Monday, March 29, 2010

Inspiring Places

Julie has a lovely post about the Palace of Versailles over on her blog today, and she asks if you could go anywhere to be inspired to write, where would you go?

I said Westminster Abbey in London. It was an instinctive answer (if I thought for two minutes, I'd come up with a list the length of Westminster Bridge) but I think I'll stand by it, and here's why.

I'm a bit of a history nut. I like Antonia Fraser and historical novels, and my usual Wikipedia reads are articles about historical figures, places and events. When I visit somewhere, I do all the historical stuff before I do the literary stuff. I don't do much literary stuff, mostly because I'm not a big fan of looking at authors' former houses - luckily, since I live in Dublin, where it's possible to go for years doing nothing else. I tend to be underwhelmed at the thought that someone famous once lived somewhere unremarkable. I'm more likely to walk through Hyde Park thinking 'Wow, Cassandra Mortmain [who never existed] walked through here. Cool.' This, perhaps, illustrates my sketchy grasp on reality.

But show me somewhere where something historical happened, and I'm like a kid at Christmas.

And I do love Westminster Abbey. You could argue that not much real history happened here - it tended to be a place where history started (when someone was crowned) or ended (when they were buried). But such a wonderful mixture of people! Kings and queens, long-forgotten consorts, prime ministers, poets, the unknown soldier. . . If they could all get up at night, and sit around the altar having a chat, who wouldn't want to be there? Not least when Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I finally met (is it just me, or is ordering the execution of your cousin, whom you've never met, really bad manners or what?).

This does have something to do with writing and inspiration. The reason I love reading about history is because I love thinking about motives, and how people must have felt. Like Queen Elizabeth, so utterly terrified of losing her kingdom. Or Mary Queen of Scots - a queen before she could walk, widowed in her teens. Or Henry VIII, having to change the faith of his whole country just so he could marry the woman he. . . wanted to marry (she says tactfully). Behind every historical decision is a person. And that is always where the fun starts.

Friday, March 26, 2010

RITA Nominations and Blog Haituseses

WRITING UPDATE: I haven't done one of these in ages! The new WIP is going well and is proving a lot more fun than the last one was by the time I put it aside (it always starts that way, doesn't it. . .?). I'm about 10,000 words in and I've enjoyed writing all of them, even it, then, and, but and blacksmith. My next writers' group meeting is on Tuesday and I'm less ashamed of myself than usual. I may even be able to come out from behind the famous flowery notebook that the WIP is in.

Courtney Milan got some good news today :)

I'm delighted for Courtney - I just finished her first novel and thought it was excellent so I'm keen to read the nominated novella. I'm just as pleased for Sherry Thomas, also nominated and also excellent.

Both ladies also have very good blogs, which are worth checking out. Courtney's husband reviews her books and he grades them in Sherman tanks. I want him to write a book too :) And Sherry Thomas is just hilarious, so even if their books aren't your usual genre, their blogs are worth a follow.

I have very little to blog about, apart from that.

My blogging has really suffered from the last month of on-and-off illness and minor ailments. I find the more I blog, the more ideas I get for blog posts - it's as though the time I put into blogging tips my mind into 'blog mode' and I start seeing ideas for posts, formulating more detailed responses to blogs I read, wondering how I would phrase something to get my exact meaning across - just generally being a better blogger. Finding the time isn't always easy and sometimes it's just so much simpler to pop the telly on and make some tea, but that time spent ultimately rewards me in spades.

It's such a terrible shame that I have no lessons about writing from the last few weeks to share with you all. Terrible.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Alternate Version Blogfest

It occurs to me that if I wanted a pleasingly alliterative title for my blog, 'Feast or Famine' might be more appropriate than 'Pink Tea and Paper'.

Livia Blackburne's blog is currently plugging the Alternative Version blogfest.

The idea is to take a passage from your novel and rewrite it in different styles. See Livia's post for some fun examples from her own novel.

I can't wait. I'm setting up reminders on my phone to make sure I do it (it's on April 1st, which is a work day, so I could easily forget because I'm smart like that).

I just can't decide which WIP to play with. It will probably be my sensible, grown-up literary/book-club fiction (better known as the book with Rosie in it) because making that into something different and ridiculous will just be so much fun.

I think Rosie and Elizabeth could do with a little Chuck Palahnuik-ing up *evil cackle*

PS - After writing this but before posting it, I came across a very good link on DGLM's blog - this list of tips for polishing your manuscript. I found it very helpful. may be worth checking out.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Old-Fashioned Way

Writing on a computer is a very different experience to writing by hand.

Mostly I prefer to write on a computer - it's faster, it's handier, it's easier to email someone a paragraph that just isn't working and beg them for help. But when I started my Rosie novel, I started writing by hand. Partly because it snuck up on me (I went for a cup of tea intending to do some writing and a bit of a novel started), but also because I was returning to writing after a long break and I wanted no excuses. I wanted to be able to write anywhere, once I had a notebook and a pen in my bag. None of this 'Oh, but my laptop is at home with my novel on it, and I'm in the city centre with an hour to spare. . . guess I'll go for cake' messing. No thinking 'I can't write there, there isn't a plug socket.' My novel had to come everywhere with me, short of the bathroom.

Portability is less of a problem now that I own a netbook with good battery life, but I still occasionally like to write by hand.

I'm playing with a very silly story at the moment to amuse myself and I'm writing it by hand. I felt for a long time that I wanted to write a very light-hearted fantasy story, possibly with some adventure elements, and it was a particular notebook that made it all come together in my head. I'd just accepted a new job but hadn't started yet, so I had potential money, but not very much actual money. I fancied a treat but it couldn't be anything too pricey, so I went into my favourite stationery shop and that was when I saw it. And when I saw it, I got a better idea of the kind of story I wanted to write in it.

It was on a shelf beside a big, thick, old-fashioned, stamped leather notebook (a gorgeous piece in its own right, and on my want list), which also could have worked for the kind of story I was in the mood for. But the paper-covered one with the flowers on it just seemed right, and still does.

And I wonder sometimes if, in the switch to writing on computers, we've lost a small ritual. Finding the right notebook - a terrible timewaster, but such good fun.

Or I did wonder. Until a few days ago.

I'm typing up my handwritten story as I write it. But my usual Times New Roman just felt wrong.

I settled on Baskerville some time later :)

Drought strikes

I've been editing a friend's novel recently.

By novel, I mean trilogy.

And by 'editing', I mean 'reading with mini Post-its and biro in hand, making notes on stuff I'd consider changing'.

This means I haven't had a handbag book for a while, so I have very little to blog about. I only realised this week how much I depend on the books I read to give me ideas for blog posts. See? Books are great. They make blogs happen.

I used to want to get a t-shirt printed saying 'People Are Great, They Make Books Happen.' I still might.

Anyway, even if it isn't helping me blog, I am thoroughly enjoying the editing process and having lots of fun with it. I can't share any great insights, since this is someone else's book and they should be allowed talk about their own lessons should they so wish, but one thing is for sure - I am dreading when it's my turn to go to the beta readers. I hope they're kinder than I am. . .

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

English Books and Tea

Oh, feck.

I've been horribly remiss.

And I don't just mean because I've hardly blogged for the last week (many apologies for that, by the way - have a head cold, not bad enough to keep me off work but bad enough to make me feel tired all the time). But because I never told you all about English Books and Tea!

English Books and Tea is a small second-hand bookshop in Cologne, Germany. I went there when I was interrailing and it's a lovely little spot. If you're ever in Cologne, you should drop in.

And you should go to Cologne, if you ever get the chance. It's a small-ish city (roughly Dublin-sized, I think, or just a bit smaller), and it has that beautiful cathederal. However big you think the cathedral is, it's bigger, and it's gorgeously Gothic and spiky. The people are incredibly friendly, and remained so even after an episode where a waiter helping me on with my jacket almost lost an eye.


I was interrailing with a fellow bookworm (and tea-addict) and we were both beginning to run low on books. I had read about English Books and Tea on the internet (given who we were travelling with, we each agreed that researching possible ways to find English books on the move before we left home was A Good Plan) and on Day Two or Three of our Cologne adventure, we headed north from the cathedral in search of books.

I had it in my head that I wanted to read Forever Amber again, and I didn't have my copy with me. I have mentioned this before, ad nauseum, but the bloody thing is huge and I can't stress this enough. You don't pack it on the off-chance.

We'd gone to the chocolate museum in Bruges (mostly for the gift shop) and somewhere in the exhibition there had been mention of how hot chocolate became the favourite hot beverage of the upper classes. I remembered Amber having her morning cup of chocolate, and somehow that one line in the museum made me think of all the decadance and luxury of Restoration England and I wanted to read Forever Amber again. I was prepared to chase it across a sizeable chunk of Europe if I had to, but I wasn't hopeful that I'd find it in Shakespeare and Company in Paris (our next and last stop).

English Books and Tea had a copy, and so cheap that I didn't have to feel bad about my plan to leave it behind in Paris for some unsuspecting reader to find.

This was a good start. It got better when the owner (a lovely man called Christian Potter, which is a brilliant name for a bookshop owner) made a joke about me buying it. I assured him it was very historically accurate. Honest.

And an hour later, we were still sitting there chatting, two or three books to the good and with several cups of decent English tea in us, heads full of book recommendations.

And a year and a half later, I'm finally getting around to passing on the recommendation. Sometimes I'm so crap I scare myself. . .

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bedside Books

I was talking to a friend of mine recently about what makes the ideal bedtime book.

Many of you know about my small Jodi Picoult problem (she has a new book out now, it's about Aspergers and it has cops in it and it got good reviews - can't wait to read it). I can't read anything too gripping before bed, because I just stay up half the night. Equally, I don't want something so boring that my mind wanders and I lie there compiling laundry lists and obsessing about whether I have any right to try to be novelist when I can't reliably spell 'necessary.'

For these reasons, I have a few great books to read last thing at night, and I thought I'd share them. They all have the advantage of being really good. Books of short stories are good, poetry is good if that's your thing, but everyone needs extra book suggestions now and again.

Restoration London, by Liza Picard.

Liza Picard writes about the parts of history no one ever thinks to write about - did people wear makeup? Did they keep pets? How did they brush their teeth? It's thanks to her I know that women in 1600s Britain probably had better teeth than me. The book is organised in broad thematic sections, broken up into small, short chapters that are easy to read, interesting and over quickly so you can opt out anytime. She also has a book about Victorian London which I've promised myself as a treat when I finish my WIP.

Made In America, by Bill Bryson.

I love Bill. I love him so much that people have been known to ban me from mentioning him. Made In America seeks to explain where Americanisms come from - who was the real McCoy,what was the $64,000 question, what does OK actually mean, at what point did photographer become the term preferred over photographist.

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations

I shouldn't even need to explain this one, but it isn't as engaging as the others on the list. Good for when you're really tired.

Live Alone and Like It, by Marjorie Hillis

This is a very girly choice. Marjorie Hillis wrote her book in the 1930s, when a growing number of women in America were taking entry-level jobs in cities rather than sitting around waiting to get married. This is how to cope with living alone. The idea is to do it fabulously. I've never lived alone, and the ethos is a little lost on me because I'm kind of a slob, but she is lovely and entertaining to read and has those nice short chapters I keep evangelising about. One of them is called 'A Lady and her Liquor.'

84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff.

One of my all-time comfort books. This series of letters between a book-loving New Yorker and the staff of a London second-hand bookshop is just adorable, and it's always easy to stop reading letters whenever you fancy. It's usually packaged in a volume with The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, which is a nice light travelogue and a good bedtime book in its own right.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Says Who?

I started typing this post and somehow hit the wrong key and published it with just a subject line reading 'Says who?' with no blog post to follow. I took it down immediately, of couse.

So a blog post entitled 'Says Who' popped up and vanished again within less than a minute. I think I have a shot at the Turner Prize with this, it is daringly postmodern.


Anyway, the actual blog post is probably going to be very anti-climactic and a bit rubbish after the drama of my false start. But no matter, I don't usually let that stop me.

I went to see a play recently - Brian Friel's Faith Healer in the Gate Theatre in Dublin.

I had read the play before I saw it, but a very long time ago. I didn't remember anything much about it beyond the structure and the premise. The play consists of four monologues - the opening one is delivered by Frank Hardy, the faith healer of the title, the next by his wife/mistress Grace, the third by his manager, Teddy, and the final one again by Frank. And I remembered enjoying it, and I remembered looking at the dense blocks of text and flipping the pages and wondering how the hell an actor kept all that in their head at one time.

Because of the fact that it's made up of four long monologues (about half an hour each), I always assumed it would be a really tough play to watch. Turns out no. The cast (Owen Roe, Ingrid Craigie and Kim Durham) were excellent, and it was compelling - even though the entire play involves someone sitting on a stage chatting to you.

The great thing about this play, though, is the way that the points of view are used. First Frank shows up, and he tells you a few bits and pieces about himself, and his life on the road, and his family, and this-that-and-the-other. Then Grace gives her version of events and it's very different at some very crucial points, and you think 'Ah, that Frank - unreliable. Grace is more plausible. I believe her.' Then Teddy shows up with his version, and it contradicts both Frank and Grace in some places, and as he's the manager, not involved in the romantic relationship, you feel he's more objective so you start to believe him. . . but then Frank comes back. And at the end of the play, you have no idea what the truth is.

And the reason why the conflicting stories and points of view work so well is because everyone is so sure that they are right. Each story is told as the complete truth. Frank is probably the least reliable of them all - Grace and Teddy agree on a few things that he seems sure never happened. But when he's on stage, even for the last time, when Grace and Teddy have had their say, you still wonder.

I've written unreliable narrators before, but I've never written anything with conflicting points of view. I can imagine the challenges involved. Brian Friel does it brilliantly (would do, I suppose, what with being Brian Friel), and this post is mostly just to say that if you are ever writing something where different people have to describe the same thing in their own way, you could do worse than read Faith Healer. Because each one of them is totally plausible while they're actually talking.

Faith Healer is also just a really good play, and for something with such a challenging structure, it's surprisingly little work to watch it. I went to see Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night once, and while it was a rewarding experience, it was rewarding like doing a sponsored fast. You feel proud of yourself for having endured it, and you know that the experience has made you a better person, but it certainly wasn't any fun at the time. Faith Healer, on the other hand, is fun.

PS - After the play we were in the bar and the actors all came in. I plucked up all my courage and got Owen Roe's autograph (he played Frank) and while I was chatting to him, I said he had done an excellent job and that it must be so tough to keep such enormous blocks of text in your head. He smiled and said 'Nah, we just make it up as we go along.'

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Alexander McCall Smith

Last weekend I struggled from my sickbed and went to hear Alexander McCall Smith speak. This may be a good time to think the two kind people who drove me there and back respectively, by the way :)

I love Alexander McCall Smith. My favourite of his series is 44 Scotland Street. When I read it, I was living in a Georgian house subdivided into flats too, although the fellow occupants of my building weren't as interesting or as pleasant (I only encountered one of them, and I'm saving her for a novel). I also love Isabel Dalhousie, and Precious Ramotswe and the whole shooting gallery.

Sandy, as he likes to be called, is terribly charming and utterly lovely, and I'd go to hear him speak again. My favourite bit was probably his story about how he met his friend Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers ('Mr. Flea', he calls him) at a lunch in Beverly Hills and Flea invited him to a concert (Sandy sent his daughter and a friend as he couldn't go. Flea put chairs for them beside the stage and they ended up all over the TV).

He also addressed that fact that he has been criticised for producing 'light reading', and for his lack of realism. And it is true that his books are sweet, and escapist, and easy to read, and his protagonists tend to be very nice people with sound moral outlooks on life. But he does deal with difficult subjects - he just does it with a very pleasant and sweet voice rather than a cynical one, and through the eyes of the aforementioned nice protagonists. But he writes the books he wants to write, and he does it in a way that no one else can do. Which, let's be honest, is what we all should be after.

A side note: Sandy mentioned that although he's often classified as a crime writer, he feels uncomfortable with the label. He said Ian Rankin, who lives near him in Edinburgh, is a proper crime writer, with stubble and a leather jacket and several black t-shirts.
My friend, who was with me, leaned over at this point and whispered 'So it turns out that being a writer is largely sartorial, then.'
'Looks like it. How do you feel about that?'
' . . . delighted, actually!'

Monday, March 1, 2010

Exploring Things

I was just reading Hilary Mantel's account of the day she left Saudi Arabia after four years. I loved the following passage and had to share it.

It was in the coffin-maker's flat that I had finished my first novel. There, I had received a letter from London to say that a publisher had accepted it. My husband brought it home from the office and put it into my hand. When I read its first line my mouth opened but my ribs had stuck fast with astonishment, so I couldn't utter, couldn't breathe in or out; and it seemed to me that in those suspended seconds an era went by, during which every cell in my body was exchanged for a new and better type.

I've never had that experience, obviously, but it sounds wonderful the way she puts it, doesn't it? Every cell in my body was exchanged for a new and better type.

Like most unpublished novelists, I dream about the day this will happen to me. But I realised as I copied that passage to post here that something similar happened to me once, and I've never blogged about it.

I was one of several contributors to the Dublin Complete Resident's Guide, and it was a really fun experience. I answered an ad online and received an email explaining what the company was about and the kind of travel guides they produced. Explorer Publishing produce guidebooks for people moving to cities rather than visiting them, written by people who already live there. They started out producing guides to cities in the Middle East (they are based in the United Arab Emirates and I was ultimately paid in dirhams) and have since branched into practically everywhere else.

Then, because I have always taken advice from people smarter than I am, I Googled the publishing company and made sure they were legitimate. Not only were they legitimate, they seemed to have a really excellent vision and to offer a genuinely good product.

So naturally I was terrified.

The lead editor for the project came to Dublin and met with prospective writers, of whom I was one. I was 22, on the dole and utterly chuffed to bits, and she was lovely.

I was somewhat more chuffed when I was asked to write the Health section, the Education section (I had just left college and made the point that I knew more about the education system than anyone who wasn't still in it - I was so inexperienced that I decided I'd better try to make that a selling point) and some parts of the Going Out section.

Overall, it was a great experience. I found out so much about my own country that I hadn't know before - I had to learn how school places were allocated, how you registered with a GP, what standard of healthcare was available through the public system and what were the benefits if you went private. I had to learn about night courses, nursery schools and special needs teachers. And I had to write it all up and present it in a reasonable and timely fashion and not fall apart with terror that real people - adults, even - would be reading and evaluating stuff I wrote.

I started a new day job around the same time as I started the Explorer gig (I had both interviews the same week. My mother was on holidays in Spain and had to get both interviews texted to her in less than 160 characters). It was a very busy time, but a very fun one, too.

But the best bit.

The best bit came that winter. My mother texted me to say a large package had arrived for me and met me after work with it. It was my author copy of the book, with a tiny biography of me (bloody impossible to write. I actually lied outright just to make up the word count. I have an excellent sense of direction, for the record, although my bio says I don't) and a tiny picture of me, and my name, spelled right.

I didn't feel every cell in my body renew. Not even a few of the older ones that were nearing the end of their life cycle and probably should have renewed. But it did feel great, and it still feels great to see the book on my shelf and to know that I have been paid to write, but more importantly, that I've written something that met someone else's objective standards.

And that would be why I would recommend that all writers should try and get their names into print somehow. Newspaper articles, magazines, travel guides, websites, blogs, student publications - whatever. Regardless of whether you're paid or unpaid, it's a good feeling to know that someone is reading your words and liking them. I've never written it myself, but some authors swear by fanfiction for the same reasons and I can see why it would have the same effect.