The Three Bees and the Giant Grub

The light was pushing in far too brightly thought Curly, as he turned away from the morning. Gentle murmuring sounds and tiny whistling snores told him that his brothers were still asleep. As he turned to shade his large eyes from the sunrise Curly was aware of a draft coming from the other side of the comb. They had settled down some hours before near to the uncapped honey that was still curing and where nursing bees could access it easily for the brood and hopefully for Twirly, Curly and Burly. Soft summer air dawn chilled caressed Curly’s back, his lazy wings slowly rising and falling. He sensed tension and focused fully on a strange activity that was beginning to build. His brothers were slowly waking up and the three of them, antennae rising started moving towards what appeared to be the cause of the commotion.

They crossed cautiously to the edge of the frame, forgoing breakfast in their tense urgency, for now it was clear that something was wrong on the other side. Creeping around the edge they saw a terrible sight. A large section of brood comb had fallen away and the grubs inside were now horribly unclothed, naked along an entire side. The damage to the cells was considerable and the three bees looked in horror at the exposed, gestating grubs. Their little bodies were white, translucent and barely formed. They had no bee-like shape other than the pale shadow outlines of legs folded and wings merely hinted, but all just white. Their eyes were formed and densely black. There was the merest hint of antennae shaping along their newly blacked heads. They were ghosts waiting to be born but now might never arrive. Worker bees worked at frenzied pace to salvage what they could from the avalanche of comb and Curly could hear the hissing fear at the implications of this terrible loss if the damaged nursery could not be saved.

An evil beekeeper in full harassment mode. Guard bees already on the alert.

How this had happened wasn’t clear. It seemed that somehow a section of comb in the brood box had suffered an impact and collapsed. It was clear that the priority had to be repairing the damage. The loss of hundreds of grubs would mean that too few new bees would be born in the coming weeks. This would mean fewer resources to collect nectar, pollen and propolis, and so less to feed the colony and ensure it had sufficient numbers and nourishment to survive the coming winter.

Curly could hear the urgency buzzing across the frame as the workers struggled to repair the harm. Then he noticed that the space beside the frame with the damaged cells was larger than it was last time he and his brothers had cruised this part of the hive. He now saw multiple wax hexagons on the wall of the colony, irregular and inconsistent and also in need of repair. Could it have been that the brood cells had been attached to this part of the wall? And if so, had they fallen under their own weight as the grubs grew from tiny little commas into curls of white and then to recognisable grubs? Did they get too heavy once they had filled their cells ready to complete their transformations into new bees ready to be born and take up their duties in the hive? All this Curly pondered as he looked at the broken wax on the hive wall.

Burly was ambling about watching his sisters work and wondering aloud if it would be ok to help himself to some honey from part of the unexpectedly uncapped honeycombs. Twirly was cowering behind his brother looking in horror at the devastation. He had barely recovered from the trauma of the Hornet attack and reminded both Curly and Burly that “my nerves are in absolute shreds, I simply cannot cope with any more terrifying moments”. “I think the terrifying moments have passed” Curly told him narrowing his antennae into what passed for a bee frown. He was inspecting the tears and fallen bits of honeycomb, fascinated at the translucent new life that his sisters were desperately trying to protect and salvage. 

But for an unexpected moment all efforts ceased as the bees felt a strange movement on the frame they were repairing. The movement was a sort of shift away from them, an upwards pulling and then a sharp release before they found themselves rising up through the air into the harsh bright sunlight. Worker bees, nursery bees, undertaker bees, housekeeping bees, bee assassins, the three drones, hatching and vandalised cells, all of them suddenly were in the grip of a giant beast with giant eyes staring black and vacant at their frame. It breathed a horrible carbon dioxidey scent and apart from the awful black eyes shone bright white in the harsh morning light. The bees swayed on the bottom edge of the frame, linked barb to barb in an anxious effort to keep their positions and to carry on working on the repairs to their vandalised brood cells.

Burly was uppermost of the three drones and took a few paces forwards to face the monster, before thinking better of it and burying himself in a cluster of worker bees who were desperately trying to block the light and keep the exposed grubs somehow safe. Twirly was nowhere to be seen having panicked immediately and set off randomly into the morning air emitting tiny squeals of terror. He could be heard for quite some time whining “my nerves, my nerves” and was by now about a quarter of a mile from the hive. He soon settled on a wavering beech leaf crying miniscule bee tears, and then crying some more because his weeping blocked his pheromone receptors so he had no chance at all of finding his way back, at least not immediately.

Curly was just as terrified of the monster, but in addition intrigued to know what it was. Did it have anything to do with the brood comb collapse and what could turn out to be a grub massacre? The creature tall and forbidding was now puffing acrid smoke at the frame, and Curly and his companions were forced to shift away from the dirty air. The worker bees went immediately into emergency mode, moving to fill their little bellies with honey, as a preamble to general evacuation. This was the established drill in the case of fire but the urgency of their response never seemed to include any consideration of whether there was really a fire or not. Curly had observed the giant grub, for that is what he concluded the invader to be, based on his extensive and detailed evaluation of the creature’s many beelike characteristics. He had already noticed that far from being a fire it was this horrible giant grub that was scaring the bees into departure mode. He decided to stand his ground but the smoke was too much for him, interfering with his breathing, blinding his eyes and, in the absence of his fellow bees, leaving him uncomfortably exposed. He moved back to the safety of the edge of the frame barely managing to hang on as the giant grub flipped over the frame with all the wickedness and malice of the evil badger, tales of whom had been passed on bee to bee for generations eternal.

With respect to the poor exposed grubs, the frame was now in a slightly safer position because they were out of the direct light. Throughout the trauma of this bizarre framelifting business, the bees had continued working to repair their damaged brood cells, tirelessly tickling the wax back into shape and adding new wax. No one knew if the vandalised brood would be able to recover. No one would know the full implications of the harm until there were signs that the colony’s population was falling and not showing fast enough signs of recovery.

Suddenly they were all flying once again through the warming morning light, the smoke swirling and pushing them all away from the edges of the frame. Curly and Burly made for the bottom away from the light and in search of breakfast before noticing that the same strange stretching and pulling movement was occurring on the adjacent frame. As they peered up at the sky they saw another frame grasped in the awful paws of the giant grub, its black eyes once again come close to the comb and its awful paws turning the frame this way and that. Again the smoke and again the eyes bearing down on the frame, almost as if it were counting. The frame was finally returned and Curly hurried across the gap to the next frame, only to see the process repeat itself. The giant grub was pulling each from the colony one by one, deliberately and consistently wrenching away the propolis the workers had carefully placed to insulate the hive and protect it from drafts. Curly concluded that this was truly an evil beast with a sick sense of humour, tricking them into thinking there was a fire and meanly breaking up their draft excluders.

Eventually after every frame had been pushed, lifted, twisted, peered at and replaced, all was steady and calm. The colony was once more wrapped in warmth and darkness and Curly could reassure Burly that it was all over and that they were safe again. The giant grub had gone, hopefully never to return, but where was Twirly they wondered. It was not until night was starting to fall that Twirly fell into the hive exhausted and desperate for food. He found his brothers napping contently on a fallen piece of disused comb. Some workers had picked up his scent and didn’t understand what a young drone was doing sitting on a beech leaf. They had guided him home giving him only a few minor if baffling chastisements about not leaving the hive until he was ready. And they told him that he had a duty as a drone to on no account waste time outside the hive sitting on beech leaves. He had much more important work to do when he was ready. Twirly was still wrestling with this curious advice as he stepped his careful cautious way towards his brothers. He was still grizzling a little, and with relief accepted some food from a sympathetic nanny. He fell asleep where he lay, safe between Curly and Burly snoozing contently into the night.zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Life As A Shortie (something to infuriate the wokers)

As a very small person (VSP) I have lived my life looking up to my peers, willingly or not. Throughout childhood I expected that would end when I grew up, but I hit 4’11” and there I stayed. A life of shortness was all that I could look forward, or up, to and so far it hasn’t been all that great. Handrails are always too high, stair steps too tall. Mayonnaise jars are just that little too fat to hold safely and I have to jump to reach the car boot to shut it.

Even on tiptoe and in high heels, I am still too short to see what I am doing.

Understandably the giants in primary and high schools, and the grown-ups everywhere else tend not to notice short people. Why would they? We’re below normal human sightlines, our voices are just a bit too squeaky and far down to be heard. And we’re just so easy to trip over and step on. Elbow bumps have a whole other meaning for VSPs. Standing sociably in a group, stray elbows can send your cup of tea or glass of wine flying, or intrude unexpectedly into your plate of food. Breadroll mayhem. Let’s face it, small people are in constant battle with a world designed by and for nonVSPs.

We face prejudice in so many ways. Grown-up clothes and shoes are invariably too big, even in their smallest iterations. That shop assistant sneer when they tell you, “we’ve nothing that small”. We face perpetual, organised and deliberate discrimination, with constant daily reminders of our shortness. Mirrors in public loos and restaurants are invariably too high. VSPs must jump to see more than the tops of their heads. The same’s true for peep holes in apartment and hotel room doors. We need a chair to use them, or once again must jump. Discrimination in shops is common because we’re below most people’s sightline and justifiably ignored. The counters in chip shops and bakeries and the like are always too high to see, or be seen, over.

Antagonism takes many forms, intended or not. Like the time I gave a speech standing in high heels on a box behind a podium. A delegate congratulating me, afterwards suggested that next time I ask the organisers for a box to stand on. When I pointed to the box already in place the redness of face was priceless. And like when people you’re meeting for the first time tell you they hadn’t realised you were so short. Or when you’re assigned a gym locker the key to which you cannot reach. And airline seats that bury VSPs making them invisible to cabin crews. We have to stand up to reach the air, light and call buttons and cannot reach the overhead bins without standing on the seats. We have to stand on the lower shelves in supermarkets to reach stuff and shower heads are always too far up to adjust. Cameras and smartphones are mostly too big to hold in one hand. Glasses too. Order a gin and tonic and watch the normals grasp the bowl, all elegant and suave. The VSP has to hold the stem and be so very careful when tipping the glass to sip, or otherwise hold it with two hands. Elegant and suave no. Add cups and mugs to this list, along with powertools, round doorhandles, fuel pumps, wing mirrors that block our view of the road, pump action shampoos and soaps, kitchen counter tops and most gym equipment. Getting onto and off of chair lifts and ski tows is always a challenge, although it’s privilege to have the opportunity. Reaching the slots at toll booths and car parks invariably requires getting out of the car, inviting invective and antagonism from the queue behind. Be patient we’re doing our best with limited capacities!

Like everyone, VSPs possess different behavioural traits. This makes them uniquely special and endearing. Observe how they duck away suddenly from the spit storms typical at parties and receptions. Watch them wrestle with supermarket trolleys because they lack steering leverage. See them clamber awkwardly onto a bar stool struggling once up to turn to face forwards without falling off. A simple lift of a hip is not an option for VSPs. We invariably sit too far forwards on our chairs. It’s a behaviour not due to anxiety or eagerness to join in. Most chairs are too high for a VSP’s feet to reach the ground and the seat too deep for them to sit on without their legs sticking out. Their arms are too short to reach the table. We do look quite adorable though as we struggle.

Despite the odds, VSPs can lay claim to a few significant social, political and cultural achievements. Haile Selassie former emperor of Ethiopia was only 5’1″, Gandhi was 5’4″ and Judy Garland a mere 4’11”. Danny de Vito’s only 4’10” and Genghis Khan tipped in at 5’1″. Anne Boleyn was 5’3″, quite tall for the time but she died some eight inches shorter by when being a VSP didn’t much matter.

VSPs are daily subject to microagressions. We are told how dinky we are and told that our little wrists are just so teensy. We know. We’re the butt of jokes about being able to reach the bar, or hang up our coats. Look at those tiny shoes, and your hands are so small they say. “You look so tiny in that mask”. It’s all very jolly so we’d never say back “and you look so fat in yours”.

But sadly we are complicit in all this because we generally ignore insensitive, substandard treatment taking it as the norm. We don’t want to make a fuss and you probably wouldn’t take us seriously in any case. VSPs don’t expect much to change, despite our enhanced health risk in the days of Covid-19. You see, we’re closer to the ground, where all the virus loaded mist drifts as it falls. We’re unavoidably caught in the the snot and droplet line’s trajectory, masks or no.

Despite aspiration and idealised values for all of us, small people accept there can be no equality. We can’t magic height except by wearing high heeled shoes. This is always an option, but not universally feasible. Equality is always undermined by something. High heels must not be worn on airplane escape slides for instance, and they don’t work with skis. On city pavements they invariably get stuck in the cracks unexpectedly pitching their wearer headfirst towards the ground. 

And yet much as we want to fit in and be like everyone else, we still want to be different, to be recognised as unique. At the very least it’s a conversation starter. Like everyone else we want an acknowledged identity that lets us participate in socio-economic, political and cultural hierarchies on our own terms. We want our difference celebrated, simultaneously both acknowledged and ignored. So let’s not forget to remember each other, to remember that we are all survivors, that we are all of us damaged, disadvantaged and incomplete. And all of us need each other’s kindness, patience. Spare the opprobrium. And spare a thought for the struggle to strap skis onto high heels, for the scrambling onto bar stools, the random elbows in the eye and getting trod on without thought. Spare a thought for all of us, everywhere. And let’s try hard to make it a kind one.

(In case there is any misunderstanding amongst readers, this is satire.)

The Trials of Getting Your Novel Published – Part 5

Getting through the publishing process, or not? (from October 2020)

It’s taken weeks to get over the trauma of the structural edit of The Draftsman. And in between then and now, life and the outside world have weaseled their ways into brain and heart to make it even harder to think fiction.

This might be a natural part of the process. You think about characters, you eventually consider what they do and don’t do and then you get the whole thing down on the page and suddenly without any warning it’s all gone, forgotten about. Then people ask you about the story, the characters and what they do, and what happens in the end. It’s not polite to offer the first response that comes to mind, but it is polite to smile and say “thanks for asking” and then to change the subject. Sometimes this works. If it doesn’t you can tell the truth. “It’s been so long, I’ve forgotten what it’s about”. It’s only a little lie.

So fab, you send in your structural edit. And fab you wait, and you wait some more and some more and eventually you forget about it again. Then you see a diary note: “deadline for structural edit to Unbound” oh bugger. Then hang on, not oh bugger at all you say to yourself. Then slightly louder you say to the cuckoo clock “I sent that in, and I’ve heard not a whisper. Did they even get it? (who knows) Should I nag? (probably not) Can I resist the urge to ask? No I cannot.” And yes, they did get it. Pull some more teeth with another question: what happens next? 

After the structural edit?

A good structural editor will check for holes and that they are all in the right places.

Fortunately this is an easy question to answer, so the answer comes within weeks. What happens next is that the structural edit is reviewed and the editor puts together another set of queries and questions. These are so that the author can clarify why Mrs Himplestanger says she hates cheese in chapter two, but tucks into a cheese fondue in chapter nine. Oops. These are the sorts of things that authors really should notice, but often don’t. And why is that a surprise? Who knows about cheese or not when you’re forty thousand words away?

And while the structural editor is once more doing their wonderful thing, and you’re dreading having to read the bloody book yet again, you have other tasks to fulfil. The publisher wants a Style Sheet completed. This has nothing to do with formatting or paragraph properties but everything to do with “character lists and timelines”.

Character lists and timelines

I am not entirely confident that I can pull this together for The Draftsman, but I am trying. The trouble is that every time I take a stab at character lists and timelines, something terribly important needs doing and gets in the way. I have to straighten my speaker wires, polish my collection of novelty USB sticks and take an urgent inventory of the household rice collection (four varieties, all in good supply and all very surprisingly in date). Once the excitement of such activities wears off the character lists and timelines spreadsheet beckons once again. But then faced with a menacing array of empty Excel spreadsheet cells, arranging pens and pencils in size order on a far corner of the desk is suddenly an absolute must to do. And this vital task can take so long because the naughty pencils keep rolling off the desk. Then there’s the fringes on the rug to comb out, and the dead flies to line up and measure, and those spiders won’t spin their webs without a song or two to help them along. And so it goes. Thinking about it, there will be a couple of weeks before the structural edit second edition comes back with some important changes. Perhaps I’ll wait for that instead. Just in case.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – A Review

Part II

This is the second part of my review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The first part focuses on the book, it’s story and my opinion of it. This part addresses the antagonism directed at Jeanine Cummins for having the temerity to write about brown people, even though she is white.

Authors under attack

Author Jeanine Cummins was attacked by a cohort of women of central and northern American backgrounds, on the basis that Jeanine Cummins should not have written American Dirt because she is not Mexican. And? 

In the case of Jeanine Cummins the controversy kicked off when American Dirt was selected by Oprah Winfrey, a big name USA celeb, as her latest Oprah’s Book Club pick. Accusers say that as a white American woman Ms Cummins should not have written a novel about a brown Mexican woman. She had no right to the story, even though it’s a work of fiction based on creative thinking, research, hard work and peer reviews. The charge is not unlike that levelled at Edna O’Brien for Girl a novel that follows a group of young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria and one girl in particular. Both authors have been attacked for their work, despite the fact that their books illuminated otherwise very dark and unseen places. Besides vilification, the two writers also share another rather more important quality: imagination and dedication. But for that they get no credit. 

Half empty, half full, twice the size it needs to be, or a glass in need of topping up?

Why can these half-empty types not just appreciate American Dirt for the wonderful writing, the strong characterisations and the insight into what thousands of people face every day just to survive, baffles. When are we going to get over this proprietariness when it comes to ideas, characters and stories? It seems that it’s more important to discourage and block, to put people off their work, to prevent them expressing the stories and ideas in their heads, to stop them sharing what they see, how they see it and why they think it matters. Does imagination and commitment to the work of getting it onto the page need permission? And if so, why? Is it because people don’t want to be offended? If so there are plenty of intensely offensive books out there. Don’t buy them if you think you may be offended. But also don’t whinge because someone else told the story first.

Same pic as in part one of this review because Jeanine Cummins’ agent has ignored my request for a photo. And why not, I’m a nobody and clearly not deserving of courtesy.

Headline news

That American Dirt had massive support from a powerful publishing machine (Headline, a Hachette imprint) makes matters worse for the antis. It makes it better for readers and the author, because it means more people are exposed to the book and the ugly realities it describes. The antis overlook that the deal to publish followed a three day bidding war involving nine publishers. They believe, probably correctly, that another author might not have received the seven figure advance, the promotions and publicity that Cummins got. But the original book proposal was instantly resonant for so many publishers because of its timeliness and relevance, plus its commercial potential. Cummins was signed to a major publisher and got the ginormous advance not because she is white but because her work sells. Cummins has already published three other books which sold well so she’s got solid track record of delivering the goods. A known quantity. In commercial terms the subject matter and the author of American Dirt are low risk. Publication of American Dirt isn’t about exploiting underrepresented authors, being insensitive to cultural fragilities or not supporting emerging talent. It’s about commercial risk and sales. That’s the reality.

In 1890 Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray “To define is to limit.” Perhaps we should all stop trying to limit the imaginations of creative people, and should instead put aside envy and jealousy. We should stop letting life’s unfairness get in the way of appreciating what others create, whoever they are. Let’s stop the creeping censorship, let’s stop seeking out people to criticise and condemn, and let’s think about the real implications of the whole concept of individual cancellation. It’s been tried many times in the course of history and it always ends badly.

Book club pick

I came to this book because it was required reading for our book club. I knew nothing about it or the fuss, but was hooked from the first page. The insights and perspective and horror for Lydia, Luca and the two sisters is impossible to step away from. They cling and invade with increasing tenacity as the reader moves along through the story alongside these people who exert such a pull. They’re with me still. American Dirt helps us to gradually understand that all of us are vulnerable to this awfulness, but for a few twists of fate and luck. The migrant’s desperate trek is not an abstract, distant, elsewhere problem. It is here and now, it is part of our humanity and inhumanity. In her details and the reality she creates, with imagination, research and dogged hard work, Jeanine Cummins sustains excitement and tension throughout the 454 pages of American Dirt. When you put it down you may be surprised to find yourself shaking and your blood pressure up. Prose like breathing, intense and rapid from start to finish.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – a Review

This review is in two parts. The first part focuses on the book, it’s story and my opinion of it. The second part addresses the antagonism directed at Jeanine Cummins for having the temerity to write about brown people, even though she is white.

Part I

American Dirt is the story of Lydia and Luca, a mother and her eight year old son. They are on the run following the brutal assassination of all their relations, sixteen people, at a family birthday party. Lydia’s husband had been an investigative journalist. The brutal murders follow the publication of Sebastián’s in depth profile of a local Mexican cartel boss and his growing influence. The massacre is supposed to kill the entire family, everyone at the party. But Lydia and Luca, hiding in the loo, are overlooked and escape.

The book follows Lydia and Luca’s terrifying progress as they flee their home city, Acapulco, to make their way north to the United States. The journey is over 2700 km. The cartel equivalent of an All Points Bulletin, complete with Lydia’s image, is shared across Mexico throughout the criminal network and beyond to spies, informers and hangers on, anyone who’ll turn Lydia and Luca in for gain. It’s a terrifying premise made all the more sinister by the fact that Lydia, unaware of his identity, had become friends with the head of the cartel.

Javier, boss of the vile Los Jardineros cartel, had been a frequent visitor to the bookshop Lydia owns and the two share a love of books and poetry. Their kindred platonic bond had grown increasingly intimate and personal over several months. Javier calls Lydia the Queen of his soul, rather than the Queen of his heart (his wife) or of his pants (his mistress). Lydia treats their closeness as an asexual and private personal intimacy based on a shared love of literature.

These two complex and conflicted characters evoke all that is precious about relationships that don’t count as extramarital affairs, yet are profound and meaningful in an extramarital dimension. As Lydia flees she constantly re-examines to horrible effect her latent deceit or not deceit, naivety or trust, truth or lies and how she was so duped or not duped. What did she not see? What did she see? Who was that man? Who was she?

Ignore the fuss and read this book. It will stay with you.

Following the murders Lydia is a perpetual twist of emotional confusion  which gradually resolves into the only emotion she can feel: hate for Javier. She examines her relationship with her murdered husband, their deep love, romance and friendship, all that they shared. Mixed in with the hate and fear, she must hold fast to and protect Luca, all the while travelling under a veil of horror. Lydia must allow Luca his pain and his grief, and yet keep uppermost the urgency and danger of their journey. “If there’s one good thing about terror, Lydia now understands, it’s that it’s more immediate than grief”. No time for sorrow. This must be balanced with trust and Luca’s faith in her. For the most part Cummins achieves this balance and only occasionally does the reader feel that Luca is just a little too good to be true, that his flawless acquiescence to his situation and his mother’s ministerings is real. The tears are too few.

Javier is another matter. Lydia knows him viscerally as do we as the story unfolds. She knows that Javier will never let her go, that he wants to own her in death if not in life. Lydia and the reader are unaware that Lydia and Javier share in loss, until towards the end of the book. Running from Javier and his interlinked network of ghouls to a place of safety is all that matters for Lydia and Luca. That network ranges from hotel receptionists to bus drivers, so evil and ever-present death dog their every moment. They are unable to pause to mourn or grieve or even to fully comprehend the horror of what has and is happening.

Cummins handles this tension deftly whilst keeping the book’s momentum going. Along the way they meet up with two young sisters following different but equally dreadful terrrors. The two girls and Lydia and Luca are cautious, suspicious and reluctant to share their stories. There’s the fear always that the more you share, the more you have at risk, and might lose. As the small group pushes on in the blind hope of new life in El Norte, other migrants some new to the migrant path and some not join them. And yet never is there much sense of comradery. All of them know this is fragile, transitory. They know the chances of reaching safety are slim, that everyone is an enemy, a threat, a risk. So they keep mostly quiet and trudge on, an intense blend of fear and hope pushing them all forwards. And we are there too, with every agonising and possibly futile step.

Read this book!

This is a story everyone should read. American Dirt is a story that takes a wrecking ball to our cosy sense of first-world safety and security. It leaves us bereft and distressed, haunted and overwhelmed. Shock and fear creep over us with every page; a sense of ghastly, guilty relief echoes though our senses as we keep on turning the pages, urgent and desperate to know what happens next. We are guilty because we know it’s not us, but there are lots of others suffering what these migrants suffer. The awfulness of Lydia and Luca’s experience can be kept at arm’s length, but it cannot be kept entirely away from our sense of safety. We read wide-eyed and gorge on this awful story. Yet we are secure and largely protected from the organised lawlessness that is everyday reality in Mexico, Honduras, Guatamala and elsewhere around the world.

This is a story everyone should read, because it hasn’t been told quite like this before. This is a story everyone should read, despite the hostility it provoked when first published. It is so vital a story that it doesn’t matter who wrote it. This is a story everyone should read, because its author binds the reader tight to the characters with every dangerous step of the way. In our guts comes some glimmer of understanding of what these people, the unwilling migrants, go through and the horrors of their experience.

A structural edit? What? Thank you Helen Francis

I have heard that when starting out as a novelist, getting your manuscript finished is the easy bit. I always thought that a little bit silly, because you’ve sweat blood over the thing, spent months or even years on it. But I’m beginning to see there is some sense to this. For a start there’s all the additional prep, the formating and understanding the process. Then there’s the cover design and blurb to sort, both of which are easy and exciting. But then comes the structural edit. This is not nearly so easy or as exciting, and sweating blood plays no part. 

structural edit has to ensure that the plot makes sense, so if it doesn’t you’re faced with some heavy duty rewrites and rearranging. The structural edit also checks that the characters in the novel are believable and consistent, and that you haven’t overloaded them with tropes that undermine or distract the reader. As important is a check on the consistency of voice and point of view, of tense and credibility in terms of dialogue. These are all things you think you’ve addressed during your umpteenth rewrite, prior to submitting the manuscript to the publisher. But no matter how thoroughly you think you have gone through your work, you’re bound to have missed stuff. This is why editors are so vital and so lauded by their authors. They can literally help to spin gold from dross.

I’m now working on implementing the structural editor’s recommendations for The Draftsman, wrestling with the dross and trying to find the gold. In the process I’m learning a lot about writing. I’m struggling to resolve all the queries and suggestions to make The Draftsman better. Struggling, but at it.

Without seriously competent editing advice, this never could have happened.

Helen Francis did the first big edit of the Draftsman for Unbound, the publisher. She has given me a mix of mild critique and several excellent suggestions to improve the narrative. Helen has also pointed out that I use far too many pointless and distracting adjectives. Both my mother and my sister noticed this after they briefly skimmed some early chapters, but I thought I knew better. Ms Francis agrees with them. I was wrong. Now the adjectives thing is making me wonder why I thought I needed them in the first place. It might be that using too many adjectives is a way to avoid getting to the point. That’s probably because I wasn’t quite sure what that point should be or even what happened next in the story. More likely it’s a tendency to hide behind excess words because I don’t trust myself. This isn’t surprising because I trust virtually no one, so why should I trust me? There’s no habit for the trust thing.

Fixing all the points raised in the structural edit is extremely demanding and quite frankly exhausting. It’s at this stage that you understand that your book really is going to be published, and even if you might not agree with your editor’s suggestions, together you’re creating something that people will buy, a viable product. You might have to completely rethink how you present your characters. You might need to focus on how much or how little you want readers to get to know them and their role in the story, beyond helping to drive the plot. And yes, you must decide how many adjectives to use and which ones.

There is some real risk involved in this process. You need to make sure that the story doesn’t distort in the course of the rewriting and edits. This is almost harder than writing the thing in the first place, because you’re probably now working on some other work, one that’s completely different. Keeping within the bounds of the book is tough and it’s very tempting to bring in all sorts of other ideas as part of the structural editing process. You find there are lots of possible new digressions, subplots and thoughts you have in the middle of the night and think will made a massive improvement. Resist: they’re bound to go nowhere. Keep them far away from your editing process, keep them for another day, maybe as notes for a different story. Stay focused wholly on the work in hand.

And remember that you have to watch that fictional characters don’t start to change on the page. If you aren’t careful, this can happen almost without you realising it. Be disciplined and make sure to keep your face out of the narrative pie. Taking suggested edits one at a time and considering each one in the context of the paragraph, chapter and overall work, is slow and tedious work. It’s a first for me so I’m finding that process difficult. The structural editing thing is pushing me beyond what I thought were the limits of my abilities. Or perhaps I should say beyond whatever it is that feeds my sense of limits. I know I’ll get it done and in the end The Draftsman will be a much better product. Thank you Helen Francis.

(from July 2020)

Serious Suggestions for a Serious Problem

Following is a copy of my response to the Bookseller, following their Climate Issue. This response was published in the Bookseller, 29th October, 2021. I am not sure who’s copyright it is, but it doesn’t matter given the need to get this problem aired and addressed. Sorry if I have broken the rules.

The Bookseller‘s recent Climate Issue (October 15th, 2021) successfully addressed the intertwined problem of commercial and environmental sustainability from a range of perspectives. This is vital to encourage broad engagement and hopefully commitment to change. But is the action the publishing industry is taking fast and far-reaching enough?

In the issue, the Editor’s Letter rightly pointed out that the climate emergency is immediate. Closed loop supply chains are one possible solution, but do we have time to wait for ideas, research-backed or otherwise? Net zero deadlines are too often vanities without action. If the end goal is achieved too late to change outcomes, action is meaningless. And there is much that can be done now.

The interconnections between commercial interests and sustainability are central to progress, so the risk of greenwashing is ever present. And trying to educate readers is never going to be enough without leadership and example. In this, the graphics industry in general and the book trade specifically can do much more. Radical, risky, creativity and investment from the major publishers would provide leadership and inspiration for smaller businesses, and for readers too.

Details, not despair

We do not need hystrionics to scare people into change. The prospects for a do-nothing approach to the climate emergency are grim and widely recognized, and terrifying proclamations and doomsday scenarios risk turning people away. More important is to recognise that there will be life after climate collapse, but we may not want or be able to live it.

I humbly suggest that a closer look at the Publishing Association’s (PA) Publishing Declares pledge might offer more substance in addition to the five prongs. Net zero fine, but how? Work with resource efficient (que?) supply chain partners. How? Use sustainable processes and materials. What are these? Support climate literacy. How? Raise awareness and drive positive climate action. How? Fortunately many of these questions already have answers and tangible options are available to the pledge signatories. Equally fortunately, most of those signatories have the resources and market clout to drive implementation.

A few suggestions for what publishers can do now

1. Set up an inhouse Environmental Management System (EMS) and only work with suppliers who also have an EMS. ISO 14001, based on principles of continuous improvement to environmental impact mitigation, is an excellent tool for this.

2. Require print service providers to calculate the carbon footprint of each book printed at their production sites. Here too ISO has a useful tool. ISO 16759 is a carbon calculator for print. Its requirements address all aspects of a printed book’s production to calculate its carbon footprint.

3. Create and share an environmental management policy or manifesto with customers, service providers and the rest of the supply chain. If the PA could come up with a single Book Publishers’ Sustainability Manifesto, so much the better.

4. Develop company-wide recycling and sustainability policies that authors, booksellers and readers can conveniently support. Offer collections for returns and set up dedicated Free Book community websites. This can work on a massive or teensy scale.

5. Use direct digital printing for on demand production and develop a robust network for this form of sale with bookshops, large and small. Only work with printing companies who use process-less printing plate imaging, which cuts out the chemical processing stage of printing plate production.

6. Build in-house toolkits to support the development peoples’ knowledge development of climate change mitigation, and that explain what they can do now (colour management at the start of book design processes, the sustainability limitations of different substrates, matching run lengths to printing technology, designs for end-of-life and recyclability etc.). Such a toolkit could become a standard that all publishers use.

That pledge

The PA’s pledge is a solid start but tangible, realistic and measurable actions can be taken now. The annual report anticipated for later this year might be more useful if it includes some sort of call to arms rather than merely confirming what we already know: we’re knackered, if we don’t change soon. A talking shop “a safe place for collaboration” as one of your interviewees put it, is not enough. Chat doesn’t cut it.

The materials index the PA proposes is a great idea, and will be tough to implement because it depends on cooperation from materials and services providers. It might be more helpful to provide the carbon footprints of the most popular substrates and embellishments used in book production, along with guidance for designers. Such questions could be part of the membership survey.

E-books

The thorny matter of e-books and other digital content also needs more knowledge sharing and understanding. We have a dreadful digital habit whereby we want to store every single digitised dimension of our lives. From photos of breakfast through to email archives, we want it all out there across multiple competitive platforms. Rarely is the heavy emissions burden this carries ever considered because, as Climate Issue contributor George Walkley points out, we assume “that digital publishing has a lower overall environmental footprint than print”. Not necessarily, as he also explains.

Unlike e-media, print’s carbon footprint is stamped during production. Its use does not depend on electricity, devices, networks or server storage. It is a durable and emissions-free archive. How secure and environmentally friendly are electronic media archives? Will we still be able to open an e-book in 600 years time? And if so, at what environmental cost?

Now is the time

I am sorry to rant so, but our industry is at a crucial junction. Action to make print media supply chains environmentally accountable must begin now. Is writing a company’s environmental policy really so hard? Is it impossible to choose suppliers who have one and can demonstrate the results of their efforts to mitigate emissions? No, not really. It’s all out there. The bigger shout out is for individual and corporate commitment.

Laurel Lindström (writing as Laurel Brunner) has worked as an environmental commentator for the printing and publishing industries for over a decade, as well as writing about the technologies used to produce printed matter in all forms. She has seen the industry undergo profound changes since the advent of the Macintosh and PCs in the 1980s. Their effect was a massive reduction in print production’s environmental impact. This was thanks to technology but also to the existential threat technology posed to the previously proprietary and polluting prepress and printing industries. The shift to standard operating systems, digital data formats, process automation, colour and production quality management cut emissions, waste and remakes in the industry. They continue to do so.

A smiley shot from 2018. Three years older now!

Goodbye Dolly

This time last year, October 2020, our companion pony had to be put to sleep. It was a very sad day and the short piece that follows reminds me of how much love is a filter for all of our other emotions. 

Since Dolly died we have had a new and unexpectedly sparky addition to the family. The Greyhorse didn’t immediately fall in love with Birdy; he still grieved for his wheezy little Shetland. But after a few weeks this fiesty little Welsh Section B mare won his heart.

When Dolly Died

It’s only a pony but only a pony is so much more. When the vet said “she can’t go on like this” it was bad enough. When he ran through the vital signs, “heart’s racing, breathing 47 breaths a minute, and should be 22” When he sighed a heavy sigh and gave us that long look. Little Dolly staring blank at the soft autumn air. The Greyhorse standing off pulling at his hay, suddenly nodding every minute or so, squirrels bold bouncing across the ground to hide acorns almost as big as their heads. The air was so still in that moment, and there was no longer the crackle and wheeze of Dolly’s breath. Her lungs had so much scar tissue that there was no movement sufficient for a crackle or a wheeze. She stood with her hind legs stretched behind her ignoring the remains of her lunch. We’d been desperately tempting her with all sorts of yummy food, every hour something else, every morning looking in hope to see if she’d finished her last night’s food. But she didn’t and now it was time.

What a little, not-so-little, cutie.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. Two weeks before we had heard awful news of the death of an old friend. A friend whose death was expected, though not so soon. It was too soon, always too soon for those we love. And standing there in the golden light Dolly was waiting. Standing there in the golden light there was a door, a passage slowly widening, and slowly filling with immense leaden sorrow. Sorrow for those left behind, for those whose strength is falling away, for those whose life is soon ending. And through it Dolly passed, gently, easily and soon lay still, still with us but gone. All that we have lost remains somewhere, somehow.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. We can’t go to the funeral because there are limits on gatherings, so disease is our shepherd.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. We can’t visit the frail because we might kill them. They might kill us, so disease is our shepherd.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. The shepherd is waiting. Good bye Dolly.

Review of The Draftsman

The Draftsman is a story straightforward in overall theme, but is written with an incredible focus on detail. Some authors leave you to decide what or how the characters form, but in this book, every detail of each character and the interaction in the story is richly laid out for you. This by no means lessens the read, in fact it is nice to indulge in the language used and not have to work too hard building images in your head. Whilst reading the story, knowing the specific details of each character allows you imbue the whole storyline without guessing the direction of the theme or road the author is taking you down. You easily get into the connections between the lead character Martin Cox and feel how he wrestles with the issues in his life. You see Martin come out of his shell as he gets deeper and deeper discovering the new property he has purchased and this in turn leads to the twist every good story has at its conclusion. I would thoroughly endorse a read of The Draftsman, it was a book I felt I needed to read cover to cover.

Isn’t that lovely? Much appreciated. Thank you Brian Sims, reader.

You can find other reviews of The Draftsman here:

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1078

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1082

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1094

https://wordpress.com/post/laurellindstrom.org/1087

… and buy the book here: https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Laurel-Lindstrom/The-Draftsman/25875852

You can buy the book here: https://unbound.com/books/the-draftsman/

The 10 Freedoms of Brexit (from February 2020)

A lady was bleating on the radio the other day, euphoric that the UK was out of the European Union and that she was free. Apart from concerns as to the curious life the lady must lead, it occured to me that she was right, absolutely right that she, we, all of us are now free and here are ten reasons why. Ten or two*. Choose the ones that matter most to you. Add to the list.

  1. The freedom to buy health insurance for European travel.

2. The freedom to for pets’ passports not to count anymore.

3. The freedom to bring back a lone bottle of duty free booze.

4. The freedom to queue at European immigration desks.

5. The freedom to pay more for using a cash cards in the EU.

6. The freedom to pay more for flights.

7. The freedom to bathe in polluted rivers and seas.

8. The freedom to pay more for cheese, avocados et al.

9. The freedom to have an understaffed NHS, too few hauliers and food processors.

10. The freedom to be vulnerable to energy supply shortages and high prices.

*There are two kinds of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who don’t.

There are more freedoms …

The freedom to pay VAT, duties and customs fees on parcels from Europe.

The freedom to worry if medical supplies are slowing.

The freedom to sit in endless jams at the ports.

The freedom to carry green card proof of insurance plus the extra premium, when driving in the EU.

The freedom to enjoy cratering quality of life.

The freedom to have to buy an international driving license.

The freedom for scientists to work alone and with reduced funding.

The freedom for students not to participate in funded foreign exchanges.

The freedom to not go on duty free booze runs to Calais.

… and pity (or not) the poor expat Brexiteers who are being chucked out of Spain.