Thanks, But No Thanks

A few edited highlights from my (bulging) rejections folder:

"The narrative framework seems a bit slight, especially at the end. (The main character) doesn't develop much?"
 ''Longer than it needs to be... the opening seemed rather slow..."
"Probably not quite up our alley...still a few purplish patches..."
"Came close but just missed out... The basic theme of house-sharing gets a bit of a hiding these days..."
"I did baulk at the lack of punctuation..."
"Nice story as usual [this was my third unsuccessful submission to them]. I'm sorry our excuse is the same -- insufficient space..."
 "Too neat and too dramatic. I'm not convinced that this is the ending for this story..."
"(This story) could make a contribution in a collection of your stories but on its own I don't think we can use it..." (fourth try)
 "We can't fit it in..." (fifth try)
"Perhaps this would suit a more popular publication?"
"Unfortunately we are unable to publish this ms."
"Strongly written but we can't find a place for it." (sixth try)
"I thought your writing showed a lot of promise and will get stronger with practice. There were awkward patches that will become fewer with experience... I did think the theme was not believable however..." (At the time I found this comment hilarious as the story in question was based on an actual experience. I now realise that "true" and "believable" are not the same thing.)
"Sorry we've had this submission so long... unfortunately we have accepted a couple of pieces ahead of it..."
"We cannot publish this story." (eighth, and final, unsuccessful submission to this magazine)
"Towards the end I found I wasn't really that interested in any of the characters... I think it's a bit overwritten."
"There seems to be a lack of the sort of dynamic energy that makes readers respond to the characters.... They seem to lack heart..."
"I couldn't get my teeth into it..."
"My advice would be to put the manuscript in a bottom drawer and start on another."


Goodbye, Sarah-Jane
Terribly sad news this morning that Elisabeth Sladen, who played (Best Ever?) companion to the Doctor, Sarah-Jane Smith, has died of cancer at the age of 63. She leapt onto the screen from the first moment she appeared, crackling with charisma, warmth and energy; no other companion has matched her for sheer spunk.

It's something to be glad about that the producers of the new Doctor Who had the wisdom to bring her back so that a whole new generation of fans could get to know her.

Vale, Sarah-Jane...


 Reading In Exile

One of my very favourite books when I was growing up was The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. (It was also one of JK Rowling's childhood favourites, which is why, I suspect, it's been reissued, and I was able, to my great delight, to find it in a bookshop.)

It's the story of straight-backed, clear-eyed Maria Merryweather, who comes to live at her ancestral home, Moonacre Manor, in the village of Silverydew in the West Country in 1842. Even the place-names give you a sense of the kind of book this is: magical, lyrical and intensely English.

Maria's bedroom is a circular room at the top of a tower, the ribs of its vaulted ceiling meeting at a carved sickle moon. She has a four-poster bed with pale blue silk curtains (very worn, but scrupulously clean) and a patchwork quilt, a tiny fireplace and a box of biscuits, topped with delicate sugar flowers, on the mantelpiece, in case she gets hungry between meals. At the age of nine I thought all this sounded exquisitely beautiful, the pinnacle of perfection, and it remained my model of bedroomly bliss for many years.

Anyway. Reading Misrule's wonderful tribute to Diana Wynne Jones got me thinking. Like Misrule, and at around the same time, I clung to books of English fantasy in a sea of Australian realism. But I wasn't living in Australia; I was exiled in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. I utterly rejected any stories about my own country in favour of an imagined English homeland, the land of Maria Merryweather, with her silvery hares and great golden dogs. When I was eight, we visited my father's family in England, and when we left, I sobbed for days. England felt like home in a way that Australia never had. I belonged in that damp green landscape.

Was it the blood of my ancestors calling me home? Or was it just that the books I adored were all set in England? Was it literature that had sunk into my bones?

I chose the English books because they admitted the existence of magic. The Australian books of the era were harsh. There were bushfires, droughts, hardscrabble farmers, children thrust into a disaster and having to cope alone. I didn't want a bar of any of that. It was all too confronting, too real, and yet somehow unreal. In a strange way, those stories felt more alien to my life as an Australian child in New Guinea than the adventures of the children in the magical books I craved. I lost myself in the enchanted country of Elizabeth Goudge, CS Lewis, Joan Aiken, E. Nesbit, Penelope Lively, Lucy M. Boston, Alison Uttley and Philippa Pearce, and I was completely at home there.

Was it the magic in those books that called to me, or their Englishness? I've always thought it was the Englishness, but perhaps it was the magic. If I'd been able to find stories of Australian magic, perhaps my reading childhood might have looked quite different.

I wonder.


Radio Days

We are a bit addicted to radio in our house. We have at least one in every room - a clock radio in each bedroom, a tranny in the bathroom and a spare one by our bed, one in the kitchen, another (fake 1930s wireless) in the library, and there's the radio which is part of the sound-bar DVD player thingy under the TV in the living room. I feel slightly disoriented when I go into friends' houses and can't see a radio anywhere. It's a little like a house with no books - something vital is missing.

My very first radio station was EON-FM, when FM radio was shiny and new, and I was discovering pop music. Eventually I switched to Triple J, and I stayed tuned to the Js for many years. It was our station of choice at the record company where I worked. But then my love for cricket began to outweigh my love for music (never very robust, sadly). My boss and I used to surreptitiously switch over to the ABC to listen to the Test coverage, and then I'd leave it there and listen to Jon Faine and the grown-up current affairs discussions. I remember being glued to the coverage of the waterfront dispute as it unfolded, rushing into my boss's office - can you believe they're doing this? The move from JJJ to 774 felt like growing up.

When I was at home with babies, the radio was my connection to the outside world. At the dead of night, at dawn, in the cheerful mid-morning, for afternoon lulls and evening tears, there was always someone (adult) talking to me, telling me stuff, one end of a conversation that I felt part of. When the Twin Towers came crashing down, when the Beaconsfield miners were trapped underground, when the bushfires raged, it was radio that told me what was happening, both frightening and reassuring at the same time.

At last I grew weary of 774; it seemed like lots of politics, a bit of gardening, and too much unfunny anecdotage. I grew up a little bit more and discovered Radio National. This time the conversation was more wide-ranging. I listened to discussions of history, philosophy, design, literature, and science. I was in left liberal heaven!

But lately football has sunk its evil claws into me and I've got a bit addicted to the guilty pleasures of SEN, which is ALL football, ALL the time. This has felt like a retrograde step, a slide from sophistication back to lazy, blinkered adolescence.

But I've realised there's more to it than a simple addiction to footy. The truth is, I can't bear to listen to grown up radio any more. I'm so disgusted by the limpness of our political 'leaders,' so overwhelmed by the enormity of the calamities that face us, so infuriated by the name-calling, the vote-grubbing, the shallowness, the pointless abuse, the short-sightedness of the so-called grown up world, that I cannot bring myself to listen any more. That's the trouble with radio - when it's on, it's unavoidable. You can't look away, the way you can turn a page of the newspaper or click on a fresh screen.

I haven't switched it off. I still like to hear people chatting. But I have turned the dial. For now, I've politely asked the commentators and the economic experts and the 'serious' journalists to leave, and I've invited in some ordinary blokes who like talking about balls. And you know what? It's kind of relaxing to have them around.

So who are you listening to?


Life Lessons Football Can Teach Us

Part 2: Be Prepared

It started so well. Saturday, an unseasonable 27 degrees, was the first time I have ever felt hot at the footy. Instead of being swaddled in scarves and beanies, I wore sandals and a summer dress. The four little girls we'd brought with us were sufficiently amused by expeditions to the toilet, impromptu games of kick-the-homemade-ball up and down the ramp, and the frequent provision of snacks, that Michael and I were able to watch, oh, probably as much as almost half the actual game, so a good time was had by all.

The trouble began after the game had ended. By this time, being Melbourne, the summer-like day had turned freezing and it was pouring with rain. Michael and the little girls sprinted for the car, while I trudged toward the tram (I wouldn't fit in the car). Half an hour later I was still at the tram stop with nary a 112 in sight, wet through, and rain trickling down my neck. My frock and sandals no longer seemed like such a good idea. As dusk rapidly gathered, the only bloke at the tram stop in possession of an iPhone informed us all that there would be no 112 trams for the foreseeable future.

Time for Plan B: a long walk in the rain down Collins St while I considered my options. At least I couldn't get any wetter. With the tram situation still uncertain, I ended up at the train station, only to discover that I had missed my train by seconds, and a half hour wait lay before me. Worse, I had nothing to read. Luckily, the timely arrival of a Big Issue vendor solved that particular problem.

At long last the train arrived and carried me helpfully back to Southern Cross station, which I'd left an hour and a half earlier. Michael was ringing my phone every few minutes to check my progress. 'Where are you now?' 'East Richmond.' 'So you've gone through Jolimont?' 'Yep.' 'Oh, by the way, the girls are all having a sleepover at our house, see ya, bye!'

By the time he picked me up at the station it was two hours since I'd left the stadium. Two hours from the city to Preston has to be some kind of record, surely? My inappropriate footwear was soaked through, my toes frozen, my light Bulldogs jacket wringing wet. It could easily have been the Worst Footy Day ever. But luckily we'd won.


Second Sight by Cheryl B. Klein

First, a disclaimer: Cheryl was my editor when the Chanters of Tremaris books were published by the Arthur A. Levine imprint in the US.  I must confess that when I received my first communications from Cheryl, I pictured her as a motherly, middle-aged lady, probably with pearls or bi-focals on a string around her neck. This will teach me to make generalisations based on names alone, because in fact Cheryl is a very hip, witty, glamorous, young professional about town (her town is New York -- sigh!) Maybe I should have guessed when she sent me those Captain Underpants erasers to make corrections on my manuscript.

Three things became immediately apparent as we worked together. Cheryl is a) very thorough,* b) completely lovely, and c) very smart. She has a knack for putting her finger on the exact word or phrase that isn't quite right, and clearly (and kindly) explaining why.

Ever since I had the privilege of being edited by Cheryl, I've followed her blog, Brooklyn Arden, where from time to time she would link to various talks about writing and editing that she gave at conferences. I printed out several of these talks to help me clarify my thinking about drafts that weren't quite working, and kept them by my desk for easy reference. So imagine how pleased I was to learn that she had decided to collect all her talks together and publish them as a book!

Second Sight: An Editor's Talks About Editing, Revising and Publishing Books For Children and Young Adults is exactly what it says: a collection of talks. At times this means that the same ground is covered several times, but I don't think this is a flaw; it just serves to hammer home the points that are really important. This is not a book for a beginning writer; most of the advice is for those who have a workable first draft completed, but want to make it better. Second Sight offers clear, sensible and sometimes inspirational advice, as well as practical tips for revising. It's almost as good as having Cheryl herself looking over your shoulder.

Though it's probably not as good as having a cup of tea with her. Which is something I still hope to achieve one day.

* Like me, she is both a Virgo and a Horse, which might be one reason why we worked together so harmoniously.


Life Lessons Football Can Teach Us (An Occasional Series)

Part 1: The Sweetness of Victory Does Not Outweigh The Bitterness of Defeat

Last week my team got crunched by some cheeky up-and-comers. This week, we bulldozed an undermanned and reeling interstate team at home. It was nice enough. But it doesn't erase the pain and outrage of the shocking loss the week before.

Winning feels good. But losing feels really, really bad. When the Western Bulldogs finally win a premiership, will it really make up for the fifty, or sixty or seventy years of disappointment, anguish, heartache, betrayal, sorrow and grief that have gone before? How good could it actually be? Especially when you wake up the next morning and know that you have to start fighting all over again, for the next one?

I guess if I was actually a member of the team, maybe the player who kicked the winning goal on the final siren to seal the victory, I might have a different perspective. But think about it. Once upon a time, I vowed, if I ever get a book published, just one book, I will never be unhappy again. If I could win a literary prize, or get short-listed for a prize, I will never complain again. If I get a boyfriend... if I have a baby...

Well, I've done all those things and they are all wonderful, but the high fades away. Achievement is no guarantee of permanent happiness.

Unfairly, though, it seems the reverse is not true. The bad reviews and rejections and defeats still hurt, even though logic suggests that the pain should be wiped away by the joy of accomplishment.

So what can we draw from all this, class? This is what I think: it's a mistake to tie your emotional and mental health to any notions of "success" or "failure." Enjoy the little things in life, and pin your joy to them. In football terms, we should enjoy the spectacle of the game - celebrate individual acts of courage or skill - relish the small acts of sacrifice when the team works together - laugh at the freakish or the slapstick - scream with excitement. But don't let the result determine our mood for the whole of the next week, or season, or a lifetime.

Lucky I'm not an AFL coach!