Too Fast. Too Furious. Too Far. Too Much.

Too Fast. Too Furious. Too Far. Too Much.

No, I’m not reviewing the latest offering in the Fast & Furious franchise (incidentally, they are quite good escapist fun that pay no attention to either geography, the laws of physics and a variety of other things; if you can cope with that, go for it)

I’m at that point of complete overwhelm with life where I fear not only breakdown but total burn-out. The entire world seems to be intent on going to hell in a handy hand basket, singing all the way about such guff as sovereignty, taking back control and how experts are stupid and don’t know anything. In the mean time, they’re kicking the underdog, and demonising anyone who disagrees with them, and all the while economic turmoil & political strife create further unrest and disorder.

It’s not a nice time to be alive, quite frankly. I grew up during the Cold War, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland which spilled over into mainland Britain, during the Three Day week with strikes, power cuts, shortages and so on. I used to have nightmares on a regular basis about nuclear war. Despite being a child during much of this, I read the newspapers and I watched the news. There were bomb threats made against schools and public buildings of all sorts; there was even an actual bomb in my school when I was 18.

The information overload is such that unless you completely unplug and detach from the world (no internet, no TV, no radio, no newspapers, not even talking to people) it pours into your psyche in an unending torrent of awfulness. And as our entire culture is now rooted in the use of the internet, even those of us who don’t have a smartphone, cannot escape the 24/7 exposure to literally EVERYTHING all at once. I regularly take days off internet use; since I only use my main computer for internet, this is relatively easy. But my work is online. To completely drop all my online connections and obligations would mean that I would vanish very, very quickly. I have had online friends say, “Stuff this for a game of soldiers!” and deactivate all their social media profiles and disappear. Some have explained beforehand but many don’t. They just stop being there; and it can take a while to notice, because everything cascades past you at such a rate that it can take weeks or longer to think, oh whatever happened to old so-and-so. I try to care about my friends beyond my computer screen but I know I have been dropping the ball of late.

I’ve also noticed that alongside the paring away to virtually nothing of the mental health support system, has come a rise and rise of a culture of shallow, one-size-fits-all organised “self help”, often using the label of mindfulness, CBT etc. I bought a magazine the other day (for research) called Breathe. It’s new, and deliberately not glossy, but its tag-line is WELLBEING MINDFULNESS CREATIVITY ESCAPING. I’ve flipped through and skim-read the articles, punctuated by lovely pictures and it scares me. It’s the escaping part of the remit that worries me most. That’s because I want to escape. I want out. I want to retreat into a comfortable haze of nice things around me. When I started using colouring as a means of removing some stress, a friend commented disparagingly that she felt it was infantilising people. At the time, I filed the comment away for future thought, and since then, as colouring books became ubiquitous, they also became simpler, more focused on prettiness and light, sweet, NICE things (like cupcakes, fancy shoes and flowers), I realised the movement has been towards an infantilising rather than a form of creativity that allows the mind to engage with quiet while the body works on something gently absorbing but not terribly challening. It was the arrival of dot-to-dot colouring books for adults that I freaked and began to feel very uncomfortable. We all need R&R to step out of the fray and recuperate, but the very juvenile nature of some of the R&R that’s thrust constantly under our noses bothers me. There’s a massive and growing industry that keeps churning stuff out to keep us happy, and quiet and submissive to everything. So many people are saying “Oh I’m bored with politics now; let’s just ignore it all!” and retreating into whatever comfortable corner that they feel safest in. And I understand that; I really do. I’m so uncomfortable with life that my whole being aches with it, aches to walk away and completely and permanently tune out the dark, the dangerous, and the difficult things that are going on around me. I’m not living with war, but there’s a lot of things happening in my land that are secret wars that have real victims, and the insane decision to leave the EU is going to create a lot more as prices rise and poverty and shortages increase and this country isolates itself from her European allies and friends.

Every day I wake up, and within a short time, EVEN WHEN I DON’T LOG ON, I am hit by a wave of fear, of despair, of confusion and I think, Stop the world, I want to get off. But I can’t. There is no Planet B and as we systematically trash this one, we’re shitting in our own wells and pissing on our own food. I can and I do take a variety of actions towards conservation, helping the poor, creating havens for wild-life in my own garden and a lot of other things. But my mind is close to cracking and my body close to shutting down. I’m pulled in two opposing directions at once: to retreat, give up on being a responsible adult citizen, or to stand up for what I believe in (but where to start? There’s so much I want to defend) and be that solitary figure standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square (that’s what it feels like, frankly, but then perhaps we are all standing in front of a tank)

I’d like to end with something cheerful but beyond a plea to buy my books (go on go on go on) I can’t think of anything I can say that isn’t also me trying to be falsely cheerful and horribly fake. I’m doing my level best every day to do that thing of lighting a single candle rather than cursing the darkness but it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. So, sorry for being a miserable, pessimistic moaner (a remoaner, even. Don’t get me started on THAT little insult) and perhaps soon I can be a tad more cheery.

What to do while you’re waiting for the postman…

What to do while you’re waiting for the postman…

About ten days ago, I wrestled my way through the long-put-off edits for Little Gidding Girl, excising any direct quotes from T.S. Eliot and adding in numbers for footnotes so that the discarded lines could be referenced by readers should they choose to do so. Then I did yet another read-through for typos and stuff of that ilk, before uploading the completed text to Createspace. After the usual twelve or so hours wait, I got the notification that I could now order proofs.

Said proof copies are due to arrive by the 2nd of June. All of a sudden, it looks like this book might actually be happening after all.

Truth is, I’m unprepared. My brain seems to have gone into a state of acute fogginess, and my psyche has become frozen and unable to respond. Everything feels like it’s been slowed down; holding a conversation feels like I’m talking on a satellite phone to someone half a world away. There’s a delay between hearing and understanding, and another delay between understanding and replying.

I know that by this stage in the game other (successful) writers have their strategies for launch day in place. Blogs have been written, giveaways organised, tweets scheduled, FB party invites sent out, interviews conducted and your Street Team are all ready with their pom-poms and chants. Me, I’ve done nothing.

This is the first full-length piece of fiction to be released since Square Peg was published in April 2013. Four years is a long time. Yes, I managed to get The Hedgeway out in the October of 2014, and I’ve got the book of essays out and two books of poetry. But I’m a novelist who hasn’t released any novels for four years and I worry that the momentum I’d built has long since dissipated and readers have found other authors to enjoy.

I’m not even sure what LGG could be classified as. Broadly speaking it fits into “Women’s Fiction” but only because the main character is female. It’s not a romance, though love is involved. It’s not a mystery, though mystery is involved too. It’s not paranormal, though elements of it veer into that area. It’s not magical realism, or fantasy or coming-of-age, though again, it has aspects of all of them. No wonder my unlamented agent never managed to place it with publishers; there’s not a single nice easy label to slap on it and shove it out into the world. I’d call it literary fiction but there’s a pretentiousness that many associate with that genre that I’d rather avoid.

So despite a lot of head-scratching and cogitating, I can’t find any niche where it’d gain any sort of prominence amid the countless thousands of books released every week. It may be doomed to sink under the weight of those thousands and of my incompetence.

You may already have read the blurb, here or elsewhere, but here it is again:

At seventeen, Verity lost the future she’d craved when Nick, her enigmatic and troubled poet boyfriend, drowned at sea. At thirty-five, in a safe, humdrum and uninspired life, she finds that snatches of the life she didn’t have begin to force their way into her real life. This other life, more vivid and demanding than her actual life, begins to gather a terrible momentum as she starts to understand that her un-lived life was not the poetic dream she had imagined it might be. Doubting her own sanity as her other life comes crashing down around her in a series of disasters, Verity is forced to re-examine her past, realign her present and somehow reclaim a future where both her own early creative promise and her family can exist and flourish together. Exploring the nature of time itself, the possibilities of parallel universes and the poetic expressions of both, Verity searches to understand why and how Nick really died and what her own lives, lived and un-lived, might truly mean.

It’s a book that I think might well strike a chord or two with many women, but if you’re expecting a kick-ass heroine like Chloe or Isobel, you might get a surprise. Verity is quiet, but they say it’s the quiet ones you want to watch. She thinks things she never says, and she lives under daily bullying without apparent complaint; she puts others before herself and she lives a half life that many women might really relate to.

So what am I doing while I wait for the proof copies to wing their way across the Atlantic? Not a lot. I can’t set a date for a launch party until I’ve seen those copies are what I want them to be. I’ve had too many false starts with this book to want to risk that. What I would like, though, is for friends here and on social media, if they have read and liked my books, to consider potentially hosting a blog for me, or doing an interview (especially after they’ve read the book) asking questions about the book and its themes, over the next few months. People have said that the majority if a book’s sales come in the first weeks, and that might well be the case, but I am hoping that enough folks have been waiting impatiently for this one for some sales to be guaranteed at least. The staggered approach means that more exposure is likely to happen once the initial surge (please!) has begun to ebb.

I’m terrified, to be honest. What if no one likes it? What if no reviews happen? Away With The Fairies finally made it to the magic 50 reviews a few months back after being out for six years, but realistically speaking, I think that getting lots of reviews in the first few weeks might well carry more weight in the mysterious algorithms.

And there’s a shockingly large amount of me in this book, too, so it’s a risk, sending it out into the world, because not only are some of my own poems included in the book, but some of my own, secret, never-spoken-about, history is too. I’ve not mentioned this aspect because, well, because it is secret and private. It’s entirely fiction, yet in many important ways, it’s not at all. I’d tell you more but then I’d have to kill you… (that’s a joke, by the way)

So while I wait for that familiar brown parcel, I ought to get my thinking cap on and write some more blog posts, for here and for others who might be so gracious as to host them. I seem to have mislaid that thinking cap, so perhaps a scarf might do.

On Visiting With Old Demons

On visiting with old demons

We all have them, those issues and problems that we think we’ve dealt with until there’s that metaphorical knock at the door and there they are. Again. They’re so familiar that they cease to be an enemy but never quite become a friend. We see it’s them and we say, “Oh it’s you. What do you want this time? I suppose you’d better come in.”

Letting them in is better than slamming the door, hiding in the cellar or behind the sofa (done that, in reality, more than once) until it gets bored and goes away. At least this way you are face to face and it can’t sneak up behind when you are least expecting it.

I had a visit from one of mine recently. It masqueraded as “righteous indignation” until I whisked the mask off and realised it was Envy instead. I’ll talk you through the background, just so you know how it came to be there.

A friend gave me a book for my birthday and it rose to the top of the to-be-read pile and I duly read it. It’s a bestseller. My friend had it signed by the author too. But I growled and grumbled as I read it because it trespassed into a world I know really well, and the author (hark at me!) didn’t. There had surely been acres of research done but this is something where an outsider really, really doesn’t see things as an insider does, and there were things WRONG. Badly, catastrophically wrong, in fact; so badly wrong it marred the book for me. I’m not giving the name of the book because I have discovered that authors are an insecure bunch and a mere mention of their name or work on, say, Twitter, can result in a stern ticking off.

Oh I growled, and I growled and then, suddenly, I realised why. I was deeply, meanly, jealous. The book was just another opening for my old frenemy, Envy. I envied the success of the book and of the author, because I’ll never, ever achieve even a fraction of that success (probably).

Little Gidding Girl (when it’s out) will not (I am almost 100% sure) sit on the shelves of Waterstones, or proudly bear the coveted BESTSELLER badge on Amazon (except possibly in the tiniest of niche categories, if I am lucky) and I am still secretly raging that this is so. Everything is stacked against it. I am a realist, a pragmatist. I know that my absurd dreams are just those things: absurd and dreams. And hope is a terrible thing. I caught myself thinking, “It’s got GIRL in the title. Books with GIRL in the title are really selling well,” and I was angry with myself for that hope, because hope is a cruel thing that deludes, sometimes (often or even always.)

The GIRL thing? Yeah. I would like it to be known that I wrote the novel perhaps as much as a decade before the phenomenon (GONE GIRL, THE GIRL ON A TRAIN and so on) took fire. I have no clue why this one word in a title seems to attract attention, let alone why including it might, potentially, trigger a book going viral. I didn’t choose it for that reason; the title came before the book, and before the phenomenon.

It’s a good book. Having spent more time with it lately than I anticipated, having had to rewrite the last 20% to remove all quotes, and then to do a few last final proofreads, I came away thinking, yes, it does deserve to see the light of day. Lots of people will find the themes resonate with them, and I hope it will also help.

Having recently completed that WIP that I began 4 years ago, finishing the rewrites for Little Gidding Girl, and getting it uploaded to Createspace for paperback, I wanted to reward myself for it. I’ve already found that punishing myself for being slow or ineffectual doesn’t work, so perhaps a reward might help. This time, not perfume. There’s nothing wheedling its scented fingers into my vulnerable psyche at the moment; I might well have satisfied that type of craving for a while. I’ve always loved soft toys and I was looking for something special that “called” to me and I found her in the form of a bunny. Many of us have always known that teddy bears and their cohorts of other creatures defend us from demons and monsters, and while my demons might not be hiding under my bed, I think I need some help defending myself against them. So soft and so sweet and timid-looking, she’s become my companion and supporter; beyond that I won’t explain. You’ll either understand or you won’t.

I am envious at times of the success of others. It’s pretty hard to admit that, because it’s not something to be proud of. Breaking it down, though, I make myself understand that perhaps their success has come at a price I would not be willing to pay. In this case, contractual obligations of writing a series that has been extremely popular (I anticipate a TV series for this one) might well have meant having to produce books when there was no real inspiration for them and perhaps when the last few books have had plenty of reviews calling them pot-boilers. I have the enviable freedom at present to write or not write what I want. I can go in directions diametrically opposed to the paths I’ve already trodden and there’s no one to stop me. I’m not going to get angry phone calls from an agent, demanding to know about the manuscript I promised three weeks ago.

Hear that? That’s the sound of the door slamming as Envy storms off, for the time being, realising they are no match for a girl and her bunny.

Cause for celebration or commiseration?

Cause for celebration or commiseration?

(This is going to be one of those posts that might get on the nerves of the optimists among you, so perhaps bear with me rather than tutting. I could do with a bit of compassion and understanding right now.)

On Monday I completed a book I began more than four years ago. Coming in at a fairly slender 73k words, it’s provisionally entitled Belle Dame, and it’s the first full length work I’ve managed to finish in a whisker over six years. Someone said the other day that it’s the dream of many people to actually write a book and that finishing one is a cause for celebration, but I’m ambivalent about it these days.

But finishing this book is a bigger deal than that. Around six years ago, a variety of connected events pretty much ended me as a writer. They almost ended me as a person, and while I’m not going to go into details, they’ve left scars. Compounded with the insidious effects of Dexter my parathyroid tumour (now removed) and the effects of joint hypermobility syndrome (which is much more than being a bit bendy), I lost the flow and the joy of writing books. Belle Dame was a project that tied into my exploration of finding some healing for the original events and the knock-on effects, as well as more prosaically being able to say, “Yes, I am still a writer. I’m working on X book.” I’m actually working on about five other books too, but none anywhere close to completion.

Belle Dame was also a way of trying to find a kind of closure denied me in real life, and that function of the book meant that I could not think how to end the story that honoured my beliefs and philosophies, as well as being a satisfying ending to the tale itself. It was, to put it bluntly, a real conundrum. I set myself a final deadline of Monday, saying to myself if I did it, I would use birthday money to buy a special treat I’d been coveting for over a year. When I did type THE END on Monday afternoon, I felt flat. I’d seen over the last few years other writers on social media waxing lyrical about what a terrific feeling it is to type those epic words, and how fabulous it it. Yet I felt nothing more than a sense of relief, and a sense also of mild dread. No one has read it yet (except me of course and I don’t count) and I’m not sure I want anyone to. I can’t face even the well-chosen critiques of people who love me and love my writing. I certainly can’t face the idea of publishing it. To put it out there for anyone to read and rip apart, horrifies me. Equally, I’m not sure I can face the more likely reality of publishing it and having an echoing, deafening silence because no one buys it and no one reads it, because no one really cares (out there in the big bad world of books) how long a book took an author to write or what it cost them in terms of emotional angst and agony. The bottom line at present seems to be this: if it’s free, people might grab it but not read it, if it costs a few quid, a few might take a punt on it, and if it’s priced the same as a posh coffee, your friends might buy it to support you. There are too many books out there these days to have much of a chance of gaining attention if you don’t write in the really popular genres and if you’re not also an entrepreneur.

A friend made the suggestion that perhaps I should return to seeking traditional publishing deals, because getting attention and sales for my kind of books now is perhaps beyond the remit of self-publishing and my skills therein. That too I cannot face. I’ve been through that mill twice, with all the pain that entails. I’m also pretty anti publisher. I am, to quote the friend, between a rock and a hard place.

Little Gidding Girl is also stuck. I’ve decided that the only way of avoiding a whole world of trouble with permissions and copyright issues without basically supping with the devil, is to rewrite the last fifty pages so that they work without the quotes I’d originally used (believing at the time that a publisher would deal with that side of things for me. How naïve I was.) This will take more courage and energy I have right now. I suspect I’ll wake up one morning and think, today’s the day and just do it, but at the moment I cannot get my brain around it. Again, the feeling of dread persists. I don’t want to publish the book and after half a dozen kind friends buy a copy, for it to sink into the swamp of forgotten books. It boils down to this: people read for very different reasons from the ones I write for (if that makes sense). I’ve never written solely to entertain and while my books are entertaining, there’s more than that to them.

I bought my treat with some glee, but I don’t feel I have achieved any sort of inner celebration for this book and that’s dreadfully sad. This may be connected to the very persistent low mood aka depression I’ve begun to realise is probably my lot for life now; the inability to feel anything is a classic symptom of depression.

But all that not withstanding, I did it. I finished the book and next time you have a nice glass of wine, whiskey or whatever your tipple is, tip that glass to me and wink, and silently whisper, “Congratulations!” and maybe I’ll feel it too.

Y is for Yes

Y is for Yes

The year I turned forty, my life was turned upside down and inside out with a change of career and of pretty much everything for my husband (and by default, the whole family). After the shock of it wore off, I made up my mind to say YES to things that scared the living daylights out of me. Owing to poor mental health and starting a family, I’d never managed to launch a proper career and returning to the workplace was a frightening experience, one that I am not sure to this day that people ever understood that I was utterly terrified by everything asked of me. I think I did a lot of something that verged on disassociation, a constant pretence, a wearing of a mask that meant I could do my job even though much of me was screaming to be allowed to run away. I used to joke, in fact, that I kept an invisible mask in my desk drawer at work that I would take out at the start of the day and put back at the end.

As well as mental health issues, I was also coping with severe endometriosis, so much so that much of the month I was in pain and for about a week, I was in agony. But I still said yes: yes to the teaching, yes to the tours and the airport and station and port pick-ups of students. I said yes to another type of tour, one that took me into the heart of Europe, often to places I’d never been before, to be a tour guide.

Later, I said yes to self-publishing, even though I’d always in the past felt it wasn’t for me (that was based on an understanding that came from the original self-publishing model that was in fact, vanity publishing) and while the first attempt and all the mess that created (someone else did it for me, something I now regret quite bitterly) wasn’t perfect, I learned from it and improved.

I said yes to my husband returning to his ministry, despite fears of being betrayed again, and I have no regret on this score. I live somewhere now I feel comfortable in and I love my home.

But saying yes to everything is not a good thing. I need to learn to say no more. Not just NO to the massive social injustices and world problems but also to the demands of own little world. I need to say yes to more compassion towards myself; to say yes to taking care of me, rather than always putting others first. I’ve never liked myself much and I sometimes fear that I may seek the approval of others so that the approbation and admiration they might feel towards me might make up for the lack of those things in myself.

S is for Spring (s)

S is for Spring (s)

S is for Spring(s)

I’ve written a lot about springs over the years I’ve been blogging. Indeed, I wrote an entire novel about a very special spring, the waters of which heal broken souls and mend damaged psyches. (see Strangers and Pilgrims)

But a spring is a magical thing. Water welling up through deep layers of rock and earth, bursting into the light in torrents or trickles. For early peoples as much as modern ones, a spring was somewhere both practical and supernatural. The symbolism of the well-spring is embedded deeply in both my creative and my spiritual life. When I have visited famous springs like the Chalice Well, or the White Spring, I have felt myself to be in the presence of a divine mystery, a holy thing.

Yet for all that, my creative flow and my spiritual journey have dried up, become fallow and unfed by springs flowing within my soul, within my self. Sometimes springs do dry up; sometimes they reroute. Some only flow in certain times and seasons, like the Swallow-head Spring that feeds the river Kennet in Wiltshire close to Avebury. I would like to hope that the period of dryness will one day end but whether it ends with a torrent or a mere trickle, I do not know.

Q is for Quitting

Q is for Quitting

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with writing most of my life and I have explored the process of quitting several (many) times. It’s curious to note the etymology of the word http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=quit in that it encompasses meanings that are deep within the word, but the origin that touches me most is that it comes from quietus (Latin quietus “free” (in Medieval Latin “free from war, debts, etc.”), also “calm, resting” ) from which we also derive our word quiet.

In my struggles, on many occasions, people have said, “Oh just take a break. Write for fun! Give the whole publishing side a rest. Don’t worry about it.” It’s well-meaning advice, but it won’t do. I cannot write for fun, because writing is not fun for me. It’s many things, but it’s very seldom fun. The whole shebang has been tied up with a wider picture since almost before I could read and though I have tried, I cannot disentangle it.

At the weekend, a friend told me a very interesting fact about tortoises that I had not known. Their shell is part of their skeleton, linked to their spine. You cannot remove a tortoise from its shell without killing it. http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=17+1797&aid=2700 . It’s the perfect analogy. Writing is my shell. It is not an outfit I can change at whim, or at need. It is part of me, grown from my core being from my inception. I cannot quit being a writer, or I will die. Yet the whole mess of the world of books is destroying me too.