Friday, 15 April 2016

Beauty in the detail of insignificant things

by Tony Gillam

Everyone seemed a bit battle-weary from their day-to-day lives when we met at Annie's on Monday 11th April.  It wasn't the writing that was getting us all down - it was everything else ... and the lack of time left to immerse ourselves in the creative process.  Still, there were some scraps of literary news.  Rob's scheme to give away 30 (slightly defective) copies of Out of Such Darkness via Good Reads had resulted in 857 people coming forward, proving that, if you're willing to write for nothing, there is no shortage of readers out there happy not to pay for a good book!  Rob had also met for coffee with Chris - who, intriguingly, had come to a radical decision about Karl Marx and Careful Driving.  But, reader, you will have to buy that book when it becomes available to find out more.  Annie had found some time for a little editing and polishing of her works for children. Tony has a few things 'in press', as they say, which he is hoping to see in print before too long.  And Linda's computer keyboard had decided to exchange letters for symbols, which might be a useful shortcut to writing symbolist poetry, but is less helpful when you're working on a novel.

We critiqued an extract from a chapter by Linda.  Annie enjoyed the 'gossipyness' of the story.  The intrigue of what's-Lorna-doing-next.  We all admired the sentence: "Phoebe in her scruffy coat and scraped shoes seemed somehow beautiful in the detail of insignificant things."

Rob struggled to keep track of the cast of characters.  For him, the brevity of the scenes made it seem hurried and disjointed but he liked the phrase "eyes the colour of aniseed balls". I also found it a little hard to follow but loved the Dylan Thomas-esque language ("The girls ducked into the warmth of Divito's coffee shop, welcomed by the whirr of the coffee machines and the smell of bacon.") Linda has a knack for stimulating all the senses with tumbling phrases which are naturally rhythmic and alliterative. 

And after that, in our rather chaotic way, we contrived to plan the next few meetings, as follows:
·         Next meeting:  Monday 25th April at Tony's (with Tony submitting)
·         No meeting on Monday 9th May, due to low numbers
·         Monday 23rd May at Jayne's (with Chris to submit) and
·         Monday 13th June at Rob's (with Annie to submit.)

Monday, 11 April 2016

Wretched Snivelling

Some things happened during the course of the meeting but the only really important thing was that Rob had a cold…
We met at Rob’s house on 14th March.
Before the critique we discussed our news:
I have now finished two picture book manuscripts as a result of attending an on-line story-writing course.
Tony has had a book proposal rejected but has been asked to write the introduction to a Malcolm Saville book.
Rob took delivery of a set of his second novel ‘Out of Such Darkness’ and found a blank page had been included within the text. This technical error meant he had to order a new set. What to do with the imperfect copies though? Ever the ideas man, Rob set up an on-line competition where people could ask to receive a book for free. Rob is also editing his latest novel, ‘The Petrified Fountain.’
It was a chapter from this novel that we critiqued.
The chapter sees Cross still in Portugal with his cousin Luis. The pair listened to traditional Portuguese ‘Fado’ singers at a local restaurant. This chapter was slower-paced than previous ones but there was much to admire. Jane enjoyed the description of Cross’ visit to a bookshop. I felt that Cross’ character was being well-drawn; he appears to take every opportunity to compare himself with others and in this chapter it is height comparisons.
Tony and Linda had concerns over Cross as the narrator and found his voice quite intrusive. Rob explained that he wished to continue with it in the first person and he felt that this best served the plot.
There were some excellent descriptions of the ‘Fado’ singers who it seemed stopped at nothing to perform, including being hooked up to an oxygen mask. We questioned the likelihood of this but Rob assured us that this section was written from his research trip to Portugal.  I loved Cross’ summing up of the musical experience: a fantastic oxymoron. ‘It’s very emotional …powerful… and I understood every word even though I didn’t, if you see what I mean.’
We also enjoyed Luis’ use of a noun as a verb with ‘Let’s have a sherry to nightcap.’
Our next meeting is on Monday 11th April at my house. Linda is submitting. 

(Written by Annie posted by Snivelling Rob.)

Friday, 22 January 2016

The Trouble With Biscuits...

The first SVA meeting for 2016 was held at Tony's on 11th January. Tony read chapter 7 from Nothing But A Phantom following a long stint in the kitchen finding alternative refreshments when several troublesome guests admitted that they weren't partial to white chocolate biscuits. Ever the gracious host, he had rustled up an alternative in no time.

In news... 
Rob was away for the first meeting as he's on holiday in South Africa. Annie has started her course with an editor. This is going well and she is optimistic that by the end of week six, one or two books will be ready to submit. Linda has been working on her second book and is finding it easier to write than her previous one. Izzie is working on a couple of commissioned posts about sleep and also has a new job. Tony has had a couple of features published in Acksherley magazine, sent a couple of submissions to Popshot, entered a Writers' and Artists' book competition and also received an acknowledgement for his book proposal on mental health.

Izzie liked the clever use of the chapter and book titles within the text of chapter 7. She also enjoyed the description of Aiden, the drama lecturer and was relieved that Tilman had been rescued. Linda enjoyed the natural, laid-back style of the chapter and felt that Aiden's character really stood out. She also loved the parallels between The Tempest and Tilman being tossed around on the sea. Annie thought that the chapter was a good read, but highlighted that quaint and polystyrene didn't go together at all well. She also liked Aiden's catchphrase, 'Kinda,' and the use of French when Tilman was rescued.

Tony appreciated the comments and varied interpretations. He admitted that the story was unfurling accidentally as it isn't plotted. The use of The Tempest was accidental but appears to work well within the chapter.

We look forward to reading chapter 8.

Next meeting...
The next meeting is scheduled for Monday 25th January at Rob's house, with Annie to submit.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Final Proper Meeting of 2015

(Written by Annie posted by Rob)

We met on 23rd November at Annie’s house. It was rather a select group as Tony was not with us and Chris had sent his resignation via email since the previous meeting. We were so sorry to hear that work commitments made it impossible for Chris to attend any longer. We send him our warmest wishes and look forward to an invitation to his book launch. It was also agreed that in the New Year we would like to organise a meal to give Chris a proper send off.
Izzy had reviewed some candles on her blog and organised and launched her first ever blog competition the prize being some of the scented candle she was reviewing.
Rob has completed 36,000 words during National Novel Writing Month and is on track to complete 50,000 words by the end of November.
Linda had no news to report.
Annie had taken part in ‘The Hook’ event at the SCBWI conference and had found it a very useful process and had received plenty of feedback and ideas from five different agents.
Linda was submitting a chapter from her novel, the working title being ‘Winchelsea Beach’. The chapter was called ‘The Viewing’. Or to be more precise Linda described it as only half a chapter that she had managed to throw onto the page. As usual the quality of the writing was so high that no one had any sympathy for how busy Linda had been.
The chapter tells of how Lorna is showing her work at a swanky art exhibition and has taken Bill, her rather down market and scruffy fisherman boyfriend along with her. As soon as she arrives she can see that Bill is going to be something of a fish out of water and so dismisses him for the evening.
I love the fact that the woman welcoming them at the gallery was called Jelly. Bill didn’t believe her and told her so. She then revealed it was short for Angelica and shortly afterwards Lorna made it clear she had enough of him for one night. The descriptions of the people at the viewing were well-drawn - ‘a coven of elderly women grouped in one corner… heavily made up, they gave the impression they were in a theatrical production, which in a way they were.’ It was also easy to imagine the ‘fashionably dishevelled men scrutinising the paintings and dropping ash from their cigarettes onto the Paisley carpet’.      
Jane felt that the characterisation was good and she felt sorry for Bill and could tell that Lorna was charming yet devious. When Bill falls in love with Lorna it says that he had considered changing his boat’s name. I thought this to be an excellent way of showing rather than telling how Bill feels about her. In the next paragraph though Rob thought that there was a little bit too much tell. A handsome French stranger has caught Lorna’s eye by buying one of her expensive paintings as he is supported by his wealthy parents. Rob thought it better to let these details come out more slowly.
For the ending of the chapter Bill has spent the evening back at Lorna’s house but leaves before she arrives home. As he leaves he sees a 2CV with Lorna in the passenger seat heading in the opposite direction. We thought it might work out best if Lorna wasn’t mentioned at this stage as it does rather give away what happens in the next chapter.
An excellent piece of writing that really moved the story forward in terms of plot and character. It was a fabulous read that had us all gripped.
Next meetings:
Tuesday, 15 December is our Christmas outing to Stourport for a curry.
Our first meetings in 2016 are:
January 11th at Tony’s house and Tony will be submitting.
January 25th at Rob’s house and Annie will be submitting.
February 8th at Izzy’s house and Izzy will be submitting.
I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a happy and productive 2016.

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.