Friday, June 29, 2007

Coffee Break 24: mini-break

I'm taking a bit of a mini-break from blogging: maybe for a few days, maybe longer, but I'm busy at Winchester Writers' Conference this weekend, and working on various other projects which give me no real time or inclination to blog.

Go to the new Novel Racers' site for coffee break - it's always coffee break over there - or if you're feeling creative, try Norm's fantastic Short Short Story Competition.

Oh, and if you want a real laugh, check me out talking about dangerous cakes at - I am under fiction, scroll along for a bit. There are some really interesting interviews there with authors across all genres!

See you soon,


Friday, June 22, 2007

Coffee Break 23: a change of web scenery

What's writing? A way of escape, like travelling to a war or to see the Mau Mau. Escaping what? Boredom. Death.
Graham Greene
Word Count:25,203

Wow...I go away for a day and look what happens. We (the original two racers, Lucy and I) are overwhelmed by the really fantastic response by racers and so thrilled by the fact this means so much to you all.

Thanks to all the volunteers: I haven't yet had chance to read through and reply to all my emails so am getting my head round whether everyone who wanted to be involved in the new incarnation IS involved (I know, Kate K, you very kindly volunteered too and hope you're involved, I will definitely email you later), but I think perhaps the best thing might be for Nichola to email me a post I can put up here as a main entry rather than a comment explaining how to go about getting writer 'access' to the new home which is at:

I think it's such an exciting evolution and I'm really looking forward to popping over, not just on Coffee Break days but other times too - which is a real benefit of the move. Maybe in time the website that Jen's bagged will be handy, too.

My only techie comment would be that if only 'members' can leave comments, it may stop new racers joining? So I'd suggest, if others agree, perhaps having comments allowable but one person on a rolling basis checking for newbies? Do feel free to cut and paste the rules of the Race from my entry, which I updated recently...I will update later to include the new address and so on

I feel a bit like a mum watching her 'baby' (the race, not you lot) striking out on her own. I will still be blogging about writerly stuff on here so don't be a stranger, but over the summer perhaps less than before.

In other news, I had a meeting yesterday with a really fascinating movie producer to talk through one of my projects (more in an advisory role, no-one's bought the rights or anything, so don't be breaking out the champagne just yet). It does tie into the 'change of scenery' idea (OK, it's a bit of a stretch, maybe) in that I learned so much in that meeting and realised how writing five and a quarter novels doesn't mean I can write a movie treatment properly. I managed to make the plot of Book 5, which I was so excited about, sound about as thrilling as the proverbial wet weekend. But am hugely enthused by the idea of doing better - it's good to take yourself out of your comfort zone.

Enjoy the new site and thanks for being such brilliant racers. Reading through the lovely messages about what it's meant to everyone, I feel quite choked!

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Novel Race: Anyone fancy taking over...

Word count: 24,609
A few of you have been in touch following the messages around the blogs of people we haven't seen for a wee while...While most racers seem glad of the nudge, I know that some people weren't too happy to be contacted in that way but it was something we all discussed online over the last few weeks and as I don't have email addresses for everyone in the Race, it did seem the right thing to do and I'm grateful to Zinnia for taking it on.
I know that a blog comment can sometimes seem a bit brusque and I am sorry if anyone's been upset by it but I do want everyone to know that this has been such a cool group of people and our intentions were absolutely to remind people of the Race's existence, and to encourage them to think about coming back on board if time allows. The benefit of this group has been its fantastic flexibility.
It's coming up to summer, and to the six month 'anniversary' of Lucy/Sue and I setting up the Race - Liz was our first winner, if you recall, and she got her rather covetable prize this week. With this in mind, and after being on the receiving end of a few unhappy emails, I am thinking now might be the right time to hand on the baton to someone else. I think the best way to approach this would be for anyone who might like to do this to email me (if you don't have my address, you can contact me via my website) . Another option might be to set up a blog where all novel racers are 'owners' and can post their progress and favourite links- could be a really lively site, I think. But it would involve some admin I don't really have the time to undertake.
I'll host coffee breaks until the end of June and then let you know what's happening. I hope you'll understand that at present the commitment's a little more than I really feel able to give. I will probably still be blogging and surfing the other racers' blogs but less regularly. I really hope the race continues in some form, especially for our newer recruits..


Friday, June 15, 2007

Coffee Break 22

Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write.

Anthony Trollope
(ah, but Anthony, that was before broadband...)
Word count:18,824

So today I am thinking about pacing…I’ve done my sums and worked out that if I write around 5,000 words per week from now on, I will finish Book 6 by the November deadline. Very doable. However, this doesn’t leave me any time off for bad behaviour, or other projects, or any edits before I send it to my editor and agent…So, instead I might aim for 7,500 per week (1,500 per working day) which gives me 7 and a bit ‘free’ weeks to play with here and there.

That feels doable, too. Actually, for me, I like to set myself a higher word count than what appears to be ‘industry standard’ (as if the writing game is an industry and one with any standards – dubious!) of 1,000 a day. Now that I have the plot worked out for the new book, I reckon it’s good to keep the momentum going. Apart from anything else it makes it less likely that I will repeat some crucial plot point or observation.

What’s your current target looking like, boys and girls?

After last week’s Novel Race discussion, Zinnia’s embarking on the blog tour to say hi to some of the Missing and the Disappeareds. It’s not a telling off – God knows, that’s the last thing anyone wants – and there is no compulsion to come here every week, or comment on everyone else's blog every week, but it's more a reminder that we’re here and bigger than ever. I’m also amending the Novel Race Rules of the Game to suggest that it’d be courteous for people at least to link to their fellow racers, since it’s a ‘you scratch my back’ thing…

We have a couple of newbies: Ellie the Lazy Perfectionista and Victoria. One of the great things about the race is also discovering really fascinating new blogs so do pop in and say hello. I also had a comment from someone who I was meant to be emailing with info and I seem to have lost it. would you mind posting again? Many apologies.

Oh, and if you’re interested in writing for women’s magazines (which can be lucrative), then Womagwriter’s blog (sounds like something Peter Gabriel would get involved with) is a good place to begin.

Incidentally, I plan to update my lazy person’s guide to the media next week so do look out for it…

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Lazy Person’s Guide to Working in the Media: Part 1: TV Development

Darth loved faciliating brainstorms: it used every one of his people skills.

My current must-read blog is the TV Controller who was kind enough last night to leave a comment about my Radio 4 insider intelligence that they’re not looking for talking animals (warning: the naughty controller uses rude words so don't click through if you dislike 'language'). Anyway, it turns out that the TV Controller (who featured in Saturday’s Guardian no less!) really IS committed to developing new formats involving talking animals for his 'yoof' channel and we may meet up. Who knows, maybe my original screenplay, featuring a strip joint where caterpillars mutate into butterflies in front of sparrows who pay extra for lap dances, will be on a digital channel near you soon…

Or maybe not. Truth is, I worked in TV development for too long to think anything ever gets commissioned. I haven’t really blogged about my old day job before and thought it might be fun (for me at least) to go through all the roles I had before I become an author, thereby offering a no-holds-barred guide to working in the meeja. It’s almost a year to the day since I left my day job so it feels the right time. Maybe you have kids or friends who want to go into TV: they should read this first…

I’ll go back, CV style, with most recent position first: TV Development Producer. This, in fact, was probably the most enjoyable time I had working in TV. It was also the most cringeworthy, most frustrating and most misunderstood.
TV Development: no, you really do have to be mad to work there..

The brief was to come up with new ideas for the 4 BBC TV Channels (because we were an in-house team, we weren’t allowed to pitch to the commercial commissioners), to develop them and then to try to sell them.

There’s a wide misconception in the industry that development people sit on bean bags clustered around flipcharts, free associating about, for example, anthropomorphism and society's deepest taboos, until they come up with a mad idea which they spend months researching, before pitching it to a singularly unimpressed controller/commissioner. Controller will then sigh, look at watch and mumble that, ‘well, yes, there was a morning three months ago when I woke up and told my secretary I thought talking animals could replace the entire genre of property shows [actually, the phrase they invariably use is ‘talking animals are the new hot territory’]. But then I had a skinny decaff latte and felt better. I never actually intended for anyone to work anything up.’
Own CBBC style jumpsuit an advantage for new applicants.

As with most misconceptions, there are elements of truth in this image. The horrible howl-round Chinese Whisper thing that happens as a result of almost any passing remark by a channel controller IS pretty close to reality. They cough: we research entire seasons around TB and respiratory disease. They mention having a scale and polish: we’re scouring the nation for tv-friendly, charismatic dental hygienists.

However…we also come up with our own ideas. Not ALWAYS sitting on beanbags (though never underestimate the power of the nicely planned brainstorm). The best thing about working in development is definitely the people: the job is actually an unsettling one, psychologically, and it can be circular because you are constantly evaluating, reworking, ditching THOUSANDS of ideas. Many TV people are very linear – they know what has to be done, to a strict budget and deadline, and they head towards it like Speedy Gonzales.
Most TV people have the attention span of a cartoon character.


You can’t be linear and be happy in development and that means the people who stay tend to be wonderfully creative and open people: brainstorms and ideas meetings involve ‘fessing up to dreams, habits, preoccupations that most of us keep hidden. Development People (DPs) are sponges: they soak up all the details of life, from culture, other TV shows, to chance remarks, odd behaviour on public transport. The partners and families of DPs tend to get used to that faraway look when a lightbulb goes on: ‘oh, no, you’re off again: I bet you’ve just turned my frustration with pickle jars that won’t open into a returnable six-part primetime show for BBC1, haven’t you?’

In that way, DPs are a bit like writers…

It means that no day among DPs is the same. Which is a lot of fun…you might have an idea of the bus, write it up and send it to a controller by teatime (though this is very rare, strictly for Archimedes moments). Or you might be out and about interviewing presenters and experts, filming ‘tasters’ (mini versions of the best bits of your programme idea), or rehearsing pitches with executive producers.
Party's over...

However, the fun has to stop somewhere. And that somewhere is usually the commissioning process. Look, I have a lot of sympathy with commissioners and controllers. They don’t REALLY know any more than we do what will be a hit and what will be a miss (it’s the same in books, music, movies) with the public. But they have to pretend they know, and choose from the thousands of ideas they’re pitched each year, and that’s where the problem starts. Some commissioners/controllers stay real and thoughtful and generous and give clear briefs.

Some find that being appointed to positions of power means they turn into Creative Despots, who give contradictory information for the fun of it, execute ideas at whim, and make decisions which they can't possibly justify (so they don't even bother to try).
Death sentence

Any last requests before your idea is put to death?

In writing there’s a phrase called Murder Your Darlings – which means that if you particularly like a sentence or section of a piece of your own work, you should probably cut it as it’s almost certainly ‘vanity writing’ or too clever by half. Well, commissioners take great delight in murdering OUR darlings: that’s life. What’s frustrating is when the ideas are sentenced to death without any indication of why they needed culling. But to get their POV, you do really want to look at the TV Controller as it is scarily spot-on. I don’t know who that guy really is but he knows his onions… (Ooh: idea! Know Your Onions – a new early evening cookery format for BBC2, presented by Ainsley Harriott, in which contestants search the globe for the best single ingredients before trying to cook the best dish using these. The judges are retired French Onion Sellers).

I loved it, most of the time. It’s also a more life-friendly job than most in TV: fewer late nights and weekend shifts, and more manageable if you want to work part-time. However, to work in development you have to be pretty resilient to the fact that most of your ideas will be discarded or rejected. You also need a very high tolerance of jargon – from ‘territories’ (TV word for ‘subjects’) to ‘watering holes’ (don’t ask), development has a language all its own.

It’s good for young keenies looking for a first break, as you get to meet senior people very quickly. Also good for oldies who find life on the road more tiresome, and for people with family commitments. It’s a rubbish job if you’re an adrenalin junkie OR if you don’t like writing OR if you think you’re always right.

The prospects:

Most DPs either: go back into production, or do the poacher-turned-gamekeeper thing and go to work in commissioning. Either way, development does train you to analyse ideas in a new way - I use it in my writing and planning to this day.

Essential requirements:
  • Scattergun brain
  • Cultural magpie
  • Healthy contempt for authority (accompanied by ability to schmooze)
  • Lightning fast writing ability
  • Genuine fondness for beanbags
Further information:
See this YouTube clip on trying to get a TV show commissioned. Spot-on!

In my next guide, I'll look at the least work/life balance-friendly job there is in TV: investigative journalism…

Novel Race:
Thanks for all the comments on the novel race and rules. When I get chance I promise I will take off the people who’ve said they’re not really active in proceedings. In the meantime, I think Zinnia’s suggestion to go round the blogs saying hi to lost sheep is a great plan. Zinnia, it’d be fab if you wouldn’t mind doing it the first time, to see how it works?

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Friday, June 08, 2007

Coffee Break 21

Drama is life with the dull bits left out.
Alfred Hitchcock

Word Count:12,765

Have made a bit of progress with Novel 6 this week, though due to frenzied pillow-washing, not as much as I might have done. Character 3 of my 3 first-person POVs is giving me some trouble as she's the least sympathetic - snobbish, lonely, grieving and sarcastic - and I can't decide how far to go with this...I know it's only a 1st draft etc but even so I'd like to get the tone right.

I was also lucky enough to get a place on the the BBC/Script Factory Wireless and Boundless information day yesterday, all about what BBC Radio producers and commissioners are looking for. Very interesting: we listened to some wonderful clips using sound to create terrific new worlds - and also heard that 'talking animals' are, sadly, not top of the list for new commissions.

And, as always happens when I attend these things, I came away with loads of ideas. The trouble with radio is that, though the BBC really do want to encourage new writers and new 'voices', it's just as insanely competitive as every other part of the writing world. So the choice is whether to focus on the things I know will definitely pay me - the novels - or whether to branch out and take a risk creatively. I am so lucky now in that I do have some 'development time' built into my schedule to allow me to experiment and I do think that after four years of working full-time AND writing, I should allow myself some gambling/play-time even if it doesn't lead to paid work. The more writing I do, the more the transferability of skills but more specifically stories becomes clear to me - work I've done on the characters for a radio play can be used in a short story if the play goes nowhere. Nothing is wasted...

I must admit I am suffering a teeny bit of PPD at the moment. It feels like I am starting the climb up Manuscript Mountain again, and one always worries that the book won't live up to what I've done before. I think playing with radio might be my way out! was your writing week?

I've had a couple of emails lately from Novel Racers about the organisation overall of the Race and I'd like your opinions, please. When I set up the race with Lucy Diamond, we never imagined it would grow so big. It is always going to stay a very fluid group of people, but the commenters have asked whether there should be an expectation that writers who aren't involved in any way (i.e. don't come to coffee morning for months, don't comment on other blogs, don't post any links to the other racers) should perhaps declare themselves out of the race?

What do you think? I definitely don't want to lay down rules (apart from anything else, I'd hate to administer them, I really have no organisational skills whatsoever!), but should I amend the Rules of the Game a little to say, gently, that we all appreciate mutual support and that there is an expectation of some participation, depending on the free time each racer has (which, in many cases I know, is very little).

All views much appreciated...

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Procrastinators (Not Very) Anonymous

The last thing one knows in constructing a work is what to put first.
Blaise Pascal

Word count: 11,017

OK. So I have made a start on Book 6. Actually, I started book 6 late last year, got just under 10,000 words in the can, and then decided to work on Book 5 instead.

Book 5 was relatively simple structually, the story of one woman, told in the first person, with none of what I call my 'twiddly bits.' If you've ever read any of my books, the twiddly bits are the flashbacks or the alternative storylines involving other characters, or the quotations from other texts (the mottos from the Brownie and Guide annuals in Brown Owl's Guide to Life), or flashbacks (as in Brown Owl but also the strange, coma-related flashbacks to the scary Cold War obsessed 1980s in The Self-Preservation Society).

I enjoyed the simplicity of Book 5. But Book 6 is another one of my twiddly ones, featuring the stories of three different women, each contributing first person chapters. The women work together so as well as their personal stories, they attend the same events and experience some of the same incidents. In the past, I've really paid the price at editing stage for my ambitions to include these twiddles, and so this time round I am being tough with myself. I have created a grid to plot which chapters and events are narrated by which woman. I have worked hard on their speech 'tics' and view of life, so that the first person narratives will feel convincingly different. I have played around with their stories so that each has dramas and crises and problems to resolve.

Now I just have to write the bloody thing. And my bottle's gone.

Well, I don't think my bottle has disappeared. But today, having finished the Grid yesterday, I am finding ANYTHING more appealing than writing Chapter 5 (which is where I am picking up from last year's work). So far I have:

  • replaced a winter duvet with a summer one;
  • stripped the bed;
  • hand-washed the thing that keeps the bed together;
  • machine-washed three pillows (it is evidence of my lack of domestic goddess-ery that I didn't know you COULD machine-wash pillows but how lovely they are now!);
  • put the old duvet in one of those bags that you then vacuum-shrink, so your duvet resembles boil-in-the-bag cod in parsley sauce;
  • put everything out to dry;
  • joined Facebook (hours of potential time-wasting there).

I may even do some ironing.

That's how serious this is. So, anyway, I am going to add Book 6 to my Novel Race bar and see if that helps. You never know.

We also have a new Racer, another Kate, so welcome. Did you know you could wash pillows?

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Coffee Break 20

From the moment I picked up your book, until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. someday I intend reading it.

Groucho Marx

Feels very quiet this week on the blogosphere - lots of my favourite bloggers are on holiday or taking a break. Even Miss Snark has packed her trunk for good.
I, however, am busy but jolly after a very nice review in Heat magazine. I am Number Three in their charts, just behind Gordon Ramsay (oooh, er). This has made me very happy. I shan't repeat it all but what tickled me most was that they said the book "will please all Harrison fans..." The idea of having any fans at all amused me tremendously. My friend says she is now worried about going out in case we are mobbed (I know that the web doesn't do irony very well, so please do note that the previous sentence is a joke...)

I haven't achieved an awful lot on the writing front, though. I am trying to plan Book 6 and it's slow-going, somehow. One of my characters has a really different background to mine, so am researching that, plus as there's a shopping theme to the book, it feels like any time spent shopping could qualify as research...And I've had lots of university papers to mark.

But today being June 1, I am focusing once again - planning day today and then back to grindstone proper next week.

Today's topic is inspired by a survey in Glamour magazine, reporting that 28 per cent of their readers would like to be a famous writer/artist. Golly! I suspect that most of them would tend towards the former, too (more likely to be reviewed in Heat!). In the same survey, it said that 30 per cent of readers would like to relocate to a vineyard in Tuscany.

So...where would be your perfect writing location?

Oh, we have a new racer, too. Welcome to Judy Merrill Larsen...