The End of One Journey, and the Beginning of the Next

In the run up to the Easter weekend, everything is chaos- we try to wring out of this four day weekend, slipped in before the school holidays begin, every last possible drop of time.  Consequently my mind is buzzing with so many tasks that I end up doing the inadvisable- I allow our son to read my book.  He finds it on the Ipad on the car journey home from school.  How can it be that I’m more afraid of his comments than that of a literary agent? We arrive home. He carries on reading. He gives me a few comments, ” although they aren’t a critique”.  I marvel at his interest in my words. Usually at their age, everything parents do is “rubbish”. He asks if I can send my book to his Kindle. I politely decline until his school tests are over at the end of this week. But secretly I am pleased that in an age when parents have a diminishing voice, my book is a voice to him.

Armed with his tacit approval and that of family members and friends who have faithfully navigated this journey with me, on Maundy Thursday, I resolve that the day has arrived to send my work off to a literary agent; not just anyone, but someone who fishes for historical fiction in a faraway land. In the quietness of my study whilst the kids are at school, I resend my e-mail no fewer than three times because I keep misreading the e-mail address of how to submit my work online.  My heart is palpitating tangibly; butterflies whizzing in my stomach making me unable to eat as I strive to complete, the self-imposed deadline of submitting my novel before the onset of the Easter holidays.  Since November 2015, I’ve been spending every possible minute of time I can afford reading the ‘completed’ novel aloud to myself   whilst sacrificially foregoing the benefits of Sonos; striking out superfluous words which alter the rhythm and voice of the narrative and carefully reweaving elements of my historically fictitious novel to achieve an authenticity of plot that is synchronised with the events of The Great Famine and Cultural Revolution of China.  I want my reader to be completely immersed in the braid of three cords in my tapestry   so that my novel appears like a work of non- fiction, except I have the amazing privilege of being its puppet master.

My mind is like a see seen at present; I am precariously balanced between hope and rejection. But the pivot on which it all rests is simply this- I believe in the story I have created; I am passionate about the journey which my protagonist has undertaken and I know that it is only a matter of time before I can share my novel more widely. I hope that time will not be too far off because yesterday evening, the voice for the sequel to my book started ringing already in my head.

So tomorrow, I will restart the day with my ” one a day rule” of sending out my manuscript to another targeted literary agent, and as much time as allows, find the creativity to breathe life into a new protagonist who will take me on a new journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding the Pearl of Literature

Saturday 22 August 2015- that beautifully hot day and time for a trip to Chessington World of Adventures, courtesy of the special offers to be found on cereal packets! Car packed with a crate of bottled water, lunch prepared for 8 people (children no longer categorized as such since their appetites have overtaken those of the adults), two kindles, one Ipad and one library book, “ Pearl of China” by the ever talented Anchee Min.

On arrival I ask that all the devices be placed in the boot of the car. Like a child’s security blanket I instinctively grab hold of my book and place it alongside the bottles of water. I reasoned that if I was going to be hauling around bottles of hydration, then I ‘d definitely earned the right to smuggle my “friend” along, unlike my nine year old daughter who’d brought a rucksack full of , inter alia, thirty animal shaped rubbers and two pencil cases, for any emergency that just might be needed. Risk averse that I am, I decided to stay and be the custodian of all the rucksacks while my party queued for hours for rides which would make my legs quiver at the mere thought of them. But for me the real thrill of the day was being able to settle down and read my book in more than twenty minute blocks and finish it.

Later, I am joined by our second son, who is annoyed that I asked him to deposit his kindle in the car- that device which keeps him in his pyjamas until early afternoon during the school holidays. So he turns and grabs my book as my mobile is running out of battery and gaming isn’t an option versus staying in touch with the other members of our group.

“ Mum, this book captivates you from the beginning. You’re a slow reader, I’m already on page 70.” I challenge him that his speed reading has probably omitted important details, but his recall of the life of Pearl Buck as told through the eyes of her fictitious best friend Willow Yee is  astoundingly accurate. And yes, you’ve guessed it- he finished “Pearl of China” and the next day raided my bookshelf for “ The Good Earth”- my all time favourite novel, in conjunction with Animal Farm.  Children fighting with their parents to read the same book- that’s a novelty in this generation! Pearl Buck – that heroine writer of mine, who understands the psychology of the Chinese people with searing  insight far better than the native Chinese themselves . For me, her ability to translate depth of character, depict the  authenticity of Chinese village life while simultaneously  weaving  a unique storyline seamlessly onto  every page, is something I can only dream of being able to possess an iota of.

Today he advises me, “ Mum, you should stop cleaning the house and write your book.” I hope that my book, once completed will captivate  him just as much, now I know that a twelve year old can be intrigued by the life of Pearl Buck and be motivated to read her work. Thank you Anchee Min for making one of the giants of literature accessible to children! That is the hardest challenge that we writers face today and yet you accomplished this so effortlessly!

Ploughing through Barren Land

All writers know that familiar obstacle- the lack of productivity leading to an inertia in our creativity. The questioning, the doubts, the sidelining of our dreams when we simply just can’t write. I don’t get this condition often but its cyclical occurrence often coincides with the post school holiday blues which are always written off as productive time. Coupled with business diversions and before you know it, I’ve started to have those creeping doubts about the authenticity of my commitment to write.  The best antidote to this kind of behaviour is to rely on the encouragement of friends and the courage to change one’s embedded routine. I’ve been asked twice by three close friends over the weekend,” How’s your book?” I shy away and merely reply, ” Don’t ask.” They keep pushing me for an answer, ” We want the first signed copy!” but the one remark which kick starts me into action is, ” I love historical books and I’m interested in your book.”

That voice reverberates in my mind to encourage me to dig deeper and acquire the perseverance like a marathon runner to find my rhythm. I accidentally bumped into an acquaintance writer two weeks ago in Kenwood Cafe after viewing a school for our daughter nearby. He told me about his routine of writing there everyday. I have to confess that I love the solitude and convenience of writing at home but today I felt that I had to change my routine, to try something different. The obstacles were stacked against me, no parking space nearby, forcing me to either change my route and head towards Muswell Hill with its countless cafes and boutiques, or park further and head to the wifi -less haunt of Kenwood Cafe.  My husband and I used to run in that park when we rented ” fungus flat”, a damp ridden place when we were newly married. In returning to a place I am familiar with and settling down without the privilege of toilet breaks or endless distractions,even  amidst the noise of dog walkers and elderly ladies lunching with their daughters, I finally feel satisfied. I have broken out of the barren places of my writing, and almost two hours later, and  2579 words richer, I know I can confront my friend when I see him again on Thursday and let me him know, ” Yes, I’d love to update you on my book. I am 80 per cent there and I plan to finish before the school term finishes.!”

Monday 26 January 2015

On Monday evening, the writing group I belong to met to critique our rotational submissions. As the newest member of their group, this was the first time that I had sent out my work for their review, and only the third time that I have allowed a non- family member to read the prologue and first chapter of my novel in progress.

How did I feel as I awaited the arrival of the evening? I wanted to make my guests feel as welcome as possible. I made our family favourite of “rocky road” and even placed the “best” glasses into the dishwasher for a rinse from our cabinet to get rid of their post Christmas streaky marks! But if the truth be known, I felt quite anxious- like a student waiting for her lecturer to comment on her work. The last time I felt like this was at theology school a few years ago.

I tried to prepare myself mentally that even if my work was dismissed for whatever reason, I still believed in the significance and the resonance of my internal song.

As writers, we embrace solitude with great delight because it is usually the catalyst for a productive imagination. Usually during this process, our words can flow from our soul and onto the page. Needless to say, we love being on our own for significant periods of time. My poor family have just learned to accept that this is vital to me being a happy wife and mother.

The irony however, is that we rely on our audiences to gauge the merits of our work. It is finding that balance be it through social media or meeting in person, which is so tricky. Any comment which has even the vaguest hint of negativity can tear down our confidence and deflate our enthusiasm, even though it may be that the person who imparted it, never for one moment intended it to be construed so harshly.

So what happened on Monday evening? The six members of my group, some of whom are already published authors were gracious and constructive. One person even compared me to ““ Pearl Buck” but up three marks in a period of history I can understand”! That comment I thought was simply too generous- to be compared to a Pulitzer Prize winning author! I have spent many an hour thinking how Pearl Buck moves her story seamlessly, packing in so much drama- if only I could write like her, but then I know it wouldn’t be my work and I would be trying to be someone simply I am not! Another constructive comment suggested that I needed to “ truncate my story” to abandon all peripheral facts and to develop the protagonist’s presence more. The antidote to this was to read Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”; a book that I had started to read but now have to re read from the beginning with the aim of decluttering my story. Perhaps the hardest comment to accept but the most valuable, was that I needed to rework the format of my novel into the form of a series of diaries, from my protagonist which is dedicated to his younger sister as he lies in a detention centre, aware of his impending death. That would mean rewriting all eighteen chapters, but I feel assured within, that this would give the story the tone and the form required to create the smooth artistry of jumping through different timelines as the protagonist reflects on his life.

So thank you to all the members of my writing group- you know who you are, for dealing with me graciously but firmly and for that person who dared to suggest that she could see this book being published. Solitude has its place, but so does the community of encouragement and constructive criticism!

2015 A Year of Reading and Writing !

I was fascinated last night to read on page 3 of The Times that Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg declared that 2015 for him was to be “ A Year of Books”. That inspiring resolution will surely be used as ammunition when I am fielding incessant requests for online gaming, Ipad time and more access to social media from our children.

“ Mum you are so techno adverse!” is a common phrase that I encounter at home.  My desire not to accede to every technological request is born out of a basic fear- that our children will stop   reading for pleasure and somehow close off a vital source of their creativity. Technologically unknowledgeable I maybe, but even I am not so adverse as to overlook my IPhone and its regular invitation to look at the latest messages – and we are only talking about Viber, Whatsapp, e-mail and texts. I haven’t even really trodden the road of social media big time, because I don’t want them to become a preoccupation so that the creative writing of my book gets subsumed and all of my energy vanishes into the Internet world. And if I find it satisfying that Mark Zuckerberg is turning to the world of books, then I need to be decidedly more resolute in this 2015 to read even more, so as to enable me to finish what I have started, if only to show our children that being a task finisher is one of life’s greatest skills to embrace. Task finishing I believe, is honed by reading and finishing books!

What’s your favourite book of the year ?

This was the question posed to members of the writing group I belong to which peer reviews each other’s work on a rotational basis. For reading is for a writer, the same as breathing for all life forms. It’s the simple case of the 3 “ires”- Admire, Inspire and Aspire. When we find writers we admire, we are inspired, sometimes breathtakingly so. And in my case, in time, I aspire to produce work of a commensurable quality.

So, my favourite book of the year has to be “ Ausländer” by the formidable historical fiction writer Paul Dowswell. I have our 13 year old son to thank for introducing me to his work- it is humbling as a parent when your children are advising you what to read, and even more astounding when you bridge that tricky generational gap through loving the same novel. It’s abit like humming an identical tune as you go throughout the day, albeit independently- it connects you both because you are tacitly aware you have the same taste in fiction. Books are one of the unsung heroes in building generational bridges through their timeless appeal, amidst this era of fast paced technology. Long may it continue !

“ Ausländer” charts the life of a 13-year-old boy, Piotr Bruck, who is orphaned in Poland during the Second World War. His distinctive blond hair and blue eyes give the impression that he is of Aryan stock and so he is sent to live with an eminent Nazi family in Germany, as opposed to being destined for an uncertain future in an orphanage. At first, Piotr, who is given the more Germanic name Peter, is relieved to be rescued, but as time moves on, he identifies with the Jewish plight for survival. He and his girlfriend Anna’s family, risk their lives to help the Jewish people who are being hidden by some courageous Germans. Peter has to show incredible self- control and maturity in the company of his Nazi host family by not disclosing his activities and true feelings about the Nazi régime.

The pace of the storyline is astonishing- every page is filled with tension to the extent that you can’t wait to finish the book. And that is what I’m trying to craft- that seamless movement from one page to the next so that a reader is challenged and spellbound at a credible level. But I yearn to strive for even more in my creative processes- that of a depth and resonance of character for the protagonist and the other members of the cast, which will outlast the story’s journey and tug at the mind and heartstrings of the audience. “Ausländer” did just that for me. So it’s no wonder that in my Christmas stocking, I have requested more   Paul Dowswell books……

How the “ I don’t know” can lead to the,“ maybe this is possible after all” dream.

 

My husband often tells me that “ Life is a journey”. I find that phrase hard to understand because I am a person who likes certainty having a congenitally risk averse nature which has been developed both autonomously and through education. As a trained lawyer, I have been taught to analyse every “material” issue with painstaking precision as if I was a legal prophet able to foretell all possible permutations of a risk. Consequently, I don’t deal so well with the, “ I don’t know” responses, even when they come from our children. “But I can’t accept that you don’t know,” I retort, even when they genuinely may not have the insight to give me the answer I know I am looking for. I suffer the same frustration when my husband gives me the same answer. “Sometimes you need to let something settle inside, and then you know what the answer is.” This “no man’s land” answer usually leaves me groaning inside with impatience!

And yet, here I find myself in what I used to perceive as the unenviable position, the “ I don’t know” situation.

 

As I venture, albeit tentatively into the world of writing, I realise that being uncertain of the future has many advantages. It teaches me to embrace life to its full, knowing that each day may lead to a different train of thought as I write my historical fiction novel, charting the journey of a village boy endowed with a supernatural gift for music set during The Great Famine and Cultural Revolution of China. My protagonist is, to put it plainly, born with an undeniable gift, but at the wrong time in history. I am forced to think creatively about how to overcome gaps in historical information, wade through reams of facts, many of which will prove to be insignificant in my quest, and learn how to craft my characters so that they will have the resonance and depth to touch a soul to its core. I am challenged to examine the ways that I might keep up the pace and tension of my story so that a reader is locked in from the very first page, whilst balancing this with the underlying question, “ Is what I am creating credible in the world of reality, albeit fictitious?”

 

All these issues don’t come from a stance of being certain where my novel will lead me, let alone if it will be taken by a literary agent. One member of my extended family has challenged me, “ You are taking a big risk Kate”. That one negative comment can send me into a nervous whirlwind of subscribing for jobs on Simply Law or scrolling through the adverts for lawyers on LinkedIn. But deep inside I know that the biggest risk in all this uncertainty is not living out your calling. Hard though it is to write many a day, unleashing those words from my soul and mind onto a page is the most certain thing I know I must do and not being dissuaded through fear of the unknown.