The Long and Winding Road. The journey of a Wannabe Writer #MondayBlogs #Writing #EverHopeful

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I wrote for years before letting anyone read my work. If I was self-deluded; if it was rubbish, I didn’t want to be told. I enjoyed my “little hobby” (as it was once described by a family member). But then I began to enter my short stories into competitions. Sometimes I was placed, once or twice I even won. Encouraged, I moved on to sending to magazines – I had some luck, was published – once! But I hadn’t dared to send out any of the four, full length book manuscripts I’d written (and actually never did, they were awful!) That changed after a long battle with breast cancer in my forties and, finally finishing a book that I thought might possibly…possibly, be good enough for someone else to see, other than me, I took a chance.

I grew resigned (well almost) to those A4 self-addressed envelopes plopping through the letterbox. (yes, it was that long ago!) The weekly wail of ‘I’ve been rejected again,’ was a ritual that my long-suffering husband also (almost) grew resigned to.

There were many snorts of exasperation at my gullibility and stubbornness from the writing group I was a member of at the time. They all had an opinion – I was doing it all wrong. Instead of sending my work to publishers I should have been approaching agents.

 ‘You’ll get nowhere without an agent,’ one of the members said. She was very smug. Of course she was already signed up with an agent whose list, she informed me, was full.

 ‘How could you even think of trying to do it on your own?’ was another horrified response when told what I’d done, ‘With the sharks that are out there, you’ll be eaten alive.’

‘Or sink without a trace.’ Helpful prediction from another so-called friend.

So, after trawling my way through the Writers & Artists Yearbook (an invaluable tome) I bundled up two more copies of my manuscript and sent them out to different agents

Six months later I was approached by one of the agents who, on the strength of my writing, agreed to take me on. The praise from her assistant was effusive, the promises gratifying. It was arranged that I meet with the two of them in London to discuss the contract they would send in the post, there would be no difficulty in placing my novel with one of the big publishers; they would make my name into a brand.

There was some editing to do, of course. Even though the manuscript was in its fifth draft, I knew there would be. After all, the agent, a big fish in a big pond, knew what she was doing. Okay, she was a little abrasive (on hindsight I would say rude) but she was a busy person, I was a first time author.

But I was on my way. Or so I thought.

A week before the meeting I received an email; the agent’s assistant had left the agency and they no longer thought they could act for me. They had misplaced my manuscript but would try to locate it. In the meantime would I send an SAE for its return when/if ‘it turned up’?

So – back to square one.

For a month I hibernated (my family and friends called it sulking, but I preferred to think of it as re-grouping). I had a brilliant manuscript that no one wanted (at this point, I think it’s important to say that, as an author, if you don’t have self-belief how can you persuade anyone else to believe your work is good?) But still, no agent, no publisher.

There were moments, well weeks (okay, if I’m honest – months), of despair, before I took a deep breath and resolved to try again. I printed out a new copy of the novel. In the meantime I trawled through my list of possible agents. Again.

 Then, out of the blue, a phone call from the editorial assistant who’d resigned from that first agent to tell me she’d set up her own agency, was still interested in my novel and could we meet in London in a week’s time? Could we? Try and stop me, I thought.

 We met. Carried away with her enthusiasm for my writing, her promises to make me into a ‘brand name’ and her assurance that she had many contacts in the publishing world that would ‘snap her hand off for my novel’, I signed on the dotted line.

Six months later. So far, four rejections from publishers. Couched, mind you, in encouraging remarks:

Believable characters … strong and powerful writing … gripping story … Judith has an exciting flair for plot … evocative descriptions.”

And then the death knell on my hopes.

“Unfortunately … our lists are full … we’ve just accepted a similar book … we are only a small company … I’m sure you’ll find a platform for Judith’s work … etc. etc.”

The self-doubt, the frustration, flooded back.

Then the call from the agent; ‘I think it’s time to re-evaluate the comments we’ve had so far. Parts of the storyline need tweaking. I’ve negotiated a deal with a commercial editor. When she mentioned the sum I had to pay (yes, I had to pay, and yes, I was that naïve) I gasped.’ It’s a realistic charge by today’s standards,’ she said. ’Think about it. In the end we’ll have a book that will take you to the top of your field.’

 I thought about it. Rejected the idea. Listened to advice from my various acquaintances. Thought about it some more. And then I rang the agent. ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ I felt I had no choice; after all she was the expert. Wasn’t she? What did I know?

 When the manuscript came back from the commercial editor, I didn’t recognise the story at all. ‘This isn’t what I wrote. It’s not my book,’ I told the agent. ‘It’s nothing like it.’ The plot, the characters had been completely changed.

‘You know nothing of the publishing world. If you want me to represent you, you have to listen to me,’ she insisted. ‘Do as I say.’

‘But …’

‘Take it or leave it.’

I consulted our daughter, luckily she’s a lawyer qualified in Intellectual Property.

‘You can cancel the contract within the year. After that, you have problems. There will be all manner of complications...

I moved quickly. The agent and I parted company.

I took a chance and contacted Honno, the publisher who’d previously accepted two of my short stories for their anthologies. Would they have a look at the manuscript? They would. They did. Yes, it needed more work but

 I’m proud to say I’ve now been with Honno, the longest standing independent women’s press in the UK, for fourteen years, and have had six books published by them. I love their motto “Great writing, great stories, great women“, and I love the friends I’ve made amongst the other women whose work they publish, and the support amongst us for our writing and our books. In normal times we often meet up . I’m hoping those “normal times” will return before too long.

 Of course, there has been much editing and discussion with every manuscript. But at least, in the end, the stories are told in my words. With my voice

From my Archives: The Inspiration Behind Pattern of Shadows. Ah, the Memories! #Bookbub

I’m thrilled that Pattern of Shadows is on BookBub this month and grateful to my publishers, Honno, for the support and belief in my writing. When I discovered the first of the trilogy was going to be promoted, I remembered the research that set off the idea for the book, and thethoughts it brought back.So this is a return to memory lane…

Glen Mill was the inspiration for the first of my trilogy: Pattern of Shadows. Glen Mill was one of the first two POW camps to be opened in Britain. A disused cotton mill built in 1903 it ceased production in 1938. At a time when all-purpose built camps were being used by the armed forces and there was no money available for POW build, Glen Mill was chosen for various reasons: it wasn’t near any military installations or seaports and it was far from the south and east of Britain, it was large and it was enclosed by a road and two mill reservoirs and, soon after it opened, by a railway line.

The earliest occupants were German merchant seamen caught in Allied ports at the outbreak of war and brought from the Interrogation centre of London. Within months Russian volunteers who had been captured fighting for the Germans in France were brought there as well. According to records they were badly behaved, ill-disciplined and hated the Germans more than they did the British. So there were lots of fights. But, when German paratroopers (a branch of the Luftwaffe) arrived, they imposed a Nazi-type regime within the camp and controlled the Russians.

Later in the war the prisoners elected a Lagerführer; a camp leader. This hierarchy ruled the inner workings of the camp and the camp commanders had to deal with them.

Image courtesy of Lancashire At War.co.uk
Image courtesy of Lancashire At War.co.uk

The more I read about Glen Mill the more I thought about the total bleakness of it and the lives of the men there.  And I knew I wanted to write about that. But I also wanted there to be hope somewhere. I wanted to imagine that something good could have come out of the situation the men were in.

And that’s where Pattern of Shadows came in. Pattern of Shadows was published  by Honno in 2010.

Reading about the history of Glen Mill as a German POW camp in Oldham brought back a personal memory of my childhood.

In the nineteen fifties and sixties my parents worked in the local cotton mill.

My mother was a winder (working on a machine that transferred the cotton off large cones onto small reels – bobbins – in order for the weavers to use to make the cloth). Well before the days of Health and Safety I would often go to wait for her to finish work on my way home from school I. I remember the muffled boom of noise as I walked across the yard and the sudden clatter of so many different machines as I stepped through a small door cut into a great wooden door. I remember the rumble of the wheels as I watched men pushing great skips filled with cones alongside the winding frames, or manoeuvring trolleys carrying rolls of material. I remember the women singing and shouting above the noise, whistling for more bobbins: the colours of the cotton and cloth – so bright and intricate. But above all I remember the smell: of oil, grease – and in the storage area – the lovely smell of the new material stored in bales and the feel of the cloth against my legs when I sat on them in the warehouse, reading until the siren hooted, announcing the end of the shift.

1950s Lancashire Cotton Mill
Image courtesy of Lancashire Life
Image courtesy of Lancashire At War.co.uk

When I was reading about Glen Mill I wondered what kind of signal would have been used to separate parts of the day for all those men imprisoned there. I realised how different their days must have been from my memories of a mill. 

Pattern of Shadows was published by Honno in 2010, followed by Changing Patterns and then, the last of the trilogy, Living in the Shadows. When all three books were published the parents of the protagonist, Mary Haworth, clamoured for their story to be told. I actually think they thought they’d been unfairly represented in the trilogy. In the end I gave in, and wrote A Hundred Tiny Threads as the prequel.

Links

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https://www.honno.co.uk/authors/b/judith-barrow/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Judith-Barrow/e/B0043RZJV6

Shell Shock – Legacy of the Trenches #WW1

Image courtesy of the Mirror

The First World War ended with the deaths of a generation of young men. But the devastation of the  conflict didn’t end with that last blast of a howitzer. Thousands of soldiers went home still re-living their horrific experiences of the battlefields for many years. Their lives were damaged by shell shock, a condition many had suffered from during their military service. And, throughout Britain, doctors were baffled by this unknown illness. Soldiers were returning from the trenches paralysed, blind, deaf. Some were unable to speak. Many had bouts of dizziness, hysteria, anxiety, Families reported that their returned husbands, sons, brothers, were often unable to sleep. And, if they did, had horrendous nightmares that resulted in depression, refusal to eat, erratic behaviour.  Many so-called lunatic asylums and private mental institutions were assigned as hospitals for mental diseases and war neurosis.

Many men felt shame; often they  were unable to return to military duty and on their return home, they were viewed as being emotionally weak or cowards. Bewildered by the changes seen in shell shocked soldiers, people had little sympathy; there was little understanding for them. Even worse,  many families felt only the disgrace and humiliation that one of their own had been charged with desertion and executed by a firing squad of their fellow soldiers. It would be many decades before they would be given posthumous pardons.

Soldier being bombarded
Image courtesy of BBC.co.uk Inside Out Extra

In the first years of the war, shell shock was assumed to be a physical injury to the nervous system, a result of soldiers facing heavy bombardment from exploding shells. Victims were at the mercy of the armed forces’ medical officers. Determined to ‘cure’ the soldier, the treatments given by them were cruel and humiliating: extreme physical instruction, shaming and severe discipline in front of their fellow soldiers, solitary confinement, electric shock treatment.

By the second year of the war almost half of the casualties in fighting regions were victims of the condition and military hospitals were unable to cope; the unexpected numbers of soldiers suffering from the condition meant that there was a drastic shortage of beds. And medical staff discovered that many men suffered the symptoms of shell shock without having even been in the front lines. More so, it was noticed that many officers, desperate to hide their emotions and to set an example for their men, became psychotic, suffering from some of the worst symptoms of shell shock..

But it wasn’t until 1917 that the condition of shell shock was identified by a Medical Officer called Charles Myers as combat stress, today also known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

So, the thousands of soldiers who went home still re-living their horrific experiences of the battlefields had a name for the condition they were living with. Many had lost their ability to walk or, speak. Some regressed to a baby-like state. It seemed there was no expectation of recovery.

But then one man, an army major and general physician, Arthur Hurst, despite much cynicism and opposition established a hospital at Seale Hayne, Newton Abbott, Devon. (now part of Plymouth University). The men who arrived there, ostensibly destroyed by their horrendous experiences of war were given hope.

Community spirit: On the wards at Seale Hayne hospital men were encouraged to write and to produce a magazine with a gossip column called Ward Whispers
Image courtesy of the Daily Mail

Hurst’s innovative method had never been witnessed before. Psychiatrists who, after the disorder was identified towards the end of the war, were adamant that a process of mental rehabilitation was needed; that the shell-shocked soldier was trying to cope with harrowing experiences by repressing any memories. They thought that the symptoms revealed involuntary detachment from events lived through and the man could only be cured by the traditional method of reviving memories, a process that could require a number of psychiatric therapy sessions.

Arthur Hurst
Image courtesy of BBC.co.uk Inside Out Extra

As a general physician, Arthur Hurst believed that there was a simpler treatment;  that humane understanding and sympathetic persuasion was the way to into the ex-soldiers’ awareness of the new life now around them.  He thought that during a terrifying bombardment, a soldier might experience tremor, be unable to move or speak. So, sometimes, the power of suggestion could cause the symptoms to survive once that intense reaction had passed. The cure, as far as he was concerned was the re-education of the mind and his methods  were what was needed to resolve the lingering symptoms of the trauma endured.

He used hypnosis and patience, giving them work to do on the land around Seale Hayne; a revolutionary occupational therapy. The tranquillity of the Devon countryside, the encouragement given to the men was thought to be a place where the men could get over their hysteria. They were urged to use inventive and resourceful ways to work.

Soldiers working in field
Image courtesy of BBC.co.uk Inside Out Extra

Then, In a ground-breaking move, he ordered the reconstruction of the battlefields of Flanders on Dartmoor even encouraged his patients to shoot. to help the men relive and come to terms with their experiences.

Hurst also believed it important for the men to express themselves creatively and persuaded some to write and publish a magazine with a gossip column called Ward Whispers.

Nurses and patients
Image courtesy of BBC.co.uk Inside Out Extra

He made the only film in existence about how shell shock victims were treated in Britain. This gives an insight into his treatments. Though upsetting initially to watch, they also reveal the dramatic recovery Arthur Hurst’s methods produced. It was indeed pioneering and gives a mark of respect to the men who survived the terrors of the First World War. Arthur Hurst proved his methods were truly effective but I have been unable to find any studies of what happened to any of the men who had therapy at Seale Hayne. However I did find this fascinating programme on Radio Four’s Homefront: https://bbc.in/36SmD1J.

THE HEART STONE IS CURRENTLY ON NETGALLEY:

https://www.netgalley.co.uk/catalog/?text=the+heart+stone

The Heart Stone

Excerpt:

Slowly, without a word, Arthur stood up and allowed himself to be led down the field…

Arthur:

“I wipe my face with my sleeve, relieved I haven’t blurted it all out.  I know I never will now; it’s my secret, my shame.

I’m hoping the shooting has stopped. Even if it hasn’t, I’ll be ready for it; it won’t throw me back into the darkness again.

Of course, as soon as I close my eyes, I’m back there.”

Links:

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https://www.honno.co.uk/authors/b/judith-barrow/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Judith-Barrow/e/B0043RZJV6

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