We’re all different, us writers. So when it comes to the writing process, it’s fascinating to hear how others do it. The wonderful Elizabeth Stott kindly invited me to follow her in ‘the writing process blog tour’. I have to answer four questions, so do read my answers below. And check out Elizabeth’s blog. I have always been envious of both her distinctive voice and her glorious hair.
1. What am I working on?
I’m redrafting a novel. I wrote it in the third person but now I am trying it in the first person, from my favourite character’s point of view. It feels better already. I suppose I thought it more grown up to write in the third, and a challenge, but maybe I should stick to what feels natural. Won’t say much more now. Except: ‘students’.
2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I don’t fit neatly into a box. My writing is about family and relationships. It is accessible and readable but I hope with some depth and with some questions about this game of life. My first novel The Generation Game explores this theme through the eyes of Philippa Smith who tells the story of her quirky family to her baby.
3. Why do I write what I do?
I don’t really know quite why I write what I do, other than I write what I am drawn to. I love reading novels that have both comedy and tragedy, a quick wit and a tear-inducing poignancy – books by writers like Sue Townsend, Kate Long, Laurie Graham, Kate Atkinson, David Lodge, Graham Swift. Books about everyday people with unique stories to tell. In This Holey Life, I wrote about a reluctant curate’s wife who has to come to terms with the loss of a child and a new way of life. This sounds very sad but my novels always have hope and try to see the best in life.
4. How does your writing process go?
Sometimes like a dog after a squirrel, sometimes slower than a Swedish art film. Both are valid. I have decided not to worry about word counts as more often than not I fail to reach them. So I am taking the pressure off myself. That’s not to say I’m running away from it or procrastinating (though if you see an earlier blog post of mine, you will see that that is exactly what I do do). But for me there are famines followed by feasts. And there is always a lot of reading, reading, reading and a lot of muscular thinking while walking the dogs or lying in the bath. When I really need to get in the work frame of mind, I hopscotch across the garden to my office, my haven and my sanctuary. My escape from my own quirky family.
Following me on the blog tour next Monday 3rd February is the marvellous writer and teacher Cathie Hartigan. Meanwhile do check out her website and blog and see what goings on happen down Exeter way.
Do you ever think about the other life you might have lived? The other job you might have had? I love being a writer but I do sometimes wonder if I would be happier as a funeral director. I know most people squirm at the thought of seeing and, worse, handling a dead body, but I think it’s one of the most underrated jobs going. What an honour to lay out the body of a loved one, to liaise with a family during the worst time of their lives, to make sure the passing of a special person is marked respectfully, appropriately and smoothly.
Maybe I can attribute my interest in the dead to an episode when I was two years old – one which I don’t remember but that my mother has often told me about. We had recently moved to Teignmouth and our next door neighbour was an elderly lady called Miss Bowles. One morning her cleaner rushed to our house, knocking frantically, ranting ‘I think Miss Bowles is dead! Can you help?’. Mum said ‘I can’t leave my toddler here. She’ll have to come with us’. So we went into Miss Bowles’ house and she was indeed dead, lying on the stairs as if she were a rock climber. Mum called the emergency services and for the rest of the day I kept repeating: ‘Poor Miss Bowles. She’s dead. Poor Miss Bowles. She’s dead’.
Two years later, we moved to Torquay when my parents bought a newsagents. It was great fun living above the shop but we only had a tiny courtyard outside. So my brothers and I would go to the ‘Boneyard’ of the local church down the road to loiter and play. I loved it there, running in and out of the gravestones, picking flowers in spring and collecting ‘helicopters’ in autumn. The shop and the Boneyard were very important to me and thirty-odd years later they became the inspiration and setting for my novel ‘The Generation Game’.
So what else has drawn me to the dead? When I was ten, my father died suddenly and tragically. It was 1978 and children didn’t go to funerals. Especially awkward ones where the deceased had taken their own life. I’ve often thought about it and wished I had gone. The graveyard where Dad’s ashes are buried is in Selworthy, a beautiful, remote place in Somerset. I find great comfort going there, surrounded by Stenners, going back centuries, family members I knew, and those I have just heard about, and some I can only guess at. When I had an ‘episode’ two years ago, I left home and made my way to Selworthy and lay down on my father’s grave. It was January and night time and very cold but it was the place I wanted to be, a place of comfort and safety – though I have no recollection of how I got there. Fortunately I was hunted down by my husband and a good friend who thought to bring a flask of tea and some custard doughnuts. Without them, I would perhaps have died myself of hyperthermia.
Over the years, cemeteries have been places of interest and I think that’s partly due to losing a parent as a child, and partly because I am a writer and avid reader (literature is of course scattered with death). I’ve visited Pere Lachaise in Paris to see my beloved Oscar Wilde. Much more interesting than the Louvre in my opinion. And when we lived in East Dulwich we used to go to Nunhead cemetery where once a year they had an ‘open day’. There was no exhuming but instead there were plant sales, woodturning exhibitions, and political organisations on recruitment drives. (Only in England.)
I’ve been to many country churchyards and many city ones – one of the most recent was the allegedly haunted Greyfriars cemetery in Edinburgh on a bleak, cold day. I’ve stood at the foot of many war memorials, silently contemplating the loss of so many lives and humbled at the thought that there are just a handful of ‘thankful villages’ in England whose men all returned. And I’ve visited tombs of the unknown soldier in honour of those whose bodies were never brought home.
There are many places still to visit: Highgate cemetery in North London. Sylvia Plath’s grave in Yorkshire. Keats’ final resting place in Rome (see epigraph above). Coventry cathedral. New Orleans. The pyramids. Jesus’ tomb. The battlefields of France and Belgium. Auswitz. Places where millions of people suffered and died and must never be forgotten. Not tourist destinations or places of morbid curiosity, but places of pilgrimage where we can contemplate those that went before and try to learn the lessons that their deaths can teach us about how to live our lives now.
I do think I would have made a good funeral director. I am not afraid of dead bodies or indeed of dying. But I do fear losing my loved ones as I know how hard it is to go on living when you miss a person so much. I think I would be of comfort to the bereaved.
I also think I’d have made a good Victorian when it comes to mourning.
If you feel so inclined, here is Emma Freud’s guide on How to do a Funeral. Its very good and I have cut it out to keep…
And this post is in no way intended to be flippant. It is written with honesty.
I love Christmas but I do confess to getting panicky right now. I feel the pressure building up behind my eyes and my heart beating just a little too fast.
It’s good to remember the true meaning of Christmas. As much as I love the shiny baubles and the Buble’s Christmas CD, I was reminded yesterday that Christmas is about awe and wonder. A baby in a manger. A world of possibility.
Children have it right. Anticipation and excitement. But we as adults need to play our part. We need to cut back on Argos and Tesco, even John Lewis (who do the best adverts by far). We need to focus on the way Christmas brings us together, whatever our beliefs. For me, as a Christian, there is nothing better than the carols by candlelight service at our church, which is always packed and so pretty.
What can we do?
Buy local. Buy Fair-trade. Buy from charity shops and Oxfam online. Buy homemade. Or make something yourself. Buy vintage.
Ask someone over for Christmas day.
Watch telly with your family. Watch Elf. Or Home Alone. Or Mupppet Christmas Carol. Watch It’s a Wonderful Life.
Pick up the phone and call a loved one.
Find it in your heart to let go of any hurt and bitterness that lurks there.
Give a book and make an author happy.
This Christmas I’m going to try to cut back on the stress. Which is flipping hard. So When I feel that pressure building, I will watch this scene from Elf, where Buddy shows the excitement of a child. And pop another cherry liqueur.
Here are some links to my favourite online stores right now.
If you have a minute check out Legend Press’s blog where I am talking about Christmas. http://www.legendpress.co.uk
Did I mention The Generation Game is on Kindle for 99p this December?
And can you tell I am all over the place? This blog post is an outpouring of thoughts right now. Better out than in, as they say. Maybe.
Have a very happy, peace-filled Christmas.
OK, firstly please forgive this possibly garbled post. I have thoughts rushing at me and they are hard to catch. Bear with me…
I’ve had a weird year, not least because I turned 45. I was worried about this particular birthday because my dad was 45 when he took his own life. My birthday passed and it was OK. But it was when I was in Canada last month, on my own, that I hit his exact age, to the day. It was horrible. But I survived.
Now I feel like this age – 45 – is not a millstone but a milestone. I have survived. I don’t know what the road ahead will be like – I have more mountains to climb, that’s for sure. As we all do, in our own way. But I am still here and I have to make each day count.
My childhood is vivid and present with me as I grow older. Last week, I was in my shed/office (shoffice?) sorting through old postcards and I found this kitsch one of two kittens. I had a shock when I saw who’d sent it to me, back in the long hot summer of 1976. It was from a lady I knew as Auntie Wink. She lived over the road from our sweet shop in Torquay. We hung out. It was fun. Though her house smelt of cat pee.
Wink was the starting point for my first novel The Generation Game. I had no idea I’d kept the postcard. I was really moved to have it in my hand. I was back in her front room watching Bruce and Anthea, eating fish and chips. And I said a big thank you to her for making my book what it is.
And something more. This novel was published as a result of the Luke Bitmead Writers Award, a bursary for new novelists set up in memory of a very special young writer who sadly took his own life. His mother, Elaine Hanson, who set up the award, is a wonderful woman. And a survivor.
So I suppose what I am saying is two things:
1. We can never leave our childhood, however old we get. It shapes who we are, for better, for worse. And sometimes it comes back at us, in unexpected ways.
2. We are all connected.
And finally. Today I am giving a special thought to my dad. I wish you’d got some help, Daddy. Then you might still be here, with us, approaching your 80th birthday. That’s a lot of lost years.
And finally finally. Here’s my plea. If you are feeling suicidal or if you are worried about someone who might be suicidal, then please know there is help. Please call the Samaritans. Please talk.
I am a huge fan of writing competitions.
Because they are a little oasis in the overwhelmingly vast world of publishing.
They are scouted by agents and publishers.
They have given me focus as a writer, assurance that my manuscript will be read and considered, and they have given me my breakthroughs.
So now I am trying to give a little back and am involved and connected with exciting and worthwhile competitions. If you are want to enter some writing competitions that could help you on your way then read this post.
I am concentrating on novel competitions as there are still comparatively few. In 2006 I won the novel section of the Yeovil Literary Prize with the opening chapters of The Generation Game judged by Katie Fforde. Now in its tenth year the closing date is May 31st so this one you have to be quick for. The novel prize is judged by Tracey Chevalier. There is also a short story and a poetry competition. I will always remain indebted to this prize and am so glad it is growing in status and reputation with an impressive alumni.
Next up, the Harry Bowling Prize. This competition is for novels by unpublished writers and this year there is a new flash competition. The closing date is September 30th 2013. I was runner-up with This Holey Life in 2008 and had a great time at the awards ceremony at MBA. This was affirming and gave me encouragement that I was on the right track.
So now a very special award, the Luke Bitmead Bursary for Writers. This is an annual award for unpublished writers in memory of Luke Bitmead who was Legend Press’s first novelist back in 2005. The first prize is a generous bursary and a publishing contract. I won the award in 2010 with The Generation Game which was published in August 2011 by Legend. A year later Legend published This Holey Life. Entries opened on the 1st May and the closing date is 2nd August 2013. Unlike the other novel competitions I am flagging up, the manuscript must be finished and the work of an unpublished author. The age limit is 16 and over so this allows a chance for a young person to enter. There is always a shortlist and some of these have also gone on to achieve publication.
And now some very exciting news: the inaugural Exeter Novel Prize run by CreativeWritingMatters and sponsored by Exeter Writers is now open for entries. The closing date is October 31st 2013. Cathie Hartigan, Margaret James and myself will be administering the prize which is for both unpublished and published writers for a novel not currently under contract with a commercial publisher. The shortlist will be judged by London agent Broo Doherty of Wade and Doherty and the winner will receive £500. There is a launch at Exeter Central Library on 27th June at 7.00pm, free entry plus cake, and a fabulous chance to meet other writers and find out more about the prize.
And one last competition but this time for a short story. I am honoured to be one of the judges for this year’s Hysterectomy Association’s short story competition. The closing date is 31st August 2013. Stories of up to 2000 word on ‘almost any theme related to women’. There are cash prizes but probably more importantly the first, second and third prize winners plus ten other writers will be published in an anthology.
And I must mention Words for the Wounded, a charity of which I am delighted to be a patron. The competition is closed now and the results will be announced on June 6th.
So I hope this has inspired lots of you to enter these competitions, all worthy and worth it. They really do help writers on the road to publication for which I am evidence…
But I want to finish with one of the best competitions ever. Crackerjack’s Double or Drop.
Love her or hate her, you can’t feel complacent about the force that was Margaret Thatcher. A woman in a man’s world. Maybe she didn’t encourage other women into the cabinet or see herself as a feminist, but she did show by example that there was nothing a woman couldn’t do.
She was Prime Minister throughout my teenage years, the time I was politicised. I soon realised I would never vote Tory, especially during the miners’ strike (a backdrop I use in a chapter of The Generation Game). But I never questioned that I wouldn’t go to university, even though I was the first woman in my family to do so, at a time when only 6% of the population were going to university. That’s what I wanted to do, so I worked hard and I went. With a full grant and all my fees paid. I didn’t realise then how lucky I was.
I don’t like what Mrs’s T’s reign (and Reagan’s) did, the legacy she left; the way society has fractured, and the welfare state dismantled. She couldn’t understand non-achievers because she achieved everything she wanted. Her biggest failure was her inability to understand that not everyone had her brains, courage and vision. And yes, we were coming out of the winter of discontent, rubbish on the streets, the dead waiting to be buried, the unions acting undemocratically. But she went too far, selling off council housing, British Rail, everything except the gold (another PM did that…). She began the process of shifting the emphasis away from society and onto the individual. A process that has been unstoppable.
But one thing she fought for, being a woman and a mother, was child benefit as a universal benefit. She knew the ideological and practical importance of this small but regular income that could be spent on nappies, children’s shoes and the like.
This government, run by an old Etonian who has never had to struggle against the odds, is far more destructive and divisive than she ever was. I didn’t think that was possible but sadly it is.
As a writer and a person, I draw a lot on my memories. I suffer from ‘fibro fog’ and so often I forget words or recent events but my long-term memory is sharp and vivid, sparked by smells and songs and photos.
I read an article today on how looking at Facebook photos on your timeline can lift your mood, as they remind you that you have had good times in your life.
I also read a suggestion online somewhere last week (see I’ve already forgotten where) that at the beginning of the year you should write down every good thing that happens in your life, however small or seemingly insignificant, and put them in a jar. Then at the end of the year you take them all out and read them and there is the evidence in black and white of how many good things have happened.
In January 2012 I reached an all time low. I lost a few hours of my life and, in the days after this, with help from the mental health crisis team and my therapist, I began the road to recovery. I was advised to carry photos of my children with me at all times so if I felt low and vulnerable I would remember that there are people counting on me and who love me. Photos trigger memories. Memories shape who we are. Memories are what make us human.
I love nostalgia. I love reminiscing. My first novel, The Generation Game, is full of details from the 70s, 80s and 90s. The ‘smallness’ of domestic life and the ‘bigness’ of national events. Music, telly programmes, clothes, sweets. The Silver Jubilee, the miners’ strike, Diana’s death. There’s even a time capsule thrown in, Blue Peter style. I had great fun writing this novel as it meant I could spend time back in my childhood, which was mostly a very happy place to be.
Sadly, our memory can fail us. I don’t mean forgetfulness. I mean dementia. Alzheimer’s. Nicholas Sparks’ quote from The Notebook sums up the tragedy of this condition. ‘It is a barren disease, as empty and lifeless as a desert. It is a thief of hearts and souls and memories.’ My step-father had Alzheimer’s and it was the saddest thing watching him lose his memory over several years. But even towards the end of his life, when he was in a nursing home, he would smile with happiness when my mum walked in the room and say ‘That’s my wife!’ And if you mentioned the word ‘Canada’, the place he was born and lived for the first ten years of his life, his eyes would light up with recognition.
Even when we are at our lowest, we must remember all the good things we have had and all the important people who have crossed our paths. I’m not an advocate of telling others to count their blessings. That doesn’t work when you are depressed. I just mean that focusing on a photo of a loved one can bring us back to a better place.
Looking at the family photo at the top of this post is tinged with some sadness as four of the people sharing that Christmas dinner are no longer here. However, it was a happy day in our huge house with lots of family members staying. It reminds me of good times. And although sad things lay ahead, I don’t have to let those wipe away what went before.
So long as the memory of certain beloved friends lives in my heart, I shall say that life is good. Helen Keller.
So where were you 25 years ago on the night of the storm? I was up north at university and missed it all. But it did cause death and destruction and it did change weather forecasting for the better. (And it’s the backdrop to one of my chapters in The Generation Game, just so you know…)
I felt sad to hear of the premature death of Louise Clarke, one of the founding members of Pan’s People, the dance troupe that sashayed across our telly screens every Thursday Night during Top of the Pops.
Like most kids of the 70s, I watched TOTP religiously along with my brothers. Now I am sure that they watched Pan’s People for a different reason to me as they were boys and Pan’s People were always glamourous, usually very sexy, and often brilliantly kitsch. I watched Pan’s People because I was a dancer, doing ballet three times a week and hoping to go the Royal Ballet School (which is quite a different blog post). I thought they were amazing, the way they floated whimsically across the stage in high heels and sparkly dresses or spandex leotards. I wanted to be in Pan’s People but alas I was from Devon and a child so I could only dream. (Philippa, my narrator from ‘The Generation Game’, harbours similar feelings…)
Now, anyone that knows me, or has flicked through my blog posts, might be surprised to see me in awe of Pan’s People. I am a feminist and dancing girls are not something I approve of as a rule. But seeing this old video has brought up memories of sitting with my family watching telly, of having aspirations of stardom as a child, of flares and big hair, of a time when women were exploring the limits of what it meant to be the female of the species.
Ok, yes, looking back, the concept of Pan’s People is outdated. But actually they were of a more innocent time when, although a little sexy, they were not overtly sexual like women in the music business are expected to be now. They didn’t have to worry about shaking their booty or having Brazilians or surgically enhanced breasts. They still had a hint of that film star glamour that was passed down from Ginger Rogers with a bit of the girl-next-door Doris Day thrown in for good measure. And they were somehow quintessentially British.
Times have changed. Top of the Pops is no more. Families rarely sit down together and watch the same programme. We are living in a post-feminist society when anything goes. When young girls have the world at their feet but have somehow lost the aspirations of my generation, when anything was possible.
And then there’s the golden platforms. You’ve just got to admire a woman who can dance in golden platforms. I want some.
Had a lovely trip to Agatha Christie’s magnificent holiday home last Friday. Greenway, now owned by the National Trust, is set in stunning Devon countryside overlooking the River Dart with views down to Dartmouth and up to Dittisham. The house is elegant and huge but still feels like a family home as it is so cluttered with collections of all sorts of things. Agatha was married to archeologist Sir Max Mallowan and accompanied him on several digs in Syria and Iraq which explains the collections. (I thought I was a hoarder…)