Friday, 27 September 2013

Rachel and her sparrows

I’m wondering if you have come across the work of Rachel Phifer?

I’m kind of hoping not, because then you will have heard about it first from me and be incredibly grateful to me for alerting you to it – kudos, kudos!!

She’s just had her first novel published in July – called The Language of Sparrows.  Already she has more reviews on Amazon than you can shake a stick at, all basically saying you have to read this book.  I suspect that if you take a few minutes to read the ‘Look Inside’ pages on Amazon, you will agree with them.  One of those writers who know how to do that thing they always used to say about crossing the road: STOP LOOK LISTEN. 

This is Rachel in her garden:

She’s written a thing specially for us, about the prayer of St Francis, and I just loved it.  

This is what she wrote:

There were times that “Help!” was the only prayer I could come up with. Sometimes for months at a time. It’s not such a bad prayer, really. It’s honest. It’s direct. But that little word didn’t begin to address the depth of need I felt. 
About twenty years ago, in the midst of unemployment, broken friendships and a long period of blue days, I stumbled across a book with The Prayer of St. Francis written in the back. Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, it began, where there is hatred, let me sow love. 
I didn’t have to read very far into the prayer to know it had the words I’d been searching for. So in the mornings, I would make my way out of bed half an hour earlier, and curl up in my hand-me-down gold chair. I’d say the prayer slowly, trying to concentrate on each word. I’d say it twice more, and in the end, I’d whisper the words at the end of each line: peace, love, pardon, faith, hope, light, joy, console, understand, love, pardoning, giving, eternal life. 
It was a bit odd for me. I was raised in a Baptist family and I’d never heard anyone reciting a prayer. There was even a niggling worry that repeating a prayer was the “babbling of many useless words” from Matthew 6.  
But it wasn’t just a recitation, and it certainly wasn’t useless.  It was a prayer spoken to God, with words I hadn’t known I wanted to say. And to tell you the truth, my old chair seemed like a temple for a while. 
It was such a relief to come to God with words I hadn’t known I wanted to say, asking to be something nobler and deeper than I would ever have known I wanted to be. I’m not saying that I became a walking prayer of St. Francis. The truth is, I still had blue days. I was still a sinner. But I began to sense God inhabiting my days.  
I’d like to say that I’ve kept the practice of praying the prayer over a lifetime. But I can’t. I’m not that disciplined. Still, when I can’t find the words I need, it’s an anchor to come back to.  
I’m a working mom and a writer. So there have been quite a few times, when I’ve been too exhausted even to pray those two stanzas of the St. Francis prayer. But the practice itself of saying words that aren’t my own still sustains me.  
One minister thrown into a communist prison and tortured said he forgot every prayer he’d ever learned, but he remembered to pray, “Jesus!” I’m not that hard pressed. No matter how exhausted I am, I can always recite something like, “In You I live and move and have my being” (Acts 17) or “This is the day You have made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118)  
There are always words to fill the dark spaces with light and the empty spaces with God’s presence. 

 Thank you, Rachel, so much. 

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Publishing Schedules. Symbiosis.

Marrying my publisher made a number of things clear to me I might never otherwise have understood.  As well as being very professional in his approach to his work, he is a kind man, always one to go the second mile.  Where he can help, or listen, or share the weight of someone else’s burden, he always will.

As he talks to me about how his day has gone, I gain insights into the publisher’s point of view, and of nothing is this more true than publishing schedules.

Book publishing is certainly about words, but it’s also a numbers game.  If the projected sales figures don’t stack up, the project isn’t viable – and this doesn’t always mean the book isn’t good or the commissioning editor doesn’t like it.   Sometimes even fine work has no market.

But once a proposal has made it through ordeal-by-committee, and shown itself capable of leaping the series of hurdles standing between the germ of an idea and publication, a publishing schedule is set in place.  The author is always, always consulted about this.   No publisher would accept a book for publication without checking that the author felt confident of honouring the contract in the agreed time frame.

It is staggering to me how many writers do dishonour that contract and agreement.

Some of the excuses fit squarely into the category of emotional blackmail – ‘My niece was ill,’ etc.    The publisher is a human being, and the relationship with the author a sort of quasi-friendship.  What sort of person could say, ‘So?  Your niece isn’t writing the book’?

Sometimes there is no excuse offered, and no manuscript either for a very long time.   

But why does it matter if a book comes in late?

Well, because there is a symbiosis, not always apparent to the author, between authors and publishers and also between authors and authors.

A book may come in late, which has been scheduled to be out in time for a big conference.  It may have been promised as one of the conference books, or the projected sales figures may absolutely rely on that conference – perhaps the writer may be a speaker there.  Often in Christian publishing, the writer has the contract on the basis of their edifying life/work/story – not because they can write exceptionally well.  The text needs extensive in-depth work before it will do justice to the story it tells.

In that case, there is no wiggle room.  The work on the text has to be done in time.  Bottom line; the staff at the publishing house, and the freelancers working on the text, have to take up the slack.  But anyone who knows anything about the world of publishing grasps that there is no slack in a publishing schedule.  The world of publishing isn’t full of gentle old coves in corduroys puffing on their pipes as they sit in the window-seat reading sonnets – it goes like an express train.

The freelancer waiting for the late book to come in, having kept the slot open, is marking time and unable to take on other work until it arrives, then has to sit up late, sometimes working through the night if the text is seriously dodgy, to get it back onto schedule. 

The manuscript misses its slot in the schedule of those who have to copy-edit, format, work on the electronic processes, produce and check proofs etc – so it bumps into the slots scheduled for other books.   The effect is disastrous.  Publishing house staff already working as hard and fast as they can go have to try to get more done in less time to accommodate the work on the manuscript.

This is not mildly annoying, it causes melt-down – stressed-out people in tears, senior staff having to stop their own work to help out junior staff now struggling with impossible workloads in a crashed schedule.

And it doesn’t just stop at the publishing house.  The symbiosis connecting authors extends to create a support network for all concerned.  Many, many books never erode their royalty advance – they make a loss.  Publishing is a gamble, always; sometimes you lose.   But the spectrum of books published creates the interest and variety of a good list; and somehow new authors have to get started, and few hit the big-time with a first book.  The many that fail are balanced by the few that succeed impressively.

If a book misses its slot in the publishing schedule, it just leaves a gap.  If the author had been realistic and aimed for six months or a year later – and honoured that – another book could have been commissioned to fill the gap, perhaps one of the best-sellers that keep the many less successful writers afloat.  Even if not a best-seller, at least one of the many, many hopeful authors submitting manuscripts would have been in with a chance.

The book that misses the schedule and, despite the best efforts of publishing house staff and freelancers to get it back on track, must be postponed, takes up the publishing opportunities of two writers.

I write books and I also work on other authors’ manuscripts.  My dear Badger has taken a long-postponed sabbatical this autumn, and gone on an exciting pilgrimage – he is walking the 500 miles from St Jean Pied de Port in France, across the Pyrenees, through Galicia, to the Spanish coast and Santiago de Compostela (the place with the mahoosive swingy incense thingy).  I cancelled just about everything I do, so that while he is away I’d have the chance to write a novel, Book 8 of my Hawk & Dove series.

And then, guess what?  The book I had been asked to edit for early October, leaving me a month to six weeks in which to write my own book, came in a month late.  So in the precious, rare slot of empty time, that’s what I’m doing; editing someone’s late manuscript.  Sure, I’ll get to my own book by some means – but it will take me twice as long to write it in a house with a husband in it, and the effort and struggle of keeping focus will be twice as hard.

If there are any writers reading this – friends, please remember, we are all in this together; your book is not the only water lily on the surface of the pond.  Please, please, be realistic, be disciplined, be methodical and professional when you undertake to write a book.  If you haven’t got time to do it, have the restraint to pass up the opportunity.  If you take the work and sign the contract, stick to the agreement you made.  Submitting your script within the agreed time frame is one of the ways you, as a writer, keep faith with your publishers and your fellow-writers, including people like me whose name you don’t know and whom you may never meet. 

Self-discipline is a beautiful characteristic.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

This was the psalm for today. It makes me happy.

Young herring gull

Here in the garret where I spend time chilling out with Jesus before the day kicks off, this morning there came a seagull – a brown dappled teenager herring gull – just above my head, scavenging moss from the rim of the skylight.

I watched him, three feet above me.  In between the peckings and nibblings, we looked at each other, eye to eye.

And in the bird’s eye, I saw intelligence, and a quality that lifted my heart – call it gladness, contentment, happiness, something benign, something at peace with life and itself.  I do not think of seagulls as kind birds – fairly heartless, really – but in this bird’s eye, something that in a human eye always means kindness was there.

If a bird can be good, this bird was good.  And it can, of course, because God saw all that he had made, and pronounced it good.