Monday, May 29, 2006

Power and Glory of the Web

Word Count: 80,370
Assignments to Mark: None! Yipee!

Like another 480,000 web users (at last count), I have been following the story of The Broken Laptop I Sold on eBay, a blog put up as revenge by someone who'd been conned. I felt like one of the 'early adopters' because I first visited the site (via Holy Moly) when it had only 4,000 hits. I know this makes me sound an utter saddo, like one of those people who only likes the 'early stuff' once their favourite band hits the big time, but never mind. It's one of those sites that feels like wonderful revenge on anyone who has ever cheated you or done you out of your dues (for me, pretty much everyone I have tried to buy a house from over the last year...).

My target was to reach 80,000 words on my WIP by the end of May, and I have done it, despite the Open University marking. Another thing to celebrate. Went to the seaside today, where it did feel like four seasons in one day: flash floods, hail, and the kind of sunshine you only get by the coast. Lovely.

So generally am feeling pretty darned good this evening. Busy week ahead, so the word count may not grow as much as I'd hope, but I'm getting there. 95,000 by the end of June, I hope.

Lovely Link of the Day:
Lots of people appreciated the Laurie Graham link, so here's one to Jodi Picoult's site (OK, I'm envious of Laurie Graham's home in Venice, and now I am jealous of Jodi Picoult's amazing hair. And doesn't she look like Alex Kington from ER?). Oh, and here's one for another author about to hit the big time: Linda Buckley Archer's wonderful new Gideon the Cutpurse trilogy is the one to watch this summer. I'm biased because I heard it before it had even been discovered by her agent. Oh God, I'm doing the 'I liked them before they were famous' routine again, aren't I?

Friday, May 26, 2006

Rain, rain go away...

Word count: 76,630
Essays unmarked: 0.5

I am officially quite weary today. I don’t know whether it’s my age (possible), the weather (probable) or the fact that I get up these days at 6am when I used to always laze in bed till 8am (almost certainly this) but by the end of each week I do tend to feel – and look – shattered. I also slept in a bit which didn’t help.

Good news was that my lost lens popped out while I was at the wine bar with a friend on Wednesday night – so it had been lodging in my eye for the best part of four days. Other good news – some lovely comments and emails about the new book, including a place in the Heat magazine chart, which has given my amazon rating a nudge up in the hundreds.

Bad news is the speed – or lack of speed – of the latest house purchase attempt. Oh and the fact that I can’t seem to stop eating, due to the cold and the stress. I dream of a time free from estate agents’ blather and lawyers’ refusal to commit themselves either way. It will happen, won’t it?

Lovely Link of the Day:
Laurie Graham is a favourite writer of mine and I really enjoyed her rather swanky site, especially reading about the ideas behind some of her books (she seems to use real lives as a springboard to fiction). As well as envying her Venice lifestyle…

Monday, May 22, 2006

Foreign Bodies

Word Count: 74,016
Late assignments essays still to be marked: 3

Oh, I’m cracking on with the WIP. Wipping along, you might say. Unusually for me I am not hitting middle-book dread, which usually affects me from about 40,000 words to 120,000 words. I’d like to think this is a positive sign, though a tiny bit of me wonders if it’s just that I’ve gone a bit crazy and now believe my every sentence is perfect when in fact it’s nonsensical.

What also usually happens around this time is that new ideas begin to pop into my mind. I love this time, when every idea is a potential best-seller and grows before my very eyes…I really am quite poor at judging the relative merits of new ideas, which means it’s lucky having an editor and agent who are very savvy indeed.

The foreign body in the title of today’s entry is not some irresistible Greek window cleaner, but a fragment of soft contact lens that got lost in my eye. At least I know now that it’s impossible for them to disappear into my brain, but even so…my eye has gone all icky and I have tried EVERYTHING to get it out. Any suggestions gratefully received.

Lovely Link of the Day

The poetry section of the OU writing course has just begun, and tutor Bill Greenwell has some brilliant resources on his website. I’m quite new to poetry myself (as a writer – I’ve always read it) and I am finding the course materials are making my prose go a bit lyrical (though clearly not my blog-writing, if I am coming up with clunky sentences like that one. Rush, rush, hurry, hurry life is to blame).

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Clare Boylan

This week the brilliant writer Clare Boylan died of cancer. I was lucky enough to be taught by her on a course in Thailand six years ago. I was at a crossroads – about to take redundancy from the BBC for the first time (becoming a habit, eh?) and was also trying to tackle my fear of flying and see more of the world.

I’d read about Skyros, the holistic holiday company, and considered going on one of their holidays in Greece. But a) the Greek holidays involved some horribly complicated Labour of Hercules style journey involving boats, planes and stopovers and b) the Greek ones didn’t begin till Easter. So I took the deepest of breaths, booked a flight on Eva Air and took my confusion and my notebook to Koh Samet.

The course was held at Ao Prao, right on the beach. We had to wade through the sea for the final stretch of the journey, so the boat didn't get grounded. Clare taught a class every day – she reminded me of an Irish Tinkerbell, tiny, very pretty, sparky, full of energy and insight. She was one of the first real writers I’d spent time with (though I once interviewed Dick King-Smith when I was a reporter at Points West and he gave me a signed copy of The Sheep-Pig) and those workshops, overlooking the sea, were truly inspiring.

There were two main courses that fortnight – writing, and a rather deeper, more angsty one about finding your direction in life. Maybe I should have gone for the latter, given my impending redundancy, but the writing was much more appealing. We were a gang of slightly rebellious types: I remember one of my fellow students, Toby, proudly showing off his Prince Albert piercing when he insisted on stripping off and running into the sea, during the most spectacular midnight storm. Now you wouldn’t have wanted your lightning to be conducted through that particular rode of metal. Many of the Life course students arrived looking terribly anxious and, to give the other course its due, left with a genuine glow. Might have been sunburn, of course. I got my worst sunburn ever, singing songs from the shows as I swam about in the surf.
Every evening at sunset, the more dedicated students would file into a building resembling a village hall, and miss the spectacle.

But Clare and her lovely, witty friend Noeleen used to skip these sessions and sit instead, watching the day melt into the water, with cocktails and cigarettes to ward off the world’s most persistent mosquitoes. I used to join her with my new friend and room-mate Adele, putting the world to rights and laughing a lot. Those evenings are as important in my memory as the writing sessions: we felt we were in the best possible company.

On the final night, there was a party. I read out the piece I’d been working on, about a phallically challenged, two-timing man, which went down a storm: I realised the laughter was what I’d been looking for. I’m not much of a raconteur, and can get quite tongue-tied in social situations, but with time to put words on a page, I seemed to be getting something right.
It’s not that I’d never wanted to write before – I’d always loved scribbling stories in notebooks, or inventing characters - but what Clare did was make me believe I could do it. And show me what fun it could be to be a Lady Writer...

Two years later, I’d signed my first book contract – though not for the piece I began in Thailand, far too close to real life, thank you! Maybe I would have made the breakthrough anyway, but Clare’s intelligence and generosity of spirit brought that moment closer, I have no doubt.

I’m quite a crybaby, really, and when I saw the news on the internet, I did feel choked, especially after seeing her picture: I felt a fraud at this point, compared to the many people close to her who must be mourning her. But I remembered the nights on Koh Samet, and the mozzie bites, and the stories she’s left behind, and I realised that what I really felt was privileged to have spent time with her and Noeleen, in a wonderful place, where dreams could happen. I hope that doesn’t sound too naff or Pollyanna-ish, but it’s how I feel.

Lovely Link of the Day:
An obituary for Clare. Doesn't feel right to put those words together, but it sums up some of the things that made her special.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Lights and Tunnel Ends

Word count: 67,118

I’ve now returned 18 assignments, hoorah. Two more are sitting in my inbox, while another 4 should be delivered between now and Friday (actually, 2 of those were due LAST Friday and haven’t been submitted. Virtual slapped wrists. Still, since when did most writers meet deadlines?).

I’ve also made a bit of progress with Scaredy as the word count shows. The book has three distinct ‘modes’ of writing; the main first person, present tense narrative, a blog and a flashback (also in the first person, present tense, but from the POV of the central character as a child). Actually this is a simpler structure than my last couple of books, which had that first person present narrative plus third person limited shifting viewpoint (if this sounds like double Dutch, and you want to know more about point-of-view, try here, here or here).

Viewpoint is always a critical decision for me – and I think that marking all the assignments has made me focus on this, because a piece can succeed or fail largely on the basis on this decision. I rewrote about a third of Brown Owl’s Guide to Life, changing from the third person, back into the first person – that certainly taught me a lesson about getting it right early on!

I think the reason I like to vary things is a Boredom Prevention Strategy – not for the reader (hopefully the story and characters will keep them reading), but for me. My stories tend to be character based which means I need to find ways to reflect their past – but flashbacks within the present-day narrative can be quite heavy going. So I like to separate them out, with ‘vignettes’ (sorry, pretentious word, but it kind of works in this context) that offer a different perspective through time or another character on the action happening in the literary ‘here and now.’

Being able to write in slightly different modes or voices REALLY helps me when I am feeling a bit stuck or jaded. I’m not sure I have the stamina to write in, say, an entirely different historical period (all that research!), though I’d never say never. But being able to dip in and out is a real treat.

Worth trying a new viewpoint, or one from a different time in the character's history, if you’re stuck in a rut in a longer work-in-progress, I think.

Lovely Link of the Day
This is an enlightening piece about the reasons why certain novels are chosen to be turned into films. Oh, and movie rights to Brown Owl are available, if anyone’s interested…

Friday, May 12, 2006

The planet or my fingers?

Word Count: 63,761
Assignments read: 18
Assignments fully marked: 4

Sorry, planet. Am finding it much easier to mark the assignments by printing them out, than by squinting at the screen (and I really do squint these days, I think I am getting ready for old-lady reading glasses. So much for being in my Middle Youth). Mind you, I am probably exacerbating the health benefits for me by printing it in 8 point, single spaced, so that I waste as little paper as possible.

I’m still not half way through reading them, though.

The Apprentice crisis had an unhappy ending. The workmen who’d messed up the aerials to our luxury (ha!) apartment block didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the situation and didn’t bother to fix it. So instead we went out and sat by the river eating and drinking, then I came back hoping to watch the show online on the BBC2 website once it appeared – only to see the result on the BBC News Online site. Outrageous. At least they could have put a headline saying Apprentice Result Announced, Look Away Now, but oh no, my suspense was broken.

Very annoying. But I will still try to watch on broadband later.

The sun is out and the geese outside are honking away but I shall try to resist the temptation to sit outside, and crack on with the WIP!

Lovely Link of the Day
Karin always has the best links and I often repeat them, but that's the net for you! This site is great, a directory of 101 other brilliant writing sites.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Four down...

Word count: 62,911
Assignments marked: 4
Sore hands: 2
Sore eyes: 2

Am officially tired now and everything aches. Long day at work, followed by marking. I was fretting a bit that I wouldn't get it all done by the deadline - but then I remembered that some students needed to ask for extra time, which then gives me a couple more days to spread out the marking...

I'm also trying to surge ahead on the book, ideally up to 70-75,000 by the end of the month, though that may be too ambitious. Wrote a fun scene today between the main character and her doctor. My progress tonight has also been helped by the telly going on the blink, seems like there's no signal between the TV and the aerial, out of the blue. Either the cat or maybe the cleaner knocked something, as it was working fine this morning. Not a big issue tonight - but tomorrow's the final of The Apprentice. Eeek. Let's hope it spontaneously re-connects by then. Who would I trust of the two girls to get the telly fixed? Ruth. Who do I think Alan Sugar will choose? Michelle. What do you reckon?

Lovely Link of the Day:
Oh I do love Wikipedia. I know most people know it's there but, provided you cross-reference anything contentious, it is so fab. Tonight I've been looking up people with diseases named after them!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Another sort of word count

Word count: 61,021
TMAs (Tutor Marked Assignments) marked: 2
TMAs sitting in my inbox: 16
TMAs still to be received: 5

Missing TMAs:
Average time to mark TMA: minimum of 90 minutes


Oh lordy, I always knew this period in the course would be the toughest, but I've just done my sums and worked out that for the OU assignments this time, I have to read in excess of 65,000 words of fiction and reflective commentary - and give incisive, carefully worded guidance - over the next 14 days. Well, not even 14 any more. 12.

Oh lordy again. That's a short novel's worth of stuff. It's quite daunting, actually. If I wasn't working in another job, and writing my book to a deadline, and (this is the main issue right now)trying to go through acres of paperwork about the latest house we're trying to buy, then it would feel less overwhelming.

As it is, I am finding it stressful. I want to give each student as much help as possible but, as with any open access course, there's a wide range of abilities and approaches, so I keep having to switch teaching modes.

We also have access to some of the open student forums and there's been quite a lot of negativity about how much involvement tutors are having, which I know is natural but feels disheartening at times (I guess the easiest way to solve that is to stop reading, but actually it's also a useful check, to see how people are finding the course from the 'consumer' point-of-view). I suspect if I was doing the course, I'd have very high expectations too, and I know when I was relying on friends and fellow writers to critique work, I would tend to get very impatient so I see where they're coming from. I studied with the OU, too, and even though it's only 5 years since I graduated, the level of contact seems to have increased tremendously: I don't think I ever spoke or contacted my tutor...It's better that there's more contact, but right now, with my virtual pile of assignments, it does feel a bit of a mountain to climb, especially as all of it is done on computer. I think I will print them off, to reduce the RSI risk - but then there's the planet to think of. What a dilemma!

The positive side of things comes when I come across a fantastic piece of work, a wonderful phrase or a striking observation within an assignment. Or where I have been able to convince a student that it's worth submitting an assignment when they were doubtful - and it turns out to be very worthwhile.

Oh, and the cat keeps misbehaving, in her own personal dirty protest. And the weather's gone grey again. But I have just seen the piece I wrote in eve magazine and that looks really good.

Back to marking now!

Lovely Link of the Day:
Some hardcore critique guidelines from Amy Sterling Casil (she looks quite stern, I think. But fair!). Not ones I am applying to my students' work, but if you're feeling brave, you can try applying them to your own!

Friday, May 05, 2006

Out and About

Word Count: 59,633

So, Brown Owl's Guide to Life has been sent out into the world...and I am keeping everything crossed that Lucy and her chums will have a warm welcome. I've seen the book on the shelves, which is always good, and done some celebratory things, including a wonderful lunch at Locanda Locatelli, a very swish Italian restaurant in central London. We even saw the very suave owner, Mr Locatelli himself. I can also report that the restaurant has THE BEST CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES IN THE WORLD.

It's been a social week - last night I met friends on the South Bank, and it was one of those evenings that makes you glad to live in London. Brilliant bright blue skies, the London Eye shining, the Thames shimmering and all the fantastic buildings lined up on both embankments. I also did karaoke properly for the first time in my life on Wednesday night, fantastically good fun, even though one of the people in the party used to be a very well-known pop star. I missed seeing the transmission of the Beverly Allitt drama-documentary (I wrote the drama script) but had already seen it on DVD, and it got great audience figures, plus some good reviews, so that was good news.

Oh and I voted postally for the very first time...it's very peculiar watching the news about all the cabinet reshuffles and so on, really reminds me of the last days of the Thatcher regime. In both cases, it felt like the person in 10 Downing Street had completely lost the plot and was doing things without any logic or reason. Not a good feeling when they happen to run the country.

And on the writing front, I've had an email from my editor saying how good she thinks Book 4 is so far, which is always a huge relief - she's also seen a change in my style, which is gratifying. More evolution than revolution.

Am about to disappear into the black hole that is marking my Open University assignments, more than 20 of them, so I may be some time...

Lovely Link of the Day:
This guide to the Seven Laws of Comedy Writing is excellent.