Friday, 30 January 2009

Do The Hustle

If you want to write professionally, hustling for work is all part of the process. 'Zip up your rhino suit' as Vadim Jean once said, prepare to shrug off any rejections and put yourself out there. From what I've heard from you all recently, a lot of you are - attending conferences, submitting stories for the first time, giving talks on blogging. Bravo. A good starting point is to have a think about all the skills you've picked up in your working life and see where you can apply them to your new career as a writer.

I spent years as an art consultant - million pound projects, embassies and palaces, pitching artist's work. It was a great career, but I wanted to write. The last time I worked for someone else, (the pilot had just retrained, we needed me to work full time to support the family while he got his hours), I ended up in one of those toxic workplaces we all have the misfortune to find ourselves occasionally. Now, I've worked in some tough jobs (chased round desks by randy bosses, cleaning up after disturbed children staged a dirty protest and kicked out a loo in an inner city playgroup ... it goes on), but this place took the grand prize. Everything seemed normal during the interview. But on the first day, the other woman who started at the same time as me in the London gallery ended up in A&E being treated for a massive panic attack. It didn't get much better - I lasted seven months, enduring the Director storming through the gallery screaming 'Sell! Sell!' as we lowly consultants cold-called prospective clients. It was like no other art job I've encountered - we were put through a kind of sales bootcamp, marched off to be instructed by a wild eyed American with a Madonna style microphone. It wasn't about art, it was about making money. I finally walked out after the Directors had a slanging match, screaming at one another to F-off. I vowed I'd never work with people I didn't like again, and set up my own company.

If you're looking for paid work, a good place to start is 'The Freelance Writer's Handbook'. It gives good guidelines about how to set up professionally and pitching to clients. In the UK the Monday Guardian is always good for arts jobs, and why not subscribe to the Arts Councils 'Arts Jobs' daily email. (Though the other day the only paid job out of thirteen ads was for an amputee actress/dancer. I guess it depends on the missing limb). Internationally, there are sites like Elance, Mediabistro job alerts ... if any of you can think of other good sources for job ads do suggest them in the comments today.

So, what have you learned about yourself from your jobs? Even from the worst situations, you can extract the good. I learned I can survive, can pitch and sell, run a business. The couple of years temping at university mean I can touch-type at thought speed - see, all those letters about suspended ceilings and share options had a purpose. All the business and life skills you've picked up will be invaluable. Writing is creative, when it's great it is an art - but it is still a business, only this time you're selling you and your work.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Yesterday's quote about the 'writer as hustler' reminded me of this video clip - it's Friday, are you feeling funky, functional or flaked out? Why not step away from the desk and fend off that 'writer's bottom' we all dread by hustling along with the headless wonder. At the very least it should give you a good laugh (the three year old is rolling around on the floor giggling after trying this out). Have a great weekend.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Waiting for God ... oh

Another Kate with an award (or two)
... and another with Peter Gabriel.

I promise not to go all emotional on you and start thanking my parents, the hound, my beloved English teachers - but thank you to Pseudo for awarding WKDN the Scholastic Scribe Award. It's a great honour to be chosen by your contemporaries and who doesn't identify with the Scribe's quote: "Diverting the internal traffic between the Writer as Angel of Light and the Writer as Hustler is the scribbling child in a grown-up body, wondering if anyone is listening." ~Herbert Gold, Elder Statesman of The Beat Generation. The Award rules suggest passing it on to fellow writers. For your brilliant comments that make this blog such a pleasure to write, and for the joy 'listening' to your ideas has brought - Running After My Hat, VodkaMom, Scarlet, the Misssives and Nuts & Mutton.

Is anyone listening ... isn't that just the question writers ask themselves all the time? Do you want anyone to listen - maybe your writing is just like talking to yourself? In case you missed the comments in the last post, Misssy is writing a speech about blogging and needs our help. The sense of belonging to a global writer's group has been the single most surprising and enjoyable thing about blogging. Yes, anyone can be published immediately - but the feedback is immediate too, and that is (at least for me), the thing that makes me want to raise my game and write better posts for you.
The immediacy of writing online is not to be underestimated. A package arrived yesterday from a London travel magazine returning some transparencies a whole year after submission. It is nearly a year and a half since I finished editing the book, and now (joy of joys), it is being submitted to UK publishers this week. Waiting, hoping, praying ... all part of the package. Will you get the answers you have been looking for?

ESTRAGON: And what did he reply?
VLADIMIR: That he'd see.
ESTRAGON: That he couldn't promise anything.
VLADIMIR: That he'd have to think it over.
ESTRAGON: In the quiet of his home.
VLADIMIR: Consult his family.
ESTRAGON: His friends.
VLADIMIR: His agents.
ESTRAGON: His correspondents.
VLADIMIR: His books.
ESTRAGON: His bank account.
VLADIMIR: Before taking a decision

All the waiting. Maybe that's why 'writers are hard to live with' as Isabel Allende said recently. We're all on an interminable, existential journey, waiting for Godot (substitute inspiration, contracts, answers, God for that matter), to turn up and show the way. It feels like nothing is happening, when perhaps everything is. We were given free will for a reason - sometimes uncertainty makes any decision seem impossible, but life, fiction, drama - it's all about change. Nothing stays the same. As today's video clip says: 'don't give up'. KBO. Keep writing.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Where do you escape to? Emma's comment yesterday about the escapism of books got me thinking. The world's gone mad it seems, but people need escapism, need the hope books bring now more than ever. Do you have a physical bolthole? I have several - cafes where I won't be disturbed writing, a lovely old Romanesque church in town (haven't 'been' to church for ages but the peace and beauty of the place is like a balm). Do you think writers are hard to live with? What's your reaction to the interminable waiting involved with writing - sit it out like Vladimir and Estragon or go ahead, make plans and decisions? What rules your choices - head or heart? Why not write a scene with a couple of characters waiting for something - a train, a bus, the arrival of a third character? Make them opposite - head/heart, light/dark. Give them choices to make, decisions to take. Which road will they go down?

Tuesday, 27 January 2009


The artist's studio I worked in just off the Kings' Road was used by Peter Blake to shoot the cover of the Beatles' 'Sergeant Pepper' album. Over the years we'd get students and Beatles fans dropping in, hoping perhaps to miraculously touch the past. It was a great place to work - round the corner from Chelsea Town Hall with its confetti strewn steps and lovely old library. Do you use yours? The children love going each month and choosing a new bag of books (I convinced them early on it was a 'treat' ...) Gone are the days when I could spend all day doing research in the subterranean library of the Courtauld, or hanging out in Chelsea - you'd invariably spot a writer in there, someone like Anita Brookner or Laurie Lee. It was in the library I started writing 'All the Lovely Ruined Things', snatching half an hour at lunch. Later I started getting up an hour before work, or scribbling on the top deck of the number 22 lurching its way home down the Kings' Road. As we've said before, no matter how busy you are minutes add up - a novel can be built a page at a time.

What's on your to-read pile (not your Amazon wish list, but the books you have physically waiting in the wings)? You know by now I can never knowingly leave a bookstore empty handed, so in addition to seven library books on the Spanish Civil War I have biographies of Billie Holliday, Catherine Deneuve, Katharine Hepburn, novels by Philip Roth, Barbara Trapido, Kate Atkinson and Bella Freud waiting to be read ... I could go on. I once read an interview with an artist who when asked why he started painting said 'I like the smell of paint'. Why did you become a writer - do you, like me, love the tools of the trade? Ink, journals, libraries, bookshops? Until they invent an electronic reader that has the sensual quality of a beautifully printed book I can't ever see them disappearing. Dog eared, highlighted, creased of spine and annotated every book in the house has a tale to tell. Why do I write? Loving books has a lot to do with it.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Andrew Marshall wrote recently: 'we have to accept the things over which we have no control and concentrate on what we can influence: our own behaviour'. Good advice in the current climate. What one thing can you change about your behaviour today to help you with your writing? Are you a member of your local library? If not, why don't you join up today? Yes, you can search for texts online but there is nothing like browsing the stacks and finding something you didn't even know you were looking for. Ever heard of library angels who help you find just the book you need - think of Wings of Desire/City of Angels? Who knows what you might find today.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Hit Refresh

What's your earliest memory of books? Realising that reading, and writing, were something special to you? I have a few: Reading a Ladybird book to my Mum in my pink bedroom, age 4 or 5, sunlight falling through the window. Maybe this was the first time words began to magically string together as sentences. Climbing the shelves of my wardrobe to get at the books on the top shelf (which had been deemed 'too grown up') - I remember the yellow and gold cover of 1001 Nights. (Actually that's a good tip - if there's a book you'd love your kids to read, just tell them they can't and put it out of reach). The memory that really sticks with me is reading under the oak tree in the orchard, looking back at the house. The opening of 'The Time Traveller's Wife' reminded me of this - and I think of it every time I see the much-loved painting 'Christina's World' by Wyeth (who died this month). I was five, it was summer time - the meadow was a sea of yellow buttercups, the sky vivid, cloudless blue. I had an apple, and a picture book. It was a perfectly happy moment.

I've just spent my first child-free twenty four hours in seven years - the pilot took the children to visit his parents. I missed them, but (and any parent will appreciate this) - oh, my, goodness ... the peace, the quiet, the chance to think in a straight line. When I told a friend I had the house to myself for a night, her eyes opened wide with longing. 'You can do anything! Sleep in ...' she sighed, 'don't have to cook.' After only one day I feel more myself. If you get a chance to do the same, jump at it! As today's video clip reminds us, childhood goes by so fast but while you are guiding yours through these early years, I'm realising you have to find time for yourself too.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Have you always written, or is this something you have come to as an adult? I first realised the pleasure you can give other people with your words writing love letters for friends to give their boyfriends on the school bus. Then I wrote plays - press ganging my brother, cats, dogs, friends into performing. I guess it was as a teenager I started to write seriously, and winning a short story competition encouraged me. Today why not have a think about your earliest memories of books and writing - jot down the images that come to you, recall your favourite books, share the stories with your children. It all goes by so fast - sometimes it's good to recall where it all began.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Writers in Disguise

My mp3s have been playing up, but lovely Kim from The Storyteller's Blog has helped me out and there's now a player embedded in the side bar of the blog where you can hear me reading the opening of 'All the Lovely Ruined Things'. The pilot died laughing when I nervously played it to him last night - 'You sound about 12!' I was planning to record some of the past blog posts which have the most comments for you ... but maybe I'll stop now if it's excruciating (cringe). Let me know if it would be helpful - just thought it might be useful to be able to download some writers prompts to your ipods. Still, good to learn something new - and for anyone else interested in putting recordings on their blogs, there are brilliant instructions on the Storyteller's blog - thank you Kim.

Is it any wonder writers hide behind their characters? Poke your head above the parapet and you get told you sound like a twelve year old. The last time I did any acting was at school ... then I was told I sounded like Lady Di. It's always odd hearing your own voice recorded isn't it? Maybe it would be better if I sounded like Betty Boop or James Earl Jones as John speculated ... If anyone has any tips about book readings I'd love to know. Alan Bennett was talking about the writer's dilemma. He said he often has difficulties with his central character - while those around take on vivid personalities, there they are 'passive, dejected, at odds with themselves, they are that old friend, the writer in disguise'. Do you think you do that? Are your protagonists fictional versions of yourself - do you give them your voice?

TODAY'S PROMPT: Do you 'write what you know'? Or do you write outside your experience? Bennett also said: 'one seldom sits down knowing exactly what one wants to say, the knowing very often coming out of the saying. A writer does not always know what he or she knows, and writing is a way of finding out.' I think it was Stephen King who said first drafts are just getting the story down. In the second draft you figure out what the story is really about, and enhance this - cutting out anything that diminishes this. Today, why not push your comfort zone - try something new. If your work is based on 'you' and your experience of the world why not pick something external and random (a postcard, news item, song on the radio), and write a few paragraphs about somewhere or someone you've never been.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Fly Away

Do you know 'Orlando' by Virginia Woolf? Wonderful book, and Tilda Swinton starred in a great adaptation. Talking to friends recently I'm not the only one who would quite like to sleep through this crisis and wake up a better person. If 'you' were allowed to stay fundamentally the same, what would you improve? Would you stay put in this time? Would you travel to the future? Right now I like where I am - but the body of Cindy Crawford, the wit of Dorothy Parker and the bank balance of Bill Gates would do nicely.

I should be at book club tonight (but sadly the pilot is still away, the little one has a fever and anyway babysitters are like gold dust around here). Do you have a book club? If not - why don't you start one where you are? It's a high point each month - recruit your best book-loving buddies, take it in turns to choose a book and host the dinner. Sometimes we all manage to read the whole thing, sometimes we don't, (there have been a couple of epic stonkers), but it is a lovely, monthly treat - a child free evening to touch base with your friends outside the Pamplona like school run or the stresses of work and talk books, catch up with one another.

This month was Isabel Allende's 'The Sum of Our Days' - a great read, less harrowing than 'Paula'. At our Christmas pub dinner we were toying with the idea of re-naming ourselves 'The Sisters of Perpetual Disorder' in honour of her group of friends. Well, it does feel like that most of the time. Their motto: 'Never do harm, and wherever possible do good.' Bravo. You appreciate your friends at times like this don't you? I love her work - (sure I've mentioned before my brief - ill advised - foray into magic realism thanks to her books when I started writing). It happens - while you are finding your voice you try on others for size, everyone does it. 'Aphrodite' is still my favourite cook book. Isabel's recipe for rice pudding got me through pregnancy in Spain. Like a lot of writers she is superstitious - starts every new book on January 8th. Haven't quite fixed my magic date, but a book a year is what I'm aiming for too.

How superstitious are you? The Romans were heavily into the significance of birds, omens and portents - hence today's clip (and I just love it, and we've already had 'Here, There and Everywhere'). I'm always curious about other writer's and artist's rituals. My 'upstairs' desk is pretty basic - computer, basket of family files, seven books on the Spanish Civil War and 'How to Write a Mi££ion' picked up from the '3 for a £1' open air 'honesty box' section of the Petersfield book store today (irresistible, and I never seem to return home without at least one 'new' book). But downstairs in the basement it's a cornucopia of touchstones. Old 1st birthday bear from Hamley's, stuffing coming out (know how he feels), teenage Magic 8 ball, day of the dead skeleton from Mexico, stones from Ojai and Flying Point, tarot cards, runes from my brother, Saints candles from Spain, icons from various cathedrals ... and I think of myself as 'down to earth'. What are your rituals writing? I always light a candle (maybe it goes back to church?). Jo Malone jasmine, or Diptyque preferably (though lately more standard beeswax). I'm convinced with writing there is a mystical side that doesn't get talked about often. The perfect phrases that appear fully formed from nowhere come from somewhere. Where?

Perhaps it's a question of being receptive and open? For the record I'm at the 'smells and bells' end of C of E - but have always embraced other religions and the more mystical side of life. I don't know about you, but as I've grown older I rather like not knowing the answer to everything. I was reading my horoscope today (Leo), and wondered whether Obama has a White House astrologer as I seem to recall Reagan did. How do you feel about horoscopes, psychics, tarot etc? Some writers (King, Koontz, Dahl et al) focus very firmly in this territory, and pretty much everyone is curious. The only time I've had my cards read, they said I have 'the gift' (but then the cynic in me thought 'I bet you say that to all the girls ...')

TODAY'S PROMPT: One of the best bumper stickers I ever saw was: 'Question Reality in Ithaca' (probably a philosophy student at Cornell). Curiously (our school is very liberal and non-denominational, celebrating all world religions), the six year old asked to borrow my Bible this weekend and has been reading '101 Questions Children Ask About God'. It was given to her by the lady vicar who christened her. (Anne rented a wing of my family home growing up - an amazing woman who would whizz round the Devon lanes with her dashing cravat wearing husband in an old convertible MG). One fabulous thing children do is make you question everything. As you are driving to school you find yourself discussing free will, physics, music, literature. Their minds are hungry and curious, jump around like grasshoppers. 'Why ... why ... why ...' - sound (exhaustingly, wonderfully familiar?!) Today, why not question your world view - who you are, what you'd improve, what you believe, where you're going. On the front line of parenting you're continually faced with this whether you like it or not - but if it's been a while, why not question your reality?

Tuesday, 20 January 2009


'The Audacity of Hope' - there's a good title. I wonder if Barack Obama struggled with that one (or perhaps when you are President you have people to do that for you?). Let's hope for all of us today is the start of a new era of hope.

'American Tune' - today's video clip, is one of my all time favourites. I first heard it on a cronky old cassette of the concert in Central Park, lying on cool summer grass watching the stars. It was one of those teenage nights when the world seems full of limitless possibility, when you talk until the early hours of the morning full of certainty - and hope. The tune is based on a Bach chorale - and there is something hymn-like about it. Weary but hopeful. ('And I dreamed ... that my soul rose unexpectedly, and looking back down at me, smiled reassuringly ...').

As a European, it's what I've always loved about America - as I wrote in the prologue of 'All the Lovely Ruined Things': 'even the road names have a sense of possibility - highway, freeway'. Thinking about it, I've been lucky to work with Americans, many of my closest friends are American - and I married a man born in Vancouver. Some of our best trips have been road trips along the north and south coasts. It is that sense of freedom and space - the sense of possibility and hope I love about the country.

Barack is a great name for a president isn't it? I was thinking about names last night - do you like yours? (I am still 'Katie' to family, but always felt more 'Kate' as in 'kiss me Kate', Taming of the Shrew possibly ...) What made you choose your children's names? Or your fictional characters? I named the protagonist of ALRT Maya because I had just read several books by Maya Angelou, and I knew this woman was a survivor like her. Her lover is named Michael because I read somewhere that secretly all men would like to be called Mike or have a best friend called Mike. Her first love is Gabriele because my Italian tutor at the Courtauld was called Gabriele and I loved the name, he was a good man - like the character.

TODAY'S PROMPT: It's a historic day. Why not just take some time with your journal today and think about your feelings, your hopes for the future. I've been rocked by the death of an old colleague - a lovely man who taught me a lot about antiquarian books. He was still young, and in memory larger than life - as his obituary said he was 'irrepressible ... with an unforgettable laugh'. Life's short - we are all on a one way ticket to the same destination. What counts is the journey we choose.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Reasons to be Cheerful II

I almost titled this 'Post(cards) from the edge' but enough with the doom and gloom already. So how are you doing? Good weekend? (Shrugs) - me too. Do you think it is mad to believe the weather is mirroring your mood? Phenomenon like SAD have been scientifically proven, but in literature the 'pathetic fallacy' is a time old romantic tool - the thunderstorm at the funeral, the clouds parting as the hero/ine finds new hope. With all the huge blows to the economy and unemployment rising maybe I'm not the only one who has seen the ice storms and constant rain reflecting my thoughts. As someone wrote in the newspaper the other day - January is a bitch of a time for tough changes. If you could wave a magic wand where would you be right now? I'm thinking warm, sunny (the pilot is in Aruba for a week which is ... challenging). Which places in the world are you longing to visit? Why not give yourself an excuse for a little armchair travelling and set a short story in somewhere you'd love to go - research it - browse brochures, websites, read some of the great travel writing out there and give yourself something to look forward to. When you eventually visit for real you will get so much out of the trip.

Downstairs in the basement I have a stack of books on Venice. It was going to be our tenth wedding anniversary trip, and I bought Jan (James) Morris' fabulous book, started brushing up my Italian. As the trip grew closer the prospect of romantic, childfree travel for the first time in five years was thrilling. Then it was suggested I should hire an editor to knock book one into shape. It was a choice - Venice or the book, couldn't afford both. The book won (not quite Sophie's Choice, but painful ...). I am still dying to go there, and sketching out a short story. Didn't Janet Winterson write an entire book about Venice without visiting? At least when other people are cutting back, we still have our imaginations.

As writers and artists we are well placed to cope with hardship - number one suggestion in dealing with crises/changes in circumstances is ... write a journal. Another idea that has really grabbed me recently is PostSecret. People send postcards from all over the world expressing a secret they have never admitted to anyone. It's a genius idea - every one of the cards in today's video clip is a writer's prompt in itself. As one who writes first draft longhand - preferably with inkpen, and never knowingly passes a stationery store by, I feel people should write postcards and letters more often - it's a dying art. In fact, that's when I first discovered how much fun writing was - friends would get me to write love letters on the school bus for them to send to their boyfriends. Since then, seeing the happiness and emotion that words conjure has never lost its appeal.

TODAY'S PROMPT: What have you been wanting to say but feel unable? Perhaps like most people who choose to write rather than say act, I feel I express myself better in words than speech. Living in the orange groves and mountains of Spain for months on end when the only people I spoke to were the pilot, Jesus in the post office and Faber the husky most days my conversational skills atrophied - but I wrote and wrote and wrote, and read every book on writing Amazon could deliver. It was like a writing retreat/bootcamp. I learnt if you can't say it - write it. If you can't write it in your own voice, get one of your characters to say it for you. Above all when times are tough, get the thoughts out of your mind - the cold light of day disarms the worst fears. Talk to people, write a journal (interestingly the BBC Writer's Room site's tagline is 'Use Your Weapon' above a pencil, biro, marker). Tough times - smile in the face of them, fight back. We have a great armoury at our disposal. Philip Hensher wrote a while ago: 'Someone once called it the "splinter of ice in the heart"; that element of the artistic personality which doesn't care about suffering, which is merely interested in it. The artist is fascinated by emotion, by love and hurt, and most artists have been through the emotional gamut. But at the moment he sets them down, it would be hard to say that the artist, or novelist, cares much about the feeling; it is a question of cold observation.' What do you think?

Friday, 16 January 2009

Silver Linings

When was the last time you went to the cinema and it didn't involve a U certificate, animated mice and frequent trips to the loo? I know - same here. BC (before children), we would go at least once a week - it helps that the pilot has a big popcorn habit. You've already heard how I knew it was love when he sat through an entire screening of 'The Leopard' at Riverside Studios for me without mentioning he'd left his glasses behind and couldn't read the subtitles. Now, with our/his schedule we have a shocking DVD habit. Left to my own devices it's often things like The Big Sleep, or tortuous French love stories (to quote Frasier - Girl: 'Do you mind subtitles?' Frasier, thrilled: 'Mind them? I prefer them!') Last night we saw a pre-release screening of French Film starring Hugh Bonneville. It was fabulous - poignant, hilarious, well observed. If you enjoyed 'Scenes of a Sexual Nature', it's by the same writer - definitely worth seeing in the Spring if you enjoy romantic comedies.

Which films do you go back to again and again? Comedy, tragedy - two sides of the same coin, and when times are tough you need both. Films, books, music, theatre - all allow catharsis, a safety valve for our deepest sorrows, hopes and fears. I was thinking today putting the links together for this post how funny it is that works of art don't change, but your reaction does. As you go through life you might look at a tragedy and empathise with the character's loss the first time you see it, only to find yourself in a position to sympathise a few years down the line.

Maybe you're like us - the things we watch together are a compromise. If I'm writing late the pilot indulges in kung fu and cars (anything from Hero, Seven Samurai to Vin Diesel). He is off again soon so I've lined up a stack of movies I've been meaning to watch for ages (Dancer Upstairs, Gilda - anything but horror. As you know, my 92 year old grandmother can happily sit through slasher films and psychological thrillers whereas I can't do it. When I found out they had filmed the Omen at the church we were married in, I very nearly changed the venue).

What are the great tearjerkers? My own roll call would include Terms of Endearment, Heartburn, Sophie's Choice (100 times more heartbreaking now a parent), and not forgetting Beaches. You can't keep a good power ballad down. They are incredibly well done, hugely successful - perhaps not all great art but sometimes you want the cinematic/literary equivalent of comfort food. (This is why I am curled up in bed with Alan Bennett and not Orwell's 'Homage to Catalonia' that I should be reading for Civil War research).

How about comedy? What makes you laugh time and time again? John mentioned the lumberjack song yesterday. Monty Python got me through Finals, and to an ex-philosopher (if there is such a thing? It's hardly something you renounce like a de-frocked priest is it?) Eric the Half a Bee is my all time favourite. The first time I saw this episode of Alan Partridge where he comes face to face with his obsessed fan I fell off the sofa laughing. 'Jed, I'll level with you ... I'm really scared'. The best comedies often play on dark themes - fear, panic, pain, but you laugh instead of cry. Or cry through laughing if it's really good. Either way we need our tragedies and our comedies, our romances and our hopeful rose tinted glasses more than ever now.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Does your writing reflect what you enjoy reading and watching, or are you working in a different field all together? A friend who read 'All the Lovely Ruined Things' said 'this novel is a French film' - so perhaps mine does (or at least art, photography and some of my favourite writers - Sagan, Colette etc). How about you? As fiction writers you can learn a great deal about dialogue studying scripts - why not pick a favourite film and view the script online, act it out, try the words on for size. A really useful exercise from NaNo are the Magna Carta exercises - why not make a list of your favourite books, films, plays and identify the common themes. These are your passions - the things that really fire you up.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Key Change

Have you ever noticed how moods are assigned colours? Feeling blue? Think of Holly Golightly's 'mean reds' or Churchill's 'Black Dog'. Maybe you can think of a few more? These days having a spur of the moment huff requires planning which takes the edge off things (hound, nappies, two small people, snacks, car seats ... the usual). In the old days I could just walk out the door and along the Thames to the Tate (or Tiffany's for that matter - Holly was right, it's the kind of place that calms you down). I spent the night before Finals sketching the Brancusi's in London - and seeing them recently at MOMA they are like the 'old friends' Alan Bennett was talking about. These days to get any sense of calm with the gang in tow I need space - big space, West Wittering beach, Forest of Bere. Talking with a good friend yesterday we shared a longing for space - Chiva Som would be good, but a proper old fashioned solitude filled retreat would be a dream. Are we the only ones? Simply getting outside every day and walking is the best piece of advice anyone ever gave me when you have young children, no matter if it feels like you are preparing for an expedition rather than a stroll through town or up the lane.

Brancusi 'Bird in Space'

Last night waiting for the girls to finish ballet, one of the Mums was saying her little one wanted to do pottery but was worried she'd be expected to produce a perfect pot first time. I don't know about you but I identify with that feeling. Maybe that's something I'm still learning - people screw up, mistakes are made on a global and personal scale. So what do you do with the rubble of your life? Sit and wallow, or get back up and rebuild things - stronger, safer, better? A very wise woman said to me a couple of days ago that crisis can be good - if you've taken your eye off the most important things in your life, (if you've been throwing bricks haphazardly on even the best foundations), it gives you a chance to start over and build something better. I've said before one of my favourite quotes is from Tom Stoppard: 'Life's bounty is in its flow - later is too late'. Change, crisis, flow - we're all up against it at the moment, but this can be an opportunity if we take the challenge.

TODAY'S PROMPT: I remember reading John Mortimer talking about the value of changing the script of your life once in a while. Don't know about you, but I've been experiencing a complete paradigm shift thanks to what has happened recently. All cultures have ways of describing transformation, awakening (think of yogic/ayurvedic kundalini shift). Change is never easy. We're all living in a new uncertain world - what are you going to do with it? What have you been wanting to try with your work - or life, but haven't dared? I was invited to record a new piece for an arts radio station last week. No fee, but you know what? I did it yesterday and it was fun. I'm going to be recording some of the blog posts and prompts as podcasts for them too, and it feels really good to be taking the work in a new direction. (Well it's that or hide in bed watching Brief Encounter with a box of tissues ...) No, enough of lying doggo. If I can figure out how to embed the posts in the blog I'll put them up here for you too. So, how about you? What one new thing do you want to try today?

Monday, 12 January 2009


Is it just me or has the whole world gone stark staring mad overnight? Nothing makes sense to me at the moment, but with financial chaos, heartbreaking scenes in Israel and Gaza - it seems like every man and woman alive is facing a crisis of some sort. I loved all your comments on the last post. As I read somewhere recently - crises happen in every lifetime, what matters is how you respond to them. Misssy's simple 'just write, will ya?' has given me a kick up the backside - which after all is what we are all doing for one another I hope. Don't know about you, but I'm going to write my way out of this. In the meantime I'll leave you with this from the Irish mystic John O'Donohue. He abandoned orthodox religion to find his own way, and his books like Anam Cara are - for anyone else treading a shifting path - highly recommended. I hope this helps:


On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours, indigo, red, green,and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

~ John O'Donohue ~
(Echoes of Memory)

TODAY'S PROMPT: If my experience is anything to go by, people need their books, films and music now more than ever. Going to bed early with Alan Bennett this week has kept me going. His alternately glorious and grumpy observations are so true to life - and the diary entries are fascinating. I loved how he talked of seeing favourite paintings unexpectedly in a gallery 'Oh hello, fancy seeing you here'. In a couple of sentences he gives you a snapshot - snatches of overheard conversation or fleeting images. It's proof again you don't need hours a day to write - all it takes is a pen and a piece of paper, and keeping your eyes and ears open. Sketch word pictures of the life around you. Two of my most treasured journals are those filled travelling around the world. There are enough word sketches (and literal sketches), in there to keep me writing for years once I get round to them. Closer to home, it's time to lift up our heads and look around - open your senses, pick up your pen - just write will ya (thanks Misssy).

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Theatre of Life

Today, the second of our guest spots from Lindsay Price. Lindsay is the resident playwright for Theatrefolk, an independent publisher of playscripts for schools and student performers. Upcoming this year Lindsay will act as a playwright mentor in the Uth Ink program. Most recently BEAUTY AND THE BEE was a winner in the TADA! Youth Theatre one act playwriting competition. Lindsay is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada, and the Dramatist Guild of America. Thank you Lindsay.


It's an amazing trick to find the balance between writing and life. For
the most part, writers work in solitary and at home; motivation has to
come from within. There are no set work hours, no office to go to, no
boss making sure you put in your time. So how you do work and live your
life? How do you work when life gets in the way? Because life will
always get in the way.

Ten Tips for writers toward juggling work and life.

1. Value Writing Every Day.
'Oh that's so silly,' you cry. 'Of course a writer should write every
day!' Do you?

The worst thing you can do is stop writing. It's also the easiest thing,
particularly if you work at home. Working at home is often not valued as
highly as working at the office, and certainly many people do not think
of writing as 'real work.' Place a value on the work you have to do to
succeed as a full time writer. Value your writing. It is important and
it has to happen.

2. Change Your Notion of Place and Time.
When I say write every day, I don't mean write seven hours every day.
Unless, of course, that's the process that works for you and you have
seven consecutive hours at your disposal. What if you don't? You must
write. Use the time you have, whenever you have it. Write whenever and
where ever. If you only have five minutes, write. Write while waiting
for the doctor. Write in the car if you're picking up your kids. The
more you create a habit of consistent, constant writing, the easier it
will be to keep writing in your life.

'That's no good,' you say, 'I have to write at my computer. I have to
write in my chair.' Fair enough. Process is very important, everyone
writes differently. However if your time is so limited you can't get to
that computer or that chair, consider working toward removing that
dependency. And on that note....

3. Define Your Process.
Every writer works differently. There's no point in peaking over the
fence at the process of others and worrying that you don't do what they
do. Think specifically about your writing process. Define how you write,
what works best to inspire your creativity and move your projects
forward. Defining your process will help you organize your time.

How, when, where, and why do you work? When are you most productive?

4. Pick and Choose your Battles.
In every situation decide which is more important: life or work. Do not
fall into the trap of trying to commit to both 100% or to just one 100%.
Depending on the situation, one will have to win over the other.
Strive to dampen the guilt you will no doubt feel if you choose life
over work, or vice versa. Guilt will only make you miserable. Your life
is valuable and so is your work.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
In order for those around you to place a value on your writing, you need
to share that value with them. The more they know about where you stand,
what your goals are, what you want, the better. Strive to communicate
what you're working on. A scary proposition to be sure, but writing can
seem like a intangible activity to those who don't do it.

Further to that, we live in an age of available communication. Social
media is exploding in leaps and bounds. There is an online community for
every genre of writing, for ever niche. There's no reason for a writer
to exist in solitude. If those around you do not understand your work,
find those who do. Find your community.

6. Create a habit of Creativity.
A full time writer does not write one project. There is the second book,
the twelfth article, the fourth play and so on. Creating a habit of
creativity (writing down ideas, writing exercises, reading works in your
genre) will stead you in good fast when it's time to start another project.

It's also the fun side of writing. Creativity is fun, and writing is not
always fun. There's a lot of effort involved in getting to the end of
the draft, the end of the project. There's no crime in allowing yourself
to have fun with writing. Fuel the passion that lead you to writing in
the first place.

7. Create a habit of Business.
Being a full time writer is not just about the writing. You need to be
paid for your product. I know a number of writers who get an agent, or
get published, or get a production and they completely step back from
the business side of writing. They think it's someone elses job. Not
anymore. If you want to succeed, it's your responsibility.

Become familiar with every aspect of the business of writing. Spend time
researching your specific genre or niche. Where/when/how/to whom can you
submit your product?

8. Define the line between Free and Not Free.
There are many, many, write for free situations. Social media, Blogs,
Ezine, Helium, the list goes on. Many people expect those in the arts to
provide their services for free. If everything you write is for free,
how will you make a living?

Having said that, we live in a era where writing can equal marketing.
Have a blog, have a twitter account, comment on other blogs, post
articles about writing on your blog and then re-post them on ezine. All
of this 'free writing' gives the impression that you are an expert in
your field. That's highly valuable.

There is a place for this type of writing, but it can't be your entire
focus. Draw a line in the sand as to what you write for free, and what
you want to be paid for.

9. Work Hard.
Another silly thing to say? The full time writer is no quick get rich
scheme. It takes time and it takes hard work. Spend an hour researching
business markets instead of watching TV. Take that time waiting for the
doctor to write. Go to bed an hour later to write. Post five days a week
on your blog. And don't desert your blog after a month.

The great thing is that all this work, is hard work writing. You'll know
if being a writer is really what you want to do, if you get up every day
and you can't wait to start.

10. Celebrate your opportunity to have the best job in the world.
There's nothing better than waking up every day and getting to put words
on paper. Writing, though quite mentally taxing to the point you can
forget your own name, is by no means coal mining. It's a wonderful,
wonderful job. And when people read what you write, and by chance are
affected by it - that's rewarding beyond belief. Celebrate that
opportunity when life gets in the way, when it feels onerous to sit at
your computer, when you don't want to write. Celebrate the fact that you
are a writer.

TODAY'S PROMPT: As lovely VodkaMom wrote to me recently: What lies behind us and what lies before us are TINY matter compared with what lies WITHIN us. (Emerson). All your comments and messages are appreciated more than you can imagine. What are the quotes that get you through the tough times?

Sunday, 4 January 2009


How are the New Year's resolutions going? Mm - me too. Not feeling much 'sprezzatura' around here. I was lying awake with the lyrics to Luhrmann's 'Sunscreen' going round and round in my mind. The song was released in '97 - the year we got married, and during my (too short lived) gym phase seemed to be playing every time I was cursing my way through ab exercises. There are some choice pieces of advice:

'Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours'

'The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday'

'Be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone'

I have been devastatingly blindsided, as it were, and will be taking a short break. Fortunately, a couple of lovely ladies kindly wrote guest spots at the end of the year, so this is a perfect time to hear some inspirational advice from people who are living the dream of writing full time. Today Lynne Hackles has some advice for us. She writes great guides for writers, and her site caught my eye because it is so full of character. Back soon x

When Kate asked me for some top tips to pass on to new writers I tried to think of a couple not included in my Handy Little Book for Writers (buy it from me via my website). After a good think – I’m really good at thinking and this session involved feet up, telly on and a box of Quality Street – here are two I came up with.

1. My biggest fear during the early years of my writing life was that someone would find out I’d been bluffing and that I had no idea how to write. How could I have when I left school at 15 with no qualifications? The Headmistress said without me standing on the desk doing Cilla Black impressions (and other assorted naughtiness) the rest of the class could concentrate. Getting my first book accepted (Racing Start) was a fluke, landing a job with a local newspaper was down to a great big fib – I told them I was a freelance writer when all I’d ever had published was a reader’s letter. Then I began talking to other writers and realised that many felt the same way. We were all pretending we knew what we were doing. So Top Tip Number 1 is believe in yourself because those people you fear might catch you out are probably bluffing too.

2. I hear many of you are juggling your writing with jobs and families. Been there, done that, and didn’t appreciate it at the time. My kids supplied me with loads of ideas for humorous family life pieces published during the 1980s in My Weekly. As well as two kids, a husband, a cat and two adventurous stick-insects, I had a job. I always worked but never for very long in one place. The job count was way above fifty when I decided to write full time. On top of that there was training to do. I used to compete in time-trials on a hand built, made-to-measure racing cycle, sprayed in a colour to match my nail varnish. Pedalling 100 miles on a Sunday and 25 every other day left me little time to write. Wednesday afternoons were the only time I had and boy, was I prolific during those few hours. Now all day is available to me I mess about and actually don’t produce much more than when time was so limited. Top Tip 2. Focus on your work no matter how short the time you have.

And whatever you do, make sure you enjoy it.


TODAY'S PROMPT: Do you keep a notebook by the bed? It's one of those writer tips that seems to really work for some people - catching those fleeting 4am moments of brilliance. I tried it for a while but could never decipher the scrambled handwriting in the morning. However, those were the days when I could sleep, so maybe it's time to try again. Why not give it a go? Or you could just listen to Sunscreen:

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