January Books Round-up

Looking for something to read? Here's what the Strictly team's noses have been stuck into this month.

First up is Slam by Nick Hornby. This is a small but beautifully formed YA novel, written in the voice of the teenaged protagonist who finds himself a Father. And when I say in voice, I mean it. Not one word from any other POV, not a comma to hint at authorial intrusion. Funny, painful, entertaining. Perfect.

Next is Tokyo by Mo Hayder. This is not one of her latest, but easily her best. She masterfully blends a past narrative set during the Nanking massacre, with the story of a troubled young woman searching for a lost piece of film in present day Tokyo. This author again uses first person, unerring POV to haunting effect. The result is frightening and thrilling.

Caroline R
I'm currently reading Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine by George M Gould and Walter L Pyle. It's the first ebook I've read on my iPod Touch and I really like this format – it's convenient to have it in my pocket and read a few pages here and there. And I do read it in the bath – I mean, since when was it a good idea to drop a normal book in the bath anyway?

I'm also still making stately progress through Roy Porter's Flesh in the Age of Reason – I've been reading this on and off for about a year.

I have recently finished reading ‘Just the Three of Us’ by Clare Dowling. This is the story of an affair told, by alternate chapters, through the eyes of the wife and mistress. Dowling’s writing is extremely funny yet perceptive and shows the pain caused to all parties by adultery. What’s more, both plotlines are compulsive. An excellent read.

With my youngest, I am currently reading ‘The Children’s Bible in 365 Stories’. What a beautifully illustrated book containing one short story for every day of the year. These biblical tales are told in an entertaining but authentic way, and would suit children of all ages.

I first read Cane River by Lalita Tademy after picking it up in a branch of Barnes and Noble, which had an impressive array of African-American literature. It follows four generations of women born into a hierarchical plantation environment along the Louisiana river. The character Elisabeth notices a 'bleaching of the line' as her daughter Suzette, then her granddaughter Philomene and finally her great-granddaughter Emily bear the illegitimate offspring of the area's white French planters.

And staying on the river theme (purely co-incidental that my novel is called A River to Cross!) I first read this book as a nine-year-old. In Lynne Reid Banks' One More River spoiled teen Lesley moves with her parents from Canada to an Israeli kibbutz because her father feels that the family has lost any sense of what it means to be Jewish. Much of the novel is set before, during and immediately after the Six-Day War period and follows Lesley's efforts to adjust, as well as addressing her growing friendship with an Arab boy.

I'm guilty. Waterstones lures me in with their 3 for 2 offers and on
Monday I succumbed in order to buy the latest book club book 'The Book
Thief' (Watch this space) While there, I saw Jenn Asworth's debut novel
'A Kind of Intimacy' which I'm currently loving when I should be loving
the book club book. The complex main character of Annie has me
enthralled. I'm not even sure I like her, but I do feel sorry for her
and want to know both what has happened to her in her past, and what's
going to happen as the story unfolds. A beautifully written and unusual tale.

Marian Keyes latest novel (I am a HUGE fan - when I grow up I want to
morph into MK) The Brightest Star In The Sky has released to unusually
mixed reviews. Someone, something is visiting 66 Star Street's residents
- able to slip in and out of their homes easily. The paranormal (is
it??) twist keeps the reader guessing who/what this is until the last
few pages. Vintage Keyes in parts with wonderful laugh out loud moments, insightful glimpses into people's characters, characters I cared about but... for me - there was just too much going on.

I'm 'book-hopping' at the moment. I have three on the go, with two more on the starting-line. I read each book at different times of day. I'm three-quarters through 'Attitudes of Gratitude' by MJ Ryan - fabulous non-fiction and very thought provoking. Then, for daytime reading at work, I've just started Clare George's novel, 'The Evangelist' - about truth, consciousness, science and religion. In bed at night, I'm reading 'Always and Forever' (women's fiction) by Cathy Kelly. And I'm saving two novels for my holiday as special treats: both are by Strictly 'regulars'. Rosy Thornton's 'Hearts and Minds' and Rebecca Connell's 'The Art of Losing'. Does anyone else read different kinds of books at different times of day, or is it just me??

Caroline G
Don’t you love it when you ‘discover’ a new author? I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of Liz Jenson when I picked up The Rapture [yup, on a three for two..] but found her latest to be fabulously written, highly intelligent and extremely thought-provoking. Set in a near future ridden with freakish weather, it is about a psychologist recovering from a terrible accident, who is sent to work with a disturbed teenager. When the teenager starts predicting a series of natural disasters, the question arises: is she foreseeing them or making them occur? The book has compelling things to say about climate change and religious fundamentalism, while managing to include a love story to boot. A fantastic read.

The Tax Man Cometh

I was recently chatting to my accountant about my tax returns, as you do in January.

Actually, is there any writer out there who hasn't been frantically trying to locate old train tickets in coat pockets that just might tally to an entry in last year's diary, marked, unhelpfully, 'agent'?

If only I were the sort of gal who kept such things in orderly piles, clipped together in a box specifically meant for that purpose. If only I were the sort of gal who at least slung it all in a shoe box!

Anyhow, as the ever-patient Mohamed and I tried to make head or tail of my finances, he happened to mention that he'd read my latest book.

I gupled loudly.

There's something about reader feedback that makes me nervous. I'm happy to take all manner of rejection from agent/publisher/bookseller/editor/reviewer, business after all, is business. But readers...well they're different.

Real people who have actually taken the trouble to buy my book and plough their way through it, when they could have been watching Celebrity Big Brother or learning Mandarin, deserve my attention and respect. They matter.

Whenever I'm writing, I try to keep enough distance from my work so that I can still see it with a reader's eye. I want my work to give pleasure to others not just myself. Indeed, I never understand those writers who say they write for themselves. Why then go to the bother of seeking out a publisher?

I see myself as an entertainer and as such I have a duty to engage and thrill my audience. My worst sin would be to bore them. This is a two way street, not a cul-de-sac. And since writing is such an isolated career, one has to keep reminding oneself about those other folk and what they will think. Otherwise what's the point?

However, what this most definitely doesn't mean is that writers should try to second guess the market. I know it's tempting, particularly when the tax returns tell you that so far you haven't made a million, but trust me, it won't work.

For one thing you won't pull it off if you're heart won't be in it. Readers know a fraud when they see one.

For another, you'll probably miss the boat. One minute the public can't get enough of teenaged vampires, but by the time you've written 80,000 words, they've moved on to werewolves. Fads, trends, whatever you want to call 'em, leave it to the marketing bods.

My advice to any writer would be to stick to the plan. Tell the story you always wanted to tell. But tell it with your readers in mind. Ask yourself what you could do to make them want to listen. What more could you do to commune with them?

I try to remind myself that telling a story is a coversation not a lecture. That if I speak first and wait, my readers will tell me what they want to know next and how.

If only the Inland Revenue would be so understanding.

Guest post by Jo Carlowe - Guilty pleasures

Oh the sheer unadulterated pleasure, each stroke bringing the senses to life – what a wonderful guilty indulgence.
I’m talking about writing, of course.
Each stroke of the pen, or tap of the keyboard, eliciting free-flowing words: sometimes lyrical, on occasions funny; each sentence ascribing moods, feelings and philosophies to people who moments before were swimming in the chemicals pinging between the synapses of my brain.
But to me this all seems like a terrible indulgence. I trade in words, I’m a journalist. My working days are dictated by the deadlines and word-counts imposed by commissioning editors of publications requiring anything from a feature about the masturbatory habits of men, through to details of the latest pay deal for consultant radiologists. That’s how bizarre and on occasions dull my job can be.
I appreciate that once a novelist is established, that they too will become a hostage to the wills and whims of their agents and publishers. They will have deadlines and word-counts and will be asked to do the unpalatable: such as adding or altering a character to enhance the book’s commercial appeal, but at the early creative stage the process is untainted in this way.
I want to write fiction. I know I am like so many others whose lives moves along a parallel trajectory to what they would really like to be doing. I am there with the photographer camped outside Katie Price’s house who wishes he were filming polar bears for the National Geographic or the session musician who repeats the same ‘la la, oooh’ background vocals over and over, when really she feels her own material and voice deserve an audience of their own.
And so that is me – writing articles which are read by real people, for which I am paid real (albeit not very good) money and wishing all the time that I was dealing not in reality but in fiction.
So what to do about this? Every time I allow myself to indulge this desire, I feel guilty. A little voice says: ‘Why aren’t you working? Why aren’t you drumming up proposals to send to papers and magazines? You’ve got a mortgage to pay, you’ve kids to look after; there is no one else to support you, what right do you have to be so indulgent?
And so I have joined a creative writing course – not because it will help me to get published, but because the tutor will set me tasks and I will meet her deadlines – only this time the material that I produce will be written with joy rather than dreary compulsion. It might, I hope, inspire me to get out that half-written novel that has been resting for too long, and allow me, to once again, view writing for pleasure not as a luxury but as a necessity.

Jo Carlowe, is a freelance journalist, specialising in health and psychology. She lives in London with her two children and plans to fulfill a promise that she made to herself, to start writing fiction once her youngest child started school (which he did in September).

Quickfire Questions with... Rosy Edser

Rosie Edser has been writing short stories for five years, selling to women's magazines and entering competitions. She describes herself as 'addicted to the buzz that comes with seeing work in print'. She would write all day, every day given the chance.

My first sale was ...
To Take A Break ‘The Last Time He’ll Need This’ May 2005, I think.

My family think my writing is …
In danger of taking me over forever.

The best/worst thing about writing short stories for magazines is …
Being able to ‘talk’ about something I feel passionate about in the context of a story.

Long hand first or computer?
Computer, most of the time.

On completing a story I feel…
Emotionally sated.

When I run out of ideas I ....
Do something mundane.

Ideas come to me when…
I do something mundane, or when I look at other people’s lives, eavesdrop on a stranger’s conversation.

My biggest tip for new women’s mag writers would be…
Join a good writing class, read out your work, ask for help!

3 authors – dead or alive I’d like to invite to dinner would be…
Bernard Cornwell, Antoinette Kelsal Bird, for her book, ‘Daughters of Megwyn’. Her only published as far as I can tell. Jean Plaidy for her historical knowledge.

Favourite writing outfit?
No tight clothes!

Favourite writing snack?
Cheese and crisp sandwiches.

Daily Mail or Guardian?
Daily Mail, I love Amanda Platell’s page.

Corrie or Eastenders?
Corrie, respect the realism you get in the north of England.

Best woman’s magazine story I’ve read during the last three months is…
'Donald’ by Yvonne Jackson, in WWFS, story about a woman with Alzheimer’s. She says I am her only fan. I doubt this is true!

Ooh, all that research!

If you tell a normal person you write historical fiction, the reaction is usually something like 'Ooh, I'd never have the patience to do all that research!' (Translation: 'You're a bit sad really, aren't you?') While I believe all genres require us to find stuff out - or risk regurgitating our own lives onto the page - it's true that research is a big part of writing a historical novel.

When I was working on that book I wrote a while back, I did most of my research in archives and libraries. I loved it - it’s wonderful to experience the texture and smell of documents that have been touched by someone 250 years ago, to imagine the circumstances in which some love-lorn, happy, depressed or bored person was writing – whether they were secretly scribbling a letter and hoping their mother didn't look over their shoulder, or whether they were falling asleep at work, writing down the last records of the day and looking forward to going home for tea.

This time around, though, I have the internet, and boy does this make life easier. To some people, online research sounds plain lazy – surely most of the web is cobbled together by a few pasty 13-year old American boys while they trawl The Google for pictures of boobs?

Living next door to the British Library and having no other commitments might make 'proper' research a doddle, but few writers live in this ideal world. Some are working 12-hour shifts, some are looking after elderly relatives, some have disabilities that make public transport a nightmare, some have toddlers climbing over us all day... and all night. No matter how committed we are, we can't always drop everything to go and Be a Writer.

I'm not advocating having a glance at Wikipedia and taking it as The Truth, but I am hugely enthusiastic about the digital resources available. Here are a mere five ways I use the web for research:

1.Digitised facsimiles of original books or documents. Google Books and the Internet Archive come in very handy. Project Gutenberg also allows you to download free transcribed ebooks of public domain works and there are iPhone apps to give you access to these on the go.

2.Academic papers. I use PubMed Central a lot, but that's just my area of interest - there are many more, and Intute lists reputable sources. Google Scholar lets you search a huge number of articles in all fields. Some services require registration, and others make you pay to download a paper, but this could still work out cheaper than travelling to a library at the other end of the country.

3.Services from the local library authority. This varies depending on where you live, but your library might subscribe to resources that are only available to institutions rather than individuals, and let you access them from home by logging in with your library card number. For example, I have free access to the British Library’s 19th-century newspapers archive this way.

4.Checking the location and availability of documents or books you might want to visit 'in person', or easily requesting an inter-library loan.

5.Viewing historical images. Sometimes a painting or photo can inform or inspire you far more than text. While I use Wellcome Images and the US National Library of Medicine quite a bit, there are more general pictures at the National Gallery, the Mary Evans Picture Library, the LIFE archive, Wikimedia Commons... and plenty of others.

These are only a minuscule proportion of what I use, never mind what's available. I'd love to hear about your favourite online resources too.


Books that inspire

Why do some novels make me want to write?
It’s certainly not a feeling that I could do better. That couldn’t be further from the truth. But this inspiration doesn’t happen with everything I read. I’ve noticed lately that while I may have enjoyed two books equally, one of them will make me itch to pick up a pen or reach for my keyboard, and the other I’ll enjoy simply as a reader.
I’ve been devouring children’s and YA books lately because that’s the kind of author I want to be when I grow up [This is taking longer than anticipated].
Take a book like Skellig, by David Almond. It is the story of a boy who finds a dusty old angel living in an outhouse and is one of the most perfect works of children’s fiction I’ve ever read. It’s so gorgeously written, I am weak with envy at Almond’s skill. However, I enjoyed it solely as a reader. But when it comes to another of my recent favourites, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, I felt a powerful creative tug. The Ness book is set in a world where everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts. A boy called Todd and his talking dog stumble upon a patch of silence, which proves to be a discovery that puts their lives at risk. This book is every bit as beautifully written as Skellig and literally made me cry, gasp and laugh. I know I couldn’t write something as good, any more than I could have written David Almond’s masterpiece. But something about it fired my imagination in a way that made me want to sit at my own desk and write like a demon.
Another book in this vein is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, bought because I’d heard so much hype about it. Like the Ness book, it is set in a brutal futuristic world and here teenagers must fight to the death on a grotesque reality TV show for the nation’s entertainment. I read it greedily, gripped and transported, and then I devoured the sequel equally quickly. [My eldest son didn’t actually speak for two days over Christmas when he read it. It’s that kind of book].
The Hunger Games gave me that same itchy-fingered feeling and made me realise that I’d love to put all my fears about not being up to the job to one side and write something that would definitely be called High Concept. I have no idea if I can even begin to carry it off. But at the moment, the trying seems a huge adventure, rather than a terrifying mountain of imminent failure.
So I come back to my original question, which I’m asking because I genuinely don’t know the answer.
Why do some novels make me want to write?

Quickfire Questions with... Times/Chickenhouse competition winner Sophia Bennett

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

Noel Streatfeild. All-time heroine, and apparently the first children's writer to make book tours into an event and be really glamorous. I'd love to ask her about that. JK Rowling. For all the obvious reasons. And to talk about how she's getting on with changing the lives of children in Eastern Europe. Petrarch. I once got to hold his Rime in the Vatican Library (long story), with his own writing and rubbing out! Was overwhelmed by a sense of kleptomania, held in check only by the Swiss Guard at the door. I'd love to talk to him about how great the South of France is. And poetry. If I could have a fourth, it would be Caitlin Moran. I've admired her since she was a teenager and I've just discovered her on Twitter. And can I have Meg Cabot too? Please? And Aaron Sorkin, so I can fall at his feet about how good the West Wing was? Plus Petrarch will need another bloke to talk to. The writer who's given me the most pleasure over the years is PG Wodehouse, but I feel as if I know him so well already, so I'm happy with six.

What's your favourite writing snack?

Homemade popcorn. The people in the library must hate me for this. I make a real mess. But usually I forget to make it and take it with me, so I end up with an Innocent smoothie, a banana and a Twirl. They can keep me going all day if necessary, reinforced by cappuccino from local coffee shops. Getting them out of my rucksack and laying them round my laptop is one of my favourite bits.

Longhand or computer?

Computer. Except for the final read-through, where the words suddenly look different on paper and I change loads of minor stuff.

Win Booker prize or land Hollywood film deal?

Carnegie Medal. Then Hollywood deal. But actually, it was really just 'see copies of book on shelves of local bookshop' and I've done that now. Everything else is icing.

Tabloid or broadsheet?

Both. Broadsheet for actual information, and tabloid for essential gossip, such as finding out what trouble Liz Jones has been causing on Exmoor, or how Kanye West is feeling about Swiftgate. Love it.

Independent bookshop or Amazon?

Independent bookshop. Had my launch party there. Love it to bits. It's where I find out what to read. Amazon to feed my ranking obsession, though, obviously.

Hacker or adder?

Hacker every time. I love taking stuff out. And if I've rewritten a sentence four or five times and it still isn't working, I just bin it. It always reads better.

Plotter or panter?

Plotter to start with. A chapter will be 1000 to 1500 words and I have a paragraph explaining who the main character is (of the 4 I'm working with in this series) and what happens to them. Then panter, which is my favourite bit. How to start? How to follow on from the scene before? What precisely are the emotions involved? How will the characters surprise me? What will the rhythm of the scene be? Will I be able to pick up on unexpected themes from previous scenes, or seed new ones? That's when I feel like I'm earning my popcorn.

Leave on a cliffhanger or tell all?

Oh, SO cliffhanger. Until the final chapter, when I do a Miss Marple and cover all bases. I care about all my characters and I want my readers to know about all the lovely things that happen to them. Or, occasionally don't.

You really must read…

Fermat's Last Theroem. Simon Singh is brilliant at making maths fascinating and cool. The Tipping Point. Malcolm Gladwell is brilliant at making virology as applied to merchandising (neither of which I fundamentally cared about until he put them together) fascinating and cool. How Not to Write A Novel. Makes writing fascinating and cool. We knew that anyway, but they make it funny too. Notice no fiction. I can't read fiction so much while I'm writing, and I've just finished a book. A little while ago, though, my son was into Cressida Cowell's How to Train Your Dragon series and I used to beg to be allowed to read them to him. Brilliant and hilarious. She's a genius, that girl.

I get most excited by…

One of my characters doing something unexpected and brave and a little bit dangerous while I'm panting. I'm that girl in the library staring at her Mac and silently going 'Yay yay yay!' with her arms in the air.

If I wasn’t a writer I would be…

Someone who really, really wanted to be a writer. And possibly still a management consultant. So far, it's been better at paying the mortgage than writing. But MUCH LESS FUN.

An author should never…

Believe that what they've just written is good. Until they've pulled it apart and checked and tried to make it better and surprised themselves. According to Stephen Fry quoting Clive James quoting Thomas Mann (I think I've just made that fourth-hand), 'A writer is someone who finds writing more difficult than other people.' When I got that, I started writing much better.

Sophia Bennett won The Times/Chicken House Competition 2009 for unpublished writers of children's fiction, with her debut children’s novel (it kind of had to be, to qualify ...) Threads. Her great loves are art and design, her four children, fashion magazines, cappuccino, her husband and her job. Not necessarily in that order. She lives in London, where she is currently working on book 3 in the Threads series. She has also written for The Times and The Guardian.

Threads website here
Buy the book here


- Why poetry?

I think poetry chose me, as so often happens with poetry! I was always in love with language, and read poetry and fiction from the very first. There were lots of miscelleous books at home, and at my grandfather's house. I read poems in old school textbooks belonging to my mother and her older sisters, and even older Victorian anthologies...it was a lovely random way of discovering lots of different poems. I was particularly struck by the poem OVERHEARD ON A SALT MARSH by Harold Munro. Then in my midteens I started to write poetry and fiction.

- Greatest influence?

There isn't one dominant poet for me, it is too rich an area to single one poet out. But again from the beginning Edward Thomas has been one of my key poets. Also Rilke, also Emily Dickinson.

- How do you write a poem?

Sometimes (rarely!) a poem arrives in ten magic minutes, needing very few tweaks from me. This is one of the Muse's rare free gifts, which poets get. Sometimes I work on a poet for over ten years, there are often multiple revisions, and also times when I set the draft aside for a fallow period. Then I go back to it. I write in longhand first, and then type up the piece, and then revise on screen, though often take it back to handwriting as that often seems necessary and useful. Eventually I have a sort of palimsest of drafts!
Every poem is an individual, with a will and a fate of its own. The poem has a desire to find its appropriate form, so it is a long process of allowing the poem to take shape....poems are often much longer in first drafts, than they are when they reach print. I cut, I try to get the poem pared back to a concentrate of language, yet remaining accessible.
The sheer process of being-in-language can often generate poems for me. The subject doesn't always occur first. There are atmospheres in language, mysteries, utterances out of the blue. Getting into the slipstream of language you discover poetry waiting for you.

- What is your shortest poem?

Years ago Peter and I challenged one another - on a long train journey - to write 100 one-line poems! And we did. But I haven't published any of them, I think they went into other poems! Maybe I should write some more one-liners!

- Advice for beginning poets?

1 Spend as much, if not more, time reading widely, all kinds of poems, as you do writing. That is a way to find your own voice, by nourishing it through reading

2 Find a good workshop and learn how to absorb criticism of your work. Also, critiquing other people's poems will sharp your critical skills on your own drafts.

3 Read your poems aloud as your draft them, and it is also worth recording your poems, to see how they sound. When you trip over a line, maybe the syntax has got cumbersome, or meaning is unclear.

4 Don't be in too much of a hurry to publish.

- Your greatest writing regret?

That I've never found my way back into writing fiction, which I had a shot at in my youth.

- Your greatest writing achievement?

That wondrous one-line poem I wrote in the wet sands of Gyllingvase Beach back in June 1971.

- The future?

Pass me my crystal ball.

- What is a good poem?

One I wish I'd written.

- The hardest thing about poetry?

Poetry is simultaneously the easiest and the hardest thing to do in life. For me.

- Favourite themes?

Time, landscape, weather, dreams, chance - such as things overheard in the street, random stuff in newspapers, etc, Memory, Paintings, Music, Travel, Found Poems, everything in the world that is strange, everything in the world that is familiar, everything that is both strange and familiar.
But over the past few years I've written a number of poems about loss. It isn't a favourite theme. But it has simply been unavoidable, given the circumstanceas in my life. But challenging situations of all kinds are helped and healed by poetry, and so it has been for me.

- Three poets to dinner?

Emily Dickinson (though she might talk too much!)
John Clare

- You really must read...

Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, Elena Shvarts, Edith Sondergran, Ingleborg Bachman, Janet Frame, Osip Mandelstam....just to begin with.

Penelope Shuttle was born near London but has lived in Cornwall since 1970. She is the widow of Peter Redgrove (1932-2003).
Her most recent collection, REDGROVE’S WIFE (Bloodaxe Books 2006) was described as a book of ‘lament and celebration', and was short-listed for the Forward Prize for Best Single Collection, and for the T S Eliot Award.
Her new collection, SANDGRAIN AND HOURGLASS, appears from Bloodaxe Books in October 2010.
Penelope gives many readings of her work, and leads poetry workshops and residential courses for The Poetry School, The Arvon Foundation, Second Light Network, etc, and for Almaserra Vella (Spain) and Chateau Ventennac (South of France).

The Lifelong Ladder

I started writing ‘seriously’ just over three years ago. At the time, I had one ‘child’ already flown the nest and another leaving school, heading to university. A new phase of my life was beginning and, wallowing in blissful ignorance, I knew which path I wanted to take - I wanted to write. I wanted to write novels. Lots of them. To be published. To have people read and love my words. To tell stories...I thought I knew what that entailed. Take out your laptop and er...write. I knew it couldn’t be quite that simple, but also naively wondered how hard could it be? I had absolutely no idea how steep (forget steep – try precipitous) the learning curve would be. How many twisted rungs the road to publication ladder would have? Hell, I thought ‘show and tell’ meant one of the girls taking their favourite cuddly toy into school with them.

Well, it was. That was show and tell. It wasn’t, Show, don’t tell. My first lesson in what a difference a word makes. And it heralded the beginning of my apprenticeship. It both showed me and told me how little I knew and hinted at how much there may be yet to learn. Three years on, several half hearted attempts at writing short stories and two full hearted attempts at novel writing - the muddied waters are not much clearer!

So, I ask myself how long this internship lasts? I mean, if I wanted to become a plumber, I’d have a set period of learning, both from more experienced mentors teaching me and from studying for set exams - which I’d be expected to pass before being allowed to fit a boiler on my own. The reality is, though my writing apprenticeship has many similarities, I can see no real end in sight. The internet has allowed me to surround myself with like-minded people at various stages within their careers, all of whom are generous with their teachings and experiences. There are countless numbers of self help books from which other writing skills have been and still can be learned. I could do a Creative Writing diploma or degree if I so chose. But I’ve decided to go it alone. And being in any learning environment, being able to continue confidently on a learning curve does require feedback. A plumber needs a pat on the back from his mentor and he needs to pass his exams in succession before being let loose on that boiler. As a writer, I’m no different. I need different forms of positive feedback en route. Early on, I needed gentle encouragement. ‘Hey this is good!’ from a fellow writer more than sufficed. Later, I needed more. ‘Tell me what’s wrong,’ I urged people who read my work. Now, knowing that I know a lot more than I did then, but still realising I have a lot more to do, I’d love an agent to consider the words ‘I LOVE your book’ or better still ‘I’m sure I can sell this!’

I struggle daily with the idea that every word must be considered and should count. Some days I lose the battle with my inner critic and become a lazy writer. I don’t care if I’m telling. To hell with the effort of showing. I want to TELL, okay? Sometimes it’s just easier to write :

‘What do you mean?’ she scoffed nervously. RATHER THAN
Her heart rattled behind her rib cage. ‘What do you mean?’ she said biting her thumb nail.

See for me, if I’m honest, the first example is easy. Words like this fall like Niagara from my fingertips. The second example, though it doesn’t perhaps flow as easily, does in my mind both look and sound better. It requires writing and re-writing. And three years ago, I wouldn’t have noticed the difference.

So today, after my third anniversary of writing ‘seriously’ has passed, I’ve decided that this apprenticeship is in fact a five year one. It's also time to diversify slightly and linking to Sam's post of yesterday, maybe try working on something other than a novel? After all good writing is good writing and should cross genres with some tweaking? (I can hear all the short story experts out there shouting at their screens 'No!' They're saying, 'That's another apprenticeship altogether!')

Maybe so, but by the time the next couple of years pass, I hope to have lured an agent/publisher into pointing a finger and saying ‘I WANT YOU!’ I'm hoping that the skills I'm gathering will make that possible. Perhaps not, but I do know one thing. I love this writing lark enough to tell myself if it hasn’t happened by then, that this is in fact a six year journey, or a lifelong one if necessary.

And if I have to resort to a further course on Jedi mind tricks? I'll find one.

Jack of all Trades...

Something’s happened to me over the last couple of months. I am no longer an aspiring Women’s Fiction novelist with simply four unpublished books under my bed. Now I’m an aspiring writer.

What’s changed? It started when I saw the movie Twilight and was captivated by the characters and plot. I scribbled down the first three chapters to a young teen book which eventually morphed into one for young adults. And yes, *chuckle*, there was a werewolf.

Then, suddenly, I thought of a story for a competition I’d been meaning to enter. 1000 words was the limit. Never, in five years of concentrated writing, have I been able to complete a short story as I always failed to come up with of a satisfactory ending. Since completing and entering that tale, however, I have submitted another to Fiction Feast. I am also about to take part in another competition with a limit of 1500 words.

On top of all this, I have an idea for a children’s book based on my current chick lit story, a time-slip novel set in Ancient Egypt. In fact I’m wondering if this chick lit novel is responsible for my recent diversification – I had never attempted historical fiction (albeit very light) before and the whole process made me question where my talents (such as they are) really lie.

So, is this a normal route for a writer? Do we start off focussing on one genre and then eventually find the confidence to trek down other routes? And is this a foolish quest? Is the risk that we become Jack of all trades and master of none?

Most published novelists I know started off writing short stories, so I guess that answers my question. I must be pretty unusual, coming to the whole process back to front. The problem now is that I’m overwhelmed with choices - how do I know I'll make the right one? Although whatever I write - even if it includes werewolves - there'll be something new to learn.


I’m in a relationship.

It’s very new indeed – only a matter of months - though we spent about a year eyeing one another and plucking up the courage to approach. There was a lot of faffing about, of blowing hot and cold, of agreeing to meet and then standing one another up. Nothing new there, then.

Now, two months in, we spend time together almost every day. I feel more and more attached – and more afraid. I find myself wondering if this can possibly be The One?

Already it’s becoming hard to find time to fit in the everyday stuff – clean the house, for example. Dust-balls blow down my kitchen floor, and unmentionable mould is populating my attic.

But oh, I’m a flighty thing at heart: my feelings fluctuate all the time. Somehow, this relationship brings out the best – and worst – in me. One day, it’s potentially the most exciting thing ever to happen to me. Another, I want to scream at it to get the hell out of my life. But this is, I guess, the transition from Honeymoon Period to Reality.

You may be wondering how I find time to write, given all this?

Well, I have to. Because the relationship is with my new novel.

Relationships are usually (in my experience, anyway) equivocal, infuriating, powerful, terrifying, and time-consuming. As is writing. Both demand commitment. Both wither in the light of too much expectation. Both require large amounts of quality time spent together, and both are about learning to communicate effectively and truthfully.

Clouds already loom. Recently, I’ve noticed myself making the odd excuse not to meet (dustballs and mildew figuring prominently). And I can already see a lot of flaws in the Beloved, and wonder whether these will be too numerous to allow us to reach the finishing post of Happy Ever After. I’ve also begun to notice substantial flaws in myself: procrastination, pernicketiness, impatience and hyper-criticalness being just a few.

And I’ve noticed that when I get bored, I turn to sex.

Oh dear, I didn’t do that with my last relationship. Sex was occasional, a quick one-night stand at the most, or hardly referred to beyond the first kiss. Only at the very end did it rear (as it were) its ugly head, when of course it was a fitting orgasmic climax to the building relationship. I was a New Celibate, or nearly so, last time round. This time, I seem to have become a Whore.

Trouble is, I’m getting bored with it. There are only so many times you can write: ‘Do it to me – harder!’ without laughing hysterically and falling off your chair. I had to interrupt coitus recently by bringing in a third person throwing eggs. It’s a bad sign. I need to get back on the straight and narrow. Otherwise this novel is in danger of reading like a porn mag.

So is this the Real Thing? Is this just fantasy? Who knows? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s by going through it.

Therefore, I promise:

- to Have and To Hold from this day forward – to sit down and spend Quality Time Together, whatever the temptation to a) eat chocolate b) play silly computer games c) ring a friend or seven d) write Strictly blog

- To Honour and Obey the Muse, for Better, For Worse, For Richer (hah!) For Poorer, in Sickness and in Shitty First Draft

- To Forsake All Others – including poetry, short stories, non-fiction and novels by other people – even if they seem infinitely more promising than the one in hand, and

- To Love and To Cherish, till The End do us part.

I just hope that somewhere out there, someone is buying a hat.

Stranger into fiction?

I promised I’d be chirpier about this whole writing lark when I returned after the holidays, so here goes. Actually it’s not too difficult to spot rays of hope when the white garden is bouncing sunbeams through my window. It’s just started snowing again, out of an utterly blue sky. Weird.

Last year sucked out all my confidence and by December I was beating myself up about lack of progress and false starts on novel three. Then suddenly, just when I was completely blocked, a new idea tumbled, a snowflake landing in my lap. Now I’m not sure what to do; if I’m going to use it I need to hurry.

In the run up to Christmas I went to a party on my own. Jess was at an office dinner and Zach with his mother. Normally the idea of standing in a screeching West End bar, exchanging plans for the festive season with strangers, is my idea of yawndom. But my friend is off to Australia for an extended stay, so it was a farewell party and I decided to do the right thing.

After exchanging pleasantries with the one or two I did know, my friend took me to meet a woman she said I'd like, and that was when the conversation went beyond, and-where-are-you-going-to-spend-Christmas?

Perhaps it was the Champagne or perhaps because my friend had introduced me as a psychologist, but she started to tell me stuff. How her boyfriend, who she had been with for about a year suddenly left her. That was more than six months ago. How he’d got involved in some quasi-political or educational group, attending their courses more and more frequently. How upset she had been that this organisation swayed him. How she was just starting to get over the guy. She questioned the psychology of someone who could just do that – just up and leave her and leave London at no notice. I was intrigued: there was a story in there and it was mine, mine, mine.

The details are a bit sketchy. I was on my third glass by the time she left and had several more before I started taxi hunting. But I didn't stop thinking about it all through Christmas; I wanted to know more.

We’ve discussed this sort of thing on Strictly Writing before: how far is it okay to plunder life for ideas? Other people’s lives? I could email my friend and get her number, but it might be rude to follow this up. For her, it might be one of those conversations you have in a bar and then regret. I wish I’d declared my interest as a writer and have been thinking about putting that right. And, before you start, Sam, I’ve already told the "squinty-eyed one" all about this. My girlfriend occasionally looks at Strictly.

I don’t want to let this story melt away.

Best Laid Plans

Can there be anyone in the UK who hasn't been affected by what is being termed the 'deep freeze'?

The snow and ice have, it seems, disrupted every form of travel which in turn has kept everyone off school and work for an extra week after the Christmas holidays.

I suspect I'm not alone in treating it like an unofficial mini-break and have cheerfully worn unattractive hats and tramped to the top of hills only to whizz down them again on plastic sacks, inner tubes and old trays found languishing at the back of the garage.

I suspect also that I'm not the only one who has put off the commencement of my New Years resolutions.
Who could stick to 1500 calories a day with Jack Frost nipping at their toes? Surely stew and dumplings are entirely appropriate in the circumstances.

And as for cutting back on the sauce...another hot toddy anyone?

I've no reason to suspect that writerly ambitions have not met the same fate.
Which I imagine comes as a relief to many a literary agent.
Where we scribblers are apt to spend the second of January in WHSmiths buying envelopes and a copy of The Writers Yearbook, agents must be steeling themselves for the white deluge-not of snow, but submissions.

Not so much a slush-pile as a slush-mountain.

Sure, every agent is looking for the next big thing, and for that they need submissions. But the January onslaught must feel like a tidal wave.

Now I don't want to discourage any writer from seeking representation.
Personally, I would be without my agent. Not only for the book deals he's secured, both here and abroad ( for I'm sure I couldn't have done that myself) and not only for the TV option I'm in the process of signing ( though that is bloody exciting). But also for the wonderful feeling that come- what- may he's on my side. This is a lonely old business and it's nice to have support.

Rather, what I'm suggesting is that those looking for an agent take a deep breath.

Don't join the hordes and bang out a slurry of ill-considered letters and half-arsed synopses just because it's January.
Instead, ask yourself what agency might suit you. Check out their website. Do they represent authors in your genre?

And check out their submissions guidelines. Don't assume all literary agencies want the same submission packages. Some want a letter and no more. Some want a one page synopsis. Some want a full treatment of your work.
Don't fall at the first hurdle by getting it wrong.

Then look at everything you're sending. Is it the best it can be?
You might have promised yourself to get five off by the end of the week but is there any point if you're not selling yourself as well as you could?

This isn't a race.
There is no prize for the writer who can gather the most rejections by February.

If you can honestly say that your submission is good to go, then get licking those stamps.

If not, try to relax. This is a marathon, not a sprint. So pour another glass of mulled wine.
There's still snow to come and the post might not even get delivered tomorrow.

Guest Blog by Alan Moore - What Is A Poem?

We usually recognise a poem by the effect it has on us: a good poem hits us “beneath the radar” before we have time to erect our usual defences. A good poem will tell the unvarnised truth about the things that matter: life, death, relationships, joy, pain, desire… And when you read it, you recognise that truth and say to yourself: Yes. That is how it is.

Robert Frost recognised this when he said “The way in is the way out.” What he meant was that the poet’s task is to convey, in words, his or her emotional state, so that the reader can experience the same feeling. In this sense, a poem is, in the words of W H Auden, a “contraption” – a little device which encapsulates a state.

Another way of putting this is to say that a poem is the successful communication of a moment of awareness. Which is interesting, because if the awareness is not present in the first place – if the poet is not prepared to (in the words of Oprah) “get real” and be emotionally direct, no poem can result. If the feelings are artificial or manufactured, the result will not work.

For a poet, many of the writers that inspire him are usually dead. One of the best ways I have learned to improve my own verse is to simply copy out, in my own handwriting, some great poems of the past – Shakespeare’s sonnets, Christina Rosetti’s poems, Tennyson, Yeats, Donne, Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Hardy, T S Eliot. In doing so, you feel part of the “Dead Poets’ Society” and you realise the high standards that have been set. You will also learn the standard forms and rhyme schemes, and then depart from them if you wish.

The idea for a poem, in my case, usually begins with a line – a musical line. It can float into the brain in the early morning or on the evening train. It’s like a refrain. At that stage, it’s like retuning a bady tuned radio to see can you get any more from where this came from. Usually, there might be a few more words and a sense of how the poem will look on the page. Potential rhymes may appear, and there may be a choice as to whether the poem will be “formal” (as in a sonnet) or more loosely structured.


O Aeropuerto Reina Sofia
You breathe warm air on me
And kiss my soul to life again.

Whether it is the sand in your ashtrays
Or the glittering trolley snake, I cannot say:
All I know is that as we leave the terminal,
My life moves from monochrome to colour.
I am alive, and the stars are my friends.

Luminous bougainvillea. Palm scent.
I stroll to the wave-fondled beach.
A blonde models a day-glo green swimsuit.
A speedboat hauls its parasail.
Surf surge. I listen as it washes each black grain,
Administering its balm, relieving pain.
The sky’s slate is wiped clean.

(From How Now! Anvil Press Poetry, 2010)

Alan has a degree in English Literature. He worked for five years as an editor and technical writer in a publishing house. "I am a slow writer - my output is usually about 250 words a day. My poetry book, Opia, published by Anvil Press Poetry was a Poetry Book Society Choice. Anvil will publish my second collection, How Now! in 2010. Despite these literary credentials, my fiction is very much of the "pulp fiction" variety - lots of action, incredible scenes, and more twists than a box of hairpins."

Guest Blog by Laura Nelson - Inspiration haven

I have found my favourite place. My favourite place for writing. I am a geek as well as a writing freak; my dream place is the British Library. I march through the swing doors, laptop under my arm, the dark red building towering above me, and I walk through to the café to buy myself a cappuccino. I take a seat under the high glass book cabinets – the gold font on the book spines gleaming under the spotlights – and prepare myself to write.

Rather, I take a seat and I start listening to other people’s conversations. Or I look around: what is everyone else doing here? What is their purpose? The British Library café is a magnet for people with their own stories. They come here with business proposals. They come here to chat about university life. They come here to browse the free internet on their Apple Macs.

They come here to write, too. The pens are poised, fingers are tapping on keyboards. Chins are being scratched, hair strands are twisted. Heads are looking around; eyes meeting over the tops of cups, corners of laptops and the dog-eared edges of spiral-bound notebooks.

And the tension is magical. It helps me to work. I think: if they are all writing novels, then I can too. And so too do my fingers start to scamper across my keyboard, and words appear on the blank page. If I’m short of inspiration, I needn’t worry – I glance up and encounter another erudite conversation or obscure dialogue; a discussion about state-of-the-art clothes design or a negotiation of a freelance copy-editor’s contract.

There are plenty of distractions – just what a writer needs. Rows of antique books on the high shelves, lofty ceilings and tall white pillars. People on the balconies passing to and fro the reading rooms with their transparent plastic carrier bags. (What have they been researching?) There’s the tap-tap of computer keys, the clinking of the cutlery and the babble of voices.

There are unusual characters with unusual stories. A serious-looking youth glances up and asks me if I remember the words of that nursery rhyme: ‘This little piggy went to market…’. A brown-suited moustached man approaches me; he wants to know if I will visit him in his 50s-style tea shop in Bethnal Green.

Talking of tea, there’s limitless supply. And coffee. The smell of coffee infiltrates the atmosphere, stimulating the imagination and loosening the finger joints as they hover over the keyboard. A trip to the café counter offers the chance to have a break (needed frequently), replenish the body with caffeine (the writer’s drug) and – as my seat has inevitably been taken by the time I return to it – swap seats (a welcome change).

The café also caters for the calorie-hungry writer’s brain. Names of food items seem to be conceived with the novelist in mind. ‘Fallen chocolate cake’, for example – it’s food my protagonist may eat as she finds her dreams disappearing and her hopes sinking; the nadir of my novel. Tasting it, I imagine feeling ‘fallen’ myself. I scurry back to a table, crack open the laptop and – in haste – write the scene of my heroine’s downfall before the magic begins to wear off.

Laura Nelson has a short story published in the next issue of Decongested Tales.
Her short stories have appeared in the literary magazine Litro and here and in the science magazine Nature. She recently completed her first novel, Zebra Dance, wrote a guest blog here about finishing it and has just begun her own blog

Happy Blogging Birthday, Nicola!

Happy First Birthday to the crabbit old bat's - aka Nicola Morgan's - blog!

If you haven't been there before, go visit her hilarious, yet highly informative, Help I Need a Publisher! blog - you may learn a thing or two!

Health warning: it ain't for the faint-hearted!! But if you are a struggling, aspiring writer, you might just learn where you are going wrong.

Many congrats, Nicola.

A balanced literary diet

I’m often baffled by heated discussions about reading preferences. When it comes to certain books…Dan Brown’s novels, say, or the Stephanie Meyer Twilight series, it seems like battle lines get drawn and people are determined not to move into enemy territory. And as Claire Allen discussed in an entertaining and thought-provoking post on Monday, chick lit can be another of those light-the-touch-paper-and-run topics when it comes to discussions among readers.
I’ve been thinking about all this a lot and have come to the conclusion [again… sigh] that I’m a bit strange.
Let me put it like this: am I the only person who views books like food?
Okay, I know this sounds like a huge leap in logic, but stay with me here. Reading nourishes and satisfies me on a daily basis, or it can leave me feeling empty and hollow if it isn’t very good. But my point is this: just as I wouldn’t dream of eating the same meal every day for a month, am I alone in craving variety in reading matter?
The tone of the discussions mentioned above is often ‘I only ever read XXXX genre’. It seems a bit like saying, ‘I only ever eat cheese.’
My desire for contrasts means that on a broad level, I might read a children’s or YA novel straight after reading an adult one. Or if I’ve just finished something literary and sombre, a lighter, frothy book feels like a palate cleanser. It goes further than that too. If I’ve just read something historical and English, I’ll probably fancy something US and zeitgeisty straight after.
It’s part of the joy of reading for me. Part of this may be the freakish speed at which I read. It’s not big or clever or designed to sound like a boast in any way [I sometimes secretly think it’s actually a bit weird] but I am such a voracious and obsessive consumer of books that I tend to chew them up a bit quickly. Maybe this is a failing and I should spend longer savouring the experience, but I can’t help devouring books just as I would a delicious meal.
Now don’t get the impression I’m just some sort of reading Hoover and don’t care about quality. I do, deeply. But sometimes I fancy reading something a bit trashy, just as the urge for a bag of Marmite crisps [or two] can be impossible to ignore.
I’m not pretending I’ll read any genre either. I generally don’t enjoy sci-fi or fantasy [although my two favourite YA books of last year: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness both had sci-fi echoes] and I’m not a big fan of chick lit, apart from the few Marian Keyes I’ve read [sorry Claire]. I do have preferences, of course, but I can no more imagine only reading one kind of fiction than I could exist on a diet solely of cheese.
I’d love to know what others think about this.
Does anyone else feel the need for a balanced literary diet?

The space inside your head

The brain is the primary sensory apparatus of sight, hearing, balance, taste, and smell. As we all know, the brain is an extremely complex organ - in a nutshell. But what does the brain really look like when it's dissected? And where do those fantastic ideas come from? Where exactly are they stored?

Do the ideas simply start off as foetuses and simply grow until they're ready to be 'born' as a stream of words? And how do we remember the storylines of all those novels we have read? Is the brain simply a library with small compartments, each featuring one book, or is it one big unstructured mess, with our favourite novels vying for the most prominent places within the brain? What is the memory capacity in gigabytes? How many books can the brain hold? And is it true that we only use a tiny fraction of our brain throughout our lifetime? If we used it to its full potential, would we churn out magnificent masterpieces in quick succession?

When you write your own novel is it stored in a special elevated place within the brain, so that you can recall the storyline, characters, sub-plots and incidents more easily than you would a novel in your collection?

It's all very complicated. I realise these are a series of questions, rather than an opinion as such. But the simple answer is that none of us know for sure how the brain functions.

And what about those 'bottom drawer' novels, the ones which are bastions of cringeworthy-ness? They're the ones which illustrate clearly ignorance of POV and the ones where we start the paragraph in first person and end in third. Do we instantly want to forget them as if they never existed, and do we urge our brain to push them further and further into oblivion in case they tarnish our well-written novels?

The never-ending chick lit debate by Claire Allan

Do you like the term Chick Lit? Do sparkling covers and pastel covers make you want to read on, or throw up? I don’t think there is another literary genre which evokes such a strong reaction from writers and readers alike. I have writer friends - who write what could easily be defined as Chick Lit - who baulk at the very name of their chosen genre. I myself have, on occasion, referred to the fact that I write contemporary women’s fiction when I feel the crowd I’m talking to might not be receptive to the Chick Lit label.

Somehow we are ‘supposed’ to feel it is our dirty little secret. My book has a pink cover (and I’ve had a bright blue cover, a turquoise cover and a purple cover) and it has an illustration of a very fashionable young woman on the front. In some circles I’m supposed to be ashamed of that. I’m supposed to justify it, because the market dictates that readers of Chick Lit like these covers but I’m not supposed to actually like them.

I’m supposed - some would have me believe - to shrug my shoulders and say “Well, hey, what do I know? I’m only the author!” and not even think - even for one moment - that what I am writing is actually a valuable contribution to the arts. “Sure it’s only women’s stuff” - some say, but then again, “women’s stuff” is damned important. And writing in a way that is accessible to all women, which resonates with them, which makes them think, and laugh, and cry and escape the monotony of day to life is important to me.

It is also a great misnomer to think that we Chick Lit authors (and for the purposes of today, I am wearing my Chick Lit badge with pride) don’t write stuff that challenges or has literary merit. Kate Long’s description of the loss of a child in ‘Queen Mum’ is perhaps the most touching depiction of loss I have ever read - second only to the loss and pain of Marian Keyes’ depiction of a woman recovering from a miscarriage in Angels. Likewise Marian Keyes’ depiction of depression in ‘Last Chance Saloon’ hits the nail on the head in so many ways while in ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ Dorothy Koomson tackles not only loss, but betrayal and inter-racial relationships beautifully.

Chick Lit doesn’t have to be about issues - but where it is, it is often done with a sense of empathy and emotion which is unparalleled. I pride myself that while writing about drinking Pinot Grigio and wearing nice shoes and dressing in the latest fashions my characters also have real problems - real issues which make them, well, real. Yes, books are meant to inspire and delight but you don’t need to use fanciful language to achieve those goals. You don’t need to create a world so removed from the norm that while the reader can escape to it, they cannot recognise even an ounce of themselves in the words you have written.

Great literature does not necessarily equate with a use of flowery language and sweeping descriptive prose. We shouldn’t like things just because we are supposed to, or because we feel intellectual and scholarly to have read weighty tomes with grey/black covers and bold, sans serif, fonts on the cover. For me, being a writer is about connecting with the reader. My ultimate reward is getting an email from someone who cried while reading my depiction of domestic abuse, or someone who experienced the same kind of Post Natal Depression as Grace in ‘Rainy Days and Tuesdays’.

It is about surprising the reader that beneath my brightly coloured covers; with their gorgeous swirly writing and funky illustrations lie raw, real and passionate words about life, love, longing and loss. For me, writing is about embracing the fact I am a woman and as such have experiences unique to being a woman. I don’t find the term Chick Lit pejorative - in fact I could be so bold as to say I find it empowering. To think of it as anything but empowering is to consider being a woman, and writing for women, as second rate. In that instance we would doing ourselves and our readers a great disservice. Oh, and for the record, I love my covers. Especially the pink one.

Claire Allan is a 33-year-old journalist and columnist living and working in Derry, Northern Ireland. She has a Masters Degree in Newspaper Journalism from the University of Ulster. Her first novel ‘Rainy Days and Tuesdays’ was published by Poolbeg Press in 2007. Following the book’s success, Claire was asked to act as a spokesperson for Aware Defeat Depression on the issue of Post Natal Depression. Her second novel, ‘Feels Like Maybe’ followed to critical acclaim in 2008. Jumping In Puddles, released in September, is Claire's latest novel. Claire is married to Neil and they have two children, Joseph and Cara.
Visit Claire's websites - www.diaryofamadmammy.blogspot.com and www.claireallan.com.

Here's to a Happy 2010 and Scraping off the Sauce

Happy New Year, one and all! Hope Christmas was everything you wished it to be. Was mine? Let's see:
1) Ate too much - tick.
2) Drank too much - tick.
3) Built snowmen - tick.
Yep, not bad, I have to say - apart from the usual seasonal traumas. Firstly, our boiler broke down, during the freeze. Several guests decamped to the nearest hotel whilst I braved it out, regaling my kids with stories of how people never used to have central heating, anyway. Secondly, I almost slipped a disc boxing my husband and son via the new Wii. Thirdly, my daughter and I nearly came to blows when she refused (the cheek of it) to let me hang her New Moon calendar (me? Robsessed? Never!) in my kitchen. Oh, and yes, there was another minor trauma. Anyone remember Wendy Craig in the series Butterflies, and her dreadful cooking?

For dessert, on Christmas Day evening, I got out some cold jam sponge from lunch time. I don’t like traditional Christmas pud, so always serve an alternative as well, with hot custard. After sandwiches for tea, my husband, dad and I all fancied a slice with cold custard, so I divided what was left into three bowls, grabbed the jug of cold sauce and poured it over the top. For a few seconds, I admired the pretty rose-red splodges, circled by pools of buttercup yellow.

I took in two bowls for my husband and dad. Ever the gentleman (and as this story proves, this has its advantages), my dad waited for me to return to the room and collapse on the sofa with my share. Meanwhile, my husband had been tucking in. Dad and I smiled at each other and were about to join him when my dear spouse looked up and pulled a face.

‘Sam,’ he said, ‘did you put hollandaise sauce on this jam pudding?’

Oh dear. The remnants of various sauces from lunch had been close to one another in the fridge and I’d just grabbed the nearest. Cue much shoulder shaking and tears running down cheeks. My husband, bless him, scraped off the sauce, poured on the proper custard and finished his pud. Yuk! Dad, instead, asked for some cold Christmas pud from the fridge. Yet this was no better, it had set hard, and chuckling once more, he announced he couldn’t eat that either – I had to take it back to the kitchen and cut it up with a knife and fork.

So, how does all this relate to writing? Imagine the draft you are submitting is the yummy jam sponge. In essence, it’s all right – the characters, the plot, the basic themes... It’s the other stuff, your style or voice, your editing, the darlings you should have murdered, all of that, the equivalent of a lumpy or bland – or downright nasty! - sauce, that is letting you down.

So what to do? Bin the lot and start something else? As my dad and the rock-hard Christmas pud prove, this is not guaranteed to bring you any more success. Rather, like my husband, you should scrape off the sauce, and try to make it more palatable, more likely to whet an agent's appetite, with something else – be that a little more editing or a major rewrite.

And that’s what I’ll be doing this January, with my present book. I like to think my custard is almost there – maybe not deep enough in colour or sweet enough yet to taste. So, I’ll be scraping it off and blending it to some new recipe, before pouring it on once more.