Friday, 10 December 2010

Get your metaphors in a twist!

Metaphors are incredibly powerful tools, when you get them right - but writers can give too free a rein to their imagination, letting the horse of figurative language have its head (see what I'm doing here?) and they can fall at the Becher's Brook of comprehensibility.

Only Shakespeare can get away with this sort of frantic coinage of the mind: famously, Hamlet talks of taking arms against a sea of troubles, for instance, and Bill makes it work precisely because of the Canute-like absurdity of military action against the ocean.

My favourite mixed metaphors are 'I smell a rat! Shall I nip it in the bud?' and one which one of my students heard in a meeting: 'The road-map is on track to take off.'

And here today is another corporate-speak nonsense: one of Bloomsbury's sales and marketing people, when interviewed about their new deal with Google e-books, describes the advantages (apparently. Hmnn...) to authors and indie booksellers: 'Anyone that has any platform with any legs moving forward is on cloud.'

I leave that vision with you.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Post-NaNo Post: How to Keep Writing!

So, 1st December, eh? All you weary NaNoers can down tools - and to those of you who reached the 50,000 word target I send my heartiest congratulations.

Last week, I posted about my NaNo with a Twist exercise, telling you that I'd deliberately set my target at 35,000 words. I'm happy to report that I passed that target two days ago and my grand total is 36,228 words, which is the largest  total I've ever reached in a single month!

On the 1st November, it really didn't look as if that would happen: I felt utterly dismal, to be honest, and didn't see how I could achieve a tenth of the output I'd promised myself. So, what turned things around for me? Well, first of all, lowering my sights to a more realistic target. Second, choosing the right project to work on, which for me was memoir.

Third, was the mind game. Mind games are hugely useful to writers: we wriggle and dodge and make excuses for ourselves all the time. (Remember, my nickname is Queen of Displacement Activity.) I had the right desk, the right project, time enough in which to be productive - but still I struggled. Then I came across this article by novelist Drew Smith, which began, utterly engagingly, with this statement: 'The easiest thng about being a writer is not writing. It's also the hardest thing about being a writer.' Absolutely spot on. He went on to advise would-be writers to find a buddy (and, on a larger scale, Nano has been just that, for so many thousands of people.) A buddy cheers you on from the sidelines - but a buddy is somebody who will make sure you toe the line. You need support and encouragement, you need somebody to show tough love if necessary. (I have, by the way, the most wonderful friend who's been reading and cheering all month long!)

Secondly, he referred to Jerry Seinfeld's practice of hanging a huge calendar on the wall and putting a big red cross on every day where he meets his writing target. What happens is that you see a lovely line of red crosses stretching out - a visual reminder of all you have achieved. You become unwilling to 'break the chain'.

Bingo! I got out a calendar, wrote 1700 words on 2nd November, used a fat red marker pen to mark the cross and propped it up beside my desk. Amazingly, given that it's such a simple ploy, it did the trick! I'm now looking at a whole page of crosses - for even last night, after passing my target on the 29th, I still wrote, because I wanted the pleasure of seeing every box on that calendar page sporting its red cross (apart from the box for the 1st, alone and palely loitering ...).

Now, I do know that if I return to fiction after finishing the memoir, things will be tougher because the memoir is like lowering a bucket into a well and seeing what is drawn up - whereas a novel is a piece of architecture and I'm in charge of constructing all the elements in such a way that the edifice doesn't collapse. I can find the words - it's finding the plot that's the challenge.

That's as may be. I'll worry about that later. Now it's December 1st and time to turn to a new page on the calendar. If I put a red cross in the box later today I know I'll have to keep doing it!

So, many thanks, Drew and Jerry!

Now try it for yourself. Here's your mantra: don't break the chain!

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

NaNo with a Twist

Everybody in the literary blogosphere seems to be aware that November is NaNoWriMo month - and many are slogging and swearing and cursing and despairing and celebrating as they write their daily quotas, heading for the goal of 50,000 words in 30 days. That's 1667 per day, for those of you not in the know.

I blogged about it recently and encouraged you to take part. What about me? Well, on the last day of October, pretty much at the last minute, I had a rush of blood to the head and signed myself up as a NaNoWriMoer.

The first of November, therefore, was hellish. What had I done? What was I thinking of? How could I write so much in so short a time when my life is so busy and my mental energy so low?

As the day headed towards midnight, with nary a word scratched on the vellum, the biggest conundrum I faced was this: what was I going to write? For quite a while now, I've found myself unable to make proper progress on projects because I cannot choose one in particular, onto which and into which I can settle. I have a butterfly mind. I am subject to fierce enthusiasms and sudden burn-outs. So all of that Monday was spent in an agony of indecision blended with a complete lack of faith in my ability to rise to the challenge.

Tuesday morning. NaNoWriMo wordcount a big fat 0. All day Tuesday the pain went on - and my only comfort was that I hadn't really told anybody that I'd signed up (although you're supposed to, as the moral support of others and the Shame Factor of letting them and yourself down are powerful triggers to composition). Nobody knew that I had Failed. Nobody could jeer at my humiliation.

Nobody, that is, but me.

Dear reader, I expect you're hoping there was some sort of breakthrough, some sort of revelation, to turn around the sorry direction this account is heading in. Reader, there was not one revelation, but two.

First, late on the night of Tuesday 2nd November, I chose my project. I chose it because I remembered one of my favourite couplets, from Philip Sidney's sonnet about inspiration: where his Muse rather irritably says to the struggling poet who is 'biting' his 'truant pen, beating [himself] for spite', 'Fool, ... look in thy heart and write.' In my heart and mind, for many years, has been the plan to write a memoir.  I've put it off time and again, always thinking there would be a 'later' better suited to its composition. I knew that to tackle it would be difficult, that to engage with certain memories might be traumatic, to find a structure for it a challenge. But I also knew that if I never do this, I will have failed in a much more significant way than in not writing 50,000 words in a certain month in 2010.

Without thinking too much about where it would lead or what the structure would be, I opened a new document and started typing. And it's been a revelation, in many ways. I start each session with the panicky thought that I'm not up to the job, that my mind's a blank, that I don't know how to write the first sentence - but then I do write that first sentence and I'm away. A flood of memory surges through me and is channelled onto the page - some of it will be moved or excised later but that doesn't matter just now. Now is about release and momentum. I had no idea it could be this easy or this fulfilling. NaNo's philosophy is that you should just write, without the internal editor switched on, and this is what I try to follow. What is also liberating is that this is a project for me, without the draining second-guessing of what the 'market' wants - the checking of agent requirements and of book-deals recently done - I am in a bubble of spontaneous creation, ignoring the idea of mainstream publication.

I'm not saying that the thought of publication doesn't cross my mind (what is a writer without a reader?), but what I am saying is that by not making it the be-all and end-all, my writing has been able to stretch its limbs, untrammelled.

The second revelation is to do with productivity. 50,000 words is all very well and good and there are many writers out there who can produce several thousand words a day without, it seems, breaking sweat. That's not me. When I write, I write in a short, fast burst - but if I stop, I lose momentum and the fire cools. So I've come to an accommodation here: I choose not to write 50,000 words. I would have ground out sheer nonsense or clunky uninspired pedestrian prose, in service of that goal. There's a balance to be struck between writing spontaneously and non-judgementally and sweating under the burden of an unachievable word-count. I chose a target of 35,000 words: this seemed to me to be challenge enough and a satisfying quantity to have achieved by the end of the month. Each day, I set my quota as 1,000 words - knowing that once I get going, I'm likely to go over it, and the going over it makes me feel delightfully smug. I do my little running sums: in the first stage of the quota, things are often agonised. Tap tap tap goes the calculator: 361 words. Oh God! How am I going to get to 1,000? Tap, tap, tap. 749 - nearly three-quarters ... then, in the final stage, 'flow' tends to kick in, and I lose all sense of time, of effort, of wordcount. I draw breath at the end to discover I've written 1100, 1200, 1300 ... Bliss!

So, I've broken the rules. I'm writing memoir - and NaNo is about writing novels (although I see other NaNO rebels do too). I'm writing something that even my nearest and dearest may never see. I'm writing 15,000 fewer words than I should - but, at the same time, 35,000 words more than I might have done.

If you're a fellow NaNo-er, good luck! We're on the home straight now! I know I won't get my completion certificate, but, with just over 5,000 words to go, what I have is intense satisfaction and a renewal of faith in my ability to string one damned word after another, page after page, to build something that didn't exist before, to express something which only I can express in this particular way, to leave something, not just of myself but of those I've loved and have lost.

Friday, 5 November 2010

From Luddite to Kindle Lover

Well, it's been a long time coming. Back on 18 September 2008 I wrote a post, called 'To e or not to e', looking at the appeal of e-readers versus conventional books. The e-readers didn't come out well: I was prepared to say that there was a certain allure about the Sony and the iLiad but that the prices were far too high. This is what I had to say about Amazon's Kindle:

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

What a difference a couple of years makes! I'm now the proud owner of a Kindle - so why have I succumbed? In a nutshell: style, ease and convenience, portability and access.

When I started seeing pictures of the new Kindle in the late summer I actually found myself thinking 'I want that!' It is smaller than earlier Kindles, in graphite grey with tapered edges, matt in texture so not showing fingerprints. I find it easy to hold - particularly as with increasing problems with arthritis holding a heavy book open is becoming more and more of a strain (I'll be buying Justin Cronin's mammoth 'The Passage' on Kindle, for instance). If I want to read at table (yes, I'm bad-mannered that way), it lies flat beside me and all I do is press the button to change the page. The Amazon case I bought for it was expensive but it's a classy piece of kit: grained leather with a soft lining and a clever device for hooking your Kindle safely into it. The e-ink display is extremely clear and doesn't tire the eye - coming back from London on the coach the other night with poor-quality light to read by, I simply increased the text-size quite a bit and read on happily. I have had a look at the iPad and it doesn't appeal: yes, I know it's beautiful and it does a lot more than the Kindle. But I wanted a reader - and the iPad is too big and far too heavy, the glossy display too bright and I cannot abide when glare gets in the way of what I'm trying to read. Apparently, most iPads never leave their owners' houses - the Kindle tucks into my handbag and is my companion and resource.

Ease: the Kindle really does work straight out of the box. This is brilliant. When it arrived I spent a happy afternoon downloading loads of free out-of-copyright books - the user manual was on the device should I need it, but really every process is crystal-clear. I bought the 3G version and I recommend that if you're buying one you do the same: if a title interests me I can connect with the Amazon store and have it on my Kindle in a couple of minutes. We were in Paris last week and when we visited the Louvre, I connected and downloaded the opening of 'The Da Vinci Code' to compare the description in the novel with the reality. Done in seconds!

This brings me to another delightful feature - you can download free samples of books so that you can make a decision about whether you'll go ahead and buy. Just as with standing in a bookshop reading the first few pages of a potential purchase, sometimes this leads to a purchase, sometimes not. To any of you writers out there, this is a very important feature: when you're submitting your work to agents it's crucial to get your opening right - we all know this. But it's becoming even more crucial when the Kindle purchaser makes a judgement based on a sample. This is how the modern world works: we want to be hooked instantaneously. Go back and check your story's opening - would you go ahead and buy?

I've organised my books into Collections and have made some serendipitious discoveries in the free book section. I subscribe to a blog, Me and My Kindle. I can travel now without that worry that I may run out of reading matter or that the book I've taken with me will bore me - whatever my mood, I can find something to read. Every time I return to an individual book, it'll open at the page I left it at. If I want to I can bookmark passages, annotate them, hover the cursor over a word and get a dictionary definition of it. I can connect to the internet, though that's rather slow - this doesn't bother me as I bought the Kindle as a reader not as a Jack of all trades.

Do I have any quibbles? Yes, of course. It's rather heavier than I thought it would be, to be honest. The keyboard has very fiddly little keys. In Paris I read Ernest Shackleton's 'South' and the lack of maps and charts (it was one of the free books) was irritating. But the biggest problem I have with it is finding my way about as there are no page numbers. This is because the change text-size facility alters the pagination, so Amazon has gone for a 'location' bar along the bottom, which gives you an idea of what proportion of the book you've read. OK, I'm getting more used to that but if I want to flick back to a previous page or reference, I can't - unless I open the search box and type in a term. That's my biggest grouch with it.

You get past that by realising you haven't chosen e-reader over book - the two are complementary. I can load one-read-only books on my Kindle, or old classics, I can try samples and I can carry loads of reading material around with me. I save space on my overloaded shelves. But I will never never never fall out of love with books themselves: here's what I wrote back in 2008 -

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

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Penguin publishing opportunity and NaNo time!

The Sutro Room, Trinity College
I can't believe that we struck lucky with the weather yet again at last Saturday's fictionfire course on editing and making your pitch! Trinity College was glowing again. Once again, I had a truly delightful group of people attending and we had a lot of fun with what could be a dry and challenging area (preparing your work for submission) and a scary area (how to approach and pitch to agents and editors). As a bonus, a film crew set up loads of paraphernalia in the front quad outside. In Oxford, you're always tripping over film crews - here, apparently, it was another episode of Lewis, Morse's successor. I should have been teaching a course in crime fiction! I failed to spot either Lewis or Hathaway - but one of my students was unfortunate enough to cross Kevin Whateley's eye-line when returning from lunch and she got glared at!

I won't be running any other fictionfire courses this year - but am continuing to be involved in editing and mentoring work. I've also got plans for next year - watch this space!

A quick mention, too, for Penguin's current offer to would-be writers, which is about to run out. Till the end of this month they are accepting submissions unagented. Woop! Woop! Go to their website to find out details: it's quite a stringent set of instructions. Essentially, you approach them by email, with a brief covering note and synopsis (not as attachments - in the body of your email) and if they're interested, they'll get back to you. God knows, the editors are probably chin-deep in submissions by now - but let's all be grateful for the chance to circumvent the laborious 'find an agent first' process. If you do go for this, I'd strongly recommend that you follow the submission guidelines to the letter (don't submit your whole book!) and that you research which of Penguin's imprints your work would best suit. A little market awareness goes a long way. Go to to find out more: there's a summary of the structure of the company, listing all the imprints and if you go to Question 11 'How Can I Get My Book Published?' in the About Penguin section, you'll find more details about the submission offer.

Now, as we take our half-term break, I find myself dithering - yet again- over whether to sign up for NaNoWriMo this year. On balance, I think it's unlikely that I will, but I do find myself tempted every year. For those of you unfamiliar with the rather clumsy term NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month. And it is a Jolly Good Thing. You can find out all about it at - it's a wonderful site, chockfull of advice and encouragement. The deal is this: you sign up to write 50,000 words in a month. That's it. Simple as that. Those who do, whose wordcounts are uploaded and checked by Nano's robots, are awarded a certificate. Last year, 165,000 took part (it's growing every year) and 30,000 actually completed their 50,000 words.

Why do it? Simple again. Its purpose is to get you writing, to keep you writing. You stop talking about it (and we writers are so good at that!) and you do it. You tell everybody you're doing it. You stop doing the housework. You churn out your wordcount per day. You can plan what you're going to write but everything you submit to the site must be written during November.

'Oh, but ...', you say. 'It's impossible! How can I write properly when under such pressure?' That's the point: you don't worry about literary perfection, deathless prose, being of publishable standard. You just get the words on the page. There are those who, after NaNO month, rework and reshape what they've written - others don't, but have the pleasure of knowing they have strung that huge sequence of words together, put marks on the page any old how. The site tells us it's about 'Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft'.

So, consider giving it a go. You need to sign up by the end of October 31st. If you do, let me know how you get on - and I wish you fun and fulfilment with it!

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Join us before time runs out!

Bookings will close at 1 pm tomorrow (Friday) for Saturday's fictionfire course on editing and submitting your work, Shape Up and Make your Pitch. Remember that these days writing your story is only part of the story - if you want to connect with your potential readers, you need first to convince the guardians and gatekeepers of the industry! Join with us as we explore ways to impress and appeal to agents and editors: see full details on the Course Dates and Details page of the website.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

You've written it, now sell it!

'Stop thinking abut your book as a creative masterpiece and start thinking about it as a product.' (Andrew Therkelson)

Check out my Quotes of Notes page on the fictionfire website to read my thoughts on this and many other inspiring quotations for writers.

The gorgeous Sutro Room at Trinity College
 Oh, and you only have three and a half days in which to book fictionfire's day course Shape Up and Make Your Pitch! Learn how to self-edit and pitch your work in the beautiful surroundings of Trinity College, Oxford. Full details are on my Course Dates and Details page on the website. Bookings must be received by 1 pm Friday 15th October!

Friday, 1 October 2010

You've got hours left to book for Making Memorable Scenes!

One a.m. Friday - in around 12 hours I need to confirm numbers for Making Memorable Scenes at Trinity College, so if you've been dithering for a while, you need to decide to plump for it and let me know! Contact me at or ring 07827 455723. There are some lovely people coming - it would be great if you could join us!

There's a whole load of fun and information on offer - take a look at the Testimonials page on my website.

There's even the chance that the rain might hold off on Saturday!

Friday, 24 September 2010

Making Memorable Scenes course only a week away!

You only have a week left in which to book your place on my fictionfire Making Memorable Scenes course at Trinity College!

If you're interested in aspects of plot and story-structure, this day course will guide you towards making the scenes you write work as powerfully as possible to engage and hold your reader's attention. We'll look at published examples, deconstructing them to see how their internal dynamics made them effective - and we'll practise writing our own scenes. We'll cover areas such as pace, tension, creating mood, setting location, using dialogue and placing scenes in your story's overall structure. Getting the individual scenes right will help you grow in confidence as a writer.

A fuller description of the course, along with details of the venue and how to book, are all available on the website (where you can also see my latest Quote of Note and mini-essay about it in the Writing Inspiration section of the site).

The Sutro Room, Trinity College

Coming up, on the 16th October, there's Shape Up and Make Your Pitch: make agents hungry to see more of your work!

Friday, 17 September 2010

Announcing new writers' services

I'm delighted to announce redefined categories, a revised fee-structure and new services for writers on my fictionfire website, along with a helpful list of Recommended Resources for writers which I'll continue to compile.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Self-Publishing Conference at Kingston University

Yesterday I attended the second day of the Self-Publishing Conference at Kingston University, which involved no less than four trains to get me from Oxford to Surbiton at the right time!  The bonus for me was the chance to meet up with my friend and colleague, Jacqui Lofthouse, who is also a novelist and writing coach.

The day was very well-presented and organised, with Alison Baverstock, whose name you may well recognise from her books on writing and marketing, in charge of the show.

I attended because I've been very interested of late in how self-publishing is going. The conference served to confirm what I'd been thinking - that the rate of change of attitude to it is accelerating, that the means by which to do it are becoming ever-more accessible and affordable, and that the ebook versus printed book debate continues to be dynamic. I was struck by how often people said, during the course of the day, 'I'm going to buy an ebook reader - when the right one comes out.' I certainly feel the iPad is too big and overpriced and I haven't yet been seduced enough by any of the others, but I do feel that the tipping point is coming closer. Samsung is releasing an Android-compatible reader, which is as sexy-looking as the iPad but smaller, more portable, and probably with more functionality.

Don't get me wrong: I have always loved and will always love the paper book. I see ereaders as being useful for research-texts and for portability. But there seems to be a growing consensus that the brave new world will contain not Either/Or but Not/Only/But/Also. We will choose our reading format according to our needs, including cheap downloadable versions on ereaders, eccentrically-appealing nostalgia reads sourced from our own shelves and second-hand bookshops (if those survive, of course) and 'boutique' reads - exquisitely crafted editions which will be cherished as future heirlooms.

As with ereaders, so with publishing. The conference served to highlight that as writers we can now choose the paths we wish to take to publication - and those paths need not be mutually exclusive. The first speaker of the day was Anna Lewis of Completely Novel - one of the companies now offering us the chance of e-publication (compare also Lulu, Smashwords and Createspace). At Completely Novel you can very simply upload your text to be available as an ebook - but you can also opt to have a POD printed version too. You keep your rights and you choose the level of service you want from them. I found it appealing that they do all the tricky formatting of your text and, having looked at their site previously, thought the process was being made as straightforward as possible.

Later Harriet Smart of Anthemion showed another option, software called Judoh which enables you to format your work for all the types of reader out there. Mark Johnson, Community Editor of The Economist, who was involved when employed by HarperCollins to set up Authonomy, discussed how mainstream editors react to self-published authors. As you'd expect, some would run a mile, others are more open to the idea, and indeed some actively trawl the web for talent they can sign up.

Andrew Therkelson, a market research consultant, talked of how book design can sway customer decisions and of how important it is to think of yourself as a 'brand': 'Stop thinking about your book as a creative masterpiece and start thinking about it as a product.' He recommended that you look at your book from the outside in - from the potential customer's point of view - and think of the 'promises' you're making to the customer through your choice of images and colours.

Gareth Howard of Authoright discussed the ways his company can publicise your book for you, given that what he calls 'discoverability' is so crucial to success. This was of just as much relevance to traditionally-published writers as self-publishers, in that marketing/publicity budgets are notoriously low and authors have to do more and more to create a buzz for themselves. Like Andrew Therkelson, he recommends that you think of yourself as the product, in a way: what's the human interest angle to your book? Instead of offering a dry synopsis, excite the reader with the 'juicy story', the personal aspect.

Author Siobhan Curham rounded off the day with the most personal view of all. She had turned down a two-book mainstream deal in order to self-publish, because her previous experience of mainstream publication had been so dire: promises not kept, a ghastly and inappropriate book-jacket which damaged sales, pressure to write a certain type of book rather than the variety of books she wanted to write. Her talk was vibrant, witty, fun - and yet poignant, because she'd clearly been through the mill. She's shown energy and bloody-mindedness, but was candid that she's now being published traditionally again because to go it alone is a 'hard slog'.

So what are the messages to take away from a discussion like this?

First, there's never been a better time for you, the author, to access the public, to do things your way, on your own terms. You can choose your format - ebook, PDF, printed version. You can choose short-run printing or POD. Your book has the potential to look indistinguishable from one produced traditionally. You can choose the level of expenditure you wish to commit yourself to. You can use your own website or blog and social networking to build up your author platform, establishing a dialogue with your readers, creating a buzz around your book. You can branch off in whatever direction you wish as a writer. You answer to no one.

But there are dangers: you may over-value the quality of your work and use self-publishing as an easy way to stroke your ego. You may produce a book which screams 'amateur' because it's badly edited, messily laid-out and has a clumsy piece of artwork on the cover (given to you free by a relative). You may underestimate just how much effort and commitment is required to publicise your book - you need energy, bullishness, passion for your work - and you need to take that work to the world: the world won't come to the work and spontaneously recognise how great it is.

You need spirit and self-belief. You need arrogance but paradoxically humility too, in that you need to listen to advice and be prepared to be flexible. You need to set goals and targets, not faff around. You need to learn skills you may not already possess or buy in services if you can't cope for yourself. You need to think commercially - and that means being economical and practical, but also being prepared to invest enough money to make your enterprise work.

So, you've finished your book. Try the traditional route: send out those submission packages. Roll with the punches - the delays and rejections. Then take stock: if you're being rejected, why is this? Is it a problem with the work? If so, try to fix it. Is it a problem with the market? Maybe it's worth waiting for the market to change, or maybe you should write something new. If, as you take stock, you feel your belief in the value of what you've produced strengthens, along with your indignation and frustration that no publisher is prepared to act as the bridge between it and its potential audience, THEN think about self-publication. Go into it clear-eyed and clear-headed. Make it look stunning, shout about it on Facebook, set up direct sales - and hope that that web-trawling editor comes across it and makes you an offer, and you'll have had the best of both worlds!

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Corfu Idyll

'July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky. A sharp, stinging drizzle fell, billowing into opaque grey sheets when the wind caught it. Along the Bournemouth sea-front the beach huts turned blank wooden faces towards a greeny-grey, froth-chained sea that leaped eagerly at the cement bulwark of the shore. The gulls had been tumbled inland over the town, and they now drifted above the house-tops on taut wings, whining peevishly. It was the sort of weather calculated to try anyone's endurance.'

No, this is not my writing - yet it couldn't more perfectly describe our current 'summer' weather. This is from the opening chapter of Gerald Durrell's 'My Family and Other Animals', which hilariously sets out the conditions that led his family to up sticks for Corfu in the 1930s. Durrell was nine or ten and about to experience a magical sojourn in a land of warmth (of climate and of people), colour, extraordinary eccentricity, natural marvels and the kind of freedom a British ten-year-old can only dream of nowadays. He pootled about in his round and unstable boat, the Bootle Bumtrinket, made for him by his brother Leslie. He drove his brother Larry into paroxysms of rage ( 'That bloody boy!') by filling their various villas with animals, birds and insects of varying degrees of aggression or dependency: a matchbox-full of tiny scorpions, a vicious seagull, a tortoise called Achilles, a hoopoe called Hiawatha, a pigeon called Quasimodo, dogs called Widdle and Puke. He wandered through olive groves in the stunning heat, down to rock pools and beaches. He put up with tutors trying to give him an education - an education he did indeed receive, but a far from conventional one. The 'little English lord' was accosted by peasants who fed him gossip and folklore along with olives, grapes and figs. He spent hour upon hour in contemplation of birds incubating or spiders lurking under trapdoors, with a single-minded concentration perhaps unachievable by modern children, if we are to believe current theories that the internet has damaged our capacity to keep our minds on anything for more than a nanosecond.

Months ago, when we were planning our holiday to Corfu, I blogged that I was going to take Durrell's Corfu Trilogy with me and read it while there - and this is what I did. Absolute joy - first of all the joy of rediscovery, as I'd read it when I was a child. The writing holds true: there are scenes of utter farce which would fit well into 'Fawlty Towers'. There is the capturing of an era long gone, where children could roam free without the frowning disapproval of Health and Safety, where the island was unspoilt, following traditional ways of life. There is the utter lyricism of the style: Durrell has an extraordinary eye for detail and ear for dialogue. He teaches you and entertains you and casts a spell with beautiful and observant images which are pin-sharp.

View from villa to Corfu Town
The second joy was the joy of reading it in the place he describes, though sadly many of those places have now changed considerably and I'm sure he'd be horrified at the transformation. The Strawberry Pink Villa where first the family resided was opposite where the modern airport now is: planes roar down over the sea and the lagoon, past the 'Chessboard Fields', the 'intricate pattern of narrow waterways that once been salt pans in the Venetian days.' However, much remains as it was: the olive groves, the dark spikes of cypresses, the phenomenal jades and sapphires of the sea. One of my memories had been of the Rose-Beetle Man:  a strange, virtually speechless loner, fantastically dressed, playing a shepherd's pipe as he roamed the hills, and round his hat, anchored by lengths of cotton thread, an aerial display of captured rose-beetles: 'glittering golden green in the sun, all of them flying round his hat with desperate, deep buzzings, trying to excape from the threads tied firmly round their waists.' I had never forgotten the picture of the planetary orbiting of metallic beetles round this weird and compelling character.  How wonderful, then, to stand by the railing of our villa, looking out over the olive and lemon trees and hear a deep burr as a gorgeously iridescent beetle droned past, to realise that its emerald glint was that of a rose-beetle.

Wedding party at Agni
We built up our own memories, of course. As the rain comes down I try to hang onto the memory of heat and I picture the snow-white muscular vector of water behind the power-boat that took us across the bay to Corfu Town. I can see the rolled-up black netting under the olive trees, waiting until the fruit will be ripe. I hear the constant rasp of cicadas, an aural shimmer manifesting the heat. There's the wedding party at Agni, the bride and groom arriving by boat and being photographed under a floral arch while the sea turns to milk behind them. There are the terracotta pots of succulents, geraniums and herbs at the monastery at Paleocastritsa. There's the line of silver charms under censers, above the tomb of Saint Spiridion in Corfu Town. I see the moon rise above the hills of Albania while the bright lights of a silent ferry nose past the northern end of the island, seeking passage to Italy. I cherish the hours of reading, reading, reading - for nothing but pleasure - without interruption, without awareness of time. And I'll always remember our two lunches at The White House in Kalami, where that other Durrell lived for a time, Lawrence Durrell, an altogether more challenging writer. What a lovely fantasy: to rent that apartment, look out at the summer pleasure boats bringing people to the jetty so that they can sit and eat and drink for hours into the dusk, and think, and brood, and write, set free from the quotidian world.


Sun loungers at dusk, Agni
Now, forgive me for this extravagance. And please read Gerald Durrell - as a stylist, I think he's under-estimated. I could pick all manner of luscious passages or laugh-out-loud moments - but you need to read them for yourselves.

So, before autumn has us entirely in its clutches, and with the hope that you too found your summer idyll, I'll hang onto the memory of what he describes: 'Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen. Each day had a tranquillity, a timelessness, about it, so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us, glossy and colourful as a child's transfer and with the same tinge of unreality.'

(Gerald Durrell: My Family and Other Animals; Birds, Beasts and Relatives; The Gardens of the Gods)

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Time for a break

Once again, the summer school I ran for Oxford University was intensely rewarding and intensely draining! I'm sitting in the study with files and handouts strewn about - they probably won't be sorted properly until September. I met some lovely people and they produced some wonderful writing exercises, creating fascination and a great deal of laughter!

It really is time now for time out, though. The past few months have been productive but challenging, both on  personal and professional levels. I feel I need to take two or three weeks now just for me, to try to gather my thoughts, not about my clients or my students, but about me. Interestingly, both at Winchester and at last week's summer school, I was asked 'What are you working on now?' Well, it'll be a year next month since I set up fictionfire and that has been an all-encompassing project. I've learned an extraordinary amount and have seen the business grow - and hope to see it grow further - but during all this, and with the normal demands of my other teaching, it's been all too easy to lose sight of myself as a writer. I have not been producing very much and what there is is short: poems, a short story for the Bridport competition. Everything else is on the back burner. For some years now I've been wrestling with this: what do I write next? How much do I care? Is my over-awareness of the 'business' of it all cancelling out the once-instinctive joy of it? These are serious questions. Yet, in spite of it all, that sense of an itch, that virus in the blood, that hunger to create is still there - below the surface. I hope to get some mulling and pondering done while I take my break from the professional side of me. Oh, and I also hope to get some reading done. For pleasure, nothing else - how would that be?

Enjoy your summer, all of you!

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Summer school and autumn courses

Those who follow me on facebook will know I've been having a pig of a time this week updating my website. I needed to put the full course details up for my two courses, Making Memorable Scenes on the 2nd October and Shape Up and Make Your Pitch on the 16th October. Easy-peasy, you might say. Not. I decided to make a new page on the site for the venue for the courses - had terrible trouble with photo-layout: I'm not good at this. Then lost the lot when the internet went down, just as I was about to upload (isn't it always when you're just about to upload?). Tried again the next day - got the page up, but the photos sit in positions which do not equate to how they looked when creating the page, so I'm still not entirely happy with it and will have to have another go. Yesterday I found that by creating the new page, none of the internal links worked properly - had to laboriously go through every page undoing and re-doing the links.

I should have spent today lying down in a darkened room. However, I start teaching on the University's summer school programme on Saturday so am preparing for that. A very intensive week lies ahead but I enjoy it a lot because I've met such a wide variety of interesting people, from all over the world - people with loads of enthusiasm and commitment. This will be my ninth year of teaching this - it's a course that squeezes all the elements of novel-writing into a week. Students also particularly value the two individual tutorials they have during the week: they send an assignment in beforehand and do another during the course. The tutorials are mini-editorial meetings and it's very fulfilling to see people take away advice and suggestions and put them into practice. Some students make enormous progress in a few days and are able to analyse their own work more effectively and make use of new techniques and awareness. Quite a few have kept in touch with me long after the course is done, and this is so rewarding.

So, the website photos will have to wait a while ...

Monday, 28 June 2010

Post-Winchester Post

Phew! It was, as it always is, a hectic weekend, made all the more exhausting by the humidity and heat. It was definitely the hottest Winchester Writers' Conference I've attended!

On Friday I taught a mini-course on Point of View in a room where, thankfully, the sun didn't strike directly until late afternoon. The group was a delight - faces old and new, all contributing opinions and questions, and writing beautiful and interesting pieces (I'm only sorry we didn't have time for more writing exercises, as there was so much to get through!).

After the opening dinner, I thought I'd get an early night, but ended up waking up at 5 a.m. and not being able to sleep properly after that. If it weren't for the need to get some sleep for the sake of brain-alertness, I wouldn't complain at all. The hall of residence I was in was up above the main campus (those of you who know the University of Winchester will know its steep topography!), which meant a beautiful view across the valley to the wooded ridge beyond, trees all around and a light refreshing breeze. The morning light was just exquisite. Wish I'd remembered to bring my camera.

The plenary speaker on Saturday was Sir Terry Pratchett. There was great anticipation that he would deliver a witty, fun, yet trenchant speech - and we were not disappointed, except by his tendency to drift away from the microphone. The collective will of the members of the audience urged him to stay where his voice could sound out properly, but no-o-o-o-o-o-o

He was introduced as a speaker with a tower of books sold that would measure a mile high - he told us that his mother told stories to him as a child but that he was initially a poor reader, until he read 'The Wind in the Willows' and then never looked back. He associated school 'with being smacked' and left at the age of seventeen, to become a journalist. His path to publication was an easy one and it all seems to have come naturally to him - he applies this philosophy to his books. He devours history books and came out with extraordinary facts (including the hilarious description of a 19th century financier called Preserved Fish! - an orphan adopted by devout religious people who called him Preserved-by-the-Lord because he'd survived a shipwreck). He said 'I write serendipitously. I've never yet plotted a book.' He navigates his way through 'a valley of clouds' and knows that 'there is a story there in the way that a prospector knows that there is oil under the ground.' His focus is on instinct, on the theme or central idea of the book rather than on a rigid outlining of plot. This dilemma - do I plot ahead, do I fly by the seat of my pants - faces all of us as writers. Usually we reach an accommodation between the two extremes (unless we're screenwriters where a rigid plot structure is crucial) - too much freedom can result in flabby, directionless, self-indulgent storytelling - but too much plotting ahead can result in a tale which is airless and overworked, where you're too tied to structures to take a risk or go where the story is leading you.

As with so many good writer-speakers, Terry knew how to manage an audience. His tone and timing were spot on. The audience not only evinced collective will (get back to the microphone, Tel!) but collective concern. Nobody can be unaware of Terry Pratchett's condition - we were braced for any evidence of the encroachment of his dementia and we all drew in our breaths whenever he paused to search for a word. There were moments when that search stretched out slightly longer than was comfortable - but then who of us does not blank out on occasion, when a perfectly familiar name or reference eludes us? It was just that with Sir Terry we were looking for it, expecting it, reading perhaps too much into those moments. It was striking that he gave the whole speech himself, whereas when he gave the Dimbleby lecture on TV he opted for someone else to deliver most of it. Also, to his credit, he did not mention his condition at all. I'm sure he knows how much sympathy and support there is for him. He chose to deliver a speech as a writer to other writers - although its title was a prickly 'Why are You Listening to Me when you Should Be at Home Writing?' (ah, but Terry, you know full well that we writers are Devotees of Displacement, acolytes in the Cult of Procrastination!)

Because I had one-to-one appointments with writers and a lecture to give, the only other talk I managed to attend was Carol Ann Duffy's reading of some of her poetry, both past (from 'The World's Wife') and current, including a very moving poem about the death of her mother, where, as she did in her poem about the soldiers of the First World War, she imagined time reversed. The poem traced events from the moment of her mother's last breath, which sat cooling in her palm 'like an egg', back through hospitalisation, to arrival with wheelchair and so on. Partly because I thought it was an excellent poem, partly because of the recent death through cancer of my aunt in Scotland, partly because of memories of the death of my mother-in-law, also through cancer, I had tears in my eyes.

I gave a lecture on 'Sensory Perceptions' - the power of imagery - at 5 p.m. A gratifyingly large number of people turned out for this, in spite of heat, exhaustion, and quite possibly heat-exhaustion - thank you all of you for being such a great audience!

The celebratory dinner that evening was great fun. The conference is all about networking and friendship, about learning new things and making new contacts. Every year there is disappointment, every year there is success. People meet people who know people. People meet agents. Agents take people on. And yes, on occasion, eventually publishers take people on!

It was wonderful, as it always is, to meet up with old friends like Sally Spedding and Mike Greenhough, with newer friends like Adrienne Dines and Crysse Morrison, to meet new faces and see students I've taught previously - so hello and thanks to Denise, to Janina (keep belting them out girl!), to Susie, to Paul and Mary, to Ali Hale and Carole Westron, to Teri Terry (good luck with the Greenhouse Agency!) and to everybody else I met and chatted with and who added their names to my website mailing list.

What next? Well, I let myself have the day off yesterday. I need to update my website now and get ready for the summer school I teach in a couple of weeks' time. If any of you were at Winchester and have special memories or anecdotes, do add a comment!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Announcing October fictionfire courses

When you work in education, your year doesn't run from January to January: your mental picture of it is from August/September through to the summer, with particular stress points set into it. May/June, in spite of being such a fabulous time of year, is associated in my mind with exam stress, all the more so during the past few years because my sons have been involved in A levels and GCSEs (year one). I immediately segue into going to Winchester to teach at the Writers' Conference, so this week I'm really busy putting my material together for that. If you're going to be there, do come up and say 'Hi' if you see me!
I teach a summer school in July, and then, bliss, oh bliss, holiday time!

However, looking ahead to the next academic year, I'm delighted to tell you about the fictionfire day courses I'll be running on the 2nd and 16th October. They'll be at Trinity College once more - this has proved to be a delightful location.

My first course will be 'Making Memorable Scenes' and the second 'Shape Up and Make Your Pitch'. Here are brief descriptions of each:

Making Memorable Scenes

If you are interested in aspects of plot and story-structure, this day course will guide you towards making the scenes you write work as powerfully as possible to engage and hold your reader's attention. We'll look at published examples, deconstructing them to see how their internal dynamics made them effective - and we'll practise writing our own scenes. We'll cover areas such as pace, tension, creating mood, setting location, using dialogue and placing scenes in your story's overall structure. Getting the individual scenes right will help you grow in confidence as a writer.

Shape Up and Make Your Pitch

You've completed your writing project - congratulations! Now you want to get it 'out there' to a readership. This day course is designed to help you meet the challenge of making your pitch. So that your submission is as polished as possible, practical exercises will guide you through crucial self-editing techniques and show you how best to present your manuscript. We'll explore how to write an effective query letter and synopsis, to make the agent or editor hungry to see more. The marketplace is crowded: here's how to make yourself stand out.

Booking is now available over on my website: you can pay by Paypal or print off the booking form and send a cheque. Each course runs from 9.40 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. and costs £95, including two servings of tea, coffee and biscuits during the day and a useful course pack to take away with you.

I hope you can join us!

Saturday, 5 June 2010

A Catty Comment on the Biography Market

On the rights pages of The Bookseller this week, the announcement of another major celebrity autobiography acquisition. 'Who could it be?' you ask. 'Who's left, given that we're now on the second volume of autobiographies by such stellar scribblers (dictators?) as Peter Kay, Russell Brand and Chris Evans?'

Well, Ebury Press has acquired the story of Aleksandr Orlov, that's who.


The answer is, quite simply, 'Simples!' Aleksandr Orlov is the meerkat in the TV adverts for Compare the Market.

I'll give you a moment to absorb that.

Apparently Orlov has 750,000 followers on Facebook (do people have nothing better to do with their time?). Senior editor Andrew Goodfellow says 'Aleksandr's moment is now and he's a dark horse for the autumn.' (But wait, I though he was a meerkat!) Curiouser and curiouser. 'The team here just love him and believe we can make A Simples Life a second Christmas number one in a row for Ebury Publishing. ... the British public have been clamouring to hear his story.'

OK, Andrew, if you say so.

All of which is hugely encouraging to those of us who are flesh and blood examples of homo sapiens, trying to write stories and memoirs and sell them, via publishers who are clearly sensible, feet-on-the-ground, rational channels existing to facilitate communication between author and public.

It'll be the twiddly-moustached opera-singer from Go Compare next. You mark my words.

Monday, 31 May 2010

The Not So Merry Month of May

First, the good news: I absolutely loved teaching this month's fictionfire courses and I thank all of you who attended. I hope you took useful information away with you, sprinkled with a dusting of inspiration!

As I'd hoped, the weather for both courses was lovely and this meant that Trinity College was looking particularly fine. There were exclamations of pleasure and delight when my students arrived in the gorgeous Sutro Room and several took the chance to stroll around the college and its beautiful gardens.

This photo was taken last autumn so doesn't actually do it justice - but each day course was so hectic, I didn't have time to take more!

I'm now planning new courses - and here are the dates: 9th and 16th of October. I do hope you can join us. I'll announce here and on my website when the course subjects are finalised.

Sadly, the rest of the month was testing. Between my first course and my second, my beloved aunt died: she was the last of my maternal aunts and although she had been very ill for some time, her death when it came, was sudden. I had hoped to be able to visit her at the end of June when my teaching commitments were reduced, but it was not to be. I feel terrible, of course, that I didn't act more decisively and get myself up to Scotland while there was still time. All I could do was dash up for the funeral, by sleeper train because the Icelandic volcano was throwing another fit and I couldn't risk flying. It was an emotionally draining trip, as you can imagine,  and it meant returning the day before my fictionfire course on editing: I was incredibly exhausted. But I'm so glad that I went.

It's not surprising that the throat/chest  bug I was suffering from that week attacked me even more severely as soon as I'd finished my fictionfire course. I've been laid low, pretty much, for the rest of the month, ending up on antibiotics. Even after the cough and wheezing had calmed, I couldn't feel any energy or positivity - I only now feel a bit better in myself, with some return of a desire to engage with the world and to catch up all the tasks my lethargy wouldn't even let me contemplate for the past two weeks.

June will be busy too, as I come to the end of the academic year. My A level students have exams and so do my sons. At the end of the month I'll be teaching at the Winchester Writers' Conference - do please visit the website at if you want to find out more - and I hope I'll have the chance to meet you there!

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Learn editing techniques with fictionfire

In less than a week it will be time for my next course, on Essential Editing, once again at Trinity College - I couldn't ask for a better venue. There is still time to book, if you're interested, and I'd love to see you there. Full details of the course and how to book are on my fictionfire website, as usual.

I'm busy with preparations - but very sadly, a sudden death in the family means that I will need to go up to Scotland this week to attend the funeral. That dratted Icelandic volcano has meant I couldn't book a flight as I absolutely must be back in Oxford on Friday - so sleeper train it is. The online booking experience today has aged me by a couple of years.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

fictionfire and May Morning in Oxford

Now I did warn you, a couple of posts ago, that I would nag (just a little). I'm looking forward to meeting the people who've signed up for Saturday's fictionfire course on Character Building - and I'm praying that the weather is going to hold, not just because Trinity College will look gorgeous in the sunlight, but also because it'll be May morning here in Oxford the celebration of which is a typically daft but lovely Oxford tradition. Early in the morning, a choir will sing a hymn to the dawn at the top of Magdalen College's tower. Below them, masses of people will gather, though they probably won't hear a thing as the choir's high voices are cast into the wind. There will be townspeople, students, Morris dancers, Green Men, girls in ballgowns and men in tuxes from all-night shindigs. Cafes and pubs will be open. The police will close off Magdalen Bridge to stop people jumping off it (there have been serious injuries in the past because the water below isn't deep enough, really). It'll feel like they're shooting an episode of 'Lewis' - you'll look around for the shifty academic, the eccentric bookshop owner, the tormented student, blundering through the crowds with a look of stricken guilt. Somewhere on the towpath by the quiet green river, far from the braying crowds, the body waits ...

Sorry. Got carried away. I remember one year (in the days when I levered myself out of bed at 5 a.m. to attend such shenanigans!), my college served coffee and croissants, strawberries and champagne for early breakfast - by 9 a.m. I was well and truly pissed, which was all to the good in the end. I had to move lodgings that day - I rocked on home, threw things in boxes, was blithe beyond belief - the most relaxed moving-house day I've ever had (until the hangover kicked in at around 3 in the afternoon).

Anyway - you can still join us on Saturday if you like - but get in touch quickly! And two weeks after that, there's Essential Editing. Here's a photo of Trinity to be getting on with: the room I'll be teaching in is on the first floor - it's the jutting out oriel window between the red creeper and the green.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Dreams and DIY publishing

You'll notice, regular readers of mine, that I've been fiddling about with my colour scheme - as if I've nothing better to do! Queen of Displacement Activity, remember! I'm not sure I like what I've done so may revert to the template - let me know what you think.

The good news today is that my fictionfire communications problems are, I think, solved. Site support was there, to a degree, but responses came at the speed of a snail. You can always deluge me with messages at to test it out!

You know how there are certain phases in your year when you know you just cannot afford to let your guard down and relax (apart from fiddling with blog colour-schemes, that is!) - that's where I am now. I'm juggling nagging of A level son and A level students, doing a large amount of editing and report-writing, and getting ready for the May fictionfire courses. I look out at the sunshine and hope this weather holds so that my students can enjoy an Oxford college at its absolute best. Trinity has a gorgeous garden with long open lawns and will be well worth strolling around.

I looked out the window yesterday to see a funny white streak in the sky - oh, a vapour-trail! Planes flying once more, but the London Book Fair was seriously affected by the inability of cohorts of foreign agents and editors to attend. The advantage may have been that some proposals for books got more of a chance to shine, being not so swamped by the volume of meetings and deals there would normally be. I am crossing my fingers really really hard for a couple of friends whose agents intended promoting their books there.

A couple of weeks ago I read an article by Cosmo Landesman about the writer Stephen Benatar, who is about to break through to a wider readership after thirty years in the literary desert. He's a resourceful, bloody-but-unbowed chap, who accosts people, asking them if they would 'care to look' at his book, hand-selling it on an individual basis. Landesman succumbs to what he first thinks is a 'pity purchase' but then realises that Benatar who 'is not one of the deluded; he is one of the talented' - and the world is waking up to that, with a British edition of one of his books, 'Wish her Safe at Home' coming out. Why has Benatar single-mindedly gone on printing and selling his books in the face of indiffference? Not because he wants to be famous: 'he wants to be read.' 'All over Britain there are Benatars - hopeful men and women who, despite critical indifference and commercial failure, keep writing novels.' Landesman recites the gloomy statistics with which we are all familiar: the near-impossibility of being published, of earning a living, of maintaining a toehold in the literary world. He tells us of eleven novels Benatar tried to gain mainstream publishing for, to be rejected by the well-worn phrase, 'Not one for us.' We hear how Benatar married, had children, taught English to survive, eventually was selected from the slush pile in 1982- only to see that temporary success wither away - and still he kept on writing. He got John Carey, a prestigious name, to write a foreword to a reisssue of 'Wish Her Safe at Home'. No publisher would touch it. So he set up his own imprint and went on to sell 4,000 copies himself. He uses charm, a polite relentlessness, a direct engagement with potential customers who feel they've had personal attention: it works. Finally, by chance, he pushed (or rather ushered - 'pushed' is too pushy a word) a copy of 'Wish Her Safe at Home' into the hands of  a man who happened to be an editor with The New York Review of Books, who loved it. Now he's getting attention, his now-ex wife says 'I admit there were times when I thought he was wasting his time. He had the talent but not the luck. And now he's been vindicated.'

This is a story of commitment and determination, of incredible resilience in the face of knock-backs. But more than any of that, it's a story of faith. Stephen Benatar believes and has always believed in the worth of what he writes. It's a quiet, prolonged self-belief, quite detached, it seems, from the influence of the opinions of others. He does not care about the success of other writers. He does not care about being 'recognised in the streets.' He does it because he has something to say and he wants people to hear it: he does not want to go into that good night where all are silenced without a fight: 'My greatest fear is that my life's work will just vanish.'

This is a story about modern publishing, about self-publishing and marketing, about happenstance and fate. It's about how writers want to leave their footprints in the sand. It tells us it's never too late, if we are true to the contract with ourselves. As Landesman says at the end of the article, 'don't let your dream die. One day it might just come true.'

Let's all hang onto that thought.

Friday, 16 April 2010

fictionfire communication glitch

Just over two weeks to go to my fictionfire course, Character Building, on the 1st of May. If you're interested, do please check out the details on my site and make your booking!

Ironic, then, that I'm being driven mad by failures in delivery by my website email service when I reply to enquiries. It's not always happening, so it's hard to know just how many people haven't heard from me, which is so galling! If you contact me at please be assured, I do reply. Please check your spam/junk filter in case that's the problem and add and to your safe list. If you haven't heard from me within a day do please get in touch again - and you can ring me on 07827 455723.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Winchester Calling!

The programme for this year's Writers' Conference at the University of Winchester has now been posted online. This year, incredibly, will be the 30th year of the conference, and it has been organised from the start by Barbara Large who deserves all credit for such a herculean task! She's genuinely passionate about helping new writers and very good at arm-twisting (with extreme charm!) writers, editors and agents into appearing at the conference to dispense invaluable advice. It's not just a conference about advice on how to write, though - it's about opportunities. Here you get the chance to hear what's hot, what publishers are looking for, how best to pitch to them - and you get the chance to pitch direct at the One-to-One appointments, where, in a crowded and noisy room, you get fifteen minutes with a writer, an editor or an agent, to make your mark. So no stress involved, then! Less formally, you get the chance to network at the lunches and dinners, at the bar, in the queue for coffee, while strolling around the Book Fair. You never know who you'll meet, you never know what will come of it. There are quite a number of writers who are published as a result of meeting someone at the Conference.

If you do plan to come, don't wait for the printed conference programme, which tends to be slow to arrive: get online now and start booking, especially for the One-to-Ones which are so popular, they book up very quickly.

I've been teaching at the conference now for over a decade. This year I'll be teaching a mini-course on Friday 25th, 'The Right Perspective and the Telling Voice', and on Saturday 26th I'll be giving a lecture on 'Sensory Perceptions', looking at how you can use imagery and detail to give texture and depth to your writing. I'm always delighted to meet old friends there - and to meet any of my blog readers or fictionfire clients! By the way, I hope that you're popping across to fictionfire often to read my Quote of the Week section under Writing Inspiration. To be honest, I'm not quite managing a literary quote every week, but I'm proud of how this section is shaping up. I don't just give you a quotation; I write a little mini-essay - a riff about what that quote means to me or how it can help you. I'm hoping it provides you with the mixture of inspiration and practical guidance which is my aim with fictionfire as a whole. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Diagram Result 2010 and The Yellow Room Competition

For those who are waiting with bated breath for an update, The Whinging Tooth is currently on  a stay of execution till next week. I'm currently quite happy to soldier on, on the grounds that a little bit of jumpiness and an inability to put any pressure on it when chewing is tolerable if I can keep the blighter in my jaw and therefore stop my face falling in. My dentist, who's been quite heroic in treating it is definitely of the opinion that we should call it a day and get rid. I think, next week in the dentist's chair, I shall pretend that I can chew perfectly well with it!

Also following up on my earlier post about the Diagram Prize, the results came out last week. I forgot to vote, actually, but you may have noticed a certain dilatoriness in my blogging, the result of too many distractions, too much work, a year, in fact that has spent its first quarter being absolutely manic, absolutely draining. Bottom of the list (ouch) came 'The Changing World of Inflammatory Bowel Disease, followed by 'Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots' (sorry, Karen, I know you liked that one!), 'Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter' (wouldn't it have been great if the author's name had been Robin), then 'Collectible Spoons of the 3rd Reich' which initially seemed a strong contender. Second place went to 'What Kind of Bean is this Chihuahua?', which never did it for me, so I'm glad it didn't win - first place, then, to 'Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes' by Daina Taimina, which definitely has the requisite mixture of the earnest and the surreal. Wooh!

Now, my apologies to Jo Derrick as this is terribly late, but her latest short story competition for The Yellow Room Magazine closes on the 31st of March. So what are you waiting for? Get over there this instant and find out more!

Finally, a gentle reminder that my May fictionfire courses are imminent: Character Building on the 1st and Essential Editing on the 15th. If you're thinking of coming along, I'd love to see you: check the details at the fictionfire website. I'll keep reminding you, you know: you'll have to give in.

Monday, 8 March 2010

The Lights Are On, But ...

For those who are interested, the dental saga goes on. In spite of my excellent dentist's best efforts, the tooth won't settle down and I can't put any pressure on it, so its days may be numbered. At this rate I'll be mumbling sops of bread in milk - but should end up a champion gurner, so all is not lost.

A couple of weeks ago the entry pack for this year's Bookseller Industry Awards was included in The Bookseller. It's always salutary, as a cree-aytive person, to keep in mind the hard-nosed business we're trying to supply with 'product'. On the page devoted to Children's Bookseller of the Year, previous winners are listed: 2005 Ottakar's, 2006 Ottakar's, 2007 Borders, 2008 Borders, 2009 Borders.

Aye, and where are they now?

I'm really missing Borders. What makes it worse is passing the store in Oxford with its massive floorspace and all the lights on at full blast, it seems, since Christmas. Somebody said to me that this was probably about security but honestly, every single light is on - have they not heard of global warming?

Well done to Kathryn Bigelow for winning those Oscars and with a film that cost $7 million to make, as opposed to Avatar's $185. I was checking out the awards (and the frocks!) this morning and heard an interview with some chap who'd worked with her on Hurt Locker and seemed to be claiming she was so great it wasn't like working with a woman at all! How patronising is that? No wonder it's taken 80 years for a woman to win best director. Strikes me that the film industry is just one big 'who can pee the highest' competition anyway.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Dental Angst and Diagram Delight

Well, God knows I need cheering up. Had root canal treatment on Tuesday. On Wednesday, tooth ached. Never mind, I thought, it's just a bit narky after the treatment: it'll settle. It didn't. Phoned dentist yesterday, saw him today and had an uber-fun session. He extracted the root seals, cleaned everything out. Ow. And Ow. I'm now on antibiotics because there's an infection there and my face hurts lots and lots. Can't even comfort eat - how unfair is that?

So what can lift my mood? Well, first of all, bookings are coming in for the new fictionfire courses in the spring, so I'm delighted about that.

Secondly, it's that time of year again, when the Bookseller runs its annual competition for the Diagram Prize for the weirdest title published during the year. This year's shortlist has just been announced and you can vote  at until 26th March. To be honest, I don't think this year's list is as good as in some previous years (check out my Diagram blog posts under the Quirks and Funnies label) - but that may be the toothache talking.

Here's the shortlist:

Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter
Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich
Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes
Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots
The Changing World of Inflammatory Bowel Disease
What Kind of Bean is This Chihuahua?

What kind of sense does that final one make? I like the Collectible Spoons - but spoon-boxes featured strongly in a title a couple of years ago, and there was a title 'How Green were the Nazis?' back then, so I think things cutlerian (have I just invented a word?) and Teutonic may well be played out. Currently my frontrunner is The Changing World of Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Sounds like it would make a good Tim Burton movie.

Now, my people, I'm off to take more paracetamol and groan, while clutching my lower jaw. Poor me. Poor poor me.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Fashion statements in man-made fibre

The wonderful Sally Zigmond, who blogs at (see my blogroll to the right), now has a new blog devoted to her novel Hope against Hope, which will be published in April. It's at In it she reveals fascinating facts about the Victorian background to the novel and the Harrogate setting. I popped over to it today and discovered that the man-made fabric Crimplene (remember that girls?) was named after the River Crimple! When I was a little girl, my mother spent a vast amount of her time sewing clothes for herself and us at her Singer sewing machine (which had a beautiful domed wooden case to it and weighed a bleedin' ton) - ah yes, the seersucker nighties, the Crimplene dresses to be worn with white Acrilan cardigans or hand-knitted boleros, the two-piece 'costumes', the delicate tissue-paper patterns folded with fiendish cleverness into the Butterick envelopes, with spiky looking Sixties misses with pointy shoes, standing, hip forward and neat handbag over the crook of the elbow, on the covers. The way the garments never quite turned out to have the glamour of the illustration. My grandmother clicking away at knitted jumpers, scarves and hats, all from patterns in Woman's Weekly. My sister and I, meanwhile, were making pencil-holders that always fell over and model Dougals from The Magic Roundabout and Advent crowns, courtesy of Val and Peter and John at Blue Peter (Get down, Shep!) Heady days, my dears. You have to ask yourself if life is as fulfilling now. At least it's not so itchy (Bri-Nylon sheets, aarggh ...!).

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

New fictionfire courses - booking now open

I'm delighted to announce that details of my day courses in May at Trinity College are now up on my website, and that booking is now open. The first, on 1st May, will be about creating characters and the second, on the 15th May, is about essential self-editing techniques. November's courses were great fun so I hope you'll be interested in joining us in Oxford at what is usually a gorgeous time of year in this city!

Thursday, 21 January 2010

In Memoriam

This is the day that lurks in annual wait.

George Johnston Fergusson
Elizabeth Hay Fergusson

Still beloved. Still missed.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Spring courses and summer holidays to beat the January blues!

Well, I took more of a blog-break than I'd intended to! Christmas was good but January has been one damn thing after another. I hope all of you have managed to dig your way out of the snow and ice by now. My escape was to spend hours and hours on the internet in The Great Annual Holiday Search. This was made more difficult than usual because we couldn't decide at first where to go! In the end, though, we've settled on Corfu - and I have to say that during the gloom and the frost it's been wonderful to gaze at photos of azure and turquoise Mediterranean waters! We went to Crete some years back and enjoyed that, but I'm looking forward to Corfu in particular because when I was a child one of my favourite books was Gerald Durrell's  'My Family and Other Animals' (many years later I met the man himself at a Blackwell's Literary Lunch in Oxford and he was  far more agreeable  than the strutting egotistical ('Bankrupt? Go write a novel and make a million! Nothing to it, m'dear') Jeffrey Archer who also appeared.

I went on to read most of Durrell's books but it is 'My Family' that I have fondest memories of - at the time, in my wee fishing village in the north of Scotland, a Greek island was an entirely alien but extremely seductive landscape. I had no real idea what a cicada or a gecko was but I was enchanted by the beetle man with his whirligig of iridescent beetles round his head, each tied round the centre by a thread, I loved the notion of lying under olive trees, I found the descriptions of the various villas the family lived in, daffodil yellow, pink and white, magical. I laughed at the extreme eccentricities of this utterly English, utterly barking mad family as it interacted with equally insane locals. The melodramatic rituals of veneration of saints were to me as fascinating as tribal beliefs in Borneo - as someone brought up a Methodist with dour Plymouth Brethren traditions among some relatives, the notion of Catholicism was very much 'the other'. I envied the near-total freedom Gerry had to wander the island and pursue the passion that would always be his for natural history.

So, I'm going to read it - and also Lawrence Durrell's 'Prospero's Cell' as well - before we go. And if in the paragraph above, I got any details wrong, it's because I'm bringing to the surface memories of a book last read forty years ago!

In my last post, I mentioned Borders closing and how sad that was. I'm doing my tax accounts just now (bleghh) and my God, the number of Borders receipts I have! So, sad though their demise is, it'll probably do my bank account some good! Some wag in the shop left a notice by the door when they shut a few days before Christmas, which said 'Elvis has left the building.' What we have to watch out for now is that he doesn't leave the Waterstone's building too. Waterstone's didn't do well over Christmas, apparently, and have got rid of their CEO - if we lose yet another chain, it'll be disastrous. This is because all bookshops - both chains and independents - are crucial to us as readers. If all we are left with, ultimately, are the supermarkets and Amazon, how will we ever browse? I don't know about you, but browsing electronically is not at all the thing - electronic outlets are where you go with a definite idea of what you want: you find it, check prices and possibly reviews, click buy. Bookshops are where you wander from shelf to shelf, from book to book, where you lose all sense of time, where you find what you want and trip over what you didn't know you wanted, where, quite simply, you ought to be able to enjoy yourself in a way you never can online.

Now, fictionfire: I'm delighted to announce that the next day- courses I'll be running are these:

May 1st: Character Building - a course showing you how to invent and develop characters for your fiction. How to bring them to convincing life and make your readers care about them.

May 15th: Essential Editing - learn the skills of effective editing of your work in order to pitch it successfully to agents and publishers - or even to self-publish!

Both these courses will be held at Trinity College here in Oxford and I would be so pleased if you could come along! I'll be posting full details of course content on my fictionfire website within the next few days. In the meantime if you want to register an interest in attending prior to making a full booking, do contact me at  and I'll add your name to the list.

Finally, I'm going to be speaking about my novel 'The Chase' at the Anchor Book Club in Jericho, Oxford, this evening, and am very much looking forward to that!