Thursday, 25 February 2010

Rocking the Silent Disco

A queue snaked around the side of the Science Museum last night. We stood under umbrellas, chatting happily as the night darkened around us and the rain steadily fell with ever increasing drips. An organiser in a fluorescent yellow coat came around and pressed a candy whistle into our (sadly eager) hands. Tonight we were the children at the adults-only Science Museum Lates, although the few self-conscious toots from the whistles indicated that shaking off the grown up mantle takes a while.

Like until you see the first button on an interactive display.

It is funny how some things never change. As a child fuelled by the excitement of a school outing, I used to run around pressing buttons. As an adult fuelled by wine, my attention span is exactly the same as it ever was.

Me: ‘Ooo button!’ *stabs button*
Good friend R: ‘What does it do?’
Me: ‘Dunno. Lights up that bulb.’ *stabs button again*
Both of us: Give printed text a second’s cursory glance, spot the word ‘bulb’. Glance around for next exhibit.
R: ‘This one has a button as well!’
We scurry off.

It was ever so much fun to be let loose in the science museum, especially with alcohol! We sat on the floor and did a brass rubbing, and then tried to complete a sound-trail quiz which satisfied my love of social history – look, a Rubik’s Cube! An old typewriter! The first computer! Memorex cassette tapes!

We made magnets float, tried to wire a circuit board, played with magnetised steel discs, and whirled a few dials to see what happened (stuff lights up!). I learnt some highly important scientific stuff, such as… um… and then we decided it was high time to check out the silent disco.

Held on the ground floor, it had two DJs – not that anyone walking past could hear any music. But the people busting moves while listening to headsets certainly could, they were dancing and twirling – all in supposed silence to the passer-by. On being presented with a headset, me and good friend R started off rather self-consciously at first as we threaded our way into the crowd. There were lots of pulling off the headphones and ‘isn’t this weird’ delighted conversation at each other – and then the DJ played Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ and the dance floor (silently) erupted! So much fun – after that we were rocking with the best of them. Bring on the silent discos!

Even better, all this is completely free! I love London sometimes.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Mired in Gloop

I guess this shouldn’t surprise me. Without revealing too much there has been a change in the status quo this year, and it would be unnatural for it not to affect the way I feel about myself and my creativity. Having my own space in January was like being given a little safe haven, free from worries, of reminders, of anything that squashed my spirit. I felt at peace and full of energy, and it showed in my redrafting – I rattled through six chapters in the evenings and weekends, and improvement showed in my words. Whoop-de-do, I thought.

But back in the same old, same old, and it sadly shows. Being at home for me feels like being trapped in a soft cage of my own making… It is hard to explain without being too personal. I know the door is open; I know I could walk through and out at anytime, and yet I can’t. Perhaps I want to be Rapunzel. Perhaps I am Rapunzel.

Hm. Maybe it is time for a haircut.

But back to writing. The only time over the last week when I felt truly inspired and enthused with my writing was working on my query letter. I’ll probably do another post about that at some point, as the query is such a daunting prospect that it needs a category all of its own. It is slowly coming together though, and mainly the thing I am working on is a short 150 word ‘punchy’ synopsis of my story to go in the letter. Bloody tricky! In truth I would rather lick the road than write a query letter. It has taken me A LOT of chocolate to get this far.

The other thing I have been enthused on recently is expanding the 150 word synopsis to a full page. Some agencies ask for a one-page synopsis, and I want it to be ready just in case. Oh I wish I did this at the very beginning, instead of scribbling a plot that went something like ‘beginning, blankness, end’. Next time…

This brings me neatly to the main thing that is worrying me concerning writing. Have I told the right story? Honing the synopsis has revealed to me another story I could have told involving these characters, and I am really panicked about whether I have plumped for the right tale. The other story idea is basically how this tale is introduced… so it’s not like it could be a prequel or a sequel – I only get one shot at an introduction. And it bothers me, as the other way is also good… (Note the word ‘also’ – how lovely that my subconscious believes in my story better than I do!)

And then alongside all that, I have reached chapter 17 of the redraft, and am planning a coup. It doesn’t know this yet, but chapter 17, 18, 19 and 20 are going to be totally restructured. They are going to be brought into the present tense if it kills me (my writing loves the past tense and is happiest rolling around with the word ‘had’). There is a new bit going in, and it is all going to be fun to write. I keep telling myself that, as the rest of me is unconvinced. The overall plot and ending will not change though – this bit will just make it better. Maybe I need some cheerleading pompoms.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Outpouring of Gloop

That’s what I feel my writing is like tonight. Thick murky gloop on a page. Does this gloop even care what I have sacrificed tonight for its deliverance? Let's see...

Thanks to this gloop I will:

  1. Not have nice hair tomorrow. As I should have washed it, slathered it, patted it, sectioned it, dried it, straightened it, pulled it and shined it. Because I dedicated myself to writing some gloop, none of that has happened. And so tomorrow I will have sleep-flattened slob hair instead.

  2. Not have watched QI on television. I will not have laughed along with Stephen Fry and his guests, or pretended that I got every joke, or guessed every obvious answer. It's a nicer way of spending the evening instead of writing gloop.

  3. Not have read anything. I like reading, I do, and I could have done that tonight and lost myself in someone else's story, rather than in a pile of gloop.

  4. Not have made or eaten pancakes. As I could have done that, gloop, if only I wasn’t so determined to sit here every bleeding night trying to write you. And before you bleat (as that’s what gloops do) about having saved my waist-line I would like to remind you of the empty chocolate wrapper over there by the chapter plan. Yes, you think on about what you are doing to me, gloop.

  5. Not have phoned a friend. Okay, I am Miss ‘Eeek-speak-on-the-phone?’ these days, but I could have phoned someone. I could have texted. I could definitely have emailed people – I owe nice folk emails. And yet instead I write gloop. I sigh at myself.

  6. Have tired eyes tomorrow. I always have tired eyes these days, as I seem to spend my waking life fixed to a monitor. And who decided, gloop, that you would work better when I reduce the Word document page to just 75%, so I see two pages at once instead of one? As my old monitor is way too small already for such fanciness, but still that is the way you like it. I hate you gloop.

  7. Have spent the evening with ginger cat on my lap. This is a nice thing about writing gloop. As ginger cat sets the pace with his purr. It is sufficiently loud enough for me to keep going, and he is sufficiently warm enough for me to stay put. Thanks gloop.

  8. Have thought a bit more about that tricky scene. I still cannot write it, my fingers are thumbs every time I try, but at least I am thinking about it. That’s a good thing, gloop, it really is.

  9. Not be thinking about anything sad. As I so could be thinking about sad things if I didn’t have my gloop. It would be very easy to think of sad things, and wondering why I sit here on my own, and why my phone doesn’t ring, and why I live in the same house I ever did, and why my life hasn’t started and when-oh-when will it start? I could think of all these things and they could overwhelm me but instead I ponder gloop and all those things go away.

  10. Have made another step onwards with my writing. Okay, today might be gloop, but tomorrow might be good. At least I have words to play with, and not a blank page. So for today I will embrace the gloop, as when all is said and done I am a big fan of tomorrow.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook

“The time has come,” the Writer said,
“To talk of many things:
Of agents--and publishers--and checking facts--
Of what you can offer and bring
To the agency’s list. And what they want to see,
And whether your story has wings.”

My first encounter with the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook was in the reference library time forgot. I pulled it down from the shelf by the dusty window, and stately carried it to the wooden table to sit opposite the man with the hacking cough. He didn’t put me off - there were a lot of people time had also forgotten in the reference library. Besides, I was told all authors consult the Yearbook at some point in their literary life, and I was desperate to join them.

And so my love affair with words, and the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook began. At first it was a shy courtship. I would visit it every so often in various libraries, bringing with me gifts of a pen and a scuffed notebook in order to jot down addresses and various nuggets of wisdom. I then progressed to photocopying pages, and using a highlighter pen, making multi-coloured wish lists of agencies and publishers.

I didn’t contact anyone though. I was still flirting at that stage, not ready to commit. Besides, I was poor, and buying the book was like buying the ring. Then, at least.

I first took the plunge towards the end of my illustration degree. I had written and illustrated two children’s books – both done with joy in my heart and naivety in my head. This showed when preparing the book to send out (and by preparing, I mean dashing off the first draft).

The next year, I decided to buy the book again and actually read it. I then somehow translated all that worthy advice to ‘I only need to write three chapters and send off my idea – the ending will come later!’ It appears joy and naivety still rocked my writing world in my early twenties.

I still bought the Yearbook when I didn’t actually write anything. Somehow real life swept me into a computer-filled corner for five years, where spreadsheets and phones and emails and cross-linking and management systems loomed large, and my own writing didn’t loom at all. But I continued buying the Yearbook, a pilgrimage to my secret dreams, an affirmation that one day I would return.

Then came a year when I didn’t buy it at all. It felt strange not to have it on my shelf, but I couldn’t bear seeing the previous years’ accumulating, each one reminding me of what I wanted to be once upon a time. So I hid them all, and tried to pretend it didn’t matter I wasn’t a writer. But deep down, it did matter. It mattered so much it hurt.

That year without the Yearbook swung it for me. I couldn’t do that again – I had to give writing a proper go. Put everything into it, all my money, all my time, all my energy. Make or break. And so this blog, and novel, started… yet I still didn’t buy the Yearbook. I wanted to prove to it, and to myself, that this time I have changed. That I’ve learnt from my mistakes; that I’ve listened to what it tried to tell me all along. I know I have to work at my writing, I know how hard it is to keep going, I know that I have to redraft and edit and polish and dust and do it all over again. I know that I have to be very sure when I send it out again that it is ready for someone else to read. And somewhere along the way the main point of being a writer changed – for so many years I thought it was about having a book on a shelf, and instead it was always only about writing a book I’d like to read. Now I understand.

Last week I went out and bought the Yearbook again.

Bad parody at the beginning of this post taken from excellent poem 'The Walrus And The Carpenter', by Lewis Carroll

Friday, 12 February 2010

Sweet Valley High

Clicking around the weird wide web while attempting to guide salad to my mouth, I came across an article that says Sweet Valley High is set to be rewritten, making them Sweet Valley Thirty-year olds.


Back in the days when school ruled supreme, I went through a year-long phase of reading Sweet Valley Twins/High books. Well, I say reading, I mean more devouring. I don’t know why they caught my attention so much – the lives of Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, the blonde super-cute twins from a rich family in California – didn’t resonate with me in the slightest, but perhaps that is why I enjoyed them.

Elizabeth was the nice good-mannered girl who wanted to be a journalist. Jessica was the bad girl (although good-at-heart of course) who liked fashion and boys. Elizabeth dated clever good-looking Todd (although the description good-looking is redundant – everyone who lived in Sweet Valley High was good-looking! No ugly munsters here). Jessica dated every boy that swept by, and those she didn’t were dated by her catty but extremely rich friend Lila. They hung out at the mall, and they drove convertible cars at sixteen (if they didn’t drive a convertible then it meant they didn’t care for status symbols, not that they couldn’t afford it. Between them they could buy and sell California). They were good at sports and academic studies (Elizabeth a ‘brilliant all-rounder’; Jessica not so good as she was out chasing boys, which made her thick). They were even nice to people who were not as rich as them, bless their charitable natures.

The books were written by author Francine Pascal, who engaged a team of ghost-writers to churn out a prolific number of books. There were Sweet Valley Twins, the Unicorn Club, Sweet Valley University – all sorts of sequels. I see now that although I read about thirty of these books back in the day, I barely dipped a toe in the glamorous waters of Sweet Valley – there are hundreds of stories out there. What more could possibly be written, and will the cast finally be allowed to get wrinkles?

Apparently we, if anyone who last read the books as a teenager still cares, are going to be very ‘shocked’ with Elizabeth and Jessica in their thirties. Is this the sort of ‘shock’ that comes from a role reversal, as that would be somewhat predictable? From a series that had the twins doing everything from falling in love with vampires to chasing a werewolf across London, does the author really truly believe the now grown and mature audience would be shocked? I would be more shocked if Elizabeth and Jessica turned into normal human beings that lived in the real world, but doubt that will be the ‘twist’ that finally happens for the series.

I can now see why I left Sweet Valley behind at fourteen when I discovered Jackie Collins. In a way there is the same shiny escapism, but with added sex. Suddenly all comes clear – if Enid Blyton is a guaranteed route to loving Agatha Christie, then Sweet Valley is the path towards Jackie Collins. Parents be warned!

Read Guardian article here
Read wiki on Sweet Valley here

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

I Iz Honest

Karen G from the lovely blog Coming Down the Mountain has given me an Honesty award.

The original rules are to write ten honest things about myself, and then pass this along to ten other blogs that I feel deserve an award. I’m going to change that end bit, as I’d nominate all the blogs I read regularly. So what I shall say is that any blog I link to, please feel free to pick up this award and run with it!

Honest stuff

1. I am not good at being sociable, even though the opposite seems true
2. I wish my dad was alive, although I wonder what we’d have thought of each other
3. The smell of trees, mulchy earth, and fresh ink makes me calm and content
4. I am seriously addicted to chocolate
5. Unpredictable people make me nervous
6. I cry watching other people cry - either in real life, in books, or on screen
7. I write to justify my existence
8. I never truly believe I have done anything remarkable (even when experience tells me otherwise)
9. I occasionally jump in puddles when I think no one else is looking
10. If I could add a personality trait, I would choose self-confidence

What would your ten things be?

Monday, 8 February 2010

A welcome boost (and hook)

A post on Nicola Morgan’s excellent blog ‘Help I Need A Publisher’ pointed me in the direction of a blog called Slushbusters. As well as having an excellent name, the Slushbusters consist of seven children’s writers supporting each other to the top of the slush pile, which for non-writers is the nickname given to unsolicited manuscripts. They also had the brilliant idea of a contest called ‘Polish your Pitch’, and invited people to send in their pitch ideas for critique and feedback from fellow bloggers, no matter whether your book is aimed at children or adults.

So I decided to enter.

The original submission rule was to keep your pitch to three sentences, although this was later extended to up to a hundred words. The ‘pitch’ in this case is the hook with which to tempt the agents and publishers – the beginning introduction to your query letter that will hopefully captivate them enough to continue reading.

My main fear is that I will let myself down at this last hurdle, that I will send a query off half-cocked, that I will miss a typo, that I will under-sell my story, and that I will basically screw up the last two years of work. I have been working on my query letter on and off, but this contest seemed incredibly timely. I’d already been working on a ‘hook’ for the story, and had emailed a couple of ideas to good friend C to get her thoughts. Her feedback was enthusiastically positive, and so I sent off my best idea and then sat on my hands so I wouldn’t obsessively click to refresh the page with my pitch.

Didn’t work. I turned into a compulsive clicker!

Here is the link to my original pitch, and the helpful advice I received. You can also read it below:

The Death and Life of Florence Delaney

Florence Delaney expected one of three things to happen when she died – she would ascend to heaven, descend to hell, or wink out of existence entirely. Instead the unforeseen fourth thing happened – she met Max – he of the shaved head and strange fondness for white denim. And Max had a confession to make…

As well as being heartily cheered by the comments, the main things I took from it was that the words ‘she would’ above could be done better, that pitches are usually written in the present tense, and that my punctuation needed to be tightened (and to change ‘he of the shaved head, to ‘he with the shaved head’). I spent the next day or so playing with the idea of present tense, and gave it to good friend I to read, who instantly agreed present tense is the way forward. So this became another revision:

Florence Delaney expects one of three things to happen when she dies. Ascend to heaven accompanied by soothing music; descend to hell by the prod of a three-pronged spear, or to wink out of existence entirely. Instead the unforeseen fourth thing happens – she meets Max, with his shaved head and strange fondness for white denim. And Max has a big confession to make and quite a bit of grovelling to do…

But I felt it had lost the tightness of the first pitch, and so patted it around Word for a bit longer. Good friend A then took a look, and I asked her what she thought of my idea of combining the two into one solid revision. She was in favour, and so this is the final pitch I sent to Slushbusters.

Florence Delaney expects one of three things to happen when she dies. Ascend to heaven, descend to hell, or to wink out of existence entirely. Instead the unforeseen fourth thing happens – she meets Max, with his shaved head and strange fondness for white denim. And Max has a big confession to make…

And I won!

I am so happy! It has given me a large whoosh of confidence in my writing and my story, and has helped make me focus and think about this all-important part of my query letter. And even better, unconnected to this but again so timely and lovely, someone whose writing I admire has offered to be a second pair of eyes over my query– you can imagine my happiness about that!

All the pitches submitted in the contest sound very interesting – please do click here when you have some time to take a look and perhaps offer some feedback to the pitchers. Even though the contest is now over, feedback is the most important thing – it is what keeps us going and helps us get better!

And do let me know your thoughts regarding my pitch – what do you reckon, does it sound like something you would you like to read it someday?

Sunday, 7 February 2010


So I am home again, jiggidy-jig – back to my mum’s, back to being the oldest teenager in town. But the month-long house and cat-sitting break has done me the world of good, and I am feeling a lot more optimistic about life than I did back at the start of this year.

Oh do I miss having a proper desk for my computer though! One day I shall have a desk with an actual chair, rather than having to work cross-legged sitting on my bed. It’s a good thing I pay lip service to yoga occasionally. Maybe along with the Tree there is a position called the Uncomfortable Writer. If so then I am a master at that particular pose.

The redrafting has continued at a cracking pace during my time in pleasant exile. I managed to de-tangle and rewrite four chapters, which means I am now writing this from the lofty height of chapter sixteen. Six left to go, folks! I am hoping that I will be able to amalgamate a couple of those as well. It would be so nice for this book to come in at twenty chapters. Still, I will have to wait and see what best suits the story.

One thing that is fab with redrafting is that I can really see how much my writing has improved, and feel I am a better writer now than I was when first spilling words onto the pages to create this book. I guess it is a gradual awareness of my writing style, and knowing what bad old habits I slip into occasionally (like pulling on a slobby tracksuit with threadbare elbows, last fashionable in the early nineties). Top of the bad habits list is a tendency to wallow in the past tense, so these scenes have involved lengthy rewrites to bring the action into the present. But on the whole I think I am still on schedule to finish by March... maybe mid-March though, as suddenly that seems very close!

Current Stats table:

Compared to when that table was a scary purple wilderness, the current stats table is making me very happy indeed. I have coloured the last few chapters in red so I'll get a real sense of finishing when I get to that stage, that is if I am not a gibbering wreck by that time!

Read more about my redrafting process here.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Book worm: January 2010

In 'Book worm', a new monthly series, I will review all the books I have read the previous month, no matter how varied! I am looking forward to discovering what takes my attention in a year.

Dewey, by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter. Published 2008
Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain. Published 1933


A small fluffy ginger kitten is left to freeze to death in a library drop-box during winter in small-town America. The librarians find it in time, and the kitten begins a new lease of life, as Dewey the library cat.

There is something about animal biographies, especially cats, which makes me so emotional, even at the start. But leaving that aside, I would cautiously say I enjoyed this book, although I did have some misgivings.

The main focus of the book – the kitten that was found and lived in the library – is a very sweet story, but I am not sure it is a ‘novel-sized’ story. It feels like it would work a lot better as a children’s picture book. While I enjoyed reading about Dewey’s antics and growing fame, the story became less about Dewey and more about why the author thinks we should love her special cat. Indeed, the structure of each chapter ends by telling me the exact same thing, and as a reader I don’t need to be told constantly that Dewey is a special cat, I got that from the first chapter. What I wanted was to be shown why is he special.

So, because the story of Dewey himself is quite short, around that is another story, the back-history of the small town, and Iowa itself. This was fantastic. I know little about middle-America and her successes and tragedies, so found this very interesting. Vicki Myron sketches its inhabitants quite clearly and her descriptions of the community are very compelling.

Testament of Youth

This epic book documents the mood of a nation and the build up to the First World War. It takes us through the idealistic young men who thought war was ‘heroism in the aspect’, the earnest stoic young women who nursed the soldiers, the mud and the cold of the French fields, the bittersweet victory, the realisation of the awful cost to both sides, and the pursuit of peace.

The author paints a good picture of what it was like to be a wealthy teenager leading up to war, and especially, to be a female during those turbulent times. There were little opportunities for distraction from the gigantic propaganda war machine and so these young people stirred themselves into a tizzy over dramatic poetry, sweeping music, and entreaties from the King down to school masters that to be a man meant fighting for their country, and if they died then it would be a ‘glorious death’. Older people capitalised and preyed on these emotive teenagers, and by the time these young officers realised that there was no glory in harsh dying then it was all too late.

Vera Brittain is very alive in these pages; she despairs and hopes and dreams throughout this long chapter of her life, and struggles later to find meaning in what she has seen. She laments for a lost generation, those who died and those who lived, and I lament with her from my lofty viewpoint ninety years hence. The latter part of her book concerns itself with peace, and with her determination to be an author. Still so relevant, as human emotions do not change as rapidly as the world in which they live; the voice and advice through the pages gives me comfort for my own modest ambitions.