Monday, 11 June 2012

Letting go ...

Recently I decided to let go of the branch. As a friend quoted recently, If they won’t let you in through the front door go round the back and climb over the fence.

Many writers are trapped in the cycle of:
Polishing our work
Looking for an agent
Approaching agent
Pitching and sending three chapters to an agent
Rejection by agent and starting the cycle again.
I’ve been locked in this cycle for over ten years.

Supposing we can get an agent to listen to us and look at our work we are then faced with further difficulties. My experience with my first novel, Unwrapping Angelo (despite it making a short list of six titles in a major competition) was disheartening to say the least. The thirty agents I sent it to took anything from a week to eight months to get back to me. Rejections came from all of them but one. Rewrite it with these changes and I’ll look at it again, she said. After a whole summer of rewriting and sending it back to her I discovered she’d left the agency. It took numerous phone calls to glean the remaining staff didn’t want to see the rewrite.

On the occasions I’ve managed to get in front of various agents I’ve been told:

Make it shorter
Make it longer
Change his name
Change her name
Change the title. 
There were sundry other plot changes suggested but none of these have ever induced them to represent the book.

General information from agents was at best confusing, at worst upsetting:

Send a two page synopsis
Send a one page synopsis
Send half a page synopsis
I never read synopses so don’t bother sending one
Write bios for each character
Tell me the plot in the pitch letter
Don’t give the plot away in the pitch letter
Don’t bother with a pitch letter if I like the writing I’ll contact you.

Agents’ opinions of the next “big thing” during one particular season:

Chicklit is dead
Chicklit is still flourishing
Vampires are out, Angels are in
Forget Vampires and Angels
Sagas are over
We need more sagas.

How can any writer possibly please all these people? But supposing, despite all those factors, you get an agent who sells your novel to a publisher for you (taking their commission) and your dream is to be realised, it still isn’t plain sailing in today’s marketplace. The publisher will spend the best part of a year with your book before it appears on the shelves and will tie you into a contract. At the end of all of the effort, the rejections, the hours of re-writing, the schmoosing of agents, the lengthy wait for the book to appear in your hand they will grudgingly give you a pitiful fraction of the cost of your book; will possibly reject your second book if the first doesn’t sell into Tesco, and withhold the right to drop you from a great height if the figures don’t mount up to their satisfaction, all the while retaining the right to keep drawing their commission from sales of the original novel until they decide not to print it anymore.

The person we writers can please is the reader but with so many obstacles in our way we’re lucky if we ever reach them.

Until now I have held on with the earnest desire to be “chosen.” I’ve wanted my novel to be the one the agent picks up and loves. For this to happen, assuming my work is of a good enough standard, it has to fall on the right desk at the right time of year (book fairs, etc permitting) on the day the agent has had lunch with a publisher who is looking for exactly the story I’ve written.

So I’m letting go of the branch and Amazon is there to catch me.  As a learning curve I’ve put up a short novella, Favourite Things onto Amazon Kindle. In the first twenty-four hours almost fifty copies have been downloaded.  When I’ve polished up my novels they will go up there too.  All this time I’ve wanted to reach my readers and now I am.

I want to thank the very talented writer, Amanda Grange for her encouragement and support.

Friday, 18 November 2011

You couldn't make it up!

So there I was, sitting in Le Pain Quotidien, my favourite restaurant in the concourse at St Pancras International railway station.  I was with my best friend, Gwyneth, having a late lunch and anticipating the Romantic Novelists’ Association winter party in Westminster.  We’d already had a bit of a drama since one of my train tickets was missing and I’d had to fork out £50 to buy another one. “Let it go,” I told myself, “it’s done and that’s that.”
Out on the concourse, waving to us, were three more writers who had arrived on a later train.  They came in and joined us.
            “Something very strange has just happened,” Audrey said.  “They’ve just put out a call for an Elizabeth Ringrose at the Eurostar desk.”
            For those not familiar with Eurostar it is the high speed train which now connects the UK with mainland Europe, via the Channel Tunnel.
What a bizarre coincidence, I thought.
Next to me was Margaret whose phone was ringing.  “No,” I heard her say to her daughter on the phone, “I’ve got my bag and my purse …”  She went out onto the concourse for the rest of the call.
It was time for us to pay the bill and turning to the bag containing my party dress I realised I’d left my handbag in the station toilets. Barging past the waiter with the bill, yelling that I’d lost my bag and with Gwyneth on my heels, I ran down to the toilets, past Margaret who was still looking utterly puzzled and talking on the phone.
The attendant in the loos said she hadn’t found a bag but asked me my name and mumbled about Eurostar. OMG, I thought, the tannoy announcement … 
            After babbling incoherently to two Eurostar staff members I was called through to their security department.  Three girls had found my bag in the toilets and had handed it in.  My knees went to mush with relief as a lady carried the bag towards me.  “See if everything is there,” she said, which actually hadn’t occurred to me, but yes, there was the folding money, my iPhone, cards, train tickets, car/house keys and asthma inhaler.  After more babbling and grateful thanks I went with Gwyneth back to the restaurant.
            “I’ll pay the bill now,” I said to our young, handsome waiter.
            “My heart stopped for you,” he said.
            I imagine he stops plenty of hearts himself.  
            Gwyneth paid the bill.  I was still a gibbering wreck.
            So what was the purpose of Margaret’s puzzling phone call? It seems the Eurostar staff had looked at the recent contacts on my iPhone and as I give Margaret a lift each week they dialled her home number. Her poor husband was told his wife had lost her handbag and with that the call ended. He telephoned their daughter in Surrey who then telephoned Margaret insisting she’d lost her bag.
            Meanwhile Eurostar had telephoned my husband.  Well of course it came as no surprise to him to hear that my bag had been left in a toilet.  He rang St Pancras service desk and the very kind man put out the tannoy announcement that my friends had heard.
            Still wondering why the bag had been taken to the Eurostar desk I realised, with horror, that my bag must have come under the category of “suspicious unaccompanied baggage” and as the Eurostar section of the station is a UK border they would have the facility for scanning.
            I guess I’ll never know who the honest and kindly girls were who handed it in for me and I bitterly regret the inconvenience and worry suffered by Margaret, her husband and daughter, my friend Gwyneth and my poor husband.  But the girls’ honesty and the sheer loveliness of everyone concerned gave me a glow, and I realised that even in the context of crowds, travel schedules, queues and tiredness there are still angels of kindness who come to rescue us.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Finding Uncle Harold

I suppose the hairdressers was a funny place to be talking about the First World War.  I was yelling above the sound of the drier about a mystery I was trying to solve.  It was bound to attract attention.  I’ve never been renowned for the softness of my voice so when the manager approached I thought she was going to ask me to be quiet.  Instead she said, “I think I may be able to help with your problem.”

Could she help, I wondered.  It was 1997 and I’d been puzzling over a mystery since the previous autumn when I read a novel about the First World War, a subject I’ve always been interested in.  A childhood memory had surfaced after reading the book and I rang my mother.  “Didn’t Dad have a brother who died in the Great War?” I asked.   
Mum knew his name had been Harold but she didn’t know any more than that, and Dad had died some years before.  All his eight brothers and sisters were now gone too, there didn’t seem to be anyone I could ask.  I rang the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the lady was very helpful.  Harold Henson died in 1915, she told me, at the battle of Loos.  His regiment had been the Northumberland Fusiliers.

 “That can’t be him,” I said, “my father’s family lived in Nottingham.” 

 “Well,” she continued, “this soldier enlisted in Nottingham.”  

 I also learned that only one Harold Henson died in the First World War so it had to be him.

This was a mystery.  Why would a Nottingham lad have joined a northern regiment?   I was curious to find out about this boy who fought and died for his country at the age of nineteen, and would have been my uncle.  I rang a cousin in Nottingham but he didn’t know any more than I did.  With a large family spread around the Midlands there were some cousins I didn’t even know.  It seemed an impossible task but my fascination was mounting. 

Perhaps officialdom might have the answer.  I wrote to the Ministry of Defence but discovered Harold’s documents had been destroyed along with thousands of others during the blitz of 1940.  Undaunted, I tried the Northumberland Fusiliers museum.  They had no individual records of my uncle but they had the regimental diary of the man who commanded his battalion.  Tragically Harold was only in France for fifteen days before he was killed.  This seemed to be as far as I could go, but I’d become fond of this boy by now and longed to know more about him. 

On Christmas Eve my husband asked me to open one of my presents a day early.  “I can’t wait any longer,” he said.  “I’ve discovered something amazing and you’ve got to see it.” 

He had bought me a book about the Great War, which included personal reminiscences from old soldiers.  In the section covering the Battle of Loos there was an entry from a man called Harry Fellows who had been in the same battalion as my uncle.

“Not only that,” my husband said, “Fellows was from Nottingham and had a friend called Henson.”  

I could hardly believe it, a breakthrough at last.  I wrote to the author of the book asking if I could be put in touch with Mr Fellows’ family.  I was sure he held the key to the mystery.  I was disappointed when the writer said she was no longer in touch with the family who had supplied her with the memoirs.  Once more I seemed to have come to a halt. 

This was the point I’d reached that morning in the hairdressers.  The day everything changed.
            “I know someone who’s an expert on the First World War,” the salon manager said to me.  “He writes books on the subject and I’m sure he’ll be able to help.” 

I was willing to try anything so wrote to this man, telling him about my uncle’s painfully short participation in the war, and explaining about the old soldier Harry Fellows whose family might help me.  Almost by return of post I got a letter to say that Harry Fellows had been a member of the Western Front Association, I was even given the address of the Nottingham Branch.
 I was reluctant to get too excited but once again I wrote a letter giving all the details and hoped I’d hear back soon.

As well as having a loud voice I have pretty sharp hearing and a few days later, as I walked up the drive, I heard the phone ringing.  By the time I got indoors the answering machine had picked up the call and I heard a man’s voice saying the very name that had preoccupied me for so long, “Harold Henson.”  I grabbed the phone and found myself talking to a man called George.  My letter to the Western Front Association had been passed to him because, and I could hardly believe my ears, he was a friend of Mick Fellows, Harry Fellows’ son.   

Mick Fellows was was stunned to hear from a relative of his dad’s wartime pal.  He showed me his father’s war diary and in one entry the mystery of joining the Northern regiment was solved.

Harold, along with several pals, had signed up for the army on a Saturday morning in September 1914.  One of these friends was Harry Fellows.

“We want a long ride in a train,” they said to the recruiting sergeant.  None of them had been further than Derby before.

“There’s the Duke of Cornwall’s Regiment,” they were told, “or the Northumberland Fusiliers.”

“There’s no football in Cornwall,” one of them said.  “We’ll take the fusiliers.”

So began Harold’s tragic army career.  A year later, after training, the regiment sailed to France and Harold died in their first taste of action at Loos.  As the troops moved forward into the trench Harry Fellows was sent by the commanding officer, with a message for their Captain.  He left my uncle’s side and never saw him again; Harold’s body was never recovered.  Harry Fellows went on to survive the war and when he died in Nottingham, aged 92, he asked for his ashes to be returned to France to be buried close to his friends.

We travelled to France for the 80th Commemoration of the end of the war, and spent four days visiting many battlefields and cemeteries on the Somme, and attending the great ceremony in Ypres.  We went to Mametz Wood where Harry Fellows’ remains are buried and took part in a short, very moving service to commemorate him, and all his fallen comrades. 

There was another visit that we’d organised, one I would never forget.  On our last morning Mick Fellows met us and we drove to Loos.  It’s mining country and in November was a bleak, unwelcoming place.  Dud Corner cemetery was beautifully tended, grass cut neatly between the graves.  Around the perimeter walls huge slabs of stone bore details of those missing in action; it was here that I finally saw my uncle’s name.  I had to crane my neck to read it and my husband lifted me up so that I could feel the contours of the carved letters.  As we left our poppy crosses, and signed the book of remembrance I thought our mission was complete.  Mick Fellows had other ideas. 
He took us back through the village of Loos to a farm.  We got out of the car and walked along the edge of a well-tilled field that sloped gently up to a ridge. When I realised where we were I couldn’t speak.  Me, the one with the big mouth and a line of chat for every occasion – rendered dumb.  We were in the field where Harold fell.  Mick passed around a whiskey bottle and we drank a toast to my uncle, and all those who marched away to fight and never returned. 

Back home I traced as many members of the family as I could to let them know the story I had uncovered.  It was a joy to meet cousins I never knew existed; to see faces that bore traces of my own features.  I wondered which of us might have looked like Harold, and how different our lives might have been had he come home from the war. 
They quickly came to know me as the cousin from Leicester who talked a lot.  But I know their lives were also made richer by discovering the uncle whom most had never heard of, who would forever lie in the windswept French countryside, and who now, would never be forgotten by his family.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Kind Kids and Cupcakes

At the top of our little country lane there is a trestle table groaning under the weight of home made cakes. They've been baked by a neighbour's children (aided and abetted by mums and grannies) and are being sold in aid of Cancer Research UK. Having sworn off cakes for at least a month I resolved simply to give them a donation but once I saw the effort they had gone to with decorations, etc, it would have been rude not to sample them.

I arrived at the table as a group of passing ramblers stopped to survey the treats. The children, one of whom had rushed back home for a knife to cut the coffee and walnut cake, rapidly added up the costs as date and walnut slices, chocolate brownies and cupcakes with elaborate toppings of jellied fruit, hundreds and thousands and dolly mixtures were eagerly loaded onto paper plates and consumed greedily. Walking the "Leicester Round" footpath can give you an appetite!

What I wasn't prepared for were the tears that really wanted to slide down my cheeks. For some reason I found this whole tableau very moving. Was it the worthy cause that made me want to cry or was it the sight of these kids, giving up their Saturday, having worked hard for days to produce this impressive spread? I really don't know but I made sure they didn't see the batty woman from up the lane taking deep breaths and hurrying off with her plate piled high.

Returning a few minutes ago I asked them and their mother if I could take a photo and write a little piece about them for the Parish Magazine. They shyly posed while I took the picture and then, as other neighbours had arrived with purses at the ready, I hurried off. I hope they make a pile of money for the cause. Little endeavours such as these have long reaching effects.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Yes, just what am I like?

Am I disciplined enough to write a regular blog? Time will tell, I guess. But that's quite enough for now. Must go away and think of something jolly interesting to say.