Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Man Booker prize - a celebration

Here is a Lit Spoof I wrote during my Creative Writing MA. Thought I'd share it on Post Man Booker Shortlist Annunciation Day. Dedicating it to all writers, everywhere. (BTW: topicality alert- this is a Generic Send-up, not a spoof of any of the books on the list, which I haven't read. Still trying to catch up with the 2005 shortlist, to be honest.)


Fentimore Ballantyne, a man little used to women, walks along the Rue de Rivoli, twirling his cane. Only twenty years since Armageddon, and he is on his seventh face.  He strolls towards what was once Montparnasse, and is now a bowling alley for the underclass. This week he is Alexander the Great – his symmetry is on an epic scale. He has cruel, flat eyes – his present physiognomy is inspired by carvings.  His lips are full, protruding over white, parading teeth. Perhaps the lips are not quite right? He purses them, uneasy.  He can afford another transplant.  He can afford any number of transplants. He invested in armaments when the credit crunch came.  Fentimore Ballantyne is a rich man, and his face is his only extravagance.

Where am I?  Clarissa Dalloway wakes up, stretches.  A man in her bed – oh yes!  The launch party of that silky little volume of journalistic musings. Never fails, a slim book, with large spaces around the words. She didn’t even write it. She just told the author to make it shorter. Keep them guessing.  The man is from a broadsheet. Married, of course.  They’re so much easier to pull.  She gets up, slips into her Betty Jackson slacks. Slakes her thirst with last night’s vintage champagne. How to deal with this one?  He is snoring, one arm dangling over the bed-edge, like a baby lion dozing on a branch.  Nice skin.  Hmm.  She hasn’t skinned one for a while.

The bleak cloud remnants are resting on the lid of the moor.  A man’s figure appears, against the huddle of wind-moulded rocks on the black edge of land. He is alone. His silhouette is motionless.  Deliberate as ritual, he begins to climb the hunks of stone. His movements are fast and strong.  Behind him, the sky is fading into invisible monoxide.  A single kite turns on its wing in the vastness, breathing in polluted air, watching. It sees a moor frog, crouching by a stone. Falls earthwards, grabs with dinosaur talons and the frog is gone.

It takes Clarissa one hour and nine minutes to cycle from her flat in Stockwell to the offices of Dalloway and Vixen, the most feared author’s agency in WCI. When she gets to work, Septimus has got there first.  With a pretence of solicitude, he has left a skinny latte by her Apple Mac. Next to it, an Apple Danish. Septimus has a congratulatory First from Piers Plowman college, Oxford. He likes to reference doubling, twins and the unfunny. 
            “Thanks, Sep,” she says, wiping her feet on the slush pile.
            “Good evening?” asks Septimus.
            “Marvellous, thank you.” She tosses the Danish into the bin.
            “Seemed to be getting very cosy with Brian Easton-Ellis.”
            “With whom?”
            “That Guardian chap.”
            She gives him her basilisk stare, and turns to the latest bright young novel. Post apocalyptic plastic surgery. Sooo predictable.

If one is a parent.  Sometimes… It’s like A and E. 

You, as an infant. Tugging the milk out of me, stronger than any lover.  We lay in bed, tumbled together, days merging into night. My child. My lost boy. No one has read my book yet, and that makes me very angry. Because.  As a writer, I write. You came into my life, and the very, very short sentences still flowed out of me. In small bursts. Like breast milk. Now, you tug on skunk. My pure, clear toddler is dead to me. 

He started smoking when things were bad between his father and me.  I don’t want to say too much about that now. It’s in very early draft form. An image – his ruffled little head, keep it visual. My boy, I know him.  He lies. He tells the truth. He is talented. I pay him for his poems, which are very fine.  We are pinned to each other with words. Even the house has had its own book. The rabbit is next.  It’s salt lick is addictive.
Clarissa wipes her lips, delicately.  The aspiring writer perspires gently into her alfalfa consomm√© . Over forty, up from the south coast.  Two books, neither of them did much.  Now she is marked by Bookscan, hunted down, a failure exactly measured in an absence of transactions.
             “The thing is…” says Clarissa.
            “You’re not… how shall I put this?”
            “Selling enough?”
            Clarissa sighs. “It’s not as simple as that.”
            “Isn’t it?”
            “The thing is, you’re neither one thing, nor another.”
            “I’m not?
            God, this is hard work, thinks Clarissa. (If she wasn’t a serial killer, she has no idea how she would hold it all together.)
         “Look,” she says, finally, pouring the rest of the half bottle of Chardonnay into her own glass. “You’re not commercial enough, and you’re not literary enough. And you’ve got form.  Okay?”

Monday, 8 September 2014

How to go to a writing conference

Being a writer is hard. I mean, not in the sense that being a miner or a crew member on a billionaire's yacht is hard, but in the sense of being lonely, uncertain and almost certainly doomed to failure. No one is going to make you go a mile underground to hack stuff out of the earth, or clean their Jimmy Choos at three am, but you will be forced by your own obsessive ambition to sit at your PC for many isolated, sedentary hours. The sun shines, the world spins on its axis and there you are, typing some stuff you will probably take out tomorrow because, actually, in the cold light of another day, it is a bit rubbish.

So how do you deal with this? You go for a run sometimes, or to the gym, you meet with other writers and rant/vent about being a writer, and then let them do the same. You try to Be Nice to Yourself, in ways that may or may not involve a. biscuits and b. booze.

And you go to conferences. Yay! Conferences are great. You brush your hair and put on acceptable clothing. You leave the house. You learn stuff, (You always, always learn something at a conference that it is impossible to learn in any other way, even by listening to Radio Four). And you talk to people.

The title of the post is 'How to go to a conference'. Here are my three top tips:

1. Talk to people.
2. Talk to people.
3. Talk to people.

I could do five or ten top tips, but you get the general idea.

This weekend I did just this. I was not only at a conference in London - the Historical Novel Society Conference 2014 - I was speaking at it. My subject was the way in which fact relates to fiction, and the way in which Macbeth inspired my novel Dark Aemilia. And though I obviously think this is a pretty interesting subject, my fellow panellists were riveting - and they were a very impressive bunch, including Robyn Young, Andrew Taylor and Elizabeth Gifford. (The downside of a writers' conference is that you will find out about brilliant writers and their books, and your reading pile will grow even higher as a result.) The session was also chaired by Jenny Barden, who is a fellow Tudor novelist.

Robyn talked about Robert the Bruce and her research trip to Scotland, and the way that the physicality of the land inspired and shaped her narrative. Andrew talked about a ghost story in the Forest of Dean - a black servant whose sister was raped by his white master's son killed the rapist in revenge, and his ghost still haunts the woods.  And Liz Gifford talked about her family history and the selkies in Scotland.

I cam't cover everything that happened, obviously, but hugely enjoyed talks by Conn Iggulden, who basically just needs his own TV show and is one of funniest, most natural public speakers I have seen, and Lindsey Davis, another highly entertaining speaker, who was both witty and very serious, a combination I like.

There was also a panel discussion about publishing and promoting historical fiction. I wish I could say there was a reassuring message here. But as Nick Sayers, one of the most respected editors in the business, gave as his single piece of advice to newbies 'Don't give up the day job' it is clear that only someone very naive would go into novel writing with a view to paying the mortgage, never mind paying it off.

The best panel I attended was 'My Era is Better than Yours' which set a number of writers the task of defending their own era against all comers. Former war correspondent Angus Donald was the star, bigging up the romance of the Medieval period as well as its violence, but everyone gave it their all, and writer/publisher Antonia Hodgson, author of  'The Devil in the Marshalsea' romped home with the Georgian period when it came to an audience vote. (And yes, I did wish I was writing a novel in the Georgian period after the discussion, and in about four years, when I have cracked the Restoration, I probably will be....)

All this and a host of meetings and card-swappings and the drinking of tea and coffee and wine and general bonhomie. And the chocolate cake was pretty good too.

Go to a conference! Go on. You know you want to.