Archive | April 2015

‘Plodding On’

Never Give Up!  Never Surrender!  How to keep writing in the face of rejection’

My first book ended up in the bin. Any glimmer of encouragement was absent as my snooping mother spurned my literary genius. I feigned surprise. Surely my descriptions in My Life Story were not that bad? How could she recognise herself in the ugly, dislikeable main character? I crossed my fingers. Too late. The scandalous recounts muddied with my fertile imagination had to be the final straw.

My first rejection. But all was not lost. There came infant school and my favourite lesson – stories. No mother to rip up my masterpiece here. Convincingly, I avoided cold, wet playtimes asking to ‘stay in and finish’. But I was a lost cause; sadly nothing pinned to the wall.

I scribbled away at Grammar School and by now – Eureka – a flock of avid listeners drew lots to sit alongside this budding author. Disregarding the French teacher and safely hidden in the back row, they lapped up the next instalment of something resembling a female Scarlet Pimpernel. Even then I sought gender equality. But these tomes sank to the bottom of boxes, gathering dust in the loft, only to be inauspiciously dumped by ‘her indoors’ when the house was sold.

A diary. I would write a diary of my children’s young years. But their father thwarted my efforts. Writing, along with reading, suffered more rejection, both activities labelled an unpromising past-time. Years passed inhabiting a world of terry towelling and Napisan, the only paper my shopping lists.

Teaching. Yes, at last, I had to write – on the board, on handouts, on marked work and composing assignments, much of the advice dismissed.

‘She’s written me a story,’ said one student stuffing the red-marked work, unread into her bag.

Eventually immersed in singleton bliss, I wrote – seriously now. Reams of drivel churned out at midnight, edited and retyped tirelessly on an Olympia portable typewriter. Hope arrived in the form of a talent-spotting new partner who bought me my first computer, a cumbersome piece of hard plastic with strange needs. Presented with an interested agent, I promised the finished novel by New Year thereby annihilating a romantic start to 1983.

January 2nd and we drive post haste into London with a large brown envelope. The optimistic agent sees me as ‘the next big thing’ only to be told two publishers later that my book ‘doesn’t work’. Her sudden loss of interest leaves a double loss – publishers and herself.

My next rejection came when cohabiting with new soulmate – ex-talent spotter -who, I discovered, too late, wanted my full attention. Struggling with the oddities of the publishing industry is enough without suffering a doleful partner. Also, my daughters, having read my earlier efforts with glee, now, in true teenage style, rolled their eyes and preferred me in the car providing lifts.

The next time I wielded a pen and hammered a computer keyboard was to write poetry, much published in anthologies I had to buy myself. My feathers briefly plumped up only to flop when told such accomplishment didn’t count. But I carried on. Somewhere deep inside I sensed glimmers of hope. Rather than sling it out, I would risk rebuffs from agents and publishers. If my lame verses made me laugh surely they might do the same for a wider readership.

But the anticipated stampede didn’t arrive. Few publishers, and even fewer agents, take poetry. W H Smith sports a mere half-a-dozen copies of poetry books, the authors Carol Ann Duffy or dead. Something tells me I’m backing the wrong horse.

Meanwhile I plodded on. A few years ago – it feels like twenty – a memoir bubbled and flowed from my pen and I threw words at the screen once more. Thousands of words full of memories, angst, naughty deeds and embarrassing experiences.

Suddenly I wasn’t such a dud after all. My efforts impressed a biographer at a Writers’ Conference who gave me his publisher’s card, saying he would ‘‘put in a word”. My feathers didn’t plump this time, they took flight. But a year later the delicate decline arrived with the now all-too-familiar ping by email. The publisher eventually couldn’t see a commercial route for my graft. I showed it elsewhere drawing blanks. But I was learning from the rejections, reworking my passion with undying enthusiasm. There is always a new phrase, a better word, a different structure, an interesting new character and …. hope.

Eureka! It is 2013. I sit before an agent and can’t believe I’m hearing those much craved words ‘send me more’.  I tell a few people, my biggest mistake.  I didn’t count on the end of my champion’s maternity cover and the return of the embedded agent who …. yes, you’ve guessed …. did not like my novel, if indeed it was a novel.

Now I have to solve the problem of my book bridging two genres before wasting another agent’s time. The clock is ticking and I have appointments. The tired thesaurus is covered in coffee stains, red wine and what resembles a salty blob. This is only for the synopsis but still to come is the struggle with back story and more tears. My study is piled with abandoned, awful drafts and many pages I thought were brilliant until the edit.

Of course, this ebb and flow is part of a writer’s life and no doubt more disappointments lurk around the corner. Meanwhile I suffer unhelpful oh-so-well-meaning acquaintances delivering the ultimate rejection saying ‘Fancy you, a writer?’ Do I, I want to ask, look daft? Worse still is ‘But when, my dear, will you be published?’ Another thud on the doormat or loud ping from Outlook and I might stand trial for murder for that one.

Even when I get there – as I will – in the adversity of my 1950s childhood, I was reared to persevere – I still have to stomach the eager line of readers snaking three times round Waterstones as they wait for a fellow book signer (I wish) while I sit head buried in his book, queueless, ignored and …………..

acting as if I couldn’t give a damn!

Nearly Two Decades of Technology

How easily we forget how things were …

The day I retired I prepared to leave the office after clearing my desk of myriad late twentieth century clutter.  One person was on the new shared computer, so large it required a whole desk to itself and its connected printer was on a second desk alongside.  Other teaching staff were occupied writing memos or answering telephones.  In 1996, telephone messages were written on a message sheet put on the recipient’s desk and strategically placed for urgent attention on any spare wood visible on the surface.  Daily tasks included filing documents in an assortment of coloured ring binders or large metal cabinets and, if research was required, reading information from books.  I hastened to a last meeting where a secretary took notes in her notebook to type up later.  On my return, the colleague on the office computer printed out four copies of what she had typed, put one in an internal envelope, two copies on other desks and filed one in a large ring binder.  She had several such files all clearly labelled.  Each desk in the office was covered in a mound of paper in varying degrees of importance, the staff development time and task management day having had little effect on our ability or willingness to direct much of the paper to an office bin.  On my way home I removed the film from my camera and took it in to the local chemist who had a five-day fast-track developing service.  Technology was just a word – something that happened ‘out there’, definitely not at home and, certainly, not to me.

I returned home to find letters lying on the mat, goodwill cards from colleagues positioned on the mantelpiece and several phone messages on my answer phone.  The following day I trawled my address book to find phone numbers and addresses of people to whom I wished to announce my retirement.  Awash with free time, I spent many happy hours talking to neighbours across driveways and hedges, phoning friends and writing newsy letters to relatives and others too far flung to phone.  Copies were printed for my fast-expanding correspondence file.  I read books and went shopping where the feel of the material was crucial to any decision.

One of my first purchases in my newly-retired state was a computer, my old word processor now incompatible with what was on the shelves in stores like PC World.  I also purchased a large desk for the computer’s bulky central processing unit, the two speakers and the cumbersome monitor which was actually larger than my television set.

I was soon ahead of my friends with a printer which could also send faxes due to the fact that I needed to communicate with a deaf sister.  Previously we had relied on letters or short phone calls with the help of her neighbour.  Fax made immediate contact and changed our lives.  We could be in touch in seconds with the flick of a button, changing arrangements, writing at length or announcing new family arrivals.  Visitors marvelled at my technology.  I could have said ‘we aint seen nothing yet’ but how was I to know what was round the next corner.

The next change came with the arrival of a new lodger.  Her job required her to have her own phone line, her firm footing the bill.  A package was chosen which enabled us to have three lines, one for each of us and a third dedicated to a fax.  However, when she left two years later her successor had no need of a phone line; she had a mobile.  Even newer technology knocked at the door.

Within a few years, people were starting to talk about the new ‘internet’, networked computers and the paperless office.  I was pleased not to be involved.  I thought I would never learn what was needed.  After all, I had enough trouble tuning the radios and televisions.  I had also spent hours on the new microwave instruction booklet and, unable to get the hang of it, opted instead for my traditional oven.  Perhaps I was not as good with technology as I thought.

I can’t recall the exact date I obtained my first mobile phone, but it was a large cumbersome object which required its own bag.  I only used it when driving, for emergencies, so my landline as it was now called was not entirely defunct.  Interestingly, no-one yet gave out their mobile number although the new complaint amongst parents was that young adults were running up large bills which often had to be settled by Mum or Dad.

However, around the same time, I was introduced to a new form of communication – e mail.  Even friends who were checking their mobiles frequently did not always have this facility.  I heard of a whizz kid I named Mr Computer who could set me up on the internet and with an e mail address.  It meant little other than the machine I had bought some four years previously was now out-of-date.  I was fast learning that the race for advanced technology was designed to make money for people such as Mr Computer as well as PC World and Bill Gates.

My first forays into e mailing involved few contacts. Only a small number of friends had e mail. Some only used it in the workplace, it still being an unknown quantity in the home and the use of work computers for private email was restricted.   However, slowly but surely friends acquired home computers and my contact list grew quickly as the subject line ‘I’m on e mail’ or ‘My email address’ popped up more often.  The length of e mails increased only to be matched by a decline in telephone use.

Even Christmas communications have been changed by electronic means.  A number of people on my Christmas card list pre-empt my greetings by sending a computer generated card illustrating a straggly-haired pet or even more straggly-haired grandchildren.  Inside the cover their address sits proudly in a fancy new font, boasting in addition an e mail address and sometimes even a website if they are promoting self-employment or boasting fame.  Attached is the obligatory enclosed ‘round robin’ letter announcing achievements, additions to the family, sumptuous cruise holidays and outings, all with digitised pictorial evidence.

So whatever happened to the film I took to Boots those many years ago after my retirement party?  All pictures taken were printed and paid for, even the bad and the blank.  Retirement celebrations these days are recorded on cameras smaller than a mobile phone and even taken on the phone itself.  Images are sent from phone to phone allowing interested aunties and uncles  immediate access or downloaded to a computer and e mailed within minutes.

Failing that, instant computerised photo printers occupy spaces in post offices previously used for bags of mail.  Aspiring photographers can insert a memory card no bigger than a fifty pence piece and delete unwanted images before printing the best.

The Royal Mail is now appropriately named ‘snail mail’.  Who wants letters that take two days at today’s stamp prices when lifting the iphone allows access to text messages and e mails in one hit for free?  Actually, my grandchildren do. It is exciting getting cards through the door when it is your birthday.  Even better is a letter from Granny with a pound coin taped inside.

As for the newer phones, our towns and cities are awash with people peering intently downwards towards a mini screen while walking the pavements and crossing the road.  Even new mums push prams one handed these days, their other hand securely locked to one of these devices.  I am a reluctant texter, I have to say, as I share many older people’s dislike of the crude abbreviations used.  At least letters and emails use The Queen’s English and I shall fight to the death my right to use it.

My only experience of offices these days is the local bank, travel agent, solicitor or estate agent.  Local 9-5 professionals hide behind a computer screen, a faceless link on the website, their desk devoid of trappings such as ours in the nineties.  There is little use for paper clips and staplers when attachments are sent electronically and signed digitally.  Even someone who likes ‘dealing with people’ finds themselves glued to computer screens, their hand locked to a mouse or ears hooked to a headphone in a call centre where  ‘Sales’ does not equate with face-to-face contact.

In our personal lives, shopping behaviour today is more likely to involve a click of the mouse than a trip to town, reading can be done on a screen via the new iPad and writing, as I am doing now, is more likely to be done on a laptop than with pen and paper.

And as for retirement in 2015, people are more likely to announce this on Facebook or Twitter and congratulations to pop up in comments. How different to mine nineteen years ago.

But we can keep some customs alive if we put our minds to it. Sending a card has more meaning than some typed letters on a screen.

Let’s hope we never do the postman out of delivering a bag of Happy Retirement cards.

I’m a Writer, yes?

Cover of Grandma's Poetry Book by Di CastleWhen I retire I want to be a writer …….

When I retired I wanted to get published, but without an ongoing project, four years later I was no nearer my goal. I had manuscripts gathering dust and more to say but I couldn’t call myself ‘A Writer’. There is a plethora of discussion on when one can be called this on writing forums.

So at a recent literary lunch, when the author, Sarah Challis, described her route to publication of ten books, all since the age of fifty, I had to ask myself what I’d been doing all these years?

‘It all started,’ she said, ‘when I retired from teaching.’

Well, that made me sit up and take notice. Yes, I’d been retired sixteen years and my aims then were the same as Sarah’s. So what happened after the day I retired and where am I now?

I’ve always had an urge to write and secretly hoped retirement would free me to put words on the page. I was determined that, eventually, I would say whatever it was I had to say.

From the time I could hold a pencil I’ve been writing in one form or another. Someone said that you are a writer if you have to write and if ‘not writing’ causes withdrawal symptoms. That’s me.

Once I’d mastered the alphabet and found letters worked together to give a range of words and that the choice or order of words could change the meaning, I began writing stories. They were lengthy – I never knew when to stop – and they served to save me from outside play on a cold winter day. I made sure ‘finishing my story’, lasted until my red-nosed, blue lipped and frozen classmates returned from the icy wastes of the infant playground before I wrote with abandon – The End.

My creativity had a bad start. After beginning My Life Story, at around seven years of age, my mother discovered my ‘book’ which contained a multitude of family secrets and shocking habits, after which she took me to one side for a ‘talking to’ of the ‘What Would the Neighbours Say?’ type. I was disappointed, having been so pleased with my humorous take on life in our house. My imagination stunted, I realised any talent would have no encouragement from that quarter.

The creative juices were again sorely sapped at Junior School when I came face-to-face with She Who Slaps Legs for every spelling mistake. Such was my fear that every Monday evening was spent preparing twenty spellings for the dreaded Tuesday test. Her regime worked. I was never slapped and became the world’s best speller, especially with family games of Trivial Pursuits, during which my children groaned ‘It’s not fair’. Well, they didn’t have teachers like She Who Slaps in the 1970s, did they?

I didn’t give up entirely, as I had what every writer should have – a den – my own private place. It was made from broken canes – the good ones held up Dad’s runner beans – and hessian sacking which, before the days of plastic bags, came in all shapes and sizes. I created a door with a make-believe lock of string and twigs. In this den I would write – anything. By now, I was more adept at hiding my scribbles in an assortment of tins buried in the mud. So no more ‘what will the neighbours say?’

I continued writing in my teens with classmates taking turns to sit next to me in French to hear the next instalment of my latest novel, usually something fashioned after the Scarlet Pimpernel. I crafted a female character – Adeline – of similar aptitude to Sir Percy, only female, and she aided the escape to England of many. Unlike many authors, whose talks I’ve attended, I don’t have these early masterpieces as at some point these disappeared from our loft, probably to my mother’s waste bin.

The sixties and seventies are a blur of babies, weaning, boiling nappies and the occasional pen in my hand writing a shopping list. But everything changed in the eighties, when, as a single parent with three daughters and a career to nurture, I found time to join a writing group. We read aloud anything we’d written which motivated me to put pen to paper and type drafts on the portable electric typewriter. The result turned out to be the opening of my first novel which was regularly returned from publishers with a large thud on the door mat.

Then my partner bought a computer – an early Amstrad – and I struggled to make sense of it, wasting much continuous stationery and temper in the process. Stimulated by this new experience, I wrote the start of a book about a young mother with toddlers who struggles with a word processor. The plot of the book matched my own tortuous learning curve but adding the toddlers meant I could make bad things happen like jelly tots in the floppy drive. I sent it to an agent whose name I’d been given and she asked for more and then for the whole script. The book went to Headline and Arrow but was not taken up.

My first book was costing me a lot of postage but I didn’t waver. Someone in the group suggested I send it to the then Watson, Little and Brown and they telephoned asking me to come to London. I’m there, I thought. Of course, I wasn’t.

‘It’s not marketable,’ said the person on the line, ‘in its present form, but we would like to see you.’

The meeting was with two of the junior commissioning editors. If I re-wrote the book into articles, perhaps diary pieces, they would market them with newspapers and magazines, after which the articles would be put together in book form. The readership, having been wooed by the diary pieces, would then buy the book. Wow!

I left the office promising I would send the work. I didn’t at the time comprehend the harsh truth that a writer should ALWAYS do what an editor asks. I was about to move house, combining two homes, mine and my partner’s and our seven children. There was much to do, not all of it nice, but worse, once we had a joint household, the freedom to write I’d had when on my own vanished.

Recently I’ve read both manuscripts and am horrified at the sloppy sentence structure, banal clichéd expression and lack of or, worse, abominable punctuation. I broke every rule in the creative writing bible. No wonder they weren’t published.

I began Open University study and for a few years wrote only coursework but I didn’t give up writing. I sent tongue-in-cheek articles about mature students juggling study and family demands which were published in the OU magazine Sesame. I also took on a Village Voice column in the local paper and I began writing press releases promoting new courses and student achievement in my college of further education.

Around 1999 I worked with Helen, a primary teacher, on the Family Literacy Programme. I taught the mothers and Helen taught their children. Once a week we had a combined session. Email was in its infancy – few of my friends had email but Helen and I did. We liaised and our email exchange was hilarious, as were some sessions. We still want to publish, under pseudonyms of course.

My early manuscripts were now a mere memory, yellowing, fading copies and brittle, stuffed in the loft. My Millennium introduction to grandparenting stimulated the latent writer in me and, inspired me to write poetry. At a poetry group, I read my poem about a deaf girl which was harshly criticised by those with no experience of the disability. It was another example of the ignorance of hearing people with regard to Deaf issues. The seeds were sown for a later book. At last, I had something to say. But the time wasn’t right.

However, there was still email. After 2001, other friends were keen to correspond on a regular basis. I was loath to delete these and for several years selected a few of my wittier sent mails each week to copy and paste into a diary. The joy of this, I thought, was that I could refer to it if my memory failed due to dementia. I also planned a book entitled ‘The E diaries of a Downshifter’ based on the e mails. I just needed to find the right voice and I’d be away.

One turning point was that, after some family history research, I was motivated to write a family memoir for my grandchildren, which still awaits completion but from this I developed the idea for the book about a hearing girl growing up with a deaf sister.

Another turning point was in 2009 when Mslexia, arrived and on tearing it open something fell out. It was a flyer advertising the Winchester Writers Conference. This was within easy reach of where I live and the speakers and topics were just what I needed. Immediately I went online to see what I could find and also wrote away for details. I was too late to enter competitions or send work for appraisal in 1-1s but I put myself down for several useful seminars, one of which was on memoir writing by John Jenkins.

So now I had two books in progress and a poetry collection as well as two older corny novels awaiting major revision.

I was back at Winchester in 2010 and took the first prize for one of the Conference competitions which inspired me to apply myself seriously to my writing. I also had a 1-1 with biographer, Bevis Hillier, who said I showed much promise as a writer and asked me to stay in touch. I felt liberated and energised.

In 2011 I attended a Novel writing weekend run by Winchester Writers’ Conference at Shawford. At the course I met a writer who was organising a competition for entries into an anthology of the Royal Wedding. My contribution was selected and in July the collection was all over Facebook and sold on ebay with half the costs going to UNICEF.

My 1-1s in 2011 were helpful but I had other ideas. As autumn approached I jotted down some sketchy plots for a possible novel to write for the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and on 1st November I got cracking. To hit the target of 50,000 words I had to achieve 1700 words a day. It was the most enjoyable month of writing I’d had for a long time. I finished it sketchily and hastily knowing that for acceptance by an agent or publisher, there is much needing development – it has a saggy middle I fear. If I finish the editing before 12 June, I can have six copies self-published, the vouchers for this being part of the prize.

Stephen King says in ‘On Writing’, If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it? Why wouldn’t I indeed?

I do have to write and I’m not as content if I don’t. I am happiest fiddling with words on the screen, flicking pages of the thesaurus and the slog is always worth it at the ‘eureka’ moment, be it a sentence, phrase or merely an elusive word.
The road to writing has taken many turns, roundabouts and dead ends and I still haven’t had a book traditionally published but I am getting there and now I write every day – another definition of a writer. I have no strict routine of writing 9-1 like some, but I can easily manage 1000-2000 words, usually in the evening.

Since writing this article for a competition at Winchester, I found an illustrator, Denise Horn, whose work delightfully encapsulates my poetry written as a new grandmother. Grandma’s Poetry Book took form. In 2013, my task at Winchester was to trail round the self publishing stands asking for guidance, prices, requirements – anything! Some wanted pdf documents. What was a pdf, I wanted to ask? I found myself, eventually, at the Matador stand and their only requirements – a WORD document and Jpeg files for the illustrations – led me to placing my book with them in the Spring of 2014. Grandma’s Poetry Book was published in October that year and has enjoyed healthy sales. We are now working on a new book of more general humorous poetry, Should I wear Floral? Poems on Life, Love and Leaving, which we hope to have ready later in 2015. The marketing of the first book requires a whole blog post of its own. Green doesn’t even begin to describe me a year ago. Steep learning curve doesn’t go near it; suffice to say that I have gained 1200 Twitter followers in six months!

As for fiction ….. This book about the deaf ………. someone at Winchester once said, ‘it sounds like it would work for the older children’s market.’ You know what? I might just have another go.

It’s been a while coming but I do now call myself a ‘writer’.

Grandma’s Poetry Book was published by Troubador Publishing in November 2014’s%20Poetry%20Book
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What’s In A Name?

This morning on Woman’s Hour there was a lively discussion with 71-year old Virginia Ironside, grandmother of two and author of “Yes! I Can Manage Thank You!” and Helen McCarthy, historian of modern Britain at Queen Mary University of London debate how the role of grandmas has changed over the past 100-years.

One aspect was what grandmothers should be called which reminded me of the poem in Grandma’s Poetry Book (page 54) What’s In A Name.

I thought I should share this with you below.

 First, note that Grandma’s Poetry Book is available from the author, the illustrator and Troubador Publishing. It can be ordered via independent bookshops and already sits on the shelves of THREE Dorset bookshops. Bookshops are preferable to Amazon but if you really have to …… hmm It will soon be on the shelves of Dorset National Trust shops. Many readers are returning to buy more books (two or even three – one bought five for friends’ Christmas presents!) Today, 10 April, one reader bought a second book from the illustrator as her mother-in-law liked it so much she wanted one to send to South Africa.

What’s In A Name?

Nannies go by many names.

Some families sport a few.

They’re either, Nanny, Gran or Nan

Or Grandma, ‘Her’ or ‘You’.

I am known as Nanny Wo Wo.

I’m the one who has a dog.

But if I lived in Holland

I might be Nanny Clog.

So glad I’ve given up the smoke

So I can’t be Nanny Fags.

Must temper shopping habit

Or I might be Nanny Bags.

I’ve had to stop the whiskey,

So I can’t be Nanny Booze.

I’m down to only twenty pairs,

So I can’t be Nanny Shoes.

How well I do remember

My little shrunken Nan.

To us she was Small Grandma

The other one was Gran.

Grandad may be Pops or Gramps

But who cares what you’re called?

When you’ve had the chance to be a bear

And round the garden crawled!

Grandma’s Poetry Book was published in November 2014.