Nine Years, Nine Books

9781912915057-e1557932493546I have always been a prolific reader, but I started writing fiction nine years ago. We had just moved to the UK, I had two small children and, inspired by the literary atmosphere of London, I enrolled in a BA Creative Writing at Birkbeck.

They say everyone has a book in them, but not everyone has what it takes to make a career out of writing. You need thick skin to cope with a lot of rejection, the confidence to pursue your own creative vision and the humility to accept guidance in shaping your writing. And, like any other career, it takes time to establish yourself. A lot of time.

People often ask me when my book’s getting published and I shrug and try to explain that publication is an extremely long, slow process. It’s easy to feel that I haven’t achieved much in nine years, I call myself a ‘writer’, but until I have a proper book deal, I don’t feel that I can call myself an ‘author’.

But this week I received my copies of Dragons of the Prime, an anthology of children’s dinosaur poetry edited by Richard O’Brien and published by The Emma Press. And I realised, even though I don’t have that elusive book deal just yet, I do have nine physical books on my bookshelf that I have contributed to or edited, and numerous other online publications. Nine books in nine years is not bad, really.

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The Mslexia Novel Competition

I started writing my first novel in January 2014 for the final dissertation of my BA Creative Writing at Birkbeck. As you might expect, it was a thinly-disguised autobiographical coming-of-age story set in the twilight years of apartheid South Africa and saturated with eighties nostalgia. (There had been another unfinished novel before that—a story told from the POV of four narrators living in a dystopian society that forced you to…wait for it…change your name every three years. There was a complicated excel spreadsheet just for me to remember which character was which. But the less said about that the better.) The first three chapters of this novel got me a first for my degree, so I thought it would be worth finishing. So, I finished it. By the time I had finished it, however, I’d thoroughly lost interest and was dying to start writing something else. But since I had finished it I thought it would be a waste if I didn’t at least try and get it published.

So in April 2016 I started sending the finished novel out to agents. I didn’t want to be one of these people who gave up too easily and I hoped that if I found someone who really liked my book then they would be able to talk me into liking it again. I sent it out to about thirty agents over the next six months. I got four requests for the full manuscript, but nothing further ever came of it.

I had several other novel ideas while I waited for the flood of agent offers—there was one about a cult, one about mermaids, one about eugenics. (Coming up with book concepts has never been my problem, persevering with the actual writing bit is the difficult bit.)

On 16 June 2016 I wrote in my journal:

Brother and sister live in a lighthouse. Alone.

And Ash and Ellyn walked into my head, fully formed, in a way the friends-and-family-members-with-their-names-changed never did in my first novel. I started to think about why Ash and Ellyn were in the lighthouse alone, where were their parents, what was going on the rest of the world? I let their world marinade in my mind until it began to take shape.

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I knew that this time I needed a solid plot, I didn’t want my characters just hanging around chatting—they needed to actually do something. I used a kind of pick n’ mix blend of novel planning tools from several online resources.

I made sure that I had a foundation based on the first four pillars of C.S. Lakin’s 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction. (Still don’t know what the other pillars are, I’m sure they’re good, but these four seemed a good place to start.)

I based the plot on a simplified version of Aristotle’s Three-Act Structure (‘three disasters plus an ending’) that I found in this article on The Snowflake Method.

And I did at least the first four steps of Planning a Novel in Ten Steps.

In January 2017, when I knew roughly where it was all going, I started writing. And I tried to have fun doing it. I wrote about things that I thought were interesting. Lighthouses! Secret Passageways! Sentient Robots! Fibonacci Spirals! I wrote a piece of music with two different codes embedded into it. I wrote a fairy tale with a secret coded message in it. I drew sketches of symbols and hand signals.

I thought about researching current advances in robotic technology. I considered reading all the classic robot sci-fi. I decided instead that I would just make it up. My sentient robots aren’t supposed to be a realistic reflection of technology, I told myself, they’re a metaphor for the other – strangers, immigrants, aliens. They could be whatever I wanted them to be. But, as a nod to the genre, I included Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. And I named some of my robots after my favourite sci-fi authors.

At Easter I took my kids to the Isle of Wight to visit the Needles and the lighthouse that I’d used as a basis for my setting. You can’t actually visit the lighthouse itself, but we took a boat out to look at it from the sea and climbed up to the old battery on top of the cliffs to look at it from above. I wrote Ash and Ellyn’s names on a pebble and left it on the beach. It seemed an authorly thing to do. I set another part of the book in a National Trust-owned castle I’d visited with the kids the previous summer.

When I was in a writing phase I tried to write at least 1000 words a day, I would do this for a week or so and then stop and not write anything for weeks. When I was stuck I skipped the descriptions, the actions, the punctuation, and just wrote freeform dialogue until I was back with the characters in the heart of the scene. And then I would go back and fill in all the other details.

Mid-September I decided, at the last minute, to enter the Mslexia Novel Competition. I wasn’t going to enter. Philippa Gregory was the main judge—I wasn’t convinced that dystopian YA fiction about robots would be at the top of her to-read list. The previous winners all seemed to have submitted highbrow literary fiction. And technically my book wasn’t finished. I was about halfway through. But I figured it would take them ages to judge the first stage anyway, so I sent it off. A few weeks later I got an email saying that I had been longlisted and needed to post a hardcopy of the final manuscript in the next two weeks.

What followed was a marathon writing spree. It was half-term holidays, of course, so the kids were at home. But it’s amazing what a deadline and some momentum will do. I wrote 30,000 words in two weeks and finished the book with a day or two to spare for editing. I printed it, posted it off and received confirmation that it had arrived bang on deadline day. In December I heard, to my surprise, that I’d been shortlisted. January took longer than January has ever taken in the history of the world. Then, on Wednesday the 23rd of January I was writing my CV (and reflecting that writing a novel is easy compared with writing a CV) when I received a phone call from the Editor of Mslexia, Debbie Taylor, telling me I had won the Mslexia Novel Competition.

Forty-Five Square: Poetry

These poems were originally published in Forty-Five Square: Poetry (Birkbeck – June 2014).

 

Essaouira

 

We took a grande taxi from Casa to the white city—
four hours through scrubby hillscape, past goats
and cryptic signposts to the enclosing walls.

A trail of trucks obstructed the square each bearing
the legend Kingdom of Heaven in stark Helvetica,
we unloaded our bags in this other realm.

The medina was manned by gesturing djellabas,
corridors cast with kilims and ceramics, endless cats—
the odour of urine haggling with earthy cumin.
We, exposed westerners, fought our way through
the masses, armed with defensive palms and bad French,
seeking high-ground—a place to uncover our heads.

The riad was court-yarded, mosaicked, set with birds,
and bougainvillea, for us to wear cerise, draw and drink
mint tea poured from an improbable height.

I walked the ramparts, trod the citadel and was moved,
stirred by the steadfast hulk of history and—below the walls,
surging and rolling—the same endless sea.

I bought a pair of babouches in tooled maroon and wore them
to seem less of a tourist, but back home the stench was too much—
I disposed of them and framed the photos instead.

 

Portrait of a Moroccan Traveller

 

I am the type of person who travels to Marrakech—
the Rose of the Desert—with artists and those who
discern the rhythm of her dance through history.

I am the type of person who visits art galleries,
not just postcard stands, who photographs the
effect of stippled light in the souks.

I am the type of person who can spell Marrakech,
I have actually read Hideous Kinky and I don’t
misquote Casablanca, like everyone does.

I am the type of person who sits at a table on the square
at night, charmed by a dazzling bouquet of lights diffused
in the steam rising from a thousand dishes, holding court
in Place Jemaa El-Fna in the sickle-shadow of Koutoubia,
consuming a lamb tagine with relish, though it tastes like goat.

I am the type of person who turns to smile
as a stranger photographs me.

(In this place, I am the type of person
who looks like they could be someone famous.)

 

Sagrada Família

 

There it was—looming
like a molten taper over the financial district.
Grasping for the sky, green and scaffolded—
Gaudi’s temple.

The façade wept.
I entered—crept under concrete boughs
then—was swept along on a tide of undulating walls
beneath mushroomed columns.
I climbed, inspired—the railings writhed,
staircases grew wild,
strange fruits bloomed in purples and corals,
cacti sprouted from pinnacles.
The windows—infused with saturated hues—
chorused in seraphic harmony.
Their glory reflected on my face—
I was revived,

but they just stood.
Petrified figures with panelled faces,
carved and cast,
the dead watching over the living.
Christ stretched out a squared-off hand and turned
a blunted face to the city.

Unfinished.
A Babel tower,
never quite achieving heaven.

 

What’s in a Name?

 

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet?
Some assume a nom de plume will alter ego
as magic potions or phone booths are wont to.

It’s an adhesive tag, clinging to your lapel
a prehensile digit, hooked by the crook of a little finger–
my name has a grip on me, whoever me might be.

I was given a biblical rope with which to hang myself:
a snare or noose that will forever be confused with
Rachel—at least my middle name is plain.

What is the merit of middle name? A second-choice
or passed down from ancient aunt to create new mutiny
to be wielded in parental wrath, or in school—ridiculed.

Used to be I’d give away my name in marriage—addition
is the contemporary way. It’ll be a squeeze though to fit
next generation’s quadruple-barrels on any register.

Shudder at the nomencratic cruelty of parents who
cradle their newly sprung and brand some awful appellation
into just born skin [think of Jenna Taylor, Peter Files].

Did Romney’s parents consider—one day a nation might
wonder if his given name was Mittens, did the Pitts
think what a spoonerism would do to little Shiloh?

In the moment of responsibility, think of the poor cat
you labelled Marmite and whether it does matter that
the name you’re set on means bucket in Afrikaans.

In documentation for my own named child, I penned
her initials: E.A.R. and, as they wheeled her off to insert
grommets into her glue ears, I laughed inappropriately.

At the end—for those of us so little accomplished
as not to warrant a Wikipedia page—all that’s left
is a name, cut in stone, to tell who we were.