CBC and a chem 7

Watch enough ER and you can convince yourself you’d be a bit handy in a real hospital ward. I’ve always been quite interested in medicine and have an occasional urge to see myself in those fetching blue scrubs.

Unfortunately, none of this second hand knowledge has prepared me for having to perform real life surgery. No, don’t worry, I’m not planning on giving my husband a DIY vasectomy or anything. I’m talking about the bloodless – but certainly NOT pain free – business of having to take a metaphorical scalpel to my novel.

You see, someone who really knows what they’re talking about has advised me to replace one storyline and completely cut another. ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘I can do that..’...as I walked away making that face Mrs Doyle used to do behind Father Ted's back.

First up, I asked some advice on the Writewords website and was given a wealth of great tips, including a brilliant spreadsheet, as blogged about by Emma Darwin. I set to with the scissors and highlighter pens and had a ball, making a massive chart for each branch of the story. It’s a brilliant way to see where all the changes have to be made, even for someone a bit phobic about spreadsheets like me [‘But it sounds like MATHS!!’ I wailed when it was first suggested to me].

Next up, I made two simple charts as Word docs, one for each storyline that had to be altered or deleted. In the first column I wrote what happened in the scene. In the second, I tried to work out exactly what that scene did. What was it for? Did it pay its way in the story or was it just there for decoration? In the third column, I tried to brainstorm other ways I could get the same effect. This process too was extremely illuminating, especially because the storyline that must die didn’t [ blush] turn out to do anything much, once looked at under those really bright operating theatre lights.

And that’s where I’m up to.

The patient has been prodded, poked and re-arranged and the operation is coming to an end. Their BP is normal and all is looking good.
...only, now comes the really scary bit. I somehow have to stitch them up and make sure they have a full recovery. How does the patient, I mean novel, become whole again, after all this fiddling? I don’t remember the details of this part of the proceedings from ER. My confidence is draining away by the second.

I need one of those brow wiping sponge thingies and I need it now.

This month's shortlisted story for The Strictly Writing Award is Firstborn by Celia Andrew

I visited my father in the Intensive Care Unit. He didn’t know I was there: he was on life-support, pain free and unconscious.

‘How’s he doing?’ I smiled at the Sister.

‘He’s stable.’ She adjusted his covering sheet. ‘Can’t be more positive than that.’

I looked down again at my father’s inert body. 'Any other visitors?’

The Sister counted them off on her fingers. ‘Son Jeffrey, from marriage number one, daughters from three and four and a very old lady who was extremely rude to all of them.’

‘That would be Granny Hemlock.’ The family’s name for the cantankerous old dowager was world famous, quoted in almost every glossy magazine article ever written about her.

I looked down at her son, the man who had given me life and yet been ignorant of my existence for forty years. He was my father, but as his firstborn, I didn’t really care whether he lived or died.

In her late teens, my mother had had a brief affair with this English aristocrat. When her condition had become obvious, he’d rejected her and she’d fled back to family in her native Lebanon, where I had been born and brought up. The later civil war there had driven my mother and me on to Paris, where my education had been completed. She died young. She was very much in my thoughts, these days.

Lord Carlington’s yellowing features barely resembled the many images of his earlier life that I had obsessively collected of him, on computer files at home. He’d been one of the so-called ‘Beautiful People’, lived a life careless of others, and his abuse of alcohol and drugs had finally brought him to this. I reached out to touch his cool hand, wondering if such contact would give my filial emotions a kick-start.


'Goodnight, Sarah.’ I turned away. ‘Thank you.’ The staff here now knew many of the family by sight and had quickly learned which ones to keep apart. All four of the ex-wives had been conspicuous by their absence, but the offspring carried their mothers’ grudges even to the bedside and there had been some heated moments.

‘Goodnight, Mina.’ The Sister saw me out.

I found my car in the car park and drove home to Zaph, my husband, whose choice it had been to come over to Britain for a few years. We’d applied to this area because of the choice of senior posts on offer. He had held me close when I told him how near we were to my father’s estates. ‘Whatever you decide to do about him, I’ll be with you,’ he’d said.

It was an irony of fate that Zaph was the senior duty doctor in A and E on the night Lord Carlington had been brought in. He had referred my father straight to the cardiac team for emergency surgery.

‘Bit of a family affair, that business,’ the consultant on A and E joked afterwards. I’d stared at him in shock for a second and then realised what he meant and that he was not referring to my father: he had not guessed my secret at all.

I drove slowly, thinking about the dysfunctional family and my father in particular. I didn’t love him – how could I? Did I hate him? No. Did I forgive him for abandoning my mother? No: that wasn’t for me to forgive. Time had proved him to be a serial offender, but at least he had married his other women – and given his name to their children. So far as I knew, I was the only one born out of wedlock, the only one denied his name, the only one with a dark skin. My half-brothers and sisters, drug-using socialites moving on the outer reaches of the British aristocracy and the inner pages of ‘Hello!’ both fascinated and repulsed me: I had a 5GB computer memory stick assigned to the Carlington family. I knew all about them, Zaph also knew all about them! They knew nothing of me.

After supper, Zaph and I settled down to make the most of our time together. In the semi-darkness, in the quiet, calm of his arms, I wanted to tell him something new I’d discovered that afternoon but the sudden shriek of the on-call bleep broke through our intimacy. Zaph groaned. ‘I didn’t know you were on-call.’

‘John Rawlings went off sick, I said I’d cover. I was hoping things’d stay quiet.’

The call was from Saul Goldman in the Intensive Care Unit. Something had blown in Lord Carlington’s heart and he needed emergency surgery. The technicians were on their way in, the theatre suite was open and ready. All they needed were the cardiac surgeons. Tonight, those surgeons were Saul Goldman and me, Mina Al Hussein.

‘I’ll drive you in.’ Zaph grabbed his coat as I headed for the door.

We made the hospital in under five minutes. Zaph dropped me off by A and E and I raced up the slope and through the automatic doors into the bedlam that was pre-Christmas Friday midnight. Avoiding a couple of screaming drunks and a very bloody group of party revellers, I raced for the lifts.

And so for a second time, the patient who would die without my intervention was my father. He was my patient. As his surgeon, I cared what became of him. Ethically I was on dodgy ground, but since nobody else knew the truth except Zaph...

Unprofessional thoughts and questions started circling again, vultures in my mind. I’d heard them all before and they were still unresolved.

If my father lived, would I reveal my true identity to him and to the family? Would it be malicious to do so? Might it one day backfire on me and on those I loved? Did I want to be associated with a family whom my husband described as worthless despite its millions?

If I went public, was I then prepared to stand in the media spotlight as it turned inevitably on me?

If he died, would it be my fault for not trying hard enough to save him again?

‘Hi, Mina.’ The lift doors opened onto the theatre level and the man rushing past slowed down and waited for me. ‘Same patient, same time, same place,’ he smiled.

‘Only tonight it’s the Sabbath,’ I pointed out and Saul Goldman nodded, unruffled.

‘God understands.’

‘Does he, I wonder?’ But I wasn’t thinking of the Sabbath.

‘Mine does.’ Saul was a deeply spiritual man, very like my husband – indeed in the months we had been at the hospital, despite their different faiths, they had become good friends.

‘God always understands, Mina.’ Saul put his hand on my shoulder and his quiet, confident presence was a comfort to me. I put aside my turmoil as we checked the patient, the team, and prepared once again for emergency surgery.

Once the chest was open and the patient’s heart lay under my hands, I was on familiar ground and dealt with everything I found with cool professionalism. The anatomy I understood, and everything else physical - clamps and suction, arteries, bleeding and sutures.

We fought for our patient’s life for nearly an hour, but in the end we lost him, and my father went to meet whatever God he called his Maker.

I walked through to wash in the soulless descrub area and promptly threw up into the basin. Tears came unbidden, unexpected, unwanted and flowed and flowed. The Theatre Sister found me there a few minutes later. Wordlessly kind, she came and put her arms around me.

‘He died.’

‘You did all you could, Mina,’ she murmured. ’He was just too far gone to start with.’

At that vulnerable moment, exhausted, half-dressed and stinking of acid bile, I nearly told Sister Annie about my connection with our dead patient. The words were right there behind my teeth, on the edge of my tongue, ready to jump out and change my life forever...and they slipped into my throat and followed the acid back into my stomach.

‘You’re pregnant, aren’t you?’ Annie stroked the hair away from my sweaty forehead and her grey eyes met mine. I nodded, and burst into tears again. A man, my patient, had died and inside me, his grandchild’s life was just beginning to make its presence known.

‘I won’t tell anyone until you say I can. Your secret’s safe with me.’ Annie straightened my top. ‘Zaph’s outside. Mina - does he know?’

‘Not yet. I only tested this afternoon. I was waiting for the right moment...’

‘Yeah. I was like that with my first.’

She hugged me and made me rinse my mouth out. A nurse popped her head round the door.

‘The family’s here. They want to speak to Mina.’

‘No. Get Saul to do it.’ Annie waved the girl away, but I called her back.

‘It’s OK, I’ll talk to them.’ I took a deep breath heaved it out again.

‘Splash your face over, then, pop these clean scrubs on.’ Sister Annie helped me into the blue pyjama-like outfit and came out with me to the relatives’ room where five of my half-siblings hovered. Through the glass I assessed them: the one I knew to be a cocaine-sniffing twenty-four year old called Lara was red-eyed and sniffly and seemed genuinely upset. Maybe there was hope for her yet. Jeffrey, from the first marriage, the one who would inherit the title, had his hands behind his back and was silent and stony-faced. The other two, daughters from marriages three and four, were gesticulating and clearly bitching at each other and there was another man in his thirties whom I hadn’t seen at the bedside in ICU before. I knew him to be David, second son of the second wife. Altogether, there should’ve been twelve of them and I would have liked, for completion and closure, to have met them all before I washed my hands of them forever.

Feeling as though a huge weight were being lifted from my shoulders, I went into the anteroom, my right hand extended. I was in charge of this situation. My unwanted family moved to greet me and the moment would pass when I could tell them who I really was. There would be no lurid headlines in the papers tomorrow or ever in the future, no public ethical discussions, no lawyers’ letters. A lifetime’s bitterness, pain and indignation for my mother’s plight was over and I could at last move on, leaving all the ghosts behind me. I hoped my mother’s soul approved. Later I’d tell Zaph he was going to be a father and I’d chuck into the garbage the Carlington memory-stick.

I stood with Zaph and Saul and Sister Annie in the small side room where my father was laid out. I swallowed, unsure of my emotions, and my husband’s arm moved round my shoulders in secret acknowledgement of the truth.

‘Go with God,’ I said quietly to the dead man. I lifted the sheet and gently drew it up so that it covered his familiar-unfamiliar face.

Saul and Annie were puzzled. They didn’t understand why I was so moved and I could never tell them. But they were there because they were friends and colleagues and they knew that I needed them. With friends like these, who needed a family like the one I had just finally turned my back on? I moved away from the body and smiled at them.

‘Thanks, Saul. Thanks Annie.’ I looked up at my husband. ‘Zaph – let’s go home.’

These Boots ARE Made for Talking

These are my new boots. They are also my sale bargain of the year and they are a thing of beauty...Don’t you agree? I stalked them until they came down to half price in the sale, then I marched in with my credit card and like a certain Disney princess’s ugly sister, was determined to make them fit. The thing is, they don’t really. Fit, that is. Well, they sort of do but I have to zip them all up at ankle level, then haul them up over my lardy calves. This results in slight circulatory problems if I wear them for too long or walk in them. Which does limit their use slightly to a) something to be stored and looked at every now and then, or b) something to wear when not much walking and mucho posing is required. Alas, I did only got to wear them twice before they went in the cupboard, only to be removed for airing in October.

Fascinating, I hear you all murmur. But what have my new boots got to do with writing? They can do a lot, but can’t write a story or help me write one. Well, my new boots are, I think, a bit like my manuscript seems to be. A thing of beauty to me, but maybe not be a perfect fit to all. They’re stylish and current and commercial, but by the time October comes and I get to wear them again, they may feel a little dated? And my manuscript, telling a story based around the 2012 Olympics has a certain shelf life before it will be, frankly past its sell by date...

By some weird co-incidence, I had written the first part of this post yesterday to the above ellipsis when this morning, in my in-box appeared my ‘writing’ prompt for the day. (A friend of mine sends me a random word daily, in order to get the writing muscle flexed for the day) The word she gave me today was ‘boot’. So, with this post in mind; here’s what I wrote today having received the prompt and it’s as good a way as any to end the post. (By the way, I should point out that my way of doing this exercise involves simply writing down words or at most a short expression that the given word inspires for one minute only)

Sexy, leather, crinkles, wrinkles, zippy, rainbow, George, Bush, Bungle, Rod Jane and Freddie, lard, fat, dead cow skin, patent, shiny, glossy, crevice, car arse, shape, shift, pressure, circulation, blood, skin indent, pattern, zip teeth, white stitching, heels, buckle, silver.

Was it me saying only yesterday that my boots wouldn’t write a story or help me write one? Silly moi... I’m off to write about a silver shape shifting cow called ‘Sungle.’ She’s a little on the overweight side and has zips instead of udders to make milking easy. Her best friend is a car called Buckle in honour of his safety belts.

Yay! A new children’s series?! Thank you boots...

Let's call her Jennifer

This is a story of character development – the arc of a writer.

Chapter one - The age of innocence
When she first found the time to write, Jennifer felt as if she had fallen in love. This chapter was marked by a virginal adoration of all things writing. Words bubbled from the wellspring of her abundant imagination. She danced with her stories in the moonlight. Without much knowledge of what she was doing, Jennifer spread herself along the sofa and scribbled until she had decorated a thousand delicious notebooks. The words came unencumbered by any filthy rules of writing or any fears of publication. In those days, Jennifer was convinced of her own genius, flying on a wave of creativity.

Chapter two - The love of learning
Having sprouted a first draft of a novel, Jennifer decided it was time to get serious. She dashed off to the bookshop on the corner of the High Street and bought a stack of self-help, how-to, guide books. She showed her stories to a dear friend who pointed out that they were crap and insisted that the first drafts should never be inflicted upon another victim, with the possible exception of those compensated by payment for an editorial report. Jennifer was cool about that. She said to herself, I am just a beginner. At least I’ve spared myself the humiliation of those who go for a premature foray into the world of submissions only to receive this feedback directly from agents.

Chapter three – Coming out
It was around this time Jennifer discovered writing as a social activity. It began with a week at an Arvon course, where she had a brief fling with the tutor after an intense feedback session in the pub. The social side of writing carried on with evening classes at the local university and ended with her joining a writing group. She trotted round the literary festivals. Electronic coming out led Jennifer onto a host of internet forums and she became an avid reader of writing blogs. Soon she could count a number of friends who offered her feedback and support and virtual hugs in the face of non-virtual rejection. What joy to learn that all these people loved what Jennifer loved.

Chapter four - The long haul
By now Jennifer knew it wasn't so easy. That first draft had been revised “to within an inch of its life” and success still declined to open its feathery wings. But after reading all those books on writing and attending all those classes and workshops and chatting for hours on the forums, Jennifer’s mantra in her morning meditations was one of commitment. She had heard the exhortations, again and again, to keep going. All the writers who had just landed their first deal said it every time. What’s your top tip for aspiring writers? Don’t give up. So she didn’t. Jennifer ploughed on for another couple of years, forced out another novel. At night she ground her teeth.

Chapter five - The slough of despond
She’d seen it all before. There was no advice on any writing website that she couldn’t write herself. She trawled through the same tired discussions. Publication receded before her eyes, shrinking like a dot on the horizon. She acknowledged that it was the worst time in history to break into this business: the edit-crunch and all that. She imagined her manuscript sliding down the side of the pile, spilling out into the street as part of an avalanche that greeted the literary agent as he opened the front door of the office. There was no point. Writing, that object she had loved with such innocent abandon now seized up her fingers like arthritis. She said she might as well give her attention to something with more chance of success, like playing the lottery, or training for the one hundred metres for 2012.

Chapter six – Rebirth
In which Jennifer, in a hippy-shit epiphany, rediscovers her love for writing by becoming present to the nowness all around her. Something about the colour of the petals on the climbing rose outside her window. I’ll blog about this very soon. I haven’t finished the chapter yet so I can’t report, but all the signs are promising.

Life As We Know It...

Last week I did an interview with an online parenting magazine.
Well, Caitlin Moran had asked me to do a piece for the Sunday Times but a gal can have too much exposure. I suggested she contact Lady Ga Ga.

Anyways, I was answering the lovely Sue's questions on how I fit writing around my children - actually, I'm VERY careful about this one after a newspaper printed an article about me entitled 'Solicitor and Supermum.' A breach of trade description if ever there was one - when she asked if I might like to do a diary for them. A week-in-the-life of a writer.

Of course I agreed. It sounded easy and a great idea. Everyone always wants to know how we write and I hoover up the details of any author's schedule as if knowing that Jodi Picoult gets up at five will spur me to the same. For those interested, she does, and it doesn't.

Then I actually thought about it. And my heart sank. A week in the life of JK Rowling might be a whirlwind of book signings and speeches. A week in the life of Helen Black. Not so much.

So I thought I'd do a practise run. Maybe I'd suprise myself. So here it is. My week.

Monday - I spend two hours writing a scene in my sub plot. Very pleased. By the time I have taken a shower I know it's complete rubbish. I delete the scene.

Tuesday - My agent calls. He makes polite conversation skirting around the real issue which is when I will sub my WIP. I fudge. I spend the rest of the day writing in ferocious panic. Most of it is utter crap.

Wednesday - An email from my new editor. Can I send the synopsis of book five. She's lost her copy and wants to take it to a publisher in the States. I dig it out. It's rubbish. No one will ever want to read such a daft piece of tripe. I spend the rest of the day panicking about book five.

Thursday - I realise I must stop panicking about book five and write book four. I spend the day panicking about not having written anything the previous day.

Friday - I have the idea to set my next scene in a crack house. I'm pants at settings and this will be incredibly visual. I google 'crack house' and spend the next four hours weeping over videos of lives runined by drugs on youtube.

Saturday - the kids comandeer my laptop. They have exams so I daren't argue for fear of being a Bad Mother.

Sunday - the sun shines.

So there it is. In all it's boring glory. Suffice it to say, there is a very good reason why I do not blog alone.


So I’ve stopped thinking about doors.
Now I’m thinking about spotlights.

An obsession with interior design? Yes - at least in terms of inner furniture.

I’m thinking about visibility and what it means for that most mole-like, reclusive and solitary creature, The Writer.

As a member of several on-line writers’ groups, I’m continually exposed to writers who are succeeding – being signed by agents, getting published, giving readings, winning competitions, winning prizes. And whilst I’m thrilled for them - and inspired by them – it also serves to emphasise my own relative invisibility.

Somewhere, in the last couple of years, I’ve passed over a threshhold where visibility has assumed more than its rightful importance: where I’ve confused the concept of showing up with that of being seen. To the extent where I’ve placed too much emphasis on the ‘outcomes’ of success – rather than on the process of writing. Showing up has come to mean being chosen, getting validation, winning prizes, being ‘out there’. I’ve craved success like a starving woman craves, er, chocolate. Even though getting published seems to resemble (to mix gastronomic metaphors) a Chinese meal – apparently satisfying, but an hour or so later you’re hungry again.

But still that elusive lure of validation and visibility calls…

Yet there’s a reluctance too. Can one be too afraid of success, of being seen? Certainly, being visible can mark one out as a target. Success can bring on envy, resentment, even hatred. Might ‘showing up’ mean being shown up? Becoming larger, more visible, there will always be some people who want to cut one down to size. (I remember I once worried to a therapist about ‘getting too big for my boots’. ‘In that case,’ she replied, ‘it’s time to get a new pair of boots.’)

What is this shrinking away from the light whilst simultaneously craving it? Is it typically English? What’s the terror of actually getting what one thinks one wants? That one will have to live up to something? That one will be seen - only to be rejected? That one’s work will be more roundly criticised? That (perish the thought) if I succeed, THEN WHAT??? What would I have to aspire to?

Marianne Williamson writes: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

So true. But I think something more subtle’s going on. I’ve put so much emphasis on ‘showing up’ in terms of being in the limelight because I’ve neglected to show up creatively. Showing up means turning up for work each day. It means physically committing oneself: applying the seat of the pants to the seat of a chair, the fingers to the keyboard, the heart to the uncertainty of the process. It means believing, trusting, understanding that this is the kind of showing up that matters, and that it will be fruitful. It means realising that the other kind of showing up is exciting, transient and ultimately intangible, because the spotlight is a moving eye, continually craving new nourishment.

No-one sees us when we show up to write. There are no clapping crowds, no trophies, no bouquets. We labour on alone, unrecognised, in the dark. But in this invisibility lies a presence which is more valuable and lasting than the brief and hungry spotlight of success.

And just to contradict everything I’ve written (because polarity and paradox are so important for the writer, and the human) I’d like to leave you with a rather inspiring video by Nic Askew. It’s all about wanting More.


Writing when there's no time to write

There were many things I didn't expect to gain from being published. I didn't expect riches. I didn't expect to become famous or to get invited to glitzy parties. I didn't expect life to become perfect – in fact, I didn't expect it to change much at all. I can't, however, be smug about this lack of X-Factor-style delusion, because I must confess that there was one thing I thought would be different.

I expected publication to legitimise my writing. No longer would it be a self-indulgent little hobby clutched at during lunch hours and evenings. As a real writer, I would be able to assert my right to have time to do my job.

It didn't work out like that. A year after publication, while trying to balance gainful employment with toddler care, I'm running out of spare moments to devote to what those around me still regard as an eccentric hobby. I'm sure the same is true for many writers, published and unpublished, so I thought I'd set out how I'm trying to grasp at brief moments of opportunity.

1. Don't be a mug.
I used to be very conscientious, wanting to get involved with stuff and help people out. But not any more. I've given up all voluntary activities. I've ditched my mobile phone and I don't answer the landline without checking caller display. I don't get back to anyone who only ever contacts me when they want something. Emails might have to wait several days for an answer. The possible downside to this is that people stop liking me when I'm not sorting out their stupid crap for free. Oh dear. How sad. Never mind!

2. Seize every opportunity.
It's very easy for me to feel that because I only have three minutes free, it's not worth starting anything. But that could be three minutes of writing. Even at a modest 40wpm typing speed, that's still 120 words. 800 lots of three minutes, and that's a book! I've given up the need to get my bearings and settle in to a writing session by reading over what I did last time – now I just jump in and get on with it.

3. Always keep some writing handy.
I use
Dropbox so that I can access my files from any computer – so if I'm at work and have a chance at lunchtime, I can go straight into my novel without the hassle of emailing different versions to myself. This also syncs with my iPod Touch so I can have a quick read-over of scenes wherever I am.

4. Write or Die.
For first drafts, the
Write or Die software is brilliant. By promising dire consequences if you stop writing, it makes you concentrate on getting words down – and I don't know about you, but my writing is no worse when rushed than it is when agonised over. Write or Die helped me finish the first draft of my WIP. It's less obviously useful for the next stage – chopping and changing, sacking redundant characters, scrapping cool but pointless scenes – but I still find it helpful to maintain a Write or Die mentality. Setting a timer for, say, 10 minutes has made me focus on the importance of that 10 minutes – often there'll be interruptions, but it's amazing how much it's possible to do in that space of time.

What I've discovered is that these tiny pockets of time really add up. It's easy to despair that other people are keeping me from writing, but that's a cop-out. It's up to me to take responsibility and make the most of every second of writing time. If that means I haven't answered your email about something you could have Googled in five seconds – well, tough!

Something doesn't taste right here....

I'm aware that this blog comes across as quite ranty. It's very much a last minute thing. You see, I had promised myself (and our readers) to either review another good book, extol the virtues of chiropractic adjustments for novelists' creativity, or talk about a work in progress. After starting a piece on random thoughts about writing, my disappointment was just too hard to contain. And what had let me down? A simple cookbook.

While piling the trolley high with herbaceous perennials at the garden centre, I noticed a book on a shelf in the reading section. It was one of those impulse buys, the type of item you buy alongside flowered wellies, fancy rakes, indoor scents and fine jams – stuff you don't really need, but which look good at the time in the shop. Given that the garden centre price was £3.99, in comparison with the publisher's price of £12.99, this should have set alarm bells ringing.

It's common knowledge that 99 per cent of those who buy vegetarian cookbooks are in fact vegetarian. Not semi-vegetarians, demi-vegetarians or the pescetarians, or indeed those who eat chicken and call themselves vegetarian, but those who adhere to the diet religiously.

When we arrived home, I perused the book over a light (vegetarian) lunch of rocket, potato salad and radish. The (badly printed) introductory illustrative photograph which caught my attention was a bowl of soup, and hanging over the rim of the bowl appeared to be these strange pink things.

'Oh that must be an exotic vegetable I've never tasted,' I muttered to myself. 'It looks like an elongated lychee.'

If it's vegetarian, and exotic, then I'm up for trying it.

However upon closer inspection, it became clear that the pink hangers-on were in fact prawns. Yuk. I gagged and flicked over. Then I came across a recipe which looked quite tasty. I read through the ingredients, realising the cupboard at Number Fifteen would yield all that was needed. Then to my utmost horror, the writer suggested serving 'with a selection of cold meats, such as chicken.

Something didn't taste right here! I was horrified and slammed the book shut. So this is a vegetarian book with meat-eating undertones?

The meat references didn't stop there - there seemed to be a massive reliance on gelatine in a lot of the recipes too. Granted, one can buy a vegetarian version, but it didn't state this in the book. Likewise with Parmesan cheese - and if a newbie veggie was buying these ingredients he or she might inadvertently purchase the wrong version, believing it to be vegetarian. Grrrr.

What should I do?

A) Write to the publisher, pointing out these errors.
B) Curse the editor and shove it under the bed.
C) Take it back and demand a refund as it's not a 'vegetarian' cook book. I mean, if I bought a Mills and Boon, I'd expect it to be Mills and Boon, not an obscure literary masterpiece and neither would I expect to find Ulysses inside.
OR D) Throw it out.

No wonder the book was £3.99.

Pic: a prawn - no thanks, I'll have a beanburger.

Vive La Revolution

On a writing site the other day, I saw a thread entitled, 'The Pubishing Industry is dead.'
Out of sheer nosiness, I clicked on and found a thinly veiled advertisement by a self publishing company. Nothing new there, but what was interesting were the responses, which broadly said, 'yeah' and 'right on brother'.
It reminded me of the SWP meetings I attended in my youth, where middles class students who had never worked a day in their lives would give their heart felt support for the workers of Nicaragua. From the safety of the pub, natch. Actually, as the daughter of a real life miner I had kudos beyond measure, which I profited from whenever possible, in the shape of pints of lager.
But back to self publishing...
I have to say my feelings on the topic are much like my feelings on vegetarianism and jogging. It's fine for other people, but personally I wouldn't do it.
It isn't the latent snobbery of the traditionally published that makes me say this. No. Frankly it's fear. Cold, hard, indesputable fear.
I have had three books out there on the shelves of WH Smiths. I have a contract for three more. Yet, I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I have never ever been able to read any of my own work and nod in satisfaction. Without exception, I am entirely unable to assess any of my projects objectively. In truth, I always think they are shit.
Before I even type the first word, I send a synopsis to my agent. If he says he likes my idea, I go ahead, though I remain convinced I won't pull it off.
Once the book's finished, I remain utterly unconvinced and sub it to my editor expecting a polite email turning it down.
How then, could I conceive of publishing my work without both my agent and editor telling me it's good enough? I tip my hat to those that have the confidence, but this writer is too much of a yellow belly.
Speaking of editors, how could I conceive of publsihing anything without the invaluable input of the editorial team? I know it's a fashionable myth that these days they do nothing to books. But it is just that. A myth. Every writer I know has a period where their book swings back and forth, wending through structural edits, line edits, copy edits. All my books have benefited immeasurably from the proccess. Look in any acknowledgement at the back of a book and you'll find the author giving humble thanks to their editing team. It's genuine gratitude, I think. If we were only grateful for them having bought our work, we'd more likely throw a high five to Bob In Marketing and Sales.
And that's another hurdle, for me at least: sales. I could no more walk into a book shop and ask them to stock my latest, than I could drink six liters of water a day ( or whatever the water experts say is 'a good thing'). How could I compete with that nice Bob In Marketing and Sales who knows all the buyers and can offer a discount on a BOGOF? The very thought makes me shudder.
I am neither salesman, nor publicist, nor PR guru.
I am just someone who makes stuff up and writes it down.
So I think I'll stick with traditional publishing. I suspect that, like Mark Twain, rumours of its demise have been greatly exagerated, and it will blunder along for some time yet.
No doubt I'm wrong, and when the revolution arrives, I shall be left behind in a pool of real ink...

Quick Fire Questions with Australian Teen Writer, Steph Bowe!

Steph Bowe, 16 year-old YA author of 'Girl Saves Boy' (her debut novel which will be published by Text Publishing in Australia & New Zealand in September 2010 and by Egmont USA in America in 2011) has a fabulously entertaining and informative blog all about reading & writing YA fiction at Hey!Teenager of the Year and lives in Victoria, Australia.

Here's a bit about ‘Girl Saves Boy’…

The first time we met, Jewel Valentine saved my life.

Isn’t it enough having your very own terminal disease, without your mother dying? Or your father dating your Art teacher?

No wonder Sacha Thomas ends up in the lake that Saturday evening…

But the real question is: how does he end up in love with Jewel Valentine?

With the help of quirky teenage prodigies Little Al and True Grisham, Sacha and Jewel have a crazy adventure, with a little lobster emancipation along the way.

But Sacha’s running out of time, and Jewel has secrets of her own.

Girl Saves Boy is a hugely talented debut novel, funny and sad, silly and wise. It’s a story of life, death, love… and garden gnomes.

My literary hero/ines:
Samwise Gamgee of Lord of the Rings remains my biggest fictional crush. As for heroines, it has to be Alaska from Looking For Alaska by John Green.

Favourite authors?
I have a lot of favourite authors and I admire so many writers it seems rude to list one favourite and leave out all the rest!

Best and Worst things about writing?
Best: being able to make something out of nothing.
Worst: feeling like a hack. All the time! It's awful.

Longhand or computer?
Computer! I'm a teenager, it's a disaster. Can't live without technology.

My journey to publication was...
Very fast and incredibly overwhelming. I was very lucky things happened so quickly for me; they still feel surreal!

Favourite writing snack?
Vegemite on toast! And a cup of tea. And maybe an ANZAC biscuit.

The best thing about having a book published is...
My family being so excited! I think they're even more excited than I
am. There are many great things about it, though...

When I’m stuck for ideas, I……go out and live life. A new great idea will find me when I'm busy doing something else.

Win Booker prize or land Hollywood film deal?
Hollywood film deal! I want my own Steph Meyer moment, where I'm sitting at the bar with my laptop, and the waitress gives me a drink and she says, 'Here's your usual, Stephanie.'

When I want to relax, I…... Write! I'm a bit boring, really. Make that a lot boring!

Character first or plot?
Character, 100%. My books are far more character-driven than plot-driven.

Ideas come to me when…I have nothing to write them down on! Very inconvenient, ideas are.

An author should never... Badmouth anyone else in the industry. Not publicly, at least.

Independent bookshop or Amazon?
Indie!! Is there any other way?

You really must read...Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan. Must!

Left on a cliff-hanger or told all?
Told all. I don't like series, I like my stories wrapped up with a bow.

My biggest tip for any writer is… Write as much as you can and never let anyone dissuade you from writing. Anyone can be a great writer. All you must do is write!


I'm thinking about doors.

Every news bulletin recently seems to be featuring the front door at 10 Downing Street. The door to Power. The door to Opportunity. The door, as David Cameron and Nick Clegg tell us, to Change.

Doors are thresholds. They represent the moment of transition from one place to another. I'm house-sitting right now, living behind someone else's front door. Locking up at night is like being the caretaker at Fort Knox. The snib lock. The chubb lock. The two bolts. The chain. (When the doorbell rings, it's really cool. A short, melodic phrase of saxaphonic jazz meanders through the house, a gentle way of announcing the electricity meter man.) But I digress.

Doors are symbolic. Let us imagine the door between ourselves as unpublished writers and the agents (or competitions, or publishers) we long to impress. For many of us, these doors remain uncompromisingly shut. We hammer on them, ring endlessly at the bell - but there's usually no answer. Or else the door opens a reluctant crack and a voice mutters: 'Not today, thanks.'

Now some people operate on the water-dripping-on-stone basis. Persistence, they tell us, is all. Keep knocking and eventually the door will open. As long, that is, as you don't post cream cakes or condoms through the letterbox. And yes, persistence is good and necessary. But here's a radical thought:

How would it be if you only went through doors that opened to you freely and easily - in your writing and in the rest of your life?

Nearly seven years ago I decided to go to art college. I took a portfolio of my best work and arrived feeling reasonably confident. The two tutors who interviewed me were nice men. There was just one problem: I didn't understand what they were saying. They talked in Art-Speak, which may as well have been the language of Planet Zog. Time and again I stumbled, said: 'Sorry, but I don't understand the question.' I came out feeling terrible and for three long years, I continued to feel like I was living in a world where I didn't understand the language, until I finally left. I should have taken note at the outset.

The world has a way of showing us when we're off track and sometimes it does so very metaphorically. I used to facilitate creativity workshops for adults and was asked to run a one-day workshop. From the beginning, things were 'off'. There wasn't enough room at the venue; on two occasions I turned up ready to run the workshop and discovered that between us we'd somehow messed up the date; and on the third occasion I went to collect my materials from a local adult education centre and the key literally sheared off inside the lock. I had to enlist the help of several helpful (and - the one bright point - hunky) firemen to get me in. The workshop was not a success. Perhaps I should have listened there, too.

You may wonder (I'm beginning to, as well) what my point is. Let's return to politics. Gordon Brown's entrance into office as Prime Minister was hard work. The door to No 10 did not open easily for him. And his tenure was long, hard-fought and, by the look of him as he left, exhausting. Perhaps it simply was not the right job for him. So pay attention, if you will, to the doors in your writing life and notice which ones open fully and easily to you. Maybe your novel's hitting locked doors, but people are praising your poetry. Maybe your short stories are coming up against brick walls, but your idea for a non-fiction book is attracting attention. And don't forget the inner doors - most important of all. Where is your writing energy wanting to take you? Where do the ideas flare? What gets you excited? Julia Cameron has written screenplays, short stories, novels and, of course The Artist's Way. Her friends thought she was crazy when she suddenly decided she wanted to write a musical. But she was true to herself and wrote one - successfully.

An experiment: For one week, try following your writing energy. Forget the doors you need to get through. Your writing has its own wisdom, left to its devices, and this may take you over some interesting new thresholds. Maybe you'll be writing in the morning when normally you write at night, or vice versa. Or writing a poem where you usually write a novel, or an article where usually you'd write a haiku. It might mean submitting to an agent or a publisher who catches your eye or your fancy, just for fun. It might mean entering a competition. Or collaborating with a writing friend on a non-fiction idea, or a screenplay, or a musical.

Just as you have to kiss an awful lot of amphibians to find your Harry, so it may just be worth trying a different kind of door. Who knows? You may just find your writing mojo.


Roz Morris, bestselling ghostwriter whose titles are unfortunately a trade secret. First novel under her own name is My Memories of a Future Life, currently on submission with Jane Conway-Gordon. Blogs at www.nailyournovel.com , tweets far too much @dirtywhitecandy and is learning to waste even more time on Facebook.

What’s it like ghosting as another writer?
It’s like being an actor playing a real person; you have to understand what people find interesting about them. Then you develop a voice and perceptions that will please their readers.

Which writer would you be for a day?
I’d like to be two. One is Verlyn Klinkenborg, who writes about rural farm life in upstate New York. He will start with a piece of baling twine in his pocket that becomes an ethereal adventure catching runaway horses in the middle of a foggy night. My other choice is Ian Fleming. I’d love to test-drive his panache for a day. All my favourite writers, fiction or non-fiction, have this sense of the extraordinary or flamboyant in everyday things. Their best writing makes me want to be them.

Where do you get your ideas?
I get them everywhere. In fact, I don’t think I have ideas; they have me.

My underlying themes are…
...odd relationships and haunted souls. Or they are at the moment. No doubt that will change.

I get most excited by..
...tension, longing and anything unconventional

Longhand first or straight to computer?
Computer. I make abbreviated notes for myself on whatever I can grab, particularly when I’m out shopping or at the gym. But often I find I can’t read them. My handwriting is my own worst enemy.

Email or phone?
Email. I am an introvert in real life; an extravert on the page. Most writers are.

First drafts are…
...much better when edited about 20 times, then buried in soft peat for three months and edited all over again. (Apologies to Douglas Adams.)

Hacker or adder?
Both. My WIPs are in a constant state of riotous flux. Eventually they are drilled into submission.

Character first or plot?
Not plot, but problem. What if a character was in such-and-such a situation? Then who might find that the most testing time of their life?

I know I have my story when…
Every song I hear on the radio seems to be about it, like when you fall in love.

Left on a cliffhanger or told all?
Whatever makes the book end properly. But I find cliffhangers a cheat if they’re done only to entice you to read the sequel. Part of the bargain with the reader is that you finish the story.

You really must read…
The Eclipse of the Century by Jan Mark. Although it takes a while to get going, it is such an original and strange story of a man who thinks he has foreseen the afterlife.

Which 3 writers, living or dead, would you invite to dinner?
Emily Bronte, because she’d be so wild. Gavin Maxwell, because he loves wild places and writes like an angel. And Jack Vance for his extraordinary imagination and wry humour. I’d have to have three dinners as I want to talk to them one to one, not watch how they mixed, rivaled or networked. That’s a thing about writers; in their books you have them to yourself, so that’s how I would most enjoy them.

The most important thing for a writer to have is…
A family who understands. And doesn’t mind that you’re not making much money. And doesn’t think you’ve failed if you keep having to rewrite, or if it takes you a long time to find an agent or publisher. You need that secure base so that you can venture forth and do battle.

I would advise an author to
Find a critique partner whose judgement you trust and who likes the kind of novels you want to write.

An author should never…
...think they’ve finished when an editor has said ‘yes’. That’s just the beginning.

If I wasn’t a writer I’d be…
A composer. I want to make experiences that people love.

Which came first? Craft or creativity: guest blog by Michelle Hoover

I've been teaching fiction writing for fourteen years, moving from the short story to the novel as my own work meandered nervously from short to long. What I return to again and again, what I find most helpful to my students, is an exploration of the formal structures on which fiction relies.

These of course begin with Aristotle, his idea of 'one action,' and how this single action, introduced at the beginning of the play and carried through to the climax, like the far shore of home that Odyssues never takes his eyes from, conveys both physical action toward a tangible desire but also the interior (and conscious) motivation behind it. Aristotle himself argues that plot is more important than character, but I think his idea of plot, of one action, is so character-based as to make the two elements hopelessly intertwined. If we carry the idea forward, we find Henry James and his assertion that 'character determines incident, incident reveals character.'

For James, 'motivation' is more closely (and helplessly) tied to the character's fundamental flaw, a flaw that leads the protagonist inevitably to an incident that will test this flaw, bring it more into the open, on stage if you will, than ever before. And of course, how the character reacts to this incident only complicates our understanding of the desperate hold the flaw has on this character, or which the character has on it.

For centuries, authors have repeated these ideas, attempting to pin down exactly what a plot is and how a fiction writer can invent one without feeling stupid or blandly commercial. John Barth's essay 'How To Know Whether You've Got a Plot or Not? is one of my favorites, as it stems from an author I consider a rebel. Even Barth doesn?t take his ideas so seriously that he can't mock them.

The essay's main title is 'Incremental Perturbations' - try to say that three times fast. Better yet, say it in front of a classroom, where for me the words morph absurdly into 'Ecumenical Protuberances' or even 'Imperturbable Excrements.' Barth describes plot as 'the incremental perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a complexified equilibrium.'

In all its ridiculousness, the definition still nails it. What better term than 'complexified equilibrium' for the necessity of a story to have reached a new (and often terrible) resting place after it's been jarred from its opening instability. You hear readers complain that 'nothing happens' or workshops moan that they detect little to no emotional 'shift.' The complaint is about a lack of budding complexity, in event, character, or theme, isn't it?

Like the looming self-help sections in bookstores, authors now fill walls with books on craft, whether they are successful fiction writers or not. The laugh is that craft books sell far better than any fiction, though one hears a painful hiccup as the author slips on the discarded peel of his soul before he deposits his cheque.

But beyond Barth's breakdown of plot and a handful of other 'practical' guides, I find most authors speak so abstractly about craft that few beginners have a clue what they're talking about. The author may list examples, claim that here is good dialog or, oh, look, what a nice gesture, but the examples are either so dull or uniquely brilliant that students will never want to, or never can, identify such elements in their own pages. They will never, like Barth puts it, understand if they've 'got it or not.' Knowing the difference may be the test of talent. It may also simply be luck.

Take for instance Steve Almond's wonderfully defiant collection This Won't Take But a Minute, Honey. His 'Quick Definition of Plot' claims 'Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.' Simple. Direct. Yet I've had any number of students try to apply this line to a published piece of fiction and fail. What does it mean, 'to force' a character against something so abstract? My students point at a story and say, there, the character is showing emotion, or there, he is revealing his desire. But Almond's idea is far more complex. Still, if a student can't identify such a plot in someone else's story, how will they ever be able to identify it in their own, where they forgive everything?

In truth, Almond's idea is only a more emotional extension of James' character determines incident. A character's desire or fear must be challenged. It must be brought out in a shameful, semi-public, and dramatic way, and the character must act to cover that fear or expose it further, to fess up or lie, to grab at his desire or let it go. As Aristotle might say, the character must do something, because the fear or desire is such an integral part of him, he can't do otherwise. Whether good or bad, it's all he's got in the world.

But what about stories that don?t work this way? Of course, the best are never obvious in their choices. And yet, I've found Barth's definition of plot at work in authors as diverse and astonishing as Borges and William Gass. The structure follows that of fairy tales, and the structure of fairy tales is what feels most natural to us. We have repeated these rhythms for centuries, independently, all over the world.

I tell my students to take such 'rules' with a grain of salt. Know them before you break them. And if you break them, if your story's inherent qualities 'as opposed to laziness' lead you in that direction, try to understand what you're giving your reader in return.

In my 'Plotting the Novel' seminars, I advise students to simplify. Once you know them well, employ such 'formulas' with as little consciousness as you structure a sentence: subject, verb, object. Plot is simple. In many ways, plot is boring. There's little use for fancy stuff. Why waste your energy? Use it as your story's invisible skeleton, and save the best of what you've got for the harder, more important stuff, for character or scene, passion or shame, happiness or ruin, the amazing complexity of it all.

Do ideas about craft deaden creativity? I wonder at times. Look at Paul Yoon's immaculate story collection, 'Once the Shore', and we immediately know that the stories do not follow Barth at all. But Yoon has his own kind of recipe, one based on the quiet assuredness of the narrator's voice, on the single setting around which his characters live and yearn, and yes, there's the trick on one character matched with another, a constant coupling of foreign and familiar personalities, both of whom suffer from losses so enduring and serious that they're transformed into physical scars, a broken ankle, a lost limb, a weak heart. This very coupling brings complication. But formula? I wince at using such a term. Yoon's stories are far too haunted and mysterious. Their power is innate to the author's vision, his sense of consequence and pain. Yet in the end, isn't consequence as a result of action what Aristotle was writing about? The desire, the instability, the flaw - these things launch characters forward into the incident that will mark them for the rest of their lives. A story captures the moment in which a character fully reveals himself, in all his human ugliness and charm. And sometimes it's simply plot that forces us writers to put our characters in the terrible situations this revelation requires, the situations we would otherwise attempt to save them from.

Podcast pleasures

Ah, the joys of a good podcast...
There’s nothing I like better when doing mindless tasks, like cleaning the kitchen or walking the dog, than listening to something absorbing on my iPod. If you only use your MP3 or iPod for music, I’m going to go all evangelical now and tell you that discovering podcasts is positively life changing. It is. Honestly.
Being of a nerdish disposition, I’ve been hunting around for a while now for podcasts that relate to books and writing and am starting to build up a nice little collection. I thought I’d share my top five with you, lovely Strictly readers.

My favourite of the moment is a US cast called Books on the Nightstand which I’ve recently discovered. Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman are two publishing insiders who love to read and whose enthusiastic recommendations are so infectious, I frequently find myself on Amazon after I’ve heard the show. [As a side note, I was recently stranded with family and friends in Turkey, thanks to the Icelandic volcano dust and desperate to have a solitary moment of headspace, I listened to an episode while I did some chores. It really felt like time out and helped with the stress of the whole experience. I’ll always be grateful to the programme.]

Next on the list is Radio Four’s Open Book , in which the silky-toned Mariella Frostrupp interviews authors and chats about the latest book news. Once a month this turns over to Book Club, in which James Naughtie interviews a big name author in front of a studio audience.

I’m also a big fan of the Guardian’s books editor Claire Armistead’s weekly cast. This is a more in-depth look at new titles and publishing news.

I should be writing is a podcast and blog by sci fi writer Mur Lafferty aimed ‘at wannabee fiction writers by one who is still learning.’ She has various guests on the show but also talks about her own writing and how it’s going, both good and bad. I’ve been listening since before she got published and it’s been a real privilege to share her journey.

The World Book Club comes from the BBC World Service and authors from all over the world are interviewed in front of an invited studio audience. I’ve heard Sue Grafton, Andrea Levy, Jodi Picoult, Kaled Hosseini and Lionel Shriver in recent months and all were fascinating in their different ways.

Here are some others that deserve a notable mention...

Writers on writing

Holly Lisle on writing

The Writing Show

iTunes Meet the Author

If you know of any good writing/books podcasts that I haven’t mentioned, do share them. I’d love to add to my collection.

Is anybody there...

I don't expect anyone to read this.
This morning, you'll be far too busy finding out who is running the country. Some of you will have stayed up all night waiting for the Portillo moment. Many of you will be nursing hangovers. Others will be staring in despair into your hemlock porridge.

What you're most unlikely to do is log on and read a writing blog. I don't mind. I can blabber on anyway, without the need to be remotely entertaining or informative.

Obviously I'm writing this yesterday. Though I'm well known for leaving things til the last minute, I'm not blogging live...yet. So while you know who is our new leader ( well done to Dave or Gordon or Nick, though not Griffin natch ), I don't. And at time of going to press I'm still undecided.

I know, I know. It's pahtetic but I'm one of those floating voters. Contrary to a few, some might say, unkind comments, this is not an exercise in attention seeking. Okay, my agreeing to give interviews on LBC radio about my political dithering could be construed as look-at-me city, but when I was offered the gig I just couldn't refuse.

Actually, I've really, really enjoyed it. I mean who wouldn't? That nice Nick Ferrari asking me questions about what I think of the election and which way I'm leaning. It was a gift for someone like me who loves to talk. Thousands of listeners hanging on my every word. Well maybe not hanging, but you know....paying attention. And if Gordon Brown has a great face for radio, then I have the perfect arse.

As an aside, I've often thought my need to blether is why I started to write. I could, you see, talk for ten hours a day, but people just won't listen. Husband-who-lives-in-hope is good for an hour tops. And the kids are useless. They keep wanting to tell me stuff. So I worked out that if you just write down what you have to say, you can go on and on. No one will stop you for pages and pages and pages. Genius.

In many ways it's like radio too, in that your audience is invisible. You can't see them rolling their eyes and stage whispering, 'will someone just tell her to shut the fuck up.' See, genius.

Each week I've looked forward to giving Nick my update. Except the weeks I went missing. Due to a volcanic ash cloud and an incompetent travel company I got stuck in Bangkok. They were having the hottest weather on record. Oh, and there is a mini revolution going on. Apart from that it was great.

I'm pretty sure my absence was noted during that gap. The LBC voters missed me and my thoughts. Which party, for example would best represent writers? Well, we're self employed so maybe the tories? Then again most of us earn bugger all, so maybe Labour? I'll admit my musings were hardly ground breaking.

Anyhow, as of this moment, I can confirm that it wasn't all a ploy. I'm still undecided. But here's the best part - it doesn't even matter, because in real time the whole shebang is sorted. Or am I in real time as I write?

Who cares? There's no one reading this. I can bang on all day. Mwha ha ha...

Quickfire Questions with...Keris Stainton

3 authors, dead or alive, you would invite to dinner.
Marian Keyes, Meg Cabot and Martha Beck. I wouldn't get a word in edgewise, but it would be fascinating and hilarious.

Email or phone?
Email, definitely. I hardly ever make an arse of myself over email like I do on the phone.

Favourite desktop snack?
I'll eat anything (so far today, I've had a fairy cake and a slice of pizza and it's only 10.15), but my favourite is wasabi peanuts. They're hard to get hold of, but that's probably for the best.

My journey to publication was...
Quite slow. I think. I signed with my agent in August 2006 and then a two book deal with Orchard in 2008 based on a book called FORGET ME NOT. After I'd signed, I went to lunch with my editor and she said she thought Forget Me Not would be better as a second book and so could I write another by Christmas. It was March and I was pregnant! It worked out quite well because I wrote DELLA SAYS: OMG! while I was on maternity leave and delivered the book a couple of weeks before the baby.

Age-banding is...
Harmless. I know that's not a popular opinion, but unless I'm misunderstanding something, it's just a guideline, no-one's going to prevent children from reading outside the suggested age, so I don't quite see what the problem is.

As a child, I read...
Constantly. I was obsessed with Enid Blyton, of course. The Faraway Tree and Malory Towers series.

An aspiring author must never...
... be discouraged by the success of other authors. I used to be in a writers' group in which a lot of people were threatened whenever anyone signed a big deal. As if there's a finite amount of book deals, which is not the case at all.

Literary prize or Hollywood deal?
Oh god, Hollywood deal, no question. Wouldn't most people rather go to the Oscars than the Booker Prize presentation evening? You're much less likely to meet George Clooney at the Booker.

The worst thing about writing is...
The self-doubt. It's so hard to know if what you're writing is any good at all. And then, of course, even if you think it's great, there's a chance no-one will agree. It's all so subjective.

Hacker or Adder, on the edit?
Ha. Well, I used to be neither. I used to be frightened of touching anything at all in the edit. I'd just move the odd word around. It was only when I was doing a second draft of DELLA that I realised if something wasn't working - and it wasn't essential for the plot - I could just cut it out instead of faffing about trying to make it work. And then I got a bit giddy with the hacking. I actually chopped the last 5000 words off the adult novel I'm working on and then realised I had to put most of them back in again.

You really must read...
Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird. Doesn't everyone say that? It's such a brilliantly inspiring book about writing and about life. And it's very funny too.

A word from Keris to end...

I've been making up stories for as long as I can remember, but I didn't manage to write a novel until 2004 when I took part in National Novel Writing Month. I haven't quite finished that one yet, but I have finished a few others (Della Says: OMG! is the first to be published). I live in Lancashire with my husband and two young sons, who make me laugh every day (sometimes intentionally).

My website is
http://www.keris-stainton.com and I'm @keris on Twitter.

There's no place like home

A book which has burrowed its way into my innermost thoughts recently is The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, an intelligent tale set in the former Czechoslovakia focusing on the themes of art, loss, love, fear and betrayal.

And architecture too! Yes, that particular theme is one of the most prevalent running through this novel, and an unusual one too. In the book, wealthy Jew Viktor Landauer and his wife Liesel have been given a gift of land by Liesel's parents to build their own home. Not wanting something traditional, Viktor seeks out the modern and goes ahead with plans to build a glass room - Der Glasraum. The architect employed by Viktor is Rainer von Abt, a man whom the couple met on their honeymoon and one who is deeply moved by innovation and progress.

The Glass Room is not merely a room per se in the novel: it forms the structure of the book – think of a roof under which all the characters interact. The storylines develop under this roof and the glass room becomes the focal point of all manner of activity.

However, as the story progresses, the Glass Room is removed from the Landauers and taken over by the Nazis for scientific experiments, and then claimed by the communists, before becoming a museum, and the site for a final scene of redemption.

The fact that it's made of glass allows the reader to see into the lives with ease, the character are exposed, laid out before us...naked. It's voyeuristic and the many encounters between different couples threaten to throw the plot off course. The historical events too are drawn to the house, taking place within its walls, rather than in the great wide open.

A surprisingly easy read, I was engaged from start to finish. The fluency of the language, the ideas and Mawer's characters all combine to make a flawless novel.

This is Simon Mawer's eighth novel and he's an author I want to know more about. I've got my hands on a copy of The Gospel of Judas and I'm reading it once I finish We Need To Talk About Kevin. I remember reading a review of this book shortly after it was released and the reviewer said that once a film is made of this book, the story will be completely spoiled. It was shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize and quite rightly so. I want to know why it didn't win.

Quick Fire Questions with Katie Fforde

We are thrilled to welcome best selling romantic novelist Katie Fforde to Strictly Writing. Thanks so much Katie, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to join us.

The first story I remember reading was...

The first book I read on my own was ‘Snowball the Pony’ by Enid Blyton. I was a slow reader. The fiction I really loved- a couple of years before I could read myself- were the Arthurian Legends. I used to make the children I played with take the parts. I was always the noblest knight.

Which writer would you be for a day?

The writer I would be for a day would be one who can write 3000 words. Don't care which!

Amazon or independent bookshop?

Independent bookshop every time. I'm now Twitter mates with someone at my local Indy, and she'll order things for me. Bliss!

You really must read...

An awful lot of books! I think a lot of Jenny Rooney, whose first book, 'Inside the Whale' was short listed for the Costa. I've just read her second.

I know I have my story when...

I know where to start and how it will end. Fortunately I can start before I know the end. I just get half the story at a time.

If I wasn't a writer I'd be...

A therapist. I love listening to people's stories. Maybe there's a way I could do it without getting too distressed?

Favourite writing snack?

Carrots. Crunching down on a raw one helps with scenes requiring confrontation.

Longhand or computer?

Computer, every time. My hand writing is terrible. Fortunately I can type.

My biggest tip for a Women's Fiction writer is...

To read a lot - you learn so much. And keep at it! (Second tip slipped in there as I couldn't quite decide.)

My proudest writing moment so far has been...

When I heard from a female vicar who said she'd borrowed a bit of ‘Thyme Out’ as a basis for a sermon. (It was the bit about bereavement.)

Three authors dead or alive I’d like to invite to dinner are:

Well, Georgette Heyer. She might be a bit spiky but I bet she'd be fun. Mark Twain, ditto and probably Shakespeare. I've chosen dead ones because I might yet get to invite the living ones to dinner...

Katie has published fifteen novels and her latest, 'A Perfect Proposal' is due out on June 10th.