What Do You Need for a Writers’ Conference?

Fresh from another Romantic Novelists’ Association conference, I’m not sure I remember every single thing I gleaned from three hugely busy days. However, I’m perfectly placed for sharing my definitive list of all the things no conference-goer should be without.  It goes without saying you’ll need phone-charging equipment, and something to take photos. Here are a few items that you may have overlooked.

Hairdryer

Many conferences are in colleges and universities. Nowadays student accommodation often has en suite facilities (what a pampered lot today’s student body is) but hairdryers are rarely part of the deal, so bring your own if you want freshly coiffed hair day after day.

Comfortable shoes

By all means dress up to the nines with eight-inch heels for the gala dinner, but by day your toes may appreciate some wiggle-room. You may even want to venture out of the conference building for occasional fresh air.

Converse trainers

Yes, I’ve mentioned ‘fresh’ three times. Last weekend’s RNA conference was at Harper Adams University. There’s something very special about rural Shropshire, especially when they’re spreading pig manure. For those of you that think this smells like horse or cow manure, let me assure you it doesn’t. It’s roughly the difference between the nappy contents of a milk-fed baby and those of a baby who’s weaned onto solid foods.

Shorthand pad and pencils

Make sure you can jot down the pearls of wisdom gleaned from speakers, from colleagues, or just from propping up the bar. There may be a notebook in your conference pack. On the other hand, it may only contain books and chocolate hearts. 

Business cards

A must for everyone who’s got them, whether you’re a speaker or just attending the conference.

Cushioning for the bed

The condition of the mattress may leave something to be desired. Like sleep. I never regret bringing along an old duvet to use as a mattress pad.

Corkscrew

 Essential kit for the nightly kitchen parties, unless you stick to Prosecco. Consider supplies of tea and coffee too. Then again, I suppose there’s always Prosecco.

ibuprofen

Disposable glasses

All veteran attendees bring these – see above. Why is it ‘attendee’, anyway? Logic suggests it should be ‘attender’.

Earplugs

For when you’re a party-pooper and absolutely have to get in some zeds before dawn.

earplugs

A smile

A great conference always sends attendees home with a smile, but why not bring one on arrival? It makes all the difference when meeting people.

Over to you. What’s on your conference list? I’d love to hear.

 

Psst! Want to Hear about my Secret Project?

If you’ve been anywhere near social media in the last year or so, you must have noticed many writers announcing their secret projects.

Or maybe it’s a tweet like

“Forthcoming news about the Secret Project – watch this space!”

“Celebratory champagne is on its way for my secret book news….”

Such mentions are most often found on Facebook and Twitter, but these days even LinkedIn profiles boast of secret projects.

While the words may differ, the meaning is the same, whether it’s a secret collaboration or a new project the person can’t possibly tell you about just yet. Of course, you’ll get further instalments designed to generate excitement.

“I can tell you very soon – you won’t need to be patient much longer.”

Unfortunately, by the time the word is out, the excitement may have gone, washed away by further waves of secret projects from dozens of other authors.  

It is a kind of fakery no better than those TV shows where there’s an overly long pause to heighten the drama before one of the contestants is thrown off the dancefloor or chucked out of the kitchen.

Does it even work? I have my doubts.

But writing is a strange profession. It can be lonely and isolating. The internet is the obvious place to go when you need to communicate with someone other than your overburdened family, or the characters in your book.

To tell or not to tell? It’s obviously different for every writer.

Sometimes spilling the beans is forbidden, as when something is not yet signed and sealed. And, even when the ink on an agreement is dry, there may be contractual reasons for keeping it all under wraps. But, in that case, why not just treat it like an embargoed story and say nothing?

Keeping shtum about one’s writing is a time-honoured tradition. Even when there aren’t commercial pressures to keep quiet, there’s the widespread feeling that talking about a work in progress can bring all manner of disasters. It’s best to keep the authorial powder dry and save energy for writing rather than risk sabotaging the whole thing.

Hemingway famously maintained it was bad luck to talk about writing. He didn’t just shy away from discussing his WIP. It extended to saying anything about writing because, as he put it, that takes off “whatever butterflies have on their wings and the arrangement of hawk’s feathers if you show it or talk about it.” Eventually, though, he gave in and wrote a whole book about it, though I’m not convinced he talked about his books before he wrote them.

The rise of social media brings constant pressure to share things. I get that. But there are other things to post. The mere existence of a secret project whets my appetite a lot less than a photo of a sandwich, and is far less engaging than a kitten video.

You’re working on a secret project? Shut up already.

***

You may like:  How to Stop Watching Kitten Videos

You Said it, Diane Keaton!

I must admit Diane Keaton made me livid at first. It’s what she said about the part of London in which the film Hampstead is set.

According to The Times, the American star who plays the main character found Hampstead a bit of a disappointment. “I thought it was charming,” Keaton is quoted as saying, “but I thought it was going to be slightly more unusual.”

For my money (there’s less of it since I moved to Hampstead, mind), this neighbourhood has the lot. Yes, it’s congested as well as expensive, and you can forget about parking.

But I’m sticking up for Hampstead. For one thing it’s cosmopolitan. Ambling down the High Street last week, I heard no fewer than eight languages spoken. NW3 is liberal, inclusive, and intellectual, with a rich literary heritage that takes in writers as varied as Keats and Ian Fleming.

There is, in Keaton’s words, “nice architecture”. The streets are also awash with blue plaques, as anyone can see on a short stroll – details here.

One house, two blue plaques: both Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna Freud lived here

Hampstead’s renown goes back a long way. John Constable moved his family here in 1827 as the area was said to have cleaner air than Suffolk. He lived in Well Walk, where he found he could unite a town and country life. His bones now rest in the graveyard of St John’s parish church, a cemetery crammed with notables.

The Constable family tomb

Hampstead Heath, where the squatter of the film lives, is an ancient parkland of 320 hectares. It’s an oasis of biodiversity and an area for sports. From here there’s an impressive view of London. The Whitestone Pond at the top of Hampstead Village is technically the highest point of the capital.

One of the ponds on Hampstead Heath

Hampstead Heath Pond Number One

Even if you don’t set foot on the heath, Hampstead is a delight. There are great pubs and it’s a foodie’s paradise. I don’t know where the scriptwriter shops, but I’ve yet to spot a shrivelled apricot in Waitrose.

Hampstead Butcher & Providore, Rosslyn Hill

You want unusual? This is Britain, yet open-air swimming on Hampstead Heath is legendary, with its ladies’ and men’s ponds being the only life-guarded open water swimming places available to the public every day of the year.

And how’s this for offbeat advertising in the heart of the village?

Just take a card from the little box near the top.

On reflection, however, Diane Keaton was right when she said Hampstead was nothing special. But I reckon she meant the film, not the area.

The movie’s basic premise – a well-turned out widow falling for a man who literally pops out from behind a hedge – is flawed, the hermitic heath-dweller is improbably hygienic, and, if you’re generous, you might call the acting uneven.

Worse, I found the character of Emily Walters irritating. She looks terrific (this is after all Diane Keaton), but she’s vacant and ditzy. Emily admits to being bad with money, so no wonder she can’t make ends meet. She seems to have no education, occupation, or aspiration, and her “personality” can be summed up in two words: goofy grin. She does however deserve a Brownie point for working in the Oxfam shop, and perhaps some credit for raising such a presentable son (James Norton is always easy on the eye).

Hampstead the area deserves better than Hollywood pap.

***

You may also like:

Talking Location with Author Carol Cooper

Why Hampstead is Literally an Inspiration

… and next week: Progress on the Secret Project

What You Can Learn on a Creative Writing Course

Can one be taught how to write a novel? Probably not, but that hasn’t stopped creative writing courses from springing up across the land – as well as in some lovely locations overseas. While you’re unlikely to go home with the first draft of a novel under your belt, a long weekend on a writing course can help hone some useful skills.

I’ve been on a few of these, from Devon to Norfolk. Here are seven things I took away from my experience.

1 I always forget something vital. Like deodorant. And the nearest shops are invariably miles away.

2 The loo is almost as far as the shops. And at night the floorboards creak worse than the rigging of the Black Pearl.

3 The tutors can be awesome, even if you don’t plan to write in that genre. The encouragement I got years ago from the legendary Ruth Rendell has been priceless.

4 The other participants can be awesome too. No matter how polished your prose, at least two of the other writers in the group will be just as good as you. 

5 Reading your work out loud in a group can be scary (see 3 and 4). But it’s an essential rite of passage and can help tune the ear. Afterwards, you may find yourself reading aloud to yourself far more often to help with editing.

6 There are new friends to be made (especially if you trek out to buy deodorant).

7 The local beer is stronger than anywhere else. Or is that just the heady atmosphere?

So, while you can’t become a novelist in three days, you can boost your writing powers and have fun as well.

Next blog post: Progress on My Secret Project.

 

The Versatile Blogger Award

Thank you to the weary blogger behind Tired Mind, Typing Fingers. If you take a look at her blog, you’ll see that she’s trying to get on with her writing (and the rest of her life) despite chronic illness. She’s also found time to nominate my blog for a Versatile Blogger Award, which is very generous of her. Thank you, TMTF.

Everyone can see a leg in plaster. Ill health can be much harder to deal with when it’s invisible. When in contact with others, there are only two possible options: pretend it’s not there, or explain it. As a doctor I know that both options have drawbacks. Check out Tired Mind, Typing Fingers for insights from someone in the know.

The rules.

According to the rules of this award, I must nominate ten blogs that I believe also deserve the award, then share seven interesting facts about myself. I’ll try to find some, but first this.

The ten blogs I’m nominating for a Versatile Blogger Award.

Sue Moorcroft

Sue is a best-selling author of romantic fiction, and a writing tutor, so there’s plenty to enjoy here, whether you want to read or write novels.

Debbie Young’s personal blog

Debbie writes both fiction and non-fiction (see her new Sophie Sayers mystery, as well as her terrific book Coming to Terms with Type 1 Diabetes), and helps other authors, notably through the Alliance of Independent Authors.

The Artist Unleashed

The word ‘versatile’ could have been coined for Jessica Bell, who’s a writing coach as well as an award-winning novelist and poet, singer/songwriter/guitarist and designer. She’s also the brains behind The Artist Unleashed, a blog that manages to be useful and a bit quirky.

This Itch of Writing

There’s always a lot to think about on Emma Darwin’s blog, which is all about fiction and what she calls creative non-fiction: writing it, reading it, teaching it and, as she says, sometimes hating it.

Jane Davis – virtual book club

Jane is an accomplished novelist whose blog features a virtual book club. It’s a lively interview series in which authors pitch their books to your book club.

Helen M Taylor- the right words in the wrong order

Helen’s career to date has had more twists and turns than a helter-skelter. Suffice to say she hasn’t yet made it as a rock star surgeon. On the plus side, her debut novel The Backstreets of Purgatory (in which Caravaggio wreaks havoc in modern day Glasgow) is out later this year.

Tripfiction

You know TripAdvisor? Well, Tripfiction was created to match a location with a book. Thanks to a searchable database, you can find a book relevant to almost any trip, however far flung.

Women Writers School Blog

Laurie Garrison is Founder and Director of Women Writers School, a project that aims to increase the number and visibility of women writers read, published and recognized for their talent. There’s lots of advice for writers, and much more besides.

Amna K Boheim’s blog

Amna took a roundabout route to her career as a novelist, a path that included eleven years in the City. Her blog is an interesting and eclectic read.

Slugs and Snails Tales

Nikki Roberts blogs on life with her boys, and to raise awareness of ADHD and epilepsy. Her posts are always enlightening and fun.

Finally, seven snippets about me.

1 I’m a fan of Liverpool FC. But, whenever I go to a game, they lose.

2 Although red is my favourite colour, I have lots of orange things.

3 My cat is called Mishmish. This means ‘apricot’ in Arabic and in Hebrew, so it describes her colour perfectly. She’s also one of four cats I’ve named after a fruit.

4 My first car was a VW Beetle which I drove for over twenty years. See my antediluvian glasses?

5 I used to do my mother’s tax returns when I was ten years old.

6 I’ve known my oldest friend (also called Carol) since she was born. Or possibly before then, since our mothers (both called Jacqueline) were also friends.

7 I did O-level Russian, but so long ago that I remember nest to nothing. до свидания!

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Day on a Hospital Trolley

Even though he’s a fictional character, GP Geoff is not so very different from most other medics. If he needs to see a doctor, all he does is look in the mirror.

hospital entrance

But the swelling and dragging sensation in his left groin have become hard to ignore, and today he’s going into the Day Surgery Unit of his local hospital. Hernia repair used to mean a sizeable incision and several days in hospital, but, with keyhole surgery, Geoff will be home the same day.

About 90% of operations are now done as day case surgery. Beds are as rare as unicorns, thinks Geoff as he meets Cecil, the day care nurse who’s looking after him today.

Today Geoff doesn’t get a bed, just a trolley on a six-bedded ward. If a patient turns out not to be fit to go home the same day after all, then he gets to stay overnight. On that same trolley.

Geoff has been qualified just 15 years and already things have changed beyond measure. Or have they always been like this for patients?

surgical dressings

A junior surgeon pops round with a consent form, then the anaesthetist visits. Geoff is distracted by her dazzling smile, her shock of red curls, but mostly by her multiple nasal piercings. What happens when she has a cold?

“With modern anaesthetic drugs,” she tells him, “you wake up so clear-headed that you can do The Times crossword.”

Which is wonderful because Geoff’s never been able to do The Times crossword.

He won’t get a pre-med, which is a shame. It used to be the best thing about having surgery, but there’s no scope for such things on the day surgery conveyor belt. Besides, Geoff needs to be in charge of his feet, because, when he’s changed into a flimsy gown and paper underpants, a nurse takes him for a long trek to the operating theatre. He hopes he doesn’t run into any of his patients.

Geoff meets the consultant surgeon for the first time in the anaesthetic room. He’s more Doogie Howser than Dr Finlay. Geoff resists asking if his mother knows where he is.

scalpel

When it’s all over, he can hardly feel he’s had anything done, but he’s lying in a large well-lit room where a nurse is telling him to drink. He had not realised he was clutching a small Styrofoam cup.

Back on the Day Surgery Unit, Nurse Cecil checks his pulse, blood pressure, and oxygen saturations every half hour, and reminds him to eat and drink. There’s an obligatory six hours before he can go home. There’s also the requirement to consume the tea and roast beef sandwich placed next to him.

The man on the neighbouring trolley is smiling at a film on his iPhone. Geoff can’t see the man opposite, as his girlfriend is busy delivering a prolonged post-op snog.

Geoff decides against powering up his phone. The pre-op instructions were clear: do not do anything important in the next 24 hours. The last thing he needs is a spirited twitter exchange with one of those anti-vaccine types.

Geoff doesn’t have a newspaper so he can’t test the anaesthetist’s promise. He brought the latest British Medical Journal, but he doesn’t much feel like it now. Or the sandwich. 

British Medical Journal

The patient by the window has already regained his appetite, judging by the takeaway his family brought in. The red and white packaging is already open, filling the ward with the heady aroma of grease, along with 17 different herbs and spices.

Eventually Geoff does what’s required of him: drink, eat, and pass urine. Post-op pain is breaking through by the time he gets to the tiny WC, where someone has already hosed down the floor.

In the corridor, one of the female patients is asking Cecil where she can find a nurse, oblivious of the fact that she is speaking to a nurse. “I’m a nurse,” says the nurse. The patient’s face is blank.

Finally Geoff goes home with a paper bag. It has spare dressings, a packet of painkillers, and instruction leaflets on not picking your scabs.

There’s supposed to be a responsible adult with him for the first 24 hours at home. Geoff, who’s single, fibbed about that bit. Luckily nobody checks, and he absconds in an Uber.

Nothing will go wrong, Geoff tells himself. Aside from the little lie he told the hospital, he plans to be a good patient and take careful note of all the instructions. At first, he is a little confused by the stated telephone times.

Then he realises it’s exactly like Sainsbury’s, trolleys and all.

 

Geoff lives in North London where he looks after patients, longs for a meaningful relationship, and rants about the NHS. You can find out more about him and his life in the pages of Hampstead Fever.

You may also like these posts:

How Are You Today, Grandma?

Germs and Geriatrics

 

Six Things my Camera Taught me about Hampstead

Hampstead is part of London that inspires much of my writing. So I set off to take a few photos of this beautiful area, armed only with an iPhone and the belief that I’d discover more through a plastic lens than I usually see just with my own eyes.

One of the ponds on Hampstead Heath

Oh, and a pair of comfortable shoes. Parking is scarce. Besides, there are some places only legs can reach.

The Mount

1 The street signs are rather special.

Like this one, many road signs in NW3 are made of individual ceramic tiles in shiny white on black, often chased into the wall. They’ve been there since Victorian times, and owe a lot to the Arts and Crafts movement. The tiles aren’t just letters and numbers. Some are nifty symbols like a pointing finger leading to places of interest.

2 If in doubt, zoom in. You may catch detail that’s often missed.

Ornamental gate

3 People tend to get in the way. Hampstead is crowded, especially outside certain shops and eateries.

Hampstead Butcher & Providore, Rosslyn Hill

Queuing at the Creperie

4 You may spot celebs such as Emma Thompson, Imelda Staunton, Tom Conti and Liam Gallagher.

5 Some of the celebrities are canine.

Two local residents

6 Even the prettiest parts of Hampstead can turn ugly with overspilling bins, fly-tipping, and uncollected rubbish. Sadly this is set to get worse with Camden Council’s new bin collection schedules.

#CleanUpCamden

***

Other posts you may like:

If you want to know more about Hampstead, see my novel Hampstead Fever.