Friday, 31 October 2008

To NaNoWriMo or not to NaNoWriMo?

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

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

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

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

Friday, 24 October 2008

Le Rouge et le Non

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

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

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

On second thoughts, just keep using the bloody red.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Woo! New discoveries!

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 October 2008

Legend Press Competition

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

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Society of Authors AGM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 3 October 2008

In a Minute

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 2 October 2008


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

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