Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Merry Christmas, one and all!

I'm absolutely sure that you've all got more to do right now than be checking out my blog. I've just recovered from my third inadvertent nap of the evening, to belatedly wish all my loyal readers (and there are some?) a very Merry Christmas. I hope you all got the presents you wanted and that recipients of your generosity were suitably appreciative. We've had a damn fine one here - and once again, after all the battling through the shops and the queueing at the Post Office and the wrapping of kids' presents at three a.m., it all seems worthwhile - and will continue to be so until the Barclaycard bill hits the mat. You hear yourself saying, fondly, 'It's for the kids, isn't it?' as you watch them unwrap the latest electronic gizmo, and you think back to the era when a Spacehopper, an Etch-a-sketch and a Spirograph took pride of place with your Sindy and her special air stewardess outfit. Have your eyes gone a little misty?

Monday, 17 December 2007

This Will Freak You Out

In this week's 'The Bookseller' there's an interview with the children's writer Darren Shan who is now producing adult fiction as well. I was interested to hear that when he wrote Cirque du Freak, his agent Christopher Little couldn't sell it initially, because publishers 'thought it was too dark'. Sound familiar? Getting publishers to take a punt on something unusual when all the time they claim to be looking for something new is and always has been a challenge. Mr Shan is very determined, and very clear on how his audience will react - he knows kids can take any amount of guts and gore (I haven't read any but there were lots of references to demonic mutilation and extracted entrails in the article).

But the scariest thing of all? Not decapitation, not dismemberment - no, it's Mr Shan's terrifying workrate. As Mistress of Procrastination, my blood ran cold. Truly. Listen to this:

'Shan works a few years in advance, so is currently up to 2012 in terms of his children's books and 2010 for his adult titles.' He says, 'The trouble I've always had is getting the publisher to release the books quickly enough.' 'He spends around two years writing each book and has four titles on the go at once, doing eight drafts of each book.'

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Ambush of the Brain

Although I've never read any of his books, I was desperately sad to read today that Terry Pratchett has early-onset Alzheimer's, perhaps as the result of a mini-stroke some years back. This is one of those Diseases to Be Terrified Of and like so many other ailments (and hey, the Big Sleep itself), it strikes out of the blue and strikes unfairly. I'm sure every one of us, when we've gone upstairs to fetch something and have forgotten what it was by the time we get there, when we can't retrieve from our memory-bank the name of a friend or an ordinary everyday object, when we can't remember what we did two days ago, and when we can't remember the name of a major character in a book we've written (this happened to me a few days ago - Jeez!) - we all, at these 'senior' moments, wonder whether that stealthy erosion of personality and identity is setting in. When you are no longer a repository of your own memories, when you are not the accumulation of self built up over a lifetime, when you cannot pass recollection and experience on to others, when you no longer have bonds with your loved ones - well, you have to ask, where does life end and death begin?

I speak with a particular fear: I have a very dear aunt in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's, now in a care home in northern Scotland. We are losing her and losing all that she knew and it causes us all enormous pain and sadness. And selfishly, we all worry about the possible genetic timebomb within us.

Before we all got healthy enough to live long enough to die of these wretched things, nature a few centuries ago would have done its Malthusian duty and seen us off with plague, scarlet fever and so on. There's a cheerful thought for the festive season! And what about all the advice to keep the brain ticking over by being mentally active? What about Mr Pratchett? What about Iris Murdoch? It's a bleedin' lottery - that's all it ever is.

Can I recommend, on the subject of Alzheimer's, a wonderful book by David Schenk, called 'The Forgetting'? It's informative, sensitive, extremely moving, linking personal experience to the medical facts and examples of the famous who succumbed to the sneaky ambush of it - including Ralph Waldo Emerson - there are some wonderful quotations drawn from his writing.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

DollyReads and Keitai Shosetsu

I'm beginning to think I should rename this blog 'Oh for goodness sake!' or 'What are we coming to?' - I love the name of the popular Grumpy Old Bookman's blog - catches the note of exasperated vituperation.

So, what's exercising me this week? First, in the 'What have we come to?' category - what, indeed, have we come to when country star Dolly Parton makes it her mission to bring literacy to infant Britons? Yesterday, she promoted her 'Imagination Library' project in Rotherham at a former steel mill. (Perhaps this can also go under the title of 'You Couldn't Make It Up'). Every child born in Rotherham will now be sent a free book every month until they're five. Today, Rotherham - tomorrow, the world. Of course, Dolly means well and her interest in literacy stems from the extreme poverty of her own childhood in Tennessee, so all credit to her if she brings any children to a love of literature. The sad thing is that the need for schemes like this echoes the survey this week that Britain has plummeted in the league table of nations for literacy and numeracy. In our era of visuals and digitals is trying to cultivate a love of books printed on yer actual paper equivalent to Cnut holding back the tide? Hope not.

A while back I mentioned the rise of what I suppose we could call 'text lit' - or should that be 'txt lt'? The Times has an article today about the increasing popularity of publishing on mobile phones (yes, you read that right!) especially in Japan. Once again, I suppose we should be grateful for anyone reading actual wrds, even in abbreviated form, but it's oh so sad that 'Japan's fiction bestseller list is dominated by books published, read and, in several cases, written on mobile telephones, most of them by young women in their 20s.' Apparently books like 'Love Sky' are written for downloading on mobile phones, then published in book form. The stories - 'keitai shosetsu' - seem to be highly melodramatic and emotional and have given rise to debate and concern: one critic worries that 'young readers are being exposed to immature expressions and stunted vocabulary' which will 'accelerate illiteracy and damage their ability to express themselves.'

Given that my A level students often lack basic knowledge of spelling and grammar and have failed to acquire through reading any inbuilt instinct for the look, feel and rhythm of words, I too am worried. An Orwellian inability to articulate thought and experience with any sort of precision is upon us.

Or am I just a grmpy nvlst?

Monday, 3 December 2007

Diagram Samples

You may remember some months back (15 April)I reported on the results of the annual Diagram Prize, which is given to the Oddest Title of the Year - last year's winner was 'The Stray Shopping Carts of North America: A Field Guide to Identification'. The Bookseller a couple of weeks back reported on some of the entries coming in and I thought I'd cheer up your coming week with a couple of them:

Squid Recruitment Dynamics, by P G Rodhouse

Cheese Problems Solved, by P McSweeney

Glory Remembered: Wooden Headgear of Alaska Sea Hunters, by Lydia T Black

and my current favourite:

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

Ah, if only I'd had a book like that to advise me in my younger days ...

Friday, 30 November 2007

Oh, for goodness sake!

I'm in nark mode, so brace yourselves. It must be something to do with the imminence of Christmas ...

First, in an interview Jacqueline Wilson reveals that her mother, who's in her eighties, has never read any of her books. 'Why would I want to read children's books?' she says. Well, there's so much wrong with this: first of all, why not read children's books, especially at this vibrant time for children's fiction? Several of the best books I've read in the past few years have been far more impressive than hyped 'literary' fiction, because children's fiction is a tough arena and anyone entering it has to remember that their readership will switch off quicker than any other if their interest hasn't been stimulated. And what turns them off quicker than anything - a lack of a story, a narrative that seizes them and carries them along to a fulfilling ending. (Congratulations, by the way, to S.F. Said for winning the Blue Peter prize for the Book I Couldn't Put Down for 'The Outlaw Varjak Paw'). Secondly, what about family loyalty? Can't JW's mother find it in her to read at least one of her highly-successful much-loved-by-the-public daughter's stories, if only to say 'Very nice, dear.'? Is this something you recognise? What is the attitude of your nearest and dearest to your writing? If you are unpublished, it might very well be that they have no interest in or respect for your 'scribbling' - and sadly, this adds to the loneliness of being a writer and reinforces the self-doubt which can all too easily stop you in your tracks. If you are published and have gained. to whatever degree, a public recognition of what you do, it's strange how important still it is to gain validation from those close to you. I speak from experience: I have a husband who is incredibly supportive in every way.

What else is pissing me off? Ah yes: apparently, health and safety, the Stalinist padded cell we are consigned to as a nation, has obliged certain publishers to take material out of children's books as being dangerous to the kiddies. This includes, in Lindsey Gardiner's book 'Who Wants a Dragon?' an illustration of a dragon toasting marshmallows while fire comes out of his nostrils! This ranks with the chap in Swindon who was forbidden to sell his book to his office colleagues for fear they might get paper cuts from handling it and then sue! What have we come to? My son went on a day visit to Southampton University on Wednesday, to fill him with the desire to attend university, which was a worthy aim. As his parent I had to fill in a health and safety form which included not only mentioning his allergies and when he last had a tetanus shot but also saying how far he could swim: were they afraid the bus would overshoot the campus and end up in the English Channel? So, go to your children's bookshelves and remove all those dangerous volumes involving adventures risky to life and limb and all those illustrations of ogres and dragons and towers and battles and spaceflights and boat trips and pet rats. That would mean .. oh, let me think. Yes: every book on the shelf.

Finally, an article in last weeks Times by Melissa Katsoulis, tells us that young writers are the best, and old writers are dried up has-beens with nothing to say about 'Revolution, revelation, challenge and unrest'. The whole thing is written in a bolshie attention-grabbing manner, and it certainly got my attention. 'The trajectory for most literary geniuses is down,' she announces. Well, in certain cases she's not wrong - and with the death of Norman Mailer there's been discussion of the dinosaurs of the literary scene, especially the male American ones, who seem to be going on well past their sell-by. Fine. I was extremely disappointed by the selection of books of the year in last week's Sunday Times - all the usual suspects were there: Ian McEwan for 'On Chesil Beach'. Oh please. Robert Harris for 'The Ghost' - it could be he's there because it's a satisfying twisty expose of our ex-prime-minister and his wife. Or is it because he's one of those writers who is in a crony relationship with the reviewers of reviewer-land? So, I'm not saying there aren't problems with our current literary scene. But to argue - and to reinforce your argument with examples drawn from the Romantic period, which is hardly news to us: that Keats did the right thing by dying and Wordsworth didn't - that youth is better because it's youth, because young people are, well, like, not jaundiced yet, and have lots to say about 'the hottest pies' and that fiction is written for young people and old people's 'furies and passions no longer spit and fizzle', that old writers write about sex because they can't get it anymore and this is 'so far from being fresh as to be yukky' - all of this is so simplistic. I remember bemoaning to my husband that I wasted my twenties, when I had far more time in which to write than I've ever had since and his reply was that I hadn't written anything because I hadn't anything to say. Some people need to live a little or a lot. Most of us need a long training in our craft. Of course, some writers become tired and predictable and set in their ways, some endlessly recycle the same old themes in the same old style. Some would have been better doing a Keats. But the thing about Keats, when you read through the brief but dazzling trajectory of his work, is that when he died he still had so much potential and had he lived to Wordsworth's age I fully believe he would still have been pushing the boundaries of what was poetically possible and he would still have been writing letters full of exploration of beauty, truth and time. Many modern youthful writers burn out after their first fine well-hyped rapture. To every thing its time and season. So, let's not have sweeping generalisations about writing not being a country for old men. Let the middle-aged and ageing continue to be nostalgic for their pasts, and explore experience, memory, time and death, along with the subjects Melissa claims are topics for the young: race, sex, politics, music. Let them go on raging against the dying of the light.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

A cast can look at a king

I'm sorry I missed posting last week - God knows where the time goes. There's been a lot going on and I'm more than a little tired, actually.

You'll know that I've mentioned the novels of C.J. Sansom before - they're Tudor detective novels (Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign). I read today that the BBC is going to turn them into a series, which is a promising thing - and certainly very good for Mr Sansom. They've cast Kenneth Branagh as the detective, hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake. Now this I'm not so sure about - I do think he was excellent both as Heydrich in 'Conspiracy' and as Shackleton in ... 'Shackleton' - but I don't see him as Shardlake. He's not my vision of the man at all. This is always the problem with these things, isn't it? I'm very fond of Daniel Craig (first had my eye on him as the love interest in 'Moll Flanders' years ago), but he's not Lord Asriel in Northern Lights - or as we're supposed to refer to it in its film avatar, The Golden Compass. Tricky business, casting. I bet we've all got examples in mind where we thought the casting was barking - I believe it's called 'stunt casting' in Hollywood, where the most unlikely star is cast, and no doubt it draws the oxygen of publicity which all productions need to survive. If we were to award the 2007 prize for the barkingest, stuntiest casting of the year it would have to go to Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII in the current overblown series 'The Tudors' (and don't get me going on the surfeit of howling inaccuracies and laughable costumes ...). Rhys Meyers not only bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to the giant jowly monarch, he seems to think that to characterise a king who was a dangerous bully but also learned and cultured, all he needs to do is bluster, bellow and pout like a tot in a tantrum and show his biceps at every opportunity. What with that, and reducing the count of his sisters from two to one, then marrying her to a king she didn't historically marry, after she had bonked the Earl of Suffolk (was it?) on the ship to Portugal etc, etc, etc, - it's the best comedy series on the box at the moment.

How many of you remember dear old Keith Michell as Henery, long ago? Now there was an actor - knew not just how to bellow and scare the living daylights out of his court, but also how to wheeze and limp and be pustular and ulcerous of leg. Ah, the good old days ...

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Caught in the net

My sons are into Bebo and YouTube, my friends say I must get onto Facebook, and I've just purchased a 'takeaway website in a box' from Mr Site, and there's a blog this week in the Guardian by Sam Jordison about the importance of social media to network, promote, sell ..

Am I the only one feeling just a teensy bit of pressure about all this? On the one hand, blogs, sites and networks are a brilliant resource and one that wasn't really available to me when The Chase was first published. I did what I could, in conventional terms (readings, signings, local radio, an article in 'Living France' and so on) to try to publicise the book, while being disappointed that so many of the excitedly-worded promises of my publishers ('We're going to promote it on Eurostar and the cross channel ferries!' 'We're going to run a postcard teaser campaign using images from the tapestries in the Musee de Cluny!') came to naught. I realised that in this business, unless you're a lead or superlead title, the publicity buck stops with you, the author, because the publicity bucks are not forthcoming from the publisher to fund the kick-ass attention-grabbing you'd like. Anyway, how good is that sort of thing anyway? If you see a poster for a book on a bus shelter or as you ride the escalator in the London Underground, do you dash to the nearest W.H. Smith's on the strength of it?

So, along come all these Web 2.0 opportunities for us to do it for ourselves: to create our markets, to build groups of 'friends', to have dialogue with our putative readership. Fantastic. Then it hits you: creating your site takes time, listing your favourite reads for a social networking site takes time, writing your blog takes time (though don't get me wrong - I love it). Time. Attention. Imagination. Creativity. Wait a minute, waitableedinminutethere - aren't those what I should be devoting to my Art? Shouldn't I be writing, like, books? Have I used so much energy and time and attention and imagination and creativity to create my market that I have none left to create the product I wish to market? The words 'hoist' and 'petard' spring to mind.

So, I'm not as yet on Facebook, though I may give in to the nagging. I do worry about it: it's like being back in the playground, somehow - 'Be my friend! Be my bestest friend!' And I've read the instructions on Mr Site for the easy-as-pie (ho ho ho) creation of my website, but Gawd knows when I'll get round to it. So many decisions! How many pages? How should it look? How do I link photos to it? How can I make it stand out?

If you're interested in social media debate take a look at the blog publishing talk, by reed media, a media consultancy, at http://www.reedmedia.eu/blog/
Although they use the painfully hip tagline 'mashing up books and social media', there's a lot of interesting stuff there.

So now I've spend half an hour worriting myself about spending half an hour on web communication. Heigh ho. I do love my little blog, though. It's so much better than being hermetically sealed into isolated artistic angst and it's so much more responsive than, ahem, publishers tend to be. And quicker. Bless you all for reading it.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Get your teeth into a good book

I'm delighted to learn that this year's Booktrust Teenage Prize has been won by Marcus Sedgwick for 'My Swordhand is Singing', which you may remember I recommended in my post a couple of weeks or so ago, Nix-Lit and Kid-Lit. One of the judges praised it not only for the gripping narrative but the' subtle poetry of its language.' Quite so. Given that vampires are coming out of the woodwork (or the crypt?) all over the place, it's good to see a book which takes a genre and transcends it, in this case by the spare and beautiful quality of the prose, the scene-setting in rural Romania, and excellent creation of tension. Like 'The Tenderness of Wolves' which I talked about last week (what is with me with snowy landscapes and predators?) I was drawn by the cover and by the brilliant title of the book. Do read it.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Transports of Delight

One of the bonuses of feeling under the weather is that you can give yourself permission to read, solely for pleasure and indulgence - and that's what I've been doing. Last night I finished Stef Penney's 'The Tenderness of Wolves' (superb title, superb cover),which won the Costa Book of the Year award a few months back. All too often novels which win the big literary prizes can be a disappointment, but not this one. I was absolutely gripped and read it all in one day. It works both as a murder mystery and as a poignant and satirical examination of the lives and interactions of a collection of characters in 19th century Canada, who've gravitated to the far north for many reasons and who have to take stock of their lives and the meaning of their lives. It's beautifully written and observed, elegaic, often dramatic and is one of those books that sucks you into its internally-consistent world and utterly convinces you. My only problem with it was that as the final page approached at a scary rate, I wondered how she was going to tie up so many loose ends - and felt, in the end, that she didn't. I took such an interest in so many of the characters I felt cheated not to know how they would go on, how their stories would resolve. She could easily have made a trilogy out of her material.

You may well have read about this book already, not just because of the quality of its writing but because of the landscape in which it is set: isolated communities, bleak snowfields, silent woods and wilderness, ice, frozen rivers and bogs, under a sky which is a lure and a threat. It is wonderfully evocative and all the more striking because Stef Penney has never gone there: she did all her research in the library. This says a great deal for the power of her imagination.

Looking back at recent books I've read, I'm aware of how much store I set by location and atmosphere. I recently read Kate Atkinson's 'One Good Turn' which takes you on a witty and detailed tour of Edinburgh and its environs (is Edinburgh ahead of Oxford yet as a setting for novels both literary and detective?), and last week I read Nick Drake's 'Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead' which is set in ancient Egypt at Thebes and Akhetaten (modern Amarna) at the time of Akhenaten and, well, Nefertiti. Also a few months ago, Jason Goodwin's 'The Janissary Tree', set in 19th century Istanbul. And you've heard me mention C.J. Sansom's Tudor detective novels set in the time of Henry VIII. What all these writers have in common is the power to evoke through imagery - and that means all the senses - the aura of the place and the time. Goodwin and Sansom are particularly good at smell, actually - and they don't beat about the bush: the past stank to high heaven.

There's a danger, though: the writer may be so in love with this aspect of writing, with conjuring up markets and slaughterhouses, ritual processions, the rank odour of a wolf's breath, the banks of oars on a golden ship, the gleam of light in a shadowed harem, that the story itself gets lost. I found this the case with 'Nefertiti', which at times read as grippingly as any thriller, but then meandered self-indulgently through the reeds of poetic philosophy, as if it couldn't quite decide what kind of book it was trying to be. The Goodwin book was fun but also confusing and frantic and overloaded with factual information because the writer really knows his stuff and wants us to know that he really knows it. Sansom's books are excellent but you couldn't call them pacey. Only in Stef Penney's book did I feel unsatiated - every detail served the meaning of the story. Even though descriptions were detailed and frequent, they never felt redundant.

For the rest of us would-bees, remember this: although Annie Proulx, another mistress of bleak scenery, says 'Place is paramount', that little thing called Plot matters too.

Friday, 12 October 2007

It was a Dark and Stormy Night

I've got a real backlog of things I want to discuss, but it's been a mad week. And I've decided to shelve those other worthy topics I had lined up - I think that, as we slide into autumn, relentlessly to be followed by my least favourite season, we should have some fun. You may have heard of the Victorian novelist Lord Bulwer-Lytton, who has gone down in history for writing what has been called the worst opeing line ever (you may argue he's up against some pretty stiff competition) in a novel called Paul Clifford. It starts 'It was a dark and stormy night ..' and it goes on. And on. And on. With non sequiturs, pomposity, padding and irrelevancy and too much exposition: the flaws we in the creative writing trade advise our students to avoid at all costs. So famous is this opening line that an annual competition for the Bulwer-Lytton Prize has been going on for more than a couple of decades, run by the University of San Jose. As you would expect, entrants have to compose awful opening sentences and the contest is so popular there are various genre categories such as Westerns, Romance and Science Fiction (is that a line of sitting ducks I see before me?) I keep a choice selection at hand for illustrative light relief when I'm teaching students the techniques of writing an effective opening.

So I'm delighted to see that Scott Pack of The Friday Project (see link to his blog Me and My Big Mouth opposite) is going to publish a gift book of the best winners over the past twenty years, entitled, unsurprisingly, It was a Dark and Stormy Night - he gives some examples on his blog post of October 8 and hopes the book will do well in the Christmas book market (why wouldn't it?) - amazingly, though, it seems that of the big chains, Borders is interested, Waterstones and W.H. Smith not. Probably because it doesn't have the word 'Shit' on the cover.

So put the book on your Christmas list or buy it for your (writing?) friends. You can also check out the contest website, (http://www.bulwer-lytton.com), especially if you want to enter!

In the meantime, for your delectation on a dismal autumnal day, here's a small selection (it would be a very big selection if I let it). If you're a would-be writer, be afraid - be very afraid. Even if you don't open your stories like this at present, you may become addicted to the delights of bathetic, parodic no-holds-barred verbifaction ...

Through the gathering gloom of a late-October afternoon, along the greasy, cracked paving-stones slick from the sputum of the sky, Stanley Ruddlethorp wearily trudged up the hill from the cemetery where his wife, sister, brother, and three children were all buried, and forced open the door of his decaying house, blissfully unaware of the catastrophe that was soon to devastate his life.

Sex with Rachel after she turned fifty was like driving the last-place team on the last day of the Iditarod Dog Sled Race, the point no longer the ride but the finish, the difficulty not the speed but keeping all the parts moving in the right direction, not to mention all that irritating barking.

Butch glared balefully across the saloon at Tex, who had been stone dead since the scorpion he had unwittingly sat on had bitten him on the butt some half an hour or so ago, little suspecting that this was going to be his toughest staring contest since the one against old Glass-eyed Juan, during the great sand-storm of '42, at the height of the Arizona conjunctivitis epidemic.

And (resisting the urge to post loads more of the things), here's my favourite, highly relevant to a literary blog:

"I know what you're thinking, punk," hissed Wordy Harry to his new editor, "you're thinking, 'Did he use six superfluous adjectives or only five?' - and to tell the truth, I forgot myself in all this excitement; but being as this is English, the most powerful language in the world, whose subtle nuances will blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel loquacious?' - well do you, punk?"

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Egosurfer? Moi?

A few days ago The Guardian blog was debating the rise of the literary blog - with some cruel quotes in it, such as Rachel Cooke's opinion that bloggers are 'latter-day Pooters' - and not for the first time I started thinking about why I blog. I started because one of my creative writing students suggested I did and it seemed an easier option than trying to create a website, which is something still on my To Do list. I must admit I was quite tentative at first but it wasn't long before I found myself really enjoying it.

At the time I was coming to the end of my third year of teaching a twenty week evening class course on novel-writing. Afterwards, I made the difficult decision not to offer a course this year, although I am still involved in the University's summer school programme. I did this quite simply because it was taking up too much of my time and attention, and there was a level of bureaucracy involved which was disproportionate, I felt, to the nature of the course as an evening class.

The decision wasn't easy, because I had actually enjoyed the teaching itself and for three years had been lucky enough to have had lively, interesting and talented people attending. Apart from the teaching of techniques and so on, I did feel it was important to share news of competitions, recent writing articles and what was going on in the publishing world, so I was always keeping an eye out for snippets and anecdotes and news items which we could discuss. Then the class ended and I found myself missing that kind of interaction - the blog, therefore, is a way of maintaining contact with my ex-students and my writing friends. Writing, after all, can be a lonely business - it's always good to feel part of a community.

The next reason is the reason one has for any kind of writing - it's communication of thought, idea, opinion, feeling. It's finding your voice, making your mark. It's saying 'Here I am'. It is, as someone said, egosurfing (the term for Googling your own name - hands up all those of you who've done it. Yes, you at the back - that includes you). It's expression of your own individuality in the hope that someone out there will hear and respond. Of course, now that blogging is so incredibly popular, you're calling out your name in a huge stadium of competing voices ('I'm Spartacus!' 'No, I'm Spartacus!') - how can you be heard? Well, initially you're heard by one or two, and if you're lucky, they tell one or two others who listen in, and so on and so on.

This brings me to the relation of the blog to publishing - and yes, there are 'blooks' - the blogs which mainstream publishers have bought, such as those by Belle de Jour and Wife in the North. Can't say I'm holding my breath to be discovered like that - there are simply too many lit blogs out there. Still, what's positive is the sense of growing a readership, some of whom post comments, of building a minor literary community, and knowing that, should I publish again anytime soon, there will be people out there who'll be rooting for me. Also, given the enormous time-delays one faces when waiting for responses from agents and editors, where the torments of Tantalus are as nothing compared to the endless on-tenterhooks state of wondering if today will be the day when ... - well, I'd say that for me the biggest pleasure of all in this blogging lark is to be able to say whatever I like at whatever length I please in whatever style I choose - and to have it published INSTANTLY! Joy!

Friday, 28 September 2007

Nix-lit and other Kid-lit

Given that Children's Book Week is next week (1- 7 )Oct), I thought I'd mention that a couple of weeks ago I visited my local Waterstones because the children's author Garth Nix was doing a signing there. And what a good experience it turned out to be - it was so encouraging to see a queue of children, not just parents, there (though there were some parents dutifully standing in line, with armfuls of books to be signed for their children). These were children who were calling out to each other across the shopfloor, naming books and characters as if they knew them! Hallelujah, I thought, some of the blighters actually do read! One teenager boasted to another that a mate of his was going to be so sick when he heard he'd met Garth Nix. This was great.

I, dutiful parent too, stood in line with my Nix-lit and met Mr Nix and he turned out to be a really nice man - he'd taken the time (as do Mr Horowitz and Mr Pullman) to engage in conversation with every signee and give each of them an individual moment which served to counter the conveyor-belt aspect of these affairs (publisher's representative progresses down the waiting line with little orange slips of paper to pop into your book to speed up the signing process: 'And who would you like yours signed to?')

So, I had a brief chat with Mr Nix, about the difficulty of pronouncing the name of his heroine, Sabriel - turns out the man himself doesn't know: he changes it according to his mood. I like that. I didn't tell him that I'm the only one in our household who's read Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen, even though I leave them around invitingly, for my boys to read. So far, the only spontaneous reading I've seen my boys do involves Yu-gi-oh, Antony Horowitz and Lemony Snicket. Which is something - but they're missing out on so much! (Not their mother's fiction, of course - they are tied to chairs and forced to listen to that).

Given that I've been writing children's fiction lately, I've found myself getting into reading it too - though I'm careful to avoid anything that resembles what I myself am writing, in terms of subject matter or location: I want to plough my own furrow undisturbed. And what might have been a pursuit of duty has been an absolute delight. It's a cliche now to say that we seem to be living in another golden age of children's fiction, but I really believe it might be true. Certainly children's fiction is garnering so much more attention and respect than it might have done fifteen or even ten years ago. This is a two-edged sword because everyone wants to get into it now, including writers who are extremely successful in the adult sphere (Joanne Harris, Jeannette Winterson, for example), and the obligatory toying with the form from the celebrity contingent (Madonna, Julianne Moore, Jordan - who writes about ponies, can you believe it!)

So here are some of the books I've recently delighted in:

Marcus Sedgewick: My Swordhand is Singing - starkly beautiful vampire fable

Michelle Paver: just finished Outcast, which is the fourth of the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. They're brilliant: the sense of time and place is spot on, the hero, Torak, has a touching bond with his companion Wolf (and parts of the books are narrated by Wolf himself), landscape and survival techniques of the Stone Age are immaculately researched and the pace of the stories never lets up.

Geraldine McCaughrean: White Darkness - the heroine visits Antarctica with her mad uncle and converses in her head all the time with Titus Oates of Captain Scott's expedition, because she has a crush on him. Very funny, original and beautiful.

Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief - great fun, as the hero, discovering one of the Greek gods is his father, goes on a quest across America to recover Zeus's stolen lightning bolt. A road movie with Greek divinities: Ares rides a Harley and wears shades.

Celia Rees: Witch Child. It's The Crucible all over again and none the worse for that.

Julie Hearn: Follow Me Down - excellent sense of period, lively, amusing - but also with pathos. Loved the Bendy Man.

Eva Ibbotson: Journey to the River Sea - lyrical, beautifully structured story, set on the Amazon where there's a strange and lovely blend of the exotic and the normal.

And the aforesaid Garth Nix - dark horror, gripping adventure and amazing levels of originality.

So I think you'll get the sense of the sort of thing I appreciate in a good children's book: emotional engagement, a genuine sense of a child's perception of the world, convincing use of setting both in place and time, language which is vibrant with sharp and telling and often beautiful images, dialogue which animates the story and the characters, and a momentum and suspense that means you can't put the thing down. Oh, and the sort of idea at the core of it all that makes you think 'Damn, damn, damn! Now why didn't I think of that?'

Monday, 24 September 2007

Dissecting Loss

Last night I watched the South Bank Show programme about Joan Didion, whose book 'The Year of Magical Thinking' I read and loved last year, although 'loved' doesn't seem like the right word. Appreciated. Respected. Almost couldn't bear to read. The book deals with the shock of the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, while their daughter Quintana was dangerously ill in hospital (Quintana died after the book was written). It is a literary dissection of the processes of grief which is both clinically dispassionate in its analysis of symptoms and significance and at the same time unbearably moving in its account of the sequence of the little moments, the telling details, the revelations that occurred during the year after Dunne's death. Any of us who has suffered loss (and who hasn't?) will recognise those stark anagnorises: yes, it has happened; yes, the loved one is gone; no, they will not come back; no, you will never speak to them again; no, no one can ever understand; no, no one can carry this for you; yes, this is how it is. This is how it is, for all of us.

At the start of the book she understatedly, chillingly, says 'Life changes in the instant', as she focuses on the transition from life to death in a moment, on her own transition from wife to widow, to woman with a soulmate to woman with concerned friends but who has to find her own way.

I'm fascinated, gripped, overwhelmed by the fact that we teeter on the brink with every passing second. I speak from experience of a massive loss, many years ago, which took merely an instant to accomplish. That something so big took mere milliseconds to occur - still I wonder at it and still I cannot incorporate it into any sense of just order. A sane world became at best ludicrous, at worst malign.

Some changes, some losses, are insidious, incremental, subtle and unseen, a slow erosion, like the change of a river-course or shoreline. Others are like the shift of plate tectonics; a jarring shudder casting people this way and that, with no concern shown for individual fate or identity. As writers, we have to record the changes, and bear witness to that individuality in the teeth of the blank, gorgeous, finite and infinite universe. As writers we do this, whether what we write is trite and hackneyed or as awe-inspiringly sharp and precise as Joan Didion's work.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Drip-Feeds versus Wallows

Now here's a thing: The Book Standard has an article extolling the virtues of Daily Lit (http://www.dailylit.com if you can bear to check it out), because 'even the busiest person can tackle a literary classic - in five minutes a day via email.'

This is yet another symptom of our time-poor nanosecond-attention-span society. Listen, if you're pushed for time, read a haiku. Some poor novelist has sweated blood creating the rhythm of clause, sentence, paragraph, chapter, overall plot. The language may have a lilt to it, a swing and flow that is individual to that writer and is the result of long practice. The pace of the story should have its own systole and diastole, lifting you, holding you, releasing you only to seize you again as you read. And you don't get that in a five minute soundbite.

You can tell I'm narked, can't you? I'm also puzzled. Whenever I and my friends talk about the joy of reading or reminisce about books we loved long ago, the books we've never forgotten, the books we revisit, we don't talk about that zippy little phrase on page 67 which grabbed us and made the whole thing worthwhile. Certainly, we may have favourite lines or memorable phrases we can recite - but when we talk of the love of a good book we use phrases like 'I was lost in it', 'I couldn't put it down', 'I was totally drawn into it' - and we sigh at the memory of the reluctant renunciation we felt when the book came to its end and we had to return to the 'real' world. Some books take a long time to cast their spell: it isn't an instant fix, a shallow 'affirmation' to be stuck on the fridge - it's a long wooing, a seduction of the reader through character and language and storyline.

One of the things I most regret about adult life is how difficult it is to have a damn good wallow in a book. On the rare occasions where I can read a book in a couple of bursts - or in one sitting - I sink into the book with joy and am fit to commit murder if disturbed. One of the irritations of trying to read in bed nowadays is how tired I am, how incapable of still being awake all the way to the last page at five a.m. when the birds are stirring and the light filters in. Nowadays, a page or two and I'm dozing - and the next night and the night after that find myself rereading the same two pages because I've forgotten what happened.

It's claimed that Daily Lit works because 'people really respond to the fact that it's according to their schedule.' Couldn't they fit their schedule to reading the book, according it the attention and respect it deserves? Is this what we've come to? I worry that my children bring home photocopied sheets from school all the time: they're being conditioned to see life in terms of 'best of', in terms of extracts and bleeding chunks, and thus never learn any staying power, never see what might be worthwhile in the 'slow bits', the less obviously grabby bits.

In the article, one reader says it's the method 'easiest for me to consume'. Consume? Consume?

One of the founders says 'It's a new format that hasn't yet been exploited and they're looking at this incremental revenue, similar to the book club format. It doesn't take away from or cannibalize the existing marketing. It's reading that wouldn't otherwise take place.' This is just sad. What have we come to, if we have to rely on Daily Lit, emails, and reading potted texts off the itty bitty screens of mobile phones to be the last bastions of reading custom.

Wake up, pick up a big fat read - and wallow!

Monday, 17 September 2007

Slings, Arrows, Self-Belief

During this difficult time, this arid wait for responses from publishers, it's not surprising that one finds oneself assailed by negativity. Writers are a weird mixture of arrogance and self-doubt. You believe you're good or you wouldn't do it - but at the same time, like spiteful tinnitus, there's the voice in your head saying - Why are you doing this? What are you thinking Of? Who on earth would want to read this stuff? etc etc and dreary etc. Is it any wonder so many creative artists have turned out to be bipolar? Even those of us who are not clinically ill suffer extreme highs and lows - and when you hit the lows it's hard to retain any sense that this writing business can be joyful and positive and life-affirming. It seems to be a grinding tyranny, trudging round the treadmill of dreams - of what? Fame? Money? Peer acceptance? A kick at mortality? Just WTF are you doing with it?

All of this disorganised bleating leads me to a couple of recent quotes I noticed: first of all from Graham Greene's letters, where he laments his manic depression but says 'Cure the disease and I doubt whether a writer would remain.' You may well have seen Stephen Fry's documentary exploration of what it means to be bipolar, which was fascinating and moving. He asked several of the people he interviewed whether, if given the chance to push a button that would take the illness away, they would push it. They said no: the rush of the ecstatic hyperawareness of being alive, the joy of fantasy and creation, the sense that anything was possible, counterbalanced the terrible phases of despair. Despair and wishing for death - the price to be paid, and a price accepted - anything better than what they clearly feared, like Graham Greene: no creativity at all. So there. You have to suffer for your art.

That said, some kindly publisher could easily salve the trauma, externally at least: a big fat contract ought to do the trick.

And while we're in self-doubt mode, here's Ian Rankin: 'The reason writers keep on writing even when they don't need the money and don't need the acclaim is that they haven't yet written the perfect book. Each book you produce is another small failure.' I'm comforted by this: I scarcely dare open the pages of The Chase because I'm bound to see something I would do differently now. The apprenticeship is never-ending. So everything you create will indeed be a small failure. It won't match the glittering vision of it you first had. It can't be the Book as Platonic Ideal. So it will be a small failure - and it will be a great success. After all, you wrote it.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Noggins, Ne'er Do Wells, Performers and Plowterers

First of all, thanks to Scott Pack of The Friday Project for taking a look at this blog and complimenting it. I'd emailed him to try to get a freebie CD of Oliver Postgate material (I never had time for the Clangers but I was a huge Noggin the Nog fan when I was young. Ah, the Land of the Northmen, the Nogs, Queen Nooka, Graculus the Great Green Bird, even Nogbad the Bad bwa-hah-hah-hah ...) - but I was too late, they'd all been snaffled up.

Secondly, my boys have returned to school - the elder one facing GCSEs this year, so God help us all. And I'm back teaching too ...

Take a look at the link to muvva's blog on the right - it's newly started up and looks promising. I especially like the cartoon she's posted on it - we can all relate to it, I think!

Items in the current world of book news - apparently a Polish author has been jailed for 25 years for murdering a man he suspected his wife was having an affair with. Later he published a novel with all the details of the murder, which led the police to arrest him. Not the brightest of bunnies, then. See http://news.bbc.co.uk

Richard Charkin on his blog http://charkinblog.macmillan.com talks about routes to market. Analysing the sales of a recent mass market fiction paperback he found 50% of sales were through the chains, 35% of the supermarkets, 9% internet, 5% independent bookshops, 1% libraries. You may find this scary. The 1% library figure was rounded up - even scarier.

A blog by Lee Rourke in The Guardian blames the influence of the Beat writers for the self-indulgence of young male writers who talk the talk but don't walk the walk and who worship at the altar of experimentation having never learned the basics of composition. It's the familiar point that you have to know the rules to break them.

An earlier Guardian blog discussed how badly writers tend to read aloud their own work. We've talked earlier on this blog about how writers are expected to be performing seals these days - and some are better than others at balancing that ball on their nose while slapping their flippers together. I've attended some brilliant readings - Philip Pullman and Carol Ann Duffy spring to mind - but also some truly dire ones (names withheld to protect the guilty). I do think that if the publicity people want to send the writer out to perform they ought to give him or her coaching in how to do it - and if the writer genuinely cannot do it, if they read in a flat monotone, looking at the floor as they do so, or mumble inaudibly, or drain the work of any colour and animation, then just don't send them out there: it'll do the work no favours at all. Get an actor to do it instead.

Here's a good quote from Leopardi on The Guardian blog: 'we are well aware of the unspeakable annoyance we feel when listening to someone else's work.'

I'm having real trouble today just typing - positively dyspraxic. Also the words are not flowing - which is a pity, because I need to put together a synopsis for the new book. All summer the damn thing has been giving me trouble in terms of making the elements of the plot hang together - but now at last it's seems to be settling into place and I want to formalise this so that it acts as my basic route-map. (Not that there won't be diversions and alterations of itinerary ahead - it's just nice to feel I have a general sense of where I'm going and what my destination will ultimately be. I don't like going into a book totally blind.)

As I say, the words aren't gelling well for me today - I do believe that we are subject to biorhythms or whatever you want to call them: sometimes there's fluency of brain and internal Roget's Thesaurus, sometimes there just ain't, and every last phrase is a heavy-booted clump through claggy mud. Do you ever feel that too?

In the dialect of the bit of northern Scotland I come from, to struggle through mud is to 'plowter through the dubs.' Thought you might like that.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

In Memoriam Rene Latournerie

I know that my last blog had a sad theme, but I'm afraid this one has too. Yesterday we heard of the death of our French friend, Rene Latournerie. He'd had colon cancer for several years and died on Sunday at the age of 69.

During the first half of the nineties, we had a half-share in an old French house near Bergerac. Rene and his wife Liliane befriended us and many were the mornings lost to the invitation to an 'apero' or two, many the afternoons fogged by the heat and the after-effects of too many Ricards.

When I was writing 'The Chase', Rene was immensely helpful. He was curt but with a twinkle in his eye, he had rarely stirred outside his region, he was a man who knew how to build things and who understood nature and who, we always felt, was entirely content with his lot. He was lean and solid as oak. He was also at times bigoted and narrow of view and he was bloodthirsty, priding himself in an extensive armoury of weapons with which to shoot the local 'gibier' - but he also believed that the game should always have a sporting chance to survive. He possessed no false sentimentality, no squeamishness: he came from a peasant culture where you did what you had to do to survive.

Many of his phrases and memories (like hiding in a cornfield when the Nazis arrived) entered my book. When I needed to write a crucial chapter about a boar hunt, Rene took us one day into the woods, while Liliane looked after our then-toddler son, Jack. The walk was utterly memorable and I was fascinated by everything he knew, everything he noticed, which we, poor clumsy city-dwellers, would have failed to spot. There was a secret life all around us and he provided the temporary bridge to it. Afterwards, I wrote the boar hunt chapter in one glorious burst and scarcely needed to tamper with a word of it afterwards. So thanks, Rene, for the information and for the experience.

We hadn't seen him for a few years, but believed, as you do, that he would be as permanent as the landscape he inhabited. We felt shell-shocked last night. But even stalwarts like Rene, landscapes and ways of life such as in the Perigord, all are vulnerable, in the end.

'Jean-Jacques, child of the land, tramps ahead of him in brown corduroys and a checked shirt, half-open. He carries his gun, his knife and a stout stick he uses to prod the ground or hold branches back for their passage. His voice is deep but low, his accent so strong that it loses Gerald and Edouard has to translate. Here, he says, the tracks of roedeer. There - that circle of white mouldy dots in the soil? - a mushroom is coming up. Up in that tree - nest of a buzzard. By your foot - the droppings of a weasel. He knows the names of everything, the significance of every sign, and dispenses information casually. He takes it all for granted. Gerald feels at the same time privileged and patronised. If ever I was stuck on a desert island, he thinks humbly, I'd be dead meat. Provisions could be right under my nose - I'd never see them. I know about mobile phones and how to set the video. Mother Nature didn't foster me. From time to time he asks a question: he asks Jean-Jacques to identify something for him, and the man gives him a measuring look, like a doctor in an asylum assessing how much the patient is capable of assimilating.' ('The Chase')

Salut, Rene.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Done and undone

I've just been crying my eyes out for a woman I never met.

Read the news this morning that the writer and humanitarian campaigner, Siobhan Dowd, had died of breast cancer at the age of 47.

I was aware of her because of her recent successful forays into children's fiction, A Swift Pure Cry and The London Eye Mystery - and also, rather absurdly, because we shared the same dentist, who a few months ago, after his obligatory enquiry about how my writing was going, mentioned that she was a patient of his.

Two and a half years ago the writer and broadcaster Humphrey Carpenter died. He'd been suffering from Parkinson's disease and yet his death came as a shock. I had more of a connection in that he had been my supervisor when I first came to Oxford to study and on rare occasions we met thereafter, he was always enthusiastic and helpful and great fun to be with.

What these two people have in common, apart from premature death and the ghastly injustice of that, about which we are all going to feel revulsion, pain and anger, is the concept of the life well lived. Reading Siobhan Dowd's obituary in The Guardian, one sees how much she crammed into her life - and Humphrey was the same: an extraordinary human dynamo.

It's the John Donne moment again, the 'no man is an island'. It's also a kick up the backside for those of us who have the aspirations and yet somehow, don't seem to be able to get things done. It's the perilously-close-to-a-Hallmark-card sentiment that you should live your life as if each day is your last etc. Certainly, you need to focus on your priorities, decide what is truly crucial to you, so that when your time comes you don't cry out 'But I didn't ...! But I haven't ...! Could you just hang on while I ...!'

So says the woman who's in the midst of a mad cleaning binge because we've got people coming to dinner tomorrow. Why should it matter that the windows are clean and the cushions are straight and the air is gently scented by an Aveda candle? It doesn't matter at all. but still I am in thrall to my mother's and grandmother's standards, to the tyranny of judgement by other females (a tyranny my husband can't for the life of him understand). Absurd. Absurd. I should be writing.

I'll read Siobhan Dowd's books - fewer books than she would have liked to have written no doubt, but two more than there might have been if she hadn't had the energy and commitment she had.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

What do you want to be when you grow up?

The Guardian yesterday discussed a YouGov poll in which it turns out 10% of us want to be writers, more even than those who want to be sports personalities, pilots or astronauts! Those over 50 are most prone to this desire - the younger lot are keener on being a Beckham or Lewis Hamilton. This just demonstrates the halo of glamour that adheres to the concept of the writing life - along with the delusion that there's always gold in them thar literary hills.

This led me to think about the numerous courses, handbooks and articles all of which have at their core that enticing message, that lure - 'You too can be a writer!' 'Why not be a writer!'

I myself contribute to this, in that I have my own small involvement in creative writing teaching. Often the people I teach have a burning urge to do it, often they've proven their motivation by writing stories and novels, by entering competitions, by, quite simply, sticking to it. However, all too often, people claim they want to be writers in the same way that lanky sixteen year old girls want to be models - they do it by steadfastly ignoring what is actually involved.

So, what does it take to be a writer? First of all, bloody hard graft. Forget airy fairy notions of the sensitive writer at the desk, chewing the quill pen, furrowing the brow, then being struck with the white heat of inspiration and scribbling furiously through the night, scribbling his or her way into immortality. This is not to say that inspiration doesn't work like that - it can and when it does it's a wonderful trip. The point is, it doesn't work like that all the time. The Muse, as Stephen King says, is a basement kind of guy - not an ethereal Greek spirit wafting down from Parnassus. You need to beat your Muse with a stick. You need to get it out of bed - and it's usually as reluctant to do so as my teenage son. And that's Reluctant.

Not only is it hard graft but long drawn out hard graft. You have to commit yourself to the long haul, to the ups and downs, to the supercharged enthusiasm followed by the long dark night of the soul, to the wrenching of precious time out of the daily confusion of thoughts and activities, and most of all to the lack of understanding, open hostility, or cold rejection of others. When I was young there was an advert for toys called Weebles and the jingle was 'Weebles wobble but they don't fall down.' You've got to be a Weeble.

You've got to be your own best friend; nurture and comfort yourself with pride in what you've done and faith in what you want to do. You've got to be your own worst enemy, your harshest critic, subjecting everything you write to fierce relentless scrutiny.

You've got to be honest. You've got to let projects go if they're not working out. You've got to focus on your own capacities as a writer, not eat yourself up in envy of others. Honesty may well mean facing up to the fact that ultimately, this is a race you can't run, a goal you can't reach. The biggest honest favour you may have to do for yourself is to admit that you don't actually have the talent. However much books can advise and teachers can coach - and they can do a lot - there are times when, whisper it, the aspirant just cannot write for toffee. Here again, writing seems to have its own uniquely perverted way of selling itself as a profession - nobody thinks they've got a godgiven right to be a brainsurgeon or a concert pianist or even a painter. Often people will reach their mature years and retire from the day job and say blithely 'I'm going to be a writer now' - as if it's a switch you can flip. To those people I'd say - yes, you may well have a talent which has been bubbling within you all these years and now's the time for it to bubble up - but then again you may not. Wishing isn't doing. When I was a student my best friends were around a size 10 and I starved myself to try to get down to that happy state, and certainly I got thin, but I couldn't get thinner than my bone structure would allow, I couldn't look boyish for the life of me. I had the body I had and still have (only more so now!). Being a writer comes from a germ within, and the nurturing of that with industry and practice and the recognition that that's a process that ought never to end. You can always be better.

When I was a little girl and was asked 'Little girl, what do you want to be when you grow up?' I'd answer, primly and no doubt revoltingly, 'An authoress.' It's all I've ever wanted to be. It's always mattered, it still matters, through all the dilatoriness, the self-doubt, the despair. It's what I am and what I always aspire to be. It defines me. I hate it, I'm burdened by it, but I love it and relish it and wallow in it all the time.

If any of this has made you go 'Ouch' I'm sorry - but then again I'm not. It was an honest lecture, honestly meant.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Busman's holiday?

Some of you may well have harboured the suspicion that I've been away on holiday - well, you're right. I've been back a few days now, but it's been a manic week with so much to catch up on, so I haven't got around to blogging till now. My apologies for neglecting you, if you're regular readers.

We went to Cornwall. Last year, we went to France, down by the Spanish border. It was boiling there - but then, it was boiling here too, and like so many others we took last year's hot summer as a sign that global warming was going to give southern England a Mediterranean temperature from now on. Ho ho.

However, although it was raining when we arrived in the far West, near St Ives, we ended up blest with good weather on the whole. Having fled from flood-threatened Oxford, we felt extremely lucky. Three times now we've gone down there and each time the locals have commented on how lucky we've been with the weather, so we're in danger of thinking that it's always fine.

I am so in love with that place. My husband and I idly talked of moving there - and there's a lot to be said for it. Don't want to sound too much like an incipient Druid or Goddess worshipper, but it is a place that speaks to me. Like Oxford, it's imbued with history. Like where I came from in the north of Scotland, it's got sea and cliffs and wildness. Unlike Oxford, it's got fresh air! My lungs felt like they'd had a good scouring out - all of us were yawning all the time. It was a detox for soul and body.

However, I don't think in all reality I would move there. In Scotland I was only too familiar with the sense of being cut off from the world at large, and don't think that after the first fine careless rapture I would much enjoy it again (then again, there's the internet ...). In Oxford there's all the facilities of a city, there's access to London and Heathrow, there's hospitals close at hand ... there's also noise, street-crime, traffic ... Oh dear. I need to get rich enough to have a foot in both camps - that's the answer. Then one of the Cornish nationalists will no doubt set fire to our Cornish retreat ...

It was a great, great holiday, but it was also a working holiday for me - I was researching for my children's series. Back in the days when I was writing The Chase, which was set in France, I was exactly the same - never off duty. It's exhausting - you carry a notebook at all times, you spend too much on books (my husband would argue that's a year-round fault), take hundreds of photos, try to imprint everything on your memory, 'in case it might be useful' - that's my mantra. There comes a point when you wish you could be normal, just lie on the beach or look at the view or go on the jaunt, without trying to catch things in the net of your imagination. Where a fact could be just that - an interesting fact, and not a lump of ore from which a nugget of story can be extracted. The thing is, I can't help it. I can't switch off from 'That would make a good story' and 'What if?' - it's the way my brain works. Damn tiring.

Here's a quote from James Thurber on this: 'I never quite know when I'm not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says "Dammit, Thurber, stop writing." She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph.'

Does that strike a chord with any of you?

Friday, 20 July 2007

Shooting Fish

Picking up on yesterday's blog, there's an article in The Independent (http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/article2785433.ece) by Andrew Franklin, director of Profile Books, about why publishers miss good books. It's witty, informative and blood-curdling so if you're a wannabee only read it if you can stare truth in the face. He stresses how many submissions are made. Many are made, few are chosen. You knew that, didn't you? He tells us that 'not every manuscript get the careful attention it deserves. It should not come as a shock that many manuscripts are returned unread to the sender. We need to clear our desks in order to look after the authors whom we do sign up, and the unsolicited manuscripts are often a chore to be dealt with at the end of the day by an overworked intern.'

You knew that too, didn't you? Course you did.

He stresses that publishers have to read submissions from the mad, bad and dangerous to know (not you, obviously. You'd never dream of sending in an MS in green ink). That publishers hide behind weasel messages like 'not quite right for our list' because they cannot afford to enter into a dialogue with a needy and hopeless author - they'd never get rid of them (again, not you).

Most importantly, because you knew all the above stuff already, he stresses the importance of having an agent: 'Publishers now rely on specialists - agents, in fact (think of them as the consultants of the publishing profession) - to supply them with novels, though we all still buy some non-fiction directly from authors. To plagiarise, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that the most celebrated fiction houses now only buy fiction from agents. All serious aspiring authors know this and seek out an agent as an essential stage in the process of finding the right publisher, and of course the best contract too.'

So why am I telling you all this when you knew it already? Maybe some things can't be stated too often. Write the book you want to write, polish it until it gleams, get yourself an agent (and no, I'm not on commission from any agency touting for trade), chant the William Goldman mantra 'Nobody knows anything', submit your work with professional clarity, accept rejection with grace and never give up. That's all there is to it. Like shooting fish in a barrel, eh?

Thursday, 19 July 2007

A Rose By Any Other Name ...

It's been done before, goodness knows. Would-be writers, strangely embittered or strangely suspicious (and why would they be?) of publishers, set little tests when they submit their work. Some place a strategic hair between pages 72 and 73 (I'm reminded of children's novels - Famous Five, most probably - where the children sprinkle talc or flour on the floor and check next day for footprints), some place a wodge of blank paper somewhere in the script - then they sit back, lip curling in expectation that the dastardly publishers will fall into their trap (curses, you pesky kids!).

Some take it even further. We seem to have a desperate desire to have our prejudices confirmed - but really, we don't need to go to such lengths. Publishers and agents are swamped with submissions, they don't have time, they've seen a lot a dreadful tosh, they farm stuff out to minor minions while they get on with the important stuff, they don't recognise a gem when it jumps off the page and spits in their eye -these are the common bleats of writers. Sometimes we hear news stories of famous writers sending previously published work off anonymously to see if it would be accepted now - and then being rejected. Ta-ra! Philistine blinkered publishers caught on the hop again! It seems to me to be an awful lot of effort to have jaundiced views confirmed. Literary fashions and fads change, agents and editors are often young, not well-read enough in the view of the would-be or has-been, life's a bitch and so on. Get over it, you might say.

Today, in The Guardian,(http://books.guardian.co.uk/print/0,,330220992-99819,00.html) there's a report about a chap who has sent off work originally written by a certain J. Austen, with only very minor changes. He changed Netherfield in 'Pride and Prejudice' to Weatherfield, for example, which I find a real hoot - I think that's got real potential. Coronation St meets Austen - delightful, my dear! 'Miss Mavis first caught sight of Mr Elliot as he graced the elegant bar of that well-frequented hostelry, The Rover's Return, to which so many of the residents of Weatherfield liked to repair at every available juncture, whether their personal funds permitted or not. Later she confessed to her dear friend Rita, as they sipped builder's tea together and indulged in the pleasures of checking out the horse-racing results, that, having long despaired of ever meeting a gentleman with conversational tics that could engage her for a sufficiently-long period during which interest and engagement could develop to a satisfactory degree, that his fascinating tendency to repeat the last clause of every declaration and observation he made, had caught her ear and seduced her heart irrevocably - this said with a shy blush and a very conscious look as she adjusted the decollete neckline of her leopard-skin top, a garment which served to enhance in the most tasteful and delicate manner imaginable, the sweet youthfulness of her surgically-enhanced figure.'

Getting back to the point (reluctantly), what amazes me is that David Lassman, when he submitted the opening chapter of P and P and its synopsis, didn't change the opening sentence! Only the most famous opening sentence in Eng Lit, innit? He submitted it under the title of 'First Impressions' (which was indeed its original title) and he also submitted Northanger Abbey and Persuasion with similarly minor changes. You've guessed it - very few people twigged and he received the kind of standard rejection verbiage one expects: it was of 'interest', 'a really original and interesting read' and so on but 'not suited to our list'.

I leave you to ponder that. And as I've said before - laugh or cry. You choose.

By the way, yes, I know Mavis left Coro years ago and she was never one for leopard-skin tops. Regard her as an amalgam. And yes, I know Fred Elliot is dead. Sadly missed, too. I say, sadly missed.

Monday, 16 July 2007

School's Out

Well, I've survived the summer school for another year - and so did my students, just about! I had an incredibly nice group of people to deal with, so although the week was frantic and intense, it was also purposeful, positive and fun. We shared a lot of laughs. Well done to them for being so productive too - and so timely with their assignments so that I could get the marking and reports done by 5.30 Friday, when they were required by the admin staff. The one to one tutorials went well - and many students find them the most valuable part of courses like this. When you're on your own with the challenge of writing a novel it really helps to have direct editorial advice and support. Also, there seemed to be particular appreciation of the plotting aspect of the course this year - and it was good to see new stories forming and gelling in people's minds as the week progressed.

Could have done with a solid weekend in bed after that, but it was not to be. The house looked more than ordinarily tip-like, elder son had an end-or-term music concert on Saturday morning and yesterday we went to Thorpe Park as a belated birthday treat for younger son!

Now I need to address the problem of filing away all the notes, lectures, examples and handouts I used last week, the dregs of which were just dumped at the end of each day. Plus there's the aftermath of my normal teaching year. Plus the many off-the-net printouts - things I think may interest students, book news, popular science and astronomy for my book etc etc. All in utter chaos at present. After a major sort-out, when things are in neat files and wallets all labelled, a semblance of order lasts for, oh, about a week, after which the smug grin on my face is replaced by the more familiar drowning-in-sea-of-info expression.

This week we're going to hear nothing but Harry Potter, Harry Potter - an article in the Observer yesterday highlighted the contribution JKR's agent, Christopher Little, has made to her success (and the benefits, of course, he's derived from having seen her potential). And what we all long for is an agent who will be full of critical and commercial acumen, who will drive a gimlet-eyed deal for us while being our biggest fan and support. As Ed Victor says in the article: 'He was the luckiest agent ever - when something like that falls in your lap it is luck, but he made the most of it. He has run the brand admirably. ... He's a charming and affable fellow, but made of steel underneath.'

Note the word 'brand', by the way.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Does your face fit? Or does it make people throw a fit?

I may well be silent for the next week because I start teaching a summer school in novel writing tomorrow and it runs till next Friday, by which time my brain will be mush. I've been spending ages getting my handouts and exercises in order: as with all teaching, it's not the teaching itself that takes the time, it's the preparation - and I very strongly believe that you can be a confident public speaker only if you're fully prepared and have mapped everything out properly. This doesn't mean there isn't room for class input, discussion and diversions - it just means that I need to have in my head a clear idea of the overall shape of the lecture or seminar and I need to have my back-up material carefully marshalled.

So, folks, you're on your own for a few days - just hope it'll make you miss me!

In the meantime, a couple of items: J.K. Rowling will be appearing on the Jonathan Ross show tonight (does this mean that for once he'll turn off the lech/prurient/shock the interviewee with blatant sex-talk and frequent use of the F word/ twitch the tie, eye the camera and look smug technique? I think not. No doubt he'll say to her 'I'm such a great fan of yours ...')
Back to the point - apparently she describes her feelings on finishing the last Harry Potter as a mixture of euphoria and being 'devastated'. Coming to the end of a book is hard enough, and switching off from the characters you've obsessed about for so long feels strange and unnerving in the extreme. It is a mixture of triumph and dislocation. After seven books, she's going to feel very dislocated indeed. The question is, whither now? She doesn't ever have to write to earn a crust again - so will she still write at all? Will she write something completely different in genre under a pen name? Will she, ten years down the line, be a Spice Girl and reconvene her characters because of a desire to recapture the magic that was. (And if she does, is she likely to have more luck than the Spice Girls will? Hush your mouth, Lorna - look at Take That!)

Second item to catch my eye - you may well have heard of the site Meet the Author, (meettheauthor.com) founded by David Freeman, where you can catch interviews with authors (though I can't - when I click onto an interview, it just endlessly tries to load and gets me nowhere - very frustrating.) He has started a new section called Marketplace to give unpublished authors the chance to pitch their work. Pitches will be rated by viewers and it is hoped publishers will source new material from the site. All very admirable and worth a look. However, the pitch involves uploading a video of yourself giving your spiel, at a cost of £35. This is all well and good if you are of the generation of 'digital natives' and comfortable with this. It seems very Hollywood to me (have you seen the film 'The Player'?) What happened to the written pitch as opposed to the audio-visual one? Is everything to be audio-visual-digital these days? And what if you've got a face like a slapped arse? Will this not detract from the power of your presentation? Claire Armistead, literary editor of the Guardian says: 'Faces sell books - a theme that's been taken up and whacked for all it's worth. Which is perverse, because there's no reason why writers should be good-looking. But that's the world we live in.' Faces sell books - and there was me thinking it was words.

Freeman also predicts that publishers will use the site to 'test the public's appetite for some topics before expensive publication decisions are taken.' I see. We're back to focus groups (see Wanna Bet? earlier post). The thing is, the public doesn't often know what it wants until it gets it. Give editors some autonomy, for Godsake!

Monday, 2 July 2007

Winchester report

Well, I'm back, after, as expected, a truly hectic weekend. Sad that the weather was so wretched - and it didn't help that in the Hall of Residence there was no hot water - glad to come back to my creature comforts. It's weird being in a student environment like a single room in a hall - memories of long ago at university and a time when trolling down a corridor just to get to a loo fine by me. Now, it very definitely isn't. Strange also to experience silence and alone-time - apart from the relentless thump thump of footsteps along aforesaid corridor and the swish-thunk of firedoors. I might have done some writing - I certainly got some thinking done - if I hadn't been so damn tired. Even fell asleep over the indulgence-read I'd brought with me, C.J. Sanson's 'Dark Fire'. This is no reflection on the quality of his writing, even though it was a story that took a while to heat up (sorry) - just the aforesaid knackeredness.

I taught a day course in plotting to a very nice group and we had a fun time, but it's frustrating to try to cram so much into so little time. It's impossible to be comprehensive, but I will insist on trying. On Friday evening I felt absolutely braindead and as if I was coming down with flu, so went to bed early. Saturday started (after a shower so tepid I really regretted having long hair which took ages to rinse) with an opening speech by Jacqueline Wilson who daunted all of us by explaining she spends 90% of her time now just being a professional author, which means not writing but travelling around giving talks, doing booksignings, school visits and so on. Her early training as a journalist for DC Thompson means she has the ability to write in very short bursts, anywhere, anytime, and then she 'stitches together the patchwork' of little bits she has created. I wish I could just turn the flow off and on at will like that but can't. I was able to have a brief chat with her at lunchtime - she is friendly and positive, with as she said herself, something of the ten year old about her still. Never was an ex-journalist less hardbitten.

I gave a lecture on editing in the morning and one on characterisation in the afternoon and then I was done - so could enjoy a stint in the bar after the Saturday dinner with a clear conscience. I met the novelist Kate Harrison, author of 'The Starter Marriage, 'Old School Ties' and now 'The Self Preservation Society', who was great fun - see her website, http:www.kate-harrison.com, especially if you're a chick-lit writer. Also my longterm friends Mike Greenhough, ace of haibuns, and the novelist Sally Spedding, whose novels are dark and supernatural, and who specialises in threatening and mysterious landscapes. Sally spends part of her time in France, in Cathar country, lucky thing. See her website http://sallyspedding.com Finally, Crysse Morrison, author of 'Frozen Summer' and 'Sleeping in Sand' was there. She teaches novel writing, amongst other things, including on the island of Skyros and she was sporting a wonderful tan, having just come back from Crete. Her website is at http://www.crysse.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

Arriving at Winchester station yesterday to catch the train to Oxford, I was bemused to see a large police presence there and had no idea why until I got home and had the use of a telly again, and discovered the latest terrorist activities.

Now I'm in for another busy week as I get ready to start teaching a summer school on novel-writing for the university's summer school programme. This will be intense stuff! I should really be tucked up in bed trying to get ahead with my sleep quotas, not blogging to you lot!

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Winchester Writers' Conference

I'm revving up to go off to Winchester for the weekend. The Writers' Conference will be on from the 29th at the University of Winchester - it's a pretty massive event, which has been running now for over a quarter a century (therefore started long before the explosion of courses, conferences and festivals we now see). I'll be teaching a day course on plotting (cram everything I know about how to structure a novel into six hours? No problem!) and giving lectures on editing and characterisation on Saturday.

I've been going to this conference for years now - initially as a delegate, not a speaker. I first went when I'd just completed 'The Chase' and had hopes of it. I went because I wanted to make contact with other writers and feel part of a community. Again, that's much easier these days, partly because of the aforesaid popularity of courses and festivals and so on, partly because there are more book groups and writing groups, partly because of the internet - Facebook, publishers' sites, online courses, and blogs like these.

I've made some good friends at the conference - it's like a school reunion every year! I learned a lot when I first came about the power of networking, and I learned what I've come to believe strongly in - that apart from talent and graft, as a writer you need to know how publishing works and you need to learn how to play its game.

The conference is pretty massive and is a bit of a fitness challenge, as the venues are spread across the face of a steep hill overlooking the city (which, by the way, is a wonderful place to visit in itself). You develop the skills of a mountain goat.

It's also totally exhausting - so many people, so many queries, so much hunger for information, for the magic secrets that lead to publishing success! And I'm also the worst person in the world for remembering names ...

So if you're there, and you come up to say hi or ask a question, forgive me if there's a blank, exhausted look on my face and I have trouble remembering my own name, far less anyone else's!

If you do go, swig a lot of caffeine, make the effort to meet people, be prepared to listen to often uncomfortable advice, be positive and professional - and enjoy!


Friday, 22 June 2007

Agent progress

By the way, my agent responded last week - she's delighted with the revisions so now the book goes out to publishers.

I've now taken up the delicate hopeful-writer stance (and you thought Pilates was difficult - try this): feet on the ground while head in the clouds and heart racing - just a little bit. It's a posture I've been perfecting for some years now. Does wonders for the abdominals but is perhaps a bit detrimental to the blood pressure. It's been a while since I've stretched my head quite this high - but hey, it's like riding a bike: it all comes back to you.

Now it's a waiting game. Again.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Lit Salons and Lattes

First of all, I'm not blogging at present as much as I'd like - blame pressures of work and a son in Year 10 with a load of delayed coursework and imminent exams. Not so much weblog as backlog.

A little item to amuse you - not only is the ubiquitous coffee chain Starbucks promoting selected books these days but now the hair salon chain Toni and Guy is getting in on the act (just when you thought it was safe to read Heat and OK with a clear conscience because there was nothing else available and besides, at the hairdressers you want to give your brain a break). Toni and Guy have teamed up with Penguin - Penguin are keen because of what their general marketing executive, Ruth Spencer, describes as 'The high level of dwell time in salons' (language like this is humbling for the novelist - you just couldn't make it up). She goes on to say, without, it seems, a trace of irony, that 'We are confident this will help us achieve a high level of cut through and impact amongst a key target audience'.

So, look forward to discussing with your hairdresser not only whether you're going somewhere nice at the weekend or for your holidays, but the postmodernist metafictional slant of the latest literary tome popped onto your lap while you're under the drier.

Expect to see more excruciating puns in salon names - joining such stalwarts as A Kut Above and Curl Up and Dye will be Readlocks, Tress of the d'Urbervilles, Perms of Endearment, From Hair to Eternity (wouldn't be surprised if that already exists) ... oh, stop me. Stop me now.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Motivation and vindication

Here's a quote: 'I never thought of the public at all and publication has never been my principal objective anyway. ... You can't be in it for the money, you can't be in it for the idea you're going to be famous.' Joanne Harris

How you react to the above words should tell you a lot about your nature and motivation as a writer. Why are you doing this? (Your loved ones and best friends may well ask you the same question, with plaintive expressions on their faces). It's a question to trouble the wee small hours, a question to haunt you when you've had another rejection or one of those said loved ones has just cast an eye over your immortal prose with a look of incomprehension on his or her face. 'Very nice, dear,' they may say. Not much of a crumb to snatch at.

At one end of the scale is the image of the writer as the misunderstood genius, the tortured loner, whose profound words and individual voice will only be understood by posterity. At the other end is the cynical hack rolling out what the public wants - and the public gets, as long as the advances are high, the step-deals satisfactory, the ego well massaged.

I for one have always wanted, needed to write. It's a sickness in the blood. But I've always wanted to be read too. The private stuff is for my diary (and even that, one has to say, is written, in a way, for an invisible audience - my future self, who will come across it years down the line and cringe with embarrassment at what I say now, but also smile fondly and nostalgically - or gasp with recognition at a memory that had been buried until reading my own words exhumed it).

I've always wanted to be published and one of the greatest thrills of my life was, on publication day, to see the window of Bloomsbury's offices in Soho filled with copies of The Chase. My book. My book. To go into bookshops and see it there. My book.

Along with that, there's the desire to earn money. It's an honest desire. Many writers dream of the literary income that will free them from everything else. Money isn't yachts and diamonds. Money is time. Time is freedom. Freedom equates to creativity.

When I started teaching creative writing I automatically believed that would-be writers would welcome advice not only on writing but on editing their manuscripts and submitting them. I felt it was important to give my students a clear idea of how the world of publishing worked - even if this meant shattering a few illusions. Writers need to know the commercial realities - and with every passing year this is more and more true. Back then, I often encountered a kind of sniffiness about what I was doing, as if it was somehow infra dig to take the commercial approach, to avoid the kind of preciousness that dismisses the need to be published as if it's the route to selling your literary soul.

How ironic then, to find that increasingly, as creative writing courses flourish up and down the land, that many of them now focus strongly on the editing and submission aspects. Vindicated!

Here's another quote: 'All bestsellers are honest books written according to a writer's obsession.' Robert Harris

Find yours. Write about it. Sell it. Sell it to readers. Make contact.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Snark is Dark

Whaddya know - I link to two blogs and one, Jacqui Lofthouse's is temporarily dark, with good reason because Jacqui is working to finish her new novel to a deadline: good luck with that, Jacqui. Her site is still well worth a look, of course. The other blog, featuring the wonderfully acerbic New York wit of Miss Snark, literary agent, is now permanently dark. As Miss S would say, Dear dog in heaven. It looks she was a victim of her own success and the blog was taking over her life. However, I will maintain the link because it's still a blog worth visiting, with a huge archive and links to other blogging agents. (Sounds like an insult - 'You dirty blogging agent you!') So, do pay a visit and scroll down from the cutesy farewell picture of her dog, Killer Yapp: you'll find lots of vicious fun and information.

Read it before you see it

Computer grief goes on - I can log on to this blog from an Apple Mac but not from my laptop, which is very galling as it's more convenient for me. Initially, everything was fine - then a couple of weeks ago the laptop refused to let me past, flagging up a privacy report. When I try to circumvent the problem by asking it to 'allow' my log in, I just go round and round the houses and nothing happens - it's still listed as restricted. Aarggh! `If anyone has any advice, I'd welcome it.

In the news this week: first, you remember that I drew attention to the horrors (in my opinion, my ever-so-'umble opinion Mr Copperfield) of the Dickens theme park in Chatham. Now I read in The Times (http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/article1862681.ece) about the Harry Potter park to be built by Warner Brothers and Universal studios in Orlando (where else?) 'The film-makers believe that they can recreate the dream of every child reader, and probably a few million adults too, who have imagined themselves flying in a game of Quidditch or walking into Hogwarts School ...' Do you lie awake at night, wishing you were astride a Nimbus 2000?

We are promised 'fully immersive' experiences to recreate the magic of Rowling's imagination with illusions like computerised figures that appear and disappear - and the vice-president of Unversal Creative Studios is quoted as saying 'This will allow people to have an experience unlike one they have been able to imagine before. What we're creating is an entire world. A place where magic happens.' Forgive me, but I thought that had already been achieved, by means of the relatively inexpensive mode of the er, actual, books.

I am at present reading Philip Pullman's 'Northern Lights' to my boys because I want them to know the story before the film (annoyingly called 'The Golden Compass') comes out and sets their visions in stone. It's too late with regard to 'The Lord of the Rings' - if they ever get round to reading it, the landscape and characters have been pre-envisioned for them. Although I think Peter Jackson did a damn fine job, it's sad to think that millions of viewers are missing out on what, for me, is one of the marvellous aspects of writing - that the writer presents powerful images which the reader then responds to in their own individual way. My children are part of a generation where it's all done for them: scene, gesture, background music. I think Viggo Mortenson is a brilliant Aragorn - but before he came along I had a vision of Aragorn myself and the two co-exist in my brain, like hearing two different piano players interpret a famous sonata. It's interesting that the publishers of the Narnia stories used the line 'Read it before you see it' before the film of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' came out.

Maybe I'm wrong: Barry Meyer, chairman of Warner Bros, claims 'Over the years, we have received thousands of letters from fans wishing they could visit Hogwarts and the wonderful locations described in each of J.K. Rowling's beloved stories.' But for me, all that's needed is an armchair, no interruptions, a glorious book to lose myself in and an active and responsive imagination - my reaction to the words on the page is the interactivity that satisfies me. I don't need some jobbing actor dressed up as Fagin or a wander through 'snow-covered Hogsmeade village'.

Then again, if I do publiish my children's book and anyone wants to come along and buy the film rights ...!

Friday, 25 May 2007

Wanna bet?

Well, here's a thing - take a look at www.MediaPredict.com - it's a new 'virtual market' where you can take a punt on whether book proposals posted on the site will find a book deal. Traders can buy shares based on guessing whether a book deal will materialise - but remember, the valued of shares can go up as well as down. When trading closes in September, five proposals will be chosen and one or more will be offered a book deal by Simon and Schuster (currently embroiled in a furore with the Authors Guild in America because it's claimed they want to have contracts with writers which will retain rights over works even when said works are, to all intents and purposes out of print - a juncture where an author might well want to retrieve their rights and move on.)

Not only can you bet on these proposals, you can submit your own work (agents can do this too, and are) - there's a page of guidelines for doing so. Presenting your work as a proposal, within a tight wordcount, is a useful discipline anyway, and worth practising. Remember, the time will come when you will have to be able to summarise your work pithily, with a clear focus on what the 'heart' or'point' of the story is. You can't just drivel on for page after page, blow by agonising blow through the plot.

Of course Touchstone/Simon and Schuster aren't just in it as an act of charity - it's an experiment to see how well the public can predict what will and what will not work - the philisophers' stone of marketing. Mark Gompertz, publisher of Touchstone Books is quoted in the New York Times: 'Since Gutenberg first printed the Bible, critics have always said publishers don't know what they're doing. Just throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks is a crazy way to do business."

Imagine a focus group gathering to discuss the potential of Gutenberg's bible, or, indeed, Malory's Morte d'Arthur ... 'Yeah, Tom, it's like exciting, what with knights and ladies and all, but although you've produced an interesting synthesis of those fancy French legends (and the ladies will like the lurve aspect) and macho trad Anglo-Saxon schtick, I think there's a real danger, you know, that it isn't like, focussed enough? I mean, who's the hero? Is it Arthur, or Tristram, or Gawain or Arthur?And what's with all the religion? What's with Guinevere going into that nunnery at Amesbury? Won't the readers find that a downer? She's a feisty broad - coudn't she and Lance just set the kingdom up again? Round Table 2: Return to Joyous Gard? Round Table 3: Search for the Lost King? Round Table 4: Farewell to Avalon? The only thing investors like more than a sequel is lots of sequels ...'

Finally, remember my fellow wannabees and literafiends, the wise words of William Goldman, when talking about the unpredictability of Hollywood success: 'NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING - Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. '

The same goes for books. Time and again, when I'm writing, I think 'Will this sell?' But I can't tell - all I can do is write the story I have to write, the story that nags in my head all the time, the story that's a terrier, that won't let go. And so should you. Then throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Pop go the festivals

I'm back - I have a backlog of things I want to discuss but am still pushed for time because of the manifold claims on my attention!

In the meantime, check out an article in the Independent about the boom in literary festivals - you may remember me discussing this in an earlier post. With the Hay on Wye festival imminent (130,000 attended last year), this is a timely examination of the 'more than 100 jamborees for the prose and poetry-obsessed every year.' It refers to a music promoter who's 'thinking of getting into book events. You don't realise how many people there are out there who want to spend a weekend in a tent, or maybe just an afternoon, chowing down about the latest hot writer or wanting to be in the same room as Simon Schama or Lauren Child'. Well, my fellow literafiends, how hip are we? Whose books are you chowing down at present?

Liam Browne, who's involved with the Brighton and Dublin festivals, says: 'Publishers will now often require an author to make a certain number of appearances ... There is more pressure than ever on writers to perform.' Was it Monty Python who long ago had a sketch where a famous writer (Hardy?) sat at a desk in public and started to write, with a spoof sportstyle commentary going on ('And he's picked up the pen ... and he's written his first word ... and it's 'The' .. No, no, he's crossed it out, groans from the waiting crowd ...') Or was it Not the Nine O'Clock News that did the sketch? Some kind soul will enlighten me.

I digress. Liam Browne also says audiences are no longer passive: 'these events are much more interactive than they used to be.' Sounds scary. By the way I can recommend a book edited by Robin Robertson called 'Mortification' (Harper Perennial 2004), which is an anthology of the humiliations writers have gone through at signings, interviews, on book tours in darkest middle America and the like. A nice helping of schadenfreude there!

The festivals article is at http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/books/news/article2565133.ece

'Scuse me now while I go off and nag my son (in a loving manner of course) some more (he has four more exams this week, a music performance and a coursework draft ...)

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Say no more?

My students' AS and A Levels - imminent.

My elder son's year 10 exams - current.

I think you'll understand why I'm not blogging frequently just now ...

Friday, 11 May 2007

Daemons and debates

Again, I've been silent for a few days because of computer woes. Honestly, you just feel that working with a computer is like falling serially in love with men who say all the right things but then don't call you - it's the triumph of hope over adversity (the computer-daemon lurking under my keyboard as I type these words is listening and will probably throw a mega-wobbly in revenge now, so if you don't hear from me for weeks, you'll know why.)

I'm glad to see that another glitch, this time with this blog, has sorted itself out: my Quotes of Note section, which was supposed to lie along the bottom of the page, had mysteriously repositioned it down the side, and the quote looked like pretentious avant-garde free verse - but now it's gone back to where it belongs. However, I don't think it's working too well presentationally and will set up quotes as a label and try to post more soon - I've got loads of the things to share with you!

And no, you don't need to slap my wrist - I haven't hassled my agent in any way, shape or form (one week and counting ...)

Thanks to Si Spurrier for getting in touch about my last post - do have a look at what he says.

Two items to share: first, an article in the Times on the 9th about women in publishing. The gender debate to do with writing and publishing goes on. Cf the Orange prize and whether there should be prizes for women only, the amount of review coverage given by men to books written by men etc etc. The article tells us that last year men bought 128million books (how do they know this?) and women 188 million - and I bet the ones bought by women covered a far greater range of genres too. Look at your family and friends, local books groups and so on - what is the proportion of male to female readers/buyers?
The article is at http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts-and-entertainment/books/article1747200.ece
and has a very good comment by Danuta Kean, who writes about the book trade.

Further to my last post and the debate about putting RRPs on books, see http://www.publishingnews.co.uk/pn/pno-news-display.asp?k=e2007051011100676&sg9t=5dd48cfc5428ed8612314deaa691e318