Friday, 26 December 2008

Post Christmas post

I meant to post a Christmas post - but guess what: Christmas got in the way! I'm replete with Lindors (love 'em, love 'em, love 'em), the man is well-nigh rubicund on claret and port and the kids are in electronic heaven. Sounds like we got away with it again for another year (at enormous cost!) I can stop bah-humbugging, veg out a bit (as long as it's not on sprouts), maybe read a book for pleasure rather than research or because I'm going to have to compose essay-questions about it. I've even started thinking about approaches to be made in the New Year to new agents. I'm actually really looking forward to the New Year. Will it be the year the log-jam breaks? Steady, old girl - you'll find yourself taking up that familiar Hopeful Author Stance again if you're not careful - and you know what ghastly cramp that gave you ...

I hope you all had wonderful Christmases and that you're all set for a great year of reading and writing - and who know, even being published? (I said, old girl, steady on!)

Monday, 15 December 2008

In the dark night that is very long ...

Sorry I'm late again posting - I'm now on my second lot of antibiotics in two weeks. Felt none too great over the weekend, and adding to the physical grief was the classic female line, running in my head: 'I can't be ill. I can't afford to be ill. It's Christmas and there's too much to do!' Christmas or not, there's always too much to do. I am a permanent tail-chaser - and not in the way a man would be ...

Sad news last week: the death of Oliver Postgate. How many of you out there went 'Aw!' - and how many of you can be dated, generationally, by which of his lovely creations most affected you when you were growing up? Are you a Bagpuss kitten? Not me: too late. Or a Clanger? Ditto. I'm a Noggin the Nog-o-Phile. 'In the lands of the north, where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long, the Men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale.' That lovely mellifluous all-is-safe-children voice of Postgate's would lullingly transport you to the Northlands, to where Noggin the Nog ruled with his queen Nooka. Slowly and calmly, for there was all the time in the world, he told you of Thor Nogson, Noggin's friend; of Graculus, the great green bird and best of all, of Nogbad the Bad, greatest of villains, bwah hah hah! The stilted animation, the delightful sneers of evil on Nogbad's face, the bewildered innocence writ large on Noggin's and Thor Nogson's phizzogs, the harmless ice dragon with its self-pity, the exotic flying machine - all absolute delights, all utterly utterly English and cosy. Go to sleep, little ones, for in the Northlands and in all other lands, all is well. Oliver tells us so.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Tough Cookies of the World Unite

First of all, thank you thank you to the lovely Karen at for giving me my first blogging award, which I've proudly posted on the right! I'm chuffed on two counts: getting the award, which I hope also to pass on to some of my favourite bloggers, and learning how to get the dratted image onto my blog (teenage boy came in handy for that one!)

I'm sorry I didn't blog last week - pressure of work and a bit of a cold are my excuses, plus the startling revelation from my current agent that she's about to retire: all this knocked me for six and I didn't have the heart to write about bookish things. Those of you who are regular readers will have guessed that 2008 has been a bit of a sticky year for me. You may remember back in June 2007 I took up 'Hopeful Writer Stance'. Well, I'm still there, balanced on one leg, head slightly less in the clouds than before, trying not to wobble, trying to keep the fixed grin pinned to my face. Stomach like a washboard, my dear. (Not). Writing is a continual learning curve: you learn the techniques of the actual composition, you learn the discipline of editing, you do your best to take a professional approach and maximise your chances of publication. You write promotional copy, you think of all the angles, you are careful not ever to sound like a 'difficult author' in any communication with people in the publishing world. However, ultimately you are helpless. The worst aspect for me over the past two years is that I have had to wait. And wait. And wait. For cursory responses, for gushing regrets, for news that another series similar to mine was signed by that particular publisher only a week ago, for praise for my writing but condemnation of my genre. I've been told the central features of my book are no longer in fashion, that booksellers are tired of series (N.B. Booksellers - not readers. We know where the true power lies.) Then I've seen new series signed up, or books with fantasy elements like mine win prizes because the kids out there haven't yet been told those elements are passe. Then there are the publishers who can't be bothered to reply. A ghastly literary limbo that has lasted a full eighteen months.

So what now? Maybe I'll look back on this year as The Year of Taking Stock. Do I go on writing? If so, what do I write? Do I keep on believing in my children's book, a book which a couple of years ago gave me such incredible pleasure to write? Can I recapture that joy and enthusiasm or has it been bludgeoned out of me? If I write something else, what? Will I have to go through all this again - and again - and again? Or do I become mistress of my own fate and self-publish: ruin myself financially in all probability but at least not be at the mercy of Those Who Make Us Wait.

My agent's departure is a wake-up call. It's unnerving and scary to no longer be represented by an agency I've been with for years - but it also has potential. It will make me move on: I need to find someone who will nag me and reassure me and guide me in my dithering and energetically fight my corner. Wish me luck in the search.

This is for sure: we writers have to be tough cookies. Terriers. If you're writing too, hang on in there, won't you? Let's show them.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Angel and Devil!

Today I'm going to nag you and tempt you, like those little angel/demon figures in old Tom and Jerry cartoons: 'No you mustn't!' ... 'Aw, go on! You know you want to!'

First, the virtuous bit. At the end of October, I posted about NaNoWriMo, where people sign up to write 50,000 words in a month. I've been keeping an eye on some of you and the ups and downs you're experiencing - around this time quite a few are at the 35,000 word mark. This is brilliant! I decided not to participate, but there are times when I wish I had. I just couldn't choose which project to pursue and am not feeling the love just now with all things compositional. If you, like me, are not a participant, I would still recommend a look at the NaNoWriMo site: (And can somebody please tell me why when I type a link like this it doesn't automatically get a little line under it anymore to make it function as a link?)

If you go to the Breaking News page or the Fun Stuff page, either should lead you eventually to the pep talks page and this is useful and inspiring. They've asked various famous writers to give advice and encouragement, the latest being Philip Pullman. I recommend looking at his advice, and that of Naomi Novik, Jonathan Stroud, Sue Grafton and Neil Gaiman. If you read through them all you'll find common ground - they all say that a novel begins as a 'burst of enthusiasm' (Grafton). After the 'honeymoon period' (Stroud) the pain and disillusionment set in. It may be at Chapter 2 or at page 70 (Pullman) or much further in - but it will happen. You will run out of steam, run out of self-belief, feel no joy anymore. Ah yes, you're nodding your heads, aren't you? We've all been there. The only answer is to plug on - which these writers advise in wise and witty ways. Sue Grafton says: 'Focus on the job at hand. Ignore the urge to second-guess yourself. This is not the time for introspection; it's a time for charging on. Believe in yourself.' Naomi Novik says: 'Remove distractions. The internet ... is [a] phenomenal tool for procrastination and wasting time. Unplug your connection' - she's right, you know. You can do that after you've finished reading this blog - only after that, understand? Jonathan Stroud says a deadline is a great idea, forcing you to break the task down into manageable chunks: so many words a day, so many pages per month. That's the 'real writing', after the honeymoon and the 'phony war' where 'Scenes start promisingly but peter into nothing. Main characters turn out to have all the zest of a cardboard box abandoned in the rain.' (Careful - all that nodding is going to give you neck-strain.) Neil Gaiman reinforces this: 'You write. That's the hard bit that nobody sees. You write on the good days and you write on the lousy days. Like a shark, you have to keep moving forward or you die.' Philip Pullman concurs, saying you mustn't lose momentum: 'One of the hardest things to do with a novel is to stop writing it for a while, do something else, fulfill this engagement or that commitment or whatever, and pick it up exactly where you left it and carry on as if nothing had happened.' Given his level of fame he must be speaking from the heart: he is working on 'The Book of Dust' after the massive success of the His Dark Materials trilogy and he must have to keep his phone off the hook permanently. He adds: 'once you've established a daily rhythm of work, you'll find it energising and sustaining in itself. Even when it's not going well. This is a strange thing, but I've noticed it many times: a bad day's work is a lot better than no day's work at all.'

You're so right, Philip, we all say, nodding like crazy. Fired up, we turn the computer on, bring the document up - we last wrote a bit five months ago. We scrabble around for plot notes scribbled at the time. If we find them, we try to decipher the hieroglyphic cryptic directions: 'John gs X time to rply then Z ftttts'. We click onto Tools: Word count. Disappointing. Sigh. Type a few words. Erase said words. Type again. Tools: Word Count. Sigh. Need cup of tea. Type again. Decide 1000 words a day far too ambitious. Type a few more words. Hate them. Word count. Wail. Adjust daily word count ambition by incremental steps down to 500, 350, 200. Give up two hours later having written 163. Still, it's 163 closer to the goal than yesterday - or five months back. Mary Wesley was about 80 years old before she was published, wasn't she? That's OK, then.

Here's another suggestion: I'm not sure whether it's angelic or demonic. Angelic in intention, I suppose, demonic in execution. Go to - where there's a widget called 'Write or Die'. Dr Wicked the inventor of this instrument of torture says: 'The idea is to instill in the would-be writer a fear of not writing.' If you are writing, the Write or Die gizmo will penalise you if those keys stop clicking busily. In Gentle Mode 'a box will pop up, gently reminding you to continue writing', in Normal Mode, 'If you persistently avoid writing, you will be played a most unpleasant sound. The sound will stop if and only if you continue to write.' And in Kamikaze Mode, 'Keep Writing or Your Work Will Unwrite Itself!' Aarrgghh!!! If anybody out there has tried this fiendish widget, let me know whether it worked for you!

Finally, wearing my demon's horns, let me tempt you, my Literascribees - betake yourself to - I have my friend Muvva to thank for this one. I had no idea it existed until she mentioned it in her blog A Propos of Nothing in Particular (see side panel blog roll) - and I tried it out late last night. More than an hour vanished like magic as I racked my score higher and higher. If you are NaNoWriMoers, for God's sake, don't go there! Don't! (Aw, go on ...!)

Friday, 14 November 2008

The Last Fighting Tommy

Well, you could argue that, as with all anniversaries the media lock onto, we've had overload - over the past few weeks the First World War has featured everywhere. It's certainly been usefulto me professionally, as I'm currently teaching it as a literature topic. During the week I've been collecting The Guardian's series of booklets on the war and they've been fascinating. I paid more attention than usual to Sunday's Remembrance service and was so moved by the three surviving veterans, Bill Stone (108), Henry Allingham (112) and Harry Patch (110), visiting the Cenotaph on Tuesday with their wreaths of poppies. On Sunday I recorded the programmes about Wilfred Owen and about Vera Brittain, who lost all the men she loved during the war, including her brother Edward, towards the very end of it. On PoemRelish, my other blog, I mentioned her memoir, 'Testament of Youth' among other books worth reading about WW1. On Sunday I found myself wondering why, among this plethora of 1914-18 nostalgia and analysis, the Beeb wasn't repeating the excellent serial version of 'Testament of Youth' first broadcast in the 1970s. It starred Cheryl Campbell as Vera and it was a truly powerful and poignant piece of television drama which brought me to the book, before I ever had to teach it. Now I've found out that, apparently, they're remaking it, so that's why the original was not shown. Hmn. Mixed feelings: it's good in a way that they are, as hopefully it will bring more people to awareness (and we have to rely on the TV screen more than the written word for this these days). There's no reason to assume they won't make a good job of it second time round. But on the other hand, there's that old saying 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' The original was brilliant - why not just re-show it?

I've just finished reading 'The Last Fighting Tommy', the biography of Harry Patch, who is the last man in Britain who actually fought in the trenches. He fought - and was wounded - at Passchendaele. Harry Patch featured on the BBC a few years back and has become famous for his longevity and his memories; his fame has grown as the number of survivors has declined and we all find ourselves unnerved at the prospect of the First World War sliding inevitably out of living memory. He is a man of immense spirit, who didn't really talk about his experiences until he was in his nineties. His eyes still fill with tears when he recalls what he saw and felt. At first I felt a slight disappointment with the book as the war experience (the thing that, essentially, is used to sell the book) doesn't take up all that much space. He trains, he goes over there, he sees the bad stuff, he's wounded by shrapnel, he's invalided home, all in a matter of months. Is that it, then? Well, no. It dawned on me that that's the point: this is the story of an immensely old man, on whom those few months made a great and terrible and lasting impression. His memories lurked within him all through the decades that followed and they have never left him, though all the friends and fellow soldiers, two wives, two sons, and a whole way of life have departed. The book is worth reading because not only does it tell you about that war, it tells you of a century of British life and culture. Harry's childhood was Edwardian: no running water, little awareness of the outside world, little material wealth, harmony with nature. He was a child for whom news of the sinking of the Titanic was of little interest - it took place beyond the narrow limits of his West Country life. After the First World War and during the Second, where he served as a member of the local fire crew during the bombing of Bath, Harry was the sort of Englishman who just got on with life: he is and was, essentially, a decent man, uncomplaining, raising his family, going to work to earn his crust as a plumber, a man who believed in a right way of doing things, who has no patience with pretentiousness or self-indulgence. Bless you, Harry, and even longer life to you: we don't want to lose you, our twentieth century Everyman.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Three Cheers for Blogging

As you know, I usually post to this blog on Thursday or Friday. Yesterday I posted to my other blog, PoemRelish, for the first time (shamefully!) in months, so please do go over to it and take a look. Remember, PoemRelish isn't about my own poems, which, dear readers, I won't inflict on you - it's where I can talk about the poems that I love - without having to set an A level essay question on them! It's about sharing the pleasure of words and perhaps drawing your attention to poems you might not have otherwise discovered.

Once again, I find myself celebrating the very concept of blogging. Yes, there is the danger of reporting trivial minutiae all the time and there is the risk of being totally self-focussed, self-obsessed, self-aggrandising. But the one thing that I have always loved about it is, as Mel Gibson bellows in that well-known hokum version of Scots history, 'Braveheart', 'FREEDOMMMM!!!' As a blogger you write as and when you wish and how you wish and about any topic you please. What could be better? I'm going through a pretty tough time with regard to my own writing and I can't tell you what a comfort it is to have this blog - and this communication with some lovely people whom I've never met personally but who take the time to post comments, who are witty and fun, who are sympathetic and whose blogs lead one in turn to discover yet more writerly blogs, some of which are absolutely brilliant: sparky, feisty, moving, informative, self-deprecating - and all of which reassure us in this desperate writing community we all inhabit, because they tell us we're all in this together. We share the ups and downs, we congratulate success, we nag and encourage, we condole with the distress of rejection and self-doubt. We're in a community - which for writers who are apt to pace the floor or stare at a blank page with an even blanker mind, who can be isolated even within their circle of friends and family because no one understands what they do, no one comprehends the hunger to create, is absolutely crucial. We're each others' comfort blankets. Aw. Time to wheel on Tiny Tim to say 'God Bless us, one and all'!

Friday, 31 October 2008

To NaNoWriMo or not to NaNoWriMo?

Yesterday I entered the Poetry Society's National Poetry Competition, which closes today (typical of me to go virtually to the wire with this). If you're interested, you can still enter online - go to - and even if you don't intend to enter it's still very interesting to look at the past winners of the competition which are posted on the site. Have to say some of them left me cold but one which I thought was absolutely outstanding was the 2002 winner by Julia Copus, called Breaking the Rule. See what you think: it blew me away.

I've been toying with the notion of entering NaNoWriMo, which starts on November 1st. If you haven't heard of it before, this is how it works. You write a 50,000 word novel in a month. That's all there is to it. Then you post it to the NaNoWriMo site and they email you a certificate. Last year, apparently, 100,000 people entered and 15,000 of them actually completed the task. Why do it? Well, to kick start your writing, of course. The point is, it doesn't have to be deathless prose. It's about quantity not quality: it's designed to set you free as you feverishly try to churn out that number of words in the set time. This stops your neurotic editing tendencies, and doesn't give you time to contemplate your navel. You just write, write, write - and who knows, something significant may be liberated from your imagination in the process. Plus the satisfaction of saying 'Hey, I wrote a novel.'

I've just been looking at the website - - and thinking, shall I sign up? Those of you who are regular readers may well have picked up that I've been going through a difficult patch with my own creativity and have had serious doubts about going on - so I wonder if NaNoWriMo's playfulness might help. Part of my problem is that I'm too self-conscious and too self-critical, and I can never decide which of the many ideas in my brain deserves my full focus, so I spread myself about too much. Does that sound familiar to you? A month of dedication to one project might be just the ticket.

However, on balance, I don't think I'm going to go for it this year. I feel that it will add one more pressure to my over-pressurised life and if I fail it'll be one more stick with which to beat myself. If any of you are embarking on it, though, do let me know (or if you've done it in a previous year) - I'd love to hear about your experiences.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Le Rouge et le Non

The back cover of this week's edition of 'The Bookseller' is taken up by an advert for the Royal Mail. I was disconcerted to find, in the small print at the bottom of the page, the following:'Royal Mail, the Cruciform and the colour red are registered trade marks of Royal Mail Group Ltd.'

Mother, whip that red felt pen out of your child's chubby little fist. Teachers, find some other way of marking your displeasure on incompetent essays. Artists, step away from the Vermilion and the Crimson Lake. Santa, start thinking of a costume change. And Rudolph, about your nose ...

What penalties will we incur if we infringe the Royal Mail's rights over the sanguinary shade? Let's think. Post being delivered late? Frequent misdeliveries? Postmen who dump parcels in view of the street, without ringing your bell to check whether you're in? Much needed Post Offices closing right, left and centre?

On second thoughts, just keep using the bloody red.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Woo! New discoveries!

I've been buying a shocking number of books lately - sshh, whisper it. Time was, when I'd have been sneaking carrier-bags of clothes and shoes into the house, tucking them away behind the sofa before spiriting them upstairs. Later I'd wear my new purchase with that 'What, this old thing? Had it ages!' dismissal of my husband's raised eyebrow. Now it's books that are smuggled past his beady eye. 'But you've got a book, surely,' he'll say, not entirely in fun. Like all addictions, the more you tell yourself you'll break the habit, the more you succumb. I'm the same with chocolate.

The paradox, though, is how hard it is to become genuinely excited by a new writer. When you discover a writer you really love, you devour all they've read and wait avidly for the next production (unfortunate if they're dead - although that doesn't stop the Jane Austens and Margaret Mitchells and Daphne du Mauriers of this world still, mysteriously, being able to churn out sequels ...

Often you get suckered into buying a book that has had loads of hype and attention and it fails to live up to expectation - all the more delightful, then, when you do come across a writer whose style and approach causes a frisson, offers the promise of a new voice, a new slant. This happened to me yesterday: I, erm, just happened to stroll into a bookshop (My name is Lorna and I'm a bookaholic and I haven't had a read for ... five hours), ahem, and discovered not one but two writers whom I've heard a great deal about but had not hitherto read any of. One is Kate Grenville: I bought 'Lilian's Story' and 'The Secret River' - reading a couple of passages at random was all it took: I loved the voice and the observation. Here's a passage: 'He was a white-faced, thin-chested fellow with a little pink rosebud mouth, his curls falling down his cheeks from under his hat, all care as he took his lady by the hand and around her back. His glance at Thornhill, standing in the mud and the water, his hands frozen in shape gripping the gunwhale, was not so much one of scorn as of triumph. Look at me, fellow, and what I have got! It was a look that said that the white silk legs, and everything attached to them, were his property, in a way there was nothing in the world that was William Thornhill's property, excepting only his black cap, shrunk in so many rains, that sat on top of his head like a pimple on an elephant's behind. The gentleman looked as though he would not know what to do with a female leg, and although he touched her, there was no pleasure in the touch: the woman, white stocking and silk slippers and all, was a thing he took pride of ownership in, but there was no love in that my love.'

The second writer is Valerie Martin, who wrote 'Mary Reilly' (seen the film) and won the Orange Prize with 'Property', which I'll certainly be checking out. I bought 'The Unfinished Novel and other stories' (how can you resist a title like that!). I've read two of the stories so far, 'His Blue Period', about the rivalry between a struggling painter and the monstrously egotistical and selfish artist Meyer Anspach. Then 'The Bower', in which an academic falls for a gifted student actor. Both stories were a poignant delight, well observed, witty and sad - she has an especial gift for focussing on how we don't always realise the true significance of people, encounters, events at the time, how things can be too much under our own noses to see the real meaning - how hindsight is both a wonderful and terrible thing.

People always say, when house-hunting, that when you walk into the right house, you just know. It feels right. It's the same with writers. Sometimes you just know.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Legend Press Competition

I know that quite a few of my readers (you are still out there, aren't you?) are aspiring writers who may well have written short stories and are nervous of embarking on a writing a novel, though the urge is there. Short story competitions, where many of us first try out our skills, often demand very tight word-counts of around the 2,000 word mark (and, if you're writing flash fiction, the word-count is in the hundreds). Certainly, it's a very good discipline for a writer, to be economical with words. However, if you want to try a longer flight of fancy, without the scariness of tackling 80,000 words or so for a novel, how about taking a look at the well-regarded independent publisher, Legend Press, who are currently taking submissions in their short story competition. Submissions have to be in by 31st October, so you'll have to get weaving. The prize is publication in their next short story collection, next March - this is the fourth in the series. I recommend this sort of competition because agents do look at published anthologies when they're looking for new talent to sign - it's how I was taken on by my original agent. Story length is 9,000 to 12,000 words, so you have room to flex some muscle. They want thought-provoking, stream-of-consciousness style, and no genre fiction: they're a hip, modern enterprise. If you're interested, go to for full details - and good luck!

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Society of Authors AGM

On Monday I nipped up to the big smoke to attend the Society of Authors' AGM at the accessible but somewhat spartan venue of Conway Hall, Red Lion Square. To be honest, having not attended for a couple of years, I decided to go more to have a chance to meet up with my friend Anna McGrail, who's a brilliant novelist ('Mrs Einstein') but who for the past few years has had to put fiction writing on the back burner to concentrate on the Baby Centre websites she sets up all around the world and the Good Spa Guide which she and her friend Daphne publish. She gave me a copy of their latest edition - browsing through it, with its gorgeous photos, is the next best thing to being able to visit one of the spas ...

At the AGM Tracy Chevalier, the Chair, reviewed what has been a busy year for the Society, covering some of the concerns I've explored in this blog: the reduction in PLR rates, for example, and the campaign against Age Ranging on children's books. There is no doubt that the Society is an active and vocal campaigner on our behalf but it did seem to me that figures from the Government, the Arts Council and the various publishers who wish to print age-ranges on books, manage to wriggle out of any real reply to our concerns with empty weasel-phrases about 'consultation' and so on. With age-ranging, which I haven't mentioned for a while, a very effective campaign has been waged by children's writers - but I do feel that only the names with clout will have the power, when push comes to shove, to veto what publishers want to do.

After the AGM there was a panel discussion: various big guns of the industry were lined up to answer our questions. Graham Rand is involved in the book supply business, Jonny Geller is a major agent at Curtis Brown, Alexandra Pringle is editor in chief at Bloomsbury. All three were experienced, articulate and frequently entertaining. All three flattered the audience - the usual bromide that they need us, the authors, to keep providing 'content' for them to survive. You bet your bottom dollar they do - but it still rang hollow to me, when the discussion revolved around the usual concerns: digital rights, authors finding proper marketing for their books, the difficulty of being published at all (answer, as ever, that you must go away and write what you in your heart of hearts want to write, not what you think the market wants, and that quality will out, a good book will always be published - rubbish! This is true to some degree but we all know good writing also needs the stiff breeze of good fortune in its sails, and we all know that lots of rubbish, especially with a celebrity name attached, finds a publisher). Early in the discussion there was focus on the importance of EPOS figures: to the uninitiated, these are the electronic point of sale figures that tell a publisher or bookseller how many copies you shifted of your 'product' to the 'market' if you published before - and if they weren't good, you better start praying - or better still, change your identity. Later, EPOS was dismissed as not crucial at all. Well, which is it?

Alexandra Pringle talked about how she had temporarily been an agent because she could no longer bear the limits placed on her freedom as an editor at a major publisher - she is now with Bloomsbury because it gives her more independence. She told us that 'The Kite Runner' and 'Eat, Pray, Love' were both word-of-mouth successes with no real marketing spend. However, Graham Rand said that when a book is being touted to booksellers by the publisher, they look at EPOS and marketing spend to see whether or not the publisher is really behind the book - and of course, the publisher can't be behind every single book they publish to the same degree. All three panellists agreed that too many books are published each year (approaching 150,000) - yikes!

Jonny Geller said that nowadays the sales force has as much clout as the editor when it comes to making buying decisions (take a look at my post just after the Winchester conference in June for a similar view). Increasingly an author has to become a 'brand' - and the big brand authors are selling more than ever these days, while the 'mid-list' suffers. Of some comfort, there is a feeling that the book industry will survive the credit-crunch better than other areas because a book, as a consumer item, doesn't cost as much as a cooker or a sofa, so people may still throw a little spare cash our way!

Looking to the future, there was discussion of e-readers. Jonny Geller said e-books would be successful to a point but it's not an industry yet. Alexandra Pringle said the younger generation will be more open to it and I agree with that: they're the 'digital natives' after all. She proudly waved her Sony e-reader about and said that as an editor, it had transformed her life as she could load lots of manuscripts onto it. I posted about e-readers recently. Last week in Waterstone's I had a closer look at the Sony: I do find its slimness appealing, along with the idea of being able to travel without my bag weighing me down. But I didn't like the buttons - when you turn the page, the screen goes temporarily dark - and somehow, there was something quite dispiriting about it. When push comes to shove, old dear that I am, I just like pages. I like the feel of paper under my fingers - not some titchy button.

Ms Pringle predicted that there will be an increasing market for luxury hardbacks but that more publishers would print straight to paperback, as is, indeed already happening. She praised the large 'Royal' paperback format, saying a novel could come out in that form instead of hardback (as, again, already happens frequently) before coming out later in a smaller trade paperback. Well, call me stupid, but one of the reasons I infrequently buy hardbacks is size. They're just too bulky - so a book either has to be by a writer much-loved or it has to be a totally exquisite article in itself, to justify the shelf-space. Otherwise I'll wait for the £7.99, manageably-sized pb. I'm not going to shell out £11.99 or so on a huge, hard-to-handle paperback that will take up as much space as the hardback would have.

The question of self-publishing was raised, again not unexpectedly, given that it has become a much more accessible way for writers to reach readers. Of course, the panel were quite edgy about that: Alexandra Pringle said it was 'fine' for writers 'if it makes them happy' - which I thought was pretty condescending. Yes, newsflash, publication of our words, however we manage it, makes us happy! Not rich, though ... Ms Pringle also celebrated the 'family' relationship between an author and a publisher. I thought Jonny Geller was far more honest when he said 'The only person who really really really cares about your work is you' and described how you need the psychological ability, the resilience to cope with criticism and rejection.

All in all, I came away not having learned much more than I already know. And what can you, dear readers, take away with you? If you're regular readers of this blog, you'll know how I feel: this writing game, this quest for publication/recognition/validation, it's a love/hate relationship. You get smacked in the mouth, you vow you'll walk away, and this time it's for good. You suck on the bitter lemon of envy, you get fired up with ambition, you float on the pink cloud of dreams, you put your head in your hands in black despair. But all the time, words are in your brain, what ifs in your imagination; essentially, you just can't help yourself, you poor sap. So do what they advise: write what is in your heart, write for yourself - but keep your ear cocked always to the distant hunting-horns and view-hallooing of the marketplace.

And Anna, one day, throw the baby out with the Bath Spa-water, and write your stories again!

Friday, 3 October 2008

In a Minute

What does a minute mean to you? Is it sixty seconds worth of multi-tasking, is it a fragment of an hour spent silently reading, is it spent yelling at the kids to tidy their room, is it spent tootling round a supermarket, is it spent looking for a parking place, or do you pass it day-dreaming (creatively, of course)? When the fifty-ninth second ticks and the sixtieth arrives, do you leave behind you a minute's worth of distance run? Or have you just clocked up another wasted mini- instalment of your life?

What does a minute mean to J.K. Rowling? Well, according to Forbes magazine's review of authors' incomes, it means $571. Now we who have scarcely reached the foothills (in fact are scarcely on the approach road to the foothills) and gaze up at the dazzling snow-capped peaks of literary earning power she has scaled, might well be excused for feeling a tad bitter about this. But I'm cheered by two things: she has demonstrated that it is possible, albeit incredibly rare, for the fairy-tale to come true. She started with nothing and now has everything (apart from privacy and critical respect from some quarters?). And she's earning six times more than the James Patterson fiction factory, churning out eight books a year with his 'writing partners'. At least she writes her own books.

Now, what did she earn during the time it took me to write this ...?

Note to self: make better use of your minutes, woman!

Thursday, 2 October 2008


It's good to see an excellent shortlist for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award, which will be announced on 27th October. It includes Andrew Taylor's 'Bleeding Heart Square' and C. J. Sansom's 'Revelation'. I haven't got round to reading that one yet, but I mentioned I'd read 'Sovereign' in the summer and enjoyed it very much - I think Sansom is going from strength to strength. I read Andrew Taylor's 'The American Boy', which is set in Victorian times and features Edgar Allan Poe and remember liking it. It's funny to think that when I was writing 'The Chase' (which has some historical episodes in it), my agent was very uneasy and wanted me to take them out because at that time historical fiction didn't sell. I stuck to my guns - the episodes stayed. People really do enjoy being transported in time and place - it's wonderful that historical fiction of the highest quality is so popular now.

Mind you, a little historical jaunt doesn't need to be of the highest quality - one of my shameful pleasures, I have to confess, is watching 'The Tudors' on TV. It's daft, over the top, totally miscast, utterly cosmeticised, it's Dallas at Whitehall Palace, it's hammy, it is barely on speaking terms with historical accuracy - but it's beautifully filmed and weirdly addictive - and I don't think I'm alone in my addiction!

Thursday, 25 September 2008

AQA's Unkindest Cut

My elder son, as loyal readers will know, sat his GCSEs a few months ago (and yes, in spite of all the angst, he did well, especially in the subjects which he is now pursuing with great enjoyment at AS level). One of the subjects he dropped, alas, was English. I felt like Cnut trying to stop the tide. If you want your children to read, they say, surround them with books. I certainly did that. From babyhood I read to him. He saw me writing. He lives in a house wall-to-wall with books. He laughed at the jokes in the children's book I wrote. He loves a good story and he can memorise favourite lines with the greatest of ease. He just doesn't actually want to read - although having said that, he has just avidly read his way through the filmscript of The Shawshank Redemption, currently his favourite film. It's the only reading matter I've ever actually seen him 'lost' in, in the way that we traditionalists (reactionaries?) lose ourselves in novels. So that's a comfort.

All of this is by way of a preamble to the actual topic of this post. For his GCSE, he had to study a selection of poems from an anthology provided by the AQA exam board. It was a good selection, on the whole, veering very much towards the multi-cultural politically correct, as you'd expect. He enjoyed discussing some of the issues raised by the poems and was particularly struck by - and wrote about in the exam - a poem by Carol Ann Duffy called 'Education for Leisure' in which a directionless trainee psychopath, whose life is utterly empty, baldly states with an utter lack of potential empathy that 'Today I am going to kill something.' The chilling resume of the victims of idle violence - squashing a fly, wanting to torment a cat - are familiar motifs from the careers of serial killers who start with creatures lower on the great chain of being and work their way up to murdering fellow human beings. The style is stark and casual, every line a threat - although we are not shown an actual killing. Instead there is the ghastly imminence of the final line: 'The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.'

Given that a couple of days ago a young Finnish killer posted a video on YouTube showing him getting his hand in, and finishing with a close up on him saying something like 'You next', there is something so prophetic about Duffy's killer saying things like 'I could be anything at all' and 'today I am going to change the world'. It sums up all those hollow-hearted, empty-lived, morally-adrift adolescents who grab at fame by any means, fame for its own sake, fame however brief and shallow.

So, it's a poem with relevance, a poem that stimulates valuable discussion amongst a generation familiar with gun-crime, knife-crime, brutality of language, coarsening of attitudes, where strutting kids posture threats and vent aggression at the slightest - I almost said trigger. Technically, it's a good poem, morally a sound poem.

Ironic then, isn't it, that the AQA has issued a directive to teachers ordering them not to teach this poem anymore? Apparently they'd received a couple of complaints about its subject matter and took a yellow-bellied lily-livered abject course of action about it. This makes me so angry. They've completely missed the point, interpreting it as a glamorisation of violence when that's the very thing it's not! How absurd, also, to think that sixteen year olds can't handle the poem - the very sixteen year olds who have access to extreme violence and sexual content on the social networking sites, who watch films like 'Hostel' and 'Saw' in the delightfully named 'torture porn' genre, and who even on terrestrial TV are inured to scenes in dramas where violence of action and language is the norm. Aren't these the very kids who NEED to read Duffy's poem?

A double irony, too, that this year's Guardian Children's Fiction prize has gone to Patrick Ness's 'The Knife of Letting Go', and the list also included Anthony McGowan's 'The Knife That Killed Me'. These are books which apparently explore the pressures on kids and the effects and consequences of wielding a knife.

God knows, I'd love it if children's fiction - and children's lives - could float on a warm bath of Swallows and Amazons and Five Go to Kirrin Island adventures - but that's not how it is these days for so many of those pesky kids, so stories and poems that help them to make sense of challenging issues, non gratuitiously, are to be welcomed.

Shame on you, AQA, shame on you.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

To e or not to e

This is a topic I've been meaning to blog about for ages - but it's also a topic the world and his wife have already spoken about. I've been collecting articles on the net and in print about it - but I'm deliberately not digging them out again because I just want to give my own opinions, even though my opinions are bound to echo those expressed in said articles. The question is: what do we think of e-readers?

My gut instinct is a Luddite one, and when I saw pictures of Amazon's Kindle machine my baseline hostility had aesthetic revolt added to it. The thing looks ghastly. Why do gadget producers think white is a practical colour for a gizmo they hope will be in daily use (cf Apple products)? That pristine science fiction purity will not last - the thing will end up fingerprint-tainted and smeary. Yich. The Kindle's whiteness just looks cheap to me and the design is pug-ugly and clumsy. It reminded me of gadgets sold in the Seventies with cheesy tacky adverts - do you remember K-Tel? Did you buy a pantograph, perchance?

So, absolutely no temptation factor. A few months ago Borders in Oxford started stocking the iLiad - when I looked at the picture of it on the box, I felt faint stirrings of desire, because at least this one had something I think is an absolute necessity if we're to rush out and buy the things - gadgets like this need to be sexy. They need to be sleek, seductive, beautiful. They need to make us want to reach out and touch. Unfortunately all I had in my hand was an empty box - notices advised customers that a member of staff would demonstrate the iLiad if we asked. No way. I didn't want to be subjected to the hard sell which I assume would be an inevitable component of the demo and would take the fun and intrigue right out of it. Plus it costs £399 - way too much for me to want to take the plunge.

Now along comes Waterstone's, arm in arm with Sony. They've very cleverly gone a step further: they have a Sony e-reader on display and you can touch its buttons, feel its force. You can, in short, play with the thing. It's slim and sleek - it's not perfect, but it has that sexy edge that appeals. It actually seems to be user-friendly and easy to get on with. It's also cheaper: £199 - although I still think that's too high. I feel these things need to be under the £100 mark to really take off. However, when I asked a member of staff in my local Waterstone's, he said they'd sold out and were waiting for new supplies.

So, perhaps, after all the advance notices, the e-reader's moment really has come. This leads to all sorts of alarmist headlines about the death of the book, bleh, bleh, bleh. Nah. Not going to happen. What will happen is that we'll have two complementary technologies, each of which has its own advantages, but neither of which is so perfect as to signal the death of the other.

If I were to buy an e-reader it would be for two main reasons: to store reference books which are vast and unwieldy, and for its portability. This is an area where I feel it could really come into its own: when I'm travelling I'm weighed down by books and, as I noted when discussing my recent holiday, worried that I'm going to run out of reading material (fate worse than death). So a nifty little slice of silver sleekness, loaded with books to suit whatever mood I'm in - brilliant! Downsides? Batteries - what if I run out of power at the most gripping point of the story? Fear of theft - that's a big investment to lose.

Books, now. Ah, books ... I sniff at my new books like a Bisto kid. I stroke their spot-laminated covers. I browse in bookshops and buy books by happenstance - e-tailing and downloading is fine if you already know what you're looking for. I find old books I never knew existed and read notes and signatures written by people long dead who also cherished these words. I pick up a book, I put it down, I pick it up again - it is still there for me, patient and loyal, ready to give up ideas, knowledge and felicitous phrases whenever I want. It does not run out of charge. If I lose my place or want to find a previous reference, I flick. I don't scroll. I can find my way about it with ease and there is a democracy of pages at work. I don't have to jab buttons. In my house, books teeter in piles and are crammed on shelves, their spines a display of colour, of changing fashions in jacket copy, an instant reminder, each one, of when and why I bought it, an instant trigger to feelings I had on reading it, what was going on in my life during that first literary encounter. Some are tucked away, shamefast, like old boyfriends you cannot for the life of you understand once had an appeal for you. Some evoke the safety of childhood. Some scream youthful pretentiousness at you - how embarrassing ... Some are comforts in the darkest night. Some have stretched your horizons. Some make your heart race. Some lull you with the most beautiful of rhythms, the most beloved of words. Some make you cry. And they're all there, eternally waiting without reproach, just for you.

So if someone wants to give me an e-reader for Christmas, well, yippee. It'll be fun. It'll be a frolic. But the love of books, real paper books, tried and trusted (bless you Gutenberg) solid enduring instant-access books - that love is in the marrow of my bones.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Did you miss me?

Well, it's been a while - and I apologise for being away from this blog for so long! Initially the hiatus was caused by being on holiday - we went to the south of France and had a totally gorgeous time there (somewhat marred by the mosquitoes - my younger son woke up one morning with no fewer than 28 bites on him!). Since our return we've had the exhausting task of clearing my late mother-in-law's house, to a deadline, because it had at last sold. I could have written a blog just about that - the enormous amount of 'stuff' was unbelievable and it has made me determined not to leave my own sons such a trial in the future. (How? Think of all the stuff you own, Lorna ... Maybe a little light arson would do the trick ...)

Plus, there's the start of term both for my boys and for myself as a teacher of English at A level. So, I've been distracted, in every sense of the word.

This means there's a shedload of things I want to talk about, including topics that have sent my blood pressure soaring. It'll take a few posts to catch up with myself - and I do hope some of you are still out there listening. I've been doing a lot of taking stock (the kind of thing I do when the academic year starts and I'm still teaching, not celebrating winning the Booker and a Hollywood script deal. Strange how waiting for literary success bears a strong resemblance to being a tramp waiting for Godot. And we all know how prompt HE was.) I may be branching out in new directions - so watch this space.

Before I left I posted about the holiday reading I was taking with me. I always have a panic about whether the books I've taken will see me through the trip - this is because, if I'm left to myself without interruptions, I read very quickly indeed. During the holiday there were blissful sessions reading by the pool - the joy of hours passing, pages turning ... However, the villa we'd rented (and if I can ever figure out how to get photos I've taken onto this blog, I'll show you it) was owned by a Dutch company. Loads of books there, in Dutch - interesting to see how familiar English authors were translated - but also English, so my book bank was bigger than I'd expected. Of the villa books, I enjoyed Steven Saylor's 'A Mist of Prophecies' - I'd read one of his before, 'Roman Blood', and I think he's very good: he writes mysteries set in ancient Rome, at the time of Cicero, Caesar and Antony. They're very well researched with convincing characters and a nice ironic tone. Also read Martin Cruz Smith's 'Stalin's Ghost' - already I can't remember anything about it. Honestly. He's good at the melancholy of Russian life, though, and I do recommend the earlier 'Gorky Park' and 'Polar Star', which also his investigator Arkady Renko. Of the books I took with me, I read Sophie King's 'Second Time Lucky' - an excellent holiday read of the light and heart-warming variety, written with great energy, humour and at times pathos - expecially near the beginning when the break-up of a marriage is powerfully described in its practical and emotional consequences. I met Sophie, whose real name is Jane Bidder, at the Writers' Conference at Winchester in June, so was delighted to read one of her books.

Also read Joseph O'Connor's 'Redemption Falls'. Now, I absolutely loved and often recommend his previous novel, 'Star of the Sea', so I had been saving this one up for a good wallow. Ended up not waving but drowning. It was not a good choice for a holiday read - it's beautifully written, but it's heavy duty. I think it's just overloaded, clotted with fine writing, and for most of it I couldn't figure out what the point of it all was. He's done an enormous amount of research on the American Civil War and its aftermath. I'm all for research. As a reader I need to believe in what the writer's telling me - but the danger is that it overwhelms the story - and I felt it did that here.

First prize in the holiday reading stakes goes to C.J. Sansom's 'Sovereign', which I'd also been storing up with relish and anticipation. This one didn't disappoint - this is the best of his Tudor mysteries yet - especially the terrifying episode in the Tower of London. I'll say no more - just read it.

Finally I've been meaning for ages to mention a short story competition run by The Yellow Room magazine - the closing date is 30th September, if you're interested. The editor of the magazine, Jo Good as was, now Jo Derrick, used to edit QWF (Quality Women's Fiction) Magazine, which she eventually sold as the pressure on her time was too much. But you can't keep a warm, encouraging, lively writer/editor down, and she's back again. Years ago, I gave a workshop in Rugby as part of the QWF conventions that used to run and had a great time there. Go to and also to read more. And wish all success to Jo's new enterprise.

And I promise I'll be back soon!

Monday, 21 July 2008

Welcome Returns

Last week was taken up with teaching a summer school course in novel writing for the university's Dept of Continuing Education. I've been doing this for some years now and in a paradoxical way enjoy the sheer intensity of it, whizzing through everything from ideas and motivation through to how best to promote your work - all in a week! I don't know who's more shell-shocked by the end of it, me or my class - but we have a laugh and I get to meet some very interesting people. I live and breathe it for a week and collapse exhausted on Friday night - and on Saturday there's the accumulation of dishes to wash and the ever-present laundry mountain to 'ground' me again!

Our family holiday is imminent so if I go silent again - I will be back. I want to mention in the meantime two happy returns to the blog and site links I have in the boxes to the right. The first is Tess Gerritsen, who back in the spring rather dramatically announced she was going dark because she'd been the subject of a vicious online campaign against her. I wasn't the only one to think this was a real shame as I really enjoy her blog both for its disarming honesty and for its insight into the life - and stresses - of a highly successful writer. I kept checking sporadically and sure enough, a few weeks ago, she started up again. You just can't shut us writers up!

The second revival is that of my friend Jacqui Lofthouse, at her site and blog - Jacqui has been quiet for months now because she has been concentrating on finishing her fourth novel - but is now continuing her literary consultancy with new consultants. She is also launching her new business, Essential Artist, which involves coaching for 'creative development of individuals and organisations'. So if you need help either with checking the quality of your manuscript or with motivation and confidence building as a creative artist, check out Jacqui's site and download her ebook - Write 30,000 Words in 30 Days. Good luck with all of this, Jacqui, and with the revisions and sending out of your new novel!

Now, I face Packing Hell - bad enough choosing clothes for myself and the boys - but one of the worst aspects is picking the good reads to take. Not so intellectual that my brain goes into meltdown under the hot sun, not so light that they're read at a sitting and I'm left staring into space for thirteen of the fourteen days (what's that you say? Write your own? Nah - I'm off duty). What I need are reasonably chunky light-but-rich affairs that will fill the laze-by-the-pool time and maybe trigger a thought or two ... no, no, I told you - I'm OFF DUTY! I will not think of themes, tropes, leitmotifs, intertextuality ...

If you're off on holiday yourself, have a great time, and happy reading. Here are some titles I'll definitely be packing - Joseph O'Connor 'Redemption Falls'(he wrote the brilliant 'Star of the Sea'; C. J. Sanson 'Sovereign' (third in the Matthew Shardlake Tudor mysteries); Anne Donovan 'Being Emily' (she wrote the wonderful 'Buddha Da'). And then there's ... oh, and there's ...

Friday, 11 July 2008

Booker and Age-Ranging Revisited

A couple of days ago I spent the afternoon teaching a very impressive group of writers who'd just finished their Creative Writing Diploma course at the university and - not having been put off in the least - had set up their own summer school (pity summer didn't decide to come along). At one point we were looking at the difference between Booker prize-winning novels and commercial novels - and yesterday, blow me if there wasn't an article by Vincent Dowd discussing that very thing on - the entertainment section. Martin Goff, longtime organiser of the award, said a Booker gives 'people information and feeling about something they knew very little about indeed'. So does a Haynes manual or a Lonely Planet guide, surely. There's got to be more. Tracy Chevalier explains that it's not what you say but the way that you say it: 'the working definition of literary fiction is fiction that is not just concerned with story, but with how it's told as well ... When you read a book like Atonement - a very popular literary fiction - its form follows its function. The story is a compelling one, but how it's told is also essential to the story itself. Those two things come together and make the book more than it would be if it was just a plot.' So now you know.

Ironically, however powerful Atonement was, it didn't win the Booker and therefore couldn't make it onto the 'Best of Booker' shortlist, where, as I've discussed before (see my 12th May post), a selection of six previous winners of the prize was made by a small panel and then opened to the public vote. Many of us feel the exercise would have been far more valid if all the titles of the past 40 Bookers had been available for the public to vote for. As expected, Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children' was announced yesterday as the winner. You can't help wondering if people voted for it because it was the only one on the list they'd heard of. Sadly - and predictably - my own favourite, 'The Siege of Krishnapur' didn't win. I haven't as yet checked out where it came in the voting. As I said before, do check it out: it's a wonderful book.

Another follow-up to a previous post, this time on Age-Ranging on children's books (6th June): the petition now has 3,000 signatures, and important children's writers including Philip Pullman have met with publishers' representatives to discuss the issue. Publishers are promising to consult with individual authors before age ranging the backs of books - but there's a real fear that only the authors with clout like Philip Pullman and Anne Fine will have their wishes fully observed. I think, however, that publishers have been taken aback by the petition and the weight of strong feeling this issue has generated. As I said before: it's perfectly OK to age range in bookshops by labelling shelves and sections - but don't put anything permanent on the books themselves.

Tomorrow I start teaching my annual novel-writing summer school for Oxford University's Department of Continuing Education - which will prove to be a very intense week! Last year's group were a total joy.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Post Winchester

Yes, I know it's over a week since I was teaching at the Writers' Conference in Winchester, and I'm sorry for not posting sooner, but I had a deadline to meet last week on another project, so many apologies.

The Conference was the usual mix: it's uplifting to be amongst so many people who are fascinated by the writing process and who have followed or want to follow a writing dream. It's also pretty tiring and full-on - and the site, at the University of Winchester, is physically demanding, built as it is on the side of a hill (those of you who were there will know what I mean!) I thoroughly enjoyed meeting old friends there and catching up with them (and thanks again, Sally Spedding and Mike Greenhough, for love and support), and making new contacts (good to have met you, Jane Bidder aka Sophie King!). Then suddenly, it's all over.

One of the most striking things for me as an old trouper who started going there a number of years ago, before I was published and before I myself started teaching creative writing, is the difference between the naive views I held then and the close-to-cynical outlook I now have. Part of me wants to say to the newbies 'It ain't how you think it is! It ain't easy!' If anything, it's even less easy than it was a decade ago: one of the common messages coming out of the conference this year is how risk-averse mainstream publishing now is. Readers up and down the land complain about the same-old same-old on the 3 for 2 tables in the chain bookstores, - but in a prospective recession and in a publishing climate where the chains and the supermarket wield such economic clout, publishers play safe, and you can't really blame them for that.

I went to a couple of talks by industry professionals, on your behalf my dear readers. Here's what I took away: one agent said he'd had 4,000 submissions last year, and took on 2 writers. Another gets 60-70 sumbissions a week and looks for reasons to reject them. Her assistant vets them first - so many never get as far as being looked at by her personally. She never reads synopses: hates them. She used the word 'bollocks' a lot. Hmn.

Bollocks or not, a lot rides on how you present your work. It turns out your covering letter and how you are able to sum up your work in a sentence or two are pretty crucial. If your book goes as far as the 'acquisitions meeting' at a publishing house, the sales and marketing people, the rights director, the finance director, the publicity director and the M.D. will all have their opinion and the hapless editor who just happens to love your book, sweetie, may well be stymied by the sums. Nothing to do with your deathless prose, everything to do with the market.

So what's the good news? The good news is that people still care enough to write. That writers, far from jumping on the latest bandwagon, still, occasionally, like to create their own bandwagon. That writers, faced with the frustrations of mainstream publishing, turn to self-publishing - and no, they're not all crazed self-deceivers, - and somehow they cling to their enthusiasm in the face of terrible knock-backs. There are many festivals and conferences all over the country these days, and in my darker moments I do think this is over-kill, that not everyone who attends a course or lecture will finish writing a book, that not everyone (not by a long shot) will achieve the publication that they want - but at Winchester although there was the usual writerbleat from all of us, there was still also fellowship, mutual support, sharing of advice and information, a sense of community, a desire to win through against all the odds.

And that's got to be worth a lot. For many writers, after all, the bottom line is the actual writing: the joy and satisfaction of having put the words on the page. They're your words, put down in your own particular way, about what particularly interests - or obsesses - you. Never mind the publishers and the booksellers - you, ultimately, are in charge. Hang on in there. Keep writing.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Winchester and Crooked Thoughts

My elder son has one GCSE left ... After that, as far as I'm concerned he can sleep till midday, go to bed at midnight, and Facebook and Playstation to his heart's content in between. I will no longer be in nag mode.

I wasn't able to blog last week because of nagging/teaching/exhaustion/stress, so there's a bit of a backlog. In the meantime, just want to say that next week I'm off to Winchester, to teach a day course and to lecture at the Writers' Conference there. It'll be frantic and full-on, as it always is, and very knackering, but fun - it's especially good to see old friends there each year and catch up on what's been going on with them in their writing lives. And if any of you Literascribees are planning on going, do say hi - but if I have a glazed and drained look and need to check my own name badge to know who I am, please be understanding - I'll have probably just finished teaching my course on plot-structure. I always start a course thinking I won't have enough to say to fill the time allowed, and I always always do and end up over-running.

If you're interested in the conference, check out the link in the right hand box. It's mad and often chaotic, but offers a huge range of topics - there genuinely is something for everyone there. And Winchester is a lovely place to be - if I didn't live in Oxford, I might be tempted to take up residence there.

Finally (before hauling son out of pit for more Graphic Design revision), check out Susan Hill's latest blogpost (see blog links to right) - she refers to a book called 'Manage your Mind, the Mental Fitness Guide' by Gillian Butler and Tony Hope. The title alone calls to me to buy it! She lists thirteen mental habits which are examples of 'crooked thinking' - take a look at them. They begin with Catastrophizing (I'm a black belt at that one) and end with Wishful Thinking. And I'm guilty of all thirteen. All. Thirteen.

Bet you are too.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Age-ranging rage

One of the current topics of debate in the world of children's books is whether publishers should print intended age-groups on the covers. There was a fairly heated spat on this morning's BBC Breakfast programme between authors Meg Rosoff (in favour) and Graham Marks (against). In my copy of The Bookseller this week there is a full page statement by famous children's authors putting the case against and asking us to support them.

So what are the arguments? Publishers (and not all have signed up for this, by the way: Walker and Bloomsbury, I believe, are reluctant) argue that people who are buying books for the children in their lives need guidance, otherwise they just don't know what would be appropriate for little Melanie or Johnny.

I have a suggestion here - how about they look at the jacket design or try opening the covers and reading a few pages? If they are in the habit of having any contact with the children they're purchasing for, they must have some idea of their interests and vocabulary level.

Meg Rosoff argued that people are genuinely bewildered. Graham Marks, showing signs of being seriously exercised by this, pointed out that in bookshops there is already age-ranging going on: 8-12, 12+ and so on. Meg countered that in supermarkets this is not the case, and that it's really hard, apparently, to find a bookseller who can give you that kind of information and guidance.

Oh please.

You may have twigged by now which side I take on this debate. I think the idea is hideous. Once of the strongest arguments against it is that kids will judge other kids and sneer at them if they see them reading something marked beneath their chronological age. God knows, it's hard enough to get kids to read in the first place, let's not age-ghettoise them.

When I was a child, my criterion for reading a book was this: 'Is it a good story?' Never mind age-appropriateness. I hated those books that had been bowdlerised and watered down to suit a nominal age group: 'Kidnapped' with a simpler vocabulary, and so on. I liked to be tested. I often didn't understand words and concepts (I used to wonder why so many 'divers' appeared in old books, for instance) - but that didn't matter. Reading those words in the context of a story that gripped me led me towards an understanding of them, simply because of that context, that setting - and helped me to develop my own powers of expression.

Neither publishers nor bookshops seem to have a clear sense of age-banding anyway: younger reading can stop at 7. Or 8. The middle ground goes from 8-11. Or 9-12, depending on the bookstore. Older readers are 12+. Or they have to be teens. At some point they segue into young adults. When are you a young adult? 14? 15? 16?

To fix these ages on the backs of books, as opposed to shelf-edges or display stands is the worst of options as this is a signal not left behind after purchase. Every time the child opens the book they're making a declaration to the world, to their peers: 'This book is, like Goldilocks' porridge, just right for me. At least, so the publisher is telling me - even though I'm bored stupid'. Or 'This book shows the world I'm punching above my weight. I'm a clever-clogs. Actually, though, I don't understand the half of it.' Or 'This book confirms what you all thought: I'm a thicko and I can only cope with something written for littlies - I'm so embarrassed. But I really like the story.'

Stop patronising kids - start stretching them. Let them find their own level. Encourage them to read everything, from the old picture books that bring back the feeling of being cherished and safe, to the bewildering complexity of a story that gives them challenge and satisfaction.

If you feel as I do, take yourself off to and sign the petition.

Saturday, 31 May 2008

And is there life after ....


Three years ago at half term we were in the north of Scotland. Chilly, mind, but with a great view over the bay and cliffs, in the village in which I spent my childhood. My husband couldn't get over the prolonged evening light: there was still rose in the sky at one a.m.

Two years ago, Cornwall. Guess what - a view of cliffs and the sea. I think you know where my tastes lie. Ironic that I live in Oxford and am therefore about as far from the sea as it's possible to be in this island kingdom.

This year? A view of the colour-coded chart on our fridge, with exam dates marked on it, and each passing day marked off with red stripes, designed to stimulate our son's sense of imminence so he will dash to his books - or to put it another way, to put the fear of God in him. Well, it probably does that, but fails to send him to the books - he prefers his well-honed ostrich technique. Just as If You Build It, They Will come, it is an article of faith with him that If You Ignore It, It Will Go Away.

Sadly, the god of Procrastination ignores his prayers.

His father and I are totally exhausted.

Still, after the run of five exams lined up this week, the worst will be over. Won't it?

And I can get back to blogging properly. Bear with me till then - and if any of you have exam-threatened children, good luck to them - and you. The little dears will thank us someday.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Laureates and Lolly

Time was that being Poet Laureate was a job for life - not anymore, as the job is up for grabs again after Andrew Motion's term of office. It seems that both Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage are front runners: and it's a sure bet that neither of them will opt for the imperial bombast that was once obligatory, in the days of Tennyson and the like. (Here's an example of Tennyson at his worst: 'Hail, sea-king's daughter from over the sea! Alexandra!' - and no, I haven't checked the accuracy of this because elder son is up in the study doing a practice Maths paper and I don't want to disturb him.)

Ironically, I've just been analyzing poems from both Armitage and Duffy because my son had his GCSE English Literature paper yesterday (went better than I'd dreaded, thanks) - and I'd be quite happy to see either of these get the post. If you haven't read any of the poems in Duffy's Mean Time or The World's Wife - do. Her poem, Prayer, is one of my favourites (and yes, I know, I know I haven't been doing anything with PoemRelish, the other blog I set up, but I will, probably when the academic year is done and dusted and literary analysis is less of a busman's holiday). Simon Armitage's poetic translation of the medieval Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is superb.

I wasn't aware, by the way, before now, that the Laureateship pays less than £20,000 p.a. I wasn't aware it paid anything at all - er, can I apply?

Monday, 12 May 2008

Best of the Bookers?

The shortlist for the Best of the Bookers, the prizewinners from the past 40 years, has been announced. You may well feel that all they need to do is pick the most unreadable from 40 years of the unreadable - there are certainly possibilities there. 25 years ago, a similar vote appointed Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and look, it features again. I remember reading it when it came out and being overwhelmed by it - but how much did I actually enjoy it? Are Bookers just Duty Reads? Books to lay out on coffee tables or put in prime positions so people will know how clever and relevant you are? I was ill a few weeks ago and had that desperate time (similar when you survey the contents of your brimming wardrobe and haven't a thing to wear, my dear), when I scanned my shelves - hundreds of books there and not a single damn thing I wanted to read. Too much hard work - I wanted a Comfort Read, not a literary, thought-provoking, enigmatic piece of exquisite prose. I wanted a Story, dammit, a humdinger of a gripping yarn, an Out of this Sickly Body experience.

Must do a proper post on Comfort Reads sometime - and I'll mention my all time favourite in that possibly undervalued genre.

Back to the Booker. Here's the shortlist: Midnight's Children as mentioned; Pat Barker's The Ghost Road; J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace; Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist (no, I hadn't heard of it either); Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda - and one other.

The other is the one I'm going to vote for and would love to win: it's J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur, which won in 1973. If you haven't read this one, do, do, do. It's a superb satire of Victorian attitudes set during the time of the Indian Mutiny, sardonic, cruel, farcical, tense. Everybody should know about this book and quite possibly they don't, perhaps because J. G. Farrell was drowned off the coast of Ireland in 1979 - I recommend Lavinia Greacen's J.G. Farrell, The Making of a Writer (Bloomsbury 1999) about his life.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Sink or Swim

Here's a quote to go with the John Donne one I posted recently: Doris Lessing, who has her 'royal flush' of literary awards and who at the age of 88 complains that all she does 'now is give interviews and spend time being photographed', says that her new book about her parents, 'Arthur and Emily' will probably be her last. She says, 'I have no time to write. I also don't have the energy any more. This is why I keep telling anyone younger than me, "Don't imagine you will have it for ever. Use it while you've got it. Because it will go. It's sliding away like water down a plughole."'

Not that I want to put pressure on any of you, you understand.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

GCSE hell

A brief message: simply this - elder son, GCSEs. I think I need say little more except apologies for not posting much this week. Abnormal service is likely to continue for the next few weeks. Those of you who have been through this with your offspring will understand only too well, I'm sure.

What I do know is that sixteen year old boys find it very hard to fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth of distance run. And those unforgiving minutes are ticking away at a horrendous rate, and what was distant and abstract is becoming all too real. Ostrich behaviour kicks in.

I honestly can't recall how hard I worked for my O levels, way way back when. I was motivated, I know, by ambition and by pride. I'd been trained to see second best as nowhere. But I know also I did a fair amount of winging it - and was the sort of student able to bluff my way through if necessary. I was always at my best during the short sharp pressure of an exam. However, those were the days before the Era of the Visual, where knowledge comes in brief flurries of busy images, where teachers teach from extracts and photocopied sheets, so that students have no sense of the Gestalt of a book, cannot cope with long chunks of text, cannot extract information from such text, where to read a book logically from beginning to end, to - quite simply - stay with a task through the long haul, seems increasingly alien. An era where the dreaded Assessment Objectives, in all their windy glory, rule how an examiner marks and how a teacher teaches. I am currently marking A level coursework and have to fill in a grid on the cover sheet to prove that AOs 1, 3, 4 and 5ii have been covered. Stultifying, stultifying, stultifying. If the candidate says 'Shakespeare presents Othello as ...' that ticks the AO4 box, which has to do with different interpretations of the text - and that is how I have to advise my students to express themselves, rather than 'Othello is ...'

Now, boys and girls, this started as a brief post. But up galloped that old high horse and I jest couldn't resist getting into the saddle, yet again. Yee haw.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Have You Done It Yet?

I've added a link to another blog (and let's hope the Curse of Literascribe - see previous post - doesn't strike!) - it's Karen's blog Get On With It, at It's a delight - and there's so much there, wryly expressed, that we can all identify with. God, though, I feel the panic in my throat - yet another blog to keep up with! There'll come a time when 23.5 hours of my day will be spent just catching up with what other people are saying!

I've also added - very belatedly - another Quotation to my Quotes of Note at the foot of the page. It's a brilliant one - I came across it a few months ago and the damn thing has haunted me ever since. So it might as well haunt you lot too. It's by John Donne, one of my favourites, a man whose wit, ego, cruelty, tenderness, spirituality, and wisdom are always expressed in verses and sentences whose precision, rhythms and rhetorical structures are of awe-inspiring rightness. You read a phrase, are pierced by an image - and you have to put the book down and go away for a little think, a sigh as the words sink in, a shake of the head because you will never never never in all your life acquire such a facility for the sharpest thoughts in the clearest verbal expression. Damn the man. Have you ever played the game of fantasy literary dinner party - where you decide who you would invite as your guests? He'd definitely be one of mine.

Anyway, here's the quote, a short phrase, but starkly effective and oh so relevant to all us dilatory writers: 'To will, implies delay, therefore now do.'

So go on. Do it.

Saturday, 26 April 2008


In the early days of this blog I put up a link in the box to 'Miss Snark', an acerbic anonymous New York literary agent: I found her blog witty, cutting, refreshing and informative. Shortly afterwards, she stopped posting because, quite simply, the blog was taking over her life and she'd had enough. Recently, I linked to the writer Tess Gerritsen's blog - also witty, honest, vulnerable and informative. A few days ago she decided to stop posting - is this the curse of Literascribe? No, it's because a certain camp of readers took exception to a recent post of hers because they totally failed to perceive its ironic tone. She was subject to such abuse that she decided it wasn't worth going on with the blog in the face of such criticism, misunderstanding and hostility. Can't say I blame her, having read some of the acid comments sent her way.

Both blogs are still up, so you can look at the archive. I recommend both of them - Tess gives us an insight into the self-doubts that beset even a successful professional writer. Miss Snark pulls no punches when it comes to shattering the illusions of self-deceiving aspirant writers. Both give us insight into how publishing works. Often the revelations are not at all comfortable - but if you're going to go into the lion's den yourself, it's best to know the beasties have claws and teeth and hunt in packs.

Out of all this we can see the perils of blogging - first, its addictive quality. I cannot ever see myself being one of those people who writes a daily blog. I don't want it to rule my life like that. The second problem, Tess's problem, is more worrying. Most people who read blogs are 'lurkers' - they read, ponder, are appreciative but don't communicate. Of those who do respond, the majority are positive and supportive, making an interesting contribution to discussion. But then there are the Others - and here I may be risking my own blog-existence - who, I have to say, hide in a cowardly manner behind anonymity, who are encouraged by the nature of online communication to unleash hostility, judgementalism, and vituperation, and who in all probability would never dare speak to their victim in such a way if they were actually face to face.

So, my sympathy to Tess. And thank you, Literascribees, for being (so far!) nothing but supportive!

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Dear Diary

I like this quotation from Isabel Allende in the current issue of Waterstone's Books Quarterly, where she discusses, on publication of a memoir about her family 'The Sum of Our Days', the problems of writing about your loved ones: 'What I don't write, I forget and then it is as if it never happened: by writing about my life I can live twice.'

This struck a chord with me and it may well do with you. So often, especially when it's not going well, we ask ourselves why we write. There are many answers to that question and they are not mutually exclusive. Therapy, the joy of wordpower, an addiction to hooking the reader with a damn good yarn, fame, money ....

Allende is drawing attention to one of these reasons: when you write, you write for others, certainly, but you write for yourself. You write for the pride you feel, weeks, months, years later when you look at the words you put down on paper - those words, that order - and you realise that no one, not even yourself, could have written that passage that way, the way you did on that particular occasion. You write for attention: look at me, I'm a clever girl! You write because you have a message or you have a grievance or a memory you want to take charge of.

You write because you 'fix' yourself on the page. 'Fix' can mean, in the American way, 'heal'. It can also mean 'preserve'. You recreate and define and make sense, through storytelling, of the messy business of experience, and you say, not just to the world, but to your future self - 'This is how it was. This is how it felt, how it struck me.'

As you know, of late, I have mentioned the fear of Alzheimer's. Pretty much all of my adult life, I've kept a diary. It unnerves my husband, and I don't blame him. It unnerves me. I often wonder what I should do about the ever-increasing piles of books full of my experiences and angsts and attitudes, because the me that's in those pages is rarely a me I particularly like or admire. This is because a diary is a cistern in which to deposit the thoughts and emotions you maybe feel it's necessary to keep from the world. If you can't be honest in a diary, where can you be? I'm talking of course of a diary you truly write for yourself, not one where you keep a weather eye open for an audience. Last night we watched a repeated programme about Kenneth Williams, who was enormously talented and articulate and whose diaries, now in the public arena, were brimful of the vitriol and bitterness that churned within him, of symptoms of physical malaise and the anxiety that created and of an ever-deepening utter hopelessness. Did he leave instructions that, post-mortem, these diaries should be published? What do you do with these daily records of self-castigation, repressed anger, self-pity, petty diurnal routines, references that nobody but yourself will ever 'get' - what do you do with the slow verbal accumulation of a life lived? I don't know - I truly don't. Much of what I've written I would never want anyone to read. Much of what I've written does not reflect who I am now. I remember when I first read Vera Brittain's 'Testament of Youth' how impressed I was that she would quote her own juvenilia, her poems, her diaries, in all their youthful self-importance - this was so honest. In truth, we'd all really like to edit our own lives, so that people can see us in the best light - and, as I've said, a true diary shouldn't edit as it goes: it should record who you are at each transient stage.

I'm also, it has to be said, proud of my diaries. Even when trivial, they mark an achievement - that every day I sit down and put into words how I feel and what has happened. All those words. When my creative writing is struggling, there is always my diary - I have always written something, even if it's only for myself, even though it's such a solipsistic activity. Also, I feel proud when I've managed to describe an event well - just as I would when I write a good scene in a novel. I'm proud, even when I cringe, when I look at something I wrote months or years ago and it is well expressed and it brings back to me an episode or a perception I've since forgotten. Which brings me back to Isabel Allende: writing preserves your life. Writing saves your life. So often these days, when I spend my time in what Jane Austen calls 'a kind of slow bustle', I quite simply forget. I forget what I went upstairs for. I forget if I took two paracetamol or just one. I forget what we did at the weekend, I forget - oh, so much. The diary is my safety net. I need it to reassure me about what and when and how. It gives me discipline and a purpose. And all those volumes may, one day, make such a big bonfire that they'll need carbon offsetting.

Or ...

Algernon: Do you really keep a diary? I'd give anything to look at it. May I?
Cecily: Oh no! You see, it is simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy.
Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Advances in Retreat

'Writing, the No-money Game' - now there's a title you can't resist: this is the area debated in Jean Hannah Edelstein's Guardian blog -
What has given rise to it is a proposal by an imprint of HarperCollins to dispense with writers' advances and instead give them a bigger cut of the royalties. On the face of it, I'm in favour of that. The reading public often has no idea at all how small the writer's cut is. When I signed copies of the £17 hardback of The Chase when it came out, many were the signees who seemed to think I was earning all or most of that £17. Hah! At most, £1.70, my dear - and don't even mention paperbacks to me - pennies, my love, mere pennies. Then again, my advance - like most advances - was pretty small. So I would welcome more than 5% or 7.5% of the price of my book as reward for my labours - but is it a good idea to get rid of advances? There are two major problems with this: the first is how long it takes to write a book. The Chase took me six years. At least with an advance, you at last get some sort of reward, divided into instalments at the signing of the contract, at the delivery of the final manuscript, and on publication. With no advance you would have to wait another year for the book to actually hit the bookstalls, then for the income from it to filter through the Byzantine and slothful accounting systems of your publisher. Secondly, most writers are aware that the amount of marketing effort your publisher puts into your book is commensurate with the amount of the advance paid. If it's a large advance, the publisher will make more of an effort to recoup that investment. So, all in all, I do think advances should stay and royalties should increase!

The Guardian blog has, as ever, given rise to debate by the old faithfuls who love to comment on it - the debate is interesting, often eccentric and self-indulgent, and at times acrimonious. It veers off the point of advances etc to return to that hoary old chestnut: that somehow writers, being such noble souls, should write for the love of it - not for dosh, not to satisfy ego etc. Do take a look and see what you think. When I'm teaching creative writing I always ask my students to examine their motivation as honestly as possible. And yes, we writers do have ideals, and many of us could not conceive of giving up writing even though we never gain any reward or recognition for it, and many of us look askance or with a snobbish superiority at those who turn into cash cows for their publishers. My own feeling (and my feelings are complex at present, as I am engaged in a personal struggle with my own writing and motivation) - is that it's perfectly OK to want to earn money from your talent. And why not a lot of money? The problem just now is more to do with the limitations of the celebrity-driven commercial world of publishing, which seems to be in a state of feverish pursuit of ... what? The sure-fire, the done-before, the lowest-common-denominator insult to the reading public which assumes they have no spirit of adventure and must not have their horizons broadened, by a process that demands books be written on the ever-more-speedy production line, by an artistic environment -as in films and music - where the artist, the actual creator of content and 'product' is devalued and exploited.

Whew! I leave you with a quote from Jane Holland in the debate after the blog - she has several comments there, including a scary resume of just how much money she (did't) make from one genre novel - '...there seems to be an absurd assumption hereabouts that writers should write for sheer pleasure and artistic integrity, and that if they're lucky enough to be published, to accept that as the pinnacle of their achievement. Any unholy desire for filthy lucre - i.e. a few quid for a poem, and if you're really lucky, a couple of grand for a first novel that probably took you several years to write - is to be rejected as a soiling of the artistic dream.'

Artistic integrity? Filthy lucre? As Harry Hill would say: 'There's only one way to find out! Fight!'

Friday, 4 April 2008

Lurgies, Male Writers and Readaholics

This will be a brief one, because I've been ill all week: a throat/chest lurgy struck me down after my return from Scotland - I believe I caught it on the plane down. Had to do some teaching this week and had scarcely a voice with which to do it and I'm having real trouble shaking off the coughing and sniffing and wheezing. Could understudy for Gollum, my Precious.

The Oxford Literary Festival is on this week, and offers a colossal selection of events (see my posts this time last year for the talks I attended then) but so far I've only attended one event, which was a question and answer session with Fay Weldon, to which one of my ex-creative writing students kindly invited me. It was enjoyable, and Ms Weldon was good value with her witty answers, but the shop (Blackwell's) was incredibly overheated so physically it was uncomfortable. The majority of the audience women, like myself, of a certain age, all of us boiling: it was like a collective hot flush - perhaps a good noun for a gathering of menopausal women.

I've just finished reading Claire Tomalin's biography of Thomas Hardy, the Time-Torn Man. Very readable and interesting, but God, you wouldn't want to have been married to him! (Cf Messrs Alfred Tennyson and John Milton). It's a damn shame that a woman has to die in an attic after years of estranged living in the same gloomy house to get her husband's attention back again! And then it's pretty tough on wife number two to listen to his endless bleatings about the lost regretted past!

Before that I read Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys. I started out by liking it very much - and ironic novels about the self-destructiveness of writers are bound to appeal to self-destructive, self-questioning writers. I recommend John Colapinto's About the Author, for instance, which is an excellent black comedy and has lots of satire about agents, publishers and the vanity of writers, as does Terence Blacker's Kill Your Darlings. Wonder Boys, I'm afraid, palled for me, as I found the hero, Grady Tripp, more and more annoying. He was a child and he needed a good slap. His bumbling and fumbling and copping-out of any situations that demanded a modicum of responsibility and moral maturity were meant, I suppose, to be comic and endearing, but really - he needed several slaps. And I couldn't believe that a sequence of women would have found him irrestible. The story tottered from farcical scenario to comic misunderstanding, with Grady leaving a trail of dead animals in his wake. I couldn't have cared less. The style was flashy and clever, and there are lots of good apercus about the creative process, the ageing process and the quest for who we are - and I did finish it, because I thought I ought to and also because I'd liked the other Michael Chabon novel I'd read, The Final Solution, which I do recommend.

However, here's a good description in Wonder Boys of the crucial nature of reading to those of us who are addicts: 'Sara would read anything you handed her - Jean Rhys, Jean Shepherd, Jean Genet - at a steady rate of sixty-five pages an hour, grimly and unsparingly and without apparent pleasure. She read upon waking, sitting on the toilet, stretched out in the backseat of the car. When she went to the movies she took a book with her, to read before the show began, and it was not unusual to find her standing in front of the microwave, with a book in one hand and a fork in the other, heating a cup of noodle soup while she read, say, At Lady Molly's for the third time (she was a sucker for series and linked novels). If there was nothing else she would consume all the magazines and newspapers in the house - reading, to her was a kind of pyromania - and when these ran out she would reach for insurance brochures, hotel prospectuses and product warranties, advertising circulars, sheets of coupons. Once I had come upon th spectacle of Sara, finished with a volume of C.P. Snow while only partway through one of the long baths she took for her bad back, desperately scanning the label on a bottle of Listerine.' Recognise that? Oh, yes. See also Anne Fadiman's book Ex Libris for further description of the reader-as-addict.

And here I was thinking this would be a short post ...

Just time to say happy birthday to this little blog, which I started in the middle of March last year. Many thanks to those of you who are regular readers: it means a lot to me.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Diagram Result

On a lighter note than yesterday, the winner of this year's Diagram prize for the year's oddest title has been announced, and it's the one that was my favourite: 'If You Want Closure in your Relationship, Start With Your Legs' - a title that does the job so well you don't actually need to read the book. Scroll down to my previous posts (on 7 March and 3 December) about the Diagram Prize for the rest of the shortlist and see if you agree with the choice of winner.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Quo Vadis?

I know I've not been posting as much as I'd like and I daresay the tone recently could be lighter - I hope next week to return to normal service. Suffice to say that I came back last night from a brief visit to Scotland to attend my aunt's funeral. I actually feel worse today than I did during the visit, because the trip had involved serious logistical problems, so my mind was kept occupied. Plus the weather was so cold I could scarcely feel my heart: it was frozen along with my fingers, toes, spine and mind. There's a cemetery up there where I've stood and shivered altogether too many times, where spiritual platitudes are uttered to the faithful for whom they are a comfort - but all I feel is that if I have such a thing as a soul, it's gone into shutdown and it can't be reached.

My aunt was, as the minister said, 'a woman of faith', so I hope she is now where her faith told her she would be and that she is with those she loved and lost and who were also of faith.

I think that's a pasture I won't be allowed to graze.

There's every chance tomorrow that I will remove this self-indulgent post. Bear with me in the meantime.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Lest We Forget

Last week I was impressed to hear that Terry Pratchett, a recent diagnosee, was donating half a million pounds to research into finding a cure for Alzheimer's and I was horrified to hear that as many people suffer from it as from cancer but it gets about 3% of the funding. This is an atrocious state of affairs. I've talked about this disease before and about how it terrifies me witless (and may well do in the future). Endlessly we're subject to dire health warnings about what we eat and how much we exercise and how to avoid the horsemen of the apocalypse: cancer, stroke, diabetes, heart attack. And yes, they're all scary, but at least when you die of them you're still you. With Alzheimer's you're not.

Terry Pratchett is going to go on writing as long as he can, even though his abilitiy to touch type has already gone. I admire the spirit he shows. With typical bloody-minded feistiness he calls the disease 'an embuggerance'.

I wanted to mention this last week but didn't get round to it. But I have reason to today. My beloved Aunt Isa, with whom my sister and I lived in the immediate aftermath of the deaths of our parents when we were children, who was strong and pious and fun to be with, who was good of heart and sharp of brain, died this morning, suddenly, of a heart attack. But death had already taken pretty much all that she had, because for a number of years, Alzheimer's, which I will call in Chaucer's words, the 'secree theef', had stolen away the sharpness, and the sense of who she was, who anyone was. It's the kind of situation where when death comes, you find yourself, to your horror, about to use the phrase 'blessed relief'.

But it isn't. There's nothing blessed in it, and for the life of me I can't see how people can maintain belief in a kindly deity when the deserving and the devout have such treatment meted out to them. I'm told that she looked peaceful. There you go.

So I feel grief and loss and anger - and at the moment it's the latter that holds sway, futile though it is.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Diagram Time Again!

Time for some fun. Yes, it's Diagram prize time again: a couple of weeks ago The Bookseller announced the shortlist for this year's Diagram Prize for the Oddest Book Title of the Year. If you go to my post of 15 April last year, you can see last year's list and my comments on it. (It was won by Stray Shopping Carts of America, a Field Guide - but should I think have gone to How Green Were the Nazis).

Anyway, here's the list: see what you think, and if you want to vote, go to

I Was Tortured by the Pygmy Love Queen

How to Write a How to Write Book

Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues

Cheese Problems Solved

People Who Mattered in Southend and Beyond: From King Canute to Dr Feelgood

If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs

It's a tough choice, though my favourite is the last one, which I noticed in the early stages of the nominations. However, I do wish one of the ones that missed the shortlist had made it: Drawing and Painting the Undead ... One starts imagining chapter titles and topics covered: Mixing Cadaver Tints with special recommendations for Rotting Flesh Tones? Make your Ectoplasm come to Life? What to do when the Sitter is just too Still? Conveying Propped Postures and Shambling Gaits: a Checklist. Guidelines in the Event your Sitter turns on you. The Artist as Seancer: creating a Model Dialogue with the Dead. Morbid Fascination: A Survey of Art's Fascination with the Corpse.

All right, all right, I'll stop now. It's not as though I have nothing better to do. I have a book to write, you know.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Plead for PLR Justice

Yes, I skipped a week again - this time it was because of half-term. How people maintain daily blogs is beyond me - and often they're the ones who list the minutiae of their lives in excruciating detail. I promise, my people, never to tell you what kind of toothpaste I use or keep you informed of daily wordcounts or problems with that scene in Chapter 3 where Freddy is having an identity crisis ...

I do, however, have a backlog (as opposed to weblog) of matters of interest and idle notions - how I'm ever going to catch up I don't know. Thing is, access to computer so often fails to coincide with thoughts springing up in brain. Amazing how fluent and inspired I am in the shower or the bus queue or while an Eng Lit student of mine is trying to come up with a reason for the image of an oak tree in stanza 2 line 6.

Today I just want to ask for your help. As you are probably all too aware (especially if you are a writer yourself), most writers earn sod all from their work - and if, as is predicted, the era of the e-book really does dawn and publishing suffers what happened to the music industry, it may well be that with digital rip-off going on, we earn even less. All the more reason, therefore, to protect what we've got, which includes PLR - the fee paid to writers every time a book they wrote goes out on loan from a library. Our Olympics-focussed government proposes not only to freeze the payment (a few pence per loan) but actually reduce it: and it will take 3 years to bring it back up to current levels. For writers, as for Tesco customers, every little helps. So, will you please sign a petition to the government protesting about this? Please go to and add your name.

By the way, if anyone computer-savvy is reading this, can you let me know how to type a URL like that one and have it come up as a link, underlined? This blog used to do that and now doesn't and I don't know why. Thanks.