Wednesday, 23 July 2014

P/C from Marseillan: Holiday Reading Rachel Cooke


The random nature of reading on holiday is part of its charm.

I gave up on a book which began with three people improbably drinking neat gin from jam jars. Instead I plumped for a book on Licked Spoon’s pile: Her Brilliant Career by Rachel Cooke.

 The Book and its Themes

‘Her Brilliant Career’ consists of biographical pieces about ten women, who  characterise what Cooke sees as a neglected feminist feature of women’s experience in the 1950s. These women are proto-feminists before the high octane feminist splurge of the latter 1960s. (As I keep saying - nothing comes from nothing.)

These ten women - having experienced the shortages, losses and the heightened awareness brought
on by world war - inhabited lives of equality with their male cohorts, determinedly ploughing their own furrow and subverting the powerful post-war instinct to return to a conservative male-driven domestic ‘normality’
.
Each of them, in her different way, succeeded in this by being and sustaining her often ‘different’ self with her ambition, her self worth and determination to achieve the life aims she has set herself.

These women are distinctly different from each other and colourful in different ways. But, reading Cooke’s essays here, I have the feeling that they share three qualities: confidence in their importance of their central idea, self belief involving a habit, that the controlling world could call ‘selfishness’, of putting their own ideas before cultural expectations.  The third quality has to be courage - either instinctual or deliberate – as they flout the taken-for-granted view of what women’s lives should be and subvert the sacred institution of the family in post-war Britain.

Presaging a ‘feminist’ future even before that term was common parlance, the lives of these women, taken together, weave a complex picture of the changing nexus of being  a woman in the 1950s. (Declaring an interest, I grew up in the 1950s and can vouch for some of the truths here.)

The Women

Three of them were married, three of them were lesbians; six of them had children, three of them were divorced;  one of them was separated. Extra marital affairs seem common among this group and attitudes to children and the mother’s role vary.

 Who are they?

Patience Gray (Food writer); Nancy Spain (Writer and ‘personality’); Joan Werner Laurie (Magazine Editor); Sheila Van Damm ( Rally Car Driver and Theatre Manager); sisters-in law Muriel and Betty Box (pioneers of popular film); Alison Smithson (Future oriented architect); Jaquetta Hawkes (Archeologist) Rose Heilbron (QC and High Court Judge). 

It was great to read about the highly original, talented Alison Smithson* - a new name to me, now sunk below the horizon. In reading the book I learned a good deal about the others, about whom I thought I knew a lot. (I would urge you to read the book to discover more the differences and delights  in the lives of these women.)

The Writer

Rachel Cooke's voice is clearly that of a woman who inhabits the cultural certainties of 2014. Her style is elegant, intimate, sometimes quite matey. But in her deceptively informal style she delivers a beautifully written, very accessible book. The considerable depth and breadth of research of these biographies pins the accounts to the historical moment, to the culture of theatre and film, to the literature and architecture of the day, to the nature of civil society and the subtle politics of family and workplace.

Cooke achieves this feat with readable ease. Her footnotes illustrate the depth and breadth of her research and add colour and context to the lives of these women whose names echo in our memories: women who lived equal lives in psychologically more difficult  circumstances than women face today.

If you are at all interested in the 1950s, the wide-ranging introduction to Her Brilliant Career is worth reading alone. If you are interested in any individual woman, the following essays can be read each on its own. But to read all of them is to become familiar with the feeling of what it was like to be a woman in that very significant decade.

In my view the Brilliant Career of writer Rachel Cooke should be much enhanced by this first class book.

*In an earlier version of this post I mis-named this excellent woman. Apologies to Rachel Cooke, I put it down to mis-reading my own notes;  according to my perceptive daughter it's a thing called 'holiday brain'. Never suffered from that before. The name is correct now. wx

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Listening to Sounds at the Port

On holiday in  Marseillan in Herault. Our house is in the middle of the town - a few steps from the port with its lines of boats in one direction and a few steps from the town centre in the other -
I find myself ...

 Listening to Sounds at the Port 

Town bus grinding
Builder’s truck brumming
Small car purring
Scooter buzzing
Swallows chirruping
Small dog barking
Family voices -
father deeper, children higher,
mother somewhere in between
Guitar playing
Drummer drumming 
Church bells ringing
Skate-board growling
Rigging clattering

In this summer life
So very much to listen to ... 

'Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows.'

Postcards from Marseillan on my Facebook.
 

Monday, 7 July 2014

Editing Your Book For Independent Publication

Having now edited and published ten novels using the Createspace facility I thought it might be good to share some helpful points for writers out there who are embarking or struggling with this process.


I have writer  friends who are independently publishing with the technical help of their tech-savvy partners or co workers, I’m not so lucky so I have done every stage myself.

I must say if I can do it then so can you. I  I have become comfortable with the Createspace process but there are other printing/publishing enterprises out there which you may choose.  The principles will be similar.

This is the first of five posts about First Principles of  Independent  Publishing

1. Editing Your Book In for Independent Publishing.
2. The Cover
3. Uploading the interior and the cover.
4. Proofing
5. Selling


 Editing your book  for Independent Publishing

1.       Make sure your manuscript in Word is as good as it can be by assiduous line editing, proofing and manual spell-checking. Also do a mechanical spell check to back this up.
2.       Read through and ask yourself it this core of the book says truly what you want to say. You feel the need to alter and amend even at this stage.
3.       Now is the time you insert the front pages that are in any book. (Check half a dozen books and note the pages that occur before the book begins. These pages should include.
4.       Two blank pages at the beginning
5.       Facing Half Title page with just the title (no author)  
6.       Blank page
7.       Facing Title Page with Title and Author, perhaps a quotation or phrase as appropriate, and the publisher at the bottom of the page. (Give your publishing enterprise a name…)
8.       Copyright Page. Take a published book and copy the form of the copyright page. Leave a space for the ISBN which you can insert when you have uploaded the manuscript.  Createspace will assign you an ISBN number.
9.        Facing page – Dedication and Acknowledgements
10.    Blank page
11.    Facing page - If you want this. (Essential for the Kindle version) - A summary of the story. If you are doing Print in Demand.you can copy  and paste this onto the back cover.
12.    Contents Page (if necessary). Or leave page blank,.
13.   Facing Page: Beginning of your story. Leave a ten line gap at the beginning of every chapter.

NEXT
Studs 
14.   In your word document  created a page break between each chapter
15.   First paragraphs in each chapter should be on the margin.
16.   If, within a chapter, you leave white space (double-double click)to indicate to the reader a change of time of place then the  first line of the new paragraph should also be un-indented.
17.   At the end of the ms you might want to insert pages with :
-          Information about  you and contact details
-          Blog, Twitter and Facebook links if these exist
-          Information about earlier or other publications
18.Leave two blank pages again.
I know it’s a bit fiddly but if you do it step by step you will be OK. Your manuscript should now be ready to upload to the Createspace template.
 More about that next time . 

NEXT:
Creating your cover and uploading your prepared manuscript.

On this page  are three of the books I have published using these processes.





Forms of Flight: 


Lines of Desire

Monday, 30 June 2014

Feedback in the contemporary literary jungle,

In the contemporary literary jungle n o writer can survive without positive feedback 


 - Therefore every positive review is a lifeblood and must be to be celebrated, So I cannot resist posting here just part of the latest Amazon Review of Journey to Moscow: The Adventures of Olivia Ozanne:

 '... Relationships are very important in this novel. We have the mother/daughter relationship that can be fraught at times, the love of the two Aunties which has lasted for decades, Kendrick who is an unpleasant character and hasn’t treated Olivia well and the relationship between Olivia and her son, who goes through a hard time with the police. The relationship of Olivia with her own mother has been very difficult and when her mother dies, she is in a quandary. Once again, she makes her own decisions and takes no account of the views of others. She does what she feels is right. This is a fascinating and very readable novel and I have thoroughly enjoyed it....' 


So here's a special thank you to G.A. and thank you to all readers out there who take the time and trouble to reflect on the page about a book they have read and enjoyed. Thank you especially for keeping the lifeblood flowing through this writer's veins!




On Amazon, of course.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Mary's Garden opens for Marie Curie.

Even buttercups find a place
 in Mary's garden.

I had a great treat on Saturday afternoon organised by the Bishop Auckland Branch of the Marie Curie Organisation - part of their national series of Blooming Great Tea Parties 

 Mary Smith - an original  member of Wear Valley Writers - opened her exquisite garden to raise funds for this excellent charity.

 I went at the invitation if my Room To Write friend Gillian Wales who also has an exquisite garden which she will open for the National Gardens Scheme on July 6th.

Another treat in store...
 



The garden meanders down a slope
is structured around mature trees originally
 plated by Mary and her husband/

The hostess - a gifted gardener and a good writer 

The garden is planted to surprise you with
contrasting colours and textures  

Achemillla Mollis tumbling onto the path.,

Symbol of the Marie Curie Blooming Great Tea Party 
- made from a beach ball.

Tender contrasts

Home made cakes for the Blooming Big Tea Party.

This reminds me of a fairy dell.

A poppy leads the eye.

Dramatic perpendicular scene 

 The afternoon raised more than £350 for the Marie Curie Charity.



 Planting for colour, direction and contrast


Delicate mixture 

Pergola on a green pathway.


Pink flowers like stars.

Large pool, elegantly postioned,
perfectly planted.

Wild planting by the small pool.




Thank you Mary. It was a privilege to be there. Wendyxxx


Saturday, 21 June 2014

Book Covers and Novels in the PInk.

At my Middlesbrough workshop last week (great venue; lovely  writers) the perceptive Lorraine said to me, 'All your books are different from each other aren't they, Wendy? They all look different.' She paused.'When I have enjoyed one novel I like to move onto something similar. I can't tell whether yours are similar or not.'

She has a pint. You can see that each novel looks different from the books illustrated here on the right hand sidebar.

I didn't have time to tell Lorraine that in one way - the style, the attitude, the sense of character, the sense of history - my novels must indeed be similar. I love my characters; they are all original and live for and with me. And - without  necessarily intending to - I demonstrate my preoccupation with  recurring issues of identity, justice and the impact of history on the individual. And  creative, deeply characterful women and men are often at the  centre of my stories.

Though each book appears to be different  I feel that, if a reader has enjoyed one of them, it is very likely that they will enjoy another. I am asking them to trust my name as a good storyteller.

But Lorraine certainly hit a chord. I find myself these days to be  on a one  woman campaign against the fashion in  pre-digested literature and the  commodification of writers and their novels.


Pre-digested? Commodification? In this today I find myself very much in tune a great article on the Guardian Book Page**



'...the market is increasingly being shaped by sales and marketing people, rather than editors and others who actually know what a good book is. So if a book does well, during the next two years you'll see many echoes of that book on the shelves. The once kaleidoscopic book world risks becoming 50 shades of safe. If you are writing a book that doesn't fit into the categories of mass-market thriller or book-club friendly WI-lit, then it is going to struggle to find a publisher. If it does so, then it will struggle to find a publisher that can justify spending the marketing money needed to make an impact...'


So I will continue to write novels that - although written my me in my idiosyncratic  literary style - are different to each other and not pre-digested  so that my readers don't think they know the story before they have read it. My great ambition is that  each novel is a fresh experience, fresh fun, fresh insightt for my readers as it is for me. 


That being said perhaps there might be  something in what the marketeers say about covers!


  I noticed that at this same workshop the novel of mine  most picked up and most bought was Journey To Moscow,  which has a distinctive pink cover -


This made me think that if I made all my covers pink then in that way they would look somewhat alike and would encourage readers like Lorraine to trust me and read another novel of mine.

So here is an experiment. I've had mocked up a pink version of my novel Gabriel Marchant, originally in grey Here they are., Does the pink version make it seem more fun (it is fun)) and/or more accessible?

Are you attracted to this?


Or this?




Or does the colour of the cover make no difference at all? Let me know. I would value your opinion WX

T


Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Writer and the Heroic Character.

 In these days of ambiguous main characters in novels it is interesting to note that the universal notion of heroes and heroines still survives in successful (ie good selling) fiction. 
The great challenge or the serious writer is to characterise proper heroes and heroines without resorting to stereotype. Characters in the Cinderella/Portia/ Becky Sharp/Elizabeth Bennett & Bridget Jones tradition can easily sink into stereotype: (We may look to Molly Bloom for more complexity). 

 Equally for heroes we have fore-runners such as Henry V/ Achilles/ Tom Jones/ Mr Darcy/ Geronimo & Blade to fall back on. (We look to John Rebus for more complexity)


All writers - so called 'literary' or so-called 'other' – make use of such forerunners.
One might argue that we all make use of them, whether we know it or not, because such characterisation is built into our collective subconscious One might also argue that the most popular novels find favour with the general public for that reason, as they share this collective subconscious. 

This is why good popular fiction crosses national and international boundaries with ease. It accounts for universality of appeal from Pat Parker to Catherine Cookson.

In the rigorous editing of two of my own recent novels I have become more aware of the way my own subconscious interprets these heroic traditions.

For instance in my historic novel Lines of Desire  I note (to my surprise)  that  sometimes I show heroism in action:


“…Kynan drove his horse forward in pursuit, followed in a second by Magnus. The boar lumbered into a narrow clearing and hesitated, swishing backwards and forwards between the trees. That was when, spear in hand, Kynan let go of his reins and stood up in his saddle, manoeuvring his horse with his calves. Closer to the boar he balanced his spear and launched it hard, so it embedded itself, quivering, in the creature’s neck, making it lurch to one side, squealing. In a second Kynan drew his second spear and aimed that very close to the other one.  Blood spurted upwards in a scarlet fountain that reached the branches of the nearest tree and started to drip down, back onto the squirming beast, which now whimpered and gurgled.  But still it twitched with desperate life.
Kynan leapt lightly rom his horse and stood before his prey. He looked up at Magnus. ‘Your honour?’
Magnus shook his head. ‘Finish your task, Master Kynan. The kill is yours.’…”

Here, Kynan, brother of my heroine Elen is shown in violent action following the traditonal the role of action hero.  But in the last line Magnus – Macsen Wledig – the true hero of the novel – shows heroism in his mannerly and politically acute restraint.

In writing for a wide public I have found that I seem to have realised that the modern reader needs to see their heroes and heroines. (Once one has seen the film of Pride and Prejudice it is impossible to  read about him in the book without the image of Mr Darcy emerging from the water, his shirt clinging like a second skin. (So far, so not Jane Austen…)

And we see Macsen first through the eyes of Helen, the central character of the novel. (This piece of prose works in two ways: we see Macsen; we also hear Elen’s voice):


…Now the man comes into the light. My honeycomb head notices everything about him in a
Elen is a Pathfinder 
second. But of course he’ll never realise this. Not now and not later.
I focus on a clean-shaven, wind-bronzed face under thick black hair threaded through with silver. He’s quite old, perhaps as much as thirty-five years. Even more. He’s as tall as Kynan but more thickset. He wears his hair forward in that foreign way, held in place by the thinnest of golden bands. His thick black brows almost meet over a thin, finely arched nose. Beneath them his eyes, bright and blue as cornflowers, examine me.
I put my hand on Snow’s neck to quiet him but I too smell danger. Rape and violent attack is always a risk in this situation - not just with Caesar’s men but with our own men too. A lone woman is easy game for hunters. My cloak of invisibility can’t be relied on in situations like this…’



And we first see Elen herself through the eyes of Macsen’s best friend Quintanius, not Macsen himself:


“…There at the edge of the clearing I blinked very hard. This girl was as beautiful as the morning and fashioned from light and air; her face was white as ivory, her gleaming fox-coloured hair was caught in a long loose plait. I know now that she was seventeen years old, but that morning, as we looked at her, she could have been just thirteen or fourteen, so young and fair was she.
My own heart lurched, but I know now that Magnus too was touched by the sight of her. His face – normally so sharp and alert – softened. A smile played around his tight lips. We pulled up our horses behind the broad trunk of an oak tree and he jumped down, landing lightly, without a sound. He looked up at me, winked, and handed me the reins.
Of course that was before we saw her walk on fire and before she gathered her hosts to take on Rome. We will get to all that but first here is Elen to tell you her own story of how she came to be there on that day, fateful for Rome and for Britain too...”
 
Get the novel

NEXT - Heroes and Heroines in 

Gabriel Marchant: How I Became a Painter.








Monday, 2 June 2014

Fact and Fiction. Gabriel Marchant:How I became a Painter

I’ve spent more than a month now putting the final touches to the revising, writing and re-editing of my very long novel Gabriel Marchant: How I Became a Painter. This painstaking process has been necessary because I feel this must be my best novel. Room to Write has published it, using the invaluable Createspace process, where much of the responsibility for the quality of the end product lies with the author. In the past this seemed much more straightforward as I worked for a long time with a big publisher where whole departments attended to the details which I have now attended to myself in collaboration with the Room To Write team


People always say, about a new novel, what is it about? This is always a difficult question to answer in one sentence.

 ‘There is no doubt that fiction
makes a better job of truth.

Doris Lessing

Here is what it says on my cover:

'It is 1963, the day after the assassination of President Kennedy, the eminent painter Gabriel Marchant pays public tribute to his late mentor Archie Todhunter. He reflects on his early days when, as an out of work miner in 1936, he met Archie, the charismatic warden of The Settlement, an arts centre in his home town.
           At that time, unemployed and feeling very low, Gabriel is rescued by the encouragement he finds at The Settlement, where people out of work are inspired by Archie Todhunter and the enigmatic German Rosel Vonn, a sculptor and artist who teaches there. Travelling with Gabriel on his journey are his best friend Tegger, who will become a writer, and the clever, witty schoolgirl Greta who will change lives in her own way.
           Later, both haunted and inspired  by images of life and work underground, Gabriel’s paintings finds first local,  then national fame and his life is changed forever.
          As he tells the whole tale of how he became a painter Gabriel Marchant celebrates the liberating nature of art in hard-pressed lives and the role of people like Archie Todhunter, those magical change-makers in lives like his own....'

Gabriel’s own story is fiction but it  springs out of my personal experience of a particular place at a particular time and my research into the true experience of people whose lives were changed in such a way.


In my dedication I say: This novel is dedicated to all those whose lives impelled them to dig in the darkness, who still found the grace there to create beauty. In particular I honour the inspiration of the art of Tom McGuinness, Ted Holloway and Norman Cornish, in addition to the literary inspiration of the writer Sid Chaplin. All of them, in their unique fashion, flourished as young people through the magic of the Spennymoor Settlement.

I have published this book to coincide with the magnificent Shafts of Life Exhibition - masterminded by Gillian Wales and Robert McManners – currently on at the Bowes Museum in County Durham. 

In my own mind I was writing a story which came to  me and which I felt compelled to write. Committed to Gabriel. Tegger, Greta, Archie, Cora, and Dev, I wrote their story from the heart.

But during this long revision and rewrite I have discovered that, threaded through my story, are my own sense of history as an element of place and my own fundamental ideas about inequality, social justice and the triumphs of personality over circumstance.

And, most importantly, my story is about the liberating outcomes of practising one’s art, whether it is expressed through paint on canvas or in words and stories on the page. In their creative processes both painters and writers are, I feel,  driven to arrive at a greater truth.

The vivid paintings in the Shafts of Life exhibition are an enduring proof of this. I hope that this also applies to this novel, as it may apply to many of my other novels. As Khaled Hosseini says of writing, ‘Writing Fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.’  

The exhibition shows the great art and the greater truth of individual miners’ perceptions of their work and their environments.  I hope my novel about Gabriel Marchant  shows the greater truth about the interior and exterior lives such artists lived.

Doris Lessing has said ‘There is no doubt that fiction makes a better job of truth.’ In the same way the paintings in this exhibition make a better truth of the miner’s experience than any so-called factual documentary film.

Perhaps going to see Shafts of Light and also reading  Gabriel Marchant: How I became a Painter would allow people to access a more complex truth. I hope so.

, ‘Writing Fiction is the act of weaving 
a series of lies  to arrive at 
a greater truth.’ Khaled Hosseini 

Links


Monday, 26 May 2014

I wish I could recognise the songs of birds.

At 4am from my bathroom window I can hear the dawn chorus streaming from the trees around the house. One bird in particular sings a long sweet song which seems to have no end. In my imagination this is the nightingale from the fairy story. But not that even I imagine I am an Emperor.
 
The Black Writing Table 
And the birds begin again in the afternoon, calling from the trees and sometimes fluttering to the bird table, then veering off at the last moment like a World War 2 bomber.They must be put off by me, sitting writing at my black writing table.

A woman with short hair passes the gate and catches sight of me. She doesn't swerve away like the birds. She catches my eye.  'It's quite a haven here, with all these trees in the middle of the town.' she says.

I nod. ‘Quite a haven!’ 

I show her the wash of bluebells, a little blowsy now, past their best, at the bottom of the garden. ‘It’s because this is all ancient woodland’ I explain.
Jasmin's Archie Among My Bluebells 
‘The bluebells and the yellow aconites come and come, again. They spread and spread. Even if you leave a patch in the cultivated garden the bluebells sprout where they haven’t come for twenty years.'

The woman nods, sharing my sense of surviving magic for a split second. Then she tells me she’s looking at a house further along the little road. ‘This is really quite a haven,' she says again.

She seems like a nice woman. Sounds Antipodean. She strolls off and I return to my black table and my pen and book. And I still listen to the birdsong, more subdued now as the day moves on to a close.




Friday, 23 May 2014

The Re-emergence of the Lilac

The lilac has re-emerged.When we first came to this house thirty years ago there was a great hedge of Victorian lilac before the front door shielding the house from long side view of the garden. with its tall trees underpinned by bluebells and the long, somewhat unkempt, bank cluttered in summer with yellow aconites, forget-me-nots. and  buttercups raising their heads above the wild grass.


Eager beavers, we took down the hedge and opened the view and planted a perennial border. I did feel pangs of regret when eventually we lost all sight of the lilac.
The Lilac in Blowsy Effusion 


But now after thirty years I see the lilac has re-emerged, sprouting blossom in all directions with blowsy effusion . At the front door now I am invaded by a deep smoky scent reminiscent of antimacassars and old wax polish.
The lilac must have been playing doggo underground for a generation and has now re-emerged, treating me to a bright splash of lilac in the slanting afternoon sunshine.

I have been thinking now that the lilac will continue to re-emerge long after I am gone, just as it sprouted long before I came here to this house.
Not that I regret the long border...



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