Friday, January 29, 2010

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book Reports (and various)

This is going to be the year I read more novels.

Last year was a year - a glorious year - of poetry, of short stories, of essays, of non-fiction. But I missed that feeling of sinking into a novel. And for me, 2010 is going to be all about improving my concentration.

So, being the true geek I am, I'm also going to start a record of all the books I've read this year. With a little reminder of what I liked, or didn't like, about them. And some favourite lines. Not a review, so much as the sort of book report I had to do at primary school.

Imagine this blog now has nice thin lines, thick margins and some gold stars for good measure. I will try to not to blot my ink, or to scribble too much.

1. The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter.

This has real echoes of Patricia Highsmith, a university student meets the enigmatic Jerome Coolberg and gradually feels his life (and soul) are being taken over. The book is in four sections, taking us through Nathaniel Mason's life into adulthood. A truly spooky read, with some nice gaps to fill in. For a book that is so good on human psychology there are some GREAT descriptions of place.

The city, as a local wit has said, gives off the phosphorescence of decay. Buffalo runs on spare parts. Zoning is a joke; residential housing finds itself next to machine shops and factories for windshield wipers, and, given even the mildest wind, the mephitic air smells of burnt wiring and sweat. rubbish piles up in plain view. What is apparent everywhere here is the noble shabbiness of industrial decline. The old apartment buildings huddle against one another, their bricks collapsing together companionably.

Oh, so much to love there. Smells first - why do writers always forget smells, but this takes me right in. But also that last description of the apartment buildings - somehow those bricks collapsing together companionably is such a delicious surprise.

The book is beautifully written, and even more beautifully constructed. I am going to go back to this one and tear the structure apart to see how he has done it.

And in any other business, my brother, Henry Peplow, who has written a children's novel that is just quite amazing and is currently looking for a lucky publisher (if any read this!), suggests I tell you about this, Kidlit Contest. Done!

Any novel recommendations welcome btw. And for more sense about books, look at the Cornflower. She sometimes provides cakes too!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mapreading - A snap

Trouble with you, she says, is you always want to do things your own way. She’s right, she always is, which is why the child likes to try things differently. Her wrong way. Sometimes he’ll come running back. Always hopes though he'll find his own way. Where he fits. Rightly.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Five Ways to Trick Yourself into Writing When You Don’t Want To

I have come to think of my writing self as a little self-centred, more than a little childish but luckily easy to confuse, so here are some tricks I’ve played on myself to get those words onto paper.

1. Give yourself a word count for the day and keep to it.

Depending on your own process, it may be 200 words, 500 words, 1,000 words, 2,000 words, but make a pact with yourself that this is the amount you are going to do every day.

No matter what else happens.

The secret is not in fulfilling it (after the first few days) but stopping when you’ve reached it. There will be days when you want to go on and on writing, but making yourself finish at the exact word count – even in the middle of a sentence - will send you back to the page the next day. And then the next.

2. An alternative to a set word count is to do what Hemingway is reported to have done, and deliberately finish mid-sentence.

It sounds daft, but it really does make it much easier to get into the work the next day. I’ve seen it called, Parking on the downwards slope. A phrase that sums up the perfect picture for me.

3. Have a soundtrack to a particular piece.

This is what I have done for every novel so far. It helps me get into the voice of my character, and the mood of the book.

Because it’s the same song every time, I soon stop listening to it but having it in the background, lets me sink straight into the writing.

4. Ask questions.

After you finish writing for the day, write yourself a question for the next bit of your project. Or your new project. Then when you come back to your desk, concentrate on the question you’ve set yourself. The writing will come naturally.

5. Use a mixture of carrot and stick.

Put away all the things that distract you – facebook, twitter, emails, the phone, today’s crossword – until you have written as much as you have set yourself for the day.

And then enjoy them with your full attention. Plus some chocolate, or a glass of wine, or whatever rocks your particular world.

Read also:




Friday, January 22, 2010


I was lucky enough to go to Frank Auerbach's exhibition of London Building Sites 1952-1962 at Somerset House in London during its last few days.

Because the exhibition is over, I'm not going to tempt you with all the paintings you can't now see, but the similarities between the painting process as outlined by Auerbach and the writing process were fascinating. And when the process is that of a master, there always something to learn.

For example, the catalogue notes state:

He would work and rework a painting in a restless search for a unique image, trying to achieve what he describes as a 'formal grandeur.


The critic David Sylvester claimed that Auerbach had 'extended the power of paint to re-make reality.'

And in this drawing and painting of the same site at Bruton Street, Winter 1953, I could see exactly how this reworking achieved both the grandeur and the re-making of reality.

From this precise drawing of the scene...

... this painting was created. It's hard to see at first how the two match up until you see the triangle in the forefront, the line on the left.

As the notes explained, it was 'an attempt to find a secret internal geometry that lay behind it, the core.'

And it's precisely this core I realised I search for so fiercely sometimes in my own writing. I like the idea of it being 'a secret internal geometry'.

And this painting below of a building site in Earls Court Road, 1953, the actual reality is hidden, but Auerbach writes: 'Though nobody else may be aware of it, I'm aware of the amount of painting experience that's buried under those heavy lumps of black and white and ochre.'

And of course, it is exactly this power that comes out.. But what got me was the discipline and sheer hard work involved in searching and searching for the authentic core of the scene.

This isn't someone who just hung around waited for the muse to strike.

And from sketches like these four below, Auerbach manages to achieve an 'emotional truth' in his painting that leaps off the canvas by

amalgamating elements for different sketches from different sketches in the paintings, rather than replacing one particular view, in order to achieve a composition with power and integrity.

In a series of other sketches and paintings, the exhibition notes state that Auerbach often broke off from his work on principal paintings to produce small drawings and paintings. This:

allowed him to develop the composition freely and spontaneously

and also

even the smallest as an exercise to loosen up his brushwork, others were attempts to resolve the composition, structure and detail.

A useful reminder to keep trying to see the story from a different angle. To play on the page. To work through a technical problem by producing more work.

And most of all, to trust the process.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Now we’re getting to know each other, let me share five of my deepest secrets with you







Wow. Do they make you smile without meaning to? Your stomach turn over and the butterflies to start jumping? Can you feel them in your mouth already? Aren’t you just longing to use them in your next sentence?

No. Well, probably not because they’re my words. And just as we are all different types of writers, so we have our own secret words. So what are yours? Make a list of five words you can hug to yourself next time you face the blank page. The words that are just for you. Imagine them lining up behind you, on your side with their crossed arms and snazzy sunglasses. Or maybe they’re in the bath, scenting and primping and beautifying themselves, waiting for you to finish your ten minutes writing for today.

Fall in love with words. And most of all have some fun with them. Learn that words aren’t your enemy, and that your job isn’t just to march into a certain place in the sentence before forgetting all about them. Yes, some words are useful soldiers, but the special ones? They’re just temptresses. Enjoy.

Also see:



Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Sometimes in a quiet field or forest clearing, he undoes his backpack and takes out the new world. He sets it all out carefully before placing the two figures at opposite ends. They never have time to find each other before the world is safely packed again. Again and again.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010



It is the way
to educate
your eye,
and more.

Stare, pry,
listen and

Die knowing

You are not
here long.

Walker Evans

And if you look again, the books above aren't real. It's a detail from my new beautiful painting.


Not that I'm obsessed or anything. But really, is there anything better than books 'to furnish a room'?!

Monday, January 18, 2010


She likes to daydream. She does it all and every day. About how that tree in her neighbour’s garden is full of wise gnomes who can see the future. These gnomes tell her there’s no point snapping out of it. And that her life will always be better in dreams.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Help for Haiti

I know I'm not the only one to be feeling helpless by what's happening in Haiti, and it seems wrong somehow to be posting anything even halfway trivial today. Here's an email I got from the Avaaz organisation which shows one way to help, so I'm posting it exactly as I received it.

Dear friends,

Haiti's worst earthquake in 200 years struck yesterday, devastating the capital city, killing thousands and threatening over 3 million people in this desperately poor country.

Haitians are urgently appealing to the world for help -- we’re already in touch with strong local organisations mobilising community-based relief efforts. Let’s send a worldwide wave of donations to the front lines, to save lives now and help people recover and rebuild. Avaaz will work partners to make sure the help reaches those who need it most. Click below to donate:

donate here.

Based on expert advice from leading humanitarian NGOs who have been working in Haiti for over 30 years, we'll offer donations to trusted local organizations, including:
Honor and Respect for Bel Air, a big community-based network in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, which is also supported by our friends at the respected Brazilian NGO Viva Rio
Coordination RĂ©gionale des Organisations de Sud-Est (CROSE), which brings together some of the most active community groups in the South of Haiti where the earthquake struck hardest. These groups include: women's groups, schools networks and local cooperatives
In 2008, Avaaz members donated over $2 million for Burmese monks to respond to the devastating Cyclone Nargis. Our money made an incredible difference there -- because it went directly to local people on the front lines of the aid effort.

Times of painful tragedy can bring out the best in us by bringing people together. Let's join with the people of Haiti to help them rescue their communities from this brutal disaster -- act now at this link:

link here.

With hope for Haiti,

Luis, Paul, Graziela, Paula, Ricken, Pascal, Alice, Benjamin, Milena and the whole Avaaz team

More information:

Haiti devastated by massive earthquake:

Thousands feared dead as major quake strikes Haiti:

Deadly earthquake hits Haiti:
Reuters Pictures.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Three quotes, as if I need any more reasons to love Patti Smith:

An artist may have burdens the ordinary citizen doesn't know, but the ordinary citizen has burdens that many artists never even touch.

I think I'm constantly in a state of adjustment.

In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.

I've watched the documentary, Dream of Life three times already this year. THREE TIMES! It's one of the best films I've seen about the creative process, plus there's something mesmeric about the way Patti Smith narrates it. Each time I've also got something else out of it. How she says that small towns might be comfortable but sometimes we have to be destroyed in order to survive; the way she says we need music in order to contain the chaos of the sounds we hear every day; the joy she deliberately finds in life, the integrity she brings to a creative life. I have felt so inspired every time.

There's a trailer for the film here and the website is here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


This is an exercise I've adapted to work with my students - I've put it here in the hope it helps you too. Would love to know how you get on with it.

Of course, we all know what sort of writers we should be. Except, er, excuse me, but do we? Because who is the perfect writer? The one who produces a stream of bestselling beach reads, or the hermit who spends years perfecting a critically acclaimed but barely sold novella? The one who thrives on deadlines, or the one who runs away and hides at the mere thought of outside pressure? The only thing that’s sure is that every person will have a different writing process. One useful way to find out what kind of writer you are is to try this exercise.

1. Take your journal and, without thinking too much, complete these sentences – I like to write … I don’t like to write ….

2. Keep going like that for the whole ten minutes, alternating the sentences one after the other. Again and again. I like…. I don’t like … Don’t worry about repetition, or about making proper sentences. Particularly don’t cross out or start editing yourself. You should be writing as fast as you can.

3. After your time limit is over, then go back and re-read. Underline anything you find particularly interesting.

4. Are there any discoveries or patterns you can discover about yourself as a writer? When I did this exercise, I was amazed to find out that I write best in blasts, that I prefer music to silence, that I want my writing to be enjoyed by friends, and that I don’t write well when I’m hungry.

5. Now make a list to put above your computer. Above it, write: ‘I am not a perfect writer, but I like ..’ What do you need to change in order to help your writing self perform best?

Finding out what YOU like, and not what you are supposed to like is one of the first steps to taking yourself seriously as a writer.

Read more:

* Five Ways to Write More.

*Five Films About Writing.

Monday, January 11, 2010


I will get over my obsession with typewriters one day, but not just yet. Please.

Here are some old ads - I love the wording perhaps even more than the pictures.

Because I know I would write incomparably beautiful words on this one...

... dress like this when typing on this one ...

... be happy with this one ...

... hmm, not quite sure what to say about this one apart from, boy, does it have attitude...

... and the best advice of all here - READ BEFORE YOU WRITE ...

OK, OK, it's typewriter porn. But I bet you enjoyed it too.

Didn't you?

Read more typewriter posts:

Here, and here.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Snow Day

Snow Day
by Billy Collins

Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,
and beyond these windows

the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.

In a while I will put on some boots
and step out like someone walking in water,
and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,
and I will shake a laden branch,
sending a cold shower down on us both.

But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,
a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.
I will make a pot of tea
and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,
as glad as anyone to hear the news

that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,
the Ding-Dong School, closed,
the All Aboard Children's School, closed,
the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,
along with -- some will be delighted to hear --

the Toadstool School, the Little School,
Little Sparrows Nursery School,
Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School,
the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,
and -- clap your hands -- the Peanuts Play School.

So this is where the children hide all day,
These are the nests where they letter and draw,
where they put on their bright miniature jackets,
all darting and climbing and sliding,
all but the few girls whispering by the fence.

And now I am listening hard
in the grandiose silence of the snow,
trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,
what riot is afoot,
which small queen is about to be brought down.


They’ve locked up the writers, the actors and the artists. The world feels a safer place without imagination. Children taken to visit the prisons as a lesson are frisked carefully afterwards in case a metaphor escapes. Things need to stay exactly as they are. No images or stories. Just… things.

Saturday, January 09, 2010


So I had this idea. Let’s not have chairs during meetings, I said. And that’s how it started. The power rush. Next I got rid of the jolly mugs, and the free tea and coffee. Personal photographs, gossip, non-work email browsing -banned. I’m thinking of locking the toilet next.

Friday, January 08, 2010


OK, the moment you've all been waiting for! The results of the great mixed-up dead celebrity quiz, and first of all the answers...

1. DWERAD YDENNEK - Edward Kennedy

2. RAHHAF TCEWTFA - Farrah Fawcett (yep, there was a mistake and also...)

3. DAE DOG JOY - Jade Goody

4. DKIH JONUPE - John Updike

5. CAKSLAM IHE NOSJ - Michael Jackson (... mistake here too)

6. HARD DEW CINRY - Wendy Richard

7. LIE LONG MUDES - Mollie Sugden

8. FOURT CCM RANK - Frank McCourt

And because I made two mistakes and you are not my family and so have not either learnt to expect this sort of thing as part of the game AND do not have to forgive me unconditionally (or even at all), I have picked three winners. Which is a shame because there were a surprising number of entries and I wanted to give my books to you all.

Instead, heck let's live dangerously, you will just have to buy one...I'll sign it for you though, something like YWLSS AAAARH!!!


Catherine (who is a genius - albeit sleep deprived), Simon and Edward.

Yay to you. I have emailed you re prizes etc.

I like competitions. I think we should do lots in 2010. Any other ideas?


My wings are hard to hide so I wear heavy shawls. I don’t go anywhere dark, otherwise my halo shines too much. Sometimes if I stand close to a stranger, he’ll shudder, cross himself. ‘Someone just walked over my grave,’ he’ll say. But mostly no-one notices me. I’m invisible.

Read more Snaps here.

Thursday, January 07, 2010



And as if you needed any excuse just to stay inside, snuggle down and watch a movie, here are five films that have some relevance to writing. All other suggestions welcome.

1. Capote. A portrait of Truman Capote and the writing of his non-fiction classic, In Cold Blood. Harper Lee makes an appearance as her novel, To Kill A Mockingbird is published too. Brilliant on insecurity, manipulation and the elusive search for ‘truth’.

2. Naked Lunch. Because, with the best will in the world, there are times when this is how it can feel. Typewriters turn into bugs and extraterrestrial agents dispense strange drugs. An adaptation of William S. Burroughs' most famous novel.

3. The Singing Detective. The Dennis Potter television series is a million times better than the 2003 film, but enjoy this portrayal of a hospitalized pulp author with a nasty skin disease who wrestles with his demons, past, present, real, and imagined. Wonderful on the processes of memory and creation.

4. Adaptation. Based on the real-life Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book on orchid hunters, the real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has written a fictional film about how he would adapt Orlean’s book for the cinema. Clever on the thin lines between reality and fantasy.

5. Wonder Boys. Based on Michael Chabon’s novel of the same title, this is a film to make you feel better about your own writing as the unfortunate and somewhat depressing Professor Grady Tripp faces a myriad of problems, not least that he has yet to finish his next book which is already over 2,000 pages long.

See also:

Five Ways To Write More

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Monday, January 04, 2010

BAIT - A Snap

There’s this man at work I like. Everyone else is too busy, but since my husband died, he’s been particularly kind. It’s nice to have a man to talk to about finance and things. He tells me he’ll help with my investments. I’m so grateful. Can’t tell you the relief.

(To those who have just stumbled on this blog, welcome! And a reminder that my 'snaps' are 50 word stories accompanied by photographs. It's part of a different way of looking at things. A working practice I try to incorporate into my day to day life. You can read more here.)

Sunday, January 03, 2010


So on the last day of sort-of festive holiday, here's one of our family traditions for you. A quiz featuring the mixed up names of some of the famous people who have died during the year before. Answers will come on Friday, but the first one to unscramble the names of the eight people listed below and send me a complete set of who they are will win a personally signed copy of one of my books.


Good luck, and here they are....









ps Don't put your answers in the comments for obvious reasons, but send to sarahsalway - at -

Good game, good game....


She’s tired of being sweet. Of living in a sweet house with a sweet family who only stay sweet because of her. So she builds herself a house of steel. Collects power tools and grows muscles. Her family complain she’s sour nowadays. Left alone, she eats gingerbread. And she smiles.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Ten minutes with Neil Gaiman....

This is absolutely my favourite of the wonderful 10 minute films that were shown on Sky this Christmas. It's so sweet and so amazingly unexpected. I think what I like most about Neil's work is how it allows even the most adult subjects to retain their fairytale magic. You think you know where it's going, but somehow he always takes you somewhere better. And this little film definitely does that.

I think writing another play has just landed itself very firmly on my 'to do' list.