Tuesday, February 28, 2006

To my mind, there's no better television than the first series of Little Britain and much of the humour came from the fact, it was all only one whisker away from possible truth. So imagine my delight, please, when I went to a pub in Sussex recently. While we were sitting there, in walked three respectable looking old men with a small dog. Nothing odd about that UNTIL the dog climbed up one of the men and sat on his head. None of the three men blinked. They just carried on talking as if nothing was happening. And then when the dog got bored, it just walked across the shoulders of the men to one of the others, and back again. And the barman kept serving, and everyone in the pub was treating it as a perfectly normal thing to happen....

And my writing prompt is ... a strange thing on your head.

Monday, February 27, 2006

"There is no perfect time to write. There's only now." --Barbara Kingsolver
It's a grey February day here, slightly drizzling and no sign of the sun which was popping out briefly yesterday, but being a writer to me is all about using my imagination, so today I'm going to keep watching this slideshow with sound, and join the Jain Festival in Southern India!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Something for the weekend?

Great story here from Justin Crouse. I came across it on the link for the Million Writers Internet story competition, that I followed from Myfanwy's blog. This is a worthwhile competition - do nominate your favourite story. Nothing to lose!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

My writing prompt for this weekend ... running towards, running away.
Ay, ay, ay... how could I have forgotten Breaking the Waves from my list of top Seven films? I don't think I breathed once during the whole time I was in the cinema watching it, and even now, on DVD, it still has a powerful effect on me. There are bits I could do without - Emily Watson not blinking got on my nerves, and the end was just TOO sick-making - but these are petty things compared to how I felt that film in my whole body, and not just my mind. I think I went into shock. Perhaps it's what most of us actually think we want when we're so deeply in love - to be able to hurt ourselves for the other person just to prove we really care that much. (Luckily, that stage quickly passes over to wanting to hurt them for not making a cup of tea properly etc etc etc). Anyway, thanks to Debra for reminding me, by putting it on her list. Actually another thing I'd forgotten about Breaking the Waves was the sign in the foyer of the cinema in Edinburgh, which was that the handheld camera used in the filming could induce sea-sickness and if so, film-goers could claim their money back!

Friday, February 24, 2006

Changing the photograph on your desktop...

This is mine at the moment. It's taken from near the top of Cader Idris, which we climbed when we were in Wales last year. Some of us (well, ok all but me) swam in the lake, but we didn't camp there. Apparently, legend has it that if you spend the night out on the mountain, you're either a madman or a poet ....

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

And my writing prompt for today is ... liqueur chocolates
Hah! Patti and Jai have tagged me, so here is one set of my seven groups of seven answers. And a confession - I don't have seven friends who have blogs to pass this on to, so maybe that should be one of my things to do before I die? But no, there's so much else I want to do - that was the hardest one for me - so I'll put up with being the loner in the playground. Thanks, Jai and Patti - this was fun, and I've loved looking at your lists too!

7 Movies That I Love
1. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café
2. Nuts in May
3. Cabaret
4. Spirited Away
5. Spice Girls - the Movie
6. Mary Poppins
7. Nine and a half weeks

7 Things I Want To Accomplish Before I Die
1. Grow a beautiful vegetable garden
2. See my kids happy and fulfilled – and have them still want to spend time with me
3. Get a play produced professionally
4. Get my heels flat in Downward Dog pose in yoga
5. Write a book that really matters to people
6. Continue to love, and be loved
7. Live in Paris

7 Things I Often Say:
1. It’s not fair
2. You’re so beautiful
3. Yes
4. Jeeze
5. Sorry to rush you but ..
6. Well, just a bit of chocolate can’t hurt…
7. I’ll do it tomorrow

7 Things That Attract Me To My Partner:
1. The way he makes me laugh
2. His patience
3. Our kids – and the way we agree (mostly) on bringing them up
4. How I can depend on him
5. The strange things he gets cross about
6. The space he allows me
7. The fact after twenty years, I still want to spend time with because he interests me most

7 Things I Can't Do
1. Ice skate without falling over
2. Stop teasing my kids
3. Go on roller-coasters without feeling sick
4. Give up coffee
5. Do a headstand
6. Get really cross without crying – or stay cross
7. Enjoy fear

7 Books I Love
1. The Little White Horse, Elizabeth Goudge
2. Penguin Book of Greek Myths
3. A Writer’s Diary, Virginia Woolf
4. Forsaking All Others, Alice Duer Miller
5. Madame Bovary, Flaubert
6. All of Colette’s Books (I know, I know, I’m greedy!)
7. The Earth, Zola

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

We are just back from a short holiday to Stockholm, where it snowed so whitely and perfectly on the little cobbled streets, it was like being in one of those snowglobes you shake up. We drank hot chocolate in little cafes lit by candles, went ice skating (the couple skating in the photo above were dancing so beautifully and romantically it made me want to cry) and all of us fell in love with Swedish women, who don't seem to have been told that you need to be invisible and dull after the age of fifty. They were so funny and intelligent and ... well, just sexily alive.
The strange photo at the bottom is the view from the ground floor up the winding stairway of our hotel. It was right in the old town, and full of shipping oddities. Perhaps not surprising given that Stockholm consists of 14 islands, something I didn't know before going.

I read The Accidental by Ali Smith on holiday - a whole book, just like that, and with no theory. Bliss. I was breathless with how much she leaves out, and how much she could, because she trusts the reader. Also breathless at seeing a writer coming into her prime - can't wait to see what she does next.

And my writing prompt for today is ... an old photograph I've never seen.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Best Valentine's feast in town here. Thanks for letting me bring pudding!

And my writing prompt for today is: envy at the flower stall

Monday, February 13, 2006

There are many things to be cynical about, but food shouldn't be one of them. I'm ashamed, therefore, that I've just been looking through my writing to find something suitable for P A Moed's Valentine's Feast, and I can't find anything sensuous, or loving, or even tasty to share. So I'm going to have to steal crumbs from other people's tables this year, but make a promise to myself that this time next year, my cupboards are going to be over-filling with good things to eat.

But in the meantime, here's an extract from one of my favourite books of all time, Never Eat Your Heart Out by Judith Moore:

"As a child rolling out mud crusts I felt much as I feel now, wearing an apron in my kitchen--that making a pie I'm handmaiden to a miracle. I will begin, let's say, with pale green and ruby rhubarb stalks, sour red pie cherries, McIntosh apples, butter, sugar, flour, salt, and shortening. I peel the coarse strings off the outer blades of the rhubarb, pit cherries, peel and core apples. I spoon the raw fruit into the bottom pie shell, daub the fruit with chunks of butter, dribble sugar and strew flour, the latter for thickening. I sprinkle all this with no more cinnamon than will lightly freckle the fruit. I fold the second round of pie dough in half and gently lift it onto the heaped high fruit with the fold in the pie's center. One half of the pie's fruit, then, is covered. Last, ever so painstakingly, I unfold the top crust across the pie's other half and crimp the edges of the top and bottom crusts together. With a fork I prick the top crust in several places so that while the pie bakes steam can escape.

"A transformation that is almost sorcery begins when the pie is set on a middle rack in the heated oven. While I wash the bowl and knives and dust flour off the pastry board, the baking fruit's aroma begins to perfume the house. Thirty, forty minutes later, I open the oven door a few inches and peer in. The oven's radiating heat rises around the pie in indistinct waves, like the contours of a dream. The heat is insinuating itself into the pie's interior, creating between the sealed crusts its own steamy, primordial climate, a site (to use the French postman-philosopher Gaston Bachelard's translated-into-English words) of "thermal sympathy" and "calorific happiness," in which apple and rhubarb and cherry cell walls break down and sugar crystals alter and butter melts.

"Another half hour passes and I lean over, open the oven door. Heat rushes out onto my cheeks. What I take out from the oven (my hands protected by potholders) seems precisely like those childhood pies: born rather than made.

"If the weather's right I'll set the pie to cool on the windowsill. I have no trouble, all these years later, imagining that heat floats off the pie's browned crust out the window and sails in stylized whorls out into the courtyard and over the fence into the neighborhood. If I happen to be anxious, I may fear that the pie's aroma may tempt a distant wolf. The wolf will appear decidedly older, leaner, and more vicious than the wolves from my childhood.

"As a child with mud and as an adult with crust and apples, in the moment before the first cut is taken into a pie, I often have felt uncomfortable, as if I were about to violate a taboo. Someone has suggested to me that cutting into a pie is not all that different from cutting into a body. So I think it is good to make something of a ceremony of cutting a pie. The table can be laid with a pretty cloth and napkins and the best silver and your favorite plates.

"Once the pie is brought to the table, I like to take a moment to admire it. I like to give the pie a chance to wet the mouth with anticipation of its tastes (the mouth's imagination at work). I like to contemplate the lustrous lightly browned crust. I like to think one more time about inside and out. Because the moment the pie is cut, outside will have no more meaning. A new dimension, the dimension of this pie's delectable inferiority, opens up.

"Gathered around the table, those about to eat will say "Ahhh" and "Mmmmm, doesn't that look delicious." They will lean forward, noses alert. Sometimes you can hear them breathing in.

"The first bite rises toward the opening mouth. The sentinel nose having anticipated pie's arrival, a tide of saliva crests in the mouth, pools in the tongue's center, washes over the several thousand taste buds. The teeth bite through flaky, slightly salty crust and then into tart cherries and rhubarb and apple. The fruits' sweet and buttery juices, in a total immersion baptism of the mouth, flood tongue, teeth, cheeks. There is no more outside. Everything is in."

Oh, this book is beautiful. Do buy it, and enjoy rolling in the senses. Happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, February 10, 2006

One tried and tested route of teaching plot development is to get students to imagine the worst that could happen to their character, and then help them devise ways of getting out of it. Well, as possibly the clumsiest person on the planet - with the exception of my two kids so together we're a walking disaster zone - I offer hearty condolences to Nick Flynn who experienced my sweatiest nightmare earlier this month. Mr Flynn tripped on an undone shoelace, fell down a museum staircase and crashed into three priceless Qing vases, breaking them into smithereens. A small shard of the pain he must have felt was shared, however, by readers of the Guardian article about Mr Flynn's confession, as they had to put up with the headline: 'Taking it on the Qing'. I preferred the museum official's comment in the original press report which was that they were just thankful he was able to leave museum unharmed. Unharmed by whom, it doesn't say!

I went to school near the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge and used to be taken for numerous - oh so, so many - educational visits there, but reading the press coverage has made me realise how little I actually saw of it. I remember just three things - the chocolate cake sold in the cafe, a yellow plate used by one of the Chinese emporers which would change colour if the food was poisoned, and walking - not tripping - down the staircase. It's one of those Gone with the Wind circular ones, and we used to practice flouncing down in that elegant but haughty way teenage girls manage so gawkily. Still at least we did it better though than Nick Flynn.

And so, my writing prompt today is falling over.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

My writing prompt today is to write about an object based on this quotation:

There is nothing that will not reveal its secrets if you love it enough.
- George Washington Carver

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Two stories I've enjoyed recently are Ice by Joseph Young, and Not Guilty by Debra Broughton.

And my writing prompt for today is in honour of Joseph's story, and is the Chemistry of Water, the reason for the picture above which comes from the University of Arizona.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

There's a very good reason why I don't share my dreams, and it has nothing to do with modesty. They really ARE boring, full of looming deadlines, reports and filing. The only celeb who has ever appeared was Paul Gascoigne (?!) and even then we looked at agendas together, before watching some football. Bit of a relief really when I woke up. Although once I did have a nice hairdo in my dream. Trouble was by the time I got to the hairdressers, I couldn't remember what it looked like.

What I do know though is that CDbaby is possibly the best place ever to buy music from. Thanks to Clare for the link. Not only can you listen to the music on your computer beforehand, get recommendations for whatever possible mood you might be in, and be given a good laugh with their order and delivery emails, I had the pleasure of receiving an email recently from one of the artists to thank me for buying her CD. Just imagine Robbie doing that. I had clicked on Stacy Jagger's CD without thinking too much, and then knew immediately this was music I wanted to listen to again and again. So it was really exciting for me, to see her name in my inbox. We've corresponded a little since, and she sent me an essay she'd written last night which proves that she is pretty perfect and talented. This is what I love most of all about the internet, when it turns into one big anarchic artists colony with the links between strangers going on and on.

And my writing prompt comes from the title of one of Stacy's songs - Take Me There.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Just have to share this quote. Best advice I've heard for a long time: “If you want your children to turn out well, spend twice as much time with them, and half as much money.”

If I tell you that I'm staring at a to-do list which contains, randomly: Wash Socks, Find trim for tiles, finish phd, commas - you'll probably be able to guage the chaos I'm currently living in! I need a certain space and order in which to write - mentally as well as physically, and writing to-do lists is something I turn to with a passion when I find my mind crammed with little voices telling me about all the important things I SHOULD be doing. Please note this is USEFUL writing distractions, not USELESS. I couldn't live without my lists!

One of my favourite teaching stories is Michele Roberts's Lists, which consists structurally of a woman's to-do lists in the run up to Christmas. From the expected - Order Turkey - we move to - Poison Husband - in that completely logical, although illogical, mix of great and small things that most of us put on our lists. This is something she captures perfectly, and adds another layer to the story as we are shown the movement in her heroine's mind. Plus the pleasure of ticking off the points. Oh, yes, that pleasure!

Another use of Christmas lists is in Maxine Hong Kingston's poem, which again catches the attempt to make order out of chaos. In the interview, she talks about the need 'not to get lost amongst the general uproar' in a way that resonates mightily. But as I'm writing this, one thing strikes me. I can't remember any such domestic list-making device in a male writer's work. Now, I wonder why that should be ....

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Got a prizewinning short story? Apparently the organisers of the V S Pritchett Memorial Prize are 'enthusiastically' seeking entries, and the closing date has been put back a week.
Finally, I'm putting the commas and last references into my PhD thesis, and waiting for my viva date. I have to be honest and say I never thought I'd get here, so it's sods law I've only just come across a site which would have been a godsend over the last two years. It would have been a great comfort to have realised there were so many other people struggling to 'Phinish' their PhD too!!!!

The thesis is on the storied self - and how we automatically make narrative patterns to cover the chaos we feel when we're without a story that makes sense of our lives. It's been fascinating applying it to the writing process, and how difficult it is just to let go and see what happens. Freewriting helps in this, but there's something else too. And that's trust. I'm coming to the conclusion that writers have to be so open to everything. The best quote I've found, and it's so beautiful I typed it up to have by my desk, is this one from Richard Kearney's book, On Stories.

He wrote: 'The novelist becomes someone who discloses rather than imposes, who listens gently when the city quietens and sleeps, so that he might 'hear the ghosts of stories whispered.' And at such times, the storyteller feels himself in the presence of something greater than himself'.

It makes me realise how often my writing has gone wrong when I've tried to 'impose' the story - either in plot, or in a message I want to get across. I like the fact, implicit in this quote, that we don't always have to invent the wheel. I'm reading Zadie Smith's On Beauty at the moment, and I love the fact she's following the tradition and route carved by another writer. In my mind, it adds to the complexity and layers of the writing.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

So... King Kong. Old version or new one? An epic film, I thought, although we could have done with less of the spiders.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Some great weekend reading newly put up on the British Council's New Writing website. I particularly enjoyed Helen Simpson's story and that wonderful description of a 'bluff new boyfriend'. Great word that, bluff. Somehow I imagine someone in the nude but all shiny!

A friend commented recently that I was obviously in touch with my inner-teenager these days (to which, of course, I replied 'you just don't understand me' and ran out of the room, slamming the door). But there are advantages. Over Christmas, my 19-year-old niece put some of her music on my ipod, including the wonderful Snow Patrol and since then I've been a woman obsessed. The songwriter, Gary Lightbody, is a poet, and is quoted as saying he never wants to write about the nice bits where the relationship starts, but the chaos at the end. Who hasn't identified at some time in their lives with the anquished end to the line, 'You've not heard a single word I have said... Oh my god!' Or indeed, 'I haven't made half the mistakes/that you've listed so far.'

Look at the words to Run for a better idea of what I mean. The lines above come from 'How to Be Dead'.

Which brings me to the song titles, and how often they don't seem to resemble in any way the song they're attached to. I keep listening to 'How To be Dead' in the hope I'll work out why it's called that. If you've an answer, please put me out of my misery. But my writing prompt for today is going to come from possibly the bizarrest song title ever: 'Get Balsamic Vinegar ... Quick You Fool'.

OK, gush over. I am aware that this is a case of skewed priorities to be writing about a band on a day that has been apparently declared: 'The International Day of Anger'. But I'm not the only one. On the radio news this morning, without a hint of irony, there was a report about how Prince Charles had addressed an audience of mutton lovers at a London hotel, saying it was a 'tragedy' that we didn't eat more mutton. A tragedy? Really? Perhaps it's time we reclaimed that word, particularly when looking more closely at what's going on in the world outside our comfortable lives.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

I'm sorry but am I missing something? Apparently David Cameron has been voted one of the 100 sexiest men. There are days when I think I don't belong in the world. Or, at least, not everyone else's world.
Yesterday was a BIG day, the one when I seriously got stuck back into novel 3, tentatively called The Seduction Committee. This is very important to me, as it now turns out that - for mostly good and wholly understandable reasons - Tell Me Everything won't come out in the UK bookshops until Spring 2007. This feels even more strange considering I've seen the cover and edited the page-proofs, making the book very real to me, at least - a ghost baby, as it were. I'm also conscious of people giving me little sideways looks when they ask me about it, as if they're wondering whether I really have written the book or not. So just to prove it, here's a preview of a final draft of the cover blurb.

Tell Me Everything

She didn’t mean to tell the story, or have it end that way. She just got a little . . . carried away.

It has been several years since she confided in her teacher, and Molly Drayton is still feeling the aftershocks. But when a chance meeting with a stranger leads to an offer of a room in exchange for telling stories, Molly jumps at the chance. Slowly she builds a new eccentric family: Tim, her secretive boyfriend, who just might be a spy; Miranda, the lovelorn hair stylist; Liz, the lusty librarian; Mr. Roberts, landlord and listener; and his wife, Mrs. Roberts, who is that very wonderful thing, French.
Much to Molly’s surprise, she finds the stories she tells now are her key to creating a completely different life. Suddenly her future is full of possibilities. The trouble is, Molly’s not the only one telling tales.
Sarah Salway’s witty, finely-tuned, and poignant novel is an utterly entrancing chronicle of an unique coming-of-age, one that captures the imagination as it explores what we reveal to others, how honest we are with ourselves, and the consequences of trying to bridge fact and fiction.

I'd recommend all writers write a short blurb about their story or novel in progress. It's good to have to concentrate on what the main points are. When Tell Me Everything was just in draft stages, I read with Mil Millington in Newcastle and we were asked what our next books were about. Mil gave a concise and funny description that immediately made me want to read his, while I blurted and burbled on about someone telling dirty stories up a ladder to a man who may, or may not, be a pervert, and in the meantime there's this guy she meets in the park who may, or may not, be a spy. When I came to a standstill, both Mil and Clare (the Chair of the session) were staring at me bewildered, as were half of the audience. 'Never mind,' said Mil, 'I'm sure it will be very good.' Luckily, we all laughed then, otherwise I might have cried.

The time difference between writing and publishing books gives another problem apart from the limbo waiting period, and that's how you have to talk about books you finished literally years ago. Human nature being what it is, however, what you want to talk about is the one you're writing now. Hurrah for the internet then - I've just heard that a horror story that I finished just a week ago will be published in an ezine next month. More details later, for now I've hardly time to breathe.

It's my first horror - and thanks are due to M E Ellis who encouraged me through her own disturbed and worrying writing to go ahead and JUST DO IT! Shell's a great writer - has her first novel coming out as an e-book soon, and as I've never managed to read an email of hers without either laughing out loud, or crying, I can't wait to read the novel. She has a talent for picking words that cause a response in the reader - yep, making you feel sick is one of her responses too.

And my prompt comes from one that Shell gave me - which is to use the word Perchance in your text. Harder than I thought it would be!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Most of the blogs I've been enjoying recently have taken the form of confessions and shameful moments, so here's mine which is - and please don't all shout at me at once - I've never quite 'got' Richard Ford.

I've been told so often by writers I admire that he is their favourite writer, that I SHOULD get him, that his books are the ones they'd save from burning buidings, and I've tried. Oh, I've tried. But here's another shameful confession. I have always LOVED the interviews I've read of his. In terms of process, he's way up there at the top for me, so why couldn't I enjoy his fiction in the way other people so obviously could? In his Powells interview I found myself jotting down notes - how it takes three or four stories for him to get the 'shape' of the collection, that the themes other people see aren't that ones he does, that he prefers to read work that is 'stylized, highly contrived, full of artifice' but to write in as natural a way as possible. In his Identity Theory interview he comes across equally as honest and truth searching. I even like his photograph - how shameful is that!

So it was both a surprise and a relief recently to find, when I sat down to write a story that had been hiding in my head for months, that the inspiration came from a short story of Ford's, The Overreachers. I'm not copying it, and this isn't a confession of plagiarism, but I wanted to capture the mood of that hotel room, and the relationship, where everybody is pretending to be someone different from who they are and secretly scared that they're aiming too high. But there's something else Ford captures so beautifully as well, and that's the relief of being found out. Or the worse actually happening. I can't think of anyone writing about that secret desire so well.

It made me wonder all over again, whether I'd been trying too hard to 'get' Ford. At first, I was even annoyed to find that he had written the story I couldn't stop thinking about. OK - and here's the real shame - what if I was put off him by all the people telling me I HAD to like him? Could I really be that childish? I've concluded that yes, I can. There are some writers I want to be able to find for myself, because that makes them truly mine. But now I've stumbled across Richard Ford all by myself ... let me tell you this. You HAVE to read Richard Ford. You MUST save his books from burning buildings. Sooner or later, whether you like it or not, you will!

And my writing prompt comes loosely from Overreachers and is a wrong telephone number.