Thursday, 29 December 2011


I've come to realise that the more of a passive/over indulgent slump I am enjoying, the more unrealistically optimistic I am about my future levels of productivity/general slimness.

Mode of the moment is Extreme Focus re. my PhD thesis, the current equivalent of creative writing in my life, and Extreme Statis re anything to do with the body beautiful thing. Nearly went swimming today, and had to have a large cappuccino and a lie down to get over it.

So this means that while I am circumspect about my writing goals, I am madly looking forward to a skeletal 2012. Apart from being fabulously thin, I will also be posting each week with advice and ideas relating to How to be a Writer

As for my advice for fellow scribes: read something brilliant. My recommendation of the moment is a fantastic non fiction book which I am reading for my thesis but will appeal to anyone interested in imagination and identity: A face to the world by Laura Cumming. It's about self portraits and what they do and don't tell us about the artist. Great illustrations, too, if you are in mood for skimming.

And so, farewell 2011 - and a Happy New Year to all imperfect writers...

Thursday, 22 December 2011


Last post before Christmas.  Watched 'It's A Wonderful Life' to get into the festive spirit, and it reminded me that the best Christmas stories are about fear and anxiety, from 'The Little Match Girl' to the bit in 'Love Actually' where Alan Rickman is furtively buying a necklace for his mistress and Rowan Atkinson is overdoing the gift-wrap. Arguably, the original Christmas story in St Luke's gospel does the same job - re. anxiety, not gift wrap.

It's always more challenging to write about happiness than unhappiness. Misery loves company, and stories love misery. Or anxiety. And from this you can segue interestingly to eventual change/redemption/relief/euphoria. Phew.

Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Keep Buggering On

There is nothing wrong with New Year Resolutions apart from the fact that they are a complete waste of time. Perhaps the only reason they have any currency at all is that they make us feel vaguely positive while we mire ourselves in chocolate, booze and carbs over the Xmas season, lolling on our own flesh in front of some mindless TV re-heat starting Celebs We Are Sick Of. Somewhere, up the road ahead, there is a better person: thin, teetotal and goal-driven.

Which is why I am writing this on December 21st, not January 1st. Make a fetish of the New You, and it's harder to carry on, the Old You having had so much more experience.  Don't try and be perfect; save your energy for writing. Rubbish people do write good books. (Arguably, all good books are written by rubbish people.)

Getting started is essential, as I mentioned in the last post, as is the ability to moderate your expectations (your first words will be shit, as Hemingway promised). But one of the unsung skills of any writer in the war against atrophy is the ability to Keep Buggering On, in the words of Winston Churchill.

I'll be returning to this theme next year, as part of the Edited Highlights of my book 'How to be a Writer'. But just a few thoughts on this now. Keeping Buggering On is not dramatic, does not make for  an exciting biopic and does not involve a. throwing your typewriter out of the window or b. shooting anyone. It does involve working a lot, being patient, listening to feedback that you don't like the sound of and being slightly nice to yourself.

Keep Buggering On when you are writing and you will write the best possible book. Keep Buggering On when the best possible book needs a publisher and you stand the best possible chance of finding one. On any day of the year. Of which, more later.

Monday, 19 December 2011


This blog is about all aspects of the 'how to' of being a writer', and there is lots of advice out there about the 'how to' of doing the writing itself. But that doesn't mean I can't talk about doing the writing itself - this is what Being a Writer means.

The everdayness of writing is important. If you buy a notebook tomorrow and decide to write in it every day, by the time you fill it up it will have quite a lot of 'you' in it, and quite a lot of things that you didn't know you thought. Writing isn't a mechanical process during which you commit pre-existing thoughts to paper, or rather, this is only one aspect of writing. More often, it's a mental and mechanical process, during which ideas appear in front of you which you didn't know you had. They are formed both physically and imaginatively. Human beings are weirdly over-conscious mammals, and writing is an expression of this.

Virginia Woolf said: 'What one wants for writing is habit'.

Ernest Hemingway said 'The first draft of anything is shit'.

Samuel Beckett said: 'Ever tried. Every failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'

Put these three quotes together and you get a pretty good route map. The first draft is just that. If  it feels like hard work, take notice of  Ms Woolf.  If it feels like rubbish, you are in the same club as Hemingway. And if you're failing, follow Beckett's lead and fail better.

As for 'habit', the best advice I ever heard was to write every day, for five minutes a day. Starting is everything. If you start, the chances are you will carry on for more than five minutes. But everydayness is vital, till you get down that first shit draft, and have something to work with.

Friday, 2 December 2011


Aha, I have detected a flaw in this blog. It doesn't tell you how to be a writer. Two reasons for this - or maybe three. Number one: it's complicated. Number two: where to start, blog-wise, having written a whole book on the subject? And number three - I am blog-phobic. It's the style of writing I am least comfortable with. Blogs are not diaries (weird, introspective, libellous, insane), but neither do I think they should be press releases, a constant dribble of PR about "I, an Author". (Boring, tiresome, witless, inane.) So I grind to a halt, wondering who reads this stuff anyway, worrying about Wrong Notes and sounding too negative or too smug, or as if I am being overly self-conscious about either of these things, and so...

Anyway, I have put all this behind me now. Strictly professional. I have the book to hand, and I'm about to give you some excellent advice, in bite-size chunks, and really do please feel free not to buy the book, or, if you do, not to put an excellent review on Amazon.

Hilary Mantel wrote "Wolf  Hall", I heard her say recently, because it was the book that didn't exist that she wanted to read. On a slightly less high-flown level, I wrote this book because it was the book that didn't exist that I needed to read.

In 2004, I was Published for the first time, which seemed like it ought to mean something, this being the pinnacle of my ambition. But I was isolated and confused. I was waiting for someone to sprinkle fairy dust on my life (as if I was a Pippa Middleton table setting) but there was no fairy dust in sight. I wanted to be a Writer, not just someone who was published by accident. I needed help.

And so a few years later, I set out to write a book that would offer the friendly guidance I hadn't had when I started, and which had taken me years to find. Which is why the book is about "being a writer" not "doing the writing".

Not because I don't care about writing myself - I care more about this than any other part of the Writing Life - but because I know from experience that finding your neutral space is easier if you aren't in a state of sheer, blind panic or the Pits of Despair, the habitat of all too many writers.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Novel approaches to history

Right, so today I went to a conference about historical fiction and learned quite a lot, not least of which being that my book might/should hold its own in this field, which is cheering. But as usual with these things the whole area is Dogged by Definition.

For instance: how do you define "historical fiction"? What differentiates a historical novelist from any other sort of novelist telling a fictitious tale set in the past? What is a Fact, and how it it pinned down? (Like a butterfly on a board?) Does the imagined truth of fiction take us to places that the "proven" truth of historians cannot go? To what extent are historians story tellers anyway? To what extent are myths false, and to what extent do they illuminate the way?

All of which related to my own story about the Dark Lady Myth, the idea that Shakespeare wrote his most violently emotional sonnets to a mysterious femme fatale, in a state of morbid sexual despair. And here is a Nicholas Hilliard portrait that may or may not be one of the possible Dark Ladies, my heroine Emilia Bassano:

Ate biscuits, ingested caffeine, listened and scribbled, did not ask any questions. I think I feel, like many writers of historical fiction who are not historians, that I might be found out. And yet, the most inspirational speakers were those in exactly this same position: Hilary Mantel and Stella Tillyard. And in the coffee break talked about the politics of maps, and maps that lie... Absorbing in a way that things can only be when you feel a story brewing.

Oh and the conference was this:

Sunday, 13 November 2011


Yes, write now. This is the advice that is so easy to dish out to other people, and indeed I DO dish it out to students on a regular basis. But then find I'm not filling my notebook with random bits of observation, reflection, jollification etc as I should.

Why is this? The idea that what gets written down is a commitment of some kind? That what I might think is not "good enough" to be jotted down in indecipherable scrawl?

Or that it's impossible to dredge up one item from among so many half thought bits of mental flotsam, so that it's best to leave it all mixed up together, in some forgettable, inchoate mess, because it's unfair to pick one idea and not another? I honestly don't know.

Even this blog suffers from this, my mistaken notion that I'm not quite up to it at this particular moment. It's like saving all your nice clothes for the day that you are beautiful and skinny enough to deserve them, and spending all your actual life in preparatory joggers. So this is what I have so say, right now.

Monday, 10 October 2011


This actually is quite exciting for me. I don't know how writer/actors etc manage not to read reviews. How can they hold themselves back? I am way too self-preoccupied not to look, and this time it was okay. It's not as painful being reviewed for non fiction as it is for fiction in any case, you don't have that feeling of having pegged yourself naked to a washing line. But nevertheless, my overall reaction is a. Phew. And b. Gosh, really not too bad at all...

Here's the link:

And here is the cover... does what it says on the tin.

And that's quite enough shameless virtual self promotion to be going on with.

Saturday, 8 October 2011


A writer's weekend:

Cappuccinos consumed: 3.2

Large slices of carrot cake wolfed down: 0.87

Money handed over to teenage son: £10.00

Rows with teenage daughter: 1.6

Sections of  Saturday Guardian read: 0.003 (Pointless interview with Rob Brydon.)

Period spent in bed fully-dressed-in-deepest-gloom-and-despondency: 47 minutes.

Idea for killer thriller plot - one.


Friday, 7 October 2011


A writer's life... arguing with teenage partyperson. Needs beer, space, hair conditioner. Refusing taxi, prefers to teeter past street drinkers carrying her stash of Carlsberg.

So much more wholesome in my day, Number Eights and Strongbow.

Thursday, 6 October 2011


When I got my first book published, I thought that I would now be be living The Writing Life. This had something to do with being languid and bourgeois, I felt, ascending to a higher plane than that which I had previously occupied. (And which involved scraping yogurt off small children, watching X factor, wearing dodgy leggings etc.) I'd be the parallel version of myself that had never seen the light of day before, the one that didn't get The Worst Perm in the School in 1977, the one that went to Cambridge, not Goldsmiths, the one that dated Hugh Grant, not some bloke from Halifax who ended up being a racing tipster. And so on.

This proved not to be the case. My life as a reasonably crap person carried on, reasonably uninterrupted. I still wadged about in a horrible dressing gown, read Hallo magazine in the queue at Sainsbury's, still knew far too much about celebrity cellulite. And my eyes still glazed over when I tried to read the works of Proust, Dostoevsky or Paul Auster.

This seemed wrong at first. When was I going to turn into Edna O'Brien? But of course this was extremely naive. Ms O'Brien would have been beautiful and fragrant whatever career path she had chosen, and it is my fate to a lower middle class person from the middle of England with appalling eyesight and fairly average levels of charisma.

And that is fine - as long as someone publishes my goddam novels...

Wednesday, 5 October 2011


How do you become a writer?  You write, of course. But how much? And how often? And what kind of writing does a writer write? Shopping lists? Unsent letters? Mad rants? Weird, unpublishable musings? Oddments of anorakish research, of interest to one man and his dog? All of the above, of course. There is no good writing without bad writing. Bad writing is essential. Bad writing is raw material. If you try and get it right first time, as if all the genius was just waiting to pour out, you will drive yourself crazy.

As for how often, every day is the answer. As for how much - if 500 words was good enough for Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene then 500 words is good enough for me....

Portrait by Anthony Palliser, from

Tuesday, 4 October 2011


Doing Writing, Teaching and Learning sometimes seems like way, way too much, especially when Commuting and Early Starts are factored in. I spend a lot of my time on South West trains, out cold, mouth open, crossword akimbo. Really, really not a good look.

But on days like to today - sun shining, PhD novel out in the world, thesis humming along nicely... I feel almost like a proper writer. Still slept on the train, though, slumped over G2 like a mad lady.

Monday, 3 October 2011


Cheekily wondering how many people who voted for "Great Expectations" in the Guardian poll have actually read it, and how many are really thinking of the David Lean adaptation. Not that it's not a fantastic novel.... etc etc. Sometimes a book makes an impression in people's minds which is not the actual book, but a sort of facsimile of the book. And Pip bumping into Magwitch in the graveyard at the beginning of the Lean film could provide just such a facsimile. Not to mention Jean Simmons as Young Estella. Or Martita Hunt as cobwebby Miss Havisham. Just saying...

Sunday, 2 October 2011


One month before my new book is due to hit the book shops - that it, if any of them are still open in November. Will people want to read advice about How to be a Writer in the current dire market for fiction? Who knows. What strikes me as pretty ironic now is that it is full of apparently wise words about how to stay motivated and On It at all times, when in reality I am as jumpy as hell and prone to mood swings which would do a Red Bull fuelled teenager proud.

The writerly personality is NOT phlegmatic, patient or well adjusted. The writerly personality is weird, introspective and given to unleashing the power of its negativity. People don't write because they have words of wisdom to impart, or because they know any more than anyone else, or even because they are any better at writing, but because if they don't write they will go bonkers. By which I mean, slightly more bonkers than they already are.
And then comes the really weird bit... that you wouldn't exchange this state of being for anything.

Saturday, 17 September 2011


*Takes deep breath* Here's a bit of self-publicity - off to the Chiswick Book Festival tomorrow, to talk about my new book "How to be a Writer", which is published on 3 November. (Spot the synergy there?) I'm one of a sort of smorgasbord of people who will join Celia Brayfield to talk about being a 21st century writer.

So what is my key message to the Chiswick book folk? That times are changing in publishing land, and no one knows where we are heading, but if you want to negotiate from a position of strength, be the proud owner of a lot of words.

When I sent my first novel opening off to my first agent, twenty years ago, I was sending her all the words I possessed, hastily typed up from a few scrawled sheets of A4. I had no plot, no direction, and precious little characterization. And when she (quite rightly) pointed out the shortcomings of this draft, I was utterly bereft, and had no other words to fall back on.

Be focused, be professional, but above all - be prolific. As Virginia Woolf said, "What one wants for writing is habit."  More on this later...

Saturday, 10 September 2011


How much Bronte can we take? More specifically, how much Jane Eyre? It's on at the Duke of York's down't road and I toyed with idea of going to see it tonight, in an open-minded sort of way, but thought - No! So I am, after a long silence, blogging about a film I haven't seen, and don't propose to see, even on LoveFilm, probably. Which is very post-modern of me, or perhaps just lazy. With so much Stuff to see and so much Comment to absorb, perhaps it is sane and restful to occasionally have a little ruminate about things you aren't seeing, or doing, or even thinking, and opinions that you haven't got.
And just in case this seems a bit info-lite, here is a link to a piece by Blake Morrison who has seen it, has loads of opinions, and is actually from Yorkshire.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011


Current state of play is that I have a book coming out in six months which is just bursting with sensible advice for writers and wanna-be writers. Which is good, of course, and I am v. excited about it, though also nervous, as it's like one long feature which will be out there in the public domain for, ooh, decades, I should think. Which is sort of daunting. And there are autobiographical bits, which might a bit too autobiographical. But most of all, what is annoying me about my Writing Life a the moment is that there needs to be more of it. I'd like to move to a Scottish island, or rent a Cornish cottage on a rocky outcrop high above the sea, or a flat in Paris where all I had to look at was cats on rooftops. (French cats, with a special extra layer of attitude.) Instead, I have teenagers, and IKEA, and a man doing the kitchen floor, and the washing basket keeps overflowing, and I'm usually on a train, often one that has broken down and... so on.

So it's useful to remember that busy people are often Very Prolific Writers. Step forward Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot (Henry James once said she "did not suffer from cerebral lassitude"). And my own particular modern favourite, MelvynBragg, the man who does everything, including write loads and loads of big fat novels.

Happy juggling!

Friday, 22 April 2011


What should we look for in fiction? Are the "best" books those which are deemed to be "literary"? There seems to be an assumption about some critics - and readers - that genre fiction is always of a lower order, written cynically or obediently by lesser artists who lack the vision, originality or courage of the True Writer. Sara Sheridan (above) raises this issue in relation to the forthcoming Edinburgh Festival, and the BBC has been accused of similar snobbishness.

Writing in the Guardian, Sheridan says:

"I live in a City of Literature, but I worry about that title. I think I'd rather live in a City of Words. Literature, to me, isn't necessarily a good thing – it's exclusive, for a start. It doesn't sell to ordinary people in mass-market locations. It tells people what they ought to want to read, rather than simply grabbing readers by the imagination (which to me, has always been a writer's job, whether they are literary or not)."

Very true. This insistence on a literary pecking order is the result of muddled thinking. The divisions between literary and genre fiction have not been made by writers, but by publishers and booksellers. In fact, literary fiction is itself a genre, which came into being in the late 1960s when the Booker Prize was conceived to promote "serious" writing. What matters is that writers write good books, not where they are situated in Waterstones, or the minds of critics.

Thursday, 14 April 2011


One of the wisest men in cinematic history is Danny the drug dealer from 'Withnail & I'. And yet, his advice is widely ignored. Perhaps because it is extremely hard to follow. But just for the record, here it is again....

'Find your neutral space.' If there is one thing that a writer MUST do, that's it. Oh, and write as well. 

Tuesday, 12 April 2011


Now, the thing is, I have been vg in terms of setting up some kind of virtual identity, but my fear that this might prove to be another distraction (from writing) was well founded. I am drawn towards my Facebook page by some horrible cyber-gravity, irritated when people comment on each other's pages but not on mine, wrong-footed by the glamorous and famous and their seemingly effortless communication with the similarly blessed.

I am sitting here at my kitchen table, and quite frankly I would rather live inside my own head than peer queasily into other people's.... So what does that make me? Salinger? Emily Dickinson? I wish that was my problem - but it's the opposite. It's this corrosive desire to be relevant and likable and to be blended in. Sometimes, socialnetworkspace is not the right place for writers to be. Sorry, Zeitgeist.

Sunday, 3 April 2011


Motherhood is meant to be long one guilt trip. So much so that I feel guilty if I don't feel guilty - only slackers think they are just about getting it right. But if you want to do anything else apart from rant/agonise/spend/yell/micro-manage/spend/rant/agonise you have to give yourself a break sometimes. Having kids is not an excuse for not writing: it's just a mammoth day job.

Cheering thoughts from The Observer, who have come up with a brilliant roguess's gallery of dire fictional mums. Top of the list are meddling, foolish Mrs Bennett; the wonderfully dysfunctional Marge Simpson and dear old Norma Bates. Something for everyone, really...

And just think, if we were all perfect, where would we get our material? Good people are notoriously dull in fiction, so let's hear it for bad enough mums everywhere.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

The Glums

What I am thinking now is that there are times when everything just seems to drain away. No energy, no ideas, this horrible empty space. At which time, the white eye of the PC (I don't do lap top or smart phone) leeches onto mental space. Upstairs, my son is shouting at Call of Duty (enemy soldier failed to die despite his Big Gun); on the floor above my daughter is probably playing the disturbing truth game that appears to be a Facebook offshoot. Hell knows. Their dad is at yoga. At least someone is waving the flag for mind, body and spirit.

I'd be sitting in the bath listening to Radio Two if it was still Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie, but now it's gone all Jo Wiley, so I sit here, staring at the white eye, all flumped out.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011


It being spring and everything I suddenly feel as if the Writing should recommence. Long train journey overland to Brunel University, during which I felt fluey and peculiar, imbibed industrial quantities of Vitamin C infused smoothies, and read James Shapiro's "Contested Will".  The first chapter is about the deification of Shakespeare. I was dimly wondering why we are so quick to assume that genius is more than human. Looked out of the SW Trains window at burgeoning back gardens, greenly tinged, mostly featuring standard issue trampolines.

Great quote from Diana Wynne Jones, who died this week, to the effect that we are all geniuses, but it can take a while to find out what we are geniuses at. Tragically, some of us never find out. My genius might be for whinging rather than writing. Only time will tell. It certainly isn't for knitting, dieting or moderate drinking, that's for sure.

Monday, 28 March 2011


It is exactly seventy years since Virginia Woolf's "death day" and I think we should morbidly celebrate that fact. Perhaps we should make more of the final days of great writers, even those who decided to end their own lives. We are too squeamishly polite about death, as if it was somewhere in between saying "pardon" instead of "excuse me" and fornicating with the vicar at the village fete.

And we also seem to assume that each day of a suicide's life must have been bathed in shadow, whereas in fact Woolf was a wry, sociable, practical person. There even are photos of her laughing in a swim suit (which I must admit is a bit disconcerting).

She wrote about walking in London, the smell of a spring day, the joys of polishing silver.  And her writing voice is eminently sane and sensible. She seems easily as cheery as - say - Beryl Bainbridge or Kingley Amis, and we don't see their departed selves as being particularly sombre. Her madness, as she called it, was one facet of her character, not her whole identity. Her industrious application to developing her craft strengthened her writing muscle, as she knew it would.

Am I the only person who loathed the N.Kidman portrayal in "The Hours", all grim prosthetic nose and drooping ciggie? I would rather have let Emma Thompson have a go, which is saying something.