IF CARLSBERG GAVE WRITING ADVICE…

They say writing is a solitary activity (no, not that one). After all, an author sits in isolation, ploughing a lonely furrow that meanders from page to page. But there’s a community of other writers out there and, when I got stuck with my manuscript, I turned to author friends for advice. Here are some of their very best tips.

First I consulted historical novelist Liza Perrat. ‘Write the first draft without editing,’ she says. ‘Just get the story down.’ Editor, author, and writing coach Lorna Fergusson is one of many who agree. ‘Keep going and don’t stop to check a fact or agonise over a wording. Insert XXX and go back to it later.’

As author Debbie Young explains, ‘Writing and editing use different parts of the brain, so do them in separate sessions.’ She adds that writing the first draft by hand helps connect with the creative brain more readily.

I too find that using a pencil helps the writing flow, but it doesn’t always help the quality. What if you find yourself, as I did, mired in reams of Proustian prose, only without his madeleine or his talent?

Jane Davis brought me back to reality. ‘Make sure there’s conflict on every page.’ If you don’t know Jane, she writes award-winning novels set mainly in London.

This conflict thing is easier said than done. I think I ended up boring my own cat.

I should have taken author Linda Gillard’s advice. Pretty sure she was reminding me not to bore readers when she said, ‘If you don’t want to write it, no one is going to want to read it.’ I must say I’ve never lost interest in Linda’s novels.

Sometimes it’s hard to keep up the momentum. Prolific author Jean Gill has something to say. ‘My top tip is always to stop writing when you know what’s coming next. That way you start again with enthusiasm. There’s nothing worse than facing a blank page because you wrote all the scenes that were in your head.’

When it comes to editing, you have to be ruthless, just as Samuel Johnson put it.

But don’t throw those passages away, warns Liza Perrat. ‘I’ve learned the hard way never to delete anything. I wanted to use some characters and scenes left from my first novel that was never published. But stupid me had cleaned up the folder, and the stuff was gone for good.’

I have been known to rescue discarded papers from the wheelie bin, but it’s harder to retrieve files deleted from your computer.

Another gem comes from Amie McCracken, author, editor, designer, and all-round publishing guru. ‘My number one self-editing tip is to read out loud. There’s nothing like it to help you catch errors, but also to feel the cadence and flow of your words.’

My own writing tip? I have two. One, keep a notebook to make sure you don’t forget any good ideas. Someday, to paraphrase Mae West, it may keep you.

Two, keep reading good books.

If you have any favourite writing tips, I’d love to hear them.

***

In keeping with my recommendation to read good books, you may enjoy Pandora’s Boxed Set. It’s a collection of novels by ten award-winning women authors, to be published this year in two parts, first part No Woman is an Island and the second Not Little Women. The first is out on July 20 and the second in October. You can pre-order the first part today from your favourite bookseller (the second will soon be available for pre-order as well).

I’m thrilled to be included alongside authors like Jane Davis, Jean Gill, Liza Perrat, Linda Gillard, Clare Flynn, Lorna Fergusson, Jessica Bell, Amie McCracken, and Helena Halme. Here’s the foreword by Jean Gill.

Hope was left in Pandora’s Box, when all the evils were released into the world.

The Pandora’s Box series brings together award-winning and risk-taking international authors in an unforgettable showcase, with five books in each collection. Never has it been more important to collaborate across borders and to use the power of storytelling to express the rich variety of human experience. This has been the main principle underlying our selection and we also chose stories we couldn’t put down, characters we cared about, and writing that stopped us in our tracks to savour a phrase or an observation.

The novels in No Woman is an Island travel through time and space, from medieval and modern France through England in two world wars to present-day Scandinavia. Although very different, they all show the impact on women of events over which they have no control. No woman is an island.

Happy reading.

COCKTAILS & CAMELS

I’ve mentioned my forthcoming novel The Girls from Alexandria a fair bit recently, but it’s a while since I shared something from Cocktails and Camels. Sixty years on from when my mother wrote it, I still think it’s one of the most entertaining books ever. And no, I’m not at all biased.

Published NY, 1960

Grandmother, a beautiful green-eyed woman with jet-black hair, had come from Damascus at the age of thirteen to marry Grandfather, whom she had never set eyes on before.

Grandfather had originated in Lebanon, studied in Paris, then emigrated to Egypt and prospered as a merchant. Although the marriage was one of convenience, as marriages often were, it seems to have worked out. My grandparents had eight boys.

Mother and Father were less fortunate. They had us —three daughters. A daughter was not only nothing to write home about, it was something one should definitely not write home about. As for having three daughters, it was a calamity. Obviously someone had given Mother and Father the Evil Eye.

The Evil Eye was, like the British, very active in the Middle East and responsible for everything that went wrong. If someone admired your new dress and then you spilled coffee all over it, it wasn’t that you were clumsy. It was the Evil Eye.

But, if Father was disappointed at having three daughters, he never showed it. Father never showed anything, which was very smart of him but most un-Arab. He faced his fate very well, far better than Maha, the Lebanese nanny who had been with Mother before she was married.

Maha was a big moon-faced woman with brown velvet eyes and pierced ear-lobes from which hung tiny blue beads which were meant to ward off the Evil Eye. She seemed to have been put together out of a series of cushions and looked like a Michelin advertisement.

Because she was flat-footed, but mainly because she was Lebanese, she padded around in bedroom slippers which she had turned down at the back. Her elephantine tread was always accompanied by the soft clinking of thin gold bracelets on her plump wrists. They were her entire fortune and she added one whenever she had saved some money.

Once a week on her afternoon off, she painted her eyes crudely with kohl and stuffed herself into a corset and high-heeled shoes several sizes too small. Then, pirouetting clumsily in front of us, she’d say, smiling like a child, ”I’m not all that fat, am I, my darlings?”

When I was born, Maha sobbed for a week. She did not throw her arms up in the air and cry, ”Mabrouk, mabrouk, congratulations, may the little one live to be one hundred,” and then bake some very special Lebanese dish which would sit on our stomachs for the rest of the night.

She did not utter one single little mabrouk. Such congratulations were used for happy things like baby boys, and really important things like having a new dress or getting over a corn on the foot. But having a girl was not a corn on the foot. It was a pain in the neck. As for being a girl—well, maybe one could live it up in England or the United States, but in the East it was something to live down.

Things have changed so much for women. Or have they?

THOUGHTS ON WORLD BOOK DAY

World Book Day is about every child and young person getting a book of their own, but it has also made me think around the topic of children and books.

I was about four or five years old when my mother began writing her first book, Cocktails and Camels. She did it in my room, it being the sunniest one in my grandparents’ house in Alexandria where we all lived.

As if that weren’t bad enough, silence was required while my mummy filled reams of paper with her pencilled scrawl. Sometimes she stopped to smile at what she’d written, and occasionally she even laughed, but she rarely read any of it out loud to me. Here’s a tip if you ever want to annoy a child: make sure they have no idea what’s going on, then demand they keep absolutely quiet during it.

After some time, I piped up. “I’m going to write a book too!”

Because it’s also #throwbackThursday aka #TBT, you’re getting this of my mother and me in the garden.

I did end up writing books and, like my mother, I use pencil and paper for my first drafts. The novels are entirely made up, but where do the characters come from? I don’t know. They come from here and there, I suppose, from snatches of conversation or a chance sighting of someone so offbeat that they beg to be put in a book.

They also come from ill-defined experiences that go way back and suddenly decide to leap into my head. This they usually do in the middle of the night, and I have to jot it all down on paper lest I forget, which I’m told can be annoying when it happens at 2am, and again at 4am.

As I recall, my mother was apt to do this too. And no, it’s not ‘annoying’. I prefer to think of it as the circle of writing life.

I’m very proud of my mother and all her books, including those for children, but especially this one as it’s a warm and witty tribute to the cosmopolitan Alexandria that I loved and was home.

And now my childhood has led to a novel set in the same world that no longer exists. You may know this already from my frequent mentions of The Girls from Alexandria which is out next month. I’m sorry that my mother isn’t around to enjoy it, or to hear me say how much I owe her.

***

Enough of this wallowing in sentiment. It’s not just World Book Day and Throwback Thursday. It’s also Mishmish’s tenth birthday. Her name is Arabic for apricot and she is a goddess.

كل سنة و إنتي طيبة يا مشمش

Kul sena wa inti tayyeba ya Mishmish which means Many happy returns, Mishmish.

How to Plunder Your Memories to Write a Book

For some people, a life story emerges as an autobiography or memoir. My aim was more modest. I planned to use some of my oldest memories to write a novel set in Egypt. It was never intended to be all true. While a convent education taught me not to lie, I used to be pretty good at embroidery, if I say so myself.

To aid my recall of fading memories, there were all the old photos that my mother had left me. I therefore dived into the cupboard under the stairs for the afternoon, finally emerging not with leather photo albums from 1955 but a mountain of dust and a couple of old cat toys.

In my experience, recollections have a habit of surfacing on their own now and again, usually in the small hours. Experience also tells me that, if I don’t jot it down at the time, I won’t remember it in the morning, hence what I call my amnesia pad on the bedside table. It’s not that easy to find in the dark and I’m apt to send water glass flying as I scrabble about for paper and pencil. There! I need only scribble a couple of words to nudge me in the morning and I can go back to sleep.

When the alarm goes off a few hours later, I make out the words Magic Marker

Which make no sense. I don’t think we even had Magic Marker in Egypt back then. Over a strong coffee, I try to work it out. The two words I wrote evoke the heady smell of a pristine Magic Marker and the hot tears I cried when I accidentally hit my mummy on the forehead with it. We both thought I’d marked her indelibly. At the time, neither of us quite understood how skin works. I was seven years old. I don’t know what Mummy’s excuse was.

Neither of those reminiscences is quite what I’m after. I resort to Wikipedia as an aide mémoire but, although I learn the history of the Magic Marker and the reason it smelled as it did (early versions contained xylene and toluene), it doesn’t help. I may as well have scribbled wild goose chase on my amnesia pad.

When my own recall lets me down, I sometimes consult my beloved aunt with whom I have a close bond. She clearly recalls what happened years ago, even if her version of events often contradicts mine. “At Suez, your mother was desperate not to be evacuated,” she tells me. “And Papa pleaded with the authorities for her to be allowed to stay in Alex.”

Which is totally weird since I remember with crystal clarity that Mummy had packed our bags and we spent all day at the docks in Alexandria. While she begged to leave on the US Sixth Fleet, I clutched my teddy bear and kept whining to use the bathroom. My mother’s negotiations were partly successful. Our suitcases made the trip.

Timing goes AWOL too when delving into memories. “You never know your mother’s dog, did you? Boogie got run over before you were born.”

My aunt sounds very sure, but this time I can prove her wrong simply by rolling up my sleeve and displaying a scar that’s still there more than half a century later. I had got up too quickly from my potty and accidentally stepped on Boogie’s tail. No wonder he bit me on the elbow.

Aunt is unconvinced, but I have a trump card. It’s a photo of Boogie with me and my best friend (also called Carol).

My aunt studies the picture. “That doesn’t even look like Boogie.”

From this joyous collaboration come as many as three lines of writing, most of which I cross out.

So my book The Girls from Alexandria will have no dogs and no Sixth Fleet. Even so, it will still be redolent of the Alex I knew, with vendors selling charcoal-grilled ears of corn by the sea, the seafood restaurant at Abukir, next door’s cockerel with his random commentary on the day, trams laden down with human cargo both inside and out, handsome men wearing a fez even after President Nasser banned its use, and the eternal cries of “Roba bikyaah!” from the rag-and-bone man touring the neighbourhood with his donkey and cart.

The novel won’t be out till early next year, but here’s what my new publisher has to say so far.  Introducing: Carol Cooper

 

Janet and John Go to the London Book Fair

Do you like book fairs?

Janet and John do. John is an author. Janet wants to work in publishing.  This is their first time at the London Book Fair.

“Gosh,” Janet says. “It’s very big.”

“That’s what they all say,” John says.

IMG_2620.JPG

Olympia is huge. There are 25,000 people here. Exhibitors come from all over the world. This year, the market focus is Indonesia.

John knows all about Indonesia. “It is a country a long way from London,” he tells Janet.

The first stand is Harper Collins. Someone smiles at Janet. So Janet foists her CV onto the person from Harper Collins.

Naughty Janet!

dav

Helpfully, people have their names and their job titles on their conference badges. John examines several people’s chests closely to find one he wants.

John pounces on an unsuspecting woman whose badge says AGENT, and thrusts his lovingly prepared manuscript into her hands.

Ever hopeful, John!

DSC00710.JPG

“I need a coffee and a doughnut,” Janet says.  Janet drags John to the nearest café. 

“But not at those prices,” Janet says.

“Well, I’m going to splash out,” John says.

“See you when you get back from the toilet then,” Janet says.

By the time John returns, Janet has met two friendly people, studied a floorplan, and found out more about the London Book Fair.

“John, come quickly,” Janet says. “You must go to Author HQ.”

Author HQ is on the next level up, a long way from the big shiny stands. It is almost as far as Indonesia.

“My feet hurt,” Janet says.

Today Janet is wearing snazzy heels to make an impression. The only impression they make is on her corns and her hammer toes.

FreeImages.com/Stephan Fleet

Janet and John struggle up to the Writer’s Block on Level One.

“Look,” John says. “There’s a Society of Authors stand. I think I might join.”

Now John is being clever. 

Author HQ cropped.JPG

At Author HQ, there are no seats left. To listen to a talk, John sits on the floor beneath someone eating an egg and cress sandwich.

When the talk finishes, Janet and John meet up again.  

Janet still hasn’t bagged a job, but she is cradling two bulging holdalls. One of them is full of bookmarks, sweeties, and flyers. The other bag is full of shiny new books.

“Where did you buy those?” John asks.

“I helped myself,” Janet says.

“That’s stealing. You must put them back,” John says.

“My feet hurt,” Janet says. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Well, there’s nowhere to sit down,” John says.

“What about that nice big display over there? It looks sturdy,” Janet says.

Bye, bye, beautiful display of children’s books.  

See Janet and John run as fast as they can.

John goes back to Author HQ. The next session is called Turning Yourself into a Brand.

Sam Missingham is a publishing guru,” John whispers to Janet as he scans the carpet for space.

“I know all about branding already,” Janet says. “That’s why I’m taking lots of selfies for Instagram.”

“How does Instagram work?” John asks.

“You take pictures of yourself in front of all the different publishers’ stands, upload them to Insta, and wait for the job offers to roll in,” Janet says.

“I did not know that,” John says. “Besides, the wi-fi is a bit shit here.”

“I have a personal hotspot,” Janet says.

“I know you do,” John says.

LBF day 2

“I want to go home now,” Janet says.

“Are your bunions throbbing?” John asks.

“Yes,” Janet says. “And I have a migraine.”

“Come on then,” John says. “I’ll treat you to something special on the way home.”

dav

Don’t be like Janet and John. Do your homework before you get to the London Book Fair. And take paracetamol with you.

Could These Be the Best Ever Books for Christmas?

Well, I think these six books might be. They’re all books I’ve received for Christmas, and they’ve become my all-time favourites. What do you reckon of my choice?

1 First up, THE classic Christmas poem. This 1949 edition of Clement C Moore’s The Night Before Christmas is suitably vintage, though true nostalgics hardly need it as they know every word already.

The Night Before Christmas

2 For those after something different, there’s An Aussie Night Before Christmas. Roos take the place of reindeer, and Santa finds the traditional costume far too hot for a barbie on the beach.

An Aussie Night Before Christmas

3 Best children’s book ever, in my opinion, is Charlotte’s Web. “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” says eight-year old Fern in the opening to the tale of Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider who helps save him. Even if you don’t know the book, you may recognise a Templeton, the rat who never does anything for anybody unless there is something in it for him.

Charlotte's Web

You don’t agree with me about Charlotte’s Web? “That’s the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard,” I will reply, quoting Fern.

4 OK, fine. Maybe you prefer The Wind in the Willows, with Ratty, Mole, Badger, and Mr Toad? As you see, I loved this book to pieces as well.

The Wind in the Willows

5 The Essential Shankly isn’t a matter of life and death, unless you’re a Liverpool fan, in which case it’s far more important than that. Football books and biographies make great Christmas gifts, and the wit and wisdom of Bill Shankly come in handy on so many occasions, including Merseyside derbies and pub quizzes. Also useful for those who rarely do housework. Shankly used to clean the oven whenever his team lost. To be fair, that wasn’t very often.

The Essential Shankly

6 The long read. This is the sixth edition, dated 1872 – newer versions are available. At 403 pages densely crammed with text, not counting the extensive glossary, Origin of Species is probably not for everyone on your list. But I can imagine an awkward teenager getting stuck into it to avoid social interaction over the Christmas period.

Origin of Species

 

Go on. Books make perfect Christmas gifts, and your local bookshop is brimming with great ideas.

What are the favourite books you’ve received as presents? I’d love to hear from you.

What’s the Best Way for an Author to Promote Their Books?

The reality is that there isn’t one ideal way to do it. Different authors have found that different methods work best for them.

Now Richard G Lowe aka The Writing King has put together a roundup of various things authors have found most effective in promoting their books.

Here’s a link to his insightful blog post What is the best thing you’ve done to promote your books? You’ll find great tips from historical novelist Clare Flynn, Roma Nova thriller writer Alison Morton, and other authors. So, whether you write fiction or non-fiction, there’s bound to be something you can use here.

While you’re there, check out some of the other useful posts on Richard’s website.

And good luck!

bookshop

PS You may also enjoy

Mistakes to Avoid at the London Book Fair

The Worst Books of All Time

 

Why Heatwaves and Novels Go Together

You don’t need to read the Lancet to know that heatwaves aren’t great for health. Even without the terror of fires, excess heat is linked with deaths, especially in the elderly.

On the bright side, however, when the thermometer soars and it’s too hot to move, few things are more delicious than settling in a shady spot to get lost in a book. Yes, I have heard of ice cream, but a novel occupies the mind for longer than a raspberry ripple, and that’s got to be a bonus in the current mess the world is in.

Writers are doubly blessed in a heatwave. For a start, they may be able to work at home with next to nothing on, which is so far removed from struggling on the Tube wearing office attire that it’s almost like not working.

As a plus, there are often cool places to sit with pencil or laptop.

I’m assuming that the nice cool place isn’t in full view of the neighbours. Then again, think of all the publicity, as a fellow writer reminds me.

Best of all, though, scorching weather presents excellent material for fiction.  Author Helena Halme mentions just this in her recent blog post Five Books for a Heatwave.

I’d like to unpick this a little more.

Summertime is in itself magical, with ice lollies, flip-flops, sandcastles, and grandparents moaning about the lack of rain. In school holidays gone by, every summer was long and hot, at least in the memory. With normal life suspended, there’s an illusion of freedom, Swallows and Amazons style.

The heat does things to people’s pheromones. Well, I’m assuming it does, though the only paper I’ve seen is based on research on insects. At any rate, the brain seems to fry at high temperatures.  Even the most impassive person can become, well, hot-headed and behave erratically, which is all good news for novelists.

The human mind isn’t the only thing to abandon normal function in a heatwave. By now, most people in the UK are familiar with buckled rails and cancelled trains. In the northeast last month, a man became trapped when tarmac melted and his leg literally sank into the road surface. This happened in Heaton (no, I’m not kidding) and firefighters were called to free him. 

But these phenomena are as nothing compared to the image of Jesus appearing on a ceramic drainpipe in Joanna Cannon’s debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. This unusual manifestation of Christ brings out the neighbours and their deck chairs, and becomes a turning point in the story.

Every heatwave seems to leave its own particular memories. The legendary summer of 1976 featured beaches covered in ladybirds, exhortations to share a bath with a friend, and other references that can date-stamp a novel, as both Joanna Cannon and Maggie O’Farrell demonstrate.

While there’s no exact definition of a heatwave, meteorologists often consider it to be an increase of 5⁰C above the average maximum temperature for five days or more – with the average maximum temperature being between 1961 and 1990.

The great heatwave years of the UK include 1911, 1955, 1976, and 1983. Speaking for myself, I have a soft spot for 2013 which broke few records but did produce the hottest July for many years. This is the year in which I set my novel Hampstead Fever, and it also happens to be when I got married.

wedding

Whether you’re reading or writing, I hope you enjoy the rest of this scorching season. How will you most remember the heatwave of 2018 when it gives way to wind and rain?

***

PS You can find Hampstead Fever in all the usual places.

http://mybook.to/HF

Last Minute Reminders for the Romantic Novelists’ Conference #RNA18

Some of us authors have already packed our bags for the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference, and booked train tickets weeks in advance too. With any luck, we even chose the right rail station in Leeds (it’s Horsforth).

It’s so hot that you’ll be in shorts?  Well, I’ve studied the photos of the venue and can tell you the chairs look scratchy. A summer dress might be comfier.

And take one of these.

Remember to pack your phone charger (and bring it home again afterwards).

This year, you need to provide your own clothes-hangers.

The most up-to-date info from the conference venue is that there’s an excellent range of gins on site. This is welcome news, as drinks with the most colour, like brandy and dark rum, are more often linked with hangovers. It’s the congeners they contain – the chemical impurities that are a by-product of the fermentation process.

You might still want to take these, just in case.

Here’s to a great conference. Now, have I forgotten anything vital? Do let me know. Otherwise I will just find out when I get there, as usual.

***

You might also enjoy: What Do You Need for a Writers’ Conference? 

 

How to Win the World Cup? Bingo!

The World Cup is approaching faster than an Arjen Robben sprint. As you stock your fridge with lager and prepare for weeks in front of the TV, spare a thought for reporters and commentators who don’t write about football but must stock up on the jargon nonetheless.

FreeImages.com/Kia Abell

Whatever the outcome of the World Cup, all the usual clichés will appear off the pitch as well as on it. Even if the article is about mortgages or gardening, I predict a journalistic glut of footballing terms.

This little chart is just right if you fancy a round of World Cup 2018 bingo.

 

KICKOFF

 

 

TAKE HOME THE THREE POINTS

 

OFFSIDE

 

MATCH-FIT

 

ADDED TIME

 

GOING ALL THE WAY

 

INJURY TIME

 

FRESH LEGS

 

BOUNCE OFF THE WOODWORK

 

RUSKIES

 

BRING BACK THE TROPHY

 

SIDELINES

 

FREE BONUS

 

EXTRA TIME

 

MASSIVE OWN GOAL

 

HANDBALL

 

GOLDEN BOOT

 

EARLY BATH

 

 

BACK OF THE NET

 

SUB

 

NYET!

 

FOUL

 

YELLOW CARD

 

FREE KICK

 

FASTER THAN YOU CAN SAY GARETH BALE

 

FreeImages.com/Diego Sinning

Are any important phrases and terms missing? Please let me know.