Saturday, 22 December 2012

2012 - An Unimaginable Year

So 2012 started, and that was something I hadn't imagined would happen. Not for me anyway. Being diagnosed with late stage cancer in September 2011 made 2012 seem like an impossibility, yet here I am at the end of it. This is my year.

January: My hair has started to grow back. Just a bit, not enough to ditch the scarves, but it's a start. My wonderful, beautiful daughter turns 16. We go to the cinema to see Sherlock Holmes 2 - my first public outing since my diagnosis. A week later I'm in St Thomas's for my operation. All goes well, although the moment when we discovered that the anaesthetic coverage is patch is a bad one! Still it means I have the hand held morphine thing which is marvellous! During all this daughter visits and applies for sixth form schools. She wants to go to the BRIT School so very badly. It means an audition and an interview and a lot of written stuff.

February: Lovely Agent doesn't like final draft of the 17th century story I'd been writing for years so it's ditched. But I start writing a new 17th century story! Hospital consultant is pleased with my progress. I have my last two sessions of chemo. My hair falls out again.

March: CT scan is, after some deliberation, deemed clear. I join the Royal Festival Hall and start to socialise! I even see a play at the Young Vic - Bingo with Patrick Stuart. I go to an exhibition - Getty Images 'Marilyn'.

April: I visit family in Wales. First time I've seen my mother since August 2011. She cries. I think the trip is hard for everyone apart from me. I'm fine. I feel fine. Everyone else worries that I'll do too much too soon and get ill again. I go to the theatre again - in London. The Ladykillers. I take back my part-time jobs that the very lovely people kept open for me. It's rather good. I have Something To Do. I'm still writing. Lots. I'm not sure it's any good though.

May: I go to the theatre. Really making up for lost time here. Misterman at the National which is absolutely stunning! I see Hay Fever too, which is great fun. Daughter starts her GCSEs. I ditch my head scarves. My first writerly outing without the scarves is to Miriam Halahmy's birthday brunch. I feel vulnerable and scared but everyone is very nice.

June: Hospital check up is fine. Next one in three months. Daughter finishes her GCSEs. They've gone well. See the preview of Spiderman at the O2 with daughter. Fantastic. I go back to Wales. No one cries. They're used to me now. Daughter leaves school. I finish the new novel. Well, the first draft.

July: We visit the BRIT school. Daughter has a confirmed place on the Theatre course. Thank you thank you thank you! We go to Norfolk. I feel like a normal person. Looking at photos now my hair is SO short but it felt luxurious at the time! I go to the theatre! Midsummer Night's Dream at the Open Air Theatre and it doesn't rain! I go to Wales. I watch TV a lot. It's the Olympics! I get obsessed with Oscar Pistorius.

August: Daughter and I have an excellent day at London Zoo where I gaze adoringly at the Okapis. Should it have an 's'? GCSE results day. She passes them all! Then she goes to Reading Festival for the day but phones at midnight to say she's staying there overnight. Nice. You can imagine how pleased! I go to Colin Mulhern's event at Foyles for his new book, Arabesque. Haven't seen him for six years! And see the lovely NoN from Catnip too.

September: Send new novel to Lovely Agent. Still not sure about it. See Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime at a cinema with NT live. Amazing! Go to Paralympics and see OSCAR! Go to the SCBWI Sara Grant revision masterclass. And see Timon of Athens at the National. Go to Wales. Come back. Have blood test. See consultant. Marker is rising but still in normal range.

October: See Damned by Despair at the National. Only person in the world who likes it. Go for a tour of Wilton's Music Hall. Wonderful place. SCBWI Miriam Halahmy stuck in the middle masterclass. Visit a Victorian mortuary during the London Open House weekend. A story spark is lit. Visit Rotherhithe, Wapping, and the Crossness Pumping Station. The spark grows. Talk to Lovely Agent about 17th century story. She's not sure either. I suggest we ditch it because the Victorian idea is So Much Better. I go to Bob the cat's book signing. Love him! See the Judas Kiss at Richmond Theatre. Good grief! Have blood test. Marker is now above normal range. I have a scan. I panic.

November: The scan is clear. The marker is still too high, but the scan is clear. I start writing the Victorian novel. I see 55 Days at the Hampstead Theatre. Douglas Henshall and Mark Gatiss. Perfect. My mother falls and breaks her knee. Is effectively bed bound. Not so perfect. Especially for my sister. SCBWI conference. Brilliant, inspiring, fun.

December: Daughter and I have a day out - shopping, lunch, and The Magistrate at the National - great fun and the best curtain call ever. Jo Franklin gets tickets to see Benedict Cumberbatch (and some others) recording Radio 4's Cabin Pressure and she takes me! Daughter is furious. I am thrilled. Take Cat #1 to the v.e.t. His ear is cancerous and will have to be removed. So will a couple of teeth. Operation booked for January 3rd. Mother's knee is mended. I have blood test and see woman-who-is-not-my-consultant. Marker is still going up. She is pessimistic. I don't like her. But, for now, all is OK as the scan was clear. I see the Hobbit and love it. So much!

So that's it. Tomorrow I'm off to Wales for Christmas. I'm back on the green tea. I feel fine. I'm optimistic. The Victorian novel is going extremely well. 2012 has been a mixed year but overall an excellent one. I'm still here and plan to be so for a very long time. This year has shown me how lovely people are. I'm so very grateful for the support I've had from friends, family, SCBWIers, and Facebookers. I've been carried along on a tide of good wishes. So thank you. 

I wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Sunday, 9 December 2012


This week's post is taken up by my excellent cat Tobias. I've had him for nine years now, having chosen him from a picture on the Foal Farm website. He'd been a stray for a long time and was very scared of everything. It's only now that I can use tin foil without him running away.

So last week he went to the V.E.T. because he has a sore ear. He's on antibiotics, which I shove inside a piece of cheese twice a day, but he may have to have his ear c.u.t. o.f.f. (If anyone has a cat with white ears - watch them!)

Anyway, here he is (pre ear crisis). Normal service resumes next week.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The SCBWI Conference from the Other Side of the Fence

Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend the SCBWI British Isles annual conference in Winchester. It was the first time I had not attended as a volunteer and I was expecting the grass on the other side to be very green. I didn't have to know what was going on everywhere! I didn't have to worry about sessions running over, people getting lost, speakers not speaking. I could do whatever I wanted, go wherever I wanted, and cultivate an air of blissful ignorance if I so desired. Of course I did all of those things but I did, on occasion, feel just a tiny sense of loss for not being part of the "team". But, above all, it made me appreciate just how much work our fantastic volunteers do, often in the face of adversity! So, yay for the conference team! And a HUGE thank you to them too.

So to the weekend. I met Liz de Jager at Waterloo at a stupidly early time but we finally regained the power of speech and were quite lively by the time we arrived at the campus. Celia Rees's excellent keynote speech set the tone for a weekend of wonder. Her books are really compelling. She manages to transport you into her world with enviable ease. Feeling buoyed up, I excitedly sat in the auditorium for her session with Sarah Odedina of the splendid (oh how I love them) Hot Key Books. And I was not disappointed. For they talked of historical fiction with such love and enthusiasm, I realised that I probably wasn't barking up the wrong tree with my new Victorian thriller. I scribbled down their words of wisdom.

When writing historical fiction, the writer must have a real world for their story, and their characters must show the same emotions and drive as in contemporary fiction - just in an historical setting. So, there should be no sense of remoteness. The writer should re-interpret their research for the reader without overdoing it. Description can take you away from the narrative. And this really stood out (we all need to pin it over our desks): Every author has the right to write the book they want to write. Thank you!

The rest of the day was all panels (of which no room here, but they were brilliantly informative) and book sales and, of course, the awe inspiring Debi Gliori's keynote speech. Oh my goodness, the woman is a genius. She talked about her illustrating life, she told us a story, she almost cried, we almost cried (as one) and we gazed, open-mouthed at her heart-breakingly beautiful illustrations.

Then, of course, we had the party, which was all excellent cake and a huge crowd of amazing SCBWI authors and illustrators, as we celebrated their publications over the past year. We talked and applauded and were proud. There was also the fabulously entertaining Lin Oliver, co-founder of SCBWI, who hosted the party and made us all laugh. She also ran a session earlier in the day on writing humour, which everyone who attended raved about. Oh to be in two, three, four places at once! And I finally, after all these years, met the lovely Vanessa Harbour!

So, Sunday. I loved Sunday. This is the first year the conference team have given a whole day to intensive sessions and every single person I spoke to agreed that this was a fine thing indeed. I was lucky enough to take Sara Grant's 'Finding the Plot' and, boy did we find it! This marvellous woman is not only a great editor and a very fine writer, but she knows everything! AND she won the Crystal Kite award for her excellent novel Dark Parties (buy it!), which she truly deserved. So, back to the session. We all had our novels in various forms, from scraps of ideas either in our heads or on the page (Moleskine in my case), through to finished drafts. First of all we were given a sheet (Sara loves a handout!) which I will use for every novel I will ever write. We had to write down the heart of our story, the premise (I really struggled with this), the controlling idea, the theme, the pitch (in my case - Oliver Twist meets The Godfather!), and then more about the characters - basically the who, what, why, where etc etc. I have to say that single page has absolutely unlocked the key to my story. It was truly a lightbulb moment for me.

After lunch (there was cake), we had another handout, this time with a graph! We mapped out our stories and then talked about suspense, tension and the general structure of the story. We then split into groups (I was dreading this, but it was fantastic) and were each given 15 minutes to talk about our plots, and their problems, and then brainstorm. I was paired with the marvellous Addy Farmer who gave me an idea that has transformed the story and given my protagonist real motivation. So thank you Addy!

As well as telling us what to do and how to do it, Sara talked about her own journey to publication which was truly inspiring. She really is a gem. If you get a chance to go to any of her workshops, then do it!

Buzzing with ideas we then drifted off for the closing remarks and then we all trooped home, heads and hearts full but happy.

And the grass? Actually, it's pretty damned green on both sides! I can't wait for next year.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Ten True Things

These are my ten rules – things that I have realised are true to me.

1.        A novel won't write itself.

2.        Dark chocolate is good for you but not if you eat the whole bar in one sitting.

3.        Telling friends and family you can't see them/talk to them because you're writing is wrong if all you end up doing is mucking about on Facebook.

4.        Talking about writing is not the same as actually doing it, however enthusiastic you may be.

5.        Green tea is good for you but it tastes vile.

6.        Leaving difficult tasks until they become irrelevant does work, but the huge amount of guilt you feel just isn't worth it.

7.        There is such a thing as too much research.

8.        Reading running magazines will not make you fitter unless you actually go out and run.

9.        Your teenage daughter rarely wants your advice even though you invariably do Know Better.

10.        It's OK to fail but it's not OK to give up.

What are yours?

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Living Story

Things have been a bit rubbish recently. Lovely Novel turned out to be Lousy Novel and has been discarded. The doctors thought there was a chance the cancer had come back (it hasn't). The little girl missing in Machynlleth is from the town where my family live and the whole place is, understandably, in shock. My mother broke her leg, well, her knee, but it's a full plaster and she's totally immobile. So that's that.

But, there has been a gleam, a little sparkle, a nugget of loveliness. And, bear with me here, it all started with a trip to a Victorian mortuary. Yes, I know. It doesn't sound that great. During the London Open House weekend (which is a splendid thing and everyone who can go, should go), I went to Rotherhithe to see the mortuary. I thought it would be interesting, after all, I am the woman who spent the evening at the Old Operating Theatre in London Bridge, listening to a talk about the history of autopsies. There's nothing left of the mortuary now - it's a community centre - but as I listened to the history of the place, how the building was used, how they took in the bodies washed up in the Thames, the seed of a story planted itself in my head. I spent the rest of the day wandering around Rotherhithe. I spent another day wandering around Wapping. And I went to the Crossness Pumping Station in Erith Marshes. And I read. Peter Ackroyd's London Under building in particular built on my story idea. I went mudlarking. I went to the Mayflower and the Angel (oh, such hardship in the name of research) and I scribbled notes, took photos, and let the story evolve.
It struck me how lucky I am to live in London, the place where my stories are usually set. You can still find historic buildings and atmospheric lanes. The river itself tells so much - the shores, the old jetties, moss covered steps long since abandoned. And all these things build a picture in your head, give your characters somewhere to grab onto, make the story come alive. We have excellent museums. The Museum of London has a Victorian shopping centre. Their off-shoot in the Docklands has Sailor Town - a street with a lodging house, shops, the riverfront. You are never far away from the past, whether real or imagined.

And my story? It grows day by day. I have my setting. I have my story line. I have my characters (thank you Miriam Halahmy for the fantastic SCBWI masterclass). But because of my wanderings, I have my world. It's in my head. It's real, it's breathing, it's alive. And you can't get better than that.

Monday, 24 September 2012

My first Moleskine

I just came across the first Moleskine I ever owned. It's a black pocket ruled notebook and I bought it in 2005. Up until then I'd used spiral bound notebooks from Smiths. I don't know why or how I moved onto Moleskine but, and this will come as no surprise to those who know me, I haven't looked back since.

But it's so exciting looking back at the things I was writing and plotting and planning at the time. I was in the middle of writing a distopian novel - I was ahead of the game! - which actually looks rather good. Obviously there had been massive climate change which meant society had become completely divided with the rich, naturally, taking the upper hand. And of course I had a serial killer. I also had notes for a story about someone called Tirion (long before Game of Thrones), who I think I planned to turn into a star. Yes, the astral kind.

I've got lists of agents to submit to. Only one of them was interested, I seem to remember, and not all that much, sadly.

I've got lists of titles. The distopian ended up being called Ripped Apart, for what it's worth. I've got lists of characters. I have no idea who Connor Mullen or Bridget Rossini were going to be. Or Gabriel Beaumont.

I've got notes for a new novel which then went on to be called The Boxed Crystal. No one wanted that one. But I liked it.  I've got notes for a rom com (really?!) which actually looks quite good, but I'll never write it.

I've got notes from a SCBWI event, which was at Sara Grant's house, with the publicity people from Penguin, I think. Kirsten and Adele?

I've got notes for a story set on Easter Island, which never got written. There's a short story called The Unseen which I enjoyed writing more than people enjoyed reading. There's a bit of flash fiction that I put on Write Words, which was really good fun. And there's the start of the sequel to Ripped Apart, which was a bit ambitious seeing as no one wanted the first one.

It's great to look back to see the energy and enthusiasm I hope I can still muster. I can see just how much my writing has improved over the years but there are still a few gems there; some well-rounded characters, exciting story ideas, and even some rather good dialogue. I'm tempted to sit down and read through all my notebooks but time has taught me that it would be a form of procrastination. I'll save them for another day.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

What I have learned from the Olympics

I've loved every second of the Olympics. I changed from Olympic cynic to Olympic obsessive, and I'm gutted that it's finished. Well, for now. For the past two weeks I have done no writing, I have read no blog posts (sorry!), and have rarely left the house. Instead I have been glued to screens - TV and laptop, often both at the same time - watching sports I'd never shown even a passing interest in before. I have yelled, cheered, screamed, and been overawed by the dedication of these athletes. So what have I learned and how relevant is the Olympics to me as a person? I've learned that you get out of life what you put in. In the words of Mo Farah, it's all down to hard work and grafting. And judging by both of his amazing races, you can always find that little bit extra to make a difference. This can be applied to much more than sport - although it's coming in very handy as I try to rebuild my fitness and running distance.

So here is the Mo Farah school of thought as applied to writing. Hard work and grafting. In other words, if you don't sit down and write, the novel will never get written. If you bang out the words,one at a time, they will eventually form a story. Sometimes it's easy and joyful and the words flow. Sometimes it's hard and they get stuck inside your head. But you have to keep going, keep writing, and you will get there. The little bit extra (or the final 600 metres) is the revision bit. The bit where it's almost so very nearly finished but it needs a final polish.

And here is the Oscar Pistorius school of thought as applied to writing. My oh my, he is inspirational. He is a world class athlete yet he has no legs. What he does have is vision and belief, and the support of family, friends, coaches. It seems crass to even compare this to the writing life, but here I am doing it just the same because he inspires me in his self-belief, his courage, and his determination. OK, so I haven't been in the best of health, but really, if Oscar can do what he has done, how can I not do everything I can to achieve my goals? That man has pushed more boundaries than anyone thought possible.

Now that the games are done and dusted, I look at my first draft, languishing on the table, and I pick it up with renewed vigour, ready to whip it into shape. Well, at least until the Paralympics start.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Joy of Writing

On March 6th I started writing a new novel; the first really new story with new characters and a new setting for about three years. On June 30th I finished it. I pushed myself really hard but my deadlines were all self-imposed. I'd already shown an outline to Lovely Agent and we'd discussed it, but as I'm still unpublished, she has no desperate need for it. The need came entirely from myself.

So I got thinking. Why did I need to write it and why did I set myself a relatively short amount of time in which to finish the first draft? Why the hurry? Funnily enough, it was not a burning desire to be published, although that would be very nice, thank you. Nor was it because I thought that this was the novel the world had been waiting for. The reasons were all about me!

1) To prove that I could. I've spent the past three years writing The Apothecary's Apprentice in various forms and plot lines. As much as I loved it, it will never see the light of day, and that's OK. But I needed to know that I could write different characters, different settings, different plots, and I needed to know that I could love those just as much if not more than that poor, over-worked story I'd just ditched. And I needed to know that it wouldn't take me another three years to do it!

2) Because I grew to love my new world and my new characters. I really did. I loved getting to know them, I loved the ever growing internal map that I'd been building, and I loved the way everything blossomed, grew, illuminated itself. I can walk the corridors of my house as though I've physically been there. I can have conversations with my new characters and they will talk back. I know it. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write, and the more I wanted to give my characters their resolution.

3) Because I enjoyed the process. I approached this novel in a slightly different way, a less structured way. As I said, I had an outline, and Lovely Agent and I had discussed it. I started writing knowing where I was going. Normally I plot out every chapter, every detail before I write. This time I let things happen more organically. If the scene I was intending to write turned into a scene with its own agenda, I gave it freedom. If characters wanted to wriggle free of their set traits, I let them. If new characters wrote themselves onto the page, I went with them. The latter third of the story changed several times as the characters grew and the world gained depth. The story I ended up writing is not the one I set out to write, but I can honestly say it's far better this way. I've learned an awful lot from the writing process and it's been so much fun.

So there you have it. I have a first draft. I know there are changes, I know I have a lot of work ahead, but if the revision process is as enjoyable as the first draft I know that I'll love every minute of it. And, of course, I need a new deadline - good draft ready to send to Lovely Agent in September. Please feel free to remind me!

Monday, 28 May 2012

The Teen, The BAFTAs, that Cumberbatch boy, and Me.

So last night the Teen and I hot footed it down to the Royal Festival Hall for the BAFTA TV awards. In the car on the way there, my "usual" route to Waterloo, I realised how far I'd come. Normally I'd be sitting, cushion under the seatbelt, on my way to Guy's or St Thomas's for treatment, wearing loose clothing, a headscarf, and a grimace. Last night I wore a dress, high heels, short hair (OK, VERY short hair), and a smile. And what a time we had!

As a Southbank member, I was able to get a couple of tickets to the event and even though, when I bought them I had only just completed my treatment, I was determined to be well enough to go. Teen and I dressed up and off we went, all excited at the possibility of seeing Benedict Cumberbatch, and all the others too, of course. We had to arrive before all the celebrities (dammit) but we did get to walk the red carpet (actually red, white and blue carpet) which was hugely exciting.
I have no idea who these people are!

Then we made our way upstairs and hung over the balcony watching the arrivals. Even then, before it had even started, the atmosphere was wonderful with everyone talking to each other (how un-British) and pointing out all the famous people. I was relieved when the Cumberbatch boy arrived because the Teen was so desperate to see him, but I have to say, I was rather keen to see Rupert Penry-Jones!
Before it all started.

The event itself was glittering and lovely and rather a thrill. Moriarty (Andrew Scott) won best supporting actor to a barrage of screams and applause and, oh, he was so sweet. Cumberbatch didn't win - the best actor award went to Dominic West. It was rather funny though that when they played the clips of the nominees, you could hear nothing of the Cumberbatch clip because of the screams. Yes, from me and the Teen as well. The best part of the evening for me, however, wasn't who was there or what happened on stage, it was just being there with my lovely daughter. Her face as Cumberbatch and Matt Smith came on stage to present Stephen Moffat with his award was just the best thing ever. Her two favourites on stage at the same time and she was there!
The Teen (who won't thank me for posting this)!

The most moving thing was watching Terry Pratchett receiving the award for best single documentary, Choosing to Die. It took him ages to get to the stage and he looked so slight, but his speech was so heartfelt and humble.

So, all in all, we had a fantastic evening. I said I would go and I did. I dressed up (with thanks to my sister for the dress). I laughed, I cheered, I screamed (just a bit) and I was able to forget the past six months completely. Oh, and we got chocolates!

Monday, 14 May 2012

Why The Tiniest Things Sometimes Matter The Most

After everything I have been through over the past six months, today I am crying. And why? Because my number arrived for the Bupa 10K - a race I applied to take part in before I became ill. Seeing number B14994, my time chip, and my four pins is far more upsetting than I thought it would be. I knew in September that I wouldn't be able to run the race. I knew I couldn't cancel my place and that the pack would eventually turn up. I'm fine about not running it, really I am. So why am I so upset? I suppose it's tangible evidence of my illness. I can hold the number in my hand and know that I'm not fit enough to wear it. It represents my physical weakness. And I guess, deep down, I wonder if I will ever be able to regain my fitness, if I will be able to run the race next year.

And all this has got me thinking. What I need to get over this is a thick skin. And, hey, guess what? I'm a writer. I've got a thick skin! I've managed to write whole novels, big ones too. I've had the courage to send them out into the big wide world with a feeling of hope and a dream of success. And they've come back. I've had hundreds of rejections, from the standard photocopied letter, to a nice email, right the way through to detailed positive feedback. And I'm stronger for it. My writing is better for it. But, and this is the most important thing, I never, ever gave up.

I keep on writing and hoping and dreaming, just as I will, one day, keep on running and hoping and dreaming. So while this paper number, a thing that is so tiny in the scheme of things, has upset me today, it will also inspire me. While I won't be pinning it to my vest and running down the Mall, I will be pinning it to my wall. And every time I look at it I will remember not to give up! It might even help me to finish this novel too.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Everything I know, I learned from Enid Blyton

Well, OK, not everything. I mean, I did go to school. It's just that as I was walking into Forest Hill today (I know, such a glamorous lifestyle), I heard a starling sing and it reminded me of the Enid Blyton Nature Lover's series; she describes his "song" as gurgles and gasps, splutters and wheezes. I still have the books. I loved them. How I longed to go on country walks with Uncle Merry, and rambles with Zacky the Gipsy. I read the books avidly, learning about birds, trees, plants, reptiles. Out I'd go trying to find the things Blyton wrote about. We were a bit short on mountain hares and fallow deer in Radlett, but I had a damned good look for them all the same. So, little success on my own rambles, but the series did inspire in me a love of natural history books, and of nature itself.

And, of course, I read the Famous Five, and the Secret Seven. Again, out I'd trot to try and build a den in the woods, or set up camp at the bottom of the garden. I wanted to solve mysteries, have adventures, explore new things. I read the Mystery of… books. I can't remember the title but in one of them, the children go behind a waterfall and find a secret place where the mystery is solved. To this day, I have a fascination with waterfalls and at the first opportunity, I will try and make my way behind one. Here I am doing this very thing in Jersey (a long time ago). Note that I did not try this when I visited Niagara Falls - although I did do the touristy behind the falls thing. Not the same at all. But still good.

 It's amazing really that one author has been so influential in shaping my imagination. Yes, of course she was hugely prolific, but it's not just that. There was something in her words that spoke to me, opened up a new world, made me want to live that life, both inside and outside my head. From a writer's point of view, this is an incredible achievement. It's why I write, I think. I want to write stories that fuel such excitement and wonder, both for myself and for others. What a gift! But analysing what it is that captivates is nigh on impossible. It's not just the subject matter, it's not just the choice of words, the characters, or the setting. It's not even right place, right time writing. Perhaps it's an authenticity; writing about the extraordinary or the unknown with a sense of reality. After all, I was never going to get to Narnia however many wardrobes I went in, but I could have an adventure, couldn't I?

Anyway, whatever it was that worked the magic, I will always hold those books in my heart. And, who knows, there may still be adventures ahead. 

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Time Is On My Side

Time. Funny old thing. It seems to expand and contract depending on how busy, how motivated, how bored one is. Time has been a big thing for me these past six months. How long do I have left to live? How long until the treatment starts? How long until the next appointment/blood test/round of chemo? How long until they sign me off? So although I wasn't working and wasn't writing all that much either, my time was filled, the clock was ticking. I've turned the clock off now. No more chemotherapy. Blood tests are only every three months. I'm still alive and plan to stay that way for a very long time.

 By the way, that's Father Time, not Death!

So with all that time, I should be doing so much, right? The words should be pouring out. I'm back at work now, part time, so that fills some of my week. But there is still plenty of time for words. Oh, I've written some, OK quite a lot recently, but they've stopped. Gone right off. I need to get back into some sort of routine now, find a work/life/writing balance.

The biggest thing about time, for me anyway, is how I focus on it. I've never been one to dwell on the past; what's done is done, but, for obvious reasons, I've been too scared to focus on the future. I've gone from appointment to appointment, doing what I was told, while never looking past the next day. So my writing had a different purpose. I finished my novel just so I could say I'd done it. I needed to know that all that could be done on it was done. But I didn't work to a deadline, didn't think about publication because, at that time, I was facing the great unknown. Now my treatment is finished, I feel I can look to the future again; sadly not with that novel. Oh, my future is still uncertain, but whose isn’t? And time, as they say, is on my side. But it feels odd. It's like stepping into the great unknown. I can allow myself to think about writing a publishable novel; one that might see the light of day next year or the year after. I'm happy about that. The only problem is, of course, that I need to stop thinking about it and get on with writing it! So if you see me loitering on Facebook, tell me to get off. Tell me to stop wasting time!

Monday, 26 March 2012

What Is It About Highwaymen?

Why do we have a thing about highwaymen? Because we do, don't we? (And I bet you're now singing the Adam Ant song, Stand and Deliver!) The protagonist in the novel I'm currently writing is a part-time highwayman, and somehow this gives him a sort of glamour, an air of mystery, even a smidgen of romance. But, really, they weren't all that great. Nevermind 'Gentlemen of the Road', they were just thieves; and violent and aggressive ones to boot. This video, recently posted by Marie-Louise Jensen on Facebook, really made me laugh.

But the reason I decided to have a highwayman in my story was because I read about Claude du Vall. With my love of the restoration period, he had to be my highwayman of choice. He was dashing and fashionable, everything you need in such a man, and, allegedly, never resorted to violence. But what really made me warm to him was the fact that he agreed not to take everything from one of his victims if the man's wife agreed to dance with him. Here he is at that very moment. (You wonder why they didn't just shoot him while he was dancing?)

So, back to my original question - why do we love highwaymen so much? I can't think it was any fun being held up at gunpoint and being forced to hand over your valuables. And I bet most of them were not dashing and handsome and glamorous. Maybe the myth has built over time. Or maybe the women of the time revered them too. Claude du Vall was eventually arrested in a pub in Covent Garden, was tried for six robberies and hanged. I leave you with his memorial inscription, which perhaps says it all.

Here lies DuVall: Reder, if male thou art,
Look to thy purse; if female, to thy heart.
Much havoc has he made of both; for all
Men he made to stand, and women he made to fall
The second Conqueror of the Norman race,
Knights to his arm did yield, and ladies to his face.
Old Tyburn’s glory; England’s illustrious Thief,
Du Vall, the ladies’ joy; Du Vall, the ladies’ grief.

Oh, and if anyone fancies seeing him, he haunts the Holt Hotel on the Oxford Road.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

In Praise of Middle Grade Fiction

Reading Nicky Schmidt's splendid post about YA fiction made me think about my own preferred reading matter: Middle Grade Fiction - yes it deserves those capital letters! I love MG, I really do, but I've never before considered why that is. And I think it's freedom. MG is often full of adventure and excitement, taking you into realms you'd never otherwise enter, although you may have tried to create them when you were little. My sister and I used to pretend to be eskimos in the cupboardy room on the landing. It was the room that led up to the loft and was dark and tiny with sloping ceilings. Perfect. To us, the world we created was utterly real. Many a happy hour was spent in cramped, semi-darkness. And reading or writing MG novels gives me the same sense of place and time. My absolutely very favourite book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, still fills my mind with the images its words created. A new, different place. Something so far apart from my/the ordinary world. Somewhere to escape to. Somewhere that filled me with wonder. Somewhere that was mine and mine alone. To me, that's freedom, and is what makes MG so special. Yes, there are emotions, high and lows, in MG, but none of the YA angst. The MG books I love to read, and try to write, still retain their sense of innocence and playfulness. Even the excellent Mortlock by Jon Mayhew, with its innards and scary aunts, is so much fun and has a big dose of humour alongside the yuck bits.

And you still manage to get Ben Barnes!

Don't get me wrong. I love YA too. I've banged on enough about Anna Dressed in Blood lately! YA plays an important role for both adults and teenagers (my daughter would never call herself a young adult!), as Nicky says in her blog post. I've tried writing YA but it always comes out just a bit too young.

So, while I don't agree with "write what you know", I most certainly think you should "write what you love". And I love Middle Grade Fiction!

Friday, 2 March 2012

How To Start A Novel

Starting a novel is not for the faint hearted. I mean you don't just open a notebook or a new word document and just write. Of course you don't. It's far more complicated than that. There are steps to take, and in the right order too.

  1. Buy a new notebook. Preferably Moleskine, and if you can get a limited edition one, then all the better. In case anyone is interested, the Lego editions will be out soon. And, yes, I have pre-ordered mine.
  2. Once you have said pristine notebook and have shown everyone it's beauty, then you must make notes. And cut out pictures and stick them in. I find Ben Barnes comes in quite handy at this stage. And you can find nice fonts for the title of the novel and you must print that out and stick it in. And then show everyone all that too. Trust me, they will be impressed.
  3. Plan the novel. This starts off as a wild collection of words that loosely resemble a story but you scrawl them in your notebook and it all starts to get exciting and  oh my goodness you really might HAVE something here!
  4. But you don't write it yet. Oh, no. Too early.
  5. So you think that you really can't crack on unless you have a dedicated software package. Scrivener is a good one. And you get a jolly long trial period too. And a long video on how to use it, which you will not watch all the way through or understand. So you ask a lovely friend who knows, like Liz de Jager.
  6. Then you really get going. Did you know Scrivener has templates for character sketches and setting sketches? Well it would be rude not to fill them out. And then you open other folders for research and notes and more character stuff and, oh I don't know, journal entries. And this is nearly it. You are so very nearly writing the new novel.
  7. So, in Scrivener, you open the manuscript template only you don't like the look of it and you don't like the font and it seems a bit weird typing on something that isn't a word document. So you don’t start writing yet because there's formatting and stuff to do.
  8. Now you panic. Only a bit though. I mean are you ready to begin? Have you done enough? Do you know the plot? Do you know your characters? Do you have The Voice?
  9. So you tell everyone on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ that you’re starting a novel, that you are #amwriting and they're all impressed and they cheer you on and it's great and lovely haven't actually written a word.
  10. So there's only one thing left to do. JUST WRITE!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

When Is A Writer Not A Writer?

When I started (re-started, actually) this blog, it was going to be all about writing. I was going to write about historical settings, research, the locations around London that I'd been to and written about. It was going to be all big and clever, and I was feeling ever so smug about it. Then the novel I had pinned my hopes on was ditched. Firstly by Lovely Agent (who was not so lovely for a brief moment, I can tell you) and then, after much soul searching, by me. It was definitely the right thing to do, and my research and trudging will probably come in handy one day.

And then I started blogging about being ill, which I hadn't intended to do at all. But it seemed like the right thing to do, the thing I wanted to say, and I bunged a bit of writing stuff in as well. But this is not a blog with which to purge my soul, nor is it a blog for talking about cancer all the time. Yes, it's part of me and my life, but it's not everything.

And now? Now I feel like a bit of a fraud writing the blog. I'm writing it as a writer, but at the moment I feel anything but. I have an idea for a new novel. I have a plot. I even have a sub-plot. I have characters. I have settings. I have character sketches. I have character interviews. I have a synopsis (of sorts). I have a chapter plan (ditto). But I have hardly any words. I turn the computer on, I open Scrivener, and I look at the screen. It's not blank. There are 72 words on the page. But that's it. I like this story. I like the protagonist. Yet I just can't get going. Surely writers write. So why can't I do it? Is it because I don't yet have Beckett's (aka Ben Barnes) voice? In my heart I know that by writing the damned thing, his voice will come. Did I spend too long on the ditched story, so that I can't wipe the characters from my subconscious? Was the ditched story it? Will I ever write another one?

Or maybe I should just Get On With It. If anyone has an anti-procrastination mallet, please can they come over and whack me on the head with it? It may well be just what I need.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Crisis of Confidence or Getting Ready for the Real World Again

I'm beginning to think that perhaps it is OK to look forwards again, that perhaps I can allow myself the luxury of planning for the future. I still have a way to go - one more round of chemotherapy, another few weeks of feeling really sick and drained, another ride on the CT scanner - but then it's over. No more treatment. No more hospital appointments. No more drugs. The end of so much, but the start of so much more.

I am one of the 20%. It's sickening to think that 80% of women with ovarian cancer don't make it. But I have. And I will. And I am so very, very lucky. I feel that I need to do something worthwhile. I don't want to waste the opportunity I've been given. I want to do everything I can to stay healthy, to remain a 20 percenter (yes, I made that word up but it does the job). I want to grab every bull I come across by the horns (not literally). But it is so very scary. I haven't even been out in public since September. Well, I've been to Hopscotch (my local café) but that's different. The biggest crowd I've been in has been the Oncology waiting room at Guy's Hospital. Can I even have a conversation that doesn't involve cancer symptoms? What will I say? What will I wear? Will my hair ever be long enough for me to stop looking like a convict? I feel rather scared.

But my biggest crisis of confidence is my new story. I've researched it. I've downloaded the trial version of Scrivener (not yet convinced but willing). I've cut out pictures. I've made notes. Have I started writing it? No, of course not. The characters aren't yet real, but they're forming. The place is almost there. Actually, it really is there; it's based on Wakehurst Place. The plot line is coming together. I even have something of a sub-plot. I think I've rinsed away the dregs of my last novel from my mind, leaving a sparkly, shiny space for the new one. Yet I faff, and I sigh, and I dream, and I plan. When will I make the leap from my head to the page? Do I wait for the characters to speak to me? I don't think I should. I think it's only by nudging them onto the page, reluctant and shy, that they really will take shape. Where I need to step gingerly into my new world, I think they need to do the same. My characters and me, we're not so different. We need to be brave, we need to be confident, but, above all, we just need to make a start. 

Friday, 3 February 2012

New Beginnings and Letting Go

It seems that 2012 is the year of new things and letting go of old things. I'll let go of the chemotherapy and say hello to new hair. My lovely daughter will leave her lovely school and set off for sixth form. And I will be letting go of the novel I've been working on for years, to start work on something completely new.

Although it seems a daft thing to say, losing the novel seems the hardest. I've worked on it for so long. I know it so well. The characters are real; to me at least. The setting is so vivid. I've invested so much of me in that story. It's been a huge part of my life. How can I just ditch it, leaving my characters destitute and directionless? Because it just wasn't working. I thought it was, really I did, but it never quite came alive on the page. I feel I should bury it in the garden, give it a little ceremony, a gravestone perhaps. Only the cats would dig it up, and, anyway, it would be silly. But I loved it!

So what next? Can I ever write anything else again? Can I find a new story, new places, new characters? Will I love them as much? Will they even speak to me? I think so. Who knows? But I'm going to give it a damned good try. And I've already updated my pinboard with new pictures, so that's a start!

Friday, 27 January 2012

Ten Things I Have Learned About Writing and Life (and why I still need a hairdryer even though I have no hair)

In September 2011, I was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. It was something of a life changer and, boy, has my life changed. These are some of the things I have learned.

1. The internet is both brilliant and useless for research. From a writer's point of view, it's brilliant. I can visit people and places from anywhere and any time; I can discover new things, get information on old things; I can find inspiration and motivation. From a health point of view, it's appalling. Think scaremongering, misinformation, and conflicting advice. If I believed everything I read, I would in fact be dead now, or at the very least On The Way Out. (But I am neither - hurrah!)

2.  Being a Lady of Leisure (hereinafter referred to as a LoL), should mean that I am writing reams and reams of perfect prose. So I thought. Ah, well. When I was diagnosed, I thought I'd give up writing altogether. After all, what was the point. I might die? I quickly got over that but there were still no words. I wanted to write, really I did, I just couldn't seem to get to it. So I read. I read fiction - oh some lovely books - and I read books about writing. It was only when I re-read Stephen King's 'On Writing' that I felt the flicker of an urge to write something myself. So I did. I started with a couple of hundred words. It felt like a massive achievement. Then I re-wrote The Novel. And now? Now I'm back to faffing. I'm scribbling ideas for new projects but, if I'm honest, being a LoL is not what I thought it would be!

3. There are some fantastic books out there that so deserve publication. And there are some that really don't. In my reading frenzy I have been filled with both admiration and horror at the beauty/awkwardness of the writing. Rarely have I been so swept away by a story that I didn't notice the writing style. But it's happened on occasion (Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, Dark Parties by Sara Grant). There is no such thing as a perfect novel. There are right time, right place, compelling novels. Novels where plot is key. Novels where character is key. This pleases me.

4. I love my Kindle. I had a sneaking desire for one but somehow I felt like a bit of a traitor. Shun proper books? Could I? Should I? Then I got a Kindle for Christmas. And I really love it. But, I have found some great  authors I may not have come across. And I read real books too.

5. Once you start to write, you just can't stop. Yes, I know this kind of negates point 2, but bear with me. Even when I'm not sitting at a desk - and it's really sore when I do at the moment - I'm still filled with words. Ideas come from everything around you, everyday experiences, people you meet - and I met some corkers in hospital - so even if the page itself isn't filling up, my mind is. That new novel will pop out any minute now.

6. My, how you find out who your friends are when you're ill! And I am lucky enough to have so many. Thank you! Joining the SCBWI was one of the best things I ever did. If you write for children, join it! Here! The people are wonderful and will support you not just with your writing, but with your whole life too.

7. Facebook, Google+, and Twitter are not writing. Fancy that. I mean, it's words, yes, but it's not a novel is it? Unless you're Melvin Burgess. As a LoL, I've managed to embrace all three with open arms. But words on a social networking site are no substitute for words in a story. So turn it off. Actually, that's a lesson I'm yet to learn.

8. The brain is a marvellous thing. You can achieve so much if you just put your mind to it. Four months since my diagnosis, there is now not a cancer cell in my body. Chemotherapy and a wonderful surgeon are largely responsible for this (thank you, thank you Guy's and St Thomas'), but I honestly think my sheer bloody-mindedness and forced positivity helped. If only I could put that much willpower towards my writing. Perhaps I will.

9. You can't force it. I absolutely do not believe in waiting for "the muse". If you're going to write, then do it. If you waited for inspiration, you'd never write a word. But you can't make it happen either. Oh, anyone can write anything, and if you write for long enough you might find some good words. But I have learned that sitting down and trying to force words out does me no favours. Stress is so last year! Perhaps this is more the case when starting new projects, and perhaps it is a form of procrastination, but I know when I'm ready to write. I think.

10. The hairdryer. Bizarrely, I have to dry my wound (soon to be a scar) with the hairdryer after I take a shower. Who needs hair?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Writing, Research, and Random Thoughts

There's nothing wrong with the present day. I like living in it very much. But writing in it? Not for me. I love to write about the past. I love to imagine how things were. I'm only vaguely interested in the stuff we're taught at school - Kings, Queens, politicians, famous people - although I confess to something of a passion for Charles II. What interests me most about the past are the lives of ordinary people. Where they lived. How they lived. To me, the filthy grime of the city slums and the characters within it are infinitely more fascinating than a stately home stuffed full of Lords and Ladies.

I'm lucky enough to live in London where you can still find Fagin-style tenements, Jack the Ripper streets, and airy atmospheric centuries-old markets. A writer can find inspiration anywhere but by walking the streets of a city, you can transport yourself back in time and really imagine what it would have been like way back when. In London there are writing prompts all over the place: The Pleasure Gardens at the Museum of London, a model of old London Bridge at the Docklands Museum, and a wonderful history of medicine at the Science Museum. On a recent hospital stay at St Thomas', I even found a glass case full of old apothecary jars and scales that were identical to the ones I describe in my novel.

The internet is a fantastic place for research, but nothing beats the real thing, real buildings, real objects. The only thing to remember is to always take a camera and a notebook with you!