Top 5 Stupid Reasons to look down your nose at Romance

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Top 5 Stupid Reasons to look down your nose at Romance

I spent the weekend at the Romance Writers of New Zealand annual conference. And I’ve said so, head held high, to every school parent and friend who has asked how my weekend was.

IT WAS AMAZING.

This is an incredible group of writers, from beginners struggling to put the final chapters of their first novel on paper, to the multi-million-copies-sold bona fide royalty of the genre. Everyone was so welcoming and encouraging, hard-working and genuine and generous. I had a blast! And I learned so much. I’ve come away inspired and rip-roaring ready to rework a couple of old manuscripts that aren’t yet gleaming and resplendent.

So, I had a wonderful weekend. And people ask, ‘what did you get up to?’ so I tell them.

I’m sorry to say their responses have been a little hit-and-miss.

It won’t be news to anyone that Romance is a genre often disparaged, and people will give a couple of ‘good reasons’ for that. For instance…

1. Well it’s not Dickens, is it.

Alternatives include mentions of ‘trash’ and vague allusions to the quality of the writing and the depth of the story.

Here’s the thing, Dickens was the popular fiction of his day. Shakespeare was enjoyed by the illiterate as well as the intellectuals. Hundreds of years later we dub them classics but in their day they were accessible to everyone. They were cheap and common—and brilliant.

challinorYou can’t argue with the figures: romance is certainly POPULAR fiction. As to its quality, well, it varies. As in any genre, there is trash out there, sure, but there is treasure too. Rich, rewarding, well-written treasure. I’m reading The Silk Thief by Deborah Challinor and she’s a genius (and a New Zealand author).

gabaldonPerhaps you’ve come across Outlander? Diana Gabaldon has answered the elitists numerous times and done it better than I can (what with the multi-million dollar book and TV behemoth to back her up) but the quality of the story-telling in these books, and in NUMEROUS others, is right up there. It’s not just romance, I hear you say. No, it’s a melange of many genres—but romance is one of them.

2. It’s chick-porn.

The word ‘chick’. Ick. We are not baby birds.

But that’s not the worst of it. One of the main reasons that Romance is so derided throughout the literary world (and the non-literary world) is the dominance of women in the industry. Women read romance, they write it, they edit it and sell it. Women are making the big bucks and have huge influence through their stories. Of course there are men writing and reading romance but look at the marketing of Romance novels. It’s shockingly pink. It’s not subtle. That’s how marketing works.

Genres that primarily target men NEVER suffer from this belittling. There are rubbish books in all genres, but only in Romance do people assume the writing is rubbish, the story predictable. What is it that makes it perfectly acceptable, rarely even questioned, when you’re looking down your nose at a Romance novel. Is it because the main character is a woman, the writer is a woman, and probably the editor too? Because it is about women’s experience?

history

Not good enough.

Now, about the porn. The porn industry uses, abuses, and destroys women, in their fictions and too often in real life. Meanwhile, the Romance industry gives top priority to a woman’s needs, her pleasure, and her very self. Women are shown to be whole and complex human beings, not THINGS to be used. Once upon a time, sure, romance novels featured weak heroines in need of saving, but not any more. The heroines in your average Romance novel these days are the masters of their own fates. They save the day, and more often than not, save the hero.

Of course, many Romance novels include sex scenes. Not all, but often they do. Yeah. So do many thrillers. And literary fiction’s never shied from the subject. Erotica is a genre of it’s own if you want to get down to technicalities. If you take issue with any book featuring sex then hey, that’s up to you, but it’s hardly limited to Romance.

3. It’s formulaic.

I once agreed with this. I thought, ‘oh it’d be so easy to write a romance novel,’ and I was so very wrong. I’m not going to to get down and dirty with semantics; there is a formula, but it’s one you’ll find across the board. It’s a pattern almost universal in fiction, whether in novels, film, television, comics, or plays.

The formula is this:

  1. Create a character: someone interesting, who readers will empathise with, and who wants something.
  2. Depict a world in which that character operates—and has good reason for not going after the thing they want, until…
  3. Incite an event which kicks them into action—now they’re going after the thing they want. And unknowingly, they’re going after the thing they really need. But this is all seamlessly woven in.
  4. Concoct a whole lot of problems and obstacles: be careful here, make sure these are believable and logical in the world, and for the character(s), or else the whole thing will feel contrived.
  5. Show how the character responds to those problems, gets stronger and wiser… to the point when they lose everything and must face their darkest hour, their true need, their true self. Make the reader think there’s no hope, no way out. All is lost.
  6. And finally, surprise us when the character achieves what they want and what they need (happy ending) or getting what they need but not what they want (bittersweet ending) or neither (tragedy).

In many ways, a good romance is more difficult to write than many other genres because you have to intertwine the journeys of two characters. To do it well and convincingly is HARD.

What makes romance different: some kind of happy ending is guaranteed.

Oh, wait, that’s true of the vast majority of mysteries, legal dramas, thrillers, comics… hm.

As an aside, Romance writers often cross genres. Over the weekend I met people writing paranormal romance, romantic thrillers, horror, sci-fi, urban fantasy, historical, and every combination of the above. The genre is in fact incredibly diverse.

4. It’s so commercial.

They’re in it for the money. They’re sell-outs. Pen-monkey whores.

Heaven forbid an artist should have food on the table and a non-leaky roof overhead.

But it’s true, Romance does pay. Between Romance Novels and Adult colouring books, the publishing industry is keeping its head above water.

screen-shot-2015-01-19-at-13-51-33

You don’t have to like them or read them, just as I don’t have to pick up a supernatural thriller or a paranormal horror. There’s no harm in liking different types of books. That’s not the issue here.

Read what you like. But don’t hate on Romance.

In fact, the revenue the Romance genre pulls in is keeping the publishers above water. And these are the same publishers putting out the books you do read.

So, shut up and be grateful.

5. They’re easy reads.

Romance is easy to read. It’s true. These books are great fun and no doubt about it.

HOW and WHY is this an insult? Seriously! And yet, by the tone, the look, the something, I KNOW it’s meant as an insult. And I can only assume this is said by someone who doesn’t actually ENJOY reading.

booksmell

I like reading. I read because it’s fun. You don’t have to read. You’re not obliged. But many do like it.

I also like watching TV. Some days I feel like Gilmore Girls,  other days Breaking Bad. Some days I want The West Wing, others I’m all about Will and Grace.

lollipops

I loved The Goldfinch and The Luminaries, but why should that limit my enjoyment of this GENIUS Deborah Challinor book. The next title on my to-be-read-list is Letters to Love by Soraya Lane (another New Zealand writer) and the last thing I read was Sheltering Rain by Jojo Moyes.

You may call them ‘easy reads’ or ‘beach books’, but I’m confused… is reading meant to be hard? Unpleasant? A chore? Am I supposed to get to the end of the book and feel relieved that it’s over and I can put the book proudly on living room shelf and impress the neighbours. I can say I’ve read it, yes, cover to cover, and it was fascinating, really challenging and so artfully complex…

Bring on the fascinating. The challenging. The artfully complex. But a book can be all those things and enjoyable. If that sounds silly, you’re doing it wrong. A book can be deep, psychologically fraught, and still a page-turner. In fact, it probably has to be.

I don’t want to tick off books like I do errands. I want to get to the end and be gutted there isn’t more.

I want a book to make me anti-social.

Make me want to neglect my kids.

Make me think.

Make me laugh.

Make me wallow and then make me WOW.

mirren

I know, I expect a lot. But there are A LOT of good books out there. And a lot of them have love stories in them. And many of those are Romances.

So the next time someone puts on that tone, or makes that face, or says that stupid thing… I’ll probably be polite and laugh it off and pretend they’re not belittling what I’ve been working toward for five years now, because I’m a nice person.

But don’t be one of those people.


This article is also featured on the NZ Society of Authors Canterbury website.


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On being a great loser

For starters, never begin a game of Risk. No good can come of it. Fun, fun, fun, rising blood pressure, glee, despair, fury, philosophical levels of doubt about your value and place in the universe because if you were worth anything you’d surely roll something above a two!

I’ve never been great at losing. Some people are cool, calm, untouchable. Not me. When it’s board games, I’m getting better. Sometimes I still want to cry. I remember, one time, my husband and I once spent two days straight playing chess and late on the second day I won a game. I might have won two, total. It was long ago, before we had kids, and there was this great vibe about it: I’d decided I was allowed to lose, to begin with, at least, because I’d never really played before. This was learning to play chess and we kept playing until I had a fighting chance.

Losing without a fighting chance is the losing that sucks. So Risk is out because it’s a little tact and a lot of luck. Games that are a lot of luck drive me crazy. It doesn’t help that my husband is insanely lucky. No lottery winnings as yet but seriously, if a game is luck-reliant, he’s in. Lucky Luuk, we call him.

Okay, it’s just me who calls him that.

I’m much better than I used to be at losing at board games, anyway. The trick is playing lots and losing lots, I suppose. And winning often enough to not feel totally useless helps.

But boardgames are the baby pool, aren’t they. Stakes are low. Hours of your life (more or less) wasted unless you CONQUER, but no real stakes. No money, career, livelihood, DREAM on the line.

On the other hand, when I’m talking about my writing… ouch.

I have been sending out a heap of writing submissions: query letters to lit agents, to publishers, manuscripts, partials, short stories and flash fiction, poetry too, for competitions and journals. I’ve been doing this for years now, actually, and most of that time it was silence or rejection. Polite, impersonal form rejection.

But every now and then I’d get feedback. Notes on my work, not general niceties, but constructive criticism. It was a good sign. My work was worth the time and energy of saying something about it: that something being the reason it wasn’t right for whatever I’d submitted it for.

A step in the right direction, however painful.

I figured out that I wanted to get those notes before sending it out to be rejected. I needed criticism during the writing process, or rather, during the rewriting process (but that is part of the writing process, really.)

I had this AMAZING writer’s group in Paris. They gave brilliant notes. They didn’t hold back and yet none of it was cruel. It wasn’t me and my work versus the critique group; it was me and the critique group versus my work. It wasn’t personal, though my writing often was and is.

I lap up criticism. But once upon a time, it was personal, even if it came from a lovely, warm, collaborative place. I didn’t know how to separate myself and my worth, from the work and its worth.

I don’t lap up rejection, of course not, but I’m pretty good at taking the hit and getting up and getting on with more submissions or more rewrites or something else entirely.

But once upon a time it was THE END OF THE WORLD. My one almost-novel wasn’t good enough (and, in truth, it was not, and thank you lucky stars it didn’t go anywhere because embarrassing) and therefore I was not good enough. Rejecting that one manuscript was rejecting my entire body of work.

No one gets to do that anymore. No one sees my entire body of work. It’s more than a million words now and oy vey, right? That’s a lot of words.

When I get a rejection now, it’s one of MANY, rejecting one of MANY stories, poems, novels… Compared to that baby writer, a decade ago, a rejection now is a blip on the radar. It hurts, but it doesn’t take me out. I still write that day. I don’t chuck the lot. I don’t even chuck that story.

 

I’m sure different people have different processes and experiences, but for me it’s like learning patience: the only way to do it is to wait. For ages. It sucks. But you can’t learn to be patient without being impatient for, oh, hours.

Learning how to take rejection is the same: take lots of it, one way or the other, and you’ll get better. Which, I know, and I’m sorry, is NOT what anyone wants to hear, unless they’re well into years of getting rejection, and there’s the hope that it’ll start to pay off.

And one day, it won’t be rejection. It’ll be constructive criticism.

And then it might well be a few more rejections. Or years.

And one day it will be a yes.


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Launched

Category : Art , Education

The gorgeous book was gorgeously launched! The Laboratory, Lincoln’s very own brew bar, was packed to the rafters with writerly types. Good beer, good poetry, and lots of “I can’t believe how many people are here! I thought no one liked poetry!”

The place was buzzing. A real party. With TWO mayors. (A week later, I can only remember the name one of them.)

christchurch mayor at the launch

There she is, the lovely Lianne Dalziel. She said poets can say things mayors aren’t allowed to. I like her.

So the book is ‘Leaving the Red Zone’. The editors are Jo Preston and Jim Norcliffe, veritable pillars of the writing community in these parts. I’d met Jim before but Jo was new, and a total dream of an M.C. – tearing up with all the feels one moment, making dirty jokes the next. I think we might one day be best friends, basically.

There are 148 poems in this baby, from 87 different poets, and I knew that before I got to the bar. I’d had a pretty lousy day, to be honest. It started horribly early – but on theme, if nothing else – with a couple of earthquakes. And then, from dawn to dusk, I was plagued with all those awful things our brains tell us on pivotal days.

Examples:

  • I bet they took every poem. I’m not special.
  • I’m in it, therefore the standard can’t be very high.
  • I’m not a poet. I’m a novelist.
  • It’ll be a rubbish self-pub-looking pamphlet

And then I got to The Laboratory, bought a pint, found a friend, and man alive! The place was packed out. The book is gorgeous. Seriously, it’s just a nice-looking, nice-feeling book. And enormous – no pamplet. And it turns out, the editors received 10 times as many submissions as they put in the book.

me and the book

One highlight: the honorary mention of the one poem that they wanted to, but didn’t dare, publish: something about Gerry Brownlee that might have been actionable. I still wonder why that poem wasn’t read at the launch. That’d be covered by freedom of speech. Sure. Come on. Inquiring minds want to know. (Inquiring minds are never fond of Brownlee, after all.)

Sometimes

There it is, the first two stanzas of my baby. It’s official: I’m published.

What’s weirder is that I’m a poet.

So here’s the ugly truth: I’m kind of disappointed that for all the hours and hours, all the dollars and euros and pounds, all the tears and sleepless nights and long blocked-but-writing-anyway days, I’ve spent on my novels, it’s a poem I wrote on a train, en route to a writer’s group, and then reworked eighteen months later and submitted because why-the-hell-not? that finds an audience.

But it’s a start. A step in the right direction. And it’s a cool poem. Something to be proud of, regardless of its size.

I’ve been writing more poetry. Next stop, submissions. I’m not giving up on the novels, no way, they’ll get there. But there’s more than one way to do this thang. I guess this is the way I’m doing it.

And while I’m at it, I’m taking two online film courses: one on screenwriting and one on the whole film making process and all the dirty dirty logistics. Money. Time. Heaps of equipment I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO USE. OR WHAT IT’S FOR.

Meanwhile, at my theatre studies class, we’re acting. Yikes. Trying new things. Scary. Actually, the hard thing is doing this stuff without getting scared about looking like a fool. Embrace the looking-like-a-fool. And never rehearse in front of a mirror. Advice straight from Kate Winslett, right there. (Via bafta guru, a website which will make you feel so tiny and insignificant, or perhaps inspire you. Maybe.)

I feel like this post has wandered, so I’m going to grab a coffee and then do-over another poem.

leaving the red zone

‘Leaving the Red Zone’ is available at Scorpio Books or by order from Clerestory Press – clerestory@xtra.co.nz


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whelmed

It’s a lazy Sunday here, and tomorrow is 14 Juillet (known as Bastille day only outside of France, apparently). Sundays are so much nicer when Monday’s a holiday.

This is what we’ve been doing:

and a few minutes later:

Movies, music, food. Hanging out like pros.

It is summer holidays and so far so good. The weather has been lousy, and continues so today, but I got to the market, and we have friends coming around tonight. During the week, I crossed paths with friends who have kids, and we all keep each other company. I had writers’ group. Things are going okay.

And yet, I am feeling rather under-whelmed, just at the moment. I’ve been solidly working on writing for two and a half years now… and the reasonable bit of my brain knows I’m getting better, and I’ve written LOADS, but there’s a little bit of my brain, a bit that is both a) irrepressible, and b) immune to logic.

That dangerous cluster of neurons (I took science until they let me stop. I was 15. I don’t even know how to spell neurons. No squiggly red line – good) is getting me down.

I’m feeling rather overwhelmed by how much work goes into writing (and rewriting and editing) a decent novel. I’m not a naturally gifted wordsmith. I’m not a speedy reader. I have to work hard at this stuff.

working, at the playground

Working hard. At the playground.

I’ve been working hard for two and a half years now. That’s as long as it took me to get my B.A. – which you might argue is about as useful. I had to do another year of study on top of my degree before it made me employable. And there was always more to being employable than those qualifications.

It’s possible that publication, or even finding a literary agent, is a ways off. Maybe not, but maybe. I actually had a dream last night, in which a friend, who has written a lot less than me, got a book deal. If that were to happen, sure I’d be very happy for them, but I’d also be angry. I’m a little bit angry anyway. And it was just a dream! Two people I studied with have prize-nominated published books, and one of them won the freekin’ Booker.

Now, I know, comparison is a foolish idea. But there it is. The brain goes there anyway, don’t it?

 

writer with angst

Louis, with writers’ angst.

I’m terribly impatient. And most of my anger is to do with impatience. If I stick at this long enough (and I will because I love writing) then surely it will pay off… eventually.

Exactly what ‘paying off’ looks like, might not be just what I think it is now.

I recently had one (of seven – oy vey) of my manuscripts assessed and got comprehensive editorial feedback from a professional in the publishing industry. There are lots of positives in her report, but what I was seeking (and what I got) was advice on how to lift my game.

I’ve got plenty of work to do. Perhaps not all of it is strictly NECESSARY. But I do intend to go through the entire thing again and fix up that which is (now) obviously improvable. And for a while, before I touch it, I need to just think about what I want to do. Especially about the opening chapter. (But I really am horribly impatient.)

so many words

So many words.

One of the discouraging things is that two of the editor’s concerns are to do with things I added, relatively recently, in response to other people’s feedback! (Including the opening chapter.) I made big gut-wrenching changes… and it’s possible they didn’t work. It’s always frustrating to try something and have it not work.

But it’s part of the learning process, says the reasonable bit of my brain. Writing is not all you do. Writing is not all you are.

Look at your lovely kids and all the things they’re learning. Look at that fantastic feast you’re slapping together without a recipe and when did you start understanding french on the radio???

But still. Gr. Writing a book is a slog. A first draft is something I now find easy, but that is far and a long ways from a book. In fact, what happens to first drafts, in this house…

That about sums it up.

 


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where books meet girl power – London!

I spent last weekend in another land. Not a magical land, though I’m rather fond of all the magical stories to come out of it (finished reading Neil Gaiman’s latest one on the train, in fact). I went to England, for the second time in my life, and this time managed to get out of London.

Friday: The London Author Fair

It went fantastically, but it’ll make a dull tale and I took ZERO photos because I was so busy at workshops and seminars and chatting to a bunch of writers. But also a literary agent. I was a-buzz all through February, preparing my two manuscripts and pitch material for this weekend.

I did my pitch just after lunch. Hopefully I didn’t huff chicken curry all over the poor lady, but she was eating her own and it wasn’t exactly steamy. In fact, she wasn’t sure if it was the chicken or the vegetable… nope, not a good sign. Anyway, we got on well and the pitch was fine – not exactly as I rehearsed, but perhaps that’s inevitable when talking to a real person. She wanted to read my manuscripts, the contemporary one first, so I emailed it off between seminars in the afternoon. And that’s really all one can hope for from a pitch. Decisions come later, after reading whole manuscripts… as they should.

Highlights: Adele Parks took a workshop in the afternoon, and she’s lovely. And now I’ve read one of her novels, so I can confirm she’s also brilliant. The panels were fun: watching everyone try not to offend anyone on the other side of the whole traditional/indie publishing battle-in-denial thang. Hi-larious. But lots of people had interesting things to say. A guy from goodreads was there, and a bunch of literary agents, and a bunch of others on the indie side of things.

I wore out my voice at the evening drinks thing. Put a whole lot of writers on a time-limit in a small room together with booze… it was loud. So I escaped to the foyer at the end, and then Hannah showed up – my school friend who put me up for the weekend.

Next day, we headed off to the country… to Jane Austen’s home! Hannah is great at fangirling, so I didn’t feel like a total dweeb.

fangirling persuasion

 Me, fangirling. That is all you need to know.

Austen's Chawton home

That’s the house.

Austen's bedroom

The lady herself’s bedroom! (Bed is just a replica.)

ink and lavender

Making lavender pouches and practicing our penmanship, in the kitchen.

Cassandra tea rooms

We had Lunch at Cassandra’s Tea Rooms (named for Jane’s sister)

british foodCheck out the British vegetables.

We had a few hiccups, what with the train stopping a few stations too early, in another town, and something was wrong with the tracks, so we had to find an alternative… a pricey wee taxi. But we made it to Chawton, and on the way back the train was running. Whew.

We found some dinner in London’s something-like-china-town…

chinatown, londonand then rushed off to the Spice World sing-along at the Prince Charles cinema. If you live in London, or even just visit, this is definitely worth looking up. They put on loads of old titles and do marathons, quote-alongs, sing-alongs, even dance-alongs! I didn’t have any voice for singing or quoting, though I did try once or twice.

“The little gucci dress, the little gucci dress, or… the little gucci dress!”

A couple of Hannah’s friends joined us for the movie and then we went for pudding and cocktails. And then Hannah and I flaked out (yeah, it was mainly me) and took the train, home to bed.

taking the overgroundBig Ben in the eye.

Sunday morning, we took the train again…

perks of public transport

Perks of public transport: views!

off to the portrait gallery

We popped up in the middle of London – the actual middle, I’m told, and then made our way to the National Portrait Gallery. We visited a temporary exhibition of war portraits, watching particularly for some pastels a friend recommended – documenting some of the early cosmetic surgeries done on soldiers who’d suffered horrific shrapnel injuries. Visit the link for Fran’s photo. I didn’t dare snap one.

Hannah and I looked around a few rooms of the rest of the National Portrait Gallery. We found William Wilberforce (trade slave abolitionist) and loads of Tudors and Stuarts, the Brontes, a tiny Jane Austen and a giant Michael Kane. A recent Dame Maggie Smith and a very young Sir Ian McKellen.

And then Hannah whisked me over to the National Gallery. She’d seen it before and I was pretty tired, so I picked out a few favourites and, hunting them down, walked through nearly the entire thing.

After lunch we gave up on sight-seeing and went to a movie. I’ll get to the Tower of London next time.

off to the movies

This might sound like a waste of precious London time, but I so rarely see movies. There’s the babysitting to organize, sure, but it’s mostly because all the mainstream films are dubbed in French and the Version Originale screenings are few and far between. The non-mainstream films just don’t often get on my radar till it’s too late for a cinema viewing.

So Hannah and I agreed on ‘The Book Thief’ over the Slave film because we wanted something a little lighter… oops. But for all the sad bits, it was great. Weird thing with the narration (by death) – a bit jarring, but otherwise, loved it.

Last stop before departure, St Pancras station. Well, duh, but I didn’t just check-in early. I met up with a friend from school – from when I went to school in Hong Kong for seven months when I was twelve. Sixteen years ago! We reconnected on Facebook and she lives in London, so we caught up. It was seriously uncanny.

tea and scones at fortnum and masonShoko introduced me to Fortnum and Mason.
We had tea and scones with clotted cream.
Divine.

The perfect wrap-up to a very British, and also rather internationally book-ended, weekend. My first trip away on my own, since Louis’ birth over three years ago – a roaring success!

Except it left me voice-less and exhausted. This week has been a wash. And not in the laundry sense. I’m just starting to catch up today. Still, totally worth it.


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the roquefort problem

Once you’ve discovered Roquefort, you’re always vulnerable. You’re always in danger because you cannot un-know how good it is.

can't get enough roquefort

Once you’ve (inevitably?) purchased a chunk of this potent, brilliant cheese you’ve a real problem because that stuff doesn’t last long. It needs eating. Or at least, that’s what it tells you; that’s what it whispers from its layers of foil and cheese-paper, sequestered in the not-quite-sealed cheese container in the fridge.

Melted on steak, stuffed in mushrooms, smushed onto bread or just pealed from the knife, you will eat the whole lot. And then lick the knife.

Which is all well and good until you’re trying to watch your diet and discover how many calories this stuff packs.

(Actually, the calories are about the same as every other cheese, if you’re wondering. If you can make a small amount of strong cheese satisfy, as opposed to a large amount of mild cheese, you’re in luck. Unless you live outside of France, or don’t have the funds. Sorry.)

I’m having The Roquefort Problem (not yet recognised universally by psychologists…) with Nanowrimo. Nanowrimo is an annual novel-writing challenge. Fifty thousand words in one month, that’s the goal. At first it is a strong flavour to get your tongue around, but once you know it, once you love it… well, there’s just no going back. At least, not for me.

November starts in a few days and I MUST NOT WRITE ANOTHER SHODDY FIRST DRAFT.

That’s not to say my first drafts are uniquely shoddy. First drafts tend to be shoddy, in comparison to their fifth/sixth/seventh drafts (ie. the ones worth publishing, best case scenario).

I am in the throes of fine-tuning two near-finished (probably… possibly…) manuscripts and that is what I need to focus on, not the shiny new sports car that is Nanowrimo. It will jet me off to some fascinating new location with fascinating new friends, and enthrall me for a month and leave me with YET ANOTHER unfinished novel.

I have ideas. I daydream about novel-ideas. I haven’t written a new one in a while. When these two manuscripts are shining bright and actually done-with I have at least two more waiting in the wings. Major rewrites involve lots of new writing, so I will get to do some fresh work in there, but I know myself. I will be tempted by that shiny sports car. I will need a line in the sand.

We recently instituted a new rule, aiming to get ourselves into bed earlier: no starting a new tv show after 9pm. This is working wonderfully, or would be if we didn’t then read and read and read… but it’s certainly helping.

New rule for me: no new novels until something is published. Or at least underway to be published.

Deal.

Nanowrimo, like Roquefort, is a wonderful thing. If you need a kick of motivation and a world-wide community of cohorts procrastinating- I mean working right along side you, cheering you on, do it!

But I better not. Not this year. I got some feedback from a literary agent and if I can make the changes she suggested, in an impressive time-frame, then hopefully, fingers-crossed, we might have ourselves a real chance…

Fingers crossed, next year I’ll be doing Nanowrimo.


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preparing for battle

Some days feel like one fight after another. Getting breakfast into the kids, putting long pants, not shorts, on Louis, even getting up out of bed is a battle.

This morning’s mission was to make an appointment with a pediatrician, because our GP won’t give the kids their BCG vaccines. It’s not even super urgent that they get this particular vaccine, except that I have the box sitting in the fridge.

In France, when you want a vaccine, you get a prescription for it, then go to the pharmacy and pick up the vaccine, and then take it along to your next doctor’s appointment. My GP gave me the prescription, so now I have the vaccine, but I can’t get someone to inject it into my poor offspring.

I know all the French I need in order to have this conversation, so long as the receptionist doesn’t go off script. She did. I apologised, told her I didn’t understand,I’m still learning French. I asked her to speak more slowly, explained what I needed repeatedly… and then she hung up on me. I may have been a little over-tired but I promptly burst into tears. Then made myself a large coffee and put the appointment-making-palaver on tomorrow’s to-do list.

Which is a joke. Wednesdays are not for getting things done. Wednesdays I have both kids all day long.

And tomorrow afternoon, while both kids sleep at the same time (fingers crossed) I will be participating in a twitter pitch competition of sorts. A bunch of literary agents will be watching the hashtag #adpit and I’ve got two novels ready to pitch. I’ve spent the past few weeks fine-tuning and torturing my manuscripts and query letters, the first line of which has to be this brilliant sentence summing up the main conflict of the story.

For the twitter competition it has to fit in the 160 character limit. This is what I’ve got:

The new Earl of Belvedere will distract the London gossips from Lady Ailsa but he poses a greater danger than slander ever could. #adpit

and for the other,

Sun loathes rugby, with good reason. When she unwittingly falls for an AllBlack, he won’t let her go without a fight. Sexy NZ Romance #adpit

For the query letters there’s a bit more room for length but those agents are famous sticklers for the one sentence thing. And I suppose it’s a good way to make sure a writer really knows how to write. It takes focus and a careful use of language. A good story doesn’t hurt.

Of course, if the pitch (1 sentence) or the query letter do their jobs then I’ll be submitting several chapters or even the whole manuscript, so I’ve been fine-tuning for a while. I’m ready. Or, I hope I’m ready. I’ve thought I was ready in the past. I’ve even been asked for manuscripts, but in the end the agents didn’t bite. So my manuscripts probably weren’t ready.

Facing off with a nearly-3 year old at eight in the morning and submitting my carefully edited writing are two rather different battles, but the secret to both is in the prep. I’ve prepared my manuscripts over weeks and months. Getting shoes onto a wriggling target is a little more of-the-moment.

Right this minute he’s trying to use his drinking straw on a plate full of green curry sauce (very mild version) and rice. I think this is the stage of development when kids are independently capable of lots of things and don’t like all the things they’re NOT doing independently. So, basically, if I ask him to do something he immediately wants to do ANYTHING else, just to be sure he’s the boss of the moment.

Still, he’s rather cute, even with the attitude. Damn.

How do I prepare for every instance of that? Earlier nights and potent first-thing cups of coffee would help, sure. Reverse psychology and limited choices (“sit down or go to your bedroom,” for example) have their place.

Keeping my cool… well, that’s easier with the literary agents. With them it’s business. And they get one hit. If they say, ‘No,’ it’s over. Louis says ‘no’ and the fight is just beginning.

A receptionist hangs up on you and the fight is over, but also just beginning. I ran the whole conversation by my French teacher this afternoon. He said I’d been clear. He only corrected me when I said ‘une rendez-vous’. Turns out appointments are masculine.


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different cow species

on a hiding

on a, in French, means ‘we have’… so I could say on a cacher which means, ‘we hide’, but I’ll get to that later.

I got another rejection letter – argh! – but this one was very (very!) encouraging and had helpful advice… so, if I’m keeping perspective, this is all very positive progress, after all I’ve only been writing every day, with this kind of dedication, for a year, and good things take time and all of that bollocks.

Which isn’t bollocks at all but for a day or two, inevitably, I’m going to feel like all this work is for nothing. That I am on a hiding to nothing.

Speaking of hiding, the weather has been icy and snowy and miserable. So we spent the weekend hiding… but boy did we find some fabulous places to do it.

1. Mysterland. The indoor playground, south of Paris, that I wish we’d discovered a year ago! This place was several steps up from the one we did discover, when the temperature was hanging around freezing point for about a month and our 1-year old needed a bit more room to roam than our tiny hotel room then slightly less-tiny apartment. Now he’s coming up two and a half, so he needs even more room… but he’s more cautious now than he was then. Refused to go in the ball pit at all, but he did enjoy riding around on a toy motorbike and building walls with giant lego. We met a bunch of other friends with their kids and so we all chatted, ate crêpes, drank coffee, and occasionally got up to attend children/put them on the carousel.

2. The ‘asiatique’ buffet (ie. seafood for asia!) across the parking lot. All you can eat, and then some, of the usual chinese buffet suspects, plus a sampling of sushi, fresh spring rolls, dumplings, and then the fresh wok stuff – where you put your raw ingredients (including delicacies like scallops) on a plate and they cook it up for you, just so, with your choice of sauces.

Awesome. And I over-ate to all-new-excess.

And then came home only to print and dash to writers group. But that was good too.RER dash

The dash to writers’ group: on the RER train.

3. Salon de l’agriculture at the Paris Expo centre… which is really centreS – plural. Holy cow it’s huge. And holy Cow, that’s a lot of cows. And we didn’t even go into the cow building. We just saw the overflow cows (which I’m happy to say were not overflowing in and of themselves) in the building with all the sheep and goats and pigs.

And now, pictures…

Elena wrapped up

Unfortunately we had to go outside to get to the show… so wrapped up snuggly, we took the RER, then a tram (a first for me, in Paris, and for Elena… anywhere)

scary donkey

First stop, the horses. We got there early, hoping to avoid the worst of the crowds, and thought we’d best tick off the most popular sights first, for the same reason. But Louis was too scared to go near the horses/donkeys, even though they’re like his favourite thing the rest of the time, and he sees them regularly at the local park… but logic be damned.

pat the horse

Other people enjoyed patting the horses. Luuk and I included.

fancy tails

Others enjoyed plaiting their tails. It’s a thing, I guess.

fishes and bubbles

Louis calmed down when we got to the smaller animals. And there was a bubble machine beside this fishing display. Elena liked the fish.

Louis finally patted an animal when we got to the bunny rabbits. There were also screeds of different hens and other poultry. They were conveniently beside the produce section: saussison sec, cheeses, chocolates, caramelized nuts and candies (fruit pate at an exorbitant rate… that they don’t tell you till after you agree to buy some).

We should have spent more time there, but nonetheless…

sheep and lambs

We came all the way from NZ for the sheep! Oh, wait. Just kidding. Though I suspect this is the same breed that our friends farm in Otago.

big sheep

And this one was rather large.

french marino

And they have Marino in France too, turns out.
Another thing I thought was special about NZ… so much for that.

cow bells

And then there were cows. The bells gave them away.

cool cows

I thought these two were a handsome pair.

different cow species

And these two won the prize for interesting hair dos. By my opinion. No idea about actual prizes. Be there isn’t one called ‘interesting hair do’. There should be, though.

Howdy Cows and Boys

Forgive my ignorance. I’m sure my farming family members would have appreciated a whole lot of the details that went way over my head, in fact I still haven’t quite figured out the bell thing – is it so farmers can find their stray herd-members? I have another theory – the cows don’t like the noise and so they don’t move so much when they’re wearing the bells??

Shot in the dark. Figuratively. Though, wearing a bell would make it easier to shoot a cow in the dark. But still unwise.

4. The fourth way we hid from the weather was yesterday: Inviting ourselves to friends’ houses. I had a bit of a gong-show Monday morning because Elena had been up every hour in the night and then it was snowing. The thing with Monday mornings is that Louis has to be at halte garderie at 9 but French lesson doesn’t start till 10 (and in reality often later). So I have this chunk of time to kill, and I often just walk around Antony or a park on the way to class, but the weather yesterday was not all that inviting.

Antony in the snow

Antony in the snow. (The mad drivers are just out of this shot, on the left.)

Then French lesson finishes (again, in theory) at 11.30 and I have to pick Louis up at 11.50… but getting from one to the other takes more than fifteen minutes and when the path is icy, longer. (It’s not icy enough for safe skating.)

My walk to French

The icy path. (But it’s a nice walk otherwise)

So it’s stressful. Yesterday, class didn’t start till nearly 11 (blame the trains and the snow-crazy drivers) and so my friend gave me a ride to pick up Louis. We left Elena at the lesson and dashed down, got Louis, and returned in time for banana scones (and to scribble down the last few notes on pronomial verbes pour le passe compose et futur proche). But then I was faced with the prospect of walking home, in the snow, with Louis also walking because the double buggy is a nightmare in snow/ice so I only had the single…

Anyway, long story short, we spent the afternoon at Marcelle and Johnny’s again.

the boys holding hands

Louis and his friend Sua, being awfully cute, watching The Wiggles and holding hands. They didn’t know we saw them…

self-crusting quiche

I made quiche for us all for lunch… self-crusting quiche. Awesome.

The kids slept, I cooked, Marcelle, Mel and I talked… about Marcelle’s new business start-up, about my novel, which they’re very helpful with due to real-life expertise in the field of rugby player romance… And then Johnny came home and the kids finished school. It was still snowing so we hid out, hoping it would stop, did some gymnastics… as you do. Turns out I can still do a cartwheel and a handstand (against a wall). Didn’t risk the back-bridge.

Johnny drove us home, good man, and if I can manage it we won’t be going out today. The snow is gone but it’s oppressively grey and we can live without bread, if necessary. Or maybe I can coerce a friend into bringing us some…

And on that note, better get some writing done (just in case I’m not on a hiding to nothing) before the friend shows up with the bread…

 


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where’s wally progress?

Progress feels slow but it’s there… just. I submitted a short story to a Paris lit magazine today, and also received a rejection letter from a lit agency I queried… before Elena was born. I got the message about four months ago, thanks, but the email cleared up any confusion, yes.

Sorry, no more bitterness. Promise.

Progress on my novel also feels slow but I have been distracted a lot, by other, shorter projects (and by other things entirely… like scrabble on facebook… can’t be disciplined all the time.)

Louis had an accident again at halte garderie. Perhaps he’s too young for potty training completely – perhaps its just a communication issue. I’m not sure. But we’ll try for another week or so and see if things fall into place. Prior to this he’s always had a nappy on when he’s away from home, so it’s steep learning curve.

Elena is progressing toward crawling and she’s getting from one side of the room to the other without it. She’s full of energy and eats anything she can get her hands on, happily finishing Louis’ leftovers. Her progress is more obvious than anyone’s and a great joy.

play, the work of childhood

The little lady wants in on all the fun.

It’s a year since we left New Zealand and I’ll write a summary of sorts in the next day or so, but yesterday I read back over my first two blog posts after we arrived in France. There is a very strange time warp thing going on – the year is so short and so long. We’ve learned so much French in that time and yet most days it feels like no progress at all.

So I suppose the lesson here is that progress is invisible up close, but it’s happening nonetheless.

Time is certainly progressing, no doubt about that! Only one more day of the january writing challenge. Here are yesterday and today’s small stones…

a glass of wine

if sunshine were put on ice till
it turned liquid
then chilled a while longer, sweetening
softly with age till
I glug glug it into my glass
a celebratory salute for ticking
off that one big thing
at four in the afternoon.

And today’s, inspired by our walk in the last of the gorgeous late afternoon sun,

the steeple bright, as
if two photos, day and dusk
were stuck together 

It was like a taste of spring today – just lovely. Spring is an excellent example of slow, easy-to-miss progress. We’re leaving winter behind but some days it’s still an awful lot like winter. (I know it’s still January – definitely still winter – I’m getting ahead of myself but you should’ve seen the sun today!)

enjoying the winter sun


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two stones and submissions

Yesterday’s small stone:

My hot feet stick to the cool smooth floor boards – by daylight streaky and pale, like caramel cooling, but now they’re grey in shadow and yellow in the street light and everything is silent except for my clammy feet padding a careful route around the toy fire engine and trains.

Today’s small stone:

I press my thumb nail in beside the stalk and the orange spits at me – its final assault. Its peel is sticky and glossy, like kitchen linoleum. This festive scent clings to my fingernails. The white centre rind resists for a moment like a single hair tugged from its follicle. Each segment comes away between my teeth, whole and safe, and then splits, juices spilling, thirst quenching.

Obviously, I’m feeling much better – eating a bit more normally and drinking the flat champomy (sparkling apple juice) from New Years, which is full of sugar and bound to perk me up a bit.

Lying on the sofa with a book, entirely devoid of perk, has its appeal, of course. But I’ve two children. And there are a number of literary magazines calling for mid January submissions and I’ve a handful of poems to sort/edit/cull before scouring my prose for something that stands alone… so I’ll take all the perk I can get, thankyouverymuch.

The coffee is cooking in its pot, all ready for when the champomy is finished.