Sunday, 25 March 2018

What to do with criticism. Or how I learnt to deal with it.

Recently I took an online course on writing short stories. I was looking for a push to get me going again after a brief hiatus and this seemed like the perfect way. One of the features of the course was the chance to have work read and critiqued by course tutors and peers. This appealed to me as I don't really have anyone who I regularly ask to read my work and give me hints about what works and what needs work. Maybe when I have a greater body of work that I'm happier with I may look for people to read things but at the moment I'm still finding my feet when it comes to short stories.
The peer review was very useful for a story I started a few weeks ago and have done some work on. The readers showed me the things they liked, the places where they were confused and I was able to straighten things out so it read 'better'. This gave me confidence and I continue to work on this story which is now more or less finished but still at the polishing stage.
I then submitted the start of another story, very much first draft, to the tutor and awaited their feedback. Reader, I asked for it! Lots of problems, lots to fix, the beginning of the story needs moving, too much showing etc. I was crestfallen. Hardly anything positive to say about it.
Now, not so long ago I would have weep real tears, deleted the story and giving up on any idea that I could be a writer. My writer's ego really was that fragile a year ago. Don't get me wrong, it hurt to read how much there was wrong about my story. After all, they're a bit like my babies and I can be a bit Tiger Mother about them.
This time I read his comments with a writer's eye. I looked again at what I had written and I could see the faults and the flaws. Yes, the story would be much tighter if I started it much later in my current narrative. Yes, I was doing to much 'head dwelling'. Yes, I needed to get to the point more quickly and succinctly. There was work to do but I could do it and end up with a  better story as a result.
So what have I learnt? That sometimes I need to step back, take another view and do the dreaded re-write. That first drafts are almost always not up to scratch. That time given to reading the comments of another reader is time well spent.
Finally, I learnt that taking the ego out and accepting some criticism is necessary to end up with a story that I am proud of, a story that one day may make its own way in the world.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Book Review - Everywoman by Jess Phillips

If I am ever harassed, marginalised, silenced, bullied or abused I want Jess Phillips in my corner. Reading this book filled my heart with joy and sadness in equal measure. Jess is a powerful, feisty, opinionated Brummie and I wish there were more voices like hers in both society and Parliament. She has issues she cares passionately about and isn't afraid to say it like it is. The parts of the book which deal with her work with and campaigning for women who have suffered violence and domestic abuse broke my heart. Her determination not to be silenced when giving these women a voice is truly inspirational. 
Don't get the idea that this is a dry, weighty, preachy tome, it is nothing of the sort. It is full of warmth and humour, filled with the loud and proud Brummie voice that Jess is so well known for. I had the privilege to hear her speak last year in Birmingham and she was such a wonderful speaker, full of wit and anecdote. How I wish every one could have an MP like Jess. How I wish we all had a cheerleader, a friend like Jess.
Am I inspired by her? Hell yes! I won't be standing for elected office but I will stop publicly doubting myself and try to silence the voice of imposter syndrome. If Jess can be strong and big herself up then so can I. So can we all.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Writing contests: why I take part and read my latest entry

I love a good competition. I've always enjoyed quizzes and crosswords so it's perhaps no surprise that I enjoy submitting my writing to writing contests.

So far I have yet to win one but for me the winning isn't the important thing. I enter to get my work read and to get feedback.

At this point in my writing journey I am not ready to send my work to agents or publishers. I haven't got to the point where I need to recruit beta readers. I don't want to burden my friends and family with a constant stream of things to be read and commented on (although I'm sure they would do so gladly!)

So contests are an ideal way for me to get my work read and to find out what works and what needs work. But it can be difficult to know what to make of some of the comments. Not everyone gives useful or constructive criticism so I have to remember to filter what is said and take the comments that are helpful and leave the rest alone. For example, my latest piece, which I will share later in this post, included the comment that it was 'Brilliant!' which did my ego a power of good but wasn't very helpful - if it was truly brilliant why didn't it win? Another comment said ' I kept waiting and waiting for something to happen, but it really never did.' Re-reading the piece I can see that is a valid comment but then I didn't set out to write a piece with much action. A third comment said 'As a mother who had a two hour labour from first contraction to actual delivery I find the concept very difficult to believe.' Again I can see what she means and recognise that I may have been too vague about when labour began and how the journey began. All things that I can change in an edit and useful to know from a dispassionate reader.

So I will continue to enter contests and try to improve my writing based on the comments I receive, good, bad or indifferent. I attach the story concerned below and would be interested in any comments you might have. This is the story as sent in without any edits that I may make later.

The Beacon
Overwhelming rock walls towered above Jorelle as she struggled through the newly fallen snow. Plumes of steam appeared and disappeared before her as her warm breath met the icy air. Her legs burned and her back ached but she had no choice but to push on. Generations of women had been making this journey and now it was her turn. The straps of her satchel bit into her shoulders and she stretched her back to release the pain and soreness a little.
Turning another corner Jorelle saw a clearing where the snow was lighter on the ground. There were faint tracks and marks in the snow which looked as if someone had recently cleared the smooth rock floor. She scanned the rock face. No sign of life but many carvings and symbols covered the rock higher than her head. Many years of visitors, leaving their mark in this ancient and sacred place. She dropped her satchel, squatted and tipped the contents onto the ground. Blankets, blades, soft cloths, waxed cord all tumbled across the snow as she rummaged for the beacon. The cold metal cylinder rolled away from her and she cursed under her breath. The word echoed around the clearing, startling her into standing and spinning around. Her eyes searched every crevice until she was satisfied that it was only the echo of her own voice. Several days without hearing another voice had made her sensitive and jumpy. She reached down and picked up the beacon, scanning the canyon as she did so.
Back in the village she had been shown how to prepare it, how to light it, how to activate it. She had nodded, agreed to be shown again and again and finally snapped that she understood. Now she wished that she had paid more attention. Doubts filled her head and her frozen fingers refused to manoeuvre the tiny parts on the beacon. After several attempts and more cursing Jorelle managed to prepare the beacon for illumination. She stood it on the ground and stepped back. Once lit, there was no turning back.
She steadied her breathing, arched her back and shrugged her shoulders. No turning back. She squatted, picked up the beacon and pressed the button. Holding it above her head, Jorelle counted to five and waited. A hum, a vibration and a column of blue light rose into the sky overhead. No turning back. As she had been instructed she began to murmur the prayer of calling and closed her eyes. She turned slowly one way then the other, opened her eyes and stared at the rock face. Her arms ached from holding the beacon above her but she knew she would not have long to wait. Once the beacon was lit, the message was seen and responded to with haste.
Above her the air rippled, pulsed as Jorelle felt the rhythmic beating of wings overhead. The beat got stronger, stronger and closer and behind her Jorelle heard the beat of feathers and the squawk of the giant bird. Increasing the pace and volume of her prayer she waited until the air stilled, then stopped praying and listened to the silence. No turning back.
Closing her eyes, Jorelle waited, listening to her heartbeat, hearing her breathing. Behind her the rustle of feathers, the squeak of leather and the ringing of metal on metal. Breathing faster now she waited and listened. Cold wind blew from around the rocks, chilling her more than her fear. No turning back.
A gentle hand rested lightly on her shoulder and Jorelle gasped. Her eyes snapped open and she turned slowly to face a kindly smile, greying hair and the beacon carefully taken from her frozen grip. Bright green eyes sparkled with warmth and intelligence and for the first time in days Jorelle relaxed.
‘Jorelle, isn’t it? I’m Shalea, your midwife. Shall we get out of the cold? You have all we need? Excellent. I’ll tether Aviacus and we can set off.’
Jorelle smiled as Shalea wrestled with leather thongs and knotted the bird’s harness to an iron ring then allowed herself to be hurried and bustled further into the canyon. The snow became wetter and they slithered along the rock face, Shalea leading with assurance. Jorelle felt a wave of pain spread across her belly. No turning back.
The path led round a sharp bend and Jorelle clutched the rock face for balance. Ahead of them the mountain plunged away into cloud and nausea swept over her. Heights were a problem for her and she struggled not to step towards the edge. It was a familiar feeling and one she didn’t understand. If she feared heights so much why was she drawn to the edge? Another stab of pain brought her crashing back to reality and she rested against the rock face and waited for the pain to pass.
Shalea waited ahead and when Jorelle nodded they walked on. In an instant Shalea vanished from sight and Jorelle gasped in horror. Had she plunged over the edge? A cold sweat spread across her brow and she swayed against the rock wall. What should she do? What if she was stranded alone on the mountain? So many questions flooded her mind that she could not think clearly. She edged forward, eyes scanning the rock face, the drop and the clouds. Her fingers inched along the rock and suddenly touched the softness of wood.
Turning a corner, bright light forced her eyes shut. A cavern in the rock, that’s where they had been heading. Shalea had removed her cape and was adding kindling to a blazing fire.
‘Come in, come in! Warm yourself and I’ll fetch wine. You’ll need to rest before your exertions later.’
Jorelle stepped into the cavern and warmed her hands. There were furs around the walls, sturdy wooden benches and chairs and a gleaming copper tub in one corner. Large pans of snow were arranged around the fire, slowly melting. She took the cup of wine and drank deeply. The warm fruity taste felt so welcome after days walking alone in the mountains. Shalea bustled about preparing everything – food, water for bathing, more wine, stoking the fire. For the first time in days Jorelle relaxed. She sat on a bench and began to undress, removing the bulky layers that had kept her alive on her journey.
‘Shalea, what can I expect? I am ignorant of the secret ways of motherhood and I confess that I am scared. You are plainly experienced so I would value your insight.’
Shalea put down the pan of water she had been pouring into the tub and sat down next to Jorelle. She took her hand and smiled.
‘For more years than I care to remember I have been helping women to give birth. Any knowledge I have comes from this for I have not been blessed with children myself. I will not lie to you, there will be great pain, you will wish yourself elsewhere and you will curse everyone in the world. This is natural and not to be feared. Together we will bring this special baby, this important baby into the world in the footsteps of hundreds of women before you, including the queen your husband’s mother.’
Jorelle watched and listened as Shalea told her about the night she had helped the queen to deliver the baby that grew up to be her husband. It was odd to think of Erik as a baby. The man she loved was tall and broad, bearded and brave, a fighter and a leader. But twenty eight years ago he had been born here in the cavern as all kings’ babies were.
Another stab of pain doubled Jorelle up and she gasped for breath. Shalea nodded and returned to her duties. It would not be long now until she met her baby, their baby on whom so much depended. No turning back.
As the night wore on the pains increased. Jorelle doubted her ability to survive but Shalea was calm and her words soothed the dark thoughts which beset her. Together they walked around the cavern, Shalea crooning and caressing to help her through. Sometimes she found herself joining in the songs and chants although she had no idea that she knew these songs. Perhaps all women know them in their souls and she was joining a secret sisterhood. But more than anything she felt that as the pain increased her life was slowly changing forever. No more carefree times with her friends, no more lingering in bed with Erik, no more putting herself first. From this night on she was a different person, and this scared her.
‘Shalea, I have doubts. How can I care for this child? I am young myself, barely more than a girl. Yet now this burden is upon me and I am not worthy.’
Shalea stood up from her perch on the bed and frowned.
‘All women feel as you do. I have yet to meet a mother who was not filled with feelings of inadequacy, of deep fear for the future. All this is natural. But as for being too young, fie! You were old enough to wed Erik, old enough to lie with him. Now you must find the wisdom within to take care of the family you have created. Everyone in the tribe will support you. Erik will do his part, if you will let him. And this child is precious, they will continue the bloodline that you married into, a special child indeed. Fear not! There will be many other babies for you and you will laugh at your foolish doubts as you birth each one. I have seen it many times.’
Another wave of pain took the breath from Jorelle and she stared at her midwife with widening eyes. This felt different. Pulling her down, making her womb feel heavy, causing her to moan like an animal.
‘ The time is near. Your child will be born within the hour. Now you will have to work hard for now you must push your child out into the world.’
Jorelle nodded and understood. The time was close, the time when she would fulfil her destiny. And her tribe’s future would be solidified. Another tug in her womb, she squatted, roared and pushed as hard as she could. Sweat poured from her body and for several minutes she groaned and strained. Shalea watched closely, soothing her with cool water and gentle words. At last a huge effort pushed the baby out of her body and into the midwife’s arms. Jorelle slumped onto the bed and closed her eyes. Silence, whispered words and the glorious cry of a new-born. She turned towards Shalea who smiled and nodded.
‘Fine and healthy, perfect and as handsome as his father. Here, Jorelle, meet your son.’
A tiny, wriggling body was gently placed on her chest and he searched for her breast. With an instinct that she did not know she possessed, Jorelle held her child to her breast and felt the milk flow as he fed. Tired, tearful yet triumphant she beamed at Shalea. The midwife nodded, wiped a tear away and began clearing the bed. Jorelle stared at her son and knew that it was indeed true, no turning back. She had begun her journey as a mother, as many women before her, following in their footsteps, learning as she went. The baby suckled and Jorelle closed her eyes, exhausted but content. She drifted gently into a light sleep and dreamed of showing Erik their child, the child of the future.