Saturday, 27 June 2009


It's been a sad week for the Baby Boomers and Gen X losing two of the great popular icons of our time. Farah Fawcett was the all-American blonde we all had pinned to our bedroom walls, and Michael Jackson provided the soundtrack to our childhood. We take it so much for granted that we will live - if not forever - well into our eighties, even nineties, that to lose two people who embodied youth at such an early age is a wake up call for us all.

It makes you wonder whether there will ever be icons like this again. At the age of 50, Jackson had a career spanning four decades. Can you imagine that happening now when slebs are turned over at such a rate? His life is epic - dazzling god given talents, immense wealth, global adulation and a crashing fall from grace thanks to a tragic personal life that was at best eccentric. Did you ever buy a Jackson record? I didn't, but know most of his back catalogue - his music was part of our pop culture growing up. Who doesn't remember seeing Thriller for the first time? You have the feeling this story is going to run and run - the vultures are circling, and no doubt more lurid tales of abuse will be sold to the highest bidder. Let's hope Jackson's real legacy - his incredible music - will eclipse the fairground freakshow.

We live in less innocent times now than when a fresh faced boy sang 'ABC' and danced on air. It's like pop culture is eating itself - the tabloids say we want prurient inside scoops on sleb lives so they report it, but do people just read what's on offer? Personally, I like it when stars are just that - retaining mystery, star quality. I don't want to know what they eat for breakfast, who they are shagging, the reason they don't talk to their brother, or that they sleep under an energy pyramid. Is it not enough any more to be an accomplished artist or performer? Every culture needs its icons - larger than life individuals we can pin our hopes and dreams on. It makes you wonder who is going to step up on the empty pedestal.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Back in the olden days a writer would have the chance to grow their audience. Now expecting little from the first two or three books isn't an option. Writers are brand names in the same way celebrities are. If you're working on a book or story right now, how can you make it stand head and shoulders above the other submissions? One of the classic mistakes every new writer makes is to have a central character that isn't really that interesting. They are 'the writer in disguise' - probably perfectly nice characters, but they are observers of what's going on in the story rather than the dynamic. Let them experience things - good and bad - that few people will. Writers are attached to their characters - maybe you feel protective of them? Dig out that 'chip of ice' all writers are supposed to have in their hearts and throw the works at them. Give them things people dream of - love,wealth, beauty, talent - then take them away. Give them obstacles to overcome, conflict to survive, quests to undertake. Learn from society's obsession with celebrities - their fascination is that they are not 'normal', their lives are not like ours. Your characters need star quality - today why not have a look at how you can raise the stakes?

It's the end of our 6 week summer kick start - let's check in below. And for anyone writing short stories at the moment, why not check out Tonto Books' competition, which is being judged by author and blogger the lovely Caroline Smailes:

Sunday, 21 June 2009

The Gift

We talked last week about how creative people need to produce new work to feel good. If you're not working, you feel restless, lethargic - but what do you do when you feel really out of balance? A few years ago in London, I was trying to write my first novel, getting up early before work, writing late into the evening (it was 180,000 words). We'd just got married, renovated our first flat (while living in it ...), and at work we were embroiled in a long tricky project for the Kuwaiti Government (it became known as 'Project Escargot' there was so much slime involved). We didn't have children, so in retrospect I had no idea what tired really meant :) but I needed an MOT, and spotted a new complimentary health clinic on the King's Road. It was a perfect AbFab moment. White walls, sofas, floors. A single cerise orchid. Possibly whale music. A blonde Australian consultant whose perfectly behaved blue-eyed husky sat beside her (he was white of course). In the reception area they had a niche full of Aura Soma bottles. Maybe you've seen these colour therapy tools before? They have all the appeal of gleaming jars in a sweet shop.

The consultant didn't recommend Aura Soma in my case (won't tell you what she did recommend, safe to say once was enough and I didn't go back ...). I still remember how one bottle leapt out from all the rest - pale blue above pale yellow below, a lot like this:

The idea is the therapist interprets your choice, and I guess tells you what is missing, or what you should be concentrating on (in my case possibly a holiday?) Looking at Aura Soma sites this morning a lot also offer psychic readings - whatever you think about this when you talk about psychics, you say 'they have the gift'. What about the rest of us, the artists and the writers? You talk about someone has a gift with words, or a gift with painting. What it comes down to is the gift to interpret the world around us. You've been given something incredible - now it's up to you what to do with it.

When you write, you invite your readers to see the world from your eyes. Everyone taking the time to read this blog I'm guessing has been given a gift with words, even if you're not quite sure what to do with it yet. I'm wondering if a characteristic writers share is a love of giving - do you prefer to give gifts than receive them? Does it make you happy to see friends and loved ones having a great time at a dinner you've put together? Just as you learn to cook better with practice, progressing from studenty spag bol and rough red wine to more ambitious and exciting dishes, if you use the gifts you have been given, flex your strengths and keep improving soon you will come up with a package anyone would be glad to receive.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Things change. These days I'm more likely to take a paracetamol and have an early night than swish off to an all white clinic, but as many of us are parents and writers as well as holding down day-jobs you cannot afford to take yourself for granted. When was the last time you had a good objective look at how balanced your life is? Today the world cycle is in balance - it is the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, the longest day - and in the UK Father's Day (have a good one all the dads out there). The children came home armed with gifts of handprint cards and little clay thumbpots painted like a rainbow. They are what reminded me of Aura Soma - the pots were misshapen, but the children were beaming handing them over, and the colours sang. Today, why not have a think about the gifts you have been given, and what you can give back? Why not spend a few minutes and write down all the things you can do well. It's easy to get stuck thinking 'I can't ...' when in fact there are many things you can do that others can't. Which of your skills haven't you been using recently - maybe it would be good for you to refresh your spirit and have a go? Writing is the greatest gift to be given I think, if you use it well. I was reading Andrew Crofts last night - he said how many other professions are there where you are guaranteed to get better and be paid more into your dotage? As Ms Lee sings in today's clip, the best really is yet to come.

6 week programme: let's check in below x

Sunday, 14 June 2009

High Stakes

Peter Lindbergh

I had to laugh when London's secret agent and girl-about-town Miss Daisy Frost tweeted her 2009 predictions yesterday and asked if they had been rather tame compared to the reality unfolding in publishing circles: 'Dec – Rumours that an agent has sold a debut novel prove unfounded'. Ack - has there ever been a worse time to try and breakout?

The thing is, I'm not buying it. Creative industries thrive on creativity. Sooner or later someone is going to take a chance, and all we can do is make sure we're ready and writing at the top of our game. I spoke to the wife of a well-known songwriter at a party this week - she said the music industry is picking up. It's been tough for them too but things are changing. Maybe, just maybe, book publishing won't be far behind.

I attended a 'day-job' creativity workshop this week. It was ... interesting. Lots of talk about 'facilitating' projects, too many acronyms (jargon always makes me feel rebellious ...). Private sector arts are dead in the water at the moment, but the government is throwing money at creative projects in the public arena. 'Creativity' is a big buzz word in business at the moment, and in education it's being brought in as an extra-curricular necessity. Is it just me, or wasn't creativity simply part and parcel of growing up rather than something spoon-fed by government programmes? It's something I believe in passionately - creativity is a vital part of anyone's life whether you're an artist or not. If you are an artist or writer how do you feel when you're not producing new work? Doesn't your energy just drain away?

I've been working on two new projects this week - and the ideas are buzzing. There's about 10,000 words of the new book (can you talk about new projects? I can't. A friend asked me what it was about this week and I just ended up waffling 'WWII ... love story'. What's it they say about the first draft being written with the door closed, the second with it open?) The other story is set in the 1980's (which is why today you've got Peter Lindbergh's beautiful work and Swing out Sister). I've also been reviewing books for my two new jobs - looking at contemporary fiction this way is an interesting new angle. There are some great and really inventive new books out there among all the sleb dross, though it's easy to forget it among all the doom'n'gloom headlines. From what I've seen on Twitter and Fbook over the last few weeks established authors are getting new contracts and their tours are going well. Readers want new books.

Maybe it's time to adjust the goal posts - if publishers really are still wary of taking a chance on debut work at the moment as several of you have reported, so what? You can't stop the new work coming. Writers write, and the simple fact is the more you write the better you become, and I think the happier you are. It's the usual juggling act - how to feed the children and hold your end up at home while producing the best work you can. Maybe if we stop looking at writing to get published and just enjoy it, something good will happen. Sometime soon if we keep enjoying our writing, raising our game, the status quo will change - publishers will want debut work, and we'll be more than ready for them.

Hope everyone on our six week programme has had a good week - let's check in as usual in the comments.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Apparently James Taylor always does a handstand before going on stage. Turning things upside down, getting a new perspective and a fresh rush of energy is something we can all do. Today why don't you have a think about the book you have always wanted to read. Take a few minutes and brainstorm all the elements it would have. What kind of book would have you telling all your friends about it? When you have a list of these elements (perhaps unforgettable characters, conflict, gut emotion, high stakes ...) take a look at your latest project and ask yourself honestly if it has all these things. If not, why not? Sometimes it is so easy to get caught up in your writing you stop seeing it like a fresh reader. You know the characters inside out, you 'see' the locations - your readers don't. These days it seems the ability to write good books is not enough. Why don't you have a think about how to take your work to the next level?

Tuesday, 9 June 2009


Beryl Cook - Birthday Cake

200+ posts, 2000 readers a month, 20000 in the first year from 100 countries - today, welcome Albania (this feels like the Eurovision Song Contest)! I grabbed my glamorous assistant on his way out to the airport this morning, and the pilot picked Magpie's name from the hat - so Magpie if you'd like to email me your snail mail address there's a proof copy of the WKDN workbook on its way to the US.

Thanks to all of you for making WKDN more fun than I ever imagined possible. I was just reading this morning that what really builds a readership is not massive promotion but grass-roots word of mouth recommendation, and this I think is the great thing about the blogging community because that's precisely the model it is built on. This started a year ago with a couple of posts, a couple of comments and has gone from there. Both Natasha who interviewed me at Thursday Sweet Treat and Bryce at Story Hack are very kindly putting up posts today to help spread the word about the WKDN book for War Child, and thank you to all of you who have put up widgets and mentioned the book in your blogs.

It's sink or swim with blogs as with books - if people like what you are writing they will stick around. I hope to keep on coming up with new ways to help you think about your writing (and do tell me if I start repeating myself :) As Mr Maass wrote: 'the best career plan is simple - please readers on a regular basis'. That's all I'm hoping to carry on doing for you. x

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Keeping It Real

David Hockney

Of all contemporary artists David Hockney explores perspective in the most interesting of ways. I love his polaroid collages - so like the human eye, flitting around noticing details, breaking down the scene into snapshots. Perspective is a curious thing - maybe some of you have studied it in art classes. Somewhere along the line, art stopped looking like this:

Mainly thanks to discoveries about perspective, paintings began to look a little more lifelike ...

The Fra Angelico altarpiece is dazzling when you see it in the flesh - it's not 'lifelike' because there are still issues with scale, foreshortening, but you can see a gradual progression towards what we would recognise as realistic representation. Maybe some of you caught David Hockney's documentary recently - he suggested that around 1430 there was a sudden technical leap in the realism of paintings. Suddenly painting improved - and he put it down to the use of optical tools.

I've been thinking a lot about perspective this week - maybe because the three projects I'm working on are set in the past (one Spanish Civil War, one World War II, one 1980's). Do you think it's possible to see things clearly only in retrospect? I wonder whether in writing there have been similar 'leaps' in ability. Individually, the books we read, the classes we attend help take our writing up to the next level. Our stories and characters go from flat, 2-D, primitive to something full bodied, illusionistic. My gut instinct is that most of us improve in this way. Rather than a steady improvement day by day, with creative acts I think there are sudden bursts, a forward momentum that's impossible to sustain continuously.

What's been tough lately is a sense of standing still. At a birthday party yesterday I bumped into a screenwriter who had been kind enough to ask to read The Book at Christmas. 'What?' she said incredulously. 'Still nothing?' She loved it. It's great to hear how your work has affected someone, but what can you do if a publisher doesn't love it enough? The screenwriter said 'Hang in there. It's not 'if' but 'when' you'll get published'. Which was kind. It made me think of today's gorgeous video clip. If not now then when? Frustrating isn't the word, and for a while I lost all perspective about it. But as we've said before 'never give up, never give in' - and maybe giving writing that 'extra 10%' people talk about is the key. Maybe it's time to take one of those leaps forward - go back to (find) the future. Trisha Ashley recommended a book about writing the breakout novel - so that's my bedtime reading this week. The only way to make any progress and move on is to accept who you are, where you are - even the things you can do nothing about. As Lao Tzu said: 'Be really whole and all things will come to you'.

Hope everyone on the 6 week challenge has had a good one - let's catch up in the comments. The draw for the 'What Kate Did Next' workbook giveaway is still open - winner to be announced on Tuesday x

TODAY'S PROMPT: If you are anything like me you spend far too much time in your head. At the moment I have three separate sets of characters yabbering away up there and it's a tad crowded. I'm finally ready to write a first draft this week and this entails going to ground for a while, giving it 100%. Whenever you are deeply engaged with a new piece of work, I've found (to my cost), it pays to take care of yourself. Why not have a think about things that work for you - more sleep, less coffee, fresh air? The single thing that helps ground you is noticing what is around you and seeing it clearly - it literally helps keep things in perspective. This week why don't you try and tune in to your observations a little more attentively - notice things, try keeping a running list each day of the things you've seen that amaze you. For example - this weekend I've seen: a golden dragonfly emerging from her exuvia; luscious fat spears of asparagus wrapped in brown paper at the farmer's market; ferrets racing; a llama batting her eyelashes as I fed her; seven toddlers in party frocks bouncing on a trampoline, giggling in the sun; heaven scented scarlet rose petals tumbling to the table. This week, to keep things in perspective why not just try noticing what's around you?

Monday, 1 June 2009

War Child Book Launch

The proof copies of WKDN arrived this morning from America to great excitement, and if you feel like contributing to an incredible charity you can now order a copy from Blurb by clicking on the widget on the blog, or here. It's a small book for a big cause close to my heart - all profits are going to War Child, an organisation which works with children who have been hit hardest by the joint forces of poverty, conflict and social exclusion. When you hear about the work War Child does, it makes you realise how much we take for granted. Every child deserves safety, shelter, education, love. Every child deserves a chance - and here's your chance to make a difference and 'be a hero' like Mr Bowie in tonight's clip. The profit from each book sold is - staggeringly - enough to put one orphan through school for a year.

It's been great putting the book together. Hopefully you'll find the workbook useful - there's a whole month's worth of the most popular posts and prompts selected from WKDN's first year to get you writing that book, story or film you've been thinking about. The text is freshly edited with plenty of space to note down your ideas and make it your own in a way you just can't with a blog, (which is why we all love books).

Thanks to all of you who suggested a 'book of the blog' would be a good idea, and for the support of the WKDN regulars. If you can, I'd love you to spread the word - let's see how much we can raise for War Child.

In celebration of the blogoversary next week I've got the first proof copy ready to dedicate and send to one of you. Everyone who comments will get their name put in a hat and the winner will be announced next Tuesday. In the meantime - why not click that link, buy a book, be a hero.
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