From time to time I get the opportunity to interview authors visiting the region to publicise their books. Without fail, the people I've interviewed have been friendly, professional and modest about their success. And what I see backstage before we go on, is exactly what the audience sees. I've been very fortunate so far not to have encountered the sulky, the ego maniac or the person who gets their personality out of their pocket as they step on the stage and removes it when they walk back to the green room. They do exist - I've seen a couple of 'those kind' of writers getting interviewed and thanked the lord I was just sitting in the audience.
So, on Friday I interviewed Phyllida Law as part of the Hexham Book Festival and by the end of the interview I was rather hoping she would offer to adopt me and, judging by the positive atmosphere and hilarity in the theatre, most of the audience would have liked that to happen too.
She was in Hexham to talk about her latest book 'How Many Camels are there in Holland - Dementia, Ma and me' which as the name suggests is about her mother's dementia, but despite that manages to be a life enhancing and affirming book. Much like its author.
During the interview we chatted about a lot of things that were in the book and a lot of things that weren't - from pretending to curse someone who had stolen the gargoyles from her garden and getting the things returned, to how older people are treated as invisible. It was great to be present where somebody communicated so well with the audience and you felt that somehow your life had been enriched by the exchange.
It's hard to put your finger on what makes someone like Phyllida Law charismatic - and not that flashy, empty charisma, but the kind that has great dashes of warmth and wisdom in it. At a rough guess, I'd say it's the ability to transmit in an entertaining way - anecdotes, views, what you've achieved and how you've achieved it - while also being a damned good receiver. Being interesting is one thing, being interesting and interested is even better. And Phyllida was definitely as interested in other people as she was in her own story - interested in the area too, in the Book Fair, even in the fact it was the sound man's 50th birthday soon.
Yes, she was there to publicise her book, but somehow it didn't feel like that - it felt more as if we were getting a valuable lesson in that EM Forster phrase 'only connect'.
Spending an hour listening to Phyllida Law would benefit any author who is trying to find a way through publicising themselves and their work. It's easy to get stuck on transmit when agents and publishers urge you to get on social media to 'raise your profile' and 'build a platform'. You can see the results of getting that wrong on twitter and Facebook when some days it just seems like a street market with everyone vying to have a bigger loud hailer than the next person.
It's easy to get it wrong in real life too. We've all stood next to people at parties where you feel mugged - so remorseless is the level of self publicity and self absorption being displayed. You can go home without one question having been asked about your or your life. The answer in this case, of course, is to be a bit more choosy about who you mix with and probably drink enough next time to say, 'Hey, pal, my turn now.'
But getting it wrong as a writer is actually shooting yourself in the foot twice. Not only will you be putting people off - the opposite of connecting with someone - you'll be in danger of making yourself the focus of your craft. As a fellow writer who is yay cleverer than me put it - other people are a writer's business. How people think, what drives them, why they love and hate and succeed and fail should be endlessly fascinating to you. If you're not desperate to know how Aunt Mimi felt when her husband ran off with a lumberjack, or just why Paul was so traumatised by what he found down the back of the sofa, you're not doing your job properly. Even worse, you may not even know Aunt Mimi's husband left because you were too busy talking about yourself.
Is that being nosey or being fascinated? I'm going to plump for the latter.
Which brings me back to Phyllida Law - as a writer and an actor, other people are her business twice over and it's obvious she's fascinated by them. And that makes for a better book and a truer performance, and the kind of person you'd be quite happy to be sitting alongside in a lifeboat, never mind a party.
Only You is the story of Jane Hollinger and Robert Armstrong – she is single, dumped horribly by her philandering husband and not in any hurry to get dating again just because, as she puts it, she’s the wrong side of thirty. She’s perfectly happy with her quiet life as a genealogy teacher. He is a handsome, famous actor who the paparazzi and most red blooded females want a piece of. Normally their paths wouldn’t cross, but Robert wants help with a mystery in his family tree and it’s the start of an on/off romance where Jane has to learn to trust again and get used to the pressures of living in the public eye.
I very much liked the comedy in this book - both Jane and Robert have a nice, self-deprecating line in humour and there is a lovely cast of subsidiary characters such as Jane’s mouth of a sister Mags who speaks before she thinks and has obviously been born without an embarrassment gene. Speaking of genes, the genealogy strand to the story was an unusual one too and used to good effect to show the vulnerability that is lurking under Robert’s self assurance.
Jane’s group of friends, her students and also her mother and father and siblings came across as three dimensional people and I think Lorna has captured perfectly the way in which families can be irritating, embarrassing and nurturing all in the space of a few minutes. The contrast between all that pulsing life in Jane’s family and Robert’s situation was also well brought out.
I felt that the way the romance developed was believable as were the subtly written sex scenes and the issue of celebrity culture and press invasion.
All in all this is not a story that delivers huge shocks or surprises, but a gently satisfying read with some great one-liners and very likeable characters.
Only You is available to buy now through these links
I'm very happy to have Lorna Peel on my blog today. Lorna's first book 'Only You' is published on April 1st by Entranced Publishing.
It's the story of Jane Hollinger who is single, divorced and the wrong side of thirty - as she puts it. While her friends and relations are trying to push her back into London's dating pool, Jane is content with her quiet life as a genealogy teacher.
Enter Robert Armstrong. He's every woman's fantasy - handsome, charming, rich and famous. When he asks her to meet him, she convinces herself it's because he needs her help with a mystery in his family tree. Soon she realises he's interested in more than her genealogical expertise. But now the paparazzi want a piece of Jane too.
Can Jane handle living and loving in the spotlight?
So first of all Lorna, some questions.
Tell us in your own words what your book is about and why the story appealed to you?
Only You’s Jane Hollinger, like many of us, dreams of her favourite actor walking into her life. But I also wanted to show what she would do if that dream actually came true and how she is suddenly faced with press intrusion into what had once been a very private life. Oh, and the potential ‘wrath of all womankind’. Can Jane love him enough to be able to put up with it all?
What caused you most happiness in the writing process and what proved to be most tricky?
I love getting the first draft down, as I just write without stopping to edit. Like my main character, Jane, I’m quite private and I find promoting myself and the book a bit strange so far! Hopefully, I’ll get used to it!
Before you wrote Only You, had you done any other kind of creative writing? If not, what was the spark for you to start?
I’ve always had an active imagination and sent my dolls on lots of adventures, but it took me until I was nineteen to start writing those adventures down! I did a creative writing course a few years later which concentrated on short stories. It was interesting, and I was lucky enough to have one published, but it made me realise that I prefer to write longer prose and I decided to see if I could get one of the novels I’d written published.
Are you a very organised writer - set times, meticulous plotting?
I’m definitely not a morning person, so I tend to write in the evening and late at night as I find that I’m more alert at that time. I’m not a meticulous plotter, I just start to write and see where the characters take me!
Family trees play a large part in the book, and they are one of your personal interests - why is that?
It was the age-old question of where did I and my ancestors come from? I’m lucky in that I have quite a varied family tree. My Dad was Irish with Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and English ancestors while my Mum is Dutch with Dutch, German, and possibly Scandinavian ancestors. I’d love to get my DNA analysed as who knows what else it might reveal!
Did you have any real life person in mind when writing there hero?
Robert Armstrong is based on a couple of actors I like. One of them is a certain Mr R. Armitage!
Do you show your writing to anyone before your publisher?
There are no writers groups near where I live so my Mum has seen some of my writing. She is very honest and will tell me immediately if she doesn’t like it, which is good.
What are you reading at the moment? And do you tend to read in one genre?
I’ve just started reading Lionheart by Sharon Penman and no, I like to read historical fiction, crime fiction, and historical crime fiction like the Matthew Shardlake Series by C. J. Sansom. I try to read something completely different from what I’m writing at that time.
Can you say that any particular author or authors have inspired you or influenced you?
When I was little, I devoured everything Enid Blyton wrote, especially her Famous Five and Secret Seven series. She isn’t very politically correct now but she certainly knew how to tell a great story and I hope that a great story is at the heart of everything I write.
Now, I love Sharon Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick’s historical novels. The amount of research which goes into their novels must be huge but they never suffer from info-dump-itis! I’ve done a lot of research for my current WIP and, this might sound strange, but I’m doing my best to make sure it doesn’t show.
I also enjoy Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins mysteries. He writes fantastic natural dialogue, which I try and blatantly imitate in my own writing!
And lastly, what's next after Only You.
I’m currently working on a historical novel set in
Thank you for interviewing me, Hazel!
My pleasure ... and here are some links to Only You and to Lorna...
Find out more on http://lornapeel.com
Sorry that I've been missing for a while, but the deadline for Book 4 is weighing heavily upon me, so that I have to focus on that for a while. However, I did raise my head and escape to two lovely book-related events this week which I wanted to share with you.
The first was chairing an interview with Lyn Andrews in the Vicar's Pele in Corbridge. This is an ancient fortified tower right next to the church and the event was organised by the independent bookshop, Forum Books. Lyn was in the area, publicising her latest book 'The Queen's Promise' which is about the doomed love affair between Henry Percy, the 6th Earl of Northumberland and Anne Boleyn - this is the love affair that happened before another Henry, him of the many wives, caught sight of her. As the tower is now owned by the present Duke of Northumberland, it was a particularly apt venue.
Before any interview I not only read the book concerned, and as many others as I can by the author, but also do as much research as possible. And as I did my research, I realised just how successful Lyn is. The numbers and facts are slightly boggling, but here goes.
She began writing in 1977 and has had over 40 historical novels and family-based sagas published.
She regularly features in the Sunday Times' best-seller list, and her book 'Love and Promises' achieved the No.1 spot.
She was one of the Top 100 best-selling authors in the UK in the decade from 2000 - 2010.
She estimates that her books in total have sold more than 2m copies and three-quarters of a million have been borrowed from public libraries. (These figures are from 2009 so they will have risen by now.)
You'll probably appreciate that I get butterflies before any of these events and I suppose they might have been more acute this time when I thought of just how successful Lyn is as a writer. I need not have worried, she is also incredibly warm and funny, tells a really good anecdote and was happy to share insights into her writing processes. And she gets nervous before these things too.
There was a good audience, the tower was suitably atmospheric (even the chill in the air added a certain something - possibly frostbite) and we ranged over the book and writing and bringing up triplets (Lyn not me). Lyn is one of those writers who can really connect with her readers and she did the same with the audience.
It was a hightly entertaining look at writing a story where everyone knows what happens, but not necessarily why. I also liked the way the book shines a light on the less well off members of society and shows the reality of living in what was a 'lively part' of Britain thanks to its border position. It was fascinating to think that some of the descendents of the Border Reivers who created such fear and havoc in the area were probably sitting quietly in the audience in the Pele Tower.
On Thursday, a totally different event. Ann Cleeves and the Reading Agency have got together with Pan Macmillan to create a Murder Mystery (based on Ann's book 'The Glass Room'.) This is designed for libraries to host and my local one, Hexham Library had taken up this opportunity. I and four other kind members of my local Drama Club played the suspects and the Forensic Officer. There was a hearty crowd - all taking notes - a glass of fizz, a quiz and prizes. Thoroughly enjoyable and so good to see our wonderful library getting some out-of-normal-hours use.
You might be amused to know that the murder victim was a particularly unscrupulous writer and the suspects were all aspiring writers, too. I particularly enjoyed playing a very uptight English lecturer in sombre black suit and with a suitably sucky lemon look on my face.
(Right here was going to be a photo of a body (made by the library) under a blanket - taken for me by crime writer Mari Hannah. I even had a caption: A bad writer reaches his last full stop. But Mr Site has proved too complex for me and after three quarters of an hour trying to size it and position it, I'm giving up until a teenager gets home from school and helps me. Please try and imagine it!!)
I can't reveal who the murderer was because it could be that a library near you will be hosting the event soon - so don't read anything into the fact that I'm just about to go back into solitary confinement. I'm talking about my writing cell, not a prison one!!
Well, Happy New Year and no, I am not 'coming down with something nasty'. Just thought I'd share one of those incidents that happen when you're out there trying to sell your books.
I know the popular image of book signings is of an author sitting at a table in front of which a queue of people wait, reverentially, to get her signature on the flyleaf of their hardback, but that's not how it really happens for most of us writers. The reality is that you actually have to 'sell' your book to anyone who looks as if they might be interested/has stopped to look at something else/can't avoid eye contact with you. And by 'sell' I mean engage the person in conversation and, if you ascertain that they like to read your kind of book, tell them all about it in an enthusiastic way. There's a fine line between being too full-on and too wishy-washy and you have to know when to admit defeat and withdraw.
As a process it reminds me very much of handing out flyers at the Edinburgh Fringe - you are trying to get the passer-by to relate to you and then, perhaps, they'll relate to the show. Although of course at Edinburgh you're doing it out in the street and could be dressed as a sausage.
My sense of satisfaction if I do manage to sell a book is great - most people haven't heard of me (there is no greater antidote to a swelling ego than doing a book signing) and certainly haven't heard of my books. I also, by the time I've sold a copy, have a good idea if the person is going to enjoy it or not and after all, that's my aim isn't it? I'm there to offer something that's going to be satisfying, not to offload another unit and rub my hands in glee regardless of whether the reader will feel hard done by a couple of weeks down the line.
I find that three hours is the absolute maximum time I can spend doing this kind of event - going up to complete strangers is a very un-British thing to do, it takes energy and in between those burst of energy you have to deal with the adrenaline dips that occur when no one is around or interested - trying to study shelving in a nonchalant fashion is a good ploy as is picking up some other writer's book and reading the blurb (but then there is always the danger that someone will want to buy that book which is, I suspect, an ego crush too far for anyone). Talking to the staff in the shop is also good, as is asking some of your friends to just pop in and say hello. But when it's not going well, a bookshop can seem like a very exposed and lonely place, if these two states are not mutually exclusive.
You also have to deal with the knock-backs. Ah, the knock-backs. In one book shop I got a hand raised, palm out towards me and a, 'I haven't come in here for a book.' Another writer I know got, 'I only came in here because it's raining.' Yet another, 'Has it got any pictures in it?'
The response I sometimes get after asking if a person reads romance novels? 'No, I like murders and the bloodier the better.' That spikes my interest, especially as it is often said by women with something of a killing gleam in their eye. I usually have a chat anyway, and as one of my friends writes crime, will point them in her direction. I was however, stuck for words when I asked my usual question of a lady at a recent event and she said that she mainly liked to read about the Black Death. I think to be fair to her she liked to read about that whole period, but all I could see was people expiring and couldn't think of any way to bring her round to the idea of romance. When I told a friend about it she said wisely, 'Ah you should have said to her that there were plenty of romances during the Black Death, they just didn't last that long.'
I will remember that next time, when I'm not examining the shelves.
Well, it's nearly that time of year when everyone disappears off to roast things and toast things and let it all hang out. Whether you celebrate Christmas, the Winter Solstice or simply the fact that you get some days off work, I wish you a merry old time.
And before we know it, we'll be in 2013.
So, as we hurtle that way, I'm sure most of us will take a few moments to think back over the past year.
I hope it's been kind to you and that you leave 2012 in good spirits and good health. Or, if the year has been a tough one, you and your family will find some kind of comfort and peace over the months to come.
And one last thought - thank you to my own family and to my 'lifeboat' friends for all the support you've given me during the wobbly times.
Keep safe. Keep happy. Keep going.
That’s not me in the photo, by the way. Not even the one with the coat and top hat, but I thought it was a good image to sum up what a light-hearted, enjoyable and downright friendly event the Festival of Romance was. Although no one kissed me. In that way.
I’ll try to give you my take on the whole weekend and I hope what comes across is how much I enjoyed talking to readers and how lovely it was to chat, face to face, to people who I’d only ‘met’ on Twitter or Facebook.
So… the Festival kicked off with an Award Gala in the Bedford Corn Exchange – a very glam affair showing just how well the romance readers, writers, publishers, bloggers and agents scrub up. I was on a table with, among others, Trisha Ashley, Liz Fenwick, Jean Fullerton and Miranda Dickinson – all of whom were shortlisted for an Award and all of whom were too kind to ask why I, who wasn’t, was on their table. You probably already know who won the awards, so I’ll not repeat it here, just offer congratulations once again.
One of the highlights was the expression on Phillipa Ashley’s face when she won the Best Ebook Award – a brilliant mix of disbelief and joy. I also liked Mandy Baggot’s dance back to the table with her award and hope to see it on YouTube soon. Great to meet Holly too.
While others then took to the dance floor to show the music no mercy (played by a DJ who may have been a tax inspector or undertaker during daylight hours) I sat and chatted to Miranda who I have to say is a bit of an inspiration to me. I hope she doesn’t find that too stalkerish, but she is one of those generous writers who doesn’t mind answering your dumb questions and leaves you feeling inspired to go and try that little bit harder.
Next day passed in something of a blur. First stop was the top floor of the Corn Exchange to display my books as part of the Romance Fair.
Again, Miranda Dickinson and Trisha Ashley had to put up with sharing a table with me and we were joined by Joanne Phillips and Berni Stevens. Then it was on to meet readers and bloggers at a coffee and cake event in the
After another short stint on the book stall, it was on to a charmingly bizarre event – a readathon in Harpur shopping centre. I’m used to standing up and performing, but even at the wildest edges of the Edinburgh Fringe I have never tried, on a busy Saturday, to interest shoppers in the finer points of romance. I was glad I chose a funny bit, but the response of most of the passers-by was to leap for the entrance of Boots looking as if slapped by a wet haddock. All the romance authors rose bravely to this challenge and some, I believe, even had a bit of a sing-along. Here is me giving my all... thanks to Wendy for the photo.
The day ended with a dinner; a double-act between Jane Wenham-Jones and Jane Lovering that may have contained both bats and large black cocks and a cut-throat quiz. This was set by the Romaniacs and I had the dubious pleasure of having to write down the answers for our team ’50 swigs of Chardonnay’… my goodness, the pressure… especially when there was a tussle over Shaggy or Shabba Ranks (you had to be there). We emerged victorious and weighed down with chocolate, wine and erotic books – or they may have been books about plumbing as there seemed to be an awful lot in them about women getting overheated.
Last Day? Lovely walk along the river with Caroline Bell Foster to clear away the wine fumes and then talks and panels. I took part in one about whether size mattered when you were thinking about publishers. It passed in a flash. I hope I wasn’t speaking gibberish.
And then it was the long drive back to Northumberland. I left feeling better informed, a little hungover and happy to have met such a wide range of lovely people.
I also left without my laptop … but there you go … you gain something, you lose something and very kindly Sarah Taylor is babysitting it for me until I can retrieve it.
Christina Jones is not only a lovely, warm and very friendly fellow author, but also writes fantastic romantic comedies - bucolic frolics - set in rural Berkshire. And last week, she very generously tagged me in the Next Big Thing, an online chain of author and book recommendations - so today's blog post is me, answering set questions, about my Next Big Thing.
What is the title of your next book?
‘Grace Under Pressure’
Where did the idea for the book come from?
I had a weekend in London where I visited some modern art galleries and then went to a more traditional one. It set me thinking about two characters who would embody those two aspects of art – a very controlled, organised woman who does traditional art tours and a funky, edgy young guy who’s a modern artist. I thought it would be fun to throw them together and see what happens. That’s how Grace and Tate were born.
What genre does your book fall under?
Romantic comedy with heart-wrenching bits!!
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie?
That’s easy to answer because I always have actors in mind when I’m writing. So for this one, Grace would be Emily Blunt as I think she embodies a very calm, cool approach to life and the ability to maintain order while everyone else around her is running about like a headless chicken. Tate would be a young Owen Wilson as he’s got that slightly off the wall thing going on with a lot of emotional intensity underneath it. Gorgeous too but maybe not in a conventionally handsome way.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
My agent is Broo Doherty and my publisher is Quercus Publishing
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
On average I take about five months to do the research and first draft for a book.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Tricky question… I’d say any writer who likes to mix humour with a slow-build romance and plenty of angst!!
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I suppose a life-long fascination with people not always being what they appear to be at first sight.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
There’s some great UK v UK scenes as Grace is British and Tate American, there’s a cast of really funny, supporting characters; lots of art, big slices of London, a mother who is addicted to everything New Age, a dad who’s an enthusiastic amateur detective and sisters with the weirdest names in the history of the world. Oh, and lost of simmering sexual attraction.
Thanks Christine... really enjoyed it.
Today I am delighted to have the very funny and talented Phillipa Ashley on my blog. Her first book 'Decent Exposure' won the Romantic Novelists' Association New Writers' Award and was made into a Lifetime movie in the US. She has had five more novels published in the UK - her latest being 'Miranda's Mount' - a fast paced, sexy and emotional read with a fantastic take on a modern day 'pirate'.
Like me, Phillipa is also a freelance copywriter and she kindly took up my challenge to explore how that might, or might not, impact on her novel writing. Over to Philippa.
'I’ve been reading your book.’
I glanced up, horrified, at the young woman beaming at me from behind her computer screen. Not because she was a brandishing a machete or a copy of the Daily Mail or had two heads.
In fact she was bright, pretty with a happy smile.
But she had committed a huge sin: she’d crossed over from one of my lives to the other – just like Hazel has tried to do now.
Innocently, and in the interests of helping me promote my latest sexy rom com (Miranda’s Mount, in case I don’t get it in later), Hazel asked me to write about my ‘day job’ as a freelance copywriter and its relationship to my ‘day, night and vacation job’ as a novelist.
I must confess I’ve been putting this post off for ages. Partly because I have stage fright because Hazel is so clever and brilliant but largely, because (having analysed myself into a hair pulling frenzy) I don’t think I enjoy linking the two parts of my life.
Silly really as I spend just as long writing novels as writing copy.
I love both roles – but differently, like I imagine you love your kids differently (I only have one daughter so I don’t really know.)
You see, my day job gives me a regular income, I get to speak to real people, who are doing real jobs that matter to them as much as writing matters to me. They are the people who keep millions of others in employment and help our failing economy.
Hell, I even get out sometimes to meet clients – apart from when they get a copy of one of my books. I stammer, I blush, I just want to forget that the Novelist exists and get on with the brief.
My novels are not a hobby but they aren’t a job either. They are not written by Phillipa the Copywriter but by a different woman. It’s my novels that contain my heart and soul, and no, I’m not saying that’s a good thing. I certainly couldn’t give my heart and soul all the time which is why I will never give up copywriting if I can help it.
That’s not to say I don’t lavish care and attention on my copy projects: of course I do – but I do have to keep a level of detachment from my work because I’m helping to inject passion and enthusiasm into someone else’s product or service or cause, rather than my own. It probably wouldn’t be professional to get into the highs and lows over a client’s copy that I do over my novels.
I suppose there have been a few aspects to being a ‘professional writer’ that might have helped my career as a novelist: like being able to meet any deadline and juggle several projects at once. Being a copywriter is useful for promotion, I know how to fire off a press release to the newspaper. I also work as a features journalist and that was useful for meeting interesting people and experiences.
But really, writing novels is a completely different skill. Frankly, I’ve realised that any job other than being a writer would be more help: postman, chef, funeral director, ballet dancer, nude model – because who wants to read about writers when they could read about naked undertakers?
When Miranda finds herself fighting for her home, her job and her heart, sleeping with the enemy may not be the best tactic…
With no family of her own, Miranda Marshall has developed a healthy respect – some would say obsession – with other people’s histories. As property manager of a spectacular island castle in
To celebrate the publication of 'Kto sie boi pana Wolfe ' a?' in Polish, I have two copies to give away to the first two people to email me on email@example.com If you want to see how beautiful the book looks, take a peek here http://podsowa.pl/ksiazka/Hazel-Osmond/Kto-sie-boi-pana-Wolfea,57053402370KS
In November, I will be one of the authors appearing at the Festival of Romance - it's a lovely event and aims to encourage the writers of tomorrow. With this in mind, the Festival is offering two great opportunities - one for authors not yet published and one, with Piatkus Entice, that is open to all...
So what are you waiting for? Hop over to the Festival of Romance site for more details right now!
New Talent Award aims to uncover romantic fiction authors of the future
The Festival of Romance is delighted to announce that the New Talent Award will run again this year. The industry judges are Georgina Hawtrey-Woore senior editor at Cornerstones, Random House and Diane Banks, literary agent at the Diane Banks Associates Literary Agency.
The Festival of Romance New Talent Award aims to cast a spotlight on the authors of tomorrow and is open to all writers who have not yet had a book commercially published. Writers may submit the opening chapter (up to 3,500 words) of a romantic novel of any type by 30th September 2012. The winner and runners-up will be announced and presented with trophies at the gala Festival of Romance Awards on Friday 16th November 2012. There is a small entry fee to cover the award administration. Entrants may also gain a critique of their entry written by a professional novelist.
“As part of the Festival of Romance we want to help new writers with talent get their break into the commercial fiction world,” says Kate Allan, chief romantic at the Festival of Romance. “At the Festival of Romance in November we are running writing workshops, an industry conference and chance to meet publishers face to face as well as the New Talent Award. I'm delighted that Georgina Hawtrey-Woore and Diane Banks have agreed to judge this year's entries.”
Winner of the 2011 New Talent Award Henriette Gyland subsequently garnered a book deal from publishers Choc Lit. Her debut novel Up Close will be published in December 2012.
For more details about how to enter the New Talent Award please see www.festivalofromance.co.uk
Piatkus Entice 'Win a publishing contract' competition
Piatkus Entice 'Win a publishing contract' competition
Open to all authors, published or unpublished, is a super competition from Pitakus Entice to win a publishing contract for an ebook to be published in 2013. Join bestselling authors including Eloisa James, Christine Feehan and Sarah Mason, the digital-first publisher is looking for novels in three categories: romance/contemporary women's fiction, historical romance and paranormal romance. The competition is free to enter and the closing date is 30 September 2012. The winners will be announced at the Festival of Romance Awards on Friday 16 November. See here for full details:
Back in 2003, a journalist managed to work undercover as a footman at Buckingham Palace in the two months leading up to the visit of the then President of the US, George Bush. The Palace never twigged that the footman was a fraud - in the end it was the newspaper that pulled him out and came clean.
It was a story that stuck with me for some reason – possibly because as well as being a writer, I’m an actor and so I’ve always been fascinated by the ways in which people can re-invent themselves. If you look the part, say the right things and move in the right way, how long can you fool people into believing you are someone else?
This thought is the starting point for ‘The First Time I Saw Your Face’, my second book. It’s the story of Mack, an ex-tabloid journalist down on his luck and blackmailed into doing one last job to ensure some of his own family’s secrets aren’t splashed over the very newspaper he used to work for. And the poisoned chalice he’s handed is to travel to the far north of
It’s a horrible, murky job and when Mack arrives he discovers one vital bit of information about Jennifer, omitted from his briefing, that makes what he’s doing even more reprehensible. And of course this is a romance, so it involves all kinds of dilemmas about trust and betrayal. I suppose it’s slightly darker than my first book, but there’s still the trademark humour…. I think people who can retain that ability to laugh at themselves, or even at fate when everything is going wrong, have a rare kind of courage. Jennifer’s a prime example of that, one of the bravest people I’ve written to date.
It seems weird now that when I was writing the book, with all its tabloid skulduggery, I worried that the reader might think some of it was too far-fetched. And then the News of the World revelations and the Leveson inquiry came along and now everything in the book seems more than believable…
One of the cardinal rules of blogging is to do it often and regularly. One of the cardinal rules of life is that things crop up that you didn't expect, and things you did expect eat into more of your time than you imagined. Trying to balance these two things has proved pretty impossible over the last few weeks and I offer huge apologies... in short order I have had to deal with flooding, birthdays and sleepovers, proms and the getting ready for them, preparation for a Coast to Coast walk and collecting from same at the end, visits from lovely relations and a book launch.....
Speaking of which, I have photographs from the launch party for 'The First Time I Saw Your Face' which was held in Corbridge on Monday 23rd July. Mr Site is telling me I can't post them here, so this is the link to the photos on my facebook page
As ever I was touched by how many people came along and very thankful to the members of the Drama Group who helped me do the readings and made my characters come alive. Extra special thanks to my Mum and sisters Ruth and Anne who travelled up from down south to be there and to Charlotte my editor from Quercus who also made the journey and a ego boosting introductory speech. Oh, and thank you too Forum Books in Corbridge for dealing with the substantial book sales on the night.
And finally, how my sisters and Mum made a mug of me... or rather my two books. A lovely, personalised present to celebrate August 16th.
This is a shout out for your local independent bookseller. For those hard working people who love books, love enthusing other people about books and who, like Libraries face an uncertain future in a world where technology and price cutting seem to be sweeping away the old and replacing it with something we're told is new and shiny and better, but which may simply turn out to be new and shiny.
Here's to the quirky, the individual and the uplifting shops where you can stand and get swept up by a line of prose or poetry; where you only meant to go in for one book and come out with a serious habit; where people get down on their hands and knees because they know 'there's a book right at the back here which that uncle of yours who likes obscure Welsh thrillers is just going to love.'
Here's to the shops that support literature festivals and local authors; who know their Flannery O'Connor from their Maggie O'Farrell; who understand that some books can change your life but none of them are likely to have been written by Katie Price.
Here's to the independents that still give me choice... choice in the fullest sense and not the standardised 'choice within certain parameters' sense.
And here's to my two local independent bookshops - Forum Books in Corbridge and Cogito Books in Hexham.You never fail to cheer me up, you're always ready to support me as an author and as a customer and although you may tempt me to the point of insolvency, I feel immeasurably richer for it.
It's not an actual cupboard of course, more a figurative one - it's what I call the locked-down state I enter whenever I have something published.
Writers have, as I've said before, the twin forces of insecurity and overriding self-belief battling away inside them and while it's the latter that keeps you telling stories and trying to foist them on an unsuspecting public, it's the former that then whispers in your ear 'Everyone is going to hate it'.
So, the ebook version of 'The First Time I Saw Your Face' was launched on Thursday and I sit here now waiting for the anvil to drop on my head even though if you dig down another couple of layers into my pscyhe I will be standing on the desk hollering how proud I am of the book. I really wanted to write something that conveys the beauty of Northumberland and the humour and quiet vibrancy (if there is such a thing) of the people here. So while it is Jen and Mack's love story, it's also a love story from me to the county and, indeed, the north east as a whole.
Which means you'll find plenty of humour, a taste of the wild gorgeousness of the place and ooh, lots of other things, including Shakespeare, librarians, family arguments, amateur dramatics, fights in supermarkets, unscrupulous tabloid newspaper tactics, people who get judged by their appearance and a man and woman who have to overcome some quite terrible odds stacked against them.
Did I mention too that there were sheep? Great flocks of them. But none of them were harmed in the making of the book.
Right, advert over, I'm off back to my cupboard.
Sorry for the pun - this blog is actually about Mobile Libraries. I was lucky enough to be invited to take part in 'Words Across Northumberland' as part of the Hexham Book Festival which entailed travelling around on the library vans as they toured the county and talking to users about what they read and what I write.
I was very much looking forward to the experience, having a soft spot for library vans - I remember the one that used to pull up outside our house when my daughters were little. It was a welcome sight when getting two wriggly people out and off to the library in Hexham just seemed a journey too far. They used to love climbing up the steps and having a root through the books - they thought there was something magical about a big yellow van just arriving on their doorstep stuffed with adventures waiting to be picked up. I suppose I still do.
And the experience did not let me down. It was also, in the words of the Queen (and she's an avid mobile library user - well at least she is in Alan Bennett's 'An Uncommon Reader') - a humbling experience.
But let me set the scene...
My first morning out was with librarian Debbie on the van that visits Birtley, Gunnerton and Humshaugh (all about forty minutes from Hexham). This is sheep and (some) cattle country, gently undulating and, despite the monsoon conditions prevailing on the day, quite, quite stunning. And it is the area of Northumberland where much of the action takes place in my second book 'The First Time I Saw Your Face'.
You're unlikely to pass many other vehicles, which is lucky as these vans are big and the roads are narrow and the cloud was so low that it met the rain bouncing back up from the tarmac. However, within a few minutes of setting out we had to stop to let a farmer on his quad bike shepherd a ewe and her two lambs along the road and into a field. Debbie said that in the past she has helped to free sheep from the cattle grids - news that confirmed my views on sheep and on librarians.
My second trip was with the van that visits Netherton and Whittingham - areas of great beauty again and more remote being about an hour from Newcastle and seven miles or so from Alnwick. That day, with Keith at the wheel, we were having a heatwave and the van trundled along like a little mobile oven, with kind relief provided by Jill from the Book Festival in the shape of lashings of cold ginger beer. This time sheep were not scurrying about or getting stuck in cattle grids, they were panting under trees, only the lambs careering about in naughty flocks.
So why was the experience humbling? Well, because it showed me that library vans do more than hold books, librarians do more than hand them out and that the mobile library service is providing an essential service that perhaps we don't appreciate enough.
On both days we stopped at various points in villages and it became clear that those using the service tend to be people with young children and those who are retired. There were exceptions on both days - I arrived at Netherton to find the van surrounded by enthusiastic children from the village school and one farmer drove to meet the van and gather up armfuls of books - but generally people visiting the van cannot get to other libraries easily or may, indeed, find getting anywhere a problem. Remember this isn't 'commuter countryside' here for the most part - we're talking agriculture, small businesses, working from home, working in the local community. We're also talking places with limited public transport.
People were helped up steps and to books and if it's not too soppy a word, I found it touching how much care the library staff took with their readers. Debbie was down on her knees hunting for Westerns that one chap hadn't yet discovered; Keith scooted about to find authors similar to ones already read and enjoyed. There were conversations about grandchildren and holidays...all the bits of glue that bind communities together - and if someone who usually visited the van did not appear, they asked around to see that they were OK.
For their part the people using the van were chatty and happy to discuss what they read and what appealed about it and interested in what I wrote even if it wasn't always their 'thing'. There was a general regard for books that was heartening - they'd always want to have one near to hand. And... note to publishers who say people don't read sagas any more... they do. Lots.
The mobile library offers a gem of a service and is hugely appreciated by those who use it, particularly in isolated communities. But who knows what the future holds? People buying books from the internet, the changing nature of villages, the cuts to budgets being faced by all services... they will all have an impact. What can we do as people who think reading is one of the most satisfying, liberating and empowering freedoms we have? Encourage people to use this fantastic service... it's harder to validate snipping away at it when it's well used and well defended. Of course, that's a rallying cry for all libraries, but perhaps we should shout it even louder in this instance.
So, if you or a relation live in an area that has a library van, is there any way you can use it? Doesn't matter if you already belong to another library... sign up. And did you know the ones in Northumberland now operate on Saturdays to catch those who work?
Let's hear it for Library Vans. Believe me you'll be surprised at the range of books they carry and the slices of community life you'll experience just by walking up those steps.
Lastly, a big thanks to Debbie and Keith and to the Northumberland Library Service for letting me be part of it.
Every now and again you read a book that leaves you viewing the world in a slightly different way and gnashing your teeth that you didn’t write it. Such a book is ‘The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder’ the debut novel by JW Ironmonger.
Now at this point I should state that I am a little biased having interviewed John at the Hexham Book Festival. I found him be as wise and funny as his book with, in addition, the kind of modesty that has you saying out loud to him, ‘John, this is a brilliant book… do you realise how brilliant a book this is?’ while he just looks a bit bashful and murmurs ‘thank you’.
So…. the book….As part of his PhD, Maximilian Ponder, only son of a highly individual family, decides to lock himself away in the family seat to catalogue his memories. He envisages that it will take about three years and his only link with the outside world during that time will be his childhood friend, Adam Last. Adam’s many tasks include not mentioning anything that is happening in the present day or Max will have to spend time cataloguing that too and he’s meant to be doing his memories. So basically time stops for Max and it stops for a long time – the task actually takes him thirty years…
Thirty years in one room? ‘Hmm’, I can hear you thinking, ‘that’s going to make for an ‘interesting’ book’. Well the beauty of the narrative framework is that you get both Max and Adam’s view, a remarkable set of almost stand-alone stories that zip from the past to the present and take in Africa where the pair grew up, philosophical questions about the nature of memory, the Ponder’s family history, Idi Amin, old pop concerts - the entire world that people carry around in their brain, in fact. The wisdom, wit and often, the tragedy, just sing out of this book – it’s quirky but not in that ‘ooh look at me, I’m quirky’ way and it has one of the most tender, affecting portrayals of friendship, and the life changing/saving/taking things that friends can ask of each other. The writing is tremendous – rich and detailed, full of big questions, but for all that zipping along and carrying what is a tremendous story.
When I closed the book I felt I’d not simply been left with a lot to think about, but a lot to ‘feel’ about the characters. Someone on Amazon said it was ‘one of the most human stories’ they’d read, and I’d have to agree.
For a debut novel it’s a real corker… and I hope it rises above its cover (which I’m sorry, I don’t think does it any favours) and becomes the success it deserves to be.
As part of Hexham Book Festival, I went to listen to two authors currently earning critical and popular praise - SJ Watson, writer of the thriller Before I Go To Sleep and Rachel Joyce whose book The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has been described as ‘a tender, quietly comic coming of (old) age tale. Earlier in the week both had been long listed for the Desmond Elliott prize.
Both authors started by explaining what had sparked their books. In SJ Watson’s case, he had read an obituary of someone who, following an operation when he was 26 years old had been unable to lay down any new memories. In his book, Christine wakes up next to a man she doesn’t recognise, in a house she doesn’t know. When she goes to look in the bathroom mirror she sees a woman standing there who is in her forties, yet she knows she is only in her twenties. Christine slowly realises that the woman in the mirror is her and every day she has to re-learn who she is and try to work out who she should trust. The reader is in the position of making discoveries about Christine and those around her at the same time as she does.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry starts with a man receiving a letter from a dying woman based in Berwick. Although he intends to post a reply back to her, he ends up taking it, walking the route and gathering people (and wisdom) along the way. Rachel Joyce explained that she started writing her story as a radio play, seven years ago, for her dying father. She said, very touchingly, that it seemed to her that this was a way of keeping him alive … just as Harold in the book feels that he can keep Queenie alive if he walks to find her. Joyce was interested in the idea of faith, but outside a religious framework… the walk is an irrational act of faith on Harold’s behalf. As Harold walks he has to constantly renew this faith in himself and in others and ultimately learn what he really needs to make a physical and emotional journey.
There was then a fascinating discussion about memory and imagination and how closely linked the two are.
SJ Watson said that what affects you is your own truth…that’s your memory. Christine only has the documentation of her life to tell her what the truth is - she cannot pick up the tone of it herself and where there is no memory, confabulation takes place – in other words, the brain invents things. So how do you know that what you are remembering is the truth of the past or something you have layered on afterwards?
In Joyce’s book she says that the act of walking - the rhythm and the time he has to himself - enables Harold to rediscover his past. Back at home, his wife’s isolation enables her too, to face up to the past.
I found the part of the interview dealing with tone of voice and the mechanics of writing particularly interesting. Both books are real page turners and
SJ Watson said that he was acutely aware of asking himself, ‘Will the reader be able to put the book down?’ Having spent sixteen years as a writer of radio plays, Joyce said she was used to structuring a story so that people kept paying attention but that she is very strict about getting rid of anything that shouts ‘I’m a cliffhanger’. She said that you can ‘smell’ whether something is genuine or showy. Both agreed that readers will sense a lack of certainty in your writing, and a lack of commitment in your tone, so you have to be true to your ‘voice’ and dig down further into scenes to get to the real meat of them.
Both writers were very wary of showing anyone anything while the story was still being written. One compared it to a ‘fragile secret’ and the other to a journey where blind, obstinate faith had to he maintained throughout or you could stall.
It didn’t occur to me until a member of the audience asked about his name, that SJ Watson had deliberately ‘done a JK Rowling’. His reasoning for choosing a sexless name was that as he was writing as Christine, he was wary of attracting criticism that he, a man, dared to think he could get inside the brain of a woman. He did show the finished manuscript to women friends to check he was still on the right track, but that was it. He knew he had got the tone correct when a reader wrote to the publisher demanding to see a photograph of the author as she did not believe he could possibly be a man.
Later in the week, I’ll cover my Book Festival interview with JW Ironmonger, author of what I feel is a quite remarkable book that might have gone under your radar ‘The Notable Brain of Maximillian Ponder’. Weirdly enough, it’s another book concerned with the role of memory.
Welcome to Rosy Thornton, who has kindly guested on my blog before and is doing so again to tell you about her new book set in the Cambridgeshire fens. Over to you, Rosy....
I’m sure I’m not the only writer who is fascinated by names. The names of things, and of people and places – how they were acquired, what they mean, and the many subtle resonances which make them appropriate.
The idea for my latest novel began with the name of a place. A couple of miles north of the Cambridgeshire fenland village where I live is a spot known locally as ‘Twenty Pence’. There’s nothing much there: just a solitary house and a bridge across the drainage cut. Twenty pence, I’ve always assumed, must once have been the toll to cross the water there. Perhaps the house belonged to the tollkeeper. That’s how I imagine it, anyway.
But there’s something about Twenty Pence that bugs me. For a start, twenty pence would surely be far too much to cross a river, back in the days when a toll was paid and the place name coined. A ha’penny or a farthing might have been nearer the mark. But also, the name just doesn’t feel quite right. It sounds so very modern, that ‘twenty pence’: like 20p not 20d. Because, back in those pre-decimal days, twenty pence would surely have been ‘one and eight’?
All right, so maybe I am the only writer who is quite such a pedant about names. But the Twenty Pence conundrum set me to thinking, about tolls and tollhouses and the riddles of language, and what emerged was Ninepins.
My latest novel is set in a house not quite like the one at Twenty Pence, perhaps, but not so very different – an isolated house beside a waterway in the Cambridgeshire fens. I’ve made it a former tollhouse, too, and called it ‘Ninepins’ – a corruption of the one time ninepence toll. Except at Ninepins, unlike at Twenty Pence, the bridge where once the toll was paid has long since disappeared, washed away by floodwaters.
Ninepence, ninepins: it’s another verbal puzzle, isn’t it? ‘As right as ninepence’ runs the old phrase, but (according to one version at least) it never had anything to do with money. It’s ninepins, the game, to which the saying refers, with its nine skittles or pins, which were carefully ‘righted’ – set upright – before the game began. What a wonderful central premise, I thought, for the creation of a story.
In the tollhouse, Ninepins, in my novel live single mother Laura and her twelve-year-old daughter, Beth, in the carefully controlled cocoon that Laura has built around them. But Beth is brittly asthmatic, lonely at school and increasingly distant from her mother. And into their lives like a sharp fen breeze comes Willow, a seventeen-year-old care leaver with a mysterious past, together with her social worker, Vince. Laura must decide: what does she want of Vince, and he of her? Is Willow dangerous or vulnerable, or maybe a little of both? And are all Laura’s painstakingly constructed certainties about to be swept away like the old toll bridge – to come tumbling down like ninepins?
You see the ideas which words can spark, in the imagination of a writer? All of that, and just from thinking about a name…
Ninepins is Rosy Thornton’s fifth novel. It was published by Sandstone Press on 19th April 2012.
Author website: http://www.rosythornton.com
I didn't realise when I started to think about this blog that there was any kind of theme other than that I've been out and about recently hoovering up plays, films and author interviews. Then I started to write it and realised there was a vague thread there about adaptations of original creative pieces...
On Tuesday I went to see Alison Carr’s play 'Quick Bright Things' at the People’s Theatre,
Part One started in the bar (hurrah) where there was an awkward date between a young girl and lad which had been engineered by a friend. It was a good take on the ‘I love her she’s my best friend/she drives me mad/I could easily turn on her’ relationship between Helena and Hermia in Shakespeare’s play. We then moved to the main stage and stood on it with the two sets of lovers as they acted out Shakespeare’s version of what happened to them in the woods. The actors were in modern dress with sleeping bags and we were right in the middle of the action as the play veered from the worship of Hermia by the two young men, to the worship of
Two days later I was at a Hexham premier for the film ‘Salmon Fishing in the
Again, as a writer of romantic comedies I found the whole thing fascinating… the original book had a more yearning, haunting set of love stories…the film went for the neater endings. Something for me to think about there…Also thought provoking was the relationship between book and film. Is one a shadow of the other, an enrichment or something else entirely?
This subject came up again in my next cultural outing. Our local bookshop ‘Forum Books’ in Corbridge had a weekend of literary events and I went along to a talk by Natasha and David Solomons about novel and screen writing. Natasha is author of ‘Mr Rosenblum’s List’ and ‘The Novel in the Viola’. The former book has been in the
They were really entertaining speakers and it was interesting to learn about Natasha’s writing processes – how her second novel was meant to be written in the third person but the first person took over and she knew that was right; how the first novel needed to go through a number of drafts and the second one consumed her and almost came out finished on the page; how her displacement activity is baking. What was interesting was that Natasha also wrote screenplays with David before novels took over; David still writes original screenplays; one of Natasha’s books may be made into a film… you see the intermingling here.
I took away two particularly interesting nuggets from the talk… one is that their screenplay which is called something like ‘Another Happy Ending’ and is a romantic comedy (pattern emerging here) is due to film in
So lots to mull over there...
On Friday, I'm handing over my blog to a guest: Rosy Thornton. She'll be talking about her new novel 'Ninepins’ set in the Fens.
It's been more or less a month (OK... more, if you're being strict) since I last posted and perhaps you thought that my disappointment at not winning the Romantic Comedy Novel of the Year Award - see previous blog - had sent me stumbling towards a soft sofa and hard liquor?
No, I've had what those who are not writers call 'a deadline' and what those of us who are writers call 'oh Lordy, it's only a few weeks till I have to finish the book and even though I have written it many times in my head and lived with these characters for months (and might even be in love with the leading man) I actually have to get it finished and polished. Why oh why didn't I start this earlier so that all I needed to do now was tweak?'
Yes, it's been a regime of writing until 4am and creeping upstairs to ricochet off the door in the dark and then fall asleep in bed. Sometimes I've even got the right bed and not found myself in the morning face to face with a confused daughter.
Hunched over the keyboard, eyelids propped open with matchsticks, it wasn't only the red wine that gave me comfort and stopped me castigating myself, it was also the quote: 'You write as you Live.'
I wish I could remember which wise person said that because out of the many (often pompous) quotes about writing that exist, I have found it to be the truest.
I have interpreted it to mean that writing is such a hard-wired, deep-in-the-marrow process that it cannot be separated out from what makes you, you. So... in life I veer between being frighteningly well organised - a person of lists and timetables and goals, and slobbing around like an oaf who thinks she has a trust fund. Correction, a vague oaf who is capable of washing her own car keys. Delicate wash, with fabric conditioner.
Which means I am NEVER going to be the kind of writer who plans out a book completely, gets it written months in advance and has had time away from it before the final, objective draft gets sent to the publisher. It's just not me... I veer back and forth between my organised and my free-wheeling self (see how I avoided the word 'disorganised' there) and really I guess I'm too old to change. I need that adrenaline kick of a tight deadline to move from the researching and mulling stage to the total immersion of being 'in' the book. If I'm not waking up thinking about it, spending all day and half the night writing it, and even then still dreaming of it in my sleep, I feel I'm not, somehow, giving it my best shot. To water down that process and elongate it just wouldn't feel like I was storming the battlements as I do now when everything is going full speed ahead; it would feel like making some headway towards the castle walls and then stopping for a cup of tea and a look at the moat.
Of course this may be my excuse for not being a grown up. But I also like the way that having a plan that I'm willing to chuck at certain points can take me to some rewarding places. Especially with characters. I feel that I don't fully understand any of them until I start writing them and so a plan that's created before that point, might not fit who they turn out to be. Certainly in 'Who's Afraid of Mr Wolfe?' my plan went AWOL when Jack, of his own accord, decided to go off to New York about two thirds of the way through the book. I did not know he was going to do that until it appeared on the page and if anyone had told me that could happen before I started writing books, I would probably have curled my lip and pointed them in the direction of Pseud's Corner. But there it was...he decided that sticking around and being calm was not him. He knew that better than I did by that point in the story.
However, I don't think I could be as relaxed as one crime writer I recently heard talk who said she often started with an image of the crime and then worked out who was the murderer and how they did it as she went along. Imagine that? Now that really would keep me up all night.
So, any of you writer folk out there reading this... are you a planner or a seat of the pants writer? Or do you fall somewhere in the middle? And why does your method work for you? Love to hear from you...
You’ll know by now that I didn’t win the Romantic Comedy of the Year RoNA on Monday afternoon. Writing this two days later I can shrug my shoulders and say, ‘Never mind. Fantastic to be shortlisted with my first book; I’m determined to come this way again and hearty congratulations to Jane Lovering who did win’.
But it might be interesting for you to know what my emotions were exactly at that moment when the envelope was opened and I knew it wasn’t going to be my year. After all, I did say right at the start of blogging that I would always try to be as truthful as possible about the writer’s life - I’ve never found it useful or inspiring to read blogs where writers give the impression that everything is progressing swimmingly with their writing and they still have time to put a smile on a partner’s face and perfectly crafted meals in front of their children. Sorry, but for me, a blog isn’t a work of fiction…
Writers are complex beasts. Many of us are a weird mixture of confidence and uncertainty. These two emotional states may be split neatly as in: ‘I am confident about my writing, uncertain about pushing myself forward’, or, more realistically mixed up and whirling around as in: ‘I’m confident about everything today, but tomorrow I might not be certain that I’m putting my shoes on the right feet.’ (As in left or right, not whether the feet are mine or not).
It’s a push-me/pull me thing: an impulse to write and an ego that wants others to read your words, set against the nagging voice in your head that warns you not to get too sure of yourself. It’s possibly why a bucket of wonderful reviews can be punctured by one bad one.
So my first reaction on getting shortlisted was euphoria followed by some or all of the following - pride, self-belief, gratitude, pessimism, optimism, compulsive checking of reviews and the feeling that there might have been a mistake and perhaps I was the makeweight on the list.
As the day of the awards approached, all of this had morphed into two main strands of thought: I had a one in five chance of winning so probably wouldn’t, and, hey, ‘Mr Wolfe’ is a good book, it still makes me laugh and cry so maybe…maybe…
On the actual day, I spent a lot of time not letting my mind run ahead. Not dwelling too long on what I might say should my name get called out. Not thinking about how great it would be to call my sisters and my Mum and tell them the news. Not thinking about hugging my husband, my agent, my publisher, etc. In short, not hoping…. there is a great line spoken by John Cleese in the film ‘Clockwork’ that goes: ‘It’s not the despair I can’t stand, it’s the hope’. Oh Lordy, I have found that to be true of so many situations… but then your heart starts to race, and you’ve drunk some champagne, and people have taken your photograph and sat you down and the objective part of your brain is still going ‘one in five chance, girl, more likely not to happen than to happen,’ while the mad side is going, ‘but your table is near the stage, that means something doesn’t it?’
Now, I should say at this point, that I had the great good fortune to be standing by Jane Lovering and get talking to her early on before we went in for the Awards. I thought she was friendly and funny, the kind of person I’d like to go to the pub with although probably our livers would object to such a plan.
I promised to make sure the hem of her dress was behaving during the photos; she promised to tell me if my hair was sticking up into horns.
So when Jane’s name was read out as the winner I had an instant flash of disappointment, a real kick to the guts, followed by the instinct to clap and think, ‘well, she’s lovely, she’s worked hard for this, good luck to her.’ Sure, I had my plucky loser face on but it felt more natural than I had expected, not glued on by sheer willpower alone.
Yup I was disappointed and a bit blue - as I said, I’m trying to be honest – the minute you’re shortlisted you cannot help wanting to take it right to the end and scoop the prize. You cannot help wanting the best for your book. But my disappointment wasn’t the disembowelling kind you feel when you know you’ve cocked something up or, worse, when you begrudge someone else success. And it’s faded a little since Monday and will fade even more by the end of the week and beyond.
I know I’m fortunate, and that getting shortlisted is no mean thing. And neither am I. So well done again to Jane and all the other winners. And good luck in the competition for Romantic Novel of the Year. Well done too to all those shortlisted and to the RNA for a smashing event. And huge hugs and thanks to Broo my agent and to Charlotte and the team at Quercus.
I hope to be at another awards’ bash in the future and who knows…maybe…maybe…
Had a new experience this week: live radio.
Jonathan Miles who hosts the 10-12 slot on BBC Radio Newcastle was doing a show asking whether our attitudes towards sex had changed and was featuring a range of people who make their living from sex. This did make me feel slightly racier than I am, but of course what they were getting at in my case, was the fact I write romances which feature sex scenes.
Other people interviewed on the show were a sex therapist, a male escort, and someone who works for Ann Summers and also blogs about sex. What you might call a mixed bunch and, having talked to the lady who does the blogging as we waited for our respective turns, I can also say they were a lively and interesting bunch.
Ah, waiting for our turns – as always, it’s a time of butterflies and blurting, when every bit of saliva leaves your mouth and you suspect it has gone to your bladder because you now have a desperate urge to go to the toilet. But… once I was in the studio, had been introduced to Jonathan and had themicrophone in front of me, well, the show-off gene kicked in.
His first question about romance was whether I wasn’t writing about something that didn’t exist, a question I knew I might get asked and so had thought about it beforehand (let’s face it if you’re a romantic novelist you soon get used to defending your genre). I was quickly able to tell him that I very much believed romance was alive and well and a powerful magic in life. We talked a bit about the difference between romance and erotica, let the listeners hear an excerpt from ‘Who’s Afraid of Mr Wolfe?’ (read by a woman who is lovely, but who at that moment sounded as though she was a. hyperventilating or b. had her bra on too tight) and then Jonathan asked me if I found it easy to write about sex and was I quite ‘open’ about these things? I heard myself saying, ‘Well, I wouldn’t necessarily talk about orgasms over the dinner table with my mother-in-law but yes, I am quite happy to talk about sex, in the right context, and don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed about.’
So, saying orgasms on the BBC… there we go, another thing I can cross off my ‘To Do Before I Die’ list.
We had a bit more banter, Jonathan is a lively guy who likes to keep you on your toes, but I can honestly say I really, really enjoyed it and, apart from failing to mention that the book had been shortlisted for the Romantic Comedy of the Year award, I felt that I’d got across what I wanted to say about romance, sex and, of course, myself.
Some writers, I know, are uneasy with the amount of self promotion you have to do these days, whether that is on the internet or out there in the real world, but I have taken the attitude that I will ‘have a go’ at most things as long as they don’t involve my family or wearing a wet suit.
And now on to other things…. It’s five days until the RoNA Awards in
I’m looking forward to telling you all about it in my blog when I return, but until then, thanks for all the good wishes and support.
This has been burning a hole in my mind since I found out - 'Who's Afraid of Mr Wolfe?' has been shortlisted for the Romantic Comedy Novel of the Year award by the Romantic Novelists Association.
You can read more about it here www.rna-awards.com and see who the other nominees are in this, and the other categories.
I am going down to London on March 5th for the awards ceremony where all the nominees with find out who is the winner from each category. Which is a fantastic excuse to get a new dress and some new shoes and the date is not far enough in the future to be able to torture yourself with the thought that maybe, just maybe, you could drop that extra stone of weight in preparation.
I'm also very much looking forward to putting some more faces to names in the romantic writing world and a little star struck at the thought that I'm going to be in the same room as people like Jill Mansell and Freya North. (Note to self: do not stalk them or look at them with your mouth open.)
I am very much taking the attitude that it is lovely to be shortlisted and to know that other people love Jack and Ellie's story as much as I do - and not thinking about what might or might not happen on the 5th. My fellow nominees in this category - Judy Astley, Jane Lovering, Carole Matthews and Pippa Wright have all written lovely, funny books...it's a strong field and so, before I burble on, I'd just like to say congratulations to everyone nominated, in every category, and may the best books win.
It’s true, my blog sent out a search party for me… and here I am.
The reason for the silence is the best reason of all for a writer: I’ve been writing. I have a deadline of the end of April for my third book to be sent to Quercus and time seemed to be speeding up faster than the word count. So I’ve had my head down (stupid expression as that’s the easiest way to crook your neck if you’re trying to type and look at the screen too) and now I’m making the progress I wanted. But… I haven’t yet got to the stage where I can lean on the gate, chew grass and talk smugly about how I made it to the end.
As well as writing, I’ve been researching. My third book involves a woman who works for a company running tours of art galleries in London and while I know a fair bit about ‘older’ art, and over the years have visited most of the big London galleries, my knowledge of modern art needed refreshing. So the other week I had a flying trip down to
The building itself is worth seeing, they’ve converted the barracks in the King’s Road, entry is free and there are some weirdly wonderful, some wonderful and some plain weird things inside. I think it’s fair to say that some of it I stood in front of and scratched my head and felt like a Philistine… particularly the pieces that seemed to be making the same old tired points (doll with broken limbs, tick, picture of various mothers from art, tick, wheelchair wrapped in cling film… argh).
The visit was useful though and I came away with lots of ideas to include in the book.
Now on to name changing. Well, up until a couple of weeks ago, the title of the second book was going to be ‘The Genuine Article’ but Quercus and I had a chat about it and the feeling was that although it was a clever pun – it being about a newspaper man (Mack) who is pretending to be someone he isn’t, the title didn’t really get across the intensity of the love story that happens between Jennifer and Mack. I’ve had to listen to advice here… I’m a new writer and it’s important to catch the eye of those who a. have never heard of me and b. are looking for something with a bit of depth. So, we kicked some ideas around and the book will henceforth be known as ‘The First Time I Saw Your Face.’ I was sorry to see the old title go, but this one is better, less clever-clever and more intense…. And when you’ve read the book, which I hope you will, it’s a title that will seem especially significant.
So there we go… now, back to she who must be obeyed…. the keyboard.
There’s nothing like a good rant to start the year… so here goes. And before I start, I am aware that I’m ‘going off on one’ and am slightly amazed at my own strength of feeling about this subject. So do feel free to tell me I am completely wrong by clicking on the envelope at the bottom and leaving feedback.
OK…so, deep breath.
Adapting a well-known, well-loved classic must be a minefield. Do you faithfully reproduce what has gone before or try to put your own slant on it? Maybe even give it a modern twist to make it more ‘accessible’ to today’s audience? On the one hand you could be accused of playing it safe, on the other; you’ll have the purists breathing down your neck.
I, perhaps naively, think it’s possible to do both – stay true to the spirit of the original while bring the full force of a modern imagination to it so that the audience looks afresh at its relevance/humour/tragedy…You have probably seen many examples of that yourself. I remember a production of The Tempest by the RSC a couple of years ago, set in the Arctic, and it’s stayed with me ever since; the kind of production I’d have been quite happy to watch again the minute the actors had taken their final bow. There was also, not so long ago, a treatment of Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ on the BBC that ran in half hourly segments like a soap opera. It was just wonderful and feedback on various Internet boards suggested it turned a lot of people ‘on’ to Dickens and sent them off looking for the book. I’m also very fond of the current BBC take on Sherlock Holmes.
Just before Christmas we went to see The Comedy of Errors at the National Theatre. Lenny Henry headed up a strong cast and it was imaginatively staged and set in what looked like a modern, down at heel, Mediterranean coastal resort. And when I say modern, I mean modern… people talked on mobiles, used laptops, the scene with the Courtesan was set in a neon lit, seedy red light district, complete with S&M overtones, transvestites, coke sniffing and a Dizzee Rascal soundtrack. At one point as the mayhem in the play built, an ambulance drove around the stage as what we’d now call ‘mental health workers’ pursued one of the twins with a straitjacket and hypodermic syringe. Antipholus of Ephesus’s wife and her sister were played as WAGS. It was very lively, very in-your-face, but it was undeniably Shakespeare’s play and his language did not seem anachronistic in this setting. In fact, I’d argue that it made you listen to it with fresh ears, if such a thing is anatomically possible.
None of the modern devices felt gimmicky and when all the main protagonists were reunited at the end, it was affecting in a way that has you swallowing rapidly even though you know the plot is more than a little far-fetched.
It wasn’t a life-changing production, but it was very, very good - fresh, immediate and true.
Which brings me to the BBC’s adaptation of Great Expectations. For me, it didn’t work. Why? Because it smacked of style over substance and good looks over good acting. I didn’t like the way people’s motivation was depicted as good or bad, aggressive or passive, with no place for all those subtle shades in between. I also felt there was a huge amount of larding on of sensation after sensation at the expense of humanising, balancing humour.
I tried to give it a chance, honestly, but I felt queasy about it from the moment I saw Joe Gargery. In the original, Joe is a kind of man child, his bodily strength contrasting with his mental ability, but he’s a true and noble soul, written by Dickens so that he never topples over into mawkishness or absurdity. In the BBC adaptation he was a kind of knowing Everyman, watchful and at times, sulky. The lovely relationship he has with the young Pip – almost two children together - had been thrown out the window. Out the window too went the character of Biddy – who, if fate hadn’t intervened, would have probably ended up as Pip’s love. Along with Joe, she’s a moral touchstone in the novel and you can plot Pip’s psychological progress by how he views her. Take her out and you’ve lost the counterpoint to Estella and a large part of Pip’s conscience.
So, what else didn’t work for me? The lack of humour – the scene where Pip’s sister discovers that a slice of pie is gone is brilliant in the book because the tension builds through humour… we sit and read and laugh, but as we laugh we’re on the edge of our seats, that old bitter/sweet combo. In this adaptation the sister discovers the pie and goes to strike Pip and is stopped by Joe. It had all the psychological depth of a dead wombat. And that scene set the tone for how the interplay of light and dark in the novel would be treated throughout… basically there was no light, just gloom piled on gloom with no humanising and widening out of relevance that the humour in the book provides.
Another thing? This is a book packed with drama and incident… convicts escaping, fighting to the death, being sentenced to hang. A woman driven mad by being dumped at the altar who finally catches herself alight and dies of her injuries; an attempt on Pip’s life; a sister who is bludgeoned about the head so badly she never recovers properly…. Wouldn’t you think that would be enough? No… so we had prostitutes to underline the caddish nature of Estella’s future husband; a scene in a lake where Pip and Estella kiss; Joe shouting after Pip as he leaves for London, ‘Don’t forget us, Pip’ just in case we’d been asleep for a while and not twigged from every clue given up to that point, that this was exactly what Pip was planning to do.
The storyteller’s mantra, ‘Show, don’t tell’ was ignored – a bit weird when you’re using the highly visual medium of television.
OK, I’ve ranted on enough, and I haven’t even touched on the casting of Pip… I mean, I’m all for razor sharp cheekbones and a pout that could stick to glass, but how about choosing an actor from the hundreds of blisteringly good ones out there capable of getting across the conflicting emotions pulling Pip apart? Did I care what happened to Pip in this version after he became a man.? Nope.
There were excellent things about the production…some of the performances, particularly Gillian Anderson’s were fantastic, and the way it looked was wonderful. Also the fact that someone even wanted to write a new adaptation is, in itself alone, cause for celebration.
But for me, it wasn’t Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Unlike The Comedy of Errors, rather than breathing fresh life into an old friend, the treatment seemed to suck the richness right out. I don’t want to go down the route of saying it ‘dumbed down’ the book, as I think that’s insulting to the writer and the audience, but something was limiting about it.
Does any of this matter? Well it does to me, particularly when the argument that things need to be a certain way to engage ‘modern’ audiences is waved about. Isn’t this a bit patronising, and a case of looking through the wrong end of the telescope? People are endlessly open to complex ideas and new experiences as long as they’re presented in an engaging way. I think the important thing here is ‘engaging’ not simpler. That production of Bleak House I mentioned earlier springs to mind because I think that got the equation just right.
I know I’m in the minority with my view, and I’m prepared to admit that as the book is one of my favourites I’m over protective. But how much of the guts can you rip out of a story and still call it that story? I don’t know the answer, but to me this adaptation seemed like a shinier, shallower copy of a rich original.
There, rant over.
Short post and to the point.... wishing you all a Happy, Healthy and Fulfilled Year.... will be posting again soon on why the National Theatre's production of 'Comedy of Errors' worked for me, and why the BBC production of 'Great Expectations' didn't......
Now and again things make me chew the carpet. Like the latest film about Shakespeare… ok, so I haven’t seen it, but the underlying idea behind it is that Shakespeare as we know him (balding, kind of sad eyes, impressive ruff) was not the one who wrote the plays. They were, in fact, written by a member of the nobility Sir Blueblood Highbrow de Richboy. Ok, I lied about that last bit, but I told you I was annoyed, so annoyed I’m not even going to check which Earl it’s meant to be this time.
Now, the main reason I have a problem with this theory – and I know people as wonderful as Mark Rylance don’t – is because running through these doubts about who Shakespeare actually was is a thick seam of ‘only somebody who’d travelled abroad, had the education of a noble and the experience of court could have produced such profound works of art’.
Not a grammar school boy from the
This hacks me off as a person and as a writer because, I believe, it completely ignores the one thing that all writers have in common: the ability to create believable worlds that they may never have experienced themselves. I love to think that Will Shakespeare with his Midlands accent could spin out his imagination to
So where does Albert come in? Well Albert is, m’lud, a prime example of what I’m talking about.
I met Albert the other week when I was asked to judge a short story competition being held by a writing group in
As the evening progressed it transpired that Albert was not only a published writer, he’d written 44 books. A hell of an achievement for anyone, but even more amazing when I found out he hadn’t started writing until he was 65. One of these 44, he said, had just tripped off the pen while the others he did a bit of writing, a bit of thinking. A beautifully simple and modest explanation, I thought, of how we all pile up words on the page.
And what did this man from
Westerns. Under the name of Elliot Long.
Now for those of you who don’t know County Durham, it’s beautiful in places, been mined in others, but the only relation it bears to the Wild West is when the pubs turn out on a Friday and Saturday.
Yet there he was writing about gun fights and stagecoaches, strong prairie women and the sun slanting down on desert landscapes. While I was still reeling from that information, someone else in the group casually mentioned that there was another person in
Seems I wasn’t the only one who found this fascinating because years ago the BBC got hold of the story and flew both Tex and Elliot out to the US and they finally got to see all those places they’d written about for so long. I couldn’t think about that on the night of the competition, it made my throat go lumpy to imagine these two elderly people walking in the footsteps of Wyatt Earp and seeing those frontier towns.
So, should I be in the habit of handing out lessons on this blog, here are two to be drawn from my evening with Albert. It’s never too late to start writing and, pigeonholing people based on where they’ve come from and what they’ve experienced is a foolish thing to do in life and also in art.
We’re not, as Sebastian Faulks said in another context, sending reports back from the front line. We're not journalists. We're writing the world as our imagination sees it - even if our body hasn't.
Within certain limits of credibility, it doesn't have to be true-to-life or even recognisable. What it does have to be, is true to ourselves.
Or as someone a zillion times more talented than me put it, 'To thine own self be true.'
Last week was one with plenty of variety...
I finished going through the suggested edits for my next book, 'The Genuine Article'. I hadn't looked at the manuscript for a couple of months and it is amazing how a break can act like a particularly efficient pair of glasses, allowing you to see strengths and weaknesses you might not have noticed before.
I've only been through this process twice, but both times I've been petrified - what if I re-visited the book and thought 'what the hell were you playing at? It's pants.'
I'm glad to report this did not happen. I still love the book and forgive it the pain it caused me... for at times it felt like giving birth to a baby wearing a sombrero made of barbed wire. The plot is more complex than the one in Mr Wolfe and there are a couple of issues in it I wanted to treat with sensitivity while remembering that what I write is romantic comedy - with equal emphasis on both those words.
Added to that was the pressure of what people call 'the difficult second ....' (add your own word there, be it record, book or possibly child). I think what this phrase hints at is that a first book is usually written in complete innocence and with loads of hope... you probably don't have a contract with either an agent or a publisher and your only readers are friends and family. That all changes with the second book where people, be they agents, publishers or your readers, have EXPECTATIONS. Forgive the capital letters but at times those expectations do loom large.
Still, hand on heart (and you would expect nothing less from a writer of romances), it's a book I'm really, really proud to have written and immensely chuffed that Northumberland is looking pretty, damn good in it.
Away from writing, it was also a heavy week for 'Christmas Carol' rehearsals and we have reached that important stage of 'books down'. For the non-thesps among you, this is when you are meant to have learned your lines so that from now on all that lies between you and tumbleweed blowing across a silent stage is your memory and/or the prompt. I have been in enough plays to know that the first time you try to do your lines without your script, your tongue turns to lead and your feet and arms to bits of wood. You may have known all the words back home in the bath, or wherever it is you recite them, but right now in front of everyone, you can barely remember which character you are playing.
And so it proved. Scrooge and I (the Spirit of Christmas Past) launched into our scene only for it to go rapidly downhill. I cut out a huge part of my speech, Scrooge reciprocated. We talked over the ends of eachother's lines. One of us started to laugh, and then the other and then we couldn't stop. When we had ourselves back under control, we both fell apart again when Scrooge said, 'Ah Dick, he was always very attached to me,' a line that up until then had seemed entirely innocent. We stumbled on, but when I got to the point where I couldn't even put the candle snuffer on the table without it falling off, the Director said, 'Not your finest hour tonight, Hazel, was it?'
Luckily such paralysis of tongue and mind did not continue into Thursday as that was the day I had been asked to Chair a question and answer session with Victoria Hislop in the Il Piccollo restaurant in Corbridge. Her visit, hosted by the Forum Bookshop, was part of a tour to publicise her latest book 'The Thread' and tickets had sold out. Before I say 'hardly surprising' I should declare an interest... I had met Victoria already, a few years ago, when I attended the Costa Awards as part of my prize for winning the Woman & Home short story competition. She was immensely kind to me, interested in my writing and very, very modest when someone mentioned how long her book 'The Island' had been in the bestsellers' list. Add in the genuine love that people felt for that book and, as I say, it was not surprising that come Thursday evening we were looking out at a crowd of about seventy people.
Although I've interviewed two other writers - Salley Vickers and the playwright Alison Carr - in similar circumstances, I'll admit I was nervous. They were the kind of nerves I get before going on stage to act, only more so. This is because however well you've prepared for an interview, it's a performance where you only know your part of the script. What the other person is likely to say, how short or detailed their answers will be, is an unknown.
Within about five seconds I had lost my nerves -Victoria's warmth and her willingness to 'connect' with her readers is obvious. All I had to ensure was that my questions gave her every opportunity to do that.
Victoria told us that the inspiration behind 'The Thread' was discovering that Thessaloniki used to be a vibrant mix of Christians, Muslims and Jews, but that within thirty years, these last two groups had all but disappeared due to forced population exchanges and the German occupation. This had set her wondering what this meant for those caught up in these events, especially those who were displaced and had to start new lives. As a writer myself, I was interested to learn that once the historical research was over, Victoria cleared the books away and let her imagination take over, helped by studying photographs from the time. She believes that the look of a piece of clothing, or the type of shoe, even the expressions, can tell you so much about how life was lived day to day.
Victoria is a fascinating, informed and funny speaker and by the time questions were opened up to the audience, we had all effortlessly gained a better understanding of what has made modern Greece and how resilient its population has had to be. She was equally funny about her experiences with regard to her first book 'The Island' - from the publisher who liked it as a love story but thought the leprosy should be dropped; to the big shot American who wanted to make it into a film but wasn't interested in talking to her (she turned him down) and the German who wanted to miss out the wartime occupation of Crete.
Throughout the evening, Victoria's regard for Greece was obvious - she has a home there and has learned the language and it was a Greek company that she eventually agreed could make a 26 epidsode TV series of the book.
I could have sat and listened to her talk for another hour at least, but she was due back in London that night and then in Greece for the launch of 'The Thread' the following week. Before she went she still found time to sign books, talk to many audience members, give an interview to a local journalist, ask me about my own writing, thank Helen from the Forum and her publicist for giving her a lovely day and enthuse about Corbridge and its shops.
The whole evening was a master class in how you can be highly successful but still eminently human and, in being so, impart a great deal of enthusiasm for what you write and how you write it. I can only urge you, if you ever get the opportunity to see her at a literary festival or other event, to grab at it with both hands.
I wrote this piece for a guest spot on the blog belonging to historical romance writer, Elizabeth Hanbury ( http://www.elizabethhanbury.com ) and as it addresses a question that's been brewing away in my brain for a while, I thought I'd post it here too.
The question? Where does the writer get her voice?
This is something that intrigues me because, up until five years ago, I wasn’t listening to what now appears to be my writing voice, but trying to summon one up based on what I believed I should be writing. I put it down to ‘doing’ an English degree and to equating ‘being serious’ with ‘being taken seriously’.
It will not surprise you to learn that the pressure to write something weighty and profound resulted in a blank mind and a computer screen to match. Soon the only writing I was doing was advertising copywriting– nothing wrong with that and I will always be grateful that advertising taught me the importance of being entertaining, brief and direct… but where was that book I was going to write?
It took Richard Armitage, the actor, and the discovery of fanfiction to wake me up and show me that my voice was romantic and funny, and to convince me that making people laugh is not a barrier to making them cry, sulk or think, a few pages later.
If I hadn’t been wearing intellectual blinkers, I would have picked up on the clues earlier. I might have realised that there was a reason why I day-dreamed love stories from an early age and continue to do so even when, and I say this at the risk of the curse of smugness shrivelling my vitals, I have been happily settled with the same man for A. Long. Time.
And the humour thing? Well, did I go for The Famous Five when I was little? No, and sorry to those of you who love those stories, but I much preferred the Just William books …and later, when my sister let me read her copies of Monica Dickens’ One Pair of Hands and One Pair of Feet I remember feeling as if I’d stumbled on someone who was completely tuned into how I saw life. By the time I discovered Dorothy Parker you might have thought my reaction to her would have told me something.
For all my short-sightedness, I suppose that somewhere deep down I was learning an important message: Richmal Crompton and Monica Dickens and Dorothy Parker had an absolute right to be funny even if, between the three of them, they did not possess one willy.
Of course it wasn’t all about women… during my teens I also had the great good fortune to need a lot of dental work. This of itself may be a funny thing to say, but what did all those hours in the dentist's waiting room mean? Access to piles of Punch and writers as wonderful as Alan Coren.
So there we have it, my voice was in there all along but I wasn’t letting it out. I’m not saying it’s a better, more insightful voice than a serious one, but it’s true to my take on life – that humour, used properly, is a great leveller, comforter and humaniser. To write a book without it, or even a short story, just feels like I’m wearing someone else’s shoes. And boy, do they pinch.
I'm one of a number of writers who are this week taking part in this event. If you pop over to the website you'll find a list of prizes ... I'm giving away two signed copies of 'Who's Afraid of Mr Wolfe?'
Apologies to my regular readers for the long absence which was due to - a. horrible stomach bug b. visit of elderly relative c. deadline for edits on second book. But look, here I am back and delighted to introduce you to Hilary Ely who, as Bookfox Hilary, is a reviewer on Vulpes Libris. I first encountered Hilary on C19... yes, another Mr Armitage admirer, and was very interested to know her views on reviewing and book blogging ...
Many thanks, Hazel, for asking me to contribute to your blog. I’m delighted to be here with some thoughts about reviewing books online in general, and book blogging in particular.
I’m one of those book bloggers - a member of the Vulpes Libris collective. To our intense surprise (when we stop to think about it) Vulpes Libris appears in Wikio’s list of top UK literary blogs. That doesn’t mean we’re read by millions, though, just hundreds a day (but that’s a lot in my book - for the first time in my life my words are being read by hundreds of people and not just the odd one or two. Exhilarating and scary). Book blogs are now an accepted part of the online literary scene, with publishers and authors recognising how Word-of-blog has joined word-of-mouth as one of many routes through to readers. The essentials of book blogs come from these good relations with publishers and authors, as we get early notice of what’s coming out, so we can be early on the scene with reviewing new titles, and also we can set up author and publisher interviews to leaven the diet of solid reviews. But book bloggers can be controversial figures too - how dispassionate are they? How reliable? What’s in it for them? How dare they be unkind about that book? And so on.
So, book bloggers are either a wonderful crowd of helpful people, or the spawn of Satan, depending on who’s talking at the time. Book blogs and Amazon reviews are relatively new features in the landscape of making choices that writers, publishers and readers have had to come to terms with. Before they arrived in our lives, the only place where books were reviewed was the press. Newspapers and weekly magazines had a limited number of pages for reviews, so the very fact of getting a review at all was a material consideration. Now there is no such restriction, and writers can see their work reviewed on Amazon, on book blogs and on the social networking sites devoted to books such as GoodReads. So, opinions on far more books than ever before, positive and negative, are out there.
Hazel has asked me those killer questions ‘What made you start?’ and ‘Why do you do it?’ As for the rather flippant title of this piece, well, actually, it’s not quite true, though as I’m about to retire, I wish it were, the urban myth that book bloggers need a barrow to wheel away their ill-gotten gains. I blog for the sheer pleasure of talking about books and reading, of button-holing people to insist they will love the bonkers non-fiction titles I often place before them, and of sometimes managing to start a conversation.
I started expressing my thoughts on books I loved on an online forum (C19, as it happens - just to prove that not everybody on there writes novels - some review them) where I helped to run a couple of group reads of classic titles - ‘North and South’ and ‘Middlemarch’. That essentially meant (though I wouldn’t have used the term at the time) writing a blog post every other week analysing a couple of chapters of the book in hand, then joining in the ensuing conversation. So, when a friend from the forum approached me to ask if I’d like to be considered to fill a vacant spot in the Vulpes Libris den, I felt this was not only something that I’d love to do, but could walk straight in and do. Only then did I find out what the reality is - the pleasures and the pitfalls - and started to learn the craft.
There are polarised views on the ethics of book blogging - from the position that bloggers have power without responsibility, and therefore do not have the standing from which to write a negative review (I think that’s unfairly mistaking us for Amazon reviewers, personally). So, does that just make us cheerleaders? At the other end of the spectrum: it’s my/our blog, and the reason for blogging is to say what we think. Somewhere in the middle I think lies the right balance - we say what we think, as we are entitled to do, but giving our reasons. Always praise where it’s due, but be honest about what doesn’t work so well. My personal philosophy is this: I think I’m there to suggest to readers reasons why they might like to take a look at a particular book. They may not all be my reasons, but they will be ones that I believe are valid.
On VL there is one glorious exception to this even-handed approach - about once a year we stow the scales of justice and go in for the kill during our Hatchet Job Week. Even then, we tend to choose victims who will not be harmed by our savagery, having already cried all the way to the bank. Bookfox Moira’s demolition job on ‘The Shack’ will go down as a classic of its kind.
There is an influential essay in Fiction Writers Review on online reviewing by Charles Baxter, called ‘Owl Criticism’. I find a lot to take issue with in it: for instance I don’t think it is right to say that some works have put themselves beyond the need of online review partly because ‘the jury is no longer out’ (Anna Karenina, King Lear) - I think the blogging writer has the right to explore his or her personal response to works such as these, and a new reader might find the inspiration to pick them up from a thoughtful review online. Explore is the operative word, and he is right to say that an online review of Madame Bovary that consists of little more than ‘It’s just SO BORING‘ is pretty worthless. But, those strictures apart, I shall be forever grateful to Baxter for introducing me to the wonderful concept of ‘Owl Criticism’ to describe one besetting sin of online reviewing, which is summed up in this single wonderful quote:
“This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.”
So there you have it. That’s me - I’m an owl-hater (actually, I’m not, but for the purpose of the argument). But I’ve got this owl-ridden book to review. What about owl-loving (or owl-agnostic) readers? What will they find in it that is good and true? What is less than perfect? What, plain and simple, doesn’t come off? All in all, what might make a reader pick up this book, and what will s/he find in it to enjoy or learn? There’s an owl in it, and, as my constant readers know, I don’t like owls, but my owl-loving friends will love it.
One of the pleasures of hanging out on the periphery of online literary life is getting to know authors - often while they are still finding their way to that wonderful first publication. As a book blogger, as well as a friend of published and as yet not quite published authors, I’m delighted to be among the first to read and review their works. It was a great pleasure therefore to review on Vulpes Libris Hazel’s delicious first novel ‘Who’s Afraid of Mr Wolfe’. It was even more gratifying when the review was picked up by Quercus to quote on its website. I hope that I followed my own philosophy in my review. I wanted VL’s readers to know that it was both funny and moving, sparkling with wit and poignant in its more sombre moments. It had an owl in it (my personal problem with Heathcliffean heros other than Heathcliff), but I tried to say enough for the Heathcliff-immune to know that shouldn’t be a showstopper for them. So I hope I succeeded in telling readers what they might find to enjoy if they pick up this book. I understand it’s to be the first of several. I wish Hazel huge success - I can’t wait to read the rest.
Thanks Hilary... very interesting piece, particularly about being even-handed and I agree that rather than thinking of a reviewer as someone casting the deciding vote - which is suggested by Charles Baxter's "the jury is no longer out" - what the reviewer is doing is exploring their personal response... owls apart. I think this is a fascinating subject, especially with regard to how the internet is a 'good' or a 'bad' thing... I like how we've broken away from only having particular personalities reviewing books (often London based, part of the media/literary world) to a place where the reviewer probably has more in common with the average reader. On the other hand, there has been a growth in the dripping in saccharine/boiling with venom style of reviewer.
I'd be fascinated, and I'm sure Hilary would too, on any views you might have. Just click on the little envelope sign.
While it seems as if I've been living with Mr Wolfe for a couple of years now (it's OK, my husband is very understanding) he has in fact only been released into the wild for five months.
But in those five months I've learned a lot - especially about myself. In the spirit of passing things forward, I offer you a quick tour of the highlights (and some of the low spots).
1. You will become your own mad stalker. You start to watch the sales figures, hunt out review sites, google your book title, sift through feedback. You cannot enter a book shop without re-arranging your book so that it is somehow more prominent. This may involve shifting other writer's work a little to one side. If Sharon Osbourne ever finds out she will kill you.
2. You will discover that you have a thinner and a thicker skin than you thought. How can that be? Well, you may receive a whole wedge of marvellous reviews on Amazon but it is the negative ones that you'll remember... but within those negative ones, you will, after a little smarting, take the considered opinions on the chin. After all, it's part of the deal of being a writer and if you thought you were going to make everybody skippingly happy you are mad. So in that way, you are not as sensitive as you thought, you may even learn from criticism... until it comes to the nasty, throwaway, troll-like utterances. Then your skin appears to be airmail paper and your initial reaction is to hurtle foaming-mouthed to the wine bottle. Your second reaction is to write something scathing back. You fight that impulse. Your third reaction is the correct one... you turn your back on it and remember that people are entitled to their opinions, particularly if they've paid out money. This doesn't mean that three years down the line you won't be able to remember that person's name. Or which part of the country their cave is in.
3. The amount of support and encouragement you receive can at times make you weepy. And unfailingly, other writers will be generous with their help and advice. You will also find some people really surprise you... I have had bods who I previously thought did not care for me very much, bounce up and say, with genuine enthusiasm, that they loved the book and would I sign it for them please. The down side? People I know who have never, ever mentioned the book. Have they just decided it's so dreadful they can't bear to talk about it? In your sane moments you tell yourself the world does not revolve around you and just to carry on as normal. In your insane moments you determine never to show any interest in the things that are important to them either. You invariably forget and ask them how their kids are doing... but that elephant is still in the room.
4. You will discover that you have an ego the size of China which is kept in check by a voice in your head telling you not to show off. That voice may or may not belong to your mother. This means you will ring the local radio station so that they interview you, but lie awake the night before thinking 'that's a bit swanky isn't it?' You go nonetheless, and when you find yourself mentioning that you have another book out next year, and they ask you if you'll come back then you readily agree. Back home that night you lie awake again thinking, 'Are you mad, who's going to want to listen to your adenoidal witterings a second time.'
You will readily agree to give all kinds of talks, but ensure everything you say has that, 'Aw shucks, I don't know how all this has happened to me' undertone. Your greatest fear is that someone will stand up at the end and say that you getting a book published was a fluke. No, that's not true - your greatest fear is that you'll agree with them.
5. You shelve that part of you which says the first thing that comes into your mind, especially when you're anywhere as 'Hazel Osmond, writer.' So when someone collars you and says they could write a book and get it published too if they had the time, you nod and agree even though you are certain that there are many things other than time that are preventing them from getting that Pulitzer prize winner out there. Such as any talent whatsoever, any commitment or a willingness to learn. Conversely, you are happy to offer advice and help to anyone who genuinely wants to write. Whether they want your advice and help is a moot point, but you're going to offer it anyway.
6. Before you are published you say with much conviction that you are not going to be ashamed of the sex scenes in your book, and of course your children will understand. Once you are published, you are much less sure. Particularly when your children's friends buy the book. You refuse to even think about the Freudian overtones of your daughter's boyfriend reading it.
7. You will be tempted to buy some of your own books yourself to bump up the sales figures. You don't. But you're still tempted. Once you sat in Bristol Airport and read your own book, laughing out loud at frequent intervals and looking reflective as you closed it. This is a form of madness and it does not make it any better that you understand this.
8. You will have to put up with people taking pot shots at the genre in which you write. At first you will smile sweetly and not rise to the bait. You will even keep silent when someone who used to be on your university course says, 'Yeah, you can make a good living by trashing that kind of book out,' even though your brain is thinking, 'I do not trash anything out, I sit and work and work at it.' As time goes on, you find yourself more and more irritated that people look down their nose at what you write and at the vast swathes of the population who read and enoy romantic fiction. You know that it's only a matter of time before you scream at someone trying to play the intellectually superior card and shout, 'Who says you can't enjoy Hilary Mantel one week and some Harriet Evans the next? Who put you in charge of the nation's reading list?' This incident will possibly take place in a bookshop. Or at a literary festival. Or both.
9. You will get real and understand the amount of work that being a writer and publicising your work involves. This will be brought home to you somewhere in the first month when the memory of your well-attended book launch has faded; all the people who know you have already bought your little darling, and you are standing in a bookshop where they have kindly invited you to do a book signing and nobody knows you from Adam. You will watch 'One Day' flying off the shelves and it will dawn on you that while you have the great good fortune to have a brilliant agent and publisher and to be distributed in the shops, you are a new author and you might as well be wearing an invisibility cloak. You will spend a long time being politely rebuffed by people who you approach. You will make a tit of yourself by asking two men in the thriller section whether they like romances. You will listen to someone tell you about the book they have written or how they've only ventured into the shop because it's raining outside. And then, at some point, a person will take the book from your hand, listen to what you have to say about it and pull a face. But later, possibly much later, there will come a time where someone picks the book up, asks you to sign it and then goes to the counter and actually hands over cash. That sale will be one of the sweetest things that has ever happened to you and you will understand that all your ideas about being an author up to that point were insubstantial daydreams and this is better.
10. Some people will care enough about your book to write to you and you will realise that whatever else happens in your writing career, that moment of connection is what you've been looking for. It is what makes writing the best job ever in the entire world.
I'm really pleased to welcome Georgia Hill to my blog this week - another graduate of the C19 website.
Georgia Hill’s first novel, Pursued by Love, was nominated for the RNA New Writers’ Award. Her latest book, In a Class of His Own, will be out soon with E-Scape Press.
Thank you to Hazel for inviting me to guest blog on her lovely site.
I love to look round an old house or beautiful garden, especially if the property has a literary connection. On a visit to Sissinghurst, I envied Vita Sackville-West her stunning tower room and loved equally Rudyard Kipling’s study at his home in Sussex. It was thrilling to see Jane Austen’s tiny desk at Chawton and I was incredibly moved when peering into the Bronte’s parlour at Haworth - definitely a sense of their presence in the air.
Has anyone come across this website?It features pictures of where writers write. It fascinates me to see the different environments that people create in which to write. Or perhaps I’m just plain nosy!
The magazine Writers’ Forum has a regular feature about where writers write. I’m very envious of the September issue’s writer – Leila Rasheed. She’s pictured writing at a table in her Italian flat. Think I’d spend less time writing and more time eating ice-cream though, if I had a writer’s hide-away in that gorgeous country!
At the moment, I balance the laptop on my knee and write in bed. In winter, it’s the warmest place in this draughty old house and saves on heating fuel! Apparently I’m in good company; Marian Keyes is also a duvet devotee. Bet she doesn’t have to put up with two smelly spaniels hogging the bed though!
I also like a good long train journey where I can scribble in a notebook. I love people watching and spotted someone recently who could be the foundation of a new character.
If I’m at the first draft stage, I can write anywhere and with anything but when I get to the serious stuff of second drafting or editing, I have to steel myself to sit at a desk and adopt a workmanlike approach. The trouble being, like many others, writing is only a part of my life. My desk also has connotations with my ‘proper job’ and, when I sit at it, my mind goes into a less creative mode. My study also needs a good sort out and clean – but is that just an excuse to avoid writing? I’m an expert at that! Streetview being my current favourite avoidance tactic. Perhaps I should take heed of the advice offered by the lovely Bill Bryson (also in the current issue of Writers’ Forum). He says successful writers aren’t sprinkled with fairy dust; they just keep plugging away at it.
The moral being, worry less about where you write – and simply get on with it!
Thanks for that Georgia, thought it was particularly interesting about your mind going into less creative mode when you sit at your desk becasue of its links with your 'proper' job. I have to agree with you about just getting on with it... but oh I do dream of a writing room that doesn't also double as a guest bedroom, repository for the ironing, place where the post tray goes to die....
For the latest information on Georgia, check out www.georgiahill.co.uk
I have been fortunate enough (or insane enough), to be a performer at the Edinburgh Fringe twice as part of a group drawn from my trusty Amateur Dramatics Club.
It was a mad, nerve-shredding, liberating, fantastic experience and both times we had the satisfaction of getting good houses and not bad reviews. But even though we were only performing there for one week, (out of the possible three), it was wildly exhausting – a state where you are both elated and knackered.
It’s not just the actual getting up on a stage and acting that wears you out at the Fringe, but the socialising, the drinking and (scary drum roll) the dreaded leafleting. For those of you who have been blessed this far in life not to know what that means in an Edinburgh Fringe context, it’s basically that the majority of productions are not the big star vehicles or well-known comedians, but entertainment put together with string and sealing wax and love and therefore audiences have to be enticed to come and see it…literally approached in the street and engaged in conversation - asked to take a leaflet and have a think, really, really could they fit this play in between the Serbo-Croation monologue on kelp farming and a burlesque show involving genetically modified sperm? What do they think? Fancy giving it a go?
I have always been part of a large group, which makes it easier… less embarrassing, but it is still a very un-British thing: approach a stranger in the street. Although Edinburgh Fringe goers expect it, I defy anyone to do it for more that two straight hours without ending up chewing the pavement. Remember too that you are competing with all those other groups, some of whom are singing and dancing to attract attention, dressing as goats or dead people, or just removing most of their clothes and wearing Ann Summers’ underwear. Grrr.. special lemon drop looks for those young ladies and the hope that somewhere in a kitchen in the Midlands in twenty years time a woman will shake her head and say, ‘Jeez, I really believed that guy when he said taking my kit off was artistic expression.’
So… going to the Fringe now as a visitor is one of those sweet and sour experiences for me. I greatly enjoy being the person who now holds out her hand to take a leaflet rather than the one pressing it into someone else’s. But goodness, the feeling of ‘it should have been me’ when I go to see shows is a strong one! Hopefully the group will gear itself up to going back with a play and yes, I will be leafleting again. With big knickers.
This trip up we managed to fit six productions into our two days. The brilliant thing for me about the Fringe is that it relieves the worry of ‘Making a Mistake.’ This is something that shapes many cultural lives. There is no shelling out a lot of money to go and see something that turns out to be turkey. Even the worst, worst load of crap is going to be relatively cheap, last just over an hour and then you are released to expunge the memory with something better. All of which leaves you in a frame of mind to take a chance… over the years I have gone to see plays about narrowboats, something in Bulgarian that was heart-pullingly sad and sweet and magical but about what I'm not certain; a poetry reading done on a bed; reviews where the only people laughing are the performers; kitchen sink and behind the shed dramas. The bread and butter of performing… performances that people just had to do because they were burning away inside of them. Sure the big comedians and the starry productions have mainly been wonderful too, but they are not all of what the Fringe is ‘about’ nor, I’d say, necessarily the most interesting part. Going to see someone you can see on the telly is good, obviously, but shouldn’t you be going to see that play about a woman who falls in love with a bicycle?
Highlights on this visit were – a funny, kind of old-fashioned play about Alcock and Brown where the two actors more or less built the plane on the stage; Simon Callow as a trans-sexual in ‘Tuesdays at Tesco’; ‘Beta Males’ which was a review on the theme of railways but was so surreal and mad and funny, it was railways on another planet and Liberace Live in Heaven. This was camp beyond camp… all glitz and glitter and Bobby Crush playing a storm on the piano. Victoria Wood and Stephen Fry both supplied voices as God and St Peter respectively, and Mr Crush gave us a Liberace that you wanted to smack to start with and hug at the end. It was great entertainment in its rollicking, funny, putting yourself out there and working the audience into a standing ovation kind of way.
If you’ve never been to the Fringe can I urge you to give it a go… you will hit gold somewhere along the line if you just keep an open mind and tread a little off your usual path. And then there are the sights you will see. One of my favourite memories is of sitting in a bar when a man dressed as a slice of toast walked in and just stood, looking depresed and had a drink. (Must be a joke there … prize for the person who comes up with the best one).
This visit I saw someone dressed as a prawn.
Ah, the Fringe… life, but not as we know it.
I have been lucky enough to snaffle an interview with Elizabeth Ashworth author of 'The de Lacy Inheritance' and so will hold over my blog on the Edinburgh Fringe until next week.
Elizabeth has many non-fiction and fiction works to her credit and her short stories and articles have appeared in publications as diverse as The Times, Top Gear, The Lady and My Weekly.
She is also a fellow graduate of the school of C19...
Many years ago I miserably failed my history O-level. History lessons were the most boring hours of the week I had to endure. Our teacher was a batty old dear who wore bloomers that reached down to her knees and whose idea of teaching was to dictate an example essay one week and then have us learn it by heart and reproduce it the next. How I hated the Tudors and Henry VIII.
I still hate Henry now, but for very different reasons – not because he is boring but because he destroyed so many fine monastery buildings and churches. And what he didn’t destroy Oliver Cromwell did. The fact that I can feel so angry with these two men proves that I have moved on from the mind numbing tedium of school history and discovered that history is about real people who did things that have an impact on our lives today.. So perhaps it wasn’t that surprising that after years of writing short stories I became a historical novelist.
It was when I was researching for Tales of Lancashire, that I’d been commissioned to write by Countryside Books, that I became fascinated with the story of a hermit who had lived in a cave below the castle at Clitheroe. A bit of research revealed that the legend might contain an element of truth and that the hermit could have been a member of the ruling de Lacy family who had been disinherited because he had contracted leprosy whilst on crusade.
Then I discovered that his name had been Richard. I read that he had been buried at Norton Priory so I went on a visit and found that his bones had been discovered and photographed during an excavation of the site. Suddenly I was dealing with a real person and I felt compelled to tell his story.
Eventually the result was The de Lacy Inheritance. But writing Richard's story was not the end. In a moment of revelation I saw that there were so many other stories that were lost in history and waiting to be told. Not necessarily the stories of well known kings and queens, but of other historical characters, who lived through changing and often violent times and who, but for chance, might have been better known.
One such person is Alicia de Lacy. She is a descendant of Richard and came within a breath of being a queen. Yet no-one has ever heard of her and with her death, during the years of the plague, her branch of the de Lacy family came to an end.
Alicia was the wife of Thomas earl of Lancaster. Thomas was the cousin of Edward II. Edward was unpopular and was eventualy deposed. If Thomas had made beter plans and not ended up with his head on the block outside his own castle at Pontefract he might have taken the throne. But basically he was an idiot and Alicia hated him and ran away with a squire she was passionately in love with. I like Alicia and I'm in the process of telling her story as well.
My hope is that my story telling will reveal history in a way that those school essays could never have done. I want to portray the characters as the living, breathing people they once were. I want to share their hopes and fears and loves and hates with my readers in stories that are anything but tedious. And I promise that I will never, ever force you to learn the books off by heart and reproduce them for homework. You can discover more history at my blogspot:
Thanks Elizabeth, I am intrigued by the idea of all these lost stories and Alicia sounds an extremely interesting character. Lovely to know too that you managed to triumph despite a bad history teacher!
As those of you who call in regularly know, I'm not just enthusiastic about writing, but also about what has somehow acquired the terrible catch-all name of 'the performing arts' - a phrase that always makes me think of a dog on its hind legs balancing a ball on its nose while barking its way through show tunes. Dhuh.
I suppose, basically, I'm talking about live entertainment and in this particular blog entry, stuff that falls broadly under the heading of theatre. I am very lucky that this enthusiasm is shared by my husband and, to some extent by my daughters, and so while some of you may have been baking on a beach or dissolving in the UK rain, we have had short trips to London and the Edinburgh Fringe and gobbled up eight different shows. Plus a backstage tour of the National Theatre (which made my husband all misty eyed at two points - the first when he looked at the number of lights they had - he's a backstage boy at heart, and the second when our tour guide accidentally led us on to the stage where the cast of 'One Man, Two Guvnors' was warming up and Jemima Rooper was touching her toes. If we had not been rushed off the stage pretty quickly he may have joined in... but on to higher matters...
The first play we saw in London was 'All's Well That Ends Well,' not one of Shakespeare's best I don't think, but ... It. Was. In. The. Globe. I'm sorry, I may have hyperventilated while writing that. There is something about the place that just gets to me and although I've been round it on a tour (I think I hyperventilated then too), I have never managed to see a play there - we just never seemed to be in London long enough during the play season.
Putting this right, we went as groundlings at £5 a ticket, and the whole experience was magical. Yes, I'm aware that's a severely overused word, but walking into the intimacy of that theatre on a warm London evening; being close enough to reach out and touch the actors should I have wanted to; hearing blackbirds singing up on the thatched roof and watching the blue of the sky darken to indigo, well sorry, I'm sticking with 'magical'.
What did I like best? The way there was no fourth wall - we were almost part of the play. The way it felt very much like a shared experience because of the design of that theatre. The beauty of the verse-speaking. The simple, clean staging. The way that during the interval you only had to walk out onto the patio, turn your head and see St Paul's huge and beautiful over the other side of The Thames. Did I like the play? I like what they did with it even though you could shoot a cannon through the holes in the plot and I loved the characterisations - hundreds of years later, there were the people, alive and a bit naughty.
And yes, as someone who acts I could not help being envious of the actors. Just imagine being able to perform in that space? Gnash, gnash and cries of 'in another life, mayhap.'
OK, on a cold, damp day the Globe might not be such an incredible experience, for actor or audience, but I'd be willing to chance it.
The next night, we fast forwarded a few hundred years to the National Theatre. If you ever get the opportunity to take a backstage tour, even if you're not really into acting or backstage stuff, do go. I'd always been fairly ambivalent about the National, especially its appearance, but following the tour I can see how well designed it was for its purpose; how much thought went into getting it right for the audience, the actors and the technical crews.
But we weren't just there to do the tour: we'd been lucky enough to get tickets for 'One Man, Two Guvnors'. Using Carlo Goldoni's 18th century 'The Servant of Two Masters' as his starting point, the dramatist Richard Bean has created what Michael Billington in The Guardian described as: 'a riotous farce...with particularly Anglo-Saxon verbal and physical humour.' Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4 said it was: 'The single funniest production I've seen.'
If I tried to explain the plot thoroughly to you, my head might explode, but the gist of it is that one man ends up working for two bosses. They don't know about eachother, and in his efforts to keep things that way, mayhem ensues. Did I mention the action takes place in Brighton in the 1960s and there's skiffle music too?
James Corden, as the main character is brilliant, but really it's an ensemble piece - the timing is fantastic, there's a real connection with the audience and Oliver Chris' laconic and arrogant upper class toff and Daniel Rigby's vain, posturing actor, are worthy of extra special mention.
At times the action and the words were coming so fast, you could barely take everything in, and I am very tempted to go and see it again when it goes to the West End. It is also being filmed for transmission in a number of cinemas around the UK on the 15th September.
Later in the week I'll move on to the plays we saw at the Fringe, but I'd like to leave you with a touching sentiment from 'Two Guvnors', spoken by a man whose heart had been broken. 'Love,' he said glumly, 'passes through a marriage faster than shit through a small dog.'
It's the kind of thing Shakespeare in his more bawdy moments might have written and oh, how we groundlings would have cheered.
If you look at the friends you have, why you 'get on' with all of them may not actually be something you understand - they might not seem to have many characteristics or beliefs in common.
In fact, up until four years ago I would have said that the only thing all of my friends could be absolutely sure of sharing was the fact that somewhere along the line, they'd met me - whether at school or university, at work, through hobbies and clubs, or perhaps by living in the same village.
Why 'up until four years ago'? Because that was when I discovered that far from being an anorak-laden swamp with mad stalkers lurking everywhere, the internet could actually be a liberating place in which to make friendships.
Back in 2007 when I stumbled on a website called C19, I was looking for information about Richard Armitage. And perhaps photos. Ahem.
What I found was an encouraging, supportive place that I would liken to a kind of cyber commune if that word didn't always seem to conjure up images of bad plumbing, communal lentil cooking and free-love.
I suppose a better description would be a series of rooms in a large house. People, mainly women, had come in through the front door for the same reason, but wandered off to different rooms for different things. In some rooms people were discussing books, films, the theatre. In others, there was a debating society, or a video club. A whole floor was taken up with writing and the pitfalls and rewards thereof.
Up in the attic, or more probably down in the cellars, there was the kind of behaviour and humour that most people hadn't indulged in since they'd 'grown up' and left the back seat of the school bus behind.
During those early months I found myself talking to women from all over the world and gravitating, I suppose, most regularly to those who shared my sense of humour - again they came not only from the UK, but from Canada, New York and Alabama, Texas, the Phillipines, Budapest, Ireland, Wisconsin and Rhode Island too. Some helped me with my writing; I returned the favour for others. As the months have clicked over into years, chats have spread out from the site to personal emails and now Facebook, Twitter and Skype... (yup, I can sit in my room in Northumberland and talk to Lou in New York... sorry, I'm deeply impressed by this, being of that age where I think technology is 99% magic.)
Some of these people I will, sadly, probably never get to see. That doesn't make me view them as any less substantial than friends made in other ways. But some I have actually gone on to meet. This is a fascinating process because it's a direct reversal of what normally happens when friendships are formed: you meet someone, get to know them, decide if you want to be friends - in this instance, you've decided quite a way back down the line if you want to be friends by picking up on all those little signs that people give out that tell you you're on the same wavelength... meeting is just the icing on the cake.
There is always a moment when you're waiting to meet someone for the first time when you think that it's precisely what you warn your teenage daughters not to do, and there is a nervous second or two at the start when you cast a look at their handbag or the boot of their car in a worried way, just to check it doesn't contain dismembering tools. Once these hurdles are out of the way though, I can report that those who I have met have been without exception funny, lovely and life-enhancing. And, because all the initial spadework of friendship has been done, you find yourself talking quite quickly about things it would take months to get round to with someone else you'd just met.
I count myself lucky that I live at a time when technology has made all this possible - while I might by sheer good luck have met Sara and Wendy (from London and Edinburgh) in my everyday life, there is no way that without the internet I would even have known about Leah from Texas or Shanna from Rhode Island, both of whom I have now met on their travels in the UK.
Last week, after showing Leah and her family some of Northumberland, we went for a meal in Newcastle with my husband and as we sat and chatted I thought how weird but wonderful it was that Richard Armitage had kind of introduced us all. And as I stumble back from regular get-togethers with Wendy and Sara, I can only conclude that if you poddle through life with a slightly open mind it can bring all kinds of rewards. Actually that last bit's a lie: I am normally too hung over to think anything after these weekends.
My experiences so far have made me hope that there will be others from the site who I will get to meet in the future. I think my experience is not unusual on this website or on many others out there, dedicated to all manner of people and things, but it's something of which the mainstream media doesn't take a lot of notice. They seem to focus on the horror stories of meeting via the internet that go wrong; or cyber bullying or what they see as the shallowness of social networking interactions.
I think a truer picture of what is happening is that, used carefully and creatively, the internet has freed a lot of people, particularly women from the constraints that economics, geography and family commitments put on their ability to meet and make friends. To share lives that they could never have hoped to share before, if you like.
This is liberating and mind-expanding (back to the commune analogy again!) and maybe, just maybe it makes us more tuned into what is happening in other parts of the world.
I'm all for that... and if it comes with photos of Richard Armitage thrown in, what's not to love?
I'm really pleased, therefore, that Rosy Thornton has agreed to do my first ever Friday spot.
Like me, Rosy started writing fan fiction on the C19 website and then went on to write novels - in Rosy's case she's had four published. So... seeing as she is a Law lecturer, I was interested to know if there were any similarities between writing fiction and the kind of writing she does in her day job...
Hello there... I think I may have the strangest backlist on Amazon of any author I know. On the one hand, I write contemporary women’s fiction, with titles such as ‘The Tapestry of Love’ and ‘More than Love Letters’, with pastel covers decked in hearts and flowers. On the other hand, in my day job as a lecturer in Law at the University of Cambridge, I have published more serious academic works, including the sexily-titled ‘Property Disrepair and Dilapidations: A Guide to the Law’. Not so much with the pink hearts, that one.
But there’s nothing in common between the two, right? Nothing you could learn from writing academic legal commentary and apply to light, commercial fiction – or vice versa? Actually, wrong. Because I think what is central to both endeavours – central, indeed, to any kind of writing – is ‘voice’.
When I was a (very young and naïve) PhD student, just embarking on my first sustained legal writing project, if anyone had asked me about something as airy-fairy as my writing ‘voice’, I would have been completely baffled. As far as I was concerned, back then, it was all about the ideas, and the argument. The writing was just a neutral mechanism, the nuts and bolts of nouns and verbs – and sentences and paragraphs – which enabled me to say the things I wanted to say. The content was all, the vehicle an irrelevance.
I never focused, either, on the writing style or ‘voice’ of the legal documents that I spent all day reading: the judgments, the academic texts. As I’d been taught to do, I sliced and gutted them for their content, for their ideas, and never gave a moment’s thought to how they were written. We were lawyers; we were all about the rules. Why would it matter how we wrote?
But of course, lawyers all do have a ‘voice’ when they write. Everybody does. Many legal judgments (which we legal academic spend our lives analysing) are written in a dry, very formal register. But just listen to the opening of this judgment of the late, great Lord Denning.
In 1966 there was a scripture rally in Trafalgar Square. A widower, Mr. Honick, went to it. He was about 63. A widow, Mrs. Rawnsley, the defendant, also went. She was about 60. He went up to her and introduced himself. He was not much to look at. “He looked like a tramp,” she said. “He had been picking up fag-ends.” They got on well enough, however, to exchange addresses. Next day he went to her house with a gift for her. It was a rose wrapped in a newspaper.
What Lord Denning knew and understood was the importance of storytelling. Human beings love stories. From earliest times, stories have been a way that important ideas have been imparted: through myth and legend, through morality plays and parables. And Denning here illustrates brilliantly how formal, academic writing can also amount to the telling of a story. He takes you by the hand and pulls you into his narrative just as a novelist does. The books on creative writing advise us, when we are writing fiction, that we need a ‘hook’ – we need to engage the reader, to snag her attention – and that is what Denning undoubtedly does. If as academic writers we want to interest people, to communicate with them, draw them into our argument and the internal world of our ideas, I think we should not be afraid of using some of the same techniques for engaging the reader.
And what about the other way round? Is there anything my legal writing experience has taught me about fiction? The answer, I think, is precision. As a lawyer, I have had to learn to be absolutely accurate in the way I employ words. A slight change of wording, even a misplaced semi-colon, and the meaning can alter completely. I’ve learned to think exactly what I mean and to say exactly that. And precision of language is, I think, of equal importance in fiction.
Just like academics, novelists may fall into the trap of hiding behind elaborate prose, allowing it mask a lack of clarity in what we are trying to say. An academic writer may dress things up in fancy, long words which appear very learned but are actually completely opaque, and fail to convey a clear idea or argument to the reader. Similarly, when I’m writing a novel, I sometimes come up with a phrase – an image, say – which I think sounds really good. But when I think about it some more I realise it’s just pretty puff with a nice sound to it, and that actually, it conjures nothing in the reader’s mind, and so adds nothing to the imaginative process and communicates nothing of substance.
So, whether we are writing fiction or non-fiction – to inform and persuade or to entertain – there is much we have in common. We all have a distinctive voice, and have to use it to engage the reader. We all need to communicate as clearly as we can. And we are, in the end, all storytellers.
Thanks Rosy, I found it particularly interesting to see that it is possible to have a 'voice' in legal writing - that excerpt from Lord Denning really did drag me in.
Anyone interested in finding out more about Rosy's writing and her four books should go to http://rosythornton.com/
I'm sure you're not all sitting there with bated whatevers waiting for my pearls of wisdom, but it has been a while since I blogged. It's ok, I have my excuses ready and not one of them involves the dog eating my work.
The main reason was that the revisions for my second book took longer than I thought. There we go, I've said it. Once I'd started tweaking and unknitting and then knitting back together, I found that I was hurtling towards the end of June and the thought of working on anything else that involved writing made me throw myself on the carpet and hammer it with my fists. Even doing a shopping list was pretty traumatic.
Now 'The Genuine Article' is back with Quercus, a sleeker, better thing. And in the light of the recent 'News of the World' allegations, the subject matter seems spookily 'of the moment'.
But ... in the interests of being honest about the writing life, as I said I would be, it has meant that the grand, airy plans I paraded in front of you about entering all those writing competitions... well, they came to nothing. A whole raft went by without my entry making it off the printer. I feel bad about this as my short stories have taken a back seat for a long time now, but am going to try to redress that situation over the next month.
Other reasons for non-appearance of blog include: a week long visit of our Spanish exchange girl Rosa who was lovely, spoke better English than any of us and put up with some quite extraordinarily bad weather (left here in 15oC 'heat', arrived back in Madrid to 42oC). She was a treat to have stay, and did not even mind that I managed to pick a vomit-inducing film to take her and her friends to (The Bad Teacher, as you asked). I think this film must have been written by a priapic 15 year old boy with one hand on a wax crayon and the other on his groin. And it's my fault, I should have realised the '15' classification meant that. I should have read a proper review as well, not believed the hyped up one on the cinema website.
Unfortunately I cannot comfort myself with the thought that Rosa's English would not have been up to understanding the full awfulness of the script (I use the word in an ironic sense... see that is my ironic face I have on as I type). By just over midway I was slumped down in my seat thinking about how I would face an irate Spanish mother on the phone asking me what the hell I was thinking. After a short conflab with the other English mothers we, in an ironic way of course, all walked out. It was at the point in the film where... no, why should you suffer too?
Let's just say the whole thing had the sense of humour of a dead stoat, was as unsuble as being hit round the head with a concrete pillow and treated sex as though it was some nasty weapon women use to filch men from each other. The one laugh I had was seeing Cameron Diaz do the very thing the singer Pink poked fun at in her video for 'Stupid Girls'... yup, lathering up and rolling around on the bonnet of a car at a car wash. Nice one Emily Pankhurst.
Enough, time to move on from something crass and demeaning to something sublime - War Horse.
The play has been going for four years now and I've seen a documentary on it and a variety of articles and reviews, and we finally got to see it on Saturday. It was just one of the best pieces of theatre I've ever watched.
The story in itself is an affecting one: boy develops strong bond with a horse only to have it sold to the army at the beginning of World War I... horse undergoes all kinds of terrible trials that mirror the fate of the soldiers who fight alongside it. Meantime the boy joins up and sets out to try and find the horse and... well... if you're not swallowing hard to stay in control of your emotions at various points throughout the story, I'd be surprised.
Of course the main thing about the play is that the horses (and other animals) are not real, but puppets - although 'puppet' does not seem a large enough, weighty enough word for what is brought to life from wood, canvas and wire. The skill of the pupeteers, (three per full size horse) was unlike anything I'd experienced before - a horse bends and plucks grass into its mouth and lifts its head and you could almost swear you can see it swallow; it hears a bee and you can chart its thought processes as it skitters away. At one point something happened, and I won't ruin it for those who haven't seen it before, but it was so unexpected and so perfectly imaginative that the audience started to clap but not just clap, you could hear a noise that was a kind of collective gasp of admiration.
Throughout it is the nobility of Joey, the main horse, that comes across most clearly and in the middle of all that death and mud it seems an intensely touching thing. Touching, not sentimental.
I can see why War Horse has remained so popular - it's not simply the spectacle of these horses being brought to life, but the play as a whole... characters are portrayed in all their grey shades, from the boy's father who is much too fond of a drink, to the German cavalry officer. The end result is that there is only one villain in the piece and that is the war itself and that to me was what I took away from the play - that violence and cruelty come and roll over people and crush them, but despite that, love and compassion can make their mark and grab back little victories.
The First World War probably seems as distant an event to my children as the Boer War did to me, but something like War Horse helps us look at it with fresh, involved eyes and makes us remember the real story behind the figures and the facts - 20,000 British troops killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone; from a total of one million horses sent to France at the start of the War, only 62,000 horses made it back.
It feels crass to say it was great entertainment too, but it was - my daughters were fizzing with it afterwards, would have happily gone back in and watched it all again.
There's a film being made of it now, using a real horse but I'm not sure how that will work. Best to keep an open mind, I guess. Not something I'll be doing from now on with any films written by that 15 year old with the wax crayon.
On Monday went to see The Pitman Painters at The People's Theatre in Jesmond, Newcastle. Written by Lee Hall, it tells the story of a group of Ashington miners in the mid 1930's who turn up for an art appreciation evening class to be taught by a professor from Newcastle University. The gulf between what the professor plans to teach them and what they think art is, appears to be fairly large, but it's bridged by his suggestion that they paint their own pictures. What happens next is the flourishing of the first collective of working class artists the UK has ever seen - yet over all the years the men paint, and however much their work is revered by collectors and other artists, they still spend their days down the mine.
It's a funny (at times hilarious) and moving play and its concerns - the important role art can play in any life, the effects class and politics have on aspirations, will always be relevant.
The play was first performed at the Live Theatre in Newcastle, then went to the National Theatre in London; toured the UK and had a highly successful run in New York. This was its first amateur production and Lee Hall gave permission for the People's Theatre to perform it as part of its centenary celebrations... I expect the fact that Chris Heckels who directed it is Hall's old drama teacher probably swayed him a bit too.
Well, they did him proud... and I'm not just saying that because one of the actors from the drama club I belong to had a part in the play, another was the Assistant Director and a third 'did' the sound or because Chris Heckels directed our last but one play - it was just one of those very special evenings. The critic from the Newcastle Journal newspaper said he'd seen all the professional productions of the play, and this one could stand shoulder to shoulder with them. I would agree and add that there was a quite remarkable atmosphere in the theatre, an almost palpable sense that this play was coming home. In my previous blog I talked about the Geordie sense of humour and 'The Pitman Painters' has it in all its glory - underlining the camaraderie of the miners; puncturing any sentimentality about the 'dignity of the working man', poking fun at pomposity. The language is rich and at times possibly labyrinthine to those whose ears are not used to the speech patterns up here.
Just as I sat in the audience at 'Billy Elliott' in London and wondered what the hell the Japanese tourists behind me were making of the accent, so I wondered about those New Yorkers trying to decipher, 'Yea dea dea art though?'
The play manages to ask a lot of important questions about creativity and how it enriches lives and why it's often seen as belonging exclusively to a particular 'educated' sector of society, who are seen as the only ones who have the language to appreciate it or execute it. All of this is done with a light touch, but the last scene where the miners are optimistic about the future now the mines have been nationalised and talk about there one day being a university of Ashington, with pitmen poets as well as painters, is, with hindsight, a particularly sad one. That and the miner's hymn played by the Ashington Colliery Band at the end, had me reaching for a tissue.
It was fitting that a story about men who were given the encouragement to express themselves and experience art should be put on at 'The People's Theatre' which itself was set up by a group of socialists so that those normally unable to go to plays, finally could.
My friend Angela bought me a voucher for my birthday to have my feet nibbled by fish - Gara Ruffa fish no less. So on Tuesday we went off to the spa place in Newcastle where there were about 8 tanks of these fish and after steeling myself, I rolled up my trouser legs and got stuck in.
My natural instinct when anything from the natural world starts to home in on me is to run away. I persuaded myself not to and it was a strange experience to watch all these fish latch on to your feet and ankles and start, well, sucking. Yup that's the only word for it. It tickled to start with and there was a fair amount of sensory overload, but once you got used to it, the feeling was one of mild and not unpleasant pins and needles. We had half an hour and after the first ten minutes you kind of forget that you have your trouser legs rolled up and your feet are covered in fish so that they look like little fishy socks.
The whole experience was enlivened by the arrival of two other women, one of whom was terrified of putting her feet in the water. Now, Geordies get a lot of bad press... and if you've seen 'Geordie Shore' you'll know what I'm talking about. And I hesitate to give my view on Geordies as like all views it may teeter over into generalisations and, perish the thought, patronising. But my view is this - there is a deep vein of warmth and robust humour here, and a real 'let's go for it' attitude. All those TV reports of drunken nights in Newcastle kind of miss the point - it's not just about getting drunk and getting off with people, it's a bit of a celebration of the sheer exuberance of being alive. Well, that's my take on it. Add in trebles for a pound and you're laughing. Plus, this is a part of the UK where things have often been dire economically - whole industries culled - and so 'let's grab life with both hands while we can' is in there somewhere too. And not just on a Friday night.
If you're the kind of person who likes to travel through life with no one talking to you, then Newcastle is probably not the place for you. If you pale at ribald humour, then maybe you should bring some cotton wool for your ears.
I think it's an uplifting, life-affirming place and do find myself missing that dry, self deprecating humour when I'm away.
Anyway, back to these women... well, they were brilliant. After much trepidation the scared one did put her feet in the water, we all discussed that it could be a way of losing weight, getting all that old skin off and she says, 'Hey, I could put my bum in it, that might make it smaller.' Then we talked about colonic irrigation which one of them had been for and coffee enemas and how yes, you probably did feel better after them and glowing, but she didn't know because she went straight to the pub afterwards. The conversation continued on similar themes so that by the time the end of our session came my stomach muscles were hurting from laughing.
Were my feet smoother? Yes, I think they were, although in reality it would take a shark to nibble off the hard skin on my heels (sorry, little bit too much information there). Did I feel I'd had a bit of a tonic? Certainly... so thank you ladies, whoever you were.
On to Political plays. Yup, two words perhaps guaranteed to put you right off, but we went to one on Friday that really if you ever get the chance to see, you should. Called 'A Walk on Part', it is based on the political diaries of Chris Mulllin, adapted by Michael Chaplin, and covers the period from just before the start of the Iraq war, when Labour and Tony Blair are starting to slide. It has five actors (one of whom plays Mullin) and the other four play a range of about 56 characters ranging from Clare Short to a woman in the local newsagent to John Prescott to an asylum seeker. The actors were superb, all of them... you could have closed your eyes and thought Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were on the stage. What made it so fantastic, apart from the acting and the striking staging was the humour and the humanity. Chris Mullin was MP for Sunderland South and his diaries are a wry, self deprecating look at being on the edges of power and how little or how much effect you can have. There were moments of great hilarity and sadness and in an age when we are cynical about politicians and indeed the political process, it was a real tonic. It made you understand that not everyone is treading on others to get to the top of the pile and that sometimes good things get achieved alongside the empty promises.
What I also liked was that it did not take the easy route and demonise people like Blair or Brown - here were rounded pictures of them, not always flattering, but not the flat cartoons we've got used to from the media.
The play was presented by Live Theatre on the Quayside in Newcastle (in association with New Writing North). Live Theatre is a vibrant creative hub for new writing... and it's the place where playwrights who have gone on to conquer the world have started, such as Lee Hall. I'm hoping that this play will also reach a wider audience. It certainly deserves to.
One of the books that helped me with my writing didn't really deal with 'how to', more 'what's stopping you?'
It was Julia Cameron's 'The Artist's Way', and it made it possible for me to identify a few things holding me back. Those of you who write will probably recognise some of these - they included still carrying round the shame of having some writing criticised in a really humiliating way by someone I trusted; always doing things at the last minute because then I could tell myself it didn't matter if I failed because I hadn't really had enough time to do a proper job, and filling up my time with too many things I had said 'yes' to.
Being helped to identify these things was half the battle. I'm not saying I've addressed them all fully, still having a tendency to need the adrenaline of a tight deadline to really move up a gear, but things have definitely improved.
As with most of these books, you won't find all the advice works for you. Cameron feels Morning Pages - three pages of longhand writing done as soon as you wake up and completely off the top of your head - are hugely beneficial to the creative process. I've never been very good at doing them consistently, but one thing I have embraced enthusiastically is the Artist Date. This is basically putting aside time once a week to kick free from your normal routine and explore something that interests you - whether that's looking at art, playing an instrument, going to a film or running barefoot through a sand dune. I think if I remember rightly, she calls it 'filling the well'.
Before I read Cameron's book I thought that was just called 'bunking off'. Now I feel much better knowing it's aiding the artistic process!
Joking aside though, it's easy when you have other claims on your time (and who doesn't) to realise you've gone for weeks without doing anything that particularly rewards you, or perhaps equally important, anything different. Stress isn't the only thing that leaves you running on empty: routine can do that too. If you're not careful, gravitating towards the same genre of film or TV programme; only visiting places you're familiar with; buying what you always buy at the supermarket; never meeting anyone new - they all act as little shots of anaesthetic, dulling your responses to life.
Even worse, when you get to a certain age, you may find yourself positively avoiding anything new or different. I think five of the most deadly words in the English language, apart from 'I'm removing the safety catch' are 'I know what I like.'
I'm not saying that there isn't comfort in the familiar and the routine, but sometimes it can end up smothering your creative impetus.
So, in the spirit of filling the well, last week I went to see the 'Heaven and Hell' exhibition of John Martin's works at the Laing Gallery and um, may have sneaked in a lunch too. Today I'm off to see the end of term show for Newcastle art students at the Hatton Gallery.
But one week I just got all the pebbles I've collected in various vases round the house and filled up the sink and put them in it. Wet pebbles are fantastic (no, don't back away from me like that, they are), after all, I picked them up on a beach in the first place because I thought that, but since then they've been sitting in the house in a dull, dry way and I've stopped seeing them. Just add water and the colour variations, the veins, the bits of barnacles stuck on them - wonderful. Their smoothness is beautiful too and if you squint a bit at the sink, it looks like a rock pool. Quite perked me up and I went and wrote a story about the things that get washed up on a beach.
Of course I might have got round to writing it anyway, without having a sink full of pebbles. Who knows? I doubt it. I'd have probably written about a woman who finds herself washed up on the furthest shore of a supermarket after a morning spent doing the ironing.
So... go on. Give it a go - have an artist date if you can and, if you have the time, drop me a line and tell me what you did.
Still immersed in the revisions for my second book, but I have looked up long enough to catch the disquiet that has been caused in the romantic novelists' world by an article written by a Daily Mail journalist attending an RNA event in London. For those of you who didn't read the article, it appeared that the journalist (a woman), wasn't interested in looking round the room and writing an article on how diverse the writers were, but instead wanted to give the impression that these were all ladies of a certain age and 'gosh, wasn't it amazing that they still had full bladder control, let alone that they were producing literature that was, in some cases, quite raunchy.'
There was also gratuitous mention of support hose and people donning rain hats/bonnets when they left, I believe.
I got halfway down the article and my brain switched off having tired of the 'cliche over complexity' approach. But people were annoyed, particularly I imagine those who were there and felt it did not portray a true picture of either the party or those who write in the genre. There was also a worrying whiff of sexism and ageism about the piece.
I had a great deal of sympathy with this view while not being terribly surprised at the tone of the article - if a fox gets into your chicken house, you shouldn't be shocked to find that he has feathers round his mouth and Betty your favourite hen is missing.
Anyway, a spirited and humorous fightback has been made by many members of the Romantic Novelists Association and that I guess will be the end of the issue until the next patronising article.
I think we should also take some comfort from the fact that we're not alone - people writing in any specialist genre would have probably got a similar 'going over'. Sci-fi writers no doubt would have all been 'anorak wearing geeks' and those writing crime, 'mild-mannered, avuncular men.' God help the erotic novelists!
It does highlight something I've never understood though - why go for the cliches about people because they belong to a group when the truth of individual lives is so much more fascinating? If the aim is to sell more newspapers, why the predictable, trotted out time and time again?
Look around any group and you'll find absorbing stories of achievement and loss, bravery, cowardice, self-sacrifice and misbehaviour... the full monty of human experience. So why boil people down to easily digestible caricatures of themselves?
Now, if you'll forgive me, I have a sex scene to write before my carer comes and tells me I need to loosen my stays and lever myself into my wincyette nightgown.
I have been doing revisions to my second book, some of them just little tweaks, but a couple that need thinking about and mulling over and repeated trips to the kettle and the back of the cupboard where I am certain a couple of chocolate biscuits still lurk. I have until mid June to get the revisions back to Quercus, but time is chugging along and up until yesterday I was still metaphorically chewing the end of my pencil over how to approach one particular scene from a different angle and inject a bit more ooomph into it without appearing heartless. This is because, without giving away the story of 'The Genuine Article' too much, it does have a couple of characters in it who face some difficult issues and squaring being sensitive with being funny, can be tricky. I don't want to sound glib when I'm writing about them, but on the other hand, I find it hard to write anything totally devoid of humour...and from the reader's point of view, they're expecting a romantic comedy, not a lot of hand wringing.
It's a tricky subject, humour. What I find funny might leave you po faced. You might believe that nothing is off limits whereas I may have a set of subjects that are taboo.
Perhaps humour is such a sticky subject because it's so powerful. When used as a weapon to show how pompous or ridiculous or even downright dangerous a situation is, laughter can achieve more than hours of reasoned argument. That's probably the reason why satirists and comedians are among the first for the chop when some Dictator swings into town - after all, if you think you're all powerful and terribly important, it's deflating when someone finds your Achilles heel with a well aimed joke about your obsession with armbands or how your wife has more pairs of shoes than you have brain cells.
So is anything ever 'off limits'? After all, a lot of humour is by its very nature cruel - put a man and a banana skin together and you have a joke...
My personal view is that whether something is funny depends very much on who is telling the joke and the level of cruelty intended. I remember walking into a pub in Leeds (now if that isn't the start of a joke I don't know what is) and hearing the barman make a joke about the Bhopal disaster that had happened the day before. It's one of the few times I have wanted to lash out at someone - it was glib, racist and being told by a guy in a rich country about something terrible that had struck people already living in poverty. Every disaster spawns these kind of jokes and sometimes they are a way of people poking fun at something they actually find huge and frightening. Other times they are just vicious - a bit of verbal dexterity and wordplay with an acid heart.
If I'm coming across as a prig at this point, I should admit that I've found myself laughing at a few of these kind of jokes over the years in that 'I know this is a terrible joke but it's also funny' way where you feel slightly ashamed afterwards. You won't stop people making these jokes and I wouldn't want to, but I don't want to listen to jokes about abducted children, rapists and wife-beaters, cross-channel ferries capsizing or Japanese people being swept away after earthquakes and I don't think this humour has that glorious life-enhancing power that the best kind always does.
However, turn the equation around and have someone make a joke or humorous observation about a bad experience they've suffered themselves, and I think humour then becomes an example of bravery; very close to that lovely definition of it as 'grace under pressure.' Someone who can retain their sense of humour, even their sense of the ridiculous when everything is collapsing around them is, to me, exceptional.
As a writer, though, things get more complicated. Sure, when you put humour into the mouth of the person who is having a horrible time the reader, hopefully, sees they are able to take a wry look at their life and so sympathise with them. But at the end of the day, it's you as a writer who is making the joke and however much you put yourself into your character's shoes, you probably haven't gone through what they have. Does that mean you are no different than the person behind that bar in Leeds, happy to find the humour in anything?
I don't honestly know the answer to that, but I think it lies somewhere in the difference between making the reader laugh at a character and making them laugh with them. That's got a certain whiff of cliche about it, but hey ho.
I'd be really interested to know what anyone else thinks of humour in literature - what they like, what they don't. Please don't be shy... oh, and mind that banana skin just by the feedback button.
Slight departure today into the world of music prompted by the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday.
Ah, Eurovision. For a lot of people in the UK it's a chance to have a good laugh or a drunken party (someone I know has one based around the rule that you have to down the national drink of each country performing. I don't think anyone has ever made it to the voting stage and vodka seems to figure quite largely these days).
Poking gentle fun at Eurovision is set in stone and first Terry Wogan and now Graham Norton have commentated accordingly. It's not surprising - Eurovision has a whiff of those old fashioned Saturday night variety shows despite the amazingly modern staging and production values.
But laugh or fall over drunkenly, Eurovision is part of a lot of people's TV heritage. I remember watching it when I was younger and it producing some memorable moments... Cliff Richard with his toe curlingly embarrassing dancing with a song I think was called 'Power to all our Friends', Dana from Ireland with 'All kinds of everything'... and sitting there when suddenly ABBA turned up with 'Waterloo' and you thought, 'Blimey, that's a gear change.'
Mostly though, I remember my Dad moaning about the voting - how each country was giving their points to their political or geographical neighbours regardless of the songs. Seems nothing has changed - Twitter was alive with similar thoughts last Saturday.
There's something intrinsically daft about Eurovision, daft and slightly off the beat of normality. It's gloriously, pompously weird and I think that's why, despite it being uncool and old fashioned and at times boring as hell, it keeps coming back each year and well, you just can't stop taking a look at it.
A couple of years ago we went to a spoof Eurovision show at the Edinburgh Fringe and it had got all that zany, nation-not-quite-talking-unto-nation stuff absolutely right - from the cabaret nature of the host and hostess, to the overblown, coma-inducing staging, to the jaw-dropping earnestness of some of the performers.
I'd be intrigued to know whether you watch the contest and what you think about it?
For what it's worth, the reason I have a soft spot for it is that in an increasingly homogenised world, and ironically in a contest that is celebrating our 'Europeness' (if that's a word), it's still a place to see how different countries can be. It's also the place to see the odd maverick. So on Saturday we had the entry from France who seemed to be in a different contest to everybody else. We had the people with pointy hats and unicycles. Some years we have people in knitted tank tops with fiddles; heavy metal horror groups; people dressed as trees.
And dare I say it, I warm to those acts the most... maybe they aren't the cutting edge of music or even entertainment, but they are very much themselves and even, one supposes, appeal to something in their national make-up; something that's still unique. I mean who else but the UK would have picked Brotherhood of Man?
So hurrah for the oddities and differences. Let's stop all this singing in English too, or if we're not careful every act will morph into each other and we'll lose that feeling I used to have when I watched as a little girl: that Europe was a big, varied and slightly exotic place.
And next year can we have a minor member of the Royal Family playing a tin whistle while break-dancing, please?
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If you look at my Welcome Page, you'll see I've had a facelift - if you've been reading my blog since the start, you might twig that finally I have posted the photograph taken of me at the Woman & Home shoot. Actually that's a lie - I've had to seek help to get it posted as I was defeated by my website's photo posting instructions. But there I am in all my glory... not bad for 107, eh?
So, on from kind lighting and photographers, to kind writers.
It's been my experience, right from the start, that writers are a generous bunch - not only with advice, but also with their time and their encouragement. In the various groups to which I belong - Romantic Novelist's Association, British Romantic Fiction, C19, etc. - there is an easy flow of help offered and taken. It's the same when I've had cause to seek advice or support regarding short stories, and Vanessa Gebbie stands out as a particularly positive example of spreading enthusiasm and knowledge.
It's a worldwide trait, obviously and if you're really interested in how writers help and support each other, dip into #amwriting on twitter.
Not sure why writers are so good at this - perhaps it's because we're addicted to communicating and get a real sense of satisfaction from helping others 'get out there'.
Of course, you stumble across the odd sour puss, and no doubt most writers have had experience of that particular breed who I call the 'I've written a book but it's too out of the humdrum mainstream to get published, and as my talent hasn't been recognised I'm going to kick the pooh out of everyone else's efforts'. Ouch. Bit like being mauled by the provisional wing of the book group.
On the other (more positive hand), a quick google search will throw up hundreds of examples of people running writing competitions, producing magazines dedicated to showcasing talent, and offering hard-won advice on how to improve your work. All those people working quietly away because they are committed to making our reading and writing life richer.
One of these 'helpers' is a writer called Jody Hedlund who I've recently discovered via Twitter... yup, I know I was rude behind twitter's back at the start, but slowly, slowly, we're becoming best mates. Jody's blog at http://jodyhedlund.blogspot.com/ is always packed with practical advice and she has a lovely, freindly style.
I'm also going to mention Michelle Styles who writes for Mills & Boon - she is a member of my local Romantic Novelist's Association group and exceptionally generous with her time, advice and praise. Michelle can be found at http://www.michellestyles.co.uk/index.html and she also writes a blog.
As this is in danger of turning into one of those Oscar acceptance speeches, I'd like to round up by thanking Hannah Hooton, for generously featuring me in her blog. You can find it at http://theracywriter.blogspot.com/2011/05/hungry-for-wolfe-interview-with-hazel.html
Opening my blog up to other writers is something I'm going to do over the coming months and I'll keep you posted about that.
Give and take, innit?
Went to listen to Maggie O'Farrell on Thursday evening at the Hexham Book Festival. She's a fantastic speaker - very funny and self effacing. She was talking about writing in general and 'The hand that first held mine' in particular and had a fresh take on quite a few things. One was the way children affect your writing - she felt it actually improved it as she was more disciplined, had to work in concentrated bursts when she could, and was therefore less inclined to baggy, space-filling passages.
She had some interesting things to say about the time shifts in her novels particularly in relation to the way we store or process information - so that something that happened yesterday can seem a long time ago if we feel it is of minor importance, and conversely events from the past can still have immediacy if they were traumatic, etc.
An hour didn't really seem long enough and when she'd finished, it set me thinking about why some writers can 'do' this book festival thing and communicate with large audiences, and some can't - yet on the page both kinds of writer are equally good at 'connecting' with the reader. I'd be interested to hear anyone else's thoughts...
Is it as simple as 'anybody can be a writer' and therefore how they wander through the world will be different for each one? Or does it depend on the genre the writer is working in? Or the sex of the writer? Or how they view the role/standing of a writer?
I came to no conclusion but perhaps you have some theories?
The only thing that slightly curtailed my enjoyment of Maggie O'Farrell's session was the knowledge that when it had finished I had agreed to take part in an 'open mic' (that never looks correct when I write that) session on 'True Love'. It was downstairs in the cafe and in the end there were about thirty people there. All the names of the people who 'wanted' to get up were put in a hat and ta-ra... guess whose came out first?
In hindsight that was good: I didn't have to sit there and get more and more nervous, but even so as I walked to the microphone every bit of saliva disappeared from my mouth and I seemed to have this stupid nervous smile on my face. Never mind... It wasn't exactly total improv on my behalf as I'd run through the gist of what I wanted to say - how I fell in love with the teacher who came over to our Primary School from the USA for a term when I was about 7 and how I made her a going-away collage of the countryside using bits of material. Which was a nice present for her, but not for my sister whose dress I had cut up to get some nice lollipop type trees for the orchard.
We had to speak for 5 minutes and a horn was sounded after 4 but it seemed like the whole thing only lasted seconds. Anyway... I got 18 out of 20 and was not booed off. After the initial catatonic terror, I quite enjoyed it... not that different from acting except it's your own words. The rest of the evening was a hoot as more alcohol was drunk and more people volunteered to get up. Stories ranged from a very affecting one about dementia in a parent to passions for paper and coloured pencils. Delivery ranged from confident, to nervous, to standing there with eyes closed. A great night though, and a great idea.
Then it was a day of research for me - not on anything I'm writing, but on the author Salley Vickers and her work. I was due to interview her on the Saturday, primarily about her new short story collection 'Aphrodite's Hat'. She's an author I really admire. I love her elegant style and the way she deals with life's 'serious issues' with such a light touch... the humour and optimism shine through alongside the intelligence in her writing. So I wanted to get this 'right'... but I would have to admit to feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of it - here is a woman who has written six novels, one of which became a word-of-mouth best seller to the extent that it has now sold over 1 million copies (they originally printed a thousand). She also trained as a psychoanalyst, which means you can't help thinking that she will be scrutinising you in a particularly rapier-like way.
By the time I met her at her hotel on the Friday evening I was only slightly less nervous than when I walked towards that microphone at the Improv session. Within a few minutes of talking to her though, something weird happened: yes, I was still nervous about the event, but not about her. How could I be? She was calm, wry and wise. She has done loads of these kind of events so I'm sure I picked up on her confidence and that settled me, but it was also the understanding that in a way, she would look after me - her kindness was evident.
And on the day, it turned out that rather than the nerve-shredding experience I thought it could be, it was hugely enjoyable. Her respect for her readers and for the audience is evident - to her they are an integral part of the whole creative process.
I really only had to bowl Salley the odd question and I suspect that if I hadn't been there she'd have done an equally wonderful talk. I felt I was using parts of my brain I had not used for a long time as we ranged over spirituality and how art can be a transforming experience; over kindness and angels and the yearning her characters have to make themselves understood and connect with others.
I've come away from the whole experience feeling inspired and that I've met someone who has opened up some doors in my head that had got a little rusty and maybe, in some cases, slammed shut as they tend to do when we think we've got all the answers.
I can only say if you get the opportunity to listen to either of these two writers, please take it.
Yesterday was my first reading event - I was appearing at the Robinson Gay gallery with another writer Chloe Daykin as part of the Hexham Book Festival. It is a beautiful venue, upstairs among the carved furniture and sculptures and about 25 people attended. I was fairly nervous and I know Chloe was too, but it turned out to be a very informal event and I hope those attending enjoyed it.
Chloe has a lovely poetic style and a wry outlook that comes across strongly in her stories and she also makes the books in which they feature. I read a cut-down version of 'Bonne Maman' and two excerpts from Mr Wolfe.
What did I learn from the event? That it's quite natural to fear that your flies are undone when you're standing up in front of people and that I should really always wear my glasses these days when reading. Also to make it clear to the gallery owner that I am talking about a piece of sculpture when I say 'I'm a bit worried about your bust.' I meant that I was worried it was on a plinth near the door where people were coming in, but she did look confused for a moment.
All joking aside, I enjoyed the event so much because, as I've said before, writing is solitary much of the time and it is good to get out and meet people and, most importantly, experience that moment when (if you're lucky) your writing connects with a listener or reader. The Question and Answer session was interesting too, with one woman asking how we found our voices. I said that I had often sat in front of a blank sheet of paper or screen and tried to write something portentious and weighty but failed and was mildly surprised to find that I not only felt happiest when writing humour but also, romance.
That business of 'connecting' with readers has been very much on my mind over the last few days as I've started to get some more reviews. When someone reads what you have written and engages with it emotionally it is akin to having a deep conversation with someone during which they reach across, touch your arm and say, 'I know.'
It's also intensely satisfying to know that a reader believes in the psychological path your characters follow - that they actually believe this is how Jack and Ellie would react to the situations they find themselves in.
I've set up a review page on the site if you're interested in reading some of the feedback I've been receiving. I'm not going to shove it down your throat here!
Until my book was published, I had no idea how many people were reviewing books on the internet and helping steer people towards things they have enjoyed reading. I suppose, along with book clubs, it's a sign of people's insatiable enthusiasm for discussing books and what makes them tick, or not. And it's another example of how the internet is lifting some of the control away from the more traditional media. In this case it seems to be making the whole process of book reviewing much more representative of the majority of the people who read. There's an element of 'sweeping statement' in what I'm about to say, but in the past reviewing did seem limited to those in a small section of the media, often exclusively London based and with largely similar lifestyles.
The argument against this democratisation is that these things are done better by the professionals, but from the sites I've visited, the standard of reviewing is high - opinions are considered, lively and objective. And I'm not just saying that because so far I've had a good experience.
So all power to those reviewers out there, doing it for love.
Now, speaking of democratisation (which I hope I haven't just made up as a word)... I'm off to vote.
You were up at dawn on May day washing your face in the dew weren't you? Or dancing along with the Morris Men?
No. Well shame on you. There's something about May that lightens the step - all that nature bursting into perfection; the feeling that this year might be the year we get a summer.
Actually, I wasn't up either. It was OH's birthday the day before so we'd had a good meal and a late night and we didn't surface very early. But we had packed a 15 mile walk in the Lake District under our belts earlier in the week which meant that I didn't feel the least bit guilty about not being out trilling and 'Hey Nonny Nonnying'.
Now though, after all the hoopla of the Royal Wedding and his highness's birthday, the girls are returning to school and I'm returning to writing.
I've had the second book back from Quercus with a big thumbs up but of course, some revisions. A good editor should point out where things can be improved and Charlotte does in a lovely, tactful way. She's invariably right. Forgive me if I've already told you this, but she thought that the first draft of 'Mr Wolfe' that she saw had a last chapter that was 'the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake'. In other words... that little bit too much.
Now I was proud of that chapter, but looking at it afresh I had to agree with her and found that with a little re-writing it could be improved and whereas the previous version had been 'ahhh', the new one actually made me cry. Yes, I know, but there it is. Luckily it made Charlotte cry too and so that's the chapter that now finishes the book.
So, revisions by mid June... but before that I have a busy week with the Hexham Book Festival.
More about that in my next blog but I'd just like to finish by saying congratulations to all those who took part in the Costal Challenge Walk from north of Bamburgh to Alnmouth today. It was a stunningly beautiful day and the walk takes you past and through some of the most bewitching sights on the Northumberland coast.
To all of those who finished the twenty six mile walk... particularly Sue, Angela, Mike, Cedric and Harriet, many, many congratulations. Hope you're putting your feet up tonight, or at least soaking them.
Don't worry, that sounds a heavy title, but it's not really.
I've just had a couple of days where I've been tussling with a short story that I thought I knew how to make 'better' and then when I've done it, I'm not sure there's been any improvement at all. Par for the course with some stories, I'm afraid.
Some pop into your head and flow beautifully and you know they're good. Others you have to grind out word by word and it's as if you've spent so long on them you lose the ability to judge if they work or not. Never mind, I can lay it aside for a couple of days and come back to it. I think really it may be that the viewpoint is wrong... too much is happening to the lead character and he's coming across as very passive. But then again, not getting inside his head adds to the weirdness of the story which is what I want.
See what I mean?
When I get really bogged down I usually wander off telling myself to get a grip and get something made of chocolate.
The self-doubts bit of the title is written a little tonge-in-cheek but as I said I'd try to present the unvarnished reality of what it is like to write and how people react to you, I've decided to share it.
When you write, you know there will be people who don't 'get it' and won't rate your writing at all. Well, that's OK. I take the attitude that it's the great cross-fertilization of views about everything in life that makes it so bright and sparkly. And if someone pays something for your book, or to come and see your play, they have, perhaps, even more right to grumble when it disappoints.
Most realistic writers, I would think, expect this and have to learn to take it on the chin even though it might hurt. Suck it up and get over it as my daughters might say.
I suppose all you ask is that the criticism is considered - which means that when the initial spike of hurt has gone, you can look at the review and wonder if you couldn't have done better and learn from it.
Then there is the other kind. Friends who write have warned me about Amazon reviews: that it will be inevitable that you will suffer from a troll attack or just a review by someone who won't be specific about what they hate about your book, apart from everything. And again, I've taken the attitude that freedom is what makes the internet so fantastic. But ouch, when it happens to you! Even though what the person is saying doesn't make much sense, it smarts like hell.
I sat there and looked at it for a few minutes feeling aggrieved... as indeed the writer of the review obviously had, and great waves of self doubt flooded over me. Never mind that there are seven lovely reviews, it was the negative one that was worming its way into my brain. Never mind that this wasn't a blog or a paper review... someone hated what I had written enough to have a real rant.
It took me a few hours to file the incident away and revert to my old mantra that people have a right to tell you what they think, but if they can't be specific then really you have to let it go. Don't dwell on it and don't be that worst of all writers - the one that needs constant audience approval otherwise they snatch up their football and stride off with a pet lip.
Nobody asked you to write, it's not a free ride and while you should definitely try to entertain, move and touch the reader, you should also understand that the way you're expressing yourself is for you too. How it lies on the page is a result of thousands of little decisions and adjustments you have made TO SATISFY YOURSELF. You keep on writing because that's what makes you feel intensely 'you'.
So basically... suck it up and get over it.
Ending on a lighter note. My publication date of 14th April was a double one... it was also the day that 'The Ways of Love' which is a collection of short stories in fresh voices, edited by Elizabeth Bailey, came out. It contains my story 'Sandcastle Man'.
On Easter Monday we walked up to what we think of as our 'local' - a pub called 'The Feathers' at Hedley on the Hill. Every Easter Monday they have a barrel race, where teams of three people run up the not inconsiderable hill to the village carrying an empty beer barrel for the chance to win a full one. There is a children's version too that is not beer related.
Yesterday was hot here, even walking up I felt tired and 'glowing' so I did not envy those who were going to run it, with barrel.
This year at the pub there was also a beer garden, a live funky band, an Easter bonnet competition and al fresco versions of the pub's food. We're not talking sad burgers and limp sausages here. 'The Feathers' has won the Good Pub Guide's Northumbria Dining Pub of the year for the last four years and the charcoal cooked burger in a ciabatta type roll I had I would have married if my OH had not got to me first.
What I admire most about the people who run the pub, apart from the consistently wonderful food they cook, is that they have gone down the good dining route while steadfastly staying a 'local'. If you go there for a meal you will always find people from the village enjoying a drink and a chat. They have not been shunted out in favour of getting more diners in. And the pub plays an important part in the traditional events of the year... not just the barrel race and beer festival, but the leek festival, etc. as well.
So, there was a lovely community feeling in the huge crowd of people eating, drinking and cheering home the winners. There was an especially loud cheer for the trio dressed in characters from Peter Pan, including a very hot looking Captain Cook.
As we toddled back down the hill to home, the Tyne Valley spread out before us in the sunshine I had one of those moments of knowing I was happy. A little spike of joy. Most probably the half a cider I had drunk, but it was there anyway.
In all the hoo-hah surrounding the publication of the book, and the efforts to get people to know it's out there and to buy it, I haven't had much time to write or to read. Easter is giving me the opportunity to do both.
I'm currently reading a short story collection by Salley Vickers - 'Aphrodite's Hat' -in readiness for the Hexham Book Festival, where I will be chatting to her about them and her writing in general. I'm also reading her best-selling novel, 'Miss Garnet's Angel' and will try to acquaint myself with the rest of her back catalogue as well as take a peek at Penelope Fitzgerald's writing. I'm ashamed to say I have never read much of her work, but she was greatly encouraging to Salley Vickers after the publication of 'Miss Garnet's Angel' and I see one of the short stories in the anthology is dedicated to her.
I'm also reading... yes, when I get started I really go for it... a collection of short stories by John Cheever called 'Vintage Cheever'. I love the real sense he gives you of watching ordinary lives, with their rhythms and traditions but there is always an undertow of something out of kilter in them. He doesn't make a huge song and dance about it and life seems to go on afterwards, but you know something has shifted and the desire to know what will happen afterwards stays with you.
Reading people who are really good at short stories is a good and a bad thing when you are trying to write your own. No, I'll re-phrase that: it's always a good thing because it makes you try harder and score through all those cliches and hackneyed sentiments, but it is a bad thing because you often find yourself with a gutted, de-boned fish on your plate when you thought you had a plump, glistening one. It's often a case of starting again and trying harder, but that's fine really (she said through gritted teeth.)
So the story I thought just needed a bit of 'work' needs major overhauling as now I've looked at it objectively, the pace is all wrong and my voice keeps butting in and ripping the reader away from the characters.
It pays to know your strengths as a writer, of course it does, but a little humility is needed to understand that sometimes these strengths are a cage in which your writing can become cramped and confined. For example, I write comedy well but sometimes I can't leave it alone. It's like a nervous tic. And it often has the effect of speeding my writing up too much so that I'm like a terrible best man at a wedding just careering from one laugh to the next. I need to use it sparingly and give my reader and my story room to breathe.
Cutting down on the comedy is something I find difficult but managed, I hope, in 'Mainly Sharps' . What I was aiming for there was a wry, cynical voice and where there was humour, I wanted it to add to the poignancy not undercut it. I wanted people to feel the narrator's humour had been hard earned: her battle honours, as it were.
I very much enjoy the freedom short stories give to experiment and try out different voices. There's pleasure too in using different skills - sustaining a storyline throughout a book and balancing different plots and characters is not the same as harnessing the almost single-minded clarity needed to create a world in 2,000 words.
Busy times ahead then.
Went to see 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' at Northern Stage last night and am still zinging with how brilliant it was. A collaboration between Northern Stage Director Erica Whyman and Sheffield Theatres' Director, Daniel Evans, it seemed to get everything right.
The setting made you feel as though you were in Martha's sitting room, under assault as much as the actors, and I loved the way each act opened: a sudden dimming of the house lights and a sharp skirl of ice being dropped in a glass.
And the acting, my lord, the acting. For those who don't know the play, it's a four hander, with Martha and George the main protagonists locked in a fight-to-the-death marriage that's portrayed in a way that draws both blood and tears. Over the course of one, drink-fuelled late night/early morning, they rip further chunks of flesh from their marriage and from the relationship of their two guests, Honey and Nick. If that sounds awful, it is, but it's also funny and wry and moving.
Sian Thomas as Martha was superb in all her feral anger and insecurity. The way she twisted and turned her body, stamped her feet, prowled about, reminded me of (sorry for the cliche), an animal in pain. However, it was Jasper Britton as George who really, for me, delivered the stand out performance. At times bowed under his own sense of failure; at other times almost alight with his own wit and imagination, I found it hard to imagine him really being Jasper. He was George - in the way he put ice in a drink, took off his spectacles, hunched forward and read a book. I think they call it 'inhabiting the part'.
Nick and Honey, as played by John Hopkins and Lorna Beckitt were never just foils for the main characters. With just a laugh, Honey told you so much about herself, her upbringing, her marriage and Nick was a fascinating mix of bravado and insecurity.
The last act, particularly, was mesmerising, like watching a train coming off the tracks and not knowing who was going to get swept away by it.
If you're anywhere near Newcastle, please get yourself there. You won't regret it and I'm sure it will be a production that will live with you for a long time.
Yesterday was also the day I went to WH Smith in Gateshead Metrocentre and signed some books. Now, yesterday was a hot day here and it seemed to me that most shoppers at the Mall were after summer clothes and bbq food ... but having said that, I chatted to quite a few people, managed to interest them in some books and signed some stock for putting out on the shelves. It was a hugely enjoyable experience and I'd like to thank David for organising it and Darren and the ladies on the till for looking after me so well.
And if you were one of the people who bought a book, I'd like to thank you too.
Sorry for the gap in the blog, but what with the fine weather and the charging around the local bookshops, when I did sit down in front of the computer I found my eyelids forcing themselves together.
And then yesterday evening we had the great 'Applying for Olympic Tickets' event. Have to report that neither my OH or I came away with medals, but we have sent off for a wedge of tickets that, should we get them all will necessitate selling one of the children. Which one to be decided at a later date and highly dependent on TV/Facebook/Revision/Actually Feeding the Cats or Loading the Dishwasher ratios this Easter holidays.
OH was very good about pretending he did not want to see the Beach Volleyball even though he developed a sudden interest in it at the Sydney Olympics, and managed to keep a straight face when we gals said we'd like to see some synchronised swimming. I do hope we get something out of the many sessions we have applied to see, and at least some events in the Olympic Stadium. I know there is a school of thought that curls its lip at the expense and the commercialisation of the whole thing, but going to live events, for me, is just one of life's joys - and I am probably never going to get the opportunity to attend the Olympics again. As Adele sings, so rightly, 'Throw your soul through every open door.' No, I have no idea either, but I'm applying the thought liberally to most opportunities these days.
I'm pretty certain we will get one set of tickets at least - and that is for football at our very own St James's Park in Newcastle. I'm pretty excited about that having only ever been on a tour of the place. If I was a lot richer I'd also love to see the sailing at Weymouth, not because I'm particularly keen on sailing, but because I am keen on Weymouth and some of my earliest memories are of poddling around on the beach there and then trailing home a warm, sandy, sleepy, salty three year old.
Now, another Olympic sport if you have a book out: touring the bookshops. In her very good book 'wannabe a writer we've heard of?', Jane Wenham-Jones says something along the lines that once you've written a book, going to bookshops is ruined for you as you're always checking where your book is, how it's doing, etc. I fear she may be right.
And what stamina and chutzpah it takes. Managed to get to Smiths and Waterstones this weekend, the biggies in Newcastle, and there is always that moment when you introduce yourself when you can see the assistant thinking you're deluded. Once we're over that point though, and I'm able to point to the actual book on the shelves, they couldn't be nicer and more supportive. Without fail they all seem hugely pleased that a 'local' author has made it through to their shelves and once I have stopped my OH trying to fan my books out to take up more room, they have usually offered me some kind of signing/meeting the public opportunity.
We even ventured to Tesco in Kingston Park. It is an aircraft hangar of a place and you have to be strong to go there. And there was Mr Wolf in the chart bit. We stood and coo-ed for a bit and I saw a woman looking at books and picking up a couple and putting them in her trolley. It was then that the 'Edinburgh Fringe handing out flyer' mist descended upon me. To explain: if you're performing at the Fringe on a limited budget, you can't go in for big posters or ads, you have to approach people on the Royal Mile, engage them in conversation and delicately shove a flyer in their hand telling them what your play is all about and why they can't possibly leave Edinburgh without seeing it. This sounds relatively simple, but poor Joe Public already has his hands stuffed with flyers and his tolerance of being accosted is falling alarmingly rapidly. Do it wrong and you'll see him shove yours straight in the nearest bin, but do it right and...wow, when you walk on the stage later you might see him in the audience.
Now, approaching people you don't know is hard for English people like me. There are all those lessons you learn early on about respecting people's body space; not talking to strangers; only making polite chit chat and not being too personal. You have to overcome all that and even the most hearty of us can only take about an hour of this kind of pushy interaction before you have to retreat to a pub, replenish your self-confidence, and then get back out there.
Anyway, somewhere in my psyche this experience is still lurking so I said to the woman, 'Ah, I see you like romances.' She looked at me and said , 'No,' and for a second I felt the definite urge to go to the pub. But then she said 'I'm buying these for my daughter,' and off I went again, pointing at Mr Wolfe, explaining how it was my first book and how chuffed I was to see it there, all the time part of my brain thinking 'leave the poor woman alone'. But the poor woman suddenly gave me a wonderful smile and said, 'That's lovely, congratulations. I'm going to buy it.' Can't remember much after that except I am terribly afraid that as I left I gave her the thumbs up.
I'm sorry. I fear there may be more of this kind of thing to come.
I had two things to celebrate last night and I'm afraid I did it in style. Now I feel like I have been exhumed and I am very glad it is not my turn to do the school run this morning. Walking to the kettle is difficult enough and who knew the keys on this keyboard made quite so much noise?
The first cause for celebration was of course the book being published and my trip to Tesco's with the girls was just fantastic. Yes, I know, the words 'trip to Tesco's' and 'fantastic' are not often seen in the same sentence, but it was lovely to see Wolfie nestling there on the shelf next to some big romantic hitters. I had a good chat with the lady who 'does' the books and she told me that copy was the last one left which made me feel extra good even though the little voice in my head was saying 'they probably only had 2 in to start with.' Later on a friend of my elder daughter rang to say he'd gone and bought that last copy. Hurrah! Indulge me for a second with the thought that on one day, in one place I sold out!!
The second event I was celebrating was a performance of 'The Tempest' by The Mike Fry Foundation. I've mentioned Mike a few times in these blogs - how he inspired so many people to open up to what drama could do for their lives - and how his memory is being celebrated by taking forward his attitude to a whole new generation of young people. Last night the Foundation was performing in Riding Mill Parish Hall; the night before they had been in Bellingham; tonight and Saturday it will be at Haydon Bridge High School where Mike was a teacher.
I didn't know what to expect from the performance and if I'm honest was a little afraid that the strong wish to remember Mike and do him justice would produce something worthy and a little too aware of the emotion of the occasion to stand alone as a piece of theatre. Well, I got that completley wrong. It was vital, funny, imaginatively staged and had a haunting quality to it that all good 'Tempests' should have. I knew we were in for something special when I walked into the darkened hall to see Prospero and Ariel sitting side by side staring at a man face down on the floor. And there they sat silently until all the audience had filed in, the sound of waves crashing hypnotising us all, until by the time the play began we'd already been transported to Prospero's kingdom.
The group brought a gypsy, funky feeling to the whole thing - a sense of danger and magic that was like another character in the play. The audience were, to use a huge cliche, spellbound.
As we clapped at the end, I knew Mike would have loved it, would have bound out of his seat, booming, 'Marvellous, marvellous.' I suspect I was not the only person sitting there having to do some serious swallowing to stay under control.
So good luck with the other two performances, guys.
Ok this is probably terribly uncool but I am sitting here grinning like a loon as I type this.
It was November 2009 when I got the book deal with Quercus - that's 17 months of anticipation. I could have had nearly two babies in that time if I'd been quick and deranged.
As it is, my big 'baby' is out there today and later on in another terribly uncool act I am picking the girls up from school, going to Tesco and staring at 'Who's Afraid of Mr Wolfe?' on the shelves. I may even pick up a copy. I can't swear I shan't sniff it, though I have promised the girls I won't actually kiss it and inflict 'dhuh, social death' on their lives.
Promises can get broken though can't they? So if you're in Tesco today and see a slightly hyper woman fondling a paperback don't be surprised. And tomorrow I might be tempted to repeat the process in Waterstones and WH Smith and Asda and the local independent book shops.
Best stay indoors for a while if you're of a nervous disposition.
Before I chunter on about myself, I'd like to alert anyone who lives near or in Newcastle to an event at the Central Library on 14th April at 6.30pm. A friend I have made through the Romantic Novelists Association, Janet MacLeod Trotter, is doing some readings from her latest book 'The Vanishing of Ruth' and I urge you to go along because Janet is a very good writer with a list of books to her name; she and her husband do a lively performance which at one point features him in a hippy wig, and the story itself is a fascinating one and inspired in part by Janet's own travels on a bus tour along what was known as the 'hippy trail' during her gap year.
There is also another good reason to nip along - money from the sale of the book goes to the 'Do it 4 Don' appeal set up to raise funds for the care of Janet's brother, Don, who used to be a journalist on the Guardian and latterly worked for the Russell group of universities. He was knocked off his bike last year and suffered severe head injuries.
So, penultimate day before publication. Not something you should try saying if it's somebody else's teeth you're road testing.
In the last blog I gave you a taste of the setting for 'Who's Afraid of Mr Wolfe?' and now I'd like to say something about the main characters, Jack and Ellie.
People who know me will be tempted to think Ellie is me - she's a copywriter and loves words and what they can do, but really that's where any resemblance between Ellie and me ends. Ellie is braver than I would be in the situations she finds herself in and perhaps more forgiving too. With Ellie I very much wanted to make a strong female character who wasn't a fearsome ball-breaker but was actually kind - I'm all in favour of sassy heroines who can lay waste to the corporate world and sleep their way though the Dow Jones index without a flicker of emotion, but Ellie is not one of those.
And what about Jack Wolfe?
Well, it's no secret that he's modelled on Richard Armitage and some of the roles he's played but to be honest, for years before Mr A poleaxed me, I've had a bit of a thing for wolves - not necessarily the real ones, but the way they are portrayed in fables. I think it's something to do with the fact that they are wild but in so much of our literature, or even oral storytelling, they are shown on the edge of our lives - circling villages or moving silently through streets. I'm not interested in packs of wolves either, just the lone ones you glimpse out of the corner of your eye. They are out there, they're wild, but maybe, just maybe if they are shown a little kindness, they could turn good. Or tear your arm off.
No doubt I have some deep-rooted Red Riding Hood fixation, but hey ho, wolves fascinate me and that was brought home to me years ago when I went to an exhibition at the Biscuit Factory in Newcastle and saw some sculptures by Paul Smith. Several of the pieces featured wolves and women and I loved them. You can see what I mean at www.paulsmithsculptures.co.uk
Every now and again I travel up to the Fenwick Gallery in Warkworth which stocks Paul Smith's work just to have a look and promise myself that one day I will buy one of those wolves.
One of my favourite pieces is 'Blind Love' but below is another one that has been reproduced on a notecard and is called 'Strange Little Girl'. Hmm, and Paul Smith doesn't even know me.
So I was pretty sold on wolves already when along came Guy of Gisborne with the wolf head clasps on his jacket and, in a weird act of synchronisity, I noticed a name plaque on the wall next to the cafe I sometimes go to in Corbridge... Jack Wolfskin it said, which I now know is a range of outdoorsy clothing, footwear and equipment, but at the time it struck me that if I skinned it, that would be the perfect name for my hero.
So that's Jack, a bit wild and if you don't treat him right you're in trouble... but if you do treat him right, well, who knows what will happen?
I am now probably as excited as it is possible to be without spontaneously combusting. The night terrors have abated (more or less) and now, well now I just want to get started. I want to walk into a bookshop and see Wolfie on the shelves although I am a little afraid that I might be there for the tipping point: when somebody actually buys it and then, well, then you'll hear the explosion from wherever you are in the country.
Great headline that would be, though 'Debut author spontaneously combusts in bookshop. Fire sale starts 9am tomorrow.'
So, took myself off to Tesco and Waterstones in Hexham today to introduce myself and try not to look either a. too eager b. too desperate c. like the book might be written on a lined A4 notepad in green ink. The people I spoke to were all very lovely and I did try not to laugh when the lady in Tesco asked me if it was a children's book. Why wouldn't she with a title like that? I did manage not to blurt, 'Lordy, lordy no. Not a children's book, particularly pages 267 onwards.'
Anyway, time for a bit about the book without giving too much away. As you may have gathered by now, it's set in an advertising agency in London and that may sound strange seeing as all my advertising experience is north based. There are a number of reasons why I went for London. The first is simply that I've been having an affair for years - living in Northumberland and loving it, but also running off for dirty weekends, and sometimes weeks with London. The two places couldn't be more different yet they both appeal to me in different ways.
Until I moved north at the beginning of the 1980s I always lived within a couple of hours of London and I have a soft spot for it, warts and all. There's a scene in the book where Ellie comes out into a London dusk and senses the excitement and the promise that anything is possible. It's something that I still feel when the darkness sets in and the lights come on in a London street, and I wanted to get that into the book. I also wanted to set the advertising action on a bigger stage - I worked on some lovely accounts in Newcastle, big ones too, but never as big as the ones Ellie gets a crack at, and whenever we had to get a radio ad made, we headed to London where you'd find the best choice of voice over artists.
And lastly, if I'd set it in Newcastle, people I'd worked with, or for, would naturally try to match the character in the book with the person in real life and I wanted to free it from that straitjacket. There are people in Wolfie that anyone working in an ad or design agency would recognise - from the public school account execs to the creatives who think they're making art not ads - but they've come out of my imagination not my CV.
Tomorrow I'll tell you a little bit about Jack and Ellie but I thought I'd end today on some wise words about writing from Neil Gaiman. I think these first appeared in the Guardian and the Gotham Writers' Workshop tweeted them the other day and they struck a chord. I hope any writers out there will agree. I particularly like the point he makes about just blummin' getting on with it; about who you should show your writing to and also point 8. I've read 'The Graveyard Book' and I think that's what he does in that - creating a totally believable world that has made me look at graveyards in a new way even though I know the whole thing is impossible.
So, here are Neil's 8 good writing practices:
- Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
- Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
- Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
- Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
- Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
- Laugh at your own jokes.
- The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
Simple as that, eh?
Six sleeps till Wolfie and positively absolutely my last weekend ever as an unpublished writer coming up. I'm intending to keep busy. As I mentioned before, this last drag up to publication date seems so long that I'm stuffing the intervening days full of events to stop me mulling and fretting - two activities I would definitely bring home gold for were they recognised Olympic sports.
Luckily the weather is conspiring to help me get out and about and I have to say, with the blossom on the plum tree merging into the sprays of forsythia right in front of my window, spring is looking mighty fine in Northumberland. There's that feeling of promise and possibility in the air I always feel at this time of year.
If I could just track down which particular slug is chewing the tops off my daffodils I would feel at peace with nature.
So this weekend has to include a walk somewhere - a real one, with walking boots and water bottles and hopefully a map. Not a saunter to the post box or the pub.
Then I'm going to get a good fix of drama. Monday I'll be at a read through of some plays the Drama Club is intending to 'do' as rehearsed readings and on Wednesday I've got tickets for 'Never Rains But It Pours' by Alison Carr - the woman who as you may have read in a previous blog, does a mean impersonation of Chekov. Her play is part of the Past Glories season and the blurb sounds fascinating - 'The Jensens are trapped in attic room of their rapidly flooding house. Meredith's forgotten the concertina folder of important documents, Lyn's bridal shoes have just floated away and Cari is oblivious to the past bubbling up to bite her. As the water surges below, family secrets rise to the surface and resentments spill over.'
Thursday sees the Mike Fry Foundation's production of 'The Tempest' at Riding Mill Village Hall from 7.30pm. In a previous blog I told you what an inspiring person Mike was and how the foundation has been set up to continue his work with drama in rural areas. Tickets are £5 and obtainable either by visiting the Mike Fry Foundation page on Facebook or by dropping me an email. Please see my contact page on this website.
Six sleeps and lots of drama, that's my recipe for whiling away these last few days. Whatever you get up to this weekend, I hope you have a lovely time.
Just mind those slugs.
Yesterday evening was my book launch party in Il Piccolo in Corbridge and it was absolutely one of the best evenings of my life. And I wasn't even drinking for most of it.
True, in the hours leading up to it I could feel myself getting more and more nervous and the moment when I accidentally slammed the car boot down on the red heart-shaped helium balloons was a bit of a sickner (they all survived) but as the first people came in through the restaurant door, I knew everything was going to be all right. It was one of those evenings when everyone seemed 'up for it'.
Traditionally at these events, your publisher or agent stands up and says a bit about you, then you read some excerpts from your book and give people the opportunity to buy signed copies.
We went off piste a little. Well, what's the use in having the room stuffed full of Am Dram types if you don't make use of them? So instead of me just reading, I had Eileen, Ian and Pat taking the parts of Ellie, Jack and Edith and a few other characters while I did the narrator's bits. We'd rehearsed the night before and they did me proud. A few seconds in and people were starting to laugh and I have to say it was a marvellous sound. Writing is a solitary profession and though I've had feedback from my agent and publisher and some brave friends and family who read the early drafts, for a while there's been silence.
What happened after that was a bit of a blur... people bought books, I signed them, at some points there was a queue. I had two large glasses of red wine and probably after that what I wrote in the books became even harder to decipher.
Later, in the pub I took a deep breath and thought back over the evening and wondered why it had been so magical.
Because I was the centre of attention? Because I got to finally unleash Wolfie on the public?
No. And this is going to come across as sentimental mush but you'll just have to stomach it I'm afraid. It was because when I looked around the room I saw people who always manage to put a spring in my step and make me feel loved and valued. As I said in my speech, so many people have been supportive and enthusiastic throughout this whole head-to-book process that whatever happens with Wolfie, I am already incredibly lucky.
I'll post some photos of the event over the next few days, but in the meanwhile, many thanks to David and Jennie from Forum Books for all their hard work and to Il Piccolo for such great hospitality. And to those friends and family who wanted to be there but couldn't, we'll have our own mini celebrations when I see you next.
First of all, sorry to tell you this, but the Wolf suit isn't going to happen. Yes, I know, but in the cold light of day and for once in my life taking advice from my OH, I decided that lovely though both suits were, they were not the sexy, romantic image I was aiming for. Also, as much as I racked my brains I could not think of anyone prepared to wear one. Standing outside a restauarant. In daylight. In an area where they knew people and had so far maintained the illusion that they were sane.
Yup, the honest truth is no one loves me enough to look that ferocious or that cute. Sigh.
So, if the wolf isn't causing me night terrors what is? Well before I tell you, I should perhaps explain that when I started with these blog entries I made a conscious decision that alongside giving you an insight into the person behind the writing, I would try to be honest about the whole writing process as I saw it. I think that's important, especially for anyone reading this who is trying to develop as a writer - whether your aim is to get published or simply discover a better way of expressing yourself. I've never found the author websites where everything in the writing garden is lovely, very helpful. Those where people were prepared to talk about the days when writing comes out like curdled concrete, or how getting a rejection feels, were in some strange way, the ones that inspired me more.
So you'll get my unvarnished responses to the writing life here and, consequently, sometimes fear and anxiety rather than wall-to-wall gloss and word counts.
Which means that I have to tell you it is the thought of getting a book published that has had me blinking away in the dark the past few nights with my stomach doing little revolutions.
Now, before all of you who dream of getting published hurl things at your computer and shout STOP BLEATING ON WOMAN DON'T YOU KNOW HOW LUCKY YOU ARE? I should say quickly that yes, I do. Getting a book published is quite simply fantastic, brilliant and life enhancing. I've dreamed of this and worked hard for it and when I look at Wolfie sitting on my desk it actually makes my throat go tight and if I didn't take evasive nose-blowing action, I would probably have a little cry. In a good way.
But it is still a scary thing knowing Wolfie will be out there being read by people I don't know. It's a bit like going to the Edinburgh Fringe and realising that for the first time ever, the audience is not made up of people from the village there to support you, but people who picked up the flyer for the play, paid their money and sat down on the seat. They won't be cutting you any slack because you're that nice woman who helped get the playpark refurbished, or because the lead actor is the guy who delivers the post. They want to be entertained and whether you do it badly or well is the only thing in which they are interested.
Now, for a writer that sets up two voices in your head. Well for this writer it does. The first one says, 'Great, finally a wider audience will get to read Ellie and Jack's story and they are going to love it. How couldn't they? It's sexy and funny with some sad, tender bits and by the time they've closed that back cover they're going to feel like a bit of wrung out lettuce.'
The second voice goes, 'But what if they don't like it? What if they don't get the humour. What if they don't get Jack? Or hate Ellie? Or don't like the cover? What if there's a whole chunk of the story missing, eaten in the print process? What if someone's offended by the sex? What if they don't like the typeface? What if the Barcelona tourist board sues me? Or the makers of Scrabble? What if people pick it up thinking it's about Virginia Woolf? What the hell am I doing in all these bookshops? How much would it cost me to buy all the books myself to save face? How big a bonfire would they make?'
During the day the first voice wins out all the time - but in the night, the second one has started to take over. I know it's simply filling the vacuum of these last few days - the period between when the book has been printed and before I get some reviews and feedback from readers. They seem like awful long days, dragging their feet, and I'm eager to get started. I'm fed up of being a 'writer in waiting' and whatever the feedback is, I want to hear it.
So... speaking of the days still left to go, I'll be blogging more frequently from now on, giving you a bit of background information about the book and why I've set it where I have; where I got the idea for some of the characters, and most importantly, what that huge chunk of type on page 345 would have said if the typesetter hadn't lost it.......
To the Drama Club's produciton of 'Steel Magnolias' on Saturday. Strange to come into the hall and turn right into the auditiorium rather than left to go backstage; even stranger that OH and I sat together, as normally either he is stage managing or doing lights, or I am acting. It was nice though not to have those butterflies in the stomach as you hear the end of the pre-show announcement about 'turning off your mobile phones' which is the signal that the house lights will then go down and in a few seconds you will be 'on'.
Having said that there is always part of you wanting to be on the stage when you're not and maybe, maybe if I'm honest, in among your wish that everyone does well is a little streak of jealousy that has you looking out for stumbles and flaws. Yes, I know, not a nice trait, but scratch any other actor and I bet they'd tell you the same.
Well the news is I had absolutely nothing to let that nasty streak of jealousy feed upon - the cast were brilliant and the final scene had me gulping as I tried hard not to let myself down by blubbing loudly. Getting across the highs and lows in that play within the confines of a hairdressing salon is tricky, as is maintaining a southern USA accent while at the same time giving every impression that you are a hairdresser and know exactly what you are doing. There is so much 'business' and if it's done tentatively it just looks unconvincing. That the cast managed to get across the quite distinct characters of the six roles and make you care deeply about them was a huge achievement. Curse them all!! No, really congratulations to all six cast members, not a weak link amongst you and I think it's one of the best productions we've put on. Congratulations to the Director and Assistant Director too.
In fact, only one thing would have improved it. But that's enough about me.
So, I said I'd let you know how Twitter and I were cosying up to each other. Well, better I think and I can now see that it is a 'huge honeycomb' of opinion and information. So I have read some fascinating articles on the geography of cities; writing and writers, planets and the universe; Japan's reaction to the earthquake, and ok, I admit it, less edifying but entertaining bits about celebrities and their spats (arguments not footwear). I still feel a little friendless on it though but I'm working on it and now have some hundred followers (hope they won't want feeding). So I'm hanging on in there...I re-tweet other people's messages; I'm beginning to point people to articles that they might find of use; I sometimes reply to people I don't follow. I also make a big effort not to make my tweets always about my book, my writing - if it's all about 'spreading the love' I don't think that means self love, particularly.
I guess Twitter is no different from anything else, whether it's alcohol, TV or the internet in general - there is good use and bad use. So rather than bleating on about what I don't like, I'll highlight two particular people who 'give good Twitter' and who make me laugh every time I read them - Steve Martin and Caitlin Moran. Brilliant and with an 'out of left field' way of looking at things, they have their tongues firmly in their cheeks - their own, not each other's - now that would make a good tweet.
Spent yesterday morning hunting down a wolf suit and ended up in a fantastic fancy dress shop in Shotley Bridge. They make masses of the stuff themselves and it's hugely imaginative. They had a choice of two suits. One that is quite cartoony and one which, as the guy in the shop said, he warns people not to get for children's parties as it would make the children 'wet themselves.' Hmm... now in a wolf-based quandry to know which one to choose or am I having some kind of mental aberration trying to get one at all? I do suspect that as having your first book published is as scary as it is holleringly wonderful, my mind has decided to dwell on something bizarre to detract from the other big things I might start thinking about instead. So.... cartoon or incontinence-inducing? Probably need Harry Hill's help on this one...
Sorry, a particularly incoherent title for this blog entry. Haven't really been able to talk in a straight line since a padded envelope arrived on Thursday. Inside were two copies of my book. A book with my name on it and a spine and consecutive pages and everything.
The book looks wonderful - sexy and bright and exciting (smells wonderful too, though you probably won't think about buying it for the smell) and my name is picked out in glitter. Think of that... who needs your name in lights when you can have it in glitter?
So when my elder daughter came home we had a good leap around, both of us holding a copy of the book and then we cleared a little space on the book shelf and set them up there and agreed that yes, they did look just like real books. Hurrah.
Hot on the heels of this came the interview in the local paper with photo. I expected to be somewhere on the inside pages next to the young farmer's drama and the Tynedale Music festival with bearded judges.
Front of second section full page spread. Gave me a bit of a turn when the man on the next table in the cafe was reading it and I was looking straight at myself. So thank you to all at the Hexham Courant for that. I'll scan the article in at the end of the week when this edition is no longer in the shops.
19 days and counting...
Well, today it's 24 days until 'Wolfie' is released into the wild and I've done my first press interview with our local paper and posed for the photographer in the windy surroundings of the Abbey. As my OH said graciously, 'two old things together'. You'll be proud of me that I bit my lip and did not mention anything pointedly about ancient erections.
I can only hope that Tony the photographer is a whizz with the Photoshop as at that time in the morning my face hasn't 'settled'. I did think, as I put on my slap and lippy using the rear view mirror in my car ( I was parked at the time) that I could have done with all the assembled help of the Woman & Home photo shoot to add that bit of extra glamour and take away some of the wrinkles.
Now I'm meant to be sitting here writing more Press Releases to those papers in places where I have lived in the past/worked in the past/once bought a bun in the local bakers. So Bath where I grew up will get one, and possibly Weston-super-Mare where I was born (though feel the link might be a bit tenuous as I left when I was 6 months old and do I really want to resurrect the fact I was born in a part called Bleadon Hill... damn, I've just done it) and Beaconsfield where I spent the last three years of school and Leeds where I went to University. I must admit to guffawing a little at the thought of that last one. I read English and I'm not sure 'Wolfie' would have made it on to the syllabus.
Writing my blog seems more enjoyable than all that tub-thumping and I need to be in just the right mood...catch my ego when it's in the ascendant, not when I'm starting to get wobbly and think 'what was I thinking, in 24 days I'll be on proper shelves in a proper bookshop?' I've been assured that this euphoria/terror thing is quite natural and I keep reminding myself that if anyone tried to take this opportunity away from me, I'd be on them like a, well, like a wolf I suppose.
Also, some time this week, I will get the finished book in my hands and I will ignore the recurring dream I've had where all the type is backwards, or someone else's name is on the cover and I will pick it up and smell it. Yup, before I even flick through the pages to see they are all there I will give it a good sniff and I won't expect it to smell of paper or even the card of the cover, I will expect it to smell familiar, like something that's been separated from me for a while but has now come back. Weird I know and quite possibly mad, but there you go.
Anyway, it takes my mind off wondering where I can find a wolf suit in time for the party I'm having to celebrate the launch. That's the first problem. Persuading someone to wear it is the second one.
Apologies to anyone who has left a comment - although I can read them and am thoroughly enjoying them, I have lost the magic control that means I can answer them...so it's not me being aloof, just stupid. No change there then. I will ask someone who understands these things what I'm doing wrong when I get a chance, but look on this time as a gift - you can say what you like and I can't answer back.
While I'm waiting for Quercus to come back to me with their comments on the second book, I'm concentrating on local PR for 'Wolfie' (of which more in the next blog) and on short stories.
Some of these stories are aimed at magazines and some at competitions. I am going to have another 'go' at the Bridport this year, and possibly other biggies like the BBC short story competition and I've been looking back through some half finished stories to see whether any of them can be knocked into shape and polished by the time the various deadlines come around.
Having a break from a piece of writing seems to improve your ability to be objective about your own work- and I must remind myself of that when I leave things to the last minute and then congratulate myself on managing to get them done. They would no doubt have been better if I'd written them, put them away for a while and then had another, refreshed look.
I don't know whether putting some distance between you and your beautifully crafted piece makes you fall out of love with it a little, but it certainly enables me to be merciless with things that previously I wouldn't have contemplated tinkering with. More intriguingly, things that seemed to work when you last read the piece now leap out at you as patently naff or just damn wrong.
Perhaps before you had a kind of blindness and now you can see clearly...I don't doubt that there is some deep psychological explanation.
So, I have the bare bones of three stories and will work them up and in the meantime I had a piece of good news about a story submitted to 'My Weekly'. They liked it and it will go in the magazine on May 14th. They will also kindly mention 'Wolfie'.
Nothing like a little success to spur you on to try for some more...
Getting into this writing lark has opened up a series of 'firsts' for me and last night was another one. The Romantic Novelists Association (Northumberland Chapter - think Easy Rider bikes, pink leather and sequins) had a 'Girls Night In' at Amble. Organised by the lovely Lynne from Morpeth Library it was held in the Wellwood Pub and I enjoyed it immensely - hope the 18 or so women in the audience did too.
I was one of six writers on the panel and answered a variety of questions ranging from 'How do you organise your writing?' to 'What inspires you?' to 'Does your other half read your work?'
We're all totally different writers - Mills & Boon, contemporary romance, historical sagas, non-fiction etc. so there was a nice range of replies for people to listen to.
The members of the group who were not on the panel kindly womanned the selection of books that were for sale. I don't have any copies of 'Wolfie' yet but I took along some of the 'Booklovers' Appreciation Society' the anthology of short stories in which 'One Careful Owner' appears.
Three people bought a copy and two wanted them signed and I'm not telling you that in a 'hey, look at me' swanky way, but because I have never, ever sold a book in which I've written a story before and certainly never signed one. It was another little step forward on that road to believing I am a writer and I will never forget it. So to Elizabeth whose book I signed first, thank you very much.
And thank you to the pub as well, if you're ever in Amble I would pop in, they were fantastic hosts and the buffet - my word, can't imagine anything further from curled up sarnies and limp quiche.
So all in all, a great evening and as always my fellow writers were brilliant company. Here's to the next one.
Lots of good things have happened to our Drama Club - going to the Edinburgh Fringe, making it to our 60th Anniversary - but one of the best things that ever happened was Mike Fry.
Mike was a drama teacher at Haydon Bridge High School and I think I'm right in saying that the first time we as a Club encountered him was at the Tynedale Drama Festival. Although I wasn't there I remember my husband coming home and telling me about this incredible guy who had been positive and encouraging about all those who had performed, and who made you believe that well, really, there wasn't very much in life you couldn't just go straight out that minute and achieve.
Luckily the appreciation was mutual and he not only joined our Drama Club but with all that enthusiasm, encouraged us to try new things. New things like Shakespeare and Chekov and he acted alongside us in plays and accompanied us to the Fringe. Sometimes his vision for a play seemed so great and the task so huge that you coudn't beleive he was going to pull it off this time, but he always did, never settling for the easy or the expected. Talking nineteen to the dozen, pacing around, whirling his arms about he was a force of nature and I never, ever heard him say a mean or underhand thing about anyone. If that makes him sound like a goody two shoes, he wasn't - he was good company, had a laugh that could startle cattle and I'm sure wasn't always easy to manage in the increasingly target/monitored/measured world of education - one of his ex Head Teachers described him as a 'delightful headache.'
Mike had many strands to his life - he was a lay preacher, he climbed mountains, he ran fells, he loved Shakespeare and Judi Dench, but most of all to his core and through his bones, he was a teacher in the fullest sense of the word - illuminating the world and opening up young people's eyes to the possibilities around them.
His productions at Haydon Bridge were legendary - anyone who wanted to act was included and they were often staged with the minimum of scenery, but they did everything great drama should do when it hits the button and allows those on stage to communicate directly with those in the audience. There was nothing overblown or showy about them and I have fond, fond memories of going to see Les Miserables one year, a show I believed I could take or leave, and sobbing quietly into my tissue for most of the second half. When I bought the CD of the London show to play in the car, my daughters listened to it for a while before one of them said, 'Nah, it's not as good as Mike Fry's version.'
Mike was the kind of teacher I wish I'd had at school and there are hundreds of young people (and now not so young) out there who remember him lighting some kind of blue touch paper inside them and making them understand that they had to grab life with both hands. I remember walking down the street with him in Edinburgh one year and every now and again someone would shout out his name and it would be an ex-pupil up there either to see a show, or performing in one.
I expect you've probably guessed from the tone of this piece that Mike is no longer with us, dying of a brain tumour in 2009 in his late fifties. It's a measure of the man not only that he accepted what was happening to him with grace and an unshakeable faith in God, but that at his funeral there was more congregation than church - loudspeakers had to convey the service to those outside and people returned to Haydon Bridge from all over the country to be there. What I find more comforting is that he didn't have to wait until he was dead to understand how people felt about him - during his illness pupils at the school and those he had taught over the years, set up a Facebook page conveying their thoughts and good wishes and it's lovely to know that in those last months he finally realised what a difference he had made to people.
Now the Mike Fry Foundation has been launched to carry on his passion by supporting young people working in the arts in rural Northumberland through workshops and grants. You can find out more about it by going to www.mikefryfoundation.org.uk
And next time you see a really moving production of Shakespeare, give him and other inspirational teachers like him a quick and grateful thought.
Just a reminder that there is a little envelope sign at the bottom of every instalment of the blog and if you want to leave a message, I'd love to hear from you.
I've written for a living for years but whenever I sat down to write more 'creative stuff' for my own enjoyment, I would look at the screen ten minutes later and still find it empty. I'm convinced some of that is because I hadn't found 'my voice' at that point - I know that sounds very arty and quite a long way up my own bottom, but there you are. I was trying to write something hefty and literary and the inspiration and the voice just wasn't there.
Spin forward to 2007 when I stumbled on Richard Armitage, (not literally, I'm not that lucky). He was playing John Thornton, cotton mill owner, in the BBC's adaptation of North and South and at one point he was on his knees talking to his mother and he gave a sigh, a kind of heart-broken, vulnerable, soldiering-on sigh and something went 'ping'. I heard it distinctly in my head and whereas it might have been the equivalent of all of my corset hooks giving way at once, I prefer to think it was something opening in my brain. Something that made me remember how all-absorbing getting lost in a love story could be.
Sure, this was an attractive man on my screen on his knees, but it was more than that. The intensity of the acting was what got to me - so emotionally honest that one believed this man was yearning for someone he couldn't have. Which in turn made me remember all those Jilly Cooper novels I used to enjoy and all the daydream stories I had made up over the years in my head while waiting for trains to arrive and dinner to cook and children to skip out of school.
It also made me think, 'If he's working his socks off like that to communicate with an audience, what's stopping you trying a bit harder with your writing?'
I'm not sure what would have happened to that enthusiasm if I hadn't then stumbled on a website that as well as discussing Mr Armitage's finer physical points (of which there are many), also provided a showcase for people's writing. Reading some of those stories encouraged me to try my own and to help others write theirs. It was a Creative Writing Club with added oestrogen and a fair amount of hyperventilating, and suddenly I found my voice... humorous, romantic, sexy.
In the light of all this it probably won't surprise you to know that there's a fair amount of John Thornton in Jack Wolfe, the lead male character in my book, with dashes of Guy of Gisborne thrown in for good measure (but not the psychopathic, woman-stabbing ones). He's a full on Alpha male but when you look closer, I hope you'll find that same vulnerability that I heard back in 2007 in that sigh.
Writing the book is about two thirds of the story. Publicising it is another - hundreds of books are published each week in the UK, so from the moment yours toddles out with its little virginal pages, you're fighting to make it visible.
For those of us who were brought up not to 'show off' blowing your own trumpet is something that has to be learned. So, in the spirit of this I am reproducing a comment made by someone who Quercus showed Wolfie to. They were neither insane, drunk or paid money to give their opinion and I reproduce it here to do with what you will. I personally am having it tatooed on my left thigh to flash at people in the street.
"This story is great fun...reminds me of Helen Fielding so I imagine will be a great success."
Ok, commercial break over....
Seems kind of apt to be writing about this on Oscars' Weekend (ok, I am saying that with my tongue firmly in my cheek).
I always had a certain idea about Amateur Dramatics, and it was a fairly curled-lip one. People too old for the parts they play; a succession of middle-brow plays featuring French windows and farcical situations; wobbly scenery. Now I know that all of these things are true - but not universally true. It is possible to take part in Am Dram (as we luvvies like to call it) and never see a French window or a farce or a fly that you daren't brush against or it will fall on you. Sorry, few too many 'f's' in that last sentence.
I'm not quite sure how I got involved in the local Drama Club, I think they jumped on my OH when we moved to the village as he'd worked backstage in the Belgrave Theatre in Coventry during their summer youth theatre sessions - I got welcomed in as the matching bookend. At first I just pootled around doing costumes and making tea but then one heady day I got the part of a maid and discovered something about myself that most of my friends probably knew already: I was a right little show-off. One sniff of the greasepaint; the faintest whisper of a laugh from the audience and I was smitten. I discovered that I loved being on that stage and everything that came with it - all the rehearsals, the wigs and costumes, learning the lines - it was all great and made me feel..sorry, luvvie moment coming up... like I was flying somehow when everything went right.
I had of course fallen on my feet with our Drama Club. It's been going 60 years and yes, we've done our share of farces and typical Am Dram fodder, but we've also performed, among others, Shakespeare and Chekov, Gogol and Alan Bennett and covered both ends of the historical spectrum from Euripedes 'Trojan Women' to Alistair Beaton's 'Feelgood'. Not content with performing on our own little patch of Northumberland, we have also taken ourselves off to the Edinburgh Fringe, twice, with one ancient and one modern play each visit and lost neither our dignity or our money (although some of our livers had bits missing when we came home).
As well as the thrill of getting out there in front of people and being someone else, I love the camaraderie and, also the -ahem- gentle bitchery and waspishness that comes when any group of people work together under pressure to get something on its feet. At times hysteria also sets in as you try to maintain the play 'out the front' while things fall apart backstage. Over the year the Drama Club has probably seen most things happen from actors going over to the pub for 'a swift one' and only just being got back in time to go on the stage, to people knocking themselves out on bits of scenery to someone actually dropping dead just as they came off stage (yes, we did carry on that night and the other nights of the run. The show did go on.)
Acting has also helped my writing tremendously as I've been able to experience what makes a story work: how to vary pace; how to create believable characters through dialogue and action; how to play the light and the dark. How to avoid selling the raffle tickets during the interval.
I'll keep dipping into Am Dram in these blogs - I mean I've barely touched on things like the great Wig Wars when we performed 'The Rivals' or the problems of sharing a Dressing Room with teenagers at the Fringe who had worn the same clothes for three weeks without washing them or,even, the pitfalls of having to kiss someone on stage who next day you have to see in the village shop. Ah, it's a rich and varied world - probably one of the reasons I've chosen it as a backdrop for my second book - and also, hey, what's not to love about a hobby where you get to play both Helen of Troy and Lady Macbeth... although not in the same play?
Mrs Macbeth emotes
Sorry I've been MIA but had to get that second draft finished before half term and have managed it, even though it did take an 'all-nighter' when I tripped (literally) up the stairs at 6.30 as the birds were singing.
Am now in that lovely place all writers will recognise between when you have submitted your work and when you get feedback. For a few days I can be the best writer in the world before the reality check comes in.
Funny how all those displacement activities that seemed so attractive when I was meant to be knuckling down to writing (I mean I even looked at the kitchen cupboards and thought I might scrape the top layer of scum out of them, give me strength) have now reverted to their rightful place way down my list of priorities. Scrubbing the grouting in the bathroom with a toothbrush (my husband's, he's none the wiser) will have to wait till my mother in law next visits. (Just read that back and sounds as if I'm going to get her to do it rather than that's when all the backlog of housewifery gets done.)
I did want to start talking about acting in this blog but am having a little detour via Chekov.
Last week I did unchain myself from the computer long enough to go to Northern Stage to see an intriguing double bill. First up was a monologue 'On the dangers of tobacco,' by Chekov, next was a modern companion piece to it 'Can cause death' written by Alison Carr. The first play is a little lecture given by a man disgruntled with life (and his wife) and the second shows the oration his wife gives at his funeral. David Bradley who has an acting CV of amazing length and depth (but is probably best known for his roles in 'Our Friends in the North' and Filch in the Harry Potter films) played both parts and his transformation on the stage from a man to a woman was one of the most mesmeric things I've seen. Did I mention the whole thing was really funny too?
Even more impressive was that you could not see the join with the writing, so nothing seemed bolted on. An amazing achievement from a twentieth century Geordie woman. The Q and A session afterwards was excellent and David Bradley made an interesting comment that the second play had actually informed the way he acted the first one... up until now the wife had been an unknown quantity and now she had a voice. The play was only on for two nights but will be on again at the Latitude Festival in the summer.
Alison Carr has her own website, and is definitely a woman to watch. (In a good way, not in a stalkery way, obviously).
Second draft of second book has been taking up a lot of my time this week and I'm a bit panda eyed from the late nights meeting the early mornings. The second book is set in Northumberland and has my usual twists and turns, but by the end of the first draft I had written a doorstop-sized book which needs to be trimmed and tightened up and tuned and all those other words beginning with 't' that I have made a list of and am currently getting the cat to sit on.
And doing all these 't' things to the book means being objective and not self-indulgent with yourself about 'letting some stuff go.' Some people call this kind of editing 'murdering your little darlings' but I prefer to think of it as not clouding the narrative drive or distracting from the story of two people falling for each other. I write romances after all, not travel guides to Northumberland, so some of my lovingly crafted descriptions of the countryside are now sitting sulking in another computer file. Perhaps I should offer them to the Tourist Board.
Things are also starting to make me finally understand that in April I will have a book coming out...it is actually going to happen. It was back in November 2009 that I found out I had got the two book deal with Quercus, and April 2011 seemed a long way away. Now it isn't.
This week I have been approached to take part in various events (see News) and to answer some questions about Wolfie to appear on a chicklit website nearer publication date. Having been used to promoting a whole range of other things as an advertising copywriter, I now have to promote myself and my writing. I suppose in this I'm lucky that I'm used to getting up in front of people and acting, but this isn't going to be acting, this is talking about what came out of my head and went on a page and why I think people will enjoy it. Much more personal and exposing.
And I always seem to hear a voice saying 'hark at her blowing her own trumpet.' It's a particularly English trait and maybe also a feminine one to hold back from saying that you're good at something or if you do manage to say it, rushing on to add little caveats about, 'it's just a ...' or 'it's not really...' I think of it as dropping the anvil of modesty on your own head before someone does it for you.
Promoting yourself and your writing also means, these days, making full use of all the social networking stuff out there - the main ones being, I guess, Facebook and Twitter. The first I've used for a while now to chat to friends, the second is completely new to me and three weeks in my jury is still out. And I fully accept it is not Twitter's fault, it is mine- when I was at Brownies they were still teaching semaphore so at an early age I got the message that where communication was involved you had to be damn sure you wanted to say this thing because it was going to take a lot of effort. With Twitter your arms don't end up hurting, but I'm finding my brain does.
The best tweets are funny, thoughtful and point you in the right direction for more information on things that you wouldn't have stumbled on yourself. I think the people tweeting them are doing it right - they've realised it's not all about them, but about enriching everyone's experience.
Then there are all the others.
The most off-putting tweets are from people constantly beating their chest and yelling 'look at me, buy this, try my new...' About as subtle as a dinosaur with its piles on fire. Or for some reason they want to tell you what they've had for tea/might have for tea/are going to have for tea. I thought they were roadtesting a new brand of surreal humour at first, but no. If I was being told about a banquet that included ocelot on toast, or that from the window it was possible to see Lady Gaga swimming round the moon or even that the spirit of Genghis Khan would be discussing the finer points of disembowelling in the shrubbery, hell, those would be some tweets.
There's also the slightly discombobulating aspect of following someone you don't know, commenting on their post and wondering a. do I look needy and b. If they don't acknowledge it do I now look like the last girl to get picked for the netball team?
I think one of the secrets is to be careful who you follow - I was reminded of Freshers' Week at University where you go around madly making friends and then spend the next few weeks working out who you really have anything in common with. I have now gravitated to writers and comedians and anything to do with the north east and have to say I am less stressed by the whole thing. I mean Liz Hurley and her parrot are interesting, don't get me wrong, but if I knew her that well shouldn't I ring her, or even the parrot? If I don't know her that well why is she letting me peer through her keyhole ...and why do I want to look?
So... at the moment Twitter feels strange and a little like standing watching a party in full swing from behind a plate glass window... you knock and every now and again someone turns and smiles. With time I might get through the glass.
I know I should be using it more; I know it's one of the best ways to get yourself 'out there.' It just feels a little alien to me.
I'll keep you posted how I get on. In 140 characters of course.
PS. No real ocelots were harmed in the making of this blog.
You can't write for a living for any length of time without understanding that you need to develop an extra layer of skin. I went back over my writing diary recently (which sounds grand but is often a piece of tear-stained paper with one or two word entries such as 'Japan Festival' or 'Sheep Story' scrawled in blood) and thought what I found might give some encouragement to those who sometimes feel a little crushed by the feedback they receive.
"Come back from meeting with agent and editor in which they say lovely things and the sun is shining and all is right with the world. Next day an envelope with my handwriting on arrives... wey hey.... what is this? I've won a competition? Story accepted by a magazine?
It is yet another rejection from a magazine I've been trying to 'crack' for a while. This time they only took a week to decide I was 'not for them.' Last time it was a couple of weeks. Conclude I must be getting worse. Stomp off muttering 'didn't want to be in their magazine anyway'.
Enter Myslexia short story competition, Sunday Times Short story competition (even though way out of my league) and Children's short story competition. Enter some poems for a Poetry competition. Enter Writer's and Artist's Yearbook short story competition.
Get rejection from BBC for short story.
Eventually I don't get placed in the Myslexia competition (but loved the winning entry so that feels better), don't (unsurprisingly) get anything in the Sunday Times competition (cut and keep some of the winning ones to spur me on to try harder). Don't get anything in the Writer's and Artist's Yearbook and read the winning story and realise I can't write and should just go and CUT ALL MY FINGERS OFF NOW.
Stomp off to do more research on my second book although I have the suspicion this is just to give me an excuse not to write anything.
Buy three collections of short stories by Flannery O'Connor, John Cheever and Vanessa Gebbie. This last lady has loads of awards including the Bridport and her writing is sublime... can't recommend her highly enough. Start to read stories... wonder if I should burn my computer.
Book tickets to hear Philippa Gregory give a talk at Alnwick Castle and wonder if this is immersing myself in writing or just torturing myself.
Write a brochure on Bus Interchanges (that's Stations to you and me) for a client. Client loves it. Decide it might be safer to only write stories about Bus Interchanges in future.
Am not on any list, short, long or that kind of length that pleases no one, for the Fish Prize which I entered way back. Ho hum. Write a few chaptes of new book and think it is all rubbish. No bus stations in any of it.
Go back and read my fan fics .... realise my writing was less bothered about being perfect then and better for it. Try to stop worrying about making an impression with every word I write and go back to getting lost in the story when I'm writing it. Good idea. Sit in front of screen and can't think of anything to write.
Drama Club asks me to get together with two other people and write a short comedy to celebrate 60th anniversary of the club. We do it, don't kill each other and finish it in a couple of weeks. It's not bad, the finished product, and people laugh in all the right places. Decide the message that I should be more relaxed and enjoy writing 'funny stuff' is getting stronger. Yup that's the way to go.
Idly googling my name (as you do) when find that although I didn't get shortlisted for the Fish Prize, I did get longlisted (along with about 299 others) Hurrah, I feel a warmish glow ... only... the story was the bleakest I have ever written, hardly any humour at all. My theory about doing more funny, relaxed writing falls in flames. I know nothing, but perhaps,perhaps that's ok.
Help younger daughter with English homework. 'How did you do?' I ask her a couple of days later. 'The bits I did were all right,' she says, 'But those couple you helped me with, I got wrong.'
Contemplate taking computer to the tip and trying to become a bus driver. "
Was delighted to find out I'd been successful in my application to distribute 48 copies of 'Life of Pi' in Northumberland on March 5th as part of World Book Night. I said I wanted to give them out to school children as I loved the way the book provides no easy answers about what is reality and what isn't - as well as the fact it's so imaginative and so beautifully crafted.
Now I need to think of a way of drumming up publicity and encouraging the young people to take the books. Was thinking about a free Pie with each book but that may just be because I was up late last night polishing my next book (not literally, we have staff for that kind of thing here at Osmond Towers).
My friend Donna (designer of this site) had got 'Love in the Time of Cholera' which poses something more of a problem. Perhaps we just have to go round and offer to fit unsanitary plumbing in everyone's house.
Writing isn't a dangerous job, well not unless you like to use your laptop in the bath while it's plugged in - but it can do strange things to your body and your mind.
I'll draw a veil over the side-effects that sitting down hunched over a computer can have on your posture, your stomach and your 'ahem' backside. Yes, I know I shouldn't hunch, I'm trying to stop otherwise by the time I've finished my second book, I'll be a shoe-in for that Notre Dame guy.
And those are only the side-effects that you can see - not getting enough exercise and sitting scrunched up can also 'slow down' certain bodily functions - where else do you think the expression 'writer's block' comes from?
It's the things writing does to your mind though that are more fascinating. Funny incidents are no longer things that happen and then flit out of your brain: you write them down and think how you can work them into a story. You notice someone with distinctive physical or personal characteristics, you make a note. You hear a particularly affecting story and start wondering what would have happened if....
Another side-effect that I've only just become aware of, as the publication of 'Who's Afraid of Mr Wolfe' draws near (or 'Wolfie' as we call it at Osmond Towers) is the tendency to worry what people you know will think about you when they have read your book. OK, I'm being mealy mouthed here... with regards to the book being a contemporary romance and therefore having a few sex scenes in it. And the reason you start to worry is because, as others who write have told me, people feel it must be based on your own experience. If you try wriggling out of that with the argument that you can write about spot welding never having been a spot welder because you have done the research, you find yourself hurtling down a very embarrassing dead end indeed. 'Ah,' the listener will say, 'so this research, was it first hand or did you just watch.'
I think the best route is to smile enigmatically and say you are a Lady and never discuss such things.
I'll let you know if that works, but now I have to go, there is a spot welder waiting for me upstairs.
Rumour has it that Barbara Cartland used to lie on a chaise-longue swathed in pink chiffon, dictating her books to a secretary. For most writers the reality is more down-to-earth (looks ruefully towards full ironing basket on which cat is managing to sleep and shed hair at the same time) but once in a while something happens that makes you believe you might be on the Glamour Fairy’s list of deserving causes.
The phone rang and it was Sharon at Woman & Home magazine – they have been incredibly supportive since I won the short story competition and extremely generous about publicising my writing. Would I, Sharon asked, be prepared to take part in a feature showing what had happened to seven women who had previously been in the magazine? It would involve a trip to London, having my hair and make-up done, help from a stylist to choose some suitable clothes and a photo shoot.
I don’t know if there is a period of time shorter than a nanosecond, but I took it to say, ‘Of course, how kind.’ Or I may have said, ‘YES, YES, YES, I'LL START WALKING NOW.’
The upshot was that a few days later I was on the 7am train down to London wondering if it was possible to get ‘botox-to-go’ at Kings Cross. With me on the train were several hundred butterflies fluttering around in my stomach. I need not have worried – sure, the guy on reception at the studio was cool and dressed all in black, but I stood tall, remembered that I used to work in advertising and people dressed in black did not scare me and then tripped up the step on the way in. Once over that hurdle though, everyone was unfailingly warm and friendly and soon I was sitting in the make-up room.
Now, you may spend hours and hundreds of pounds on your face, but I do not. I can, if I put my mind to it, scrub up well, but normally my mind is spread pretty thinly across a load of other things. So it was with amazement that I watched what a genius make-up artist can achieve - one who used to do Scarlett Johansson’s make-up, no less. She played down my dubious bits, emphasised the good parts and took infinite care, even down to sticking individual clumps of false eyelashes among my own.
I came into that room looking like a woman of a certain age who had got up at 5am, and went out looking as though I had bathed in dew and touched nothing stronger than water and macrobiotic mung beans all my life.
The stylist then set about working a similar miracle from the neck downwards and helped me choose a stone coloured drapey cardigan, a soft grey vest and white jeans, colours I normally avoid as they clash with the cat hairs. On my feet I had a vertiginous pair of peep-toed wedges and as I put them on something weird happened: I no longer felt apprehensive about having my photo taken; I couldn’t wait to get in the studio.
I think it was Billy Connolly who said that there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing. Perhaps the same applies if you substitute the words ‘social discomfort’ for ‘bad weather.’
Into the studio I tottered; the photographer Liz chatted to me about Northumberland and clicked away, advising me where to put various bits of my body. The whole thing, if you’ll pardon the pun, went by in a flash. After a quick lunch, I was back on the train heading north.
The finished result is in the February edition of the magazine and I was even more pleased to be included in the feature when I saw what some of the other women had achieved, often against difficult odds.
Last word goes to one of my daughters. I was proudly showing her the magazine when she did a double take before saying, ‘Wow, that is a good photo.’ Sub-text: they’ve made you look better than I’ve ever seen you…and I’m thirteen.
She is available for hire to anyone getting a little above themselves.
I haven't always been so keen on having my photo taken
I haven't always been so keen on having my photo taken
I thought I’d leap right in with Northumberland as that’s where I live and because it’s been in my thoughts a lot recently as my second book, currently under production, is set there.
I should admit that I am not a Northumbrian nor even a northerner by birth, but come originally from the West Country, sharing the distinction with John Cleese and Jeffrey Archer of being born in
My first stop in north east England was Gateshead where I spent a lot of time trying to make my southern ears understand the accent and the neighbours probably thought I was deaf due to the frequency with which I said ‘Pardon?’
Just when I was making sense of everything, I moved out to Northumberland and have been here ever since.
Describing a place to people who may never have visited it is always difficult – you’re bound to let your own feelings spill out and sound evangelically tub-thumping. So it’s perhaps safer to say we have lots of this…
plenty of these…ruined… and in perfect working order… and miles and miles of this. Of course, on every street corner you will also find these… OK, I lied about that last one, that’s from my photos of Japan. There are some ropey bits of course, like anywhere, but for the most part it’s a pretty bewitching place with big skies, beautiful light and a relatively relaxed pace of life. It’s still possible to drive on roads where you’ll see few other cars and stand in forests where the only other living thing you’ll encounter has four legs. Sure, the weather can get a little ‘lively’, particularly the wind, but is nowhere near as bad as friends and family down south often imagine when they start asking me, around August, if we’ve had snow yet. The other thing that makes the county attractive is that strain of humour that runs through the north east – wry, dry and kind of self-mocking. And if you like to be able to get on a bus or stand in a queue without someone chatting to you, it might not be your ideal destination. As a writer, I feel Northumberland offers me the best of both worlds – I can be inspired by the beauty of the countryside and enjoy the kind of space and solitude that really gets your mind working, yet vibrant old Newcastle is just down the road with all that energy for me to dip into. When I’m not chained to the computer that is… Please feel free to leave a comment, love to hear from you...and if you'd like to know more about Northumberland and the north east try these two websites www.visitnortheastengland.com and
plenty of these…ruined…
and in perfect working order…
and miles and miles of this.
Of course, on every street corner you will also find these…
OK, I lied about that last one, that’s from my photos of Japan.
There are some ropey bits of course, like anywhere, but for the most part it’s a pretty bewitching place with big skies, beautiful light and a relatively relaxed pace of life. It’s still possible to drive on roads where you’ll see few other cars and stand in forests where the only other living thing you’ll encounter has four legs. Sure, the weather can get a little ‘lively’, particularly the wind, but is nowhere near as bad as friends and family down south often imagine when they start asking me, around August, if we’ve had snow yet.
The other thing that makes the county attractive is that strain of humour that runs through the north east – wry, dry and kind of self-mocking. And if you like to be able to get on a bus or stand in a queue without someone chatting to you, it might not be your ideal destination.
As a writer, I feel Northumberland offers me the best of both worlds – I can be inspired by the beauty of the countryside and enjoy the kind of space and solitude that really gets your mind working, yet vibrant old Newcastle is just down the road with all that energy for me to dip into.
When I’m not chained to the computer that is…
Please feel free to leave a comment, love to hear from you...and if you'd like to know more about Northumberland and the north east try these two websites www.visitnortheastengland.com and