Friday, January 27, 2006

Writing - career or hobby?

Last night I met up with a friend who in the past had been a great help to me in my legal career - a kind of mentor I suppose. He is fun to be with, capable of turning a casual comment in to an interesting debate and I usually wave goodbye to him with a smile on my face. However, since my decision to cut down on my legal career and spend two days a week for six months working on a novel he seems to have transmogrified into a grumpy old man and I came home last night miserable.

It seems that writing is not working, however much effort and time you put in. It cannot be tiring or demanding. Dedication to a new fiction project is not akin to starting a new business or training oneself for a new career alongisde the old one. It is my hobby. And thus I am having days off (and by implication being indulgent and not serious about my career) and at some point I must 'go back to normal'. And no, it is not akin to him being a lawyer three days a week and being a golf pro two days a week because you can't be a part time golf pro and anyway he'd be employed to do that and I don't have a commission for the fiction.

Writing it now It looks such a ridiculous argument and I knew it at the time. But I still came home deflated and discouraged because don't we all want our friends to at least encourage us in our dreams even if they don't share them?

But I'm not going to stand for it.
Its my life and I am going to live it the way that is right for me and if he has a problem with than then tough. It's him who is as I write is putting in just one more day until retirement struggling through rush hour traffic to work for someone else when he'd rather be on a golf course. I am sitting with my feet against my radiator about to jump into the pleasure of creating something unique, about to spend my day working on whatever fulfills me today. If I succeed in getting published at some time in my life, I will have proved it was the right thing to do. If I don't get published I will die knowing that no one could say it I didn't take the opportunities that were given to me, that I didn't even try. I will die happy and without regret.
I only have one life and I am not going to live it trying to fit into someone elses mould.

Besides, when I think about it, he might not actually have the capacity you understand what I am doing. It might not be the best idea to ask a workaholic who never reads a non-law book to be my suporter in an endeavour to achieve a work-life balance that allows for more creativity and fiction writing. After all this is the man who has just chosen a book for his wife for Christmas. She is a woman who reads fiction of all kinds voraciously. Faced with a choice from an entire bookshop he bought her Steve Wright's Complete Book of Factoids. I may have come off lightly with Sharon Osbourne's autobiography - bought, in his own words, 'because it was the kind of book I knew you would never buy'. I am still trying to decide whether that means he deleiberately chose somthing he knew I woudn't like or whether to be charitable and view it as him trying to be sure he didn't duplicate a book in my collection and giving me an opportunity to broaden my horizons. I'll read it and let you know if said horizons were stretched. Either way, it is somewhat ironic that he described her as 'having an interesting story - she's had about six careers, all created when she wasn't entitled to do so from the situation she was in.' Psychologists among you - am I right to detect perhaps some subconscious envy going on here?

Still, even after I have reclassified his complete lack of empathy with my dreams as a kind of emotional disabilty and have replaced his snide dismissal of my dreams with sympathy for his poverty of imagination... I'm still mad at him for raining on my parade. But of course that is where the writer will always win becuase all I need do is pop him in a book. Only I will know that he has become the Asian shopkeeper who bullies his brother, or the Bishop who dismisses all his curate's ideas. And only I will know about the pleasure that ensues when all kind of nasty things happen to him.

So. Time to go and enjoy my days being a Novelist ( with a capital letter today as the equivalent of thumbing my nose at him.) I think I will start with some words games as a warm up. Let me see....
A is for asphixiation, B is for boiling in a vat of hot oil, C is for cutting up into tiny pieces...

Monday, January 23, 2006

Patchwork thoughts

Patchwork thoughts because
(a) quilting is my new hobby and true to form I have gone wholesale for it and spent a lovely two hours today not writing but browsing a remnant and fabric warehouse and then a not so lovely twenty more minutes doing the same. The latter time not so lovely becuase I was over my pay and display time and anxious about those nasty people in flurecent orange and no hearts. You know how in Ireland how you get tax breaks if you are engaged 'in artistic endeavours. Don't you think we should get parking breaks for being creative?
and (b) because I only have itsy bits things to say today:

First talking of taxes. Why is it that if I rent a room to work from, as I do with my office in Chambers, I can tax deduct the cost of the office whether I use it for writing or legal work. However, if I chose (as I did this morning) not to go to the office and write but to go to the Starbucks round the corner and edit the first two chapters of my novel I cannot deduct the skinny blueberry muffin ( note the skinny!) and Zen tea. Is there any logic there? Its a kind of rent for using their comfy chair is it not? It was also a great way to start the day which should have been spent at home writing but had to be spent in court becuase one of my colleagues had a family emergency and needed cover. Another barrister congratulated me on the way in which my brief was carefully placed in a ring binder and tabulated into numbered sections with yellow stickies. I didn't let on that it was in fact the first 28 chapters of my novel which I was still sneakily working on whilst waiting to get called on into court ( don't believe all you see on Judge John Deed - there is a great deal less action -and sex- in most court rooms).

Also for any bloggers reading who don' t subscribe to Mslexia there was a good article about blogs in this issue and you can get it at the authors own blog which is at

And to change the subject - ever go into a huge bookshop really fancying a great new book but have too little time and too much choice and find yourself dithering and not enjoying the experience as much as you should? I had ten minutes in Manchester's Waterstones last week before having to run for a train. ( I would not have had to run if I had not tried to squeeze in 10 minutes in Waterstones but hey, its there, it has a magnetic force, and what is a girl to do?) I decided at random to go three shelves to the right, three shelves down three books in and see what I got. And there I found the book I've just read in one day and had never previously heard tell of : New York Times Bestseller 'Little Children' by Tom Perotta. The blurb decsribes him as an American Chekhov and as an American Nick Hornby - two authors who seem quite far apart on the spectrum to me but that might be becuase I am an ignorant heathen who has never actually read any Chekhov. Anyway , its a simple plot, an easy but enjoyable read... but you can tell it is written by a man.

Is that a controversial thing to say? On the face of it is a novel about relationships, about the effect of a summer affair, about the moving into the neighbourhod of a child sex offender. It's just that everything seems to come down to sex and very little of the sex has any great emotional content. Not that it is gratuitously explicit - the most overt scenes ( one, very funny and involving a thong and Slutty Kay from a website but I'm not revealing more) are part of the plot and not undult graphic at all but its a matter of tone - hard to put into words but I feel that a woman would be softer, more anayltical about the reasons and the relationships whereas the scenes here are matter of fact, more focused on the action of the narative with side comments on the relationships.

Anyway the rule of three worked for me. I have to say I tried it again with the number four but got some weird sci-fi novel in translation from Japanese so perhaps there is no magic in the system but it did remind me to pick somthing up at random everynow and again to give it a try.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Truth or dare

Lurgis, a kind man who lets me know from time to time that someone reads me by posting a comment via the facilty below ( hint hint the the rest of you - come on, communicate with me!) sent me a link to this article about how Oprah Winfrey and all her book reading followers have been taken in by a book that wasn't true. He sent it with sympathy pointing out that 'its a shame that someone who works so hard to become a writer has so many obstacles to overcome - then people like this who just make stuff up and pass it off as real wind up making millions. '

Well, yes, its unfair that many talented writers don't get the reconition some 'chosen few' get and, perhaps its just too like the material I have to read for work, but I can't see the fascination of the recent raft books along the lines of 'I was poor/ abused/ lived in Ireland/ a cellar/ a prison cell and my life was bad/ worse/ pretty like my brother who published his book first. However, I'm not sure I agree that its a shame. After all I make stuff up too. Which is harder, to make it up and make it believable but obviously fiction or make it up and be able to convince that it is true? And would we ever be able to distinguish if publishers did not label things fiction and non fiction? And why do we care?

I suspect it is the consent to being decieved that makes the difference. There is a theory that we read fiction because it allows us to grapple and resolve the problems and worries of the world we live in at a safe external difference. If we think something is true then it turns out not to be does it then threaten out psychological wellbeing in someway? If you accept the first theory then the blurring between fiction and non-fiction would hinder the externalisation readers of fiction are said to use. One can see that being able to trust would make life scarier not safer. On the otherhand, one would also think that it would be very comforting to find out that the tale of abuse and drug use and crime Oprah found so horryfying was not true, to find out that the word is not that bad after all. However, I found it interesting when she said in the report linked above that "After turning the last page...You want to meet the man who lived to tell this tale".

Why is that? Becuase she has the same curiosity that made people want to look at the Bearded Woman on Coney island? I doubt it. I beleive it is becuase if there is one mortal out there who really did survive such an dreadful life then a reader can tell themselves - whether conciously or subconsciously- that whatever life throws at us won't be so bad and thus we don't have to be half the hero we view this man as being and we will still survive despite all the weaknesses we view in ourselves.

All of which theorising takes me where exactly? Just to the thought that as I write my novel I should perhaps be considering - how do my characters survive? What are their weaknesses they have to overcome? What techniques do they use to sidestep or overcome the obstacles in their way? What are the obstacles they face?

So thanks Lurgis for the inspiration to make a few more convincing lies up.

PS I had tea with Prince Charles today and he said that he had accepted an invitation to go in the next series of I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.

PPS Its harder than it looks, OK?


It wasn't a resolution as such, more an acknowledgement of the appropriate way to behave in the new year. We had shelves of unread books in the house before Christmas and more than twenty arrived with Santa. This backlog did not result from lack of reading so much as lack of stopping buying. So perhaps there was no real reason to buy any new books until ,oh, February at least.

So, when by the 12th January we had between us accumulated 11 new books ( let's not count the 5 I took out from the library becuase we were not buying new ones) it occured to us that we might have a little addiction gong on here. A quick check with Collins ascertained that if we had, the word addiction ( via the definition of dependency) means little more than 'being devoted to' being 'influenced' by. Well how else should a cultured person relate to books I ask? It is true that the online dictionary defines it as 'Compulsive physiological and psychological need for a habit-forming substance' and involving an an 'abnormally strong craving'. We plead guilty to the craving. But is it abnormal? I decided to find out.

Sad people that we are we trawled back though credit card statements over a 2 year period and worked out that ( including Christmas/ Birthday etc. presents for each other) we spend in the region of 1.37% of our gross income on books. So is that 'normal' or what? Well, its hard to find comparators but, after a bit of internet research, I can tell you the following:

* The avereage Prospect reader spends £266 per year on books with 13% spending over £500.
* Korean Households spend on average 0.5% of monthly spend on books
* In the UK National Statistic state that the average UK household spent £59 per week in 'recreation and culture' but as well as books this included TV, computers, other leisure and package holidays, the latter alone comprising more than £12 per week.
* An survey found that stsudents in the UK planned to spend £311 million per annum on books when going to University but actually spent 43% of the sums they planned to spend on books on items like beer.
* 30% of people connected to the internet buy books online
* In Canada in 2001 only 48% of households spent anything at all on books and of the 5.7 million households who did 1.4 million spent over $200 per year
* The average San Fransiscan spends 1.1% of his income on books or $266 whilst a Los Angeleno spends only 0.7% at $148 per year.

So are we 'normal? Not really. Even in San Fransisco where the percentage rate is similar the actual spend in cash terms is much much lower.
Do we care? No.
Because (aside from the fact that our little habit drives us neither to debt or to crime) I also found out that the average US illegal drugs user spends $69 per day on his habit. Which makes us look like star graduates of the Betty Ford clinic. So if you will excuse me I'll just be going to have a browse through Amazon.........

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Random thoughts

Iam not - according to the rules I have set myself - supposed to blog in the middle of the the day. The reason I have rules is that for the next six months I am allowing myself to work at my day job for a maximum of three days a week to enable me to dedicate more time to my fledgling novel. That has the effect of costng me a lot of money so I am determined not to waste my precious home days reading magazines and painting my toenails. So, I have given my days a set order. Journalling comes first. I go to it straight out of bed, touselhaired and blearyeyed. Twenty minutes freewriting straight down no shirking. It is supposed to stimulate creativity and mould you as a writer. I'm not sure about that yet, but one thing it does do is make writing the first priority in the day which I find does set me up with some kind of balance, even on days when I have to then go and do some legal work.

Then comes a walk around the block or 20 mins yoga to conteract the fact the the rest of the day will be spent hunched over a laptop stuffing biscuits down my throat. (Or possibly dried mango if I am being good, but I have found that writer's block is cured by chocolate brownies - both the making and the eating of them. Strange how the creative psychologists don't mention that in their books.).

Bt ten o'clock I must be at the desk. Having written fragmentary pieces of the novel over previous months, the plan for the next six is to write sequentially clipping together peices and reworking them to fit into the new work as I go, working towards a final first draft by July. So far I find that I can do five to five and half hours writing befroe I start to 'go off'. So late afternoon - time to peruse a writing manual or Mslexia magazine, then some cooking... and then the blog if I feel I have anything to say whch is not all the time.

But the great perk about self-employment is that I make the rules so I can adapt the rules and I am blogging now just to keep the fingers moving. I have come to a natural breakpoint in the novel today by finishing Part 0ne. I didn't know I had parts until I wrote the end of chapter fifteen but now I think I do. And so there was a great sense of achievment at this natural milestone but also the flow was broken. So I took a break to go to the library to get some books on quilting which I think might be the new skill I learn for 2006 ( aromatherapy was the new thing for 2005!). So now I just want to keep the fingers moving while I contemplate whether part 2 carries on after a little leap forward in time or whether in fact I can go back in time for a short part 2 and give some of the history of my characters' relationship.

But I have headed this 'Random thoughts' which is because originally I was not going to bore you with the structure of my writing days but to comment on two media pieces I saw recently. One, in the Times, complained that publishers only publish rubbish and that when chapters from two Booker Prize winning novels from 35 years ago were given to publishers they were rejected. This apparently shows that publishers do not recognise good writing. It occurs to me that publishers are not there to recognise the prize giver's definition of good writing. They are there to publish books that people want to read. The sales figures of current prize wining novels may well indiate that, if the definition of 'good' writing is 'enjoyed' writing, that the Booker Prize is being given to the wrong authors. Or it may be that tastes change over a generation. Would Dickens or George Elliot writing in the style he did get published today?

The second was a TV programme I only watched becuase my husband put it on when we were indulging in the bad habit of eating our tea from trays. It was a documentary following Rolf Harris painting the Queen. It was actually fascinating, not only to see the picture emerging but as a study of the psychology of creativity. Chocolate Brownies did not feature at all I am sad to say, but I was pleased to watch Rolf swabbing his canvas with any colourwash that came to mind because the blank white canvas frightened him. I liked the fact that he got up at 5am to paint it because thoughts about the painting were going round and round in his mind. I enjoyed seeing him frustrated becuase he was too busy to paint and then weary. At once point he declared that he was now' fussing and fiddling with it when I want to be bold and brave."

Why did I find this so pleasng? Becuase somehow it made me seem part of a community of creators all doing the same thing in their own spheres. It legitimated my own experiences and inspired me to continue. I hope this blog might do the same for at least one writer out there somewhere.