Saturday 17 December 2016

In The Bleak Midwinter: Christina Rossetti, Victorian poet & feminist

'In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.'

Even if you aren't a christian, chances are you will have heard this carol being sung or played around this time of year. It was written by Christina Rossetti, sister of the far more famous Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a leading light in the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Christina Rossetti was born in 1830, and died in 1894. Her life spanned the mid-Victorian and late Victorian period. She was the youngest child in an incredibly talented family. Her father, the Italian poet and political exile Gabriele Rossetti, immigrated to England in 1824 and established a career as a Dante scholar and teacher of Italian in London.

Of the two 'famous' Victorian poets, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Christina Rossetti, I find Rossetti the more fascinating. At a time when women were expected to marry and limit their sphere of influence to hearth and home, she never married, although one of the Pre-Raphaelite brethren, James Collinson, proposed marriage in 1848. She turned him down, citing her conversion to Anglo-Catholicism.

Rossetti was on the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. She witnessed the chopping and changing of partners, the artistic compositions and radical lifestyles of the set. Yet she never acted as a model, nor was included fully in the activities of the group. Her poems often convey a sense of the 'outsider', the unnamed and unnoticed woman standing in the doorway observing, but not intruding.

Much of Rossetti's poetry is strong and strident and passionate, which makes her unusual given that her sex was supposed to be self-effacing and emotionally docile. Her verse is very female-located. In her poems 'Maude Claire', 'Cousin Kate' and 'Jessie Cameron' none of the men are ever named. All the women are named or given a voice.

Over the centuries poetry has been considered the highest form of literature, and thus up until the late Victorian period, consigned to the 'male' domain. Its anti-woman critics have always pointed out the 'public' nature of the poet and how that sat at odds with the domestic nature of women. Rossetti subverts the traditional gendered expectation, firstly by being a woman poet, then by asserting female emotions, identity and superiority over and over again in her verses.

Rossetti's own life frequently filters into her work. For ten years she worked at St Mary Magdalene house of charity in Highgate. It was a refuge for 'fallen women', the 'soiled doves' of Victorian society. This experience colours such poems as 'Goblin Market', her finest poem, where the goblins (men) are seen offering luscious fruits to seduce innocent young women. Rossetti makes clear her disgust of the commoditization of sex, but also subtly shows how 'tempting' temptation really was.

'Goblin Market' is often mistakenly seen a children's poem. It goes deeper than that. Apart from a radiant depiction of sisterhood and the importance of female friendship in a dangerous and predatory male world, I think Rossetti is subconsciously exploring the radical idea of a 'woman Redeemer' in Lizzie, the 'golden haired/white dove' who saves her sister by offering money to the goblins, but refusing to taste their evil fruits. Instead, in a copy of Christ's last supper, she invites her fallen sister, who succumbed to temptation and is now dying, to 'taste' the juices she carries, and so be healed through her. (I am not sure Rossetti would have agreed with my feminist critique, but to me, the meaning is clear.)

Like her Victorian counterpart Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Rossetti suffered from a variety of illnesses all her life. She was variously diagnosed with angina, TB, neuralgia and once with 'religious mania'. It is a moot point whether these were actual complaints, or part and parcel of being a very gifted, sensitive and intelligent woman poet at a time when such an occupation was still not totally accepted. It was only a few years on from the 'shocking' unmasking of Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell as being women novelists (the Bronte sisters).

Many times during her life, Rossetti had to learn to control and subdue her nature. It was not always easy. As she wrote in later life to her niece “You must not imagine, my dear girl, that your Aunt was always the calm and sedate person you now behold. I, too, had a very passionate temper; but I learnt to control it. On one occasion, being rebuked by my dear Mother for some fault, I seized upon a pair of scissors, and ripped up my arm to vent my wrath.''

 In 1893 Rossetti was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy that was performed in her own home. The cancer recurred the following year, and after months of acute suffering she died on 29 December 1894. She left behind a body of verse that is largely unread and unknown today, apart from the carol In the Bleak Midwinter, Goblin Market and the plangent Remember Me which is often recited at funerals. If you get a chance over the Christmas period, she is well worth seeking out.

Friday 9 December 2016

How Not To Plan A Novel (Some Tips)

Whatever we write, be it short story, play, novel or poem, we all go through the same initial process: Planning. There are more ways of planning a piece of writing than there are pieces of writing - please read on quickly as I'm not sure this analogy works.

It is said you are either a ''planner'' or a ''pantster''. As the world's weirdest combination of the two (more anon) I don't think I am in the slightest degree qualified to lay down the law on the Hows and How Nots. Nevertheless, given that my lack of expertise has never stopped me piling in and sharing my ignorance, and several people who've read my four soon to be five Victorian crime novels have asked me how I went about it, here's what I do:

Thinking: Every book I've ever written has started in the same place. Inside my head. I spend an inordinate amount of time before starting, and during the writing process just mulling over ideas for story development, or characters. Many of them will be discarded. Sometimes I do this lying on my bed, sometimes I go for a walk, sometimes I carry the story around whatever I'm doing. But however it happens, nothing begins without a lot of thinking taking place. No notes are made at this stage. The thinking will recur regularly right throughout the writing process.

After a lot of cogitation, I progress on to:

Sketching: This is where I might make a few notes on paper. More likely I will write up small sections of the book, or small pieces of dialogue that I quite like. I know the names of the main characters (secondary ones get named as they appear). At this stage I usually have a couple of ''pages'' at the end of a file named ''new book'' with phrases or descriptions that I think I might incorporate.

When I think I know, very roughly, what I might want to say, I progress to

Researching: For Diamonds & Dust, Honour & Obey, Death & Dominion, Rack & Ruin and the new one: Wonders & Wickedness, I visited London and took pictures of the areas I thought I wanted to use. I went online and searched for original documents (there are loads on various Victorian sites). I transferred the entire contents of 3 local libraries' Victorian history section to my TBR pile (rotating as necessary). And I read every novel written in the period that I could -- frequently skimming to get a sense of it.

At this stage, I have a couple of random pages of notes, some online, a pile of downloaded articles, and books with bits of paper and bus tickets poking out of them. Again, researching is not a finite process and will change as I write and need to find out different things.

And now finally, I start:

Writing: I always do this the same way. I write the end. Then I write the opening section. Then I write a bit more of the opening ... a bit more of the end. Then I kind of join them up. Yup. Weird. And AT NO STAGE do I ever have a clear idea of the overall structure of the book or what is going to happen next. It's like fast downhill skiing in the dark.

No serious pre-plotting is ever done. None. No story arcs. No narrative graphs. No cards files. Nothing. The story evolves as I write it. And I write in short episodic sections, rather than chapters, tracking the story through a host of different characters. It's a spirally way of doing it rather than a linear one. I think it makes the story far more pacy and exciting - certainly for me as the writer, although it is sometimes like herding cats as bits of plot wander off into the long grass and have to be rescued.

As I write, I also revise in the light of the direction the story is taking. The whole thing takes about eight months. And then I have to go back and edit. So that's me. Chaos and madness.

How do you plan ....?

Monday 5 December 2016

Three Reasons to Self-Publish

With publication of the fourth Victorian Stride & Cully detective novel, and a fifth on the way I have now firmly moved into the entirely self-published category. And I been asked once again by several people why I decided not to go with a commercial publisher. 

Here are my reasons: 

1. Control: As a self-published author, I  have a lot of autonomy. I can do whatever I like, publicity-wise, and if you follow me on Twitter (@carolJhedges) you will know that I do. I had very little autonomy with Usborne and OUP and I gather that some big publishing houses like to keep a close eye on their writers so they don't run amok on social media, which could rebound back on them. Also I gather that many houses prefer writers to promote other writers on their list (possibly why I rarely get promoted by Choc Lit writers, lovely though they are).

2. Choice: I  chose the covers of my books, which remind me of contemporary newspaper headings, or theatrical posters. They are designed by a local graphic artist, who is also a friend. I have been told they are reminiscent of very early Penguin covers. They are certainly quirky and different ... just like the stories .. and, dare I say it, like the author of the stories herself! I can also choose and change the key words that help readers locate my books, and I can fiddle around with Amazon's book categories, if I want to. As I am an inveterate fiddler, I do.

3. Cash:  As a commercially published writer of adult fiction I was getting 40% of all ebook sales, less on printed books. As a published children's writer that dropped to 12% of all book sales. As an Indie, I can command 70% of sales. The difference in my monthly figures has been remarkable.

Ok, I know it is all too easy nowadays to write a book, cobble together a cover and upload the finished product to Amazon (actually, it damn well isn't, as you can read here:). Advances in technology have opened up enormous opportunities for self-publishing that were never there when I started writing books, and that is a good thing.

I also acknowledge that inevitably, there is a lot of dross out there and it lets the side down. Poorly written and produced books with typos, badly designed covers, sold at rock bottom prices or given away for free, which is not the way I want to go.

Despite the many ''Hey, I produced a book for virtually nothing'' blogs, the writers of the best self-published books have usually used beta readers, then paid out for professional editing, proofreading and cover designing. It is hard work and not easy and having done it five times now, I can attest to the pain.

But in a world where celebs are sneaking all the good publishing deals, and agents are less and less able to place books (and take 10% of your meagre earnings when they do), I still think that going solo, if you can, is the best and most lucrative way of presenting your work to the reading public. 

So what's your publishing experience? And as a reader, do you ''prefer'' a book that has a 'proper publisher' behind it? Do share your thoughts ....