Nice Work if You Can Get It

This week Miss F had her induction week at college, which I’m delighted to report she enjoyed enormously. Her course proper starts next week for her and I think she is going to have a simply marvellous two years. When I look at all the plans they have and all the amazing animals that will be available for her to care for and learn about, I must admit to being a little bit envious!

The only fly in the ointment is that we have to find her a one day a week unpaid work placement in the animal industry to run alongside her two-year course. You’d think it wouldn’t be a problem, after all, there are a few vets and pet shops around so surely someone must want a keen, bright, hardworking college student to do all the grunt work for free. Well, you’d think… but, looking into it, there aren’t actually that many places willing to take on under 18 years olds so spaces are rare, take into consideration there are another 120 students all looking for the same thing, and you begin to understand why it’s not that simple.

On Friday, I loaded her into the car clutching a folder containing copies of her very professional looking CV and references from her old Head of Year at her previous school, and the owner of the hedgehog hospital where Miss F has volunteered this past year. And before you ask, no, her work there doesn’t count, sadly it doesn’t meet the rather exacting criteria demanded by the college.

Gamely, we drove all over town visiting any animal-based workplace we could think of – which added up to four vets, one large pet store, one small pet shop, and one aquatic and reptile store. All were very kind to her, some took her details and promised to let her know, some gave her a name and email address to contact, which she did as soon as she got home. Now, we can only wait and hope, and try to think of other places further afield to try if these all come to nothing. A position within either walking distance, or close enough for me to drive her there before I have to be at work, is desirable. Any further afield and issues of transport and a practically non-existent bus service come into play.

It’s a really big deal. If she hasn’t managed to do at least 120 hours of voluntary work in an animal-based environment by next June, she’ll be kicked off the course. No ifs, buts or maybes, no consideration given as to how well she’s doing on the course, if she doesn’t have those hours under her belt, she’ll be given her marching orders. It seems really harsh, but we still have almost a year and I’m sure something will turn up somewhere, it always does.

As well trying to find a voluntary role in an animal workplace, she’s also trying to find a little part-time job to earn herself some spending money and take the pressure off me to always have to pay for everything she wants. The college course is only on three days of the week, her voluntary placement (should she get one) will only be for a few hours a week, so it leaves plenty of time for a Saturday job.

Unlike the voluntary placement, this job can be anything, so we had fun Friday afternoon going through all the “Help Wanted” adds and applying online (as it seems that’s how it’s done nowadays). Luckily, we live right in the middle of town and a minutes-walk away is a large shopping centre with lots of shops all looking for part-time assistants. She’s applied for about a dozen to start with in a wide range of retail establishments. We looked at waitressing work, but they all seemed to involve working until really late in the evening, which I wasn’t too keen on, and given Miss F’s ability to trip over thin air, we decided not to apply for any this go round.

Helping her apply, preparing her CV for her, and aiding in finding the right words to pad out her almost non-existent experience, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my first job, all those years ago. In 1981 I was 14 years old, and one Saturday my mother dragged me out of bed early, made me put on my smart skirt and jacket, drove us to town, then proceeded to march me all the way around it forcing me to go into every shop we passed enquiring if they had any need of a Saturday girl.

Scarlet with mortification, by the third or fourth shop I had gathered myself together enough to actually raise my voice above a mumble and look the shopkeeper in the eye when I enquired. Some said no, some took my details, some were dismissive, one or two were downright rude, but with my mother’s foot planted firmly on my backside, I persevered, until we’d enquired in some forty or so shops.

We drove home seemingly unsuccessful and I went to get changed, completely fed-up and convinced I was so useless that no one would ever employ me. However, later that afternoon the phone rang, and it was the manageress of a toyshop in town. Could I start next Saturday? I could and I did, and for the next three years until I left school, I worked at Dudley’s Toys at the corner of Hatter Street every Saturday and in the holidays.

I loved it. I can honestly say it’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Marina and Cecily, the two delightful elderly ladies who worked there, were the sweetest and kindest women possible, and took me completely under their wing. I was the “young legs” in the shop, the one who climbed down the steep steps to the cellar to bring up stock, who braved ladders to reach the highest shelves, who ran to the bank and the post office, and unpacked and priced new stock that arrived twice a week off the back of a big lorry – oh that old-fashioned pricing gun, I loved using it. Trigger happy, I could price up a whole box of Sindy accessories in under twenty minutes, and I still remember the very satisfying thunk thunk noise it made as I lined up the packets and speed shot them with the little sticky price labels.

Working with toys and children, seeing the happy faces of the kids as they piled into the shop with their pocket money to either blow it all on something from the range of lower priced items, or maybe to spend birthday and Christmas money on something bigger, or maybe to show mum exactly what it was they were hoping Santa would bring that year. We also ran a savings club for children who were saving for something extra special, but maybe didn’t have the willpower to do it at home. A big red book was kept under the counter, satisfyingly large and important looking, it was solemnly brought out when a little saver came in clutching that week’s pocket money. Carefully, I’d write their name down in the first column, how much they were depositing in the next and how much further they still had to go, they would then sign it to agree. I remember the joy when they’d finally saved enough, and the toy was theirs

One adorable pair of twin sisters both desperately wanted the “real life” baby dolls we sold, complete with a bassinet, clothing, and feeding and changing accessories. They were expensive, and they wanted one each, so every week they would come in and hand me almost all their combined pocket money. Eventually, they’d saved enough for the first doll and had somehow worked out between them whose doll it would be – the other would be allowed to play with it but would always know they weren’t the real mummy. Eyes gleaming, they took the doll home, only to be back the following week to start saving for the other.

I was working in the shop when the Star Wars craze was at its height. I hadn’t seen the first two films, much to my disgust. My mother made it plain she had no interest in “stupid science fiction stuff” and I’d had no one else to take me. I think I was the only person in my school who hadn’t seen Star Wars and its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. However, the third film was out that summer and as I had a boyfriend by then and money of my own, nothing on earth was going to stop me seeing Return of the Jedi. Of course, the shop sold the figures and collectibles, as did the other two toyshops in town and quite a few places like Boots and WH Smiths as well. However, nowhere had anticipated quite how in demand these figures would be, and one week after the film opened in the tiny cinema in town – the queues stretched into infinity and as the cinema only seated about 150 a lot of people had to wait for the next showing – everywhere, including us, had run out. Not a single figurine was left, even the less popular ones had all been snapped up by kids desperate to buy anything related to the film.

It was the summer holiday, so I was working extra days and on the Friday afternoon, much to our surprise, three large boxes arrived that we hadn’t anticipated. Upon opening them, we discovered it was Star Wars figures, lots and lots of them, and not just the “third alien from the left” bog standard ones, but the main ones too. Luke Skywalker, Harrison Ford, Princess Leia, Dath Vader – they were all there. Somehow, our order had got through and we got the last consignment in the warehouse. As far as we knew, we were now the only suppliers of these highly desirable collectables in town. Taking my trusty pricing gun in hand, I made short work of pricing them all up, and promised to get them all out on display as soon as I got to work in the morning,

Travelling into work on the bus the next day, it was packed with the usual hordes of children heading into town on a Saturday morning and looking forward to hanging around with their mates, going down the park to play on the swings or going to the cinema. Idly eavesdropping, my ears pricked up when I heard one young lad moaning to the others how he’d been saving all his pocket money to buy Star Wars figures but, of course, as they were currently rarer then hens teeth, he hadn’t been able to buy any.

“We’ve got some for sale,” I casually mentioned. There was an instant hush over the whole back seat as every boy stopped what they were doing and looked at me.

“What?”

“Yeah, I work at Dudley’s and we had three big boxfuls delivered yesterday. I’m going to put them on display as soon as I get to work today.”

“Really? You’ve got Star Wars figures?”

“Yep.”

“Ah, I bet you’ve only got the rubbish ones, that’s all anyone’s been able to get for weeks.”

“Nope, we have the good stuff, Luke, Leia, the droids, Yoda, ewoks, all of them.”

The bus then pulled into the station and I got off, dismissing the incident from my mind I hurried to work and proceeded to get all the figures up on the racks with a few minutes to spare before opening time. Letting up the door blind and turning the sign from “Closed” to “Open”, I heard Marina exclaim in surprise and hurried to see what was wrong.

There were hundreds of them!

Somehow, the jungle drums had been beating and it looked like every single kid in town was now in a queue outside our shop. Bearing in mind this is long before the advent of mobile phones, somehow the news had travelled that Dudley’s had Star Wars figures and here they all were, jingling their coins in their pockets, all patiently queuing and waiting for us to open.

By the time I went home that evening, every single figure – even the rubbish ones – had been sold. It was another two months before the supply problem was resolved and we all got Star Wars merchandise delivered again, but by then the impetus was over, the craze had abated and never again did we have such a morning as we did that Saturday – when we were the only shop in town with Star Wars figures.

I truly loved my first job, it set such a high standard that no job ever since has ever really reached it. But sadly, all good things must come to an end, I left school and had to find “proper” employment, which I did, but that was a whole different experience and one I’ll maybe save for another blog.

If anyone is wondering how launch day for book nine went, the answer is very well. Despite not having any money to spend on advertising and promoting, Chaining Daisy smashed into the top one hundred bestsellers in its category and reached number 51, which is an incredible achievement. It also ranked number six in the hot new releases chart.

After being published less than four days, Chaining Daisy has an impressive six 5-star reviews on Goodreads, and people seem to be really enjoying this gritty, heart-wrenching read.

But it’s getting late – both cat and child have appeared from nowhere plaintively demanding food which I must supply. Oh, and you’ll be pleased to hear Skittles seems to have recovered from her road trip hell as talked about in last week’s blog. Hopefully, she’s learnt her lesson.

Lovely chatting to you again, have a great week, and I’ll see you all next Sunday for another Little Bit of Blake.

Best wishes

Julia Blake

Advertisements

I have a very good reason why there’s no blog this week – honest!

It’s been a really busy week. As many of you may know, book nine, Chaining Daisy, is being released next Wednesday, and those of you who understand a little about the life of a writer will know that means manic and frenzied preparations are going on all around.

I did have every intention of still blogging, I even had a subject matter in mind, but as the days crept by I’ve been caught up in a tsunami of interviews, prepping promo posts, setting up the eBook for pre-order on Amazon, checking one last time that everything is perfect, arranging for reviews to be posted on launch day and generally soliciting help and support from whomever is prepared to offer it, time got away from me and suddenly it was Saturday afternoon and the blog was still unwritten. No problem, I thought, I know what I’m writing about so it’ll only take an hour or so to hammer out my words of wisdom and upload it onto the blog site.

I should have known really, shouldn’t I?

At about 2.45pm Saturday the phone rang, and a conversation ensued that went something like this:

“Hello, is that Ms Blake?”

“Yes.”

“Ah, good. Tell me, has your cat gone missing?”

I paused to think about this, because the word missing is very subjective. True, our dear little black moggy Skittles had been missing in action since the previous day, but she did sometimes do this. She’d worry us silly by not appearing at mealtimes and have us searching the street and the neighbours gardens, only to saunter in without a hair out of place and declining to answer when we asked where she’d been.

“Well, we haven’t seen her since last night. Why? Have you found her?”

“Yes, she got into the bonnet of a car and went for a little ride.”

“Oh, ok, where exactly did she go for a ride to?”

“Ely.”

Now Ely is a town about a 50 minute drive from us and Skittles had ended up a fair way from home. So, Miss F and I pulled on our shoes, got down the cat basket and went on an hour and a half round trip to collect our nomadic feline from the vets where she’d ended up.

Needless to say, Skittles was VERY pleased to see us, and the vet told us some of the tale. The rest was filled in by the delightful lady whose car it was our kitty had hitched a lift in – the vets gave me her number so I could phone and thank her. Apparently, she’d come to Bury St Edmunds on Friday to do some shopping and had parked in the car park at the top of our street.

Leaving Bury late Friday afternoon, she’d driven home to Ely, then had driven to Wisbech, then home to Ely again – a round trip of approximately 100 miles. Saturday morning, the lady noticed the bulb in one of her headlights was gone, so went to replace it and was very surprised to find a little pair of dark eyes looking back at her. Help was summoned as Skittles was well and truly wedged in and showed no signs of coming out – whether she was trapped or just so frightened she couldn’t move, I don’t know. Bits of the engine were removed and hey presto, the cat was free.

But this lovely kitty guardian angel didn’t just let her run off, she phoned her local vet who told her to bring this little black hitchhiker in to be checked for injuries and to see if she was microchipped.

Luckily, very luckily, Skittles is, so the vet then made the telephone call I recounted above.

When I think of how this tale could have ended my heart goes into my mouth. There are a lot of moving parts in an engine, so Skittles is very lucky she wasn’t ripped to shreds. Being driven at 70mph down the motorway, she is also extremely fortunate she didn’t fall out onto the road and get run over by the cars following. She’s lucky the lady who found her didn’t just release her – so far from home there’s no knowing what would have happened to her. She might have been found and taken to a vet or the local RSPCA, but then again she might not have been. Finally, she’s very lucky that we had her microchipped so the vet simply scanned her and found our contact details.

But she’s home now, and has been cuddled, fed and watered. We’re going to keep her in for a couple of days to make sure she’s not too traumatized by her experience, so I’ve had to go and buy a litter tray which she eyed with disgust, before bashing at the locked cat flap and plaintively demanding her release.

Will she learn from this? I hope so! Heaven only knows where she might end up next time.

I’m sorry this is such a short blog, but under the circumstances I think I can be forgiven. If anyone is interested, Chaining Daisy will be released as a stunning paperback, an ebook and will be on Kindle Unlimited next Wednesday.In the meantime, it is available to pre-order at a special introductory price.

The sequel to Becoming Lili, it reduced one editor, three beta readers and two arc readers to floods of tears, and even made me cry when I was writing it, so if you have read Becoming Lili and want to know how the story continues for Lili and her friends, then why not buy yourself a copy.

Chaining Daisy – Book Two of the Perennials Trilogy and
the beautiful sequel to Becoming Lili

I hope you have a great Sunday and I’ll see you as usual next week, when I promise things should be back to normal – well, normal for me!

Best Wishes

Julia Blake

Passes, Paperbacks and Parks….. A typical week for Julia Blake

It’s been a busy and stressful couple of weeks since we last chatted, and there were moments when I was literally ripping my hair out in chunks. I’m in the final stages of publishing book nine, and as any author knows, it can be a frustrating, arse ache of a process, in which the Law of the Sod definitely applies – in that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong!

Also, in my news, exam results were released, and Miss F went back to her school to collect them last week. Full of trepidation, convinced she’d managed to stuff the lot, her heart was in her mouth as she opened the envelope which contained her future. I never really had any doubts that she would pass and pass well. Anyone who has worked as hard as she has over the past two years and put as much effort into revision as she did, can’t possibly have failed. And of course, she didn’t. I’m happy to report that she passed all eleven subjects, with a mix of mostly As and Bs, and a couple of Cs in Physics and Chemistry – “we hates them!”

Now, a lot of parents expect the absolute best from their children, and at least one set of parents we know are paying for papers to be re-graded because their little darling got a B+ instead of the A they felt they deserved. I’ve never put that kind of pressure on Miss F. Now, don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean I didn’t expect her to work and work bloody hard to get good grades. But I asked her to do HER best, not be THE best. At the end of the day, I think that’s all you can reasonably expect from anyone, that they do the best they can.

We’re all different and we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Miss F’s nemesis is physics, and over the years I’ve seen her struggle to understand what to me seemed absolute gibberish, but she persevered. Come revision time, our house was covered with little post it notes with physics formula and equations on. Much to the complete bafflement of our little Romanian lodger, who came home from work late one night to find one stuck on his door and thought it was a note from me – “I am not understanding what this is.”

When exams finally hit, she was an absolute shaking bundle of nerves and was convinced she’d failed physics. Even though I was confident she’d done well, her own low self-confidence told her otherwise. That’s why there was much celebrating in the Blake household when she opened that envelope and found a C+ for physics. Vindication of all her hard work, and we were as pleased about that result as we were about the As in history and English, and the clutch of Bs for her other subjects. The important thing is she’s passed, with grades high enough to take up the college place she’s been offered and do the highest level of the diploma in her subject that she can.

And for those of you would like to know, Miss F wishes to be a zookeeper so is starting a Level 3 Animal Management and Care Diploma next week. She wishes then to specialise in entomology and specifically myrmecology – which isn’t the study of mermaids although oh how I wish it was, wouldn’t that be the coolest thing – but is in fact the study of ants.

As I said, I’ve been trying to publish a new book. Chaining Daisy is the sequel to Becoming Lili and is book two of the Perennials Trilogy. It’s been two years in the making, two very long years of writing, revising, amending, editing, rewriting and proofing. Non authors probably think when the words The End are written on a manuscript it’s all done and dusted. Not a bit of it. I once saw a meme of an iceberg floating in water, the tip of the iceberg was the finished book that the reader buys, but under the water the rest of the iceberg was made up of all the long, tedious process the author has to endure to get that book to that point.

So, I’m in the final stages now, that frustrating time when you’re so close to having the book ready to launch, but so many annoying, niggly, painful little snags keep leaping up to slap you round the face, that at times you’re tempted to just give up. Every book is different, some books come together so easily you dare to think you’ve cracked this getting published lark and are a professional. Other books are more feral, refusing to be caught and heartlessly laughing as they throw up problem after problem. Chaining Daisy has been the latter, so much so that I began to think it was cursed. Instead of a publisher I needed a priest equipped with bell, book and candle.

It’s a big book, just like its predecessor, it has illustrations and pretty little daisy icons on the chapter headings. Any of these can cause issues when trying to publish, all of them together – well, that’s a plan doomed to failure. For those unfamiliar with the process, you have to upload your beautifully prepared document to Amazon, who then place it into the relevant paperback setting using a template that you originally downloaded from them to prepare your document in. Now, one would think that would mean that what you see in your document is exactly what will appear in the Amazon preview. One would think…

Nope, for some reason Amazon narrow the margins ever so slightly when they get their grubby mitts on your perfect manuscript. This squeezes your paragraphs so sometimes instead of being, for example, six lines long, a rogue word or two sneaks onto a seventh line. Now, this probably doesn’t sound too big a deal, but imagine it happening several times in a chapter. It will push the pages over so instead of your chapter being ten pages long, it’s now eleven. That means instead of chapter two beginning on page eleven as it states on your contents page, it now starts on page twelve. Multiply this by the fifty or so chapters there are in the book and you begin to see the problem.

Over and over and again I had to upload the file, check it, nope still not right. Go back to my original document, go through it with a fine toothcomb tweaking the paragraphs to pull those rogue words back. Upload it again, check it, nope, still not right. Over and over until you lose the will to live.

I also had problems with the daisy icons. Most were fine. Most were well-behaved, good little daisies who did what they were told and stayed put. But there’s always one, isn’t there. One who decides to plough their own furrow and refuse to conform.

Days of my life were sacrificed to polishing this book, to making it the best I could. A lot of indie authors don’t bother. They write hard and fast, churning out books of only 50,000 words or so, barely editing them and certainly not giving them time to mature before bam, they’re on Amazon and the writer has started the next. Of course, indie authors do need to be prolific. Never has the phrase “you’re only as good as your last show” been as relevant as it is to us. A new book creates a buzz, it lifts your profile, increases your visibility, improves sales and generates fresh interest in existing titles. This is all good, but, at what price does such productivity come? Unless you are some kind of superhuman writing and editing machine who never makes a mistake, then the quality of your books will be doubtful.

Books are like fine wines or a good cheese, they need to mature. No manuscript ever suffered for being set to one side for a few weeks, or even months. When an author has first finished writing a new book they’re caught up in a frenzied whirl of relief. Reading it through straight away the rose-coloured glasses are firmly in place and it’s impossible to see through its magnificence to the flaws lurking beneath. And there will be flaws. Typos, punctuation and bits that just don’t flow. Continuity errors, plot holes and timeline problems. They will be there. It’s almost impossible to proof your own work. You know what it’s supposed to say, so that is what your brain will see. Letting the manuscript sit for a while will give you some much needed distance and allow you to view it with less prejudiced eyes.

It is my humble opinion that if you are expecting people to pay good money for your book, then it needs to be as perfect as it is possible for you to get it. I’m afraid indie authors have something of a bad reputation for producing books of poor quality, and it’s true that there are a few authors guilty of this. The sad thing is though, those few pull down and tarnish the good name of the majority of indie authors, myself included, who work tirelessly to publish books as professionally finished as traditionally published ones.

I like to make bookmarks to go with all my books and last week I sat down to produce the ones to accompany Chaining Daisy. My usual website had changed the way they operated though, as usual turning a reasonably simple process into a complicated and fiddly rigmarole that had me grinding my teeth and squinting at tiny preview images on my laptop. Finally, it was done, 250 bookmarks ordered and paid for, one more thing successfully ticked off my list.

I should have known though, should have suspected that life would stick another turd in my tea kettle. Three days later they arrived. All 250 of them. I eagerly opened the package, and for a split second I thought they were fine, before I put my glasses on and realised the black of the background behind the daisy icon was a slightly different black to the black background of the bookmark. Bugger, I thought, but it’s liveable with and one of those things that no one else will probably notice.

Then Miss F wandered in with her young, sharp eyes, picked one up and said, “why does it say – body text here – under the daisy?” I snatched it back, examined it and cursed. Yep, she was right, in black letters on the black background were the words “body text here”! Just as I was wondering how noticeable that was, I spotted the third, deal breaker error. I’d left the letter R off the word author. So, that settled that, although the irony of an author who can’t spell author, is one I can appreciate, the whole lot had to go in the bin, and I had to start again.

Finished product – front and back of new bookmarks now perfect!

As you can imagine, after all that I was a quivering pile of stress, so went to a local park with Miss F for some much-needed exercise. Nowton Park is a wonderful, sprawling park on the outskirts of Bury St Edmunds. With several tennis courts, a football pitch, a kid’s playground, a maze and a café, it’s a popular destination, but as there are over 200 acres of it you can spend hours there and never see another soul. There was just one problem though, the UK had another mini heatwave last week so after twenty minutes of walking in 35C we were both drenched in sweat and feeling the strain.

Still – stiff upper lip, never give in because we’re British and the “Dunkirk spirit” – and all that, meant neither of us were prepared to admit defeat so we did the whole circuit, before crawling home in a hot, sweaty puddle of regret, about ready to peel our own skins off and fighting over who’d be first in the shower.

And now it’s Saturday and once again it’s time to sit down and write my blog. Is it getting any easier? Maybe, certainly the whole technical side of uploading any photos and scheduling the blog I’m now more familiar with, but it’s the knowing what to talk to you about that still gives me concern. Despite the lovely messages I’ve had from so many people saying how much you all enjoy it when I simply “chat” I’m still worried that it’s not interesting enough. Although over 2000 hits so far is encouraging, as are the wonderful comments you leave.

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed my round up of what for me is a fairly typical week. Oh, and I also managed to squeeze work into that lot as well, and there’s a little funny anecdote to share with you all before I sign off. Monday was a bank holiday in the UK, so most people had the day off work, not us poor retail workers though and the day was incredibly busy, with people piling into the shop to buy. However, as most places are shut by 4pm on a bank holiday, by 3:30pm it was dead. No one was coming in and we were tidying up. All day I’d been convinced it was Sunday. It felt like a Sunday, and the customers had had that Sunday shopper vibe about them. So, at 3:55pm I washed up all the cups we’d used throughout the day, picked up my bag, clocked myself out and went home. Letting myself in the front door, Miss F raised her eyebrows at me.

“You’re home early.”

“No, it’s 4:15, I’m always home at 4:15 on a Sunday.”

“Mum, it’s Monday.”

“Shit! Give me the phone!”

I phoned work; my boss answered. Apparently, nobody had even realised I’d gone.

“Hi, it’s me.”

“Where are you calling from?! The toilet?”

“No, I’m home.”

There was a beat, then…

“Why are you home?”

“I thought it was Sunday, so I left.”

“Oh, what are you like?!”

Luckily, he saw the funny side of me blithely leaving work an hour early and as no customers had come in after I’d gone, in the grand scheme of things it didn’t really matter. However, I did have to work an extra hour on Wednesday to make up for it.

So, that’s me signing out. Hopefully next week will be less eventful, but hey, this is me, so I seriously doubt it. Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

All the best

Julia Blake

Ginny Stone – Superwoman! An In-Depth Interview with the Wonderful Author, Mum and Cancer Survivor, Ginny Stone

This week, I am thrilled to be interviewing the lovely Ginny Stone. A busy mum and author living in South Africa, Ginny was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago and her book, Out Damned Spot, tells of her terrifying experience. Bittersweet and achingly funny, it is a real and frank account of those dark days.

Ginny Stone is a hybrid author, with 14 books traditionally published and and 7 indie books with more in the pipe-line. She lives in Pretoria, South Africa in a rambley old house with extended family, and took time from her busy schedule to chat to me about life, cancer, pets and living in a family commune!

I recently read your book “Out Damn Spot” which is in fact a true story about your brush with cancer. The book deals with the situation in a fairly lighthearted and even humorous manner, but I suspect it was far from funny at the time?

True story! I actually had no clue how dangerous melanoma was until I hit Google and saw that it’s the biggest killer as far as skin cancer goes – mainly because it goes undetected so often. I was lucky.

In the book, your family were initially concerned in the first few days, but that concern quickly changed into disinterest and, dare I say it, even annoyance that your illness was inconveniencing them. Is that a fair statement?

Erm… not quite! They were concerned— in fact panic-stricken would be more accurate – but once I got the all clear and they realised I was not going to die, they relaxed and stopped worrying. This happened to be 6 days after the op – I was was still sore, woozy from the meds and post-op ghoulies, had no feeling in my upper arm (still don’t) and was reeling from the fact that I, Mrs Indestructible, was in fact destructible.

You come across in the book – and in your posts on social media – as a powerhouse of energy. Always on the go, you strike me as being the mover and shaker in your family, so do you think it was a bit of a shock when suddenly “Mum couldn’t do it all anymore and they had to help”?

A shock of seismic proportions would be a fairly accurate thing to say. Thing is, mostly mum did continue to do it all.  I am my own worst enemy and never ask for help. I think family members should automatically know when I need somebody to step in and feed the cats, make supper or just do general household stuff. That’s stupid because they don’t even see that I’m floundering. I need to learn to ask.

It must have been a very scary time for you, and I can only imagine what you must have felt, but did you ever believe that you wouldn’t recover? That the treatment wouldn’t work?

Okay – so I knew that they would be able to cut out the cancer from my arm easily because it was only stage 1. I wasn’t sure if it had spread though. I kept asking what the treatment would be if it had, and nobody would tell me. “Let’s wait and see,” they infuriatingly said. I guess it’s because if it had spread throughout my entire body, I would up been up shit creek. Luckily, the sentinel node was clear. But let me tell you – having that sucker out was much worse than having the cancer removed. That’s why I still have no feeling in my arm. The doctor never said a word – it was the biggest shock ever that first day when I showered. Why don’t they tell you what might happen, so you can expect things?

And what we all want to know is are you completely healed? Has the cancer gone for good?

Lol – fat joke – who knows! I am covered in speckles and freckles.  I just keep an eye on the ones that I can see. For the time being, yes.

At the time or perhaps since, did you seek the help and guidance of any cancer sufferers’ organisations or websites? Did they help, and can you recommend any for anyone else unfortunate enough to find themselves in a similar situation?

Hah! It boils down to me and that help thing that I talked about above. I didn’t even think about counselling until long afterwards. It would have been so incredibly beneficial. All I wanted to do was talk about it, and nobody wanted to listen. “Yes, yes, but you’re okay!” was the general beginning of the change of subject sentence. My body was was okay, but my head was all screwed up. I blame my doctor for not suggesting some sort of help, but I think if you have not been through something like that yourself, you don’t really realise how much it messes a person up. Must say, my Instagram and Facebook family were fabulous – but I would recommend some sort of therapy. Unless you are a writer and a gardener – writing my book was cathartic on so many different levels.

You live in South Africa. I know this is a very beautiful country, but one that has its troubles. What is it like living there? And is it really as dangerous a place as it seems?

It’s the most fabulous place. The scenery is so diverse from province to province and absolutely to die for. The people are friendly and it’s not half as dangerous as everybody always blabs on about. Yes, it does have its own troubles and you do have to be savvy where you go, especially at night time. But you have to do that in any country. We have electric gates, barbed wire on the fence, bars on the windows, alarms and locks. Shhh… don’t tell anybody but we don’t use half of them. I have no desire to go and live anywhere else – except maybe near the sea. We have malls too – a fact that sometimes seems to astound overseas people. But no, lions and elephants do not roam freely in the streets.

Now “Out Damned Spot” isn’t your only book. I know you have also written the “Sibo” series of books for children. Perhaps you could tell us a little about them?

Sibo is a little girl who wants to help save the world. She wants all the kids to help her. I wrote the first book when we moved to Gauteng (from the Western Cape) in 2007. My writer and journalist friends loved it and suggested I send it to a lady who had publishing connections. OMG! She slated me left right and centre, told me my topic (global warming) was ridiculous and suggested that I take her writing classes at University. I was mortified, so bloody embarrassed that I could have been so bold as to have thought that lowly little I could write a book. I stashed it in my laptop for over six months. Then started chatting to a well-known columnist in one of the larger newspapers and he loved it and said I should send it to his publisher. They said ‘No thank you’, so I bluntly emailed them back – “No thank you because it’s crap or no thank you because it’s not what you are interested in publishing?” Got a really nice letter by return email, giving me the Publishing Association of South Africa’s website, and saying it was not at all crap – they just did not handle children’s books. I picked 5 children’s publishers from the list and emailed them. The very next day two publishers replied. One emailed and Lets Look Publishers called me and enthused.

There are now 14 titles published in the Sibo series. The first four Lets Look Publishers carried the costs for, but because I’d worked in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field before, I had contacts and was used to filling in proposals.  So I got a few pertinent books in the series funded – the first was on the topic of astronomy for International Year of Astronomy (2009). Thereafter I got commissioned to write Sibo stories on various topics like… nanotechnology (true as Bob – if you are not sure what it is – read the book), biodiversity, HIV AIDS, Chemistry.

Peter Sanderson from Lets Look and I are passionate about road safety – so we crowd funded for that title and got a chunk of funding from Nash Nissan. The following year we got more funding from Super Group SA and – this was very cool – we printed Sibo Looks Right in a slightly less robust format (more like a magazine) and gave them out at toll gates over the Easter break – a time when the roads statistics are shocking.

Sibo on the Move was commissioned by the Gautrain (our version of rapid transport) and they sponsored 10,000 copies of this title. That’s a funny story too – but I’ll bore the pants off everybody if I go into all of my funny writing stories. 

By the way – the other publisher that contacted me – Quali Books – published three other little books I had written and dodgily illustrated on HIV AIDS – and went on to translate them into 8 of the official SA languages. They are still being read.

What kind of writer would you say you are? One who plans and outlines meticulously? Or do you just dive in headfirst, no parachute and no safety net?

Pantser for sure! I get an idea in my head and off I go. But I’m trying hard to change my evil ways.

What do you have planned next? Are you currently working on anything?

My daughter and I write our series “The Imaginaeries” together. She’s the anxious one from Out Damned Spot and has a uniquely weird sense of humour. So, she gives me ideas and I run with them and write the story. So far we have three books in the series – self-published. It’s a modern day fairy story set in a local nature reserve where my husband and I go hiking. It’s a magical place all on its own, named Faerie Glen Nature Reserve. I know, right? Perfect!

Emma had originally created (designed and hand-made) a series of soft dolls with names like Marigold, Ivy Lion and Winona. We wrote them into the first story as some of the Imaginaerie characters – it’s a whimsical tale with some twists, and now we are writing the back, front and sometimes sideways story of each character. It’s going to be an epic series and it’s not only for kids, in fact the last two books are a tad less kiddyfied than the first. The back stories are more novelettes – quick, easy fun reads. There are many more in the pipe-line.

Have also just finished “Wizard of Wigwash – the Adventures of Johnny the Penguin” which I wrote in conjunction with Alastair Kendall in the UK. His dad used to tell him bedtime stories and he always wanted to turn them into a book. Poor dude, he found me just after I’d had my melanoma diagnosed last year, so I was rather straight forward and told him his writing sucked, but his plot was great. I’d write his story for him if I was not going to pop my clogs. I didn’t, so I wrote the story. Of course it turned out a lot bigger than he’d ever been told, and he was great and let me have my way with lots of the story-line. There have been three iterations, but the final version is rather good, if I’m allowed to say so myself.

I’m also busy with the first issue of a “Creative Writers Journal” also at the moment – if anybody wants to submit an entry – please have a look and see what it’s all about. The more the merrier.

I have signed up for NaNoWriMo for the first time ever. I plan on writing something about Jack, the hooligan cat and Gemma, the neurotic sausage dog live on the Edge. Bit long for a title hey?

What’s your favourite part about being a writer? And what’s your least favourite part?

Being able to put stories, blogs, whatever into words and have people enjoy reading the end product. I love reading Sibo to kids and knowing that the story has made some sort of an impact. Even when their eyes roll back and you think they are bored, they suddenly perk up and answer all the questions correctly at the end and then fight over who wins a book. I wish I could give them all books. One day when I win the Lotto I’m going to buy loads of my books and give them out free! Oh wait… shit, I better start playing the Lotto then – hey? A friend of mine once called it ‘stupidity tax’ and I’ve stayed away since then.

I effing hate marketing! That’s the yuckiest part of writing – even if you are traditionally published you still need to market. It always feels like you are bragging about your own books, like… buy mine, buy mine!

As well as writing, I know you’re very passionate about your garden. Now to my English eyes it’s a very unusual garden, no less beautiful for that, but I imagine the climate in South Africa can very much dictate the type of plants you can grow?

Succulents rock! They are water-wise and are very rewarding. I love “proper” flowers too though. The weather in Pretoria is great for flowers and plants – they don’t even die in the winter. There’s no frost where we live, although it does get chilly (like  ~2 deg C).

What made you decide to completely restyle the garden? And is it finished yet? Do you have any more exciting plans for it?

When we moved into our house, the back garden was enchanting, shady, tree-filled, cool and green. The front garden was bare red earth with some succulents around the edges.

Whilst I was flirting with cancer last year, I was angry. Really, really angry with the world at large. So I flung myself into sorting out our fugly front yard. We’d tried making a few raised beds when we first moved in (August 2017) but they did not work out that well. Then winter arrived and the front garden was a nice warm place to sit. Albeit ugly as sin.

Chris bought us a divine swinging bench. I used to sit on it (and snivel when I thought I might die) but then I pulled up my big girl panties and started scheming. It went from there. I got fit and toned hefting rocks around the place. I think the family realised that it was an outlet for me and they left me alone. Chris only interfered when I placed the pavers for my long legs – he insisted that I make them closer together.

I still love pottering around in the garden. I appropriate rubble from the side of the road and make cool stuff with it, herb swirls, edgings etc.  The broken plates went up onto the wall in a nice big mosaic. The bench has become a renowned place to sit with friends and family.

Before Mosaic
After Mosaic

We mentioned your family before, and I know you have an eclectic assortment of family members all living in a big house together and I always imagine it to be a bit like The Waltons. Is this true? Or is the reality not quite so rosy?

Chris calls it a commune. I say it’s a mad house. We originally bought the house because it had a pecan nut tree and enough space for everybody. My 85 year old mom has her own granny flat attached to the house. Emma and her significant other have a little garden flatlet, Luan (aka Vetboy – my stepson – 3rd year vet school – no mean feat), Chris and I share the main part of the house. I make supper for six people most nights. Mom cooks the odd one every now and then. It was a rule we made right at the beginning – everybody eats supper together. Sometimes it’s a real pain in the backside, but mostly we manage.

The funny thing was, when I was sick, instead of them all pulling together, everybody went into their own little silo of misery and anxiety and I was left trying to pick up the pieces. Nobody ever talks much about how guilty one feels for putting loved ones through the trauma of your illness.

I have another daughter; she’s married with her own delightful daughter aged 7. We often wish that they lived a bit closer than Cape Town.

I think it would drive me crackers having so many people placing demands on me all the time, so what do you do when it’s all a bit much and you need to escape from it?

Crackers with cheese and pickles on! I go into the garden of course! Or do crafty stuff or hide in the loo with my book. Every now and then Chris and I sneak off for a weekend, but they are few and far between. Luckily I do have my own office. Okay – Chris has a desk in it too, but as he’s at work all day – it’s mine!

Now, as well as sharing your home with your large family, you also have several pets whose antics I and many others enjoy sharing on your social media sites. Can you tell us about them?

I’m quite good at sharing animal stuff hey! It’s because I wrote “A Dog’s Blog” for 8 years as a weekly column in a local newspaper. It was a hysterical look at family life from our SPCA pooch’s point of view. In fact, am still compiling those columns into books. Two down, another three to go!

We inherited Gemma when we bought the house. Her family moved to New Zealand and left her behind. She’s a neurotic sausage dog, had been run over before we got her, so limps like a drunken sailor whenever she thinks she’s not getting enough attention, and is very, very vocal.  Gemma has the best kept toenails in the neighbourhood, thanks to Vetboy.

Then we have Edge – Emma recruited him when we still lived in the complex. She was an abandoned kitten and managed to weasel her presence into the household, much against every reluctant bone in my body to have another animal (we already had Ralph, who had adopted us when he had a perfectly fine home of his own). Edge got fatter and fatter and we thought she was preggy, but kitties never appeared.  Turns out, when we went to have her fixed, that she was a he, about 5 or 6 years old, and had already been neutered. He had just eaten himself into a preggy-looking state, with man-boobs—the whole tootie. Shame, he also has tumours in his throat, and is FIV+. Luckily we have Vetboy in the house – he gives Mr Edge regular injections of cortisone and keeps everything in order.

Then there is Jack aka #Hooligancat.  We got him after Ralphie died. He is the most delightful hooligancat that ever existed. He is also the most wicked. You can read how we got him here.

Do you get to see much of the wildlife in South Africa? And what are your favourite of all its wild animals?

Every now and then Chris, who heads up the Physics Department at the University of Pretoria, has an overseas visitor who needs to be entertained. We usually hive off to the nearest (3 hours away) nature reserve, Pilanesburg, where one can spot some of the “big five”. We mostly manage to see elephant, rhino, giraffe, myriads of buck, hippo, warthogs etc etc. The cats – lions and leopard – continue to elude us though. My personal favourite are the giraffe.

Have you travelled much outside of South Africa? If you have, where has been the location in the world you enjoyed the most?

I was born in Zimbabwe, grew up in Malawi, went to high school in South Africa and landed up staying here. I’ve also been to Namibia, Mozambique, Cyprus, Rome, Amsterdam, UK, Belgium, Switzerland and have visited my sister in San Francisco, or rather, just outside SF. I loved Belgium.

If you could travel anywhere, money no object, where would you go?

My bucket list is to walk the El Camino, not really for the whole pilgrimmy thing, but I love the thought of having my life on my back for a few weeks and not having to worry about much. Otherwise I’d like to just travel a bit with Chris – he’s a great person to travel with.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Ginny Stone for taking the time to have a chat with us this morning, and I hope you’ve all enjoyed hearing about her busy and exciting life. Below is the link to look up Ginny’s books and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Once again, thank you for joining me this Sunday morning here on A Little Bit of Blake. I hope you have a wonderful day and I look forward to chatting with you again next week.

Regards

Julia Blake

Just Kidding… 15 Years of Being a Single-Parent

This week my daughter, Miss F, turned 16. Like most parents of teenagers, I look at her and wonder where on earth all those years went to. For fifteen of them, I’ve been a single mum and raised her totally alone with no help from my ex-husband. Whilst this was not exactly what I signed up for, as a wise woman once said – “It is what it is” – so I just had to knuckle down and deal with it.

They’ve been eventful years, in which she’s grown from a tiny baby with the smallest feet ever, to a lanky teenager needing size seven shoes! There’s been a great deal of hardship and sacrifice along the way, but there’s also been side splitting, roll about on the floor moments of laughter as well.

When my daughter was very young and had newly started nursery school, she had yet to learn the art of diplomacy. That sometimes you need to think before you speak and not blurt out things you’ve heard mummy say to a friend when she thought you weren’t listening. A perfect example of this was the case of the classroom assistant. A lovely lady, she nevertheless had the ability to not only talk all four legs off a donkey but persuade it to go for a walk afterwards.

Any parent unfortunate enough to be cornered by her in the playground would stand there, eyes glazed, as she rattled on about anything and everything. Bound by British politeness and a urgent desire not to piss off one of the people who looked after their precious small human all day, the hapless parent would nod and agree, desperately sneaking looks at their watch and seeing the other mummies and daddies scuttling by at speed, thankful for once it wasn’t them caught in the small talk limelight.

One morning we entered the playground and before I could stop her, Miss F ran over to the classroom assistant crying out “Mrs S, Mrs S, stick out your tongue!” Confused, Mrs S looked at her and enquired why Miss F wanted her to stick out her tongue, to which my darling daughter shrieked at the top of her lungs, “Because I want to see if it’s hinged in the middle the way mummy says it is!”

Mortified, I tried to apologise and laugh it off, but this lady was not to be mollified. She gathered up her dignity, swept all the children before her into class, and NEVER SPOKE TO ME AGAIN! I was the envy of the playground. No more sneaking in and hoping to be able to drop and collect without being stopped, I sauntered in as casually as I liked. I was concerned she might take it out on Miss F, who was innocent of any crime other than that of being a parrot, but another teacher – who found the whole thing highly amusing – told me apparently Mrs S had loudly declared that “Really, in these cases it is always the parent who should be blamed.”

We survived the early years quite nicely. Potty training and weaning came and went with no real problems – mostly because I was quite a laid back mum and didn’t pressure her into them until she was ready and wanted to do them. Her flappy mouth though continued to be a problem. Seemingly with no filter, she’d say exactly what was in her mind, regardless of the consequences.

Trying on a pair of trousers one day in a changing room in Next, I looked at my six-year-old who’d been bribed to be good with a packet of smarties and asked – “Do these trousers make mummy look fat?” Giving the question her full concentration, she studied me intently, head on one side, before announcing loudly and with complete candour – “No mummy, it’s your fat that makes you look fat.” Snorts of laughter erupted up and down the length of the cubicles. Needless to say, I did not buy the trousers.

She was quite a studious child, and as books are obviously very important in our house, reading and writing were skills she was keen to learn. I remember one day she ran through to me, all puffed up with pride and declared “come and see, I’ve just written my first word.” Thinking to myself this must be one of those parental moments all the books tell you about, I ran to see. Well, her “word” began with an Z then a Y then a K then an X and progressed from there. I squinted at this word that quite legitimately could have been the name of a firm of Polish builders, before gently asking what it meant. Looking at me as if I was the stupidest person on the planet, she replied – “Well I don’t know! I haven’t learnt to read yet!”

This notion she had the dimmest mother in the world is one that seems to have persisted. Driving her to an after-school club one day she suddenly asked how hard it was to drive. I replied that it was quite hard. You had to pay attention, learn all the rules of the road and what all the signs meant, and then when you’d passed your test and could drive alone, you always had to be aware of what you were doing and what was happening on the road around you. That, in conclusion, it was quite a difficult thing to do. She considered this, then asked – “Well, how did you manage it then?”

And then there were those after-school clubs. Oh, we did them all. Swimming – all the way from tadpole group at pre-school age, right up to marlin group in middle school. Every week we’d hurtle like a rocket from her school which was one side of town, to the swimming pool, which was right the other side. Having only 15 minutes to get her there, changed and in the pool, the drive was always a flurry of her changing in the back of the car, whilst I risked life and limb and probably violated a few traffic laws negotiating school run traffic and all the other manic mummies trying to get their offspring to their extra-curricular activities. We were always late by a few moments, always got a look from the instructor, and once it was suggested we transfer to the later class. But I didn’t want to do that, it would have meant hanging around the leisure centre for 45 minutes because there was no point going home first, and then we wouldn’t have got home to have dinner until gone six o’clock. Nope, I stubbornly refused to change, and so we managed, week after week, always being a few seconds late.

Then there was ballet. Miss F started taking ballet classes at age two. A serious drain on our finances, we managed to pay for them because I thought they were what she wanted to do. For seven long years she’d don a pink tutu once a week and lumber around like a heavy-footed pixie. Until she finally admitted she hated ballet, was crap at it, and had only carried on with it for so long because she thought I wanted her to do it! But she’d rather leave so she could take up archery instead please. When I thought of all the hundreds of pounds wasted over the years on lessons and ballet kit, I wanted to cry, but hey ho, such is the life of a parent.

Archery I didn’t mind. The classes were supplemented by the school and all the equipment was provided. She stayed late after school once a week, so it meant I merely ambled along after all the school run traffic had cleared and picked her up. The archery craze lasted precisely one term and was dropped in favour of rugby. I had no problems with her playing rugby – hey, my girl can do whatever a boy does – but by now she was wearing glasses, so I was a bit concerned about them being broken. As it turned out, I was worrying about the wrong end. Involved in a tackle once day, a ligament tore in her leg and that was her benched for the rest of the term and me having to drive her to and from school every day. And that was the end of rugby.

She sang in the girls’ choir at the local cathedral for a few years, and I lost count of the number of Evensongs, performances and carol concerts I sat through. That lasted about three years, before she got bored with that as well.

Ask any parent, and they’ll tell you the loudest sound on the planet, is that of a young child saying something hugely inappropriate in the worst place they could possibly say it. Once, we were picking up a few bits and pieces at our local branch of the upmarket grocery store, Waitrose. A tad more expensive than other supermarkets, it is right on my doorstep, so we’d sometimes shop there rather than get the car out. When Miss F was practicing her reading, she’d like to carry the shopping list and read out each item to me in turn. We were in the last aisle, the bottled drinks aisle, and she informed me proudly there was only one item left on our list. I asked what it was, and in a voice loud enough to summon the cows’ home, she announced – “COCK, MUMMY. YOU HAVE TO BUY SOME COCK!”

My eyes bugged. My face went bright red. My mouth opened and closed several times because I had no words. All around us, eyebrows were raised, mouths quirked into grins and a nearby shop assistant told me – “You won’t find any cock in here dear, try Tesco.” Snatching the list away, I exclaimed, “COKE! I have to buy cocoa cola!” For months afterwards, every time we went back, I swear the assistants would all smirk knowingly at me.

That same branch of Waitrose used to have those little trolleys for children to push around behind their parents as they did their shopping. A hellishly bad idea, I can only assume they were the brainchild of a committee of childless idiots, and luckily, they didn’t last long. Of course, Miss F thought they were brilliant and absolutely insisted on having one every time we went shopping. One day, I was doing quite a big shop. I’d had an unexpected windfall and was having a little party to repay all the various invitations Miss F and I had had over the years.

Wandering around the shop, Miss F clanked her little trolley behind me, ramming it into the back of my legs every time I stopped, crashing it into a display of tinned goods and sending them flying, and nearly kneecapping an elderly lady. We finally reached the last aisle in the shop and I loaded up the remaining few things on my list into her little trolley because I had no room in mine. Making our way to the check out, I noticed a few people looking askance at us and it suddenly dawned on me that the last aisle had been the alcohol one!

Yep, you’ve guessed it, Miss F’s little trolley was now full of bottles of wine, beer and a bottle of port all rattling away merrily, with Teddy riding high on top. I stopped, realising how bad it looked and hustled her away behind the freezers, where I picked all the most innocent things out of my trolley and swapped for the bottles and tins of booze in hers. Bad Mummy!

One day she came home from school full of the history lesson they’d had about Tudor times, and how King Henry VIII had broken from Rome and created a new religion so he could marry Anne Boleyn. I’m very interested in British history, so we chatted about it for a while, before she asked – “Mummy, is our current Queen a prostitute?” I replied – “Yes, dear, but don’t tell Philip.” Of course, she meant protestant.

Looking back over the years, I remember more laughter than tears, and I really wouldn’t have changed a thing. Well, a bit more money and a bit more time would have been nice, but we managed. And now she’s 16. Regular readers of my blog will know we had her prom a few weeks ago and her Sweet Sixteen birthday party. She’s growing up so fast it leaves me breathless. She’s done with school and is preparing for the adventure that will be college.

Being a single parent is hard, let no one tell you otherwise. You have to be good cop/bad cop, and everything is on your shoulders, and it’s one of those jobs that you don’t know you’ve got right until it’s too late. I think I did ok, looking at the wonderful, kind and hardworking human being she has become, I don’t think I did too badly at all. But, at the end of the day, I did my best, and that’s really all anyone can ask of you.

Having fun with filters on her new phone Christmas 2017

Thank you once again for joining me, as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on this or any of my blogs, or if you simply have something you want to ask me or have a suggestion for a future topic.

Julia Blake

You Know You’re Getting Old, When…

It’s late Saturday afternoon, in fact it’s almost at that point where we can legitimately declare it Saturday evening and be done with it. I’m late writing this blog – even for me this is pushing matters right to the wire. It’s been a long, exhausting week of overtime, and trying to republish one of my books “Becoming Lili”. The book has merely had a bit of a freshen up comprising of a good edit, new font and formatting, and beautiful line illustrations and chapter heading graphics throughout. Simple, you’d think, and something that wouldn’t cause any undue stress and bother. I mean it’s basically the same book as it was, a book that has sat quite happily on Amazon for the past two years. But, as I get older, one thing I’ve learnt is that nothing is ever simple. However, it was finally done to my satisfaction and I could mentally tick another thing off my to-do list.

I genuinely had no clue what to blog about this week, not a glimmer of an idea twinkled in the dimmest recesses of my brain, and I half wondered whether to not bother this week. But… I made a promise, to myself and to you, that I would always write something. Then on the drive home, I heard a comment made on the radio that set me thinking – “You know you’re getting old, when…”

When what? What one circumstance or event has to occur before you throw your hands up and admit that, yes, you are old! I turned 52 last month, not old, not really, not by today’s standards, but not young either. Realistically I am well over halfway through my life, and there is a sneaking suspicion that it’s all downhill from now on.

So, what characteristics do I feel put me squarely in the “mature” bracket, rather than the “spring chicken” one? Well, for a start, sleep has become both more precious and harder to obtain. When I was younger, I could exist on very little sleep for days on end – I remember one amazing weekend when I practically turned nocturnal, but that’s a subject for another blog perhaps – and then binge sleeping once all the partying shenanigans were over. Exhausted, I literally fell into bed and slept the clock round. I can’t do that now. The ability to turn sleep into an Olympic sporting event sadly eludes me, and no matter how tired I am or how little sleep I had the night before, my body is awake and ready for action at 6am – plead though my brain might for a lie in, nope, insists my body, plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead, up and at it, there’s stuff to be a doing.

I also used to be able to sleep anywhere. Out with friends, we’d all pile back to one or other of our homes and sleep where we dropped – spare bed (if lucky), blow up mattress, sofa, sun lounger, duvet on the floor, in a chair, even the bathtub. But now, I will pay any taxi fare, walk almost any distance or overcome any obstacle to simply GET HOME to my own bed, and my own bathroom in the morning. Because that’s another thing that marks you as getting older, your tolerance of changes in routine and your greater reliance on bathroom habits.

I find as I’m getting older, I am both less concerned and more concerned about stuff. In my teens I cared deeply about everything – the planet, animals, social injustice – all would arouse my crusading zeal and I’d march, campaign and petition to right the wrongs of the world. Now, well, it’s not that I don’t care about those things anymore, because obviously, I do. It’s just… I have so much other shit to worry about that sometimes I am guilty of merely shrugging my shoulders, because really, what is the point of it all? Me getting my knickers in a twist won’t change a thing. On the other hand, my local supermarket rearranging all their shelves so I can’t find any bloody thing will leave me almost incandescent with suppressed rage. Storming round the shop, tight lipped and muttering, trying to find an elusive shop assistant so I can ask with barely concealed sarcasm – “Ok, I give in, where have you hidden the pasta this time?”

I think as we get older, small things are more likely to make us flip than big things, because it’s all too much sometimes. You’re running late, someone had used all the milk so you couldn’t have a cup of tea, every single traffic light was red, and then some ignorant arsehole cuts you up on the roundabout and you want to kill them, because it’s all just TOO MUCH. All the little things that occur to niggle and annoy seem to happen all at the same time, and always when you’re so busy you simply don’t have the time to be mellow about them.

You know you’re getting old, when silly stuff becomes more precious – your special tea or coffee cup, being reduced almost to tears because the shop is out of your favourite breakfast cereal, your comfy slippers, and don’t even get me started on your special pillow.

We get more tired, and we definitely get more set in our ways. In my pre-child days, I loved it when a friend would call out of the blue with an invitation to go and do something then and there. Now the very thought of it reduces me to a nervous wreck, screaming inside that – “no, I had my evening all planned, thank you very much, and I really don’t want to just jump in the car and go and see if we can find a nice pub to have dinner at” – but on the rare occasions this happens, of course, I swallow that voice down and go and always have a nice time, but there is that reluctance to break out of the norm.

You know you’re getting old, when you don’t have time to be ill. I remember last year, when we were on the final countdown to Christmas, waking with a scratchy feeling in the back of my throat. I literally threatened myself “I don’t have time for this!” swallowed a truckload of drugs and just struggled on regardless, because I simply did not have the time to indulge myself by being ill.

I’ve always loved my home, but as I’ve got older, I’ve found myself becoming almost hermit like. In fact, one of my fantasies is something happening that necessitated me having to stay at home for a whole month. The thought of being able to stay home and catch up on all the things I need to do, then have time to merely relax and read… bliss!

But most of all, I think us women know we’re getting old, when we open our mouths and our mother comes out! That’s when you know you truly are beyond all help….

Short blog this week, and no pretty pictures. I am sorry, but time simply hasn’t been my friend this week. Still, as ever, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments.

Enjoy your Sunday, and I look forward to chatting with you again next week.

Julia Blake

Rejection is Good for the Soul, Right?

I’m a writer. Ever since I could pick up a pencil and scribble down stories for my dolls to act out, I’ve written. It never occurred to me I would ever someday be published – self-confidence has always been my downfall, the feeling that I’m simply not talented enough, not clever enough, generally not good enough full stop, to achieve anything has always niggled in the back of my mind. So, I contented myself with writing funny poems to go in birthday cards and writing stories to please myself.

Thirteen years ago, I was asked by a friend to attend evening classes on creative writing at our local college. Intrigued, I went along, and a lightbulb went off in my head. “Yes!” my inner voice shouted. “This is what we’ve always wanted to do, but never had the courage to try, this is it!” I went home that evening, head brimming with ideas, and the next morning wrote 5000 words of a novel. Reading it back to myself, I realised with growing excitement that it was good, no, it was better than good.

To give some background to this story, I was going through the divorce from hell. All my choices had been taken away from me and I was angry, frustrated and shell-shocked, but I’d been left with a very young and vulnerable child, so had to keep all those emotions firmly bottled up inside. I desperately needed an outlet, a safety valve to purge all that negativity. Writing provided that outlet. During the six weeks of the course, I wrote furiously every spare moment I could, the story pouring from me in a dark, twisted, cathartic purge that left me drained but also cleansed. The resulting novel was a gritty, shockingly sexual read that I’m not sure will ever see the light of day. If it did, let’s just say it would stomp all over 50 Shades of Grey and steal its lunch money!

100% enthusiastic about = something we think will make us money!

I was completely new and naïve to the world of writing and publishing and made the mistake of thinking because I’d written “The End” that meant my book was ready for the outside world to see. Of course, looking back now I know it was nowhere near ready. What I should have done was put it away somewhere whilst I started work on my second novel, then perhaps six months later gone over it thoroughly, maybe even had it edited. But no, I hopefully sent out the opening chapters to almost every single literary agent I could find listed in the 2004 Writers Handbook.

To my complete surprise, after only six attempts I was successful in acquiring an agent and was over the moon in ecstatic certainty this was it! I’d done it! That a publishing contract wouldn’t be far behind and my life as a full-time author would soon commence.

Of course, I was being naïve. Of course, I was being stupidly optimistic. Of course, life is never that kind. Or at least not to me it isn’t.

There’s that word “enthusiastic” again

My agent sent out copies of my books to ten publishing houses on her books, and all ten came back with the same response – “it’s interesting, it’s well written, it’s a powerful rollercoaster of a read, thank you for considering us, but no thanks” – Gutted, I was reassured by my agent we’d do better with my second novel which I had by now finished. Confidently, I sent her a copy. She hated it and dumped my arse.

And that was the closest I ever got to having an agent and being considered by a publishing house. For those of you who are interested, the second novel I submitted to my agent was “Becoming Lili”. But she considered it too provincial and boring to have any chance of being a commercial success.

And that’s the bottom line of achieving a publishing contract. Agents and publishers are looking for what they feel they will have the best chance of making money from. They’re not really interested in finding unusual and off-the-wall new authors and they don’t want to take on anything that needs a lot of work to make it commercially viable. The beginning, middle and end of what they are looking for is monetary reward.

This is actually a really nice one – if rejection can ever be nice!

But I didn’t realise that then, so I kept on trying, and trying, and trying. And I kept on writing, and writing, and writing. During that long decade I churned out another four, full length novels, a dozen short stories and several poems. And the rejection slips kept arriving. Every year I would buy the latest copy of the Writers Handbook and would work my way through every single agent and publisher accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Even the postman got so used to them he’d look crestfallen every time he handed me back a large, self-addressed envelope – “Here’s another one come back, love. Shame, better luck next time.”

It was soul-destroying. I’m a stubborn person, so I grimly kept going, allowing myself to hope each time I’d posted off yet another query letter with yet another three opening chapters of yet another book to yet another agent. As the days and weeks ticked by, that tiny hope would steadily grow into a “maybe this time” belief, only to be dashed to smithereens the very next day when the postman would yet again knock at the door.

Guessing that’s a no then

Some of the rejections were standard “no thank you” ones, some were rude and even hostile, most were reasonably polite and one or two were quite nice – well, as nice as a rejection can ever be – encouraging me not to give up, and that although my work wasn’t suitable for them it wasn’t without merit and I should try other agents.

The worst one I ever received I cannot reproduce here, as the name of the agency (and it’s rather a famous one) is watermarked throughout the letter. They basically told me I couldn’t write for toffee, that I shouldn’t give up the day job and just write as a hobby. Whilst I was reeling with shocked hurt over their bluntness, they continued that however, if I wished to purchase a book from them about how to successfully submit your book to agents, then it was a snip at £10.99 plus P&P and if I sent them the money they would send me a copy. By this time, my anger had risen, and I wouldn’t have purchased a glass of water from them if I was on fire. Furiously, I pulled the sample of my apparently crap writing from the envelope only to find it WASN’T MY WORK! That’s right, they’d sent me back the opening chapters of some other poor schmuck’s book. Curiously, I read it, and do you know, it wasn’t half bad. If by some strange coincidence you are the writer of a gritty, compelling book about a lesbian police inspector struggling to make it in a misogynistic, male dominated world, drop me a line, because I’d really like to know how that story went.

Rejection for Erinsmore – at least this one has my name on it

If it wasn’t for tiny successes achieved along the way, I really believe I would have given up, but those brief blips in a sea of rejection made such a difference. My local paper printed one of my poems; I came runner up in the Readers Digest 100-word story; one of my poems won a competition and was included in an anthology.

In 2007, I entered the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future 17,000 word novella competition and was placed in the top four in my category in the world. That was a seriously big boost, because it assured me that yes, I could write, because a panel of top judges had said so. The novella was called “Lifesong” and some of you may have read it.

Finally, in 2014 I was picked up by a small press publisher and again thought I’d made the big time. They liked “The Book of Eve” and had agreed to publish it. But of course, once again my naivety let me down. Small press, whilst I’m sure there are some good ones around who genuinely care for their authors and do all they can to promote their books, are a bit of a gamble. A gamble I lost.

This particular publisher took away my copyright for five years, let me have no real say on cover, format and general look of the book, I have no say on sales platforms or pricing, and I am never allowed to hold a sale or giveaway on my own book. They take 50% of my royalties and withhold the rest until I’ve reached a certain threshold. They also do no promoting or marketing of my book whatsoever.

This is an untenable position to be in. To have given up so much and received so little in return! Valuable and very hard lesson learnt, and to all newbie authors out there considering the small press option, please do your research thoroughly.

In the beginning, the book sold quite well. Family and friends, word of mouth, of course you shift a few copies that way, but without marketing to reach a wider audience the sales dwindled and then stopped completely. At the same time, I got sick, very sick. Too ill to think about anything, let along flogging the dead horse that was my novel, my life now centred around hospital appointments, blood tests, MRI scans, medication and the long, painful struggle back to health.

It was Christmas 2016, “The Book of Eve” had been out for two years. I hadn’t received any royalties for over a year and sadly decided a writing career was not for me. After so many years of illness and not writing a single original word in all that time, I wondered if I still had the ability to create, and even if I did, what was the point? No one was interested. Certainly, no agents or publishers were.

The fate intervened in the shape of an old friend. I’d first met Becky on that creative writing course all those years earlier. We’d stayed good friends, but during my long years of illness I’d become very hermit like and lost touch with a lot of people, her included. Then she contacted me, could we meet? She’d seen that “The Book of Eve” had been published and wanted to talk. She too had had a novel published, although she’d gone a different route and published independently. Had I considered doing the same with my other books? I hadn’t, it hadn’t even occurred to me. Being so isolated I’d had no idea the publishing world had moved on from the seedy, expensive days of vanity press, and that the internet and Amazon self-publishing had opened up a whole new world to wannabe authors.

The rest, as they say, is history. Encouraged and helped every step of the way by Becky, I dipped my toe in the water with “Lifesong”, which was released as an eBook in February 2017. Followed by “Becoming Lili” in April 2017. Then I decided to gather all my short stories, flash fiction and poetry into one collection – including Lifesong – and “Eclairs for Tea and other stories” was published in June 2017, followed by “Lost & Found” in September 2017.

Inspired, the voices in my head started clamouring for attention again and I wrote the sequel to “Lost & Found” – “Fixtures & Fittings” – and released it in December 2017. The following year saw the release of “Erinsmore” in May 2018 and “The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~” in October 2018.

All eight of my books published to date…

Don’t get me wrong, being an indie author is hard work, really hard work. It requires dedication, commitment, perseverance and a really thick hide. It involves you learning to do things you never imagined you could, and the returns can be disappointing. Not many indie authors make enough from their writing to live on, certainly not at first, and I’ve known writers to simply give up, crushed by the never-ending pressure. But, the rewards can and do make it all worthwhile.

One huge benefit, of course, is that you get to keep all of your royalties – no sharing them with greedy publishers who do little or nothing to earn them. You also have full control over the whole process and can make your own mind up about pricing and where you wish to sell your product.

I remember reading an article on J.K. Rowling, about how she’d submitted Harry Potter to twenty-one agents and had been rejected every time, that she was on the verge of giving up when the twenty-second agent accepted it. I remember how my lip curled with derision and I couldn’t help but give a wry bark of ironic laughter and the muttered comment – “lightweight”.

Ask almost any indie published author and they will tell you that no, being indie published and having to do it all yourself isn’t exactly the dream, and that if the right agent/publisher came along with a tempting enough contract, most of us indies would probably jump at the chance. But, in an increasingly competitive market where even the Top Four publishing houses don’t bother to promote new authors, the perks of being traditionally published are diminishing. And at least as an indie author your books are out there, being read and reviewed by someone. Even if only half a dozen people have bought your book, that’s half a dozen more than if you’d let it languish on a hard drive somewhere.

Again, a reasonably encouraging and polite rejection

I read a lot of posts by newbie, would-be authors grandly declaring that they’ll never “lower” themselves to go indie and acting like it’s their choice whether to be indie or traditionally published. I smile sadly, and shake my head, knowing that life and constant rejection will eventually knock some humility into them. They’ll realise, as us more battle-weary and seasoned authors have, that ultimately it is not your choice at all. Oh, it’s your choice whether to try to be traditionally published, but, at the end of day, it is down to the agent or publisher you are submitting your precious book to. That it all hinges on whether they feel your book is “commercially viable” and how lucky you are to hit on the right agent who clicks with your book, and that sometimes something as mundane as whether they have indigestion from lunch will affect how favourably they view your submission.

So sure, aim for the stars, but in the meantime, don’t dismiss the indie option, and never look down your nose at an indie author and dismiss them or their work as being “unworthy” of being traditionally published. Most were merely unlucky. After all, the odds of being picked up by a decent publishing house are higher than those for winning the lottery, and you would never deem someone who didn’t win the lottery as being “not good enough to win” you’d merely consider them unlucky.

Indie authors are the hardest working people I know. Most are holding down jobs at the same time as trying to write the best books they can. They are running homes and raising families, whilst being editors, cover designers, formatters, promoters, marketers and social media experts. On top of this, many are also being incredibly supportive of other indie writers – beta and arc reading, buying, reading and reviewing their books, and helping to spread the word about book launches, sales and giveaways.

Apparently this person felt The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~ had sci-fi elements to it! Anyone who’s read it will know how ridiculous this is!

It is a wonderfully encouraging world; one I consider myself fortunate to have stumbled upon. So, to all my friends in this crazy, exasperating, exhausting indie life we have chosen, you are the best. Never give up, because you have so got this, and I applaud and salute every single one of you.

Thank you once again for joining me for our Sunday morning chat, and I look forward to meeting with you again next week.

Love

Julia Blake