Travelling With Hope



Measure not the work until the day's out and the labour's done.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning


I write therefore I am. To tweak Descartes a little. Even he had to take up the pen!

It's what I do, what I have to do. It is the oxygen of life. To live without it is to skate across the bewildering surface of things, loose in the universe and likely to come to grief.

Writing gives the whole of existence meaning, purpose and dimension. It also lends an overarching sense of direction, threaded with milestones. Rather than the reverse, it actually seems to expand time. Time may fly, but in retrospect, it feels as though distance has been covered. It's that thing where when you've travelled long hours in one day, you can't believe it was only that morning you set out.

In the beginning was the word...and I am in a glorious, perpetual struggle to construe the world as I see and experience it in words, to tame the worst of it and to catch the wonder of it as it flies. As Robert Browning's Fra Lippo Lippi says:

'...we're made so that we love
First when we seem them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see.'

The epiphany first struck me when I was twelve and confined to bed at home and in hospital for a whole term with rheumatic fever. There was a lot of tedious catching up to do, copying from the work of exemplary pupils at the behest of our teachers. But along with the textbooks and essays came a barrel of goodies, among them a batch of paperback historical novels. English had always been my forte and soon I was itching to try my hand. I came up with a tale set in 1745, the year prior to Culloden – can't remember the title – in which the spunky and beautiful heroine, Kate Barclay (yes, that is rather clairvoyant, though the spelling is different!) and her heroic lover Ashley Somebody, attempted to locate smuggled treasure and were involved in a nail-biting chase by Bow Street Runners.

This colourful tale was destined to remain unfinished. It was back to school with an embargo on sports and dancing for a while. But I had opened the door into a realm I never knew existed, much like Mary Lennox in Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. Here was a magical retreat from unhappiness. None could enter, nor demolish it. Having been confined for several months without the proper use of limbs, I realised that as long as I had a brain, this sanctuary need never be forfeited.

Well, that was then. The demands of education and the workplace took over the way they do. But I always assumed I'd be an author. I used to daydream during English Literature, as the sun shafted through the high windows on to my halting prose, about getting a novel published before the age of twenty-five. I didn't quite make it, but by the time my first book came out, the precursor edition of Next Year In Jerusalem, I'd written three novels which earned attention; four, in fact. One I discounted because it was a real muscle-loosening exercise and was too heavily influenced by Jane Eyre – which is surprising since I dislike that novel's air-starved longing

The MSS went the rounds of a small handful of publishers. All responded favourably on sleek headed notepaper - they were different days!! - and described them as close to acceptance, while logging an interest in developments. The rejection slips were to come long after my early published work which included the first edition of My Mother Bids Me. I realised that an apprenticeship had to be served and was convinced I could do better. Of those novice works, only one remains and there are no plans to publish it. The rest were binned long ago!

By the late eighties, Michael Sissons, the distinguished agent at PFD, asked to see my published novels and called for an interview during which he made encouraging sounds about the Mary Cole story. Unfortunately, my circumstances were changing at that point. He told me that if I were ever on the breadline, I'd be a bestseller. (He wasn't the first, or the second, to tell me that, either.) But my nerve failed. I needed to try and secure a steady income and, after seven or eight novels, two of them abandoned, the muse was beginning to stall. The phenomenon of 'overwriting oneself' described by Jane Austen was taking its toll and I shelved novel-writing for many years.

I have written in two genres historical and literary. However, the main thrust of my work is historical, contemporary subjects being addressed in poetry these days.

At present, my head is in all that concerns Book Three of the Berkeley Series, the final novel chronicling the remarkable life of Mary Cole, 5th Countess of Berkeley, who quietly defied most of the female conventions of her day. She is remarkable for having 'done it her way' without rebelling against the social machinery of the Georgian and early Victorian era. Mary was a woman of character, energy, acumen and beauty. She had one or two deadly enemies in high places (whose advances she'd eluded) but, on the whole, people seemed to fall easily under the spell of her gentle integrity. This, in itself, was enough to cause friction.

'In the can', there's a 'modern' novel, Entertaining Angels, long awaiting an editing window. It's the story of a dysfunctional family, struggling with the fallout of two World Wars in pre-Millennium Britain. The structure is experimental and I'm not at all satisfied with it.

There's also one volume of poems, The Twain, Poems of Earth and Ether, and two others in preparation. I've been a closet scribe of verse for years, but have never thought to seek publication. This new venture is the result of a warm and enthusiastic response to samples posted on the late Red Room site. The problem with entering competitions and seeking publication under someone else's imprint is that you aren't free to post your poems when and where you like (and where they might very well reach a larger audience!)

In recent years, writing has become a full-time occupation. This, together with research, blogging, publishing, administering Green Room and generally trying to keep abreast of mine and other websites on which my books have a presence, involves the greater portion of my waking hours.

I set up New Eve Publishing in 2007 and handle all my own work – with the help of a personal contact or two – as I believe it's the only realistic option left for 'midlist' authors. Life's too short to spend years trying to catch the coat-tails of a tired publishing industry which operates on a presumption of rejection. Fiction is a fickle paymaster and the bottom line is that the trade, while it may take a gamble on clones of blockbusters, does not have the money to risk on unknown writers. This won't stop us tearing our hair out and trying to rewrite our story several different ways in order to appeal to a perceived market. Since New Eve began, I haven't submitted at all to mainstream since I don't want to view indie publishing as a default position, but a worthy enterprise in its own right. It could be that in the future, I might do so for a specialist non-fiction project only.

I'm aware, too, that age is also a drawback in contemporary publishing which is widely suspected to have a Maginot line around the forty mark for unknown writers. Contrast that with the advice when I set out: Never attempt to write fiction before the age of thirty. You won't have digested any of your life experiences before then. By my count, this gives writers a ten year window to make good within the painfully pedestrian book world.

It's satisfying to be in control of the schedule and the whole creative process of book production. Yes, it does fall behind with unexpected life events, but at least there's no contract to lose. As regards sales, I'm hardly worse off than mainstream which admittedly wasn't wonderful, but I am in a totally different league as regards a steadily expanding readership (which wouldn't be possible inside the constrictions of traditional publishing). Luckily, I have a modicum of experience in publicity and promotion and need to do a lot more on that front. It is, of course, time-consuming, but would a publishing contract relieve this pressure? I don't think so. Not these days. Old style publishing won't go back into the box and the new has no framework in which authors can operate, much less, flourish.

It will always be a major objective to increase core readership and to generate significant income, but I'm not looking for the Big Time. To be responsible for the process yourself - with the advice of generous contacts - doesn't cost the earth. Yes, it's a steep learning curve and a challenge to your skill-set, but it's a great boost to confidence. It really is like pulling out into the fast line and seeing obstacles disappear in the rear view mirror.

So, as long as I'm blessed with a brain, I'll keep writing. It's my vehicle.

They say it's the journey that counts.



Here's a crystal clear Guardian article on the subject of writing and publishing. Though it concerns children's books, the wisdom holds good for authors in general, especially those who write fiction.

Salient quote: 'If you weren’t happy before you had a book published then you won’t automatically be happy after. And no one really warns you about the hard work involved in being an author: the rewrites, the self-promotion, the disappointment and relentlessness.'

And be sure not to miss To Be Or Not To Be Agented, That Is The Question

Salient quote: 'Publishers have eliminated midlist authors, she told me – the authors publishers traditionally expect to grow. But now they don’t grow writers. Instead they are looking for one hit wonders.'