Reviews of Books by Women – Are There Enough?

Although there are many successful women authors in the science fiction genre today, it still feels, at times, as though it’s a genre very much dominated by men. This came into stark relief for me when I attended a sci-fi panel at a lit fest a couple of years ago; the panel consisted of four white men, and I remember thinking: Really? What does this say about the genre? Do I, as a woman, have a chance of breaking into sci-fi? Am I confident enough to submit to a magazine where I don’t see that many stories by women being published? I was pleased to hear the chair of the panel apologize for the lack of diversity, saying that this wasn’t really representative of the genre, but when I questioned him on why, if this wasn’t representative of the genre, it had still come about, and whose responsibility was it – readers, writers, publishers, event organizers? – to ensure that panels (and the genre as a whole) were diverse, a good answer wasn’t forthcoming. But then I got heckled by a man at the back of the audience who called out, ‘But it’s all about the story!’ (the implication being a good story was a good story, no matter if a man or woman wrote it, but evidently these four men were superior at writing good stories… hmm). So that told me.

Shoreline of Infinity magazines, photo by Marija Smits

When I became serious about reading more contemporary science fiction, I came across the then new(ish) sci-fi magazine Shoreline of Infinity. In search of a good read, I took a look through the reviews page and was immediately struck by a) how few books by women were being reviewed and b) how few of the reviewers were women. This wasn’t anything particularly startling; if, like me, you’re aware of VIDA, and their collated statistics, their findings over the past 8 years make for a depressing read – in pretty much all of the literary magazines/broadsheets they found that reviews of books by women, along with women reviewers, were in the minority. And yet it is women who are in the majority when it comes to being book buyers.

It can be easy to throw up one’s hands and say: ‘Oh well, what a shame, these things will never change!’ but they will never change unless we all say, ‘Enough!’ and do our bit to read more books by women, more books by BAME and marginalized authors, and, crucially, to review those books so that they can get more attention and thus (hopefully) more sales, which will send publishers the message that yes, we want to read more from these writers, which should give them the impetus to publish more by these authors. (And as an aside, being part of the indie publishing world I can’t help but notice that it’s the indies who are leading the way in this respect – ever much more so than the risk averse let’s-publish-another-book-by-a-celebrity-it’ll-be-a-hit conglomerate publishers. The message from this article by Danuta Kean is certainly encouraging – that small indie presses are publishing more diversely and reaping the benefits in increased sales and new readers.)

I am now a reviewer for Shoreline of Infinity (in the main, I review books by women); I genuinely enjoy ‘doing my bit’ PLUS I get free books and get to exercise my critical reading skills. Bargain! And what I love about Shoreline is that they’re taking their low number of fiction submissions by women seriously. In fact, issue eleven will be a women-only issue. So if you’re a woman sci-fi writer, do check it out.

Other exciting things happening right now are this: the well-respected indie publisher And Other Stories will be making 2018 a year of publishing women only (in response to Kamila Shamsie’s original call for a year of publishing women). Influx Press have a current call for submissions from women of colour only. And Linen Press and Mslexia are continually open to submissions by women only. My press, Mother’s Milk Books, considers submissions from both men and women, but I tend to get a lot more submissions from women than men. I think some male writers may consider my press too “motherly” or too “milky” for them!

I would actually encourage any writer/reader to take up reviewing for a magazine, or, if reviewing for a magazine isn’t for you, then there’s other platforms to review on – a personal blog, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, Goodreads etc. These are all good places to help spread the word about books by women.

I will leave you with the following reviews and a little nudge: go write a considered review of a book by a woman (bonus points for it being published by an indie press!).

 

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Pseudotooth by Verity Holloway

11 2017 Pseudotooth, by Verity Holloway

‘Never judge a book by its cover’ so the saying goes, but of course we all do, and Unsung Stories, a fab indie press, have a particular skill in creating great covers, so I wanted to read Pseudotooth the moment I set eyes on the cover.

Since most of my writing this year has concentrated on short stories, most of my reading has been of short story collections and anthologies, so I became rather worried about whether I’d actually be able to read a whole novel. And at just over 400 pages, Pseudotooth is a long novel. But, considering its length, it was a compelling read, and I seemed to fly through it.

Pseudotooth is a difficult-to-categorise novel though. It’s not exactly magical realism, but not quite speculative fiction either; yet the writing is lyrical, the narrative dreamlike, the themes – trauma, mental health, otherness – powerful and thought-provoking. The protagonist, a young woman called Aisling Selkirk who is having unexplained blackouts (pseudo-seizures), is a well-drawn and sympathetic character, the milieu (first, the austere and chilling parsonage, and then the is-it-real-is-it-not realm of ‘Our Friend’) fascinatingly image-rich. I’m not entirely sure the more open-ended ending is for me (I love a good strong resolution) but I think that’s very much up to the individual reader. Pseudotooth really got me thinking about the issue of how best to support young adults with mental health issues, and I would love to discuss it with any one else who has read it.

 

Bone Ovation by Caroline Hardaker

11 2017 Bone Ovation, by Caroline Hardaker

Bone Ovation is a debut poetry pamphlet, published by Valley Press, another indie press I greatly appreciate. As I’ve mentioned before, I find it takes me a long time to read a full poetry collection, but pamphlets are a brilliant way to slip some poetry into your day. You can carry them in a coat pocket or bag and dip in (and out) of them easily.

The theme of the pamphlet is ‘bones’ and in many of the poems the theme is obvious, in others, not so much. Many of the poems are written from a woman’s point of view, or are about a particular woman; I loved some of the characters – the girl from ‘The Girl Who Fell in Love With the Mountain’, the enigmatic being from ‘The Paper Woman’, the woman from ‘The Woman is Like a Picasso’. But my favourite is definitely the soul-gobbling grandmother from ‘The Rains’.

 

The Rains

 

Each raindrop contains a soul

I’m told, and sleet is nought

but the urgent need of the dead to meet

their loved ones once more in the mortal world.

To stroke their skin, to leave a living trace;

a tear drop – a thin, translucent meridian.

 

My grandmother never used an umbrella

and would tip back her head and eat the rain.

She said it made her feel alive again.

 

CAROLINE HARDAKER

 

Reading this collection I was struck by how, in places, it reminded me of Angela Readman’s The Book of Tides, a very fine collection indeed, due to the striking imagery, the layered and rich vocabulary, the magical/fantastical themes throughout. Yes, there were (to my mind) some poems that weren’t wholly successful, either because they were too opaque for my taste, or they had the occasional line which had end rhymes or internal rhymes that didn’t quite work, but overall, I felt this to be a strong debut, and one that makes me want to read more from this up-and-coming author.

 

Waking Mama Luna by Jessica Starr

Waking Mama Luna, by Jessica M Starr

This is a slim, self-published collection of 5 tales about womanhood and motherhood. I actually read this a fair while ago and meant to review it a lot earlier, but of course, life got in the way. The stories remind me of traditional fairy tales since they are plainly-written, with no literary frills added for effect. Some of the tales are tragic, some are resolutely happy, some are instructive. The whole collection makes for an easy, uplifting read and I remember really looking forward to ‘treating myself’ to another story because they felt so full of love, so familiar, so comforting. And really, what more can a reader (especially one who loves fairy tales) ask for from a book? Thank you Jessica!

 

mumturnedmom
And finally… huge thanks and WELL DONE to Sara for all her hard work on The Prompt linky. I am sorry to hear that this is the last ever The Prompt link-up (this week’s prompt was ENOUGH) but I am sure that Sara will continue to keep on inspiring and connecting (in particular) women writers.
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Narratives of Water and Earth: 4 poetry collection reviews

Although I write, edit and publish poetry, I genuinely find reviewing poetry challenging. It inevitably makes me think of the way we used to pick apart poems at school (I have a particular memory of sitting at my wooden desk in my English class and dissecting one of Wilfred Owen’s most famous war poems, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’). Now I’m sure there’s a great deal of value to studying a poem in this way, because understanding the mechanics of any art gives you a better appreciation of how a skilled work of art is created, but it cannot, in any major way, alter the viewer’s (or reader’s) subjective reaction to the piece of art (book, poem etc.). When I first read Wilfred Owen’s poems they caused an emotional response in me. Then, later (in critical, objective mode) I was able to study the poem to work out precisely how he’d used language to produce that emotional response.

 

There is always some debate about exactly what a review is – is it a critical (and objective) analysis of the piece of writing? – or is it a reader’s emotional (and so, subjective) response to the piece? And with poetry, there’s the added problem of the much-argued-over-question – what exactly is poetry for? What is it supposed to do? Well, it’s not really going to offer escapism like a commercial fiction beach read will. Nor will it provide detailed information like a useful non-fiction book. I suppose it’s closest relative in terms of form is the literary novel (or flash fiction length-wise) due to their shared emphasis on the crafting of words and insight into the human condition. Yet poems can also be funny and political and peaceful and about things like shoes and goldfish and Newtonian mechanics. During the years I’ve spent editing poetry I’ve come to the conclusion that the poem’s main raison d’etre is to make the reader feel something: to create an emotional response. Otherwise it’s little more than a list of ingredients on a cereal packet. Diverting enough whilst eating breakfast but not memorable. So coming at it from that angle (and also with the knowledge that, technically, all these writers produce high-quality work) I wanted to share my reactions to the following four poetry collections.

 

The Book of Tides by Angela Readman (Nine Arches Press)

The Book of Tides, by Angela Readman

As the title explains, Angela Readman’s third collection is (mainly) about the sea. And just like the sea, the poems are full of beauty, mystery and restrained power. There are so many layers to the poems, that as soon as I had finished reading the one poem I had to read it again. On each rereading the poem would offer up more gifts – insights into female power and what robs women of this power, what it means to love and be loved, as well as stunning and original imagery. I came away from the book with the sense of having witnessed the profound (yet almost invisible) turmoil of soul-work in action.

 

And I rushed to your house, a waterfall, ready

to pour whoever I thought I was into your arms.

 

From ‘The Morning of La Llorona’

 

Empires of Clay, by Becky Cherriman (Cinnamon Press)

Empires of Clay, by Becky Cherriman

I think there’s no doubt that earth is less attractive than water. Earth dirties, water cleans. When they mix, as they often do in the UK in the form of soggy clay (or mud) they create a mixture that is both unwelcome yet somehow honest and humbling. Plant life springs forth from soil, and for many of us it is soil that will receive our bodies when we die. The poems in Empires of Clay have been described as “earthy, erotic” by Steve Ely and I completely agree. Of course I love the poems about motherhood (they appeared in Becky’s debut pamphlet, Echolocation, which my press published) but what really struck me about this collection was how skilled Becky is in writing about how we experience our memories and what it is that we do (or not do) with them. Her poems ‘Forgotten Well’ and ‘Stray Rein in January’ particularly impressed on me. Her writing really does have a haunting quality to it.

 

I remember that and approaching the bridge –

the fearsome echo

of something I couldn’t fathom

 

 

reverberated in my bones like…

There was snow?

Yes, I recall the thaw of someone else’s

footprints as I stumbled back.

A train, Karen said and we watch it flash

towards the future, trailing its echo

 

From ‘Stray Rein in January’

 

 

Deadly, Delicate by Kate Garrett (Picaroon Poetry)

deadly-delicate-by-kate-garrett

This slim pamphlet, like Angela Readman’s The Book of Tides, also contains narratives of water, but the life of the outsider (pirates, specifically) is the main theme. These poems are, as the title suggests, both delicate and deadly; on rereading they reveal a precise yet subtle crafting, but what I particularly enjoy about Kate’s poems are how she manages to get whole stories into the poems. This really is remarkable, considering the brevity of the form. (I also happen to currently be doing my own research about female pirates for a story, so this has provided me with much inspiration.)

 

Now she wakes: deadly, delicate.

She presses her lips to my

breasts – once, twice – my hands smooth

her hips, and we love once more.

But I lose her each time

to breeches, boots and ship.

 

From ‘Crack Jenny’s Teacup’

 

Earthworks, by Jacqueline Gabbitas (Stonewood Press)

Earthworks by Jacqueline Gabbitas

 

First up, I have to say that I am a huge fan of Stonewood Press, and the Stonewood Press thumbprints series. Martin Parker’s wonderful design and illustrations always perfectly set off the words within. And what words! In Earthworks, there is the quiet power and timelessness of hills, wood and stone. What struck me about these poems is how much love they contain – for fields and animals, rocks and earth, words and connections between humans. I have returned to this collection often.

 

But pain is a measure, living a delay:

These hills, they promise nothing for sure.

See? How the skies drag blue over grey.

And always the centre is flint, is clay.

 

From ‘High Hills’

 

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Poetry is often seen as inaccessible, unreadable, dry. But I believe that much poetry today is vibrant and accessible, and that some of the best work is coming out of the indie press scene. Slim pamphlets are a lovely “way in” to poetry world; a larger collection is probably for someone with more time and energy to invest in the reading of poems. I won’t lie – poetry collections take me a long time to finish because I read only a few poems at a time so that I can absorb them properly, but a slim pamphlet – time-wise – feels very manageable. All the collections above are beautifully presented and, overall, enriching and satisfying. I highly recommend them, and if anyone knows of any collections to do with fire or air, please let me know. They may well provide a good counterpoint to this post!

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When Poetry Saved The Day

I’m sure that many people are aware of how the UK government’s interference with the education system is failing children. You only have to read this powerful article about the school, work, world problemand this one by my friend Sophie – to see that something is very badly wrong with mainstream education. I have lots of thoughts swirling in my head about this at the moment, however, that will keep for the time being. The issue is vast and complex, and although I believe there are many solutions out of the mess not every one of them will be right (or doable) for every child and every family.

Anyway… this is the background to which my two children are doing their schooling. For a good while my husband and I were aware that our daughter was finding reading a challenge, and worst of all, a chore. Considering our academic background and the fact that books are literally everywhere in this house, our daughter’s dislike of reading was… startling. And of course we felt saddened by the fact that reading – something so vital and rich – was apparently not something for her.

So, we began to take steps. We’d always been supporting her reading at home, and reading to her – which she clearly enjoyed – but we sensed that there was more at play here. We asked for a dyslexia screening test to be carried out because her various teachers’ assurances of yes she’s not as confident a reader as she could be, but she’ll get there were not proving helpful.

The test came and went, and we waited for the results. In the meantime, the school decided to put on a talent contest as part of their Comic Relief fundraising activities. Our daughter wanted to take part because she enjoys performing. But then the worries came… The night before the class auditions she had misgivings about the first act she’d considered doing. So there we were, in the kitchen after dinner, with me filling the dishwasher and listening to her concerns. The other kids would make fun of her. She’d already heard them being negative about someone else’s act. She no longer liked her idea. So I ran through her options: 1) Don’t do the act. (I warned her though that she may regret not taking part.) 2) Make the act the best it could be and perform it with confidence, ignoring the opinions of others. 3) Choose an alternative act, one that really played to her skills, and do that with confidence.

She found number 3) appealing and so we went through things she really enjoyed doing. As she likes acting and performing the thought: a poetry performance! popped into my head. I remembered that a while ago she’d really enjoyed Angela Topping’s poetry book The New Generation. Cue the mad hunt for where the book actually was…

 

Minutes before bathtime I found it and we went through the poems, trying to find just the right one. Well, soon enough we found it and she practised it, and she was just perfect… And the best thing of all? The huge smile on her face as she did something she clearly enjoyed and was good at. Her audience (little brother, me and Dad) rapturously applauding her made her smile that bit wider.

The next day she aced the auditions, and was put through to the grand final. She didn’t quite get a place in the top four acts, but she performed the poem in front of the whole school and, again, spoke up and out with emotion and nuance. Quite a remarkable thing for a sensitive 9 year old to do – and especially one who is finding reading a challenge!

That poem, in many ways, was an emotional lifesaver. And in a time when fronted adverbials, predicates, long division and SATS are throttling children’s creativity, my daughter’s connection to this poem was utterly right and joyful.

So here it is, for you to enjoy. Huge thanks to Angela Topping for allowing me to reproduce it here.

 

Lonely

 

I’ve got no friends,

it’s sad for me.

At playtime they all

leave me behind,

alone in the classroom.

 

They laugh together,

go round for tea.

No one ever, ever

asks me.

 

They play skipping games

I can skip too

but they won’t let me

even turn up.

 

They go round singing

all join hands

if you want to play catch.

No one catches hold of mine.

 

I sadly wait till they

come back inside.

Perhaps now they’ll talk to me.

It’s hard being the teacher.

 

 

ANGELA TOPPING

 

Lastly, I would like to add that just today we had the test results back, and as we suspected, dyslexia is a part of my daughter’s life. So begins a new chapter as we begin to support her reading in the way that is best for her. I’m sure that poetry will play a part. 🙂

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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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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!

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