Saturday, November 26, 2005

Swallowing words

I take it back. Marian Keyes is not fluffy. Well, actually she is, but she is less fluffy like a pair of Barbie Fairytopia Bibble doll (look it up if you don't believe me) and more fluffy like a £500 angora sweater. I'm on chapter 34 and going for more very soon.
This morning an Amazon parcel arrived. Hardly an unusual occurrence in this house but my husband eyed it greedily and asked if it contained one of his Christmas presents. ( It was a small parcel and he knows me well enought to know it couldn't contain all his presents.) I said it was but in fact when I opened it it was a second copy of a book I'd ordered for work 'Insolvency Personal and Corporate'. ( I am not even going to contemplate making that title a hyperlink for you to check it out!) With sinking heart, thinking I'd mistakenly duplicated the order I logged on to the website intending to find an address to return it to and berating myself for incurring unecessary postage. In fact before I got past the home page my email bleeped and there was a nice message telling me it was all their fault and could please send it back to the Freepost address and they were so sorry for the inconvenience they were attaching a £5 book voucher!
So, I'm off to order a free angora sweater substitute. See you later!

Friday, November 25, 2005


Here's a thing. I went on Google today and searched for unusual jobs. I don't want one. I have enough jobs as it is. But I wanted a character to be thinking about one and the advantage of broadband is that when I blank for a fact whilst writing, I can just keep typing as if I am writing and those kind Google men give me the answer without me ever having to break flow. So as I say, I search for jobs and there is a site with a list by type. It turns out being a writer is an unusual job. It is on the list of 'Ten jobs for people who want to keep learning'. It did not appear on the list of 'Ten jobs for people who want to pay their student loans off straight away'. For that you need to be a carpeter. Apparently.(Note these lists are for real). I ought to write something thoughtful about how interesting it is that writers are considered to be on a lifelong journey to knowledge and fulfillment but its weekend so I won't. Instead I'll tell you another thing.

My name is Helen and I am a .... well, that's the thing. I don't know the word for what I am, which is a person addicted to buying books. I am not a bibliophile because that is a person who loves books, which obviously I do but its not what I am getting at. I am getting at the fact that I buy books even when I have so many unread ones I have to spread them out over the floor because the piles were threatening to topple and kill me. Plus I am sugestible and I like to be nice to other writers. All of which is not a good combination. Take today.

The bad news was I had to drive 1 hr 40 mins to Kendal. so, In a fitof inspiration I went via the library and borrowed a CD version Marian Keyes' collection of journalism pieces 'Under the Duvet'. As I had just minutes before read a brief artcile about her in Mslexia ( on the loo wearing my coat in that pre-motorway if-I-don't-go-now-i'll-need- to-the-moment-I-get-on-the-M58 visit!) it seemed apt. So off I set being ably entertained by her Irish tones reading her own pieces. She is not an author I have ever read, havng rather snottly dimissed her as 'fluffy' but she does know how to make a crawl through roadworks pass easily.

The good news is that when I get there it takes all of fifteen minutes to convince the Magistrates to do the blindingly obvious, and after such a long journey, a spot of Christmas shopping seemed a good idea and could be easily justified by the need to avoid the DVT I'd be risking if I turned right around and drove home again. Kendal, I thought would have lots of individual shops, great for thoughtful and original gifts. This may be true. I wouldn't know because the first interesting shop on the way out of the car park is Ottakars.

And in there is a Marian Keyes Novel. I don't need it. I have a life threatening collection at home and a Christmas list of more has already been submitted to my supplier, sorry, husband. But she sounds like such a nice person and she even tells a story about seeing someone buying one of her books and how happy it made her and ...... OK. Time to admit my addiction and implement my 12 point plan.
1. Acknowledge the soverignty of your Higher Power and the fact that you need his/her assistance with your weaknesses.
2. Conclude that your Higher Power chose to communcate his own message to the world in a book and thus books cannot be equated with wraps of brown powder and thus need not be resisted.
3. Moderation however, is still a virtue.
4. Decide to read one chapter in the shop rather than purchasing it. Read three.
5. Avoidance of temptation is a useful strategy.
6. Put book back and go to look for other shops bearing in mind you only paid one hour of pay and display.
7. Exercise increases self-esteem and effects the release of endorphins so often found in addictive susbtances
8. Power walk to WHSmiths and read another two chapters.
9. Failure is human. Divert your attention from your own sorrows and consider those who are worse off than you.
10. Go to both Oxfam and British Red Cross shop and search for second hand copy of Marian Keyes books. Conclude that their absence means they are so good no-one will part with them.
11. If your addiction is so serious you are at risk of committing crime to feed it, seek help.
12. Hear the town clock strike half past the hour and realise you are now in at-risk-of-parking ticket-zone. Attempt abstinence. Get to car park door and jog back to Ottakars and confess (in now slightly wheezing tones) addiction. Accept £1 off cover price.
OK, so the plan needs work. But I got 648 pages for £5.99 which is 0.09pence per page which means i can afford the BUPA subscription for when the to-read pile fractures my scull. And I can learn how to write chick lit. And after all, learning is what being a writer is all about.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

What if?

The trouble with training yourself to play the 'What if' game as a writer is that is begins to take up permanent residence in your brain and springs into operation when perhaps it would be better just to stick to the facts.
Early this morning our phone woke us up. Or to be more precise it woke my husband up. I continued with a dream in which Zadie Smith and Michael Douglas was in a post office, there was a big problem about the precise milage to Lancaster and everyone was so worried about it no one would answer the phone. (Don't get all Freudian - I'm reading On Beauty, I need to put in a mileage claim and I forgot to post a pile of letters yesterday. I'm not commenting on the presence of Michael Douglas.) When I twigged that it was a real phone and that Zadie was in fact between two brown covers on the floor, I suddenly woke up and found myself instantly in the 'What if game', encouraged by hearing Dennis say "Why, what's wrong?"
What if my Brother-in-law has split up from his girlfriend again? Or no, what if he is ringing to to say one of my elderly parents in law is ill? Or worse what if one has died? What if I have to get on a plane and go over.... I had proceeded impressively far down the route of forming a contingency plan to deal with my work in my absence by the time Dennis shambled back into the room to explain that my sister needed a favour.
She is a paediatric nurse and was convinced that she was working a late today - until the hospital rang and woke her up too to explain that she was now a quarter of an hour late for her early shift. Her husband had taken her car to his job at the airport and could I please get up quick smart and drive her to work in the next town?
I wanted to say 'What if I don't? What will happen?" but at that time my brain works faster than my mouth so I just mumbled "Onmway" and tumbled into a pair of jeans and the car.
Which brings me onto the question of routines ... or for anyone with confused sisters the lack of them. I'm playing about with the best daily routine for days when I have the whole day free to write. I seem to have a huge afternoon slump and have decided that the best way to deal with it is to go with natural rythms and use it to read instead... worthy novels, books which will serve as role models, works of art that will last all time... or on days when I have been dragged out of bed into fog without even so much as a cup of tea, a copy of Oprah magazine.
Inside the November issue is an advert for VW Beetles. It is a perforated sheet of card comprising nine tear out cards, the middle one of which directs you to the VW site. On one side of the others are photos of eight happy looking people and one ugly and vicious looking cat. On the reverse side there is a potted biog of each person giving their name, job, what they keep in a bud vase, (ranging from Sunflowers to a glittery doll's head) their 'special powers' and their good deeds. The scary cat turns out to be called Armand and have a job as a therapy pet. Instant characters...who said reading O Mag was skiving?
Now, I have to go and figure out what would happen if a 2000 Reflex Silver New Beetle Convertible ran that skinny feline over....?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


This week I acted for a father in a contact dispute. His own father was also making an application to the court and both came out with identical orders. The grandfather was grateful and appreciative. He was of the view that past grievances with the child's mother had to be be laid aside and that there was a long future to look forward to. He thought the five hour round trip they had to do to collect the children was nothing for the pleasure of their company. He was gentle and forgiving in his attitude. The father, reacting to the exact same outcome, gave me a constant tirade about the unfairness of the system, his intention to make complaints and to go to the European Court of Human Rights. He was disgusted with the outcome, angry with the mother, fixated on the wrongs he percieved she had perpetrated against him and unable at all to talk about his plans for his time with the children.
Also this week, I have begun a self-imposed study programme for my 'writing sabbatical' which includes rereading some of the novels which are close to mine in genre and which I raced though out of pure enyoyment first time around. I want to take time to go back and read more closely to learn from the author's techniques. I have started with Jodi Picoult's book My Sisters's Keeper and it just so happened that today's chapter was the one where the family recieved the news that their four year old daughter has cancer. At that stage we know little about the characters but each is distinct in their reaction. It is noticable that we do not need to know the character to understand their reaction, rather we learn the character by observing their reaction. Thus a rolling programme starts - the plot provides the event, the reaction tells us about the character, his reaction sets off another chain of events, to which the character reacts....
Try taking the exercise from yesterday - your character does not get his prefered food from the chiller cabinet. Is he angry, does she think that it is just typical of her miserable life? Does he take action by going elsewhere, does she eat something she dislikes instead not to offend her lunch companion? Then, how does the shopkeeper react to an angry customer? Does the lunch comanion depise the woman for her inabilty to assert her preferences or does he love her for it? Make it a suprising reaction, make then regret their reaction, make the two different reactions a source of conflict between characters ('How could he not cry? Why is she always so emotional?)... do whatever you like, it's your book, just keep on writing! I fell down the well for a full two and a half hours today and it feels great! Mind you even if I had fallen down a cliff instead I'd probably rather be at the bottom with a broken leg than in a car for five hours with that father!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Cafe inspiration - a home baked writing exercise

Earlier this week, The Times published an account of a research programme costing in the region of £140,000. The study examined cafes such as Starbucks and Cafe Nero and came up with such conclusions as:
* cafes are a convivial place to meet friends
* people stop going to a particular cafe if the coffee is no good
* a request to borrow a newspaper is either met with a cold shoulder or a welcoming smile.
Apart from the fact that a lot of writers could have benefitted greatly from that cash - to attend an Arvon course maybe, or just to have a couple of days off work to imerse themselves in writing, the researchers seem to have missed one of the vital points about cafes: their value as safe havens for writers.
We all know of the famous authors ( need I say the JKR words?) who scribble their way to fame and fortune over a mocha-decaff- soy milk-cappucino. (Or perhaps just a black coffee in a chipped mug until that publishing contact is actually signed). How many others (should I admit to this online?) have conducted some very effective and cheap research by stacking a basket of books and retreating to the inhouse coffee shop to make notes in their journal ... and then 'rewarded' themselves for their hard work by choosing a novel from the pile. ( Shame on the bookshops - Foyles in London and Waterstones in Bath, for example, who refuse to presume that a book lover will not dribble their latte on the pages and ban books in their coffee shops. You deserve the sale of the reward book to go to Amazon).
And what about the people who use cafes to carve out precious writing time? A day like mine today- court case in the morning ( no I'm not a criminal I'm a barrister - read my profile) lecture to give in the afternoon, a drive in hideous fog from Liverpool to Manchester for dinner with a very supportve writer friend ( check out her website) , back home to prepare tomorrow's case - does not lend itself to a daily writing practice. But skip breakfast and you travel out of rush hour ( just) which saves you time, which gives you longer for breakfast, which means you can sit in a cafe and think and write before work.
Plus, the environment stimulates the imagination. Try this - it worked for me this morning. Look at the chiller cabinet through the eyes of one of your characters. What would she like to eat in there? ( In my case, Anna, who actually works in a cafe, would like the fromage frais topped with organic mango). Then create conflict - why can't they have it? (In Anna' s Liverpool greasy spoon it might be too expensive for her and the customer's like her to buy). Then go with that - take it to the next step and the next step. (It's the ingredients which are too expensive. Why? Becuase Izzy her employer is in debt. If Izzy is in debt he might have to lay Anna off.) Bingo - new chapter ending, new challenge for Anna who is struggling to set up a new life after fleeing domestic violence, new storyline as she makes plans to help him out of the debt. All because of a chiller cabinet of yoghurts.
Now if only I could have some of that £140,000 to take tomorrow off to write that chapter up!

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Blogging distractions

Strictly speaking my 'writing sabbatical' does not start until January but just having made the decision to start has given me impetus and the abilty to give my writing some priority in a busy schedule. Why is it that we writers are so good at putting of starting writing when the actual writing gives so much pleasure? My first resolution of this blog is simply to focus on the enjoyble process of playing with writing rather than the scary self-imposed requirement of producing quality first time round. Yesterday I wrote just over 3000 new words - and today I have edited old fragments of material, experimenting to see how much better it is if I put my main character Anna into first person, if I slow down a bit and focus on details.
I may well have done more than this edited 1000 words today if I had not digressed into the new (to me) world of blogging. A kind man named Lurgis from Louisiana not only read my first post and added kind comments but pointed me towards the Gostats site where I spent a happy half hour choosing me a vistors counter and feeling clever for managing to insert html code into the template settings for my blog. (Don't be impressed - you can go far with guess work and cut and paste). Then there are all the other blogs out there - Lurgis has his own ( check out the Osama picture) but there are also many other authors out there blogging away - check out and also the November issue of the Internet writing journal for a great article on writer's blogs which inspired me to start this in the first place.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Shouting up from the well

Natalie Goldberg, in her books for aspiring authors, talks about the blissful moment when a writer is in full flow, imersed in their work, living the lives of their characters. She calls it 'falling down the well'. It's true - that plunge into another world is wonderful. On the otherhand there are also those days when you sit in another well altogether - the one filled with smelly stagnant water - the ideas that stink, the words that won't move from head to page. I'd like to think that in this blog I will be throwing up words of glee from a Goldberg Well but I suspect anyone willing to spend time reading this blog is likley to get some curses from the other well too, because I'm gong to be writing this to to chronicle a mini-writing sabattical I am about to start.
Sounds grand. Not so much. I wanted time off from a career that tends to leach into evenings and weekends and to wash away any decent writing time. But I didn't want to be without income or to wreck my various sources of self-employment. So, I dithered and debated and finally I compromised. One of my three sources of income is to be on hold from January, the usual jobs swapped for novel writing until I have enjoyed fifty dedicated writing days. The aim - to get the 60,000 words of fragments I currently have into a first draft by July.
Will I succeed? What will I learn along the way? Don't know - but come along for the ride and I'll let you know.