Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The DOCTOR Who Saved Christmas

Around this time of year I always think back over my various family Christmases during the years. It was especially moving to see a recent programme on TV about Christmas in past decades - starting with the very austere wartime years of the 1940s and moving on through the 1950s and 60s of my childhood and youth. I have to say, the homes featured in those two parts of the documentary were a lot more upmarket than I, or any of my friends, lived in during those decades! But otherwise they were reasonably accurate and it made me feel quite nostalgic about the 'old days' when we were content without just one or two presents, and when almost everyone I knew went to church at Christmas. Most people didn't overeat or drink to excess, even at Christmas. There really wasn't the money to spare. No TV, no phones, no internet: the family played board games. But that doesn't mean it was perfect, of course - life never is.

There are some lovely Christmases among my memories. The one in 1966, for instance, when I'd just met a new boyfriend at a Christmas dance, had a date with him on Christmas Eve and was wondering whether it was going to last. Four years later we were married and next year it will be 50 years since that meeting. Then there was the first Christmas, in 1975, with our first baby girl, 5 months old when we celebrated Christmas as a little family of our own at last. A year later she was a chatty little toddler and I was about to give birth to her sister, born on 29 December. And another two years on, our third daughter was born on Boxing Day. There were Christmases when my brother and his family were home from Australia, another one when we'd just moved to a bigger family home on 20 December, and recent lovely Christmases with our grandchildren - now six of them - all in the perfect age group for Christmas, still believing in Santa Claus, eyes still wide with the wonder and excitement of it all. And then, of course, there were the ones clouded by not-such-good memories.

Well, we all have them, don't we? Christmas arguments - like most families, we've had a few. And Christmases at sad times, particularly the one that came only a month or so after we lost my dad at the age of just 61. I felt guilty for even trying to enjoy myself, but Mum put on a brave face throughout, bless her. I missed her terribly the first year she wasn't with us either. There were Christmases when it snowed. One when the boiler broke down. One when the cooker died on me, halfway through cooking the turkey. One when I forgot to buy the vegetables. And several when somebody was ill. That would often be tonsillitis with one of the children when they were young, or chest infections, or the all-too-seasonal colds and tummy bugs. But the worst was six years ago when our middle daughter was rushed into hospital.

She'd had major abdominal surgery some years earlier, and that Christmas morning when her problems recurred, her baby boy, our first grandchild, was three months old and we were all looking forward to his first Christmas with us. The rest of the family was gathered at our house, and then came the phone call from my son-in-law. Our daughter was in terrible pain and being very sick. He'd phoned the hospital and needed to take her straight there. Could we possibly come over and collect the baby?

I was so frightened as we drove the 20 miles to their home, I couldn't even speak. It was awful to see my lovely girl in such a bad way. Our son-in-law carried her out to his car and sped off to the hospital, leaving us to take charge of baby Noah. I was pretty sure our daughter would need further surgery, and suddenly Christmas had completely lost its importance as I tried to face the rest of the family without collapsing in tears. We ate the dinner which other family members had finished preparing in our absence, unwrapped presents, played with the baby, constantly wondering what was happening at the hospital. Finally, our son-in-law called, relief evident in his voice. A wonderful doctor had apparently given her a massive anti-inflammatory injection, to be followed by oral anti-inflammatories, and had told them that this was the correct way to deal quickly with her condition rather than leaving it (as had happened that first time, at a different hospital) for days, to escalate to such a life-threatening stage that drastic surgery had been the only option. She was now exhausted but OK, and they were on their way!

Her recovery took time. She spent Christmas Day lying on our sofa, and had little more than soup. But thanks to that doctor's approach, surgery had been avoided and, thank God, has not been needed since. As I've already mentioned, we've had other hiccups at Christmases since, but as a mother I don't think anything could ever match that one for scariness. So having spent a large part of this year going on and on (as we authors do) about my book 'The Cat Who Saved Christmas,' I'd now like to dedicate this blog post to that unknown hospital doctor who, for our family on one special Christmas Day, was 'The Doctor Who Saved Christmas.'  Maybe we'll raise a glass or two to him this year! And may all your Christmases be happy and healthy ones.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The sum of my difficulties.

I recently read a very interesting feature in one of the national papers. It was about dyscalculia - a condition described as a specific learning difficulty for mathematics, or, more appropriately, arithmetic. 'Recognition at last,' I thought - because although everyone these days knows about dyslexia, very little is acknowledged about those of us who have similar problems with maths. And, as the author of the feature said, whereas dyslexia elicits sympathy and (usually, I hope, these days), understanding - if you mention being useless at maths it normally just seems to make people snigger.

The author of the feature was  a woman - a professional writer - who had difficulties with numbers herself, although she mentioned that she had managed to get a GCSE in maths at school, which I could never have done in a million years. I know this for a fact because at my (very academic) grammar school, I was deservedly placed in a small exclusive group for those considered such no-hopers in maths that we weren't even allowed to attempt 'O' level. Instead, we were all given a 'basic arithmetic' test which was supposed to give us a mediocre kind of qualification that at least proved we could weigh our cookery ingredients and make curtains. Although this kind of sexism was still rife in the 1960s, I have to say my school was generally not like this at all, encouraging us girls to aim for university and 'careers', (albeit there were fewer career choices available for us than there have been for girls in more recent decades, and certainly less pay than for boys!).  However, the maths teaching staff must have decided my little group of remedial maths girls deserved nothing better than curtain making and cooking from recipes - neither of which I've ever particularly enjoyed, to this day.

I tried my best with that test, honestly I did, but even those questions I knew how to work out took me so long, I got less than halfway through the paper in the time. My result was a miserable 29% and nobody was particularly surprised. I knew I wasn't stupid, because I'd always been very good at English, and reasonably good at foreign languages - I got A levels in English and French. I'd passed the 11-plus, so I must have got a fair proportion of the arithmetic questions right at that time, but I can still remember that it was at about this age I began to have panic attacks in the classroom when doing 'mental arithmetic', and particularly 'problems' (involving a bewildering combination of words and numbers concerning, for instance, how many men it might take to mow a lawn of a certain size, or how long it might take a train to get from A to B if it stopped at 15 stations).

So I can say with some degree of certainty that my maths ability is about that of a 10 to 11 year old. From that age on, it was all downhill, Long division is still a mystery to me, sums involving pounds shillings and pence used to bring me out in hot sweats, (thank God for decimalisation), and how anyone can add two numbers together without using 'carrying figures', I fail to understand.

In some ways I do manage better now I'm older. For one thing, I thank God I was forcibly made to learn my 'times tables'. I never have to work out what 12 times 12 is, for instance, because it's glued into my memory. And in the same way, over the years I've learned that, again for instance, half of 50 is 25, half of 100 is 50, and so on, so I don't have to wonder how to work these things out. So I'm not completely useless with everyday money situations, although larger amounts still remain difficult. I have to count their digits to work them out.

I've never been allowed to forget one occasion when my friends rather foolishly allowed me to take control of 'doing' the bill after a night out in a restaurant. We'd all had a few drinks and nobody wanted to do it, but I must have had the most to drink or I'd never have agreed. I couldn't make the amount right, no matter how many times I tried - I didn't have enough, and had to ask everyone to put in some more money, and then some more again. Nobody seemed to mind, and finally I seemed to have the bill and the tip covered. I felt quite proud of myself. It wasn't till the middle of the night when I woke up with a sudden shock, that I realised why I'd been short - I hadn't paid for my own meal!

Of course, in today's world we maths dunces are lucky - we have calculators, we have Excel spreadsheets, we don't have to do the hard stuff in our heads. Perhaps I do genuinely have dyscalculia and deserve more sympathy. Or perhaps it's simply that the 'Language' part of my brain is much more developed than the 'Numbers' part. Or it might be because of the flashbacks to my schooldays, the feeling of dread on days when we had double maths lessons, the humiliation of never knowing how to do the wretched calculations, the shaky, panicky feeling when it was my turn to have a question fired at me in class. Whatever the reason, I've never lost my horror of having to deal with sums. Just looking at a page of numbers gives me the creeps. Doing my tax return - even though in the logical part of my brain I know it isn't actually very difficult to do, on-line - is an ordeal every year.

So all I can say to the taxman is: if we self-employed people are going to be expected to do our returns four times a year in future, shouldn't there be some concession for people like me? I'd be spending half my life worrying and putting off looking at all those figures. How about, on medical grounds, 'prescribing' an accountant's services for all dyscalculics? Not too much to ask, is it ... but then again, how much is too much? I wouldn't know!

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Public humiliation : Been there, done that!

Some of my writing friends and I, at a recent function, were talking about giving talks. More specifically, we were talking about the humiliation of giving talks when hardly anyone - or even no-one at all - turns up. It was a hilarious conversation, and afterwards I found myself thinking how nice it is that with fellow authors, we're able to laugh off these humiliations and not feel shamed or depressed about them. And then I thought: what if it happened the very first time you did an author event? Would you realise it's actually something that most of us experience, and accept it as just another disappointment along the road of disappointments that often make up much of a writing career - or would you be devastated and feel like giving up?

With this in mind, I decided to write this little warning as an 'open letter' to new writers or newly published authors who may be considering starting to give talks and author events. Not to put them off, but on the contrary to welcome them to our world: the world of the survivors of public humiliation!

A few years ago I was given a book as a present which opened my eyes to this phenomenon and at the same time, reassured me. It's called 'Mortification', edited by Robin Robertson, and the sub-title is: 'Writers' Stories of their Public Shame'. It's full of very funny anecdotes by writers about events where they faced empty auditoriums, indifferent organisers, bored audiences and badly advertised events. It was reassuring because it made me realise it happens to far better-known authors than me, and if they can laugh about it, so can I.

                          At a signing of my first published novel, 2003. I sold one or two books!

Don't get me wrong: I've had very successful author events - fortunately, far more of these than the other type! And I love giving talks. I hasten to add that I didn't at first. We writers tend to be better at expressing ourselves in the written word than the spoken word - that's fairly obvious - and like many of us, I found my first few public engagements terrifying. Fortunately the memories of these have dimmed, but I'm pretty sure I wasn't very good. Probably my voice shook, and I mumbled and stumbled and spoke a lot of rubbish. I think the audiences were predictably small, probably boosted by my family, and I'm sure it's a good thing these were library talks so I wasn't charging a fee. But I'd been firmly advised that it was A Good Thing for a new author to Give Talks, so I soldiered on, and I got better at it. 

As my career progressed I had more to talk about, more experience to call upon, and got to know what people liked to hear about. I realised one day that I was actually being paid to chat to people about what I love doing best - can't be bad - and I started to relax and enjoy it. We don't get out a lot, do we, glue to our computers as we tend to be - and it's nice to meet people who are interested in writing and in books and might even want a signed copy at the end of the meeting!

I don't do as many talks or events as some of my writing friends, but I have sometimes spoken to halls so full of people that some were standing at the back. Now, I don't kid myself that I'm that popular - those were meetings of very popular clubs, where the same number of people probably turned up to every meeting! And that's the key, if you don't want the humiliation of empty rows of chairs - offer yourself as guest speaker to clubs and organisations where you have a 'captive audience'. Then you'll only get an empty room if all the members are on holiday or if they all, to a man or woman, genuinely hate books, or talks by authors. Even then, you shouldn't take it personally. The speaker secretary shouldn't book something that their members aren't going to want!

On the other hand, giving a talk in a public venue such as a library, or doing a book signing in a bookshop, for instance, is asking for trouble if you're not very well known. In these circumstances, if you don't fancy humiliation I can only suggest renting your own crowd. Bribe a few friends and relatives to come along and behave enthusiastically, then there's just a chance their presence might attract a few more curious passers-by to hang around. But don't count on it. At a book signing a few years ago I behaved exactly like a stall-holder at Romford market (my native town) - bellowing out in my best barrow-boy tone: 'Come and meet your local author! Get your signed copies here!' One person wandered over, but only to ask where the toilet was. One of my trusty friends stood outside the shop, trying to encourage people in, without a lot of success, and I think I sold a total of three books - one to the friend, and the other two probably to staff of the shop. But I was pathetically grateful that I'd finally got a branch of the major bookseller to let me have a signing. I'd been asking for years. Oh no, I don't mind how long I humiliate myself for!

                                                          At 'that' bookshop signing.

But people won't be persuaded into things if they're not interested. We wouldn't, so why should they? It hurts, when you put yourself out there and try your best - but that's life. Worse things happen. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the ... bookshop! Or the library, as I did recently after waiting 20 minutes in front of the rows of empty chairs arranged there, more in hope than realistic confidence, by the librarian who had already admitted it didn't look like anybody would turn up. I'm past being mortified. It's just sometimes the way it is. It can be just as crushing if someone in the audience falls asleep during your talk - even if they're very elderly, in a warm room, and don't look in the best of health. You could choose to be offended, I suppose - but I prefer to think of it as another little anecdote to laugh about with my writing friends.

At a library Panel Event with fellow authors and good friends Maureen Lee, Fenella Miller
 and Jean Fullerton. Panel events are a good way to share the humiliation!

It might feel good to be able to show off about the big audiences - the applause, the requests to come back, the compliments and sales of books at the end - of course that's what we all want, and it's lovely when it happens. But it's the funny stories about the times you persuade the two or three people who turn up to move forward from the back row so that you can have an informal chat instead of a talk, or when half the elderly audience get up and leave before the end because their bus is due - they're the stories that will make people warm to you, to laugh with you (not at you) - and will allow other writers to welcome you into the charmed circle of the humiliated. Because we've all been there, learned to shrug it off - and lived to tell the tale. 

Sunday, 1 November 2015

High Tea at the Cat Cafe!

'How about we celebrate your publication day with tea at one of London's cat cafes?' my lovely editor Emily suggested during the lead-up to the launch of  Oliver, the Cat Who Saved Christmas.  
I frowned in puzzlement as I read her email. Tea sounded good - tea is one of the things that always sounds good to me! But what on earth was all this about a cat cafe? As a cat lover, and having so recently finished working on one of the most enjoyable stories I'd ever written, that sounded good too, but I couldn't quite envisage what it entailed. So of course, I promptly Googled it - and up came this link:

Of course, as soon as I saw the adorable pictures on the website, that was it. I emailed Emily back to say it was a great idea, and very appropriate for my publication day celebration!
'Good. I'll invite Juliet too,' she responded. 'Lady Dinah's is actually the one I had in mind.'
Juliet is my agent, and also fortunately a cat lover, and was just as surprised and excited by the idea of the Cat Emporium as I was. High Tea at the Cat Cafe. (Why does that sound so much like the title of a cowboy film?!)

And so the date and time were booked, marked in red in my diary, and I got back to the important task of the pre-publicity promotion for Oliver. As all authors know, this is an essential but time-consuming part of the job, and one which can't be skipped or skimmed these days, when every book has so many competing titles whose authors and publishers are busy doing the same thing. But the thought of the approaching publication date and High Tea at the Cat Cafe was keeping me going, the circled date in my diary urging me onward like a beacon of light at the end of the tunnel.

And then, four days before the date, I couldn't move. If that sounds a little dramatic, believe me, the words don't come anywhere near doing justice to the state I was in that morning. My back, which had been 'niggling' with pain on and off for a few weeks, had become much worse the previous evening and I'd spent nearly all night awake, trying to get into a position that was less painful. By morning I was almost climbing the walls, groaning and sweating in agony. Anyone who's ever had disc problems in their back will now be wincing in sympathy. The inflammation from the ruptured disc was sending shock waves of white hot pain down my sciatic nerve, from buttock to toe. What made it worse was that I'd been in this situation five years previously, and the pain in my leg had lasted for nearly a year, despite all manner of analgesic options. I was terrified that this would happen again - and I realise now that the fear was making my muscles seize up, intensifying the whole thing. It was so awful, my husband called our GP and asked her to come out.

I have to say right here - I have a wonderful GP. She not only turned up, knelt by my bedside and commiserated very sympathetically with my plight, she also told me quite firmly what I needed to be told, and wouldn't listen to from anyone else: whether I liked it or not, I had to take strong drugs. I don't like it, because they usually upset my stomach badly. But there was no alternative. As well as strong anti-inflammatory painkillers, she also prescribed Diazepam to relax the muscles which had gone into spasm. I must have been almost delirious at this point, because looking back I can't believe I was even thinking about it, but before she left, I asked her in a pathetic pitiful voice: 

'But will I be able to go to the Cat Cafe?'!

How ridiculous. A woman in such pain she can't move from the bed, talking about a Cat Cafe! Most doctors would probably have dismissed it as the ramblings of a bedridden old fool. But my lovely GP put her head on one side, considering it carefully, counting the days till The Day, and nodded thoughtfully.
'If you take the drugs properly, I think you might be up and about by then.'
'Really?' It was more than I'd dared to hope for, and I couldn't quite believe it. But it gave me what I needed most at that point - a flicker of hope that this wasn't going to go on for a whole year again.

Two days later, the drugs were doing their work. I was up, moving around slowly and carefully, treating myself like a piece of delicate china. Should I call Emily and warn her that there was a possibility I might not make our date? No - that was negative thinking. I started planning my journey. My husband would drive me to the station. I'd allow myself loads of time to manoevre the steps, and make sure I got a seat on the train. I'd get a taxi at the other end rather than walking, and be careful to start heading back before the rush hour. By the day before publication, I'd made up my mind. I was going to make it. Cats, here I come!

Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium. If you didn't know it was there, and you passed it in the street, you'd be intrigued straight away, wouldn't you. It's on the main road in Shoreditch, East London, and don't even think about taking a chance on getting a table for High Tea if you haven't booked - it's so popular. As soon as you go into the reception area you know this is something special. All sorts of cat memorabilia is on sale for a start, and when you're shown through to the next room, you're asked to wash your hands and told a couple of house rules. 

You mustn't wake me!

The cats mustn't be picked up - they can of course be petted, but not if they're asleep or eating. To any cat lover, this is pretty much common sense anyway unless you want your hand bitten! 


Lady Dinah's is a very responsibly run cat cafe where the cats are allowed to behave naturally, not encouraged to interact with humans in an unnatural way or against their wishes, so for instance, nobody is allowed to feed them titbits from the table. If they don't want to play with you, you just have to watch them doing their own thing.

And so we were shown through into the cafe area, which has two floors, both strewn with cat beds, cat toys, tunnels, scratching posts, multi-tiered platforms - and if you're lucky, an assortment of up to a dozen beautiful cats awake and wandering around the tables. Of course, several were sound asleep for the whole of our visit - that's the chance you have to take, given that cats spend such a great proportion of their lives sleeping! And all the cats at Lady Dinah's are so used to strange humans coming into their territory every day, they aren't the least bit bothered by us. But a couple of them were kind enough to show us some interest - and this one (below) was a particularly discriminating cat who knew a good book when he saw one being advertised!
Hmm. Must add this title to my cat-alogue!
This one didn't show so much interest in the book ...........

... in fact I think we can surmise that fiction isn't his thing!
And then there was the tea! Well, that was amazing. First a glass of sparkling elderflower drink, and some nibbles as an appetiser - I loved the hummus - and then a cake stand with all three layers full of gorgeous tempting muffins, scones, carrot cake, cupcakes, brownies - what a selection. My mouth was watering so much it was hard to choose. But we needn't have worried; when we were too full to force down another crumb, the staff brought us boxes so that we could share out the remaining cakes to take home. 

When I told our server what the occasion was (never being one to pass up a good PR opportunity!), she was very interested, and happy to take some of my promotional cards for Oliver to display at the cafe. It was a great opportunity for Emily, Juliet and I to have a chat about reactions to the book so far, and future plans. The time passed so quickly I was slightly alarmed to realise that if I needed to be back at Liverpool Street station before the trains started to fill up with rush hour commuters, I'd have to get a taxi quickly. It was such a shame to say goodbye to each other, and to the cats of course, in a bit of a rush - but we'd had a really good time and were three very happy cat loving book lovers.

Looking back, perhaps it was a risky thing to do so soon after such a severe problem with my back, but thank goodness, I didn't suffer any deterioration, and my progress since has been slow but steady. I won't be getting down on the floor to play with any cats (or grandchildren) any time soon, but I've been able to continue with my writing work and my promotional activities, including a radio broadcast, with a library event still to come this Saturday. So I'm feeling optimistic. And I know that however many more books I'm lucky enough to have published, I'll always look back on the publication day of  Oliver, the Cat who Saved Christmas with a smile on my face. Thank you again, Emily, and Ebury Publishing, for our High Tea at the Cat Cafe!

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Why cats?

'Why cats?' someone asked me recently after I'd been describing my new book 'Oliver, the Cat Who Saved Christmas'. I could only presume he wasn't a cat lover. I mean, why would you not want to write a story about cats? Anyone who has shared their life with a cat or two, or more, will know what I mean when I say you can quite easily idle away an afternoon or evening just watching them. As Sigmund Freud said, 'Time spent with cats is never wasted.'! They're clever, funny, interesting and absorbing - all the things we authors want our books to be!

Some people think everyone is either a cat person or a dog person - but I've had both, and loved both. However I do appreciate the huge difference between owning a dog and being owned by a cat! A dog will love you slavishly; a cat will make you his slave. I know some dog lovers say that this independent, aloof reputation of cats puts them off. You know where you are with a dog - his devotion is unquestioning. Our Springer spaniel used to wag her tail and smile at us lovingly even when we were telling her off. 

But to dismiss cats as being standoffish Prima Donnas who make use of us for food and shelter, and then go about their separate lives without giving anything back, is to completely misunderstand them. Our three cats all had different personalities, but they all gave us lots of affection. Rather like children, they were sometimes rude, noisy or difficult, stayed out late, took us for granted and indulged in sulking sessions in their beds rather than play nicely with the family. But as with kids, all those things are forgiven when they jump on your lap for a cuddle and tell you they love you.

Tell you? I can hear the cat detractors laughing now. But if you haven't experienced the soft, gentle purring in your ear of a contented cat who nuzzles your face, licks your hands with his little rough tongue and blinks kisses at you, it's hard for me to explain and I'll probably never be able to convert you. Cats and humans make perfect companions. They don't expect our exclusive, undivided attention, to be 'the one and only', or for us to give everything up for them. That's an immature version of love, isn't it? We live our lives, they live theirs; but like humans who are happy living together because they give each other space, we're able to take huge pleasure and comfort from each other's company when we're together. The rattle of the cat-flap is like the key in the door when your partner/child/parent comes home. You put the kettle on (or dish up the Whiskas), settle down together and talk about your day. No-one is the boss; you choose to be together. That's grown-up love!

And of course - as we all know - cats can understand Human language. As Oliver says in my book, it's just such a shame that we humans have never learned to speak Cat!

Oliver, the Cat Who Saved Christmas is published by Ebury and on sale from 22 October in hardback and ebook editions. You can see it on Amazon or buy from bookshops. And if by any strange chance you're not a cat lover, I'm sure you know someone who is, who'd like a Christmas present from you!

Friday, 14 August 2015

Ten ways for writers to procrastinate - and pretend they aren't!

Following on from my previous posts, which listed ten things you should never say to a writer, and ten things you should never do if you live with a writer, today I'm going to offer you ten suggestions for how to procrastinate. I know most of us writers don't need any excuse to procrastinate, if the words just won't flow or we've got to that point where we hate every word we've already written and frankly want to give up. But these suggestions come with the added benefit of excuses for procrastination, reasons for procrastination, so that in fact you never need to apologise again for putting off your writing . Of course, you should treat some of these with a hearty dose of salt!

1. Go for a walk. Or a run, a swim, a session at the gym - or whatever you do, or pretend to do, for fitness.
Excuse: This is your Thinking Time. Also, you need to keep fit so that your body doesn't atrophy as well as your brain, and so you don't suffer serious obesity-related health issues before finishing your masterpiece, thus depriving your readers of your best work yet.

2. Make a cup of tea or coffee, pour a drink, make a snack.
Excuse: Every great literary mind needs feeding. Wine and chocolate are known to be good for the brain, aren't they? Also, frequent breaks for small boosts of nutrition will prevent the need to stop for much longer to make a proper cooked meal, after which you'd need to wash up and probably fall asleep.

3. Phone a friend for a chat, or invite someone round (can be combined with No.2 above).
Excuse: Writing is a solitary occupation. Your vocal chords might atrophy if you don't speak to someone at least once a day. Also, you need to keep up with the gossip, or how can you be expected to write realistic dialogue?

4. Spend a bit of time on social media.
Excuse: You are simply doing your promotion. But on the other hand, if all you do on social media is your promo, people will unfriend you, so it's necessary occasionally to spend some time posting pictures of your cute kitten/your cute baby/your dinner, and to enter into discussions about politics/the weather/the latest scandal about a well-know celebrity, thus maintaining interest in you as a human being and showcasing your literary prowess. (For this to be an effective excuse, you should if possible avoid 'CU2morrow', 'LOL', etc).

5. Do some housework.
Excuse: This might sound like you're really desperate to get away from your writing. But the truth is, if your work is as successful as you hope, there will probably be photographers coming round from the local, or even national, press, and how would it look if there was three years' worth of dust on top of the cupboard behind your smiling face in the paper?

6. Go out shopping for a new outfit/get your hair done/have a long soak in the bath and put on some decent clothes.
Excuse: You suspect the photographer might actually be coming today. If not, you'll need to repeat this process tomorrow.

7. Watch a little TV.
Excuse: Obviously, this is for research purposes. You definitely need to watch re-runs of 'Dad's Army' in order to write your romantic fantasy novel. And 'Breaking Bad' helps to provide background for that pre-school children's story, doesn't it?

8. Have a nap.
Excuse: Writing is exhausting, as we all know. And while asleep, your subconscious will work out the next part of the story for you so that when you wake up, the tricky area of plot you've been stuck on for two months will be completely resolved. If it isn't, you will of course need another little nap, possibly after a glass of wine and some chocolate.

9. Read a book/magazine/newspaper/children's comic/travel brochure/mail order catalogue/back of a cereal packet/that bit of paper that came through the door advertising tree lopping.
Excuse: It's a well known fact that reading is essential for any successful writer. Reading your own work is counterproductive and can be depressing, therefore a supply of other material is required at regular intervals.

10. Plan a holiday.
Excuse: Well, needless to say, this is also for research. You're going to set your edgy urban dystopian fantasy in a beach resort in the Maldives, aren't you. Or the travel feature you're going to write about Scotland requires you to take a flight via Australia. This is all good practice in creative thinking. Just don't try extending it into creative tax avoidance. Setting down first class fares to Sydney as expenses won't look good when the fee for 'How to Spend a Cheap Weekend in Glasgow' sits opposite it in your Income and Expenditure records.    

So, you've already tried all those ruses? OK - now forget them, stop reading blogs, and get back to your writing!

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Grandparents - this is for you!

It only seems like yesterday ... well, it was only a few years ago! ... that my other half and I paced the living-room floor in a mixture of excitement and terror, waiting for that phone call from our son-in-law to say everything was fine, that our first grandchild had arrived safely and our daughter had survived the experience. Since then, we've been through a similar situation five more times, giving us a total of six small grandkids with our three daughters. And it doesn't get any easier, or of course any less exciting.

In some ways, it's harder, isn't it - being the mother of the mother, knowing what your daughter's going through, having all those memories come flooding back, no less wonderful, no less painful, no less life-changing, for being over thirty years ago. And so it continues through the new-born period, remembering how it felt to be exhausted from lack of sleep, scared about how you're going to cope, and euphoric with love for this new little scrap of humanity, all at the same time. And then into the toddler phase, worrying about their tantrums, their fussy eating, all their little fears and fads and funny sayings that make up their developing personalities. And on to their first term at school and all the excitement and worries that can bring. Yes, the world might have moved on, technology might have altered everything, fashions change in child rearing just as in everything else - but basically, it's all still the same. And seeing it all over again through the eyes of a grandparent, when you're older, perhaps a little slower and creakier, with possibly more time to spare, a lot less energy but hopefully a bit more patience than first time around, is a joy and a blessing beyond words.

I was lucky in that I'd retired from the day-job before the first grandchild came along - and although I'm still, of course, working as a writer, it's the perfect home based job to fit around visits from the family, child minding dates and the occasional emergency. And the perfect way to use some of my experiences in a novel!

I'd noticed a while back that there don't seem to be many novels with grandparents as the main characters, and I can't see why not. Older people apparently buy the most books, and some of us, I think, would like to see stories that don't only depict senior members of the family as old fools sitting in the corner muttering to themselves and being ridiculed! Most of us give an active and (I hope) valuable contribution to our young families, and three-generational family life can be rich in pleasure and laughter, to say nothing of arguments, worries, and all the other emotions that make up relationship dramas.

This was the thinking behind my new book 'A GRAND THING', available now in paperback from Amazon here, and for pre-order as a Kindle ebook here.


It's the story of Kate, whose son and daughters drive her mad with their constant arguments, especially about whose children she looks after the most. The only time they agree on something is when they believe Kate's losing the plot after she gets involved with three other grandparents: Bob, who struggles with his arthritis as well as his secret feelings about Kate; Jackie, who has become a grandmother earlier than usual and isn't too sure she likes it; and annoying neighbour Pam who seems determined to be nasty and interfering. Kate doesn't think she's getting old and forgetful - she's just busy, but she loves all her family and wishes they'd get along together!
I hope I've managed to reassure my own three lovely daughters that nothing in this story is based on them, or their lives - and especially that they're a lot nicer, less argumentative, selfish and demanding, than Kate's offspring!
I also hope my fellow grandparents will enjoy this light-hearted story about family life - but of course, it isn't exclusively aimed at my generation, and I think mums, dads, aunts, uncles and anyone who understands the pleasures and pressures of the extended family will also find it an enjoyable read.
And if you agree that there aren't many novels with grandparents at their heart, please let me know. Perhaps in due course I'll write another one!

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

How to live with an author (and not end up killing each other)

Not that we authors are difficult to live with, of course – but I’ve occasionally heard strange and unfounded suggestions that we might sometimes be snappy when the book’s going badly, and frustratingly unavailable when it’s going well. I’ve even heard it said that we frequently ignore our other halves completely and forget about mundane things like getting dressed, going to the day job, or buying food. To counter these absurd and malicious slurs on our characters, I’ve come up with ten basic rules for those fortunate enough to share a home with an author, and whose fault it must obviously be if such problems arise. I can only suggest the following points be taken on board, and if all else fails, just stop complaining and think yourselves lucky you live with a creative spirit.  ;)

I’ve referred to the author throughout as she, simply because he/she and his/her are so tedious. But with some obvious amendments, the rules and suggestions are applicable to every age and gender of author, so no excuses!

  • Continually checking her Amazon ranking, and/or her sales figures, hunting for reviews and Googling her own name to see if anyone has mentioned her, is of course not self-obsession, it’s part of the job. If she becomes famous or a bestseller, you’ll be doing it too, and basking in the glory, so don’t sneer.
  • There will be days when no writing happens. On these days, just be grateful for the fact that she might have time to cook meals, mow the lawn, play with the kids, walk the dog. Make the most of it and whatever you do, don’t comment. She may be having a thinking day, a planning day, or just a bloody awful day when the book’s going so badly wrong, she hates every word of it, can’t understand why she ever thought it was a good idea to write it, is close to deleting every version of it and giving up writing altogether. Trust me, unless you want to be hated and deleted yourself, don’t ask.
  • On a good writing day, when it’s flowing like magic and she finally believes she might actually get to The End with this one, (you’ll be able to tell by the look on her face), try not to stand behind her looking over her shoulder asking if she’s planning on sitting there all day, whether she’d like to go for a walk, watch you play golf, go shopping for screws or light bulbs, or make other similarly annoying suggestions. If you do, don’t expect answers, or certainly not polite ones.
  • If she’s excited or pleased about something that doesn’t seem too earth-shattering to you – perhaps a chapter has worked out just right, or she got a 5 star review, or had a great idea for the next book, try to sound as impressed as you would be if one of your mates scored for Man United. Pour her a glass of wine. Congratulate her. Whatever you do, don’t let your face say ‘is that all?’
  • If she’s crying over the middle part – or the ending, or the beginning – offer chocolate. There’s always a chance she’s crying with happiness, or because she’s writing a very emotional part of the plot. But the chocolate won’t hurt anyway.
  • Please don’t ever refer to her writing as her little hobby, even if at the beginning that’s all it appears to be. If you do, it will be remembered when she gets a bestseller and starts earning mega bucks, and you’ll wish you’d never opened your big mouth. (That's if she hasn't left you by then.)
  • Don’t offer plot lines unless she asks you to. And if asked, do try to bear in mind the type of book she’s writing. If you suggest a tribe of flesh-eating aliens wreaking havoc in the middle of her romantic comedy, don’t be surprised if she ignores you.
  • When introducing her to friends or colleagues, it really isn’t funny to make cracks about her writing the next 50 Shades of Grey, or claim that you give her all her ideas, or that she bases her sexy heroes on you. It’s particularly not funny the tenth time you do it.
  • Writing can be exhausting. The trouble is, it doesn’t look like hard work, because it’s only the brain that’s being strained. But if you don’t believe it is, try it for yourself. That’s a better strategy than snorting derisively about her hours of writing compared with the digging you’ve been doing in the garden.
  • It’s never been harder to succeed as a writer. So if she has any kind of success, whether it’s finding an agent, achieving publication, producing her own self-published book, or just actually finishing the damned thing – be proud of her, and let her know it. We authors need every confidence booster we can get. Be the one who gives her that self-belief, and you’ll get your reward in the ‘acknowledgements’. Or at the very least, you won’t have that horrible vague suspicion that the villain in the next book is based on you.
Any authors reading this are welcome to print out this list and leave it casually lying around where their other half can't fail to see it. I take no responsibility for any resultant arguments!

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Ten things you should never say to an author ...

We all know the feeling. You've given a fascinating, witty, entertaining talk about your writing, to a receptive audience who seemed suitably impressed, laughed in the right places, and mostly managed not to fall asleep. Basking in the glow of their smiles of appreciation, you close by saying you'd be happy to answer any questions ... and if you're lucky, a few hands are raised straight away. With even greater luck, there'll be some good questions about interesting aspects of your talk - why you do or don't use a pseudonym, whether you choose your own cover images, and so on. You respond, pleased again to note the hushed attention in the hall, the way your words are obviously enthralling your intelligent audience. And all the time, you're kind of holding your breath, waiting for it, because sooner or later it's going to come ....

'Where do you get your ideas from?'

Actually, I don't really mind that one, even though I've heard it compared to asking a carpenter where he gets his wood from. It's a fair enough question, and an easy one to answer (ideas come from everywhere - from being alive, from being observant, from talking to people, from reading, from watching the News ... I could go on, and frequently do.) Sometimes I've joked that my ideas come to me in dreams, simply because people seem to prefer that answer to the mundane 'Everywhere, life, (etc).'

But there are other, far worse things you can ask an author, or say to him/her. I've had most of them said to me, and have on occasions had to grit my teeth and force my face into a sweet smile in order to give a reply that isn't a snarl of irritation.

So if you want to avoid upsetting your favourite famous author when you're lucky enough to meet her at a festival, or even upsetting your friend, neighbour, brother or wife who happens to be a not-at-all-famous author and might be more likely than the other kind to bite your head off, here's a list of comments and questions to avoid:

1. (My most hated one):  'I'd write a book too, if only I had the time'.  I wrote six of mine while working full-time and looking after kids, home, etc, so Don't Talk To Me About Having Time! As if time is all you need, anyway, to be able to write a novel! Oh, I'd be a brain surgeon and play football for Man United if only I had the time. Grrrrr.....

2. (In a similar vein):  'I've got an idea for a book but I don't know how to start writing it/haven't got time to write it/don't want to write it. If you like, I'll tell you and you can use it. It's my life history ...'
And ... don't tell me, you're convinced it will make me rich.

3.  'Is it autobiographical?'  No. It's fiction. I made it up. That's what I do.

4.  'Am I in it?'  No. But if you were, I'd get you murdered off.

5.  'I haven't heard of you'   aka  'I haven't seen your books in Tesco.'  No, because I'm not in the best seller list, I'm not a celebrity, there are thousands of other authors competing with me and you've just rubbed my nose in it.

6.  'Why are you still working?'  This was a common one before I retired from the day job. People seemed to think that, because I'd had some books published, I'd be selling up, moving to Antigua or the Azores and living in the lap of luxury. Hello? If an author has a day job, it's because he needs it, because most authors don't earn their living from writing. Trust me, I didn't work for the NHS for the fun of it!

7.  'How much do you earn?'  I mean, honestly - would you ask a plumber, or a postman, or an accountant that question?

8.  'Why don't you write science fiction/erotica/a TV series/a serious literary novel?  Probably for the same kind of reasons YOU don't.

9. 'Would you like to see one of your books made into a film/ a TV mini series/ a best seller? Do I really even need to answer this one? Should I try a sarcastic 'No, I'd hate it', or is that too mean?!

And finally, of course, there's always:
10.  'I've written a book too. Can you tell me how to get it published?'  Certainly. It might take a while to tell you, though. About 40 years, in fact - that's how long it took me to learn how to do it myself.

I should finish by saying that this is all, of course, a bit tongue-in-cheek. I really love talking to people about writing, and I've never actually been known to get irritated enough by any question, or comment, to want to murder the person making it ... even as a character in my next book. So feel free ... ask away. Er ... but maybe just don't get me started on the thing about not having enough time ...

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Traditional versus Independent - fors and againsts?

It struck me yesterday, as I emailed my completed and edited new novel to my agent, that I am, quite frankly, a Crazy Mixed Up Author. Why? Well, here I am, on the one hand hoping the new book will enchant and excite an editor in one of the big traditional publishing houses enough to earn me a new contract. On the other hand, I'm getting ready to self-publish it anyway, and I honestly don't think of this as the second-best option.

What's going on? Do I really want a new publisher or don't I? It's not as if I haven't been there, done that, already - it was my lifelong ambition to be published, and I did it, eight times over. Now, I'm loving the experience of self-publishing, and to be honest, I earn more from it than I ever did when I was with a publisher.

So what are the points in favour of being with a publisher - or without one? As someone who's sat in both camps for some time now, I have my own views - others may of course disagree.

1. One of the joys of self-publishing is the speed at which it happens. Obviously the writing and careful editing takes the same amount of time! - but from the time you have everything, including cover image and blurb, ready to upload, it's SO quick, your book can be published before you've even finished telling everyone about it if you're not careful!

2. Getting paid also happens a lot faster. However much, however little, you earn from Amazon, it comes to you every month, as opposed to six months with a trad publisher. And there's no waiting to 'earn out of the advance' (because there's no advance - just royalties, straight off - and to be fair, some traditional publishers have scrapped advance payments too now).

3. Communication! Questions, queries, problems ...  I've found Amazon great, and fast to respond. To be fair, my editors at the publishers were brilliant, very friendly and helpful - but some of the other departments take forever to respond to an email, and it's really hard to find out, in between six monthly statements, how your sales are doing.  With Kindle Direct Publishing, you can see literally every day how many copies of each book have been sold and how much you've earned. That's a real plus.

4. It's all about taking control of your own career - that's what a lot of Indie authors say, and yes, to a certain extent that's part of the pleasure. All decisions, for a self-publisher, are your own. Cover image, selling price, and especially publicity and promotion - all down to you. But it's hard work, and it takes time away from the actual writing. I enjoy it, but I also think it can be a mixed blessing.

5. Not having an editor ... that can be a real problem for self-publishers. You either pay for an editing service, or you're lucky enough to know someone suitably qualified and capable, or you do it yourself, which is risky. And an editor is someone on your side, someone who actively likes your work and wants you to succeed. It can be hard not having that relationship.

6. Physically publishing the book isn't always easy. It was a steep learning curve for me, although after the first couple of times with KDP I found it a lot easier. I've found CreateSpace (for print editions) more tricky. Some authors are completely put off by having to learn these processes, and they either pay someone to do it for them, or choose not to self-publish because it's too challenging. But I'm proud of the fact that I've mastered it (apart form occasional hiccups), considering the fact that I'm 'Not Young'!

7. Self-publishing is still looked down on by some people. Yes, it's become a lot more respectable these days, and yes, most of us 'in the business' know, and understand, that there are loads of good books being self-published, just as there are plenty of not-so-good books being brought out by publishers. (Think about all those celebrity authors ... !).  But while so many people 'wannabe an author' without actually being able to write, and while they're able to put books up on Amazon that aren't good, it's hard not to get tarred with the same brush.

8. In the same way, it's hard to stand out from the crowd - especially hard for those writers who haven't already acquired a fan base before self-publishing - because of the sheer numbers of books 'out there'. It's a gamble whether huge amounts of self promo on social media will help; some get lucky, others struggle away and only sell a handful of copies of what might be a very good book that just doesn't get noticed.

9. But traditional publishers expect us to do most of the PR ourselves these days, anyway!

10. Bottom line, for me, is that the offer of a contract from a big publisher is still the 'proof'' that your book is considered good enough. It's damned hard to be taken on by an editor these days, everyone knows it, and that email saying your book has 'passed muster' is the ultimate approbation. Likewise, seeing your book on the shelf in a bookshop - that's such a thrill. Seeing it on offer on Amazon because you put it there yourself is immensely satisfying - but having done both, I admit I wouldn't have missed the thrill of that first 'bookshop experience' for anything.

So which is best? Hmmm .... Well, a new contract would have to be a good one, to tempt me away from self-publishing now, although I'd be thrilled and excited to be offered one. The potential earnings would need to be better than I'm doing with self-publishing. But I'd probably be far more desperate for the mainstream experience if I hadn't been lucky enough to have experienced it already.