes for the festive season to all our readers from SVA!

Saturday, 31 October 2015

A spooky Severn Valley Authors' gathering to discuss small-scale tyranny and deleted expletives

The SVA met at my place for an (almost) Halloween meeting.  Spookily, Chris (whose extract we had gathered to discuss) emerged via the dark alleyway that runs alongside the house.  To park his bike round the back he had to contend with dustbins heavy with garden rubbish, so ominous rumblings of wheelie bins and mysterious flashes of LED lights presaged his apparition. 

Annie was unable to join us this week and the remaining five of us had little news to share. There was talk of taking part in National Novel Writing Month (see‎) from Rob, and of helpful advice received from an editor (Linda), of ongoing bloggery (Izzie), submissions to short story magazines (Tony) and a finalising rewrite (Chris). There was also a lot of debate about a mutually convenient meeting time. The consensus seems to be to stick with the second and fourth Monday in each month, starting at 8pm but ending promptly at 10pm. We agreed we would need to be brisker in both our sharing of news and our giving of feedback, avoiding repetition of comments and generally being pithier. 

And, in this spirit, Chris read us an extract from Chapter 13 of his Karl Marx and Careful Driving. The text was full of profundity and humour. In one section, Chris observes that road users are "alienated both from their humanity and from each other by the state's partition of time and space because only the surrender of time and space without direction from another can bring a smile from a grateful stranger." Elsewhere, Chris describes a manager who "might easily be dismissed as a buffoon, but even small-scale tyranny is no joke for those subjected to it."

 Izzie found Chris had a gift for making "complex theories  palatable" while Linda appreciated the improved balance between personal experiences and the history and philosophy sections.  Rob also liked the balance between 'theory' and 'driving' but suggested each chapter could end with a short summary of where the narrator had got to, so far, in his thinking ... and where this might be leading us next. I also enjoyed the frequent switches from macrocosm to microcosm, from the sublime to the mundane and, sometimes, ridiculous.  

There was a lot of discussion about the use of deleted expletives, or rather the inconsistent use of, or expurgation of, expletives. Chris's rationale was that some obscene language was admissible, and some was just too obscene to spell out, but the group felt, if you're going to include some obscenities, you can't be this selective. D H Lawrence paved the way for authors to use such language more freely, although sometimes, in print, it still has the power to shock.

The meeting ended with a brief discussion planning Christmas celebrations. And so - though it's eminently subject to change - the plan for now is as follows:

Forthcoming meetings:
Monday 9 November     Venue:  Izzie's     Izzie to submit
Monday 23 November    Venue:  Annie's    Linda to submit
Monday 14 December or Thursday 17 December:  Christmas meal  (Venue to be confirmed)
Tony Gillam

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Rejection and Inspiration

On Monday 28 September we met at Rob's to discuss the latest development in his novel-in-progress The Petrified Fountain. Izzie and Tony were away on holiday and unable to attend.

Linda reported that the Guardian Master Class 'How to find a literary agent', hosted by the literary agent Juliet Mushens and Jessie Burton (author of The Miniaturist), had been worth every penny of the fee and the return train fare to London. Among the useful tips she gleaned was that a submission to a literary agent should be 90 per cent about the book and 10 per cent about the author; that the synopsis is a technical document limited to a formal summary of the manuscript's content and that the introductory letter is the place for the promotional 'elevator pitch'; and that authors shouldn't be disappointed that the name at the bottom of a standard rejection slip isn't that of the editor you sent it to: readers appointed by agents and publishers are extremely well qualified and know exactly what they are doing.

Hmmm. A quick Google search reveals that

Agatha Christie (book sales in excess of $ 2 billion) suffered five years of continual rejection;

J.K. Rowling's agent received 12 rejections from publishers for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (I assume that J.K. Rowling would have previously received several rejections from agents)

C.S. Lewis suffered years of rejections for his Chronicles of Narnia (over 100 million copies sold);

The Tale of Peter Rabbit (sales of 45 million) received so many rejections that Beatrix Potter self-published 250 copies;

Gone with the Wind received 38 rejections from publishers before going on to sell in excess of 30 million copies;

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is in The Guiness Book of Records for receiving 121 rejections - more than any other best seller.

There are umpteen more examples of spectacularly poor judgement by literary agents and publishers listed on but the following is my favourite:

'To prove how hard it is for new writers to break in, Jerzy Kosinski uses a pen name to submit his best seller Steps to 13 literary agents and 14 publishers. All of them reject it, including Random House, who had published it.' 

Jerzy Kosinski's experiment seems to confirm the worst of our fears: that for many agents and publishers what you write matters a great deal less than who you are, in which case we unknowns might as well give up. The lesson to be drawn from the examples listed on, is that the authors never gave up. Never stop believing in your talent (despite the advice of the 'experts') and above all, persevere. It only takes one person to see what all the others have missed.

Linda brought along two introductory letters handed out by Juliet Mushens. They were sent to her by authors who subsequently went on to have their books published.

And so to The Petrified Fountain. The central character, Mr Cross, has discovered that he has a cousin living in Lisbon. The previous chapter dealt with Cross's flight to Lisbon and his initial meeting with his cousin, Luis Fonseca, at which they agree to meet for dinner. Rob's submission begins with their meeting in a small restaurant, in which Cross learns from Fonseca something of the family's history. They return to Louis's apartment and agree to meet the following morning to visit Cross's grandfather's grave in one of the city's cemeteries. The narrative continues at a good pace with authentic descriptions of Lisbon, well-handled dialogue, further insights into the personalities of the two men, and some humour in the battle for space at the restaurant's tiny table 'the size of a tea tray'. I noted that there were occasional problems with tense: the narrative is set in the present tense, which works well for me, but occasionally slips into the past or even the pluperfect tense (which has no place in a narrative set in the present).

Annie stated that the chapter had a good pace and the she wanted to know what happens next. She enjoyed Rob's development of Cross's fussy personality but also had issues with the tense.

Linda felt that the story moved along well, with strong characterisation, good dialogue and a good sense of place.

Linda and I both had problems with the punctuation in the following sentence(s):

'Of course, you have not been let down by your powers of deduction - ' We bow heads in unison saluting the word's correctness. ' - I do like to be on time. It's an important courtesy.'

I suggested the following change:

'Of course, you have not been let down by your powers of deduction;' (we bow heads in unison saluting the word's correctness) 'I do like to be on time. It's an important courtesy.'

Rob prefers his version and I'm not sure if mine works any better. One of the blog's legions of followers might like to suggest a solution.

Rob said that he'd probably address the problems of the tense by transferring the whole narrative into the past tense, which he feels more comfortable with. He added that William Kellie Smith, Cross's grandfather, was a real person, a Scottish expat who built a castle in the middle of a palm-oil plantation in Malaya. He died in Lisbon from pneumonia in 1956. Rob's visit to the castle in 1990 was the inspiration for The Petrified Fountain.

Next meeting will be at Tony's at 7.30 pm. Chris will be submitting.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Mea Culpa! Mea Culpa!

Smells good too!
Regular readers of this blog will know that it’s our practice to appoint a scribe for each meeting and she or he tries to capture the spirit of each meeting in a few lines before we collect together again. Our meeting on August 24th remains unrecorded and this grave omission is down to me.

Here’s what I remember:
  • Izzie, once again, proved that the Internet is where it’s at. She cleverly contrived to come second in a design-a-room competition and thereby avoided the winner’s prize, which she didn’t want, and collected the runner-up’s that she did.
  • Linda is entering A Headful of Budgerigars in the Myslexia novel-writing competition. It deserves to win.
  • Tony is toying with a concept for a new mental health primer.
  • Tony read a chapter from his novel-in-progress: We all agreed that Tony has a unique, relaxed style and that this extract built the suspense well. Some of us were concerned about Tilman’s naivety and Angland’s complicated ‘banishment’ process. At one stage Linda admitted that she was so transported by Tony’s description that she could smell Tilman’s urine.

I can't see the blog! When's the next meeting?
Had the blog been written in a timely fashion it would have stated that the next meeting would be on 14 September. Apparently, members are unable to use a calendar or diary to determine which are the second and fourth Mondays in a month and you can imagine the confusion that was caused by not being able to refer to the blog for this vital information.

And on that note I’ll move on to the most recent meeting: 14th September. We were down in numbers because Izzie and Linda were both in London. Linda was attending a Guardian writing masterclass and it will be interesting to hear how it went. As far as news went, it was good to hear that some of us enjoyed events in Bewdley Book Week. Tony has submitted an article to the Malcolm Saville Society magazine. (Tony is a fully paid member of the Lone Pine Club Rob has talked about No Mean Affair to Dorridge U3A and Chris will talk to Newport (Shropshire) U3A about Why Don’t You Fly?

It was Annie who submitted for this week and we discussed a very nearly final draft of Polly Poodle’s Pamperina. Because of Chris’s extended absence this was his first exposure to this text for an illustrated children’s book and he commended Annie on the originality of the story and its rhymes. His main concern was whether and when Polly’s ‘speech’ should be in quotation marks.

I suggested that the work was much improved by the changes that Annie made following advice from her ‘proper’ writing group because it now has a recognisable story arc structure. The rhymes and rhythm are almost perfect with some verses working stunningly well. However, I expressed concern that the couplet that was used as a refrain was not as smooth as it needed to be to bear repetition.

Tony was also very positive about the rhyming and rhythm and suggested improvements where he thought they were called for.

Annie circulated a pitch that she’d written for a ‘Hook’ event at the next conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and this was met with approval from all – subject to some very minor amendments.

After a brief discussion of whether we have to start building bomb shelters in our gardens and prepare for dystopian future now that Jeremy Corbyn is leader of the Labour Party, we went our separate ways. But not before we had agreed arrangements for the next few meetings, as follows: 

28.9.15:  Rob to submit and to host
12.10.15:  Chris to submit; Tony to host 
26.10.15:  Jayne to submit and to host
9.11.15:  Linda to submit; Annie to host.
(And all meetings to start at 8pm.)

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The Trouble With Cats...

Chris was on a downward spiral, but keeping going anyway because it's the only way to go after spending so many years on what is going to be a brilliant read.

Rob is to attend two writing groups who have read his latest release and has been notified that 'Out of Such Darkness' has been longlisted for The Guardian's Not the Booker Prize. Here's the link if you'd like to read more.

Having seen a play about The Lone Pine Club, Tony went on to write a review. This was spotted by the Malcom Saville Society and after they promoted the post via social media, Tony has seen a spike in traffic to his blog. The review is to be published in the Malcolm Saville magazine.

Annie plans to run her own website after posting lots of entries on her school's blog and being inspired to write her own website. Based on writing techniques for children, the site is called 'Write There.' She also continues to work on Polly Poodle.

Linda has finished a submission for this year's Myslexia Women's Novel competition and has registered for a Guardian Masterclass on submissions.

Linda read Chapter Four from 'Chelsea Beach.' The general consensus, as always, was that Linda's writing was atmospheric, emotional, descriptive and poetic. The opening paragraph with its description of a house filled with cats set the scene for family mayhem. As the chapter unfurled, we were treated to an emotional read about Phoebe's sixteenth birthday celebrations organised by her grandparents.

Annie thought the chapter revealing about life at home through the eyes of sixteen-year-old, Phoebe. Izzie loved the descriptions of Phoebe as someone having to be grown-up before her time. Tony thought it a comforting read and imagined the book being selected for Radio Four's 'Book of the Week.' Rob thought it quite brilliant, but possibly offensive to cat lovers. While Chris thought it was descriptive and the dialogue, 'expert.' 

In Linda's right to reply, she revealed that she'd not had much time to devote to writing the chapter. As we were all so taken with it, this came as quite a surprise.   
The next meeting is to be a summer social event held at Rob's on the 10th August at 7:45pm.

Monday, 20 July 2015

A local writing group for local people

We met at Tony's on Monday 13 July.

Annie is continuing to work on her children's poetry and has spent a picture-book-writing day with her Proper Writing Group.

Tony has been invited by Persephone Books to review one of their books on his blog. He has submitted three short stories to Popshot magazine and he's also planning to write a proposal for a book based on his research on wellbeing and mental health.

I have been revising the final two chapters of Karl Marx and Careful Driving. I was able to report that I have done two talks on the cycle-ride to Beijing: to Bromsgrove Motorcycle Club (Monday 7 July) and to Leominster Vintage Club (Wednesday 9 July), selling respectively thirteen and seven copies of 'Why Don't You Fly?'  

Linda has been working on a new book, provisionally titled Chelsea Beach. She will be entering A Head Full of Budgerigars in Mslexia's women's novel-writing competition.

Rob, who has been heavily involved in organising Bewdley Book Week, test-reading the manuscript of Karl Marx and Careful Driving and landscaping his garden, has been invited to three local reading groups to talk about his latest novel Out of such Darkness. I don't know how he finds the time, even in retirement.

The submission was from Rob's novel-in-progress The Petrified Fountain. Our hero flies out to Lisbon to meet a cousin he has traced through a private investigator. The descriptions of the city are testimony to the week the author spent wandering Lisbon's streets earlier this year specifically for the purposes of research.  We all enjoyed Rob's development of the fastidious narrator (a man, he assured us, who would absolutely have said 'quotidian' rather than 'daily') and the introduction of Luis Fonseca, the chain-smoking cousin who happens to be a private investigator himself. Tony remarked that Cross's meeting with his cousin in a dingy, smoke-filled office was evocative of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe and wondered if it was for real or a parody.

As with all first drafts there was the odd typo to point out and the syntax was occasionally a little clumsy. Annie felt occasionally that the descriptions of Lisbon sounded a little too like a guide book and Linda was of the opinion that Rob might have added more of the city's sounds and smells. Writing convincing dialogue spoken by foreigners is a minefield. Given that Fonseca professed himself to be bi-lingual, I was concerned that Rob's efforts to make him sound foreign in the passages of dialogue might be misconstrued by some readers as poor writing. Rob countered that since the claim to be bilingual was Fonseca's alone, the faintly stilted English was a joke - but in my opinion one a little too subtle for the majority of readers to pick up (had the English been truly awful we'd have got it).

Cross dons neatly-pressed tan chinos and a plain Hawaiian shirt for the meeting with Fonseca. 'Plain Hawaiian shirt? Oxymoron!' we jeered, almost in unison. Not so. Plain Hwaiian shirts, we were reliably informed, can be bought on the internet.

Finally we discussed whether to use further or farther and complexion or complection. All spellings are permissible but farther is used exclusively for distances.

The next meeting is at 7.45 pm on Monday 27 July at Annie's. Linda will be submitting. Now I really must go and book those tickets for Bewdley Book Week.

Blog posted by Chris.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Remember: It’s always sunny above the clouds!

We met at Izzy’s house. There were only the four of us, as Rob was otherwise engaged with some old friends and Tony was in Bournemouth.

Linda and Izzy have both been busy with life in general and so had no writerly news to report. Chris had given a talk and sold nine books. I (Annie) have totally reworked Polly Poodle and am pleased with the way it is progressing.

Chris read an extract from ‘Karl Marx and Careful Driving’. Izzy was astounded by the depth of Chris’s knowledge of periods of history that are not mainstream or even in our psyche. Izzy also enjoyed the playlist that punctuates the story with the switch from Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ to Mozart’s clarinet concerto as Chris and his armed security guard take it in turns to hear their preferred music during the trip.

Linda thought it a brilliant read and was absorbed by it. She found the history parts fascinating and enjoyed the punctuation provided by Chris’s lighter observations about life on the road. Linda also paid homage to Tony. At SVA we each have our part to play. Rob is the patriarch, Linda the matriarch, Izzy the techno queen and Chris the brains. But Tony is the hyphen police. Stitching words together where they have been pulled apart. But something exciting happened in his absence! Linda spotted a hyphen that had been included and needed to be removed! Cumulo-nimbus to cumulonimbus.  

For me the piece was a good balance of history and more mundane, trivial matters such as how to avoid getting shot by armed bandits. The relationship between Chris and Vladimir is developing well for the reader if not in their reality. The links between sections were subtle with Chris stopping at a bakery to buy bread shortly after musing about bread rationing in the Soviet Union in 1934. I did challenge Chris when he asserted that ‘everyone has common sense.’

Keep going, Chris! I remember how mentally exhausted I was once with a 10,000 thesis so I can only begin to imagine the magnitude of this project!

The next meeting is July 13th at Tony's house. Rob is submitting.