Sunday, 27 July 2014

My mother was worried to death, poor soul

So many days, so many words, and a backlog of poems patchworked together from them, so here are a few to share. You may wonder at some of the words that reach me, but I can tell you that people I work with say very strange things. Often. In some poems, you will hear echoes of news stories, old or new; one is haunted by a first-hand account of a ship being torpedoed, others ring with tabloid headlines that beggar belief, still more speak of scandals, personal or national: TV personalities disgraced; civilian areas packed with children, bombed. Books I am working on provide snippets either ridiculous or sublime. Words come with ideas that are silly, funny, dark or light, and a patchwork pattern emerges.

Ship fired on by the Bismark; image courtesy of

My mother was worried to death, poor soul

My mother was worried to death, poor soul
It was worse for her.
I was the baby of the family
With sisters who mothered me.
War felt like an adventure;
Almost a game.
When the Bismark fired, a shell
Missed Albert by only feet.
The sea was black with oil, three inches thick
If you took a mouthful of it, you would die.
All that went through my mind
Was the need to survive.
People were blasted, burnt, and shell-shocked,
There were so many.
It was everyone for themselves by then
You did what you could.
Thoughtlessness, a difference of opinion
An unintended hurt.
When these are ignored, a small
But bitter root can form.

Palestinian teenager killed
In a suspected revenge attack.
Three Israeli youths
Were buried on Tuesday -
An  emotive day.
The body was found in a forest in Givat Shaul.
The uncle said it was tragic beyond belief,
But the path of retaliation
Was not the answer.
By this they will know you are my disciples
If you love one another.
Live at peace with everyone, and of course
Be holy.

The room I laid him down in as a baby

Krakow, Bratislavia, Amsterdam, Berlin,
Sam, on the brink of all these places
Says a tired goodbye
In the room I laid him down in as a baby.
As I walk across the Ridgeway, past the fair
A warm gush of sadness breaks my stride.
Endure hardship as discipline;
God is treating you as sons.
Troglodytes troglodytes, the Eurasian wren
Glimpsed flittling, mouse-like, through the undergrowth
Or in the shrubs in my garden, is always exciting.
Use raw sienna, burnt umber,
Cadmium yellow and Mars black.
Add the eye highlight with the rigger and mix E.

Tyto albo, the barn owl, hunting over the long grass.
Is thought of as a creature of the night.
Vanellus vanellus, the Northern lapwing
Becomes more vocal at this time of year.

Well, it’s down to the last eight teams
Argentina, Belgium, Holland, Costa Rica,
Germany, France, Colombia, Brazil
And a couple of warehouse battles ahead.
Keep it clean, gents, and no biting allowed!

Place a tiny spot of opaque white
Aiming towards the source of light
This highlighted crescent shape
Suggests the curve of the eye.
Esau could bring about no change of mind
Though he sought the blessing with tears.

Car crashes, domestic violence, rape, drugs and sharks

I just felt she sucked all my energy
After the week I had had.
Colouring is creative, nostalgic
And a great cure for stress.
Recommended in news are:
Car crashes, domestic violence,
Rape, drugs and sharks.

Let us throw off everything that hinders us
And run the race marked out.
The athlete did not have a mental illness
At the time his girlfriend was shot.
The hardest thing about washi tape
Is choosing just one or two rolls.

He was known for his joviality
And easygoing manner
And was a fixture on British TV
For 50 years. When they arrested him,
Twitter lit up with messages of surprise.
These books are perfect for marker pens,
Crayons or paints.

All dead, apart from the tortoise

Dead dog, dead pig, dead rabbit -
Oh, the tortoise is alive.
Nuisance neighbour attacked man with a shovel
And made peacock noises to annoy another.

For the druid, the oak was the tree of life
In the Taoist tradition, it is a peach.
Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots
Was imprisoned for twenty years.

A poltergeist, suspected of wrecking the house
Turned out to be a woman on a meth rampage.
All day she wrought with her Nydill
Till very payn made hir to give over.

The bride would squash a pomegranate underfoot
To be sure of having children.
The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
I think what we’re saying is,
We are prepared to wait.

I will miss you all terribly

I will miss you all terribly, but will keep in touch.
It was the stupid doll’s face fabric; the stretchy one.
I’m so sorry, as I hate to let you down.
Continue working the stitches across the row.

She was staring and not moving
On a path in the woods.
I just wanted to pass on
Some hope for the future.
Men will tell you, ‘There he is!’
Or ‘Here he is!’
Do not go running after them.

It’s about doll’s faces. I came in to the kitchen all excited.
If it is good news for all and forever,
It is good news for today.
It’s making it better, what I’m doing
But I don’t know what I’m doing.
So how will you know how to do it again?

This week I'm determined to feel less desperate

This week I’m determined to feel less desperate.
I write, and go to work, and weave the two.
I got engrossed today and left the house much later.
The wailing reached a crescendo
And abruptly stopped.

Two people have phoned for technical support
And it’s not even ten past nine!
To avoid releasing a turkey
You might want to add a chapter on this.

The next design job I have for you is this:
Sort out the nipples.
I am trying to devote more time to thinking ahead.

If you’re dealing with the outside world
We’re saying November.
We have this hope as an anchor for the soul.

You look like a chavvy I was in prison with
I thought you was him.
Paint the right-hand side of the cliff with raw sienna
And blend it in.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Why is your story going to grab people? A nugget of query letter gold.

How do we prove that our story has wide appeal, that there’s a market out there just waiting to find it? A query letter to agents or publishers needs to show that it taps into some widespread impulse in society – a desire or a fear that drives people, and that they’ll respond to in our story.

This week I discovered a nugget of query letter gold in an article about the hit series, Long Lost Family:

Courtesy of

 If you haven’t seen Long Lost Family, do watch it, but not without a large box of tissues. It features mothers who gave up a child for adoption, often due to the social mores of another era, and who are now searching for that child years later. Also featured are adoptees searching for a birth parent. In all cases, the trail has gone cold, so that ITV’s adoption and tracing experts are the last desperate hope.

My novel Unspeakable Things is about Sarah, whose mother died when she was four, and who has been told nothing about her. Pregnant herself, she moves back the abandoned family home and becomes obsessed with a quest for answers, for which she depends entirely on her long-lost uncle.

Here in a nutshell is the story:
‘Pregnant editor, Sarah, is told that her dead mother suffered hereditary madness after childbirth, and tried to kill her, but is her uncle’s story true? Sarah must discover the family’s dark secret before her baby is born.’

I wanted to show that the story taps into a deep-seated need to know where we come from, so I  researched how many adoptees begin a search for their birth parents when they themselves are expecting a child. Unfortunately, adoption statistics are really hard to come by, so I found myself quoting outdated statistics in a rather dry way. I needed something much more compelling.

Imagine my delight when Twitter led me to an online Telegraph article about Long Lost Family, which last year had an audience of 5.2 million (get that, query letter readers – a huge potential market!) In it, Nicky Campbell, one of the programme’s presenters, himself adopted at birth, summarises its appeal:

‘We’re talking about the most basic-to-life things: attachment, identity, belonging and love. It’s all the stuff that makes the world go round. I think that’s why it resonates with people. They see echoes and reflections and shades of themselves within it.’

Nicky Campbell, I have long enjoyed your shows on Radio 5, your intelligence and humour (with this week this gem: ‘You know how you sit round as a family and debate the great issues of the day, well we were doing that last night, and I’d like to put it to you now. Vinegar. Are you largely for, or against?’) Now you have described with perfect brevity what drives my heroine, and I thank you for that nugget of query letter gold.

What impulses do your stories tap into? Or what books do you love because they evoke a deep response in you – a fear, a desire, a longing for adventure, a fiercely held belief? To start the ball rolling, I wonder if the reason I loved Catch-22 so much as a teenager is because it taps into a feeling you have at that age that much of what you’re being fed as truth or duty is in fact insanity, and you’re the only sane one, trapped inside it. I’d love to hear your favourites and the reason you think they grabbed you!