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Thursday, 10 December 2009

Thai Adventures

Writing has had to stop whilst I enjoy learning the Thai art of Khon - Theatre/dance/mime. arranged by Arts on Location, this course is a cultural journey both challenging and amazing. If ever I have to write a book set in Thailand, I will remember the heat, the smell of jasmine, the smiles of the Thai teachers, and - the inevitable mosquitos. Copious amounts of Deet have failed to deter them from feasting on me.
If you want to see what we have been doing and have access to Facebook, you can find pictures of our acrobatic adventures by typing in "artsonlocation".
Tomorrow we give a performance, and have to be sewn into our costumes - sounds painful, and we are still learning to stand on one leg wearing a mask - but I hope it will go well and make the audience laugh. Wish us luck!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Interview on Writewords
You can find an interview with me on the Writewords writers website. For those that don't know, Writewords is one of the biggest resource sites for writers, with a chance to post your work to other writers for critique, and to chat to other writers in user-friendly forums.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Amazon's Kindle for Christmas - Fuel for thought

From Oct 7th newspaper, "We’ve heard whispers for months, but this morning Amazon snapped its fingers and made the Kindle available in the UK, as well as 99 other countries around the world."
At the moment you have to place your order through and have the device shipped to Britain (complete with a US power adapter).
Amazon says “in the future, we plan to introduce a UK-centric Kindle experience, enabling you to purchase Kindle and Kindle books in sterling from our UK site.”
The cost at the moment is £217, as an import, but I have spoken to two people who have asked for it for Christmas. Admittedly, they are both academics, who will use its vast library of classics for reference whilst teaching. But both said they would be downloading novels too, and regretted that there was a limited choice.

Recently delighted by my cover for my debut novel, I wonder what this will mean for the cover artists and layout designers who work so hard to make our books attractive and tactile on the shelves with full colour, gold-foiling, embossing, cut-outs and so forth.

An even more important question then, will be how will our books be judged if not by the cover? Does it mean that there will be less of a concentration on big names, and more opportunity for the discerning reader to choose a book from a carefully worded blurb, i.e words, rather than from an image?
It could mean that those books that cross genres will be freed from the necessity of being pigeonholed to a single readership, by a cover that attracts only one sort of reader.

I'd be interested to know how important the cover and packaging are to writers, and whether there are any writers out there who own or ar planning on getting a kindle.

Kindle - ignite, light; set fire to, touch off; fuel, stoke, feed the flames; make the fire, rub two sticks together (Roget's Thesaurus)

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Trusting the Reader

I've just been having a conversation with people in my creative writing class about trusting the reader. Admittedly this was in a session about poetry, but I think it is true of all writing. As a writer I am too often guilty of trying to force the reader's view by over-informing them. It is as if we want to force the reader into a corner so that they have no option but to view the imaginary world in the same way as we do when we are writing it. To make sure they have 'our picture' we over-describe every detail, leaving the reader with nothing to do except read a detailed report of the events.

But the best books are those that leave most of it to the reader's imagination, so that the two of us - the writer and the reader, are both carrying equal responsibility for imagining the book. This makes for a vivid experience for the reader, who then truly owns the book. For a writer, this means being sparing with the detail and precise in our use of language, and avoiding telling too much.

I much admired Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which was a harrowing book, but the nightmare vision was achieved by allowing our own memories and fears to inhabit the blank spaces in his beautifully open prose.

For a writer of historical fiction this is a particular temptation - there is so much lovely detail in the research I could add, but I have to restrain myself, and continually ask the question: Is this the detail that will conjure the scene for the reader, or is it just more icing on an already over-laden cake?

(that's one metaphor that will definitely have to go!)

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Catalogue of Forbidden Books

In 1763 the Government of Hapsburg, Vienna, published a Catalogue of Forbidden Books. Twelve years later this catalogue had to be included amongst its own contents because the people were using it as a guide to stimulating reading.

Word processing and Wordsworth

I'm sure many of us writers will have wondered how on earth any writer from the pre-computer age actually managed to edit work without the benefits of cut & paste, spell-check, grammar check etc. Now mired in the umpteenth draft of the second book, and moving around whole chapters from here to there, I am appreciating just how useful my computer is.

A few months ago I visited the Wordsworth Museum near my home and saw the multiple versions of poems written by William, but painstakingly copied in their various drafts by his dutiful younger sister Dorothy. Perhaps this was laziness on William's part, or more likely a common practice in earlier centuries, that the men wrote, and women or wives carefully copied it out every time their spouse wanted to make a change to the text. A labour of love, if ever there was one. It is also fun to speculate and wonder how many women slipped in a few of their own alterations?
Dorothy Wordsworth

I still write out some things by hand, but not much. Mostly I type direct onto the screen and only print out at the end of the first draft, then again when I'm at approximately the 2nd, 3rd  drafts - though I have to say the process of deciding - "I've reached the third draft now, better print it out and re-read it" - is a bit arbitrary. Mostly I've been tinkering about since the first so-called draft, and after that the whole revising and editing process is ongoing. But agents/publishers and other people are always more likely to be impressed if you say you are working on the third draft than if you say you are still working on the first! All I can say is, thank goodness the machine does the hard work of crossing out and re-ordering, and I am not reliant on a long-suffering relation to do it for me.

Friday, 6 November 2009

The Lady's Slipper now available to pre-order on Amazon

I was thrilled to find that The Lady's Slipper is now available to pre-order on Amazon. It is also, bizarrely, available to pre-order in Japan on the japanese Amazon! Neither of them have a cover pic though, and the cover design is great as you can see. You can find a bit more info on my website

Friday, 30 October 2009

The riddle of making history real.

I was looking on Alis Hawkins' blog last night and there is a fascinating discussion on there about what we might want in a historical novel.

When I first submitted my novel to various publishers the responses were divided between those who thought there was not enough period detail and those that thought the book was overwhelmed with it. Fortunately I have now found a publisher who thinks it is just right! I think as a writer we often forget that the reader of a "historical" novel might have picked it up not because they like the look of the story, but because they are an expert in that period and want to read everything about it. Someone once told me a story about someone on a writing course who was busy researching for her Roman novel. A few years down the line he asked her how her novel was progressing, and she confessed that she was still researching - it was the research she loved, not the writing.

The earlier the period, the less stable our view of it. Our view of history is shaped by our own preconceptions. A world view where the Earth was flat was cutting edge in medieval times. Western Christendom conveniently bent Ptolemy's view of the fixed stars and left space for a Heaven and Hell behind them. This view persisted for well over a thousand years and to someone living then - it was real. (or rather constructed by their own imaginations.)

When writing about the 18th century Philippa Gregory says
“Any metaphor about science or medicine or technology, you can’t use – so you have to remember not to say that someone’s look is electric or that his or her touch is magnetic, or talk about the gravity of your feelings.”

So yes, anachronistic language will jump the reader out of the story, but on the other hand the Cadfael novels would have probably sunk without trace if the dialogue was in Chaucer's english.

But for me the story and the history are intrinsically linked - that story could not have happened at any other time.
Or to be more precise, that story could not have been imagined by me in any other imaginary version of that period.

For none of us were there. Even seeming experts who have researched every last utensil and garment. So the expert's mental construction of the period is just different, not necessarily more complete than a more imaginative rendition of the past. But then perhaps my view is not shared by the majority of readers.

Rose Tremain, in her atmospheric book Music and Silence, changed the dates of real events to fit her dramatic purpose, and said “almost anything can be changed, but with the caveat that the work alchemised out of the real history must feel as real as it.”
So that says it for me - I want to “alchemise” history, and give people a real experience, not necessarily a history lesson.
Philippa Gregory, Interview at
Rose Tremain

Monday, 26 October 2009

Reading Out Loud

Is there anyone else out there that reads whole books out loud? Is it really an activity for grown-ups?

Well, my partner and I have taken to doing this, and it is a great way to share a story. The tricky part is finding something you will both enjoy and are both willing to invest the time in, as reading aloud to someone else is slower than solo reading. But the rewards for a writer are that you develop a sense of hearing how the story flows, finding out what sort of language really triggers the imagination. You become more aware of the sound and texture of the language, and less concerned with writerly devices.

Reading it yourself is much more active than listening to a "talking book" as you have to make your own decisions on tone of voice, pauses, and dramatic interpretation.

We have had one disaster - we read Ben Okri's Starbook, which had rave reviews and started out with us both loving the language. But unfortunately it seemed to be all writing and no substance, and very repetitive and dull when it was read aloud, and we had to force ourselves through gritted teeth to read to the end.

Much more enjoyable were Lindsay Clarke's two books about Troy, The War at Troy and Return from Troy which despite their weight were gripping, readable, and balanced when read out loud. Once we had read the first, then we had to have the second one, and it did not disappoint - a cast of Gods, heroes and ordinary mortals against the seething background of the ancient world. Excellent. Historical novels where the history does not outweigh the plot. (Though we did have varying pronunciations of all the names ...)We followed this up with his Celtic Romance, "Parzival and the Stone from Heaven" - much shorter, more like a snack than a meal.

Anxious to avoid disappointment, and hooked on the ancient world of Greece and Rome, we then plumped for "The Bull from the Sea" by Mary Renault. This was superb, and had us both in emotional knots by the end of the book. So much so that we were both really sad to see the last page. The prequel to that, "The King must Die" is also a great read.

We have another Mary Renault lined up, but that seems a little bit safe. And wouldn't it be nice to live dangerously sitting on our sofa at home.

So - if there is anyone out there who can recommend suitable reading aloud books, it would be great to have some suggestions. Although we seem to have been lodged in the classical world, we are ready to try new horizons. Any suggestions?

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Myth and Memory

Last night I was privileged to see a live storytelling event called "Hunting the Giant's Daughter" at Lancaster Litfest.
The story is a re-telling of an old myth from the Mabinogion. It is a tale that hides its wisdom beneath heroes and villains, blood and thunder, the living landscape of seed and tree.
At about two hours in length and told by one teller, with the help of a musical accompaniment, we were asked to conjure a whole world from the words of the storyteller. Today most of our stories are given to us visually on television or computer and very few are conjured in our own imaginations, spurred on by the poetry and rhetoric of a live voice. The experience was a potent one, not least because it was shared with the rest of the audience, who had the same, but also their own unique, rendition of the story in their imagination. Each person had made what was real for them.It led me to think about how we as writers create these "pictures in the head."

Memory or Imagination
So, are these pictures from our imagination - i.e are they something new, or are they a compilation of our memories? And if so, how much of the archetypal memory do we have access to? As a writer this topic interests me because part of the mystery of writing is that often I am the teller, but the story - the story, is not mine. It exists somewhere else already, and I need to remove myself somehow for the story to come to life. Anyone who has read Christopher Booker's "The Seven Basic Plots" will be familiar with the idea that stories perhaps follow archetypal patterns - an idea which can be ignored, or used to the writer's advantage. So here is an idea - perhaps next time approach your story as if it is a memory - a hidden memory. That you were there, but have just forgotten.

A Real Quest
If there is anyone out there who is interested in how Story and Myth meet, and wants to go on a real Quest, right now, this moment, a writer friend of mine has set up a website for just this purpose. You can find it at

Riddle of the Day
Name me and I cease to exist.

Thursday, 22 October 2009


Thought I would kick off with a riddle.

My first is in blue, but not in glue;
My second is in old, but not in new;
My third in look but not in see;

My last in ask but not in plea;
My whole has leaves but not a flower -
T'will help you pass an idle hour.

I'll post the answer in a few days, although I expect most of you will have it already!
The beauty of riddles in that they make you think in metaphors and as a writer I find this fascinating. I am reading a whole book of riddles at the moment, and they certainly encourage "outside the box" thinking - particularly if the riddle is from a different culture. Riddles supply more questions than answers, and this to me is their value.