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

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

To Dream Perchance to Freak!


“I’ll sleep when I’m dead” has been a bit of a mantra of mine.

I don’t know whether I wear it as a badge of honour, or whether I mean  it quite pragmatically, but, the fact is that I’ve never been a very great sleeper. 

My mind does not stop, and I always assumed that this was commonplace, that minds were meant always to keep whirring away, and that sleep was incidental, that minds continued to whirr on through that state and out the other side, almost as if nothing had happened at all.

Once I could read, sleep was not a problem, because I could simply read through the night while others slept. Reading is restful, usually, depending on the choice of reading material. Light became the only real problem. As a child, I was denied the light that I needed to read by. Sometimes, adults can be so foolish... well-meaning, of course, because we all need sleep, but misguided, too.

No one asked me why I wanted a light on. No one considered that I wanted to read because I couldn’t sleep. Adults assume that children don’t want to sleep. Why would anyone not want to sleep? I ask you? What sort of sense can anyone possibly make of that? it wasn’t defiance. It wasn’t bloody mindedness. I simply couldn’t do that which others found it natural to do. I wished that I could.

I was left alone in the dark with only fear, and my imagination to feed it.

I digress, however.

When I do sleep, it is a strange experience that I find it hard to explain or quantify, or rate in any way that is meaningful to other people.

The husband puts his head on a pillow, and he sleeps. It is, literally, as simple as that. Eight hours later, he wakes up, and gets up, and his day begins anew. He dreams, and he often talks about his dreams, and he suffered from night terrors that were a sort of prelude to his epilepsy, which is interesting, but he doesn’t experience the kinds of sleep states that I enjoy.

Last night, I had the most extreme of my sleeping experiences, and one that I have not had before, so I thought I’d share it with you. It’s risky. You might all think I’m very peculiar, but I think it’s interesting and a bit weird, and there might even be a story in it. I’m also curious to know whether any of you experience similar things.

As a prelude, let me first tell you that I have dreams in which I’m aware that I’m dreaming, and in which I might even be remembering or even referencing other dreams. For example, I became quite distressed in a dream a week or so ago when I thought I was misremembering something. Then, in the context of the dream, I realised that I was remembering, not facts, but the contents of another dream. I wasn’t remembering facts at all, but then I wasn’t remembering facts in a factual context... Get it? Yeah, it was weird, and, on waking, I had terrible trouble piecing the elements of the thing together. It was as if I have another life in another dimension, a dream dimension where dreams are memories, which weave together to make a life, and which reference each other to make the scheme or the schedule of a life.

I don’t know what this sort of experience signifies, but I do wonder whether a psychologist or even a neurologist might have a field-day. I also wonder whether I’m the sort of person who wants to find out what a psychologist or neurologist might think of any of that.

Two or three weeks ago, I also woke up while having a coherent conversation with the husband. When the conversation began, I was clearly totally (as far as I was concerned) asleep. I woke up talking, while at the same time wondering why I was talking and what I was talking about. I was partially aware of the dream state I had been in, and the conversation I had been imagining or dreaming having with the husband. That was a total freak show. Come to think of it, perhaps the eight or ten or twelve year old mind is far too sensible to put a kid through this shit, and keeps it awake instead. Very wise.

The night before last, and I remember this totally vividly, but without distress, except that the dream was freaky... The night before last I was dreaming that someone was sawing all the locks and handles off my windows. Of course the locks and handles are on the inside, so this is a nonsense, and I was inside a house I didn’t even recognise. Nontheless, in the  dream, that’s what was happening. I heard the rasp of a saw and got up. I found a window without its furniture and I put my head out. I saw the culprit and tried to shout out to him to stop. I couldn’t speak. I tried, but I couldn’t do it. In my dream, I decided that if I closed my eyes and looked away from the culprit, and if I concentrated really hard, I’d be able to scream.

Edvard Munch: The Scream
That’s exactly what I did. Unfortunately, I woke myself and the husband up, and, who knows, half the street, too, screaming in my sleep.

I wasn’t much perturbed. I actually felt somewhat empowered, because I had taken a situation in which I was powerless, and imposed some control on it. The poor husband was pretty galvanised by the whole experience, and horrified, and alert and ready for anything, including the wholesale defence of my honour, for which I can only thank him, and feel rather touched. I can’t help wondering whether reading a book or watching a movie, or just chilling might not have been more relaxing, though.

The point is, this must happen to lots of us, all the time. 

What is it? Why does it occur? Will I make a habit of it? Should I be freaked out?

If you happen to know, perhaps you could enlighten me, because, let’s face it, my poor GP already thinks I’m just a little more than a little off-centre, and if I go to him with this...

Monday, 29 April 2013

And... She’s Off!


Here we go on another snark... And all I did was read the Sundays.

That’s the point of Mondays for me, on the blog. I read the Sunday papers, which I was going to do anyway, partly for fun, partly to keep up, (a bit) with current affairs, partly for research, and partly to stimulate the brain and generate ideas... and I have fodder for Monday’s blog... This blog.

I don’t read the Sundays to get in a stitherum about something (and, despite that having a red squiggle under it in this WP package, yes, it is a word; you can look it up, if you like), and end up snarking all over the place.

However... one of my Sundays was the Times.

Oh dear!

They’ve gone and done stuff to it!

This might have happened weeks ago, and, for some reason, I simply didn’t notice. Sometimes it takes me a while to catch on, and sometimes I read a portion of the papers on-line and just look for bits that interest me. Sometimes, I don’t read the glossy bits, sometimes I only read the actual news sections, so don’t quote me on when the Sunday Times changed its format; all I know is that I happened to notice it this weekend.

I happened to notice the changes, because, all of a sudden, and you can’t tell me this is accidental, and that’s what I find so cynical and snark-worthy about the whole thing... All of a sudden, I’m finding it very difficult to tell the difference between editorial pages and advertising pages in the glossy magazine bits of the paper.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I quite like to know when I’m being offered an opinion and when I’m being offered a sales pitch. Those two things are not the same, after all.

Back in the 80s, and trust me I’m not proud of this, and I wasn’t, actually, much more than adequate at it, I worked, for a time, selling ad space. There was no such thing as ‘advertorial’. No one could buy an opinion. I couldn’t even tell the person I was selling ad space to what the opinion of the magazine was going to be on anything... I wasn’t even told  what the opinion of the magazine was going to be on any given subject or product. 

I was given the flat plan; on it was written which pages had what content, including the blanks, which were the ones I had to sell. I knew what products were being reviewed and by whom, and I knew who was being interviewed by whom, and who was writing columns on what subjects, and that was all I knew.

Editorial did its thing and wasn’t expected to care what was happening in my department. It wasn’t their responsibility, and that’s how it’s supposed to be!

I don’t know how it works now, and I don’t think I want to know.

I do know that I’ve picked up magazines where the content is so ambiguous that they actually feel the need to print the word ‘advert’ or ‘advertorial’ on some of the pages to explain themselves... and that doesn’t seem to scare anyone. 

I think it should scare everyone.

Woods, my friend's boutique in Maidstone
I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who opened a new shop. His local newspaper did not cover the opening, as they might be expected to do. His local newspaper did, however, offer to send out a photographer and someone to talk to him if he decided to buy advertising space!

Wrong!

Cover the story, take the pictures, and have the journalist say exactly what he thinks, which might be positive, but which, equally might not be. Either way, a new shop opening in a town centre in the middle of a recession is news in this sort of paper.

If I’d been running the advertising department, I would have approached the shop to advertise on the back of the editorial. The shopkeeper might have decided against it, but I would have had at least a couple of arguments why it would be a good idea for him to take the ad space. What’s more, I would have approached every single one of his competitors in the town to advertise with the paper, and I would’ve had arguments and counter-arguments for them taking space, too.

Good editorial content, by which I mean content with journalistic integrity, creates opportunities for good ad sales people to do their job, but, it’s like everything else: they have to know what that job is, and they have to have the training and the will to do it, and by will, I mostly mean cojones.

Selling ad space has never been easy, but, when I was doing it, it was damned hard to prove that buying ad space actually shifted product; that part of the process has, at least changed, and those numbers can be crunched, and crunched fast. 

Still, here I am, opening a glossy like the Sunday Times Magazine and wondering what on Earth I’m looking at. Frankly, I’m not thrilled by that.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Epiphany




I might have just had one of those. In fact, I'm pretty damned sure I just had one of those.

The trouble is... Now I’m going to have to do something about it!

As if I didn’t have enough to do this year, and some of it is going to be great fun, not least because I get to do it with the husband... And, yes, I will keep you all posted on that... As if I didn’t have enough to do this year, I’ve gone and had an epiphany.

An idea is a wonderful thing, but writers have them all the time. They store them up, and they’ve always got one handy when required. They’ve all got notebooks full of the little blighters all lined up, neat and tidy, for when they’re needed. There's nothing complicated about that. I’ve said it before, I know, but I’m always a little surprised to get a question about ideas, because, honestly, they’re not really the thing I worry about when it comes to writing. I worry about stamina. I worry about cadence and rhythm. I worry about my audience, and, of course, I worry about ever getting my independent stuff published.

Ideas are great. 

Epiphanies... Epiphanies are a challenge.

A conversation with a very smart, very energetic woman, on Wednesday, led to a series of e-mails, which led to an epiphany, in the bathroom, last night, while I was putting on my make-up for date night with the husband.

We like to have date night once a week. The husband brings me a glass of bubbles or a cocktail while I bathe. I put on a frock and my make-up while he cooks up a splendid three course meal, and we have a lovely time together with great food, a nice bottle of wine, something soothing on the i-pod, and, of course, each other’s lovely company. Last night, all I could talk about was work, because, you see, I'd had an epiphany.

It’s going to take two or three weeks, at a guess, to get over this and through to the other side. I feel a huge compulsion, so I’ve got to do it, which means I’ve got to use the wiggle room in this year’s already busy schedule, and I have no idea whether it will actually work, and it will utterly alter the complexion of something that I thought was a done deal, and I didn’t see it coming, and I can’t help myself, and I feel as if I should know better. This book started out as one thing, and it's been that thing for a long time, and now it's going to be something else entirely, and WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING?

This is the lot of the writer.

I’ll let you into a secret... This shit isn’t always terribly predictable, even for a control freak like me.

Still, that takes care of virtually all my weekends for the rest of the year. I do hope the husband can find things to entertain himself with... Oh... Wait... He probably already has, after all, he’s a writer too.

I’ll let you know what happens, but, in the immortal words of my brother, "There’s gonna be claret everywhere!"

Friday, 26 April 2013

Calling All Writers!


The Mslexia Novel Writing Competition 2013

I cannot urge you strongly enough, assuming you are a woman, and have written a novel, or can contemplate writing a decent chunk of a novel between now and September 23rd... I cannot urge you strongly enough to enter the Mslexia Novel Writing Competition 2013.

I will give you two very good reasons, if you like.

The first very good reason... Well, let’s call it the Desmond Elliot Prize shall we? The Desmond Elliot is an annual prize for a first novel. This year, the longlist for the prize includes ten novels, seven of which were written by women. If that isn’t a good enough reason to enter the Mslexia, then how about this? The winner of the Mslexia Novel Writing Competition 2012 is on that list. Yes... That’s what I said! Rosie Garland won the Mslexia last year with her novel, The Palace of Curiosities. It was sold in a six figure book deal to Harper Collins for release this spring, and is currently number one in Waterstones’ hardback fiction list. I KNOW! How cool is that?

The second very good reason for entering the Mslexia Novel Writing Competition 2013 is Rebecca Alexander. I bloody love Reb, whose blog, tracking her progress through her MA in creative writing, and her success in the Mslexia competition, securing an agent and a book deal is, not at all surprisingly, both readable and very entertaining. Rebecca Alexander’s first novel The Secrets of Life and Death will be available later in the year. Trust me, I will keep you updated on this book, because I’ve read it, and loved it.

If I hadn’t already taken my chances with the inaugural Mslexia prize, and if Naming Names hadn’t been a runner-up, I would probably be preparing something to send in for this competition, but I did, and it was, and it was an amazing, roller coaster experience for me.

Lots of wonderful things came out of it. Naming Names had its first truly independent appraisals and it was not found wanting. I secured my first agent, and I edited my novel. I had wonderful feedback from Sarah Waters, who was incredibly generous with her time and encouragement, and I made some fabulous new friends. I learned that it can be done, thanks to Rosie Garland and Rebecca Alexander. I also learned to trust my instincts, and to trust my work.

I will not ever take part in another writing competition of this kind. I hope that I won’t ever have to. I think it is absolutely worth taking part in this competition, though, and I hope that many of you will.

I always believed that any writing competition could only ever be as good as its winners, and, in its first year, the Mslexia novel writing competition attracted some real talent. I know that, because I met the shortlisted women, and I read some of their work. I also know what I’m capable of as a writer.

This prize is going to go from strength to strength and it is going to be prestigious. I was in on the ground floor, and I have a very, very good feeling about it. 

Have I said, yet, that I urge you to take part? Because, I really, truly urge you to tidy up and finish that manuscript you’ve been working on, follow the submissions guidelines, carefully, and send it off.

I’m very glad that I did, and I hope that you will be too.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

All the Girls are Bored, and all the Men are Gay


I was watching Dawson’s Creek last night... 

OK, I guess that requires an explanation. I don’t sleep much, and when I don’t sleep, I like, at the very least, to rest; add to that the fact that Netflix is cheap, and I can watch it on my i-pad, on my nightstand, without disturbing the husband, and you can see how I might watch all kinds of not very inspiring movies and tv shows. Trust me, you don’t want to watch anything that’s going to get your mind in a spin, or make your heart race when the intention is rest and relaxation. Dawson’s Creek, obviously, fits the bill... unless you count the fact that it inspired a blog. Crikey!

So... I was watching Dawson’s Creek last night. I believe it was series 1, episode 3, Kiss, in which, funnily enough, almost everyone gets to kiss someone. At the top of the episode, Dawson Leery, played by James Van Der Beek and Joey Potter, played by, wait for it, Katie Holmes! (whose name, hereafter, will always bear an exclamation mark), have a conversation about movies and whether or not they can reflect real life and, in particular, real romance, and Katie Holmes delivers the line, “The girl’s bored, the guy’s gay; it’s celluloid propaganda.” 

The show aired early in 1998, shortly after Holmes’s nineteenth birthday, and, of course, she was acting; she was speaking the lines written for her character.

Fifteen years later, in 2013, I gasped when I heard that line coming out of her mouth. 

At thirty-four, Ms Holmes! is groomed and slick, and gorgeous and successful, and she’s the third ex-wife of one of the great Hollywood stars of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. 

Katie Holmes! lived the Hollywood dream... And yet, Joey Potter, sassy, wise Joey Potter, is described by Dawson Leery, in his very next breath, in this episode of Dawson’s Creek, as a “bitter, cynical, jaded thing.” She doesn’t look it, does she? She looks sweet and wholesome and innocent, and so does Katie Holmes!

Appearances can, of course, be deceptive. That’s the point of Hollywood.

Nobody knows what goes on inside any marriage, not in downtown Maidstone and not in Hollywood, and I’m certainly not going to pretend to know. We do all know that sustaining a healthy relationship over an extended period of time isn’t necessarily easy, and is probably made more difficult when questions of distance and religion, and any number of celebrity spotlights come into play.

I wonder whether marriages are arranged, though, by ambitious girls making sure they're at the right parties, seen by the right agents and managers, and in the right rooms so they can be introduced to the right men. I wonder how clever those prenup contracts really are. I wonder whether young women really are still cynical or jaded enough to think that being seen with the right leading man will make a difference to their careers. I wonder how happy the men are to have those girls handed to them on a plate: gay or straight, serious or playing a game, in it for a photo-op or a potential marriage.

I always hope that we’ve got past that. I always hope that women can stand on their own two feet, believe in their own worth in any industry, and not have to rely on connections. Of course, in Hollywood, who’s a girl like Katie Holmes to meet? She was almost bound to meet a leading man or a powerful man, a director or producer, and why not? It’s either that or her dietician/personal trainer/plastic surgeon, right?

Turn it on its head, and who is Tom Cruise supposed to marry, apart from his leading ladies? I suppose he could decide not to marry at all, like George Clooney (yes I know he was married, briefly, in his twenties, but isn’t everybody?) but that’s rather radical, even by modern standards, especially in Hollywood, which seems so very old-fashioned, so marriage and family oriented.

Why is it still more acceptable in tinseltown to be closeted? Why is it still more acceptable to be married over and over again than not to be married at all? Why is it still better to have a string of dysfunctional kids with a string of dysfunctional families than to be childless and alone, and, who knows, happy in middle-age?

I think it’s because of the questions. I think it’s because of the press. I think it’s because if we don’t have what appear to be facts, what appear to be truths, then we are apt to make things up. I think it’s because we all want to fill the gaps in the lives of the rich and famous.

It matters less and less with the passage of time, but, since Hollywood was built and filled with all those beautiful people, the World, and the suits who were worried about the cinema-going public, in particular, was really afraid that we’d stop going to the pictures if we thought our screen idols didn’t conform to our notions of normal and desirable sexuality and a normal and understandable lifestyle.

Nonsense!

How many gay men do you know who go to the cinema to see their favourite leading men in their favourite action movies, regardless of the fact that Bruce Willis or Denzel Washington or Mel Gibson, or, for that matter, George Clooney, or Tom Cruise gets the girl in the end?

That’s right... All of them! Get over yourselves, film producers and publicity machines everywhere. We don’t care about our leading men’s personal lives, or our leading ladies’ peccadilloes, any more than we care about who the best boy’s sleeping with. Let them have their lives. 

If we could all just be a bit more honest in our lives, and a bit more honest about ourselves, and if our so-called role models could begin to be exactly that, wouldn’t things begin to be a little bit better?

My older daughter is gay. I’m immensely proud of her. She should have had Jodie Foster as a brilliant role model for her entire life. Instead, the actress, director, producer and leading light of modern cinema for the past thirty... almost forty years led a very private life, fighting off the World. My daughter and gay women like her everywhere have only had their role model for just the past few months, since Jodie Foster came out at the Golden Globes, 2013, aged 50! It doesn’t seem right, somehow, does it?

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Fashion Meets Fiction... No... Really!


I wasn’t going to write a blog today. Time and tide had somehow got away with me, and there’s work to be done.

Then the rather lovely @WillardFoxton of the Telegraph and of the 28 Dates Later blog, which is well worth a read, tweeted at me, and I couldn’t resist.

Prada... Yes, Prada, the fashion house, has launched an essay writing competition that will remunerate the winner to the tune of a € a word, which, frankly, isn’t a bad return.

I’m thinking lots of you should enter. Go on, have a go! I might even urge you.

There is one small hurdle to overcome, but I’m sure you’re all prepared for that. After all, how often do these competitions come without hurdles? That’s right... Never!

I don’t do competitions. I entered the inaugural Mslexia novel writing competition, and I was a runner-up. That’s good enough for me. I don’t want to repeat the experience. Besides, I don’t feel that I have anything to prove. I’m a professional of sorts, even if I can’t get arrested for my own work. 

I did enjoy reading the blurb for this competition, though.

Lots of writing competitions like to think of themselves as a cut above. They like to think they’re going to get something a bit literary. They’re all dying to find the next big thing, the next great thinker. Mostly, they’re looking for groundbreaking, award winning, never before imagined... You get my drift. 

The truth is, it doesn’t happen often, but that’s what the people running the competitions want, not least because as soon as they have a great competition winner, they have a great competition, and if they have a great competition, they have the potential for a cash cow.

Of course, most organisations that run competitions don’t actually go so far as to state their intentions in their blurbs.

Stand up Prada and be counted!

Prada, it turns out, had no such scruples. They know what they’re looking for, and they have no problem articulating it in their competition brief. Go them!

On the up side no one entering this competition will be in any doubt what is expected of him and his essay. On the down side, I’ve never read anything quite so pretentious in all my life, not in this context, anyway.

Best of all, this competition put a huge smile on my face.

I’m a fan of fashion, and I’m a fan of the written word.

I can’t tell you just how much I’m looking forward to reading the winning entries when they are announced in the autumn. Go on, throw your hat into the ring, you know you want to!

Monday, 22 April 2013

By Heart


I came across something potentially very interesting in the Sunday Times yesterday, and was then very badly let down by semantics. What’s more, I was let down very badly, by semantics, by a poet.

I don’t know about you, but I expect a good deal from poets and their work. Isn’t poetry the distillation of an idea into its purist form? Aren’t we supposed to learn more from a poem, and therefore a poet, and not less?

Andrew Motion, erstwhile Poet Laureate
Andrew Motion, our former Poet Laureate, which, it turns out, isn’t the job for life that I always believe it to be, inaugurated a prize for poetry in our schools, and spent half a million quid of taxpayers money running and paying for it.

I have no problem with that. In fact, with only that information to hand, I’d be cheering. Spending money on education - tick. Spending money on poetry - tick. Spending money directly on kids - tick. Spending money on a prize that kids are allowed to compete for - tick.

Then everybody’s expectations began to lower all over the place.

To begin with, not one of the fourteen to eighteen year olds involved was expected to write any poetry. So, nobody was creating anything, which seemed like a missed opportunity to me. This was a prize for secondary school kids and they weren’t asked to make something, which I thought was a terrible shame. 

These kids were, however, asked to learn something. Well... Huzzah!

Then I read the next bit and my brows knotted, and I thought about what I'd read and I looked for the distinction. I found it, or, at least, I found the only thing I could imagine it to be, and then I googled some dictionaries to see if I was close. I guess that I must have been, because I could find no evidence of a distinction between the two phrases anywhere on-line, and Andrew Motion gave no definition of his terms, not in the stuff that I saw reported, anyway. I was disappointed in his lack of specificity. Andrew Motion isn't just a poet, he was our Poet Laureate, he ought to be good at this stuff.

The contestants were invited to ‘learn by heart’ and recite two poems. That phrase ‘learn by heart’ was very important, because the contestants were being invited to 'learn by heart', specifically, rather than to ‘learn by rote’. Semantics, you see. Andrew Motion made the distinction. I’m guessing that he meant to learn a text well enough to be able to repeat it, at will, without recourse to reading it, and to understand the content of a text and be able to discuss it. I assume that ‘by rote’ he meant the first half of that definition without the second half. I’m making assumptions, you understand, because, nowhere could I find a distinction between those two phrases, which, as far as I could determine both mean to learn a text well enough to be able to repeat it, at will, without recourse to reading it.

So the kids taking part were, basically, being expected to learn two poems. Big deal! 

I was learning poems, ‘by heart’, long before I reached the advanced age of fourteen. I remember my grandfather reciting great swathes of poetry with enormous gusto and always appropriately, showing an advanced level of understanding of the material, and he left school in 1917, aged 12 to become an apprentice gardener.

That segues me neatly into my next point. The powers behind the prize also sounded immeasurably smug about the fact that one of the two poems the contestants were required to read was written before 1914, as if that, in some way, made the process somehow much, much more difficult.

When I was at school, all A’ level students happily read Chaucer, in the original, and virtually all of the poetry we read, perhaps with the exception of a bit of war poetry, was written before 1914. Metaphysical poetry, anyone? The Romantics?

Come to think of it, in order to pass an O’ level in English Lit in the '70s or ‘80s (that’s a GCSE, now), it was key for every student to have a pretty decent selection of quotes in his or her armoury, on exam day, including verses and verses of poetry and a couple of Shakespeare’s soliloquies, and if you didn’t have a clue about the content then regurgitating those quotes in the exam wasn’t going to help push your marks up.

Claims are made every year that standards in schools aren’t slipping, but we now have a prize for kids to try to persuade them to learn, by heart, a couple of poems by the time they reach the grand old age of eighteen, and it's costing half a million pounds to run it. 

I wouldn’t mind so much, but, in the end, even the judging panel was lazy. Instead of allowing the kids to run wild and do some research to find their own choice of poems, a selection of poems was made, from which the kids could choose which they learned. What a missed opportunity. Had the kids been given free rein, they might have done that research, read some poems, and come up with some demanding choices; it would simply have meant that the judges would have had to read them, too. I also wonder whether the contestants might have been asked to prepare all of the poems on the list and only been told which they would recite on the day of the competition. It really does seem as if it was all just a little too easy.

We expect so little, don’t we? And yet, somehow, we’re still delighted with what we get.

I’d like to have seen the winning recitation, but, sadly, it doesn’t seem to be in the public domain, not yet, at least, perhaps it’ll turn up on YouTube some time, who knows?

On the up side, Kaiti Soultana, an 18 year old student from Nottingham won the day, reciting Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The fourteenth century, Middle-English poem is twenty-five hundred lines long. If she recited it, in the original, in its entirety, even I might be impressed by that. 

I do rather doubt that was expected of her, though, don’t you? I rather doubt it would even be expected of the judging panel to sit still and listen for the duration.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Friends Reunited


A few weeks ago the husband and I had the great pleasure of returning to his college at Oxford to take part in a writers’ day, and he had the even greater pleasure of renewing his acquaintance with some of his old classmates.

Two or three of the husband’s old college friends turned up with the express intention of seeing and spending some time with him. It was lovely. It was so lovely, in fact, that we all went home with a warm glow, and we all frantically exchanged e-mails for several days afterwards. I even wrote about it in this blog.

This weekend the husband and I drove down to Dorset to spend an experimental weekend with Sean and Jacqui. Sean and Dan were best mates at uni, classmates, drinking buddies and housemates, too, for a while. Dan designed the logo for Sean’s rowing crew... You know, that sort of thing .

They had lost touch, back in the eighties or early nineties, when it was actually possible to lose touch with people, because there was no such thing as social networking, and they quite literally hadn’t seen each other for twenty years. 

I’d met Sean a couple of times in Oxford in the eighties, but neither the husband nor I had met his wife, Jacqui, at all, and we were descending on her home. In fact, I felt rather sorry for Jacqui. 

We have to leave this morning, and we have had the most wonderful time!

Not only have Sean and Jacqui been staggeringly good and generous hosts, but we have had stuff to talk about... lots of stuff. We share politics and values, and there’s a vast crossover in tastes of... oh... music, movies, tv, books... you name it, we share an opinion or are happy to have a heated conversation about virtually anything. 

There was twenty years of history for Dan and Sean to catch up on, but there were also memories to dig up and examine. I heard stories that I haven’t heard before, and a new light was shone on the husband’s character. I think the same was true for Sean and Jacqui.

Dan and Sean seemed to fall back into an old friendship very easily, and, I think because they like each other enormously it wasn’t at all difficult for Jacqui and I to find thinks in common and to like each other too.

What a fantastic weekend! We talked and laughed, and ate and drank, and, God help us, I hope we get together to do it all again, very soon.

I’ve often said that if we couldn’t be bothered to stay in touch with people from the past then there probably isn’t much point reuniting with them. In this case I’m very, very glad we made an exception. 

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Can You See Who It Is Yet?


A little while ago, I wrote a blog about Rolf Harris being arrested in connection with Operation Yewtree. The problem was that Mr Harris had not been named, widely, in the press, or much at all, which was kinda the point of my post. I was not concerned that this was a problem with reference to my blog, but other people were. I was warned that publishing my thoughts might not be wise, and that there could be some small risk of being sued. I didn’t care, but other people, who matter very much to me, did care somewhat. I didn’t blog. I rather wish that I had.

Anyway, here, now, is the blog. I feel that it’s too late, and that I am as guilty as anyone else of treating Mr Harris differently from other people.

Two Little Boys had Two Little Toys...

Or two grown men had two little girls...

When I heard that an eighty-two year old Australian man, resident in Berkshire, was being questioned in connection with operation Yewtree, it didn’t take me more than a moment to work out that it was probably Rolf Harris. It took only another couple of minutes to put ‘Rolf Harris Yewtree’ into google and have the dots joined by several journalists, including, I believe, someone from the Telegraph, although I’m struggling to track down that source.

It’s shocking, though, isn’t it? For lots of reasons.

I don’t know what will come of all this. I believe that, so far, at least, the police haven’t confirmed that they’ve interviewed Mr Harris. I wonder why not. Generally, I understood that these things were confirmed. Nobody had any qualms about putting pictures of Stuart Hall (although not part of Operation Yewtree), Jim Davidson, Dave Lee Travis, Max Clifford and, of course, Jimmy Savile in the newspapers.

I’ve been waiting for about a fortnight to hear more on this story, and there hasn’t been a murmur. If you’re not tracking it, if you’re not looking for it, you won’t see it. How many of you had heard about it before reading this blog, this morning?

Of course, if it isn’t true, if he wan’t arrested and his house wasn’t searched, that’s fine. Let’s put it down to gossip. I apologise if I’ve spoilt your day. I didn’t mean to imply that Rolf Harris has ever done anyone any harm. On the other hand, if he was arrested, and his house was searched, and it’s in the public interest to report on these things, and other celebrity arrests were reported then why wasn’t this one?

Is there a double standard? If there’s a double standard where is it coming from?

If it’s about popularity, then it’s nonsense. I don’t care how well-loved a celebrity is if he’s committed a crime. I don’t care who’s who; if one arrest is reported then all of those arrested should be treated equally. If the police disclose one name to the press they should disclose all names. Why should one person get special treatment?

It is easy, with hindsight, to suggest that Jimmy Savile was a peculiar little man, that he was strange and that his behaviour could have been recognised and stopped. With hindsight, he doesn’t seem terribly plausible with his odd mannerisms and his tacky wardrobe. Rolf Harris, on the other hand...

We don’t like it do we? 

The problem is, we can all spot the obvious weirdoes. We can all do something about the weirdoes, even if it’s only steer clear of them. When the offender is a charming, educated, groomed, plausible, lovely man what are we to do then?

The problem is, the really successful conmen, and these people, men and women, are conmen first and foremost, learn to be groomed and charming, and plausible and lovely. Jimmy Savile did what he did in plain sight and got away with it because he had status. He might not have been quite as successful in his criminal pursuits had he lived in the ‘real’ world, because he would have been seen as a weirdo, and people might well have steered clear. 

When these criminals are finally brought to book, their friends, families, neighbours and coworkers are often shocked, stunned even, that they could commit such terrible crimes, because they were always such charming, lovely, clean-living, caring people.

You bet they were. 

Appearing to be the nicest people in the World is exactly how these people get what they want.

Friday, 19 April 2013

The End


I’ve been banging on about finishing my latest book for what seems like weeks now, and I was convinced that it would be finished by today, but, it turns out that it won’t be. 

I am sanguine, mostly because there’s absolutely no point being anything else, but also because the husband and I have actually got a weekend away this weekend, and it’s just for fun, and it’s the first one in two years, and we bloody deserve it. I can’t work this weekend. I can’t get back to the book until Monday at the earliest, so I can’t worry about it.

Work stopped yesterday afternoon when I went to get my hair done, and, naturally, I discussed getting to the end of the book with my hairdresser. He wanted to know whether I wrote ‘The End’ at the end, when I finished a manuscript. I can see why he’d want to know that.

When I was a child, that’s what I used to find at the ends of the books I read, the Famous Five and Secret Seven novels that filled my reading hours in primary school. It seems like forever since I saw those two words at the end of a novel. Now, we mostly seem to get adverts.

Anyway, it made me think about all the things I’m superstitious about when writing.

My biggest problem is that I never know I’m going to get to the end of a book. I never know until I get to the end, and then it comes as a huge relief. I think if I typed ‘The End’ when I thought I’d finished a book there’d be the problem of the read through. It’d be tempting fate to believe that I’d finished when, in fact, I could find all sorts of things that needed sorting out when I read back what I’d done. ‘The End’ wouldn’t mean anything, then, would it? Of course, having written, ‘The End’ I’d then have to wrangle with deleting it and working further on the book, and we all have to work further on all our books. I just don’t think I could stand it! It would be a lie, somehow.

I suppose I could consider writing ‘The End’ at the end of the manuscript directly before sending it to the editor, but then would that jinx the edits? I rarely have to do anything even approaching major rewrites. There might be odds and sods, but I’ve never been invited to change or remove a thread from a story, or mess with the order of events, or add a character or thread, or even change the sex of a character or adjust the time scale. I might just have been lucky, I suppose, but it could be because I haven’t been daft or arrogant enough to add those two little words, centred at the bottom of that final page.

I don’t know if it’s ever the end, not really. There might be a new edition of something with a foreword. There might be an opportunity to proof something again. There might be a sequel. I just can’t help thinking that typing ‘The End’ at the bottom of a page is a terribly bad idea. I haven’t done it yet, and I won’t be doing it any time soon. 

Superstition’s a silly thing, I know, but I defy you to find a writer who isn’t superstitious about something.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Green-Eyed Monster


Jealousy is a terrible thing.

We all suffer from it from time to time.

I’m not easily dragged into the clutches of jealousy, especially not of the professional variety.

Let’s face it, it’d be pretty hard going, living with the husband, if the green-eyed monster was going to rear its ugly head every time a book, story or comic was published. The man has six New York Times bestsellers to his name, for crying out loud... in four categories! You just can’t wake up and be envious of that every day.

Besides, he does what he does, and I do what I do, and our skill sets dovetail together very nicely, and, for the most part, everybody’s very happy, thank you very much.

Once in a while, and not for a while now, I read a book that I wish I’d written. Usually, though, that comes with the glow of satisfaction of having read something wonderful. I suppose that’s a form of envy, but I don’t want to tear anyone’s eyes out. It’s not a competition. That stuff just makes me want to write, to polish off whatever small talent I have and get on with it. That’s got to be good, right?

All around me, new writers are emerging and getting book deals, and passing me by. Once in a while, I get a little twinge of something approaching a feeling of... oh, I don’t know, but certainly nothing as grand or destructive as jealousy, regret, perhaps... but, as a rule, I’m very happy for them. 

This month, Rosie Garland’s novel, The Palace of Curiosities, was launched with a bit of a fanfare, by Harper Collins. They paid quite a lot of money for this and another book by the debut author.

I have not met Rosie, although I know of her work as a performance poet, and with the band The March Violets. You might be familiar with her name, because it has appeared before in this blog. Rosie’s novel The Palace of Curiosities began life as The Beast in all Her Loveliness and it won the Mslexia prize that Naming Names was runner-up for.

I have bought Rosie’s book, of course I have, and you should too. This novel was chosen, from literally thousands, by Jenni Murray, Sarah Waters and Clare Alexander, and it sold for six figures in a two book deal, so it's a pretty decent bet that it's good!

Oddly I cannot bring myself to read it... Not yet.

It is not, of course, a case of, ‘That could have been me’, because I realise that it couldn’t. Had Rosie not entered her novel into the competition it would still have found a home with a publisher, and had Names won the competition it would still have failed to be published. 

I just can’t help feeling that twinge, though. 

I just can’t help feeling that if I read Curiosities and I didn’t think it was as good as Names, that I might just feel somehow let down, that I might just feel as if the World, somehow, wasn’t fair.

Of course, sometimes that’s what life’s like, and sometime’s that’s what art is like, and, heaven help me, sometimes, that’s what being a writer is like.

Right now, we all know I’ve got a book to finish, but soon, very soon, I’ve got a meeting with my new agent. There’s a lot to talk about, not least which of my next two proposed novels my new agent thinks I should write, and, if it’s worth working on both books, which I should begin first. There’s no end to this job, thank heavens. There’s always another book to write, always another risk to take, always another chance to impress someone, somewhere.

I’m determined, though, that for as long as it remains on file, Naming Names will always be on the table. I might one day write a better book, I suppose, but, somehow, I doubt I will ever write one that means more to me.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Lament of the Reject


It is 365 blogs since I heard that Naming Names had been shortlisted for the inaugural Mslexia novel writing prize. Had I written a blog a day, which I initially intended, that would have been a year ago. It is, in fact, a little over 14 months. Naming Names was a runner up for the prize, but has still not found a publisher. It may never find a publisher.

If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing out in writing, then do not write, our culture has no use for it. – Anais Nin

To write about culture with such energy and beauty is extraordinary, and to write about writing so eloquently is extraordinary, to do both in one sentence rather moves me.

It is my fervent wish that this statement were true. I wonder if it was ever true. I hope that it was, because if it was ever true, it means that it might be true again one day.

My fear is that it is not true now. I do not feel the truth of it now.

I am beginning to tire.

I am beginning to tire of having praise heaped on my work, and then hearing, ‘But...’ 

I am one of the lucky ones. I get to write. I get to earn a living writing, and I am grateful for it. I don’t want to complain. I really don’t.

It doesn’t matter what I write, I bring the same skill set with me when I write a project. I love to play the games that I play with the stories that I write, and I don’t care whether what I do is noticed or not. If my stories are read and enjoyed that’s good enough for me. After all, they don’t belong to me any more after they’re published. I’ve been paid, and once a reader buys my work it belongs to him. 

That isn’t where the battles lie.

The battles lie in my own work. The battles lie in novels like Naming Names and Savant. I breathed, I cried out, I sang, I opened a vein for fuck’s sake and I wrote. I wrote those books because I had something to say. I didn’t just have stories to tell, I had something to say, I had a truth to tell.

Right now, our culture seems to me to have no use for the truth. It does not want to get dirty or bloody. It does not want to get covered in snot or tears. It does not want to feel guilt or shame. It does not want to look itself in the eye.

There is no greater shame than that.

It is now 22nd January 2015 and I have sold Savant to Solaris. I am pleased and proud, and I am thrilled that Jonathan Oliver has shown such faith in this project. Of course I'll let you all know when it's available to read.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

It’s Behind You!


I’ve got to move fast!

No! I’ve got to move faster than that.

It doesn’t happen to me often, but on this occasion, due to circumstances beyond my control, and I’ll come back to that, my latest deadline is now clearly visible in the professional equivalent of my rearview mirror.

Believe it or not, there are things that can be done about this.

Neil Gaiman says that if you want to be a professional writer it’s a good idea to be two of three things at all times. Those three things are talented, charming and punctual. My contention is that no one can rely on being talented, and that charming is in the eye of the beholder, so that all anyone can really rely on is punctuality.

Now, here I am breaking my one and only cardinal rule. I am late. I hang my head in shame, but not for long, obviously, because there’s no time to waste, and I apologise.

Here’s what to do if you’re late.

  1. Anticipate being late. Don’t leave it until deadline day to admit that you’re late and tell your publisher at that point. Tell him in advance of your lateness that you expect to be late, and, if at all possible, by how much you expect to run late.
  2. Don’t panic. This will not help, but it will eat time.
  3. Keep working. Stay focused. Don’t take shortcuts. Don’t alter your working practices.
  4. Sit your arse in your chair and write.


I claimed above that my current project is late ‘due to circumstances beyond my control’. The fact is that all sorts of things have happened in the last several months that have contributed to my writing slowing down. All sorts of things have also happened in the unfolding of this particular project that caused it not to run as smoothly as I might have hoped. I do not, however, believe that any of that was outside of my control if I had just had the balls and the foresight to take bloody control, by force if necessary.

So, on top of being late, I’m also a bit pissed off with myself. I could have seen some of this shit coming, and I didn’t, and I could have taken better control of certain circumstances, and I didn’t, and I could blame all sorts of things and people, but it’d be pointless. 

As the writer of this project, I’m the one who’s answerable for delivery of the manuscript, and I didn’t deliver on the due date. I’ve got to take responsibility for that. The buck stops here.

Right, that’s me well and truly chastised. I’m off to try to get this book finished so that I can at least still see the deadline in my rearview mirror by the time I hand it over to the editor. If it disappears over the horizon, I’m well and truly in the shit, and I’m determined not to let that happen.

I’ll see you guys on the other side.