Lick it and stick it

I hadn’t a clue what to write about when I switched on the laptop to compose my post, so I gazed toward the calendar for inspiration. None was forthcoming. However, it did occur to me that we're almost half way through the year and so far I haven’t revised my New Year resolutions to see if I have fulfilled them. To be honest, I can’t even remember what I’d pledged in the first place, but I think it had something to do with finishing the current novel, which I’ve done, and to write more short stories which I’ve not done. The fact that it’s April 30th is also a timely reminder to buy stamps before the post office closes today. The stamps I buy today will be licked and affixed to the rejection envelopes which will accompany the recently completed ms.

It saddens me that most agents still ask for postal submissions. And quite a few still demand the little brown envelope in which they will place their rejection. In the age of new technology, I often wonder why agents still insist on having the mss posted. ‘Save the trees,’ I hear you shout. I must admit that I prefer to read from paper than I do a computer screen. And that is my one reason for the strong dislike of the e-reader. But I imagine that it’s easier to store fifteen manuscripts in a device than it is to stuff paper into a briefcase, the latter conjuring up images of a post-holiday suitcase crammed full of bargain buys. On the other hand, it’s probably easier to make notes on paper. So I see the argument both ways.

Many writers are put off by the inconvenience that postal submissions often entail. I can say assuredly that I’m certainly not. If that’s the way my preferred agent wants to receive them, then that’s the rules I will follow.

I will bid my manuscripts farewell this afternoon as they are shepherded off in the Royal Mail van. I hope the stamps on the enclosed brown envelopes are steamed off by the agents’ assistants as soon as they arrive, and that they put them to good use on this year’s Christmas cards. I don’t want any rejections, thanks.

It’s April 30 – remind me of your 2012 writing resolutions. Have you followed them through? Are you even half way there? Or what do you think of postal submissions? But be quick because I have to get to the post office before the end of today because stamps are going up as I mentioned…quite a lot!

Strictly Writing Space

Oh dear... You know when you have a ‘lightbulb’ moment in life? When something becomes very suddenly and quite unexpectedly clear? I’ve been putting together a post about our writing spaces, the actual rooms we Strictlies work from. So this morning, I thought I’d better tidy the desk and um, the whole room before I take a picture, because nobody wants to see the mess, right?

There it was, the million watt moment. I DON’T WANT TO SEE THE MESS EITHER! Doh! This may in fact play a large part in why I’ve been struggling with my inner creative side. My inner slob has won the battle. So, I’m going to be brave and post a before picture, completely untouched. Here is my writing space. Yes, that is scaffolding outside. That black file on the right – the house build file... The papers on the bed, er, general filing. A mannequin head in a box - my daughter's. Papers on the left, eh, stuff to do.
Time for a tidy up and time to practise what I’ve always preached to my daughters - ‘Tidy space, tidy mind!’ And who knows, maybe my writing muse, who has been a.w.o.l will come calling...

What Susie says about her ‘writing space’ :
“ I'm living in a rented flat. I write at a breakfast bar in the kitchen - very cold through the winter as no central heating, so sit with a hot water bottle in my lap. And the gentle throb of the fridge freezer at my side...but so handy for writerly snacks...”

What Gillian says:
"I'm alternating between bed and the sofa. I absolutely cannot write in public, so no coffee shops or libraries for me! I like to sit in the New England style guest bedroom at the rear of the house which has lovely views of the countryside."

(Note to Gill - It's ALMOST as busy as mine!)

Caroline G:
"I have just put up some very pleasing fairy lights around the notice board above the desk in my study. In theory, I have quite a good dedicated space in which to write. But in practice, I have to take myself off to the British Library when I need to get some serious wordage under my belt!"

And Helen:
"In theory I have a whole room designated for writing. It's built onto the back of the house with fabulous views across open fields. However, I'm just as likely to be found on my lap top in the dining room, working amongst the piles of ironing and boxes of xmas decorations awaiting their journey to the attic."

"My writing room is the 3rd bedroom and until recently was a mish-mash of old teenage cast-offs (wobbly desk, wavy shelves etc) but has now been superbly refitted by my master-craftsman carpenter hubby as a kind of ‘writing incentive’  – JUST as I decide we’re going to downsize – I know… my timing has always been askew.  So I’m now looking forward to being tucked away in a little corner next to something warm and welcoming (maybe the hubby or more likely the moggy) in a bijou draughty garret somewhere smallish."

And finally, our newest member here at Strictly Writing, who tells us about his writerly space. In fact you have to watch this space (Groan...) for more on him on May 1st. 

"I used to write at my 'working from home' desk, after hours, but now I have a dedicated space up in the attic. I hear birds scratching outside on the roof and, when the window is open, I pick up snippets of conversation from the neighbours below. Facing me, behind the screen, is an Egyptian poster by James Putnam. And, despite my best efforts, I still up end leaving piles of paperwork on the floor - my unique non-filing system. Sometimes, at night, I turn everything off and just gaze out at the stars. They gaze back, telling me wordlessly to get back to my writing."

The making of it

I’ve just heard that my novel, The Making of Her, will be published this Friday. Even as I write this, it’s at the printers being turned into A Real Book. I’ve never had a baby, but I guess this is the nearest I’ll come to it. So please bear with me, because I’m going to blog about its story. Not its plot, but the story of how it came into being.

I began The Making of Her waaaay back in August 2006, on a How To Write A Novel course at University College, Falmouth, run by the redoubtable Jane Pollard. I came clutching the beginning of a novel, but my bright-eyed optimism was soon dashed. Jane told us to discard any novel we’d begun and start again from scratch. In new-age circles, Letting Go is said to be a good thing, because it creates a vacuum into which something new can be born - and this proved to be the case: that night at the kitchen table an idea came to me. I sat and scribbled, and by next day the basic plot was there. I drew on my own experience as a television director, many years in therapy and my position in society as a middle aged (aka invisible) woman.

Little did I know that this was only the beginning of what would turn out to be a six-year project, with much heartbreak - and a few highs. The first draft took about a year, although I stopped for four months in the middle: I lost faith after an incisive critique on the first three chapters. Like most beginning novelists, I was very resistant to changing my ‘baby’, partly because my skin was still too thin. Over the years, the skin thickened and the resistance was gradually dismantled. And I was lucky to be a member of three different writing groups, as well as WriteWords, a brilliant online writing community, and received invaluable critique from them. I began subbing to agents in 2008.

At that point the novel had an unfortunate title – The Change – and involved rather too many menopausal references. It was also unrelentingly downbeat. Six form rejections came back. I entered some competitions – no luck. I sent the first three chapters and synopsis to the Hilary Johnson editorial service: they were encouraging and I realise, looking back, that there are a few events in writer’s lives which act as markers or milestones – where someone ‘gets’ what you’re doing and says ‘keep going’. This, together with being shortlisted in a Cornerstones competition, renewed my faith and energy to continue. One agent asked for the full – and rejected.

But some progress was being made. I rewrote passages. I edited and revised. I changed the title to The Making of Her. I worked on making it more upbeat and changed one of the main narratives to first person. I subbed to another handful of agents. The rejections continued to come in, but now some of them were personal, and encouraging. One agent rejected, but asked to see the next one. A couple more asked for the full. There were moments of hope, but many more moments of despair and dejection. One agent ‘loved’ the first 50 pages and asked for the full, then hung onto it for many months before sending a pretty brutal rejection.

At this point I was ready to throw in the towel. As a final shot, I decided to submit directly to a publisher. My friend Derek had told me about Linen Press Books, a women’s press based in Edinburgh, so I sent off my synopsis and first chapters. To my utter amazement, since I was feeling battered and bowed, they asked for the full and, within a week or so, had read it. They asked me to make some revisions and after seeing the preliminary changes, offered me a contract.

This was in January 2011. The year that followed felt like a miracle. I had a fabulous editor who worked with me over many months like a mentor, meticulously going through the novel chapter by chapter. I rewrote the beginning (again), added a couple of sub-plots and rewrote a middle section. I could see the novel improving with each change. And because Linen Press is a small publishing house, I was fully involved at every stage, including the cover design.

So here it is. Or will be, on Friday. Now I’m immersed in marketing and asking for reviews, which feels rather like subbing to agents – lots of rejection/ignoring but a few ‘yesses’ or ‘maybes’. It’s been a long and often painful process to today, so what I’m long-windedly wanting to say is: It is possible. You can do it. Keep going. Have faith. The Making of Her will be available from from 27th April.

The Morning After the World Book Night Before...

This is how the World Book Night official website describes this magical evening of sharing the love for all things written:

World Book Night is a celebration of reading and books which sees tens of thousands of passionate volunteers gift books in their communities to share their love of reading.
In 2012 World Book Night will be celebrated in the UK, Ireland, Germany and USA on April 23.
In the UK, 20,000 passionate readers will gift 24 copies of one of their favourite books to encourage those who don't regularly read to fall in love with reading. In addition World Book Night will be giving a further 620,000 books over the course of the year directly to the hardest to reach readers through prisons, care homes, hospitals, sheltered housing, homeless shelters, libraries and through other partner charities.

However, having grown up being told that “you don’t get anything for nothing”, I confess that when I heard about this last year I was unpleasantly confused and a little bit scared… did this mean altruistic aliens had landed, hadn’t made the headlines and everyone but me had lost their brains and bodies to little green men without my knowledge? (My answer to anything worrying - never the butler, always the alien.)
And although I understood it a little bit more after last year’s event, it wasn’t until this morning that I fully appreciated what a truly tremendous exercise this giving and passing around of words actually IS.
One of the teachers at work had subscribed to this year’s venture and the expression of bewilderment and joy on my colleague’s face when she was handed Meg Rosoff’s ‘How I Live Now’ will remain with me for a while. It just goes to show how much we doubt anything handed to us in gift.  She held it, turned it over, queried the giver and almost handed it back until I confirmed that yes, this is what happens on World Book Night.

This is how it works:
25 titles are specially chosen and printed in World Book Night editions. Givers apply for a particular book (they get a first, second and third choice) which they must commit to gift to those who don't regularly read, to share and spread their love of reading. Givers collect their books from their local bookshops and libraries, putting the very heart of our reading communities at the very heart of World Book Night.
It is difficult to quantify the value of reading on people’s lives, especially given the shocking statistics in the UK that outlines that one person in six struggles to read and write. Poor skills compromise health and well-being, confidence and employability. World Book Night’s charitable mission is to advance the education of the public by assisting in the promotion of literacy and the celebration of books and reading by creating unique moments which focus attention on adult literacy. By focusing on the enjoyment and engagement of reading we aim to reach and inspire those who have never discovered the value or pleasure of reading.

Thanks to my colleague telling me she’d applied to take part, I knew that my daughter had read this particular Meg Rosoff book and so unearthed it and spent a lovely few nights curled up with it like a new best friend.  It was an utter joy and a book I could re-read over and over.  I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

These are the books on the 2012 list:
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Player of Games by Iain M Banks
Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Take by Martina Cole
Harlequin by Bernard Cornwell
Someone Like You by Roald Dahl
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Room by Emma Donoghue
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Misery by Stephen King
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
The Damned Utd by David Peace
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

And I LOVE the reason that World Book Day happens on 23rd April:
April 23 is a symbolic date for world literature. It is both the birth and death day of Shakespeare, as well as the death day of Cervantes, the great Spanish novelist. It is in their honour that UNESCO appointed it the international day of the book and that we choose it to celebrate World Book Night. April 23rd also marks the city of Barcelona's celebration of St George's Day. St George is the patron saint of Catalonia as well as England and traditionally, to celebrate this day, Spanish gentlemen gave their ladies roses and the ladies returned the favour with a book. Considering the rich literary history of this day, it seemed more than fitting that April 23rd should be chosen as the day of celebrating reading and the giving of books!

Did YOU get involved this year? Which book did you give away, or which book WILL YOU be giving away next year?
Ahhh…. books (you wouldn’t get this with those Kindle thingies).

Lights! Camera! Action! Mark 2.

Early risers may notice this accidentally went up last Monday for an hour or so. That was until I realised I'd posted at the same time as Gillian's excellent Titanic post, in error.


Anyway, here we are, on the right day at last!

So, a few weeks ago I went to Brighton to take part in the filming of a trailer for my second book, Cracks, which is out this month.

As with my Dark Ride trailer this one was made by Nick Morgan of Media Fox and once again, he has done a brilliant job. I wrote the script, which was a first for me and HUGELY enjoyable, and the brilliant actor is a young man called Bailey Pilbeam, from the Theatre Workshop in Brighton. I think he is going to go very far indeed. He brought real passion to this short role and it was quite stunning to watch him in action. So remember, you saw him here first!

Hope you like it as much as I do...

Like what we've done to the place?

You've probably noticed something different about the site and that's what Spring does to a bunch of writers... we're having a bit of an overhaul.  
No botox involved, but please bear with us whilst these little changes take place as we anticipate slight bruising with a bit of cut and paste - we've seen it happen to the best of sites.

Let us know if you spot a bit we've missed, won't you?

Landscape and Theme - by novelist Rosy Thornton

I suppose it came to me while I was walking the dogs. We have two of them, both lively and requiring a lot of exercise, so I spend a good deal of time out in the countryside around my home, in all weathers, alone with my spaniels and my thoughts. It’s actually when I’ve done a lot of my best ‘writing’ over the years, for all that I carry no notebook or pen: I’ve constructed dialogue, solved log jams in plots, and reached understandings of my characters’ motivation.

Home for me is the flatlands of the Cambridgeshire fens, a landscape which is far from commanding immediate attention. Wide, wet and as lacking in features as it is in contours, it provides in many ways the ultimate blank canvas against which to project the constructs of one’s own imagination. Much of the time, I never saw my surroundings at all.

Setting, however, has always held a particular fascination for me. I’d just finished writing a novel (The Tapestry of Love, 2010) in which landscape played a major role: in that case, the dramatic mountain beauty of the French Cevennes. This set me to thinking about why I had chosen to locate the book in a place so spectacularly different from my own. It set me to thinking, but also to looking: really looking at the fens in a way I had hitherto been too preoccupied to do. Because once you open your eyes to it, the fens have a drama all of their own.

First there is the water. Once, not many centuries ago, this land was rescued from it by a process of damming and pumping and draining, and every year – with or without human connivance in the shape of global warming – the water threatens to reclaim its own. It clogs the fat, black, peaty soil; it runs and trickles in ditches and culverts; it lies never far beneath the surface of the fields so that a mere half-day’s rain can swell it into flood.

Then there is the wind: this is a landscape windswept like no other I have known. To the east and north, nothing rises by more than a few dozen feet above sea level between here and the steppes of Siberia, and you can tell. Walking in one direction the going may be easy, the sun warm on your face, but turn back and the breath is knocked out of you in an instant; blinded by tears, you’re forced to lean into the blast like Amundsen nearing the Pole.

So, when I realised that I had to write a novel with the fens as a backdrop, it was neither character nor plot which came to me first but theme. This had to be a book about the elements, so constant a presence in the fen landscape – a book about fire and water, earth and air. Ninepins is, on its surface, a standard work of women’s fiction, a book about families and relationships, about mothers and daughters. But percolating through it, like water beneath the reclaimed soil of the fens, lurks the thematic pull exerted by its setting. As I told my story, I found the same ideas kept intruding: of breath and breathing, fire and flood, choking and drowning.

Walking the dogs has never been quite the same since.

Rosy Thornton writes commercial women’s fiction as well as lecturing in Law at the University of Cambridge, where she is a Fellow of Emmanuel College. Her previous novels include Hearts and Minds (2008) and The Tapestry of Love (2010). Her fifth novel, Ninepins, will be published by Sandstone Press on 19th April 2012.

Titanic - when tragedy is brought to book

Yesterday (April 15) was the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and there have been many commemorative events held at home and abroad in memory of those who lost their lives. I was born in Belfast and my grandfather, great uncle and father all worked in Harland and Wolff, proud builder of the White Star trio. There has been a buzz in the air, thanks to the opening of the new Titanic Visitor Centre in the regenerated docks area which I'm visiting today, not to mention the many television documentaries and dramas which have been aired in honour of the majestic ship. An ambtious docu-drama even tried to recreate the sinking, step by step. It's hard not to get emotionally attached to the event, as I have, and I wonder how the passengers would have felt knowing they were nearing death. Why did the band play on, continuing their rendition of 'Nearer My God To Thee?

This prompted me to think about whether or not a book can truly capture the enormity of such a tragedy. Many tragedies have been written about in both fact and fiction, from Columbine to September 11 to conflicts. In my soon-to-be-published book I deal with a tragedy, very loosely based on an actual event, but I often wonder whether rows of words on white pages can really show how horrific the incident was to witness first-hand. I try to re-create eye-witness accounts and wonder if my work really does it justice.

En route to New York on her maiden voyage in 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg which began the sinking process, leading to the loss of over 1,500 lives. What was the immediate reaction upon learning this? I imagine utter panic would have swept through the ship, each person reacting in a different way. I imagine some would have screamed, some would have remained silent, others would have prayed and told their loved ones they will meet again. How terrifying must it have been, sinking into waters so cold in the middle of a vast ocean?

A book by Morgan Robertson dubbed a ‘prophecy’ was published in 1898. The novel, Futility or The Wreck Of The Titan, about the sinking of a supposedly unsinkable ship, contains many similarities to the sinking of the Titanic. The first half of Futility introduces the protagonist, John Rowland, a disgraced former Royal Navy lieutenant, who becomes an alcoholic. Dismissed from the Navy, he works as a deckhand on the Titan which hits an iceberg on its travels. The ship starts to sink but he manages to saves the young daughter of a former lover by jumping onto the iceberg with her.

Furthermore as a journalist and one who has witnessed many tragic events over the years, I wonder if even newspaper reports can convey the enormity of tragedy and help readers understand the event. Is the newspaper article simple a summing up account of the event, or do readers feel empathy with the victims when they read the reports? Can words really do tragedy justice?

Pic taken: Belfast, April 2010

The Next Generation

One thing that feels really odd to me as a writer is when someone I know well reads my work.

Thinking about it, it's quite weird that some random stranger reads my books. What makes them pick one up in the first place? I'd love to know the answer, cos, like, I could do it all the time!!!

But I digress.

What is especially strange, for me anyway, is when the reader is someone close. Their comments feel far more personal. Which of course they are. They're not coming to the stories fresh, without any preconceived ideas, they come to them with me firmly in mind.

One friend tells me she hears my voice as she reads. Like an in brain CD player. I must admit I find that a bit disquieting. Like I'm intruding into her personal space. Then again by reading my book, she's coming into my personal space, albeit by invitation.

I often joke that my job involves making stuff up, then writing it down. And whilst that's part of it, of course, there is also the part that involves me trawling my experiences, memories, thoughts and passing them on through words. I say things in my books that I've never said out loud. Perhaps not even to myself. And sharing those things with complete strangers is much easier than sharing them with people I know.

Whenever the big box of copies of my latest book arrives from my publisher, husband-who-lives-in-hope always takes one and starts to read. I act all casual, pretending not to notice. In bed, I try to concentrate on whatever I'm reading, refusing to check his face for reaction. Is he smiling? Is he frowning? Is he worried by the murkiness that spews from my brain?

I say nowt. I re-read the last paragraph again. I try not to notice that he's taken three days. Three days!!! Didn't he read the last one in two? Eventually, when he's finished, I can contain myself no longer and ask what he thought. Great, he tells me.

My Mother is the opposite end of the spectrum. She loves every word, every comma, every idea. I'm her genius daughter who writes books. I could be guide to the removal of stains and she's declare it the best page turner ever.

But there are two people who are extremely close to me who have never read a word I've written. I've never let them. I'm talking of course about my kids.

They were about six when Damaged Goods was published, and although they loved the idea that Mummy was a writer, they loved the big purple one from the Tweenies more. And tractors. They really loved tractors.

As they have got older, their interest has piqued. They check the acknowledgements and sneak a squizz at the first page if they can get away with it, but they know they're not allowed. The content includes murders and rapes and drug abuse and ...

But the recent publication of Twenty Twelve produced a dilemma. First, they are both reading adult books now. Perhaps not the stuff I write, but books with difficult themes none the less. And sex. And swearing. Second, Twenty Twelve is an all singing all dancing thriller. It doesn't deal with the social issues I can't resist in the Lilly Valentine series. Okay, it does a bit, but more than anything it's about a terrorist threat on the Olympic Games and one woman being dragged into the maelstrom. So the old inappropriateness excuse is, well, just that.

Yet I still feel very squeamish about my kids reading it. Why? Because I'm their Mum. And Mums, generally, don't allow their children access to their inner lives. We are strong and caring and wise. We make bolognaise sauce without onions and always carry a spare inhaler.

I have relented though, and said they can read it. I'd don't know whether that was right or wrong. But there it is. Maybe they'll hate it and won't get past page four...

HB x

Whatever Next? - by journalist and novelist Sophie Radice

So the first novel has come out - and another must be written while the momentum is there. Or that’s what I’ve been told.

People are full of ideas for me. They say they miss Anna, the main character in my novel, when they finish reading and so they want to read about her in other situations. Someone has suggested I work on the thrillerish element in the first book and that I should read Sara Paretsky, to learn how to write really good character driven thrillers with a female heroine and with an interesting political perspective. While I was talking to this person I was quite inspired. Wouldn’t it be good to put Anna, the heroine of The Henry Experiment, in some really difficult situations, possibly to do with the Congolese community she had started to become involved with in my first novel? I could see her stumbling into some really complex stuff, which would take place in London and Manchester. The situation would again have something to do with a missing child but this time a much older one.

The trouble is that I didn’t really know there was a thrillerish element when I was writing it, although it was meant to be quite tense. Which is strange because I hate tension. I tend to make gasping sounds and grab people's arms in the cinema when someone is in danger and just avoid books that make me feel stressed or uncomfortable. I think someone must have told me to try and get some tension in a book if you want people to carry on reading it.

There is also the problem that I was imagining my next book would be a book that wrestled with really big themes – themes such as God and Darwinism all packaged up in a really good family story.

So what to do? Write two books at the same time (in between trying to earn a living, look after children blah blah) – switching from one to the other? No. That is impossible. Write both of them, back to back (and try not to think of the years ahead and the huge effort it takes to get published and then to get people to actually read your book)?

Which is another thing. I am so preoccupied with trying to sell The Henry Experiment and get publicity that I am not sitting and thinking about what my next one is going to be at all. No, I’m far more concerned with trying to get bookshops to take my book, get people to write about me and get reviews. I must try and sit down and think at some point.

The trouble is that I have really forgotten how it is done. When people ask how long it took me to write The Henry Experiment, I have no idea. I can’t seem to remember how I wrote it or in what circumstances. Did I have a routine? I can’t have done. I was working full time, with kids and a difficult husband. I think I must have written it in the evenings. Or was it such agony that I have put it out of my head? Perhaps I used to force myself to get up at five in the morning before I went to work? - but somehow knowing myself I very much doubt it.

Perhaps it wrote itself.

Sophie's novel, The Henry Experiment, can be bought at:

A Scribble of Writers

Writing Groups in my neck of the woods are very few and even more far between. In fact I think the only one I’ve heard about has been running for over 35 years in a local hostelry of dubious custom which I had the courage to telephone decades ago when I felt hungry for validation and that conversation scared the bejeesus out of me (though easily done). I felt like I was being interviewed by a cross between Laurence Olivier and Margaret Thatcher.  After said phone call I decided I didn’t have the requisite credentials and became a ‘no-show’ on their register.  I probably stayed in and watched Eastenders instead – only slightly less scary than getting my prose out in front of complete strangers at the back of a pub.

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I agreed to ‘join’ the writing group that the receptionist at my Osteopath’s office told me about.  In fact ‘trepidation’ kind of went off the scale a bit when she mentioned she’d been ‘watching me closely’ to see if I was the kind of person they wanted to be let into their Writerly circle as they were ‘a bit choosy’.

Have you ever felt wary and yet thrilled?  Thrary? Warilled?  I nodded a lot and kept my smile from morphing into anything too maniacal and asked her a bit about it; bearing in mind the fact I already knew she wrote and once  even asked her if she knew of any writing groups in the area and she’d said no, she hadn’t.  So not just selective but secretive.

They met, she said, every three or so weeks at the back of a well-known local bookshop and the other member of the group (I know, member singular) was the bookshop owner.  ‘So it’s more a duo than a group then?’ I smirked.  ‘Trio if you’re in,’ she smirked back.

She went on to tell me that they’d both written a book or two and that they’d had nice rejection letters from several agents whose names I recognised because I’d also had the same.  Along with discussing writing, she said, they also took it in turns to buy fresh Danish pastries and cappuccinos from across the road and occasionally they got ‘flashed’ at by a naked man in an upstairs window opposite.  Invariably, she went on, discussions about writing tended to end up as dissections of the local neighbourhood ‘characters’ from which they’d sometimes drawn their own.

When I left with the date of their next meeting scribbled onto my frontal cortex, I couldn’t help thinking that the whole setup sounded far too mad and far too within my own realms of fantastic imagination for it to really be true.  Maybe I’d made it all up. Perhaps this was how tortured I’d finally become and now it would be better for everyone if I just signed on the dotted line and took myself off to “HappyFields” for the duration.

When I got home, enthusiastically I Facebooked my news and was met with comments of concern and caution.  Was I not worried about the ‘watching you closely’ bit?  Um… no, not until you mentioned it, actually.  I was warned about meeting strangers in places I hadn’t been before and reminded of the security measures involving public areas etc.  Now… now I was a little bit worried.

But it didn’t put me off. In fact I couldn’t have been more excited if it had had a blue ribbon tied round its neck and was covered in caramel coating.

At the first meeting I felt as nervous as any first day at a new job and declined a Danish for fear that it would crumble all over me and I’d end up looking like a flaky fool in front of them.  But I needn’t have worried.  They are just lovely.  Both as writers and as people.  They are dedicated to their craft, have produced books worthy of immediate publication and I’m delighted to be in their acquaintance.   

There is something very rare that sits in a room with writers and that is the spirit of Understanding; of Knowing and of Getting It that just doesn’t happen anywhere else.   And as if I even need icing on this particular cake, we sit surrounded by thousands of beautiful books spilling from the shelves on the walls and covering the floor … a place where it feels like home.

And one of us has just signed a contract with an Agent so this year is beginning to feel very special indeed. Oh, and the crazy characters and the naked man in the window?  All true!

Book winner announced

The winner of the signed copy of A Parachute In The Lime Tree is Sandra Davies.

If Sandra could e-mail her postal address to strictlywriting (at), she will receive her copy very soon!

Book up for grabs in a 'what we're reading' special

We have a signed copy of A Parachute In The Lime Tree by Annemarie Neary to give away in a Good Friday special - consider this your Easter egg from us! I've just started this book, a wonderful, atmospheric tale of wartime love involving four people caught up in the Second World War, or The Emergency as it was known in Ireland. Annemarie recently featured on Strictly Writing and if you want to be in with a chance of winning a copy of the book, simply let us know what you are reading by commenting below.

Here is a round up of what the other Strictlies are reading:

I'm still reading Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman - I save it for a treat at bedtime. And I'm reading a survey (am buying - hopefully - a flat). And I'll soon be doing a second proof read of The Making of Her, before it goes off (eek) for printing.

I've finished 'How I Live Now' now... And the book my writer friend has written... Am just about to start um..... *scans the pile* 'Damaged Goods' by Helen Black.

I’m reading The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan, which is set in a small Welsh town in the 1950s. It has a very quirky and endearing child narrator and although I’m not usually a fan of child narrators (only because I feel I have read so many books with that apprcoach) this one is lovely.

Caro R
I'm reading Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, by Natasha Walter. It's a fascinating but disturbing study of gender stereotyping and the rhetoric of choice. I'm also reading Charles Knowlton's 'The Fruits of Philosophy' as I'm writing a thing about the effect of the 1877 Bradlaugh-Besant trial on the advertising of contraceptives. Finally, I've just started Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett for my book group. We got a bit sick of the 'hauntingly-lyrical-prize-winner-in-which-sod-all-happens' genre that book groups are supposed to like.

I'm reading a hisfic book (not normally my preferred genre) but getting into it. It's called 'Dark Fire' and it's by CJ Sansom. I'm enjoying the fact that it's set against the backdrop of Cromwellian London but overall... Not sure, jury's out at the moment!

What are you reading? Leave a post below and we will choose one winner at random.

Shamless Plug... is just any other day for most folk. Wondering about where might sell petrol and Easter eggs.
Perhaps you're in work, planning how to kill the boss with only a teaspoon and a mousepad. Or perhaps you're at home with the kids, wondering how to keep them entertained for the rest of the holidays with only a teaspoon and a mousepad.

Well stop.

Today is not just any other day.

Today is the publication day of my fifth book!

I know, I know, the excitement in the air is palpable. Amazon has crashed twice through sheer demand and WHSmiths are handing out hot drinks to those who have been waiting patiently in line through the night...

Or not.

Either way, I thought I'd tell you lot about it because, frankly, it's the most interesting thing that is going to happen to me today and at least it will save me wittering about the state of the publishing industry, or the evils of Facebook.
HB x

The Joy of Incompetence

At the end of 2010 I made some resolutions. I planned to write in longhand more often, to listen to audiobooks, and to use ‘dead time’ more productively (by which I mean writing or reading in all those valuable moments that drain away while I’m waiting for other people to get their act together.)

I was successful at longhand, a failure at audiobooks (I tend to zone out the voice within a couple of minutes) and the dead time has mostly been filled by the engrossing narratives of the Mumsnet relationships forum. But there was one resolution that really made a difference to my life. I took up Lindy Hop dancing.

Lindy Hop is a 1930s/40s swing dance that has enjoyed a revival over the past 30 years or so. I didn’t realise when I started, but it turns out that Lindy Hop is actually quite cool. At least, it’s a way for uncool people to find a niche of coolness. It’s a way of having a big night out in London while wearing sensible shoes and drinking nothing but water because the dancing is more important than boozing. It's a way of socialising with friendly, well-dressed, intelligent people. It's a way of going to an event called 'Saturday Night Swing Club' without the merest hint of anything dodgy going on.

Another advantage of Lindy Hop is that it's like exercise, only fun. I’ve been dancing once a week (often twice, sometimes three times) since January 2011 – I lost a stone in the first couple of months and have actually kept some of it off. This stopped me looking quite so much like a hamster and inspired me to get a proper haircut and smarten myself up a bit, which is probably a good thing.

There’s only one potential problem with my new hobby. I am, not to put too fine a point on things, absolutely shite at dancing.

Strictly Writing now has its very own Ann Widdecombe. Lindy Hop is admittedly complicated to learn, but after more than a year of lessons I ought to be a bit less, well… shite… than I am. Other people who started learning at the same time now look to me like something out of Hellzapoppin’, while I’m still just trying not to fall over. Added to which, I'm no spring chicken compared with many London Lindy Hoppers – so on the social dance floor I'm the inept old saddo with whom only the most kind-hearted or equally inept people will dance.

But the heartening thing is that this doesn't matter. I find dancing fun and worth doing for its own sake. My new motto is: feel the incompetence and do it anyway. As someone whose writing life has been characterised by the thought ‘I’ll never be any good at this. I might as well just GIVE UP NOW’, it's so refreshing to revel in doing something badly. It's made me realise that uselessness is not a good reason for giving up.

Whether you caterwaul 'I Will Survive' at the local pub's karaoke night, or whether you decorate cupcakes that look like someone took a pink dump on Jabba the Hutt’s head, there’s really a lot of fun to be had in doing things badly.

With my dancing, there are no publishers to impress, no rejection letters, no agents turning me away while trying to flog their own book. I will never enter some Bridport dancing competition; never appear on Strictly Come Dancing; never hope for a six-figure advance for my awkward attempts at the Charleston. But I'll enjoy myself, that's for sure, and I'll keep in mind that maybe writing, too, is worth doing regardless of success.

What is it that you like doing... badly?

Forever Free

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
Frederick Douglass

So today is International Children’s Book Day.

Ten or more years ago, and in a former life, I made educational programmes – many of them focussing on literacy – for young children. I loved writing scripts and songs and stories, and working with marvellous animators to bring picture books to life. Whilst making ‘Rat-a-tat-tat’, I immersed myself in everything from Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo to Jill Murphy’s books and to Quentin Blake’s illustrations. We took the books out into the real world and picked up the themes of the stories. They say, never work with children or animals – but we worked with them all: we visited zoos (filming with meerkats, lemurs and a large snake), otter sanctuaries, cat rescue homes; we filmed dog clubs (don’t! – it’s utter chaos, especially when attempting to get them to bark on cue) and on one memorable and very stressful day we filmed Aiden, our daredevil presenter, attempting to ride a surfboard and sing amongst the waves at Newquay for the story of Mrs. Armitage and the Big Wave, whilst a crew member swam underwater holding a large shark’s fin. Aiden, the best kind of presenter – funny, amenable and up for everything - climbed trees, went up in hot air balloons, shovelled coal in steam trains and dressed as a pantomime dame. And we worked with lots of wonderful teachers and enthusiastic children. It all seems very long ago and far away now. And Groucho Marx would probably disagree that television is any kind of substitute for the act of reading itself:

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”

I know a primary school teacher – an excellent teacher – who does her very best to bring the children wonderful and positive experiences through their lessons. But I also hear how she struggles to find the time, amidst the statistics and the SATS tests, to do so. And I wonder (not having any children of my own) whether that joy in reading which I was lucky enough to have as a child is still as prevalent amongst children today? Or is reading another chore, another task to master, another tick or cross against their name?

For most of us who have ended up as writers, reading was a magical experience, a portal which took us into exciting worlds where anything was possible. As a child, my tastes were eclectic: I read my way voraciously through The Brothers Grimm, Aesop’s Fables, Enid Blyton (from The Faraway Tree and The Famous Five to Mallory Towers), the Susan books by Jane Shaw (because the heroine had my name, and because they were very funny – I still have them and re-read them). I read Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson and Heidi, the Swallows and Amazons books and, best of all, the Narnia series. And many more in between. Books were my friends and my secret world. Indeed, I’ve even called one of my main characters – who writes fairy tales - Jo (after Jo in Little Women.)

Do children today have time to dream? Because that’s what books offered me. Time to roll around, metaphorically, in different worlds: to pause and meander and wander amongst new ideas and to meet people who were like no-one I knew. Time to wonder ‘what if?’ Time to try out other lives. Children today seem to have their time parcelled tightly into neat packages, each with attainment targets and checklists. And their ‘fun’ seems to consist of fast-paced TV programmes and video games. I probably sound like an old wotsit, but I think kids are the losers now. They are losing the joy of slowing down to the pace of words. Losing the ability to dream. Perhaps we all are. Which is very sad.

So let’s take a moment today to go back: back to the days when we were young and books were magical. Which were your favourites, then? And what do you read with your children now? What would be your ‘Inheritance’ books? Which would you take on your Desert Island?

“When we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls. What is to happen next will take place within the four walls of the story. And this is possible because the story's voice makes everything its own.”
John Berger