Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Notebook

I have several note books on the go at any one time, which is not necessarily a good thing. There's a sort of panicky moment when I wonder which one should get the Great Thought, or the note about buying eggs. There's a small one in my bag, which currently has morphed into a slightly big one because my daughter gave it to me, and it has a fancy cover. Then a medium sized moleskin one in my briefcase, which is quite serious looking and I like to get it out for my supervisions in case it makes me look intellectual.

And then a massive, ring bindery one that lives on or near my desk, and is meant to be the repository of ideas for the New Novel. (Not much going on in that one at the moment due to the fact I am still wrestling my thesis to the ground, and it's proving a rather tricksy little blighter.)

But are notebooks really necessary? Is writing in your little book the only way of communing with your undeveloped ideas?  Bruce Chatwin made quite the fetish out of it, but other writers seem to get on fine with lap tops or the backs of envelopes. One friend of mind carries a Dictaphone round with her, and of course fashionable people use their iPhones.

I still like the scribbling thing, myself. Keyboards are quick and efficient, but there is something very natural and simple about sitting there, thinking, pen in hand. Keyboards drive you on, eyes gripped by the electric emptiness.

And of course a notebook is also a way of breaking away from that white screen, and thank God for that. And notes are tactile, you can do little drawings, or underlinings, or scribble out the rubbish with a great flourish. The delete button isn't half so satisfying.

Monday, 23 April 2012


Soon, very soon, I will be posting some very impressive stuff about The Authorial Journal and quoting Plato and other eminent ancients about the finer points of writing. But as it's a wet Monday, and I am so tired I put my son's birthday cake in the oven with no margerine in it, I am going stick to something a tad more downmarket.

So here it is. I went to see a film with him in a pre-birthday spirit of doing whatever a 15 year old wants to do, and what he wanted to was go to a Chinese buffet called Max Orient in Camden and from thence to the Odeon Parkway to see this...

And, considering I spent about one third of the movie under my jacket, as I do not do schlock, I really liked it. It's a clever, genre busting, imaginative story, not in the least witless. And a reminder that it is a good idea to get well outside your comfort zone - quite literally in this instance - if you are interested in story telling. Surprise, inventiveness, cracking dialogue and Sigourney Weaver - if I can produce stories that are the literary equivalent, I will be a happy woman.

Here is the trailer. Jacket at the ready...

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Right here, right now

Oh, the trials and tribulations of the Literary Career! You are either banging your head on the keyboard, fretting about Writers More Successful Than You Are, scrutinizing Amazon to see if your Oeuvre has risen above the half-millionth mark or worrying about all known subjects, including the Eurozone, global warming and the safety regime at the Grand National. (Or is that just me? I can't stand seeing photographs of the falling horses, all those heavy bodies crashing down as they leap over Becher's Brook.)

As I mentioned in my last post, writers are generally programmed to think that success is a rare and precious commodity, and if one writer gets some, then there is less for everyone else. Crazy though this may be, it's a widespread feeling. The danger here is that if you are not in the actual process of being awarded the Booker prize, or being spoon-fed pate de foie gras by adoring PR girls in some chi-chi Soho eaterie, daily life is a paranoid place of constant anticipation and dread.

Little can be done about this, apart from attempting to produce a constant flow of books of such crystalline genius that no one dares say 'no' and the Booker and the foie gras are yours.

But you can go for a walk. Which is what I did yesterday. And that makes all that worrying and angsting and awfulizing seem rather silly. Because writing is just writing, and real life is usually elsewhere, and it's still a beautiful world.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Authors

With apologies to Stephen R. Covey, author of the 1989 best-seller ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ here is my customized list for those of an authorial disposition:

1.     Be Proactive.

If you want to be a writer, then be a writer. Don’t blame anyone, not even yourself. Just pick up your pen, or open a new file on your computer and get on with it. It’s your responsibility.

2.     Begin with the End in Mind.

Is it the Booker prize? (If so, you may drive yourself insane, but it’s your decision.) Is it getting published? Is it finishing the novel that you have been planning for 20 years? Again, your end-in-mind. Your choice.

3.     Put First Things First.

If writing is your ‘bliss’, then write first thing, every day. Step over the piles of washing if necessary. The grunt work will get done in the end. Your writing? No one cares but you.

4.     Think Win-Win.

Awful phrase, but go with it. Try and compromise, so everyone is happy. Don’t take up the hermit position; be generous and thoughtful about the needs of others. If you have a demanding boss, plan ahead to meet his or her goals as well your own.

5.     Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.

Good listeners are hard to find – chances are, you aren’t one of them. If you really tune in to what others say, you will develop a better understanding of human nature.  It’s very easy to see a conversation as an opportunity to sound off; but you’ll get more understanding if you are ‘on receive’.

6.     Synergize.

Writers aren’t great team players, generally speaking. But synergies can emerge if you persevere– try setting up group readings, or online work-shopping, and offering emotional support to your fellow scribes.

7.     Sharpen the Saw.

Find balance: take exercise; eat well; look around you at the world we live in, engage with the issues of the day. Take care of yourself.  And leave the cork in the bottle. (On weeknights, any way!)

As well as recommending seven habits, Covey also advises that we adoptabundance mentality’ which means believing there are enough resources and success to share with others, rather than ‘scarcity mindset’ which is based on the idea that, if other people are successful, you lose.

Sadly, I think that scarcity mindset is widespread among writers.  So abundance mentality is the Eighth Habit, which I suspect I may return to later.

Thursday, 5 April 2012


“It's never going to happen," he said.

She didn't look up. "You're so pathetic."

"Not pathetic," he said. "Realistic."

"God." She stirred her tea. "God, Simon. How can you expect other people to take you seriously if you're so negative all the time?"

He stood up. "What gets me is how you ignore all the evidence that being a nihilist is just plain common sense."

"Jesus, here we go." She sipped from the teacup even though the liquid steamed, then pursed her burned lips.

"Everything is futile, okay?” he said. “Everything is pointless. Fact."

He put his jacket on.

"What are you up to today?" she asked.

"Oh, this and that."

"This and what?"

"Just stuff. Just stuff, okay? Stop hassling me."

He hadn't always been like this, she thought. Once, he had been a doer, a thinker too, a maker of things. What she had first loved about him was his long skinny hands, the way he'd juggled a paint brush between them, his steady way of swishing on colour. The paint on the canvas all matted and rutted in swards of blue and crimson. Now, what was he? What had she married but a hollow man? She had forgotten what he looked like when he laughed.

There was a knock on the door.

"Yes?" he said, putting his hands in his pockets. "What is it?"

The door opened. A young man was standing there. He wore a dark suit and his hair was brushed flat from his forehead.

"Your car is waiting, Prime Minister," said the young man. "But I'm afraid the ambassador is running rather late."

Wednesday, 4 April 2012


Just a quick check in today. After discussing the joys and addictive power of Facebook and email with a friend last night, I have decided I will always (major pledge here) write for at least 20 minutes each morning. Before switching the computer on. Yes, I know. Is that even possible?

Turns out, it is. This morning I got up, made a cup of tea, went to the corner shop, listened to something about a baby mammoth on the Today programme, then spent half an hour writing about the similarity and difference between sanity and madness.  (God knows why - I was planning to write a description of my kitchen.)  But what I do know is that I felt much, much saner at the end of it. I think morning pages (and swimming) may well be the meaning of life.

I don't get hung up about what I write, or whether it is imaginative enough, or whether anything makes sense, just keep going on. Wonderful feeling, no pressure, only words.

Monday, 2 April 2012


As you'll know if you have read my blog before, I am a firm believer in what Julia Cameron calls 'feeding the well'. In other words, writers need to absorb ideas and imaginative Stuff as well as think and write. Cameron says writing too much can empty the well; films, walks, nature, visual art, reading, musics, listening to people are needed to refill it. (Other inspirations are also available)

This weekend I read 'The Story of Lucy Gault' by William Trevor, a stunningly brilliant novel (Amazon review forthcoming) and saw 'The Kid with the Bike' (review below).

The film is directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne and tells the story of Cyril (Thomas Doret), an 11-year old stuck in the care system; his mother is absent and his father is irresponsible. Wild, hard and intense, Cyril spends most of the film in motion, running, climbing, cycling. At first his frantic search for love gets him nowhere: his father is dismissive and wants nothing to do with him, more interested in prepping a restaurant kitchen than his desperate son. But everything changes when he runs into Samantha (Cecile de France), a hair-dresser and child-free earth mother.

The atmosphere of a grotty Belgian town permeates everything.  Doret is brilliant and reminds me of Billy (David Bradley) in  Ken Loach's 'Kes'.' But the massive hole at the centre of the story is the lack of either characterization or motivation in Samantha. Who - for reasons unknown - becomes his foster mother.

 Now, this film gets 96 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and won the Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival and you may say all those earnest cineastes can't be wrong, and the Telegraph says this:

'A mainstream film would have distracted us with a spurious backstory about Samantha's own deprived childhood, or whatever – but that's not the Dardennes' way. Samantha and Cyril have connected, that's all: for the Dardennes, it's a given fact, the sort of brick they build their stories on.'

But I say, give me a story I can believe in, no matter how pared down you want to be. A single woman who suddenly decides to take in a semi-delinquent boy every weekend needs a back story of some kind, or a front story, or something. Establishing motivation isn't a sign of mediocrity. And it can be succinctly or symbolically done.

There's a touch of emperor's new clothes about critics refusing to criticise the Dardenne brothers for the fundamental implausibility of their narrative. Perhaps their aim was to emulate the likes of Tarkovsky or Bresson, but the films the old school auteurs made had a sense of folk-tale or universality about them that this film fails to communicate.

(Just did some online research and apparently the directors did intend it to be a 'fairy tale' so there you go. Samantha is supposed to be the fairy godmother. For me, though, simply stating that something is your intention doesn't mean that you succeed in achieving it.)