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Monday, 30 August 2010

The song is ended but the melody lingers on

So said Irving Berlin. I'm trying to write a funeral eulogy for mum without using the phrase: 'She touched all our lives' or 'She will continue to live in all of us' (what - like herpes?) and I'm finding it very hard. How do you sum up someone's life? But what I really want to do is give an idea of her as an individual - not just 'wife of' or 'mother of'

Here's a picture of her looking serene while my sister and I (both going through a terrifying Axl Rose lookalike phase sit either side of her).

Meanwhile I've found a poem:

All Is Well

Death is nothing at all,
I have only slipped into the next room
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
Call me by my old familiar name,
Speak to me in the easy way which you always used
Put no difference in your tone,
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was,
Let it be spoken without effect, without the trace of shadow on it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It it the same as it ever was, there is unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near,
Just around the corner.
All is well.

By Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918)

Friday, 27 August 2010

Death and shit poetry

Well the funeral has been arranged for next Friday and I'm deep into arranging invitations and wondering who is going to provide a few dodgy sarnies and sausage rolls for the mourners to scoff afterwards. I've already mentioned the farcical moment when my sister and I realised we'd thrown away all mum's clothes, leaving nothing,literally nothing for her to be buried in. Apart from a swimsuit.

There have been other moments too. Like the deluge of shitty poetry we've been getting through the post. On pink swirly cards. The worst one so far has been:

We saw her fading like a flower
We could not make her stay
We tended her with love and care
Till the Lord God took her away.

'Gobshite' as dad muttered.

Nobody knows what to say. Well there's nothing you can say to make it better. The relatives and friends with brains have said that they're very sorry and left it at that. Others have come out with: 'You must be so pleased she's at peace.' Oh yeah - thrilled. And 'God wanted her in heaven.' He told you that did he? And 'Sorry I can't make it to the funeral - I have a dental appointment. You do understand don't you?' Of course. By the way - I hope the drill slips through your jaw.

I'm trying to write a tribute to mum and wondering what kind of poem to quote. Any ideas?

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Death and Paperwork

On Sunday in the middle of lunch with the in-laws I had a phone call from my mother's nursing home. 'She's very poorly with no pulse. I've called an ambulance.' I couldn't go straight away so my sister drove down and spent the night at the hospital, holding mum's hand while they tried to make her comfortable and wait for the inevitable.

The next day at 1pm she died from a stomach infection. I tore down the motorway and arrived at the ward. The curtains round her bed were closed and a nurse took my hand. 'I'm so sorry - your mother passed away ten minutes ago.' My sister was sitting next to her bed stroking her waxy limp hand. 'She wouldn't have recognised you. Her eyes were fixed and dilated all night.' I was too late. Dad had gone for a walk. He had to be doing things. I didn't blame him.

It was very quiet. My sister was red eyed and pale from her vigil. Mum was curled up on her side, one hand resting under her chin like a sleeping child. She was so thin. Still warm, but growing cooler. Skin buttery soft and waxy pale. Hands small with long fingers. A wedding ring that she said we could use oil or soap to pull off her finger. Neither of us wanted to do that. We left the ring on. One of us on either side of the bed, listening to voices, shuffling feet.

I could hear her voice. Her words in the will she made before having a hip operation. She wrote: 'Get a WRITTEN QUOTE or they will rip you off. And don't bother with an expensive casket - cardboard will be fine. If you waste money on my casket I'll come back and haunt you.'

I pulled a beef sandwich out of my bag for my sister - her favorite. She couldn't eat it. A young doctor arrived and pronounced her dead. He told us about how to get hold of the death certificate - the first in a blur of instructions about what to do next. We drove back home to find dad in the middle of a series of calls. 'No tears' he said. 'She's not in limbo anymore.'

Today in a frenzy of activity, we rang people, spoke to a funeral director and went through mum's clothes. Her engagement ring which I put on. My sister took the bracelet she wore on her wedding day. We packed up her clothes and took them to a local charity shop. We answered calls.

Then we realised we'd given all her clothes away leaving her nothing to be cremated in. The only things we hadn't given away were beach ware. Visions of mum in her coffin wearing a swimsuit floated in front of us and we began to laugh.

I haven't cried much yet. There's too much paperwork to do. I'm glad she's released from the limbo, the half life she was living. But the finality of it hasn't hit me yet.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Eat Pray Procrastinate

It's me again - not working. So this morning I was allowing myself the usual faff time before settling down to wrestle with the script that I'm growing to HATE with every fibre of my being (it's supposed to be a comedy - it's not funny - or maybe I've just been looking at it for too long - I want to strangle myself etc) and I watched the trailer of Eat Pray Love. Now I love Julia Roberts. I think she's a really good actress as well as being gorgeous in an individual way. She brings a zingy freshness to her roles. And I admire how she took time to step back and bring up her family. Yes I know it's easy to do when you have tons of money but still, I admire her for stepping back while she was at the top.

But despite all this I think I'm going to hate Eat Pray Love. Based unreasonably on the trailer:

1. I hate it when Hollywood tries to understand women.
2. The brief scene when the heroine is in Italy and gasp - eats a plate of pasta. Oh I get it. She's so outrageous - she eats carbs! Wow that's really finding yourself.
3. And cake - she eats cake! Carbtastic!
4. On her journey across an astonishingly poverty free India and Bali, while eating carbs and finding herself she meets a rough hewn man. He doesn't shave and looks like he's no stranger to garlic. And he's Javier Bardem.

The End (I bet)

I'll probably still see it though.

Monday, 16 August 2010

The Girl doesn't stop talking!

The Girl doesn’t stop talking. I really mean that. She’s six and from the moment she sidles into our bedroom in the morning and watches for the slightest eyelid flicker, to when she’s put to bed at night, she doesn’t stop talking. It’s a long stream of chatty fizzy high on life blither. What’s a wagina mummy? When you die what happens? Why is the sky? Is that lady fat or pregnant? Why should I shhh? But mummy I don’t want to go to sleep I’m not even a little bit zzzzzzzzzz . . . . .

Her chattering has become more intense recently and I think it’s because I’ve been running back and forth to see my mother, and working a lot. And in The Girl’s little group of friends at school, I’m the only mother who works.

Is that it? I asked her once if she minded that I worked and she said: But you don’t work mummy. You sit at home and write. That’s me told. But I do go into the school and take part in cookery lessons. I show up to assemblies. My involvement with the school isn’t as intense as some other parents but I am involved (she says defensively).

I’ve googled to find out what to do about a chatty child and on the US sites, the possibility of Autism and Aspergers comes up (hello medicalisation) and on the UK sites, the advice ranges from a shrug to gin and earplugs.

We all know at least one adult who suffers from verbal diarrhoea – the one whose conversation consists of a never-ending monologue of their day. If you do try to get a word in edgeways to say: Hey I’ve been diagnosed with an incurable disease, Verbal Diarrhoea will listen for 2.3 seconds until you pause for breath, and then dive back in with: Oh I know just how you feel. When I was diagnosed with flu I thought I was going to die too – I felt so bad and I was in bed didn’t eat anything but I did drink this lemon drink have you tried it very low in calories oh and it was so funny . . .

I have this theory that people who never listen and speak as though if they stop speaking they will literally stop existing, are those who were never listened to as children. Perhaps they were dismissed or half listened to. I think of this a lot with The Girl. I know I’ve been guilty of half-listening sometimes. So I’m trying to spend big lumps of time with her – just her and me. When she has a bath I sit with her, cutting my toenails. Gross I know but bless her she doesn’t mind. Then we have a girlie pedicure which consists of me wincing while she chooses toenail polish in Slaaaag Red and then manages to paint her entire foot and the carpet in it. And I remind her about not interrupting and praise her when she doesn’t interrupt.

Any ideas?

Friday, 13 August 2010

Confession Time

Walking past Space NK yesterday (honestly even the name hints at pretentious – overpriced ness. Its full name is Space NK Apothecary. Apothecary! Like a combination of Witchcraft and early Harry Potter.) Still it’s no good me scorning since I invariably go in and admire the insanely overpriced produce. I’ve managed to resist for a long time. But yesterday I was feeling a bit frizzy and lumpen.

Any girls out there with wavy hair that goes all foamy in damp weather will know what I mean. We are forever in search of the Holy Grail - the product to calm the frizz into a tumble of luscious curls and we will pay practically anything to get it.

So Space NK had this little corner devoted to a New Product by ‘Living Proof’ which according to the saleslady was ‘flying off the shelves’ and salespeople never lie do they? So basically I paid £18 for a 4oz bottle of leave in conditioner. I’m an idiot.

Still it’s better than last time when buoyed up by a drunken lunch I bought a ‘lip plumper’ (I’m blushing as I type this) the price of which I’m not going to tell you because I’m so embarrassed. It made my lips sting like a bastard. It didn't make them plumper just really sore and scabby. I might as well have squashed an angry wasp over my mouth. At least it would have been cheaper.

Confession number two. I started smoking again. Yesterday I caught myself squashing out a cigarette then eating a nectarine. As though the toxins from the fag would be somehow nullified by eating a piece of fruit. But I am going to give up. I’ll be a frizzy haired clean lunged grumpy moo. Do you still fancy me? Thought not.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Manuscript evaluation - is it worth it?

I’ve had a few emails recently from writers who have finished a book or script and want their baby professionally evaluated before sending it into the shark infested waters of publishing. And is it worth it?

One of the crappy things about sending out a manuscript is that even if it’s almost there and needs just a bit of work, editors don’t have time to respond individually, so the ‘almost there’ books tend to get the same short shrift as the ‘never in a million years’ books i.e. a form rejection. If you’re lucky, you might get a hand scribbled note on the rejection letter suggesting you send it somewhere else or offering a bit of advice. Don’t be offended by this – if the editor has taken the time to write a few words of encouragement it’s good. It’s hopeful.

But there you are with you rejection letter, feeling hurt, rejected, pissed off. Most importantly, not knowing why. Is it that the character you fell in love with may not be as loveable as you think? Bits of plot may not make enough sense? Overwriting? As a writer you are often so close to your work you can’t see the wood for the trees. It’s like having your nose pressed so close to the glass of the shop that everything is blurred and you can’t see the layout, the structure, the overall impression. This is where a good manuscript evaluation service can help – if you’re prepared to listen.

It’s my view that all good writers doubt their work. I don’t mean that they go around in a fug of despair, but criticism is taken on the chin and recognised for what it is; a tool to improve the writing.

I’ve been teaching creative writing for a couple of years and in every group I teach there is at least one person who has clearly signed up to the course for an audience or for validation. But not to learn anything. These are the students who are making the same errors at the end of the course as they are at the beginning. And no, I’m not saying I don’t get precious and fractious about my own work but I’m (hopefully) grown up enough to realise that flattering words don’t help me to improve as a writer. These students are likely to come out with the following:

You don’t understand what I’m trying to do. Well as a writer you don’t have the luxury of sitting next to you reader and saying – this bit here – I wrote it because I wanted to show how self-destructive she gets when a relationship goes wrong. If it’s not on the page it’s not there.

Publishing is a conspiracy to keep new writers out. No it’s not. New writers get published all the time – we only hear about it though, if the advance is spectacular.

The gatekeepers of publishing are an elite bunch of snobs. A few years ago with the advent of e-books and self-publishing like Lulu, there was a feeling across the blogsphere that publishing was now fully democratised, the reader would decide what they wanted, and no longer was publication in the gnarled hands of evil publishing gatekeepers. What has actually happened is the realisation that not only are there millions of e-books, novels, poetry and other creatives, a huge amount of this is really really bad. So the gatekeepers are not snobs – they may decide what they think will sell, and yes it’s a question of taste sometime, but without them – just look at some of the dross available out there.

It’s not what you know it’s who you know. It does help to get your manuscript read. I got my first break by having a friend suggest I send my script to someone he knew at Radio 4. But had the script been utter cack, would it have been commissioned? Er . . no.

Editors in commercial publishing spoil your work. This is an odd one and often cited by the determined self-publisher. Self-publishing is a possible route, for the determined, and those who are prepared to ruthlessly edit their own work and market it and sell it, literally door to door sometimes. Not to say that it can’t be done, but I doubt if any self-published writer would choose this route over a contract with a mainstream publishing house complete with their own marketing and sales division. Some SPA’s some oddly proclaim the fear that a mainstream editor would wreck their book, so the self-published author remains more in control. That’s news to me; the relationship between writer and editor is a partnership, not a Victorian Dad standing over the writer with a big stick.

If you go to the excellent Self Publishing Review run by Jane Smith, she will review a self published book and praise it generously if it’s good. But one of the common reasons she stops reading after fifteen pages is because of the numerous spelling and grammar mistakes. It may be your book, untinkered by an editor, but it’s a book littered with errors too.

I can totally understand why unpublished authors become angry at the amount of celebrity dross being published, often with stonking advances. I read the ‘autobiography’ of a certain pop star recently which comprised mainly of photos of him looking manly and sensitive. The opening paragraph read: 'I suppose you could say that my life has been a bit mad.'

Why would people buy this stuff? Well most of it is written by ghost-writers anyway, and publishers are finally beginning to realise that the public are not that stupid and don’t really want to read a ghost-written book about Grade Z celebrity ‘lifestyles’. The top selling celeb autobiography in 2007 was Peter Kay’s and he wrote it himself, so maybe the tide is changing. I hope so. But even so, I don’t think of that as real publishing but branding.

Back to the original question. How do you find a good manuscript evaluation service? What do you look for?

Look at their track record. Have they helped authors actually get published by real publishing houses? Beware of services which are tied to e-books or self-publishing companies.

If their banner line reads: Helping you to get published – or any guarantees like that – again, beware. There are no guarantees.

If you send in a novel you should get feedback from a published novelist in your genre. They should be looking at specific elements such as structure, plot, and characterisation and offer advice and suggestions as to how you can improve it. The word is specific. No vagaries. And if with your feedback there are further exhortations to put you in touch with a freelance editor they happen to know who could really get your book published – red flag. Unscrupulous evaluation services will encourage you to keep sending your novel to be tinkered with, edited, and polished (all for a fee of course). A good one will be straight and tell you exactly why your work is not quite ready to be sent out into the market.

I’ve done some reading for The Literary Consultancy several years ago and one of my stipulations was that I wasn’t going to encourage a writer whose book was not publishable, to keep sending it back for more changes. If your work is fundamentally flawed, no amount of tinkering will turn into a publishable book. You would be better to take the advice on board and use it to write a better book.

Victoria Strauss has some fantastic advice for anyone thinking of using a freelance editor or evaluation service.