Exactly twelve hours to go

Today is the deadline for the National Poetry Competition. So dust off your quill and scratch out a sonnet. Have any of you entered? I sent eight poems, which is an expensive way of getting nothing, but if you don't enter . . .

They get about 11,000 entries, I believe, making it the biggest one about, and it's open to all, and judged anonymously. What fun! Six pounds a poem is good value for the dream of winning this. All the details are at The Poetry Society

Good luck to any Strictly Poets.

The long cold wait

An agent has had the full manuscript of my second novel for six months now. They read the first three chapters in an anthology put together by the teacher of one of the courses I attended. I sent them the full manuscript and then sat back to wait. Many reading this will know what that's like - the obsessive checking of emails, the runs to the letterbox every time someone puts an advert for a restaurant onto the doormat, the constant checking that you have a good signal on the mobile phone. Actually, I've done none of the above. As far as I'm concerned it will be best if they never contact me. As things stand I can say, "My novel is with a leading London literary agency" and these are words I like to drop into any conversation I have with writerly types. Once they contact me the dream will be over and I will forget that novel for good. Meanwhile it's back to the poems. At least with poetry you can win some minor victories: a poem in a magazine here, a shortlisting for a competition there, an opportunity to read. With novels it's so all or nothing - unless your novel is permanently with an agent who is considering it. Did I mention that my novel is currently in the hands of a top London agency? And no, I won't be sending out any reminders.

Let it snow

‘Right,’ said my editor, ‘This time round, how about planning a fairly detailed skeleton of the book before you start writing? That way,’ she added sweetly, ‘we can avoid any complications or snags with the plot right at the start.’

She made it sound so reasonable. ‘Okay,’ I replied in a strangled voice, ‘I’ll certainly give it a go.’ And then I rhythmically banged my head on the wall for several minutes, keening a little at the same time.

The thing is, I’m not really a ‘panter’.  Or to use another expression I’ve heard, a ‘discovery writer’. But then I’m not really a classic plotter either. I usually have a rough idea of the overall shape of the book in my mind but with plenty of room for finding new ideas while I’m writing. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to write myself into impossible corners and then spend a great deal of time going backwards and forwards, a bit like when Austin Powers was in that car trying to get out of a miniscule parking space [funniest thing in the whole movie in my view, but I digress]

So what she wants me to do is start with a once sentence pitch. Then, I need to expand it to ten lines. And so on until I have a one page summary. Easy right? Right?


A writer friend helpfully pointed out that this was also known as The Snowflake Method, which you can check out here.

I’ve given it a go and you know what? It has actually helped. A bit. I haven’t gone the whole hog yet. I haven’t actually done anything as insane as getting beyond the third step if I’m really honest. But it has prompted some quite decent ideas that I didn’t have before. I’ve actually started writing before finishing all the steps [shh, don’t tell my editor] but I do feel as though I willl be able to plan the story out more closely now.

If you’re a panter and it works for you, that’s great [she says a bit enviously]. You have no need to try this at all. But if you’re a bit of a panter who eyes those sensible plotter types with their lovely crisp notecards, highlighter pens and nerdy spreadsheets, secretly wishing that a little of their sensible ways would rub off on you, it’s definitely worth a try.

Stop! Thief!

Number one on today’s ‘To Do’ list is to ‘write SW post’. Actually it says WRITE SW POST! It is capitalised, unlike numbers 2-11 on my list and it has an explanation mark after it, which seems to imply its creation is either funny or of vital importance.

What is important, is that I get something off my chest. In doing so, I might manage a little ‘funny’ but somehow I doubt it, because at the moment I’m a mite pissed off, which always sours my creative juices. I blame Tesco. Well, not Tesco exactly, but the trip I took to Tesco; the browse I had through Tesco’s books; the fact that I picked up an attractive looking one and read the blurb; the fact that someone else had written my book. Bloody cheek ... It’s like this woman (who shall be nameless, but is a best-selling author) tapped into my mind and wrote my story. This particular story has been rattling around in my head for about two years, so you see it IS possible. Two years ago, the vixen must have latched onto my brainwaves, stole my story and wrote it first. Which of course makes it her story now... Brainwave skulduggery is difficult to prove.

I wouldn’t really mind except this is not the first time I have had my brainwaves stolen. It happens quite often. There I am, thinking that I’m directly wired to the Zeitgeist only to find I am the eternal white rabbit – late to the party, idea already published.

I do understand that there are only so many plots etc and that any story can be handled diversely in different hands. However, I am talking whole books here! You know, similar characters, almost identical plot. I tell you, it’s sabotage. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d have a view. Okay, I have a view – it’s a conspiracy. There’s a certain group of female writers who have all got together, formed a coven and when they join hands, they nick my novels. They must decide amongst themselves who gets what pickings. There’s strength in numbers you know... It’s the only explanation I can come up with.

That or my school reports were right. I spent too much time looking out the window and often lagged behind. The comment, ‘Fionnuala likes to dream,’ was commonplace. I like to think that it was practise. All writers need to be able to imagine other worlds, however, I do accept that all writers need discipline too. Like right now – ‘Come Dine With Me’ is on in the background and I can’t help being drawn to the fact (despite the sound being muted) that someone is making a right *&$£?* of rolling out pre rolled puff pastry. I am thinking ‘how hard can to be to roll out a piece of pre rolled pastry’ when I should be concentrating on writing this post.

Moral of the story is that I now have to come up with a new idea for the novel that I was going to write for NaNoWriMo, because the one I had has been written by someone else. And when I do, I have to WRITE it rather than THINK ABOUT WRITING IT. (Note capitals to imply importance)

Meantime, I know who you are. There are four of you. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to. And you can bloody well stop joining hands and using whatever thieving ways you use. Leave my ideas alone, or I shall be forced to make effigies of you all and stick pins in them. In fact, there you go. That’s what my next novel will be about. A deranged unpublished writer who sticks pins in dolls of mind controlling published writers. I dare you. See what you can do with that!!


Guest Author Elizabeth Haynes gets all serious about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

We are delighted to shine the Strictly Writing spotlight on author Elizabeth Haynes.  Another NaNoWriMo is nearly upon us and Elizabeth is one of the many success stories associated with this annual challenge.  Here she divulges her very own winning formula and gives us one of those inspirational leg-ups we all need from time to time.  Take it away, Elizabeth...

"I feel a bit of a fraud, writing about NaNoWriMo as if I know what I’m talking about. I’ve being doing it for fun since 2005, like a lot of other people, and I never thought for one minute that it might lead to publication. But to my ongoing surprise, it did – and so, dear reader, for your delectation and amusement, here is a precis of my NaNoWriMo journey to date.

My first attempt (2005) resulted in a laughable serial killer-thriller that I lost in early December to a hard drive failure. Lessons learned in 2005:
-          don’t use the same name for more than one character (too complicated)
-          don’t base your serial killer character on your boss (potentially awkward)
-          back up, back up, back up!! Do it now!

In 2006 I wrote 50,000 words of a vast, complicated police procedural – loved it, couldn’t think of an ending so just carried on with the middle hoping the ending would show up eventually. It didn’t. Lessons learned in 2006:
-          keep a spreadsheet or database of characters if you’re going to have lots of them
-          have a vague idea of who the killer might be when you start writing

In 2007 I lived the life of a Nano rebel and continued with my 2006 plot, ending up with a 130,000 word total for both parts and still no sign of an ending, or any idea who the killer might be. Lessons learned in 2007:
-          it’s much more fun to start a fresh new plot each November
-          having a week off work made a BIG difference to my total wordcount

 outside the NaNo HQ
In 2008 I finally got the balance right: a brand new plot, an idea of the ending (even though it changed in the editing process), and… the biggest achievement of all – I finished the blessed thing. I had a go at editing the result, but I ended up working on the first third of it over and over again, not having a clue what I was doing, and each time giving up thinking it was all pointless. In the end I showed the manuscript to two close friends, who both loved it - which gave me some hope. What made the difference was a conversation with my cousin, who uttered the fateful words, “Why not just send it off? What have you got to lose?” Oh, so simple!

The rest of the story has more to do with luck than judgement, but I did end up with a publishing contract for my 2008 book – Into the Darkest Corner, which was released in February 2011.  As everyone’s publishing story is going to be different, the lessons I learned earlier on are possibly more useful:
-          you can’t do anything with a story unless it has an ending, and
-          you won’t get published unless you actually show it to someone.

As always I’m in danger of being Mistress of the Bleedin’ Obvious here, so forgive me the platitudes, but let me console you with this: if I can do this, there is nothing stopping you doing it too. If you’re on that long conveyor belt between starting your first novel and a sparkling book launch, be proud that you’re on the conveyor at all, because there are a lot of people who are afraid to give it a go. You might fall off. You might get pushed off it by that annoying thing called Real Life. But if the only thing standing in your way is a big pile of excuses, I would urge you to be brave and go for it.

So here we are, standing on the edge of a beautiful new November, full of potential and dark, grey, cold days, just made for cuddling up with a computer or a notebook. This might be your year; the year you write something with a beginning, a middle and an ending that’s actually quite good… This might be the year that you end up with something you can actually show someone. And if not that, then it might be the year that you have the best fun, meet the nicest Wrimos online, go to some hilarious write-ins and emerge on 1st December feeling thoroughly pleased with yourself (and wishing you’d thought to do your Christmas shopping in October).

This year I’m starting with another germ of a story, a vague idea of an ending, a few good-ish characters who are waiting to tell me their stories, and a real cracker of a title! Please feel free to come and say hello on the NaNoWriMo site via nanomail – I’d love to hear from you. I’m Cosmic The Cat on there. And good luck with yours… I’ll see you on the other side."

Elizabeth can also be found on Twitter (@Elizjhaynes) or via Into the Darkest Corner’s Facebook page:

Into the Darkest Corner is a powerful novel of obsession in it's many forms and is currently nominated for the People’s Book Prize, the winner of which is selected purely by reader votes. Voting continues until the end of November, and can be found here:http://www.peoplesbookprize.com/section.php?id=6

A Quiet Room

The writing room always has to be a quiet room. I don’t want music on in the background, neither do I want to hear voices, least of all ones which interrupt the master at work…’Gillian, what do you think?’ or ‘Gillian, I really don’t want to disturb you but….’

Our teachers always used to say the exam room was a quiet room. And, surprise, surprise, they were right! Apart from the odd cough or sneeze though. Whilst studying as a GCSE and A Level student, I was always distracted by the presence of music in the background. Even the radio was a major source of disruption. The radio only served as a brief 15 minute break from studying. I would switch on Radio One as a reward and listen to Steve Wright In The Afternoon (oh the memories), have a Kitkat and get back to work.

Times haven’t changed, except for the fact I now have to tolerate background noise while writing. It’s not really a choice any more. After all I’m not the only person living at number 15. I have to battle against constant renditions of Three Blind Mice and background MTV (which is a great tool to get Baby to sleep!) football on Five Live and re-runs of Two and A Half Men.

And the writing room is not a cafeteria either. We usually ask our Strictly guest posters what their favourite writing snack is and they will say ‘a packet of cheese and onion crisps’ or ‘a Twix.’ I’m at the other end of the spectrum in that many times I’ve forgotten to eat! Lunch would just disappear and before I know it, it’s 5pm and dinner time.

I think it’s all about discipline and whatever way you were taught to study, you’ll carry that on in your writing life. Am I right?

Books to Film; discuss

Excuse the un-padded-out-ness of this post; but didn't somebody once say that brevity is the most compelling form of depth?*

Saw the film. Loved it. Saw it again. Loved it even more although Jack Black character annoyed me.  Saw Jack Black in another film.  Realised he’s just annoying and watched High Fidelity again.  Realised I was in love with John Cusack.  And Joan.  Saw it again.  Insisted friends watched.  Bought it for friends.  Realised there was a book.  Didn’t want to read it.  Set in London.  Couldn’t poss do film justice.  Realised I was wrong.  Film was brilliant.  Book was better (cos book was British?) and was delighted to read scenes in book not in film. Read book again.  And again.  And again.  Stop me if I’m boring you.
Tried to read some other Nick Hornby but didn’t quite hit the mark.

Great idea.  Great first book.  Great first film.  There's a saying about stopping while you're ahead, isn't there?

Loved the book.  Lent book to daughter.  Loved.  Book lent to others.  Loved.  Couldn’t quite believe how film would work.  Went to watch it.  Didn’t work.  Biggest flaw was Henry the drippy, chinless wonder.  He had a chin in MY book. And a spine.
Didn’t stop me reading Audrey Niffenegger’s ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ and delighting in that too.  Will still see the film when it’s out. I’m like that.

Oh please, just don't even get me started. The book was fine back when Vampires were new an' all. The movie was just mayhem (in the auditorium) with screaming and gasps and lots of tweens taking unauthorised photographs NEXT to the screen before being politely asked to move away.  Just silly.

(or something, were the first 2 books combined in the movie?)
Liked book. Was bright, breezy and easy to read. But Becky Bloomwood started to annoy me during 2nd in series (are there 12 now?  is she a grandmother yet?) so stopped at 2. Had fond memories of ditsy airhead MC so watched film.  90 mins of my life I won’t get back. Was dire.

Loved book.  Loved book so much bought all books by Emily Giffin and became HUGE fan.  She can’t write fast enough for me.  However, thought film shallow and schmoozy although did love Ethan character, which came to life in the film. Even bigger shame is that sequel; SOMETHING BLUE is being filmed right now. Shall be giving that a miss.

Just finished reading this in the week it’s released in UK.  Am assuming movie will be cross between The Omen and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Can see it being a hit.  At least with the film, there won’t be unnecessary wordage getting in the way and slowing down the pace.

This book took my breath away.  If the film is half as good (which it couldn’t possibly be) then it’ll run away with awards. 

The thing with books-to-film is that you don’t get the internal dialogue. Hence I always feel a bit cheated.  I wonder ‘but where was that scene where…’ or ‘yeah but, give him/her a break… THIS STUFF is going on in her head’. You have to rely on the actor’s skilful use of eyebrows to convey inner turmoil.  
 *No, they didn't.  I made that up.  What? it's called fiction!

Those Who Can Do

I've talked in the past about my discomfort around the great beast that is The Creative Writing Industry.

My feelings over this are no doubt bound up in the fact that I have never attended a CW course, been mentored or paid for a book report. And it hasn't exactly held me back.

I'm also cynical that much of this stuff is simply an exercise designed to part the would-be writer from his hard earned dosh, with vague promises of publication.

It seems to me that every writer I know has a different method of working, so how can any of us really teach anyone what the best way is?

On Saturday, at the Bedford Readers Day, a young author called Anna Stothard explained to the audience that she hardly plots at all. She lets her characters surprise her. Now this could not be more different to the way I work, yet who can say which one of us is right or wrong?

These are then the main reasons why I've always declined offers of teaching, mentoring etc. Plus of course I'm always on such bleddy tight deadlines that I hardly want more work do I?

So why then am I, for the first time, giving serious consideration to such an offer?

First, it can be no coincidence that at the same festival, another author who I greatly admire, Sophie Hannah, commented on how helpful she thought literary agencies were. How she wished they'd been around when she started out.

Second, I've just finished the copy edits on book five, Twenty Twelve, and although I should dive into book six, I'm desperate for a break. Or not so much a break as a change of scene and pace.

Third, as much as I love writing, there's no getting away from the fact that it's a fairly self indulgent way of spending my time. I make stuff up. I write it down. No lives are saved. And while I don't kid myself that mentoring is like vaccinating children in Africa it does seem like a helpful thing to do. Not selfless of course, but less selfish than writing.

I know of course that there are plenty of writers doing this for the cash and not the love, but I know quite a few who say they find this type of work both interesting and satisfying. Helping other writers get to where they want to be makes a tangible difference to their lives.

I dunno. The jury's still out. But I just wondered what any readers thought about it.

Have you guys been helped by someone in this way? Conversely,have you ever felt ripped off?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

The Second Novel Conundrum - guest post by Damian McNicholl

Panic and terror. That's how I felt after the roller coaster ride of getting my first novel, A Son Called Gabriel, published came to an end. During the weeks following publication, I couldn’t think about writing or editing as my mind was too preoccupied, too obsessed, with doing everything within my power to help my publisher ensure the first novel reached its audience. When the excitement ebbed, the inevitable questions all newly published novelists must face commenced: What’s your next book about? Is it written? Can I see a draft? When will it be in the bookstores?

I’d already completed a second manuscript prior to Gabriel’s publication. But the story was so very different. Where Gabriel is a gentle coming-out, coming-of age, the new manuscript was dark and comic, more of an urban tale with offbeat characters and a thriller element. It reflected another but no less vital side of my personality. However, people in the United States were advising that my second novel (called a ‘sophomore novel’ here) should be similar to ASCG because that’s what readers and critics expected.

For months, I stuck the finished manuscript into a desk drawer and tried to come up with another literary type story that this unknown audience would like. I researched genetic engineering but couldn’t get enthused. I started plotting a story from a dog’s point of view. I abandoned that and moved on to Mormonism, but the deeper I got into writing the story’s outline, the more I knew the protagonist’s core conflict would not support a novel. But always, from within the reaches of the shut desk drawer, the strong characters in my manuscript would enter my consciousness, insisting it was their turn, insisting that their story needed to be told just as much as Gabriel’s. There was Danny, the young Northern Irish man who fled his controlling father and fiancĂ©e for London; Piper, a twenty-two year old American woman studying at the LSE who likes her boyfriend but not the sex; Julia, the plummy-voiced immigration officer who’s a law unto herself; and meddling Agnes Hartley, Julia’s neighbour, who despises her and writes over-familiar letters to the Queen Mother. But my fears persisted that the novel was just far too different from A Son Called Gabriel’s simple story with its one subplot.

In the end, because I’ve always liked to do things my way, I decided to defy the so-called ‘conventional wisdom’ that a novelist’s second novel should be similar in voice or style to the first. I decided the finished manuscript would be my second novel and gave it the title Twisted Agendas. I spent last winter editing and re-editing, paring the story but maintaining the rich multi-layered structure and keeping the chapters fairly short because that’s something I like in a novel’s structure.

It was published recently by London’s independent publisher Legend Press and given a superb cover that conveys the work is commercial and literary rather than just purely literary fiction. Time will tell if I made the right decision but I’m feeling pretty good about it right now because I’ve had interest from a large US publisher. And the irony is that I’ve just now completed my third manuscript that’s a combination of both my A Son Called Gabriel and Twisted Agendas writing styles and voices.
Damian McNicholl is from Northern Ireland and lives now in Pennsylvania, USA where he's at work on his third novel. His debut novel, A Son Called Gabriel, was an American Booksellers Association Booksense Pick, Foreword Magazine and Lambda Literary Award finalist and is now optioned for film. His second novel, Twisted Agendas, is recently published by Legend Press and is available in bookstores throughout the UK and Ireland. He maintains a blog here and is on Twitter @DamianMcN

We Can Re-Build Her...

After my latest Teenage book was rejected by every last one of those nice Literary Agent type people from the Writer's and Artists Yearbook, I did what I don't generally do and retreated quietly into my cave with what felt like huge, gaping wounds around about my tail area.
I have spent so long licking these open sores (yes, I'm being metaphorical here although I am beginning to gross myself out now)  and have so little fur protecting my rear parts that I need to stop henceforth, regroup, settle down and allow my pelt to grow back at a gentle pace.
God, I LOVE a good analogy!
And I thought I was going to do with this book what I've done with the others (4, but who's counting?) which is hide it away in a folder on the pc.... 
BUT one comment from my Rejectors has been swirling about  in my brain for so long now that it's finally sparked enough neurons to have formed it's own community in my lateral cortex, preventing the book from flatlining completely.

And that comment was that the MC didn't have any compulsion to 'get better'.
Oky, so the story started off at the right 'place' - with a nice juicy hook and worm and... enough analogies now...  began with a good grip anyway; BUT the main character just didn't warrant enough reader-sympathy to propel the story forward.
MC was a fairly likeable girl.  A little flawed, but then show me a teen who isn't.  She had a bit of an attitude and came from a decent working-class family with the usual standard dysfunctions.  So far, so fine.
But 'fine' isn't enough these days.  Is it?
Even though the story was interesting (yeah right, SO interesting, agents were drawing daggers at dawn for a piece of it) Miss MC just didn't have enough 'changeability' about her to warrant a journey of self-discovery.

Imagine, if you will, Dorothy.  Or Cinderella.  Or the Ugly Duckling.
Nice characters.  Pleasant surroundings, a few not so nice secondary characters who offer conflict for their own wildly differing reasons, but they NEED a change to happen in their literary lives, don't they?  And these all DO.
Mine didn't.  Not so much as you'd noticed, anyway.
Okay, so she went on a journey, she found out some stuff,  had a few frights, laughs, moments of sadness and the book ended on a cheeky note of hopeful-ever-after; but she didn't scream "aaaargghhhhh! see what I NEED?"  from page one, which readers like to see; want to feel.
A reader needs to have this.  A reader deserves this.  Otherwise where's the point in a story?

Cinderella HAD to go to the ball to find her Happy Ending.
The Ugly Duckling had to shed his puppy fur to find his snowy white feathers.
and Dorothy needed to be blown to Nethercome to realise there's no place like Home.

My MC requires a healthy injection of Need; she's not ready to pass over into archive-heaven just yet.  All I have to do is breathe a bit more into her and I think she'll be good to go.

So, excuse me while I scrub up, pull on my green wellies and tie on my surgical mask - this could get bloody brilliant! (although I may need an analogy-bypass to get ME through this operation...).


After living in the wilderness (well, Cornwall) for seven years, I’ve moved back to the city. A huge change of pace which also requires a big attitudinal change. In Cornwall I had a 4-storey cottage with direct views over the river from every floor. In the city, for the same price, I can barely afford a two-bedroom flat with views over various air-filtering devices on the roof next door - or a one-bedroom flat. In Cornwall I had a painting studio with a Belfast sink and a balcony. Now I have to consider whether I can paint at all.
This is not a nightmare but a challenge: an interesting opportunity to look at my life and how I now hope to live it. And, strangely, my writing process seems to be going hand in hand with my moving process. In Cornwall I wrote my novel – all 100,000 words of it. Lots of words, lots of space. As I prepared to move, I began editing – both my possessions (I gave away or sold much of what I owned) and my novel. And now, in the city, I’ve reached the ultimate in downsizing: the one-bedroom flat, and the blurb.
The word says it all. Blurb is the sound you make when you’re trying to think one up. And it’s no coincidence that blurb is very similar to blub (a consequence of attempting to write one) blur (what happens to your eyes after doing so) and blue (how you feel once you’ve written it).
Not immediately, of course. The first reaction on completing a blurb is a kind of religious vapour. I did it! I wrote a blurb! - rapidly followed by the falling-to-earth realisation that your blurb is actually a crock of s**t. As some wise soul said, if you can do it in 200 words, why bother writing the novel?
Because, it seems, the perfect blurb is a super-clever selling device to seduce potential readers inside the covers.
I have blurbs coming out of my ears. If only one of them worked. Mine is a novel which hovers on the literary/commercial borders, so blurbing is a tricky balancing act between making my book sound like a chick-lit novel and making it sound incredibly lit’ry, dahling. And, like a one-bed flat, a blurb has to work hard for its diminutive size. It has to succinctly sum up the novel. It has to hook the reader. And it has to give a sense of the style and tone of the writing.
Do I begin with a quote from the book? Should I focus on the nuts-and-bolts of the narrative or on the underlying themes? Do I tailor it to work with the cover image?What stays? What goes? Should I keep it short and succinct or expand it to include the three parallel narratives? Should it end with a question, or is that old hat?
In my new one-bedroom flat (when I find it) I hope to live, write and paint. May my blurb, too, prove the cliche that small is beautiful and that downsizing is the Next Big Thing.

Reading in public

On Saturday I did my first proper poetry reading. It was down in Winchester at the prize-giving for the Virginia Warbey prize. I didn't win, but two of my poems were longlisted. Before that I had entered a poetry slam at a festival and taken part in a few readings at the end of courses. I also had to read after one of my short stories was shortlisted for another competition.

I have to say that I find this terrifying. I'm not really sure why; if you have any ideas to help me cope I would be deeply grateful. It's embarrassing too; I'm a professional psychologist and the words of Jesus, "Physician, heal thyself" come back to mock me.

I think it's a legacy from school, where the prospect of reading aloud to the class was even scarier than Clifton Hughes, who gobbed all the way down my arm at the bus stop. At work I have to run leadership programmes for senior managers from high profile organisations, and I do that without blinking. When it comes to reading my own work I shrivel. Just writing about it now I can feel my heart spreading till it no longer fits in my chest.

This is something I would like to get over. I rehearse a lot before readings, know most of my work by heart, and think I'm actually quite good at it. When I listen to others, they sometimes mumble out the words in a monotonous, inaudible voice, whereas I try to put some energy into it, and look at the audience.

I just hate it.

A few days ago I found out I've been shortlisted for the Live Canon poetry prize. That's a thrill as it is judged by the fantastic Glyn Maxwell. And the relief is that the awards ceremony will feature actors reading our poems: we won't have to do it. Perhaps I should only enter ones like that.

Please leave a comment if you share this phobia, or if you have any tips for how to handle it.

Photo: Jo Barker (08/11/2011)

The drama of dinosaurs

When I started school, there weren't many dinosaurs around. We sang 'Listen to the chorus of the brontosaurus' at hymn practice, and knew all the classic names such as tyrannosaurus rex and iguanadon, but we lacked the plethora of amazing reptiles available to today's small children. The hundreds of dinosaur species discovered in the past two decades were still hidden below layers of rock, just waiting to be brought into the light. Well, obviously not waiting, as they'd been dead for millions of years and couldn't give a shit whether anyone ever found them, but you know what I mean.

One of my favourite films, however, was The Valley of Gwangi – the product of someone in the 1960s having the inspired idea of adding prehistoric beasts to the western genre. When I was a bit older, I read Jurassic Park and became obsessed with it, eagerly awaiting the movie. I enjoyed the BBC's Walking With Dinosaurs in the late 1990s and am now a huge fan of Planet Dinosaur. So, in short, I love dinosaurs – but have to admit that my limited knowledge of them mainly comes from entertainment.

If I were a paleontologist, I might grumble about Planet Dinosaur. I might feel annoyed that it wasn't me who got paid as a consultant it was dumbing down science for an audience that doesn't get excited unless there are shaky camera angles and an unrelenting kill-or-be-killed dramatic tension.

As a non-scientist, however, I can watch Planet Dinosaur for the simple fact that dinosaurs are awesome. I might briefly wonder how anyone knows that one had spots and another had stripes, or what evidence there is for herbivorous reptiles going moo and carnivores going RAARRRRRR, but I don't really mind if these are educated guesses as long as I keep getting to see MORE DINOSAURS.

Beyond that, with my writerly hat on, I also appreciate it for the way it uses imagination to impart scientific concepts to a general audience. Planet Dinosaur's attraction might at first glance lie in its CGI and the novelty of the latest scientific discoveries – but for me the appeal is in its use of the fossil record as the inspiration for stories.

A fossil of a damaged spinosaurus vertebra might look, to many people, like a random bit of rock. To the scientists working on it, the possibility that the damage was caused by the bite of a carcharodontosaurus must be incredibly exciting. The two points of view are a long way apart, and in Planet Dinosaur, it takes the power of a story to connect them.

In the first episode, a carcharodontosaurus has expended energy on killing a hapless oranosaurus. The suspense and gore of the kill is played out in all its glory. At last, carcharodontosaurus can tuck into its meal.

Then a spinosaurus – the largest land predator yet discovered – ominously appears at the edge of the forest clearing. Spinosaurus wants the kill. Carcharodontosaurus wants it too. In the eyes of the modern viewer, carcharodontosaurus has the moral advantage of having done all the work. Yet this is Cretaceous Africa. There are no morals. The essential element of any story – conflict – is in place.

Planet Dinosaur can never accurately recreate the moment at which the now-fossilised spinosaurus incurred the damage to its elongated neural spine. We can't know the exact circumstances of the bite, or witness every blow of an encounter that took place millions of years ago. A fictional scene, however, enables the general viewer to appreciate the excitement of scientific discovery and engage with the research that is continuing apace.

Fiction might seem incongruous with the rationality of science, but stories are still what people respond to. They are how we learn; they are how we make sense of concepts outside our own experience; they can inspire us to further our knowledge – and they are what makes Planet Dinosaur such compelling viewing.

Guest post by Scott Pack

Here’s a picture of a dodo.

More of a silhouette really, isn’t it? There are loads of these in my book.

You see, every entry in 21st Century Dodos is given a dodo rating of between one and five dodos. One being ‘not very rare’ and five for ‘extinct’. Although, thinking about it, I don’t think there are actually any One Dodo items in the book.

There are some Two Dodo entries though. C&A warrants just a pair, despite the fact that there hasn’t been a branch of their shop anywhere in the UK since 2001, as they are still going strong in Europe. Beyonce even has a clothing range there.

Telephone boxes are clearly still dotted around the landscape, so also get rated a 2, even though hundreds of them go unused every year (451 in Scotland neither received nor made a single call last year). Sadly, there are loads of Five Dodo entries ranging from Betamax to World of Sport, interludes to Texan bars. But what on earth am I going on about?

Well, my book is a collection of eulogies, tributes and fond farewells to the many inanimate objects that many of us grew up with but are now on the verge of extinction – a collection of 21st Century Dodos.
Things such as audio cassettes, the Ford Cortina, rotary dial telephones and Concorde. See? If you are in the mood for a bit of a nostalgia-fest then perhaps you’d like to check it out. All my royalties will go towards buying cake.

Tomorrow I'll be posting here as part of my blog tour. Visit Amazon to buy the book or if you'd like to purchase the ebook click here.

Bedfordhsire Readers Day

When I was a kid we never went to the library. I suppose this should have struck me as strange because my Dad was an avid reader and we were very skint. He always said though, that libraries weren't for people like us.

I was never 100% certain what he meant by this, but assumed that the big concrete building in the middle of Pontefract must be filled to the rafters with posh folk. No doubt they would be thumbing through the complete works of Thomas Hardy while drinking tea from dainty china cups.

Not that I'd ever seen any posh folk in Pontefract, but maybe that was because they were all hanging out in the library, or The Conservative Club.

It was not until I went to uni and was prevailed upon to join that I finally stood in line and became a library member. The first thing I noted was how bloody easy it was and the second were the huge signs everywhere saying no food or drink was to be consumed on the library premises. Not even tiny cups of Earl Grey tea.

I was like the kid given the keys to the sweet shop and took out the maximum number on my first day, staggering under the weight of twenty hardbacks as I made my way back to halls.

I remember the sweet pleasure of putting up my DMs and reading everything from Kafka to Jackie Collins. To be fair I probably should have been spending more time reading law books, given that that was what I was there for, but we won't dwell on that.

Back at home that Christmas, I tackled my Dad on how wrong he'd been. 'Libraries are for everyone,' I told him. 'Take that working class chip off your shoulder and join.'
He was mumbling something about the proletariat and the means of production when my Mum took another swig of her snowball and told me to ignore him. My Dad it turns
out, had been a member of Pontefract library, but he'd forgotten to take back the books he'd borrowed and had consequently been barred. He was also barred from The Hope and Anchor, but that was about something else entirely.

Anyway, since then, I've been a massive fan and user of libraries. In fact I have written huge swathes of my books in libraries. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how many services they offer. And one of my faves is the plethora of reading groups. A group of very different people from completely different backgrounds, coming together to discuss books - how cool is that. And they don't even have to buy the books!

For this reason, I always try to accept any invitations from libraries to come and speak to reading groups. Put an author together with readers and well...you can't have any more fun outside of a hotel room. So it's with great pleasure that I get to plug a readers day for my local library service; Bedforshire. They do a sterling job and I am delighted to have been asked to take part on 15th October 2011 from 10-4pm. The cost is £8 but it is a whole day of book filled fun and the price includes refreshments and lunch.

There will be many more authors there besides me...Anna Stothard, Morag Joss, Trilby Kent, Simon Brett and Sophie Hannah.
I really really can't wait.


Last week the papers seized on a story about certain best-selling novelists whose sales have fallen dramatically in the past year. Jodi Picoult and Marian Keyes are among them. Here’s The Independent’s take on it:


I don’t want to re-hash what the journalists are writing. But I find several things interesting about this story.

First, that women fiction writers are so often lumped together under the banner of chick-lit, whilst no mention was made at all of ‘lad-lit’ (does it still exist?) or, indeed, of the sales of any male writers.

Second, and leading on from this: what exactly is ‘chick-lit’? The universal (and often supercilious) answer appears to be novels with pastel covers adorned with stilettos, martini glasses, hearts and flowers – in which case, what are Jodi Picoult and Marian Keyes doing on the list?

Third, and leading on again: there seems to have been a recent trend among publishers who insist on creating ‘chick-lit’ style covers for a wide range of women’s fiction, regardless of content. A women’s fiction author recently made the headlines by leaving her publisher because of the way her novels were being portrayed by their covers.

A pattern begins to emerge. A sense of blanketing, of homogenisation. Of ‘more of the same.’

Publishers are running scared. It’s understandable. What with the economic climate, the rapidly changing environment of book-buying and reading and the rising costs of actually publishing books, let alone marketing them effectively, little wonder that publishers are becoming risk-averse. If you know that a celebrity autobiography is going to sell in shed-loads, then that’s what you’ll publish. If there’s a call for chick-lit (whatever that may be) then when you publish it you’ll make sure that it's easily identifiable across a crowded supermarket. Chick-lit (so called) has been ruling the roost, publishing-wise, for a decade or more, and publishers obviously want their best-selling authors to keep writing within a narrowly restricted range and to present that writing in a narrowly-restricted set of images.

Inevitably comes a backlash. I think it’s known as entropy. Eventually, trends will begin to turn, usually in the opposite direction. The focus on materialism which began in the 80s and resulted, perhaps, in the chick-lit trend, is losing ground. Already, as the article above mentions, there’s a turn away from materialism towards magic, spirituality and the fantastic. Is this a good thing? Yes, in the sense that it may break new ground. No, in the sense that the same thing is likely to happen all over again.

But wouldn't it be wonderful if books could be celebrated for their originality, their freshness and their difference? Wouldn't it be fabulous if genre and gender came second to sheer, brilliant story-telling? A dangerous notion.

Would love to hear your thoughts...

Fact and fiction - telling the story

Working in journalism, I am surrounded by stories daily. Except these stories are real. From murders to political scandals to simple human interest pieces which warm your heart, I tend to use these as fodder for my books. Throw my own personal experiences of every day issues into the mix and voila – here we have…a novel. I have to confess that I base the majority of my novels on high profile incidents, except I twist the stories and make them into my own pieces of fiction. Very often the inspiration can arise from one simple incident buried within a news story – one family’s struggle to come to terms with the death of a loved one for example.

Even if you don’t work in journalism, it’s easy enough to pluck an item from the newspaper or even a piece of gossip from OK magazine, or that hellish place, Netmums (where you’ll find a rant about Little Johnny’s dad) and make it your own. If you’re stuck for inspiration and need to get into first gear, open the newspaper, turn on the television or look out the window and work with what you see in front of you. Heck, even now that it’s X-factor season, listen to what some of the most inspirational and quirky contestants have to say about their lives and develop your characters from there. You’d be surprised at what you come up with. Better still, eavesdrop on a chat in a coffee shop – after all, aren’t most ping-pong conversations about other people, especially those generated by groups of women?

A lot of the novels I love have been inspired by real life events, for example Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann (9/11) and Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie (the bombing of Nagasaki). Those books that use an historical event as a backdrop, I find, are more engaging. I feel I can identify with the characters, as if I had lived through the tragedies myself. But that’s just a personal preference. Wasn’t there a whole flurry of novels following the events of September 11, 2001, many of which were based on single incidents within this whole tragedy? Falling Man by Don Delilo springs to mind. And they still keep on coming, years after the events have occurred. I’m keen to read The Submission by Amy Waldman, which deals with the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The book follows a jury as they select a fitting memorial to the victims, the architect being an American Muslim.

One could argue that most books are based on real life events not covered by the media, even pink-covered commercial women’s fiction. It’s just that we don’t hear about these events as they are personal to the writer. What events have inspired your book? Are they personal and private, or have you been affected by something you’ve read in the newspaper? Do tell!