Monday, 29 November 2010

Number Two's

Everybody needs somebody 

I've noticed that my writing seems to blossom when I introduce the ‘other half’ to the story. The Buddy. Best Friend. Foil. Muse. Whatever. The Wise to my MC Morecame, the Dec to my Ant, the Jerry to my Tom. The Pauper to my Prince and soforth.
In a bid to try and be semi-professional about this post, I tried Googling “Great Literary Foils” and it started to confuse me, so the above ‘double acts’ will have to suffice I’m afraid. I will think of more as this blethers on, I’m sure. Oh, here we go…
Elizabeth Bennett had Charlotte (apparently, that’s what Google said. I don’t really remember much about her, but if you showed me a clip of the recent TV dramatisation I’d probably point and nod a lot) and Pip had his Mr Drummble (I think).
*Google has now left the building*

More contemporarily, Rachel had Darcy in “Something Borrowed” by Emily Giffin and then, rather brilliantly, Rachel became Darcy’s foil in the sequel ‘Something Blue’ – I say “brilliantly” because Darcy was such a prize bitch of a character, it was impossible to see how anyone would be able to ‘warm’ to her as an MC. But it worked. And there’s a film being made as we speak.

Anyway… (I’m not Ms Giffin’s publicity agent, honest).

In my first book, “Labrats” (NOT coming to any bookstore than I’m aware of) my MC’s ‘other half’ was her four year old daughter, who got her through the monumental break up with the husband/father quite unintentionally. And it’s only now, looking back on it, that I can see this is what happened. The little girl’s presence perfectly balances the hideousness of the broken marriage and her innocence only serves to highlight the betrayal of her father with his mistress.

In the second, “Life, Lopsided”, the slightly manic, slightly OCD main character’s personality traits are mellowed by her best friend/colleague’s level-headedness and normality. And it’s this relationship that ultimately ‘saves’ the MC and her desperation to find balance in her otherwise…well, lopsided world.

“Double History” is my favourite by far – my first foray into teenage fiction – and the one that is still Out There (with agents, yes, even as we speak!). Main character, Maddie is an angry, bolshie, Gordon Brown-hating teenager who’s been reduced to living in an ex council house after her dad’s been made redundant and she is thoroughly peed off with everything. Enter Amber, the refreshingly funny *almost* airhead who fancies anything with a pulse and believes she can contact the dead – in particular the ghost who’s living in Maddie’s new (old) house. I do *heart* Amber!

In my current teenage WIP, “Grounded”, the misunderstood, chocolate-munching, bullied MC, Becca is at odds with the rest of the world (including her mother and step-father) and it is her best friend, Liberty who is the guiding light and calming influence in what is currently a very miserable situation for Becca (she’s been ‘grounded’ electronically and has to cope with no mobile, internet, iPod, etc). So, Liberty becomes her balance.

And how else to perfectly even out a story but with characters that strike harmonious chords in what would otherwise be such a distorted situation? It’s only by reflecting on how I’ve been inadvertently making this ‘happen’ that I realise I’m still learning the whole craft of how writing really works, and how well it can work when it’s properly produced.
It’s the Yin-Yang principle, isn’t it? Top-heavy cakes and arguments rarely go down well, do they? And I’m beginning to see that it’s the overall equilibrium of things that really makes a reader go ‘aahhhhhh…’ (not in a Long John Silver way, I mean, more like the Bisto kids).

Oh...and where would “Romeo and Juliet” have been (really) without the Maid. I forget her name (did she have one?) but she was Juliet’s real BF, wasn’t she? She kept the sense of what was ‘Right and Proper’ amongst the tumultuousness of the lover’s hot-headed romance. See – I knew I’d come up with another one!

Friday, 26 November 2010

November's Strictly Writing Competiton Winner: "You Can See France From Here" by Kay Seeley

YOU CAN SEE FRANCE FROM HERE

"I’ve lost the use of my legs, not my effing brain," my father yelled, his bony fingers snatching the keys from the desk. Propelling himself towards the corridor in the direction of our rooms, he yelled at me, "Come on Betty, move your fat arse." 


My heart sank even as the colour rose to my cheeks. Mouthing a silent "Sorry" to the Receptionist, I picked up our suitcases and staggered after him. Jeez, I thought, what on earth sort of holiday is this going to be? Although I already knew the answer.


"I’ll bang on the wall when I want you," he said, swinging his chair round as I put his case on the bed.

"I’ll pop back in half-an-hour," I said, not wanting him to call the shots on our first day.

"What a shit-hole," he said. "I’ve seen more comfortable doss-houses."

I shook my head and retreated. I had lived all my life in fear of my father. Meanness shrouded him like a cloak and spitefulness came more naturally to him than breathing. The phone call from the nursing home, where he had lived since my mother died, well, more accurately, gave up living, had not come as any surprise to me.

"You’ll have to make other arrangements," the Matron told me. "We’ve given him plenty of warnings and second-chances, but as you know many of our staff are young girls. We take verbal abuse very seriously. I’m afraid he’ll have to go."

Despair rose inside me. "He’s an old man," I said. "Surely you can make some suitable arrangements for him."

"I’m sorry. He’s upset the other residents too. We can’t have him here any longer. Perhaps he could come and stay with you…"
I shuddered at the thought. Of course she was right. If anyone, seeing the wheelchair, thought him frail they were in for a rude awakening. Arthritis may have crippled him but it had not lessened his power to put the fear of God into anyone who displeased him.

"It may take some time," I said, meekly.

"End of the week," she said, and put the phone down. Hence the holiday on the Isle of Wight. I thought it would at least give me time to make other arrangements for him.

"It will be an adventure," I told him. "A chance to re-visit the places where you spent your childhood."

"An adventure? Well, anything’s got to better than stagnating in this smelly rat-hole."

So I booked us into The Lobster Pot. A small hotel on the front at Sandown.
My heart lifted when I saw the hotel. It looked warm and welcoming. Colourful hanging baskets, overflowing with pink and red geraniums adorned the white-washed walls. Half-barrel planters on the terraces brimmed with ballerina fuchsias and pelagoniums and on the blue-painted window sills, boxes of bright pink begonias beamed at us. The overall effect was a symphony of red, white and blue.

The smell of roasting meat greeted us as we entered, bringing a rush of saliva to my mouth. If the cooking smells were anything to go by, at least we’d be well fed.
Dinner on the first night went without incident and I began to think that perhaps he’d mellowed over the years. Perhaps, if it came to it, I could have him at home with me. I lived alone, Mum had managed him, why shouldn’t I? My cheerful optimism didn’t last long.

Every morning, as the pale sunlight crept over the windowsill in the small dining room, he’d manoeuvre his chair to block the gangway. Then he’d make a big fuss as people tried to squeeze past. I could see the flash of satisfaction in his eyes as people offered their apologies. I cringed as he loudly criticised whatever was put in front of him, pushing the plate away, like a petulant child. I’m not sure which was most embarrassing, watching him eat or listening to him whining that it was inedible.

Once we got outside things improved. I pushed him along the promenade, overlooking the bay.

"We used to come here every year, when I was a child," he said, with that smile that was so rare I didn’t recognise it. "Did I tell you how I won the raft race every year, youngest competitor too. And I could outswim boys much older than me. Outrun them too."

I had heard all his stories and grown up with his exploits even as they had grown over the years, expanding with every telling. Now, I thought, he had little left but the memories.

"'Course it’s all different now," he said. "Milk-sops and mummy’s boys, computer games and television. No spirit of adventure, young lads today. Not like in our day. My Dad used to beat me with a strap. Wouldn’t do these kids any harm to feel a bit of leather across their backsides."

The first three days the weather disappointed, with pearl grey skies threatening rain. Still, every day I drove out to one of the resort towns, parked and settled him in his chair for long bracing walks along the sea-front promenades. My hands numbed, turning blue as I pushed the chair against the bitter blast and my eyes watered, but he was impervious to my discomfort. I’d gaze enviously at the holidaymakers huddled in the warmth of their cars parked on the front. He’d take a warming swig from his silver hip flask. Things generally improved after that.

On the fourth day the weather improved and our walks became more enjoyable. He talked about his holidays as a child, running down to the beach everyday, chasing butterflies and calling to seagulls as they swooped and dived for the bread he threw for them a long time ago under a summer sky. Sailing, rafting and canoeing, he re-lived them all; the toughest and bravest adventurer on the sea. But after a while the reminiscences only served to remind him of his deteriorating condition and the meanness returned.

"Changed beyond recognition," he moaned. "Trashy commercialism and opportunistic rubbish," he’d say as we walked along past amusement arcades, with their flashing neon lights and the constant crash of money dropping through the slot machines. The smell of hot-dogs and onions mingled with doughnuts and candy floss and I wished we could stop just for a while to breathe in the lively vibrant atmosphere. I thrilled to the hurdy-gurdy music of the rides and the calls of the stall-holders and bingo-callers. If only things were different, I thought, what a lovely holiday we could have.

"Shit-holes. Everywhere’s turned into a shit-hole," he’d announce and my stomach would curl in turmoil lest I incur his further displeasure by tarrying too long. He wasn’t above using his cane to hurry me along.

We stopped in a small café on the pier at Ryde for a cup of tea. I wheeled him to a window where he could look out and watch the sailboats. At the counter, waiting to be served, I recognised the man stood in front of me from the hotel. A bear of a man with silver grey hair and a matching beard, he turned and smiled as I joined the queue behind him. Early fifties but fit, he was. I bet he works out, I thought.

"Hi, You're staying at the Lobster Pot too, aren’t you? How are you enjoying your holiday?"

"Better now the weather’s improved," I said, mortified at the memory of his daily embarrassment, trying to squeeze past Father’s wheelchair.

"My name's Jim. Jim Baxter." He held out his hand.
His hand enveloped mine, a soft warmth that spread through me like melting butter.

My heart raced. "Betty," I said, "Betty Carraway."

"Your father is it?" he nodded towards the window where father sat glaring at us.
I nodded, unable to summon my voice from its hiding place.

"Well, have a nice day," he said, turning away with his cup of tea and strawberry scone. I couldn’t help but notice how tanned his face was and the way his blue eyes twinkled.

Father became surly after the tea incident. Nothing pleased him. Then he developed chest pains and insisted that I sit with him, reading to him to calm his shattered nerves. "Not that you give a damn," he sneered accusingly. "Things will be different when I come to live with you," he said. "There’ll have to be changes."

On our last day we went to St. Catherine’s point. The sun shone and the day was warm.

"You can see France from here," Father said, as we drove into the car park at the bottom of a steep hill. I manhandled him into his chair, making sure he wore his cap against the sun. I pushed him up to the front where we stopped to look out across the English Channel. At the foot of the cliffs the sea eddied and flowed into rock pools filled with seaweed where children netted crabs. Families played on the beach in the bright sunshine, laughing and splashing in the rolling waves, jumping over the white foam as it broke against the shore. It looked so happy and normal that I felt a pang of regret, my chest heaving for what might have been.

"Can’t see France from here, stupid. Get us up to the top of the hill."
I turned the chair and pushed it across the car park. Just as I was taking a breath, ready to begin the long slog up the hill, I felt a presence at my side. It was Jim, materialised from nowhere, carrying a rucksack.

"Can I help?" he said

"No you can piss off," father replied. "She can manage."

Jim laughed, his gaze travelling appreciatively over my ample frame. His lips parted in a grin exposing perfect white teeth. I felt a tingle down my spine.

"It’s no trouble," he said and pushed the chair quickly up the hill as if it was nothing at all. He was wearing khaki shorts and light brown walking boots and I stared wistfully at the hairs on his muscular, tanned legs, turned golden by the sun.

At the top of the hill he swung the chair onto a concrete plinth marking the viewpoint. "Glorious view," he said looking straight into my eyes.
The breeze tousled his hair. He held my gaze far longer than was prudent and I could feel my skin reddening.

"Can’t see a bloody thing," Father said.

Reluctantly, I turned to look out across the sea. "Over there, isn’t that it?" I pointed at a slight darkening on the horizon.

"Don’t be so bloody daft woman, there’s nothing there."

I could feel the irritation rising at the sound of Father’s voice. If it hadn’t been for the pounding in my ears I’d have sworn that my heart had stopped beating.
Jim shook his head. "Well, I’ll love and leave you," he said. "Have a nice day. Might see you later?" his eyebrows rose and I nodded, holding my breath in case father saw but he was fiddling in his blanket, searching for his binoculars.

Jim squeezed my arm before turning away and striding out along the black tarmac that snaked its way across the fields.

"Bloody waste of time," Father said, scanning the horizon with his binoculars. "Can’t see sod all."

The sun broke out from behind a cloud as I swung the chair onto the road, facing back the way we had come. It warmed my face. At the top of the incline the chair slipped from my grasp. I stood, rooted to the spot as it started its descent, rapidly gathering speed. It was half-way down before he realised his solitary state, but any protest he made was lost in the breeze that rustled through the long grass, until he met the lorry coming around the bend at the bottom of the hill.

Thus he started on his greatest adventure and I started on mine.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Shout, shout, let it all out

Recently I've been thinking a lot about voice.

In particular, the voice of characters very different
to our own.

I'll admit from the outset that this is something I do a lot in my own writing. Book one had many scenes from the point of view of a child being groomed by a potential abuser. Book two a trafficked child. Book three had several asian characters. Book four has some african characters and a young person coming to terms with his homosexuality.

And in the WIP, I am absolutely loving the creation of a twelve year old fundemental christian surivalist.

That's why I choose to work this way, of course. Cos I like it.

Inhabiting and bringing forth for the reader, the world of someone other, is, for me, the best part about writing.

Frankly, if I stuck to what I am - a loud northerner with a fat arse, I'd soon get bored. And I think my readers would too.

However, I am aware that there is a debate to be had about tackling other-voices. That it can be seen as patronising. That there is a certain arrogance attached to assuming you are in a position to be able to conjure a different race, religion or sexuality to your own.

Maybe that's right. Certainly there is always an arrogance attached to writing. You make stuff up and you type it. You think it's pretty good so you try to sell it.
However, I'm not sure I accept that there is any more arrogance in my attempts to capture a, say, scottish character, or a black character, then there would be a character from the court of Henry Tudor.
I am afterall, not any of those things.

From the outset, I should say that what I try not to do is offer the definitive experience. I do not say my muslim woman speaks for or is representative of all muslim women.
Her story arc will themeatically follow the rest of the book.

Second, I try very hard to be credible and authentic, without tying myself in knots. I don't simply pepper my character with interesting details from another culture, or throw the odd foreign word into their speech. I do try to do as much research as possible and use that research wisely.
However, I'm most definitely not trying to write a factual piece, so I will, for the sake of my story, deviate if necessary. I absolutely refuse to slavishly follow that research. This is my character and I will shape them.

Last, and most important for me, is what I'm looking for in a character. I'm not introducing them for freshness or a bit of colour to my story. I'm seeking out fundemental truths of what it means to be human. The commonality of our existence. So my twelve year old survivalist may be very different to my son and his mates on some levels, but on others they are one and the same. Burgeoning independence and sexuality, sibling rivalry, boredom. This is what makes my character's world turn. Just like every other twelve year old.

So, although it's a minefield, I'm pretty sure I'll keep writing in other-voices. I'll tread the tightrope for the exhilaration it gives me. If people think me patronising or arrogant, then so be it.

To paraphrase the rather lovely Elizabeth Gilbert. My job is to write and put it out there. Let others be the judge of whether it works or not.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Two for one



I’m currently working on the first of a two books series*

Yes, I am still cartwheeling at least four times a day. [Not literally. These are mental cartwheels. I don’t like to think of the orthopaedic consequences if I attempted a real one]

So yes, it’s all great etc, but it still has to be written and I’m realising how much of challenge it is to pull this off.

I started off by thinking about books I love with a sequel and why I love them. Unfortunately, I couldn’t put my finger on why any of them worked exactly. ‘They just do,’ said my stubborn reader's brain. So then I decided to ask online and got some very helpful advice. The tip that seems to come up again and again is the importance of having characters people really care about. I realised straight away that this was the common element in all the stories I’ve loved, from Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games, to Jackson Brodie in Kate Atkinson’s books to... many more I can't think of right now.

I guess every story is a journey, and if you want readers to take one to the end of one book, let alone feel like going further, they have to seriously give a damn about the characters they’re travelling with. This for me has been the single most useful piece of advice so far.

But then there’s the whole structure thing. I not only have to plant some threads that will be picked up and woven into something bigger in part two, but I have to think about three story arcs [yes, that’s three]. There’s the one for the first book, the one for the second book, and then there’s the one for the story overall. If you’re going slightly cross-eyed at that, you’re not alone.

My editor tells me it can be the devil’s own job to sort things out in a second book, like wishing you hadn’t killed someone off, or making them an orphan when they need a cuple of parents later on. ‘Much better,’ she said blithely, ‘to have a good idea of the story in book two when you write the first one.’ Easy, right? Trouble is, my pesky characters have a habit of acting in unexpected ways.

So I got Googling on story structures and found a diagram that appealed to my geeky side here. I had to print off two of them and stuck them side by side on a large piece of paper. Then I drew a rough arc over the top of both that represented the overall story.

At the very least it gives me something to concentrate on when my eyes start revolving round in my head. I think it’s helping.
But if anyone out there has any further tips on carrying a story over two books, I’d love to hear them.

*I realised there isn’t even a decent term for a book and a sequel. Series implies more than two. Something like’ trilogy’ is needed, but as I saw suggested online ‘bilogy’ doesn’t quite do it. Any suggestions on that too?

Monday, 22 November 2010

You earn how much?


A one-liner from www.thisismoney.co.uk really got my back up recently - Not only did I feel it was hugely misleading, but it seemed to suggest all novelists enjoy a luxurious life of Riley:

"Novels are seemingly the business to be in if you want to join the rich list."

Really? And where do you get your facts from? This article on the top ten highest earning women in the UK seems to suggest that novel writing is more lucrative than being a WAG. A bit of a generlisation, don't you think? Granted JK Rowling is the highest earning femle in the UK, with Barbara Bradford Taylor coming in at number three. Number two was the Queen. So the journalist has probably looked at the top three and decided that all novel writers, from the self-published to the mid-listers, have gold plated teeth and indoor swimming pools.

Under the Barbara Bradford Taylor entry it states: "Her £174m wealth might seem minimal compared to the likes of J K Rowling, however that still means that two of the highest earning women in the UK are novelists – the other is the Queen. Barbara Taylor Bradford made her money from her 25 best-selling novels which have sold more than 82m copies worldwide and have been translated into 40 languages. She hasn't denied the estimates that she earns $24m a year so it's no surprise she's on the list."

And at number ten is Cheryl Tweedy whose book deal is worth a reported £5m. And did she even write a word of it? Not on your Brown Ale!

What stood out was one (male) commentator who said:

"It is lamentable that none of these are scientists or engineers who have made their fortune by manufacturing or software. Women have always, in my experience, the ability and brains to develop much needed new technology. Their ability to advance socially acceptable literature and performing arts is beyond doubt. I wonder what is holding our talented women from developing careers in area of technology? As an aside, the best engineering student in my class was a woman. She was of the highest calibre."

So is novel writing really the business to be in if you want to blow your nose on
a £50 note? No, definitely not. Anyone who earns over £30,000 from novels alone per annum, please drop by.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Bargain Basement

I'm a member of a book club. It's not the discussion group kind, and it's not the postal kind where they lure you with free hardbacks and then make you buy expensive stuff you don't want for the rest of your life. And when I say 'club', I don't mean anything exclusive (obviously, as they let me join.)

This book club takes place in an enormous warehouse run by a company that buys remaindered stock from publishers for absolute peanuts and flogs it on to discount bookshops. Once a month, they open the doors to everyone who has paid the princely subscription fee of £2 a year, and we can choose from thousands of titles of every genre at a bargain 20% of the cover price.

As a writer, I really ought to disapprove of this. The experience of wandering for hours among shelves of unwanted books ought to be depressing. The amount of hard work, time and emotional investment that has gone into writing them all is enormous, let alone the persistence that got them published. And yet they sit unloved in this last chance saloon, where someone might or might not think they are worth a quid.

Not surprisingly, the place is teeming with celebrity biographies – vast quantities of Ashley Cole's My Defence sat there for months before presumably being pulped – but the famous mingle with the not-so-famous and much of the stock is by writers I identify with as people who put in the hard graft and went through the slushpile. In a particularly poignant moment, I saw a stack of books that had all been signed by the author – and still no one had bought them. Sometimes I spot books by writers I know, and have occasionally rescued copies just to give them a good home.

It would be easy to become despondent and think it's really not worth trying to add to this book mountain. What's the point of spending years crafting a story only for it to end up as a disposable commodity that someone will only buy because it's cheap enough to give to the charity shop if they don't like it?

In addition, none of those thousands of authors will make any money from books bought here. It's not exactly fair trade. The publisher recoups a small amount on their remainders but the poor soul shivering in a garret, eating Aldi Instant Mash and breathing on their ink to stop it freezing, won't be sailing off on a luxury yacht any time soon.

So, as a writer, I really shouldn't approve. On the other hand... I'm also a reader, and this makes the place an absolute paradise. When getting purchase-happy and chucking anything with a nice cover onto my trolley, I've discovered some brilliant authors I might never otherwise have heard of. I've found obscure stuff that would never make it to the local library, and tried out many a book that I wouldn't usually have bothered with. This 'last chance saloon' has been a first chance for me to become a fan of certain writers... and I've gone on to buy their new books.

If I discovered a pile of my own books, I wouldn't therefore be too disheartened. I would rather they were read than destroyed, and they might even reach someone who would appreciate the next one... that's if I resisted the temptation to buy them all and bring them back home!




Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Quickfire Questions with agent Catherine Pellegrino

Catherine Pellegrino joined Rogers, Coleridge & White agency in February 2007. She represents children’s and young adult writers and her client list includes Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams (Tunnels published by Chicken House), Pearl Morrison (The Wind Tamer and The Wave Traveller both published by Bloomsbury), Ceci Jenkinson and Steve Feasey.

The author I wish I’d ‘discovered’ most is…..

So many – David Almond, Haruki Murakami, Kate Atkinson, Lorrie Moore…

Left on a cliffhanger or told all?

It depends how quickly the sequel is available ie whether I can swing an early copy or occasionally a manuscript or whether (in the case of Stieg Larsson) a foreign edition in a language I can read is already available.

The perfect book deal is…

With the right editor who completely gets the book and shares the author’s vision, the right support team (increasingly crucial in this polarised market) who can market and sell the book effectively and an advance that neither undermines or overwhelms, in practical or creative terms the author in his/her endeavours as a writer. And of course a good contract with favourable terms.

You really must read…

What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami – a book as much about writing as running and one brimming with humanity.

I get most excited by…

Reading an unsolicited partial which makes the hairs on my neck stand up on end.

My biggest tip for a writer is..

Endurance and patience

My pet hate in a submission package is…

An overlong covering letter with a marketing plan

Favourite desktop snack

One that doesn’t give me food poisoning. I was so caught up with something a while back that I ate something which was clearly dodgy and within the hour thought it was my last.

Best thing about my job is…

Working with wonderful people, writers, colleagues and publishing people and meeting the International book community at book fairs.


Email or phone?

I try and blend both. I think both have their uses.


The hardest part of my job is…

Managing expectations


The most common mistake I see is…

In submissions we receive for children’s literature, writers who write down to their audience.

If I didn’t work in the literary business I would be...

A landscape gardener or a synchronised swimmer

Monday, 15 November 2010

SWAN SONG?


The words ‘Cornwall’ and ‘paradise’ are often linked. And yes, Cornwall’s glorious light and wonderful coastal paths drew me to move here from London seven years ago, together with the fact that for less than the price of my one-bedroom flat in Chiswick, I could buy a four-storey Victorian cottage with 180 degree views of the river from every floor. Yet for the last four years or more I’ve been struggling with a growing sense of misery. People here look at me with non-comprehension. How can you – dare you – be miserable in paradise?

But I have been.

I don’t intend to dwell on the reasons, but on the growing realisation that this environment is not a ‘fit’ for me. It’s ironic. I moved here believing that my creativity would find a home. Cornwall, after all, is a hotbed of artists and writers. And I’ve met some very good people, particularly writers. But I’ve never felt like I fit. And a nasty little voice keeps whispering: you are so ungrateful. You have what so many people dream of.

Then I read a passage from David Whyte’s Crossing The Unknown Sea where he quotes from a Rilke poem, The Swan, comparing the awkward, lumbering way a swan walks on dry land to the wonderful moment when it lowers itself into the water, its element. Whyte likens this to the process of setting out to find his own element as a poet. I also read the old story of the Ugly Duckling, who flutters and lumbers from place to place until he eventually finds his ‘tribe’of swans.

I believe we all have metaphorical - and sometimes, if we’re really lucky - actual tribes and elements – places where we belong. To other people, they may appear to be strange places, strange activities, strange ways of being. But for us, they’re ‘home’. We can struggle to fit into other people’s worlds, which uses up a lot of energy and convinces us even more that we’re ‘wrong’ or misfits. Or we can pack our bags and head out into the unknown in the hope that we will find our tribe.

Perhaps you are wondering what this has to do with writing. Well, I’ve just been reading a wonderful blog post by a writer who floundered for four years, trying to write Young Adult. It was only when her (wonderful) boyfriend asked her what she most loved to read, and what she’d most loved to write, that she realised that romance was her element. Since when she’s got a job as an editor at a romance press and is sleeping, eating and writing romance to her heart’s (literal) content. She has found her element. For a different kind of writer, the very thought of this might be hell. For her, it’s paradise.

David Whyte had a similar experience. He was working in a corporate environment and getting more and more exhausted. In despair, he asked a wise friend for help. This is what Brother David said:

“You are like Rilke’s Swan in his awkward waddling across the ground; the swan doesn’t cure his awkwardness by beating himself on the back, by moving faster, or by trying to organize himself better. He does it by moving toward the elemental water, where he belongs. It is the simple contact with the water that gives him grace and presence. You only have to touch the elemental waters in your own life, and it will transform everything…Let go of all this effort, and let yourself down, however awkwardly, into the waters of the work you want for yourself.”

Whyte decided from that moment to do one thing each day that would move him towards his life as a poet. Within three months, he was on stage, ready to read.

I’ve no idea how long it will take for me to find my element, my home. But like that little Ugly Duckling, I’m setting out on a journey. Maybe one day I’ll find that water, let myself down into it and recognise my own reflection in it and in the others who live there. Wish me luck…

Thursday, 11 November 2010

A Writer's Mind : Bubble wrap to warped bubbles...


I’m having an enforced break from writing at the moment – just one of those times in your life when events take over, gather pace and then suddenly time is limited and what’s not absolutely necessary suffers.


Which has led me to ask the question... Is my writing absolutely necessary to me? Right now, even as I type these words my mind is filled with the things I NEED to do today – like figure out how to shoehorn the stuff from our house into a smaller one when we move in a few weeks. And wondering just how many storage boxes I’ll need. And if I really need to buy those double width sstttrrronnnggg ones or if the cheaper ones will do. No, I need the double strength ones for all my books. Oh God – my books! Where will I put them?



But amidst all the mayhem, there are two things that have become clear. One – I’m glad of the break. I was weary. And I mean totally weary. Of rejection. Of the process. Of just about everything to do with writing. So a break, a real one, though sort of forced upon me has been really welcome and very much what my writing life needed. I see that now.



And Two. When the time is right, I will return to it. I miss it. I miss being in touch with my virtual writing pals. I miss writing my blog. I miss reading other blogs. I miss the support that is now out there via the internet and something which I think I was beginning to take for granted.


A few weeks ago, when this personal process started and life got too busy for writing, I remember panicking a little because I wasn’t particularly upset. As I said I was weary. But last night I felt the tingle again. You know the one you get when you wander in your head and suddenly there’s a scene from your future work unfolding in your brain? I was packing glasses at the time. Mind numbing bubble wrap stuff, but I was also multitasking and watching my latest TV guilty pleasure – Law & Order, Special Victims Unit. See there’s this detective in it, a character by the name of Stabler, an actor by the name of Chris Meloni. Anyway, he was on the TV but he was also playing lead hero role in my new scene... And God, he looked good.


So folks you heard it here first. When the next book is written and the film rights being auctioned – whoever gets me Chris Meloni to play the lead gets the gig.


As always I’ve got a trusty notebook nearby. And though I know I won’t get to read through it properly, or start a new work until the new year and I’m missing out on Nanowrimo this year – I’m still excited. It’s the tingle you see. Nothing at all to do with boring bubble wrap. Or politicians using bubble wrap, or a poison sandwich wrapped in bubble wrap, or a psycho snapping the tiny bubbles from a square piece in the pocket of his duffle coat as he stalks his prey, or even wierd shaped alien bearing bubbles.


Oh yes, my writing life, I have missed you and you are ABSOLUTELY necessary to me...

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Quickfire Questions with best-selling author Kate Long





Kate Long is the best selling author of The Bad Mother’s Handbook, published by Picador in 2004. The book was serialized on Radio 4, nominated for a British Book Award and made into an ITV drama starring Catherine Tate. Her other novels include Swallowing Grandma, Queen Mum, The Daughter Game and A Mother’s Guide to Cheating. Kate has had short stories published in Woman's Own, Woman and Home, The Sunday Express magazine and the Sunday Night Book Club anthology. She lives in Shropshire with her husband and two sons.

Which 3 writers, living or dead, would you invite to dinner?

I think it would have to be a selection of novelists who ignited my interest in reading as a child – say, A M Lightner (Star Dog), Joan G Robinson (When Marnie Was There), Elizabeth Goudge (The Little White Horse). I’d like to thank them for getting me started.

What's your favourite writing snack?

At the moment it’s chocolate raisins, but next week I’ll have moved on to something else. I’m very snack-fickle.

Longhand or computer?

Longhand for night time notes and for editing; straight onto screen for first drafts. How did we ever write before “find and replace”?


Win Booker prize or land Hollywood film deal?

I have to go with what looks least unlikely, which would be the film deal. There exists somewhere a pilot comedy show of The Bad Mother’s Handbook produced by ABC, but it never became a series. Perhaps one day it’ll be discovered and re-commissioned. I did scoop genuine Hollywood star Rob Pattinson for the British tv version, though.

Tabloid or broadsheet?

The Today Programme on Radio 4.

Independent bookshop or Amazon?

Each has their place but I’m a huge fan of the independents, not least because they’re SO supportive of local authors. My local BookShrop is fantastic at putting on events where writers and readers can meet each other, and it’s always fun and informative whether you’re the one speaking or you’re in the audience. Plus the everyday service is friendly and personal. We’re really blessed with great independents in Shropshire, actually.

Hacker or adder? (in terms of editing)

Both, as the occasion requires. Also wholesale scene shifter, restorer, compulsive fiddler.

Plotter or panter? [ie do you plan out all your work first or write by the seat of your pants?]

Obsessive plotter. I daren’t start without my timelines, all carefully drawn out with significant dates, my characters’ family trees and back-story.

Leave on a cliffhanger or tell all?

I like to do a bit of both. As a novelist you’ve taken the reader with you for three hundred-plus pages on the promise of some sort of resolution, so you have to offer a degree of satisfaction. Then again, when I’m reading fiction I like to be able to do some of the work myself, and be given room to fill in blanks and possibilities. That process draws you in and is much more emotionally involving. I hate a book which gives you absolutely everything on a plate.

You really must read…

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L Howard. Such an inventive world, such lovely dark humour.

I get most excited by…

A seed of an idea beginning to split open and unfurl, the first flash of green poking through the soil. That’s the point at which I know a story’s beginning to tell itself, and I need to start getting notes down.

If I wasn’t a writer I would...

Work in conservation. I love field studies and animal tracking, cataloguing, mapping and taking photographic records. I also enjoy environmental campaigning. I am a thorn in my local planning department’s side.

An author should never…

Give in to mid-stage panic. Everyone gets at least one crisis part way through a long project, but the trick is to keep your head down and push on through. You can always perform radical prose surgery at a later date. Almost everything’s salvageable in some form.

Kate's website is here

Monday, 8 November 2010

Pictures paint a thousand words



When I was re-drafting my YA novel Dark Ride, I spent a very enjoyable day wandering round a rundown seaside town on the south coast. It turned out to be freakily similar to the fictional one in my book, despite the fact that I'd never been there before. Anyway, I took a ton of photos that day and when I got back, I plastered them all over a gigantic cork board in my study, which I propped up behind my desk. I also put tickets and postcards on it... anything that helped evoke a sense of that place.

I called it my ‘story board’ and was very pleased with it indeed. It really helped me at times when I felt I was losing my way with the plot. I looked at the images and could almost hear seagulls squawking and feel salty wind on my face.

I’m writing something completely different now, a dystopian novel set in the near future so filling my story board was much more of a challenge. I knew I wanted old Victorian warehouses and pictures of urban decay and for the former, I took a day trip to the much-loved Northern town where I went to university a zillion years ago.

Well, I had a rubbish day. I was trying to go on a walk along the canal that was advertised as showing the city’s industrial heritage in all its glory. It turned out to have large sections that were closed off and I ended up wandering round a ring road studded with B&Qs and builders merchants before being taken past a massage parlour to rejoin the route. At this point I realised it was completely isolated and after 20 years of living in London, my instincts told me this lonely tow path walk was not for me.

In the end, I found some good images much closer to home, in Shoreditch.

I’ve re-made my board, which is now propped in front of me as I write. I’m not sure it has quite the same punch as the original but feel confident it’s going to help all the same.

Having spent further time faffing about getting the exact right notebook, it’s beginning to dawn on me that the time has come to stop procrastinating AND DO SOME BLOODY WRITING!

But before I do, I’m really interested to know what practical things other writers do to get their creative juices flowing. Do you use pictures, like me? Maybe you even draw pictures?
Do you take a walk around locations that may appear in the book? And what about music? I had a playlist on my iPod that also helped me when inspiration was running low.
On the other hand, maybe you just allow your imagination to take flight without the need for props.
However you do it, I’d love to know...

Friday, 5 November 2010

National Novel Writing Month - Day Five

Join the madness!
When I first heard of NaNoWriMo - six years ago now - I thought it was one of those 'new fangled fads' that my Nan always swore computers would be.  Little could I imagine that six years later I'd have two WINNER certificates and the NaNo Mad/Fadness would be triplicated by a gazillion (maths not my strong point.  I'm more wordy, me) and that most of the world's writing population now sign up to this annual word-fest.  Oh, and I'd still be doing it.
Every year I adopt the Ostrich position and pretend it isn't there.  If I don't open up any e-mails from the Office of Letters and Light (That's the NaNoWriMo People's HQ) then they might go away.   They might even go away so much they cease to exist.  But they don't.  I can't even delete the e-mails because of the 'pull'.  And when I find (pffft!) five minutes to have a quick read, I remember how exhilarating it all is, and how exciting it will all be and what a fabulous way to unite writers the world over the whole thing is, and how much Twitter will be over-capacity (or under, depending on how well the word-count's going I guess) for the month of November.
And by August at the latest, I'm hooked, lined, sunk and signed up for a  repeat performance. Again.

This is one deadline that can't be postponed.  It doesn't matter how many Open Evenings our school has in November (one, but even so - it IS hairy and stressy, which is also how I LOOK every November... actually make that most days...) and it doesn't matter how many daughter's birthdays fall within the same month (again, just the one, but ... come ON... children's parties are bad enough as it is, especially with them turning.... okay, okay then, seventeen this year, but they still need a cake, right? And presents and stuff?) there is just NO escaping the fact that if you don't get your 1,666 words done one day, there will be a catch-up of *consults calculator.  No, really*  3332 words to do the following day.  And once you've done it a couple of times that week, the easiest thing in the world  is to just give up.  Stop. Become the Ostrich again and pretend it didn't matter in the first place, nobody will notice if you suddenly go all quiet and your word count isn't moving; it's just another 'thing' you didn't do.

It made me feel positively sick with self-pity.    Like the tortoise watching the hare flying off whilst I lolled about under a tree pretending I was going to be a spectator all along.  Letting down the only person that mattered in my race.  Me.

Which is actually what happened my first couple of years.  I think I made it to the 5,000 mark on years one and two.  Year three I got as far as 12,000 and I still like to read it back, and still try to convince myself I might even get round to finishing it one day.  And years four and five (2008 and last year) I got my WINNER certificate.  Very proud.  In fact the feeling I got when I managed to hit the 50,000 mark was actually unexpected.  I don't really *do*excited dances around the room (unless I'm very drunk and Gloria Gaynor is helping me Survive) but last year I could have drowned in tears of my own self-congratulations.  And I don't care how many know about it.  It might also have helped save my sanity because last year, on the 6th November I was involved in a head-on car collision and I still don't know what I'd've done without my NaNo novel to 'switch off' to, keep up with and take my mind off of mangled wreckages and cut and bruised body parts.  TMI?
So I kind of see NaNoWriMo now as a sort of salvation.  It has become my friend.  The one, true friend who allows my creative ideas to flow, unfettered, uncorrected (although I'm still too anally retentive NOT to edit as I go along... sheesh) and unconditionally.  Well, with maybe the one, little condition, that I get to FIFTY THOUSAND WORDS in 30 days!
Seriously, if a lazy-arse like me can do it, then anybody can!
...

p.s. It doesn't even matter that it's the 5th of November and you haven't given it a thought and there's all manner of fireworks to be letting off and "oooooh-ing" over tonight, just shift some grey matter, clip those fingernails and fill up two sheets of A4.  Your creative sinuses will thank you for it... and don't sweat it too much - think of it as warming up for next year!

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

It's a syn


Can you hear the difference between a circle and a square? Can you see the birdsong? Can you feel a whisper?

I can't but I wish I could.

Recently when researching ideas for a new novel I found myself reading one of Susan Blackmore's books on consciousness. The characters in my partially written story have some wacky ideas on the subject and I needed to catch up with their thinking. Now, one of the wonderful things that happens when you research a piece of fiction is that you get sidetracked into new and sometimes inspirational topics. In this case I was drawn to a description of synaesthesia. People with this fascinating superpower can do the things I listed above.

I'd be interested to know if any readers of Strictly Writing experience these phenomena, and just how they work for you. The most common form is where letters and numbers are always seen as coloured. I'm envious because I'm sure it would make it easier to come up with metaphors and other fresh ways of conveying concrete experience to the reader.

About 1 in every 200 adults are synaesthetes. It is especially prevalent in poets, writers and artists - that's also why I'm jealous.

Many young children have synaethesia but the effects disappear with age, along with so many other attributes like the ability to play and creativity (in many people, but not us, oh no, not us).

Apparently many synaesthetes hide their ability, but now is your chance to come out. And does it help you as a writer?

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Cry Me A River

On Sunday night, the kids and I, like millions more, settled down at 8pm to watch the X Factor.


Less typically, we were dressed respectively as Voldomort, a werewolf and Frankenstein's monster as we'd spent the evening trick or treating.

Sadly, as we traipsed our sorry route through the village begging for sweets, it bucketed it down, so our face paint and fake blood pooled unattractively under our chins.


Fortunately, we had amassed two carrier bags full of fun sized Milky Ways to cheer our spirits, as we sat, steaming, glued to the set.


Far removed were the poor contestants who looked like they could well do with some chocolate.


For the uninitiated, the X Factor is a talent show which culminates in a weekly public vote to decide who will remain to fight another day and who will be kicked off the show.
Brutally, the contestants are lined up like christians waiting for the lions to be released, while the public cheer and jeer.

Then, one by one, the survivors' names are read out until only two acts remain. These are the losers who will have to howl their way through another number before being subjected to the final judgment by Simon Cowell and his mates.


Imagine Herrod asking the crowd between Jesus and Barrabus and you're not far wrong.


This week, the losers were a girl band in very high heels and a funky young hipster who sounds like she smokes forty a day.
As they waited for the axe to fall they wept bitter tears with the world watching.

And the question on any normal sane person's lips must surely be...why would anyone put themselves through that?
Why would a person bare themselves to the thumbs up or thumbs down, time after time?


And I understand the incredulity, but, as a writer, I've got to admit that I get it.


As soon as any of us scribbers put pen to paper we begin the rejection courtship dance.


First, there's our inner critic. The one that tells us we are rubbish wiht every word we write.

Next comes 'feedback' from trusted readers, writers groups or mentors. It's a very rare day when they smile at us and declare ' you've a Booker winner on your hands.'

At some stage we release our work and try to secure an agent. Cue letter upon letter thanking us for our submission but actually, it's not for them.

And if you thought getting an agent was the end of the merry jig, think again. Enter a raft of publishers, all gushsing with praise, but on reflection, they won't be buying your book, they just don't love it enough.

Finally, the writer gets a deal. Yay. Salad days. Except...the editor isn't too keen on the title/the ending/the sub plot.

But there it is, at last, a book. A real book. You've done it. No more rejection.

WRONG.

It's only just begun...sales figures disappointing, the supermarkets not too sure. Then some bastard pans you on Amazon.


But you know what? Despite all the knockbacks, I love it. I choose to put myself and my work out there so I have to take the pain. If you can't, you're dead in the water and this game aint for you.
Same as the contestants on the X Factor, today their heart s breaking but tomorrow they'll be back in the saddle.

Cos that's what we do...now pass the Maltezers.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Photo call


My grandma was one of the most photogenic people that ever existed. She was no famous actress or model, but whether she was in the local photo parlour in her 20s or being snapped with a disposable camera in her 70s, she looked effortlessly beautiful.


Unfortunately grandma did not pass on this trait to me. When my book got accepted by a publisher, I realised with trepidation that I would need some publicity photos, and that this was going to be rather a challenge.

I dread having my photo taken for several reasons:

1. I'm not very skilled at applying make-up. I've never really worked out how not to look like a square 12-year-old raiding her mum's cosmetics in an attempt to fit in with the cool kids, and ending up bogwashed for daring to think she could look good.

2. Although I have some nice clothes these days, they only look nice up to the point at which I put them on. The other day I went into town and was about to be kind to the spaced-out homeless person wandering around M&S to keep warm, before realising it was actually a mirror.

3. If I smile, I look like a hamster that doesn't quite know what's going on.

4. If I don't smile, I look like Kathy Bates in Misery.

So – what to do? I didn't fancy going to a professional photographer, because my only experience of photographers was the bossy ones that bark orders at weddings, and one of my many weaknesses is that I don't respond at all well to being told what to do. Plus no matter how professional the photographer might be, I would still be me, with gormless moon-face, bad make-up, uncool outfit and DIY non-haircut.

The next option was to use some existing nice photos from my younger days. Or rather, this wasn't an option, because people simply don't tend to bother snapping pics of me – whether they fear for the life of their camera lens or whether I'm completely invisible, I'm not sure.

(I don't think I'm just being paranoid here – this state of affairs subsequently became apparent at my book launch, which escaped being recorded for posterity altogether. I even made a point of giving a family member my camera and asking him to take some pictures of me for my website. How many did he take? None, that's how many. I don't mean 'none that I liked' or 'none that came out well', I mean literally not a single one.)

The saying goes – if you want something doing properly, do it yourself. In my life, this is usually modified to 'if you want something doing at all, do it yourself.' So several months before publication, I worked out how to use the timer on my bog-standard camera, bunged on some slap and a vaguely presentable shirt, and took lots of pictures of... ME!

The good thing about taking your own photo is that no one is looking. You don't have to feel like a complete idiot. If you want to try a 'serious academic' one, you can. You can chuck on a bit more make-up or change your hair without keeping anyone waiting. And you can just press delete when your 'pouty Nigella' effort turns out like one of the plasticine pigs off Shaun the Sheep.

The other good thing is that there's no one to get bored while you reject 99.9% of the pictures. Eventually, I got an OK set of photos that I could just about tolerate. I downloaded them onto my brand new laptop and got as far as putting one on my website.

Then the brand new laptop died. Toshiba immediately replaced it, but the pics were gone. I've made several attempts since, but to no avail. I am not photogenic.

At least grandma gave me some of her intelligence – that's something to fall back on, I suppose.