Tag Archives: Simon & Schuster

Diary of a First time Author #11 – On Crushing Rejection…

Periodically an article does the rounds on my Facebook news feed.  It’s actually a number of different articles from a number of different websites but the subject matter and examples used are inevitably the same.  It’s an article on famous rejections of people who would later become famous and here is an example of it.

 

Now, when you see an article like this, I think there’s two common ways to react to it.  One is to see it as reassurance that everyone starts bad and improves over time and the second is to see it as reinforcement of the idea that publishers don’t recognise talent and perhaps the problem isn’t that your work isn’t good enough, but that nobody can see just how brilliant it is.  The second view is, of course, reinforced by the numerous stories that circulate that, for example, J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books were rejected several times before a small publishing house took a chance on them.

 

I think the second view is a dangerous one to take.  Yes, there will always be Potter-esque exceptions – and I actually don’t know whether  or not J K Rowling made changes in between the rejections – but generally speaking, if you are being rejected time and time again, Occam’s Razor would dictate that probably there are improvements you could make to your work.

 

This doesn’t have to be cause for despair, however.  I’ve been rejected on several occasions myself and in retrospect pretty much all of them were the right decision.  I’d sent in work that wasn’t ready – probably several times as a writer I simply wasn’t ready – and the people involved politely declined it.  The better ones – or perhaps the ones with a bit more time on their hands – gave some feedback on how I could improve in the future.  Ultimately it does take a lot of time to become a good writer and understanding why your work is being turned down is as an important part of improving.

 

I’d also challenge the idea, in most of the examples on the articles, that the publishers/record companies involved couldn’t recognise talent.  To me, the only person who comes out of that article looking foolish is the person who rejected Animal Farm (the guy who rejected Gertrude Stein comes across as a bit of an arsehole but that’s a slightly different thing).  Assuming the responses were sincere (and I’ve no reason to assume otherwise) I’d say Jim Lee, Sylvia Plath, Madonna, Tim Burton and –to an extent – Kurt Vonnegut Jr all had more reasons to be encouraged than discouraged.  Yes, their work was rejected but there was pretty positive feedback acknowledging the merits of the work and claiming – rightly or wrongly – that the writers simply were not quite ready yet.

 

So generally speaking I think rejection should be taken as a sign of a need to improve and not a sign that publishers are all foolish.

 

There is caveat to this however and that’s that staff of publishing companies also have to consider both the commercial viability of the work and often whether it fits in with the company brand and image.  I realise I’ve just used three words (four if you could viability) that many aspiring writers will hate but the brutal reality is that, if you want to write and get your work published free of commercial considerations, self-publishing online may be the route for you to take.  Even the most independent and ethical of publishers won’t survive for long if all the books cost more to produce than they make in sales.

 

Where this causes a problem is when you have someone like J K Rowling or Kurt Vonnegut Jr doing something unconventional and outside what publishers are used to receiving.

 

I realise it sounds ludicrous in hindsight to call the most successful book franchise of all time ‘unconventional’ but, at the time, you would have had this unknown writer who’d created this brand new and fully-formed world to tell her story in – I think detractors frequently fail to acknowledge the ambition and audacity involved in an unpublished writer pulling that off and making it accessible.

 

Ultimately it’s much easier for a publisher to guess how commercially viable something is going to be if there’s obvious precedents for it so I do think there are cases where strong writers can be passed on because the originality of the work involved is such that nobody can quite see where to place it.  So I do envisage that Vonnegut or Rowling would have had a harder job getting their work accepted than someone who was writing something more in keeping with existing styles and fashions of the time.  However, even if you are an outstandingly original writer, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your work cannot be improved.

 

The reassurance here is that J K Rowling and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. both got published eventually and, of course, went onto have successful careers.  And I genuinely believe that, if your work is good enough to be published and you send it to enough publishers, eventually someone will pick up on that and publish it.  But, if you do find yourself getting rejection after rejection after rejection, the best thing is to use that rejection as a motivation to improve.  Bitterness and anger seldom get anyone anywhere so there’s no harm at all in viewing rejection as a positive experience.

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Talking About Disability #4 – On Songwriting and Disability

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So far I’ve talked a bit about having disabilities but how do they affect me as a musician, in terms of the work I actually create?

To answer that, I’ve put together a podcast of songs I’ve written that I consider to stem from my disabilities interspersed with my good friend Felix Hunt, who plays in one of the two bands I’m in – the Count of Chateau Noir – interviewing me about the songs and what made me write them.

This is quite an in-depth discussion and I’ve taken a decision not to edit too much to allow it to remain fairly in-depth but I realise, because of the level of detail, it may not be for everyone.  But, if you are interested in songwriting or disability issues or anything like that,  I think we do have an interesting discussion – especially around The Yellow Castle on the Hill.

Anyway, here it is:

Quick Footnote on the Yellow Castle on the Hill

During The Yellow Castle on the Hill – which the only one of the songs on the list that is overtly about the treatment of disability on the whole, rather than any kind of personal confessional – I talk about the history of Stoke Park Hospital in Bristol (i.e. the Yellow Castle in the song).  Stoke Park was a hospital for people with learning disabilities and there is a short documentary here which is worth watching, put together by a theatre group working with people with learning disabilities on the history of the hospital.   It’s a pretty powerful and damning description of the conditions in institutions for people with Learning Disabilities for much of the 20th Century and pretty much gives the whole context of the song.   As a newspaper headline in this documentary says, “these are all somebody’s sons and daughters” and the conditions endured by certain human beings in this country until relatively recently are one of the great unspoken human rights issues of the 20th Century.

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Talking About Disability #3 – The ACE Malone Procedure

This is the second and final part of my interview about the medical kit I use.   The Malone ACE (Antegrade Continence Enema) Procedure is a medical thing I do every one or two days to keep my bowels clear as the don’t completely open by themselves.  Again, I realise this is a bit of taboo subject for a lot of people (probably including me!) but it’s also one of these things I’ve never really seen anyone talking about and, especially given this is a relatively new procedure where patients pretty much have to figure out how it works for themselves as there are few clear guidelines to follow, I thought it might be useful for some people to hear someone speaking about it:

Once again this was filmed and edited by Tom Mayne.

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Talking About Disability #2 – Using a Catheter

One of the difficulties I had when I was growing up with the medical conditions I had was that I never ever saw anybody talking about similar conditions.  I think this is partly my conditions are slightly unusual but also, because they affect my bladder and bowels, I think it’s still seen as a bit unseemly to talk about such things.  Going to the toilet is a very private matter and one that most people would rather not think about or talk about.  And, when you do, it inevitably ends up seeming very crude or very childish.

Which is all very well and good but it does me make me think there’s probably people out there who, like me, have to use a catheter to urinate due to their medical conditions but never ever hears anyone talking about using a catheter.  Similarly there are probably people who’ve seen me or someone else using one in public toilets and have questions but feel it’d be a bit wrong to ask them.

For both those reasons, I’d decided to record a short video of myself talking about using a catheter for anyone who is interested to watch.  Obviously, if you do find the idea of inserting a catheter into yourself unpleasant to think about or talk about, you might choose not to watch it!

Here it is if you do want to so though.  It was filmed and edited by Tom Mayne.

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar Day 24 – Thomas Nast

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Coca-Cola’s billboards might have spread the image we have for Santa Clays today but the person usually credited with creating it was Thomas Nast, the cartoonist at the influential Harper’s Weekly magazine in New York in the mid-late 19th Century.. Nast’s father was a Protestant from the traditionally Catholic German state of Bavaria who had fled to New York for political reasons when the boy was six years old. Nast’s drawings embodied both the way that old Catholic traditions of St Nicholas were being rapidly redesigned through Protestant eyes and the way that traditions stemming from fourteenth-century Europe were reborn for the society of nineteenth-century America.

Nast’s first image of the character that came to be embraced as Santa Claus appeared on the front cover of Harper’s Weekly in December 1862. It was the height of the Civil War and a low point for the North, who had suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Fredericksburg only a few weeks before Christmas. Nast was a fervent supporter of the war and the battle against slavery but drew an image to reflect his sadness at the separation and loss that the war caused in everyday families. Nast, who had spent time in England, may have been influenced by the way that Father Christmas had developed as an expression of sadness for lost Christmas traditions and hope for a better future. He drew a powerful, striking image of despair as a wife sits praying at her window whilst her children lie in bed. Many miles away sits a weary, ageing solider. He has the beard and rotund gait that was already familiar in the pictures of the Christmas Men and would soon be known around the world as Santa Claus. But, far from the joyful personification of Christmas, he slumps sadly with a letter in his hand. Even 150 years later, it is a moving and heartbreaking image of longing, hope and loss.

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A year later, Nast drew the same figure again, this time clearly identifying him as Santa Claus. He dresses in a Unionist flag and hands out presents to soldiers who are separated from their families.

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After that, Nast continued to draw Santa for the next thirty years. Once the war was won he seemed to cheer up considerably and he gradually became the man we know and love today. Nast’s German roots meant that he was aware of European folk mythology and his residence in New York meant that he was also aware of the Clement Clarke Moore poem. Nast’s drawings were the point where European traditions and Irving’s and Moore’s writings came together to create something new.

St Nicholas was no longer an austere saint but a jolly toymaker. His assistants were no longer angry fearsome devils but friendly elves. He did not judge children but simply stored their hopes and wishes in a giant ledger. He liked food being left out for him but he was not going to punish anyone who failed to leave him an offering. Nast was also the first person to encourage children to write to Santa and to locate Santa Claus’s workshop at the North Pole. Nast’s grandson Thomas Nast St Hill speculates that the reason for this was the combination of a neutral location, so that Santa could not be appropriated as a political figure by any particular country, and the fact that the North Pole made it easy for Santa Claus to access both the United States and Europe – even at this time Santa’s status as a global gift-bringer was beginning to develop.

Nast helped put European folklore back into the heart of Santa Claus, albeit in a much nicer and more child-friendly form than it had ever appeared before. In doing so, he helped ease the way for Santa to supersede the same myths he had been inspired by. It was through his drawings that Santa Claus became generally accepted as wearing red.

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“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” by Paul Hawkins is available now from Simon & Schuster.  The images above are all by Thomas Nast.

 

 

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar Day 23 – The Mysterious Disappearance of Diedrich Knickerbocker

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The story of Santa Claus starts, as every good story should, with the link between a missing historian, a famous dessert, a pair of women’s underwear and the New York professional basketball team.

The missing historian in question was the New York amateur historian Diedrich Knickerbocker. Knickerbocker was of Dutch ancestry and his major historical research project A History of New York, which was published in 1809, told the story of the early Dutch settlers to what was then New Amsterdam.

Knickerbocker himself had disappeared by the time of publishing. He had been staying in the Columbian Hotel in New York but had disappeared without paying. The manuscript for the book was found amongst his belongings and the landlord, keen to recoup his lost rent, decided to publish the book. Adverts were placed in the local newspapers trying to find Diedrich Knickerbocker but the mystery of his disappearance remained unsolved for many months. Even after the truth was discovered, Diedrich Knickerbocker was never seen again. To this day, his body has never been found.

Nonetheless, Knickerbocker’s research is significant as it shows the point where St Nicholas became Santa. He describes the Christmas traditions of the first Dutch settlers, the building of the Church of St Nicholas (the first church ever built in New York) and the place that St Nicholas’s Day took in the hearts of early New Yorkers. He explains how St Nicholas flew over the houses in a cart pulled by horses and would shimmy down chimneys to deliver gifts. Essentially the description was so vivid that Knickerbocker became the first man to chronicle the modern Santa Claus.

There were two very small problems with all of this. The first is that Diedrich Knickerbocker never actually existed. The second is that the ‘traditional celebrations’ he described were entirely fictional.

In actual fact Knickerbocker’s History of New York was an elaborate joke by the then-unknown writer Washington Irving, who would later become famous as the writer of ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. It was intended as a satire of stolid, worthy and pompous history books, and the debacle around Dietrich Knickerbocker was partly a joke and partly a publicity stunt that had several unexpected consequences.

Firstly, Diedrich Knickerbocker himself, for a man who never existed, turned out to be distinctly influential. The word Knickerbocker became a slang term for New Yorkers with Dutch ancestry and ultimately New York itself. The New York Knicks and the Knickerbocker Glory ice cream sundae both take their name from the fictional character. When the book was published in England, the illustrations were done by Charles Dickens’s illustrator – a man named George Cruikshank. Cruikshank’s drawings of old-style Dutch trousers resembled ladies undergarments of the day and ultimately led to female underwear being referred to as ‘knickers’.

Secondly, whilst Irving’s traditions of St Nicholas in New York were almost certainly invented by him on the spot, they turned out to be surprisingly popular. St Nicholas might not have been known to fly through the skies and climb down chimneys before Irving’s writings but he quickly gained a reputation for it.

Washington Irving’s influence on  Christmas does not end there. In 1819 and 1820 whilst living in England he published The Sketch Book, which included a series of stories set in a fictional country house named Bracebridge Hall that popularised English Christmas traditions of the past in America (and indeed in England too). Along with Charles Dickens, Irving’s writings did more than anyone to promote the idyllic traditional Christmas and set out the customs and traditions that form part of our ideal Christmas today. Much like Dickens’s Christmas stories, Washington Irving’s tales purported to capture the spirit of Christmas traditions of yesteryear but actually helped invent much of what we now think of as the ‘traditional’ Christmas. Although Irving had spent a lot of time at Aston Hall near Birmingham, he later admitted he never actually witnessed any of the Christmas traditions that he described.

“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” is available now from Simon and Schuster.  As far as I can establish, the image of Washington Irving  is by John Wesley Jarvis, the image of a Knickerblocker Glory comes from http://knickerbockersicecreamparlour.co.uk, the New York Knicks’ logo belongs to them and I took the image of women’s knickers from Wikipedia.

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“Bad Santas…” Advent Calendar Day 22 – The Coca-Cola Santa

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Contrary to popular mythology, Santa Claus was already popularly depicted in red before Coca-Cola began to use him in adverts in the 1930s.  But Coca-Cola and their illustrator Haddon Sundblom – did create an image of Santa which featured heavily on billboards every year from 1931 onwards for the next thirty years and is still in use today. The cumulative effect of this advertising meant that the image of Santa Claus – which previously varied from country to country and region to region finally became defined and inescapable and no other image was possible.  To children everywhere, The Coca-Cola figure was Santa Claus.

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Films too helped to sell the image.   By the middle of the twentieth century Santa Claus was a regular fixture in movies and regularly appeared as a guest character on TV shows.  L. Frank Baum, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis all featured Father Christmas in stories and he was used in television adverts and posters to sell not just children’s toys and games but everything from shredded wheat and soap to fountain pens.

And some far more inappropriate things too.

He has been used to sell cigarettes:

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Alcohol too is one of Santa’s advertising pleasures. Obviously everyone knows that Santa enjoys a sly tot of whisky when he drops by with the presents, but children would doubtless be shocked by the 1934 advert for Byrrh wine where Santa sits on a rooftop, swigging from a bottle and looking half-dead from intoxication. A beautiful angel kneels beside him and it is unclear whether she is joining in the fun or reading him the last rites. The image is supposed to suggest merry seasonal drinking but looks more like an alcoholic at his lowest ebb.

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And what of the recent trend for Santa being used to sell sex? This too is old hat. A 1947 lingerie advert shows Santa cuddling up to a leggy blonde who is extremely keen to show off her purchases.

Sex, cigarettes and booze may paint Santa as a bit of a rogue but it is the gun adverts where it really gets disturbing.

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Of course, it is unwise to jump to conclusions. Just because Santa is advocating guns doesn’t mean anyone is going to get hurt – except in the 1947 advert for Arrow shirts, which shows Santa aiming a gun into his own mouth ready to end it all in despair at the number of shirts he has to deliver due to the anticipated surge in Arrow’s sales.

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Merry Christmas folks!

Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters by Paul Hawkins is available now from Simon & Schuster.  The Illustration at the top is by Melissa Four and is taken from the book.

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