Friday, 25 June 2010

A writer's day

Do you have a writing routine?' Question at school event.

6.30am. Alarm goes off. Shower and dress. Wake children.
7.15am. Check Hotmail accounts. Look at Facebook. Look at Twitter. Look at Read Guardian online. Feed guinea pigs.
7.30am Paperboy delivers Guardian. Flick through it, but have read most of it already. Start suduko puzzle. Make toast for son, who is playing on Wii.
7.55am Daughter appears downstairs. Nibbles piece of bread. Claims to have stomach ache. Diagnose non-urgent ailment and tell her she will survive a day at school.
8am Deliver children to various bus stops. Drive home. Cup of tea. Complete suduko puzzle. Gauge mental alertness by speed and ease of completing puzzle. Ok. Not bad.
8.50 am. Check Hotmail again. Check Blogger. Check Twitter. Check Amazon ranking. Google self. Check Facebook. Back to Hotmail.
9am. Switch off internet connection. Flex fingers. Empty mind of all thoughts except next chapter. Write a sentence. Delete it.
9.05am. Dressing-gowned husband comes down the stairs, carrying radio, blaring out Desert Island Discs. Makes himself toast. Spreads it with hummus. Sits down at table opposite me. Smell of hummus overwhelming.
9.06am. Switch internet connection back on again. Check Hotmail again. Check Blogger. Check Twitter. Check Amazon ranking. Google self. Check Facebook. Back to Hotmail.
9.07am. Glare at radio. Cough loudly. Say: ‘This is my workspace, you know.’
9.08 am. Decide to write later, do chores now. Will try and do everything with head full of plot and characters so that Chapter 10 will just flow when I start writing later.
9.30am. Go to supermarket.Float around thinking about Chapter 10. Spend vastly more than had expected.
9.45 am Go to WH Smith to buy envelopes for posting books. Check bookshelves. No, they haven’t started stocking my book. Walk to local independent bookshop, which has one copy of book. Buy it, as present for kind people who have invited us for supper tonight. Calculate amount of copies I will have to sell to cover cost of buying own book. Think it’s nine. Worry about whether local bookshop will bother to restock book now I have bought last one.
10 am. Get home. Write an entire paragraph. Car alarm goes off on the industrial estate at the bottom of my garden. Decide to make lasagne for tomorrow’s lunch. Worry about daughter’s stomach ache. Car alarm still going. Delete paragraph.
10.10am Realise that have not bought cheese at supermarket. Can't make lasagne without cheese. Walk to corner shop. Buy local paper and cheese.
10. 30am. Car alarm still going. Ring company that runs warehouse which backs onto our house. Discover that they haven't used that warehouse for six years. No, they don't know which company has taken over.
10.35am Hotmail/Google/Facebook/Twitter/Blogger/Amazon. Oooh. Have gone up 40,000 places in ranking since last checked Amazon. Rush over to Excellent. Have sold one book on Amazon today.
10.45am Car alarm still going. Make lasagne. Read local paper while it is in oven. Check hotmail etc.
11.35am. Lasagne is ready. Perhaps I should go to library to escape car alarm. But laptop battery only has one and a half hours to go. Decide to hang on – surely someone will switch off car alarm - and wait until the battery has run out and then I can charge it up again. Write some emails. Moan about car alarm on twitter and Facebook. Enagage in light banter. Feel relieved that others are wasting time social networking during the day.
12.10pm. Eat lunch. Do some admin. Car alarm still going. Call environmental health, who are not there and do not have an answerphone.
12.30 pm. Call police. 'We'll see what we can do,' they say. 'Have you tried ringing environmental health?'
12.40 pm. Husband says: ‘Shall we go to the park and have lunch? After all you can’t be getting much writing done with that alarm going off.’
Me: ‘I’ve had lunch.’
12.45pm Try environmental health again. Get cut off. Check Hotmail etc….
2pm It’s 2pm? How can it be 2pm ? I’ve achieved nothing !
2.05pm Get through to environmental health. Report car alarm. ‘Someone will call you shortly,’ they say.
2.10pm. Start writing blog post. Why am I writing blog post when I haven’t written any of target 1,000 words of chapter 10? Why? Why? Because it’s easier, is why.
2.50pm. Hotmail etc. Some interesting blogs to read. Environmental health call, promise that they will track down alarm and stop it.
3.10pm. Suddenly realise how to start Chapter 10. Start writing. I like it! Write 600 words….I love it…this is great stuff…I can hardly hear the car alarm.
3.35pm Environmental health call. They have located the car alarm. Trying to find its owner. Promise me it will be turned off within two hours. I can hear the alarm twice - on the phone and in real life. 'It's very loud, isn't it?' says the environmental health officer.
3.40pm. Daughter arrives home from school. Stomach ache all day. Turned away from medical room because it was too full. Likes the new school skirt I have bought her because it is extremely short. Helps herself to snack and goes upstairs.
3.45pm Writing like a maniac. Writing like a genius. Love it, love it…chapter 10 is going to be fantastic. I’m making myself laugh…this book is really coming together…Car alarm drones on.
4.05pm Son arrives home from school. Switches on TV. ‘I can’t believe you aren’t watching Brazil versus Portugal.’ Grind teeth. Go on writing. Alarm ringing in one ear, vuvuzelas in the other.
4.35pm Yes! 1,000 words. Done! Don’t read them through in case I hate them.
4.40pm. Rush to post office to post copy of book to school that missed out when we were handing them out at Islington Carnegie event. Buy washing powder, cherries...all the things I forgot at supermarket in the morning.
5pm. Arrive home. Check Hotmail etc. Lovely email from two of the girls who were at Islington Carnegie event, they have already read When I Was Joe and they enjoyed it. Thanks Angel and Natasha!
5.30 pm. Car alarm stops. Phew. Hurray for Haringey Council's environmental health department!
18.00 pm Finish blog post. Switch off computer.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Carnegie thoughts

Writing a book is all about goals. The first, in some ways, the hardest – is thinking of an idea that will sustain a book. An idea that no one’s made their own before. An idea that’s worth writing.
Then there’s writing a first chapter, developing a plot, writing some more, developing characters, finding time to write regularly…all thundering towards the final goal – actually finishing a book, which reads as a coherent story from page 1 to the end.
But then there are a whole load more goals and targets, to do with finding an agent, finding a publisher, working with an editor…until one day – yes! – you hold a shiny new copy of your book in your hand. That’s it, surely? Goal achieved, targets reached.
But no. There are book sales figures to worry about. There are school visits to notch up. There's a load of self-promotion to do. And there are awards.
The most prestigious award in the UK for children’s literature is the Carnegie Medal, which today was awarded to Neil Gaiman for his beautifully written The Graveyard Book. Loosely based on The Jungle Book, it’s full of strange and mysterious characters and stories, a plot which weaves in and out of focus, and a moving and hopeful ending. A worthy winner, up against stiff competition.
I was involved peripherally in the Carnegie process, because I was asked by the Islington schools library service to compere its annual Carnegie shadowing event, where reading groups in the borough’s schools come together to hear each other’s presentations on the shortlisted books.
One school created a ‘Big Carnegie’ diary room sketch, with girls representing a character from each book and arguing why they should be the winner (I liked the argument put forward by Izzy, from Laurie Halse Anderson’s book, Chains: ‘Because I have suffered the most.’) We had a series of dramatisations - and the audience then had to match each scene with the book it came from. One school concentrated on one book – Marcus Sedgwick’s Revolver - talking about setting, characters and themes. Another made a film about one of the books on the Kate Greenaway medal shortlist – the illustrators’ award. It was fantastic to see all these keen readers, thinking and responding to such a wide range of books.
Seeing the readers’ very different responses to the shortlist of very different books, I wondered about the worth of putting these books in competition with eachother. Can you judge a list of books and find a winner? Is it a meaningful contest?
And yet, that’s missing the point. The Carnegie isn’t really about the eventual winner - nice though it is for Neil Gaiman to be honoured yet again for his wonderful book. It’s about the reading groups in schools all over the land, being introduced to a list of books picked out by the nation’s librarians. It’s about children reading books which challenge them, books which are different from the best-sellers they see in supermarkets and chain stores, books which challenge them with their ideas, their prose and their ambition.
Sometimes I get overwhelmed with worry about all the goals and targets that I set myself as an author. It’s difficult to enjoy the experience as I should when, I’m wondering if I’ll get long-listed for any awards, or how sales are going, or whether I’m on target to finish my work in progress on time, or if I’ll ever think of any new ideas for any more books.

Then I open up my email and see that a stranger has written to tell me that they’ve enjoyed the book. Or a friend who’s been ill tells me that she was reading it when undergoing nasty treatment in hospital, and it took her mind off things. Or someone gives it a good review on Amazon, or on their blog.
And I remember what my real goal was. I wrote a book. I enjoyed writing it. People are reading it. It might even be a book that they remember, that changes the way they look at the world. That’s enough. Everything else is secondary

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Blowing your own vuvuzela

How obnoxious should an author be? How loud should we shout about our successes, good reviews, foreign publishing deals? Does self-promotion make us look like big-headed show-offs, or needy and desperate? And which platforms are appropriate for what kind of promotion? Sometimes one feels like this vuvuzela-blasting man in New York, loud, irritating and embarrassing, trying to wake up an oblivious world.

This is something I’ve debated on and off with quite a few children’s authors. Some take a hard line and resist saying anything that could be construed as boasting. Others feel that Facebook, say, is there for the sharing of good news however big-headed it makes one look. One author I talked to this week resists social networking altogether, because she’s so careful of her public statements.

Author Ellen Renner shared this dilemma in a Facebook post this week, in which she apologised for accidentally posting twice about her book Castle of Shadows being included in The Independent’s list of great summer reads. ‘I don’t want to irritate the heck out of people,’ she said. Lots of friends hurried to assure her that this was nothing to worry about. She shouldn’t be humble about celebrating her successes.

Ellen summed up the author’s dilemma beautifully when she wrote: ‘I have to think I’m damned good, or I’d give up.’ And it’s true. Self-belief is important, and it’s so hard to hang onto and when something good comes along to reinforce it, then why not share it?

Of course many authors read FB posts like this with very mixed feelings. On the one hand: Hurray! Ellen’s book is indeed a fabulous read, an atmospheric dystopian tale of politics and intrigue in which a feisty young princess takes on a sinister Prime Minister. Everyone should read it over the summer, not just Independent readers.

On the other hand: Hmmmph. Where’s my book on this list? In the anxiety of life as a debut author, it’s easy to let envy sour one’s appreciation of other authors’ success. Being published can feel like the worst type of sibling rivalry - we’re all clamouring for the attention of a seemingly indifferent public, we all want goodies like awards and Hollywood deals.

The best way to deal with this kind of feeling is to knock it on the head firmly by acknowledging and celebrating the excellence of other people’s work. Like the vuvuzela man in the video, we should celebrate everything we can. Just because Ellen’s book is wonderful doesn’t mean that mine is not. Just because Candy Gourlay’s marvellous Tall Story is reviewed in today’s Sunday Times (‘'A feel-good tale...this novel brings magic to a down-home story of earthquakes and sibling love.') it doesn’t mean that any fewer readers will read my book. I cannot possibly have written the only good book in the world, and I wouldn’t want the book market to consist only of my output. Blow the vuvuzela for Ellen! Make loads of noise for Candy!

Children’s authors are all together in the business of encouraging a love of reading among young people. There’s just no point in resenting others - even those like Stephenie Meyer who have sold gazillions of copies. I’ve come across quite a few readers recently who’ve told me how Twilight turned them into keen readers…a path which eventually led them to When I Was Joe. So, a hearty blast of the vuvuzela for Stephenie too.

I’ve always taken the view that social networking is a great way to raise one’s profile, because it is free. Some books have huge marketing budgets to help them into bookshop windows or onto supermarket shelves, or Waterstone’s 3 for 2 table. Mine does not. So if there’s anything I can do to help, I do it.

I have developed my own protocol. On this blog I share news about my books, but try not to let it overwhelm the wider content. Reviews get added to the permanent page at the top of the blog, with no special fanfare.

Facebook – on my personal profile I try my best not to be too self-promotional. I see Facebook as being like a gigantic office, packed with colleagues some of whom are close friends, others silent and unknown as Mike from Accounts. Unrestrained boasting is inappropriate and will do nothing but make one unpopular.

I have, however, set up a Facebook page for the book(s) and that is an unashamedly self-promotional place for reviews and good news. I hope that people are not irritated when I post a review - but they can always ‘un-like’ the page.

Twitter is more of a marketplace. You can post good reviews and self-promoting news, but you need to mix it in with a lot of other stuff too - including promoting other people and celebrating their successes. Saying funny things about X Factor or the England football team is more likely to get you noticed than shouting about a great review on the Waterstones website (Oh well…if you insist…here).
So, do I get it right? Should I be more upfront? Am I too brash and obnoxious? How irritating is it when I blow my own vuvuzela?


Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The Problem with Cafes

My search for a viable workspace goes on.

Café one: The Reservoir Café in Green Lanes. Free parking. View of open water. Nice cup of tea. I am the only person here.
All good so far. But a scratchy radio is blaring out the Black Eyed Peas, and I cannot write with music playing.
‘Perhaps you might switch off the radio,’ I suggest to the man behind the counter.
He pauses, considers, eyes scanning the empty tables.
‘Can’t do that,’ he says, ‘It’ll be like a morgue in here.’
‘I like morgues.’
He turns it down a smidgeon, and disappears into the kitchen. I try and write, but silently communicating irritation in an empty - but noisy - room is as distracting as Capital Radio.
Café one - fail.

Café Two. A beautiful sunny day. I decide to work outside at the café at Kenwood, Hampstead Heath. I make the mistake of telling my husband. ‘Tell you what,’ he says. ‘You work for a couple of hours and then I’ll come and meet you and we can go for a walk.’
I arrive at Kenwood, find a table, work for an hour. It’s sunny, quiet and incredibly pleasant. The only problem is that every time I need to go to the loo I have to pack up my laptop and take it with me. But that’s OK. It's annoying, but I can manage.
‘Hello Keren! I haven’t seen you for ages!’
Coming out of the loo, I bump into an old colleague. Chat, chat and catch up for fifteen minutes. Walk back to table. There’s a woman sitting at the next table…looks vaguely familiar….
Husband turns up at 12.30. I have written 500 words and talked to three old friends. Café two - fail.

Café Three. I have lunch with my friends Emma and Gillian. I tell them about my search for a place to work. They unanimously recommend a little place in East Finchley. ‘There’s a massive room at the back of the café,’ says Emma. ‘Completely quiet, loads of space. I don’t think anyone even knows it’s there.’
‘It’ll be perfect,’ says Gillian.
I arrive at little café, 10.30am. Lots of chatting people in the front, total peace and quiet at the back. Six empty tables to choose from. A friendly waitress brings me tea in a mug. I focus on chapter 9. I write three paragraphs.
Three people arrive and start having a meeting at the next table. Two old deaf men sit down, shouting at each other. Two women…a man and a woman… a man with a laptop.
Every table but one is occupied. I grit my teeth and write on.
A dad plonks his toddler in a highchair, right behind me. He heads for the counter. The child swivels in alarm. ‘DADDY!’ she yells. ‘WHERE ARE YOU GOING?’
I give a three-year-old child a nasty glare. Feel a bit guilty.
Friendly waitress starts crashing crockery. Wailing baby arrives. Laptop man is joined by another man with his own laptop. They show each other graphs and figures on their laptops. ‘Jolly interesting,’ says one. ‘Just wait till Ted sees these. He’ll be ecstatic.’
Two women at next table are comparing local schools. 'All those parents,' says one, 'Saying things like "It reminds me of my own prep school, all the beautiful playing fields." I mean there's just a cultural gap there.'
'Yes, I know what you mean,' said the other woman, 'Although, mind you, it did remind me of my old prep school.'
Nosiy family are preparing to leave. ‘NO!’ shrieks the child. ‘I DON’T WANT MY DUCKET.’ Wonder what a ducket can possibly be. A new piece of baby equipment, invented since my time? A soft toy, the Duckette? Hmmm… ‘If we’re going to the playground then you need your jacket,’ says the dad.
The three people having a meeting are trying to think of the plural of moose. Mice? Mooses? I stare at the computer, trying not to shout. ‘It’s moose actually! Can we wrap this up now?’

Shut down chapter 9 and open a new word document. ‘The problem with cafes…’ I write…

Café Three: Fail.

Next: Libraries.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Pages and pictures

I'm re-organising the blog a bit, because I have just (after a year) worked out how to create permanent pages.
So I just wanted to do a little bit of market research. Anything else that should go into those pages above? How about the reviews - a page of their own or kept in the sidebar? Should I do FAQ or an interview page? I thought of doing a favourites page - books, films etc...Good idea? Too self indulgent? Am I over-thinking the whole thing?
And does anyone know how I can get more creative than just the basic templates that blogger provides?
The picture of me is one taken last week when I took my daughter for a 'free' studio day..make up, hair style, lots of pictures taken...and then massive hard sell to make us buy hugely over-priced pictures. She looked completely gorgeous in everything, this was the only one of me that I liked (they threw it in free when I forked out vast amounts of cash for two pictures of her).
But I'm waiting for the results of a session I had with a professional photographer last week, who had a very different approach - minimal make up, do your own hair,much more about capturing the real person than creating some glossy image. I'm very interested to see the final results.
It seemed a strange thing to of the many things I never anticipated when I set out to write a book was that one day it would feel neccessary to pay someone to take pictures of me. I resisted it for ages, partly because one of my colleagues in Amsterdam was a fantastically talented photographer, and I kept on thinking that I'd go over there and get Floris to take my picture. But I never did, so I kept on using one that was taken right at the end of our stay in Amsterdam, when I was relatively thin and my hair had been straightened. It's the picture that used to be on this blog and is at the back of When I Was Joe.
The problem with the picture is that now I am fatter (but working on that) and my hair is generally naturally curly and it looks nothing like the current me at all. Thus the new pictures. I should have them by next week.

Thursday, 3 June 2010


We have winners...
Susan Mann has won a signed copy of Luisa Plaja's Swapped By a Kiss. And the winner of Della Says OMG by Keris Stainton is Anne M Leone.
Send your addresses to and your books will be on the way.
I am swamped by the final, final edits for Almost True right now - back ranting and raving on this blog very soon.