Tuesday, 16 April 2019

A Big Day




Today, I sent off a manuscript to my agent.

I’ve had so many crashes and smashes in my writing career that I had almost given up on the traditional publishing route. I could not deal with the whole dog and pony show, the reliance on whim, the alarming shifts of the market. One day, what you are writing is in fashion; the next, everyone wants something and someone quite else. The endless returning of each manuscript for the endless rewrites started to feel not like work, but like purgatory.

So I thought I’d be a literary entrepreneur. I started publishing my own, idiosyncratic horse books on Amazon. I would press the miracle button and my books would be amazingly available from New Mexico to New Zealand. I began an online writing service, where I acted as a coach and mentor and editor. I could reinvent the entire process, and I would never, ever have to have a meeting again. (I am a fairly extreme introvert, so I absolutely loathe meetings. I am crap at jolly working lunches. I am catastrophic at selling myself in any way.)

And then, out of the blue, my agent suddenly got in touch and asked about the novel for which I had entirely given up hope. It sat, huge and pointless, in my bottom drawer. It had been rewritten so many times, but it was never quite right. 

Astonishingly, she had not forgotten about it. She had been talking of it to complete strangers. Incredulous and invigorated, I got it out and dusted it down and had a look at it. 

Usually, when this happens, the book feels old and stale. It had its moment, and it missed it. This one, however, still hummed and thrummed with life. I could see the places and see the characters and see the slightly eccentric world I had created. I fell in love with it, all over again. As I worked it and worked it, I felt hope rise in me. When I got to the last chapter, I made myself cry. 

Well, I thought, if it makes me cry, then it might make the Dear Reader cry too. 

For four days after finishing this latest edit, I sat with my bad critics, my voices of fear, the gremlins in my head. They had a tremendous party. They told me that it would be the same old, same old. It would be the burst of hope, followed by the crash of disappointment. The complete strangers would have met another agent, with a more thrilling manuscript. The market would shift, yet again. The manuscript would be sent back. My heart would break. The window of Waterstone’s would seem like a bitter dream. 

Don’t expose yourself to that, said the gremlins, shrieking with drunken laughter. Do you really want to fail, for the hundredth time? Run back to your comfort zone, and stay there, with a nice bottle of gin.

Finally, I summoned the Fuck It voices. I love these voices. They really don’t give a stuff. They say, ‘Fuck it, if you don’t try, you’ll never know.’ They say, ‘Sod the world, it’s your book, and it’s beautiful, and you love it, so send it.’ 

So, half an hour ago, I dug myself out of my hole, put my Fuck It hat on, and pressed send. 

Off it has flown, my great big book, into the open spaces where critical eyes may gaze upon it. It’s galloping now, over the prairies, across the Steppes, and who knows where it may find itself? 

And what if the worst comes to the worst? What if the computer says No? Well, I can still press the miracle button and some lovely reader in Albuquerque will be my very own Waterstone’s window. 

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

The Gift of Helpless Laughter.




One of the oldest and dearest friends rang this morning. She is the Indispensable Friend. There are a very few that I absolutely could not do without and she is one of them.

We talked about many things. Then we recalled one of the more absurd stories in our past. She had met a tremendously dull, slightly creepy European aristocrat. He was one of those ones whose family takes up about six pages in the Almanac De Gotha. He almost instantly proposed. (We were in our twenties, and we would do anything in those days, but this was quite weird, even for us.) The Almanac De Gotha is not her book, and he was not her person, so she politely said no.

A while later, she was having lunch with a tremendous old gentleman who really did adore the Almanac De Gotha and dreamed of having forty-seven quarterings. I never quite worked out what quarterings were, something to do with very grand coats of arms, but this gent knew all about them and loved them. 

My friend told the story of the creepy aristo and the proposal. The old gent sat bolt upright. In our memory, he banged his fist on the table. ‘You must marry him at once!’ he cried, as if refusing such an offer meant the end of the world as we know it.

We laughed a lot as we remembered this. My friend said, ‘Just imagine if I had married him. My poor children would have spent the rest of their lives looking for their chins.’

This is not funny on paper. In life, it was hysterical. The thought of those poor chinless half-Euros tickled us until we could hardly speak. We took the joke and ran with it. We went through every single lost item scenario and applied it to the search for a chin. ‘I know I had it somewhere,’ we stuttered. ‘Now, what did I come in here for?’ we said, imagining that moment when you walk into a room and you can’t remember what you were looking for. Oh, yes: chins. 

See? It’s just not funny. But it was so funny to us that we wept with laughter. And I came inside after my walk in the woods and thought: write that down. I want to write it down because my memory is shot and I won’t remember it in five minutes, let alone in five months. I want to write it down because that kind of helpless laughter at a not funny joke is the absolute crest and peak of perfect friendship. 

I often vaguely take it for granted, thinking that everyone has it with everyone. But they don’t. It’s rare and precious. It’s that melding of minds, that finishing of each other’s sentences, that starting to laugh before the line is half-uttered. It’s the thing that can pull me out of the doldrums, give me sunshine on a rainy day, allow me to survive the Brexit madness. Whenever things seem too mad and bad, I can pick up that telephone and hear that voice and the world steadies on its axis.

That’s a gift. It’s the gift of laughter and joy and complete understanding. I write it down because I want to put it in the box where the cherished things live. On a dark day, when I can’t find the light, I can come back to this and read and smile and be reminded.

Friday, 1 February 2019

The Art of Photography



I absolutely love taking photographs. I feel a bit naked and slightly panicky if I go somewhere without a camera, in the same way that I feel profoundly uncomfortable if I go out and find I’ve left my notebook behind. (This is why I have unfeasibly big handbags, the kind of thing that would make Lady Bracknell have kittens.) But I can’t, hard as I try, learn how to master the art of photography.

I really have tried. I have asked kind and brilliant friends. The amazing Fay Vincent told me some gloriously clever things. Generous people write long essays on Photography for Beginners on the internet. And yet none of it goes in. 

I can’t even understand the Rule of Thirds. This is possibly the most basic rule of photography. It’s the visual equivalent of the simple declarative sentence. I know the simple declarative sentence like I know how to breathe. I’ve been learning it since I wrote my first novel at the age of fourteen. It is my comrade in arms and my old friend. 

I sometimes say, slightly fancifully, that Churchill won the war with simple declarative sentences. This of course is not quite true. But he did rally a desperate nation with them, and gave battered, bewildered Britons the gift of hope. 

‘We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.’ 

There is nothing more simple or more declarative than that. 

There is not a single word that you have to look up in the dictionary. This is language a child of eight could use with confidence and delight. Yet those lines thump into the heart with the power and accuracy of an arrow shot from an archer’s bow. 

But I can’t get the Rule of Thirds. What third? Where? And how? 

The moment the language of photography gets at all technical, which it does very quickly, my brain becomes befuddled and mildly resentful. It’s like string theory to me. I have a friend who does string theory, and for him, it’s like reading Enid Blyton. It’s so obvious and wonderful and true. He’s a musician as well, and he thinks of physics like music. To him, the universe vibrates with music, as if the vast spaces of the cosmos are playing Mozart sonatas. Imagine that. I hardly can.

So, I’ve decided to stop torturing myself. The language of light and composition is not a language I shall ever speak, just as I shall never speak Mandarin. I shall go on snapping, in my amateurish way, for sheer pleasure. I look and squint and try to find something interesting. I hunt for beauty as a truffle hound hunts for truffles. Sometimes, I find it. Sometimes, I get lucky. There is no skill in my pictures, but there is an awful lot of love. And that gets me far enough. 

But I do take my hat off to those people who do it properly. It is a great art, and a science too. Behind the charming ease of the finished product is years of knowledge and learning and practice. When I see a great photograph now, I don’t take it for granted. I know what it takes to achieve that kind of consistent greatness. I have scratched around the edges, and I see the devotion and the conviction and the hard work that is required. Someone has done something marvellous, and respect is due. 

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