A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Poetry World

Last Saturday, I took part in ‘An Afternoon With The Small Press’ at Southwell Poetry Festival. In my “work role” as the Managing Editor of Mother’s Milk Books, I was one of four indie publishers at the event to talk about this strange thing known as ‘Poetry World’. (Credit goes to the marvellous Helena Nelson of Happenstance Press for naming it thusly.)

Ross Bradshaw, of Five Leaves Publications and Five Leaves Bookshop, put questions to myself, Di Slaney of Candlestick Press and Martin Parker of Stonewood Press, and the audience listened carefully, asked questions and whenever one of us had mentioned something particularly note-worthy they eagerly scribbled down what we’d said. Poets, especially those new to writing poetry, want to understand Poetry World, and they especially want to know how to get their poetry published.

But although I run a small press and know a bit about Poetry World through the publishing of other people’s poetry, I do NOT consider myself an expert on Poetry World as a poet. I have only been seriously writing poetry for about 5 years. That length of time is nothing in Poetry World. Seriously, it is just a blip (especially when you’re not actually writing poetry every day and sending it off every day). But… I have learnt a thing or two in that time. And so I thought that for those other fledgling poets out there, who are just about to strap on their poetic backpacks and head off into the realm of Poetry World, I would give them a few pointers.

My favourite accompaniment to a good book - creamy coffee and dark chocolate.

My favourite accompaniment to a good book – creamy coffee and dark chocolate.

1) Every successful hitchhiker needs a guide or two. The absolutely ESSENTIAL guide is called How NOT to Get Your Poetry Published by Helena Nelson. Seriously, if this had been published 5 years ago and I had read it then I would have saved myself a few poetic embarrassments and felt much more prepared when entering Poetry World. So buy it. Seriously. If you’re serious about poetry and getting your work published BUY THIS BOOK. It has bucket loads of information about how Poetry World works and how long it takes to get established in Poetry World. (Hint: we’re talking decades here, not months. So if you’re serious about this poetry stuff, start planning in the long term.) Also, it has lots of useful poem-making exercises. I’ll admit that at first I wasn’t convinced that I needed to read (or do) those exercises, because I don’t have any problems with inspiration, but boy, were they eye-opening! And funny. And insightful. And amazingly inspirational. And they made me look at poem-making in a whole new way. So hats off to Helena Nelson for writing this very, very good book.

 

2) Alongside the above excellent guide, I would also add that if you consider yourself fairly new to Poetry World then you should buy and read The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. And don’t just read it. Do every single crazy, beautiful, damn exercise that Fry has dreamt up. I promise you that it will give you a good basic knowledge of how this thing called poetry works. And by the time you complete the last exercise your “poetry brain” will have grown and absorbed a huge amount of knowledge.

 

3) Now, perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself here, because if you’re new to Poetry World, it may be a little too early (like, years too early) to start sending poems off to poetry journals and literary magazines. But hey! I know about that feeling of excitement that comes with the desire to get your poems out there. So when you’re thinking that you’re ready and are looking for places to send your work, you have a couple of options. The free and electronic-only option is to visit the website known as Comps and Calls. The wonderful Cathy Bryant spends ages each month listing all the free-to-enter submission calls and writing competitions that she’s discovered through t’internet. AND some of them even pay. Yes, you heard me right. They PAY. So check it out. And then the not-free (but still, very good value), paperback option is the indispensible Mslexia Guide to Indie Presses and Magzines 2016/2017. And while you’re flicking through the magazine, dreaming of the day when you’ll get your first poem or pamphlet or collection published… do something else. Make a note of the indie presses that publish poetry and BUY some of their books. This leads us nicely on to the next point –

 

Mslexia Guide to Indie Presses

Mslexia Guide to Indie Presses

 

4) A huge part of successfully navigating Poetry World and then becoming an established part of Poetry World is READING POETRY. It is not enough to simply write poetry, one must read it, read it, read it, read it. And continue reading it. Again, I’ll have to admit that it takes me a long while to read single author collections, because although poems are (mostly) short, they are dense in the sense that a good poem can make me think about it for days. And make me want to re-read it. So a full, say, 80 page collection can take me several months to read. So, if you’re new to this, maybe start with buying a few poetry magazines. Or anthologies. One can easily dip in and out of anthologies, (Being Alive, edited by Neil Astley is brilliant, as is my own Musings on Mothering – even if I do say so myself!). And pamphlets are a brilliant and less time and money-consuming way of reading contemporary poetry. I can heartily recommend the below which I read recently; all are haunting in their own unique way:

The Density of Salt by Kate Garrett, Earthworks by Jacqueline Gabbitas, Lampshades & Glass Rivers by S. A. Leavesley

The Density of Salt by Kate Garrett (Indigo Dreams Publishing), Earthworks by Jacqueline Gabbitas (Stonewood Press), Lampshades & Glass Rivers by S. A. Leavesley (Loughborough University’s Lamplight Press)

 

(And by the way, if you’re looking to get a single author collection, I can definitely recommend starting with someone like Angela Topping, whose poetry is wide-ranging, tender and absorbing. Or Cathy Bryant, whose writing is thought-provoking and funny and witty. Or Sarah James whose writing is insightful and full of detailed imagery.)

If you’re cash-strapped then borrow poetry books from your library. Or read poetry online. There are many excellent websites and blogs that publish contemporary poetry. And if you don’t know where to start, why not try this excellent blog – The Poetry Shed, run by the fine poet Abegail Morley. And oh ho! What’s that I see? A poem and artwork by Marija Smits? Go on, check it out. I dare you…! 😉

 

5) Now, I know that every poet (and writer) goes about editing their own work in different ways. Some have one trusted Poetry World friend (or if they’re lucky, a good editor) who gives them useful critiquing and works with them to get their poem/pamphlet/collection just right. Others are part of a supportive crit group that may meet every month or so, and others may be a part of an online crit group. And yet, some poets work solely (and happily) by themselves. Find what works best for you, for that stage in your journey through Poetry World, but be open to the other methods of getting feedback/useful critiquing. And knowing where you are along the path of ‘how well I take criticism’ is also useful. It can take years (and this I know from personal experience) to untangle the quality of the writing from one’s own personal worth, so if you’ve just started out in Poetry World and are feeling a bit disorientated (and perhaps a bit tender) it may not be the best idea to get your first poem taken apart and re-built by a ‘someone’. Just do the work — the reading and the writing — and you will get there.

 

6) When you’re ready to send your precious poems off into the world, (how will I know? you may ask. You’ll know, my friend, you’ll know…) then I’d suggest being methodical about the task. Set up a spreadsheet or use an exercise book and make a note of when, where and to whom you are sending off your poems. You’ll get rejections. Lots of them. But that’s okay. If you think of the submission process as the endpoint itself – then as long as you keep submitting stuff, you’re a success! I aim to always have 2, 3 or 4 submissions out there and under consideration (as I’m a short story writer and novelist as well as a poet, I have a range of stuff ‘out there’ which I bundle together under the heading of ‘writing’). Having just checked through my ‘little red book’ I submitted around 30 pieces in the past year. And 5 of them found homes. The others didn’t. And that’s okay. I obviously sent them out to homes that weren’t quite right for them (or perhaps the pieces needed another little tweak) or they simply weren’t to the editor’s taste. (Perhaps I hadn’t done my homework and didn’t really know what the editor was looking for by reading their publication thoroughly. Or perhaps I’d been lazy and taken a shortcut and didn’t buy (or read) the journal, assuming I knew what they were after.) Or… (and this is very often the way) the numbers game wasn’t in my favour. Because this whole submission lark is just that: a gamble. And one mustn’t get too serious about gambling (I know this from personal experience too). Numbers don’t care. They just are. When you send off your submission with (perhaps) hundreds of others, it’s always going to be a longshot that your work gets placed. But it does happen, sometimes. Enjoy it when it does happen and then break out the bubbly. See it as a pleasant bonus that happened because of you building your submission list (which, after some time and a few publications later may just turn into a proper publishing record).

 

7) And lastly, if I’ve given the impression that Poetry World is deadly serious and only about the end result of publication, then I’m sorry and I will have to address that. Because it isn’t. It’s full of fun and innovative ideas – Poetry Trading Cards, anyone? (I LOVE the idea of Poetry Trading Cards! Go grab some!) – and it’s also full of lovely, friendly and inspiring people, just like those who were on the panel and in the audience last Saturday. So get involved! Go to poetry festivals, go to readings at bookshops, perform your poetry (online or on the stage), or just get chatting to poets you admire on social media. And, of course, keep playing with words.

 

And a final, final p.s. I will tell you a secret. There really is no shortcut to becoming an established member of Poetry World. There is only the work, and the only reason to do the work is to love the work. And loving doing the work IS THE REWARD. But there is a longish shortcut to getting known in Poetry World. It’s called ‘becoming a poetry publisher’. But unless you have a penchant for quite literally, taking bank notes out of your own wallet, and setting them alight, then don’t do it my friend. Don’t do it.

 

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Turning 40 – some reflections

 

Some treats of turning 40! Photo by Marija Smits

Some treats of turning 40. Photo by Marija Smits.

I’m not particularly worried about getting older, but there’s something about the number 40 that doesn’t particularly appeal to me. You see, in my quirky little overthinking brain, numbers have personalities. 5 is probably my favourite number because it’s a little bit curvy but it also has some straight bits. I consider it a friendly (but upstanding) number. It’s odd but, somehow, warm. The number 4 is all straight and cross and it looks rather irritable. And 0, well, that could be taken as a disappointed ‘oh’ (as in ‘forty, oh dear’). Or perhaps a rather surprised ‘oh’ or perhaps it’s sole function is to look like the shape of the mouth of the person screaming in Edvard Munch’s famous painting. I don’t know. I digress.

Yet, time marches onwards and it doesn’t care for my own particular preferences when it comes to what my age is now. So… I’m 40 now, and it’s time for a little reflection on the past decade and the forthcoming decade.

At thirty, I was pregnant with my first child, my darling girl. She was born in April, approximately a month before I turned 31. That 31st birthday was not particularly memorable to me because my life didn’t seem to be about me anymore. Instead, everything was about this tiny being who had entered our lives and time itself seemed to have shifted. I have photo albums which, instead of being labelled by months (or years), were instead labelled with my daughter’s name and by how old she was (in months). It took me quite a few years to shift back to ‘normal’ calendar months, which, I guess, shows just how much my life back then revolved around her.

So, in essence, the past decade, for me, has been very much about becoming a mother, first to my daughter, and then three-and-a-half years later to my son. It has been about breastfeeding, coping with little sleep, finding my own path as an HSP parent, finding a ‘tribe’ of like-minded mothers and lots and lots of nappy changing.

But it’s also been about finding a new surge of creativity within me and learning hundreds of new skills (some of which I used to set up and manage my small press, Mother’s Milk Books – but that’s a whole other story!). And throughout this hazy decade, I’ve been reading and writing, which has helped me hugely with reflecting on who I am, my place on this earth, and what I want to spend my days doing. The non-fiction books I wrote about here helped me enormously with my reflections, but I realize that not everything is done, soul-work wise, so I’m sure I’ll be adding more to this list soon. I’m aware, too, that I want to read more about politics, psychology, feminism and history; Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks and Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond have been on my reading list for a while. And I’ve also just got Love and Limerence, by Dorothy Tennov, which I hope will help to clarify some of my (as yet) incompletely developed ideas about love, lust and romance and what they mean to me as an individual.

Writing-wise, I *think* I’ve served my apprenticeship having written an okayish first novel (which will most likely stay hidden away in a drawer), lots and lots of poetry, a fair few short stories, a children’s chapter book, several children’s picture books and lastly… a good beginning on an epic fantasy trilogy.

So, what will the next decade be about? Well, my last decade taught me a lot about time. And how it’s very precious. And finite. So, perhaps, my oh-so-very-urgent desire for ‘better’ or ‘success’ was understandable. I was child-like in my impatience for wanting to be ‘better’ at art NOW! Or ‘better’ at writing NOW! But when it comes to mastering a skill, time and patience and dedication to the skill are the only things that will make a difference. So I am definitely going to be more accepting of that fact. And I have to face the fact, too, that if I don’t make time for my creativity it won’t happen. And I don’t want to live with the regret of not having tried my very best to master a creative skill and then shared the fruit of my labours with others (although my view on how to share the products of my creativity is still very much in flux).

So… as ever, boundaries will be important. It’s too easy to let social media, never-ending work and other societal pulls drag me away from what’s really key to my wellbeing: time spent with my loved ones (at home, and in nature) and time spent on creative endeavours.

I know I have a tendency to overthink things (the horrors of OCD rumination never seem too far away) but I am cautiously (I’ve got to be cautious, right? I’m an HSP!) looking forward to this decade. And what more can I give myself than the gift of being open to the challenges and gifts of the next decade? None.

Forty, after the party. Photo by Marija Smits

Forty, after the party. Photo by Marija Smits.

 

And a huge welcome back to Maddy from Writing Bubble after her week’s internet break. It’s good to have you back!

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The Editor (and creative contributor) to Her Book

Just the other day I officially signed off The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 with the printers. I am relieved. Very relieved.

TFATF2 front cover-page001

Ridiculously, I forgot how much energy, time and focus it takes to put a book like this together. With 17 stories by 17 writers, internal illustrations by Emma Howitt to incorporate and a huge amount of editorial tweaking, typesetting and other things to organize, a book like this is actually a huge project to manage. And being the illustrator of the wraparound cover and one of the contributing authors actually made it more difficult. I’ll be honest, I find it difficult incorporating my own work into the books I publish. Because, being also the editor and publisher, I have the power to do last-minute tweaks. And having the ability to do last-minute tweaks isn’t good for me. In the proofreading stage I am looking for flaws. I am hyper-aware of them and suddenly everything I have written or drawn seems rubbish, amateurish, not worthy of publication. I wonder why I ever thought it was a good idea to get me, as Marija Smits, involved.

TFATF2 wraparound cover art by Marija Smits

TFATF2 wraparound cover art by Marija Smits. I’ve actually added to it since then!

I know a fair few HSPs who say that the issue of perfectionism is a problem for them. They set such impossibly high standards for themselves, which they know they can never achieve, so they don’t bother starting… because if it won’t be perfect, why try? Nowadays, I don’t tend to have this problem (although I did, especially with art, as a child) because I realize that art-wise nothing is ever really ‘perfect’. One can always re-work a sentence or add another brushstroke to a painting, or a little more shading to a drawing… But of course I would like to do things as perfectly as it is possible to do so and this is where the anxieties come in. The thought of putting something out there that is less than ‘perfect’ give me the heebie-jeebies. However, ultimately, writing and art, is subjective. Yes, I wouldn’t put forward my work for inclusion if it was massively technically wrong, and I do get useful and honest feedback on it that tells me if what I’ve created is a huge no-no or, in fact, has promise. But – and coming from a science background, where objectivity rules – I have had to learn that artistic endeavours are inherently subjective. At some point we have to let go of what we’ve created and say it is as ‘successful’ as it can be. No more can be done with it. Then you must let it find its own way in the world…

So someone will like the theme and the narrative of my story, ‘Little Lost Soul’ within TFATF2. But someone else won’t. My cover art may resonate strongly with one person, yet someone else will instantly know that they don’t like it. That’s fine. Really.

Of course we will have to see whether I can actually keep being philosophical about this, and take the genuine positive feedback graciously and the not-so-positive feedback with a view to learning about what works for some readers and what doesn’t work for others, but for now there are other things to do: the editing of others’ books, poetry and short stories to write, and other creative projects to start dreaming about.

***

And finally, just to illustrate that these kind of creative worries have been around for a fair long time, here is an excellent poem that describes what it is like to ‘birth’ a book and then let it go… (the author, Anne Bradstreet, was born in 1612).

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172953

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Mother's Milk Books

Social media, high sensitivity and overwhelm

As an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) I often find the world overwhelming. Sometimes I think it would have been good to live long ago before television and the internet, and the crazy thing that is social media, were invented. But I’m equally aware that not having things like antibiotics and antibacterial soap and clean water and refrigerators and washing machines and indoor loos and central heating would have been overwhelming too.

Somewhat 'detached' bendy man, photo by Marija Smits

Somewhat ‘detached’ bendy man, photo by Marija Smits

Still… switching off and getting away from social media, which I find particularly challenging, is difficult (and yes, I am aware of the irony that I’ll probably be using social media to let people know about this post!). But what I find particularly difficult about social media is its speed, and the ferocity of people’s (almost instantaneous) reactions to certain topics.

This is because it takes me a long time to process things. If I see an image, or a discussion that upsets me, or angers me, I become overwhelmed with emotion. That’s when I need to take time out, away from the computer and to do something that helps me to feel more calm (cuddling my loved ones, taking a walk, reading a book, or doing something dull like the accounting, all help. Also, talking about it with my wonderful husband helps enormously too). But it can take me a while, maybe half an hour or an hour or two, to feel more neutral again. Meanwhile, though, as I’m trying to calm the storm of feelings swirling through my body, my brain is whirring away and trying to process what I’ve just absorbed. It can take me days, weeks, months even, to fully reflect on what I’ve just seen and to put into words my reflections on the matter. And for the up-to-the-minute social media world that’s just way too late.

I’m still navigating a path through this everyday challenge. I want to be involved and comment on friends’ statuses and to take part in meaningful dialogue when it comes to issues that I feel passionate about, but I’m also aware that taking part can also be like entering a black hole of doom. I have had to acknowledge that, for much of the time, it is better for my wellbeing that I simply use social media for short, set tasks (mostly to do with my small press or to do with this blog). Very occasionally, I share things about myself; although I do find that overwhelming too. (Friends have been absolutely supportive when I have shared personal things online but it’s also interesting to note that kindness has the potential to overwhelm me also – but please don’t think I’m saying ‘don’t be kind’! What I’m saying is that virtually anything has the potential to overwhelm me, and hey, that’s just how I am.)

If I’m still reflecting on an issue months down the line writing about it helps; though whether it goes public or not is another matter… Though, interestingly, topics that I’m passionate about have a habit of cropping up in my short stories and other pieces.

A lot of the time I feel left behind by social media; rather like when I was doing cross-country running at middle school. I was the slowest of all the runners out there on the muddy school field, in the cold and the rain in inadequate shoes and clothes; a dripping wet chubby loser being lapped by the fast, athletic kids.

But this is who I am. Just because I’m not witty or quick to engage in dialogue doesn’t mean that my thoughts on the topic aren’t worthwhile. They’re just different; perhaps even a little more well-rounded for the extra reflection I’ve put into them.*

But knowing that I have to have boundaries in place when it comes to social media (and that perhaps it’s not quite the right medium for me, as an HSP) is beneficial. Yes, social media is an amazing tool for a variety of things: marketing (& other business-related stuff, for instance), story sharing, fundraising, activism even, but it is also a horrible time sink. And in author David Mitchell’s wise words:

The world is very good at distracting us. Much of the ingenuity of our remarkable species goes towards finding new ways to distract ourselves from things that really matter. The internet — it’s lethal, isn’t it? Maintaining focus is critical, I think, in the presence of endless distraction. You’ve only got time to be a halfway decent parent, plus one other thing.

For me, that one other thing is: I’ve got to be writing.

This totally chimes with me because I want to put a lot of my energy and time into being ‘a halfway decent parent’ and so there’s only time and energy for one other thing. At the moment the one other thing is my small press and helping to make ends meet by taking on editorial and book production work. And so I save a few gorgeous slivers betwixt being a halfway decent parent and a halfway decent editor/publisher to write or create art. Is it worth me spending all those precious slivers of time on social media? For a lot of the time the answer is no. And sometimes, occasionally, the answer is yes. The trick is to understanding how social media affects you and working out some effective boundaries. This is something I’m still learning.

***

*And to continue with the cross-country running analogy… I might be the last one to the finishing line but still, I’ll get there at my own pace and in my own inimitable fashion (muddy briefs and all).

Thanks again to Maddy (who wrote brilliantly on a similar topic last week) and Chrissie for being such great #WhatI’mWriting hosts.

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On our summer holiday, reading, writing and having an epiphany

As it seems to have been an age since I last blogged (though I’m still just about managing the once-a-month blog post!) I thought I’d go with a list to help me put into words all the big things that have been happening around here.

 

  1. HOLIDAYS
Blue beach. photo by Marija Smits

Blue beach, photo by Marija Smits

Our one week away to Wales at the start of August was lovely, and very much needed. The weather wasn’t great and a couple of planned trips out got cancelled for various reasons (beach inaccessible due to a completely full car park, a favourite restaurant/café closed etc.) and our youngest got a cold on the first day so, of course, we all ended up snotty/sore throaty BUT, the holiday was still hugely beneficial. It was great to simply get away from the pressures of work and the never-ending call of social media and I got some reading and writing done too. I even managed to get an hour or two all to myself to write on the beach while my husband went out with the kids. Writing on the beach accompanied by the sounds of the sea, a coffee and a pain-au-chocolate was pretty amazing. And at the end of the week I even got to swim in the sea. Bliss!

Our journey back was even more exciting since our car broke down a few miles away from home. Yes, it was a huge annoyance, and yes it has cost us a lot (the car was pretty much written off…) but I’m still very thankful that the breakdown didn’t happen on the motorway. While we were waiting for the breakdown truck to get us, I even managed to write a little more of my new book…

 

  1. READING

 

Reading has consumed any free moments, as usual. I do want to mention some books that I’ve read recently, and which have made an impression on me. I love to help out authors by writing reviews but I’m aware that there’s not enough time in my life to do each of them justice (it can take me an age to write a review) but it seems that the least I can do is mention them here.

 

Fiction:

Moss Witch by Sarah Maitland

Moss Witch And Other Stories by Sara Maitland. I love the way that Sara has taken various concepts and ideas from various scientific fields and built (or hinged) stories on them. Some stories, I feel, work better than others but each is beautifully written and page-turning. Of course, I found the bits written by the scientists fascinating too. If you’re a fan of short stories and/or wishing to learn more about science I’d highly recommend this.

I’ve got so many other fiction books on my to-read list that I have no idea what I’ll read next fiction-wise, but I’d like to make a start on White Lies by Lynn Michell (of Linen Press).

White_Lies by Lynn MItchell

 

Poetry:

The Magnetic Diaries by Sarah James

The Magnetic Diaries by Sarah James

What Sarah has done with this narrative of poems that echo the book Madame Bovary is remarkable. I thought it highly original and fascinating in the way that Madame Bovary was fascinating to me when I read it many, many years ago; Emma Bovary is a difficult character to empathise with and yet I was transfixed by her unravelling life… If you enjoy contemporary poetry or would like to read something that gives an insight into the darkness of a mind overwhelmed by depression, I’d highly recommend it.

Although I’ve got various other poetry books on my ‘to-read’ pile Ruth Stacey’s book Queen, Jewel, Mistress has caught my eye and I hope to get it one day soon! (Maybe at Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair, in London on 26th September, where I will be selling my Mother’s Milk Books books.)

Queen, Jewel, Mistress, by Ruth Stacey

Non-fiction:

How to Win Writing Competitions by Cathy Bryant

How to Win Writing Competitions by Cathy Bryant

I bought this book because I’m a fan of Cathy’s writing, although I did initially think that surely there wasn’t a lot more I could learn about submitting to magazines or writing competitions. But you know what, I was wrong. As I wrote in my Amazon review, “I’d certainly recommend this to amateur writers but also to those who think they know the drill by now.” Oh, and it includes one of the funniest short stories I’ve ever read.

 

Take It Cool, photo by Marija Smits

Take It Cool, photo by Marija Smits

 

Take it Cool by Jonathan Pinnock

When I received this book I knew very little about reggae, or the slave trade, but by the end of the book I knew a whole lot more and was glad that I’d stretched myself by reading something I’d probably not normally consider reading. This book is fascinating and as creative non-fiction goes, a highly-enjoyable read. The author is a fine writer and very, very funny; he has the kind of self-deprecating, weird humour that really tickles me and I laughed out loud at many parts. I’m really glad to have found Jonathan through my random stumblings across the internet (I won the book in a giveaway on his blog) and want to read more of his books — his short story collection Dot Dash sounds brilliant, as does Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens. What a fab title!

 

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

This book introduced me to the powerful idea that a writer must be aware of what kind of story they’re writing before they write it. He uses the acronym MICE for the four kinds of story there are:

 

Milieu

Idea

Character

Event

 

And even though many novels are a mixture of the above (i.e. there are various sub-plots in a book that can be any of the above) a writer can potentially fall into various traps if they set about, say, writing an idea story that then morphs into a character story. Anyway, I know that every writer has their own favourite how-to books but there’s something about Card’s writing style, and his approach to writing, that really clicks with me. And although I’ve seen the movie of his book Ender’s Game, it’s made me want to read Ender’s Game when I next have a free moment.

 

The next non-fiction books on my to-read list are The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron and Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph. I’m also desperate to read Angela Topping’s book: Focus on ‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter. I’ve asked for this several times for birthdays and Christmases but it hasn’t been gifted to me as yet. Fingers-crossed it’ll be in my stocking this year!

Focus on The Bloody Chamber

 

Work-wise, I recently read a fantastic manuscript by Becky Smith and then I re-entered the world of another fantastical literary world, as created by Alison Lock. I’m super-excited again about the fact that I get to work with writers of Becky and Alison’s calibre as part of the publishing venture that is Mother’s Milk Books. (And I also wanted to say that it was a pleasure to watch Ana Salote — author of Oy Yew — in action recently at a bookshop event for children. Seeing the children lose themselves in the words of her book was simply magical).

 

Oy Yew by Ana Salote

 

  1. WRITING

 

Although now it seems ridiculous that I ever had an ‘epiphany’ moment about my writing, I must say that this is what happened to me this summer. My first novel was mainly a character story (it was a commercial fiction book set in the contemporary world. Well, mostly the 1990s, but to my mind that’s still pretty contemporary!). Various events powered the story along. For a good long while I toyed with the idea of getting it ‘out there’ but now that I’ve re-read it I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really want it out there. It was written as part of my own personal writing apprenticeship (a 10 year long apprenticeship!) and now I want to move on to other things. Quite honestly, I just don’t think it’s good enough to be published. And I don’t think it’s necessary (or a good idea) for me to expend time and energy on trying to edit it further and publish it. Also, it made me think long and hard about what I do want to write and try to get published, and as I’ve got a fair few story and novel ideas in my head that are of a fantastical nature I suddenly realized — WOW! — I’m a sci-fi and fantasy writer.

TB The Forgotten & The Fantastical cover 2015 version 5 colour Lt Oksana font with outline scaled

That was my big epiphany (which kind of seems silly now as only in March I was writing an introduction to The Forgotten and the Fantastical and explaining how my name means fairy tale in Latvian, and how books of a fantastical nature had always been a big part of my life). Hmm… why didn’t I get it back then? Anyway, no matter, I’m thoroughly enjoying focussing on writing my second novel which is, yes you guessed it, a great sprawling work of fantasy. I’m not ever going to completely pigeon-hole myself into just that one genre – I’m still enjoying writing poetry and I do have the odd short story and novel idea not in the sff genre, but on the whole, yes, I’m a writer fascinated by the fantastical…

31emljRrCpL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_

Which is also why I simply had to read How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. For someone fresh from their epiphany of ‘I’m an sff writer’, this has been a pure joy to read and I want to go out and buy the following two books that Card mentions in his How-To book: Helliconia by Brian Aldiss and Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. In fact, I want to get all the SF Masterworks. I’m smitten!

 

  1. ART
Broken engine in the boot, photo by Marija Smits

Broken engine in the boot, photo by Marija Smits

Sadly, because of work busyness and writing busyness and family busyness (not to mention the pesky business of dealing with a knackered car – see above!), I’ve only managed to do a little sketching. But, and this is a very bittersweet but, but when my youngest starts school in September (just a few days away) I’m planning on spending a little time focussing on painting and drawing. I think it’ll help me to adjust to this huge shift in our family dynamic. I’ve been an at-home mother with either one or two kids at home for 8 years now and yes… although I will welcome not having to deal with holiday sibling squabbles every 5 minutes and not having an audience when either on the loo or in the shower, the house will seem strangely silent, and yes, no doubt, I will weep.

***

I hope you all had healthy and happy holidays and I wish you all the best for whatever autumn brings. It’s currently bringing us the joy of blackberry smoothies and homegrown green beans and tomatoes!

Fruit & veg snack, photo by Marija Smits

Fruit & veg snack, photo by Marija Smits

Thank you also to Maddy and Chrissie for once more taking on the fine thing that is What I’m Writing. Welcome back y’all!

Writing Bubble

Overwhelm, publishing and our favourite children’s books

Things have been super-hectic here, what with the usual summer activities – Sports Day, the school play and the village fair – but also my own work publishing other people’s books has kept me very, very busy. I recently published a middle-grade children’s/crossover book called Oy Yew, by Ana Salote. It is simply a superb book and I really do mean that – during the editing, copyediting, proofreading, typesetting and conversion to kindle process (I’m still in the middle of that last one) I must have read the book about 10 times, and I STILL love it. However, I have suffered with eye-strain and ‘writer’s bum’ from being slumped over a computer at every available moment so I’ve tried to take every opportunity to get out into the fresh air, to exercise and to take a break from the screen.

Oy Yew by Ana Salote

Oy Yew by Ana Salote

I have, at times, felt overwhelmed by everything (particularly as there is little time for my own artistic and literary endeavours – doodling and writing the odd paragraph or two is all I’ve managed recently) and so sometimes I’ve pictured myself as a little boat on a stormy sea.

Doodle of a little boat on a stormy sea by Marija Smits

Doodle of a little boat on a stormy sea by Marija Smits

BUT, my supportive family have been my one constant and every night I’ve been reminded of just why I’ve been doing all this ‘bookish’ work – because I simply love reading to my kids and sharing books with them. This is surely why all (well, at least, most) writers write – for that vague feeling/hope that someone, somewhere, right now is getting lost in the world created by the writer. I know that sitting with both my kids at bedtime and reading to them has been a wonderful escape for me from my everyday concerns, so I thought I’d share some of our favourite books here. As my children are 8 and 4 it can be difficult to find books that engage them both, but the below seem to have captured their imaginations. No doubt you’ve heard of many (if not all) of these wonderful books/writers but if you haven’t I’d encourage you to give them a try (and if you can’t get them at the library, why not support your local bookshop and buy from them?). And if you think I’ve missed some that our kids may like please do let me know.

  • The Findus books by Sven Nordqvist

Findus Plants Meatballs by Sven Nordqvist

 

  • And Sven’s Where is my Sister is absolutely stunning illustration-wise.

Where is my Sister by Sven Nordqvist

 

  • The I Spy books by Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick

I Spy Fantasy by Walter Wick and Jean Marzollo

 

  •  Long Tail Kitty by Lark Pien (my kids always howl with laughter when I do the different voices for the alien characters at the end of the book…)

Long Tail Kitty by Lark Pien

 

  • Frederick by Leo Lionni (particularly good for children – or adults – who wonder what the worth of poetry is…)

Frederick by Leo Lionni

 

  • Most of the Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler books are a hit (though Tabby McTat is our favourite, and not The Gruffalo!)

Tabby McTat by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

 

  • Virtually anything by Oliver Jeffers is a hit too, though Stuck and The Great Paper Caper are probably our favourites (and a grumble about The Day the Crayons Quit: it seems that most of the crayons are boys… hmm).

Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

 

  • Christopher Nibble, by Charlotte Middleton

Christopher Nibble by Charlotte Middleton

  • Virtually any of the Mog books by Judith Kerr
Mog's Bad Thing

Mog’s Bad Thing by Judith Kerr

 

  • And any of Shirley Hughes’s books

Alfie's Feet by Shirley Hughes

 

  • Me by Emma Dodd is another favourite

Me by Emma Dodd

  • Any of the Percy the park keeper’s books (the below is perfect for wintertime)

One Snowy Night by Nick Butterworth

  •  We really like Mick Inkpen’s creation, Kipper, but we also particularly like the story of Threadbear.
Threadbear by Mick Inkpen

Threadbear by Mick Inkpen

 

  • Topsy and Tim my kids both love (although I’m not as big a fan as they are!)

Topsy and Tim

  • And I especially appreciate Cover to Cover: How a Book is Made by Rob Lewis as it explains beautifully what is involved in mummy’s publishing work… 🙂

Cover to Cover by Rob Lewis

Enjoy!

And many thanks to Maddy and Chrissie for being such hard-working and lovely hosts 🙂

Writing Bubble

The Art of Faerie


Welcome to ‘The Forgotten and the Fantastical’ Carnival

This post was written especially for inclusion in ‘The Forgotten and the Fantastical’ carnival, hosted by Mother’s Milk Books, to celebrate the launch of their latest collection of fairy tales for an adult audience: The Forgotten and the Fantastical. Today our participants share their thoughts on the theme ‘Fairy tales’.

Please read to the end of the post for a full list of carnival participants.
***

When Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales was published I remember reading snippets of arguments/discussions online as to whether there should have been illustrations within it.

In an interview, Philip Pullman stated:

“I don’t think illustrations tell the right kind of story or add the right kind of atmosphere.

Illustrators typically turn them (the characters) into people – I don’t think they are people, I think they’re masks.

There’s no psychology in a fairytale. You don’t need to go into people’s back stories and talk about motives. Looking at other people’s adaptations, I realised what I’d like is a very swift telling that doesn’t clutter it up with description.”

Well… being a big fan of Women Who Run With The Wolves I think there’s a strong case for there being a huge amount of psychology in a fairy tale – but I guess that what Philip Pullman means is that, in general, the characters of fairy tales are stereotypes. They need to be pretty ‘flat’ so that the pacing of the story isn’t hindered by time spent exploring the character’s history or thoughts or feelings. They merely act so that the story can rattle along and impart its truths to us. Important things like:

Forests can be dangerous places if you’re in them all alone.

Never trust a stranger who is that little bit too interested in you.

Trust in your own gut instinct.

Another reason, I think, that the characters have little depth to them is so that we, as a reader, can add our own personalities to them. We give the characters our own feelings and thoughts and histories… and if we’re lucky, and not constantly immersed in the saccharine sweet reinterpretations of some of the tales, we can take away powerful emotional truths and find comfort therein.

But, but, but…

I have to (in part) disagree with Philip Pullman! Because, for me, the illustrations of some of these tales have absolutely bedded themselves deep in my memory, and I think that the best artists, the best illustrators absolutely DO “tell the right kind of story” and “add the right kind of atmosphere.” (Arthur Rackham surely being one of the best fairy tale illustrators ever.)

Grimms' Tales, illustration by Arthur Rackham

Grimms’ Tales, illustration by Arthur Rackham

Many of the Grimms’ tales are so very well-known and well-loved, and yet who can actually reliably remember and quote from the Grimms’ tales word for word? My point is that the actual words don’t matter so much, (these tales aren’t considered to be great literary works), they are simply ABOUT THE STORY. Stories take root in our minds… as do images.

I still have very fond memories of reading these books as a child. Now, I read them to my children and I’ve noticed that my daughter, in particular, loves the pictures, just as I did.

My old fairy tale books

My old fairy tale books

The pictures within these books really are somehow magical. I particularly love the quirky style of the Russian version of Cinderella. I was clearly so impressed by it as a little girl that I drew my own version of the Russian Cinderella (I found it only the other day still tucked into the book!).

Russian Cinderella

Russian Cinderella

I have always loved art, and I believe that these fairy tale images imparted in me a love of art and fine illustration. They inspired me to draw, to paint… and then of course I became all grown up and started putting up hurdles to creating (although, admittedly I wasn’t particularly encouraged by teachers). I remember walking around Tate Britain with my future husband years ago and being deeply moved by the amazing paintings of faeries and knights and other fantastical beings on show in their special pre-Raphaelite exhibition. I understood that I could never, ever, do anything as good as them. It just wasn’t a possibility.

The Dead Knight, by Robert Bateman

The Dead Knight, by Robert Bateman

Spirit of the Night by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Spirit of the Night, by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Many, many years later though, my children helped me to reawaken my passion for creating with paint and pencil. Being that bit older (and surely, wiser) I realized that I had to put in the time to make my art better. And so I began to put in the time.

One of the best things about learning to draw and paint nowadays is that students of art have the amazing resource that is YouTube. A while ago I was searching for a tutorial on how to paint a face in watercolour and I found something I was blown away by…

The music, by the way, is by the amazing Green Children. I watched this video so often that I asked for their CD ‘Strange Encounter’ for Christmas. It’s now a firm family favourite.

We were all intrigued by the name of the band and my husband discovered that it was from an old English folk tale ‘The Green Children of Woolpit’. It does have a rather sad ending, but it’s maybe something that I may put my own spin on one day…

As I practised my art I realized that some of my paintings had become successful enough to be put “out there” and my ‘Lady Seaweed’ on the front cover of The Forgotten and the Fantastical was one of those more “successful” pictures. As I wrote in the book about my story ‘Lady Seaweed’ or ‘Tristesse’:

“I painted the woman who graces the front cover of this book in one of those subconsciously-driven moments of creativity.”

Basically, I was doodling and having fun while listening to music and there was no pressure to create something perfect. Surely that’s where all art has to start from — the idea of creating as a joyful process.

So nowadays, one of my favourite family activities is listening to The Green Children’s ‘Strange Encounter’ while we either paint or doodle or draw. (I simply ignore the fact that the dishwasher needs unloading!)

A while ago I became a fan of The Green Children on Facebook, and I discovered that they’re working on another album (their third I think) and they posted that they were keeping themselves inspired in the studio by surrounding themselves with beautiful works of art. This was one of those pieces:

Arthur Rackham illustration of 'The Old Woman of the Forest' from the original book of Grimms' fairy tales

Arthur Rackham illustration of ‘The Old Woman of the Forest’ from the Grimms’ fairy tales

And so we have come full circle to the Brothers Grimm and Arthur Rackham, and the power of images (as well as story) to capture our imaginations.


***

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2015 book cover

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2015 book cover

The Forgotten and the Fantastical is now available to buy from The Mother’s Milk Bookshop (as a paperback and PDF) and as a paperback from Amazon.

It can also be ordered via your local bookshop.

Any comments on the following fab posts would be much appreciated:

In ‘Imagination is quantum ergo fairies are real’, Ana, at Colouring Outside the Lines, explains why we should all believe in fairies and encourage our children to do the same.

‘Wings’ — Rebecca at Growing a Girl Against the Grain shares a poem about her daughter and explains the fairy tale-esque way in which her name was chosen.

In ‘Red Riding Hood Reimagined’ author Rebecca Ann Smith shares her poem ‘Grandma’.

Writer Clare Cooper explores the messages the hit movie Frozen offers to our daughters about women’s experiences of love and power in her Beautiful Beginnings blog post ‘Frozen: Princesses, power and exploring the sacred feminine.’

‘Changing Fairy Tales’ — Helen at Young Middle Age explains how having young children has given her a new caution about fairy tales.

In ‘The Art of Faerie’ Marija Smits waxes lyrical about fairy tale illustrations.

‘The Origins of The Forgotten and the Fantastical — Teika Bellamy shares her introduction from the latest collection of fairy tales for an adult audience published by Mother’s Milk Books.