Sunday 31 May 2009

Mind Tricks

I was going over an old published story yesterday with a view to sending it out abroad. I read through it once. Went through it again, altering a bit here and a bit there so it would fit in with the overseas market. I was about 50 words short so I went through it again and it was only when I decided I’d found a sentence that could be lengthened that I really read it.

I had referred to a car with cream yellow upholstery. Cream yellow? What the hell is that? I remember writing the story. I remember seeing the car in my mind. It had cream leather upholstery. For some reason my mind had sent the word yellow to my typing fingers and they had obeyed. And what was worse, every time I reread the story I saw yellow and read leather because I think I was seeing the car and not the words.

I’ve just checked the magazine version and the line had been published as “cream-leather upholstery.” Now there’s a fiction editor who knows what I mean even if I don’t say it!

I often write “the” instead of “and”, so a sentence will read, “The fox the the butterly . . .” but fortunately Word will pick that one out and wave it under my nose.

Anyone else do things like that? Please say you do!

Saturday 30 May 2009

From Here to Acceptance

I seem to have gone on rather a lot about rejections and how horrible they are and waiting and how horrible it is. But what about the good stuff?

The Acceptance! I wish I could put that word in bright twinkly letters so it sparkles.

I’ve had a very lucky week with three acceptances. The first was a ghost story to Bridge House for an anthology due out in October. Second was a story to Woman’s Weekly, third was to Fiction Feast.

I particularly enjoyed writing those three stories and it has taken the sting out of the recent rejections.

So for those who are still trying to break in to the magazine market, what should you expect? A letter? A phone call? An email?

My first acceptance (Secrets) was by letter. I still have that letter somewhere, but don’t ask me to find it. It’s in the garage with loads of other paperwork and only a brave soul would venture in there. You should see the size of the spiders – they have webs like funnels and they just have two legs poking out . . .

Where was I?

A letter/email might begin something like “We enjoyed your short story . . .” It may even go on to tell you why they liked it (take note, comments like that can be just as useful as rejection comments).

Or you may get a phone call from the fiction editor – and you will find yourself speaking to a friendly person who is genuinely delighted to be giving you the news that they want to use one of your stories.

Your acceptance letter may even arrive in one of your big brown envelopes. It will feel very slim . . . deliciously so.

That very first acceptance is always going to be extra special simply because it’s a first, but you never take an acceptance for granted, every one is special which is why you keep on going even when the rejections have been flooding in. (Oops I really wanted to write a blog without the R word but now I’ve done it about four times!)

And just a few words here about fiction editors. I have known quite a few over the past twenty-mumble-mumble years and the vast majority have been – and are – the nicest people you could wish to meet (not that I’ve met many, but you know what I mean). They aren’t in the business to hurt feelings or upset people and they would much rather accept a story than reject one.

Tuesday 26 May 2009

Waiting and Worrying

Something that we all worry about – waiting times. How long does it take from posting your story off to getting a verdict?

Well I thought I’d list out the magazines and try to give some idea of how long the wait is – generally - but when I started to count days, weeks, months – years . . . it’s impossible to say! I may as well tell you how long a piece of string is. It’s about . . . well this long . . . see?

It’s handy having friends who write for the same magazines.
“Have you heard anything recently?”
“No, how about you?”
“Not a thing, but so-and-so had one accepted last week and I heard someone else had one taken the week before so they’re obviously still buying . . .”

Cue avalanche of doubt and despair, often followed by avalanche of big brown envelopes through the letterbox (speaking of which I had two more this morning).

In the case of the People’s Friend, no news is quite likely to be good news, but it isn’t set in stone. They do tend to turn rejections round pretty fast though so if you haven’t heard anything don’t despair!

Not so with the other mags. I’ve had stories rejected and accepted within a week of sending them in. I’ve had stories rejected after a year of waiting and others accepted after six months.

They have to be read by more than one person – several in some cases. If you’ve sent two in and one comes winging its way back, you know the other one has probably gone on for a further reading and is in with a chance.

It would be nice wouldn’t it, to follow a story on its journey, to see what happens when it arrives, who reads it and what the process is? Or maybe it’s better left as a bit of a mystery!

What about chasing them up? I’d give it six months – at least! I’ve chased up stories in the past only to have them arrive with rejection slips days later. Would they have held on to them for future consideration if I’d left it? Or were they rejections that had simply been forgotten? Who knows? I don’t.

And just to illustrate why you should never give up, a friend of mine recently sold a story she’d written in 2001. It was entered for two or three competitions, but wasn’t suitable for any of the magazines. However, there was something she liked about the story and she rewrote it and sent it off to five different magazines in turn – the fifth one bought it.

The same friend had a rejection from The Lady after two years – her story had fallen down the back of somewhere and they’d only just found it. Best magazine found one of hers in a filing cabinet after eight months – and rejected it.

There are stories of mine that have been out there for years. I assume they’ve been lost or forgotten (maybe they’ve fallen down the back of somewhere) and one of these days I’ll get round to resubmitting them – maybe.

I wish I could have been more helpful! But it may help to know we are all crammed into the same little boat – waiting . . .

Saturday 23 May 2009

A Busy Week

Well it was not difficult to do as Womag suggested and not allow myself to write until a specific day. That day was Wednesday and it has come and gone and I haven’t written a word although I have sorted out the seven rejections I had this week. Five for the shredder - gone forever (they were of the “What was I thinking?” variety) - and two off on their adventures again. I sent them off with clean underwear, a packed lunch and a newly sharpened pencil and wished them luck.

So I really ought to knuckle down and do something today. But the weather is so glorious and the sun is shining – I really want to be outside, but I’ve already taken the dogs for their walk and I’ve no excuse to go out.

I rather like this picture that I took yesterday on the beach at Walton on the Naze. We’d been to the park, had a picnic and then a stroll along the beach before heading for the park again for one last play before home. It was a lovely day – quiet too, very few people about.

Whatever you are doing this holiday weekend, I hope the sun is shining on you!

Wednesday 20 May 2009

Recognise your Reader

Jean was eight years old when she was evacuated to the country in 1939. Strong bodied and big for her age, Jean was a shy child and not very confident. She was picked out by a farmer and spent the next couple of years being worked from dawn till dusk and sometimes beyond to earn her keep.

When she went home it was to learn her father was dead and her mother was about to marry someone else. There was no room for Jean in her mother’s new life and she moved in with an aunt who used to beat her.

At sixteen she got pregnant by the first person to show her any real affection – and he promptly left her. The baby was stillborn. Later Jean married and had four children. She seemed to attract bullies. Her husband was part of the trend.

He died of alcohol poisoning after putting her in hospital. She struggled to keep her family together, working all hours to bring in enough money to feed them and keep a roof over their heads. Her oldest daughter went off the rails. The boys were often in trouble. Jean’s whole life was blighted by illness.

Now she lives alone in her council house. Her friends and neighbours are dying off and she’s surrounded by young families who ignore her; her family rarely visits.

Mary had an idyllic childhood. Her parents doted on her and when she was fifteen she met the love of her life, a kind, gentle boy who grew into a kind, gentle man.

Mary had two daughters. Like their father they were kind and gentle. When they grew up and had families of their own, they lived just round the corner and visited often.

In later life Mary, now a widow suffers with arthritis. She is in a great deal of pain which is unrelenting and not helped by the pills which in some ways make her feel worse.

She still lives in the cosy little semi that she and her husband bought when they first married. There are problems with the roof that she can’t afford to fix and a damp patch by the living room window which she keeps hidden with the curtain.

Her daughters can’t help. They are finding things tough at the moment, struggling to keep their own heads above water, so Mary keeps her problems to herself.

She used to go out in the evenings with friends, but tends to stay at home now. Since her fall she is less confident. And she feels intimidated by the kids that race past her house every night in their noisy cars and others that stand outside her gate talking in loud, frightening voices.

So what have Jean and Mary got in common? They both have The People’s Friend delivered every week.

This is where I’m going to add a disclaimer – I don’t know who the typical reader of the People’s Friend is. And I’m quite sure that among their readers they really do have people who have never suffered a day’s illness, never experienced the death of a loved one or never had to deal with a drunken abusive partner in their lives.

But for the most part their readers are real people who have lived through harder times than many of us can even begin to imagine. It isn’t because their readers are these untouched, angelic puritans that they require such safe, gentle stories. It is because their readers want to escape into a world that perhaps they once knew, or wished they’d known.

They want a world where if something bad (not terrible) happens, it can be easily sorted out by good friends or loving family. They want to read about real life, but not necessarily their life. They want to immerse themselves in nostalgia and they want it viewed through the rosiest tinted spectacles money can buy.

They don’t want to read about death and divorce and poverty and who can blame them? A lot of them have lived through it.

Jean and Mary don’t exist - well they do I’m sure, but my Jean and Mary are composites of People’s Friend readers that I have known. They’ve lived through similar things to Jean and Mary and worse.

Often when the knocking of women’s magazine stories is going to be done, the People’s Friend is waved about as an example. So what are we supposed to do? Write stories about gangs of kids setting fires to cars and kicking cats into oblivion? Social workers who come round and tell vulnerable old people that they aren’t going to be allowed to live an independent life any more? Sons and daughters who only visit when they want something?

Are we going to write stories that tell it like it is for the Friend reader? Or stories that tell it how people would like it to be?

Few lives are complete unremitting drudgery. Most have their happy moments, weeks, years. You take one of those shining moments and you write a story about it, sprinkle in a bit of conflict and add a happy ending. It sounds easy, but those are the stories I find the most difficult to write.

These days the trend with magazines is for real life stories where people can read about people worse off than them (blimey, my uncle Fred might have been a murderer but at least he didn’t chop Auntie’s head off and feed it to his pigeons – that makes me feel much better). I don’t really have an Uncle Fred, but you see what I mean?

One more thing. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because the readers like gentle stories with happy endings that they are lacking in the brain department. If there’s one thing sure to get my back up, it’s looking down on readers, wanting to “better” them or give them a challenge. Real life can be tough enough to deal with and has its own challenges, who can blame some people for wanting to get away from it for a while?

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Happy Writing

I am going to be absent from Blogland for a few days. I have my granddaughter coming to stay and want to make the most of every minute. But I may pop in when she has a nap!

I am also not allowing myself to write or even think about writing until at least next Wednesday (thanks for the tip Womag! I’ll let you know if it works for me).

I’ve set up comment moderation so I'll be able to keep on top of things and not miss anyone.

Also I just want to say how lovely everyone is. I was really worried about writing a blog – and every time I hit the “Post” button, I start to panic. It’s very different sending something off to an editor and letting them decide whether it is publishable or not and making that decision yourself.

Happy writing.

Monday 11 May 2009

Beating the Block

Not everyone gets it – or should I say suffers from it, because it is something you suffer from like warts, except with warts you can see them and like a wart it is annoying but not life threatening.

There are different degrees of block. There is the one where something is there but you can’t get it down on the page and end up writing nothing. Or the one where there is nothing there, your head feels empty and the only things in it are the tumbleweeds blowing round in the void.

Those are the two I’m going to talk about because those are the two I’m well acquainted with.

In the case of the first the blockage needs to be cleared. I have a vision of my mum at the sink with a towel. I can’t remember the technique but I know it involved scrunching up the towel in and over the plughole and a lot of pumping and it worked.

How to clear it? I’m afraid I don’t know. If I did, I would have finished the novels I have queuing up in my optimistically labelled “book” folder on the desktop. And those five or so magazine stories I have in another folder which have brilliant beginnings but have no middles or endings. And the more serious stories, started . . . waiting.

I have no doubt that they’re in my head somewhere. My problem is finding them and getting them out and if I’m perfectly honest with you I know what the solution is. It is to sit down and work at it. But it is easier to catch that passing story idea which is almost fully formed in my mind and write that instead.

Writing is my living. Without it I wouldn’t eat – and perhaps given my ever increasing beam that would be no bad thing. But there is my neat little excuse for not getting on with it – I have to write the short stories I can finish. And what about when I’m not working on them or when they won’t come out either . . . well we’re back to displacement activities and I don’t want to go there again today.

Maybe then what is started and unfinished doesn’t feel right and it’s easier to ignore it than to find out what’s wrong.

My mum used to knit – oh boy she used to knit. And if she made a mistake, a tiny one that no one else would notice, she would go back and start again. So maybe that kind of “there’s something there that won’t come out” block has something to do with a need for perfection.

I think it is something that writers of short stories probably suffer with more than most. Correct me if I’m wrong – I’m sure you will. But in a short story you can keep going over and over and over it as you write, going back, editing this, changing that, removing a word here and adding another there. With a novel if you do that . . . well, you’ll end up with loads of unfinished manuscripts and every time you go back to them you’ll start tinkering from the beginning again and by the time you get back to where you were the creative steam will have gone and you will have edited your story out of existence.

I hadn’t meant this to go on so long. I hope you’re still with me. I don’t blame you if you’re not – or if you’re thinking “I wish she’d get blocked and end this.”

So what’s the solution? You could try sitting down and working through it and if you don’t know what happens next but do know what happens further along – leave a gap and fill it later. The important thing is to get the flow going. I’ve heard more than one writer say that it is better to write a page badly than to write nothing at all. At least you can edit a bad page.

Emptiness. Now that’s a different feeling. Your ideas notebook is wearing a coat of dust and all you have on your Word document is the little number 1 at the top of the first page. Ideas, if they come at all, are weak or elusive.

You start to despair. That’s it. You’ve done it. You’ve reached the end of the road, used up all the ideas you were ever going to have. You look back to the days when you first started to write and found it impossible to keep up with all the ideas, days when you had to abandon ideas by the wayside because there just wasn’t time to write them all.

Brains are not like ovaries! They don’t have a sell by date. Well they do but it comes a lot later for most of us, sadly much too early for a few.

The first thing to tell yourself is “I am not finished!” And the second is to stop beating yourself up about it.

So how to get those ideas coming? Well I’ve already mentioned in a previous blog that pictures are a good starting point. Choose a picture and write about it. Doesn’t have to be anything extraordinary. I like the one above. Tiny girl alone in the woods - this picture speaks to me – not quite sure what it’s saying yet, but I will eventually write about it next month, next year or in the distant future.

For some people having a break from writing works wonders. I find it works the opposite way for me. The less I write, the further I seem to slip away from it and the harder it is to go back – and why writing, which I love, turns into an ordeal to be faced I don’t know!

Get yourself a copy of “Writing from Life” by Lynne Hackles. Lynne knows how to banish those tumbleweeds. She’ll have them swept out of your mind and set you off on a voyage of discovery through your own experiences. One idea will spark off another and before you know it, you’ll be off, fingers flying over the keyboard.

Write something different. Write a poem. Write a letter. Write to someone you don’t like or someone you admire (remember this is just for fun – I’m not suggesting you start firing off letters for real – these are just for your own consumption).

A string of rejections can knock your creativity on the head and make it hard to keep going. But we all get them. They hurt, but they are proof that you are writing and you’re sending it out. If you’re writing because you want to be rich – forget it. If you write because you have to and would do so even if you won the lottery, keep at it.

And read. Read as widely as you can. If you don’t love reading, why are you writing?

Oh hell. I’ve just done what I promised myself I wouldn’t do when I started blogging. No long blogs I told myself. Just nice little short snappy ones.

You can beat the block, but the answer doesn’t lie in swallowing tons of Ginkgo biloba (said to be good for mental fuzziness) or listening to Paul McKenna CDs (although having said that, he does seem to have a positive effect on the confidence!) or even drinking Absinthe – The answer lies within you. You have the power!

There’s probably nothing in the above you didn’t already know and hadn’t already tried, but if any of this waffle helps just one person to get going then I’ll be happy. And if anyone wants to write about the picture, feel free and if you do, let me know if you’re successful!

Friday 8 May 2009

Reasons for Rejection

Usually if you get a reason for a rejection you can see the sense behind it. But sometimes the reason for a rejection may seem very unfair.

I have a friend who used to write for women's magazines. He once wrote a story (for a magazine which no longer publishes fiction) and it was rejected on the grounds that swans don't swim in the sea. Otherwise the fiction editor loved the story, but she just couldn't publish something so - wrong!

Swans do swim in the sea! I've seen them - lots of times - and so has he. This happened many years ago, but it still makes my skin prickle with a sense of unfairness.

I had a particular story rejected - it came back within the week - with the reason that what I had written about would never have happened. It would resonate with the readers as completely unbelievable. People wouldn't have behaved like that and many of their readers were of an age to know. What I had written was an account of something that happened to my mother in the war. It had happened - I know because my mum told me and while she was a spinner of yarns, she didn't lie!


Others have been rejected because a character was just too nasty with no redeeming features. We all know there are people like that who are just thoroughly through and through evil and so do the readers, BUT those readers don't want to read about people like that and that is perfectly understandable.

But after that mini rant, it is nice to know why a story is being rejected. You can learn a great deal from it.

I used to keep all my rejection slips when I first started sending things in until they started demanding daily walks and their own supply of Maltesers. I still have a few rejection slips with a kindly encouraging comment written on the back by a fiction editor. Those comments and the letters that ended with a request for more stories were what kept me going.

The main thing to remember is that however good we think our story is when we send it in to a magazine the fiction editor knows her readers and what they like. It's no use getting all precious and het up about it. They might even have to reject a story because they've only just bought one like it. Or it might be that the story is simply no good and badly written - I know I look at some of my rejections and think "What the hell was I thinking sending that in . . .?"

Fiction Editors are Human Beings and they know what they are doing and why they are doing it! If you are given a reason for a rejection, then pay heed to it. And if you are not, then try to figure it out for yourself - you can only learn from the experience.

Anyone got any favourite rejection stories they'd like to share? Any that particularly stung?

Thursday 7 May 2009

Embarrassing Bodies and Snow

I love Embarrassing Bodies - the programme that is. Not that I see much of it because I'm hiding behind a cushion or my hands for much of it and have to rely on someone with a stronger stomach to tell me when "that bit's finished."

I feel so sorry for some of the people who appear on that show and admire them greatly for their willingness to get their embarrassing bits out and allow them to be filmed. I've been asking around and quite a few people would go to see the Embarrassing Bodies doctors because they have things troubling them that they wouldn't want to "bother" their doctor with.
You can read about it on the Channel 4 website, here

Then a programme about snow which turned out to be very interesting. Pure water doesn't freeze - they proved it by putting test tubes in a freezer and when they added a tiny crumb of frost to the pure unfrozen water it froze instantly. Fascinating. As was the film of the winter of 1963. All I remember of that winter is having a lot of fun in the snow and getting upset about so many dead birds.

There was a bit about Charles Dickens - I think they said six out of his first ten Christmases were white ones, but I may be wrong - I was tired by then and my brain is a sieve. Michael Rosen was reading from A Christmas Carol . . . it was all very - snowy!

I thought a picture or two might be nice and I thought an embarrassing body part, steamy wart, pickled bunion or something snowy? You will be relieved to see I chose the latter.

Saturday 2 May 2009

Displacement activities

Mine used to be Word Mojo until I had it removed from my computer. It had to go. I was spending too many hours on it and when I started seeing the grid as I drifted off to sleep I knew it had become an addiction.

At first it worked, but gradually I have found another displacement activity. Not that I needed to look far. It had always been there, a niggling temptation. I am talking about the internet of course. I go through my favourites one at a time and when I get to the end, I start again at the beginning.

The websites rarely change in between my visits and what exactly is the point of visiting Right Move a dozen times a day? There is no point. It is mindless as is the constant checking of my ipoints account. Have I got enough points yet for the £30 Amazon voucher? No I haven't just as I hadn't ten minutes ago and won't have in ten minutes time.

Blogs. I even check the ones that haven't been updated. It is senseless. A waste of time. When the internet connection goes down I weep and wail and gnash my teeth and reset the router then wait while it finds itself again. So I can get back to my constant going round and round and going nowhere.

At the moment I seem to have the attention span of a gnat. I can't read. I can't watch the telly. I certainly can't write when I'm in this mood (except to moan about it in blogalese). Now the internet has gone down again so I won't even be able post this. Woe is me.


I took the kids to the park, beach and duckpond yesterday. It was the park I played on almost every day as a child, the beach I woke up to every morning and yet it was the pond that brought back the biggest memories.

Why? The scent of a shrub. I don't know what it is, but there was a big bungalow near my house which had it all round the garden and you couldn't walk past without smelling it. There is one shrub in the garden around the pond and the scent was heavy yesterday.

It brought back memories of persuading my mum to walk the long way home from the shops which took us past the pond so I could see the ducks and maybe scrounge a piece of the fresh bread she'd just bought so I could feed them. And walking through the shady lane behind it with Pop, my grandad, holding tight to his hand. So began a cascade of memories which ended up with the milk on the doorstep freezing in the winter and the cream poking out of the tops of the bottles with the little lid perched on top.

So how did I get from a scented shrub to frozen milk bottles? I have no idea, but when I went to bed my mind was whirling with memories.
I've heard it said that the sense of smell is the most powerful. Perhaps it is.