Notes from Neighbours, and Letters to Other Lands

For the last three years, I’ve lived in a block of flats just out of town, and I’ve become rather well acquainted with my neighbours below me and beside me.

Just after the lockdown was announced on 23 March, I recieved notes through my letterbox from both households, offering assistance if necessary. I didn’t require any help, but it gave me an opportunity to write letters back to them.

Since then, I’ve also received notes from two other neighbours that I’d seen en passant but didn’t know by name. One of them apologised for dropping soil onto my balcony, while the other wanted to talk about a noise issue from another flat.

I keep a special notepad for letters, styled as ‘nu:elite‘. The pages are ringbound A5 sheets that tear off along perforations, leaving a smooth edge. It’s also a heavier weight of paper, which I favour, although I do have a lighter weight, styled simply as ‘nu‘. if I’m not trying to impress the other person.

While I had the notepad to hand, I penned one to a friend in Florida, enclosing some commemorative David Bowie stamps that I rediscovered while clearing up. Shortly after that, a pal in California wondered whether I could send her a pen I’d had custom-made for my open-mike Hotchpotch.

Then I had a birthday card returned undelivered from Dublin; this had been posted before the lockdown. I’d bought and printed my postage online rather than visit the Post Office, but I’d messed it up. Reading back the letter I’d originally enclosed with the card, it seems I’d been pushed for time and hadn’t written much. I therefore decided to send it back with a longer letter, as the first had gone out of date because of the movement restrictions. I was sure to learn how to properly affix self-printed postage.

The letter-writing bug must also have hit my Canadian pen-pal, whom I met through National Novel Writing Month. She apologised via a private Twitter message that she hadn’t managed to write back. I, of course, said not to worry about it.

I remember learning at school how to write letters by hand in the mid-1990s. Looking back, it seemed a little dated even then: word processing software was near-universal, though e-mail was not.

In sixth year, however, I learned how to touch-type and to format a document correctly. The teacher was near retirement age, but she’d moved with the times: there were no double-spaces after full-stops.

Despite my love of letter-writing, I’m also doing it sparingly, as we don’t yet know exactly how the current virus is transmitted. The aforementioned neighbours now have my phone number, so as to reduce physical contact as soon as possible.

Note to self: don’t call this entry ‘The Write Stuff’

Last week, I was reminded that when you have a passion for an activity, you’ll find a way to carry it out no matter what the conditions.

I’ve subscribed to Artificial Womb, a feminist zine run by my friend Ana Hine. The format really is an old-school zine, with A4 pages of typed text and freehand drawings stapled together into a booklet. But this edition was different. The first variation to catch my eye was the return address on the envelope; it was a hospital in Kent. In this issue, Ana is candid about why she’s confined to the place at the moment.

Regardless, she somehow managed to find collaborators, write and illustrate the zine entirely by hand, photocopy the pages, and post the finished product to subscribers. On top of that, there’s a mini booklet about her former partner and a small piece of art on a separate sheet. I think that’s marvellous work under the circumstances.

You can subscribe to the zine right here.

A public-domain photo of an open notebook.
A public-domain photo of an open notebook.

Most of my fiction, poetry and even blog entries start life as pencil on paper. But last week, I also wrote a letter of my own by hand.

I have a friend in the US who goes by many aliases, but for the purposes of this entry, I’ll call her C. In March, I sent her special-edition David Bowie stamps and she replied recently with a thank-you card, two postcards, and a handwritten letter. I felt compelled to return the favour.

On one hand, I found the process of writing to be liberating in the sense that there was no urgency. Unlike an electronic message, there is no expectation of a near-instant response, so I was able to draft and redraft the letter, and also to write one of the postcards in the area depicted in its photograph.

But the process also highlighted a difference in style between her letter and mine. C would go off at tangents and ask questions, some of them rhetorical, whereas I was more inclined to create a narrative structure and answer questions rather than ask them.

So I rethought my style, and the final letter deviates radically even from its last draft, answering some of her questions and posing my own. Even with the aforementioned postcard, that ends on a cliffhanger, with the comment that a stranger had sat next to me on the bench as I was writing and that I wished he would find his own spot.

I also alerted C when I’d posted my letter, as she’d told me that mine was arriving. After our brief discussion on the matter, I don’t think I’ll flag it up next time, and simply let it be a surprise. I might also surprise you and end this entry abru

And now we wait.

Between my MLitt essay and the EP, my submissions to publishers had been put on hold. Now I have the time to submit material, I’m sharply reminded of how slow the process can often be, and it’s the exceptions that prove the rule.

I submitted to two places that said they would give a response within approximately two days, and they both kept their respective promises. But because they’ve been so quick, it makes the other two seem painfully slow as I won’t hear from them for between two and six months.

It’s common to find publishers that use Submittable, a website that provides a semi-standard way of submitting work and tracking your correspondence. I rather like doing it this way.

Where paper reincarnation happens
Where paper reincarnation happens

For instance, I’ve had to send in a query to an editor as two of my pieces have been outstanding for six months with nothing more than an acknowledgement. However, if I don’t receive a response in a reasonable timescale, Submittable allows you to withdraw your work.

I also like the ability to attach Word or PDF documents, or whichever format the publisher wants. It’s a personal view, but I dislike having to paste my work into the body of an e-mail. Many writers use Word or Scrivener, or a number of other programs. Whenever you copy from a program, the formatting often goes pear-shaped after pasting. When pasting into Gmail, I sometimes find the line spacing changes to 1.5 and can’t be altered, or the font changes and can’t be harmonised. Ctrl+Shift+V will paste the text without formatting, but you then have to reinsert any bold or italics, or unusual spacing.

Another pet hate is a requirement to submit by post. The cost of postage is an irritation, although my main concern is how much paper must be wasted in the process, as editors select only a fraction of the material submitted. It seems an archaic practice in the age of electronic communication. If I ever have to print a document and notice a mistake, I keep it in a folder so I can print on the blank side in the future. Any paper that can’t be reused goes into the house recycling bin.

While I’m waiting for responses, I would like to know why publishers ask for copy-and-paste or postal submissions. Is there a compelling reason why these practices still happen?

Pepto-Dismal.

My Stats page tells me that hardly anyone reads blogs on a Saturday or in the morning, but it scarcely matters as I’ve nothing to say.

This week, I’ve been flat out in bed with sickness, and I’ve been unable to think of a topic, let alone write an entry.

I aim to be back on track by next week. In the meantime, as it’s Independent Booksellers’ Week, I encourage you visit your nearest one and buy something.