Greetings! How very good to see you here. If you're wondering where 'here' is, this is the great terra incognita between getting agent (hurrah!), and getting publisher (fingers crossed). But you are most welcome, whatever your relationship is to books, or words, or writing. I hope you enjoy - and please tell me if you do. POSHTOTTY

Sunday, 14 August 2011



H (bless her - everyone should have an H, whether they are writing or no) has given me permission to start Book No.2 (as opposed to Vol.II), while we wait to see what happens with Book No.1, and anyone who thinks I didn't actually need her permission to start Book No.2 has no idea of the psychological minefield this stage of the writer's life can be.

Whilst I get Book No.2 in a fit state to post some of it up here (and work out how to turn pages into pdfs in order to so post), I have wandered about a couple of shows (see 'FUEL', 21 March) - Mervyn Peake at the BL (link right) and the Vorticists at the Tate (ditto). And then this oddity cropped up in The Sunday Times today.

This is a deeply bizarre tale. A leading British gyno - not the most drama-conscious type, one would hope - has had to resign from his post as Dean at the Uni. of Alberta after the deeply-moving speech he delivered as his own experience was revealed as having been nicked from that of another professor, to whom the deeply-moving events actually happened. Why, for heaven's sake? It's hardly academic plagiarism as the rest of us would understand it. He can't have hoped to get away with this masquerade - the world of international gynaecology ain't that big, and the original speech had even be published on The New Yorker website. Reading the account above, all I could think was that it was the words what done it. The words  - another man's words - seduced the prof, large-style. He wanted those words to be his. He wanted to produce in others the effect those words had produced in him, but with himself positioned as cause. And hey, words can do that. There's a whole profession - the one that currently really needs to shrug off Jeremy Irons - founded on their power to do so.

What has this to do with Mervyn Peake and the Vorticists? Ok, let's start with Merv. The BL show is small, and lovely, and you should absolutely definitely go. The fact that Gormenghast's astounding landscape comes from the plains of the Yellow River is amazing enough to begin with. I had no idea Peake grew up in China (Iceland, I could have bought that), nor that he was so various, nor that he was so intensely disciplined. Everything he produced could not have come from anyone but him - whether his drawings, his fiction, or his verse. (He's also a great example of the 'draw it and you understand it' approach - many of Peake's notebooks are in the show, meaning you can progress from one stage of creation to the next, watching him refine and edit his ideas on his character's appearance, their settings, their clothes.) It's great and inspiring stuff, and it's free. Go.

Vorticists at the Tate also has words, in the form of Wyndham Lewis's BLAST (well, his and a few other peoples'). These are not worked through, edited, or refined, or don't appear to be, at any rate. They look to be from somewhere rather closer to the white-heat 'Words Is All' state of mind of the professor, above. For example:

CURSE the flabby sky that can manufacture NO SNOW
 but can only drop the sea on us in a drizzle
 like a poem by Mr Robert Bridges

Vorticists ain't free, but that alone is worth the price of a ticket to me. Who hasn't felt that, for weeks on end, every English winter? (Later on, in the same page from BLAST we get snow as 'The Ermine of the North'.) I give you more:

Good-For-Nothing Guineveres (where was that phrase, all my life?)

And for good measure:
Blast their weeping whiskers!

Wyndham Lewis, you stand revealed as Victor Meldrew. Go; go to both. Go read words and be seduced - and spare a thought for the poor professor when you are.

(Oh, and Better Book Titles? It's there because it's a hoot.)

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Over your shoulder

Sitting on a train into London, and without reading material, my eye falls on the book open on the lap of the commuter next to me. Specifically, it falls on the fact that he is using a neatly folded tissue as a marker, moving it down from line to line as he reads. This seems a rather antiseptic way to read a book, and because of this, I'm expecting to see that the book itself, when my gaze darts to that, is some sort of textbook, and maybe badly printed enough for the ink to come off on a reader's fingers. Not a bit of it. It's a library hardback, and it's an historical romance. A truly dreadful historical romance, by the looks of it; the first words I read are:

Johanna was delighted to learn she would be the first of the princesses to get married.

Now, I write historical fiction, so I feel I have that much of a stake in what such writing can and should be, and this, as a line, is wong in ways that annoy me so much I start labelling them - 1) it's flat, it's reported emotion, it's not Johanna, God help the girl, leaping around in delight at cocking a snook at her sister-princesses, assuming such they be, and sticking her be-coiffed head out her casement to shout 'I'm getting married before you! Ner-ner-ner-nerner!' (If she did, that's a book I'd read with pleasure.) 2) The name. Princesses are not called Johanna. I remember watching a Hammer House of Horror years ago, with a character in it called 'Senorita Yvonne'. She was eaten by a werewolf, and frankly, with a name as anachronistic and sloppily unimaginative as that, deserved no better. Why go to the bother of creating a character - albeit in the case of Johanna, one flat as an uncooked gingerbread-man - and not come up with an imaginative and interest-snagging name for them? I went to the Mervyn Peake show at the BL recently (of which more anon) - now, if you want a master-class in the creation of fabulous names, read him. 3) So on two counts now, the author of this book has insulted me, as a reader, setting before me a bit of dead shorthand as oppposed to a bit of lively action, and misnaming a character so badly (and names you can't pronounce are another hatred of mine - how am I supposed to get carried along by the fact that you've fallen over a cliff/discovered a lost tribe of headhunters/are about to save the life of an infant during a fire at sea/ if every time my eye hits your name on the page, my reading mind is tripped up by it?).

Yet I keep reading. I race that folded tissue to the bottom of the page, maddened that it obscures the paragraph to come, despite the fact that with every line the writing seems to be getting worse in more and more predictable ways. So what is it? What is this thing about stolen words, other people's reading, that makes what they have in front of them so irresistible?

Is it simply because the words belong to someone else? (As children, my brother and I used to fight for the cereal packet with the best copy on it to read at the breakfast table - much to my mother's ire.) Is it curiosity as to what another is reading? In which case, once I've seen what it is, and judged it truly awful, why isn't my curiosity satisfied? Or is it that awakened hunger for words - any words, for an escape - on a dull commuter train? Sometimes I find myself reading some other poor soul's book, and trying to work out what the book might be - is it a Stephen King? John Grisham? Maeve Binchy? I've never to my knowledge read a word of Grisham or Binchy except for over other peoples' shoulders, yet I can spot their style at once. So is this just a spot of mental gum-chewing? What?

My own relationship to over-the shoulder reading baffles me. How about this - if  the shoulder and the words should ever be yours, close up your book and ask me what I'm doing. Maybe we can both get an answer.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011


Many a writer takes the plunge and tries to bring music into their writing - to re-create in words the experience of listening to, or playing, or otherwise being transported by a melody; to bridge the gap between notes and words. I think this gap has already been bridged, but the other way about - writing into music - and it's been done by the Blues.

Forgive me, this is the zeal of the newly converted, I know it. But one thing music and writing do have in common is the fact that they find you, rather than you finding them, and just as some wonderful new book (for me, most recently, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), beating you about the head with its covers, will have you extolling it to all your friends, so breathtaking music will have you doing the same. Welcome to the Chicago Blues Fest 2011. Yup, you've all known about the Blues for years, like you all read Jacob de Zoet already. I'm playing catch-up here.

I never knew I had been listening to the Blues before, but of course I have, all my life. Listen to it for 3 days solid (mouth open in wonderment the while) and you realise you have been hearing, and do still hear it, in everything. Frank Sinatra (duh, of course), Ry Cooder's Trouble, hiding behind his tree. Culture Club - 'Black Money'. My nephew, who can get a tune out of a bagpipe - out of a bag, in all probability - says that if two musicians who have never met before want to play together, they play the Blues. It's a universal language, he says.

You're telling me. The lyrics of the Blues, the story of the song, is in the music - a hoochy-coochy stripper, chickens scratching in a yard, a train going off into the night. The wail of the abandonned, the sobs of the lost, the contempt of the heartless, the creepy conviction of the utterly mad - they're all there in the guitar, the piano, the mouth-organ (or Mississipi saxaphone, as I learned with joy it is called). The thump to the beat of the Blues is like the prose in the King James' bible, insistent. Corpuscular, teeming, organic. There's something inescapable about it, and relentless too, it's big music. Sit on the grass before the stage and you feel it bumping up through your tailbone, not weaving its strands round your head. It's merciless too, big enough to be threatening - people get killed in the Blues (and even then, sometimes they come back); nothing is ever forgotten. A proud boast from the stage - 'my daddy played this, my graddaddy too'. Shemekia Copeland was crowned the new 'Queen of the Blues' on stage on Sunday, now there's inheritance for you; when Eddie Clearwater played it was as if one shimmer of the air, one little zone-out, and back you would be kicking along a dirt-road, 80 years ago.

The words, by contrast - the lyrics - are so compressed, so multi-layered, they're what you have to tease apart into different lines and staves of meaning. Here's an idea; take a line of a Blues lyric 'I still love you baby, 'cos you don't know what it's all about', and write the story that led up to it. How much sad knowledge is in those 13 words? You have conversations with everything in the Blues - trouble and misfortune, rapture and joy, death, despair, love, infatuation, madness, the black snake in your room, the Blues themselves, as they walk up to your front door It's a mostly one-sided conversation, it's true - even with your darling, we have to take your word for it about that real good feeling you get talking on the phone, but by the time you're growling 'TALK to me baby,' at the end of the song, and doing that kick Blues players do, like they have to stamp on the song to keep it under any control at all, we all know what you're really talking about. Oh, I get the Blues. I SO get them!

Sunday, 22 May 2011


What a phrase, eh? Volume II. Enough having fun with blogs, and background research, and James Bond moment with new characters in life; time to get back to the very serious business of writing. I've kept my fingers supple, kept the writing muscle limber, put (as my trainer at the gym used to say) 'the miles in my legs'. Now there's a thing. Is that why writing and running complement each other so well - each word a step, each step an exploration of a thought? It would be good to ask that question of Richard Long.

And that was a shameless digression. Back to Volume II.

Volume II is there, but now I look at it with proper close attention, it seems to be corralled behind a fence. It has a title (and we all know how essential that is), Volume II will be called The Dead Men, but I need to build a gate, I need to build a way in.

The trick that works most often for me in finding that way in is to forget I'm writing a book, but rather to view an opening or otherwise tricky or with-a-lot-riding-on-it scene as if I were directing a film. Where would I put my camera? Whose eye would my camera be? What would it shoot, to start with? Close-up? Panning out? Or zoom down in, from high above?

I see Volume II starting with a child's fingers, scrabbling to loosen something from the rubble of a fallen wall. I can feel the shards of mortar, and chunks of pulverised brick and stone. There's a little grass growing near the fingers - this wall fell some time ago. There are shadows round the fingers, the edge of a skirt and petticoat in frame, shadows beneath, around her feet - sun in the sky. The child is female, a little girl, and something sparkles there in the dirt, that's what she after. Something sparkling, and coloured - gold, red, green -

An embroidered ribbon round a cuff. She pulls the cuff. The sleeve comes up. The bony arm and hand within it, too. We don't see her reaction - we're left thinking, maybe this has happened too many times before for her to have one. What happens instead is there's a shout - another child's voice, but older, male, her brother, and the little girl stands up, we see her whole, for the first time, and looks at where her brother is pointing - and the whole world changes for them both.

I write to music. Cue John Lennon, 'Here comes old flat-top.'

There. I didn't know any of that was going to prove the way in. Now I will write it (and post it), and see where the camera goes next.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011


A fellow writer set me a challenge: 'Blog me the genesis of your book. Where did it come from, and where were you when it did?'

I was in a town called Nordlingen. This is Nordlingen, in the district of Donau-Ries, in Bavaria.

Pretty, huh? Note the almost faultlessly preserved within-the-town-walls circular shape.  The view below is also Nordlingen. Note the almost too-perfectly-preserved buildings. There is a reason for this. Not, for once, in this part of Germany, that the whole place was flattened by the RAF in 1944, and lovingly rebuilt after, no. Everything you see in Nordlingen is absolutely genuinely genuine. Nordlingen is a true Thirty-Years-War survivor, and what you see here is close enough to what the last soldiers saw, when they marched out in 1648, for any such soldier to be still able to find his way around the town today. Blindfold, if need be.

The reason for which, is, Nordlingen gambled, in the Thirty Years War, and lost. When the war ended (in 1648), Nordlingen was left with such a heap of debt it took it two centuries (TWO CENTURIES!!!) to pay it off. The Age of  Reason passed it by - there was no money in Nordlingen to pay to replace those geometric C16th facades with neo-Classical porches and stoops, because Nordlingen was still paying off the amount it had to borrow to stop General Tilly burning the place to the ground. The Age of the Railways arrived, 100 years later - no, Nordlingen had no money for that either, still paying off its debts from when the Swedish juggernaut heaved into town, in Tilly's defeated wake. The world moved on. Nordlingen, beggared beyond belief, was left behind.

I pitched up in Nordlingen in 1998. I was in company with my mate Joyce Hackett, she of the award-winning Disturbance of the Inner Ear, which I most heartily recommend to you, and Cara, one of the loveliest mutts I have ever had the pleasure to know. For Cara's evening walk, we walked Nordlingen's still-intact town walls. Watchtower to watchtower. We had supper at the Sun Inn, whose vistor's book kicks off in 1450. In the morning, we walked around the town, barely able to believe we hadn't suffered some time-slip overnight. Want to know what wattle and daub walls feel like? Run your fingertips along this. Want to understand how doomed you would feel, watching an army advance toward you, trapped within your little walled town? Lean out of watchtower, half-close your eyes, and in your imagination, fill that plain beyond with the rise and fall of marching troops, advancing on you like a sea. Want to know what it would sound like, hearing your own footsteps pounding down an alley so narrow that your shoulders barely fit between the walls, as you run for your life? Here you go. Be my guest.

I already had, in my head, the first dozen or so characters of my novel. I knew they all somehow related, I knew they fitted into the same jigsaw, but it was only in Nordlingen that I began to see how. This is Yosha, the Jewish merchant. This is the world he trades with, but can never belong to. This is Mungo Sant, the Scottish privateer. This is the world he trades with, but will never trust. And this here - this is my hero, Jack. He stands here, in Nordlingen, the terror of everything he sees; and here in his head are his scars, his griefs, his losses. Here is his story. This is what made him as he is. One man. Thirty years of war.

Saturday, 7 May 2011


I have this character - J, let's call them. I've lived with J a long, long time. I know what J wants, I know J's opinions, I can make a pretty good guess how J would react to just about anything life throws in J's path. I know J's secrets.We're tight.

I've spent a good deal of time crafting a plot for J, and I test new developments in this plot very carefully indeed. I know where J is going, and I excise without mercy anything that don't fit in with that. It's what J would want me to do.

Or so I thought.

I now have this new character in J's life. Came waltzing in without so much as a by-your-leave. Somewhere back there, despite all the care we've been taking, J 'n me, we must have left a door or a window open, a sentence without a stop, maybe, and all of a sudden we look up and there's this new shape in the room. No idea what they think they are doing there, and they, of course, are still so new it's probably an equal surprise to them.

We are going to call this new character M.

M seems to have come from another type of book entirely, which honestly could hardly be more different to the one he finds himself in now. Does this faze him? Not that I can see - nothing like as much as it has thrown me, that's for sure. You hear of this kind of thing happening, and in fact what you hear is that this is what it's all about, what you should be aiming for - the story reaching the kind of critical mass where it makes itself. Where, in effect, as a writer, you have come as close as you can to creating life - with all its whacky unpredictability, and its gleeful pooh-poohing of anything you might call plot for what you can only call the mash-up. Where this sort of curve-ball has been hurled at me, as reader, I've pooh-poohed it - oh, for goodness sake, I've said, how totally unbelievable. That would never happen.

There are words you write and now, apparently, there are words you eat. The writer, this writer, elbowed unceremoniously out of the way, too agog even to remember her nail-file, is now there as reader, and in the nicest place that life, or writing, can put you in: craning forward, all agog, asking 'What's going to happen next?'

Sunday, 1 May 2011


Damn it is so annoying. Where does it go? One minute you're steaming forward, all four engines thumping away and everything you come across is fuel, the next -

Run aground. Run dry.

It's real life, hurling itself into your path. It's the pram in the hall (or the pile in the in-tray). It's a fork in the road, and no bottle to spin, to help you out. It's a headcold. It's a trip.

People comment. Sometimes these are people whose opinions matter. It's a spur. It's a goad.

It's a bummer, the whole thing.

I did take a trip, I was up in Northamptonshire, staying in this tiny cottage so overgrown with ivy and roses that the outside and the inside mix whenever you open a door or a window. Snails silver the doorstep, baby froglets look up at you from the kitchen floor. Roses poke their heads in through the drawing room window and drop petals on the carpet; a fledgling blackbird, yellow mouth agape with terror, must be collected like a palpitating dust-ball from the corner of the porch, and restored to the garden. And there were bees. Great fat black-befurred bees, as big as the top joint of your thumb, half-snoring, half droning their dodgem-ish way round the flowerheads on the creeper outside my bedroom window, and inevitably, bumbling their way in through the window as well. The noise the one made that did this was loud enough to wake me from my sleep. Bang against the glass, BANG against the glass, with the drone deepening in annoyance with every head-on collision between it and window-pane. What's a girl to do? But (barely more awake than the bee) stumble out of bed, locate latch and open the window.

Bee bangs against glass a few more times, does a pratfall to the edge of the frame, walks about a bit, no doubt going 'Ow, my bastard head' to itself, and then miraculously wakes up to the fact that there is no glass, no net curtain ahead of it, and that it's free.

One happy bee.

Writer in pyjamas, still half asleep herself, has thought. There, she thinks. That's what its like. The words are there, banging away at the front of your brain. You open the window - and they're gone.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011



Sent: Day 8 19:11:26
Subject: Compliance Testing - URGENT

Dear Lou

I've just been made aware of events today during compliance testing, and the situation we face as a result.

Under your supervision a substance SPECIFICALLY CONTRA-INDICATED FOR CONSUMPTION has been ingested and a large and dangerous predator has been, and apparently still is, roaming abroad in what was a controlled habitat, whose recent inhabitants are now nowhere to be found. They may be poisoned. They may be dead. Need I say more?

This is the most unbelievable mess. I need to know what you are doing to remedy it.


Sent: Day 8 20:23:08
Subject: RE: Compliance Testing

Gabe -

Sorry for delay; bit busy out here. We do indeed have a situation! :-) But I'm sure you remember, the purpose of today's events (all of which were cleared at our last meeting), was simply to TEST individual compliance to environmental guidelines. The guidelines were yours, and were tested as agreed.

I can only agree with your summing-up of the state of affairs on your property, but these events took place under my observation, not my supervision. I don't have authority here, I'm simply the sublicensed provider of the services set out in the tender document.

You know how I am with detail!

Thanks and best


Sent: Day 8 21:34:08
Subject: One question

Lou -


Sent: Day 8 21:40:41
Subject: One answer

It's a cold-blooded reptile, the sun has set, so I imagine it is asleep.

Sent: Day 8 21:43:17

Sent: Day 8 21:45:33
Subject: IN THE TREE

Sent: Day 8 22:21:16
Subject: Start again?

Dear Lou

The snake appears to have suffered nothing worse than a bit of bruising, but it's citing its terms of employment and refusing to answer any questions. And I don't have time to argue – with it or with you. I need hardly set out for you the consequences if the garden is not restored to its original state complete with both inhabitants by dawn. Remember the dinosaurs, and the row after that?

We have to find them and we have to find them now. Please help!


PS: I apologise for my tone before. I have been under a great deal of strain and overwork for the last week.
PPS: We also still have to locate the remains of the apple.


    • Lou? Lou, are you there? You're breaking up.
    • .somewhere near Pishon, Gabe. I'm seeing a lot of onyx-stone.
    • Is there any sign?
    • .something. Hold on -
    • Lou? Lou?
    • Sorry mate, no joy. It was one of those – what did the Boss call the stripey things?
    • The stripey things? The big stripey things or the small stripey things?
    • Smallish. Whiff a bit.
    • Skunk.
    • Skunk, huh? And the big?
    • Zebra.
    • Skunk and zebra. You gotta hand it to him. I mean, the invention!
    • So it was a skunk?
    • Nah. Zebra. You know, I loved the dinosaurs.
    • I know you did, Lou. But right now -
    • I mean, their singing! The colours of their fur! They were the Boss's best. But I said right from the start, they were totally over-engineered. Any creature that specialised is going to have a problem coping with change. And I think compliance testing proved me right on that one, too.
    • It did Lou, it did. That's why he's trying something different. Something simple and undemanding. We just have to find them, Lou, that's all -
    • Yeah, I worry about them.
    • You worry about them? Here? You worry about them here? In Paradise?
    • Yeah. I mean they're so – they're so puny. Half the other stuff out here could have them for lunch. And if I can be blunt -
    • Go ahead, Lou.
    • I mean, they don't look good. They have those bits that wobble. They don't even match. And they're a bit – you know – witless, somehow. The way they just wander about, pointing and smiling, and being obedient... I dunno. It looks like there's something missing, to me.
    • Lou -
    • I mean, is there a plan? Is there a point to them? D'you think there is?
    • Lou -
    • Because if there were, it might be useful to know. It might be good to know. It might be nice to be trusted -
    • Lou?
    • ............
    • Lou?
    • ...........
    • Lou! LOU!
    • Oh Gabe. Oh Gabe, you should be here. You should see this.
    • You've FOUND them?
    • Yeah, they're here. Safe and sound. Asleep on the river bank. Wrapped right around each other. Oh, it's sweet.
    • Asleep?
    • Yeah, right out. Oh, it's special.
    • Is – is it the rib thing? Is it that again?
    • It's not the rib-thing Gabe, can't be. Ribs all present and correct. So I'll just bring them back, yeah? Back to the tree?
    • Back to the tree is fine. Back to the tree is perfect. I can't believe it. Oh, Lou -
    • Yes Gabe?
    • The apple. Is there any sign of the apple?
    • No sign.
    • Nothing?
    • Nothing. Not even a pip. Oh come on. He'll never notice. All's well that ends well, eh?
    • I guess so Lou. So long as they're safe -
    • They're fine. Bit flushed-looking maybe, but otherwise right as rain. In fact they look good. Better. Forget the apple, Gabe. I mean – who'll ever care about that?


Sunday, 27 March 2011


If you were to click on the Mighty Tieton link to the right (and I heartily encourage you so to do), you will eventually find this guy - Ed Marquand, publishing supremo of Ed Marquand Books and all-round Thoroughly Good Thing. I receive this from Ed, on Friday: 

'Subject: I need a short story. Quick!
We are trying something totally cool here that involves a new way to publish short fiction. I am looking for short stories of no more than 750 words for an experimental form of publishing we are trying out at Marquand Books and Paper Hammer. Stories should be tightly written, wry, and amusing. For now, I am looking for pieces related to food or meals, beer, wine, or cocktails, romantic seduction, memory, or missed opportunity, but feel free to contribute others. If you are game send to
Got something????'

750 words, thinks I. Now that's a challenge, to begin with. I do not naturally pack lite, nor write short. Short is tough. Short takes time, and planning, and here I am with a deadline from a friend (which are always the worst sort), and I have neither words, time, nor plan - but the challenge is growing more irresistible by the minute.

I am going to have to Write Short. It's like being asked to rustle up supper for 6, at no notice, from whatever you have in the store cupboard. So what do I? What do I have in my head?

I have a lot of annoying stuff about tenders and compliance that has been overshadowing everything at work like a sunspot for the last weeks. I have Lent, and various thoughts on abstinence, and spontaneity, and impulse, and are these good things or are they bad, and the difference between what you're meant to do, and what you want to do, and how the latter always somehow finds a way, and what that says about the human spirit, and why are we hard-wired that way when it causes so much trouble, or does that in fact suggest there is a great organising principle here, and that what will happen was always going to anyway. And I have an apple. A very fine apple. A Braeburn. Big, crisp, cold, and as finely marbled as Kobe beef. 

You start to cook. I have a sense already, because of the apple, of a setting way, way back at the very beginning if things, but when all the questions above nonetheless already existed; so because of that, and the whole 750-words thing, I want something snappy as a format, and writing in the form of emails, and the setting, would contrast nicely. Then it begins to feel as if I've done enough with the email-thing; that 750 words (now growing up past 800) will seems much bigger if split in the middle - two acts, not just a sketch. So we have an email-format for the first half, and a conversation on mobile phones or walkie-talkies for the 2nd. Both completely anachronistic, but that's the point - the issues I want to explore in my now-900-words have always existed, regardless of medium, or indeed, of time or space. I have two main characters, and now they have their own voices, and points of view, and a big, big problem to solve. And now I'm writing against both deadline and word-limit, so this is like a race where you don't rush up to the finishing line; it rushes closer and closer to you, and it is interesting, this, it's a great challenge, terrific discipline, it's really put me in the zone, and I just have to tweak the ending, I just have to get another twist in there -

- and that's it. Finished. Done.

And when I know what Ed has in mind to do with it, with his blessing, I will post it here.

Monday, 21 March 2011


If you're producing words, you need to nourish yourself on words. You need a good-quality diet with plenty of variety, just enough roughage, and no pre-processed pap. Don't read rubbish; if it hasn't got you by the end of page 1 - if it hasn't even got a feeler into you, to get you turning to page 2 - put it down. Be ruthless. There are too many good books out there to waste time on the bad ones. Rubbish in, rubbish out.

And you need a lot of words to fuel you. When finishing The Fires of Grace I was on the equivalent of 5,000 calories a day. Three novels a week - more, many more, if you count the ones I started, and that failed to get a feeler into me. This gets expensive. The solution? The charity shop.

Where I live in London, there are 5 charity shops within a bookmark of me (my 'burgh specialises in florists, undertakers, and charity shops. Connection? Discuss). It's like having 5 circulating libraries just up the road. I take them the rubbish; I come back with diamonds. The latest of which is Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, the best of which, so far, has been D.J. Taylor's Kept.

Who is D.J. Taylor? I have no idea. His jacket photograph makes him look younger than me, which is annoying; the puffs from other writers on the jacket are a bit cut-and-paste, or a bit show-offily opaque. But I liked the jacket which his publishers, Chatto, had gone to the trouble of creating for him, he passed the page 1 test, he came home with me. And he's enthralling. Elegant, stylish, economical, unexpected in every and in every good way. He cost me £1.50. No expensive advertisting camopaign shoved him my way, he is just a glorious example of book-serendipity. He simply found his way into my hand.

Now, of that £1.50, I am well aware that D.J. Taylor, who apparently has three children to raise, will not see a cent. I have done other good things by buying his book - saved paper, raised money for those who need it far more than either he or me - but Deej, in real terms, gets nothing out of this than my grateful thanks, and the tiny recommendation I can offer here. Except that -

I began by calling this posting  'Fuel'. There is, out there, and at the same time in all our heads, a great virtual universe, a parallel reality, a mighty and invisible engine both made and fuelled by writers' words, and readers' reactions to them. It is perhaps the only true perpetual-motion machine ever created. It's going on out there right now. You're fuelling it as you read this.

Pass the word on.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011



Tuesday, and there is me, and what feels like the first proper day of Spring, and Romney Marsh and, specifically, Brenzett Church, and round the back of Brenzett Church, Frank. Who died a century ago or more, at 3 years old, and who time has left, much like the churches on the marsh, marooned on his own. And trooping along invisibly behind me are Billy, and Billy's best mate (who also, much like this book, still has no name, poor little scrap), and Froggy, and Billy's big sister Evie (there to keep an eye, because Billy has been acting up so much recently), and the mysterious newcomer, Andreas.

M. R. James, who created wonders from locales such as the churches of Romney Marsh, needed three ingredients for a story - a place, a time, and a thing. Lo and behold, I find myself with all three, and a whole new scene falls into place like balls falling though a pachinko machine. Solved, in one: why it is so important to get Andreas home (his own younger brothers, left all alone, like Frank, and why he is so good with Billy and his friends); and how he gives himself away to Evie - adjusting the wings of the paper plane the boys have created. A tweak from him, and it flies right over the roof of the church. As Evie watches, and to the boys' excitement, the first contrails of 1940 appear.

There we are. How good is it when it works like that? And o how depressing that the whole 'write about what you know' thing still has so much life left in it.

Or rather, find out about what you want to write about, first. The most surprising results can flow thereby.

Still no title, however....

Sunday, 13 March 2011


Books, like characters, seem to need a name before they become real. For the first time, I have an entire story plotted out, divided into chapters, and complete with all the characters it's going to need. And I have to say, I can see why this is recommended as a way of going about writing a book, as opposed to the plunge-right-in and ok-what-the-flip-is-it-I'm-making-for, which was the method I had been using (ironic, considering what a rubbish swimmer I am in real life). I suppose it's kinda like the difference between putting yourself on the pill and crossing your fingers... ANYWAY, this time, this child is planned. I have a setting, a locale, which I know well enough to feel confident of using, and this weekend, a chance to revisit it and collect material to use as scene-setting embroidery. What I don't have (and which I did, before, for 1st book) is a title.

And it is amazing what a difference this lack of title makes. The thing won't set. It lacks its isinglass, its gelatin. It's not topped off, in my head. It's a barn without a roof. It's a character without a head, or face; I know exactly what it, as book, will do, and where it will go, but I can't have a conversation with it. I can't visualise it, in final, published, 3-dimensional form (which has to be one of the greatest incentivisers a writer has). I can't design its jacket - or at least I can, it's a Boy's Own thing, in bright woodblock-type printing, of a wooded slope, with a lot of clear sky, and a young woman, in 1940s clothing, looking up at the sky. Or, it's a satchel, and a child's gas-mask, handing on a hook against a plain wall. Or, it's a.... whatever, the point is, that all these images are blank. They have no words on them. They have no title. They're just random pictures, they aren't as yet any part of my book.

A character without a name presents the same problem. One that pops out of your head fully formed and with label already attached is one of the best writing-things to happen, and when it does, it feels as if it confirms you utterly, on every level - right path, right plot, all these goodies just waiting to leap out at you as soon as you walk past them. One without label does the exact opposite, bringing in its wake every bad writerly phantom: your imagination has run dry and will never renew itself, and the whole idea for this story must obviously suck, which is why it refuses to make sense of itself and why you have all these characters wandering about as nameless zombies, all wishing they were somewhere else.

It is now time for the train. My story - headless and faceless as it is - will have to be guided to it and shown to a seat, and will no doubt sit there viewing me with blind and mute reproach for the whole of the journey. You think you can write me when you can't even name me?

Only one way to find out.

Saturday, 12 March 2011


H (agent) has:
  • MS (all 614 pages/189,000 words of it)
  • Rights page (easily the most annoying thing, after the synopsis, that I have ever had to write)
  • Cast-list of characters
  • and one precious page condensing the Thirty Years War - three decades of the most violent, fascinating, jaw-droppingly bloodthirsty years of European history - into a perfect little appetiser for all those international publishers even now booking their tickets for the London Book Fair in the hopes of coming away from it with contract for next international best-seller, 'The Fires of Grace', warm in their hands.

Little do they know it yet.

So, I wrote this book. Amazingly enough, first time out the traps, it found an agent. A really good, proper agent too, one who is as passionate about it as its author and in her firm but elegant way, has also pulled from author synopsis, rights page, cast-list and Everyman's Guide to the Thirty Years War. Ye gods, writing the book was the easy bit. If you're a writer who is a step, or a couple of steps, away from this, be warned - the minute it finds a home with anyone else, your book ceases to be yours altogether. You are now merely servicing and supporting it.

Your other immediate problem is what the devil do you do with yourself without a book to write? Without the constant pull back to the pc? You can start another (I have), but now you've learned a bit about what you're actually doing, or trying to do, in writing a book, you gotta admit, new book will be a lot more research than it will be any proper writing for many weeks to come. You can tidy flat. You can attend to sadly-lapsed exercise routine (5k along the River Thames this morning - what is it about running beside this river that still feels like such a privilege?). You can address vexed question of buying somewhere new to live, which is even now snoring quietly to itself in some cowebby corner of back-brain. You can water plants, file nails, make list of all the books you can now return to the wonderful and endlessly long-suffering London Library. You can listen to Man U (hiss hiss boo!) v. Arsenal (hiss!). You can review ridiculous complications of real life, beyond the world you have created where You Are God.

You can start a blog. You can start a blog sharing journey from wannabe author to (hopefully) published author, or not, with all those other wannabe authors out there at different stages on their own journey.

Hallo to you all, how are you?