Thursday, 17 December 2009

Writing advice and new fictionfire courses

Christmas madness prevails, so I'm a bit behind with blogging. Was downtown today and found the state of the imminently-closing Borders branch terribly depressing. I know that some branches of Borders may find buyers and wonder if the Oxford branch will be one of them: on the plus side, Oxford is a bookish city, on the negative, the shop is a huge retail space so must cost a fortune and it's very close indeed to the local Waterstone's, Blackwells and W.H. Smiths. Sad lines of beaten-up bookshelves and trolleys were for sale (none too cheaply, I thought, given the state of them) and garish discount posters everywhere. Made The Works look classy in comparison.

Borders is certainly not going out of business through any fault of mine! Its disappearance may actually be good for my bank account.

Second item on the agenda - pop over to Tess Gerritsen's blog (listed on my blogroll on the right): having sent off her latest novel to her publishers she writes about the process of writing a novel from idea to final draft. Twenty two novels in, she's knows what she's talking about. Of particular significance is her advice that what matters is not so much idea/theme as the situation/crisis you put the character in. She's right: readers need to be emotionally engaged, they need the human dimension, however worthy or high-concept the notion/message behind the story. Secondly (and I stress this all the time, dear ex-students of mine!) she recommends that at first draft stage you do nothing but write that first draft: you push on regardless until the thing is done. There will be time enough at the redrafting stage to fuss and reorganise, smooth out the prose, enrich the characters, sharpen up the dialogue, tidy up the plot. Don't try to be all things at the same time: just write. Then edit.

Which brings us, happily, to my preparations for fictionfire courses, one of which will definitely be on editing. I intend running them again at Trinity College and they'll be in early May - a time when Oxford looks particularly gorgeous. I hope you'll be able to come! I know some of you were interested in my November courses and couldn't make it, so I hope I'll get the chance to meet you this time. Likely dates are the 1st, 8th or 15th May. If you would like to come, you can always register your interest by popping over to the fictionfire site or contacting me at

Friday, 11 December 2009

What about the writing?

First of all, thanks to all those who attended my second fictionfire course a couple of weeks ago - I really enjoyed it and am now planning new courses. It looks like I'll be running them in May next year, so if there are any creative writing subjects that interest you, do get in touch at Also, do keep popping over to the fictionfire site because I'm having fun with the Quote of the Week section, where I write a little riff on a writing-related quotation that's caught my attention.

What caught my attention today on the Bookseller website was an article describing how Waterstone's Piccadilly held a seminar for agents late last month, at which agents were introduced to the chain's buying team and informed about the firm's buying 'hub'. One of the useful pieces of information they were given was that there are, apparently, four key considerations when it comes to ordering in books for the stores. Here they are, with my understanding of what each means in brackets: track record (i.e. has the author written before, what sort of sales did they achieve?), support from the publisher (is there going to be any sort of marketing spend, the sort of thing where publishers pay for books to go in the window displays, join the 3 for 2s, etc),  market context (is the subject of the book 'hot' just now, is it in a clearly defined genre, does it have a clearly defined readership, is it like anything else that's popular at present?) and pricing/cover (no need to explain).

Now, dear readers, you may be feeling there's one other important consideration missing from this list - and the agents, bless them, were alive to this. 'What about the writing?' they asked. One attendee said, 'They reassured us but for Waterstone's not to mention content as a key consideration was a shock. They are not Tesco.'

No, but getting there.

Here, it seems, is how the book industry works: judgement is from the outside in. EPOS sales records, celebrities famous for something else, genre bandwagons etc. As writers who produce, mad obsessional fools that we are, the 'product' for the market, we in our innocence tend to make judgement calls from the inside out: is the writing any good? Have I seduced the reader with gorgeous language, compelling characters, a gripping yarn? Have I expressed my deepest emotions, interests and concerns? Have I actually managed to generate 80,000 words of logical, coherent prose? Yay me! Have I revised and polished that prose so it gleams? It's hard for us to be as hard-nosed as the chain buyers. So, keep on writing what you want to write, keep on caring about its quality - but when you come to send it out, try to define your 'market context' and pray for a publisher prepared to support it so that you get the chance to establish that track record.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Borders bowing out?

First the good news: I checked out the website of the Bridport Prize yesterday and yes, my name is indeed on the shortlist; it wasn't all a dream. Very uplifting - I just wish they'd managed to spell my name correctly ...

Today all sorts of rumours have abounded but it does seem to be true: Borders has gone into administration. The signs have been there for quite a while: I was amazed to see more and more floorspace open up in the Oxford store. I kept thinking - if you pay a fortune to rent space by the square metre why wouldn't you want to fill it with goods to sell? The children's department suffered horribly. In the world of books they have a ghastly term: destocking. It strikes a chill into the heart of every reader, every writer.

Then the destocking changed to the stocking of well, what Sir Alan Sugar might call 'a load of old tut'. Shelf after shelf of feather-edged, sequin-bedecked jewellery boxes and stands. Stuff like that. In a bookshop? I have no problem with coffee concessions and stationery and cards being sold in a bookshop - but fluffy boudoir gifties? NO!

The writing was on the wall - increasingly desperate offers, limited range and staff who looked like they'd lost the will to live. Now administration. Echoes of Zavvi and Woolies last year.

Locally, I liked the Borders store. I liked its long opening hours, the author events they put on, the Paperchase franchise, and, when it opened a few years back, the range they had. I also like Waterstone's and Blackwells, both of which are very close to Borders in the heart of Oxford. I like bookshops, full stop, and have been upset at the loss of the range of browsable, eccentric second-hand stores in the city. Chain bookshops have had their faults and still do: the endless 3 for 2s, the lack of daring with range, the frustration with central buying, the treating of books like ...

but wait! Who really treats books like baked beans? Enter the supermarkets, who have squeezed the chains as the chains once squeezed the independents. Supermarkets who with their enormous spending power have made publishers turn craven, granting terms that benefit nobody - not the publisher, not the chains and independents (who often source their books from supermarkets as they can get them cheaper than from the publisher), not the poor bleedin' author - and in the long run, not the reader, who is patronised and swindled, denied choice and range.

So, if Borders cannot be salvaged, this is a sad day, just as it was a sad day when Ottakars went, when Waterfields and Thornton's in Oxford went.

As writers, my dears, not only will we have to write the books, we'll need to self-publish them, market them, and find premises from which to sell them!

OK, now finally - there's still just time for you to sign up for my course on plot on Saturday! You'd be very welcome. See my post below for details or mosey on over to fictionfire!

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Lost the Plot? fictionfire Course 2 is booking!

There's still time to book for this Saturday's fictionfire course on plotting. I had several bookings today alone, which was gratifying! Plot is an area that writers, whether they're newbies or more experienced, often feel uneasy about, so the course is designed to take a bit of the fear away and help you to feel you're in charge of the structure of your novel. I do hope you'll want to come along - just go to my website for further details.

Last Saturday's course on getting started as a novelist went well - and I was delighted that the Sutro Room at Trinity College was a lovely teaching room and the staff at the College were helpful and friendly. My aim is to run more courses next year, probably in the spring - and I'd be very happy to use Trinity as the venue again. I want to offer courses that  people will find relevant, useful and enjoyable, so if there are any particular topics you would like to see covered, please let me know either by commenting here on my blog or by emailing me at .

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Last call for this Saturday's fictionfire course!

If anybody out there has considered joining me on Saturday 21st for my first fictionfire creative writing course, Get that Novel Up and Running, you need to let me know today, or first thing Friday 20th at the absolute latest. Pop over to the fictionfire website if you need to know more. It'll be a day of fun and interaction - it'll be 'a blast' as one of my previous students described it. The great thing if you attend courses or workshops or conferences, as I'm sure many of you know, is that you're in a group. Writing can be so isolating - you can think you're the only one who's experienced troubles with technique, doubts about your ability, exhaustion of the imagination, frustration with the publishing system - but you're not. In a group, you share the burdens, you exchange ideas and information, you share a laugh - and quite often you come away with ideas that were born during group exercises or a fresh will to pursue the story you're working on. So, if you can, I'd love if you can join the party!

If you can't, my second course, on plot, is on Saturday 28th. Looking beyond that, I hope to run more courses in the spring. It would be really useful if you could comment, either here on the blog or by going over to fictionfire, where you can use the Contact Form or email me at to let me know what course-subjects would most interest you.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

It's never too late!

I know many of us worry because  the publishing industry is full of Young Things and we live in a youth-obsessed age. Still, there are examples of writers who gain success in their autumnal years and even later. A  novel hit the stands recently by a new novelist: it's called 'Clisson and Eugenie' and tells a tale of a passionate doomed romance. The author? A certain N. Bonaparte. Oui, c'est lui! Vive l'Empereur! So, there's always time to gain literary success, even when you're conquering a few nations along the way. Of course, if there are favourable reviews, you have to hope they'll filter through to the afterlife, where old Napoleon will not be the only one awaiting dilatory recognition of his storytelling skills.

And, I hate to be a nag, now - but only 6 days till my first fictionfire course, Get that Novel Up and Running! If you're interested, pop over to my website now!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

First fictionfire course imminent!

I've been adding more material to the fictionfire website, so this poor old blog isn't getting much of a look in just now! There's less than two weeks now to my first fictionfire course, on the 21st - it's called Get that Novel Up and Running: a pretty self-explanatory title. The week after that I'll be running a day course on plot. So, if you're interested, get over to and book! If you're not going to attend yourself but you know anybody who might be interested, do please spread the word!

Friday, 23 October 2009


This week I've been continuing to work hard on my fictionfire site and am really pleased with how it's going. I've added Paypal to the courses section - I'd intended to do this anyway but the situation with the postal strikes has really pushed me into action. I'm also having fun doing the 'Quote of the Week' page - I love ferreting out a literary quote and then writing a mini-essay about it. So I hope if you haven't been over to the site yet, you'll take a look at

I entered the Bridport Prize some months back and just this week thought 'I wonder what's happening with that?' so checked out the site only yesterday - it said that winners had already been notified by telephone. Sigh. So it was an absolute delight to receive an email today telling me that my story, 'Mind This', had actually been shortlisted. Of course it would have been nice to have been in the top thirteen prizewinners, but to reach the shortlist when there are thousands of entries is pretty damn good too and has given me a boost! Apparently my name will be posted on the site with the other shortlisted entrants in late November. I'll definitely be having another go next year, although to be honest I don't write short stories all that often these days. They tend to be like the poems I also write - something that just comes to me and is expressed quickly (even though later worked on relentlessly, sometimes over a number of years), whereas novels are a more conscious act of development and construction, slow to brew, rich, complicated, frustrating, rewarding. I do think it's good to pursue different forms of writing - I even wrote a play in August, in my own Scots dialect, and found that a new and somehow liberating experience, even though the constraints of dramatic form might have seemed restrictive. When you find yourself 'stuck' with one particular story or genre, try your hand at something else and maybe it will help to bring back your writing mojo.

Monday, 12 October 2009

fictionfire launches!

Well, I'm still working on my website but I just can't wait any longer to let you all know about it! I've been talking for years about setting up my own creative writing courses: I've built up a decade of experience in this field and have worked - and still will - for the University's Summer School programme and at Winchester at the Writers' Conference. But I've been feeling increasingly restive, wanting to run my own show my own way. So, fictionfire has been born!

I'm starting with a couple of day courses at Trinity College here in Oxford. The first, on the 21st November, is called Get that Novel Up and Running (self-explanatory, don't you think?) and the second, on the 28th, is Blindfold into the Maze: Plotting your Novel. I chose these as my starting subjects because so many writers struggle to find the nerve to make the transition from short fiction to tackling a novel - and then, when they do, they find managing plot a daunting prospect. I've presented these courses before so some of you out there reading may well have attended.

Full details of the courses, price and venue are on my website, so I do hope you'll take a look. It feels pretty damn good to use the words 'on my website' because for a technophobe like myself to have designed my own site is quite a triumph, believe me. The past few weeks have been a vertiginously steep learning curve - and tears of sheer bleedin' frustration have been shed along the way. I've also had a lot of fun too, selecting the photos and the overall look of fictionfire. I hope to learn more and make it look even better.

I'm still adding material to the site. I'll be offering editing/critique services imminently, and I'm also posting other material which I hope you'll find interesting. I'm a complete magpie when it comes to collecting snippets and quotes and anything we can share to inspire us as writers and keep us hanging on in there when the world of publishing is a cold and hostile place.

So, I hope to welcome you to fictionfire soon. Thaw out your imagination, fire up your faith, ignite your creativity (and other such conflagratory images)!

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

One Just Asks the Servants to Do It

I'm sorry I've not posted for a couple of weeks but my new enterprise has been taking up all my time and energy. I'm very excited about it and I hope to post about it in the next few days.

In the meantime, this caught my eye in The Author yesterday - somebody had written in to say that in an interview with The Metro , Katie Price, a literary artist of wide renown and huge sales, when asked about how she goes about writing (and we're always fascinated, aren't we, by how other writers do it) answered that her ghostwriter 'sits down and writes it all. I don't have time, I'm far too busy and wouldn't be able to do it. But I come up with the storyline and then she puts the rest of it together.'

Shock revelation!

I'm reminded of Edith Wharton - now, she really was a literary artist and her books are brilliant - but her way of composing was to sit up in bed and cast the pages as she filled them to the ground, whereupon a minion would gather them up for transcription.

Where are the decent servants (aka ghosts/amanuenses/gofers/dogsbodies/spouses-with-no-rival-ambitions) to be had when one wants them? No wonder I struggle with my Art!

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Jaundiced Teacher Struggles to Hold Onto Ideals

Term has started. The last opportunity for candidates to be examined for the old-style A levels will be in January - otherwise it's the new form of A level all the way. Now, it may be that I'm just a crabbit old bag these days, but, God, I just can't find any joy in 'teaching to the test' and particularly this test. Time was, a couple of geological epochs ago, that I taught books. I taught students about pertinent themes, explored structure and language, and hopefully conveyed the joy I feel when analysing a beautiful piece of literature. It was not unknown for my students to discover they actually liked their books and that they'd been guided to an enriched appreciation of said books. I was always keen on explaining the historical and literary context for the books because this was part of the enriching process. But the bottom line always was the text itself, and exam questions often took the form of a passage for close analysis: 'Here is a scene from 'Antony and Cleopatra': how does the language used convey the relationship between the two main characters? How would the audience react to them at this point in the play? Support your answer with close reference to the text.' I've seen all sorts of changes over the years: texts allowed in exams, texts allowed to be annotated, coursework options allowed, modular repeated sittings of exams. We teachers take a deep breath, adjust, soldier on.

The latest changes, though, drive me to despair. This is not English as I perceive it, nor is it English as I would like to teach it. We're losing sight of the texts: they're swamped in a morass of politically correct contextual analysis, where the key word 'synoptic' rears its head over and over, where texts have to be related to one another to such a degree that we can no longer see them as individual pieces of art, where the notion of 'different interpretations' is so dominant, that students are bewildered. I have always known, for goodness sake, that there is no 'right' way to read a text, that we all bring our cultural and gender-based selves to a reading and this will affect how a text strikes us - but now the joy of analysing a line or enjoying a plot is submerged in jargon-heavy, abstract generalisations which are fundamentally as empty as city councils with their talk of 'beaconicity' and 'outreach programmes.'

I have become Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, I suppose.

Here is a sample question from an old-form A level paper, on Shakespeare's 'The Winter's Tale': 'How important do you think the relationship between Perdita and Florizel is to the play as a whole?' You may argue this is simplistic, but you know where you are with a question like this and even though the wording is simple it does not preclude the bright student from bringing the deeper issues and themes of the play into their argument. How about this on 'Measure for Measure': ''In spite of the fact that men govern Vienna, it is the women who have the real power.' To what extent do you agree with this view of 'Measure for Measure'?' This is a straightforward, argument-based question, with the key phrase 'To what extent' signalling to the candidate where they should go with their structure.

The new A level has cut the six module structure to four. Two of these modules are coursework units, the choice of texts for which is left to the teacher. The boards are offloading responsibility onto teachers in a big way. Teachers feel obligated to choose texts which will provide the easiest route to getting a good grade. This means that texts and areas of literature which may be more challenging are by-passed. The proportion of coursework to exam is too large. Shakespeare, on OCR, doesn't feature till the A2 year.

Here's a sample A2 essay question, focussing on three texts for one question, shackled together by the rule of 'one text post-1990, one text poetry': 'Writers present us with a clear sense of values. These values are drawn into particularly sharp focus when a chief concern of their writing is emotion.' Comment on and analyse the connections and comparisons between at least two texts you have studied in the light of this assertion. In your response you must ensure that at least one text is a post-1990 text, as indicated by * in the list above. In your response you should demonstrate what it means to be considering texts as a modern reader, in a modern context and that other readers at other times may well have had other responses.'

Say what?

Look at the length of the question! Look at the pomposity of it!

At AS, one sample coursework task, suggested the candidate write an pitch demonstrating how to re-tell King Henry IV for a 21st century audience. How about the 21st century audience making the effort to understand Henry IV within its own literary and cultural context? There are brilliant modern takes on Shakespeare and on Chaucer, we've endured modern twists on Jane Austen and Dr Jekyll: film and TV feast on the copyright-free past. Fine and good. But when it comes to exams, why should W. Shakespeare or G. Chaucer need to be subjected to an analysis which is more sociological than literary?

I really want to stress I'm not against contextual studies: it is important to know what the role of the church was in the fourteenth century, what the position of women was in Shakespeare's day, how Darwinism shook the foundations of Victorian complacency - this is all of interest and enhances reader understanding. But, for God's sake, exam boards, I'm begging you - cut the politically-correct obfuscating jargon, get the balance of text and context right, set questions which are clearly interpretable by an A level candidate, get back to basics, bring back the joy.

Rant over. For the moment

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Publisher wants it all quiet on the western front

This is just a quick post because I'm pretty busy trying to construct a website for my new enterprise. Steep learning curve, I assure you. Plus the boys are imminently returning to school (cue weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth) and my teaching will get underway next week. Summer, suddenly, is over and as so often as September arrives, there's a sense of having been cheated. Certainly, we were cheated weather-wise, and all meteorologists should be spit-roasted over the barbecues they predicted we would have. But also, you remember late June, early July, the academic year coming to an end, the season stretching ahead, the plans for all the things you'd do, the trips you'd take ...

I always plan cultural/educational Places to Visit and Things to Do with my sons - and then fail to carry through. Plus the big change this year is that said sons wouldn't be seen dead with me downtown, in case they run into their mates. It is Not Cool to have Mum around. So Mum ends up feeling distinctly redundant.

Sebastian Faulks was on Breakfast this morning, promoting his new book from the comfortable position of established, well-regarded, media-friendly author. He told an anecdote, which as literary anecdotes are prone to be, was part-funny, part-horrifying. When he wrote Birdsong his American publisher was reluctant to take it on. She asked him whether he could cut the war sections (!) or, indeed, relocate it to a more recent conflict! She wasn't entirely getting the point of it, was she? This follows on the heels of a friend telling me yesterday that someone she knows, of high academic standing, cannot sell her father's memoirs (and this was a man who had lived a perilous and exciting life) because, as one publishing minion put it, 'Your father's dead and therefore we couldn't arrange a promotional tour.'

Permission to open and close your mouth like a goldfish.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The Wanderer Returns

You may have noticed I've been gone a while (well, I hope you noticed!) I was off on holiday and then had a couple of important things to write to a deadline.

We went to St Ives, for the fourth - and not the last - time. I just love the place. The picture I'm going to attempt to add to this post (wish me luck as I'm dreadful with this sort of thing) says it all.

Unfortunately the weather wasn't our friend for the most part, which was frustrating. But nothing can spoil a location of such beauty and power as West Cornwall. While I was there I visited Marion Whybrow, who attended my summer school here in Oxford. She has lived in St Ives for many years and is very involved in the artistic community there: she's married to Terry, a painter of beautiful still-lives which exude a Zen-like calm, and she's written various books about local artists, although she's now branching into fiction. With a friend, Marion Dell, she wrote 'Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell: Remembering St Ives', which is a beautifully illustrated survey of their time in the town and its influence on their work.

Marion also introduced me to the writer Ann Kelley, who won the Costa prize for best children's novel, 'The Bower Bird', in 2007. I haven't read that yet but have read 'The Burying Beetle', which comes before it. It tells the tale of Gussie, a brave, eccentric, spirited, thoughtful, loving child, who's waiting for a desperately-needed heart and lung transplant. The novel captures her unique take on the world and celebrates the 'nowness' of life: Gussie can't afford to look too far ahead and fully expects a premature death, so she throws her energies into looking, experiencing, analysing, making connections. The descriptions of the Cornish natural environment are exquisite - it's no accident that Ann is also a poet and a photographer: her eye and ear are acutely tuned to what Gerald Manley Hopkins called the 'inscape' of things. She was a very welcoming host at her amazing clifftop house - the sort of place where you can very soon forget the outside world exists. I'm going to re-read 'The Burying Beetle' to further appreciate the descriptions now that I've been there, and then move on to 'The Bower Bird' and the latest, 'Inchworm'.

Oxford felt incredibly oppressive after all that sea air, but I've just about adjusted. I've been busy, but have also finished Christopher Rush's 'To Travel Hopefully' which I mentioned in my last blog-post. And yes, it's still my book of the year so far and another to which I shall return, to mull over certain passages and trains of thought properly. Christopher Rush manages to stare the worst of life in the eye and force it, in the end, to lower its gaze. There's no easy sentiment, no schmaltz - he describes his own agony, an agony of grief that rendered him temporarily selfish and bitter, and yet, during and after his journey, even though the pain does not go, acceptance dawns, an ability to perceive beauty and purpose returns. His travels are a quest for redemption and a kind of redemption comes to him, hard won, in no way facile. He is a poet, a mordantly funny satirist, a critic of modern education systems (me too, Chris!), a true academic for whom the words of Tennyson, Larkin, Shakespeare blend into his thoughts and prose almost involuntarily, so much are they part of his being. Read him.

I'll save what else I've been reading for my next post.

I was terribly sad, halfway through the holiday, to receive a text from my sister who lives in Wiltshire, telling me Harry Patch, 'the last Tommy', had died. I've blogged about him before and will post on my other blog, 'Poem Relish', about him.

So what now, having at last caught up on the mountain of post-holiday laundry? Well, the academic year is looming up and very soon I'll be sucked into that and, no doubt, have all my creativity sucked out of me by it. At this point I find myself wanting to launch into yet another tirade about the new English A levels ('It is an ancient mariner-lass, she stoppeth one of many - have you heard about these syllabuses ....?')

But I'll restrain myself. Can't promise to maintain that, though. In the meantime, I've been taking stock of the year to come and what I want to achieve with it. Here you can help me out: I am hoping to set up occasional day courses in creative writing here in Oxford. They'd be based on the sort of thing I do at Winchester and have done for the university's Department of Continuing Education - but with me in charge, ha, ha! What I'd like to ask is that if any of you out there would be interested in that sort of thing, you might like to let me know via this blog (all you need to do is create a Google account so you can comment on my posts - and even I have managed that sort of thing!)

Now, let's see about adding that photo ...

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Summer School, Presumption of Guilt, and the Best Read this Year

My annual summer school week for the university's Department of Continuing Education finished last Friday, leaving me (and, I suspect, my students) pretty exhausted. It was a wonderful week, though, even though it was so full-on. I had a lovely class - fourteen people who were all motivated, cheerful, hard-working. If any of you are dropping by this blog, I wish you lots of luck with your writing: keep going, and let me know how you're getting on.

Last year, you may remember there was a huge debate about the issue of printing age ranges on children's books. I was very much of the view that you shouldn't. A campaign was waged by big-name children's writers and it looks as if most publishers backed off. Now we have another issue causing indignation: new legislation that requires that any author visiting a school will have to be registered on the Independent Safeguarding Authority database. Registration will cost £64, paid by the author, not the institution hiring them to visit.

Now, I've been looking at opinion on both sides: an author (Joe Craig?) on Breakfast News the other day said there were risks involved when authors visit schools, even if you wouldn't think so, given that the author is in a public environment and accompanied by adults. He said that kids often ask authors for the chance to communicate by email and so on - and that an author could get hold of these contact details and start grooming a child for abuse.

Nobody doubts that abuse does happen. There are evil people in this world, evil, screwed up, manipulative sad-sacks.

But my first point is, in agreement with writer Gillian Cross, that even when checks and systems are supposed to be in place, we have no idea how successful they are when preventing abuse. Time and again we are told that social workers and social work systems are being checked, yet horrendous cases of brutality towards tiny children still happen. No lessons seem to be learned; what we are told will never happen again always does.

Secondly, there is the assumption of guilt, of nefarious intention, of children as potential victims, of authors as potential abusers - all part of our siege-mentality culture. We bring up our children to fear and suspect others, and this is very very sad.

At the Winchester Conference last week, Michael Morpurgo, with his passion and idealism, demonstrated all that is good in the world of children's writers. He wants the best for children. He runs a farm in Devon where deprived children can breathe clean air, stroke the animals, learn to trust - sometimes, even, learn to speak. If he refuses to sign up to this legislation, are children in schools to be denied his wonderful enthusiasm and enthralling stories, each with a message (without being didactic or patronising) of love, imagination, seeing the best in other human beings?

One writer who is not signing up is Philip Pullman, angry that this legislation implies that 'no adult could possibly choose to spend time with children unless they wanted to abuse them.' He adds: 'I suppose, I shall never be allowed into a school again. I shall regret that very much, but I refuse to be complicit in any measure that assumes my guilt before I've done anything wrong.'

What's your view? When does protection become suffocation? When does legality become tyranny? It's all part of the debate about CCTV, ID cards, 'Elf and Safety. I'm reminded of the animated film 'Wall-e', where in the distant future the remnants of the human race are all on board a spacecraft like a cosmic cruise ship, where robots and computerised systems do absolutely everything for them: they're like plump babies whizzing about in reclining chairs, sucking nourishment up through straws, their limbs atrophied to weak little flippers.

Finally, for the next few weeks, oh joy, I'll be reading books entirely for my pleasure, not because I have to analyse them in class! Currently I'm reading the best book I've read all year - and I fully expect it to hold onto that position. It's Christopher Rush's 'To Travel Hopefully'. I discovered it in the travel section of Borders, yet it's not really a travel book. Or not only a travel book. Rush lost his wife to cancer; the first section is an utterly harrowing account of her illness and death, and his inability to come to terms with it. There's a terrible beauty in the language and a power and honesty in what he records that will break your heart. To heal himself, he decided, rather madly, to retrace the footsteps of his hero, Robert Louis Stevenson, travelling with a donkey through the Cevennes in France. That's the stage I've reached now - and the exquisite language, the range of literary references and meditative power of this book are still taking me by surprise at every page.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Winchester Report

So, the Writers Conference at the University of Winchester is over for another year. I meet friends there on an annual basis and we can never believe (a) just how many years we've been attending and (b) that a whole year has rolled by since the last one.

This year's one went particularly well. My mini-course on Friday was totally enjoyable. I had a pretty large class of 22 but they were all lovely people and we had a happy positive, productive day together. When I set writing exercises I was so impressed by the quality of their offerings - and as an audience we found ourselves amused, chilled, thrilled by each other's stories, several of which, it seemed to me, had real potential. So thanks to the class for being people it was a joy to teach - and thanks also for the appreciative comments: it really matters to the teacher when there's positive feedback.

On Saturday I gave a lecture about how best to make the transition from short story writer to novelist - trying to squeeze that into an hour was the challenge!

The opening plenary Conference speech this year was given by Michael Morpurgo. He was an absolute joy - insightful, idealistic, acerbically critical of our educational system, anecdotal, wise and hilarious. I've been to see Philip Pullman several times in Oxford and there were similarities - not just that they're both excellent children's writers but that they have been teachers in the past. They both have a fantastic sense of timing and the ability to balance information and entertainment that a good teacher needs. They're both supremely confident and full of enthusiasm and verve.

The Conference as a whole was the usual frantic mix of beginner writers, experienced writers, speakers, agents, editors. Over the years I've seen its scope broaden enormously and the focus change: when I started, there was little emphasis on children's writing (it began to seem to me this year that everyone in the whole wide world wants to write a children's book!) and on the skills of editing and pitching your work - now these are given, quite rightly, enormous stress.

In addition, there are one-to-one appointments: fifteen minutes where you can pitch your work to an agent or editor (they're the ones with a haggard, persecuted look to them by the end of Saturday!). Your dream may come true: the agent may like your work, ask to see more, even take you on. At the Conference dinner on Saturday, the writer Lola Jaye, vibrantly full of enthusiasm and disarming verve, described how she was taken on by agent Judith Murdoch at the Conference - she is now published by HarperCollins and is as happy as a clam. Even if an agent or editor isn't blown away by your work, they will say why - and this is so helpful, if you are prepared to listen to advice and work on improving your writing. Most delegates are delighted to get any feedback - and indeed one of the major functions of the conference is to give writers a sense that they are not alone. There is camaraderie and mutual support available - along with a lot of laughs - and delegates value this very highly indeed.

As for me, I came home with a vile sore throat and spent Sunday afternoon and a fair chunk of yesterday lethargic and unable to engage with things - but now I have to rev up again, as my summer school here in Oxford will start on Saturday - and that also is very INTENSE!

Welcome, by the way, to any new readers who've come to Literascribe because of the Conference: I hope you enjoyed yourselves, I wish you luck with your writing - and I welcome comments on this blog!

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Winchester Weekend

Just a quick post today because later I'm off to the Writers' Conference in Winchester, where tomorrow I'll be teaching a mini-course, 'Making Memorable Scenes', and giving a lecture on Saturday on making the transition from short story writing to tackling a novel. Of course, the weather has been blistering - which doesn't help at all when you're trying to get your thoughts in order! If any Literascribees are going to be at Winchester, do come and say hi!

Friday, 26 June 2009


Poignant news this week - that Siobhan Dowd has been awarded the 2009 Carnegie Medal for 'Bog Child'. This is wonderful news, but also so very sad because Siobhan died of cancer in 2007. Royalties from the sale of her four books go to the Siobhan Dowd Trust, which helps disadvantaged children. Her publisher, David Fickling, says: 'Children need stories. Siobhan believed that stories help children to think and if they can think, then they are free.'

Siobhan delivered four books in three years before her premature death at the age of 47 (though I'm inclined to think all death is premature when there's so much to learn, love and do in life).

Remember what writer Lisa Ratcliffe, who died a few months ago and who was a wonderful, feisty, resilient non-self-pitying voice right to the end, said: 'Writers, write!' As the advert has it, 'Simples!'

On a much more cheerful note, my younger son is fourteen today. He and his brother are gorgeous, bright and loving - having them in my life has been a privilege and joy which I wouldn't have missed for the world. I've been looking at photos of his extreme adorableness over the years and can't believe he's the age he is. (What a trite thing to say - but the swiftness of these years takes me by surprise all the time.) So it's lashings of Coke and loads of chocolate cake later - yay!

Friday, 19 June 2009

Would you credit it?

If you scroll down this blog to the 10th and 15th April, you'll find a couple of posts I wrote about 'Carrion Jane' - that is, the successful 'mash-up' novel called 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies'. Yes, really. It does exist. It is a success, though daunting when you come across it in a bookshop, with a lovely Regency miss in an Empire-line muslin dress but with the whole of her lower jawbone, teeth, sinews and gunk on full display. Quite puts one off one's afternoon tea.

I talked about how this success seems to be breeding more horror-lit mash-ups, and put forward a few spoof versions of my own, including 'Prince Albert, Royal Werewolf', tee hee. Well, hush my mouth, somebody must have been listening. In this week's 'Bookseller' Hodder and Stoughton announce that they've acquired 'Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter'! This worthy tome has been 'proactively' sought out because this is a 'growing area' (I better get back to my own list and get writing, then!) It was bought for a 'good five figure sum' through agent Antony Topping, who, by the way, is the agent who represents C.J. Sansom, a writer I much admire. Hmn. In the novel Queen Vic is a demon hunter who protects the empire from werewolves and demons. So now you know why she was none-too-amused. Maybe it was the empire on which the sun never set because if it did, all these nasty beasties would come creeping out of the woodwork. And maybe that's why Prince Albert (see above) had to die ...

If you're in any need of further ghoulish humour, how's this: Father's Day is nearly upon us and Tesco and W.H. Smith have both been taken to task for displaying 'The Crimes of Josef Frizl' as a book you might like to give to your dear old pa. Granted, it was only in a couple of stores, but really. The Lewisham branch of W.H. Smith had in it their 'Top 50 Books for Dad' display.

Stick to the slippers, the Simpsons tankard, the table snooker or the Old Spice gift set, I'd say.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Beanstalks and Movie Magic

Well, phew, elder son has now finished his AS levels. I'll draw a veil over the process, but my grey hair count is definitely up. I just have to see my students through their A levels, then there's the Winchester Writers' Conference, then my summer school at Oxford University's Department of Continuing Education, then ... HOLIDAY!

I'm sending Get Well wishes to Sally Zigmond, whose blog 'The Elephant in the Writing Room' is listed on my blog roll to the right. She's had a fall and broken her leg and has just come home from hospital. Her article on how to accept and act on criticism as a writer has just appeared in this month's 'Writing Magazine' - in it she quotes the lovely Jo Derrick, who edits the Yellow Room Magazine, and my good self (although the editor has spelt my name wrong. Sigh. It's a double 's', you know). Thanks for the mention, Sally, and all the best for your recovery.

Also on my blog roll is the wonderful Tess Gerritsen, who is currently debating the usefulness of online promotion for writers. Her feeling is that traditional methods have worked for her, but then she is an already-established writer (and she is astute enough to be using online methods as well.) The problem is that it is very hard to gauge exactly how much effect on sales there is. She does feel, and I agree, that online presence is a wonderful thing for the new or 'mid-list' author, as you can make contact with so many people at such little expense.

Here is a quote from her post of 27th May: 'But the most important thing you can do as a writer is to write. Write the next book. And the next ... If you write two books a year, that's twice a year readers and booksellers will encounter your name. But these books must be good books. That's the given in all this promotional talk. The books must make a reader want to pick up your next book.'

'Two books a year!' I hear you squeak. Bloody hell!

And they've got to be 'good books' too? Have mercy!

I've talked about this conundrum before - to be a success, you need to be churning out the words at a stunning rate. You need to be full of mental energy, commitment and industry, you need to be your own publicist and marketeer - and to top it all, you need to be hitting your literary peak at all times. Yet, when you read articles, how-to books and interviews, you come across the view that a good work of fiction needs time to brew, time to mature, time for plot-lines to develop, characters to grow, themes and notions to coalesce: writing a novel is not like Jack chucking the magic beans out of the window and next morning finding a fully-grown beanstalk leading up to the clouds, the castle, the riches. Your book needs time - but the industry dictates that you work to a timetable. How to resolve this?

While you ponder these deep and worrying issues, perhaps you'd like a little light relief: but I warn you, this is yet another cunning scheme Karen of 'Get On With It' and Lane of 'Lane's Write' have come up with in their plan to stop all the rest of us ever getting on with our work - leaving the field clear for them. Yes, ladies, I'm onto you! If you are not inclined to heed my warnings, head over to their blogs, also on the blogroll and enjoy some movie magic.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Normal service will be ...

... resumed soon, I hope. Students with coursework deadlines, elder son with AS levels, younger son sitting pseudo-SATS tests to stream him in classes for next year's GCSEs. Need I say more?

One other thing, though: boo to ITV for getting rid of the South Bank Show at the end of this season. What are they thinking of? It can be sycophantic and oily, precious and self-satisfied at times - but it's a national institution and it's a chance to see and hear some wonderful people, some wonderful works. For instance, an interview with William Goldman a couple of weeks ago.

Philistine Nation strikes again.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Inspiration, mainly

First of all, many congratulations to Carol Ann Duffy on becoming the new Poet Laureate. If you haven't read her work before, check out 'The World's Wife' where the poems are written from the perspective of the consorts of famous characters from history and mythology. Try 'Mrs Icarus', 'Mrs Darwin', 'Mrs Aesop', 'Euridice', 'The Kray Sisters'. And the choice of Carol Ann for Laureate is one in the eye for Mrs Schofield, who, you may remember, complained about the inclusion of 'Education for Leisure' on the GSCE English syllabus, whereupon the craven exam board removed it. (See my post on this at )Whereupon Ms Duffy replied with a poem called 'Mrs Schofield's GCSE': Google it and have a chortle.

Secondly, two of my fellow bloggers, Karen at and Denise at, have been talking about setting themselves wordcounts in order to get novels well underway or completed as soon as possible. This is a technique that's worked well for me in the past, especially, I find, if you set yourself a daily or weekly target which is just a bit below what you can reasonably achieve. If you set the target too high and fall short, demoralisation kicks in, just as if you start a really rigid diet, two fingers of Kit-Kat make you jack the whole thing in and binge on a whole box of Lindors (I'm speaking hypothetically, of course. Ahem.) If you set the target at, say 500 words, and find you've written 732, then high glee results and you start to believe in yourself as a proper writer. Then you find yourself wanting to break that barrier every time you write, so you might raise the stakes to 750 words and blow me if you don't come close to 1,000! Try this out: if you're new or lacking in confidence, start with 200 or so - you may surprise yourself.

Finally, here are the two sides of the coin, composition-wise. So many of us exist in a love-hate relationship with our writing. You feel pressurised, dissatisfied, you want to break it off because it's not perfect - but you can't. There's the constant presence of your writing self at your shoulder, in your brain, your heart, your gut. You dream stories, you practise phrases, you think think think like a writer all the time. It's a burden. It's a source of despair. It's also a joy, a revelation, a triumph. Here are two examples of the Janus-headed nature of writing as a calling: a few weeks ago Colm Toibin, in The Guardian, talked of the wretchedness of his craft: see I tell you, it makes grim reading. He says writing is 'never fun or anything' and that what he likes best is 'The money'. 'I write with a sort of grim determination to deal with things that are hidden and difficult and this means, I think, that pleasure is out of the question. I would associate this with narcissism anyway and I would disapprove of it.'

Now, God knows, writing can be a complete bugger sometimes: plots need to be wrestled with, descriptions morph into cliche, self-belief is elusive, publishing deals even more so - but his is just such a cheerless, humourless, Eeyorish view! Writing can be rewarding in far more than the financial sense (just as well, eh?): it can make you feel proud and fulfilled, it can lead to friendships, it challenges and frustrates and delights. There's so much to be said for coming across a passage you wrote some time ago and feeling a glow of pride in knowing you wrote that, in that way, at that time, and it worked! In answer to Colm Toibin, A.L. Kennedy said 'The joy of writing for a living is that you get to do it all the time. The misery is that you have to, whether you're in the mood or not. ... Then again, making something out of nothing, overturning the laws of time and space, building something for strangers just because you think they might like it and hours of absence from self - that's fantastic.' Hari Kunzru and John Banville both point out that as a writer you can never, except fleetingly, get it totally right. All you can do is, as Beckett says, 'Fail better'.

In the midst of the angst and the daily struggle and the words that won't come out right, remember this: there will be occasions when, miraculously, it all does come together. Where you're in the flow, in the zone, when your pen can't keep up with your brain, where there's sureness and confidence, utter joy in the words you produce, a rhythm and flow to the sequences of thought, when you - for a few minutes or half an hour - totally believe in yourself as a writer. You revel. You're inspired. You even believe you can come back to the desk the next day and recapture that fine rapture. Probably you won't: but keep coming back to the desk and one morning or one midnight, you'll be inspired again. It's moments like those that make it all worthwhile.

One of my favourite passages about the process of writing - and it even makes it successfully and movingly to the silver screen - is the episode in 'Doctor Zhivago' where Yury writes his poems to Lara, poems which will be famous. He writes them in the severe stillness of a Russian winter and the process is a holy one to him. Under political threat, with wolves congregating out on the midnight snow, he seizes preciousness and encapsulates it: 'his work took possession of him and he experienced the approach of what is called inspiration. At such moments the correlation of the forces controlling the artist is, as it were, stood on its head. The ascendancy is no longer with the artist or the state of mind which he is trying to express, but with language, his instrument of expression. Language, the home and dwelling of beauty and meaning, itself begins to think and speak for man and turns wholly into music, not in the sense of outward, audible sounds but by virtue of the power and momentum of its inward flow. Then, like the current of a mighty river polishing stones and turning wheels by its very movement, the flow of speech creates in passing, by the force of its own laws, rhyme and rhythm and countless other forms and formations, still more important and until now undiscovered, unconsidered and unnamed. At such moments Yury felt that the main part of his work was not being done by him but by something which was above him and controlling him: the thought and the poetry of the world as it was at that moment and as it would be in the future. ... This feeling relieved him for a time of self-reproach, of dissatisfaction with himself, of the sense of his own nothingness.'

When Yury pauses, the wolves have gathered on the edge of the snowfield. Lara, soon to be lost forever, sleeps. Worries encroach: he 'was no longer in the mood to write.'

The moment of grace is gone. But it was there and it cannot be lost. He reached out and seized it. So can you.

Friday, 24 April 2009

The Best Things Come to Those Who ...

A few weeks back I blogged about 'Queryfail' - where agents were sharing on Twitter the worst approaches made to them by writers. This has caused rage and frustration in the writing community: go to to listen in to writers getting their own back by grousing about the dreadful behaviour of agents. I took a look at this last week and it was already a very lengthy thread and although I felt sympathy - and recognition - I also felt that it was a bit of a Pyrrhic victory to sneer at agents and complain about them. Sadly, many of the complaints were badly spelled and expressed - and this does the would-be clients of agents no favours. We need to stay calm, professional, icily articulate. Do go across and take a look: some of the experiences recounted are truly shocking. After a while, though, I bet you'll start feeling weary or uncomfortable - where does it get us all? I enjoy a good bleat as much as the next hard-done-by writer (oh, you noticed that, did you?) but there comes a time when you have to detach yourself and think of ways of taking practical, independent action. You have to have your pride, even if you don't have the cherished book-deal.

That said, I did recognise one of the cardinal sins of agents, and publishers, repeated over and over and over, and I have been at the receiving end of this so many times. What is it? Cruelty, a sneering dismissal, a promise unfulfilled, a stolen idea? No. It's SILENCE. It's the hardest thing of all to cope with. You put together the best submission package you can, you write a smooth, brief, ultra-professional letter, you dutifully follow all the guidelines on the agency's website, you act keen but not insanely desperate. You send material off by snail mail or through the ether. Then you wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

You know you should be writing something new but you can't settle to it until ... until you know, once and for all, whether your beloved project has found a home.

You wait some more.

You agonise about when it would be permissible to make a brief, humble enquiry - did my material, perchance, reach you safely? When do you think you could let me know whether you're interested? You draft an email enquiry with more care than you put into the whole novel. You wait.

And you wait

And you wait.

Christmas comes. Another birthday. Your children grow six inches. So does your waistline. The photo you fondly thought might do as a publicity shot bears less and less resemblance to your current haggard state.

You keep waiting. Weeks, months - and sometimes years - down the line, an answer comes. When it does, it's a weasel-phrase, a wriggle-clause, written by an overloaded overworked agent (or minion) who, in spite of the fact that an entire geological epoch has passed since you submitted the thing, hasn't really had the time to read much of it, or read it with care. You suspect that these time-delay judgements are also, paradoxically, snap judgements. Not quite right for our list, bleh bleh. We wish you luck placing it elsewhere, blah blah. The knowing for sure, is cruel - but it certainly beats, believe me, the NOT knowing for sure. Tread on my dreams if you must - just don't skirt them and wander off without any comment at all on their pretty colours, their soft textures.

Several writers on the Bookends blog were particularly upset by failure of agents to reply even when material had been solicited! Another grouse is that agents put up on their websites that they will reply in four or six weeks - and then don't. Or they say that if you don't hear in a certain time, it's a no. Hmn. You'll still be left wondering - did it get to them safely? I must know, I must know! So you'll still chase them. Glitches do happen: when I revised my last book for my agent and waited several weeks for her response, then emailed her, I was told she hadn't received it. In fact it was at the agency, lying on somebody else's desk, for the best part of a month, further delaying the time when it would be sent out to publishers.

Now then, because God forbid we should sound biassed and unfair, let's take a look at an agent's perspective. Go to agent Nathan Bransford's excellent blog (in my blogroll to the right) - he's been conducting a very interesting experiment. He posted, with the writers' permissions, fifty genuine query letters he'd had and invited us to judge whether we would, as agents, have requested material from those writers. If you go to the blog, scroll right down to the beginning of this process: it's a lot of material and takes a while to read. I have to say I just read the queries rather than the hundreds of comments people were making on them, because I do actually have a life and it's really too short to follow up all of this. What is fascinating is that he buried in the midst of this three queries where the writers did go on to get publishing deals. He invites you to spot them. (This is why it's important to scroll right down to the start of the process and read upward, as it were). Well, I didn't. In fact, I can't remember any of the queries making my pulse go faster. Maybe I'd be a really mean agent! Try it for yourself: be an agent for a day. It'll fill up some of that waiting-time.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Winchester Writers' Conference Programme

My regular readers (you're still with me, aren't you?) will know that each summer I teach at the Winchester Writers' Conference. This is a busy, packed affair which this year will run from the weekend of the 3rd July. The programme is now at last up on the conference website at, so do go and take a look as there's a huge range of courses, talks and appointments available with writers, editors and agents. The Saturday programme is so full that the biggest problem is always what to select from so many talks. I'll be teaching a mini-course on the Friday called 'Making Memorable Scenes' and on Saturday I'll be giving a talk called 'From Short Hop to Long Haul' about making the transition from writing short fiction to tackling a novel. The conference also runs writing competitions - when I started going there as a delegate, before I was published, it gave me a real thrill to win some prizes there: anything that validates you as a writer is an encouragement. To be amongst other writers who are sharing the same hopes, dreams and doubts as you is also balm to the soul, especially if you are unlucky enough not to be supported in your ambitions by those around you. People who attend Winchester tend to be exhausted by the experience but also pepped up, their enthusiasm refreshed, their knowledge of the publishing industry broadened. It's a great place to network and make friends.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Carrion Jane Follow-up

My last post was about Seth Grahame-Smith's 'mash-up' novel 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' - well, prepared to be sickened further: Publishers' Weekly reports he has now landed a two book deal with Grand Central Press, for a rumoured $575,000. The first book is to be 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter'. Yup. There's a film proposal too.

So, we know now where we've been going wrong: how about 'Prince Albert, Royal Werewolf'? 'Little Nell, Awaking the Undead'? 'Hamlet: Ghostbuster of Denmark'? 'Dante, Scourer of the Underworld'? 'John Knox and his Monstrous Regiment of Lesbian Zombie Fighters'? 'Churchill and the Black Dog Revenants'? 'Scrooge and the Time-Raiding Spooks'?

There you are, now. Loads of ideas. Get mashing.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Carrion Jane

I actually came across this a few months ago - but assumed it was some kind of spoof. Apparently not: yes, there really is a novel called 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' (with a truly gruesome cover), which has reached number 12 in the Amazon charts. This literary 'mash-up' by LA TV writer Seth Grahame-Smith sees Netherfield overrun by the undead and Elizabeth Bennet as a Regency Buffy. Apparently all five Bennet girls have been trained in martial arts by Shaolin monks in China. Well, of course. We knew that. The blending of the original Austen and the new take on her world is virtually seamless: sisters at a ball are described as 'fine women, with an air of decided fashion, but little in the way of combat training.'

Aren't you just kicking yourself you didn't think of this, when it's blindingly obvious that modern readers want to move away from quadrilles and needlework to ninja action, from conversing at an elegant ball to kicking a zombie in its decaying balls? We are promised a lot of vomiting. Goody. Grahame-Smith promises that 'at least one major character slowly becomes a zombie in the course of the book.' Apart from the reader, that is?

If putrefaction isn't enough to satisfy your tastes, dear Jane will be forced into arranged marriages with other genres, so here's more for you to look forward to: in a Marvel comic the Dashwood girls will gad about with the Fantastic Four. There will be a vampire novel, called 'Jane Bites Back'. And this is my favourite, I have to say, because of the title: a film in which Austen fights with aliens: 'Pride and Predator'.

I bet you think I should have posted this on April Fool's Day, don't you?

Now pass me the hartshorn, my dear: I feel a fit of the vapours coming on.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Diagram Disappointment

Back on the 25th of February I posted the shortlist for the Diagram prize which is awarded to the year's weirdest title. Now I told you, didn't I, to vote for 'Baboon Metaphysics' - a title worthy of a novel on the Costa or Booker shortlist. In fact, I might just well go off and write it. Sadly, it came second to 'The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais', which was the front-runner all along but just didn't do it for me. So where were you when those baboons needed you?

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Query Letters - the Right Approach?

Back on the 6th March I posted about the 'Queryfail debate', where American agents were sharing jolly tales of the worst approaches made to them by writers. It's a guilty pleasure looking at them (my favourite is 'My name is Maya and I'm an elf') - but also, you may find, rather depressing. How to approach, pitch, query the gatekeepers of the industry - it's a scary topic. So you may be interested in this (although daunted too): the agent Noah Lukeman has made his e-book How to Write a Great Query Letter available for free download at You can download it once only. He has already written a book some of you may be familiar with, called The First Five Pages (I think the title says it all). In his 95 page e-book he covers formatting, common mistakes, what you should and should not include in your query pitch, so there's a wealth of information there. His take is always this: agents and editors are looking for reasons to turn you down, not take you on. If you make the slightest error of tone or content, you're heading for the wastepaper bin. So it's good to know that you shouldn't tell the agent your family laughed like drains when you read it to them, that you shouldn't use green ink, that you shouldn't use bold or underlining, that you shouldn't drivel on about sub-plots, that you shouldn't be arrogant, that you shouldn't be defeatist either, that you shouldn't ignore the agent's own submission guidelines. You knew all this, of course, didn't you? You would never dream of thinking that the rules are for other people but not your sweet genius self.

There's a wealth of quotable stick-on-the-fridge phrases, starting with 'Writing is an artistic endeavour and the query letter is a marketing endeavour'. He tells us that a query is pointless if you've sent it to the wrong person. That it won't work if it's too fulsome. That its purpose is to get that agent to want to read more. That you shouldn't give up. The whole text is packed with practical advice and an insider's knowledge of the industry. So do download it.

BUT. I do have caveats: because he is part of the American publishing industry, his approach is intensely prescriptive and proscriptive, to such a degree that you wonder whether any originality or individuality can filter through. This may not be such a problem if your work is very genre-specific and you can define your market with some exactness. There are pages and pages of Rules - what to do, what not to do. If I tell you that chapters are devoted to The First Paragraph, The Second Paragraph and The Third Paragraph (because you're only allowed three paragraphs and your letter absolutely must not be more than one side long) I think you'll get the drift. You are told, continually, that this or that infringement is a 'red flag, a sign of an amateur.' He even tells you how many sentences per paragraph: 'The first paragraph should consist of one sentence.''Limit your plot synopsis to three sentences.' Aargh! Not for the first time, I find myself wondering, wearily, how any of us ever get published. It's like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: one miss-step and you're kebabed by a spear or plunging, shrieking, into a pit of snakes.

I do think he means to be genuinely helpful but his tone of encouragement veers towards the platoon-sergeant's 'Pick up your feet you 'orrible shower!' When he tells us to be patient and persevere, that's all very well. I think most of us are quite remarkable in that regard: we keep picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and coming back for more, God knows why. So there isn't much consolation in being told 'most writers dig in for a 6 month battle when approaching the industry. If they are not successful by then, they give up. Dig in for a 10 year battle instead. Or better, 20 years. If you love the craft of writing and are truly in it for the passion of it, then 20 years should not seem like a long time'. Well, Jeez! I suppose that by the time success dawdles up to your door and rings the bell, you'll have decided to use the royalties to buy a Stannah stairlift. Now there's something to look forward to.

In the meantime, some of you may want to hit the bottle. I'm off to crack open another box of Lindors.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Journals, plots and sailing to Byzantium

My blog is coming up to two years old now - which seems incredible. And, as I've said before, during the (non)publishing vicissitudes of those two years, it's been such a comfort to me, an outlet for my thoughts and a way of communicating with some great people. A little while ago the editor of the newsletter of the Writers in Oxford society asked if any of us had thoughts about the usefulness of diary-writing, so I forwarded one of my blog posts (17 April 2008), where I'd discussed what it meant to me. I'm delighted that he's included the whole thing in the current edition of the newsletter, which arrived today. In print again! Yay!

Tomorrow I'm teaching on the University's Diploma in Creative Writing course. After this blog I have to boil down a course which usually takes a whole day to under two hours - and why is this difficult? Because it's about plot, that's why! It's a challenging but exciting topic which many a new novelist feels daunted by.

I've also been doing some writing coaching/mentoring, so the techniques of plotting are very much on my mind, as the writer I'm working with is brimful of promising ideas but needs to knock them into some sort of shape. In these cases, you often have to take a deep breath and write your way into the structure of the book - if you wait for it all to be architecturally polished, you'll never get the thing done. Certain scenes - the opening, the ending, the showdown, the betrayal - these may be present in your mind in utter clarity: it's the bits in between the showboating scenes, the areas where vision can fail and pace can flag - that's where you need to trust the process. You need to grind on, keep writing, be prepared to dispense with what doesn't work, believe that it will all bed down in the end. It will. Honestly! One of the joys of writing is that, as you write, you find yourself writing what you never expected to write: serendipitous connections are made, exciting developments come to you - and you could never, at the start, have foreseen they would come along. If you keep turning up and putting pen to paper, the Muse thinks - hey, I think I might join in. It's that old chestnut: inspiration plus perspiration. The yin and yang of the creative process.

On Thursday I went up to London to meet my friend Anna and visit the Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy. There were certainly some very gorgeous items there, as you'd expect. Jewellery to die for, sweetie. A Fayum-style coffin-lid portrait of a young girl with lustrous dark eyes. Beautiful embroidered textiles, taffeta and silk and gold thread. Silver chalices, ivory reliquaries. A chest full of the bones of saints (or are they?), all wrapped and labelled in little bundles. A child's linen tunic (this was very touching): a little seventh century hoodie. Finally a gorgeous golden painting on wood of holy aspirants climbing a long ladder to heaven - some of them being pulled off it by spiky, black, malicious devils.

However, the exhibition was very crowded (it closes tomorrow) and one had to shuffle past glass cases at a snail's pace, often stopping, in the human traffic-jam, in front of the items of least interest. The exhibits were described in black script on small silver plaques in each of the cases - and in the dim lighting you had to be right in front of the plaque in order to read it. This was intensely frustrating, expecially when the thing wasn't all that informative. I suspect this was because they wanted you to hire an audio guide which would give you more of a spiel. Well, I balked at this, true Scot that I am. Having paid £12 to go round the show, and with a pair of eyes in my head in reasonable functioning order, I'm quite happy to read information if it's there for me and refuse to hand over another three quid to know more. Anna had no such qualms, so learnt a lot more than I did - there you go.

Sated with drooping saints and painted vellum, we emerged out onto Piccadilly and treated ourselves to afternoon tea, dahling. And Anna treated me to a sharp talk about my current lack of productivity. Thanks, Anna ...

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The Yellow Room Magazine competition

It's pretty late in the day (apologies, Jo!) but if you have any spare stories hanging about, the second short story competition for the Yellow Room magazine is about the close on the 20th. It's run by Jo Derrick who used to edit QWF magazine. If you're interested, check out the website and have a go - if you're too late (sadly she doesn't take entries by email) then wait for the next competition she'll set. It's worth also taking a look at her blog, where she recently talked about criticism - what it's like, as an editor, to give it, and how writers receive it. (I think you can guess!)

I have lots more to talk about but am pretty rushed currently. Back soon (ish!).

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Love_Ya_Award[1].jpg (image)

The gorgeous Karen at Get On With It (see blogroll to the right) has just given me this blog award - thank you so much Karen!

Love_Ya_Award[1].jpg (image)

I'm afraid I'm so useless at this technical stuff it's come up here as a link rather than a picture - oh God what am I doing wrong now! You can see it in all its glory in the righthand column though. I'm immediately passing the award on to the lovely Lane and the excellent Sally Zigmond, who tells it like it is and pulls no punches. She's at

And they're both far better at this technical stuff than I am ...

Friday, 6 March 2009

The Queryfail Debate

I was going to blog about something else today but this morning came across a debate going on on Twitter in America, where agents are sharing their experiences of 'Queryfail' - i.e. the worst approaches would-be clients have made to them. If you've completed your work and are thinking of submitting your book to an agent, the debate is both informative and horrifying. It's so easy to trip over it's a wonder any of us ever find the nerve to approach these 'gatekeepers' to the publishing industry. For a brilliant summing-up of all that's emerging on the Queryfail front, go to - you'll laugh (it's very witty). Very possibly you'll cry. Hopefully you can plead innocent to some of the ploys to which desperate writers have resorted.

I can feel sympathy with agents who have to deal with the arrogant ('Easily the boldest novel so far written in this fresh century of ours'), the hopeless ('The book isn't written yet, and I can't write it') and the plain barking ('My name is Maya and I'm an elf') - but at the same time it's another reminder of how harsh the industry is, how prescriptive and proscriptive it is. It needs to be, as a functioning business - but books are not beans. They're people's aspirations and dreams and needs given verbal form, whether competently or incompetently. The writer identifies self with work - we all of us find it hard to accept criticism, even when well-meant, or rejection, because it strikes at the foundations of who we are. Louis XIV said 'L'etat, c'est moi.' The writer says 'L'oeuvre, c'est moi.' And W.B. Yeats said 'Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.'

Another useful link in connection with this is: This is a lucid, sympathetic analysis of when is the best time to submit your manuscript. Of course the answer is this: when it's ready. And that means, first of all, when it's written. This is scary. I think we'd love to be able to contact an agent and say 'I'm thinking of writing this, what do you think?' or 'Which of these ideas is most worth pursuing?'. It doesn't work that way: you have to invest a truly scary amount of time and energy writing a novel, in the hope it will be liked and bought. If not, well, tough. You just wasted a year or two. Or did you? You have to try to cling to the notion that it was time well spent. You were learning and refining your craft. You will have to move on now, with lessons learned, and tackle something new. You can, I suppose, hope that one day you'll make it big and that that overlooked book can be sent out, blinking, into the now-welcoming sunlight of editorial approval. You can hope.

Hopes and dreams, knock-backs and bounce-backs - that's what this writing business is. Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep coming back for more - but maximise your chances with a well-turned pitch and a polished, completed manuscript - and never, never, in your wet-behind-the-ears, puppyish, needy enthusiasm, fall into the trap of premature submission.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Diagram Prize Time Again

I'm still feeling pretty rubbish, so let's have something uplifting and fun. Every year the Bookseller magazine runs its Diagram Prize competition for the weirdest title of a published book and here's the 2008 shortlist. Remember, these are genuine publications. You can vote for your favourite at and the winner will be announced on 27th March.

Baboon Metaphysics

Curbside Consultation of the Colon

The Large Sieve and its Applications

Strip and Knit with Style

Techniques for Corrosion Monitoring

The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais

I've just cast my vote for the delightful Baboon Metaphysics and my second favourite is the enticingly domestic-sounding The Large Sieve and its Applications (is it a sequel to The Heavy Rolling-Pin and its Application as Instrument of Domestic Chastisement?) The front-runner is currently the Fromage Frais one - but it doesn't do it for me. So, get voting, and let those monkeys join last year's winner, If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs (see full list on my post 7 March 2008), 2006's winner The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification (although I preferred How Green Were the Nazis) and 2005's How People Who Don't Know They're Dead Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It (see my post 15 April 2007). Have fun, y'hear?

Friday, 20 February 2009

Report from the House of Lurg

Once again I've missed a week, partly because there's been illness here (it's half-term week, whaddya expect?), partly because I wanted to leave Lisa Ratcliffe's name up at the top of my posts for a while. It's remarkable how many other writer-bloggers posted about her - and most of them had not met her. Somehow, because her voice was so vibrant, they felt as if they had. This blogging world can feel like a hothouse of friendship (companionship like forced rhubarb?!) - it's extraordinary how supported and understood one can feel when exchanging news and views with people you've never met. There are several writers out there that I would hope to meet in person one day.

Last week I saw the second of Terry Pratchett's programmes on Alzheimer's - which my regular readers know is one of the topics I bang the drum about, especially as my aunt died from it, almost a year ago now. I missed the first Terry Pratchett programme because I was in London, but made sure I saw last week's. It was - well, you can hardly say 'enjoyable', can you, given the subject matter? Yes, you can, actually, because TP is so feisty and articulate - he's a joy to listen to. The programme itself saw him go to America in search of any hope of potential cure for the 'embuggerance' as he calls it. Lots of flashy hospitals, flashy equipment, doctors with unnervingly flashy smiles. Lots of chat. A horrible sequence where a vacant-eyed ancient Admiral was injected in the back of the neck with what I can only describe as a snake-oil remedy by a doctor I wouldn't trust to stick the stamp on an envelope for me, so oleaginous was he. The wretched Admiral was tilted back in a swing-chair for the drug to rush to what was left of his brain, then tilted back, still smiling bewilderedly. Everyone in the room nodded brightly, claiming there was a visible difference - not to me, there wasn't. The lights hadn't gone on in the Admiral's head-piece, as far as I could see. Back in Britain, in Aberdeen, Terry had a very hi-tech brain-scan done. So what? In glorious technicolour, it highlighted those parts that were damaged. One of the doctors he spoke to was brave and honest enough to admit that TP's form of dementia, which is kind enough at present to only be damaging aspects of visual perception and co-ordination, WILL, in the end, progress to full-blown Alzheimer's. TP came away from the whole experience determined to make every day count. He maintained a relentless upbeat chippiness in the face of what confronts him. His assistant expressed more devastation and pessimism than he did. TP is clearly a hero. The media is now full, thanks to him, of reports about the rise in the rate of this disease and the shocking, disgraceful lack of resources devoted to it. When will this Government stop shoring up banks and funding pointless foreign wars and get its priorities in order?

Right, rant over. Till the next time.

Let's have something cheering: one of the nominees for this year's Waterstone's Children's Book Prize is Rob Stephens. His story is uplifting because he's managed to combine being an airline pilot with writing his children's book, 'The Mapmaker's Monsters'. Good on him. Even in these days of economic attrition, now really biting the publishing industry, good writing can still make it through. My joy at his success is not unalloyed, however (can any writer honestly feel unalloyed pleasure at somebody else's success? Remember what Gore Vidal said: 'Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.') What is daunting is to hear that Rob Stevens managed to write his book 'On trains, in the back of taxis and in hotel rooms in Stockholm, Oslow, Istanbul and Paris' - wow, glamour AND commitment - how sickening is that? He wasn't 'a great reader as a child' but now says 'Reading is not just a necessary life skill: there is nothing better in the world than being lost in a good book. When I look at my son Dylan's imagination, it's so ripe. If children aren't given the encouragement to use that readiness to absorb things it's a real waste.' See more about him at

At the end of next month, the Oxford Literary Festival takes place. Once again the brochure is slow to appear but the details are up on their website. I've already booked for several events, mainly with a historical fiction bent. Top of the list is C.J. Sansom - regular Literascribees know he's one of my favourites. I'm really looking forward to this.

Now, it's nearly the end of half-term week and I have to go back to nag-mode: loads of homework/coursework needs to be confronted ...

Friday, 6 February 2009

Lisa Ratcliffe

Two posts in one day - this is because I've heard the news of the death of Lisa Ratcliffe, who had been ill for some time. I've been following her blog, HesitantScribe over the past few months as she battled her illness. She was witty, honest, remarkably ebullient and a true fighter who celebrated her life even as it was slipping inexorably away from her. Her last post on the blog was on 29th January and her last words on it were: 'Enough moans for one day I guess. Take it easy and writers ... write!' All around the blogosphere people are saying how much they admired her - and, no doubt, we're all chastened by yet another reminder that we should be getting on with fulfilling our hopes and dreams, whether they're literary hopes and dreams or not. Difficult, when, if you're like me, procrastination is built into your bone marrow. Lisa left a husband and two children - our hearts go out to them.

Forensics and Time Capsules

I'm sorry I didn't post last week but I was in the process of putting together a submission package (sounds like a depraved masochistic ritual) after making contact with a potential new agent. Emailed the material on Monday - silence so far. Yup, it's that old waiting game we love so much.

On Wednesday I went up to London. Yes, really: I managed to nip up there and back in the weather window between snow and more snow. I went to a talk on forensics held by the Society of Authors. This was very well attended; a whole roomfull of literary murderous intent! I went along not because I'm engaged in writing a crime novel (though I did write two thirds of one a few years ago, and you never know, I may return to it) but because I have a dark and gory mind. The speakers were novelist Laura Wilson and Andy Mann, a forensics officer - both were heavy on anecdote and lighter on information than I'd expected. Realised I must be more up on the subject than I'd thought - due to reading loads of Mo Hayder, Tess Gerritsen and the like. Oh yes, I know all about Luminol and insect larvae, y'know! After the talk, met up with writers Jacqui Lofthouse and Kate Harrison, whom I hadn't seen in ages. Both of them horrifically productive compared to me. It was lovely to see them.

An hour after I arrived back in Oxford, the snow sneaked back ...

Two recent reads: first Jane Urquhart's 'A Map of Glass', set in Canada. I nearly gave up on this one because after a promising introductory section the novel focussed on a middle-aged woman, Sylvia, meeting an artist and his girlfriend because the artist had discovered the frozen body of the Sylvia's lover and she needs to talk to him, confide in him about her secret romance with the dead man and find, in the facile term, 'closure'. I found it hard to engage with any of these characters and the pace was turgid. Then, all of a sudden, things picked up: the next section of the book was set in the nineteenth century. It was emotionally compelling in a way the earlier part hadn't been and the language, which all along was beautiful, with exquisite observation of the natural world, now served a clearer purpose. Quite simply, I cared. I needed to know. I turned the pages. The resolution to the book made all the cryptic distance of the early part justified: it was moving and poignant. If you read it, the description of the hotel on the coast being inexorably encroached on by sand dunes will not leave you.

The other book was Penelope Lively's 'The House in Norham Gardens'. This is a children's book written in 1974 and much admired by the likes of Philip Pullman. Quite rightly so: it too is beautifully observed and written. However, as I was reading it I had the jaundiced thought that were this book being offered to publishers nowadays, it might not see the light. The writing is detailed and descriptive, the pace very slow indeed. The background to the central character Clare's life is shown in detail before anything 'happens': the slow build-up of atmosphere and curiosity might well have an impatient modern editor rejecting the story before it has the chance to get going - and that would be such a shame, because it is a warm and wise story. It deals with the subject of time: Clare lives with two aged aunts (who are wonderful, typically North Oxford women) in a Victorian house in Oxford. The house is filled with the detritus of Empire. It's a time capsule of social, academic and imperial history. This, for me, was ironic, as you could see the novel itself as a time capsule. A lot has changed since 1974, so part of the pleasure of reading it now is nostalgia. The politeness of the speech patterns; contemporary politics ('This business in Ireland is horribly distressing'); the way the aunts can't cope with the new-fangled decimal currency; Clare's friendship with a coloured student from Africa ('I suppose he'd be well thought of, in his own country?' said Maureen); phone-calls made from red telephone boxes; the lodger, Maureen, with her hair in curlers, describing her sister's wedding dress: 'A courtelle mixture with a raised motif. Eight yards.' Ah, courtelle ... bri-nylon ... crimplene .... How many man-made fibres of the Sixties and Seventies can you name?

I hope, if the snow is at your door, that you're staying inside with a really good book. By a roaring fire. With a cup of cocoa. But not wearing courtelle: too much static electricity, m'dear.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

In Memoriam

George Johnston Fergusson
Elizabeth Hay Fergusson


'What can we do with the lost, the dead, but write them into being?' (Hilary Mantel)

Friday, 16 January 2009

Is it January or is it me?

I think it's January - my least favourite month of the year. The bookshops are full of I Can Make You Thin/Rich/Mindful/Superhuman titles and it's not getting dark quite so early in the afternoons ... but to me, it's still the armpit of the year, with a deep, dark anniversary looming up next week - and I can't wait to get it over with, shake off sluggishness and negativity.

Such was my malaise (and my preoccupation with students and January exams) I couldn't summon up enough energy to blog last week, for which I apologise. It's not that I don't have things to say - it's that I have so much I want to say that the prospect of typing it all up gives me a fit of the vapours. Blogging by Vulcan mind-meld would help.

I also did myself no favours by reading yet another 'failed writer who once had promise is jealous of smug succesful one' type novel, which was full of bitter satire both funny and painful. The book was 'The Secret Life of E. Robert Pendleton' by Michael Collins. I enjoyed it but didn't fall in love with it, though it was very good on the campus-satire front, very thoughtful and articulate, and segued rather unusually into a 'cop investigates secret crime' novel. Pendleton, college professor who once was a shining literary light, has watched his potential ooze into the dirt and has prostituted his promise, selling out for safe tenure at a minor North American college, doomed to grade the papers of aggressively mediocre students. He decides this state of affairs really won't do, especially when he has to host a reading given by his greatest rival, who is rolling in cash, kudos and ego. Unfortunately, Pendleton can't even commit suicide effectively. The novel's focus shifts to Pendleton's female disciple, who because of his virtually vegetable state, has found, at last, a suitable role as keeper of the flame. She discovers a book nobody knew he'd produced, depicting a murder - and that the murder described is identical to a real local murder at the time the book was written. Did art imitate life? Did Pendleton do the deed? Enter a cold-case cop who is driven to find out. The switches of point of view sometimes made it hard to be involved - there was a kind of dislike of all the sad characters that made one not care too much. The cop had the usual maverick/loner problems, heigh ho. However, there were twists and the whole thing was well thought through - just not ideal reading for failed novelists/cops with emotional baggage/teachers who've long since lost any Mr Chips idealism.

My favourite book so far this year is 'I, Coriander' by Sally Gardner. I loved it. Exquisitely written, it's a children's book but don't let that stop you. It's set at the time of the English Civil War and it involves magic - but don't groan. It's not twee. It portrays the alien danger of 'glamour' and draws on traditional fairy tale ideas - the crossover of the fairy and mortal realms, the contraction of time in the fairy kingdom, magical shoes, a shadow that is a soul, a prince transformed - and a resourceful and utterly convincing heroine. Squalor, beauty, enchantment, threat. I enjoyed it so much more than when I laboured through the colossal 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clarke, a couple of years ago. I wanted so much to admire that book and there was indeed a lot to admire, not least Clarke's marvellous ability to pastiche the style of early nineteenth century. But all along I kept thinking -'What is this story for?' 'When will it really get going?' - and I felt I'd been sold short at the end, in spite of its detail and length. Somehow Sally Gardner does so much more in a fraction of the space. I look forward to reading her novel set at the time of the French Revolution, called, I believe, The Red Necklace.

Looking back at last year's reading, embarrassingly but not unusually, my book purchases came to around double the number of books I actually read. (I'm betting I'm not alone in this ...). My reads of the year were Julia Blackburn's 'The Emperor's Last Island', Simon Gray's 'The Smoking Diaries', Michelle Paver's 'Oath Breaker'. Simon Armitage's translation of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', Dominic Hibberd's biography of Wilfred Owen, Judith O'Reilly's wonderful 'Wife in the North' and C.J Sansom's 'Sovereign'. Disappointments of the year were: Minette Walter's 'The Shape of Snakes' (just could not find anything to believe in there), Michael Chabon's 'Wonder Boys' (I wanted to hit the protagonist. Hard. Frequently.) Manda Scott's 'The Crystal Skull' (failed by a long way to live up to what I thought it could have been) and Joseph O'Connor's 'Redemption Falls' (too much of too much, written in a too-much style).

Right, that's the bitchy bit over. Sad news at the start of the year - the closure of the crime-specialist Murder One bookshop in London. The owner was going to retire anyway but couldn't find a buyer in these parlous times. Good news - that Terry Pratchett has been knighted. I have to confess I've never read any of his books but I enjoy seeing him interviewed and I think he deserves the honour for his campaigning about Alzheimer's. He's drawn attention, in his inimitably bolshie way to the iniquities of funding (lack of) for both treatment of dementia and research into causes and cures.

Last year on, the highest selling book was J.K. Rowling's 'Beedle the Bard'. The biggest writer in the US is Stephanie Meyer, who's written the teen-vampire romances 'Twilight' and so on. The highest selling DVD on and Amazon was, apparently, 'Mamma Mia'. And the best-selling electronic gizmo on was the Kindle, their e-reader. Even though it's hideous and tacky. I will say no more.

Now, I didn't blog last week, but I think I've made up for it now, don't you?

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Happy New Year

So here we are, at the start of another one. I've finished reading my first book of the year (Yay!) - Michael Murpurgo's 'Singing for Mrs Pettigrew', which is an enchanting collection of his short stories and of little essays describing his career as a writer and the reasons he came to write those stories. His sensitivity, his love of nature, his sense of moral responsibility and a sheer love of people and places all come across so well.

I do hope I can do better this year on the reading front - and on the writing front. I want to wish you all good luck if you're writing: if you've embarked on a novel, good luck with finishing it, if you've finished it, good luck with editing it, and if you've edited it, good luck with finding an agent or publisher!

I tend to feel that making resolutions is a hiding to nothing: you know you're going to break them. I'm certainly not inclined to joing a gym! However, in 2009, I want and hope to rediscover joy in writing. For so long the idea of publication has held such sway over me that it has dominated every aspect of what I do. Lately I've felt the tension between the ambitious, market-aware, practical me and the more dreamy, spontaneous creative me has been inhibiting any forward progress. I've also depended too much on the good opinion of others - which hasn't always been forthcoming, even from people very dear to me. It's time to strike out from this. I need to write without The Voice croaking its bleak prophecies about what I write - especially when that voice is my own inner voice of self-doubt and self-criticism.

This may well ring a chord with some of you out there: if it does, let's make 2009 the year when we free ourselves to read and write for pleasure - because when the words are right, there is no greater pleasure and satisfaction.