Too big for (primary) school… learning to let go.

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‘It’s been a long day without you, my friend
And I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again
We’ve come a long way from where we began
Oh I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again
When I see you again.’

So sang our Jemima and friends at her primary school leavers’ service.  They turned in the pews to face the mums and dads, and tears were shed from both sides.  On Saturday night they sang it at the close of their school disco, grouped in a circle and swaying in time, arms draped around each other.

Yet I’m not sad.  For ‘come a long way’ we have since those four-year-old days, and life with my kids just gets better.  We talk about deep things now, usually at their request.  We enjoy longer walks, they introduce me to new music, deal with my technology problems and bake me amazing cakes.  We’ve nurtured badgers together, and a host of other smaller creatures.  More than this, in all of them I’ve seen courage as they’ve battled with things and grown.  I’m proud of who they are.  I love it when they display accomplishments greater than my own and I celebrate the ongoing relationship I have with each of them.  It would be dull if they stayed at primary school forever and I’m ready to support them in new challenges, and to learn from them too.

True, Jemima and friends have been together for some very significant years.  They will no doubt miss seeing each other every day.  But their experience of the world is about to get bigger, and their eyes and hearts and minds will widen as they rise to meet what life brings.  And of this I am certain: God is alongside my kids, even when I can’t be, and he’s not going to let them down. If leaving primary causes Jem to fear just a little, to lean into God a bit more, to take bolder, more sure steps of faith then bring it on.  God is moving us into a new phase and whatever it contains, he will be sufficient to hold us and lead us through.

Success or sell-out? My journey into print

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This week sees the publication of my first book, Badger Clan.  It hasn’t been the most straightforward journey, which is why I’ve decided to write about it here.  I hope my experiences will be of use to one or two of my readers.

     The material in my memoir is mainly from 2015.  Why has it taken so long to get it out there?  I finished writing the book in 2016.  By spring 2017 I looked for an agent, and quickly signed with Anne Williams of the Kate Hordern Literary Agency.  I worked on an edit with Anne, which we were both happy with by July of that year.  This isn’t unusual – an agent will be representing many other authors and I had to fit writing around my full teaching schedule.  Submissions started during autumn 2017 (holiday time is ‘dead time’). Many publishers then asked to see the book.

Rejections included,I’m deeply jealous of all that badger action and I would have loved to give this a go, but I’m afraid I couldn’t get the kind of consensus we need to take a book on’ and ‘I really enjoyed reading this and thought it was beautiful but I’m afraid I didn’t love it enough in the end to want to take it on. I hope you find the perfect editor for this special book.’

The book, then known as The Year of the Badger, went to one or two acquisitions meetings.

A certain Mr P, editor from another well-respected publishing house said, ‘This is a really deeply lovely book. Gorgeous writing, hugely engaging, exciting and carefully crafted. The village is alive and nuanced and real in the reader’s mind.’  They were about to re-roll Badgerlands (no clues there, then) and felt unable to help due to a conflict of interests.

Finally, my agent phoned one evening to tell me she’d received a ‘yes’.  ‘Go and celebrate with your family,’ she said.  Something inside me made me hold back from cracking open the champagne; just as well it did.  Despite everything progressing nicely over the weeks that followed, information on where the pictures would go, how many books would be printed and how the book would be marketed, I took another, less positive call a few weeks later.  I remember it well.  It was during my youngest daughter’s birthday tea, February 2018.  The publishing house was having a financial crisis and having to pull out on all new writers.  They told Anne we could be in touch again towards the end of the summer, when, hopefully, their finances would be back on track.

I fought back the tears, lit the candles on the cake and carried it through to the table as if nothing had happened.  My little girl had no idea of the news that felt devastating.  Yet I had much to celebrate too, sang out ‘Happy Birthday’ with the rest of them and sat back, very aware of my blessings. Perhaps, with hindsight, it was the best time to have received the news.

There is a whole lot of waiting for publishers, even without the ‘please get back to us’ scenario.  It helped me to have other writing projects on the go, and to be taking the long view.  We let the summer pass and Anne emailed the publisher in question, then tarried a while but they didn’t respond.  She felt this was signal enough that we’d reached closure with them, and gave me permission to do what I’d been longing to: publish as an indie via KDP.  I had a busy teaching term and wanted to make my own tweaks now that the book was mine again (I had also been through a PhD viva with it and needed to process advice given there).  My goal was to get the book out early in the new year. I contacted Alexi Francis, a name I’d come across through an anthology series we’d both written for, and then Twitter, and asked her to create my cover.  I suggested pen and ink, a design different to the known badger narratives’ covers out there, and said ‘I can imagine some blue in it, with perhaps a night sky and some winter trees.  I do love your Havergate Hare painting.  I think something quite simple with strong, dark colours to make it eye-catching.’  She met the brief and has far exceeded my hopes.  Would a publishing house have given me something I like this much?  They would have been hard pushed to.

So here we are! Annie, my eldest daughter, is now in her second year at university; she was taking her GCSEs in the book, which gives you some idea of how much time has passed.

The route to publication was nothing like I expected, but I’ve learnt a lot on the way.  Enrol on any MA Creative Writing course and you are led to believe that traditional publishing is the most respectable way into print.  How many well-written books are in hiding right now, abandoned with a misplaced sense of shame?  How many writers have given up their calling?  I have been told by many people that my book should be out there, not least my PhD supervisor, Scarlett Thomas, my agent and the publisher who wanted my book, but shall remain nameless: ‘So sorry to excite and deflate like this. But it is a reflection of the life of a small publisher rather than on the book itself, as Caroline writes very well.’  And that is the bottom line – the publishing industry is not in great shape, for publishers, small or large, are not committing to new writers as they did a decade ago. Their bubble may have burst, but as new writers our hopes should not.

I feel my book is as good as any publishing house would have made it.  What I do appreciate is that it is now MY book, not tailored to their whims, but my own.

The would-be published author is made to feel small in the 21st century; like they really need a mainstream publishing house behind them.  Yet I am now actually feeling very excited about launching out without support. I have been interested to discover, too, that self-publishing has the potential to be more lucrative.  A friend told me once she would be receiving ten pence per copy of hardback book sold.  This isn’t outlandish.  A writer will receive perhaps 10% per sale. This doesn’t sound so bad?  It isn’t based on the cover price but rather the price the publisher sells it at.  This could be half the cover price.  Wholesalers can then demand large discounts etc. etc.  The printing cost for my book will be £4.52.  If I sell at £9.99 the royalty on each copy will be £1.47.  I’m yet to see how this pans out, but so far I’m not complaining.

Despite all this, I’m saving the best bit till last.  You see, if I’d like to be known for any writing, it’s my current project.  In 2018 I wrote for a Christian anthology that was published at Christmas (Merry Christmas, Everyone, The Association of Christian Writers).  This unexpectedly kickstarted a new project in me and it has felt like a tremendous release; not that I didn’t enjoy writing Badger Clan, but my new book has been prompted by my own spiritual journey and not someone (who became my PhD supervisor) inviting me to write a book.  My faith grew as I wrote the badger book, and through the rocky road to publication, too.  I sometimes wonder that if Christians always have it easy, what use are we to anyone else?  I can share from my experiences and hopefully be an encouragement to others to see their projects through to a rightful conclusion.

I still expect to write some nature pieces in the future, but I’m not tied into this because it’s what my publisher expects of me.

How will I seek publication for my latest book?  At this stage, I really don’t know.  (When it’s finished I may feel clearer).  But it’s felt more fulfilling than anything to write, and I hope its outworking will do something quite profound; if it can bring greater understanding of the book that’s the most precious to me in the world, and point to the one who changes lives and transforms, then it will be a job well done.  I like the thought of writing something with eternal consequences.   Now that would be success in my mind.

 

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Good Friday reflection

This is the one day of the year that makes sense of the rest for me.  That says, there is hope, don’t give in, worse has been endured, your pain is understood, someone has been along and absorbed it all already, scooped up the fall-out and is offering a hand, saying, come on, it’s this way, I’ve been there already and I can lift you out.

It’s not that the world is any less troubled since that first Good Friday.  There’s so pexels-photo-433142.jpegmuch in the world that doesn’t make sense, that seems unfair, that I could take issue with. But I can’t point a finger at a god who doesn’t care because he isn’t there.  Instead I can reach out a hand to God who has walked amongst us, has taken the worst we can throw at him; he has the marks on his hands to prove it.  This is Jesus, not some remote deity who set galaxies spinning and sat back to watch.  It’s Jesus who said, I’ll deal with their brokenness and humanity, I’ll take my share of that – I’ll take their share, too.  I’ll take the hatred, the insults, the suffering, the isolation, the unfair load of worldly grot and I’ll bear it.  I’ll bear it until every last insult has been hurled, every once-sparkling promise broken, every sad violation committed, every injustice dealt and I’ll bear it up to my Father.  I’m big enough to take it.  Then they won’t be able to say I don’t care, I don’t understand, I don’t know how it feels, that I’m distant, unloving, unfair.  They will see my arms stretched wide in welcome, acceptance that comes no bigger…  I’ll die for it, for them.  I’ll clear the blocked passages between them and heaven, let them know they’ll always have a home, not just when their days are done but now, in amongst it all.  This is my refuge: it’s a cloak spread wide above their heads in the rain, that’s wide enough for all humanity as each responds and shares saying, come inside, we’ve a place to shelter.  It’s a canopy that will stretch over the whole earth, each place and person I spoke into being, forgiveness draped over the whole show, nothing, no one beyond its reach.  It says, it is finished.  But my work for them is never done, they will call on me and I will be there.  I’m there already.  They only have to ask.

Kids home, still writing

Coping strategies for a guilt free, child-happy, writing-is-happening time…

The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid. (Article by Lauren Sandler, The Atlantic, 2013).Well that’s me out then. I have four.  And we still have three full weeks of the summer holidays to run. Don’t get me wrong, I am enjoying my children’s company. But let’s be honest, it is relentless.

‘Six weeks holiday, six whole weeks!’

‘No it’s not, it’s seven!’

‘I thought it was eight.’

So went the conversation in our house when school broke. Part of me always shares in their euphoria, but another part goes into mild panic. How to be the devoted and attentive mum whilst not letting this time that I also need for my writing disappear? It’s not all bad, I have finished an edit and begun preparations for next term. But I know I won’t get these weeks back and I can be as guilty of wasting time as the rest of them.

My nine-year-old wants me to know of her every thought, which though endearing can be slightly wearing. She defines exuberance. This, of course, blesses me no end but is not without its challenges. My eighteen-year-old wants to talk through the complete range of her potential A level results and the pros and cons of adjustment and clearing, almost daily. My son wants to take things apart and reassemble them, and all four children have an opinion on everything. Tolstoy is said to have written in his diary ‘Family happiness completely absorbs me, and it’s impossible to do anything’. I get where he’s coming from but I have been driven to find some slightly more inspirational comment.

There is sound advice to be had, however.

E.B. White, writer of Charlotte’s Web and co-writer of The Elements of Style has been here, too.  I can relate to what he calls ‘the carnival that is going on all around me’. He tells us, ‘the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to.’ Does this sound familiar? He continues, ‘If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.’ I think he’s right. There’s a lot to be said for grabbing the unexpected five minutes that come our way, wherever we happen to be.

I have taken White’s advice and am developing the ability to work with noise around me. My tactic is to write the essence of the thought that’s hovering in my brain, jotting down the key words and then fine-tuning it during a moment of quiet. I surface before the family when I can, often by 6 a.m., and this gives me my two or three most productive hours of the day. It’s when my thinking is at its sharpest and I spot most of the faults in my work from the day before.

When my youngest is full-on I can still use my lap-top and research themes, read articles and think about my classes. I can also read with chaos all around me, but it’s the creative work that’s often put on hold. I could work in the hut in the garden, but I prefer to save this for when there is a particular deadline. I like to read in there and let the kids join me if they want to (and they do).

There is much to be said for encouraging some early independence. ‘Read your book’, ‘Walk the dog’, ‘Make X a birthday card’, ‘You’ve got one hour to fill on your own, then I’m going to take you out.’ These are all phrases I trot out on a daily basis. It’s still a slog at times though, so please send me yours too.

At the end of the day, I want my kids to remember vibrant, happy summer holidays with a mum who was around for them. And if my writing features in anyone’s memory, then that will be a bonus.

Coping strategies

Making time. What is your best time of day, early morning or late at night? Attempt to surface while the rest of the household sleep, or stay up into the night. Once you’ve had a successful writing time at this hour you’ll do it again. Like me, Toni Morrison has found early mornings to be most useful. In The Paris Review she says, “Writing before dawn began as a necessity–I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama–and that was always around five in the morning.” (The Art of Fiction, no, 134).

Read. If you can’t find the space to write you can always do this. Stephen King says “I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they ‘don’t have time to read.’ This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.”

Be realistic. Give yourself a modest, child-accommodating daily word count that you can easily reach. Then congratulate yourself and go and have fun!

 

 

How I found my literary agent

So I have a literary agent: Anne Williams of the Kate Hordern Literary Agency. How did that happen, I have been asked. Isn’t that really hard?

I know I am incredibly lucky. I also know that I have worked incredibly hard, though that doesn’t automatically entitle me to anything. My badger book has been on the go for a couple of years. I have lived and breathed it through that time; it’s a part of me and I am still writing notes on my badger encounters. It has also had that ‘time in the drawer’ that’s always recommended, though, in my case, more through accident than design. Months ago I had a literary agent chase me, which I sat on for a bit, but that’s another story. When I was ready he was about to change agencies, and then went off the boil. That’s okay – I think now I wasn’t right for him. You want an agent to be so certain about your work, and I don’t think he could have been about mine. Anne, on the other hand, said she knew straight away. She was lightning-quick with her responses and left the other agents way behind. Oh yes, the other agents. I had drawn up a shortlist of five with some input from a knowledgeable friend, and over the course of a couple of days wrote to them all.

So how did I find out about Anne? I searched for agents interested in new nature writing and a few names came up. I read her wishlist and then knew she was worth pursuing. She mentioned two of my favourite nature writers whose work I had recently put on a uni module and taught. My heart then started to beat a little faster. To the top of my list she went. Just to be absolutely certain, I read what articles I could about her, any interviews or related blogs that I could find before approaching her by email.

Anne was quick to request the full manuscript. While she was reading I heard from the other four, and three of them wanted the rest soon after. There was one very enthusiastic young agent from CB who totally charmed me, and an agent representing many UK nature writers who told me she would read, but there would be a delay as she was very busy.

Anne came back with a positive email in just under three weeks, having read the complete manuscript. We arranged to talk on the phone, when she sounded me out more fully and said she’d like to offer me representation. I was thrilled.

Since then we have met in London and chatted about the book in detail. I have also written to those agents and told them the news. That was a scary moment, but I feel sure I am in the best possible hands. I know some people would have chased the other agents and stirred things up, but I had already heard from my first choice. I guess if I was unsure about her I could have stalled for time, but all of this feels quite underhand and wasn’t needed anyway.

I know that this is just the beginning and the hard work begins here. Hearing the news has brought renewed energy though – I have already got back to the manuscript and the ideas are firing.

If you are reading this and wanting to find an agent, be encouraged. Write what you love, and let the first draft be wholly for yourself, you don’t need an audience in mind at all. Then, when you’ve been through your work several times, have run home for it, edited and lost sleep, ask yourself if it’s as good as it possibly can be. That is the point when you need to look for your agent. Good luck!

‘I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life… if you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good. Hot is no good either. White hot and passionate is the only thing to be.’ Roald Dahl, My Uncle Oswald.

 

For the love of sparrows

This house sparrow was caught on our Bushnell nature cam, seed in her mouth, her relaxed feet hanging loose as her wings do what comes naturally to them, beating perhaps fifteen times a second. These short wings allow for a quick lift off, though she’s not built for speed, rather a swift exit when the neighbourhood cats are out. For once the humble sparrow looked exotic to me, like a new species of bat or four-winged bird.

We are lucky here, our garden could be known as sparrow central, and my nine-year-old counted nineteen of them during the Big Garden Bird Watch. They like nesting in our old eaves, and for me, they signify home. They are seen from the moment I lift the latch on the front gate, witnessed from every window, heard tweeting on the roof via the wood-burner in the sitting room. Our space is theirs, and generations of sparrows have grown up here, for they do not venture far. It is said that the fiercely defended territory of a male sparrow ‘really only consists of the nesting hole and a very small area around it.’ (BTO)

There is a danger that, like all things familiar, the humble sparrow is taken for granted. It’s an age-old problem; in Luke’s gospel Jesus says, ‘Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.’ Then they were sold for sacrifice.

In England from the 1700s (and perhaps earlier) they were so plentiful they were considered a pest by farmers, and there was a bounty on their heads; Sparrow Clubs existed, not as appreciation societies but with the sole purpose of killing as many as possible, while parish payments were available to anyone producing evidence.  The Stone Street Club near me in Kent lasted until 2003, though perhaps in name only. These clubs often collected rats tails too, which may account for this local group’s longevity.

Now sparrows are protected in the UK, though not all of Europe is quite so respectful. A student in one of my creative writing groups told me of an experience that disturbed her as a child. In Italy when she grew up, she said, sparrows were a delicacy and commonly eaten. She can still remember the horrid crunch of the little bones. She was made to sit there and eat, though her father would get up and walk out. Now she won’t touch poultry. I completely understand.

If, like me, you are alarmed by the sparrow’s rapid decline, consider what you can do to help them. If your house doesn’t hold nooks for them to nest in, think about putting up a sparrow nesting box. These are of a specific design – think of the sparrow’s sense of community – and look like a small bird terrace with at least three holes. Mealworms are thought to provide sparrow chicks with an increased chance of survival, and avoid pesticides in your garden, as there will be less insects for your sparrows to feed on. Introduce a wild zone in your garden, where you let things go. Choose butterfly-attracting plants and allow flower heads to go to seed.

Footnotes:

Silent Fields: The Long Decline of a Nation’s Wildlife by Roger Lovegrove

https://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/gbw/gardens-wildlife/garden-birds/a-z-garden-birds/house-sparrow

Luke 12:6-7.

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