Friday, 31 December 2010

The Strictly Writing Award Shortlisted Story for December - A Little Bit of Soul by Gavin Wilson

Congratulations to Gavin Wilson, whose story is now on the shortlist for the Strictly Writing Award. 
There is only one more month left of the competition, so if you haven't entered yet, give it a go! Details of how to submit your story are available here.

A LITTLE BIT OF SOUL
by
GAVIN WILSON
It is a winter month but I don’t feel the cold that whistles through the house sending dust spiralling in darting, dancing gusts as I stand looking down at the woman lying in her bed. Her eyes are closed now, the faint traces of a lingering smile on her face. Whether this is due to a last happy dream or the beginnings of rigor mortis I wouldn’t know: I would love to say the former.
Cause of death hypothermia. The poor old girl had lived on her own since her husband passed, with no kids to come and visit. Her guilty pleasure had been the odd game of bingo but after her hip had gone the random weekly draw had drawn to a close when she couldn’t get around as much. Only the weekly visits from her friends at the church had carried on to give her something to look forward to.
As I turn to leave I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror: the raven black I think looks good on me, stylish perhaps in a Presbyterian way, but the collar is always too tight, a reminder perhaps of my servitude. I glance back at the old lady. She at least has gone to a better place now. The prayer for the dead has been said, her immortal soul has left its mortal body. Case closed.

Next job, so soon; ah well, no rest for the wicked. A young driver has stolen a car and I give chase. He’s driving like a maniac swerving in and out of the traffic; at any point he could lose control. I always wonder why some people do this, what thrills they get from driving this quickly.
It happens fast; the front tire blows and the car slides sideways briefly before it flips. A cacophony of tormented metal and glass spins and rolls in balletic carnage before it ends on its roof, golden sparks shooting out across the road like a firework as the steel grinds across the asphalt leaving a bloody smear behind it.
Mercifully quick…. one easy job; death by driving!

I’ve been watching this one for a while now, but I have time. The man in the smart suit has spent some time looking out over the city, clinging to the tall chimney, tears streaming down his cheeks; for what reason I don’t know.
He’s stepped closer to the edge, looking down. From this height the fall would certainly kill him.
I understand the desire to end, but why this way?
I approach him and he turns around still crying. I have no words for him, nothing that will take away his pain or make him feel better.
He jumps. Maybe he will land in a friendly place.

It’s morning now for some people, but what does it matter? I enter a grocery store: the shop keeper is being held up by a masked man holding him at gun point. I stop and watch but no one notices me, intent on their own predicaments and petty crimes.
“Where is the safe?” The masked man yells.
The shop keeper stays quiet.
“I will blow your head off old man.”
The shop keeper goes for the bat under the counter.
Bang!
The masked man dashes past me and I walk around to the other side of the counter.
A pool of blood is flowing in viscous finality across the floor, the old shop keeper left staring blankly up at the ceiling with his one remaining eye.
There is little I can do other than watch and wait as he takes his final breath.
Murder: it happens and always will.
    
I need a break but it doesn’t seem like I’m going to get one anytime soon. I sit in the chair looking at the old woman lying in the hospital bed. Her husband sits beside her holding her hand.
Bashed over the head because she wouldn’t hand over her purse; it only had a picture of her dead son and a small amount of money. Was it really worth holding on to it? To her, it was.
The heart monitor flat-lines and her husband looks up in disbelief. She can’t be dying; it was just a bash on the head. Medical staff rush into the room and they try their hardest to resuscitate her but to no avail.
In the quiet and lonely aftermath I walk to the side of her bed. Her soul eyes open and she smiles at me. It's not often that happens: I place my hand on her hers and smile back.
“I always wondered,” she says, the ghosts of her words whispering into my ears. “You look a little different to how I thought you would.”
“Are you ready to go?” I ask.
As she nods, I sever her soul from its mortal cage and stopping only to brush a kiss across the cheek of her grief exhausted husband, she rises to the glow above her.
Another day: another death. The prayer for the dead has been said, the soul has left the body. Rest in peace.
When will it be my turn to rest?

I am different now, so different from the being I used to be. I have been known by so many different names. Gone is the scythe and flowing cloak, the gloom and skeletal form.
The mirror never lies. A man to those of you who see: dressed in raven black. Tie, suit, shoes, shirt: although the collar of the shirt is always too tight for some reason. Tall, distinguished and calm, the silver scissors that sever secreted in a jacket pocket. No scythe to terrorise with apocalyptic dread.

Not yet.

Only when the fires fall from the sky and the dead rise will I truly know an end. That will not happen yet, so I continue endlessly. While you believe, I endure. I long for the sanctity of death; an end, but that cannot happen while you are all still here believing and dreaming of your sad little ends. Your sad demises mean little to me.
One day I will know rest, but until then I will be there at every cessation of life. If you see me, you will know me.

For I am Death.

It will be my pleasure to meet you. 



Tuesday, 28 December 2010

My best books of 2010


The three men in my life were playing football and I was walking the dog through one of north London’s loveliest parks, enjoying the crump crump of my boots through the brittle snow. I’m usually either plugged into my iPod or refeering some random violence and bloodshed between my children, so it was a nice change just to walk and think...

And I decided to think about the books I’ve enjoyed the most in 2010.
If you can indulge me, I wanted to share this list with you, dear Strictly readers. I’d love to know if any of you agree... or even better, hotly disagree. The list is divided into five adult books and five children’s/YA. Here goes:

Adult

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
I first heard about this on the brilliant Books on the Nightstand podcast. It’s the story of brothers Marion and Shiva, born in a mission hospital in Ethiopa in the 1950s to a nun and a surgeon. The boys are very different characters, despite being born as conjoined twins and their lives play out against the backdrop of Ethiopia’s history, and an immigrant’s experience of America. It’s the kind of book that leaves you feeling bereaved when you finish reading it.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Our very own Gillian did a whole post about this recently, so I will leave you in her capable hands. Absolutely unputdownable and a masterclass in voice.

Rapture by Liz Jensen
Post traumatic shock syndrome, disability, the challenges of teenage mental health and global warming are just some of the themes in this stunning and original thriller.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
A sometimes uncomfortable read, this showed a side to Australia that you don’t see on Home and Away. Brilliantly written, it tells the story of the consequences arising from a man slapping another couple’s unruly child at a neighbourhood barbecue and how racism and misogyny lurk under the veneer of family life.

Children’s/YA

The Glass Demon by Helen Grant
I’m still shivering after reading this, but in an entirely good way. Teenager Lin moves to a quiet part of Germany where many bad things lurk in the woods. People keep dying and each time, broken glass is found nearby. Could it be the infamous glass demon? A spooky, atmospheric chiller.

Swapped by a Kiss by Luisa Plaja
A book that had an entirely opposite effect, bathing you in warmth and humour from page one. Sequel to the highly successful Split by a Kiss, it shows that being in another person’s shoe’s is a lot more complicated than you might think. Full disclosure here: Luisa is a good friend. But this book would be in the list regardless because it makes me smile just to think about it.

Uglies trilogy by Scott Westerfield
Okay, so this is three books, but they were so brilliant, they have to count as one. Set in a future where everyone is made ‘pretty’ at seventeen, these books are among the very best of dystopian YA fiction.

Almost True by Keren David
I thoroughly enjoyed When I was Joe, which told the story of Ty, a boy forced to go into a witness protection programme after witnessing a murder. But I think I liked this sequel even more. I’ve heard there’s going to be a third. Can’t wait...

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick
Dark as the bitterest chocolate, this is the gothic tale of a twisted friendship between two teenage girls in a blistering summer on the edge of East Anglia, where half the village has been reclaimed by the sea. Woven in is the story of a gruesome 17th experiment designed to test whether the afterlife really exists. This book stays with you long after you’ve finished the final page...

So there we are. I’d love to know what people think about this list. And what are your best reads of 2010?

Monday, 27 December 2010

Pass The Nuts

This will be a very short post from the coal face of post-Christmas lethargy.

Here at Casa Black, we take the whole issue of feasting very seriously.

We begin with a glass of something with bubbles - and no, I don't mean Radox - at noon on Christmas Day and we continue until Hercule Poirot says that we must go to bed.

Boxing Day begins with a long walk but soon gives way to a buffet of grand proportions that lasts aproximately ten hours or until the last guest expires.

No doubt some of you writers out there are already pushing aside the cobwebs and making plans to sub your WIP to a list of your most prefered agents.
My advice is don't.
They are all at home eating Quality Street.

So give yourself a rest. Pour another glass. James Bond starts in ten minutes.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Greatest Story


Rod and I were chatting the other day about what makes a story. However intricately plotted and carefully executed our writing is, if the basic plot lacks drive, it will be returned to sender. Whether it engenders faith in us or not, the Christmas story is unbeaten in dramatic terms and worth a seasonal snout to see what we can learn from it as storytellers. It makes Hollywood, with its overblown and crass Good v Evil schematics, look anodyne.

In the Christmas story the most powerful entity ever sneaks back into his creation to help set right its wrongs. That’s clear archetypal characterisation plus major mission. Where can you possibly take such superlatives? The Almighty can, after all, do Whatever. The story needs a major obstacle. Bring him back as a baby! Defenseless, incapable of communication or movement. The ultimate boss disguised as unskilled worker on the shop floor.

Add to the mix-for-he-who-hath-everything a teenage girl, lost in a strange city, in labour and homeless. Add lairy wide boys in the form of feckless shepherds who turn out to have hearts of gold. Add three of the most gifted and talented chaps of the day, then make them responsible for the grossest act of stupidity in the whole plot, spilling the secret beans to the Wrong Man, thereby bringing about mass infanticide, with our protagonist, omniscient but useless, as target. By this time, heavenly hosts with fetching wings and guiding stars seem mere set dressing.

The core story is lonely and bloody, terrifying and uplifting. How is it told? Bluntly. Conversationally. Plot twists that defy belief are jotted down by the Gospel authors with factual brevity. Nice counterpoint. Such an overblown plot can only gain authenticity from understated telling.

What can we learn from this? Be braver and bigger and bolder in our ideas than we think is right and proper. Why not? There is no Story Demon out there issuing permission slips as to what we may write. Why be diffident? Push the story to the limits of credulity to discover whether a better plot springs from such audacity. Be unlikely. Get your hands dirty in unknown realms. Bring in a broad social mix: a world leader wants to hack off the head of an unmarried teenage girl’s newborn, when he’s never met either of them. Why?

This coming year is the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. The courageous broad strokes of its storytellers have a lot to offer us as authors. Dig in. But first, wherever you are in your scribbling and subbing and plotting and panting, stop. It’s time for a total mental and physical break from writing. Time to pop corks, snap crackers, gaze vacantly at candlelight, sneak a hazelnut praline while basting the bird, indulge our sentimental souls with carols and our children with toys that won’t shut up. I’m having a day off from the constant boil and bubble of ideas, and I hope you do too.

Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

My December Writing Resolutions

For a long time, I haven't bothered with New Year's resolutions. Not because I don't think I'd keep them, but because goals and plans are too exciting to confine to a certain season. If they're worth making at all, they're worth making right now. Lately I've been thinking a lot about how to achieve more in life, so I've made some pre-Christmas resolutions to help me get the most out of my writing during the rest of 2010 and beyond.

1. Make more notes
The ancient question 'where do you get your ideas?' is easy to answer - they pop into my head all the time. The problem is, they usually pop out again after the briefest of sojourns. I've started writing them down instead and am already surprised at how completely I forget things that seemed brilliant when I thought of them. I need a back-up for my brain – why not pen and paper?.

2. Make 'dead time' more productive
I seem to spend an awful lot of time waiting for people to stop faffing around and let me get on with stuff. Instead of idly checking email on my iPod or scrolling through i-am-bored.com, I will use this time to read, to make notes as above, or jot down ideas for blog posts.

3. Become more energetic
Urgh. I hate doing sport. And every slob and their dog decides to get fit after Christmas. But I must grudgingly admit that exercise helps me write better. The gym is too grim for me, so I will shortly be joining a 1940s-style dance class – Strictly Writing might soon have its very own Anne Widdecombe!

4. Create 'a room of one's own.'
There's no space for a tranquil summer house at the bottom of the garden, so the room of my own has to be within my head. I'm practising tuning out noise, remaining calm when stressed and making the most of any brief pockets of peace, refusing to let them be spoiled by anticipation of the next interruption.

5. Write more in longhand
Now that my computer is regularly commandeered for Postman Pat DVDs, it makes sense to overcome my fear of putting fiction on paper and get scribbling. (Plus my handwriting is the absolute pits these days – better use it before I lose it.)

6. Listen to audiobooks
Irrationally or not, I've never considered audiobooks to be 'real' reading – it seems like someone else is doing all the work. The advantages of the format, however, have become too important to ignore – it's a way of learning and being entertained while continuing with the general drudgery of life. There are loads of free audiobooks available online, though the quality is rather variable!

7. Write for writing's own sake
The thought that everything has to be good enough to be published has been holding me back for a long time. So I'm going to have more fun with writing, try out some flash fiction and poetry, and enjoy spending time with the characters in my novel rather than worrying whether I'm really doing justice to the big themes I've stumbled into.

Strictly readers – what are your goals and plans for the next year? I'd love to hear about them, and as this is my last post of 2010 (apart from announcing the next Strictly Writing Award shortlistee), I'd like to wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a New Year filled with hope, happiness – and lots of writing.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Welcome to Susannah Rickards


The Strictly Writing team is delighted to welcome Susannah Rickards as our new team blogger. In fact, to fess up, it's a welcome back, as Susannah was on the team for a short while before. We sent the Strictly Writing heavies round to bully or beg her to come back - whatever it took, and in the end she agreed.

Susannah is the author of Hot Kitchen Snow, recently published by Salt, after winning The Scott Prize. This is an awesome collection that Jess and I have been reading aloud together, punctuated by gaps where we put down the book to marvel at the gems within the stories. It's good honest writing, often moving and often sparkling. Do get yourself a copy.

Susannah will post her first piece here on 23 December, so make sure you take some time off from roasting those mince pies to pop in here with a glass of sherry.

Welcome back, Susannah!

Monday, 20 December 2010

Dreaming of a Write Christmas

Dear Santa...please bring less dust next year

There must be no greater thrill than that for a writer who knows  there’s a fortnight’s worth of ‘time’ available to them in the form of a seasonal break (“End of Term” some like to call it).

And I’m always so stuffed full with good intentions that I’m surprised they don’t start seeping from every orifice with the excess of them. However, I also know full well that about three days before I’m due to go back to the paid work, I will realise I’ve positively frittered away this precious ‘time’ (again) in the pursuit of needless activities that could just as easily be shoehorned into evenings I already squander watching mind-numbingly pedestrian televised ‘entertainment’ (again).

It doesn’t matter how creative I get with this ‘time’, I just can’t seem to make writing my priority. There’s always something else that I’ll “just quickly do” before I can settle. Like that thing dogs do when they turn round and round and round in their baskets before they find the exact right place to bed their weary fur. And they always sigh with such pleasure when they find it. This is the sigh I long for. This is the sigh I need before I can write, care free.

There’s always housework. Especially dusting. Which was clearly invented by a man. No woman in her right mind would have decided that an accumulation of small particles of debris really has to be eradicated in the pursuit of personal calm. It doesn’t bother ME, so why should it bother anybody else? And, like my husband’s always telling me, he didn’t marry for my housekeeping skills  - so I can’t argue with that one - it must be me who’s giving me the hard time.

Piles of paperwork. Stuff that needs to be sorted, windows that need to be cleaned (why don’t window cleaners do the insides too?) and cooking that has to be done in order to satisfy hungry bellies. Why? Can these hungry humans not open a can or slice from a loaf just as well as I can? Why is it considered MY place to be nurturing these co-dwellers? If I had it my way, I’d be perfectly content with a cup of tea every hour and a Hob-Nob on demand. Twenty-four-seven. No, honestly. That’s as high-maintenance as I’m likely to get.

It’s because it’s not ‘real’. It’s still the stuff of dreams. It’s what most people still regard as my ‘hobby’.  My mother used to proudly show off her knitting and I’d nod as enthusiastically as I could to a row of plains and purls. With my Nan it was her steak and kidney puddings; my Dad could skin a rabbit with his eyes shut (as were mine mostly). My brother could have played football for Leeds United and my husband can turn any piece of wood into something beautiful and practical. So why can’t I just get on with my own talent and create something wonderful without placing these unnecessary obstacles in my own way all the time?

I guess if I can’t consider my writing to be as important or as valuable of my time that I genuinely want it to be, then I can't expect anybody else to take me seriously.
Right.  Deep breath. I have a fortnight. I have the Christmas fortnight. And I’ve heard that at Christmas, magical things can happen. Oh, and if Santa can't manage that Dust-Free Year I've asked for, perhaps I'll just take to wearing sunglasses as a kind of perpetual nod to festive irony.

So - a happy and housework-free Write Christmas, one and all!

Friday, 17 December 2010

Quickfire questions with author Marcus Sedgwick


Alongside a 16 year career in publishing Marcus Sedgwick has established himself as a widely-admired writer of YA fiction; his books have either been shortlisted for, or won, over thirty awards, including the Booktrust Teenage Book Award, the Carnegie Medal, the Edgar Allan Poe Award, and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. His latest title is White Crow.
He now writes full time, is Writer in Residence at Bath Spa University, teaches creative writing, and is currently working on film and other projects with his brother, Julian.


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

Edgar Allan Poe, Mervyn Peake and Ernest Hemingway

What's your favourite writing snack?

Waitrose plain chocolate biscuits

Longhand or computer?

Computer, surely to God.

Win Booker prize or land Hollywood film deal?

That's a real tough one. The film just edges it, because I love film so much.

Tabloid or broadsheet?

Broadsheet, though only rarely I have to say.

Independent bookshop or Amazon?

Independent. Use it or lose it, I guess.

Hacker or adder?

Neither, gentle pruner usually.

Plotter or panter?

Plotter. Almost every time, though there are some exceptions to that when you just know what you're doing without having to plan tooooo much.

Leave on a cliffhanger or tell all?

Cliffhanger, everytime. I want to do some work when I read and so that's the kind of book I write too.

You really must read…

The First Century After Beatrice

I get most excited by…

New ideas, or rather, new and exciting ideas. The unusual and the strange and the unexpected.

If I wasn’t a writer I would be…

Sad, grumpy, frustrated. Unless I'd managed to be a musician instead.

An author should always…

Remember their manners.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

A Razor Wrapped In Silk


My Dad was a funny old sod.
On the one hand, he was a hard drinking Yorkshire miner who thought wearing gloves in January was nesh.
On the other he harboured a passion for Italian opera and had a life long love affair with Russian literature.
His fave book was Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky, which he re-read every year, finding, he said, some new gem each time.
So, it was with a degree of trepidation, that I agreed to review A Razor Wrapped In Silk, by R.N. Morris, who has, daringly, co-opted Dostoyevsky's canny magistrate, Porfiry Petrovich, for his series set in imperialist Russia.
This, the third book in the Porfiry series, tells the tale of two very different crimes. The first, a barely registered death of a serf. The second, the shocking murder of a lady of high rank.
It is Porfiry, of course, who investigates, with his characterisitic steely elegance and it is through his eyes that we see the disparate worlds of St Petersberg. The oppulence and wealth of the ruling classes versus the brutality of hard poverty.
For my Dad, the trade unionist, this was the crux of Dostoyevsky's genius. His ability to conjure the inequality of pre-revolution St Petersberg was powerful. It has to be said, however, that Morris too imagines the juxtaposition with ice-clear sharpness.
Indeed, so well drawn is 1870 St Petersberg, that the city becomes a character in its own right. Porfiry may be clever, but St Pertersberg is the complex and conflicted star of the show.
It's true that this is a crime novel, as opposed to an all out thriller. There aren't twists and turns at every corner. The book, however, is no worse for that, in my opinion. Instead, the prose is allowed to stand and shine, the atmosphere permeate.
There is enough tension to keep any reader happy.
If my Dad were alive today I wonder what he would think. Would he be shocked at Morris'audacity?
Perhaps.
Though I have a sneaky suspicion that he would like this book, very much indeed.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Quickfire questions with YA writer Helen Grant


Helen Grant was born in London. She read Classics at St.Hugh’s College, Oxford, and then worked in marketing for ten years in order to fund her love of travelling. In 2001 she and her family moved to Bad M√ľnstereifel in Germany. While exploring the legends of this beautiful town she was inspired to write her first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, which was shortlisted for both the Booktrust Teenage Prize and the Carnegie Medal. She now lives in Brussels with her husband, her two children and her two cats. Her second novel, The Glass Demon, was published in 2010 and she has just completed a third book, Wish Me Dead, which will appear in 2011.

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

Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens and Montague Rhodes James (the English ghost story writer). I wouldn’t invite them all at once, in case they argued. I’d invite Dickens for his wit, Trollope so that I could tell him how much I admire him, and M.R.James so that I could ask him questions. I’ve written many articles speculating about aspects of James’ work and I could settle the questions once and for all.

What's your favourite writing snack?

Mint flavoured Viscount biscuits.

Longhand or computer?

Computer, although I do create outlines in longhand – sometimes using spider diagrams and lists.

Win Booker prize or land Hollywood film deal?

I didn’t have to think about this for even two nanoseconds. Hollywood film deal, please. I have a student husband, two children, two cats and two gerbils to support.

Tabloid or broadsheet?

Broadsheet – although it would be a treat to buy an English one as we have lived abroad since 2001.

Independent bookshop or Amazon?

I live in Belgium, so I tend to use Amazon quite a lot as it’s easier than travelling into Brussels to visit one of the English bookshops. All the same, there’s nothing to compare with the pleasure of visiting an independent store whose owner likes the same sort of thing I do (Victorian novels and zombie stories).

Hacker or adder?

Hacker, though I am known to add too.

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

I’m a plotter, though I’m not one of these people who work out every paragraph of every chapter before I start writing. I have the “skeleton” of the story and I flesh it out as I go along. I like to know where the story is going and who is going to do what, but there has to be some room for spontaneity.

Leave on a cliffhanger or tell all?

I love end-of-chapter cliffhangers but I find books which end on a cliffhanger very frustrating, especially if the next book in the series hasn’t been published yet.

You really must read…

Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Everyone has heard of Let the right one in because of the two film versions, but I think Handling the Undead is at least as good if not better. I suppose it’s essentially a zombie story but it’s an intelligent one – nobody shambling about trying to eat anyone else’s brains! It’s about the human fallout of the dead returning to life. How do you cope if a family member comes back to life after two months underground? The book crosses boundaries and in places it is horrific but it also made me cry, because the ending is so uplifting.

I get most excited by…

New sources of inspiration. I am often inspired by real places and their history, and genuine folk tales. I’ve been all over the place researching articles and later my novels. I’ve flown to Jutland and to the Pyrenees to visit particular cathedral towns, and poked about in lonely German forests looking for the ruins of ancient castles. Then I won’t shut up talking about them to anyone who’ll listen.

If I wasn’t a writer I would be…

Something in tourism. I’ve lived in Germany and Belgium so I can speak French, German and Dutch as well as my native English. Also since I have a complete mania for old folk stories and gruesome bits of history I’m sure I’d make a good tour guide!

An author should never…

Be a prima donna. I meet so many people who would love to get their work published, whose dream is to be a writer. Success is a privilege, not a right.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Hiding from prying eyes


Longhand or computer? is one of the questions we pose to the guests in our Quickfire Questions series, and when I answered the interview myself last year, I didn't hesitate to say computer.


I envy those who are able to answer longhand, because I love the idea of writing uninhibited first drafts with crossings-out and squashed-in extras in the margins. It would give me a sense of freedom, as well as a link to writers throughout history who have used the same basic tools and honed their craft without the help of cut 'n' paste and find 'n' replace.

For research notes and some of my non-fiction stuff, I use an unlined Moleskine and a fountain pen with purple ink, which probably makes me sound like one of those writers who say in interviews that they regularly send off for a certain kind of pencil from a market stall in Ulaanbaatar otherwise they simply can't channel the muse, dahling. When writing longhand notes, I find that the information embeds itself more deeply in my mind, I can recall it with clarity and continue to process it while I'm engaged in non-writing activities. I would like to do this for fiction too – so why don't I?

Well, it all goes back to my early teenage years, when I first realised that writing was the one thing I really wanted to do. I tried to keep a diary, mainly because Judy Blume characters did, but this soon became a source of hilarity to my family. No matter where I hid my journal, I became paranoid that they were rummaging through my stuff, ready to read it out in a silly voice. The daily entries dwindled to a few inane comments about what I'd had for dinner, and soon fizzled out altogether.

I was even more secretive about fiction, because if anyone found my stories – or on the rare occasions I dared show anyone – they just did not seem to grasp that I had made it up. The heroine must obviously be me, and if another character happened to be a bloke, then Oooooh, I must have a boyfriend, ha ha ha! An admittedly dire historical story with a Saxon prince anti-hero resulted in my mum joking that I secretly wanted to kill my dad.

OK, so this is not a big deal – the lame teasing of an awkward and oversensitive kid is hardly anything new, but for years I felt that everything I wrote was public property and therefore had to hit the page perfectly formed. Even when I got a computer and could password it up to the eyeballs, I retained the belief that someone was looking over my shoulder and would laugh if I wrote about anything beyond my own limited experiences.

Years passed and I eventually got a grip and started writing what I wanted to write, discovering the fun of first drafts, where it's OK to churn out crap (or rather, what appears to be crap but often ends up better than an agonised-over sentence.) I can now write articles and blog posts and send them out into the world on pretty much the first take. I can show my non-fiction work to anyone without feeling remotely hurt if they suggest improvements.

Fiction, however, still feels like something to be kept secret until I'm really happy with it. Though I no longer bother putting passwords on my files or closing them down every time I move more than a metre from the screen, it would be a big step to choose the vulnerability of writing longhand on paper that could fall into anyone's hands. Writing on the computer is – for now – a way of giving my work the safety that enables it to go beyond being safe.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Help me put this book down!


The critically-acclaimed The Help by Kathryn Stockett, set in the 1960s in the segregated Deep South, is a seriously impressive book. This page-turner, a kind of slow Mississippi Burning, is told from three points of view.

In the book African American domestic servants (the coloured help) Aibileen and Minny work for the white ladies of Jackson, the creme de la creme of society. Aibileen has raised 17 white children, but sadly her own son was killed in an accident at a lumber yard, while Minny can't hold down a job because she talks back to the white women. And then there's 22-year-old Skeeter Phelan, a young white lady who has recently come home from college, Ole Miss, to find out her childhood maid has mysteriously disappeared.

While Aibileen and Minny are simply trying to make a living, Skeeter is in the enviable position of being able to pursue her ambition of being a writer. Inspired by her maid Constantine, who vanished, she comes up with the idea of collating the stories of the maids, for a publication. The worst of the female bosses, Miss Hilly, a Cruella De Vil character, treats Minny like a thief. And she campaigns to have Jackson households install extra toilets so that colored help do not have to use white families’ bathrooms.

Given that this is set in the 1960s, if any of the white women found out their servants had been talking publicly, they would have fired them. Furthermore, it a also illegal in Mississippi as it contravenes the Jim Crow segregation laws. Descriptions of the early activities of the civil rights movement are peppered throughout the novel and it gives it a true authentic setting.

This is an utterly compelling and thought-provoking book and I dare anyone to say otherwise. At first glance my initial reaction was that it's far too commercial for me, but how wrong I was. When I started reading, I couldn't stop, and this book, which deserves all the praise in the world, prompted many 4am reading stints.

Apparently Kathryn Stockett spent five years writing this novel, which clocked up almost 50 rejections from literary agents (high five Kathryn!) It was a number one New York Times Bestseller and has sold all over the world. A movie starring Sissy Spacek and Emma Stone is due to be released next year.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Dear Agent,

Dear Agent,

You have a tough job, I know.  I’ve read all the stuff about how you’re inundated with unsolicited manuscripts (try saying THAT after a snifter of Baileys), about how you’re fighting hard for your current list of published authors and about how the economic climate is making it so difficult right now for anybody trying to get a foot on the first rung of their writing career.
And I’ve watched enough episodes of ‘The Apprentice’ to appreciate that any kind of business deal, even in the publishing world (maybe especially in the publishing world, where trust plays such a key role) is only as good as the financial return it can realistically make.
So it’s a gamble.  Particularly with a newbie – I mean debut author.  
This new writer whose work you’re reading right now could so very easily turn out to be the lemon of the century.  They could be a one trick pony, a one-hit wonder, even a plagiarist of the highest order who’s got you hooked, lined and sunk already with their clever use of language and their ingenious plot-lines.
Of course you could Google them.  And their Facebook profile alone could ease your worried brow or else send you screaming for the hills.  And if they have a Blog, so much easier.  Unless their blog is a ‘name and shame’ shrine to all the rejection letters they receive from Agents, of course (you know *who* I mean).  Which is just mental. (IMHO obvs.  You might enjoy reading it.)
This work you’re currently holding could be the endeavours of a writer who’s given up opportunities to accomplish success in all fields other than the one true vocation they dream of. The humour which shines brightly through the words you’re reading here, could be all the confidence that is left of this writer – rejections having taken their toll and reduced them to a small quivering mass of nerves. They might have endless ideas overflowing in their ‘to be written’ document file and they might have the bright, exciting beginnings of new books already started, which they’ve already quietly dismissed as a reject themselves – a death before life. A waste of time which they convince themselves they’d probably spend more wisely keeping a house clean and greedy mouths stuffed.
You know how much power you have, dear Agent?  Do you know how monumental the tiniest glimmer of hope that you give to a writer can be?  It’s the difference between light and dark to us – the flick of a switch.  It’s easy to give up and not believe in ourselves when we haven’t achieved what we’ve known we always wanted to from aged 6. But it’s the hardest thing in the world to keep treading the same path wearing different heels and lipstick in the hope that one day we’ll turn a head.
Just saying.

Yours hopefully,

Monday, 6 December 2010

Location, location, location


I’ve got a very comfortable office at home. It’s a bit of a mess, admittedly, but I’ve long adapted to just averting my eyes from certain corners, like the one filled with a tottering pile of used padded envelopes [damn, I just looked directly at it]. But despite that, I have a good desk, a comfortable chair and a fairly decent computer. There’s the brilliant Spotify to satisfy all my musical needs and it takes just five minutes to pop downstairs for a cup of Earl Grey and a chocolate biscuit or five. If I get stuck for inspiration, I can take a walk in the beautiful park my house backs onto. Perfect, right? Hell, who wouldn’t get a whole ton of work done somewhere like that?!

Um, me...?

Even though I have everything I need right here, sometimes I know the only way I’m going to get words down on the screen is to get out. My number one favourite writing desination is the British Library. Laura Nelson guest posted on Strictly once before about the BL, but I think it deserves a bit more praise. I went for a day there last week, which always involves a bit of domestic rearrangement and upheaval to organise, but the minute I walked into the Humantities Reading Room, I felt an almost chemical sense of peace descend on me and was ready to write my heart out.

If you live within any reasonable distance of London and are wondering about checking it out, it might be useful to hear how it all works. The Reading Rooms are only accessible if you have a reader’s ticket. But writing a book is usually enough reason to be granted one. There’s also a mezzanine area which everyone can use. Here there are a number of seats with tables and somewhere to plug in your laptop. But be warned: these seats are at a premium and people queue to get them first thing in the morning. They’re all usually taken within about ten minutes.

If I can’t get to the BL, I might go to a cafe with a notebook or my laptop instead, which is very much a second best option but can still sometimes help me feel a bit more productive.

So if you’re feeling stuck or uninspired, try changing your writing location. Sometimes a change of scene is enough to get your creative juices flowing again.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Book Slam


Last week I finally dragged myself along to Book Slam. I have been meaning to go for ages but had never been free on the night. This time Geoff Dyer was appearing, so I was doubly eager to make the journey to The Tabernacle in Notting Hill.

Book Slam describes itself as London’s first/best/only literary nightclub. It was started about five years ago by the writer Patrick Neate and has grown up and spawned some looky-likeys (according to the experienced slammer I interviewed in the queue to the bar).

You sit at cabaret style tables, drink wine, maybe eat, and listen to some readings by guest writers and then there’s music. Tickets were £8 in advance or £10 on the door. I had a delicious, if expensive, Tabernacle burger and lashings of merlot, and more of that to follow.

The readings are sensibly short and interspersed with breaks long enough for you to get to the bar again, or chat to the people at your table, or celebrity spot. Apart from the official guests we saw that woman from Smack the Pony and there were lots of others who looked suitably arty. There was also time to sidle up to Geoff Dyer and get three books signed. I had recently finished Out of Sheer Rage, his hilarious account of not writing a critical study of D H Lawrence. I’d spent my time when reading that book trying to work out if I liked or loathed its self-obsessed and chronically indecisive narrator (i.e Geoff). Much like the narrator I had swung from loathing one moment to loving the next. Having met the real Geoff when asking him for the signing, I was swept away by his charm and am firmly in the love camp.

Patrick Neate was MC. He did a great job being funny and self-deprecating and whipping up support for the writers on parade. He explained that writers are a shy species, not accustomed to the limelight, who spend their days locked away in rooms with computers. We, the audience, should encourage them. Patrick generously allowed us to heckle him as much as we desired, which some did. He said it was good for him.

Geoff Dyer read from his recent book of essays Working The Room which was entertaining enough to send me to the bookstall table in one of the intervals. Rupert Thomas read from his drug-fuelled memoir This Party’s Got To Stop. Diana Athill didn’t make it as she had flu, and that’s a big deal at 93 years. Patrick said he’d tried to convince her to risk it, but in the end he stepped in with a piece of performance poetry. It was impressive – how he managed to remember the whole thing.

The evening was topped off by The Mind’s Ear orchestra. They play anything, conducted by members of the audience who volunteer for a slot. We listened to styles ranging from disco to chamber music, with all sorts of variations. It’s a brilliant idea and the effects are riotous. You have to see them if you get the chance.

So, all in all, Book Slam didn’t disappoint, apart from possibly the nightclub bit – at the end of the evening everyone decanted almost immediately into the bar downstairs, away from the main hall and the DJ. Maybe that’s because they had the orchestra this time. Jess and I went on to find a late opening pub in which to dissect the evening – oh the joys of a non-working week, for me an essential part of the writerly lifestyle is the permission to get pissed on Thursday night.

We’ll be going again, and if anyone fancies coming along we’d love you to join us.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Guest Post: Author Talli Roland - The Importance of Being Social

Working in the isolation of my flat each day, people often ask how I handle being alone. My answer? I love it. I make my own schedule, I sing Bon Jovi whenever I please, and if I want to snack on smelly squid crackers, no-one complains. It’s bliss and if I had my way, I’d probably never leave the flat. But looking back over the past year, I can’t deny that socializing does have its benefits. In fact, it was how I met my publisher, with whom I have now published three books.

After spending a fair bit of time whinging about everything writing-related to my long-suffering husband, he encouraged me to find other writers to whinge to. To prevent divorce and my head from exploding, I set out to find a writers group. Through the course of my search, I ended up meeting a publisher looking for new projects. Several pitches later, I signed a contract for the first book in a new travel series, 24 Hours London. Even though my real dream was writing fiction, I was ecstatic to finally be on the publication ladder.

When my novel The Hating Game was ready to pitch, I turned straight to the publisher I was already working with. Luckily, they loved it and I finally got what I’d wished for: a fiction deal. Still, the hard work was just beginning. As I already wrote for the publisher under my real name in a different genre, they thought it might be a good idea for me to use a pen name for fiction.

Although I was thrilled to have the deal, I knew this meant building up my platform again from scratch: reestablishing presences on Twitter and Facebook, and creating a new blog. I’d seen the benefits of social media when promoting my travel books – it had helped me get quotes from other authors (and even London Mayor Boris Johnson!), reviews and run giveaways. This time, I was determined to secure even more of a following and make my author platform the best it could be.

It’s a big investment in time and effort, but the results are more than worth it – I’ve now got more than 500 followers on my blog and double that on Twitter. But what really makes social media special is the relationships you build along the way. I have never met such a supportive group of people. Time and again, they have reassured and encouraged me when I needed it most.

For me, the key to building solid relationships in social media is interaction. Social media is not a one-way street: if people follow you, follow them back. If they comment on your blog, go to their blog and comment, too. Jump into Twitter discussions – you don’t need to know people to talk to them. If you’re on Facebook, comment on people’s statuses and posts. Not only is it a good way to get others to notice you, but you will let that person know you’re interested in their life, as well.

I recently wrote a blog post about author promotion, asking how much self-promotion is too much. Almost every comment replied that if an author interacts with their audience, they’re interested in that author’s promotion. But if it’s a one-way line of communication, it’s a turn-off. Who wants to listen to an author blaring like a fog horn?

Today, my debut novel The Hating Game launches. Using social media and the relationships I’ve developed over time, I’ve managed to get over 400 bloggers, Facebookers and Tweeters signed up to my Take On Amazon Web Splash today: my quest to make it onto the Amazon Bestsellers List – even if just for one hour! That’s something I’d never have been able to do without putting the time and effort into my blog and other media. But more than that, I’d never have met all the wonderful people around the world I know are standing behind me, cheering me on.

And the best thing? I did it all without leaving my flat.

Talli Roland has three loves in her life: rom coms, cupcakes and chocolate. Born and raised in Canada, Talli now lives in London, where she savours the great cultural life (cupcakes and chocolate). Despite training as a journalist, Talli soon found she preferred making up her own stories – complete with happy endings.  
The Hating Game is her first novel. The ebook is available now ahead of its paperback release next year. To learn more aboutTalli, go to www.talliroland.com, or follow Talli on Twitter or on her blog.