Thursday, 31 December 2009

2009 - looking back

My 2009 was a waiting room. A year of hope and anticipation. A year spent getting ready to be a published author.
My 2009 was hard work - editing one book, writing another. Working as a journalist, creating a blog. Some bits of work clashing with other bits. None of it very lucrative, all of it great fun.
My 2009 was a year of networking. Meeting people on Facebook, Twitter and Blogger. Meeting people in publishing, through journalism. Meeting fantastic, supportive and welcoming children’s authors. Meeting teenagers who’d read early copies of my book. Hearing stories, connecting with others. I don’t think I’ve ever had a year so rich in new friendships.
My 2009 was a year of anxiety. Like many families we’ve been badly hit by the credit crunch - a friendly name for a devastating event. 2009 for us - like many others – was a year of fear, unfairness, economies and big worries.
My 2009 was a half-way healthy year - no major illnesses at any rate - but a year when I spent too much time at the computer, ate too much rubbish and didn’t exercise or sleep enough. In fact 2009 was really the year of sleepless nights.
My 2009 was a year of reading - non-stop, addictive reading, Adult and YA books, too many great ones to pick favourites and a few real turkeys. And 2009 was a year of films and theatre too.
My 2009 was the year of the guinea pigs – bought for my daughter’s birthday, it is incredible how two cuddly cavies have become part of the family.
My 2009 was a year of revisiting the past – going back to Amsterdam as a visitor. Going back to the Jewish Chronicle where I started work as a messenger girl 28 years ago – and finding that lots of the staff are still there. And still readjusting to life back in London, back in our old house which we left in 1999 and returned to in 2007.

That was my 2009. How was yours?

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The Pain of Self Promotion

Shameless self-promotion is tough for the British. We’re trained in self-deprecation, reprimanded for showing off.
Why is that? Is it just the British? And is it just my generation? Maybe younger Brits feel easier with blowing their own trumpets.
Anyway, I feel horribly embarassed about posting a few quotes from early reviews at the side of my blog. It hurts, really. I don't like it. It does not come naturally at all.I’m only doing it because, having cleared the hurdles of writing a book and getting it published, I’d really like to sell a few copies. Please forgive me.
And anyway I’m so completely thrilled and delighted to have a review from the amazing Caroline Lawrence, author of the Roman Mysteries series that I have to shout about it. Just a little bit.
Caroline, by the way, is almost unique among authors in that her books are equally loved by my two very different children. Only C S Lewis has achieved the same status. And when we played Trivial Pursuit it was fascinating to see how much they’d learnt from reading her series, set in Ancient Rome.
Anyway, one of the other reviews I quote has probably the best line ever written in the history of book-reviewing. I mean ‘this book has it all…talks of push-up bras’ is guaranteed to sell thousands of copies, don't you think? I certainly hope so.
The same 15-year-old reviewer – who I’ve never met, but I adore – said ‘I'd say it was well suited to early teens right the way up to middle-age, as even if you don't appreciate the character of Ty, you can possibly relate to his Mum.’ Ty’s mum, by the way, is 31. And he adds: ‘You might want to get a few copies, one for yourself and one for your kids.’ Yes! Please do! And don’t forget your friends, aunts, neighbours and boss.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The Longest Day

Children’s birthday parties are not my favourite events. There’s the noise. The responsibility. The expense. And the worry that your child won’t enjoy their own celebration, and you’ll have suffered all of the former for the reward of tears and disappointment.

This has happened quite a few times in the past.

So, this year we planned a nice relaxed event for my son’s tenth birthday. A joint party with his friend Adam – to halve the expense and responsibility if not, sadly, the noise. Bowling. Crisps, sandwiches, biscuits and cake. Over and done in two hours. We picked the first day of the school holidays, the 21st of December, the shortest day in daylight hours. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the party was a great success. Twelve boys and three girls bowled, ate and only ran amuck for a short period. We were all finished by 4.30pm. The parental hosts congratulated each other. ‘Great party,’ we agreed. ‘Same again next year?’
But then we emerged from Hollywood Bowl and blinked in horror. A wet grey day had turned into a whirling blizzard. The car park was already caked with snow - on top of the ice remaining from last week’s snowfall. Getting home - five miles max - was going to be more interesting than we’d thought.

My family had taken two cars to the party. My husband packed my son and the presents into his, and set out for home. I’d planned to drop my daughter and her friend Hannah at their friend Gila’s house for a sleepover, then take my niece Eliana to her home. Perhaps a thirty minute round trip. But as we set off into crawling traffic and blinding snow, I rapidly changed my mind. ‘Eliana,’ I said, ‘Can you call your mum? I think you’d better stay overnight with us.’

It took about an hour to get near to Gila’s house. The roads were clear enough though, until we turned off to her hilly street. Suddenly the tyres slipped, and whirred pointlessly. We weren’t going to make it up the hill. So I slid the car in the direction of the kerb, managed to park and we trudged through the snow up the hill to her house.

Jeanie, Gila’s mum welcomed the girls and urged me to stay. ‘No, no…we’ll be fine,’ I said. ‘It’s a main road virtually all the way home, they’re sure to have gritted it. And we live on a bus route, so that'll be gritted too. Don’t worry. We’ll just have to turn around at the bottom of your road somehow.’ So Eliana and I trudged back down the hill.

I struggled to turn the car. It slipped and slid and barely moved. Then a figure appeared out of the swirling snowflakes. A tall man with a long beard, a rabbinic figure. He spoke softly. ‘Take it slowly,’ he said, ‘Very little gas, just let it roll.’ Miraculously the car executed a perfect three point turn. The man disappeared back into his car. We were pointing downhill, just yards from the main road. ‘We’ll be fine,’ I told Eliana.

But the hill was steep and the road was icy and the car couldn’t get a grip. And immediately we swerved and slid and the brakes wouldn’t work and - crunch! – we bumped straight into the back of the car waiting at the traffic lights at the foot of the hill.

The driver understood. We exchanged details. ‘Can I get out?’ asked Eliana, ‘I didn’t like that.’ But we were only inches from the main road. The main road I was sure would be gritted and safe and would get us nearly all the way home. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘We’ll be fine.’

We crawled along the A1. We were not fine. The car shivered and slid. The wheels spun with no forward movement. We watched other cars swerve around. ‘I don’t like this,’ said Eliana. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Nor do I.’

And then we got to a bit of a hill. And the car refused the challenge. I watched the tail lights of the queue in front disappear, as I strained to get the car to move. I tried no gas. I tried lots of gas. Nothing worked. A man pulled up next to me. ‘Put it in first!’ he cried. ‘Pull the clutch up slowly!’ ‘It’s an automatic!’ I wailed back to him.

I thought ahead to our destination. London ceased to be the urban landscape I’m used to and instead became a contoured wilderness. We live in a valley. Every approach involved a steep downwards slope. It wasn’t going to happen. And still the snow was falling down.

I made a swift decision and pulled the car round in a U turn. Maybe I could just roll downhill for a bit, get back to the foot of Jeanie and Gila’s road. But as soon as the car got a hint of the downwards slope it lost all semblance of control. We careered down the A1 like a kid on a toboggan. ‘I really don’t like this!’ said Eliana, with a note of panic. ‘Please can I get out?’

I managed to steer the car up onto a high kerb, and it came to a halt with three wheels on the grass verge. We missed a lamp post by a whisker. I contemplated our strategy. We could stay in the nice warm car and eat the left over party food. But neither Eliana nor I had our phones with us, and who was going to rescue us anyway? Or we could walk the half mile or so to Jeanie’s house. We abandoned the car. And we walked through the snow for what felt like hours, Eliana dressed to party with no coat and crocs on her feet. I was wearing high-heeled patent leather boots, with no grip whatsoever. We held hands and tried to avoid the ice by treading on the powdery snow.

Finally - finally – we arrived at Jeanie’s door. ‘I knew it!’ she said, ‘I knew you’d never make it.’ Jeanie is American. ‘The British have no idea how to handle snow,’ she added. My daughter raised an eyebrow. It’s not often one’s mother hijacks a sleepover party.

Jeanie had her own troubles. Her new cupboards had arrived from Ikea, but didn’t fit the prescribed space. So her bedroom was a mound of clothes, with nowhere to put them. Her husband was struggling home from work in the snow, and not answering his phone. Now she had to feed nine for supper, while trying to tidy the house for the visitors who were going to stay in their house over Christmas. Jeanie is a great woman. She welcomed us with open arms.
I called my husband. ‘I’ve abandoned the car,’ I confessed. ‘You’ve done what?’
I explained. ‘You’ll get a ticket,’ he said, ‘Or towed away. You can’t abandon a car in London. It’s a police state.’
'And I smashed into someone else's car.'
'You did what?'
‘Isn’t it snowing where you are? Where are you, anyway?’

‘Umm…I’m not really sure. We’ve had to take an odd route home.’ So many roads had been closed on their way home that they’d overshot the house and were somewhere to the south trying to head back north. They were crawling up a hill trying to get home. Later, he called to report progress. Driving down our neighbourhood’s high street took an hour to cover 200 yards. They’d been in the car for three hours. He gave up, parked and took my son for a Vietnamese meal to round off his party afternoon.

‘Just walk home from there,’ I begged. ‘I can’t,’ he said, ‘The bastard parking wardens will give me a ticket in the morning.’ It struck me that my husband has developed a little paranoia about parking penalties since we returned to live in London. It took them four hours door to door, but eventually they got the car into a space outside our front door.

The next morning the roads had been gritted. My sister arrived to rescue Eliana - who will never be allowed to leave the house coatless ever again - and gave me a lift back to my car, which was slumped drunkenly but ticketless on the side of the road. The kerb was much higher than I’d realised. Reversing off a soft grass verge into fast-flowing traffic is not much fun. And descending the steep slopes to our valley home was also pretty scary thanks to an eccentric system of gritting only one side of the road. I finally staggered into my house - nineteen hours after the party ended.
Later I rang round to make sure that everyone else had made it home safely. They all had – but quite a few impromptu sleepovers followed the party. ‘No one will ever forget Judah and Adam’s party,’ said one mum, who’d been saying prayers all the way home.

I’ve had a few conversations today with people about why Britain’s so rubbish at dealing with snow. It’s because it happens so rarely. It’s because we don’t believe in investing in the infrastructure. According to the local news, it’s because the rain just before the snow meant that the grit could not be laid, because it would have dissolved. And anyway local councils are running out of grit. We don’t take winter seriously enough, suggested one man. We ought to change our tyres every winter, but we don’t even think of it.

Well, I went and got my tyres checked today and three of them needed replacing. I’m going to buy a shovel tomorrow. I’m never going to travel without my phone again, and I’m going to keep a pair of wellies in the boot. And I’m going to suggest that next year we hold Judah and Adam’s birthday party a few months early - perhaps in August.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Elvis and Me

My oldest friend is Elvis.
Well, not actually Elvis Presley himself, but the nearest you’ll come to him in the UK. Martyn and I grew up near-neighbours in Welwyn Garden City. I emulated his mum’s career and became a journalist. He built a successful career in office equipment. And now we’ve both reinvented ourselves.
He went first, building on part-time work as an entertainer to become Elvis Shmelvis. Now he’s regularly called the UK’s top Elvis impersonator. He’s appeared on TV and performed to huge crowds. He’s sung with the stars. He orders his stage outfits from the real Elvis’s tailor. Most importantly he loves every minute of it.
I’ve thought of Elvis…Martyn…quite a few times recently as I contemplate emerging from the cocoon of nearly-published to the world of debut authordom.
Being a debut author sounds young, and being a Young Adult author sounds even younger and thinking yourself into the head of a teenager feels even younger than that. Plus I’ve been working this year at a newspaper where I started out in journalism as an 18-year-old. So there’s a little bit of time-warp strangeness attached to this debut, a feeling of starting out that is startling when you’re actually as old as Whitney Houston (although younger than Madonna).
I can’t quite work out how much of a reinvention this is. Sometimes, when I’m contemplating school visits or signing books, it feels like a totally different career. At other times - when I’m researching ideas or reworking copy - it’s more of the same.
I do know the danger of confusing a starting point with a finishing line. The day I got my first byline on the front page of the Sunday Times. It was my 25th birthday. I remember feeling a mixture of elation - I’ve done it! - and dismay - but what do I do next? And the same feeling when I got a staff job at The Independent aged 27. I’d used up all my ambitions. What could I do next?
So I’m trying to forget about being a debut author and keep my mind firmly fixed on the next project. Trying to stop labelling myself as one thing or another, and embracing all the new experiences. Feeling inspired by the way life has changed for someone like Martyn. Looking at other friends who are contemplating new starts in middle age - whether through divorce, redundancy or burning ambition – and hoping we can all find our own way.
People are reading my book this week - review copies went out on Tuesday, and I’ve already heard from a few reviewers. The debut business is almost upon me. I’m hoping I can enjoy it as much as Martyn loves performing.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Comfort Reading

I have been spending a lot of time recently with rakes and dandies. I’ve been hanging out in Bath and Brighton, riding in phaetons and curricles, admiring sprigged muslins and sighing over handsome noblemen.
In short, I’ve succumbed to a severe addiction to the work of Georgette Heyer, whose historical romances are as irresistible as pure grade heroin to a junkie.
A visit to the hideous jumble sale that once was Borders has fed my habit to dangerous levels. Georgette Heyer wrote around 40 romances, and I’m quite happy to read them all. In fact, when I ran out recently I just finished one and then started it all over again two days later.
Not only is the historical detail convincing, but the characters well-drawn, the plotting masterful and the romance fabulous. Even when the hero is introduced as mincing - yes, mincing – in high heels along a Parisian lane, you fall in love with him at the end. At least I do.
The reason for this Heyer-fest is quite simple. Comfort reading. My life - apart from the writing side of things - is enormously stressful at the moment, and a good book is a great way to escape from everyday concerns. Georgette Heyer is my drug of choice right now, but I’ve also been known to revert to childhood favourites, in particular Noel Streatfeild or Antonia Forest. Or sometimes I’ll read crime novels – PD James, Ruth Rendell. Books with good plots and memorable characters, books which tell a good story.
At the weekend I read about a boy who reads for comfort. 11-year-old Kasun wears shabby clothes and goes shoeless to school. Once there, he loves reading books in the school library - ‘My favourite place on earth.’ The book he loves best is about a colourful fish, and its many friends in the ocean.
He lives in an orphanage, because his father is dead and his mother could not afford to feed him. David Pilling, who wrote about Kasun in the Financial Times magazine, visited him there: ‘It was not until I visited him later at the nearby orphanage - housed in a Buddhist Temple and presided over by an unsmiling saffron-robed monk - that I fully understood why Kasun was so enthralled with the fish’s busy social life. The other children had gone to the fields to work but Kasun was left behind. Sitting on his filthy bunk bed, one of several lined up in the dank and unwelcoming dormitory, he was all alone.’
The FT was writing about Kasun because the school library was funded by the charity the paper has chosen for its Christmas Appeal. Room to Read promotes literacy for children in the developing world, providing libraries and books for children in many countries. If you want to support this charity then do it through the FT appeal - corporate sponsors will double your donation.
They’re bringing children much more than just comfort - they’re giving them education and hope for the future as well.
It does seem strange that when the multiple values of books and reading are so obvious in the developing world, school libraries in the UK are being cut and closed apace. There is no statutory right for British children to have a library in their school and many give priority to computers. It seems to me that the people who make these decisions are the sort of sad losers who never discovered reading for comfort.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Five great blogs..

An award! Thanks so much Alissa for passing on the Humane Award. All I have to do is name five blogs I enjoy to pass the award onto. So...

1. Amnawrites A 17 year old writer's blog about books, life and writing.
2.Do you Hate it Too? Another teenager blogs about the things he hates.
3. Workforced about the hell of corporate life.
4. Wondrous Reads A great YA review blog.
5. That Elusive Line A blog by a children's book artist.

Oh and pop over to Jo Stapley's Once Upon a Bookcase blog to read about why I'm eating doughnuts rather than mince pies in December.

And...thanks so much to Yunaleska for posting this great review on her blog. I'm feeling all warm and festive..

Friday, 11 December 2009

A Bella Too Far

So I’m on Facebook the other day…OK I’m on Facebook every day…and the very talented YA author Tabitha Suzuma announces her new book. Forbidden, a tale of taboo love between a brother and sister.
Now, knowing Tabitha and her exceptionally sensitive, beautifully written books, Forbidden will be a complete treat. But one thing caught my eye. The sister’s name. Bella.
Of course there’s nothing to stop anyone calling their heroine anything they wish. But Bella, in the face of Twilight’s massive success in the YA market seemed a little bold. On the other hand if anyone can reclaim the name it’s surely Tabitha. So I commented ‘Great that she’s called Bella.’
‘Why?’ asked an innocent Tabitha.
‘Ummm…you know…Bella ‘n’ Edward’
Cue for anguish, gnashing of teeth and requests for new name suggestions from Tabitha. She had never read Twilight. Nor, it seems, had her editors. Just as she’d thought the book was nearly finished one of the hardest aspects - the naming of characters - had to start again.
I always thought that I’d love naming characters. I love names - maybe it’s to do with having a slightly unusual one myself - by the way Keren is a completely different name from Karen, with its own Biblical pedigree (a daughter of Job, actually, called Keren-happuch) and definitely not a pretentious alternative spelling.
I enjoyed debating baby names with my husband, finding layers of meaning in our final choices. Surely naming characters would be the same?
Well, no. When you name a baby, you name a blank slate, and you find a name which reflects your history, your taste, your personality. Naming a character is somewhat different. You have a vague idea of what someone’s like, you’re still finding out about them, and you have to find the perfect label to convey that idea of a person - even though the naming process is nothing like that in reality.
You have to balance each name with the other names in the book. In Almost True there are two people who live together, and they had names which began and ended with the same letters. That wouldn’t do - but I didn’t want to change either name. In the end I had to sacrifice the less important character and search for a new similar name for her.
Then there was my Twilight moment. I had a character called Edward, which was just right. But then my characters started discussing Twilight. It’s someone’s favourite book (If you’ve read When I Was Joe I bet you can guess whose..) And I had to change Edward’s name.
Nothing felt right. I used the find/replace key, inserting Charles, Louis, Mark, Henry. All wrong. I thought about the character, his age, his family. I tried to imagine his parents, how they would have chosen his name. And then I tried out Patrick. Yes! It was as though he’d never been called Edward.
Similarly, Claire in When I Was Joe started out as Katie. But then her part in the book grew. I have a good friend called Katie. It began to feel weird writing about Katie the character. So she became Claire. My daughter sulked for ages. Ty’s mum, on the other hand is called Nicki, and I have another good friend called Nicky. It never bothered me – perhaps because of the one letter difference. But Nicki’s sisters are called Louise and Emma. I have friends called Louise and must be something about the character. Or maybe the friend.
At the moment I’m thinking about a new novel. I have hazy ideas for characters. They are vaguely labelled Lia, Jack, Daisy, Rafael and Theo. Jack’s already had a name change before a word’s been written about him, because a friend told me that my original choice - Jamie – was a girl’s name in the US. How many of the others will stay and how many will change?
I wait to find out - and I'd love to know how others go about the naming process in novels, blogs or real life. And any examples of books you read where a character's name just doesn't feel right?
UPDATE: A few hours after I wrote this, my husband was reading The Three Musketeers to our son. Who then declared that his favourite character was Grimaux - a servant,and very minor character 'because his name is so cool.'

Friday, 4 December 2009

Interviewed by Amna

The very awesome Amna has interviewed me for her blog. Thanks Amna for asking brilliant questions. I think I am going to have to do some intensive investigative research to find out the details of the fit lad on the cover..then I can set up a date in a special blog competition!

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Ears, phones and publishing deals

February, 2009. My agent has had a call from a publisher. Can we go and meet them, talk about my book? ‘They obviously really like it,’ she says on the phone. ‘They’ll just want to discuss it with you, see if you’re willing to make changes.’

Luckily I am meeting two old friends for lunch the day before. I’m a bundle of nerves. ‘What if they hated it?’ I wail. ‘What if they want me to totally rewrite it? Why can’t they just offer me loads of money?’

‘I don’t think they’d be inviting you in for a meeting if they hated it,’ says Yvette, judicially. Yvette is actually a part-time judge.

‘Don’t worry,’ says Nicky. ‘I had a training session in Neuro-Linguistic Programming yesterday. I learned some amazing strategies for meetings.’

‘Oh, yes?’ I say, sceptically.

‘OK, this is what you do. Hold your ear.’

I hold my ear.

‘Think of a time when you were at your most resourceful.’

I try and think, but I can only come up with examples of incompetence and inadequacy. ‘Do you mean at work?’

‘Any time.’

I remember my mother-in-law’s funeral when I had to deliver the eulogy at ten minutes’ notice with no notes. That’ll do. ‘OK’

‘Right. If you’re at a loss in the meeting then touch your ear. You will immediately feel incredibly resourceful.’

I don’t like to say anything, but I feel even more worried. Now I am concerned that during the meeting I will accidentally touch my ear, remember my beloved mother-in-law and burst into tears.

The day of the meeting. I am still nervous. My agent smiles encouragingly. I am trying not to think about touching my ear.

As we walk up the stairs to the meeting room my phone vibrates in my picket. I go to turn it off, glancing at it briefly.

Oh no. My son’s school. They never ever ring me. It must mean he’s had some terrible accident.

I answer the phone - which means I enter the meeting room talking on my mobile. I was right. There’s been a clash of heads in the playground. A bigger boy was involved. Charlotte the secretary’s office is full of weeping lads, one of whom is my 9-year-old.

‘I’m just in an important meeting, Charlotte,’ I hiss, mouthing my apologies to the waiting editors and shaking hands. ‘If he’s OK…?’

‘I’ll just put him on,’ she says.

So I give a quick explanation, then sit down and listen to a garbled, tear-stained account of playground bullying and bumped heads. ‘Calm down…Charlotte will look after you…brave boy….’ I interject. The phone goes dead.

Argh. What to do? I try again, but there’s no signal. ‘It’s difficult to use a mobile in here,’ explains one of the important publishing people. ‘Do you want a landline?’

I give up all hope of securing a book deal. ‘If you wouldn’t mind…he was really upset…he’s only nine…’ As I dial, conversation buzzes about the difficulties of being a working parent. My agent is telling the publishers about her four children. I notice that none of them are phoning her at the time.

I try and call on the landline. The phone rings and rings. I’m imagining brain haemorrhages, ambulances, CPR…Nothing. I put the phone down. ‘I’m terribly sorry,’ I say, with a big smile. ‘I’m sure he’s fine.’

‘So,’ says the editorial director. ‘We just had some concerns about the sexual content of your book. About what’s appropriate for thirteen year olds.’

I take a deep breath. And touch my ear. And immediately feel confident, relaxed and articulate. I deal briskly and sensibly with sex and teenagers. I offer to remove a hand from a thigh here, add an undergarment there. We move on to discussing the book, the sequel, the structure. They say nice things about the book. My agent is looking happy. World English Rights are mentioned. And then my phone vibrates again.

Oh no! It’s the school again. It must be a real emergency…’I’m so sorry,’ I say and answer it. ‘Charlotte? Is everything OK?’

It’s the assistant head teacher. Something about the school choir. ‘I’m in an important meeting,’ I growl, cutting him off rudely. I switch off the blasted phone. And touch my ear again.

So, the moral of the story is – Nicky’s NLP strategy works. Keeping your phone switched on before important meetings does not. The very understanding people at Frances Lincoln Children’s Books made me a two book offer. And my son’s bumped head was better in time for his after school tennis lesson.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Lessons in Citizenship

My daughter has  homework to do for her Citizenship  class.  She described it as 'a project about knife crime.' In fact, it is about challenging media stereotypes which label young people as 'thugs' or 'yobs'.
It's a worthy project I suppose, aimed at getting kids to analyse truth and distortion in the media. They also have to look at crime statistics in Haringey, and work out which crimes are most likely in different parts of the borough.
But today I'd much rather they were looking at a true story of three teenagers in the neighbouring borough of Hackney.
I've written before about the killing of Jahmal Mason-Blair, stabbed to death as he tried to break up a fight in Hackney. Today his killer was named and sentenced to six years in detention.
Michael Ematuwo was only 14, just 5ft tall when he went with Jahmal to try and retrieve his bike from an older boy. He was hit over the head with a stick by the boy, and pulled out a large flick knife. Lashing out he accidentally slashed Jahmal's throat. Jahmal had been trying to shield him and stop the fight.
Jahmal's family told the court: “The impact has been overwhelming. We have been physically, emotionally and spiritually drained for what seems like forever.
“The knowledge that such a loving, kind and talented young man will never fulfil his wonderful potential is almost too much to bear.
“We want the boy responsible, and the community as a whole, to realise the long-lasting and appalling effect caused by one boy choosing to carry a knife.
“Only by our communities looking out for one another will we be able to put an end to the needless deaths of our sons and brothers.”
Michael Ematuwo burst into tears when he was sentenced to six years for manslaughter. His counsel asked the judge to show mercy, due to his age and the impact that a sentence will have on him.
She said: “He had no intention of causing any harm to anyone on that night.”
This story makes me shiver. First because it feels so close to home -  Jahmal was a friend of someone I know from my son's school. Second because the story is so horribly similar to some of the events I've imagined in When I Was Joe.
But most of all because of the pointless loss of so much potential -  beautiful Jahmal, a talented young footballer - described by the judge as  'a bright star in the lives of  his family.' His former friend and killer, Michael Ematuwo, who will spend his adolesence in prison and forever have to live with what he's done.

I hope that citizenship classes in the future will teach teenagers about Jahmal and Michael, and encourage them to imagine themselves in Michael's place, crying in court as he contemplates the huge price paid for his stupid thoughtlessness.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Reading Lessons

 I'm in a classroom at my daughter's school and the teacher is handing out a worksheet. She pauses. 'Does anyone read Dutch?' she asks. And I raise my hand. 
No, it wasn't a nightmare. It really happened. I was at school being trained for a scheme to support struggling readers in secondary school. I was keen, partly for selfish reasons. A writer can learn a lot from children who don't like to read.
The worksheet was our first exercise, designed to put us in the place of a child trying to decipher captions to a picture book. Presumably they wrote them in Dutch because it seemed an extraordinarily unlikely language that anyone would understand. Typical.
Anyway, while the other volunteers frowned over works like 'I' and 'books' I scanned the sheet briefly and worked out the two unfamiliar words -  plaatjes or 'little plates' confused me at first, but then I realised it must mean illustrations. Then I sat and remembered how it felt arriving in Amsterdam, unable to understand one word of Dutch. How stressful it was to see words everywhere that I couldn't understand. How furious I'd feel in the supermarket, trying to decide whether magere melk or karnemelk was skimmed -  and then arriving home to discover that a carton of karnemelk was in fact full of -  yeeuch -  buttermilk.
How I tried to learn by watching Bob de Bouwer  but found it completely beyond me -  not great for the self-esteem.  The six months until I learned  basic Dutch  were nightmarish - I felt  helpless, baffled and stupid every day. I never really learned to speak Dutch very well, but I could read and understand a lot. It transformed my stay in The Netherlands.
The trainers came from a borough-wide scheme working in secondary and primary schools in Haringey, north London. They were brimming with enthusiasm. The main thing, they told us, is to chat with the children about the books they read, make them feel interested and relaxed about reading. There would be no goals, no levels, nor targets. One to one attention from an adult might help these children discover a love of reading that had so far eluded them.
We talked about the worry that children might feel stigmatised by taking part in the scheme. One volunteer -  herself not a native English speaker -  pointed out that they were learning an important life lesson, that it was OK to ask for help. We discussed the books available and whether the children could take them out of a library.
I thought about all the things we do with our children to get them to read - reading to them, audio books, a book review blog, making them read a book before they see the film, discussing stories, characters, ideas. How much of that can I reproduce in a 25 minute session in a school library?
Author John Dougherty has written a polemic against the government's Literacy programme which seems designed to eliminate imagination and enjoyment  of reading and writing from the classroom. I wonder how many of the struggling readers have been put off by targets and testing? At the International School in Amsterdam my daughter, aged 10 had a writer's notebook, which she was encouraged to fill with bits and bobs, pictures and poems and stories, somewhere to capture ideas and flex her imagination. I can't imagine such a thing in my son's SATs dominated classroom, where the emphasis is on inserting 'level five punctuation' into prose.
'Do you remember how you learned to read?' asked our trainers. I didn't, but I do remember the horribly dull reading scheme that we had to work through in infant school. The Wide Range Readers were full of short boring snippets of prose, no stories, no characters. I taught myself to speed read and galloped through them, proud to be the first in my class to graduate onto my own choice of book.
I'd hoped that things might have changed in forty years. I fear they may have got worse.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Fickle? Me?

Some loyal readers may be wondering how my mad attempt to write a novel in a month is going...and how I'm managing to blog frequently at the same time.
Well now. How do I put this?
I knew that November was not going to be a great month to take on a writing challenge. For a start I was still working on final revisions of Almost True -  which I finished on the stroke of midnight on October 31. (My editor didn't like the ending  -  I suspected that was coming, and I much prefer my new version -  and he had problems with chapter 17.  Now he likes the new ending, but we're still debating chapter 17. I decided today..but haven't confessed to him yet...that the book can probably live without it altogether. But let's see what he thinks).
Then I got to work on the new book. I knew I wouldn't get much done in the first week -  I was working for a newspaper -  but thought I would catch up as the story gathered momentum. I plunged in. I gave my main character a stroppy younger brother. Her love interest  -  a sexy chauffeur -  waited in the wings.  I was poised to fall in love with the story.
But I didn't.
 It felt static, dull, irritating. I didn't warm to my main character. I didn't seem to have much to say about her or her family. I pined for Ty and his mum.
I slipped some poison into someone's tea, in an attempt to spice things up a bit. He frothed at the mouth and writhed on the floor. I yawned, switched on X Factor.
And then, ten days or so into November I had a new idea. A simple but great idea. My sort of idea. An idea that seems full of possibilities and fun and questions and could lead in all sorts of exciting directions.
An idea that killed the other novel dead.
So, I abandoned Novel A and began to think about Novel B. I thought about how to tell the story. I worried about it for a week -  how to avoid predicability -  and then I got it! Title, structure, form. I'm not quite there with a plot, but that'll come. Whooo...I'm completely in love with this idea.
So, November wasn't the month for writing. November turned into the month for thinking. What I want to know is whether the abortive attempt to write Novel A opened me up to finding the idea for Novel B. Or was it just a coincidence?

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Vampires, Zombies and Coincidences

I’m not exactly a teenager - although I do seem to have a few lodged in my brain - but I do spend a lot of time reading teenage fiction. Some of it is brilliant, up there with the best books I’ve ever read. Some of it is crappy but compelling. And some just doesn’t do it for me - even though these are books which have won prizes and have a devoted readership.

When I came across this list of things that make the author groan and stop reading in YA fiction, then I found myself nodding wildly in agreement with virtually every point (especially the one about everyone being rich) while also thinking ‘Yes but…there was this book…and what about…’
What she’s generally saying though is that she hates shallowness in YA fiction, characters or plotlines that are there just because, with no depth or proper exposition. Anything - even sparkly vampires - can be done well, it’s just irritating beyond belief when it isn’t.
Anyway, of course I have my own current list of things that irritate me in YA fiction. And of course it is completely unfair and as soon as I post it I will think of exceptions in every single case.

- Dead people as main characters. I really don’t want to read about the love lives of zombies, ghosts or annoying girls stuck in heaven and watching their family and friends from afar (No, I will not be seeing the movie of The Lovely Bones)  I’m not that keen on people in comas either. I want living, breathing main characters please. (I specifically exclude Neil Gaiman’s superb The Graveyard Book from this, although would point out that the main character is alive.) What I hate is the idea that even though you're dead you still have a life. You don't.

- Books where only one character has a problem and that problem is the ‘issue’ and everyone else is ‘normal’ and the eventual solution to the problem is that you talk to a counsellor who will somehow magically make you ‘normal’ as well. I honestly think you’d be better off reading the agony page of Mizz magazine, where at least you’d get the idea that lots of people have problems and ‘issues’ are just life.

- Books where everyone is white and middle class.

- Books where the main character loves music and films that someone in their thirties or forties would love…oh, could that be the age of the author? How strange…I especially hate this when it’s presented as a plot device  Do they think we’re completely stupid?

- Books where people waffle on for pages and pages analysing themselves and their feelings and their families.

- Books where the action never stops for long enough for anyone to react to anything, and the author obviously hasn’t thought about any emotion deeper than the blindingly obvious.

- Books where coincidence follows coincidence, and then someone says something lame about what a coincidence something else was, and you’re screaming at the page: ‘Yes! You are a lazy, lazy author!’

- Books where all the teachers are horrible except one (Sudden worry that maybe I’ve already committed this crime against literature. Hmmmm…)

- Completely obvious rip offs of other successful novels. Which means no more vampires, and no more angels pretending to be vampires, and no more schools for wizards and no more bloody brooding lab partners and meetings in clearings. Unless done for the sake of irony (you’ll see what I mean when you read Almost True, which I hope you will do in August).

At this point I think I’d better stop because I’m already worrying that I’ve broken several of my own rules - oh, whoops, there is a lab partnery science lesson scene in Joe - although absolutely not the one about coincidences, I promise faithfully that I will never ever knowingly allow a coincidence to seep into a plot. Unless I think it's absolutely neccessary. Ahem...

PS..when looking for an image to illustrate this post I typed coincidence into Google images and came up with this. It wasn't exactly what I was looking for..but how could I not share it?

Sunday, 15 November 2009

The joy of blogging

Six months ago I only had a very hazy idea about blogging. I thought it was for people to record their cute kid’s witty quotes, or their anonymous sex lives, or some other boring solipsistic rubbish.

I despised the whole idea, to be completely honest. I was a professional journalist, an aspiring author. I have been paid to write for nearly thirty years. Why on earth would I want to work for nothing?

Then (after spending a year writing  books for absolutely nothing except the joy and hope of it) I got a book deal. My first book was going to be published in just under a year’s time. I began to investigate ways of raising my profile, letting people know about me and my book.

A website was my first idea, but I knew I couldn’t afford the flashy site of my dreams. Then, one day, I was reading Candy Gourlay’s great blog on marketing children’s books. Candy had been writing for nine years, had snared an agent but had no publishing deal. One could completely understand if she had become bitter and despairing. But no, she carried on generously handing out advice to techno dimwits, about how they can use the internet to sell themselves. ‘I really can’t understand why a published author wouldn’t have a blog,’ she wrote one day. And - at last, duh – I got it.

I’d been thinking that writing a blog was writing for free. It wasn’t. It was completely free marketing for me and my book.

So I started this blog back in May, with the idea of writing bits and pieces about the background of the books, news stories about related topics, and perhaps some posts about the interesting journey of becoming a published author. I didn’t exactly keep to my own brief. Before long I was writing about everything and anything. The blog is a little bit book-pushing, a little bit writer’s journey and an awful lot of whatever springs to mind at the moment.

I had no idea at all how much I’d enjoy it. It’s like having a diary that talks back, that goes out and meets people, that can link to other interesting and funny stuff and be illustrated with pictures. After a lifetime of writing to prescribed lengths in a newspaper’s style, I have total freedom. If I want a post to be long, it’s long. If I want it to be short, it’s short. The feeling of liberation is extraordinary.

What have I achieved? I’ve been linked to on some great blogs, and been quoted on an email that goes out to everyone in the UK publishing world. I’ve made some new friends - friends I haven’t even met yet, but friends nonetheless. Hopefully I’ve sold a copy or two of the book.

This is my sixtieth blog post. I’ve written about witness protection and knife crime, and being a writer. I’ve written about the world of children’s books. But I’ve also written about chance encounters, and stories from my past.  If it's solipsistic or self-indulgent, I don't really care. I just aim to make it interesting.

I've had lots of witty and interesting comments from readers, some of whom have become followers. I never imagined having followers of any kind, and I love it. But the sweetest response came from my dad. ‘I really enjoy your blog,’ he told me, ‘I’ve learned a lot about you that I didn’t know before.’ My dad is 81 and I am 46. If that was the only thing that I gained from writing this blog then  it was worth it.

 The two books I've written so far are told  in the first person, in the voice of a teenage boy. Ty’s voice isn’t my voice. His language is very flat and uncomplicated, he uses ‘kind of’ and ‘sort of’ a lot, he says ‘like’ instead of ‘as if’ and his grammar isn’t always what it should be.  Ty’s voice was very easy for me. He almost took over. This blog has given me a place to use and develop my own voice. I hope it’ll make it easier for me now it’s time to move on from Ty and adapt to a new narrator for my next project.

Anyway, Candy Gourlay inspired this blog and I’m exceptionally happy to say that all the good karma she’s put out into the world, not to mention her hard work and enormous talent has been rewarded with a publishing deal. David Fickling will publish Tall Story next summer. Here's Candy's video response to the news - essential viewing for any as yet unpublished writer.  Well done Candy - but please, don’t neglect your blog!

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Edward Cullen and the Female Gaze

The trailer for the eagerly-awaited film of Stephenie Meyer’s New Moon can be summed up quite simply as lots of hot young men running around without their vests. Some of them transform into fluffy wolves. One slowly unbuttons his shirt, exposing his skinny white torso, just above the dangly bits. Another one leaps through a window.

The link with feminist art theory may not be immediately apparent.
However, bear with me. As a sometime student of art history (I absolutely love art history, particularly all the mad theories and I fully intend to finish my long-running Open University degree course. Perhaps next year) I would argue that this trailer is an absolutely classic example of something rarely acknowledged, the Female Gaze.

Feminist art theory – please excuse the massive over-simplification - has generally tended to concentrate on asking good and important questions about why men have traditionally dominated the art world. Believe me, it’s not because they have all the talent.

It also examines the way we look at art. Feminist theorist Laura Mulvey suggested that throughout history most art was produced with a male viewer in mind - the Male Gaze - which objectifies women. Mulvey said that the Gaze could not be reversed because "the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification.”. When the male body is clearly the object of desire in art, the work is often conceived as and described as homo-erotic.

Very few commentators allow for the Female Gaze per se, and tend to suggest instead that in the rare event that men are presented for women to admire and enjoy, then women are copying a male point of view. They have in mind male strippers and teen pin ups. The Female Gaze rarely seems to make it into mainstream art.

Well, feminist art theorists, take a look at the New Moon trailer (you may need to watch it several times as I have done in the writing of this post.) Fully dressed women, half naked men. Men who are clean and shiny looking. Men in need of help - physically and emotionally, but who also display strength and who want to protect women. Strong emotion underpinning every scene. Tenderness mixed with the toughness. It’s all clearly designed to appeal to the Female Gaze. There’s almost nothing there for straight men -  our heroine Bella is wearing the world's ugliest anorak -  and the emphasis on the top half of the male body means it’s not even classically homo-erotic.

The books on which New Moon and the previous film Twilight were based have been a phenomenal publishing success. Stephenie Meyer has sold millions of copies and made a fortune. She has passionate fans, all of whom have fallen in love with the book’s hero - sparkly vegetarian vampire Edward Cullen – and identify with Bella, the klutzy girl he falls for.
The books have come in for much criticism however. There is the strange stalker-ish behaviour of Edward, who breaks into Bella’s house at night to watch her sleep. There’s Bella’s passivity and self-destructive worship of Edward - she’d rather die than have anything bad happen to him. There’s the clunky prose, the double adjectives, the lack of plot. And then there’s the fourth book Breaking Dawn which is in a whole critical category of its own.

Watch Twilight the film and most of these questions are taken care of. Yes, Bella is a bit daft - but no more so than your average teenage girl in love. And Edward is not just completely gorgeous, but also tortured – prone to embarrassment at his own perfection and anguish at his potential to harm. Even the creepy night-stalking comes across as just about understandable, given his messed-up life. It’s a real tribute to the script-writer and the actors, Kristin Stewart and the very lovely Robert Pattinson that they iron out the book’s problems and create a powerful love story.

What I’ve never understood though is the appeal of Edward in the book. I tried, really I did. I wanted to fall in love with him, experience the attraction felt by the obsessive millions. But Stephenie Meyer kept ruining him for me. I liked the bronze hair, golden eyes and alabaster skin - but then he smirked. Urgh. And even worse, Edward  ‘snickered’. Maybe in America attractive men snicker -  perhaps it's not as camp and high-pitched over there -  but in England it’s strictly for Graham Norton. If you're not familiar with Graham Norton then the picture here sums up what he's all about. I mean you don't want even a glimmer of that in your romantic hero, do you?

Then there are Edward’s clothes. Most of the time Bella is too busy swooning over his gorgeous face and body to notice his clothes. But when she does he is wearing “a light beige leather jacket…underneath he wore an ivory turtleneck sweater.” Yuk! He sounds like David Cassidy circa 1974. I mean what man wears a turtleneck? If you do a google image search for  'ivory turtleneck' you find pages of not very nice versions for women and only one for men -  which in fact is gray. Here it is. I mean, he's a nice looking guy, but he's clearly put on his granny's jumper. And that's without the beige leather jacket.
And he drives a Volvo. Perhaps for Americans this means exotic and European (a Ferrari though might have been a safer choice)  For Europeans, Volvo spells safe, reliable and deeply boring.
The biggest turn off though is the way he talks to Bella. ‘Bella, you are utterly absurd,’ he says. He calls her a silly girl. By this point Meyer had lost me. What reader likes a snickering hero who speaks to a girl - as she puts it - ‘as if he were talking to someone mentally handicapped.’ Attractive? I don’t think so.
So, I try and put the books out of my mind and concentrate on the films. Only ten days to go before New Moon is unleashed before an admiring Female Gaze. I can’t wait to go and run my feminist art theorist's eye over it.

UPDATE: Look at this..New Moon by action figures. Pure genius.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Knife crime update

The justice secretary Jack Straw has announced an increase in the minimum tariff to be served by knife murderers, bringing it more in line with guns. I wonder why it was ever different in the first place.

Missing Amsterdam in November

Amsterdam is at its most beautiful in the spring, when the tulips bloom and the sun comes back and it’s warm enough to sit outside and drink milky coffee. But it’s dark, cold, grey November when I miss it the most.

November in Amsterdam is just fun, fun, fun - for children anyway, especially of the expat variety. First comes the American celebration of Halloween, which generally goes off without anyone being shot. Then there’s the British Society’s glorious Bonfire Night event, which was held at a watersports centre in deepest west Amsterdam - I  got lost on the way every year - and was hugely enjoyed especially by non-Brits who would marvel at British delicacies like parkin and goggle in amazement as we ‘threw our effigies on the fire’.

After that injection of true Britishness for the kids we were free to enjoy the sheer Dutchness of the next two events. First St Maarten’s Night on the 11th, commemorating a saint best known for hiding among a flock of geese when he was appointed bishop and later sharing his cloak with a blind beggar.

In his honour children make lanterns and carry them in a parade around the Vondelpark (a bit dark and muddy as parades go, but nice to see the lanterns threading round the lake) Then it’s time to beg for sweets at neighbours' houses by singing special songs.  ‘St Maarten, St Maarten, the cows have got their tails, the girls have got their skirts on, here comes St Maarten’ runs one. Unfortunately one year we got it muddled up and sang ‘The cows have got their skirts on’ much to the amusement of the Dutch family listening. My children were mortified. After that they refused to sing.

St Maarten is easily eclipsed though by the real star of the Dutch winter. Sinterklaas, or St Nicholas, is the original Santa Claus, but he’s very different from the red-coated guy with the reindeers. Sinterklaas wears a bishop’s garb and mitre, and rides on a white horse. He arrives in Amsterdam mid November, supposedly from his summer home in Spain and parades through the city. Children and adults line the streets, enjoying marching bands and floats and waiting for the magical white horse to appear. When he does they cry out for his attention - ‘Sint! Sint!’- while Sinterklaas waves graciously to them.

Swarming all around are crowds of Pieten - a startling sight to visitors from more politically correct nations. ZwartePiet - or Black Pete - is Sinterklaas’s servant, and he looks very much like an old-fashioned golliwog toy. The sight of massively tall Dutchmen - the tallest nation on earth – blacked up with huge curly wigs causes huge disquiet to outsiders, especially when Piet is leading Sinterklaas’s horse in a servile fashion. Piet is childlike and mischievous. No wonder there’s a movement to change him into BuntePiet – Multi-coloured Piet- to avoid offence.
For outsiders November is a strange month to be in Amsterdam. The main department store, the Bijenkorf, one year had as its main decoration a massive Piet head, hanging above the shoppers. Every shop window display seems to feature him, including the cake shop which features chocolate cakes with marzipan lips. It's shocking enough to Brits. Americans can hardly believe their eyes. When my friend from Boston visited me in hospital after my son was born she nearly fainted when she saw a huge ZwartePiet striding through the children's ward. She grabbed her camera. 'No one's going to believe me without a picture.'

But the Dutch in general don't want a multi-coloured Piet.  They argue that he's a Moor from Spain and anyway, how can he be seen in a negative light when everyone loves him? The children adore him at the parade, calling his name and grabbing handfuls of sweets and pepernoten - spicy biscuits - from his sack. They sing songs about how much they love him. He is an ancient part of Dutch culture. In a time when so much of European heritage is being Hollywoodised and Disneyfied surely he’s worth preserving.

I held out against Piet’s charms for years. But it’s hard to dislike someone who your children love so much. The year I found myself arguing with an American friend against Bunte Piet and for the genuine article was the year I knew I’d crossed over. I was thinking like a Dutch person. Perhaps it was time to move on.

As I was about to post this my son came to say goodnight. 'Why are you looking at pictures of Zwarte Piet?' he asked and then began singing, in perfect Dutch, a song about Piet.  We left the Netherlands two years ago when he was just seven, but my Amsterdam-born English-speaking boy still thinks he's really Dutch.. And my kids always called the Sint's friend Smart Piet.

Friday, 6 November 2009

The week that wasn't

So the quest to write a novel in a month made a stumbling start this week – have written just 1,751 words…that’s about six thousand short of target. My characters sit around and drink tea in two locations so far. Not the most exciting start, I have to admit...but it’s early days. Just warming up to them.

In the middle of the week I had an enthusiastic email from a friend. ‘You’ve inspired me!’ she wrote. ‘I’m signing up for NaNoWriMo. I’m going to write a novel in a month too.’

‘Great,’ I wrote back. ‘I’ve had a very slow start.’

‘Never mind,’ she replied, ‘Just make a start on November 1.’

‘I can’t,’ I told her. ‘Today is the 4th.’

Anyway, the best blog I’ve read on the subject is this one by Emily Gale. Read and be even more inspired.

I didn’t get much writing done, because I was working this week. As well as foreign editing the Jewish Chronicle, single-handed - seven pages - I wrote a leader, a news story about hippos and a comment piece about Anne Frank and the boundaries of humour. Such a difficult subject to judge - the headline doesn't really reflect my views - in general I’m anti-censorship, but I’m also anti puerile offensiveness too. Thoughts anyone?
UPDATE David Mitchell has written a really good piece in the Guardian about edgy humour, explaining his Anne Frank joke . Read it here.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Award time

Another day, another award...yeah, right...but today it is true, because kind Fish who writes the hilarious dating blog plentymorefishoutofwater has passed on the Superior Scribbler Award

Of course, there are the inevitable award conditions, so here goes.

*Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass the award on to five most deserving bloggy friends.

*Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author and the name of the blog from whom s/he has received the award.

*Each Superior Scribbler must display the award on his/her blog, and link to This Post, which explains the award.

*Each blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr Linky List. That way, they'll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives this prestigious honour.

*Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.

That's the boring bit out of the way, and now to my deserving blogs.

Anna Bowles at The Chocolate Keyboard  - a new really interesting and intelligent blog by an editor.
Judah at The Books I Read. A nearly 10 year old's fantastic book review blog (OK, he's my son. Do you see any rules against nepotism up there?)
Saviour Pirotta's Sword and Sandal Kids A brilliant idea this -  reviews of historical books and films for children.
Brian Keaney Dreaming in Text A veteran children's writer with a great blog about writing and life.
Kate's Secret Office Confessions. Like The Office but funnier.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Remembering Jahmal

I never had the privilege of knowing Jahmal Mason-Blair. But he was friends with someone I know and I woke one morning to find his untimely death mourned on my Facebook page.
Jahmal was only 14 when he died. A talented footballer, he was much loved by his family and friends. He died because he tried to protect his friend when a youth attacked him. The friend pulled out a knife and started waving it around. He caught Jahmal in an artery and he died almost immediately.
If anyone needs a reason to think twice about carrying a weapon, they should look at Jahmal's beautiful face and imagine losing a friend like that.
The boy who stabbed him is awaiting sentence. Jahmal's family are serving a life sentence of grief and loss.

Friday, 30 October 2009

The Website Prince

‘Keren, if you don’t recognise your prince when he gallops up on his white horse, then there’s no hope for you.’ So said my mother, a good few years ago,  when I cruelly rejected an eminently eligible but sadly unattractive suitor. The white horse was purely metaphorical, as was his royal status. I laughed a lot. She wasn’t pleased

But I was right, and so was she in some ways. Sometimes you know - you just know – whether a man’s a prince, a troll or a frog with prospects. The same thing goes for homes, jobs, friends and opportunities. You get a shiver of déjà vu which is all about potential. You know you’ve met your prince, found your palace or embarked on your quest.

All of which is a slightly roundabout way to explain why I’ve just signed up to do something crazy, daunting and probably impossible. Something I had no intention of doing. Something for which I’m not prepared and have no time for.

I’m talking about NaNoWriMo. Writing a novel in a month - the month of November which starts on Sunday. The challenge is to write 50,000 words in a month . Why would I do this? Why, when I swore that this time I would stop and think and plan my next novel? Why, when I’ve got lots of things planned for November already? Well, because I know myself. And I read the website and fell in love with an idea.

Sign up on the website and you’re in touch with thousands of other people all trying to do the same thing. There are emails, events, forums and - above all - deadlines. ‘NaNoWriMo is all about the magical power of deadlines.’ It says. I love deadlines. ‘Give someone a goal and a goal-minded community and miracles are bound to happen. ‘ I love goals. I love communities. I believe in miracles.

‘Writing a novel in a month is both exhilarating and stupid, and we would all do well to invite a little more spontaneous stupidity into our lives,’ it says. I love (deadline-bound) spontaneous stupidity. That was it. I signed up.

It took a bit more than a month to write When I Was Joe. But I had 60,000 words of the first draft in two months. The combination of deadlines, goals and community on the City University workshop course gave me the kick up the backside I needed. Right now I’m at the same stage with my new idea that I was in May 2008 when I started writing Joe. I have a vague idea, the context of the story. I have two main characters. I’ve written a first chapter which needs to be thrown away and changed completely.

So wish me luck. If you're doing NaNoWriMo then I'm signed up as kerensd. I’m afraid the blog may suffer as a result. Anyone want to write a guest blog during November? I’d like to hear about your Desert Island Books - the five books you’d take to a desert island and why. Or tell us about crazy challenges and whether they worked or not.  Email me at

Sunday, 25 October 2009

The Fear Factor

It’s every writer’s dream isn’t it? The offer from the agent…the publishing deal…foreign sales…rave reviews…bestseller lists…film rights…the Carnegie medal…outselling JK Rowling…

In truth it’s so hard to achieve even one of these things that it seems incredibly churlish to admit to the dark side of writing success. The fact that it's all a bit frightening.  But I suspect it’s the fear that stalks the whole process that stops many people from getting started at all.

First of all there’s the fear of rejection. That’s just something to get used to. Rejection comes at every level of the process. It’s not pleasant, it’s not nice but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Occasionally you can learn from it, but mostly you just have to shrug it off. I know people who invest so much in an approach to one agent that when that one says no, that's it. No more approaches. Even though the first agent may have had a closed list, or a bad day.
 You just have to toughen up. Tell youself it’s their loss and get on and find someone else to try.

Then there’s exposure. When you write fiction you show a very private part of yourself to the world – and that can feel as shameful as posing for a spread in Playboy. It’s your imagination that’s going on show, and that’s something that you’re taught from childhood to hide away, even from yourself. So, it can feel scary and painful to let other people get a glimpse of your private fantasies. It’s curious that one of the most special things about being human is so little used by most of us. Again – toughen up. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t put limits on your imagination, and your writing will be better for it.

There’s the readers to fear. Every writer wants readers, right? They want to reach out to the world, touch others, change people’s lives with their stories. But that potentially includes everyone you’ve ever met. Your exes. The bitchy girls at school. Your old headmistress (gulp). Your secret crush. And, of course, lots of random stupid people who won’t get your book, won’t believe your premise and won’t like your characters. Suddenly the prospect of Rowlingesque sales is horrifying and you pray for hopeless obscurity. Hmm. Toughen up. Don’t worry about it. Identify your worst reader fear - yes, your mother - and give her the manuscript. It won’t be as bad as you think. And if it is…well, at least it’ll be over. No other reader will feel so frightening.

Apart, of course, from reviewers. Strangely enough, my first venture into journalism was reviewing children’s books. I was 18 and working as a messenger girl on a national paper and Sharon, the editor of the children’s page gave me some  books to review. The very first one was about a hamster. I enjoyed writing reviews, and I loved seeing my name in print. I spared not a moment’s thought for the poor author of the hamster book, reading and re-reading my verdict on her work. I went on to review many books. I never thought about the authors. I especially liked hardback books, because I could sell them at the second hand book shop. It's only now, as a writer, that I appreciate the power that I wielded.
With the advent of the internet absolutely anyone can review your book and post their verdict for the world to see. Reviews of children’s books in the national press are hard to get - so little space – but the multitude of blogs and sites like Amazon and Waterstones mean that few books are likely to go completely unjudged. Yes, it’s scary. But any one review is only one person’s opinion, and that person may be a messenger girl, interested in her own byline and the resale value of your work of art. Anyway one bad review is likely to be balanced by a good one. Get over it. Toughen up.
There’s failure of course. What if the book doesn’t sell? What if the reviews are all bad - or there are no reviews at all? What if it never gets onto any short list, or doesn’t sell gazillions, or never makes a foreign sale…it goes on and on. Am I going to be like an X Factor competitor who goes out in the early rounds -  so near to their ultimate dream, but so far?
There are unlimited opportunities for failure once you start down this route. JK Rowling – what a loser. She never won the Carnegie did she? Philip Pullman? Totally outsold and eclipsed (clever, huh) by Stephenie Meyer -  but who'd want Stephenie's reviews?
Forget it. If you’re so minded you can turn anything into failure. Most books don't sell very many copies. There are only so many prizes to go around. So, your friends expect you to do as well as JK Rowling and will pity you if you don't become a multi-millionaire? So what! They are completely ignorant about publishing. Much better to celebrate any little success for what it is - a success! Fantastic!
But then there's the fear of success. What if the book does well? Will everyone hate me? Will everything I write be compared unfavourably to my early success?
 And what if I never think of another idea? What if these were the only books that I have in me? Get a grip for heaven's sake.

This post was inspired by Nomad who left a comment on my post about finishing two books in one day. ‘Congrats...’ he wrote, ‘This is the future I want. but it scares the shit out of me.’

Nomad, it scares me too.There are times -  lots of times -  when I lie awake wondering why on earth I thought it was a good idea to try and write books.  I just keep on telling myself to toughen up and get a grip - and there’s nothing much I can do now except enjoy the ride.
 I've lived though a lot of scary stuff. I can cope with all of the above. I know it, because I've experienced much, much worse. So -   shame, misery, derision,  embarrassment, pity, envy - bring it on. I think I'm ready.

Interview with an Author

And how strange it feels that the author is me. Tracy Ann Baines interviewed me for her blog  -  which also contains highly recommended interviews with authors like Tabitha Suzuma (whose books I cannot recommend highly enough) and Margo Lanagan, author of the controversial and well-reviewedTender Morsels (I haven't read it yet, but I will).  There is a bit of a spoiler in the interview, but it doesn't give too much away I hope. Once When I Was Joe is published I'll come clean about my two bits of creative licence.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Group Therapy

I always get slightly embarrassed about saying ‘I’m off to my writing group’. It seems to me to sound a little like ‘I’m off to group therapy’ or ‘I’m off to my flower-arranging class.’

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with either of those activities – I once spent a fabulous morning in a Dutch farmhouse learning to make a Christmas centrepiece, probably the ultimate Expat Wife experience* especially considering I don’t actually celebrate Christmas - but somehow I always feel a little defensive about our fortnightly 'writing' sessions.

Maybe it’s the way my husband raises his eyebrows and says ‘Did you do much writing at writing group?’ and then laughs. Could he be suggesting that it’s more of an excuse for a good chat?

Well, an outsider might  get the impression that Writing Group is more of a talking shop. There’s the tea and shortbread, for a start, and the way we spend at least an hour out of our allotted two catching up on each other’s news. Then we give feedback on any work that’s been sent round in the last fortnight. And then we chat a bit more. We generally go off at several tangents. If someone’s having an emotional crisis then everything else goes by the board. It can seem ever so slightly lacking in focus.

However. That is missing the point. The focus is there, because we are the focus. Quite often the group’s main purpose is to identify what’s  stopping any one of us from writing and find a solution. Or to get a reticent soul to admit that they’ve got the seedling of an idea, and then drip feed it with enthusiasm and encouragement until it bears fruit.

In the year that our writing group has been running, between us we’ve produced two YA novels, nearly two non-fiction books, a proposal for a series of non fiction books, a proposal for an animation series, some fabulous poems, a book for young children, a picture book and the start of an adult novel. One of us (Jennifer Gray! Yay!) got an honorary mention in the recent SCBWI Undiscovered Voices competition.

The catch-up reports have been essential for setting our goals, celebrating our triumphs and sharing our pooled knowledge and resources. Most of all it’s helped the people with  great ideas, who are mired in work, family and community responsibilities to hang on to their creative dreams and see that producing something – however sketchy - leads to producing a whole lot more.

The feedback is ferociously constructive, encouraging but honest. We care about each other and each other’s work. We fall in love with each other’s heroes (I'm passionate about a certain Mr H at the moment). And we help to provide perspective when the writer can’t see the trees for the leaves, let alone the wood for the trees.

Amanda Swift who runs the group was our tutor on the City University Writing for Children course (the group started as a follow up to the course, but some of the members joined subsequently and didn’t do the course). She sets the tone – she’s always postitive, acutely insightful and rarely sticks to her original plan. I’ve gained more from Amanda’s throwaway remarks than I would from an entire MA course in Creative Writing. ‘I’m not sure why I come to writing group, because I never write anything’ confessed one of our group last year, ‘I think it’s just because of Amanda.’ And since then she’s started writing too.

In fact, let's face it, Writing Group is a mixture of group therapy and flower arranging - with words and plots standing in for flowers and foliage.  Who knows what beautiful bouquets (or even books) we'll create in the future.

(*Expat Wife Experience. I can feel a post coming on about being an Expat Wife, or Trailing Spouse as we were so delightfully known. For now it is sufficient to say that an Expat Wife Experience is when you find yourself doing something that you would never ever do in your home country, partly to have a totally foreign experience and partly to spend time with other people - it really doesn’t matter who, but it generally turns out to be other expat wives. Embroidering a patchwork quilt was one such EWE. I will return to this subject sometime.)

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Jan Moir and Stephen Gately: sorry borry won't do

Sorry borry is a phrase invented by one of my children to say when you’re being made to apologise but you don’t mean it. You don’t necessarily have to say the borry part to make it a full sorry borry - you can imply it by your tone of voice, or a look on your face or the fact that you’ve got your fingers crossed behind your back.

Sometimes the sorry borry is a highly qualified apology – ‘I’m sorry I hit you because you were winding me up,’ for example. Or ‘I’m sorry I spilled milk over your homework because you were kicking me at the time.’

Quite often we’ll be watching the news and hear a government minister or a company boss making an apology that doesn’t sound 100 per cent sincere. ‘Hmmm,’ we’ll say. ‘That’s a ‘sorry borry’ if ever I heard one.’

Anyway for a spectacular example of the borryest of sorries, turn to Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir. Yesterday she wrote a hideously offensive column in the Daily Mail about the sad death of Stephen Gately, the 33-year-old Boyzone star who died in sleep at his holiday flat in Spain, shockingly and unexpectedly, from natural causes. Jan Moir’s article, published on the eve of his funeral chucked dirt in all directions - including, rather stunningly, at every young person who has ever died unexpectedly in their sleep. Charlie Booker did a wonderful job in The Guardian at pointing out how vile her thinking was. And then Ms Moir ‘apologised’ (or responded, or clarified, but on the day it was being touted as an apology)

She suggested that most people making complaints had not read her article: Sorry (borry) that you are thick and ill-informed.

She suggested that most people complaining were ‘in the gay community’ (Sorry (borry) that you are over-sensitive and feeling got at) Well I’m not actually gay, but if being offended by Jan Moir’s article makes me ‘part of the gay community’ so be it.

She repeats her allegations that Stephen Gately’s death may have been caused by his lifestyle (Sorry (borry), but I was right all along) On the basis of no medical knowledge or evidence at all she challenges the coroner and alleges a cover-up.

She says she’s only  disputing the ‘happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships - a mind-boggling sorry borry this one, as she has created this myth all by herself.

And her final sentence: ‘In what is clearly a heavily orchestrated internet campaign I think it is mischievous in the extreme to suggest that my article has homophobic and bigoted undertones., is basically ‘Sorry borry because you are all ganging up on me and that’s very naughty of you because I didn’t even hint at what you think I was saying.’

Well, as to the ‘heavily orchestrated’ campaign – this is how it works Jan. You write an article for a newspaper which is read by thousands of people, and the article is posted on the internet by that paper. People read it. They post links to it on Twitter. People like me who don’t read the Daily Mail become aware of your article. We read it. We post in on Facebook, with a little comment about your stupidity. Our friends read it. We might make a few comments on Twitter. We blog. That’s not orchestrated, it’s an organic cacophony of derision and protest.

I do object to Jan Moir’s overtones (hardly undertones)  of homophobia. Even she would not think it acceptable to be so blatantly racist or antisemitic, I assume.  But,  just as much, I object to her lack of respect. If she thinks there are questions to be asked about Stephen Gateley’s death, why ask them on the eve of his funeral? Why insult his memory, his family and his partner in this way?  Why insult the memory of every young person who has ever died unexpectedly of natural causes - I know of two such cases among my friends' families?

The Daily Mail is foremost among the commentators bemoaning - correctly - a lack of respect in Britain today. By publishing articles like this - and 'apologising' in such an insincere and self-justifying way - it is only boosting the disrespect culture.

More than a decade ago I was an editor on the comment pages of The Independent. A young girl had died after taking an ecstasy tablet at a party and her parents immediately mounted a high profile campaign against drugs. One of our eminent commentators wrote her column about the case. The parents were to blame for the girl’s death, she argued, they should have educated themselves about drugs, made sure there was water available at the party.

I was unhappy about the tone of the column. It seemed to me very harsh to be blaming grieving parents for their daughter’s death. The commentator had not spoken to the parents, nor put these questions to them. It seemed a misuse of the newspaper’s power to print her attack.

My immediate boss was at lunch. So I went to the editor, and asked him to read the column. He was Charlie Wilson, a real old school journalist, with a reputation for being tough and fiery. He read it, he agreed with me. We asked the columnist to write a new article about a different subject.

I’ve seen some journalists defend Jan Moir on the basis of free speech. I’ve seen others express surprise at the fuss: ‘it’s just an article’. But why use free speech to attack the bereaved? If we accept the need for laws against libel and inciting hatred, then we accept there are limits to free speech and we accept the power of the media.

I think it's great that advertisers asked for their ads to be pulled from the internet site. It's a free country, and it's their right to object to offensive content. I'm ecstatic that the article received so many complaints that the Press Complaints Commission website crashed and had to quickly add a special 'if you're complaining about Jan Moir' button.

So, Jan Moir and the editor of the Daily Mail, I’m saying to you what I say to my children. Sorry borry is not good enough.

UPDATE: One week and 22,000 complaints later Jan Moir wrote another column in the Mail. I suppose I could pick it apart and demonstrate her small-minded confusion again. But luckily McGuffin's superb blog on the tabloid press has done it already.