Wednesday, 30 September 2009

ONLY DISCONNECT


I’ve gone Wireless.

Viki (local white witch, astrologer and computer expert) spent several hours sorting this out for me. Part of the process involved me having to change into red clothes because of Mars. But let’s not go there.

You must understand that I am a Luddite of the first order. Technological change is anathema to me. I’m the one who tried to back up my work onto a mouse modem. Let’s not go there either.

I went Wireless because I wanted to be able to use my laptop in my attic study alongside my trusty old PC (1996 – the Luddite in me hates to let it go). And I wanted to do this because then I wouldn’t be continually drawn to checking my email at the kitchen table. Like many Luddites, I suspect, I am hideously addicted to any small technological thing I can do.

So now I have a sweet little white doo-dah with feet and a tiny tail (I keep wanting to feed it snacks because it crouches beside me in a permanent begging position) which sends magic rays to my laptop and allows it to work anywhere.

Anywhere. Suddenly, the umbilical cord which has tied me to the kitchen table has been cut. I sense freedom. For the first hours after Viki leaves, I wander the house with my laptop, drunk on all the possibilities. I can email in my attic! I can email in the garden! I can email in my living-room – here, where the sun shines! Ooh, I can email at the other end of my kitchen under the boiler! Oh my god - I can email sitting on the toilet! (which, given some of my output, may be the most suitable place for a Shitty First Draft.)

So why am I sitting back at my kitchen table writing this (in between obsessively checking my emails)? I suspect that this may be a turning point in my writing life. I thought I wanted to move forwards technologically. Now I think that I also need to move backwards.

Let me explain. Laptops and PCs are wonderful. In the click of a mouse they can take me to distant countries, can give me information on any subject I need to know about. I’m a very fast typist (I trained on old, metal-gilled recalcitrant typewriters, so the freedom of a touch-sensitive keyboard was like sprouting wings). I wrote my non-fiction book and my first novel on a PC – it came easily because the words seemed to leap straight from my head to the screen. Why, then, do I recently feel a deep yearning to write longhand, in a book?

Patrick Gale planted the seed. At a seminar, he passed around his first draft of Notes From An Exhibition – an A4 lined book, full of scribblings and notes and pages of longhand. For me, it felt like the Holy Grail, though I didn’t then know why.

Wirelessness represents freedom. Flexibility. Portability. Being able to pick up email anywhere is undoubtably an advantage. But where writing is concerned, I need to go back to basics. I need to go not only Wireless, but Machineless. After all, what’s the epitomy of portability and flexibility? The human hand. The pen, the paper. You can do it anywhere, plugless, wireless, bootless. There’s something intensely sensual and intimate about writing longhand. The contact between the body and the page. The way the words tumble out onto paper, ill-formed, awkward, scruffy, shitty.

So yes, I’m still scuttling back to my laptop-in-the-kitchen. But the seed is growing. Reculer pour mieux sauter. Because one day, one day soon, I will do it. I will roll up my sleeves and write longhand. And I will probably wear red.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

United We Stand


Last Friday I blogged about the criticism aimed at Dan Brown’s latest novel, The Lost Symbol.

The debate my post sparked was lively and enjoyable. I, for one, love nothing better than discussing the craft of writing with other writers.

But what became clear to me as the day wore on was that writers appear to fall into two camps. Those who believe that story is all and those that feel the style of a piece is what makes it sing.

To be fair, I’m sure most of us would say we aim for both...a riveting plot, well told.
But when the chips are down we tend to place more importance on one or the other. Do we want to be recognised for the sheer beauty of our prose or the excitement our story lines engender?

For me it is always the later. I write thrillers and more than anything else they must ...er...thrill. If they don’t, they fail.

Now this doesn’t mean I don’t put a lot of effort into my work. Far from it. I agonise for weeks over the structure, trying each permutation to see which more successfully ramps up the tension than another. I try to create characters that best tell my story and carry the reader with them. These are my conduits to the public and nothing they say or do will be irrelevant to what I am trying to achieve.
Finally, I keep my writing spare. I avoid long descriptions or digressions. This takes will power. Of course I want to frolic off, telling my readership all sorts of interesting asides, but this would be pure indulgence on my part.

Before I wrote full time I was a trial lawyer. I spent over ten years hanging out in court rooms. Over time it became obvious to me who the best solicitors and barristers were. The ones who won more cases than they lost. I’m proud to say I fell into that camp.
How did we do it? We kept things simple. We focussed on the best part of our argument and never let the jury/judge lose sight of it. And we were always in forward motion.

I attempt, whenever possible to bring these rules of communication to my writing. I remind myself that they work.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is how everyone should write. There are many scribblers out there who prefer a more languid pace. And there are readers who like it too. Sometimes that is exactly what I am in the mood for and I love nothing better than savouring a delightful sentence.

Personally, I think there is room for both story led and style focussed fiction on the book shop shelves. And everything in between. I think the publishing industry remains healthier when it commissions a mixture.

Finally, I wish writers would give each other a break and stop trying to rubbish one another work. When I was a solicitor I never heard the tax bods saying the PI guys ‘couldn’t lawyer.’ The family experts didn’t lord it over the defence advocates. We accepted that we each did a different job, that each needed an entirely divergent skill set.
As a writer, I see it in exactly the same way.

Monday, 28 September 2009

The Lion, The Bitch and the Gloria

I've read that Stephen King writes 2000 words a day six days a week, always listening to heavy metal music. JK's been known to write longhand in busy cafes. My own act of writing involves sitting at my familiar desk looking out over the garden, cup of tea by my side - in complete silence. I begin by re-reading what I wrote the previous day, do a mini edit on it and usually, most times, it's at that moment that the characters come out to play. And I don’t just mean the characters featuring in my Work In Progress. I mean my own character traits made flesh, who regularly turn up to help or hinder me in the writing process. What I'm writing, where I am in the story, or how I'm feeling in general will completely dictate which one may make an appearance.


Take the Lion. She’s a hunting Lioness, strong and dependable, sure in her ability to take care of business. She urges me to be strong. Keep the Faith. She nurtures me, feeds me, encourages me to grow. She's most apparent during first draft months.


The Bitch makes regular appearances during all stages of a manuscript. She throws all the proverbial toys out of the playpen, ‘poo poos’ the publishing industry and snarls at anyone who mentions how many attempts it took JK Rowling to be published. She sabotages my work regularly and reminds me how crap I am. She also happens to be gorgeous, you know the type - tall, leggy, slim, blonde. (Note to self. From now on your inner bitch must look dishevelled, ugly and be so inarticulate that you have no choice but to ignore her.)

Which leads me to the Gloria, and I don’t mean the ‘in excelsis Deo’ Gloria. Er, no. Though I’m sure that sentiment rings true somewhere in my psyche, I actually mean the Gloria of the Gaynor type. You know…the one who survives? She tends to appear at submission time. She berates the Bitch with a withering silent look and then bursts into song….’Oh now Go, la la la la. I will survive etc etc’ I need Gloria. Oh, how I need Gloria.


Today is my first day back writing after a long break and it feels SO good to be at the desk. My hands hovered only momentarily over the keyboards before they began tapping rhythmically, almost of their own accord. It's quiet. The only sounds are birdsong in the garden and Gloria singing, sounding quite tuneful in fact.

The Lion is snoozing in long grass, one eye half open, there if I need her. The Bitch is hovering to my left, glancing nervously at her ragged fingernails. Actually, she looks like hell today.


I feel a good writing day coming on.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Humbug



Can there be anyone in the world who has missed the hoo-ha surrounding the release of Dan Brown's latest novel, The Lost Symbol.

Booksellers across the land have been inundated with advance orders and queries about this most awaited of books. Sales are set to outstrip his previous block buster, The Da Vince Code with a first print run of millions.

At a time when the economy is on its knees and the publishing industry is feeling the pain, you'd imagine a feel good story of this magnitude would be greeted with joyful relief.

Getting the public into shops or on line stores can only spell good news. If a punter pops into Smiths for a copy of The Lost Symbol the chances are pretty high that he will walk out with something else too, particularly with all the discounting and special offers around to tempt the innocent. And who has ever placed an order on Amazon for just one book?

It's not rocket science. The more books people buy, the better authors' advances, the more new books get picked up.

Yet Dan Brown's success has, in some quarters, been met with only derision and sneering.

Hundreds of column inches in the loftier press have been devoted to rubbishing his latest effort, in much the same way that DVC was rubbished. 'It's not very well written,' sniffed one radio four presenter to a patient and extraordinarily gracious Kate Mosse. Who are any of us to say what is good or not, was her response.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion. If someone reads TLS and finds it not to their taste, well, you know, shit happens. I don't love a lot of books I read. But it is hardly worth the tirade of condemnation that is currently pouring from the self appointed arbiters of good taste.

And that's the point really. The wave of sniping from the chattering commentators says more about them than the book in question. They did the same to JKR and Meyers. It's as if they take their stand point against Dan Brown precisely because he is so popular. If they loath what the common man likes, it sets them apart. It makes them cleverer, better...

Good old fashioned snobbery. Don't you just love it.

But here's the thing. The opinions of a handful of journos who live in North London and are still bitter about not being able to send their kids to private school, are neither here nor there, but it's very easy to get sucked in.

Frequently, I hear writers bemoaning the commercial success of Brown et al. If only it weren't for Harry Potter, my own genius would have been discovered...

But we must not fall into this lazy trap. As writers who are still seeking a publisher or whose published works have not sold like Brown ( and frankly, none of us have), there is no room for flippant mockery of those who have cracked it.

We shouldn't focus on the 'lack of texture', or the 'one dimensional characters.' We shouldn't focus on what is wrong with these stories, but what is right with them.

Whether we like it or not, Brown, JKR, and Meyers have touched the hearts of millions. Their message has reached an audience the size of which is usually reserved for religious leaders and Brad Pitt.

A writer who believes they have nothing to learn from the most successful authors of this generation are deluded, or arrogant, or both. Frankly they deserve their failures.

So fellow scribblers, as TLS remains at the top of the best sellers list for longer than Summer Loving was number one, banish bitterness from your heart.

Pick up a copy and read it with an open mind. You don't have to love it. You don't even have to like it.

Just ask yourself; what is right with this story.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Your literary holiday


Regarded as one of the most important novels of the 20th century, Ulysses by the legendary James Joyce and my fellow countryman describes a day in the life of Leopold Bloom. Bloom's journey runs from the Martello Tower in Sandycove, Dublin, Ireland, back to his home in Eccles Street. And each year many Ulysses fans follow in their footsteps during Bloomsday, an event observed annually on June 16 to commemorate the life of James Joyce.

This brings me on to the topic of Dan Brown and how places featured in a novel can enjoy a huge influx of visitors. Finally, millions of Dan Brown fans are able to open his latest code-filled mystery, The Lost Symbol. The world-renowned author of best-sellers Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, has already enjoyed record-breaking sales figures with his latest release. And with the hype that surrounds the books, the locations featured in the narratives have also been swept up in the adventure, as code-crackers follow Harvard-hero Langdon in his journey.

Rome and Vatican City, the setting of Angels and Demons, has enjoyed an influx of visitors, thanks to Dan Brown including them in the book. Tourists flocked to the area particularly in the summer of 2009, when the film was released in cinemas. Now there are tours and attractions that specifically follow the events in the book. While the tours cost money, there's also the option of going alone, taking your time, and enjoying a self-guided tour. You can enjoy St Peter's Square and the Sistine Chapel as well as the Castel Sant'Angelo on your own timescale. Tourists can take advantage of cheap flights to Rome, especially now that there are mammoth discounts during the recession.

But the influx of tourists who crammed into Rome was not unique to the city. London, France and rural parts of Scotland, also attracted Da Vinci Code lovers. For cracking clues in London at your leisure, the website LondonTown.com has a Da Vinci Code personal guide which includes plot summaries along with useful tips for Dan Brown thrill lovers.

And don't forget a jaunt to Paris, For piecing together the French puzzles The Louvre museum has created its own walking route within the galleries, combining elements from the story with actual truths about the museum's legendary artifacts.

The Scottish-based scenes in The Da Vinci Code take place outside Edinburgh, at the beautiful Rosslyn Chapel which I hope to visit some day. Again, it's easy to reach and has enjoyed an influx of visitors since Dan Brown started penning his books.

This list of places to visit is by no means exhaustive. Read the books for yourselves and plan your own literary holiday.

Photo of Christchurch, Dublin, by me!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Guest Blog by Laura Nelson - The Climb Towards the Clouds


I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said to people that I’ve finished the novel. After the first draft, I was beaming. I’d felt I’d reached the top of the ladder. “The end!” I hollered. But I looked up and realised I was still on the bottom rung.

After the third draft, I’d landed on some sort of platform – the editing step. I paused, wobbling. I’m scared of heights; I had to keep going. There were serious flaws that called for a substantial re-write. The re-write took me over a year.

The fifth draft emerged. At last, something I could hold in my hands. Something that resembled a novel! But the first chapter was cracking under the strain of holding up the rest of it, and needed to be built from scratch. And there were inconsistencies in the plot. There was lazy language; there were under-imagined scenes.

Months later, the miracle happened. I emerged from the mist and saw the top of the ladder. I made myself a cup of coffee. I did a dance around my living room. I called a friend. The book is finished – at least for now. I bought a laser printer and some Jiffy bags. I checked what time the post office opens.

I waited for the ‘end-of-novel grief’ that novice writers are warned about. It didn’t come. My novel isn’t dead; it’s just a child that has grown up and left home. In any case, I have a folder full of cuttings and post-it notes. And the sharp, demanding voices of unwritten novels, like spoilt children, vying for my attention and saying: “Write me, write me!”

“Be quiet,” I say. “I’ve already decided which of you is coming next.”

People sometimes ask: why novels and not short stories, which are, well, shorter? I do write short stories, and I like writing them, but for me they are a hit of adrenaline – they come to me in a flash. Then it’s all over.

A novel is a long term commitment; it’s hardcore. You lead it through good and bad, love and hate. You see it evolve, flourish, hobble; balloon and shrink. It’s a warm feeling. It’s a living force. It has to be tamed. It’s an enigma.

Apart from my day job, which I also love (for very different reasons) and which puts the roof over my head, writing the novel is the most important, exciting and pressing thing I have ever wanted to do. That it’s a feat absurd, almost unattainable, makes it all the more worth trying.

Back at base camp, I’m eyeing the ascent in front of me. The huge, Herculean hillside. Experienced novelists say it doesn’t get any easier. It’s going to be a hard slog. Any sensible person would have been put off by the first attempt.

Am I a masochist? Am I a maverick? Am I mad? These are questions, as writers, we ask ourselves. Why do we write, when it’s so hellishly difficult? Well, we do, don’t we – we get it done – because we love it. And that’s the greatest miracle of all.

*


Laura has two short stories published in the April 2009 issue of Litro magazine (http://www.litro.co.uk/?cat=33), has published fiction in Nature, and has read her stories live at Tales of the DeCongested (http://www.decongested.com) and Litro Live! events in Foyles bookshop, London.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Spreading the Word


Another school mum took up cross-country biking last term.

‘You should come along,’ she said.

‘Can’t,’ I replied. ‘I promised myself this year I’d spend all free time writing.’

She looked me up and down too slowly and said, ‘You really must do both.’

My husband once heard Margaret Atwood read. During questions at the end, someone asked her advice for aspiring writers. Her answer: ‘Take posture lessons.’ As usual with Atwood there was grit behind the wit. The anecdote came back when I took a rare look in the mirror and saw not myself but a copy of a well-upholstered writer friend who went to the doctor half crippled and was diagnosed with the wonderfully vague but ominous ‘premature decrepitude.’ Writing was sending her to an early grave. There can’t be a more sedentary job. Even office secretaries walk to the station. When I visited my friend some months after the diagnosis, she was lithe and vibrant, no longer a woman whose appeal lay solely in the strength of her mind. She’d attacked the gym and the towpaths.

I joined the cross-country bike gang. We cycled bridleways past fields of sheep, up chalky hills. So far, so pleasant. Then our leader shot into the woods where there was no path. Within seconds we were ducking below the handlebars to avoid thorns whipping our eyes, then standing on our pedals to descend steep steps formed by raised tree roots. We cycled the edge of a ravine I never knew existed, across bridges one plank wide with sheer falls of scree either side. The exhilaration and sense of achievement were addictive. Unable to wait for the once weekly fix I go out alone most days now.

Hard exercise connects fundamentally with writing. When writing full tilt we experience the runner’s high but our bodies don’t get the benefit. Matching that mental pitch with its physical equivalent redresses the balance. I’ve not yet experienced the two working simultaneously, where the physical feeds the mental, but can’t wait for this to happen. Oliver Sacks swam a lake shore to shore then wrote a chapter between each crossing. He delivered his manuscript buckled and stained with lake water. I used to wonder how a man as socially gauche as Sacks claims to be could make page-turners of such complex material. He describes here (http://www.powells.com/authors/oliversacks.html) the rhythm of the swim dictating the rhythm of his prose. Murakami runs marathons and has for years. His thoughts go on for miles after most of us would let an idea peter out.

One of the greatest appeals and challenges of writing is in finding balance: balance between editor and creator, story and structure. Sitting all day at a desk, divorced from the world, speaking to no one but my kids and the postman is unbalanced. It wasn’t until the stasis began to show in something as trivial as hip size that I accepted exercise isn’t a skive or a diversion, it’s crucial to a writer’s physical and creative health.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Love, Sex and Magic


If only he asks me out… my life will be brilliant! If only he tells me I’m beautiful…my life will be brilliant! If only he asks me to marry him… my life will be brilliant! If only he stays faithful through the ups and downs… my life will be brilliant! Ah. True love. It blinds us into thinking that if we get our hands on what we desire then everything that’s wrong with our life will transform and we’ll be as happy as one of those shiny, sunny faces peering out from some lifestyle magazine. And isn't writing just the same? If only I finish this wip, if only I get an agent, if only I get a publishing deal, if only my sales are superlative, if only I publish story after story, if only my contracts are renewed year in year out… But achieving literary success will not heal all our ills, will not cast asunder all our emotional baggage. We’ll still be us – just like all those years ago when finally dating cool Tom from Year 10 didn’t erase the acne or extinguish exam jitters.

Writing and writing projects really are like the lover from hell.

Remember that awful feeling? The relationship is over – it’s stale, it’s going nowhere. You just haven’t told the other person yet. You ask for outsiders’ opinions, they tell you to try again but it’s too late, you’ve already got your heart set on someone else. Does this sound familiar? When you’re sick of a project and a new one is calling to you, making you feel disloyal for the excitement it ignites, for the resentment you feel at the old words and sentences you’ve reworked to death all those months before. Moving on - it’s a difficult thing. But when the time is right – and you’ll know – whether it’s after a stack of rejections or after some brutal advice from an editorial agency, or simply a voice in your head telling you that your plot and themes just don’t work… The deed has to be done. Cruel to be kind. Onwards and upwards. Allow yourself to fall in love with a new plot and set of characters.

La la laaaaa, la la laaaaa, I’m too sexy for my pen, you can’t touch me, I’m on cloud nine, my hair is strong, my nails hard, my eyes bright, the world is great, la la laaaaa…Talk about falling in love! This main character is original or what! And as for the plot! And my new style! This time I know it’s the one.
Yeah, yeah, it’s pretty great, isn't it, that initial first draft buzz? Yet, *months later*… Why have I still reached 100,000 words and am still not near the end? It's becomes like bad sex, when you and your muse must force the words, even though neither of you are in the mood. The magic's gone, that spark that once bore such hope.
*Sob*. How could I have been so stupid? Did I really think this was going anywhere? How come everyone else can see what’s wrong but I can’t? It’s all pointless, I’m worthless and may as well give up now.
The buzz means nothing in the long run. Enjoy it for what it is – a necessary rush of adrenaline that gets things started but sadly can’t protect you from disappointment and rejection.

*Whispers* - speaking personally, I’ve had four big literary loves – apart from some ongoing affairs with, ahem, blogs and forums, mere fumblings I’ve allowed myself to enjoy, convincing myself they were as important as my writing. My Big Four are called “Poppy Love,” “Moon in Taurus,” “From Zero to Nero,” and finally “Lunch Date with a Tomb Robber”. From the first three, difficult as it was, I moved on. And my fourth? Well, it’s early days, but, shhh! Don’t tell anyone, the prospects are looking good as I still feel that tingling enthusiasm, I still believe in my story, I’m still prepared to put in the work. And as to whether there’s a realistic future for me and Number Four, time will tell. But if my heart’s broken again and this one too is put to - or literally under the - bed, I trust, deep down, that a new set of characters, a new plot, will heal the break and get the passion pumping once more.


*Sigh*. As the great Diana Ross once asked - 'Why do fools fall in love...?'

Friday, 18 September 2009

Strictly Determined


Tonight's the night! Strictly Come Dancing, the show to which our blog pays homage, is bringing its warm, friendly glitter and glamour back to the screens.

Brucie will crack the same old cringe-worthy jokes and then say 'think about it' in case we're too thick to understand. Viewers at home will lament the ditching of Arlene. The dancers will nervously await their first moment of glory, and across the land grumpy dads on sofas will comment “never 'eard of 'im,” and “who's she when she's at home?”

Much as I enjoy Strictly Come Dancing, I have some sympathy for the view that it is scraping the barrel with its choice of celebrities. It could even get to the point where they'll be reduced to asking me to be on it. As a result, viewers initially tend to scoff about the contestants. Who on earth are they? What have they ever done? Isn't it a disgrace that anyone thin and young can get on TV these days without proper talent?

But if this series is anything like the last, we'll get to see the real reason why they are marginally more famous than us. Some of the contestants – maybe not the ones we expected – will turn out to be very, very good at dancing. Not only that, but they will spend phenomenal numbers of hours practising. They will get things wrong, they will crash to the floor, they will have moments of despair and self-doubt, they will carry on through illness or injury, repeating the steps however many times it takes to get them right. The sheer physical and emotional effort involved is incredible to those of us more familiar with Viennese Whirls than Viennese waltzes.

And where has that level of ability and determination got them so far? A minor role in The Bill or something. No wonder the rest of us aren't on the telly!

Sometimes in trying to make sense of rejection after rejection, writers look for reasons why others have got published - and it has to be anything other than the uncomfortable idea that they are talented and hard-working. If an acquaintance appears to dash off a first draft in two months, give it a quick glance through for typos and have a £100K advance by the next weekend – well, surely there must be some rational explanation for their success.

The lovely readers of Strictly Writing are not the type to whinge that others had unfair advantages, but you've probably all seen it happen in the more cut-throat corners of the writerly internet. New authors, people say, must have known someone in the business. They got published because they're blonde and pretty. Their great aunt was Agatha Christie's hairdresser's cousin; they went to Eton or did a week's work experience at Penguin in 1989.

Well, for most previously unknown novelists, the only rational explanation is that they worked outstandingly hard behind the scenes – for years, usually – cultivating their talent and practising until they got things right. That's all. Even that was never guaranteed to be enough to win a publisher's vote, but at last they made it into print on the strength of that effort and not because of what they look like or who they went to school with. We don't get to see just what it took because there was no one there to film the mistakes and challenges on the way, but we can rest assured that they happened.

Getting published might not involve glamorous frocks, glittering trophies or terrible jokes from Brucie, but it requires so much genuine work and determination that it's certainly an achievement worth dancing about!

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Quickfire Questions with... Irene Yates


Fifty words on me: It’s a love/hate relationship this writing thing. When you’re doing it, it’s a killer, all angst and sweat and toil. When you’re not doing it, it’s also a killer, words racing round and round in your head, ideas jumping at you, structures presenting themselves. I know that once you’ve got it, it’s like something’s got you by the throat, you just can’t get rid of it. Even when you fall out with it and say you’re never going to do it again it just creeps up on you and you’re doing it in your head without even realising it. I look at somebody and I’m writing their story in my head. Sometimes I don’t know if it’s real or if I’ve made it up!

My first sale was…
An article to Woman’s Own, for ever ago.

My family think my writing is…
Brilliant, especially my 13 year-old grandson, Jack, who wants to follow in my footsteps and is at the moment on Chapter 9 of his latest novel – I understand this is page 22! He says he wants to be the next Irene Yates but I’ve told he needs to be the first Jack Archer.
My husband wishes I’d hurry up and make it big so that he could retire. Huh.

The best/worst thing about writing short stories for magazines is…
Best is sales, worst is rejections! Very worst is finding something in a mag just like something you’ve just sent off so you just know yours will be rejected.

Long hand first or computer?
Oh, computer every time. Used to be typewriter, so computer is wonderful.

On completing a story I feel…
Nice warm feeling in my tum.

When I run out of ideas I …
Read, read, read: a load more magazines, old ones, new ones, newspapers, letters, books, who cares?

Ideas come to me when…
I’m awake or asleep or talking or listening or thinking about something else entirely.

My biggest tip for new women’s mag writers would be…
Never miss jotting ANY idea down, you never know when you will need it. Jotted down ideas come in more useful at more odd times on more scraps of paper than anything else ever.

3 authors – dead or alive I’d like to invite to dinner would be…
Arnold Bennett, Charles Dickens and Maeve Binchy. And please could I have Elizabeth Taylor as well (not the film star).

Favourite writing outfit?
The nearest thing to hand.

Favourite writing snack?
Crisps and mugs of tea.

Daily Mail or Guardian?
Guardian, definitely. This is a zero tolerance house for D.M.

Corrie or Eastenders?
Both of them but going back ten years at least.

Best woman’s magazine story I’ve read during the last three months is…
Wouldn’t be able to choose, love most of them.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

PRESENT IMPERFECT


At lunch with my friends Alan and Chris, I was introduced to wabi-sabi.
Rows of exquisite rolls of raw fish sushi-ing enticingly by on a conveyor belt? No. Wabi-sabi isn't sushi. It's the Japanese art of imperfection and impermanence.
The art of imperfection?? I've spent most of my life struggling against it. Haven't you? The concept of wabi-sabi provides much food for thought, and it doesn't come in little parcels. I began to think about wabi-sabi and writing.
I thought of what author Emma Darwin calls 'Ugly Duckling syndrome'. UDS is what strikes after you've completed your first (or second, or third) novel. You've learned a lot. You begin the next novel full of hope and enthusiasm. And then you suddenly find yourself wracked with self-consciousness. Stalled. You know what needs to be done but you feel utterly incapable of doing it. Every phrase you write is ugly, awkward. Every sentence is imperfect. Your Inner Editor sits on your shoulder, swiping you around the ear each time you begin to write.
Adjectives? Adverbs? Pah! the imperturbable Inner Editor spits, whacking a ruler painfully over your knuckles.
Cliche-ridden... The Inner Editor grins from ear to ear. Sure as eggs are eggs, you won't get that one past her.
Present Tense? The Inner Editor picks up her mobile and dials 999 to summon the men in white coats.
Don't Tell - Show!
I have to tell you that the Inner Editor is a pernickety old fart.
Have you ever actually seen an ugly duckling? I haven't. They may trip over their own feet occasionally, and those unformed little flaps on each side can't yet fly, but how cute is that? Only in fairy tales (Grimm ones) do ducklings see themselves as ugly. So why do we, as writers? What if we celebrated our temporary imperfections, seeing that in them lies our originality?
Take the Shitty First Draft. This is wabi-sabi in action. Any preciousnesses about an SFD can be thrown out of the window before you begin. The SFD gets you from here (no novel) to there (a draft) in the twinkling of an eye, and there is much to recommend it. Firstly, it's short on pain and angst. Secondly (as NaNoWriMo adherents know) it's quick. Thirdly, it is by nature unfinished and you can therefore relax and get on with it. Finally, you know it's going to be imperfect. Shitty. Awful. Rubbish. So, the reasoning goes, I can do that. Beautiful.
Wabi-sabi pots are just a little misshapen. Wabi-sabi people are weathered and wrinkled. Wabi-sabi ducklings don't swan around pretending to be something they're not. And wabi-sabi writing is full-on, in-your-face, unashamed-of-itself imperfect writing.
As Ben Okri says: 'Where there is perfection, there is no story to tell.'

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Guest Blog Competition!




Ever fancied a good hiss and a spit about something writing-wise, that's close to your heart? Some of you may remember our last Guest Blog Competition at Easter - the winner was Gary Wilson and he wrote a very inspiring post about, erm, Inspiration! So, why not put yourselves forward and send us a sentence or two explaining what you would blog about. Have a good rant or a genteel discussion, list a top ten of how to deal with writer's block or rejection... Whatever you like, as long as it is tempered with good humour and strictly about writing. Or reading. Or getting published - you get the picture. We have a cap of 500 words and would link the piece to any website of your choice, as well as uploading a photo. Simply email your idea to Samantha (click on 'email' in her profile).

The winner will have their guest piece posted up in November and win a signed copy of our very own Helen Black's 'Damaged Goods'.

So come on, we can't wait to hear from you! Get your entries in by Friday 25th September and the winner will be announced on Sunday 4th October. And remember, in the first instance, just submit a brief outline of your idea.

Sorry, but previous Guest Bloggers not eligible.

Thanks everyone!

Monday, 14 September 2009

Scare tactics


I'm a good girl.
No, really, I am.
I eat my five a day, I read bedtime stories to my children and I call my Mother every day.
I like to think my reward will be an afterlife like George Best, but in the meantime I make sure I floss my teeth.
So what then, is a nice girl doing writing crime fiction?
It's a question I'm asked all the time. In fact, when I was doing the publicity stint for my second book, I was asked a variant of it in every one of the fifteen radio interviews I did.
And I suppose it does seem odd that I should choose to spend so much time dreaming up violent criminals and their brutal activities.
Why don't I shy away from imagining what goes on in the mind of a sociopath?
Why do I enjoy exploring the twisted logic of the damaged and the dangerous?
It seems strange, sick even...but it's not.
Hang on and give me a chance.
I believe that humans are instinctive thrill seekers. How else can you explain why my local gliding club has a waiting list? They're planes, with, like, no engines. Duh.
How else can you explain motorbikes, rollercoasters and ice skating? No need for any of it.
Yet we love it...or at least some of us do.
Me, I'm a bit of a wuss. I like being on my two feet. I don't like flying, skiing or riding horses. I don't like anything that goes faster than 30mph. To be honest I've never even driven on a motorway. Okay stop laughing now.
But I still need my fix of adrenaline, so what better way to get my kicks than to conjure a world of thrills and spills. A world of danger.
In the safe confines of the left field of my brain I can feel the dead weight of a gun, or the smell of fear on my victim. Hell, I can kill off the cast if I'm in a shitty mood.
And I'm not alone. Crime fiction has been and remains one of the most loved genres. From Agatha C to Mo Hayder, the book buying public have voted with their wallets and library cards.
Even in these cash strapped times, with the economy in free fall and the publishing industry suffering, crime fiction continues to sell.
When times are bad it seems, we still like to imagine a world where it could all be worse.
So that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.
Now, can anyone think of a name for my new serial killer?

Friday, 11 September 2009

Fear and Loathing in North London




I slide into the room, back pressed to the wall. My heart is clattering, my breathing is shallow and my palms are sticky. Dots are dancing in front of my eyes, but my senses are on high alert to the slightest movement. It looks safe…but wait, what’s that in the corner? Did something move? Got to be certain. When I’m convinced the coast is clear, I make it to the bed and collapse, exhausted.
I made it. Until the next time….

Yup, it’s spider season again.

I spend most of September peeking around doorways before entering a room. Since the time I stepped on one of the critters with my bare foot as I was getting into bed [How big was it exactly, you ask? Let’s just say it wasn’t inconvenienced by the full weight of an adult woman] my already irrational fear has reached epic proportions.*
Yes, yes, I know. I should do one of those phobia courses at London Zoo. I write about this kind of stuff for a living, for Chrissakes. But I also know that you end up stroking tarantulas at the end of the course and I will never do that without general anaesthesia [me AND the spider would need to be knocked out].
Don’t think for a minute our eight-legged enemies are my only irrational fear. Oh no. I’m also frightened of fast rides, deep water and confined spaces. I’m not wild about flying. I’d always rather drive than be driven. Oh and I have a bit of a phobia about fish bones and choking. I know I’m not the only one like this. One friend is frightened of lifts and my sister visibly shudders at the very sound of the word ‘frog’.
But creeping around the house like a loon the other evening left me feeling deeply ashamed of my arachnid-based wussery. And then I started wondering whether courage has different faces.
The first time I slipped some of my writing into a big brown envelope and posted it into the big wide world, I felt a rush of adrenaline as though I’d just done a bungee jump [not that I'd know what's that like, but you get the picture]. When the same envelope came back through my letterbox with a standard rejection slip, it really hurt. And again, and again, many times over the last few years. I haven’t developed any kind of a thick skin. It hurts like buggery every single time, so much that I’m sometimes convinced I can’t put myself through this agony again. Maybe I am deluded or mad for trying but each time the punch in the guts comes, I seem to pop back up again, just like one of those Weeble toys from childhood.
So does this take a certain amount of courage? I think perhaps it does.
‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams,’ said WB Yeats. ‘Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It’s what separates us from the animals…except the weasel’ said Homer Simpson. So if you don’t weasle out of every challenge and you lay your dreams where they may get trodden on, give yourself a big pat on the back right now. You’re just as brave as someone who can stroke a tarantula or bungee jump.

* Please don’t see this as in invitation to share your worst spider stories. I beg you to keep them to yourselves.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Whose Book Is It Anyway?




Two thirds of the way into my novel, something extraordinary happened. My manipulative youth who nicks his mum’s contraceptives and Prozac to flog at school, turned out to have a heart. He gave a short, inarticulate but impassioned speech to my protagonist about how much he loves the girl around whom the story is based. I looked at my notes in panic. He’s not supposed to do this. He’s a git, from a strong, unbroken line of gits. I hadn’t figured much of a heart beat under that scrawny chest. If I’d wanted my characters to extemporise so far from the script, I’d not have bothered plotting the book before writing it.

But now that I saw him trying to behave honourably when all around him adults schemed and brawled, I realised I must let him, just as my own kids deviate from plans we’ve made if they have a better idea. What would happen if at the end he got back together with the girl? The replacement boyfriend I’d lined up for her wasn’t shaping up as planned either: he kept snickering away like Beavis and Butthead when I'd instructed him to be unobtrusively gorgeous.

I imagine any novelist reading this is thinking, ‘Already two thirds of the way through before that happened? Duh! That’s how books get written.’ Alice Walker claimed the characters from The Colour Purple marched into her kitchen one day and started dictating their stories to her. And though I recognised the vividness of a character’s presence in what she described, their autonomy was alien. My character’s bid for freedom was a revelation after the control-freakery of short fiction writing where every comma is scrutinised. Trying to control the first two thirds of the novel had been like the agonising slow haul towards the crest of the Big Dipper; now momentum from the hard slog was sparking change.

As soon as one character got free rein, they were all at it, petitioning for improvements to their script, ganging up on me:

‘Can we come in three scenes earlier please, because we have just driven all night from London to Northumberland, so we think we deserve a better entrance than just arriving on boring old schedule at the flat.’

‘Could S and I actually not get tied up in an old clock tower because we think that’s desperately naff plotting? We thought you could give a juicy scene to C instead, because she hasn’t done much since p 54, and you know what she’s like with a bottle of caustic soda in her hands…’

Yes, yes, all right! I started feeling for Mike Leigh – all these actors he hired as walk-ons improvising their way into lead roles.

It has been strangely like having children. After a while you stand back and merely watch in awe as they whir around the furniture, creating turbulence, proclaiming and demanding, and you think: Who on earth made you? Where did you come from? What are you going to do next? Because I have no idea. From now on I’ll just stay quiet and observe. It’s more fun for all if I do…

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Guest Blog by Josa Young - A Passion for Writing




Working is writing for me. Nothing else seems quite like work, and I love working and achieving something as many days in the month as possible. When I was trapped in a corporate nightmare a few years ago, I would feel grubby and unfulfilled at the end of most days. The only thing I was allowed to write were reports that circulated internally like bored goldfish in an algae-infested tank. Other people in my 'team' did nothing at all as far as I could tell except a bizarre activity called management, that involved telling other people what to do - but only when you had no idea how to do it yourself. I could have taken the piss and written a novel and no one would have noticed, but that would have made me feel even grubbier.

When I was young, physically my writing life was words on paper spooling out of the top of the typewriter with a ting at the end of every line. Then I saw films from the US that featured word processors and I longed and longed for one of those. In the mid-1980s I got an Amstrad, and then the words would appear on a screen, where they could be edited. I did long to write fiction, and tried some short stories - had one published in a magazine when I was at Cambridge (sub Switch Bitch) and another very nearly made it onto Radio 4.

I earned my living as a consumer journalist, having been a Vogue Talent Contest winner while in my last year reading English at Cambridge. When my children started arriving I began to specialise in maternity leave cover at senior levels in magazines and newspapers. Deputy editor of Elle Decoration;. Commissioning editor on the Times Weekend section for instance. Very little time to write, but I still was doing something that resembled what I loved.

My mother died when I had two small children. I needed to get away, so I went on an Arvon course taught by the glorious Beryl Bainbridge, and Nicholas Shakespeare (who had been at Cambridge at the same time as me, and told me I had verbal diarrhoea when I wrote very fast). I wrote and wrote. It was raw and rather personal and not very good. But it made me feel better. Beryl was very encouraging and said I must get on with a novel. Something snapped inside me and I felt freed to do fiction at last. I bought a portable word processor (precursor of the laptop). While features writing at Slimming magazine, a plot came to me. And as soon as the contract ended, I started bashing away, five days a week during office hours for five weeks until I was once again engulfed in magazine land. The time flew, the words flew out of my fingers. My characters did all kinds of things, including flying. It was the first version of One Apple Tasted.

When I had finished, I chucked it all on the floor and shuffled it into some kind of order. I then bumped into a family friend, who offered to be my agent. I was so excited. Which is why I am not so excited now. As you can tell by the publication date, One Apple Tasted was a long time in a bottom drawer. I have written other bits of things since, but the rejection letters gave me a bad case of block. Along with the pram in the hall and all the chaos of a life lived. I need to get on with the next novel, Sail Upon the Land. It is in my head and on bits of paper, and needs to come together through the racing fingers once again.

My message to all aspiring writers is, it is passion communicated that works for readers. Doesn't matter what kind of passion as long as the feeling is there. Your readers will connect with your passion. Go for it. I hope you get there quicker than I did.



Do visit Josa's website for more information about her and One Apple Tasted.

Author Portrait courtesy of Christian Cunningham

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Virtually Friends?




Hello, everyone! And how are you today? Had a good breakfast? Got the kids to school? Humoured your boss or already been down the gym to stretch and tone? Come on then, let’s get on with the writing day. Let’s celebrate each other’s literary successes, let’s mentally hold each other’s tired typing hand. Because that’s what we do, here on the net – regardless of our identity away from the screen, regardless of whether we stutter or dress weird or laugh like a donkey on dope. We stand firm, side by side. We’re in this game together, arms open wide.

Heh, heh! It’s a fickle community, I find on the web. Best buddies come and go – some stay in touch, even meet up with us, in the flesh. But others fall by the wayside because we’ve moved on and they haven’t or because they’ve found success first.

During my years mingling in on-line writing communities, I’ve found there are various types of virtual friends:

1) Those you email every day – every few hours! – to pour out your woes which are usually submission/writers’ block related, but occasionally to do with the real world. Messages are signed off with kisses and there are usually LOLs. They keep us going through the ups and downs. Until one day, the affair fizzles out - normally because one of us has got a deal and the other, er, hasn’t. That’s when we both find a new buddy who’ll really understand. It’s ta ta for now. Thanks for everything. If we remember, we'll buy each other's books when they come out.

2) Those that are useful to know – for their knowledge, for their clinical kiss-free advice and contacts. We are both networkers and keep each other posted with our submission progress, whilst knowing this is partly to pick up any tips or agent news. Emails are less frequent and strictly to do with writing. There are no smiley faces, but we pass on the occasional link to a new agent’s website - once we’ve submitted our own work, of course.

3) Similar to number 2, but those we see as mentors. We are in awe and feel genuine warmth for their help. We don’t like to pester but know we can rely on them for carefully worded advice and timely pick-me-ups. We wonder what they get in return and hope, one day, we’ll be in a position to know, if someone comes to us for help.

4) Banter buddies – they are some of the best! If we must, we’ll talk seriously about the craft, but most of our time is spent in forums, giggling over our latest purple sex scene or recommending a new chocolate bar. Lots of smiley faces and kisses, lots of laughs. And lots of virtual cakes and wine if any agent dares turn us down!

5) Genuine friends, whom, if we’re lucky, we get to meet in real life, who ‘get’ our real personality, who like us regardless of whether we are a writer or not. I’ve met up with authors before and wish circumstances – and location – allowed me to more often. Not that I’m advocating meeting up with any old bod. Never do it alone - or at night time. Treat it like a blind date!

So there you have it – do you recognize yourself? What kind of friends have you made from writers’ forums? I hope some of them are on this blog:)

Monday, 7 September 2009

Lyrics and poetry


I love an alliterative band and indeed a group which pays so much attention to what they're saying. Don't give me any of this mind-numbing Cascada or Basshunter nonsense, give me a band which has something of value to say in its lyrics. Give me Fleet Foxes.

The band is performing tonight (Monday, September 7) at the fabulous Vicar Street venue in Dublin and I was of the few (700 or so) who managed to scramble onto the Ticketmaster website a few months ago in a desperate race to get tickets once the clock struck 9am. The Seattle-ites are a breath of fresh air in today's music, even if they are influenced by the likes of the Beach Boys, Fairport Convention and My Morning Jacket. They have a unique talent for writing lyrics which are powerful and beautiful, yet simple, and all credit goes to the band members – Robin Pecknold, Skye Skjelset, J Tillman, Casey Wescott and Christian Wargo.

Song lyrics, and poetry and prose, are in my estimation, inseparable twins. Some say the music makes the lyrics more beautiful. Any band will tell you that their song lyrics are not expected to stand on their own. When stripped of their musical accompaniment, some might say the words when read aloud, seem a little 'flat'. A similar problem occurs too, in that so-called 'modern 'and 'post-modern' poetry would sound odd set to music.

I once read an article which claimed the recording artist Morrissey is a poet as great as Philip Larkin, the only difference being that Morrissey wrote his song lyrics to fit the melody, and Larkin wrote his poetry to fit metre.

Fleet Foxes' song White Winter Hymnal, while refreshing and hauntingly beautiful with a video to match, has one simple line. To paraphrase, the protagonist is following a pack who are described as being 'swallowed in their coats' and they have red scarves tied around their throats to stop their heads from falling in the snow. Then the protagonist turns round and sees Michael falling and turning the snow red like strawberries in summertime.

It was only last year the checked shirt-clad band released its self-titled album with the music, hushed, wistful, melodic, harking back to the days of yore. It is a gem which should be a listening priority for any self-respecting music fan. The choral harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash complement the lyrics, and instead of enjoying their poetry bare, in the stripped sense, you get double for your money here.

Their songs 'Ragged Wood', 'Mykonos', and 'Blue Ridge Mountains' can all stand alone as poems, but when you add the music to these pearls they become simply outstanding. In 'He Doesn't Know Why' the lyrics deal with mortality — 'Tiger Mountain Peasant Song' finds the singer "staggering through premonitions of my death," and in Oliver James, the narrator finds a drowned child on the banks of a river.

Can any blog readers suggest poems they'd like to see accompanied by music? TS Eliot's The Wasteland perhaps? I imagine it would sound like a Jesus and Mary Chain Song. Or what about a Philip Larkin verse? Or is there a song, which, when stripped of music is just as good as a poem? Over to you...

Band promotional photo courtesy of David Belisle

Friday, 4 September 2009

Chasing Payment


Recently I’ve read a lot about writers wondering if the time has finally come to give up on a project. You’ve sent it out a dozen times but the manuscript keeps on bouncing back. When you complain to fellow writers about your bad luck, the commiserations come thick and fast.

They’ll regale you with the names of those authors who finally made it just as they were about to pull the plug on their writing careers and at first it’s comforting to compare yourself to JK Rowling et al.

But there are only so many exhortations to keep your chin up that a writer can take and if one more person tells you that it only takes one agent to like what you’ve written, you’ll scream. Much more of this boomeranging back and forth, you think, and maybe it’s time for your final trick – the one where you drop led weights in the envelope.

Of course, by the time you’ve reached that stage you know you are completely beyond hope. Not only will you have lost the plot, but somewhere along the way you’ll have mislaid that nugget of certainty you’d carried around all the time you were writing your story – the one that swore blind that the idea you’d come up with had legs. Sturdy legs strong enough to bear any amount of disappointment and rejection. Damn it, what you’d written was good, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it?

We all reach our that’s it, I quit point with a novel or story, sooner or later. I send out quite a few stories in a year and maybe up to half a dozen serial ideas, so I do know whereof I speak.

Serials take a lot of time so it’s generally a good idea to find out sooner rather than later if it’s a turkey. (Speaking of turkeys, I actually did write one about a rather nasty character who was knocked out by a frozen one, flung from a bridge. I won’t go into why.) The editor didn’t really warm to my initial idea and maybe I should have stopped right there.

But I was full of enthusiasm for it, and submitted a first episode - to another lukewarm reception. I definitely should have stopped there, shouldn’t I? But I didn’t. I finished the damn thing. Got it rejected.

Did I learn from the experience? No, I rewrote it as a long short story and submitted it again. Got it rejected again,from two different magazines, each time for different reasons.

But once in a while this strategy for refusing to give up pays off. As far back as 2003 I wrote a short story for a competition about a young girl in her first term at university who imagines herself in love with a fellow student, in the year above. So besotted is she that she moulds her personality to his and quite loses sight of her own identity. It’s a theme that I can get quite obsessed about and I was certain that I was onto a winner. It got nowhere.

Undaunted, I tried my luck with it to a couple of magazines, one abroad. In order to do that I had to shave off a few words to meet the target word length and play around with a few of the references which were a bit clever-clever. But still it came back. Twice.

I shrugged it off, but I was hurt. I loved this story. And I wanted someone else to love it too. Which is why, at the end of last year, when another year or so had elapsed since last I’d laid eyes on it, I decided to read it through and see if I’d been deluding myself all along.

I still loved it. Time had moved on, however and I had to change a few references. I sent it off to Woman’s Weekly in November. They returned it in January. It was Just Not Them.

Okay, definitely time to give up, I decided. It was a new year after all. Time to look forward not back. Yet my new year was a bleak one. Writing wise I just couldn’t get going. So one afternoon I read that story again. And I still liked it.

But I could see there was a problem. It came somewhere towards the end. Too neat, too contrived, I decided. Though it would only need a tweak here, a tweak there. And I needed to cut out a few of the fancy words and references. I was tripping over Darlings on the carpet towards the end of my edit.

I don’t know what made me send it off to Norah McGrath at Fiction Feast/Take-a-Break. I suspect it was desperation as much as my very last-ditch attempt to get this story before an audience bigger than myself.

Reader, she bought it. I suspect it will appear in next month’s Fiction Feast, the October edition, out next Thursday, 10 September.

And the moral of this blogpost is? Writers can be critics and critics can be writers. But possibly not of your own work. Sometimes you just have to keep flogging away at it, even when the horse is dead. Or when you’ve written a turkey.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Guest Blog by Vanessa Curtis - Which writer would you secretly like to be?




I’ve decided that I would like to be Sarah Waters. Damn the woman, she just gets it right every time! I’ve finished reading ‘The Little Stranger’ recently and although it doesn’t have the shocking plot twists so familiar to anybody who has read her ‘Fingersmith’ novel, it does have the usual heady combination of evocative scene-setting, warped and memorable characters and a subtle but hypnotic growing tension towards the climactic scene of the novel (yes, you can tell I’m a book reviewer, can’t you?). Best of all it’s just so damned readable – on the sofa, in bed at night, in the garden by day – it doesn’t matter where you pick it up, you’re bound to be sucked in and forget about your surroundings. This is the sort of writing that I out-and-out envy. There’s no point hiding it – I’m jealous as hell. And so few contemporary authors really have this knack of churning out brilliant novel after brilliant novel and never running the risk of doing the same thing or becoming boring. Waters has stayed quite near to the era she used in ‘The Night Watch’ in this new novel but that’s where the similarities end. It is also, as somebody pointed out, her first novel not to include lesbianism. I can’t say as I noticed. I was entirely caught up with her slightly obsessive and maybe even a little unreliable narrator and the crumbling aristocracy of ‘Hundreds Hall’ where most of the action takes place. So few authors can be entirely fresh and captivating with each new book. Tracy Chevalier got off to a good start with her ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and the very different Victorian follow-up, ‘Falling Angels’ but subsequent novels have been low on believability, crammed with too much research and not enough genuine plot development and featuring a succession of rather one-dimensional characters. Similarly Jeanette Winterson who has never, in my opinion, matched the beautiful, bitter-sweet ‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’ and whose novels have got increasingly weirder, laid out in odd ways upon the page and given to chapters of one or two lines. Only the wonderful Helen Dunmore seems able to match Waters for sheer versatility and quality of prose – in fact, she goes one step higher with her prolific output in not just one, but at least three genres. Each adult novel is a jewel in itself, some historical, some contemporary but each perfect book intriguing and self-contained. Her trio of ‘Ingo’ novels for children, set in a land of Mer people living underwater in a place inspired by Dunmore’s beloved St Ives, are a lesson to any writer. She weaves her hypnotic swirls of fantasy action in and out of very gritty, contemporary family drama – a difficult feat to pull off. And Dunmore is also a wonderful poet and broadcaster as well as a very nice, grounded person. Grrrr. So, I’m already a children’s author, but if I wasn’t, I’d quite like to be Jacqueline Wilson mixed up with a hint of Louise Rennison, whose wickedly funny Georgia Nicolson novels I really admire for making teens laugh out loud. So, the novels and novelists I envy the most are not perhaps hyped as great ‘literary novelists’ but they have that far greater quality of appealing to the Common Reader and of creating strong, flawed, unusual and highly memorable characters and setting them against contrasting backdrops. And surely that’s what excellent writing is all about? Now – who do you want to be?

Vanessa Curtis is the talented author of children's books 'Zelah Green: Queen of Clean' and 'Zelah Green: Dating Queen' (due out early 2010). She is also a journalist and biographer of Virginia Woolf

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Don't expect me to write for money



This post is partly a response to Sam Tonge’s: Don’t tell me to write for fun.

Lots of people paint for pleasure. They have no expectation of ever selling a painting. Some of them are bashful to even show you their work. It’s nothing, really, just something I do to kill the time now that the kids are at school. They keep the canvases in the outhouse, next to their husband’s abandoned guitar, in the part of their property they never got around to redecorating. After many years completing level sixteen of the art classes at the local night school they might secretly take one of their canvases along to Prontoframe and then tack it up on the wall, but only if their supportive husband insists, and they only hang it in the abandoned, almost outside lavatory, the one that nobody ever visits. They don’t stick a price tag beneath.

Others learn to play the piano. They pay for lessons, but they don’t expect to be paid when they play. They might consent to perform for the family after a second glass of sherry-flavoured courage, when the tree is twinkling and carols are demanded. They have absolutely no anticipation of striding into the Royal Festival Hall to bow before the adoring throng of black polo necks.

If you’re going to make a point, you might as well overstate it and repeat yourself three times, so here we go. Thousands more play football every Sunday and though they dream of walking out onto the hallowed turf, they know it’s a dream. They don’t seriously expect to be offered eleven million quid to join Newcastle Untied (which just happens to be the team supported by Sam Tonge and her family). They’re shit and they know they are (the Sunday footballers, that is). It’s only a hobby, after all.

Writer’s are different, but you know that already: we’re all number fours on the enneagram, something I intend to blog more about another day. Have you ever met someone who described writing as a hobby? Poets possibly; they acknowledge the restricted career ladder. But fiction, no way. We see ourselves as professionals in waiting, apprentices ready to take over from the masters. We compete with McEwan or Keyes or whoever, not the boys at the village rugby club. We all secretly know we are the next JK Rowling. We’re just yet to be discovered. We know the market is tough and the odds are against us; we’ve faced down a thousand rejections, but our dream lives on. And all this at a time when the prospects are shrinking in front of our faces, as highlighted in the recent Guardian article about The age of the gifted amateur. However much success we’ve unearthed we want more, notwithstanding the paralysing self-doubt that freezes us rigid from time to time. Whatever we are, we are not amateurs.

My problem with this isn’t that everyone who writes harbours ambitions of winning the Booker or a CWA dagger, or securing a spot in the gondolas at the end of the aisles in Waitrose. It’s not that we predicate our enjoyment of our vocation on external validation. I take that for granted. I’m like everyone else.

What I do fear is that all this writing to please agents and publishers, all this following of the rules of writing that we all purport not to follow, is ruining our art. I'm talking about the perceived rules of what agents want and don’t want. It’s throttling our creativity. It means we will carry on churning out the stuff that has gone before, we won’t break the mould, we won’t escape the predominant genre. A friend of mine recently received a rejection from an agent that wasn't in any way critical of her writing, the main reason for rejection was that the story didn't fit easily into any established genre. That is grim.

I do sometimes think that, if we did it a bit more for ourselves, and enjoyed it a little more, then perhaps we'd ultimately be better at it. I suspect most people reading this will disagree. The prevailing opinion I've heard is a sort of Thatcherite literary economics - let the market decide.

And, if any agents ever read this, I didn’t really mean a word of it, honest.


pic: I don't expect to get paid for my windsurfing either, although that's not a bad gybe

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

A Font of Knowledge - Guest post by Deborah Durbin


Deborah Durbin has been a freelance journalist for 12 years, contributing features to numerous publications including My Weekly, Fate & Fortune, It's Fate, Natural Health and The Daily Express. She is also the author of 12 non-fiction books. You can visit her website at www.deborahdurbin.com, and her blog at http://deborah-durbin.blogspot.com/



So far this week I have learned that if you mix strawberries, mint, lemon juice and a little milk powder together you can create the most marvellous, natural face-pack. I’ve also learned that if you apply honey to a burn, it will heal much quicker and it will also prevent scarring. I now also know that a study carried out in the Netherlands found that by drinking three to four cups of the nation's favourite drink you can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by up to 70 percent.

As a freelance journalist this is the best part of my job; learning about things that I might never have had the opportunity to know about and it amazes me how much trivia I now know – I think I would make a good contestant on
Who Wants to be a Millionaire?.

I mainly write for the women’s lifestyle market, so it covers quite an extensive range of topics: in my 12 years as a journalist I have covered a diverse amount of subjects; from Native American Astrology to 50 facts you never knew about chocolate and almost everything in between.

A feature I was recently commissioned to write was about cellular memory – something I had never heard of before. For those that don’t know, Cellular memory is when a transplant donor recipient adopts the personality, habits and traits of the organ donor. I found it fascinating as I read through pages of case-study notes from transplant patients describing how they suddenly had a penchant for food they hated prior to their transplant. One recipient, who was given the heart of a murdered 10-year-old girl, reported being plagued by nightmares of the murder and told detectives working on the case not only where the girl had been murdered, but the weapon used, along with the address of where to find the killer. The murderer was convicted on the basis of this evidence.

Had I not been asked to write this piece, I would know nothing about the effects of cellular memory. One of the great things about writing features is the amount of information you gain as you research the topic of interest. I may never use this information again, accept perhaps for breaking-the-ice conversations at dinner parties, but if I’m ever anyone’s ‘phone-a-friend’ and Chris Tarrant should ask me what beverage would prevent someone having a heart attack, I will be able to answer with confidence.