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.