Saturday, 27 February 2010

The Home Front

It’s my 100th post! How exciting! And to mark the occasion my lovely husband and adorable children have offered to write a guest post. They’ve made me a cup of tea and say I’ve got to put my feet up and watch Match of the Day. Wow! I wonder what they’re going to write…..

Nine months ago we had a wife and mother. Then she got a book deal and started reinventing herself. She began banging on about social networking and building a platform.
And now we have an addict on our hands.
She says she’s just going to spend five minutes checking her messages, and two hours later she’s staring vacantly at the screen, flicking mindlessly between Facebook, Twitter and
What’s more she scoffs at a serious professional networking site like LinkedIn, claiming it’s ‘boring’. Well, what’s so interesting about looking at Facebook to discover that Gillian Philip’s had a cup of coffee or Fiona Dunbar’s eating an banana?

I can’t even complain, because I know that her years of journalistic experience will enable her to twist my words and report them in her Facebook status for her hundreds of new ‘friends’ to laugh at. It’s like living in the Big Brother house. Or with Julie Myerson. And on Facebook she’s started calling me ‘The H’ which apparently is her new pals’ code word for ‘bumbling idiot’.
If we’re watching something on television - even football - she’s constantly tapping away on her laptop, tweeting inane comments to her mates on Twitter - completely ignoring her family. All we get is the occasional burst of laughter as she responds to some puerile tweet - or a request to help with the spelling of words like ‘Fabregas’ and ‘Avatar’.
Sometimes we manage to drag her out of the house, for a bracing walk on Hampstead Heath. Within minutes though she’s nicked my BlackBerry and is dragging her feet, trying to catch up with the social life of a couple of rodents. Thank goodness our guinea pigs are - so far - not on Facebook.
The blog is the worse. Not only has the amassing of followers fed her not inconsiderable ego, but the amount of housework and administration that we are expected to do has steadily grown.
Everything that happens to us is fodder for the blog. A visit from the police at midnight? ‘Pure blog gold’ according to Keren. ‘Shame they didn’t break the door down,’ she added, ‘That would’ve been more dramatic. Shall I pretend they did anyway?’

When we point out that all this creative energy would be better poured into paid work she just shrugs and says ‘One day it will pay for itself. You'll see,’ So far there's no sign of this fantasy coming true. She probably thinks she's going to get spotted by a newspaper editor who'll make her the new Jan Moir. Well, somehow I doubt that even Keren could reach the required level of offensiveness, although she does her best.
Worse, she claims to have made new friends through all this computer activity. What an appalling example for the children. One minute she’s warning them about stranger danger on the internet. The next she’s firing off emails to people with dodgy pseudonyms like PoodlePowered and MrsBung. Mrs Bung. I ask you. Probably a hairy old pervert drooling over his webcam.
She’s even embarked on a lengthy correspondence with an unsavoury character who calls himself Fish. I’m pretty broad-minded - I have to be - but what husband wants his wife writing emails to a Liverpool supporter?
Apparently she was drawn into this addiction by someone known only as ‘Candy Gourlay’ - clearly an assumed name – who runs an innocuous looking website which lures unsuspecting children’s authors into a web of ‘social networking’. I’ve done a bit of digging on this ‘Candy’s’ background and my theory is that she is trying to distract other authors by getting them hooked on blogging and the like while she writes brilliant books herself with little competition.
Anyway, I’m appealing to you ‘followers’. Please stop feeding this sad woman’s addiction. Don’t read her blog. Don’t tell your friends about it. Instead, buy her book. Then she’ll get the idea that she’s much better off spending her time writing a new one.

That’s all from me. Now the kids want their say.

Duh! Why did you write so much? No one will read all that boring stuff. No offence Dad, but you know nothing about the internet. You don’t even know what OMG stands for. Or LOL or LMAO or G2G…
Anyway. It’s very simple. Mum is embarrassing us. She posts stupid pictures on Facebook and claims they are of us. She writes stupid stuff in her blog, claiming to be true stories about us…even though she has PROMISED not to.
Well, she’s not getting away with it any longer. She doesn’t realise that we know much much more about computers than she does. We’ve hacked her accounts. We know her (pathetically weak) passwords. We’re stripping out her Facebook account, disabling her tweets. And as for this blog -

Thursday, 25 February 2010

My Fairy Godmother

I have a fairy godmother. Or possibly a muse. Or a really good friend. Anyway, I’m very lucky to have her.
Twice now I have had life-changing experiences at her dining table. And at least twice she has made suggestions that have radically altered my literary output.
Anna wasn’t my friend to start with. When I first met the man who became my husband I was somewhat startled to find that most of his friends were attractive single women. Anna was one of them, tall, blonde and extremely bright. She worked in the civil service, and managed to make running the country look like child’s play.
Fast forward fifteen years, and we’d just arrived back in London after eight years in Amsterdam. We were all a bit lost and unsettled. She invited us for lunch with her family – very enjoyable - then dispatched the husbands and children for a walk, while we had a catch-up. I talked a bit about my career worries - should I look for a demanding full-time job in journalism? Or plunge into the competitive world of freelance writing? She sensed my lack of enthusiasm for either option. ‘I’ve just done an evening class in Writing for Children at City University’ she said. ‘Why don’t you sign up for the next one - it starts in a few weeks.’ I did, and that’s where I started writing When I Was Joe.
After the first writing course, Anna and I signed up for the second one - a workshop course for people working on a longer piece. I completely abused the parameters of the course, writing 60,000 words when 3,000 was expected. Anna read every word. In chapter two she suggested a tiny change which, she pointed out, would leave the door open for a potential sequel. I laughed when she said it, feeling it was unlikely that I’d actually manage to finish one book let alone embark on a follow-up. However, I made the change. Four months later I started work on the sequel. The change she’d suggested was absolutely crucial to the whole book. It’s being published in August.

Autumn 2008. Anna invited us to a dinner party. I’d finished the book, and had been busily and so far unsuccessfully querying agents. My husband was sitting next to a woman who turned out to be an agent for children’s writers. He spent the evening selling my book to her – what a liability it must be, being a literary agent at a dinner party. Worse than being a doctor.

Anyway, she kindly offered to talk to me on the phone. We spoke a few days later and she made helpful suggestions - had I thought of paying for advice from a literary consultancy like Cornerstones? Did I feel the book was finished? She offered to take a look and I sent her the manuscript. A week or so later she got back in touch – she’d sent it to a reader and had a good report. In that time my fortunes had been transformed - I had two great agents interested. She begged for time to read it too.

We met a week later, we talked, we got on really well. And so Anna’s dining table changed my life again, when her dinner guest became my agent.

Anna’s now a member of my writing group and today she did it again. Looked at the outline for my new book, identified what was missing, made a brilliant suggestion. I couldn’t be more grateful.

Anna was my friend, you’ve nicked her,’ my husband complained the other day. ‘You’re certainly not having her back,’ I replied, ‘I need her a lot more than you do.’ And I really can't thank her enough.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The deaths of John and Joan Stirland

Some readers of When I Was Joe may find it hard to believe that there are organised criminals in the UK prepared to kill those who cross them.
Others may ask questions about the competence of the police when protecting vulnerable people (this is especially relevant when you come to read Almost True)
Well, one of the cases I looked at for research was that of the shooting of Joan and John Stirland in 2004. Six years later their deaths have been the subject of an inquest, which found today that Nottinghamshire police failed to protect the couple properly.
The Stirlands went into hiding when their son Michael O'Brien was found guilty of killing Malvyn Bradshaw, a shooting assumed to be meant for Mr Bradshaw's best friend Jamie Gunn, 18 who was sitting next to him in a car when he was shot. Jamie never got over his friend's murder, stopped eating and started drinking heavily. He died of pneumonia a year later.
Jamie Gunn's uncle Colin, was a big player in Nottingham's criminal underworld. He tracked down the Stirlands to their bungalow in Lincolnshire, helped by corrupt police officers who he paid for information, British Telecom workers who also provided information and the incompetence of the police investigating him who failed to share information with their collegues who were charged with protecting the Stirlands.
The Sitirlands knew their lives were at threat but had turned down the chance to have new identities, because they could not face losing touch with friends and family. After they were killed their other children were immediately moved into police protection. One can only imagine their feelings as they started their new lives.

Monday, 22 February 2010

A Literary Conversion

Jewish Book Week is coming up. As always there’s a great line-up of authors - Jewish and non-Jewish talking about their work. It’s a great example of a successful literary festival, very popular and whenever I’ve been the events have been sold out. They don’t call Jews the people of the Book for nothing.
So…as my Jewish friends have been asking…am I going to be speaking at Jewish Book Week? After all I am Jewish and what’s more I sometimes work for a Jewish newspaper. I have been known to write outspoken comment articles in that newspaper. Surely I am a dead cert for Jewish Book Week.
Umm, well no, I reply. The problem is that I may be a Jewish writer – define that - but I have not written a Jewish book. In fact I have written a Catholic book. Two Catholic books. I don’t know if I’m more proud or surprised about that. I certainly enjoyed it. Thinking my way into the head of a Catholic was just as much of a challenge as becoming a teenage boy.
I didn’t really mean to write a Catholic book. I wasn’t especially drawn to themes like confession, penitence and stigmata (Note to those who have not read When I Was Joe yet, these themes are delivered with a light touch. I promise). Ty became a Catholic for purely pragmatic reasons, to do with the sort of school I wanted him to go to.
But once he and his family became Catholics, there was no going back. It was part of their mindset, it informed their behaviour. I felt quite uncomfortable at times, almost as though I was being unfaithful. It also felt strange to be viewing Catholic liturgy as quotable copy - and it's fantastically quotable, thank you so much whoever wrote it. I thought and learnt about Catholicism as best I could, asked a Catholic friend to read the most relevant bits, and hoped I’d got it right.

It was a great relief when I met the (completely wonderful) reading group at Nicholas Breakspear School, a Catholic School in St Albans who’d been given advance copies of When I Was Joe to read. Did I get the Catholic bits right, I asked nervously. “The thing is,” said one boy, “usually people make a big deal about Catholics in books. You just made it normal.” He couldn’t have paid me a greater compliment.
I had a chat with the organisers of Jewish Book Week who, quite reasonably, suggested that if I put a Jewish character in a book then they would welcome me with open arms. And I would like to do that. Growing up in an area where few Jews lived, as almost the only Jewish girl at my school I noticed the lack of Jewish characters in the books I read. I can only think of a few - Miranda West in Antonia Forest’s brilliant stories about the Marlow family stands out as a completely real north London Jewish girl, even though she and her family were nothing like mine. Growing up I never read a book about anyone anything like me. I felt more different, more peculiar, more invisible as a result.
So I would like to put a Jewish character in a book. But how to do it? It’s relatively easy to make sure that not everyone in your books is white, and I also have a thing about putting women and black people in positions of authority. But you can’t easily mention someone’s Jewish roots in passing - not without sounding like a 1930s anti-Semite anyway. Maybe you just need a character or two named Rebecca Rabinovitch or Tal Amit? But does there have to be a point to that? Does a Jewish character mean Jewish themes, battling Jewish stereotypes? How much Jewish background and practise do I have to explain?
Anyway, I am going to try and always have a designated Jewish character in every book of mine. In When I Was Joe it can be Ashley’s friend Becca. In Almost True it’s Mr Armstrong. True their Jewishness only exists in the author’s mind, but that’s OK. I’m always going to know more about my characters than anyone else. And maybe one day that designated character will step out of the shadows and take centre stage.
In the meantime I do feel I'm a good pick for Catholic Book Week. Can someone tell me when it's on?

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Meeting Caroline Lawrence

How did the Romans wipe their bottoms? How did they write shopping lists? What’s the one Roman experience that doesn’t really have a modern-day equivalent?
All this and more we learned at the Museum of London on Monday when my kids and I went to hear Caroline Lawrence talk about her latest Roman Mystery - and much else besides.
My children have very different tastes in books. There are very few authors that appeal to both of them. JK Rowling, C S Lewis and Michael Morpurgo all pass the test. But the one they talk about the most is Caroline Lawrence. They love her detective stories. They enjoy the characters. And they've learned tons about Roman times, without even noticing that they're being taught.
I was also keen to meet Caroline, because I’d ‘met’ her on Twitter – we were commenting on X Factor. Subsequently we’d friended each other on Facebook, and I discovered someone who loves going to the movies as much as I do. From a brief chat on Twitter she’d discovered that I was a debut author and asked to read my book. And then she posted a review on Amazon - on Christmas Day. And what’s more she’d sent signed books to my kids. So we were all a little star-struck, on our way to the museum.
Caroline’s talk was great. Dressed in a stola, shawl and sandals she looked every inch the Roman matron. She talked about structure and characterisation - fascinating for budding writers, whether they’re eight or new novelists – about Roman artefacts, and the joys of school visits. She introduced her new book – The Legionary from Londinium – brilliantly, explaining how she’d adapted ideas from Sherlock Holmes to fit her detective stories set in Roman times. A theatre full of children and parents were fascinated.
Afterwards the queue to get our books signed snaked around the museum entrance hall. ‘Why are there so many people?’ a little girl asked her mother. ‘Because we’re waiting to meet the writer,’ she replied. ‘She’s a very important person.’
We were lucky enough to have a coffee with Caroline afterwards, and my kids got the chance to ask the question they’d been debating for ages - why don’t two of the main characters end up in love and married? No chemistry, was the answer.
If Caroline could time travel to Roman times, then what experience would she want to have? She would pick something with no modern-day equivalent. Not a gladiator show - too similar to a Spanish bullfight. Not a Roman bath - you could go to a Turkish hamman. No, she would go to a chariot race for a uniquely Roman experience.
They used to have chariot races in Roman Britain - there was a race track at Colchester in Essex. It’s survived for thousands of years, but now there’s a plan to build over it. Campaigners have a month to raise £1million to preserve the site, where 15,000 spectators used to watch high speed chariot races.
Caroline Lawrence has been active in the campaign to save the track, and she’s going to be speaking at the Colchester Arts Centre tomorrow (Friday 19th February, 2pm) to raise money for the appeal. Do go if you can – whatever your age, you’re in for a treat.
Oh and how did Romans keep clean and fresh...find out here

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Visit from the Trojans

Saturday night. Midnight. We’ve been to the cinema, paid the babysitter and now we’re having a cup of tea and watching Match of the Day. All is quiet. All is normal.
The doorbell rings. I assume the babysitter must have forgotten something and go and answer the door. Nope. Standing on the doorstep is a policeman. Behind him are some other men - quite a few other men. What the hell?

Quite a few thoughts come into your head when a policeman turns up on your doorstep on midnight. Two struggle for dominance in mine - how good-looking he is – mmmm - the other, slightly slower: ‘Oh no…who’s died?’

No one, it turns out. Instead he wants to ask about our car. Can I tell him the make and model? Has anyone used it today?

It must have been stolen…oh no…but he assures me it is still parked up the road. And how fortunate it was that we hadn’t taken it to the cinema with us. “An identical car with your number plates was used in a shooting incident in Harlesden this evening,” he explains. “We’ve been watching your house and the car. We felt the engine - luckily it was stone cold. If it’d been warm we wouldn’t have rung your doorbell, we’d have broken the door down.”

It's at this point that I realise that he's armed.

Gorgeous uniformed armed cop stands aside to let three plain clothes officers from Harlesden into our house. I wouldn’t have realised they were policemen at a first glance - or a second one, they’d got the scruffy London street look just right. In fact if I’d seen them hanging around our car, I’d have called the police. I wonder if they’d watched us come into the house, seen the babysitter leave. It seems likely because they explain that it wasn’t just the cold engine that had spared us from having the door broken down and guns pointed at our heads. “It’s lucky you’re not black,” they explain. “The people who committed this crime were black. So we were pretty sure you were in the clear.”

So, we’d been saved from a traumatic experience and a broken down door (the second in less than a year) by the random decision to drive our other car to the cinema, and the colour of our skin. Great. But this may not save us from encounters with armed police in the future. Now our car had been cloned by criminals it would be on the police national computer, they explain. It was possible that when we were driving we’d notice that we were being tailed by the police.

“If so, pull over and call 999,” they tell us. “Explain what’s happened and give them the crime number. If you don’t…well, the police will know that you might have firearms with you. They’ll call for armed back-up. And they’ll stop you, and it won’t be nice.”

Wild memories of the hideous death of Jean-Charles Menezes flash through my mind. London lost some of its innocence the day an innocent Brazilian was killed at close range on the tube by bungling police officers who thought he was a terrorist on the basis of no evidence at all. And, I also remember the death of Harry Stanley, shot by police marksmen in Hackney who thought the chair leg he was carrying in a plastic bag was a shotgun.

“Will they shoot us?” I ask. The officers rush to reassure me. No, no, it’ll just be a case of a gun being poked through the car window, and being ordered out of the car for a search. “They should realise that you weren’t the people involved,” one adds. “After all you’re not black.”

The next day we look up car-cloning on the internet - it’s a growing problem in the UK, although most victims are bugged by unpaid parking tickets and speeding fines. One man whose clone was used in an armed robbery had to spend five hours at the police station proving his alibi.

We discuss our options. We could sell the car - but wasn’t that unethical? What if a black person bought it and got shot? We could buy personalised number plates - ‘but all your friends will despise you’ said a helpful pal, pointing out that, however good the reason, personalised plates are impossibly vulgar. I'm quite entertained by the possibilities of horrifying my social circle, but my husband points out that chav-tastic plates cost money, and he doesn’t see why we should fork out because some villain in Harlesden had re-produced our plates. He's very pleased with himself for being the one who decided to drive the other car to the cinema, even though he couldn't have possibly known he was making a great decision.

So he’s been on the phone to the licensing people in Swansea, who seem quite sympathetic and we’re hoping for a new number and brand new plates. He also visits our local police station who confirm that we were quite likely to experience a ‘hard stop’ from a ‘Trojan unit’ - this is what he swears they called the armed police, although I think he must be winding me up and now all I can imagine is a troop of officers, with model good looks, waving condoms in the air. A bit like the police float at the Amsterdam Gay Pride parade, which takes place on the canals in August and was always a great family day out.

This week every time I take the car out I spend the first ten minutes glancing into my mirror to see if I am being followed. Then I forget all about it, until I park – there’s a slight Thelma and Louise vibe to the way I make a swift exit.

My 10-year-old son is quite excited by the idea of a ‘hard stop’. We had to warn him not to make any sudden movements.
“But what if I have an itch?” he said.
“Stay still.”
“But what if I really have to scratch?”
“Stay still.”

But so far, not a sniff of a police tail. I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or not.

Several people have remarked this week on the co incidence that I've written a book about violent crime and identity. My sister mused:"It's almost like you attract shooting incidents. It's's not even as though you need more excitement in your life, because you're making it all up for your books anyway."

I fear this post may need a follow up in the future. I'm hoping it'll just be the good news that our car has its very own extreme makeover and new name.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Remembering Daniel

Today, February 10th should be a happy day for my family, a birthday celebration. Instead it’s the saddest day of the year. My son Daniel was stillborn, twelve years ago, the worst day of my life. How could the inexplicable death of a baby in the ninth month of pregnancy be any other way?
And yet, all these years later, I can say that having Daniel was also one of the best things that ever happened to me, to us as a couple and to our family.

How can that be? How do you emerge from the horror and the shock, the pain and the anger, the emptiness, the totality of such a loss - a loss with no happy memories to mitigate the pain? Losing a baby just before birth is the loneliest of losses, because no one knew him, not even his parents. I still cannot believe that Daniel was meant to die, that his loss was somehow pre-ordained. The gifts that he gave us came from his all too short life, not his untimely death.

‘I cannot imagine what you have been through - and nor do I want to’ one friend wrote to me after his death. Well, now there are few losses that I cannot imagine, few traumas that scare me. Thanks to him I have supported friends and strangers through similar losses, through infertility, stressful pregnancies, sorrow and loss. Daniel gave me the gift of fearless compassion. He stretched my imagination immeasurably.

Just a few years ago one of my oldest and closest friend and her husband lost their only child James aged just a few days. How would I have begun to imagine what to say and what to do without Daniel? It could have caused a rift in our 30-year friendship. In fact, our sons brought us even closer together.

A friend described bereaved mothers as 'sisters in sorrow' and that sisterhood is also shared with friends who are trying to conceive and whose loss and grief is less tangible than ours.

Daniel’s death reminded us that life is a gift. It is hard to keep living in the face of a terrible loss, even harder to embark on a new pregnancy. There are some days when you can’t face getting up in the morning, because of the weight of sadness and fear. But the moments of grace, when the sun shines and you laugh and things go well are all the more precious when you have experienced the ultimate low.

‘You’ve always found a way of laughing at your troubles before’ one friend wrote to me. Well, not this time. The self-deprecating habit of laughing things off just wasn’t appropriate. Daniel taught me to take myself seriously. To ask for help when I needed it. To say no when too much was asked of me. It may just be me, it may be a deep-rooted female thing, but I learned the hard way that I couldn’t always cope on my own, and that not all troubles can be turned into a funny story. Before Daniel I’d thought of psychotherapy as self-indulgent. After his death it was as essential as physiotherapy after a devastating car crash.

When I became pregnant again, just over a year after Daniel’s death I did not take one second for granted. It was terrifying, it was wonderful. For a year I had avoided pregnant women, now I could not avoid myself. Every day that the baby lived inside me was a precious one.
Daniel made me think about my ambition, my goals. I wanted to do something to honour him. It was frustrating at first, not knowing how I could do anything but survive the sheer exhaustion of mourning him while bringing up little children. I fretted that I could never do him justice, that I would somehow let him down. I wanted to live his life for him, but I barely had energy to live my own.

But when I embarked on an Open University degree I dedicated my studies to him. And when I signed up for an evening course in writing for children I was determined to make the most of the experience. Without Daniel in my life - because he is still in my life - I would probably not have seen the course as an opportunity to produce a novel in a few months. Without the courage he gave me I’m not sure I would have risked the rejection of sending it to literary agents. Thanks to him I have reinvented myself as a writer.

When my husband and I face hard times we know that we have faced the worst that life has to throw at us and survived. I’m not sentimental about this - surviving the loss of a child is one of the hardest tests that any marriage can take and sometimes I wonder how we did it. Twelve years on though we know our love has been tested, and we know we came through it. Sometimes it’s useful that other trials seem trivial in comparison.

Our children have gained so much from the brother they never knew. They know how much they are valued, and they know, in these days when so much pressure is put on children’s shoulders, that they bring us infinite joy just by being alive. They know that it is fine to talk about Daniel, that we are not scared of big emotions or huge philosophical questions. I believe they are more mature and reflective as a result. We never forget how lucky we are to have them.

Last September Daniel should have been starting secondary school. It was difficult hearing about other children’s plans for their new schools. Seven years ago when I had to walk past the reception classroom that should have been his, I had to grit my teeth and remind myself that I never knew Daniel. Perhaps he might have been blind, physically disabled, autistic - in some way unable to take his expected path in life. That was probably Daniel’s most important lesson for me - there is comfort to be found in some very strange places, if you trust your imagination enough to look for it.

(This post is adapted from an article I wrote for Doreen Samuels' e-magazine Moonlight)

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

This and that..

Some random bits and pieces....

1. When I Was Joe is published in Australia and New Zealand tomorrow. Which is already today there. Would love love love it if any Australian blog-readers let me know if they spot it in a book shop there. To mark the occasion here are some pictures from the Australian leg of our best holiday ever, when we went to Australia, Cambodia and Thailand in 2007 (actually I must write a post some time about our holiday)
2. I spotted Joe in a bookshop today..Oh, the excitement! Waterstones, Piccadilly has a few copies, and they've displayed it really nicely. Why not reward their discernment by popping in and buying one for a friend? (I was with my husband and I tried to persuade him to do this very thing, but he thought it was silly as we have 20 at home.)
3. I am copy-editing Almost True tomorrow. For various reasons it's ended up being a one day job. I love this kind of deadline pressure! No, really...I do.
4. Editing questions for Almost True included queries about brandy, Sci Fi,irons and rugs.
5. My editor Emily wrote a list of spellings for the book which inadvertently sums it up as well as any cover copy: teapot, teacups, fingernail, pyjamas, bed-wetter, ASBO, iPod, spoilt, email, wind-up, full-time, all right, YouTube, X-ray, OK, druggie, swap, post-traumatic stress disorder, grown-up, high-rise, T shirt, six-pack, off-licence, mid-air, post-it,overreact, tae kwan do, PlayStation, Xbox, dryer, Head Boy.
6. The wondrous Jenny from WondrousReads interviewed me on her blog today. Read it to discover my philosophy on book covers...
7. I'm coming up for my 100th post quite soon. Anything you'd like me to write about?

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Abroad Thoughts from Home.

Today would be a perfect Ijmuiden day if we were still living in Amsterdam. Sunny but cold, it's just the day for a long walk on the beach, kicking a football and watching the kites.
But we're in London, so all we can do is think about the things we miss about Amsterdam. And, after eight years, there are quite a few...

There's the Vondelpark, our substitute for a garden, virtually on our doorstep and perfect for walks, cycling, picnics, cafes and playgrounds.

And the Amsterdamse Bos, a man-made forest on the outskirts of town, with a play island just for children.

Indonesian food is almost impossible to get in the UK...but a staple in Amsterdam. The best place to try it is Tempo Doeloe on the Utrechtestraat.

Licorice is the Dutch national sweet (or drop in's my daughter's one and only Dutch word. She grimaces if a piece of fennel sneaks into a salad and says ' tastes of drop.' I once bought a drop-flavoured breakfast cereal, which didn't go down well) but what we miss are the marzipan fruits we'd buy on special occasions from the chocolate shop on the Beethovenstraat.

We loved wandering around Amsterdam, discovering out of the way places like the Prinseneiland.

And as we lived just down the road from the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum, we could go in and just gaze at one picture at a time.

And then there was the expat lifestyle. The way the kids mixed with all nationalities, and had to stand up and represent Britain, a country they hardly knew (my two are at the front)

And...after four years in a mouse-infested not so great maisonette (but with lovely neighbours) we moved into possibly the nicest flat in the world, on the best street in Amsterdam.
If you're there, go and drink coffee on the terrace at de Joffers on the corner of Willemsparkweg and the Cornelisschuytstraat - come to think of it two more things we miss are the hot chocolate and the koffieverkeerd at de Joffers - and you're looking at my flat. Mine. All mine.

And these are just a few things we loved about Amsterdam...I haven't even mentioned our fabulous friends, the Zuiderzee museum, cycling, the canals, the shops...

it's nice to be home, but sometimes we feel homesick for abroad.

(the pictures ought to be mixed in with the text, but blogger's new editor doesn't work for me. Anyone got any ideas?)

Friday, 5 February 2010

When I was re-writing...

The other day I was looking at my first draft of When I Was Joe, the first chapters I wrote as an assignment for my evening class. I got a nasty shock. Who were these people? They didn’t feel like Ty, Nicki and Doug. They were cardboard imposters, stealing the lives of people I’d come to know very well. I really didn’t like it.
Book blogger Yunaleska was asking me this week about rewriting - how much I’d done for Joe. It’s a hard question to answer, because some of the rewriting is the very subtle stuff - the little tweaks you make when you know which way the plot has turned, or more about a character’s quirks. It might be just a word, but it can shift your understanding as much as an entire chapter. In my original version Nicki was much more of a cliche, I didn't really know her that well. Once I did, I went back and removed the silver eye shadow, the dangly earrings. By the time I found the picture, above, of Nadine Coyle of Girls Aloud I knew that's what Nicki looked like - before her extreme makeover.
Some changes are major structural shifts. Some are self-imposed. Others come after discussion with agents, experts and editors.
The first major change to Joe was the ending. I wrote the last third of the book, and then had an idea which I preferred so I immediately rewrote all those chapters. The outcome was the same, but the reason was different. Some of the people on my writing course preferred the first version, but I was absolutely sure I’d done the right thing.
Then I had some good advice from an eminent literary agent, who read the first chapter. Originally I had a much slower start, kicking off with Joe’s first day at his new school. I wanted to leave the reader in the dark about almost everything. I liked the idea - I still like it - I thought it was creepy and eerie and raised lots of questions. She pointed out that a crime thriller needed an attention-grabbing dramatic starting point. I found it very easy to provide this - the rewrite took about three days - but I slightly resented it. The book felt less mine. It did the trick though, the new beginning hooked several agents.
When I signed with Jenny Savill she suggested a few changes – mainly building up the character of Arron, so the reader knew more about him. Then I had a page of notes from my friend Tony, the criminal barrister. Most of the police procedure was wrong and had to be rewritten. My heart sank when I looked at the pages he’d identified, but actually in every case those rewrites made the book better, making Ty less passive and more intelligent.
Once I started working with my editor, Maurice Lyon at Frances Lincoln, there were other changes to be made. The ending was a bit rushed (the whole current last chapter didn’t exist, apart from the email at the end which was tacked onto the chapter before). I was very happy to add another chapter - I realised it was only worries about the humungous length of the book which had stopped me.
And there was a bit in the middle which Maurice thought was a bit boring - I bridled at that, but once I went through it I realised that actually…well…nothing much happened. And there were things that I’d like to happen that weren’t in the book at all. So I wrote what is now Chapter 11 (the schools athletics meeting), and I liked it much better.
So, on the one hand most of When I Was Joe was there in the first draft. On the other hand I’ve rewritten the end, the beginning and the middle. And all the time twiddling, tweaking and getting to know the characters better. Removing an earring here, adding a Kanye West track there.
In my first draft I tended to overstate things, because you're finding out yourself. Later on I realised that I could take out almost every sentence beginning 'I feel..'
I have to admit that the one sad thing about getting your book published is that you can’t rewrite it any more. I still wake up in the middle of the night and think of things I'd like to change.

Monday, 1 February 2010

A Room of my own.

Until quite recently The Guardian ran a regular feature on Writer’s Rooms. The writer described the carefully chosen artefacts – the meaningful print on the wall, the careful alignment of chair and desk. It added a great new excuse to my reasons for never quite getting around to trying to write a book. Obviously I couldn’t even get started until I’d got my Room.Virginia Woolf was right.
Then I got the idea for Joe. There was one problem. Not only did I not have My Room, I didn’t even have a computer. The old one we’d had in Amsterdam hadn’t taken well to the move, and was punishing us by deleting data and refusing to access the internet. Plus it was sitting in an attic that was full of boxes and either far too hot or icy cold. We’d bought a new laptop, but my husband was working from home and had colonised it, plus the available space, in a messy room that was already tripling up as spare room, play area and storage.
Never mind. I informed him that he would be sharing the laptop. We negotiated a timetable every day. I wrote Joe in snatched half-hour bursts here and there. Handover times were tense, and it wasn’t wise to try and grab extra minutes.
Often the only way to reach my self-imposed target for the day was to grab the computer at 10pm. Much of the editing was done between 6 and 7am, before the others woke up.
It was infuriating, exhausting, uncomfortable, it put great strain on our marriage - and it worked. Knowing that I had limited time made me immensely productive. Being unable to access the computer for much of the day gave me lots of time to think about the story. Once I got to sit down and work, the book seemed to write itself.
When I got a two-book deal, and a deadline for writing the second book we decided to invest in another laptop. My husband kept the room though, and I set up camp on the dining table. What a disaster! Not only was my ‘Room’ regularly invaded by people munching toast or watching television, but with more time available I didn’t use it as well. With a few hours of laptop use stretching out ahead of me, I found it all to easy to be distracted by Facebook, Twitter and blogs. I told myself that it was important to build up a network of contacts. Before long I was doing better at social networking than I was with pushing on with the story.
And then I dropped my laptop. It flew off the dining table and smashed onto the floor. While it was being mended I was back to sharing my husband's computer. And, lo and behold, I was using my time much more efficiently. With only an hour to write, Facebook went on the back burner.
I know just what my Room is going to look like. It’s small, with white walls and stripped floorboards. One wall is shelves, floor to ceiling. They’re going to hold my books and the wooden Noah’s Ark with beautiful carved animals that my family bought for my 40th birthday. On one wall I’m going to have a mood board for photos and post cards. And by the window a big clear tidy desk, with my laptop.
Unfortunately the room I have in mind is presently occupied by my son (who hates it) and it won’t be available until we can afford a loft conversion. Or he leaves home. He’s only ten. Luckily The Guardian has dropped the Writer’s Room series.
But maybe a Writer’s Room isn’t what I need. Maybe I work best in short bursts of time with no distracting internet. I’m going to try working in cafes and libraries this week, see how I get on. Perhaps I’m the sort of writer who works best with no Room at all. Perhaps Virginia Woolf was wrong.