Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Downton Abbey (2)

Hi everyone.

I hope you had a good Bank Holiday weekend. It was a bit of a wash-out here so I hope it was better where you are.

Actually, the wet weekend didn't really bother me too much. I spent most of it putting the finishing touches to a new website I've set up. This is to publicise the collection of letters I inherited from my grandmother which I'm trying to get published as a non-fiction book called 'My Dear Elsie'.

Those of you who follow this blog will know that the letters have a strong link to the popular UK television series Downton Abbey. This is because they were written by my grandmother's close friend Ethel North, who was lady's maid and companion to Lady Winifred Burghclere, the elder sister of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. As you may know, the Carnarvon family were the real-life inspiration for the fictional Crawley family in Downton Abbey and much of the series was filmed at their ancestral seat of Highclere Castle.

The website, as well as providing interesting biographical information (with photos!) about Lady Burghclere and Ethel North, also goes into a bit more detail about the fascinating content of the letters themselves. In addition, I've set up a blog on the website which I intend to use to chart my progress with my efforts to get them into print.

Talking of blogs, I probably won't be blogging here again for the foreseeable future. This is partly because I'll be concentrating on my blog about the progress of the book but also because I have recently added a new strand to my career "portfolio". As from last week, I am now a freelance designer and I feel I need to put a lot of effort into setting that up and establishing myself so like a few other things in my working life, this blog will have to go on hold for a while.

I do hope you will feel able to join me over at my new blog and also to take a look at the new website. It would be great to hear from you there as I need all the encouragement I can get!

You can find the new website and blog at:


In the meantime, thanks very much for visiting this blog and I hope to see you again soon.

Copyright Melissa Lawrence 2015

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Mid Life Crisis

Hi everyone.

The summer seems to have gone on strike, doesn't it? I'm sitting here with the central heating on as there is a definite Autumnal nip in the air, possibly because it is the early hours of the morning. Actually, it was more like a Wintery nip when I opened the front door a few minutes ago to fetch the milk in. I'm surprised there wasn't a dash of snow on my red-top.

Maybe the summer is having a mid-life crisis, (if summers have lives) which is something I feel like I'm going through at the moment, especially with my writing. It's probably been going on for months but seemed to really kick in when I decided to start sorting out all my unpublished work, namely my large collection of short stories, my eight children's novels and my three collections of children's poetry.

I'm not sure what made me do it although worrying about the weight of the filing cabinet on my office floor was probably a factor. I don't think it was the best time to choose either as I was already feeling pretty down about the lack of positive response from agents to my latest book and going through all my old rejection letters, although interesting, was somewhat disheartening.

I don't know if other writers get to a point in their writing (and personal) lives where they wonder "Is this it?", or am I the only one? Part of the ageing process seems to me to be the need to reflect on what you've achieved so far, what you still want to achieve and whether you can realistically achieve it in the time you may have left. Is it right to let go of stuff that is probably never going to see the light of day or is it worth ploughing on with it? Is it better to concentrate on writing new material and stop trying to make further progress with work that has already been rejected so many times, it needs more rewrites than Harry Potter.

That probably sounds much more negative than I intended it to be and there was a definite plus side to my de-cluttering exercise apart from it being a great displacement activity to avoid doing any actual writing. As I said in a previous post, when you look back at work that you haven't seen for ages, you do read it with almost fresh eyes and it's probably the most objective you will ever be about your own work.  I was pleased to discover that I have written quite a number of poems for children that I still really like and which I do feel have merit, although that doesn't necessarily mean they will ever be published unless I opt for self-publishing, of course.

I've picked out a couple of short ones to share with you. The first comes from my second collection of poems for children entitled "Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Sprout?" The second one is from my collection for teens called "I Wandered Lonely As A Snog".



I am the confident kid.

The one who walks home alone.
The only child
in the crocodile,
who doesn't have a hand to hold.

Because I am bold,
I am strong.
I don't need no parent tagging along.
I walk with a swagger,
eyes fixed ahead.
If anyone messes with me,
they're dead.

All the other kids think I'm cool.

(Well, it helps that I live next door to the school.)


Kiss me slowly, kiss me quick,
Kiss me thinly, kiss me thick.

Kiss me softly, kiss me hard,
Kiss me in the classroom, kiss me in the yard.

Kiss me like a speeding train,
Kiss me in the sunshine, kiss me in the rain.

Kiss me while you still have the breath,
Kiss me forever, kiss me to death.

 Photo by Matlachu

Monday, 3 August 2015

The Carrot, Not The Stick

Hi everyone.

I hope you've had a good couple of weeks and managed to get lots of writing done.

I'm pleased to say that things have improved quite a bit since my last post Coping With Criticism in which I described how a "mauling" of the sample copy of my proposed non-fiction book with the strong link to Downton Abbey by a literary agent, had badly affected my confidence in the material.

Thanks to a surprising act of "serendipity" (obviously the Universe hasn't quite given up on the project yet), I was given the opportunity to send the proposal and sample copy to my writing colleague author Dr Sheila Glasbey who writes under the pen name of Rosalie Warren. Rosalie is an experienced editor and qualified proof-reader as well as the published author of several novels and scientific works. She runs her own editing, proofreading and critique service which you can find out about at http://www.affordable-editing.com/

Rosalie sent her comments back almost by return of email for which I was very grateful. Without going into too much detail, suffice to say they were considerably more helpful, encouraging and positive than the agent's had been. She was very emphatic that I should carry on with the book and certain that I am the person to write it. I was also particularly pleased that (unlike the agent who dismissed my very personal proposed introduction to the book in one short sentence), Rosalie felt it was something that many readers would empathise with.

Of course, I am well aware that this is only one person's opinion, in the same way that the agent's comments were only one person's opinion. However, because there was considerably more "carrot than stick" in Rosalie's comments than there was in those of the agent (even though the agent was obviously interested in the book), they did not have the effect of stopping me from working on it altogether, as the agent's had done. Quite the reverse in fact and I'm pleased to say that I now feel back on track with 'My Dear Elsie' once again.

One of Rosalie's suggestions was to exploit some of the "brilliant selling points" of the book, including setting up a website with info about Downton Abbey, my book etc. This was something I'd tentatively been thinking about doing and now feel it is definitely the way forward. I have spent quite a lot of time researching websites and blogs which were set up to promote both collections of personal letters (my book is based on letters and postcards I inherited from my grandmother) and books which were "looking" for publishers. It was interesting to discover that in the sites I looked at, publication seemed to follow as a result of the publicity generated by the website and/or blog.

So, as I've probably said before, "onwards and upwards", thanks to Rosalie. I'll keep you posted as to if and when the website gets off the ground. Meanwhile, keep writing. (And I'll try to do the same.)

Carrots For Sale By Paul Brennan

Monday, 20 July 2015

Coping With Criticism

Hi everyone.

So Wimbledon has finished but I still have the Ashes and the Tour de France to distract me from writing so all is not lost. And it's a bit cooler (sorry if you love the summer!) although horribly humid at times. But then it is the middle of July so I suppose that's understandable.

It's been a bit of a tricky time for me on the writing front since my last post and not just for the afore mentioned reasons. I heard back from the agent who had asked to see all the sample copy relating to my proposed non-fiction book Dear Elsie, based on letters I inherited from my grandmother and which has a strong link to Downton Abbey. She asked to see the rest of the book which would have been great except that I haven't written it yet. My understanding is that with non-fiction books (unlike novels) you don't write the whole book until you get a contract with a publisher so it was a bit of a surprise.

Anyway, I plucked up courage to ring her again to explain the situation which was not a problem apparently and she was clearly interested in the material. However, what did appear to be a problem was my sample copy which she absolutely slated. It felt like the equivalent of someone taking a huge red pen and writing negative comments all over it. There wasn't one positive remark in her critique and although I agreed with some of her analysis and tried very hard not to be defensive, it was a painful experience.

Of course, it's not the first time I've had my writing "mauled" by an editor or agent and if I manage to keep going, it probably won't be the last. However, for some reason I found this particular experience much harder to take than any other. This was possibly because of the rather personal nature of the book, possibly because there is a lot more riding on it than ever before and possibly because my expectations for the project are much higher than perhaps they should be, especially as the first agent I sent it to said he thought it would be a bestseller.

Anyway, whatever the reason, it had the unfortunate effect of really knocking my confidence not just in the material but in all my writing, and even my crafting, as well. Although I immediately talked about what had happened to as many people as possible and picked up some useful advice (the optician was particularly helpful!) it was almost ten days before I was able to look at the material again. By then I had recovered a bit and was able to pick out the parts of the agent's critique which I felt were worth taking on board. Most importantly though, having re-read the material as objectively as I could, I was relieved to discover that despite everything the agent had said, I felt very strongly indeed that I should stick to my guns and that give or take a degree of rewriting, I need to stand by the material.

The whole experience has been an interesting if very challenging one and has reminded me that so much of writing is not really about the writing at all. It's about self-belief, confidence, perseverance, coping with criticism, getting back on the horse and keeping your eye on the bigger picture.

In the words of that well-known writer Adele, "sometimes it lasts...but sometimes it hurts instead."

Back in a couple of weeks, all being well.

Digitally created by Melissa Lawrence 2015

Sunday, 5 July 2015

The Heat Is On

Hi everyone.

Well, that was a heatwave and a half! Hopefully by now it is on its way out (apologies if you are a sun worshipper) and temperatures will be more conducive to working. Mind you, I can't just blame the heat for a bit of a dip in productivity this week. It probably has as much to do with a certain tennis tournament which is now in full swing, no pun intended.

I did manage to take the damp towel off my forehead and put down my Pimm's for a few minutes this week, to continue the ongoing quest to find an agent to represent my proposed non-fiction book My Dear Elsie. As I've mentioned before, this is the book based on a collection of letters I inherited from my grandmother and which has a very strong link to Downton Abbey.

The agent I approached this week actually invites phone calls for non-fiction book queries, which in itself is pretty amazing, not to mention extremely helpful. As I've said to anyone who will listen, it's easier to get to speak to the Pope than it is to an agent. Anyway, the agent in question has asked to see all my sample copy (the first one to do so) which is an encouraging sign and I await her response with interest.

The other thing I'm pleased about this week is that I've made a decision to go back to writing fiction, something I haven't done for about two years now. Although I have a number of unpublished children's novels which I could work on again, plus one or two ideas for new ones, I thought it would be more sensible to wait until I (hopefully) have acquired an agent who might be helpful in looking at where I am at with my children's books. So it is back to writing short stories again, probably for the women's magazine market as I'm keen to try and boost my tally of published short stories to at least double figures.

I decided that a good starting point was to sort out my rather hefty folder of unpublished short stories, which turned out to be quite an interesting exercise and also meant I could put off actually having to write one for a bit longer. I always think that a good test of how well-written something is comes from re-reading it after a very long period of time. If it feels like someone else has written it, if it makes you laugh (or cry) and if you don't guess your own ending, then that can be a sign that it still has merit. I found one or two stories which fitted into this category and a large number that didn't, as well as a few which I feel could be rewritten as flash fiction.

I also came across a sheet of hints and tips on writing women's magazine fiction which are quite useful and I thought I'd share some of them with you here.

1. Keep sentence structure simple. Avoid using colons and semi-colons.

2. Language needs to be simple and straightforward. Sentences should be short and punchy.

3. Always contract everything possible ie I'd, you'll, she's etc.

4. Don't try to be too literary or too highbrow. (Save that for the small press magazines.)

5. Your lead character should be female and strong, not too wimpy.

6. Tell the story from one character's viewpoint only.

These are pretty basic suggestions but useful if, like me, you are thinking of returning to or trying out the highly competitive world of women's magazine fiction. For more detailed do's and don'ts, plus useful market analysis on where to send your work, I can highly recommend http://www.womagwriter.blogspot.co.uk/

Stay cool, if you can!

Reading In The Canoe
by Anderson C Sanders Anderson

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Better Late Than Never

Hi everyone.

Are you having a relaxing Sunday afternoon or a busy one? I don't know what it is about Sundays but I always find it harder to "kick-start" my working day on a Sunday more than any other day of the week.

Last time I blogged about how to cope if you are waiting to hear back from an agent or publisher. I did try to take my own advice (honestly!) but it wasn't that easy. However, I did eventually get a response, although not quite the one I was hoping for.

The good news is that the agent I approached thinks that my book based on the letters I inherited from my grandmother and with a strong link to the TV series Downton Abbey, could be a potential bestseller. (He actually used the word 'bestseller' twice in the email he sent me!) Of course, I do appreciate that this is only his opinion but I was still pretty chuffed, to say the least. The bad news is that he didn't feel able to represent me, so it's back to the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook to continue my quest.

Also on the theme of 'waiting', I finally had a poem published in a small press magazine almost exactly three years (yes, three years!) to the day since it was accepted for publication. I know that the wheels grind very slowly in this industry but that did seem quite a long time. However, it's so long since I've had anything published that I didn't really mind. Also, it is my 40th published poem which feels like a bit of a milestone.

I don't very often share my poems on my blog but when I realised I was writing this post on Father's Day and that this poem happens to be about my late father, I decided to make an exception. It's so long since I wrote it that I can't really remember how it all came together but I think I wanted to have a go at writing a 'prose poem' as I'd never really tried one before. The subject matter came from the thought that I was (and still am) very puzzled by the fact that having had our kitchen invaded by swarms of ants for many years, after my father died very suddenly ("my eggshell day"), they stopped coming and have never come back since, even though it is now over seven years since he passed away.

So here is the poem.


The ants came in their hundreds
the year before you left. It was as if
someone banged a huge ant drum,
calling them towards half-opened bottles
of lemonade, lids kissed with rinds
of blackcurrant jam and ancient cubes of sugar.
They took scant notice of the plugs I put down,
cotton-wool balls soaked in peppermint oil,
making the kitchen smell like a giant polo mint.
But since then, not one single ant has graced me
with its presence. It's as if they saluted
your cigar smoke, scuffed their feet across the sticky
kitchen floor and tossed their antennae carelessly
in the direction of my eggshell day.

Copyright Melissa Lawrence 2015

(First published in The Coffee House magazine.)

Clifford John Beck (1926 - 2007)

Monday, 8 June 2015

The Waiting Game

Hi everyone.

My mother used to say that the day I stopped having a "new system" was the day she would start worrying about me. A familiar phrase of mine is indeed "I've got a new system" which usually means I've come up with some grand scheme or plan which I'm convinced is going to be the answer to all my problems, as well as the life, the universe and everything in between.

Well, I'm pleased to say that I have a "new system" for this blog
which means you should (if the system works) be hearing from me on a slightly more regular basis. We shall see.

A couple of weeks ago I posted a writing tweet (melissawriter95) which implied that "cold-calling" an agent was more scary than wrestling a shark. OK, maybe that is a slight exaggeration but then, I've never wrestled a shark. However, I have "cold-called" an agent and very scary it was too, although to be fair I did only get to speak to their PA which was probably more piranha fish than shark.

By then, I thought I'd done the hard bit. This was three months of very intensive work on the proposal and sample copy  for my non-fiction book based on the letters I inherited from my grandmother with a strong Downton Abbey connection, followed by sixteen hours of non-stop editing and proofreading (Don't try this at home.) and then the scary phone call. That however, seems to have been a slice of Battenberg compared with what I'm having to do now which is wait for the agent to respond to the proposal and the sample copy.

I must admit that in some corner of my mind (do minds have corners?) I was rather hoping that the agent would call back within 24 hours, tell me that my submission was the best thing they'd ever seen and that they were now going to make me incredibly rich and famous. I don't know why I thought that as I've been trying (on and off) to get an agent for more years than I've been trying to get the body of Kate Moss and neither of those events has happened yet.

It's just that I'm convinced that for once in my life I actually have something that is so unique, so original and above all such an absolute belter of a story that no publisher in their right mind would turn it down. After all, how many people open their mother's wardrobe one day and find a huge cache of letters and postcards which turn out to have been written by someone with (among other things) an incredible insight into the workings of the real-life family on which the most popular TV series of the last decade is based?

Of course, a quick flick through the articles in the Writers' & Artists' Year Book, not to mention a perusal of all my previous rejection letters from agents reminded me that in the "real" world someone may take a rather different view. On the other hand, they may not and it is entirely possible that just because I haven't heard anything positive from them yet, doesn't mean I'm not going to. After all, no news is good news and all that.

Meanwhile, if you are also playing "the waiting game" with your precious manuscript or proposal, here are my tips for keeping sane.

1. Take a complete break from the project for at least a week after you've sent it out. Better still, take a break from writing altogether and go and do something else for a few days. I hear that shark wrestling can be very exhilarating.

2. Start a new writing project or go back to working on something that you've been neglecting while all your time and energy has been focused on your submission.

3. Resist the temptation to sit by the phone 24/7 in the hope that the agent might call. Go out for a long walk. Watch the TV with the volume turned up so you can't hear the phone. Hide your mobile under a cushion. If they really want to get in touch, they'll call again.

4. Whatever you do, don't start rewriting/editing the work you've already sent out. However good it is, you will immediately suffer a complete crisis of confidence and drive yourself mad wishing you'd written this or not written that. If you really feel you need to make changes, at least wait until you've had a response from them.

5. Try not to get annoyed if you haven't heard back from the agent within what you consider to be a "reasonable" amount of time. Despite the enormous groundswell of people self-publishing, agents are still inundated with submissions and they do sometimes need to come up for air.

6. Don't feel that it will be the end of the world if this particular agent rejects your work, for whatever reason. In the grand scheme of things, it isn't really that important (yes, I know!) and of course, there are always plenty more sharks (sorry, fish) in the sea.

I promise I'll keep you posted.

Waiting For
by George Hodan

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

When Your Characters Come For Tea

Hi everyone.

OK, so I'm not going to beat myself up about how long it is since my last blog post. Suffice to say that I promised you an update on how my non-fiction book with the strong link to the hit TV series Downton Abbey is progressing and here it is.

Wow. What a lot has happened in the last few weeks. My proposed book is based on a collection of letters and postcards I inherited from my maternal grandmother which were written to her between 1919 and 1933 from a close friend called Ethel North. Miss North was lady's maid and companion to Lady Winifred Burghclere, elder sister of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon (the one who discovered Tutankhamen) which is where the Downton link comes in.

Anyway, in January, I started the process of putting together a proposal to send to literary agents and this has involved a great deal of typing, a great deal of research for footnotes (thank you Google!) and a great deal of background research on the Carnarvons, the Burghcleres and Ethel's back story. Fortunately I'd already done a lot of research on my family history so not so much to do there, I'm pleased to say.

Enter a palaeographer. No, I didn't know what one was until I realised I needed one but it turns out to be someone who specialises in deciphering old handwriting. This has been invaluable anyway but the palaeographer pointed out one very important detail which may have thrown the whole project into disarray. Yes, I own the actual letters but no, I don't own the copyright. Ooops.

Once I'd got over the shock (and the irritation with myself for not realising this in the first place) it was straight down to trying to find out just who did own the copyright and whether or not they'd give me permission to publish the letters. After all, they couldn't do anything with them, could they?

First of all, I downloaded a copy of Ethel's will from the Probate Search Service, then I set off on the trail. I'd already made some effort before Christmas to trace any living relatives based on an article that had been written to my local paper in 1992 by one of Ethel's nieces. Eventually I was pretty sure I had a name. If my hunch was right, it was this lady's daughter and a great niece of Ethel's. One evening, about two weeks ago, I found a name in the phone book and summoned all my courage to dial the number.

A female voice answered which was an encouraging start. I knew I'd only have a moment or two to convince the person at the other end that I wasn't trying to sell them something. I managed to get the words out and....it was her!

Not only that but after talking on the phone for two hours and then on Facebook for another hour, we discovered that we both went to the same primary school, the same secondary school and the same tennis club! Although she had some knowledge of the Lady Burghclere connection, she had little idea as to the full extent of her great aunt's amazing life. I, in turn, was delighted to discover that three of Ethel's nephews were still alive (hopefully with some memories to share) and to learn a great deal more about Ethel's parents and five sisters.

Have you ever heard of that writing exercise where you to "invite" your characters round for tea and quiz them to find out more about them? Well, last Saturday afternoon I did that for real! OK, so it was the descendants of some of my "characters" but it was still a totally amazing and very surreal, not to mention informative experience. It was also rather like meeting a long-lost family I didn't know I had.

And as for the copyright issue? Well that's ongoing but hopefully it isn't going to be a problem. In the meantime, I'm still plugging away with the typing and the footnotes. It's already been quite an incredible journey. I think there is much more to come.

 The article from my local paper that helped me find Ethel's great niece.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Life That I Have

Hi everyone.

Happy Valentine's Day! I hope your "significant other" remembered the card and flowers or at least offered to clean the bathroom.

I think I could probably count the number of Valentine's cards that I've received during my life on the fingers of a very small hand. (Ahhhh....) I've made plenty though and I will now unashamedly plug my crafting website http://www.melissalawrencedesigns.com/ where you can find exclusive handcrafted cards, stationery and gifts for all occasions including Valentine's Day.

Anyway, back to receiving Valentine's cards. One I'd completely forgotten about (maybe that's why no one sends me any!) was sent by a male friend at university. He actually sent one to all my flatmates as well so I don't think it really counts. I came across the card the other day and I was struck by the beauty of the poem he'd written inside. Knowing it was pretty unlikely that he'd penned it himself, I looked the poem up on the internet and discovered that is generally attributed to a man called Leo Marks who says in his autobiography that it was written following the death of his girlfriend. The poem came to prominence in the 1958 film Carve Her Name With Pride where it was used to great effect by the actress Virginia McKenna as a Code Poem.

I wanted to use the poem in some artistic way to commemorate Valentine's Day and decided to include it on a scrapbook page featuring a photo of my paternal grandparents dated 1916. They were childhood sweethearts and the photo was probably taken just before my grandfather left to serve in France. Fortunately, he made it back and they married soon afterwards. I also included a little pressed leaf from their family bible which has the words 'France 1917' written underneath.

The Life That I Have (as it is generally known) may not be the most "literary" and technically brilliant poem that was ever written but the repetitive words and the emotion behind them are incredibly poignant, especially when used in the context of someone possibly facing death. It also seems like a good choice for Valentine's Day and is certainly a vast improvement on the usual mush!

If you want to find out more about the poem, there is a useful article at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/telegraphtv/3460867/Virginia-McKenna-recites-The-Life-That-I-Have.html 

Copyright Melissa Lawrence 2015

Monday, 19 January 2015

I'm Back. Again.

You know you haven't blogged in a while when you can't remember your own blog address and have to find it via your website. Yes, I really did mean to blog regularly and yes, it really is September 2014 since I last posted anything. Oh well. The road to hell and all that as my late father would have said.

So Happy Diwali, Happy Halloween, Happy Bonfire Night, Happy Christmas and Happy New Year. Delete which not applicable.

I was actually shamed into starting to blog again when I came across Helen Yendall's wonderfully inspiring blog which you can read for yourself at https://blogaboutwriting.wordpress.com/ Helen writes the kind of posts I aspire to. Witty, concise, interesting , useful...Oh well, we can but try.

Anyway, enough rambling. Time to bring you up to date on where I'm at with my writing. My main news is that my non-fiction book based on the letters I inherited from my grandmother and which have a strong link to Downton Abbey, is at quite an exciting stage now. I've finally finished going through them all (it's only taken me four years!) and I've also done lots of background research and reading - so much so that I think I could probably go on Mastermind to answer questions about the Burghcleres and the Carnarvons. Might not be so hot on the General Knowledge though.

I'm now about to start on a proposal for literary agents (gulp!) and last week, I had my first "Press" which was a full page piece in my local paper, the Leicester Mercury. You can find the article at http://www.leicestermercury.co.uk/Maid-8217-s-letters-reveal-gossip-real-Downton/story-25830728-detail/story.html

The picture below is of Ethel North (my grandmother's friend who wrote all the letters and who was Lady Burghclere's ladies' maid and then close companion) on the trip she took to Egypt in 1928 with Lady Burghclere to visit Howard Carter and see the Tutankhamen relics.

I'll try and keep you "posted" on how things progress. I promise!