Friday, 29 July 2011

Take our poll

It's an oft-debated subject whether writers should stay true to their art regardless of anyone else's opinion, or write for a specific market. When blogging publicly like this, however, it would be pretty odd if we didn't care what our readers want. We're thinking about how to improve Strictly Writing over the next few months and we'd love to hear what you would like to see on the site.

Please tell us what you like best about the blog by taking our poll, and if you have other feedback about new things we could be doing (within reason - we don't mean stuff like posting nude pics of the team or anything) then let us know in the comments. You can even give constructive criticism if you like - we promise not to go all 'Greek Seaman' about it.

If you can't view the poll below, you can also access it here.



Thursday, 28 July 2011

DEAR DIARY...


The first sign of madness is said to be talking to oneself.

As someone who lives alone, I talk to myself quite a lot. I also write to myself. I’ve kept a journal since I was a child, carefully documenting every meal I ate in childhood, every boy I had a crush on in adolescence, and every internal issue I was wrestling with in adulthood. Folder upon folder of my life - deeply uninteresting to those who might stumble across it, but somehow impossible (so far) to throw out.

I discovered Morning Pages after reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way a decade or more ago, and diligently wrote my three pages a day. Unlike my journals, these writings were disposable. You were supposed to chuck them out afterwards. Therefore I never needed to be precious about their contents and could rant, rave and obsess to my heart’s content. No-one else would ever read them (unless a dustman retrieved them from the bin to peruse, in which case More Fool Him).

Recently, however, my journaling has taken a different turn. I read a fascinating interview with Sue Grafton in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing (Writers Digest Books). (This, by the way, is a fabulous handbook - a huge tome full of wonderful interviews and ideas.) So Sue Grafton’s chapter is all about the use of the working journal in writing a novel.

Every day, before she begins her current novel, she opens up a file which she calls ’Notes’, which she describes as ’a letter to myself’, and ’an emotional tether connecting me to each day’s work’ and which may eventually be four or five times the length of the completed novel.

She begins in a Morning Pages kind of way. Just checking in with herself, letting off a bit of steam, or simply clearing her brain of any detritus that’s hanging around ’if I’m coming down with a cold, if my cat’s run away, if I’ve got company coming in from out of town.’ Then she notes down any ideas that may have come to her during the night. Or she offloads any anxieties or concerns she has about the WIP. She then ’talks to herself’ about where she is in the book: the problems with the chapter she’s working on; the brainstorming of possibilities; the experimenting with ideas. She jots down any questions that arise, or scraps of dialogue, or ideas for new scenes. And this process slides her easily into the day’s work.

I didn’t really believe this was likely when I began a new practice over the last couple of months which has gradually evolved into a combination of Morning Pages and Working Journal. Every day, whilst eating my breakfast cereal, I fill one side of an A4 sheet of paper with longhand, rain or shine. Afterwards, I throw it away. Simples.

For the first several weeks, it was a chore. And it was very moany indeed. I struggled to fill the sheet. I got bored with my own complaints. The best thing about it was that I could chuck it out immediately afterwards.

Then, something else began to happen. I was still using the first few lines of it (sometimes more) to detail my bad night’s sleep, or my frustration with The Everlasting Meter Move (don’t ask), or my irritation with myself for being such a miserable git. What I call the mental grime. But as soon as I began to think about the WIP - or the marketing of my soon-to-be-published novel - or whatever was uppermost in my mind, I got really engaged. Ideas began to flow. It was like a wonderful brainstorming session with myself. Somehow, my unconscious mind had registered the time-and-paper constraints after a month or so of practice: rather as your mind can ’programme’ your body to wake at a certain time if you focus on it before sleeping. And because such ideas often came along in the last third of the sheet of A4, I moved seamlessly to the computer afterwards to write them down. Once I’d done so, the day’s sheet was thrown away, and I was off.

Grafton says there’s an additional bonus to the working journal: when you’re immersed in your next novel and look back at the journal for the previous one, you’ll see the same issues and problems and fears resurfacing as you are (probably) feeling now. A reminder, as Grafton says, that:

‘Prior journals are reminders that regardless of past struggles, I did somehow manage to prevail. Having survived through two novels, or five, or even twelve, in my case, there’s some reason to suppose I’ll survive to write the next.’

I thoroughly recommend it.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Does Size Matter?

Big Van, Little Van
There are a couple of reasons I haven't read War and Peace:
1. It sounds like it might not have many laughs.
2. I have trouble pronouncing the author's name.
3. I'm not convinced I'm good with historical fiction (it IS fiction, right?)
4. I've heard it's HUGE.

And although, like Rod's last post, some of you may well have read it and LOVED it and can't see a good reason in ANY of mine why I shouldn't just grab it by the scruff and devour it in one sitting (can you see my tongue being all ironically in-cheek?) I'm sticking to my guns.
In fact if Jodi Picoult wasn't such a blimmin' brilliant writer, there's NO WAY I'd ever be buying another of her 600-page tomes; as it is, I could open my own JP Library, but I digress as usual.

I remember reading 'Through a Glass Darkly' before I'd even got out of bed one morning.  I think it had been raining, it was a weekend and... well, it was too good to stop.  And being only 161 pages long, it was an eminently achievable feat. And now that I've picked it up to check it's page-count, I've just noticed I've automatically disclaimed my Excuse No.2 above.  "Jostein Gaarder" doesn't exactly trip off the tongue does it?

I read the first Harry Potter book to my daughter at a rate of a chapter a night (she was a bit younger then) until we got half way through the second book and it still felt like I was holding a brick.  I remember her sighing one night and telling me to stop "let's just watch the film when it comes out" she smiled sleepily.  So we did. I don't know what made me more disappointed, the fact that we hadn't got to finish the book or that I wouldn't be throwing myself into any more of my amazing Hagrid impersonations of an evening.

We flew through 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe'.  And 'The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde' comes in at a trim 25,000 words.  Oh, don't worry, I didn't read that one to the young daughter, I'm just giving another example of brevity over unnecessary wordage.

I'm a slave to word-count when I'm writing adult fiction.  Simply because somewhere there is information that an adult book is 'usually' anything between 85 and 120 thousand words long.  I like to stick to the Norm if I can. But I find myself constantly clicking on the word-count icon to see how I'm getting on and I seriously think I should join Word-Counters Anonymous for the amount of metaphorical self-flagellation that goes on during this exercise of ocd proportions.

Likewise I worry when I'm writing teenage fiction, if my word-count starts to creep beyond the 55thou mark. I fret that I'm going to start losing (mine and any potential readers') interest if there are too many words.  After all, teenagers aren't renowned for their great spans of concentration either, are they?

So does it really matter how long a story is so long as the story is written?  If there's a beginning, a middle and an end, where does it say there should be superfluous guff padding out its girth for the benefit of Norm?


Monday, 25 July 2011

I liked that book

A lot of us write reviews from time to time, and we all read them. In my recent attempt to review We need to talk about Kevin, which blew me out of my seat, I was struck by how reviewing comes with its own collection of stock phrases. So, here’s my guaranteed, cliché free review.

WNTTAK is a page-turner and was utterly beguiling and unputdownable. It gripped me from cover to cover. A spellbinding read with a thrilling plot, it keeps you guessing to the very last page. Written by an author at the height of her powers, this book really delivers.

Actually, I enjoyed WNTTAK so much I dedicated the whole of one of my writing Fridays to finishing it, but after reading the review above I wouldn’t be tempted to crease its spine. Perhaps I’m coming to the conclusion that the whole of English is cliché. There’s nothing to say that hasn’t been said a thousand times before with exactly the same words. It’s as if we are all a collection of monkeys with typewriters. Sooner or later another monkey will repeat the works of Shakespeare.

Take, for example, the witticism I heard on the radio the other day. I can’t remember who said it, and I can’t remember which composer he was talking about, and I’ve googled my fingers off trying, but the phrase was, “His music is not as good as it sounds.” Brilliant. It’s one of those: I-wish-I’d-said-that moments, but then I wondered how many people had independently come up with the same notion. It’s a thought that often cripples me when writing fiction. What if twenty people have written exactly the same scene? I know the answers, but it’s still scary.

So from now on I shall keep my reviews simple. As any literary agent will tell you, the only correct way to refer to your enjoyment of a novel is that you loved it.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

On Dishwashers And Writing Houses


Rachel Connor works for the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank, former home of the ex-Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes. Along with her colleagues, she hosts groups of writers who come to stay at the writing centre most weeks of the year. She never tires of the view. You can read more about Rachel, her work for Arvon and her forthcoming novel ‘Sisterwives’ on her website at http://www.rachelconnorwriter.com/

Monday morning; there’s the thrum of a lawnmower outside on the lower terrace, the hum of a vacuum cleaner from the landing above. The house is in waiting, being prepared for the sixteen writers and two tutors who will comprise this week’s participants. ‘Arvon has been running these courses for forty three years,’ we tell people in the welcome talk. ‘This week it’s your turn.’

What amazes me every week is how readily most groups grow into their ‘turn’ and claim ownership – not just the physical space of the house itself but a growing into the rhythm of the week. It’s that feeling of wanting to ‘make the most’ of the place, the time, the opportunity to write. Because, let’s face it, it can be a big thing to set aside a week to go away and write, to leave behind families, partners, work and the demands of everyday life. Some make new friends; all go away changed in some way. Some realise that they are writers, when they’ve grappled for years with what that means; others might learn something difficult, fundamental – even unwelcome - about their work. All of these things mean that the writer will grow.

The reason Arvon works is simple: the system works to create not just a writing course, but a place where people come together as a community of writers. It was there right from the beginning, forty three years ago, and is still a keystone of the way the courses run now. As well as attending workshops together, everyone eats around a big table; participants are put into groups for cooking and washing up. By the end of the first evening – the first meal and wash up, the ‘get to know you’ writing session – the bonding is already beginning to happen.

Of course, washing up (or even cooking, for that matter) isn’t to everyone’s liking; there are inevitable grumbles about the lack of dishwasher. But none of this is new. In Lumb Bank’s kitchen we have a framed poem, written in the 1990s, ‘On Lumb Bank Not Having a Dishwasher.’ By the end of the poem, the poet’s initial dismay has been dispelled. It’s deliberate, she realises, because it makes you stop, and look, and think.

And then there are the workshops. As a member of staff at the centre, working in the background, putting away shopping or preparing the lunch, it’s easy to feel like Cinderella. There are the gales of laughter from the dining room, where the group is writing. There are the tantalising snippets of work being read aloud, evidence – afterwards – of an exercise designed to generate and stimulate. Sometimes there are fragments of poems pinned to the walls. More than once I’ve found myself wondering if we might invest in a baby monitor, for the purposes of listening in while I’m making salad.

One of the remarkable things about my job is being witness to countless small but significant moments in people’s writing lives. It might be in the sitting room on a Monday, after everyone has arrived, when a participant realises – perhaps for the first time in their life - they don’t have to explain their motivation for writing. It might be seeing a nervous student waiting outside a closed door before their one to one tutorial with a tutor. They clutch notebooks to chest, faces almost white with anticipation. Then they emerge, butterfly-like, lighter, validated, understood.

For me, the most rewarding weeks are those we run with young people. We might have inner city kids – with little or no experience of the countryside – arriving into the space and green of the valley. They marvel at the ‘wildlife’ and the view. Within minutes they’ve found the piano. Their concentration is tested; they learn new kitchen skills, how to chop an onion. They eat food they never thought they’d try. And writing...with the guidance of two tutors who are chosen for their humour, compassion and sensitivity, these schoolchildren gently open up, petals turned towards light. ‘Miss,’ they say, coming into the kitchen during a coffee break. ‘I’ve wrote a poem, miss, do you want to hear it?’

How could there be any other answer than yes?

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival 2011




Readers of crime fiction are voracious. Too much is never enough.


For this reason, despite the recession, novels involving blood and guts and murders and detection are still selling decidedly well.




Crime readers are also hugely loyal. Once you launch a character, or a series or a brand that they like, they stick with you.




But the best thing about crime readers is that they love to get involved. Not for them the simple consumption of fiction. No chance, they want to get up close and personal with the very people who write the stuff. They love book signings, and author talks and interviews and they make the best audiences, lively with laughter and rippling with probing questions. I don't think I've ever done an event that ran to time. They just want to know ...well...everything.




So you can imagine how much I'm looking forward to this weekend's festival of crime writing in Harrogate. It's gonna be a blast.




For one thing there are some very big names in attendance: David Baldacci, Lee Child and the most successful of all British female crime writers (no not me) Martina Cole to name but a few.




And amongst all this star studded entertainment, I will be in the throngs, asking questions and thrusting my favourite books under the noses of my favourite auhtors for a scribbled signature.




And on Saturday 23rd at 2pm, I'll be speaking myself, taking part in a panel called Legal Eagles, which will find me alongside three other lawyers, MR Hall, Francis Fyfield and Martin Edwards who use their legal experience to pen court room dramas. It's stellar company and I'm delighted to be asked (and bricking it naturally).




Later that night I'm hosting a table at the black tie supper. I hope that my guests aren't expecting a figure of literary weight. I tend to laugh very loudly, swear far too much and neck wine like I'm at the last supper...




So if you live near by, or don't mind the journey to a gorgeous little town, why not pop in? I promise you it will be well worth it.


Monday, 18 July 2011

The answer is in your back yard

In a recent moment of non-inspiration, I decided to seek advice about my WIP. Getting proper advice, however, is quite time-consuming and potentially expensive, so instead I spent a few minutes consulting the free online version of The Book of Answers. The idea is that you contemplate your question and then click to reveal the words of wisdom by which you should live the remainder of your life. I started with the obvious:

Me: Is my work-in-progress any good?
Book of answers: ASK YOUR MOTHER

Well, I could, but she's a bit biased and I was actually asking you. So, do you think it's any good?
OF COURSE

Oh! Super! But are you sure anyone would really buy a novel about Victorian quackery and freak shows?
IT'S GONNA BE GREAT

How am I going to sort out this whole business of Dr Rasmussen's narrative being in diary format and Tilly's in retrospective first person?
ASK YOUR FATHER

That's all very well, but what if I were an orphan?
THE ANSWER IS IN YOUR BACKYARD

So the answer is dog shit?
YES

Intriguing... perhaps it's time to move on to some questions about writing 'rules'. Are adverbs a Bad Thing?
SEEK OUT MORE OPTIONS

What about speech tags other than 'said'?
YES

Yes that they're a Bad Thing?
YES

'Well, that's pretty conclusive,' she intoned noddingly. Should I avoid the verb 'to be' at all costs?
TRUST YOUR INTUITION

Should I only write what I know?
THE ANSWER MAY COME TO YOU IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE

Do you mean the answer might come to me in another language, or that it is permitted to do so?
A YEAR FROM NOW IT WON'T MATTER.

Very true. A year from now, will I be dead?
FINISH SOMETHING ELSE FIRST

So, if I never finish anything, I'll live forever. Do you agree?
OF COURSE

Nice one! But in the words of Queen, Who wants to live forever?
GENTLE PERSISTENCE WILL PAY OFF

An eternity of gentle persistence doesn't sound that appealing really. Back to the writing questions... should the passive voice be used?
TRUST YOUR INTUITION

Are there any circumstances in which it's all right to tell rather than show?
TRUST YOUR INTUITION

I sense that you've given up with this whole advice thing. I suppose I should actually go and write something rather than arsing about here, shouldn't I?
YES.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Indie Love








One of the questions in the Strictly Writing Quickfire slot is ‘Independent bookshop or Amazon?’ and almost all our authors, agents and poets who answer this say they use both.

I’d love to say the same. But the truth is that I almost always buy books from my local Waterstones or from Amazon.

There, I’ve fessed up.


I love the idea of independent bookshops as much as the next person, but since my most local one closed, in Palmer’s Green, there simply wasn’t anywhere else within a mile or so of my home that I could go.


Recently, I spent a day with my Piccadilly Press publicist Andrea Reece travelling around North London to visit a bunch of indies to promote my debut novel for young people, Dark Ride. We even had special ‘Dark Ride’ chocolate, which went down very well. [Books and chocolate – what more could a person want?]


First up, we went to The Children’s Bookshop in Muswell Hill, then onto The Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green. From there we took a trip over Hackney to Victoria Park Books and then onto the Newham Bookshop in East London.


These are hard times in publishing and the insecurity and worry about the future is probably in inverse proportion to the amount of money these booksellers make. But what struck me in every single instance, was the huge passion and dedication on show from each and every one of the staff. There’s love in them thar shops. Not to mention a huge amount of expertise and an encylopaedic knowledge of books and publishing.


Being a complete geek about children’s and YA books I ended up having some great chats in each of the shops...and coming out with a handful of purchases in every case [I know, I know...point of this exercise was ultimately to MAKE money. But with such a lot of riches on offer, it was beyond my ability to resist.]


Don’t get me wrong. I’m not in any way criticising staff in the big chains and have personally always found them mostly helpful and enthusiastic. But this day out reminded me what was special about independents and why it would be a crying shame if every bookshop we went into was a clone of the next.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Question Time


If you follow Strictly regularly, you'll have noticed that we occasionally ask writers a series of Quick-Fire Questions, designed to get in amongst the nitty-gritty details of their writing lives.

This morning I decided to choose five questions to ask myself, with the idea of asking you, should you choose this mission, to do the same. Here are the questions and my answers:

Where do you write?
Perched at a breakfast bar in my recently rented flat in Bristol. Squashed between a fridge-freezer and a full-length Georgian window with no curtain. At night I can see into my neighbours' hall. I watch their nocturnal comings-and-goings, which usually involve dogs. And they can watch me struggling to write. An edifying sight, I'm sure.

Plotter or Pantser?
In my fondest dreams, I'm a Pantser through and through. Flying by the seat of my pants, Letting It All Hang Out on the page. Keeping it loose. Scrawling freely in longhand in a notebook, all the way through to the end of a wonderfully Shitty First Draft. In reality I hunch like a constipated Scrooge over the keyboard (all the better for obsessing over every word), unable or unwilling to move on until the bit I've written is Absolutely Right.

Booker Prize or Hollywood Movie?
Hmm. Tricky. Though given the style of my writing, I think a Hollywood movie might be best (the money, of course, doesn't come into it): I'd rather connect with a multitude of people than with a critical few. Also, I don't have the right kind of intellect for the Booker interviews I'd have to do for Radio Four. I would crumble under John Humphrys' steely eye.

Favourite writing snack - sweet or savoury?
I'm not choosy, as long as it's within easy reach and not too messy (see - even my snacks have to be plotted).

What makes your inner writer happy?
The magic of writing: the joy when a combination of words and phrases comes together feeling real and true and right; creating something or someone who wasn't there before and who never will exist unless I sit down and write them; the way the writing knows where it's going, even if I don't.

So, over to you. Any or all of them.

- Where do you write?
- Plotter or Pantser?
- Booker Prize or Hollywood Movie?
- Favourite writing snack?
- What makes your writer happy?

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

"Ah Pain, thy name is Writing..."

Okay, here’s a little teaser for you:
What have Chopin, James Blunt, Rameses II, Kenneth Williams, Sheila Hancock, Arthur Schopenhauer, Bruce Forsyth and me got in common?
That’s right. We were all born on the same day. And this has been my ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for as long as I can remember. With a hand to the precocious brow I have escaped many a sideways remark with my claim to arty fame. We’re a very sensitive bunch, us Pisceans – although I’ve heard that anyone born between 19-22nd of any month could arguably be termed a Cuspian because it’s such a close call, day-wise. Anyway, we are the creative Cuspians of the Zodiac.
So there.
Woe-me-oh, woe-me oh!

I’m actually more than a little disappointed that Tony Hancock, Lord Byron and Sylvia Plath weren’t born on this day because at times I feel a total empathy with these people as well. And whenever Brucie’s on the TV, I always get a warm glow. But that could be more to do with the sofa; there’s probably a small empire of hitherto undiscovered life-form living in the depths of that and none of us would know.

Arthur Schopenhauer, as we all know, was the quintessential Philosopher of Pessimism and for that reason alone, I respectfully doff my creative Cuspian Cap; I bet HE turned up "Tears of a Clown" full blast too.


You see, for all the hard skin we writers have to develop, and be seen to be sporting, we’re nothing but a bunch of totally tormented artists, deep down. And this is what I find the toughest thing to cope with in writing. To harden my fragile, approval-seeking skin to the rigours of this very subjective pursuit.

I’ve been wondering recently if Dickens had had access to the internet, whether he’d be trawling through Amazon listings and the Authonomy website hoping to see his rankings increase. And if Jane Austen had a Facebook page, if she’d be constantly fretting over how many ‘likes’ ‘fans/friends’ she was getting daily. And how tortured would Shakespeare have become if he hadn’t got any comments on the blog post he’d spent ages honing to his idea of perfection that morning?

My internal meanderings even took me as far as finally understanding why and how and in what place Van Gogh must have been to have gouged off his own ear. Web-surfing will do that to ME at times. I guess it all boils down to the eternal struggle for artistic recognition, doesn’t it? Our readers. Our audience. The people that we hope we can entertain. The ones who will applaud our finer bits and perhaps ignore or heckle or reassure our bad. And if we don’t get the kind of support and recognition that we hope we deserve, that we strive to achieve, then at times it does make you feel like stuffing dampened blankets round the kitchen door frame and turning the gas up a bit.

My personal response to rejection disappointments is one of retreat. Much like the injured wild animal. I prefer to take my wounds away from societal scrutiny and go somewhere quiet and dark until I am repaired. Until I feel strong enough to try it all over again. Because this is an exhausting road we have lain before us - the road to literary success. And there are other, less scaredy-cats out there who seem to instinctively know how to bounce right back and keep on going for their particular kill.

Which is why Mother Nature invented Little (Literary) Chefs.
I haven’t given up my journey; I’m just having a pit-stop and rethinking my route, that’s all.
And the All-Day Breakfast looks nice too.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

QUICK-FIRE QUESTIONS WITH...ANGIE SAGE


Angie began as an illustrator of children’s books and slowly moved into writing books for toddlers. Then she allowed herself to write what had been in her head for years: Septimus Heap. She is now on the last book of the series and has a film in the offing with Warner Brothers.


Writing the Septimus Heap books has changed my life by...
... allowing me to write full time, which I had wanted to do for quite a while. Also it has been great to find that I can create something that people feel an emotional attachment to. In my previous working life as an illustrator I felt I never quite managed to do that. And of course feeling financially secure has made a big difference!

I write for children because...
...that’s just how it happened. Because I was illustrating children’s books it was a natural progression. When I have time I want to go back and finish my ‘grown-up’ novel, but that is a bit of a luxury at the moment.

As a child I read...
...voraciously. My mother got quite worried, first about my eyes “it’s not good for you, all that small print” and later about my lack of social life, “why don’t you get out more instead of always having your head in a book.” Hey ho. Up to the age of about eleven I read Enid Blyton, E. Nesbit, Rosemary Sutcliffe, all the classic children’s stuff with the exception of Swallows and Amazons which I somehow missed. After that I graduated to grown-up stuff, which I sometimes found scary.

Age-banding is...
...not a great idea. Books appeal to different ages for all kinds of reasons, not just age. Why be proscriptive? There’s enough to put children off from reading without adding an age range too, so that slower readers feel embarrassed about reading ‘too young’.

The hardest thing about writing is...
...writing! I do find plot the most difficult thing within that, whereas writing characters is what comes most easily.

My underlying themes are...
Isn’t that something the author is not meant to realise? At a guess I’d say that in the Septimus series is about putting back together things that have been broken and pulled apart. Creating a whole once more.

Longhand first or straight to computer?
Computer. I don’t think I could write a book without a computer, I change so much stuff much as I go along. I also don’t think well in longhand. The brain-keyboard connection is what works for me.

First drafts are...
...important to get right. Editing something that has not worked first time is a total nightmare. I try and get everything right (ish) as I go along. I think that is one of the great advantages of using a computer as in reality the first draft is probably the sixth or seventh. My drafts don’t change much at all, ideally the second draft is just about refining language, cutting repetition, making sure I’ve not shot myself in the foot with the timing- that kind of thing.

I wouldn't have got this far without...
...my editor at HarperCollins, Katherine Tegen. My first book, MAGYK, needed a lot of editing and I learnt so much from Katherine.

I'm most inspired by…
AARGH Why does this inspiration question really bug me? I dunno. I think it’s because it implies that writing is some idiot-savant thing you don’t have to work at or even think about. Just wait for the fairy dust of Inspiration to settle over you and write down what it tells you to. I always want to say, what do you mean by inspiration. What … do… you … mean? There, I have had my rant and I feel much better now, thank you.

My shameful writing secret is
I don’t plan much at all.

The most exciting thing about writing is
...when you write something really funny. So funny that you laugh at it days later.

The three writers I'd invite to dinner are...
Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh and … well, it has to be William Shakespeare. I reckon he’s the only person they’d listen to. And I’d love to hear about Elizabethan society.

If I were to try writing in another genre it would be...
Please file Genre under the AARGH section – see Inspiration.

The best thing about being a published author is...
...people take you more seriously. And lots more people read your books. And you get paid.

A writer should never...
...get complacent.

Favourite writing snack...
Chocolate raisins.

If I could pass on any tip it would be...
Ask what people think about what you’ve written and listen to it. Do not be offended by what they say, even if you think they are sadly mistaken and wouldn’t know a work of genius if it hit them on the head. They are your readers.

If I could go back and do it all again I would...
...enjoy my early success with MAGYK more and not get so worried about writing all the other books.

When I'm stuck for ideas I …
...talk to my husband, Rhodri, who writes too, about the problem. I get ideas when I say things out loud.

Booker prize or Hollywood film?
Both, please! But for different books. Hollywood film for Septimus (and it’s looking like it might well happen...) Booker for my novel-in-waiting. If that’s ok. Thanks.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Poets' Revolt




You may have heard of the recent troubles at The Poetry Society. There has been a spate of senior resignations in the last couple of months including the President of the Society, the wonderful, Jo Shapcott.


A group of poets convened by Kate Clanchy has been campaigning for an Emergency General Meeting to find out what has been going on. Now, I'm not normally one for joining protest marches or taking part in riots; I'm ashamed to say that the government can cut practically anything and you won't find me peeing on the statue of Winston Churchill, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to accompany the requisition to the offices of The Poetry Society.



This was mostly because it was delivered in a red wheelbarrow, a la William Carlos Williams. Suddenly so much depended on being there. My main role was to take a few pictures, alongside the chap from the Guardian, and I also took it upon myself to recast the requisition into pentameters (see below). The thing had been drawn up with the help of lawyers, and this I deemed inappropriate.


We, the undersigned, constituting
As we believe, roughly ten percent
Of members of the Poetry Society,
Have learnt about the resignation of
The Chair of the Trustees and the Director,
The Finance Chappie and the President,
And in order for us to determine
Whether the remaining Board of Trust-
Ees continues with our fulsome faith
We now require the Board to summon up an
Extraordinary General Meeting
In which to spill the beans on these events
In the lucid and trustworthy manner
Members of the PoSoc would expect
Of its elected representatives;
An independently chaired forum for
The statements of the members and their questions;
And detailing account of how the Board
Will continue with the PoSoc's business
In accordance with its stated aims.



I also grew a beard specially for the event, so that I would not stand out from the other poets.






Anyway, it was quite a pleasant afternoon and an addition to my list of excuses for not writing. Only about six of us turned up, but the wheelbarrow contained over 400 signatures, including the Poet Laureate. Laura Bamford, the acting Chair of the Trustees greeted us in good humour - it was nice to meet her. The good news is that our requisition has been successful and there will be an EGM later this month.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Cue The Canned Laughter

I’m trying to be funny. Not here, but in the WIP. As I’m writing women’s fiction and the story is issue driven, there’s a real need for a little light relief from at least one of the characters. He started out right, exactly what I wanted him to be, but somewhere along the line he has fallen into slapstick mode. The last few pages I read of him, he almost burst into ‘OOOOH Matron!’ Alas, he is now contrived and the most irritating, unfunny character I have ever had the misfortune to read. Not good. Not good at all.

Is this fixable? I hope so. Will it require a major re-write? I hope not. Am I pissed off that my funny man is now not funny? Damn right.

So, how do I fix it? Here are my initial thoughts (most of which have been brought on by sheer panic, so bear with me...)

1. Delete him. Completely. Get rid of him. Murder the little darling. He is no longer funny. He deserves a fate worse than death.

2. Finish the WIP. Insert brackets wherever he appears e.g (Make THIS funny)

3. Highlight all his dialogue in red. (VERY time consuming but possibly worth it) then leave him alone for a couple of days, watch a few episodes of ‘Friends’ and introduce a humour device eg a thieving racoon (Remember that episode? Now THAT was funny...)

4. Give him a catch phrase, something like ‘Ooh Matron’ but obviously not that. Maybe, ‘It’s good, but it’s not right...’ a la Roy Walker? No, not that. That wouldn’t be funny. In fact catch phrases are not funny.

5. Give him funny one liners. Ahh... (Light bulb moment) That’s how he started. And that’s who he is. And that was working until his one liners started to sound like something from the parts of Carry On that ended up on the cutting room floor.

See? All it took was a brain storm here on Strictly Writing. I now know how to fix un-funny man. It does require going back and reading the entire work to date to see where he lost his sense of humour. From there, I will read his dialogue aloud and decide on whether a funny one liner is appropriate, hopefully coming up with one, should it be. No problem.

Or I could just kill him off- have him come to a sticky end eaten by a thieving racoon dressed as a matron?


Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Book review - One More River by Lynne Reid Banks


One of my favourite young adult books is One More River written by the supremely talented and prolific author Lynne Reid Banks. I recall reading it when I was around twelve years old and it left a lasting impression on me. I often wonder do we get the same 'buzz' when we re-read old childhood classics. I decided recently to cast my eye over this fabulous book again and I can honestly say I was not let down.

This novel follows Canadian teenager Lesley who enjoys a luxurious way of life in her home city of Saskatoon. However this idyllic life is soon to change when her father decides to relocate the family to Israel, a move which would allow them to fully embrace their Jewishness. Lesley is initially distraught at this snap decision and starts to rebel against her family. However once settled in the Israeli kibbutz, she begins to find this frugal and very basic way of life quite tolerable. The teeanger soon strikes up a relationship with a Palestinian boy called Mustafa, who lives on the other side of the River Jordan with his family and his donkey which Lesley calls Eeyore.

The book is set during and after the 1967 Six Day War which provides an educational backdrop. The war began on June 5, 1967 and ended on June 10. The conflict was between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. The book has enjoyed great critical acclaim. While many modern books for young people focus on issues such as supernatural forces, heroes and villains (like Harry Potter), One More River contains three dimensional characters with whom we can identify. It’s a book which really should be included in a school syllabus as it provides so much more than a story about a girl settling into a new life in Israel. It can be used to develop discussion of today’s problems in the Middle East and enhance understanding of other world religious and political conflicts.

Lynne Reid Banks is the author of over forty books. She was born in London, and subsequently evacuated to Saskatoon in the Province of Saskatchewan, Canada during World War. In 1962 she emigrated to Israel and found a job teaching on a kibbutz. She uses her experience of kibbutz life in many of her books and if children enjoy One More River, they should be encouraged to read other books in her catalogue.

The book is aimed at readers aged ten to thirteen, but the mass appeal of One More River lies in the fact it can be read by young adults of any age. It is a truly engaging book and one which will teach children about history as well as relationships across political and religious divides. I recently read the follow-up Broken Bridge which was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction award and the Carnegie Medal. It is set twenty-five years later and follows the lives of Lesley’s children, nieces and nephews in Israel - highly recommended if you want to encourage a teenager to develop good reading habits.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Slow Down


I was at a meeting recently with two heads of local arts’ departments, planning a literary festival. We’d spent two hours talking enthusiastically about our dream author lists.  As we got up to leave one of them said with feeling, ‘At least Michael Dibden’s dead, thank God, so I don’t have any more of his hanging over me.’
‘But,’ I said,  'moments ago you said he was your favourite author.’
‘Oh, he is,’ said the arts councillor. ‘But they pile up too fast these days, don’t they? They’re churning them out. All my favourite authors. They just won’t stop producing one a year and I can’t keep up.’
‘Exactly!’ said the other officer. ‘Why doesn’t someone tell them to slow down?’ And with that they headed off, bleary eyed, to buy a novel by our leading guest author this year who both of them had heard of but neither had yet managed to quite get round to.
I can’t argue with their grievance, can you? But I was shocked to hear such exasperation in the voices of the keenest readers and the injunction to slow down because they are buying faster than they can read.

When I signed with my agent the first thing she asked was how long the book had taken to write.  She hmmed at my answer and said I’d be expected to write one a year, that’s how the slots worked.
Slots?
Apparently publishers have slots for a certain number of books. If a big author chooses to take her time writing another, or is rich enough not to need to bang out the statutory one-a-year, her slot becomes vacant and a rookie can get a toe in the door that season. Fascinating stuff. But more fascinating to me was the heartfelt readers’ plea for authors to slow down and take the time their book needs to mature and be perfected. Speculating on nothing more than two avid readers crying for fewer books to come out per year is hardly scholarly research, but it struck a chord. I’d be interested to know across the board: if authors hanker after more time to develop a book, and readers can’t wade through their bedside piles fast enough – who gains in this?
Publishers may not care, short term, if readers are buying without reading, but this trend in overbuying may account for the sales drop off for second books. Mid-list authors are being shed because readers are slow to buy book two. As I would be if an author’s debut was still gathering dust under my alarm clock and cat, in the teetering tower of books ‘to be read soon-well-sometime-this-year-or-next. Sales dips may have nothing to do with reader enthusiasm for an author’s style, and more to do with the accelerated pace of author productivity.

My husband used to work at Manchester Waterstone’s in the golden days when Robert Topping was store manager and those italic notes recommending staff choices were genuinely that – not pre-paid sentences scripted by the publishers’ marketing department. Topping used to say, ‘Remember, we’re not selling shirts here.’
Twenty years on, the gap between selling books and shirts has closed. Authors are knocking out product apace and their line is cancelled if sales drop below a certain figure. There’s less career development; no long game. Publishers might make everyone happier by suggesting authors bring out a book every two or three years instead of sweat-shopping and perhaps the buying/reading bottleneck would ease off.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Quickfire questions with children's author Anthony McGowan



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


François Rabelais and Anthony Burgess for intellectual bawdy and smut; Emily Bronte, so I could try, for one night, to make her happy.


What's your favourite writing snack?


Wish I could say it was donuts - my next book is called the Donut Diaries of Dermot Milligan - but I don''t actually like them. I'm more of a muffin man.


Longhand or computer?


My Mac, of course. Or occasionally goose-quill on vellum.


Win Booker prize or land Hollywood film deal?


Hollywood, I think, for the parties - dwarves with bowls of cocaine on their heads, that sort of thing. No, what am I saying ... Booker.

Tabloid or broadsheet?


I'm a Grauniad man.


Independent bookshop or Amazon?


There's room for both.



Hacker or adder?


It always comes out perfectly the first time.


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


I have a good idea of both start and end points, but the journey in between is pretty random.



Leave on a cliffhanger or tell all?


Totally depends on the particular book. Hellbent ends with a cliff-hanger, The Knife that Killed Me leaves nothing unsaid.


You really must read…


The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley.


I get most excited by…


Lightning (a big flash just went off right over my head!)



If I wasn’t a writer I would be…


A would-be writer.



An author should always…


Oscillate between believing in their own true greatness, and knowing that they are completely useless at the job.


Anthony McGowan is a multi-award winning author of books for adults, teenagers and younger children. He has written two highly acclaimed literary thrillers, Stag Hunt and Mortal Coil, for Hodder & Stoughton, and three young-adult novels, Hellbent, Henry Tumour and The Knife That Killed Me, for Random House. Random House also publishes his Bare Bum Gang series for 7-10 year olds. His latest book for children, Einstein¹s Underpants, was shortlisted for the 2010 Roald Dahl Funny Prize. The Fall, a novella for teenagers, was released on May 21, and The Donut Diaries, for 9-12 year olds, in August 2011.