Sunday, 30 November 2008

Want to Play?

What started out as a joke seems like rather a fun idea. Mills & Boon can rest easy - I don't think we're up for formula romance, but how about doing a little writing together?

I've never tried a collective piece so if anyone knows how it works - which genres work best, should there be a limit (calendar or word length), let me know. Do these things need moderating or is the whole point a free for all? As a start I've set up a new blog group 'Burning Lines' in honour of that great comment by Annie Dillard that it takes guts to write and determination to burn new lines in your palm. Anyone who wants to join in, drop me an email or comment with your email address and I'll add you to the group.

TODAY'S PROMPT: What would you like to write or read? Anyone who's done this before - love to share your experience and advice about what works best. Everyone's welcome - come on over to Burning Lines ...

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Love Conquers All

Wish I'd watched the rest of the Mills & Boon documentaries before NaNo - apparently their books only run to 50,000 words. Could have killed two birds with one stone. Or could I? The books are strictly formulaic - dialogue driven, hero meets heroine in chapter one and are pure fantasy.

The hero may well have 'Alpha Male' physically branded on him somewhere like the stamp on an Action Man's underpants. He is usually: handsome, dark, tanned, immensely wealthy, so full of testosterone you could bottle it, and of course at first the heroine loathes him. She is no longer the virtuous serving wench/impoverished governess/nurse of old and may even be financially independent (gosh). Basically they meet in chapter one, loathe turns to love and by the end of 50,000 words he saves her (giving her financial safety, status etc) and she saves him (through redemptive quality of her love). That's it. Cue sunset, roll the credits. M&B know what they are doing - their fanbase is huge and a book is sold somewhere every three seconds.

Is that your kind of love story? Personally I've always fallen for the kind of complicated tale where - to use Dan's brilliant phrase from the other day - everything happens gradually ... then suddenly. Marta was talking yesterday about developing sympathetic characters that go beyond the usual stereotype. These are the kind of love stories Nouvelle Vague are singing about so beautifully in the video clip:

In a manner of speaking I just want to say
That I could never forget the way
You told me everything
By saying nothing

In a manner of speaking
I don't understand
How love in silence becomes reprimand
But the way that I feel about you
Is beyond words

That's at least what I'm trying to do - conjure a feeling that is beyond words using the best ones I can find.

TODAY'S PROMPT: It's cold outside - everyone's probably feeling a little tired after a long week, so let's stoke up the fire and think about romance. Do you think you could write a M&B? Would you want to? Male/female relationships lie at the heart of most books whatever genre you write in, but what dynamic do you tend to enjoy writing most - head over heels or hands at each other's throats? Love, sex, flirtation, fantasy - any story benefits from the energy these elements bring. If you're stuck for ideas, why not think about some of the most romantic things that have happened to you, or close friends and turn them into fiction - work up some scenes for your characters that will have the ring of truth.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Stand By Your Man

How are you today? One of the things I’ve noticed with children just learning to speak, is how often you have to explain the multiple meanings of the English language. One word used in different contexts can mean a huge range of things. Take ‘fine’. How many examples can you think of? Fine bone china. Damn that’s a fine wo/man. I’m fine. Busy people – writers, workers, parents get so used to trotting out the ‘I’m fine’ line with a cheery smile. Are you? Are you really? A friend used to say it stands for Freaked out Insecure Neurotic and Emotional. Are you still feeling fine?

'Home Cheat Home' was one of the more imaginative headlines from the whole sorry Ramsay story. Old boyfriends of the professional mistress have popped up declaring that the 'sex crazed tiger' (not tigress, note) - left them mere husks of men: 'I was scared. I could barely walk' etc etc. And in the midst of all this the fragrant Tana is criticised for keeping a stiff upper lip and standing by her man. Leave the poor woman alone, for heaven's sake. I'm going back to my news blackout.

I'm still getting to grips with the motivation for the affair in book three - fact and fiction are crossing over curiously. What do men want? Really? Or women for that matter? You have this lovely woman at home, four kids, success, wealth and trappings only a few will ever experience, and you risk it all for what? The whole thing is just very sad ... I was reminded today of this incredible scene from 'Love, Actually.' Emma Thompson's breakdown is heartrending. It feels like it goes beyond acting, the emotion is so close to the surface. Who hasn't been there at some point - showing a brave front, keeping going when inside you're grieving ... Infidelity's not the only cause. People you meet everyday hide infinite sadness. Maybe the next time the press criticise public displays of solidarity and strength it would be as well to consider what's going on behind closed doors.

Strangely, Mrs R has just released a new book - the most intimate yet with photographs of the family and tips to keep the romance alive. What is it with publishing - take the curse of Hello, or the memorable 'Jane Seymour's Guide to Romantic Living' (divorce shortly followed publication)? Last night we watched Neil Labute's 'Your Friends and Neighbours'. I was hoping for something Woody Allen-ish, an exploration of male/female relationships. Should have read the reviews first: 'a film about three couples having affairs behind their partner's backs proclaiming itself to be 'a modern immorality tale', LaBute's eye for human cruelty is Jacobean.' It certainly is. Who knows, perhaps next time he'll tackle a celebrity chef.

TODAY'S PROMPT: If you are stuck with a character - he or she is lacking depth, not developing, why not have a think about what they might be hiding. What goes on behind closed doors? Think about each of your characters' back stories - what have their lives been like up to this point in the story, what are their hidden hopes, fears, scandals, desires. You don't have to use all this material - somehow just knowing it gives your story credence and richness. It's as much about what you leave out as you leave in. Or just for fun why not think of as many animal inspired nicknames for men and women as you can. Which sex has the most derogatory ones? Are there any that apply to both genders? Why do you think women like the mistress at the centre of this scandal are referred to as 'tigers' and 'cougars'? Is it because predatory sexuality is seen as a male trait? Or is it because the cliched 'professional mistress' has a predilection for leopardskin and furs?

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Power of Ten

So have you heard about Malcolm Gladwell's new book 'Outliers'? He's one of those modern geniuses whose books really make you think (he previously published 'The Tipping Point' and 'Blink'). He also has the all important genius hair - the look of Einstein, as if all those ideas have sent his follicles spinning wild and free. This time round he is considering the secrets of success - and he has a lot of interesting points very relevant to writers.

One of the most challenging ideas is the sheer amount of practice it takes to master your field - Gladwell reckons 10,000 hours, or roughly ten years. How long have you been writing - do you reckon you are there yet? Ten years ago I had just been told book one was 'almost there' and needed a little work. Hmmm.

His final point is good advice for those (like me), who have just printed out the first draft of their next books: “Achievement is talent plus preparation,” Gladwell writes in Outliers– but he’s out to show just how much more important preparation is than talent. The thing I keep coming back to, after 18 months on this book, is the work thing. I always say to young writers who are struggling, well, how many drafts do you do? And then I say, what, you only do three drafts? I do ten. I'm hoping this third manuscript is going to be lean and beautiful like dear Bo in '10' by early next year - but right now it's bulky, out of shape and needs a lot of work - rather like Big Momma:

TODAY'S PROMPT: How many drafts do you normally go through before feeling your work is 'finished'? Do you think there's any such thing as overnight success? The Penguin Cafe Orchestra's famous recording is a great example of the importance of practice and preparation - pulling all the elements together to make an iconic recording. How do you feel about your work - is it a virtuoso solo or a team effort? Why not take some time today and think about your ideas about success - what it means to you, and how you will know you have achieved it with your work?

Monday, 24 November 2008


What do you give up to write? Along with anything other than survival housework (sorry Aggie and Kim), in order to handle NaNo plus the usual business, house, kids workload this month I gave up TV and newspapers. Being a news-free zone for nearly a month has been rather wonderful (what is there except doom and gloom at the moment anyway?). After burning the candle at both ends through November writing about temptation, adultery and the fall-out from betrayal it was quite odd seeing celebrity chef and family man Gordon Ramsey splashed all over the headlines this morning.

He has (allegedly) followed in Jeffrey Archer's steps with a woman who sounds like the kind of professional mistress every wife dreads (she's even written a book about it). There's something horribly predictable about the whole thing. I was researching contemporary Spanish society last night - a chipper paragraph declared that it is generally accepted Spanish men will be unfaithful, but now it is more common for women to take lovers too. So that's ok then. In Ramsey's case you just think how does he have the energy - all those restaurants, cookbooks, TV appearances, marathons - not to mention the picture perfect family. What do you think - are affairs inevitable? How and why do they happen?

With the new book I've taken Hemingway's model of the single woman befriended by a married couple - the old cuckoo in the nest. When it happened to me, I was (of course) the last to discover that then boyfriend had been putting it around with not one, but two of my friends. Unfortunately, my then 'best friend' waited to break this to me gently until we had all decamped to an isolated farmhouse in France for a couple of weeks. It was an interesting holiday.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Infidelity - illicit love affairs, a great dramatic plot device. Think of Lady Chatterley - or a couple of my favourite films, Diane Lane/Richard Gere/Olivier Martinez in 'Unfaithful' and Jack, Angelica and Meryl in 'Heartburn'. What are the books or dramas dealing with this subject that have affected you? Maybe you have personal experience to draw upon? I get a lot of 'oh your husbands a pilot - don't you worry about, you know, air hostesses?' from other women. Well of course - long periods of time away from home in exotic locations with women paid to look attractive at all times. Recipe for disaster right? Recipe for insecurity, sure - but that's where trust and a long relationship have to come into play - it's difficult. Why not take some time to explore your thoughts about trust, love, temptation and infidelity - or give yourself a break and try a news blackout for a few days.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Boy Meets Girl

Picture the scene: late 80s/early 90s Northumbria. Eighteen years ago tonight, a Cure tribute band played in a Durham college. The air was thick with Marlboro smoke and dry ice, the strobe lights were flashing, the floors were sticky with beer, Snakebite and …never mind, let’s not go there - you get the picture. Yours truly had danced all night with the girls like a woman possessed, periodically being pursued round the heaving dancefloor by a James Spader lookalike with strangely fluorescent highlights who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Finally, when the guy got a little too drunk and insistent, in stepped my knight in shining armour - a strapping 6’2” Geologist I’d met once or twice at the college bar. He pretended we were together. Eighteen years and two children later we still are.

Did you know the moment you met your other half? Remembering the Durham days it feels like a mix of Narnia and St Elmo’s Fire – the incredible Norman cathedral, narrow snow cloaked lanes lit by lanterns near Prebend’s Bridge and the cosy bars heaving with floppy haired students where you could always find a friend. I think its become quite chichi now, but part of the attraction of the town was its authenticity - no Starbucks in those days, just lovely old pubs like the Shakespeare where you queued on the freezing payment to have a pint at the tiny bar (no chairs), Bimbi’s fish and chips and local gangs of girls straight out of Viz who trawled the weekend streets bare legged in white stilettos and miniskirts even on the coldest nights.

Ah, the 80s … the music, the damage we did to our hair, endless black lycra, the cronky convertibles and blind optimism. We’ve grown up together - moments like this it makes you nostalgic for what feels like simpler times. So, recession looms, the oil's run out, snow's on its way - but the fire's warm and once I scrape the children off the ceiling and get them safely tucked up I'm planning back to back Breathless and Wild At Heart to celebrate. Tonight this anniversary post goes out to the pilot – wherever you are (eating curry on the beach according to his last text) – thinking of you.

TODAY’S PROMPT: What's your great love story? Happy ending or epic loss? How did you meet your significant other, the mother/father of your children, or the ‘one that got away’? Why not write it down for posterity, or share it here – my anniversary weekend’s not going to be so loved up (pilot in India), but there’s no stopping you …

Friday, 21 November 2008

Duende - Magic, Fire

Duende is a power and not a behaviour, it is a struggle and not a concept. I have heard an old master say ‘Duende is not in the throat; duende surges up from the soles of the feet.’ Which means it is not a matter of ability, but of real life form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action’

- Federico Garcia Lorca

Oooof - hit 50,000 words last night, so after an intensive 20 days staring at photographs of Javier Bardem while my fingers danced over the keyboard (tough work but someone had to do it), I've 'won' NaNo, and we're heading towards 100,000 words total for the next book. Once that milestone is crossed it will be freewheeling down the home straight time - but there are still some big decisions to be made in the next few thousand words and this story is just finding its legs. I just don't know which way we are going yet - happily ever after or epic doomed love. The characters are up and running the show - I have a feeling they have a few tricks up their sleeves.

Do you do jigsaws or puzzles? They bore me senseless and I never had any patience for games (except for chess). With children you end up helping them with all of these and I really have to fight to slow my mind down. However, writing a book is strangely a lot like doing a puzzle - perhaps like those little pictures made up of blocks that slide you used to get in crackers, or Rubik's cube. (I was the impatient one who took a screwdriver and a pot of Vaseline to my cube before learning the sequence). Maybe you're more patient? You have this puzzle, this story at your fingertips, but until the pieces fall into the correct sequence the picture is a mess - you sense what it should look like, it's all there, you've just got to get it right.

The book is set in Spain - we moved there not knowing the country and frankly I wasn't thrilled (too many stereotypical images of Benidorm). However - living in 'real' Spain I grew to love it, and this story is as much a love letter to the country, people and passion (duende) as the tale of the protagonists. Writing the book has made me quite homesick for mountains and orange groves, ruby light and hot days in hidden coves ... It stretches from the Spanish Civil War and Guernica through to 9/11. I'm still getting under the skin of the characters but it has been quite a ride so far - jealousy, revenge, love, passion. Will the characters get together or won't they? I don't know at this point ... the man is devastating, but a bit of a disaster. Will it come good? Is he what she wants but not what she needs? Maybe you've had relationships like this too. I'm curious to see where this one goes. If it means a few more weeks contemplating Javier (sighs) so be it ... may even have to dust off 'Jamon Jamon' tonight and let the steam settle over the keyboard.

TODAY'S PROMPT: How do you work - with a rough map of where you're heading, the literary equivalent of SatNav, or do you meander off and take the scenic route? When you read a book, do you like all the loose endings tied up neatly at the end of the journey? With a love story do you want to know how they ended up - do you want to see the white wedding - or do you like things to be left open ended? How do you feel about passion and sex in fiction - do you feel comfortable writing this, or do you prefer the old fashioned 'cut away' to rolling surf or steam trains and tunnels? If you're stuck, wondering which direction to take, why not follow this great advice from Janet Fitch author of 'White Oleander':

" ... Luckily I was seeing an amazing therapist at the time. I explained I was afraid that if I chose route 6, then I would be eliminating all the other possible routes. What if route 15 was better? Or 3 1/2 ? So I hedged. I couldn't commit. I was stuck. And she gave me the piece of advice which has saved my writing life over and over again, and I will give it to you, absolutely free of charge. She said, "I know it feels like you have all these options and when you make a decision, you lose a world of possibilities. But the reality is, until you make a decision, you have nothing at all."

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Dancing Lessons

Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?
Vicky: Why do you want to live?
Lermontov: Well, I don't know exactly why, but... I must.
Vicky: That's my answer too.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Is this how you feel about your work? When you're deeply immersed it takes on a life of its own - just like the Red Shoes. This magic and energy can be exhilarating - and it can be exhausting. What's your experience with this? Writing is just like any other art or profession - years of practice, rejection and sheer hard work go into making your work look effortless, natural, graceful. Let's just assume that no one gives a damn about your work other than you - even kindly friends, your other half and your parents have stopped asking how it's going. Your submissions are met by a deathly silence. Have you got what it takes to keep working at it? Me? I'm just hoping if I keep practicing long enough my words will take on the lightness, grace and beauty of Pina Bausch's dance theatre group (rather than dancing their way in front of the literary equivalent of a steam train like the red shoes ...). Right now it feels like it could go either way. Why not take some time today to think about where you are with your work, and where you would like to be in six months, a year, five years' time. What are the first steps you must take?

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Move Me

Please can someone gently remind me next year it might be better to go for a happily ever after novella for NaNo. Using it as a bootcamp to get 50,000 words of the core emotional scenes down for the next book was not a good idea - but it is too late for me now. What moves you? Are there particular books, films, memories or situations that break you down?

I was thinking today about Sam Taylor Wood's incredible series of photographs of crying men. Those of you who have been kind enough to read regularly know my ideas about 'method' writing - really submerging yourself in character the way actors take on a part. Critics have said 'these guys are actors, they're acting, the tears aren't real'. Taylor Wood has said she felt they did draw on their own emotions and experiences. The tears were 'real' - ie, personal, felt. One of the actors said his emotions run close to the surface so he can generate this intensity when he needs to. Know how he feels. In the last few days 'I' have lost my husband, been betrayed by my best friend, moved country, had a baby, fallen in love, fought in the Spanish Civil War ... it's exhausting.

Men crying is still something of a taboo in western society - there's a sense it has to be really bad to see a man cry. What do you think of this? I've spent the last few nights with tears running down my face - hopefully great for the new book, not so much for me. I feel as battered as my characters, stripped back, nerves raw. Unfortunately unlike some famous writers who take themselves off to tranquil hotels to write, I've also been doing the usual juggling act with the pilot in India. Normally have a strict 'never cry in front of the children' rule but barking hound, screaming kids, exhaustion ... 'emotion running close to the surface' didn't quite do it justice this morning.

Apart from days like today where you would - given half the chance - go and hide in a dark room, there are plus sides to immersing yourself in the creative process. For one glorious day this week I had a few solid daylight hours to write. I sank so deep in the story it was a genuine surprise to find myself in rainy autumnal Hampshire rather than the sundrenched gardens of the Alhambra. The characters go through a tremendous journey - the protagonists are in their 30s, 40s - set in their ways until life blindsides them (as it does). The book is very physical and sensual on one hand, but the theme of flight - flying figures, the transience of life and the eternal is woven in. I don't know what happens when you write - where the words come from is part of the magic. All I know is getting your characters from A to B, to a lightness, and emotional openness where they are capable of change, of falling in love again is one hell of a journey.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Strangely every time we had a car or stereo stolen, a copy of Crowded House was in the machine. Discerning thieves in south London. This is an all time favourite song - there is something incredibly raw and genuine in it's intimacy and surrender. Why not have a think about the kind of music, films or books that move you - jot down in your journal some ideas for scenes that could hook your reader in. Do you think there is a formula to writing emotional work? Or is moving your readers something that can't be faked? Does your own work move you to tears of emotion (sadness, joy, anger, frustration?) If your emotions need a little inspiration, why not take a look at this video clip from 'The Notebook' - it's one of those hugely successful films that seems to press all the right emotional buttons ...

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Mistaken Identity

Do you still stick stuff on your walls or have you progressed through clip frames to proper grown up pictures and paintings? In our house, everything above ground is pretty grown up, but my work area is an ever changing free-for-all (currently plastered with Spanish icons and images of Javier Bardem - it's work, honestly). Does your writing spill over into your environment, or do you tend to keep it all contained? If you haven't tried it, visual and audio prompts can be really helpful in building atmosphere - think of all those detective films where you see the investigation HQ, plastered with maps, photos, brainstorms. Images and music can help you build a strong case.

The way we express ourselves in our surroundings is also an interesting 'tell' about character. I was writing about a teenager's bedroom the other day, and realised how obsessively we all used to festoon our 'space' with images. The images on his wall acted as shorthand for his character. Our walls were reflections of who we were - or wanted to be. Moving into a new study at school or halls at university, you inherited the pock marked walls of the students who had gone before you - the blutak and sellotape scars. At a certain point, every girl had the Man & Baby, every guy had the hot tennis player. In themselves they say a lot about the soft focus porn of the unreconstructed 70s and the 'new man' ideal of the 80s - chiselled six pack but nifty with a nappy.

When I heard 'No Such Thing' it reminded me of those days - maybe you also think it harks back to the 80s - a little bit like the lovechild of Clapton and Go West. It reminded me of sitting in a study drinking Earl Grey with a boombox that would devour casette tapes, and the pictures on the wall: Georges Marciano perfume ads (Jane Russel type model on a haystack), 'Un esprit libre dans un corps sage', Betty Blue, 'Why Not?'. It made me think of freewheeling through silent summer lanes - cut off blue jeans, the hum of insects by the lake, Gauloises Blondes, hawks keening in clear skies. What did you have on your wall as a kid? The Pink Floyd prism? Che Guevara? Maybe thinking about the world within a world you built for yourself (your room/study in your parent's home/school) is a good way to ground your characters - what home have they built for themselves?

Of course - appearances can be deceptive. It's not an 80s track - it just evokes the same feelings as Go West (below - haven't they aged well?) Never assume anything with your characters - scrape the surface, let them talk and it's amazing what will come to life. The story behind Man & Baby is a case in point - the 'ideal' man was paid £100 (a reduced fee because he fell asleep on a sunbed the day before the shoot and they had to retouch his burnt chest). As a result of the photo, he claimed to have slept with over 3000 women - and the only babies he fathered he has had nothing to do with. He was cute but it was the fantasy that seduced everyone - he was like the Pied Piper of Athena.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Do you ever do that thing where you are walking down the street and think you have spotted an old friend? I seem to go through stages of this - do you think thought patterns tend to be cyclical? Has anyone ever mistaken you for an old friend, how did you feel - how do you feel at the thought that someone out there bears that close a resemblance to you? Maybe you have a doppelganger out there ... What about actually bumping into people you haven't seen for years? I was grocery shopping yesterday, and two women in their 60s suddenly cried out, hugging, almost in tears - they hadn't seen one another since school, and excitedly swapped news about grown up children, husbands, old friends. Glancing at them as I walked past, their faces were alive - you could see the young women they once were. Why not take some time with your journal or draft and think about the stories behind your characters - why not have them experience something that triggers a deeper understanding of who they are and what they are about.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Monday Motivation

So how was your weekend? Wet and wordy here. Caught the tail end of Velvet Goldmine last night - thought a snatch of the soundtrack would be just the thing to get the motors running as those doing NaNo face the difficult second week. How come it is always 'the difficult second book/album?' The jury is still out on NaNo - it feels a bit like being back at school (everyone seems to know what they're doing, everyone knows one another, everyone's word count is miles ahead of yours ...). Someone gave me the NaNo box set ages ago - sticker charts, 'onerosity coupons' (threw those out immediately), and prompt cards. The funniest one this week I'll reproduce as today's prompt. If you make it through the month you get to wear a big shiny badge that says 'Novelist'.

In the meantime the set also has jaunty stickers saying 'Ask Me About My Novel!' Perhaps you are supposed to stick one on your forehead? Or leave one ostentatiously showing on your notebook in a cafe? Do you talk about your work in progress? I'd prefer a sticker that says 'Please, DON'T Ask me about my novel', in fact if I'm writing Please Don't Talk To Me At All. How many times have you just lost a sentence, plot twist or snatch of dialogue because something interrupted you and you didn't pin it down in time? I still find it hard enough to talk about the books once they're written. Title: 'ummm well, I have a few in mind ...' Synopsis: 'ah, well ... don't really want to be pinned down at this stage.' Maybe you're the same, but I like to keep the energy and tension contained - talking something through dissipates the drive to get the thing down on paper. Once the first draft is down, fine - talk to friends, editors, the dog ... but while it still feels like I'm trying to bottle lightning I tend to keep quiet. This new world - these new people are all 'in there' ... but at the moment it's like the signal isn't quite tuned in (the picture's fuzzy, the dialogue is patchy). What about you - do you have a strong feel for your work in progress, or do you also feel like you're trying to reach out and touch a shimmering mirage?

TODAY'S PROMPT: NaNo Day 9 suggested taking Zsa Zsa Gabor as our literary role model. They suggest her enthusiasm for marriage is a great approach to plotting. 'Hitch yourself to any likely plot suitor. You'll have a great time with any of them, and you can always grab a different one on the next go round.' If quantity not quality is your aim (which is the whole jist of NaNo) - not procrastinating too much is good advice. Why not take the energy of falling in love/lust with your plot idea and write it out? Even if it ends badly (as it did nine times for dear Zsa Zsa), you may end up with something small and perfect - a subplot for a later novel, or a short story.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Switch Off

If you're anything like me you've been working too hard and have been a big old grouch all week. 'Doing an Oscar' is a gentle warning in this house that someone isn't being much fun - who was your favourite on Sesame Street? I always loved the Count, and Animal on the Muppets. It's Saturday - the kids may be home, time to share something new, and something old. Have some fun. Switch off. Put the pen down. Step away from the computer. I cracked 10,000 (new) NaNo words last night round midnight. Today the hound has a hot date in the forest with a Labradoodle from Glasgow and there are five children coming for woodland mayhem. What could be better?

TODAY'S PROMPT: What are you supposed to do today? What would you like to do? Is it really so impossible to do a bit of both? Get rid of the things you don't need or want to do. Me? Once everyone is safely home, full of picnic, exhausted from running and climbing, I have all sorts of plans ... oh yes, another 2000 words and to bed early with our new book club choice :) We-hey, it's wild times in Hampshire. It's only for a month.

Everyday I Write the Book ...

This is for all the excellent girls and boys who are writing (and reading!) their books. The lovely Pseudonymous Highschool Teacher has given WKDN a Kreativ Blog Award - thank you! Your beautiful images of Hawaii and inspirational tales make me miss it everyday - and now this! The first award - I'm really touched (but promise I won't do a Gwynneth) - I'd just like to thank all of you who come by regularly - your comments and thoughts really make this blog.

I'm guessing from the Creative with a K the award originated in Germany or Holland? The idea is to list six things that make you happy, then give the award to six creative individuals, who in turn list their six things if they want to and award it to six blogs they love, linking back. There are heaps of things that would make me happy, some of which aren't that relevant this afternoon - they are happy memories or wishful thinking (oysters at Wepler, size 10 jeans, finding the perfect winter boots on sale, a peaceful hour in a gallery or bookstore with The Book in the bestseller section ...), and others that are more relevant (the hope that a truly great man has just been elected in the US). Perhaps simple is best:

Today happiness is:
  • grabbing an extra five minutes sleep on a cold morning with everyone cuddled up together (little warm sleepy people in pyjamas clambering in beside you)
  • that first 'take a deep breath catch up with yourself' cup of coffee after the morning mad dash
  • letting the hound off the lead and watching her race into a misty field
  • the blazing autumn colours - yellows, bronze and gold leaves falling as you walk
  • chopping veggies for soup, a steamy kitchen, dancing with the (newly) 3 year old to 'Superstition'
  • knowing there is a stack of scribbled notes and images to immerse myself in tonight once the children are asleep and the pilot's happily on his way to Barbados - the anticipation and excitement of being lost in a new piece of work again
All of these make me happy and grateful. It's a tough choice who to choose as there are so many people I'd love to give this award to. However, as I've followed their blogs since the earliest days, and been awed by the way they all balance creativity, work, friendships, travel and family life I've decided to pass this award back across the ocean to:
Thank you all for Flying Girl, beautiful photographs - (that Madonna!), creative nachos, inspiring photo stories, dreams of llamas and lavagirl costumes! Your blogs make my day - and the way you all balance your lives so creatively is what this little blog is all about trying to achieve.
TODAY'S PROMPT: There are heaps of things to worry about at the moment so taking some time to think of six simple things that make you happy is a great exercise for everyone. Why not make it a regular habit - just jot down in your journal six things that have made you happy that day. It's amazing how being thankful for what's good in your life - however small - enhances your sense of wellbeing and good fortune.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

You're The One That I Want

For Scarlet (thank you for the tag!) - 'most embarrassing record'? There were so many (Toni Basil 'Mickey', Alphaville 'Big in Japan', Tight Fit 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight ...') but this was the first and most embarrassing. Why? Put it this way Olivia Newton John looks an awful lot better in skintight satin trousers than a six year old from mid Devon. More recently, I spent far too much time camping it up to Army of Lovers when I was meant to be learning Italian on RaiUno. They may be embarrassing, but still love them all! Happy days ...

TODAY'S PROMPT: What are the records in your closet? Why not share and cheer us all up ..?

How To Be More Awesome

As part of our occasional guest spot series bringing you the best advice from successful publishers, editors, agents and writers, today I'm delighted to talk to author Dennis Cass. Dennis is a (former) literary agent, journalist, adjunct college professor, book doctor, (former) television critic, and author. His work has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Mother Jones, and the online journal Slate. His first book, HEAD CASE: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain, was recently published in paperback by HarperCollins. I first heard about Dennis through his brilliant 'Book Launch' video - do check out Dennis Cass Wants You To Be More Awesome for more great advice and inspiration.

Q: BEGINNINGS Dennis, how did you get started writing? What helped you make the leap to writing professionally?

I was lucky because my big break came right away. I had been writing locally in Minneapolis, Minnesota (where I still live) for about a year. Then I wrote a scathing piece about the election-night victory party for professional-wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura for Harper’s Magazine. (Sadly, the dinosaurs at Harper’s don’t allow free online access to their archives.) I dined out on that story for probably five years longer than I should have, but along the way it opened a lot of doors.

Q: YOUR WORK the self-effacing humour in Book Launch is something most writers can relate to. It's a case study in how to promote yourself beautifully with an ironic, light touch. Hard to pull off! Do you have any advice to pass on about how to overcome the writer's natural reserve about putting themselves centre stage? Gathering the confidence to get your work 'out there' is half the battle, which is what I love about your encouraging site. How do you psyche yourself to send the important email, make the call, face the meeting?

I don’t buy that idea that writer’s are naturally reserved. The way writers seek attention is more indirect than, say, an actor or a comedian does. But that desire to be heard is universal. So even though you work in solitude, being a writer is a public job. Your readers may be strangers scattered all over the globe, but taken together they are an audience, and you are in front of them.

When I say I want you to be more awesome, I mean that I want writer’s to step up and embrace the changes that technology and globalization have had on our culture. I believe all writers need to find a way to grow and evolve, which may mean embracing the Internet, or public speaking, or making YouTube videos. I want writers to compete.

Q: FUN most newbie writers dream of seeing their books on the shelves, imagine book launches, signings. Is it as much fun as we imagine? What experiences have you had - the best, the worst?

The strangest experience was when I sent off the manuscript. I worked as a literary agent and in the mid-90s and we still dealt entirely in paper. So when I sent in the final draft of my book I pictured it as a physical act. You know, boxing up all those pages and hauling them to the post office. Instead it was an attachment. To an e-mail. And at 60,000 words it wasn’t even a big enough file to slow down my laptop. So kind of anti-climactic.

That said, you can’t beat seeing your book in a bookstore. Or getting mail from readers. Your book doesn’t even have to make that big of an impact for you to have one of those impact moments. In other words, if you approach the promotion of your book as an opportunity to reach people (as opposed to a chore) then publishing can be pretty great.

Q: TECHNOLOGY how do you feel about all the current advances in technology - do you embrace self publishing through Blurb, Xlibris, Lulu etc? How do you feel about e-books, Kindle and so forth? Do you have books stacked all over the place, or do you look to the future?

When I started writing I would have said that self-publishing was off the table. Now it’s not. My first choice is still to go through New York, but I have a couple of projects I’m working on that may or may not be right for a mainstream publisher. If I did self-publish it would be part of a larger strategy that would involve Internet, performance, and so forth. I’d make that sucker an art project.

As for e-books, I haven’t seen the technology yet, so I can’t judge. But my main concern right now is not that e-books will poach from regular books, but that regular books are losing sight of what makes them unique. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone into a bookstore, picked up a book and thought, “This happens to be a book, but it doesn’t need to be a book.” No form can thrive if it doesn’t respect itself.

Q: PRESENCE everyone I've spoken to from agents to publishers emphasises how important it is to have a USP as an author. You've developed a great online presence through Youtube and blogging - do you have any advice for people just beginning to figure out who they are and where their work can be placed?

What’s both exciting and terrifying about making art and culture right now is that there is no path. What works for one artist might prove disastrous for another. That’s why I try to avoid tips and tricks and helpful hints in my talks and on my site. Instead I try to foster in people the confidence and the desire to figure it out for themselves. Remember that you’re the artist. You decide how to use the medium. Don’t let the medium use you.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Why not have a think about ways in which you can reach a larger audience with your work? Perhaps try your local papers and magazines for freelance work, or join your nearest writer's circle to gain confidence sharing your work with others. How do you feel about launching your work - is it agony? Or does the desire to be heard that Dennis talks about drive you forward?

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Too sexy for his shirt ...

Today, a treat for all you hardworking girls and boys - firecrackers of the non-bonfire night kind. Here we have a gratuitous Mr Darcy and my favourite Bardot clip because I have been cranking up the heat in the novel - I have my leads at sizzling distance. Now the challenge is to keep them there. Maybe you are the same - if you are able to believe in them enough to fall a little in love with your characters, they start to come alive.

TODAY'S PROMPT: 'It' the X-factor, charisma, sex appeal - why do you think some people are almost universally adored (Bardot, Connery etc)? What do you want from your romantic heroes and heroines? Are they the same things you look for in real life? How do you think you can make a fictional character charismatic and appealing? Why not brainstorm in your journal the character traits or actions you would find attractive in a man or woman - perhaps you remember incidents from real life, the things that drew you to someone. As you construct your characters why not try and weave a few of these moments into your story - help them come alive.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Flying lines

Aleksandr Rodchenko. (Russian, 1891-1956). Spatial Construction no. 12. c. 1920. Plywood, open construction partially painted with aluminum paint, and wire, 24 x 33 x 18 1/2" (61 x 83.7 x 47 cm). Acquisition made possible through the extraordinary efforts of George and Zinaida Costakis. MOMA

It struck me today as the six year old talked excitedly about the plans for her brother's birthday to her grandmother on the phone that it's the stories we tell one another that keep family histories alive. The memories that are passed along orally, and repeated ad nauseam are the ties that hold us together. Perhaps the better you are at telling stories, no matter how far apart you are, the more cohesive your family feels?

I was flicking through a book on Constructivism in the bookstore today, killing time while the six year old was at a birthday party. Whenever I see this Rodchenko, it's like greeting an old friend. I first saw it in MOMA over fifteen years ago, but our family's link with it goes way back. My parents-in-law tell an amazing story about meeting Costakis in Moscow in the early 1960's. His apartment was lined with canvases, sculptures - all of them now priceless, but at the time he pretty much kept contemporary Russian art safe single-handedly when it was reviled by the authorities. Kandinskys were stacked on the floor several layers deep. Whenever that story is told, I imagine it as an Aladdin's cave. Wouldn't it have been incredible to see them? I know I'm biased, but living with original works of art improves your life. As an art consultant, I always advised people to buy a work because they loved it. If it's value increased, fantastic - but it's true value was in the pleasure it would bring them every single day. Costakis stockpiled and saved countless works of art - they in turn saved him, bought safe passage to the West. There, hanging from the ceiling of his simple apartment was the Rodchenko construction that now hangs in pride of place in MOMA.

One of the hackneyed arguments about modern art is that a child could do it. What do you think? For those of you still on the fence, perhaps the inimitable Baaad Dad's guide to the contemporary scene will help make up your mind. My father-in-law has often commented that he's loved watching all the grandchildren suddenly reach the point where scribbles turn into definite strokes - when suddenly they can colour within the lines. When I was little, Dad built an amazing pendulum that drew complex designs - like a spirograph but more complex. They were the best colouring sheets ever. It's like modern art - the most instantly appealing often has its roots in natural form. The harmony of a shell, the geometry of an oval or the instant appeal of a canvas whose proportions are based on the golden section - all are linked by an instinctive feeling that their forms are 'right'.
Remembering the hours spent producing sheet after sheet of incredible linear forms it seems like yesterday. Perhaps time flies by so fast when you are an adult because your mind is constantly elsewhere - worrying about the future, regretting the past, and as a parent the present is constantly fragmented by your children's schedules - terms seem to make the years shorter. It doesn't seem like three years since I sat in the lamplit hospital room rocking my newborn son as 'O Mio Babbino Caro' played softly on the radio and fireworks lit up the night sky. I wonder if the reason summers seemed longer when you were a child is that you were 100% there, living and enjoying every day? 'Childish' activities - colouring, playing, inspecting the world with fresh eyes and curiosity - all these ground you in the moment, and make it last.
TODAY'S PROMPT: What haven't you done for years? What was your favourite way to spend time when you were a child? Why not think back, and try something you used to love - spend time colouring with your children, treat yourself to an Airfix model, a 'comic', or take yourself off to a matinee at the cinema. Refuel, and recharge yourself. It's the weekend - take it easy, make the most of every moment.

And they're off ...

I read an interview with the bestselling author Anita Shreve recently in the FT. She was asked 'What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?' She answered: 'If I faced something that was seemingly impossible, my father always said 'You Can Do It'. Those words are ingrained in me.'

You can do it. I really hope if someone interviews our kids in 40 years that's the kind of advice they'll remember (rather than 'always put your pants in the laundry'). You can do it. As 1st November dawns and thousands of writers the world over are limbering up for NaNoWriMo what better advice can there be? I know nothing about sports psychology other than the need to psyche yourself up and focus 100% on your goal. Arthur Conley should have us all dancing to the keyboard like prizefighters. How on earth the audience weren't up on their feet in '66 I don't know.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Have you seen 'The Bucket List'? Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman - both terminally ill, and both determined to make the most of their last days on earth. They draw up a 'Bucket List' - things to do before you kick the bucket. What would be on yours? Number one for me is still to see my books published. Which is what prompted the impulsive decision to give NaNoWriMo a whirl. I've been so frustrated by the delays with book one, I've put off starting the next novel (cutting, nose, face?) How long is it going to take for book one to be submitted, let alone published? I'm hoping the best course is just to get on with the next book, get the words down and make it real. So what would be your number one? Why not sit down with your journal and figure out your own personal Bucket List - what's your top ten? If you knew you only had a limited time to make your dreams come true, what would you do? Curl up and go quietly, or seize the moment? To all embarking on NaNoWriMo, and to all you more sensible souls - You can do it.
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