I'm covered in flour - it would take too long to explain...

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Art degrees are never wasted...

but they may be about to become a whole lot harder to get. I'm not sure if you've noticed, but the government has decided to exclude Art, Music and Drama from the new e-bac examination system due to replace A-levels. When questioned on the radio this morning, the minister in charge seemed to have one main thrust behind his reasoning - well, you've got to draw the line somewhere.


Why on earth is it not possible to run 7 e-bac's rather than 6, seeing as we're talking about subjects that are already being taught at A level standard nationwide.

This is just another way of making sure that the arts world is the preserve of upper/middle class kids who's parents have the time and money to nurture their talents. It can't even  be argued to make sense from an economic point of view, the arts industry in the country is a massive part of our GDP - and you can call it an industry as it's employs hundreds of thousands of people and generated more money for the economy that the car industry and helps generate income for the service industries more than almost any other part of our economy. This is not about turning children into Shakespearean love-ies starving in garrets, but about showing kids that they can bring aesthetic flare and creativity to all aspects of their lives.

Yes - the talented ones will get through anyway, that's not the point. The point is that art, drama and music teach kids to dream, to explore, to push the boundaries and to strive for more just as much if not more than other subjects; it builds confidence and self awareness like nothing else and it feeds you for a whole life time in ways you'll never even have dreamed of at the time.

To remove them from the 17-18 year old curriculum is a crime, and saying you can take extra GCSE's to compensate is an insult. The coalition government have come up with this scheme and it's not good just voting against them because the labor party are unlikely to do anything about it once it's in place.

If you feel like me, support the campaign here. Remember, it's going to directly affect the lives of regular kids, like mine and yours, like we were at school - who says that social exclusion is not alive and well and is the hidden heart of government policy.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Do you do it first, or while you're on the go?

Ian M Banks calls it the 'R word' and says his wife knows not to go near when he's stuck in the middle of it.
Hilary Mantel does a huge amount of it first.
Patricia Highsmith writes the book first and then goes back and finds out what she needs to know to make the book as close to reality as she can, though as ever realty is a relative term.

I'm probably with her when it comes to research, not that I would dare to disagree with the great Mantel on anything, but simply because my life is not that organized. If I had published several novels and were working on the third part of a trilogy, then I like to think I'd be doing the same as her, but I know I probably still wouldn't.

Right now I am working on my book set in 1940's Paris, and I've written about 75,000 words with the key scenes mapped out, and have spent all day worrying about Geography. I don't have the budget to actually go there and take a look around, so I've been using google earth and worrying about the balance between fact and fiction. I'm always painfully aware that my life experience is more cerebral than physical, in some senses, in that I have thought more widely than I have gone, but I want to create a world which has the illusion of reality. I've found this beautiful cinema in Paris, another of the city's hidden gems, and I want to base the theater in my book around it.

I find it, I love it, then I go through the usual thought processes. People who know it will know that it's not a cabaret theater, will that ruin their enjoyment of the book? How closely do I go into the why and wherefores, how close can I go before I am rumbled? I start trying to find who might own the shops either side of it, if they might have been similar in 1940, can I down load a floor plan and if I were to walk from there to a house on the other side of the Seine, how long would it take me, especially if I were a wounded American airman following a show girl home.
Then, I have to make myself stop and remember the advice given me by one of the lecturers at the writers Festival - "There will always be holes in your plot, the key is to make it so that the reader doesn't see them.'
 I also remind myself of string theory, which is that of the mulitverse -  that there are an infinite number of universes all co-existing and not existing at once, and at every single moment we travel between them unaware that we've moved from one to the other. This means that all eventualities are possible, it's just that we're only ever aware of one - but it's quite easy then to believe that in an alternate universe only a few clicks from ours, La Pagode in the Rue Babylone really was a cabaret theater, and that the star of it was an English woman who'd adopted French nationality and false papers and married the director of music to hide both her sexuality and her identity - which stops me from spending an hour trying to download the floor plan of the cafe next door. This is the main problem with research - there are times when it becomes distraction and gets in the way of the writing.

My advice?

1) Write about what you know, but don't under estimate what you do know.
2) Use google earth - sometimes just seeing the place will give you more information than you can get from an hours reading.
3) Remember this is not and exam but a theatrical production, if your characters are strong then they can work against the simplest of backgrounds, so try and stage crucial scenes with minimal description - three brush strokes can allow the reader to create the image in their mind easier than whole oil painting.
4) Remember the elephant - six blind men all asked to describe an elephant will give you six different answers, make your book true to it's self and the reader will believe your elephant.

That's all for now, except to say that I will be starting my 'Self editing' course on Monday 24th, with the wonderful Debbie Alper and Emma Darwin, and will be keeping a blog of how that goes.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The things that scared me...

Odd things frighten me. I’m not scared by the prospect of standing on a stage and removing my clothes in time to music, neither am I scared of standing on a street corner painted blue with an eight inch Perspex unicorn horn glued to my head, both things life has called upon me to do. Why not? We all have bodies, we can all be blue, these things are not unique, they are not mine alone to own; they are common.
            What does scare me, what has my heart beating at the cage of my ribs like a trapped canary, is the thought of sitting at a desk with a person who’s read my work and is going to talk to me about it. Not just talk about it; judge it, analyze it, shoot it down in flames or make it soar again with their appreciation of it and I am terrified.
            I create my physical persona to draw attention in the way the class clown makes himself an object of fun before the world decides to do it for him. Like all exhibitionists, I am a whirling morass of insecurity, paranoia and fear inside a gleaming, glittering carapace that screams ‘look at me, no, look at me!’ in the hope that ‘they’ won’t see me at all past all the glitter. Walking toward the table where the agent sat, the sample of my work in the stack under her hand and a warm, welcoming smile on her face, I felt each painful, sugar bright layer of artifice I’d constructed drop away, until I sit in front of her naked as I’ve ever been.
            ‘I like you’re hair,’ she says. ‘I’d love that colour but it just wouldn’t suit me, I haven’t got the right colouring.’
            Is this a ploy, I think? Yes, this must be a ploy, she’s softening me up – never mind chick – your book’s shit but your hair looks fierce.
            ‘Thanks,’ I say, trying to be all girls together, as if the camaraderie of the ladies room might save me. ‘I’m basically translucent, so, you know, fair and freckles and all, my Dad was a red- head–’ Shut up, I’m begging internally, shut up! She’s not here to talk about your hair dye; she doesn’t want to borrow your lipstick, shut up!
            ‘It’s a bit like speed dating this, isn’t it?’ she says, riffling through the papers at her side. I see them at once; I see my word babies blinking out from the bottom of the heap as if they looked to me for comfort.
It’s all right, children, mummy’s here, I want to scream, let me take you away from this nasty woman and her evil intentions. I love you, no matter what!
‘But there’s no wine,’ I say and sound as if I’m insinuating she’s drunk it all. ‘I mean, there would be wine, if this was a date, maybe we should ask for some…’ It’s not a date, oh god, does she think I want a date? Does she think I find her attractive? Do I find her attractive?
‘Yes,’ she says, ‘we should ask for some, it is a writers thing after all.’ Does she find me attractive? I’ve not been in the real world for so long I can’t remember how grown-up’s do this!
‘So,’ she puts her hand on my manuscript. ‘This one, yes, I really loved it.’
The sweat my back freezes. The roaring noise in my ears and the dry, painful yank of my heart misses its spot. What?
‘Yes, I read it again on the train, I just wanted to – the breakfast scene, I was there, I was sitting at the table and the family, I had them in my head at once. Oh, and I loved the girls together, how they were, the tension in the little detail, it’s great.’
‘So, what’s your idea for it?’

Silence. A void rips through the room; my feet rush away from me and I’m spinning into it. Pitch? Pitch! To fall, to drop, to tip headlong into disaster; pitch!
‘Yes…’ the last fragment of my self-preservation kicks me in the ass. ‘It’s Tipping the Velvet meets Charlotte Gray, it explores repression and how we create persona to hide from society’s censure, be that of ones sexual or national identity, what we do to survive, what we’ll give up and what we cannot. It’s about how when we escape, we become exposed, which is both frightening and liberating, and the cage we left can seem so comforting we seek to build another.’
‘Right,’ she said. ‘Gosh.’

That’s what I think I said; to be honest, I can’t remember. Whatever I did say, she wants to read it when it’s ready and as I shook her hand and said goodbye, I was dressed again; if it’s in the Emperors new clothes or not, remains to be seen.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

2 Line pitch

Ok- York is getting ever closer and I need to have my elevator pitch brushed up and ready. I have a one to one session booked with two agents, one for 'At Night, All Cat's Are Grey,' and one with 'And So We Left For Paris.'

The first is finished, the second is very much not finished but I've written what I've written so far in a very different voice than I've tried before, and I've been getting some very positive feedback on it, so I'm keen to see what a professional thinks - is it really original and exiting, or over worked and too stylized? Un-like other things I've done, it's oddly draining to write (oh, us poor artists!) so I want to make sure I'm not massively off key with it even though it's an early stage.

So - the pitch. How would one sell All Cats?? I've tried things like 'it's Lady Chatterly with the Russian Mafia in New York,' but that seems a bit of a wide conglomerate of words. So possibly -
It's a contemporary romantic thriller (that's the genre down, I think) set in New York (that's the location) about a Russian ex-con who falls in love with an artist but is forced to save her from a psychotic gangster who blames him for a murder he didn't commit. Hmmm - too pedestrian?

It's a romantic thriller set in New York, about a British artist who finds her creativity reborn when she falls in love with a Russian ex-con. She has to deal with the social 'fall out' of her choice - only for her and her child become the target of a psychotic gangster seeking revenge.


And as for 'And so we left for Paris' - well -

'It's a historical romance about an aristocrat turned show girl and a seamstress, who run away to Paris in 1939 seeking sexual freedom, but betray each other as war breaks out. One flees to New York with a man, while the other remains to dance in Paris with an assumed identity only for the same man who stole her lover to reappear and beg for her help when he's shot down over France.'

Gosh - it's like squeezing the proverbial pint into a teaspoon!

Friday, 31 August 2012

He marched them up to the top of the hill....

I'm off to York the weekend after next. Not to re-visit the fudge shop or the Yorvik Viking center I remember fondly from a child hood holiday  on the Leeds-Liverpool canal, but to go to the writers festival organized by the writers workshop.
             I get to have a one to one session with a book doctor, and also an agent; and as I booked early a second one to one with another agent about another book. Of course, I am not expecting to be signed up in a blaze of glory, but it's invaluable to get to find out in person why they're rejecting me yet again - not for some masochistic pleasure but because hopefully, they'll give me an idea about what I might need to work on to get picked up. The best outcome I think I might achieve is a 'not now but get back to me when you've done X' type of response; but we'll see.
           Other than that, I get to attend workshops, a gala dinner and the chance to meet some of my virtual friends from the word cloud in the flesh, and no doubt talk for hours about literary matters.

So, I'll keep you posted......gosh, it's going to be odd being out in the grown-up world talking about grown-up things!

(and not mention that I didn't get short listed for either competition I entered and have been sulking about it for a week......)

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

A good boy really.

 The next competition was to write a flash fiction, less than 1200 words, based on this picture. Not my usual subject matter, then the story written below came to me.

A good boy really.

Our Father, who’s Aunt’s in heaven ...

James always took the short cut home through the graveyard when Mrs Robtham dropped him on the corner after school. Most days he would jump from grave to grave and dare to balance on the big square tomb. But today he was downhearted, trudging along with the shameful mothers day card in his satchel.

… Harold be thy name …

His teacher had impressed upon the whole class that Mother’s Day was the one chance they had to say ‘thank you’ to their mummies for a lifetime of care and love. James believed her with the fervour of the converted and was desperate for his card to be the best, but Sally Peter’s pigtail ruined everything.

…. thy Kingston come …

‘Well James, your mummy’s going to see what a naughty little boy you are when you give her that card. Not a nice way to say thank-you, is it?’ He teacher said as she got out the mop.

…thy will be done on earth as it sits in Heaven …

‘Oh never mind now sweetheart,’ Mrs Robotham trilled as he sat in the back of her musty Morris Traveller with her two sons, tears running down his face. ‘Sure your mammy knows you love her very much, she won’t mind. You say a prayer to the baby Jesus and he’ll show you the way.’ She winked at him. ‘He knows you’re really quite a good little boy at heart.’

…Give us this day our snaily bread…

Mrs Robotham had got them all to sing ‘come by yar’ then. She was in the choir with James’s mummy, and once a man in a black suit had told her she had ‘the makings of a professional singer,’ so she sung an awful lot, even when the occasion didn’t really merit it. James once heard his mummy say that she had the ‘makings of a Shepard’s pie,’ so he often wondered what exactly Mrs Robotham was missing, and hoped that she’d find it soon and shut up.

… so give us our trespasses…

James reached the big square tomb, but he didn’t feel like climbing it. There was a small group of people at the front of the church, so he waited for them to go. One blew his nose on a large white hankie before he got into a car.
After he watched them drive off, James glared down at his bag. The offending sugar paper card, once proudly decorated with yellow tissue pansies, was now mere evidence of his crime. He wasn’t sure why Sally Peter’s pigtails were so tempting, but they were, and he’d succumbed.

…as we give those some trespass against us …

He’d been as surprised as Sally when the safety scissors, so woefully inadequate against paper, sliced right through her pigtail. As it landed at her feet, Sally lashed out, hit the paint pot and blue paint comprehensively destroyed his mother’s day card.

…But deliver us from weevils …

No one had been at all upset about his ruined card, which James thought unfair. After all, the hair would grow back.

…For mining the Kingston…

He’d nearly reached the end of the graveyard, a short hop over the wall and he’d be home. Tears threatened as he thought of how the tell-tale card was going to break his mothers heart and make her think he didn’t love her as much as he did.

… The power and the gory…

Perhaps if he finished the prayer the baby Jesus would hear him and send him a hundred cards from heaven, each more beautiful than the last? Or maybe he’d send a huge box of milk tray chocolates, or a big bottle of perfume, or a vast bunch of flowers? Jesus must understand, he’d been a child too, he can’t have been good every day and he must have loved his mother Mary Meek-and-mild. They always said how nice she was, though James wasn’t clear as to why her surname was Meek-and-mild and not Christ.

… for ever and ever …

He screwed his eyes up and felt his way along the wall of the church. He told himself if he didn’t stumble once, the magic would work. As he uttered the last words of the prayer he opened his eyes, sure that this was the moment, this would be the time when the baby Jesus would finally come through for him.


‘Happy mothers day mummy!’
‘Why thank you James, what beautiful flowers, wherever did you get them … oh.’

Monday, 2 April 2012

The collateral damage

 This is an entry for a competition, which was to write up to 2,000 inspired by the image below.

The collateral damage.

The man on the train can’t know how he’s making you feel, but that doesn’t stop you being afraid. You tell yourself he’s just another passenger; it’s coincidence, but he’s making you uncomfortable. He’s making you uncomfortable by sitting there, by wearing a green t-shirt, by eating and licking his fingers. He does it every time he puts food in his mouth, and it’s starting to annoy you.
            You could move, now the train is emptier, but its very emptiness makes it harder for you to move because your action will be obvious. When you sat down he was one of many, now alone it feels like he’s sitting opposite you. As the other passengers left, you had the illusion he was moving closer, like when the train next to yours pulls out but you feel you’re moving. Now it’s just you and him it seems every time you look up he’s staring at you. You hope this is an illusion too.
            It’s because you’re on edge, it’s because of what happened, it’s nothing to do with him; this is all you. This is what you’ve got to face, not what happened but its legacy. Once you’d have barely given him a second look, weeks ago you’d have read the free paper, written in your notebook or played with your phone, scarcely seeing him. You’d have sauntered from the station, hands in pockets, relaxed, walking without thinking, walking like a boy. You’d have wandered home as twilight gathered behind you like the folds of a cloak, without glancing left or right.

Or behind.

            Now your lover must wait at the station for you. Condemned to a compassionate curfew, you’re only allowed out under licence. You must apply for permission to walk home, transmitting a security code first. Text when you’re at the station, text as you get on the train, text three stops before home.

            ‘I am on the train. I am ok. I am three stops from home.’

            Your lover doesn’t mind waiting at the station. Your lover wants to show he’s on your side, your lover who would do anything in the world to make you feel safe. It’s not that you don’t want him to meet you, to care about you; it’s his guilt you can’t stand. His guilt that he can meet you at the station, but not on the night it happened, never on the night it happened.

            It’s as if your lover watched you catch the wrong train and waved and shouted but it was too late, it took you somewhere he can’t follow.

You know it’s stupid, you’ve said so over and over again; there was nothing he could do, it was just one of those things, but it’s no good. You can see how much your lover has been hurt and sometimes that hurt seems bigger than your own.

            The man on the train watches you send the message. You could have told your lover that there’s a man on the train making you feel uncomfortable, but what good would it do? The train is taking you home; your lover is waiting on the platform waiting and worrying, why make it worse?
            This is what you’ve started to do. You haven’t started to feel confident; you’ve started hiding your anxiety. You’re not sure if it’s you who doesn’t want to make love since it happened, or them. Sometimes you’d really like to make love. You’d like to feel innocent hands on your body and lie in a mess of communal bedclothes and talk and laugh in space you’ve made warm and soft together. But you’re frightened that you’ll make love and you won’t be alone, it won’t be the two of you. All the time you’ll be wondering if he is wondering how you feel, if you’re okay, each simple gesture loaded with a meaning it’s too small to carry. You’re frightened it might be your lover who’s made uncomfortable by touching you.
            So for now, it’s safer to lie on either side of the bed, both of you watching and pretending you aren’t, both of you waiting for the other to find the courage for simple intimacy; the courage to be lovers again.

            One stop to go, the man on the train looks at you. Suddenly you’re angry, not with him; no, you are angry with him, you’re angry with all of them. You’re angry at the police officer that listened sympathetically; angry that you could see the effort he made to be sensitive, angry that the effort needed to be made.  You’re angry at sharing your bed with your lover’s guilt and self-indulgent shame, and furious that you’re angry with him at all. You’re angry at the book of faces you thumbed through, each looking at you with the same dead eyed stare. You’re angry that there was a book, that there needs to be a book; angry that there were pages and pages of dead eyed stares and none of them belonged to the man that made you sit in that busy, bright, impersonal office and look for him.

            You’re angry because as you looked at the faces in the book, you realized you were looking for every one you’ve ever known and wondering what you would do if you saw them there.

            You’re angry because the only time you saw his stare was when you closed your eyes.
You’re angry that he has made everyone guilty.

            You look back at the man on the train. You’re sure your heart will explode from your chest with the audacity of your gaze. You’re sure your skin is burning, singing like a canary. You want to scream ‘look at me then, go on, look at me!’
He doesn’t flinch; he just licks his fingers and smiles at you. You feel hot tears stab the back of your eyes because it is a smile, a smile from a stranger acknowledging your existence. It’s only a smile, though it makes you swell and beat and fear, makes your palms tingle and your feet sweat, because what happened has denied you even the casual intimacy of a smile.


You won’t let it. This is a war you never asked to be part of, but now you are you refuse to be its victim.

You meet the gaze of the man on the train and you smile.

You smile.

The train enters your station, the name on the sign like the winning post sliding into view. You gather up your free paper, your hand is shaking as you hold onto the back of the seat. You press the door release button and read what is written there.

Open doors close.

You read, and you look back at the man on the train. He’s not looking at you; he’s forgotten you already.

Open doors close, even the ones you don’t choose to open.

You step onto the platform and your lover smiles at you, relieved. You embrace, and when your lover moves to let go you don’t let him. You hold onto him and make him hold you, and press your mouth to his as if you needed him to breath, as if he needed you to breath. As if you’re home from the war at last.

            ‘Are you all right?’ he asks as he touches your face, stroking the flush from your skin.
            ‘Yes,’ you kiss him again. ‘I’ll be fine.’

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The report on my book is back!

The report on my book.
At the risk of sounding like I am doing the equivalent of someone tripping over and then trying to pretend they always meant to do that, my first reaction is that the negative points they raise are the ones that had occurred to me also.
Of course, being me I have already re-written the first chapter, and I hope that it addresses some of them, but I don’t want to appear that I am simply saying ‘oh well, I knew that’, far from it; I hope that I am trying to give lots of thought and consideration to their advice.
The report itself is a game of two halves; the first section is by the editor, the second by the agent. I have included my comments/reactions also, for your own amusement!
Of course, you haven’t read the synopsis and the first chapter, but hey, if you want to all you have to do is ask!
Your short and long synopsises were both very clear, and covered all the plot developments which is excellent, but they did lead me to expect a different kind of book.  The agent has discussed this more fully below, but it’s worth really thinking about how you would define your work and whether the writing is working with that definition or against it.
Just a minor point, your spelling, grammar and presentation were all excellent, but in your short synopsis, you have ‘Danko’s was involved’…  I suspect a typo rather than choosing to add a possessive when not needed.
Can I just say at this point, and those of you know me will agree, the fact they only found one type ‘o’ and said my presentation was excellent otherwise, has pretty much made my day!
Your writing is very evocative, and you use language well and descriptively.  Agents and publishers often talk about a ‘voice’, that almost indescribable quality that sets each author apart from another, and you have a strong voice and I’d like to read more. Your use of dialogue is especially convincing, as is your sense of place.
That has to be a good point, pleased with that.
The plot is well constructed with a good blend of past and present events, and a range of different characters and events.  It’s important to end a novel with some resolution, and in your case, not only do Saskia and Danko get to be together, but he re-establishes his relationship with his daughters so there is an extra element.
Good also, it’s probably the first time I’ve managed to get a book to end!
I wasn’t sure about Geoff as a character – why would he be making a pass at Saskia after having left her for another man?  I know people are complex and he could be a bi-sexual but when men come out as gay and move into a committed relationship, they are less likely to come back to their former lives in this way – at least in fiction.
This is the only remark that annoyed me – what does she mean, that something which might happen in real life can’t happen in a book? However, I think that this confusion is down to my synopsis, in my book I have his motivations very clearly defined, so I need to get them across more clearly in the synopsis. Geoff is generally a spoilt brat - fatherhood dissapointed him as it turned out to be all sticky fingers and hetrosexuality - but now he's made a big fuss and decided he's gay and the shine has worn of that new toy and he's not so sure either.
Geoff’s motivation could simply be that he doesn’t want Saskia to start another relationship as this threatens the chance that she will be a surrogate for him and Michael, and he also doesn’t want his daughter around someone he identifies as a dangerous Russian criminal.  The synopsis doesn’t make it clear, but I assume Saskia decides not to have a surrogate baby?  Does she still feel like another child? 
I think she means ‘does she still want another child?’ Again, for me this fault is corrected by looking at the synopsis, because she doesn’t really want a baby, certainly not Geoff’s as soon as she meets Danko.
Re-reading the synopsis it looks as if Geoff threatens Saskia in some persistent way, is he emotionally abusive?  That would explain her low-level depression and sense of confusion about her life generally.  I can imagine him having blamed her for a lot of what went wrong in their marriage before finally coming out as gay.  If she is used to doubting her instincts and second-guessing herself, this will complicate her budding relationship with Danko in an interesting way.
This is exactly what is hinted at throughout the book – there are several references to Geoff controlling what she ate and wore, and mocking her appearance, and now that they’re divorced, he still controls her financially and ‘likes’ it when she asks him for help and money, so I think that I have covered this exactly as she suggests.
How is the novel structured in terms of viewpoints?  Saskia and Danko are your main characters and I would like to hear from both of them, perhaps alternately.  Looking at how the plot develops, there shouldn’t be a problem just writing from their perspectives, and that would keep it close to the reader.
Again, exactly what I do – the book moves between his and her viewpoint as the story dictates, so that the reader has greater insight into the situation than either character. There is only one moment when the POV moves away from them, which works for me as it forms the basis of an eye witness account which eventually allows him to prove self defense.
By giving us the entire back story to Danko’s life in the first chapter, you remove a lot of the suspense for the reader as to why and how he has become the person he is. 
The only issue I have here is that I don’t give the whole back story of his life, it’s only two, but the issue here I think is that I have over complicated it – and not made it clear that there is a greater threat coming for him. This seems to be the main problem with the first chapter, and what I think I’ve been working to put right since. I have clearly made them think this is what I have done, so that needs to be addressed.
Although you don’t fall into the trap of telling not showing, which is very common amongst authors, you start with a very information packed chapter that answers a lot of questions you’ve not yet had a chance to let your reader ask.
This is now from the agent –
From an agent’s perspective, this project needs a clearer identity. From the synopsis and character list, as well as the list of comparable works, I thought it would be either along the lines of a crime thriller/suspense novel or an upmarket mainstream novel, both of which are covered by a wide selection of imprints at publishers large and small. Female crime writers are particularly sought after in the editorial marketplace at the moment, so this would potentially be an intriguing prospect for agents and publishers.
However, the writing in the sample chapter, with its emphasis on memory and the frequent flashbacks, is quite literary. If you examine it in terms of the action that takes place in the 2,700 words of this sample, very little actually happens in the present day: a man fobs off a junkie on the subway to protect a woman, exits the subway and arrives in a cemetery to visit his dead lover’s grave. This doesn’t suggest to me that the book is a mainstream novel or a thriller, both of which tend to feature a strong narrative drive, at least in the opening scenes; rather, it immediately positions the book at the literary end of the spectrum. This means a smaller potential market, but also a more competitive one as the readers of literary novels (and the editors who commission them, even at small publishers) are extremely discerning.
I can see what she is saying here – and I have to agree with her – I do take some small pleasure that she thinks the idea is sound, and that the writing is good, but I would also agree that the chapter she read was not right for the genre as it stands – she’s the expert after all!
At the moment—bearing in mind of course that the project may still be in its infancy—I don’t feel the sample material quite reaches the required editorial standard for a literary novel. It’s all rather frenetic and disorienting considering how little present-tense action takes place, flipping between Danko’s childhood, two stages of his adolescence, the time of his hearing of Irena’s death seven years before the present day and the present day itself plus introducing his mother, his lover, his wife and his uncle. I wonder whether perhaps you’re just trying to fit in too much backstory too soon in the novel. Particularly if you are thinking of this as more of a mainstream novel rather than a literary one, I think it might be a worthwhile exercise to write these passages of Danko’s history in longer sections and then weave them together instead of these very brief snippets.
Ironically, these snippets that she talks about were boiled down from longer sections, maybe I’m getting too ‘cut happy!’ – Again, I have been working on this and how they are presented in this section – but it’s all food for thought.I have since cut out references to his wife, cut down the length of each flashback and have given each a present day trigger to more clearly explain why he has a flash back. I have also added in more present day thoughts and events, and more references to the threat which is coming for him now.
That said, I do feel you have writing talent and I wanted to continue reading. Your setting and character sketches are compelling (though when one thinks about multiplying that many flashbacks by that number of characters by perhaps 40 or more chapters, the book starts seeming a little daunting).
Well, can’t moan about that line can I! Though I don’t know why she would think I would have flash backs for all the characters, I don’t, I only have them for Danko and Saskia when they are essential to show where their motivation comes from. But I guess this really is her saying yes to what I have done, and warning me not to try and do this for every character in the book, which is a good point.
I would encourage you to pursue this project, but to be clear in your mind what you want to be writing. If it is a thriller or suspense novel, what are readers waiting to find out at the end, what happens in the first chapter to make them desperate to keep reading, and where are the thrills? If it is a mainstream novel, I would advise a slightly less convoluted narrative style in order to help hook the reader’s attention and make him or her care about the relationships in the novel. If it is a literary novel, I’d advise further work on your structure and technique and further thinking about how best to integrate these with your themes.
I can get with this – and what I take from it is that the chapter they have read doesn’t have enough of the present day threat in it – and I would agree, and with my re-write I have tried to get a much greater sense of that into it. I don’t think either of them are saying ‘don’t set this chapter in a grave yard with flash backs’ I take from this that they are saying ‘ use the flash back to show us why he is in the grave yard, and what he fears, and a rising sense of threat - show us the threat in the present day more being key.
I think the book and you as a writer could have potential in any of these areas. Where you decide you want to take it from here is up to you.
Well, that’s nice to hear – I think I’ve got to take that as a positive that she feels I have the ability to make this work in any genre, but I need to get the focus right – that’s a question of time rather than something unobtainable.
The last section is written by the editor.
In summary, you’ve written well and you have a strong story to tell.  Currently it’s straddling genres which will mean it falls between the cracks when submitting, and that would be a shame.
It’s harder to place literary novels so I would suggest you consider mainstream or crime as the directions to go in. Don’t be misled into thinking that a mainstream or crime novel can’t have depth of character, or emotional development.  Both those genres would give you a lot of potential for writing the sort of novel you are clearly capable of.
Once you’ve decided conclusively on your genre, make sure all your characters’ motivations are clear in your mind, and they therefore take the plot forward plausibly within the parameters of how you want it to progress.
In terms of working on your style, as the agent has mentioned, beware of cramming in too many flashbacks and forwards, and try to stay longer in the present.  If you do want to concentrate further on the characters’ pasts, then consider allowing full space to do so – you may find that actually it’s their pasts and then their collision in the future that interest you more than a murder and threatened kidnap plot.
Thank you for giving us the chance to read your work, and we wish you luck with your future writing projects.
(The last line is what they’re all taught to say in agent school!!!)
So, I am cheered by that, even though there are issues to address, I feel that they feel I am able to get there with the skills they have seen on display. As I didn’t really expect them to crown me as the next literary genius, I feel that I have done as well as can be expected; and as they have flagged up all the elements that I also felt needed work, I hope that I can learn to trust my judgment and get it right.

Friday, 2 March 2012

To bee or not to bee

The husband of my midwife friend works for pest control. His work mate keeps bees as a hobby, and gets a regular supply as they are not allowed to kill bees, so when ever they are called to a honey bee infestation he collects them up and takes them to his apiary. 

Last week the two of them got a call out to a large warehouse with a bee problem, so they donned their bee suits and went over. When I say bee suits, they weren’t in black and yellow stripes gear by the way; just the white all-in-ones and hats, thought it would have been funnier if they went in costume.

However, leaving that aside, they collected a huge swam and the beekeeper filled up his bee box almost to bursting with sleepy bees. He drove off in his car, with my friend’s husband following behind in his. Both men were still wearing their white bee suits, but both removed their bee hats and slung them casually on their passenger seats.

As they got up to speed on the motorway, the beekeeper’s car hit a minor bump, jolting the bee box in the back. The lid of the bee box, improperly fastened in haste, flew open and gradually more and more bees began seeping from the box. The bee-keeper, now travelling at 60 mph, was suddenly aware that he had passengers in the back, and saw at once his only option was to quickly put on his bee keeper hat and mask.

My friend’s husband glanced over and saw the beekeeper now travelling at 60 mph, wearing a full facemask, with a huge swarm of bees loose in his car. They moved off the motorway in convoy, my friend’s husband watching with delight as all the other motorists and, when the beekeeper pulled up opposite a bus stop, a huge crowd of people realized that there was a man taking his swarm for a nice drive in the country.

We were speculating as to what would happen if he had been pulled over by the police  - can you be done for threatening and officer of the law with some bees?

‘Can you wind down the window please sir?’
‘Really … you’re sure about that?’

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Stupidly happy!

I have won a competition! I don't think I have come first in anything since I won a watch through the unicorn theater when I was nine. I had to draw a picture of when Asterix the Gaul met a unicorn, and trust me, back then a digital watch was a pretty big deal, this was when a sony walkman cost the equivalent of £300.

Anyway, I think I am just as amazingly pleased now to have won a prize thanks to my pal Rachael (mother of Ruben, which I write like this as it sounds so wonderfully Old Testament) who saw it advertised on Mumsnet. To level with you, I was not totally clear what the prize was, but the challenge was to write a 150 word pitch for an unpublished novel, and the winning pitch was going to be chosen by two editors at Bloomsbury, so frankly had the prize been to make their tea I would have done it!

So - here is my, and oh how I love saying this - winning pitch -

Grigory Dankovich and his family escape Soviet Russia in 1968. After an early marriage and life as a boxer, he is drawn into the underworld. Gradually sickened by what he has become, he tries to escape but instead looses his family and goes to prison for a murder he doesn’t commit, to save a naive boy.
Twenty-six years later British artist Saskia Cooper comes to New York and scratches a living as an interior artist. Marriage, motherhood and a divorce later, she feels her life has run aground, until she meets ‘Danko’ when she’s commissioned to paint murals in a strip club. They embark on a passionate affair, which offers him a second chance at a family life and sets her creativity free at last. Her jealous ex-husband and a misguided but vengeful gangster from Danko’s past threaten their future together. To save her, must he loose her forever?

And here's the most joyful email I have read this week - 

Congratulations! You are the First Prize winner of our competition held in collaboration with Mumsnet. Your entry was chosen from 120 entries and was judged by Helen Garnons-Williams- Commissioning Editor at Bloomsbury Publishing, Ele Fountain-Senior Commissioning Editor at Bloomsbury Publishing and Alysoun Owen-Editor of Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook.

We will be featuring your winning book idea and the editors’ comments on our website from tomorrow, but in advance, here is the review written for your entry:

This pithy, fast-paced description hints at a story full of thrills, intrigue and passion. It has all the ingredients for a rollercoaster of a ride through the murkier parts of the protagonists’ pasts and presents. I defy you not to be caught up by the drama that has been so concisely but dramatically evoked. Will Danko and Saskia get to live happily ever after?

As First Prize winner, we are also pleased to offer you a free How Strong is Your Book Idea? review (RRP £119.99) from an established Editor and top Literary Agent. I will send a further email tomorrow with details on claiming your prize. In the meantime, here is a link for further information on the How Strong is Your Book Idea? review service.

I will of course keep you all posted and for now, continue to dance round my front room in the sort of happy bubble unencumbered by a digital watch! 

(Thanks to Marcus for my photo btw, probably not book jacket material but hey, you never know! And also thanks to Gary at Bubblecow who's e-course on pitch writing has clearly been worth it.)

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Scribbler: So, how's the research going then?

Scribbler: So, how's the research going then?: (Or - haven't you finished that book yet?) If you do keep an eye on my scribbling, you may remember that I had a big sulk at the start of...

So, how's the research going then?

(Or - haven't you finished that book yet?)

If you do keep an eye on my scribbling, you may remember that I had a big sulk at the start of the year about needing research for my book, ‘At night all cats are grey.’ This was mostly the product of soul shattering self-doubt that inflicts us all from time to time, and me once a week, but it’s never a bad thing.
            So, I hit the internet and the library  and netted a few books on a variety of subjects related to the environment in which my book is set – namely New York gang culture, the seventies art and ,music scene and the Russian Mafia. I have to confess my reading list from the libruary caused a few raised eyebrows – Alpha city tales from the heroine infested slums of New York, next to a book on chocolate wedding cakes (although the later is not for my novel as such.)
            Having never really done research about anything, or rather, having never researched for a book before, I wasn’t sure how to start – but the process seemed to break down into a few remarkably easy to follow stages.

1)     Read the first few pages of everything. Mood swings from pleasure at finding exactly what you feel you need, and desperation that there is no way you will ever be able to convince in this genre, what the hell were you ever thinking, you don’t know this world and you must look like a tight tit for even trying.
2)     Sulk.
3)     Refuse to give in to sulk, and read some more. Start under lining things in the books you actually own, stick paper tags into the library books. This at least feels like you are doing something, like when you did ‘A’ levels.
4)     Find something, which really climes with your book, which you thought you’d made up, but is apparently exactly how it was – feel elated and a little spooked – because it’s so exactly like you’ve written it must be a sign from some collective unconsciousness your tapping into.
5)     Write five chapters in a hurry retelling the events described in the research material as if you’d thought of them.
6)     Feel smug: feel sure you’re talking like a native.
7)     Read them back. Hate them, feel you sound like a tit.
8)     Edit the five chapters ruthlessly until only one line remains.
9)     Realize that line is crucial, that it gives that elusive hint of reality without over powering your narrative, and that you would never have written it without the five preceding chapters of stuff now languishing in the bin.
10)  Return the books to the library, three of them un-read – and wait until the next cycle of self-doubt sends you back there to check them out again.

And I presume I should add ‘and repeat’ after that lot.

I can say that, after research, my book is shorter but better and I know what happened to all the characters and why, but the reader doesn’t need to. It is very tempting to write footnotes along side every subtle detail – (the reason why character a is wearing a Thai silk shirt is that the Crime boss smuggles conflict diamonds from Africa to Thailand where they are used to buy heroin, which is then brought to America inside consignments of TV’s) but in fact, this is not what the book is about, it’s the foundation the research has allowed me to build the novel on. As it’s not actually about heroin dealing at all, it’s only important to me that I’ve worked it out. Oh, and the character likes the feeling of silk on his skin, but to work that out took a whole lot of other research….

Friday, 20 January 2012

Deadlier than the male....

            ‘Mathew – hello?’ Mr Peters answered his door, peering at me from inside his cardigan. ‘If this is about the bins son, it’s not really a good time-’
            ‘Quickly!’ I demanded. He relinquished the door handle and I was in his hall before his letterbox stopped rattling. ‘Hush.’ I put a commanding finger too my lips, peered outside and closed the door firmly behind me. I leant against its frosted glass panel and inhaled deeply.
            Mr Peters blinked owlishly. ‘Are you alright?’ he asked. ‘Whatever’s the matter – it’s not the Mormons again is it?’ I heard concern in his voice and that he hadn’t put his teeth in.
            ‘Mr Peters,’ I fixed him with my gaze and said sternly. ‘I’ve seen the way you look at Sandra.’
            ‘What?’ Mr Peters face quivered, his jowls flushed crimson then went ashen. ‘Whatever do you mean Mathew?’
            ‘Quiet!’ I flared my nostrils, ‘that’s how it starts.’
            Mr Peters steadied himself, his meat pie hand griping the flock wallpaper.             ‘Mathew, I don’t know what you mean, really I don’t – but you can’t just come in here and -’ he squirmed under my gimlet stare, ‘you can’t possibly imagine that I’d-’
            ‘Oh I don’t.’ I said, flaring my nostrils. ‘That’s just it, Mr Peters I don’t imagine - I know.’ I hissed. Stepping forward I asked more calmly. ‘Would you like to sit down?’
            ‘Sit down - shall we?’ I took hold of his elbow and gestured toward his sitting room with my free hand.
            ‘Mathew, I really don’t think that I…’
            ‘Trust me Sebastian – may I call you Sebastian?’
            ‘My names’ Wilfred.’ He said.
            ‘There’s no time for details Sebastian – you need to hear this.’
            ‘Look, what ever this is there’s been a mistake -’
            ‘It’s for your own good man – believe me,’ I propelled him down the hall, pausing only to run a finger along the top of the sitting room door.
            ‘Bugs,’ I raised an eyebrow at him, ‘you never know.’

            Mr Peter’s sitting room was the same shape as mine but had been spared the merciless spotlight of Sandra’s decorators eye. It had been allowed to moulder, eschewing zeitgeist for brown floral comfort.
            ‘I won’t beat about the bush,’ I said, my hand on the red brick mantelpiece. ‘I’m not here out of misplaced jealousy.’
            ‘Now look Mathew,’ Mr Peters sank into his vinyl armchair like a portion of trifle on too small a plate. ‘I … I know I came round about the recycling last week and accidentally – accidentally mind - caught Sandra in her bath robe but believe you me, no one regrets that more than I do and-’ I let out a slightly hysterical laugh and pressed my knuckle to my teeth. Mr Peters gawped; chewed over a selection of words and settled on, ‘look lad - if you and Sandra are having problems, it’s – it’s just one of them things. No need to … you know, get all unnecessary about it?’
            ‘It’s not me that has the problem,’ I said and turned on my heel to face him. ‘This is just the start, believe me, I’ve seen it before.’ I threw myself onto the sofa and sat, elbows on knees and head in hands, fingers matted into my hair. The orange glass mantle clock bravely attempted to fill the silence until I raised my head.
            ‘Sex, Sebastian.’
             ‘Good God son,’ he choked, ‘whatever this is please, I … I really don’t think I’m the person you should be talking to.’
            ‘Don’t you see Sebastian- ’
            ‘Exactly Sebastian – it’s her, she’s insatiable man, insatiable!’
            ‘Oh crumbs!’ Mr Peters swallowed. I hugged myself and rocked backwards and forwards.
            ‘You don’t understand – one man is never enough for her, never!’ I fought back a sob. ‘It’s alright when you’re young, you know, when you first meet her – it’s great even.’
            ‘You are young son …’ Mr Peters lent forward. ‘You’re not forty yet are you?’
            ‘You’re joking?’ I laughed and scratched my head furiously for an instant. ‘I’m twenty-three – twenty-three.  That’s what she does to a man – she leaves a husk, a hollow, empty shell – I’ve seen it before,’ I darted toward him – he yelped as I clasped his hand. ‘You’re not the first,’ I whispered.
            ‘The first what?’
            I nearly let my tears break through, then tore away and went back to the mantle. I cleared my throat and smoothed my hair, looking at my reflection in the sunray mirror on the wall.
‘You’re a man of the world, Mr Peters, may I speak plainly?’
            ‘I thought you were?’ he rasped.
            ‘Indeed,’ I turned to face him. ‘You must forgive my outburst. It can be hard sometimes.’
            ‘I’m sure it can,’ he nodded. His chins agreed with him.
            ‘It’s you I’m worried about. You’ve seen the robe, that’s how it starts - but there might still be a chance for you.’
            ‘A chance?’ He pushed himself up against his seat. ‘Mathew – I had no idea, what - why is she like this?’ I crouched beside him, not meeting his gaze.
            ‘Sometimes,’ I breathed.
‘I don’t think she’s quite human.’ I whispered.
            ‘Good grief – does the council know?’ He put his hand on my arm. ‘They know me, I’m always on at them about the rubbish and they’re really quiet helpful – should I give them a ring for you?’
            I cut him off. ‘Do you remember Janet and Geoff?’
            ‘What - from on the end?’ His fleshy mouth quivered at me.
            ‘Yes, Janet and Geoff from on the end.’
            ‘Wasn’t it heart failure?’
            ‘That’s just what she wanted him to say.’ Mr Peters smothered a gasp.
            ‘No! Mildred and I were wondering - it was so unexpected.’
            ‘Yes – and Rodger Davies from number six.’
            ‘What about Rodger Davies from number six?’ I stood and faced his mirror again. I heard him wheeze up behind me. ‘Not him as well?’
            ‘I’m afraid so.’ I adjusted my tie. ‘He’ll tell you it was just a routine hip replacement, but ask yourself - would a man who drives to the corner shop wear out two hip joints before he’s sixty five?’ I allowed myself a knowing chuckle.
            ‘Goodness me.’ I could see Mr Peters shaking his head. ‘I always wondered why a single man needed three bottle bins.’
            I turned to him and held out my hand.
            ‘I’m glad we’ve had this talk.’ I said, with my face full of Dunkirk spirit. ‘It helps me get through the dark times knowing … knowing I’ve saved someone.’
            ‘But am I safe - what should I do?’ He said clasping my hand and letting me pump his arm. I narrowed my eyes again and held his hand a moment longer.
            ‘Don’t let her in - don’t talk to her - don’t look her in the eye. All it takes is for one word, one smile and you’re lost.’
            ‘Right, okay.’
            ‘And warn the others. If she can’t have you then … just warn the others.’
            ‘What others?’ He looked up eagerly.
            ‘Everyone,’ I intoned, ‘everyone you know.’
            ‘All right, well - I will.’ Mr Peters nodded furiously.
            ‘I’ll leave you now,’ I said as if my warhorse waited. He walked me to the door, still shaking his head. At threshold I turned back.
‘She must never know we’ve spoken about this – never.’
‘Of course – shouldn’t you try and get some help my boy?’ I closed my eyes briefly as I shook my head.
            ‘You’ve helped me more than you can ever know, Mr Peters.’ I clapped him on the shoulder fondly.
            ‘You know me,’ he smiled, ‘ like to do me bit!’ He started to close the door but I caught hold of it.
 ‘One more thing.’
            ‘Yes?’ He flinched. I raised my eyebrow.
            ‘You’ve never heard of - the hive.’
            ‘What hive?’ He asked.
            ‘Exactly - good man.’
            He gave me a supportive ‘thumbs up’ and I let him close the door at last. I saw his shadow linger in the hall; then he padded away. I stood for a moment and surveyed the close from his front porch. The day was bright, the afternoon ripe with the promise of a six o’clock Chardonnay and vengeance.

            Try to break the routine,’ the marriage councillor had said from under her earnest hairstyle, ‘perhaps try bringing an element of fantasy into the bedroom – try and rediscover a sense of humour about sex; stop it being just a chore or a duty – that can really help couples re-discover the spark they feel is missing. ’
            ‘Humph,’ Sandra had snorted, ‘he doesn’t have a sense of humour about anything, least of all sex!’

I surveyed the houses opposite ours, and watched Rodger Davies pull up and get slowly out of his BMW. I breathed in deeply.
‘There we go Sandra,’ I said as Rodger inched painfully past his azaleas, ‘how d’you like them apples. We’ll see who’s got a sense of humour about sex now, won’t we?’

Monday, 16 January 2012

Sometimes the universe provides...

After my earlier post about the research idea that has tickled my fancy - though that is a terribly frivolous term seeing what I am researching - but as ever the world is showing me the way - this pod cast about the famine in Ukraine and the west's denial of it was broadcast recently and hits the nail on the head! It also brings in Alistair Crowley and all sorts - sex and drugs and holocaust denial!

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Becoming self aware

Okay…breath. Breathe out, breath in – that’s it. Oh yes, I need this; I need me time. I’ve been really looking forward to this all day, really I have. Clearing my mind, calming down all those negative thoughts, letting my nagging inner voice just fade into the back ground. That’s it, fading away, hush now nagging voice, hush…hush…hush
            I should have worn big pants; this thong has gone right up my crack.
            Shh for god’s sake, just let all those concerns drift away like…like…
            Ouch, crap, that’s really hurting. Even squirming hasn’t sorted it out – bugger bugger bugger. Okay, no one can see, they’ve all got their eyes shut – just stick your hand down your trousers and hook it out before it cuts you in half.
            But what if the woman behind me sees?
            No, everyone had got their eyes shut, she won’t see.
            Oh crap, I haven’t got my eyes closed, what if she hasn’t either? She always looks so bloody perfect anyway; I bet she’s got organic whole-wheat pants with ethically sourced bleedin’ elastic. Bet they aren’t up her bum.
            Okay – right – she’s a class swot, so she’s got her eyes shut for England. Rock forward, slowly onto the right hand…transfer weight…right hand down tracksuit…wiggle…wiggle. Damn I can’t get it, gonna have to look round and…
            Bollocks – she’s looking, she’s seen me! Knuckle deep in my backside as well!
            Face front, breath - breath – pretend like it was nothing, pretend like it was the downward facing dog or some shit!
            Never mind, never mind – find your centre, breath…breath.
            Why do all yoga positions sound like sex positions? Oh god I’m horny, single and horny and stuck in a yoga class I only did because I thought that bloke from human resources was going to be here.
            No, that’s not true – you’re doing this as part of your promise to yourself to get fitter and healthier – to give yourself some me time.

No, you’re doing this because you’re too much of a coward to do real sport and this seemed like a less scary option than actually sweating. Like when you ate a two finger kit Kat because that’s better than eating a four finger kit Kat, until you ate the second two finger kit Kat later when you thought no on was looking.
            Shh - you are not going to spoil this for yourself, you made a promise and you’re going to keep it. For you, you’re going to do this for you.

            Breath. Relax – let the cares and stresses of the day just drift…drift.

            Oh who the hell am I kidding? This is not me, I don’t relax. I too much Chardonnay and a sneaky fag; I do worrying about stupid stuff and not breathing and over thinking until my head hurts. What the hell - Yoga only does you good, it doesn't help anyone else does it?  
            Oooh - Is what they mean by achieving self-awareness?

            Really need a pee now.