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.

The fear of imperfection is a paralysing thing ~ some musings on the process of “settling”

The fear of imperfection is a paralysing thing ~ some musings on the process of “settling”

I’ve been stuck so long I thought I might begin to fossilise in the crevice between a rock and a hard place. Perhaps I have. Imagine me stretching and cracking and shedding lots of gravel as I move slowly into the light, a troll restored to pre-dawn mobility. Now to find a bridge to hide under and wait for billy-goats.

Where was I?

Oh yes.

A couple of years ago, I started doing a paperback copy of Square Peg. After the first proof copies arrived, I gave up. Analysing it now, I can see why I gave up. It ties in with my love-hate-love-loathe affair with books and especially book-shops. In the last few years I have walked round most bookshops in almost physical pain. Some of the pain is sheer angst and anger that my books will never be on the shelves, but once we get past that little matter, the pain is harder to pin down. Books are exquisite things. Truly. Even if you never open it, a new book is a joy to behold; the paper, the colours, the very scent.. all delightful. But I’ve had a sort of recoil: it’s all too much these days. In a bid to woo (woo, woo!) potential readers, publishers have gone to extraordinary lengths to impress. Shelves and tables in Waterstones are like courtship dances of myriad birds of paradise made paper. They dazzle, they en-trance, they entice… and then I sicken. What about the words inside? The blurbs do the same: blind you with careful and clever constructions, teasing and dancing with your love of intrigue and the promise of losing yourself in another world.

And I find myself withdrawing like an anemone, springing my tentacles back into my being, and feeling oddly stung and put off. I almost yearn for the Zen-like simplicity of the old Penguin classics, Spartan and uncompromising. I don’t buy books very often in person these days; when I do, it’s usually from our very excellent Book Hive in Norwich, or the book shop in Diss, and it’s often non-fiction and often poetry. I am bewildered by the choices on offer, and the creeping sense of being bamboozled into parting with hard earned cash for novels that nearly always leave me disappointed. It’s the same online, too: everywhere you look, someone is flashing you their books, bright, beautifully designed and presented, begging you to take them, take them NOW.

And I knew in my heart of hearts I cannot compete. I cannot compete with those book-birds of paradise gracing the front tables in Waterstones, clad in their wrappers embossed with gold ink and perpetual promise. I cannot compete with the array of books online, perfectly presented, designed, advertised and endorsed to the hilt with a thousand glowing reviews and (because everyone suspects ALL five stars) a smattering of 3s and 2s and a single one star (which we all know is malicious, don’t we?) I cannot make my books look like those; I do not have the resources, either in terms of skills or of money to hire those skills, and so I gave up.

Some might read that and think, buck up, stop whining. To them I would say… well, I won’t say what I would say. It would be rude.

I could not proceed because I could not emulate the perfection on display and so felt I could go no further. When I began publishing, it was OK to be a little home-made about it all. But in the six years since then, everything has become alarmingly “professional”. One is exhorted not to let the side (i.e. other indie writers) down by being less than slick in your quest to be as good as the traditional publishing industry. It’s even made me sometimes wish I actually had a publishing deal so that I could step away from the other side of being a writer. But the memory of how appallingly ill sending in submissions made me in the past, stops me going there again. I’m hanging on to the last shreds of sanity and dignity as it is.

So, today, I tackled that paperback again. I fiddled and messed and waited and fiddled some more, and right now I am waiting for an email saying the cover is approved. It’s not going to look like one of those astonishing book-birds on show in Waterstones, but it looks nice. It works. And moreover, even though I sell very few paperbacks, it needs to be out there, even if no-one ever buys it.

I also wrestled the new book almost to the point of conquering it, and making it ready to start the process of uploading, first to Createspace and a paperback version. There’s a few more bits to do, and I’ve had a very kind offer of some words of praise to put on the back too, from another author I respect greatly (once she’s had a chance to read it and decide whether she does want to endorse it, that is. I’m cool if she decides not to, after all). Little Gidding Girl is all about settling, too, of realising that what you have is pretty damned excellent, and that all the other paths you might have walked may not have been the sunlit, joy-filled ones you imagine them to be.

People speak of “settling” as if it is a bad thing, but it’s not. Sometimes it’s the only way forward, to accept things as they are and work with them, because solid reality is something one can live with, and work on, whereas dreams and moonshine and unrealistic ambitions keep you moon-struck and paralysed. It’s been my fear of imperfection that’s kept me locked in this glacier-like stasis, locked like a flattened mammoth stunned by a wall of ice; the fear of being ridiculed for the odd typo, for less-than-stunning covers, for daring to be a tiny bit rough around the edges and thereby tainting others by my lack of care. Someone, somewhere, will always find a comma out of place and throw the book at a wall. Every traditionally published book I have bought in the last ten years has had at least one little issue, be it typo or rogue apostrophe. In the end, my only way to break out of my crevice in the rock is to admit: I’m not perfect, I’m never going to be perfect and neither are my books.

So. Watch this space.

Permission to rest?

 

Permission to rest?

It’s almost the end of January as I write this; Imbolc/Candelmas will be upon me in a few days and I was thinking, I ought to write something. I ought to do another Cave post. I ought to celebrate the slow return of the light and the changing of the season. But I’m not going to. Not today, anyway. I may change my mind in the mean time but right now, I’m not going to do it.

It occurred to me that it’s nearly six years since I last completed a full-length novel (the third in the Ashurst series) and since then I have limped along with a number of works-in-progress. One is over 60k words long. I had hoped/intended to finish it last year. But every time I thought about opening the document to work on it, I had this sinking feeling and I thought, “Why bother?” and couldn’t find the impetus to start. It’s the same with four other projects.

I am so tired, so bloody tired, and I can’t let myself rest. I keep thrashing away, trying to recover my inspiration and energy for writing; I write the odd short story, essay, poem or add a few thousand words to one novel or another. I’m doing corrections for the new novel, after the first proof reader has gone through it; I’ve done around a hundred of the three hundred pages. It’s like squeezing blood from a stone (well, not quite like that; the blood comes from injuring your hand, not from the stone. Maybe a better metaphor than I thought). I keep feeling that if I stop entirely I will never get going again and all the hard work I’ve done to create a writing career for myself will be for nothing. If I let go, do I stop being a writer because I stop writing, or can I be like an actor, who spends time doing other things and calls it resting? And what would I do, what would I be, if I did?

I want to rest but I cannot seem to be able to give myself permission.

Writer Burn-Out and Other Things.

Writer Burn-Out and Other Things.

Writer Burn-out, and other things

Burnt-out.

Conjures images of forests devastated by wildfire, of cars reduced to shells of blackened metal and puddles of melted rubber and plastic, of electronics smouldering and going “pouf” before expiring in a spiral of evil-smelling smoke.

In the case of a writer, it’s often nothing visible. They just go very quiet. Or they become very noisy, bouncing around social media being terribly cheerful. But there’s a brittle nature to the good cheer, hiding an edge they’re often aiming to conceal at all costs. The edge is a sharp one, a foot sticking out of a shallow grave, ready to trip you up and reveal a horrible secret: you can’t write any more.

People suggest tips to get you writing again. Writing prompts, courses, a break away from writing, a holiday, time spent reading instead.

I’ll let you into two secrets. The first you may have guessed: I can’t write any more. The second: I don’t think I want to, either. It’s the second that’s the killer.

I stopped writing once before, stopped it dead in the water, in 1995. Following the stress of (among other things) trying to do rewrites of a novel for one of the Big Six (as it was then), I became almost fatally ill. Something inside my brain said, “Blow this for a game of soldiers!” and popped. When I recovered enough, I finished the rewriting as requested, waited, and after a committee discussed it, it was dismissed and that was that. Contrary to what I have believed in the years since, I don’t think I made a conscious decision to stop writing. I just…stopped. It became a memory, part of my past, something I didn’t do any more. I think now I shut down the vaster part of my psyche, because I couldn’t face it. I couldn’t face the inevitable failure and loss of hope.

You see, me and stories go back a long, long way. Pre-literate me wrote stories, in my head, and used my father’s typewriter to try and get them onto paper. Didn’t work, obviously, but full marks for trying, eh? My whole childhood and teens, I worked on stories. I didn’t do anything much between going to university and becoming a mum, but that was as much circumstances as anything else. My first round of trying to get published, I was in my late twenties. My second round, late thirties. There wasn’t and won’t be a third round. I still believe that self-publishing is the only route for someone like me; on a practical note, now I am in my fifth decade, publishers aren’t generally interested anyway. Youth is what interests most of them. I’m not sure if it’s because a young author has decades of writing ahead or whether they believe they can mould a younger person.

But my God, I am TIRED. Tired of trying to do things that I’m not cut out to do, of trying to understand things that are beyond me, and of the entire landscape. Books are mere commodities, nothing more. Or so you’d believe. I don’t. I believe that a book is a holy, sacred thing, a wonder of the civilised world, a joy and a gift. I’ve loved that the e-book means I can carry a whole library round in my handbag, but the down-side is that there are now millions and millions of books out there and no way to easily find ones I might value. It means that good books and great books whose authors (whether self published or not) are not able to do the right kind of hustling, schmoozing, and generally selling of one’s assets now required to get a book in front of potential readers, fail, sink and disappear without trace. Heaven only knows how many beautiful, life-changing gems have gone unseen, their authors losing heart and finally faith. My own did well at first but have started to sink and disappear and the only thing that has even a tiny chance of raising them is to put out more books. I’ve got more books on my hard drive, written in the productive frenzy ten years ago that followed the unexpected return of my mojo. Yet the process of polishing, of editing, of producing a cover, blurb, publicity and so on, daunts me more than it did, because it feels futile. I can’t kid myself that this one might be THE ONE; I’ve done so for each and every book I’ve published, and each time the results have been poorer than the last. The market is saturated and making an impression sufficient to not only generate but also to sustain sales is now impossible for me. I know I have wonderful people who buy and read and love everything I’ve ever put out. It should be enough. But it isn’t.

At this point, some are going to be thinking, just take a break, stop for a few months, do something else instead. These are things I have tried. Writing is not only part of me; it’s who I am. It’s so interwoven with my essential being that I will break if it is taken from me, even by my own hand. The picture here is of what happened when I stored a long thin vase inside a bigger one; when I came to need the smaller one, the glass had shifted ever so slightly, (glass is a strange thing) and it no longer slid out. In removing it, the bigger vase shattered in my hands.

Big vase little vase

Big vase little vase

Message in a Bottle

Message in a bottle

On Friday I managed to tick off an item on my bucket list. Except I don’t have a bucket list, but you know what I mean: a much cherished hope, dream or ambition. For some my little tick would seem a bit tame but for a book lover or any author, it was a real thrill. I went to a bookshop. Not just any bookshop but a world famous bookshop.

Shakespeare & Company in Paris, less than fifty yards from Notre Dame cathedral has been on my personal radar for some years now. Working in Paris several times a year for umpty-ump years, I’ve never had any personal free time where I’ve felt it was possible to slip away for half an hour. Not even for five minutes to just take a photo and look longingly at the window like a kid at a sweet shop.

But last Friday I did. I managed it. You aren’t allowed to take photos inside so I must tantalise you with a shot or two of the exterior.

DSCI0198

DSCI0197

They have a Lucky Dip selection where for five euros you can buy a book, sight unseen, boxed neatly in a cardboard box with their famous stamp on it. Books are more expensive in France than in the UK, so taking a risk for a small sum was all right. Alas, my Lucky Dip was not (for me) lucky, as I got a James Joyce.

But I went in and had a browse. Floor to ceiling shelving, slightly dishevelled by the number of customers who have taken books out and put them back only to pounce on the next offering, and the lovely smell of books old and new: paradise. I heard customers asking for specific books: “Do you have a copy of The Prophet?” “Yes, I believe we do!” “I’m looking for The Bell Jar…” I catch the eye of the assistant and ask sotto voce, “Do you supply it with Prozac?” and she giggles discreetly as she goes to help the customer find it.

I looked, and found I was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of brilliance, of skill with words and with ideas, of the authors whose works surrounded me. I wanted to buy a book, a proper book, something I’d never normally find. Something different. After only a tiny bit of scanning of shelves I found a novel by George Sand, a little known work called Laura: the Journey into the Crystal. I had only a very short time to decide, so I bought it and the Lucky Dip and returned to my working day.

Yet a part of me remained with those shelves of books, those repositories of voices, some long, long dead. It made me realise my own voice was there, too, somewhere, on the shelves of those who have bought my books, and on the virtual shelves. George Sand would not have imagined that her books would still be being read more than two hundred years after her birth; she would surely have been delighted to see a modern woman seizing with delight one of her lesser known books.

My books are my messages in bottles, cast into the vast ocean of literature. Where they end up, I will never know. I’d like to think that they will pitch up somewhere rather than sink to the bottom of the sea. The act of casting a message in a bottle into the sea is an act of faith, and for the finder, an act of grace.

Perhaps I need a little more faith to keep chucking them out there, and believe that they may wash up on the right beaches, one day.

Mind-worms ~ The Spotters’ Guide

Mind-worms ~ The Spotters’ Guide

We all know what ear-worms are: that annoying phenomenon when a song or jingle lodges in your consciousness and keeps on playing over and over and over again until you want to scream. You can’t turn it off and if you liked the song to start with after half an hour of it morphing into an ear-worm, you hate it.

Let me introduce you to the ear-worm’s frightening big brother: the Mind-worm.

A Mind-worm is an intrusive, unwelcome thought, image or idea that pops up into your head one day and stays there, raising its ugly head every time there’s an opportunity to do so. They’re a feature of some forms of mental distress and they can be devastating. Most of us get the odd one now and then but not to the extent someone in the throes of a mental breakdown can get.

I’ll give you an example of a recent one that burrowed into my brain a few months ago. I’d been doing a tour of Norwich with a group of French students and we’d got to the castle. For a lot of my tours, the only thing the kids find of interest is the gruesome stuff so I did my spiel about the hangings off the bridge in the days when the castle was the prison, and seeing the group engaged I continued. “Of course, our method of execution was much slower than your Guillotine, at least until we mastered the drop technique where the victim’s neck was broken instantaneously. During the trial and error time where they tried to get the ratio between rope length and body weight right, there was one occasion here where the hanged man lost his head…..But the Guillotine was quick and they had a basket for the head to fall into….whoosh, thwop, thunk!” They all winced and laughed. I finished the talk and we went on….but as I stepped out, I had a sudden and all encompassing vision of putting my own head on a curved recess, then hearing the swoosh of a descending blade…. then total and utter darkness and silence. I staggered a little as I walked, returning to the sunlit city shaking and instantly about to burst into tears. For the next couple of hours, it kept coming back, not even when my mind was idling along, but when I was talking with people or trying to give a talk. I don’t know how I got through, to be honest. For the next few days, it came again and again, and even writing about it makes it closer.

Other Mind-worms I’ve had have been less vivid to express: a creeping sense of total looming personal disaster, surety that people I thought love me, actually hate me. I’m not going to detail them all. They all contain the element of it being beyond my control, beyond my power to eliminate them.

I did a kind of poll on Twitter and asked how others deal with them. Kev @Atomic_Honey said he used a mantra, about being Swiss cheese and it passing through him. Marc said he uses white noise to block them out. Universally, this is a feared and loathed experience of all who’ve ever suffered with them. Often they are what people find the hardest to deal with of all the symptoms of mental and emotional distress.

I’ve been thinking about how I deal with them. Initially I recoil, in horror and repulsion. This can go on for a long while. The Mind-worm usually retaliates by becoming more intense and more scary. This can be especially awful at night. If it pops up at a time when the world is sleeping, it’s much harder to deal with. Then I found that if I let it just do its thing, and not try to suppress it, I found something interesting. The intensity burns out quite quickly. In the case of my guillotine vision, the effects on me lessened, until I could see what was at the core of the vision and its message.

I’ve always said I didn’t fear death itself but more the process of getting there. Turns out I was wrong. I’m scared witless of both. My own existential doubts mean that instead of being able to imagine anything after that moment of personal extinction, all I could imagine is blackness and eternal silence.

Most of my Mind-worms are about fear. Deep down, hidden fears. Fear of being unloved, misunderstood, reviled. Fear of final, personal extinction, fear of all my beliefs being so much moonshine and lullabies for children to sing against the Dark. Fear.

Now fear is an odd thing. It has much to tell us about ourselves and sometimes about the world, but we’re all so bloody busy trying to be brave and fearless that we become incapable of listening to our fear and addressing some of the deep down issues.

Time to make time for my Mind-worms.

So what now? ~ every ending is a new beginning, isn’t it?

 

So what now? ~ every ending is a new beginning, isn’t it?

 

Yesterday I taught my last ever lesson in my current job. It’s not even current, so I must get used to that first. I’ve known this was coming, since last summer when a little voice in my head said, “This is the last proper summer school you’ll teach.” I tried to dismiss it but it turned out to be true.

I’m not sure how I feel, to be honest. There’s an undercurrent of relief; there have been aggravations galore I shan’t go into here in detail. But after five and a half years, I wish it were ending better. It feels like a damp squib, this tiny slice of previous glories. The first summer school I taught at we had probably about three hundred students over the July and August, sneaking into September. This year we had just thirteen students over three weeks. Three were Spanish and the rest were Chinese, who had three hours of morning teaching five days a week, and three hours of afternoon teaching four days a week. I did all their tours too. It wasn’t easy. So much of English history and culture is a total blank to Chinese people. And since the kids were all aged about 14, their interest in either culture or history was limited. I felt much of the time I was talking to myself.

So I came home yesterday afternoon and felt flat and a bit underwhelmed.

I’m moving in a few weeks time to somewhere inland, too far to drive back for the money I get offered, even allowing for the fact that I’ve heard only of a possible week of work next March. So time to draw a final line under it and start again with something else, something new.

But what? I’ve tried looking ahead and I can see only a blank, a void. This worries me, though from past experience it tends to mean that the future is still shaping itself, and elements are coming together but not yet enough to see a coherent whole.

I’m looking forward to having a nice view from my study window and a bigger house in what looks like being a lovely place. But work? I can’t see what I’m going to be doing.

My own plans include releasing a new novel at the end of September. Two good friends with eagle eyes are proofreading for me at the moment, my dear friend Andrew has done me a fabulous cover.

 

It’s a novel I am deeply proud of (not that I am not proud of the others at all, but this one is….. well, it’s different) and one I hope that people will like. I’m not sure what genre it fits into. The cover suggests a mystery or even a horror/ghost story, and while there are certainly elements in it of those genres, it’s not really either. It’s not a romance, though for some there may seem to be elements of it there(at least on the very surface). The only description I can give is of a psychological drama. For those who have read Away With The Fairies, the sequel of this new novel, The Bet, also has Isobel in it, but The Bet can stand alone. (It has two sequels, just so’s you know) Here’s the current blurb/synopsis:

 

The Bet

by Vivienne Tuffnell

 

 

 

Jenny likes a challenge and Antony is the biggest challenge of her life….

 

 

Boys like you get preyed upon,” Antony’s father tells him in a rare moment of honesty and openness, but Richard can have no idea just how vulnerable his eighteen-year-old son truly is. From a family where nothing is quite as it seems and where secrecy is the norm, Antony seems fair game to the predatory Jenny. Her relentless pursuit of him originates in a mean-spirited bet made with her colleague Judy, Antony’s former history teacher, who has challenged Jenny to track him down and seduce him.

 

Jenny is totally unprepared for Antony’s refusal to sleep with her or to have any sort of relationship other than friendship. She’s never met anyone quite like him before and her obsession deepens the more he rejects her. She’s no idea what he’s already been through and as far as she’s concerned it’s irrelevant.

 

Pretty soon, for both of them it becomes a much more serious matter than a mere bet and the consequences are unimaginable for either of them.

 Anyway, I’m aiming to get this out around the 28th of September, if t

he move goes smoothly and I’m able to get all the other things done that need doing. In the meantime, if anyone would like to contribute a guest post (I have one awaiting the autumn from a regular commenter Jonathan), I’d be very happy to host it. I’m finding it hard to string words together right now.

Enjoy the rest of the summer, my friends. I’ll try and get myself back to my twice a week blogging as soon as life settles a bit.