Reflecting on 2018 and a Giveaway!

Reflection is always valuable, but the end of the year provides the perfect excuse to pause and reflect on one’s achievements and mess-ups with a view to planning for the year ahead. My husband calls it ‘scheming and dreaming’ and it’s one of my favourite things to do.

First, though, a look back on 2018. It’s been a good year for me writing-wise. Although the first half of the year didn’t yield many publishing credits the pieces that were accepted I was incredibly proud of, and it felt great to be part of the publications: Bonnie’s Crew – a fundraising poetry anthology edited by the amazing Kate Garrett – and Café Stories: The Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction 2018. Dinesh sounds to have been an incredible man and I’m ever so grateful to Comma Press for introducing me to his writing.

In the last half of the year I also achieved some ‘firsts’: having a poem being published in Prole (which I’ve tried to get into a fair few times) as well as receiving my first pro payment for a speculative fiction story (‘The Green Man’ in Reckoning). Two other firsts were writing some science fiction poetry and seeing it published in Multiverse, as well as having my short story ‘ATU334 the Wise’ be featured in a podcast created by Shoreline of Infinity. There’s something very special about hearing a great narrator read your story (and knowing that other people are actually listening to it!). An article about small press publishing in Mslexia was another wonderful first. Publication in Atrium, I Am Not A Silent Poet and Zoomorphic (with a strange short fiction piece about jellyfish which I thought no one would ever publish) were also highlights.

 

Created during Inktober 2018

 

Having my essay ‘The Darkness Within, The Darkness Without’ win the short non-fiction category in the 2018 Nottingham Writers’ Studio Awards was pretty special too, and it made me brave enough to think that just maybe I could write more non-fiction about fairy tales. So off I went to offer an essay on one of my favourite fairy tales – ‘Bluebeard’ – to Luna Press Publishing for their Evolution of Evil in Fantasy and Science Fiction collection. I have to admit that I found the 3000+ word essay a real challenge as I haven’t written in an academic style for a LONG time. And in the course of writing the essay I wrote a ‘Bluebeard’-inspired short story (about 3000 words long) which I had super fun writing. The story took me a couple of hours over the course of a couple of days to write. The essay took me an hour or two every day for almost 6 weeks. A reminder to myself: fiction is easier to write than academic prose!

Amidst all this short story writing and academic writing (as well as all the work I do for my press) was the creation of a novella and the start of a non-fiction book. Now, the novella is finished but my editor-extraordinaire husband says it needs rewriting (he’s right, it does) and that perhaps I could explore some of the themes in more detail (I can, and I want to). But it does rather mean that the novella would then turn into a novel, which is something that I can’t commit to right now. The non-fiction book is interesting too…. Because at the last moment I decided to enter it into a prize thingy. Then it turned out to have been shortlisted (with some agent interest in it). I found out about it one Friday evening in the middle of cooking burgers for our dinner. I almost burnt the burgers whilst busy doing an impression of Galadriel from Lord of the Rings when offered the one ring by Frodo.

 

 

Me: (Addressing the astonished cat.) “You offer me your interest freely. I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired this. (Arms slowly being raised while my hair floats about my face majestically.) In place of a dark lord/career author you would have a queen of prose! Not dark but beautiful and terrible as the dawn, treacherous as the sea. Stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love my books and despair!”

The cat fled, terrified, and thankfully I passed the test, calmed down a bit and rescued the burgers from setting on fire. Phew! The upshot of all this craziness is that the agent is still interested in the book but she needs to see a lot more of it. So, in 2019 I really need to get my non-fiction hat back on and to get typing! (Though the first thing I’ll have to do in January is my tax return. Damn it…!)

Lastly, taking part in #100DaysofWriting was a big help – I don’t think I would’ve written quite as much if it wasn’t for the incentive to write something every day, hence ensuring that each writing project trundled that bit further along to completion.

What are your plans for 2019? I’d love to hear about them. And if you leave a comment below I’ll enter you in my (somewhat belated) 6 year blogging anniversary giveaway in which I’m giving away these 3 goodies. 🙂

 

Goodies galore!

 

The giveaway will run until midnight GMT on Sunday 27th January 2019 and I’ll announce the winners shortly afterwards. (This offer is open to anyone living in any country, but if someone outside the UK does win, a contribution toward postage would be appreciated.)

Whatever your plans for the year ahead I wish you a very happy, healthy and creative 2019!

 

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The Rise and Rise of Renaissance Woman

A year or two ago I went to an event at the excellent Five Leaves Bookshop and got chatting to one of my fellow attendees who set something alight in my head. I don’t remember the context – just that this person mentioned ‘Renaissance Man’ or ‘Renaissance Woman’ and I thought Aha! This is of interest…

My brain filed it away under ‘inspirational bits and bobs’ and then forgot all about it. Then, a week ago I was talking to my daughter about school. And how it seemed like there was always some kid who was brilliant at science and some kid who was brilliant at art and some kid who was a maths whizz and some kid who could run the cross-country race in, like, two seconds flat. Yet my daughter bemoaned the fact that she wasn’t brilliant at any one thing. She was merely all right at most things. I tried my best to listen and empathise. For I, too, was the kid who was all right at most things. If I studied really hard and put in the effort I could even be good. Good enough to have the option to study either the humanities (I was particularly fond of English) or the sciences. But brilliance in one subject always evaded me.

 

 

Then I remembered Renaissance Woman, and sought out a dictionary definition. Basically, it is the term for a woman who is a polymath i.e. a multi-talented woman who excels in a number of different areas. (Leonardo da Vinci was the quintessential Renaissance Man, Queen Elizabeth I the Renaissance Woman.) But nowadays, polymaths seem to be a rarity. (Well, Stephen Fry immediately pops into my head as being a modern-day polymath but who else…?) Perhaps they seem to be a rarity because we don’t grant them polymath status until they are famous in at least two, if not three, of their endeavours (which often takes decades to achieve). Then I considered many of the creative men and women I know. Sometimes they’re writers, sometimes they’re scientists, or artists, or crafters, or musicians, or designers, or bloggers, or publishers (sometimes all these things), and they’re, all of them, busy plugging away at their many creative endeavours alongside day jobs or part-time jobs or freelance jobs, or running the household and looking after their families, as well as taking part in a sport and community clubs/charities. What of these talented individuals? Surely they qualify for polymaths status?

Again, I would suggest, that polymath status is only conferred when a certain level of success/fame is achieved. And until then we might label them with the rather less charitable status of ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’. I can see the distinction, particularly when someone repeatedly dabbles in one area only to give it up shortly afterwards to dabble in another area. But what does an emerging polymath look like? Mightn’t they look like the curious child who is all right at most things? Or the imaginative twenty-something who likes to do lots of things but can’t make up their mind which one thing to do? Or the older man or woman who is finally making some progress in their various creative endeavours after years of continual effort?

Of course, if one day I had enough of a body of high quality creative work to have critics look upon it and say, Aha, the work of a Renaissance Woman! that would be wonderful, but it’s really not the be-all-and-end-all. Because through the years I’ve spent working on my various creative projects the one incredibly important thing I’ve learnt is that this kind of multi-endeavour work is slow. Incredibly slow. Tediously slow. Because you continuously need to practise in each area every day. You don’t focus on just the one thing over and over, you pull each project along, making only a tiny amount of progress each day. Sometimes it feels like a painfully stupid way of working (particularly when financial remuneration for the work is negligible), but that’s why you have to love the work, love doing the work. Because the work itself is the reward. And occasionally you’ll feel that yes, you’re getter better at the work, you’re making progress. And that feeling is incredibly good.

So, to all the emerging polymaths out there, some encouragement: keep going, keep doing your thing. Continue to be curious about the world, continue to feed your vast, expansive and technicoloured imaginations. Just keep going. There are many of us out there who can’t wait to see what you’ll create next.

Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn

Like ice-cream, every summer holiday has its own particular “flavour”. Now that both my children have returned to school and I’m back from doing the morning school run I’m reflecting on the flavour of the six weeks that have just now passed.

There’s been a lot of sweetness and fun, particularly when on the odd occasion (they do happen!) that both my children have got on well and simply got on and played imaginative games. With the upcoming Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, which I’m excited about, we’ve been listening to Queen a lot, so impromptu rock concerts have been the thing… Oh, and we discovered that the lyrics to ‘We Are The Champions’ are very flexible and can be rewritten to suit any and every occasion… cue youngest belting out “We want our doughnuts, my friends”. You get the picture.

There’s been work too, as I made sure that both my children did their daily ‘mummy school’. (Basically, each summer they get to set their own timetable – which they love doing – and then I help them with my own version of schoolwork. It ensures that they haven’t completely forgotten their maths or English basics so that they feel more confident about their lessons when they do return to school.)

 

Dirty Bertie 'Rats'

 

The Dirty Bertie series of books have been the books of the holidays. I think we’ve almost exhausted them all, but we’re still keeping our eyes open for more in the series at the library.

It’s been hot. Ice-cream meltingly-hot. Well, apart from the one week we went to Wales when hot was suddenly unfashionable…

Coffee shop stop-offs (to help keep me caffeinated and semi-alert), trips to the park, float fun sessions at the swimming pool, as well as visiting charity shops to buy cheap DVDs for various movie nights have also been regular, welcome features. And cat Top Trumps and doodling games have kept us busy when we’ve been off the screen (we all love playing Minecraft and watching YouTube).

There have been some worries though too. Mostly about what the new year at school would be like (my eldest making the move up to secondary school). Cue lots of empathy from me and her dad, but also lots of reassurance. And chats about how life is a lot about accepting change, but also how change can bring about new growth.

Thankfully, my daughter’s first day at school (yesterday) seemed to go well, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that “big” school will continue to be a positive experience.

 

Coloured pencils, photo by Marija Smits

 

Obviously, the autumn days will bring us more cool weather and shorter days, and although I always bemoan the fading of the light, I am feeling excited about the season ahead. I have lots to keep me busy: my publishing work, my new Book Stewards blog, as well as a whole bunch of writing projects to be getting on with (mostly to do with science fiction and fantasy). Also, I have plenty of new books I’m aching to read and I have a desire to get out my colouring pencils again…

Wishing you all the best for your new season start!

Finding Your Style

Creatives, particularly those newer to their craft, sometimes despair that there’s nothing truly original left to create – that it’s all been done, or said, before. Usually, they are swiftly reassured by a more experienced writer/artist/crafter etc. that although it has all been done before, it hasn’t been done by them, with their own unique style.

Ah ha, ponders the earnest creative. I like that! My style. MY style. MY STYLE.

But, oh heck. What is my style? Do I even have a style? Do I have to go looking? And when will I find it?!

The good thing is, right from the word go, you have a style. You don’t think about your ‘style’ when talking to someone. You just talk to them in your own voice and use the words that instantly come to your mouth. Just like when you pick up a pencil and begin to write, or doodle. There it is. There’s your style. It’s evident in your handwriting, there in the shapes and patterns that automatically form beneath your pen.

 

It_takes_courage_quote_e_e_cummings

My handwriting. It’s very me.

 

But here’s the problem. We *whisper it* sometimes don’t like our own style. Now, that’s not too problematic, at first, as long as we’re still brave enough and passionate enough to keep learning and practising our craft and trying out different things. And a good deal of practise, particularly in the early stages of an apprenticeship, involves copying the greats. Through reading, writers learn about the style of other writers. It subconsciously seeps into the self and sometimes comes out in our writing. And artists, through viewing other artists’ works, are often inspired to paint/craft/sculpt in that particular artist’s style. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s an important first step in a creative person’s apprenticeship. However, once it tips over from well-meant copy-as-practise into plagiarism or forgery, well, a line has very obviously been crossed.

As you work your way through your apprenticeship, your own style will most definitely emerge and make itself known to you. You will start to spot things about your own work. Certain similarities, certain motifs, certain ticks. Like how a lot of your poems are about unspoken love, or nature, or grief. Or how you’re always painting butterflies, or cats. (Cats are good. I even like drawing their bottoms.)

 

Into the Woods by Marija Smits

This print is available to buy in my Etsy store, you know…

 

Sometimes, you may receive feedback about your work which tells you something important about your style. I write science fiction short stories and I’ve had reviewers compare my stories to those of Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem (most likely because of the subject matter, not my literary greatness, I hasten to add). Of my prize-winning story ‘His Birth’, the judge Adam Roberts said: “This is written with a plainness and restraint that helps to magnify its (deliberately) grotesque central conceit… The whole story is neatly constructed…”. And one reviewer said of my story ‘The Death of the Grapevine’ (published in Café Stories) that it was written in “brisk controlled language”.

Now, at first, this bemused me, because in my head my prose is lyrical and complex and full of literary loveliness. But you know what, they’re right. On re-reading my stories, yes, I am brisk and controlled. But I somehow rebel against this, because it seems… not literary enough? Not good enough?

Ah well, I can’t do much about it. Because, you see, here’s the thing. It’s my style. And it’s better to embrace it than to fight it.

As with my art. Oh, how I’d love to be able to create grand hyper-realistic paintings in acrylics, or stunning colour-rich abstracts. But you know what, I’ve realized something recently. Something that I’ve known for most of my life, in fact. I like neatness. I like the neatness and control that a fine liner pen gives me. However, I also love the freedom, the sheer lack-of-control nature of free-flowing watercolour paint. I began to put the two together recently, and you know what, I kind of liked what I made. So, who knows, maybe that’s my style too.

 

Zen fox by Marija Smits

Zen fox by Marija Smits

 

The fun is in the finding. The skill is in the honing.

What’s your style?

An Update on an Old Intention (aka How Ideas Mutate and Grow)

 

The Moon's Sorrowful Face, by Marija Smits

Reaching for the moon? (Art: The Moon’s Sorrowful Face, by Marija Smits)

 

In October 2016 I did something unusual: I posted an ‘Intention’ (note the capital I) on my blog. The Intention was to put together a book – a collection of short stories in the SFF genre with the final aim of getting it published.

At the time of declaring my Intention I knew I was a long way off completing the book because I didn’t have enough  superb short stories to go in it, but I thought that it may take me (the reasonable time of) a year or so to finish it. Um, I was wrong…! For a start, I thought the collection would contain fantasy and science fiction stories, but a discussion with some friends on Facebook led me to the conclusion that keeping those two related, though very different, genres separate would be best. I do know of some writers – who are absolutely at the top of their game and winning awards for their writing – who mix and match genres in their collections, but I’m not (currently) one of those writers. Besides, the more I thought about it, the more the genre separation idea appealed.

So I started off down a new route: one which involved writing and collating more sci-fi stories. And having had a little publishing success in that area, it confirmed to me that I was doing the right thing by concentrating on that one genre for the time being.

So far so good. The body of work was growing. And buoyed by the lovely members of my crit group (as well as my husband’s ever-constant encouragement) I felt that things were progressing. But then, at the start of this year, I saw that one of my favourite indie presses – Unsung Stories – had an open submissions window. They were on the lookout for novels or interlinked short story collections. Now, my novel (or possibly novella) was/is way off being finished, but my sci-fi collection… it was almost ready. But it wasn’t interlinked. And I had never meant it to be linked/interlinked. But it could be linked because there were so many similar themes…  I knew I’d never make the deadline, but the ‘linked collection’ idea didn’t go away. If anything, it has taken on new life and grown in my head – to the point where I now need to add lots more stories to the book because it has become this vast, sprawling, very weird thing indeed. (A little like Cloud Atlas, perhaps?!)

So that’s where I am. I now have a novel-cum-linked short story collection in my head, which is only partially written. I will roll with that for the time being and see where it takes me… So my only intention now is TO FINISH IT!*

 

*Watch this space/wish me luck!

The Dread of the Tax Return (especially if you’re an HSP)

Cartman doing taxes, photo by Marija Smits

You gotta respect the authoritay.

So… January has come and gone, and with it the deadline for filing personal tax returns. For various reasons, which I won’t go into here, I ended up in a bit of a mad panic filing my return on the day before the 31st January deadline. I hadn’t planned on doing it so late, but that’s the way it turned out. As I felt my chest tightening, frustration gnawing at my throat, I sort of stepped outside my body, looked at myself in an objective way and asked: Why are you so stressed? You’ll have to have a good think about that one day. Write it down. Figure it out. (The two are interchangeable nowadays.) It may help.

            Now that it’s February – ah! beautiful February – I can put down into words my thoughts on the matter. It will: a) be useful for me in the future and b) may be of help to others.

Some observations about the actual process of filing tax returns:

  • HMRC, a governmental authority, is, in many ways, an “authority figure”. Rather like a great big God (complete with flowing white beard) who lives in the sky. Or Big Brother watching you. Or a strict Victorian patriarch who must be obeyed. Or a faceless, voiceless, disembodied entity who hovers above and behind one’s head, just out of sight.
  • There is a deadline for filing returns. A penalty awaits those who fail to file their returns on time.
  • The form is long and involved. Like (to quote Eric Cartman) “hella” long. It is full of financialese, and incomprehensible to most “ordinary” people.
  • Sometimes just getting through “security” (and all the associated texts to mobiles/letters to old addresses/chanting various incantations in just the right order, to have the pleasure of even beginning to file the return) is a challenge/mystery in itself.

Some observations about HSPs:

  • HSPs are (obviously) very sensitive to changes in stress levels. HSPs like things to be calm, quiet and not overwhelming/over arousing (and I’m not using the word ‘arousing’ in a sexual sense here! Just in a general, sensory overload way). Yet even thinking about HMRC waiting for me to file my return brings me out in a cold sweat. I believe that HSPs have a particular sort of fearful respect for authority figures – which, in part, comes from our high level of conscientiousness. Doing the “wrong” thing i.e. not filing the return on time, very much strikes at our moral compass, our integrity, almost like a physical pain, and so the idea of not filing the return, and doing something wrong can bring about panic. Also, HSPs don’t want to displease the authority figure; to anger someone so powerful. We just want everyone to get on, be happy, be calm, because that makes us feel calm.
  • For some, time pressure can help them focus; bring about brilliant work. Not so much for HSPs. And especially not for something like filing our tax returns. We hear the clock tick tocking, every second bringing us closer to the deadline and a potential telling off from the Daddy of All Taxes. Panic sets in. Clear thinking goes out the window.
  • And what do you need most when faced with a series of questions written in financialese – a language us freelance creatives only ever encounter once a year? Yep, that’s right. Clear thinking. (Which has already gone out the window if you’re getting even a smidgeon too close to the deadline for your liking.)
  • And… finally. All this panic (which results in hand wringing, hair pulling, teeth grinding, pleas to the financial gods-that-be etc.) most certainly reinforces the idea in one’s head that one is not a competent, intelligent and rational person who is even capable of filling in a form. Hell, you’re not even sure you’re worthy of appearing before the Grand High Overlord of All Things Tax-related, you’re that much of a lowly maggot. Cue an existential crisis. Or at the very least, crushing despair and a lowering of self-confidence.

 

So, have I got any tips for patching up this egregious mismatch between HSPs and filing tax returns? You betcha!

  1. Get an employer who will give you a PAYE tax code and remove all tax filing responsibilities away from you. Seriously, I often long for an employer-knight in shining armour to take away all my tax troubles – although past experience has told me that being in a bad job is simply bad, bad, bad. THE BOSS may well very quickly dump his/her shining armour to become the new dreaded overload. Sadly, good bosses are few and far between.

 

  1. If no. 1 isn’t an attractive-looking option, or not at option at all for whatever reason, do consider employing someone to take away the stress of the tax return. Even the spectacularly useless Bernard from Black Books wisely took on someone to deal with his taxes. Brilliant comedy ensued. If this option is too costly either find a patient and financially-minded friend who is willing to help you out (either for free or in exchange for some of your brilliant art) or…

  1. Put on your I-can-do-this superhero cloak and prepare for battle! Ideally, you’ll be needing to enter into battle 3-6 months before the deadline to make it as stress-free as possible. Remember, you can actually save your return as you go (it does work, I’ve checked) and do it in stages.

 

  1. Take screenshots of every single page of the tax return as you go (with your answers within). As these will be timed and dated you will end up with a series of screenshots that take you from beginning to end. (I’ve found that the PDF/HTML completed return that HMRC provides you with at the end is baffling/gobbledygook, so screenshots page by page are better.) Then file them away safely. This will hopefully be incredibly useful for next year when you find yourself stumped by any particular question (that’s as long as year on year your tax return remains pretty consistent).

 

  1. Stock up on chocolate/tea or whatever takes your fancy while you do the task. Keep giving yourself treats and it may just trick your mind into thinking that you’re doing something pleasant.

 

  1. Keep reminding yourself that despite any tax return problems you encounter, you are in fact a worthwhile, confident, intelligent and (mostly) rational being, and that YOU HAVE GOT THIS. And if all else fails? Overcome your fear and unwarranted reasoning that you don’t want to waste anyone at HMRC’s time with silly questions and give them a call. Often, a very nice person will help guide you through the form. And if you get stuck in a phone cue, a jangly tune rattling in your ear, grab a pencil or pen, start doodling or start writing a poem or short story. Or sing along. Or rant. Or practice your deep breathing. Who knows, you may end up so blissed out you may start levitating.*

 

To recap. You are brilliant. And intelligent. And worthy enough for the financial gods-that-be. And… YOU HAVE GOT THIS.

 

*Not guaranteed.

 

 

Imagination, Inspiration, and Ursula Le Guin

01 2018 Ursula Le Guin books, photo by Marija Smits

 

Since my husband is a scientist and I’m an ex-scientist, we both love science fiction (reading and writing it). We often discuss science fiction and enjoy having a good old rant, or rave, about the plausibility of the science within the stories. When I’m reviewing science fiction for Shoreline of Infinity I very much consider the book from a scientist’s viewpoint, and am strict about the plausibility of the science. (Though this occasionally gives me the wobbles – the tame woman in me not wanting to be disliked for saying something not 100% pleasing to the masses. My wild woman sighs and roars off the tameness that has a habit of clinging on.) Just the other week my husband, wanting to give me some encouragement, emailed me two of Ursula Le Guin’s articles – about plausibility in imaginative fiction and literary snobbery and, once again, I was eminently comforted by the fact that such a great writer continued to be such a passionate champion for the SFF genre (as well as a champion for the importance of plausibility in the genre).

So when social media became awash with the news of her death, I, like many, was saddened by the news. People were sharing her poetry, snippets of her writing; what her books had meant to them. These quotes stood out for me:

 

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality…

…Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

Ursula Le Guin from her speech at the National Book Awards

 

To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit. To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It’s worth it. Ursula Le Guin from Steering the Craft

 

I don’t have anything particularly insightful to add to what others have said (indeed, I questioned whether I should even write this blog post), but I had an urge to say something. To write something. For as a woman who writes science fiction, who passionately believes in the genre and the importance of plausibility within the genre, and who wholeheartedly believes that the act of creating something requires a “surrendering”, I wanted to say ‘Farewell’ and ‘Thank you’ to Le Guin. She will continue to inspire me and countless others.