Sunday, 17 September 2017

Home alone parents: the empty nest

Boys you are men
And I know that
But when I get back
From dropping you off at university
You are standing up in your cot
Still needing me.

It’s that weekend again. The one when cars are loaded up, pets are petted one final time and young people are driven to cheaply built student halls to start a life without you.

It’s what you want for them, but how did it come round so fast?

When we dropped our older son off, I was bright and cheery, in brittle denial. Then I saw a Dad hugging his daughter and I was suddenly, inexplicably, in pieces.

‘Are you going?’ he said as we got up to leave. And we did, knowing his new life wouldn’t start until we had gone.

The next morning, a text arrived. He’d gone to find his new flatmates. They were brilliant. He loved it there. They’d all been up till 3am.

It’s a whole new challenge when the last one leaves. After we dropped off our younger son, I had troubling dreams. Time had slipped from its moorings: he was adolescent one moment, then morphed into an infant before my eyes.

I didn’t know what he was any more – or what was expected of me.

Eventually I recognised the feeling for what it was: a struggle to adjust – with a side-order of grief. We had been a family together for twenty years. What were the home-alone parents meant to do now?

I wrote an article about the experience for Juno magazine, and with it the poem above. I dug them out today and  they both still make me cry. That’s terrible isn’t it, like laughing at your own jokes?

If it’s you packing the car up this weekend, the poem is for you, as are these snippets that I hope will be helpful.

The way through it, I found, was to ditch the denial and let myself feel whatever I was feeling – the waves of sadness, but also the sense that, despite a full life and fulfilling job, I didn't know what I was for any more. 

If you can, avoid dumping your emotion on the ones who have departed – they need to spread their wings. This doesn’t mean pretending you’re not sad they’ve gone – but it does mean not expecting them to fix you.

On the plus side, the moment of upheaval can motivate you to make positive changes. Years of catering for the needs of others can prevent you from wondering what you want for yourselves.

Your child is embarking on a time of adventure and opportunity. You might find this makes you wistful. You have come out of the cocoon you formed with your family – and the world is still out there waiting.

I hope you’ll find a new and rewarding place in it, once you’ve got over the trauma of the university run.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Jane Austen beats me at Twitter

All authors these days must be beacons of self-promotion – but on the day that Jane Austen’s appeared on the £10 note, I made a haunting discovery. The original creaky door writer, who was famously loathe to admit to her writing habit, is more active on Twitter than I am!

And not only was she a reluctant self-publicist – she also died 200 years ago.

On Radio Five Live Breakfast this morning, Rachel Burden said that Austen would have been excellent at Twitter. George Riley, who doubted it, tried fitting her most famous quotes into 140 characters and found them wonderfully tweetable.

This spoke to me, as an editor, of the joys of brevity – there are very few raw creative sentences that wouldn’t work better shorter.

I Googled ‘Jane Austen, Twitter’ and was impressed by how much the author tweets from beyond the grave – this is just one of her many accounts.

If even dead authors are this active on social media, I am going to have to up my game in the run-up to publication of Unspeakable Things which (did I mention?) is coming soon.

Please tweet all your followers, living and dead. Please have them retweet, reblog, share and generally e-disseminate this humble post.

And a huge hurrah to all those who campaigned to have Jane Austen on a banknote. Let’s not forget that for championing the cause, MP Stella Creasey became the target of misogynist social media trolls and was threatened with rape (see Guardian article)

Austen probably never dreamed she would end up on a banknote, but she did dare to suggest that women should be educated in more than pretty accomplishments designed to attract husbands. Go, Jane! Go viral.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Brain tumour? Stroke? Or stress??

As we drove home from Wales one Saturday a few weeks ago, a stiffness crept up my neck and settled into a sick ache at the back of my head, which held me in its grip for days.

Courtesy of Shutterstock

When I got up on Monday morning, great swirls of black floated across my field of vision, like globules of ink dropped into water. They were totally unlike the vague ‘floaters’ we all see and ignore. They moved slowly from left to right, as thick, black and undeniable as hieroglyphics spelling out a message of alarm.

When professionals asked later whether they were in one or both eyes, I could only answer, ‘It looked as though they were actually there.’

A few moments later, as I stared into the mirror, they faded to nothing. They appeared again later in the morning, much fainter this time.

I do not worry about my health or imagine that every symptom is something deadly. I was worried about this.

The receptionist at our surgery asked what the problem was.

‘An alarming visual disturbance,’ I said.

I have never had a migraine and don’t suffer from headaches, so for me, the word ‘alarming’ was key. She didn’t seem to hear it. She booked me in to see a nurse practitioner.

By the time I reached the surgery, I had reassured myself that this was probably a virus, or a late onset migraine. The nurse practitioner did not agree. She wanted to send me for an MRI scan and I needed to get a full sight test first. The occipital headache and the visual disturbance could be signs of ‘something neurological’ causing pressure at the back of my head.

‘But I’m going on holiday on Thursday. Am I OK to fly?’ I asked.

She looked uncertain, but then urged me to book a sight test for my return. ‘Relax and enjoy your holiday,’ she said.

This seemed a vain hope when she recommended going straight to the nearest hospital if my symptoms returned.

Later my mind was swamped with questions I hadn’t asked and advice I hadn’t taken in. I rang and asked to speak to a doctor.

I went to a friend’s house but couldn’t focus on anything. At last the doctor rang. After taking all the details, he said it sounded like an ‘anomalous neurological event’. I rather liked the word, ‘anomalous’, which I interpreted as ‘random, benign, irrelevant and never-to-return.’ He advised getting a full sight test that day, to rule out a serious eye condition or anything causing pressure behind my eyes.

As I say, I don’t jump to dire conclusions when it comes to my health, but I asked him to spell out what we were hoping to rule out. I had correctly guessed ‘brain tumour’, though I hadn’t suspected ‘minor stroke’ because my blood pressure is the envy of anyone who tests it. There was no space in my head to worry about the awful eye conditions that were also candidates.

Specsavers Tunbridge Wells were reassuring, kind and thorough. They fitted me in that afternoon, despite being swamped, and over an anxious three hours, every test was done. There was nothing wrong with my eyes.

We flew of the Montenegro and the recurrences of floating swirls faded into the usual kind that I could happily ignore. The sick headache was eased away by sunshine, sea swims, sightseeing and relaxation.

Relaxation, Montenegro style

Stressed? Me?

The doctor’s latest pronouncement is that this was most likely an anomalous neurological event caused by stress. I am, of course, massively grateful to be pronounced healthy. But like everyone accused of suffering from stress, I was initially reluctant to accept this. I immediately thought of many people who have much more right to be stressed than me.

Jon and I pondered the possible causes.

  • The partial collapse of my parents’ house.
  • My sister’s husband going through a major operation.
  • All my freelance work arriving at once, just as I was going on holiday, and festering, undone, at the back of my head.
  • The decision to self-publish Unspeakable Things, and the first steps towards making it happen.

I have to admit, the final cause is the most likely. The ‘To Do’ list for the self-publisher is long and troubling – with items such as, ‘Become a social media sensation’ to contend with.

Two Titans are battling it out in my head: the lifelong drive to be a published writer and the temptation to give up as usual and have a quiet life in obscurity. The ambition and the self-saboteur are both fierce and terrifying.

So the battle is on. The Titans are roaring. It’s no wonder I’ve been having headaches. But you never get the success you dream of if you don’t risk the failure you fear. I won’t let black swirly things stand in my way.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Brits Abroad

Montenegro. Beautiful, but occasionally troubling if you are British.

It’s tough being a Brit abroad. Rules we hold dear are flouted in every other part of the world. Our British upbringing makes society function at home, but leaves us floundering and furious abroad.

And we can’t SAY anything, because we’re too polite. We hold onto our rage and vent it later in a strongly worded whinge.

Don’t mention the smell

I used to work in a dog-friendly office. One day a terrible smell engulfed our desks. We endured it for half an hour, afraid to mention it in case it exposed someone’s secret shame. We did this right up until someone discovered a dog turd on the carpet.

‘Oh thank God!’ we all said. ‘I was starting to feel ill, but I didn’t like to say…’

Inflatable anxiety

It quite clearly says..!

Day one at our resort in Montenegro and a grandma arrived at the pool with small children and an inflatable pizza slice. I stiffened. A notice quite clearly stated that inflatables were not allowed. No one said anything for a while. Then a shocked British child whispered to his Dad.

‘I know!’ he said. ‘Inflatables are not allowed!’

I knew that, like me, he wouldn’t be able to relax until the rule-breaking floater had been removed. It should not have mattered to me. I was not using the pool. It’s just a British obsession with fairness that torments me. If others are refraining from floating pizza fun, how can this be allowed?

Queue decency outraged

It got worse. We went on a boat trip to a blue cave, and then a gorgeous beach. As the time approached for the boat to pick us up, my family formed the front of an orderly queue on the quayside. I twitched with nerves as others ambled in front of us, and fought down horror as the boat arrived and they all surged to the gangway ahead of us.

The scene of the outrage.

As I reached the front, a boatman’s arm came down across the entrance. The boat was full.

I stared at the people already on the boat. Did they know they were terrible people, that civilization itself was in danger of collapse?

‘Mate?!’ said my older son. He was born abroad but brought up by Brits.

The boatman shrugged. ‘Another boat is coming.’

‘Oh yeah,’ said my younger son, who is familiar with this part of the world. ‘Queuing is literally not a thing. You’ve got to go for it.’

Right, I thought. At least I’m at the head of the queue this time. I mean, the boatman’s arm came down in front of me. That makes me first, right?

But as the second boat approached, the queue turned into a human swarm in which numerical order –  moral order! – was abandoned. I did my best to push with the best of them this time, but somehow my British DNA would not allow it. I stepped on board last.

Perhaps driven by shame, someone shunted up to let me sit down. Only my sunglasses saved the rabble from a glare that told of the depths of degradation to which these people had sunk.

At least I had retained the moral high ground. Either that, or I was really rubbish at this. I hope I am never involved in the scrabble for a lifeboat.

As we sailed back in a golden sunset, I realised that there was no aggression or malice in my fellow passengers’ behaviour. I had seen civilization give way to savagery. They had just got on a boat.

British babies, playing together, are taught to take turns. If they don’t, they are met with outrage, as if they had thrown the contents of their nappy in someone’s face. That’s why it is so hard to abandon this rule in later life.

Brit’s revenge

A small comfort to us Brits abroad is the chance for a good moan. I have always loved discovering other cultures, but I am not above snottiness when it comes to tea. As I sipped yet another inadequate brew in Montenegro, I burst out,

‘I know now why foreigners don’t put milk in their tea. It’s because their milk’s disgusting.’

Best tantrum ever

We have a British family to thank for one of most entertaining tantrums I have ever seen.

One evening a small boy trailed along a beachside strip of restaurants, fairground rides, bars and entertainments. He was wailing,

‘LET me! You’ve got to LET me! Not tomorrow! Now! You’ve got to let me NOW!’

His bafflement and grief hung on the balmy air. His parents walked ahead in stoical silence – perhaps defeated, perhaps just too polite to say anything.

The moment led to a holiday catchphrase. ‘You’ve got to LET me!’ we moaned at each other whenever the need arose.

Friday, 21 July 2017

We Are Not Alone

For a long time, I thought I was a sad lonely freak.

Surely no one else had such a burning ambition to be a writer, yet had achieved a gaping zero in terms of publication? Throughout my life, whenever the urge to be a novelist has resurfaced, I’ve felt a crushing panic that I still don’t have a paperback with my name on it.

I left full-time work and set about writing with new commitment. I had a few articles published and wrote a commissioned book on the history of a school. My novel, Unspeakable Things, went to an excellent literary consultant. I could tell it was getting better and better. I was growing as a writer.

From agents, though, a deafening silence (cue tumbleweed shot) or ‘I am not sufficiently excited about the work…’

Then I met my neighbour, Sylvia. We discovered we are both editors, and both working on novels. I told her I was sending off to agents and not hearing back.

 ‘No, you won’t,’ she said, sagely.

I was intrigued. My experience wasn’t unique, then?

Syliva knows a lot of writers. She began a Writing Group, and I joined – something I had spent many years avoiding, through fear of… I’m not sure now. Crushing criticism? Pretentiousness?

The small group of writers who met for a convivial meal all seemed to have good projects underway. They clearly knew what they were talking about. I assumed they had all had work published.

They hadn’t. There are more of us. I may be sad and a freak, but I’m definitely not alone.

I have worked in publishing for over 30 years. I know that some works don’t reach a standard suitable for publication. I was convinced that if I didn’t find an agent, it meant my novel wasn’t good enough.

Gradually, I have changed my mind. I began to hear about self-publishers who write well, sell well and enjoy the experience.

I was not enjoying the wilderness where agents fear to tread. 

Traditional publishing is increasingly risk-averse. You have to be a dead cert for a number of sales for them to take the risk. That’s what ‘not sufficiently excited’ means.

Sad lonely freaks unite and fight!

Sylvia and I have started an imprint, Holden Park Books. We review one another’s work, having consulted the professionals earlier in the process. Sylvia is very dynamic and has published a Kindle version of her novel, The Jacaranda Letters. I have read it, and it’s excellent. The paperback will be out soon.

With Unspeakable Things in the self-publishing pipeline, I am writing a second novel, The Year of the Ghost, about a boy who is being haunted on the annual family holiday to Wales.

My dream of clasping that paperback is still very much alive, but as the dance teacher said to the students in leg-warmers and leotards, ‘Fame costs, and right here is where you start paying!’

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Advice for Agent Hunters

If you're looking for a literary agent, vague, poorly targeted submissions can waste you precious time and lead to soul-destroying rejections. You can of course trawl through the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, but these days we are all more geared up for online searches, so the AgentHunter website ( is the perfect solution.

They list every agent and agency in the UK for fiction, non-fiction and children’s writing and give quick, well-informed overviews. They also feature useful biographies of agents and specify their all-important literary preferences. For many, you get a further insight from a detailed interview.
You begin your search by specifying genre (e.g. women’s, crime, literary fiction, thriller etc.), and then further refine it, for instance by typing in key words that characterise your work, such as family drama, suspense mystery, dark psychological thriller. You can filter agents according to the size of the agency, how open they are to taking on new clients, how long they have been in the business and how active they are on the festival scene and social media.

You then get a list of suitable agents that you can save – and off you go on your round of submissions. You can later start new searches by changing some of the criteria.

The site was perfect for me, especially when I showed the submission material I had been sending to agents for my psychological thriller Unspeakable Things to my writing group. To my great surprise, the group were unanimous in the view that the novel isn’t a psychological thriller at all. We settled on the descriptions ‘dark family suspense mystery’ instead. With AgentHunter, I was able to remove the description ‘psychological thriller’ and type in the new key words. This led to a shorter but hopefully more relevant list of potentially interested agents.

AgentHunter have a variety of subscription options: £5 gets you access to the site for a month, £18 gets you 12 months and for £27 you also get a free cover letter and synopsis review (which can be expensive if you go to a literary consultancy). The platinum subscription, for £195, gives you 12 months plus a free query letter and synopsis review and a professional editor’s review of your opening 5,000 words, with detailed, constructive advice.

Anything that helps us writers to refine our work or access professional help can cost a fortune, but AgentHunter seems to be the exception, and is therefore well worth a go if you are ready to send your work out and want to go down the agent route. Good luck!