Friday, 21 December 2007

This Christmas Life, a poem by Wendy Cope

Wendy Cope's Christmas poem is quite beautiful. I heard it on Radio Four on, I think, Saturday night last. As far as I can tell it was published a couple of years ago, but it is timeless.

I can't post it here for obvious copyright reasons, but you can read it where I found it, on the Guardian's page, here.

I defy you not to cry. I did.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Booking Through Thursday

Today's questions are:

1 What fiction book (or books) would you nominate to be the best new book published in 2007? (Older books that you read for the first time in 2007 don’t
2 What non-fiction book (or books) would you nominate to be the best new book published in 2007? (Older books that you read for the first time in 2007 don’t count.)
3 And, do “best of” lists influence your reading?

1 The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell
2 The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
3 The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower

The Gift by Lewis Hyde (I haven't quite finished it, but it just can't go wrong.)

The first two in fiction were published in paperback in 2007, as was The Gift. I hope that's not cheating! And on the copyright page of Sarah Bower's book, Snowbooks write: 'Proudly published in 2007', which is lovely, isn't it?

Am I influenced by 'best of' lists?
Yes, I think I am. Although I'm more influenced by blog reviews and friends saying, 'You just must read this.'

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Happy Christmas

I hope you don't think it's too early ...

but I took this last night, after decorating it on the weekend.

And now for the cumberland sauce, the brandy butter, the smoked mackerel pate (yes), the Dickens reread - or Oliver Twist every night this week on BBC 1? - and, because the presents are wrapped and most of them delivered, there'll even be some time for writing the new new beginning to my third novel which is now, of course, my second novel (because the second one became a short story. See older posts for the saga, if you can face it ... .)

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Soul food

At the beginning of November Canongate said that the first 100 people who registered on THE GIFT site would receive a free copy of Lews Hyde's The Gift. All you had to do in return was pledge to make a gift today. I posted about it here, after finding out about the whole thing on dovegreyreader's blog that day.

The simple idea is that the most important, and the best things we are capable of have no price and can't be bought, so this gift can't be found by braving the crowds in the high streets (what a relief at this time of year). This gift is the antithesis of money and crowds and shopping, it simply requires time and a talent you already possess. The book also suggests - I haven't read it properly yet, so this is a reading-the-blurb-and-an-amazon-review guess - that in our society we have made the mistake of trying to sell things that shouldn't be sold.

Here's part of a review I read on amazon, by Leo McMarley:

Lewis Hyde is not only a beautiful prose stylist but he is a thinker to match, for The Gift offers a challenging and provocative argument about how we value things. He uses wide-ranging examples from across cultures and epochs and leaves you at the end valuing all the more those things that can't have a monetary worth attached to them.

For my gift, I decided to write a love letter to my boyf because writing is what I do, and because it is one of the suggestions on THE GIFT site. (You don't have slavishly to follow the suggestions on the site, obviously, but that suggestion appealed to me very much.) I sent the boyf away with his copy of The Gift and my letter last night (with bossy instructions not to read what I had written until today ... perhaps not entirely in the spirit of the day, but my excuse is that it was late and I didn't want him to read it until Gift Day).

The other thing Canongate suggest you do is pass on your copy of The Gift when you've read it. And I noticed this morning, when looking at THE GIFT site, that there's still room to register for a copy, if you'd like to. This morning 74 people had registered and there's a little note saying that it doesn't matter if you register after 15 December.

Try it. I have a feeling it could be good for the soul.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Lady into Fox ...

... this morning I went out into my garden (small L-shaped plot, actually) to take this picture ...

... because I just couldn't help wondering how they survive in the frost. See here, some cyclamen tolerate frost very well, some not at all ... not sure which mine is.

But before I could take the photograph, I heard a rushing-rummaging sound behind my hydrangea and then saw a huge cat, tiny bear, no ... a fox. Which scrambled up the wooden fence and then turned and stared and stared at me. My knees went weak (with fear, I am a pavement child not a country cousin) and I was rooted to the spot. Afterwards I wished I'd taken its photograph, but my reactions were far too slow: my fear paralysing all thoughts and movements.

I am still shaking inwardly and wonder whether it's because (a) I know nothing about foxes, particularly urban ones, so wondered what it planned to do to me? Was it summing me up for some nefarious purpose? And anyway it was broad daylight, so what a nerve it had ... . Or, (b), was I really wondering what I would do to it ... afraid that I wished it dead? Or (c), in the manner of the ancient sylvan tales, was I afraid that I would turn into a fox ... see Stuck in a Book's review of Lady into Fox by David Garnett here ... and never return to tell the tale?

We are so used, us urbanites at least, to living in our environments without threat from or sight of any other wild living being (those of us who don't live in warzones, I mean) that such an encounter simply paralyses. But when the fox disappeared over the fence into my neighbour's garden I was relieved ... out of sight, out of mind? Or at least out of danger (me).

A reminder that the boundaries are thin ... in every sense. And food for a story, one day, I'm sure.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Booking Through Thursday, on Saturday ...

... This week’s question is suggested by Island Editions:

Do you have a favourite book, now out of print, that you would like to see become available again? (I have several…)
Mine is The Agony and the Ego (click on the title for secondhand amazon copies ...) which is an utterly wonderful book (Penguin PLEASE reprint). It is a series of essays by writers of fiction on how it is and what it is to write; on why they do it; where their inspiration comes from; on what they love and what they hate about writing ... and so so much more. And it isn't at all about ego, although it is a bit about agony ... .

Here is my rather hopeless photograph of the cover:

Monday, 3 December 2007

World Book Day, Book Groups and Speaking of Love

My publishers, the wonderful Beautiful Books, say that if you'd like, they will send you a free copy of Speaking of Love because it's been longlisted for the World Book Day/Spread the Word award.

The number of free copies is limited, there are 20 of them, and you need to ask for yours before 1 February. But if you'd like one, email Kat Josselyn at with your name and address.

Beautiful Books say that they're also offering book groups free copies of Speaking of Love because, until February 2008, you can only buy it in hardback, and hardbacks are a bit expensive. Get in touch with Kat if your book group would like copies.

What Beautiful Books say in their Speaking of Love press release for book groups is:

When love is not spoken about, a hole is created into which memories, happiness, relationships, trust and eventually people fall into. Mothers fail daughters, who then find themselves failing their own mothers. Parents abandon children through fear; husbands desert wives.

However, this is not an heroic tale or a memoir of devastation - but an everyday tale of loss and recovery. It takes a special event, a mother's first public speaking event since her breakdown, for the years of silence to make way for reconciliation.

What I say is Indie publishers rock!

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Speaking of Love and The Book To Talk About

Speaking of Love has been longlisted for Spread the Word's Book to Talk About, which is wonderful news for the book, and for all the books on the list (there are 100 of them). The award will be announced in the UK's Year of Reading (2008). The short list will appear in February - voted for by book groups and individuals - and the Book to Talk About will be announced on 6 March, which is World Book Day.

If you or your book group would like to vote for Speaking of Love go HERE. (You have to log in and then register to vote.)

To find out more about Spread the Word, Books to Talk About go HERE.

To see the longlist and read what the Guardian wrote about the prize on Friday, go HERE.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

La Serenissima

I have been here:

and I was going to show you some other beauties ... but the photographs proved impossible to upload ... and Blogger kept showing me an incomprehensible code and saying 'We're sorry'.

I have just got back and it is extremely difficult to work as fast as I did before I left, to see a car without wondering why it's not a vaporetto and as for computers ... .

But I think my next novel will end in Venice because she is heartbreakingly beautiful and quite unafraid to show her age.

Monday, 5 November 2007

The writing process ...

... or should that be

the thicket?

I seem to go from a simple idea for a novel, a contemporary Beauty and the Beast in the case of my next novel, into a thicket of handwritten notes, ideas scribbled on stray pieces of paper, written scenes, more ideas, bits of plot, character notes, more ideas, structure notes, notes carefully filed in plastic folders with headings like 'Edward's Section' which become part of a pile of plastic folders on a blue stool beside me, and scenes. Not to mention the typed Word documents of all the above (sometimes writing by hand pleases me; sometimes I type) which are carefully filed in different subfolders in a folder called Beauty and the Beast. The subfolders are growing like the branches of a thicket.

All these notes
a thicket
in my head.
Through which it is difficult to see out.

And then this morning I knew that I had to make it simple. I knew that I had to write the one line that - like the root of the tree at the heart of the thicket - holds the whole thing up.


From which I have begun the novel again.
And from which I will redraft it again and again.
And again.
Until the characters embody that simple idea.

But, of course, by the end the novel will be fat with the colours and smells and physical attributes, the inspirations and desperations and insights - in short, the characters - of the many unexpected paths (notes) that I trod along the way. So the paths and the notes that lead to them are useful, more than useful, essential. It's just that I hate that thicket feeling.

This morning, as I wondered where to file this, I realised that the best place was here. It would only get lost in the thicket otherwise.

Friday, 2 November 2007

GIFT day and Lewis Hyde's The Gift

Over on Dovegreyreader's blog today she writes about GIFT day, organised by Canongate for the publication of Lewis Hyde's book, The Gift, which argues

that we should keep some parts of our social, cultural and spiritual life out of the marketplace.

He believes that the rise of capitalism has brought about the decline of the creative spirit.

You can sign up with Canongate to make a gift on 15 December and if you're among the first 100 to do so they will send you a free copy of Lewis Hyde's book. Hurry over to Dovegreyreader's blog, 2 November post.

I think it's a wonderful idea ... I'm going to write something and I'll probably write what I write in one of the two categories Canongate suggest. Because the best things in life are free, aren't they?

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Booking Through Thursday, Oh Horror!

What with yesterday being Halloween, and all . . . do you read horror? Stories of things that go bump in the night and keep you from sleeping?

I thought about asking you whether you were participating in NaNoWriMo, but I asked that last year. Although . . . if you want to answer that one, too, please feel free to go ahead and do both, or either, your choice!

I had to watch Pulp Fiction through my fingers ... and I can't read horror fiction at all because, like almost all the fiction that I read, it lives on in my mind and I can't get away from it. (And, unlike almost all the fiction that I read, I long to get away from it!) Ambrose Bierce's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (which you can download as an ebook for free HERE) is the closest I've ever got, and it's not horror in the Pulp Fiction blood-guns-and-guts sense.

And as for writing a 50,000-word novel in a month, the idea gives me as many nightmares as a horror story would if I read one. But if anyone else wants to have a go, go HERE. The National Novel Writing Month (no, I didn't know either ...) begins today.

And so, back to writing a few hundred a words a day ... .

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Paperback cover

This is what the paperback cover of Speaking of Love, to be published on 6 March 2008, will look like.

If you've got any thoughts about it, I'd love to know. In fact, how about this:

Tell me what story you think this cover tells in, say, a long sentence (or two) and the plotline that most appeals to me, or that makes me laugh the most, will be rewarded with a paperback copy of Speaking of Love when it's published next year. (Any obvious adaptation of the synopsis from the book's website will most definitely not qualify. And if you've read the book in hardback, you'll have to rid your head of its subject matter and come up with something solely inspired by the paperback cover.)

I look forward to reading what you write because much debate goes on in the book trade about covers, about what kinds of cover work and what kinds don't. But publishers, wholesalers and retailers don't usually ask the book-buying public what they think before a cover goes to press ... .

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

The Man Booker prize

And so it's:

Anne Enright for The Gathering.

Congratulations to her and her book.

I heard on the radio (four) news last night (have you noticed that they say 'BBC News for Radio Four' now instead of the old 'BBC Radio Four News'? I wonder why the strange, minute, change?). Anyway, as I was saying, I heard on the radio (four) news last night that so far The Gathering has only sold 3,000 copies ... but literary fiction sales are notoriously low. Why? For some reactions to the win, and the present sales figures of all the books on the shortlist, see Shane Hegarty's blog for the Irish Times.

Last night's award will make an impact on the sales figures for The Gathering, goodie goodie, and I'm looking forward to reading it. Sad about Mister Pip though, because it's wonderful, but it won The Commonwealth Writer's Prize and so it's well on its way out into the world already.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

The Man Booker prize

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones.

(That's the one I'd like to win.)

The short story that was a novel ...

... is a draft away from finished, but I can't post it here because one of the competitions that I am going to submit it to requires that it has not been published in ANY form.

So I shall hear what the writers group has to say tomorrow, redraft, let it rest for a while (Hemingway put his work away in a drawer for three months and then, when he got it out again, there was an emotional distance between him and the work and he could edit it as if it had been written by someone else). Then I shall fill in the entry forms and kiss it goodbye.

I always used to kiss the envelopes that held stories I was sending out into the world as I stood by the pillar box (My Brilliant Career, anyone?); but now that, mostly, work is submitted to competitions online, I blow a kiss at my computer screen ... .

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

When is a MAT harder than writing? ...

... when it results in this:

Describe your five strengths as a writer

I found the challenge HERE and because I was busy MATing (reading readers' and writers' blogs to avoid writing) I told myself that I would do it, that stumbling across it served me right for avoiding writing, and that I'd get back to writing as soon as I'd done it.

Now that I've said I'll do it I'm as horrified as Sarah was when Bendrix walks back into their bedroom after the bomb. She thinks he's dead and she's on her knees promising God that if he will let Bendrix live she will never see him again. (The End of the Affair, Graham Greene). He lives so she has to keep her promise.

An excessive reaction you may think ... but the fear that positive honesty will result in ridicule resides in all of us, I think. (Enough rs. Ed.)

1 I write emotional truth
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes that emotional truth is difficult to define but instantly recognisable. It is the antithesis of explanation. It is an empathetic human quality and my writing has it. It is the most important thing to me about my writing. When I read I want to be engaged, and the only way a novel truly engages me is when it touches me. My writing touches readers.

2 I write courageously and honestly
If I didn't my stories would bore. I write what I know to be true, metaphorically speaking. I write about soul truths. I write about heart truths. These are, of course, my truths and the truths that belong to the characters I write, so they are subjective truths. But every time I write something that evades the truth of a story I delete it, eventually.

3 The language I use is poetic, lyrical
The words matter. The way they are put together matters. I will work at the way a story is written until the words sing back to me. Sometimes they sing straight away, but usually I need to redraft, and redraft, to find the right rhythms before the words can sing.

4 I paint pictures with words
When I am writing, I see what I'm writing about in my mind's eye. I see the place, the person, the people who aren't speaking, the colours, the angles, the action, the inaction and I know what the weather's doing even if I haven't described it. My writing transmits pictures to its readers.

5 I write succinctly because less is always more
(I cut a lot.)

Friday, 5 October 2007

Another new first page ...

... this is how it goes.


But here is a redrafted first page for the short story that was a novel.


I drift from place to place and from year to year with such ease, now. But, despite what they think, I usually know that I am drifting. It’s just that I can’t come back quickly so when they put me on the commode, or help me drink my tea, or get me ready for bed I don’t always make sense, at least not to their way of thinking.

Just now I said to Bethany, ‘Isn’t the cherry blossom beautiful?’ Of course I meant the spindle whose leaves are heartbreakingly scarlet today, but I was still in the middle of a bright spring day; I was still sitting under my favourite cherry blossom, and so, when she asked me what I was looking at, I told her what was in my mind and not what was actually out there, what she could see, by the pond.

But I know I heard someone playing the piano in the studio last night, I wasn’t drifting then. The sound woke me up. It came through the window. It drifted in across the garden from the other side of the pond, under the bright full moon, and I lay there staring at the ceiling, willing it to stop, hating it for the flood of memories it brought with it, trying to staunch the flood.

I wouldn’t mind hearing music if I could still dance, or at least make some kind of movement, but hearing music and not being able to move is unbearably painful. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. I despise my feeble attempts to move when I hear music these days and, because my mind rambles along paths of its own choosing, I often see my young self dancing when music invades my broken-down being. It infuriates me. And it breaks my heart.
I've been editing my head off for the last ten days or so (so my bank manager's got a nice surprise coming), but I'll be back to writing, after one last bit of editing, early next week.

I'd love to know how you feel about this redrafted first page, if you felt like commenting.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

The novel that was a short story, part 202

The beginning that I posted here on Monday isn't as good as I thought it was when I posted it ... but that happens all the time. The trick is to write on:

and that's what I'm doing.

Cafe solo image (c) NouvellesImages S.A. et Kurt Hutton - Getty images 2005

Monday, 24 September 2007

The short story that was a novel, part 201

After what seems like years, but has really only been weeks, of editing my head off, I find myself with a jewel of a day (today) when the paid editing has gone away, at least for a day, and so, after the beginning I wrote here I wrote this:

But I know I heard someone playing the piano in the studio last night, I wasn’t drifting then. I was lying in bed and the sound woke me up. I lay there staring at the ceiling and I heard ... and I heard ... there is a great deal of sheet music in the piano stool but whoever was playing chose the one piece that I find so poignant, so ... that piece is the reason I have banned music from the house. I cannot bear to hear music that reminds me that once I danced, that once this body was that body, that once these feet – which are now hidden in ugly red orthopaedic boots – wore red pointe shoes.

I expect you’ll think me hideously self-pitying, but try putting yourself in my shoes ... in my boots. The only thing I can do for myself is wield a fork or a spoon, and I often fail even at that. Everything else has to be done for me. I can’t even read because the ocular muscles go into spasm and the words jump about. And, as if all that isn’t enough, my conversation is limited to exchanges with morons.

This morning I asked Andrea to go to the studio to see if it had been broken in to, to see if the cover had been taken off the piano. I could see from my window that the door was not properly closed but she said, ‘There there Mrs Williams. Eat your porridge.’

Where do these people come from? Who decides that they’re fit to look after people like me? I’d like to tie their limbs with rope and give them cottonwool for a brain, then they’d understand what it’s like and then they’d give me the time of day when I ask a sensible question because, for a blessed interlude, the cottonwool has receded and I am making sense.

Oh, they make me so angry. They are so patronising.

But when I shouted at Andrea over my porridge I found that my voice had lost its volume and I mumbled – another curse of this bloody disease – and she said, ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Williams,’ as she swept towards me – has she any idea how irritating that is? Can’t she just walk normally? – ‘what did you say?’

But the moment was lost, and the only satisfaction I had was determinedly refusing to look at her while she picked up that ugly beaker thing she insists on calling a cup and turned the straw towards my mouth so that I could drink. I longed to blow a stream of hot tea all over her hand, but it would only end in a hopeless dribble all over mine. I know, I’ve tried it before.

I have been staring through the window at the studio ever since then. The river glints in the pale autumn sunlight beyond the fence and the pond looks sorry for itself, full as it is of straw-coloured reeds and brown weed, but the spindle burns beside it as if it were on fire and the ash leaves make soft claret-coloured balls that shiver in the breeze, and then there is a movement by the ford.

A well-dressed man walks out from behind the alder by the river, as if it was the most natural thing to do, and takes off his fedora and bows to me. I bow back. I know who he is. He puts his hat back on his head and raises his arm and waves. I wave back and as I do I hear the music I heard last night, again. That music. And I am glad that it is Gregory who stands by the alder, I am so glad that he is here. I want him to see me, I want him to know that I have seen him, so I press the button on the electric control for the chair so that it will lift and stand me up.

And I am on stage, dancing to that music, the music that Gregory composed after the company fled the bombs at Arnhem, the music that I made the steps for when we were safely back on these shores, the music for the ballet we called See You Soon. I wore a red and blue flowered summer dress. I put elastic and extra material from the hem at the waist and in the back so that it would stretch with my movements, and I perched a little red hat of my mother’s on the side of my head. I left my hair loose and I died a pair of my precious, rationed, pointe shoes red.

It was easy to find the right steps to Gregory’s music. It was as if it had been made for me, for my body. I bourrĂ©ed along the imaginary platform twisting my upper body this way and that as I looked for my soldier and watched the imaginary train pull out. I danced little jumps in second position that got higher and higher as I mimed trying to see over the heads of the other women on the platform. I danced a joyful lyrical waltz with an imaginary partner as I spotted my soldier waving from the train window, as I caught his kiss, and then I sank into a desolate, slowly spinning series of arabesques that rose and fell and when I could no longer see my soldier I sank to my heels and leaned against the barrier (a portable barre that we took with us on that tour).

And then I let my feet dance on their own as I made myself put on a brave face, the face that so many women wore then, and then I danced a series of clipped, steely steps as I went to work, sat on a chair behind the barre and mimed typing. In that section of the ballet, even though I was sitting down, I let my feet keep dancing. I took them through all the barre positions but I made them staccato, for the danger of those times. But I let my head and my upper body show how my heart felt as I swayed away from my imagined typewriter, to show how I dreamed of my beloved returning safe from the front.

The side of my face burns; it seems to be pushed down into something harsh. And then I realise that I am on the floor. I cannot think how I got here but I know that it will be some time before Andrea deigns to interrupt her morning’s reading to come up and check on me. I can see one of my red boots with its steel support. I wonder what angle it is at, and then I hear the stairs creaking under the weight of feet and I prepare myself for the onslaught.

‘When will you learn, Mrs Williams?’ says Andrea. ‘You cannot walk. Why do you do this?’

There are many reasons, but all would be lost on her.

‘I’ll get the hoist,’ she says and I watch her feet walk away in their silly white shoes. Then they obviously remember something and stop and turn. When they are a few inches from my face they stop and then they raise themselves up on their balls as their owner checks my body all over for breaks. Finding none, the feet resume their hurried pursuit of the hoist and when I am back in my chair, with a reluctant dab of arnica on my forehead and too many pillows behind me, Andrea straightens my right leg along the leg rest.

To frighten her I let out a groan. And then again, when she does the same to my left leg.

‘Oh my goodness, does that hurt?’ she says, worried. ‘I’ll ring the doctor, straight away.’ And then, surprisingly, she says, ‘I’m so sorry I didn’t come up sooner. I was dealing with the tramp.’

‘The tramp?’

‘Yes. I think he must have slept in the barn, I mean the studio, again last night. He came to the kitchen window and said he wanted to see you. I told him to go away and I made a song and dance about ringing the council. People like him spread disease.’

And then, after a pause, ‘You don’t know him, do you Mrs Williams?’

‘No, Andrea,’ I say, ‘I don’t know any tramps,’ but she is already ringing the doctor from the telephone beside my bed and I don’t suppose she heard me.

Dr Fishwick is a remarkable doctor. In all the time I have known him, in all the years I have had this blasted disease, he has been patient and kind and, above all, he has been honest.

He is holding my head at the moment and it is the greatest comfort. He has told me that nothing is broken – as I knew it wasn’t – but that I have sprained my ankle. He says it is nothing to worry about, it will mend soon, and I wish that the rest of me would mend soon. My limbs shake in varying degrees almost all the time, but when my head behaves like a balloon caught in unpredictable gusts of wind my neck aches and feels, sometimes, as if it will break. But with Doctor Fishwick standing behind my chair and holding my head firmly between his hands I feel ... well I feel safe. Often he smells of something citrussy, one of those modern eau de colognes no doubt, but today the smell that he brings with him is of apples and I realise that I am looking at him in an apple store.

I watch him pick the apples up from their slatted wooden shelves. I watch him put them to his nose, one by one, and then he turns and smiles at me. He says, turning an apple in his hand, ‘I wish there was something else that we could do for you, Mrs Williams, but the combination of drugs you are on is the best there is. Although I know the side effects can be troubling.’

I smile at him in his apple store and I say, ‘I have always had hallucinations, Dr Fishwick. I’ve had them since I was a child and they don’t trouble me at all. It’s the symptoms that get me down. The immobility. The memory sliding. And this interminable shaking. I don’t know how much more I can take.’

As I say this his apple store darkens and his voice comes from behind me once more. ‘I know,’ he says. ‘I know.’ And his voice comforts me because I believe he really does know. He wouldn’t hold my head like that if he didn’t really know, and it comforts me more than I can say. I wish, selfishly, that he lived here, that I was his only patient, and as I think that I feel a lump in my throat and tears on my cheeks and when he walks round the chair and sits opposite me and looks at me, I cannot hide them from him. And his face wears a look of such kindness that I cry all the more.

Dr Fishwick puts his large gentle hand on mine and he says, ‘When I arrived a friend of yours was sitting on the wall under the eucalyptus tree. He asked me if I thought you would like to see him, and I said I would ask you. What would you like me to say to him?’

‘Is it Gregory?’ I ask.

‘He didn’t tell me his name,’ says the doctor. ‘He just said he was an old friend. I’ll go and ask, if you like.’

‘There’s no need,’ I say. ‘I think it is him.’ And then, as he gently wipes the tears from my cheeks wit a kleenex, I say, ‘Andrea thinks he’s a tramp. Don’t let her send him away.’

A flicker of surprise crosses the doctor’s face. ‘I won’t,’ he says as he stands up. I notice how strong his thighs are, how well they support him, and as I turn away my left leg begins to shake uncontrollably.

‘I will call in tomorrow,’ says the good doctor, and then I hear him walking down the stairs. I feel desolate when he goes. It always happens. But today the desolation is worse than ever.

I hear his voice and I hope that perhaps he will come back for a few more minutes. He says, ‘Her room is at the top of the stairs,’ and I realise he must be speaking to Gregory. I wish I had asked for a mirror. I must look dreadful. I’ve just been crying and my face must be bruised.

And then I forget all about what I look like as the sound of whistling surrounds me. I put my hands over my ears to block it out, but it will not be blocked out. It is inside my own head. Giselle’s love theme whistles inside my head and I find myself on a riverbank watching a young girl picking daisies. She hears what I can hear and she stops and looks up. She stares across the river, astonished, at the boy on the other side of the river who is whistling the love theme from her favourite ballet and she begins to dance. But she slips and she slides on the wet grass and she falls ... into the river.
If you have read this far, thank you. And if you felt like commenting, that would be lovely. (This is, I think, about a third of the way through the story. Maybe a quarter.)

Wednesday, 19 September 2007


A literary agent friend of mine has just told me about a new website for writers and readers called Fiction Allsorts. There aren't any links up to either readers' sites or writers' sites, nor links to books read or written yet ... the site is still under construction. But I like the name (I can taste the liquorice as I write) and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens and how the site develops.

Here's what they say on their homepage:

Like a box of Allsorts, we aim to provide something for everyone.

Whether you are a writer looking for a place to promote your work, or a reader looking for something new, we hope this site will provide what you need.

This is a new site and is still very much under development. Please bookmark us and pop back from time to time.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Writing about writing

George Mackay Brown wrote this about writing:

Therefore he no more troubled the pool of silence
But put on mask and cloak,
Strung a guitar
And moved among the folk.
Dancing they cried,
'Ah, how our sober islands
Are gay again, since this blind lyrical tramp
Invaded the Fair!'

Under the last dead lamp
When all the dancers and masks had gone inside
His cold stare
Returned to its true task, interrogation of silence.
THE POET by George Mackay Brown
published in George Mackay Brown, POEMS, New and Selected, The Hogarth Press, 1971
(Permission to reprint this poem was applied for to John Murray, at Hodder Headline, on 13 August 2007.)
For more on this most solitary, lyrical, thoughtful and quietly passionate of poets, read Maggie Fergusson's wonderful George Mackay Brown, The Life published by John Murray, 2006. (It won the Scottish Arts Council Award for a first book in August 2007.)

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Booking Through Thursday

Here's today's:

Okay . . . picture this (really) worst-case scenario: It’s cold and raining, your boyfriend/girlfriend has just dumped you, you’ve just been fired, the pile of unpaid bills is sky-high, your beloved pet has recently died, and you think you’re coming down with a cold. All you want to do (other than hiding under the covers) is to curl up with a good book, something warm and comforting that will make you feel better.
What do you read?
(Any bets on how quickly somebody says the Bible or some other religious text? A good choice, to be sure, but to be honest, I was thinking more along the lines of fiction…. Unless I laid it on a little strong in the string of catastrophes? Maybe I should have just stuck to catching a cold on a rainy day….)
It's simple.

Two books occured to me immediately: ALICE's ADVENTURES in WONDERLAND because not a word is wasted, you wouldn't want to stop even to look out of the window, let alone to feel sorry for yourself. It's funny, surreal, delightful, diverting, would remind me of my father reading to me and spirit me away from all my troubles.

The other book is AFTER YOU'D GONE, Maggie O'Farrell's first novel - which, in part, wouldn't cheer me up, but it is funny at times - and at times I laughed and cried at the same time. It's such an all-enveloping book that I would have to forget what was happening to me, even if it was, at least partly, because I found myself submerged in another's difficulties and sadnesses.

Although isn't that what so often helps? I'm not the only one? My troubles aren't half as bad as hers? Will she make it? (You see I've forgotten about myself already.) By the way, this edition is a bound proof ... which I absolutely can't remember how I got.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

The short story that was a novel, part 200

Hmmm ... even though I've written that my relationship with my writing has changed, see here, I haven't actually done any writing since then to test it.

So how do I know it's changed, I hear you asking?

Because, just now, I returned from my writers' group (we meet monthly but we haven't met all summer for summer reasons) where they gave me feedback on the first third of the short story that was a novel. And, no, they didn't say it was the best first third of a short story that they'd ever read, they said things that were much more useful than that but, just now, as I was waiting for the kettle to boil, the usual feeling of dread, of
oh no, now I've got to tackle it again, I've got to begin again and I don't know if I can washed over me, but it was, instantly and amazingly, replaced by but it's a puzzle, dream on it, write down the key things and mull them over, you don't have to find instant solutions. Heavens, can attitudes really change that quickly?

Apparently, they can. (Apparently the colours of this blog text can too ... mysteriously.)

So here are the key things they suggested and we discussed:

*Begin when Sasha is old, when she has accepted that she will die soon. When she wants to die.
*Tell it from her point of view, not Gregory's. If he tells any part of the story at all, let him tell in short bursts between her narration. Let his telling be mysterious.
*Work out whether Sasha has decided that she wants to die, or whether Gregory is coming to claim her. It can only be one or the other. Not both.
*Gregory is not death, because death can be so cruel, so unexpected, so devastating, and he is none of those things. He is an angel, a messenger, of death - someone who can intercede on her behalf, someone who can ask for a reprieve for her because he loves her. Someone who has known her all her life - as I originally had it, but not as death himself - and so someone sympathetic with whom she can reminisce and prepare to die. (Sorry, if you were planning to read the story I have probably spoiled the mystery for you now. But this is my new relationship-with-my-writing blog, not my MATing-avoiding-writing-blog.)

So, some possible opening sentences occur to me:

I drift from place to place and from year to year with such ease, now. But, despite what they think, I know that I am drifting. It's just that I can't come back quickly, so when they put me on the commode or help me drink my tea, or get me ready for bed, I don't always make sense, at least not to their way of thinking.
Just now I said to the thin-lipped one, 'Isn't the cherry blossom beautiful?' Of course I meant the spindle whose leaves are heartbreakingly scarlet today, but I was still in the middle of a bright spring day; I was still sitting under my favourite cherry blossom, and so, when she asked me what I was looking at, I told her what was in my mind and not what was actually out there, what she could see, by the river.
But I know I heard someone playing the piano in the studio last night. I know that was real. But I shan't tell the thin-lipped one because she'll just say, 'Of course you did, dear.' I shall wait until Bridget gets here tonight. She listens. She understands. I think she knows what's happening to me.

So ... I shall continue tomorrow.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

The LibraryThing

I have spent most of today making a library of my books (no, I mean making a library of a small number of my books) on my library at the LibraryThing - a wonderful invention which I discovered when a member kindly wrote a review of SPEAKING of LOVE there.

And as I chose the small number of books I put into my virtual library today (I made myself exclude any that I hadn't really read. There were far too many, but there were also some that I know I'll never read because I bought them so's I'd seem fantastically intelligent - The History of Western Philosophy - or fantastically groovy - SEED - don't ask, but so groovy and weird that its publisher isn't even listed in its pages).

Anyway I began thinking about how much the books that I have read have meant to me, what friends they have been in dark times, how thought-provoking, how comforting, how they've given me places to escape to, how reassuring they've been, how making-me-sit-up-and-take-notice, how funny, how I-wish-I'd-written-that, how I-must-go-and-write-NOW but oddly, never how much blood sweat and tears their writers must have bled, sweated and cried to write them, even though I too now know what it's like to write a whole novel. Which proves the writing-a-novel-is-like-childbirth point ... you forget the pain, until you do it again.

One of the many wonderful things that the LibraryThing does is they make it possible to post random books from my library on my blog ... see These I Have Loved on the right ... don't the covers look inviting? If only there was time to read them all, all over again.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes and synchronicity ...

I was talking to a friend tonight, and I told her that I discover myself through stories, in every way. I find out who I am by reading fiction, and I find out who I am by writing fiction.

But I didn't know I did this until I began to read Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes's Women who Run with the Wolves. Years ago I and several others worked with a wise woman who introduced us to Women who Run with the Wolves. We read it, week by week, and we met to discuss how we related to each ancient story, and Estes's Jungian interpretation, in each chapter. And it was in this reading and discussing that I understood, deeply, the power of story in life and the power of story in my life.

And tonight, as I was thinking about all this, I wondered whether Dr Estes blogged ... and I find that she does, here. The blog is called The Moderate Voice and there are many writers on it, but Estes's most recent post is about the death of Pavarotti: she writes about the story of his life, the deep story, the archetypal story, the operatic story, the mythic story, the healing story and the story of the little boy who slept
in a tiny kitchen in a little fold-up bed made of iron
It was a piece of synchronicity that I found Estes's blog tonight, but the world needs her ability to understand how much we need stories, and to write them, all the time. Especially when times are dark.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

The Man Booker shortlist, first novels

So, none of the first novels longlisted made it to the Man Booker shortlist but perhaps, because this list has been so wonderfully readable (no I haven't read them all, hardly any in fact, yet, but I've been reading dovegreyreader's reviews and Asylum's and I'll get to them soon) maybe there'll be more next year (both readable and first).

Here's hoping ... .

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

What kind of writer am I?

Thanks to an archived blog at John Baker's blog, I discover that I am this kind of writer:

You Should Be A Poet

You craft words well, in creative and unexpected ways.
And you have a great talent for evoking beautiful imagery...
Or describing the most intense heartbreak ever.
You're already naturally a poet, even if you've never written a poem.

Well, I like that ... even if I don't really believe in the quiz's rigorousness (not a very poetic word). And, despite my apparent talent for describing 'the most intense heartbreak ever' yesterday's new relationship with my writing began in a seriously promising fashion.

Today, my writing and I have had to part (without too much heartbreak because we know we will be reunited soon) because I am editing someone else's work, but I am full of hope for the longevity of our new relationship.

The sustainability test will come later, as it does in all relationships, but I'm confident, today, that that 'intense heartbreak' will only apply to my writing subject matter, not to the object of my writing affections.

Monday, 3 September 2007

A new relationship with my writing ...

... is what I need.

I realised over the weekend, while thinking about other relationships in my life, that the relationship I have with my writing is one of dread fuelled by the certainty that it will be a struggle: that I always expect to discover that what I thought was a story isn't, that the characters I thought realistic aren't and that the situations I thought plausible are as unstable as, well, something very unstable.

My relationship with my writing is fuelled by my dread that it won't be what I thought it was, either in the imagining or in the rereading. I dread that I have, and will end up with ... nothing.

But what I realised on my way back from Salisbury yesterday was that if I change my expectations, if I welcome the lack of knowing where it's all going as a puzzle I'll probably be able to solve instead of a failure of imagination; if I delight in the exploration instead of feeling inadequate because I'm not already filled with ideas; if I have the courage to dare to see what happens next without rejecting ideas before they have the chance to flower, then that black cloud of dread could be pierced by shafts of sunlight and I'll get down to writing quicker and, who knows, this whole MAT business could become a thing of the past.

Here goes ... .

Friday, 31 August 2007

When is writing also a MAT?

When it's another piece of writing.

I managed to stop writing the short story (the one that was a novel, you remember) this week so that I could resurrect the idea for a children's novel from a horrible first draft written one thousand (well, ten) years ago.

And the reason for stopping? To send three re-re-re-re-re-re-redrafted chapters and a synopsis of the children's novel to Fidra Books's competition A New Book for Fidra. The deadline was today, I emailed my submission yesterday afternoon and now I am worrying about having too many pieces of writing on the go at once (and having to find even more reasons to avoid doing any of them).

But I am the only person who asked me to do this, and so I am the only person I can turn to. Just as, when people ask me how I manage to be disciplined about writing I say, 'If, by seven o'clock in the evening (The Archers, of course) I haven't any writing to show for myself (or research done or thoughts written down), I am the only person I can blame for my pissed-offness at the lack. And I get sick of being pissed-off (and only having myself to blame) at the bottom of the stairs of an evening.

So, perhaps writing will beget writing?

PS: Did you know that Jennifer Aldridge's Ambridge website really exists? How does that work? A real website about a fictional village on a site for a soap peopled with invented characters on the BBC? I am confused ... but I sense a new MAT coming on.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Publishers and writers: the relationship?

These are what's left of the boyf's roses, and as I was looking at them last night and wondering if they had another day left in them (they have, because I decided to dry them this morning), we began a conversation about an idea that's been in my head for a while, but hasn't properly found words.

It's this: that the relationship between a (big) publisher and a (novice) writer is like the relationship between a parent and a child.

If, as the novice writer, you are that rare thing, the brightest new child in the family (and the family is a very large one) the relationship benefits both: the parent proudly sends the child's work out into the world and knows that they will both benefit, the parent will bask in the financial and excellent-literary-nose glow of a successful first novel, and the writer will know that her work is being read, that the publisher is likely to want to publish her next, and that her first will make at least some of the money she'll need to buy her time to write the next.

But if, as is surely the norm, the relationship is one of a time- and cash-poor parent and a worried, insecure child, neither benefit and both end up with little, or nothing. The child's book is published and then, not long afterwards, remaindered: the parent realises that she knew all along that this was a punt too far and she never should have thrown good money after bad, the child's gold was only glitter; the child realises that the parent she took for a loving guardian, she mis-took. (I have no experience of such a relationship so I can only surmise - but I have enough vicarious knowledge to think that I surmise not-so-far from the bone.)

However, and this is where the conversation with the boyf began last night, the relationship between an indie publisher (this, I do know about) and his writer can develop into one of equal responsibility one of, as I believe they say on TA courses, adult-to-adult. And then remarkable things can follow.

It is, of course, a question of the child growing-up and taking responsibility. And, on Saturday, I took responsiblity (I have done so before, but this was a new departure). I went to four indie bookshops to find out about them and, also, to find out whether they would like to stock copies of Speaking of Love. To my delight, two ordered it immediately, one said he thought they'd be more interested in the paperback, but would discuss same with his manager after the bank holiday, and one suggested I talk to the manager when he was back after the bank holiday.

The idea of selling my own work has been anathema to me (I have remained a child) until, after typing 'sell my novel' into Google's search engine the other day, I found Mark Thornton's SHELF SECRETS, see here and here, went on his course and learned a thing or two. And, as a result of that course, the idea that triggered last night's conversation began to grow: that growing-up and taking responsibility are the point.

My local cafe, by the way, has now sold seven copies, see
here for how they sold five in July.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Booking through Thursday ... on Friday

Just caught up with Booking Through Thursday (thank you Simon at Stuck in a Book)... where a weekly bookish question is posed. Here's this week's question:

When growing up did your family share your love of books? If so, did one person get you into reading? And, do you have any family-oriented memories with books and reading? (Family trips to bookstore, reading the same book as a sibling or parent, etc.)
It comes with the heading INDOCTRINATION, although I don't think of what happened to me as indoctrination, more as wonderful memories. My father read me Alice's Adventures in Wonderland when I was about four or five. I remember the green cloth cover (yup, still green, faded now in a strip where the sun's got to it, with a red half-moon at the top and Tenniel's illustration of Alice shaking hands with the mock turtle, 1954 Macmillan edition ... obviously I've still got it, I've just checked those details) and I can still recite (decades later):

You are old father William, the young man said,
And your hair it has turned very white.
And yet you continually stand on your head,
Do you think at your age that is right?
I blame Father William for the yoga I took up, and still take up ... and although I'm sure the verse is not word-perfect (I haven't checked) it's pretty close, and that's after fifty+ years ... . My father - and his name was William - also read me Through the Looking Glass (extra details: Alice and the red and black queens in the half-moon, 1956 edition) when I was about five or six and I can remember the room (white-pillared gas fire, him in an armchair, me on the floor, or sitting on his knee, Tenniel's illustrations, his voice, smell-of-book heaven).

These readings alone are responsible for my love of books, my belief in the power of fiction sometimes to solve problems that real life can't, and the fact that I write fiction now. (And the fact that I believe that absolutely anything can be the subject for a work of fiction.) They're also responsible for my love of oral storytelling.

My parents also subscribed to World Books (do they still exist?) which meant that an exciting parcel arrived - how often? - every two weeks? - with a novel inside it which, once read, was proudly added to the bookshelves. Lark Rise to Candleford was a favourite title of mine, for its poetry. I can't remember the subject matter of Flora what-was-her-name's novel, but I know I read it all those years ago. Thompson! That's what she was called.

Years later, when yearning to write but not daring to take time off work, my father lent me some money so that I could. When I took him a cheque to pay him back, he said, 'Thank you, but I don't want it, darling. Think of me as your first publisher.'

I still do.

PS: Edited to include: after reading the replies to this week's BTT, I want to add that the day our local librarian said to my mother that I'd read everything in the children's section, so I'd have to move on to the books in the adult section (aged 9) is still one of the proudest days of my life!

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Mostly Books, indie bookshops and indie publishers

THIS is the place to go if you want to learn how to sell your book into indie bookshops

Last Sunday I and four others spent the day at the table you can just see through the window. We were given delicious and copious cups of tea and coffee all day (rudely I brought my own teabags 'cos no caffeine's allowed on my natural building-up-my-calcium-to-get-rid-of-osteoporosis regime) ... and we were given a lovely lunch and the chance to browse among Mostly Books's shelves and Mark Thornton (prop.) was seriously generous with his time. (Especially as it was, see above, a Sunday.) But the most important thing we were given was the chance to find out how best to find our own books on these shelves, one day in the not-too-distant future, or on the shelves of the indie bookshops where we live.

All the course members bar one were published or about-to-be published authors, and all were either published by indie publishers or about to self-publish for reasons of trouble at big-publisher mill. But the trouble about being published by an indie publisher, as I've said here before, is that it's difficult to persuade the liteds to review indie-published books. In fact, as Long Barn Books's blog wrote yesterday:

It is assumed by the liteds (with honourable exceptions) that small independent
publishers either publish the unpublishable, supported by Arts Council grants,
or publish what the Big Six have all rejected.

But we who've been published by indie publishers also know that that's not true. My indie publisher, Beautiful Books, published my first novel because they loved it, were moved by it and the one review it's managed to pick up so far, from Simon Thomas at Stuck in a Book, not only judges it as anything but unpublishable, but has done the book the honour of adding it to his 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. Beautiful Books are doing everything in their power to get my book out into the world and Simon Petherick, the publisher, keeps reassuring me that it will be a 'slow burn', that he isn't giving up, and that he's publishing the paperback early next year ... however in the meantime sales are slow because without broadsheet literary-page reviews bookshops don't know about the book, so don't stock it.

AND SO, back to the beginning and SHELF SECRETS, Mark Thornton's innovative course for writers which concentrates on how writers can get their indie-published books stocked by indie bookshops. It's simple really, and I don't think he'll mind me saying what his fundamental message is: it is that what we writers have to do is think like booksellers. Which is obvious, as soon as you say it, isn't it, but it wasn't obvious until Mark said it. But everything flows from there. You'll have to go on his course to find out what his specific SHELF SECRETS are, but if you have a local indie bookshop and you have written a book that hasn't managed to get any literary-page reviews yet, I seriously recommend SHELF SECRETS. I think the next course is in September, see here for course details.

So ... tomorrow I'm off to see the nice people in my local bookshop.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Emily Young's Wounded Angel

sculpture copyright Emily Young, photograph copyright Angelo Plantamura

You can see this beautiful angel (called Wounded Angel I) in Kew Gardens, in London, or you can see a photograph of him in Tacit Hill's A Light Touch and a Long View which was published in June and is full full full of colour plates of Emily Young's sculpture.

Emily Young's angels truly touch me. I first saw one at the London Art Fair several years ago and have searched them out ever since. This one is part of her Earth Angel project ... and in my workroom, among the piles of paper, work in progress (not to mention the other people's work in progress that I'm editing), in pride of place on the floor is a copy of A Light Touch and a Long View and it's usually open at this page because this angel's expression is almost unbearably touching to me. But he can also send me into reflective mood, and I often end up in a (story) place I hadn't intended heading for ... he is, sometimes, like a story guardian angel. When I'm lost for words, or tired of editing, or anything really, I look at him.

Emily Young also writes about the stone she sculpts. She writes about the 'stink' that sometimes comes from a piece of stone when she cuts into it, a stink that has been trapped in that piece of stone for millennia. She talks about the age of the stone and the stories hidden in the stone, the stories the stone carries.

Looking at her work is worth not writing for. But, unusually for a MAT, it also sets me on the road to writing.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Editing, MATs and piles of paper

Most writers, in fact surely all of us except those with humungous sales, earn their living by doing something else (obviously not by MATing).

I earn mine by editing other people's non-fiction, and/or proofreading it. I have just quoted for a piece of editing work and while I am waiting for the editor at the publishing house to say whether my quote and the length of time I've said it will take are acceptable, I MATed (just a bit) on the net, and I found this while searching for a solution to my horrible when-I-add-a-picture-or-a-quote-the-line-spacing-on-my-blog-goes-single problem. (I know, they hardly seem related, but you'd be surprised):
cartoon from
Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

The third pile of paper accurately represents the state of my writing room (mostly piles of editing in varying states of completion, but also one novel pile and one short story pile - writers of novels and short stories have to research, you know, and research often leads to paper). Anyway the cartoon made me laugh while I was trying to solve an irritating problem (which has been solved HERE, if any other Blogger is suffering similar symptoms), and there are lots of Dave Walker's cartoons on We Blog Cartoons (link above) that you can copy into your blog for free, if they appeal to you. Dave Walker says he lets us do this because:

The more people who enjoy my work the better, and life is generally too short not to give things away.

I, uncharitably perhaps, shall not be giving any of my editing work away.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Back to reality

So, back to reality in my writing room (I'll be there in a minute, when I've written this MAT ... er, I mean, blog) after a dizzy day yesterday living on the adrenalin that Stuck in a Book's review of Speaking of Love generated. Before I was published, a line or two from an enthusiastic (even when rejecting) publisher was enough to live on for several months: it returned lost courage and refuelled the hope chest. Now that Speaking of Love is published, a review of two pages is enough to live on (I speak spiritually, natch) for as many years.

The thing is I write mostly because I have to, because I feel so much better when I have written and better still if what I have written says back to me at least something of that intangible, difficult-to-grasp mysterious wisp-of-an idea that I had when I began to write whatever it is that I am working on at the time.

But the other reason I write, and I'm sure it's true of many writers, is to engage with and to touch the people who read what I have written. (Not all of them, obviously.)

When I'm reading I want the writer's imagination and use of language to gently capture me, and I want the characters and their situations to live with me just as vividly when I'm not reading the book as when I am. I've just begun The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng (Booker prize longlisted) and I can see the woman staring across at the island while he watches her, and cooks for her. And Eng has captured that misty sense of the beginning of an idea in his misty, rainy landscape.

When I read I want the way the characters feel, or don't feel, to affect me. The only way a writer can know if she's done this is for a reader to tell her. When I have loved a book I write and say so to the writer. Penelope Lively wrote this, after I'd written to say how much I loved The Photograph:

Such a warm response from a reader lights up the day.
She's right. It does.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Orchids for Simon

I am overwhelmed.

This orchid is for Simon at Stuck in a Book for his overwhelming review of Speaking of Love. See The word on ... at the top on the right.

Orchids, according to Clare Florists' flower meanings are flowers of magnificence and, although I'm not at all sure what the thanking-for-a-blog-book-review etiquette is, it would surely be rude not to thank Simon, publicly, for such a magnificent review, wouldn't it? So thank you, Simon.

It is also the most wonderful MAT yet ... I read the review early this morning, fell over, read it again, posted a thank-you comment on Simon's blog for it, failed to do my exercises, haven't even had a bath yet, and am sitting here in my PJs writing this before I do any of the above, let alone before I get down to writing for the day.

But there is a serious point to make, too. Speaking of Love is published by the wonderful, independent Beautiful Books and, as dovegreyreader says in this post 'small publishers work with limited funds' and so, if the literary review pages don't review the books the small publishers publish (and send out in their hundreds to them for review) - and they didn't review Speaking of Love - the bookshops won't stock their books. And if the bookshops don't stock the indie publishers' books how do the indies sell their books, when they can't afford to buy the space in the big-chain bookshops' windows? And it's almost impossible to get a review in the literary review pages if the writer and the publisher are unknown. So how does an indie publisher become better known if the literary review pages ignore them? See my post here on this Catch-22 situation-situation.

However, I think I have discovered a secret weapon. This Sunday, 19 August, I'm going to Mostly Books in Abingdon to take Mark Thornton's one-day course for writers on how to sell your book into indie bookshops. I heard him talk at the Society of Authors on 25 July (see my post here for more). And I will post about his course and my success, or failure - which I'm sure will be because of my incompetence, not his advice - when I am armed with the secrets of (t)his secret weapon.

In dovegreyreader's post about all this she says that she thinks the 'Indies should just band together and set up their own review magazine'. I heartly endorse that and enthusiastically forwarded her post to Beautiful Books, and suggested they go and hear her at the Publisher's Publicity Circle lunch at Foyle's on 30 August: see here.

But in the meantime, here are more orchids for Simon,

for giving Speaking of Love a helping hand on its way out into the world.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Writing, MATs and ticker-tape turn ups

On Friday morning, in the bath, before I started work (a bath can be a MAT, but only if I'm still in it after the practical stuff is over), the sentence, 'On the whole we resist falling in love' turned up in my head. This isn't unusual (not that sentence, but sentences in general, or phrases, often turn up in my head). Sometimes they're connected with the piece I'm writing at the time, sometimes they're not, but they stream through my head on what seems to me to be ticker-tape, although they stream horizontally, not vertically, and if they're not connected with the piece I'm writing at the time, they're often springboards to the next. (A springboarding ticker-tape?)

I've just Googled ticker-tape to make sure it was what I thought it was, and here is a rather beautiful (copyrighted) image of a working replica of a stock ticker, and a Wikipedia entry that explains.

Anyway, the short-story-that-was-a-novel found itself being given, 'On the whole we resist falling in love' as its new opening sentence and (I hate to say this for fear of the wrath of the writing gods ... but ...) beginning that way imposed a structure on the story that works. At least it worked on Friday and it was still working yesterday. And so, naturally, I am resisting getting back to it by posting this MAT-blog in case (a) I'm proved wrong today, or (b) it continues to work and so requires me to continue to put one word after another. One word after another ... that was the word I needed in Sunday's blog - not one word in front of another, nor one word behind another.

And so, with trepidation, to work.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Roses, MATs and Annie Lawson's "Partner"

Isn't this rose beautiful? My boyf gave it to me (see below), and I took its portrait with my new digital camera which I went out to buy today, prompted by the beauty of Find me a Bluebird's blog, and helped by a good friend who is a wonderful artist and knows about digital cameras. She hasn't got a blog, otherwise I'd tell you about it.

I don't really know how photography and writing the short story from the novel-that's-no-longer-a-novel, or even writing the second second novel, go together, but I have a feeling that I'll find a way. There are certainly endless MATing possibilities, and, quite probably, endless possibilities for inspiration when on a walking-in-the-park MAT because I've got backache and absolutely cannot put one more word in front of another. (That really should be one word behind another, shouldn't it? Words don't anticipate each other, except, on bizarre occasions, in my dreams. Once, in a dream, I heard the words, 'And I turned a corner of syllables.')

It has only just occurred to me (more than a month after beginning this blog) that MATing reads like mating, which it absolutely isn't. This blog is all about MATs, not mates, but, because it's Sunday and I'm not writing, let alone MATing, here's an Annie Lawson cartoon which has made me laugh for years and years, ever since a great friend sent it to me:My boyf and I have settled on boyf and girlf (or the elongated versions of same, despite their schoolgirlish-boyish nature), but if you can't decide, because you can't read the captions underneath the cartoons (photography a bit off, sorry), they read like this: 1: No, sounds too boring 2: No, sounds too schoolgirl-ish and 3: If you say this, I say you need help. But if you can't read the fourth balloon caption, I'm not going to spell it out for you.

And so to write, tomorrow morning.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Blogging (is a MAT)

I've spent the morning roving from blog to blog (I never could surf, too much water up my nose) and finding more and more delightful things to read. I've been reading blogs about books and life at Asylym, BooksPlease, Cornflower, dovegreyreader and Stuck in a Book; and blogs about writing books and life at Bookarazzi, The Writing Life, writing, coffee and other obsessions and one about both and, at MetaxuCafe; let alone writing a blog about writing ... all is gloriously MATful (although it is Saturday, and I don't write on the weekends - at least I don't if I know I'll have time to write in the week; I do if I know I won't, or if, the wonderful if, someone else - a publisher, for instance, - has imposed a deadline).

Speaking of which, Douglas Adams said a wonderful thing about deadlines. He said that he loved to hear the sound of them as they whooshed by. He was, allegedly, legendary in his inability to keep deadlines (or dead lions as a young nephew once thought I'd said - which conjures wonderful images of something very smelly, doesn't it?) Anyway, Douglas Adams was a wise, wildly funny and wonderful writer and he said this, in answer to these:

How should prospective writers go about becoming an author?
First of all, realise that it's very hard, and that writing is a gruelling and lonely business and, unless you are extremely lucky, badly paid as well. You had better really, really, really want to do it. Next you have to write something. Unless you are committed to novel writing exclusively, I suggest that you start out writing for radio. It's still a relatively easy medium to get into because it pays so badly. But it is a great medium for writers because it relies so much on the imagination. You will learn a tremendous amount from it, and maybe get some useful exposure.

What qualities are needed by an author?
A determination to keep at it.

There's nothing more to be said really, is there? Except that the questioner obviously thinks it takes several writers make one author ... .

Friday, 10 August 2007

Making the language sing

So ... I spent yesterday rewriting the first seven pages of the short-story-that-was-a-novel. Or, as I prefer to call it, making the language sing.

Now that's not a full-scale opera you understand, just one short under-rehearsed aria, but I hate clunky language. I'm a huge fan of the less-is-more-poetic school of writing, but when I'm trying to find out what the story is (although in this case I mostly know that) and what order it should be told in, the language doesn't get enough attention. (Obviously I'm not much of a multitasker, despite the fact that I'm a woman.)

Today ... I'm about to get down to doing the same to the next seven or so pages (I know, it's late, and this post will be the absolute LAST of my MATs for the day). Then there are about another seven roughly drafted, and then who knows which of the remaining parts of the once-upon-a-time-this-was-a-novel will make it into the short story? No doubt I shall find out next week.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

First novels and short stories

The thing about writing your first novel is that as well as doing it you're finding out how to do it. So, you would have thought that I'd have discovered at least the fundamentals of the how by now.

But it seems that I haven't, or hadn't. My second novel, which I had the idea for while I was still writing my first, in 2003 (or was it 2004?), turned out - in early 2007 - to be a short story. And the reason is simple (I realise, three years on). What I have been struggling to turn into a novel is a glimpse of a life (as William Trevor so deftly describes the essence of the short story) not a sinuous, continuous, easily-flowing or utterly dammed-up great big chunk of a life. (Or better, all these things, in their turn.)

A short story revolves around one main event, not a series of events caused by the characters or which cause them to react (or not). Of course the characters in a short story are affected by, or have caused, the event (which won't necessarily be a concrete exterior event, it could be an interior, psychological event), but this event is the fulcrum of the story. What has happened before it or what may happen after it do not belong in the short story: the event itself and how the characters deal with it serve as food for speculation about the before and the after in the readers' minds.

So, at last I know what to do with this novel I've been wrestling with. It is both a huge disappointment (no novel) and a great relief (I haven't had to bin the idea completely).

So, now I know what to do I'd better stop writing this MAT and get on with it. (Sometimes, getting down to a piece of work when I know where I'm going is more daunting then getting down to a piece of work when I don't know where I'm going. Why? Because it might not work, of course.)

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Man Booker Longlist, MATs and Natalie Goldberg

So ... the Booker Longlist is out and it includes four first novels which can only be good news for those of us with books which have cleared the finding-a-publisher-for-the-first-novel hurdle.

I looked in vain for Speaking of Love, knowing that it wouldn't be there but hoping, fantastically against the odds, that it would be. (Me and all the other first novel-makers among the 97 books that didn't make the longlist.) In my yoga class yesterday afternoon, which I went to to cure the RSI that my obsessive clicking on the Man Booker site had provoked, I even managed a Jimmy Rabbitte-(of-The-Commitments)-type interview with Germaine Greer (not sure why her ...) when I was supposed to be meditating on a clear lake with no ripples. (Roddy Doyle won the Booker with Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in 1993.)

But what the fact that there are four first novels on the longlist really does is remind me that the cure for the MATs is simply to write the next part of the next story. When Natalie Goldberg is asked how writers write she simply holds up a pad and a pen. She doesn't say a word.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Bookarazzi and Find me a Bluebird

I'd intended to post every day ... so much for the best-laid plans, or even the worst-laid.

Anyway, one of the things I've discovered while trying to find ways to midwife my first novel, Speaking of Love, out into the world (yes, that's another MAT) is Bookarazzi, and on the Bookarazzi recommended blogs page was a breathtakingly beautiful blog called Find me a Bluebird which I looked up because it's name is so touching. But so visually beautiful is the Find me a Bluebird blog that I am inspired to become digi-camera-literate (a new MAT, how exciting!) and post photographs as well as words here in the not entirely distant future.

The poetry on Find me a Bluebird is beautiful too.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Mark Thornton and selling to indies

Mark Thornton's seminar at the Society of Authors today was inspirational. His fundamental message to writers who want to persuade independent bookshops to stock their books was to think like a bookseller (not like a writer trying to persuade a bookseller to stock her book). And as soon as you start to think like that you begin to think how you would like to be approached, what you would like to know about the book you're being sold and why your bookshop is likely to be able to sell it. Brilliant, and so simple. And, of course, he filled our minds with hundreds of ideas and suggestions, which I shan't give away because they are his not mine. But he runs a one-day course on the subject, called Shelf Secrets, at Mostly Books in Abingdon (click on courses). Today that link doesn't list future courses, but in the handout Mark gave us today there were two dates: one on 19 August and one on 2 September. You can ring to reserve your place on 01235 525880. I have. Thank you, Mark.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Arvon Foundation and Mostly Books

One hundred years ago I went to Totleigh Barton on my first Arvon course. It was run by two writers, only one of whose names can I remember - David Benedictus (who was famous at the time for his first novel, The Fourth of June). But the thing about Arvon and the writers who teach on their courses is that they're inspirational. I wrote a scrap about the way a conversation about colours affects a blind woman. I can barely remember a thing about it now, except that David Benedictus thought it good and encouraged me. When you're just beginning to make marks on paper and you're feeling horrendously self-conscious about them, the smallest piece of encouragement works like a wellspring for years. Arvon's tutors have dug wellsprings for me since then and on the days when writing is proving more difficult than carving my initials in granite, I let the bucket down into one of those wells and drink.

And Mostly Books escaped the floods. Hurrah!

Monday, 23 July 2007

Selling a first novel, and writing

I've been thinking about Mostly Books ever since I typed 'sell my novel' into Google (it came up with 15,500,000 sites so I don't know now how I happened upon Mostly Books, but I am so glad I did). Because I discovered that Mark Thornton at Mostly Books runs a course which gently explains to writers how (and how not) to persuade a bookseller to stock a book. (I just missed the course he ran at the end of June, but he's coming to talk to the Society of Authors this week on the same subject so I shall be listening extremely carefully.) I sent him a - probably quite ridiculous - email suggesting that he stock SPEAKING of LOVE to which he, quite rightly, has never replied. I'm sure I made every mistake in the book(shop), so I'm looking forward to finding out what he suggests. (And, yes, just because a book is published - in my case by the wonderful indie publisher Beautiful Books - it doesn't mean that the writer can hand over responsibility for sales of her book. There's lots she can do.)

Anyway, today I'm thinking about Mostly Books because of the floods. The bookshop is in Abingdon and the waters are rising. According to Mostly Books's blog they're moving books from the lower shelves, so keep your fingers crossed for them.

And yes, I did write today. And I didn't start this blog until I had written. Hurrah! It was JB Priestley, I think, who when asked what he liked about writing, said, 'Having written.' He's right. It's a wonderful feeling, as long as you remain reasonably confident that what you've written is not one hundred miles in the opposite direction from the one you intended to write in; or at least that it remains so until the next time you pick up your pen/turn on your computer. I feel, though, a little as if I'm cheating because I am writing a short story which, until January, I had thought was a novel. But when I realised, as William Trevor said, that I had the 'art of the glimpse' in my hands and not the whole shebang I stopped writing the what-was-a-novel and, recently, I began turning it into the short story that it really is. This means I know what to leave out and the struggle of finding my material is (more or less) over.

I should be thankful. I know I should.