Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
Wild's End by Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard, additional material by me, and Fiefdom are available. Out of Tune Vol 2 is out in May

Friday, 30 November 2012

In Praise of the Peaceful


It must be the most awful burden to be so damned important that you have to take call after call on the train, and talk loudly to your many minions about... Well, that’s the point... Because the apparently very important woman in the carriage on the train with us was talking so loudly and non-stop, even I couldn’t help overhearing what she was talking about, and I’m pretty deaf!

This woman, who I had begun to feel terribly sorry for, because she, and all of us sharing a carriage with her, couldn’t get a moment’s peace on her journey to work, because she was so fearfully important that she was glued to her phone, which, as soon as she managed to extricate herself from one urgent call, simply rang again, and simply had to be answered... This woman was talking the most utter drivel about nothing at all that couldn’t be delegated to almost anyone with a pulse, who was already in the office, because let’s not pretend she wasn’t on the 9-11am train, and wouldn’t get to work until well after ten o’clock and should be ashamed of her tardiness. This woman was taking ten minutes to talk herself into a decision that I wouldn’t think twice about or give more than a yay or a nay to. This woman was inflating herself in a manner that was neither impressive nor attractive, nor in any way remotely aggrandising. It conferred on her no... no anything.

We did not respect her or admire her business acumen. We were cross and baffled, and one or two of us, although not me, or at least not loudly, made pointed and amusing remarks that garnered grins and, in one case a stifled guffaw from the other passengers. Madam was, of course, oblivious.

Really important people do not bluster, they do not draw attention to themselves and they do not do their business in public. The really important people I know don’t have their phones turned on in public places, least of all on trains, and business associates don’t have their mobile numbers. Mobiles are for family.

This woman’s time and space were not more important than mine or the couple of dozen other people’s in that carriage on that train, and she bloody well ought to have known better. 

Peaceful, gentle, modest people are appreciated far too little and paid far too little attention. So this is for them: THANK YOU! I for one appreciate your humility, your decency, your good manners and the very fact that you make the World a more peaceful place for the rest of us to live in; we could all take a leaf out of your books.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The End is Nigh


Writing a novel is a long process, and a complicated one.

I was ‘invited’ to have a crack at this particular genre back at the beginning of July, I suppose, and, with other commitments on the horizon, I knew I would have to write it fast, if I was going to write it at all. I didn’t have an idea for a story of its kind, and I didn’t know whether I could or wanted to write one, so it was a case of going back to first principles.

Almost the first thing I did was set myself a deadline.

Next up was doing my research. I didn’t expect the research to be much fun, but I needed to know how the genre worked, and I needed to know whether I thought I could work within it. I decided that I could, assuming that it was OK for me to bend a rule or two and go for something a little less on the nose, a little cross-genre, if you will. That was OK, too, providing the genres were sympathetic one with another. The last question in my head was whether or not I could have some fun with it, and... you know what... I thought I just might manage that.

Then I had other work scheduled, so, having decided to do the job, and having written an outline, I finished all the other outstanding projects, and finally began to write samples. My lovely agent was happy, and I started the novel in earnest.

I’m not going to tell you exactly when that was, exactly how long ago I actually began writing this novel, because, as you know, I don’t like counting words. I don’t believe that it’s a useful exercise, and I don’t believe it adequately informs me or you, or anyone else how a job is progressing.

I will tell you that my deadline was tomorrow, Friday November 30th 2012.

Tomorrow is also the end of NanoWrimo month, and all you lovely writers taking part will be hoping to complete your projects of 50 thousand words.

I don’t know how you did, but, on this one, I have to admit failure. My novel will not (quite) be finished.

A deadline is a funny thing. It’s a guideline, and it’s one I like to stick to. I always impose them on myself, regardless of what’s imposed on me by the powers that be, and it is always my intention to stick to them. I rarely miss deadlines.

Honestly, to suggest that I’ve failed on this one is a little harsh. I’ve more than broken the back of this novel. It is in very good shape. I wanted a first draft by November 30th, and this book is already better than that. The two or three remaining chapters haven’t been written, but very soon will be. The rest of today will be devoted to them, and more will be done on my train ride tomorrow.

The book will probably be finished by Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, and by Friday at the very latest. So, on a project that was begun five months ago, I’ve only exceeded my self-imposed deadline by between 1 and 3 percent, which can’t be bad, surely?

If I’d failed on NanoWrimo by between 1 and 3 percent, I wouldn’t have failed at all, because I would have made damned sure that I found the time to write those 500 to 1500 words... 

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Next Big Thing!


The Next Big Thing BlogHop part i


I was tagged to be a part of this meme by Rebecca Alexander

What is the title of your next book?
“Naming Names”.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I’ve been interested in gross criminal psychology since my teens, I suppose, so this book has been developing for a long time.

What genre does your book fall under?
I’ve been told, variously, that it’s commercial or literary fiction, or even a thriller. I’m loath to categorise any book. I simply always want to read, or, better yet, write, the next good story.

What actors would you choose to play the parts of your characters in a movie rendition?
My protagonist, in my mind's eye looks rather like Rooney Mara, in her teens, and her mother rather like Angelina Jolie, although they both speak with English accents in my head. The male character is Martin Freeman.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
A young woman, on remand for her mother’s murder, unravels her identity as she reveals the stories of a childhood characterised by unrelenting abuse.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I have a lovely agent on the strength of “Naming Names” being one of two runners-up for the inaugural Mslexia novel writing competition 2012.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I’m the sort of writer who opens a vein, and this novel was very tough, so the blood had to be collected very fast; I believe it was about six weeks.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? 
I wouldn’t, but others have compared it to “The Room”, which I haven’t read.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Two things: The truth, and the victims.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
My father worked for Her Majesty’s Prison Service, so my bogiemen might have been more real, I think, than those invented for and by other kids.


The Next Big Thing BlogHop part ii


I was tagged to be a part of this meme by Josh Reynolds

What is the title of your next book?
“Gilead’s Curse”.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
Dan (Abnett, the husband) and I co-wrote a Warhammer book about an Elf way back at the turn of the century. It was called “Gilead’s Blood”, and for twelve years, people have been asking when we would write the sequel. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last year or so. I think it happened because I read a couple of pages in the Warhammer source book about Skaven and thought they’d be fun creatures for Gilead to fight.

What genre does your book fall under?
It’s Warhammer fantasy for the Black Library.

Gilead's Curse
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
When Stefan Kopinski was drawing the covers for the two books (“Gilead’s Blood” is being reissued with “Gilead’s Curse” in the spring), he asked me the very same thing. When I cast male elf characters I always think of them as female, especially long, lean women with very attenuated physiques... Think about it... Anyway, Gilead, as masculine as he is, is also Uma Thurman.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
Gilead Lothain returns! From the warrens of the skaven to the streets of Nuln, the shadowfast warrior and his faithful retainer Fithvael find themselves surrounded by evil. Beneath the earth, the dangerous and insane Rat King, its powers amplified by evil magic, plots Gilead’s downfall, while a bloodthirsty vampire count becomes an unlikely ally… and Gilead’s deadliest foe... Or, at least, that’s the blurb on the publicity material.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It’s available from the Black Library in the spring.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I wrote “Gilead’s Curse” in installments for the Black Library’s digital magazine, and it was in collaboration with the husband, so, between other projects, I guess it took a year.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? 
I think it fits very comfortably into the Warhammer canon, and, beyond that, if you like fantasy or elves...

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Pretty well everything I read and loved as a teenager, once Dan started posting books under my nose. SF and fantasy were pretty new to me as a seventeen year old, and I have him to thank for that.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Once we’re done, I can never quite tell where Dan puts the writing threads down and I pick them, which is weird. I often wonder if the readers can see the joins.


Now it’s my turn! These are THE NEXT BIG THINGS you should be keeping an eye on, so you can tell all your friends to buy their books! Hopefully, they will answer the same questions next Wednesday, 5th December, but if they are too busy, still check out their blogs and books!

Rosie Garland, who won the Mslexia novel writing competition.

Dan Abnett, who is already a fives times New York Times bestselling author, and so probably shouldn’t be on this list, but who has just written his first novel for children, which I think is properly beautiful. And yes, he is also the husband, but I blow raspberries in the face of nepotism.

Andy Smillie, who is one of the newer Black Library contributors, and one of my favourite exponents of the very short story in that particular stable.

Kaaron Warren, who is one of my favourite writers, and whose novel, “Slights” won the Ditmar award in 2010. It’s always a struggle to wait for her next book, and each is a new delight.





Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Can We Please Agree?


I found that snark, and it didn’t take long, and, do you know what? I found it pretty close to home, too. In fact, one way or another, I’ve been meaning to tackle this one for a while.

I’m not going to name the person I happen to be about to embarrass, because everybody’s guilty of this, she just happened to give me a handy example, and, what’s more, she used it as a title, so it was front and centre when I was scratching around for the subject for this morning’s post.

I like this woman, and I like her blog, and I mean her no offence. This is what she wrote:

‘When was the last time you saw a kid out enjoying themselves on their bike?’ 

Do you see it? 

No?

Honestly, that doesn’t surprise me, because this has been the standard format for gender neutral sentences.

I’m a feminist and I have been for as long as I can remember. I’m actually old enough, for heaven’s sake, to remember genuinely grotesque gender inequality, and I still get cross when I see the stupidity perpetrated by all sorts of so-called adults on little boys and girls, corralling them into gender stereotyped roles.

But here’s the thing: I draw the line when it comes to crippling our language, our grammar and teaching correct English usage, in favour of producing politically correct, gender neutral expressions. Apart from anything else, it makes us look bloody stupid to any readers of English as a second language. Our books, not to mention papers, magazines and the web, and not to mention virtually all written or printed material, are littered with hideous errors in the name of political correctness, and it’s beginning to drive me insane.

Take another look at that sentence. Here... I’ll type it for you, again, or copy and paste it, at least:

‘When was the last time you saw a kid out enjoying themselves on their bike?’ 

When was it ok to make a horrible single/plural agreement just because we were afraid of sexism in single agreements? Just pick a gender and be done with it for heaven’s sake.

This sentence should, more properly read:

‘When was the last time you saw a kid out enjoying himself on his bike?’

Of course, if you preferred, you might use herself/her. At a pinch, if you consider gender to be totally redundant you might consider itself/its, although that would almost certainly not be my choice.

If you wanted to get around it entirely, and it’s not actually terribly difficult to do, you might pluralise the kids and go with this:

‘When was the last time you saw kids out enjoying themselves on their bikes?’

What I’m suggesting is that all that’s really required is a little thought. Sadly, we gave up thinking when we decided that gender was a real issue when it came to our written language. It isn’t, or at least, it shouldn’t be. Yes, in the past, the default has been to refer to individuals of non-specified gender as ‘he’. My answer to that is ‘so what’; there’s no rule to suggest that I am in any way required so to do. 

On those occasions when I talk about an individual of non-specified gender I tend to alternate between genders, assuming that the reader won’t notice, or might, herself, assume that I do, in fact, have a particular person in mind. Nothing wrong with that. On those occasions when I want to remain gender non-specific I try to construct a sentence that requires an unspecified number of people of unspecified gender. It takes very little thought to make a very minor adjustment, and it prevents me making ugly, glaring errors that should not be tolerated.

Think about it, because I can’t help supposing, now I’ve pointed out this one example, that you’ll start seeing them all over the place, and that they’ll start bugging you, too.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

No Sleep for the Wicked


I often wonder about sleep.

This week Sarah Pinborough and I discussed sleep a little bit, because neither one of us does very much of it.

I’ve never slept, not since I was a child, and I’m not convinced I did much of it, even then. I certainly remember sitting up long into the night, reading Famous Five and Secret Seven books and anything by Roald Dahl, or pretty well anything at all that I could get my hands on.

If I can get four to five hours of sleep all in one go, I’m a very happy, very productive woman, but I can go months or even years without that happening regularly.

The last few years have been very much better than that. Thank goodness. In fact, improving my chances of sleep was the first way that I chose to tackle my bi-polar, as I’m one of those people that prefers not to treat my condition with anti-depressants. My sleep pattern did improve somewhat with the medication, and so did my sleep cycle, so that I was sleeping in longer periods at night and relying less on shorter naps during the day.

There must be studies, I suppose correlating mental health and sleep, and creativity and sleep, and I guess some of us sit in the middle of that venn diagram, and, maybe, just maybe, we’re the luckiest of them all.

Just after Christmas, we visited friends and were introduced to Madlen, who, in turn,  introduced me to the Sleep Cycle app for my i-phone. I’ve been playing with it ever since, and I often recommend it to people, particularly after conversations about sleep.

I treat SleepCycle like a game or a toy. My readings are wildly inconsistent, and the graphs produced by the app are wonderfully all over the place; according to SleepCycle, I haven’t once managed to sleep for more than an hour or two at a time, I rarely stay deeply asleep for more than  a single hour, and I haven’t hit REM sleep once, not in ten months of using the app on and off... If I am to believe Sleep Cycle I simply do not REM sleep... not ever!

I stopped watching clocks years ago; there isn’t any point, and the time just drags on interminably. Last night, I didn’t really sleep, so I did what I do; I tried to relax, to rest. I lay in the dark. I let my mind wander through its junk for a while. I drank a glass of water and went for a pee. I turned on the little, portable dvd player I keep on my bedside table and stuck a phone bud in my ear to watch old episodes of House (always something familliar, never anything new). I tried not to wait for sleep. I tried not to wait for the dawn. I tried to live in those moments as I might live in any other moments, but peacefully, restfully, without concern, without the worry that time spent awake in the night had, somehow to be paid for.

Sleeplessness can be a burden and restfulness can be part of the cure, and I still try to believe that one sleepless night is an aberration, that I’m bound to sleep tomorrow night. Who knows, tonight, that might just prove to be the truth.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

We're Going on a Snark Hunt...


... Soon!

It’s funny, isn’t it, how time can pass without anything of note happening, or, at least, without anything of note happening to make my mood swing dramatically.

I haven’t had a good old snark for what feels like the longest time.

I haven’t been accosted by badly behaved children, watched pitifully inappropriate parenting, been struck by the ghastliest of mac-jobbers doing the most horrendous of jobs, or been caught up in a row about grammar for weeks, now, and I can tell you that I rather miss it.

I can only put this lack of good snarks down to the fact that I am head-down, elbows-out on a project... the latest novel, and, when that happens, virtually nothing else does. I have barely crossed my threshold since I started writing this book, and it’s beginning to show.

The husband works every day, day in and day out, and I do too, to some extent, but when it comes to actually writing novels, I find that my stamina is limited, and that tends to mean that I have to get a first draft down fast.

To do that, I have to literally open a vein and collect the blood, and, once I open a vein, there’s no stopping the flow. I suppose, in theory, and stretching the analogy, I could put in a couple of stitches, or tourniquet the thing, bandage it and get on with something else, but then I’d only have to open the damned thing again, and who wants to go through that rigmarole, especially if it’s only to pop to the shops or do the hoovering, or find something to snark about?

So, during the writing of this book, I have done almost nothing else. Yes, I still get up every day and write my blog, and I’ve kept up with the reading and editing that the husband has needed me to do, and that I’ve needed to do on my own current projects, but every other waking moment has been devoted to the novel, every moment, that is, when I haven’t been eating or sleeping, or interfacing with the husband, (or getting very drunk with visiting business associates, although I feel much better today, thank you for asking).

When this is done, (and the irony of my self-imposed deadline of November 30th isn’t lost on me and won’t be lost on any of you Nano-Wrimo types either), I’m going to go out into the World once more. I’m going to expose myself to what’s out there for better or worse, and I’m going to wallow in it for a little while. I’m going to wander through the back alleys of snarksville and dip a toe in the local, snark-infested waters, and I’m going to come back to this blog armed and dangerous.

So watch this space, because I haven’t lost my snark radar... I know I haven’t... it’s just sitting in the back of a cupboard somewhere waiting for me to get it out and wave it around, and I shall, I promise, and soon. 

Friday, 23 November 2012

The Two Day Hangover! Or, I’m really getting Far Too Old for this!


This is day two of a colossal, World-beating, all-time, record-breaking hangover. Granted, it’s not as fierce as day one, but I do not feel great.

We had a visitor on Wednesday.

Every so often, rather than go away for business, we have visiting business. It’s nice to have people we work with and get on with visit us at home. It means we don’t have to go anywhere or do anything, and, while we do talk business, it’s also a time to relax a little and catch up on more social aspects of our relationships.

This was pretty social, or at least it was for me.

To be fair, no one else drank too much or behaved badly, but they took considerable pleasure in my antics.

I’ve been a grown-up for a bloody long time, mostly by necessity, and, as you know, I’m  a pretty complex personality, and, what with the bi-polar and everything I have to be careful to stay sane and sensible, except...

Except, I’m getting... well... older, and I have fewer people to be responsible to. I’ve got no one left to embarrass, like parents and siblings, and no one left to scowl at me when I cross a line, especially as the husband finds me more lovable the less inhibited I become. I also have no one left at home to be responsible for, as the kids have left, and I don’t have to make sure I’m sane and sensible in case one of them needs to be looked after.

So, on Wednesday night, the three of us we went out for dinner, and ordered a bottle of wine.

The husband doesn’t drink at all, and our guest drinks very little, so it was up to me to enjoy the wine. The husband and the guest, are also both gentlemen, so my glass was topped up pretty regularly without me ever noticing it.

We did good business, and we talked and laughed, and we talked and laughed some more, and I drank... and I drank. Then we went home, and we talked some more, and the husband poured me another glass of wine, and we sat up late. There was quite a bit of business to talk about, and we talked writing, too, and jobs and people. I might have had a little more to drink... I just might, because the husband is never quite sure when to stop pouring.

We went to bed very late, so late, in fact that when I woke up at 8-30 to make sure that someone was up to give our visitor breakfast, I was still...  well... drunk. I thought I might feel better if I showered, but I didn’t, so I put on my shades, but still didn’t feel good, so, after a couple of hours I got the husband up and went back to bed.

When I staggered into the hairdressers at three o’clock, they all thought I was hilarious with my puffy eyes and my distinctly lacklustre demeanour, and the hairdresser and the hairdresser’s apprentice took the mickey mercilessly for the couple of hours I was in the chair.

So, there you have it. I am hilarious drunk and I am hilarious hungover, but you’ll have to take my word for it, because, honest to goodness, I’m going to ration my boozing from now on... I really am getting far too old for this... far, far too old.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

King of the Castle part iii


It’s been wonderful staying at the castle this week. The building itself is beautiful, and the surroundings, too, and it has been peaceful and inspiring, and I wouldn’t have missed any of that for the World.

Last night, though, we saw the house in an entirely new, and altogether different, but equally wonderful light. We saw this pretty castle filled with the noise and laughter and playfulness of a bunch of kids.

Part of the reason we came to stay here, in particular, was because it’s close enough to spend a little time with our younger daughter who is at dance college in Leicester. She’s a huge personality and we’ve missed her terribly, so we thought it’d be good to see her if we got the chance. Since the castle comfortably sleeps eight, we also mentioned that she might like to bring some friends with her.

In the end, there were four of them. They came for something to eat, and to sleep over, and they were bright, funny, lovely company. They ate, and they talked, and they filled up the great hall with their presence. After dinner, they even plugged in one of their own i-pod’s, turned up the volume, and ran through some of their dance routines.

Who needs wi-fi or television, or any other form of so-called entertainment when you’ve got four gorgeous young dancers in the house?

We then discovered that, not only did one of the girls have the feminine version of one of the most romantic names in English literature, (albeit she didn’t know it, and, when she texted her mother, she claimed that it was a coincidence), but she also happened to be the grand-daughter of one of the original members of Showaddywaddy! So, I salute you MIss Gabrielle Oakes... I would say you rock, but that’d mean me showing my age, and I already did that by admitting that, not only do I remember Showaddywaddy, but I can sing a medley of their most popular tracks.

While I’m at it I also salute you Ryan and Aileen, and, of course, the dort. It was lovely to have you, and I do hope you’ll all come again the next time we rent the castle, because I’m convinced that this place hasn’t seen the last of us, or us of it. Plans, as they say, are afoot.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

And I’m still King of the Castle.


We’re working, of course, because when are we ever not working? But the plan was to work in the mornings and play in the afternoons, and it’s a good plan!

Yesterday was our first full day in Astley Castle. We woke up in a castle for crying out loud! How could we not be inspired? I’m writing a sort of modern romance right now, as unlikely as that sounds, and the husband is writing his usual mad, medieval, space opera with shooty death-kill, so this setting suits both of us.

I woke up in a castle, wrote my blog in a castle, ate breakfast in a castle, and went to work in a castle. I then wrote more in a morning than I manage most days.

There are lots of reasons for this, and some of those are that I wasn’t in my office so my phone didn’t ring, and I wasn’t in my office so my doorbell didn’t ring, and I wasn’t in my office so my e-mail didn’t ping, and I wasn’t in my office so there were no distractions. In short, there is no wi-fi here, no phone signal, no tv, and no outside world to intrude, and, what’s more, no one knows where we are. 

My office for the week
There is, however, one other reason why I wrote twice as much here as I did in my office, and I like to think that it is the main reason. It is this: Put simply, this place is amazing. It is beautiful, and extraordinary; it is quiet and tranquil, and conducive to getting work done. It is, in short inspiring.

It is not hard to tap into the romance of this building and the three queens who lived here. It is not hard to be inspired by the ghost of George Eliot, who lived on the neighbouring estate and whose name is on any number of local buildings, including the hospital. It is universally wonderful to feel some kinship with another writer. I’m not just talking about the husband, with whom I’m sharing office space for the first time in a very long time, as the main room of the castle is one vast, open plan, modern living space, but also one of our great nineteenth century novelists, who also happened to be a woman; I know I can’t compete, but a girl can always aspire.

So, yesterday, we did work in the morning and we did play in the afternoon, and, in the evening, we drove over to Leicester for dinner with the daughter.

It’s awfully nice to come home, to bed, to a castle.

Crikey, I’m a lucky woman!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

I’m the King of the Castle


I blame it all on Doctor Wraight. He’s a lovely man, and all that, but, as some of you know, he’s also something of a storyteller.

I happened to be sitting next to Chris at dinner one night, when he was waxing lyrical about his honeymoon. He and his new wife stayed in a Landmark Trust building in Dorset, and they loved every minute of it. He could not speak highly enough of the experience of staying in a beautiful, historic building on an unspoilt stretch of English coastline, and he painted quite a picture, but then he is quite a writer.

I was so enthralled by his descriptions that, when I got home, I looked up the Landmark Trust on the internet and started to search the site. The Landmark Trust is in the business of preserving old buildings of interest, and making them available for the public to rent for holidays and events in order to pay for their continued upkeep.

Chris had warned me that some of the buildings are very popular and have to be booked well in advance. He  also indicated that ‘well’ might mean months or even years, so I was prepared for disappointment. What I wasn’t prepared for was the menu item that was headed “late availability”.

That was Thursday, and this morning, Tuesday, the husband and I woke up in a castle in Warwickshire.

Astley Castle looking out
And... Yes... You did read that right.

After looking at the site for a couple of hours late on Thursday night, the husband got up on Friday morning and booked us a four night stay at Astley Castle. We arrived yesterday afternoon, around dusk, walked up the cinder path, past the church and over the moat. We walked through the Elizabethan ruins that make up the courtyard, complete with its vast slate table and huge open fireplace, and into the medieval castle. The castle, which has been occupied almost continuously for a thousand years, but which burned down in the 1970s, was rebuilt and modernised, while maintaining all of the original structures that were still standing, when the work was undertaken to preserve its remains in the Jubilee year. 

We came for lots of reasons. We came on a whim. We came because it’s close to where our daughter is at dance college, so she can come to stay, too, and bring her friends. We came because we both have deadlines and there is no tv here, and no wi-fi and the mobile phone signal is illusive at best, and we came because we hoped the building and surroundings would be inspiring and romantic.

Inside Astley Castle, and that's the husband down there
We came so that we could fit as much work and as much play into every day as is humanly possible without the everyday distractions that go with answering the phone and the door, and e-mails, and of sitting in our own offices in our own home, as much as we are happy to be there under almost all and any circumstances.

And we were right to do it. We were right to invest a little bit of time in the drive here, and a little bit of energy in careful packing, because this place is beautiful, and inspiring and energising, and extraordinary.

So thank you, Doctor Wraight, and thank you Landmark Trust.

As far as the rest of you are concerned, go take a look at the Landmark Trust’s website, and be amazed by the kinds of buildings you and your families, and your buddies might be able to stay in... We certainly were.

(written 13-11-2012) 

Monday, 19 November 2012

I cannot speed-read...


... I never could.

I can read the first and last sentence of every paragraph in a book and pick up capital letters and key words, so that I get the gist of a thing, and, like everyone else, I do skim for research purposes, but I find it deeply unsatisfying, and, dare I say it, soul destroying.

For those of you who still get the reference, I wouldn’t listen to a 33rpm vinyl record played at 45, except perhaps for the comedy value, and I wouldn’t watch a movie on fast forward. I don’t watch and skip, either, so why would I speed read a book? And why on Earth would I read a book that way and say I was doing it for pleasure?

Of course, some books are pretty quick to read, generally because the writing style is simple, making the reading effortless, and that’s OK, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t read every word.

It is possible to read some books quickly, certainly more quickly than it would be possible for someone to read a book aloud, annunciating every word, but there are books that give of their best when read at a pace similar to that of reading aloud.

There are those of you that are thinking, about now, that I am probably insane, that there aren’t enough hours in the day or days in the week, but that’s like saying there was no point building Stone Henge or the Pyramids.

Even if it took twice as long to read the average novel, you might go from an eight hour read to a sixteen hour read, but if it’s a good book, that’s double the pleasure and twice the value for money.

I don’t want to just grab at a plot. I don’t want to just know what happened. I want to feel the writer’s intentions, I want to start to get into his or her rhythm, I want to start to know where the thing is going and how the next paragraph is likely to unravel. I don’t want to just understand the characters; there’s more to it than that.

The vast majority of us are readers in a way that we are not, for example, artists or musicians; more of us are potential experts in the written word than in any other art form, and I think we take it far too much for granted. I think the fact that we take it far too much for granted means that we sell it short, and expect too little from it.

Read more, read more thoroughly, read more deeply, and it should mean that you get more from your read. I hope that you will. If you don’t get more from your read, and that doesn’t bother you, go back to rattling through heaps of trashy paperbacks, and I wish you joy of them, but if you don’t get more from your read, and that does bother you... Well, that opens up another whole can of worms, doesn’t it?

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Rebecca Alexander and Ian Rankin


Rebecca Alexander is one of my newest writing friends. She and I met because we were co-runners-up for the Mslexia prize earlier this year. We got on, and have become firm friends as a result of the competition.

Rebs is a lovely, funny, clever woman, and I like her work, which you’ll all be able to read when its published for the first time next year. I don’t want to give anything away, but I’ve got a feeling about this stuff. I’m tempted to think that people are going to like it. I’ve got a feeling that there’s going to be some mileage in it for her; I certainly hope so.

Ian Rankin is one of the first writers I ever knew. He and I sat in an office together for a couple of years in the late eighties. He was a staff writer, or, more accurately, the staff writer and later assistant editor on a Hi-Fi magazine that I sold ad space on. At the time we met, he had published two novels, including “Knots and Crosses”, the first Rebus book, and he gave me the first bit of solid advice I ever had about writing fiction.

I liked Ian, probably rather more than he realised, but he’s an easy man to like. I liked him enough to read his published work, and I like that, too. With the sort of hindsight we have after twenty-five years, it would be easy to claim that I always knew Ian would be big. I didn’t know any such thing, but I knew that I liked what he did, and I certainly hoped he’d succeed.

Reb’s blog appears on my blog roll, below, so I’m always reminded when she posts, and when she wrote a blog about Ian the other day, it didn’t take me very long to check it out.

I do love a coincidence, and there was something very comforting about the coincidence of my newest writing buddy talking about one of my oldest.

It's always a bit weird watching Ian on the tv, not least because I’m always left wondering why he hasn’t gone grey or bald, or a combination of the two... He’s a writer, for goodness sake, and if anyone should suffer either or both of those fates, surely it should be the wordsmith, and in particular, the wordsmith whose speciality is crime. 

Anyway, having read the blog, I opened a window for iplayer and watched the episode of Imagine that he’d made on writing, because I think that all of you, and Ian, too, would agree with me that a coincidence, in life, at least, is a wonderful thing, even if, in fiction, it can feel like the most God-awful cop-out.

Friday, 16 November 2012

A Change of Pace


There’s been a little change of pace this week. I’m not sitting in my usual spot, and the shape of my day isn’t quite as it usually is. I’m starting work earlier and finishing earlier, and I’m eating breakfast, and generally mixing things up.

It’s very easy to get into a routine, and, on the whole, especially for those of us who don’t have routines imposed on us by the outside world, by the strictures of paid employment and school runs and the like, I believe that routines are a very good thing, invaluable, even.

I’m beginning to think, though, that messing about with a well-established routine might not be a bad thing, either.

This week I have been ridiculously productive, and I’m tempted to put that down to the changes I’ve made.

They aren’t permanent changes. For various reasons, it wouldn’t be at all practical for these changes to become permanent, and, even if they did, I suspect that the new routine would soon settle down and my work-rate would settle down with it. On the whole, I think I’ve developed a routine that suits me very well, and I think I’ve pretty well optimised my output, but I also think that a little change has been good for the soul, just to give me a boost, just to jolt me newly awake.

I don’t honestly believe that I sleepwalk through my day. I don’t honestly believe that it’s possible to do that and be any good at this job, but I do think that there is some pleasure to be had, some satisfaction in the comfort of routine and in knowing what comes next, and perhaps there is a risk that it can make anyone a little complacent.

I don’t want to feel complacent.

I want to feel as if my job can still be dangerous. I want to feel that I do take risks, that I do push the boundaries, that I do ask a little more of myself and a little more of my readers than do other writers.

I do not want to phone it in... ever... and I certainly hope that I’m never guilty of doing that, but, sometimes, just sometimes, I think it’s worth getting up a little earlier in the morning, or finishing work at lunchtime, or cutting off the outside world, or moving the desk, or unplugging the phone, or giving up wiki for a week, just to see how it changes my working practices, just to see whether it makes me think differently and possibly even produce something that might otherwise have laid dormant in my brain indefinitely.

It’s been a good, interesting, worthwhile exercise. I don’t know whether I have produced something new, this time, but I know, for sure, that I’ve produced more work this week than I have in any other single week since January. Perhaps it was time, and it would have happened regardless. I honestly don’t know why my productivity has been so good this week, but I’m not going to think too much about it; I’m simply going to recommend that you might like to mix it up once in a while, too... You never know what might happen.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Red Sky in the Morning


‘Red sky at night’, so the saying goes, ‘Shepherd’s delight’, unless you’re my mother, in which case, it’s ‘Sailor’s delight’.
No, I don’t honestly believe that my mother’s so perverse that she has a saying all to herself or that she’s adapted one to suit her very own needs. I assume that she say’s ‘Sailor’s delight’, because she was raised in Grimsby, which is a large fishing town and sometime important shipping dock on the East coast of England, and that there weren’t a whole lot of sheep there, and, of course, weather is critical to sailors, too, so the saying works both ways out.

Of course, if you happen to be the husband, then ‘Red sky at night, shepherds’ delight/ Red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning’ very easily becomes ‘Red sky at night, shepherds’ delight/ Red sky in the morning, thatch is on fire’, but then he is a big Monty Python fan, so... you know... not a huge leap.

Roughly the same thing applies to ‘batten down the hatches’, another seagoing expression, which, in some parts of rural England is still generally expressed as ‘flatten down the thatches’. ‘I’ll have your guts for garters’ used, sometimes, to be expressed as ‘I’ll have your gangles for gutswag’, but I’m not sure how long its been since I’ve heard that one.

Expressions litter our language and I still love to hear them, and note down new ones whenever I get the chance. I suppose most are to do with technology now, and lots of those are expressed as initials like LOL or ROFL or IMHO, but they’re not the same, are they?

If we found a penny, we’d always say, ‘See a penny pick it up and all day long you’ll have good luck’, but how many of you follow it with, ‘See a penny, pass it on, your luck will last twice as long’? Your mother might encourage you to share your woes by saying, ‘A trouble shared is a trouble halved’, but my grandfather would repudiate that with a stern, but sensible, ‘A trouble shared is a trouble doubled’.

Then there’s the whole superstition thing; when did we lose that? ‘Marry in May, and rue the day’, or ‘Change the name and not the letter, and marry for worse and not for better’. When was the last time you heard either of those sentiments expressed? No, I don’t know either.

Well, I suppose you’ve heard them now, or read them, at least, and some of you will raise an eyebrow at them; some of you will laugh or scoff, and some of you might be jolted into a memory or even a state of mild nostalgia for a long-forgotten, possibly even a well-loved and lost friend or family member. These are the bits and bobs that colour our lives and our memories, and so they’re one of the things we could use, as writers, to help bring our prose to life, to imbue it with energy, to make it breathe and to make it memorable. 

I’m not saying I’m going to use any of these particular expressions, any time soon, but they’re part of my own personal vocabulary, part of my experience, part of my vernacular, and they remind me of what it is to build and know, to love and use a language, and I hope I’ll remember that while I’m writing whatever it is that next I’m writing. It’s all useful stuff, after all.

Monday, 12 November 2012

TLDR or Is Brevity the Soul of Wit?


Is brevity the soul of wit or have we just all lost the ability to concentrate? Do any of us still read a great book when we can simply watch the movie?

I belong to a reading group. We meet once a month to talk about a single book, and, each month, at least a third of us has failed to read the book we have chosen, all the way through. Note; I say the book we have chosen. We joined the group because we like books, we like to read, and, for whatever reasons we wanted to talk about what we read, and we have a system whereby we all get to nominate books and then vote on the books we’ve nominated, and yet, still, we don’t manage to get to the end of the books we’ve elected to read. It’s baffling!

There is a reason why these blogs are between 300 and 500 words long; when I decided to write a blog, I worked out how many words would fit on one screen, and that was the length I decided to write to, because I didn’t want to be in danger of boring anyone. I wanted people to want to read my thoughts. I wanted them to visit the blog regularly. I bought into the idea that if a post was too long, it wouldn’t matter how interesting it was, people wouldn’t read it. I don’t know about the rest of you, but we have shorthand for not getting to the end of something, however good it might be. We literally say TLDR: Too Long Didn’t Read... We don’t even manage to spit out those four, single syllable words.

I like to read other people’s blogs. I read something most days from the blogroll at the bottom of this page, but, despite liking all of the blogs listed there, otherwise why would I list them (OK, you’re right, I do encounter some technical difficulties altering the content of my blog, unless it’s simply posting my daily ramblings), I always check to see how much the blogger has written before I commit to reading it. If I have to scroll down more than once, I do think twice before I start reading, no matter what the subject, or how interested I am in it.

I can hardly believe I, of all people, am admitting that!

We claim we don’t have time, or that our time is more valuable than other people’s, but in the end, didn’t we just get lazy? Didn’t we just stop extending our minds?

I think it’s time that I slowed down and stopped making excuses, and started concentrating and looking at things at a deeper level, and right here, right now, I’m going to ban TLDR.

Of course, if whatever I’m reading really is boring, then I’m going to stop reading it, so, be warned, but if the writing’s good and the subject matter’s interesting, I’m going to dedicate some time and some concentration, and I’m going to take an interest and go a little deeper, so... go on... enthrall me.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Remembrance Sunday


Friday was the seventy-fourth anniversary of Kristallnacht, and the reason I know this is because I was at art class with a friend of mine, who was in Berlin that night, and who watched from an upstairs window as the local synagogues and the Jewish businesses were destroyed and ransacked. Shortly afterwards my friend and her nine year old brother left Berlin on the Kindertransport; she was fourteen years old.

This wonderful woman remarked to me on Friday morning that no one should live long enough to become part of the past, and I told her that I thought she was wrong, that I thought it was very important that she was a living part of something that must never be forgotten.

Today is Remembrance Sunday. There is always something very special about Remembrance Sunday falling on the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month, and, at eleven o’clock this morning, I will observe two minutes silence, as I was taught to do, and as I have always done.

I live in a garrison town, and the local Gurkha regiment will march along my street this morning, and the sight and sound of those fine soldiers will send a chill down my spine as it always does.

It never goes away, does it? Somewhere in the World, someone is always in trouble, and we keep sending our young men and women into those warzones to try to make things better. It was ever thus.

There is no room for politics on a day like today, and I’m not going to be the one to introduce the subject, except to say this: It’s irrelevant who’s in power; it’s irrelevant who makes the decisions to send soldiers to war. I care that our soldiers are treated fairly, paid adequately, have the equipment that they need, know the camaraderie and the morale that they deserve, and are looked after when they return from active service. I care that our soldiers are respected and valued and remembered for their courage and fortitude, and for their service to their country. I care that their pensions and their medical bills are paid, and that their mental and emotional needs are met. I care that their families are helped in any and all ways to recover from the traumas associated with welcoming a veteran back into their arms or, in the worst cases, are helped to cope with losing their fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters.

It is Remembrance Sunday, and we remember our Service Men and Women, and we remember, too, the Men and Women they have so nobly served.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Turns out... I’m not the only one


I was in Notthingham for most of last week, and, while I was there, I got into two separate conversations with two other creatives. One of them is an artist, who has worked with the husband, and will no doubt work with him again, and the other is another writer.

You know me, I regularly snark about things, and one of my regular snarks is that if a person works hard enough, and believes strongly enough, there is nothing to suggest that he has any less likelihood to be what he wants to be than anyone else. One of my regular snarks is that we don’t get where we’re going by luck; we get there on our merits.

The artist and I were talking about the difference between doing a job and being what we do; I don’t just write, I am a writer, and I said that  not everyone is as lucky as that. He, very rightly, refuted that premise. He said that if a person cleaned buildings he was a cleaner and all the time he carried a mop or a broom he was a cleaner, and that it was no good claiming to be anything else, he had to get off his backside and be that something else. He pointed out that he’d done whatever it took to be an artist, that nobody had opened a door for him or encouraged him or given him a break; that he’d worked his arse off for impossibly long hours, that he’d pushed and shoved at doors, that he’d fought for every inch and that he’d made his own luck.

The writer I had a similar conversation with said more-or-less the same thing. He talked about working endlessly, never taking time off, being rejected over and over again, and keeping at it. He talked about being organised, keeping track of ideas, finishing work, working on editing his own material, sending submissions to anyone and everyone, scrutinising guidelines to make sure that all submissions were exactly what was required, and playing the game.

I sometimes wonder whether my snarks, especially my snarks about work, about making art of any kind, about being professional in the creative arenas aren’t just a little bit stern, a little bit businesslike, a little bit off-putting, but these two consummate professionals agreed with me, and they did it spontaneously, without being asked.

The truth is, it’s tough out there. You can think what you like about the standards of work being produced. You can do what I do and pick up novels in Waterstones, and argue that first lines aren’t terribly good, that the writing isn’t compelling, that storylines are derivative. You can decide that you can do better, but you can’t argue with the fact that those writers worked hard enough for long enough to get their books published, and that’s more than you’ve managed to do.

With that in mind, it’s Saturday morning, and some of you are looking forward to a weekend of fun and frolicks, of shopping and socialising. I am looking forward to a weekend too, and I really am looking forward to it; I know that I will enjoy it, and I know that when I get to the end of it I will have a warm, satisfied feeling of a job well done. This weekend will include at least two six hour work sessions, and that’s a good deal less work than most weekends hold for me.

If you remember nothing else, remember this, “The harder I work, the luckier I get”... It’s true, you know.