No Mother is Perfect

This week, a friend of mine happened across a book while tidying her daughter’s bedroom.

“Did your mother write this, by any chance?” she asked me.

 

Now Le Crazy Cat Saloon, with a cast of cats and a sprinkling of French words, may be amusing, but it’s hardly literature.

Nor is it politically correct. For one thing, it features a cat who’s a stripper. As my sons pointed out, stories about strippers aren’t exactly suitable for readers of all ages, no matter what the cover blurb says.

All the same, whenever people talk about my mother’s many books, or her cat paintings, Le Crazy Cat Saloon always features in the conversation.

On Mother’s Day, I have a vested interest in thinking that mothers should be remembered in the best possible light.

If I were to choose one book to remember my mother, it would be Cocktails and Camels. Although she wrote it just after Suez, and her divorce, it’s upbeat and funny.  Here’s how it starts.

I used to live in Alexandria—Egypt, that is, and not, as some Americans think, the one in Virginia. I liked Alexandria. There was no place like it on Earth, I used to think, and now, on looking back, I am quite sure there wasn’t. It was a nice, friendly little town basking in the sunshine and cool Mediterranean breeze, and in summer its streets smelled of jasmine which little Arab boys sold threaded into necklaces. Alexandria had plenty of character—characters, rather—Italian, French, Maltese, Turkish, even White Russians, to say nothing of Copts, Pashas, Effendis, and bird-brained but devoted Sudanese servants. The grocers were Greek, the jewellers were Jews, the shoemakers were Armenians, and the Lebanese were everywhere. The British Army used to play polo and complain about the heat. How they came to be there at all when they had a most roomy Empire in which to exercise is a long, sad story. For the British, though they like to look like good-natured and paternal fools, are, as every Arab knows to his sorrow, very cunning indeed, especially when it comes to taking advantage of trusting Arabs.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Note: Mother’s Day may be on the second Sunday in May in most of the world, but in the UK ‘Mothering Sunday’ aka Mother’s Day is today.

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You may also like to read an earlier post: Dating, 1940s Style.

My London Book Fair 2017 #LBF17

Three days of trudging around Olympia with an increasingly weighty bag of goodies is too long, according to my feet, even when they’re well prepared.

well-worn Converse trainers

But two days, as I found out this year, isn’t nearly enough. While the London Book Fair is industry orientated, there’s plenty for authors to do. Here are some of my highlights.

1 Catching up with friends and colleagues, many of them from ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors.

With fellow author Helena Halme

with fellow author Helena Halme

 

me with cover designer Jessica Bell

with ace cover designer Jessica Bell

Making new friends is part of the fun too. Book people come from far and wide for LBF, like Aussie writer Rebecca Lang from Sydney.

ALLi authors

from L to R: Jessica Bell, me, Rebecca Lang, Glynis Smy

2 Talks at Author HQ.

Author HQ at LBF

The varied fare is excellent, and this year the seats even had proper backs for weary spines. Too bad Author HQ is once again tucked away at the far end of the first floor. You may need GPS and Kendal Mint Cake for the trek.

3 Author of the Day sessions.

They’re at the PEN Literary Salon, which is where I met the inspiring Alaa al Aswany a few years ago. Sadly, this year Roddy Doyle had to cancel his appearance, so, instead of a capacity crowd, there were half-empty benches where people collapsed to eat their sandwiches. As ever, there’s a dire shortage of seating, which is why visitors have to perch on the displays.

following the Yellow Brick Road

4 Learning more about organisations like the Society of Authors, Gardners the wholesalers and distributors, or the Booksellers’ Association. There’s a whole world outside sitting at a desk writing.

the Grand Hall, Olympia

With a bit of planning, you can also arrange one-to-ones with agents or publishers. There are other ways of publishing too. I should have spent longer talking audiobooks.

5 Admiring awesome new books. There are 20 new books published every hour in the UK. Some of them might even be yours.

General Practice Cases at a Glance

at the Wiley stand

6 Haggling over a bagel.

The sticker said £2.75 but it was £4.60 on the price list. In the end, I got it for £2.60. Nothing is quite what you expect at LBF.

salmon bagel

7 The bottle of Veuve Cliquot I won. This was thanks to Byte the Book‘s legendary networking session on the Tuesday evening. I also collected a dozen useful email addresses and a temporary tattoo.

With many friends and colleagues, I only managed snatched conversations between one meeting and the next. Others, like writers from the Romantic Novelists’ Association, I hardly saw. Next year, I tell myself as I get on the train home, it’s back to a three-day marathon.

On the subject of travel, I can’t resist a digression to add that my novel Hampstead Fever will be on special offer in selected WH Smith travel shops throughout the UK from March 30. That’s buy one, get one half price.

Did you go to the London Book Fair? What did you think of it?

Eight Things that Newbie Fiction Writers Get Wrong

I’ve lost count of the number of the people who’ve told me they’re writing a novel. I’ve also met more than my share of successful novelists. Let’s just say that first group of people is a lot larger than the second.

While there are many ways in which a newbie can go wrong, it often boils down to one or more of these common mistakes. old-books1

1 Using stock characters

The tart with a heart of gold. The tall black dude who plays basketball. The gruff schoolmaster. The academic with thick glasses. While stereotypes can occasionally be useful as shorthand, they’re only two-dimensional characters, and that’s not enough to engage readers.

2 Writing real-life dialogue

Yes, you read that right. Realistic dialogue isn’t an echo of real conversation. In everyday life, people use a huge number of filler words and meaningless sounds. Like this.

“Oh, hi, Debbie. Lovely to see you. Yeah, come in, come in. Well, no, I wasn’t really doing anything. Just the ironing, again. It’s OK, no need to take your shoes off. I’m not fussed about the carpet, honest. Right. Now. Um, how about a cup of tea? Or, er, maybe coffee? No, I mean it. I’ve literally just put the kettle on.”

At this rate your reader will be in a coma long before Debbie gets to hear about Mary’s cross-dressing husband.

Realistic dialogue, on the other hand, is a pared-down version of a word-for-word conversation. So it’s more like this.

“Come in, Debbie. Kettle’s just boiled. Look, there’s something I want to talk to you about.”

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3 Scenes with overlong description

These usually creep in because the author thinks the writing is so brilliant that it can’t possibly be cut.  Sometimes it’s reams of beautiful description or essential back story. If so, find other ways to get the information across. It’s best to drip details elegantly into your story rather than dump them in bucket-loads onto the reader.

4 Stretching the reader’s credulity

Your college student heroine is a virgin, and has no laptop, or indeed any device connected to the internet? In present-day USA? You’d need your reader to be as gullible as your heroine. There are always exceptions, though, as you’ll know if you read Fifty Shades.

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5 Using clichés

Maybe your principal character laughs like a drain at her friend’s jokes, goes green with envy at her sister’s new dress, or sweats like a pig at the gym. If so, get rid of hackneyed phrases. Clichés should be avoided like the, er, plague.

6 Ignoring rules of grammar, spelling, or punctuation

Because an editor will fix it all, right? Nope. Your magnum opus may just get binned. Please don’t insult your reader by mixing tenses of verbs, or mistaking it’s for its.

7 Telling instead of showing

His pulse pounded and the words he had rehearsed stuck in his dry mouth gives readers a better feel for your character’s predicament than ‘He was scared stiff about the interview.’

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8 Shifting points of view

Some books are written from just one character’s perspective, whether it’s in the first person or the third. Others may have two or more. The convention, which I suggest you stick to because it helps the reader no end, is to have just one point of view per scene, or per chapter. Whatever you do, don’t switch a point of view during a scene.

But none of that is a reason to give up if you’ve got a story to tell. The most worthwhile things take effort. Ask a drummer if a drum roll is easy. It is, after the first ten years.

Here’s a selection of books I’ve found useful or inspiring.

Steven King: On WritingThere’s also a blog post from Jon Morrow about it here

Dorothea Brande: Becoming a Writer 

Jessica Bell’s Writing in a Nutshell books, including Writing Workshops to Improve Your CraftShow and Tell in a Nutshell, and Adverbs and Clichés in a Nutshell.

Roz Morris: Nail Your Novel: why writers abandon books and how you can draft, fix, and finish with confidence.

Good advice or not? Please let me know.

Daunt bookshop

There’s Something About Old Books

A glance at my bookshelves today reminded me of some great reads. Just look at these little beauties.

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Is sex necessary? I think the answer can probably be found here.

Origin of Species

I have two medical titles that are period pieces. I’m no longer using a 1951 handbook of surgery. And luckily these days no doctor believes that ‘floating’ kidneys and other organs cause disease, though plenty did in 1930.

two old medical books

My childhood came back to me instantly with this well-loved copy of The Wind in the Willows.

The Wind in the Willows

..swiftly followed by my teen years.

2 novels

I’ve got rid of a lot of books, but kept some by the wittiest writers (including my mother).

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And I still like Jefferson Airplane.

The Jefferson Airplane

Why all these images in my blog post? Well, this week I find myself too busy writing books to blog as well. Besides, gazing at my bookshelves makes the perfect displacement activity.

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Just a little reminder: until Thursday, you can get the kindle edition of One Night at the Jacaranda completely free. Click here.

Feedback Frenzy

My pocket chirrups as I descend the steps from my bank. The text message asks me to rate my recent customer experience. This happens to be one of a hundred or more perfectly routine transactions I’ve made at that bank.   

FreeImages.com/Simon Stratford

Irritated, I delete the text.

At school, there was a girl who was forever checking what people thought of her. Sadly, the answer was ‘not much’, but this didn’t stop her beaming at everyone and trying to decipher their expressions.  When she couldn’t read the emotional temperature, she would ask what we thought. I wince to report that we thought our classmate stupid. Looking back, however, she was well ahead of her time.

These days, Waitrose sends me emails asking how my groceries were. Would I rate and review them?

waitrose-redcurrant-jellyI get similar requests after almost every commercial interaction of the day. If not during it. A text thanks me for travelling with Addison Lee, and invites me to rate the driver. I get this message before I’ve even reached the destination.

Ditto Moonpig, who want to know how everything went with the card I ordered. It’s not even scheduled to be delivered till next week. Stop asking me!

Now an email thanks me for collecting my parcel from the Spar in Chesterton Road, and asks me how I would ‘rate the service in store’.

The bottom line? It was fine. I got my parcel. Had the guy behind the counter not found it, or handed me a damaged parcel or something entirely different like a Mars Bar or a lottery ticket, you can be sure I’d have let someone know, loud and clear.  FreeImages.com/Tony CloughFeedback can certainly be useful. Book reviews, for instance, help guide the author as well as people looking for their next read – though it’s worth noting that the most useful reviews have actual words in them, not just a star rating.

Evaluations from the students I teach can also be valuable, if they help improve the outcome for the next lot.

For feedback to be most useful to others, it pays to ask the right questions. One pension provider invites me to rate my recent dealings with them. A more pertinent point might be whether I was happy with the return on my investment.

Nowadays, detailed feedback from patients is an integral part of a doctor’s appraisal process. It’s a two-page form that demands a certain level of literacy and attention. That makes it difficult for many patients, especially those who’ve just had bad news or been sent to hospital.

Feedback from colleagues is even harder to come by. In smaller practices, family doctors may resort to asking people they haven’t worked with for years, just to make up the numbers.

National Health Service logo

Feedback shouldn’t be just about collecting all the data we can, because we can. To have any value, it needs to be more selective, and to ask the right questions at the right time.

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If you’ve read a book you enjoyed lately, please think of leaving a review on Amazon or your favourite reading site. It doesn’t have to be long, just your overall impression and anything you’d like the author and prospective readers to know.

Here’s more detailed guidance, should you feel like it: How to write critical book reviews – and why I think you should, by Debbie Young.

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A Parent Worries Forever

Seen that touching Lloyds Bank photo where the mother is hugging her ‘baby’ before he nonchalantly sets off for university? I can’t reproduce the image here, but you can check it out by clicking on Lloyds Bank.  I showed it to some of my friends, who variously remarked on the mother’s height relative to her son, the blissful smile on her face, and the flimsiness of rucksack on the son’s back. 

Those with children noticed none of these things. Their reaction was just terror.

When expecting your first child, there’s usually a golden moment during which you’re thrilled at the prospect of having a baby but haven’t yet realised you’re heading for a lifetime of worry. Well, savour it while you can.

FreeImages.com/S S

My twin boys arrived when I had one son already. In a flash, my anxiety levels trebled. The children seemed intent on working their way through the alphabet, with accidents, asthma, appendicitis, and (scariest of all) anaphylactic shock.

Some letters stand out more than others. D was for Duplo, a normally safe toy, except when you stumble face first into it. G was for golf club, as when eldest son was smacked in the face by a 5 iron at the school fete, necessitating yet another tip to A&E.

FreeImages.com/Aron Kremer

Occasional false alarms brought light relief. At eighteen months, one son was on the bus, sitting forward in his eagerness to miss nothing. When the driver braked suddenly, my son’s face collided with a metal handrail. He screamed, and bright red stuff poured copiously from his mouth. I laughed hysterically when I found he’d only been chewing on a red crayon.

FreeImages.com/Trisha Shears

In my novel Hampstead Fever, I couldn’t resist including a super-anxious new mum. It’s not just the prospect of mishaps that cranks up her worry levels. She has studied the parenting books, so she’s aware of potentially lethal conditions like sepsis, where symptoms can be minimal in the early stages yet take a child to death’s door within hours. Like many parents, Laure suspects it’s dangerous to let her guard down, because that’s when things are most likely to go wrong.

Worry can drive mums (and dads) to become over-protective, turning into helicopter parents and doing for their children things that they should be learning to do for themselves.

FreeImages.com/melodi2

For some parents, anxiety becomes hard-wired. I’ve seen them make idiots of themselves as they continue to stalk their kids on social media throughout their teens and even twenties, panicking if they haven’t posted anything in the last few hours.  

Not me, of course. I’ve finally learned to ditch unnecessary anxiety about my offspring. I’ll tell you how I did this. Not this minute, though, because first I need to text my sons to see how they’re doing without me.

Samsung mobile

Rebel with a Cause

Poetry and medicine intersect in Jane Davis’s latest novel, My Counterfeit Self. I’m delighted to welcome Jane back to my blog on publication day.

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The main protagonist is Lucy Forrester, a political poet and activist. Anti-establishment all her life, she’s now horrified to find herself on the New Year’s Honours list. Her inclination is to turn it down. But what if it’s an opportunity…

When researching a cause for her rebel, author Jane Davis followed a thread from the first CND march from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston, to the plight of Britain’s forgotten Atomic Veterans. Here is what she discovered.

“It is 1958, six years after American scientists disbanded the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima, having completed their data-gathering on radiation sickness. It is a supposed time of peace. Imagine you are eighteen years old, shipped to Christmas Island on National Service. It is the furthest you have ever strayed from home.

Your job? To stand on an idyllic white sandy beach and observe as scientists detonate nuclear bombs in the Central Pacific. When the signal is given, you must turn away from the blast and cover your eyes with your hands. There is no protective clothing. As the flash goes off, you can see your veins, your skin tissue, your bones, and through it all, diamond white, a second sun. Searing heat builds inside, until you imagine that there is only one way it can end.

Around 22,000 servicemen were ordered to stand and observe. Some suffered radiation sickness immediately, and some died. For others, symptoms followed patterns seen in Hiroshima. They lost their appetites, ran high fevers, and their hair fell out in clumps. Some appeared well for decades before developing cancers and other rare diseases.

It was only over time, as dots were joined, that some veterans became convinced their illnesses and disabilities were caused by nuclear radiation. Their bid to be recognised by the European Court of Human Rights was denied in 1998, which said it had no jurisdiction in the case. Largely ignored, and dwindling in number, the veterans referred to themselves as ‘ghosts’.

Then, in 1999, researcher Sue Rabbitt Roff at the University of Dundee tracked down and surveyed 2,500 veterans and their children, reporting unusually high rates of infertility and birth defects. This was the trigger. The columnist Richard Stott (1943 – 2007) of the Sunday Mirror then launched his Justice for Nuke Vets campaign.

If I saw this reported in the news, I’m ashamed to say that I have no recollection of it. There were always more attention-grabbing headlines. But when researching my novel, it was obvious to me that this is a cause Lucy Forrester would have thrown herself behind.

The British government continued to insist on more proof. It wasn’t until 2007 that two scientific studies demonstrated clear links. They also estimated that genetic birth defects would last for 20 generations – in other words, 500 years.

As a result, 700 New Zealand and UK veterans launched a class action lawsuit against the British government claiming NZ $36 million in damages. But it had all happened 50 years ago. The Ministry of Defence countered with a statute of limitations defence.

Following a parliamentary inquiry in early 2008, the government agreed to fund new studies into veterans’ health, and to pay interim compensation of £4,000 each.

By the time I completed my research, the government had set aside £25million (£5million a year over five years) for an Aged Veterans’ Fund. But this wasn’t only for the surviving Atomic Veterans. Approximately two million veterans were qualified to apply. In addition to applications from individuals, the British Veterans’ Association (BNTVA), the premier charity representing those who have worked alongside radioactive material for the benefit of the nation, can apply for funding for projects such as respite care or counselling. Whilst any such services may benefit the families of the Atomic Veterans, once the remaining veterans die, all funding will cease. Without an admission of negligence from the MoD, there will be no help for the 20 generations.

Many Atomic Veterans are proud to have served their country. However, given that the risks of exposure to radiation were either known or reasonably foreseeable, they had every right to expect their government to take care of them if things went wrong. They couldn’t have imagined that the British government would introduce a higher burden of proof than other governments, so that their American counterparts received compensation while they did not. It should not be left to the Prime Minister of Fiji to step in and award each surviving veteran three thousand pounds, saying, ‘Fiji is not prepared to wait for Britain to do the right thing’.

With Trident firmly back in the headlines, I hope that it will rise to the surface once more.”

You can find out more about the Atomic Veterans or make a donation here

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Jane Davis is the author of seven novels. Her debut, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award, and The Bookseller featured her in their ‘One to Watch’ section. Six further novels have earned her a loyal fan base and wide-spread praise. Her 2016 novel, An Unknown Woman, won Writing Magazine’s Self-Published Book of the Year Award. Compulsion Reads describe her as ‘a phenomenal writer whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless.’ Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.

When Jane is not writing, you may spot her disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.

You can also find Jane Davis on Facebook, on Twitter, on Google Plus, on Pinterest, and on Goodreads, as well as on her Amazon author page

Anyone who signs up to Jane’s newsletter receives a free copy of her novel, I Stopped Time. Jane promises not to bombard subscribers with junk. She only issues a newsletter when she has something genuinely newsworthy to report.

My Counterfeit Self is published October 1, 2016, and available in paperback and ebook formats.

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