Saturday, 18 December 2010

A Winter Wonderland, watched from the window...

Well. Got back from Bath just in time - yesterday evening - because now it is absolutely tipping it down with snow. It's like something from Laura Ingalls Wilder out there. I'm already looking through my bookshelves, working out what can go on the fire when the gas gets cut off.

The audiobook went well, by the way - at least in the sense that they didn't sack me. I didn't sleep at all the night before - the hotel room was very noisy, and at about two or three I started worrying about not having got to sleep, which of course kept me awake the rest of the night - so really I just wanted to get through it without making a complete mess of it. And I did get through it, although the jury's still out on the complete mess bit. Oh well. They'll have to pay me, which is the main thing, and I can always just not listen to it... I got the next morning off, which was nice, and wandered around Bath wishing I had lots of money. (Bath always has that effect on me. It's the best place in the world for shops selling things you don't need but want anyway. Or the worst, depending on how you look at it.)

And I got the train home almost without incident, which - considering that South West Trains had already started to cancel trains for the next day - was quite impressive. Only one unexplained stop for twenty minutes just before my station, while everyone on the train assumed the worst and started asking each other questions about food supplies and toilet facilities and whether there was someone on board to administer the Last Rites when people started to die of old age. I was quite glad when the train started moving.

And I'm even gladder now, because I can't imagine that there are any trains running at all this morning, and I'm at home drinking coffee and watching the snow fall... Later I'll decorate the Christmas tree.

Then I think I might go for a walk.

I may be some time.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

And this month's crisis is...

The audiobook. More precisely, the audiobook of Tyme's End, which - despite Tyme's End not actually being published until the 4th of January - I'm recording this week in the bath. No, sorry, in Bath. Sorry. Easy mistake to make.

The crisis is a two-parter - or a double whammy, or whatever the appropriate phrase is, for crises. Double-dip? Anyway. Firstly, I'm ill again, which is really annoying, and means I'm swigging echinacea tea and inhaling steam and OD'ing on vitamin C in a desperate attempt to have a voice by Thursday. Normally (one of the perks of being a writer) it doesn't really matter too much when I'm ill, because my daily life involves nothing that can't be put off or soldiered through without too much trouble. But this is the disadvantage of doing something exciting... Hmph. I blame my editors, because I was at the Bloomsbury Christmas party on Thursday and I'm convinced that's where I caught it. Every time I go to London I seem to get ill - maybe there's a lesson there... Such as, "The capital is a steaming cesspit of pestilence"?

The second bit was more foreseeable, and can be summed up in one word: accents.

Yes, accents. Of course, I am a Trained Actor, darling, but accents were never my strong point, and you'd think I'd know better than to put myself forward for an audiobook where they have any significant part to play. Yes, well. Think again. One of the characters - one of the main characters - has an American accent. Or rather he has a bit of an American accent, as he's English, but has been living in the US for ten years. I suppose I was hoping it wouldn't matter too much if it sounded weird and hybrid, because - well, it would. Wouldn't it? At least, I really hope so... But writing a scene with an American accent, a Welsh accent and an Iranian accent was just silly. (Not to mention sounding like the set-up for a joke.)


And to make matters worse, there's a clause in the contract which says they can sack me on the first day if I'm not reading it to an acceptable standard. So - this is a real cliffhanger, then. Will I come back having earnt some money and made an audiobook? Or will it be only a sad little sojourn in Bath? Tune in again next week to find out...

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Going to hell in a handcart...

I'm just recovering from some sort of lurgy (caught, thank you very much Philip Ardagh, on the way back from the Young Minds Award judging evening, about which all I can say is that the other judges were fantastic and so is the VERY SECRET winning book), and last night I had one of those strange memorable dreams that seem to come with the convalescence process. I dreamt I went on a lucid, perfectly sensible rant about how everything is going to shit.

Apologies to anyone who's offended by the s-word (but why are you reading this, anyway?).

The weird thing is, my subconscious seems to be in exact agreement with my conscious, because everything is going to shit.

Public libraries. The NHS. Universities. Climate change. Ebooks. Everything.

I was reading about the 18th-century enclosure laws just before I fell asleep, and my subconscious made the connection: sometimes things happen which are for the worse and never get put right. Dismantle the country now and it won't get stuck together again. Give us the equivalent of the US education system, the US health system, the Siberian weather system, and that will be it.

Why isn't there some rioting, for God's sake?

And it's so depressing, to be angry and completely impotent. I can't bear to listen to the radio any more. It used to be just Any Questions, now it's the Today programme, The World at One, everything. I can't bear it. Last night the only way I could get to sleep was to imagine I'd died and that my body was slowly, gently decomposing into the earth, turning into minerals and moisture. Seriously.

OK, possibly that's why my dreams weren't cheerful. But now I'm awake, I feel exactly the same.

Then again, I s'pose it could be the lurgy talking.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Home again...


My last post was on the 6th of August. The 6th of August?!

How come I feel as guilty about not writing this blog as I would about not writing a book? It's absurd. But it's hard. It's like writing a diary. (The classic problem, apart from guilt, of course, is that the more you do the less time you have to write a diary. Which is why diaries are always so self-indulgent - or mine are, anyway. When I have anything worth recounting I'm out actually doing it.) And the only time I've ever managed to keep a diary going for more than a couple of weeks, it was partly fictional, complete with imaginary love affair and secret identity. Don't ask, OK?

But at last I feel guilty enough actually to post something, which is probably a good thing. So: my life in brief...

Well, I've been on holiday. To Avignon, since you ask, which was wonderful, complete with candelit dinners on our terrace, the best tapenade I've ever eaten, wine-tasting in the Popes' Palace, and carnivorous ants dragging a wasp carcase out of the bathroom window. All of which made for a good time. And I wrote a chapter - that's 10,000 words, not to be sneezed at - of my new novel while I was there. Hurrah.

And got back to find that all the things which were making me angry before I left (Tories, public service cuts, corruption and stupidity in local government, IDIOTS on the Today programme saying things like borrowers paying "two or three pounds per book" is a sensible way to fund public libraries, and still no contract - or money - from Bloomsbury for the latest book, despite my having returned the edits before I left) were still here and still had the capacity to make me angry. Welcome home.

Oh well. I'll just have to start saving for next year.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Ah, the joys of a photo shoot...

Just been down in Pett (near Hastings) for a couple of days, doing a publicity-photo shoot for a film I was in a while ago. For anyone who's interested, it's called Stranger Things, and hasn't been released yet - but watch this space, as it's already won an independent film competition and is getting some good attention... It was very low-budget - hence the need to take photos later, as normally there would be a stills photographer there while you were shooting the film - but it's a lovely, subtle story with some great performances. (Or so I've been told. I haven't seen it yet.)

Anyway, on the photo shoot we stayed in a sweet little B&B, which was run by a really talkative woman who made ceramics. She cornered us after breakfast and, on hearing what we were doing, started talking about her own creative processes ("You never know where inspiration comes from, do you? It just comes... my grandson said to me, Nan, where do you get your ideas? but of course I just don't know, I just have them..."). And then she started showing us her work ("I had this idea for a pottery frog to go in the garden, with a top hat and glasses and a book... and this statue, I had the idea for the woman kneeling in the waves because I got to the bottom and realised I couldn't do feet...") and it was all... well, not very good. OK, so I'm a bit of a snob - but it was all so incongruous, the kind of Radio 4 artistic introspection, as if we'd come to interview her, when the work was all so bad.

I related this story to my parents, and my dad said, doesn't it make you think of that poem...?

The one he was talking about is:

'Look at the happy moron.
He doesn't give a damn.
I wish I were a moron.
My God, perhaps I am!'

And he's absolutely right.

So today I am not going to expatiate on my creative processes.

I'll just leave you with the image of three people squashed in a twenty-year-old camper van, which is rolling gently backwards down a hill while the driver curses and revs and the smell of burnt plastic rises all around. I've been in cars where I thought they might not get up the hill, but in the past they always did. This one, however, did actually roll back down. And apparently after I got dropped off it got stuck on the M25 and had to be rescued by the AA. The world of low-budget films is a glamorous one...

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The most boring job in the world...

At the moment - I'm back in England, and back to work - I'm editing.

Which is normally fairly interesting. In fact, I quite like it. It doesn't have the same highs and lows as writing the first draft: no dire writers'-block days, no euphoric flights-of-fancy nights... There's no real pressure, because you've got something, there's no blank page staring back at you balefully - and chances are, if you're editing from someone else's notes, the book's already been accepted. You can just do a bit of tinkering. It feels mechanical, sometimes, but in the bext possible way: this bit doesn't work here, so there must be something missing there... It's very like working on a machine. And at the end, if you get it to work, you get a feeling of quiet satisfaction, which isn't as exciting as finishing a first draft - but then, it didn't require anything like the same amount of input.

Normally. At the moment, however, I am doing the MOST BORING EDITING IN THE WORLD. I am transposing pretty much AN ENTIRE NOVEL from the present tense to the past. I cannot tell you how boring this is. And no, you might be surprised to learn, there is no Word function that can do it for you, because Word is not that sophisticated. ("This is a long sentence." Thanks, grammar check, if only I'd realised.) It really, actually means you have to change, or at least check, EVERY VERB in EVERY SENTENCE. Did I mention that it was boring?

The novel is, of course, a work of genius. But I can't face actually reading it as I go. No, I skip morosely from verb to verb, stopping every now and then to realise I've changed a whole lot of direct speech from present to past and need to change it back. It is very, very boring. And takes HOURS.

I'm going to stop now. This is already quite a long whinge, as whinges go. It's probably quite boring.

Then again, that's quite appropriate.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Qh, lq belle Frqnce!

I!m ariting this on s French keyboqrd ) ahich, qs you cqn see, hqs several very irritqting trqnspositions of letters qnd co,,as qnd things; Good for the budding Qlqn Turings q,ong you, but just slightly irritating for everyone else; The zorst thing is zhen I get used to it qnd go ho,e to find thqt I cqn:t type on a QWERTY keyboqrd either;

On the other hqnd, the zeqther is fqntqstic.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Branford Boase high jinks...

Last night was the Branford Boase Award party, which, as one of the judges and last year's winner, I had to go to. But that was OK, because I would've gone anyway. It's a really nice occasion, very informal and friendly, which was just as well as I had to do the Judges' Summing Up ('let me put it to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury...') and was quite nervous. When you win it's not as bad, because no one minds what you say, they just smile at you benevolently, like you've just given birth to your first child. I suppose, in a way, you have...

Anyway, it all went fairly smoothly, apart from my nearly knocking over a massive vase of flowers that some IDIOT had put on a plinth right next to the platform... (Flowers? FLOWERS? Clearly an embarrassment hazard. Where were Health & Safety when I needed them?) And I got to announce the winner, which was fun (if a little bit nerve-wracking, as I was afraid I'd have a sudden brainstorm and announce the wrong person).

Which brings me to the important bit: the winner of the award was - dum dum DUM - Lucy Christopher, for her book Stolen. And I'm really glad it's been announced, because now I can rave about the book without giving away any secret information... Stolen is a wonderful, chilling, quietly subversive book about a kidnap and the relationship between the kidnappee and kidnapper. It's beautifully, economically and vividly written - the setting, the Australian outback, is brilliant, almost a character in its own right - and really remarkable, original and assured. READ IT! (And Lucy is lovely, too. But we didn't know that when we chose the book.)

The shortlist was also brilliant - I particularly liked Numbers (Rachel Ward) and Life, Interrupted (Damien Kelleher). But I would be very surprised indeed if all the writers didn't go on producing fantastic books...

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Cauliflowers in fiction: the power of the imagination...

I was cooking the other day with cauliflower. I got it out of the fridge and unwrapped it, and then split all the leaves away from the stem, and what was I left with? A brain.

No, well, OK, obviously it wasn't a brain, it was a cauliflower. But I couldn't help imagining that it was a brain, as I cut it into bits and boiled it. In the same way that when I skin tomatoes I'm thinking about how the skin peels off just like human skin, leaving that veined raw-looking pulp underneath, and - well, who doesn't eat grapes and feel them popping in the mouth like eyeballs? And that's before I even mention things like livers and kidneys, which actually are livers and kidneys.

I realise this makes me sound like a psychopath. And it's true that I can see a rather macabre theme developing here. But this is my job. I spend my life imagining the worst, so that I can inflict it on my characters - and after a while you can't stop yourself. Sometimes I end up imagining it in such detail (what would happen if that car mounted the pavement just as I walked past?) that I scare myself. It's a litte bit unhealthy.

But it's also fun. Next time you cook a cauliflower, try pretending it's someone's brain. It's a lot more interesting.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

I can't work today. I've got to go to the dentist. Plus I've got a hangover.

Yesterday I couldn't work because I was going up to London in the evening, and yes, that does take an entire day to prepare for. (Mentally, I mean. I wouldn't like you to think that I spend hours trying to look the way I do...)

Monday I also had a hangover. This is most unusual for me.

Sunday I couldn't work because I had a friend coming to tea. I suppose I could've worked after she left, but she left at half past eight or so, and by that time we'd shared a bottle of Veuve Cliquot (she's just got divorced) and I wasn't really in a fit state to try to type. Hence the hangover.

Saturday I couldn't work because - well, it was Saturday.

I don't even want to think about the last time I sat down and really did a good day's work. Possibly it was on my proofs, a few weeks ago - but then doing proofs, while hard work, isn't exactly creative. Or hopefully not too creative, anyway. And given that the novel I'm (in theory) working on at the moment has never had a decent day's work put into it, ever (it's about 5,000 words long, out of a projected 100,000, to which I can only say: Ha!), that must mean it was the novel before, which makes it... at least a couple of months.

Do you ever look back at your life and ask yourself what you're doing with it?

(Research, the answer comes back, in a sepulchral voice. Research.)

Friday, 2 July 2010

The W Word

Last night I saw Bright Star on DVD. For anyone who hasn't seen it, it's a film about Keats and Fanny Brawne, and the only thing I can say is: don't bother. I couldn't work out whether it was badly acted - Ben Whishaw, strangely, is a wonderful actor who doesn't seem to have been in a single good film - or only so, so badly written that the actors froze and just concentrated on trying to say the words without making them sound stupider than they already were. As an actor (a Trained Actor, darling) I know what that's like, and I can forgive them for it. But the script - oh, dear God, the script... What can I say?

Does anyone really imagine that Keats and Fanny Brawne sat around looking soulfully into each other's eyes while they recited La Belle Dame Sans Merci together? Or that she - soulfully - quoted the first lines of Endymion to him at a dance? Or that he recited When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be after Christmas dinner, while looking at Fanny Brawne? (Soulfully, of course.) Honestly. You'd think poets did nothing but quote their own works and look soulful. Incidentally, my mother, who is a poet, pointed out that the other poet character was much more convincing, because all he did was sleep around and be obnoxious...

As the film said, the poet is (in fact) the most unpoetical of creatures. That's a good line, I admit, but Keats actually did say that, so I can't give the scriptwriter much credit. And it's true. Poets are not poetical. Writers don't sit around quoting their own work, as a general rule, and if they did it would be rather embarrassing. (Especially if it's Keats. Try saying, 'O, what ails thee, kinght-at-arms, alone and palely loitering?' in a conversational tone. It's hilarious.) Writers and their work are not synonymous: writing, or having written, interesting books (etc.) does not make you interesting. Writers can and do have interesting lives (or so I'm told... sigh...) but that's separate from, in addition to, their writing. So if you want to make a film about a writer's life, you have to find (or, yes, make up, why not?) something interesting - wait for it - in their life. Yes, Keats' poems are very good (even if they're recited very badly). Yes, he was a great poet, and it's very sad that he died. And I have no doubt that there really is a good and heartbreaking film to be made about him. But forget the poetry. The poetry isn't the story. They're good - but they don't do anything, dramatically speaking. And if all Keats ever does is sit around quoting his own poems, or listening to Fanny quoting them, it just makes him look like an arse.

OK, I'm exaggerating a little bit. But there's this strange sort of perception that "being a writer" is something in itself that is different from, and better than, just "writing". And it's not simply to do with earning a living, or getting published, or all the real (and laudable) ambitions that writers have. Has anyone seen Julie and Julia? Another film where nothing happens, give or take, and one where the blogging character puts this strange, fetishistic emphasis on "being a writer". "I'm a writer!" she squeals at the end. "Yes, you're a writer!" her husband squeals back. She's been writing all the way through the film. But it's only at the end that she gets that shot of self-congratulation, that sort of self-promotion from just writing to (ohmigod!) being a writer. She's attained a new level. Now she is a new, better, more important human being. Soon she will be sitting listening to her husband soulfully quoting her blog at her.

And this, in turn, reminds me of the "writer" character, Jenny, in the American soap The L Word, to whom all things are forgiven and excused because she's a writer. "It's different for her," one of the other characters says. "She's a writer. She needs to experience life." Well, no, sorry. That's not being a writer, it's being a wanker. If you need to kill someone in order to write Crime and Punishment, or (going back to Keats) bury a decapitated head in a basil pot to write Isabella, your career prospects as an author are looking a little limited. You might, I suppose, end up as an insane genius. But that's the point: you would be insane.

Writing itself, the process of actually writing, is interesting only for the person who does it. Think about it: typing, handwriting, whatever, for hours on end, with breaks for the loo and cups of tea. Reading is interesting too, but, again, only for the person who does it. No one would want to see a film of someone doing either. And so what we end up with is films that can't show actual reading or actual writing, but want, somehow, to create the inherent glamour, the excitement and wonderfulness of them. Hence the "being a writer". But "being a writer" is meaningless. What matters is the writing you do. All you are, in the gaps when you're not actually writing, is a person.

But that, at least, is interesting.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Three, two, one... er...



I have no idea, really no idea, what to say. How to begin.

I'm not sure I've ever actually had writer's block before. OK, that's probably an exaggeration. Obviously I've had moments when I've sat at my my desk for half an hour, deleted everything immediately after I'd typed it, and finally given up in disgust. Everyone has those. (I hope.) But when I get stuck I have strategies for dealing with it, and they mostly consist of saying sternly to myself, well, what needs to happen? And then I go for a run, or have a nap, or wander down to the library, and by the time I come home (or fairly soon, anyway) I realise that not only do I know what's going to happen, I always knew it. I just didn't know I knew.

This, however, is not the case in real life. (I mistyped that as "real lie". How Freudian.) So no building narrative tension, no ominous foreshadowing... No plot-bait - which is how I think of those bits I often put in at the beginning of my books, to say, look, sorry, I have to set this up so you understand what's going on, but I promise that after this something will happen. It's an easy tactic, and not necessarily the most graceful, but it works. For me, anyway. 'Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island...' Oh yes. He's going to start from the beginning, fair enough, but they've asked him to write it down - so it must be worth writing, and (more to the point) worth reading. Not to mention the enticing title... Or, three pages into The Secret History: '...And if love is a thing held in common, I suppose we had that in common, too, though I realize that might sound odd in the light of the story I am about to tell.' It's a tease, a tiny flash, a hint of the treasure to come, reassuring us that it's there, and we'll get it in the end. And it happens because the narrator knows what's going to happen. That's the whole point. We can trust him (or her, naturally, but in these cases they're male), because he knows the story already, and he can spin it out for us, leading us unhesitatingly towards something that we know - because he does - is going to be terrible, wonderful, world-shattering... It's like the prophecy at the beginning of Oedipus Rex, the prologue at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet. Narrative tension is, paradoxically, about knowing already what's going to happen. What keeps you reading is wanting to know how and who and why. Surprise, by and large, isn't as interesting.

But this isn't fiction. So surprise it will have to be. But maybe that's OK. After all, who reads a blog for narrative suspense, anyway?

Jug jug jug, by the way, is what nightingales are supposed to say.