Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas in Books

So you thought you might have the good fortune to read a blog post today that didn't mention Christmas? I hope you find it, but sadly you won't find it here :)

I have this problem with Christmas in my books. Specifically, there is rather too much of it.

I usually do my first drafts in November, for Nanowrimo. This means that as I write, the Christmas party invitations are starting to trickle in. My three incredibly close friends who have the temerity to be born in early-mid December (Interrailing Buddy, Lilac Faery and The Sociologist, to be precise) are usually starting to iron out their celebrations during late November (they have lots of friends in common - sadly I am not unique in that regard! - and tend to coordinate so they don't clash. Thankfully!). And I'm starting to look for Christmas gifts, birthday gifts and to think generally celebratory thoughts.

This always spills into my books.

In Becky (sorry, still no title!), Becky's upbeat flatmate asks her about her Christmas plans. One of the key moments in Becky's journey back to being a real person as well as a job is when she realises that she has been left out of her college friends' annual Secret Santa/ Kris Kindle present exchange because she hasn't seen any of them since the previous year.

This year, I'm writing about a family, and my main character is locked in a row with her sister about what they will do on Christmas Day. It's actually one of the more serious conflicts in the novel.

I enjoy reading Christmassy books, but I don't tend to read them as much during the rest of the year.

How about you guys? Do you have any favourite Christmas books? Any Christmas books that you don't read any other time? Have you ever read a Christmassy book at another time of year, and how did you find it?

This will be my last post til January so I hope you all have a lovely holiday season!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Blogging 2012

You guys may have noticed I've been far more sporadic about my blogging lately. It started with Nanowrimo, when I was both busy and sick, and some of my health problems are stubbornly refusing to go away. Nothing serious, before anyone starts to worry, just annoying, niggly things that nevertheless have a tendency to sap energy.

I've also been plugging away at the Nano book, trying to get a first draft finished. I'm happy with how it's going, but it's very much a first draft and I suspect huge chunks won't survive the first edit.

I've been thinking a lot about blogging lately. I find I'm reading fewer blogs, commenting less and posting less. Yet, when I do take the time to read and comment, I'm enjoying blogging as much as ever. I just feel I have reached a point where I have less to say that I did.

Which is why I'm changing my posting schedule. Instead of Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I will now only be blogging twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays.

I figure you'd all rather read something I'd put some thought into rather than a random collection of Guardian articles desperately cobbled together for the sake of posting something!

And while I'm here - hello to all new followers and readers, and thanks for sticking with me through my sporadic blogging period. I didn't lose a single follower during my radio silence and I'm very glad :)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Deja Vu Blogfest!

DL Hammons - among others - is hosting the very fun Deja-Vu Blogfest today! The idea is for bloggers to re-run their favourite old posts, perhaps from before they encountered many of their followers.

My actual favourite blog post is surprisingly popular, given that it's called 'Grabbing Life by the Bouillabaisse'. But it's only one paragraph long, so I have decided to pretend that I'm far more highbrow than I actually am by repeating a post about a book. Here is my sort-of-second, almost-joint-first, kind-of-one-and-a-halfth favourite blog post, about one my my all-time favourite books - 84 Charing Cross Road.

It's an All Bar One now.

84 Charing Cross Road, that is. The most iconic bookshop in an iconic street of bookshops. And it's a pub.

The person who first lent me 84 Charing Cross Road may be able to see the positive side of this. Me not so much.

The first time I read Helene Hanff's most famous book was in a volume that included The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, a later account of her trip to London long after the death of Frank Doel. It's a delightfully London-y book, and Helene Hanff is like a Dorothy Parker that you wouldn't be scared to invite to your parties. Smart, acerbic, New Yorker, likes martinis, but paradoxically not prone to having feuds with people and attempting suicide. What's not to love?

When I borrowed the book first, I refused to give it back until I'd bought my own copy (this is still a sore point). I knew that I could never go to London without it, because when Helene Hanff finally made her life-changing trip to London, nearly a decade before I was born, she stayed in My Bit. My Bit is Bloomsbury. Next to the British Museum, close to Russell Square (one of my all-time favourite parks), walking distance to Oxford Street, Covent Garden and - natch - Charing Cross Road. I am extremely attached to My Bit. It has pretty brown-brick buildings that remind me of seeing 10 Downing Street on TV when I was a kid. Black Books was set there. UCL and Birkbeck are there. There is a three-story branch of Paperchase on Tottenham Court Road that I once visited with a friend late on a Thursday evening in December. We got a doubled-over giggling fit in the lift in our hotel because we felt so decadent buying stationery in the dark.

Substantial parts of My Bit also got blown up in July 2005. Usually, when places I love get blown up, I book a flight to them. Like Helene Hanff, bound for London still crippled by a recent hysterectomy, I can never just go to places. Disasters tend to drive me there.

Since I read 84 Charing Cross Road, the small volume including The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street has come with me on every trip to London. My edition has a quote on the cover, taken from the publicity material for the film adaptation, which describes the book as a love story. This incensed me the first time I read it - the platonic nature of Helene Hanff's friendship with Frank Doel is the best bloody thing about the book, as far as I'm concerned - but I got over it. It is a love story - several love stories - and that's why it comes to London with me every time. Partly because the second book is a love letter to My Bit (even if Helene never went to the British Museum, mad heathen that she was), partly because the first book is all about second-hand books, which I buy in vast quantities every time I'm in London, and partly because 84, Charing Cross Road is one of the best accounts I have read about friendship and how it can begin in the strangest of circumstances and survive for so long. When you find yourself in a city that you love in the way that normal people love other people, it's nice to have something to remind you why getting on the plane home is a good idea.

Annoyingly, though, I can't go into number 84 and buy a book each trip, as a sort of thank you to Marks & Co. for making my trips richer. But even more annoying is the other book that has to come with me on every trip to London, the only other book I've read that comes close to 84, Charing Cross Road in its love for London.

Forever Amber. Forever sodding Amber. 972 pages. Do you have any idea how much that thing weighs?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Heart in the Marketplace: What to Write

Rachelle Gardner has an excellent post today on how writers handle the conflicting messages out there: 'write with an awareness of the market' vs 'write what's in your heart'.

I am an awkward writer (I'll give you all a moment to recover from the shock of that revelation). I often write things that don't quite fit a genre. My last book was a straight-up urban fantasy. This one - well. It's a bit less straightforward. There is a supernatural element that underpins the entire plot. But the writing is much closer to chick-lit than to urban fantasy. I suspect that when the time comes to write a query letter for this one, I will cry myself stupid and bloggers in Britain will hear my screams carrying across the Irish Sea when the wind is from the west.

But I love it, and I want to write it, and I believe I can write it well. So I'm writing it. When the time comes to try to pitch it, I'll be looking at the market then and trying to find somewhere that it fits.

I think it's about balance. If I was to say to myself 'Oh, steampunk, that's hot right now!' and start bashing out a tale of - well, whatever the classic steampunk elements are, I've only read Gail Carriger - I don't imagine I'd produce anything worth reading. But that's just me - some writers are fortunate and can find scope for creativity within any parameters.

But I'm not one of those people, and so much of writing is about knowing yourself.

What about you? Do you write for the market or for yourself?

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Diffney Quiz - Offbeat Holiday Traditions

As many of you probably know, my dad is sadly no longer with us. He passed away sudddenly in 2005. And as all of you probably know, when the Christmas season hits, most people's minds turn to loved ones, lost or otherwise.

When I was about fifteen, my dad came home from work one evening with the Diffney quiz. Do not ask me what made him go into Diffney (he was a marine engineer, so he tended to buy very functional clothes rather than stylish ones. They tended to get covered in engine oil and dust very, very fast).

My dad loved crosswords, brainteasers and puzzles. His evening ritual was to sit with the Daily Mirror Quizword and work his way through the general knowledge clues. The Diffney quiz might as well have been designed for him.

Anyway, the entire family became addicted to it. Not just my parents and me, but the extended family. My mother posted a copy to one of her sisters, and the other sister saw it when they were having coffee together.

Slowly, it took over our December.

Right up to the February deadline, we were calling and texting back and forth from Dublin to Wexford to Scotland to Nottingham, with clues and suggestions and debates. Once you've done it once, you learn a few tricks - there is usually a clue about Diffney itself, for instance, and at least one Dublin placename and its postcode (Dublin has one-digit postcodes, the rest of Ireland doesn't, which makes internet shopping all kinds of fun). There is usually a film or two, a song lyric as well as some song titles.

Like a crossword, you eventually get into the mind of the compiler. Over the years, we have all got better and better at the Diffney quiz. It is no longer the absurd challenge it was that first year (and of course, we all secretly believe it's getting easier, in the same way exams were harder when we sat them, young people today have it so easy, etc. /end old person rant).

But the Diffney quiz is addictive. It has an odd siren song - most people can answer a lot of the questions in one sitting, easily. But the ones that you can't get nag at you and gradually take over your life so you are a mere husk of your former self.

Over the years, I've shared it with friends and family, and most people who enjoy puzzles get quite sucked in. Sometimes you get texts at 2 a.m. that merely say 'Amazon River - 3976 miles long!!!!!!' or, if you know someone really sadistic (or sensitive about spoiling your fun) 'I got number 23. Call if you want the answer.'

I got the 2011 Diffney quiz on Friday when I was starting my Christmas shopping. Two copies go in the post, one is left blank for photocopying, one will get filled in bit by bit over the next few weeks.

It's not quite the same without Dad, becayse he was the most enthusiastic Diffney quiz lover of us all. But it is nice, every year, to watch a little of Dad come out in all of us as we trade clues and answers, jealously guard our hunches, argue for our own suggestions and shamefully resort to Google when we're desperate.

For me, Christmas starts with the Diffney quiz.

Any odd holiday traditions in your family?