Thursday, November 30, 2006

Quick public service announcement!

Alias Lucy Diamond has drawn my attention to the fact that Brown Owl's Guide to Life is listed on Amazon as being published on December 27.

THIS IS NOT TRUE! IT'S ACTUALLY DECEMBER 14 - therefore it is the perfect Christmas present for all ex-Brownies, whether you loved being a Pixie or were drummed out for misbehaviour... Stacks of nostalgia, and a story all about living your dreams!

It's available from Amazon, of course, but also from Waterstones for the bargain price of £3.99 and should also be in the supermarkets and WH Smith Travel, probably from the 10 December onwards, judging from past experience.

No other news. Wouldn't normally be quite so blatant, but need to correct misinformation, after all!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Number of ideas which might be Book 5: 2
Number of ideas for Book 6 (assuming there will be a book 6) 2
Number of central heating boilers broken: 1

I am frozen. Our boiler has given up and I have pitifully poor circulation and the combination is no fun. Yes, there are spring-like buds on our magnolia tree (very spooky, when seen alongside the last autumn leaves, clinging on like baby teeth), but that doesn't mean it's warm once the sun goes down. I am typing as fast as humanly possible to stay warm!

I was meant to be back in the Beeb today but the person I was due to be training with was off sick, so have been chilling - literally - here instead. Actually did a JK Rowling (!) and sought refuge in a cafe to warm up, armed with pen and paper and my ideas.

Yesterday I did what I like best - met my editor and agent to brainstorm those ideas. I am a bit rubbish in those meetings in fact, I tend to get rather hyper and interrupt a lot, like a small child. But aren't authors allowed the odd eccentricity?

Bottom line is that the ideas they like are the ones I like too, although the one I've written 10K words of, is losing favour slightly to a much simpler, 'bigger' idea. I am pondering whether I might be able to develop the two in parallel, then go with the one I like most and perhaps use the next one for the next contract. But of course you can never assume there WILL be another contract in publishing, it's just the way it is...

I think now that I am not in an office full-time, I could manage 2 books every 18 months, but the demand isn't really there: if I were Maeve Binchy or Marian Keyes maybe there would be, but the world isn't ready for an onslaught of Kate Harrison novels.


Did my university sessions, and it's fascinating what lessons emerge and how I realise I do know more than I think. Top tips today:
- keep your speech tags short and simple, i.e. he said, she said, NOT he gauged (never heard that one before actually) or he ejaculated. It's just WRONG.
- watch out for punctuation fetishes, like when you rediscover the semi colon and find that you're scattering it in every paragraph like confetti.
- try not to give your characters similar names: Jane, Joan and Jen will confuse the hell out of your reader.

Actually, we did some deeper stuff too but those three were my handy hints...

Lovely Link of the Day:

Friday, November 24, 2006


OK, so I finished Suite Francaise. And haven't really been able to contemplate writing since (though I have been fiddling with ideas). It all seems a bit pointless - that's not to say that the book was spot-on perfect, though under the circumstances outlined in the appendix, where the author was writing on borrowed time, her kids going to school with Stars of David on their coats and her publishers forced to pay her royalties into a frozen bank account, it's outstanding.

And I also don't think that writing to entertain is something to be ashamed of...I just feel awed and it'll take me a wee while to regain my novel writing equilibrium. So I am switching to drama for a few days: in my Open University Course, I am trying to think up modern day interpretations of the Three Little Pigs for my first assignment. Well, someone's gotta do it. But do I use the PC version where they all survive and even the wolf only gets a ticking off - or shall I go into full-on Tarantino mode and make bacon?

Dashed into town today to see my little sis while she went Christmas shopping. Hello, Toni! Hope you shopped till you dropped. Meanwhile I am getting stuck into a pile of administration, university teaching prep and paperwork, including my ongoing battle with the Horrible Hillary's Blinds who have still failed to reply to my recorded delivery letters and owe me £143.50 (and lots more for time, postage, irritation). Which would come in exceptionally handy with Christmas approaching. Come on, Mr John Risman, Chief Exec: you messed up, I have no blinds, you know it makes sense.

Sorry for that public service whinge, but actually I hope anyone googling for them will find my complaint and realise it's not a very responsive company.

Storms ahead for this weekend across Britain. Actually, I may live to regret this when our tree gets blown over or something, but I love a good storm. Some baking may be called for. Maybe damp lemon cake again, it's nearly a fortnight since I made it last.

None for Ozzie the cat though - since the cat obesity shock news, we have instigated a Cat Camp tough regime and she is looking VERY slender, which is moire than I can say for me.

Lovely Link of the Day:
Dave Hill is in plugging mode and his new book sounds very good. Good cover,too. Well, you can't blame the bloke. I'd do the same. And in fact, do so on a regular basis.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Teaching and Reading

Word Count: the same

Busy couple of days teaching and dashing round London. I was doing two short-ish sessions about how to 'format' programmes and stories, based on the time I spent making up programme ideas (yes! this was a real job!) and also on my experiences of seminars like McKee's Story (which I summarised in 10 minutes - sorry, Robert, I know there's a lot more to it than this - as a) 'always change mood from scene to scene, i.e. go from a positive emotion to a negative one or vice versa' and b) 'always confront your hero with their worst fears, building towards the thing they dread most right at the end.').

I think I've mentioned before that the thing about teaching and lecturing is that ideally you'd have a Strictly Come Dancing/Ice-skating moment where the people you've been talking to hold up score-cards at the end...and tell you how to improve. I felt my talk went better on the first day, because I had the impression the people were newer to the process, and so my thoughts felt more revealing to them. I don't think I'll ever know...

So, back to my various WIPs...and trying to tear myself away from Suite Francaise, which I am loving. I gave up on Special Topics in Calamity Physics, because it was soooo bloody long. I never got on with The Secret History either, think I have an aversion to books about smart college/high school kids, though I did like what Piessl in Calamity Physics was doing in terms of experiments with style. But admiring a book isn't enough to get me through 500-odd pages (and I had to take it back to the library, might try again in paperback!). You might love it if you were a Tartt fan though.

Suite Francaise is also a fairly hefty volume (it's two books, actually, of four or five parts planned by the author, Irene Nemirovsky, who died in Auschwitz in 1942). I am enjoying the story - it uses a kind of omniscient narration, moving between the thoughts of the different characters very frequently, which is often seen as a dangerous, even erroneous thing to do. But here it really works for me - perhaps it's the style, too, in translation. There's a fantastic range of characters and that omniscient 'overview' really conveys the randomness of war, and its impact not just on humans but also on human behaviour: both debasing and elevating us.

It's not completely flawless but what is most remarkable about it for me is how right she seems to get the mood and the sense of foreboding for the future, given that she had no way of distancing herself from current events. Usually it takes us a few years or even decades to get the measure of a period in history, but she didn't have the luxury of time. I'd love to know what you think if you've read it? It's also a great lesson if you are intending to try that style of narration.

Lovely Link of the Day:
Via Kate Hardy, I did this fab map and considering that I am scared of flying, I don't think I've done too badly...

create your own visited countries map

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Random things: jackets, chilly receptions, formats

Word Count: 9,924

Now that I've written four chapters of the novel that I don't even know anyone wants (I know this is normal before you find a publisher, but it's slightly different when you need to find an idea that pleases your editor, so keep fingers crossed that my leap of faith will prove justified), I have decided to do other things for a bit, before editing those chapters.

If you read this blog regularly, you know I am a bit of a stickler for decent service. So here's a curate's egg weekend break for you.

On Friday, I met an old friend (she's not old, but we first met back in 1992 at the BBC in Bristol - and we don't see each other enough) at the delish Pain Quotidienne on the South Bank, where warm service made up for the fact that a 'tartine' of gruyere (a very skimpy open sandwich) cost £6.25.

I then headed off to Hampshire for a restorative break with the boyf. I shan't go into the reasons but we both deserved a bit of a treat and because we didn't book till late, there wasn't much around so we decided to go four star, and pay for some luxury.

So we arrived off the M3 in dark, Novemberish tea-time rainy gloom, and despite the pretty lights outside Tylney Hall at Hook, we had a very chilly reception from the surly, unsmiling woman who checked us in and seemed interested only in getting hold of our credit card. She really did look at us as though we were the worst kind of dirt trampled in on a pair of wellies. Not good, especially when we were paying top dollar in anticipation of a relaxing stay. This put us in a funny mood. We then traipsed through the grounds, it felt like we were halfway back to London before we arrived at our 'deluxe garden view room.' The porter rushed ahead with his umbrella while we got wet. To be fair he did offer to take our bags but we always feel a bit daft having stuff carried, so maybe it was our fault we were very slow...

The room reminded me of Coronation Street, as it was down a little 'terrace' of chalets: it even had one of those metal cages on the inside of the door for catching 'post' - right by the bed. Classy. Very old 'country scene' prints on the walls, and it was freezing because no-one had put the radiator on, and after the guy left, we realised there was no way to lock the 'back' door because the lock had been drilled out so you couldn't lock it: consquently, the carpet by the door was saturated.

I rang to query the security and was given the classic line 'no-one's complained before.' We were then offered a move to another room for 1 of the 2 nights we'd booked, with no explanation of what would happen on the 2nd night. By this point we were on the point of giving up and driving straight back to London.

We ended up saying we'd stay one night in the new room, which was a little better, though there was no cold water coming out of the tap (not ideal later when we'd had a few bevvies over dinner and wanted to do some advance hangover prevention by drinking a pint of water before bed), and in fact even the toilet cistern was as hot as a radiator. The showerhead hadn't seen descaler in years so the water went everywhere except where you aimed it, and we felt a bit depressed. So much for relaxation.

But there is a happy ending...ish. We then went for dinner and had a lovely time - good service, tasty dinner, nice atmosphere in the very grand dining room. The bed was comfy and Saturday was a stunning November day and we toured the grounds which are captivating. Brekky in the lovely light dining room was good and on check-out the (different) woman couldn't have been friendlier. Suddenly we felt this might even be somewhere we'd come back to, if we could get a good deal on a slightly better room.

The moral of the story is...if that sour-faced woman who 'greeted' us had been friendly, the whole experience would have been transformed: the dodgy room would have felt like a simple mistake, rather than a symptom of a badly-run place. And we probably would have stayed the 2 nights instead of 1.

Today I am combining gardening and Sunday papers with drafting a talk I am doing at the BBC about 'formatting' i.e. how to structure TV programme ideas.

In other news, I LOVE this jacket: don't you think it's cool? Something about the fact it's understated but sophisticated...

Bloody thing won't upload but the link is here.

Lovely Link of the Day:
Another good agent blog from Jennifer Jackson, linking into a wider discussion on when, if ever, one should contemplate giving up writing...

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Cheerier Tuesday and Wednesday

Word Count: 6,995

So...I read some of my new idea to the people in my critique group on Monday night and it got the thumbs up, which is good news. The only thing is that we tend to be very nice to each other and in my case, I worry whether people are not telling the truth for fear of putting me off at such an early, delicate stage. So, gals, if you're reading this (and I know you are, as I put my foot in it by mentioning cake on Monday's blog, and having eaten it - and given half of it away to Mr DIY Friend - by the time you got there), then you can be tough. I did get a couple of VERY useful bits of feedback, however, and the other work was as stunning and diverse as usual. One of the readers got a frog in her throat and I finished reading her piece out loud, and it flowed so well. It's exciting to see work develop like that...

Onto my first lecture at Kingston Uni this morning (following the seminar last week), which was on the subject of reviewing. This is a hobby horse for me, as I get cross with prejudiced or lazy reviewers (and this isn't personal as I never get reviewed in the way that we're examining on the course, a 500-plus word analysis of a novel). I found it a really interesting session and hope the students did too, though it's so hard to tell. What teaching does do for me is show me what I've learned about writing since I was first published three years ago. It's partly practical stuff - how to go about a copy edit, what a blurb means - but it's also theories about story-telling and drama and so on. I'm not slavishly devoted to theories but I do find it useful to have tools for analysing your plots and ideas - though the inspiration part, the lightbulb moment, is still the driver for me...

And I came back to my computer to find an email from my editor saying there's been really positive feedback on advance orders for the paperback edition of Brown Owl's Guide to Life (published just in time for Christmas, and therefore the perfect gift for all former Brownies, plug, plug, sorry!). The view seems to be that my books are performing well, that I am 'growing' surely and steadily (not my waistline, though that too, sadly). It's something I tend to stress about, as I'm endlessly reading about the death of the mid-list author - one who isn't hitting the top 10, i.e. me and most writers I know - but the feedback is that I am establishing myself as a saleable author, and that people have faith in me. I do know that in my heart of hearts, but it's always fantastic to be reminded.

Lovely Link of the Day:
I don't think I've mentioned Scott Pack's blog recently - apologies if my memory's playing tricks - but he used to be a Very Important Person at Waterstones, and is now a key bod at The Friday Project, which is doing more than the bigger publishers to make the most of links between technology and the written word. The whole website makes for fascinating reading - and you can download free stuff too.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Monday Blues

Word Count on New Idea 1: 5,447

Busy weekend of DIYing and also doing some moderation work on the final stage of the Open University Creative Writing course. All top secret etc (not the DIY, of course, that involved filling in holes, messing with radiators and hanging pictures) but time-consuming. Plus giving the boyf's five-year-old nephew a VERY nifty Top Secret Spy kit which I enjoyed as much as him, if not more so. The version I remember from being a kid had a pin for writing messages, but I guess that's banned on health and safety grounds now.

In Domestic Goddess news, I made my fave Damp Lemon and Almond Cake from Nigella's book, and it was wondrous as usual (no photos but it's round, and orangey-brown on top and very yellow in the centre). Very cheering indeed and it gets better the longer you leave it. Not that I hold out much hope of it lasting longer than 24 hours.

Back to the work grindstone today (not that the weekend felt very relaxing), and I have been working on Chapter 3 of new idea...not quite sure whether to leave it at Chapter 3 and then start the next new idea, or whether to crack on with this. Hoping to chat to my editor at some point soon to see if she likes any of my ideas. I am biased and love all my 'babies.' Well, until I am commissioned to write one of them when, curiously, my enthusiasm goes into reverse.

And I am now filling in and photocopying a pile of different forms relating to my short contract teaching creative writing. I might need a slice of cake to keep me going...

Lovely Link of the Day:
It's the kind of weather which means silly jokes are needed, like these from Caroline Smailes.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Malay Vegetable Pickle and Other Adventures

Number of Word for Potential New Book Idea: 2,591
Number of Jars of Pickle Made: 6

Number of New Bedroom Wardrobes Completed (not by me): 2
Number of New Floors Laid: 1 (in my study)

Yes, done loads today, even though I hate having work done in the house. Because I coudn't really go out (lots of questions to be answered) I made my favourite pickle instead and here are the instructions. It is FABEROONY.

Ingredients left to right: 225g sesame seeds (toasted in a dry frying pan: it gives off the most amazing smell); 600ml spiced vinegar (I used plain old Sarsons); 225g cauliflower, broken into small florets; 3 large or 5 medium carrots, sliced into 5mm pieces; 4 chillies, seeds removed and sliced thinly, lengthwise; 1 cucumber, sliced into 5mm pieces; 6 cloves of garlic, crushed; 15ml chilli powder; 10ml turmeric; 225g demerera sugar; 350g dry roasted peanuts, coarsely ground. Plus 150ml veg oil, not shown.

Method: wash all the veg, then boil the vinegar in a large stainless steel pan (I have an amazing thing called a Maslin from Lakeland). 'Scald' each kind of veg separately, by dunking batches in the boiling vinegar using a sieve (obviously a heat-proof one). The recipe has no guidelines on how long for, but I tended to hold the chunkier veg in for 30 seconds, less for the cucumber and chillies. Shake off the vinegar for each batch.

Mix the nuts, seeds and sugar in the biggest bowl you've got, and then add the shaken scalded veg (poor things). Then, mix the turmeric and chilli powder with some water to make a paste; heat the oil in a pan, add the garlic and fry very softly (don't let it brown) for 1-2 minutes. Then add the spice paste and let it cool. Finally when it's cool, add the spicy oil to the veg, mix thoroughly. Put in washed jars which have been dried out in a low oven. I also put waxed circles (Lakeland or any cookshop) at the top of the jar. No idea if I had to do that.

It'll keep for a couple of months - but I'd be very surprised if it lasts that long. The recipe comes from the Harrods Book of Jams, Jellies and Chutneys, by Rosamond Richardson - I adore this book though it looks like it's out of print. Worth tracking down...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Reading and teaching and plotting

Today I did my first seminar on the part-time lecturing contract I've just taken up at Kingston University (VERY handy as it's only a bus ride and also very useful as part of the general Not Turning into a Hermit Writer who Forgets how to Talk to People Masterplan). Once I'd got over the first few minutes of taking the register and generally feeling like a supply teacher, it was interesting. They ask first year students to do 'recitations' of short poems or pieces of fiction from memory and although when I heard about this I was a bit unsure about the benefits, actually it's a great exercise. I think it encourages students (or any of us really) to focus on the sound of the words, and on how they flow, and it offers lots of potential for discussion of style...

So, having earned my first bit of direct paid-per-hour cash in a little while (novel-writing isn't hourly paid, obviously, and I shudder to think what the rate would be), I went straight to a cafe to work on one of my new big ideas. I did this yesterday too and it's fun seeing how long I can make a cup of coffee last...where I live is Yummy Mummy Central, so I find that smoking sections are the best for a bit of peace and quiet. Generally I am very much in favour of smoking bans, but I can't help worrying that no cafe will be buggy-free once it happens. I have nothing against babies, of course, but other people's are not conducive to deep thinking.

Deep thinking. Hah! I could be done under the Trades Descriptions Act for that one, if any of you were telepathic and could read the lightweight nature of my synaptic connections (she said, randomly trying to put a scientific word in to show I have a couple of brain cells left).

I'm also working my way through some great reading material: currently on Special Topics in Calamity Physics (ooh, what a swanky website) which I ordered from the library, thinking I'd hate it, but actually so far, so good. Yes, the constant references are a bit of a tic but I like the way she writes. We'll see whether much of a plot develops, though, that'll be the big test. Plus I also have Suite Francaise on my list (another mega-novel) and a non-fiction, 1968: the Year that Rocked the World, which happens to be the year I was born (oh, God, I am so bloody old. But I rock, eh?).

Lovely Link of the Day:
Brown Owl's Guide to Life is now on the front page of lovereading on a kind of 'loop' - hurrah - even though the paperback doesn't actually appear until next month. And if anyone fancies downloading the chapter then I might get into their downloads chart. Actually, I think lovereading is terrific all round, because you can check out the style of all the new releases - a great try-before-you-buy idea, because you have time to read the whole opening chapter. It's brilliant for writers, too, because you can study the way a whole variety of authors try to hook a reader if you're looking for technique points.

Monday, November 06, 2006

A rose by any other name...

Hello again,

The cat's on a diet but I am not: winter's arrived overnight, all frosty and bright, which means fireworks, and jacket spuds with cheese, and a 'chocolate fudge pudding' from M&S. I do like M&S but the staff in our local one are increasingly hopeless (lots of 16-year-olds flicking hair at each other, which is great for them but boring when you are queueing up and at the prices they charge, I'd like to think the manager might tell his/here staff they're actually there for our convenience rather than theirs). I know I sound curmudgeonly but that's one of the privileges of getting older, surely.

Other bad thing about our local M&S: they don't stock baked beans. A travesty as surely there is nothing more perfect with spuds than beans (are you a beans on top, to melt the cheese below, person? Or do you like your beans below?).

Will stop ranting now as I have some NEWS! Aeons ago, I asked for your help with a new title for the book formerly known as Scaredycat's Handbook. The blurb is here so you can play along…I do still like the old title but it was decreed that it must change, so, there we are. I had a brilliant response, both on the site and via email, but I would like to announce the winner is…

The very talented Keris Stainton! Keris sent not one, but two, titles: Courting Disaster and The Fear Factor. I loved both…but especially the first, with its nice double meaning. Keris wins a signed proof/first invitiation plus an invite to what will probably be the world’s least glam launch party (and, if I don’t get round to having one, then tea at a posh hotel at her convenience).

Now...there is a caveat to this. Alas, neither of those titles will actually be the new ones for Scaredycat's Handbook. It’s a long, long, long story but I sent all your suggestions, plus dozens of others, to my editor, and after much discussion, the new title will be…
The Self-Preservation Society

It was one of my randomly brainstormed titles and apparently it went down VERY well in-house. If you're a fan of Brit movies, you'll notice it ties in with the song at the end of the 60s version of The Italian Job - but hopefully it makes sense either way.

I’ve hummed and hahhed about this – and, indeed, we went through a brief few days when it was changed to Little Misfortunes (a version of my preferred Little Misadventures) until enough of my friends told me it had unfortunate overtones or, as my mate Geri described it, ‘it sounds like a fluffy kitten or baby has weed on your favourite rug.’ But now I’m really liking The Self-Preservation Society…and I hope you do too. I hope it is intriguing and interesting – and there are some references in it to The Italian Job, too, for afficionados. e.g. the heroine's dad is convinced he's as hunky as Michael Caine. My mind was made up by a mock-up of the cover, which is gorgeous and also very girly indeed – somehow the title worked well in contrast to the girliness, with the strapline ‘you can’t always wrap yourself in cotton wool.’ I'll post the cover when it's done.

This, in the meantime, is the updated back cover copy. I swear this isn't a promotional thing (and anyway my earlier comment has probably put you off for life if you work for M&S) but I'd be interested to know what you think. This book really matters to me for a number of reasons and I am desperate to get it right!

Staying alive in the 21st century is a full-time job…one which self-confessed scaredycat Jo Morgan takes very seriously indeed. As a little girl growing up near Greenham Common Air Base, she stockpiled baked beans in case of nuclear holocaust; now she works in accident prevention, trying to protect the rest of us from conker injuries, killer tea-cosies and death by chocolate. And if her ultra-safe existence is a bit boring, it seems a small price to pay. Fortunately her boyfriend shares her outlook on life, so everything they do together involves the minimum possible risk. From their social lives to their sex lives, spontaneity is not in their vocabulary.

Then a hit and run accident leaves Jo in a coma. For once, luck’s on her side and she comes round, realizing it’s time to seize the day. But un-learning a lifetime of fears and phobias won’t be easy. That is, until she meets former World War II fighter pilot Roger ‘Frisky’ Freeman Van Belle, his mysterious grandson, and a rather hands-on doctor. Jo has a choice: Fight or Flight? She can carry on living half a life, or leave behind the people she loves. It’s the scariest decision she’ll ever have to make…

Funny, poignant and so true to life, The Self-Preservation Society is a story about all our fears, and learning to love and live for the moment.

Lovely Link of the Day:
If you don't know about the original version of The Italian Job, this site is dedicated to the movie - doesn't Michael Caine look cute?

PS: I will be posting the Malay Veg Pickle recipe before long, with pictures!