Wednesday, 22 July 2009


Writing is all about making sense of life, but sometimes it just doesn't. Someone I loved very, very much in the family has died suddenly. Tonight everyone from a three year old boy who doesn't understand he can't put a superman cape on and 'save her from heaven', to her 92 year old mother is grieving.

The funny thing is you write about family, love, and loss every day. It doesn't make it any easier when you are broken open with sudden grief. How can someone just be gone? Everything about her was so vital - the scent of Miss Dior, the long chatty phonecalls, the warmth of her heart and her home.

I'm going to take a few weeks' break from WKDN while I try and come to terms with this (not going to be much use to you in the Prompts department while I can't make sense of anything). It's an interlude - I'll be back. In the meantime keep writing, and hold your loved ones close - it all goes by too fast. x

Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Ghost Train

Mikhail Bulgakov

I've just finished 'The Master and the Margarita' by Mikhail Bulgakov - it is a masterpiece, and its road to publication is legendary. Through courage, determination and love it was finally published after seven or eight attempts in the face of oppression and political censorship. Poor Bulgakov died before seeing his book in print - 'from a terminal illness probably brought on by unbearable stress and disillusionment'. To anyone who has experienced trying to get published that sounds probable. It was Bulgakov's widow's belief in her husband's work that finally saw the book published first in Russia, then in the West.

The prose is magical ('manuscripts don't burn', 'love sprang out like a killer from around a corner'), and the story is rich with magic realism, full of spirits, demons, witches and the famous talking black cat. When I first started writing, the work of Angela Carter, Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez influenced my early stories (their books are wonderful, my early stories frankly weren't). It's interesting how popular magic realism has become - tales peopled by ghosts, vampires, angels have gone mainstream with the success of books like Twilight. Ghosts have a long literary history - think of Cathy in Wuthering Heights, or the cast of characters in Shakespeare. Which other stories affected you most? They seem to be having something of a popular renaissance at the moment; Sophie Kinsella's new book is about the ghost of a 30s flapper, and our own blogger friend Calistro's new book 'Heaven Can Wait' is in keeping with the zeitgeist. I'm reviewing 'The Hungry Ghosts' by Anne Berry for Bookbag at the moment - interesting that a new publishing imprint's first book is also peopled by ghosts.

Do you believe in ghosts and spirits? Where I grew up it was wild and isolated - there was plenty of local lore about haunted houses, and disembodied hairy hands that would snatch the steering wheel at night on deserted moorland roads. As a child I certainly saw what you would call spirits or angels, and remember them clearly (but haven't seen anything since I was around my daughter's age). Perhaps this is why I can't 'do' horror - an overactive imagination and a sense that the magical is possible.

My own book is narrated by a famous wartime figure who lost her life in mysterious circumstances - writing this new work feels like I'm channelling spirits. I spent an interesting day at an archive reading original documents, diaries and letters this week. When I look at the photographs of the real people I'm working into my script, I feel a responsibility to get the fictional words I'm putting in their mouths right. At an airshow this morning, there were dashing looking chaps wandering around in wartime RAF uniforms, and displays of real SOE artefacts - secret maps, compasses, weapons alongside photographs of the brave men and women who died. It really brought everything I've been researching to life. The retired pilot in charge of the archive told me in no uncertain terms that they had not liked the last novel published on my subject ('too Mills & Boon'), so you feel a responsibility to make this new book entertaining, magical and factually correct. There are apparently three writers researching my topic and a documentary team filming - all have been poring over the same material as me. There's nothing like a bit of stiff competition to get you writing faster - and better.

TODAY'S PROMPT: In wartime, they often spoke of sensing a guardian angel at their side during times of great danger. Have you ever experienced anything like that, or seen a ghost? Do you even believe in them? Ghosts are hot property in publishing at the moment (apparently angels are next ... whoever decides these things). Why not have a go at writing a ghostly tale someone told you as a child, or choose a favourite figure from history you know a bit about and tell their tale in the first person. It's a good exercise to step outside yourself and into another character's shoes. If you relax (think of the 'artistic coma' Dorothea Brande talked about), it's amazing how quickly the words you are writing start to surprise you - not quite automatic writing, but the spirit of the person you are writing about soon comes through.

Saturday, 11 July 2009


There's nothing like a deadline. World War II may still raging, but my characters have had their final clinch and flown off into the sunset. I printed out the first draft of the new book just before picking the children up from their end of term celebrations yesterday, and sat late last night reading through it wondering where all the pages had come from. Maybe you're the same - you get no sense of a manuscript on screen. It isn't until you have it in your hands it comes to life. Over the summer these pristine pages will get covered in sand, river water, and red ink. It will go where we go - and as I'll be fighting to get on the computer for the next eight weeks (my home page has already mysteriously changed to Moshi Monsters), it's just as well for it to be portable. There are a few red letter days for it - quiet hours in archives sitting next to original documents written by some of the real characters who interlink with my fictional ones, but for the most part it will be thrown in the beach bag, dragged on long car journeys to Suffolk and Devon and kept up late after everyone is asleep. The manuscript is not going to look so pretty by the end of the holiday but I hope the words within it will be buffed and polished like a prizefighter.

Those of you juggling dayjob work with full time childcare maybe recognise this scenario. As Stephen King put it - art is the support system for life, not the other way around. No matter how much my thoughts are still with the book, characters clamouring to get a few poignant last lines in, Rufus Wainwright's sublime sonnets lilting as the final scenes unfold ... this morning we have Sponge Bob Square pants on full volume, two tired and cranky children (death by whining sound familiar?), the hound has eaten a rubgy ball, I've just been presented with a nappy (Did I do a poo Mummy?), the 3 year old is dressed as a gladiator, wielding a loud plastic Black and Decker drill like a flamboyant serial killer - and the pilot is in Sardinia.

It's been a tough few weeks, but I'm determined this book is going to be the best yet. There have been long hours burning the midnight oil transcribing hand written notes, (thank you to the terrifying Mrs Leach of my Bristol secretarial school for teaching me to type so fast - amazing how fear can get your fingers moving). You can't do this over a long period of time - you have to pace yourself. Several of you do NaNoWriMo each year and know it's impossible to keep writing like that month after month.

We've said 'writer's bum' is an occupational hazard from all that sitting, but writing must surely burn some calories (she says hopefully) - think of those days when you stagger from your chair shaking, easing your limbs into a standing position? Writing a long piece of work is like running a marathon (some of you have said before it's also like giving birth, or unrequited love - depending on how painful it is :). Any of you who run know you have to pace yourself - and writing is the same. You have exhilarating downhill moments when the words are buzzing effortlessly around you, but sometimes you hit walls where you feel you couldn't possibly write another word. You just have to push on through.

Several friends are doing charity events this week - a 10k London run, a 100k walk, another is cycling from Paris. It's inspiring, it takes dedication and pace - writers can learn from that. When you feel like giving up, when it feels like no one, ever, is going to take a chance on new work, keep putting one step, one word, in front of another. A friend confessed to me she burst into tears of frustration this week when she read of another 'I just jotted an outline on the back of an envelope and landed a £1m deal' story' - does that still happen? Who cares. Keep going. 'You have to get lucky at some point, but you can only get lucky if you are still on the road' as Mr Maas wrote.

TODAY'S PROMPT: I can vouch for the importance of pacing yourself from personal experience. When agent #1 encouraged me to get the second book written as quickly as possible ('we all love it!'), I spent a cold wet Christmas in a damp basement writing like a maniac. Idiot. Fool. I finished the book, but it finished me - I ended up with pneumonia. It was a good lesson - a book that as far as I know no one has read, and may well be the 'difficult' (ie hopeless), second book, put me in hospital and has permanently damaged my health. Getting the balance right between pushing yourself to produce good work, and pushing yourself too far is vital. If a long summer is stretching ahead of you too, why not have a think today about how you can pace yourself, take better care of yourself (sleep, vits, exercise, water?). You need to be physically fit to write, I've realised. Do something you love - swim, tango, ride, run. 'Pace' means peace too - if you can grab five minutes peace sit back and listen to today's clip. It's my favourite sonnet, a good reminder not to look sideways at other's success and count yourself lucky for having the things you love. Until you make it, love is the only reason to write. As the wonderful Alice Munro put it: "If you're going to be a writer you'll probably take a lot of wrong turns and then one day just end up writing something you have to write, then getting it better and better just because you want it to be better, and even when you get old and think 'There must be something else people do,' you won't quite be able to quit."

Saturday, 4 July 2009


Have you made a Bucket List? All those things you want to do before you kick yours? I had a look at mine yesterday because I was able to tick one thing off - I've been accepted to do my Masters in Creative Writing which I'm relieved and over the moon about. I was really nervous before the interview - maybe you always are when it's something you really care about. It was an interesting conversation, more about what I'm reading than writing, the writers I love like Anne Tyler. If the course gets me one step closer to being anywhere near as good as she is it will be three years well spent. She is wickedly good, weaving convincing lies, holding a mirror up to everyday home life. I don't know if 'writing as well as Anne Tyler' can be added to a bucket list, but it's something to aim for.

I'm not much use for anything at the moment, 40,000 words into the new book and my head is there with the characters (put it this way there's not a lot of dusting going on). This week I've done a review for Bookbag, and a short piece for the Bookseller, but apart from that I'm 100% with the new work (so we will probably be eating rice and beans for the summer - poor long-suffering pilot). I really, really like this new book so far - the true stories that have inspired it are staggering, and as the characters are rising up, slotting in with the real people and events in the novel I'm hoping they're going to be half as inspiring, brave and downright sexy as the men and women I've been researching.

It's made me think about the people I've known who lived through World War II. My grandfather gave me an ivory elephant pendent a 'friend' gave him in France during the war (obviously a love affair), and by coincidence my old piano teacher left me a matching brooch when she died. Mrs Day was a concert pianist in her time - incredibly beautiful (I remember elegant studio portraits of her in an evening gown at the keyboard of a gleaming grand piano). She told wonderful stories about performing, beating off ardent suitors in open top sports cars. When I knew her, she was frail and in her seventies, but when she talked of those years they were clearly the best in her life, and her eyes were like a young girl's. A lot of the biographies I've been reading over the last few weeks say the same - these were ordinary people living through extraordinary times. There was an urgency to love, loss - a sense that they were really living everyday. I've pinned the little elephants up on the storyboard of the new novel next to the rather lovely pic of Mr Firth - they're a link to a different time which is still in touching distance.

TODAY'S PROMPT: The Arthur Rubenstein recording of Chopin's Nocturnes is my default work music - it's perfect, sublime. What do you write to - if you've got any recommendations do share them. Something about Chopin makes it the ideal music to write to (for me at least), and people I've recommended it to have found it helpful - why not give it a go? I tried playing it on the piano at my parents house recently and found I couldn't any more - it sounded awful, ten years of lessons as a child had left me. Once we're settled, piano lessons and a piano are up there on the bucket list. What skills do you have that are a bit rusty? Things that make you happy, but you haven't done for a long time? If you haven't made one, maybe start your own bucket list. Or if you're looking for inspiration for a new story, why not have a root around in your jewellery box or desk drawers, find a keepsake you haven't thought about for a while, tell its tale? It's not only psychics who hold rings and intimate objects to uncover the story - for writers they can be channels to whole new worlds.

and PS: Happy 4th July to all WKDN's American readers x
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