Friday, 30 May 2008

How I choose books

I have achieved a result with chapter one, in that I think my edits are making the story better (be absolutely awful if I thought they were making it worse). I am acutely aware that the first page is so kick-fire important – and I really need this to be good.

The first thing I do in a book shop is browse the new fiction. This is usually because it is the closest thing on the shelves when you walk in – so no doubt huge deals behind the scenes are going on with publishers and booksellers. As I am browsing I am looking for two things – a good illustrated book cover, and a decent title. I avoid fluorescent colours, line drawings of women with shopping bags, anything that looks fluffy or girlie, and photographs of sad looking children. I pick up anything that uses an autumn sort of colour scheme, anything that looks old, and any book that uses montages of photo’s and illustrations. So that is me over the first hurdle.

At the same time of looking at the dust jacket, I am reading the title. I will put down anything that smacks of convoluted romantic entanglements, anything that mentions tractors, and anything trying to be too clever. At this stage I am looking for a title that suits the illustration and is intriguing enough to make me do that oh-so-tiring thing of turning the book over to read the blurb on the back. Recently I would say The Book Thief is one of those books – good title, brilliant illustration.

So I am now on the blurb. If this just consists of quotes, I tend to put the book back on the shelf, as if I have got this far it means I want a glimpse of what is inside, and not to be told that someone at The Daily Sun thinks it’s a corker. What I am looking for is a neat paragraph that sums up the story and ends with something that makes me curious – oh hold on, something just landed on my desk…


So now if my whistle is whetted, I will open the book – yes, actually open it! I go straight to chapter one, and quickly skim the first three of so paragraphs. This is the crunch time – if the book has passed all other bases, then this is the killer – the ‘make or break will I part with my money’ moment. If the book fails here, then back on the shelf it will go, although I’d probably make a note of the publisher, as they’re pretty good to get me this far. If I like it at this stage, I buy it. Simple, isn’t it!

So this is what new fiction has to contend with, and I need a cracking first three paragraphs.

*stares at first three paragraphs*

Right, I’m off to buy some chocolate…

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

First draft editing

Hold on to your seats – I like the first paragraph. This is a major announcement in my world, as I have been patting it around my Word doc for the last two days. This is editing at the pace of a small lame snail. There are 2,235 paragraphs in this novel, apparently, and if I spend two days on each then I’ll be the age of Miss Marple by the time I finish, except I won’t have a house in Runny Mead (or wherever she lived). Oh no. It will be a box on the Special Brew.

‘Special Brew’ – I have only just realised what a strange name that is – like ‘mystery drink’.

“I’ll have a pint of your finest special brew!” winks the jovial looking Doctor at the one-eyed bar-tender, who nods slyly and reaches under the dirty counter for a pint glass brimming with a muddy-coloured liquid. “Always like to please, sir!” he replies in a grovelling tone, and then watches in horrified fascination as the man downs it in one, his countenance taking on the terrible appearance of Mr Hyde...

Special Brew tastes of motor oil, I seem to recall. Or puddle water. Not that I go around drinking motor oil or puddle water, at least, not on a regular basis. Still, it definitely is a ‘brew’ of some description, special or not.

Sigh... I think paragraph two beckons, don't you?

Monday, 26 May 2008

Damp Bank Holiday

Today I popped over to the local shop to get some milk for breakfast and came back looking like I’d just gone for a swim in the monsoon season. Yet again, miserable May bank holiday weather has put paid to a wonderful classic car pageant that is held on a field near me – for the past three years it has been rained off. This year it was all set up yesterday, and then swoosh! I dread to picture the scene today – I expect it involves lots of classic cars being winched off the scene covered in mud. Still, we all know classic car owners like to tinker (with the car) in their garages, so this will give them plenty to do for the upcoming weeks.

I really am gutted though, as it is a fab pageant, from what I remember. They have this odd car boot sale to rummage through that looks like someone has tipped the contents of their shed onto tarpaulin – tons of odd rusted bits that only mean something if you own a 1964 Ford Galaxie, or a 1971 Morris Minor. But along with the rusted bits come things like old radios, badges, records, and of course – picnic baskets! I have a bit of a thing for picnic baskets (as you may recall) – the best cars are the ones where a wicker picnic basket looks perfectly at home on the back seat. All other cars are inferior, in my world at least.

Before I veer off into a daydream of the perfect picnic (and the criteria is ‘would the Famous Five eat it?'), today dinner consists of an old fish. Quite literally – me and John decided to explore the freezer and unearthed a fish that we’d bought in August last year. It is currently defrosting in a pan of cold water and the excitement of the day is seeing if it is still edible. The take away menus are standing by, just in case.

So apart from that and catching up on odd admin (every year I bat away my student loan repayments with a swift back hand that would make tennis players proud), for some reason I am rediscovering music of 1988. Not a great vintage, as I am finding out, my top 10 for the year *at the time - very important to remember that!* was probably:

Orinoco Flow - Enya
Requiem - The London Boys

Heaven is a Place On Earth - Belinda Carlisle

Boys (Summertime Love) - Sabrina

I Should Be So Lucky - Kylie

Smooth Criminal - Michael Jackson

Push It - Salt 'n' Pepa

When Will I Be Famous - Bros

I Want You Back - Bananarama

Theme from S-Express - S-Express

Looking back at these videos how on earth did Sabrina with her bouncy summertime love get through the censors? The London Boys (RIP) had some ill-advised outfits (unless they were strippers?), Belinda Carlisle's director had spent all of £11 at some Poundland and Kylie looks about ten. Oh how we all wanted a perm like Kylie's... But what I really remember is how much I loved the Theme from S-Express. Of course, I never cottoned on it was 'sex' in the title - oh no. I used to play the single over and over - some doing when you only have a record player (lift needle, click back, move to front of single, lower needle - repeat).

Sunday, 25 May 2008

I’m H.A.P.P.Y

Try as I might to shift it, there is a big black cloud looming over me that has nothing to do with the typically grey bank holiday weather. I think I am letting things get to me, and I should be able to rise above everything – I usually try to stay buoyant as much as possible, but at the moment I feel like a sinking gull that has too much oil on its feathers. It is such an annoying feeling – you want desperately to get on and ‘do’ things – yet all that lies in wait is apathy.

It probably doesn’t help I have had to collect a lot of my past life recently from my mum’s – tons of photo albums, diaries, odd scribbles (throw away ‘words’? Never!) and have spent much of today staring in despair at years of accumulated memories. I do try and prune them, but photos? Diaries? And although there is nothing there that would shock anyone, I still don’t like to think of folk potentially settling down for a read, mostly as I wrote my diaries in the style of the girl I desperately wanted to be, rather than I guess who I really was at the time. The thing is my diaries generally need a translator, and unfortunately only I can fulfil that role, but the likelihood of me sitting beside someone reading them is fairly remote. So why write them in the first place?

Reading them again is an odd sort of pastime – I am very good at meticulously recording my most embarrassing moments, it feels! Some things are nice to remember – but there is a sort of brutal honesty going on that especially in the diaries that cover me from 16 to 20 years old that I would hate anyone to read – John, my mum, friends – anyone! So what do you do with these things? As if the worst suddenly happened, well then people inherit this sort of crap, don’t they? In a weird sort of way, online blogs can be probably the most private form of journal keeping. Strange old world…

Friday, 23 May 2008

Chocolate – fuel of freelancers

‘Why are we going down the home-baking aisle?’ asked John, as I headed off past the eggs with a determined glint in my eye yesterday evening.

‘I might do some… um… baking... cooking things,’ I replied distractedly, scanning the shelves before my heart lit up. There.

‘Baking?’ John eyed me warily. ‘Remember the cheesecake?’

‘This is different,’ I informed him, and quickly put the little bag of chocolate-y goodness in the trolley. As indeed it was different. I was not going to cook and destroy these little chips of chocolate, but instead pour them down my throat as a delicious afternoon snack.

Don’t look at me like that! I only had a carrot for lunch – honest!

There is nothing that sharpens the concentration more than a nice chunk of chocolate in the afternoon, and at the moment milk chocolate chips are succeeding nicely on all fronts – substantial, satisfying, and calorie-free – well, at least the packet doesn’t mention any. Hoorah.

And now back to it… the one thing I find working from home is that you get none of that sensation of an upcoming well-earned day off – eg a bank holiday. I do miss that feeling – to me every day is a potential work day, and it is so easy to sidle into the spare room / office to switch on and start up again be it midnight, or Sunday mornings. ‘Turn me on,’ the computer seems to silently say. ‘You can play music and films on me – I can be ever so fun!’ It has me over a barrel, really.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

The Cathcart Spring Proms

Rah-rah-rah! The Spring Proms were last week, and yours truly was there waving her flag, watching as the sponsors in the posh seats got slowly more unruly as the night (and free wine) went on…

The Spring Proms are like the fore-runners to the main event through July to September. They are a sparkly starter to the meat and veg of the BBC Proms, with the Last Night ending the season as the gorgeous chocolate-y pudding. Of course, you have to like Edward Elgar to stomach the Proms, but luckily I do, so off I headed to the Royal Albert Hall with a spring (ta-dah!) in my step.

Much as I love the Royal Albert Hall, you do need a Sherpa to guide you to the seats at the top back, and perhaps fall down oxygen masks on arrival. I feared for the lives of the elderly trying to ascend, it was like watching determined walking sticks conquer the Eiger. Still, once settled, we all were there to have a good time (as we weren’t leaving these seats again in a hurry).

The Spring Proms are hosted by Angela Rippon, and yes, the anecdote about her flashing her legs on the Morecambe and Wise show in 1976 still gets mentioned! She is a very good host though – and even very nicely stopped a heckler in her tracks (one of the sponsors was getting a bit carried away with the free splosh I feeleth, and Angela very nicely said she couldn’t quite hear the words the heckler was saying, but she was sure it was very pertinent all the same), which was a rather nice way of dealing with things. Yes, even the Spring Proms gets a heckler. Shocking.

Being spring – these proms are all about new musicians and composers, new beginnings, and new ways of listening to old classics, with all the fun of the promenade at the end. They had teamed up with the World Wide Fund for Nature, so large screens show animals and nature in harmony while the Royal Philharmonic play their hearts out below. The Eclipse String Quartet were rather fab as well. And the Royal Choral Society sang I Vow To Thee My Country - such a lovely song.

All too soon it ended, and we threw our streamers to drift gently down the several hundred miles to the sponsors on the tables below, who promptly used them as fetching scarves to tangle each other in while cheering uproariously. Rah-rah-rah! Roll on the Last Night…!

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Worry Bug

I may have done a silly thing
I reached too far and brought him in
A little flutter worry bug
I made him safe, I made him snug
He started to grow big and strong
I knew by then I had done wrong
As molehills to mountains my anxieties grew
The doubts in my head – maybe they were true!
Quick barricade the doors and batten the hatches
Bolt the gate after the horse and drop all the latches
As now my worry bug is bigger than me
I wish I had just let that small bug be.

Monday, 19 May 2008

I Love the… 20th Century

Give me any television documentary about how we used to live, and I am there, on the settee, fascinated. I have recently stared agog at tales from ‘1976 – the long hot summer’, anything on the World Wars, ‘1960’s – The Beatles decade’, and ‘The Wartime Kitchen’ (translating as ‘if it moved with the breeze, eat it’). It turns out I am starting a late love affair with modern history…

At school, history was the Bog Man preserved in peat, and the Tudors. It was peasants in smocks, Kings on horses and faded photographs of soldiers. It was just so old and dusty that none of it came alive for me. Or perhaps that best described the teacher. Nothing was related with passion, and nothing related to me – it was no wonder I left it behind.

But cut to the present day and I’m surrounded with the past. One of my favourite books at the moment is ‘The Perfect Hostess’ - a lesson in manners from 1931. It describes exactly what you should do and serve on any social occasion you may be called upon to either hold or attend, and my favourite piece of advice is below...

The Flying Ace Comes to Lunch Before the Big Race…

Give him something really substantial, such as a beef-steak pudding – something, in fact, that will ‘stay put’ in case of bumpy weather.

After the Race

Caviare Sandwiches
Champagne: Schneider Cup (inevitably)

Song to Sing

Give him the moon to play with;
And the stars as well.

Isn’t it fab? I like the way flying aces are obviously blokes. And the writer lives in a world where they do just pop in for lunch. But the book covers all possible social situations…

Your Poor Relation comes up from the Country for the Day

Send a car to the station, and tell her she can have the use of it all morning for shopping, unaccompanied by yourself.


Provide her with a cocktail, but for goodness sake make it very weak.

Arrange the table decoration in the newest way you know – such as imitation witch-balls in a black bowl – or sea-shells floating in a green bowl. (Make it something she can copy inexpensively when she gets home).


Crayfish a l'Americaine
Hazel Hen with Grapefruit Salad
Banana en Flamme

Take her to a really charming play at the Haymarket, and send her back to the station with the car.

I love it.

I think it is so important for a writer to collect things like this - especially as patterns of speech change, words fall in and out of favour, and to write authentically about another decade you really need to immerse yourself in it as much as possible. At least, that is my excuse when J sees yet another pile of books from the second hand book shop…

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Lofty matters

There are three floors in our block of flats, and we live on the top floor. Being at the top, and being a rather quirky sort of building, our flat is more like a house with stairs up to a split level landing, and sloping roof windows. It also has a loft.

A couple of months ago when J was working away from home, I came home late at night to discover the loft door was ajar. It is usually kept shut, and is opened only by sliding it across – it doesn’t drop down. Boy did it freak me out! The problem with imagination is that it conjures up lots of ‘worst case scenarios’ and mine were roughly on a par with a weirdo living in my loft.

I shone a torch through the gap and saw nothing (I was feeling very brave at this point), attempted to close it (couldn’t) and then decided since nothing in the flat had been touched, that it was best to ignore it. My way of ignoring it was to settle on the downstairs settee for the night so I could keep a beady eye on the ceiling – not the most restful of nights.

J came home the next day and had a good look around the loft and said all was well, no weirdo’s in the corner. He suggested it must have been the wind, as we’d had the windows open, and the wind no doubt slid the door across. Fair enough…

Then, a few days ago, J is away and I come home from work to the exact same thing – the loft door is once again open a few inches. I can totally believe it is the wind, as the windows were open – but why does it only happen when J is away? Why has it never happened all the months I have been working from home? And I do have windows open when I am working (if it is hot enough!) and that pesky loft door has remained shut.

I am off to town to buy a lock…

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Library Hunting

The hour of five this morning saw me up and helping J print off a load of work documents before he sets off South. ‘I am such a nice person’, I thought happily, as I waved him off. ‘I am going to stay awake and do lots of good things!’

Well, good things I have done – although my awakened state is more like a stupor than anything ‘zippy’. But I have managed to organise research (for a local magazine feature, rather than the novel – that puppy is still waiting), and this afternoon set off to the local library to prowl further into the subject.

I mentioned here that the local library is an odd place to hang out – the reference room was the place time forgot, but the building was nice and old and who cared if it needed modernising? It had history. Unfortunately this is now more like it had history, as it appears the local council cared (in a slap dash ‘bugger we’ll have to do something about this book problem’ sort of way) and have decided to relocate the whole thing. I harrumphed at the shut door to the old library, and peered crossly at the notice telling new patrons where the temporary library was being housed. ‘Oh over there’, I thought. ‘Righty-ho’.

Nothing against care homes, but it appears Tuesday is the day for my local borough to let all residents out for a stroll. And, as if in sympathy, my shoelace kept untying itself so I was either shuffling along at the same speed, or stopping to lean against walls (in a non-yob way) and re-tie them. No matter whether I did double or triple knots, I’d go a few yards and there they were, trailing along beside me.

Nor did it help that I’d somehow lost the new library. I walked (or shuffled) around in a large circle, wandering into the park to see if perhaps it was in there (it wasn’t), coming out again and peering around tiredly. I went back to the closed library door and this time noticed the map. 'Ah, now that would have been good to know', I muttered to myself as I set off again, catching the glances of sympathetic bystanders as they watch ‘yet another one’ shuffle her way down the street, cursing shoelaces.

I did eventually find the new library, and my word, it is a shiny new place reminiscent of Borders. The staff were amazingly helpful and it was so much nicer to search for books. I thanked the nice kind person who helped me find my books on old London, and said as much to her, feeling ever so slightly disloyal to the old building. She said a lot of people had mentioned that, and I got the feeling this new library may be here to stay - and I contributed to it! See - this is what happens when you start at five - nice old buildings get doomed.

Anyway, I am back home (obviously) and have already eaten dinner. Surely bedtime isn't that far away? Oh... 5.40pm. Rats.

Friday, 9 May 2008

So it starts again…

I’ve done it! A whole six weeks (yup - count them!) in an office with people and printers and sweets and spreadsheets and meetings and marbles (actually no marbles – that was just to keep you on your toes). It was great fun to be this efficient office lass with her pashmina for a while but oh the relief of going back to being me – back to being creative, back with my writing and books, back in my flat, back to my story.

The budget has now been shored up with sticks, and I have a month or two clear to get my red pen busy with editing. I have also successfully pitched an idea to a London magazine that I cannot wait to get cracking on (quirky London history is my forte!), and in the near dim and distant future will be editing a factual book that should test my subbing skills. Bring it on, is what I say! Oh yes.

I got talking to a children’s book author the other day (as you do) and gave him one of my children’s book ideas to see what he thought. It was really interesting advice (basically keep working on it, try and develop a ‘voice’, think whether a publisher can see more than one story in you) but it was what he said about the illustrations that really struck home. I had experimented with a new style for two of them, and one he liked, and the other he didn’t, and he pointed out the bits in the picture that didn’t work for him. I instantly saw where I had gone wrong – I had run out of steam, and had finished it hurriedly, instead of really working on it. This worries me slightly, as I knew that with that particular drawing, yet I still showed it to him, and presented it as ‘finished’ when in reality, it needed more time. I’m not altogether sure with these children’s books of mine – they were something I did at University and I think they need ‘a lot’ of work to get them up to scratch – the picture book market is very, very tough. Something to pop on the back burner, maybe…

In the meantime the flat is a tip. Me and J have been scudding in and out of the flat like clouds across the sky over the last few weeks and the result is little pockets of mess everywhere I look. So it appears my first job will be a spring clean, followed by a scrub – and that is just me! My hair is starting to look like an unravelled brillo pad, it has been so long since I last had it cut. So I have decided tomorrow is to be a day of treats – new hair, new clothes, new shoes (well, why the devil not!) and then I can really settle down. I have a bundle of old newspapers dating back to the 1700’s to work my way through – friend C’s mum and dad have a house that is part home / part amazing museum. They let me borrow a suitcase full of old treasure… erm, newspapers, to see if there are any from 1940's etc to help the book, but apparently they go back even further than that, something that keeps the historian in me very happy indeed. I have also been collecting old books on different decades from various charity shops – oh yes, my home library is alive and thriving. J is thrilled, I tell you. Thrilled.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Out of practice

Mass apologies for being AWOL – I guess in real life I am not doing anything creative at the minute, and the strain is telling on me! Four more days left, and then I have earned enough to give myself a month’s grace (poss two month’s if go back to the value baked beans) in order to edit the book.

Oh get me to Friday quick – bless the lovely job (and it is lovely – nice people, nice area, nice all around) but it’s so far from writing that I find poems are breaking out from me left, right and centre – which is a bad, bad sign. Nothing worse than trying to concentrate on Excel with a mad sonnet à la Dr Seuss running through your mind:

Do you like green Excel and spam?
I do not like them, Work-I-Am
I do not like them adding up
I do not like them with a coffee cup
I do not like them adding down
I sit there with a mighty frown
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
Do you like green Excel and spam?
I do not like them, Work-I-Am

I read through the novel this weekend and the good thing is I still really like it. I have started daydreaming about the characters again, which is great, as all through this working malarkey I have put them to the back of my mind, really. But now I cannot wait to get cracking and editing – there is a good story there, under my sometimes wibbling tenses. There is also a… well, I am hesitant to say a sequel, (perhaps prequel?) but there is definitely another story I have been thinking about that is connected with these characters. I find my thoughts linger upon it unasked on train / tube journeys - always a good sign with me!