Saturday, 20 October 2018

Of The Church and churches by Sandra Horn


Is this an odd topic for a blog? Probably. It's an attempt to look at the push-and-pull of churches/religion on me and my writing. I was brought up vaguely C of E but I’m ambivalent about the Church as an institution these days. I used to be sent to Sunday School as a child. What I remember most about it was that your team got points for everyone who attended so you’d be beaten up by your team-mates for not turning up. The church was a good mile-and-a-half from home and we would have walked in all weathers, so my attendance was erratic.

My school started each day with a short service and hymns. Once, not long before Christmas, there was a decoration with holly and a candle in front of the Headmistress. It caught fire. We were supposed to be praying – ie with our eyes SHUT. Mine were open, O sin against the Holy Ghost, which is why I saw the thing going up in flames. What was I to do? If I shouted ‘Fire!’ I’d be caught out. If I didn’t, we could all be immolated. I took the coward’s way and kept shtum, but luckily one of the teachers smelled smoke, or heard crackling, or something, opened her eyes and dashed a glass of water over the flames. 

I think I was ambivalent even then, although I loved singing the hymns – still do, as long as they are not the dreadful tuneless dirges many of the more modern writers seem to favour. Ear-shrivelling. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Harvest Festival...very enjoyable markers of the turning year. I also love some of the legends and have plundered some as a writer – I’ve written stories around St Cuthbert and his miraculous encounters with various animals and birds on the islands off the Northumberland coast. Absurd, enchanting fairytales. 

Some church buildings are, of course, very beautiful – and some are absolutely not. Some are designed to make us poor humans feel like lowly worms – oppressive – like Notre Dame and the Duomo in Florence, and some are vainglorious, shouting more of the wealth and importance of their patrons than the glory of God. One of my favourites is the little church at Moreton in Dorset, with its clear glass windows exquisitely etched by Laurence Whistler. It’s flooded with light and the countryside is visible all around. I hadn’t realised how much church interiors can be darkened by stained glass until I went there. I keep going back for the sheer joy of it.






The church at Minstead, in the New Forest, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ended up being buried, has a gallery for children and poor people and a shut-off room for the gentry with its own side-door where the servants could bring dinners in. Historic relics? Not entirely, alas, not yet. 

 I don’t have much to do with churches or the Church these days, except recently when I was involved with Salisbury’s St Thomas’s Church  800th anniversary celebrations. I belong to a Women’s Theatre Group, Juno, based in Salisbury, and we had been asked to kick off the celebrations with ‘Salisbury Tales’ which were a series of monologues and two-handers tracing the history of the church and its place in the community locally and more widely (it’s a pilgrim church). It has a wonderful Doom painting over the chancel arch, with a glorious Satan, half cockerel, half crocodile. Its colours are somewhat faded, as it was covered in whitewash for years to protect it from being pickaxed by the Iconoclasts, and cleaning it inevitably caused some damage to the pigments. It’s still a dramatic feature, though, with its ancient imagery looming over the much newer children’s play area and tea bar. 

Salisbury Tales began with the earliest pilgrims and ended with the man installing a new audio system and one of those lovely women of the flower rota and the teas. Some of the writers were new to it and were mentored, which gave us the chance to sort out a 13th-century pilgrim referring to ‘egocentric’ Kings, and the use of ‘O God, you search me and you know me’ set to one of the aforementioned tuneless dirges when it would have been plainsong, most likely. Instead, we had several people planted amongst the congregation/audience whispering the words. Nice and atmospheric.

 Salisbury Tales cast

The character in my monologue was Martha, the Holy Duster – a kind of Everywoman, who spoke a prologue and epilogue and all the linking material between the plays. With her broom and her pinny, she could have been from any age of the church; a fallen woman earning her redemption and her dole by keeping the floor swept and the pews dusted. Grateful if slightly baffled by the sermons and the rituals. For her, as for many, the church was and is a kindly, forgiving refuge. A place of safety and solace when plague ravaged the city, a welcoming place for a cuppa and a chat nowadays. – and a focus of caring and outreach during the recent poisonings and their aftermath.  I get all that, but still I’m on the outside looking in.

Friday, 19 October 2018

When Have You Truly Moved? - Jan Edwards

We moved house a year ago. It doesn’t feel that long and yet it does. People have stopped asking if we are ‘settled in yet’, and after twelve months I think we can probably say we feel comfortable here now. 
Certainly I feel able to write here - which took a while. It is not just the change in house but the uncertainty of having things to hand. That unpacking of your world - Virginia Woolf's  room of one's own where you can feel sure of creative flow with interruption. Okay - there are still spouses and telephones and door bells to deal with, but that scrabbling about for simple things like pens and research materials is no longer an issue.
There is an old adage that you have never truly moved house until you have unpacked the last box. Now I suspect on that score we have ‘unpacked’ most things in that we have opened all boxes and inspected the contents. But what about the boxes that were repacked and migrated to the attic? Or the shed? Do they count?
I spent half an hour today looking for a crystal sun catcher. I have not  knowingly seen it since we moved but the low winter sun is streaming through my office window and I thought how pretty it would be to have the rainbows that the crystal sent dancing out across the walls. 
So I searched.
It did not surface.
Being small it is conceivable that it became entangled in some bubblewrap and was accidentally discarded, or else (more likely) ended up in one of those re-packed boxes somewhere in the roof-void jungle.
It isn’t important in the scheme of things, and not some family heirloom whose loss will be lamented, but it made me wonder what else was packed away, never to resurface over the past twelve months, and in which case will we ever be truly settled in until they do? 
So long as I can write I am not sure it matters.
***
More about Jan Edwards and her work can be found on:
Blog: https://janedwardsblog.wordpress.com/
Facebook: jan.coleborn.edwards
Twitter: @jancoledwards

Titles in print – all available in print and dig formats
As author: Winter DownsFables and Fabrications;  Sussex Tales;  
Leinster Gardens and Other Subtleties

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Plants as Catalysts, by Elizabeth Kay



A few months ago I held a creative writing class at RHS Wisley, and the subject matter needed to fit the setting. I suppose the first book I read as a child that really featured vegetation as something important was The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Gardens are represented as being important and life-affirming, and the gradual transformation of self-centred Mary Lennox and hypochondriac Colin is brought about by the resurrection of a forbidden garden that has been neglected for ten years.

However, plants aren’t always the good guys. The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham, was a ground-breaking science fiction novel, based around the idea that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Take away everyone’s eyesight, and carnivorous plants that walk can fill a lot of suddenly-vacated evolutionary niches. Plants themselves can provide a lot of really good ideas. Tumble weed is not fixed to one place, and moves freely with the aid of the wind. There are pitcher plants that are so large that they can devour frogs and small birds as well as the insects we usually associate with their diet, and this came in very useful in my book Jinx on the Divide. The Joshua Tree can live for 1000 years, and just think about the changes that might have seen.



Even more mind-boggling is a Great Basin bristlecone pine, measured by its ring count to be 5067 years old. This is the oldest known tree in North America, and the oldest known living individual nonclonal tree in the world. Clonal colonies are linked by their roots.

Old Tjikko, a Norway spruce in Sweden, is a tree on top of roots that have been carbon dated to 9,550 years old, established at the end of the last ice age. There is a Quaking Aspen whose roots have been dated at 80,000 years.

New research is also suggesting that plants are intelligent – not in exactly the same way as us, but with their own ability to sense things. They can react to the sound of caterpillars eating nearby leaves, and begin to secrete defensive chemicals. They can sense gravity, and the presence of water. Anyone who remembers the TV series, The Private Life of Plants, may recall the speeded-up footage of a bramble growing. It was absolutely terrifying, using its thorns to grab hold of things in order to climb higher, and strangling other plants in its way. I’ve had fun with plants over the years. This is a short story called Ash Wednesday, which was originally published in Magnet Magazine in July 2013.

Genetic engineering can work in mysterious ways.

            The Great Timber Shortage led to the development of rapid-growth trees, and their subsequent and enthusiastic cultivation worldwide – but genes have agendas of their own, and we are not party to all of them.
            Initially, the walking trees were hailed as a triumph. Pines were the first; fast-growing, sensibly-shaped for inner-city walkabouts, faintly aromatic. A touch of Scotch mist in every shopping precinct, and no extra outlay each Christmas – just get the whisky companies to sponsor the fairy lights. The walkers weren’t vandalised, either – ripping off a branch seemed more like an amputation. But best of all, as far as the local councils were concerned, you couldn’t put a TPO on a single one of them. Tree Preservation Orders had been the bane of every developer; you had to build around protected trees, and if one was ever-so-accidentally cut down, the culprit got a hefty fine.

            Joshua Green had seen his job description change beyond belief. When he’d started as a tree officer he’d felt like an environmental warrior, saving damsons in distress. And then it had all changed. The first pine had walked into the shopping mall one December morning and settled down in its appointed place like a belly-dancer, shivering and shaking until its roots were thoroughly buried in the loosened earth. Joshua eyed it with caution.

            When the main waterpipe under the pavement fractured some months later, the tree was simply led off to the nearest park and left there while the repairs went ahead unhindered. The cause of the fracture was never identified. Joshua sat in the park, eating his lunch and watching the tree, wondering what would happen if it decided to go for a wander on its own.    The council printed a new leaflet, Branching Out, detailing the latest species they’d acquired for the car-park of the new superstore. Five oaks had been felled to tarmac it, which was now perfectly legal. Over a period of ten years half the trees in Britain had disappeared and been replaced with walkers. Unfortunately oaks had refused to mutate, so the council had opted for silver birches and an ash.
            The new ash tree was very beautiful; graceful sweeping branches, pale grey-green trunk, an inbuilt immunity to ash die-back disease.
            “Nice bit of shade for the cars,” said Corby, the developer.
            The tree rustled faintly.
            “Cars? Is that all you care about?” said Joshua, who cycled everywhere.
            “I care about what I’m paid to care about,” said Corby, who’d just won the contract for the new by-pass. “The oaks will have to go. We’ll be using walking willows. That way, if they start to undermine the road they can just uproot themselves and back off a bit.”
            That autumn, the trees stayed green until November. Then there was a sharp frost and the borough was stripped of its foliage overnight – all except for the ash in the car-park. Joshua blinked in astonishment; the leaves seemed impervious to cold, and now that he could see it against the skeletons of the other trees he could see how much it had grown. A slight breeze ruffled the greenery, and the tree spoke the way ashes have spoken time out of mind; a whisper, a rustle, a sigh… Yggdrasil, Yggdrasil...  A thrush started to sing, and a butterfly settled on the trunk. The tree was brimming with unseasonable life, and Joshua felt a powerful sense of unease.
            That Christmas, the fairy lights on the pine in the shopping mall fused eleven times. The following February an escaped apple tree overturned some fruit stalls, and a holly caused considerable damage when it broke into a balloon factory.
            On Shrove Tuesday, while Joshua was eating pancakes for breakfast, the phone rang.
            “Josh!” yelled Corby. “Get down here, quick as you can! I’m on site…” But the rest of his words were lost in a howling gale, and then he was cut off altogether. Joshua looked out of the window, but the sun was shining and the sycamore was as motionless as a painting. He bolted the last of his pancake, and got on his bike.
            There only seemed to be half as many trees as there had been the day before. When he reached the site he realised that everyone had stopped work. The oaks were surrounded by walking willows. Above them all towered the ash, far taller than he remembered it, right in the way of the bulldozers.
            Someone had a radio. The sound fizzed and crackled, and the newsreader’s words ebbed and flowed like the sea. A man was being interviewed about Norse mythology, about Yggdrasil, the tree of life, the giant ash that bound together heaven and earth – and hell.
            A chainsaw coughed malignantly into life. Lightning flashed and thunder roared as the tree started to pull its snaky roots out of the ground. The workforce dropped their tools and ran.

That evening, Joshua sat staring at the television in disbelief. A copse of hawthorns was marching up Whitehall. Giant redwoods had surrounded the White House, Cairo was overrun with palms, Tokyo by flowering cherries, Nairobi with baobabs. Then a weeping fig walked into the newsroom, and the picture turned to snowflakes.
Five minutes later there was a power cut. Only the clock in the church tower had anything to say.
            As Joshua listened, it struck midnight.
            It was Ash Wednesday.



Sunday, 14 October 2018

The Not So Free Free Book Giveaway

I tried the free book giveaway marketing tactic earlier this year. Gaining a following of supportive readers motivated me to do it.  Far more successful self-published authors used the “perm-free” model to gain new readers, new markets and a lot of brand new pounds and euros in their bank accounts.

Why not try it? If they achieved greater book sales using the model of giving away their equity for free, surely it should work for me. The experts claimed giving away one of my books for free helped me gain the all important newsletter subscriber, the holy grail of author-driven book marketing. They are worth gold! They sell your books! They give you reviews!

I wrote copy for my automation sequence, tweaked my landing page and wrote copy for Facebook ads designed to entice readers to give me their email address in exchange for a free copy of my book. The future looked so bright, until it dimmed.


Over time a sense of crudeness creeped over me.  With each free download I expected readers to review my book - the one they received for free, at least - on Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Goodreads.

That’s the transactional agreement, right?

Their email for my free book.

Except readers refused to accept the equal sign in this exchange. Happily they downloaded my free book — in kindle, nook, iOS and PDF formats! with free support if they couldn't get the file onto their reader of choice — and did nothing; or worse, reported me to my email provider for spamming them; or the worst of the worst, an fellow LGBT community member who gave me their email address, downloaded the book, immediately unsubscribed, then forwarded the free download email link to half a dozen other people.

Readers contacted me requesting I resend the link because “I sign up for so many author downloads, I can’t find yours in my inbox.” (That’s a direct quote, btw).

Did you bother to read my book or any of the books you download, I wanted to ask, but didn’t. Ignoring the request seemed a kinder approach for my sanity.

Setting aside the loss of my time and the money associated with expending that time the spiritual cost indebted me the most. Truly I’ve felt better punching myself in the face.

Towards the end of the experiment I felt worthless as a writer. Of course  I know writing is more than sales and the importance of making connections with readers, blah, blah, blah. Readers barely acknowledged me. They have so many free books to read why should they care about me and my writing? Readers have become surfeited with free books. And this is the crux of the problem.


Readers now expect free and demand it from writers. We’ve created the Pavlovian response amongst readers. That’s on us.


Critics tell me I need to focus on the long game. You sell fewer books in the beginning for a bigger dividend down the road. But if at some point the free giveaway model has so thoroughly depleted my sense of worth as a writer, what will I have gained? I want to be writing in 30 years. Giving away any more of my books for free inhibits that goal.

I want to earn a decent living from my writing and be acknowledged by readers and feel good about marketing and writing. So I’m calling it quits on the free book giveaway. For next book launch, I will offer a time-based discount on the book’s price; I will give away a book or two through raffle copter and  excerpt a few paragraphs on the web.


I love writing compelling content that certain readers like and publishing it through my newsletter, here at Author's Electric and other publishing outlets I write for. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.




Saturday, 13 October 2018

Year Zero? - by Alex Marchant


What a year it’s been!


A life-changing year. This month, and almost to the day as I write this, it’s been a whole year since I published my first book. A year in which, for the first time, I’ve been able to call myself an author. Not just wish for it, or dream about it, but actually introduce myself as an author.

And because I decided to launch my book on the anniversary of the birthday of my leading historical character (2nd October), I was able, courtesy of a totally unexpected, but rather fabulous invitation, to celebrate its first anniversary at the same time as his birthday  in his old home, surrounded by other devotees – and with cake! Lots of cake! (More on that later.)


Did I think a year ago just where I’d be now? No – not at all. My only aim was to get that book published – to master the labyrinthine processes needed to produce an ebook, and paperbacks via two different suppliers. And to adhere to US, as well as my own UK, tax regulations, because – really? – there would be money coming my way if – when – people began to buy it. It was quite late on in the process when I realized that last fact: I knew of course that the point of publishing the book was so that people to read it, but for them to do that they had to buy it (usually) – and in order for them to want to do that, I’d have to sell it to them. Marketing, promotion – that was something else I had to master.

The grand marketing plan still hasn’t been drawn up. I continue to promote on a very ad hoc basis. Some time this winter, when things are quieter, I’ll sit down and read all those ‘how to’ guides and plan properly – probably. But somehow, even without all that, the pre-orders began to roll in, then sales; I started to interact with complete strangers on social media who’d bought the book and enjoyed it; and, yes, sums of money mysteriously appeared in my bank account...

...and in all sorts of currencies...
The learning curve continued, if anything growing steeper. Three weeks before Christmas I had my first ‘public appearance’ since publication – it may have been only a local senior school fayre, but it still counted. People spoke to me seriously as an author, discussed the ins and outs of my particular period of history, and – I couldn’t quite believe it – bought my books. Quite a few of them. It gave me the confidence to start planning more face-to-face appearances for the coming year – and to say ‘yes’ when invitations arrived, even when my first instinct might have been to run a mile in the opposite direction.
Two kind gentlemen helping me with publicity
 shots at Barnet Medieval Festival

Since then it seems I’ve hardly had time to turn around, with new experiences coming fast one upon another. With the release of the sequel, I now have the ‘full set’ to present and sell. (Though there is a third book underway, taking the lives of my fictional characters onwards, the first two books complete the story of King Richard III himself, which was what I originally set out to do.) And events and activities so far have included (all of them firsts): stalls at several medieval festivals; giving readings and talks at said festivals (the pinnacle being when, at Bosworth, a gunnery demonstration began in the main arena right on cue – just as I was describing the cannon-fire in my reading of the build-up to the battle from ‘The King’s Man’!); talks and question-and-answer sessions at schools and libraries; a videoed interview and reading alongside a fellow author at my first library event (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nnNrCeWnqs); a virtual book launch, plus two ‘bricks and mortar’ ones; upcoming attendance at my very first literary festival (Moulton, Northamptonshire). All things that a year ago would have had me running, terrified, for the hills.

Cover girl?
Other ‘firsts’ include a recent invitation to review a fellow author’s recently submitted manuscript, with an eye to providing a quote for her cover (me?!), and putting out a tentative suggestion for a collaboration to produce an anthology of short fiction as a charity fundraiser. To my surprise, all eleven fellow authors I approached in the first instance were enthusiastic to become involved, so I’m currently busy editing my first contributory volume in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK), which assists people with the same condition that King Richard had. With my new-found mantra of ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’, the title is Grant Me the Carving of My Name, used with permission of the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, from her poem ‘Richard’ read by Benedict Cumberbatch at the king’s reburial in 2015. And I’m currently waiting on tenterhooks for final confirmation of a contribution by another well-known ‘name’. All fingers and other extremities crossed…

Cover image of the anthology
kindly contributed by Riikka Katajisto


And that cake mentioned above? That was perhaps the most relaxing of my events so far this year. The manager of Middleham Castle in Wensleydale decided to throw a party for the 566th birthday of the most famous of the castle’s owners, namely King Richard, and she invited me along to cut the cake on his behalf. I’ve never been a ‘special guest’ before. It almost made me feel like a ‘real’ author…

Cutting the cake iced in the King Richard's
 colours of murrey and blue. And it was very tasty.











Friday, 12 October 2018

Struggling with Plot Bronwen Griffiths


Some novels are more plot-driven than others – compare, for example, The Dry by Jane Harper with a book like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Your novel does not have to be plot-driven, nor do you have to feel that digression is something to avoid. Personally, I love reading asides, or delving deep into the head of a character through a long, internal monologue. I can get enjoyment from reading about the landscape, or learning about a character’s hobby, or being taken on a philosophical journey, and even a plot-driven thriller needs its quiet times -- otherwise the reader can feel dizzy – as if they are on an endless merry-go-round.

But whatever genre you write in – plot matters. If you don’t think about plot carefully before setting down to write your novel, or you make too many plot changes half-way through the writing, you can feel as if you are stuck in a maze with no sign of a way out. Plot doesn’t have to be linear. You can use flashbacks, or tell a tale from back to front, but it does at least have to make sense.
            Unless you are writing a ‘whodunit’ in the Agatha Christie vein, most plots are character driven (and to be frank, even in a ‘whodunit’ character matters). The main consideration for the writer is why, when and how. You must ask yourself some serious questions about each character. Why is she running away? Why now and not tomorrow or next week or last year? Or, why is this character, rarely impulsive, now behaving with reckless abandon? What has propelled him to take this action?
            You must also consider consequences. What are the consequences of this character running away, both for the character herself, but also for the plot? Will someone come looking for the runaway or not, and if not, why not? You have to keep asking these questions in order to come to the end, the conclusion of the book.

     Plot also has to be believable. This is the ‘how’ of the plot. We’ve all watched films or TV series where a set of coincidences or a series of clumsy plot devices leaves us rushing for the off-switch. Or something doesn’t make sense. That’s not to say you can’t write coincidences -- I’m sure we can all think of some quite extraordinary coincidences in our own lives -- but you must examine them under a microscope. Are they believable? Can you take the reader with you?
            The writer must beware the dreaded ‘plot-hole’. These can be even more dangerous than the pot-holes in our increasingly poor roads. Plot-holes can be inconsistencies in location or character that can’t be explained, or questions not answered in the initial premise of the novel, or one scene not being connected to another. Googling ‘plot-holes’ brings up dozens of examples. Who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep? The book provides no clue, and when William Faulkner and his team encountered this problem in writing the script for the film version of the novel, they called Raymond Chandler to ask him. Chandler’s response was, ‘Damned if I know.’
            Plotting your novel doesn’t have to result in boredom for you, the writer. Your characters can still surprise you along the way, and, as I said in the first paragraph, there is nothing wrong with taking a meander. But if you make big changes half-way through, or you are unsure of some aspects, you will run into trouble. I know. I’ve done it. Doing it means an awful lot of re-writing. You may, of course, decide half-way through that you’ve made a mistake and want to change what happens. That’s your prerogative as a writer. Perhaps half-way through you’ve found a better way. Just be aware that a re-write which involves changing the plot requires a great deal of work.
            If you are lucky enough to be offered a publishing deal you will probably be asked to do a structural edit. This involves looking at the 'big picture' elements of the narrative and characters, and examining which of these elements are working and which could be improved, cut or changed altogether. It won’t just include the plot but also the setting, pacing, character development, narrative style, voice and tense. But if you’ve you already examined the plot for inconsistencies and plot-holes you are already almost there. 
Here Casts No Shadow,
Bottom of Form 
Bronwen is the author of  
 Not Here, Not Us – stories of Syria, 2016 
and A Bird in the House, 2014. 
Her flash fiction has been widely published. 

 

Thursday, 11 October 2018

The Price of a Million Books: Misha Herwin



Yesterday I went to the launch of “Hush Hush” by Mel Sherratt. Mel is a local author, born and bred in the Potteries who has had a huge success with her thrillers.
From starting out as a self-published writer in 2013, she is now a best-selling author, who has reached the pinnacle of a million sales.

For many of us this is the height of achievement, to be able to spend your time writing and not only to make a good living out of your passion but also to be recognised and feted for what you not only love, but are driven to do, must be the best thing in the world.

It comes, however, at a price. In the early days Mel worked full time, came home, blogged, which is how she built up her readership and wrote. She got up early, she worked every evening and weekend, often late into the night.

And it paid off. She is a full time writer, and a great commercial success.
Working as she does, she follows the footsteps of writers like Antony Horowitz who writes every single day of the year, including holidays with his children and Christmas. This is how Dickens worked and Trollope too, while Lee Childs dedicates a complete six months of every year to writing his next best-seller.
I am full of admiration for her, but am I willing, or indeed able to pay that price?

For me, writing is a passion, is something that I have done since childhood, something that I am driven to do. I would write even if I knew there was no one out there to read it. However, I simply could not dedicate the hours to it that she does.

I like to spend time with my family and my friends. To be out there in the garden, or go for long walks along the canal. To give myself time to chill.

And all this feeds into my writing. It’s often on a walk that I get an idea for a book or a story, the same is true of talking with people, looking at paintings, listening to music, or doing something I haven’t done before.

So maybe, I will never be able to post proudly on Facebook that I have achieved a million sales, but as Mel said, we can all choose our level of success, for some it’s commercial and financial, for others just the joy of having produced a book that others will enjoy.

Ultimately, as writers and people, we make our own choice. What matters is that is the right one for us.

PS my children’s book “City of Secrets” is out at the end of October.



Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Late Bloomers | Karen Kao

Late bloomers are lazy; they don’t put in the effort needed to develop their God-given talents. Or, they’ve been thwarted by the roadblocks life throws in their path: poverty, pregnancy, sheer bad luck. Some late bloomers don’t get discovered in time. All of them are old.

It doesn’t really matter how old. You can find lists of 20 under 20 in pretty much every walk of life: sports, entertainment, business. If you inch up to 35 under 35, you’ll find game changers and innovators. But folks older than that don’t make it into lists anymore. No one cares about late bloomers.

When I was in my 20s, I showed some promise as a poet. Then I let the flame die. Entered into that most soul-crushing of professions: the law. I threw my talent away and, as a result, don’t deserve a second chance. But here I am, in my 50s, starting a whole new career as a writer.

Career-switching is a thing these days. There are a thousand and one reasons why, say, a journalist chooses to become a high school teacher or a lawyer turns into a fitness enthusiast. A cottage industry has sprung up to help you find the next you. Last week, I took a workshop at one of them: the Bakery Institute.

bread

Technically speaking, the Bakery Institute is a school for professional bakers. Since all true baking comes from France, the options for specialization are French, too: boulangerie, patisserie, viennoiserie, chocolaterie and glacerie. But there are only so many professional bakers out there in need of continuing education. And thus, like any intelligent business these days, the Bakery Institute also offers courses to career-switchers and fanatical amateurs.

I fall into the latter category. I’ve been baking my own sourdough bread for 3 years now. Yeast does unpleasant things with my digestive system. Plus, I really like the way sourdough tastes. My bread baking skills have slowly evolved so that I can now make a decent German style rye, the dark dense type a woodcutter would need to sustain himself on a good day’s work.



But I needed more variety. And I wanted more hands-on instruction like the kind I got last fall from my friend at Laila’s Levain. Because it turns out that I can’t learn baking from a book or even a YouTube film. I need to use my other 3 senses as well. To smell the sweetness of an active sourdough starter, to feel the elasticity of freshly kneaded dough and, yes, to taste that dough step by step as it develops flavor.

trial and error

 
Boule blanc waiting to be scored. Photo credit: Karen Kao

There’s an incredible amount of precision required in baking. The temperature of the water when you start mixing and the temperature of the dough when you’re done. Every ingredient must be individually weighed exactly to the gram. Every step is timed.

And then you let go. Let the natural process of fermentation take over. That process will determine whether and how fast the dough will rise, the flavor it develops, the openness of the crumb. Even the best of bakers cannot control that process. All you can try to do is maintain the consistency of your baking conditions because every variant has an impact. Ambient temperature, start time and, of course, the ingredients.

To maintain consistency, you have to be able to recognize these variations. And in order to do that, you have to record every detail of your process. Once you understand what your own norm is, then you can start tweaking. So it turns out, in order to be a good baker, you have to be a writer, too.

flour, water, salt

 

Bread is nothing more than flour, water and salt. Of course, the better your ingredients, the greater the quality of the bread. Or, to say it another way, no amount of expert kneading can make great bread out of lousy ingredients.

Do I have what it takes to make great bread? There’s certainly nothing in my youth to indicate it. I grew up on Wonder bread for lunch and rice for dinner. I don’t think I ate a decent slice of bread until I was well into adulthood. Either my gene pool did not consist of the right ingredients to make me into a star baker or my circumstances quashed my innate skills.

In any event, I started too late. For, as Malcolm Gladwell observes: 
Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity – doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth.
We can all come up with examples of child prodigies from Mozart to Bobby Fischer to Picasso. The old folks version is harder to produce. Did you know that Alfred Hitchcock made some of his best movies when he was in his 50s?  Paul Cézanne didn’t peak until he was in his 60’s. Gladwell calls him a late bloomer. 
The Cézannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.

 
Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses. Image source: https://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/435882

at the kitchen table


I once read an anecdote about a writer, mother and wife, who for years wrote in the margins of a busy family life. She worked in the kitchen on scraps of paper that she would stuff into her apron pocket or a kitchen drawer. When the children finally left home, she strung all those pieces together and wove them into a wonderful work of fiction. That book was eventually published when the writer had reached a ridiculously ripe age.

That anecdote seemed perfect for this blog post. So I used every combination of the words writer-wife-mother-late to find my mystery writer and her work. In my memory, my writer was aggrieved. Her home was a prison; her life a waiting game. And so I filtered out of my query anyone who had had a career outside of the home or any form of higher education.

I never did find my mystery writer though I ran across plenty of other authors who manage to be wives and mothers and be happy with that combination. Women who published in their 40s and beyond. Plus Bloom, a literary site 
devoted to highlighting, profiling, reviewing and interviewing authors whose first major work was published when they were age 40 or older.
The problem, I now realize, is that I was looking for a writer who fit my idea of a late bloomer. Someone who had wasted most of her life and knew it.

fermentation

 

But writing is a natural process. Even for those of us gifted by the gods with a plot line or a character who springs to mind, fully formed, there remains the long hard slog of getting these thoughts into words. For the rest of us, the blank page beckons.

It took me 5 years to write my first novel. It’s starting to look like I’ll need a similar amount of time to finish my second one, too. Each draft I produce is a page 1 rewrite. And today’s rewrite may become tomorrow’s trash. Yet slowly but surely, the contours of my characters are becoming distinct. Their thoughts and wants and fears ever more tangible.

This is obviously not the most efficient way to write. Picasso would scoff. He did not want his various “manners” to be seen as evolutionary steps. He denied ever having embarked on a trial or an experiment. And then there is Cézanne. 
When Cézanne painted his dealer, Ambrose Vollard, he made Vollard arrive at eight in the morning and sit on a rickety platform until eleven-thirty, without a break, on a hundred and fifty occasions—before abandoning the portrait. He would paint a scene, then repaint it, then paint it again. He was notorious for slashing his canvases to pieces in fits of frustration.
I can’t rush my writing any more than I can speed up the rise of my dough. But I try to understand my process in the hope of improving the quality of my end product. My process is slow and incremental. It may not look like progress at all. But inside, the words are bubbling to the surface, capturing mood and tone and flavor.

When it’s done, I’ll let you know.

The final product. Bread and photo credit: Karen Kao
Note: Late Bloomers was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir.