JK Rowling And Me

It’s a touchy subject in our house. It always has been. You see I kept my name when I got married. There wasn’t a hope in hell of me shedding my identity, especially as I work in journalism and have a bit of a reputation. Not like that! But people know me. Not to the same extent they know Victoria Beckham or Cheryl Cole though. Having built up a reputation in journalism or indeed any profession, I imagine it’d be suicidal to become Mrs Smith or Mrs Jones. But what if you’ve written a rubbish book which bombed with the critics and you suddenly want to lose the name ‘Betty Blooper’ and become ‘Camille Harrod-Windsor.’ The name change would work for you.

JK Rowling kept her name, just like me. After all, Joanne Murray doesn’t sound that flashy on the cover of a book (apologies to all Joanne Murrays out there, authors or otherwise!) I'm sure you'll agree that the moniker JK Rowling has a bit more magic to it. And from the publisher’s point of view it was probably fundamental to the success of the book. It’s my understanding that young boys would be reluctant to read sci-fi or fantasy written by women novelists. I could be wrong though – do they even look at who wrote the book?

A reputation is something which our predecessors didn't have the freedom to enjoy. In the 18th century many female writers wrote under male or gender neutral pseudonyms to ensure they’d be taken seriously. George Eliot is perhaps the most famous example and is the creator of ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.’ Then there’s S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders and Rumble Fish) and P.D. James. I recall reading The Outsiders after seeing the movie and thinking S.E. Hinton was a young man. I was wrong.

I think we ought to thank these women for standing up for literature and letting the outside world know that our books, several generations on, are just as engaging as those written by men. I often wonder why Lily Allen changed her name to Mrs Cooper. Such a talented songsmith has an international following and she gave that up following her marriage. Thank goodness it’s 2011 and times have changed, is all I can say, otherwise this post would have been written by a certain Jullian McDade.

Time For a Cuppa?

I'm sure you know, but here's a gentle reminder anyway, that today is the Macmillan Coffee Morning.

Basically, the Macmillan charity is trying to raise as much as possible by getting we Brits to do what we do best...have a natter over a cuppa.

My daughter's school is hosting a coffee morning and her year has been asked to provide cakes and wotnots, so on Sunday Pip and I spent a lovely few hours making and decorating cookies.

Actually, if I'm being brutally honest, I did not want to bake cookies. I mean, I know it's a GREAT cause but it was sunny and the papers were spread out across the table so enticingly. And frankly, I am forever feeding the naffing troops...

But nothing elbows you in the guilty ribs like a child mumbling about the place does it? So sure enough I was soon up to my grumpy wrists in flour and after a bit of huffing and puffing I got into it. Again, if I'm being brutally honest, my competitive streak kicked in and Pip and I were racing to the death to see who could knock out the most complicated shapes and designs. I think on reflection her musical notes were pretty darn fine, but my striped hearts had the edge.

I trust they will raise some funds today and perhaps a few smiles too.

Anway, if anyone is hosting a coffee morning near you, or selling cakes in your office, do stick your hand in your pocket and bung em a quid if you can spare it. The Macmillan nurses do a bloody marvelous job and we need to support them.


Apologies in advance of the ranting which may issue forth from this missive, dear reader.  For as I write I am still suffering the bubbling aftermath (like those espresso coffee-maker machines if you want to get a proper AUDITORY feel of the emotion) and as my counsellor has said a couple of times recently (YES I see a Counsellor, what - do you have a PROBLEM with that?!) I need to release my anger a bit more.

So I stand – okay then, sit – before you today a beleaguered, frustrated, anxious, ANGRY BASTARD and the stupid little passive creature sitting on one of my shoulders (and right now I don’t CARE which bloody shoulder it is – whichever one I say would have some kind of hidden ‘meaning’ and I’m so NOT ABOUT hidden meanings at the moment; let them stay hid is what I say to them) is not getting a look-in.  I AM CROSS.
(n.b. there’s also no significance in my use of the word ‘cross’ – this is not a piece of work which I intend to be wheedled through nor psychoanalysed for extraneous undercurrents.  This is simply a RANT of the highest order.  First draft.  Un-cut. End of.)

The string quartet’s already been dealt with and I’ve slapped a “Do not Resuscitate” Post-it Note on each of their heads – so there’s no point in even IMAGINING you can hear plaintive strains of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in F-Minor (even if he didn’t blummin’ well write one.  I don’t CARE – didn’t I mention?) soaring sorrowfully over the following words…

I’ve never asked for much in life.  Nothing on a grander scale than, say, warmth, love, health, happiness, all those things that Dale Winton (does he still do the Lottery thing?) can’t hold over me in his sweaty orange fist and try to tempt me to ‘win’ by answering questions about Mesopotamian Geography and/or Alan Bennett plays.  A simple soul.  That’s me.  And as long as there’s always been a safe distance between me and somewhere that sells chocolate then I’ve generally been content enough.

And you all already know about the creepy bosses and the ridiculous places of work I’ve had to endure over my time.  Well, there’ve also been creepIER boyfriends and worst-case-scenario family-type situations and marriages of the disastrous order and struggles to keep three jobs going whilst being a single-parent….  And if I’m not being deserted then people are dying on me (no, seriously).  But – NO - I don’t want sympathy - a hug will only make me bawl and THAT would ruin my mascara; no - I just want a FUR-LIPPIN’ GODDAMNED BREAK, WOULD YOU MIND?!

Like Kate Bush, I’ve done ‘deals with God’; in my youth anyway.  I used to trade things like being Nice and Good for eternity in return for not being bullied tomorrow and/or a place on the school bus which wouldn’t entice aforementioned Bullying.  And I wasn’t listened to.  Either that or, as I convinced myself - I wasn’t worthy of being listened to – there were starving people in third world countries far more deserving of God’s attention that me.  And in fact I was bullied BECAUSE of my trade-off attempts with God.  This made me A Bad, Bad person.

I should’ve had a counsellor back then.  I’d be flippin Simon Cowell by now.

Speaking of which there was always, at the back of my mind, the chance I might be ‘discovered’.  Like all the Audrey Hepburn/Doris Day fill-ums I’d ever been mesmerised and entranced with, my redeeming dream was that there was always the possibility that my Knight, my Hero, my Saviour was simply waiting for my lowest, point-of-no-return- moment before he would (*ahem* HE? - mental note to deal with this later) appear, strong and masterful on his thunderous steed and sweep me away from ‘all of this’. A cloud of dust would follow and my happy ending would begin.

He never appeared.  My mind gave him reasonable excuses like the new bypass around the town which hadn’t shown up on his medieval A-Z… Just call me Miss Benefit O.T. Doubt.

I read my horoscope diligently.  I did whatever Justin Toper/Russell*/Mystic Meg suggested would be safe for a watery woman on any given day and waited with hope alive in my chest.  I was kind to animals/old people/plants/siblings and knew that I couldn’t be faulted for being a Bad Person.  My day would come. Hadn’t I deserved it, after all?

And here is the silent positivity which I have always carried around with me.  I’ve never shown it to anybody before, and I’ve always laughed and agreed with people who’ve called me a Pessimist in the past because of my ‘ah, no, it’ll NEVER happen to me’ attitude, because inside I’m always thinking “oooh, how much sweeter will this taste WHEN it does?!” Some call it Pessimism.  I prefer to call it …well,  now I call it  my ‘Mad-Sweet Delusion’.

And the straw that broke this Camel’s back?

Alan Titchmarsh. 

I’m not blaming him personally you understand; rather the readers and judges of this year’s ‘People’s Author Competition’ which dead-lined on July 1st and I have just this morning found out that the 16 finalists have already been contacted.

You don’t need me to tell you that I wasn’t one of these talented, lucky people.

(cut to scene where Prince Charming sits scratching his head atop his monstrous but weary steed whilst STILL trying to work out if the A421 goes straight through Nether-Hampton or if he should just jack it all in and head for Clapthorpe and the nearest Little Chef).

And right now I’m beginning to feel like one of those sad wannabes on the X-Factor.  I just don’t Got It.  But what I HAVE got is about a hundred trillion *”NO’s” filed away in the ‘Rejections’ folder.  Maybe it’s about time I started believing what they say and STOP with this incessant deluded belief that I can write. I clearly can’t. And everyone can see it bar me.

*I bet Louis Walsh would keep me in for entertainment value, though.  Just call me the Jedward of the writing world…


The Hof

There wasn't much wind over the last two weeks in Kos. That's the frustrating part of my obsession with skimming across oceans on a board. So I found myself having a deep holiday romance instead . . . with Michael Hofmann. I had read his poetry before, but having acres of time spread out before me I took the opportunity to immerse myself in his work. Or at least as much of his four collections as are replayed in the Selected Poems. And this was the first time, for a long time, that poetry worked on me the way a novel does: transporting you into another world.

The poetry renders Hofmann's experience of the world, often from within a shabby hotel room, with a world-weary writerly ennui that I find extremely appealing. It brought about the same mood in me as some Paul Auster novels, especially Leviathan. The Hof's second collection Acrimony is the one I enjoyed most. It builds as a story of a young man's search to know his novelist father. A father who isn't available for knowing. Most of the poems are written in a relaxed blank verse, which does lend itself to building up a narrative. I love them for the wryly observed details of mundanity. For example the way his mother staggered about like a nude / in her sun-hat, high heels and bathing-costume on family holidays. Or how in one of the many hotels Our beds are at a hospital distance and in another, The television swings into the room on a hinged extension / like a box camera or a boxing glove / or something at the dentist. That last hotel is experienced on An hour's sleep on the back of eight hours of drink, which is more or less how I am writing this post now. Perhaps that's another reason I relate to The Hof. I love the way his self-obsessed self shines out of the poems.

After the intensely personal journey of Acrimony (1986) came Corona Corona (1993) where the poems are more political and geographical. We meet The Hof on his travels, especially in Mexico where Every shoe is a spurred boot, every hat is a stetson, / and every car is a Dodge pickup. For a while his father is forgotton, but he comes back to centre stage after his death in Approximately Nowhere (1999) with many moving elegies. The title of that collection comes from a poem about directions to the cemetary which is approximately nowhere / ten stops by underground then bus / zigzagging through the suburbs.

As a writer there's lots to be learnt from Michael Hofmann. His use of symbolism is beautiful. And he is a ultimate master of "show don't tell". He always resists the temptation to comment on what he sees. The endings of his poems are some of the strongest lines and often sum things up with a skillfully chosen detail. The last line of the poem Nights in the Iron Hotel where Hofmann is watching tv is A gymnast swings like a hooked fish.

Down-time to Downton

I’ve been in the wilderness for a while. Unable to write, because my powers of concentration were reduced to that which would fill a thimble. I have also been unable to read for the same reasons. So, for the last two months, I have been introduced to and reduced to, the empty and barren world of daytime television. And sitting still... No exercise at all, since a walk upstairs rendered me breathless and panting. An acute bout of pneumonia will do that to a girl.

So, if you need any advice on Homes Under The Hammer, The Matthew Wright show, The Jeremy Kyle show (bless me Father for I have sinned...) Judge Judy, The Real Housewives of various USA Counties, To Build Or Not To Build - call me. Having a dodgy lung has reduced me to a panting vegetable. The hubster, trying to inject a little humour into my very un-funny situation suggested I set up a sex phone line. Panting could earn some money, he said. The fact that I thought about it, albeit briefly, shows how bad things had become.

Two months on, I’m still clock watching to take the next pain relief, however, I do feel better. I feel my brain is once again demanding more; I can walk up the stairs without sounding like an audition for a porn movie; I can read a newspaper without falling asleep (although...) When I close my eyes and imagine my brain, I now see it as a functioning, pulsing organ with lobes and a stem, rather than an empty, threaded bit of floating tumble weed. Once again, I’m reading a book without wanting to put it down after two pages and here I am, at last, writing.

Everything happens for a reason and in between all the crap television programmes, there was an odd gem - tightly written or suspenseful, or plain old brilliantly crafted characters in a drama like Downton Abbey. I watched the whole of series one on DVD just in time to see series two start last Sunday. It made me want to write a screen play, something I’ve never thought of doing before. How different can it be to writing a lot of dialogue? It’s a lot of dialogue with stage order thingys isn’t it? Or is it? Something tells me my recovering brain may be oversimplifying this somewhat. I’m no Julian Fellowes, but I still think I want to give the scriptwriting thing a go.

Has anyone out there done any courses? Any books (now that I can read again) to recommend? Advice on the different crafts of script writing versus novel writing? I need to get my teeth into something new and challenging, remind myself that my brain like the rest of my muscles that have been semi retired for the last two months, now need flexing and exercising. Wish me luck...

Vanity Publishing for Kids

The other day, my mum phoned with great excitement to announce that my 7-year-old nephew is going to be a published poet! She's pre-ordered a copy of the anthology – it might be £15.99, but that's a small price to pay for seeing his name in print!

As 'the writer' in the family, I was probably supposed to give some words of encouragement and inspiration for our budding John Milton. Unfortunately, I'm also the bitter and twisted old scepti-hag of the family, so I'm afraid I couldn't muster up much enthusiasm for the ancient money-making trick for which he's become fodder.

I suspect most readers here are well aware of rat-scented poetry contests. You enter a free competition and receive a letter saying you've been selected out of 7 billion entries to BE PUBLISHED. The book will get into the British Library – whoop-de-rollerblading-hoo! You can even order copies at a bargain price for all your chums.

But when the tome arrives, you discover that your carefully crafted verse is buried under an avalanche of emo outpourings from a thousand other suckers. You won't get any royalties and you won't see the book in any shops. You feel like a bit of an idiot but you think 'c'est la vie' and move on.

At least, you do if you're an adult.

There are, however, 'imprints' that don't aim their services at grown-up writers. They pitch their marketing materials to schools and give teachers a few resources to encourage the class to submit their work.

The average 7-year-old doesn't frequent the many informative blogs and forums about getting published. If you're 7 and your teacher says you've won a contest, you're well within your rights to be pretty chuffed. You don't know you're just a pawn in a money-making scheme that relies on your Aged-Ps and grandma forking out for an upmarket photocopy. If your family then refuses to buy 'your' book, well – how could they do that to you? Lifelong psychological torment awaits. 

At the most basic economic level, of course, there is nothing wrong with a company providing a product and people choosing to buy it. All businesses are intended to be 'money-making schemes' (though judging by the websites of some small publishers, I do wonder!) What is distasteful in this case, however, is that the profit is the result of manipulating the emotions of small children and their parents.

It's easy for us slush-pile vermin to feel that everyone in the world is trying to be a writer, but most people have quite sensibly never thought about committing pen to paper. The teachers and parents are not stupid or gullible – they just have no reason to have spent months investigating how to get published.

Yet even when parents become suspicious about the scheme, how are they supposed to look at their child's excited little face and explain that, actually, the whole class's dross got accepted for this wonkily-printed paperback? No one wants to be the parent who says:

No, Jonny, the biggest achievement of your life is NOT worth £16 to me – hell, kid, that's like three days-worth of Jack Daniel's or something.

On the surface, these schemes might appear harmless fun, but if an individual child has been having a tough time, news of such a supposedly wonderful opportunity could have the whole family in tears of joy – it must be crushing when the truth becomes apparent in the playground the next day.

So, how do the people who run these companies justify getting kids to vanity publish? Well, they say they're encouraging creative writing, and that publication boosts children's confidence, motivating them to continue with poetry. How admirable – but an anthology printed on Lulu.com by the PTA would have the same effect and would also raise funds for the school (which gets no profit from these schemes other than the remote possibility of a cash prize). Parents and children could look back on such a publication with fondness and pride – rather than an uneasy sense that someone was laughing all the way to the bank.

I Don't Like Mondays...

How are you this Monday? Did your alarm go off and you couldn't quite believe the night had disappeared? Did you open your curtains and think, shit, that's the Summer gone then, as a murky September scene greeted you?

If that's the case, then grab a coffee and read on. Maybe I'll be able to inspire you into starting your week with the vigour of of an X Factor contestant getting through to boot camp...or at least convince you not to top yourself with a tea spoon.

Why are you so bloody perky I hear you cry. Aren't you meant to be weeping over your cornflakes over the state of the publishing industry?

To be honest, I probably should be but I'm in full on Pollyanna mode because last week my editor finally signed off on book five. I cannot tell you how great this made me feel. I mean, it's always fab when you get to the end of the editing process and the work is done. But this time the usual sense of release is coupled by an enormous sense of relief.

This dear readers has not been an easy book. I'd heard all about the difficult second albumn syndrome but hadn't been affected. Who could have guessed I'd come so unstuck on book five!!!!! Surely by now I could do this malarky with my eyes shut?

Well let me tell you my eyes were wide open when I had to do a flippin' great re-write. Yes re-write. It would be disingenuous to call it an edit. This was big. Major heart surgery. And it had to be done to a tight deadline. You see the book is called Twenty Twelve and is set during the London Olympics, so not suprisingly, the sales and marketing dudes want it in the shops by next April/May. That'll teach me to come up with the old high concept book. I thought I was being clever but it turns out I was just making a rod for my own back.

Actually, the whole thing made me realise that there are many myths out there doing the rounds that I can dispell in one fell swoop.

1. Editors no longer edit. Wrong, wrong, wrong diddly wrong wrong.

2. Publishers don't care about the quality of high concept, highly commercial work. Sorry, but that's a bunch of crap.

3. Commercial writers stick to a formula and can do it in their sleep. Nice try but no cigar.

Anyhow, I dug deep and got the re-write done. And my ed is....drum roll please...very happy with it.

Now I have a clear path ahead of me. I can do exactly what I want. I can start book six which is due to be subbed in July 2012, or I can tackle on of the other projects that have been calling me. Or I could do bugger all for a couple of weeks. Life don't get much sweeter than this.

So I'm going to raise a cuppa to you all out there and hope that some of this great feeling is contagious. Happy Monday.

Contractions and a contract

This has been a summer of contractions and a contract.

On August 1 at 6:16am hubby and I gave birth to Amelie (7lbs 11oz) and a few days later I signed a contract for Novel Two (Novel One is currently on the backburner). If truth be told, the novel was far more painful and laborious, despite mum having hyperemesis from hell (extreme sickness) for nine months. The book took around two years from start to finish, whereas my labour (as a first timer!) was four hours and up until the last eighty minutes or so, relatively painless which I attribute to my chiropractic treatment.

Conception is just the beginning. From conceiving those ideas in a flash of inspiration and getting them down on a piece of paper, to the foetus developing into a perfectly formed baby, often I look back on both and wonder how it all started. And every parent I'm sure has gone gaga over early scans, aka the rough draft, wondering whether or not everything will turn out right and if all the bits and pieces will be in the right places.

When we found out Baby was healthy and doing well, we began to look forward to the end result, bound in flawless skin, like a fine leather book engraved in intricate detail.

With a birth and a book comes the plans. The birth plan went reasonably well - from waters breaking naturally to a fast birth and minimal pain relief, I was happy. Admittedly it did go a bit pear-shaped at the very end thanks to my soaring blood pressure, and the recovery has been hellish. However, I’m dealing with the aftermath by pulling my anger away from the forceps and trying to focus on Book Two - which had a plan. It was a lovely detailed plan and I stuck rigidly to it. Now and then I wandered off course, but that's part of giving birth to a book. We can't have it all our way.

The urge to push is very strange. It’s like (TMI alert) expelling a cannonball and for me, similar to the desperate urge to push on with a work in progress and meet those self-set deadlines. Once you have that initial idea for the book, you need to expand on it before the inspiration disintegrates into the hectic blur of daily life. Likewise, every parent nurtures a growing child, feeding, taking care of him or her and guiding the offspring in the right direction.

My book will no doubt be the subject of a future blog post, and like a parent rejoices over the safe delivery of a baby, I’ll also rejoice over the appearance of it.

It could've Been Me

This is one difficult woman to pin down.  Not only is she the supremely capable mother of five ridiculously beautiful and intelligent children (Gabe 12, Elle 9, Sasha 5 and 3-year old twins Reuben and Jack) she’s also just finished writing her twelfth novel, ‘Meet Me in John Lewis’.
Add these fiercely time-consuming activities to an already exhausting schedule of PTA meetings, being the wife of the former President of the whole of Tellyland, throw in some pretty nifty baking on behalf of the local Primary Schools and WI; her tireless charity work and you start to wonder where this amazing woman gets her stamina from.
‘Three Omega-3 fish oil capsules a day,’ she winks at me through lashes that would delight a woman half her age.  ‘And, of course, never say no to anything.’ Another wink.
From such humble beginnings - her father was a Butcher, her mother a Post-lady.  (Nobody is certain as to what role her brother played and his presence in her life is something that her PR people have asked me not to touch upon) Debs Riccio is a force to be reckoned with and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly.  She readily admits she’d also sell her own grandmother for another slice of fame (if her grandmother was still alive, of course).
She waves away a tray of celery and carrot with elegantly manicured hands and swears under her breath about the staff.  This ‘staff’ it turns out, is actually her mother, who later assures me she enjoys being employed by her famous daughter. ‘I get to see the grandkids and, of course, it keeps my new hips moving’, she beams over a batch of freshly baked cinnamon muffins.
It certainly seems like the stuff of which dreams are made.  At the age of 18, Debs’ undoubted writing ability was spotted by the, then Editor of Woman magazine, Richard Fitzwarren, when she sent in a short story entitled ‘Sidney’.  This story was to change the course of her life. 
‘It sounds like a terrible clich√©,’ Debs says, stretching out long, lithe legs.  She is wearing a diaphanous blouse, cream linen trousers and a pair of butter-cream leather open-toed mules.  Every inch of her skin gleams with health and vitality. ‘And although I’m grateful for the chance Dickie gave me, I’m certain it would’ve happened anyway.  I sent the same story to Give Me a Break and Bingo-Bongo.  They’d have been blind not to have realised its potential.’
My china cup is re-filled with Lady Grey tea and I nod my thanks to Debs’ mother who curtseys almost apologetically before backing out of the room.
When pressed on the subject of her husband’s infidelity, Debs is naturally cautious.  ‘He’s an arse,’ she says blithely.  ‘Why would anyone sire five children and then start shagging the paid help?’
I assume she doesn’t mean her mother and decide to change the subject.
‘Back in those days it wasn’t very clever or fashionable to want to have a career,’ she tells me when I ask her about her aspirations as a teenager. ‘And lord knows my parents tried to warn me off of wanting to go to college or university.  I mean…’ she leans in conspiratorially at this point and whispers over at me, ‘…it didn’t do them any harm did it?’ she jerks a thumb in the direction of the kitchen and suppresses a snort. ‘So I knew the only way I was going to make anything of my life was if I had enough determination and confidence to make a success of it myself.’
My eyes fall on the array of framed book-covers which decorate the wall beside me in the sumptuously decorated drawing room-cum-library.  There is a discernable gap.
‘That’s my way of celebrating motherhood,’ Debs smiles beatifically.  ‘There’d have been at least five other book covers up there if I hadn’t been quite so fertile. Of course I had my tubes clipped after the twins.’
Across the hallway I can see the children coming in from school through the heavy oak front door and hugging their grandmother as they pass her books, bags and lunchboxes.  She starts to struggle with the double-buggy and when Debs follows my gaze, she leans over and toes the door shut in one elegant move.
She is clearly a focused woman I tell her, and I ask what she’s working on at the moment; where she finds the time and the inspiration with everything she’s involved with and she throws back her swan-like neck, runs a hand through thick, glossy caramel waves and laughs.
‘Oh, I’m always inspired,’ she levels her emerald green eyes at mine.  ‘After all Life itself is such inspiration, isn’t it!  The trees, the birds, the sun…. I could be, what, shaking the Queen Mother’s hand, or sitting on the loo and POW! inspiration smacks me right round the head….’
‘…  it’s times like these,’ Debs continues, ‘that I thank the good Lord baby Jesus for giving me such a tremendous talent and such a terrific ability with which to channel my talents.  Obviously if it wasn’t for the wonderful support of my readers and publishers then I wouldn’t be half the woman I am today…. but…in fact that’s what my latest book is all about…. wait… wait…. the hardships of growing up in the seventies; the cruel way children were forced to climb chimneys to make a living for their abusive parents; the excommunication of the Head of the Church of England and drugs pedalling on the urban subways of Hampstead Heath.  I think my fans will be thrilled. It has all the hallmarks of a classic Riccio read.’

As I tread the gravelled driveway away from the side entrance of this magnificent stately home, I feel I have borne witness to something very precious indeed.

'And there's vampires too!' I hear a voice shout behind me.

A Gift for Writing

There’s a wonderful book called 29 Gifts. Have you come across it? It’s written by a young American woman called Cami Walker who was diagnosed with MS a month after her wedding. In pain and despair, and barely able to leave her flat, she was given the following ‘recipe’ by an African medicine woman: Give 29 gifts in 29 days. And if you miss a day, go back to the beginning. The gifts included a tissue for a friend in tears; giving away a bouquet of flowers she’d bought for herself, stem by stem, to strangers; giving a shell she’d found on the beach to a little girl. The point of all this was that in giving a gift each day, her energy turned from focusing on pain and difficulty towards the power to make a difference.

What is this to do with writing, I hear you ask?

Writing works energetically from the inside out. It’s expressive, outpouring, giving. Maybe it’s time to give your inner writer a gift. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, suggests Artist’s Dates each week to fill the well of inspiration. But the smallest gift will be appreciated by our hard-working inner writer. Here are some suggestions:

• The gift of half an hour a day to write in
• A comfortable, back-supporting chair
• Some healthy writerly snacks
• Membership of a writing group or online community
• Time each day to walk and imagine and ponder
• A really good book to read.
• The choice to write differently – a haiku or a short story or a novel
• A trip to the bookshop, or the zoo, or the seaside.

What gift would your writer most appreciate this week?

It's A Dog's Life

I wouldn't call myself a dog lover.

I mean, I would go out of my way to kick them or anything, it's just that I'm none too fussed on all that barking and crotch sniffing.

And, as regular readers of this blog know, I have a penchant for white linen trousers, which don't exactly play well with mucky paws.

So all in all it has been pretty convenient that my son is allergic to them. It's been a cast iron excuse to all those requests from the kids. Even the heart felt letter to Santa begging for a puppy I was able to elbow aside safe in the knowledge that I was looking after my son's welfare.

You can imagine then my consternation when it transpired there was one breed Joe wasn't allergic to.

You couldn't make it up could you? Bloody millions of dogs out there all bringing on red eyes and asthma attacks, only for my son's best mate to choose the very type that doesn't cause any problems.

Of course I could have stood firm and remained focussed on my white trousers, but I'm a working mother and guilt is my default setting...

Which is why I now find myself the owner of a three month old Border Terrier called Peanut. Named such in a classic twist of Black humour referencing another familial allergy.

And in a classic example of life in Casa Black never going according to plan, Peanut managed to injure herself in the first week with us.

See I disovered by chance that my nearest neighbour is a dog sitter and was almost breathless with anticipation of pulling on those troos and heading out for lunch with my mates. Unfortunately, Peanut became similarly excited and jumped under the dog sitter's feet.

Cue much yelping (the pup), much weeping (the dog sitter) and much bill issuing (the vet).

Anyways Peanut has broken all the toes on her front right paw. All of 'em. She's in a full leg pup plaster and is housebound for the next three weeks. I've put away my glad rags.

On the plus side however, I've done loads of writing. Being stuck at home, it sort of seemed rude not to. In fact I've almost finished the latest round of edits on book five. I'll be able to sub them early!!! And I've virtually filled a notebook with ideas for new projects.

So not all bad then.

Friday Film

It's Friday. By this stage of the week my only professional ambitions are to drink coffee and refrain from killing anyone. So I'm low on motivational writing advice and observational humour. Instead, I thought it would be easier fun to link to a video.

Here's Mrs Whitaker - who wrote, typeset and printed four newspapers while looking after two small children in 1942. Writing is soon skimmed over as a minor and untelegenic part of the process, and Mrs Whitaker enjoys no fame or fortune today, but she's an inspiration to those of us feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of work and family life. 

(If video doesn't display, click here.)

Film courtesy of British Pathé. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook

Looking for inspiration?

On my way home I stopped and sat on a bench.

It was just passed where they are pulling down the council offices. The building had half its face ripped off, as if it had been the victim of a bomb blast.

Strands of iron hung down in the gaps between the floors with concrete fragments like decorations. The whole eight storey block was missing one side of wall with all the other walls intact and the edges of floor protruding like snapped bones or the ripped edge of a cardboard box.

On the bench I looked at West London to see if it contained one last shred of beauty. Today, in this war-torn, commercialised, celebrity-worshipping, whore of a city, was there one scrap of nature left to comfort me? To inspire me.

I stopped because my bag was heavy too. Already tired from swimming I’d bought two reams of paper, to be used for purposes I won’t go into here.

There was another broken wall alongside the path where I sat on the bench. It had uneven stones along the top. Not exactly beauty, but at least a reminder of age. Ancientness creates its own value. I can forgive the historical city with its brutal employer practices, death-penalties, denial of suffrage for women, because all that is long ago and time has healed while it has eaten away at that wall.

Above the wall there were claret clouds scudding westward on the early evening breeze. Nature at last and undeniably beautiful, if only because the clouds were elevated so far away from humankind.

I watched a man walk by with a haunted face. He probably saw in me a threat, another man, a stranger, sitting on the bench for no purpose. What purpose could there be to sit outside in London with no cigarette? He probably didn’t notice the nascent flowers below the bench, and anyway, nascent is a word best reserved for breasts.

Then a sound. A single voice of opera. A tenor, either recorded or practicing, I couldn’t tell which because he was so deeply embedded in the house alongside the path. That got me off the bench. I went and leaned in close to the wall and listened. But the singing voice was still far off and faint, drifting away with the claret clouds. So I gave up and finished my walk home. But all the way up Castlebar Hill I could still hear opera. It was slightly scary. It seemed to emanate from the echoes of cars that laboured up the hill past me. It came from slightly behind and it sang that beauty existed everywhere and inspiration can be found anywhere. Even in Ealing.

Inspiration is like sex, always available if I really want it.

Onboard the Fiction Express - Guest Post by Luisa Plaja

Ever wished that readers could give you feedback on your novel-in-progress, telling you where they’d like the plot to go? Luisa Plaja, author of several teen novels, talks about writing for Fiction Express

Fiction Express publishes online novels in weekly instalments - with a twist. At the end of each chapter, readers get to vote on what they’d like to see happen next. The writer then works on the subsequent part of the story according to the majority vote, and the whole process goes on for a total of eleven weeks.

I visited Strictly Writing back in May to talk about jumping on the Fiction Express. I’m now pleased to report that my novel, Diary of a Mall Girl, is complete.

And what an experience it was! Every Monday morning, I eagerly awaited the email giving me the vote result so that I could rush off to write. Except… it didn’t quite work that way. I’d spend the rest of the day thinking and planning, ending with a large amount of panicking about not having written anything. This was usually followed by at least one all-night writing and/or editing session, racing to meet the Thursday editorial deadline. (Of course, I’m sure the other authors weren’t like me. I imagine they all got their chapters in bright and early each week. Ahem.) I can’t pretend that writing this way was easy, but it was definitely a fun challenge. And somehow the story came together, with characters developing and plot twists revealing themselves in ways I hadn’t foreseen.

I write teen romance, and at the start of Diary of a Mall Girl, I wasn’t even sure who the love interest for my main character would be. Some interesting voting soon made it obvious which character the readers wanted Molly to be with… though not without complications and a few wicked vote results on the way.

You can read more about my experience of Fiction Express in an interview at Serendipity Reviews, together with a review of Diary of a Mall Girl. You can also read all the completed e-books at Fiction Express. The latest novel there is a steampunk adventure called Remy Brunel and the Ocean of Light by Sharon Gosling, and as it’s in progress, there are still many chances to influence the course of its plot.

Think you’d like to try writing this way yourself? A Fiction Express editor writes:
“Fiction Express is always looking for enthusiastic authors, so if you're interested in being part of the project, please email authors@fictionexpress.co.uk . Although our current e-books are targeted at teens, we are looking to launch some titles for younger children later in the year, too.”

First chapters of all novels are free to read, with subsequent chapters costing one credit each (from 59p). The Fiction Express team is kindly offering ten free credits to readers of Strictly Writing. To claim this special offer today, register (for free) at http://www.fictionexpress.co.uk, click on “add credits” and enter the following code: STRICTLY10

Happy reading and writing!

Something old, something new...

‘Where do you get your ideas from?’

It’s probably the question writers get asked the most and it usually prompts a bit of an internal sigh. It’s not at all a stupid question though. It’s just one that’s very, very difficult to answer.

So where do they come from? Anywhere and nowhere, I guess, is the short answer.

Ideas can come from: a picture in your mind, an overheard conversation, a news story, a song, a poem; from another book, a movie or TV programme; a gorgeous/ugly/ moving bit of scenery, from a memory, from personal experience...

Okay, I’ll stop there because there are probably a million more ‘sources’ and I bet if you’re reading this you’re thinking I haven’t even mentioned whatever seems the most obvious one to you.

The reason I’ve been mulling on this though, is that I’m in the process of thinking about my third book. My second was already half finished when I got my book deal and originally it was to have a sequel. But as I was writing it, I realised in my heart of hearts that a sequel felt completely wrong. I said nothing but luckily, my very perceptive editor said, ‘You know, I feel you’re holding back in this story. How about putting everything into one book, ditching the sequel idea, and book three can be decided later?’

That book is slowly getting there now and my editor wants to have a chat at some point soon about ideas for the next one.

And that’s a bit scary.

Some writers have a constant stream of good ideas. I’m pleased for them, truly I am [smug gits]. But for me, I’m more likely to have one on the boil at a time. So I suddenly felt a bit, shall we say, terrified that I had to produce a very solid idea out of a magician’s hat? So I started wondering in more detail about where MY stories come from. What if I couldn’t think of anything at all?

It didn't help that this summer has been very intense, with a house move in the offing and all sorts of other tricky life issues going on. Thankfully, I was able to go holiday and when I asked myself that question in a relaxed and happy state, I realised that atmospheric settings are very important to me. And looking at some of the incredible places we visited in Northumberland, I started to get the tiniest of tiny story ideas.

It’s so delicate as yet, I daren’t even talk about it out loud in case it’s rubbish. [I’m actually a bit wobbly about even mentioning it here in such veiled terms]
It may be nothing. It may be something. But it has reminded me that this part is one of the best bits of writing.

Fingers crossed it’s a keeper....