Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Cooking up a novel

Having spent the last few days eating sugar I decided today to fill us with some nutrients and searched the net for a recipe for vegetable stew, hoping to imitate a dish I had recently tried at Greystone Farm shop tea rooms. The Internet being what it is the search threw up a myriad of variants (I settled on the African version from a site specialising in fat free recipes, a fact that allowed me to also make the tangy lemon squares for desert without guilt). However, among the google results was a rather surprising but equally nourishing one - a poem fron Myra Schneider entitled Root Vegetable Stew complete with interview with the author.

Now, I'd like to say that I was inspired and that I sat down and wrote my own poem entitled 'Ode to Australian Women's Baking Book', or some such, but I didn't. Not that I am ruling it out for the future. It's just that I had a few slips and had my kitchen experiences tonight produced any actual writing, it would have been more like 'Ode to the egg that cracked in the carton and made the cardboard all soggy' or a haiku on the feel of lemon juice on Italian floor tiles. So as yet, no poem. But, as I was tipping sweet potato peelings into the bin and licking mashed butter and icing sugar from the whisks ( come on, don't tell me you don't do the same) I did manage to think about first drafts.

When I determined to take some days off work to concentrate on my novel (the first of which is tomorrow) I also decided to set myself up with some inspirational books on writing to keep me focused and learning as I wrote. So, earlier today I was reading an excerpt from Annie Dillard's Bird by Bird found in a chapter on getting started in Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction. She expresses her point eloquently but if I can paraprhase her: she reccomends forcing yourself to write 'shitty first drafts' and sees them as an essential first stage to producing wonderful work after several edits. As an example she tells how she went through drwan out processes writing restauarnt reviews, starting with utterly unpublishable words, agonising in case she was run over by a bus before she could improve on them and anyone saw what kind of writer she really was.

It's starkly obvious when you read it in a text book on writing: its utterly unrealistic to think that a first draft can be perfect. In fact, many writers would get little or no pleasure from producing perfect work first off because much of the pleasure of writing is in the crafting, the polishing and creating. The making something rather than the recieving of something. Yet at the same time we paralyse oursleves with the belief that we cannot spoil a blank page with first draft twaddle. We demand the 'right environment', a dedicated and uninterrupted writing time, before we will start.

Cooking for me is another form of creativity, especally baking. Yet I never stare at the empty cake pan worrying that it may turn out sunken or burned. I do not take out the utensils and then spend the next five hours avoiding starting. I do not even agonise about which cake to bake - I just lucky dip into a cook book, or more likley, work out what I can make from that limited ingredients in the cupboard. I can cook in the spare minutes around other activities - a tray of raspberry muffins is in the oven ten minutes after I start and who cares if I had to push aside the tins waiting for recycling and the unwashed liquidiser jug to find room for my mixing bowl? I think nothing of checking on the lasagne and throwing in the garlic slices between the beating and the folding stages. I happily make a messy batter of broken eggs and clouds of flour, confident that a bowl of slop is a necessary pre-requisite for a marble cake or a dozen squares of fudge brownies. And if they go wrong? I'll scrape them into the bin and make another batch.

So why should my attitude to writing be any different? I can't think of any reason why. So tomorrow, I am going to bake me a novel. And if it looks sloppy and half-baked? Well, then I shall set it aside to cook for a while and meantime, I shall enjoy licking my bowl clean of churned up ingredients. After all, that's still the best part of baking isn't it?

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas crisis

It is Christmas Eve and all is not well in the Conway household. LouLou has gone missing. She was in my parent's back garden in a village just outside of Penrith. The last time she was seen she was by the pond and now she is missing and naturally my mother is very upset. The natural assumption is that she has fallen into the pond so it has been dredged. The first attempt to do so was a bit unpleasant as the resident frog was disgruntled and made his slimy presence felt but eventually Dad did manage to get to the bottom of the pond. He found his missing garden fork and a large twig -come- small branch. But no Loulou, so we are having to resort to an internet appeal in case anyone has seen her.

Loulou does have abit of a wanderlust. She has fallen into the pond once before and was rescued, she also vanished completely one night but was found misplaced down the bottom of the garden near the stone wall which keeps the neighbour's cows out of my Dad's rockery. A fox was blamed on that occasion. So it might be that this time she has gained courage from her previous escapades and has taken off for further afield. So if any one finds her could they please return her?

She is a petite duck of light grey stone who quacks in a Welsh accent (having been originally purchased on Cardiff's Christmas market). Her real name is Toilet (her partner, who now sits dejected and lonely by the pond is Crispin, also known as Crispy). Please report all sightings via the comments facility below.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


A kind friend who is the bodily incarnation of the good angel that sits on my shoulder and eggs me on to the things that are good for my life, enquired recently what had happened to my blog. The answer was a simple, I haven't had time. Or at least, becuase she is also the good psychologist who gave up her time to teach me some stress management techniques, I hope it came across as a simple answer. If she would now take up - just for a few lines - the role of the good friend who is willing to skip a few lines - I will reveal to the rest of you that the real answer was actually a more frenzied rant along the lines of I HAVEN'T GOT TIME BECAUSE WORK INSISTS ON SWAMPING THE WHOLE OF MY LIFE AND THE HARDER I TRY TO KEEP IT AT BAY THE MORE IT CALLS ME CANUTE ..... So, as I really cannot expect her to skip anymore lines, I am now going to have to come up with some meaningful content for today's blog.

Which is where that inspiring event of last Saturday comes in. No, not Shane Ward winning the X factor ( although desperate as I am, I will in fact take anyone who achieves what they want as a role model at present). I am talking about the moment I got my third autograph in my current journal. The first belongs to Alexander MCall Smith and was obtained at the Theakstons Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. He is a lawyer too and should be admired in my view simply for the whimsy of the fact that he has written the only existing textbook on Botswanan Criminal Law, quite apart from the beautiful simplicty of his Ladies No 1 Detective Agency books. ( I know that my embodied angel disagrees with my opinion of those books but she is allowed to be fallen just once). Moreover, he is a lovely man with perfect manners - I had a story I wanted to tell him and waited, at his invitation, while he signed books. For every person in the in the not inconsiderable queue, he stood up to shake hands with them, then sat down and wrote personal dedications for them all.

He liked my story too: My mother does not read fiction. Ever. Its not true so why waste her time, is her logic? On one visit to my house she ran out of reading material and, as the latest strategy in my quest to educate her as the foolishness of her thought processes, I loaned her 'No 1. '. She handed it back commenting that it was a lovely book. ' So, I finally got you reading a novel!' I gloated, only to see her face fall in disappointment. 'You've spoiled it now!' she said. 'I thought it was true!' Doesn't that have to be the best compliment any fiction writer could get?

But I digress. The second signature is Kathy Reichs, obtained at a signing session in Waterstones, admired for her abilty to write about the technical details of her job and still make it accessible and entertaining to lay people and for combining a prolific writing career with a demanding professional life.

But perhaps the most inspring to me is the third. It should really have been Michael Connoley, also seen at Waterstones, but his signature is little more than a scribble and I was hungry and tired and couldn't be bothered to queue. So the third turned out to be a new, prize winning poet called Neil Woodcock. Not only do I have his signature but I have his latest poem written out for me in my journal, in his handwriting, signed and dated and I am betting on it being a good investment for the future.

OK. It might be a little early to gamble that he will be the next poet Laureate, because Neil is 9. (just). And I might be a little biased becuase he is my nephew. But I still think his poem is great, and, more to the point he made time to sit down and write it, whch is more than I have been doing lately. So for me he is just as inspiring as the Sandy's and Kathy's of this world. Here is his work for you all to enjoy:


Squibs and starburst
sparks in the sky spectacular sights
to delight the eyes

with cracks and bangs
and earth shattering boom
from powerful rockets launched towards the moon

its really important not to forget
the danger of fireworks to children
and pets

By Neil Woodock

Monday, December 05, 2005

Travelling books

Having just recovered from Birmingham I am now teaching in London for a week and musing on the fact that whoever set luggage allowances for airlines could not have been a reader. Even the books I have carted down here to keep me company in the evenings are challenging that weight limit. So why are airport editions always big trade paperback versions of the books? Don't travellers need versions printed on tissue paper if we are not to continue to suffer injury by checking in 20k then trying to walk upright onto the plane with another 20k of books stuffed into our handbag/ coatpockets/other hiding places I'm not giving away ?

Anyway, I have learned in the last 24 hours that there are in fact other ways to let books travel. I stumbled today on a site called Bookcrossing. Not in fact a site for people who like to put chicklit dust covers onto ferrari manuals but a site encouraging to deface - sorry lable- your book with a cataloge number and then to 'release it' for other people to stumble on and 'catch'. I'm really not sure about this one - my books are not in captivity to be released - they are loved and treasured. Plus they reckon that only 20-25% of releases are caught - so what happens to those other poor lonely books, left homeless in a cruel cold world?

A much better idea seem to me to be Book Aid International, which I found referred to in my free Observer provided on the BA flight to Heathrow: it is their Christmas charity this year. Book Aid works in 18 Sub Saharan African countries to provide books to communities with little other source of reading matter. They run literacy supprt groups and camel mobile libraries for example. The books are often educational - from stories about how children deal with floods to Internet or technical drawing manuals. They run a book club - for £5 per month you don't receive 4 books - but someone else does. Have a look.

I like the quote from their website:
"If education is the road out of poverty, books are the wheels needed for the journey" Richard Crabbe, Chairman, African Publishers Network, 1997-2002

Now talking about wheels and journeys, time to catch a bus to Piccadily to go and browse in Hatchards and Waterstones.....

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Amazon morality question

When I started this blog I promised myself that I would be crafting beautifully put together daily pieces, pithy and worthy of a hard-back collection later when my cardboard box of novel fragments transmogrifies into a shelf of published novels. Or at least, I thought I'd aim for that and at the very least I'd be fulfilling the 'write everyday' dictum. ( Which in my house translates into the ' if-you-think-about-writing-every-day-well-with-your-day-job-thats-pretty-good-going-all-by-itself-have-a-day-off-to-reward-yourself' dictum). You will see from the dates of the entries that I failed the daily test. (I'll leave you to post a comment in relation to beauty and pithiness, but bear in mind that my fridge is bear of all comfort food save for a half bar of emergency cooking chocolate. ).

In my defence, I do have an excuse. I spent most of the evenings last week sitting on the bed in a Premier Travel Inn room in Birmingham, with no internet access and only a donated coffee cake and dire TV for company and a blizzard going on outside. During the day I was teaching trainee solictors how to survive being a family lawyer. In the evenings... well actually, I was writing. It seems that boredom, lonliness and a surfeit of espresso flavoured butter cream might actually be quite creatively stimulating. Especially when writing a scene about a woman who is an unhappy comfort eater. ( I am looking forward to writing the scene where she wins the lottery). So, I have the first four chapters of my novel knocked into a state I am happy with for now as a first draft and having written every day for three days... well, a girl deserves a treat. So I walked fifty yards up Broad Street in the snow and went to an early showing of In Her Shoes, chosen over a couple of other possiblities because I recently discovered Jennifer Wiener's blog - she wrote the novel on which the film is based.

So now I want to buy all her novels. The good news is that I can do so without bankrupting myself because, remember when Amazon sent me an email saying that they duplicated an order and here was a gift certificate for the inconvenience of posting it back? Well they duplicated the gift certificate email too. Now I can tell you that the Consumer Protection Distance Selling Regulations) 2000 Reg 24 ( No I am not making this up) allows me legally to deal with the 'goods' as if they were an absolute gift to me if they were sent with the intention of me acquiring them. But is that the same as an apology being sent twice? But actually that is only the first morality question of the title. The morality question refers to my previous mass purchase of books because I liked an author's personality.

In 'Swallowing words' I said I was going to go and buy One Marian Keyes book. I lied. I bought five. At once. Even thought I know I will not read them before my Christmas books arrive and I already have a shelf of unread books. Which glutonous behaviour is the equivalent of eating a whole box of chocolates at once. Which is why I only have cooking chocolate left. But anyway. I scoured Amazon marketplace and filled my basket with the cheapest copies available in good condition. Then I had a morality moment. If I was buying these books because I liked the author was it the equivalent of a Glasgow kiss to indicate my affection for her work by paying a penny to a second hand dealer for her books? Should I not be buying them new and giving her royalties? So I opened a new browser window and logged onto Amazon again in my husband's name and filled his basket with new copies to see the price difference. And there was a bit of a difference. Not one the size of our EU rebate but one that would buy quite a lot of Cadbury's Flakes. So I dithered for an unreasonably long time then pressed the checkout button to order the second hand ones.

And then I went to Birmingham and felt guilty. I had defrauded my new found friend. ( Note to self: Only stalkers really think that someone is their friend becuase they sounded so nice on their audio book recording). Scrap that: I had defrauded a fellow author of her hard earned royalties, which were all the more due to her becuase of her clever marketing plot of sounding so nice on her audio book. And that's when - sitting amongst the coffee cake crumbs on my budget hotel duvet, that I thought that perhaps I had crossed the line from being a reader who wanted to write to a writer who reads. I had not yet crossed the line from writer to crusader which is why I was still able to put the question of the morality of Amazon discounts and the destruction of the world of small booksellers as we know it to the back of my mind, but still, I felt terribly guilty. So I had another slice of cake and vowed to post good reviews for the books. But I still felt guilty. So I had another piece of cake and scattered some more crumbs ( Premier Travel Inns do not come with plates) and vowed never to behave in this scurrilous way again.

Then my husband rang.

He wanted to to know why he had just received an email indicating that a large pile of chick-lit novels were about to be charged to his credit card. Ooops.I promised to pay him back and then I didn't feel so guilty anymore, so I had a piece of coffee cake to celebrate. And then I was so sugared up that I decided that I would buy her next collection of journalism pieces 'Further under the Duvet' full price. From a bookshop. After all, If I am going to be writing these pithy well rounded pieces, I need to learn the craft. Which may well make the book a teaching manual. Which, could possiibly, just, make it tax deductable and in effect the same price as a second hand one anyway. So Marian Keyes should be happy with me, my bank manager should be happy with me and I should have saved the cost of the dry cleaning needed to remove these coffee cake crumbs from the seat of my jeans.